Roused by the piercing sunlight, the pain shakes me down to my core, an unintelligible groan escaping from my lips. Tugging at my blankets to cover me, I struggle against a heavy weight, contesting me for them. Eyes clenched shut, I muster all my strength and emerge victorious as the blanket flops over my face, disgustingly wet and slimy. Sputtering in disgust, I roll aside and bury my face in my pillow, groaning as my stomach churns.
“Rainy, it’s time to wake up, ya?” Gently massaging my scalp with one hand, Lin places something down on the nightstand. “I made you an herbal tea, drink up and get dressed, okay? Breakfast is waiting for you.” Ignoring my groaned response, she leaves the room, humming softly as she closes the door behind her. Sinking back into sleep, an insidious thought worms its way into my mind.
Why is Lin waking me up in the morning? Oh no… why were the blankets wet?
What have I done?
Panic grips my heart as I bolt up and check the surroundings. Thankfully, it’s my room and I’m fully dressed, still in the clothes I went to the festival with, stained with alcohol and blood, which worries me. Crashing back down in relief, my heart rate decreases back to normal levels. Turning to pet Auric, his eyes close with a rumbling purr as he suckles at my blankets, the source of the wet, disgusting patch. Some guard cat he turned out to be. His claws extend and retract as he kneads at my bed, continuing to slobber away, the little kitten unwilling to break the simultaneously adorable and disgusting habit.
Dressed and cleaned, I stumble out to the dining room, resting my head and hiding from the light. I shouldn’t have drunk so much. Even with the ability to remove alcohol from my system, it doesn’t keep me from getting hangovers. Plus, after a certain point, control over my chi gets wonky and I can’t even sober up. It’s a good thing I don’t have training today, with everyone pitching in to help clean up.
“Rainy, Rainy, Rainy.” A light tug on my elbow draws my attention, and Little Tali stares up at me with a smile before lowering her head to show me her ribbons, little bells jingling merrily. “Look, Lin-Lin made them for me.”
Gasping in feigned excitement, I praise the little munchkin. “Oh those ribbons are so pretty. Did you remember to thank Lin?” Ribbons, why didn’t I think of that? It’s way easier than braiding the bells into her hair all the time, not to mention removing them.
Climbing her way up on my lap, she answers, “Yup! How come you waked up late today, Rainy? Lin-Lin came over to play but you were snoring, so she told stories. If you marry her, will she always be here? You should marry her Rainy, I like Lin-Lin.”
Unfair. I can’t say no to little Tali. “I slept late last night, had a bit too much fun.” Passing her a few carved wooden toys, she hums one of her made up tunes as we play. Glancing around the room, the bare walls confuse me, all the decorations missing. Did we get robbed? “Sweetling, what happened to all the paintings and scrolls?”
“Mama took them down.” Throwing her hands into the air, she narrowly avoids smacking me in the face with a wooden tiger. “We’re moving! Yay!”
“Yes we are little darling.” Carrying out my breakfast, Alsantset puts down the food and lifts Tali out of my lap as she snatches away a bun. “You let Rain eat now, go practice the Forms with your brother. You see how hard he’s working? You can’t cut corners.”
Greasy comfort food, eggs and meatbuns with a delicious soup. I dig in as Lin sits down beside me, resting her head on my shoulder, a little clingier than normal. Mouth full, I ask, “Moving huh? Is this place too small? Looking to expand the family?”
“No.” Glancing at Charok, Alsantset clears her throat as they take a seat across from me, her hands folded. “We are moving to the Bridge.”
My jaw drops open, half-chewed food falling out. “The Bridge? You’re moving there now? With a few million Defiled hanging around outside, this really isn’t the time to invest in real estate.”
“Lower your voice, you’ll scare the children. With Papa promoted to second-in-command, he cannot leave, so Mama is moving there to be with him. The Marshal suggested it, in fact. While Nian Zu is still in power, he can protect us still, but once he retires Papa will be an island unto himself, without allies outside of Shen Huo. With his family around him, he will seem more relatable to the normal soldiers, who in the future, may become officers in power.”
“Bah… Politics. It’s a smart move though, especially if more villagers move there too. The People are seen as outsiders because we don’t live in a city, but if some of our warriors set roots at the Bridge, then it shows we’re also citizens of the Empire.”
Clapping her hands, Alsantset beams with joy. “So clever, my little brother. Close to 100 families are moving, primarily warrior families and a few craftsmen. The villages will send supplies to aid the defense of the Bridge, which will raise our standing in the eyes of the citizens, and our increased exposure might earn us a few allies. Papa has assured me it will be safe, the Marshal set aside homes in the western section of the town with easy access to the mountain paths out of the city, our escape route should the worst come to pass.”
Glancing outside the door, I can see Tali and Tate performing the Forms, taking the first steps on their path to future warriors. Their carefree days of playing in the village are coming to an end, soon to be replaced by an enclosed encampment, their toy animals traded in for bladed weapons, ribbons and bells for armour and helmets. “You’ve thought this through. A shame, I love it here, but everyone needs to do their part and some sacrifices must be made.” I only hope no one I love is part of those sacrifices.
“I’m happy to hear you say that.” A rectangular token slides across the table and I grab it without thinking. A wooden frame encompasses the jade plate, and embossed in bronze are four simple words, ‘Warrant Officer Third Grade’.
… Oh no. No, no, no.
Blind to my internal panic attack, Alsantset cheerfully explains. “Akanai held onto it until she was sure you were ready, but it is yours. A reward from Colonel General Nian Zu for your ‘consummate display of skill in combat’. In reality, it is to protect you from the Society’s retribution and to allow you to raise your reputation, which in turn will raise Papa’s. The story of your victories have made it across the Empire by now, and we hope you will use your reputation to aid us.”
“By being a hero.” Her smile almost looks predatory, her eyes wide with excitement. “I know not the specifics, but we will ride to the Bridge together to meet with the Marshal and he will explain everything. Accomplish his tasks, raise your reputation, and become a pillar of the People. As much as I would like things to change, it will be difficult for many to accept Demi-Human outsiders in positions of power. You are human, talented in combat and have a clever mind, the nobility will be more accepting of you. Garner enough standing so you can aid Papa in his rise to glory, making history as the first Demi-human warrior to earn the title ‘General of the Northern Bridge’, and help him hold it from those who look down upon us.”
Guess I’m a Warrant Officer now. Can’t even argue.
My breakfast is finished in a silent stupor, my eyes glued to the twins as they practice, my mind worrying over their future while I am left alone to process everything. Washing my dishes, my mind drifts, remembering Elder Ming’s journal, page after page scrawled with poetry about family and loss, the death of his nephew all but destroying him. Is that what my future holds, spilling wine over Tali or Tate’s funeral pyre?
Putting aside my macabre thoughts, I head out to the courtyard and squat before the twins, greeting them with a smile. “Alright my little sweetlings, let’s see what you got. Show me your best stance.” Their adorable faces light up in delight as they line up, striking their poses happily. “Good good, so fearsome.” Holding my palms up, I let them both wail away, Tate striking as hard as he can with an awkward, full-bodied swing while Tali high fives me with a smile.
I wish they weren’t learning how to fight. No, scratch that, I wish they didn’t need to learn how to fight. In a perfect world, they’d live in safety and go about their lives happy as can be. No need to hunt for food or fight for survival, just be bright-eyed and chubby-cheeked children forever. Unfortunately, this world is far from perfect and learning how to defend themselves is of the utmost importance. No matter how strong I am, I can’t always be at their sides. All I can do is work hard to make the world a safer place for them.
Even if I have to burn everything to the ground and rebuild from the ashes.
After a full day of packing and cleaning, Other me is still asleep, our little spar taking its toll on him. He sleeps too much, 18-20 hours a day usually, and any activity adds to that. Even after months of inactivity, he isn’t getting better, as if his vitality is fading away, and I have no idea how to help him. I’ve gotten used to having him around, especially now that he’s calmed down. It’s weird, but he’s family to me. All I can do is wait and hope he gets better.
Getting away from the bustle, I spend time practicing my chi manipulations, still trying to figure out what ‘blessing’ I’ve received. The five exercises have grown to eleven, all without even the slightest hint of success, but I will persevere. After promptly failing, I walk out to find something to cuddle and Lin invites me out for a stroll. Happy to spend time with her, we walk hand in hand through the village. The trees have begun to blossom, the forest exploding with colour and life, the birds trilling and dancing in the skies. Soaking in the ambience, I wonder when I’ll be able to enjoy these views again.
The pessimistic part of my brain says never.
“Rainy.” Lin’s bright brown eyes look up at me in concern, her headscarf framing her cute, round cheeks, still childish despite her age. “You know… you don’t have to be a Warrant Officer, it’s dangerous. Whatever the Marshal is thinking of, it’ll take you away from Nai-Nai and the others. They won’t be able to protect you if something goes wrong.”
Sweet Lin, always worrying about me, she’s too good for me. “I wanna show you something.” Guiding her down the path, we make our way to the outskirts of the village, right by the gate. Standing behind her, I wrap my arm around her shoulder and point up the path we take when leaving the village. “You see the plateau on the path, halfway up? Eighteen months after I arrived, I sat up there, staring down at this beautiful village, and found Balance for the first time. It’s one of my favourite memories. Every time I leave I take a few minutes to look back. I love it here, and I wish I never had to leave.”
Pressing up against me, her temple against my cheek, she sighs contentedly in my embrace. “So you’ll stay?”
Shaking my head sadly, I answer her as gently as possible. “No.” Her shoulders drop, and I hug her tightly, forcing the words past the lump in my throat. “You used to love when I told you stories, so have a listen to this one. Once, there was a slave who worked in a mine. Hard labour for a twelve-year-old boy, but he’d seen what happened to those who ran. Despite working like a dog, his captors tormented him daily and his fellow slaves disdained him for being weak. Cruel and vicious, the slavers cared nothing for the lives of the slaves, delighting in their pain and laughing at their deaths, letting them live in filth and squalor. After months of torturous labour and worse, the little slave passed out from Lung Rot and awoke atop a pile of corpses, left for dead.”
“Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. The little slave wandered away and was found by a Captain and his mercenaries. They took him in, healed, fed, and clothed him. They gave him love and guidance, a home, a family, a teacher, a mentor. For more than six years, they cared for him, saw he wanted for nothing, and stood by his side without question. Throughout it all, they never asked the little slave for anything in return, but now, he finally has a chance to repay the people who saved him.” My voice catches in my throat, unable to continue.
Sinking deeper into my arms, Lin sniffs lightly. “Thank you for telling me Rainy.” Lapsing into silence, we stand together while I lose myself in my memories, good and bad, real and imagined. After a long time, she breaks from my embrace and turns to face me, her eyes half-filled with tears. “You still don’t have to go out. Stay and study and in three years, you’ll be a healer, I know you will. A healer is as good as a hero, especially one so young. Your future will be limitless, and everyone will see it.”
“Strength means everything. If Teacher’s skills aren’t enough to win us allies, what good will a young healer be? As a Warrant Officer, I can help immediately, not maybe in 3-5 years. No more arguing, I’ve made up my mind.” I really haven’t, but I’m afraid she might actually convince me to stay. Going out and fighting without anyone watching my back is intimidating, to say the least. All the pressure and expectations for me to succeed, how am I supposed to measure up?
Keeping my doubts to myself, I grab Lin’s hand and wander away, telling lighthearted stories to cheer her up. Lin has been by my side since I arrived here, and somewhere along the way, she smuggled her way into my heart, a presence I can’t live without. I’m also head over heels for Mila, and it’s a little conflicting. I feel a little terrible wanting to marry multiple women, but on the other hand… that’s the dream. In theory, it sounds great, but in practice, I always feel guilty when I’m alone and flirting with Lin or Mila, as if I’m cheating. It’s also kind of a rush, which might make me a terrible person.
Regardless, as soon as I get to the Bridge, I’ll ask Baatar to approach Taduk and set up my betrothal with Lin. I’ve left her waiting for too long, and Baatar let slip he was upset when Akanai didn’t wait to speak to him about my betrothal with Mila, so this time, it’s his turn. As fearsome as he is, Baatar is a big softie when it comes to family. I’m sure being away from Sarnai for a year was difficult for him, not to mention the twins. It’ll be good for people to see him with his family, humanize him in the common soldier’s eyes.
Dinner time rolls around and Lin insists on eating out, a nice quiet dinner for two. Walking through the doors of the restauraunt, we’re met with cheers and applause, my squad and friends lying in wait to surprise me with a party, Lin grinning mischievously. With little ceremony, Mila presents me with a piece of paper, smiling happily as I unfold it. “I don’t understand… this just says ‘Say yes or I’ll hurt you’. Say yes to what? We’re already betrothed.”
“You idiot, not that. A Warrant Officer is entitled to a retinue of 100 guards, and that is my application. All your trainees were writing them up, so I made one too. Li Song will join as well.”
As if on cue, Rustram hands me a sheaf of documents, sheepishly lowering his head. “I know we aren’t the most skilled warriors, but all 67 of our squad hope to be of service.”
“… what are you, stupid? I spent the last six months training you, you think I’d leave you here with your thumbs up your asses? I refuse any and all terms, I speak, you listen, I command, you obey. Simple as that.”
“Yes Officer Rain!” Cheers fill the restaurant, their enthusiasm infectious. I’ll never understand soldiers, how can they be so happy about going out to fight?
A slender pair of arms encircle my neck and Tursinai leans over my shoulder, whispering in my ear. “Big Sister here is happy to serve under you.” A coquettish wink sends my heart racing, and she cackles in delight. “Hubby will be joining as well, Chief Provost’s orders. We’re to guard little Mila, but don’t tell her that. I’ll handle finding recruits for your retinue, you just tell me how many you need. There are plenty of young warriors who want to serve the ‘Handsome and Undying Falling Rain’.”
Mila and Lin each pinch me on the cheek as I watch Tursinai saunter away and Tenjin claps me heavily on the shoulder, squeezing a little harder than necessary. “You know, she’d stop teasing you if you didn’t blush so much. I look forward to fighting alongside you, little Rain. My father has said many good things about you, and he is a man of few words and less praise.” As scary as he is, I feel better with him watching my back. Plus, he brings some pretty awesome firepower.
Huu approaches with a smile and a jug of wine, but I speak first. “You don’t need to ask, there is a place for you in my retinue. In fact, I’d feel much safer
standing behind you while we fight.”
Grinning wolfishly, he shakes his head. “I’m honoured, but it would not be proper for one Warrant Officer to serve beneath another.” His eyes shoot down to his belt, where a token is displayed, a mirror of my own. “I was promoted last week, same as you.”
Giddy with laughter, I leap up and embrace him, thrilled at the news of a second Warrant Officer. Lifting a cup in celebration, we take turns praising one another and calling each other Officer, the jug emptied in a matter of minutes.
What can I say, misery loves company. At least this way, if I screw up, they have Huu as the backup hero to gain allies.
… or am I the backup?
Ming’s Death Poem.
A lonely raindrop, born of mother cloud
Falling from heavens high, to earth below
Rejected and forsaken, forging a solitary path
Until family found, lonely raindrop no more
Through time and trial, relations are lost
Returned to Mother cloud, again alone and destined
To seek a single drop, within infinite ocean
Within this endless cycle, of life and tribulation.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|