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Yawning as she scratched her belly, Mila lurched towards the dining room still half-asleep. If not for the delectable scent of fresh bread filling the air, she’d have stayed beneath her still warm covers, sleeping away the morning. A neighbour must have brought breakfast, a common enough occurrence when Mama’s work took her out of the village. Mila smacked her lips in anticipation, knowing if she continued to sleep, Papa would devour all the food, leaving her nothing. While she’d learned the basics of cooking from Alsantset, who could be bothered to cook every day? Hard biscuits and cured meat were enough to sate her appetite, but she always welcomed a hot meal. She slid the dining room door open and stepped through.
“Morning Mila.” Smiling sweetly, Rain pulled out a chair for her to sit in. “I made breakfast.”
Freezing mid-stride, she stopped to rub her eyes. Why was Rain sitting at the dining table?
Papa’s discreet cough roused her from her stupor. “Lass, go wash your face and put some proper clothes on. Betrothed or not, Rain is still a guest in our home.”
Glancing down at her half dressed body, she squeaked in surprise and dashed back to her room. That idiot, why was he here so early? Rain must think her slovenly, parading around with her hair in disarray and dressed only in her nightgown. Burning with humiliation, she ran a comb through her hair, ignoring the pain as she powered through the tangled mess. Barely shoulder length, she did not understand how it twisted itself into knots every night. Song’s hair hung below her navel, yet she woke each morning looking like a divine goddess instead of a tangled mess. The Mother truly was unfair.
After washing her face and making sure her breath did not smell, she meandered back into the dining room, feeling her face heat as she entered. Thankfully, no one mentioned her blunder, Rain smiling foolishly and filling her plate with food. “I woke this morning and found Gerel and Charok sleeping in the courtyard, soaked to the bone from the morning dew. Apparently, they had a little drinking party without inviting me, and it got a little out of hand. Amateurs.”
Still too ashamed to say anything, she looked down at her plate, pursing her lips. No wonder Rain drank so much, with a terrible role model like Charok, drinking and carousing even though he had two children to care for. She didn’t understand the fun of drinking, it tasted horrible and made fools of everyone, why do that to yourself? As far as she was concerned, the stuff was poison, and while she wouldn’t forbid Rain from drinking to excess, if she ever woke to find him passed out in the courtyard, there would be a reckoning.
Oblivious to her thoughts, Rain continued to prattle on. “Anyway, Gerel gave me a task, I have to hunt down the Society intruders nosing around the village. I stopped at the training yard to give out orders, then I came here for help. Song let me in and I cooked breakfast while waiting for the lazy father-daughter pair to roll out of bed. I’m impressed, your hair is so… expressive.”
Turning to point at him, she sputtered wordlessly, unable to come up with a retort in the face of his giant grin. Snorting, she turned back to her breakfast, eating in angry silence. Grabbing a meat bun and fried dough fritters, her anger subsided as she filled her bowl with noodles and broth. He must have waited for hours, cooking this much delicious food, but she could not be blamed for sleeping in. Rain kept her until late last night, discussing strategy and weapons with Song. It didn’t matter that both of them woke before her, that made them unnatural freaks. How either of them functioned with less than ten hours of sleep was a mystery.
Her mood improved as she ate, listening to Rain chat with her Papa about his crossbow and taking it out to field test. She was happy to see them get along so well, Papa’s temper usually scared off all her friends, not to mention Mama’s nosy questioning. Growing up, Lin was the only friend she had that could stomach visiting more than once, and Mila loved her for it. It was difficult being the daughter of venerated heroes.
Rain turned to speak with Song, and she willingly answered his questions, earning a look of surprise from Papa. She even offered her own opinions, sharing her tactical and historical expertise, finally breaking out of her shell thanks to Rain. Mila’s opinion of Du Min Gyu rose several measures, accepting that Yan made a good choice in going with him. Although he was a crusty old man, he taught his students well. Song spoke directly and without preamble, always on point, able to recall obscure details without blinking. Beautiful and brilliant, Song’s recovery was well on its way.
Chakha, Huushal’s father, had already received the plans for the repeating crossbow, promising to make it his top priority. The firing mechanism was primarily a piece of clever carpentry, and Papa needed a working model to tinker with it. If the range and power could be improved without negatively impacting the rate of fire, then perhaps Rain’s idea wasn’t as foolish as she initially thought. Still, he would be better off letting his soldiers diligently practice their archery, as the power, range, and versatility of a bow were hard to improve upon.
After devouring all the food, Papa left to work at the forge, leaving the three of them alone. Brushing herself off, Mila struck a proud, yet magnanimous pose from her seat, something Mama did often. “So, ask what you came to ask, how might this noble and compassionate warrior-blacksmith help you today?” He likely wanted her to be his second-in-command, and she decided to graciously accept without flaunting her superiority. It was the least she could do, seeing he was humble enough to ask for aid. In return, she would only require he cook more delicious meals. Maybe she should go to Taduk’s for dinner every night, Rain was a phenomenal cook.
Lightly pinching her cheek, Rain smiled. “Oh, it’s nothing, really. While we were waiting, I went over my ideas with Song and she gave me her opinions, but she wanted to see the battleground with her own eyes. Can you tag along? It should only take an hour or two and then you can go about your day.”
Her face froze in disbelief as she went over his words in her mind. Tag along? Go about her day? So he was here for Song’s help. Swallowing her disappointment, she asked Song to harness the quins and returned to her room, intending to change her clothes. Instead, she crashed onto her bed and buried her face in her pillows, pouting and feeling sorry for herself. It was silly to be jealous, but she couldn’t help it. Not only was Rain being tested for command, but he didn’t bother asking her for help, all of her training in Sentinel tactics seemingly worthless in his eyes. Worse, she knew he had a wandering eye, and Song was so beautiful and talented, with the two of them getting along, was there any room for her in Rain’s heart? Was she destined to be the fourth wife, little better than a concubine?
“So, this is your bedroom.” She jolted at the sound of Rain’s voice, staring daggers at him. Strolling in without shame, he glanced about at the weapons and armour mounted on her wall and smirked. “I like it, it suits you.”
Tossing a pillow at him, she snapped, “Get out, I need to get dressed.”
Snatching the pillow out of the air, he leaped forward and used it to smack her lightly on the rump before casually climbing into her bed. Her face heated as he lay down beside her, his hand circling around her waist. She shrank away and he pulled himself towards her, centimeter by centimeter. Soon, there was no room to retreat and he lay next to her, their legs touching and a seductive smile on his face. Unable to resist, she nuzzled into his shoulder and sighed deeply. Kissing her lightly on the temple, he whispered, “Don’t be jealous.”
Shoving him away, she smacked him on the chest as he laughed, venting her anger. “That’s not funny! You know I’m upset and still you make fun. I should cancel our betrothal and find someone sweet and caring, who listens and dotes on my every need!” Though it had become something of a joke between them, this was not the time for jokes.
“Be honest, you’d be bored with a husband like that.” Pulling her towards him, she melted in his embrace once again. He was taking advantage of her good nature, bullying her without mercy. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier, I chose my words poorly. You always seem so confident, I forget that you’re a teenage girl with teenage insecurities.”
“Idiot, like you’re any better, always pretending to be so mature. And they’re not insecurities, they are reasonable concerns!”
“You’re right, as you always are. Now, I humbly ask for your guidance. Please, come scout the battlefield with me and lend me your strength. I beg of you, I cannot succeed without you.”
She sensed his grin as she luxuriated in his warmth, enjoying his breath upon her cheek and his hands caressing her waist. “Fine, but you’re lucky I’m so kind and forgiving.”
“Indeed I am. Beautiful too, you looked ravishing in your nightgown.” His lips grazed her temple once again, then her cheek, before finally alighting on her lips, pressing lightly against them. A gentle, lingering kiss, her passion mounted and she pulled him towards her, turning onto her back. His body leaning over hers, his hands began to roam beneath her shirt, his tongue lapping against hers as a small moan escaped her lips. Her fingers ran through his hair as her heart hammered away in her chest, nervous and excited, craving for more as his lips left a trail of kisses down her neck.
A light knock interrupted their fumbling and the door began to slide open. Shoving Rain away, she squeaked out, “Don’t come in!”
Thankfully, the door stopped and Song’s voice sounded out from the other side. “The quin are harnessed and ready, Master. Will this slave be needed?”
“No, I’ll be fine, getting dressed. Please, wait for me in the courtyard. And please stop referring to yourself as a slave!” She squirmed away and stood, smoothing out her clothes and re-lacing her undergarment. When did he unlace it? He was all hands, the reprobate. After listening to Song’s footsteps fade away, she turned and unleashed a series of slaps against Rain’s arms, her face burning in embarrassment as he laughed. “You… you… silver-tongued rascal! How dare you steal my first kiss like that! And you tried to… you’re incorrigible. Not until we’re married, I told you.” It would be more believable if she hadn’t been so enthusiastic, he must think her a loose woman now.
Falling back before her assault, Rain winced as she continued to strike him again and again, venting her frustration. “Stop, stop! I’m sorry, that was also my first kiss, I got too excited. Besides, you pulled me on top of you.”
“Liar.” Striking him a few more times, she pointed in accusation, ignoring that last part. “I know you go visit those… places and you … do those things with those women. You’re a rogue and a scoundrel, lying and taking advantage of my maiden heart, tricking me somehow. I don’t know why I bother with you.”
Pointing at his lips, Rain smiled innocently. “You impugn my honour. While I may have done other things with other women, I swear to you, that was the first time these lips have been kissed. May the Mother strike me down if I speak false. I’ll take an oath if I have to.”
“Really?” Perhaps he wasn’t as lecherous as she thought. She giggled happily at the thought of being his first kiss. Lin claimed him first, and he fell in love with Yan first, but now, she too had one of his firsts. Kissing him once more, she broke it off quickly and hurried him out the door, fanning herself with her hands to cool her fervour. Too close, she had almost… In the future, there would be no laying on beds together, not until after their marriage. She couldn’t be trusted alone with him.
Fully armed and armoured, she rode out with Song and Rain to the temporary barracks where Rain’s squad busied themselves with preparations. Rain’s perpetual smile faded and his brow furrowed in concentration. “Well, I don’t see anyone crying or vomiting, so that’s a good start.” Why would that be a problem? Was he allowing his squad to get drunk before battle?
Saluting, Rustram approached to make his report. “Boss, only seven soldiers were capable of withstanding the recoil of the Monstrosity. Saluk did the best, so I suggest he carry it for the upcoming battle.”
“Sounds good. We’ll see how it performs and reevaluate from there. How goes the collection?”
“We’ve got two dozen jars of the stuff, but we’re having trouble finding water-tight containers that fit your specifications.”
“Hmm… That should be enough for now. If this goes well, we’ll have to talk to your father about finding us a glassblower.”
“It makes the men nervous; it is illegal.”
“Relax, I’m not going to turn you in. The jars are in metal buckets and buried in loose soil, right? You’ve got the extra buckets of dirt? Good, then we’re ready for the worst. What about the arrows? Ravil and his sharpshooters get their practice in? The extra weight makes a world of difference.”
“That they did boss, accurate to a hands width. We’ve got 100 arrows ready for them.”
“All right then. Mount up and maintain silence in the ranks. Roll out.”
Mila giggled at his odd choice of words before falling in line with pride, picturing his Sentinels tumbling head over heels through the forest. Reassuring his soldiers, delegating when necessary, accepting responsibility, he was growing into his role as a leader. So what if he received a combat command before her? After his incredible performance at the Bridge, it was an appropriate reward. For now, she would settle for being under his command, although not for too long. She had aspirations of her own.
After a half hour ride, Rain gave orders to his squad to stay behind and began crawling through the underbrush, slithering forward on his belly like a snake. Rolling her eyes, Mila followed on foot, noting to properly teach him how to walk silently through the forest. Moving slowly until they reached the edge, they peered down at the Society encampment, an overgrown valley, empty but for the half-dozen sentries scattered about. At the back of the valley was a crudely hidden cave entrance, less than two meters tall and a meter wide. According to the report, after 20 paces, the cave opened into a large, underground cavern with a large stream running through it and room enough for all the Society forces, estimated at two hundred soldiers. A group of failures, they had been unable to find a path into the village all winter, the icy slopes impassable to all but quins and top-tier martial experts.
Slipping away without a trace, they made their way back to Rain’s squad, her eyes scanning their surroundings, unsuccessfully searching for their Sentinel watchers. This was an impossible task for Rain’s squad, so that left only one possibility. Huddling close to Rain, she fumed in anger as she whispered her advice. “You’re being used as bait. Gerel wants you to charge in and lose terribly, drawing out the Society forces as you retreat. When that happens, his forces will swoop in and clean up. It’s too dangerous for you, you should leave and tell Gerel to clear them out himself. Small, enclosed spaces favour veteran warriors, not raw recruits. Your losses will be horrendous.”
“Hmm… I’m touched by your concern, but a little insulted by your lack of confidence. I’m not going to charge in and fight them head on.” Rain smiled grimly, glancing at Song. “What do you think? Will the plan work?”
“Too many if’s. If we can secure the entrance, if your tricks work, if your troops are accurate, if the enemy has no escape route, then you might succeed. However, if you fail, you only lose the element of surprise, an easy retreat available to you.”
“Okay, not exactly encouraging, but I’ll take it. Might as well take a chance.” Taking a deep breath, Rain closed his eyes and relaxed. Upon opening them, he almost became a different person altogether. His body relaxed and exuded confidence bordering on arrogance, an unfriendly smile on his face and a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Gather up.” Rain scanned his warriors with scorn. “Look at yourselves, a group of cripples turned freeloaders. I hope you enjoyed yourselves these past few months, with your warm meals, daily massages, and hot baths, because it is time to earn your keep. Just remember, your deaths are worthless to me, that only saves me from further costs. If you want to pay me back, only years of service will suffice. Now, let us ride forth and slaughter our enemies.”
A little harsh, but his Sentinels seemed used to the abuse. As Rain passed, she grabbed his arm and whispered, “You didn’t tell me the plan.”
Winking roguishly, he mounted his quin and drew his weapons. “You need not worry about plans, my beauty. Stay by my side, follow my lead, and be ready with a kiss when I am victorious.” Turning to Rustram, he began giving orders and positioning his Sentinels, looking every bit a warrior.
His beauty. The words brought a blush to her cheeks as she mounted Atir, unable to hide her smile. She liked seeing him so confident and bold, but only if it was warranted. If the worst were to happen, she intended to drag him to safety no matter the cost.
He wasn’t the only one who wanted a kiss when this was over, and she refused to kiss a corpse.
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