Cheers erupted from her Sentinels as Akanai stood proudly at stage side, their voices deafening and exuberant in honour of their champion. The better warrior lost today, and Rain’s hard-fought victory was the result of dedication and determination, not superior skill or luck, plain to see for all present. The gore-soaked youth knelt upon the stage, his armour in tatters, flesh in ribbons, bleeding profusely as he laughed into the heavens, rejoicing in his triumph.
A magnificent performance.
For the most part.
As soon as the Justicar announced the boy’s victory, the pup leaped on stage and was quickly followed by Taduk, two mother hens rushing over to fuss over the boy’s injuries. As they approached, the boy closed his eyes and the blood spurting from his chest wound slowed to a trickle, but whether that was his own work or Taduk’s, she could not say. The prideful little warrior tried to refuse aid, struggling to his feet with a smile upon his face, staring out at the crowd and reveling in their cheers, his arm shooting up in victory as he shuffled back towards his people, pain and joy warring in his expression, seeming younger and more childlike than before.
To think she almost dragged him offstage a handful of times, his four matches leaving her short of breath as she traversed the peaks and valleys of joy and despair. Killing his first opponent with ease, he then proceeded to struggle desperately with his second, to the point where she readied to signal their retreat and fight her way out. Lamenting his luck in facing a bristleboar, she grimaced as she watched him fight without thinking, mindlessly flailing away at his opponent, at a loss on how to help him through his anger. Normally so timid and quiet, in his rage he seemed a different animal, furious and frothing at the mouth, a rabid beast hungering for blood.
What followed was anything but glorious and her eyes were closed in thanks when he offered challenge once again, sending her temper flaring. Only the joint efforts of the pup and her husband kept her from charging up to beat some sense into the boy, the most frustrating young man she ever had the displeasure of meeting. His quick, third victory earned him redemption in her eyes, but once again his venomous mouth opened before she could stop him, distracted by her musings of his plan of attack. The boy left himself no option should the throw fail, the momentum of his charging opponent crashing into him head on. A risky, desperate venture she did not approve of, nor did she believe he had the guts to do so. A happy accident that he won, and her gut churned at the arrival of his fourth opponent, Situ Jia Zian.
Her hopes for an easy victory were cruelly dashed when she watched them meet, Rain unable to defend against Zian’s Aura. He was supposedly able to resist: she had even tested him in secret, but it seemed she had misjudged the situation, that he relied on nothing but willpower to deflect her probing. Pride and horror warred within her at the knowledge of how he weathered her aura, even charging a Demon unprotected, a young man so beset by fear, yet still acting heroically in spite of it. She remembered her first time being subjected to Aura, how she quivered helplessly before the Army recruitment officer after proudly announcing herself as a victor of the Contest, a foolish child who knew nothing of the world at large. Watching Rain struggle to fight in the face of abject terror, the pressure of Zian’s Aura weighing heavily on him, yet still able to match his opponent blow for blow, she could not help but admire his courage.
Throughout the bloody match, she stood ready to charge in and save him should it be necessary. His talent notwithstanding, little Mila’s mournful cries were enough cause for her to act. She already planned to break the law and flee with her people, why not also save Rain and kill Zian before she fled? Thankfully, Rain found victory from the jaws of defeat, and more importantly, was finally getting off the stage.
Carried off by the pup, in fact, the toll on his body too great as he passed out mid stride. She would need to have words with him about his boasting, as well as his vicious acts and despicable remarks. Threats and barbs were a matter of course, but his insults and mockery went too far. He represented the People when he fought, and she would not stand for their reputation to be tarnished by threats of sadistic tortures and rape, empty though they may be. It was a matter of face, and Rain threw away much of what he had earned with his deplorable taunting, although he now had plenty to spare at the moment. It was just like him to be so wasteful with his currency, real or otherwise.
The thought of having to discipline the comatose young man brought a twitch to her eye. How was she to forge him into a respectable man? Now a young hero of the Empire, to set him to task digging latrines might push him into leaving to join the army, following unknowingly in her footsteps. Seeing Mila tenderly wipe the blood from his face, Akanai’s heart skipped a beat at the thought of not seeing her daughter for decades should the foolish child choose to follow Rain into self-imposed exile. Muttering a prayer of apology to her husband’s parents, Akanai decided to be a little more lenient on the boy, and hopefully little Mila would keep him in check.
The Justicar’s Sending shook her from her thoughts. “Lieutenant General Akanai, Lieutenant General Situ Jia Yang has requested to open a dialogue. In the interest of transparency and safety, please join us at the front of the stage, leaving your weapons behind.” Seeing her counterpart moving alone and unarmed, she signalled for the pup to stay behind and strode out to meet him. Having noted his concern for young Zian, she anticipated what the meeting was about, her face carefully neutral as she approached the steel-masked Justicars.
Without waiting for approval, Yang spoke through clenched teeth as soon as she arrived. “How much?”
Tilting her head, she paused for dramatic effect, struggling to hide her grin. “I am at a disadvantage. Whatever do you mean?”
She could see the veins throbbing in his temple, his face turning red with rage. “Name your price for Zian’s life. If need be, I will forfeit the last match. Your little savage has talent, but experts are as common as the clouds. How confident are you of victory? Zian’s life for your five youths and the Senior Captain, a fair trade.”
Laughter burst from her lips as she leaned back, acting out her amusement for all to see. Already the People were firmly against the Society, so there was no need to be overly polite. “You have already lost four matches and have the gall to pretend your withdrawal is a favour? Do what you must, I am wholly confident in victory, Rain was but the vanguard. Who knew the Society was so lacking in young talents.” Seeing his incoherent rage only brought her more joy, knowing he valued his nephew made the victory all the sweeter. Those Society bastards almost took Mila’s life, she had no pity for any of them.
“The Empire asks that you reconsider, Lieutenant General Akanai.” The lead Justicar spoke and she turned to meet his dark eyes, staring from behind his mask. “Young Zian is talented, and while your Falling Rain is impressive as well, the Empire can never have too many young heroes. We are all but servants of the Emperor.” The others nodded in silent agreement, deflating her joy. A shame, if she were to insist on Zian’s death before the Justicars plea, it would be throwing away face. Worse, Yang seemed ready to declare open war if she pressed the issue, something she prefered to avoid if possible. A war in the shadows was so much easier, skirting all those restrictive laws and rules.
Pretending to deliberate for some time, she finally sighed and acquiesced. “I understand, but the decision is not mine to make. I request the Disciplinary Corps take Situ Jia Zian into custody for safekeeping while we wait for Rain to wake. As the victor, he holds the right to decide Zian’s fate.” Let Zian rot in a cell for the night and worry over for his life. She would speak to the boy and make sure he came to the right decision.
Yang’s Sending reached her ears, his voice dripping with anger and venom. “Enjoy your victory while it lasts savage. The Society has stood for thousands of years, and will still stand long after your bones are ground to dust beneath my boot.”
Ignoring him, she sauntered back to her Sentinels, openly grinning at their fortune. Oh, the Society would pay dearly for little Zian, that she was sure of. Her grin widened upon hearing the cries of his mother as the enforcers marched Zian away, a wealthy magistrate with a deep purse and plenty of motivation to pay. Perhaps it was better that the boy was still unfamiliar with his shield, not using the blade to his full advantage even after all the work her husband put into crafting it. There was the risk of loosing the tiger back to the mountain, but there was little to be done now. Rain would simply have to work harder, so that the next time the two met, it would be a more even match.
Soon after she explained everything to the pup, the Justicar announced the Society’s withdrawal from the last match, likely a concession made to ensure Zian’s survival. A shame that Mila and Adujan lost their chance to shine, although perhaps it was for the best, both still reeling from their seesaw of emotions as they tended to the boy. Chuckling silently at Du Min Gyu’s harsh words, loudly cursing the Society youths for their weakness, she gave orders to her celebrating Sentinels, withdrawing from the field back to their barracks to set up their defences. The trials were won, but the Society would not be so quick to forgive or forget, nor would she. Victory was only spitting in their eye, and she intended to do far worse.
Sighing contentedly, she reflected on the long journey they took to reach here, all of it beginning with her ill-guided attempt to raise Rain’s standing among the people. At least she succeeded in that venture as now, when Rain woke from his slumber, he would find himself at the forefront of his peers, overshadowing even little Mila in reputation. The lost tribesmen who found his way back to the mountains, his place among the people was almost written in stone, something for him to take pride in, an identity to hold to, a purpose to fulfill.
She prayed it would be enough to keep history from repeating itself.
Standing at attention inside his crowded meeting room, Jia Yang clasped his hands tightly behind his back, gritting his teeth and resisting the urge to order the deaths of everyone in the room, elders and guards alike. Focusing on Major General Teng Wei Sheng, Yang picked his words carefully, swallowing his acidic comments about the man’s useless nephew. “Wei Chuan requested to go first. In fact, if I recall correctly, he was ready to come to blows for the honour of being the vanguard. In what way am I responsible for his death?” A pathetic one at that, dying slowly while he squirmed about the stage, gurgling pitifully while trying to beg for mercy. That idiot was barely able to ruffle the hair on that savage child’s head, a worthless existence come to an insignificant end.
All of that could not be said aloud, of course, as doing so would leave the Major General no choice but to offer challenge. It would be counter productive to fall to infighting before dealing with the Bekhai. Once their common enemies were dealt with, then he could return his attentions to his foes within the Society.
“It is not only him, I hold you responsible for little Patriarch’s death!” The OuYang Elder, Duan Fu, wagged his finger furiously, tugging at his beard in frustration. “You dared to use him as a sacrifice! How am I to answer to the Patriarch now that Yu Jin has gone to the arms of the Mother?”
“Gentlemen. We are focusing our energies on the wrong subject, wasting time with our bickering.” Ying sat to one side of the room, her hands clenched about Zian’s sabers, holding them close to her chest as a substitute for her son. “We should instead turn our attentions to how we are to handle the Bekhai. This gross insult can not stand, I will not stand for it. That savage runt will beg me for mercy before I am done.” Her eyes narrowed, a distant gaze within them, as if imagining the tortures she would visit on Falling Rain. Yang smiled for the first time since the trials ended, knowing his sister’s penchant for playing games with her victims. While he disapproved of her games, if ever there were a person deserving of them, it was that spiteful, grinning savage.
So unremarkable and shabby, who would have believed Rain so capable? As much as he looked down upon the two Society youths, their skills were second only to Zian. For that savage to kill one so easily could be attributed to luck, but both of them? And why had the slave given him so much trouble? True, the bristleboar were well-trained, but not to the point of surpassing Wei Chuan and Yu Jin. Had the boy sacrificed his foot on purpose, goading his next opponent into underestimating his strength? Impossible.
Most vexing to him was how the boy seemed resistant to Zian’s Aura, despite clearly being affected by it. It should have been impossible, no person could withstand an Aura without either condensing their own or being protected by another’s, and the boy’s lack of Aura was apparent. The Bekhai cheated somehow, he was sure of it, but those worthless Justicars ignored his accusations, only stating that there was no indication of wrongdoing. That only left the possibility that those savages had some method to escape detection, otherwise it would have been impossible for the boy to fight whilst suppressed. Even the greatest warriors would be unable to act without adequate protection when facing an Aura, it was the way of things.
Coughing to draw their attention, Lin Xiang Gu’s jowls wobbled as he spoke, feigning disinterest as he sipped his tea. “The Lin Clan will be withdrawing their support in this matter; it is a fruitless endeavor.” A loud slurp followed his declaration, finishing his cup before slowly standing to leave, clasping his hands in an empty gesture. “My condolences to you all on your losses.”
“Hold!” Yang’s palm crashed into a nearby shelf and the heavy wood blew apart, showering the area with splinters. To his credit, the fat, bulbous toad did not flinch, turning calmly to meet his murderous gaze. “Your Lin clan sat by, expecting to reap without sowing, and now you think you can walk away without consequence?” Wei Sheng and Duan Fu chimed in agreement, three warring adversaries united against a common foe.
“Reap without sowing?” A sickening smile pasted on his ugly face, Xiang Gu feigned innocence before them. “True, the Lin Clan sent no champion to fight, nor did the White Lotus Sect, but you took it upon yourself to make that decision. We did not ask to have a slave represent us, nor did we agree to surrendering, you made those decisions on your own, hoping to save your precious nephew. I do not fault you for your actions, but your actions have made it clear that the Lin Clan is unneeded in your mind.” Turning to leave, he spoke over his shoulder. “Perhaps things would have been different if a Lin championed the match, but now, we will never know.” The White Lotus Elder quickly followed, scurrying out without a word with her entourage, rats escaping a sinking ship.
Damned politicians, a few sentences from him and the room turned against him once more, every person present choosing to lay the blame solely at his feet once more. The accusations flew furiously, both remaining factions uniting against him, shouting loudly over one another to be heard. His face grew ugly as his anger mounted under the barrage of insults and disrespect, none of those present noticing until too late.
Bursting into action, his arms swept about him in two heavy-handed swipes, batting aside Duan Fu and Wei Sheng with a single strike each. Their guards reacted almost instantly, but still not quickly enough as his Aura crashed into them, suppressing them into inaction, frozen in their fear. Smashing into the press of bodies with a roar, he set about breaking bones with reckless abandon, venting his fury on these upstart dogs. Even in his rage, he made sure not to kill them, crippling a dozen soldiers within seconds before moving on to the next group to draw his ire.
Within seconds, there were no guards left for him to beat, the only sound in the room their pained moans as they lay upon the floor, beaten and broken. This was how it should have been, Zian killing the savage runt without a struggle. Turning his murderous gaze to the two leaders, he felt immense satisfaction in seeing them cower before him, knowing their lives depended solely upon his mercy. He spoke slowly, his deep voice heavy and hoarse. “What’s done is done. I will hear no more of our failures, but know this to be true: I will have my vengeance against the Bekhai. Their day of reckoning will come.” Staring at one, then the other, he made sure they acknowledged his words before continuing. “You are left with a choice. Either aid in my efforts and be given equal portion of the spoils, or leave now and earn my enmity, like those other cowards.”
Quivering like children before their father, Duan Fu and Wei Sheng both looked at one another before gingerly picking themselves up and turning to leave. Yang watched them closely, marking them both for death in the days to come. “One more thing.” They cringed at the sound of his voice, thoroughly cowed by his oppressive Aura, and would remain so until they were well away. “Have your people to retrieve this trash laying about. This is my meeting room, not a garbage heap.”
Once out of sight, his mood turned darker as he stormed out and back to his bedroom, cursing his lack of control. A great man would always have enemies, but this time, he allowed his temper to get the better of him, needlessly making enemies of allies, a foolish mistake. Ying followed him in silence, taking a seat on the divan, still clutching Zian’s weapons, her face impassive, although he knew her thoughts. Sighing deeply, he sat down next to her and cradled his head. “What am I to do now, sister? Without their aid, I can not defeat Akanai and Du Min Gyu, not with the forces here at my disposal.”
Her fingers brushed through his hair, reminding him of their time as children. She was always there to comfort him in his times of failure, offering kind words and advice, tending to his injuries dealt by his father. “It’s simple brother, we do nothing.” He looked up at her in surprise, and she smiled at him, naked pain and fury displayed in her eyes. “We will then meet their demands and my son will be returned to us, before moving on with our lives as if nothing has changed.”
“We are to let this insult stand?”
Scoffing, she waved dismissively. “Idiot, of course not. Here, today, they are united, while you just assaulted our would-be collaborators. Soon however, they will scatter, their cause at an end. Du Min Gyu will return to the Central province, a dangerous journey where anything can happen. Tong Da Hai will be busy rebuilding and reinforcing his city. Akanai and her savages will return home, with our finest scouts shadowing them, learning of their weaknesses. The Bekhai will grow complacent, arrogant in their little victory, all while we will gather information, allies, and resources in the shadows, ready to strike when their guard is down.” She returned to clasping the twin sabers, and Yang watched her rock softly as she hugged the weapons, beside herself with worry for her son.
Shaking his head in amazement, he patted her arm to comfort her. “The Justicars will not mistreat Zian, and even Akanai will not dare refuse mercy. He will be fine, in your arms again tomorrow.” His entire life, his sister had been the smart one, the calm and calculating advisor on his rise to fame. She would have made an excellent Matriarch, far more worthy than Rang Min, bringing untold glory to the Situ Clan under her direction. A pity that the elders were such short-sighted fools, standing against her for mere tradition.
Murmuring a few more reassuring phrases, his mind began to work, pondering over possible allies and options. The Arahant Elder, the one who stormed out of the meeting, he seemed to have a personal grudge against Rain and would make for a good figurehead, distancing himself from any fallout. The merchant Chuwon was another person he should meet with, to discuss the purchase of slaves to aid in the attack.
Within the hour, he was ready to meet with the first of his allies, fondly plotting out his revenge, starting with that maddening child. It would bring him great pleasure to watch the smile fade from his arrogant face, before plucking out his defiant eyes while he still lived. He could be patient, a tiger lying in wait for the stag to lower its guard.
And when the time came, there would be a balancing of scales, in blood and in fire.
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