“Ready!” At my shout, my retinue raises their bows, wobbling as they stand atop their running quins. There’s plenty of work to be done still, so we will practice until every one of them can do this effortlessly for hours at a time. It’s not too hard once you get the hang of it.
“Steady!” Bows at full draw, I watch as a few faces turn red with effort, letting them sweat with exertion. Archery is about strength, poise, and stability. It’s not enough to draw the bow, you need to do it effortlessly. No quivering arms or heaving chest, a fluid motion from start to finish.
“Release!” The thwang of bow strings fills the air, lacking the distinct whistling of arrows, a simple exercise. Allowing them a few scant seconds to rest, I raise my voice once again. “Ready!” With several boring days of travel ahead, I intend to use every spare second to raise their strength.
Also standing on my quin, I practice along with them. A sweet creature named Mafu, I’m trying not to get too attached to him, but it’s not working. I have too many pets as it is, I need to show restraint. I already had to buy a wagon for the cats, those lazy bastards happily resting in their open boxes while we travel to the Bridge, unable to keep pace with the quins for more than an hour. Mafu is a great quin though, very responsive to my commands, circling around my retinue as we travel so I can oversee their training. Poor thing must have run twice the distance compared to the other quins, but he seems to enjoy it and loves the extra feed I set aside for him. He also loves belly rubs and cuddling the kittens, worming his way into my heart one adorable squeak at a time.
I have no choice but to buy him now, but it’s for work, so it shouldn’t count. I think I have to buy my retinue’s quins as well. I can’t have my personal guards equipped on the village budget, that just doesn’t seem right. The money I extorted from the Society is enough for the quins, but I have no idea how much Rustram’s rapier is worth. No one has said anything about payment, but I feel uncomfortable with such a large debt to the People. I’ll figure something out and make more money, it’s no big deal.
Our training continues until Alsantset stops the caravan for a break, my retinue going about their tasks with backs bent and shoulders slumped. Archery aside, standing on quins is hard work which requires physical effort, mental focus and chi. It’s good to practice though, because the better you are at standing without expending chi, then the more you have for other endeavours, like Lightening.
After taking care of Mafu, I make my way over to my betrothed Mila, her hair blowing in the wind, without a trace of sweat despite taking part in the training. Greeting her with a smile, she pointedly ignores me, turning away with a little hmph. Li Song glares at me briefly before doing the same, both endearing and infuriating. She’s gotten much more comfortable around me, putting it nicely, always ready to lecture me on proper procedure and manners. It’s like a second Mila, the two of them taking turns telling me what I’m doing wrong. A little frustrating, but then again, it’s good to see her breaking out of her shell, although I wish she were a little less prickly.
Ignoring Li Song for the moment, I casually stretch my arm around Mila’s waist, pulling her towards me and discretely sniffing her hair. Lovely. “Afternoon, my pouting princess. Are you still upset about not being my second-in-command?”
Mila’s smouldering glower puts a grin on my face, which only makes her angrier. I can’t help it, she’s too adorable when she’s angry. Quiet, yet forceful, she gives me an earful beneath her breath, giving face in front of my retinue as she elbows me away. “Yes! Idiot, why did you pick Rustram? I’m far more qualified. If I had the mind to, I’d be the youngest Warrant Officer in the last thousand years, not you. Even worse, you made me leader of a ten-man unit and assigned Tenjin and Tursinai under me. Don’t think you’re fooling me, I know what you’re doing. You’re worse than Mama, coddling and protecting me, I can take care of myself.”
“I know you’re more qualified, but that’s why I chose Rustram. You’re far too capable to be serving under me.” Not empty flattery, she still beats me black and blue every time we spar, not even Other me can stand toe-to-toe with her for long. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and if you were my second-in-command, I’d rely on you to make all the decisions. What happens when you receive your own command? This way, Rustram and I can learn how to command together, with you supervising and making sure we don’t make too many mistakes.”
Stuck between beaming and scowling, Mila crosses her arms and turns away, hiding her face from me. “Well, what about Tenjin and Tursinai?”
I didn’t have a choice, but I can’t say it. It’s not fair, I have two awesome experts joining me, but they refuse to do anything but guard Mila. If I can’t use them as ninja assassins, then what good are they? “Is it so terrible for me to want my betrothed well-protected? Even when you become a supreme expert, unrivaled under heaven, I will worry about you, that’s what I do.”
Her back straightens and I can picture the smile on her face, but it only lasts a moment before her shoulders slump once more. “And what about Lin?”
“You decided to marry her without consulting me. I have no objections, I’m delighted in fact, but you didn’t even think to ask for my opinion. You casually mentioned it this morning in passing as if it were as simple as picking up a new shirt. Is this how my husband will be, marrying whomsoever he pleases? Am I to share you with strangers, living together with your other conquests? Will we take turns spending time with you or will you implement a merit based point-system?”
Oh, damn. I’m a terrible person. I was so happy after deciding to marry Lin, I didn’t even think about Mila’s feelings. Briefly struggling with her as I try to embrace her, Mila only halfheartedly shoving me away, I finally overcome her flurry of elbows and stomps, my arms wrapping around her waist as I rest my chin on her shoulder. “I’m sorry Mila, I was thoughtless and insensitive. I am a terrible and lustful man, undeserving of your affection. You are beautiful and strong, sweet and compassionate, to be betrothed to you is already reaching beyond my station. I am greedy, wanting more than I deserve. Forgive me for being a wicked man with wicked desires.”
“Flowery words and empty flattery, nothing more.” Despite her words, she snuggles back in my embrace, giggling sweetly. “At least you know your flaws. Don’t you dare let me catch you flirting with strangers, or I’ll beat you silly in front of everyone and drag you home by the heels. You care nothing for face, so I will give none.”
“Does this mean I can flirt with your friends?” I always have to push too far. With my ribs bruised and tender from her angry elbowing, I decide to put my harem dreams on hold. Two wives are a start, but it falls a little short of a proper harem. Then again, I’m almost 100% sure I’ve never been married before, so perhaps it would be best to test the waters and see how much I like being married to start with.
That would be the smart thing to do, but logic has no say when it comes to love. Despite my feelings for Lin and Mila, I’m still looking forward to seeing Yuzhen again, especially after corresponding by letter these past months. Never anything personal, only talking about the Marshal’s health, but she did offer her ‘heartfelt gratitude’ for helping the old man, so that’s a start. Beautiful and smart, I’m enamoured by her, and it’s nice knowing those feelings are my own, without worrying about implanted memories.
Once travel resumes, I magnanimously allow my retinue time to rest and meditate as we ride, good practice for recharging on the go. Still standing atop Mafu, I slow his pace and guide him around the wagons, making my way back to Taduk’s rickshaw. Taduk joined the migration to the Bridge at the last minute. I’m sure he’ll have plenty to do, and regenerating a few limbs or organs for various important soldiers will win the People allies. I’m not too comfortable with his decision, but healers should be well protected, and Lin can help Alsantset and Charok look after the twins.
Smiling beautifully, my soon-to-be betrothed greets me happily, unaware of my plans, little Tate in her lap while Tali dozes comfortably with Taduk. I can hardly wait for them to officially be a part of my family. Lin was my first friend and I’ll never forget Taduk’s patience and care as he healed me those first few days, trying to make me smile with his terrible jokes. Leaning over the edge of her rickshaw, Lin pokes me in the cheek. “Rainy, don’t be so mean to your soldiers, ya? They’re so pitiful with you yelling at them all the time, and you look less handsome when you’re all frowny.”
“I wanna stand! Rainy, please, lemme stand on quin.” Squirming in her arms, Tate reaches out to me and I pluck him from the rickshaw.
“I’m not being mean, I’m pushing them to succeed.” Squatting down with Tate, my hands grip tightly to his shoulders while he stands, worried he might fall. “Alright little man, keep your knees bent and legs relaxed.”
“Ya, ya, Rainy. Let go now, I wanna stand by myself.”
“Don’t let go, he’s too young. All your yelling will make them sad and hurt their pride. They’ll never be top-tier experts without pride and confidence. That’s why you’re so strong, Rainy.”
“Oh, it’s so adorable that you think I’m confident.” Naive too. Holding tightly to Tate’s belt, I release my death grip on his shoulders and smile as he concentrates with all his might, arms out as he wobbles unsteadily. After a few short seconds, he stumbles with a tiny wail and I snatch him up in my arms, safe and sound. “Good effort, but remember, never try this without someone helping you, understand? It’s dangerous and I’d be very sad if anything happened to you. How about you ride on my shoulders instead?” Lifting him up, I grin while he howls with laughter from his high perch, turning to answer Lin. “Confidence will come with competence, and they’re anything but at the moment. I don’t need experts by my side, I need soldiers who will obey. Excessive pride will only slow them down.”
“Faster Rainy, faster!”
Winking at Lin, I direct Mafu to pick up the pace for a few minutes, until Tate is breathless with laughter. Falling back to the rickshaw, he switches places with Tali, awoken by her brother’s cackling. Just as brave, she lifts her hands in the air as we ride around, even trying to stand on my shoulders, the silly little girl.
I wouldn’t mind delaying the journey to spend more time with everyone. If the world were a safer place, I would love to travel and see the world with my family. Living off the land and selling medicines, helping the sick wherever I find them, a wandering physician would be a good life, if not for the monstrous beasts and worse humans. Instead, here I am, escorting them in a caravan of hundreds with an army of thousands, moving towards a war zone where men and women die fighting every day.
I hope Alsantset is making the right decision and I pray nothing happens to my family.
Akanai stood tall as her Sentinels filtered in through the streets, Tokta and his assistants guiding everyone to their new homes, everything carefully arranged in advance. This first wave of families took great risk in coming here during these troubled times, and she rewarded them well for their loyalty. Land was at a premium here in the city and it cost her dearly to purchase the entire district, even with the Marshal’s help, but the looks of delight as they saw their new houses made it worth every copper. A gift for their bravery, her husband merely smiled and shook his head, making jokes about working hard while his wife spent all their coin. Stingy old man, he only needed to make a few spiritual weapons to recoup the losses, a sale easily made in private. Nian Zu had expressed admiration for her husband’s work several times, and his pockets ran deep.
Making her way through the streets with her family, she greeted the travel-weary villagers one by one, making sure they lacked for nothing. Even though her people were moving into the city, she wished to keep their tight-knit community intact, hopefully expanding to include the native city dwellers among them as time passed and bonds formed. Setting roots here at the Bridge would legitimize the People and the other mountain villages, a direct connection to the outside world. The pup had started on a path to greatness, and she wanted nothing more than to propel him forwards. Fame meant little to her but the pup hungered for it, half the reason he founded the Iron Banner to begin with. Now his decades of effort had finally borne fruit, a respected hero of the Empire, soon-to-be General of the Northern Bridge, she could not be happier for him.
Reaching her destination, she stepped through the door to see his tail wagging furiously as he walked together with his wife and family on a tour of his home. He could never keep that tail under control, a clear indicator of his current mood. Her first and, until recently, only Disciple, she finally felt comfortable leaving the pup to his own devices and focusing her efforts on another. Her second disciple, almost as hard-working as Rain and far easier to teach, she had high hopes for him. Glancing back at him, he was the spitting image of his father at that age, handsome, cold, and noble. She even entertained the idea of joining their families together through marriage at one point, but Mila had shown no attraction to the young man. It was a joy and privilege to mentor him, a complete reversal from the frustrating experience of teaching Rain.
Waving the boy in question over, she grinned as Rain ran to embrace her, fondly remembering a time when her presence terrified him. It warmed her heart to hear of the blossoming romance between him and Mila, Rain a welcome addition to her family. “Good to see you again boy, you’ve grown. I wanted to hand you the Token myself, but your sister insisted on the honour. I trust you will not bring shame to your Mentor. Now, come greet your Martial Uncle, my second Disciple, Tong Da Fung.”
Rain’s look of shock quickly turned to mischievous smile as he clasped his fists and bowed to Fung. “Officer Brother Martial Uncle. Congratulations! When did this happen?” His voice dropped to a whisper, trying to hide his next words from her. “And my condolences. I pray for your survival.”
Fung laughed heartily, usually a cold, proud young man. Their friendship meant more to him than Rain realized, few people willing to befriend the Magistrate’s son without an ulterior motive. “After Du Min Gyu refused to take me as a student, Mentor took pity on my lowly self and accepted me as her Disciple, pulling me back from the brink of despair. My luck is strong, rejected by a tiger only to be chosen by a dragon. I caution you carefully Officer Brother Martial Nephew: my strength has progressed in leaps and bounds since we last met. As your senior, I cannot allow myself to remain beneath you.” Their smirking devolved into outright laughter, their new titles hilarious to the both of them.
Composing himself, Rain put on a serious face, looking around at all gathered. “It’s great that you’re all here, my family and loved ones. I have an announcement.” Pausing while his family gathered, he lifted Tate into his arms and hugged the child close and took Mila’s hand. “I would like to ask Mentor to arrange my betrothal to Mei Lin. I have discussed the matter with Mila, but before anything, if anyone objects to this matter, please speak.” Turning to face her, he bowed once, bowing a second time to her husband while still holding Tate like a shield, Tali clapping happily as she hopped around him. “I apologize if you feel I am mistreating your daughter, I know how precious she is to you. It is not that I find her lacking, I love Mila, but I also love Lin. I will strive to make them both happy, and would never intentionally hurt either one of them. I ask for your blessing in this matter, and will not go ahead without it.”
Glancing at her husband, she saw his pouting lips and smouldering anger. Quickly putting an end to it, she pinched his cheek. “Oh husband, you grow more cantankerous with age and dote too much on Mila. We knew this would happen, little Lin staked her claim on him long ago. Rain holds sufficient prestige to have more than one wife, and if our daughter has no objections, how can we? We raised her well and she would not make this decision lightly.” Patting Rain’s cheek, she smile and gave him her blessing, and after a pointed elbow from her, so did her husband, giving the boy a hearty hug and a whispered threat. It was unnecessary, Rain would not treat Mila badly, the boy cared deeply for his family.
Another advantageous union, perhaps she should find a wife for Fung. The Ong girl was unsuitable for him, a pretty flower with prickly thorns. Nevertheless, with three Warrant Officers, each one destined for greatness, the People were rising in prominence. Huushal, an unstoppable powerhouse and beloved of the People, Fung a brilliant politician and commander, loved by the people of Shen Huo. Standing above both for now was Rain, a budding genius healer and exceptional duelist, a young hero worshiped by the citizens and, according to Gerel, a talented and creative leader. Add in Mila and Adujan, as well as several other budding talents, and they made an excellent team, a formidable generation of talents. Truly, great heroes are born in times of turmoil.
Of course, nothing would come to pass should they die young. Life was uncertain, and battle a cruel mistress, she had done all she could to prepare them for the trials ahead. The raw materials had emerged from the flames, withstood the battering of the hammer, and now it was time for them to be tempered, away from her protection. Only by spreading their wings would they learn to fly. She hoped to see them return to her, soaring majestically through the skies, but like always, she hoped for the best and prepared for the worst, ready to catch them should they come crashing to earth below.
She had done all she could, the rest was in the hands of the Mother.
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