Bad Morning, Bad Omens
The Jurong Pass continued through another twenty small villages and an equal distance through bamboo forests before reaching Beijing. Xu heard that it stretched thirty miles north of the capital to the Great Wall, but he never had reason to test it personally. He worried Zhen would make him walk all the way to the capital.
Instead, Zhen thought of a far worse punishment. He heated and soaped his long sword. A finely sharpened razor would do the job more effectively, but no matter. Xu needed to look like he belonged in the temple, and his hair, which in its cleaner moments had attracted the attention of more than one lover, had to go.
No amount of money was worth this. “No, the hair stays. I am not a monk and you cannot force me.”
The master looked around the small guard station. Behind the stone wall the Yellow River flowed. Xu tried to let calm flow over him, but just then it was impossible.
“Your attachment to the materials of this world is shameful. It is why you suffer so. This is the first step to cleanse and walk the path again.”
Xu shifted and felt the weight of his sword, it had been some time since he had even gripped it. Xu stood up. The master’s wet sword shook in his hand. “Sit down.”
Xu took a step forward and Kui, the youngest monk, stepped into his path. The young monk had his hand on his sword, but Xu kicked Kui's hand and knocked the blade back into its sheath. Xu spun and pulled his sword free. Zhen’s sword came swooping through with a sound like thunder.
Their swords clashed with a clang that could be heard down the river. Each of the swordsmen tightened their stances to keep from falling over. Xu looked over the young monk’s shoulder at an open window in the stone structure. He flipped through the air over Zhen’s shoulder, feeling the sword slash the air seconds behind him.
Xu landed in the window and looked out. The river raged. The winter floods had passed, but the river still ran deep and fast. His hesitation was enough. Master Zhen grabbed him by his long hair and pulled him to the floor. Xu watched the ceiling and heard his sword fall away from him. He thought he heard the faint laughter of the Governor. He never escaped the voices of that family.
Kui stepped forward and kicked Xu’s sword away just as he reached for it. Master Zhen tugged at Xu’s hair twisting it in his grip. Xu heard the swoosh of the sword-–the sound of it slamming deep into the wood of the floor. The master’s grip on his hair loosened. His hair rained on the floor of the guard station. He had lost the battle, so he relaxed on the floor.
“The emperor’s eunuch will be here. There is no time to waste.” Xu closed his eyes as the edge of the blade scraped over his scalp.
Xu rubbed his bald head and looked down at his yellow robes. All things considered, it should’ve felt normal. He felt like spitting at Zhen. After the fight and the shaving, they still waited in silence almost till nightfall. The guard station was small, usually home to one low level soldier who would wait and collect taxes and monitor traffic for the emperor.
He didn’t know why the guard was missing, but he knew these stations were often meeting points with government officials. The eunuchs were the emperor’s most trusted aids. In a way, this was based on the same principle of Buddhism--that desire was the root of corruption. It was believed these men stripped of their sexual ability were to be trusted more than a man with his penis intact. Zhen straightened as the sound of horses galloped up the road.
“Now we will see why the emperor wants you.”
The roar of the horses grew as a large group came over the hill. Zhen and Xu stepped out through the wooden doors and watched. Carrying Ming banners, the lead horsemen were in armor. Behind them, slaves held aloft a personal carriage, running to keep up. The horsemen at the rear were also in armor, with bows at the ready and more arrows from side pouches prepared to fire.
The group thundered down the hill, the horses and slaves looked exhausted as the personal carriage was placed in front of the guard’s station. The carriage was ornate with a pagoda roof. The small door opened. The Emperor’s eunuch reached out with one leg and tested the ground before he stepped free.
He wore a beautiful robe with the Ming court seal. He saluted, and Master Zhen returned the salute. Xu considered ignoring the salute, then bowed.
“I am the Emperor’s servant. You may call me Bao.”
The sun began to dip under the mountain. One of the horsemen lit a lantern, and another walked past Zhen to light the guard station. Master Zhen turned toward the door when another foot stepped out of the carriage. Xu lifted his right eyebrow, a detail not missed by Bao.
“May I present the storyteller Shun,” Bao stepped back and cleared a path. Shun stepped out into the dusk. Zhen didn’t react, but Xu stepped back. Shun was a man in his sixties, trim and athletic for his age, but still old. Under the wrinkles in his face his eye sockets were empty. He laughed, knowing the reaction well. He had heard a thousand gasps in his life. The shock, the disbelief were well known to him.
“Master Xu, now here is a man I didn’t think could be shocked.”
Xu didn’t say a word, it was a rare state for him, stunned silence. He cleared his throat. “You know me?”
Shun laughed again. He knew the next reaction very well. He had seen it many times. Shun lifted his right boney hand up. His fingers were dirt stained, and between his index finger and thumb rested an eyeball. Xu watched the pupil focus on him.
“I’ve sought you for many years. I have wanted so badly to hear the stories of your work.”
“Why my work...”
“I have survived by listening. It is my trade. I hear stories, and I re-tell them. Tales of your battles with creatures of other realms both living and dead have been told to me. In the north, they wish you were there for them. Here in Nanching, you are more than a monk. A demon chaser.”
Bao motioned the group towards the door. Everyone stepped inside. Zhen sat back with his disciples. Bao and Shun sat in the middle of the room with Xu.
“Great forces are gathering to challenge the emperor,” said Bao.
“Yes. I heard the Manchus are gathering an army.”
The eunuch and the old man laughed. “They are not alone,” The old storyteller sighed. “I have been gathering stories for some time. Many concern the existence of a demon-god. Most of the demons I have defeated warned me of this master.”
“Is he giving aid to the Manchus?”
Bao considered Xu's question before answering.
“Not directly, and it appears this demon is planning to use the disorder caused by the great war himself.”
“We are not sure” the storyteller admitted, and moved his eyeball closer to Xu's face. “I am to too old to find out. That is all we are certain of.”
Xu looked past them to Master Zhen. He couldn't be pleased by this. “I'll need money and resources.”
“We have already offered tribute to the Shaolin temple,” Bao said and bowed.
Xu shook his head. “That's great, but I need gold. I need to be an agent of the throne, with an official signed scroll. I'll need at least half the money today--in case your dynasty falls.”
“The temple insists that you take an assistant.” Master Zhen said and put his hand out toward Kui.
Xu stood and walked toward Kui. “How are your martial skills?”
Kui stood straight. “I have completed twenty-six chambers of training.”
Xu nodded. “We will work on the last nine.”
The Storyteller stood. He moved his eyeball up and down in front of the young Shaolin monk. “Acceptable...”
“Shun the storyteller will represent the emperor's court on your mission.” Bao saluted the warriors. “Find this demon-god and and expose his plans.”
Master Zhen closed his eyes and chanted slowly on each bead. Xu was the only person in the room less confident of this mission.
Xu smiled and saluted the emperor's eunuch. Inside, he heard the voice of the little Jiang. She laughed faintly, and reminded him, as she always did, that he would fail.