I hate daylight savings time. Woke up this morning to walk the dog, pitch black. The energy just saps away from me, I need sunlight to jumpstart my brain.
That’s my excuse for being late btw. Cough.
Sidenote, I watched Sing at home this weekend instead of going out to watch Logan. Totes worth it IMO, the J-Pop Red Panda’s were adorable.
That is all.
Hands behind his back and head held high, Rustram moved through the camp with measured, deliberate steps. It’s wasn’t that he lacked the need for haste, but in his experience, soldiers never liked seeing their commanding officers rushing about without shouting orders. It made them understandably uncomfortable. Still, his slow pace gave him the chance to gauge the overall mood of the camp, which was one of muted celebration, no surprise following the afternoon’s stunning achievements.
After weeks of exhaustive training and tedious busy work, Rustram wasn’t the only one eager to cross blades with the enemy. With the boss finally back and in full fighting form, albeit several kilograms lighter, every soldier under his command was itching to show off the fruits of their labour and their first battle in weeks went like clockwork. Despite the enemy outnumbering them by two-to-one, the retinue’s enthusiasm and the boss’s well-laid plan carried them on to a resounding victory over the Butcher Bay Bandits. Capturing eleven and killing a hundred and twenty-eight enemy combatants, not a single bandit escaped from the boss’ neatly-sprung trap, an overwhelming success by almost any measure.
Unfortunately, when measured by the boss’s almost unreasonable standards, their success still fell short, too many wounded and too many dead. Seven casualties, a mere fraction compared to the enemy losses, but the Butcher Bay Bandits’ deserved their vaunted reputation, fighting viciously without fear until their leader fell. The boss found their losses unacceptable, expecting to kill hundreds without a single loss. Then again, a flawless victory might have been possible if the boss had proper warriors under his command, considering all of the dead and wounded were former soldiers.
The mountain-born Sentinels, the real Sentinels, had all emerged from the battle unscathed. Rustram could only imagine what the boss might achieve with a hundred veteran Sentinels under his command, instead of scraping by with a mere thirty. Though the former soldiers had improved substantially since joining ten months ago, the Sentinels still eclipsed them in every way possible. Even reduced to a trifling ten members present, a count including the Lady Sumila and Li Song, the Sentinels were undeniably the backbone of Falling Rain’s retinue.
How exasperating it must be for them to take orders from a worthless merchant-turned-soldier, a failure who couldn’t even bind a spiritual weapon.
Coming to a halt outside the impromptu medical station, Rustram waited for a lull in the boss’s movements, so he could deliver his report. Without even stopping to stitch up the nasty rend on his cheek, the boss tirelessly treated the wounded, desperate to save as many as he could. Seven deaths so far, but unless the boss learned how to heal before the night was out, the number seemed likely to grow. Though every soldier present was familiar with the boss’s ‘simple’ healing method, too many of the injured were unconscious, only kept alive through herbs, stitches, bandages, and the boss’s hard work.
Not to belittle the Lady Mei Lin’s work, her tender care and lovely smile a balm for every soldier’s soul, in sharp contrast to the shackled prisoners stationed nearby. Were it up to him, Rustram would have hung them all from the nearest tree, their continued existence more proof of how the former soldiers held the boss back. Aside from the Sentinels, they lacked anyone competent or well-armed enough to deal with Defiled who might turn Demon at any moment. Instead, the boss was forced to place the Lady Mei Lin in harm’s path, using her terrifying guards to keep watch over the prisoners while the Sentinels rested, a task the guards carried out with obvious reluctance. If not for the Lady Mei Lin’s insistence on helping the wounded, the boss would have no option but to guard the prisoners himself.
Glancing up from his work, the boss greeted Rustram with a tired nod. “It’s time?”
“Yes, everything is ready boss.”
After washing his hands, the boss bade farewell to Lady Mei Lin and strode out with Rustram at his side. “We’re running low on medical supplies. If the next outpost is still standing, buy what you can but be on the lookout for fox-glove root, fentel milk, and bittercress leaves.”
Where else would you find an Officer willing to waste expensive herbal concoctions on basic soldiers? The boss was too good to them, and Rustram even deliberated pulling him aside to advise they offer mercy to the gravely wounded, but he knew it’d be futile. Something needed to be done, the boss was marked for greatness and shouldn’t let a rag-tag group of former cripples bring him down.
It didn’t take them long to reach their destination, the boss moving to stand in front of the seven funeral pyres. The Defiled deserved no ceremony, their bodies left uncovered at the battle site. Turning to his gathered retinue, the boss lifted a cup of wine in both hands. “Seven dead, the price for our victory today. A cost I am unwilling to pay, but such is life.” Turning to the dead, the boss bowed a full ninety degrees and everyone present followed suit. “We thank you for your sacrifice, heroes of the Empire one and all. You will live on in memory, in the hearts and minds of your family and comrades. Your tribulations are over, your journey at an end. May you rest in peace, safe in the arms of the Mother.”
Straightening up, the boss poured the wine over the pyre and spoke in a hushed tone, a private conversation with the dead. Rustram was close enough to hear him promising to look after their loved ones, all mentioned by name, a litany of assurances meant to assuage his own guilt. Moving to his side, Rustram poured out a cup of wine and guided him aside, allowing the rest of the retinue to pay their respects.
By the Mother, the boss was awe-inspiring in battle, his grace and ferocity unmatched, his Aura regal and emboldening, but Rustram saw past the veneer of courage and determination he put on display. Though he demanded much from his soldiers, the boss reserved his harshest judgment for himself, critical of his every decision and shouldering the blame for every death and injury.
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t his fault, it was theirs for being too weak. This afternoon, Rustram watched the boss dispatch a notorious Aura-capable bandit with ease, expecting him to revel in the glory of victory as any young hero would. Instead, the intense zeal of battle melted away in an instant, glancing about the battlefield with a resigned weariness unsuitable for someone twice his age. His empathy made him a great man, but in these times of war, it was also his greatest burden, though he carried it well.
The send-off finished, the boss took his place at the front once more, raising another cup of wine. “Their duty is done, but ours is yet to end. You all fought well today and lived to fight again tomorrow. This cup, I raise to you in thanks.”
The rest of the service was uneventful, the boss silent as the pyres were lit, the men shuffling away to attend to their duties, though the boss continued to watch with a faraway look in his eye. After a quarter-hour of waiting, Rustram decided it was enough and coughed lightly. “Boss, you should go rest. The others won’t sleep easy as long as you’re standing here.”
Preoccupied with his thoughts, the boss shook his head and strode off. “No sleep, not yet. Too many wounded to care for, I should get back to it.”
Scurrying behind him, Rustram made his appeal. “Their fate is in the hands of the Mother. You need to rest, you’re asleep on your feet.”
“I’ll be fine. I want you to set up pensions for the men. A wage paid to their loved ones in the event of their death. It’s the least I can do.”
‘No, you’ve done enough’, he wanted to say, but instead replied with, “We’ll work out the details once we return home.” Coward. Too ashamed of your own flaws to stand up to the boss.
As if reading his thoughts, the boss glanced at the rapier on Rustram’s hip and raised his eyebrow in question. “So I hear you’re still having trouble with it.”
“Yes. I have no excuses. I said it before, but I’m not deserving of it. You should find someone else to be your second.”
“You’re a hard worker Mister Rustram and I have faith in you.” A small smile made it’s way onto the boss’s face.
Rustram’s face burned with embarrassment. “Lady Mila and Li Song have been trying to help me, but I still can’t manage it. Sorry boss.”
“Don’t be sorry, be better.” The recrimination was followed by a frown. “Stop being afraid and convincing yourself you’re not worthy. You are my second so the sword is yours, end of argument. If you feel yourself unworthy, then improve yourself.”
“Yes boss.” How simple he made it sound.
“Look, there’s nothing wrong with your skill with chi manipulation, you’re one of the best we have at self-healing. Describe what it’s like for you.”
“A field of darkness.” His answer was immediate, having practised during every spare moment of the past ten months, intimately familiar with the process. “I see myself sitting in the void, as if watching from a great distance, detached and aloof as the Energy of the Heaven’s fills me, mending my body and bolstering my spirit. It’s almost the same when I’m trying to bind the weapon, but after some time, a series of lights starts flashing, my meditation interrupted when I try to focus on them, like I’m thrown out or rejected by the Heavens.”
“Hmm… what are you wearing?” Taken aback by the question, Rustram stopped in place. After a few steps, the boss turned around and waited, gesturing for him to follow. “Walk and talk Mister Rustram, in the void, what are you wearing?
Mother take me now and save me from this humiliation. “Er… I’m uh… I’m not wearing anything.”
The boss’s eyes widened in mockery. “Naked huh? I didn’t take you for a vain man.” Resuming his steps with a wink, the boss added, “We’ll start simple. Don’t try too hard, remember be aware of nothing but awareness itself. Relax, meditate, and envision yourself with the sword. You are the sword and the sword is you, everything else is irrelevant. You can be naked or clothed, your choice.”
Rustram had his doubts but nodded and agreed to try it. After walking the boss back to the medical station, Rustram carried out the remainder of his duties, checking on their defences and the sentries. The camp was on high alert, worried the funeral pyres would bring unseen enemies down upon them, but the boss had insisted on the ceremony and Rustram agreed. After all, these were the first seven soldiers they’d lost, though he expected they’d lose more before this campaign came to an end.
Returning to his tent, Rustram slumped down on his bedroll and slid off his boots, his back aching from holding his head up all day. Taking off his leathers, he drew his rapier, running his fingers over the beautiful craftsmanship. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and reached for Balance.
The void engulfed him, the infinite darkness encompassing him, steeping into his very being, permeating throughout his body.
Aware of nothing, but awareness itself.
I am the sword, the sword is me.
Time passed as he repeated his mantra, the sword laid across his knees both physically and mentally.
Lights flashed in the void, but Rustram ignored the distraction, distancing himself even further until his body was but a speck on a field of darkness. The lights grew in intensity and he moved away again, falling deeper into the warm comfort of Balance. As he continued his retreat, the void took shape, sharpening until a distinct image came into focus, observing and experiencing at the same time.
Armoured in black Sentinel armour, Rustram brandished the rapier in hand. No, his rapier, and he wielded it expertly as he Perfomed the Forms, the blade brilliant and illuminating, the source of the flashes he’d seen earlier. Advance and lunge, back step and riposte, disengage and recover, every movement fluid and natural, his poise elegant and commanding, this was the man he strove to be. Not just a warrior, or a soldier, or a leader, but more than that.
A Sentinel of the People.
Groggily lifting his head, Chu Tongzu immediately regretted his actions, groaning in agony as he slumped back into his pillows. Soft hands arrived at his side, gingerly propping him up with all the care in the world, the careful movements enough to send him reeling in place. A spoon touched his lips and his hunger ignited, his tongue lapping up the warm rice gruel with an intensity he normally reserved for his favoured courtesans. For an eternity, all he could think of was food, his belly emptied and body weak, craving sustenance and nutrition.
He didn’t remember falling asleep again, but he must have. Opening his eyes, he found that the world had shifted and he was flat on his back, staring at the bed’s canopy. Recalling his last attempt to move, he laid still and assessed the situation, smacking his dried lips in a futile attempt to summon up enough saliva to speak. Once again, soft hands set to work around him, the servants readying to feed and water him. How humiliating, a Magistrate needing help to eat, how was he ever to live this down?
This time, he managed to stay awake through his meal, reaching for the retreating servant and forcing the words out. “How long have I slept for?”
“A full night and day Great One. It has been almost thirty hours since the battle.”
Shorter than expected. “Summon my Guard Captain, I need to be debriefed. The rest of you, get me dressed. Can’t hold an audience in my night-clothes.”
While they scurried to do his bidding, Tongzu circulated his Chi and inspected his body. He remembered his injuries were severe, though the only one that stood out in his mind was his gut wound. After a thorough examination, he found his wounds were at least 65% fixed, a more rapid recovery than he’d expected. Gut wounds were tricky and in his time he’d seen many soldiers die of complications from them. Whichever healer had attended to him must be an expert, though Tongzu’s excess mass offered plenty of material to work with.
“Magistrate.” Sovanna appeared at the foot of his bed, the statuesque beauty somehow arriving unnoticed. “Here I am, though I think ye’d be better off going back to sleep.”
Blinking in confusion, Tongzu glanced down and smiled. Good, his servants had managed to wrestle his unresponsive frame into a respectable robe, and he made note to reward them for their service. Sovanna was a woman worth dressing up for. “No time to sleep. Report, how many of my soldiers survived the assault?”
“…None sir.” Sovanna’s pity was clear as she moved to his side, steadying his wobbly frame. “Careful there, let’s ease ye back into yer pillows, nice and easy.” Her hands were cool and soothing as they unbuttoned his robes, his breath coming in panicked gasps. “What sort of fools do ye have looking after ye? Ain’t right to have a man sleeping in his finery. Ye could use a better tailor too, this robe is a mite too tight.”
“All of them?” Six thousand soldiers, led to their deaths by a fat fool.
“Aye. A damned shame but ye did yer best. Rest up fer now, I’ve got things in hand. Don’t ye worry bout a thing.”
Struggling against the despair, Tongzu shook his head and fought down the nausea assailing him. “What actions have you taken since?”
“…Yer a stubborn bastard ain’t ye.” Taking a wet cloth, she wiped away the sweat on his forehead and chest, her voice pleasant and soothing despite the message. “We decided the best course of action was to seal the plaza and batten down the hatches. We’ll ride out this storm, don’t you doubt.”
“Stubborn I may be, I am still your Magistrate!” A thought struck him, sending shivers down his spine. “Who’s this ‘we’ you speak of? By the Mother, don’t tell me you’ve gone to the Council for aid? A bunch of short-sighted fools intent only on their coin-purse, they cannot be trusted. Who knows if they’re working with that traitor and his bandit patron?”
“No Magistrate, my mama didn’t raise no fool. Senior Captain Gerel is who I’m referring to, not sure if you remember the baldie who caught ye? He’s one of them Bekkies working with Major Yuzhen, got sent to investigate a few missing patrols and uncovered a massive Defiled army headed towards Sanshu. He sent word back then rushed here, quick as he could. A good thing too, else ye’d have died outside the gatehouses with the rest of yer pretty soldiers. No need to fret, me and me bullies’ll hold em back come hell or high water, and Major Yuzhen will sweep out the rest, easy as turning her hand. Ye rest easy now. I might save a few bastards for ye to smash, but don’t count on it.”
Tongzu’s head sank into his pillows despite all his efforts to resist, his body refusing to obey his horrified mind. With his army in tatters and the gates standing open to receive them, a Defiled horde marched upon his city and she wanted him to ‘rest easy’? There was no one to defend Sanshu aside from a Senior Captain barbarian and his Guard Captain two days into her post.
Mother have mercy, this trial is too formidable.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|