I’d like to give a shout out to my newest anonymous Patron. Thank you so much for your support!
I’d also like to take this time to apologize for misspelling a Patron’s name in Chapter 174. My deepest apologies, Tin Pham.
“A toast to my loving wife who grows more beautiful with each passing day.”
Palming her husband’s face, Sarnai pushed him away with a playful smile. “Pei. Empty flattery will get you nowhere, you honey-tongued liar.”
Taking her reaction in stride, Baatar put his drink down and pulled her close, grinning dangerously as his arms wrapped around her. “Call me liar again my beauty, and I’ll put you across my knee.”
Hiding her blush, she pulled away, enjoying their game as he shifted his chair closer. “Shameless man, all hands just because we’re alone. This isn’t our bedroom, it’s still a public area.”
Nuzzled against her neck, Baatar kissed her gently. “No need to worry my love, I booked the restaurant for the entire night, sent the staff home, and left my guards with strict orders to let nothing disturb us. These past months have been difficult for you, moving to a new home rife with danger and politics, so I wanted to show my appreciation for your support.”
“As if a simple dinner were enough.” Taking his face in her hands, she gazed deeply into his bright, blue eyes, her husband almost unchanged in the decades since their wedding night. Even his hairstyle was the same, close-cropped silver locks, and with a clean shaven face, he looked less than thirty years old, virile, handsome, and in the prime of life. Her wrinkled, knotted fingers stood in stark contrast to his youthful good looks, her heart aching at the sight and bringing to mind all the hidden glances of pity and disgust she’d spied these past few month, thrust into the spotlight alongside the love of her life.
In her most pragmatic moments, Sarnai understood their distaste. Baatar, a hero and paragon, was supposed to have beautiful wife standing by his side. That was the way of things, expected by citizen and soldier alike. No one wanted to see a hero passionately embrace a grey-haired woman who looked old enough to be his mother. Perhaps that’s why he’d booked the entire restaurant, to spare the eyes of the other guests. They came here to eat, not to be subjected to a freak show.
The tears came unbidden to her eyes, though she knew it was nothing more than her own foolish thoughts, that he loved her as much as she loved him. “I’m sorry,” she said, cradling against his chest. “I’m so sorry…”
“Hush my rose,” he said, stroking her head. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for. Why do you cry?”
Hiding her face, she shook her head. “I don’t know why you put up with me. I’m a mess, physically and emotionally, irritable and tired all the time, even after this wonderful dinner you arranged. I’ve no skill in diplomacy and only alienated you from would-be allies. Better had I stayed in the village, away from all this.”
“If such is your wish then I will bring you home on the morrow.” He spoke softly as always, never raising his voice or speaking sharply to her, no matter how she treated him. It always annoyed her how he never lost his temper, but tonight she only felt shame. Every other sentence from her mouth was a complaint, reprimand, or insult, yet he always smiled patiently and accepted her scolding, as he was doing now. “I only ask you come visit me often, I grow lonely away from your side.”
Sighing, she snuggled against him. “Then why accept this post, you dog-brained fool?” Sometimes, she wished he would yell and scream at her, if only to make her feel better.
As if reading her mind, he chuckled and kissed her brow. “The Wall must be defended to keep my family safe, and I trust no other. Without you, I care nothing for the Province, let it all burn.”
“Watch your tongue, you’re a public figure now. You never know who might be listening.”
Instead of pointing out they were speaking in the Language or how they were alone, her foolish husband merely nodded. “You are right as always my dear. I must choose my words carefully. What would I do without you?”
Lifting her head, she turned to scold him once more. The words caught in her mouth as a pale Wraith materialized from the darkness before her eyes. Its mouth twisted in sinister glee, it charged with dagger raised, ready to plunge it into her beloved’s back. Summoning all her strength, she pushed him from its path and caught the abomination’s face with her palm, guiding it as she stepped aside. Its cursed dagger tore through her lovely new dress and glanced off her sternum, stealing away her breath. Ignoring the pain, she tightened her grip and flicked her wrist, its body arcing through the air while its head remained firmly in place, the momentum breaking its neck. Releasing the corpse, it sailed head over heels and crashed into the stone wall with a wet smack.
Her dinner ruined, Sarnai snarled and vented her rage on the Wraiths appearing in the emptiness around her. Grabbing her spear, the Piercing Star, never far from hand now that she lived so close to battle, she swept aside the chairs and made her way to Baatar, fighting at his side. Her spirits surged as she fought, forgetting her insecurities in the heat of battle. Their steps in perfect harmony, they moved through the restaurant in a beautiful dance of steel and blood. Smiling, Sarnai feasted on the sight of her husband at work, his bestial grace and unrestrained power filling her with pride and longing. Lunging at his enemies, Baatar expertly wielded the Crescent Moon, his pole-axe slashing through Wraith and furniture alike, her Piercing Star twirling left and right as she kept pace, guarding his flank while he roamed the battlefield in search of prey.
For a few glorious minutes, she returned to the days of her youth. Their roles reversed, her gentle giant played the part of unstoppable god while she directed his power and controlled their tempo, uniting to cover their individual flaws, in battle and in life. Oh how she missed standing at his side, but it soon became apparent why she’d retired so many years ago. As the battle wore on, fatigue crept up on her, slowly at first, then holding her by the ankles and weighing her down. Her chest burned as she fought on, desperate to keep up, his movements growing ever sharper while she struggled through the air which seemed thick as molasses.
Then it happened, a single errant step which caused her to falter and stumble, leaving Baatar’s back exposed as he attacked. As if waiting for the opportunity, a blur of motion shot past her and crashed into him with a ferocious yowl. Tumbling across the floorboards, her husband grappled with the Felid Demon, a compact four-legged beast made of sinewy muscle, thrashing claws, and rending fangs. Cursing her feeble body, she chased after them while killing the last of the Wraiths, desperate to lend aid yet unable to strike for fear of injuring her beloved.
Howling in defiance, her husband wrestled the Demon bare-handed, his pole-axe lost in the scuffle. Hands locked around its front paws, he lifted his legs to push against its belly, the back claws ripping apart the floorboards as its jaws snapped at his face. Seizing the opportunity, Sarnai channelled all her strength into the Piercing Star and threw. Her aim true, it struck the Demon like a bolt of thunder, penetrating clean through its torso.
Ichor dripped from the dead Demon’s body and onto her husband. Though he took injury, she was the one who cried in pain, tortured by the consequences of her failure. Rushing to his side as he lay upon the ruined floorboards, she wiped the corrosive fluids from him with her bare hands, ignoring the stinging pain as she sobbed and prayed for his safety.
Strong hands gripped her by the wrists and she struggled against it, frantic to save her beloved husband. “Worry not, my rose.” His face torn and ragged, his blue eyes sparkled as he flashed his infuriating grin, the one he used whenever he thought she was overreacting. “Your husband has suffered worse at your own hands.”
“Pei, still joking at a time like this.” Tears streamed from her eyes as she tore her dress into strips, and put pressure on his belly, the flesh shredded by the talons of his foe. “Mother above, you never learn, always overextending yourself.” What was she saying? This was her fault, because she was too weak, too slow, too old to watch his back. “Where are your guards? Why haven’t the-”
The world spun before her eyes and went dark, her arm exploding in pain. She heard her beloved’s voice rise in a piteous wail and her heart broke at the sound. What agony must he be suffering to scream so? Pushing aside her own discomfort, she struggled to stand and help, but her body ignored her directions, laying still with her forehead pressed against the cold floor. Helpless, she lay in the darkness and listened to the sounds of battle overlaid with her beloved’s tormented cries. The hum of his sword filled her ears as he slashed and cut, her mind’s eye picturing his flawless form and unmatched finesse. The Crescent Moon was wielded in battle, but when her husband fought a worthy foe, it was with the Blood-Drinking Fang in hand.
Tracking the battle’s progress by sound, she smiled as The Fang whistled through air and screeched flesh hard as steel, eliciting an inhuman, gurgling groan. Another Demon perhaps, its grunts growing more desperate and frantic by the second as her husband broke its defences. Baatar’s cries grew frantic and determined, screaming incoherently as he traded blows. This wouldn’t do, as a half-beast, her husband would struggle more than most to prove he was a warrior and not some bloodthirsty animal. She would have words with him when this was over.
“Sarnai, wake up my love.”
Her mind snapped back into focus as his hands stroked her cheek and she smiled at the sound of his voice. Had she fallen asleep? What happened? Ah, he won, that’s what happened. “Well fought, beloved,” she whispered, wishing she could see his beautiful eyes. Channeling her chi to ease the pain, she waved about in search of his face. “Why is it so dark?”
A strangled cry escaped his lips, and his powerful arms lifted her up, her body wracked with agony. “Speak to me my love, stay awake.”
Resting her cheek against his chest, she sighed. Always ignoring her questions. No matter. “We must find Taduk, your injuries need treatment. Terrible for your image, mustn’t be seen like this.”
“Yes, we’ll find Taduk immediately, but I need you to stay with me until we do… Sarnai? Answer me my love, please I beg you.” Though she wanted to answer him, she was too comfortable.
Being carried in his arms like a princess was her favourite thing in the world.
With a powerful thrust, Situ Jia Yang impaled the last Wraith to the stone walls of his bedroom, sneering as the misshapen brute screamed. Disgusting creatures of shadow and mist, he watched the Wraith’s body ripple, blending into the surroundings as it struggled to dislodge his saber and free itself. Releasing the hilt, Yang stepped back and watched the creature die, its weight bearing down on the edge of his weapon, carving slowly through meat and bone.
Hmph. Eight Wraiths, almost an insult for a warrior of his calibre. The creature’s screams intensified as Yang checked his wounds and dressed himself, unwilling to be seen naked and injured. A dozen minor injuries and three major ones, a high price paid for his distraction. Glancing at his ruined bed and murdered slaves, he sighed in regret at the tremendous waste. Beautiful triplet sisters, trained musicians and poets, he’d purchased them only a few weeks ago at the exorbitant price of twelve hundred gold each. Throwing them at the Wraiths made for an expensive distraction, but a small price to pay compared his life.
After all, slaves were common as the clouds while Situ Jia Yang was peerless and unique.
The door burst open as Bolin rushed into the room with a dozen guards, the half-wit gawking around the room. “Cousin, you are unharmed?”
A fool, did he know nothing of morale and reputation? “Of course,” Yang replied, gesturing around him. “As if these worthless beasts could ever surprise a true warrior.” Switching to a silent Sending, he scolded his slow cousin. “Idiot, get these guards out of here and send for a healer. Discreetly mind you, I’ve been poked more times than an embroidered shirt.”
Blanching, Bolin diligently had the guards remove the bodies and bed while ushering Yang into the office, away from the stench of death and the blare of horns. “My apologies cousin, I came as soon as I heard. The Defiled have launched an all-out offensive and the entire Bridge is in disarray.”
Settling gingerly into his chair, Yang grimaced. “Get me a situation report.”
Brow furrowed in concentration as he Sent for news, Bolin stood silent while Yang tended to his injuries. Peeling aside his dark robes already heavy with blood, he blotted at the puckered wound in his flank, his handkerchief coming away covered in a dark, viscous fluid. The black daggers of the Wraiths were coated with some insidious poison which inhibited Healing, and he needed to purge as much of it as he could. Though he could keep the poison from spreading, without the aid of a skilled healer he’d be bedridden for a week or worse, suffer a slow death at the hands of the Enemy’s expert stealth assassins. Thankfully, their skills in direct combat were lacking, enabling him to escape death, but circumstances were grim.
“Bad news cousin.” Flustered and near panic, Bolin’s eyes widened at the sight of Yang’s injuries and rushed to offer what little aid he could. “There are multiple reports of Demons infiltrating along with the Wraiths.”
“How did they slip past the wall unseen? No never mind that, who did they attack?”
“At least three were spotted at Nian Zu’s residence, the manor in shambles and my spies unable to locate the Colonel General or any of the Demon. Another two lay dead at a restaurant where the Wolf was having a meal, who was seen fleeing south towards his residence. Worst of all, two more Demons made their way into a room where Wei Sheng was holding a meeting with his officers. The Major General has been confirmed dead alongside four Brigadiers and eleven Colonels!”
An insult, seven Demons and not a single one sought him out. Worse, Wei Sheng was his only ally of prominence here at the Bridge. The Wolf’s actions were to Yang’s benefit though, the man choosing to flee and protect his family instead of defending the Wall. Perhaps it could be used against him. While Yang considered his options, Bolin continued his report. “Eight hospices were also attacked by Wraiths with only a handful of survivors. I’ve contacted three of our own healers who are making their way here under heavy guard. Han BoHai also came under attack, but escaped unscathed. He now holds the Wall alone and is requesting aid.”
Sensing an opportunity, Yang stood and gestured for his armour. “Have the healers meet me en route to the Wall, we move to reinforce and take command. Call for my carriage and send the 5th through to the 12th to reinforce. Place the others on high alert and get me eyes on Nian Zu and the Wolf, I need to know if they’re dead or injured.” If Nian Zu was dead, then Yang was the highest ranking officer at the Wall, giving him a chance to regain the face he’d lost earlier tonight. That damned bitch Akanai’s report was a direct challenge, and judging by her casualty list, it was almost certain she’d falsified the Enemy numbers to spit in his eye. Besides, how was he expected to root out a few thousand Defiled in the vast wilderness of this Mother-forsaken backwater? His men had done a clean sweep through the area without finding hide nor hair of the Enemy.
No matter, this was his chance for glory, finding fortune in disaster. With Nian Zu hopefully dead, the Wolf acting like a coward, and the Bridge under all-out attack, he would arrive just in time to rally the leaderless soldiers and throw back the Defiled to win the day.
The Enemy would regret underestimating Situ Jia Yang.
Sitting in his carriage with a smile on his face, he could almost hear the soldiers cheering and celebrating his monumental victory.
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