23 The Calm Before the Storm
Renard stared at Lady Zhou blankly. With something as significant as the Firebrand, how could she say the South wasn't relevant? "What now? I feel like that's power of its own, having the ability to just let the whole empire fall with a snap of your fingers."
"Not that simple, I'm afraid," said Lady Zhou. "The Firebrand is etched deep within my heart and soul. Unsealing it would spell my death."
Renard nodded. He reminded himself to not interject in matters he didn't exactly know a lot about.
Lady Zhou sensed Renard's discomfort. "There are some benefits, to be sure. I cannot ever be assassinated, for example." She turned away and almost whispered, "Though that has not stopped those around me from suffering."
Renard knew better than to ask more. He didn't want to pry into her painful memories.
Sensing the silence, Lady Zhou continued, talking a little faster as if to make up for letting her emotions flare up again. "But onto more important matters. I have explained to you Xia's situation. The emperor has let the Wise Tortoise territory fall, and that is no secret. Which ties into what the Westerner told me tonight."
"He showed up to you as well?" asked Renard.
"Not just me, but to the patriarch of the other Southern sect" muttered Lady Zhou. "And that is where I am worried."
So there was an entire other sect in this region. From what Renard heard, he figured that the southern territory wasn't very habitable. What with demon infested forests, bad farming ground, and weather that only stopped being cold when he'd become Awakened – something the average villager most definitely did not have. To think there was another sect: he wondered what it was like, whether it was similar to what he saw here.
"Every territory of the empire holds multiple sects," continued Lady Zhou. "The south holds the fewest with just two. And for each territory, the strongest sect's patriarch is the territory's warlord, an individual that controls all the military might in his respective territory, his authority second only to the emperor."
"And considering you just referred to the warlord as a 'he', I'm assuming you're not it, right?" said Renard.
Lady Zhou furrowed her brows. "Precisely. The southern warlord lies above here, at the very border between the south and the rest of Xia where there are fewer demons and better resources."
"Have you thought about teaming up with the warlord and his sect?" asked Renard.
"Impossible." Li stepped in, shaking his head. "The emperor fears power he cannot control, and Lady Zhou's firebrand is a prime example of it. Because of her cursed seal, he has forbidden the Zhou sect from interacting with any other sects, and has pushed it far south, where it is isolated from most of the known world." Li snorted. "And the Qiu patriarch is no fool. He was educated in the finest military schools of the East – he understands very well to never fall from the emperor's favor."
"Yet that may not be so anymore," Lady Zhou said softly. Li stood rigid, head tilted in confusion. Lady Zhou continued, "The Qiu patriarch and my father, the past Zhou patriarch, were compatriots. They studied together in the same schools and grew nearly as brothers. But as the emperor has grown more and more cruel, it was the Qiu that sought to secede from the emperor. The Qiu patriarch called upon my father and brother for a council meeting, revealing to them their plans. My father, ever the loyalist, refused, and the Qiu patriarch, ever the paranoid, selfish monster, had both my father and brother killed for fear they would tip the emperor off."
"That's…" Renard paused, at a loss for words. He wanted to say, 'that's terrible', but it felt so empty, and such an understatement.
Li looked away, uncomfortable.
Lady Zhou continued. Her voice did not waver. It was sturdy and strong. Steady and consistent. She didn't want to be pitied or comforted. She was laying out an explanation, and she didn't want to pause or pay heed to anything irrelevant.
"That was ten years ago. The Qiu patriarch has not acted at all this whole time, and he has cut off all contact with me for a variety of reasons, of which some were of my own fault. Yet I know his heart. He sees the empire crumbling under an oppressive yoke and wishes to seize it for himself, for he feels he can do better, not knowing that he is cut from the same monstrous cloth as the emperor himself." Lady Zhou's hand trembled in involuntary anger. She noticed, and she hid her hands under her crimson sleeves. "The Westerner approached me with a warning and an offer. The warning, you have already heard. The offer was to be willing to negotiate with us should we aid them in their efforts against the emperor."
"And the Qiu patriarch will take this dangling bait," said Li with a solid nod.
Lady Zhou stared up at the sun, at how it slowly rose as a ball of warm reds and oranges. "I fear so. And you were right, Renard. The Firebrand does have value. It is an extraordinary bargaining chip. He will come to the Zhou sect soon, I know it, and he will ask me to join his rebellion."
"As a glorified hostage," said Renard. Li stared at him with a hint of anger, but Renard brushed it off. "You know it's true. I've never seen this man before, and I'm not one to judge quickly, but he doesn't seem to be the nicest guy around. I have no doubt that he'll use you as a hostage – if he starts losing, he can just threaten to kill you."
Lady Zhou did not respond. Li walked up to her and bowed.
"My lady," said Li. "Would you not consider escaping this village? I hold no love for warlords or emperors, no duty to country and crown. All of that has only ever hurt me. But you, my lady, ever since you were kind enough to take a disgraced soldier and his brother in, are worthy. I see a leader I can follow without any reservation. I cannot stand by and have you relegated to be just another piece for this patriarch to play his war games with - little more than a prisoner at his side."
Lady Zhou smiled. "Your loyalty has always been a comfort at my side, but I must refuse. I have a duty to this village, no matter how small and humble it may be. The original tribesmen these villagers descended from may have settled here because of a sense of devotion to the Burnt Phoenix, but the current villagers are here because they have to be. The Burnt Phoenix died a hundred years ago – none of them remember her or feel any devotion to her. They live here because they do not have the strength to wander outside and seek better for themselves. As the proud head of the Zhou sect, it is my sworn obligation to make sure that these villagers, forgotten and abandoned by the rest of the world, have lives as good as they can live, and for that, they need a leader."
"These villagers are nothing," Li protested. "They are an ancient relic left behind by times that no longer matter. You cannot risk your life and pride for them."
"I am sure the same thoughts went through the emperor's mind when he let your homeland burn to the ground," snapped Lady Zhou. When she saw the hurt on Li's face, she withdrew, looking away. "I will be different from the rulers of the past. I will stay true to my duties and care not for power, but for those without it. There will be no more talk of this – you are dismissed."
Li bowed and walked away with heavy footsteps.
"You too, Renard," said Lady Zhou. "Get some rest. Your training will continue."
"Training?" Renard couldn't believe that something so trivial was being discussed. "I think we're past that stage. We have to deal with the Qiu patriarch, the Dominion, and the incoming war."
"It will take some time before the Qiu patriarch is able to come here." Lady Zhou pointed back towards her estate. "Go. You will rest, train tomorrow, and train your disciples. It will be as if nothing has changed. I will NOT let the Qiu have the satisfaction of destroying the order I spent years to create in this village before they have even stepped foot in it."
Renard didn't protest. Her words were stern and her expression bordered on anger. All the events of the night, the mental and physical strain of meditating, Darius's sudden appearance, and Li's insensitive comments, had put a toll on Lady Zhou, and she was reaching a breaking point where her composure broke down.
She wanted time be alone, and he respected that.
With a nod, Renard left, leaving Lady Zhou by the well. She looked back up at the rising sun, and for a second, before he got far enough away that she escaped his sight, he thought he saw her shoulders shiver, rise up and down in that erratic pattern that often went hand in hand with tears.