The bird had lain there for hours now. Ji had stopped the bleeding and bandaged his wounds. She wasn't sure what kind of bird he was (definitely he; Ji had had to strip his wet clothes off him to dry them – that was embarrassing), but he had a very long tail, and a beak like the tip of a spear. His feathers were as white as fresh snow.
He must be rich, Ji decided from looking at his clothes. Embroidered silk and fine tassels. Maybe she would get a reward for saving his life, she thought hopefully. Although, there was still the question of how he got those terrible wounds. Was he attacked? Wearing those clothes, she wouldn't be surprised if bandits had decided to target him.
Knowing what he was carrying, however, it struck her as being odd that his wounds were so severe – he must have been heavily outnumbered.
Ji stared uneasily at his silver knives as they beside the bedroll he was currently lying on, bundled up with blankets – she'd found them tucked into his flight feathers; they gleamed with an austere, cold brightness, hard and shining. Their craftsmanship was amazingly beautiful, and Ji didn't dare touch them, for fear she would cut herself on the flat of the blade.
But the knives were almost nothing compared to what she'd found on his feet – a pair of bizarre, steel contraptions with enormous claws. They seemed to be like shoes, and they didn't seem to interfere with any of his injuries, so Ji decided to leave them be. She didn't know how to remove them, in any case.
She didn't know what his real name was, so over the next few days as she cared for him and forced steamed fish down his throat, Ji took to calling him Xue in her mind. It fit him, somehow.
There was very little to do in that little hut – from sunrise to sundown, it was make breakfast, eat, feed Xue a paste of water and fish, see to his wounds and bodily needs, clean up the house, go fishing, bring in the day's catch, make lunch and dinner and otherwise have nothing to do until sundown when Ji would light the fire again and go to sleep. The sun rose and set seven times, and she worried that he was never going to awake. Until one rainy morning.
The white bird stirred in his sleep. Startled, Ji fumbled with the broom she was holding, and it fell to the floor with a clatter. A groan of pain issued from his throat, and his eyes flickered open as he struggled to get up.
“I don't recommend moving around too much. You still need time to heal. You cracked a couple ribs and one of your wings – and you're covered in bruises and cuts.” Ji hopped closer to look at the white stranger. He had a crest of feathers, she noticed, on top of his head – white, tipped with bloody red eye spots, like his tail.
His head turned sharply in her direction. Ji saw, with a startled glance, that his eyes were as crimson as the spots on his tail feathers.
“Where are my clothes?” he hissed, his voice cutting through the air.
“Oh! They're right here.” Ji picked them up from where she had folded them and left them by his bedside. She held them out in front of him – he didn't take them. “I had to remove them in order to treat your wounds.”
They stayed in their positions for a few frozen moments, Ji awkwardly holding his clothes out to him, the stranger glaring down at her mistrustfully.
“Why would you help me? I'm no fool – I know that I'm feared and despised throughout the region. Do you have any idea who I am?”
“Not a clue,” Ji replied cheerfully, pushing the silk robes closer to him. “Now put this back on – my wings are getting tired holding this.”
Warily, he took hold of the robes. Ji turned around to give him privacy as he dressed. His feet, she noted, made a chink sound on the wooden floor as he moved – probably those clawed shoes. “What's your name?”
“I find that exceedingly rude, seeing as I don't know yours, peasant.”
“Apologies, milord, but seeing as I saved your life, I presumed you knew I meant you no harm. Milu Ji, at your service.” Sarcasm dripped from every syllable Ji spoke.
“It would be appreciated if you could keep from mouthing off to me, Miss Milu. I am Lord Shen.”
Ji's eyes widened, and she slowly turned around. Shen stood there, fully dressed – some bandages peeked out of his robes, showing that he wasn't fully healed yet. “Lord Shen? The prince of Gongmen City?!”
Shen frowned in puzzlement. “How – AAAGH!” He clutched at his side.
Ji hurried over to help. “You should sit down.” Gently, using his good wing, she lowered him to sit on the reed-mattress. She winced at the extra weight on her left leg, but it wasn't too bad.
Now that he was sitting up instead of lying down, Ji could see just how big his tail was. Spread out, it took up almost half the room – it was folded the whole time he was asleep. The red spots seemed to lie scattered around him like so many rubies.
Shen hacked and coughed before clearing his throat. “Anyway, Milu - when was the last time you got news from Gongmen?”
Ji frowned. “Not ever, I don't think. We're only about eight miles away from Gongmen, but my family always sold our fish over in Ya Zhen, upriver – the only place where we could charge a decent price. And that town's so isolated, hardly anyone visits. Why?”
Shen closed his eyes, and started shaking. Concerned, Ji leaned forward – and Shen burst out with a cackling laugh. “Ha! What little you know about Gongmen is decades old. Ignorant little fisher – I suspect you've never even gone to school!”
Ji puffed herself up indignantly. “Well, so what? I know how to fish, and cook, and fly, and mend my own wounds, and that's all I really need, in the end.” The last part of the sentence left Ji with a bitter taste in her mouth, and she suspected Shen heard it, because a flash of curiosity appeared on his face before it was covered with a sneer.
“Of course you'd think that – you don't know any better. You've probably lived your whole life in this one little hut, and don't know what else is out there – AGGH!” Shen hissed and hugged his wing to his chest. Ji acted quickly, grabbing his wing, and securing the bandage in danger of falling off.
“Lie down,” Ji ordered. Shen did so, wincing at the pain. Ji tightened the bandages a little too harshly, eliciting a gasp of pain from her patient. “In the meantime, Lord Shen, I'd advise against insulting your doctor.” Ji watched him thoughtfully as he glared at her weakly. “It beats me how you got these wounds. No cuts, no sword wounds – it's all bruises and broken bones, bits of torn skin. How did you get injured this way?”
“I don't want to talk about it,” Shen spat. Ji rolled her eyes.
“Have it your way.” Ji fluttered to the door. “I'm going to catch us some food. I won't go far, so just yell for me if you need me. And by the way,” she turned to glare at him. “I can read and write.” And she flew off, believing she had won a victory.
Shen lay back, almost every part of his body aching. He could hardly believe he had to depend on the kindness of a peasant for everything now! The only shred of hope he had left was that he might get well fairly soon.
Although, Shen had to concede, he had been extremely lucky. He'd almost drowned, and would've bled to death if the house hadn't been inhabited. He'd been ready to give up when he found the house empty. And Shen was actually rather amazed he'd managed to swim eight whole miles from the Gongmen harbor, and upriver, too! He had the gods to thank for the fact he'd survived.
Well, the gods and one little cormorant. Who was a mouthy little peasant to say the least – how old was she? Twelve? Thirteen? She should have more respect!
Although, she was a bit of a mystery. She spoke of having a family, but then, where was said family? Were they dead? That seemed to be the case. But then where were their belongings? And why wasn't she with a relative, or some other being who might take her in? The questions kept piling up.
No matter. He would find out sooner or later. Shen mulled over his own story. He barked out a laugh when he realized that the Soothsayer's prediction had come true – he had been defeated by a warrior of black and white. But not destroyed. If he had seen that little loophole from the day it all began, he wouldn't have gone after the pandas in the first place. Shen cursed his folly, but didn't regret a single action he'd taken. He'd just find some other way to conquer China. But first....his mind went back to that scroll he'd once seen Father tuck away, out of sight, telling him, When you're old enough, Shen, you'll be allowed to read this. He was an adult. That was old enough, surely. His parents had kept that scroll a secret from him for years – it was time he learned its contents. Shen had planned to take the scroll from the royal archives, and read it when he had taken Gongmen City, but he'd been distracted with the threat of the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five at the time, so he hadn't gotten the chance.
If he couldn't have Gongmen City, Shen vowed, he would have that last bit of his birthright. Dragon Warrior or no Dragon Warrior.