Feb. 12th, 2015

Shibusa

Feb. 12th, 2015 05:35 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [livejournal.com profile] cislyn

-

A long time ago, when dragons and demons roamed the lands of the Jade Empire, when Tang Seng had yet to make his Journey to the West with Song Wu Kong and Niulang had just fallen in love with Zhinu, there was a little boy growing up called Xiaodi — in our tongue, little brother.

Xiaodi was a child full of curiosity. From the time he could speak, he asked why things were the way they were — why the sky was blue, for example, or where the huli jing — fox spirits — came from, or what made someone one of the Eight Immortals. His parents never tired of his questions and answered them the best they could, but all too soon, there were questions they could not answer.

When they didn't know the answers, though, they told him to consult the elders of the village, the scholars and the mayor, who was appointed by the Imperial City itself. And he did — as a boy Xiaodi played not with wooden toys but buried himself in the books that the scholars referred him to, as a teenager practiced penmanship instead of pretending to be a general of the army, and as a young man was seen more around the magistrate and the town council than the pretty girls that his peers were flirting with.

But every passion requires a devotion that causes other pursuits to fall by the wayside, and so while his knowledge grew, his friendships with others faltered. But to him, it was a fair trade — while he may not have been the trusted friend, he was the proven expert on many topics. While others may not have liked him as much, they did respect him.

Eventually, as he grew and learned, his questions grew beyond what even the wisest men and women village could answer, and their answers grew more and more uncertain and satisfied him less and less. They offered him a role assisting the magistrate with disputes between villagers, and that satisfied him for a while — dealing with cows that were sold as barren but turned out to be fertile and sorting out promises made based on the trickery of yao guai was a new and exciting experience for the young man, one that expanded his horizons.

But what he also learned was that there was a right way to do things, an optimal way — a perfect way, even. As his knowledge grew, he realized at once both how close and how far he was to this perfection — he was sure that his judgments came closer than the others, because he knew more than them — and indeed they often deferred to him as time went on — but at the same time, they were so far from the best outcome, which would require knowing even more.

Even then, there were questions that stayed in his head like mosquitoes, questions that itched for days that simply could not be answered by anyone in the village. But why do we not banish all the spirits, he asked, and shook his head in frustration when the magistrate simply said that it wasn't so easy to do. But why does the emperor not resolve all disputes by putting Qilin in every court, since they only punish the wicked, he asked, and was given only poor obfuscations, ones that he immediately saw through.

It came to a head when he wondered aloud if the government official test should be adapted for all citizens to take instead of only those that wished to be officials, so that those less fit could be removed from society, and openly disagreed with the magistrate's shocked opinion. "But why!" he shouted. "Perhaps then, every judge could answer every question, instead of only giving half answers and truths that are as flimsy as the kites we fly!"

In the silence that followed, Xiaodi knew he had made a mistake and made to apologize, but it was already too late. Disrespecting ones' elders was never tolerated, and the council and magistrate debated for long days and nights on what a suitable punishment would be, as his parents pleaded for leniency. Eventually, they all agreed: there could only be one path for this young man.

He was summoned to a meeting of the council. Perhaps, they said, it was time for him to take a journey — not just a short trip away, but one to the Imperial City itself, where there were libraries and universities and scholars that did nothing but consider and answer questions about how the world worked.

And, the magistrate added, they had sent word of his deeds and his questions, and received a favorable answer from none other than the emperor's majordomo for Xiaodi to study at the Emperor's Library.

And, his parents said, this was for the best, and it would look well upon their family and their ancestors would be proud.

So it was settled, then: exile — though clothed in the softest of silks, exile nonetheless. After a brief parting with his parents and a briefer parting with the rest of the village, Xiaodi was sent on his way to the capital.

It was a long journey of almost an entire moon, travelling across the mountains and the plains, ever north, but Xiaodi made it himself, knowing that he would have little to fear if he treated everyone with respect and took no one than was offered. He was not greedy, nor lustful, and he knew that he had little that the trickster and malevolent spirits wanted.

But he was in his heart of hearts a little bit vain, and there were demons afoot in those days, demons that followed men and women through the woods and took it upon themselves to create other demons like themselves. And there was one demon in particular that might have been a scholar when it was alive, one who took note of Xiaodi and thought that it could ensnare him. It set up a trap for him, weaving its glamour over a decrepit building a few hours away.

Xiaodi found a surprising view as he crested the next hill on the road — in front of him was a library, three stories tall, well maintained and quite luxurious, and he immediately altered his direction to approach it. It only grew more impressive as he got closer, and while Xiaodi had not seen a library on his path from the maps, his thoughts quickly turned to marvelling at the library instead of wondering at its existence.

"Ai!" He shouted, announcing his presence and stepping through the open door, stopping immediately inside and staring up in wonder at the floor-to-ceiling rows of books and scrolls, at the long tables with brackets set up to hold the unrolled scrolls, at the bronze and gold inlays, at the beautiful designs. Truly, this was one of the best libraries that he had ever seen, Xiaodi thought.

The owner turned from looking at one of the shelves in the back and headed down a staircase towards Xiaodi. He — or maybe she — was quite attractive, but of a curiously indeterminate gender. Regardless, Xiaodi bowed and smiled, and received one in return.

"Welcome to my humble library, young man," the owner — the demon — said, smiling widely at him. "I don't get visitors much, but I am fond of them — it's always good to meet new friends."

"Thank you, kind sir — I am a man of words, and I find this treasure simply extraordinary," Xiaodi responded, and the owner smiled even more broadly.

"Are you now? What fortune! Would you care for a wager, perhaps?" the owner asked, to which Xiaodi furrowed his brow.

"I am not a gambling man, sir, but a wager on words intrigues me. What do you propose?"

"That we trade off in knowledge," the owner said, spreading his arms. "Facts for facts, or perhaps theories for theories. Knowledge for knowledge, and we see who is more knowledgeable. It has been a long time since I have had a visitor, and I wish to learn about the world."

Xiaodi thought about this for some time. It would be a way to learn, he thinks, something that he has not had in some time — and yet, the logistics of it would be difficult. Who would check what facts there are, or if the theories are made up?

"How would we find out what is true?" he asked the demon, and the demon appeared to ponder this for a moment.

"Perhaps that would be too hard, indeed. If only we had a dragon to adjudicate, but they all seem to be busy at the moment," the demon said, though without the smile that Xiaodi expected at such a jest. But before he could address it, the demon continued.

"Let us try something different, instead. You see, this library does not just contain knowledge. It also contains a curious machine that I found from the Western mountains, far, far away, in the lands of Tianzhu. You see, there is a flat golden pan on this table, and what this pan does is create what you think. It must be small, smaller than the pan, but it will make whatever your mind shapes. It is a most wonderous thing."

"Let us — you and I — each create something, and have the next passer-by judge which is more perfect. Observe—" the demon said, and pointed to the table at the center of the room. It closed its eyes, and after a few seconds a golden cup appeared, simply materalizing out of pan. The demon filled the cup and drank it, and then tossed it to Xiaodi with a wink.

Xiaodi caught the cup, staring at it in wonder. "I accept," he said, reverently, thinking that whatever the cost, it was a wonderous device that he would perhaps not get to try if he did not defer to the owner's desire for a small wager.

The demon smiled, then, and snapped its fingers, and just like that, the illlusion crumbled away. Its teeth grow to be sharp and jagged, and the wonderous library is no more than a decrepit, abandoned mansion, without even a roof, and decay everywhere.

The golden pan, though, was still there, resting on a table that has only three legs.

"You should've asked what the stakes were," the demon said, gleefully. "But now that you've accepted, you can't back out. If you win, you get to leave; if I win, you stay, forever. So go on, make something. Anything."

Xiaodi closed his eyes, and then nodded. "I accept," he said again, and walked toward the pan. His thoughts are frantic, but in some sense, strangely clear; he will simply use the one thing that he's always relied on — his mind — to get him out of this. And so he started constructing: first a set of bronze, silver, golden chopsticks, then a plate, then a cup, then a chair, a table, then a meal, fresh and steaming — and as he worked, he watched as each item took its form on the golden pan, exactly as he constructed it in his mind, whatever materials, color, shape he could think of.

"Is that what you choose, then?" the demon said, and Xiaodi could almost hear the hunger in its voice.

"No," he responded. "I will tell you when I'm done." And he thinks, harder, faster. It must be more complicated, he thinks, more perfect, and so he directs his thoughts at the pan once more. It changes, then, from roast duck, from dumplings, to an oven, to a wheel that powers an oven, to a windmill, each item appearing and disappearing as his mind shuffles over the possibilities. As he thinks bigger, the edges start brushing up against the pan, but he simply thinks of them as being smaller, and realizes that he can still hold the image perfectly. It's a breakthrough: he doesn't have to make one thing smaller than the pan; he can simply make whatever it is he's thinking of smaller.

Then he thinks harder — if a windmill will work, why not a temple? If a temple, why not a few buildings, joined together? And slowly, a city begins to take form, a miniature village, then town, one that grows as Xiaodi imagines each and every structure, each roof, each wall, each road. Eventually, a full city is there — but it's empty. Empty, he thinks, and then he starts picturing people, and they — small people, only an inch tall, start to appear. The restaurateur, the magistrate, the mother and father, the children at play, the famers and laborers and scholars. With each thought, a person takes shape, until this city contains a reflection of the greatest city that his mind's eye can picture: the imperial capital.

He's almost done, he thinks, and he takes a step back, looking at what he's done. And he holds the picture in their mind, thinks of how everyone is moving, and how they go about their ways, how there are little patterns here and there, and then he smiles — a curious smile, one perhaps tinged with a touch of regret, a dash of understanding — and the city disappears. And in its place is a cup, a humble, wooden cup, one that he remembers drinking from as a child, with a crack on the top that goes an inch down, its handle worn from years of use.

"I'm done," he announces, and the demon looks shocked, the outcome completely unexpected.

"Is this some trick? Fine, then. You can have your cup. I'll win without any effort on my part, simply with your mind," the demon proclaims, striding up to the table and tossing the cup over its shoulder casually, which Xiaodi catches. The demon instantly recreates the miniature city, complete with the palace and the grounds and every bit of it exquisitely detailed. "Who would vote for you, with this wonderous creation here? What a good job you did with your mind, human. What an excellent job, indeed; I will enjoy feasting on you."

But Xiaodi, far from looking concerned, simply smiles. "I, too, once thought that the way to win was to know everything that could be known, to know how every piece of the world worked and be able to predict every action. But the world is too complicated for such things — no matter how much you can keep in your mind, demon, you can not predict everything, and so this miniature is only a poor attempt at capturing something uncapturable."

"Instead, I simply created something simple, something that any person who will walk through this door will know and understand — the beauty of something that is made for you by your father and given to you by your mother, and will stay with you from your first days until your last. That, demon, is a perfection that a clockwork city will never be able to match."

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