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Library: Fire for the Senjen Tiger

Books

Author: merja
Date:Dec 18 2005

The stench of sulfer bit at Princess Li's nostrils and burned in her lungs.
She joined the pain. Neera, Illusion.
   Screaming in rage, the Senjen tiger spewed fire, engulfing Li in flames.
She sat motionless, a living wick, one with the fire. The whirling yellow eyes
gleamed and then dulled. The beast turned its massive head away. The dull gray
of hard-cut granite replaces the bizarre image of a fire-spewing tiger.
   The fog of incense stung the princess' nose. Sitting in a cross-legged
posture, Li began again the novice exercise she had practiced daily for two
years. Chi, she named the breath she inhaled. Her awareness of the word burned
in the palm of her left hand and burrowed into the pit of her stomach, a tight
ball of leashed power.
   The cold stone against her knees, the pungent scent of the incense, the
illusory tiger rhykyas that frequently attacked her senses, all disappeared in
the word. The word began outside, became inside, subsumed the void and
devoured all substance.
   A clear note from a bell shivered through her awareness. Bowing, she
enjoyed the surge of hot pleasure that traveled down her spine as she
stretched to touch the floor with her forehead. Behind her, silk robes
whispered across the floor.
   Li stiffened.
   A touch on her shoulder signaled her to stand. Hands cupped and face now
burning with shame, she paced to the Senai's chamber. A gray-robed master
opened the door and stepped aside to let the princess enter. With her
white-robed novice status, Li could not even open the door.
   One candle, burned on the right arm of the Senai's wooden chair. Shadows
filled the small room. In the dim light, the old woman's wrinkled face lfoated
above a mass of darkness. White streaks wove through the black of her hair.
She neither moved not spoke. On the left arm of her chair, a second candle
remained unlit.
   Li approached to within seven steps before stopping. Focusing, she made her
breath the word and the word a vision of the unlit candle igniting. Energy
flowed from her. A flame sputtered to life, Li bowed in respect for the power.
The Senai nodded back. Ritual complete, Li sat.
   Straining to keep the desire from her voice, she began the petition she had
already made too many times. "Honorable Senai, the breath is the word in me.
My energy turns to substance. I seek to shed my white robe, be tested for the
gray--"
   "No."
   The blood drained from Li's cheeks.
   "I did not call you here to listen to your desires," the Senai said.
   "But I..."
   "No!"
   Li sank back, devastated. "Then let me leave, Senai, for I have brought
great shame to my family and myself."
   "Your shame is no more than clouds hiding sky. The sky, as are you, is
still there. But that is as none."
   The Senai shifted in her chair though she continued to stare intently at
Li. "The rebellion of teh Ch'an power shapers has turned violent," she said.
"Three of your elder brothers have been killed. YOu are now second to the
heir."

   "What?" Li scrambled to her feet.
   The Senai leaned forward, staring at the Princess. "On the New Year
festival, the Ch'an Prince swore over the tomb of his ancestors to kill every
member of your family until their land is free. Your elder bother is where the
Ch'an will not find him. You are here now as you have been here for these two
year to be kept alive, not to learn to wield the power. Practice the word as
you wish, you will not be tested."
   "I must learn in order to fight the Ch'an," Li said.
   "To live, rincess, that is all, enough."
   Li stared at te floor.
   "You were close to your brothers?" the Senai asked.
   Rather than lie, Li did not reply. Born of the king's second wife, she had
never been close to her half-brothers. She pressed her hands together and
bowed. "I must make ready then, go to my family, to help defend them and mourn
our deaths as is right."
   "No! You stay here."
   Li stopped mid-step, shaking her head. "I must go. To be a Princess and
still a novice after this time spent is already great shame. To then not stand
with my family or mourn for the dead is unworthy of my ancestors and more than
can be asked for."
   "Must not. Cannot?" the Senai said and snorted. "What would you protect
them with-the feeble flame you make to light a candle?" She pointed a withered
finger at the candle, and it exploded with a thunderous clap that slammed Li
against the wall.
   "Will your puny flame set the Ch'an's robes on fire? Hah. Black-robed
masters are there to protect your family already. You stay here. I have spoken
too much. You will not leave the fortress. Go. Continue your practice. Learn
nothing... as you have already done so well."
   The Senai drew back, her face now obscured by darkness.
   Stung and dazed, Li forced herself to hold her head upright. She turned and
walked stiff-legged out of the wooden door and down the narrow, shadowed
halls.
   The slapping echoes of her sandals taunted her as she trod down the three
hundred steps and seven curved landings to the library, her place of work, the
work of a white-robed novice.
   She finally reached the library and stopped to scoawl at the two
black-robed clay figures that guarded the entrance. The stared back unmoved.
Li opened the door, walked in, and stopped. The novice she was to replace was
not there.
   "Chang?" Li called out. Her voice echoed amidst the stone walls and stacks
fo silk and paper and then died. Li shrugged, deciding that Chang must have
left early. It was just as well. Li did not feel like seeing anyone. Her face
still burned. She closed the heavy door behind her.
   The dim flickering of the candles set near the door threw only wavering
edges of illumination into the darkness beyond. From that gloom strode a robed
figure. The man stopped in front of Li. Surprised and frightened, Li backed up
a step. A cold chill ran down her back.
   Tall, with an angular, thin face, the black-robed master stood motionless.
"Princess Li?" the man said.
   Masters frequently came to the library for their researches, yet Li
hesitated before responding. The man looked threatening.
   The master became taller, filling the room with his presence. "You are Li,
white-robe?"
   "Yes," Li said, the words dragged from her unwillingly. With the
recognition that her coice had been forced from her, came a thought-assassin-an
d the thought crushed the breath from Li's lungs. Heart pounding against her
chest, she edged toward the door, hoping the Master would not notice the
slight movement. Unarmed, Li had few chioces. She could feel the other's power
tugging at her as the wind would tug at her robe. Sweat ran down her sides.
"Who are you?" she asked.
   "Tian," the man said as he walked forward and pushed Li from the doorway.
Tian now blocked the only exit.
   "What are you doing here?" Li asked.
   The master narrowed his eyes. "You will come quietly with me. Do not be as
your brothers. You could be as useful alive as dead."
   "What about my brothers?" Li began to inch toward the darkness of the
stacks, her last hope of escape.
   "Your brothers were fools. They sought to fight. I killed them. Their
swords were as nothing to the shaping of Gy. Do not make the same mistake."
   "But why?" Li continued to sidle back and to the side. From memory, she
knew one of the stacks was no more than ten feet in that direction. The Master
didn't seem to be noticing Li's slights movements. If she could get behind the
stack...
   "The Land of Plains myst be returned. No more questions. Go out in front of
me."
   Li steeled herself. "No," she said and glanced behind her, looking for the
stack and not seeing it.
   Tian scowled. Then a smile inched across his face. "You make it easier.
Perhaps your body will fire some of these worthless stacks of scrolls."
   Tian's face went blank and fire flashed from his hand. Diving back and
sideways, Li landed and rolled behind the aisle. The fire singed her hair. She
strugled to her feet, twisted around, and darted away just as another bolt
seared by her face, bursting stacks of silk rolls into flames. The heat
knocked Li back into another stack that toppled down bhind her. The fire
spread. She rolled to put out her smoldering clothing. 
   Tian extinguished the candles at the front. The only light now came from
the flaming stacks. Smoke billowed, and Li coughed as she twisted and ran to
put another stack between herself and Tian.
   With the doorway the only exit, Li had to slip around the deadly Ch'an
Master. The smoke thickened. Sweat broke on Li's face. She got to her knees
and crawled down the aisle. She had to lure the Ch'an farther into the stacks.
It seemed impossible. There had to be another way.
   She had no knife or even a kira. She did have the word and its power. FOr a
moment, Li stopped and considered trying to attack with the fire she could
create. She thought of the tiny flame with which she lit the candle and
derision of the Senai. Worse, the first move she made with her hand as if to
direct a flame, the Ch'an would know that Li had at least some power. The
Ch'an would no longer toy with small, careful bolts of flame. He would
incinerate Li with one massive surge of energy. Li wished for her knife. How
could she, a white-robe not even worthy of testing, fight a master?
   The books behind Li blocked the light of the fire. She crawled through
darkness, still hoping to circle around the Master. Reaching ahead, Li found
another aisle.
   She stopped again, then slid down until her body rested on the cold rock.
Inching forward on her belly, she turned back to the lef tin what she assumed
was the path to the closed door. The smoke swirled lower as she moved.
   Suddenly, Tian appeared out the darkness. A glowing bubble of clear ear
surrounded his body, a sign of his utter contempt for a white-robe's power.
The Master pushed his hand thorugh the bubble to marshal a last deadly bolt.
Li felt the inrush of power. Blood pounded in her ears. In near panic, she
looked to either side, and saw nothing but stacks piled high leaving no route
of escape. She started to back away.
   Tian laughed, a hollow croak of a sound. He pointed to Li. "Run white-robe,
as all your feeble blood will soon."
   The scornful words knifed into Li's mind. Muscle clenching rage drove
through her body. The image of the strange, fire-spouting tiger grew in her
mind. The beast snarled with anger.
   Breathing in, Li's breath became the word and the word became the tiger.
She filled her lungs with an all-consuming blast. The word became the tiger's
fire. The Master's eyes widened.
   Li roared a flame that burst from her mouth and overwhelmed Tian's bolt
with a thunderous crack. The Ch'an Master crashed against the wall. The bubble
of air exploded into fire. Tian's body burst into a white hot blaze. The man
screamed once, stepped forward and crumpled into the roaring fire that
enveloped him.
   Blasted from the explosion, Li flew backward. Her skin seared from the
heat. She gasped in smoke. Choking, she tried to crawl, but with each breath
she inhaled more smoke, and her arms collapsed under her. Racked with
coughing, she curled away from the flames that licked across the rolls of
silk. Her lungs burned. Blackness took her.
   The darkness faded into pain. It hurt to breathe. For a moment, as memory
flooded back, she was surprised she breathed at all.
   Covered by a wool blanket, she lay in a bed, her head propped up on a
cushion. She looked around in confusion. A small window let in a dazzling
shaft of light that struck and sparkled on the rough rock walls. A Master's
gray robe hung on the hook nailed into a rough wood wardrobe. Li breathed in
again and this time cried out. Her movement brought another wave of intense
pain. He chest was bandaged, skin sensitive to the slightest movement against
the cloth.
   Soundlessly, the door opened. The Senai entered waring a black robe tied at
the waist and carrying a white robe across her arm.
   "What happened?" Li managed to croak out.
   "Do not speak. You killed the Ch'an and nearly died yourself. That robe,"
the Senai pointed to the gray robe on the wall," is yours. To create is the
first level of mastery. By lighting the candle on my chair, you have created,
but because of the white robe you have worn, the Ch'an, a man of formidable
power, did not think to protect himself from you. No one looks for a tiger's
fangs in a white-robed mouse. Thus you live."
   "Will you wear this grey robe now, or will you continue to wear the white
of the rank and shameful beginner?" The Senai held up the white robe.
   Li stared at the novice's robe with disgust. She thought of the Ch'an
Master who had left himself undefended. "White," she said.
   The Senai smiled. "Wisdom is one sign of the black-robe, and you treat
toward it."


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