“There Was a Juniper Grove”
There was a juniper grove, just outside of La Torre, where the Founder had been buried after his last Sparrow divination. The legend states that he dug a deep hole, sat in it, gave a brief message to his chief disciples, and meditated for seven days. By then, he was clearly dead, but still sitting upright. His disciples buried him in that posture of eternal meditation, with the shovel at his left side so it would not seem a replacement for his sword. They used their bare hands to fill the hole.
The grave was unmarked except by a patch of greasewood, yellow flowers the only brightness among the dark green of the trees, the dark blue of their berries, and the dark red-brown of the desert.
Jimmy Fu dropped into a cross-legged seat, straightened his back, and set the knuckles of his hands on his knees. After settling his mind, he thrust his hands out in combat preparation. He felt the qi rise from the desert through him. He swept his hands in the sparrow maneuver, writing the cursive characters in the air. Then, for good measure, he performed the combat maneuver for sword, before returning his hands to his knees.
After leaving his sword behind in Gorham, Fu Long had needed to learn a new form of combat. He met a nun named Masako on the railroad, a beautiful virgin from the Streamer Kingdoms, and learned from her how the Tominese had developed a school of unarmed combat based on the cursive calligraphy they had adopted from the Huanese.
Masako told him she considered it a gift returned. None of the other Huanese on the railroad had cared to learn. Fu Long considered it a way to avoid the temptation to fill his hand after having dedicated himself to the Great Sword.
Jimmy Fu emptied his mind of the legend and focused on the presence of the Founder’s holy bones. His eyes stared over the yellow flowers into the southwest. Toward the town of La Torre. In the distance, between the junipers, he saw another storm rolling in on the horizon. His hands traced the single character for tower in the air.
The ancient tower for which La Torre was named had been built of mud-brick by a people whose name had been forgotten. Even by other natives. They simply referred to them as the Old People. They claimed the Old People would post watchmen at the top, to sight herds of antelope on the horizon for their huntsmen.
The tower had been set on fire centuries ago, when the Empire of Torado had controlled the area. Its adobe surface was mottled black and yellow. Mostly black. Torado had fallen to an alliance between Jackland and Douvaix soon after, during the endless wars of Vexillor, freeing the Chayanos to establish their republic. Locals saw this as spiritual vengeance for the burning of the sacred tower.
Jimmy Fu surveyed the tower from an alley between an apothecary and a saloon. It stood in a broad, empty space, alone except for a broad well, some bushes, and a half dozen chickens pecking at bugs in the afternoon heat. Just beyond it was the rail station. The tower was the best place to set up watch over the comings and goings. He was not sure what he would be looking for, but perhaps it would help reveal why the assassins had derailed his train.
Despite the crowds of the town, nobody approached the tower any closer than the well, to draw water with rope and bucket. The square around it was like a forbidden zone. The doors had been blocked up recently by red bricks of the Flag Land style. He would have to climb the outside wall to the top.
Over the top of the empty train station, he could see the storm approaching slowly from the southwest. From its distance, it was then pouring rain over Corona del Golfo, the fallen port. The Sparrow tile was setting itself up.
Jimmy Fu waited until dark, when most of the respectable townsfolk had disappeared into their homes and hotels. He jogged into the square and climbed the tower to see what the night would bring.
The top floor of the tower was a square of mud-brick, thirty feet to a side, with tall windows in each direction. Holes in the floor and ceiling, at different corners, were probably once accessed by ladders. The roof above would protect him from the storm.
The next train wasn’t due for hours. Jimmy Fu set his staff and sack in a corner, and settled into a cross-legged seat in the center of the floor. He rested the backs on his hands on his knees and closed his eyes.
“A true Huobu.”
Jimmy Fu open his eyes. He searched the darkness for the source of the voice, but could see nothing.
“I have been playing at being a hobo. Hopping a train, and now hiding in wait of another train.”
Where was this man? The shadows gave up no clues.
“And, it seems I’ve selected a particularly Huobu hide-out.”
The man stepped forward. He was dressed in black pants, a black blazer, a black bow tie, and a black bowler hat. His face was from the Streamer Kingdoms. It bore a telling calmness.
“A ninja,” Jimmy Fu guessed. Even in Flaglander clothes, the man could not resist the shinobi black. But why was he in the Flag Lands?
“Why is an un-sworded hobo setting watch over La Torre station?”
“Why is an un-clanned ninja setting watch over La Torre station?”
The man’s squint betrayed that Jimmy Fu had struck a solid blow. The ninja was in the Flag Lands because he had been disowned by his clan.
The squint dissolved into a grin. The man fell silently into a fighting stance. The first hand and foot were easily blocked, even though the monk was still seated. An invitation. Jimmy Fu leapt over the ninja and offered him an easily blocked kick to the face.
They spun and faced each other in the half-light of the ancient tower. The storm thundered outside, with a gentle patter of rain.
The ninja sidestepped into the shadow and came at Jimmy Fu from the left with the maneuver for ming followed by cheng. Name? Ironically, Jimmy’s prepared counter had been jie and shao. Introductions?
“Jimmy Fu,” the monk said.
The ninja grinned and took a low stance with his left foot extended. “Ricky Coca.”
Jimmy lunged with a double kick, easily deflected, and followed it up with a series of air words. Why are you here? Ricky Coca, perhaps sensing where the conversation was going, countered with the same words.
They both drew back. The ninja chuckled and Jimmy Fu could not help but join him. Out of nowhere, the ninja hit him on the face, the ribs, the kidney. Setting his feet, Jimmy blocked the second character with elbows and knees.
Together, the characters said assassins.
Jimmy Fu stood and caught his breath. Was this ninja involved in the derailment? Had this ninja been trailing him? The man grinned at his hesitation.
The ninja’s turn to be surprised. Jimmy Fu stepped into him with a double character. Lie! The ninja’s blocks were impromptu. He was off-balance. Jimmy Fu kept at him, repeating why and lie until the ninja regained his composure and began blocking with truth.
The black-dressed man was backed up to a window. Their eyes met as lightning cracked. Wind blew the bowler hat into the monk’s face and the ninja whirled into the shadows.
Jimmy Fu spun, expecting an attack from any direction. There was no sound but the grumble of the storm.
A voice from the dark: “Are you looking for assassins?”
Jimmy Fu spun toward a far corner. Near the hole in the floor. Was the ninja preparing an escape?
“Assassins derailed my train. Two of my brothers were killed.”
The sound of whipping cloth and a burst of light. Jimmy Fu blinked from the glare. The ninja had used a power word. He was suddenly pummeled by blows. Before he could regain his sight, the ninja was again in the shadows.
But, his body read the attack clearly. Where?
He thrust his hands out in combat preparation, then wrote south in the air.
“Toward Rio de Cabra,” came the voice.
The monk set the backs of his hands on his thighs, let the qi rise through him. A flurry of blows knocked him to the floor. Tell me.
Jimmy Fu leapt to his feet. “They burned the train.” He took the power stance again. As before, the ninja hit him from the shadows. Cargo?
He wiped his mouth with a thumb. Blood. “I killed them before they finished.” This time, he did not wait for the rising qi. As he heard the ninja move, his hands traced iron in the air.
Ricky’s fist landed on Jimmy’s chest with a crack. The ninja fell to the floor and rolled back and forth in the flickering light of the storm.
“Futz!” The ninja kicked himself against the wall, holding his broken hand, and stared at Jimmy.
He stepped toward Ricky as the ninja regained his feet. “What do you want with the assassins?”
“Damn,” the man said. “Now I can’t use the suitcase!”
Jimmy regretted his curiosity. The ninja leaped forward, arms around the monk’s waist. They rolled across the floor like brawlers, head over feet. Jimmy felt his toes land solid on the mud-brick and pushed.
He expected the ninja to come still against a wall. Instead, he felt rain on his face.
As they tumbled through the air, lightning flashed. Jimmy could see the wet earth far below, but growing closer. It was just like the Sparrow tile. Two people, falling from the Tower. Was this where the pattern ended?
The wall of the tower was too far to grab. He could not slow their fall. Lightning flashed again. He was facing the wrong way to see the ground. Over the ninja’s shoulder he caught a glimpse of the tower wall racing past. The ground was close. Perhaps they would live, broken, bruised, and bloody. But, likely not.
The sound of the storm was muffled. Ricky said, “Huh?” Then, they were both underwater.
After a long dunk, Jimmy Fu felt air on his face again. His hands reached out to touch a wall of smoothly curved stone. They were in the well. He heard the ninja surface beside him, coughing.
“Badgers! I hit the same hand on the way down!”
Jimmy grinned and searched the wall for a finger hold. “What did you mean about the suitcase?”
Ricky Coca breathed hard as the storm hummed its last gales in the town above.
“I have a friend also looking for assassins in Chayan. I was supposed to be Johnny Suitcase.”
A late flash of lightning showed the ninja’s face smiling wide over that black bow tie.