The next day.
The mood on the streets of North Pine City was tense. For as long as any normal citizen could remember, two clans had ruled over North Pine: the bloodthirsty Fan clan, and the cold-hearted Sun clan. These two forces had forever been at each others’ throat, providing both danger and opportunity for those who lived in their city. In fact, a great many individuals were able to maintain a precious neutrality, not swearing loyalty to either great power, and refusing to engage in the eternal contest between the clans.
But those days had finally come to an end. The Sun clan had fallen, and the Fan clan stood unrivalled. The situation of the followers of the Sun clan went without saying; if there were any left in the city, they kept a low, low profile. On the other hand, those who had been close to the Fan clan now found their status elevated to an extreme degree! They now had the backing to do whatever they please, suppress whoever they wished — and the natural target of this new sense of authority, was obviously those who had not sworn loyalty to the clans in the past, and had remained neutral.
But no matter what, people still needed to live. And thus, markets were opened, goods were sold, and contracts honored. The citizens went about their everyday activities, but their hearts were troubled; there was a formless sense of calamity in the air, as though every person in the city were headed toward so terrible, unavoidable fate. The only group that hadn’t noticed the feel in the air were naturally the Fan clan, and their dependents, who only had attention for the great victory they had received.
Sun Mia, dressed in commoner’s garb, quietly entered a market a moderate distance away from the Sun estate. She had decided to make her mistress, Sun Lan, a certain dish from their childhood, and had thus snuck out of the mansion to find the ingredients she needed. At one time, she would have been able to simply request another servant to fetch ingredients for her; but now, servants of the Sun were nowhere to be found, and she had to risk the journey herself.
And it was a risk. The Fan clan had offered a bounty on members of the Sun clan, and if she was recognized, she would almost certainly be turned over to the Fan clan for the reward money. Fortunately, Sun Mia had seldom left the Sun estate before this time, so the number of people who could recognize her would definitely be few, or so she believed.
However, she was too naive. The Fan clan naturally had spies watching the Sun estate, and they had taken careful note of the young girl who had slipped out the side entrance, disguised as a simple commoner. Sun Mia was unaware, but a detachment of Sun clan guards had already been dispatched to capture her, and were quickly approaching the market she had just entered.
But, it was not Sun Mia’s fate to be captured that day.
As she walked along the crowded street, Sun Mia was suddenly jostled by someone passing by, and lost her balance. She staggered into another man, who immediately knocked her away with a mild curse. For a moment it looked like the girl was about to fall into the busy street and be trampled, but a hand suddenly caught her arm, steadying her.
She looked up, words of gratitude about to escape her lips, but suddenly she froze. The man who held her arm wore an expensive white robe beneath a grey mantle with a raised hood. Cold, fierce eyes glared at her, as if expecting her to suddenly turn into a monster and attack him. His face beneath the hood was actually fairly handsome, but Sun Mia was unable to appreciate it, as her soul was silently shrieking in fear.
She had never been allowed to cultivate qi, and therefore could not estimate the martial cultivation of the man before her eyes, but other, older instincts were screaming at her — this man was death incarnate!
Her eyes took in his muscular hands, the unadorned sword sheathed at his belt, and above all the cold, merciless eyes, and she shivered in fear. Her intent to thank her benefactor had immediately flown away, and instead it was all she could do to prevent herself from fleeing in terror!
“Be careful, little girl. You almost had a dangerous accident, there.” His voice, unlike his appearance, was soft and rich. Although his words were a bit cold, they were also slightly gentle. This confused Sun Mia, who had expected the man to lash out at her, based on his expression. Unable to form coherent words, she simply nodded at the man, her eyes wide.
Seeing the fear and confusion in her face, the man’s mouth turned up at the corners in amusement. He knew how the girl felt, and that she was not wrong — he was a dangerous, deadly person, after all, and he made no effort to hide it. But something about the poor girl’s expression tugged at his heart, and just for a moment, he felt that this girl was slightly cute.
But he was here on business, and he was being paid. Though it would be fun to tease this little girl for a while, it was not worth his time. He had a reputation to maintain, after all.
And so, he let the girl go, and even gave her a slight pat on the back to get her moving. Sun Mia, still shocked and disoriented, hurriedly pulled away from the man, before offering him a quick bow. “Th-thank you,” she finally stuttered, before spinning around and hurrying away. The man could barely keep himself from laughing out loud, before he himself turned away and walked off.
He hadn’t found a target, yet, but he estimated that it wouldn’t be long until he found one. After all, he was hunting for a member of the Fan clan, and they were everywhere in this city, secure in the belief that no one would dare offer them any resistance. That attitude was something that this man quietly hated, because he had the confidence to defy anyone! He couldn’t wait until he could tear down that detestable certainly with his own hands.
Neither Sun Mia nor the dangerous-looking man had noticed, but their encounter had been observed. Across the street from where they had met, stood a certain restaurant stand specializing in grilled meat. The stalwart and upright merchant who owned the location had provided a small number of tables and chairs for his prospective customers. In this busy market area, being able to control enough space to put out tables truly showed that his influence was not small. This was no doubt due in great part to the quality of his product, which was quite excellent, and much sought after in this part of the city.
Sitting at one of the small tables was a young man. His clothes were an undramatic off-white color, held on by the grey sash around his waist. His face and looks were fairly average, his body slim but muscular. At a glance, he had neither qi nor martial cultivation, but nevertheless his eyes held both strength and conviction.
He watched the dangerous-looking man rescue the young girl with a slight frown on his face. Specifically, he never once glanced at the girl, but kept his eyes fixed on that man. Slowly, he brought the meat in his hand up to his mouth and tore off a chunk.
Strangely, even though he gazed at the dangerous-looking man with such an intense gaze, that man didn’t seem to realize that he was being watched. In fact, no one seemed to want to look at the seated man, including those who sat at the tables near him. It was as if the entire world wanted to ignore him, and not acknowledge his presence. And that… was fine with him.
As he finished his meat, the young girl bowed to the dangerous-looking man and hurried away. The watcher nodded to himself, apparently making a decision, and suddenly grabbed the sleeve of the waitress who happened to be walking nearby. She jumped in surprise and looked at the young man as if she hadn’t noticed him previously. The young man pressed a small coin into her hand. “For the use of your table,” he said in a low voice. “Give my thanks to your father, as always.”
He stood up swiftly and stepped into the crowded street. People around him parted to allow him by, without seeming to realize it. In a few moments, he had disappeared into the morning crowds. The waitress stared after him with a disturbed expression for a moment, before walking over to the man currently cooking meat on an open air grill. This man happened to be the owner of this small restaurant, and also the waitress’ father, and he was called Old Mehek.
“Father,” the young woman said to him, “That strange man was here again…”
Her father raised an eyebrow, although he didn’t take his eyes off the grill. “Strange man? Is someone giving you trouble, Bi’er?”
Bi’er frowned. “You know, that strange monster hunter, the one that’s hard to look at. Gan… Zho, or something.”
“Oh, Gan Zhu,” chuckled Old Mehek. “Yes, I sold him a skewer earlier. Was he still around?”
“Yes, he was sitting at a table, and he gave me a coin when he left.”
“Was it too little?” asked her father, but Bi’er shook her head.
“The amount was correct, but… I didn’t even know he was there! It’s creepy!” Bi’er’s pretty face crinkled in worry.
“Bi’er…” sighed Old Mehek. “We are here to feed people, not to pass judgement on them. No matter how strange Gan Zhu may seem to you, his coins are worth the same as any others, be it peasant, citizen, or even the Lord Fan himself. Hell, if we compare him to Lord Fan, I’d say he doesn’t seem frightening in the slightest.”
“Father!” hissed Bi’er in fright. “Don’t say things like that!”
“Heh, are you worried? No need, I wouldn’t say this to anyone but you,” said Old Mehek with a chuckle. “That clan may be the sole master of this city, now, but that doesn’t change the fact that Lord Fan is completely unsuitable as a ruler. And believe it or not, my girl, the Fan clan isn’t entirely made up of vicious monsters. I have no doubt the Fan clan is about to undergo a certain amount of internal conflict, and there is a good chance that whoever ends up in charge will be a much more… stable… ruler.”
“But father,” whispered Bi’er, “what if Fan Bin becomes the head of the Fan?”
Old Mehek scratched his chin. “Hmmm, Fan Bin, is it? I’ve heard the rumors, of course. It would be bad if he became the Lord Fan, true. But even he would be better than Fan Gen.” He looked seriously at his daughter as he continued, “Girl, you have no idea of just how many crimes that man has committed over the years. Kidnapping, torture, extortion, crippling — I could list his crimes for days. I expect that many of the atrocities attributed to Fan Bin, were all on the orders of that man.
“I’m sure you know how many people in this city were hoping that the Sun clan would be able to suppress the rampant excess of the Fan. Sadly, they appear to have lost the battle completely. Truly a pity. But trust your father, these things have a way of working themselves out, and the survivors will still need grilled meat, after all.
“Now, we still have work to do, so get back to– hmmm. Truly, speaking of a disaster causes it to arrive,” said Old Mehek, his expression becoming gloomy. “Keep your head down girl, and don’t attract their attention.”
“What?” asked Bi’er, following her father’s gaze with her own eyes. She then gasped slightly, and hurriedly moved behind the counter. She pretended to be arranging tools for her father, while he concentrated on the meat in front of him.
A group of people had appeared on the streets of the marketplace, and they seemed quite out of place there. The fat man in the lead wore a rich green robe, and walked with the arrogance of someone who was used to getting exactly what he wanted. Behind him walked seven or eight men in equally fine garb, although whether they were friends with the fat man, his bodyguards, or his servants, was not completely clear.
“Fan Mitsu,” uttered Old Mehek under his breath. His dark expression had shifted quickly into a professional merchant’s smile, and his body language gave nothing away. “Son of Fan Liqi, who is the steward of the Lord Fan’s third uncle, Fan Dai. I’ve told you to avoid him in the past, haven’t I, Bi’er?”
“You have, father,” the young woman replied in a subdued tone.
“Although his position in the Fan clan is unclear, he has always made a nuisance of himself around the city, and for some reason, he loves to stroll around our little market, putting on a noble’s airs. Previously he wasn’t too big a problem, since the Sun estate is relatively nearby. But now…” Old Mehek sighed. “Stay out of his way, girl. If he gets it into his muddled head to pursue you, it would certainly become a great disaster for our family.”
Bi’er nodded, and busied herself with various small tasks behind the counter. Fortunately, it seemed that Fan Mitsu and his entourage were not interested in meat kebabs this day, and they passed on without so much as glancing in Bi’er’s direction. Both Bi’er and her father sighed in relief, and Bi’er stepped out to serve her customers once more.
As she began to argue with a certain regular customer over his bill, she happened to glance across the street, and noticed a dangerous-looking man walking by. She shuddered, slightly; unusually, her father had trained her in the very basics of cultivation, so she could at least estimate the general strength of her patrons. However, she could tell that this man was far stronger than the usual expert seen in North Pine City, and she wondered briefly why such a strong person was nearby. However, she quickly went back to arguing with her customer, and immediately forgot about the unusual man.
Had she noticed that same man rescue Sun Mia earlier, Bi’er might have been even more surprised. After all, he had walked off in the opposite direction, but for some reason he had doubled back to this particular street. Furthermore, he was now travelling in the same direction as Fan Mitsu and his party — which, by some coincidence, was the same direction that Sun Mia had fled in earlier.
Yes, that dangerous-looking man was now following Fan Mitsu, and the expression on his face was the twisted smile of someone who was about to start a great deal of trouble!
But that man had not yet noticed… Just as he was following his prey, someone else was already following him…
Fan Mitsu felt like he was the luckiest man in the world.
First and foremost, his clan had ascended to the highest position possible! The hateful Sun had fallen, and soon the last remnants would be swept from the face of the world. This naturally had nothing to do with the actions of one Fan Mitsu, but he was more than willing to let others do the hard work while he reaped the benefits.
And what benefits they were! At one time, Fan Mitsu had to restrain himself slightly, and couldn’t simply take anything he wanted. Now, though, he could have whatever he wanted, and no one would dare say a thing, lest they incur the wrath of the Fan clan!
Of course, in his heart, Fan Mitsu knew that his position in the clan was not very strong. He was not even of a branch family, let alone the main family, and was simply the son of an adopted servant. And although his father, Fan Liqi, had a relatively high position, he himself had very little standing in the clan: he was poor at cultivation and martial arts, poor at scholarship, and poor at management, leaving him of no value to the clan itself. If it weren’t for his father, who doted on his only son, he might have been kicked out of the clan entirely.
But if Fan Mitsu had only one strength, it would be an instinctive knowledge of what he could get away with. And so he acted like a true son of the Fan clan — but only in front of those outside the clan itself, and usually in remote, ordinary places like the street market he was visiting this day. In front of other members of his clan, he would bow and scrape as much as necessary to survive.
Only now, fate seemed to be favoring the Fan clan, and thus naturally was favoring Fan Mitsu as well. And so, as he strode around the morning market, he couldn’t help but show off for the sycophants accompanying him: taking items and not paying for them, taking items and only paying an insultingly low price, criticizing the quality of everything he could see, and generally acting like the very personification of a terrifying plague. His friends, all servants of the Fan that were of lower birth than himself, laughed along and encouraged him, vicariously enjoying the feeling of trampling on others. Meanwhile, the various shopkeepers and merchants had to grit their teeth and smile, knowing that treating this pig as he deserved would only result in greater damage to their business, and possibly the loss of their lives, if the Fan clan was provoked!
But Fan Mitsu had misunderstood. Not many on the Balkiri Continent understood the true workings of fate, and what so few understood, how could a mere Fan Mitsu possibly understand? He thought that the fate of the Fan clan would protect him — but fate was always individual, not shared. Even if every single person in the Fan clan had a wonderful fate awaiting them, it would not save Fan Mitsu even slightly, if he himself was fated to die.
Fan Mitsu did not know, but he had come to this market, on this day, to meet such a fate.
And so it was that he spent time with his friends, laughing and carousing, until he suddenly caught sight of a young girl haggling with a vegetable merchant. She was dressed in commoner’s garb, but she had a cute face, and Fan Mitsu was seized by the sudden urge to play with her a bit. Glancing at his companions, he gave a roguish chuckle, and walked towards the girl, who happened to be Sun Mia, servant of Sun Lan. His friends followed, grinning at the promise of a good show.
Some distance behind them, two cold, fierce eyes narrowed, becoming even more merciless. The man who had been watching Fan Mitsu stepped forward, his hand falling upon the hilt of his sword. A grim smile played across his lips.
“It seems that I’ll be playing the hero twice today. How unusual,” he murmured to himself with a trace of self-mockery.
Behind him, another figure watched the scene playing out in front of him; of course, it was Gan Zhu. He saw the girl, Fan Mitsu approaching her, and the familiar-looking man moving towards them both. A sense of anticipation was born in his chest: he felt something important was about to happen.
“Breathe,” came a voice in his memory, and he took a deep, deep, breath.
- There are a lot of points about this chapter that I’m not satisfied with, but it sets up the next segment, so, oh well.
- Somehow, two completely unimportant characters ended up with names and personality. Oops. I hope nothing bad happens to them… 😛
- Anyone care to guess who the dangerous-looking man is? Gan Zhu found him very familiar, hint hint… 😉
- Oh, quick question: should I start naming the chapters? I didn’t really want to, but as the series goes on, it might help people find their place, or parts they liked. It doesn’t really matter yet, I was just wondering what other people’s opinions were… 😀