Red Dragon Inn
Mount Yasuo => Within the Barrier => Topic started by: Hanzi on June 30, 2015, 11:06:30 PM
"Eh," grunted Kokanchi as he peered down into the basket, staring at the babe with dislike. "No wonder its mother abandoned it."
Grandmother Ting (for even those many years ago she was so called) smacked Kokanchi across the back of a shoulder with her walking stick. "It is a boy, and you will treat him with respect, Koka, or do you wish to pay homage to the Tower of Courtesy?"
Kokanchi rubbed the top of his shoulder and looked sullenly at Grandmother Ting. "No, Grandmother." He feared the prospect. "I only meant--"
"I heard what you meant," she said. "Go warm some milk. He is not hungry now but he will be soon."
"Yes, Grandmother." Koka's sense of obedience was greater than the sting from Grandmother's stick. Bowing to her, he soon departed.
When she could no longer hear his footsteps, Ting leaned closer to the quiet baby as if to trade secrets with him. Perhaps they did, for she pulled back suddenly and regarded the boy with eyes that had seen many years and a great many things, more than anyone knew.
"Ah," she whispered. The baby stared back at her and then smiled. It hit her after a moment. Grandmother Ting fanned the air. "Whew! Koka! Bring fresh cloth with you!"
"What troubles you, Grandmother?" Kokanchi knelt beside Ting's chair, more loyal than a dog. After all, he owed her much, more than he could repay in one lifetime. She never flaunted the debt, and once had tried to absolve him of it. He had refused.
There was not a ripple of unease in all of Grandmother Ting's wrinkles. She sat in apparent comfort, gazing at the quiet bassinet. Kokanchi knew better. In the three days that the baby had been with them, she had named him Hanzi. He seldom cried.
Kokanchi followed her attention to the cradle then looked at her again. "Is it the baby? Is it-- he all right?" Koka asked.
"Mm." Ting wondered how to answer. "He is fine, Koka. Exceptionally fine."
Kokanchi frowned at Grandmother's answer. If Hanzi was fine, why did he feel her unease? He saw in her face that now was not the time to press her with questions. He said instead, "Yes, Grandmother. I'll make tea and warm the milk." He stood, bowed to her, and then left the room, the old woman and the baby to their silence.
Kokanchi held baby Hanzi at his shoulder in the way Grandmother Ting had taught him. It had taken no longer than two weeks before little Hanzi won Koka's affection, though the reformed criminal might try to deny it. Privately, he could not deny that when he looked into those brown eyes, so innocent and full of trust, Kokanchi felt some paternal stirrings in his heart. It made Koka wonder.
He hummed a sweet tune, some old lullaby his mother once sung to him before she'd ran away. Hanzi slept soundly, breathing soft little snores as Koka walked to and fro, to and fro.
"Don't worry, little Hanzi," he murmured at some time. "We are going to take care of you."
Grandmother Ting had been sitting with them. She rocked on a favorite chair, enjoying the gentle breeze that rolled across the pillared terrace. She was asleep to look at her, but she smiled to herself at Kokanchi's words. Smiled and sighed, happy with her little family.
"Grandmother." Kana bowed at the entryway. Grandmother Ting shifted in her chair to see the servant girl. "Master Beng has requested an audience."
"Let him in, girl, let him in," Ting said, pleased at the prospect of visiting with her old friend. Old indeed, though not as old as herself.
Kana moved aside and Beng took her place. He bowed a greeting as custom dictated between employee and employer. There was stiffness in the movement.
Grandmother chided him with a gentle noise. "Tsh. Beng. Please. If you bow any lower we will not be able to straighten you again. Come sit. Kana," she said to the servant girl, "bring us tea." Kana bowed and left the room as Beng took a seat beside Grandmother.
"Now," said Ting, looking at Beng. She set aside her pipe. "What blessed reason do I have to share your company, friend Beng?" By the gardener's expression, she could guess that the reason was not blessed at all.
"It is the fish, Lady Ting."
"More have died."
"We have examined them all and found no sign of illness," Beng said. "It may be the water." He didn't sound entirely convinced by the theory but he had no other explanation.
"Mm." Her gaze rested on Kokanchi and Hanzi not far away. Just last night the baby had been on the verge of illness. No one that saw him now would believe it. Hale and playful, Hanzi gurgled laughter at Koka's antics.
"Shall I contact a magi to perform a cleansing?" Beng asked.
"Mm. Let us not bother the magi just yet, good friend. Perhaps the problem is not what we fear."
Life at the Ting estate went on happily with the addition of little Hanzi. The servant girls liked to take turns coddling him, even after their chores, and often said to Grandmother Ting how they wished their first or next born would be as sweet as Hanzi.
Kokanchi assumed the role of primary care-giver with surprising dedication. He celebrated every stage of development. "Grandmother! He holds his head up!" "Look how he rolls to his belly!" "He is growing fast! He sits on his own!" "Grandmother! See how fiercely he kicks! Soon he will crawl." Kokanchi was seldom far from Hanzi.
Grandmother Ting smiled and watched it all with an observant eye. As close as Kokanchi was to Hanzi, the man was blind to some things.
One day, Ting took Koka aside. It was rare for the two of them to be alone, but she had convinced Koka to leave Hanzi with Meilin, one of the serving girls that Hanzi seemed partial to. Together, Ting and Kokanchi strolled the garden. It was a glorious day, warm without being hot, and all the colors of nature were especially vivid this time of year.
They had been chatting a short while of inconsequential matters. Finally Grandmother said, "Hanzi remains healthy."
"Oh yes," Koka beamed. "He is strong as an oxen!"
"Does it not seem strange to you?"
Koka looked at her in confusion. "Does what seem strange, Grandmother?"
By now they had arrived at the wooden arched bridge that spanned the distance of the koi pond. The pond was still and quiet. There had been no fish in it for three months. Grandmother stopped at the apex of the bridge and looked into the water.
"Babies get sick, Koka," she remarked.
Kokanchi frowned as he tried to reason why Hanzi's good health was a point of concern. "So," he began tentatively, "you are worried that...he is well?"
Ting smiled ruefully and shook her head, looking at Kokanchi now. "No, Koka. It is only..." Her gaze, still very clear and bright for her advanced years, turned once more to the empty water. She wasn't sure Koka could believe her, even if she told him. "It is only that I am a silly old woman jumping at shadows."
Kokanchi looked ready to protest, and still confused, but she pat his arm then took it as she turned them back to the house. "Come, Koka. Tell me again about the time you almost lost him at the market."
Kokanchi flushed with embarrassment. "Grandmother, I didn't lose him! I only turned away for a second...."
Hanzi and his friend Jiro, another young boy of six years, were playing outside around the beech tree. Meilin was with them supervising but she had wandered a distance away (though kept responsibly within vision of the two rambunctious boys!). Her attention was with a handsome young lad that also worked on the Ting estate. She was preoccupied with his pretty eyes and flirtations, otherwise she might've cautioned Hanzi and Jiro against climbing the branches.
Climb they did, fearless and ambitious. "All the way to the top!" they challenged each other. But their lofty dreams soon came crashing into a nightmare.
It happened quickly as tragedy often does. High in the tree, Hanzi slipped and fell like a ragdoll, hitting the ground with a hard thud that broke bones. In shock, he didn't even scream, just laid there wide-eyed in surprise to be staring up at the branches he'd been climbing.
Then came the pain.
"Hanzi!" Jiro cried, taking a step toward his friend. He fell before he could take another, slumping into a disorganized heap.
In a surge of energy, no longer drenched in agony, Hanzi pushed to his hands and knees and crawled to his friend, sobbing because he knew. He knew. "Jiro! Jiro!" But of course Jiro didn't answer. He didn't move. He didn't breathe.
By then Meilin had rushed over. She knelt beside the boys, gently but firmly prying Hanzi off of Jiro. She didn't yet understand what had happened.
"Go get Grandmother!" she told him.
So Hanzi fled, faster than he'd ever ran in his young life, shouting for Ting even before he was on the terrace. The old woman heard his cries and met him, putting a hand on his back as he threw himself at her, clutching her dress in his hands. She didn't care about the tears and snot and spittle.
"What is it, Hanzi?" she asked. "What has happened?"
"I killed him," he wailed against Grandmother. "I killed him." They were the last words he said for a very long time.