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Some bad news… Terrible news in fact. Sit down if you aren’t already, maybe somewhere private.
Alright. Next week’s chapters might be delayed.
I know, I know. It’s terrible and I’m sorry. Direct all your hatred and complaints towards GGG for releasing an awesome new league of Path of Exile. I usually don’t go crazy two leagues in a row, but Beyond was tonnes of fun, and the Legacy league looks even better. Sorry, so sorry. I even took the day off today, which is why this chapter is so late. I kept watching videos and looking for a build to try on the new Solo self found ladder, and am currently in que, waiting to get in.
Cough… Sorry, I’m getting off track.
Err… I’ll try to write a chapter for monday, but I can’t promise. The good news is, I usually burn out from playing PoE in 5-7 days, so the delay won’t last long.
Forgiveness please, and thank you for understanding. To those of you who don’t forgive or understand, that’s okay too. It’s happening. Deal with it.
The early morning bustle roused Song from slumber, the camp preparing to set out at daybreak. Stifling her yawn, she confirmed Master’s presence beside her, snoring lightly in the bedroll with arms wrapped around Sarankho. Quietly as possible, Song sat up and found the comb, a beautiful hand-painted piece gifted to her by Senior Captain Alsantset. Her comb. So many gifts now, the chess set, clothes, hair ribbons… the armour. Taking a moment to thank the Mother for her new life, Song carefully brushed her hair and closed her eyes, taking solace in the familiar procedure.
Working deftly from years of practice, she moved her comb in long, slow strokes, gently untangling the knots. As long as she could remember, this ritual had always been her favourite part of the day. Teacher Du demanded his slaves appear neat and orderly at all times, believing a clean, well-dressed slave demonstrated that even the lowest of his household was provided for, a measure of his wealth and status. Each day, without fail, Song was given these scant few minutes to prepare herself for the day ahead, both physically and mentally.
Nothing was expected of her in these few minutes aside from fixing her appearance. A simple task she could do without fail, plaiting her hair into a tidy, neat braid. No matter what lay ahead on any day, she claimed this short time as her own and achieved a simple victory each morning. A small, insignificant triumph, but even if the rest of the day was filled with failure and punishment, she could look forward to victory once again come morning. For a time, it was all she had, and though things had changed for the better, she still enjoyed the modest victory. A good way to start the day.
After waking and assisting Master with her own appearance, Song followed her out the tent where she greeted the gloomy morning with a smile and a stretch. “Ah, what a beautiful morning.”
Glancing around at the dark, fog covered landscape, Song lamented how she’d never understand Master’s taste while wracking her brain for the right response. At Master’s request, Song had embarked on a careful study of idle chatter over the past few weeks, learning the subtleties of polite conversation. “Yes Master. Beautiful morning.” A safe response, echoing Master’s sentiment and reinforcing her belief.
Or rather an inadequate response, judging by Master’s eye-roll. “Ah, so much work to be done. Casually, speak casually. You don’t have to agree with everything I say and you don’t have to call me Master. Please, try saying my name. You don’t have to address me directly, I only want to hear you say it and prove you actually know it.”
“Yes Master.” Song nodded and took a deep breath, carefully enunciating each syllable. “Master’s name is Sumila.” No matter what anyone said, Song couldn’t bring herself to address Master by name without a direct order, the fear of punishment too deeply ingrained.
Her efforts were rewarded with a hug, though it was accompanied with another eye-roll. “Well, small progress is still progress. We’ll work on it again another time.” Covering her mouth to yawn, Master led them through the camp. “Ugh, not enough sleep and no time for a hot breakfast, but at least we’re finally taking action. First getting stuck at the fishing village, then guarding the perimeter as part of the Purge’s blockade, I thought I’d go stir-crazy after all those weeks of twiddling my thumbs.”
No time to brush Sarankho or her brothers either, but an end to their idle days came as blessed news to many. Unused to inactivity, Master dealt with her frustrations by finding busywork for herself and everyone around her. Rigorous training exercises and brutal sparring matches filled their days, with harsh penalties for those unable to meet her stringent standards. Members of Rain’s retinue were not the only ones to suffer, Master’s distaste for idleness was far reaching, roping in the retinue’s of Officer Huushal and young magistrate Fung. Over the weeks, Song overheard many of the rank-and-file cursing their fate, but those who complained loudest were often chosen as Master’s sparring partners, causing the number of audible complaints to dwindle to nothing. Unlike most others, Song enjoyed the last few weeks. Though exhausting, Master’s exercises gave her a semblance of routine, and Rain’s absence brought a sense of safety.
Sad to say the good times were over now, but practical as always, Song merely accepted her fate. After a quick meal of travel bread and dried meat, she greeted her mount Erdene and Master’s wagon team, Coto and Gakai, patting each one twice on the head to establish dominance before feeding them. While they ate, she brushed and harnessed the roosequins, faintly amused by the memory of how she’d once been terrified of the squeaking creatures. Fantastic creatures, though incomparable to the sheer power of a titanic warhorse adorned in plated mail, roosequins were more versatile and intelligent. Horses offered an unstoppable force when matched against infantry, but after the power of their charge was spent, they were of little use in extended combat.
Not so with roosequins, their ability to navigate most difficult terrain with ease made them exceptional at hit-and-run tactics, able to disengage and reengage repeatedly in a single battle. Their powerful lunging pounce and pack-hunting instincts more than made up for their lack of mass, and she believed an army of roosequin riders in the right place, led by the right commander, could slaughter a force several times its size with minimal losses.
“Morning Mi-Mi.” Eye’s half-lidded as she wandered in, Lady Mei Lin embraced Master before turning to embrace Song. “Morning Li-Li.” Smoothing out her messy hair, the young miss sat down with a petulant pout. “I need your help, Rainy said he’s gonna send me home, says it’s not safe here.”
Master snorted. “That idiot, there’s an entire army here to protect you, you couldn’t be safer. Don’t worry Lin, I’ll speak with him. Where is he?”
Wincing as she found a knot in her hair, Lady Mei Lin shrugged daintily. “Dunno. His tent was gone when I went to visit.”
Wielding her comb, Song silently stepped in to brush and braid Lady Mei Lin’s hair while she chatted with Master. As she worked, she felt the scrutinizing gaze of the Lady’s veiled protectors. It was only right for them to be cautious, the four mysterious warriors charged with Lady Mei Lin’s safety, but the attention was unnerving. They had an unseen quality about them which caused Song’s hair to stand on end, their mere presence instilling awe and trepidation. No one else seemed to be bothered by them, but Song was loathed to turn her back to any of them, but especially the Leader.
There was nothing special marking the Leader as such, all four protectors veiled and cloaked, even dressed in identical black-leather armour. Only their choice in weapons differed, but even without them, picking out the Leader was easy as turning one’s hand, her poise and demeanour proclaiming regal confidence and demanding absolute obedience. From behind her veil, her eyes seemed to miss no detail no matter how small, able to peer through the souls of those she gazed upon and finding them lacking. Armed only with twin daggers strapped to her thighs, she moved with a casual arrogance and grace which Song associated with supreme warriors, those above even Teacher Du and Lieutenant General Akanai, an unmatched, solitary apex predator.
Even given Healer Taduk’s accomplished reputation, securing a top-tier expert to guard his daughter was awe-inspiring. In retrospect, Mila’s betrothal to Rain made more sense now, his skills as a healer well proven, though he seemed determined to collect wives like he collected pets. Poor Master would have to suffer marrying a shameless philanderer.
Finished with Lady Mei Lin’s braids, the Leader’s melodious voice surprised them, her words directed at Lady Mei Lin. “Hmph. Having your thrall to brush your hair, how decadent. Taduk spoils you excessively, but that is his way.”
Shooting a dark glance, Lady Mei Lin bit her lip and looked away before mumbling, “Li-Li’s not my thrall, she’s my friend.”
“Do not delude yourself, she is a thrall, broken and oathbound to serve. You think she brushes your hair out of affection? Service and fear drive her, loyal only to that which binds her. Were her Master to give the order, your ‘Li-Li’ would cut you down without hesitation.”
Lady Mei Lin remained silent this time, staring at the dirt. Song wanted to kneel and apologize, but Master held Song in place. “DON’T, IT’LL ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE. NOT YOUR FAULT. IGNORE THE BITCH. YOU’RE OUR FRIEND.”
Master’s skill at Sending still needed plenty of work, but it was improving. It only hurt a little this time and the message warmed her heart.
The Leader’s statement cast a pall over their little trio, Master and Lady Mei Lin idling in silence while Song complied with Sarankho’s mewling insistence to have her belly rubbed. The Leader wasn’t wrong, Song was a tool no different from Master’s roosequin. Though grateful for her pleasant life, Song believed it to only be a passing fancy, Master unaccustomed to owning slaves. In fact, Song was the only slave among the Bekhai, an entire populace without slavery. In time, Master would understand Song’s place and use her accordingly, until death relieved Song of all her burdens. No matter how much she wished otherwise, in this life, freedom would forever be denied to her.
Perhaps for her next life, Song could request to be Bekhai…
“Ah my two lovely betrothed sitting together in silence with Li Song. I’m a little worried, you aren’t planning anything evil now are you?” Rain’s voice interrupted Song’s daydreaming and as always, she turned to face him, guarding herself against his advances. So far, he’d done little more than look, but she was certain she remained untouched only because of Master’s protection and jealous nature. Rain seemed different ever since his return, more intense and brooding, the smile on his face not reaching his eyes.
Auric and the bears trailed his heels, the little cubs ungainly gait and awkward steps warming her heart. The cubs leaped into Song’s arms as Lady Mei Lin leaped into Rain’s. “Hubby, I don’t wanna go home, I wanna stay with you.”
Master chimed in to support her friend. “It’s safer here with the army, there might be more Defiled lurking in the woods. Besides, with after a Purge, travellers will be heavily scrutinized. Without your Token of Office, they might run into troubles on their journey.”
Undeterred by Lady Mei Lin’s tears and Master’s words, Rain shook his head. “No. Lin, you’re going home, we’re here to fight a war not sight-see. Be a good girl, I’ve no time to argue.” Untangling himself from Lady Mei Lin, he turned to Master. “I received a special assignment from Yuzhen and need to head out, so I need you and Song to find Tursinai, Tenjin and then pick two of our strongest to go with you.”
Master’s eyes lit up in excitement. “Ooo, a special assignment. Sounds dangerous. What are we doing?”
“I’m investigating a fire. You’re escorting Lin home.” Handing her a sealed letter, Rain ignored Master’s glare. “These are travel papers granting you all safe conduct, signed and sealed by Yuzhen herself. You’ll have no problem getting to the Bridge.”
“Nooooo!” Master’s sullen refusal seemed childish to Song, yet strangely endearing. Normally so powerful and commanding, in front of her betrothed, she was reduced to a sweet, innocent girl. “I looked after your retinue for weeks, you can’t send me away when things are getting interesting.”
“Before we set off, you agreed you would follow my orders, correct? These are my orders, escort Lin back to the Bridge.” Softening, Rain reached out to stroke Master’s cheek and whispered, “Please do this Mila, Lin’s not the only one I want to keep safe.”
Unable to keep the smile off her face, Master turned away and snorted. “Th-this isn’t up for discussion, idiot. I’m not leaving and neither is Lin, you can’t sweet talk your way out of it. We’re safer here with the army, and that’s that.”
“Don’t fight me on this. Yuzhen agreed this was the best choice, I’ll have her order you gone if need be.”
“Yuzhen this, Yuzhen that, how familiar. You want us gone so you can spend more time with her, don’t you? I’ve seen how you blush, don’t deny it.”
Master was still looking away, so she missed the anger flashing through Rain’s eyes. “Major Yuzhen and I,” he said through clenched teeth, “have nothing more than a professional relationship.” Reaching out, he took Master’s hand and furrowed his brow. From Master’s widened eyes, Song deduced that Rain had learned how to Send as well and his message was less than complimentary to the Major.
Admonishing herself to work harder so as not to shame Master, Song gathered the pets onto their wagons, the sweet kittens and cubs now seasoned travellers. No matter the outcome of this argument, they would all be setting out soon, soldiers and Sentinels scurrying about in preparation. Deflating, Master puffed her cheeks and shrugged in apology to Lin. “I guess we’re leaving…”
Tears streamed down Lady Mei Lin’s face, shaking her head. “Noooooo…”
“Enough of your feeble whining,” the Leader snapped in irritation. “Are you now a thrall for him to order as he pleases? What will you do next, beg? You wish to stay, then stay, you don’t need his permission. Your pathetic display is unbecoming.”
A dangerous glint entered Rain’s eye. “I don’t like the tone of your voice.”
Unperturbed, the Leader sniffed. “Then you are excused, foundling.” Her aura erupted in a violent burst, Song trembling as activity ground to a halt around them, soldier and Sentinel alike frozen in fear. “Run along and go play your little soldier games, I’ve no patience for your antics.”
A second Aura covered Song, protecting her from the brunt of the Leader’s Aura, and the observers let out a collective sigh as the pressure eased. Her jaw dropped as she followed the emanations to Rain, his Aura surging around him as he stared defiantly at the expert warrior. “You think because you have strength, it allows you to disrespect those without? That you can act with impunity, without consequence?”
“In a word,” the Leader drawled, “Yes.”
At Rain’s challenge, the other three protectors gathered around the Leader, ready for Rain’s attack, but it never came. Instead, every Sentinel within hearing range hefted their bows and drew their arrows, targeting the Leader and her companions. Master and Lin pleaded with Rain to stand down, their words the only sounds audible in the stifling silence as he locked gazes with the Leader.
Tilting her head in unconcerned curiosity, the Leader studied Rain carefully, the seconds ticking by ever so slowly. After a heart-stopping pause, she finally spoke. “Hmm… your Aura is neither overbearing nor sturdy, yet instead of breaking, it bends beneath my pressure. It’s a little like pushing mud, it gives way, yet retains its shape. How intriguing.” After another pause, she gestured at the surrounding Sentinels and asked, “So what message is this little tantrum meant to convey?”
“That being polite costs nothing in comparison.” Rain’s voice hardened as he moved Master and Lady Mei Lin aside, daring the Leader to act. Hands at his side, shield on his back, sword in belt, Rain stood unarmed, yet gave off the impression of a tiger ready to pounce, a naked blade drawn from its sheath. He was insane, by now he must realize the Leader alone could deal with his entire retinue.
Sighing loudly, the Leader shrugged and dispersed her Aura while the other protectors lowered their weapons. “Fair enough. Slaughtering everyone here is hardly worth the effort. Very well, I’ll not speak too sharply to the girl, but I don’t see why it matters so much. It’s not as though she’ll shatter at a harsh word. We won’t be leaving though, she wishes to stay, so we stay. You need only worry for your own skin foundling, she’ll not come to harm.”
“…Fine.” At Rain’s command, the Sentinels lowered their bows and followed him away. Quivering as the tension drained from her body, Song leaned against the wagon for support, watching the animals within. Unaffected by the minor clash, Sarankho cuddling with Auric while Jimu patiently suffered the attentions of the cubs, all of them oblivious of their close brush with death. How fortunate the Leader stepped back, sparing Rain and everyone present. Lifting a cub into her arms, Song mounted Erdene and cuddled with the small bear, steadying herself while lamenting the end of her carefree days
Then again, her days as a slave seemed numbered now that she followed a madman into battle. Perhaps her dream of becoming one of the Bekhai was closer than she’d thought.
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