“Go Huu, win this quickly!”
“Crush him hubby, we love you!”
The encouraging shouts from Huu’s cheering section is less than helpful as I desperately block attack after attack, my wrist and arm shaking after each blow, my hand almost numb from the impacts. Backpedaling as quickly as I can, I try to slip around his attacks, but his pattern is well-practiced, leaving little for me to exploit, with no other options but to continue blocking, trying to angle my blade to deflect rather than meet them head on, but even then the difference in power is astonishing. With two hands and a great saber with a hilt longer than my entire sword, the number of advantages I hold equal to less than zero. So unfair.
Still, it’s not like my defeat is written in stone. Catching an errant slash with a soft block, I use the impact to leap further away to one side, gaining some distance. Anticipating his reaction, I parry the thrust and step in towards him as he overextends, shoulder checking into him while favoring the tender area of the stump. Staggering him back a single step, my practice sword rings discordantly as I drag it along the edge of his saber to slash across his chest.
An elbow to the side of my head staggers me before I can complete my attack, while a powerful strike knocks the sword from my hand, spinning off into the crowd as Huu’s saber comes to a rest gently on my left shoulder, the edge touching my neck, its weight bearing down upon me. Unable to speak for lack of breath, I signal my defeat and tiredly walk off, wheezing as I watch Sentinels and soldiers exchanging money, more than a little going to Sumila who is acting as my collection agent. It’s not a lot of coin, mostly coppers and silvers, but every little bit counts. I spent almost everything I had on Zabu and Shana and I feel uneasy when I don’t have money. It is what makes the world go around, after all.
Dagen grins as he accepts coins while standing off the side, laughing as he counts each payment. “Boy you did well lasting for 20 exchanges, these fools thought Big Huu was going to knock you out in a single swing. When you next go to a city, I should take you to compete in the prize fighting arenas. With your slight, scrawny frame, it wouldn’t surprise me if you got 1 to 10 odds from the betting houses, we would make a fortune in a single fight!”
He continues to happily count his coins while I crash to the floor, resting in a semi-prone position, my elbow propping me up, wishing I could just lay here and sleep. A soldier meander’s over towards me with one leg and a pair of crutches, grinning wickedly as Sentinels pay him as he passes, dropping coins into his shirt pocket. “That one ain’t wrong, little hero, just make sure you let old Bulat come with.” His heavily scarred face and single clear eye grow maudlin for a moment before he recovers his good cheer. “I’ll be given the boot from the army soon and ain’t no place fer a peg-legged cripple on a farm, I’d just be a burden on me ma. I could live like a king by betting every spare coin on ye, and oh what a sight it would be t’see ye fight in the grand arena, standing among heroes of the ages.”
“Mama – er… Lieutenant General Akanai said she’d take care of any soldiers who are discharged due to injury.” Sumila interjects, but the offer only makes Bulat look irritated.
“Cripple or no, Bulat don’t need no pity to get by. While grateful to the general, live or die, Bulat will make his own way in the world, little missy. You ever head to the arena, you be sure to let old Bulat know, boy.” Chortling as he ambles away, he continues to collect his winnings from those he bet with, a large smile upon his face making him look more terrifying than ever. He’s only 22, a kid just starting his life, but I can sense his feelings of defeat beneath the false, cheery exterior. We met in the healing tents as he recovered and I changed his bandages a few times, exchanging pleasantries each day, but neither his leg nor his scars will be treated, the time and energy of the healers a precious resource not to be squandered. Bulat isn’t the only one either, the same for many other heavily injured soldiers, tossed aside once they are no longer of any use, too prideful to accept Akanai’s help as it would mean the end of their self worth.. It’s a real shame.
Handing me my earnings, Sumila frowns in silent judgment as I count out the meager winnings. She does not approve of my gambling but it’s barely more than a few silvers. Soldiering is not exactly a lucrative career, but I don’t feel too bad about taking their money, they’d just gamble it away on something else. Long-term saving is not high in priority for most of them, as once their term of service is completed, they’ll be paid a handsome bonus, a severance package of sorts, or they’ll be dead or crippled, a fate worse than death. Most jobs aren’t as safe as our current one, sitting around in camp for a few weeks while Akanai cleans up the forest, and even though there aren’t any numbers on just how many soldiers survive to receive that package, I would harbor a guess at around 20%, if not less. I mean, in one major engagement we lost close to 50% of our soldiers, so I’m not too optimistic about their chances of survival in the long-term.
Huu walks by and pulls me up, helping me roughly to my feet with a single hand, letting me lean on him without appearing to. He’s a good guy, but too keen on appearances, trying to help me look strong and proud, but I couldn’t give a fuck. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and I pat him on the arm in thanks, complimenting him on the match. “Good fight, you’re stronger than ever. Kind of depressing.”
“You held me off longer than I’d like, especially since you only have one arm. If I were being honest, even ignoring your missing arm, you look terribly weak, like you’ve been starved for a week. It will be a far more even match when you are in fighting condition, I take no pride in this victory.” Brushing his silver hair aside, he makes a show of wiping his forehead, pretending to have expended effort in beating me, even though he isn’t even breathing hard much less sweating. Like I said, a good guy. His two lovely, blushing brides-to-be approach full of giggles and praise, fawning over him as they bring him away, likely to show him off in a more impressive match. He looks over his shoulder at me apologetically and I wave him off to show there are no hard feelings.
“He’s right, you did well for how ragged you look, I don’t even understand why anyone would even want to watch that match, it was a foregone conclusion.” Sumila falls in beside me as we head towards the cooking fires, our destination before I got sidetracked by the match.
“Well, I wanted to see how strong Huu is now and everyone was clamoring to see the fight. Besides, I might have won if I were just a little faster.” Smiling wryly to myself as I shake my head, I add, “Most of those people handing money to Dagen and Bulat were Sentinels. Seems they all really like and respect Huu, I’m a little envious.” Especially about his two little wives. All I get are scruffy soldiers giving me crooked grins and silent nods. Where are my fawning fans? I hate to admit it, but I really miss Mei Lin, my own personal cheering section along with her favorite helpers, the two adorable twins.
“Idiot. They’d like you just as much if you ever fought alongside them, instead of running off on your own to do who knows what.” Sumila’s light punch to my uninjured shoulder almost knocks me off-balance and she quickly reacts to keep me from falling, holding me close to her, just barely keeping me standing. After a few moments of apologetic silence, she returns to full throttle lecturing. “You shouldn’t take money from the soldiers though, they’re a poor bunch. It’s not like you even need the coin, you can earn far more from your herbalism and apothecary goods.”
“I don’t need another lecture from you. I didn’t force them to bet against me and I’m running low on funds. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not very good with my finances. I just recently spent all my coin on a pair of roosequins and then promptly gave them away for free. ” I did shy away from accepting bets from any of the cripples though, I was confident enough to survive five exchanges.
“That’s another thing, why’d you have to just give them to her? You should have kept them both, saying you would gift them when she returned, then Yan would have to come back for Shana, you idiot.” Shit that’s a good point, which she ruins with a tiny giggle. Ugh, giggling, I am not a fan of it, even if it does make her look adorable, her hands held over her mouth in a girlish gesture. “Although Mama almost had a fit when she watched that old man wave goodbye as he rode off on top of Zabu. You always know just how to upset her.”
Shit. How could that possibly upset her? Is that why she wouldn’t give me a spare quin to ride? What did I even do? Bah, who cares, that woman is insane, she’ll get angry about anything. We soon reach the cooking fires and find Alsantset hard at work preparing dinner for us, while Li Song works beside her, chopping and peeling delicious veggies, mostly tubers. “It’s great that Li Song is willing to be separated from you, even if it is only to make you dinner.”
Crinkling her nose, Sumila remains silent on the matter, a matter of some debate in her eyes. I think she actually likes having Li Song hang around her every minute of every day. After Adujan left a little over ten days ago, Alsantset was freed from her hunting duties and went back to looking after the camp, with Sumila and Li Song as her scribes, leaving me to my scholarly pursuits. The two cat-girls seem to share an unspoken bond, and Alsantset began stealing Li Song away without permission, to help with dinner each night. Most of the time, Li Song slips away when Alsantset’s attention is elsewhere, but that hasn’t happened in two days now.
Much to her disappointment, Sumila found out that Alsantset had ordered Li Song to stay away from Sumila until their work was done, and she was unhappy at what she called an abuse of power. After a few minutes of a quiet stare down, Sumila refrained from bringing up the subject again. I think Alsantset gave her a private lecture, but the details of which remain a mystery to me. They have some conflicting views on how Li Song should be cared for, but they both have her best interests at heart so I decided long ago to steer clear of it all. Besides, Alsantset orders everyone around, so she isn’t treating Li Song any differently, which I think is helpful.
“What happened to you? You were supposed to rest today, to build up your energy for tomorrow, Tokta was clear about that.” Alsantset stops turning the spit to rush over to me, checking my dusty, ragged frame for injuries, a near murderous look on her face.
“I had a friendly little match with Huu, nothing serious, no need to get all moody.”
Frowning at me, she pinches both my cheeks and pulls hard enough that I start to tear up. “Do not speak to me in that tone, it is not my fault you are hurt and beaten. It has been a week Rain, and you still have yet to make much progress on your healing. That is normal and failures will happen, but you must conserve your energy, rest often and eat plenty. Tokta already scolded you once when he found out you were sparring each day, and your body is so thin and malnourished already. Do not force me to keep you in eyesight all day, I have enough on my mind as it is.” Ignoring my eye roll, she returns to the fire and removes the meat, slicing it into five sections and handing me two of them, doling out one each for the rest of them. Similarly, I also receive two portions of rice, vegetables, soup, and fruits, along with a glare that says I better eat it all, or I will be force-fed. She has very expressive glares, my sister.
When dinner is finished, Sumila and Li Song leave to play chess while Alsantset forces me to remain behind to study while she cooks more food, intent on fattening me up for my healing, the last few days having been difficult on my body. My ribs are approaching skeletal status, the taxing regeneration taking its toll on me as it devours my fat reserves and muscle mass. Actually, correction, the regeneration doesn’t take too much out of me, but my repeated failures are quickly becoming too costly. Every time I mess up, a new mound of disgusting flesh and bone forms, growing larger by the second until Tokta manages to chop it off. Thankfully, none of them have been as large as that first, fist-sized, half-kilo monstrosity, Tokta far more attentive in our subsequent sessions.
Still, on a bad day, I can pop out two or three of those meatballs before giving up, and even after so many failures, I have no idea what is going wrong each time. In ten days, I’ve regrown maybe 2cm of my arm, putting me on track to finish growing it in ten months, barring any catastrophic failures. Yes, that’s right, exploding mounds of meat and bone are just normal failures, which has me rethinking my whole mindset of the undying warrior. The pain and stress are almost unbearable; the other day, Alsantset plucked a white hair from my head, sending me into a panicked search for more of them. I’m too young to go salt and pepper, I can’t even grow a proper beard yet.
“Here.” Handing me a large bowl of what appears to be a warm, syrupy, fruit soup, Alsantset towers over me as she takes my book from me. A pointed look from her stops me from trying to get out of drinking this as well, my belly full to the point of discomfort. “Don’t make faces at me, just eat your food. I swear, you’ve been in such a mood lately, ever since little Yan left. If only you had acted sooner and asked me to set up your engagement then this all could have been avoided. It is a good lesson for you to learn, however, to act quickly or lose that which you love.” She gives me a pointed look, as if trying to tell me something.
“I am not grouchy because Adujan left, I’m grouchy because my arm hurts. She’s my friend, and I miss her, but that’s it.”
She continues as if I had never spoken. “When Charok and I were your age, he was always bringing me gifts, small things that showed he cared, writing poetry and playing music for me. His parents continually pestered mine over our engagement, and despite Papa’s best efforts to thwart our love, I managed to wear him down with Mama’s help.” Ha, wear him down, yea right. Baatar told me all about how she threw tantrum after ineffective tantrum until she finally just threatened to run away like a child. I wisely keep my mouth shut and listen to her often repeated stories about her romance with Charok, likely her way of coping with her current circumstances. I miss Charok and the twins too, so I don’t mind listening to these stories.
Evening comes and I find myself crawling into the bedroll early, exhausted from my brief exercise and bloated from drinking almost a litre of fruit soup. I hope I don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to piss, that is never any fun. Looking over at the empty space where Adujan used to sleep, a twinge of pain rushes up my arm and I revel in the memory of her sweet scent as she lay her head on my shoulder, the two of us cuddling together that last night.
I’m still unsure if my feelings for her are real. It’s hard to say, my heart still speeds up every time I pass one of the pretty women who I had imagined a life with, even ones whose names I didn’t know. I don’t want to commit to Adujan only to find out it’s all a lie, that I don’t truly love her. Now, with her gone I guess I have some time to sort out my head and find out if my feelings are real, although there isn’t much I can do about it if they are. That’s life though, better to have love and lost, yadda yadda. I bet she’ll find someone else really quickly, she is a lovely girl and none too shy either. I’m not sure how I feel about that. That’s one of the things I like about her, she’s upfront about her feelings, knows what she likes and is very verbal about it. That, and the shit jokes, I miss them. No one else will engage with me when I bring the topic up.
“Are you pining away for the little deer-girl again?” Not even this asshole. He’ll rave about killing and fighting, but make one distasteful joke and he looks at me like I killed a child. It’s hard to believe we’re the same person sometimes. “ It is times like this where I am glad I cannot hear your thoughts. Just go find the red panda girl and her slave, I’m sure they will take your mind off of things. They sleep together, so deliciously wicked.”
Ignoring him the best I can as he narrates his filthy imagination, I rummage through my pack for my sleeping pills, the pain in my ass that is my other self compounding the pain in my arm. I’ve tried to be sparing in their use but even exhausted as I am, the pain still keeps me awake at night, sometimes causing me to spring awake gasping from an errant bump when I shift in my sleep. I’d rather die in my sleep from an animal attack than wake up five times a night in extreme pain, only to stare at an empty space until drifting back to sleep.
Tomorrow, I get back to healing, slow and steadily until my arm is whole.
Fail and fail again, until I no longer fail.
I wish I were talented, able to do something effortlessly while everyone else tries and fails.
I wonder what that would be like?
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|