Song sighed as she brushed Aurie’s long, golden fur, the sweet kitten still miserable over the loss of his foster parent, barely stirring from his place on the bed. Even after a month of separation, he still insisted on sleeping in Rain’s tent each night, crying mournfully while cuddled by Lady Mei Lin who cried with him. He ate sparingly and moped about most days, her many efforts to cheer him up unsuccessful. Poor kitten, so sorrowful, it pained her to see him suffer so. It was almost enough to make her wish Rain had never gone missing.
Finished brushing, she checked to make sure she was alone before leaning over to kiss Aurie on the forehead. “Come, stop grieving, Rain will return. Senior Captain Gerel is out searching for him as we speak. Your papa will be back soon, but until then, come sleep with me and your sister.” She tried to pry him from the bed but he refused to budge, letting out a small mewl of denial. Giving up, she patted him and exited the tent to greet Jimjam and Mafu, laying in a pile with the other quins. Rain’s fat quin also displayed signs of depression, although it’d not affected his prodigious appetite as he squeaked for treats and attention while she groomed Jimjam.
How irresponsible of Rain to disappear like this, making more work for everyone left behind. It was his own fault anyways, standing in front of the longboats like a bird-brained idiot. What was he hoping to accomplish? Now he was missing and unable to make his way back to them, injured or captured, no one knew which. If not for Master’s growing agitation and Aurie’s heartbreaking distress, she would hardly care, but with so many lovely creatures depending on him, not to mention the soldiers, she decided to properly instruct him on his position when he returned. Though the Bekhai treated him well, it would not do for him to forget his place in the world.
Perhaps Master should have Rain swear an oath of obedience when he returned, saving everyone from future headaches. After grooming Jimjam, she moved on to groom the lady cat, her own quin and Mafu. The daily ritual calmed her, and if not for other duties required of her, she’d spend each day grooming and playing with the animals. After rubbing the fat quin’s belly, she left for the sparring grounds and found Mister Rustram waiting with a blunted rapier in hand. Nodding politely, she picked up a practice saber and struck out, giving no quarter to the interim Commander. A high-low combination took him off-guard, and a sweep of her blade sent him tumbling across the soft, woven mats. Ignoring his grumbling, she waited for him to stand and attacked once more, giving him no time to rest.
With Rain missing, Master was driving everyone around her to near exhaustion in her efforts to remain distracted, taking over the training of the retinue. There wasn’t much to do, Rain had already taught them the exercises, it was only matter of supervising and motivating everyone to practice twelve hours a day. She even sent a message to Ser Ravil encouraging him to do the same, threatening extreme measures should they fall behind in strength. Things were going well, the retinue’s skills growing each day as more and more warriors became proficient in the varied usages of chi.
In fact, she felt things progressed faster in Rain’s absence. He expected too little from the former soldiers, encouraging them to learn how to take more abuse and constantly berating them to work harder. While innocent enough on the surface, practicing under those conditions gave rise to self-doubt and apprehension, and a warrior required self-confidence to succeed. Even a slave received benefits for succeeding, whereas Rain was too fond of the stick for motivation, completely ignoring the carrot. Of course, overconfidence was no good either, hence, the sparring sessions to keep their hubris in check.
Parrying Mister Rustram’s clumsy thrust, Song stepped aside and jabbed him in the kidney, waiting as he tumbled to the ground with a string of curses. A strike she suffered often when younger, the pain was extreme, without chancing permanent damage, making it a valuable tool for teaching. Struggling to his feet, he grimaced and charged once more, allowing her to easily defeat him with the same move. After several minutes of abuse, Mister Rustram howled in frustration and tossed his weapon aside before storming off as it clattered across the dirt. Confused, Song stood silently and glanced around for instructions. The sparring match was not yet over, but she lacked the authority to detain him.
Master was busy with her own sparring match, but Lady Tursinai noticed Song’s dilemma, and flashed a smirk while Sending her a message. “Go on little Song. Your sparring match has yet to end, so bring your partner back. Remember, he’s technically in command so you must give face. You cannot use force, convince him to return with words.”
Her stomach flopped as she followed Mister Rustram, unsure how to persuade him. Still, orders were orders, and although Lady Tursinai’s position was unclear, her role as Master’s guardian and personal strength meant she was to be obeyed. If only the Bekhai would set out clear guidelines of hierarchy, Song could rest easier instead of worrying about upsetting a hidden expert. If a man with Ser Charok’s prowess was merely an assistant chef, who knew what skills the carpenter or the seamstress kept secret.
Mister Rustram continued away into the forest with Song right at his heels, wracking her brain for words. She wasn’t even well versed in carrying on normal conversations, how was she supposed to convince a ranked soldier to carry out his duties? Absorbed in her thoughts, Song was too distracted and crashed into a Mister Rustram as he stopped without warning. Flushing with shame, she flinched and waited for the strike to land.
“You know,” Mister Rustram said wryly, “I wandered out here to be alone.” He stared at her with one eyebrow raised and lips pursed, his displeasure plain to see.
Realizing he would not have her beaten, she bowed to him in submission and thanks. “This lowly one can only apologize profusely, Mister Rustram. Lady Tursinai requested I bring you back. Our sparring match must continue.”
“Spar? No, a spar implies two warriors of similar strength trading pointers to mutual benefit. Matched against you, I am little more than a child, beaten on a mere whim. I’ve no skill in combat and all the practice in the world won’t change anything.” Pulling his sheathed rapier from his belt, he admired Master’s beautiful craftsmanship in the sunlight. “It’s been months since I was gifted this wonderful weapon, and I’ve still yet to bind it. Officer Rain chose the wrong man to be his second-in-command. Take it and ask Sumila to choose someone worthy of it. I’m done pretending to lead, I was never meant for command.”
Recoiling from the weapon, Song back away in denial. “This lowly one dares not, Master gifted this weapon to you. She spent hours watching your efforts and speaking with Gerel and Rain to decide how to best design it, and days sweating over the forge to craft it. Master made the weapon with you in mind, you must accept it.”
Throwing the weapon to the ground, Mister Rustram barked, “Haven’t you been listening? It’s worthless in my hands. I’m nothing more than a failure, been one all my life. Give it to Bulat, he’s a better fencer than I and more able a commander to boot. The boss only chose me as his second because I held rank. It was a mistake, and I’ll not allow it to continue any longer. I give up, find someone more suitable to take my place.” Turning around, Mister Rustram planted himself next to a tree, crouching in the shadows like a petulant child.
Picking up the rapier from the ground, Song glared at the insolent soldier’s back as she dusted it off. How dare he refuse Master’s gift like this. Her hands itched to draw her own and strike him down, willing to accept any punishment to wipe away this insult. Her feet moved towards him as she grasped her saber, padding silently to his back, staring at the sulking soldier as he hugged his knees and pouted. Too much of the stick, not only from Rain, but from himself, and she caught herself before patting his head, his pitiful form reminding her of Aurie. Inwardly smiling at her near gaffe, she tucked the rapier into his arms. “You are wrong. Come, we must return and spar.”
Ignoring his incredulous look, she gently pulled him to his feet and guided him back towards the sparring grounds. He followed obediently, puzzled and confused. “What are you doing? I said I quit, leave me be.”
“This lowly one lacks the authority to make that decision. Mister Rustram must speak with Rain regarding such matters. This lowly one is only here to spar and aid in increasing your strength.” Proud of herself for her clever thinking, she hurried along while he was still compliant. Reminding herself to offer a carrot, she added, “This lowly one believes Rain chose correctly, as does Master. You are most suitable for second-in-command, sharp of mind and judgment. You’ve shown as much this past month, combining the fishing villages into a single town. Not only have you fortified them against bandits and wild creatures, with them united, you could negotiate higher prices with the Council representatives by threatening to sell directly to Major Yuzhen. You’ve won the respect and love of the people, not an easy task after Rain tore down and burned many of their homes. The stories will spread, and the Bekhai’s reputation will rise, our main goal.”
“That’s not soldiering, it’s just merchant work.”
“Commanding isn’t only about combat. If not for their cooperation, our task here would be far more difficult, requiring far-ranging patrols and longer supply chains. Instead, you’ve gathered them together and negotiated with them for food and shelter. Were Rain here, he could do no better. Even young magistrate Fung and Officer Huushal value your advice in these matters.” She hated to admit it, but if nothing else, Rain was talented at finding those with talent. Who knew he was so far-seeing, roping in these seemingly useless cripples and making something of them.
“What about the weapon? I’ve never heard of someone taking months to bind a spiritual weapon, I’ve no talent for it.” The whine was clear in his voice, his steps growing reluctant as she pulled him along.
“This lowly one took seven months and fourteen days to bind her weapon. Old Master was greatly displeased by her failings.” She’d earned several beatings a day for months before she stabbed herself with the weapon, hoping to end her misery. Upon doing so, she woke with the weapon firmly in hand, her attempted suicide a sweet dream that bound the weapon to her. She should have known; her oath prevented her from attempting suicide.
“Really? That long? How did you finally manage it?” Hope tinged his voice as he asked, quivering with apprehension.
Turning to look him in the eye, she gave him the only advice she could. “The weapon is death. Do not fear it. Embrace it.” She released him before they arrived at the sparring grounds, waiting for him. “If you could please lead the way, Mister Rustram. You need practice if you ever hope to become strong.”
With a deep breath, Mister Rustram straightened his back, and whispered, “Thank you.” Catching Lady Tursinai’s proud nod as he marched in with head held high, Song beamed at the unspoken praise before grabbing her practice weapon and followed. Determination set into her as she made plans to return and steal Aurie away from his tent, hoping to win the sweet cat’s affection with love and treats.
Hopefully, Rain would stay away long enough to fix all of his mistakes, and if so, she couldn’t allow poor Aurie to suffer for so long.
Qing-Qing scurried home with her clam-bucket in hand, moving quickly to avoid Gen or any of his cronies. Between his friends, admirers, and his father’s lackeys, life had grown oppressive for her in the nameless village. Closing the door behind her, she checked on the little warrior, smiling to herself as he mumbled incoherently in his sleep. The Mother was truly watching over him, and Qing-Qing as well, sending her a guardian to bring her away.
His sleepy mumbling was a significant improvement from the agonized screams and seizures he’d suffered when she first brought him back. Looking into his empty eye as he wailed, she almost put him out of his misery, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Who was she to decide life and Death? That was the Mother’s purview, and Qing-Qing could only submit to Her will. Realizing he carried a spiritual weapon, she unstrapped the exotic shield from his mangled flesh and hid it away before finding help to bring him back.
Word travelled quickly as it always did, only a hundred souls and each one nosier than the last. All of them spoke briefly with her, cautioning her to take good care of the errant bandit lest the village incur the wrath of his comrades, but not a single one offered aid, a worthless bunch of hypocrites. They hoped to push all blame onto her when the young warrior died, as it seemed he would. Thankfully, he survived, and even better, only she knew he wasn’t a bandit. Stroking his face gently, she giggled to herself, dreaming of being carried away atop his stallion, towards a better life.
Washing the clams, she prepared a soup for him to eat, boiling wild herbs and tubers to fill his belly, a paltry offering. Things were difficult lately, Gen no longer bringing gifts of rice and fish, angered by her ‘affection’ for the supposed bandit. A foolish man with his head up his ass, his petty and domineering behaviour was off-putting. Were he a better person, she wouldn’t mind marrying him, but he was too controlling and jealous. Merely speaking to another man was enough to raise his ire, and she’d not live her life like that.
With all her time devoted to caring for the injured warrior, she had precious little time to earn coin, but it would all be worth it if he survived and brought her away from this backwater village. Waiting for the food to cook, she spent a moment staring at his adorable face, the horrendous swathe of scabs healing nicely. He looked so young and sweet, it was incredible how he’d survived. Half-eaten and battered, he looked worse than a corpse when she first found him, but now, he was close to perfect health in little over two weeks. The Mother worked in mysterious ways.
The little warrior woke as the soup finished cooking, and she hurried to help him sit up, his eyes shut to hide the glare of the firelight. “Good, you’re awake. Feeling better?” Wetting a wash cloth, she wiped his blushing face gently. After helping him wrap his eyes, she propped him against the wall and wrapped a blanket around him. “You need to eat, the Mother’s healing has taken its toll on you.” Ladling out a bowl of soup, she blew on it gently, and held a spoonful out to his lips, feeding him slowly.
He ate in silence and she grew apprehensive as she watched his face screw up in displeasure. “My apologies for the taste, warrior, but I’ve no money for salt or spices and must make due with what I can forage.”
“Ah.” His voice croaked as he shook his head gently, swallowing hard. “No, I uh… it’s delicious.”
Tittering nervously, she asked, “Then why do you grimace like I’m feeding you foul medicine?”
He chuckled. “Er, yea, I don’t like clams. Or any seafood really. It’s not your fault, the food’s er… delicious.” Glancing about the room he asked, “Where are my things? My weapons and armour?”
“I hid your shield in the woods, warrior, and your armour was in tatters, but that was all you wore. If you are searching for your coin purse, I fear it lost in the lake, this I swear. I kept everything else in the chest, if you’d like to see.” Placing the bowl aside, she hurried to bring it out to display before him. “Great warrior, I advise we leave your weapon hidden for now. If the villagers learn you’ve a spiritual weapon, you and I will both be in danger.”
“What about my boots? And why would we be in danger?”
Rummaging through the chest, she pulled a single, tattered boot out. “Only the left one, the right one fell off and fish nibbled away at your toes.” Handing him the boot, she explained in a quiet whisper. “Here in the wilderness, the bandits hold power, and any bandit with a spiritual weapon is well-known. If you display your weapon, then people will know you for a soldier, and if word gets out that we’re sheltering a soldier, the gangs will kill everyone here as an example. You’ve been blessed by the Mother, and I cannot allow you to die by their hands.”
“Ah. I guess I shouldn’t tell people my name either.” Upending his boot, he shook it limply before handing it back to her. “Lift the soles out, there are coins hidden in the bottom.”
“You can tell Qing-Qing, I swear on my life to keep it a secret great warrior.” Her voice caught in her throat as she poured the coins out. Five finger-thin bars of gold tumbled out, her hands shaking as she reached for them, before shrinking away. A fortune, a veritable fortune hidden in his boot, who was this young man? Did he have more in the other boot? Was it worth the risk to go diving in search of it?
“My name is Falling Rain. You er, didn’t find my Token did you? I think that’s important or something, my badge of office.”
Overcome by the gold, it took several moments to realize the gravity of his words. Shivering uncontrollably as she stared at the adorable young man, her mind raced through the stories of the Undying Savage. The youngest Warrant Officer in the last thousand years, his strength forged in the heat of a thousand battles. The barbaric warrior who spit on the Society, the Council, and most recently the Butcher Bay Bandits, none were worthy of respect in his eyes. Mostly, she focused on the tales of his prodigious lust and how he openly threatened to rape the Magistrate of Shen Yun. He dared say that to a Magistrate; what might he do to a mere village girl?
Snapping out of her fugue, she pushed the gold away and prostrated herself before him, kowtowing repeatedly as she pleaded. “Please great warrior, this lowly one, I didn’t know. Have mercy, I beseech you, have mercy. I am only a lowly village woman, unworthy of your attentions.” Even injured as he was, he only needed to lift a finger to kill her. Tears streamed from her eyes as she continued to beg, cursing herself for bringing calamity into her home. Gen was right, the savage would have his way with her and slit her throat when he was done, likely eating her to regain his strength.
His hand reached out to her and she flinched away, but too scared to flee, she froze in terror, panting heavily. “Calm yourself woman. I said it before, I won’t err… harm you. You are my benefactor. That gold is yours, and more if you send word to my people. They’ll come get me and I’ll tell them we… er to reward you richly.”
She continued to cry until the soup was cold and her tears spent. Exhausted by his moment of consciousness, Rain passed out long before she was finished, and Qing-Qing shivered as she watched him sleep. She considered grabbing a knife and killing him, but having seen him survive such grievous injuries, she concluded that it would be more merciful to use the knife on herself.
Swallowing hard, she turned to stare at the gold bars scattered across her hut, picking them up one by one. Hiding them back inside his boot, she hugged her knees and shivered in the corner, praying to the Mother for guidance. After long hours of introspection, she rubbed her eyes and patted her face, heating up a bowl of soup for herself. His identity made no difference, not in the grand scheme of things, only sealing her fate to his. If word got out that she’d saved Falling Rain, the bane of the Butcher Bay Bandits, she would suffer greatly at the hands of the Spectre.
It would be impossible to send a message, there was no one she could trust. That meant she needed to bring him back to his people, on the other side of the lake, almost a week’s journey for a healthy man on foot. A tall order for a young woman who’d never left the village and a grievously injured soldier, wanted dead by every bandit within a hundred kilometers. Glancing at the boot, she fought back her greed. Fleeing alone with the gold was no good, Falling Rain was her only hope of survival outside the village, the reason she’d saved the nameless soldier in the first place. Perhaps he’d even keep his promise and not rape her, although she didn’t count on it. After all, the weak were fated to be fodder for the strong, such was the way of the world.
Settling down in her bed of straw, she watched him fearfully as she tried to sleep, visions of her sordid fate haunting her every time she closed her eyes.
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