Yuzhen strode into her tent, her mind in disarray as the servants removed her armour and readied a hot bath. Dismissing them all, she peeled off her sweat-soaked clothes and slipped into the wooden tub, submerging herself into the steaming, fragrant water. A rare treat in the field to bathe so well, it still wasn’t enough to ease her worries. An entire day since Rain’s disappearance and still with no clue as to his whereabouts. At least they had proof of life, otherwise she worried what the Bekhai might do to her in retaliation. Powerful allies made for terrifying enemies, and although she often dreamt about being stolen away to become a bride, reality would be far less enjoyable.
She made a request to Colonel General Nian Zu for the compass attuned to Rain’s Token, but it would be a week before it arrived. Aside from losing the Bekhai prince-ling, or whatever you might call him, she felt upbeat and optimistic about her progress here in Sanshu. Her forces held both river inlets, throwing back several bandit incursions, a rousing success. With the Butcher Bay Bandits unable to travel inland via longboat, she’d nullified their ability to make lightning-fast nautical raids. Now limited to a few easily monitored landing sites, they were susceptible to ambush as they moved overland, and she was prepared to deal with them.
With so many things working in her favour, Yuzhen was almost giddy. The Council was now officially late on their first shipment of goods, and she crafted a scathing message to them reminding them of her steep fines. In less than a week, the Council would have racked up a staggering debt, more than enough to justify the increased costs of delivery. Getting them to pay was no problem, she held a contract for a years worth of supplies to the Northern Bridge. If they refused to pay fines, then she would deduct them from the costs of the supplies, and if they dared renege, then she had them by the balls.
Add to that the Bekhai’s success in holding the fisheries. A slap to Yo Ling’s face, killing or capturing more than 500 bandits in one fell swoop, a praiseworthy result. She assumed not all were killed, but it was was better for her to remain ignorant of the details, especially after receiving a report detailing the third Council shipment lost to the Mother’s Militia. Now, the Spectre of Butcher Bay would be forced to retaliate. Yo Ling could not allow the insult to his honour stand, lest the people of Sanshu and Jiu Lang lose their fear of him, a reputation decades in the crafting. Delighted by her good fortune, she immediately drafted plans to cripple him, starting by commandeering five thousand city guards from Sanshu.
The bandits were only a problem because she didn’t know where they would strike next, meaning her soldiers were spread thin to deal with them. Now that she knew Yo Ling would target the fisheries, all she needed to do was bait the trap and wait. Sending orders to Huushal and Fung to hold and fortify the villages, she informed Magistrate Tongzu his guards were marching to reinforce the cove and refused his summons for a meeting in Sanshu. Deep in the pockets of the Council, Tongzu likely hoped to pressure her into taking care of the Mother’s Militia for them. A worthless fool and puppet, she’d long since lost faith in him.
Knowing Sanshu, the city guards likely had an informant inside, passing information to bandits for a price, which she would use to her advantage. Let them speak all they wanted, she only needed the guards as a distraction. In the meantime, she cycled her soldiers on patrol, have a few slip away to hide close to the fisheries. Once Yo Ling received word of the coming guard army, he would rush to strike while the cove was still weak, and her troops lying in wait would crush him from all sides. Appear weak where you are strong, and strong where you are weak. With the Mother’s blessing, she might even capture or kill the Spectre himself, if he dare to show himself.
Unfortunately, this was a best case scenario unlikely to occur, historical evidence suggesting that Yo Ling was a recluse who knew when to retreat. If he swallowed his pride and directed his bandits south to raid, then he could stock his warehouses long enough to wait her out, repairing his reputation after she left. The Butcher Bay Bandits never targeted Empire caravans, whether out of some warped sense of duty or simple prudence, she didn’t know. So long as supplies arrived at the Bridge uninterrupted, the Lieutenant Marshals would fuss over the costs of stationing soldiers around Sanshu, food and wages ‘better spent elsewhere’, like lining their pockets.
This meant that unless the Society brats caused trouble in the northeast, there was precious little left for her to do besides wait. In the meantime, the people living to the south and west would suffer, but there was nothing she could do for them, their plight unimportant to those in charge. It was no wonder why banditry was such a popular vocation, with even Lieutenant Colonels defecting in search of wealth and personal freedom. Considering the army’s poor wages and the ease with which Field Officers could intimidate civilians, she was surprised more soldiers didn’t trade their Tokens for masks. There was nothing a peasant could do when standing before a warrior capable of condensing an Aura. Show up, demand tribute, then run away to your hidden stronghold, an easy enough life. If not for the Bekhai, Gao Qiu could have quelled any resistance at the fisheries single-handedly, cowing the defenders into submission with a glance.
Not to mention the exhilaration that came from stealing. Each time she read a report detailing the Mother’s Militia and their exploits, she fought the urge to laugh and dance a little jig, her risky choices paying off and allowing her to spit in the face of the Council without repercussion. It was a heady rush, addictive and intoxicating, even arousing at times. Perhaps in fifteen or twenty years, she would slip away into obscurity and change her name, becoming a virtuous thief, a righteous robber, the bane of greedy merchants and vicious nobles.
She didn’t need the money, her old man set enough gold aside for her to live more than comfortably for centuries. No, she would steal from the tyrants who oppressed the citizens of the Empire, taking her spoils to help those most in need. Rob from the rich and give to the poor, that was how she could spend her years after leaving the Society. Using her connections to strike at the heart of villainy, she could do good in the Empire, perhaps even become a bandit queen. She’d start with a small group of skilled and trusted warriors, ten, no twenty strong, Yuzhen and her harem of handsome husbands, striking where evil dare rear its ugly head.
Laughing alone in her bath, she splashed water on her face and returned to reality. There was still plenty that could go wrong, such as the Azure Ascendants. Nothing like the romanticized virtuous thieves of her imagination, the Ascendants were a highly skilled, secretive group, their motives unknown. Unable to glean useful information from her reports, they seemed random and indiscriminate, striking at Empire and private caravans alike. The only thing she knew was that wealth was not their goal, targeting historical artifacts, mysterious objects, and obscure texts, along with the odd runic item or weapon heart. Expensive items yes, but near impossible to fence, meaning the Ascendants likely had some wealthy patron backing them.
Truth be told, she had no plan to deal with the Ascendants. Their two newest recruits, Lord of Thunder Lei Gong and Virtuous Daxian, were enough to render all her plans worthless. Unless there were concealed experts guarding one of her Warrant Officers, she had no answer for them, and as eye-catching as they were, she was terrified of crossing the hidden dragons the Ascendants counted among their ranks. No one knew the limits of their strength, only that none who resisted the Ascendants survived. She initially had refused this mission until her old man pointed out the Ascendants were a passive group, and as expected, had gone to ground long before her arrival.
Leaning back, she closed her eyes and tried to relax in her bath, but her mind continued to alternate between reviewing and improving her plans, before drifting off to fantasize about a life of theivery, with an army of handsome warriors at her beck and call. It was too stressful being a Major and the heir to a Marshal, she wanted nothing more than to throw away all her responsibilities and live life as she pleased.
Smiling at the thought, she made note to ask Gerel how he felt about honest theft. Perhaps he’d run away with her and be the first of her Married Men. No, Courageous Consorts. Whatever, the name could wait, the important thing was to pick her team wisely. Maybe she’d be the one to find Rain, lost and injured, nursing him back to health as love blossomed between the two of them.
One can only dream.
Waking from oblivion once again, he opened his eyes to pitch-black darkness. Face down in the sandy dirt, he carelessly tried to stand and his body screamed in pain at the smallest movements. With an inaudible groan, tears dripped from his eyes as every breath brought new agonies into focus. His body’s convulsing exacerbated the situation, and he forced himself to take short breaths, controlling himself to remain still. Choking back the bile rising from his stomach, his teeth clenched until they seemed ready to crack. Helpless, he lay there and wallowed in misery, a living hell he’d never felt before.
Broken bones, missing digits, skin scraped raw and organs crushed, the survey of his body turned into a seemingly endless litany of injuries. Pain had always been muted for him, the ancestors dulling the sensation or brother taking the brunt of the suffering, but now, there was nothing to hold it at bay and he suffered the full weight of his injuries. Nausea kept him from passing out, the world spinning as he lay still, every coarse grain of sand like a needle against his skin, every breath a knife to his chest. All he could do was suffer until his mind could no longer cope and returned him to his dreams.
Even those weren’t free from pain, full of nightmares and hallucinations brought about by his plight. He was plagued with visions of bestial devils and horrifying spectres chasing him through a hellish landscape, eager to consume him. Every time it was the same, he ran and fought until he could move no more, losing chunks of himself as ravenous creatures and disembodied heads took bite after bite of him, consumed wholly. Then he would wake to revisit his tortured body, a vicious cycle of suffering both real and imagined.
I can’t do this…
A chorus of voices replied to his pleas, soft and sibilant, seductively drawing him in. ‘Do you desire liberation, whelp? Surrender yourself to me, and I shall grant it.’
Sobbing in pain, he begged for aid, entreating the ancestors to save him, agreeing to everything they asked for, but just like before, they lied to him and nothing changed. Torment was all he knew as he lay in the darkness, time immeasurable and incalculable, the constant whispers of the ancestors growing more insistent with each passing cycle.
Chao Yong threw his goblet at the messenger and roared wordlessly in rage, his slaves shrinking back in fear. “How dare that bitch refuse a meeting with Tongzu! A worthless, corpulent sack of shit, what good is keeping him in power if he’s of no use?”
“Calm yourself Chief Councilman Yong.” Chun Lei, his counterpart in the Western Treasures Union smirked, his multiple chins wobbling at the effort. “We are all similarly affected by this news, but too much anger will poison the spirit.”
“Horse shit!” Smacking the table, Yong brandished his finger at the slit-eyed sheep-fucker. “You didn’t lose a brother to that vermin filth, hung by the neck like a common thief. I want Jorani captured and tortured to ease my brother’s spirit. I will hire the greatest healers money can buy to keep that rat bastard alive for years. I will-”
“Yes, yes, you’re angry, we get it.” Xiaobo, the ugly, balding Chief Councilman of the Golden Highlands Coalition, picked his nose in disinterest, flicking his bounty aside. “Pain and torture and whatnot. Moving on to more pressing matters, what is our next course of action? This is costing all of us time and money which could be better spent.”
“Tongzu is obviously good for nothing. He cannot send his guards out of the city without an Imperial Writ of Command, but that glory-seeking vixen Yuzhen holds one. I say we replace him with someone more capable.” Yong scowled.
“He still has his uses.” Chun Lei spoke only to disagree with him, a constant irritation in Yong’s side. If he claimed the sun rose in the east, Chun Lei would argue against all facts that the sun, in fact, rose from the west. “So heavy an investment must not be abandoned lightly. Besides, who would take his place? You?” The tiny scoff enraged him, and only sheer force of will kept him in his seat.
“Hmm… I agree with Councilman Lei, although I do believe Tongzu’s ineffectiveness merits review. Let us weigh the benefits against the costs and see if it’s time for the Council to cut our losses and send the former war-hero into early… retirement.” Xiaobo removed his sandals and placed his foot on the table, rubbing it in plain sight. Full of vile and disgusting habits, the man used them to discomfort his opponents, making them focus on the display instead of thinking on his words. “Also, how does this Jorani keep finding out about our shipments? Even dressing our guards in Imperial Armour didn’t work. Even more pressing is this report from the fisheries. The villages are uniting to renegotiate their contracts, meaning costs will rise in the future. What if all the villages along the Xiangmi River follow suit? I say we break and go over our options, before reconvening in say… five days?”
They argued over the time frame and, after a lengthy debate, settled on three days. Yong coughed and returned to pertinent matters. “And what shall we do in the interim? The Mother’s Militia has cost us more than just coin, he’s declared outright war against the Council. We lose face each day they still live, and we’ve yet to make a single shipment to Shen Yun, the fines continuing to increase each day.”
“Major Yuzhen’s sights have locked onto the Spectre, greatly desiring the renown that will come with his death and she refuses to return to deal with Jorani. We can only take matters into our own hands. A trap perhaps? Plant a spy among the Militia’s ranks and have him deal with Jorani. Poison, or a dagger in the night, target the head and the rest shall fall.” Chun Lei beamed at him and Yong’s eyes narrowed in anger.
Fuming, he stood and screamed, “You grease-stained whore-son!” before launching himself at Chun Lei. Guards from both sides intervened and the meeting devolved into insults and veiled threats while Xiaobo sat at the side. Normally, Yong was far more adept at handling Chun Lei’s constant barbs, but losing his brother had rattled him. He’d sent little Ban to his death, and for what? That bastard Jorani would pay for this…
Afterwards, they ended the meeting with no course of action besides hiring more former bandits as guards, a failing measure seeing as the Militia continued to grow, their reported numbers close to a thousand now. The Council’s reputation would soon plummet from their failed deliveries, and their partners in other cities would start reconsidering their ties. Worse, after paying for guards and transport, it was impossible to earn a decent profit from this venture, hardly worth all the pain and effort. It’d seemed so easy at first, a simple jaunt to Shen Yun with the supplies and they would be paid almost thrice their worth, fifteen times the Council’s purchasing price. Yuzhen agreed readily to so many of their terms, an amateur in the world of finance and negotiation. How the Tiger of Finance Shing Du Yi had managed to raise such an incompetent successor was baffling.
Clarity struck him like a bolt of lightning and he turned around and hurried back to the meeting room, hollering at his slaves. “Go and reconvene the Council immediately! Tell them it is of the utmost importance.” They’d been played! Huffing with exertion, he clenched his meaty fists and imagined himself throttling Yuzhen to death. He was certain it was her, how else could everything work in her favour? That missing Bekhai runt was likely working with Jorani, his disappearance an excuse to lead from the shadows.
Now all they needed was proof of Yuzhen’s guilt, and they could call for an Adjudicator. He longed to see the look of fear in her eyes once she realized her mistake. She never should have crossed the Council and underestimated Chao Yong, Chief Councilman of the Eastern Prosperity Alliance. Not only would he avenge the death of his little brother, but he would wring every concession he could from Shing Du Yi before anonymously submitting proof to the Disciplinary Corps. It would be a great pleasure to watch that vixen bitch hang for her crimes. Stealing Imperial Supplies was high treason, her death warrant all but signed.
Smiling for the first time in days, Yong sat inside the meeting room and waited, humming a tune as he calculated the ideal demands to send when blackmailing the Marshal.
Things were finally making sense once more.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|