Author’s note: A shoutout to my latest Patron Jose! Thank you so much for your support!
Sitting in the dirt, my eyes focus on the Shrike’s swaying bottom as she stomps away, my mood stuck somewhere between scared and horny. Baledagh’s presence hovers in the back of my mind, alerted by my internal screaming when the Shrike grabbed me by the throat, and his wry voice sounds in my head. “Well, that went poorly.”
“You’re telling me.” Brushing the dirt off my hands, I take a quiet moment to reflect on my poor life decisions. “It’s like I have some morbid, underlying desire to fuck things up. I had her on the intellectual ropes, but I went too far and forgot the golden rule: might makes right. What ever happened to ‘the brush is mightier than the sword’?”
“Don’t be silly brother, a brush is poor defence against a dagger, much less a sword.”
Too drained to bother explaining the idiom, I sigh and pick myself up. “All things considered, our head is still attached, so it didn’t go too badly. Besides we probably won’t have to ride at the front anymore, so that’s another plus. Gotta stay optimistic. Would’ve been nice to stay off her shit-list though, bloodthirsty fanatics aren’t known for their ‘forgive and forget’ attitude. I should have known better than to open my mouth, no good ever came from arguing over religion.” I let my guard down around her feminine wiles, with those pink, luscious lips, radiant green eyes, and ample, voluminous…
Get a hold of yourself. She’s a mass murderer, stop being so attracted to her, stupid.
Concerned for my well-being, Mafu waddles over to sniff and chitter, his posture submissive and scared. Patting the chubby coward to ease his worries, I feed him some apples to perk his spirits and calm my nerves, focusing on the adorable face of delight he makes while chomping down his favourite treat. Simple pleasures, that’s what I’m missing. How did things get so complicated? I came out here to earn respect for the People and raise my reputation, but instead I’m robbing merchants, arguing religion, and taking part in the slaughter of innocents.
This is ridiculous. All I want is a nice, quiet life with my two to seven lovely wives. Is it too much to ask for?
Unable to read the mood, Baledagh asks, “So what now? Do we reveal my ability to sense the Defiled?”
“Honestly? No idea. Thoughts?”
“I’d prefer not to be forced into servitude and used as a bloodhound, which seems likely considering her zeal. Besides, how would you explain it? I can’t, it’s nothing more than a feeling.”
“I don’t know.” The lie comes easily. “Let’s sleep on it for now, it’ll be a day or two before the first group of prisoners arrive.” Satisfied by my decision, Baledagh returns to his self-imposed exile, leaving me to wallow in anxiety. What am I going to do? I mean, she said if I can pick out the Defiled, she’ll let the others go, which is great, but what happens afterwards? Although Baledagh can’t explain how he does it, I can, but admitting I have an ignorantly Defiled alter-ego isn’t high on my list of things to do. Am I capable of convincingly pleading ignorance or spinning it as some manipulation of chi? What happens if I’m questioned under oath and forced to reveal how I detect the Defiled?
“You’re thinking too much.” Zian stands before me, interrupting my internal strife while the others wait beside him. Dastan offers a sympathetic pat on the arm while BoShui barely hides his glee, taking pleasure in my hardships. With his head held high, Zian waves dismissively, arrogant even in magnanimity. “The prisoners are doomed regardless of your actions. Pick a few at random, keep your mouth shut, and the Shrike lose interest in you soon enough. When this is over, return to the Bridge with all haste. She’s been avoiding her father ever since she took up her ‘sacred duty’.”
Judging by BoShui’s incredulous stare, I’m not the only one who finds it strange that Zian is giving me advice. Quickly collecting himself, he sniffs pretentiously and declares, “Your life is mine to take, in a duel for all to see. I’ll not stand idly by while you martyr yourself for a hopeless cause.” Punctuating the statement with a flick of his sleeves, Zian haughtily struts away and returns to his tent, leaving me standing with Dastan and BoShui.
All he needs to do is blush while calling me an idiot and I can confidently label Zian as ‘tsundere’, a cold, hostile exterior with a warm, loving core. Seriously, why do I attract all the crazies? Where are all the normal, non-murderous people? My closest friends, Mila, Yan, Huu, and Fung are a smidgen too bloodthirsty for my tastes. It makes me cherish little wifey Lin all the more, her gentle, harmless demeanour a soothing balm for my soul.
Coughing lightly to catch my attention, BoShui flashes his irritating smile. “Tread lightly, Undying Savage, for though she appears little more than an impassioned woman, my cousin’s harrowing reputation is well earned. I’ve seen first-hand reports of her madness, so stay close to Major Yuzhen unless you wish to put your title to the test. Then again, if you die, I’ll be able to taunt Zian with his defeat for the rest of time. So win-win for me.” His piece said, BoShui leaves without waiting for a reply, chuckling beneath his breath.
Oddly enough, if I were to pick between them, I’d choose Zian, a man who almost killed me and hopes to try again, over BoShui, the smarmy twit. Am I the reason I can’t make normal friends?
“Why does the death of these villagers bother you so much?”
Faced with Dastan’s crude but honest question, I can only shrug in response. How do you explain basic empathy? “Why doesn’t it bother you? I don’t understand, everyone unilaterally agrees the Purge is appalling, but when it comes right down to it, they all wave their hands and mumble something about fate. These aren’t lives lost in an earthquake or flooding, we are conscientiously choosing to have thousands of people tortured to death because they might be Defiled. Doesn’t that seem ridiculous to you?”
“No. What would you have us do instead?”
The question takes me off-guard and I take a moment to study this enigmatic officer. Hard to read, the common-born warrior stands at attention with a neutral expression, his posture neither challenging nor submissive. Wearing an unadorned lamellar breastplate over a modest hemp robe, there’s little to differentiate him from a common soldier aside from the decorated golden hand-axe hanging at his waist. His stern features, scruffy sideburns, and developing mustache make him seem older than his twenty-two years, the lines around his eyes etched into his skin. Though of little renown, I can’t underestimate his skill and handwork, the youngest person present aside from myself.
Taking the silence as answer, Dastan continues his line of questioning. “Though I sympathize with their fate, the people living here represent a danger to us all, a danger to my family living a short distance away. Who’s to say the fall of Shen Mu wasn’t due to Defiled hidden among the citizenry or soldiers? I will do anything to keep my loved ones safe, even if it means offering millions to the Shrike’s blade. You might judge me harshly but I lack the luxury of choice. Not everyone has inaccessible mountain homes to retreat to.”
“And what if there was? A choice? A way to determine who is Defiled and who isn’t?”
This time, Dastan takes his time studying me, and I weather his scrutiny poorly in comparison. After a nerve-wracking pause, he sighs and shakes his head. “I can’t tell if you’re arrogant or delusional, nor will I hold out for miracles. I can only echo the advice you’ve already been given and caution you to choose your battles wisely. The Shrike cares nothing for political capital and will do as she pleases, much like you, I think.” With that, he offers a cursory salute and leaves.
How strange. All four of us are technically rivals, if not outright enemies, yet here we are united before a common adversary, whether it be the Shrike or the Defiled. It’s almost sweet. Dastan’s outlook makes sense, but not if he knew what I did. With Baledagh’s help, we can save so many lives, except I’m too cowardly to step up and try.
With nothing better to do, I return to my tent with Mafu, holding the flaps open to let him in. The excited quin’s tail wags furiously as he explores the interior and I direct him away from the struts. The last thing I need is for him to break my borrowed tent. Oh no, it’s going to be soooo awkward returning this in the morning. Kill me now to spare me the pain. “Remember fatty, this is temporary okay? Neither one of us is used to sleeping alone, so don’t make this weird.” Squeaking happily in response, Mafu flops down next to my bedroll, grooming himself as I prepare for bed.
Staring at my tent’s roof, I lay beneath my blankets with Mafu’s fat head on my chest, his cheeks and whiskers quivering as he snores without a care in the world. Envious of his untroubled outlook, my fingers run through his fur as I grapple with my decision. Put myself and everyone I know in danger to possibly save thousands of lives or keep my head down and watch as an atrocity takes place?
Well, maybe I’ll get lucky and everyone they bring will be Defiled.
Ha, yea right. I’m never lucky.
Putting aside her stack of reports, Yuzhen stood and stretched out the kinks in her shoulders, exhausted from yet another sleepless night. Overseeing the Purge was fast becoming a logistical and political nightmare. With so many elites from different backgrounds forced to work together, she walked the razor’s edge to keep tensions from boiling over, tempers flaring in the face of tragedy. Even the most hardened soldiers felt something when herding helpless civilians to a grim death, no matter what they might tell themselves.
Say nothing of her other responsibilities, the problems continuing to pile on despite her full plate. The Council continued to pester her with missives, lurking outside the army’s blockade and demanding she meet with them to discuss terms. The tycoons of Sanshu cared nothing for the suffering of their fellow citizens, treating the deaths as little more than a statistic to mark down, affecting their estimated profits for the coming year. A deplorable bunch, she ignored their requests and sent them a revised statement, reminding them their debt was growing exponentially with each day that passed.
Her soldiers had yet to find trace of Laughing Dragon or the Demon, their escape all but confirmed. A task force would soon be assigned to hunt them down, but her concerns were more immediate. With her attentions focused here on the western shore, the previously suppressed bandits were coming out of the woodwork, three patrols along the north shore gone missing in recent days. Though Defiled involvement was unlikely, she had no choice but to send Gerel and his roosequin mounted Khishigs to investigate, the fastest troops at her disposal. While Gerel was more than capable of handling anything he might find, days passed without receiving his report, putting her on edge. Whoever said no news was good news? A fool, that’s who.
If only she’d had the foresight to send Rain away with him, then she wouldn’t have to deal with this latest mess. Donning her armour, she stepped out of her tent to mediate yet another dispute, the foolish young officer making a poor choice in antagonizing the Shrike. At least he had the sense to make himself scarce in the days since, so perhaps the Shrike’s temper had cooled with time.
And perhaps pigs would sprout wings and fly.
Marching through the thick fog, she inwardly railed at the heavens for the poor weather. She should have expected as much when setting camp on a small peninsula, surrounded by lake water on three sides. With only a single entrance by land, it made a suitable holding-turned-execution ground, freeing up the majority of her elite soldiers to aid in collecting prisoners.
No, not prisoners. Civilians. Innocents. Poor souls with the misfortune of living too close to weak-willed fools. Though unable to see past a handful of meters, the grim atmosphere seemed fitting for this first day of the Purge, mercifully concealing the mass of terrified prisoners sitting together, their sobs and pleas terrible to hear. In a few hours, the Shrike and her butchers would ply their vile trade and though the fog billowed in from over the lake, come afternoon the sun would burn it away and expose the horrors which lay hidden within.
We each do what we must, leaving her no option but to pray for forgiveness.
After a short search, she found Rain sitting by on the lake shore while his roosequin frolicked in the waters. Removing her helmet, she sat down beside him and chose her words with care. This was unfamiliar territory, consoling a man without sleeping with him first. Then again, she usually consoled them by sleeping with them.
Taking her by surprise, Rain broke the silence first. “I hate this fog. It feels wrong somehow, the lake is usually so beautiful. Stunning really, the turbulent white waters glistening in the sunlight make for a wonderful spectacle.”
“I would have thought you’d had enough of the lake after spending a week beneath it’s currents.”
“I never said I spent a week underwater. I fell in, and someone found me a week later. I don’t know what happened in between.” His eyes stared off into the distance, as if piercing through the fog with sheer power of will. “Maybe I was under there the whole time, or maybe I was saved by Heavenly waters, or tears of the Mother, or giant turtles. For all I know, I was stuck on some wreckage and drifted here over the course of a week.”
Sighing, she nudged him with her shoulder. “See, saying things like this is how you caused this mess with Han BoLao. It’s clear you are not a true believer of the Mother and under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t matter, but you’re dealing with the Sanguine Priestess. A fanatic like her makes no distinction between a non-believer and a heretic, and considering how she sees your survival and your talents as a gift from the Mother, it’s no surprise she reacted poorly to you questioning her beliefs.”
“Sorry. I can’t help it, it is in my nature to question. I’m a curious fellow.”
“My old man is the same. He likes you, you know? Calls you a ‘fine, upstanding young man’ every time your name is brought up. He’s obsessed with the repeating crossbow you brought him, spends all his free time with Husolt and Chakta tinkering with the design.”
“Glad to hear it.”
The surprising thing was, he meant it. Rain cared little for ingratiating himself with her old man, never asking for anything in return. The way he saw it, helping prolong the Marshal’s life was no different from helping a grandmother carry her groceries. No matter, whether he asked or not, Yuzhen was determined to help him here. “You needn’t worry, I will shelter you from her wrath. Now come, we cannot delay any longer. You will go humour Han BoLao, it doesn’t matter who you choose. Though the guilt weighs heavily on you, the fault lies not with you. I’ve already given the order, their lives are forfeit.”
“…What if I can do it? What if I can pick out the Defiled?”
Taken aback by the question, she blinked and asked, “Can you?”
“…Maybe? I don’t know. Things have been weird since I came out of the lake. With all the new skills and whatnot I showed you, I don’t understand how they work, they just… do, easy as breathing. I don’t even understand this purity nonsense, I’m just channelling chi normally. The weird thing is, when I fought the Defiled in the village, I felt a wrongness to them but thought nothing of it, almost forgotten it. Now… I’m not sure. Maybe I can sense them.”
Poor, naive child, tormenting himself by hoping to save the doomed. “If you can, and that’s a stretch, then you would save hundreds of thousands of lives.” His mood improved at her words but she mercilessly cut him down. “However, those here are still doomed. No matter how overwhelming the proof, I would still order them Purged. Then I would send you to meet with Imperial experts to determine the validity and mechanics of your skill. The Empire will accept no risk when it comes to a Defiled outbreak within its borders.” Sensing someone approach from behind, she stood and held a hand out for him, pulling him up gently. “Please, ignore your fancies of saving their lives and do as I have asked.”
“Hmph, what arrogance.” Striding out of the fog, the Shrike sneered. “To think, you truly believe yourself so blessed, to succeed where untold generations have failed. There is no method to determine if someone is Defiled.” No longer dressed in flowing robes, the Shrike came ready for work wearing a leather breastplate and trousers shockingly red in colour.
“Well technically, you can’t prove a negative.” Rain’s quip earned him a pleading glance from Yuzhen and an angry glare from the Shrike. Foolish boy, always poking the bear. Undeterred, Rain continued imploring the Shrike. “I don’t have all the answers, but that doesn’t mean I should blindly accept the solutions given. I’m sorry if I offended you, but my question still stands: who decided massacre and torture was the only way?”
“I’ll not listen to your nonsense any longer, there is work to be done.”
Sighing in defeat, Rain followed the Shrike with his shoulders slumped, Yuzhen staying close to his side. Before long, they stood in front of a crowd of unwashed peasants, their eyes pleading as they huddled together, too terrified to speak. Unable to stop herself, Yuzhen scanned the crowd with her chi and senses, praying for a miracle.
If ever there were a time for one, it would be now.
Shedding all his fears and doubts, Rain appeared a different person as he inspected the crowd. Expertly feigned disinterest, he strode into them and looked each over one by one. Sensing something was amiss, the poor souls pleaded with him, some throwing themselves at his feet while others begged for the lives of their children. Yuzhen’s heart trembled at the sight, her eyes misting as she looked away, unable to bear it for any longer. Prolonging this was cruel, these people knew what awaited them.
Rain continued unperturbed, his stony silence and scrutinizing glare silencing the crowd with little effort. The minutes passed slowly, with Rain’s frown growing deeper by the second. Only after making his way through each person did he return, walking away and signalling for the Shrike to follow. Once out of earshot, he turned to face them with back straight and shoulders square, confident as he’d been during his first duel. “Something is wrong,” he said, his demeanour betraying no emotion. “None of them are Defiled.”
Oh dear sweet Mother, shelter this poor fool.
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