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Fiction

Sister Qian Guang pulled quackgrass from her pea garden. She built wooden trellises to support her pole peas, but only manual labor could stave off the weeds. As she yanked the last stubborn tuft of quackgrass from the soil, she felt a cramp in her lower back. She wiped the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her alb.

A thousand years ago, just before the Great Flood, Qian’s ancestors referred one’s main gig as a “day job.” But here, in the year 3021, nestled in the lowlands of New Shaolin Empire, agrarian subjects of the new Empress Yi Lanfen worked more of an “all the time job,” toiling sun up to sun down in order to meet the Empress’s unreasonable demands. Over the past six months, Qian barely had time to commune with the other New Shaolin monks, let alone meditate. 

Empress Yi Lanfen’s first actions as Empress raised many an eyebrow. First, she covered just about everything in the New Shaolin Palace in steel and aluminum, the rarest and most expensive of metals. Then, she cut off communication with the border guards, leaving the lowlands and borderlands vulnerable to invasion. Worst of all, Yi Lanfen shouted all the time and was cruel to animals. Qian had to meet her pea quota; if not, the Empress would smite the lowlands and destroy her monastic order.

“No, Luo!” Qian cried.

Luo, Qian’s Mandarin Retriever, chased a spotted squirrel across the temple steps and raced toward Qian’s pea trellises at top speed. Mandarin Retrievers are similar to Labrador Retrievers from ancient North America, except they’re five times bigger and live for hundreds of years. Whenever Luo caught the scent of a squirrel, he usually ended up breaking everything and anything in between him and the squirrel. Luo clod-hopped and rammed his way through the eastern-most trellis, the one with the best pole peas, and left little but what looked like giant chopsticks poking out of the dirt. 

Qian watched Luo chase the squirrel all the way to the base of the big oak near the river. He sat at the bottom of the trunk and barked every 10 seconds for the squirrel to come down and play. 

Qian laughed to herself. “Oh, Luo. You big goof.” 

She walked to the remainder of the east trellis and shook her head. Tomorrow, she would rebuild. She looked closely at the fallen trellis beams and saw a spider crawling along the tip of one of the dregs. Qian marveled at the spider as it began to weave a web in and between the wood.

Behind Qian, something went thwoonk. She turned to the garden’s middle trellis, where the sound came from, and saw the one thing she hoped she would never see. Someone had thrown a Zhongzhi dart into one of the center trellis bars. The dart had a message rolled around its shaft. Qian pulled the tiny paper scroll from the Zhongzhi dart, unrolled the message, and gasped. It read, “Yi Lanfen.”

Qian led a double life. In addition to being a monk who grew peas, she was also an assassin. Among the Jianhuren of New Shaolin, Qian was known as Zhizhu (“Spider”). The Jianhuren were a shadow order charged with protecting New Shaolin Empire from tyranny. If any Jianhuren received a Zhongzhi dart, she had to kill the political figure named its message scroll. If the designated Jianhuren failed to kill the named person, the Jianhuren died in her sleep, choked on her tea, or met an “accidental” death by some other means.

“Luo! Here!”

Luo heard Qian’s command and sprinted to his master, shaking the ground with his weight. He stopped just shy of her feet, licking his lips, radiating the scent of freshly eaten squirrel from his breath. Luo had a small gash on his chest. 

“Guess the squirrel got a lick in?”

Luo sat at attention with his big honking tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. His wound began to heal. Mandarin Retrievers live for an indeterminate amount of time. What was it Master Shen called it? Negligible senescence? They don’t age at all, they can grow back missing limbs, and they heal very, very fast. 

“Dang, Luo.” Qian ran her hand over Luo’s freshly healed chest. “Let’s get some grub. I have something I need to run by you.”

Hours later, after verbalizing her plan to her best slobbering confidant, Qian sent a carrier pigeon to the Imperial Palace, which was set high atop Tianzhu Peak, deep in the Wudang mountains. Her message to read:

O Highest Yi Lanfen, Empress of the New Shaolin:

We, the Order of New Shaolin Oblates, in lieu of our normal annual harvest and tribute to you, O, great one, pledge to you the opportunity to view our most prized and sacred linens on display in the New Shaolin Temple. Please have mercy on us. Our well has run dry.

The next day, the carrier pigeon landed on a table next to the head of security, Ren Qiqiang, who was seated at the right hand of Empress Yi Lanfen. Ren wore ornate and distressed armor and was always by Lanfen’s side. The pigeon poked a bit at Ren’s arm plate.

“Your highness, look. A message,” Ren said. 

“Give it here!” Yi said.

Yi read the message from the New Shaolin monks. When she finished, she paused, and her pale face turned as red as an angry sunset. The pigeon, sensing her work was done, jumped up and began to fly out the Empress’s presence. Before the pigeon could leave, Yi unsheathed her single edge dao (“saber”) and sliced the pigeon in half, mid-flight. 

“Soldiers! To the New Shaolin Temple!” Yi announced.

Three days later, after winding down the Wudang mountains and to the lowlands, Empress Lanfen, Ren Qiqiang, and a hundred imperial soldiers arrived at the gate of the New Shaolin Temple. An imperial entourage of that size made quite a racket, so the entire order of New Shaolin oblates had lined up in formation at the gate, ready to receive the Empress. 

Ren knocked on the giant gate and said, “Empress Lanfen demands tribute!”

Master Shen stepped forward. “O, Empress! Our tribute is not due for three months! Please allow us time to gather and we will provide what we promised!” he said. 

Ren looked at Yi. 

Yi nodded.

“Pay tribute now or we will destroy your temple!” Ren said. 

Deliberating silence ran through the courtyard. After a time, Master Shen shouted, “Zhàndòu!”

“Zhàndòu!” the other 200 monks replied in unison.

“Kill them all!” Yi said. 

The small regiment of soldiers broke through the temple gate without much struggle. Then, Empress Lanfen’s imperial soldiers charged with their jian (“battle swords”). The New Shaolin monks defended themselves and were masters of plum blossom style kung fu. The soldiers swung hard and fast, but the monks dodged and countered faster. The battle was a long, drawn out, zero-sum game, with very few monks getting even the slightest flesh wound and all of the soldiers running out of steam and then being knocked unconscious. The monks placed pillows of hay under the sleeping heads of their beaten and bruised adversaries. 

As the melee raged through the courtyard, Yi and Ren made their way to the temple. On the way to the front entrance, Yi passed by the pea trellises. She laughed at the broken trellis and walked all over the soil of the broken trellis row, destroying the peas with each step. At the end of the row, Yi stopped and looked at the middle trellis.

“What is it, my Lady?”

“Nothing, Ren. Just keep your eyes peeled.”

Yi and Ren arrived at the temple door.

“Break it down!” she yelled to Ren.

Ren turned the handle and opened “It’s unlocked,” he said.

Yi walked through the door in a huff. On the altar, and lit by the skylights, lay a dozen fine fabrics, some silks, some ancient world materials—something called polyester and another something called spandex. 

“Damn,” Ren said. “Those look mighty nice.”

“Grab them!” Yi said.

Ren marched toward the altar, looking left and right, scanning for danger. As he neared, a low, menacing growl echoed through the temple. Ren unsheathed his jian. From the shadows, Luo crouched with a snarl, ready to pounce on anyone who approached the silks. He made a double-Elvis with his mouth and wiggled his butt, like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse. 

Luo lunged at Ren. Hot slobber flung out in ribbons. Ren stood his ground, held his jian straight, and stabbed Luo straight through the heart. Luo winced and keeled over. 

Yi walked toward Ren. “Bravo, Ren. Watch him though. He’s a Mandy.”

“My Lady?”

“He heals faster than he dies. I never—”

Then, Yi raised her dao and swatted at several darts that zinged toward them. Ren cried in pain. It wasn’t the sting of the dart’s puncture that made him wail. It was the tarantula venom that coursed through his veins, setting his nerves afire, paralyzing him. He fell over.

“Zhizhu!” Yi shouted. “Come out, Zhizhu!” Yi paused and watched Ren breathe his last breath. Yi snorted. “I know it’s you, Zhizhu!” she continued, “I saw the Zhongzhi dart stuck in your stupid pea trellis.”

As Qian tip-toed high above in the temple loft, she readied her blowgun with a second round of poison darts.

“Zhizhu, if you do not come forward and face me, I will hunt down and destroy the Jianhuren. I know there are more of you. Where do you think I stole Ren from?”

Qian launched another five darts at Yi. She deflected all one, two, three, four, five with her dao.

“I can do this all day, Zhizhu.”

Luo moaned from below and slowly rose to his paws. He growled at Yi.

“You know, Zhizhu, even though Mandies can basically never die, they still feel pain all the same.” 

Yi swung her dao and cut off Luo’s tail. Luo wailed and fell to the ground again.

“He’s cute,” Yi continued. “But his ears could use some boxing.”

Yi sliced Luo’s left ear off. Luo howled the loudest he had ever howled. Empress Yi Lanfen cackled. 

“Stop fucking with my dog!” Qian shouted from the loft. She flipped from the loft and down to the ground level of the temple. She charged at Yi with a sai (“short sword”) in each hand. Qian intended to disarm Yi and assumed that Yi would swing wide. Instead, Yi thrust forward, straight through the “X” Qian made with her sai, and stabbed Qian in the stomach.

Qian yelled and fell next to Luo. Yi sheathed her dao and walked toward the altar. Beams of sunlight hit the silks. Yi approached them. She ran her hands through the fine traditional silks and respectfully inspected the polyester and spandex fabrics. She held the silks to her face and inhaled their scent. She rubbed the smooth silks on her face, even tasting them a little.

Yi grabbed the fabrics— silks in one hand, ancient cloths in the other— and walked over to Qian and Luo. She hovered above their maimed bodies.

“See ya, Zhizhu,” Yi said, stepping over Qian. Yi stepped back to give Luo a last kick in the balls, but then she heard Qian say something.

“Whadja say?”

Qian whispered again.

“Speak up!”

Yi stooped closer to hear what Qian was mumbling.

“Stupid bitch,” Qian murmured, fading out.

Yi stood up quickly. “Oh, fuck,” she said and fell over dead, realizing the silks were laced with deadly poison. 

A few days later, Qian awoke to a rather large tongue licking her face. She had been convalescing in the medical tent by the temple. 

“Luo! Luo, you’re alive!”

“Of course he’s alive,” Master Shen said. “It’s hard to kill a Mandy.” 

Qian hugged Luo’s big furry neck. 

“Master Shen, how am alive?” Qian pulled up her night shirt and saw that there was not even a scar where Empress Lanfen had stabbed her.

“Luo’s tears. He must have cried over you after you passed out. He loves you.”

“And he healed me. Oh, thank you, Luo.” Qian continued, “Did you know? Did you know I am a Jianhuren, Master Shen?”

“No. We need to talk, Qian.”

Qian paused and pursed her lips. 

“I assume you set the trap for Empress Lanfen?” he asked.

“Yes, Master.”

“As much as we all despised the former Empress, murder is forbidden in our order. Unfortunately, I must expel you from the Oblates of New Shaolin.”

Looked down and sighed. She fought back tears and lost.

“What shall I do? My obligation to the Jianhuren is ended. And, if I am also no longer a monk, I have no purpose. Where am I to go? What am I to do?”

“Why don’t you ask the new Empress?”

Empress Zhu Lijuan walked into the tent with a warm, beautiful smile. She wore long silk clothes and was very tall. 

“Qian, I thank you for protecting our Empire against the recklessness of our predecessor. Master Shen has told me that your expulsion from the New Shaolin order is imminent.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“And, your debt to the Jianhuren is paid in full. In fact, if you think about it, Zhizhu died protecting our Empire,” Lijuan said. 

Qian looked down. “I guess so,” she said.

Luo growled at the new Empress. “Easy, boy,” Qian said. 

“Are those your pea trellises out by the temple?”

“Yes.”

“Empress Lanfen kept no gardens at the palace, just aluminum and steel everywhere. Would you like to grow peas on the mountain for us?”

“Yes. Can Luo come?”

“Of course. I have a Mandy as well. Her name is Duan.”

Weeks later, Qian Guang pulled quackgrass from her new pea garden in the main courtyard of the Imperial Palace. 

“No, Luo! No, Duan!”

Luo and Duan chased a squirrel by the new garden, destroying the western most trellis. Tomorrow, she would rebuild.

September 03, 2021 00:22

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