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Scratching at his freshly healed wounds, Huushal ambled back to his tent, wanting nothing more than to slump before a fire and dry off after his bath, exhausted from the day’s events. His close brush with death in the form of a wildcat attack had drained him of all courage, sending shivers through his body as fear gripped his chest in an unyielding grasp. Rain once again surprised him, not only with his speed and decisive actions, but with his unshakable demeanor, laughing only mere seconds after their ordeal. Smiling ruefully to himself, Huushal once again readjusted his evaluation of Rain’s strength. Too formidable, mentally and physically, he was a good match for Sumila.
While the two of them carried back their catch, struggling beneath the weight and resting often, Rain attempted to catch the kittens each time they stopped, but the vicious little creatures were too wary and swift, mourning the loss of their mother without fully understanding. They followed the familiar scent of their mother, remaining a short distance away yet still in sight, mewling piteously. A shame the kittens would not survive long, only a few months old, weaned but too awkward and unskilled to hunt for their own meals.
Rain had also taken a bath, carefully washing away the mother cat’s scent before eagerly running off to find the kittens, enamored by the adorable animals. Looking energetic despite jogging all day, he seemed to have an endless amount of stamina, enthused at the prospect of keeping pets. Huushal tried to warn him about the dangers, as wildcats were notoriously difficult to tame, but his advice went unheeded, Rains hands bitten and clawed multiple times during their journey back, doing nothing to dampen his enthusiasm. When they reached the camp, the animals remained outside, too cautious to approach so many humans.
“Huu, you’re back! How did your hunt fare?” Yosai greeted him happily, but before he could answer, she spotted his torn sleeve, rushing over to check him for injury. “What happened?”
Caressing her cheek, he tried to seem indifferent and casual. “A minor mishap with a wildcat, nothing serious. A few small cuts, Medical Saint Taduk took good care of me.” Yosai’s eyes widened at the casual mention of Taduk, a celebrity to many, his help available to all with little cost even though it was known that he charged exorbitant fees to the nobles in Shen Huo.
“You wouldn’t have needed healing at all, not if you let Yesui and myself go with you instead of running off with that irresponsible drunkard Rain.” Her eyes wide with concern, she looked up at him in recrimination. “You got hurt looking after him, didn’t you?”
Sighing, he took her into his arms and lifted her in his embrace. “Nothing of the sort, Rain was a great help.” He wanted to tell her of Rain’s heroics, but she would only hear he had been close to death and he did not want to worry her so. Mentally apologizing to his friend for not defending him, he carried his love over to the fire, settling down with her in his lap and cuddling with her, not caring they were in full view of everyone.
“So we are eating wildcat? Where did you leave it to bleed out?” She craned her neck about, searching for their dinner, and Huushal inwardly sighed, wanting to skip dinner and take her to bed, sleeping soundly in her warm embrace.
Breathing deep to enjoy her scent, he answered, “We had a good hunt, three deer and the wildcat. We gave most to Rain’s squad to split, while we will be joining Rain for dinner. Senior Captain Alsantset will be cooking so we’re in for a real delight.”
With a click of her tongue, Yosai asked, “You enjoy her cooking, do you?”
“Indeed, she and Charok are both very skilled, making even simple camp fare taste delicious. They made some delicious bear jerky, and even after three days it was still tender, the best dried rations I ever had.” Although it was during one of the most trying times in his life, fleeing from their Society pursuers. A fire ignited within his chest, his arms tightening around Yosai as he reflected on their current destination, a journey to see those Society blackguards finally pay for their crimes. The Chief Provost would see justice done, either through the Justicar or by taking matters into her own hands, and Huushal hoped it would be the latter. Weeks of inactivity had caused him to grow restless, eager to ride into battle once more, and he cared little whether it was against the Defiled or the Society.
Sensing his mood, Yosai simply sighed and curled up silently in his embrace, a wonderful woman, more than he deserved. He felt blessed to have not only her, but Yesui as well, out hunting with her own friends, not willing to be fully reliant on ‘her man’ as she put it, a fiercely independent woman. The two sisters were very different, but he had somehow won their love, and it filled him with joy to have them both in his life. He would have been helpless had they forced him to choose between them, Yosai sweet and fiery, pushing him to better himself, and Yesui cool and supportive, always with a kind word for him.
Pa and Mom would be happy for him, but Ma was going to be a problem. She had always been fiercely protective of her son, and to hear he had bedded two sisters who were not of the People might irk her, especially since he had done so without first seeking approval from any of their parents. There were times when he would wake at night, terrified of the consequences Ma would visit upon him once they were reunited, but each time he saw their beautiful faces, he told himself it would be worth it, no matter the punishment.
“Hello, sorry to interrupt this sweet moment of yours but we brought a few guests you might like to meet.” Rain announced his arrival with Mei Lin, carrying a squirming kitten in his hands, the other two laying submissively in Li Song’s arms, the stone faced girl appearing as neutral as always. Despite traveling together for weeks, he’d never conversed with her, not even when he’d given her the runic ring. Her lifeless stare and the enmity hidden deep within made him uncomfortable, but she seemed… brighter somehow, warmer to a certain extent, and it made him smile to see her no longer so despondent.
Taking the proffered kitten from Rain, Yosai made sounds that were identical to Rain’s high-pitched squeals, Huushal smiling at both the tender sight and the amusing memory. “You managed to catch them?”
“Yea, Lin and Li Song helped me box them in and nab them. They’re pretty happy cats considering the circumstances, and only slightly murderous.” Holding up his bleeding hands as proof, he looked on with a wry smile as the tiny creature happily nuzzled Yosai. “I guess it’s just me they hate.”
“They’re smart creatures, they likely have some idea we are to blame for their mother’s death.” Shrugging, he consoled Rain, knowing his friend’s love of animals. “What is to become of them?” Perhaps Rain would sell them, the creatures would be worth good coin to any collector, and he was generous enough to insist Huushal receive a share.
Rain’s enormous smile crushed his hopes for easy coin. “I already asked Akanai and Alsantset and they both said I can keep them, as long as I can tame them. You want one? It’s only fair.” He leaned forward and whispered jokingly, “You did kill their mother after all. We can split the third one, right down the middle. I’d pick the big one for that, he’s mean.”
Rolling his eyes at the macabre jest, he shook his head regretfully while looking at Yosai’s joyous expression, wishing he could keep one, if only to see the same joy mirrored in Yesui. The creature would cost too much to raise and tame, the food alone enough to beggar him, not to mention the money he would have to pay should the creature kill some innocent farm animal. The decision was not easy, especially in light of Yosai’s pleading gaze, but he was adamant in his decision.
“Well, I’ll hang onto them for now, maybe you’ll change your mind, but don’t wait too long. They’re only adorable kittens for so long.” Holding one close to Huushal’s face, Rain had the creature pantomime a pleading gesture. “Look at these big paws, begging for you to love him.” Contrary to Rain’s statement, the creature hissed and bared its fangs at him, biting down on his extended hand hard enough to draw blood, reassuring Huushal he had made the correct decision. It seemed cats really did hate him. “What about you Yosai, think you can change your hubby’s mind?”
The stern line of Yosai’s pursed lips made Huushal wince, Rain doing nothing to win points with her by suggesting she argue with him in public, but at least her answer was suitably restrained. “I stand by my betrothed’s decision.” Her icy tone did not go unnoticed, Lady Mei Lin’s eyes narrowing and Rain looking suitably chastised and a little indignant. Another one of Rain’s social blind spots, Huushal would need to remember to explain the mistake to him in private.
When Yesui returned from her hunt, they made their way over to Alsantset’s cooking fire, eating a delicious meal together, the girls fawning over the kittens while Rain told the story of their hunt, leaving out any mention of their near death. He even made Huushal out to be a hero with the bow, who stood firm while the beast charged, firing arrow after arrow until it crashed at his feet. Feeling a little embarrassed, he silently accepted the praise, not wanting to discredit Rain in front of everyone, but also unsure why he would embellish the story so much and yet leave out his own achievements.
Their meal finished and rain clouds gathering, Huushal took Yesui and Yosai back to their shared tent, leaving Rain asleep by the fire, curled up with all three cubs, a large smile on his face and Mei Lin and Sumila there to look after him. Wild animals that they were, the kittens seemed content once well fed, stuffed with deer meat until they could barely keep their eyes open, making him reconsider his decision. If feeding them was all it took to placate them, perhaps he could keep one, with the help of Yesui and Yosai.
Seated in the privacy of their tent, Yosai turned to Huushal, reprimanding him. “You killed the mother cat? If so, then why is Rain the sole benefactor of your hard work? At least ask him to pay you for the kittens! Not only that, he takes your catch and gives it to his squad, while feeding you a single meal in return, one he did not even prepare himself. How is that at all fair? Did he even ask before taking them?”
“Of course he asked but there was no need.” Huushal drew himself up, refusing to back down before her glare. “What are his warriors to do? They are all cripples and city dwellers, unable to hunt for themselves. I am glad to be of help to them, for there is no distinction between us. We are all Sentinels now.” Undeterred by his zeal, his impassioned speech only earned him a look from Yosai, one that demanded a better answer.
Sighing, he looked to Yesui for aid but she only shook her head, caressing his face. “My sweet, gentle giant, I agree with sister on this, you let yourself be taken advantage of. I know it is not in your nature, but you must fight for what is yours. Rain strikes out to fight on his own and Akanai rewards him with command, while you fight heroically among your people and languish at the bottom of the ranks. You are no less than he and you deserve as much.” Making a sour face, she added, “He cannot possibly have completed all of his duties, shirking them to sleep so early, ignoring his responsibilities. It’s disgraceful.”
“Rain spent the day running, keeping pace with the roosequins, and still he came out to hunt despite having worked harder than anyone else. Instead of asking others to hunt for him, he did his best to provide for his men. You saw how tired he was, passed out after dinner. One man can only do so much.”
Giving him a sad smile, Yesui only shook her head mildly. “And why should you be the one to solve his problems? How long will this continue? If he cannot pay them, will you beggar yourself to lend him coin? He claims to be your friend, but I have only seen him take without giving, a one-sided friendship.”
Resigned, he gathered them both in his arms and held them to his chest, speaking softly. “This is not to be repeated, nor will we speak about it. I did not wish to tell you, so you would not be burdened with worry.” He told them the true story of their hunt, how Rain had saved his life twice, and when his story finished, he gently admonished his two loves. “Rain is a good man and a good friend, so I will not tolerate him criticized unjustly again, especially not by my bride’s to be.” He left out the story of how Rain took him to the bath house, letting him learn the ways of men and women, giving him the confidence to approach his two beautiful wives. This was not a proper time for that tale, nor would there ever be one.
The two of them snuggled in his embrace, contemplating his words with worry in their eyes, neither of them speaking, respecting his wishes on the matter. After a long pause, Yosai spoke up. “I still stand by my earlier statement: if you had brought both of us along with you, there would have been no danger at all. Unlike some, we know to keep our wits about us while hunting.”
Yesui, unwilling to be left out, spoke up, asking, “If that is the man he truly is, why does he act so dishonorably?”
Chuckling at their unrestrained attitudes, all he could do was shrug. “He is who he is, and even with all his flaws, he has my friendship and respect.” Leering at both of his loves, he quickly changed the subject before they could voice more arguments. “Now, what say we emulate the great hero Rain and rest early.” His words brought a blush to their cheeks, scolding him in unison for his lusty behavior, while at the same time meekly preparing for bed, both of them as eager as he.
Life was good and there was nothing he would change.
Well, perhaps a third sister would not be so terrible, but he knew his limits as a man.
Shivering in the rain, Fung continued to kneel in place, his determination wearing away slowly from the cold gusts of wind, chilling him down to the bone and paining him despite the numbness threatening to overcome him. His guards stood nearby, silently suffering along with him despite his orders for them to seek shelter; no sense in having all of them sick as well. With the way things were progressing, he would be dead of pneumonia in a few days, choking on the fluid in his own lungs. He’d heard drowning to death was like falling into a peaceful sleep, although none who spoke of it had firsthand experience, leaving him to question how they’d come to that conclusion.
“Hello handsome.” Adujan’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts and a scowl covered his face before he could stop it, an involuntary reflex hammered into him over the past few days. How would she trivialize his efforts this time? Her wet clothes stuck tight to her body, his eyes drawn to her curvaceous hips and long, slender legs, his body igniting with desire. He’d left his courtesans behind, knowing they were unable to keep pace and their absence was painfully noted, hand-to-gland combat only going so far. “How are you holding up? Do you need anything? Tea perhaps, or a change of clothes? I’d be more than willing to help get you out of your outfit.” Reaching out, she brushed his hair aside, smirking while she eyed him up and down.
She was lovely, of that there was no doubt, but her acerbic tongue and ruthless demeanor caused him no small amount of pain in the last week, not to mention he was unaccustomed to being the prey, her forward manner leaving him tongue-tied and blushing. She’d arrived panting and exhausted, covered in sweat and dirt while carrying the carcass of a Meng-Zhua and still she managed to look erotic. Carrying the heavy load by herself was training according to her, cementing the idea that the Bekhai were all insane, practicing to the point of self harm, obsessed with increasing their strength, it was both inspiring and terrifying.
Ignoring her flirtatious advances as best he could, he stared forward at Lieutenant General Du Min Gyu’s tent and asked, “How did you manage to convince Great Hero Du to take you as a student? I have pleaded with him for over a week now, every spare moment spent on my knees, and he only spoke to me once.” His teeth chattered as he spoke, his voice pleading for help. “All he asked was if I had any siblings before dismissing me. Please, help me convince him, or tell me how you caught his attentions.”
Du Min Gyu, the Sanguine Tempest of the Central Province, an Exarch who rose to prominence during the Hoplesh Rebellion, taking command of the Imperial troops after a suicidal strike managed to kill both General officers in command, the first of his long list of achievements. Known for his decisive actions and unyielding demeanor, the man was a living legend, carving his achievements in the blood of rebels and Defiled, his last duel with the Butcher of KunLun Mountains had even been made into a two-hour epic, performed across the Empire to the delight of all. After the duel, his injuries hindered him from fighting again, but he instead surprised the Empire once more, his disciples and students all finding great fame and fortune for themselves, bringing him even more praise and respect, as well as a new title: Great Teacher Du. To be his student even for a single lesson was a thing to boast of, as it showed you were worth teaching in the eyes of Du Min Gyu.
And standing before him, dressed in military garb, holding an umbrella in the heavy downpour, was one such student, Adujan, Khishig of the Bekhai, who idly shrugged with a contented smile pasted across her fair face. “I didn’t have to do any convincing, Teacher Du asked me to be his student.” Her smile widened into a grin at his expression of disbelief, shrugging easily. “Teacher Du has instructed me to inform you to take shelter. While he cannot in good conscience leave you behind, he will not slow his pace for you, dragging you along if need be.”
Elated at having received permission, he leaped to his feet and ignored the painful sensation of blood rushing back to his deadened legs, striding confidently towards the tent. Stepping to block his path, Adujan shook her head apologetically. “Teacher Du meant for you to retire to your own tent.” With a small shrug of apology, she sashayed back into the tent with her Teacher as Fung watched, despairing that all his efforts had so far amounted to nothing while also admiring the sway of Adujan’s hips.
Allowing himself only a moment of self-pity, he grimly strode away, the tent already being set up by his guards, relieved to be out of the worsening storm. Soaking wet, he made his way to Ong Jing Fei’s tent while he waited, standing silently while her attendants helped him change into something warm and dry. Sitting next to the blazing brazier, he wracked his brain for some method to display his worth to Du Min Gyu, besides following him around like a lost dog.
A large hand clapped down upon his shoulder, the Divine Blacksmith’s fearful visage coming into view, whispering quietly. “Worry not, that man is a testy sort, wouldn’t even let me into his tent. He’s old and prideful, has the shakes something awful you know. It happens with age.” Handing Fung a cup of tea, he shook his head ruefully. “A shame, it’s been some time since my wife found a new warrior who could match her. Don’t seem like little Yan’s new teacher is long for this world, the poor girl.”
The Divine Blacksmith’s words did nothing to diminish his determination, only further fanning the flames. Should Du Min Gyu pass away, then the Empire will have lost a treasured warrior, and any words of wisdom he could give before his passing were all the more valuable. Fung would become his student, if not his Disciple, no matter the cost.
Smiling as he held his teacup in both hands, not daring to drink it lest it contain some aphrodisiac or sedative, he contemplated how the Society would react when they learned that the Great Hero Du Min Gyu stood against them, laughing in anticipation of the sight. It was time the Society got taken down a peg, and The Herald and her Kin were poised to do so, gathering their allies high and low, all congregating at the Bridge. Determined to witness the event, if not take part himself, Fung expected it to be a grand showdown that would spawn epics of its own given time.
Until then, he would need to keep his wits about him, as in spite of the threat to his life should she become pregnant, Ong Jing Fei was looking more alluring by the day. He truly considered accepting the risk and bedding her, if only to calm his nerves, Adujan was driving him insane with her incessant teasing, yet it was clear she had her heart set on another. Simple enough for him to discern from the forlorn look in her eyes when she groomed the roosequins, a longing for some lover left behind. He pitied the man who had won her affection, the girl was a she-devil in human form.
The Mother have mercy on that poor fool’s soul, but at least he was likely to die with a smile upon his face.
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