Throwing aside her spear and pack, Alsantset dropped to her knees and smothered her babies with kisses. “Hello my precious babies, oh how I missed you.” Picking them up, she carried them into Charok’s open arms, the four of sharing a loving family embrace. “I missed you as well, beloved Husband of mine. Papa won’t be back until late, he’s dealing with work and then taking Mama out for a lover’s stroll.”
“It’s good to have you back.” Reluctantly letting go, Charok covertly motioned at Tanaraq standing nearby, still uncomfortable with displays of affection in front of others. It was all Gerel’s fault, the aftermath of his conniption over ten years past still weighing heavily on her husband’s mind. Hmph, that puffed-up, arrogant swine left a blemish on the memories of her wedding day, an insult she would never forgive. Mama may have taught him a lesson but Alsantset was training hard so she might teach the bastard one herself.
Rolling her eyes, she put her babies down to hug her friend. “Thank you so much for helping here while I was on patrol Tanna. I can’t stand the thought of strangers looking after my babies.”
“Anything for you Set, or should I call you Tigress Alsantset, Flower of the North?” Tanaraq teased while waving goodbye. “I’m off now, this is time meant for family.”
Grabbing her arm, Alsantset tugged to keep her from leaving. “And you think family doesn’t include you? We’ve been friends since childhood yet we haven’t had a good chat in months.”
“Well, you’ve been so busy with your heroics. The daughter of the Bloody Fang, a newly minted Major making a name for herself with her daring deeds and valiant efforts, a family of heroes. An epic for the operas, I say.”
Rolling her eyes, Alsantset retorted, “Your deeds would shine as bright if you fought alongside. Please, stay for dinner at least, it’s been so long.”
“Thank you for the offer, but perhaps another time.”
“Then let me see you out.” Linking arms, she brought her friend away, out of earshot of her family. “So how have things been,” she asked, feigning innocence. “Anything interesting happen while I was gone?”
“Mother above, even Rain is more subtle when he gawks in the baths.” Tanaraq chortled as they stopped between the concealing partition and the front doors. “Set, I love you like a sister and I love the twins, but I’ll not marry your husband, not now, not ever.”
Pouting like a child, Alsantset asked, “Why not Tanna? You’d be hard pressed to find a more caring husband or devoted father.”
“True enough, but your eyes are clouded in this. Charok is a fine man who loves you dearly, with no room in his heart for another.” Smiling sadly as she teared up, Tanaraq shrugged. “Nayantai was the same.”
Unable to retort, Alsantset opened her arms and embraced her friend. Though only a year had passed, Tanaraq always seemed so cheerful and at peace, the only reason Alsantset had tried this so soon. “I’m sorry Tanna, I moved too quickly.”
“It’s fine Set.” Tanaraq’s voice cracked. “You have a beautiful family and I love being a part of it. I know you’re looking out for me, but I’ll not settle for anything less than a husband who loves me.”
Guilt welling up, Alsantset’s face turning red with shame. Truth be told, it wasn’t only for Tanaraq’s happiness but Charok’s as well. Over the years, she’d seen the lengths Mama went through to hide her wrinkles and grey hairs, and the strain it put on her parent’s relationship. Alsantset wanted to spare Charok the anguish and find someone for him to share those moments with, to love and grow old with. Consumed by her own agenda, she’d failed to notice Tanaraq’s grief, a terrible friend.
Breaking their hug, Tanaraq wiped her eyes and smiled as Alsantset hung her head. “Relax Set, I told you it’s fine, all is forgiven. You mean well but you’re whimsical as always, latching on to the oddest notions which float through your otherwise empty mind. I’m used to it.”
Sheepishly smiling, Alsantset asked, “So what will you do now? Will you return to the Sentinels? The world will instantly forget about this ‘tigress’ once the peerless beauty Tanaraq takes the stage.”
Pinching her on the cheek, Tanaraq grimaced. “What peerless beauty? The title suits you better, fool. Enough, how goes the war effort?”
“It goes well. The Enemy are holding their positions for now, though there’s plenty scurrying about in the mountains. We received word the Chief Provost’s position came under attack this morning, but she weathered the storm well. She sent a scathing missive condemning Jia Yang, and when it was read aloud at the meeting, his face turned purple with rage.” Hesitating, Alsantsant pursed her lips before asking again. “Will you rejoin the Sentinels? Colonel General Nian Zu wants to have a relief force readied, just in case. I intend to join it and could use your expertise.”
A pause lingered between them before Tanaraq shook her head. “I won’t be returning to the Sentinels. Ever. I’m not suited to battle, not like you.”
“Now who’s being foolish? You win half the time we spar.”
“That’s sparring.” Alsantset waited patiently while Tanaraq gathered her thoughts, and after a long sigh, she continued. “When that smug bastard Cho Jin Kai wouldn’t open the gates, I told myself, ‘well this is it then’. No anger or grief, I simply accepted my death. I still fought like hell mind you, wanted to take as many as I could with me. Oh you should have seen us Set, we were unstoppable. Naya wielding his halberd like a young god, smashing aside the Defiled like paper ornaments, my aim true unlike ever before or since, one shot, one kill. I even started to believe we’d make it out unscathed, the Provost and the Blacksmith an unstoppable tempest of death and destruction… then my quin stumbles over a corpse and falls out of formation, while I helplessly watch a spear thrusting towards my face.”
Tanaraq stopped her narration and stared off into nothingness. Taking her by the hand, Alsantset guided her to the floor, sitting together with their backs to the door. Sniffling, Tanaraq laid her head against Alsantset’s shoulder and continued. “That idiot Naya rides right into the spear, his halberd clearing the way for me instead of defending himself. Doesn’t even look at who’s killing him, just stares at me with that insufferable grin… He let himself die to save me, Set.” Bursting into tears, she wept in Alsantset’s embrace, her words muffled. “Weren’t even supposed to be there, he wanted to give up the Sentinel life, have children and settle down, but I needed one last adventure… It’s all my fault…”
As Tanaraq’s tears flowed freely, Alsantset held her tight as they sat side by side in the doorway. Once her tears slowed and breath steadied, she finally spoke again. “I can’t go back to fighting Set, my guilt consumes me every time I close my eyes. My mistake cost Naya his life, what if it happens again? Who will be next to pay the price? I won’t be able to live with myself…”
“Silly girl,” Alsantset said, stroking Tanaraq’s hair. “You blame yourself, but Nayantai gave his life because he loved you, just as I know you would have done the same for him. If it had been the other way around, would you wish for him to live on in guilt and anguish? Mourn his passing, but do not forget to celebrate his life.”
After a long pause, Tanaraq spoke again. “Remember that time we put itching powder in his sleeping roll? He looked so pitiful bathing in the icy cold stream. You were merciless even as a child.”
“It was righteous retribution, he stole and hid our dolls. I remember you crying for hours, and you were the one who brought the recipe from your mother’s notebook.”
“Only as a lark, I didn’t think you’d actually make it, much less use it…”
Cuddled together, they reminisced of better times, laughing and crying until Tate found them, running into her arms with his chubby-cheeked smile. “Mama, Tanna, time for dinner, ya?” It took little to convince Tanaraq to stay and when they finished, they continued their chat over mulled wine. Before long, Tanaraq was passed out on the couch, her sorrows dampened, at least for today.
After carrying Tanaraq up the stairs and putting her to bed in the guest room, Alsantset returned to her own bedroom, drunk and exhausted. Falling into her husband’s arms, she leaned heavily against him and closed her eyes. “Sorry beloved. I’ve made a mess of things with Tanna and needed to be there for her.”
“Oh foolish wife of mine, had you confided in me I could have saved you the trouble. Tanna will not so easily forget Naya, nor will I take another wife.”
Alsantset sighed, praying Charok would differ from Mama and care nothing for his aging. “How did you know? Tanna seemed so… accepting, at peace with his passing. She never once showed her pain…”
“She hid it well, she is a strong woman.” Kissing her, Charok nuzzled her softly. “I only need to put myself in her shoes to know how devastated she is. If I lost you, I would be undone.”
“And I you.” Resting against his chest, she considered leaving the Sentinels, for a few years at least. Her babies were growing so quickly and she missed so much, but like Papa, she was restless outside of battle. Teaching children for four years almost drove her to insanity, filling her every waking moment with meaningless busy work to keep from pacing about. It was in her nature to hunt, as it was in Papa’s, the tigress within yearning for challenge.
But Charok deserved to have a wife at his side and her babies deserved a mother. At the very least, she could relinquish her leadership duties and take a normal shift or reserve duty on the wall. There would still be plenty of battles to fight and more time to spend with her family, the best of-
A faint clatter had her on high alert, breaking away to grab her spear leaning in the corner. Too quiet and careful for a bird, the mark of stealth and concealment, she signalled for silence and stood in her doorway, peering out into the shadowy hall. The moonlight streamed through the windows and she struggled to remember if the curtains had been closed on her way up. Damned alcohol… Gesturing for light, she kept her eyes on the window as Charok placed a paper lantern in her waiting hand. Holding her breath, she thrust the lantern into the hallway, revealing…
Nothing. There was nothing but empty night, the danger conjured by her drunken stupor. She was never getting this drunk again. Exhaling in relief, she turned to Charok with a smile. “Sorry beloved, I’m a little jitter-” Her eyes widened as she stared past him at the two inhumanly pale strangers standing in her bedroom, their black knives falling to plunge into his back. As she lifted her spear, Charok dove beneath her thrust, trusting her implicitly and avoiding the knives by scant millimetres.
She’d almost learned first-hand how Tanaraq was feeling.
Taking the closest assailant in the throat, she yelled, “Wraiths!” Sensing its mission failed, the second wraith drew away and she chased. “Protect the babies!” The prompt was unnecessary, Charok’s footsteps already moving down the hall as her spear pierced through the retreating wraith’s spine. Her heart pumping furiously, she ran after her husband and through the open door to find her babies rubbing their eyes in confusion as their Papa gathered them into his arms.
They’d been here for Papa, she was sure of it, so there would be more waiting. In the distance, alarm bells tolled as the city came to life and even further away, horns sounded, signalling battle was about to begin. A standard tactic, Wraiths targeting officers immediately before a Defiled strike, sowing confusion and leaving unprotected gaps on the walls. Moving as a group, she opened the guest room to check on Tanaraq, and stunned by the sight within, she moved instinctively to shield her babies from the obscene display.
Swallowing hard, she held her words and watched as Tanaraq pummelled a wraith into meat paste, the remains of another splattered across the wall. Straddling the dead corpse with her dress caught around her ankle, it almost seemed indecent as she struck again and again, screaming in wordless fury. Her rage quickly spent, Tanaraq hiccuped, threw up, then glanced around. Naked, wounded, and covered in blood and vomit, her unfocused eyes met Alsantset’s gaze as she smiled without a care in the world. “Was having a piss when they slipped in, thought you’d sent me a pair of handsome young studs at first, but this was almost as good. I feel better, Set. I’m glad I stayed for dinner.”
Stifling a laugh, Alsantset nodded sagely. “Yes Tanna, very cathartic. Now put your clothes on and come with me, it’s not safe here, there may be more enemies about. We need to see to those wounds.”
“Right, right. Ah, one moment please.” Still considerably drunk, Tanaraq waddled across the blood-stained room, righted the fallen chamber pot, and squatted down. “Wasn’t finished.”
Oh Mother in Heaven…
His blood singing in his veins, Chu Tongzu smashed Stoneshaper into the heavy steel door for the fifth time. Finally the last barrier gave way with a dull thump, tipping backwards before crashing to the ground in an unimpressive display, unlike the first two doors. It couldn’t be helped, his thirty years of indolence taking its toll, his chest burning and shirt soaked in sweat as his head spun.
How unseemly, exhausted to the point of nausea after a mere kilometre of jogging.
Swearing to return to training once this was over, he strode through the open doorway as his soldiers streamed passed him, taking down the traitors with little resistance. Using the lull to catch his breath, he planted Stoneshaper in the dirt and plucked the arrows from his flesh, studying the next obstruction. One gatehouse was all he needed, allowing him to lower the innermost gate and give his people peace of mind. Then, and only then, could he afford to step back and take his time conquering the others, lowering ropes and ladders into the plaza to bring reinforcements in safely.
No sense counting the chickens before they’d hatched, the inner gatehouse still stood before them, this interlude costing him dearly. The arrows and stones flew uninterrupted towards them, so many shields broken and bodies battered, not a single warrior unmarked by their efforts. Exhaustion and desperation in their eyes, he could feel his soldier’s spirits flagging from the efforts it’d taken to reach here, along with the pressure which came with knowing there was no retreat. It was either victory or death in the strictest sense, suicide to run the gauntlet again or leap off the precipice and fall almost thirty meters into the plaza. “Comrades, it has cost us much to come this far, a debt I intend to settle with the traitor Mao Jianghong.” Weak cheers followed his declaration, too few for his liking but better than none. “Follow me once more and let us show these cowards how true heroes fight.”
Gathering what little reserves he had left, he lifted Stoneshaper with a grimace, his arm sore and aching from overuse. Leading the charge, he took three more arrows before reaching the enemy, lined up neatly with their spears and shields, and then he was among them. Killing two or three with every swing, he cleared the outer area of enemies with ease, crashing into the door with all his might. It shuddered and creaked, but held firm, his soldiers blocking the arrow slits with their bodies to give him time to work.
Again and again he struck, the door caving in slowly as a mass of bodies held it in place, one Magistrate straining against a dozen traitors, his arm screaming in pain as he gave it his all. The door still standing, his arm dropped to his side as he gathered his breath and focused. Lifting Stoneshaper onto his shoulder, he stepped back and lowered his stance, leaning back for a full swing containing everything he had.
The door gave way before him with a tumultuous crash, crushing the bodies caught beneath it. A cheer went up among his men as they swarmed in, exultant in his accomplishment, chanting his name as they fought. ‘Unstoppable Vanguard Chu Tongzu’, the ‘golden’ part of his moniker left out. This would not do, he’d have to shed all this excess weight and display his brilliance for all to see. Shouldn’t take long, a year, maybe two.
A baleful aura pressed against his own and the fervour cooled inside the gatehouse, a distinct hush enveloping the battlefield. His soldiers spread out along the first floor as the traitors lined up along the second, their bows and crossbows pointed down. Holding his massive great-sword, Jianghong’s laughter boomed from above. “It seems I underestimated the fat slob of a magistrate. I wasn’t sure you’d be able to make it up all those stairs.”
Tongzu ignored the traitorous wretch, focusing on the familiar scarred face beside him. “Yo Ling,” he spat. “So you’re why the spineless dog surnamed Mao turned traitor.”
With a stately bow, Yo Ling chuckled. “It’s true, mine is the hand responsible for all your recent woes.”
Trying to buy time, Tongzu narrowed his eyes, remaining silent as long as possible. “So,” he drawled, elongating the simple syllable, “A traitorous dog meets with a cowardly deserter, working together to take my gatehouses. What purpose could this possibly serve?”
“I’d love to wax poetic and tell you all my plans, but even a child can see you’re stalling.” Yo Ling’s one eye seemed to glow in the shadows. “The city will learn soon enough, though sadly you must die in ignorance. Count it a favour, for all our years as neighbours. Kill them.”
The counter attack was fierce and unstoppable, hidden warriors bursting from the walls and taking his soldiers by surprise. Jianghong dropped to the first floor and charged at Tongzu. The traitor’s sword cleaved through his shield and carved through flesh and bone, his left hand attached by a flap skin as he shouted in shock. Clutching the wounded limb to his chest, Tongzu furiously defended and retreated, barely keeping hold of Stoneshaper.
Too strong, too fast, Jianghong had been skilled but never to this extent. Helpless before the traitor’s aggression, Tongzu blocked and parried, giving way and stumbling back, taking a thrust to the shoulder, a slice to the chest, a gash across his thigh, wound after wound without answer. “Retreat,” he bellowed, knowing it was futile. “Retreat and regroup, live to defend Sanshu another day!”
Jianghong’s sword feinted a thrust and sliced low, the strength quickly fading from Tongzu’s body. Glancing down, he watched his guts spill out like rope uncoiling. A disembowelling cut, neat and tidy, Tongzu was done for. Lifting his sword for the killing blow, the traitor sneered and said, “A dog am I? Well I always hated working for a fat toad-”
A massive boulder struck him square on, lifting him off his feet before Tongzu’s eyes. Turning towards the source, he saw the wall catapults reloading for another shot, their deadly load killing ally and enemy alike. Guard Captain Sovanna’s Sending sounded in his ears. “Sorry Magistrate, seen ye in a spot of trouble and couldn’t stand by. Like I said, wouldn’t know what to do without ye. Make yer way back to the plaza, a short drop, no need to fear, we’re ready for ye.”
Tossing Stoneshaper off the edge, he gathered his innards in his arms to keep from tripping and staggered to the precipice. Without stopping to look, he tumbled over the side and counted the seconds. He didn’t even get to three before someone caught him, a massive feat of strength and coordination. Could Sovanna be another hidden expert just like Jianghong?
Blinking owlishly at his saviour, he stared at an unfamiliar bald warrior with eyes of amber.
Ah good, a stranger. For a moment, Tongzu worried his judgment had been sorely compromised.
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