Letting out a long sigh as she slumped at her table, Yuzhen wistfully gazed out the window. Moonlight reflected off the lake and illuminated the night scene, the titular three trees of Sanshu visible off in the distances. Titans towering above the forest canopy, they stood out against the horizon while fireflies flit about like tiny stars come down to visit the lake-shore. The second story of a quaint little restaurant, she’d commandeered the entire building for her personal use, falling in love with the view from the private room after a single meal.
Oh how she wished to be out there among the trees, riding about without a care in the world instead of stuck here going through massive pile of missives, dispatches, demands and ultimatums by the light of a single candle. If not for the proximity to Sanshu City, she might have offered to buy the cozy little building for herself, a place to live after her… retirement. The second floor could easily be converted into a spacious living area while continuing to operate the restaurant on the first floor, not a bad life for herself. A shame she didn’t know the first thing about cooking or owning a restaurant, but she’d have plenty of time to learn. At thirty-eight years young, she wasn’t even a tenth of the way through her natural lifespan, and a steady source of income would eventually be needed. As a cover for her virtuous bandit activities…
Shaking herself from her wild fantasies, she scolded herself for getting distracted. Though she had no intention of spending her long life buried beneath mountains of paperwork, until such a time when freedom could be found, this work was her life. Failure here was unacceptable, not after all her old man had risked to get her this far. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and massaged her temples, preparing to refocus her attentions back to her duties.
“Headache, my beauty? Lucky for you, I’ve the perfect remedy, good company and good drink.”
Starting in her seat, Yuzhen reached for her sword before catching herself, fixing the intruder with her fiercest glare. Unperturbed by her best efforts, Gerel leaned back in his chair across from her and matched her stare with his striking, amber eyes, a self-satisfied smile pasted across his irritatingly handsome face. Too bad he insisted on shaving his head bald, he’d look better with a full head of hair. “I told you to stop doing that. Mother’s tits, I almost screamed for my guards, you’re sneakier than an accursed Wraith.”
With a lazy shrug, Gerel’s smile turned wry. “I’ve no choice, you’re the one who wants to keep our little trysts private.” A hint of complaint surfaced in his tone there, his views already made clear on the matter. “How else am I to meet with you if not through stealth and deceit?”
Ignoring his hurt tone, she gave up on her ice-queen persona and relaxed. “You’re sure you weren’t seen? Not even by my guards?”
Feigning injury, he rolled his eyes. “You underestimate me. If you’re so concerned, say the word and I’ll replace your guards with my people while disposing of those clumsy spies keeping an eye on you. Then I’ll be free to come and go without worry, what say you?”
Fighting to keep her smile hidden, she looked away and rummaged through her paperwork. Maddening, he had no right to smile so sweetly. “I’ve told you, they’d only be replaced by better spies. Easier to let them run free and find what scraps I leave for them, allowing me control over what they report to their superiors.”
“Bah. Spy craft and diplomacy, I haven’t the stomach for it.” Taking advantage of her distraction, he plucked a letter from the table and fended off her hands as she lunged to retrieve it. Skimming through the letter’s contents in seconds, he raised a single eyebrow in question. “What’s this? A love letter, detailing how this ‘Chao Yong’ would like to display his affection for you.” Eyes narrowing, his smile turned dangerous and savage, a transformation which set her loins afire. Control yourself woman, don’t go losing yourself to lust just yet, there’s work to be done. “A rival? Should I challenge him to a duel in your honour and slit his throat? Would this please you, my beauty?”
Giving up on the document, she crossed her arms and pouted. “Love letter my ass, you know well enough it’s an open threat. Don’t you dare go challenging him, he has many distinguished duelists in his employ and I’ll not have your pretty face ruined by scarring.”
With a mock bow, Gerel returned the letter with both hands. “As you command my love, though I fear you sorely underestimate my prowess, both in combat and in recovery.” Gesturing at the piles of papers, he tilted his head and asked, “Curiosity consumes me, how many other rivals do I have?”
She replied with a snort. “Countless, so you best come up with a poem or verse to win me back before I lose interest in you.”
“A ravishing beauty whom I hope to embrace, cherishing the feel of her bountiful chest, like two moons grown full in summer’s– ”
Waving him off as she laughed, his terrible lyric had her in stitches. “Stop, stop, I misspoke. Forgive me, I beg you, never again.” Laughing together, they sat in silence for several heartbeats before she shook her head and sighed. “As much as I enjoy your company, I’ve no time for you today. I’ve plenty of work to do deflecting and soothing worries from across the province.”
“Oh? Anything I might help with? I have friends in high places.”
Rolling her eyes, she couldn’t help but smile fondly at him. He was good company when not out searching for the missing prince-ling. “As do I, but I don’t dare call upon them. All of these letters are from the Council and their allies, with more undoubtedly in transit from all corners of the Empire. However, the Society has yet to reach out and speak their mind, which puts me at a disadvantage. It’s a blessing, I suppose, they seem content to watch things unfold for now.” Rather fortunate, since she didn’t know what she’d do if they took interest. Still, any aid would be appreciated, though it was merely wistful thinking on her part. She’d been ignored for decades until her old man committed to his crazy dream of having her succeed him as Marshal of the North.
With Gerel as a sounding board to vent her frustrations upon, she outlined her situation. To the world at large, they presented the image of being unified in all things, despite being fractured and divisive on almost every issue, including her appointment as her old man’s successor.
Divided into three factions on the matter, the smallest faction, the Progressives led by the Harmonious Unity Sect, championed her cause. They sensed a change in the times with Lieutenant General Akanai gaining favour in the North, holding the western flank with grace and aplomb, along with Nian Zu’s brute-force appointment of Major General Baatar as his heir apparent. The province wide attitude towards half-beasts was shifting in a positive direction, and they’d chosen Yuzhen as the half-beast face of the Society without even speaking to her. That a trio of half-beasts led the Harmonious Unity Sect from the shadows was likely also a deciding factor, since by helping her gain standing, they helped themselves.
Opposing them were the Traditionalists, led by the Shing family and backed by the Situ Clan, insisted her appointment was an insult to thousands of years of history. By their accounting, since there were no records of half-beast having ever taken office before, it proved that no half-beast would ever be worthy of the title of Marshal of the Empire. Backwards logic, she expected no less from her old man’s family, yet it still stung to see them at the helm of the smear campaign against her.
As always when a divisive issue cropped up, a ‘neutral’ party was appointed to mediate the situation. The Han Clan took centre stage this time, benefiting greatly by playing both sides against one another while discretely putting their support up for auction. “It’s diplomacy at its finest,” she raved as Gerel poured her another cup of wine, the lecher hoping to get her drunk and have his way with her. Normally she would let him, he was an able lover and she could use the release, but she lacked the time. “If not for this issue with the Council, the Society would have happily ignored me until my old man passed away. Bereft of his protection and without allies of my own, I’d be lucky to die a quiet death in the shadows while everyone is distracted mourning the loss of a national hero.” The best she could hope for was letting him believe he succeeded in his quest to make her his successor, no matter the consequences.
Tossing back the wine, she slammed the empty cup down. “Another.” Was that her seventh, or eighth drink? She needed to visit the jakes to sober up, but that was never fun. Pouring her another cup, Gerel nodded thoughtfully and asked, “How has this situation changed things?”
A sweet man, he knew she needed to unleash her woes and patiently sat through her rant. During her tirade, he’d switched seats, his arm around her shoulders as they drank, and she welcomed his touch. Intimacy was natural to him, she’d seen him with the other Bekhai, displaying levels of familiarity and friendship she envied. And not only with the women, with the men too, which brought to mind all manner of lascivious thoughts. “With the Council likely putting pressure on the Society, they’re forced to deal with me now, which means they’ll be dealing with my old man. I worry for him staying at the Bridge without me. What if they mark him for assassination? How am I to protect him from here?”
“No need to worry, he’s in good hands. He made fast friends with Husolt and Chakha, Akanai’s husband and Huushal’s Pa. There are plenty of Khishig guards keeping your old man safe, I made sure of it before I left.”
Leaning into him, she rested her head on his shoulder and smiled. At least he wasn’t only after her body, though it would have been better if he offered her comfort. ‘Oh Yuzhen, you need not worry, I’ll die before anyone touches a hair upon your beautiful head’. Worthless, blockhead. “That’s good to know. Thank you.” Nuzzling into him, she closed her eyes for a moment, basking in his warmth and savouring his earthy musk, the scent of the forest. Maybe just a few minutes, here on the table, just to relax…
Catching herself before she fell asleep or worse, she pushed him away and patted her cheeks. “Enough dallying, I told you I have work to do. There are letters that need drafting, for people unrelated to the Council. It’s common knowledge that the Mother’s Militia is stealing supplies meant for the Bridge, and I’ve received many scathing letters condemning me for putting the province at risk. With those damn cowardly Bandits and Corsairs gone to ground, how am I to justify guarding the inlet and keeping soldiers in the northeast while the Militia runs roughshod only a few days march away? It’s not like I can announce that the Bridge is fully stocked and receiving supplies without interruption, it’d bring too many unwelcome questions. This scheme of Rain’s started out so well but things are beginning to unravel.”
“Tch, that damn Rain, setting all this into motion and then disappearing, doing Mother knows what.” They clinked glasses and drank another cup, a sour grimace on his face. “I’ve a small stack of letters and a daily stream of Sendings asking me for updates I don’t have. He’s missing but alive, what else am I supposed to say? I should be fighting Defiled and raising my reputation and rank, not here searching for a lost child. So bothersome, when I find him, I’ll sew his Officer Token into his skin so this doesn’t happen again.”
Chortling, she pressed her cheek to the table. It was so cool and refreshing, she wanted to feel the night’s breeze but couldn’t be bothered to stand. “Don’t be so harsh on him, he’s rather clever. It’s been an entire month since I signed the contract, and the Council has yet to successfully deliver a single shipment. They owe enough for the next six months of supplies, and the fines continue to pile on every day. Compound interest is a wonderful thing, I can’t believe he came up with something so deliciously devious. The Council will go green with regret when I point out that clause of the contract, I can hardly contain myself.”
“Hmph. He wastes his time on frivolous matters like this, always stuck inside his head. So many accomplishments while dividing his time across so many subjects, imagine what he’d be like if he fully dedicated himself to one path, martial or healing.”
“Actually, I think it’s better this way. The Bekhai have plenty of outstanding warriors, like Huushal and Sumila. What they lack is a suitable diplomat, and Rain is your best candidate for the position. He’s quick-thinking, adaptable, devious, and best of all, human, which counts for more than you might realize. Fix his crass behaviour, find him a wife or two with powerful families, and before long, you’ll have a figurehead to lead the Bekhai towards prominence. Shouldn’t be too hard, he’s a quick study and handsome enough, women love a hero.”
“Ha, the boy already has two betrothed waiting for him, and you want to find him one or two more wives? What dog-shit luck that brat has, what’s so good about him anyways?”
Oh? Detecting a note of jealously, she thought to use a recurring joke of theirs. Sitting up with an innocent, pensive frown, she gave her best performance. “He’s already betrothed? And here I was thinking of seducing him for myself. You know how I enjoy younger men and you’re getting a little long in the tooth for my tastes.”
Eagerly waiting for his anger to surface as she watched him jerk at her words, she knew she’d wounded his pride. Now for him to grab her by the arms and shake her, maybe ripping her clothes as he yells and calls her names. He’d been too relaxed and comfortable around her of late, and though she enjoyed his company, she missed the fiery passion and ardour of their early relationship. Now for a small, token struggle before giving in to his primal lust, devolving into a passionate lovemaking session as he worked to mend his pride, to dominate her and make her his.
Instead, she was treated to Gerel’s stony silence and saddened gaze as he stared hurtfully at her, her heart twisting at the sight. Where was his anger? Where was his lust? She’d told this same joke many times before using the stuck up brats at the Bridge and his response was always the same, so what was different today? Had he tired of her, believing it no longer worth his efforts? Awkward silence hung between them as they sat still, the sole candle choosing this inopportune time to extinguish. The darkness helped ease things, but not by much; she could still make out his eyes in the moonlight. His voice drawled out, heavy and pained. “Do you truly feel that way?”
“No.” Her answer was instantaneous, and she felt the tension disperse as he audible sighed. What was happening? Things were supposed to be light and fun between them, two adults enjoying each others company without strings to bind them. This was getting… serious.
The mood was dead and beyond saving, so after an awkward farewell, Gerel slipped out the window unseen. Confused and scared, she lit another candle and returned to work. What she needed was a distraction, in more ways than one. Something to draw attention away from the lack of scarcity at the Bridge. Perhaps it was time to call off the Militia and allow Council shipments to make their way to Shen Yun unmolested, for a short time at least. In the meantime, she could chase the Militia through the forest for a few weeks, maybe even hang the ‘Hangman’ Jorani and a few of his lieutenants, like ‘Mongrel’ Kabi, ‘Light-Fingered’ Yu and Ulfsaar the Voracious. How that last one ended up working under Jorani was a mystery, an upstart, Aura-capable bandit with a twenty gold bounty, he’d terrorized Sanshu for the past two years with his band of capable warriors. A few dead bandits to hang on her belt, and she’d come out of the situation a hero of the citizens, though not much would change for her, politically speaking.
Drawing up her plans, she worked until exhaustion and alcohol overcame her, waking alone and frustrated the next morning. Barely taking the time to fix her appearance, she strode out of her tent and found Gerel waiting for her. Inwardly panicking, she prayed to the Mother that he didn’t make a scene in full view of her command and cursed her laziness. Hoping he would take the hint, she frowned and spoke in a cordial, yet distant tone. “How can I help you Senior Captain Gerel?”
Showing no emotion as he saluted, Gerel answered, “We should speak in private.”
Stepping back inside her tent, she stood still as her stomach flopped about and motioned for him to speak. “Is this a personal meeting?”
“No.” The instantaneous reply left her both relieved and annoyed. Why didn’t he want to talk about their private matters? “I received word from Rain. He’s alive and with our friends in the west.” Thank the Mother he’d been found, that was one burden off her shoulders. Just as she relaxed, his next words sent her into shock. “Unfortunately, he sends news of a Defiled outbreak on the western shores of Treasures Lake, including first-hand confirmation of a newly turned Demon.”
All thoughts of personal relationships disappeared as her insides twisted into a knot. Staggering to find a seat, she spent the next hour going over every detail with Gerel before sending him away to prepare. She’d asked for a distraction but this was too much. After a month of steady sailing, the troubles were piling on with a vengeance. Her first command, already rife with contrived plots and political intrigue, had now become a thing of nightmares. Her hands trembled as she wrote the coded message, reading each copy time and time again to ensure there was no mistake before sealing it with her stamp. So few words, yet so heavy a message.
“With a heavy heart and by the power granted to me by Shing Du Yi, Marshal of the North, I, Major Shing Yuzhen of the Society, declare a state of emergency in the cities of Sanshu, Jiu Lang, Shen Yun, and Ping Yao. Each city is to send no less than three thousand soldiers capable of proving their purity before the eyes of the Mother. Secrecy is of the utmost importance, disobedience punishable by summary execution, without trial.”
After sealing the last copy, she handed them to her aide with instructions to deliver them to the nearest outpost himself. Recalling all her forces, including the Warrant Officers to the Northeast, she gave orders for them to march west and set a perimeter. Returning to her tent to wait, she sat in her chair and cupped her face, bracing herself for the slaughter to come.
Over ten-thousand innocent souls to be butchered at her command, all for the greater good.
Forgive me my sins Mother and have mercy on my soul.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|