14 A Talk
Renard left the room with Lady Zhou, wool blanket wrapped around him. As soon as he opened the door out, though, he found a servant girl with her head down, offering a pair of silken brown robes with a black sash atop.
Lady Zhou plucked the blanket around Renard with a swift flick of her hand.
"Wear these." She motioned to the robes and sash. "You should wear more than peasant garb."
Renard hurriedly took the robes and thanked the servant girl. He put them on, finding them a little tight – they weren't made for people as tall as him – but still extremely comfortable. Despite them being loose clothing, he could feel his body heat insulating under the soft fabric. He figured this was way better than his modern overcoat even on a cold winter day.
As for the sash, Renard grabbed it and inspected it, comparing it to his current brown sash.
"Any meaning behind this one?" Renard held up the black sash to Lady Zhou. "Because I remember you told me the brown one I'm wearing symbolizes me being a part of this sect."
"The color of your standard indicates your rank as a cultivator." Lady Zhou danced her fingers around her waist, showing a crimson sash that matched with the color of her robes. "Brown means you are a recognized member of a Sect. Black indicates that you have established your physical foundation, reaching the peak of mortal strength. Green – the one that Li bears – means you have Awakened. As for mine, Crimson means that I have managed to forge a Nascent Soul."
"Anything above that?"
"Just one – the color of the sun, of the gods themselves – gold. Reserved for those who have ascended all mortal limitations. Among them rank True Immortals, those descended from the gods, and-" She smiled and gave a light bow to Renard, one that reminded him more of a curtsy. "The Sword Saint."
Lady Zhou turned, ending her playful bow abruptly and headed out, waving the servant girl away.
"But bear in mind, Renard," she said. "Reaching different standards is exceptionally difficult. An ordinary individual will find going from a brown to a black standard a grueling process often taking a decade, perhaps even more depending on talent and access to tools for refining Qi, and from there, it becomes exponentially difficult to ascend, requiring both exceptional talent, dedication, resources, and luck."
"Damn. That means I'm supposed to be as strong as these other gold standard people, these immortals and literal demigods?"
"Stronger, if you are to lead this empire into peace. That is why it is imperative that we train immediately."
"Understood. Just let me talk with Li for a bit, and I'll be up and ready to go."
Li's quarters stood at the far end of the courtyard where they had fought. It was a standalone building separated from Lady Zhou's veritable palace of a living space. A small, homely little house, much like a cottage, but the artistic carvings of phoenixes on its wooden walls spoke of its noble status.
"A guest house," commented Lady Zhou. "Used often before the war to host my father's friends from the other sects in the Phoenix province. Rather fitting that now that war rages, a soldier uses it." She sighed, her eyelids closing, remembering better times. "Li is inside, recovering from his wounds. Once you are done talking with him, meet me at the garden."
Renard walked up to the entrance – a double door of sturdy wood patterned with two phoenixes facing each other – and knocked, his knuckles rapping out dull echoes.
"Li, it's me. Renard."
Renard was realistic. He would understand if Li did not respond or told him to leave, and he would respect those wishes. The doors opened, however, and Renard found himself standing in front of Li again.
Li had discarded his tunic, revealing the long white strips of cloth he'd bound around his upper body to bandage the wound Renard had slashed into existence. His right arm was held in a sling, and his left arm held thick, blood-caked bandages wrapping its near entirety.
Renard tried not to look at the bandages as he faced Li with a solemn expression. "Mind if I come in to talk?"
Li grunted and turned back, but he did not close the doors. Renard took that as a yes and went inside. The house was warmed by an active fireplace at its end, and several lit lanterns hung from the walls, keeping things bright in spite of a lack of windows.
It was a small space comparable to an one room bedroom in modern standards. There was a firepit at the center with a black pot above it, some kind of liquid bubbling within. Two beds of skin made from some kind of strange, multi-colored, scaled creature lay around the pit.
Sitting on one of the beds was Li's brother. A young man, younger than Renard by a few years, but still in his healthy teens. He was dressed in loose brown robes much like those Renard wore, and at his waist was a green sash – the same that Li bore. Li's brother was wire-thin, his veins and muscular striations visible under darkened, scarred skin.
He didn't look at all similar to his brother. Where his brother had bushy, expressive eyebrows, he had thin ones that granted his stare a sort of ferocious edge. Where his brother had a square jaw, he had an angular, feminine jaw. His eyes, however, were the same as Li's, black and focused, ever alert and aware. Long, unkempt hair fell from his head, tangling over his shoulders.
"Liang, a guest has come." Li knelt by his brother and tapped his back, pointing at Renard. "Look."
Liang stared up at Renard with a dazed expression, his eyes trying to focus, the pupils widening and dilating, but not quite catching anything. However, Liang did smile, a wide one that showed rows of perfect, white teeth – a beautiful smile. One that made Renard smile back without any hesitation.
Li saw his brother's smile and softened his expression a little for just an instant before he stood back up and faced Renard, the same serious, grim face in place again. Liang didn't react, instead starting to stare at the firepit, his eyes never leaving it, as if the entirety of his attention went into that single iron pot.
"What business do you have, foreigner?" said Li.
"I wanted to check up on you, first of all." Renard motioned to the bandages on Li's body. "It's good to see you're healing."
"Lady Zhou is an exceptional healer, yes. I have no doubt that were I not placed under a Western curse, I would stand as healthy as you right now." Li noticed Renard's expression. "But do not pity me, foreigner. It was my choice to fight, and I was the one who provoked you. These wounds and the pain I bear are natural consequences of my foolishness. But no matter. That is not the only reason you are here, is it?"
Renard shook his head. "Li, I just wanted to know why you hate my kind. I'm not judging you or accusing you of anything. I just wanted to know."
"Hm." Li sat down on his bed with a pained grunt, his yet-to-heal wounds bothering him. "I suppose I owe you an explanation for my hatred, and my brother seems to have taken a slight liking to you.
I am not from here. The South does not produce many soldiers of merit, especially not in this Sect, the lowest-ranked in the entirety of the Phoenix province. I and my brother come from the Tortoise province to the west, and we decided to dedicate our lives to the blade after we became orphans, for a soldier, harsh as the life may be, at least receives a roof to live under and bread to break.
We trained like madmen, and we were talented. We Awakened and became captains, just in time for the war between Xia and the Dominion to unfold. We fought well. In our last battle, we accepted the terms of surrender from a western commander. When we entered a tent in neutral grounds to discuss the surrender, the commander detonated himself with western magic.
My brother shielded me from the cursed magic, taking the brunt of it. As you can see, he has lost most of his faculties, and he cannot be healed, not even by Lady Zhou."
Li reached forwards and opened the lid of the pot, peering into the dark, bubbling liquid within. The meaty scent of stew started rising up and around the house.
"Does that explain it enough, Westerner?" said Li. He talked coldly, with neither anger nor interest in his voice, as if he was waiting for Renard to leave. "You can tell me you feel sorry and then you may leave, for I am quite busy preparing this meal."
"I can't." Renard balled his fists. "I can't tell you that I understand. I can't tell you I know how you feel. I've never faced as much hardship and loss as you. I'd be pretending if I said I knew what you went through. If I said I felt sorry for you, it would be empty, and I don't want that."
Li did not look back at Renard. He remained silent, staring at the pot.
"But what I can do is be here for you." Renard sat down so that he was level with Li. "I know I'm just another Westerner, but it's better than being lonely – and I know how that feels, how if you're alone, all those negative feelings just bottle up and take control of you. Look, Li, you can talk with me, and I'll listen. I can't relate with what you went through, but I can always lend an ear to you and help as much as I can."
Li stared at the boiling pot for a long time. Long enough that the water started to bubble up, simmering out and dripping onto the wood in steaming droplets. Liang tapped Li on the back and motioned at the pot. It was then that Li finally moved, putting the lid back on the pot.
"I…appreciate the thought, Renard," said Li. "However, like I said in our battle, I have hated too long. It has become a part of me. It fuels everything I do. Every night, I dream of vengeance. Every day, I train to enact it." Li sighed. "But against who? The entirety of the West? Impossible. I have hated the West because it was easy to rage against such a broad, faceless entity."
Li finally met Renard's eyes. "And yet here you are. Someone that brings a face to the West, and it is not one that I find easy to hate." Li closed his eyes. "I know that my hate is irrational and destructive – when I awoke with these injuries, I realized just how close my hate had been to killing me, leaving my brother alone in this world. You have given me a good wake up call, and for that, I do thank you."
"I can do more than that, Li," said Renard. "I can help you along the way. I can help you with the hate. You don't have to face yourself alone."
"No. That is something for me to do, not anybody else. I was the one who decided to hate, and I must be the one stop it, nobody else. On that point, I will not budge." Li stood up and motioned to the door. "I know you should be busy. Do not hold yourself up here."
Renard stood and made his way to the door. When he opened it, he looked back.
"If you ever change your mind, just let me know," he said before leaving.
Renard needed to give Li some time to reflect. Some time to be with himself.
As for Renard, well, he figured he was going to be in for a hell of a tough time training with Lady Zhou.