Here we go, the final installment of "Bamboo"! Thank you for sticking around through Kia Min's adventure, and I really hope you enjoyed this!
In all the years that Kia Min had access to flyers and all reaches of the Jade Empire, she never returned to Two Rivers. She wished she could tell herself that it had never crossed her mind, but after Wen's memorial service at the Black Leopard School she thought she ought to. The proper time had passed, and the people of Two Rivers deserved burials.
She wished she could tell herself that she was always too preoccupied to make it to Two Rivers to do it herself; she wished she could tell herself that she wanted to be with Wu and Dawn Star when she did it.
However, before Sky stepped down as the leader of the Guild, he made one last request of Kia Min before letting her take over. "You should return to Two Rivers," he said, "and pay your respects to your fallen friends. You haven't done that yet, have you?"
Kia Min was surprised, and she asked how he knew, and she asked why he asked this of her, but he only smiled and told her that he would introduce her to Empress Sun Lian when she returned. After the meeting in the Imperial Palace, she returned to her flyer where the pilot already knew his orders.
What on earth did Sky intend for her?
The pilot landed the flyer on the beach, and Kia Min grabbed the same bamboo staff she held with her over the years, the same bamboo staff that Weapon Master Gujin had given her upon recommendation from Smiling Mountain to enhance her training. She had learned Master Li's technique with this staff, broken the senior student's record with this staff, and saved her own life with this staff. She had freed Hehua from slavers-she had helped save the Jade Empire from slavers. She had killed Lotus Assassins, rogue ex-Guilders, and beaten bloody a few petty criminals.
Her brother still owed her a staff made of metal, and yet, Kia Min was unwilling to take her hands off her bamboo staff. This was part of her reputation now, after all. Perhaps when she stepped down from the Guild and put someone else in charge, and she could safely see her mother and brother again. The last time she had was at her father's funeral, but she had stayed hidden; they had not seen her. She could not let them.
"This is unlike you, Min," called the pilot over his shoulder. "You've never hesitated like this on an order from the Guild Leader before."
Kia Min flashed him a sheepish smile and climbed out of the flyer. "I'll be back soon," she said.
"Take your time. I'll be here when you get back."
Kia Min frowned as she closed the door behind her, wondering just how much Sky told the pilot about this 'mission' he had given her. She did not linger to ask. She was back in Two Rivers now, for the first time since the Lotus Assassins and Gao's mercenaries stormed through with black fists and steel swords. She had to face her past at long last.
She scanned the beach, seeing the statue of Sun Hai still standing tall and proud. A small stone now stood by its side, and a peony grew in front of that stone. A familiar broom lied in between the grave and the statue. Someone had come through already, she realized, and buried the villagers. Who?
The splinters of wood and the scraps of metal no longer littered the hillsides, which were now green and lush with no hints of ash and fire. Either the wood and the metal had been carried off by bandits who had the heart to bury the villagers, after stripping them of their valuables of course, or many someones had come to the village to properly memorialize the town.
The people of Hehua? Or perhaps the empress had this done by request of the Hero of the Jade Empire. Kia Min felt she knew the answer-who else would have known Old Ming's undying devotion to the late Sun Hai?
That meant that Wu and Dawn Star had both been back; that explained the flower as well. Dawn Star had been fond of peonies. Kia Min found herself wishing that Sky had told her about this, despite her requests that he kept her survival a secret from the other two. She could have remained hidden like she had in One Stone at her father's funeral.
Kia Min made her way through towards the town square, where the fallen stone pillars that had blocked the stairs up to the farmlands and Gujin's workshop before had been removed, and like the beach, there were no traces of broken and burned flyers or broken and burned bodies. The only hints to the tragedy that had befallen Two Rivers were in the collapsed buildings and bloodstained stone. Yes, the empress must have done this. No number of bandits would have taken this much care, and a broken down village such as Hehua would not have had the manpower.
Oh, why had Sky kept this from her? Kia Min could have avoided Wu and Dawn Star both, and Sky knew it.
Kia Min turned her gaze up the stairs, and she knew that the villagers and farmers were buried up there somewhere. Ni Joh was up there somewhere. She took in a deep breath, exhaled, and promised herself to visit him on her way out. She was not ready yet. And so, she made her way through the school gates.
Dawn Star's garden flourished with pink peonies and white narcissuses and violet orchids. Kia Min smiled. Yes, Dawn Star must have been here. She counted the narcissuses, remembering what Dawn Star had told her once about them.
"I plant one for each student," she had said. "It's to help bestow each student's hidden and best talents."
Three were missing. Sky had not kept his promise after all. In spite of herself, Kia Min laughed. She should have suspected that he would not have, in the end. Instead, there were three orchids. "For prosperity and longevity," Dawn Star had said. She often planted those for newborns in the village. Now the orchids were for the survivors.
Kia Min continued through the school, the hills green with no trace of crashed flyers, the student houses still fallen and covered with ash, and the wooden gate into the main area of the school still burnt away. She stopped beneath the still standing stone frame of the gate and surveyed the school within, though she barely looked past the center where the sparring ring once was. There her classmates were buried, and in the center knelt Wu the Lotus Blossom, alone and silent and wearing the same plum garments Kia Min remembered and the Jade Empire knew her for.
Sky had not kept his promise and never had any intentions of hiding it. Now Kia Min understood why he had sent her to Two Rivers.
She hesitated. Surely this meeting must have been at Wu's request, but why had she waited so long? For the same reason Kia Min had asked Sky not to tell Wu about her?
Finally, Kia Min took slow steps towards the senior student, thinking of the many questions she wanted to ask, the many words she wanted to say, and all of them and none of them being what she wanted to know. Too many whys. Too many hows. She cared little for the truth about Master Li or for clearing up some of the more fantastical versions of Wu's story. She could live without knowing Wu's motivation in her journey, or why Kia Min had been left behind.
She did not need to see the Wu after all. Kia Min had found her life's calling by tracking down the senior student, but it was not for the senior student she had survived. Anything about this living legend was completely irrelevant to her anymore.
And yet, Kia Min realized as she stopped at Wu's side, she wanted to see her.
The gravestones in the sparring ring had the names of the students scrawled on them, and Kia Min was not surprised to see that the one Wu knelt in front of was none other than Jing Woo's. Of course. Other than Dawn Star, he had been the only other student to get close to Wu, to be the source of her smiles and laughter. Despite her marriage to Sky, Wu had to miss Jing Woo the most of all the people in Two Rivers. Was he on her mind as often as Ni Joh was on Kia Min's?
"Wu," said Kia Min softly.
Wu looked up at Kia Min and smiled. "Kia Min," she said. "It's good to finally see you again."
Kia Min nodded. "It's good to see you again, too."
"You're not mad at Sky, are you?" Her voice was saturated with the same humor she had often teased Jing Woo with. Kia Min nearly chuckled, though she was unsure if it was her amusement over Wu's husband's broken promise or the memory of a time long ago.
"No," she said, "it's my own fault for trusting him."
Wu laughed and climbed to her feet. "I'll let him know you said that."
"By all means."
For a moment, they grinned at each other, and Kia Min found her own struggle for words in Wu's eyes. Questions and answers, the past few years, the next few years, lost friends, lost loves, new friends and new loves... there was too much to say, and Kia Min knew they did not have the time. She had to return to the Imperial City and relieve Sky from his duties as Guild Leader; likewise, Wu probably had much to tend to herself.
"I'm glad to see you're well," said Wu finally.
"I hear you're taking Sky's place in the Guild?" Kia Min nodded. "It relieves me to hear that the organization will be in good hands. Have you met the empress yet?"
"Sky said that he'd introduce me after I returned to the palace."
Wu snorted. "You're better off getting introduced by me. Sky claims that the reason why she won't sanction the Guild publicly is for her reputation. Truth is, Sky grinds on Lian's nerves and she doesn't stop her lords and ministers from attempting to arrest Guilders to irritate him."
Kia Min raised an eyebrow and held back laughter. Wu was indeed too familiar with the empress to speak of her as though she and Sky were nothing more than children. "That sounds like something that would encourage him more than irritate him."
"Exactly," said Wu, shaking her head. "But I suppose in the end, it worked out better this way. The Imperial Court would have made Sky jump through hoops to accomplish what he wanted if they knew that their empress approves of the what the Guild is doing. Ever since Zin Bu introduced me to bureaucracy I'm amazed anything ever gets done."
"That's why we have the Guild."
Wu nodded. "That's why we have the Guild, indeed. Lian even confided as much to me, once. She told me never to repeat it to Sky."
"And you didn't, right?"
"Of course not. He doesn't need more encouragement. And I know you won't abuse the empress's trust as he does."
Kia Min smiled. "I appreciate your vote of confidence. And Sky's. What are you two planning on doing now that he's retiring? He mentioned something about a son..."
Wu seemed shocked for a moment, but she lightened into a chuckle. "Oh, no, he was probably referring to the young prince. No, we have no children. I guess you could call it more a lack of interest on my part. I didn't preen in front of a mirror the past few years in the Imperial Palace, but Sky knew what he was getting into when he married me. No, Dawn Star is running her own school not too far from Tien's Landing now. I'm going to go help her. Maybe Sky, too." She laughed. "Maybe I should give him a child to keep him out of trouble."
"Sky accomplishes what he wants with the Guild, and he retires, without any other direction in his life?" asked Kia Min skeptically.
Wu shrugged. "He wants a family. I've been reluctant. That's a few months of my life, of my training I'd lose. Besides, I think it's time to tell you that I've been acting as an agent for the Guild for some time. Clandestinely, of course, and I also have no intentions of quitting."
Kia Min widened her eyes. "You've been... with the Guild? This whole time?"
"Well, ever since Sky took over. He wasn't happy about it, but he knew better than trying to change my mind. Like I said, I didn't preen in front of a mirror the past few years."
"So you're going to continue to work for the Guild and help Dawn Star with her school? At the same time? That seems... unnecessarily dangerous."
"It's just cleaning up the mess left behind, but if Dawn Star or her students were endangered..." Wu's face darkened. "I'd prevent it. I wouldn't let it happen. Not again. Not ever again."
Kia Min glanced around at the broken and burnt buildings of Two Rivers School around her, and the small mounds and slabs of stone beneath her. "We couldn't have prevented this, Wu. Nobody could have."
Wu turned to Kia Min angrily. "Yes, it could have been prevented. Not by you or me... none of this had to happen. And yet..." She closed her eyes. "I think about it over and over and there was no other way this could have happened. Not the way he wanted it to. The way I always envisioned it... I always intended to come back. Take his place. If he had been the man I thought he was... I'd have been back. With Jing Woo. And Dawn Star. Everything would have been alright."
Master Li, Kia Min realized. Over the years she had heard variations of the tale of the fall of Two Rivers, and most retellings boiled down to the Glorious Strategist's involvement. She never wanted to believe that he had been the reason everyone was dead, but she knew. It was the only version that made any sense.
"I don't know where I would have been," said Kia Min, but she thought of Ni Joh, and she knew exactly where she would have wound up. "But I'd imagine I would still be here, too. Maybe giving Fen Do a run for his money."
Wu chuckled. "It would have been a much simpler life than the ones we're living now."
"Yes, it would have. But," Kia Min could hardly believe the words she said until she said them, "this life isn't so bad, either. I miss everyone, but..." She smiled. "This is my calling. I have no regrets."
Wu smiled softly, and nodded. "Yes, I agree. Neither do I."