A shoutout to my latest anonymous donor, thank you so much for the support!
The coins of the Empire are rather small, around the size of a nickel. Stamped by the Imperial Treasury, the ornate images on each coin is as much a work of art as it is a measure to combat counterfeiting. With varying depictions of powerful animals such as dragons, tigers, wolves, and bears, the different coins share but two fixed constants: a four word inscription that says ‘Without Rivals Beneath Heaven’, and a square hole in the centre. It’s common practice to string the coins in batches of ten and one hundred, making them easier to carry and count. The sum total of my spoils of war is equal to four gold, two silvers and a handful of coppers, neatly arranged in a number of coils on the table before me. “That’s it? 117 bandits in this gang and this is all your loot?”
Shivering in pain and fear, the bandits stare at my feet, unwilling to meet my eyes or answer my question. Whenever I think of bandits, I picture grotesque, pockmarked, gap-toothed men, dirty and ragged with scars and injuries aplenty. While they are dirty and ragged, most of them are fairly attractive, include a few jaw-dropping beauties I wouldn’t mind getting to know better, once their stomach issues settle down.
Poop is gross. I largely overestimated how much Mandrel Stalk it’d take to incapacitate them, or they drank way more than expected. Oh well, live and learn. At least it worked.
I never understood how martial warriors could be so attractive. My best guess is that meditation and Heavenly Energy enhances their physical appearance, but how that works is beyond my comprehension. I mean, fixing bad teeth and scars I can understand, but how does it make everyone’s face so symmetrical? Even the dead bristleboars back at the village weren’t as ugly as my old slavers were, lending credence to my theory that chi is the #1 beauty treatment and age retention method.
Leaving the coins on the table, I pace before my captives while Mila looks on with a smile. She likes watching my angry sergeant persona at work, her streak of sadism showing through. Picking a bandit that wasn’t afflicted, I motion for Ravil to bring her forward. Short haired and voluptuous, she has a pair of bent, triangular ears and a shaggy tail, maybe dog or cat. I saw the end of her fight against six of my retinue and she’s full of spunk, a real brawler. I marked the soldiers who faced off against her and her large friend for extra sparring practice. It’s disgraceful, they struggled six against two.
As she quails before me, I’m unable to keep my eyes from her heaving, bouncing chest. God damn but she has a beautiful bosom, at the perfect height for me to smush my face in. I won’t, but there’s nothing wrong with imagining it, I’m only human. “What’s your name?”
Her mouth pinches and I ready myself to dodge any spit, but her eyes glance towards Ravil, maliciously grinning as he brandishes his cudgel, eager to put it to good use. The man is a psychopath, but he’s my psychopath. Grudgingly, she speaks her name, glaring defiantly at me. “Chey.”
She doubles over as Ravil clubs her in the stomach and I struggle to hide my empathy. She’s a bandit, a killer, not some damsel in distress. Ravil admonishes her loudly. “You show Officer Falling Rain the respect he deserves, scum. When addressing his honourable self, the first and last words out of your mouth will be ‘Sir’, do you understand me?” He has the barking tone down to perfection, all the makings of my tyrannical underling. Sometimes you need the carrot, other times the stick.
Straightening up, she hides her anger well and speaks again. “Sir, this one’s name is Chey, Sir.”
“You fight well. Do you have a spiritual weapon? Any previous training?”
“Sir, no Sir. My Ma taught me how to fight, a former soldier, Sir.”
“Well, seeing as your last boss just tendered his resignation, I’d imagine you’re looking for work. I’ve a place for you if you’re interested.”
Grimacing, she glares at me and spits, a globule landing on my chest. “Sir, I’d rather die than be your whore, Sir.”
Fuck, I wasn’t expecting it this time. Holding my hand out to stop Ravil from beating her to death, I wipe away the spit with a sigh. “That was my fault, I should have been more clear, everyone has rape on their mind, bunch of filthy animals. Attractive as you are, I don’t want you as my whore, I need someone who knows where to look for other gang hideouts and the politics of Sanshu, a local guide of sorts. You have my word, while under my authority, no one will rape or abuse you, regardless of your decision. Aid me and when my duty in Sanshu is complete, I will appeal to the Magistrate for leniency on your behalf. Work well, and I might even accept you into my retinue, shielding you from the law.” Shrugging indifferently, I push her a little further. “The alternative is I hand you over to the Magistrate’s guards and you’re either hung or enslaved. Trust me when I tell you to pray for the rope. A short drop, a quick stop, and off to the Mother’s embrace you go, nice and peaceful.”
Eyes narrowed, she chews her lip as she studies me cautiously. “Sir, why choose me Sir?”
“I saw you leading away an incapacitated person even though he would have hindered your escape. It shows loyalty and camaraderie, which I like. I will extend the same offer to them and a few others of your choosing, say fifteen total, no rapists, torturers, or mass murderers. I’ll leave it to Mister Rustram here to iron out the details of your oath.” I dunno when I started calling him ‘Mister Rustram’, but as my second-in-command, I felt he deserved a special form of address.
After a short moment of deliberation, Chey nods and Rustram brings her away, but what am I supposed to do with the rest? I don’t like sending them off to the slavers but I can’t stomach ordering their deaths in cold blood. Maybe I should have fought them head on, but outnumbered and unsupported, facing a well entrenched enemy, I would have lost half my retinue taking this natural fortress. Instead, we captured them all with no injuries or casualties, an overwhelming victory for the low cost of… wow eight jugs of wine. They can really drink.
Should I take them in as soldiers? Am I even allowed to do that? My retinue is limited at 100 soldiers, but who enforces that? Couldn’t I keep them as auxiliaries or something? Is it worth the risk? Do they even deserve my sympathy? They are bandits after all, but who am I to judge? I’ve seen what life in the cities are like for the impoverished, it’s a wonder why more people don’t turn to banditry. When it’s a choice between starving and stealing, people will almost always choose the latter. What to do, what to do?
A sweet voice interrupts my musings. “Hubby!” Her scarf streaming behind her, Lin leaps off her well-dressed quin and into my arms, an adorable, lightweight missile. Arms around my neck, her feet dangle off the ground as she nuzzles against my neck. “Did you miss me?”
Not gonna lie, I love being called hubby, but I need to stay angry. “Yes I did.” Dammit. “But I told you to stay at the outpost. It’s not safe out here.” Her escorts sheepishly stand by as I glare at them, former Sentinels I thought I could trust with her safety.
“Don’t be mad at them hubby, I had Daddy’s guards bring me out.” Her four heavily armed guards wait nearby atop their ferocious quins. With Taduk’s connections, finding bodyguards on short notice was no trouble at all. Strangers to me, each one moves like an expert and wears matching black leather armor, complete with fancy face scarves and hoods. I’m a little upset that no one thought to give me any guards. Mila has two, Huu has two, and Fung has six, four from his father and two from Akanai. Unfair.
Closing my eyes, I sigh in exasperation. “Lin, I told you before we left that if you wanted to follow me, you would have to obey my orders, remember?”
Smiling sweetly, she sticks her tongue out. “I didn’t agree to that hubby. You can’t tell me what to do, we’re gonna be married so where you go, I go.”
Dammit, what happened to my sweet, obedient Lin? Glancing helplessly at Mila, she shrugs in reply. “Lin’s safer with us. Most nobles will think twice before crossing a Warrant Officer, but if you leave Lin alone, an ignorant fellow might take interest in her and overpower her guards before realizing her backing.”
Glancing at the guards in question, I ask, “What do you guys think?” In two weeks of travel, I haven’t heard a single one of them speak. “No, nothing? Are you mutes? Blink twice if my Teacher is blackmailing you, three times if Lin is.”
“Hubby, don’t tease them.” Lowering her voice, Lin stands on her toes and speaks softly in my ear. “They don’t like you very much.”
“Of course they don’t like him, Rain’s methods bring shame down upon the People.” Sniffing daintily, Mila begins her third rant over my ‘disgraceful’ tactics, but I preempt her tirade by pulling her into my embrace.
“If it raises my chances of victory and survival, I will use it, no matter how despicable. I can’t be dying before marriage.” Mila blushes at my attentions, roughly shoving me away. Shy, sweet Mila.
“As long as hubby comes home safe, I don’t mind.” Grabbing the strongbox, Lin hugs it close. “I’ll be your treasurer hubby, you spend too much on silly things. For example, you should have bought cheaper wine, you’re throwing away money.”
Lin’s gotten much more assertive since our betrothal, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I do love her. “I needed strong wine to mask the taste of the Mandrel Stalk, which we picked for free, and that money isn’t all ours, only 10%. The rest goes towards my war chest, to cover costs like food and equipment or bonuses. This wasn’t as financially rewarding as I expected, 4.2 gold is a joke.”
Auric makes his presence known after catching up, bounding towards me to headbutt my calves, purring adorably for my attention. It’s the first time I’ve ever left him for more than a day and he has some minor separation issues. Jimjam ignores me like he normally does, chuffing lightly as he stares at the terrified bandits, their huddled and weakened forms sparking interest to his predatory instincts. They grow up so fast, next thing I know he’ll be hunting deer and whatnot on his own, helping out with the bills.
Moving so her back is to the bandits, Lin smiles and winks at me, speaking loudly enough for them to overhear. “Every coin counts hubby, we couldn’t even feed our precious kittens this morning. You know how picky they are, they hate eating horseflesh. I hope there’s enough food, Feeding them people is yucky and all the screaming scares me.”
“Sir, in the camp’s northwest corner behind the carved monkey, there’s…”
“Sir, I’ve a stash of coin hidden away, I’ll gladly hand it over…”
“Sir, halfway down the well, tied to one of the stones is a bag full of…”
A tide of confessions crashes over me as the bandits scramble to be the first to tell me where they’ve hidden their ill-gotten gains, from a respectable distance away from Jimjam. Glancing at Lin who beams prettily, I reevaluate her prowess, a sweet, innocent young woman no more.
Sending a few soldiers to gather the hidden loot, I bring Lin and Mila away before they can terrorize the prisoners any more. Beaming happily, Lin looks expectantly at me for praise, and I oblige. “Great work, how’d you know they were hiding their valuables?”
“Silly hubby, thieves always worry about their things being stolen, and it isn’t easy to sell stolen goods. We’ll likely get a finder’s fee for returning them and we can also sell the unbranded horses, their weapons and leather armor. Even a poor-quality horse can sell for a silver, and they have more than a hundred. 10% is too little, you should take more, we need to start saving for the wedding and our home.” Leaning in close, she whispers, “It needs to be a big home, especially if you want more wives, ya?”
Ah, sweet Lin, always looking out for my best interests.
I’m a lucky man. It’s not every wife that will wing-man for their husband.
Choking on his tea, Fung coughed and sputtered out a nonsensical reply, covering his mouth as he flushed deeply at his shameful display. Thankfully it was inside his private residence and the only witnesses were Huushal and the servants. Wiping his mouth, Fung motioned for the messenger to repeat himself.
“Young Master, Warrant Officer Rain arrived not fifteen minutes ago with over one hundred prisoners in tow. Officer Rain is currently outside the gates filling out the requisite forms to transfer them into Imperial Custody.”
Waving the man away, Fung hurriedly changed his clothes while Huushal left ahead of him. The two of them had grown close the past six months, fighting side by side against the Defiled in a back and forth effort to retake the Eastern fortresses. A friendship forged in bloodshed, Huushal was as much his brother as Rain was, if not more. A Martial Warrior who improved in leaps and bounds, after hearing about his match with Rain, Fung asked to spar with Rain as well, a fire igniting in his chest.
As a result, after sparring eleven times there was no clear winner between them. Fighting to first blood was unfair to Rain as it ignored his superior healing skills, and neither one was willing to submit short of a resounding defeat, which neither could deliver without critically injuring the other. In the end, they could only laugh and thank the Mother that they were all so close in strength, although Fung lamented his fate if his mentor were to find out. In his mind, Rain was the strongest of the three, with Fung and Huushal vying for second place. Six months ago, Fung was undoubtedly second, but now, he was close to becoming third, shameful considering his privileged upbringing and superior mentor.
He was exuberant when the Herald chose him as her Disciple, but the thought of embarrassing her good name terrified him, especially on his first solitary mission. Even though his father’s guards had strict orders to not intervene unless his life was in overwhelming danger, he also had a team of healers along with him in case of life threatening injuries. How was he to grow strong with these safety measures always in place? The psychological pressure of a life and death environment was simply unattainable under these circumstances, perhaps why Huushal and Rain improved faster than he did.
Setting aside his worries, he hurried to see Rain. The three of them had travelled together for the majority of their journey to Sanshu, not only because of their brotherhood but because they were all unwelcome in Shen Yun. They didn’t dare to step foot inside a fifty kilometre radius of the city, travelling through rough terrain to bypass Situ Jia Ying’s territory.
A rival of his father’s, the woman reportedly backed the Ong family in their failed bid to take Shen Huo, although there was only conjecture. Were Fung to enter the city, he was likely to meet his end in a dark alley and made to look as if he suffered an accident. Huushal and Rain had it worse, Jia Ying publicly vowing revenge against the Bekhai for ransoming her son’s life. To top it off, when Rain returned to the Bridge, the expensive Runic Armour was prominently displayed on his slave’s lovely frame, as if scorning to wear it himself.
Of course, Fung knew it was because it didn’t fit Rain, but the Society Adherents saw it as an outright insult, raising tensions between the two factions to a record high. Thankfully, Zian seemed content to ignore the ‘provocation’, refusing to even acknowledge Rain’s presence in their meetings.
All in all, their journey was largely uneventful, and Rain broke off a few days prior to reaching the city to explore the surroundings. Eager for a hot bath and comfortable bed, Fung and Huushal chose to hurry ahead to the city and gauge the political climate before the Society arrived. Who knew that Rain would find success so quickly?
Greeting the ladies Mei Lin and Sumila cordially, he stepped up and clapped Rain on the shoulder, grinning as his friend filled out paperwork. His calligraphy was appallingly awful, but only those pampered buffoons from the Central and Eastern provinces put great stock in things like that. The true mark of a warrior was in swordsmanship and leadership, what use was writing? Still, he took the opportunity to poke fun at Rain, striking at the few flaws he had. “By the Mother, you might as well give the brush to your cats and ask them to write for you, your brushwork is completely illegible.”
“Ha, can you imagine? I bet people would pay a fortune for a beautiful painting done by a cat.” Smiling in good humour, Rain continued to write, his tongue between his teeth as he concentrated. “Hang on, I’m almost done. If I knew I’d have to fill out this much paperwork, I’d have just set them free and left their loot behind. It’s not worth the hassle. I really need to learn how to write someday.”
Glancing over the list, Fung’s eyes widened slightly at the value of his reported findings. Gems, jewellery, herbs, horses, and more, it seemed bandit hunting was a lucrative venture. “You’ll need to tell me how you subdued all these bandits, your troops don’t seem injured at all.” Could it be that he had a healer among his retinue? With the Medical Saint Taduk as his teacher, it didn’t seem too far-fetched.
“A ruse, mostly. Pretty simple in fact, I’ll tell you later, but no time now.” Waving forward a few unkempt bandits, he grinned deviously. “I had a few bandits oath-bound to service, nothing like slavery so be wary of them. They can’t run away or attack us, but they might leave out details or something, so verify everything they say. They know the local bandits and have given me a list of places we can strike. I intend to head out after finishing here and Huu’s getting his retinue ready, do you want to come too? We should work fast and take out as many of the easy targets as we can before the other Officers arrive. These bandits are fat sheep waiting to be sheared, and better we profit as opposed to the Society. We split everything three ways, including command. Majority rules, sound good?”
Hiding his smile, Fung gave the order to assemble his retinue, inwardly shaking his head. Not even taking a single day to rest after a long journey, Rain’s Khishigs were a pitiable bunch. No matter, two days of rest was plenty for his own people, and he was eager to raise his own name. So what if it was spoken alongside the Undying Savage and the Ravenous Wolf? Rain and Huushal were formidable warriors, and it was his honour to fight beside them.
Soon, a third name would join theirs when the citizens spoke of them, the Young Magistrate of Shen Huo, Disciple of the Herald of Storms, the Unstoppable Tempest, Tong Da Fung.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|