Jimjam’s chest rumbled in delight, his head laid upon Song’s lap as she brushed his fur outside of Healer Taduk’s home. She enjoyed looking after Master’s kitten and the other two deserved just as much care. Auric had been simple enough to groom, but Jimjam’s fur was a mess of tangles and snares, Rain too lazy to properly care for the darling animals. If left alone, it would entangle into a solid mass, requiring shears to take care of and she was loath to see his long, beautiful fur trimmed. Working gently, she applied the viscous mixture to his fur, massaging it well to break apart the tangles before brushing.
Peering into the bowl, Master cocked her head adorably. “Song, what’s in the bowl?”
Pausing her work, she bowed her head in acknowledgement. “Master, the bowl contains a simple mixture of common herbs, moon dew grass, tenweeks stock, fairy moss and sweet mint. It will keep Jimjam’s fur soft so this lowly one may straighten it.”
“Does… Does it work on people?”
“Yes Master, the courtesan’s in old master’s employ used it nightly.” And after she caught old master’s eye, so did she.
“Can you teach me how to find the herbs and make it?”
“This lowly one will ensure it is available for your use this very night.” Putting the bowl aside, she readied to leave to gather ingredients, but Master held her in place, so she lowered her head in obedience.
“I’m not asking you to make it for me. I’m asking if you are willing to teach me.”
“Apologies Master, this lowly one understands and gladly offers her knowledge.”
Sighing, Master shook her head. “I’m not thrilled with ‘this lowly one’, it’s as bad as this ‘lowly slave’. That idiot Rain, who does he think he is scolding you like that? Let me ask you, even though you stopped saying ‘this lowly slave’, do you still think of yourself as one?”
Panicking, Song lowered her head further, a difficult task with Jimjam pawing at her to continue brushing. “This lowly slave apologizes for overstepping herself and begs for punishment. She understands her place and hopes to faithfully serve Master to the best of her worthless ability.” She should have never listened to Rain and his false words. Her oath was given, she would be a slave until death.
Master’s hands lifted Songs head to look her in the eyes. “Song, you misunderstand, I’m not mad at you. You are not a slave, but I know you don’t trust me when I say that.” Sitting down beside her, Master leaned her head on Song’s shoulder. “I don’t care what you call yourself, just remember, you are not my slave. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me, I’ll prove it to you, no matter how long it takes. Hmph, I would’ve thought Rain would be more sensitive considering his past as a slave. I was right to worry about how he would treat you.”
“Rain is a slave?” Song blurted out the words without thinking. How dare he act beyond his station! Once a slave, the shame would follow him forever, how could Master marry him?
“Oh right, you didn’t know. I know little except he didn’t swear an oath like yours. Baatar brought him home six or seven years ago, barely more than skin and bones. I remember he couldn’t even speak the language properly, he stood on stage and said ‘Falling Rain I am’.” Smiling brightly, Master talked about how they met while Song listened intently.
Once Master finally stopped to take a breath, Song asked, “Rain knew nothing of martial arts or chi when he was found?”
“Yes, it’s surprising now that I think about it. He’s come a long way in such a short time.” Giving Song a hug, Master smiled sweetly. “I know you were a slave for far longer than he was, but maybe you can take hope from his story. Please don’t ask him about it though, he doesn’t like to talk about it much. Everything I know, I learned from Lin.”
“Yes Master.” Nodding, Song returned to grooming Jimjam, her mind in turmoil. No wonder Rain was treated so well, six years of training to reach his current strength. The Bekhai revered the strong, so if Song matched him in strength, then would she be treated the same way? No, that was impossible, Rain was unconstrained by oaths, free to do as he pleased despite his dishonourable past. Her anger quickly turned to envy as she worked the brush, her chest aching at the injustice, but she cautioned herself to not be greedy. Life was better than ever and it was best not to tempt fate. If experience had taught her anything, it was things could always get worse.
“Oh Auric, look at how majestically floofy you are! Who’s a pretty kitty?” The sound of Rain’s coos broke Song out of her reverie, glancing over with narrowed eyes, her jealousy rearing itself once more. Approaching with a smile, Rain kissed Master on the cheek before crouching in front of Song. “Hey… I’m sorry for snapping at you earlier, I lost my temper. Please stay for dinner, I’ll cook a feast in apology.” Patting Jimjam on the chest, he grinned at her. “And thank you for doing this, I thought he was gonna need to be shaved and bald kittens are hideous.”
Staring him in the eyes, she nodded at his apology before reprimanding him. “You must brush them often, daily would be best. Bathing isn’t enough to rid them of dirt and shed hair.” Now knowing he was a slave like her, there was no need to be overly polite. “These animals deserve better care than you accord them.”
“You are absolutely right, but when could I find the time?” Eyes brightening, he cocked his head and asked, “Are you willing to groom them? I’ll pay you uh… what’s the going rate for large cat grooming?”
Paid for work? And something not involving combat? Eyes widened in hope, Song glanced at Master, who nodded enthusiastically, leaning over to whisper, “If you want to do it, set a high price. He’s rich, he can afford it.”
“… I can hear you. Whose side are you on anyways?”
Sticking her tongue out, Master grinned. “Song’s of course.”
In the end, Master negotiated on her behalf and Song basked in the good news, able to earn something to repay Master. The Lady Mei Lin brought the twins to greet Rain and they all sat in a circle around her, chatting happily. Watching the children play with the kittens always filled her with peace, their joyful laughs a thing of beauty.
“Ah right, Song I wanted to ask, when you studied under Du Min Gyu, did he teach you things like Amplification and Lightening? I’d like to hear about his lessons if you don’t mind.”
Nodding, she began outlining the exercises of her youth, a feeling of fulfillment welling up inside her. A kind Master, a job brushing kittens, and now acting as an advisor, Song had purpose now, all because of Rain, a slave. She still disapproved of his marriage to Master, but perhaps it was time to revise her evaluation of his character. Studying him intently as he took notes and asked questions, her head ached at the effort, unable to puzzle out his intentions.
Things were easier when she hated him.
Stepping out into the morning gloom, I greet the day with a happy smile and go about my morning rituals. Feeding the animals, chopping firewood, tending my garden, many things need to be done when living the rural village life, but I enjoy the work. Mindless effort which leaves me relaxed and satisfied, and seeing the fruits of my labour every day gives me a sense of accomplishment.
Ready to prepare breakfast, I squat in front of the oven, my eyes closed in concentration as I go over my mental notes. Circulating my chi to my hands, I rub them vigorously, the heat building as the minutes pass by until my muscles ache from the repetitive strain, visualizing the flame between my hands. Throwing out my palms, I release my heated chi towards the tinder laying inside the oven, silently willing it to ignite.
Alright, that’s okay, if at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Using more mundane means to light the fire, I set about preparing for breakfast, watching the flames grow inside the oven as I work. I’ve decided to adopt a logical method to testing my chi. Observe, question, predict, and test. Chi is energy, and I need to convert it into a different type of energy, heat. Observation: rubbing two pieces of wood together creates fire. Why? Because the friction produces heat and with enough heat, the wood ignites. Boom, conversion. I hypothesize that by rubbing my chi together, I can produce heat, and therefore, fire. The first test is a failure, but why? Is my hypothesis wrong? Do I need more friction? Or am I unable to turn chi into fire? Why does one need to Awaken to control an element? What is the difference between an Awakened person’s chi and a normal person’s? How does an Awakening cause someone to instinctively understand how to use their chi in the correct manner? Why didn’t I get the instruction package?
Honestly, science is hard. All I’ve gotten are more questions and no quantifiable methods to judge chi by. No one wants to share their experiences for fear of tainting my mind and sending me down the wrong path, but as frustrating as it is, I can’t really argue considering everyone else learns the same way. Not that arguing helps, I’ve tried. Besides, I might be the first person in history to have this problem, but it only means I need to work harder, no big deal.
While waiting for the water to boil and dough to rise, I move on to my next experiment. Holding up my left index finger, I concentrate and infuse it with positive chi, happy, bright, and active. On my right index finger, I gather negative chi, sad, dark, and stationary. Holding the picture in my mind as my chi gathers in the two digits, I slowly bring my fingers together, expecting a spark.
And…. Nothing, not even a tingle. Okay, no problem, like the chi in my left finger, I am bright and happy. A positive mental attitude will result in positive changes to my life. Besides, I’m not actually sure if chi can even be positive or negative. Further testing needs to wait until later, because breakfast needs cooking. After all, seeing the twins happy and well-fed always puts a smile on my face.
In the end, my happiness might have nothing to do with chi manipulation, but it can’t hurt. After much thinking, my theory is it has to do with visualization. Song suggested I compare my process of Honing and Guiding and find a commonality. With both those skills, I have a clear image in my mind of what I am trying to accomplish, whereas with the other skills I only have a vague sensation, a goal with no picture. With that in mind, I tested out Du Min Gyu’s training activities last night and found more success in several chi skills. Visualize my chi travelling down my arm and exploding on impact, and my success rate at Amplification is now 1 in 3, more progress in a single night than the past few months.
After dropping the twins off at class, I rush over to the barracks before settling down to continue my experiments. Drawing Peace, I lay it across my lap and calm my breathing as I envision my chi gathering the moisture from the air. Baby steps, a sheen of moisture or even a single drop of water is enough. The cold metal of my sword drawing water from the air, the simple process of condensation.
Moment of truth… Nothing. Nada, zip, zilch, diddly-fucking-squat. My patience wearing thin, I move on to test wind and earth with a similar lack of success. There are other blessings but I’ve yet to come up a method of testing wood or cloud affinity, much less the other, more obscure blessings like sound or space. Zero for five, I grumble beneath my breath and tear up the grass to vent my frustration, wishing I could read some books on the subject. Positive mental attitude is bullshit.
At the appointed time, I stand up and march towards the training field yelling for my squad to follow. “No time today to hold your hands, I want everyone beaten and bruised in ten minutes or every one of you will be running laps around the village on your hands.” Taking my stance, I barely register the impacts as Rustram and Bulat work frantically with their wooden canes. When time is up, my soldiers look worse than usual, the speedy beatings taking a toll on them. Lined up in orderly ranks and standing at attention, I pace back and forth before them, inspecting them for slackers as they heal. Stopping in front of Rustram, I ask, “Your thoughts on yesterday’s mission?”
“Gave those Society bastards what’s coming to them, Boss.” A number of approving mutters crop up as the trainees relax a little, grinning at one another. “The special arrows worked well, and even though the oil could have cost us, it did the job. No injured, no dead, 217 confirmed enemy kills. A damn good job.”
Glancing around, I see the soldiers straighten with pride, adoration in their eyes. “You all agree?”
Responding in chorus, they shout, “Yes Boss!”
“Well you’re all fucking wrong!” Roaring with mock anger, I delight at seeing them jump. Being in charge has few perks, but having people to vent at is one of them. “Yesterday showed me the error of my ways. Your daily massages, the fancy crossbows, the tricks and schemes, all so you can all win a simple fight. The other Sentinels don’t need all that bullshit. Do you know why?” Pausing for effect, my voice drips with disdain. “Because you are weak.”
Their pride dealt a harsh blow, I continue to pace before them, their eyes blazing as they stare straight ahead, a few even glaring at me. Ignoring them, my head shakes slowly in disapproval. “I am to blame in part. I’ve coddled you. In the army, you were straw soldiers, there to hold the line until the real warriors arrived, and I continued with that line of thinking, turning you into little more than sandbags for the enemy to trample over. Well that changes today. You’ll become real warriors, or you will die trying. Because you are all so incapable, I have decided to split you into specialized units for training. Rustram, Bulat, Pran, Saluk, and Ravil. Step forward and face the rest.”
The two groups of trainees face one another, looking hesitantly back and forth, the five who have been with me the longest, across from the ones who came later. “You five will lead each unit, and if the men under your command do not perform well, you will be punished. Bulat, pick nine to be your scouts.”
“Uh, Old Bulat isn’t a leader, maybe-”
“I wasn’t asking. Ravil, pick the best archers, you’re my ranged unit. Rustram, you’re my vanguard, choose your soldiers accordingly. Pran, Saluk, pick the biggest, strongest, heaviest bastards available. Your two units will be my hammer.” Standing to one side, I wait for the leaders to finish choosing their units, done with hurried efficiency. This was how Du Min Gyu taught, so I’ll shamelessly steal it. Specialization first, generalization later, so every soldier has at least one use.
Grinning at the trainees who are left, their nervous glances fill me with joy. “You all belong to me. Your only talent lies in being beaten, so that’s what you’ll do. You are my Anvil, which means you need to take even more abuse than the others.” Ignoring their panicked expressions, I begin going over the training exercises I learned from Li Song. Simple, repetitive actions which push the limits of the body, forcing the person doing them to instinctively adapt, which gives rise to an innate, intuitive use of chi. It’s brilliant. Yan is in good hands.
Thankfully, I get through the demonstrations without fucking up too badly and I watch each group go through the exercises together, offering what advice I can. Once they understand the exercises, I’ll go over where I want them to focus on. Lightening is the most important skill for everyone, as not only will it let them carry more while riding, it also allows the user to travel without a quin. For the archers, Stabilization is their key skill, allowing them to loose arrows whilst standing on quinback. For the Hammer and Vanguard, they’ll need to learn Reinforcement, which will allow them to wield the massive weapons I intend to give them. Amplification for the scouts to kill silently with thrown weapons, my budding ninja unit. For my squad, they only need to learn how to heal faster than anyone else, which means lots of injuries. Easy Peasy.
The best thing about this is now I can gather data on how each trainee performs each skill and study it for a pattern or even figure out a better way to teach them. I haven’t given up on technology, but to be honest, I’m a little lost for ideas. With flammable weapons a no go, I’m at a dead end unless I find some exploding clay. I’m almost positive that’s a real thing, but so far all I got were strange looks when asking about it. Any effective poisons able to kill or cripple a Martial Warrior or Defiled require rare ingredients or venom from powerful creatures, neither of which is sustainable. Husolt will be making four more crossbows like the Monstrosity, but then he’s out of materials. I’m not even sure if it’s worth it in the grand scheme of things, those four crossbows could have been twelve bows instead.
Other than that, Chakha is working on the repeating crossbow, but those were never for my squad. With a population of three million, Shen Huo only has a standing army of 50,000 soldiers. Arm a tenth of the citizenry with a repeating crossbow and the army grows six times larger. 300,000 people firing 1.5 arrows per second, and the massive beasts and hordes of the Defiled become much less of an advantage.
None of that matters to me at the moment. Smarter minds than mine are figuring it out, I’m the idea man. My job is to push my squad to succeed and pray they don’t snap and murder me in my sleep. Maybe I should train the cats to guard me. I could even give them a set of armour and weapons. Samurai kitten unit, here to guard their lord.
Then again, they’re cats, so I doubt they’d be very effective. With my luck, they’ll just sleep through my murder and eat me when they wake up.
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