The Art of Prophecy
The line of broken soldiers stretched out of the training pit and around the arena, spilling out onto the streets. They came in all types and sizes: men, women, tall, short, fat, emaciated, and with varying numbers of limbs. A few were fully armored, others only in loincloths. All looked like they had stared death in the face and wished not to have survived it.
Ling Taishi leaned over the balcony overlooking the pit. Most of the soldiers—volunteer fodder—kept their eyes low and their shoulders slumped, working hard to avoid attention and hide their defects, inside and out. Taishi could tell what ailed them with just a glance, not that she cared. She had run out of pity years ago. The more pressing thought on her mind as she scanned their ranks was how this rabble could possibly put up a fight against anyone.
An official with his beard trimmed and oiled to a point approached her, his gold-laced crimson robe flapping against his knees. The broccoli shape of his tall black hat placed him as the high lord of the palace. “It is time, emissary. Please allow me to escort you to your seat. I have arranged refreshments. Peaches from my own estates, harvested just a season ago and spirited here for your pleasure.”
Taishi struggled to recall his name. “Thank you, Palacelord Faaru.”
The palacelord led her across the balcony toward an elevated dais, rambling on about his stupid fruit the entire time. “They are so succulent you will believe it is nectar from heaven. My orchards are renowned among all of the Enlightened States.”
Taishi’s face drooped further with each passing description. If the man was as good with training boys as he was with selling fruit, the world could rest easy. Fortunately, it was a short walk to her seat. She sat down on a bed of cushions reserved for high-ranking officials and guests of the court. Taishi technically held no rank and belonged to no court. She had been sent here as an emissary by one of her former students, who also happened to be both her landlord and her actual lord. Saan, the Duke of Shulan, wanted her to appraise how the Prophesied Hero of the Tiandi’s education was coming along. She had wanted to refuse the assignment, but the terms he offered were too good to pass up: tax exemption for life and not going to jail for refusing her duke. Taishi was not a big fan of taxes or imprisonment.
As soon as she settled in, the rest of the crowds on the balcony took their places in the tier below her platform. The arena was surprisingly packed for a simple training session. Taishi wondered how many in the audience were actually paid spectators. As Faaru had promised, a servant appeared with a platter of peaches piled in a pyramid, and placed it on the small table next to her. Taishi was tempted to grab one from the bottom, or better yet wave it off, but being old and irritable was no excuse for poor manners. She plucked the top one and absently bit into it as the guards below cleared the training pit. She stopped and stared at the golden juice sticking to her fingers. By the Queen’s rotted ovaries, the man wasn’t lying. These are damn good peaches.
The palacelord appeared out of nowhere and hovered nearby as she gnawed on the peach, his eyes staring intently. He was sneaky for such a large man. Taishi fought the urge to spit the peach out and sour her face, but there was no sense in wasting quality fruit. She had to give the man his due and so offered him a slight tilt of his head. The palacelord beamed.
The training session was about to begin. Somewhere above, drums rumbled as the lazy and scattered applause from the crowd betrayed their true enthusiasm for the event. Taishi failed to mask her growing irritation. She checked the water clock at the time table. It was nearly noon. Half the day was already wasted.
The first group of toy soldiers paraded into the pit and milled about, uncertain and disorganized. They were ten volunteers in a random assortment of weapons and armor, no two looking like they belonged in the same unit. Taishi pitied this pathetic bunch, these loyal soldiers of the States who hadn’t died in the war, but hadn’t necessarily survived it either. Now they were left to eke out a living the only way they could: becoming training toys to a boy playing war. There was the pikeman with the distant stare. The swordswoman with the shaking hands. The young man missing the rest of his arm below the elbow cowering behind her . . . Taishi shifted her own mangled arm hanging useless by her side. Well, one should never underestimate a cripple.
The training overseer stood and clapped his hands. “You all have the honor of aiding in the training of the undefeated Champion of the Five Under Heaven, the terror of the Katuia Hordes, and the savior of the Zhuun people. Fight bravely, but remember your place. The penalty for injuring him is death. The penalty for drawing his blood is death. The penalty for refusing to engage is death.” The overseer continued, rambling off another ten or fifteen rules. By the time he was done, Taishi wasn’t sure how any fighting was possible. “Any questions?” he intoned.
The small group looked dejected, and as baffled as she was. One woman wearing half the banded armor of a light cavalry unit raised her spear. “What if he’s about to kill us?”
“Then die honorably. Try not to if you want to get paid.”
“Wait,” another asked. “He can attack us, but we can’t attack him?” This had to be his first day.
The training overseer sounded hassled. “Of course you are allowed to fight back. Just don’t injure him.”
Faaru leaned in. “Are you enjoying the delicacies, emissary?” Her muffled slurp was answer enough. She helped herself to a second peach and slipped a third into her pocket. He gestured toward the pile of peaches. “If you wish for more, emissary, you need only ask.”
The palacelord was being awfully pushy about his silly fruit. Then she noticed the decorations on the plate. A long string of gold liang looping through the peaches at the base. The coins, ducalstamped from the Gyian mint, formed a glimmering yellow snake linked together through each liang’s square hole. That much money was more than enough to pay off most emissaries. Far too generous, in fact, which made Taishi only more suspicious. She looked back at Faaru, and his smile widened until the corners of his mouth nearly touched his long earlobes.
There was a reason Saan had sent her instead of the usual court buffoon. Taishi ignored the bribe and turned her attention back to the pit. “Get on with this. I have other things to do with my day.” Like soaking my feet in a hot bucket.
He stiffened and gestured to the overseer. “As you wish, emissary.”
The overseer began to speak again, his voice carrying across the arena. “Behold, Wen Jian, the Prophesied Hero of Legend, the savior of the Zhuun people, the one foretold by the Tiandi Prophets, under the sign of a thousand stars, to fulfill his destiny and lead the mighty armies of the Enlightened States to victory over the terrible, evil, savage hordes of the Katuia Clans, break the immortality of their Eternal Khan, and bring everlasting peace to the Children of Zhuun. Bear witness . . .”
Taishi rolled her eyes. So much stupid pomp. She mouthed silently and carried her whisper on the wind to the man’s ear. “Skip the rest.”
The overseer’s voice cracked. He glanced around and then cleared his throat. “Let the round begin.”
There were still a few seconds of excessive drumbeating and fanfare before the gates below the balcony finally opened. Five imposing figures in heavy armor cut long shadows into the sand. They wore elaborate helmets shaped like animal heads, which she thought was a nice touch, and moved with the swagger of opera villains. They looked like the guardians of the gate to some mystic zoo. Taishi was entertained.
Meanwhile, the sacrificial lambs on the other side of the arena looked as if they were about to soil themselves. Following the five horned warriors appeared a much more diminutive figure, but to much greater applause. About damn time. Taishi crossed her arms and leaned forward. She had met many legendary masters in her day, but this was the first time she was going to see a legend.
Her initial impression of the Hero of Prophecy was lukewarm. The hero everyone was fawning over was a scrawny teenager wearing only black breeches cut off just below the knee. His skinny chest was defined but flat, his arms were taut but stick-thin, and his skin was pale as ox milk. His black headband made his dark hair stick out like a bird’s nest, but his round boyish face was clean and manicured.
“Put a shirt on before you blind someone,” she muttered.
Her first thought was that it was strange for the hero to be so lightly armored compared with his bodyguards, but of course a teacher couldn’t check a student’s form and technique under several layers of armor.
The boy flourished his sword above his head, and then moved his hands apart to reveal that it was in fact two identical blades. He twirled the two swords around his body and loosed a reasonable attempt at a war cry, his voice cracking at the tail end.
Taishi raised an eyebrow. “This should be interesting.”