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Mila reached out to grab Pran’s horn and tossed him aside like a wet blanket. Kicking out, her boot slammed into Saluk’s gut and the half-bull soldier collapsed to the ground. Around her, nine half-beasts lay about, beaten and subdued by her in less than a minute. Sighing dramatically for effect, she fought the urge to grin, doing her best impression of Mama, standing tall and aloof with a sneer on her face. “Pitiful. Again.” Since Rain’s disappearance, she bruised and abused the soldiers, pushing them to become stronger through spars and field-exercises. After all, if they’d been more competent, then perhaps this mess wouldn’t have cropped up in the first place.
Her stress building from inactivity and worry, sparring with the half-beast soldiers was also a great way to decompress. They were more durable than the human soldiers and she disliked watching them flounder in spite of their natural gifts. With still no word from Rain despite Gerel combing the area for him, she continued to imagine worst case scenarios, such as Rain stranded on an island, slowly starving to death, or being tortured and beaten by bandits, or worse, holed up with some woman somewhere, having forgotten about everyone who cares for him.
That last scenario was unlikely, but still she worried. Lin was no help at all, Mila’s cheerful and mischievous best friend having been replaced by a mopey, weepy little girl, unable to cope without her ‘hubby’. Honestly, no good came from their association with Rain, an endless source of misfortune and heartache. All the kisses in the world were hardly worth the distress and she refused to go through this again. When he returned, she’d keep him on a shorter leash, no more free rein for him to run about. Perhaps she should see about obtaining a field-command and have Rain attached to her cadre. After all, she had her own dreams of greatness; she wouldn’t follow him about like an obedient quin.
Lost in her thoughts, she almost overlooked the fist flying towards her face, reacting on instinct. A cross-counter smashed into Saluk’s jaw and a loose tooth sailed through the air as he collapsed like a puppet without its strings. Cursing herself for her distraction, she carefully elbowed another soldier in the sternum. “You’re too fragile, too weak. Out of sixty-seven, you nine are the only half-beasts, and I pity you.” Backhanding her next attacker aside, she tackled another soldier and body-slammed him to the ground. “Each born with prodigious strength and all the Mother’s gifts laid before you, but you make use of none of it.” Her fist jabbed lightly into Pran’s throat and she grabbed his belt and shoulder, tossing him into two soldiers. “You’ve no talents, wholly unimpressive and exceedingly mediocre.” The last two soldiers fell to her strikes, and once again all nine lay strewn about, groaning in pain. “And mediocrity is a heavy burden to bear. Without talent, all you can do is work harder. Remember, the Forms are flexible guidelines, and not rigid rules to follow. Experiment and test yourselves while it is still safe to do so, pain a better teacher than death. Rest, heal, and meditate we begin again in twenty minutes.”
As the half-beast group staggered off and the next group arrived for their beating, Mila resumed her teachings, brutally scattering them before her like a flock of startled pigeons. There were no uncut gems among these soldiers, their only advantage being the healing method Rain imparted to each of them, so there was nothing to do but continue pushing them to succeed. Off to the side, Tursinai stood watch while the former sentinels practiced the same healing method with Lin instructing them, but her heart wasn’t in it, the poor thing.
Even Rustram, the best of them all, was failing Mila’s expectations. She thought to groom him well, as without herself and Song, Rain would only have Rustram left to watch his back. So far, he was more burden than shield, still using his rapier like a club, unwieldy and clumsy. He didn’t understand the Forms, none of the former soldiers did, their routines and patterns from the army drilled into their bones. The army trained soldiers well, but good soldiers made piss-poor warriors. They lacked heart and determination, their aspirations and individuality beaten out of them, meaning her only option was to toss them into the furnace and continue to hammer away at them, hoping to reforge them and praying they hold together beneath the stress.
After hours of arduous training, the sun dipped below the horizon and Mila called for a stop. Sweating profusely from the work, she found Lin and Song and took each by the hand, leading the way to the bath-houses. Under the protection of three Warrant Officers, the sleepy little village had transformed into a burgeoning township, with new buildings going up each day as the villagers settled in. Huu helped with the labour, his sparse knowledge of carpentry a great help in setting up defensible homes, following the guidelines set by Rustram. The man was hopeless in combat, but his administrative and bargaining skills were top-notch, organizing the town into several districts for ease of living. Many of the unwed village women had set him as their target, swarming him with offers of food and company as he returned from the training fields. A shame he couldn’t stay and live a comfortable life as a town mayor, but Mama would never allow it, not while he had knowledge of Rain’s healing method.
After their bath, they shared a quiet dinner outside her tent, eating in silence while the quins and kittens milled about, begging for scraps. Their guards ate with them, Lin’s four sitting silently while Tenjin and Tursinai flirted about. Mila was still upset Tursinai hadn’t taken steps to protect Rain, but it wasn’t wholly her fault; she was only one person guarding two people, as Rain had convinced Tenjin to separate from them and oversee the beach defences. Then again, if not for his presence there, the villagers wouldn’t have stood firm and precious time would have been lost. Stupid Rain and his stupid strategies, why didn’t he get stronger and overwhelm his enemies with pure force? Why did he have to be so scatter-brained? How someone could be so smart and so foolish at the same time was a mystery.
Mother knows where he was, perhaps stranded on an island devoid of food and shelter. How would he return? The lake currents were a mystery to most villagers, the Butcher Bay Bandits working hard to keep it secret. The only boats that travelled the lake belonged to them, fisher-folk and divers keeping to the calm, sheltered bays. What if he’d been horrifically injured and lacked sustenance to heal properly? Or he suffered a head injury and lost all memory? It’d happened to him once before and she’d heard stories of it happening to other warriors. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t coming back, he couldn’t remember who he was. What would he do? Waking up in a strange place, lost and alone, how would he proceed from there?
He was always good at making friends, his lack of pretenses and filthy jokes endearing him to a certain crowd. Even all of his soldiers fit the type, low brow, brutish, near-criminal personalities like Ravil and Bulat. Rain would fit right in with most bandits, likely taking a stupid thuggish name for himself like Crusher or Mad Dog. The thought of him pillaging and extorting villagers with that stupid leer on his face was enough to drive her to madness. Who knows what horrid schemes he would concoct to exploit those poor people. Repressing a sigh, Mila shook her head to clear her mind. This was why she kept busy all the time. How did Papa stay so calm with Mama out campaigning and defending the People all the time? Is this what it was like for him?
Lin’s sad sigh interrupted her forlorn musings. Staring up at the starry sky, little Lin looked so wistful and charming, tiny tears welling in her eyes. “Do you think Rainy is also looking at the moon? Is he thinking about us, like we’re thinking about him? I hope he’s safe…”
“Silly girl.” Forcing herself to smile, she wrapped her arms around Lin. “What happened to the sweet, happy-go-lucky girl I grew up with? You can’t have been like this the entire time we were separated, now were you? Enough moping, we have his sword, we know he’s alive. Have faith, he will return.”
“It’s not the same Mi-Mi. I can’t be strong like you, I need him here.” Sniffling, Lin snuggled into her embrace. “Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to marry him and he finally agreed to after all this time. We were supposed to be together forever after that, but he’s already missing…”
“Hmph.” With a snort, Lin’s guard interrupted their chat, speaking with a lilting, soft voice, a woman, judging by the sound. “Foolish child. You’ve been betrothed for little over two months and already you’ve been reduced to a snivelling mess. Worthless brat, what will you do after that idiot Rain dies?”
“Shut your mouth!” Mila’s fury consumed her, and if not for Lin grasping her tightly, she would have charged the insolent guard. “How dare you speak like this?” No wonder they kept their mouths shut the entire time, they had no manners at all.
The guard tilted her head like a questioning child, her face hidden behind her veil. “Why would I not dare? He’s nothing but a mere human, short-lived and stupid.”
Where Taduk had found such arrogant and mysterious guards was unknown, but Mama didn’t bother to pry, so neither did Mila. “Rain is a rising dragon, his name fated to spread across the Empire. The youngest Warrant Officer in a thousand years, a brilliant duelist, tactician, physician, and herbalist. An Awakened Warrior and soon-to-be a renowned healer, his star rises meteorically by the day.” Looking down her nose at the guard, she sneered. “What accomplishments have you to brag of, nameless guard?”
Contrary to her expectations, the guard merely shrugged easily, showing no anger. “Oh, I admit, he’s impressive for a little foundling, but what of it? Not even twenty years of age and one cannot count the times he’s come close to death. The brightest candles burn the fastest, such is the way of the world. Even if he survives to a ripe old age, which is unlikely, you and Lin will still be young and fresh-faced when burning his corpse. See how distraught you both are with only few weeks of separation? In the end, you’ll only spend a fraction of your life at his side. Is it worth all the heartache? ”
The harsh declaration struck her like a hammer and she choked back her tears of fury. A scathing retort on her lips, she readied to fly into a rage when Lin’s hand covered Mila’s lips. “Don’t Mi-Mi. Let it be, ignore her. Let’s go to bed.” Tugging at her arm, Lin tried to pull her away as Mila glared at the insolent bitch, who sat easily at the fire, legs crossed and hands folded as if without a care in the world.
Tursinai and Tenjin appeared next to Mila, their hands restraining her as they pushed her back. Tursinai’s voice sounded in her mind. “Easy little Mila. Mere words. Ask Baatar if he regrets marrying Sarnai, or Alsantset marrying Charok. No sense in fighting amongst ourselves.” The entire time she spoke, Tursinai backed away from the guard, her eyes never leaving the relaxed mysterious warrior. Mila swallowed her anger and turned away, disappearing into Rain’s tent with Lin and Song.
Irritated and vexed, Mila pouted as Lin and Song brought two more beds into the tent, Lin cheerfully chattering about having a sleepover. Her lighthearted act confused Mila, but she let it lie, knowing there were things she couldn’t ask and Lin couldn’t speak of. The guard was probably some decrepit warrior who owed Taduk a favour, sour over her own losses in life. Bitter old hag, how dare she speak of Rain like that? So what if he wouldn’t live as long? Mila still wanted to marry him. Should she throw away her feelings because Rain might die? What sort of life would that be? Everyone dies, but a flower cannot blossom without sunshine, just as a person cannot live without love.
She should have used that as her retort, but anger clouded her mind. Fuming, she replayed the argument over and over in her head, winning with wit and tact and putting that guard in her place, a childish act but one that calmed her anger. Snuggling between Lin and Song, Aurie and the she-cat soon joined them, the three cots comfortably packed. Burying her face in Aurie’s fur, she hid her tears and silently cried herself to sleep. Please Rain, return soon. Everything is forgiven, so long as you survive whole and intact.
Blinking lazily, he stretched and yawned, glancing over at Qing-Qing’s sleeping form. The hut was still dark, his blindfold unneeded, her body outlined in the gloom as his mind filled in the details. She was so warm and kind, he reminisced of the touch of her hands as it stroked his face, her nervous smile as she fed him soup, her titter and snort as she laughed. He’d never been cared for by someone like that, tender and gentle. Mila was always so rough and brusque, while Lin preferred to be cared for, spoiled by brother.
Although they were two sides of the same coin, he was growing more resentful of their positions. Brother was in charge, the Outer Rain, and everything was done according to his will. That left precious little for himself, only now realizing it once their roles had switched. So many minor things he’d forgotten about, like eating real food and interacting with people, feeling cold or warm, or smelling the pleasant scent of incense. Why was brother the only one to enjoy all the niceties of life?
Closing his eyes, he focused his mind and sought out his inner sanctuary. It took a great effort to reach it, calming his mind enough to slip in. Brother always made it look so easy, entering with the blink of an eye, yet another stark difference between them. The door to their bedroom was still ajar, brother’s astral form suspended in the void within as the spectres floated about his body. Pacing back and forth, he watched brother and tested the entrance, an unseen force keeping him out. Not like a wall, his hand easily passed through the doorway, but once inside, he would inevitably be turned about, standing outside the door with no idea how he arrived there. The spectres moved the same way around brother’s body, guided by an unseen force in meandering paths, unable to touch claw or tooth to skin. So long as this continued, brother would be safe, but it seemed to take all his efforts, unable to wake. He wanted to help brother, but after countless efforts, he gave up and opened his eyes, laying in the darkness and muttering of his impotence.
While checking on brother, Qing-Qing had awoken and was bustling about the hut in preparation. Greeting her cordially, he grimaced to himself as she cringed in reply, eyes fastened to the floor as she hurried over, bowl and spoon in hand. “Apologies great warrior, this lowly one could only scrounge up more clams. Please have mercy.”
“It’s fine. Delicious, really.” Choking down the slimy, chewy flesh, he sipped at the pungent soup, bitter with the taste of the sea. This village was more rustic than expected, unable to make simple change for a gold bar. Worth only a measly hundred silvers, the total monthly income of the village would not exceed five, meaning brother had stored a hundred months of their profit in a single boot. With greed such a powerful force, Qing-Qing feared to display the gold and was too weak to make the trip to a larger village, so they continued to dine on what she scavenged. Brother would have come up with some clever solution to fix all their problems, unlike his useless self who only ever made things worse. Like in the duel. Why did he open his mouth and say those foul things? The stories had spread and now Qing-Qing was terrified of him. Courtesy truly cost nothing and he would think twice before speaking publicly again. Better to keep your intentions hidden anyways.
Her hands trembled as she fed him, much of the soup falling back into the bowl as she tried to spoon it into his mouth from as far away as possible. No more gentle touches or shy smiles, for days she only quivered and cried in his presence. When his meal was done, he grabbed her wrist before she fled. “I’d like a word with you before you go.”
The terror in her eyes was visible even through his blindfold. “Y-Yes great warrior.”
“You’ve never travelled outside the village, but surely you know the surroundings. Is there any place you can turn to for aid? Even bandits are fine, so long as they oppose Butcher Bay. Pay them the fifty gold upfront and offer more upon arrival.”
“Impossible great warrior. None of the gangs would dare opposed the Spectre. Not only is he impossible to capture, his net spreads wide, with ties to every group. A reward like the one you offer would reach his ears and bring his people down upon us. No one travels the lake without his knowledge and tacit approval, no one. Even by foot we must take care not to draw attention.”
“Tch. Fuck, I don’t know how you people survive… why even live here? This place is a shit hole.”
Her voice hardened at his declaration, showing the fire that burned within her. “This is a sacred place, great warrior. There is work nearby in the Golden Highlands and Treasure Lake, and with luck, one might find valuable heavenly treasures or rich deposits. You can even find nuggets of precious metals in the streams if you search hard enough. Although we are closer to PingYao to the south, we rely on Sanshu City for our living. Their merchants visit once a year to trade for any treasures or rumours of the mystical Waters of Restoration. The person who stumbles across them would find their name echoed throughout eternity.” Her eyes shone as she spoke, her fear forgotten in her excitement.
“Waters of Restoration?”
“Until I learned… who you were… I thought you’d found them yourself, which was why I wanted to know about your route.”
He needed a new name, at least until he was safe. She called him great warrior, and he rather liked the moniker. “Call me Baledagh for now. Accustom yourself to saying it so you do not mistakenly give out my name in company. A former bandit with the… Freebooters.” The name meant warrior in the language of the People, that would do nicely for now, and if his companions heard the name, perhaps they’d come searching for him.
After repeating the name a few times, she continued her tale. “For millennia, stories have been told of the healing waters of Sanshu Grove. People travel from all around the Empire to bathe in the streams and pray to the Mother for healing. The three sacred trees are said to have been nourished by Her tears and the guardian turtle of PingYao is rumoured to have drank a single drop in her infancy, resulting in her massive growth and power, guarding the city for centuries.”
Gold flowing in rivers, healing waters, and now giant guardian turtles. Qing-Qing was so adorably naive, he wanted to embrace her and protect her from all who would take advantage. “I guess that’s why there are so many bandits here, they started as treasure seekers and turned to banditry after finding nothing of value.”
Seeing his skepticism, her mouth twisted in a frown, upset he didn’t believe her. “It’s true Baledagh, there must be some Heavenly Water flowing about. Countless ancient beasts and heavenly ores have been nourished by the lakes which is why they’re named so. Eastern Prosperity, Western Treasures, and Southern Bounty, the amount of wealth found laying in their depths is staggering.”
“Wealth, what wealth? If you ever found anything of true value, you’d be killed in a heartbeat. Strength is all that matters, the power to take what you will and kill any who say otherwise.”
She grew quiet at his declaration, her eyes welling up. After a long silence, she whispered, “My father was a simple physician who lived quietly in this village, helping anyone who needed it no matter if they could pay. He was good at his work, and although he was no healer, he fixed injuries with nothing more than herbs and tools.” Her voice caught in her throat, but she pushed through, her head bowed as tears dripped from her face. “When I was ten years old, bandits came for him. They’d heard of his skills and their boss was grievously injured, so they brought him away. After two weeks, they returned with his head on a stick, waving it about as they raped my mother and tortured my little brother to death in front of the village. Retribution, they called it, for my father’s failure. I only escaped because I was out playing with friends, the bandits lacking knowledge of my existence. Perhaps you’re right, strength is all that matters, but I detest that sort of thinking the most.” Kowtowing before him, she kept her face pressed in the dirt. “Is there anything else you need of me, Baledagh?”
Sheepishly sending her away, he wallowed in self-pity at having screwed things up again. Lamenting his choice of words, he settled back in his bed and closed his eyes, his mind working endlessly for some method to win her over. It would be nice to have a wife of his own, as Mila, Lin, and Yan all loved brother, with little left for himself. What was life without love? Ah Qing-Qing, perhaps you detest me now, but he would not stop until she was his. If only he hadn’t given his word. Take her by force now and love would grow in time. All women loved powerful men, despite her words otherwise, but perhaps it was better this way. As brother loved to quip, joyful bride, joyful existence.
It didn’t roll off the tongue, but the words were poignant, wise beyond his years. How brother knew so many things was the real mystery. Drifting off to sleep, he dreamt of a joyous wedding between Baledagh and Ai Qing. Brother deserved a rest, and so what if he used the time to find a wife? Brother already had two with a third all but promised. One more couldn’t hurt.
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