Author’s note: Probably no chapter tomorrow, but miracles have been known to happen.
I’ve never really noticed how large war horses really are. I mean, horses are big animals to begin with but war horses almost seem like a whole different animal. Over two meters tall, their shoulders reach higher than the top of my head with a torso large enough to stretch out on, assuming you’re capable of scaling one of those roid-raged behemoths. Moving at an easy canter, their hoof-beats fill the forest with a thunderous tempo, their muscled bodies easily sustaining the brisk pace with ease for hours on end.
Trotting next to the massive beasts, Mafu seems tiny in comparison, around half their size. Quins are still better because at the end of the day, horses are still horses. No amount of training can make up for one simple fact: they’re prey. The skittish creatures glance warily at my chubby apex predator, deeply concerned by his presence, only their trust in their riders keeping them calm around Mafu’s scent. Then again, it may be a projection of my own emotions and the horses are just jealous of the constant stream of apples I feed Mafu. The last thing I need is for him to get hungry and decide someone’s mount would make a good snack, especially considering my current company.
For some reason, I’ve been tapped to ride at the head of our procession, a place of great honour. Honour my ass, I’d be much happier riding at the back, dust and all. At least then I’d be able to relax, throw a blanket around me and lay against Mafu’s thick, soft fur. Instead, I’m forced to keep up appearances, sitting upright with my eyes at chest level of two beauties, unable to gorge myself on the scenery for fear of losing my head.
Literally. Well, and figuratively, but mostly literally.
Riding to my right, the infamously bloodthirsty Shrike sits side-saddle with her knees pressed together, the very image of a demure noblewoman out on an afternoon ride. Her dainty feet dangle beside me, close enough to reach out and touch, her billowing robe exposing the pale, silken skin of her calves. It’s a testament to my willpower I’ve yet to drool or stare, the muscles in my neck strained from facing forward as I ignore the tantalizing display sitting firmly in my peripheral. Her dark, metal vambraces sport a set of imposing spikes, adding a sense of menace to her appearance.
BoShui has a matching pair of vambraces, albeit much less spiky, and I remember seeing BoLao’s father, former number two at the Bridge Han BoHai, wearing an entire set which included greaves, knee and elbow-guards, eight Spiritual Weapons in total. Safe to assume the Han Clan practices some pugilistic arts, and I like how their weapons also double as armour, but the lack of range is worrying, especially compared to something like a spear. Even with the familial pattern, I can’t help but think BoLao’s love of spikes on her Spiritual Weapons have something to do with her moniker.
Shrikes have a habit of impaling their prey.
I am both terrified and aroused by her, which probably says a lot about my mental health. Nothing good, but a lot. I pray it’s just hormones and celibacy turning me into a sex-crazed maniac, but something tells me it’s mostly my nature and I’ll never grow out of this. I mean, the other men my ‘age’ don’t seem to have any problem controlling themselves.
To my left, a veritable Valkyrie in her resplendent silver and black armour, Yuzhen sits confidently in the saddle, a woman comfortable in her element. Dealing with an endless stream of issues, her aides report one by one before riding off to carry out her orders. Coordinating thousands of troops on a massive sweep while riding for hours on end, she seems intent on leaving no stone unturned in our passing. I don’t think I’m cut out for command, I can barely keep track of a hundred soldiers much less ten-thousand. The sheer amount of things she needs to take into consideration is enough to make my head spin. Encircling positions, overlapping search grids, supply lines and more, I’m getting dizzy just hearing about it while Yuzhen rattles off each order without hesitation, using this mixed army of soldiers to their full potential.
Or maybe she isn’t. She could bumble her way through all this and I wouldn’t know any better. I mean, what do I know about logistics? Shit all, is what. Still, there’s something about a woman in control which tickles my fancy, a primal urge to see her submit to me. Is it misogynistic? Maybe a little, and definitely chauvinistic, but I don’t want to hurt her or anything. I simply want to see her perfect blonde hair in disarray as I tear her armour apart, a look of fear intertwined with desire in her eyes as…
No. Bad. You’re engaged. Stop it.
The sun begins to set before Yuzhen calls for a halt. Gathering with my fellow Warrant Officers, I politely ignore Zian and Han BoShui’s bowlegged gaits while brushing Mafu, the two pampered princes unused to long periods of riding. Ha, another point for roosequins, smoothest ride in the north. Dastan, unfazed by our lengthy journey, is the last Warrant Officer present, the remaining eight Officers either unable to prove their purity or feigning inadequacy to avoid taking part. It’s what I should have done if I were smart but no use crying over spilt milk. I’m stuck in the middle of this mess, I just need to see it through without fucking up.
Kind of a tall order, considering my track record.
Working in cold silence, we each take our time caring for our mounts and setting tents, with little else to do in the interim. Although we’re officially here to help, it’s unlikely Yuzhen will assign us any dangerous tasks since we’re too valuable to risk. Instead, she intends to keep us close by, allowing us the protection of her guards and freeing our bodyguards to do real work. At least according to Gerel, but who knows if he’s right. I doubt he has a line on the Major, even if he has been working with her for awhile now.
With no servants, Zian and BoShui struggle with the unfamiliar work of putting up their tent, too proud to ask for help from the more competent Dastan. It’s refreshing to see the unshakable Situ Jia Zian so flustered by a simple task, but again, I take the high road and pretend not to notice his difficulties. Ha, diplomacy isn’t so hard after all. Just keep my mouth shut. Easy Peasy.
While waiting for them to finish, Dastan steps away to gather firewood and I have Mafu dig a fire-pit in the centre of our haphazard square. I’d like to see their giant muscle horses try to do the same. Another point for quins, they can help with chores. So far we have apex predator, smoother ride, helps with digging, and I think we can add cuter to the list. All the horses have going for them is size. Go quins, we’re winning, 4-1.
…Okay, so sitting lower than everyone annoyed me more than it should. No one likes to feel small or marginalized. Even my tent is smaller than theirs, theirs tall enough to stand in while mine is barely big enough to crouch in, a pop-up tent for one. Okay, so that’s a point for horses, they can carry more. 4-2.
The inevitable happens and eventually we run out of busy work, so the four of us idly stand around the fire, warily watching one another. I’d have expected Zian and BoShui to stand united against Dastan and I, but judging by their constant trading of glares and smirks, their relationship is anything but cordial. Their tents aren’t even next to each other, meaning Zian would rather sleep beside me than his fellow Society member. Then again, I’m sure they’d put aside their differences if Dastan joined with me to stand against them, but as it is, we are each an island unto ourselves.
God, this is worse than high school, I’m choking on the awkward tension and trumped-up machismo. Everyone trying to portray the strong, silent loner, too proud to sit despite their travel weary bones. Streaked in dust, Zian stands defiantly with his hands behind his back, feigning indifference to the situation, while BoShui glances off into the distance, wearing a pensive look of contemplation. Dastan is little better, giving me a sheepish smile as he meets my eyes, shrugging imperceptibly in weary resignation. He doesn’t like the game but he’s forced to play else he’d lose all respect. Or maybe that’s what he wants me to think, playing a deeper game than expected, hiding his political aspirations behind an honest visage.
Each of us unwilling to be the first to concede, we continue our nonsensical stand-off in silence. It’s all so juvenile, so why can’t I be the mature one and give up? Oh no, am I… Am I worried about face? What’s happening? I’ve become everything I hate.
“Officer Falling Rain.” Beaming prettily as she sidles up beside me, BoLao shakes her head in mock disapproval, her soldiers marching in behind her. “A little bird informed me you intend to sleep beneath a ratty blanket and that will not do. An inspiring young hero like yourself requires a suitably inspiring dwelling, no matter how temporary. You’ll lose the respect of your soldiers living in such shabby conditions.” Reaching out with her long, slender fingers, she tweaks me on the nose and it takes everything I have not to swoon at her smile. “Regulations must be followed.” Turning with another mock frown, she wags her finger at Zian and BoShui. “And you two, your tents would never pass muster, for shame.”
It’s not fair, monsters should look like monsters, not flawless, shapely noblewomen. “Sorry, err… Lady BoLao? The regulation-sized tent doesn’t fit on my mount so I left it behind with the wagons.”
Winking, BoLao smiles and pats my arm, her eyes the colour of vibrant leaves. “Please, I’ve no military ranking or title, call me BoLao.” At my nod, her smile widens and my heart flutters. “I thought it might be the case, so I brought my spare tent for you.” Biting her lip, she glances at Mafu, sprawled out on his stomach in the dirt. “These roosequin have their limitations but they’re fascinating animals… may I pet him?”
“Please do.” Mafu chitters happily at the attention, BoLao petting the lazy animal and chatting with Dastan while I set up my borrowed tent, touched by the thoughtful gesture. To either side of me, Zian and BoShui also labour away under the guidance of BoLao’s ‘Aspirants’, the heavily armed veteran soldiers who follow her around, their eyes burning with zeal when they look at her. I can understand why, she’s incredibly charismatic, with a captivating gaze and winning attitude, friendly without being flirtatious yet hinting at the possibility of romance. A fine line which she walks well, I’ve yet to see more than a hint of her ruthless and cruel nature, almost falling beneath her spell many times despite my reservations.
What can I say, I’m a sucker for a pretty smile.
And boobs. Boobs are magical.
Grunting with exertion, Zian wiped his brow and stepped back to assess his work. A tall, proud tent, a world of difference now that he’d used all the pegs and poles. Brushing his sleeves off, he nodded in thanks at the Aspirant who guided him before joining the others for a meal by the fire. Through the power of social allure, the Shrike had them all engaged in conversation, asking questions of their heroics so they might brag without shame, deftly manoeuvring around touchy subjects and social blunders. As the meal wore on, BoShui seemed more relaxed around his infamous cousin, and even Dastan was quickly falling under her spell. Only Rain remained reserved and guarded, silently watching the proceedings while sitting against the furred whale he called a mount. With a face like an earless dog, its fat head laid firmly in Rain’s lap, staring at the food with obvious greed.
Odd creatures these quins, but strategically, they opened up entirely new avenues of attack. High-speed cavalry in treacherous terrain, the possibilities were endless. Lost in his musings, Zian half-listened to Dastan regale them with his claim to fame. “The Highlander Headsman was a giant of a man, his two-handed sword larger than I was tall. Armed with only a mundane shield and my axe, I trembled as he roared in challenge, spittle flying from his mouth. We traded blows back and forth, my shield crumbling to pieces with a single strike, my arms numbing from each successive impact, until finally, unable to hold any longer, my arms dropped to my sides, my axe dangling from its wrist-strap.”
The common-born Officer had a flair for the dramatic and Zian found himself drawn into the tale. “You were feigning weakness, yes? Luring him into exposing himself.”
Grinning, Dastan shook his head. “That’s what I tell the ladies, but he truly had me beat. I’d be dead except the daft idiot boasted for so long I regained the use of my arms. As he lifted his weapon for the killing blow, I dove forward and disembowelled him as I passed. Then I crawled away and watched him bleed out, exhausted and drained. If he’d been able to stem the bleeding, I wouldn’t have been able to do a thing to stop him.”
“Well fought, you’re a persistent man.” BoShui chimed in, pointedly sneering at Zian. “Much like our fellow Officer Falling Rain.”
This bastard. Tactfully ignoring the barb, Zian sipped his tea and glanced at Rain out of the corner of his eye, the runt staring daggers at BoShui, having realized he was being used. Good, let BoShui duel Falling Rain, what a spectacle to see. It was as if the world had forgotten Rain defeated two other rising stars of the Society, only ever making mention of Zian’s defeat.
“Come now cousin, where are your manners?” Ever the diplomat, the Shrike smiles prettily as she nods in apology. “Please take no offence, my father dotes on him so much, BoShui’s head has swelled like a pig’s.”
“I think nothing of it.” Or him, but Zian was reluctant to voice his opinion. She seemed fond of BoShui and not even Uncle could avenge Zian if the Shrike killed him in the midst of a Purge.
“Let’s move on.” Feigning guilt, the Shrike looked around at each of them her head lowered and eye-lashes fluttering. By the Mother, she was beautiful, but as Mother said, the prettiest flowers had the sharpest thorns. “I’ve a confession to make. I didn’t join you simply to share a meal. You four are the finest young warriors of the North, representing an entire generation of rising heroes. Whether your origins be noble or common, city-born or mountain-dwelling, you are each marked for greatness.”
More flattery. Resisting the urge to snort, Zian sniffed quietly, though it didn’t escape her notice. Accepting the criticism in stride, the Shrike continued with a smile. “I am not one for empty flattery, Situ Jia Zian, I merely state facts. Nor am I fishing for a husband, though I might consider it. What I mean to say is, regardless of your individual desires, your peers will look to you for direction and guidance. Each of you are positioned to lead, which is the crux of the matter. The Purge is… an unpleasant experience for everyone involved, the repercussions varied and extensive. I hope to use this time to prepare you all for what lies ahead.”
The audacity of her, she hoped to find a captive audience to spew her rhetoric upon, claiming yet another Aspirant for her entourage, the crazed followers who aided in her dark fancies. BoShui picked up on the same thing and chimed in, distressed and uncomfortable. “Cousin, we understand the gravity of the situation. You need not worry, we will obey your orders.”
Reaching out to pat his hand, the Shrike wore a sad, almost believable smile. “I’m not worried about your obedience, I worry about what follows. This is no battle where you kill to survive. This is slaughter, plain and simple, a massacre of your fellow citizens, people who look to you for protection. They will die slowly, screaming in pain and anger, cursing you, condemning you, and it will blacken your soul.” Glancing around the fire, she looked at each of them in turn, her skills beyond compare. “Perhaps you will care nothing for their plight, but I was not so strong. I was twenty-five years old when I experienced my first Purge, and when it was done, I felt so much despair, so much hatred… I wanted to take vengeance for the poor souls, to take those responsible to task, and almost did something I would not live long to regret. Luckily, my Master saw my pain and took me aside, enlightening me to the reality and the risks at play. I pray I’m able to do the same for you. Come, I’ll answer any questions you may have, ask away.”
At mention of her Master, the mood around the fire quickly fell, fear causing Zian’s meal to sit uncomfortably. After a long silence, BoShui took the lead and spoke. “No questions here, I understand the need. Uncle speaks often on the matter.”
Finally, a moment of genuine emotion, the Shrike faltering as her smile faded. She recovered in an instant, but Zian tucked away the knowledge for future use. Did her father disapprove in her choice of career? Well of course he did, but it bothered her that he didn’t support her choices. Why would he? Her actions made her a pariah, a decade Zian’s senior and still unwed despite her beauty. What crazed man would even think of laying with the Sanguine Priestess? Better to become a eunuch and join the Silent Brotherhood. Self-flagellation was far too tame for the Shrike’s tastes.
As if sensing his thoughts, she glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. Shaking his head, Zian replied with a line from her own catechism. “We do what we must. Kill thousands to save millions, a necessary, if unpleasant task, but such are the burdens we carry.” Every word true, yet few delighted in the Purge as she did, the stories of her excesses enough to make hardened warriors quiver in fear.
Pursing her lips at his answer, she moved on, unable to find fault with him. Dastan likewise claimed to have no questions, but when she prodded Falling Rain, he sat in silence, staring at the fire. Zian could see the question forming on his lips and wanted nothing more than to scream in warning, but it was too late. “… I don’t understand.”
Closing his eyes, Zian prayed for Rain’s soul. How did this idiot even survive to adulthood?
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|