It’s Wednesday, and that means camels and writing! Jade writing to be exact. Today’s section adds another new character to the mix. Have fun!
Jade Chapter 3 – Hisoka
Hisoka slid his carving knife into his belt and walked away from the cooking alcove as the last carts were wheeled away with that evening’s supplies. He was bitter. More so than usual.
“A feast.” He scoffed to himself, stopping in front of the door and waiting for the others to line up behind him. He didn’t look back to make sure they followed. Each of the chefs knew the routine, having done it night after night for years. And, in the palace, any deviation from the normal procedure typically ended with punishment. As a confirmation, a guard strode up past him and barked an order, pushing the doors outward and escorting the chefs into the corridor.
The next step of the routine, the nightly walk to the hot springs, always grated on Hisoka. He felt as if he were on display-the paraded through the halls on their way to their only hour of freedom from their kitchen prison. Inwardly, he grimaced. His eyes were narrow and glinted black in the flicker of the passing torchlight, like two chips of smoldering onyx. Typically an angry man, his thoughts were now as hard as granite after hearing the Emperor’s words.
“I should have stabbed the Emperor in his fat face when I had the chance. I should never have left the village fifteen years ago.”
He brooded as he walked, staring down at the heels of the guard in front of them, following the same route as every night before. Like every prisoner, servant, concubine, and chef within the palace, Hisoka had been torn from his life and forced to serve the Emperor as a living spoil of war. His capture had been one of the Dragon’s finest moments, a claim that sent the head chef cringing with furious hatred every time he was unlucky enough to overhear it. During the early years of the Emperor’s rise to power, Hisoka had set aside his role as a cook and unofficial leader of his village, and had formed a resistance of sorts, riding to villages and trading posts all across the empire to form a web of informers, spies, and anyone else who opposed the Dragon’s monstrous actions. For a time, his resistance had been the only obstacle between the Dragon’s forces and his complete control of the empire.
“It was all for naught,” his thoughts were sour as the guard finally pushed open the doors to the hot springs. Chilly mountain wind swirled into the palace, cutting through his thin tunic. He clenched his jaw, leaning into the wind slightly as he walked past the guard. In front of him, a bank of mist swirled and churned between gusts, enshrouding the pools of the hot springs. He set off towards the mass of misty white, hearing the padding footsteps of the other chefs make their ways to their own pools. There was no friendship between the chefs. A certain amount of respect, yes. And an undeniable feeling of camaraderie, born of their shared imprisonment. But there was no socializing between them. No exchange of tales or stories after a night’s meal. Hisoka relied on the others to perform their jobs correctly, and they relied on him all the same. That was it. And he was thankful that none of the other chefs had shown any interest in building some form of friendship. Why make friends, when even those closest could be snatched away in the blink of an eye. He scowled as he stepped into the fog, the clinging mist enveloping him completely. He relied on memory to guide him to his pool. Twelve steps forward, three right, six forward, turn to the left slightly, and five steps ahead would be his spring.
“A feast.” The Emperor’s words played over and over again within his mind as he made his slight left turn, hearing the bubbling of his pool reaching out through the fog. To say he loathed the Emperor was an understatement. He hated the man more than the mind could possibly conceive. Every ounce of his spirit wished only death for the Dragon and his family. A slow, agonizing death that the monster would feel every second until the end of eternity. He stopped at the rocky edge of his pool, grinding his teeth in disgust as he stripped out of his tunic. Slowly, he lowered himself onto the rim and pushed himself forward, liquid heat wrapping around him as he bobbed under the surface. With a kick, he propelled himself upward, reaching out and grabbing the edge as his head emerged from the water. Steam rose from his shoulders, and he pressed his back up against the rock, feeling the coolness of the stone against his heated skin. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes, a memory of a sunrise suddenly filling his mind.
“Why this thought?” He asked himself, shaking his head in a futile attempt to dislodge the memory. The sunrise was unmistakable-the sunrise of a morning fifteen years ago. The day when his world shattered around him.
Of its own impulse, his mind sent him back, recalling the day as exact as if it had occurred just a week ago. The ground had been soft under his feet, thawed by a recent warm Spring shower that washed the last remnants of Winter rime from the new blooms and painted green over the hills. The air had smelled of fresh earth and orchids, aromas of newness and life. Even Hisoka was fresh- young and full of hope, spirit, and arrogance. His rebellion had won key victories all over the empire, and no word had been heard from the Emperor in weeks.
“No!” He protested under his breath, bringing his hands to his face and pressing his palms into his eyes, trying to block the memories.
“I was so close. I should have ridden harder. I could have made it.“
He fell back into his thoughts, the past too strong to push away. He had been encamped ten miles from his village when word had reached him; the Emperor marched towards his people. His village should have been impossible for the Emperor to find. Perched atop a cliff, it was isolated from the rest of the empire, with only an overgrown dirt path connecting it to the nearest trading post 50 miles away. The only people who knew of its location were the villagers and Hisoka’s men. Men who had declared as one their hatred of the Dragon. How had the Emperor discovered the village? The thought had haunted Hisoka since that day, corrupting him like a cancer. Even as word first reached him all those years ago, his wits had left him. The impossible had occurred, and he had no recourse against it. It had felt as if his life had detonated around him.
“My daughter, she would have still been sleeping. Did she even understand what was happening to her?”
Hisoka’s mind had been a storm of concentrated chaos. He remembered pulling his sword belt over his bare back and mounting his horse without a saddle, his battle-honed tact and calculation lost under the urgency of reaching his family. His role of commander and the rebellion lay forgotten in his tent, alongside the pendant that his daughter had made for him before his latest campaign. He remembered masks of confusion and despair crossing the faces of the men who had followed him fanatically for over two years, and he had forced himself to look ahead, to leave them behind.
He had ridden hard. His horse’s hooves churned the ground beneath him into a slurry of mud and water that splattered up over his back. He had pushed his horse beyond exhaustion. By the time he reached the top of the hill that overlooked the village, the sides of the beast were lathered and heaving in the heat of the new sun. He had no time to worry about the horse, for the sight that greeted Hisoka had brought tears to his eyes and a dagger of anguish to his heart. The Emperor’s forces had surrounded the village with a thousand men. Fires raged from rooftops throughout the village, and bodies lay impaled on top of the wall that was built to protect them. His horror had only grown as he realized the besiegers had already broken through the inner stone wall that encircled his own home. It lay at the far end of the village, on top of a cliff that thrust out over the sea below. Without an ounce of tactical thinking, Hisoka charged down the hill and steered his horse toward the front gate.
“I shouldn’t have stopped on the hill. I should have kept riding. “
He had no plan, no army behind him, no reason to believe he would save his family, other than a rapidly fading speck of hope that pushed him through physical and mental exhaustion. He could only charge ahead, into the thick plumes of smoke that rose from his village like pillars of destruction. The faces of his enemies had come into view, and he pulled the katana from his back, pointing it towards the soldiers and letting loose a battle cry that was fueled by rage and the stinging agony of inevitable pain. He closed his eyes and raced forward, swinging wildly as he awaited the piercing pressure of an enemy pike. He had braced himself – muscles taut under his sweat drenched skin – but the halting blade that he expected never struck him. Seconds passed as he charged on, his arms aching from exertion and his throat raw from his guttural bellowing, but still nothing touched him. Hisoka had squeezed the sides of his horse, slowing the beast to a walk as he opened his eyes. Under a smoke-darkened sky, he found himself in the middle of his village. On either side of him, villagers looked up with grief in their eyes, tears of despair washing away small lines of soot from their faces. Behind them, the Emperor’s soldiers watched on, swords undrawn and pikes leaning against their shoulders. Every one of them had been laughing from under their dragon helms-sneering taunts that had only furthered his anguished confusion. He felt numb atop his horse, clinging to the beast as it carried him through the village. He remembered how slowly realization had struck him-a gradual dawning of understanding as the Emperor’s soldiers had closed the path behind Hisoka and his horse, driving him toward his home.
“The bastards. They led me right to them.”
The soldiers had fallen away at the stone wall that surrounded his bamboo and granite home. Hisoka had leapt from his horse and sprinted through the front door, calling out for his wife and daughter. He still remembered the silence that had filled his ears-an oppressive nothingness that pressed in from every direction. It threatened to drive the air from his lungs but, somehow, a faint call found its way through the emptiness and reached his ear. He had uttered an unintelligible cry and stumbled toward the sound, crashing through the back door of the house with enough force to knock it off of its frame. Outside, a group of soldiers were gathered around a man who stood on the edge of the cliff. He held something in his hand. The man was the Emperor, and the squirming object was Hisoka’s daughter, her tear streaked face white with terror.
“Her face…The look in her eyes…”
He had staggered towards the man, dropping to his knees in front of the crowd. Jeers and taunts bounced off of him as he crawled forward through the wet grass, his breath ragged and catching in his throat as his head spun. He knew that he had just lost the rebellion. That he had thrown away honor, and pride, and possibly his life, but the look in his daughter’s eye had shattered his soul. He pleaded to the Emperor to spare her. He offered his life, his skills, his men, anything and everything.
The events of his memory began to grow choppy, like pictures placed before his eyes, one at a time. The Emperor had laughed, which caused Hisoka’s daughter to wail from the Emperor’s hand. At the sound, the Dragon barked an order, and a naked woman was pushed toward Hisoka. She was covered in dirt and ash, and her eyes were bruised, but he recognized his wife the moment he saw her, catching the woman and wrapping his trembling arms around her. Dry, silent sobs sent his chest heaving against his wife, and he watched in total helplessness as his daughter dangled over the rocky precipice in front of him. A savage ache burned behind his heart, a searing despair that swelled within him and made him retch. The Emperor had laughed at his pain before turning to nod at a soldier beside him. Hisoka heard the sudden screams of terror that erupted from the village behind him, but they were whispers compared to the words that issued out of the Emperor’s mouth. The Dragon had demanded his surrender, his forfeiture of his army and any other aid to the rebellion, and his unquestioning acceptance of his new role as one of the Dragon’s prisoner chefs. For that, he would leave the village without further destruction.
“What if I had charged him? Could I have saved her?”
His surrender was instantaneous, and he had thrown himself onto the Emperor’s feet. Guards had rushed toward Hisoka and pulled his wife from him as iron chains were clasped around his wrists and ankles. He heard his wife scream as she was held between two guards. He had called out to the Emperor, asking for his daughter to be returned to her mother. The Dragon had watched on with cold eyes and he pulled the child in from the edge of the cliff. Hisoka felt a momentary relief-a sense of victory as he was pulled to his feet and turned away from the cliff. He had taken two steps when a noise behind him froze the blood in his veins. It was high-pitched and desperate, and as he turned against the guards, he found the Emperor back at the edge of the cliff. Hisoka’s daughter struggled in the Dragon’s hand once more, but the Emperor’s face held no trace of a smile. Instead, through a sneer of pure malice, he boomed out words that he would carry with him for the rest of his life.
“Your whelp shall be with her mother. But I do not tolerate rebellion. Even those who surrender are punished. This blood is on your hands.”
Hisoka’s mouth traced the words under the white gloom of the fog, the scene filling his mind as he fought against his own memories. The present began to return around him, but his thoughts held on, and as he held his breath in the bubbling water of his hot spring, he remembered the sight of the Emperor’s fingers, unwrapping from around the young girl’s leg, just as a spear was thrust through his wife’s chest.
The sound of a gong made him jump, and he pulled himself out of the pool and onto his feet in one movement. With a rasping sigh, he rubbed his hands against his eyes, brushing away tears. He grew angry with himself. He could barely remember what his wife looked like anymore, but the image of his daughter’s face, and of the Emperor releasing her over the cliff, haunted his dreams every night. He often wondered why he hadn’t killed himself in the years since that spring day-why he had allowed himself to cook for the man who had destroyed his life. He had tried. During the early years, he would often seclude himself in a dark corner of the cook’s washroom, a knife against his neck. But, time and time again, some internal force would compel his hand away and sheath the blade. Struggle as he might against his own hesitations, he could never grant himself release. Each attempt became more half-hearted than the previous, until it was merely a weekly ritual that he performed. Finish the Emperor’s Sunday meal, clean up the cooking alcove, wash in the hot springs, and then disappear into the wash room, where he would press his carving knife against his neck and count to ten. At ten, he would sheath the blade, leave the washroom, and collapse into his cot. Years of this had passed without so much as a mark on his neck. The only thing Hisoka had to show for it was a constantly growing self-hatred that had settled in his stomach like a bundle of embers so many years ago.
He had never stopped hating the Emperor, though. As the years passed, his loathing of the man only grew, consuming itself and raging within Hisoka’s mind like a firestorm. Not a day went by where he didn’t envision himself carving out the monster’s heart. Those thoughts brought him strength. Not enough to escape the cruel life that fate had delivered to him. But, enough to exist. Enough to bring slivers of clarity to the head chef. Clarity – and a morbid sense of peace. Not a peace of acceptance. Rather, a peace born from the thought that one day, if even the smallest shred of justice still existed in this hellish world, one day he would see the Emperor fall, utterly shattered. It was that black thought that pushed Hisoka forward each day, from his ragged bed to the prison-like kitchen, to cook for the devil who had destroyed him. Black thoughts of death, blood, and hatred.
Hisoka growled and leaned down, snatching his tunic from the ground before stepping back into the threadbare garb of servitude. Spring water ran down his face, collecting on the tip of his nose before a shake of his head sent it flying.
“A feast…” he mumbled as he advanced into the fog, repeating his steps out of the springs as he made his way towards the door of his prison.