Author’s note: A shoutout to my latest anonymous Patron! Thank you so much for the support.
Riding at the head of her army, Yuzhen entered the encampment with a heavy heart, her carefully laid plans for genocide unfolding before her eyes. Located at the base of the Second Tree, she loathed using this holy site as the base of operations for the abhorrent slaughter to come, but she was left with little choice. Tactically, it was the most fitting location from which to direct the Purge, with all the facilities she would need in place. Even better, it allowed her an excuse for why she was directing so many soldiers out in the middle of nowhere, albeit a flimsy one. A personal spiritual pilgrimage while conducting a search for Butcher Bay sympathizers, it made little sense to those in power but to the civilians she sought to deceive, her story would hold water until the moment they were put to question.
Poor doomed souls, may the Mother take you gently in Her embrace.
After removing the dust and grime of travel, Yuzhen called for a lunch meeting in her commandeered field command. The opulent summer home of some official, the dining room was garishly decorated by someone with more money than sense. Making a mental note to have the owner investigated for misappropriation of Imperial funds, she moved in front of a standing mirror and laughed, seeing it was conveniently placed so the owner could admire his own reflection while waiting for his guests to arrive. Egotism and narcissism at its finest.
Then again, it was a beautiful mirror, her reflection clear as day unlike the more common copper and silver mirrors she was accustomed to. Using it to straighten her uniform and armour, she struck a suitably heroic pose, back straight and hands on hips, like an actor in the opera depicting staunch defiance. Enjoying the novelty, she stepped closer to the mirror and gave it her best come-hither glance, biting her lip and fluttering her lashes before giggling at how childish it all was. She continued posing outlandishly before the mirror, enjoying the brief reprieve from all the stress and guilt these past few weeks. Perhaps she’d purchase one for herself, she rather enjoyed-
Wheeling around in surprise, she swallowed her panic and composed herself while Gerel walked into the room with a mocking smile. Behind him, Falling Rain, Sumila and Mei Lin were kind enough to pretend they hadn’t noticed, glancing about the room in obvious pretense. She’d allowed herself to become distracted by her reflection and exposed her brainless actions for the Bekhai to see. A grown woman fawning over her own likeness during these grim times, they must think her a complete fool. Hiding her embarrassment, she greeted them as if nothing had happened, gesturing to the dining table. “Thank you for joining me for this meal.”
The five of them exchanged pleasantries while sharing food and wine, a relaxing, informal affair. As the host, she made small talk with Sumila and Mei Lin while Rain devoured everything placed before him. Although she’d received word of his condition, she was still taken aback by the sight of him. Gaunt to the point of wasting away, his leather armour sat poorly on his scrawny frame, appearing less a hero and more a child playing at soldier. No surprise considering his ordeal, surviving massive injuries only to wash ashore and stumble into a company of Defiled bandits and a newly-turned Demon. She didn’t envy his knack for finding trouble, though he weathered it admirably.
Talented, determined, modest, and kindhearted, it was little surprise Akanai and Saint Taduk had Rain betrothed to their daughters. Something of a waste to marry him to two half-beasts, and it was a shame to forfeit her designs on the young man, but she had little interest in offending the Bekhai or upsetting sweet, serious Sumila. Also, with Gerel acting so strangely of late, it was better for Yuzhen to first extract herself from this tangled situation before finding another paramour. He’d left immediately after informing her of Rain’s return, giving her no chance to inform him of her decision to end their little tryst, an exchange she dreaded. Prideful men never took the news well, but things were becoming too serious between them. His visits were supposed to be a fun diversion not a stressful distraction. She had to brave the consequences of her choices and pray he didn’t throw a tantrum.
Their meal finished, Sumila read the situation and dragged the adorable Mei Lin away from ‘her hubby’. While the servants cleared the table, Yuzhen fixed Rain with a neutral gaze, letting the silence bear down on him. Squirming in his seat, his nervous glances to Gerel went unanswered, Rain unable to hide his obvious guilt. He would have to learn how to better hide his thoughts if the Bekhai wanted to use him as a figurehead. Perhaps she could offer herself as tutor, which had nothing to do with getting him alone to carry out a scandalous affair between student and teacher…
With the room emptied of servants, she spoke carefully while studying Rain’s expressions. “I understand you’ve been herding villagers away from the surroundings, sheltering fugitives from the Purge. Some would call that treason, an offence punishable by death.”
Shock and anger flashed across his face for an instant before he visibly calmed and relaxed, understanding her hidden message. “Oh? Have you any proof of these accusations?” He was a quick study, taking heed of their first real conversation together and offered no confirmation or denial, a more level-headed response than she expected. It seems Rain was more astute than Gerel, who gripped his sword as if ready to fight his way out of the province, his panicked expression a sight to see. Silly man, why couldn’t he be more perceptive or at least more pragmatic? Loyalty was admirable, but any slave could be loyal. If she truly held hostile intentions, the prudent decision was to make the hard sacrifice and cut ties with Rain, for the greater good.
Yes, Rain was the better choice for a figurehead. Gerel was heroic no doubt, only lacking the proper temperament, too combative and too stubborn to change. Truth be told, she had no proof of her accusations, only reports of villagers travelling north in droves, merely a few hundred but enough to catch her attentions. A young man who collected stray animals as pets would definitely be sympathetic enough to save villagers from impending doom. A merciful warrior, something of a paradox, she even somewhat admired his actions despite the headache earned from covering them up. Ignoring his question, she sipped her tea dismissively, pretending the entire situation beneath her attentions. “It ends now. Call off your efforts and I’ll overlook those who have already escaped. More refugees will be noticed and force my hand.”
Shrugging easily, Rain leaned back in his chair. “I can’t say I’ve been helping villagers escape. Perhaps it’s the Militia. My scouts report they’re moving north but they can turn at any time. Two thousand strong, they’re a force to be reckoned with.” Still no admission or denial and even a subtle threat, she rather liked how he handled things.
Ah, if only he weren’t already spoken for…
Hiding a smile, she nodded and moved on. “For now, my plan is to contain the situation and keep the news from spreading until reinforcements arrive from the cities. The other Officers will arrive within the week, and I expect you to get along. No feuds, no duels, no sparring, don’t even talk to each other. I need you all nearby and cannot spare the time to play den-mother.” Turning to Gerel, she asked, “Including both officers, how many soldiers under your command can verify their Purity?”
“If it’s just a matter of proving themselves, then all two hundred of my retinue and most of Huushal’s. If you mean captain-level talents, the number drops to forty-eight with me and twenty-one with Huushal. Rain has ten if you include Mei-Lin’s four guards.”
More than she expected, the depths of talent found within the Bekhai never ceased to amaze her. Coughing lightly, Rain asked, “What do you mean by ‘Purity’? And it seems a little unevenly distributed, why do I have so few? Two of them are Mila’s guards, aren’t they? So I have four? Who are the others?”
Gerel answered for her. “It’s because you filled your ranks with worthless outsiders, so no one wanted to babysit. Worse, if you hadn’t sent your bodyguards away to play bandit, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” She cringed at his outright admission of guilt. Even in closed quarters, you never know who could be listening.
“I have bodyguards? Who are they?”
Ignoring the question, Gerel powered through. “As for purity, it’s the minimum standards for proving lack of Defilement, circulating your chi to a level where it can be sensed, and ideally, to manifestation. You’re close, but a miss is a miss no matter if by a hair or hand-span.”
“Which brings me to my next point.” Yuzhen motioned at Rain. “We need to cover up his involvement. If word leaks he was in the midst of a Defiled outbreak, our enemies will use it as an excuse to have him Purged. Do you have anyone in mind who can bear the scrutiny?”
Scratching his day-old stubble, Gerel sank deep in thought, looking handsome, solemn, and out of his element. Almost a caricature of an unyielding warrior, he had little in common with her, a man wholly unsuited for politics. There was no helping it, she had to end things now. As it were, if they became enmeshed in a relationship, it would only implicate him when the Society removed her from power, and she didn’t wish to see him dead because of her. It was best to cut all ties cleanly for now, it was all she could do.
His musings interrupted, Gerel whipped his head around to gawk open-mouthed, her reaction matching his as Rain’s Aura washed over them, a skin-prickling sensation warning her of immense danger. Sitting calmly, he glanced inquisitively at the both of them without a hint of pride. “Is this what you mean by manifestation? I can’t do anything flashy like make fire or whatever, but I have some other tricks if you need to see them.”
Snapping out of her surprise, Yuzhen rubbed her eyes and chuckled. “Oh Mother help me, tricks he calls them. Manipulating the Energies of the Heavens, a wondrous and mystical talent, and he calls them tricks.” Shaking her head, she smiled and winked. “You’re not a common street whore luring unsuspecting clients into an ambush, you don’t do tricks.”
Gerel was less amused, frowning as he asked, “When did you learn to do this?”
“Err… during my convalescence. It’s like… unleashing my anger and letting it out into the world, except it knows who I’m angry at and protects everyone I deem as friendly. I can’t explain the actual mechanism well, sort of like holding my breath but not really.” Grinning as his Aura fell away, he added, “I get why no one explains things now, but it’d be a lot easier if you all admitted you don’t understand instead of acting all mysterious and profound. It’s annoying.”
Rolling his eyes, Gerel nodded sagely. “You’re right, I’ll tell Baatar and Akanai to stop being so annoying, I’m sure they’ll appreciate your insight. Aura isn’t enough, show me what else you can do.”
She enjoyed watching them at odds, Rain oblivious to Gerel’s jealousy. Allowing herself a moment to drift, she imagined the two young heroes fighting over her, their heated arguments turning to passionate embrace before moving on to share her, her weak protests fading away as they drowned her in pleasure. How deliciously depraved, but Gerel already made clear he wasn’t the type to share.
Once Rain’s demonstration was complete, she dismissing her errant thoughts and refocused on the task at hand. “It seems you held back in your report.”
Rain answered with a shrug. “I wasn’t holding back, Gerel said to stick to the facts and no one asked for details.”
“Good. Prudent of you to hide your strength, continue doing so until I say otherwise.” Her plan would need to be altered yet again, but she could already see the conclusion. Let their detractors come ready to argue for Rain’s execution, catching them off guard once he demonstrates his Purity with ease. From there, his place as the number one talent of his generation would be unshakable, the Disciplinary Corps left with no choice but to wholly support him as a future pillar of the Empire.
How far-sighted of Magistrate Tong Da Hai, attaching himself to the Bekhai for so many decades without reward. Now, his investment was ready to pay off immensely. So much for a figurehead, Rain was poised to become the true face of the Bekhai. His two wives were of little consequence, neither one could bear him an heir.
They spent the next few hours poring over Rain’s story in greater detail. Noting his distraction and the sorrow etched on his face when speaking of his saviour, her heart ached for him. Though he made no overt admission, she could tell he cared for the girl Ai Qing, often pausing in his recollections, fighting back tears as he regaled them with his tale. How romantic, a young peasant maiden tending a wounded warrior, falling in love with her ward as the days flew by. A whirlwind romance between star-crossed lovers, ending in bittersweet triumph and tragedy, it had all the markings of a successful opera.
His story done and her orders given, she sent Rain away and sat quietly with Gerel, struggling for the proper words to convey her thoughts. The Bekhai were a straightforward people, so perhaps he’d appreciate a sincere explanation. Normally, she handled these sorts of things in public to avoid a scene, but she felt he deserved better treatment. Clearing her throat, she glanced out her window as she spoke. “I believe it is time to end our relationship. This is through no fault of your own, only a matter of priorities. There are many factors at play and I’ve no room for personal matters to cloud my judgment. I enjoyed our time together, and will remember them fondly.”
Her heart stilled as she prepared for his anger and outrage, to hear him accuse her and call her names, for his threats of slavery or worse, all things she’d heard before. Instead, after a long silence, he simply responded, “I understand.” His chair scraped against the hardwood floor as he stood, his steady footsteps barely audible as he moved before her. Brushing aside her hair, he cupped her cheek and raised her head. “I am nothing more than a lowly Senior Captain, an enemy of your Society to boot. I know you have many enemies who would use me against you, and I have no right to demand anything of the Marshal’s daughter and heir. I only plead for you to give me time.”
“Time for what?” The words slipped out as she stared deep into his amber eyes, almost losing herself within them.
“For my name to sound throughout the Empire, echoing alongside Akanai, Herald of the Storm, and Baatar, The Bloody Fang.” His face twisted in a grimace as he mumbled, “And Falling Rain, the Undying Savage. Idiot boy can’t even get a proper title.” Shaking his head, he continued. “I will raise myself to glory and become a man worthy of you and the moment I succeed, I will go to the Marshal and demand your hand in marriage. Not even the Heavens themselves can stop me.”
“If loving you is foolish, then so be it. In the meantime, I’ll not begrudge you your little trysts and affairs, but know your heart belongs to me and me alone. Should you need my help, speak and I will move heaven and earth to stand at your side.” Smiling sadly, he kissed her lightly and left as she struggled to stop herself from calling him back. Her mind in turmoil, she replayed the scene over again, her heart warmed by his love. He believed himself unworthy of her? A fool, a backwater buffoon who didn’t understand the first thing about politics, thinking her status lofty and unshakable. Little did he know her days were numbered, destined to follow shortly after her old man to the grave. How could she involve Gerel in her downfall?
Sighing as she returned to her work, she spent the day distracted, preoccupied by dreams of escaping away with him to live a peaceful life together in the mountains. A shame she couldn’t cut and run now, though it would cost her everything, she was determined to see her old man’s dreams through. She would succeed him as Marshal of the North, even if only for a few minutes. It was the only thing he’d ever asked of her in all their time together, and she didn’t have the heart to refuse.
In the end, it seemed love made fools of us all.
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