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Akanai rode Atir through the foggy city streets, unwilling to walk anywhere after her first day in the city. Shen Yun, the city of the Divine Cloud, would be more aptly named the city of Damned Stairs. Built into the rocky mountainside itself, the city sprawled out across the range, plateaus and ridges connected by stone bridges and stairs, the buildings hewn from the same gray rock as the mountain itself. The streets and avenues spilled out from the main stairs in a haphazard manner, with no order or reason to it at all, the city expanding wherever it could. The colors were muted everywhere she looked, gloomy fog permeating the air, the vegetation and clothing styles drab and shabby. The people were rude and dirty as they rushed about on their rams, going about their daily routines, navigating the twists and turns of the maze-like city as only a local could, avoiding the nimble pickpockets and diseased beggars lining the streets.
That it was a defensible city was the kindest thing she could say, but it was so disjointed and chaotic that it made staying here near unbearable for her. Homes sat next to forges, restaurants next to tanners, no thought or planning made when the city first laid its foundations, and all who came after had followed that example. The area housing her Sentinels was upon a plateau that required almost an hour to travel from the front gates, moving through the narrow and crowded streets, the laws of the city forbidding her from letting Atir traverse the unsettled mountainside. It frustrated her to no end, having to move about in such an indirect manner, unable to simply hop over the stone railing and run down the mountainside, free from the rabble of unwashed citizens. When she returned home, a long hot soaking in the hot springs would be required, with vigorous scrubbing to remove the layer of filth this place left upon her.
She longed to order her Sentinels to clear the way, trampling all before her as she did on the fields of Shen Huo, but these peoples here were not the enemy. That battle had been a simple one, no subtlety or tactics required. The enemy had graciously lined up for her, and she simply charged through them, killing them with every sweep of her weapon while her Sentinels loosed arrow after arrow into the Enemy, killing them by the thousands. Even then, it took several hours for the enemy to wholly break, multiple groups escaping to the grasslands surrounding the city, even more riding for the dark forests and hills in the northwest.
They would need to be hunted down, like the vermin that they were, but that was not left for her to do, sadly. No, the Marshal had ‘rewarded’ her with the command of 150,000 soldiers, the majority of them near useless infantry no less, as well as an order to retake the Flying Tiger Fortress, north of Shen Huo and west of the Bridge, in an effort to stop the influx of new Defiled invaders.
She found siege battles irksome, a grinding of soldiers before the walls, no rhythm or pulse about it, a simple battle of numbers. She preferred the open fields, riding about while firing an endless stream of arrows, avoiding a clash until the enemy was weak and vulnerable. Her Sentinels had no place fighting in a siege, and she would not subject them to taking the walls. They were better used to hunt down the escaped Defiled, but that honor was given to that worthless Brigadier, Cho Jin Kai, despite her demands that he be sanctioned for his mishandling of the staging area. A fool of an officer, were it up to her, she would have executed him for incompetence, failing to have sentries stationed more than a kilometer away, allowing the Defiled to assault with almost no warning. The insolent Brigadier more well-connected than she had thought, only receiving a reprimand for his blunders. When the war was over, she would find a reason to challenge him and remove his head from his shoulders. Perhaps she would replace it with a melon and drag it through the streets, as a lesson to other officers. Strength was plentiful, but intelligence sorely lacking among them.
Finally, she broke through the masses and reached the main stairs, her people right behind her, quickly trotting down them towards the natural Southern gate, rushing towards her daughter and the others. It wasn’t until her return from Shen Huo that Akanai had learned of their infamy. All of the reports and rumors Akanai had heard regarding her daughter and the others worried her greatly. She had been proud at the amount of concern they had raised, rampaging through the first round, eliminating four Society factions without mercy, but when she heard of their prizes, that pride turned to apprehension. Body-growth elixirs and Runic rings, wonderful prizes if she had been there to protect them, but without her rank to shield them, those prizes instead became beacons of danger.
At least Alsantset and Charok had been there. It seemed they had all returned alive, which was most fortunate for the Society. Although their walls were high and well defended, Akanai would have ridden around them without obstacle and burnt their city to the ground as a funeral pyre had they killed any of her people. If the pup had lost his child or grandchildren, he would have brought down the Bridge itself, allowed the Empire to be overrun just to spite those who killed his family. He was not a rational man when it came to family.
A smile broke across her face at her first sight of Mila, and she leaped off to take her in an embrace. Her husband joined them, a family united once more. The lumbering oaf had worn a furrow in the stone paths, pacing about as he waited for news of their precious child. Putting Mila down, Akanai studied her daughter’s face, noting the exhaustion and weight loss. Frowning, she pulled aside Mila’s collar, looking at the ugly scar across her collarbone, raised and ugly, a deep injury healed over.
“Mama, we’re in public.” Little Mila, trying to hide her injuries and her exhaustion, squirming beneath her gaze. Anger and hatred surged within her chest as Akanai fought for control. Setting her daughter aside, she studied the other cadets, noting their appearances. Adujan stood proudly, unarmored, no injuries evident but for the hitch she showed when dismounting, a stomach wound. Huushal’s pretty young face was scarred, his eyes harder than they had been before this trip, no longer fresh and inexperienced, with the bearing of a warrior. Good, good, they had both come out of the fires stronger than before.
Rain looked the worst of all, more gaunt than before, his skin tanned yet still somehow looking unhealthy. Who knows how much healing he had gone through for him to look so drained. Good food and long rest would be needed, but both would be denied to him for now, with the province at war. He stood slouched, holding one of the children in his arms as if a shield before him, looking anxious and scared. Poor child, perhaps the attacks had taken too great a toll on him, broken his mind once again. She would need to find a way to fix him, or he would be no good to anyone. He was not one to thrive in combat, from what she had seen.
Akanai smiled at Alsantset, who looked none the worse for wear despite the arduous journey. “Well done, bringing everyone here safely.” The girl nodded, a slight showing of pride in her eyes, but unwilling to express it.
“We arrived almost 12 hours ago. I take it the guards delayed in messaging you.” Akanai turned to glare at the guards, who quailed beneath her gaze. It would do no good for her to kill these city guards. They only worked for the Magistrate, it was not their fault the office was held by a conniving bitch from an honorless clan. The pettiness of the act made her want to order her troops forward to slaughter Situ Jia Ying, that prim little magistrate, ending her irritating games of half-insults and intrigue.
Putting aside her anger, she turned to her people. “Come, Taduk has chosen a restaurant, where they will be preparing a feast for you all. We shall eat, and hear your stories.” She whispered to Alsantset, “What happened to the boy? He seems diminished, timid. Was he badly injured again?”
Shaking her head, Alsantset gave a small laugh. “He took serious injuries, but that is not why he acts so. He worries you will blame him for all the troubles. You terrify him, and must teach me how.” She shrugged. “Despite his actions and bravery, Rain believes he brought great trouble upon us, and is foolish and arrogant enough to assume all responsibility. Why he feels the need to accept blame for the actions of others, I will never understand.” She spoke loudly enough for the boy to hear, no doubt on purpose.
Akanai laughed, drawing the attentions of all around her. The foolish child. She was quite proud of him, although she would never say it. No need for his head to grow too large, too much praise was how all these arrogant young masters came about. Better that he remain humbled. She moved back to speak to all her cadets. “The contest was well fought, and it was a shame you could not compete further.” She smiled at each of them. “The trial by combat is no matter for you to worry over. I will see you all protected well.” The cadets all smiled at her words, Rain relaxing in his seat, but still hugging the child in his arms, watching Akanai closely. At worst, she would order the Sentinels into the mountains, and remain hidden away for a few decades. They had done it before, and the Emperor would not allow open conflict within the Province.
They arrived at the restaurant shortly, food immediately being placed as they were seated, a multitude of local dishes. Taduk made a fool of himself doting over his daughter and student, near weeping at their return as Akanai sampled the food, seeming bland as the rest of the city. Not to look down upon Taduk’s choice of venue, it was just that with a lack of suitable farming or pasture lands, the majority of food for the city needed to be imported or hunted. The meal consisted mostly of wild game, a few dishes of mutton, steamed tubers, and rice. Nothing as grand as what could be found at home, or even in Shen Huo, Shen Yun was a city that held few luxuries. Were it not for its defensible and central location, Akanai doubted there would be a thriving city here.
Listening to Mila tell the stories of their deeds, Akanai smiled until her cheeks felt strained. To hear her tell it, they had an easy time of it, but Akanai could see the strain it had placed upon her. Even with war upon them, a city razed to the ground with no survivors, people talked and laughed about the contest. Although many spoke of the young heroes from Shen Huo, more often than not, people spoke of the ‘savage’ clansmen who exited early, taking home some of the greatest prizes revealed in decades. The common people loved to hear of a dark horse winning, and tales of unknown youngsters brutalizing their opponents, leaving them battered and unconscious made for great entertainment. She had even heard gleefully whispered stories of the young masters of prominent factions being robbed, but Akanai attributed that to rumors and wishful thinking. Her cadets would not stoop so low. It annoyed her slightly that the only name spoken was Rain’s, the others only mentioned by description. Mila and the others needed to learn how to better dramatize themselves, to announce their names before they fought, and spare a few small fish to spread tales of their glory. A shame indeed.
Her face darkened when they spoke of the chase, the betrayal of trust, the brushes with death. Again, they each downplayed their roles, not a single braggart among them, yet each had come close to death multiple times, and would not likely have survived without the knowledge of Rain and Mei Lin. Nodding to Taduk for teaching his students so well, she made herself a promise. While she lacked the knowledge of how, she would have vengeance for this affront, or she would no longer walk on two feet.
After much cheer and celebration, they finished their meal and returned to their quarters. They had all abstained from alcohol, everyone aware of the dangers surrounding them, and they all left for bed, tired from their harrowing journey. Sitting at her desk, Akanai refocused on the important issues at hand, going through the reports given to her. She had already sent out the majority of her army, keeping a unit of light riders, as well as the majority of her Sentinels. The rest of her forces were stationed close to Shen Huo, gathering supplies for the slow march towards the Flying Tiger Fortress. If the Enemy had many more Garo riders, she would suffer a number of casualties on the way there. They were fast creatures, built for short bursts of speed, capable of picking apart supply lines and scattered infantry at ease. She only had a few units capable of matching them in mobility, the majority of them her Sentinels. 5,000 Sentinels to protect 150,000 soldiers and supply lines, she had a difficult task ahead of her.
After dealing with the camps, it was less than a day when she had received word of attacks on both Shen Mu and Shen Huo, and she had risked everything to save little Hai. While tactically both cities were of equal value, she had still only managed to save one. If it were not for the mishandling of Cho Jin Kai, the troops within the staging area would not have been so hard hit, and she would have had enough soldiers to reinforce both cities. There had barely been enough troops for her to save Shen Huo, and only because of the fortuitous insubordination of Sarnai and Tokta, bringing her Sentinels to war despite the lack of an officer.
Luckily, it had been overlooked by the authorities, and she had petitioned for the authorization to promote her own people to fix such an oversight. She had received a paltry response. 5,000 Sentinels, and she was given two Senior Captain positions, enough to only command 2,000. Maddening. She had immediately promoted Tokta, and would give the other to Alsantset. That would irritate Gerel, to be matched by his chief rival so quickly. It did the young ones good to have competition, something she feared the next few generations would lack if the People were to go into hiding once again.
Sadly, without reinforcements, Shen Mu had fallen. She had visited Shen Mu once before, seen the beautiful forests and unique architecture, with their vibrant fields of flowers and orchards. To read the reports of ruined fields filled with tortured bodies ate away at her, with not a single reported survivor yet to be found. This was their enemy, ruthless and unforgiving, slaughtering the millions sheltered within the city for sport. Her part was not to avenge them, but she would ensure that another city of innocents would not join them. She ached to be a part of the Shen Mu subjugation force, retaking the lands from the Defiled armies, but her request had been denied. She felt responsible for their downfall, having chosen to aid Shen Huo not for tactical reasons, but personal ones. Guilt ate away at her, even though there was nothing she could have done to save both cities.
“Old wife, you’ll give yourself wrinkles frowning like that. Come, the days ahead will be long, we should be off to bed.” Her husband came to her door, a smile upon his handsome face.
“Ai, there is too much to deal with, too much to worry about. You should petition the Marshal for a rank, I need a second-in-command with the authority to actually command. Come, share your wife’s burdens.” The words burst out of her in exasperation, the need for his aid making her irritable. A good man, but too lazy and uncaring of glory. If not for the love of his people and family, he would sit at home all day, drinking and playing chess.
He only chuckled in reply, a deep rumbling sound as he walked off, unconcerned by all their problems. Were she to ask him, he would only say that they should return home. ‘Leave the problems of the Empire for the Emperor to deal with’. The Defiled, the Brigadier Kai, the Society, so many problems piling up, with no immediate action for her to take, nor anyone for her to kill. Most vexing.
Another area of contention. The Society was a dangerous enemy to have, especially since she could not act from the shadows. If it were to come to killing one another in secret, she had the confidence to hurt them so badly it would be decades before they recovered. With a trial by combat, she was forced into the open, and it was foolish to believe the Society had no champions who were her equal. The heavens were large, and who knew how many crouching tigers and hidden dragons their ranks held, skilled warriors hidden from the public eye for just such a situation. This was without mentioning the warriors they commanded that strode about openly, like Colonel General Situ Nian Zu, commander at the Bridge, or even the Marshal, Shing Du Yi. Perhaps before the recent fame of Baatar, Gerel, and herself, the Society would have underestimated them, but now there was almost no chance of that occurring. There was even a risk that the Marshal would send her upon a suicidal mission, and she would have no recourse to refuse.
Sighing in regret, Akanai packed up the remainder of her things, preparing to leave early in the morning. Those problems were distant, to be met when appropriate. For now, they moved towards Shen Huo, then she would retake the fortress, and once they were safe she would appeal to personally hunt down every last Defiled still within the Empire’s borders.
She owed the citizens of the Empire no less, until such a time she believed the Empire to have truly failed her people.
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