Unwanted and Astray

Fushang [Hurt], Lianxi [Connection]


Chapter Three



Fushang [Hurt], Lianxi [Connection]



The healing process was a tiring one. In the next few days after Shen finally regained consciousness, Ji learned that her new patient was a whiner.



Shen hated the 'uncomfortable' bedroll, disliked eating fish and the lack of variety in his new diet, and detested the fact that he currently only had one set of robes; not to mention he was too weak as yet to bathe without assistance. Most of all, Shen absolutely loathed being weak, injured and helpless.



This complaint in particular made Ji feel very disinclined to be sympathetic towards him. It took much of her inner strength not to yell and scream at him to shut his beak, and follow it up with a good round of therapeutic cursing (which she'd never actually done before, but she'd heard it felt good).



That didn't mean she put up with it entirely.



Well, this is what you've got right now, and you'll take it,” Ji snapped after Shen complained about her cooking for the hundredth time. “And you'll be grateful for it, too. I'm sure you're used to your fine and fancy treatment up in Gongmen, but until a merchant boat comes by, you won't have passage back up there anytime soon. So you're stuck with me, understand?” She shoved the bowl of rice and vegetables in his face, and turned, making as if to leave and tend to some nonexistent chore.



Shen scoffed, and said, “Ha! If any merchant familiar with Gongmen comes by, he'll be more likely to bring my head to the city, and leave the rest of it here.”



Ji quickly turned and stared, the little cormorant seeming comical as she stumbled. “What? Why?”



The look on Shen's face was somewhere between a smirk and a sneer. “You really are out of touch with the rest of China, aren't you, peasant?”



Ji ignored the barb, and stood up straight, face tight and brown eyes as hard as rocks. “Explain.”



My parents banished me from Gongmen years ago. I came back after they died, and tried to claim the throne – I was met with a great deal of resistance. I would have won, if I had not made certain....mistakes, in the past.” Shen had decided that he wouldn't tell her the whole story just yet. Not until he could be certain she wouldn't kill him or turn him over to his enemies.



But strangely enough, it wasn't the 'resistance' or the 'mistakes' part of his statement that she focused on. Instead, she fixated on what, to anyone else, should have been rather minor in comparison.



Why did your parents banish you?” The tone she she said it in was quiet, and soft. There was a strong note of curiosity behind it, but Shen also detected something else – he couldn't quite identify it, but it seemed strangely personal. As if she had a very deep reason for asking, and was trying to hide it. But it didn't matter anyway – he was hardly going to tell her.



It's no concern of yours,” Shen said dismissively, as if it was nothing. Her face told of simple disappointment, but there was melancholy in her eyes. Interesting.



~0o0~



The sun rose and set. Weeks passed. Shen's complaints about his surroundings slowly dwindled down to simply sighing loudly and dealing with it, as he remembered going into exile for the first time and was relearning how to cope with it. His bruises faded and his cuts healed – his bones were still broken, but he could walk around, even if he couldn't exert himself too much; his internal injuries were still taking their time to heal.



Every so often, Shen found his curiosity about Milu Ji's past coming to the forefront of his mind. A girl child, living alone, with no trace of her family, even though she mentioned them from time to time, was quite unusual. In passing comments, he would hear about brothers, a father, and a mother, too (but he only heard her talk about her once).



Shen's chest still tightened at the mention of the words 'Mother' and 'Father.' His fists would clench, and he would sigh, and decide to get back on track. No point in dwelling on it.



In any case, there was a note of sadness somewhere in her demeanor whenever they were brought up, and she never said anything about what happened to them, which led Shen to believe they were probably dead. But their belongings? Things they might have shared with her? Where were they? Perhaps she had burned them, because the memory was too painful. But surely they had a boat – they were a whole family of fishers; they must have had something to carry large catches with. And Ji, practical bird that she was, certainly wouldn't have destroyed such a valuable resource. Perhaps she'd sold it? But then her situation might have come up – someone, wherever she was trying to sell the boat, would have asked why she, a young girl cormorant, was selling it all by herself. They would've tried to help her, or taken her in.



None of the explanations Shen came up with made any sense. The more questions he tried and failed to answer, the more questions piled up.



He could always ask her, of course, but that would mean admitting that he was curious. Shen didn't want to give her the impression that he cared, after all – when he was fully healed, he was going to leave – she was of no use to him after that.



~0o0~



Ji had come to terms with the fact she wasn't going to receive a reward for saving the Prince of Gongmen.



In fact, she had considered flying to the city and telling the authorities, leading them back home to turn him in just so she wouldn't risk getting in trouble for harboring a fugitive. But Ji decided against it for one simple reason: her family was in Gongmen. She didn't want to risk running into Father, or Mother, or any of her brothers, and finding herself bursting out and asking why.



Ji had no desire to confront that anytime soon.



It was interesting to see Shen up and walking around now. It was as if some great machine had been damaged, and was slowly repairing itself and making itself whole again, with dignity and grace. That was how Shen seemed to do everything – even if whatever spewed out of his mouth seemed to contradict it. Just part of being a peacock, Ji supposed.



Speaking of peacocks, Shen's feathers were a sight to see. Having never seen a peacock before, Ji hadn't recognized his species at first, but now she could see why they had their reputation for being beautiful birds. When his tail was fanned out, Ji could imagine she was looking out onto the remains of a battlefield in the snow. Everything about him, it seemed, had a cold, haughty beauty to it – noble and lordly to the last inch.



Overall, Ji decided, Shen looked like one of his knives. Icy cold, sharp as a cut to the skin, and as equally ready for endless cruelty as for the kindness of a swift death. And that was how he spoke and acted, too – his words could cut as well as any of his weapons, and even when he used words Ji didn't understand, she could tell that he meant something demeaning.



Ji didn't mind all that much, though. He was royalty – she was a peasant, he was bound to think less of her. His parents probably taught him he was better than everyone else.



And to be honest, Ji was kind of used to it. He reminded Ji of her brother, Zhu – always spitting insults down at her that he thought she was too stupid to see, always giving her sarcastic, backhanded compliments, scolding her when she was clumsy, easily the most learned and graceful of the family and stubborn to a fault – and yet, it was Zhu, not Father, who had taught her how to read.



No person was as simple as how they acted on the surface – they had many layers to them, thoughts beneath the surface that you could sometimes catch a glimpse of, but never fully see, unless they chose to show that side to you. Ji was (somewhat) certain that Zhu must have, once, at least liked his only sister, before deciding to follow in their mother's example.



Ji shook her head, and set herself to sweeping. If she continued thinking about her family, she wouldn't be able to forget. Having to take care of Shen's wounds made it easier – when he was gone, she wouldn't be able to forget that she was truly alone now. That in reality, she always had been.



~0o0~



One day, it rained.



Ji hated rain. Moisture she could deal with – she lived by the river, after all. But rain made it all so much worse. And it was an awful reminder.



The river had flooded its banks so far that it was threatening to swallow the small wooden pier by the hut. Ji and Shen were huddled inside (not that Shen would ever admit to 'huddling' anywhere) with a fire.



And Ji kept coughing. Honestly, it was getting hard to breathe – she felt like she was coughing something up from the bottom of her lungs. Shen was staring at her with an odd look on his face.



When Ji spat into the fire after her last round of coughs, she glared at him and rasped, “What?”



Are you ill?”



No, I just get like this when it rains.”



A silence bloated with meaning filled the small hut. Shen's eyes were narrow with suspicion, and Ji suddenly felt nervous. Perhaps she shouldn't have told him that. If he found out....Shen was actually a lot stronger than she was, now. But he didn't know that. And gods knew what would happen if he found out.



The air felt too thick in here – too threatening. “I'm going outside. I need to think.”



Wait, what?!”



Ji opened the door and closed it behind her before he could ask.



The rain had slowed to a small downpour, and the river had slowed down so it was no longer raging. Ji coughed, but kept going forward, refusing to acknowledge it.



It only took her a few steps to get her to the floodwaters – Ji waded out until it was just a few inches deep, and stood there, deep in thought.



When was it that the river had last flooded like this? Some time when she was very young – she was coughing even more than usual, and Mother was worried. Back then, they had all been in the hut together, one big family, and Mother had sung her a lullaby that night. That was one of the last times Mother had ever sung her a lullaby. One of the only times Ji could remember Mother caring whether she lived or died. If Mother were around now to see her out in the cold and the wet rain like this, she would have simply left her alone.



She heard the cottage door open and close. She heard the soft Fff sound Shen's steel claws made on the sand, and heard him stop just by the bank of the river, hesitating, before he walked into the water with a soft splish. He came up to stand beside her in the water.



I'm going to have to hang your clothes up to dry now, you know,” Ji said quietly.



Shen was silent. Ji looked sideways up at him, and he had a keen, thoughtful look on his face, something she hadn't seen on him before. “Why do you always stand on your right leg?”



Ji stiffened, becoming as still as stone.



Whenever you stand on both legs, it's always when your left one is out of sight. Why?”



At any other time, Ji would have spat his own words back in his face and said, 'None of your concern!' However, Ji wasn't feeling particularly ready for a verbal fight. Something about the rain and the river water made her feel sad and mellow, and not in the mood for hiding things.



So reluctantly, Ji set her left leg down, wincing as she put weight on it. Shen gave out a quiet gasp.



~0o0~



Her left leg was gnarled at the joints, thin and emaciated. It looked wrong next to the other leg. Shen wondered how he hadn't spotted this before – clearly not all the looks of pain he'd seen on her face were emotional. And from the coughing fit she'd engaged in earlier, the leg probably wasn't the full extent of it. A spark of emotion came to Shen that he hadn't felt in a long time – it was pity.



The young cormorant stared out over the surface of the river, face empty and at the same time, full of sorrow. Her wings trailed in the water, and the raindrops continued to fall on her conical hat with a heavy plonk plonk plonk. Her robes were soaked, but she didn't seem to care. Her normally jet black feathers looked even darker in the dim light from the clouds above.



My family left me behind,” Ji said flatly, not looking him in the eye. Shen felt an uncharacteristic need to be silent. “My brothers are strong and smart – capable of doing great things one day. And I, I am only a cripple. Useless, weak and deformed.



My mother has decided that she despises me for what I am – ever since I was small, she did her best to ignore me, and the only attention she paid me was to tell me when I was doing something wrong. The only skill I have is being clumsy, and my health is poor. So when the family business became difficult here, they decided to leave for the city, to help my uncle with his own expanding business. They didn't tell me.



Ever since they left, I've wanted to fly after them and ask – no, beg – for them to tell me why. Why they decided I was worthless. Why they couldn't love me enough to take me with them. Why they chose to shut me out.” Her voice seemed to ache with the hurt she so clearly felt.



As he stood there in the freezing water, Shen felt like a great chunk of stone had been chipped away from his chest and fallen away. Worthless. Unloved. Shunned.



They sat in silence together for quite some time. The rain ran right off Ji's oily feathers, while Shen sat in the water, thoroughly soaked. He had never, Shen reflected, simply sat somewhere and thought, not caring about his appearance. It was a new experience.



Something about the rain that evening, Shen decided, was conducive to making one tell their story.



You asked, once, why my parents banished me.” Ji didn't answer, or face him, but turned her head slightly, showing she was listening.



It started, I suppose, when I was young. My coloring is not common to my race – my parents told me that to be a white peacock is a gift, rare and sought after. But the fact remained that I was different.



My parents did not make much time for me when I was young, mainly attending to their duties as the rulers of Gongmen. What little time they did spend with me was spent teaching me how a ruler should behave, and assuring me that I would one day be Lord of the city. Being young, and not quite understanding why they couldn't make time for me, I sought to make them proud. I sought after masters of craftsmanship and engineering, to learn from them. I invented my own weapons and style of martial arts,” Ji turned to look at him at this – Shen barely noticed, deep in his own thoughts. “but that only earned their praise. There was no recognition or attention. I will admit, they were great, kind rulers – but they were terrible parents.



My attempts to earn their love for me grew so desperate, I turned to their most beloved invention, fireworks, to see how I could improve upon it. In learning the art and science of the black powder, I discovered that fireworks could be used as a weapon. Thinking that it could be used in the defense of Gongmen City, as a measure against invaders, I told them of my discovery. They mistook my meaning, and twisted it into the worst possible interpretation. They went to a Soothsayer, and she foretold that if I continued on my current path, I would be defeated by a warrior of black and white. At the time, hearing the prophecy, I believed that my defeat would mean my death. Seeking to prevent the prophecy from coming true, I took a contingent of city guards, and went to destroy the only race of warriors I knew to be of black and white – the pandas.”



He heard Ji give a small gasp. Shen continued, deciding he would take the consequences of her knowing. “When I told my parents of the measures I had taken against my murder, they reacted with horror and shock. They banished me forever from the city of Gongmen, my only home and my birthright.



Left alone, I made the weapons I had long conceived of in my mind – with nothing else to do, I kept perfecting my designs. When I heard of my parents' deaths, I gathered up a small army, and with the weapons of fireworks I had created, I took Gongmen City from its stewards. But there was one thing I did not count on. One panda had survived. And because I had killed his family, he bore a grudge. We fought – I almost won, but he returned with a stronger resolve and more allies. He likely thinks I am dead – drowned in the city harbor and gone forever.



Had my parents had faith in my intentions, they would never have gone to the Soothsayer. And had I not reacted as I did to the prophecy, the panda warrior would not have had any reason to desire my death.” Shen straightened his back, and looked up at the rumbling, cloudy sky. “But there is one last thing I want to do, before I am content to roam China for a new goal to achieve. In the Secret Royal Archives, deep inside Gongmen, there is a mysterious scroll that I saw my father reading and writing in often. He told me that it would be important to me one day. I want to see what was in that scroll. For all I know, it could hold the truth of whether or not they ever truly cared for me.”



Shen finally turned to look down at Ji. Her expression was very serious.



You killed a lot of people.”



So did my father, in battles alongside Gongmen's allies.”



Mothers and children?”



Yes.” Shen paused. “Not that he enjoyed it. If I recall, I was told that the guilt gave him nightmares afterwards.”



Did you enjoy killing, in the battle with the pandas?”



Shen paused, deep in thought. He considered his answer, before finally saying, “Fighting is very different from what I did. There were those that fought, yes, but my own forces greatly outnumbered them – it was less of a battle and more of a slaughter. I didn't enjoy it. As far as I can remember, I was terrified the whole time. In the face of every panda, I saw a hideous demon who might one day kill me. I didn't stop being frightened until I believed every last one of them was dead. I will admit that what I did was wrong – very wrong, but I do not regret it. It simply isn't in my nature to regret any actions I have taken. I simply learn from them, and move on.”



Ji was silent for several moments. He must enjoy making weapons, she reflected, because he was very much like a weapon himself. He could be held passive, sheathed and still, or he could slaughter an entire race.



She hated what he had done. But she did not fear him, or hate him. Perhaps it was because she had seen him totally helpless, but that was how she felt, all the same.



Ji didn't feel inclined to have him punished for what he had done. Shen had been the only person who hadn't at least insinuated that she was weak upon learning she was crippled – the only thing he'd mocked her for was being an ignorant peasant. Perhaps that was selfish of her, perhaps there was something wrong with her for it, but Ji actually felt more sympathetic towards Shen than before. After all, he was abandoned too.



Ji looked around. It was getting colder and darker. “We'd better get back inside. It's not good for you to be out here – you're not fully healed yet.”



What about you?”



I grew up here – I'm used to it. Come on.” Ji waded out of the water and back onto the riverbank.



Shen slowly followed, train dragging in the sand. “You know,” he paused. “You're the only one who's never cowered in fear or cried out in moral outrage learning about what I did.”



Ji stopped to think about that. She shrugged. “Guess I'm just that way.” She opened the door, her indifference to Shen's massacre still puzzling the other bird. The fire was down to its glowing embers, but it could easily be stoked back up again.



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