My newest story, in which Li Xiu finds her way. Enjoy!
Five boys and four girls lined up on the wooden floor and faced Xifu. The large, furred panda studied his students with a look devoid of emotion; he did not want them to think he favored one over another.
“Again!” he barked, "pair off. Seven Chi’ato Style!"
Four of the boys paired off against each other, and two girls faced off. Fan Xhi tapped Li Sho on the palm and bowed, and they faced off. Only the outsider, dark-haired Li Xiu stood alone on the wooden floor.
“Xifu,” she said meekly, "I have no sparring partner."
The panda studied the strange girl for a moment. She was not like any of the other Humans he’d taught; she stood taller than the others, her eyes were too large, looking only partially normal, and her cheekbones too defined. She looked more Corellian than Axain.
“Face me,” he said. He took a bamboo pole from the wall and held it horizontally, took a slight bow and planted his feet. Li Xiu looked around for a similar pole to fight with.
“No,” he growled, "You, Seven Chi’ato."
She nodded, took her five small knives from her belt and nodded in return. She set her feet, lifted her arms and sent the five blades spinning with blinding speed. Xifu barely moved, but each of the five razor sharp knives clattered harmlessly to the floor.
“I – but I did as you say, Xifu,” Li Xiu said, "poise, focus, throw."
The huge panda set his bamboo pole aside.
“Students - outside. Collect blossoms.” The students nodded and filed outside, to collect pink petals from the ground. "Li Xiu, not you. Sit."
The girl sat and watched expressionlessly as the large panda filled a clay pot with steaming water, set the pot and two cups on a bamboo tray, and folded himself gracefully to sit before his student, placing the tray between them. He poured tea, then sat patiently. Li Xiu nodded and took a single sip of tea, without looking at her teacher.
"I – " she began.
"Tea first. Sit, drink. Then we speak."
They sat in silence, the only sound the other students outside laughing and throwing baskets of pink petals at each other.
“You have a long walk to Chi’ato,” Xifu said, “Fortunately the seven ancestors do not age.”
“I know I’m trying, Xifu,” Li Xiu said, “but the flow is not in my hand.”
“The flow is never in your hand. The flow is in your spirit. The flow is through your hand. The ancestors speak the leaf to fall when you shake the branch.”
“Yes. I - Xifu, why is --” she paused, and drew the five shining blades from her sash. She knew it was disrespectful to draw a weapon during tea, but she wanted to know. “Seven Chi’ato. It’s is always seven Chi’ato. But I only have five knives. Why…”
“Why is the practice called seven when your hand is only five?” Xifu asked, and the girl nodded.
"One knife. Five knives. A hundred. No matter. The knife is the ink on the brush. You are the artist. Five, because five is the most the eye can see without blink. Seven, because you are the music of the ancestor’s song."
Li Xiu shook her head. She knew Xifu always spoke in metaphor, but sometimes she had trouble following along.
“Forgive me, Xifu. Tell me the --”
“No, Li Xiu. You teach me. Tell me of the seven Chi’ato. The ancestors.”
"Well, there are seven… philosophies. Each one is called an ancestor because they - they are our ancient way. The seven Chi’ato are, um, they are…"
She paused, and the huge panda sipped his tea in silence. He glanced up as she stood.
“Sorry, I think better standing up. Um, Courage, Truth, Honor, Industriousness, Self Reliance, Perseverance, Discipline. Seven Chi’ato. Courage is facing a task without fear. Honor is, is, your family. It is --”
“That is good, Li Xiu. The seven Chi’ato guide every step of your life. They guide your hand in battle. If you know them, you will not fail. If you doubt your ancestors, then --” he let the cup slip from his paw. Li Xiu winced as the fine porcelain shattered.
“I need to remember my Chi’ato.”
“No,” he said, “not know it. BE it. It is as breathing.”
“Yes, Xifu.” Li Xiu knelt and started cleaning up the broken cup.
“She doesn’t belong here. She never has.” Shen Ju set her cup down and gazed at Kua Shi with stern eyes. “You know I’m right, Shi. And the time will come, she will have to find her own people.”
“We’ve raised her from a cub, Ju. We, this village, this is all the girl knows.”
"It’s time she found her own people. Better now, when she is young."
Kua Shi nodded, his head bowed. Shen Ju stood and slid open the bamboo wall, letting the cool spring air and cherry blossom fragrance into the house.
“Li Xiu, come inside please,” she said. The girl paused in her exercises, glanced up and nodded.
She closed the wall behind her and nodded crisply, offering the slightest bow.
“Shan Ju, I serve.”
“Xiu, what do you see when you look at us?”
“I…” the dark haired girl paused, processing the question. “I see you, Shen Ju, and you, Kua Shi. I see my family.”
“Do we look like you?”
“Of course not! Kua Shi looks like Kua Shi, Shen Ju looks like Shen Ju. I look like Li Xiu.”
“Diplomatic as ever, child,” Kua Shi said with a smile. The fur of his muzzle softened as he smiled.
“What I mean is, we are Panan. You are Human. Yes?”
“Yes, naturally. You are Panan. Larger than myself, black and white fur, wide head. I am Human. Slender, furless, pink, hair on the top of my head.”
“Does it not seem unusual to you that we are your family and not others of your kind?”
“Nani is a goat,” Like Xiu said, "she provides milk and she watches the field. She is part of the family. “Icho is a parrot. He used to teach me words when you were at prayer. He is part of the family. Family is not defined by shape but by friendship and mutual advantage.”
“I told you she’d be good at this,” Kua Shi said over the rim of his cup.
Shen Ju flexed her paw, rubbed her head and studied her claws for a moment.
"Xiu, you are - it is time for you to practice your Chi’ato on a larger tapestry."
The girl paused, considering Shen Ju’s words. She looked at both pandas, then at the tapestry on the wall. In firm, elegant brush strokes, it listed the seven petals of the flower of Chi’ato - seven pillars of philosophy. A larger tapestry than that one would not fit on the wall; so the inscrutable Shen Ju must mean something else.
“I am going to live at Temple?” Li Xiu asked.
“Larger even than that. Look here-” Shen Ju stood and opened the wall, and pointed to the mountain on the horizon.
“What is that?”
“That is Mala, the heart. She is the mountain at the center of the world.”
“And we are…” Shen Ju paused, waiting for the human girl to finish the statement.
“We are so,” Li Xiu said. She knelt and drew a circle in the sand, with a triangle in the center for Mala, and a dot near the edge for the village. “So.”
“This -” Shen Ju said, indicating the circle, “-- is the tapestry upon which you will describe your Chi’ato. Not with brush and ink, but with your words and deeds. You have far to go. Bring us honor, Li Xiu.”
“I —” the girl nodded, uncertain of what she was being told. First they asked her about differences of family, then told her that the world is her new tapestry.
“My family does not travel with me? Always, when a journey is more than a day, we journey together. This is not how it is?”
“This is how it was, Xiu. Tomorrow you go alone, but not alone. Remember your Chi’ato, we are there with you. Your feet walk alone, your spirit is many voices.”
“Your spirit is many voices,” Li Xiu repeated. “I should meditate,” she said, “Tomorrow my feet grow larger.”
“I told you she’d be good at this,” Shen Ju said to Xua Shi with a wink.
The following day, Shen Ju was up at sunrise practicing her Chi’ato. She was stepping down from the balance garden when Li Xiu emerged from the house. She had a bedroll slung across her back, a wooden bowl wrapped into her belt, and a bamboo staff in one hand. Her robes fluttered as she moved.
“I shall walk to Mala,” she said confidently, “and from there, my path belongs to my feet. My Chi’ato knows the way.”
"She was in the boat, Sha Xi. From the storm."
The panda looked up at the simasa standing on a rocky ledge. Together, they surveyed the wreckage on the beach. The storm had come from nowhere, a sudden squall. Three fishing boats had been lost, two huts demolished. And a small boat of foreign design, its only surviving occupant a baby girl less than a year old.
The simasa hopped down to join the panda on the beach. His wild orange hair and leathery skin caught flecks of water from the surf.
“No survivors besides the child, no papers or records,” he mused. The simian-looking man peered out at the far horizon, and back to the human infant cradled in his friend’s arms. “Well, the wind blows a new gift every day - it is our fortune to see it when it happens.” He opened the blanket and peered at the tiny girl. “I’ve seen humans - she’s not Axian. Not from here. But, she’s here now. And fortune would not let us abandon such a gift.”
“Should we tell, I don’t know, Xifu?”
“One day. If I’d tell anyone today, I’d tell Shen Ju. She has goats. Goats have milk. The baby needs milk.”
“Shen Ju has the fortune of a new child,” the panda said, hoping to sound like her simasa friend.
“Again!” the simasa barked. He held his dueling clubs ready as Li Xui held her staff. In a flash she jabbed one end in the sand, leapt up and spun around it like a top, kicked one of the clubs out of his hand and landed easily, the staff gripped between two hands. With a tap of the other end she knocked the other club from her orange-maned combatant’s hand, then bowed politely.
“Hm. I let you win,” he groused, “you shouldn’t know those moves anyway.”
“Because I’m not Axian?” Li Xiu asked, “or because I’m more adept with knives?”
"Because…oh never mind. Next!!"
Li Xiu bowed and stepped aside as another pair of students stepped into combat stance before Xifu. They bowed, and in a heartbeat the Axian human had his simasa sparring partner on his knees gasping and flailing a hand.
“Fortune was behind the clouds for you, Go Xun,” Xifu said. "Go to the courtyard and spar with Li Xui until you master your Shak’ta."
The young orange-furred student stood and bowed, but did not move.
“With respect,” Go Xun said, “the girl is not simasa. I would break her. She’s not even Axian! She is… foreign.”
“She is foreign. You are not wrong. She does not know her past, I am told. Does that make her unworthy to fight you?”
“Foreigners are weak. Fortune does not shine upon them.”
“Li Xiu,” Xifu said, “Go Xun pays you a disrespect. Will you challenge his claim?”
“I - Xifu, Go Xun pays disrespect to himself and his ancestors by speaking the words of a fool. I am not harmed by them. I will not challenge his claim.”
“You call me a fool!” Go Xun said, alarmed. “Then I shall challenge you!” The simasa leapt forward, brandishing a long knife in one hand. He did not wait for Xifu to call a fight, nor even for Li Xiu to prepare for the attack. He lunged, knocking Li Xiu to the ground.
The blade was raised over her head when Go Xun was suddenly thrown backwards, to land in a heap.
“This is a temple, Go Xun,” Xifu said levelly. "It is not a playground and you are not a savage. You will respect honor here. Apologize to Li Xiu."
The orange-haired simasa glared at Li Xiu as he slowly stood, picked up his knife and left the building without speaking.
The temple was silent as half the students watched the sullen simasa stalk from the room, the rest on the dark-haired girl.
“I am only half-Axian, my past is a mystery. I get this everywhere I go, Xifu,” she whispered. “His actions do not offend me. I should go before I cause any more unrest in your temple.”
Soft rains fell on the grass as Li Xui jogged quickly toward the wooden building. She’d been invited to show a group of younger students her Chi’ato style, and as a continual outsider in Axian culture, wanted to finally make a name for herself. She paused to re-tie her robes - granted, they needed mending, or replacing, but the robes she’d worn since leaving Shen Ju’s home were the only things she could honestly call her own.
“You have the right to wear Chi’ato robes, outsider?” a voice snarled from behind her. It was a young simasa, orange furred and wearing only a loincloth, who leapt nimbly from a tree branch.
“You do not have real eyes. You do not know our ways. You do not belong here, Juwa Ren.”
“I was invited to teach Chi’ato at your school, Pen Go,” she replied with a bow. Li Xiu ignored his insult at calling her an outsider.
“I am not your friend!” the simasa said, approaching her. "Let’s see who’s better, then, you or me. If you beat me, you can go on and pretend to be Xifu. If you lose, well… fortune hid her face from you."
The angry simasa hopped from foot to foot, a knife in one hand and short razor-claws in the other. Li Xiu bowed formally and drew her five knives.
“Don’t insult me with formality, girl! I’ll have you on your knees before you c–” His angry words were cut short by a loud bark from behind. Li Xiu and her opponent both turned their attention to a large creature that dropped nimbly from a tree branch.
There has always been speculation about where the simasa race originated. Usually orange-furred, they had long taloned fingers and sharpened teeth, with elongated snouts, but could speak perfectly well, allowing for a minor sibilant hiss. Their agility in trees or across rugged terrain was never in doubt - they sometimes walked upright and sometimes ran on all fours, allowing for the debate that their ancestors were different than those of humans.
The creature that faced Li Xiu now would definitely sway the skeptical - it was large, broad-shouldered and reddish-furred, with a distinctly beastial face and long, agile hands. It looked as much like a gorilla as it did a red wolf. The creature dropped from a branch and hissed at both the human and the simasa alike, and grabbed a tree branch and swung it like a weapon.
“I should let it kill --” the half naked simasa said, and Li Xiu gave him a sidelong glance before drawing her blades and facing off with the creature. She sensed where it would lunge, and threw her blades to connect with its broadcast motion. The creature howled as five sharp knives dug into its flesh, staining the fur crimson. Li Xui rolled out of the way of the beast’s swing and leapt up next to her simasa challenger, who regarded her with disgust.
“You gonna help?” she asked, dodging another blow.
“Too easy,” he sneered. The boy leapt forward and landed on the creature’s shoulders, slashing at its neck with his metal claws. It crouched and leapt, swaying about to knock the boy loose while Li Xiu looked for an opening. She saw it stumble and dove behind it, kicking out to drop it to one knee. The creature grabbed the simasa boy’s leg and pulled him away, wrenching bone and muscle in the process. The boy howled in pain as Li Xiu snatched up three of her knives and struck again, leaving one arm hanging uselessly at it’s side. The creature stumbled and grabbed the boy’s leg again, swinging him high overhead like a rag doll. The simasa screamed as he was slammed into the ground, bones cracking as he hit. Li Xiu saw her chance and jumped over the boy, snatched up his knife and lanced it into the creature’s neck.
The creature fell back gasping, clutching it’s neck, and Li Xui turned her attention to the broken simasa on the ground.
“I’ll find you help,” she said quickly, “the school - what name do I --”
“You should let me die, Juwa R–”
“Hu Lon, that is enough! This girl risked her life to save yours. If your only words lack honor, prefer silence.” Li Xiu looked up to see a human leaning over the badly injured simasa. “Xifu at the temple,” he said by way of introduction, "we heard the noise. He did not deserve this, but you did not deserve his dishonor."
Li Xiu stood back to watch the man quietly work. After a moment he shook his head and sat back, and Li Xiu watched as her would-be attacker drew his last breath.
“It was already too late,” he said, “fortune - as the simasa are fond of saying - was not in his hand.”
“The, the creature, will it be back?”
“That one? No. Others, maybe. It is a risk we take having our temple so close to their territory, but so far we have been fortunate. Come, let’s continue to the temple. My students have heard about the blind woman with the knives.”
"Your eyes are wrong, my students will tell you. The shape is wrong. And if they are wrong, then it is that they do not see. So you must be blind."
Li Xiu considered this. She had been called many things, but never blind.
They walked to the temple, a large stone building with lotus flower columns. Li Xiu could see several small faces peering out at her, and she waved to them and smiled. When they reached the door, Xifu opened it and a dozen children poured out to greet the strange woman.
“Look at her eyes!”
“How does she see?”
“She is taller than Xifu!”
“Students,” Xifu said, “let us welcome our guest inside. She has had a fight with a monster, and needs rest. We need someone to bring back a fighter less fortunate.”
“You fought a monster? Were you scared?”
“Did you win?”
“Later, students, I promise. Yes please, food and water.”
Later that evening, Li Xiu and Xifu were showing the students different fighting styles. She had explained how her old Xifu had taught her Seven Lotus Chi’ato, and the mystery of the knives.
“Do you know why the metal knives are called ‘Harmony of Spirit’?” she asked. There was an expectant silence, and Xifu studied her face with interest.
“Consider what the metal goes through to become a knife,” Li Xiu said, “it is forged from earth, molded in fire, and cooled in water. And it is guided by the dueling forces of light and darkness. All five forces, working together to bring this metal knife to life.”
“And how do the Seven Chi’ato guide your blade?” Xifu asked softly.
“The seven Chi’ato are more than just a fighting style,” Li Xiu told her class, “they are a foundation of philosophy. The seven Chi’ato are the voices of the ancestors, that speak through me. Courage, Truth, Honor, Discipline, Perseverance, Self reliance and
Industriousness. Embrace these Chi’ato in your everyday movements and you will always be successful.”
“Li Xiu, you speak the words of a mystic. I think I - we - have a gift for you. This is why you were brought here today.”
“Hu Lon was supposed to receive this gift of his ancestors. But, he has shown his dishonor; another is more worthy.”
“I… I am worthy?”
“Very much. You defended him even though he insulted you and spoke against you, and you risked your own safety to protect his.”
“And he’s dead,” Li Xiu offered.
“Indeed. If he had died with honor, we would have had this sent to his family. But he has forfeit that nobility, so it is only right that it go to you.” He stood and clapped his hands, and two servants brought out a suit of metal armor made of overlapping plates, like petals. Li Xiu gasped at the sight, but stood quietly when Xifu gave a simple nod.
The servants dressed her in the armor, over her own flowing robes. Whoever it was made for had different hips, and the breastplate was obviously too flat.
“We will have those adjusted, Li Xiu. Stay as out guest long enough until the fittings are completed.”
After the students had retired, Xifu and Li Xiu were walking a small wooden bridge over a koi pond.
“You are always an outsider?” he asked politely.
“So far, yes. I was orphaned at birth, raised by a panda couple. Taught Axian ways, although I am only half of the blood. I think.”
“Have you heard of the Corellian Stronghold?” Xifu asked, and the dark haired woman only shook her head.
“Across the sea, there is a place where many have your eyes. It could be that your path is taking you there.”
“It could be…I am always chasing fortune.”
“My friend is there. If you think the simasa believe in fortune, you should meet him - he has turned the blessings of fortune into a fighting style! Go to Corellia and ask for Wu Kong - I think you would have much to share with each other!”