Sitting quietly, Song eyed the last few dumplings while doing her best not to appear greedy. The Lieutenant General had reprimanded her lightly the other day and Song had no intentions of defiance, but the food was so delicious, unlike anything she had ever tasted before. Sitting between Master and Song, the Lady Mei Lin used her chopsticks to grab a dumpling and placed it onto Song’s plate. “There you go Li-Li. You don’t need to be shy, just eat. It’s delicious, ya?”
Song’s hand twitched, wanting nothing more than to pick up her own chopsticks, but this could have been a test. “Yes Lady Mei Lin, delicious.” Her response had been meant to buy time to deliberate, but it immediately earned her a poke to the cheek, the Lady’s gesture of recrimination.
“Li-Li, you’re supposed to call me Lin-Lin, remember? Don’t be scared, I’m not mad, it just sounds so stuffy when you call me ‘Lady Mei Lin’, it’s no good.”
Unable to resist any longer, Song quickly dipped the soup-filled dumpling in her spicy sauce and vinegar, placing the entire thing in her mouth, delighting in the heat and taste. Too wonderful, Master treated her worthless slave far too well, and Song was helpless to do anything but enjoy it. She would do anything to continue eating this well, even delighted by the quality of food while in the field, and if she were forced to return to the bland, tasteless slop from before, she would know true despair.
Realizing that she had forgotten to answer, she stared at the Lady Mei Lin’s hands while absently trying to recall their conversation. Dressed in a beautiful blue-silk dress with a slight trim of white fur, as well as a scarf about her shoulders and a second to cover her head, little holes sewn in for her ears to poke out of, the Lady Mei Lin looked every bit the part of a noble. Her memory jogged by that thought, Song quickly shook her head while she tried to bow in her seat, the General blocking her from standing to kneel. “This lowly slave does not dare, the Lady Mei Lin is too far above this one’s station, and to call you as Master does would be disrespectful. Please punish this slave for her insolence.”
A firm hand lifted her back up, and Song was drawn into the Lieutenant General’s embrace, a single arm on her shoulder. “Enough, my daughter has coddled you long enough silly child. When will you learn? Your are a Khishig and as such, you are not to bow so easily, it reflects poorly on me, so sit up and stop calling everyone by title, especially my daughter. She has a lovely name and already too much confidence in herself, no need to further inflate that by calling her Master.” Another dumpling made its way onto Song’s plate, this time placed by the General. “Eat, you are nothing but bones, you need to eat more before you end up like that foolish boy, without enough nourishment for his brain.”
Grasping the dumpling with her chopsticks, Song enjoyed it in the silence that followed the Lieutenant General’s comment, savoring the fragrant soup-filled treat, her eyes closing in delight as she parsed through the various flavors. Eyeing the last dumpling on the table, she gingerly extended her arm and slowly grasped it, looking about the table at everyone’s expressions. Master and Lady Mei Lin looked quiet and subdued in contrast to the smug demeanor of the Lieutenant General, slightly tinged with redness from the wine, while Ser Taduk was red-faced as well, not from drink, but anger, directed at the General.
Seeing that no one was stopping her, the last dumpling quickly made its way into Songs mouth and she chewed carefully while watching for any indication of error. Once she had finished swallowing, the Lieutenant General patted her lovingly on the head, almost eliciting a purr from Song, but that had horrified Master early on and she had refrained from repeating that mistake. Old master had enjoyed her purring, oddly enough. After the petting came to an end, the General turned to Ser Taduk, speaking plainly. “Well, let me hear it, you’ve had a stick up your ass all day.”
“Hmph. The boy fights, and from what you say he fights well, supports you and Dagen in defeating a powerful Demon, suffers tremendously from the backlash and yet still manages to begin learning how to regenerate from that half-wit healer, Tokta. These things alone are enough to laud him endlessly.” Ser Taduk’s ears quivered as he spoke, his tone haughty yet hushed to keep from being heard, despite their private balcony room at the restaurant. “As if that were not enough, his discovery, his altruistic aspirations, his increase in strength, his success in teaching, all of which is nothing short of incredible, but all you can do is disparage and punish him. It astounds me how critical you are of the boy, and I for one do not approve. When I see the boy, I will urge him to leave the Sentinels, for it is obvious you do not appreciate him.”
The Lieutenant Generally laughed mockingly while Song reached for the noodles, piling them into her bowl. Freshly made, hand-pulled and stir fried, they were not as good as the dumplings, but it was close, and she vigorously slurped them down. “And what would you have me do? I overlooked his disobedience, allowing him to fight where he chose as if he were a vaunted hero and not a raw recruit. I betrothed him to my only daughter, despite my reservations, inviting him into my family as a son. I spared him the lash when he willfully ignored a direct order, an error that could have lead to calamity for all of us!” The General’s voice was a powerful whisper, full of anger and indignation, something that Song agreed with. It would have been better to simply execute Rain, but he was too well-connected, the General’s hands tied, something Song had seen many times before. How often had that lecher Jin Tok gotten away with things because of Old Master’s influence? “What else would you have me do? Reward his insubordination? If you had properly taught the boy common sense, none of this would be an issue.” Her voice turned soft and sweet as she patted Song once again. “Child, eat slowly and quietly, no one will take the food away until you are satisfied.”
Slapping the table loudly, Ser Taduk pointed at the General, quivering in anger. “Well, I had no intentions of bringing it up, but you have spoken and I must retort.” His ire raised, Ser Taduk continued his tirade over the muted protests of Lady Mei Lin. “How dare you betroth your daughter to my student, knowing full well I intended to have him betrothed to my precious Lin-Lin?”
“First come, first served. Your empty words have been spoken for years, yet no actions have been taken.” Ignoring her daughter’s sour look, the General continued, pointing at Master. “And I am sorry to say, but the boy seems happy enough betrothed to little Mila, I have not heard a single word of complaint unlike his steadfast refusals when the topic of marriage to Mei Lin is brought up.”
“Of course he makes no complaint, he is already terrified of you while still craving your approval, how can he reject your daughter, especially when he has already angered you so? I’ll have you know, I delayed my offer of betrothal because the boy has repeatedly mentioned that he is not yet ready for marriage, and I am respectful of his wishes, unlike some other people.”
“Daddy, stop! It’s fine, Rainy can marry whoever he wants, and I’m happy for Mi-Mi.” Lady Mei Lin’s tiny sniffles stole all credibility from her statement, and Master quickly consoled her, putting an arm around her. “He told me plenty of times he wasn’t going to marry me, I was just being silly, he probably wouldn’t have even written to me if I didn’t make him promise. They come like clockwork, one every two weeks, all titled ‘To Mei Lin’. It’s obvious he’s just humoring me.” Why both of these women thought so highly of Rain was a mystery to Song, and she hoped to be able to show them the truth of that scoundrel soon, freeing them from his lies and deceit.
Silence descended upon them once again as Song reached for the fried fish, no longer fearful of being punished for eating. The others seemed to have eaten their fill, so perhaps it was simple unwillingness to waste food, allowing the slave to eat as well. Biting into the crunchy, delightful fish, she ate with a relish, swallowing the bones gingerly, unwilling to waste any of the delicious meal. The silence continued as she ate happily, until a small knock on the door interrupted her happiness, a servant coming in with a message. “Master Taduk, it seems that young master Rain delayed at the checkpoint. The guards were unwilling to let him pass into the Fountain District as he was, quote ‘dressed like a beggar and in the company of cripples’. Shall I go collect him?”
Sighing deeply, the General stood from the table, ready to leave. “No, we should all go collect him together, I’m sure he’s ready for a friendly face. I didn’t think it would take this long for the disabled soldiers to be processed.” Her attention turned to Song’s mournful look of disbelief, and almost panicking, Song quickly returned to her normal, subservient expression, looking down and praying that the General would not take offense. A warm hand landed atop her head, with a soft caress of her ears. “Ah sorry girl. Mm, just pack everything onto one of the larger plates and take it with you, we can return the dish later.”
Standing quietly off to the side, I do my best to keep my temper in check, telling myself I shouldn’t be rude to the guards no matter how frustrated and angry I may be. It’s not their fault, I do look suspiciously haggard, along with all of my disabled followers, but it still stings to be considered a beggar and dismissed out of hand. If only I carried that stupid necklace token that the Magistrate gave me, but wearing jewelry isn’t my thing. I can barely tolerate wearing the thumb ring, and that’s only because it serves a purpose.
Rumbling loudly, my stomach decides that now is the time for an audible protest, having missed lunch and dinner, spending almost seven hours being processed and taking care of my business. Behind me, I can hear the muffled giggles of the soldiers – no, I guess they’re just disabled warriors now, my face heating up while I stand stoically, trying to pretend nothing is out of the ordinary. Things wouldn’t be so bad if I just carried my own things, but without pockets or a quin harness, that gets bothersome.
The only ones I know by name are Pran and Saluk, the other 8 being demi-humans I have yet to interact with. Sadly, it seems almost none of the demi-humans have a home to return to despite having grown up in Shen Huo, orphans and street urchins the lot of them, while all the human warriors went back to their families. I promised these guys and girls a hot meal at minimum, but I can tell that they are losing faith in my ability to deliver. I had to almost beg the guards to send a messenger to Taduk’s villa, and that cost me the promise of a gold coin for each of them when Taduk arrives. I guess they figured there was no harm in trying, but it’s been almost 15 minutes with no reply.
Saluk approaches my side, looking back at the other warriors ruefully, leave me to guess that he drew the short straw. “Er, Rain, we been talking and there no need to keep waiting here. This here Fountain District, the guards no let us in, not in hundred years. You come with us, we go find food. Together. Saluk still have some coin, he treat, yes?”
“Thank you for the offer, but let’s just wait until the messenger returns, I’m positive they will let us in, my teacher won’t keep us waiting.” I give him a tense smile, my good cheer all spent, too bone weary to do more. This day has been a shitty part of a shitty week, which was off the end of a shitty month, so things haven’t been great. I just want to take a hot bath, eat a hot meal, hug the twins and fall asleep in a bed. Okay, that’s a lot of things, but still.
I hear them before I see them, the familiar click and pat of the roosequin’s gait causing me to perk right up, craning my neck to see over the arch of the bridge, fighting the urge to jump and wave. They come into sight and my body starts shivering in excitement, my eyes drawn to the rickshaw where Taduk and Mei Lin sit. Her hair is covered with a veil, her ears standing straight up now, no longer any droop or fold in them, and a smile breaks out across my face. I guess the ears do straighten out as she ages, but I kind of miss the floppy hare ears and playing with them while she sat and listened to stories. That sweet little child has grown up now, looking lovely in her dress and scarf, but less excited to see me than I expected.
The old Lin would have bounced in her seat, waving wildly as if I had not already noticed her, but now, she sits with her back straight and hands clasped, looking every bit like a proper little lady. Perhaps she’s grown more mature in our separation, or maybe she just doesn’t like me anymore, having found a new person to love. The second thought hits me like a hammer in the gut, my chest tightening up while all the air escapes from my lungs, the pain raw and unexpected. No, this is fine Rain, get it together. She’s your precious family, and you should be happy about this. I told her about my betrothal, and my confused feelings for Adujan, so she likely just felt angry at my ‘infidelity’ and found a new crush.
This is what you wanted, Rain.
While waiting for them to finish crossing, I sneak a glance at my disabled company and feel a swell of pride at their astounded faces, dazed by the fact that Akanai would come to personally pick me up, probably to make up for the long, arduous day of waiting that I’ve had so far. She isn’t so terrible, although the thought of having her as my mother-in-law still sends me nightmares from time to time, and while I am in the dog house with her, things could be worse. Unfortunately the look on her face is anything but warm and supportive, frowning as she stares at my companions, and I choose to ignore that for now, focusing back on Taduk who has a smile on his face.
Leaping down from the quin powered rickshaw, he pats the well dressed creatures once each before he walks up to me with his arms open, embracing me in his warm, customary hug. “It’s good to see you boy, I hear things have not been going well.” An understatement at best, but the hug makes up for everything, patting me reassuringly while he does. “You’re back now, and we’ll get you a hot meal and a hotter bath, sound good?”
He knows me so well. Nodding happily, I turn to Lin and gesture for her to come over as well, but she shyly stands back, a world of difference from her normal demeanor. “Hello Rain, welcome back. Thank you for all the letters.”
Confused, I tilt my head while I try to understand what’s happening. Even if she’s found someone new, do I not get a hug after two months of separation? Well… this is how it is now, get used to it Rain. “It’s good to see you too Lin, I missed you. Have you been well?”
At my words, her entire attitude brightens up, her brown eyes going wide with cheer, and after a short pause, everything comes crashing down as they fill with tears, the little sweetheart throwing herself into my arms, crying into my chest. Shocked at the sudden charge, I hold her in my arms, trying to hide my smile while I comfort her. Maybe she was just scared, about the Society. The message did ask for her, even though Mila and her should have been excluded. “Hey now silly girl, don’t cry. I’m sure it’s just a mistake, we’ll take a small trip to the bridge and tell the Justicar what happened, and you’ll be free to go, safe and sound. I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise.”
She continues to cry in my arms for some time, until Taduk takes her away, smiling at me and patting her reassuringly as I head over to Akanai who spent the time speaking with my entourage. Looking at me with minor displeasure, she stares at me with Mila and Song at her side, the former looking subdued, while the latter holds a giant plate, eating roasted duck with her hands whilst glaring murderously at me, an adorable sight. Trying to lighten the mood, I jokingly ask, “Is some of that food for me?” Immediately moving the plate away, Song picks up her already speedy eating rate, stuffing the food into her mouth faster than she can chew while pouting fiercely.
“Don’t tease the girl Rain. Song he was only joking, that food is yours but don’t cram so much in your mouth at once, you’ll choke.” Akanai pats her gently on the head, her eyes never leaving me while she seems to decide my fate, using silence like a weapon, bludgeoning me with it to make me spill my secrets.
Uncomfortable beneath her scrutiny, I blurt out, “I didn’t convince them to follow along, they just did, I swear. Er also, I promised the Guards a gold each if they sent a messenger, I didn’t have any other choice. Do you think you or Teacher can cover for me? Alsantset has all of my coin at the moment.”
A small twitch in her eye betrays her anger, and my stomach sinks at the sight. “Rain, I have decided on your punishment.” Snapping to attention, the apprehension builds within me while the other disabled warriors look on in morbid curiosity. Pausing for maximum effect, Akanai gestures lazily at the surrounding warriors. “These soldiers here will be added to the ones already under your custody, provided they agree to the same terms. You will be responsible for their general well-being and health, making sure they settle in with the other Sentinels as well as paying their salaries. Fifteen soldiers at five silver a month works out to 7.5 gold every month or 90 gold per year. You will also not be issued with another roosequin, if you want a mount, you will purchase it yourself. Perhaps the constant reminder will keep you from further disobedience, as well as teach you the value of coin.”
Outraged, my mouth opens and shuts, no words able to escape while I choke on my punishment. That’s not fair, she only pays me like 1.5 gold a year, and I have to buy another roosequin? God damn it. Sighing with immense regret, I manage to utter, “Thank you for your leniency.”
I am not very convincing, but at least I can start improving my standing with Akanai now that my punishment has been decided. Feeling relieved, the rest of the night goes by in a blur, all of my wishes coming true, food, bath, and bed, almost too wonderful to be true. My single day of rest is spent mostly with Taduk and my company of cripples, all of them opting to swear the oaths, a surprising turn of events. I had hoped they would refuse to swear and be Akanai’s financial burden instead, but apparently all of them were keen to work with me, or more likely, it was Taduk who drew their loyalty. Turns out, he has a lot more pull than I do, and when the new recruits heard they were learning how to heal, their eyes almost popped out of their heads.
On the day of our departure, I wake early and lay still, watching the twins sleeping peacefully, unwilling to tear myself away from them. Charok will be taking them home, leading a small contingent of the Sentinels back to the village, while the rest of us head off to the Society, to end our feud with them once and for all. I have no idea what Akanai plans to do, but knowing her, it will likely be violent and bloody. When a Justicar summons you, there is no alternative but to answer, but hopefully Taduk and Lin can get clear of everything before shit goes down,
After a tearful goodbye, mostly from me, I find myself jogging alongside Taduk’s rickshaw as we head to the gate, Lin’s infectious smile brightening my rapidly worsening morning, mentally preparing myself for the harsh march ahead. It doesn’t help that every one of the new soldiers-turned-Sentinels have their own quins, with spares available for Bulat and the others when we pick them up at the gate, leaving me the lone runner. I just hope they don’t push the pace too hard or I’ll never be able to keep up., but at least I don’t have to carry Bulat around anymore.
As our massive, 4,500 person convoy makes its way through the city streets, I feel pride bubbling up within me, seeing the optimism and hope displayed on the former soldier’s faces, lit up in joy while they ride the quins for the first time, happy to be, in some small part, responsible for their joy. They’ve all sworn oaths to not betray the People, but I think that they would have been faithful even without them. Gratitude and the inherent good inside people are some of the things that I feel are highly underrated by Akanai, the availability of oaths overshadowing their ability to trust. It’s nice though, since I pay and teach them it’s like I have my own little squadron, as if I were making my way up in the ranks. A Lieutenant equivalent I guess, or even better since that’s only ten soldiers. The next step up is Captain, but that seems a bit too much, I mean Baatar was a Captain. That rank just seems too lofty for me, a special existence I cannot hope to live up to.
The enormous northern gates in sight, our procession halts for some reason, and I stretch while we wait, expecting some sort of administrative holdup when I hear Akanai’s voice inside my head, sending my anxiety levels skyrocketing. “Rain come to the front, bring your squad.”
Hurrying as quickly as I can, the gates grow large as I approach, looming above me as if ready to drop down and crush me beneath them, my mind racing as it tries to work out what could be wrong. The Sentinels all line up, obscuring my view of what lies ahead, and as I pass through their ranks towards the front, I stop next to Akanai, amazed at the scene before me.
Arranged neatly in rows, with Bulat and his cronies at the front, are many of the dismissed soldiers, almost fifty in total, standing patiently, apprehensive yet optimistic, staring at Akanai with pure adoration in their eyes, some of that spilling over to me for some reason. Another group stands nearby, the soldiers families, concerned and uneasy, but carrying all of their worldly possessions, ready to embark on a journey to the mountains.
Turning slightly towards me, Akanai studies my expression for a moment, before sighing. “So you had nothing to do with this recruitment drive either, I suppose?” Shaking my head, I furrow my brow and wonder at why so many of them came. Was it because of my scolding? Thankfully, Akanai has turned her attention back to the soldiers, a small smile on her face. “Good, good.” She rides up to the soldiers and begins orating, an impassioned speech about community and commonality, and they all hang on her every word.
Watching the scene warms my heart, until a thought hits me, dragging me down into a pit of despair.
Am I paying all of their salaries as well?
I should have kept my mouth shut.
– End of Volume 5 –
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