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winter is the promise of spring

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In the empty woods, the boy caught a rabbit. It was soft and fluffy and winter-white and it kicked frantically against his hands and made screaming sounds that echoed loudly through the still air. . He frowned. “No,” he told it, but it kept screaming and kicking.

The boy huffed and carefully wrapped his fingers around its throat and squeezed. Very quickly it stopped screaming and stopped kicking, and the boy looked down at it thoughtfully. His stomach rumbled.

When sensei had made food, he’d taken the fur off first. The boy stroked the soft white fur. It felt nice, so he stroked it some more. The wind sighed through the pine trees. A light scattering of snow fell on the boy, making him jump. He shook himself to make it fall off.

His stomach rumbled again and he pushed his hand into his belly. How did you get the skin off? He dug his nails into the soft fur but it didn’t budge. The boy pouted. What took skin off? He brightened. Knives!

He climbed up the wall of the training hall, rabbit between his teeth, and dropped down through the hole in the roof because sensei was still in the front room. He fetched a knife out of the play chest and poked the rabbit with it. It made a hole in the rabbit and when he stuck his fingers in the hole and tugged some of the skin lifted away. Good! That was good!
With his fingers and the knife he tugged and pulled the skin off. Blood and bits rabbit went everywhere; he licked some of the blood off his hand and his stomach rumbled eagerly. There were some bits in the middle that smelled bad and he pulled them out carefully.

When he had finished though he stared down at the little red lump in dismay. It didn't look like food.

How did he make food?

His stomach was really hurting and he sniffed and bit his tongue so he didn't cry, because he was a good boy.

He thought hard, as hard as he could, trying to remember how Tanaka-sensei made food.

Fire! Sensei used fire!

The boy leapt up eagerly - then froze. Where could you find fire?

The boy searched miserably through the chests in the room, his head pounding more and more, but he couldn’t find any fire.

He stared down at the red rabbit and then carefully nibbled at it. He made a face. It was slimy and cold and it didn’t taste good. He had to chew it a lot to make it go down.

Afterwards he felt a bit sick but his stomach wasn’t rumbling anymore so that was good, wasn’t it? The boy frowned. He didn’t know. The teachers knew what was good. This wasn’t one of the things they’d said was good.

The sun was going away.

He went to visit the other children but they still weren’t saying anything. He dragged another blanket over them just in case. He was okay! He still had one blanket! There wasn’t THAT much snow.

He curled up in the rafters where the cold wind that came in through the hole couldn’t get him and pushed his nose into his blanket because his nose was cold.

Sleep, he told himself firmly.

A sound woke him.

The boy froze, listening.

Not a bird, not an animal.

Snow crunching under something heavy - a carriage wheel!

The boy flew out of the hole in the roof and into the trees. A bird squawked at him angrily and he darted quickly away up through the branches where the pine needles would hide him. Up high. His heart was pounding fast, like the rabbit’s. Carriage people couldn’t get up high where the branches got thinner.

His head gave a vicious pound and the boy swallowed a cry as his hand slipped. He caught himself with a knee over a branch. He hung upside down panting and dizzy, his eyes going dark and light, dark and light.

He didn’t like it!

He grabbed hold of another branch and pulled himself up close against the trunk of tree. He pressed his forehead hard against the rough bark, swallowing his whimpers. He wanted it to stop! He wanted it to stop hurting.

It did. Slowly. It stopped hurting enough and his eyes came back. He rubbed at the dents the tree had made in his forehead.

He looked down and his heart gave a thump. He looked around wildly. They had gone!

Had they gone away completely? No - he heard voices. They were coming from the other side of the building no!

The boy flew across the roof - the tiles clung and clattered under his feet - he saw them! They were going into the room with the others!

The boy screamed and threw himself down at them hitting and kicking furiously. They shouted and tried to grab at him but he was He hit and kicked and spun. They shouted and tried to grab him. Stupid! The boy was the fastest!

Suddenly they all stopped and leapt away. The boy stood panting, glaring at them. They watched him him warily. One of them was holding his arm like it hurt. The boy bared his teeth at them and they backed away. The one in white flipped a fan open and smiled at him and said words at him but he wasn't a teacher. The boy ignored him. He leapt up onto the roof, and then into the trees. He could see them but they couldn't see him!

The boy perched in the trees and watched them. They didn’t try and go into the room again. The boy puffed his chest out, pleased. Sometimes they came and stood close to the door and peered inside but they didn’t try to go in. They were too scared of him!

Soon they would go away.

**

“What is in there?”

“Dead children. And a man with his head bashed in, which I think we can credit to our little demon-squirrel!”

“…”

“Ah yes, this is all your fault, isn’t it? The great, omniscient Mei Changsu, personally responsible for the actions of these twisted men.”

“You can’t deny, if I hadn’t exposed this organisation’s dealings with Wa Country’s Crown Prince, they wouldn’t have tried to cover up the worst of their activities like this.”

“Excellent, they would have been free to continue kidnapping and brainwashing children into tiny assassins.

“I acted without knowing all the information, and these children paid the price. I must do better.”

**

They didn’t go away.

The boy tried to make them leave. He dropped down on them screaming a few more times, kicking and hitting, but the one in white chased him away - he was too slow to catch the boy though! - and they didn’t leave.

The boy glowered down at them through the winter bare branches. He wanted them to leave! If they left he wouldn’t have to guard and he could - his stomach rumbled - he could catch another rabbit.

He remembered what the rabbit had felt like in his mouth and made a face and rubbed his stomach.

Some of them came to stand under his tree and held food up at him. The boy scowled and threw pine cones at them until they went away. His stomach rumbled.

 

*

"Chief, shall I put some food in the woods for the child?"

"Ah? Why?"

"Hmmm, does Li Gang not know the proper way to catch small animals?"

 

*

They were cooking food.

The boy hugged a tree branch and scowled down at them. Not fair! They had fire. They put pots and things on the fire and put food in the pots and the wind blew the smell over to him. The boy put his nose up in the air. His mouth watered. He looked down at the people again. They sat next to each other and talked to each other and laughed and shared the food with each other. The boy lay on his branch and watched them.

After they'd finished the man in white tried to chase him again but the boy was too quick! He kicked the man in the face and dashed into the woods.

*

"Owwww! Changsu let go of my nose."

"Hmmm I don't feel a break."

"Ah, are you a doctor now? Shall I hand my Langya Hall over to you?"

“Perhaps you should be considering the matter of a successor. If you are slowing down so much a child can beat you already.”

“Shall we switch jobs then? You would be an expert at this job! You wouldn’t have to pretend to be too slow.”

“But your face is too scary for my job.”

 

*

The boy watched them all.

His stomach hurt. He chewed on the edge of his sleeve, his eyes fixed on the people. Most of them moved like the man in white. He wasn’t going to go close to them. Even if he was faster!

But there was one person who didn’t move like that. The boy watched him carefully. He moved slowly and rested a lot and stayed by the fire and looked pale and trembly. The boy thought that he could easily beat him up.

Then the weak person wandered away from the rest of the group into the trees. The boy followed, his heart beating quickly. That person had food! The boy would hit him and take the food and it would be good. He stepped forward lightly on his toes.

The person turned around and met his eyes.

The boy hesitated. He’d been quiet! So quiet. He was the best at being quiet. How had this weak person known he was there? He edged back a bit.

The man smiled and held out a round white bun.

The boy stared at it. His mouth watered. He edged a step closer, darted a quick look at the weak person. He leapt forward, snatched the bun, and backed away. He shoved the bun in his mouth and chewed. It was good! So good. But it was small and it was gone, and the boy’s stomach was still empty. He looked up.

The man smiled and held out another bun.

The boy got two more buns that way. The man talked to him all the time. But the boy was still hungry. The man had another bun. The boy flopped on the floor and frowned at the man. He thought that the man must have more food inside his sleeves. The boy chewed on his lip. He could hit him and take all the food.

The boy frowned. His insides felt squirmy. The man had given him food. And his voice was nice. The boy thought that he would like to keep listening to it. If he hit the man he would stop. The boy shivered and tugged at his hair until that thought went away.

The boy thought that maybe the man was so weak that he could just take all the food without hitting him. He edged closer. The man took more buns out and stacked them on top of each other. The boy crouched cautiously next to him and watched, wide eyed, as the tower got taller and taller. When he put the last one on the top it started to wobble and the boy snatched it away quickly before the tower could fall.

The man laughed and said warm words and the boy settled back on his haunches and chewed on his bun, watching him.

The man tapped his chest. “Mei Changsu,” he said.

The boy scrunched up his face. “Su…” he repeated uncertainly.

The man paused for a moment, and then smiled, gently. The boy stared up at him.

“Su,” the man agreed. He touched his chest again, said “Su-gege”, and then pointed at the boy.

The boy leapt back three steps and froze, staring at him, his heart beating fast.

The man paused for a moment and then touched his chest again and said Su, and then pointed at the boy. He did this lots of times and the boy started to feel bored and a bit silly standing there ready to flee away when the man wasn’t doing anything like the teachers did when they pointed at you.

He edged back closer to the man who continued to smile and point and say ‘Su-gege’.

The boy went to his knees in front of the man and stared up at him. Then he leaned forward, planted one of his hands firmly in the centre of his chest, and said, “Su-gege.”

The man paused for a minute, and then smiled. The boy stared up at him, wide eyed. The smile was even nicer this close. The man reached forward very slowly and put his hand gently over the boy’s heart. It was very large and warm and the boy leant into it. He didn’t want it to go away.

“Fei Liu,” the man said softly, and the boy cocked his head to one side.

There was crashing sounds and shouts and a man with a sword came charging out of the trees and the boy leapt frantically upwards. He caught the tree branches and pulled himself upwards, his feet kicking and scrabbling at the bark and then he was up and away flying away.

*

Su-gege was nice. Like the teachers were nice. The boy thought it would be nice to have people be nice to him again.

He screwed up his face. He didn’t want the teachers to come back though! Teachers were nice until you were bad and the boy had been very very bad he knew - but it wasn’t fair! They hadn’t been bad! When Tanaka-sensei came back they had been good and waiting and listening and he had started punishing them like they had been bad until the boy made him stop. Which made the boy bad. He didn’t want the teachers to come back, because they would make him stop as well. That’s what happened to children who made the teachers stop.

But Su-gege knew that the boy had stopped Tanaka-sensei and he hadn’t hurt him so he must not think the boy was bad.

The boy thought about that, shivering in the branches while he peered down at the camp and the warm fires and the people moving and talking and sleeping and eating. Not that any of them could catch him anyway!

But the teachers wouldn’t have let him fly away without chasing him. There had been a girl with a broken nose and she’d flown away and the teachers had chased her and brought her back and -

The boy shook his head violently, clenching his fists in his hair. No! He didn’t want! Not want!

The headaches came and the boy clung miserably to his branch

The boy was hungry again.

He went back to the camp. Maybe there would be food he could take. He looked and saw Su-gege wrapped in lots of white soft furs. Like a rabbit. Su-gege was drinking something hot from a little cup, steam rising up through the air. The boy wondered what it would feel like to snuggle up in those warm soft furs.

It was a while before the boy looked away and noticed a pile of food just outside the edge of the camp. Food! He flew down and grabbed it quickly - then hesitated.

He looked up. No one was looking at him. It was far enough away he could get away. Maybe he could stay here and watch Su-gege for a bit more?

The man with the sword who had chased him before came to him and the boy tensed but he just bowed very low to him and said the apology words and then backed away slowly. The boy watched him suspiciously. He backed and went to bow to Su-gege, who nodded to him like the head teacher nodded to the other teachers. The boy frowned. Did that make Su-gege the boss, even though he was so weak?

The boy nibbled on his food, watching them. When he had almost run out of food a person brought him more. The boy flew away but the person just put the food down and left and when the boy came cautiously back down the food was still warm. It was good!

Another person came and put a box full of fire near to him. The boy edged closer to it after they had gone and held his hands over it. It was warm! The boy whimpered and held his hands over it and his cold fingers slowly uncurled. It was good!

All the people apart from Su-gege started playing. It looked like fun! The boy fidgeted. He wanted to join in. The man in white defeated all of them and did a funny walk over to Su-gege, laughing and holding out has hand. Su-gege put a pine cone in at, and the man in white started squawking.

The boy left while they were all arguing. He thought. The man in white had defeated everyone else there, but the boy was faster than the man in white. Maybe that meant it was safe to go closer?

*

The next time the boy was hungry he dropped straight down next to Su-gege. Su-gege didn't even yelp! He smiled at the boy and the boy felt all warm and full even before Su-gege gave him food. He sat next to Su-gege to eat his bun. He wanted to! But he sat far enough away that he could run away if he needed to.

Su-gege called all the other people over and gave them names as well. There was Li Gang and Wei Zheng and Auntie Ji and others as well. The boy listened carefully. Names seemed to be important to Su-gege.

Su-gege called the fast man in white ‘Lin Chen’ but the man in white told the boy to call him Lin-gege instead which was confusing but Su-gege rolled his eyes and agreed, so the boy supposed that was alright.

At night Su-gege went to sleep in the carriage. He held the thick curtain open and beckoned the boy but the boy backed away quickly and flew up to sleep in the trees again.

Su-gege still didn’t have anyone chase him.

 

*

The people were all packing away.

The boy stood and watched them, shifting from foot to foot in the snow. It was cold. He curled up his toes.

Two of the people were helping Su-gege into the carriage. They held his arm to steady him while Su-gege carefully lowered himself onto the floor. The boy rocked back and forth up on his toes, back on his heels. He looked over his shoulder. The main hall was covered with fresh snow. The others were still in there. He had to stay and look after them.

The boy stared down at his feet and chewed on his lip and squeezed his clothes between his fingers. They weren’t fun anymore. They didn’t talk. They didn’t play with him. They just lay quiet and still. The boy thought maybe they wouldn’t wake up again. He thought about the rabbit. He thought about Sensei and the noise he had made when he had hit him to stop him. To stop him from doing to the boy what he’d done to the others.

The boy thought about staying with the other children and with Sensei when Su-gege and Lin-gege and Auntie Ji and Li Gang and Wei Zheng all went away. They wouldn’t chase him and make him stay. His stomach went all small and tight.

“Fei Liu,” Su-gege called. The boy looked up. Su-gege smiled at him, and opened his arms.

Fei Liu’s chest went tight and hot. He leapt forward, slipped and stumbled in the snow, scrambled forward and flung himself into the carriage. Su-gege put his arms around him and stroked his head and said soft words to him Fei Liu didn’t understand and Fei Liu pushed his cold nose into the fur around Su-gege’s neck and he was never going to leave.

*

They stopped when the sun started to get low.

Su-gege got out of his carriage and Fei Liu followed him quickly, holding on to a corner of Su-gege’s sleeve so Su-gege couldn’t forget him.

There was a big fire going and Su-gege went and sat next to it and Fei Liu sat next to him. He leaned against Su-gege a little. The others were carrying pots of water from the stream and putting them over the fire. There were some people missing. The man in white. Lin-gege. He was slow after all, Fei Liu thought.

Su-gege took a comb out of his sleeve and showed it to Fei Liu. He started combing Fei Liu’s hair and Fei Liu slumped against Su-gege’s side and his eyes drifted close and he sank into the gentle pull and release of Su-gege’s hands moving over his hair.

Something nudged him and Fei Liu leapt awake, heart pounding, fists raised. Su-gege smiled up at him and Fei Liu stared down at him. He suddenly really wanted to touch Su-gege so he did. He stroked his fingers over Su-gege’s eyebrows and nose and Su-gege caught his hand and squeezed it and turned him around to see what the others had made.

The hot water was for him! Fei Liu wriggled out of his clothes eagerly and it was cold but the water was hot and he got to wash all the dirty smelly stuff off his body and then he poured the last three pots all over himself just because the water felt so nice and the hissing and the steamy mist it made when it hit the ground was fun.

The others came back while Fei Liu was putting on his new clothes - so thick! so soft! They stood around talking at each other while Su-gege brushed Fei Liu’s hair again, and then he pulled Fei Liu hair up on the top of his head to make a lump and tied a white piece of cloth around it. Fei Liu poked at it and looked around and everyone else was wearing a white cloth as well.

Auntie Ji had been cooking and Fei Liu sniffed hopefully, looking towards the fire. But first Su-gege made him kneel down and put grass seeds into his hands. Lin-gege came and knelt down on Fei Liu’s other side as well. Everyone was kneeling. Su-gege and Lin-gege dropped their grass seeds into the fire. Fei Liu looked between them, frowned down at his grass seeds, and then dropped them into the fire as well.

Everyone bowed, pressing their heads against the ground. They sat back up and brought their hands together in a loud clap. Fei Liu jumped. Everyone bowed again and Fei Liu tried his best to copy them.

After they’d all finished Su-gege and Lin-gege both patted Fei Liu and then finally he got to eat food! Everyone put food on Fei Liu’s plate and smiled at him when he held it hopefully out for more. Su-gege wasn’t eating and then Lin-gege shoved food into his mouth and held his hand there until Su-gege was forced to swallow it. They hissed at each other and Fei Liu hurriedly stuffed as much food into his mouth as he could before Lin-gege decided he had to do the same to him.

At bedtime they brought hot stones and metal baskets with fire inside which they put inside Su-gege’s coach and Su-gege tucked Fei Liu up by his side and put heavy furs across them both and they watched Lin-gege use his hands to make pictures in the shadows from the firelight.

Su-gege taught him the names of the shapes. Rabbit, horse, dragon, shape-that-makes-Su-gege-throw-a-brush-at-Lin-gege’s head.

*

One morning Auntie Ji called his name while she was making breakfast and beckoned him over. She showed Fei Liu how to sort twigs and branches into different sizes, and how to pile them on top of each other, and then she took out a box and showed Fei Liu how to make fire.

Fei Liu could make fire!

He showed Su-gege and Lin-gege and they clapped their hands and praised him and Fei Liu went bright red and his stomach went all light. It was weird and good and Fei Liu made lots more fires every time they stopped it was fun.

Su-gege and Lin-gege gave him things to set on fire. It was interesting! Different things made fire in different ways. Some types of cloth made a really powdery black dust which you could use to paint patterns on people’s faces. Lin-gege showed him.

They shouted when they woke up and Fei Liu flew away into the trees for a bit but no one hurt him and when he came back down Su-gege and Lin-gege praised him. So that was alright.

The man called Li Gang came and talked to Su-gege and Lin-gege for a long time and then the man called Zhen Ping started showing Fei Liu new fighting moves evey time they stopped. This was so fun eventually Fei Liu started forgetting his tinderbox in Su-gege’s carriage.

*

Su-gege showed him how to make drinks by putting leaves in hot water. It was good! Su-gege really liked it as well - he always smiled when he drank it. Fei Liu picked some nice looking leaves from a bank in the woods and put them in hot water to make a drink for Su-gege. Su-gege made the biggest smile he’d ever made when he drank it! It made Fei Liu’s insides feel all light and bubbly so he sat and watched carefully while Su-gege drank it all.

Lin-gege was lying flat on the ground giggling but Lin-gege was often weird so Fei Liu ignored him.

Lin-gege made the best water to drink. It was a special drink for Fei Liu; only Fei Liu was allowed to drink it. Everyday after the morning meal Fei Liu followed Lin-gege around the campsite until Lin-gege gave it to him.

It made all the aches and headaches go away and he could bounce around in the trees without getting dizzy. The only problem was Lin-gege would make him sit still and quiet while Lin-gege held his wrist which wasn’t fun but Lin-gege spent a lot of time holding Su-gege’s wrist as well so Fei Liu decided it was just something Lin-gege did and he would have to put up with it.

 

“Do you have enough of their drugs?”

“Enough to get us across the sea. If the winds are good I won’t have to treat the withdrawal until we get to Langya Hall.”

 

One day they were attacked by bandits.

Su-Gege pinched Fei Liu's ear and wouldn't let him out of the carriage no matter how much Fei Liu sulked. Outside he could hear swords clashing and people shouting and gargling and being punched and having fun. Not fair.

But! Lin-Gege kept a bandit for Fei Liu to practice on! Lin-Gege showed him how to stop the bandit from getting away and Su-Gege called out suggestions to him about how to move better and then the bandit burst into tears. Su-gege and Lin-gege talked to him for a bit and then the bandit went away and came back with a huge pile of treasure which he gave to Su-Gege, but then he ran away before Fei Liu could play with him again.

Lin-Gege put a sparkly hat on Fei Liu’s head. It made nice tingting noises when Fei Liu moved but it was too heavy, so Fei Liu dropped it in the next river.

*

“He’s learning our language very quickly.”

“Mmm. Or remembering.”

“You mean he-“

“Ah, evil organisations keep good paperwork. They bought several of their children from pirate groups who raid the coast off Da Liang.”

The hand stroking Fei Liu’s head paused. Fei Liu frowned and shuffled closer until the stroking started again.

“Will you be able to trace his family?”

“Most likely they were all killed in the pirate raid. Don’t panic, Changsu! You won’t have to give up your little bird.”

“I shouldn’t keep him by me. The path I’m on is not for a child.”

“Ah, so you will break his heart then and abandon him to some poor family who will have no idea how to look after a half-trained child assassin going through drug withdrawal. Truly the best decision to make. I applaud you.”

They didn’t say anymore words but the hand stroking his hair curled gently around the back of his neck, heavy and warm, and that was enough for Fei Liu to slip deeply into sleep.

*

Lin Chen watched Changsu’s face carefully and then snorted, satisfied. “Well, if you do ever decide to get rid of him, it won’t be a little family taking him in Changsu. I’ll keep him all to myself.”

“Oh no,” Mei Changsu murmured. He looked down at Fei Liu’s head, resting trustingly against his knee. “That is too harsh a fate.”

*

“Should we be pleased the Chief has realized he’s keeping the child,” Zhen Ping muttered to Li Gang where they were tending the fire. “Or concerned about what kind of man Chief and Young Master Lin will raise between them?”

Li Gang considered this. “I’ll speak to the architects about reinforcing the residence at Lang Zhou as soon as we get back.”