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Walking aimlessly around the camp, I watch over my squad while they heal, my kitten following obediently at my heels, occasionally pouncing at the swaying grass. Make myself available, be seen working, retreat to seclusion if I need rest, advice given by Akanai. It’s stupid, no one asks me for help, they’d all rather get advice from Taduk or Tokta, or even Lin. I can’t relate to any of their issues because I never encountered them myself, a tiny source of self-confidence until I remembered they’re largely orphans and street kids, most unable to even read.
It’s not important I do anything, only that I seem to be doing something important, Leadership 101. Never be idle, always look busy and your underlings will follow suit. A good work ethic to instill in people, but I’m not sure it’s needed since all of these crippled soldiers are diligent and hardworking, enthusiastic about healing their injuries. I don’t understand why everyone makes the panacea at different rates, nor am I sure how to speed the process along. Work harder, I dunno.
Stopping next to a grimacing Bulat, I try to offer advice, speaking loudly to be overheard. “Let your pain fade into the background, don’t allow it any control over you. Be aware of it, but disregard it at the same time.”
Giving me an irritated glance, he barely keeps from rolling his eyes and saying something rude. Woo progress. “Leave it Rain, yer an oddity when it comes to pain, I’ve no means to match you.” A few almost jealous mutters around me show he’s not alone in his reasoning, filling me with indignation.
“Just… Ugh, listen okay? It’s like meditation, but different. Aware of nothing but awareness itself, sort of.” Stupid fortune cookie bullshit, but I can’t explain it any better. “Everyone, get comfortable.” Our conversation has attracted more attention, most of my squad watching me, motionless and mute, ignoring my suggestion. “Fucking get comfortable! That’s an order, lie down, lean back, spoon with each other if that’s what it fucking takes.”
My outburst gets them moving, discipline and obedience drilled into them from years in the army, laying down and leaning back, not a single one relaxing, all taut with anger or fear. This won’t work. “I told you to relax, what do I have to do, jerk you all off?” Earning me a few strained chuckles, especially from the women, they all relax, the tension visibly melting from them.
Trying to sound as soothing and monotone as possible, I direct them to breathe in long, slow breaths, waiting for the last signs of apprehension to dissipate. “Focus on your pain. Explore it. Know where it begins and where it ends. Acknowledge and accept it.” Hopefully they try, or else I’m wasting my time here. “Now put it aside and focus on the rest of your body. Explore your other senses. The chill night’s air, the smell of wood smoke, the tickling of the grass. Bring those to the forefront of your mind, leaving the pain behind.”
We run through a few more mental exercises, like dissociation, imagery, or mental anaesthesia, but at the end of the night, my squad packs up and leaves with little fanfare. Welcome to today, same as yesterday. At least I can say I tried. Rustram gives me a small nod, happy to see me step into my role, but I would rather hand all responsibility to him, or better yet, I could give this all to Vichear. The bear eared Major was dismissed from the army upon arrival at Shen Huo, suffering from a half-melted face, missing arm and broken back. Tokta took care of those problems easily and he quickly signed up with the Sentinels as soon as he could. I requested his ‘help’ with my squad, but Akanai vetoed my request immediately, outright stating my intentions to fob off all my work to him. Psychics, all of them, I’m beginning to believe my mind is constantly being violated.
Hobbling over on his crutches, Bulat pauses while guiding Ravil back to their tent and hands me a flask. “Distilled grain alcohol, doesn’t taste great, but it’ll do.” It tastes like burning which quickly abates into a steady warmth in my belly. That’ll do indeed. “Yer little tricks were helpful.” Woo for being useful. Break out the fucking trumpets. “Did Healer Taduk teach you those tricks? You learn to heal from chopping yourself up?”
Taking another sip, I shake my head while trying to keep from coughing. “No, I learned those all on my own, working in the mines.” Had to find a way to deal with pain as a slave, but there’s nothing to be gained from talking about it. Handing back his flask, I mutter a polite farewell and make my escape back to camp, stopping to let the kittens play together before bed.
At Alsantset’s admonishing glance, I wipe the goofy smile from my face and step away from the adorable animals to begin practicing. Gotta look busy busy busy. Moving through the Forms, my body is sluggish, my movements stilted as if I’m dancing to the wrong tune. My mind knows what to do and my body responds after a delay, like moving through molasses. It’s minor, but enough to throw my timing off. Awakening my ass, nothing’s changed except I feel so awkward. If it wasn’t for her complete lack of humour, I’d think Akanai was trolling me, telling me I’d leveled up only to watch me fail spectacularly and laugh about it. I bet she still laughs about my idiotic charge against the demon.
It’s something I can imagine Mila doing, she has a bit of a mischievous streak, an innocent playful disposition I’ve only recently learned of. It makes sense, she’s a kid, not even 17, but it highlights how little I actually know about her. The Mila I married, the one I dreamed up, she was nothing like the real Mila. I know it, I believe it, so why does my heart still flutter when I see her? The same thing goes for Li Song, she doesn’t even have a personality, I made one up for her, giving me brief moments of intense disappointment when she acts contrary to my expectations.
It’s not her fault, the problem is on my end, I didn’t even have her eye colour right, believing them brown instead of green. Beautiful, emerald-green orbs I could lose myself in… I’ve yet to figure out how to deal with my emotions besides ignoring them, time my weapon of choice due to a lack of better options. At least nothing has really changed with Lin, still having to restrain myself from hugging the adorable girl to death. Ah, fuck it, maybe I need a good ass kicking to clear my head. “Mila, you up for a quick spar?” Sometimes, getting the wind knocked out of you can be therapeutic.
Standing silently, I wait with practice sword and shield in hand as she warms up, cracking almost everything she can, knuckles, wrists, elbows, neck and so on. Watching her do this always makes me uncomfortable, as if my joints have filled with air, and I mirror her in preparation. She seems menacing while I look like I’m lazily stretching, or windmilling my arms around, not exactly intimidating.
Once we’re both ready, the match begins without a word, Mila stepping in quickly as her spear darts towards my gut, one of her favourite opening attacks. Parrying the jab with a heavy slap of my sword, I quickly respond with a counter aimed at her cheek, the two of us trading blows with increasing fury as the dissonant clash of iron on iron fills the night. Her movements are steady and bewildering, her pattern of attack is almost indecipherable, but she has yet to go all out, seeing as I’m still standing.
She’s normally much faster, tripping me up and pushing me around, but today she’s different, slower and more restrained. I can see her movements as they occur and I have time to react, if not think ahead, unable to anticipate but enough to break her momentum and limit her actions. My weight planted firmly, my feet shuffle in a small area, deflecting and countering her greater power, remaining in my zone of control. My sword and shield work in cadence as we settle into a rhythm of back and forth, attack and block, parry and riposte.
Soon forced completely on the defensive, I nonetheless weather the storm of attacks with little difficulty, enjoying our exchange, while onlookers gather to watch, chatting with one another about our spar. My ears pick up a few compliments, but rather than pleasing me, an annoying notion embeds itself into my brain, distracting me for a split second. Is she going easy on me because of the audience, making me out to be stronger than I am to impress my new squad?
The powerful impacts are starting to numb my arms, but my irritation brings with it a second wind, finally understanding why Huu was so upset with me for taking it easy on him. It’s embarrassing being treated like this, she might be stronger than me, but it doesn’t mean I can’t defend myself. Defeat her, bring her down and see her fall, it will be wonderful. With a hard parry, I send her spear wide and charge forward, our shields clashing in a reverberating boom. As if I charged a solid wall, the impact jars me to the bone, shaking me from my anger as I fall back several steps. Confusion displayed prominently on her face, she fails to take advantage of my error, giving me time to recover.
What the hell, are her bones made of solid iron or something? A quick glance down shows a tiny furrow in the grass, her body pushed back a single centimetre from my charge, which is… okay I guess. Better than nothing. Straightening up, I nod politely to her and walk away to clear my mind, frustrated at my lack of progress. Mila has been ahead of me in strength and knowledge since the day I met her, and the stronger I get, the more clearly I see the distance between. Yan and Huu are stronger than me too, but I can catch up or at least keep pace with them. With Mila, it’s like she will always be vastly superior to me, which annoys me now, although it never did before.
“Rain?” Mila approaches me cautiously, seeming worried and unrepentant. “What happened? We were sparring so well, why did you leave? Is something wrong?”
“Look … don’t play stupid, we both know you were holding back.”
Taken off guard by my scathing accusation, she snorts daintily and punches me on the shoulder. “Idiot, of course I was holding back. I always hold back, I’m not trying to kill you, no matter how mule-headed you are. Today was no different from normal, so if you’re going to be so thin-skinned, don’t ask to spar with me anymore.” She punches me a second time and turns to stomp away.
“Wait.” Turning to face her glare, I hold both hands up in apology, ignoring the growing bruise on my arm. “I’m sorry, it’s not your fault, I’m just in a mood. I shouldn’t take it out on you.” Pausing to consider if I want to know, I refrain from asking exactly how much she holds back. “You were slower than normal, so I thought you were helping me raise my reputation or something, and I threw a hissy fit about it.” She probably was, but saying it should keep her from repeating her mistake. “It’s no big deal.”
“Id-i-ot.” She stresses each syllable, speaking slowly. “I wasn’t moving slower, you were moving faster.” Seeing my skepticism, she throws her hands up in exasperation, pulling lightly on her hair. It’s adorable, but I manage to keep my smile hidden. “I was going to compliment you on your progress but you’re the same stupid Rain as always, only a little faster and stronger.”
Her rant continues for a few minutes as she insults and critiques me simultaneously, offering advice and abuse in one neat little package. Thinking back to Lin’s advice, I endure through Mila’s tirade, patiently waiting for my turn to speak. I’ve gotten faster and stronger? More adept at handling her attacks, finding the sweet spot which allows me to parry with minimal effort. I guess I am now a more efficient sandbag. Woo, efficiency.
“Why are you smiling? I’m yelling at you, you idiot. Are you a masochist? I refuse to be a party to your unhealthy perversions, not now and not after we’re married.” She crosses her arms and glares at me playfully, giving me an opportunity which I pounce on, resisting the urge to quip about healthy perversions.
“I actually wanted to talk to you about that.” At my words, she steps back, wary of my approach which is laughable. As if I could overpower her, or would even dare to try, with who her parents are. “I apologize if I’ve sent any signals of interest towards you, because I don’t believe they are genuine. I don’t intend to mislead you bu-”
The words freeze in my throat at her glance, her anger bursting out, all signs of mischief gone. “What signals of interest?” Another punch lands on my shoulder, in the exact same place as the first two. “You hug Lin constantly, tell Yan how you feel about her, and even stare lovingly at Song. But me? All you do is ignore and avoid me, even though we’re betrothed.” A fourth punch follows, this one bringing a small tear to my eyes, but hers are clear, fury emanating from her brown eyes. “I know you don’t really mean it and can’t help it, but besides the one time you called me beautiful, you haven’t shown any interest in me, you dim-witted, playboy, imbecile. You didn’t even seem happy when I told you about our betrothal!”
Her arm draws back for another swing and I cringe, unable to hide the pain any longer. Thankfully, she holds back, stopping the domestic abuse. Good God, am I going to be a battered husband? Stupidly opening my mouth to speak, I manage to squeak out a protest. “But you said I was a placeholder so your mother doesn’t bother you with more husbands.”
My whining earns me another punch, this one mercifully light and on my other arm. “You said that, not me. I said I was considering it, and freedom from Mama’s nagging was just a perk.” Pouting angrily, she begins to list off my indiscretions, one at a time.
Sometime after the fifth painstakingly detailed account of my infidelity, comprehension hits me like a jolt of lightning. Mila is jealous and feeling ignored. Who wouldn’t be upset by their betrothed ogling everyone but themselves? Gingerly opening my arms, I move slowly towards her in a hug, her arms still crossed. “Mila, you are a lovely woman, beautiful, strong, and confident. You are my friend, my betrothed, and I have treated you poorly. There are no shortage of men who find you attractive, you could have whoever you so wish.” The poor bastard wouldn’t dare refuse, because if you don’t beat him into a pulp, your parents will. “I apologize for being so disrespectful to you, and will attempt to keep my future indiscretions to a minimum.”
Her tiny snort is muted by my embrace, her face pressed into my shoulder. Letting her go, she seems smug and satisfied by my apology, half-smiling at me. “Tell me about these ‘feelings of interest’ you have, genuine or not.”
Smiling softly, I sit down with Mila to talk to her about my confused emotions, and she quietly listens, a sympathetic ear for me to vent. Lin listens, but she dismisses my worries too easily, confident I will solve my problems without difficulty, but Mila is helpful, offering no advice, but understanding the issue. She’s a good friend, and whoever does marry her might not be so unlucky after all.
Then again, Akanai and Husolt are a terrifying pair, not to mention Mila herself.
Okay, I’ll take her future husband under my wing and teach him all my tricks to keep her from killing him.
And how to heal. That will probably be more helpful.
Cresting yet another hill as I run along the hard dirt road, I curse the person who designed this stupid, winding path. Is it too much to ask for level roads? Up and down and up again, it’s like I’m running on a constant slope, my calves heavy and lungs burning, the day not even half-way through. Ten fucking days of marathon running, I’m not sure how far it was, but I’ll be damned if I ever run a day in my life again. If past experiences have taught me anything, I’m going to try to hurl soon, never actually throwing up but wishing I could.
Running is fucking torture. It’s all about willpower, but I’ve run (hah) dry. Moving off the path, I lean up against a thin tree, dry heaving as the bile rise up in my throat, my heartbeat thundering in my chest. When the pangs subside, I reach for my water skin and drink sparingly, unsure if there will be more before nightfall. I could get more, only requiring me to catch up to the water carts, a feat beyond my meagre abilities. Kill me now, strike me down, cruel world. I’ve survived slavers and arrogant nobles, carnugators and terror birds, Defiled and Demons, but it is marathon fucking running which has worn away my will to survive.
“Drink more boy, then come ride with me.” Taduk’s rickshaw waits behind me, his look of concern filling me with warmth, and despite how desperately I want to take up his offer, I grudgingly shake my head.
“She said… for me… to run…”
“Yes, yes, but we are almost at the Bridge, and you cannot arrive before our adversaries sweating and exhausted. Up now, I’ve spoken to Akanai.”
It takes a direct message from Akanai to persuade me onto the vehicle, carefully settling down next to Lin as she dabs at my face with a clean rag, wiping away my sweat and grime. It doesn’t take long for me to zone out, unable to fall asleep despite of my much-needed late-night talk with Mila. She’s a sweet kid, which is the problem with our betrothal: She’s a kid. Adorable and lovely as Lin, I care about them both but I’m not really comfortable looking at them in a sexual way. I may not act like the most mature person around, but I still feel like I’m older than them, by a large, unknown margin.
Yan is different, more mature and grounded, and I was attracted to her before my run in with Vivek ‘Big Whitey’ Daatei, which helps, but it’s still weirdly uncomfortable when I consider it. I am looking forward to seeing her again, our two month separation having left me with mixed opinions about her permanent departure. Lin is like my little sister, sweet and loving, while Mila is my rival and coach. Yan is my friend, someone I could hang out with but didn’t demand my attentions. I like that, because it’s like being alone, which I need, except with someone else there, which I don’t hate.
I care about all three of them, but do I love them? I don’t know, but thankfully, I have a few years to figure it out. Or we all die in the next few days in blood and fire, but that would make things too easy for me, so I’d say I’m pretty safe. At some point, I’ll need to make a decision, but I’m gonna leave it for future Rain to deal with. Fuck that guy, he’s never done anything for me.
Stopping for lunch by a stream, I bathe and change clothes following Akanai’s orders. Dressed in full Sentinel leathers, helmet and all, my sword is clipped to my belt and a quin lent out for me to ride. Appearances must be kept, I guess. After lunch, I join Alsantset, Huu, Mila and Lin to ride at the front with Akanai, the other Sentinels arranging themselves in neat rows as we trot slowly in formation, cresting one last hill to view the Walls, massive and ugly as I remember them.
“Say nothing at all unless I give you explicit permission, understood?” Akanai’s icy glare draws down on me and I nod as quickly as I can, the picture of innocence. I’ll make silence my standard operating procedure from now on, mouth shut, ears open, eyes … can’t look down, can’t stare, so I’m left with… look up by elimination, I guess? I should wear a veil to cover my face, but it might violate some social norm.
Moving at our relaxed pace, we reach the gate in little more than an hour, where the Iron Banner greets us, Baatar, Yan, and Ghurda waiting with a small unit of soldiers. My heart skips a beat as we approach the leader, my mouth drying out as I study her. A beautiful woman in her mid twenties, standing at average height, her aloof, almost indifferent demeanour speaks of someone used to dealing with authority figures, wholly unconcerned by the army before her. Ornate black and silver armor hides her figure save for her pale, slender limbs, her cold, blue eyes studying us from beneath her open-faced helmet. As we draw near, our gazes lock for a brief second and her icy stare sends shivers down my spine.
Twitching from side to side, her fluffy, white-furred tail pokes out from behind as she bows ever so slightly to Akanai, displaying an immaculate ponytail of platinum blonde hair flowing out of the back of her helmet, her long fox ears poking out the top, black-trimmed and delicate. “Lieutenant General Akanai? This servant is named Yuzhen, attendant to Marshal Shing Du Yi.” Soft spoken yet decisive and resolute, her melodic voice continues on as I struggle to listen to her words, but all I can do is revel in the sweet timbre of her voice, staring intently at her delicate features and glistening, pink lips.
I just met her, and this is crazy, but I think I’m in love.
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