The short moment between sleep and waking is the best.
Eyes still closed, I yawn loudly while slowly stretching, my body contorting in odd, but comfortable directions. Warm beneath my blankets, the chill air surrounds me, invading into my fortress of coziness as I shift about, wiggling my hips left and right to ease out the kinks in my lower back.
A tiny form presses up against me, and I open my eyes to find my little runt cat blinking slowly at me as he suckles the blankets, too-large paws stretching out lazily and kneading the bed as I run my hands through his soft fur. Closing his eyes to savour the attention, he purrs in contentment as I rub his black-tipped ears and coo at him. “Who’s a cute kitty? You are, yes you are.”
“Please brother, have some dignity.”
Ugh. “C’mon now, no one’s around, and how can you not melt when you see his little stripped face and green eyes? The only way he could be cuter is if he meowed.” Lifting the limp animal to my chest, I continue to stroke his head while meowing at him, trying to elicit a response.
The door to my tiny room cracks open and Lin’s adorable little head pops through, her twin braids trailing as she cheerily smiles. “I thought I heard you wake. You’re so silly Rainy, wildcats don’t meow. Are you feeling better?”
“Great! My chest feels a little tight, but that’s to be expected.”
“Yay!” She beams at me, happy at the news. “I’ll go get Daddy and have a bath prepared for you, we couldn’t get all the blood off. Rainy, you need to win more fights like your first and third matches, ya? Your other fights were too messy.” Sticking her tongue out at me, she closes the door and runs away, the sound of her footsteps fading down the hall.
Resting for a few minutes more, I finally scrounge up the willpower to slip out of my blankets and step onto the stone floor, icy cold to the touch. Opening the window to let in light, my room overlooks the inner courtyard, a number of Sentinels training and relaxing in the early morning sun. Yesterday, I had a sword lodged in my chest, and today, through the miracle of bunny-eared healers, there isn’t even a scar to show for it. “It’s good to be alive.”
“That it is, brother. You missed out on the applause again, it was incredible. I tried to walk off the stage but failed, my apologies for my weakness.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it.” An errant thought strikes me mid-stretch, but I’m unable to frame the question delicately. “… Do you ever take over when I’m sleeping?” Visions of me running around in the night haunt me, humping every woman in sight and starting fights over face and pride.
“… I can’t. I’ve tried for hours since I woke up, you slept for so long I almost died of boredom. It doesn’t really seem fair, we should be able to take control in shifts, then we would never have to sleep.” His exasperation is clear as he hurries me while dressing, impatient and ready to set out once again.
“I don’t think that’s how it works, our body still needs to rest.” Relieved at his limitations, further conversation is interrupted by Taduk’s entry, happily smiling as I run over to hug him. I’m in a hugging mood, I almost died like a hundred times yesterday. “Good morning Teacher.”
“Hmm, I don’t recall you hitting your head in the match. Quickly, what are the characteristics and preparation methods of the frost horse nettle?” He quickly checks me over while I roll my eyes and answer. “Good, good, your mind is in working order, just a little more affectionate today.” Giving me another hug, he thumps me heavily on the shoulder. “Celebrating being alive are we? Well fought my boy, but next time, leave some glory for the others.” His levity fades as does his smile. “Perhaps you should think about coming home now to focus on your studies. You’ve all the markings of an extraordinary healer and you’ve had plenty of adventures. A rest might be in order, hmm?”
“Absolutely, I would be thrilled to go home. Everyone seems to forget, I never wanted to leave.” After chatting some more and another hug, I make my way downstairs to the bathing area. As I walk past, Sentinels smile in greeting, patting me and winking, one lovely older woman even giving me an enticing look, setting my heart to fluttering. A world of difference from before, the added attention makes me intensely uncomfortable as I awkwardly smile and nod at each person in passing. It’s like being in Shen Huo after my fight with DuGu Tian Yi, except now it’ll follow me home. Other me loves it, pride and satisfaction emanating from him as he prattles on about his ‘well-earned respect and praise’.
A little egotistical, but then again, he fits right in around here.
Inside the bathroom, a steaming hot tub of water awaits me, little Lin working quickly, and I soak comfortably in the relaxing bath, scrubbing away flecks of dried blood from my skin and hair while my kitten paddles around in the tub with me. Clean and refreshed, I stride out of the bathroom where Mila stands waiting for me with a smile, while her ever-present shadow Li Song skulks nearby, absently hugging the only female kitten while warily watching my every move.
Happiness surges through me when I see her waiting, cheerful and perky with an almost mischievous grin, a far cry from her tearful face as she watched me fight. Closing the distance quickly, I open my arms and embrace her tightly, my arms wrapped around her shoulders as she tenses up from my unexpected affection. “Hey you. Sorry about not giving you a turn on stage, I got a little too excited.”
Blushing furiously as she pushes me away, she pouts adorably and pokes me in the chest. “What are you doing? We’re in public, stop it.”
“So does that mean you want me to hug you in private?”
Snorting daintily, she ignores my teasing and retorts, “I can’t believe you, always complaining about having to fight and then hogging the stage during public duels. So unfair, I was looking forward to being famous.” Flipping her short hair, she grabs me by the arm and leads me away, scolding me the entire time. “You went too far against that poor man, slitting his throat like that, it was macabre. You should have just removed his head cleanly, what did you gain in letting him suffer?”
Mentally telling Other me to pay attention to her lecturing, my mind wanders as we move through the courtyard, watching the other Sentinels take notice of my passing. There are no bows or compliments, simply an acknowledging of my presence. I wish things could go back to normal, when I could walk past everyone without the scrutiny, everyone minding their own business. All this eye contact and fake smiling is exhausting.
Mila leads me to the corner garden where Yan slowly moves through the Forms in silence while Zabu, Shana, and the biggest, meanest kitten laze about, snuggled closely together. Graceful and elegant, her movements are sharper than before, evoking a sense of danger she previously lacked. Her hair is a little longer now, still shorter than Mila’s but longer than her close-cropped man cut, carefully tucked behind her ears as she practices, oblivious to our arrival. Limiting herself to a select few forms, she speeds up through the repetitions until her movements become a blur, her weapons audibly cutting through the air as she leaps about in a dazzling display of skill.
Exactly two months to the day since she left with Du Min Gyu, she’s improved so much in a short time, leaving me ambivalent about her progress. On one hand, her new teacher is working out well for her and I’m happy to see her gaining strength, but on the other, I was almost hoping for it to be a disastrous choice, and for her to stay with us after being reunited once more.
Plus, I don’t enjoy being completely dominated in combat by adorable young women, it’s not really my thing.
Her practice comes to an abrupt halt after a vicious one-two thrust of her weapons, and Mila and I burst into applause, startling her into a defensive posture. Laughing at her discomposure, I walk up for a hug, Yan emulating Mila and freezing at my affectionate embrace. C’mon now. “Incredible Yan, we should spar later. Thank you for the weapon, it came in handy as you saw. Ah, it’s so good to see you again!”
Carefully extracting herself from my embrace, Yan smiles frostily at me, wiping away her sweat in an alluring manner. “Oh, how kind of you to notice me, I guess it’s easier when I’m the only one around.”
This again. “Look, I’m sorry about staring at Yuzhen, but I didn’t know who she was and I was being cautious.” Trying to appear contrite, I extend my hands towards her for another hug.
“Hmph. Yuzhen is it now? How familiar you are, I’m delighted for you.” Batting aside my hands, she busies herself tidying the area.
“Oh, come on, that’s her name, what else am I supposed to call her?” I need to keep a lid on my hormones or else someone is going to castrate me.
“I feel sorry for you Mila, having to watch your betrothed turn into a drooling idiot at the sight of another woman.”
Mila glares at me as well, their emotions resonating off each other and growing to unprecedented heights. “I’m not so sure about marrying him anyways. He’s just a glory hogging, skirt chasing idiot. Let him do whatever he wants, it’s no concern of mine.”
Hands held high in surrender, I casually slip behind the quins, using them as a physical barrier between us. “What do you want, you want me to never look at another woman again?”
“Yes.” Their voices harmonize as they glare at me in unison, ready to go off on a joint tirade. Thankfully, Lin appears with a large tray of food and Mila and Yan pull back at her arrival. Settling down for a tense meal, I eat in silence while Lin chats mindlessly with me, all smiles and affection, keeping all accusations and complaints at bay. Lin really is the best, unlike stupid Other me who can’t stop laughing and offering terrible advice, like ’embrace them both’ and ‘be firm, tell them we will not be constrained or limited’. I feel like he should be strictly a combat advisor from here on out.
Dragging Mila and Li Song away with her to help clean, Lin winks at me as she leaves me alone with Yan, the atmosphere a little awkward. Patting Zabu while he snores, I glance over at Yan, who sits sulkily, pouting as she leans against Shana. “I really did miss you while you were gone, you know.”
Responding with a sullen glare, she buries her face in Shana’s fur and mumbles back, “I missed you too. Still, it wouldn’t have killed you to smile at me or something, instead of staring at some stranger.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry, I’ll keep that in mind for our next reunion.” Smiling wryly, I brush her hair aside, the bangs hiding her lovely blushing face. “I like your hair this length, stylish yet practical. It suits you.” Compliments, everyone loves to hear compliments, and talking about themselves. “So tell me about your journey with Du Min Gyu. How did you get a weapon heart?”
She brightens up and launches into the tale, animated as she acts out the battle, enlisting Zabu as the Meng-Zhua. Lin, Mila and Li Song return soon after and we spend the morning laughing and chatting with one another, enjoying our brief reunion before Yan leaves us for the second time. Conveniently, they’ll be travelling with a Justicar who is returning to the Central Province, offering them a good amount of safety from reprisal. According to her, even the Society isn’t suicidal enough to attack a Justicar’s entourage. Everyone nods sagely at her declaration, making it too awkward for me to ask why.
After lunch, Baatar stops by with my weapons and armor, and after I change, he leads me away, his smile wide and eyes twinkling as he marches me away, one hand on my shoulder. “You fought well disciple, brought honour to the people. You have grown from the scared little child we found into a true warrior.” Frowning down at me, his grip tightens. “Not all is well, however, and I expect you never to repeat the same mistakes again. Such hubris and audacity, ignoring my mentor’s orders and taking action without approval, I will not abide such disrespect.”
“Yes Mentor. Apologies, Mentor.” Meekly agreeing, I lower my head in contrition, a little annoyed I am once again being punished for something I didn’t do, meekly nodding as Baatar’s lists out my errors.
“You will kill your opponents quickly and without delay. You need not make a display of it, show your strength and people will talk. You are a soldier, not a performer.”
“Yes Mentor. Apologies, Mentor.”
“And you are to never again threaten anyone with torture or rape. Understood?”
Sigh. Thanks Other me. “Yes Mentor. Apologies, Mentor.”
“Make no mistake, I am very proud of you, but I hold you to a high standard. I hope for you to become an honourable and respectable warrior, even if you think it tiresome.” Pulling me in for a one-armed hug, his voice softens. “I know you were only trying to scare your opponents with empty threats, but a thousand tongues wagging can do more damage than a single sword. Innocence and good intentions matter little when the world believes otherwise.”
Continuing to lead me away, Baatar rambles on, instructing me on proper behaviour and etiquette. Some of it is completely crazy, but I take mental notes in any case. I can’t let Baatar down, not after all he’s done for me. I can’t let any of them down. We continue to walk for almost half an hour, Baatar speaking through every second without pause, more complete sentences than I’ve heard him speak in six years.
After making our way up a colossal flight of stairs to the top of the Wall, Baatar pauses mid-sentence before quickly Sending his voice into my mind. “Ah, right, be polite, do not ask for too much and try not to incite a riot. Now, back straight, head up, knees high, and… March.”
Moving like a soldier on parade duty, I move in stride with Baatar and come to a stop in front of the Justicars. Behind them, held firmly between a pair of enforcers, Zian stands dejectedly, his arm reattached. Joining me at my right stands Akanai, who nods approvingly at my entrance, a faint smile on her lips. On the other side stands lovely Yuzhen, the Marshal, Yang, and Zian’s hot, sexy mom, the latter two glaring furiously while I avoid eye contact, staring straight ahead with enormous effort, studying all the unknown guards standing around facing us, and only one man with his back turned, looking out at the horde of Defiled.
Baatar clasps his fist and bows and I quickly mirror him. “Major Baatar and Private Falling Rain, awaiting your orders.”
A robust, aged gentleman turns about and begins pacing in front of me, studying me intently. His resplendent gold-trimmed armor and black cloak make him look like a hero out of a children’s story, his sharp eyes staring deep into my mind. Noting the Situ crest on his cloak, my stomach drops and I steel myself, forcing myself to stare back at him.
The seconds pass as our gazes lock, fear steadily building up within me as I lock gazes with this formidable stranger, power exuding from every fiber of his being, a man who demanded obedience and threatened violence without effort. Looming above me, he grows taller with every beat of my heart, able to crush me with only a single finger, a vicious animal, fury and savagery barely restrained, force is all he knows, brutality a way of life.
My mind screams at an unseen danger, sending me leaping back, instinctively drawing my weapons and settling into a defensive stance, ready to sell my life dearly.
Time moves slowly as my eyes dart about, ready to act to defend myself, hands gripped tightly around my weapons as the adrenaline surges through me, but something is wrong. Everyone stands motionless, watching me carefully, with no confusion or distress. In fact, Akanai seems pleased, openly grinning now, her eyes filled with approval.
The danger fades without warning, and I stagger beneath the sudden freedom, panting heavily as I hold my stance, confused and disoriented. The old gentleman shatters the heavy silence with his booming laughter, clapping Baatar’s shoulder in a friendly gesture. “Damn me, and you’re telling me he isn’t even the strongest youth in your village?”
“Strongest, no, although he is talented. Only time will tell if he can live up to his potential, Colonel General.” Understanding dawns upon me, the formidable stranger standing before me is Nian Zu, Commander at the Wall, the highest ranked soldier in the Northern Province, a living legend.
Turning to Yang, Nian Zu cocks his head, waiting in silence until Yang nods ever so slightly. Turning back to me, he waves me closer. “Put away your weapons, my apologies for testing you but there were allegations of misconduct.” My heart continues to hammer away, my mouth dry with fear as I shakily shoulder my weapons and step forward. His oppressive demeanour is nowhere to be found, only a delighted old man in armour standing before me.
His hand rests gently on my shoulder and I tense up, feeling his chi probing my body. Glancing at Baatar, he smiles and gestures for me to relax, indicating I shouldn’t listen to my gut and stab the old soldier. After an in-depth examination, Nian Zu nods in approval. “Good, good. Falling Rain, I, Colonel General Nian Zu, offer you a position in my army. Accept and be bestowed with the rank of Captain, standing here at the wall in defense of the Empire. What say you?”
The banners flap loudly in the wind, filling the silence following my swift refusal, Akanai closing her eyes in consternation, the vein throbbing visibly in her forehead. Erupting into uproarious laughter, Nian Zu claps once, grinning wildly. “You’ve no shortage of nerve, I’ll give you that. Ah, a shame, a shame, such talent, I was hoping to steal you away from Baatar.” Shaking his head with a smile, he lets out a regretful sigh, tossing Akanai a token of authority. “Let us move on to business.”
Turning to face Yang, Nian Zu speaks sternly, all signs of the kind old man erased in a heartbeat, falling back into his role as Ferocious Dragon. “The trials have ended and the Society has lost. After you pay the ransom for Zian’s life, I want this enmity to end, here and now. I have taken Your shadow warriors into custody and sent word to Rang Min and the other leaders of the Society that should any of them act against the People or Du Min Gyu, I will publicly denounce the Society and stand against them in open combat.”
Visibly red with rage, Yang’s veiny neck throbs as he struggles for control. “You would side against your own people for some… savages?”
“Hmph. The citizens of the Empire are my people. Blood means nothing and actions everything. I have commissioned Lieutenant General Akanai to retake the border fortresses, and later today, I will hold a ceremony promoting Major Baatar to Major General and second-in-command at the Wall.” His declaration raises gasps from everyone present, including Baatar, but Nian Zu powers through and continues. “Even if I were to overlook his formidable skills in single combat, the man is a one in ten million talent when it comes to command. You saw his skills at work when you arrived, the coordination and organization is awe-inspiring even to me. When I retire, Baatar will succeed me as Commander at the Wall, and nothing short of an edict from the Emperor’s own hand will change my mind. It is time to end this foolish ‘tradition’ of overlooking talented Half-Beasts. The Empire is in need of heroes, and I will accept them regardless of origin or standing.”
Yang’s temper seems ready to explode, but a simple touch from Zian’s mom keeps him calm, struggling to rein himself in as Nian Zu stands defiantly, almost inviting the challenge. After a long pause, Yang turns to me and snarls, “Name your price runt and be done with it.”
Still reeling at the news, I take a moment to consider my options while congratulating Baatar and Akanai. Money? I do love money, but how much is he worth? Sighing deeply, I look over at Zian, pondering my options, a plan forming in my mind as I notice how often Yang and Zian’s mom glance at him, worried for their little champion. Glancing at Akanai, I tilt my head and silently mouth in the language of the People, “Play nice?”
Hiding my grin as she shakes her head, I turn to Nian Zu and ask in my most innocent and naive voice, “Um… Do I have to let him live?”
My question catches him off guard and he glances at Baatar, who shrugs without speaking. “No, you do not, but the Justicars have requested you be lenient. Young talents like yourself and Zian are the future of the Empire, and these are trying times.”
Pretending to look concerned, I idly scratch my neck, feigning conflict. “It’s just that… letting him go is putting another weapon back into the hands of the Society. He is very talented, and I’d rather not have to duel him again.” All true, which lends strength to my performance. “Ah, what to do, what to do?” Pursing my lips, I turn to Yang, enjoying the moment. He already hates us, might as well make him sweat. “How’s about this, you tell me what you’re willing to pay for him, and if I don’t like it, we’ll just hang him from the Wall, here and now.”
The Marshal’s laboured coughing masks his laughter, overshadowed by Nian Zu’s outright howls, both old men enjoying the scene. Society politics, I’m guessing, but who cares. I’m about to get paid!
Show me the money!
Akanai roughly mussed Rain’s hair as they walked away, the young man walking proud as a peacock with his spoils in hand. “Well done, I thought Yang’s eyes were going to explode when he saw your sour expression while you considered his first proposal.”
“It’s all a matter of leverage. They had none, so it was easy to let them hang themselves.” Handing her the heavy case of gold plates, he grinned in triumph. “This is for you, I didn’t do this alone and I’m not very good with my money. It should be enough to cover all future wages I owe, right?” She accepted the small fortune with a wry nod, making no comment of the fact that he kept Yang’s purse for himself. He needed a trophy and the arrogant man seemed ready to die of shame when placing it in Rain’s grasping hands. The boy could squeeze blood from a rock if he were so inclined, and she hoped to never be on the receiving end should he wish to try.
He weathered Nian Zu’s Aura valiantly, reacting in the manner of a warrior, fierce and decisive, bringing pride to the People. She freely gave oath to the Justicars, as did the pup, allowing the test to go ahead without any possibility of misconduct, the accusation driving her to new heights of fury. She still could not understand how he was able to withstand the Aura, and worse, neither did he, but it mattered little in the grand scheme of things.
Upon returning to their barracks, she brought him into a private meeting room, sitting comfortably and serving him a cup of tea, a well-deserved reward. Sipping quietly, he hugged his new armor to his chest, unwilling to put it down for even a moment, treating it like one of his pets as he cuddled his prize. A Runic Breastplate, a near priceless item, it had taken the boy several longing glances and a direct reference before Ying realized his intentions, costing them dearly as they tried to buy him off with more gold, slaves, and women. In the end, he took the armor and a significant amount of coin, unsurprising considering his greedy and cowardly nature, still disappointed by the fact that it was only a breastplate and lamenting his actions in the duel. She chuckled at the memory of his indignant declaration, ‘So I could have just cleaved his head in two? Then why did I let him stab me?’. Truth or fiction, it struck a nerve in Zian, shattering his confidence and impacting his future progress. Rain was truly vicious.
Clever too, offering medical advice to the Marshal, build a rapport and chatting amicably with the attendant about possible strategies to combat his illness. If successful, the People would have another powerful man to call upon, Rain’s foresight and political acumen surprising even her.
Wiping away her smile, she spoke sternly to the boy. “Well then, the Sentinels ride east in two weeks.” Continuing as he nodded along, she laid out her plans. “You will not be joining us. As impressive as your performance has been of late, you are unreliable and unsuitable for the task at hand. I am left with no choice but to send you home.” Seeing his satisfied grin, she frowned, leaning forward and exerting her Aura on him, delighting in his look of alarm. At least she could still cause him some distress until he learned to condense his own Aura.
“This is not a reward, but rather a punishment. You and your squad will be placed under Gerel’s instruction, and he will forge you into a cohesive unit of warriors, worthy of being Sentinels. In return, you will pass on your healing method to him and all others he brings before you. In six months, you will return to the Bridge with your squad for inspection. Should your Mentor or I deem them unsuitable, there will be grave consequences. Understood?” Without his sister and the pup to protect him, perhaps Gerel would succeed where others had failed, teaching Rain to be a proper soldier.
Smiling to herself as she sat alone, she reflected quietly on the day’s events, shocked by their good fortune. The pup was growing into a man of power, the boy looking to follow in his footsteps, and the People soon to be well-respected in the North. Content and satisfied, she strode off to find her husband to celebrate, already planning her strategy for retaking the east.
A loud cry of anguish pierced through the halls. Leaping to action, she charged towards the source of the cry, Rain’s voice echoing clearly through the halls. Did the Society act rashly, or was there already an assassin in place, too late to be recalled? There would be blood and fire to pay if the boy came to harm, no matter the consequence.
Kicking open the door to his room, she scanned the area for his source of distress as he knelt pitifully on the ground, shirtless and quivering, tears in his eyes as he looked up at her, mournfully wailing, “It doesn’t fit.”
Blinking in confusion, she looked at the source of his despair, the Runic Breastplate so painfully earned, little more than a paperweight if he could not wear it. The absurdity of the situation struck her hard, and she howled in helpless laughter, collapsing to the ground as she panted for breath. Ignoring the gathering crowd, she continued to laugh, the boy’s hurt and tear-stained gaze only fuelling her hysteria.
Only Rain could have such dog shit luck.
-End of Volume 6-
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