A shoutout to my latest anonymous donor, thank you so much for the support!
Author’s Note: It’s thanksgiving weekend, and between meals with family, friends, and my sisters in-laws, I’ve put on like 20 pounds. All weekend I’ve either been cooking, eating, or sleeping, and I skipped breakfast and lunch today to work on today’s chapter.
Anyway, Enjoy! I’m off to another dinner to indulge in self hatred and abuse, I’ll read your comments later.
God I love pumpkin pie. That is all.
Tucking Tate into bed, Baatar’s face strained from smiling. An entire year since he’d seen his grandchildren and they’d grown so much in his absence, fat and boisterous little scamps the both of them. Closing the door gently behind him, he put his arm around his daughter as they made their way back to the dining hall. She had shared in his hardships the past few months and knew he needed his family beside him. He was grateful to her for bringing them here, but he only nodded silently in thanks. She knew his mind and his heart almost better than anyone. Joining the rest of his family, they continued their feasting, a sumptuous banquet prepared by Charok and an army of servants, celebrating their new home and the boy’s betrothal to Lin.
Sated and drunk, Baatar smiled at his beautiful Sarnai, reminiscing of their whirlwind rivalry and romance, blessed by the Mother to have met her. She smiled back and snuggled up against him, mirroring the others at the table. His mentor and her husband, his daughter and son-in-law, and now his disciple and his two future brides, three generations of loving couples, all sitting together under one roof, his new home. In a short dozen years, Tali and Tate would be of age and another generation of loving couples would join him, perhaps at this same table.
Their celebrations continued until Rain took his leave, escorting Lin and Mila home, with Li Song and the cats in tow. Turning to Taduk, Baatar raised his cup in a toast and the eccentric healer followed suit, the happiest man at the table. “Little Lin has finally grabbed hold of Rain’s heart. Congratulations dear friend.”
Drinking deeply, Taduk chortled and shook his head. “Never a doubt in my mind, my little Lin-Lin decided years ago and from that moment on, Rain was as good as caught. He’s a little dense in matters of love, but he finally came to his senses and accepted her feelings.” Pouring another drink, Taduk offered a toast to Husolt. “To the joining of our three families, a joyous occasion. Although your wife stole a march on me, I hold no grudges.” The twinkle in his eyes said otherwise, and Baatar could only chuckle helplessly, refusing to stand between Taduk and his Mentor.
“Hmph, a parent will always think of their child’s happiness first. I saw how Mila felt and approved of Rain, I do not regret my actions.” Sniffing lightly, Mentor lifted her glass to Taduk with a wry smile. “That said, perhaps I could have been less hasty. I never was patient, so I offer my apologies to you for any offense given, it was not my intention.” Draining her cup, she laughed. “It mattered little, that boy is lecherous as they come. He never intended to take only a single wife, flirting shamelessly with so many women at the same time. If Yan were still here, he’d likely sink his fangs into her too.”
Sarnai chimed in with her own thoughts, smiling proudly. “All women love a hero, and what is Rain if not heroic? That timid little child has grown into a proud warrior, it would not be untoward if he had a dozen wives.” She made eyes at him, a devious woman who never stopped trying to bring a second-wife into their marriage and he smiled fondly at her, ignoring her implication.
Her statement brought a few grumbles from the others, but Alsantset laughed exuberantly. “Little brother deserves as many wives as he desires. He has a big heart and will not mistreat a single one. Look at how he dotes on his cats, they eat better than most children in the village. Knowing him, he will work himself to death spoiling his family until they are all fat and lazy.”
His mentor snorted loudly, smacking the table. “Putting aside how you likened my daughter to a pet cat, if that boy dares to bully my little Mila, none of you can save him. I’ll smack him upside the head and drag him down the mountain by the heels before teaching him a lesson.”
Husolt soothed her gently. “Now, now old wife, it is true, he dotes on those cats, he’s paying Li Song to brush them every day, ridiculously pampered animals. And our daughter, bullied? I love her dearly, but it’s Rain who should worry about being bullied. We didn’t raise no shrinking violet.”
Everyone laughed at that, Akanai blushing proudly at her daughter’s tenacity. “How dare you take his side, what, are you also hoping for a second wife?”
Feigning terror, Husolt shook his head. “This lowly one does not dare, not in ten thousand years, my love.” His words brought another chorus of laughter and more drinks, celebrating late into the night before returning home.
Sitting in the dark, Baatar waited outside of Rain’s room to share a few words. His first day of rest since swearing service to the Imperial Army, tomorrow he would again be inundated with paperwork and meetings, a headache he could do without. That was his wife’s domain, he only wished to kill his enemies and defend the Empire, was that too much to ask for?
Then again, he had much to be grateful for. His wife, child, and grandchildren, all under one roof, a wonderful arrangement. He looked forward to returning home to the sounds of children at play, although he was still unused to the servants. Nian Zu had insisted, stating it would have been unseemly for Major General’s wife to be seen doing laundry, but little did he know, Sarnai would do as she pleased and woe to anyone foolish enough to say otherwise.
It wasn’t long before he heard Rain’s approach, shuffling barefoot across the carpet in the dark before stopping to touch a metal doorknob. Cursing quietly, he resumed his shuffling, this time touching a candlestick and cursing again. “What are you doing boy?”
Jumping in place, Rain squinted in the darkness. “Mentor?”
“Over here.” Patting on the bench, he guided Rain towards him. “I wish to speak with you.”
“Sorry Mentor, if I knew I would have come home sooner.” Settling down next to him, Rain leaned against his arm, comfortable with the contact. Only two years ago, he would have sat as far away as possible, arms ready to defend himself. Battle and hardship had forged him into a confident young man, comfortable in his own skin.
“No need to apologize, how could you have known? Now tell me, what were you doing just now?”
“Err, well… I’m trying to figure out what Blessing I received by testing my abilities. I noticed that when I rub my feet on the carpet and then touch metal, I get a shock and sometimes even see a spark. If I can replicate it with chi, then I can throw lightning around.” Shrugging hopelessly, he sighed. “Or you know, that’s the theory. Hasn’t worked yet, nor has anything else I’ve tried.”
“Explain.” Carefully listening as Rain described his practice, his mouth twisted in a grimace. It seemed like a waste of time, but the boy did many things that confused him. Like his repeating crossbow, why not learn the bow properly? Pursing his lips, he took a deep breath, going over Rain’s unique problem. “You have the right idea, studying and attempting to mimic nature, but do not spend too much effort on this. Even if you never discover what your Blessing is, it is not so terrible a thing. I have never experienced an Awakening, and my strength has not suffered.”
“Oh? Are most top-tier warriors like you? Without an Awakening?”
“1 in 10,000 Martial Warriors boy, that is the accepted rate of Awakening, and not all survive long enough to master their new skills. There are close to 1.5 million warriors under Nian Zu’s command now, but only 42 Awakened. True, 8 of them are decorated heroes, a better ratio than those without, but an Awakening is nothing more than a tool at their disposal. Even if you discover your Blessing today, it will be years before you learn to control it. Look at Tenjin, his Awakening was close to a decade ago and his skill is limited to small handfuls of flame. If he instead dedicated himself wholly to his martial skills, perhaps he would be even stronger. Do not obsess over it, all will happen as the Mother wills it.”
Slumping down in defeat, the boy sighed regretfully. “Yea I know, but I wanted to throw fire and lightning, it would have been so awesome.”
Placing his arm around Rain, Baatar hugged him closely. “Your Mentor has failed you. I should have been the one to guide you during your Awakening, been there to help you along in these difficult times. I’ve been too busy with my own matters and for that, I apologize. I’ve not been able to guide your growth, but you’ve still become a splendid warrior. It is my pride to call you my Disciple, and my shame to know I’ve done little to deserve it.”
“You’re drunk, old man. Everything I have, I owe to you. I’d be dead somewhere in the wilderness without your help. You accepted me into your family. You helped me find Enlightenment and Balance. You gifted me my first spiritual weapon like it was a cabbage, it was weeks before I realized its true worth. Everything I have done and will ever do is because you took me in. It doesn’t matter why you saved me, I will be forever grateful.”
“Good child.” Baatar squeezed the boy’s shoulder and smiled to himself.
After a long pause, the boy asked, “So… how goes the war effort? I’ve heard stories, but those only outline the victories.”
“Not well. The Defiled continue to grow in number by the day, no matter how many we kill. The western path into the province has been secured, but the eastern path has now been heavily fortified by the Defiled, and my mentor has yet to break them. More Demons than ever have appeared, several emerging from their Defiled shells in the midst of combat. The casualties are mounting every day, as does the list of wounded, and the Empire is hard pressed in three provinces.”
“… Your motivational speeches need work. Morale is important to soldiers, you can’t be so brutally honest.”
Lightly smacking the boy’s head, he laughed. “It is not hopeless, not yet. We are holding them back, but every Martial Warrior’s death representing decades of training and tens of thousands of gold gone to waste. It will be a long and bloody struggle to throw them back, and when we are victorious, it will be decades before we recover to full strength.” Standing to stretch, he yawned audibly, gesturing for Rain to leave. “These are matters for me to worry over, you only need meet with the Marshal and find out what task he has in mind.” Hugging the boy tightly, he whispered, “So long as you return alive, nothing else matters. Understood?”
“Yes Mentor. You hold the wall and survive, so I have people to return to.”
“It’s a promise then.” He held the boy a moment longer before ushering him off to bed and returning to his own. A new generation of heroes were on the cusp of rising, and his disciple stood at the forefront, leading the way towards a better future.
Shuffling about the room, Yuzhen fretted over the details, her mind racing as she went over the plan, searching for faults. “Marshal, are you sure we should meet them all at once? Their grievances run deep, and the Bekhai are … outspoken.” Outright rude in some cases, but she rather enjoyed their straightforward personalities.
“Nonsense.” Straight-backed and clear-eyed, her adoptive father Shing Du Yi sat at the seat of honour. Healthier than ever, he drank his tea without a single trace of apprehension. “I lack the patience to go over everything twice, those children will stand in line or I will put them in their place. Such is the stance you need take when dealing with warriors, else they will not respect you. Remember this as you will have it more difficult than most, both a woman and a demi-human.”
Holding back a sharp retort, she breathed deeply and continued setting up, choosing her words carefully. “Perhaps we could take one group each and explain the mission to them separately. I could use the office meeting room.”
“And what will you do when out in the field, without me to aid you? Enough dear daughter of mine. They will put aside their resentment or face sanctions, we must make that clear.” Despite their differing opinions, Yuzhen could only helplessly smile at her father. A fire had been lit beneath him ever since Nian Zu appointed Baatar as his successor. Her father now hoped to have their familial relations accepted, but predictably, the Shing clan refused to acknowledge her as his legitimate heir, much less the successor to his position. With her father close to 100 years of age and a mediocre martial practitioner, the clan would try to drag out the process until he died.
She cared little for legitimacy, but he would not hear of it. Even if successful, she had no intentions of serving the Society after his passing, a collection of sects and clans engaged in pissing contests with one another, their rivalries only set aside for pissing contests with outsiders. In her forty odd years of life, both groups had given nothing but hardships for her father, a brilliant man shunned by friends and family because of her. Why he still felt loyalty to them confused her to no end. A pox on the Society.
Their conversation came to an end as the Bekhai arrived, entering the room with little fanfare. Three young Warrant Officers, each one a delectable treat. Her favourite was Tong Da Fung, not technically one of the Bekhai but thoroughly entrenched beside them. Were it any other time, he would be the focus of the citizens, the little magistrate of Shen Huo and Champion of the Contest. His cold treatment of his betrothed in front of the crowds had many women aching for his touch. After all, if their choice was between being beaten by a peasant or a prince, at least the prince could afford a healer. Ever since presenting him with his award after the Contest, she had fantasies of overpowering the slim and refined young man, turning him into her little pet, a delightfully sinful thought.
Then there was Huushal, the barbaric warrior. Feral and unrestrained, a hulking brute of a man, his yellow eyes and silver hair made him an exotic delicacy. There would be no overpowering him, no, just surrendering to his brutal lust. Undoubtedly related to Baatar, the rugged beau had caught her eye the moment he arrived at the gates, and his performance in battle had only heightened her interest. Stories of him were told, the young wolf following in Baatar’s footsteps, rivals in love and combat with the Undying Falling Rain. A shame he was so shy outside of battle, her flirtatious advances only netting her a few blushes, a world of difference from the ferocious warrior he presented himself as.
Last of all was Rain. Visually, the least impressive of the three, a goofy smile on his face as he took his seat, glancing about the room like a country bumpkin. His amber eyes were warm and striking, his body lean and sinewy, almost fragile in comparison with his companions, a bundle of twigs beside steel and brick. Appearances were deceiving however, Rain’s brilliance and skills were only matched by his arrogance and cruelty, the cheerful and polite demeanour a cloak he wore to hide his true nature. She felt drawn to such wicked men, wanting to change them to suit her needs. What’s more, she felt grateful to him for helping her father, and dreamed of rewarding him with carnal pleasures, but he left too soon afterwards.
Putting aside her distracted thoughts, she played the part of hostess, demurely serving tea and taking the chance to press up against each one. Fung ignored her and Huushal leaned away, but Rain had the audacity to lean in and smile. His actions sent a flush through her and she silently scolded herself. Bad enough to sleep with Gerel, ten years her junior, but this boy was less than half her age. It was scandalous.
Which was exactly why it excited her so. She was nothing but what the Mother made her.
Before long, the rest arrived, five unaffiliated Warrant Officers filtering in one at a time, while the four Society Warrant Officers entered together, Situ Jia Zian leading the way. Zian’s talents were undeniable, his misfortune to be born in the same era as Rain, but Nian Zu rewarded both equally. Taking their seats across from the Bekhai, the tension in the room immediately catapulted, both sides trading glares while the neutral parties stood, not wishing to be seen taking sides. 12 young talents, all under the age of 25, each one a prodigy.
“Excellent.” Her father finished his tea with a satisfied sigh and placed the cup aside. “I have called you all here to discuss a matter of importance, put aside your enmity and listen. As you are all aware, the Defiled have taken root in the eastern mountain passes. They are contained for now, but the resources required to keep them there are immense, a constant train of supplies required to keep our soldiers fed and armed.” A number of portraits in hand, her father laid them out on the table one by one. “The loss of Shen Mu city has given rise to a number of bandit gangs and scattered Defiled tribes wandering the eastern coast. The riverside farms of Jiu Lang and Sanshu cities are major sources of food production, but the gangs and tribes have taken to raiding the farmlands and supply routes. Unable to keep them back, the Magistrates of both cities have asked for aid.”
“Bandits? This is why you called us here? Send soldiers to deal with the rabble, there is no honour in this.” Sang Ryong of the Seven-Star Sect spoke, an arrogant young man, but deserving of such. Not quite at the level of Rain and Jian, he stood second only to the two of them in strength.
“There aren’t enough soldiers to spare, foolish child. Listen while your betters are speaking.” Unperturbed by the interruption, her father continued without pause. “The twelve of you represent 1,200 soldiers who stand idle here at the wall. Too talented to be risked, too weak to be of real use, I offer you a chance to serve the Empire and earn your meals. What’s more, these are no mere bandits, many are former soldiers, including three Majors and a Lieutenant Colonel.” Gesturing to the pictures before him, the twelve young officers finally took notice, studying them intently. “Kill them or one of the more notorious bandits and there will be honour enough for you all. Many of them even have bounties posted, which you may keep.”
Dastan Zhandos, a low-born warrior from Sanshu, gestured to one of the pictures. “You want 12 Warrant Officers to take on the Butcher Bay Bandits? This is tantamount to suicide. I grew up beneath their thumb, they hold both cities with an iron grip. What can we do that the army cannot?”
“They are only one of the gangs in the area, and I do not expect you to act alone. 5,000 mercenaries will be joining you under the direction of my daughter, Major Yuzhen. You only need make certain the supplies reach their destinations, but if you are able to locate the bandit’s hideouts, the Guard Captains of the surrounding cities will be standing by with an army. The bandits are not united, so you face minimal danger should you work together.” Standing to leave, he winked at her. “Of course, I cannot force you to take part. If you feel yourselves incapable or the task too dangerous, then you only need speak. Otherwise, I leave you all in my daughter’s capable hands.”
With that, her father strode out of the room, leaving her to manage the 12 arrogant young warriors, many of them with disdain in their eyes. This was going to be a struggle for her to resist temptation, especially with Rain so bold, his eyes so lovely. She could not act on her passion, it would be unseemly for a commanding officer to take advantage of those beneath her.
Then again, why should she not? Male officers do it often enough.
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