Sitting up, Adujan kicked aside her blanket and stretched her legs, poking Rain awake with her foot as she dressed, she pretended not to notice his hidden glances as she pulled up her pants and smiled to herself at his blushing face. It was fun to tease him in this manner, but that was as far as she went, a small bit of revenge for him mistaking her as a man. Besides, if she were to ever sleep with him, she would prefer that he had both arms, not wanting to taint the memory of her first time with the jarring absence of his limb.
It wasn’t even decided that she would marry him, there were many handsome men in the camp that had given her their attentions and she intended to keep her options open, perhaps finding someone she could keep for herself and not share with who knows how many other women. Helping him get dressed and ready, the two of them headed out to the campfires as the morning sun peeked out over the horizon. Mila and Li Song were already seated and eating when they arrived, two hot bowls of rice porridge ready and waiting, Mila as considerate as always.
Adujan inwardly grimaced at how lovely Mila looked, with her slightly mussed hair and ruffled clothes. Song was beautiful, but Mila was simply too adorable, always looking as if she were alive and chipper, a fresh breath of air in a stuffy room with her neck length hair brushed to one side, held in place with a lovely clip, sitting with her back straight and feet to one side. A lovely, charming girl, Adujan envied how nice she looked after just rolling out of bed, a world of difference from Song, who looked as if she spent an hour brushing her straightened hair which hung down her back in a single, neat braid.
In comparison, Adujan had no idea how to properly take care of her hair, with it having grown a little long and starting to look ridiculous, an almost mushroom-shaped bulb atop her head. It was all Rain’s fault that she had to agonize over these stupid things. Before she had met him, she simply hacked her hair short with a knife in front of a mirror, quick and easy, not caring at all how she looked, but now, she worried about her feminine charm. She still wanted her hair short, but no longer wanted to be mistaken for a man, and had thought about makeup and perfumes, or wearing more feminine clothes, but every time she looked at Mila, she felt annoyed at how feminine the girl could look despite wearing the same, standard sentinel clothing.
After Rain left to go shit in the woods, Adujan spoke quietly to Mila. “Could you help me cut my hair? I want to try a different look.”
“Of course! I’d love to help you, Yan.” Mila’s eyes were lit up, her excitement clear and causing Adujan to feel regretful for asking. While Mila was an incredible friend, she was simply too spirited and considerate at times, something Adujan had trouble dealing with. She would have asked Alsantset, but ever since Du Min Gyu had arrived six days ago, the older woman had taken on the responsibility of hunting down the Defiled, the Chief Provost remaining in camp to keep an eye on the aged warrior. “I have to go meet Mama now, but you can just come find me when you have free time. I’ve been so bored these last few days.” Mila rolled her eyes as she once again made her complaints. “That geriatric general just sits there all day, changing incense every thirty minutes, it’s like he’s gone soft in the head.”
“It’s a ritual for the fallen, Mila. I find it very touching for a man of his stature to do something like that.” Adujan had to admit, she was a little awestruck by the old man after seeing his display of power on the first day and his match against the Chief Provost. Rain had missed the entire skirmish, studying in the healers tents and falling asleep early, not even realizing there had been a scuffle until the next morning, but Adujan had been fortunate enough to watch the end of the duel. Ever since, she had practiced and trained with renewed vigor, upset over her loss to the one-armed Rain and enamored by the power displayed by the two supreme warriors.
“Oh, it was heartwarming at first, the doddering old Lieutenant General standing stoically as he gives a touching farewell to the dead, holding the joss sticks until they are burnt to a stub, a sincere sign of respect from a high-ranking officer.” Snorting beneath her breath, Mila continued on her tirade. “Unfortunately, after that, he lit more joss sticks and just sat there, all day, and continues to do so every day since. It’s been six days, and I have no idea how he managed to bring so much incense to burn. My hair and clothes reek of it and I’m almost tearing my hair out having to watch him and Mama play stupid games of dominance, like who can present the better meal, whose chair is taller, who can keep silent longer. It never ends, Mama should have just killed him. I wouldn’t mind never leaving the mountains again, the citizens of the Empire are horrible.”
Shaking her head in surrender, Adujan patted Mila on the shoulder. “I will come find you after lunch, Rain goes to the healer’s tent to study and I usually just meditate.” There was little to do in the camp, and despite her best efforts, she had not been allowed to ride out to and join the hunt for the Defiled. Even Mila had been unable to go, revealing that she had received a scolding from her mother for asking too many times.
Trying to appear casual, Mila asked, “Has there been any, um… change in your meditation?”
Staring at the hesitating Mila, Adujan tried her best to make sense of her curious attitude. Mila had been like this for days now, inquiring as to the state of her cultivation with seemingly off-hand remarks, as if probing for a specific answer. “No change, I still feel… hazy and vague when I wake up.” It was frustrating, but no matter how much she asked, Mila would only feign ignorance, and Alsantset wasn’t any better.
A hint of disappointment flashed across Mila’s face, before being replaced with an enthusiastic smile. “Oh well, there’s nothing to worry about, just relax and things will improve. Come by after lunch and we can chat about how you want your hair done. I think we can make it look very lovely while still keeping your hair short, if that’s what you prefer, maybe a bob-style cut for now. If that’s no good, you could let it grow out in the front for some lovely bangs, or maybe even let it grow long and wear it in a bun like my mama, although you would need someone to help you with that if you don’t have a mirror.”
Smiling awkwardly, she just nodded at Mila’s words, not understanding any of what she had just said. “Sounds… good… I guess.” Thankfully, Mila left it off at that, sprinting away and leaving Adujan feeling apprehensive about it all. She just wanted her hair trimmed a little on the sides so it was no longer a bulging mass. She didn’t want an annoying, obtrusive style that would leave her hair in the way, but there was little that she could do now, setting aside her concerns for later.
After Rain returned, the two of them rode off towards the river to Demonstrate the Forms in seclusion. She always spent some time watching him perform, hoping to glean an Insight from his movements, which lately had been nothing short of incredible, a fluid performance with power and grace, he seemed to be improving in leaps and bounds, but they seemed to be tied with some sickness of his stomach, throwing up two more times in the last few days.
He had also been rather quiet lately, seemingly worried about something, often staring at nothing with a look of concern or confusion, only to smile and shrug when questioned. Today was much of the same, a suitably skilled demonstration of the Forms, followed by a few minutes of standing about, looking as if ready to vomit. It was an odd reaction to practice, but it was getting better. He even had found some herbs that he chewed, to help settle his stomach.
After an hour, as if by some unheard signal they both stopped their practice and faced one another, ready to spar. Unwilling to lose again, Adujan mercilessly attacked, favoring his right side, keeping him off-balance and not allowing him to close in to grapple. Even with one arm, he was too physically strong for her to deal with in close quarters like that, his body surprisingly heavy and tough. It seemed that the repeated beatings that he requested had some effect.
Despite his strengths, within minutes Adujan had beaten him, laying him out on the grass as she stood tall, a few arm lengths away so that he couldn’t reach out and grab her ankle again. She had grown wary of all his tricks and would not allow him to win so long as he only had one arm. That was simply too embarrassing for her to accept.
His roar of frustration caught her off guard, and she stepped back quickly, but he simply continued to lay upon the ground, his arm and legs spread out as he stared up at the sky, breathing heavily. “Are you aright? It’s just sparring, no need for such frustration.” She moved in gingerly, and seeing that it was not a ruse she lay down on her side next to him, her head propped up on her hand so that she could see him pout.
“Ah, I know, I know. I don’t feel ashamed for losing, you’re very strong.” He flashed a small smile at her. “I think you’re getting faster every day, I can barely keep up with you anymore. Even if I had both arms, I’m pretty sure I’d be toyed to death by you. Hit and run, dance and weave, it’s a difficult style for me to match against and will only get more difficult when you add in your shield.”
Warmed by his compliment, she poked him hard in the face, making him look away before he saw her blush. “So what are you screaming about? I know it’s not constipation, you’re out in those woods every morning. I hope you’re shitting off the beaten tracks, I wouldn’t like to break my ankle in one of your crap holes.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “I just don’t feel like I’m improving, despite all my recent… advancements. And then there’s all the studying with Tokta, he still hasn’t let me even try to regrow my arm yet, says my ‘knowledge is lacking’. I’m just frustrated about a lack of progress, I guess.” Finished with his confession, he sprung up onto his feet, retrieving his practice sword. “Again.”
She stood and faced him with her short spear, smiling wryly at him. “You’ve made plenty of progress, I actually have to try now.” A teasing smile as she jabbed lightly at his chest. “In all seriousness, I am amazed by how quickly you learn, especially when focusing on so many things at once. Have some pride and confidence in yourself.” A quick feint and she swung low, sweeping him off of his feet onto his back with a thud. “You are facing the Magnificent Adujan, so of course you feel inadequate. Do not compare yourself to greatness.” She held a hand out to help him up, a triumphant smile on her face. Rain smiled back at her and stood up once more, determined to make her eat her words, just as she expected.
The morning passed quickly and Adujan left early so she could bathe before her haircut, giving Shana a vigorous rub down with several handfuls of Daku leaves to rid her of the fishy musk, smiling as the happy quin squealed and purred in delight at the scrubbing. The cold stream water left her shivering as she dried off, but this was the first time Adujan had asked someone to cut her hair and she worried that Mila would find some dirt, dried blood or worse in her hair. She didn’t have many friends, and she truly cherished Mila. Many of the orphans she had grown up with were unable to become Sentinels and had left the village to become soldiers or roamers, unwilling to live as a burden to the village. It would be years before they returned, if they ever did, and she had felt lonely until Mila had befriended her.
As soon as she arrived at the hilltop where Mila was situated, she was happily greeted and made to turn back and forth to display her hair while Mila made more nonsensical comments about things that could be done. Adujan simply nodded through everything she said, until Mila finally sat her down and began to trim away at her hair with a pair of clippers, the quiet clacking of the blades interspersed among Mila’s quiet, technical nattering.
Hardly able to contain her awe, Adujan stared at the table where the Chief Provost sat nearby, across from the Lieutenant General, the two of them silent in an invisible power struggle while nearby, a slave was Demonstrating the Forms, across from Dagen who did the same, a veritable seminar in the Forms for her to study. She sat there engrossed in watching the two warriors move, attempting to glean Insight from their movements, committing as much as she could to memory for future analysis.
It was over far too soon as tempers between the performers began to flare, their warrior’s pride too great to accept defeat, their noses almost touching as they glared at one another. The Chief Provost and the Lieutenant General continued to sit in silence, with nothing to say. Whispering beneath her breath, she asked Mila, “That was amazing, are all of his guards that strong?” Now if only the two would kiss, that would make for a wonderful show.
Pausing in her ministrations, Mila leaned over to whisper in her ear. “No, that’s the strongest one, I think. He’s Kyung, Song’s half-brother. They have the same mother, an ancestral beast. It’s so sad, their mother is a slave as well, forced to give birth as often as possible only to have her children sold off as slaves. It’s horrendous.”
Adujan glanced at Song and noted the lack of emotion on her face, although her ears did droop at the mention of her origins. Reaching out, Adujan patted her on the shoulder in sympathy, before studying Kyung. “He’s very handsome, your half-brother.” A strong jaw line, prominent nose, and piercing brown eyes, with broad shoulders that tapered down to a narrow waist, he caught her staring and glared fiercely in return, to which she responded with a bite of her lip and a suggestive smile. Disappointingly, it had no effect, but she was limited in what else she could do at the moment, seated and still.
As usual, Song remained silent but Mila spoke up for her, still snipping away in small, careful cuts. “He’s old though, at least 60 according to Song. They’ve never held a conversation either, it’s disgraceful how poorly those slaves are treated. That old man is always deriding them when he speaks to them,calling them ‘idiot half-beasts’, ‘worthless slaves’ and ‘mongrels’, it’s enough to make me want to put an arrow through his eye.”
“It would be better for you to aim for my chest, child.” Despite their hushed whispering, Du Min Gyu seemed to have heard them and Adujan felt her face heat up in embarrassment, while Mila froze mid cut. “A bigger target, and you can fire while my back is turned. You wouldn’t hit me otherwise, and if you miss the heart, an arrow through the lung is almost as good.”
Pointing her scissors at him, it seemed Mila was ready to explode into a rant, but after a short pause, her mouth shut with an audible click, likely due to an unheard warning from the Chief Provost. Adujan sat stock still as Mila angrily snipped away at her hair, the metal blades loudly clanging against one another only centimeters away from her ears, using every bit of resolve she had to keep from flinching, but Mila’s temper quickly cooled and soon, she was once again whispering about silly, girlish things.
“So, why the sudden interest in making your hair look nicer? Does it have something to do with all the private time that you’re spending with Rain?” An impish grin from Mila set her cheeks on fire. “Staying in his tent, running off to the riverside to ‘practice’ with just the two of you…”
“Nothing of the sort!” She blurted out the words, louder than intended, and immediately lowered her voice. “Nothing has happened, he is asleep when I retire for bed, and all we do is spar and meditate at the river. I know that at the very least, the little Lady Lin intends to marry him, and you have some intention as well. I would not step in front of either of you, I swear.”
“Oh Yan.” Mila’s hands took her own as she crouched in front to look in her eyes. “Have you been worried about your standing? Lin doesn’t care about things like that, and I’m not even sure if I want to marry him. He’s so lecherous, who knows how many wives he intends to take. Do as you please, you won’t upset anyone.” She returned to cutting hair, before adding, “Besides, I think that of the three of us, you are the closest to his heart. He truly sees Lin as a sister, and he only looks at me because of a dream.”
Adujan smiled, a weight lifting off her shoulders. “I think I’m just his good friend, he treats me no differently than Huu or Fung. I honestly don’t know what I want either. He’s handsome enough, but there are so many other options, how am I to know?” She eyed the slave named Kyung once again. How much would he cost? She liked the strong, silent, servile type and he was definitely all of those.
After a bit more cutting, Mila finally exclaimed that she had finished and held up a small, copper mirror for Adujan to admire herself in. Her hair was still short, but a little longer in the front, dainty and light with a hint of girlish charm. Running her fingers through it, she smiled in appreciation, standing to lift Mila into a hug. “Thank you, Mila, I love it.” See how she likes being twirled around.
Unfortunately, she seemed to love being hugged like that, breaking out into a fit of giggles as she leaned into the embrace. “Anytime Yan. I still think you should let it grow out a little, and I have an unction from Rain you can rub into your hair for a brighter shine and softer feel.” Adujan’s eyes began to glaze over as Mila continued to outline several hair care steps that she should follow, lost in the complexity of feminine care. It was too bothersome, with these unctions and lotions, perfumes and makeup, how did Mila ever have time to do all of these things? She continued to absently nod as she tried to follow along, but Mila spoke too quickly and most of it was lost.
As soon as an audible pause was reached, Adujan quickly interjected, claiming the need to cultivate, afraid that if she allowed Mila to continue she would talk all day. Even then, Mila insisted that Adujan meditate next to her, and Adujan caved in to her demand, seating herself on the grass a short distance away from the incense burner.
Closing her eyes, she cleared her mind as she always did, by picturing a blank canvas with a tiny black dot, and very slowly focusing in on that dot, her field of vision encompassed by the darkness. Then, within the darkness, was a tiny dot of white, and she focused upon that, slowly drawing in once again until all was white. She repeated the process until her mind was calm and tranquil, and she reached for Balance.
The Energy of the Heavens began to slowly surround her, a vortex with her in the center. It reminded her of looking at Du Min Gyu, standing tall and proud, a single man surrounded by an army, yet still arrogant enough to threaten them all with death, a powerful, imposing figure as the wind swirled around him, moving so quickly it seemed as if there were five static trails of dirt, frozen in place around him.
Focusing upon that thought, she tried to mimic that scene with her cultivation, to draw in the Heavenly Energy to herself with her core as the center. The violent whirlwind circled around her, raging around her without truly touching her. It broke apart as it circulated around her again and again, until finally, a gentle breeze slipped past her invisible defenses and it surged into the void that was her core, more pure and powerful than anything she had ever felt, filling her with elation. Everything she did was as if on instinct, the knowledge buried deep within in her, and she dedicated herself to remembering this feeling, to learning to replicate it. Is this what she kept forgetting? No wonder that she felt so unfulfilled when she woke, this was incredible!
She luxuriated as she sat in place, feeling the warm gentle breeze try to take her away, but she stayed rooted in place, despite the temptation to allow it to bring her out into the tempest. The wind seemed to whisper to her, and she strained her ears to listen, but there were no words, only emotions, and she sat in place, feeling safe and content, a willow tree, bending in the wind, neither accepting nor surrendering, rooted to herself as she was kept safe in the arms of the Mother.
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