Conversation that nourishes and uplifts can be had at any hour of the day, but for some reason the hours that actually host such conversations seem to occur after sunset and before sunrise. These are, of course, the times when food and spirits can be savored without unduly abbreviating or degrading the day’s work, but that does not entirely explain the conduciveness of evenings to good conversation in any number of other settings devoid of comestibles—in one’s bedroom, for example, or watching the sun set over water. Possibly it is the drawing-in of vision with the dark, which induces a sense of introspection, or perhaps simply a need to introspect so as to balance out the deficit of sensation in the mind. Certainly the matchless Rinzen Lama has much to say about the salutary impact of sensory deprivation on fine thought, adducing from the meditative experience a great volume of most elegant theory linking complexity and simplicity in contexts culinary, military, and horticultural; and King Tenshing Astama, a great scholar much in the habit of quiet contemplation, agreed with Rinzen in almost all particulars. Having said this, it would be careless to suggest that the conversation between the king and the uninvited guest in his chambers was as enriching as, for example, the conversation one might imagine having with an intimate friend while watching the sun set over water. Indeed, the outset of the conversation was nothing less banal than a restatement of an obvious temporal fact; for Tenshing had applied the Silken Palace Palm to the shoulder of his uninvited guest, and now the latter could not rid himself of the king’s index and middle fingertips no matter what he did (or, we should say, tried to do, for many seemingly useful motions were now outside his powers). To which King Tenshing responded, perhaps unavoidably but surely with no surfeit of originality, “You cannot shake me, assassin.” (Lest the reader new to the Thousand Arm Testament surmise that Tenshing’s epithet represented the result of insight or conjecture, we must emphasize that it was neither, for the assassin had initially attacked the king’s recumbent form with a garrotte of fine steel wire and, when this had failed, proceeded to employ an astonishing variety of exotic throwing knives, all of which were badly misdirected or else dodged handily.)

“I cannot,” said the assassin, after attempting once again to sweep Tenshing’s arm away. “This must be the Spider Silk Palm of which my general has warned me.”

“Silken Palace Palm,” said Tenshing. “The Spider has no representative among the boxing arts. Your general is uncouth.”

“Unlettered, perhaps,” said the assassin. “I must admit, King Tenshing, though my respect for your skill has grown immensely, I fail to see the expediency in this situation. You have got the better of me, but to what end? Once you separate from me, I shall try to kill you again.”

“Well, assassin,” said the king, “to that I respond in kōan, so that your mind may improve if you survive this night.”

“I am accomplished at kōan,” said the assassin. “Tell me yours.”

“Is there a candle in the room?”

On this the assassin thought for some moments. “There is a candle in the room,” he said slowly, “but it is not lit.”

“And why — ” began the king; but the assassin interrupted him. “Please,” he said, “allow me to continue my line of reasoning, as it may be my last act beneath this sky. There is a candle, and I have evidence of that with my own eyes. But the light reflected from the candle does not emanate from it, for as we have agreed, it is not lit. Nor is any other candle lit. One sees vividly in dreams and the imagination, to be sure, but it seems nearly certain that this is not a dream. It is widely supposed that the eye cannot function unless it is agitated by light. So I must conclude that the sun has risen, or else some other source of light illuminates the stub of the candle. Yet the sun cannot have risen, and I have it on good authority that the Orchid Palace is not fitted with electric lights. This seeming impossibility draws my eye about the room in search of resolution.” Indeed, the assassin’s eyes followed this very trajectory, eventually alighting on the point at which King Tenshing’s index and middle fingers clung resolutely to his shoulder. The fingers, and indeed the hand of which they were constituents, coruscated with a clean white flame whose description will be familiar to the attentive reader — although this particular flame burned steadily, without guttering and without any suggestion that it might die in the near term. The assassin’s black shirt had burned away, leaving a clean-edged hole, and the flesh underneath had grown very red. Smoke rose from the area, though neither Tenshing nor the assassin gave much thought to whether its provenance was shirt or flesh; it was clear enough, regardless, what would happen if the situation endured much longer.

“This must be the Four Conflagration Touch of which my general has warned me,” the assassin said.

Word count: 6718.


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