e-mail: stormofblossoms [ at ] gmail dot com
Takes place in the same universe as this story.
The man was dying, a fact he ignored in his fury. It was the sort of stubbornness Zhong Ma was familiar with and could even appreciate. She squatted down next to him, ready for the stream of curses.
"Money, that's all that matters to you," the man, Xu, hissed through lips cracked by the sun. His eyes were unfocused and his words inaudible, which only underlined his venom. Zhong Ma guessed he was wasting his remaining energy this extravagantly out of spite. "Do you even care whether I deserve this or not?"
The air shimmered less as the day cooled, giving Zhong Ma a clearer view of her surroundings. The moving dots at the edge of the desert, which she had been observing, now took on vaguely human shapes. She doubted they were casual passersby.
"Well?" Xu croaked. "You don't even want a dying person to hear your voice? Like I didn't already know how you sound."
He had a point. "You and I were disciples of the same teacher," she replied. "That's why I let you have your say before you die. Otherwise I'd have slit your throat already."
Xu groaned. He would not live to see the newcomers; Zhong Ma would be on her own, as usual. The familiarity of the situation would have thrilled her if she was not nearly light-headed with hunger.
"Yes, I did kill the whole family," Xu whispered. "You want to know why, go ask the survivor. There's always one."
"So you left the house believing there's a witness. I'm not sure if that makes you foolish or benevolent. Or are you just rambling?"
No answer from Xu, who stared sightlessly up at the merciless sky. Zhong Ma reached out and closed his eyelids. The moving dots were growing bigger and closer. She hauled herself to her feet, a little uneasy; being this slow at just forty-two was unforgiveable.
Now revealed as a group of three riders, the dots were closing in on her. She had not had sufficient experience in fighting opponents on horseback, and horses would not make a good platform for launching an attack using qinggong. In a worst case scenario, she might have to try to talk herself out of a fight. Her nostrils flared with distaste.
All the riders were swathed in cloaks against the desert sun. They reined in their horses five paces away from Zhong Ma. One of them slid down the saddle and stepped toward her, his full gray beard stirring in the warm wind.
"Zhong Ma." His voice was smooth, almost haughty. "How are you?"
Her veiled hat bobbed as she went down on one knee, feeling exposed, like a convict about to be beheaded. "Your disciple is in good health, thanks to Teacher's well-wishes."
"We are no longer teacher and disciple," the bearded man, Luo, said absently, as if not really caring one way or another. His eyes flickered over to Xu's body, to the large ugly wound on his stomach. "Did you just kill him?"
The other two riders, both men, dismounted to stand behind Luo. Executioners, here at their teacher's bidding, ready to kill the heretic. Zhong Ma had never seen them before. It would be such an indignity if she had to die at the hands of new disciples.
"Teacher, Xu murdered a family in Gansu. He spared no one in the whole house, not even the little children. Their distant relative hired me to find him. I made inquiries, and it turned out the deceased grandfather of that house was a magistrate. He took bribes and sometimes drove people off their own property if the price was right. Since he used to work in the same area where Xu was born, I assumed Xu's family was one of the magistrate's victims. The old man is dead, so Xu went after his descendants."
"Get up," said Luo, and Zhong Ma did, pleased that she moved more fluidly this time. "That means what he basically did was avenge his own family. And you killed him for that? Because you were paid?"
"It's not the money." She had never liked having to explain herself – if she had, she would never have been ousted from her martial school, where different behavior was subject to instant suspicion. "I was entrusted with a task and I had to fulfill that trust."
"You make it sound so simple." Luo gave Xu's body another once-over. "Either that, or you never regarded us as your true family. That's why it's easy for you to dispose of someone who used to be your martial brother."
This was becoming tiring. She wished the two disciples would just run at her so she could paralyze them, and her long-delayed duel with Luo could commence. "Please punish me as you see fit."
"I no longer have the right to punish you," Luo replied, equally solemn, "though I can demand your blood in exchange for my disciple's."
From inside his cloak he drew out a saber with a long hilt. Called the Lightning Saber, the weapon was specially made for Luo, supposedly by a famous blacksmith from the western areas. None of his disciples, including Zhong Ma, had ever seen him use it, and she found the dubious honor amusingly ironic.
"Zhong-nuxia." Luo brandished the saber. "Please."
Zhong Ma held her own sword at the ready. Xu's blood was drying on the blade, and the sight of it filled her with a curious foreboding. "Luo-daxia, I humbly ask for your pointers."
Luo's saber arced toward her jugular before she could track its movement. At the very last moment she ducked and thrust her own sword to lengthen the distance between them. The attempt failed as Luo swirled to the left, sending blow after blow to her head. Zhong Ma dodged as best as she could, leaping and bending, catching her breath whenever she could. She was known in wulin for her graceful speed, but it paled next to her former teacher's. An unwelcome image rose unbidden to her mind, that of the sand clinging to her shoes and weighing her down. She banished the image with a single mental shake.
Lightning Saber swished and stabbed, and cut off Zhong Ma's line of retreat again and again. Its thickness lent it extra impact when clashing with her lighter blade. A couple of times she had to grip her sword more tightly to maintain her accuracy. She was also amazed by the way Luo constantly entered her sword range with deceptive recklessness, and the amazement brought trepidation with it.
I'm good enough as a hired assassin, she thought, and so I became careless. I may not even live to regret that an hour from now.
Throat parched, scalp searing, she continued to parry and hit back, aware that Luo was just biding his time before delivering the final strike. The repeated clangs of Lightning Saber against her sword drilled into her brain, a macabre song she was forced to dance to. Soon Luo would knock her sword off her hand, and after that her breaths were numbered.
Luo pressed forward with a series of rapid slashes, each from a different angle. Zhong Ma retaliated with slower, stronger strokes, feeling each clash of the blades reverberate in her bones. Once she missed and Lightning Saber bit briefly into her arm before she jumped away. The heat on the injured flesh flared all the way up to her shoulder.
Minor blood loss when she was already exhausted, outnumbered, and thirsty. This was it, then. In a minute she would fail to sidestep for the last time, and tomorrow the sand would erase any trace of her existence. At least her job had been taken care of, payment or no payment.
She stumbled to her knees, overcome with dizziness and shame. Luo nodded at the two other riders. "He's all yours, officers," he said, and the two men started toward Xu's body.
Did her ears just play tricks on her? Zhong Ma tightened her hold on her sword. The two men, paying her no attention, grabbed Xu by the feet and arms, carried him to one of the horses, and slung him over the saddle. One of them went to Luo and said something. His gestures indicated that he was expressing gratitude, which Luo modestly accepted. Then the two men climbed on their horses and rode away. Zhong Ma stared after them, rising to her feet.
"They are officers of the court," she stated.
"Like you said, Xu killed the family of a deceased magistrate." Luo's dry tone matched hers. "Perhaps he forgot to mention that the dead man's son was a high-ranking official in Gansu. Murderers of such exalted persons tend to attract attention from high places."
"And you, being an upstanding citizen, assisted those officers in their quest for justice."
Luo glanced at her. "Ma-er, your tongue didn't use to be so sharp."
The nickname, usually given to a beloved child, made her spine go rigid. "Luo-daxia, we are no longer teacher and disciple. Please do not address me as such. What did Xu do that was so horrible, that you handed him over to the court?"
"Like you, he was no longer my disciple." At Zhong Ma's questioning tilt of the head, Luo smiled grimly. "You know how vindictive he could be. A few months ago he killed an entire family, just like he did in Gansu. He was convinced they were the family of the magistrate who stole his parents' property. When he was proven wrong, he showed no remorse. So I had him expelled from the school."
Zhong Ma pointed her sword at Luo. "And you fought with me knowing that."
"Ma-er - no, Zhong-nuxia. I knew you were hired to kill him, so I went with those officers, hoping for a chance to test your skills. A teacher never forgets his most talented disciples, you see. You haven't gone to rust at all - congratulations." Now sitting atop his horse, Luo nodded at Zhong Ma. "Ever since you were little, you've always been a tough girl. I trust it'd take more than a scratch to stop you from returning safely from this place."
Knowing her former teacher, she recognized his words as a statement of the fact, nothing more. "Goodbye, Luo-daxia."
"Goodbye." Luo tugged at the reins. Zhong Ma watched as his horse galloped off and was swallowed by the descending dark. The cut on her arm, the gift from Lightning Saber, throbbed, reminding her to bind it.
If only Xu had left behind a half-full flask of water. Then Luo's comment on her resilience rang inside her head and she sighed. Better to consider his words as a taunt - it would help fire her up as she made her way back across the sand.