Although the valley’s mystics won, the raiders made off with many people who would be forced into slavery. Some were younger than Kai. Quite a few had been promising mystics on the verge of ascending to their next realm.
Dakera had not only lost an arm, he’d also suffered internal injuries. While he recovered, Kai had to fetch their daily needs and his medicine. She was rushing home on one occasion when three people strode into the lane ahead of her.
“We meet again, lame.” Favian Diakos sneered at her, his purple eyes like small beads.
Words are but breath, Kai reminded herself.
“Your father isn’t here this time.” Smirking, silver-haired Hideki Haru leaned his forearm on his friend’s shoulder.
Hideki Kazuo sauntered over, looking for all the world like his older brother’s twin except for his cerulean eyes. He was also a Neophyte. “What do you have in the bag, lame?”
Kai wished the supply bag wasn’t on her back. She wished she wasn’t here at all. Still, she squared her shoulders, refusing to answer to the insult. “My name is Kai.”
“Your name is what I say it is. Are you saying your senior is wrong, lame?”
Thinking that if she kept her head down, and showed them the proper respect, they’d leave her alone, she saluted with one hand. “Medicine for Papa, senior.”
“What?” Kazuo grimaced.
“In my bag. It’s medicine for my father.”
Kazuo strutted around her. “I heard your father lost his arm because he’s just as talentless as you. Is that true, lame?”
Resisting the urge to snap at him, she answered evenly. “Papa fought bravely and lost his arm defending the village.”
“Are you calling me a liar, lame?” Kazuo’s words were soft yet sharp, filled with menace.
She ground her jaw. Don’t answer to that name.
But if you don’t answer, he won’t leave you alone, or he might do something worse, and then Papa won’t get his medicine.
Feeling defeated, Kai let out a slow breath. “No, senior, I wouldn’t dare. I don’t know what you heard. If you said that’s what you heard, then it is.”
Kazuo stopped. A vein throbbed along his temple. “You think you’re smart. Smarter than me.” He raised his hand.
Kai readied herself to take the blow.
When Kazuo swung with an open palm, she was ready to loosen her body and absorb its impact. She grimaced against the anticipated pain.
His blow stopped a hair before striking the side of her face. The wind from it was a cool breeze against her skin.
Kai stared defiantly into his cerulean eyes. Her body trembled with the need to fight.
The Iron Cliff Neophyte lowered his hand. The moment Kai relaxed, he struck, delivering a blow to her stomach.
The breath whooshed out of Kai as she folded over and crumpled to the ground. Eyes watering, she gasped for air. Each breath was torture.
Cackles echoed from the boys as they strode away.
Kai remained on the ground, pain radiating through her midsection. Tears eased down her cheeks as she waited for the agony to subside, for the ability to draw a normal breath. Finally, she clambered to her feet.
Villagers ducked their heads and hurried by, acting as if they hadn’t seen her. Kai trudged home, her stomach throbbing with pain .
When she got to the house, she didn’t tell Papa. She was too ashamed. Besides, he could do nothing in his current condition.
That night, she lay on the bed, caressing where Kazuo had struck her, and plotted ways to take revenge.
Three weeks later, the boys were waiting for her when she left Hanako’s Apothecary. Kazuo tripped her and snatched her supply bag. He and the others ran down an alley. When she chased after them, Kazuo stopped and turned.
He lifted the bag of medicine. “You want this, lame?”
“Yes. Please give it back.” She held out her hand.
“Come take it.” Kazuo shook the bag.
But when she reached for the bag, he moved it. She tried to grab it again. He snatched the bag away. When she lunged for the bag, he spun away from her and laughed.
Scowling, she charged after him. As she tried to get the bag, she realized a pattern in Kazuo’s movements.
It was zanquan fist. A form called the Grand Eagle Conquers.
She tried to counter him, using the Dragon Rules the Heavens, but he was too quick. Unbelievably so. Trying to catch him was trying to catch the wind itself.
“Your zanquan isn’t bad, but I’m a Neophyte. You can only dream of touching me.” With those words, he cackled and tossed the supply bag to his brother.
When she ran toward Haru, he threw the bag over to Favian. Snarling, she veered toward the Divine Tree Neophyte. Favian tossed the bag to Kazuo.
Kai plopped down onto the ground. She knew there was no way she could take the bag from the boys.
“Aww, look at the lame.” Kazuo twirled the supply bag. “She gave up.”
She glared at the boy. “I’m going to tell my father about this. He’s a Mountain Giant. He’ll make you pay.”
“Dakera?” Haru laughed. “He’s not even a real sect member. He didn’t earn that sash. They gave it to him because they thought you were a prodigy. Instead, you turned out to be less than nothing.”
“The Mountain Giants wouldn’t believe you anyway,” Favian chimed in. “And even if they did, the sects belong to the Five Clans. They’d never interfere.”
“If you believe they would,” Kazuo said, chuckling, “tell your father I did this.”
He removed several vials of medicine from the bag and threw them at her feet. The vials broke.
“No!.” Shaking her head, Kai gaped at the ruined medicine.
In the next instant, her vision clouded. Heat washed through her. Blood pounded in her ears. With an enraged cry, she leaped to her feet, intending to attack Kazuo.
His punch to the gut folded her over. Laughing, the boys left her on the ground, gasping for air.
When she finally recovered, Kai picked up the supply bag. Teary-eyed, she made her way back to Hanako’s Apothecary to buy fresh medicine.
“Didn’t you already buy this medicine less than a hacule ago?” Mistress Hanako frowned at her.
Kai sniffled. She bowed her head in shame before the plump alchemist. “Yes.”
“Then why do you need it again? And why are you crying?”
Kai raised her head and told the woman all that had happened.
Hanako scowled. “Little brutes.” She smiled mischievously a moment later. “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”
“I won’t.” Kai couldn’t help the slightest of smiles.
“I’ll give you this batch at no cost.” Hanako placed new vials on the counter top. “But you must promise not to tell your father what happened.”
“Because Dakera will go to the elders in your defense, and it will be as the boys said. They won’t believe him. The boys will deny any wrongdoing. In return, the elders will kick your father out of the Mountain Giants. Becoming a member was a dream of his.”
Although she hated to admit it, and dearly wanted to tell Papa, she knew Hanako was right. With a resigned sigh, she agreed and took the medicine.
Hanako let her through the back door in case the boys had returned. Kai hurried home. She didn’t tell Dakera, but she dreamed of revenge.
In an effort to hide from her tormentors, Kai got rid of her normal colorful robes and trousers worn by most girls. She chose dark robes and blue trousers or white instead, colors favored by most boys. On one occasion, when she was able to hurry by Kazuo and the others without them noticing, she got an idea, a way she might get some revenge.
She followed Haru, Kazuo, and Favian for a week after, keeping out of sight. One of their habits was to terrorize those beneath their realm, particularly Mistress Anai’s disciples. The other habit was their midday meal at The Golden Lotus tavern where they spent almost an entire thenule seated beside the same windows.
During that week, she noticed a group of beggars, disciples of Mistress Anai’s, who set off fireworks in the street near establishments and performed zanquan, leaping and flipping through the colored smoke and small explosions while two of them played drums. The group’s performance always drew a crowd.
On the day the group performed in front the Golden Lotus, Kazuo and others came outside to watch from a veranda. The proprietor and his servants joined them. Seeing the boys leave their food unattended put a smile on Kai’s face.
The next week, Kai visited Hanako’s Apothecary a hacule before the boys would visit The Golden Lotus on the day the beggars were to perform.
She bowed to the plump, rosy-cheeked alchemist. “Good day, Mistress Hanako.”
“Good day to you, Kai. You’re a week earlier for Dakera’s medicine, aren’t you?”
Fidgeting with her hands, Kai fought down nervousness. “I’m not here for Papa’s medicine… well, not that medicine anyway.”
“Oh?” Hanako stopped cleaning the counter top.
“Um…” Kai’s cheek burned.
“Yes?” Mistress Hanako regarded Kai with a bemused expression. “You can talk to me. No reason to be ashamed.”
“Papa has trouble when he goes to squat. The brown won’t come out.” Kai kept her head down. She couldn’t bear to look at Hanako.
“Oh, my dear child, poop trouble is completely normal.” The alchemist waddled over to a shelf lined with vials. “I have just the thing.”
Hanako picked out a colorless potion and turned to Kai. “I call this the Potion Of The Runs, because when you drink it, it’ll make the poop run, and if you’re not close to some place where you can squat, it’ll make you run to find one.”
“Papa said the taste of that one makes him sick.”
The alchemist smiled. “Luckily for him, I have another version that has no taste.” She returned the vial to the shelf and grabbed another.
“Two silver chips.”
Kai dug into her belt pouch for the chips and passed them to the alchemist. Hanako handed her the potion and a small porcelain spoon. Close up, Kai could see little bubbles floating in the concoction.
“One spoonful a day will be enough.” Hanako dropped the chips into her own pouch. “Any more than that, he won’t be able to hold it. He’ll poop himself within twenty cycles.”
Resisting the urge to smile, Kai dipped her head. “Thank you, Mistress Hanako.” She slipped the potion into her supply bag.
“You’re most welcome.” The alchemist returned the gesture.
Kai left the shop and made her way to the Golden Lotus. From a hiding spot behind a merchant’s stacked grain sacks across the street, she settled down to wait for Favian, Haru, and Kazuo.
As expected, the three boys arrived at midday, the two brothers standing out in their azure robes with pristine white trousers beneath. They sat at their normal window seats where the proprietor fawned over them. Their drinks and food arrived soon after.
A commotion in the street near the tavern’s front entrance drew Kai’s attention. Mistress Anai’s disciples were about to begin their performance. People were gathering to watch.
Kai mingled with the people, getting close to the Golden Lotus’ doors. The first fireworks went off with loud pops and bangs. People cheered. Drums rolled.
Soon, the Golden Lotus’ patrons had come outside to see the performance. Kazuo, Favian, Haru, the proprietor, and the servants appeared on the veranda.
Kai slipped into the tavern. Heart racing, she peered around. Once she was certain everyone was outside or on the veranda, she used the furniture for cover and crept over to the boys’ table.
Her hands were sweaty and shaking as she unstoppered the vial and poured a generous amount into their food and drinks. When she was done, she sneaked outside.
She eased through the crowd, out of sight of the veranda. Then she waited for the performance to end. When it did, and the patrons returned inside, Kai made her way back across the street to her vantage point.
Soon, the boys were laughing, drinking, and eating. And then Haru froze with his cup in his hand. He put the cup down and leaped up, one hand darting to his belly. Moments later, the other two had similar reactions.
Kai couldn’t help but to grin as Kazuo scrambled toward the exit with his arms around his midsection. Haru and Favian were close behind.
The boys stumbled outside. Favian waved to a litter. Haru did the same to two others.
But even as the bearers hurried over, someone noticed the same thing Kai had. The brown stain seeping down the boys’ trouser legs. Kai covered her mouth so she wouldn’t laugh out loud and draw attention to herself.
People pointed. One or two laughed or imitated Kai. A few who were near the boys fanned their faces or cupped a hand over their noses and mouths.
Red-faced, the boys kept their heads down. They clambered into the three litters, and the bearers took off running in the direction of the Heaven’s Hand district.
Grinning, Kai skipped home, humming to herself.
A week later, Kai arrived earlier than normal at Hanako’s Apothecary to pick up Dakera’s medicine.
After Hanako prepared the vials, she strode over the door and locked it. She returned to the counter, her face grave. “There was some commotion at the Golden Lotus last week.”
“There was?” Kai fought down the smile that threatened to creep onto her face.
“Yes.” The alchemist folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Apparently they served rotten food to three boys. Sons of Elder Jiro and the patriarch.”
Kai’s face grew warm. She said nothing but averted her eyes from Hanako’s stony gaze.
“The owners and servants were flogged in the square. They were also made to pay a thousand high grade zan stones per boy to the Iron Cliff and Divine Tree sects, and to the Hideki and Diakos clans. They lost much honor and reputation. Their establishment is in tatters because no one will eat there.”
Kai hung her head. She felt terrible. She opened her mouth to speak.
“That isn’t all,” Hanako continued. “The Diakos’ head alchemist investigated. He discovered there was a concoction in the food. He went around questioning the apothecaries.”
Heart thumping, Kai snapped her head up, eyes wide with fear.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t tell him anything.”
Kai let out a long slow breath. She shook her head. “I-I just wanted to get back at those beasts for what they did to me. I didn’t mean for anything bad to happen to anyone else.”
“Of course, you didn’t.” Hanako unfolded her arms. “But you can’t go around doing things like this. There are repercussions.”
“Unless you’re in a clan or sect,” Kai grumbled.
“Perhaps. But what if you had been caught? You would’ve faced a worse punishment and cost your father his place in the Mountain Giants. It’s unlikely he could afford to pay the tribute, which would’ve resulted in both of you being sent to work for the clans.”
Kai’s shoulders slumped as she was overcome by a sense of defeat. “I didn’t think about that.” She shook her head. “But what am I supposed to do? They won’t stop. I’ve seen them doing the same thing to others.”
“Keep an eye out and avoid them as best you can. Use the main streets with lots of people around. Change your patterns like you did today.”
Kai took the medicine and headed home. She couldn’t shake the awful feeling at the trouble she’d caused for innocent people.
Since she avoided being in a position where the boys could corner her on some lonely street, they resorted to throwing dumplings, rotten fruit, or eggs at her, and laughing as she ran away. When she got home, she’d change her robes before Papa saw or give some excuse as to why her clothes were dirty.
But it wasn’t just the children, the young disciples, who insulted her.
She heard the other people in the village. Adults. Some whispered while others were bold enough to speak loudly.
They said cripples were better than her, that she was diseased, or was a curse sent from the heavens as punishment for some unknown wrongdoing. Some said the raid happened because of her curse, that the hells should take her.
A few said she was so useless even the raiders wouldn’t want her. The raiders would have taken someone with no arms or one leg first.
Her mantra became her friend. But she still hurt even if she managed to hide it from them.
One evening, she couldn’t take the abuse any longer. It was one of many days she took out her anger on Keitaro, while picturing the golem wearing the faces of Haru, Favian, and Kazuo, and telling herself that words were but breath, that one day she would make them pay.
“Make who pay?” Papa stood at the door to the training room.
For all of a second, Kai considered not telling him, but the words left her mouth.
Papa’s face darkened with rage. “I’ll make this right. I’ll be back.”
“No, Papa, you can’t. Please don’t.”
He stopped in his tracks and faced her. “I must, Little Flower.”
“But the elders probably won’t believe you. Then they’ll kick you out of the Mountain Giants.”
He smiled at her. “Papa appreciates your concern, but let me worry about that.” With those words, he strode out the front door.
When Dakera returned, Kai was sitting on the steps, wringing her hands as she waited for him. He took a deep breath and sat beside her.
“I’m sorry, Little Flower, Papa failed. I couldn’t make it right.”
Kai’s feelings were crushed. Her shoulders drooped.
“The boys said you were mistaken. They had several witnesses to support their story. No villager would admit to seeing them punch you or throw anything at you.”
“They’re lying!” she blurted.
“I know.” Papa sighed. “But there’s nothing I can do. We have no powerful clan or family name to make the elders listen.”
“What about the Mountain Giants, Papa?”
He shook his head. “The sect won’t involve itself in this matter. The Five Clans own the sects.”
“Then what will we do, Papa? This isn’t right. It isn’t honorable. They should be punished.”
Dakera drew his daughter close. “There’s nothing to be done. I told you the clans rule by strength in shuzan. By power. And that power decides who rules and who kneels . It decides what’s right, and what’s wrong, what’s honorable, and what’s not.
“An elder, a master, or a mistress could decide they wanted you to marry a son, and neither you nor I would have a choice in the matter.
“Not that it’s ever likely to happen. You have a better chance of a sect disciple crippling you over some perceived slight. Or that you would fall victim to a Satsuna raiding party. I know it seems terrible. But that’s the world we live in.”
Papa’s words made her want to break something. Anything. I hate my life. Always feeling weak. Always inadequate. One day, I swear I’ll change that. One day, I’ll be strong.