Investigation, Part One

From the Story Arc: The Touch of the Orchid Phoenix (mature readers only)

Previous Story in the Arc: Prologue -- Underground by People's Blade (Friday, October 22, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: Investigation, Part Two by People's Blade (Tuesday, October 26, 2004)

(posted Saturday, October 23, 2004)



Xiao Fei Li, the Blade of the People, bearer of Jade Emperor's Whisper, spirit vessel for the legendary general Shen Xue, balanced on one finger and knew she was procrastinating. Next to her weight bearing finger was a stack of paperwork: dossiers of new recruits to annotate and file, evaluations to evaluate, memos from Moscow and Beijing, housing requests from her troops.

In China, she thought, I'd have a battalion of secretaries to handle the red tape for my battalion of warriors. I'd be in the field right now, drilling them or skirmishing.

Frustrated, she switched to the index finger on her other hand. She drew Jade Emperor's Whisper from the leather bound metal sheath on her belt and placed the point in the center of the largest pile of documents, the memos. Shifting her weight to the sword tip, she extended her now free hand palm outward, with the thumb curled in. She entered a meditative state, breathing with her entire body, visualizing herself as a tree with but a single root.

For fifteen minutes she held her pose. The anxiety of bureaucratic exertions left her. Calm acceptance replaced it.

A tenuous knock at the door ended her reverie.

"Enter."

Cyriss McCloud, first known to her as Jaguar 7, shuffled in. His posture sagged and his steps were uneven, but Fei Li knew it was how most Americans walked, as if attending their own funeral. He wore what he considered to be sleek fighting armor, studded with metal workings reminiscent of spaceships in science fiction movies, which she knew constricted his movements by a modest margin. At his side hung the sword he had acquired to begin his training as a true warrior, after setting down his rifle. It was the only piece of his decollete of which she approved.

"General, I am..." He stopped short as he noticed Fei Li balancing with her sword alone.

"You are not at the circus, xuesheng. Please speak."

He winced. "Sorry, General, it's just that I've never seen anyone do that before. It's distracting."

"Please refrain from describing your mental state to me, unless asked. It is a habit you should break." Turning on her wrist, she lowered herself to the floor. Jade Emperor's Whisper barely disturbed the pages when she returned it to its sheath, leaving a small hole.

"Sorry, I didn't realize--"

"Do not apologize. Merely comply."

"Okay, I'll try--"

She sighed. "Cyriss, be silent. Why do I think I can instruct you in the art of the sword when you barely know how to speak properly?" A memory of a stray puppy she took in as a street urchin came to mind. "Let us start again. Please order your thoughts."

Fei Li took her seat and swiveled to face him with a smile. "Now, how can I help you, xuesheng?"

He drew himself up to stand at attention. "General, I am here at the request of Grandmaster Te."

"My other xuesheng, hao!"

The Mandarin threw Cyriss off again. "Um...yeah, your other...student. Right. One of his informants in the Chinese community says the Tsoo have been interviewing calligraphers." He shifted from one foot to another. "I have no idea what that means, but he thought you should know."

She nodded. "Once again, he proves his wisdom. This could be dire news."

Cyriss began to speak, but closed his mouth. Fei Li chuckled.

"Oh, you must think we are being...inscrutable? Dui, inscrutable. I will elaborate." She turned over a Russian memo and began to sketch a Chinese character on it with a marker. Even with the clumsy writing tool, her strokes were refined and elegant.

"This is the character for blade." Cyriss nodded. She drew another character, this one boxed in and far more elaborate. It took twice as long. "And this is also the character for blade."

"They're different, almost. I see that squiggle there in both."

"Hao!" she congratulated him. "Very good for waiguoren. Dui, this first character is the modern version, derived over thousands of years from this one." Her finger traced the ancient character. "This older character also carries many more meanings. It requires training and skill to read ancient Chinese texts. It is a scholarly trade."

Cyriss eyed the ancient version. "Pretty nice. It would make a great tattoo." He grimaced when he saw her scowl. "Sorry, sorry. Just ordering my thoughts."

"Hmph." She tapped the ancient character again with her finger. "If the Tsoo think they require the services of a calligrapher, then they must have found a scroll their own experts cannot decipher. To make such an effort, and risk exposure, means the reward must be significant. Which is omnious for the rest of us."

Cyriss slapped the desk. "Then we stake out the offices of these calligraphers, wait for the Tsoo to move, then cut them down!"

The outburst was typical of him. Yet, before Fei Li could snap at him, Shen Xue’s consciousness swam forward and tapped her mental shoulder. He is like a dog, but still must be led to the answer by his own leash. Allow him to learn from his own foolishness.

Fei Li made a show of considering his idea. “Hao, Cyriss. Let us send three Red Brigadeers to each calligrapher’s house to hide in the bushes. When they see Tsoo, they attack. If they succeed, less Tsoo on the streets.”

“Right.” Already he sounded unsure.

“And how do we learn more of their plans?”

He fingered the hilt of his sword. “Uh…Interrogation?”

She shook her head. “Tsoo do not break under interrogation. Believe me, I have tried. To break would be to cast them in shame from this life and the afterlife.”

“Oh.”

“This path we walk to understand their goal is not a short one. Please set aside your urges for solving solutions by the pull of a trigger.”

“Aiy.” Still he teased his sword, as if it were a stick brought in to the house after play in the yard. “How do we begin? Go door to door?”

Door to door… Fei Li grinned, surprising him. “Oh! A good idea from my student at last!”

“I was kidding! We can’t visit every single house…” The prospect of ordinary drudgery seemed to alarm him more than facing down a dozen Tsoo.

Fei Li removed her headband without word. She reached back and undid her hair tie. Long black hair cascaded down her shoulders. Cyriss stopped talking and stared.

She ran fingers through her hair to tease it into a traditional Chinese hairstyle, framing her face. Few in the Red Brigade had seen her like this.

She giggled.

“General,” Cyriss murmured.

“I am like Superman. I am in disguise! It won’t be Xiao Fei Li going door to door, selling maobi, chinese calligraphy brushes, but Kelly Wu, college student.” She gestured to her tee shirt and jeans. “Watch.” Picking up the marker and the paper with her characters, she approached him, holding them reverently and changing her bearing.

“Excuse me, sir. My name is Kelly Wu, and I work for Singing Dragon Calligraphy Supply. Our list,” she held the paper for a moment like a clipboard, “shows that you spend a substantial amount on supplies every month. May we show you our catalog?”

“Wow,” he said. “You’re totally different. I never realized how used I was to seeing you like…um…” He spread his arms, at a loss.

“I am a trained warrior, but I remember how to walk and move like a civilian. You are a good basis for inspiration.” She pushed hair out of her eyes. “And a Chinese girl’s giggle is a better mask than spandex.”

“You can say that again. But why not go to them as People’s Blade?”

She set the paper and pen down. “If the Tsoo have contacted them, they are likely under surveillance. People’s Blade is very unwelcome. As Kelly Wu, I will not trigger alarms. I should be able to tell by their reactions whether they have been pulled into the Tsoo’s plan.”

Her bearing changed, became regal. Cyriss stood at attention without realizing it. People’s Blade pointed at his sword. Startled, he handed sword and sheath over.

She held the sheath at eye level and studied the blade’s edge as she drew the sword. “This is a fine weapon,” she said. Cyriss let out a breath. “Do not be so tense around your teacher. I am committed to helping you.”

The blade had good balance, though it was heavier than Jade Emperor’s Whisper. She knew he had used it on opponents with armor, yet it showed few scratches.

“Xuesheng, I do not believe you understand the nature of swords. Do not speak,” she stopped him and he shut his mouth, “but rather, listen so that I don’t have to waste time correcting you as I usually do.” She laid the sheath on the desk.

“Your sword is an extension of your hand. It operates at the end of your arm, extending your reach. However, when you apply force with a blade, it does far more damage than a fist would. The sharp edge is most efficient at using the qi, the energy, you put into an attack.”

She swung the sword in two graceful arcs, sighted down the blade, then wiggled it to see it flex.

“Your sword is well sharpened. You learned something from maintaining a firearm. Stand still.” With a fluid movement she brought the sword up to his throat.

“Ah…ah…” Fear shone in his eyes. Fei Li smiled.

“You are a quick learner. You had no fear when the sword’s edge was five feet away, yet it now occupies a space that causes you to consider the consequences of its location. I won’t cut you, so relax.”

Relaxation was the last thing on his mind. I must learn acceptance, she reminded herself. He has no experience with true discipline.

“When you wield a sword, you move it through space to the place it must be to deliver the force of your qi. The strength of your sword arm and your aim are boats which carry your goal to the shore. The difference between the sword’s location now, and two inches forward, is substantially more than any point on the arcs I swung earlier. Do you understand?” She thought quickly. “Don’t nod.”

He tried to show comprehension with his eyes. “Hao! Now, tell me how the edge feels against your skin.”

“Sharp,” he said.

“And this?” She pressed the flat of the blade against his throat.

He grinned. “Cold!” Fei Li laughed.

“You are learning. The sword has many states. You must acclimate to them all.” With a flourish she presented it to him. “Your next lesson, to be followed nightly until I tell you otherwise, is to sleep with your naked blade.”

He smirked.

“What? It is a clear instruction.”

“Nothing, nothing…ah…a twist of language, that’s all.”

Frowning, she handed him the sheath. “I miss many nuances of English. It is an awkward language…much like its speakers. Nevertheless…wear few bedclothes. You are to cradle it like a teddy bear, and learn to understand the sharp edge for what it is. When I decide that you have lost the fear of that cutting edge, you may cease.”

Comprehension dawned on his face. “Holding the blade? I’ll get cut!”

It was Fei Li’s turn to smirk. “Not if you treat her gently. Dismissed.”