There were very few things Tao thought he could be impressed by. In Beijing, he grew up running around the streets, passing through ancient Hutongs and temples, always under the shadow of the Imperial Palace. But this… This was different. Carved into the very mountain itself was a gate, two massive stone doors flanked by stone animals reaching for a stylized sun above. Tao couldn’t believe it. Eight hours. Eight hours walking through the forest and he had
come to this. To where he needed to be… Or at least he hoped so.
“And your name, weary traveler?” Tao jumped. A lifetime of pickpocketing had taught Tao to pay attention to his environment, but this time… The voice asked again, “Your name?” There was a man behind the gate. A gatekeeper. Of course there was.
“Tao… Lin Tao from Beijing.”
“Lin Tao from Beijing. This is good. Many people in the cities do not find the Path – the Dao. And your Taiji coin?”
“The Path gives all Candidates a sign of its favor. Of its permission to enter these sacred grounds. The Taiji Coin.”
A great many things never occurred to Tao. That he would ever leave Beijing, for one. That his dreams would guide him somewhere – anywhere – real, for another. And that it’d all be for nothing because of one. Single. Coin.
“Right,” Tao decided in ridiculous situations, sensible answers might be appreciated. “I’ve gone through a lot to get here, okay? I – I traveled. Far. And and inconveniently, I might add. All because I some dream of a dragon dying – and I know that doesn’t make sense, because it makes no sense to me either – but please. I know I’m supposed to be here, coin or not.”
For a moment, it almost worked. But Tao realized that ridiculous problems only have ridiculous answers. “I’m sorry, but that is not for me to decide..” And with that, Tao knew this was as far as he’d go.
Until he heard footsteps – the sound of someone making his way up the mountain steps. Tao didn’t know how the gatekeeper had seen him approach the gate, but he was confident he couldn’t see down the mountain. This was Tao’s only chance, so he did what any desperate person would do. He clung to it.
Tao raced down the steps. A minute down he had found his man. Young, no older than Tao, dressed in a black Tai Chi uniform and composing himself with the straight-laced manner of an upright citizen. Tied around his neck, three coins with the Taiji symbol.
“Oh man, thank God you came along,” Tao said, patting the stranger on the back. “It was crazy getting here, and I lost my Taiji coin on the way. My name’s Tao, by the way.” Tao held his hand out for a more seconds than was necessary or comfortable. If friendship wasn’t an option, Tao would just have to do what every vagrant has done at one point or another. He begged. “I’m sorry,” Tao continued, “But you don’t suppose I could have –”
“No,” said the man. Tao’s eye twitched. He wasn’t straight-laced or serious. He was cold.
“Let me understand this,” said Tao. “I need a coin to enter. You have not one but two extra coins. Two coins that you don’t need. And your answer is… No?”
“And my answer’s no,” the man replied. And for a fraction of a second, Tao could swear he saw him smile. “You weren’t chosen to enter Xiangbala.”
So that’s how it was. Tao he gritted his teeth and returned a smile. “Fine. I give up,” he said, his hand draped around his the man’s shoulder. It was time to leave. Except as Tao turned, he found his hand was locked in the grip of his new friend.
“The men who owned those Coins tried to kill me,” the stranger said.
Tao turned to face his opponent. The game was up, but a new one was just beginning. “You caught me” said Tao, the pilfered Taiji coins clenched in his fist. “But you might want to let me go.”
Tao grinned. First a spark, then a flame, bloomed around his fist.
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