The cherry blossoms fluttered silently into the pond, barely causing a ripple as they fell. Wu Shen watched a spider sprint across the smooth water, dance with the blossoms, while a school of koi swam below. One koi rose to the surface, its silver scales catching the light like a glint of steel. The fish swallowed the spider then disappeared once more to the deeper parts of the pond, nothing more than a slight disturbance shifting the clear blue water.
Shen stood, placed his arms behind his back as he took in the beauty of his lord’s garden. Cherry blossoms tingled his nose. He closed his eyes, holding the perfection of the moment to himself.
“I am sure my lord husband will arrive soon,” Sun Zi whispered in apology.
“You have no need to apologize,” Shen answered. “With the roads harried by rebels, Sun Ang likely found the going slow. My brother will see that he arrives safely.”
Zi opened her mouth to reply, when a loud voice greeted them. Sun Ang stood in the garden, large as all of China. His armor was worn and dirty, a spot of fresh blood stained one sleeve. He laughed as he came toward them, his wild beard and moustache making him look out of place in the manicured gardens. Zi stepped back and bowed to her husband and Shen did likewise.
Ang opened his arms and crushed Shen in an embrace. “My most loyal friend, I have missed you these past few months.”
“And I you,” Shen said.
“Come, let’s drink, I have the need for tea.”
They followed Zi to the tea area located in the center of the garden. Colors of every hue bloomed along the path, precious and innocent. “How were the roads? Were there as many bandits as they say?”
“Bah, bandits do not trouble me; I enjoy crushing the opposition they provide. It is the troubles in the capital that cause me restless nights.”
“Why? What troubles you there?”
Ang grunted, slammed his hand on Shen’s shoulder. “Politicians and advisors. I much prefer an enemy I can see than the ones who maneuver behind my back.”
“Tell me who?”
“Ahhh… my wife,” Ang said as they entered the tea area to discover that everything was already prepared. “You know me too well.”
Zi tilted her head in acceptance. “It is the job of a wife to anticipate her husband’s needs.”
A corner of Ang’s lip twitched as he growled playfully. “You can anticipate my needs tonight. I found the capital lonely without you beside me.” Ang waved his hand. “Sit, sit, both of you.”
Zi sat, her legs tucked beneath her like the stem to a rose. Shen sat beside her and Ang, in his bloodstained armor, across from them. “Tell me, my friend, what you have been up to these long months since I have been gone?” Ang asked. He removed his sword and placed it beside his left knee.
Zi poured the tea, for her husband first, then Shen.
“Rebels attacked the city a few times. We drove them back. They are a poorly trained lot.”
Ang nodded. He sipped from the white teacup, its flowered pattern a contrast to his dirty hands.
“And my wife,” Ang leaned forward. “Did you keep her chaste as I asked?”
Shen nodded. “While I was here, I guarded her night and day.”
Ang laughed. “Good, good! I knew I could count on you.”
Ang lifted the cup to his mouth. It looked out of place in his large hands — far too delicate an object for him to enjoy, far too beautiful. He wiped his mouth with his other hand. “Yes, my friend, I have bad news.”
Shen looked at Ang. From the corner of his eyes he could see Zi tense like a flower caught in a breeze. Her head bowed, waiting for the fall. Ang looked straight ahead, his eyes never wavering from his wife, never revealing what thoughts raced behind their dark veil. The words seemed to hover between them, unable to be spoken and yet understood the way a bee needs the flower. Shen raised his cup, broke the spell.
Zi shivered beneath his gaze. Ang looked away. Her arm touched Shen’s as she poured, the wind blowing a kiss on his skin. He trembled inside, ashamed. Lowering the cup, Shen focused his attention on his lord and friend.
“You were saying,” he asked, his voice still as the pond.
Ang groaned and lowered his head, then he looked up, his eyes weary. “I fear all men are not as honorable as you.”
Shen was still as the spider walking on the pond. “Speak.”
“While we fought these rebels, other men crept behind our backs — spoiled the sanctity of my bed, the honor of my house.”
“Whom do you speak of?” Shen asked.
My brother. The brother who covered for me.
“Your brother dishonored me.”
The brother who warned me.
“I had him slain. That is the price he had to pay for his deeds.”
For my deeds. “My brother?”
“I am sorry, my friend,” Ang said, looking at his wife. “Some men are not as honest as you and I.”
The cherry blossoms fluttered silently into the pond, barely causing a ripple as they fell.
A.R. Williams lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is currently a member of the Online Writing Workshop, a community of science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers.
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