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Old 11 Aug 2008, 20:13   #2 (permalink)
Join Date: Mar 2005
Location: Ontario, Canada
Posts: 9,807
Default Re: Entry D - The Job

When the assignment read that the old scholar had refused to share pretty concubine, I did not imagine what his tastes would be. In the last letter she wrote to me, she mentioned being courted by a scholar, but she did not mention his age, only that he, like her, played the zither. It seems that she glossed over much in her letters. But then again, so did I.

She gasped at the sight of the scholar’s cold body. But the sound she made was not one of sorrow, but of relief. I could see small bruises on her face and her hands. As our eyes met, her face brightened in recognition. She ran to me, and held me close.

“I had hoped a Warden would come. He said they wouldn’t, that he was too far above the Emperor’s law-that he…” She began to sob. “I didn’t dare to dream that anyone would come to help me. But you came…you really came.” Her voice was scared, anxious, hopeful. “I was so scared…”

“I’m sorry. Don’t worry now, everything will be all right.”

As we spoke, I must have missed Wen walking into the room and examining the old scholar’s body. I must have missed him picking up the foreigner’s fire stick. Only when I heard the characteristic click of metal upon metal did I see Wen’s outline in front of me, the weapon pointed to the side of my sister’s head.

There is a flash of sound, like thunder, and my hearing went faint. I only felt her body sinking into mine. Her warm blood staining my tattered tunic.

I hear Wen’s voice, distant and cold.

“You know the rules, Bei. Our employer demands that we leave no witnesses. I’m sorry.”

The last thing I remember before the herbs begin working is a small hand in mine. She gives it a squeeze, and I squeeze back. And then…


The little girl in front of me stares, her eyes exuding a bright intelligence that hid beneath her ruined, scavenged clothes.

“These earrings-where did they come from?”

“It doesn’t matter now, kid. She…passed away.”

“Who was she?”

I fumble awkwardly with my words. “My sister. A cute kid, isn’t she?”

The girl is silent, wondering why a strange old man would give her a dead sister’s earrings. So she looks at the jade earrings again, and asks the only question that must have come to her mind. Her voice is a whisper, more statement than question.

“Did you…kill her too?”

My mind is suddenly blinded bright white with rage, and I feel myself grabbing the little girl’s throat and lifting her up off of the ground. She struggles and I hear her movements slow. I feel something on my face and notice that tears are falling from my eyes.

I gently let her go. I follow the tears to the ground, where I see out of the corner of my eye a pair of old jade earrings, gathering mud and collecting raindrops. I kneel and pick up the old green stones, and wipe away the grime and the dirt made slick with rain, as if wiping away the dust from a once familiar face.

My mind wanders. Past the haze of twenty years. I am in a room now, it is the living quarters I share with my partner in crime, Wen. In my left hand, I hold a pair of jade earrings. In my right, I hold the scholar’s fire stick.

I pointed the barrel of the stick inside my mouth, and heard the cold clicking sound of metal upon metal. Footsteps and a shadow emerge from behind.

“You might want to ask before you borrow that.” The voice is Wen’s. “And you have to load it with the bullets before it works. Just so you know.”

I put the weapon down, my face hollow and worn, my hand itching near the my sword’s hilt.

“You killed my sister.”

“I didn’t know.”

“She deserved better. I should kill you.”

“You can try. But it won’t bring her back.”

I swing with my left fist, aiming straight at his face. It is not the best blow I’ve ever given, but it was hard and brutal, the crunching noise I hear as bone breaks a release. I guess I too, wanted to destroy something whole.

“Damnation! You broke my nose, Bei.”

“I should break more.”

The middle of Wen’s face is a bloody mess, but he flashes me his wolf’s smile.

“You can break my bones. You can even try to kill me. You can resign, quit, whatever. But it won’t bring her back. And you will only enrage our employer, or threaten him too much. He will have you killed.”

This time I was the one who smiled. “Do you think that frightens me?”

“No. But do you think our employer will stop there? He will not just kill you, Wen. He will destroy what is left of your family’s name. He will let the entire court know that your family ended with a courtier child as an old man’s slave-whore.”

My eyes lower. As much as I hate him, Wen was not threatening me. He spoke the truth.

For the first time I can remember, Wen actually looks mournful.

“I don’t think this is right any more than you do, Bei. And I don’t like it either. But look-you have a choice.” My eyes narrow. I hate it when Wen gives me one of his “choices.” They are almost always unsavory, and always the only real options I have. “You can stay and work, we can ask him a favor. Our employer is a man near high stations, after all. You can get your sister’s name cleared. Her reputation maintained.”

“Favors from him always cost more than they are worth.” I spat.

“Is it worth the risk? To your family’s name? To your sister’s memory?”

Some choice.

My employer carried out my favor, in a way. For all intents and purposes, my sister disappeared from all records. As if clerk made a mistake when filing a report and simply forgot to write her name down in the annual List of the Deceased, to be submitted to the County Magistrate’s office. After that, it was as if she simply did not exist. Her name was cleared from every document. She had no reputation to maintain. The only thing left of her was her two jade earrings.

The ones I am holding now, aged and worn.

I look up. The little girl is still there, eyeing me. There is more sadness in her eyes than fear. As if she is seeing not a monster, a killer, here in this dark rainy back alley-but some sad old man. I hand her the earrings and tell her to keep them.

“Did I kill her? Yeah…yeah, kid. …Yeah you could say that.”

We are silent now, taking in the cold of the air, the bite of the rain, and the warm feeling of the earth underneath our toes.

Suddenly I get that feeling in the back of my head, when the hairs on my head all stand up, and I hear footsteps in the distance.

I tell the little girl to hide under the bench. Hopefully everything will be okay.

Wen rounds the corner. He smiles a wolf’s smile and shakes my hand.

“What’s the matter, Bei? You look like you’ve seen a ghost! Come on, let’s go.”

He shakes my hand and motions for me to head down first. As we turn and head down the alley I hear a click, a cold sound of metal upon metal behind me.

I’m too old for this. Maybe I always was.

“Damnation, Bei-we have a rule! No witnesses-no one can ever know we were out here tonight. Our employer, he’ll kill us for failure. You know that. If you can’t do it, I’ll kill the witness. Just turn your idiot head around if you don’t want a part of it.”

“Death. Maybe that’s what we deserve, Wen.”

“Come on, Bei. Don’t do anything stupid. Just turn around and keep your hands where I can see them. No knife tricks today, old man. I took them out of your sleeve when we shook hands.”

Wen blinks and his eyes go wide. Sure he’s taken my knives, but I took the bullets he keeps hidden in a pouch up his own sleeve when we shook hands. He only has one shot-the shot he loaded in already. If he shoots the girl, I kill him. If he shoots me, then the girl has a chance to escape.

The man in front of me hesitates for a second, and in that second my left hand reaches for the knife I carry tucked behind the back of my tunic.

I reach, and I stab. The cracking sound of his armor and the soft wheezing sound he makes as the air is pushed out of his lungs tells me that the knife is in deep.

But not deep enough. He squeezes the trigger, and the distinctive dull sound of a round bullet pushing itself through human flesh and bone reaches my ears, hollow and distant, as he falls to the ground.

I slump down next to a brick wall, the red of my blood mixing with the red clay behind me. As a force of habit now really, my right hand reaches for the herbs the alchemist gave me, to stop the memories from flowing-but they don’t seem to work, and so my mind wanders back, to a beginning…

…there’s a girl next to me for some reason, holding me close. By the feel of it she’s scared-quite scared…but also quite alive. She’ll be okay. I see two jade earrings upon her head.

The last thing I remember before the herbs start working is a small hand in mine.

She gives it a squeeze
so I squeeze back…
and then,
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