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Chao Ban laid back in his palanquin while the serving girls fed him peeled grapes. The drudgery of travel made him irritable, but his brother insisted he go along with this first shipment to Shen Yun. All this fuss to present a few gifts to their contacts and go through formalities, a waste of time and money in his opinion.
His palanquin lurched and he hammered the walls, shouting, “Keep this infernal box steady or I’ll have you all lashed!” Having slaves carry him around was the most comfortable means of transportation, but it seemed too difficult a task for eight slaves to walk without stumbling. Worthless fools all of them, he would have them lashed anyways. Perhaps a carriage would be more appropriate but he couldn’t stomach the bumpy ride, even if it offered more room for… recreation.
Eighteen wagons and more than a hundred ‘guards’, the first of many deliveries already halfway to Shen Yun. For the discomfort of two weeks travel, they would earn enormous profits with little risk. That vixen Yuzhen thought herself clever, but she failed to realize all the bandits in the area had been bought and paid for by Sanshu coin, like the half-dog Kabi and his mongrels guarding him. There would be no attacks on these shipments, not after the savages scared the remaining ants into hiding. The larger bandit groups stayed away from military shipments, some lingering honour from their days of service, a constant thorn in the side of Sanshu’s Council of Three. If Yuzhen knew the ones responsible for stealing military shipments were now guarding the new ones, she’d likely keel over and vomit blood.
The Alliance had given Yuzhen too much credit to begin with, Shing Du Yi’s reputation sending them into a frenzy. Worried she’d allied herself with the Union or Coalition, the Alliance had scrambled to put an end to the little Bekhai savage, to near disastrous results. Who knew a boy could be so fearsome, the survivors made useless from their fear. They’d been for death regardless, but it was terrifying how a single man could strike fear into so many. Thankfully, the frigid, arrogant vixen was little more than a fool to be played, assuming the attack was carried out by bandits, blame shifted to the Crossbone Corsairs, the Azure Ascendants, or the Butcher Bay bandits. Perhaps she would even successfully wipe them out, with those fearsome savages beneath her thumb. Already plans were in motion to back her bid and make her the next Marshal, a puppet to dance to their strings should they succeed.
The Council of Sanshu had worried over loss of profits if Yuzhen’s soldiers were to take over deliveries, but like meat pies falling from the skies, they now were poised to earn more than ever. Before, the Council made a tidy little profit selling goods to the Empire, then hiring bandits to rob them and selling those same goods a second time. This new agreement was far more cost-effective however, with a higher profit margin and almost no risk. The bandits were paid a pittance to guard compared to the percentage they received for stealing, and happily took the jobs, fearful of the Bekhai.
Not only was Yuzhen paying a premium for delivery, she was also paying higher prices than before. The girl had no head for numbers and lacked skill in bargaining, the last few days of negotiations were as simple as turning over their hands, taking every advantage they could in return for assurances that the supplies would arrive on time. How Shing Du Yi thought his bed warmer could ever be a worthy Marshal was laughable, but Sanshu was ready to take advantage.
Chuckling to himself, he groped at his servants, enjoying the fear and reluctance in their eyes. Sister rat girls, their ugly vermin ears carefully concealed beneath ribbons. It turned his stomach knowing their father was a disease ridden rodent, but they were pretty enough otherwise. After receiving his shares from this endeavour, he’d buy an exotic slave, a fox like Yuzhen. Now there was a beauty to lust after. As he drifted off to sleep, he imagined her kneeling on the ground before him, eyes wide as she stared up, helpless and afraid.
Rudely awakened as his palanquin skipped across the road, Ban roared in displeasure as he kicked open the door and flung the little rat girl out, screaming at the slaves. “You insolent fools, I’ll have you skinned and boiled alive you-” He stopped short as he looked around at his kneeling guards, their hands on their heads and weapons piled on the floor. Hundreds of unfamiliar ruffians stared murderously at him from horseback, and he swallowed hard, legs turning to jelly. Bandits? How? There shouldn’t have been a force this size out here…
A pinched-faced bandit rode forward, removing his cap to reveal a set of disgusting rat ears, just like his little servants. Picking out the guard captain, the rat smiled and nodded. “Made the right choice Kabi, I’d hate to order yer death. When’d you turn to guarding? Not like you to find honest work.”
“You fucking crazy Jorani? It ain’t safe no more with those feral savages running around, killing and clapping folk in chains. I hear they did in the Freebooters first, how’d you come out so squeaky clean?”
“Wrong place at the right time. You know how it is, I was in the woods with a beauty when them Bekhai rode in on their monsters, so I buggered out with a few friends. Ye know what they say about rat’s and sinking ships.” They both shared a small chuckle. “Runnin’ me own crew now, call ourselves the Mother’s Militia.”
Anger overcoming his fear, Ban forced out his words, body shivering as he drew himself up. “Do you know who I am? I am Councilman Chao Ban of the Eastern Prosperity Alliance! My brother is Chief Councilman Chao Yong, and if you harm a hair on my head, you will pay with your lives!”
Jorani sneered and ignored him, speaking to Kabi. “Surrounded and outnumbered, and still he makes threats. Councilman Ban never was too bright, makes Ral look well read.”
“I can’t read Jor. Squiggles too hard to remember.” A massive half-dog grinned stupidly, carrying a massive club on his shoulder.
“I know ye can’t read, it’s an expression. Never mind, just hush.”
Turning to Kabi, Ban screeched. “You worthless mongrel, you’re paid to fight so fight! Protect me!” Once he returned home, he would hire the largest force of mercenaries he could and kill every last one of these bandits, starting with Kabi, the damn mutt.
Snorting, Kabi glanced dismissively at him. “Easy work ye said this was, just ride from Sanshu to Shen Yun looking tough, simple as can be. Ye don’t pay me nuff to fight and dead men ain’t spendin’ coin.” Spitting into the dirt, he turned back to Jorani and stood to speak. “Be honest, who’re ye workin’ for Jorani? Don’t mind me saying but ye ain’t got the stones to lead these killers, I recognize a good few. I’m willing to bring me boys on, but not unti-”
A bald, dark-skinned man clubbed Kabi in the stomach and shoved him into the dirt. “No one said you could stand, maggot, you crawl like the worm you are. You disrespect the boss again and I’ll stuff your balls in your mouth and sew it shut before setting you aflame.”
“Ah, leave him be Ravil. We’re old drinking buddies and Kabi ain’t a bad sort.” Jorani dismounted and moved to stand over Kabi. “Yer crew can either swear themselves to ten years service, or admit their sins and be set free. Unless they’re rapists or sadistic murderers, I’ll be hangin’ any of those bastards. Be warned, service here ain’t gonna be like old times, we ain’t bandits no more; this here is the Mother’s Militia, and war bells be ringin’.”
“By the Mother’s dripping cunt Jorani, you can’t be serious!” Kabi’s tail and ears drooped, his voice pleading. “We’re raiders, not soldiers! You wanna fight the army and them Officers? Might as well give me the rope, it’d be a mercy. I hear them savages cook their enemies alive and feast on their flesh!”
“Not the army, I got no beef with them. They doin’ their jobs.” Jorani’s eyes turned to focus on Ban, who gulped and scurried away into his palanquin, drawing the curtains as he shivered in fear. “We’re waging war on the Council, to cleanse Sanshu for the Mother, and the Emperor. Ral, bring Councilman Ban back out here if’n ye please.”
The roof of his palanquin came off with a laboured crack and the smiling brute lifted him out, patting him down for weapons and valuables, handing them all over to a second bandit, a wild and murderous fiend. “Here you go mister Bulat, lotsa coins and shinies.”
Legs dangling in the air, Ban babbled to Jorani. “Please, this is property of the Imperial Army, a shipment destined for the Bridge. You say you have no dispute with the Army, a true patriot, I believe this, so let us by, I will forget everything that happened here and let bygones be bygones. We are all citizens of the Empire.”
“If it belongs to the army, then why’s the Alliance shipping it out?” Jorani sneered as he played with his dagger, Ban’s eyes affixed to the deadly blade as it danced through the thug’s fingers. “The army ships army goods, everybody knows that. Ye must think me daft.”
Curse this damn fool! Things have changed, but how can he convince him? Whimpering, Ban threw away all face and pleaded with the villainous bandit. “No, sir not at all. Take it then, take it all, just let me go, my brother will pay a ransom if need be.” His eyes lit up and he tried to swing himself around, only flailing uselessly in the air. “The serving girls, my humble gift to you for your leniency. Girls, come greet your new master! Lovely little women, I have more at home, all will be yours, I swear!”
“Don’t let him go Jor, he won’t pay nothing.” The little serving girls ran past him to stand with the bandit, throwing venomous looks at him. Traitorous little bitches, he fed and clothed them all their lives and this was his reward? “You remember us right big brother Jor?”
“Little Sorya and Anrhi! Ah, how the years go by, seems like yesterday when ye were two little brats snitching on me to me Mum. Don’t be tellin’ me my business now, I’ve got plans for Councilman Ban, he’s gonna send a message for me. Ye go with my deputy, Mister Bulat there and pick out all the servants, I only want the merchants staying behind, ye hear?”
Turning back, Jorani’s grin set Ban to shivering once more, his bladder emptying as he pleaded. “Of course, a message, I’ll deliver it forthwith!” A fist connected with the side of his face and the world went dark.
Cold water splashed over him as he opened his eyes to the starlit sky, gasping for air around the soaked rag in his mouth. Naked with his arms bound behind him, he flopped uselessly as someone lifted him to his feet and onto a wagon. Kicking and screaming, only a few muffled sounds escaped his gag. A blow to his stomach put an end to his struggles as a noose wrapped around his neck. Pulling him up onto his toes, the rope dug painfully into him as the cold night’s air breezed past his exposed skin, tears dripping as he wailed. The walls of Sanshu lay before him in the distance, the watch-fires easily spotted in the darkness, and he whimpered and cried as he realized Jorani’s message, praying to the Mother to spare him, for some guard to see them and send aid before it was too late. Others around him were in similar states of undress, bandits and merchants alike.
A hand gripped his chin and he could barely make out Jorani in the darkness. Hissing his words, Jorani gloated before him. “Ye know, I think my luck’s turned. Ye don’t remember me, do ye? I used to live in yer house, Mum was one of yer washer-women. Ye had her caned to death eight years ago fer dropping some silk shirts in the mud, and I ran, like a coward.” Ban cried into his gag and shook his head, trying to deny everything but Jorani ignored him and continued speaking, a murderous look in his eye. “This just seems too merciful for ye, so I’m gonna tell ye why yer here, about to hang.” He leaned closer and whispered into Ban’s ear, and his words made him cry out for justice. Yuzhen played them, taking the high prices while intending to steal every single shipment they sent. They’d underestimated her and she used their ploy against them.
His mind in turmoil, it wasn’t until the wagon started to move when he began panicking once again. Stretching his legs out, he tried to stay upright on the wagon for as long as possible, his bowels loosening in his struggles. Finally, he could stretch no more, and the world dropped out from below him, his body plummeting down in a short moment of terror before pain shot through his body with an audible crack.
Mila sighed, rocking back and forth on her heels, idle and dejected. How did Song keep from going crazy with nothing to do? She didn’t expect looking busy would take so much effort and be so boring at the same time. Every day was the same: break camp, travel and pretend to search, set up camp, then repeat, all as slowly as possible. It was excruciatingly mind numbing, not what she expected when choosing to ride out with her betrothed.
Stupid Rain and his stupid plans. No matter that they had plenty of time for kisses in the night, or if it worked or not, this was all so… villainous. Stealing from merchants while idling about, this was not what a hero was supposed to do. Rain was here to raise his reputation, and while he did well the first few days, after being attacked inside Sanshu, he turned angry and spiteful. True, the merchants were in the wrong, but it didn’t mean he should idle for almost two weeks and let bandits roam free. Why put in all the effort to capture close to 500 bandits only to set the majority free to loot and plunder?
She had her reservations about picking Jorani to lead, she disliked the look of him. Hunched and wicked, his face displayed a constant sneer, unworthy of trust. Chey would have made a better leader, Rain’s sexist outlook revealed. To make matters worse, Rain lent forty of his retinue to him, led by Bulat and Ravil. True, after exchanging their leather armor for bandit rags and quins for horses, Rain’s soldiers looked the part, but they were growing far too familiar with the bandits for her liking. Rain should be surrounded by noble and heroic warriors, not scruffy, reprehensible thugs. What if they joined him after all this? Or worse, Rain joined them and became a bandit? He seemed to enjoy these devious schemes and cared little for honour or reputation, she could see him choosing the life of an outlaw, slipping deeper into their ways as time passed. What if he grew to be the shame of the People, a lusty and unstoppable gangster, raping and pillaging without mercy?
Auric padded over to her with a tiny purse in his mouth, butting her gently as he arrived. If only Rain would teach them something useful, he had a way with the animals. Taking the purse, she emptied the coins out and counted them, before showing them to Song who nodded and began brushing Auric, the 200 kilogram wildcat rumbling loudly with contentment. Seeing their brother receive Song’s attentions, Jimu crawled out of a pile of lazing quins and the sole female leaped from her perch in the trees to stalk over. Song still had yet to name the girl, but Mila didn’t mind too much. It was a large decision for someone who was unused to making any decisions at all.
The tawny she-cat’s instincts for the hunt were growing by the day while Jimu and Auric still behaved like juveniles, likely due to Rain’s coddling. Stupid blockhead, he gave so much attention to these ugly cats and that fat quin. Why didn’t he pamper her like that? She wouldn’t mind being spoiled by him, although it would have to be in private. She had a reputation to maintain, after all.
His fur brushed, Auric made happy noises while rubbing against Mila’s leg, begging for affection. Unable to resist, she crouched down and ran her fingers across his head, his eyes closed in contentment as he chuffed. He was far from beautiful, his legs too long and head too big, but he was endearing. Hopefully in a few years, he would grow into his body and look suitably majestic and fearsome.
Yuzhen’s voice sounded from behind her, Auric’s eyes snapping open to watch the stranger. “It amazes me how well-trained these animals are. The quins too, you don’t even tie them up at night, it’s incredible.”
Keeping her hand on Auric’s neck, she turned to nod at the older woman. “The quins could chew through steel chains, there’s no point tying them up. Come greet Auric, he’s nervous around strangers but once he’s accustomed to your scent and voice, he’ll relax. Just this one here though, the others are more feral.”
Tentatively moving closer, Yuzhen extended her hand slowly, crouching down before Auric. She was so beautiful, even fully armored, Mila both envied and admired her greatly. An accomplished, talented, independent half-beast woman, fighting against chauvinism and injustice. An incredible talent, if she married one of the People then they would gain yet another powerful ally in the Empire. Gerel was the only unmarried man with sufficient renown, but he was so cold and indifferent, they were too similar to work well together.
While Auric sniffed at Yuzhen’s hand, Mila struggled internally with her curiosity, not wanting to criticize or disrespect the heroic woman. Smiling, Yuzhen looked Mila in the eye and spoke. “So you’re Lieutenant General Akanai’s daughter? I must say I admire her greatly.”
Blushing, Mila lowered her head. “Thank you, Mama thinks highly of your administrative talents, and when we get back, I’ll be sure to tell her about your military accomplishments too.”
“Ah, to be honest, this is my first military command. Ever. I earned my rank the way nobles do, in a duel overseen by neutral experts. This plan of Rain’s has me in nervous fits, I wake up sweating and panting every night thinking about it.”
“Then why go through with this?” The words escaped her before she hold them back, and Mila’s cheeks burned even hotter.
“Because I believe it will work. With 3,000 soldiers and the other nine Warrant Officers patrolling between Sanshu and Jiu Lang, that leaves us free to wander the Golden Highlands without worry.” Yuzhen smiled as Auric presented his flank for her to pet, and she sank her hand into his fur. “With the bandits under oath of secrecy, even if they’re captured, nothing will come of it. I only wish we could communicate faster, I can’t use any of my soldiers for this to work. That way, I can honestly swear that no one under my command is colluding with bandits, since Rain isn’t technically under my command. Besides, I like the poetry of robbing Sanshu with the same thieves that they used to rob us.”
“You don’t find it… distasteful? A warrior should be forthright and honourable, not… this.” Mila’s momentum deflated when she realized she might insult Yuzhen, or worse, insult her betrothed in front of a stranger.
“I used to think the same way, reading stories about the righteous heroes fighting against dastardly villains. I loved them as a child, but as I grew older, the world became less black and white, with infinite shades of grey.” Her lips pursed, Yuzhen paused to think. “If I were to act honourably and guard the roads, then what will I accomplish? The supplies will reach the Bridge, but once we leave, the merchants of Sanshu will resume their exploits, so I would be stuck here indefinitely. I have five thousand troops, not many in the grand scheme of things, but every warrior counts when fighting the Defiled. These indolent, shortsighted merchants think of nothing but their pockets, so to be heard, I must strike there.”
“Aren’t you worried about breaking the law?”
“That’s the best part, I studied the matter thoroughly. Even if we’re somehow miraculously tied to Jorani, technically, we’re not breaking military law. Until those supplies reach Shen Yun, they’re civilian property, a matter to be tried by the Magistrate of Sanshu, and he won’t dare put a bounty on myself or any of the Officers, it would mean his death going against the Society. At best, he’ll put a price on Jorani and we kill him and collect it, adding insult to injury before putting someone else in charge. It’s flawless, the bandits steal and deliver the goods to an outpost north of Shen Yun, to be delivered to the Bridge, meaning the goods never enter the city. Therefore, our contract with the Council of Three is never fulfilled, for which I made sure the penalties were staggering. The other Warrant Officers never find out, and Rain holds enough renown to resist any pressure the Council of Three can bring to bear. In the end, they’re only civilians. I want to see the look on their faces when they realize the pounding we’ve given them. Their ass-holes will be bruised and swoll-.” Coughing politely, Yuzhen composed herself as Mila looked on in shock. Yuzhen seemed so prim and proper, to hear her speak such foul language was scandalous.
Mila burst into a fit of giggles and Yuzhen smiled sheepishly. After catching her breath, Mila asked, “What about the real bandits? Why aren’t we going after them?”
“We will. In fact, that’s why I’m here, to find Rain and the others. Bandits aren’t the type to prepare for the long haul and we’ve waited long enough. Their warehouses will soon be emptied and they’ll grow hungry, setting out to plunder and pillage. We only need wait for them to come to us, and then their heads will roll.” A devilish smile crossed her lovely face and Mila smiled with her. “Any captured bandits will be sent to join Jorani, to better aid him in taking the shipments. It doesn’t matter if they die, they’d hang in Sanshu regardless.”
She was wrong to doubt, Rain was more suited for command than she was for now, far thinking and merciless. “Major Yuzhen, would you be willing to take me as an aide? I’d love for the opportunity to learn at your side, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
Surprised, Yuzhen tilted her head and shrugged, before putting an arm around Mila. “Of course. First order of business, Aide Sumila, help me find that rascal Rain and his brother Officers. We’ve work to do.”
Skipping off, Mila smiled as Auric hopped along beside her, thinking they were playing a game. A weight was lifted from her chest, her worries alleviated and soon her boredom as well. What’s more, she’d found a counsellor in Yuzhen, a woman whose blood thirst and intelligence rivalled Mama’s, along with a willingness to explain herself.
Ah, if only there were more single, heroic men among the People. Yuzhen was a terrific woman, and any man who earned her affection was blessed by the Mother, that was for sure.
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