Jia Hua is accustomed to being in the public eye. He is his father’s favored son. He is the inheritor of the Jia Family style. He will be teaching students someday. Their families will pay his family for the privilege. The students will graduate to protectors, who enforce the Jia family’s wishes on the land they control. Right now, this is his father’s responsibility, but he is the one who stands at his father’s right hand, stepping forward when his father speaks to demonstrate a kung fu technique. His father is the man the students listen to, but he is the one they look to.
Right now, the positions are reversed. Right now he is Sprout, playing student to the man named Elder Brother, whose grin is always visible through his bristly beard. The company’s master stands silent and stern, arms folded, whenever new recruits are being trained. Elder Brother does the talking, the master does the judging. But it is always clear who’s in charge. That is different, at least.
“Come on, boys! Today we’re gonna learn an important lesson.” Elder Brother leads the way to the little lake, fed by a waterfall, flowing in turn into a river. It’s shockingly cold, but he strips down immediately, and the recruits follow suit. “Now scrub!”
Sprout joins them. He’s familiar with the bath rituals from home. But where are the two towels for drying? Where is the warm rinse-water? There is no tooth-powder, but at least the company supplies salt for the teeth. Uncertain of how to proceed under these mysterious and primitive conditions, he scrubs.
When the trainees leave the water, naked and dripping wet, they begin to really appreciate the coldness of the mountain air. Attendants are ready, with mashed gardenia and other plant-based preparations that Sprout only partly recognizes. “Want to warm yourselves up? Scrub! Partner up!”
Sprout finds himself paired with a lanky man with a wispy mustache. The two grab handfuls of whatever’s in the buckets, which mushes between the fingers immediately, and start to apply it to each other. it does help, a bit.
“Right! Assemble!” Elder Brother seems to be some kind of Taoist immortal, unbothered by such mortal concerns as cold temperature. He stands defiantly and proudly naked, with excited gestures to summon his recruits together.
“Alright, boys! Part of our job is to be invisible. I’m here to tell ya that washing carefully is a big part of that. Your odor is part of you, just like the sounds you make, just like how you dress. When we’re escorting a dangerous prisoner, we send a shadow group along, to deal with ambushes and escape attempts. That shadow group needs to be just that, a shadow. When our clients interact with their partners, nobody needs to notice us. We’re supposed to be unseen and unheard, just part of the background. That’s for a lot of reasons, one of which is sometimes there’s an unexpected complication.”
Elder Brother grows more serious. “But even if all goes well, your job isn’t about winning fancy duels or showing off your kung fu. This job is about keeping our principal and their property safe. You are shadows with swords. Just blend in, wherever you are.”
Sprout can understand that. What is he doing here, if not disappearing?