the force that can be forced is not the eternal force
the name that can be named is not the eternal name
It was easier than Jen Zi expected to slip into the role of her enemies.
Golem stone-stench worked its way into her clothing almost as soon as she joined the Lotus Assassins, leaving a smoked smell at the colored edges of her dress. The Acolytes had different clothes but the same smell. She thought that if you lived in that long enough, worked in its fire and the almost-unheard pounding of the feet it animated, it would be easy to give everything to the assassins. First your feet, then your sword, then your hands; maybe a tattered, farmer's soul along the way. Maybe a child with enough spirit energy in their pudgy frame to make a ton of rock and metal and gold filigree walk.
Jen Zi, the last Spirit Monk, could feel the Assassin fortress doing this to her over days of training and nights of restless sleep. She wondered what it had done to him over years.
The first time he appeared in the fortress surprised her. One moment there was only the dank, green-stained walls of the fortress and her sandaled footsteps upon them. Master Gang's voice, creaking through the Tho Fan, settled into the murk like more underground moss. Jen Zi turned to walk a corridor that was growing unsettlingly familiar.
And Sagacious Zu appeared out of nowhere, as if he had walked around a corner where there was none. Suddenly the smell of the grave water seeping into the fortress was the vivacious green of the swamp outside Two Rivers. The difference was a shock.
Jen Zi said, "They'll see you."
"No. There are more ways in this fortress than these assassins know. My own demons distract me in this place, but I hold no love for your new master or the master above him. If you kill one, why not two?"
She glanced back at the larger room. She walked the way of the Open Palm with impunity, used its creeds and its crystals, but here…it would be easy to make deaths look like an accident. The path was laid out clearly.
She said, "This place makes that feel like the only option."
"I am sorry, but your morals are a distraction here as well. Distractions are key to weakness in a target, be it Master Gang, or yourself. There are many who seek to target you here. If you look to the future, Master Gang will have his plans come crashing down on him."
She tried to look past him at the water-glistered walls and found her gaze caught in the scar furrows on his shoulder. "Was that what you would have done, when you lived here?"
He stepped forward and got his hands around her shoulders. When she pushed back, gloved hands shoving at his chest for just a moment with a fraction of the force she used during any real fight, he only got angrier. Her back hit the wall and it would be so easy to fight, here in the empty corridor, but someone would come soon—there were always Acolytes on errands. It would be too loud, too long, too anticipated, and if she wanted to teach him to fight without fighting it might as well start now—
Her back hit the wall. His hands, sienna brown against the pale curve of her shoulders, looked like they might flake to ashes at a touch. The skin once shiny with burn had long faded to charred scar up to the pink patches at his elbows.
He said, "We cannot question my motives now. Yours matter here. There isn't time to ask questions."
"Isn't that convenient—"
Footsteps sounded on the echoing training ground, and both of them twitched toward the sound.
He said, "I have to go. We will continue this discussion at another time."
Jen Zi pushed off the wall. "Yes we will."
Zu faded away, turning another corner.
The second time, she had thought about the first enough to know that it should not have been a surprise at all. Sagacious Zu was always watching someone. It had been Dawn Star in Two Rivers. Jen Zi had wondered if she'd ever caught sight of him, lying low in the tall grass or on one of the peaked roofs, and passed over the shape simply because she hadn't expected it. Maybe once or twice he had seen the lanky girl glancing toward the rim of the school and disappeared, cursing her for not being Dawn Star.
Except here he was watching her again.
She had a descent before her, a ride into the dark beneath the dark beneath the graves, and he spoke of something chaotic enough.
He explained what she needed to do, dropping his cryptic hints about the souls the assassins bandied for. When he started to leave, she did not let him. His words from their first meeting had taken up too much space in her mind.
"Last time we met, you said we can't question your motives. Are you questioning them too?" She stalked toward the inert boulder form of a golem and felt ready to bust through it to get to Zu, lurking behind its armored shoulder. Was he ready to rejoin the Assassins just as she was teetering on the edge of ready to join them? It was so hard to remember that there was a world outside the crypts. No wonder the assassins saw the entire empire as a treasure chest to claim by might and loot.
"I…I can't discuss this right now. There is too much going on."
She said, "There's always too much going on." She walked away.
The last time, his method of following her was clear. The corridor was machine-bored, round and black with soot, and there was only one passage to the slave cages. She knew that he could have come no other way than the room-sized elevator, and at the same time as she had. He could have hidden behind a pillar, or underneath the platform in the gear mechanisms larger than an ox cart….
She knew enough about magic by now that there were no magics that could have gotten him here. He simply knew the place, might have used these same hiding spaces when he was starting to think about leaving the Lotus Assassins. (He must have been thinking about it for a while. Sun Li's daughter was just the final step in a long process; Sagacious Zu did not make decisions quickly….although if there was a caveat to that rule, it would be 'unless Dawn Star was involved'.)
Jen Zi was flushed from the fight with Zeng Sai's spirit, little burn marks stinging on her fingers from where her fire had bounced off his shield. The black gloves were treated, though, with some rare substance that Master Li had gifted to her long ago, and they were oddly fitting to both her grown hands and the Dire Flame style; they would not catch fire, even if she were standing in the fiery nest of her ashen dragon attack.
(Lotus Assassins gave their Acolytes nothing for their burns. Those were their signs of loyalty.)
And now, when that loyalty between the Spirit Monk and her almost-turned, almost-reliable companion from the shadows and swamps was tenebrous as flame, Zu told her that he had let her face Zeng Sai alone on purpose.
She glared at him, showing teeth. "I trust I no longer have to prove myself to you?"
"I had to be certain. I won't trouble you much longer. Now that you have disrupted Zeng Sai's spirit, you can take his body from his grave and use it in the extractor."
She shook her head. "You used me as bait, Zu. You could have told me."
"When would I have done that; after you ended our last conversation? I had to know that you held the Spirit Monk energy that we need."
"I do. And have you dispelled your Lotus Assassin energy? It is very strong here. I almost feel like I'm becoming one of them."
"No—you mustn't think that way. Remember the sky aboveground. It becomes hard to remember…"
And in those words were all his accusations. She jumped forward. Finally, no one would find them here in the cages where her escort had died; they could have the fight that had been waiting behind their eyes and in the curl of their fists. He was taller and heavier than her, but she knew how to use all the compact energy in her coiled body—there was not much to do besides train in Two Rivers. Her first punch had no claws in it but it caught him on the chin and he backed against the wall, presenting more target points as he visibly tried to think about an escape route.
Then he picked her up, hip and collar, and threw.
He followed her to the ground immediately, punching toward her face. She hooked a foot around his ankle and flipped them, ignoring the punches that landed. She pressed an elbow against his throat and leaned on it. His grimace twisted his scars, and he lay flat beneath her, breathing in wheezes.
She said, "I have to be able to trust you, and you have to be able to trust me. No one's going to turn. No one's going to go away. Understand?"
Her anger stemmed from fear. She could feel it, prickling her skin like cold even though her skin against his once-burnt skin was so warm. If only she could tell everyone this way, could force them into trust—
Except you couldn't force trust.
He was just looking at her, battling past her weight on his throat.
She eased off the choke, crossing her arms on his chest, and leaned against his shoulder, not looking at him. She waited for the next move; for some sign of trust.
He patted her on the back. "I know you haven't turned. Here in the underground, it's nice to remind myself that I haven't either."
It was getting colder, the fight-flush fading. She turned her head to bury her face against his neck.
"Finish your tasks, Jen Zi." He stroked her hair and spoke against her cheek. "Appease your master."
She sat up and helped him to his feet. His hands were chalky with rock dust, not ash. They left the cavern together.