Drawing her weapon with a quiet rasp, the hilt twinkled in the fading sunlight as Song focused her mind on a single word: Strength. Sheath and saber in hand, she circled around the small clearing, her steps measured and light, Tiger Form: Stalking the Dragon. Stopping abruptly, she lashed out with her weapon, slicing twice in the blink of an eye, Tiger Form: Sharpening the Claws. Exhaling, she stepped back and leaped forward in a smooth motion, Tiger Form: Pounce Upon the Lamb. Her saber carving through her imagined enemies, her sheath substituting as club and shield, she moved about the clearing, powerful and fierce, graceful and unrestrained.
Speeding up, she continued her performance in a frenzy, a maelstrom of motion in pursuit of Inspiration. Killing Lunge into Sweeping the Rushes, Gripping the Turtle into Reversing the Flow, Twitching Tail into Reverse Kick, she moved through the forms most familiar to her, combining them in different configurations and timings, perfecting her ability to Amplify and Resonate at will.
After working herself to near exhaustion, she sheathed her weapon and began to adjust her breath before sitting down to meditate and parse through the mysteries of the Forms. Master trained in her martial skills each day, and Song refused to fall even further behind. She needed strength above all else to repay Master’s generosity. A warm home, comfortable bed, good food, and clean clothes, these were the least of the gifts bestowed upon her and she would give Master no cause to regret.
Things would be perfect if not for Rain lusting after her body. Immediately setting his sights on her after his betrothal to Master, he gifted her with Runic Armour in order to lay claim to her, and Master made no argument, even seeming pleased by the gesture. Song had long resigned herself to her fate, knowing her blissful times would soon come to an end. At least Rain seemed reluctant to use force, but this too would end in time. He was like every other man, a beast in human skin, consumed by lust and depravity. Too strong for her to resist, there was nothing for her to do but pray.
A warm weight settled on her leg, startling her from meditation. Master’s kitten’s head lay sprawled across her lap, seeking attention as it blinked lazily up at her, a sign of trust and ease. Ever since Rain gifted the beast to Master, Song had been responsible for its care, training and grooming it, so it would not bring disgrace to Master. A tiny feline warrior, taken too young from her mother, Song knew exactly what that was like. At least she could still dream of reuniting with her mother, the poor kitten’s mother was dead at Rain’s hands and fed to his soldiers, a heartless man.
Leaning over to cuddle the pitiful beast, she deliberated the best way to keep it from bothering her, deciding to tire it out with a game. Standing, she swayed her tail back and forth while walking away, signalling for the curious beast to chase her. Picking up the pace, she exited the clearing, making sure not to stray too far from Master. After a half hour, the beast lost interest and she turned about to chase it instead, letting it stay just out of range and tweaking its rear when it grew too complacent.
Finally tired of their game, the beast bolted away, running up the wall and sought refuge inside Senior Captain Alsantset’s home, where Master was spending time with Rain. Worried the beast would interrupt their discussions, she ran into the courtyard, coming to a halt and bowing towards Master. Rocking gently in a bench swing, Master sat nestled in Rain’s arms, smiling as the beast leaped on the bench and laid down next to Rain, nuzzling her mother’s killer.
Her innocent and naive Master came here every evening, charmed by Rain. Song understood why; on the surface, he seemed perfect, an accomplished duelist, successful merchant, and loving family man. His masquerade was perfect, even promising to halt his lewd and wicked ways. A flawless deception, she waited nervously for his true colours to show once more, praying he would succumb to his base desires so Master could reject him before things went too far.
She thought to seduce him to help Master see past his lies, exposing him for the depraved and bloodthirsty animal he was, but she worried Master would cast her away and leave her in his clutches. It should be a simple thing to sacrifice herself for Master, but her current lifestyle fostered weakness and she could not force herself to risk losing what little joy she had.
Waving her over, Rain greeted her with a smile. “Finished your training early today? Treat yourself to some tea and snacks.” How did he know of her slacking? Did Master know as well? Unsure if Rain were testing her, she ignored the food and settled on the bench next to Master, listening to their conversation. She liked the swing, the gentle rocking motions as she sat surrounded by cushions, even one for her to hold. “Anyway, I don’t see why it’s a waste of time, I think the Monstrosity will come in handy.”
“Idiot.” Master’s tone was affectionate as she lectured him. “Papa should be making Spiritual Weapons, but instead he’s tinkering with worthless crossbows and leaving all the work for me to do. I spent days making Rustram’s sword, but Papa could have finished it before lunch.”
“About that, do I get one? You made a weapon for pretty-boy Rustram, but you don’t make one for your betrothed?”
“Don’t be jealous, they’re for the Sentinels, idiot. I don’t choose who they go to and Papa says I’m not ready for a third weapon, so you aren’t either. Besides, you haven’t given me a betrothal gift yet, so who are you to talk of gifting.” Pinching his cheek, Master smiled beautifully and added, “Don’t worry, I’m already resigned to marrying you.”
“… How kind of you to settle. Whatever, I still don’t think I’m wasting Husolt’s time. Ten Iron plates at one-hundred meters, that’s some serious stopping power.”
“Hmph, give me a few years and I could do that with a bow. Song, help me!” Master pouted as she spoke, looking at her with pleading eyes. “He’s too stubborn and won’t admit he’s wrong.”
Hesitation gnawed at her stomach as she studied the ground, only half-listening as they continued to argue. While she wanted to obey and help Master, to do so would mean disparaging the Divine Blacksmith. She was only a slave, who was she to say what another should do with their time? Gathering her courage, she chose to stand with Master, no matter the consequences. “Master is correct.”
“Bah, of course you agree with her, she practically begged you to! Doesn’t count, neither of you have any argument besides ‘a bow is better’. That’s true, but I need practical ranged weapons today, not in five years. I mean, imagine a crossbow the size of a wagon, we could nail Demons to the ground with something like that.”
Song cleared her throat and turned her head towards Rain, keeping her eyes lowered. It was the best she could do. “A crossbow is an inefficient weapon when compared to the bow. The draw length and the lath are too short for the tips of the lathe to reach maximum velocity before the bolt is loosed, squandering a large amount of the stored energy. Although this can be solved with a longer draw length or lath, that would make the crossbow even more cumbersome.”
Without pausing for breath, she continued, the words spilling out. “During the early reign of the 14th Emperor, Grand Marshal Sima Yi commissioned wheeled, oversized crossbows to be placed on the Walls, but the Demons were far too fast to be consistently hit with the bolts. To make matters worse, the expensive weapons were targeted and destroyed during every battle, costing the Imperial Treasury dearly for little gain, and the idea was abandoned. Almost a decade later, before his execution, Sima Yi cited the shame he endured for this failure as the driving reason for his rebellion, marking his place in history as the first man to ever successfully assassinate an Emperor.”
Seeing the incredulous look on Master’s face, Song realized her mistake and lowered her head, quivering in fear of retribution. She had gone too far with her blatant disrespect, even daring to mock Rain with her knowledge. Closing her eyes, she waited in silent resignation for her punishment. Laughter broke the silence and she looked up to see Master covering her mouth, unable to contain her glee. “Rain, you were so wrong, you drove Song to speak in full sentences! Well done, brilliant!”
Smiling in good humour, Rain shook his head and asked, “That’s very impressive. Where did you learn all that?”
“Teacher Du believed in tempering the mind as well as the body. He often lectured on the history of weapons and wars, and this slave was given the honour of listening in on many occasions.” They were some of the best times in her life, free to sit and listen for a few hours without struggle or torment, drawing enlightenment from an awe-inspiring figure. She envied Adujan for the honour of being his student, something Song had often dreamed of as a child, right up until the day she was gifted to Cho Jin Kai, thrown away without a thought.
“Mila move over and let me talk to Li Song.” Shifting Master to his other side, Rain tweaked her nose. “Don’t be jealous.” Turning his attention to Song, he spoke with excitement in his eyes. “Okay, giant crossbows are no good, I accept that, but that wasn’t my plan to begin with. I wanted a cheap, handheld, repeating crossbow, to be distributed to every soldier available. Do you think trying to develop a weapon like that is a waste of time?”
“Yes.” Unwilling to say more, it took prompting from Master for Song to gather enough courage to continue. Surprisingly, being challenged by a slave did not upset Rain, no punishment forthcoming at her direct challenge. “The HanLin Crossbow fits your specifications, capable of loosing ten bolts in fifteen seconds before reloading. The range was listed at 120 meters, a distance a common foot soldier requires eight seconds to cross, time enough to loose only five bolts. Due to its low power, a trade-off made to reach rate of fire, the bolt needed to strike an unarmoured, vital point to kill. Combined with its notorious inaccuracy, these flaws rendered the weapon largely ineffective, falling into obscurity after the Defiled razed HanLin City.”
“Okay so they weren’t all that successful, but do you know how they’re made?”
“No, but I have seen pictures and descriptions.” Rain ran off, leaving her swinging gently on the bench with Master, and soon returned with ink and parchment. She began writing out what all she knew of the weapon, struggling to remember the exact details. Reading over her shoulder, Rain made sounds of understanding, making comments and asking questions. Soon, he began to describe his ideas as she continued to write, and she simply spoke her mind, uncaring of the consequences.
She enjoyed taking apart Rain’s suggestions, but they quickly declined in quality as the night wore on. The worst was his notion of stockpiling oil for use as a weapon, not only dangerous, but illegal after the accidental destruction of Bao Ling City. Ignoring Demons and experts capable of manipulating flame, a single errant spark would be enough to spell disaster, the risks outweighing benefits by far. Rain’s grasp of tactics completely ignored the capabilities of top-tier experts, odd considering he was surrounded by them. Orderly formations, traps, poisons, and massed infantry, all of his ideas were easily ignored by top-tier experts, rendering them all but useless.
In the end, she answered his questions because she enjoyed being asked, finally given purpose after so many months of aimless meandering. It was possible Rain was playing games with her and she would soon curse herself for being foolish, but for now, she was content being helpful. She would still prefer if Rain quietly died on the battlefield, freeing Master from his grasp and allowing Song to prolong her happy days.
Even though none of them ever came true, Song still loved to dream. Who knows, perhaps Rain would be struck by lightning and all her troubles would be solved.
While rinsing the last of his pots, Charok heard the bell chime as the door opened. Hoping it was not another drunk customer, he shouted out, “Sorry friend but we’re closed for the night. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
The heavy footsteps continued forward and Gerel strode through the kitchen door, hands clasped behind his back in a mimicry of Baatar. “It’s been a long time since you called me friend.”
Unamused, Charok pointed towards the front door. “Get out.”
Flashing his disarming smile, Gerel held up a porcelain jar and two cups. “Join me for a drink? Tears of the Mother, the best stuff money can buy.”
“I’m not some wide-eyed village girl you can charm with a smile and a story.” No matter the reputation of the expensive drink, it was not worth sitting down with that scoundrel.
Gerel’s smile melted and the familiar, cold indifference took its place. “So unwilling to give face, this is why I waited until you were alone.” He left the kitchen and pulled out a chair, scraping loudly against the hardwood floor. “I brought the drink so you bring the snacks, I’ll be out here when you’re ready to talk about ‘your’ brother.”
Damn him. Now that Rain had been mentioned, how could Charok just leave? Exhaling away his frustration, he cut up some dried tofu and cold meats, bringing them out to sit across from Gerel, glaring angrily. A full cup sat in front of him, and he gulped down the alcohol, drinking it quickly to sooner end this meeting.
The liquid burned as it travelled down his throat and he sputtered in distress. A tear leaked out as he gasped for breath, thumping his chest to ease the pain. Cheeks burning in humiliation, he scolded himself for a fool as Gerel smiled his natural, arrogant smile and finished his drink in the same manner, without any difficulty. After clearing his throat several times, Charok finally gasped out a few words. “You wished to speak, so speak.”
Gerel filled both cups before answering. “Orders from the Chief Provost, Rain is to be tested before we leave.”
His hand slammed down on the table, sending everything flying, but Gerel caught everything neatly, plate, glasses and jug without spilling a drop. “More testing? I have watched you beat him bloody every day for months and still that is not enough? He has shed enough blood and sweat to earn his place among the Sentinels ten times over, even ignoring his achievements! Explain yourself, or I will have him withdraw!”
“Calm down, you’re drunk. You always were a lightweight.” Placing everything down gently, he chewed his food slowly before answering. “She wants to test his leadership skill, see how he does in combat.”
Frowning at the cup in front of him, Charok picked it up and sipped slowly, wary of the potent liquor. It wasn’t so bad if you were prepared, an earthy taste that lingered. Sniffing once, he shook his head. “Rain is too young for command.”
“Agreed.” Shrugging lightly, Gerel feigned humility. “But she is the Chief Provost, and I but a lowly servant. Who am I to argue?”
“Who will be his opponents? Bandits?”
“That’s why I’m here. She wants to pit him against the Society spies and bristleboar slaves lingering around the mountains. Made me waste months keeping track of their movements and she won’t even let me kill them myself, it’s ridiculous.” With all his false smiles and pretty stories, it was easy to forget that Gerel was more bloodthirsty than any, more eager than anyone to ride out to battle. “Anyway, I thought it prudent to have you come along to help play nursemaid. Who knows, maybe he’ll turn into a deranged, murderous maniac again.”
“Pitu.” Knowing he would have to clean it up, Charok didn’t truly spit, only making the sound with his lips. “He suffered much at the hands of the bristleboars, his hatred is justified.”
“Hatred I can understand, but this was something else. He watched a young man die slowly, smiling the entire time, happy as a pig in a peach orchard. There’s something broken in that boy, I knew it the day we met him.”
“You’re one to talk, you were no better at that age, beat me bloody the first time I challenged you. Almost killed me in fact, and we were like brothers.”
Rolling his eyes, Gerel flicked him on the forehead. “You. Provoked. Me. Challenging me immediately after I earned my place on the Banner, hoping to defeat a tired opponent. How was I supposed to react? Besides, that was over a decade ago, let it be.”
“I provoked you? You stormed into my wedding and declared I was not worthy of my wife!”
Waving dismissively, Gerel leaned back with a scoff. “I was young, drunk, and thought myself in love. The handsome young hero paired with the beautiful and fearsome tigress, we seemed a match made by the Mother. You were the baker’s son, mediocre and plain-looking, her choice confused me.” Smirking, he shrugged. “Still does.” Raising his hands in mock surrender, he sighed. “Believe me, I paid dearly for that blunder; Sarnai beat me so badly I shit blood for a week. Left me on the floor of my home, crying in pain and misery, didn’t even take me to the healers. Thought I was going to die covered in piss and blood.” He stopped to visibly shudder at the memory, his eyes going unfocused for a moment before continuing. “Anyway, I should thank you, I don’t think I’d survive with her as my mother-in-law.”
They shared a chuckle before finishing their drinks, Charok understanding this was Gerel’s way of apologizing, sharing his humiliating ordeal. Unfortunately, two cups of expensive liquor and a quasi-apology were not enough to overcome a decade of hostility, and they lapsed into awkward silence. “So…What, uh…” Charok scratched his neck, feeling the heat from the drink. “What is… What is the plan? With Rain?”
“Simple enough, I tell the boy his mission and then we stand around and watch him blunder through it, should be good for a few laughs. After that, we pull his ass out of the fire before too many trainees die. We’ll lose a few, but hopefully, the boy learns a valuable lesson.” Gerel filled their cups a third time, chewing on a piece of fat hanging out of his mouth as he started to laugh. “You know, I watched him charge face first into Vichear’s elbow today. Even Amplified his footsteps so he could get there faster, it was hilarious. It’s madness, even I would be cautious sparring with that bulky bastard, but not Rain. Fearless.” Clinking glasses, they drank deeply, exhaling in synchronized satisfaction before refilling the cups once more. “Can’t decide if he’s brave or stupid.”
“Perhaps a bit of both.” After another short pause, he asked, “So… any new war stories?”
Lighting up like a child, Gerel launched into a tale of battling Demons, drinking and laughing in good cheer. Several stories and several cups later, they were both leaning heavily on the table. While pouring their seventh or eighth drink, Gerel asked, “So… what’s it like being a father?”
“Ah, it’s the best feeling in the world. Nothing better than going home to see my babies.”
“…S’not a lot of work?”
“Oh yea, but having Rain around really helps, I’ve never changed or washed a single diaper, most responsible kid I ever met. Don’t care what anyone says, I trust him with my life, my kids’ lives, s’my brother.” He paused to burp loudly, feeling the burning liquid rise in his throat before swallowing it down. “You thinkin’ ’bout gettin’ married, havin’ some kids of your own?”
“Mhmm… had a tryst or two with this beautiful woman, the Marshal’s attendant, can’t get her off my mind, no matter how hard I try. Expert warrior, ice in her veins, always ready to fight or fuck and doesn’t care which.”
“So, a female you?”
“Haha, indeed… no wonder I like her so much!”
They drank until the jug was empty, and as they left the restaurant, Charok realized something profound. They met as children, friends for fifteen years before their falling out, outweighing their years of enmity. It felt good to make peace with his childhood hero. Grinning like a maniac, he stumbled away, both supporting and being supported by his old friend as they roamed through the village in search of more to drink, making up for lost time.
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