How did an unruly teenage boy grow up into one of Wei's greatest commanders? This researched story presents my take on Cao Ren's maturation from ordinary youth to leader of a thousand-strong militia. I welcome critique from literature and history buffs alike.
Chapters: 1-21 of 23
Rating: T / PG-13 for coarse language and violence in the context of warTempered WillChapter 1 ExcerptCao Ren crept through the wilds of Pei in pursuit of whatever quarry he might find. Even if he took nothing home for the stew pot, a morning in such desolate splendor was time well spent. Distant mountains rose craggy and mist-shrouded against the pewter sky. A cool breeze touched his face, swishing through the towering pines and the shrubbery that served as his cover. It had rained the night before, and the earth smelled fresh and green and new.
His eye caught a telltale rustle in the scrub growing thick at the clearing's edge. Ren notched an arrow and raised his bow, well ahead of the pheasant about to amble away from safety to peck for stray seed. His pull was taut, his aim true -
- and a scrubbing brush sailed out of the clouds and thumped him square in the chest. The vast and heady wilderness became an austere hall in the Confucian academy where Ren had been cooped up all morning. Rather than a bow, he held a brush with a habit of blotting regardless of what care he took with his stroke. His quiver was a stack of bamboo sheets marked with utilitarian calligraphy. And the pheasant? Master Pan, his thin and pointed face even more pinched than usual.
The teacher glared at Ren as if peering into his thoughts. "And what were we dreaming of today? Troublemaking? Lollygagging? A lovely young lady, perhaps?"
"The field, master."
"How is it that you have such patience for the hunt and so little for the classroom?"
"When game appears, I shoot it. Doing the same to master would be unthinkable."
Giggles escaped from a few students around the room, who swallowed their amusement before Master Pan could turn his hawk eye upon them.
"Order!" the teacher barked, still focused on his daydreaming pupil. "How unsurprising that your mouth is as flighty as your mind. Remind us all of a better example."
Ren sat up straight, ignoring the insult and the dust mark that the scrubbing brush had left on his yi. "Ken is signified by two mountains standing together. It means to stay still when called for and go forward when necessary. Take consideration before moving. Keep thoughts and words in order." Tempted to add a remark about his obvious deficiency at the last part, Ren bit his tongue instead. There was no sense in digging himself into a deeper hole by flouting wisdom with a wisecrack.
"And how does the Book of Changes instruct the superior man to achieve this?"
"In terms of control over his body." Ren took a breath. "Six at the beginning means keeping his calves- his toes still. He cannot rescue him who he follows."
The line made sense - people used their feet to walk, after all - but it seemed off. Master Pan shook his head, confirming that Ren had misspoken.
"Six at the beginning means keeping his toes still."
Ren's face became as red as his clothing. Copied countless times during detention, the wisdom of ken had once been a freshly inked book hung on the wall of his mind. Ren had even recited it in his sleep, mumbling himself awake from a dream about a strange school taught by a fox spirit in the mulberry grove. The phrases now lay scattered in a mess of unbound slats as Master Pan watched him scramble to put them all back in order.
Ren flicked his eyes to the right where brother Chun knelt as poised and unmoving as the lion statues guarding the family estate. Perhaps Chun, who could retell the entire Book of Changes backwards while standing on his head, would take pity on Ren and prompt him.
Perhaps not. Chun kept his stony silence, leaving Ren to flail after those elusive words as Master Pan eyed him for several long moments.
At last, the teacher waved a dismissive hand. "It is irrelevant. Even if you did know the text, you certainly have not learned it. Stay after class."
Then it was back to the hypnotic boredom of Master Pan's dry and droning monologue. Ren put brush to bamboo as if his strokes were fishnets to capture the words, reins to keep his focus from drifting back out the open window.