“Look at you with your big ole paws and giant head. I wish you could stay tiny forever, you’re too cute!” Rain’s cooing broke Rustram’s concentration, opening his eyes to watch the young warrior rolling around in the grass with his pet cat. Unfathomable, for a warrior to act so… unreserved. If he had not seen Rain easily defeat the hulking Maota with a single hand, it would have been impossible to view him as a warrior, despite all the stories otherwise. After a week of travel and watching him make a fool of himself, it was becoming difficult to disagree with the disgruntled whispers cropping up, unflattering compliments and serious grievances directed towards their new leader.
Letting out his breath slowly, Rustram stretched in his seat, wincing as his regenerating hand throbbed in agony. Around him, his companions sat in quiet meditation, the Medical Saint Taduk chatting with Ravil in hushed tones while Healer Tokta worked with another soldier, asking questions and offering advice. A daily routine now, wake, ride, heal, repeat, and even thinking the words almost made him titter with delight, only his pride keeping him from cackling.
The second son of a second-rate merchant, learning to regenerate, it was almost beyond belief. Staring at his half-formed hand, he felt his ‘fingers’ grip and release, the sensation in his missing digits so real despite their obvious absence. His progress was faster than any others save Rain, and according to Healer Tokta, the process would be completed in a little more than a week. One more week and he would be whole again, and better yet, a Khishig, a warrior with purpose.
His spirit reignited, Rustram’s closed his eyes once more and reached for Balance, barely dipping into the meditative state, focusing on nothing, aware of nothing but awareness itself. A simple phrase which had opened his eyes, uttered sarcastically by Rain. With his permission, Rustram had repeated it for the others to hear, gratified to see the same enlightenment mirrored in their eyes. So much knowledge held by the Bekhai, hidden behind their ferocious bearing and warlike mannerisms, given freely to them with but a simple oath: to serve in the defense of the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains, as Sentinels. Far less stringent than the oaths taken to join the army, with better benefits, although not without its hazards. Even now, they rode towards battle with the Society of Heaven and Earth, the mere thought sending shivers through his body.
A gentle pat on his shoulder interrupted his concentration and he opened his eyes to see Lady Mei Lin greeting him with a warm smile. “It’s getting late, you should rest soon.” Placing a still-warm meat bun in his palm, she sauntered off adorably, waking Bulat in the same manner. Fresh as a spring breeze, radiant and cheerful, their little squadron of cripples adored her, the sight of her walking sweetly beside Rain the source of many grumblings. His betrothal to Sumila common knowledge, Rain not the most popular of commanders, alienating himself from the soldiers with his actions, although Rustram was grateful to him. Without him, they would have been left without hope, slowly dying in the cruel streets of Shen Huo, instead of here successfully regenerating missing limbs and organs. The problem was, gratitude aside, no soldier liked to take orders from a dandy, and everyone hated a playboy, Rain doing little to improve his reputation with his actions.
Eating his meat bun, he studied Rain as he spoke to his pet in a sweet, sickening voice, blatantly slacking at his duties in plain sight. It was clear what was happening here, Rain far too clever to be doing this without purpose. Scratching at his unkempt beard, he grimaced at the unpleasant task set before him, wishing it upon anyone else in his stead. Unfortunately, no one else stepped forward and when a problem needed resolving, yesterday would have been the best time, but now would suffice. Walking over to Rain and gesturing for him to follow, they moved to a secluded corner, sitting together on a log. Turning to Rain, he frowned at the sight of him cuddling the kitten with a foolish grin on his face. “Put the cat down, I wish to speak with you earnestly.”
Rolling his eyes, the young man released the kitten, his face pinched in annoyance. “So what’s this about? You here to blame me for your pain as well? Like I said, I bought materials in the city but it’s tough to make pills on the move. Just tough it out, you’ll get used to the pain. Sort of.”
“Ah no, the discomfort is … tolerable.” Only after Bulat pointed out Rain had not shown a single sign of discomfort while regenerating an entire arm. Pride was an incredible thing, the spirit of competition enough to keep most soldiers from further complaints, not wanting to be outdone by the ‘disgraceful’ Rain. “I want to tell you a story about myself.” Ignoring Rain’s questioning expression, he launched into it without further preamble. “I was younger than you are now when I first joined the army, a scared young man with minimal martial training, thrust into a leadership position against my will, in charge of soldiers both stronger and more qualified than myself.”
Having caught Rain’s attention, he smiled at the young man, seeing so much of himself in him, a young man wanted nothing more than to laze about and chase skirts. “Everyone knew I was a Lieutenant only thanks to some nonsensical, antiquated custom of buying rank, and my father’s insistence that the Albaiev name not be associated with a common soldier, despite having made up the name only a few years earlier. Knowing nothing of being a leader and panic-stricken I would make a mess of things, I did everything possible to be dismissed, hoping to escape back to my life of leisure.” Rain’s attempt to appear casual was almost comical, his every thought displayed prominently. He would make a great fish for their card or tile games, a rich young man lacking all duplicity.
“So uh … what did you try?”
Unwilling to answer the question, Rustram shook his head. “That’s irrelevant. What I am trying to say is, no matter how much I wished otherwise, I was a Lieutenant, responsible for the lives of the soldiers under my command. Instead of taking time to learn how to command, changing myself to be better suited for the role, I wasted my time avoiding my duties, and my fears came true: I fucked it all up.” Pausing in thought, he remembered those days of guilt and fear, worrying the survivors would put a sword through his back and almost inviting the release. “My mistake cost several soldiers their lives, a regret I will carry to the grave.”
He tried to meet Rain’s eyes, but the young man was always wary of meeting gazes, an oddly submissive trait for one so outspoken. Settling for a hand on the shoulder, he concluded his lecture. “I offer no accusation, criticism, or blame, I only state the truth. We march towards bloody conflict with only you to lead us. Accept the position and the obligations it entails, or pass it on to someone who will. There is no time for procrastination, our lives depend on it.”
With one last pat, he stood and left Rain behind, letting the young man ponder things through and hoping he would come to the right decision. Although he was still lacking in many areas as a leader, he could learn, with no shortage of suitable teachers around him. It was his personality that gave Rustram hope, to follow a man who was talented and hardworking, altruistic and humble, a good change from the arrogance exuding from every officer he’d ever met.
Who else would have risked so much to help a group of useless cripples for no reward? That was the type of leader Rustram hoped to fight for, was willing to die for. Rustram Albaiev of Shen Huo would never amount to great things, but perhaps in a few hundred years, his descendants would proudly boast of their ancestor who had served with Falling Rain, Hero of the Empire.
More likely, they’d all die a dog’s death in a few days, the Society crushing them all with barely a thought, but a man needs hope.
Without hope, what was the point in living?
Ugh. Why me?
I don’t want to lead and I barely even want to fight. I enjoy the process of becoming stronger, but I’ve had enough real combat to last me a dozen lifetimes. I want a quiet life in the mountains, doing what I can to make life better for the People. I’m no hero or great warrior, unsuited for this might-makes-right world. A loving wife, 2.5 kids, and a simple, peaceful existence, is that too much to ask for?
My kitten rears up on his back legs, pawing at the air, begging to be picked up. One of Alsantset’s tips, teaching them to not climb all over people, breaking them of habits unsuitable for half-tonne monstrosities. Picking him up, I cuddle him in my arms while listening to his contented purring, his too-large head rubbing against my chest. I know he doesn’t love me, content only because I feed and shelter him. Truth is, if I starve him for a few days, he’ll gnaw my fingers off at the bone, a vicious animal at the core. In my more maudlin moments like now, I wonder if it would be better to drown them all now and save myself the heartache.
Following more advice, I separated the kittens, letting them imprint on people and not each other, leaving one with Alsantset and another with Li Song. I miss having three cuddle-buddies, but the runt of the litter is the most affectionate one, so I kept him close. I wanted to give him a name but I’ve put it off, worried I’ll fail at training them, trying to keep myself detached. With golden brown fur and light green eyes, he looks every bit like a giant house cat, although small differences make him look more aggressive, with his pointed ears, protruding fangs, and pronounced, muscular chest. I hope he becomes a loyal pet, my 1/2 a kid, something for me to love wholeheartedly. Alsantset calls them weapons, but I’d be happier if they never had to fight a day in their lives, just remaining the sweet, lovable creatures they are now.
“Rainy, you should sleep soon, it’s late and you still have a few days to run before we reach the Bridge.” Surprising me from my thoughts, Lin plops down beside me, a tiny pout on her face, her light frame causing no impact on the log. “Just ask Daddy to buy you a quin, or loan you the money for one if you want to be pig-headed about it. I’m sure Nai-Nai planned for that, there’s no way she expected you to run the entire way, that’s silly.”
“… Does she know that’s what you call her?” I love it, but there isn’t enough alcohol in the world to make me drunk enough to call her that. Lin does the same thing with everyone’s name, but Nai-Nai sounds suspiciously like ‘milk-milk’ in Common, a name I’m positive Akanai would not approve of.
“That’s not the point Rainy.” Crossing her arms, she gives me an annoyed look. “You’re being difficult on purpose, your stubborn pride blinding you to the obvious.”
“And that would be?”
She rolls her eyes at me and gives me a petulant look while I pinch her cheek. “She wants you invested in the Sentinels, to build you up into a commander, someone to stand at Mi-Mi’s side.” Her voice grows solemn and soft. “You’re her betrothed so you should work hard and raise your status in the village. You can’t keep trying to live a solitary life while also marrying Mi-Mi, that’s not how it works Rainy.”
An epiphany hits me like a tonne of bricks, and I can’t keep my smile contained. “Are you jealous? That’s so adorable.” And relieving, she hasn’t been too clingy lately, and even though it’s what I want, the sense of rejection was unpleasant.
“Don’t be silly Rainy.” Her patient tone smacks of restraint, as if she wants to call me worse. “Why would I be jealous? I’m upset because you aren’t treating Mi-Mi well. I wanted to let you spend more time with her, but all you do is play with those kittens and ignore her when you have free time. You have to be sweeter to her or she might call off the betrothal, she isn’t as patient as I am.”
Shaking my head while laughing helplessly, I try to sort out my emotions. On the one hand, I’m incredibly confused by Lin’s unwavering devotion, but on the other… Two wives. Just accept it and figure it all out later, right? “I thought she would have told you, Mila isn’t serious about the betrothal, she’s using it to keep… Akanai off her back about marriage.” I almost called her Nai-Nai, I cannot let myself slip up, I can’t risk it.
Instead of looking relieved, she puts on a cute frown and begins to lecture me. “Silly Rainy, Mi-Mi might say things like that, but do you really think she’d let herself be betrothed to someone she doesn’t care about? At the very least, she’s willing to marry you, even if it’s only because Nai-Nai made the offer. You can take this opportunity and win her over.”
Helpless before her adorable tirade, I can only squeeze the sleeping kitten a little harder, careful not to interrupt his rumbling snores, my giant grin only causing Lin’s frown to deepen. “Another thing Rainy, you should try to convince Yan-Yan not to leave, she should stay with us in the village. Ask Set-Set to make an offer of betrothal to her, I know you love her too and she’s a good match for you. Also, stop staring at Li-Li, it makes her uncomfortable. You’re like a dog in heat sometimes…” Her darling little sermon continues, admonishing me for my ‘lecherous conduct’ and wandering eye, while offering me advice on how to best woo women, trying to turn me into a Harem King.
Unable to help myself, I place my arm around her shoulder and lean into her, taking her in a light embrace and half-listening while waiting for a proper place to interrupt her. It takes far longer than expected, Lin’s advice both nonsensical and repetitious, her arms comfortably wrapped around my waist while we sit beneath the rising moon. “…So even though I’m okay with you having so many wives, it doesn’t mean you can be unfaithful, you have to be upright and moral, okay?”
Jumping on the minor pause, I force my way into the one sided-conversation. “Even after experiencing countless lives while under a Demon’s mental assault, there were only a handful in which I had multiple wives. In the vast majority, I had one wife, two kids, and a happy family. What does that tell you?”
Her head shifts to stare up at me, Lin ignores my question without hesitation, leaping to her own conclusions. “You aren’t going to marry Mi-Mi? That’s terrible Rainy, if you already made your decision then you have to tell her, it isn’t right for you to act this way.”
Her confidence sends me into hysterical giggling, the movement waking up my kitten and earning me a sound of discontent, his head snuggling against my chest. She’s already made up her mind we will be married and can see no deviation from that future. My laughing fit at an end, I let out a long breath, squeezing Lin in my one-armed embrace. “I don’t know about marriage right now Lin, nor do I really want to make a decision. I just want to go home and regain some semblance of normality so I can clear my mind and figure things out.” Removing my arm from around her, I move about to face her, kneeling so we are eye to eye, a difficult thing for me to do. Her large, brown eyes are expectant and patient, waiting quietly for me to say my piece, understanding my need to vent.
“You may have noticed I’ve been more… tender with you.” Her shy smile widens as she nods lightly, her cheeks blushing a little, and it makes it all the more difficult to admit this next part. “Well I’m sorry to say, but that’s not entirely by choice.” Her smile freezes, and it takes every bit of willpower not to cup her face and bring her close to comfort, as doing so would send mixed messages. “The mental attack, those illusions I’d immersed myself in, they messed with me in ways I still haven’t completely puzzled out. I know it wasn’t you in my dream, only an idealized, unreal caricature of you, tailor-made to keep me happy. The problem is, I see you and I remember our wedding we never had, or our trip we never took together… our children who were never born.” And never will be, a tiny voice whispers inside my head, threatening to send me spiralling into despair. “It’s all a fantasy and it’s unfair to you, because I don’t really love you, or any of the others, I … I’m just having difficulty separating fantasy and reality.”
My voice thick with shame, I can no longer look her in the eyes, my head hanging as I stare at my sleeping kitten. “That’s why I’ve avoided Mila and spent my time with the kittens, it’s just easier. I’m not strong enough to end the betrothal, and I can’t shake my false affection for all of you, so I ignore everything and focus on these cuties.” Nor am I brave enough to reject Akanai’s daughter, especially not while I’m still trying to make up for my mistakes. “I even told Yan she should go with Du Min Gyu, not only because it was her dream to find someone willing to teach her, but also because it got her away from me, letting me deal with my emotions on my own. Any longer and I wouldn’t have been able to control myself. I need you to be more reserved, give me a bit of space, at least until we get back home. Please.”
Ignoring my plaintive request, Lin surges forwards and embraces me tightly, her arms wrapped around my neck. “Don’t want to. I like all the hugs and hand-holding, it’s like I have my sweet, affectionate Rainy back, the one who used to read me stories and carry me home after herb picking.” Backing off, she places her hands on her hips and smiles sweetly. “I made my choice, I’m going to be your wife. You take as much time as you need, I’ll wait, but you should talk to Mi-Mi too, let her know your thoughts.”
Reminding me once more that we have more grueling days ahead, she skips off back to her tent, leaving me alone once more with my kitten, thinking things through. Fucking decisions, too many for me to make. It’s easier just to go with the flow, let life carry me around where it will, but that is no longer an option for me. I can’t help but wonder what other me would say, and his imagined answer makes me laugh. ‘Marry them all and sort it out later’, a straightforward and idiotic response that somehow manages to make sense. In a few ways, his outlook is more suited to this world. I haven’t even taken command, and I’m plagued with worry over leading soldiers to their deaths. Even if I decline, would Akanai let me off the hook so easily?
What about marriage? Is it unfair of me to leave Mila on the hook like this? Am I overthinking things, worried about false feelings of affection? And Lin, she only loves me because of a childhood crush, which makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong, tricked her in some way. Ugh, things would be so much easier if I just let other me take over for all the hard decisions, then I can at least blame everything on him.
Time to step up and make the tough choices.
Well… starting with the easiest one, at least.
Wandering back into camp, I leave my kitten in my bedroll before heading towards my destination, nervously sweating in the cool night air. Pausing outside the tent, my stomach does a series of somersaults as I steel myself for what comes next. This is a game changer, there’s no going back once this is done.
After going through a series of imagined conversations, I give up and cough loudly, pausing a moment to listen before stepping through the flaps, hoping she isn’t here. My hopes are soon dashed, and I simply blurt out what I came to say. “I was talking to someone, and uhh… I’ve stalled these past few days because I didn’t know what to do or say, or if I even wanted to. I’m flattered, and I’m willing now so if you can… uh… yea.”
Her eyebrow raised, Akanai stares at me as if I’m having a stroke. “What?”
Clearing my throat, I try again. “I err… Thank you for the leadership opportunity, and for believing in me, but I have no idea what I’m doing. If you want to replace me, I will not object, but if not, I humbly ask for your help and guidance in leading the new Sentinels.”
With a wry smile, she gestures for me to sit. “I am happy to see you finally take your duties seriously. You have much to learn and we have little time.” Her smile disappears as quickly as it arrived, her demeanour stern and professional as always, holding her thumb and index finger scant millimetres apart. “I was this close to hanging you by your ankles and dragging you behind my quin, hoping a few loose rocks would jar some sense into your thick skull.”
I should buy Rustram a couple of drinks when we reach the Bridge. It’s the least I can do.
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