Author’s note: A shoutout to my latest anonymous Patron, thank you so much for your support!
Bored with waiting for their host, Zian audibly sighed as he watched Jin ZhiLan fret with her collar for the umpteenth time. Women were such strange creatures, always preening and fawning over their own reflections. Who keeps a standing mirror in the dining room? As if hearing his thoughts, she glared at his reflection in the mirror. “Remember to watch your words, the Major is not to be underestimated.”
Holding back an irritated retort, Zian answered with a bored “Yes”, in concert with Sang Ryong and Han BoShui, the three of them sitting stock still for the last half hour.
As if hoping Yuzhen would overhear, ZhiLan repeated her praise for the third time. “Shing DuYi is the foremost politician of the North, more devious and far-sighted than any we’ve ever known. Major Yuzhen has had the benefit of his tutelage for over thirty years and though she lacks his connections, with his backing, what does it matter? Treat her with every bit of respect you would give the Marshal himself.”
To Zian’s left, he could hear Sang Ryong’s quiet grumbling, something unflattering the idiot didn’t have enough sense to keep to himself. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to thinking without speaking. Why Uncle Yang thought it prudent to ally themselves with the Seven-Star Sect was beyond Zian’s comprehension, a bunch of battle-hungry maniacs who believed the stars held all the answers. Though their martial strength was without question, making decisions based on ancient superstitions and astrological movements was a terrible way to lead a faction.
The half-wit was barely finished his muttering before the dining room doors swung open with a boom, Yuzhen sashaying in with servants in tow, bringing tea and snacks as customary. Dressed in a simple cotton shift, the beautiful fox-girl’s shoulders were tantalizingly bared. “My apologies for keeping you waiting.” Taking her seat, she locked eyes with him and tilted her head, Zian’s heart skipping a beat. “Young and talented Jia Zian, how has your first military excursion been so far? Any problems or questions? Remember, he who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”
Inane proverbs and banal small talk. “Thank you for asking Major, things have gone well. I learn something new each day, my second-in-command is a font of knowledge.”
Reaching across the table, she afforded him a tempting glance down her shift as she gripped his hand lightly, her soft skin brushing his fingers intimately. “Please, there’s no need for formalities, we’re all adherents of the Society here. Call me Yuzhen. If you ask me, Colonel Jukai is a phenomenal soldier, greatly undervalued due to his circumstances. A shame, but I’m gladdened to hear his star is rising.
Damn this vixen and damn this cursed life of celibacy.
…What circumstances? Barely able to think as her hand lingered and eyes twinkled, Zian stuttered out a reply and sat quietly, enjoying the view as Yuzhen moved on to chat with ZhiLan, then Bohai, and then Ryong last. His peers answered politely, all smiles and patience as Yuzhen nattered on, passing on unwanted advice and unneeded platitudes while wasting away the hour. Only after emptying the tea-pot thrice did Yuzhen finally motion for the servants to clear the table, folding her hands as she sat and smiled at the four officers in contented silence.
The last servant left and shut the heavy doors gently, the room peaceful and still but for their fidgeting, every one of them unsure how to proceed with this enigmatic Major. She was neither friend nor foe, their interests aligned for the moment. Despite the Purge moving in on the horizon, Yuzhen seemed content to fritter away her time with niceties and tea parties. How could the highest position in the Province be left to a woman such as this? Not to be underestimated my ass, she would fit right in with his courtesans, their empty talk and inane…
Earning the room’s attention with a rueful chuckle, Zian could only shrug in reply to the angry looks. “We’ve been had. She’s been waiting for us to lose patience, as we would have long ago were we ignorant of the stakes. Well played.”
“Clever Zian, not just a pretty face. I’d have put money on ZhiLan to be first to grasp the situation.” Yuzhen’s smile faded as she leaned forward, the airy and carefree young lady replaced by a stern taskmaster. “You realize this breach of confidence is punishable by summary execution? Which of your parents broke the law and informed you of the Purge?” A pause as she studied their reactions, Zian struggled to maintain focus and not give away the answer. “Oh ZhiLan, how disappointing. I had such high expectations for you but you’ve failed twice now. Politics and diplomacy are about more than fluttering lashes and gentle touches. Were it otherwise, then women would rule the world.”
Caught in a bind, ZhiLan pleaded for leniency. “Major Yuzhen, the Harmonious Unity Sect is fully behind your ascension to the Office of the Marshal and willing to-”
Yuzhen’s upraised hand was enough for ZhiLan’s mouth to shut with an audible click, her teeth grinding as she stared at the woman who held the power of life and death over her sect leader, her father. “I’m well aware what those old codgers are hoping to do. They seek to bind me in strings with soft words and sweet whispers, promising everything and nothing all at once. Shing DuYi took Office without the Society’s dealings, and though I would prefer to leave this all behind me, I will do the same.”
Radiating cold anger, Yuzhen sat back in her chair and took a calming breath, her elegant poise ready to strike at any who dared raise issue. She held the reins in this room, and they all knew it. Waving her hand, she smiled disarmingly, and though it set his heart aflutter, Zian tempered his lust with caution. Even with ZhiLan’s constant warnings, they’d still sorely underestimated the Major. With the patient tone of a tutor, Yuzhen lectured ZhiLan. “Knowing the situation and sharing your knowledge with your peers, how naive. Warn them if you must, but do so without exposing yourself. Be at ease, I will not act on this. I cannot fault a father’s concern for his daughter nor a soldier’s concern for her peers.” The implied threat was there, she now held a dagger over the Harmonious Unity Sect, and by extension, over the other three officers as well unless they cut ties and doomed Zhilan and her father. “Well, no need to speak further on the severity of our current situation, I’m sure you’re all aware. Now, is there anything else you’d like to bring to my attention?”
Cursing the timing, Zian stifled a sigh and reluctantly carried out his mother’s orders, having only received them upon his arrival. Damn her for backing the Council. “The Magistrate of Shen Yun requests to mediate the situation regarding the Council’s repeated failure to meet their contractual obligations. This is her proposal.” Pulling a sealed letter from his robes, he winced and prayed Mother was diplomatic enough not to outright threaten Yuzhen.
No such luck. Flicking it open, Yuzhen scanned the contents and laughed. “Apparently, your mother has ‘proof’ of my ties to the Mother’s Militia. Difficult for me to believe considering I have none. Her spies hear only what I tell them, but you can tell her this: I care nothing for her so-called proof. I hold a half-dozen bandits capable of implicating treason among top men in the Council, and a clean conscience ready to swear to my lack of involvement with the Mother’s Militia. Should she wish to go for my throat, I will happily rend and tear my way through the Council and see which of us bleeds out first.” Handing him a sealed letter of her own, she relaxed in her seat. “These are my terms, returning to our previous agreement with supplies paid for by the Council until their debts are resolved.”
Having been clued into the details of the Council’s disastrous contract, Zian gasped. “That’s six months of supplies for a million men. You can’t expect them to accept those terms.”
Beaming happily, Yuzhen replied, “Of course not, the price you’re quoting includes a 35% premium for delivery. If the Army is making the deliveries, then I expect eight months of supplies, ready for pickup at the appointed times lest they incur more penalties and I call for an Adjudication. Our contract is ironclad and I’ll happily accept an upfront payment of what’s owed, though doing so would beggar the Council. Coin, land, resource rights, anything of value will do. I’ve long believed the time has come for the Army to cut out the middlemen, and I’ve allies who agree.”
Madness. The merchant class would rebel and a bloody civil war would ensue at a time when the Province could ill afford it. By the Mother, Yuzhen even seemed to prefer such an outcome, a murderous maniac ready to maim and plunder with the Bekhai just mad enough to back her. Not even Shing DuYi was so dominant at his prime, with Nian Zu always busy standing in defence of the Wall. Lieutenant General Akanai had no such restrictions and could tear through the Council like wet paper, fully capable of razing Sanshu to the ground in a week. Swallowing his trepidation, Zian carefully placed the letter in his robes and stood to leave. “I will pass along your message to the Magistrate and the Council.” Mother would not be pleased to be caught in Yuzhen’s web and the Council could not afford to test Yuzhen. Civil war was bad business for all as only the Imperial family stood to gain, safe and sheltered in the Eastern Province behind the walls of the Forbidden City.
With the others in tow, he opened the dining room door as Yuzhen added, “Collect your worthless spies by morning. There’s plenty of blood to be spilled and I’ll not add to it unless necessary. In the same vein, make trouble with the Bekhai and I’ll have you hung from the nearest tree.”
Dammit, mocking them with an oblique reference to the Hangman Jorani, a man can only take so much. Separating from his peers, he met up with Jukai and changed their plans. Fucking politics, he missed the days when lessons with his tutors were all he had to worry about. Why’d he ever want to take part in this mess? Better to face an enemy with sword in hand, at least the rules of the arena were clearly delineated.
If only he’d defeated Falling Rain, then Zian would never have accepted this Officer’s Token and he’d be home now with his friends and courtesans, drinking and carousing the days away.
Damn politics, damn the Society, and Damn Falling Rain.
Never let it be said animals don’t laugh. Though it may sound nothing like human laughter, the cubs’ grunting and panting while playing with Baledagh shows just how happy they are to see him. Relaxing as he rolls around with the bears, I’m relieved to finally see him smile for once, if only a small, sad one. Almost two weeks after Ai-Qing’s tragic end, he’s still grieving, but improving every day.
Picking up a cub with a sigh, he holds the bear in front of him, its little legs pawing at the air. “Two mothers you’ve lost and untroubled by the loss. If only I were a beast, able to move on from sorrow so easily.”
Still emo, but better. Baby steps. Today play with bears and pontificate, tomorrow, maybe he’ll feel up for a stroll in the sunlight.
“Hubby?” Lin’s voice sounds softly from outside my tent before poking her head through the flap. Mafu’s head emerges from beneath her, squeaking in protest of his exclusion from the fun. “O good, you’re awake. It’s almost time for dinner?”
Surrendering control, Baledagh retreats to the void despite my urging him to go have the meal. O well, we’ll try again tomorrow. With Jimjam leading the way, I stroll hand in hand with Lin, enjoying myself despite the intrusive guards and the Purge looming on the horizon. At the cooking fires, Mila stands tall as she oversees the organized chaos, a natural-born leader. She’s the one who deserves to be a Warrant Officer, not me, though I’d make a much worse second-in-command.
Greeting her with a chaste kiss on the cheek, I hold her close in a big hug. “Thank you for taking care of everything, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Pretending to struggle before giving in, she nuzzles against my shoulder. “Hmph, at least you know it. Now eat up, it’s not as comfortable hugging you when you’re this skinny.”
With Li Song joining us, we have a nice, quiet meal sitting in the grass around the fire. One of my favourite things about the People is their willingness to cuddle in groups. With Lin and Mila on either side, we ward off the chill night’s breeze as we eat and laugh the night away. It isn’t until the sun begins to set that we leave for our tents, a quiet evening spent with loved ones leaving me refreshed and recharged.
Halfway through our stroll back to the tents, the sound of metal on metal rings through the night, a furious rhythm of frenzied action, and unable to resist my curiosity, I follow the noise to an empty field where Zian spars with an older man. Both armed with twin sabers, they match speed and skill as they trade blows, their movements almost blurring as they flit across the field. On the defensive, Zian slips and parries while retreating before an unending circle of steel, the older man masterfully keeping Zian contained. With a brilliant reversal of momentum, Zian takes the offensive and drives the older man back with a risky double thrust to the chest, stopped only by the barest of margins. Pressing his advantage with everything he has, Zian mixes feints and jabs with his powerful strikes, forcing the older man to react to every movement of the saber as if it were the beginnings of a death-blow.
Holy shit, how did I ever beat this guy?
Catching myself staring, I turn to leave before I’m noticed, but it’s far too late. The two break without warning as Zian stalks away, catching sight of me as I’m turning away, our eyes narrowing as they meet.
Well now it’d be rude to just walk away.
Turning back with a tepid smile, I offer a martial salute with palm to fist. “Evening Officer Situ Jia Zian. I was just returning to my tent when I heard your match and err… came over to look. Exceptional display from the both of you.” Please play nice.
Returning my salute, Zian gestures to the older man. “This is Colonel Jukai, my second-in-command.”
“Pleased to meet you.” After an awkward silence, Mila’s elbow jabs into my side. Right, introductions. “This is my betrothed, Sumila, daughter of Akanai, and this is also my betrothed, Mei Lin, daughter of Taduk. This is er…” As I glance at Li Song, I realize she’s wearing Zian’s armour. Well fuck. “This is Li Song, Sentinel of the People.” Please don’t make a big fuss.
Zian’s face twitches he struggles for control, staring daggers at Li Song as she casually plays with her saber’s hilt. She’s gotten spunkier in the last few weeks, though it’s subtle. Holding her head high, speaking out more often, stealing away my bear cubs to play with, I’m happy to see her more lively, though this isn’t a good time for a display. Thankfully, Zian reins his anger and nods, greeting Mila and Lin with a gentlemanly bow. “Ladies, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Another awkward silence ensues as we stand facing one another, neither knowing what to do. Though I wouldn’t say I hate him, we tried our best to kill each other, so it’s a little weird to be exchanging small talk, something I’m not great at in the best of times. We’ve already devolved to alternating between grunts, collar tugging and sleeve brushing, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
Finally unable to bear it, I open my mouth, feeling like it’s a mistake even as the words spew out. “I’d like to apologize.” With a look of disbelief, Zian slightly cocks his head to one side. “Er, well, during our duel, I said things… err… about your mother that I… uh…”
Interrupting me with a laugh, Zian waves away my apology. “We were on the field of battle and you sought every advantage you could grasp. I don’t hold your words against you, only your actions.” Eyes narrowing, his hands clench around his sabers until the knuckles go white. “Were it not for our current circumstances and your current state, I’d challenge you again. I’ll not ask for details, as I assume you cannot speak of them. When you are hale and healthy, and when circumstances permit, I will find you and regain my lost honour.”
Well fuck. How am I supposed to follow that up? Thankfully, Mila offers an excuse and we turn to retreat, Li Song making a small sound of disappointment as we go. Crazy girl, the last thing we need now is more enemies. After I get home, I’m never leaving again… unless it’s to go back to the village. I’m not thrilled about living at the Bridge, too many soldiers and too many Defiled.
Only meters away, my footsteps falter as I receive a sending. “This lowly soldier is Jukai, here to pass on a message from Young Master Zian. Take care with your actions in the coming days. The Shrike will arrive soon and she will brook no insolence or resistance. Wash your neck and wait, for it will be the Young Master who takes your head, and none other.”
Turning to glance back at them, I see they’ve already returned to their sparring, taking their stances as I leave. Seeing the conviction and determination on Zian’s face, my stomach twists into knots. Make no mistake, I beat him by the barest margins, and though I’ve gotten stronger, from what little I’ve seen, so has he. Another match would still not be in my favour, and even if I won, unless I kill him, I feel like he’d just try again after a few months.
Once out of sight, Mila pinches my cheek and twists, eliciting an unmanly shriek from my mouth. Stomping her foot, she releases my face and crosses her arms. “Idiot, why did you apologize? Now we have to get him a gift.”
“Er… is that how it works? Apologize with money?”
Rolling her eyes, she pats my cheek and soothes the pain she caused. She’s an odd one, but I wouldn’t change a thing about her. “Yes, it is custom. Ugh, it’s fine, I have something you can use. I was going to give it to you after we returned home, but you have no one to blame but yourself.” Interlocking her arm with mine, she leans against my shoulder as we walk, Lin doing the same on the other side.
My two little wives, always at my side with love and support.
Life is good.
…Aside from any upcoming genocides. Those aren’t great.
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