The slightly-built teenage lad gritted his teeth in determination laced with pain as the tall wiry man before him struck him again on the side of the head with his club, adding yet another bruise to his already growing collection.
He darted deceptively to one side, vowing to cut his opponent at least five times this evening. Reversing one of his daggers in his grip, he spun around swiftly to drive it towards his opponent's side... and found himself flat on his back, his world swimming before his eyes. His opponent, his uncle Lin Fei, stood over him shaking his head.
“You're slipping. You only cut me twice today.” He indicated the two ripped tears on the front of his padded waistcoat. Casually, he tossed his club aside and hauled his nephew roughly to his feet.
Seizing the moment, the young Shou drove his elbow into his uncle's midsection and lashed out wildly with both daggers, opening another two rips in the padded armour just before his uncle grabbed hold of his wrists.
“Four” He corrected, a trifle defiantly.
He could have sworn his uncle smiled, just before he twisted his nephew's wrists slowly, the pain finally forcing the young Shou to drop his daggers. Lin Fei let go of his nephew and stepped back, regarding the youth.
“Perhaps you are learning a little too much from the gang,” he said and his eyes narrowed.
Lin Chien almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of the statement. From the day they had started training him, he had learned nothing but fighting with daggers. The other apprentices had trained with the dagger too, but their education had been more varied. At this moment, Torn-shirt Liu was showing a promising rogue the finer points of cheating at dice. Black Eagle was drilling a small group in a dark room, on how to hide. Old Chang had been out all morning showing his own son how to stalk people without being noticed. Long-fingered Han was busy rapping the knuckles of the students who had failed to pick his pocket successfully. And all he had done - all he had been allowed to learn - was fighting with daggers. The senior members of the gang liked him well enough to gamble and drink with him, but always nimbly avoided the topic of extra tuition.
“Why, Boss?” He asked suddenly - Lin Fei would have punished him severely if he had referred to him as “Uncle”. Lin Fei merely stared.
Lin Chien plucked up his courage and blurted out. “Why am I not allowed to learn other things? Why fighting? Why not stalking, or stealing, or.…” He faltered. His uncle's eyes had grown alarmingly wide.
The blow never came. Lin Fei had started pacing around the room, a sure sign that he had something to say but was not sure how to say it. Finally he spoke.
“Your parents died on the executioner's block when you were just a baby. They died taking something they should not have taken. That is the lot of the thief, the destiny of rogues. For the promise of a better life, we risk a brutal death.”
“On the night before the execution, we broke into jail and tried to rescue them. We bungled, and the guards were alerted. We were forced to escape and leave your parents behind. Before I left, my brother - your father - told me to ensure that you would have a different path to travel should you wish it.”
He turned to the young Shou who was listening in rapt attention. “And I have made good on my promise. I cannot give you a different life from what I lead, but you will have a choice. The gang needs muscle - you will fulfil that role. Warriors are needed everywhere, not just in bands of rogues. If ever the time comes that this group disbands - and mark me well, it will disband eventually in this world of uncertainties - you will have a choice. The choice your father and I never did have.”
He spun around and left the room, leaving the young Shou with his thoughts awhirl.
It was evening, and Lin Chien sat around a table in the dank but cosy den shared by the entire gang, sharing several cups of cheap wine with the senior rogues. The wine had loosened the tongues of some of the rogues, but Lin Chien had long learned the virtues of staying sober, especially since he was supposed to be the muscle of the group. He drank sparingly and listened with great interest to the tales shared.
One of the more loquacious ones, a weaselly con artist called Mao Tou Ying (Translation: Owl) was regaling them of his exploits in Faerun, the western continent of Toril.
“The red-haired devils...” he slurred. “...They have such narrow minds. They think all those who look different from them, are inferior, are stupid and craven.”
He paused to take another deep swig of watered plum wine. “They think.... the Shou.... they think we are stupid. We are smaller than them, so they think we are weak, and afraid of them. They think we are common barbarians with no knowledge of the world. In reality... our fighting arts surpass theirs. Most of them have no idea what to do if you strip them of their weapons. Our weapons will last long after theirs rust away. The intrigues and politics in Shou Lung would rival theirs any time. We know more about them... than they think they know about us!”
“That's outrageous!” One of the younger rogues, barely out of his apprenticeship, turned red with annoyance and strong drink. “How can we allow these red-haired devils to speak of us this way! We should show them what we're really made of! The Shou are not to be taken lightly!”
Lin Chien tilted his head to one side, considering. Finally, he spoke.
“But why should we?”
It was meant as an honest question, and he was surprised when Mao Tou Ying burst into loud laughter. The weaselly rogue shook with mirth, tears of laughter streaming down his wrinkled cheeks as he pointed at Lin Chien.
“Exactly, my friends! Why? Why should we relieve the white man of his own ignorance? The bear is less dangerous when it is full and placid. The lion is harmless when it is asleep. Likewise, the red-haired devils who believe us to be no threat, they in turn, will pose little threat.”
“The man who thinks us stupid, will be careless and easier to fool. The man who thinks us weak, will be complacent and easier to defeat. Why reveal our true strengths when we can gain so much by hiding them?”
Mao Tou Ying had stopped laughng and his drunken demeanour had slipped away like a shadow.
“The white man's arrogance is a tool, a weapon. Not only should we not eliminate it, we should seek to encourage it, nurture it. Hone it to a sharp edge. All the better to cut when the time comes.”
Lin Chien nodded appreciatively at the logic as it all fell together in
his mind. Mao Tou Ying raised his cup to the young Shou. “Thinks like a rogue,
though not trained as one.” He grinned. “If you ever visit the west lands,
nourish their perception of you. Act as if you cannot understand their
language. Misunderstand the simplest phrases. Fumble often, and in full view.
Be humble, polite and self-effacing. Play down your own strengths, and make
your apparent weaknesses all too obvious.”
The rogues around the table shared another round of appreciative laughter before raising their cups in another toast.
He felt a trickle of oily sweat make its way down his forehead and into his eye, but he refused to blink. To do so might have been fatal.
The man before him, clad in dark clothes and wielding a
dangerous-looking curved sword, had accosted him and Old Chang on their way to
the gang's den. This was no ordinary cutpurse - he had been waiting for a while
to wait until Old Chang came out from the gambling house. Lin Chien had taken a
moment in the privy, and had joined Old Chang just in time to see the blind
pickpocket being attacked. Probably an assassin hired by an old creditor who
had tired of waiting.
Lin Chien adjusted his grip on the dagger he held in each hand, crouching and weaving deceptively like a snake poised to strike. The man darted forward and his sword slid out to engage the dagger on the same side as his sword. Instantly, Lin Chien siezed the apparent advantage and struck out with his other dagger.
Too late, he found that he had fallen for a ruse. The man leaped back in the same instant and slashed across Lin Chien's outstretched arm, the superior reach of his sword defeating the attack of the young Shou's dagger. Lin Chien felt warm blood soaking his sleeve, and the sting told him it had been a sizeable cut, though not dangerously so.
Just then, the man stiffened, then fell forward, face-first on the filthy ground of the alley. A dagger protruded from his lower back. A denizen of the streets, one friendly to the gang, retrieved his dagger and relieved the dead man of his purse, waving in mock salute to Old Chang, who grinned and waved back as if he could actually see who had rescued them.
Lin Chien merely stood and stared at the corpse, brooding.
“What's on your mind?” rasped Old Chang.
“That man... he was attacked from behind, I would have liked to resolve this….”
“Honourably?” Old Chang snorted. “What makes his death dishonourable? He made a mistake and paid for it.”
Lin Chien said nothing.
Old Chang continued. “You too, made a mistake, and he wounded you for it. Similarly, he failed to guard his back and paid the price. The man who fails to take steps to protect himself has less right to live than those who do.”
“But this is different; he injured me from the front,” Lin Chien protested.
“Look at me,” interrupted the old man. “I am blind. To attack me in front would be the same as attacking me from behind. Front, side, rear, those are merely positions. Honour or dishonour does not exist in such situations. A man who wishes to live should have eyes at the back of his head as well as in front. Remember this. There is no honour, only pride. Honour is a term bandied about by pompous, prideful fools to mask their own inadequacies. We, honest thieves, have no such delusions.”
Lin Chien began, “I am not a...” Instantly he knew he had made another mistake. Old Chang's bony hands held his shirt front in a vice-like grip and slammed him back against the alley wall.
“Not a what? Not a thief?” the blind man snarled. “From who have you been learning the use of those knives? From who have you learnt the arts of shadow and stealth and misdirection? From who have you learned the tricks of the trade, so as not to become a victim yourself? And you claim you are not a thief? Who has been feeding you such nonsense? Lin Fei?”
He released the young Shou and shoved him roughly from the wall. “Remember this, young man,” he hissed as he began to hobble away. “Those who consort with thieves are no better than them.”