The light shone down upon the old tiles of a tea house deep in the city of Kéi Meóng. People were queuing up to buy the most delectable drink in the southern colonies of the Harou region, known as the White Jade Tea. There were an assortment of people in the restaurant, soldiers, towns’ people and most commonly refugees. The air this morning was full, although slightly humid, denoting the coming of summer and the start of the fire festival. People were busy discussing their costumes and thinking of the parties they were going to attend. The owner of the shop known as Fa Long Tei was happily observing his customers while developing a new secret recipe for the yearly festival.
Laughter could be heard coming from one of the corners of the room, it seemed that the soldiers who were drinking there were having a hearty time playing a game. The men, dressed in the normal garb of Harounian Pike men, all sat down around a small table where they were playing a game that involved quite a bit of money.
The 6 players were all seated around the rectangular table holding 4 tiles in their hands, the others watching closely in anticipation. On the table were four more tiles, another vital part of the game. For a few moments no one moved, then one of the soldiers moved the tiles into a corner and placed four more, from a pile of tiles to his right onto the centre of the table and flipped them over. As soon as the first tile hit the table many hands shot out, swapping tiles with the ones in their hands.
After a few exchanged glances they all grew tense.
“Baíku!” One of the men cried out pointing towards the man opposite him requesting he show everyone his tiles.
As he placed all four of his tiles face up, the others noticed that they were the same symbol. All the players, apart from that pair, groaned as they shifted their piles of silver pieces towards the winners of the round.
“Up for another round?” one of the soldiers asked, as he prepared to deal out the tiles.
All the others agreed to another game and drank their teas before focusing again on the game.
"Did you know a new batch of survivors are expected to arrive today, it seems Madrack has increased the pressure he’s put into expanding the lands he owns." one of the guards said in a more hushed tone.
Everyone at that table knew what Madrack’s soldiers were capable of. Villages were left barren of life and the land scarred by the tyrants rage. Those who were captured were either killed, made into slaves or suffered a fate far worse than the soldiers would like to imagine.
"Damn that demon king!" one of the soldiers, quite younger than the others, banged the table with his fist causing some of the tiles to rattle and drop onto the floor.
The others looked at him with a sense of fear in their eyes. The soldier’s uproar caused half the room to look quizzically towards the men. One of the soldiers immediately shot up and put on a half-smile.
"Nothing to worry about, just a game that went a bit too far!"
The man laughed if not to reassure the public but to keep himself calm. He wouldn't have wanted to deal with the Mitsu Kai this early in the morning. He quickly sat down and motioned for the other soldiers to finish up, it was about time they prepared for the second shift of the day. As they left the shop, paying their respect to the Shop Keeper, one of the soldiers wearing a yellow brimmed hat pulled the man who had spoken out and brought him into a quiet alley, they walked for a while until they were out of sight.
“Look sir, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to-“the man started.
“What do you think you’re doing, trying to get us killed? One word and the Mitsu Kai will be on us before you could blink!”
The man started mumbling, having not seen his commander in this state before, the man was terrified of what he would do.
“I have a good mind to get rid of you now! I could easily get 10 other men to replace you!” the commander slammed the man into a wall in anger.
Looking at him for a few moments the commander grimaced in disgust before leaving the man to pity himself, moving back to the others.
“Let's go, Private Jou Mai will not be joining us again.”
The rest of the men didn't look back as they marched off. They were hardly glad that their friend had lost his job, but even the older members of that particular squad where scared of what Commander Mays would do to them if he saw them show any sign of weakness.
Jou was still sitting in the alley, taking in the fact that he lost the only thing he had to support his family. He cradled his head in his arms and closed his eyes, angered that he did something so foolish.
Jou didn't recognize the voice commanding him, however the tone instinctively made him stand. He looked around trying to find the source of the voice but could see no one around him.
“Don’t bother trying to find me. I'm skilled in the art of shadows, however I want to present you with the opportunity to redeem yourself.”
Jou didn't know what to do, he had an idea who was talking to him, but was afraid of his suspicions.
“If…this is about before….I…I am-"
“No. I simply want to give you the opportunity of getting revenge, for what Commander Mays did to you and to help serve your country at the same time. It's obvious that your devotion to this city are great.”
Jou was unsure if he should sigh in relief, knowing he had dodged what could have been a bad situation. He stood tall with a new determination in his eye.
“What did you have in mind?”
The mystery voice came from the shadows, the formation of rooftops preventing any sunlight from properly illuminating the area. It seemed as if the voice came from behind a large wall, emanating from the darkest part of the alley way and as Jou drew his breath, a figure emerged from the wall.
Not many features could be seen as the man was wearing a dark blue cloak covering any notable features of his face. He also wore a silver face plate that covered his mouth and nose, only leaving his eyes exposed to the elements.
“You.....you are one of the-“
The man raised his hand and instantly silenced the soldier.
“Yes, one of the cities secret forces, in fact I'm known as 'The Immortal Knight' by the locals. However this isn’t the best place to talk of such matters so I urge you to follow me quickly.”
The man sank back into the shadows, walking deeper into the alley without checking to see if Jou was even following him. Jou started to go after him when a huge explosion could be heard in the distance, tempting Jou to look back and check it out. Smoke could be seen coming from the rooftops of nearby houses, by Jou's estimations they were right near the tea house he had been in earlier.
Jou turned with the intention of running towards the smoke and away from the masked man when he heard the masked man speak to him.
“Don’t go. The cities forces can deal with what’s going on. Right now I need you to follow me and forget what’s happening.”
“You need to follow me now, or perhaps you don’t really want to redeem yourself?" the man spoke, his tone never changing, "You do want to keep your family fed after all. Perhaps you may even get a job as one of the Royal Guard!”
Jou subdued his thoughts and sighed. He follow the man, having to jog so that he could catch up with him.
10 minutes had passed since Jou had been following behind the mysterious man. Since then, he had found himself in a part of the city he had never seen before. Everyone he passed wore a silver insignia on their clothes, a burning moon crescent within a circle.
As they passed the women and men going about their business, they received curtsies from everyone. It was enough to tell Jou that the man he was following was a very highly regarded person.
A few children ran past Jou and started dancing around the two men, Jou waved at them only for the children to giggle in childish delight and run off. Puzzled at first, Jou dismissed what happened and focused again on the other people.
He was amazed at the amount of people, in all the 20 years that he had lived in the Kéi Meóng city he had never witnessed such harmony in one place before.
All these people swearing their loyalty to the King and the palace for whatever they needed of them.
It reminded him that he himself had never seen the royal palace or even the face of his King. Jou raised his hand to get his guides attention and ask about the moon crescent, but the man in front of him turned as if he could read his mind and spoke.
“The insignia that you may have noticed on the people denotes the allegiance of the close families to King Daísuan the Third of the Mei Kéi Meóng family.” The man sighed quietly as if he was hiding something from Jou before continuing, “I want you to become a member of the patrol, known as the Leidou Watch. From now on you shall regard me as your Captain and not call me by anything else.”
“Captain? But I don’t know your real name? And what about becoming part of the royal guard?”
The Captain stopped, turned and looked hard into Jou’s eyes. A moment passed until the Captain laughed heartily putting his right hand on the ex-soldiers shoulder. His laugh was chilling, easily putting Jou on edge.
“It has been a while since I have laughed, I thank you for that,” the Captain straightened up before continuing as he still looked into Jou’s eyes when talking, “I only led you to believe that becoming a Royal Guard was possible because that’s what most recruits strive for.”
“Most?” Jou was intrigued whilst feeling a slight sense of embarrassment.
“Yes most. Only one person I know didn’t fall for that lie.”
“Me, however that’s a story for another day,” the Captain started walking motioning for Jou to keep up, “and regarding your question about my name, it would be safer if you didn't find out so soon.”
Jou fell silent, mixed emotions were clouding his mind. If anyone asked he would immediately say that he was proud that he could become a member of the most highly regarded group of military officials that the city knew of. Yet something else lingered, a loneliness familiar to the time he joined the city army. He had been put in a unit with others much older than him, not given much of a chance to bond with the rest of his squadron. By the time he had been "relieved" of his duty he couldn't say that he knew his fellow soldiers too well. As much as he had disliked the circumstances he had been given, what lay in front of him was certainly new.
This environment, the people, his new Captain, the fact that he didn't know anyone. Jou saw a long road ahead of him, but it was a fresh start. A chance to correct his mistake and live on as one of the most well-respected guards in the country.
But why did it all happen so fast?
Jou was unsure of exactly how much time had passed since the incident at the tea shop but made up his mind anyway.
“I have one question, what will become of my family?”
The Captain paused as if to consider the question, but responded as if he had heard it being asked many times before.
“Your family will be summoned shortly to the court of Jéi Mai so that they can pledge their allegiance to the King. After that they will be allocated a home in the inner city. You will relocate with them in a month’s time after your training is complete. That being said, tonight will be your last chance to spend time with your wife before this training starts.”
Jou paused slightly shocked by the Captains words.
“Training? But I've just finished a year’s worth with the city guard!”
The Captain raised an eyebrow and looked back at Jou. His face showed no features but Jou suspected that the Captain was smirking underneath the mask.
“If you think that’s training, then perhaps you need to reconsider things. No, the real training starts tomorrow at the first light of dawn.”
As the two walked Jou looked upwards and only realized he couldn't see the sky. The whole inner city was covered in a blanket of stone, protecting it from the eyes of the outside world. Hundreds of gold torches illuminated the streets and rooftops while millions of silver jewels were encrusted into the stone sky, glimmered like shimmering stars in the night sky. The new light that Jou was exposed to had a calming effect on his senses, dulling his movement.
He suspected that it would immediately calm the rage of any newcomer, a useful feature to protect the aristocrats of the kingdom.
Perhaps the roads are scented in the national Hásire Flower of the Dengáda Region.
Jou scoffed at his little joke before realizing the true meaning of the Captains words.
“How am I supposed to tell night from day here?”
The Captain was glad that Jou had asked that question, for it seemed the young man had some sense in him at least.
“That shall be your first test, but now I think it would be best to construct your new armour. Ahh, here we are. Enter the shop and the man inside will see to your needs.”