“He has named this rigor correctly, at least,” said Tenshing. “But he cannot be blamed for failing to anticipate that I would use it in concert with the Silken Palace Touch. Not many men can master both. It is infuriatingly rare to find tactical theory that integrates the advanced techniques.” Now that the assassin had deduced the consequences of delay, Tenshing’s voice had become rather conversational, even casual. He allowed his ring finger to join the other two on the assassin’s shoulder. “But one experiments.”

“This experiment is an unqualified success,” said the assassin, who had just caught a trace of the smoke curling up from his wound and determined beyond any filament of a doubt that it had not originated from his shirt. “But, though I regret to express it, I must hope it is not carried to its conclusion.”

King Tenshing allowed his little finger to join his middle three. His palm, which burned no less hotly than his fingertips, was now quite close to the left side of the assassin’s breast, below which his heart beat out its ever more apprehensive rhythm. The king stared at the spot where his palm would touch if he but stepped forward an inch, as though appraising what was hidden there.

“Perhaps it would endear me to you if I said I was not the only man sent tonight for you and yours,” the assassin said.

“I fear that nothing can endear you to me,” said the king. “We are irreconcilable. As for me and mine, well, you perceive that I am in excellent condition, and unworried about my family. You surely know that I have no eighth son, and the only murder you could do to prevent the arrival of such a one would be to kill all the women of Uä, or else me. You have taken the more direct option, which is commendable, for I do not think your general would wish to rule over a kingdom of men. Morale and hygiene would deteriorate quickly.” Tenshing frowned. “I seem to have lost the thread of this digression.”

“I cannot recover it for you,” said the assassin, “but I would be greatly interested in any resolution to our quarrel that allows me to avoid the no doubt extremely interesting fate subsequent to the descent of your palm onto my chest.”

“Another reason I am unworried about my family,” said Tenshing, “is that I noticed the new face among the steward’s men late this afternoon. Early this evening I received a report from an associate indicating a number of suspicious movements on the part of this unfamiliar character, concerned principally with the gate house and the windows in the nursery. Your colleagues will have found the balance of the sleeping arrangements altered, and the small and vulnerable targets they expected replaced by slightly more formidable opponents. Here is another kōan for you, assassin: What have I demonstrated for you with this story?”

“The new face,” said the assassin, whose own face was paling rapidly, although little enough of it was exposed by his black mask. “My general had warned me of your Eye of Ten Thousand Apprehensions.”

“Excellent,” said Tenshing.

“It was not a very good kōan, Your Holiness,” said the assassin, with great deference and some regret.

“Even the great masters had failures of improvisation,” said King Tenshing. “Place your hand on my chest while I continue.” Now thoroughly terrified, the assassin did so. “Now observe my left hand.” A rod of pure white light the length of a man’s forearm sprang from it, roiling and sparking like molten metal and pouring off a bright smoke, which the assassin cringed as it touched him, though it did him no ill save a faintly electric tingling. “Three aspects. Rigid and flexible.” Here the light tapered and grew almost gelatinous, and a flick of Tenshing’s wrist caused it to lash the wall, where it left a thin whipstroke of glowing stone. “Short and long range.” Now the light flowed into a glowing nimbus around Tenshing’s left hand, a piece of which detached and, with another flick of the king’s wrist, flew like heaven’s own mortar to hit the very center of his whipstroke, which was now bisected by a circular blotch. “Blunt and sharp.” And the light became a column again, then flattened out as Tenshing flattened his own hand into a blade. He brought the edge of the light just short of the assassin’s wrist — or, in truth, not quite short, for the fabric of the assassin’s black glove parted and a bright line of blood appeared in the gap. “Two times two times two, assassin.”

“Eight. The Eight Weapon Hand.”

“Think on your palm: Have I drawn breath since this demonstration began?”

“The Infinitesimal Breath,” the assassin moaned.

“How many of the rigors have I shown you?” asked the king, brushing the assassin’s hand from his chest as he might a bird’s ill-targeted excreta from his shoulder (although it must be said that the perceptions of King Tenshing Astama were too highly developed for this to happen outside a state of extreme distraction). “Think well and quickly. I will have no patience if you get it wrong.”

The assassin’s eyes were wide and wet now, but he reined in his shying mind and performed the calculation. “Five! It has been five.”

Remember it well, the king said, and with a flash that short phrase seared itself into the assassin’s mind. Your general must know.

“The Diamond Word!” the assassin exclaimed, and a moment later brightened in posture and physiognomy both even as the king’s four fingers burned into the flesh above his heart, for he realized that he must live to bring this message. In this judgment he was of course correct, although hindsight suggests his joy may have been marred by a certain prematurity. “What man has mastered seven of the eight rigors who was not King of Uä?” said Tenshing.

“None,” said the assassin. “But, Your Holiness — it is impertinent of me to say it, but there is no help for it — ” Here the assassin drew a deep breath through his nose and reconciled himself to the same horrific fate he had just dreamed he might avoid; but, having been offered his life with such grand generosity by a man whose depth of honor he had only just now come to sound, he could not allow error to blemish his report. “You have only shown me six.”

At this King Tenshing’s face lost all the intensity of the penetrating stare to which he had subjected the assassin and relaxed into a strange, serene benevolence. “It is not impertinent at all, my subject,” he said. “Your only impertinence is to doubt the foresight of your king; and in this, although it is an affront, I must forgive you. As I hope you, and the spirits who protect the Orchid Palace, will forgive me.”

And here the king’s right hand closed, its fire snuffed, around the assassin’s night-black shirt; and the light around his left hand coalesced into a blinding sphere the size of a cannonball, then flew forth to shatter the chamber’s narrow window, sending shards of glass and gobs of melted steel in a fountain onto the courtyard below; and the powerful muscles of the king’s legs bunched and then released like coiled springs, and the two of them, king and kingslayer, soared through the hole of the window to hang for just a moment in the heavens above that flagstoned courtyard, where King Tenshing Astama released the first man who had ever tried to kill him into the waiting boughs of a century-old cherry tree just coming into bloom.

Word count: 8742. TGIF.


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