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Thread: The Road to Mount Hua

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    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Default The Road to Mount Hua

    Hi All

    Started a new project. I plan to write five connecting stories one for each of the Greats. As always, comments and suggestions are welcomed.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Mandred Skavenslayer's Avatar
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    Book One: Prodigal Heretic




    Crouching down he held his breath, hoping that the bush and the night would keep him concealed. Barely had he hid himself than his pursuers arrived. A dozen men brandishing lit torches and bared blade ran into the clearing. Eyes searched their surrounding but none of them settled on his hiding place. His pursuers were dressed in the long robes and square hats that servants of the wealthy wore. The group parted and a lone figure stepped forward. Well into middle age the man was plump and short. He wore an expensive gold coloured silk robe and the topknot of his hair was held in place by a gem encrusted gold band.

    His rich attire marked him out as the master of the servants and they all bowed in deference as he strolled into the clearing. He looked around angrily with a face like thunderclouds but like his servants his eyes did not settle on his prey’s hiding place. The man drew a breath and puffed out his chest:

    “Yaoshi! Come out now you brat!” the man bellowed loudly.

    Yaoshi’s heart thumped in his chest but he remained where he was. His pursuers searched around the clearing for a few minutes but Yaoshi had chosen his hiding place well and none of them found him. After a while the richly dressed man gave instructions to depart and they left the clearing. An overwhelming urge to run out from his hiding place gripped Yaoshi’s heart but he forced it down and stayed where he was.

    Several heartbeats later his pursuers ran back into the clearing and looked around. The richly dressed man searched the area with his angry eyes, then satisfied that his prey really was not there turned and left once more. Yaoshi waited a little longer until he was sure that his father and the servants really had left before getting up and walking deep into the woods to freedom.

    ####

    Yaoshi walked into the coastal city, a travelling sack slung over his right shoulder and a sheathed sword held in his left hand. The sack contained a change of clothing, a small pouch of coins, mostly copper with a few silver ones and a wooden flute. These few items along with the sword represented all of his worldly possessions and he was glad of it. For the last three years he had enjoyed a sense of freedom he had previously only dreamed about. There was something invigorating about surviving solely on his own skill and Yaoshi savoured every moment of it.

    The city was laid out in the typical grid pattern of settlements of this size and Yaoshi walked swiftly to the city’s centre where he knew the courthouse would be. Reaching his destination he walked up to the soldier standing guard and gave him a sealed letter. The soldier took one look at the seal and hurried inside.

    ####

    Magistrate Zhao blinked in surprise as the man was lead into his office. Surely this was a mistake? The letter from General Po, said that this was the best bounty hunter he had ever seen but this man looked barely out of his teens. He walked straight-backed and with confidence but his face was youthfully handsome, far removed from the grizzled features that were typical of those in the profession. The man stopped in front of the magistrate’s desk and stood casually, making no attempt at an introduction.

    Zhao stared at the man for a few moments, then coughed uneasily:

    “I think there might be some mistake.”

    “You want a bounty hunter to catch the Sea-witch?” the man’s voice was soft and his accent cultured, hinting at a scholarly upbringing.

    “Yes but...”

    “Then I am in the right place. What is the bounty?”

    Zhao felt his anger rising at the bluntness of the words. He was not used to being spoken to in this manner and the fact that it was a young man doing it just increased his ire. With an effort he kept his temper in check and spoke in a level voice:

    “One thousand pieces of silver.”

    “That sounds reasonable. So where can I find her?”

    “Look young man. It is not that easy. The Sea-witch is...”

    “Do you want her captured or not?” asked the man, his tone making it clear that he was getting bored of this conversation.

    “Of course I do...”

    “Then tell me where she is.”

    The temptation to throw the man out was almost irresistible but somehow Zhao was able to keep from doing so. Reaching into his draw he pulled out a sheet of paper and slapped it onto the desk. The man picked it up, then sharply turned around and walked out of Zhao’s office without another word. Zhao bristled at the man’s rudeness and although he knew it was not in his interest, he secretly wished that the man would fail and that the Sea-witch would devour him like she had done the other bounty hunters.

    ####

    Yaoshi marvelled at the sight before him. The peach grove in full bloom was breathtaking, carpeting the land in a sea of pink that stretched as far as the eye could see. Shaking his head to clear his mind, Yaoshi reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the map Zhao had given him. If the magistrate’s directions were to be trusted then the Sea-witch dwelt within a small cottage at the centre of the grove. Yaoshi found it difficult to believe that the hated Sea-witch, the terror of the Eastern coast would choose to come to this place of majestic beauty. Surely any person who could appreciate such a marvel could not be as evil as the rumours claim.

    Consulting the map briefly Yaoshi got his bearings. Returning the sheet of paper to his pocket he walked swiftly in the direction of the cottage. Inside the grove time seemed to lose all meaning. It was like being inside a fragrant pink cloud and Yaoshi felt a sense of peace he had never felt before. The sound of a flute drifted on the light breeze and Yaoshi followed the wonderful tune. He knew enough about music to know that whoever was playing was a master musician. Every note was perfect and matched the gentle timeless atmosphere of the grove. Yet Yaoshi detected a hint of sadness in the music. It reminded him of a child pining for its mother.

    Yaoshi walked into a clearing where there was a small cottage. Sitting on a tree stump in front of the cottage was the flute player. A hooded robe the colour of jade green covered musician’s entire body, with only their hands and face left uncovered. A mask with the visage of an angry demon hid the features of the person and Yaoshi felt a little uneasy as he looked on. The music abruptly stopped and his unease increased. Forcing the feeling down, Yaoshi stared at the masked face that was now turned at him:

    “Are you the Sea-witch?” he asked, glad that his voice remained calm.

    “I am and who might you be.” the voice that answered was obviously female and surprisingly gentle but there was an oddness to the accent that Yaoshi could not place..

    “That is not your concern. Just come with me quietly and I promise you will not be hurt.”

    “So you are another bounty hunter. Will you people ever learn?”

    “Are you going the surrender or not?” said Yaoshi, ignoring the question.

    The Sea-witch turned away from Yaoshi and resumed playing her flute.

    Swift as the wind Yaoshi drew his sword and unleashed a wave of sword Qi, that went hurtling towards the Sea-witch. Yaoshi’s eyes widened in surprise as the wave missed its target and instead struck a peach tree to the side of the Sea-witch. Had he made some mistake in his attack? He lashed out again, sending out another wave of power. This time he knew his aim was true, yet this attack always failed to hit its target and struck a tree on the other side of the Sea-witch. Somehow, without making any obvious movements the Sea-witch was deflecting his attacks.

    As a young man who had absolute confident in his strength, it was intolerable for Yaoshi to see his attacks so contemptuously turned away. Leaping into the air, he soared towards his foe with the speed of an eagle, his sword striking as straight as an arrow, the tip sure to impale his opponent. The Sea-witch became a streak of green as she darted away and Yaoshi’s sword stabbed into the tree stump, splitting it neatly in two. Giving his anger free rein Yaoshi pressed his attack, his sword flickering out like lightning along a storm cloud. Yet despite his mounting rage his attacks were not wild.

    The sword tip struck with unnerving accuracy, targeting vulnerable points that if struck would instantly cripple or kill. His speed was blinding but no greater than his strength and the blade would have pierced bone as well as flesh had it connected. The Sea-witch danced away from the storm of steel, her movements as beautiful as they were skilled, making her as elusive as jade smoke. Her bamboo flute turning away the few sword thrusts that got too near to her body. Yaoshi had to fight to keep his mind clear as he studied his opponent, looking for an opening that never appeared.

    The Sea-witch’s dance was almost hypnotic, her green robe dazzling in the broken light of the grove. It took Yaoshi a great effort of will to continue fighting. Channelling all of his anger, he homed the red mist into a razor edge that cut throw the beguiling dance and he struck a simple direct thrust at the Sea-witch’s heart. Just as the sword was about to strike home a fountain of pink sprang up between the combatants. Instinctively Yaoshi turned his face then realised his mistake. The Sea-witch knew that she could not avoid Yaoshi’s blow, so instead she had channelled her Qi into the ground causing the flower petals littering there to fly upwards.

    The manoeuvre had succeeded in distracting Yaoshi and the Sea-witch wasted no time in taking advantage of the opportunity. Her flute thrust out and struck her opponent lightly in the chest. Yaoshi had a moment to realise his defeat before unconsciousness took him. As he fell into darkness he heard something hollow fall to the ground, then he knew no more.

    ####

    Yaoshi’s head was thumping like a drum and he wished that the world would stop adding to his misery by its constant rocking. Then he realised the world should not be rocking. Surprised his eyes snapped open and he instantly shut them again, dazed by the sudden influx of light. Slowly he opened his eyes once more and took in his surroundings. He was in a spacious room that had wooden walls and a wooden floor. The room was well furnished with furniture that Yaoshi realized were nailed to the walls or floor. Yaoshi lay in a bed that was fixed to the wall that had the room’s only window.

    Looking out Yaoshi saw that it was night time and the light he had seen on waking came from the candles in the room. Drawing in a breath Yaoshi detected a subtle hint of pleasant perfume in the air. The source of the fragrance soon revealed itself as he saw the figure of the Sea-witch. Still cloaked and masked, she sat on a stool and in her hands she held a small wooden cylinder which Yaoshi realised with a shock was his flute. So this was the thing he had heard dropping to the ground before he lost consciousness. Turning to him she held the flute up:

    “Where did you get this?” she asked.

    “It is mine.” he replied bluntly.

    “In that case I assume you know how to play it? So play me something.” she said as she tossed the flute to him.

    Yaoshi caught it easily, then glared back at his capturer. Forcing his mind to remain calm he started summoning his Qi, but the power would not answer and he knew that the Sea-witch must have sealed it away. Yaoshi was not surprised, for it was a sensible precaution if you wanted to hold a Martial Artist prisoner. He was now effectively powerless against her but even so he would not be humbled:

    “I am not a chained monkey, who will perform to the faceless masses.” even as he said the words Yaoshi prepared himself for death, knowing that any response from the Sea-witch would most likely be violent.

    Calmly the Sea-witch reached up and removed her mask then drew back the hood. Yaoshi suppressed a gasp as locks of golden hair came tumbling down, like solidified sunlight. The Sea-witch turned to face her prisoner and Yaoshi’s surprised doubled. He judged her age to be in the early thirties, her cheekbones were beautifully shaped and contrasted somewhat with her slightly square jaw. Apart from the wonderful hair, her most prominent feature were her eyes. Dark as black pearls they shone with intelligence. This odd mix of features blended harmoniously into a face that although not conventionally beautifully was never the less stunning:

    “Now I am no longer the faceless masses. Will you play for me?”

    For a moment Yaoshi did not move, a look of stupefied shock stuck on his face. Then slowly he lifted the flute to his lips. The tune he played was one of his own composition named ‘Golden swallow seeks its nest’. It was a sorrowful tune that he had created when in a moment of homesickness. As he played he looked at the Sea-witch, her eyes took on a wistful look, as she listened, her body started swaying gently in time with the music. Finally when the tune was done, she turned once more to face Yaoshi and he thought he could see the beginning of tears in the corner of her eyes.

    ####

    Yaoshi turned to look at Sakura. Even after looking at that face everyday for five years he was still astonished by it. Her golden hair, lovely cheeks and deep eyes were as captivating as when he had first seen them that night in her cabin. After his musical performance that night, she had turned to him with a sweet smile and said:

    “Well done. You have just brought yourself another night of life. Sleep well, I will most likely kill you in the morning.”

    For an entire year she said this and during this time Yaoshi had discovered the truth about the Sea-witch. She was the head of a fleet of pirate ships, known as the Jade Flag Fleet who preyed along the eastern coast. Yet during his time with them Yaoshi saw very little in the way of actual piracy. Most of the fleet’s activities seemed centred around smuggling foreign goods banned by the Imperial Court and the few ships they did attack were slave ships. In the case of the latter, the crews would be given a choice, join the Jade Flag Fleet or die, while the cargo would be taken back to their homes where their family were made to pay a ransom for their return.

    The members of the Fleet were a motley lot made up from all walks of life. From scholars to soldiers. With experts in medicine to mathematics. Yet they all had one thing in common, they were all radicals, whose unconventional ideas had seen them rejected by traditional society. Yaoshi found them fascinating and eagerly learnt anything they cared to teach him. At the end of his first year with the fleet, Sakura had given him the choice to return to the mainland but to his surprise, Yaoshi had found himself reluctant to do so. The bounds of comradeship had subtly chained him to the fleet and he was unwilling to break them.

    Yaoshi had formally asked to be made a member of the fleet and Sakura had agreed to take him as part of the crew on her flag ship the ‘Phoenix.’ Gradually he worked his way up the ranks and into the affection of Sakura. He learnt her true name and that her homeland was a series of islands far off the eastern coast of the mainland. She was the bastard child of a merchant from across the ocean and the courtesan of a local lord. When Sakura was eight her lord had fell out of favour with the islands’ rulers and been made to commit suicide. His household was disbanded and forced to become homeless wanderers.

    Sakura and her mother had found themselves in the service of a man called Dare-no. He was a kind man who treated them well but he was often absent for long periods. One day Sakura had discovered the reason for his regular disappearances. He was a Shinobi. Dare-no had taken the girl into his confidence and trained her in the ways of his profession. It was a happy time for her, but it was not to last. Dare-no had taken a commission form the rulers of the islands and on completion of the mission, they had him murdered in order to keep their secret. Soldiers had stormed into Sakura’s home and although she had fought valiantly she could not save her mother.

    Having twice been betrayed by her rulers Sakura had decided to leave the islands and walk a path that eventually lead her to becoming the Sea-witch. Learning of her past deepened Yaoshi’s respect for her. There relationship steadily grew closer. Starting of as jailer and prisoner, then becoming crew member and captain. Before turning into unofficial apprentice and mentor to finally becoming friends and lovers. From Sakura, Yaoshi learnt the limitations of his Martial Arts. He was highly skilled but too rigid and conventional, thus making him predictable. His Qi was strong yet too reliant on Yang, resulting in him often powering through a situation and wasting energy, when a lighter more Yin approach would produce better results.

    Now five years into their relationship, Yaoshi was standing on the prow of the Phoenix with his lover as they watched the small Imperial boat come rowing towards them, with the white flag of parley flying high. Representatives of the Imperial Courts and Sakura’s agents had spent months arranging this meeting, with assurances being made and amended until both sides were assured that no trickery could take place. However the motives behind the Imperial Court’s desire for this meeting was still a mystery.

    The boat was now close enough for Yaoshi to make out the faces of those on board and his heart missed a beat as he spotted a familiar face. What was his father doing here? Why was he with the Imperial Court’s representative? Did he know that Yaoshi was a member of the Fleet? All of these and a thousand more questions flooded in but he forced them to the back of his mind. Yet a sense of foreboding started creeping up on him and no matter how hard he tried he could not shake if off.

    ####

    “Tempting offer gentlemen” said Sakura and Yaoshi had to agree with her.

    The two of them sat across from the Imperial delegation at a large table in Sakura’s cabin. The representatives of the Emperor were lead by a courtier called Zhang, who was governor of Fujian. It was he he made the offer of giving the Jade Flag Pirates a full imperial pardon along with ten gold pieces and a sizeable plot of land for each crewman. In exchange they wanted them to defeat the Black Flag Pirates, the other major pirate fleet along the Eastern coast, who were lead by the infamous Blood-beard, so called because of his habit of dipping his bushy face into the bleeding corpses of his victims.

    Yaoshi had no doubt that another group of Imperial dignitaries were probably making the exact same deal with Blood-beard but as Sakura had said the offer was very tempting. Most of their men were lost souls at heart and the opportunity to settle down in land they could call their own was very appealing. Still Sakura was an experienced leader and not prone to rash decision and told the courtiers that she would give them her answer tomorrow. Meanwhile she offered them the hospitality of her ship. As the men started filing out Yaoshi saw his father motion for him to stay. Quickly Yaoshi whispered a few words to his lover and Sakura nodded before stepping outside, leaving father and son alone.

    For long uncomfortable moments they stood staring at each other, until finally Yaoshi’s father broke the silence:

    “So this is what you have become. I would not believe it, if I had not seen it with my own eyes.”

    “If you are just going to insult me, then I will take my leave.” Yaoshi said bluntly.

    “Don’t you dare speak to me like that.” snapped his father.

    “Or you will what?” snapped back Yaoshi, as he glared at his father defiantly.

    For a moment it seemed that his father was going to strike him but instead the older dropped his gaze and when he spoke again his voice was much gentler:

    “I had such high hopes for you. You were a prodigy the likes of which are seen perhaps once in every ten generations. If only you had listened to me, then there would have been no limits to your future.”

    “A future serving an incompetent Emperor and licking the boots of corrupt courtiers.” answered Yaoshi, not bothering to hide his contempt.

    “It was good enough for your grandfather.”

    “Yes and what happened to him? They stripped him of his honour and broke his heart. All because he tried to stand up to his corrupt colleagues. I’ll be damned before I follow that tradition!”

    His father’s fat face puffed up and his complexion turned an alarming shade of red. Yet somehow he kept from snapping at his son. With visible effort he forced his voice to return to being calm:

    “Yaoshi. Surely you must know that you are better than this? For your sake as well as our family name I ask you to convince the Sea-witch to accept the offer. Just think about how much happiness one simple act could accomplish.”

    His father’s words struck Yaoshi in the heart. Despite his earlier words he had no desire to bring shame to this family, he just wanted the chance to be his own man. After a moment of silent contemplation he answered:

    “Very well, I will talk to her on the matter. However I have one condition of my own.”

    “What is it?”

    “That you agree to me marrying her.”

    “What! There is no way I will accept a foreign freak into my family”

    “That is the price. Take it or deal with the Black Flag Pirates yourself.”

    Yaoshi heard his father’s fists tightening and looked down to see his knuckles turning white. After a long moment his father unclenched his fist:

    “Very well. For my family name I will indulge your whim.” Yaoshi’s father said, the words seeming to be torn out of him.

    Yaoshi nodded in thanks and the two of them left the cabin together.

    ####

    Yaoshi knocked on the cabin door. It was the night before the battle with the Black Flag Pirates and he wanted to discuss tactics with Sakura. On receiving permission to enter he opened the door to find Sakura sitting at a table filled with maps and charts. However his lover’s attention was focussed on a rectangle box on her lap. The box was about the length of her forearm and elaborately engraved with birds and flowers. As Yaoshi entered the cabin, Sakura stood up and handed him the box:

    “What is this for?” Yaoshi asked.

    “I was going to save this for your Birthday, but I think you deserve it a little earlier.”

    Yaoshi opened the box and found a flute inside. Made from flawless green jade it reflected the candlelight as if the flames burnt from within it. Reaching out he touched the surface and found it refreshingly cool. Tearing his gaze from the gift he looked up to see Sakura with a gentle smile on her lips:

    “I am sorry, I haven’t got anything for you.” Yaoshi said

    Sakura shook her head: “You have already given me the best gift anyone could have. You have given me a family.” she said as tears tugged at the corner of her eyes.

    Yaoshi placed the box down and tenderly took Sakura’s hand. Leaning in he joined his lips with hers and all thoughts of battle disappeared.

    ####

    Fires raged all around and bodies littered the deck making the floor slippery with blood. As Yaoshi fought to get a footing, a flash of metal came from his left side. Instinctively he swayed in the opposite direction and the blade passed within a hairsbreadth of his face. Striking quickly Yaoshi severed his attacker’s arm, sending the limb flying through the air to lie with the mangled bodies. With a savage thrust Yaoshi buried his blade into the man’s heart and finished him off. Finding himself temporarily without an opponent Yaoshi took the opportunity to take stock of the situation.

    The crew of the Phoenix had succeeded in boarding the flag ship of the Black Flag Pirates and now the two crews were fighting furiously. Within the chaos of battle Yaoshi caught sight his lover as she danced amongst the enemy, her slender form slipping around the clumsy men with ease. Wearing her demonic mask she appeared like a vengeful spirit which left scores of dead bodies in her wake. No man could stand before her and it seemed that victory for the Jade Flag Pirates was assured. Suddenly a deafening roar came from the ranks of the enemy.

    Yaoshi turned in the direction of the sound to see Blood-beard appear. The pirate stood head and shoulders above everyone else, his signature beard already matted with fresh blood. In his right hand he held a massive cleaver that Yaoshi would have struggled to carry with both hands. Blood-beard lashed out with his left hand. Yaoshi heard the sound of something whizzing through the air. He just had time to throw himself away from the flying objects but the men around him were not so lucky. Dozens of them were knocked of their feet and as Yaoshi looked he saw tiny metals balls, the size of fingernails, lodged into their heads.

    Not wishing to give Blood-beard the chance to launch more of his deadly projectiles Yaoshi went on the attack. Covering the dozens of feet between them in a single leap, Yaoshi lunged his sword at Blood-beard’s chest. Blood-beard brought his great cleaver down with enough force to split Yaoshi in half. Yaoshi waited until the last possible moment, then darted to the right, twisting his sword as he went, he sent to towards Blood-beard’s neck. Moving with surprising speed, Blood-beard raised his left arm and took the blade with his forearm. Yaoshi’s sword struck bone and he made to shove it in deeper but Blood-beard twisted his arm snapping the blade.

    Yaoshi dropped the useless hilt and did three backward flips to avoid Blood-beard’s slashing cleaver. Landing lightly on his feet, Yaoshi searched desperately for another weapon just as Blood-beard came charging towards him like an enraged bull, ignoring the several inches of steel lodged in his arm. A streak of green lightning flew over Yaoshi’s head and he looked up to see Sakura lunge at Blood-beard with her sword. Blood-beard raised his cleaver and blocked the tip of Sakura’s blade with the flat of his. Rooting himself to the deck he became the unmovable object to her irresistible force.

    Sakura somersaulted over Blood-beard’s head and landed in a crouch back to back with him. Her blade swept downwards intending to sever Blood-beard’s feet at the ankles. Moving with an agility at odds with his great bulk he leapt over the sword and brought his cleaver down in a decapitating slash. Ducking under the cleaver with sinewy grace Sakura uncoiled like a rearing snake and thrust her sword at Blood-beard. Once again Blood-beard’s unnatural speed saved him and he managed to back away from the deadly blade.

    The fight between the Sea-witch and Blood-beard raged across the entire deck. Sakura’s skill and agility matching Blood-beard’s speed and ferocity. With Sakura wearing her terrifying mask and Blood-beard’s blood soaked visage the scene was reminiscent of a pair of devils fighting in Hell. Blood-beard managed to back Sakura against the side of the ship and brought his cleaver down to split her skull. Desperately Sakura threw herself to the right and Blood-beard’s cleaver buried itself in the wood. Sakura flung her sword out and the blade pierced Blood-beard’s right forearm, pinning the limb to the side of the boat.

    Roaring with frustration Blood-beard reached out with his left hand and grabbed Sakura by the throat. Yaoshi ran to her rescue but found his way barred by a trio of Black Flag Pirates. Unarmed Yaoshi knew he could not dispatch them in time to save his lover. Blood-beard lifted Sakura off her feet and proceeded to choke the life out of her. Blood thumping in her ears Sakura knew she only had heartbeats to live. She grabbed at the arm strangling her and felt something metallic. Looking down she saw Yaoshi’s broken sword sticking out. Summoning all her remaining strength she slammed her palm down.

    The metal shot through the skin of the forearm and flew into Blood-beard’s throat coming out at the back of his neck. The dead fingers loosened and Sakura dropped to her knees gasping for air. Yaoshi dispatched the last of pirates barring his way and ran to to his lover and held her by the shoulders, his face pale with concern. Sakura sank into his arms and smiled under her ask. After a moment she gestured to Blood-beard’s body and then to the ship’s mast, where a black flag fluttered in the breeze. Yaoshi understood her meaning immediately. Rising he yanked the great cleaver free of the wood then brought it down on its owner’s neck, severing the head in a single stroke.

    Grabbing the head by the hair Yaoshi leapt into the air and easily onto the to mast. Summoning his Qi he let out a mighty roar that cut through the noise of the battle raging below. All eyes turned to him. Using his Qi he spoke with a voice like thunder:

    “Behold! This is the fate of Blood-beard!” so saying he tore the flag of off the mast and planted the head there instead.

    The performance had its desired effect and the surviving Black Flag Pirates threw down their weapons signalling the end of the battle.

    ####

    Yaoshi sat in the cabin he shared with Sakura and played a tune of his own creation. Called ‘Green tide to the Heart’ it was light and pleasant conjuring up images of new life being born in Spring. He had composed it to commemorate the victory over the Black Flag Pirates and the new start it represented. Clapping came from the door and he turned to see Sakura standing there. Clothed in a flowing silk dress of her favourite jade green and with her golden hair done up in a conservative style she looked every inch the respectable middle class lady. As she walked in she saw a handful of the metal balls Blood-beard had used on the table:

    “You thinking of using those?” she asked.

    “Not in the way Blood-beard did. That was too wild, too imprecise. However, with some refinement to could be a very potent technique.” answered Yaoshi.

    Sakura smiled: “We had better get going. It would be impolite to keep my new father-in-law waiting.”

    ####

    Hand in hand Yaoshi and Sakura walked onto the pier that had been entirely given over to the Jade Flag Fleet to dock in. Although there numbers had been reduced to a little over two thirds after the battle, there were still dozens of ships and they easily filled the entire pier. Celebrations had already begun on the ‘Phoenix’ with many of the crew being deep into their cup and Yaoshi knew that this was also the case on the other ships. Looking around he saw soldiers rolling heavy barrels below deck. These were wine gifted from the Imperial Court and would be opened after the ceremony, when Sakura formally surrendered her fleet to the care of the authorities. For the sake of public order the crews had been ordered to remain on ship until after the ceremony.

    Yaoshi saw his father and Governor Zhang waiting for them. Both men were dressed in the best robes and Yaoshi’s heart leapt as he saw his father’s face. For the first time in a long time the old man was smiling proudly at his son. Yaoshi had not realised how much he had missed that smile, or how much it really meant to him. His father wrapped his arm around Yaoshi and whispered into his ear:

    “Come my son, it is time to discuss your future.”

    Yaoshi smiled at the words knowing that his father intended to discuss the upcoming marriage between him and Sakura. Turning around he saw Zhang raising a salute to greet Sakura. Suddenly something metallic flashed out of the Governor’s sleeve and struck Sakura’s chest. She staggered backwards and fell to her knees. Yaoshi tried going to her aid but his father tightened his grip around Yaoshi’s shoulders, holding him in place. The Phoenix exploded in a column of fire, heralding a series of explosions that struck every ship in the fleet. Yaoshi’s brain could not comprehend what was happening.

    Mere moments ago his world was perfect, he had reconciled with his father, he was going to marry the woman he loved and his comrades were about to become respectable members of society. Then it had all been violently ripped away from him. Shrugging off his father’s grip he ran towards Sakura and took her in his arms. Looking down he saw a metal dart stuck in her chest, the wound already leaking poisonous black blood. Tearing his anguish gaze away from his lover, he locked eyes with Zhang:

    “You traitor!” Yaoshi roared.

    Zhang shook his head: “This was your father’s plan.”

    “Why?” hissed Yaoshi as he looked at his father with a mixture of shock and anger.

    “I can no longer indulge your childish whim. Nor will I allow our family name to be blackened by this foreign freak.”

    Holding Sakura in his left arm Yaoshi lunged. Striking with his right hand, his stiffened fingers crashed into Zhang’s throat crushing his windpipe and killing him instantly. Before Zhang fell, Yaoshi grabbed his father’s throat and squeezed. The man’s fleshy face turned purple as his son started choking the life out of him. A hand fell gently on Yaoshi’s grip and he looked down to see Sakura staring at him:

    “No Yaoshi. He is your father.” Sakura whispered.

    Yaoshi felt his heart breaking as he looked into her dark imploring eyes. Reluctantly he complied, them cracked the back of his hand across his father’s face, sending him sprawling to the ground. The sound of running feet came from the docks and Yaoshi looked up to see hundreds of soldiers come out of hiding, closing the trap his father had laid. Lifting Sakura, Yaoshi turned and fled.

    ####

    Yaoshi played the final notes of ‘Green tide to the Heart’ , then lifting the flute from his lips tucked it into his belt. Running a hand through his yellow dyed hair he thought of his first love. She had lingered on long enough for them to make it to the peach grove where they had first met. He had laid her to rest in that special place, burying his ties to the world along with her. Never again would he live by the rules of convention or kowtow to false morality. In that moment he had sworn he would live only by his own rules and for a decade he had done so, obeying no laws except those he had imposed on himself and calling no man or god master.

    Looking up he stared at the East face of Mount Hua. Whispering under his breath he spoke the words:

    “For you my beautiful ‘Cherry Blossom’” before continuing his journey.

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