8 Three Disciples
Renard looked forwards to getting to know his disciples. He was curious about what kind of lives they'd led in this world of magic and mystery. Surely it would have been a far cry from anything he'd known back in his world where there was running water but a distinct lack of magic.
The muscled man glanced left and right at the two women and saw that they weren't going to go first.
"Up to the elder here to start, eh?" he said. "The name's Zi Chen. Yours? I don't like to use words like 'Westerner' or 'foreigner', if you don't mind."
Renard liked this guy already. "It's Renard. A pleasure to meet you, Zi Chen, and you're right: getting called foreigner over and over was starting to get a little tiring."
"Just call me Chen, young man." Chen grinned, revealing several missing teeth and sizable chips in the remaining ones. "I understand how it must feel being an outsider. Where everyone calls you by an othering title instead of your birth-name. But trust me, the villagers don't actively hate you. Li's an exception, not the norm. The rest of the villagers here have never seen someone from the West, and the emperor's propaganda doesn't come down this far south - they have no idea to hate you. They're probably more curious about you."
"It's true." The younger of the two women, the one with green eyes and light brown skin, cocked her head, inspecting Renard. "I didn't know people could have hair like yours. Bright and yellow like the sun. You didn't paint it, right?"
Renard unconsciously put a hand to his hair. He realized then how much he must have stuck out in this village. It wasn't like his world where everyone had an idea of different ethnicities. There wasn't anything like the internet to connect people from different parts of the world. He was quite literally like an alien to these people. He hoped that he'd keep the first contact a positive experience – because it evidently hadn't been for Li.
"I don't have the artistic talent to make a paint job this good," said Renard. He looked down at the girl – she didn't reach much higher than five feet and he was slightly over six – and said, "So, what's your name?"
"Yun." She noticed Renard's height and straightened her back, trying to be a little taller so as to not get outdone. "You can fight, right? You can actually teach us, right?"
"Of course I can," said Renard. He smiled at her energy. She still had some roundness in her cheeks left from youth, and her manner, her blunt way of talking and acting, masked a distinct maturity in her eyes. They held a piercing understanding to them, and when he looked into them, he felt as if she could immediately tell whether he was a threat or not, a kind of primal instinct honed into her from years of experience.
Thankfully, she looked at him with more curiosity than caution, and he bagged that as a win for himself.
"Mmm. I think I can trust you," said Yun.
"Think? Come on." Renard pulled off an exaggerated shrug of despair, and Yun gave the faintest of smiles, the edges of her lips curving slightly up. He set his attention on the older woman.
She gave off a completely different feeling in every single way possible. She stood remarkably tall, almost a head taller than Renard - an impressive feat in of itself. However, her proportions were ghostly, with long, thin limbs. Her face, though remarkably pretty, was gaunt and held an uncanny feeling to it that Renard figured came from her expression. Or rather, lack of expression. It seemed that the only thing she could do was a neutral, straight-lipped stare, and her eyes were deathly devoid of any emotion.
"And your name, miss?" said Renard.
"The name given to me is Zhou Ling." The woman reached out with a sudden motion, so quick that her hand was a pale blur, and clutched Renard's wrist. He shivered when he felt how cold it was. "You have such a beautiful, warm soul."
Renard had no idea how to react to this, but he didn't want to make things awkward. He converted Ling's strange hold on his wrist into a kind of handshake, cupping his free hand over hers and bobbing it up and down. Ling blinked, unsure of what the gesture meant.
"Thank you," said Renard. "I'm…sure you have a nice soul too?"
He had no idea if this was a kind of customary greeting or compliment, but judging by the complete lack of understanding on Chen and Yuns' faces, he guessed that it wasn't.
"No, no such thing." Ling withdrew her hand, snaking it past Roland's grip. "No such soul. But I want it to be like so, very, very much so."
"I'm only really qualified to teach sword fighting," said Renard. He noticed Ling start to look down again, and he caught a hint of disappointment. "But if you need help with anything, soul related or not, just let me know. I'll try my best, even if I have no idea how to help."
"Ah." Ling's voice was monotone. Passionless. Grey. "Thank you very, very much."
Ling withdrew to herself, humming a simple three note tune to herself. She was an odd one, but Renard didn't care about that. He was here to help, not judge.
"All right then!" Renard went back to his rapier and dug it out of the earth. "Before we get to training, could I get an idea of what all of you want out of learning this? It'll help me get a better idea of you and, more importantly, let me tailor your teaching to your individual needs."
Chen swung his stick in front of him, his arm muscles bulging as a gust of force followed the arc of his 'weapon'.
"I was a blacksmith in the Tiger Capitol. It lies on the western border of the empire. It was a fine city, the capitol was, and I did business with many in the west. So much so that my wife hails from the Dominion." Chen clenched his jaw, and Renard almost shivered. The focused hatred in Chen's eyes right now was strong enough to stop the hardiest of people dead in their tracks.
"But when the Dominion waged war, the emperor's troops imprisoned my wife. Then the emperor, fool that he is, instituted his sword hunt, taking away weapons from all of us commoners unless we bent to his personal service. Of course, I did not, and I was rewarded with the seizure of my forge, the loss of my arm, and exile into the remote Firefeather sect where I could not pose a threat."
Chen tightened the grip on his stick. His stony knuckles whitened, and the crackle of splitting wood echoed in the air – an extremely impressive feat considering that Chen's stick was basically a small tree trunk in width.
"I want to be strong so I can save my wife, or at the very least, know if she is alive or not."
"I want to be strong as well," Yun said. She held her stick tightly as well, not nearly with enough physical force as Chen, but just as much willpower. "For myself. I came here from the Emerald Isles in chains, and I will never, ever be weak enough to go back to that again."
Ling glanced at Chen and Yun and blinked, stopping her humming.
"My mate, before the men in armor took him away, told me to try and do everything the other villagers did." She pointed to the other villagers, the ones Li was currently training, or rather beating. "Everyone was doing this, so I decided to come as well."
Chen and Yun both stared at Ling with distinct confusion.
"Ah," said Renard, not only to Ling, but as a general response to everything he had heard.
Renard looked down at the dirt.
He had looked forward to getting to know these people and their lives, figuring he would hear something different from his world, but not like this. This was a reality check. This world was medieval, harsh, and brutal. Every single person in front of him had suffered immensely, and they were using that suffering to keep themselves going.
In front of them, Renard felt inadequate. What had he done? Lived cozy in the twenty first century. The biggest disappointment he'd had was losing a fencing tournament. That was nothing compared to having his wife killed or being forced into slavery or having his husband kidnapped.
"Is something wrong, master Renard?" said Yun. "You stopped smiling."
Renard realized he had paused for longer than he wanted to. When he looked up, he found all of them looking at him with concern. Even Ling had tilted her head and widened her eyes ever so slightly.
"Not at all."
Renard steeled himself. He couldn't mope around for himself. That was disrespectful to all these people that had gone through real pain. And these same people trusted him fully to teach them, guide them, and lead them to new heights. He didn't have room to debate whether he belonged here or not – every moment he spent thinking about his competence was another moment proving Li right.
"I'm just admiring how strong all of you are." Renard tapped his chest. "On the inside. All of you have gone through a lot, and I respect each of you so much for being able to stand here with this much determination after all that. I personally can't begin to imagine how much willpower it would take."
Renard raised his rapier and got into his fencing stance. He smiled again.
"And that's why I know all of you have what it takes to succeed. So let's not waste any time and start with the basics – footwork." Renard winked. "Also, don't call me master. Really don't like the sound of that."