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Watching Gerel frog-march Rain away, Adujan pouted as she waited, vexed beyond all compare. Two months of separation, and at their fated reunion he barely flashed her a smile before gawking at that hussy, Yuzhen. The nerve of that idiot!
“Yan-Yan, don’t frown so much, Daddy says you’ll get wrinkles.” Lin’s adorable figure popped out in front, feigning an exaggerated frown before smiling sweetly, and Adujan had no choice but to mirror her smile. Little Lin was too adorable.
Resisting the urge to squeeze Lin’s cheeks into paste, Adujan turned to the Medical Saint and bowed slightly, unsure of how to act around the beloved healer. “Ser Taduk, if you will follow me and Kyung, we will bring you to Teacher Du.”
Leading the way from Shana’s back, she kept her eyes open for any sign of threat. If not for Ghurda showing her the dangers, she would have been unaware of the Society presence around her, their enemies waiting in the shadows for a chance to strike unseen. The entire journey was nerve-wracking as she started at every errant soldier who rushed past, every leering face that stared too long. With no Sentinel escort, it was in her hands to keep her charges alive, with only Kyung to watch her back.
Not halfway through her journey, she spotted a familiar face and breathed a sigh of relief, Du Kang Bing marching towards them on foot with a squadron of soldiers. Falling in beside her party without a word, The Colonel took command, leaving Adujan free to relax. A handsome man with a square jaw and broad chest, he was young for his rank, only just past 30 years, a good sign. Every one of Teacher Du’s students rose quickly in rank, her decision to leave the village validated once more.
As soon as they arrived, she brought Ser Taduk and Lin into her teacher’s room, wincing at the sight of the frail old man, no sign of the heroic elder she had met only weeks before. His malady had worsened quickly in their few days apart, his face a pallid colour, eyes sunken into his flesh, shivering in his chair while sweating next to a blazing fire. Rushing to his side, she wiped his brow with her handkerchief, his skin hot to the touch. “Teacher Du, I’ve brought Healer Taduk, I told you about him, remember? He’s known as the Medical Saint, I’m sure he can help you.”
“Bah, I’m sick not senile, I can still remember things.” He waved off her ministrations, irritable at the concern, but she knew he was only ashamed of his weakness. It mattered little to her, so long as he lived, his mind sharp and eyes unfailing. A gruff, pragmatic man, his actions were ever at odds with his words, always making sure she was well cared for in their travels, greatly concerned with her safety, she had grown fond of him in their time together. It would be too unfair to lose her Teacher after only two months together, her strength growing by the day under his tutelage.
“Hmm… Tell me, you feel cold?” Ser Taduk stepped in with a knowing look on his face, taking Teacher Du’s wrist to check his heart. “Any tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing or nausea?”
“Bah, what makes you qualified to treat me? I for one have never heard your name, and the most famed healers of the Central Province have treated me, doing nothing to help me.” Puffing up, her teacher seemed a shadow of his former self, painful for her to see. “Charlatans and frauds, taking money time and time again, yet doing little but offer stopgap measures.”
“He’s complained of all but nausea in the last few weeks.” Adujan chimed in, matching her teacher’s glare with a look of indignation. “Stop being so crotchety and let him help you.”
Muttering loudly about her bullying the elderly, he sat in contemplation for a moment before finally speaking up again. “I’ve had constant bouts of nausea the last few days, can barely choke down soup and congee.”
“Well, that’s to be expected. You ran out of Dream Smoke, correct? How long ago?”
“… Two weeks, but what does that have to do with any of this?”
“Did you run out because you brought too little, or because you smoked it all too quickly?” Not waiting for an answer, Ser Taduk continued. “All of your symptoms can be attributed to withdrawal, Dream Smoke is highly addictive, and not the best choice for pain management, but I don’t think your healers had much choice, as you don’t seem to be the best of patients. Once you ran out, your body began to crave it, resulting in your current suffering.” He lectured sternly on the dangers of addiction and the irresponsible habits of Teacher Du for having succumbed to it, the old man shuffling in discomfort at Taduk’s scolding.
After he started to repeat himself, she interrupted Ser Taduk, saving poor Teacher Du. “How can it be treated?”
With an aggrieved expression, he reached over to pinch her cheeks gently. “Simple enough to treat the symptoms, and they will go away on their own in a few days.”
“Hmph, so you say my suffering is all because of my so-called healers. What did I say, charlatans the lot of them.” His anger was clear as he struggled to stand, his determination surging now that he knew his malady was temporary. “Come, we have work to do, I must salvage my reputation.”
Rolling his eyes, Ser Taduk pushed Teacher Du back in to the chair with little regard. “Your reputation can wait, you still have other injuries correct? My student says you favour your right hip and knee, are there any other injuries?”
“You can fix those too? I was told it was cartilage damage, unable to be healed. Something about lack of regenerative capabilities and materials.”
“You let me worry about that, although I will insist on an oath of secrecy. Better for me if no one knows I healed you, I get enough demands as it stands.”
Dragged out by Lin, they sat down in front of the door to make sure Ser Taduk was not bothered. The adorable girl clutched Adujan’s arm and rested her head, looking up sweetly. “How have you been Yan-Yan? Has he been treating you well?”
Flushed with delight at her teacher’s imminent recovery, she clapped her hands in joy, beaming at Lin. “Oh, it’s been wonderful, I’ve learned so much. Every day I progress in what feels like leaps and bounds, despite only an hour or two of practice. What’s more, when I arrived here, I got to ride alongside the Banner!” She described the frantic, organized chaos she had taken part in, fighting beside the heroes of the village, to be relied upon by them. If it had been Rain next to her, she could have gone into great lengths about the strategy and coordination involved, how it had opened her eyes to a new level of warfare besides a sprawling melee, but since Lin was not a warrior, she glossed over the gory details.
The little lady Lin was sharp, however. “You’re thinking about Rainy, ya?” Her knowing smile sent a blush to Adujan’s cheeks, ashamed at being caught out so easily. She didn’t really wish to go into it with Lin. They had never spoken about him, and if she were of mind to, Lin could denounce Adujan for trying to lay claim to him, when he was already spoken for. Mila was different, she likely had the little lady’s approval before trying to win over Rain, but Adujan was just an outsider.
As if sensing her thoughts, Lin embraced Adujan, snuggling in close and hiding her face. “Don’t worry too much Yan-Yan, that’s just how Rainy is. I can’t keep him from falling in love and I think you’re a good match for him, you’re both alike in so many ways. If anything, I should be asking you for permission to marry him, he cares about you more.”
“I don’t know about that. Did you see how he stared at Yuzhen today, completely ignoring me? I don’t mind if he has a wandering eye, Mother knows I do as well, but he’s never looked at me like that, with lust and desire. We shared a tent for weeks and he didn’t even try to sneak into my bedroll or anything.” She would have rebuffed him of course, but it would have been nice to have him try. “He sees me as a friend, not a lover.”
A small sound of frustration emerged from Lin, her face still buried in Adujan’s shoulder. “It’s the same with me, he keeps saying I’m like his little sister, it’s so annoying!” Unable to help herself anymore, Adujan extricated her arm and took the sweet girl in a full embrace, kissing her on the cheek. Too adorable.
The two of them chatted away the afternoon, venting their frustrations and sharing plans, falling asleep at their post after some time. Awakened by the opening door, she barely managed to keep herself from falling back into the room, lifting the sleepy Lin up with her as she stood to greet her teacher.
Storming past her with renewed vigour, Teacher Du marched out of the room and down the hall, hollering for Kyung to bring him a change of clothes, his limp not slowing him down at all. Emerging from the room with a tired expression, Ser Taduk smiled at the two of them, taking his sleepy daughter into his arms.
Her teacher’s scolding jolted her out of her fugue. “Girl, why are you not preparing? Dress yourself, there is work to be done.”
Glancing out the window at the darkness, she asked, “It’s the middle of the night, shouldn’t you rest? The trial is in the morning.”
“No time for that.” She could hear the life in his voice as it echoed down the hall. “I have a reputation to salvage!”
Smiling gratefully, she bowed deeply to Ser Taduk before running off to prepare, excitement bubbling up within her chest. While injured, Teacher Du matched the Chief Provost in might, so how strong was he now that Ser Taduk had healed him?
She looked forward to finding out, taking pride as the student of Du Min Gyu.
Resting her head upon her husband’s broad, muscular chest, Akanai listened to his slow and steady heartbeat, strong and vital, interspersed with his rumbling snores. Smiling to herself, she immersed herself in the memories of their time together, centering herself for the trials ahead. This overcast dawn was the calm before the storm, in more ways than one, and she would savour every moment of peace available.
Theirs was a story of rivals turned lovers, almost a century in the making, but their love was all the stronger from their shared trials. A different time that had been, an era of turmoil and disorder, the Empire reeling from a massive incursion of Defiled and civil strife, the Emperor’s assassination causing widespread panic. The village directors had gathered and unilaterally decided to close off the borders, and as a foolish child, she ran away from the orphanage, making the journey to Shen Huo on foot to join the army. Nationalism and personal pride had trumped common sense, leaving home to raise her status high enough to be ‘worthy’ of her lover, a journeyman blacksmith, warrior of renown, and child of luxury.
Her letter did little to dissuade him from following, charging after her like a madman, his fury a spectacle to behold. Too late to stop her, he joined the army to stand at her side, leaving behind everything he held dear. Together, they fought for decades against both Defiled and rebels, until the province was safe and they returned home to be married. He never spoke of his adversity, never blamed her for becoming estranged from his parent’s or for missing their funeral’s, but it wore heavily on her. It was not until they adopted little Mila that she truly understood the love between family, and it plagued her to have been the cause of her husband’s distress.
Snuggling closer to him, she wrapped her arms tightly around his ample body, enjoying the warmth for one last moment before she woke. Gingerly stepping out of bed, she donned her leather armor, flexible and form-fitting. A double layer of Megalodon leather, the inner lining stitched together with Terror Bird feathers, it too brought back memories, of taking the pup out on his first real hunt, chasing the massive, aquatic predator that was terrorizing the coastal cities. He was a child then, barely older than Rain was now, spoiling her with how easily he learned and obeyed, a model disciple turned Hero of the Empire.
Rain however… He was talented in his own way, but a difficult student that confounded her. If it came down to the third match, could the boy be relied upon? According to Du Min Gyu, Jia Zian was a formidable opponent, with the ability to manifest his aura. While Mila was an accomplished warrior, she lacked the experience and mindset necessary to face an opponent of Zian’s caliber, Rain a far more suitable opponent for him. Tempered in battle, the customarily meek child sought out the challenge of combat with unexpected enthusiasm, his fatalistic mindset allowing him to attack even a Demon without regard for personal safety. Was she truly left with no other option, or was Rain up to the task? Her mind occupied by these thoughts and more, she strode towards the mess hall, pausing at the sound of sparring, a twitch in her forehead causing her to change course. Surely it wouldn’t be him…
His weapons in hand, Rain sparred ferociously with Gerel in the courtyard, several Sentinels spectating as the two pure-blooded clansmen exchanged blows, the lanterns lit and hung to better see them in the murky morning gloom. Stepping forward to berate both idiots, a raised hand intercepted her before she could act, the pup smiling up at her briefly before turning his attentions back to the match. “Let them continue for now.”
“This is foolish, the boy needs rest. He spent half the day running and the other half binding his weapon. Has he even slept ?” Despite her desire to end to the proceedings, she stood back and respected the pup’s wishes, inwardly lamenting the horde of idiots surrounding her. Studying the match closely, she was shocked to see Rain so savage, striking to kill with his Spiritual Weapons, his face lit up in undisguised joy as they sparred. Gerel responded calmly, dealing with the attacks passively, smiling in turn at the young man trying to take his life.
Soon, the momentum shifted and it was Rain who retreated from Gerel’s advance, the heavy longsword scything through the air, only to be met briefly by sword and shield. The attacks were sent sliding away, an almost gently, throwing Gerel off balance as he attacked. “Oh? Impressive.” Soft blocking, using the opponent’s force and momentum against them, the boy had yet to firmly grasp the concept, but the core idea could be seen in his movements. “An Insight from his binding ceremony?”
“Possibly, but he did not say, only that he couldn’t sleep, but Gerel was happy to wear him down. They’ve been at this for two hours now, and the boy seems on the verge of a breakthrough.” Pride was clear in the pup’s tone, a witless smile upon his face. “As much as he needs rest, I am loath to stop him, especially since he so rarely finds Insight. He relies on hard work and repetition, unable to easily accept the gifts of the Mother, too skeptical in nature.”
Remaining silent, she continued to watch while gauging his strength. Even with a single arm, Gerel was a fearsome combatant, and his frustration was beginning to show, unable to disarm the boy without causing injury. The boy displayed signs of fatigue but continued to move well, carefully gauging the timing of each parry, feinting effectively to keep Gerel on his guard for a counter attack. After a few more minutes, she turned to the pup and spoke, leaving no room for debate in her tone. “The Trial is in six hours, have the boy rest for at least four, even if you must knock him out yourself. We may have need of his strength.”
Leaving to eat a quick breakfast before returning to her duties, her shoulders felt lighter than before, a burden lifted from her. The boy could be relied upon, so long as he found some time to rest and eat beforehand, but there was more to be done, plans to be laid and battles to be won, and then the trials could begin.
Pausing once more to consider the alternatives, she wondered if this was the best option, to openly fight with the Empire in turmoil. She cared nothing for the opinion of the masses, only that the People survived and thrived. Retreating home cost her little, although it left her allies exposed, they would not suffer too greatly for her absence. Should she have given up long ago, only drawn here by her wish to find vengeance for little Mila?
Once again hearing the clanging of weapons, she shook her head, her decision made. The arrow had been loosed, their course set. In a few short hours, the trials would begin, and she would cut down all who stood against her, until she could no longer stand.
Such was life, tribulations without end.
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