Jiahao, young master of the Bai family, wandered the streets of the royal city without seeing the wares merchants were hawking, without smelling the dumplings cooking on every corner. His uncle’s words still stung: “I thought I was raising a lion cub yet find it a rabbit. Can courage ever grow in a heart such as this?”
“Am I then a rabbit simply because I have no answer for you today?” Jiahao wanted to say. “A rabbit because I will not immediately do as you say?” But it was worse than that, he knew. If his uncle knew how Jiahao was torn between his dual duties to his family and his country, the patriarch would call him a squirrel, who does not know where he left his true treasures and so digs about foolishly hoping to find more.
So the words burned unspoken on his tongue and he only bowed his head to accept the shame. The obedient nephew. And now he walked through the market, surrounded by all manner of amusements, good food and drink, fine silks and ornaments, and nothing that could soothe his discomfort.
He was reliving the meeting for the twentieth time, and perhaps that’s why he didn’t notice the monk turning onto the main road from a side street, and perhaps that’s why he ran into the monk and knocked him clean over onto the dusty road.
“Oof!” said the monk.
“A thousand apologies,” Jiahao said automatically. He bent and offered a hand; the monk accepted it with goodwill. Jiahao hauled the monk to his feet then bent again to pick up them monk’s hat, which was in danger of being trampled.
“It is dangerous to walk about so blindly,” the monk said with good humor, drawing Jiahao back from the flow of traffic. “One might find oneself in a distant place with no memory of going there. And perhaps a bit lighter than before,” indicating Jiahao’s money pouch.
Reflexively, Jiahao checked the pouch. The strings of coins were there, untouched. “Why do you warn me about the money, honored sir?”
“There are many pickpockets on these market streets,” the monk said. “Walking without seeing, it is no difficult prediction to say your path would cross with a thief. Or perhaps worse. . . . But who knows where one’s path may lead?”
“If only I did know where this path was leading me,” Jiahao muttered. Family or country.
“Only by looking behind us do we see the path we have trod.”
“Even an honored monk?”
The monk laughed. “Even a monk.”
Jiahao doubted it. Though monks roamed the earth as mortal men, they were closer to Heaven than any man except, perhaps, the King himself. Dedicating their lives to the Way, they polished their spirits as jewelers polish grimy rocks to reveal the jewels hiding inside. They were well-versed in tracing the threads of fate. Surely a monk, even so shabby with road dust after being knocked to the ground, would have some knowledge of the path Jiahao should take?
The monk read the thoughts crossing Jiahao’s face and laughed again. “If you knew where your path would lead, would you choose a different road? Think carefully before you ask to know the secrets of the world, young one.”
Jiahao refused to accept the rebuke. “That is the question I have asked myself again and again. Honored sir, if I knew where my path led, could I choose a different path? Or would I be drawn along it regardless, like the river which believes itself free yet is drawn inevitably to the ocean?”
“Even a river can trace a new path,” the monk said quietly. “If it chooses.” Then he smiled and placed his hat on his head, signaling the end of the discussion. By the time Jiahao bowed farewell, the monk had melted back into the flow of traffic.
* * *
“How was your trip home?” the Crown Prince inquired the next day. He did not look up from his papers, but Jiahao knew he would be listening intently.
“It was well, thank you, Your Highness.”
“I am sure your uncle scolded you long and terribly.”
“Yes, I am a terribly unworthy nephew.”
“And he whispered many things in your ear, in the hopes that you would whisper them in my ear, and I would whisper them to the King, like little gnats who try to change the course of elephants.”
“Oh, no,” Jiahao said. “He would never be satisfied as a gnat. No, I am to pester you and needle you until you throw your hands up and say, All right, Jiahao, it shall be as you say. And then you are to pester and needle the King.”
The Crown Prince set the papers aside and stretched. “Maybe that is how the government works. No matter.” He straightened up and looked Jiahao in the eye. “You know, Jiahao, my mind is made up.”
“I know, Your Highness.”
“I have your support on this matter?”
Jiahao took a deep breath. Family or country. Then he let it out. “Irrevocably, Your Highness.”
“I know,” the Crown Prince said quietly, and smiled.
~ ~ ~
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