Fragile Vessel Ch. 1
This is the first chapter of Fragile Vessel, also available in my first issue of Story+Story newsletter. I will post subsequent chapters once every two months, collated in a longer post. If you wish to have more frequent updates to this story, do subscribe to my newsletter.
Fragile Vessel is part Chinese wuxia, part fantasy, part sci-fi and part romance.
It is not set in ancient China. It's just Chinese-y, like me!
There will be sword fights, deaths, heroic acts, vengeance, magic, love, and frankly any damn thing I can think of to throw in there, because a glorious mix of ingredients is what makes delicious soup.
I will put tags (AO3-style) at the start of each chapter for potential triggers or squicks.
Tags: unexpected guests, implied/referenced murder, implied/referenced genocide, siblings, children in pain, clingy kids, chi manipulation, non-human characters
“Master, someone is here to see you.”
Glancing at the clock on the wall, Hu Tianyi frowned and said, “It’s already nearly midnight, hardly appropriate for visitors. Ask him to leave a name and we can meet tomorrow.”
The old servant, Hu Ji, hesitated. “Master, it’s a lady, and she has a child with her.”
“A lady? That’s even less appropriate. Rumors, Ji, rumors will wreck a man and his legacy. Send them away.” Hu Tianyi set down the book he was reading. He should turn in soon anyway, since he would have to go over the accounts tomorrow with his accountants and then travel to his salt mines to check on the quality of the latest harvest.
“But, Master, she’s-”
A warm and hearty laugh outside the door interrupted the old servant. Hu Tianyi looked up to see a woman entering his study. She was dressed in long white robes, her face hidden by her veiled hat, and she had black gloves. Holding on to her right hand was a child of about three years old.
The woman in white said calmly, “Master Hu, I would not presume to intrude on you and your family, but a visit at midnight is unusual for a reason.”
Her accent placed her as a northerner, but Hu Tianyi could not remember any acquaintance like her. “Madam, you have the advantage of me, I’m afraid. I have not ventured north of the capital in decades, and I might have forgotten some good friends from my youth.”
“You and I have not met until tonight, Master Hu. I came because I heard of your valor and hospitality, and thus require your aid. I am from the Valley of Butterflies; my surname is Bai.”
Saying that, she tugged off the glove on her left hand, revealing her palm that had a faint moon-white sheen. She then turned her hand over and, on the back, chi lines formed a butterfly that shone brilliant white, the light pulsing slowly.
Hu Tianyi fell to one knee immediately and cupped his fists above eye level. “I did not mean to offend! Master Bai, whatever you require of me, I will provide to the best of my ability.”
Bai Yunxian. The Immortal of the Clouds. Rumor had her single-handedly destroying the great Takhn palace over thirty years ago, because the Takhnei had abducted her and quartered her husband alive. Given that the kingdom of Takhn was now a fractured collection of squabbling tribes, there had to be some credence to the myth.
“You did not offend. Please, stand. This is your home, after all, and I the intruder.” She helped him up with her ungloved hand. Though she did not exert much force, Hu Tianyi found that an inexorable upward pressure pulled him to his feet.
With chi as bright as that, what can I do that she cannot? Hu Tianyi hid his doubts and ordered Hu Ji to leave. The old servant scurried out, but left the doors open.
Bai Yunxian put on her glove again. “I shan’t stay long. This child is the last of the Yi clan, who lived in the deep forests northwest of this city. Four days ago I received word of a raid on the clan, and immediately set forth. She reached into a pale gray pack slung across her torso and retrieved a datapad, flicking through it rapidly, and handed it to him. "This is what was left of their village."
Photos, their timestamps revealing that these were taken over four hours ago, showed smoking structures and charred bodies. Hu Tianyi swallowed down his bile and swiped through the pictures, taking in the amount of carnage. "How did she escape?"
"I found her hiding in the branches of a catalpa tree on the edge of the village," said Bai Yunxian, taking her datapad back.
A tree? Someone must have hidden her up in there. Hu Tianyi murmured his condolences. For all that he was nearly fifty, he had not once heard of any clan or tribe in the forests around the Pingshui region, but he was aware that most of his attention had been on ensuring the Hu family secured the patronage of the imperial court and the continued prosperity of his household.
"It won’t be too hard to track the culprits, but my progress will be hindered if I take her with me, yet I cannot leave her unprotected.” She paused, and stroked the child’s dark hair. “You are said to be the most honorable man in the Pingshui region. Please take care of her for me.”
Hu Tianyi’s gaze slid down to the girl, and shivers crept down his spine. No child of three should be this composed on losing everyone they had ever known. And no human child had eyes like that.
Her eyes were entirely violet, all glittering facets, as if someone had embedded two amethyst gemstones in that sweet, chubby-cheeked face.
“You said… you said she is the only one left of the Yi clan?” Hu Tianyi asked, trying not to let his discomfort show. With some effort, he tore his gaze from the silent girl. “Is there anything I should do for… You want me to take her in?”
“I ought to discuss this with my wife,” Hu Tianyi temporized.
“We do not have much time. The murderers are already on the run.”
Suddenly, there came a knock on the open door. Hu Tianyi was surprised to see his wife Lan Yuxia walk in, but she only made a courteous bow to Bai Yunxian before she stretched her arms out to the girl. The girl chewed on her thumb as she studied the newcomer, the first indicator of childlike behavior thus far, before she walked over to Lan Yuxia and hugged her.
Despite her slight frame, Lan Yuxia had little trouble lifting the child into her arms. “Of course we can take care of her,” she said, and then glared at her husband. “She is such a darling girl. I’m sure she won’t cause any trouble.” She crooned and tapped the child on the tip of her nose. “What’s your name?”
Bai Yunxian sighed. “She hasn’t spoken since I found her. Perhaps she’ll speak in a few days. Her surname is Leng, that much I know.”
“Mother! Mother, where are you?” A young boy of about four barreled into the study. Hu Tianyi sighed. He ought to put a lock on the door. The boy scowled ferociously at the girl in his mother’s arms. “Mother, who is she? Who are you? How dare you let my mother carry you?”
Another boy, taller and older, hurried into the study. “Wen! Don’t shout. You’re interrupting Father.”
“Mother is carrying someone else!” Hu Wen complained, stamping his foot.
This was getting out of hand. Hu Tianyi slapped his desk lightly to get his sons’ attention. “Yuan, what’s going on? You’re supposed to watch your brother so your mother can rest! Wen, stop your tantrum. A boy shouldn’t be this clingy.”
The older son, Hu Yuan, looked guilty. “Wen had a bad dream, so we went into the garden to look at fireflies, and then we saw this lady, and then we saw Mother and… well.” His shoulders crept up towards his ears. “Sorry, Father.”
Hu Tianyi was about to scold his son when he remembered that Bai Yunxian was still present. “Apologize to Master Bai for the disruption.”
“Sorry, Master Bai,” said Hu Yuan, cupping his fist in the standard pugilist’s form, for all that he was only six years old. “We will behave better.”
“Hardly anything to apologize for,” said Bai Yunxian with a gracious nod of her head, the veil shifting slightly with her movement.
Hu Tianyi wondered if she was still the great beauty she was rumored to be. A chi master would be less susceptible to the ravages of time, but thirty years was thirty years. To his son, he muttered, “You and Wen should return to bed now.”
His wife was still bouncing the girl, humming something cheerful, and the child was starting to smile. It was disconcerting to see how unaffected his wife was by the child’s strange faceted eyes.
Unhappy about being ignored, Hu Wen pulled on his mother’s sleeve. “Who is this girl? Why is she here?”
“She is here because she needs a place to stay,” said Bai Yunxian.
Hu Wen whirled around, nearly tripping over his own feet, but he folded his chubby arms and glared at her with all the righteous fury of a four-year-old denied his favorite person.
“Why must she stay here, then?” he demanded. “And how come no one can tell me who she is? What’s her name?” He turned around again and pulled on the girl’s foot. “What is your name?”
“I am Xiang,” the girl said, her head tucked against Han Yuxia’s shoulder, and then yawned. Her voice was soft and sweet. “I’m tired.”
Bai Yunxian gasped, before chuckling. “Well. I suppose that is one mystery cleared up.” She bowed to Hu Wen. “Thank you, young man.”
“Go to bed, Yuan, Wen,” said Hu Tianyi. He did not want them to be around the older woman. There was a growing uneasiness in his gut, like he was about to come across some creative bookkeeping.
“Wait, please.” Bai Yunxian straightened. “I had hesitated to ask, but seeing your sons… Xiang will need their help for a while.”
Lan Yuxia patted the girl’s hair, her gaze darting to her husband, before she asked, “What do you need them for?”
“Our chi is self-contained, though we can channel it to others with effort,” the older woman said, “but the members of the Yi clan shared their chi among themselves. A limited pool of chi flowing to and from each of the Yi, if you can picture that.” Bai Yunxian paused. “Unfortunately, as each member of her clan was killed, their chi was returned to the pool. And she is the only survivor.”
“You mean, the chi of the entire clan is in this poor child?” Lan Yuxia clutched the girl closer to herself. Leng Xiang protested sleepily. In a hushed voice, Lan Yuxia asked, “Can we drain it from her?”
Bai Yunxian shook her head. “I have not discovered how. I do know how to bind her and someone else to carry that chi together.”
“I’ll do it,” offered Lan Yuxia immediately.
“No!” Hu Tianyi cut in. His wife was startled, as if she had forgotten that he was there. “You cannot put yourself at risk. I forbid it.”
“Tianyi, she’s a child. How can she bear it alone?” Lan Yuxia implored.
“She seems perfectly fine to me,” Hu Tianyi said. The sight of his wife, pale as ash once she had given birth to Hu Wen, was not an experience he wanted to repeat. He had found her late in life, and she was precious to him. "I'm sure she can keep on enduring it. She's not even crying though her family is dead."
Bai Yunxian’s face might be veiled, but Hu Tianyi could feel her scorn at that insensitive remark. Shame flooded his cheeks and he looked at his two sons instead.
“Father, let me help,” said Hu Yuan. His lips were thin with determination. “Master Bai, what do I need to do?”
“Why Yuan and not me?” Hu Wen demanded. Pouting, he shoved in front of his older brother. “I can help too!”
“You two don’t even know what is being asked of you,” Hu Tianyi hissed. To Bai Yunxian, he cupped his fists and said, “I promised to give my aid, and so I should be the one to share the burden.”
“Someone closer to her age would be better,” said Bai Yunxian. “You already have your own chi, Master Hu. It will clash with the child’s, and cause unnecessary suffering for you both.” She took off her veiled hat and set it on a chair nearby. Her hair was braided and coiled in a tight bun. Her face, while bearing the marks of age, still exhibited the beauty she had in her youth. High cheekbones, a strong nose, full lips, doe eyes – Hu Tianyi could see why the Takhnei had wanted her as a prize.
But what was more striking was the soft glow emanating from her skin. She appeared lit up from within, the chi lines curving and looping delicately all over her in dense patterns. The two boys gaped. Lan Yuxia set Leng Xiang down into a chair and gazed at the older woman in wonder. Chi masters of this caliber were rare.
Bai Yunxian only smiled at the boys as she retrieved a small, round disk from her belt pouch. It appeared to be made of dark green jade. She looked at Leng Xiang, seated in a chair, and then at the boys.
“May I bind Xiang to one of them? At least until she is old enough to learn how to contain the chi within herself without harm.” Bai Yunxian did not look at Hu Tianyi for permission, but at Lan Yuxia.
Lan Yuxia knelt to look her two sons in the eyes. “Yuan, is it alright for Master Bai to – Master Bai, what are you doing with him?”
“I will bind his chi paths to hers, to lengthen the channels in which the chi can flow, until she is older and can learn how to route chi herself. Right now I have sealed her chi points, but it is too great a strain on so young a child.”
“Will it hurt?” Hu Yuan inquired, his thin fingers twisting the hem of his short robe.
Bai Yunxian hesitated, before saying, “A little bit, for a while.”
Hu Yuan took a deep breath. “Alright. I’ll do it.”
“Then I’ll do it too,” Hu Wen declared loudly.
“You’re only four, you’re much too young,” Hu Tianyi scolded.
“If Yuan can do it, so can I,” his younger son insisted. "I want to."
"Two of them means that the load can be shared among three, and them being brothers should help strengthen the link," mused Bai Yuxian. She caught Hu Wen’s wrist. In the next breath, Hu Tianyi could see her chi flow into his son, and an odd terror gripped his heart. Hu Wen only frowned at the older woman. Eventually, she let go of Hu Wen, and took Hu Yuan’s wrist to repeat the same silent procedure. When she released Hu Yuan as well, she straightened. “I have set my chi to protect their hearts and internal organs. The Yi clan’s chi will flow through them without affecting them, and Xiang won't have to hold this much chi in herself.”
She snapped the jade disk into two, and gave one portion to each of the two boys, carrying Leng Xiang to sit on the floor, facing Hu Tianyi and Lan Yuxia. Carefully, Bai Yunxian removed Leng Xiang’s outer robe. The child wore a sleeveless blue tunic inside.
“Hold the pendant in your hands.”
The three children did as they were told, clasping the pieces where their hands were joined. Hu Yuan watching the quiet Leng Xiang, Hu Wen fidgeting on the cool tiled floor. Hu Tianyi clenched his fists.
The gong of the clock rang out thrice. It was midnight.
Then the older woman sat behind Leng Xiang, extending her hands to either side to cover the children’s joined hands, and started murmuring in a language Hu Tianyi did not know. After a few breaths, there was a series of frantic beeping sounds, which slowed to a steady beat. The beeping seemed to echo, and that was when Hu Tianyi realized the sounds came from each half of the jade pendant.
An intense purple light started glowing in the middle of Leng Xiang’s chest and the little girl shuddered. Beads of perspiration formed and rolled down her face, but she only bit her lower lip, trembling violently.
Lan Yuxia inhaled sharply before she turned away, burrowing her face into her husband’s chest. “Poor child,” she kept murmuring. “Poor child!”
Running a soothing hand down his wife’s back over and over, Hu Tianyi made himself watch as the purple light – the collective chi from the child’s clan – scratched outwards, zigzagging along her arms like slashes, and then the light stabbed into his sons’ hands where they held Leng Xiang’s. The beeps sped up.
Hu Wen shrieked, his piercing cry high and desperate, but Bai Yunxian did not release him. Hu Yuan on the other hand was bearing the pain stoically, his eyes screwed tightly shut and his jaw clenched. Bai Yunxian kept chanting something in a low voice, and the words built upon themselves and over the rapid beeping.
Witch. Hu Tianyi knew better than to believe in superstitious nonsense, yet here in front of him was witchcraft. He was sure of it. That had to be how she destroyed the Takhn. If he cut her head off, right now, he might even be lauded as a witch-slayer.
Bai Yunxian opened her eyes to stare at him, her gaze knowing and calm. She never paused in her chanting, but Hu Tianyi was struck abruptly with a vision of an agonizing death if he were to attack her. He blinked the vision away, and saw Bai Yunxian’s lips curve into a humorless little smile.
She knows. Hu Tianyi broke out in goose-pimples along his arms. She can tell.
Suddenly, a pair of wings unfolded from the child’s shoulders, delicate and iridescent like mayfly wings, their veins pulsing weakly with purple chi. Hu Tianyi froze. His wife turned around to see what had caused the surprise, and gasped in shock. The two boys were too caught up in the pain of the procedure to notice, and the wings folded back down soon after. The beeps slowed, and then stopped. The light of the purple chi faded to nothing.
Hu Wen was still howling for his mother by the time the spell was done. Once released, the younger boy scrambled upright and threw the pendant to the floor, crying, “I don’t want to help anymore! I don’t!”
Lan Yuxia gathered him into her arms and kissed his damp cheeks. “It’s alright, dear boy, you don’t have to, it’s alright.”
The jade had not shattered despite Hu Wen’s rough treatment. Bai Yunxian picked it up and handed it to Hu Tianyi.
“Keep this safe,” she said quietly, while Lan Yuxia offered hugs and kisses to her older son as well. “It will keep the foreign chi from misbehaving. I leave Xiang here in your care, Master Hu. I will be back for her, once I have dealt with the culprits responsible for her plight.”
They both turned to look at Leng Xiang. Still somewhat stunned, Hu Tianyi muttered, “She has wings.”
“She doesn’t know how to use them.” Bai Yunxian retrieved her veiled hat and put it on.
If his wife and children were not present, Hu Tianyi would have shouted, That is not the point! The point is that normal people don't have wings!
“I take my leave. Thank you, Master Hu, Mrs Hu, for your kindness and hospitality. I shall write to you of my progress.”
“Please do,” replied Han Yuxia when her husband said nothing. “Safe travels.”
Hu Tianyi remained staring at Leng Xiang. Her iridescent eyes met his brown ones. Perhaps it was his imagination, but there was something extraordinarily old looking back out at him from the violet depths.