Her temple throbbing in irregular beat, Yuzhen clung to serenity by the barest of threads, reminding herself the Shrike, though lacking rank, was not someone to take lightly. Seeing her covered in blood supported the sentiment, calm and reason prevailing. “Lady Han BoLao, I have already taken those responsible into custody,” Yuzhen said, her tone careful and cordial. “Should you wish to pursue further action, we will need to wait until a Justicar is available to us. Until the Purge has run its course, our hands are tied.”
“Ha, what custody? A farce.” Chewing her thumbnail, the Shrike paced the length of Yuzhen’s command tent, her eyes wide and brow furrowed. “Falling Rain, the architect of this travesty, sits comfortably in the tent I loaned him, smug and unrepentant in his actions as he hides from the truth. Custody. Pei.”
Oh Mother above, Rain truly kicked a hornets nest this time. “Lady Han BoLao, what else would you have me do? His actions, while impertinent, were not entirely unlawful. You’ve already conceded your… regimen was concluded, which means Falling Rain’s… demonstration was more symbolic than anything.” Spreading her hands, she tried to appeal to the Shrike’s political acumen. “This is a delicate matter which must be handled tactfully, lest emotion triumph over reason. You saw first-hand how the soldiers responded. If I were to punish Falling Rain without cause, we might find ourselves with an insurrection at hand.”
“My cause is just, who is he to tell me otherwise? Mine are the hands of mercy, carrying out the Mother’s work, saving thousands from the Father’s Maw. Life is synonymous with tribulation, their fates sealed from their day of birth and I Her tool, Her emissary here below.” The Shrike appeared a complete mess, reaffirming her creed beneath her breath as she continued to pace, unable to sit still for agitation. “My Sacred duty has been called into question, my Divine Service disrupted by infidels and heathens, reparations must be made, scales balanced, minds enlightened. Falling Rain, Dastan Zhandos, both so blessed by the Heavens yet ignorant of Her plans, how can this be permitted?”
“Lady Han BoLao.” Yuzhen’s voice steeled, unable to hide her concern. “Might I remind you, no soldiers or Warrant Officers under my command are to be harmed unless they too are tainted.” Dear Mother, was the Shrike losing her mind? “Both young Officer’s have repeatedly demonstrated their Purity for all to see.”
“You don’t understand, I mean them no harm but they must be made to see, to believe. There is evil all around us, hidden deep in the abyss of our souls. My task is lay it bare for all to recognize, but it is pointless unless Falling Rain is there to witness.”
Yuzhen shook her head, though the Shrike was too engrossed in her thoughts to notice. “I can not and will not force him to watch. You know doing so might impede his future progress and bring punishment down upon us.”
“No, no, no, why is this so difficult? Why can’t he listen to reason? Why haven’t any of them turned yet? I need Master’s help, I’ve made a complete mess of things, too inept, too stupid, too inarticulate, Master would utter a simple truth and things would be made clear.” The Shrike’s sticky, blood-soaked hands darted out and clasped Yuzhen’s in a clammy, pitiful plea, eyes filling with tears. “You realize the need, yes? You can speak for me, help explain everything to him. Falling Rain with his incessant questions, twisting truths and turning left into right, day into night, I am not his match. Please, help me guide him into the light, he’s already turned Dastan Zhandos and all those soldiers against me, what if little Shui-Shui turns against me too? We could appeal to a Justicar and request they sentence him to service in the Aspirants, he needs to be shown the truth, to accept the light.”
Yuzhen’s jaw dropped before she caught herself, closing her mouth with an audible click. From their first meeting, the Shrike defied all expectations with her impeccable manners and coquettish charms, surprising qualities for a homicidal fanatic. Believing it merely a facade, Yuzhen had remained cautious of the Shrike, but if she was still faking then she was an actress unrivalled beneath the Heavens. In all likelihood, the Shrike was no monster, merely a woman who’d been indoctrinated and radicalized in her youth, now seeing the cracks in the veneer of her core precepts for the first time.
Against her better judgment, Yuzhen lowered her guard and treated Han BoLao like the distraught and unstable woman she appeared to be. Quietly murmuring empty assurances and soothing noises, Yuzhen sat her in front of the washbasin and scrubbed away the blood and viscera covering their hands. Sitting in shocked silence, BoLao chewed her lip and stared into the bloody water, overwhelmed by the day’s events. Once BoLao was suitably cleaned, Yuzhen draped a blanket around the girl and stepped aside to brew a pot of tea, giving them both time to recover.
Placing a warm cup of tea in BoLao’s hands, Yuzhen sat across from her and watched her sip absently and whisper her thanks, an ingrained reflex. Mother help me, what had Rain done to her? What did BoLao’s Master do to her? Speaking softly, Yuzhen patted BoLao on the knee. “Our cause will not be helped by taking Falling Rain to trial. Though a Justicar will likely rule in our favour, the trials are recorded and available for all to read. Word will spread of his actions and you know better than I of the general populace’s attitude regarding the Purge. Currently, this… outburst is contained to a few dozen soldiers and two Warrant Officers. Should word spread, it will do substantially more harm than good.”
Meeting Yuzhen’s eyes for the first time, BoLao shivered uncontrollably, terrified by the prospect of rousing dissent against her cause. “Th-then what do we d-do?”
Poor girl, how could any of this be faked? “You and I both know Falling Rain and Dastan Zhandos are rising dragons of their generation and the soldiers here, while not elites, are part of the backbone of four cities. To have all of them openly denounce the Purge would be disastrous. Our cause is best served by coming to terms, offering to drop all charges in return for their silence.”
“B-but what about Falling Rain? He needs to understand…”
“You must let it go, the boy is nothing if not tenacious. He’s not the first young warrior to be repulsed by the Purge, nor will he be the last. You yourself worried over such an outcome, which is why you approached them before we began. The battle is lost, we must salvage what we can.”
It took another hour of comforting and prodding before Han BoLao agreed, unable to offer any argument besides ‘he must see’. It was easy to see why, Rain responsible for her crises of faith, so if he acknowledged his wrongs, then BoLao could set aside all her newfound doubts. After coaxing the poor girl to bed, Yuzhen left her heavily guarded, more for her own safety than anything. Who knows what the mentally fragile girl might do in the absence of supervision?
Choosing to deal with the head of the snake, Yuzhen announced herself before entering Rain’s tent. Although he’d been disarmed, danger and anger radiated from him as he sat on the tent floor, his portly quin ready to pounce, hissing in warning at her approach. Thankfully his wildcats were left with Sumila, the boy fast becoming a travelling circus of murderous beasts. Hiding her fear as Rain soothed the beast, she plopped down in front of him, posture slouched in exhaustion. “I’m sorry Rain. This should never have happened.”
“What do you mean?”
Confrontational, with direct eye contact and no warmth in his voice, bad signs. She’d need to work harder to appear sympathetic, win him over. “I shouldn’t have left you there alone, forced you to leave with me. That’s what Gerel would have done, what I would have done were I thinking straight. This entire mess could have been avoided.”
“True enough.” Taken aback by his outright hostility, she reassessed the situation, trying to gauge if he was angry at her specifically or at the world in general. Before she could decide, he spoke again. “Yuzhen, you’ve been a good friend to myself and the Bekhai.” A good start but there was more. “I worry what I say next might offend you, but it’s something I need to get off my chest.”
Her lips dry, she feigned nonchalance and directed him to continue. “Please speak your mind and know anything you say will be confidential.”
“Thank you. See, I’ve been wondering about the Purge and the purpose it serves. The Shrike had plenty to say about saving souls and uncovering darkness, but I can’t help but find it odd. Here in the North, I’ve noticed nothing regarding an organized system of belief, like churches or temple or whatnot. Earlier this morning, you even said my lack of belief is irrelevant in most situations and referred to the Shrike as a fanatic.”
“What does this have to do with anything?”
“Without strong religious beliefs, aside from rooting out the Defiled, none of the reasons the Shrike listed seemed… practical, when looked at from a political perspective. Surely you do more harm than good in torturing so many innocents. How many Defiled do you normally catch in a Purge of ten-thousand? A few hundred?”
Far less, but it would be a mistake to answer him. “I’m not sure, this is my first. Rain please listen, I’ve struck an agreement with the Shrike. She will let your interference go unanswered, you only need to steer clear of her until this is over and swear an oath not to publicly air your grievances regarding the Aspirants or the Purge. This is for the best solution for all of us.”
“I suppose it is. I can easily imagine the anger and outrage if the people were to discover the Purge is little more than a political tool.”
Hiding her fear from his probing eyes, she tilted her head in innocent curiosity. “What do you mean?”
“It’s only a guess, something I came up with recently. I mean, the hints were all there, but I never put it all together because it’s something which requires a complete and utter lack of empathy. Then I remembered we come from different worlds, in more ways than one.” Pursing his lips, he gathered his thoughts before speaking, his tone tired and defeated. “Looking at the big picture, the Empire is in a precarious position. Not only do the Defiled test our borders year after year, the people are besieged by fear at all times, never knowing if the Enemy walks alongside them, if their neighbour was ready to devolve into murderous rage.”
“Yes, this is something we all learn to live with. In the cities, it isn’t so bad, with everyone watching one another. There is safety in numbers, because it makes it near impossible for the Enemy to hide.”
“True, but how many people can fit inside the cities? There’s not enough room for everyone, not to mention the need for farmland and pasture. The majority of citizens live outside the cities, spread out across a massive landscape, separated from their neighbours by hours, if not days of travel. It’s no wonder city dwellers hate outsiders like the Bekhai. They’re worried outsiders are Defiled.”
“A prejudice you and your people are soon to overcome.” Seeing where he was heading, Yuzhen put a finger to her lips and Sent him a silent message. “Rain, your words tread dangerously close to treason. Take my hand and channel your Chi, I’m going to teach you to use a Sending. You should be capable of it so long we are in physical contact. If you cannot, then you must keep your thoughts to yourself. You never know who might be listening.”
She hoped to end the conversation here and now, but Rain was determined and talented. Though his first Sendings were nothing but gibberish, after the better part of half an hour, Rain resumed their conversation in silence, palms touching. “So back to the big picture. Unless you’re part of the top percentile capable of displaying Purity, your affiliation can never be wholly proven. 99% of the population are possible enemy combatants, hiding in plain sight. Seeing how quickly Gen grew in power, I think the Empire would fall in a day if even 10% of the populace turned Defiled, a hopelessly depressing thought. So what is an Emperor to do? The only option is to discourage the people from becoming Defiled through other means, which is where the Purge comes in. A public consequence against turning, promising a grisly and horrific death for not only you, but everyone you know and have ever come in contact with should you fall to temptation and be discovered. Enough to scare most into compliance, I’d say.”
Sighing, Yuzhen looked hopelessly at Rain and saw the accusation in his eyes, believing her complicit in it all. “Perhaps you’re right and perhaps not, but I swear to you, I know not the truth. What you say has merit, but my hands are tied. If I didn’t call for the Purge, then someone else would have and I’d be lucky to keep my life. Please understand, this is the way of the world and we can only live by the rules. If you were to spread your theory, true or not, the Emperor would have no choice but to denounce you and order your death and the death of the Bekhai.”
Removing his hand from hers, Rain spoke aloud, unable to look at her any longer. “Different day, same song.” Sighing, he raised his hands in surrender. “I’ll abide by your terms. My silence on these matters in return for amnesty.” Using his knife, he gave his oath in brief. “I swear an Oath to the Heavens. I will not air my grievances regarding the Purge so long as I am not persecuted for my thoughts or actions. This I swear to you, with the Heaven’s as my witness.”
“Silly boy, you can’t add a conditional statement to your oath. You are bound to secrecy no matter what.” Taking out her own knife, she cut deeply into her forearm. “I swear an Oath to the Heavens. I will never disclose what you said today. This I swear to you, with the Heaven’s as my witness.”
“…Thank you.” The gratitude in his eyes did nothing to dampen the condemnation, a young, idealistic man, disgusted by her actions.
She couldn’t blame him. She felt the same.
Leaving immediately, she used Rain’s compliance to secure oaths from the other dissidents in short order, though Dastan needed to speak with Rain before he agreed. Seeing the fervour in Dastan’s eyes, Yuzhen was certain Rain had found a staunch ally in the low-born Warrant Officer, the two bonding through shared adversity. Thankfully Zian and BoShui had stayed their hands, and the soldiers who took part in the outburst all lacked proper backing, so she sorted out the entire mess before lunchtime.
Sitting at her desk as BoLao slept nearby, Yuzhen closed her eyes and calmed her nerves. Rain was right to be disgusted by her, she’d ordered the Purge in spite of her apprehensions, the deaths of thousands of innocents sitting squarely on her shoulders. The death toll continued to rise, the Aspirant’s work readily heard in the distance, each scream sending a wave of guilt through her. Still, the work never ended, her pile of missives grown larger in her absence, and she sifted through them, searching for word from Gerel.
Finally, he’d sent a message, and she tore open the seal to ease her worries, hoping he’d included a personal note to brighten her day. Instead, her heart stopped as she read his message, hastily scribbled and delivered with all haste. Reading it again, she trembled for a second before leaping to action, bellowing for all to hear. “Soldiers of the Empire, to arms! Break camp, we ride with all haste!”
“What’s happening? Is the Purge over? How many turned?” Shaken from her stupor, BoLao rubbed her eyes from the cot.
Tossing Gerel’s letter at her, Yuzhen strode out the tent as she replied. “The Defiled have gathered, the Purge ends now. I need every soldier available, we ride to war.”
A minimum of twenty thousand Defiled warriors charging north towards Sanshu, the horde growing by the day as it pillaged and plundered through the Golden Highlands. Where had so many Defiled been hiding? Though not enough to take the city walls, an army that size could run rampant through the area, destroying the farms, forges, and industries which produced more than half the supplies needed at the Bridge. Weapons, armour, food, horses, the list went on…
Swallowing her fear, she redoubled her efforts and pushed her soldiers to hurry, praying she would arrive in time.
Administrator Ping marked the taxes collected on his ledger and waved the caravan through the gate. Handing his things to an attendant, he savoured the brief respite and rubbed his temples as the next group of wagons rolled into place. Collecting duties at the gate wasn’t the most glorious of work, but needs must. A rash of sickness was making its way through the city, with staff members and guards rendered incapable of their duties, so here he was at the end of another double-shift, exhausted from overworking.
Still, the day was almost done, and he could soon retire to bed with his beloved Jansu, an expensive indulgence paid for by his commissions from Warrant Officer Falling Rain’s prodigious bounties. Too often, the women chasing him were only interested in his money and with Jansu, he needn’t worry about finding poison in his wine cup. Though originally purchased as a source of release, he soon became intoxicated by the lovely half-mouse’s smile, wanting nothing more than to see her happy.
Waving the hulking, hooded caravan master over, he collected his ledger from the attendant, dipping the quill in ink. “State your name and business in Sanshu.”
“Ha, how fun. Okay then, this one’s humble name is Yo Ling. You may know me better as The Spectre.”
Trembling in place, Administrator Ping glanced at the face of the most notorious bandit in the North. Standing in broad daylight with a crooked grin, the Spectre’s one good eye stared him down, the other unseeing and milky white, ruined by the same strike which left a scar across half his face. A wound made by his former partner, Liu Shi of the Crossbone Corsairs, if the stories were true. “Wh-what a-are…”
“Ah how silly of me, you also wanted to know my business.” Waving forward as dozens of bandits exited the wagons, Yo Ling drew his dagger with a sneer. “My business is death, and business is good.”
The blade flashed and Administrator Ping coughed and sputtered, staring at the hilt embedded in his ample belly. Falling to his knees, he touched the wound and gaped at the blood, unable to draw breath enough to cry out. His strength faded as he laid on his side, pain shooting through him with every movement. Helpless, he watched as the bandits strode into the city, idly wondering why the alarm bells weren’t ringing. The guards atop the wall should have seen him fall, should have realized the danger, why did they still delay?
“Take and hold your positions until our brethren arrive,” Yo Ling ordered, his raspy voice jubilant. “For too long have we suppressed our urges and denied our true selves, for too long have we suffered in silence. It all comes to an end today, no more hiding, no more inhibitions. Hold the gate, and once Sanshu lies open to us, we’ll rape, pillage, plunder, and torture to our hearts content! Shed the trappings of humanity and embrace your true selves, for today, we are no longer mere bandits, but heroes of the cause, working to welcome our brethren in the north. Today we take down Sanshu, tomorrow the Bridge!”
Closing his eyes, Administrator Ping wept.
Mother have mercy on us all.
– End of Volume 9 –
Another Author’s note: Woo, another day, another chapter, another volume.
First things first, I apologize for friday’s lacklustre meme, I’ve already used ‘not sure fry’ before. I can do better, and I will do better, this I swear.
Onto the story. Originally, I’d planned to wrap this arc up in vol 9, but as always, I’m terrible at estimating how many chapters it takes me to write stuff. I even left out a whole slew of PoV’s I’d planned on, but still couldn’t make it in time. A shame, but I liked the pacing a little better this time. This felt like a good place to end things for Volume 9, so there it is.
As always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts, criticisms, praises and whatnot, about anything and everything.
I will ask that you please keep things civil and don’t flame people for having a different opinion. While it’s nice that you’re trying to stick up for my work and spare my feelings, I’m a big boy and can handle it.
As always, thanks for reading, and see you next chapter.
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