And I finally finish chapter three. This ending almost killed me, and I'm still not totally happy with it, so we'll see what I do with it in the next few days. Sorry for the long delay between chapters, but the next one should be much faster! I hope everyone still likes it and that it's still convincing - this was a really hard chapter to write and I worry that I went out of character. Suggestions and reviews are always much appreciated! :)
Chapter Three - Interest
Sagacious Zu was miserable.
This was no surprise to any that knew him, but he'd once thought that his twenty years of exile in the swamps near the village of Two Rivers were the height of his broodiness and depression.
He was wrong.
He looked around and shook his head. I never thought I would wind up in a Heaven, he thought darkly. Rainbows were everywhere, flowers were literally blooming as he watched, and below the bridges they walked on – what were they supported by, anyway? – floated fluffy white clouds. It was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen.
He followed Jen Zi silently as she led the way over the mysterious floating bridges and up grassy hills. She seemed to be walking slower than normal, and it was clear she wanted to take the time to admire the beauty of the Fox Spirit's Heaven in the breaks between fighting off invading Horse and Toad demons. Unlike him, she seemed perfectly happy in this odd place, and though she was usually eager to quickly accomplish their goals, that wasn't the case this time. Much to his disappointment, she was stalling a bit, hoping to spend more time in this "perfect" place. She made time to speak with various Fox Spirits, all servants of the Forest Shadow, and to Jen Zi's apparent disappointment, they didn't have time for conversation, instead promptly directing them further upwards, toward their mistress.
What are we even doing here? he wondered, readying his weapon quickly when he saw movement. He sighed and let down his guard slightly when he realized it was just a monkey. I'm sure we don't need to deal with this Fox Spirit to solve the problem in the forest. It's just Jen Zi, who has to know everything about everything.
He was more annoyed at this trait of hers than normal. After they closed the dam to save Tien's Landing and destroyed Gao the Greater's pirate base to find a flyer, Radiant Jen Zi apparently thought that the extra time they'd spent together entitled her to know more about him. She'd attempted to pry further into his past, hoping he would tell her more about his time with the Lotus Assassins. Though he was naturally inclined to believe it was either because she was suspicious of him or because she wanted more information about their enemy, he couldn't deny what he could tell was the truth – she was simply curious about him.
I can't tell her anything, he told himself yet again. She says she trusts me, but she would never trust me again if she knew what I've done. So he refused to talk about his past, hoping she would eventually get frustrated and give up.
He could tell from her questions that she was also trying to figure out the motivations for his present attitudes and decisions, many of which she plainly told him she couldn't understand. He puzzled over their most recent "argument" as he took out his frustrations on the next demon to appear in front of them.
"And why, exactly, would you think I would turn away someone who could help us?" she'd asked him. They had fought their way through the forest and up to the Temple of the Forest Shadow, where they'd encountered an enormous man named Black Whirlwind who had immediately attacked them. For some reason, Jen Zi didn't see the problem with recruiting this clearly insane mercenary into their group and had sent him back to join the others. When Zu made a comment that it might not be wise to do so, she'd given him a baffled look.
"Because he tried to kill us?" he replied, like it was obvious.
She shrugged. "He apologized. I can't blame him for thinking we were ghosts – there aren't many travelers here after all. Also he's drunk."
"So you believe that his foolishness is an acceptable excuse for coming at us with axes?"
"And you believe we should turn away a good fighter who is willing to help us, just because he made a mistake?"
"Yes, absolutely," he said with surety. "He's dangerous and unpredictable."
"Should I tell everyone in our group who has ever made a possibly-deadly mistake to leave, then? Including you? And me? We are all dangerous, and we all make mistakes that can get people killed. I made us hurry back to Two Rivers after the attack, you hid – hide," she corrected herself with a pointed look at him, "your knowledge of the Lotus Assassins. The Black Whirlwind drunkenly coming at us with axes should really be the least of our worries. At least that attack is easy to see coming, and to avoid."
She folded her arms stubbornly and gave him a stern look, and despite his annoyance, he found he had to stop himself from smiling at her. She was the most stubborn and sometimes infuriating woman he'd ever met, but seeing her in that pose made him laugh. He didn't know why.
She did have a point though, so as much as he was annoyed by the new addition to the group, he made no further comment about it, simply sighing and nodding once, admitting her victory in their debate. He forced himself to ignore her smug little smile as they continued on.
Neither one of them would have said their thoughts so plainly before, but their discussion after first meeting Sky in Gao the Greater's pirate lair sparked new developments in their partnership. Now, they both felt free to say what was on their mind. Before, Zu would just frown and keep his thoughts to himself, but everything changed when he finally admitted that Jen Zi might be able to trust him – and, in doing so, admitted that he trusted her.
The first time in years I've been able to say I trust someone else, he thought. Nearly two decades on the run from the Lotus Assassins, three years working with them, and life on the streets of the Imperial City... And yet, even after all this, she thinks I'm trustworthy. As hard as he tried – and he did try very hard – he couldn't understand her.
It was Jen Zi's unexpected and unexplained faith in him that shook Zu to the core. He was shocked at how easily she had accepted the fact that he'd once been a member of the organization that destroyed the only life she'd ever known.
He'd realized, upon confessing his former involvement with the Lotus Assassins, that Jen Zi would probably demand he leave, and he'd return to his voluntary exile in the swamp. When she didn't insist upon his departure from their group, he was relieved. When she didn't interrogate him, he was surprised. When she gave him her trust... he had a hard time accepting it. He didn't quite know what to do or how to act around her.
It's been so long since anyone has trusted me, or I've allowed myself to trust anyone, that I am having trouble coming to terms with it, he thought, allowing himself a moment to glance at her as they defeated another Toad Demon. She comes to me after every decision she makes. I tell her what I think and usually wind up criticizing her. So why does she keep talking to me? He shook his head. And why do I care so much about what she thinks?
The ribbons in her hair trailed behind her as she spun and knocked the demon backwards with a powerful and elegant kick, finishing the creature off. For a moment, he was somewhat envious of what a natural she was – he had twenty years more experience fighting and training than she did, and while his style was more brutally efficient, it was less graceful than hers. She looked like she was born to fight in each of her chosen styles.
He jumped at a noise – a bird had landed on an outstretched branch to chirp at him cheerily, disrupting his reverie, and he shook his head again. Jen Zi glanced back at him and grinned. "Not enjoying yourself, Zu? I'm shocked," she said, feigning surprise. "This seems like the kind of place you'd never want to leave."
He snorted his derision at her joke. At least she knows I'm not the kind of person to enjoy peaceful places like this, and accepts it, he thought. She may be happy here, but she doesn't expect me to pretend to be anything but what I am.
He glanced back at her to see that she was smiling at him, and he looked at her quizzically. She laughed. "It's nothing," she said, answering his unspoken question. "It's just- odd to see you in a place like this. I don't think I've ever seen you looking more uncomfortable and awkward, and you've hated everywhere we've been so far, so that's quite an accomplishment."
"And you take delight in my... 'awkwardness?'" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
She nodded. "I certainly do. Right now, there's a rainbow behind you, the sky is a perfect shade of blue, birds are singing... and you're a single stubborn raincloud in an otherwise clear day. It's a perfect image. I wish you could see yourself."
He tried to frown at her, but her genuine amusement at his discomfort in the Heaven forced him to smile. "I'm glad you're so pleased by my distress," he said, shaking his head at her. I will never understand that woman.
"I don't know about pleased," she replied. "But seeing you smile – I think that makes you feeling a bit awkward here worth it. Even after all this time we've spent together, I think this is the first time I've seen you actually look happy."
He knew immediately that this was absolutely true. Even he couldn't remember the last time he smiled, and feeling happy enough to smile was so uncommon that he was sure he'd remember it. Probably years, he thought. For so long, I'm alone and... not happy, but at least content, then she comes along, stirring up my past and everything else in my life. He glanced at her as they walked, trying not to be too obvious about it. This woman changes everything with such ease. If I didn't know she'd lived a sheltered life in a tiny village, I wouldn't hesitate to think she had been well trained in manipulation.
Their walk through the Heaven was coming to an end, he realized with something approaching relief. He saw a set of stairs leading up to an open-air building where an Elephant Demon and Fox Spirit – presumably the Forest Shadow – were fighting off more Horse Demons. The creatures were destroyed more quickly than Jen Zi and Zu could climb the stairs to assist them. It seems they, at least, do not require our aid in this.
"You have come, following the path I laid down for you," the Forest Shadow said in Tho Fan. He frowned at this. Did Jen Zi realize we were being led somewhere? he wondered, the good mood Jen Zi put him in ruined by his annoyance with the fox. I must be slipping – why didn't I realize we were being led somewhere? He glanced at Jen Zi to see if she shared his suspicious thoughts, but she didn't seem to notice, as she stood calmly and met the gaze of the Forest Shadow.
"But now you have reached the fork and must make your own choices," the fox continued. "I will try to help you in this."
The Elephant Demon scowled. "You should ready yourself, Mistress," he said sourly. "I do not trust them." Nor we, you,Zu thought back at the creature.
"I mean you no harm," Jen Zi said, spreading her open hands in a gesture of peace.
Sagacious Zu allowed himself to lose track of the conversation for a time, only half-listening to make sure things weren't headed toward a fight. The two of them had developed an understanding since meeting in the swamp outside Two Rivers. Jen Zi would try to settle things peacefully, he would give her advice that she calmly listened to then disregarded, and when things devolved into violence, he would make sure she didn't get surrounded. Her preferred style, Legendary Strike, was excellent for close-quarters fighting, but not nearly as effective against multiple enemies as his polearm. As in all other things, she took the lead, and he did what he could to back her up.
He was brought back into the conversation by Jen Zi pausing thoughtfully for a moment – the discussion until then had been rapid back-and-forth, so the pause alerted him to a change. "So why am I so important?" she asked the spirit, shaking her head in confusion.
"You know the Water Dragon is missing, and that your world fills with the spirits of the dead, but this forest has illustrated what that really means," the fox explained. The Forest Shadow's tone had not changed through their discussion; she seemed to treat every topic with equal care – or lack of care, he thought, unsure as to which was the case. "The Mother's awakening and her spreading corruption is just a beginning – one of many that happen all over your empire. You do not want to see the end."
If this Mother brings out more ghosts, more people will realize there is something very wrong in the Empire, further weakening Emperor Sun Hai, he thought. Would this be a good or a bad thing? Jen Zi's skepticism of the Emperor's power had apparently affected him, as well. He would never have dared to think such a thing before. She changes everything, he thought. He still wasn't sure how he felt about the changes she was bringing about in him.
"You must restore the Water Dragon," the Forest Shadow told her. "Since you entered my forest, Spirit Monk, I have felt the essence of your Mistress. The Water Dragon's touch is upon you, and it is recent."
Jen Zi looked shocked. "I have been having visions of a spirit in blue," she said, looking at the fox intently. "Could that be her?"
"A woman in blue? She would also appear in such a guise, yes. The form of a celestial dragon can be intimidating, especially-"
The Forest Shadow abruptly stopped speaking. Zu looked at Jen Zi with sudden concern to see her blink rapidly a few times. She put a hand to her head and swayed a bit, unsteady on her feet.
"Jen Zi?" he asked. Is she having one of her fainting spells again? he wondered. What is doing this to her?
She shook her head and shut her eyes for a moment, shaking her head slowly in an attempt to clear it. "No, I'm fine, I just-" But he saw her body start to go limp and she began to collapse. He jumped towards her quickly to catch her before she hit the ground.
Zu knelt, lowering her slowly, and braced her against him as best he could so she wasn't just laying on the ground when she woke up. He looked up at the Forest Shadow with narrowed eyes. "Did you do this?" he asked coldly.
The fox spirit seemed amused by this question. "I am not one to tell the Water Dragon when she can and cannot contact her servants, especially when one considers how difficult it is for her to manifest as a spirit at all," she pointed out. "Has this happened to her before?"
He was tempted to ignore the fox's questions until Jen Zi woke up, but decided he'd get more information from her if he cooperated. "I assumed it was exhaustion," he replied, thinking back on the other times she'd collapsed. "The first time I'm aware of, we had just crashed our flyer outside Tien's Landing. None of us made it through the crash completely unscathed. She fainted at Old Tien's Landing as well, while we fought through ghosts and Lotus Assassins to close the dam." He shook his head. He'd been so concerned with making sure they weren't attacked while half the team was unconscious that he hadn't bothered really asking – or caring – what had happened.
"Do not blame yourself for this," the fox said, surprising him. Blame myself? "The paths of those selected by gods for special tasks is always more treacherous for the chosen than they deserve." She looked down at Jen Zi and changed topics without warning. "I believe that she knows something of your feelings for her, though if my assessment of your relationship is correct, and I am confident that it is," she sounded amused at this, "then you have not told her of them."
"I don't-" he snapped, but she cut him off.
"She cannot hear you, nor can any of the others in your group," she said. "I have been watching you as you journeyed through the forest and through this Heaven. You are protective of her; you watch her closely; you defend her when she lets you. Your feelings are clear. There is no need to deny them to me – though if it would make you feel better, I can swear never to tell." She sounded highly amused at this offered promise, and he scowled. I don't need her protection. There's nothing for me to say.
He looked down at the woman laying in his arms, her eyes closed and a peaceful expression on her face. He was thankful that, whatever was causing these blackouts, whether it was the Water Dragon or something else, it didn't seem to cause her any pain. Is a god really speaking to you? Is that why you're so obsessed with this need to know and do everything? he wondered. He sighed. What am I doing here, holding her like this and thinking so much. The fox doesn't know anything about me. Jen Zi knows me far better than the Forest Shadow, and she...
He considered for a moment. She trusts me and respects my opinion. She defends me and doesn't seem to mind when I defend her, or when I question her decisions or tell her I completely disagree with something she's done. Everything I do, everything I've done, should drive her away. She protects me and asks my opinion when she should hate me and want me to leave. So why doesn't she?
"She cares for you too, I suspect," the Forest Shadow said.
He wondered if the fox could read his mind or if his thoughts were really that obvious. He was usually extremely skilled at hiding his emotions, but he was venturing into unexplored territory and had no idea what he was doing, and he latched on to that idea as an excuse for acting as he did.
Zu had never been close to people. He had learned many difficult lessons over the course of his life, and the one that had been repeated over and over was that trusting others or allowing them to trust him usually led to disaster. People were unreliable, and he included himself in that. It was safer and simpler to keep everyone away, and he had been successful in his efforts to do so for years... until Jen Zi.
He'd joined the Lotus Assassins at the age of sixteen after living in the streets of the Imperial City since he was ten years old. He'd learned that everyone was desperate to survive, usually at the expense of others, and that the only one he could truly depend on was himself.
He'd served four years as an Assassin, where he came to understand the hard lesson that even his allies would betray him for a bit of favor with superiors.
He'd then done what he thought he would never, could never do – he betrayed his fellow Assassins after realizing suddenly that what they were doing wasn't for the good of the Empire at all, but simply to increase the power of the Emperor. He knew, from then on, that allowing others to be close to him only put them in danger.
He'd traveled the Empire with the young Dawn Star for nearly three years, trying to find a place where she would be safe. After several close calls when people had turned in his location to the Assassins, he found that even when he was trying to do the right thing, he still couldn't put his faith in anyone.
He lived in the swamp outside Two Rivers for seventeen years, where he thought he had mastered the lesson he'd been learning all his life – that it was dangerous for him to be around others, that he couldn't even trust himself, and that he should always be alone.
He'd never been as familiar with anyone as he was with Jen Zi. I push her away, but she keeps trying to get close, he thought. She can't trust anyone, least of all me. She's smart – why hasn't she figured that out yet?
"I can't be trusted," he said aloud, his voice sure. He was more sure of this than anything. If I want to protect her, I have to teach her this. "All she does is tell me that she trusts me, but she doesn't understand."
"What doesn't she understand?" the Forest Shadow asked.
The calmness of her voice, combined with the perfection and peace of the Heaven around him, were enough to set him off, and he looked up at the Fox Spirit with rage in his eyes. "You have no idea what I've done. You spied on us in your forest but you know nothing about us, or about me, and you shouldn't want to know, either," he said furiously. Shining Tusk took a step towards him, ready to defend the Forest Shadow even though Zu still knelt on the ground with Jen Zi unconscious in his arms. But the fox called off her guardian with a calm wave of her hand. "You say that you can tell I care about her. Of course I do. We all do. Just because I am the least likely to say the words means nothing. But well done," he said bitterly. "You figured us out. Clearly you Fox Spirits have earned your reputations as keen observers of human behavior."
She laughed musically at this, and her amusement made him even angrier, but he forced his expression to return to his usual flat, emotionless one. I let myself get attached, she points it out and makes me admit it like a fool, and then she laughs.
He stopped himself from sighing in frustration. I just need to deal with this like I deal with everything else – by taking a step back, assessing the situation, and figuring out how I can get the upper hand again.
But as he looked down at the unconscious woman in his arms, he doubted that strategy was going to work this time. He tried repeating to himself every protest and obstacle he could think of, any of which would prevent a relationship more than the strained partnership they had. Despite all these reasons, he was unable to stop himself from admitting what the Forest Shadow had already pointed out – that he cared for Jen Zi far more than he thought he should.
He didn't know why he kept talking to the Forest Shadow, but he felt like he had to prove how wrong she was about him, and why she couldn't possibly be right about Jen Zi caring for him. "I'm a traitor," he said flatly. "I worked with the people she wants to bring down. I killed her Master's wife and her closest friend's mother. I'm twice her age."
These were the facts. He could not allow himself to care for her any more than he cared for anyone else – which was very little. And letting her care for him, as she occasionally seemed to, would just go poorly for her when she finally made these realizations about him. Why am I talking to this fox? Why am I telling her this? he asked himself, but quickly came to an answer – because you won't let yourself tell it to Jen Zi.
"You think these things bother her?" the fox asked curiously. When he didn't reply, she answered her own question. "She is far more relaxed around you than you are around her. The tension you feel between wanting to truly trust her and the desire to protect your secrets... She knows your past, whatever it is you may have done, and she accepts it. From her probing questions, I can see that she just wants to know who you are now – your past means nothing to her."
He hated to admit it, but the fox had a point. Jen Zi's near-constant questions were more about his thoughts on their situation than about his time with the Lotus Assassins.
"Since she accepts your past, I think it is time you did as well," the Forest Shadow said. "Let go of all the regrets you cling to and live the life you have now."
"I don't know that I can do that," he replied. He'd spent most of his adult life living with his guilt – it was difficult to let go. I don't deserve to be forgiven for what I did.
"You should try," she counseled, "for her sake. I believe she is waking now," the fox said, changing topic without warning. "The Water Dragon's spirit has dissipated."
Jen Zi began to stir in his arms, and opened her eyes slowly and their gazes locked for a moment. "Did I pass out again?" she asked quietly.
He nodded. "Are you all right?"
She half-smiled. "I'm fine. Thanks for asking. And for catching me. The ground is always a lot harder than I expect it to be," she grinned. "I'm just a little-" she attempted to stand, with his assistance, and wobbled a little bit, unsteady on her feet. "A little dizzy still," she admitted. "It's always like this. I'm fine." She turned back to the Forest Shadow. "You were right," she told the fox. "The Water Dragon spoke to me of my 'destiny.' But she was not able to say very much, and she said she wasn't strong enough to help me."
The Forest Shadow nodded. "She is alive, but in great pain," she said, glancing at Zu pointedly as she spoke. He clenched his jaw. She doesn't understand what I did, what I could do again, he thought bitterly. If a powerful spirit can't understand, how can I expect Jen Zi to?