Kaishung flexed his toes against the tatami mat under his feet. Master Snowdrift’s small dojo had been emptied of the eager recruits that normally trained there, leaving only a handful of Shado Pan to fill out the space. Kaishung himself hadn’t spent much time training here but the friendly amenities like kegs lining the mats and protective gear all along the walls had been removed. The only thing that remained were the sharp weapons and harsh white tiger statues glaring at him menacingly. For some reason, it was the glare of the ceramic tigers that spiked his anger rather than the glare of the masters that appraised him.
“Can you repeat the question?” Kaishung asked after he realized it’d been almost a minute and the conversation was waiting on him.
Lee Shen, with a pair of half-moon spectacles perched at the end of his nose, opened the scroll in his hand and recited the question he’d asked previously: “What did Master Xing state was the goal of your trip into the mountains?” Once Lee was finished reading, he lowered his nose so that he could regard Kaishung over the tops of his glasses.
“Master Xing wanted to get away from the distractions of the Monastery. It was a place he and I could train together without those distractions,” Kaishung answered smoothly. He certainly felt indignant at the situation but tried his best to strip that tone from his words.
“Did Master Xing include any other reasons for the trip?” Lee asked, following up.
“No,” Kaishung answered.
“Did Master Xing speak with you about your behavior with other Black Sash Shado Pan that you were training with?”
“And did those conversations have anything to do with his decision to remove you from group training and instead train you in isolation in the mountains?”
“Master Xing told me very clearly why he wanted to train in the mountains: to remove distractions from my training before I took my test to become a master.”
“And you don’t think he had any other motives for removing you from group training?”
“I cannot speak to the mindset of a dead monk,” Kaishung answered just a bit too quickly, a bit too tersely. He noticed that two of the three Masters judging him today spent a moment writing something down, which caused him to add: “My master made decisions for odd reasons all the time. I learned not to guess at why he made those decisions a long time ago. If he wanted me to know why he chose to do things the way he chose to do things, he’d tell me.”
“So, does that mean Master Xing hid the reasons he made certain decisions from you?” Lee asked innocently. Kaishung knew the punch he was walking into but couldn’t avoid it. This round, Lee had succeeded.
“Yes. He had that reputation,” Kaishung answered, trying not to give Lee anything more to use.
“Master Xing was unorthodox. He enjoyed assigning strange tasks to his trainees without tell them why they were doing those tasks.”
“Did he ever misdirect you in that regard? Did he ever tell you a reason for some task only to later reveal a different reason he wanted you training that way?” Kaishung watched Lee reach up and remove the spectacles from his nose. It seemed he wouldn’t be returning to the scroll anytime soon.
“Yes, he used misdirection,” Kaishung relented. With his hands knotted behind his back, Kaishung began a fist flexing exercise to keep himself calm and focused.
“And returning to the subject before, your conversation about your conduct with the other Black Sashes, what was that conversation like?” Lee asked.
“Master Xing didn’t like the way I was sparring with other Black Sash monks.”
“What specifically didn’t he like?”
“That I didn’t pull my punches. That I didn’t refrain from fighting at my best.”
“How many other Black Sashes did you injure in group training?”
“Thirteen,” Kaishung answered flatly.
“How many days did you spend in group training with the Black Sashes?”
“How many injuries per week is that?” Lee asked.
“I-- I don’t know off the top of my head,” Kaishung answered.
“Can you take a moment to do the math in your head?” Lee pushed, though just a bit too far.
“Master Shen, let’s not humiliate the boy,” Master Kamakura spoke with a deep voice from the center of the tribunal. Kaishung was more humiliated by being called “boy” than by failing to work out the sum.
“That’s a little less than once a week,” Kaishung answered.
“And how many times did Master Xing speak with you about the injuries you were causing to your fellow Black Sashes?” Lee Shen asked.
“How did those conversations go? Can you summarize them for the Masters?”
“Master Xing would ask me to ‘use a light touch’ with some of the other Black Sashes,” Kaishung said, finding it hard not to mockingly air quote his former Master. “I would point out that I’m not interested in using a light touch, I’m interested in fighting at the best of my ability. And if fighting at the best of my ability was routinely beating other Black Sashes, I should be allowed to take the Master’s Test. If I was allowed to become a Master, I wouldn’t need to train with other Black Sashes. And they would probably stop getting injured if they were sparring with people of their own skill level.”
“You think you had the skill of a Master?” Lee asked.
“I think I had the skill of a Master six months ago.”
“And that was when you first asked Master Xing to nominate you for the Master’s Test?”
“Yes,” Kaishung answered simply.
“Obviously, he refused, but do you happen to know why?” It was a grating question and it caused Kaishung to slowly close his eyes and grind his teeth.
“Master Xing said I needed more training,” Kaishung answered. He could feel an involuntary tear welling up on the edge of his right eye, reaching up to flick it away. He wondered if the Masters on the tribunal thought the tear was genuine or knew it was a result of the scar that’d formed since coming down the mountain. His eye remained undamaged but the twin, thin streaks coming straight down from his forehead to his cheek had torn into his eyelid and made involuntary tears common.
“Though, he could have been misdirecting you, as we established he liked to do earlier?” Lee punctuated, just to undermine everything Kaishung had said.
“Again, I won’t speculate on the mindset of my fallen Master.” Kaishung watched Kamakura nod slightly at the improved version of the answer.
“Alright, to circle back to the other Black Sashes,” Lee Shen began, careful to keep to just asking questions, “Were you injuring the other Black Sashes on purpose?”
“I was not.”
“Did you feel as though you had no control over your own fighting abilities?”
“I–uh…” Kaishung stammered, thrown by the question. “I was in control of my fighting.”
“To be a little more abstract, do you feel that a Master has the ability to control the skill level they fight at?”
“I don’t-- uh…”
“Put another way: Novices train and spar with masters every day in the Monastery but obviously those Masters bring their skill level down so as not to harm the Novices they’re training with.”
“Shen…” Master Kamakura threatened, noting the breach of decorum.
“Sorry, let me rephrase. Do you think that Masters who train Novices bring their skill level down to that of a Novice?”
Kaishung didn’t answer. Flexing his fists wasn’t enough to bring his anger in line but he knew he needed to not answer truthfully. Answer in the way Lee Shen was setting him up to answer. This conversation, Kaishung knew, would be the most important of his life. Everything he was working towards had come to a crescendo in these questions and answers and failing to tread lightly would doom him.
“I don’t think that is true,” Kaishung answered finally. “Perhaps this is philosophical but the Master is still exhibiting skill, in that instance, the skill befitting a Master in training those Novices. But he isn’t sparring and he certainly isn’t fighting to the best of his ability.”
“So, you felt when you were sparring with the other Black Sashes, that you couldn’t hold anything back?” Lee followed up.
“If you were in control of your abilities, you could have chosen to hold something back, though, right?”
“Fine. Yes, it was a choice. I chose to fight at the very best of my ability. I could have chosen not to but that’d have just wasted everyone’s time.” Kaishung answered dismissively.
“So, to be clear, you chose to fight in such a way that you knew injured your fellow Shado Pan Black Sashes, even in the face of your Master instructing you not to?”
Kaishung glared at Lee Shen, failing miserably to mask his contempt. Silence crept through the dojo, punctuated with the slow, heavy breaths coming from Kaishung’s snout.
“To change subjects,” Lee Shen broke the silence effortlessly. “You mentioned before that you believed you had the skill of a Master six months ago. How did you come to that conclusion?”
Despite how tense his jaw was, Kaishung finally cracked it to answer, letting the pride in his accomplishment wash away the anger. “I won the seasonal Black Sash tournament twice without dropping a single round, which is a record, by the way.”
“Congratulations on setting that record. You’re trying to set another record as well, is that right?”
“Yes. If I am promoted to Master in the next seven weeks, I will be the youngest Master in Shado Pan history.”
“How important is that goal to you?”
Kaishung couldn’t hide it. “It’s the reason I’ve trained so hard for most of my life.”
“To be a Master? Or to be the youngest Master in Shado Pan history?” Lee asked for clarification.
“To be the very best fighter that I can be.”
“But the rank of Master does have significance for you. You asked Master Xing to nominate you multiple times.”
“Do you feel you need to have the rank of Master to be the very best fighter you can be?”
“Absolutely. Not as a matter of pride or achievement or recognition but as a matter of skill. I’ve been a black sash for almost two years and I am clearly a better fighter than every Black Sash in the monastery. A promotion of the rank of Master gives me access to new training to push my skills even further.”
“And it was a matter of skill that drove you to ask Master Xing multiple times to be nominated?”
“Yes. Every day I spent not taking the Master’s Test, my training was wasted.”
“Was it frustrating being refused by Master Xing?”
“No,” Kaishung lied. “He was my Master and it was ultimately his decision.”
“But you did make that decision hard for him, right? If he had allowed you to take the Master’s Test, you wouldn’t have been injuring his other students on a weekly basis, correct?”
“Shen…” Katamura warned again.
“Let me get to the point: Kaishung, did you intentionally injure your fellow Black Sash trainees to force Master Xing’s hand to nominate you?”
“No,” Kaishung lied again. “I’m sorry that my opponents weren’t skilled enough to keep up with my abilities but I would never seek to harm them intentionally.”
All three Masters on the tribunal made note of that and Kaishung felt satisfied with the answer. Master Shen may have taken the first two rounds but Kaishung was following his tricks more and more. Better and better. And once this tribunal was over, Kaishung would be reinstated, allowed to take his Master’s Test, and be promoted to Master in less than a month. It was a future he could see, hear, touch, smell and taste.
“Allow me to change subjects,” Lee Shen retreated, asking permission from the tribunal moreso than a question of Kaishung. “You were in the mountains with Master Xing for a total of nine days, is that right?”
“I was in the mountains for nine, Master Xing for eight. He… perished the eighth night of our training and I spent the ninth coming back down to the Monastery.”
“And that was supposed to be two full weeks, is that correct?”
“Yes. Master Xing promised me that if I could defeat him in a sparring match at the end of those two weeks, he’d nominate me for Master.”
“You and he must have sparred commonly. Do you happen to remember who won most of the time?”
Kaishung hated that question more than any other. “I won more often than him.”
“Did you win most of the time or just more often?” Lee pried. Kaishung hated that question even more.
“We fought a total of two-hundred sixty-one bouts. I won one-hundred and thirty-seven of them. He won one-hundred and twenty-four.”
“So, you won about half the time?”
“How confident were you in beating Master Xing at the top of the mountain.”
“Very,” Kaishung lied. “I’d won every bout we’d sparred for a month before that. I was ready.”
“Did you spar on the trip?”
Kaishung scanned the Master’s tribunal’s faces before settling on the ceramic tigers’ roaring faces. It was only him and Xing that knew the outcome of those matches. Whatever he chose to say here, there was no evidence one way or another. If he told the truth, if he lied, no one could tell the difference. The only thing he had to do was convince the judges he was being honest. And he’d lied plenty through this tribunal already. But… but what if they could tell? What if they could sense his dishonesty? What if they suspected the truth?
“I won six of seven bouts. Every day, after whatever training we were doing, we’d spar and then sleep. I won the first five days. Master Xing won the sixth. I won again on the seventh. And he fell before we sparred on the eighth.”
“Did it unsettle you that you had won so many bouts for so many days and then you lost on the sixth day?”
“No,” Kaishung lied.
“On the eighth day, what was your training regime?
“An exercise Master Xing called The Precipice. We spent all day on a cliff. From midday to sundown, we had to balance on one foot or one hand. It was endurance training.”
“When you say ‘we,’ you mean to say that Master Xing was participating in this exercise with you?” Lee asked.
“Yes. He did most of the exercises with me.”
“Had you ever done The Precipice before?”
“We started the week with it and I’d done it on another trip we took with a bigger group.”
“Did Master Xing use this exercise commonly?”
“Yes,” Kaishung admitted. “Anytime we were in the mountains.”
“And it was during this exercise that he slipped and fell to his death?”
Kaishung closed his eyes and wiped away another involuntary tear from his right eye.
“Yes,” he whispered. The entire room was silent as a crypt for many moments afterward.
“Do you have more questions, Lee, or are we done here?” Master Kamakura asked, breaking the silence.
“Just one more line of questioning, thanks,” Lee answered, replacing the spectacles on his nose and unravelling the scroll again. “You got that scar over your right eye during your training, is that right?”
“Yes,” Kaishung answered, reflexively reaching up to feel it. Two thing streaks stretching from his forehead to his cheek.
“How did you get it, specifically?” It was another innocent question, just like all the others, but Lee injected a little venom and Kaishung could feel the bite.
“When Master Xing fell, I jumped to grab him,” Kaishung reported carefully, trying his very best to avoid any pitfalls.
“And you hit your head on the rock, is that right? And it wasn’t healed until you came down the mountain?”
“Yes. After telling the Masters about Master Xing’s fall, I went to get the two gashes healed. Alone on the mountain, I couldn’t heal them myself.”
“Sure. If you had been hurt while Master Xing was still alive, I’m sure he would have healed the cuts before they even scarred over. Obviously, you had to get them after he’d fallen.”
“Shen, not a question,” Kamakura pointed out. “And I don’t see the relevance of this.”
“Sorry, just one or two more questions before I’m wrapped,” Lee said, folding the scroll up and taking his spectacles off. “Kaishung, did you or Master Xing bring any personal grooming equipment onto the mountain?”
Kaishung’s breath caught in his throat. “N-no, ahem, no. We packed light.”
“Nothing to trim his claws, for instance?”
“No,” Kaishung whispered and then, a little more forcefully: “No. I turned over everything that Xing brought up the mountain.”
“Alright. Final question:” Lee announced wearily. ”Kaishung, did Master Xing give you the two scars over your right eye?”
“No,” Kaishung lied.