Sitting quietly in his seat, Jia Yang drummed his fingers on his armrest while he impatiently waited for Nian Zu to arrive, the Colonel General having kept him waiting for almost half an hour now. Such impudence, for that old bastard to ignore a summons marked with the Patriarch’s seal, demanding his assistance. Who did that cantankerous bastard think he was? The Patriarch had warned him Nian Zu would be audacious, growing more openly defiant in his old age, but this was too much. Worse, it made Yang look foolish in front of his Society contemporaries, having called a meeting to discuss the forthcoming trials, with the highest ranking military member refusing to take part.
Situated based on their allegiances, the various Society representatives idled in their seats, drinking tea and trading veiled barbs, not even a common goal able to force them to set aside their petty differences. Major General Ten Wei Sheng, representing the Baiji Sect, sat with the White Lotus Sect representatives on one side, while the Lin and OuYang clans sat on the other. The Marshal Shing Du Yi was given a seat of honour at the front with him as a formality, another shameful geriatric relic of the past, the Society had too many black sheep, but this one was barely clinging to life, coughing up a storm while his half-beast ‘daughter’ feigned compassion. The Marshal’s clansmen sat closest to the front, while the Han and Xue clan representatives sat to the back of the room, an intentional snub to both groups. Major General Han Bohai also had yet to arrive and despite being too insignificant to matter, the blatant disrespect still irked Yang, his palm clenching about his chair arm as he attempted to control his temper.
A soft touch alighted on his hand, Ying trying to calm him down without speaking aloud. “No need to work yourself into a rage little brother, that decrepit old fool is not worth it. His time has passed and he acts out, jealous of your accomplishments. A Lieutenant General at 52 years of age, your rising star has begun to outshine his own, and it unsettles him.” Her words sent silently, she looked proudly at him with a soft smile upon her lips.
His anger melted away at her praise and he smiled back at her. “No need to continue your empty flattery, I will not take your son as my Disciple, no matter how talented my nephew is. I haven’t the time, not with this new promotion.” That was not entirely true, but Ying was too protective of her ‘baby boy’, and that was a headache he could do without. “I can give him a place among my honour guard, but I cannot guarantee his safety. You must take risks if you want him to grow strong.” Truth be told, his nephew was incredibly talented but the thought of facing his sister’s scrutiny was enough to send him running for the hills.
An angry glower was his only reply, a vestige of his childhood rising to inspire fear in him, but he quickly crushed it down as he stared back firmly, unyielding before his sister. Her son was 24 years of age and still firmly under her control, the woman determined to coddle him until he was a grandfather, but Yang refused to confront his sister about it, not directly. The boy would have to fend for himself until Yang could find a suitable replacement Mentor, one his sister approved of.
The steady sound of marching put a halt to all conversation in the room, every head turning to the entrance, the large, wooden double doors opening with a boom as soldiers streamed into the room, their blood-thirst unmistakable as they lined up at the entrance, a display meant to cow him. Fifty soldiers, fully armed and armored, each emanating their aura and carrying multiple spiritual weapons, the overlapping waves of chi surging forward to crash into the Society delegates, harmless yet unsettling. Steeling his gaze, Yang studied each soldier carefully, reading clues about their origins and seeing nothing of importance. No crests or insignia, no clan or sect, all without backing despite their impressive levels of strength, these soldiers held no affiliation, loyal only to the Empire, and though they were tigers among men, they now stood before a dragon.
Striding through last were Major General Han Bohai and Colonel General Situ Nian Zu, walking tall as if they were precisely on time, ignoring all propriety as they moved to the front, standing at ease in front of Yang and his sister. A tall, imposing man, Nian Zu looked as magnificent as Yang remembered, dressed in his customary golden armor and dark cloak, his famed mace the Shooting Star hanging at his side, looking every inch a warrior of legend with his meticulously groomed beard and heroic bearing. As a child, he had looked up to ‘Young Hero Zu’ a rising dragon of the Empire, but as a man, that had turned to loathing after hearing his open disparagement of the Society, choosing self-exile to the Bridge over continued service to the people who had supported his rise to power. An ungrateful disgrace, but should things go well here in the north, Yang would soon match the defector in rank, erasing the shame from the Situ Clan.
Without ceremony, Nian Zu nodded cordially at the Marshal before speaking, taking control of the meeting as if he had called it himself. “Let us begin, I’ve not much time to spare. It’s as if none of you realize that we are in the midst of war.” With a single sentence, Nian Zu had shamed the entire room, implying none of them had any use in the defense of the Empire, and it was an insult none would soon forget. “I’ve sent several letters to Rang Min explaining my stance in this matter, and if he had not seen fit to inform the rest of you, I will reiterate it here for you all: this feud with the Bekhai is a mistake and a waste of resources. I recommend you all to drop the trial and let this fade away, forgotten in a week.” The audacity to call the Patriarch by name in front of so many, it was only Ying’s silent warning that kept him from leaping forward to cut Nian Zu down where he stood. The blatant disrespect was intolerable!
“Preposterous!” Lin Xiang Gu was the first to speak, an obese man who barely fit in the chair provided, a supply master who ate too well. “Drop the trial? Those savage youths brutalized my niece and killed two of my cousins in their vicious attack. Am I to just let the insult pass without reprisal? We would lose face by not responding, not to mention the rumours among the citizens should we let such a grave insult pass.” A chorus of people voiced their agreement, but far fewer than Yang was comfortable with.
Fixing the fat toad with a glance, Nian Zu spoke dryly. “Need I remind you, the children were in a competition that you all hosted and they broke no rules. As for their ‘vicious’ attack, it is only by the thinnest of technicalities that the Society remains the accusers and not the accused. Should they have any proof of your misdeeds, this will not end well for any of you.” His arrogant tone turned cold, indicative of his view on the matter. “Already it is an open secret that the prize winners are targeted, to the point where many victors surrender their ‘gifts’ in return for protection. It does little to endear the Society to the citizens you seem so concerned about, and forget about rumours, this trial has seen the Society openly mocked for being misers and incompetents.”
Smashing down on his chair leg, Yang laughed arrogantly. “What nonsense are you speaking of? It is well known that the Society offers lavish prizes, which are a temptation to bandits far and wide. It is not the fault of the Society that those Bekhai were assaulted on their journey home, their misplaced aggression an affront to the very people who were so generous towards them.”
“Hmph, say what you will little Yang, but all here know the truth and most out there have figured it out.” The appellation infuriated him and it took yet another warning from Ying to keep him in his seat, his armrest cracking beneath his fingers. “Enough of this. I have said what I came to say, drop the matter or suffer the consequences, I care little either way, but I will not be participating as a combatant, nor will any soldier who wishes to remain under my command.” His words finished, Nian Zu turned on his heels and marched out, his honour guard filing out with him, the ground shaking beneath their stomping boots. Say what you will about serving at the Northern Bridge, with the miserable weather and isolation from civilization, it made for hardy soldiers, all loyal to the Hero of the Wall, Nian Zu. An irritating thorn that would need to be plucked.
Han Bohai remained behind to add, “You represent your own interests in this, not the Society’s, and as such, the Han Clan will be publicly distancing themselves from the matter. Do as you please, but do not speak for the Society as a whole or I will be forced to correct you in public.” With a flourish, the pompous ass turned to leave and his clansmen stood to leave with him. Following his announcement, the Xue Clan representative repeated the same, as did the Seven Star and Harmonious Unity Sects. A number of the lesser clans and sects also took to fleeing, neither speaking out against the trial nor supporting it, and Yang committed each name and face to memory so he could balance the scales for this insult in the future.
Once the rats had all scurried away, the room settled into silence, every faction discussing privately on their course of action. Sneering, Xiang Gu openly mocked those who left. “Cowards, afraid to confront some tribal barbarians, fearful of the repercussions. Disgraceful.” Yang noted wryly that the fat toad had waited until the doors had closed, with no chance of being overheard. A warrior, Xiang Gu was not, but the fat toad has his uses.
“It is not so simple.” Wei Sheng sat with his arms crossed, a concerned look on his dogged face. “Those ‘barbarians’ are more fearsome than you know and were I present, I would have cautioned against kicking that iron board. Were you not aware they were led by a decorated Major General?”
“Pei, only a mere Major General has you quivering in your boots?” The OuYang representative retorted, the barb setting Wei Sheng’s face afire with rage. “You worry you cannot match her? Of course you cannot, the half-beast bitch now outranks you.”
“Enough, we must stand united.” Ying spoke, her melodic voice soothing tempers as she smiled winningly at Wei Sheng, hoping to calm his ire. Even at 55 years of age, she looked youthful, easily mistaken for her son’s older sister. “Perhaps the Major General Wei Sheng can elaborate? Is this… Akanai the reason for Nian Zu’s reluctance to fight? I hear she is quite a beauty, almost mistakable for fully human.” His sister, always a jealous creature, seemed annoyed at that possibility, knowing she had failed in her own attempts to seduce Nian Zu.
Shaking his head immediately, Wei Sheng ended that line of thought. “As far as I can tell, he has never met the woman. It is her Disciple, the rising dragon Baatar, he is the one who should concern us. A fearsome warrior, I am not ashamed to admit that I am not his match. What’s more, he has at least five subordinates who we need be wary of as well, not to mention their allies among the mercenaries, giving the Bekhai a chance at victory in one of three matches in trial by combat.” Shaking his head ruefully, he added, “I have no doubt that we will be victorious in the end, but it will cost us dearly, especially if Akanai is more fearsome than Baatar. Anything short of complete victory is a loss for us, as tongues will wag about our decline and our inability to dominate an unknown faction, not to mention the loss of valuable warriors.”
“So what do you suggest? That we do as Nian Zu says, lay upon our backs and let them piss on our honour?” Xiang Gu’s taunt gave rise to angry muttering from those gathered, none able to stomach such an outcome.
Coughing loudly, the Marshal held his hand up for silence, his face red with exertion. “Perhaps I can offer an alternative.” The words came out sparingly, the old man wheezing as death inched towards his. Soon, he would be dead and buried and Ying could take his place, further cementing Yang’s position in the Situ Clan, taking him one step closer to the Patriarch’s seat. Rang Min could keep it warm for now, but Yang would soon hold that auspicious title. “I will speak with the Justicar and try to find some measure to avoid trial by combat. Would you be willing to accept a public apology and heavy reparations? I’ve done extensive research into the matter, the Bekhai are rather wealthy, holding mining and lumber rights in abundance.” A wave of his hand sent several servants scurrying forward, distributing papers to all. “Look over my proposal, we will make changes as needed and I will present it to Akanai myself when she arrives. I am positive we can come to an agreeable arrangement without any need for bloodshed.”
A crash emitted from the floor, a half-beast Elder from the Arahant Sect stomping loudly, the wooden floor cracking from the impact. “Unacceptable, a blood debt must be repaid in kind, an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, and a corpse for a corpse!” A few hushed whispers went back and forth among the Arahant Sect representatives, before the overstepping half-beast stomped out of the room, yelling angrily as he left. “I will see that damnable rain killed, one way or another.”
The head representative of the Arahant sect offered a few apologies, claiming the Elder Ming had lost his ‘nephew’ to one of the youths. It was disgraceful, allowing these half-beasts to roam unshackled and play at having families, rambling about the weather, but that was the way of it in this unsophisticated province. When Yang became the Patriarch, he would make moves to purge the Society of these lesser groups but until then, he could only suffer in silence.
The Marshals attendant stepped forward to whisper in his ear, and Yang’s overheard a familiar name. What was Du Min Gyu doing so far north? Coughing again, the Marshal stood to leave. “Sorry to say, but some business has come up and I must take my leave.” Hobbling out, the Marshal made his exit with little dignity, leaving the rest of them to discuss the particulars, an errant hope igniting in Yang’s mind.
After silently discussing the matter with his sister, he left the detail work to her and rushed out to fetch his nephew. Ying had also wanted to meet Du Min Gyu, but Yang managed to convince her that this was a matter better handled between soldiers and her son would be in good hands. It was a perfect solution, Du Min Gyu renowned for his teaching abilities and Zian would be far away from the Defiled, to study in the peaceful and prosperous Central Province.
Storming into his nephew’s room, he quickly dismissed the serving girls in various states of undress, scolding his nephew for his excesses. “You will never be a proper warrior with all these indulgences, discipline and moderation are the keys to success on the Martial Path. Dress yourself now, we are going to meet a living legend and with luck, he will take you as his Disciple.” A handsome boy, he had inherited his mother’s beauty, rarely without willing company, his mother overlooking his debauchery.
“Uncle, why can’t you take me as your disciple, I don’t want some stinking old man to teach me. You’re far more heroic and you’ll be on the front lines where the action takes place. That’s where I want to be, please Uncle.” The request had been repeated many times in the last week, his little nephew star-struck by his accomplishments and war stories, causing him to falter for a moment. Why not take the boy, he was family. Without sons of his own thus far, Yang had few others to pass his skills down to, and while his sister was a headache better left to others, she was manageable.
“You want to be my disciple, yet you dare talk back to me? Hurry and dress, not a stitch out of place.” If Du Min Gyu refused to take the boy, then Yang would teach him, the decision was made. “Not that fancy embroidered shit your mother dresses you in, we are meeting a Mentor not a matchmaker. Your fighting clothes and armor, and bring your sabres along, you will need to prove your skills.” He prayed silently that the boy would be accepted, as even though Yang was willing, his sister’s ire was no laughing matter.
Stopping before the door to the magistrates meeting room, Yang quickly arranged his own clothing at the last-minute and glanced over his nephew to make sure all was in place. “Smile and look enthused, this is a man whose every student has earned fame, every Disciple a vaunted officer. If he accepts you, then you will have an illustrious career ahead of you, with fame and fortune delivered to your feet.” His words failed to impress the boy, so he pulled out his greatest weapon. “He has a home in the Central Plains and notoriously hates traveling. You will be studying there, away from your mother and farther than I could ever possibly take you, making connections with many of the old blood nobility. You’ve heard stories about those women, yes?”
Visibly enthused by those words, his nephew straightened up, looking suitably noble and gallant, his chest puffed up and weapon in hand, eyes eager at the thought of meeting the women of the Central Plains. Nodding happily, he knocked courteously, waiting to be admitted, praying to the Mother that Hero Du would accept the boy. After hearing the summons, he entered with as much dignity as he could muster, saluting the aged hero as he loudly introduced himself, noting the well-dressed youth at his side. A Warrant Officer? The boy didn’t even look to be twenty, yet to grow a beard. “This humble officer, Situ Jia Yang, respectfully greets Hero Du. Perhaps you do not remember, but we met before -”
“Yes, yes at a gala of the Yantai Magistrate’s, I’m old, not senile. Also not deaf, although that may change if you don’t stop yelling.” Taken aback by Du Min Gyu’s curt and dismissive tone, he paused to study the old man, noting the travel-stained clothes and wild, unkempt beard. Signs of advanced age or difficult travel?
Deciding on the latter, he let the insult go by with a smile, unwilling to risk ruining his nephew’s chances. “Hero Du does this one honour in remembering him.” Perhaps you should invite me to sit, you ornery bastard.
“Bah, honour my ass, I requested to be in command of the reinforcements to the northern province, but they gave you the job instead. Had to send someone to dig up your information before I remembered meeting you. Took your sweet time marching up here didn’t you? I would have had soldiers rushed here months ago. ”
Taken aback once more, he pushed forward despite his reservations. “Ah, Hero Du, things are not so dire in the north, there is no need for one as esteemed as yourself to come. Might I ask the reason for your visit?” If Du Min Gyu meant to snatch away his glory, Yang could not be blamed for acting without mercy.
His eyes narrowing, Du Min Gyu’s aura shot out, a suffocating presence more powerful than the fifty soldiers under Nian Zu combined, and Yang had to steady his nephew to keep him from collapsing. “Why I am here is my business, but why you are here is plain to see. News travels fast of my new student, and you hope I will teach this whelp here.” The old man’s gaze focused on Zian and Yang urged him to stand tall. Such luck, Du Ming Gyu was accepting students once again, and a student was but a step away from disciple. “You a man or a woman? Girlish features and manly clothes, which is it?”
Swallowing audible, his nephew stood tall, weathering the old man’s pressure and filling Yang with pride. “My name is Situ Jia Zian.”
“Didn’t ask for your name, now did I?”
“I am 24 years of age, a former champion of the Contests, son of Situ Jia Ying, the Magistrate of Shen Yun.”
“Are you stupid, whelp? Did I ask for any of that? It was a simple question, all you needed to say was ‘boy’.” Zian’s temper visibly flared and Yang smiled at the sight, seeing the tactic for what it was. The old man was needling the boy to test his mettle, and he was responding admirably. “Well, let’s see how you fight, ‘boy’. Fung, you in the mood for a little spar?”
Recognizing the name, Yang studied the well-dressed, youthful Warrant officer as he stepped forward with his spear, taking an aggressive stance. Nineteen years of age, Son of the Magistrate of Shen Huo, the newest champion of the Contests, and now student of Du Min Gyu. Urging Zian forward, Yang moved aside and readied himself to watch the match. Zian would not lose so easily, in talent or skill, and with luck, he would soon be on his way to the Central Province.
Smiling at his own fortune, he basked in the feeling of a job well done. The matter with the Bekhai was all but settled, and his sister would no longer pressure him to take Zian as a disciple. His own career was on the rise as was his sisters and soon, they would wrest the title of Patriarch away from Rang Min and clean the Society of it’s unneeded filth.
Life was good to him as it should be, a favoured son of the Situ Clan.
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