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Xin Zhao What Once Sailed Free
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Short Story

What Once Sailed Free

By Michael Luo

My father once said Noxus wasted its talent in those arenas. Now I see the truth in his words.

Lore

The prisoner stands tall, his ankles chained to a wooden post, his wrists bound together with coarse rope. Blood trickles down his cheeks onto his black Noxian tunic, leaving small red puddles by his bare toes. Above him, the sky paints patches of gray against blue, unsure of its true colors.

A fence of tall jagged stakes surrounds the prisoner. Nearby soldiers run from tent to tent. Their hurried steps kick up dust, leaving grime on their boots they will be sure to clean before they face their commanders. The prisoner knows this, having observed their disciplined behavior over the past days. It is unlike any he has ever seen.

Around the camp, bright navy banners ripple in the wind, displaying the image of a sword dividing two spread wings—the sigil of Demacia.

Not long ago these were the black and crimson banners of Noxus. The prisoner remembers his orders: to reclaim Kalstead for the glory of the empire.

He failed.

And he knows the consequences. War does not forgive failure. This is the truth he is prepared to accept. For now, he awaits his fate. The first time he was held prisoner, he lost his home. This time, he will lose even more.

He closes his eyes as more memories flood his mind. There were two men, he recalls. His master he knew—he had turned a lost boy taken from his home into a fighter fit for the Reckoner arenas. The other was a stranger, claiming to represent the empire’s best interests. After they shook hands, he was sent west, under the shadow of the Argent Mountains, to Kalstead.

There were no goodbyes, no well wishes. But, he was not alone. Others like him shared a name, “soldiers-of-misfortune” as they were called back in Noxus. Ragtag groups of fighters sent to deal with tasks unworthy of a veteran warband’s attention. Not many had a say in the matter, their masters too willing to sell their talents to the military for the right price.

“You don’t look like you’re from Noxus,” a voice calls out, breaking the prisoner’s moment of reflection.

He opens his eyes and sees a Demacian man standing outside the enclosure. His garb is a mix of navy and brown fabric covered by chainmail, and a shortsword hangs by his waist. He has the bearing of a leader, the prisoner decides, but a junior one.

“What’s your name?” the soldier calls.

The prisoner thinks. Will his answer decide his fate?

“Xin Zhao,” he replies, his voice rough and dry.

“What?”

“Xin. Zhao.”

“That doesn’t sound like a Noxian name,” the soldier wonders aloud. “Noxian names are tough, like… Boram Darkwill.” He says the two words with a shudder.

Xin Zhao does not reply. He doubts this conversation is worth having before his coming execution.

“Come along, shield-sergeant,” says another Demacian. The young officer’s severe look commands the sergeant’s attention. She wears silver armor with gold trim adorning her shoulder pauldrons. A cape of vivid blue falls down her back.

“Don’t bother conversing with Noxians,” she advises. “They do not share our virtues.”

The sergeant bows his head. “Yes, Sword-Captain Crownguard. But if I might ask…”

The captain nods.

“Why is this one being kept by himself?”

She glances at the prisoner, her blue eyes stern with contempt.

“This one ended more lives than the others.”

Xin Zhao wakes to the sound of horns. He sits in the mud kicking his numb feet at the damp soil. Pressing his back against the post, he snakes himself up to a standing position and sees the sergeant from the day before approach, accompanied by four others dressed in similar attire. They open the gate to the enclosure and the sergeant walks through first, carrying a tray holding a bowl of hot soup.

“Morning. I’m Olber, and this is my watch unit,” the sergeant says. “Here’s your breakfast, Zen Jaw.”

Xin Zhao watches him set the tray on the ground. Who knew someone could mispronounce two syllables so cruelly?

A Demacian guard cuts through the rope binding Xin Zhao’s wrists with practiced motions. The sergeant and the others stand by, their hands resting on the hilts of their swords.

“Well, go on and eat,” Olber says.

Xin Zhao picks up the bowl. “They sent five of you.”

“We do as the captain orders,” Olber explains. “She’s a Crownguard, after all. They protect the king himself.”

The guards nod along and turn to each other.

“Aye, her father saved the last Jarvan at Storm’s Fang,” one mentions.

“Which Jarvan was that?” another asks.

“Second. We’re on the third one now.”

“That’s King Jarvan the Third,” Olber interjects. “Your king. And mine. You oughta show some respect, given he personally rode out here with us.”

They think highly of their king, Xin Zhao notes. While the soldiers continue to banter, he drinks his soup, one sip at a time, as he listens to their conversation. They speak of how foolish the Noxians were to venture this far west, of how easy it was for them to come to Kalstead’s aid, and of how their triumph was one achieved in the name of justice.

We were sent here to die, Xin Zhao realizes. He grips the empty bowl so tightly it cracks, the wood coming apart in his hands.

The Demacians turn their attention. Olber looks at Xin Zhao. “Hands.”

Xin Zhao offers his palms facing upward.

“You sure took a beating,” Olber remarks, tying new rope around Xin Zhao's wrists. The guards gather around. They see scars everywhere, running like rivers up and down his skin. Xin Zhao follows their gaze. He can no longer tell which scars came from which match. There were so many that he fought, and so few he cared to remember.

“Those aren’t recent wounds,” one of the guards observes.

“You’re right,” Xin Zhao says. His voice, clear and strong, grabs their attention. For a moment, they stand still, looking at him like he is no longer just another prisoner.

“What’d you do back in Noxus?” Olber asks.

“I fought in the arenas,” Xin Zhao answers.

“A Reckoner!” a guard exclaims. “I’ve heard of you savages. They fight to the death in front of thousands!”

“I’ve never heard of no Reckoner named Zen Jaw,” another mutters.

“Maybe he wasn’t a good one? Maybe that’s why he’s here, all beaten and tied up?”

“Hold on,” Olber chimes in. “Don't you Reckoners use different names in the arena?”

Xin Zhao almost smiles. This Demacian is smarter than he lets on. It is known, even outside the empire, that Reckoners often choose inventive titles. Some opt for the extravagant. Others have something to hide. For Xin Zhao, it was to remember the life he had before it was taken away.

“Viscero,” a guard says, holding an unfurled piece of parchment. “That’s what the other Noxians called him.”

Olber snatches the parchment. He examines it. A few long seconds pass before he looks up at Xin Zhao. “You're the Reckoner.”

Silence. Thin streaks of sunlight cut through the gray sky.

“Viscero,” Olber repeats, his voice tinged with awe. “The one who never lost.”

The guards look to each other. Then, together, they stare at Xin Zhao, their eyes now lit with recognition.

“I know you!” says a guard.

“Didn't you beat a minotaur?” says another.

Olber raises a hand to halt the idle chatter. “Why'd you say your name was Zen Jaw?” he asks.

Xin Zhao sighs. “Once I became a Reckoner, there was no more Xin Zhao. There was only Viscero.” He looks down at his bound wrists, at his chained ankles, and then back at the Demacians. “In the time I have left, I’d rather live by my real name.”

“But what’s a famous Reckoner doing fighting Noxus’ border wars?” Olber asks again.

“I was bought out,” Xin Zhao replies, “by the military.” He finds explaining all this rather strange. For so long, he had assumed his final moments would pass by quickly, in the arena, by spear or sword—not with a hot meal and questions about his past.

Is this fate offering its last sympathies?

Olber appears troubled. “You didn't have a choice,” he says.

Xin Zhao shakes his head.

“You have family left in Noxus?”

Xin Zhao thinks for a moment, then shakes his head again. He wonders if he has any family at all, anywhere.

“Well, I guess you're off to a new beginning.” Olber nods at a guard who pulls out a key and starts unchaining Xin Zhao from his pole.

Xin Zhao tilts his head, curious. “What do you mean?”

Olber smiles. “Let’s get you dressed.”

Xin Zhao sits upright in the new tunic given to him. The Demacian fabric feels soft on his skin. He looks about the tent, counting the straw beds and the empty bowls of soup. Remarks of gratitude fill his ears. He recognizes the earthy voices. They come from others who, hours ago, were prisoners like him.

One by one, they rise from their beds and thank the healers who mended their wounds. Armed Demacians enter the tent. Xin Zhao watches the prisoners be escorted out. He knows them well, having marched alongside them to Kalstead. On their journey, they spent much of their time trying to best each other in individual feats of strength, with the victors celebrating their might and the defeated left in shame. Those especially vocal would boast aloud how many Demacian soldiers they planned to kill. That was before they came face to face with a real army.

There was no battle. Maybe the Noxian military would have fared better, with its legions and siege weaponry, but they were not the military. They were conscripts, untrained in the ways of formal combat, facing a unified kingdom. Within hours, Kalstead cheered for its saviors.

We were sent here to die, Xin Zhao reminds himself. And yet, as fate would have it, they still lived. Not by the will of Noxus, but by that of Demacia.

Fate flows like the four winds, his elders had once said, and no man can know its course until he sails it.

An old healer walks by. Her pale robe matches the others working in the tent. “How are you feeling, child?” she asks.

“I'm fine,” Xin Zhao replies. “Thank you.”

“Do not thank me. Thank the king. It was by his royal decree that all prisoners be cared for.”

“The third Jarvan?” This king, again. How can one man inspire so much?

“Yes, our great Jarvan the Third,” she corrects him. “He granted you the opportunity to begin anew. To find peace.”

Xin Zhao looks down at the floor with his hands folded. Viscero could always find a place in the arena. And elsewhere, the peoples of Valoran would embrace him for his strength, that much he is certain. As for his birthplace—the First Lands beyond the sea he has not seen for decades—it is as foreign to him now as any distant fantasy.

Where could he find peace? Would he want it?

No, his chance at peace died long ago, when he took his first life and was rewarded with an extension on his own.

Xin Zhao turns to the healer. “I have one question, if I may.”

“What is it, child?”

“This king of yours. Who is he?”

The healer chuckles. “Why don’t you see for yourself?”

Xin Zhao walks behind Olber with four guards surrounding him. As they trudge through the camp, he peers into the passing tents, seeing Demacian soldiers pack their belongings and captains plan for their next deployment. Rumors tell that somewhere, not a week’s march away, another battle against Noxus is imminent. Xin Zhao ponders if that is where these people will head, following a trail of turmoil, righting wrongs wherever they go. They seem to serve a higher calling, something stronger than strength, and perhaps more valuable.

He imagines how that might feel, to be so clear in your convictions you would sacrifice your own life for them. There were times in the arena when his life meant nothing. Now, it is worth an audience with a king.

“Looks like you’re the last one,” Olber says, stopping the escort and pointing ahead.

Xin Zhao follows the sergeant's finger and spots a tent larger than all the others. The same bright navy banners grace its roof. Guards in gleaming armor stand in parallel lines outside its entrance. He sees a man, bearing Noxian tattoos on his face and neck, shuffle out carrying a small bag. The man bows his head multiple times before he is led away by one of the guards, and immediately, another Demacian steps in to fill the empty space.

“That's the king's tent,” Olber says. “We are to stay here. You go in, kneel, accept the provisions granted to you by the king, and then we'll collect you.”

The sergeant smiles. “The king said once you're in front of him, you're a free man… but you’ll still need us when you’re out. Captain Crownguard runs this camp, and she’ll not have enemy combatants walk alone. Not ‘til they leave Kalstead for good.”

Xin Zhao gives a knowing nod, and heads toward the tent.

“The king welcomes Viscero!”

The voice that hails him is deep and proper. Xin Zhao walks forth. Once inside, he kneels on his right leg and bows his head low. The floor is covered in cloth embroidered with depictions of winged knights and helmed warriors.

“You may look up,” another voice comes. Xin Zhao lifts his head and identifies its source. It is a man, not much older than himself, sitting on a raised oaken chair. He wears radiant, gold-plated armor embellished with ebony spikes. Atop his head is a crown adorned with jewels. By his right hand lies a great steel lance, its edges sharp like the teeth of some magnificent beast.

This is their king, Xin Zhao realizes. His eyes linger on the man for a second longer, sensing the air of majesty about him, paired with a raw physical presence he had not expected.

To the king's left stands Sword-Captain Crownguard, just as stoic as when Xin Zhao first saw her.

To his right, dressed in a royal tunic is a little boy. He sits on an oaken chair of his own with his small leather boots dangling over the edge. It is impossible not to notice the king’s likeness in him, both having strong noses and square jaws. Two additional guards surround these three, each holding a spear pointing upward.

“Viscero is quite an unusual name,” King Jarvan III says. “What is its origin?”

Xin Zhao peers downward, wondering how he should respond.

“You will speak when the king addresses you,” the sword-captain commands.

“At ease, Tianna,” the king says with a wave of his hand. “He is surely shocked by the events of these past few days. We would be right to offer this man his time, would we not?”

The sword-captain opens her mouth only to close it without a word, choosing instead to give a curt nod.

“It is a reminder of my home,” Xin Zhao answers.

“Oh, is that so?” the king says, intrigued. “I have studied much of Noxus, yet I have never heard of a place called Viscero.”

“It is not so much a place, but a memory… albeit one that changed meaning in Noxus.”

“Ah,” the king says, looking briefly at his son, “memories of one’s childhood are such—”

“But it is not my real name.”

“You dare interrupt the king?” the sword-captain roars. Her hand clutches the hilt of her sword.

Xin Zhao bows his head. Then, he hears laughter, hearty and full. Again, the voice of Jarvan III.

“You are the first one today to have caused Tianna such grievance,” the king says. “It is her inaugural battle leading the Dauntless Vanguard, though it was not much of a battle, I am sure you would agree.”

He pats the shoulder of the young prince, who has stayed quiet, attentively observing his father. “Please,” the king says. “Tell us your story, Viscero, whose real name has not yet been revealed to me.”

Keeping his gaze low, Xin Zhao takes a breath. “My birth name is Xin Zhao, given to me by my parents who I have not seen since I was a boy. They may be alive, or dead—I do not know.”

He swallows hard. “The place I was born is known as Raikkon, a coastal village in the First Lands, which the people here call Ionia. My childhood was spent on a fishing boat named Viscero, helping the elders with whatever they needed. Life was simple, peaceful… until the marauders came in their red and black ships.”

He closes his eyes for a second. No Demacian speaks.

“We didn’t stand a chance. I was taken. After months on the sea, I found myself in Noxus. Everything was… towering, oppressive, harsh. There was none of the natural beauty that filled my home.”

Xin Zhao thinks he hears hushed sounds of agreement. A resonant murmur, a tiny voice whispering.

“As any lost boy would, I did what was needed to survive. Things I’m not proud of that got the attention of those with power. They recognized my strength, and turned me into a fighter. From there, Viscero was reborn—as a Reckoner.”

He sighs as his voice grows soft. “I killed many, many foes. Some whose real names I didn't even know. The more I killed, the louder the crowds cheered, ‘Viscero! Viscero!’ as their gold filled the pockets of my masters. I thought that would be how I lived out my days, fighting in the arena for the thrill of others. That is, until Noxus offered my masters more gold than the arenas could ever bring.”

Xin Zhao’s shoulders slump. “That was all it took for me to end up here. Your soldiers know the rest.”

Jarvan III is quiet. Everyone waits for him to speak.

“You have lived quite the life,” the king finally says. He glimpses at his son before looking back at Xin Zhao. “Thank you for sharing with us your journey. It makes me, and all of Demacia, proud to be able to release you from the bonds of Noxus.”

The king nods toward one of the guards, who brings out a linen pouch and sets it down before Xin Zhao. It jingles with coin.

“This is the blessing of Jarvan the Third,” Captain Crownguard declares. “There is enough gold there to last you one week’s worth of travel. Know that you've erred to invade lands protected by the kingdom of Demacia, but as a show of good faith, our king has granted you a second chance. Use it well.”

Xin Zhao glances at the pouch. He does not budge. Is it that simple? Take this bag and walk out of here—in peace? Just now, he spoke more honestly about himself than he has ever done, to a stranger who could have ended his life with the wave of a hand.

However, that stranger cared to listen. And through that, he became a stranger no more.

There is no peace for me, but maybe there can be a cause?

“Well,” Captain Crownguard says, pointing two fingers toward the exit.

Xin Zhao lowers his head. “I have one request, if I may.”

“Speak,” the king says.

“I wish to join your guard.”

“Absurd!” Captain Crownguard shouts. The guards strike the ends of their spears against the ground in accord.

The king lets out a soft chuckle and turns to his sword-captain. “What an interesting proposition.”

“Surely, you can't—” Captain Crownguard begins, before she is silenced by her king’s hand once more.

“Let the man explain himself,” Jarvan III says with a grin. “I wish to hear his reasoning.”

Xin Zhao raises his head. His eyes meet the king's. “You have shown me mercy and honor,” he begins. “Two things I never knew until now. All my years in Noxus, I spent fighting for a cause not my own, and during that time I knew of only two truths. Victory meant survival and defeat meant death. That was what I learned, seeing other fighters fall in the arena or disappear never to be seen again after too many losses. But you and your people fight for something else. Something more.”

A breeze ruffles the tent. Two small leather boots shuffle. Xin Zhao clears his throat.

“And I'd rather die fighting for honor than live out my days regretting that I never made that choice.”

Jarvan III leans forward. All others know to remain quiet.

“You speak well,” the king replies. “Better than some of my own advisers, truth be told. Still, my wards endure years, decades even, of training. How am I to believe you are capable?”

Xin Zhao stares at the king, at the prince, at Captain Crownguard. A part of him knows what he could say; another knows what he could do. Is it his choice to make?

No.

Fate has made its choice.

He grabs the coin pouch and throws it at the sword-captain, hitting her in the face. While she recovers, he sweep kicks the guard to his left, knocking him to the floor. Xin Zhao snatches the Demacian’s spear, swinging it in a circle to trip the other guard to his right. His body moves on instinct, fluid and swift as his mind pretends he is back in the arena. With one final twirl of the weapon, he jabs it forward at Jarvan III, its blunt end stopping inches short of the king's throat.

The young prince gasps. The king's guard gather themselves. Soldiers rush in as the sword-captain draws her blade.

Xin Zhao falls to his knees. He lays the spear down without a sound and offers his neck. Finely crafted steel weapons touch his skin.

Tension fills the room. All eyes lock onto Xin Zhao, whose own eyes are closed, at peace, ready to accept whatever comes next.

The king straightens his cloak. “Stand down,” he commands. “My father once said Noxus wasted its talent in those arenas. Now I see the truth in his words.”

“My king,” Captain Crownguard begs. “He tried to kill you!”

“No, Tianna,” the king replies. “He showed me how I could be killed. Even in front of my own trusted guards.”

“My deepest apologies,” Xin Zhao says. His voice is calm and measured, a quiet tide not yet ready to flow ashore. “It was the only way I thought to demonstrate myself.”

“And demonstrate you did,” the king says. “To me, and these warriors of Demacia. It appears they could learn a thing or two from you.”

“I will not have the king’s guard be sullied by a prisoner!” Captain Crownguard exclaims.

“When this man entered my sight, he was a prisoner no more.” The king stands from his chair. “Demacia was founded long ago, by good people who sought refuge from the evils of this world. This man's story reminds me of those tales of old, of great Orlon and his followers. The very ones my father once told me.”

His gaze falls on the prince, who looks back, amazed. “My son, my life’s joy,” the king says, “how happy I am that you are here to witness this moment. To see for yourself why we must uphold our virtues, so others may aspire to do the same. Do you understand?”

“Yes, father,” the prince says, his voice small but firm.

The king steps forward. “Xin Zhao, you have touched me with your life and your courage, a rare thing I have not felt in some time.” He bends down to help Xin Zhao to his feet. “Though you may not have been born a Demacian, I shall allow you to travel back with us, to my kingdom, where you will then prove yourself and your loyalty as my personal guard.”

Xin Zhao feels the king's sturdy hands grip his shoulders.

“Do not take this opportunity lightly.”

Xin Zhao looks Jarvan III in the eye. And for the first time, in a long time, he feels joy, washing over his body like the waves that once carried Viscero free.

The night air is chilly this far north of Kalstead. There is still a week or so before he will gaze upon the walls of the Great City of Demacia, Xin Zhao thinks as he walks outside his tent. A familiar face stands by the entrance.

“Still awake?” Olber says.

“I'm going for a walk. Won't be long.”

Strolling through the camp alone, Xin Zhao takes in the spirit of his new allies. They are an orderly lot, quick to aid one another and ensure safety among their ranks. Seeing their disciplined manner brings a smile to his face. He rounds a corner to look up at the crescent moon when he feels a sudden force pulling him down.

His body collides hard against the ground.

After blinking a couple times, he regains his senses and realizes he has been dragged inside a dimly lit tent. The sword-captain glares down at him. Beside her stand fearsome soldiers dressed in heavy warplate.

“You may have won the king's favor, but you are no Demacian in my eyes,” she states.

As Xin Zhao stands on his feet, she unsheathes her sword. Like the pride following their lioness, those around her do the same.

“I will be watching you,” she warns. “Should anything happen to the king while you are sworn in his service—”

With two hands, Xin Zhao clasps the flat sides of her blade. “Take this as my oath to you.”

Tianna Crownguard looks on, stunned, as he pulls the sword’s tip toward his own throat.

“Should anything happen,” Xin Zhao says. “You may kill me.”

References

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