The Pilgrim Star: Episode 1 – Chapter 4
THE DOGS sniffed the riverbank, running back and forth as they dug their noses into the soft loam along the water’s edge, scampering over rocks and fallen tree trunks, tails wagging with excitement. Another dog did the same on the other side of the river. The warden in leather armor beside the dog looked back across the water to his companions and raised his arm with a fist, moving it from right to left in the silent signal for “no.”
Ing-Ku, commander of fourth cadre of the Tanshen zhan’s palace wardens, waved for his lone man across the river to return. He glanced both ways along the flowing water and frowned. His quarry continued to be more resourceful than expected. When he left the palace in pursuit of her and the child, he assumed he would return before nightfall. After ten days, when he felt certain he had run her to ground, the woman somehow happened upon a river and knew how to take advantage of the circumstance.
“Med-Gan.” Ing-Ku turned from the river as he called to his second-in-command. The warden broke away from following the tracking dogs and walked toward Ing-Ku.
“Yes, Commander.” Med-Gan straightened as he spoke, his full height putting him half a head taller than his commanding officer.
Ing-Ku looked up at the young warden and paused to examine him a moment before speaking. He noticed how the man always accentuated his height when standing near him. The man’s body gestures implied this as a sign of respect, but the look in his eyes spoke to other reasons. Ing-Ku did not especially like his second-in-command, but he had been assigned the man by his high commander, and he always did his best with the weapons provided him. This particular weapon thought itself sharp and deadly. Tall, strong, quick with a blade, it suspected itself dangerous. Ing-Ku, however, knew otherwise. This weapon was dull, rusted, and forged of weak metal. The son of a powerful court councilor, Med-Gan had never earned a position, never struggled to accomplish a goal, but instead found all doors opened for him, all hardships borne by others, all attainments granted as a right rather than a reward. Such tempering made for soft steel.
“Take half of the company and follow the river east,” Ing-Ku said. “A dog on either side. I will pursue in the opposite direction.”
“Yes, Commander.” Med-Gan visibly struggled to contain the smile that strove to break across his face.
“One of us will find her.” Ing-Ku locked eyes with his junior officer. “If it is you, do not hesitate to follow your orders. Kill the girl on sight.”
“Yes, Commander.” Med-Gan nodded as he spoke.
“The girl is more dangerous than you know,” Ing-Ku continued. “Use arrows if you can. Take her from a distance. If you must close on her, do so with stealth and attack without warning.”
“I understand, Commander.”
Ing-Ku very much doubted the young man understood at all. He hoped, for the sake of the dominion more than the callow soldier before him, that Med-Gan would not hesitate to follow his orders. Although the tahn had not explained his orders, he had been very insistent about the danger his daughter represented and the need for her swift death.
“What about the woman?” Med-Gan asked.
Ing-Ku continued to stare at Med-Gan as he considered this question. The woman intrigued him. How had she eluded him for so long? Where had she learned such skills? Was she what she appeared to be, or was her role in the events of the past week more complicated than anyone suspected? Her death had been ordained when she fled with the girl, but he felt an unshakable desire to question her. To learn the truth of her nature and her actions.
“Bring her to me. Alive.” Ing-Ku nodded to the young officer and walked away.
As he gathered half of the small contingent of wardens to accompany him along the western run of the river, he hoped he would be the one to find the girl and the woman. He held a not irrational fear that if his overly ambitious and inexperienced sub-commander came across the females first, he would lose more than one of his men that night.