Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Wander (A short story by Zhou Huibin)

I Wander

(1)  Good and bad, comes and goes

Once upon a time, there were villages and huts, now there were cities and palaces. What mankind can achieve never fails to amaze me as I sat under the high palace walls for shade, waiting for the proper timing to meet the Emperor. Observing the city flow by, I was then also reminded of the behaviour of some in mankind that never fails to amaze with their hypocrisy and anti-social behaviour. The person of said amazement was Sir Aabron, a merchant of moderate wealth who backed the Emperor early in his Unification Wars. He was being carried on a palanquin moving along the main street and speaking loudly to the palanquin carriers or seemingly anyone who would listen about how they were not as successful as him and how if they did what he advised, they would be all the better for it. I had joined since the beginning of the Unification wars and had interacted with Sir Aabron on more than one occasion but chose not to go over and make a greeting. For I learnt conversing with Aabron was more of an exercise in listening than a conversation per se. That being said, I did feel bad for him as the past interactions with him was not all bad and his heart (most of the time) was in the right place even if it had little logic or positive nature to carry it further into physical actions. It was then that my inner monologue was interrupted and I heard the loud chime from the massive bell on the top of the gatehouse that reminded me it was now the proper hour for my meeting with the Emperor.

As always, I was stopped by the guard even though I had the jade amulet around my neck that allowed me straight passage into the Emperor’s inner palace. I was not angry though, they were just doing their jobs and in fact, I would be worried for the Emperor’s safety if the guards had allowed me through without stopping me. This was because although I had been in the Unification wars since the beginning, I was hardly one of its key players. Just a grunt soldier who stayed true to the cause and contented left for home after the war was done with my pay in tow. Not a fortune but enough for me to live on barring too much excess. In fact, I was still dressed in my lowly infantry garb with the wide brimmed, low coned lacquer hat, a comfortable white undershirt, a one piece lacquer armour breastplate and shin guards with my katana wrapped in cloth by my side held by thick cords to my waist. Totally out of place was the fist sized jade amulet hanging by my neck, which probably cost more than all I had on me ten times over.   

(2)  Show and no tell

I thus produced the letter with the Emperor’s personal print on it and the soldier’s snapped a quick bow of apology and wished me a good day. Eyes wide I would have a personal audience or even dare to turn up so poorly dressed to speak to the Emperor himself. Proceeding on, it was a beautiful walk, shade from the low hanging trees keeping me cooled and the pathway wide enough so the traffic flowed just as easily as the breeze. After going through the same process with another set of guards as before, I entered the second gate. This led into the Administration District, the wash of activity totally catching me off guard after the long walk through the peaceful courtyard which contained more plants than people. It was not a noisy scene though but the people here walked quicker and tended to look straight ahead as they moved from building to building, carrying bundles of scrolls giving the place a general aura which one can only described as hectic. Gathering myself, I moved along what was called Petition’s Road, so called because all letters or requests for the Emperor were brought here to be sorted and most dealt with by someone along this pathway. This thought gave me a smile as I recalled the whispers of many in the capital that the lowly clerks here held more power than the warlords staggered among the Empire, who were so preoccupied with their own ‘legend’ that they could never admit it to themselves to do anything about it.

It was then I saw the last building before the next gatehouse, a large stone building, imposing in its stature, spartan in its decoration but one could not miss its importance to the District, when on a large sign before its double doors in bold letters stated ‘EYES OF HEAVEN’. It was the last place a letter or request to the Emperor would have to pass to garner the honour of his personal attention. Here too was where another of his Majesty’s early supporters from the small town of Sead worked. His name was Seabn, who I have not met in many years since the Unification Wars and I heard might have some noted changes in his person but still my impression of the man was less than stellar from past experiences. This was because of his utter procrastination in all things when I had the pleasure of his company. Especially the hard questions in life, be it to save for a rainy day or to exercise, there was always another day to start. This became confounding when during the war instead of spurring the Emperor to action on hard decisions, he seemed more concerned with the company of the local maidens he would befriend and spend his wages on. This being his own hobby that would be fine, were it not that he would then bring them to our gatherings and spilt the cost ‘equally’ to wine and dine them. Usually getting another two, Aabron or Jibmy to pay as the rest of us were hardly as willing to indulge his pretence of wealth, of which I still hear he has yet to fully pay back. The mood of these gatherings too would border on tiresome when he would get jealous at any attention these fair maidens would pay on anybody else but him. I started to growl at the swarm of negative thoughts but then tempered it with the good judgement that the Emperor had taught me that there was good in the man too. He was great at keeping acquaintances entertained and was actually quite a talent at small talk and one could say his company was enjoyable if one did not want to have too much to think about on a given day. That being said, I again decided to move on so as to not disturb Senior Administrator Seabn or so I told myself and proceeded to the next gatehouse.

(3)  No rush

After moving past the first pair of guards at the gate to the castle courtyard, I was then greeted by another pair of guards. These though were the most well trained and armed of the Imperial Army, the ‘Emperor’s Will’.  There were not many of them but their loyalty and honour was unquestionable. Something I could collaborate from first hand experience, their fighting ability top notch, I had never seen them retreat in a battle other than when ordered and they were unquestioning when given orders by the Emperor. The armour I was looking at though was far too ornate and trimmed with gold for someone who had to fight at a moment’s notice but I guess they were here equally to impress as much as protect. I was searched and had to give up my katana. I was loathed to do so not for any spiritual reason other than I hate being apart from something that I use to remind myself to be a better person. All men waive in circumstance and in those times, looking or holding that blade had prevented me from doing more than one thing I would have later regretted. Still, I gave my blade freely to the guard for safekeeping and was allowed into the castle keep. Here a friendly face greeted me and along with said smile was the flamboyant voice of one who spent many a year trained in the arts of entertainment. I greeted back with a slight bow but my movements hardly as graceful as his and went over to shake the hand of another of the group who set off from Sead with the Emperor before he was crowned such. The whole loud exchange attracting more than a few stares of curiosity and disgust from the courtiers who found the two of us wholly underdressed in such a respected venue.

His name was Jibmy or ‘Jib Ji’ if you go by his stage name taken from a local dialect of Sead. He was a plump person but his grace and stamina easily my better when it came to physical work, impressing many in his ability to perform such beyond the normal expectations of one of his bodytype. His title was that of ‘Grand Entertainer’ but the title was more an honorary than for work purposes. His prevailing trait was that of a relaxed and happy go lucky individual and one which I truly believed or if it was all an act must have been a most tiring one to keep up, seeing the many years I have known the man. This was the reason for the stares as even though he was known as the Grand Entertainer, other than when he is performing, he was usually dressed in a loose fitting straw coloured monk outfit with a plain satchel sling bag to carry his belongings. One could say he looked poorer than me in simple infantry armour but in fact he was actually very well known at his job for manipulating a crowd and was paid well for his abilities. His title being honorary I could only guess due to his many commitments to outside businesses thus making it hard for him to get any official position that would need him to remain in the Capital for long periods of time.

After the pleasantries were exchanged, we proceeded towards the upper private chambers, Jib leading the way as I had a horrid sense of direction especially in such a big place. As we walked and I was updated on the gossip of the capital among other things, I was also reminded in conversation of the reason for Jib’s relaxed demeanour. His family owned land in Sead and his father had recently gained title to it, thus in time to come the land would be worth more than sin in the now popularised city that birthed the Emperor. Money and a living was thus not a thing he had to worry about anymore. I had my reservations that nothing was confirmed till the deed is done as the matron of the household still had sway in the deed before her passing. On top of that, I would argue Jib’s extended family was less than likely to give up without a fight to such a fortune but I could not disagree totally as the rationale is logical if somewhat without insurance.

On a selfish note too, the relaxed demeanour is also what makes it enjoyable to spend time with the man. Although as always after the gossip ran dry, the conversation can become pretty sparse. This was not because Jib was boring, on the other hand unlike Seabn he would take on any topic and have a strong opinion. Issue was the evidence he tended to use to support his arguments tended to be less than concrete. This became evident as we waited for the Emperor to be informed of our presence in the tea room and we debated the hot topic of the capital, foreign labour. I had a firm view that we ‘natives’ could not support the economy of the rising Empire and that foreign labour was needed to augment the needs for an efficient running of the realm. This and the natives saw themselves as superior and would not stoop to doing ‘lower’ level jobs, which were backbreaking but ones that needed doing nonetheless. The evidence and statistics for such, an easily found thing in the Administration district although like any such survey, they could be contested for accuracy. Jib’s counter argument though was a common method called the strawman fallacy, to attack another point and make that the focus over the main issue at hand. He argued that the foreign workers were degrading the lifestyle of the natives with their rude behaviour and uncouth ways and they were taking away good jobs and opportunities from the natives. The issue suddenly about lifestyle and job opportunities over the needs of the Empire as a whole and his evidence was as follows: “You would see it is true if you just walk around the capital and see how many of them there are and look at how they all behave all so barbarian like.” I would have also informed him that would mean his evidence was based on nothing more than his own opinion but it was then the doors opened, four heavily armed guards entered and his majesty walked into the room.

(4)  A wisdom worth travelling for

Clad in the finest silken wear of yellow and threaded with gold, the first Emperor of the Ia’n Dynasty walked into the room confident as always. Both I and Jib assumed the seizan position, both hands pressed to the ground, palms flat and facing forward connecting at the tips of our index fingers, lowered our heads to the ground voicing the traditional greeting to the Emperor to rule for a thousand, thousand and a thousand more years. As we raised our heads, I noticed that the Emperor had his arms crossed, looked rather unhappy and after a pause said: “You missed a thousand.” I smiled and with a slight tilt of the head replied: “Well I don’t like you that much.” This got one of the guards to step forward and reach for his weapon but the Emperor held out his hand and smiled: “Disrespectful as always.” and stepped forward gesturing for us both to stand and proceed to the table in the middle of the room, the guards then proceeding to step outside and closed the door. Jib proceeded to pour the tea in the cups and commented on how the three of us sitting thus was very much like in Sead where we first met, well minus the massive castle, hundreds of guards and furnishings in this one room that could probably had pay for the army in our early days for years. Jib’s point was still a good observation though, it did start with the three of us in an army camp doing the mandatory years of armed service to the past dynasty. It was a time of relative peace and it was only after we were released from said service that the years turned dark with corruption and the subsequent revolution that changed all our lives.

I was knocked out of my reminiscing state when I heard my name being called. I apologised and said the comment was most fitting and thus my brain went on a tangent. What followed in conversation was on Sir Aabron and how he has tried to start many new businesses, many of which seemed to be going nowhere beyond the initial support of friends to last. This coming to explain the many posters I saw as I walked through the capital advertising his sale of machines that helped to speed up the making of clay cups or those of art design on household products. I kept to myself that he probably blamed the Emperor’s economy over his entrepreneurial skills for said failures. Without revelation, I asked and was informed that Aabron’s view on the world had hardly changed since I last saw him. As Jib put it, he was still a hopelessly negative person and if asked if a cup was half full or empty of water, he probably would complain that it was not wine. Subject then moved onto his wife with as much a negative nature as his but I was surprised to hear of the birth of his second child, who I have not met. I referred that I saw the shining example of the Aabron family to be the son. This is because for the mediocre looks of the parents, he actually looked to have a good facial and body structure, not handsome per say but above average as a child thus far. He was also a quiet child, a quality I much appreciate in children but yet he was not shy or had any fear of strangers. That being said I then admitted to the group that I did try to avoid contact with the child as I did believe in nurture over nature and thus for all his good qualities now, his parent’s influence were a huge hurdle he would have to surpass, of which I did not put much hope in with both their controlling natures.

It was then the Emperor noted who was being negative now and explained my own flaws of judgement with evidential support. The unwillingness to become a more career minded individual to help society as a whole or the trade-off of a stable income for a safer future in old age over the aimless wandering life I led now. And that what I came for and smiled, for throughout our time together, the Emperor had always been the most honest with me, not only that, he would explain said flaw with evidence. In essence, allowing me to truly see my flaw and help me to either solve it or accept it as part of me but not deny or defend it and I hoped I did the same for him. The thing that most from the old circle that came from Sead could have benefitted from most. The ability to see themselves as others see them, the truer self which was uninhibited by their own view of enlarged self worth. 

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