Author’s note: I received some negative feedback about the names in the chapter, with the asian(english) naming scheme. I needed it for a thought that Yuzhen would make, an Imperial educated person, that Rain would never realize, because of stuff.
I left it in, but I don’t think I’ll do it ever again. It’s a neat thing (I think), but that’s one of the downsides to using an asian naming scheme. Some details are missed, that’s just the way it is.
Peeking through the curtains of her carriage, Yuzhen stared down at Sanshu (Three Tree) City, going over the details in her mind. A city where the inhabitants worshipped coin, despite being named for the famous pilgrimage site to the southwest. The heart of industry in the Northern province, a steady stream of wagons and boats moved to and from the city, carrying all manner of commodities. Filled with some of the wealthiest clans and sects in the north, Sanshu was a hotbed of political intrigue and backstabbing, the inhabitants well versed in espionage and clandestine dealings. Beautiful and dangerous, this was a place in which political agendas changed freely, the affluent playing games of power while amassing their wealth.
All at the low cost of the lives of simple commoners.
The merchants exploited the peasants in every way possible, forcing them to live in exposed hovels south of the city proper. Every peasant living along the Xiangmi (Fragrant Rice) River worked like dogs in every facet of industry, hoping to master a trade or be promoted to a position of power and earn themselves enough coin to move into Jiu Lang (Nine Wolves), the sister city of Sanshu to the southeast. Styling themselves as ‘self-supporting and autonomous’, it was all an illusion carefully crafted by those in power to keep the masses from rebelling. Those in Jiu Lang fought and killed to elevate their positions, hoping to earn a place inside Sanshu, a vicious chain.
From village to Jiu Lang and then over to Sanshu, that was the goal of every common worker here, and none would ever reach it. In a hundred years, the three wealthy factions would remain unchanged while the destitute families would still be toiling away in the fields. These lands were aptly named; rice was meant for consumption and wolves would fight and die, but the greatest trees would continue to grow long after both were gone. Such was the way of the world, the rich got richer while the poor paid the price.
Not even her old man had enough power to change things here, and the Magistrate of Sanshu was merely a figurehead, a pawn for the three major factions of Sanshu: The Eastern Prosperity Alliance, The Western Treasures Union, and the Golden Highlands Coalition. Although their martial forces were lacking, not even the Society could stand against any of them in sheer wealth, a weapon in and of itself. If not for the war, the merchants of Sanshu would never have allowed her to bring such a force to bear, for fear of exposing their dark dealings.
Even with 5,000 soldiers, she couldn’t bully the three factions around, and as a female demi-human, she would be looked down on regardless of her rank, accomplishments, or backing. All in all, this task of hers was a headache she would have gladly left to her old man, but he insisted she deal with this, raising her reputation and preparing her for politics on a larger scale. The Emperor seemed content to let her succeed her old man, but the Shing clan outright refused, stating a half-beast cannot inherit the Shing name, much less her old man’s position and estate. It mattered little to her, after he passed she would cut all ties with the Society and live her life as her own person. A pox on fame and fortune, the old man was her family, no matter what anyone said.
During her journey, she’d given orders to slow their pace and immersed herself in reports and historical records, studying the political landscape in search of anything she could use to keep herself safe from hidden danger. Her task was to ensure Imperial shipments made their way from Jiu Lang to Sanshu and then Shen Yun without delay. If she were to stumble upon any proof of improprieties, she vowed to keep quiet until she returned to safety at her old man’s side before taking any action.
The twelve Warrant Officers were her shield and sword against the factions of Sanshu. She’d witnessed Rain’s prowess in the duels against the Society and read reports on Officer Huushal. Dispatching Defiled Champions like they were common soldiers, chopping clean through an Ursadon and rallying the soldiers from a near rout, these were but a few of his accomplishments. Then there was young magistrate Fung, smashing aside a concentrated garo charge, stopping a flanking maneuver that would have killed tens of thousands. These three were not to be taken lightly.
Then there were the four youngsters from the Society, representing the Situ Clan, Han Clan, Harmonious Unity Sect, and Seven-Star sect. The first three factions were the leaders of the Society and if she could broker a working truce between the two groups, they would make for a formidable united front against Sanshu. Wealth was a powerful weapon, but trumped by overwhelming martial strength.
That said, it was a difficult task in the best of circumstances. The Situ/Bekhai rivalry aside, the young magistrate had bad blood with both the Seven-Star sect and Han clan, eliminating both groups in one fell swoop during the preliminary match of the Contest, a heavy blow to their pride. Although the Harmonious Unity Sect had no grievances with the Bekhai or the young magistrate, they also had no goodwill with them, firmly standing beside their fellow Adherents. The Bekhai faction were smart enough to travel ahead of them, giving her time to win over the four Society youngsters, which went… poorly. She suffered through several clumsy attempts to seduce or extort her from Sang Ryong, who’d offered her a position as his ‘pet’. Hmph, so weak and he dared to dream of subduing her. The rest of the youths had ignored her, injuring her pride. Damn them and their prejudices.
She had little faith in the remaining five Warrant Officers, their backing less than impressive. Dastan Zhandos was another problem, a native of Sanshu with clear ties to the Golden Highlands Coalition. A servant’s son, Dastan was groomed as a private guard, showing great skill in cultivation and combat. His duel against the infamous Highlander Headsman earned him rank and fame, an overnight success. With his deep roots in Sanshu, she would need to keep an eye on him to ensure he didn’t favour his people with his actions.
Her army soon arrived outside of Sanshu and she exited the carriage to greet the delegation riding out to meet her. Dressed in her silver and black carapace armour, she stood at ease with a cold, neutral expression on her face, hands behind her back. Emotionless and impassive, that was the persona she crafted for herself, a necessity in the human male dominated world she lived in. Revealing her true, passionate self would see her labelled as wanton and indecent, bringing shame to her old man, and that she could not allow.
It was nonsense of course, why must a woman be callous and indifferent to lead? There were plenty of impassioned and impetuous male heroes, why were women held to a different standard? Why couldn’t she fight and fuck as heartily as any man without being criticized, just because of her gender? Even the greatest woman she’d ever met, Akanai of the Bekhai, was taciturn and pragmatic, a boring old woman without any emotion, a great disappointment. Her personality took nothing away from her achievements, but Yuzhen had hoped Akanai would break the convention of dispassionate female commander.
Stifling a frown as the delegation drew near, her stomach dropped as she noted the banner on the carriage. Steeling her resolve, she stood unflinching as the Magistrate stepped out to greet her, a giant, rotund man whose rolls of fat belied the strength he carried himself with, a warrior just past his prime. With squinting eyes, flabby cheeks, and an oiled moustache and beard, he was not a handsome man by any means, but she couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to lay beneath him, a passing thought that both disgusted and intrigued her. All that weight atop her, pressing her back into the satin silk sheets, helpless before his power…
Calm yourself girl, this is work, not pleasure. The old man isn’t around to look after you, so stay focused.
Taking action, Yuzhen nodded politely to the Magistrate, her mandate allowing her to treat him as equal. “This one is Major Yuzhen of the Imperial Army. How kind of you to meet me out here, Magistrate Chu Tongzu.”
“Hmph.” With a single, powerful sound and scathing glare, Tongzu conveyed his displeasure, indicating for everyone to disperse. Once they were alone, he spoke quietly, losing none of his haughtiness. “Woman, you’ve much to explain. This is Sanshu, not some playground for your wards to run roughshod in. Rein in your barbarians or I will do so for you.”
Ah, fuck, this was a bad start. Those damn Bekhai and that rotten Fung, it seems they’d upset someone of importance, or else the Magistrate wouldn’t be dealing with it personally. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean.” Perhaps it was just a brawl, something settled with a few lashes, though it would be a shame to mark their pretty skin.
“Still playing games? Sanshu holds a delicate balance, and your bloodthirsty savages are ripping it to shreds.” Eyes wide, Tongzu’s voice nearly cracked. “Those three Officers assaulted five bandit groups, three of which are alleged affiliates of the Eastern Prosperity Alliance. They apprehended hundreds of bandits, all sitting in my dungeons awaiting your interrogation. Tell me the truth, have you struck a deal with the Union or the Coalition? You cannot do this, only a balance among the Three keeps Sanshu from devolving into absolute anarchy! The Alliance already acted against your Officers and are now threatening outright war!”
Stunned, Yuzhen’s mind blanked for seconds, eyes fluttering in confusion before catching herself. Still, it was enough for Tongzu to notice, drawing a look of horror from the large man. “No, it cannot be, you knew nothing of this?”
Still reeling, Yuzhen answered honestly. “We were to meet in Sanshu before acting. Warrant Officers Fung, Falling Rain, and Huushal rode ahead as they lack any supply trains to slow them down.”
“You fool, you should have ordered them to wait in the Trading Square! Just last night, the Alliance struck and I was left to clean up the aftermath. Fifty-Eight pulped, battered, and eviscerated corpses, needing to be plucked from the canals and scrubbed from the walls. Open combat in the streets of Sanshu, this cannot continue!”
The blood drained from her face. “Are my officers dead?” How would she explain the deaths of three Warrant Officers? The Bekhai would go mad with rage, their two rising dragons shot from the sky beneath her command, not to mention Tong Da Hai, the Wildfire Virtuoso, his achievements during the assault propelling him into prominence.
“I don’t know, the Bekhai won’t allow any of my men into their compound. They demand to meet with you and only you, refusing to say any more, turning back my messengers with threats of violence.” Tongzu’s voice quivered and dropped to a bare whisper. “My reports claim all those deaths were the work of none other than the Undying Savage and his bloodthirsty beast, and both were badly injured in the scuffle. Mother’s Oath, he’s eighteen years old and killed fifty-eight warriors on his own, anyone else would have fallen at his age and against those odds. What am I to do? I cannot risk offending the Three, nor can I afford to make enemies with the Bekhai.”
Coming to her senses, she snapped, “Take me to them.” Heart pounding in her chest, her mouth was dry as the desert throughout the slow journey. Could Rain have already condensed his aura? If so, killing normal warriors would have been simple as chopping wood, but Tongzu said Rain was badly injured. Victory through pure strength of arms then, Rain would have a new page for his biography should word of this spread. It was her own fault for not keeping him close, he was a hammer and every problem solved in a predictable manner. She’d expected them to drink and whore when they arrived in Sanshu, not embark on a reckless bandit hunting spree.
The Bekhai barracks was not much to look at, a simple stone structure built to blend into the outer walls. A single, double-door entrance lay shut, soldiers visible from the window slits as Yuzhen approached with her guards. After announcing herself, the doors quickly opened for her and she strode through, feigning confidence as the doors slammed shut behind her. Moving through the building, she noted the barricaded doors and heavily armed solders. Glancing up as she walked out into the courtyard, she grimaced at the archers standing on the rooftops, even keeping the guards from patrolling the wall.
With determined steps, she marched towards Rain, the lean and rugged warrior shirtless as he sparred with six soldiers at once. Gracefully parrying each attack, he moved in a dance of sword and shield as he overpowered his sparring partners with ease. She wanted to pounce on his naked body and taste him, seducing him to keep as her pet.
Dammit girl, you’re in charge here so, act like it. With a deep breath, she used her most authoritative tone. “Officer Ra-”
A ferocious yowl interrupted her and she leaped back, cringing as a massive wildcat pounced towards her, stopping short and displaying its teeth. One paw lifted off the ground, his dagger-like claws rent the air before him in a flurry of rapid strikes. Fumbling, she drew her sword and cursed, her guards surrounding her with shields up and weapons out.
“Jimjam. No.” Stepping between them, Rain walked up to the cat and bopped it softly on the nose, unconcerned about its razor-sharp teeth. “Get out of here, they’re not gonna hurt Mafu. Go on, get back to cuddling.” As if understanding his words, the animal backed away to lay beside a heavily bandaged roosequin. The feline’s brown eyes never left Yuzhen, staring murderously and ready to pounce at a moments notice. “Major Yuzhen, thank you for coming. Please stop staring at Jimjam, he’s feeling very protective at the moment.”
As the roosequin resumed snoring, the tension eased from the wildcat’s body and she resisted the urge to sigh in relief. Nerves drawn, she followed him to a table inside a stone gazebo, where Huushal and Fung waited. Rain poured tea for them all, filling her cup first, a good start. Perhaps the situation could still be salvaged, Rain was on his best behaviour, displaying contrition. Finishing her cup, she tilted her head and said, “It seems you’ve made an enemy.” He likely wanted safe passage out of the city, and she would accept. Once he was gone, then she could treat with the Magistrate and work something out.
“One of my many talents.” There was something different about Rain, no smiles or stares, only sarcasm and anger. Sharp and acerbic, he seemed like a bow drawn taut and ready to fire. “Jorani there grew up in Sanshu and filled me in on the local politics.”
A pinched faced half-beast bobbed his head, hand clutching his elbow. “Aye ser, born an’ raised. Mum was a washer-woman, alwa-”
“Jorani, we don’t need your life’s story..”
“Aye ser magnificent one. This one understands. Silence. Whatever you say. Yer the boss. Speak and I listen, command, and I ob-”
“Just… quiet. Anyway, apparently some of the bandits we apprehended have backers in Sanshu who are none too pleased. Last night they sent a few dozen thugs to sort me out while I was out for a stroll with Lin. We survived, but Mafu over there took a beating and I had to use my clothes to bandage him.” Rain’s eyes hardened as he broke into a false smile. “I am owed a debt and I intend to collect it, one way or another.”
A shiver of fear and excitement coursed through her. “Matters are complicated, Officer Rain. The three merchant factions in Sanshu hold considerable power.”
“If I understand things correctly, the merchants are selling supplies to the Empire and having bandits steal them, leading to more sales. In a time of war, most people would call that treason.”
Sighing, Yuzhen rubbed her eyes. Why were all the cute ones so stupid? Men always liked to believe they knew everything, that matters were black and white. “True, but we have no proof of collusion. Even an accusation must contain some facts in order for the Justicar to allow challenge, and the wealth of the merchants means they have some of the greatest duelists ready to defend them in trial by combat.”
“We don’t need to prove collusion, we just need to make it unprofitable for them to use bandits. It’s simple: offer to renegotiate their contracts and start paying them substantially more to deliver the supplies to Shen Yun with steep financial penalties for late or missing shipments. To them, it will sound like free, easy money, since they know they won’t be robbed.” Leaning back with a satisfied smile, he acted as if everything were already solved.
“That is why I brought 5,000 soldiers, to ensure safe delivery. I can’t outsource my job and how would I even pay for it?”
“By hunting down the bandits of course.” Winking roguishly, he feigned injury. “They were bold enough to grievously injure one of your Warrant Officers inside Sanshu, an insult that cannot stand. Declare open warfare on the bandits and begin seizing their spoils for the Empire, to ‘offset the costs of delivery’, all legal and above-board. I’ve turned in recovered goods for 10% of their value, but I’m sure someone in Shen Yun would be willing to pay 30% value for silk or timbers, or whatever we find. A profit is a profit.”
“And your assassins?”
“I’ll leave the city, camp out for a few weeks. We all should, you would become a target too.”
Pausing, she went over the plan in her mind. “It’s not a terrible idea. This solves the problem of supplies, although it lacks sustainability. The bandits will go into hiding, some might even be used as guards themselves. Then what will we do? The merchants will insist on a year-long contract for deliveries, citing the need to recoup the costs of hiring guards or some nonsense, and we will be unable to pay.”
“That’s the beauty of it.” Fung chimed in with a vicious smile. “You underestimate my brother, he is far more devious than he appears.”
“Devious sounds so evil. Besides it’s only taking a lesson from the merchants.” Leaning in close, Rain motioned for her to approach him and she took in his manly musk, passion igniting within her. “Once they start delivering, we’re going to pose as bandits and rob the caravans. Then, we send our ill-gotten gains to Shen Yun under the guise of goods recovered from bandits, using Zian’s connections to make sure no one is the wiser. We have a few hundred bandits in the jails to use as camouflage, it’s perfect. The merchants pay a penalty and supplies to the Bridge aren’t interrupted, win win. Turnabout is fair play, after all.”
Staring at the young man before her, she once again reevaluated her opinion of him. The citizens called him a savage, believing he was naive and ignorant, but she knew better. Although they lived in the wilds, the Bekhai were far from the uneducated barbarians most took them for. An accomplished warrior, a gifted physician with all the markings of a future healer, and a …flexible mind, Rain was an intriguing young man. His plan would need some tweaking, but it could work. Glancing down at her teacup, she tossed the contents aside. “I can see why you didn’t want the Magistrate here. You have any liquor? This calls for a toast.”
The thought of spending weeks in the brush with him thrilled her. Perhaps she could get him drunk and entice him away from those little girls always hanging around him. There was something to be said for laying in the dirt, her hands held down as he ravaged her…
Dammit girl, focus.
…She should have agreed when Gerel asked to come along, she could have used the company… and the protection.
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