(This universe, characters, everything important belongs to Dreamworks. I'm just happy to be able to borrow them for a bit. I apologize for the multiple author alerts; I was having some trouble uploading this. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the tale.)
A TRAIL OF EMBERS THROUGH THE SNOW
chapter one: into the fissures and cracks
The Jade palace was ghostly and quiet, bathed in the soft blue of the oncoming morning. Master Shifu tossed aside his covers and the cold hit him like a kick to the chest. It was the penetrating cold of early January, which crept like a hungry ghost into the fissures and cracks in his middle-aged bones.
Nevertheless, rise he did, attempting as best he could to release his attachment to warmth. He looked out his east window and tried to cultivate appreciation for the magnificence of the landscape mother nature had created during the night. Dramatic white peaks topped with banks of fog sloped down into the village, the roofs caked with smooth white mounds, the windows glowing with hearths. Wonderfully sweet, warm hearths. His own fire was only a few dying embers. The temptation to kindle it up was almost overwhelming.
He shook the temptation off without much success as he carefully arranged himself on the meditation mat in the middle of his room, directly facing a portrait of Master Oogway. He attempted to empty his mind, to reach out to his old Master, trying again, as he had for thirty five years of mornings, to see the perfect universal truth and peace his Master had seen, and lived, every day of his life.
As though conscious and waiting to strike the bitter cold made itself known, biting his skin like a snake. With grim determination Shifu remained perfectly still and tried to empty his mind, to ignore the cold and grow spiritually in not allowing it to dictate his actions. His jaw set in grim determination. He loosened it, as that, too, was attachment.
Some mornings his determination paid off. Some mornings he would expand past his own body into a peaceful void of nothingness, and a calm would descend upon him that lasted the whole day through. But in his deepest hidden heart of doubt - the small but persistent voice that never left him - he wondered if the calm was a result of the natural peace and balance of the universe he sought, or if deep trance simply filled his body with the same health and vigor one gained from deep sleep, and had nothing holy about it at all.
This particular doubt gained it's voice and persistence only after Tai Lung. Shifu had taught his son meditation, and had practiced alongside him each morning. He had seen Tai Lung come away from hours of trance refreshed, bright eyed, rested, having experienced what Shifu assumed was the grace of the aligned universe. After eighteen years of such peace, how could his beloved boy rampage through the village, killing innocents in a rage, scarring, rending, misaligning the perfect peace he'd witnessed alongside his father every morning since he was old enough to stand?
There had been a peace, a brief inner and personal peace, after Oogway's vision had come true, after Po had shown his worth as the Dragon Warrior, after Shifu realized with a merciful finality that he had not been wrong to obey his master all those years ago. Shifu found himself open once more with his students, becoming more positive and casual, and taking more pride in them than ever. It was true that Po had managed to unlock his heart and take down his walls, but along with that came the very real mourning and despair he felt as a father at losing his only son, at the brevity and brutality of Tai Lung's tragic life. The loss haunted him now more than ever. When Tai Lung was merely in prison there was still a slim chance he may be healed or rehabilitated. Now that he was dead Shifu could not stop trying to figure in his mind the reason for Tai-Lung, the reason for his life at all. What a deeply magnificent waste! The universe ought to abhor such pointlessness and pain!
My son, I gave to you the best I had within me, to see you spend the largest part of your life imprisoned, only to die so young. Had I only taught you temperance there may have been a life for you somewhere. My little cub, till this second I love you still.
The familiar and sudden hot slice of regret knocked Shifu's measured breathing out of pace, escaping his lips in a jet of bright condensation. His eyes opened and the cold raced violently in, snapping at his joints, filling his chest with a dry, cold wind. He gasped, pulling his arms inside his robe, and rose to his feet as though possessed to the pile of kindling in the corner. He grabbed two handfuls and threw them on the coals, shifting it with a poker until it caught. He knelt by the small fire as though he were trying to absorb it. As he warmed wave after wave of nausea left him.
He back was to the portrait of his Master Oogway. Shifu looked regretfully over his shoulder at it, feeling as though he had failed him, all at once knowing how foolish that feeling was. "You're not as young as you used to be, Shifu, only a fool does not heed his own limits," Shifu imagined Oogway saying.
Shifu sighed, his breath a white jet in the cold. As a younger man the morning cold could not touch him. But now he was laid bare by the years, by creaking joints and regret, and the freezing air would have it's way with him.
"Bah," Shifu said into the fire.
There was a tap at the screen. "Master Shifu!" It was a quick, soft spoken, anxiety ridden whisper.
"Master, a visitor from the Forbidden City has arrived, bearing an Imperial Letter."
"What in the - " Shifu rose, pulling his robe close and sliding open the screen. Zeng stood before him, wide eyed, holding a thick bamboo scroll sealed with the red wax imprint of the Imperial ring.
"Yes, Master Shifu."
Shifu slowly took the scroll from Zeng, stunned. "Did he say - do you know...?"
Zeng shook his head vigorously. "No idea, Master Shifu. The footman only told me to deliver the scroll to you."
"Yes Master Shifu, a carriage has arrived, drawn by two stallions. I don't know who's in it, the curtains are drawn."
"Where are my formal robes?"
"Gathering dust in the long closet, Master."
"Shake them out," Shifu commanded.
Zeng bowed. "Yes Master."
Shifu slid the door shut. The kindling had caught fully ablaze, and morning filled the room with light. Shifu slid his finger underneath the lip of the scroll to open it. The Emperor had not shown any interest in the Valley of Peace or the Jade Palace since before Shifu was a student, when he wanted Oogway to train his generals for war. In fact, that was the previous Emperor. His son and heir had ascended twenty five years ago, when Tai Lung was fourteen and began teaching the youngest students basic stances and throws.
Oh, cub, I'll mark time by you forever... Shifu had this thought so habitually that it didn't register in words, only in a thick, fluttering muck of barely acknowledged sadness through his chest. He pushed it down and worked his finger gently under the red wax seal.
The scroll rolled open to reveal careful calligraphy, nearly as neat and perfect as Crane's.
"Honorable Master Shifu of the Jade Palace,
"The Empress sends in this carriage a rare and priceless gift bound North for the wife of the Mongol Ruler. This gift is of the utmost importance to the Empire, and will surely be set upon by thieves and bandits of the road. The delivery of this gift is of great concern to the Empress, and I request that you accompany it, to defend it and the ambassador of the Empress's court that bears it.
"It is said that the Venerable Master can deflect a herd of charging oxen with a mere thought, and I entrust this responsibility to you in the conviction that these stories are but a fraction of your actual abilities.
"I additionally request that the Jade Palace supply my envoys with adequate food and supplies for the ardorous journey North. `
"This I Command You, Master Shifu, By Writ of The Emperor.""
Shifu blinked at the scroll, stunned at the suddenness of it all, and at being addressed so directly by the Son of Heaven.
But there was work to be done. He slid his door open once more, calling down the hall, "Zeng! Wake Po!"
The Jade Palace, while physically large, was at heart a small place, and word got around quickly that something was afoot. Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper, Po, and Monkey had been wakened by Zeng's near panic in the long closet. They stuck their sleepy heads into the hall to see what the fuss was about just as Zeng pulled Po frantically by the hand into the kitchen and Shifu rushed past them in his gold and crimson formal robes.
"What's going on, Master?" Tigress asked.
Shifu spun to face his students, continuing backwards down the hall. "The Emperor has sent a carriage, into your formal robes at once, go, go!"
His students snapped to attention, sprinting towards the long closet. The palace keepers were already at work shaking the dust from the robes, tossing them to the five, who leapt with them into their rooms in an almost balletic fashion.
Zeng forced Po into the kitchen.
"Whoa, man, whoa! Not even - " Po stopped for a big, satisfying yawn - "Awake yet, Zeng, what's the deal?"
Zeng had worked himself into a hysterical froth, grabbing ingredients at random and throwing them at Po, who quickly filled his big arms with flying foodstuffs. "The Emperor is here and they want food. Cook things - thing for the road! Master Shifu and the carriage are going North, make easy things, eatable things, things for weeks ahead! Hurry! Do it now!"
Po's eyes widened. "The *Emperor?*"
Shifu donned and tied his robes faster than his frozen fingers wanted. One goose or another gave him a quick once-over to make sure nothing was amiss before opening the front door so Shifu could fly down the long staircase where the carriage awaited.
The carriage was a deep imperial red and absolutely arresting in craftmanship and detail. The body of the carriage was carved from hardwood with achingly detailed dragons, fans, coins, and curls of smoke. The roof was the sloping, tiled one of a palace or temple, and decorated in gold leaf. Behind slats delicate as bird's bones a thick green curtain obscured the occupant from view. The carriage was, to be kind, ostentatious, a surprising choice for an important mission to a hostile land.
The footman, a red-clad monkey, who had watched with impatience as Shifu bounded down the steps from the Jade Palace, nodded his head curtly at the kung fu Master.
"Venerable One," the footman said, stepping down into the snow and bowing to Shifu. "My Lady wishes to speak with you at once." He stepped to the carriage door and gently pulled it aside, bowing to the Lady and to Shifu.
Shifu bowed at once, and deeply, to the open door. He could not see who was inside, only soft heaps of expensive blankets and a small flickering candle under glass.
"I am your humble servant, my Lady," Shifu said.
"Step into the carriage, esteemed one," said a soft yet raspy voice. "We find the cold taxing." The footman quickly procured a cushy red step from under the carriage, and ushered Shifu inside.
"Door," the blanketed, shadowy figure commanded. With a brief nod the footman shut the door, enclosing Shifu in the small candlelit cabin with the Lady. The feminine and entirely foreign scent of powder and crushed peonies hit him with an unexpected power. For an instant he was back before the Jade Palace, before kung fu. He was three years old in his mother's bed chamber as she powdered her face.
He bowed once more. "My Lady."
"Sit," the Lady commanded, a slim, dark, precise hand emerging from the pile of blankets to gesture towards a slim padded bench behind Shifu. He did as she asked.
The pile of blankets shifted and reached for the glass encased candle, which hung on a slim gold rod across the window. The hand slid the candle towards the middle of the cabin, illuminating the delicately embroidered, luxuriously stuffed blankets. The hand reached back to push a thick hood away, revealing a small imperial headdress with peonies at the temples, and finally Shifu saw the Lady's face.
She was a tan and white desert fennec. Shifu was taken aback. He had only seen pictures of that species in books. From what he knew they came from the huge expanse of far south desert, impossibly far from China. She regarded him with cooly diagnostic yellow eyes underneath heavy lids, which gave her a lazy sort of look. She watched him take her in.
"We, the Empress's sister, are honored by your readiness to join us on this journey," she said softly, sounding distinctly bored. Her delicate hand reached underneath the folds of the blankets and produced a small box.
"It is an honor, Princess," Shifu replied.
"Hm," She opened the box. The thick sweet scent of clove filled the cabin. With precise fingers she took a delicate hand rolled cigarette from the box, and lifted the glass from the candle to light it. She took a drag and exhaled a thick and perfect ring, studying him with her steady, analytical eyes.
"So you are the Venerable Master Shifu, Teacher of the Fearsome Five, and master of the Dragon Warrior?"" she said.
"Yes, Princess," he replied.
The corner of her mouth threatened to tick upwards into a wry smile. "The Venerable one is smaller than we imagined. He is not much larger than ourselves. How can we be assured such a diminutive one can protect Us from the threat of bandit gangs?" She lifted the clove cigarette to her lips and took another drag.
Shifu drew himself up to meet her gaze. "Does the Princess doubt the judgement of the Emperor?"
Her eyes widened in amusement. A laugh tried to escape her but was blocked by smoke, so what she produced was a cascade of cheerfully choking titters accompanied by fragrant white puffs. Her eyes watered and she cleared her throat. "Do I - do We - doubt the Emperor's judgement? Oh no, not ever, in a thousand lifetimes, no." A final titter and her smile faded, her face retaining it's previous impassive calm. "How dare you imply such a thing," she said, but looked past Shifu as she said it.
Shifu gave a slight bow. "I, who am beneath your pavilion, did not intend offense."
She gave a slow blink and a subtle, dismissive wave of her dainty hand.
"If it pleases the Princess, may I direct her gaze to the Jade Palace, which the people of the Valley of Peace built for my Master Oogway, in gratitude for his wisdom and knowledge of Kung Fu. I was his Student and am now Master of the Jade Palace. My Lady, I will not fail you."
She did not look out the window to the Jade Palace but instead studied him with a soft look he could not place, but inspired an odd twinge in his chest. "We know the Venerable Master shall do all he can to defend Us. Do you feel confident you can protect one Princess and her footman, riding through the freezing Mongol wastes in an Imperial carriage bearing untold treasure?"
"Without the usual complement of guards one would expect to accompany a journey of this nature?"
Shifu started to reply in the affirmative but stopped himself. The Princess was still as a flower, watching the wheels turn in his mind. In all the excitement he hadn't considered the very odd nature of the request the Emperor had made. Why in the world would he send a member of the royal family anywhere without a contingent of soldiers?
He looked questioningly at her. She stifled a smile and held a finger to her lips. "Does the Venerable Master doubt the judgement of the Emperor?"
"Never, my Lady."
"And he will do as the Emperor asks, as he does in all things?"
"Of course, my Lady."
"Then the matter is settled." She put her cigarette out. "We are to understand the Dragon Warrior himself is preparing our apportionment? We have heard his skill in cuisine is as legendary as his skill in battle."
"I could not put one above the other," Shifu replied.
"This is a good thing to hear. We shall look forward to it very much."
Shifu nodded. "My Lady."
She glanced out the window, moving aside of bit of curtain. "Ah, it seems your students have come to bid their Master goodbye." Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Monkey, Viper, and Po stood at attention at the foot of the giant staircase, along with a very jittery Zeng, who pushed a case of foodstuffs nearly larger than he was.
"The Panda, he is the Dragon Warrior?" she asked.
"Yes, my Lady."
"A shared sentiment, my Lady."
She gave him a soft smile and looked quizzically out the window. "Tell me, Master Shifu, is your Dragon Warrior wearing an oddly sewn curtain?"
Shifu looked out the window at Po, who did indeed appear to be wearing something cobbled together from one of the silk curtains on the Hall of Masters. It was likely the work of Zeng, produced in the neurosis- borne time warp he seemed capable of summoning, because there was not a ceremonial robe in the Jade Temple that could stretch to fit Po's girth. It was a decent approximation given the time limit but was still very obviously a curtain.
"Ah, yes, my Lady. It's the new style." It came out before he thought better of it.
She looked at him with incredulity. "Oh! The new style! Please, Master Shifu, tell this Lady of the Empress's court of the new styles, We certainly aren't in a position to know them! Perhaps by the time We return the cutting edge fashions of the Valley of Peace shall have made their way to the Forbidden City. How fine the ladies of the court shall look in their oddly sewn curtains!" She smiled, the first real smile he had seen from her, which was good, because for a very long moment he feared he'd offended her.
"I - it's not - I meant - "
She reached for another cigarette. "By all means, Venerable Shifu, feel free to just say whatever it is that occurs to you first at all times. I am in terrible need of amusement and we have a long journey ahead of us." She lit the cigarette, tittering, and a fierce hot blush spread across Shifu's face. "You are dismissed now, to say farewell to your students."
He stood and bowed. The Princess tapped at the window and the footman opened the door. Shifu's students bowed sharply, only to see their Master emerge from the cabin flustered and pinkened like a child. The Five, bless them, did not register any interest or puzzlement at this on their well-trained faces. Po, however, raised an eyebrow, looking from the carriage to Shifu, trying to figure out what had happened. Shifu wished the Emperor was right about being able to stop a herd of oxen with a thought - would that he could force Po's face into an impassive, warriorlike blank.
Shifu returned the bow, then walked up to them. "Po, get that idiotic look off your face," Shifu hissed under his breath. "Dead calm, Po, reveal nothing in your eyes. All of you, listen to me."
The five gathered around him in a red silk semicircle.
"Master, what is happening?" Tigress asked softly.
"The Emperor has requested that I accompany the Princess, the Empress's sister, on a mission to the North."
"How far North?' Crane asked uneasily.
"To the Mongol lands."
"In that?" Mantis asked, eyeing the loud carriage. "Why?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss it. But something very odd is happening and I am not sure why the royal family has involved me. I will be on my guard and I suggest you all are too. I want the Jade Palace on high alert while I'm gone, no one but students in or out."
"Is there a need for such precaution, Master?" Viper asked.
"Perhaps. Past Emperors have attacked the Jade Palace for fear of sedition. The Forbidden City has been known to fear us, as we are the only force that might depose them. Five hundred years ago it was discovered the Sri-Teng Kung Fu school trained the assassin of Emperor Li-Fu and the paranoia has never fully left the monarchy."
"Whoa," Po said.
"Quiet!" the Five hissed.
"I can't think of another reason the Emperor may try to separate us. I vowed my loyalty to the Son of Heaven when I gained the Master rank, as did all of you. You would almost think that means something. Politicians," Shifu grumbled. "Just be on guard."
"What about you, Master?" Tigress asked.
"What about me, Tigress?"
"Master, you are..." Tigress looked wide eyed at the carriage, and back at Shifu, "You are so sparsely defended to go to the Mongol lands. Perhaps you should choose one of us to go with you?"
Shifu shook his head. "The Emperor was quite specific. Any deviation from the writ would arouse suspicion."
Tigress looked troubled. "When will you return?"
Shifu blinked. "I don't know. If..." Shifu hesitated. "If I'm not back in three weeks, Tigress..." He looked up at her, unsure.
He hesitated, and seemed to come to a choice. "No. No, Tigress, do not worry about me. None of you worry about me. The Jade Palace and all within will be your primary concern. I'll handle this."
"In case of-" His students suddenly snapped back to attention and bowed. Shifu turned. The Princess had stepped out of the carriage. Her face was impassive as she wrapped her coverings around herself, correcting the portion that had fallen from her shoulder to reveal her sky blue hanfu. As she stepped down blue ribbons unfurled from behind her ears, softly rustling in the light breeze. Standing in front of the carriage trailing miles of silk she looked painfully glamorous, like an ancient poem come to life.
She knew it, too. She drew herself up, chin tilted high, and though she was the smallest one present, looked down her nose at Shifu and his students.
Po's whistled softly, too softly for anyone but Tigress and Crane to hear.
Tigress growled deep in her chest.
"Venerable One, is there difficulty?" she asked sweetly.
"Not at all, my Lady. Allow me to introduce my students."
She nodded. "We have heard of your many great deeds for the good of the empire. You are to be commended." She zeroed in on Po. "You are the Dragon Warrior, are you not, Panda?"
Po nodded. "Yep, you bet. Right here. Uh..your highness."
She studied him. Shifu could feel the waves of anxiety starting to roll off Po from the inscrutable gaze. "And we are to understand you make the best noodles and dumplings in the entire Valley of Peace?
"Oh, well. Yes. I mean kind of. They're my dad's recipe really, I just...you know..make them. The way he does. For other people. Your highness."
She cocked her head. "We find you curious, Panda."
"We..? What, like, you and the driver, or..?" Po asked.
The air froze with tension.
"What?" Po asked, looking round.
She paused. "We the Forbidden City. The royal fam..." She stopped suddenly, as though a heavy thought had pressed the air from her words. Her harsh gaze softened. "We are Princess Meihui, the sister of the Empress MeiLan."
"Yeah but...you and who?"
The Princess's eyes widened in astonishment. Shifu leapt in front of Po. "Forgive the Dragon Warrior, my Lady, he knows not-"
She tilted her chin and gave a bemused laugh. "No no, Master Shifu, Master Po has a point, does he not?" She gestured to the empty cab and the footman. "Me and WHO, indeed? It IS looking a bit sparse, is it not? Your panda is quite sharp, Venerable Shifu. I can see why he is the Dragon Warrior." She gave a slight, delicate curtsy. "A pleasure, Master Po. I am assured I will enjoy your creations on this journey."
"Awesome. Thanks, your Majesty."
She nodded to Po.
"Master Shifu, if you won't be too much longer..?"
"Yes, my Lady, I must quickly gather my - " He was suddenly handed a bag of his belongings.
"Thank you Zeng."
By this point Zeng had worked himself into a nearly apoplectic state, a feathery vibrating mess. The morning had frazzled him so deeply he could barely reply. He held his arm out after Shifu had taken the bag, stuttering "Ma-ma-ma-mast-t-"
"Zeng? Zeng!" Shifu said, then sighed. Quick as lightning he delivered a nerve strike underneath each collarbone and Zeng suddenly relaxed, going limp on his feet. "Master," he said, his eyelids fluttering.
"Get some rest, Zeng." He slung the bag over his shoulder. "Students."
They bowed to Shifu, then bowed to the Princess, who took the footman's hand to step back into the cabin. The door closed behind her and the foot man clambered up to the perch. Shifu turned to the students once more, looking, for a split second, worried and helpless. His students expression's softened and something about this shored him up. He composed himself, bowed, and leapt up onto the perch with the driver. "Let's go."
The students watched the carriage roll off down the road, then exchanged concerned looks.
"Well, she seems all right," Po said. Tigress glared at him, folding her arms. Po shrugged, "Oh, come on. What? She's nice! I like her."
Tigress's face was grim. She started up the staircase back to the Palace. "I don't. I don't like her, or any of this. Crane, fly ahead and warn the geese we're shutting the Palace."
They followed her up the stairs, all except Zeng, who fell over snoring.
(This is a multi-chapter fic. More chapters will be up very soon, please subscribe.)