Whistling a happy tune, I go about my business for the day, setting up the play mat and dice in my secluded little clearing, preparing for my merry band of disabled students. The wine is cooling in the river, a number of meat skewers ready to be grilled over a small fire, and plenty of bowls for everyone to drink from. With all of this, and the added touch of a screen of leaves to better hide us, should anyone come upon us unannounced, it will look like a gathering of unsavory drunks and degenerates, here to gamble and drink away the day.
All according to plan.
Resisting the urge to laugh ominously, I continue making sure everything is in place for my secret meeting, nervous and excited about my subterfuge. Hidden away from plain sight are a selection of tourniquets, bandages, unguents, and irons, all things that I will need if things go south. Also scattered about are a few more eclectic items that may come in handy, like a sharpened spoon. That’s for Ravil, in case shit goes bad with his eyes. Shuddering at the thought, I mentally go over my checklist once more, ending with a small prayer to the Mother, asking for smooth roads ahead. This will be the first time we meet, as I spent the last three days making preparations while hiding everything from Tokta and Akanai.
Practicing the Forms while I wait, my handicapped friends arrive in ones and twos over the next hour, leaving the camp separately so as not to arouse suspicion, a precautionary measure I insisted on that earned me a few odd looks. I don’t mind, all they’re risking is the growth of some super tumors, I’m the one taking the real risk: disobeying Akanai. You can never be too careful when it comes to Akanai’s instincts; her ability to sniff out guilt or wrongdoings is just short of supernatural. I don’t even understand why she wants everything to be kept secret, something like this is world changing and should be shared with everyone who will listen. It can change the quality of life for so many, what with this world being filled to the brim with danger.
Once all of my participants arrive, I clear my throat to capture their attention, smiling as they quiet down immediately and gather around the dicing chart, their attention fully focused on me. I wouldn’t say that I like to be at the center of attention, but being in charge is kind of nice. “Welcome, I’m glad to see you all here.” Their demeanor has changed a little, most of them better dressed and cleaner, Rustram’s hair having been washed for what may very well be the first time in weeks, Ravil’s eye bandages changed for fresh ones, little things like that. Even Bulat cleaned himself up and trimmed his beard, looking scruffy yet handsome, despite all the jagged scars on his face. No homo. It’s amazing what a little hope can do to a person, and I just hope that I don’t fuck this up.
“I want to take this time to remind everyone of the risks before we begin.” I already went over them a few days ago, but they need to hear it again. “If something goes wrong, I may have to dismember you, and keep in mind: I’m right-handed.” Waving my stump around earns me a few nervous chuckles, and I wait for quiet before I continue. “If everything is done correctly, and that’s a big if, then you have nothing to worry about, but you know what they say, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”
“Get on with it, little hero. We know the risks you were very clear about them. If things go awry, then you just cut old Bulat’s throat, no need hesitate or mourn. Me Ma will at least get some blood money if I die in the field.”
“Yea… In that scenario, I would face the penalty for murdering a soldier, which is death, so … Let’s try to avoid that. Besides, killing you would defeat the purpose of everything I’m doing here.” Fucking fatalism, it’s just a missing leg. Sure it sucks, but things could be worse. “Moving on, even if nothing goes wrong, I cannot guarantee success. All I can do is teach, and the rest is up to you. Bear in mind once again, you seven will be my first students… ever. So, trial and error, and all that.” Test-subjects just doesn’t have the same amiable ring to it.
There is the tiny matter in which Tokta has been unable to replicate my success, despite his constant barrage of questions and invasive monitoring during my healing process. If I can’t teach a top-tier healer how to do it, what chance do I have with these guys? I spent the past few nights going over details of this venture and I came to the conclusion that I have no idea what I’m doing.
With that in mind, I opted for full disclosure about my ineptitude, and began showing off the implements and what they should do if things go wrong. I figured that would scare them away, but even after seeing all of my extensive preparations and listening to my worst case scenario’s, not a single one of them stood to leave. Most were a little pale and frightened, but the possibility of regenerating their injuries without too much cost is simply too tempting to pass over. Once again, it crosses my mind that I may have made a terrible mistake, but I’ve already gotten their hopes up. Stupid drunk me and my stupid mouth making stupid promises.
While going over yet another worst-case scenario, Bulat waves me off, cutting in. “Little hero, we understand, you have made many efforts to save us should things go wrong, but I said it before, if the worst should happen simply cut our throats and be done with it. The others will help you hide the evidence, even lying for you should that be required. We all spoke of it before coming here, there is only death or triumph ahead of us.” The other six all nod and reiterate what Bulat says, a few even smiling at me as they do so.
It astounds me that their dismissal from the army is a forgone conclusion without room for appeal. Bulat grew up in the slums of Shen Huo, joined the army when he was sixteen, two years of training and four years of service in and around the city, fighting bandits and beasts. He fought on the wall during the invasion, survived a night attack while under the command of Kai and the slaughter of the Demon that spawned from Vivek Daatei. All of that, and the loss of a single leg is enough to have him thrown him away without care. The others have differing backgrounds, but all of them enlisted young, served in the war, and were now fated for dismissal and worse unless I can help them. No pressure.
The worst thing about this all is that no one finds anything wrong with any of this, leaving these soldiers without aid. No pension, no extra pay, just given their dismissal papers, each and every one of them know and accept this as their fate, blaming nothing but their own weakness. No wonder they risk death, because to them, death is only slightly worse than the alternative.
“Alright.” Looking at them each in turn, I see the determination and resolve each of them have, hoping to rise up once again and regain their strength. “Let’s get started then. So, what do you all know of healing?” Seeing their blank expressions, I power through, telling myself that I am helping, that this is a good deed and worth the effort. “Okay, let’s start with the basics. When you are injured, what do you see?”
A pause occurs while a round of shoulder shrugging and beard scratching takes place, and Rustram tentatively answers, “Blood?”
This is going to be more difficult than I thought. Thinking back to my training with Taduk, I begin teaching them a few basic inner examination exercises, mentally revising my plans as I go along. It seems like the education in the cities is worse than I thought, but I guess with even the children working hard to help support their families, there’s no time to learn frivolous things like how to read and write, or check your body for illness. Cultivation is a rich man’s game and I’m only just beginning to appreciate how hard the village works to allow every child to receive both the education and the nutrients required to become a warrior. Even if every child doesn’t make it, at the very least everyone is given a chance.
For this specific scenario, their lack of knowledge actually makes them a good test group. This way, I can control just how much knowledge they have, and expand upon what they know slowly, limiting the information they receive. No need to worry that someone will leap ahead and try something stupid while I’m not around, and the best part is, I don’t think my method of healing will need much more than basic skills in healing. All that’s needed is to learn how to encourage the creation of the panacea, and their bodies will take care of the rest. I can hear my pitch now: ‘Learn my revolutionary, one-step process to fix all your injuries, available now at your local apothacary. Act now, before it’s too late!’
Smiling to myself as I watch my first and only students settle down to meditate, I take solace in the fact that I’m doing the right thing, as well as the fact that I have yet to actually break my promise to Akanai. The details of my healing technique haven’t been discussed, only that I can teach them how to regenerate, so even if word spreads today, I can just wholly deny having disobeyed Akanai. I don’t think that would stop her from stringing me up by my heels, but at least I can feel morally superior while she does it.
Gotta look at the bright side every now and then. Optimism.
Carefully contemplating her next move, Song struggled as she stared at the chess pieces, deliberating on how to proceed. If Master were playing in her place, she would sacrifice her chaplain to take the skirmisher, then move the archer into place to threaten the Monarch. It was a superb move that would grant her control over the middle of the board, but it would cost her the chaplain and a Soldier, and she was loath to lose them. All of the pieces were hers, a gift from Master, the only things she had ever been given besides her saber and it would be disrespectful to lose them so easily.
Choosing to save her chaplain instead, she sat back and stealthily snuck a look at Master, who sat off to the side chatting away with the two sisters. Both bears, they bore a striking resemblance to one another and even after many days in their company, she was unable to tell them apart by sight or sound. Their voices grated on her, but Master seemed to enjoy their company, leaving Song to play chess with Huushal. The large wolf annoyed her as well, with his oafish mannerisms and disregard of the rules, she wondered why Master wanted her to play with him.
As if he could read her mind, Huushal moved his skirmisher in an illegal move, crossing through a soldier to take her lancer and she silently mourned as it left her side to sit next to her two soldiers, earlier conquests of his. That lancer should have been safe, the path blocked by the soldier, but Huushal merely smiled his idiot grin, nodding in his clumsy way as he cheated without remorse. “You didn’t see that coming, did you? Don’t worry, I’m no good at this game either, too much thinking.” Some men liked to mock and belittle but she was used to worse treatment, accepting his words without complaint. She had learned early on that if she displayed no reaction, her tormentors were quicker to leave her alone.
Checking Master’s reaction once again, she thanked the Mother that Master was not upset, chatting nicely with one of the sisters. Yesui she thought, or perhaps it was Yosai, it was impossible to tell. Needing to think over all her moves once again, Song listened to their conversation as she tried to save as many pieces as she could.
“… so we were thinking of having the ceremony in the grove by our village, the trees are a rich viridian hue in the summer almost shining. You must come to the wedding Miss Sumila, Papa and Mama would be so thrilled to have you there, and they would be honored if the Chief Provost and the Divine Blacksmith came as well.”
“I would be delighted to attend, but I cannot speak for my parents. The Mother only knows how busy they both are, but I will mention it to them.”
“Oh, but listen to me go on about myself, what of your wedding? I hear you were betrothed to Rain, that’s so… nice. It’s a shame he’s so unruly, I heard he fought with a cook in the soldier’s camp, demanding more rations, quite shameful. Both greedy and ill-tempered, that one, I wager that you will be able to rein him in with little trouble, Miss Sumila.”
“I am quite happy with my betrothal to Rain.” Master’s tone seemed a little curt, implying that Yesui (Yosai?) was overstepping her bounds, a magnificent performance. Even as mismatched as they were, Master gave face to Rain, not disparaging him in public, even defending him now. “He is a very kind person, and the thought of having my best friend Mei Lin as my sister-wife fills me with joy.”
A fire burned in the pit of Song’s stomach, wanting nothing more than to cut the savage runt’s throat open. Master was so lovely and sweet, heroic and kind, how dare that ruffian covet her. How he had managed to trick the General into betrothing Master to him was bewildering, the only explanation she could come up with was that he sold his new medical discovery to the General for her daughter, a sad state of affairs for Master, but she put up a cheery appearance with no outward signs of distress.
“Of course, Rain will make a wonderful husband Miss Sumila.” The other sister spoke up to smooth things over, likely sensing her sister had erred. “His healing skills are the talk of the camp, everyone has noticed how quickly his arm grows and even now he’s hard at work regenerating. All Huu ever does is follow us around, the big sweetie unable to ever get any training done.”
That was not correct, today was Rain’s day of rest, and Song had been prepared to fight off his lecherous advances, to be a shield for Master should it be required, but he had not shown himself since breakfast. As soon as she had learned of her Master’s fate, Song had silently sworn to protect her from Rain’s lecherous ways, even if it meant sacrificing herself. She would gladly suffer Rain’s perverted attentions to keep him away from Master, she was good to Song and if she could protect Master even a little, then she would be content, having served her purpose.
It was telling of his character, how he acted since becoming betrothed to Master, no longer taking action to court her and only exchanging polite pleasantries at meals. It seemed that in his mind, he already owned Master and no longer needed to exert efforts to woo her, a fiendish scoundrel. Master only needed to say the word and Song would cut him to pieces, hiding the evidence of their wrongdoing. She was even willing to admit to killing him if that was what Master required to be free. Song would be forever shackled, but Master was still unrestricted, and Song would do everything in her meager power to keep it that way.
Her eyes lit up as she considered the board carefully, almost shaking in excitement as she moved her skirmisher into place. “Check.” Eagerly waiting for Huushal’s move, she made her next two moves quickly, herding his Monarch into place before her archer leaped forward to win her the game. “Checkmate?” Turning to look at Master, she cocked her head inquisitively, unsure if she had done well.
“Congratulations Song!” Master seemed thrilled, clasping Song’s hand in both of hers, the warmth of her skin spreading through Song’s body and filling her with joy. “Your first victory, how exciting! We should celebrate, I’m sure Alsantset will be happy to hear the news.” Quickly saying their goodbyes, Song followed Master away, the two of them hand in hand, escaping from the affectionate trio with a bit too much haste to be properly polite. Once out of sight, Master began to stomp and mutter, her anger plain but the reason unknown. Worried that she had not been supposed to win, Song readied herself to beg at Master’s feet for mercy, watching carefully for any hint of her error.
“The nerve of them looking down on Rain, he’s every bit as good as Huu, if not better.” Surprised, Song almost stumbled as they continued forward, heading towards the clearing where Rain spent most of his time. It seemed that Master was upset about Rain, venting her frustrations about the accuracy of the comments. “Rain is studious and hardworking, with a lucrative career and exceptional skill. Maybe he has a bit of a temper, but who does Yesui think she is? As if she were in any position to judge others, she only met Huu for a week before jumping into bed with him, so indecent. At least Rain has been gentlemanly enough, leaving Yan unmolested despite sharing a tent for so long.”
Unable to help herself, Song uttered in disbelief, “Master is happy to be betrothed to Rain?”
Caught by surprise, Master looked at her for a moment before breaking into a grin, linking arms with Song so they could be closer. “Winning at chess and asking questions, today is a day of firsts for you, Song. We really need to celebrate now.” Pausing to consider the question, she tilted her head to rest on Song’s shoulder, a familiar gesture that Song rather enjoyed. “Hmm… I guess I should say that I don’t mind being betrothed to him. He is rather outstanding, suitably handsome, very sweet with children, and hardworking as well. For now, I’ve not met anyone better.” Poor Master, she was under the spell of that fiendish man, to think that there was no one better. As wonderful as she was, Master was young and naive, easily fooled. Song would have to watch for his tricks, perhaps show Master how he was fooling her.
While Song thought long and hard on how to expose Rain, Master continued to converse, seeming happy to vent her feelings. “I don’t think I’m in love with him, but he does make my heart flutter at times, like when I was injured by the Society. He was so sweet and caring while he tended to my injuries, I could see it in his eyes that I meant something to him. Then when he called me love and said I was beautiful, that set my pulse racing, but that shouldn’t count, it was just a dream. I like that he’s very casual, not caring about who my parents are and able to relax around me, unlike everyone else. If I hear ‘Miss Sumila’ one more time, I might just tear my hair out.”
Sighing deeply, Master slumped heavily on Song and she struggled to hold up Master’s deceptively heavy frame. “I just don’t understand Rain at all. I told him at breakfast that I would be free for lunch, but he just smiled his stupid smile and said ‘That’s nice’, lost in his own thoughts. It’s like he doesn’t want to spend time with me, but if that’s the case, why not just refuse the betrothal? If things are already like this now, won’t I just be starved for affection after he marries Lin and Yan?” Thankfully, Master straightened up before Song collapsed under her weight, once again skipping along happily, their arms intertwined. “Maybe he just lost track of time while meditating. We’ll quickly check in on him, and then we can go find some sweets to celebrate, okay?”
As they approached Rain’s clearing, she heard a series of panicked whispers followed quickly by the sounds of people shuffling about and dice rattling. They pushed past a flimsy barrier of leaves and saw the reason for Rain’s absence, a number of soldiers strewn about as they diced, Rain sitting in the dealer’s position. “Er… Hi. Hello.” His nervousness was clear as he coughed, awkwardly smiling at Master. “Didn’t expect you to show up, guess you caught me gambling.”
By now, Master was frowning, likely upset that her betrothed had ignored her invitation to lunch to gamble with a group of disabled soldiers, but something seemed off to Song. As Master began to lecture Rain on his vices, Song looked about the area, studying each soldier carefully, not a single one willing to make eye contact. They were hiding something, letting Rain distract Master with apologies and promises while they sat silent, trying not to draw attention to themselves.
Realization struck her like a hammer, and she turned to Master, waiting for a pause in their conversation as she gathered her courage. Once Master had finished extolling the immorality of gambling, Song carefully uttered, “Master, this lowly slave believes that Rain is deceiving you, that he was not truly gambling.”
“What do you mean?” Master’s look of confusion made her worry, but Rain’s look of panic hardened her resolve. “There are soldiers, a mat, dice…” her eyes narrowed as she noticed what Song had seen, turning slowly to Rain with an accusing glare. “… If you are dicing, then where are all the coins?”
While Rain stammered and stalled for an answer, Song idly caressed her saber hilt, imagining a future in which Master ordered her to kill Rain and dispose of his body, burning it to cinders before spreading the ashes, removing the scoundrel from their lives forever, the most favorable outcome she could imagine. Unlikely, as Master was far too kind, but at least she would now be more guarded in her dealings with him, her eyes opened to his false words.
Scratching at his neck, Rain looked away shamefully, avoiding eye contact with Master while looking at the soldiers, who mirrored his actions and looked away, none of them willing to speak. Master was patient, waiting in silence, the sounds of her dainty breaths growing heavy as her temper began to flare, Rain silent the entire time, until finally, he capitulated to Master’s unyielding gaze. “Okay look, don’t get angry, but I … I was going to teach them how to regrow their limbs with my method. I mean, worst-case scenario, they fail and everything stays the same, no big deal right?”
Carefully watching the crippled soldiers and Master’s reaction, Song inwardly delighted at the turn of events. Rain was truly arrogant, willingly and deliberately disobeying a direct order from the General while thinking no harm would come to him. Gripping her saber, she prepared to draw her weapon as soon as Master ordered it, taking him into custody to be tried. Perhaps Song’s dream would come true after all.
One could only hope.
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