Xaoshun Po padded down the stone path, tearing through the dark jungle, pulling master Zanjian in the rickshaw behind her. Every strand of her feline musculature burned with the effort. And the humid air made her fur feel heavy as thick cotton.
“Xaoshun,” her master rasped, old voice jostling with every pebble they bumped over. “Any challenges you face today are to be handled with the virtue of Generosity. I am only here to observe. Is that understood?”
“Yes, master Zanjian,” she replied, between breaths. Generosity, it seems simple enough.
“Good. I believe you will soon prove yourself ready to study the Sacred Fist of the West.”
Xaoshun suppressed a smile and ran even faster. Ducking vines, steering the rickshaw around errant ferns grown over the path. The Shoulun Dai were to exercise control over their emotions. But she couldn’t help her excitement.
If I complete the Trial of Virtues I can begin learning the hidden techniques reserved only for those who prove themselves worthy. Real martial arts. Not the child’s play they taught me when I first arrived at the monastery.
Soon the jungle peeled away and great stone ruins thrust into view. Cracked spires of rock extended toward the heavens. Some toppled, lay across each other in giant slate fragments, like fallen trees.
A Shir Uttai village sat beyond the ruins. Roofs of woven grass peeked into view as Xaoshun accelerated down the overgrown trail. Is it really worth dragging the old cat all this way for a few bundles of peppers…? Generosity, Xaoshun. As she pulled past the first of the bamboo huts the spice vendor came into view at the center of the village.
Channarong was a tan man, thin, but wired with sinew. The wooden cart in front of him was strung up with bright peppers, cloves of garlic, whole onions, and an assortment of herbs Xaoshun did not recognize.
The vendor flashed a charming smile of crooked teeth as he hailed their approach. “Master Zanjian! Master Xaoshun! I’ve been expecting you.”
It was nice that someone called her master.
“I refuse to buy my peppers from anyone else within a hundred miles!” Master Zanjian replied, picking nettles from his striped tail.
Xaoshun stretched her back. My aching muscles can attest to that.
Channarong beamed. “You flatter me.”
Master Zanjian stroked his white whiskers as he looked over the stock. “I’ll take three ropes of your hottest khee foh, and two of the—”
“Channarong!” A bald man in an open vest strode toward the cart with purpose, an iron-studded club dangling from one hand. He wasn’t overly tall, but his arms and legs were thick, and a fearsome scar curved down his jaw. “I am A-wat. Mongkut hired me to collect your debt.”
“Excuse me for a moment, Masters.” Channarong pursed his lips at the bald man. “I owe Mongkut no debt.”
A-wat chuckled. “He said you would say that.” The bald man hefted his great club and smashed it into the food cart.
Peppers flew. Shreds of garlic exploded. Onions cascaded out and rolled away.
Xaoshun looked on in horror. I didn’t drag the old cat all this way for nothing. Her claws dug into her fist. She looked to Master Zanjian, and he shrugged, his slitted eyes unreadable. How badly she wanted to give this A-wat a good beating.
Exercise Generosity, she reminded herself.
A-wat must have seen how she was glaring at him because he turned on her. “Stay out of this, kitten. Or I’ll share my club with you as well.”
Xaoshun scowled. She knew Master Zanjian would expect her to ignore the man.
A-wat set back to work, laughing and pulverizing the spice cart. Wood creaked and splintered. Peppers and herbs splattered everywhere.
Channarong looked to her with pleading eyes. What was she to do?
With every swing A-wat laughed harder. More maniacally. Until it almost seemed he was screaming. And then he was screaming. “My eyes! Channarong, you bastard! What is this?”
“Khee foh,” the vendor replied, somewhat amused at the outcome. “My hottest pepper.”
A-wat dropped his club and dug his fists into his eye sockets. He backpedaled, stepping on an onion. It rolled out from under him, his legs shot out, and he crashed into a bed of red spices.
This was Xaoshun’s opportunity. She removed her sash and spat into it. “Hold still, ruffian.” She pulled A-wat’s heavy hands away and daubed at his closed lids. “Take this, and clean your eyes.” When he did, she bent and began gathering up the battered herbs. Piling them in what was left of the spice cart.
Channarong knelt next to her and helped. “Thank you, master monk.”
She nodded. But she was far from certain she had done the right thing.
Later, when they were on the road home, Xaoshun stopped the rickshaw. “Master, did I act correctly today?”
Zanjian stroked his long whiskers thoughtfully. “You could have been more generous.”
More generous? “What would you have done?” She knew it was a trick question.
Zanjian smiled, his fangs brilliant in the setting sun. “Why, I’d have picked up A-wat’s club and given it back to him—over the head—with great generosity, of course.”
Xaoshun frowned. “Of course…”
That old cat had an answer for everything.
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