The quiet commotion of the camp coming to life rouses me from slumber, my breath catching in my throat as I watch her gracefully rise in the dim interior of my tent. Her long shirt hangs loosely from her shoulders as she stretches out the kinks in her body, gently twisting left, and then right. The thin fabric pressed against her tanned skin, her feminine form on full display, she greets the morning with a series of muffled gasps, blissful sounds of sheer satisfaction.
Lazily rolling her neck about, her silken hair cascades into place on one side of her supple neck, nice and neat without a strand out-of-place. Running her comb through the flowing locks, her movements are almost mechanical, brush, brush, brush, part, and repeat. Free of worry and fear, she’s nothing more than young woman going through a morning ritual, preparing herself to face the day.
So strange to see Li Song like this, the stony-faced warrior nowhere in sight. Her usual grim scowl has been replaced with a tranquil, almost childlike innocence, her eyes shimmering pools of green staring out at nothing. Even on the worst of days she’s nothing short of beautiful, but this is more than that. There’s a sublime spiritual air about her, a sense of serenity and composure combined with an atmosphere so private and personal it’s breathtaking. Sensing how inappropriate it is for me to continue watching, I shut my eyes in remorseful embarrassment.
I should be ashamed. With Mila snuggled against my chest and Lin madly in love with me, instead of appreciating what I have, here I am ogling Li Song first thing in the morning. For Shame. Bad Rain. Lin is so sweet and loving, a breath of fresh air in a suffocating world, and Mila is a pragmatic, supportive young woman, putting aside her dignity to come comfort you in the middle of the night. You don’t deserve either one of them, but you’ve won them over somehow, so don’t fuck it up. Sure, Li Song is subjectively one of the most beautiful women you’ve ever met, with her voluptuous frame and supple figure, long legs and large, perfectly shaped– wait, no, I’m getting sidetracked. Think unsexy thoughts. Baseball. Trigonometry. Eczema.
“Why do you pretend to sleep?” My body tenses at Li Song’s whispered greeting. Hair neatly braided and bangs perfectly framing her face, she tilts her head and watches me carefully as she straps into her armour. “There is much work to be done.”
Careful not to let my eyes wander, I sheepishly shrug. “Thought you’d appreciate a little privacy.”
A small widening of her eyes, about as expressive as she gets if it’s not a glare. “I apologize for delaying you.” Her tone is anything but apologetic, though she inclines her head slightly. “It is time for Master to wake.”
“Ah, I can handle that.” Stroking Mila’s cheek gently, my betrothed smacks her lips and murmurs, adorably struggling to stay asleep. “Time to wake, love.” Ignoring me, she groans in annoyance and shifts aside, adamant on sleeping for at least a few minutes more.
Li Song’s stare makes me feel unfairly judged, so I hurry things along with a more insistent poke to the cheek. My efforts earn me a meaty smack in the face, the sudden violence catching me off guard, blinking in surprise as I check for bleeding. With the ghost of a smile, Li Song remarks, “It is best to wake Master from arms length.”
Now she tells me. I swear, I get no respect even though she’s all meek and deferential to everyone else. I don’t mind most days, in fact, I think it’s a marked improvement, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little annoyed at getting punched in the nose. Slipping out from under Mila, I sit up and guard myself before shaking her awake. With a tortured groan, she rolls onto her side and bats my hand away, glaring at me with half-opened eyes. “Too early,” she says with a pout. “Five more minutes.”
“Sorry love, stay in bed long as you like. I’ll send someone for you when breakfast is ready.” Mother have mercy on the poor soul.
“Ah!” Wide-eyed and fully alert in an instant, Mila pulls the blankets over her head with a squeak. “Go away, you can’t see me like this.”
“Relax, you’re lovely as a blossoming flower.” A little dishevelled, but lovely all the same. “Aren’t we past this? It’s a little odd to be so shy after drooling on me all night.”
“How dare you?” Popping out from the blanks, she glares defiantly at me, challenging me to disagree. “I do not drool.”
“This wet patch on my shoulder proves otherwise.” Heading off her attempts to argue, I lean over for a kiss. “Thank you.”
“Ah, such are the burdens of being your betrothed.” Stifling a yawn, she wraps her arms around my neck and pulls me close, still half-asleep. “I did what was needed. It’s bad for morale to have the commanding officer jumping at nightmares.”
Though she’s only joking, her words strike a chord. “Does it bother you being betrothed to a coward?”
“Idiot, if you were a coward we wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be bothering with you.” Pushing me away, she smiles radiantly while pinching my cheeks. “You’re cautious if I’m being polite, a worrier if I’m being honest. It’s fine as long as you don’t go overboard, which is what I’m here for. Now go out there and do your job, I need to brush my hair and get dressed without your lecherous eyes all over me.”
After getting kicked out of my tent, I scrounge up a meal for my pets and leave to check on the wounded, finding no surprises lying in wait. They’ll all recover given enough time, though a handful will need watching in case their situation worsens. For the first time, I’m fighting without a Medical Saint on standby to take care of everyone’s injuries, bringing to light unforeseen challenges. Everyone knows how to heal themselves, but that’s not entirely useful when they’re unconscious. I need medics in the group, not full-blown healers but someone trained in the basics of first-aid at least. Maybe Dilara wouldn’t have bled out if I’d been smart enough to think of this beforehand…
Stop it. No backtracking.
The major barrier to having a group of medics is a lack of medicine to go around. If only I could figure out a way to sow and harvest a crop of medicinal herbs, but many have tried before, including Taduk. He says the herbs don’t do well in a garden or farm because they require the Energy of the Heavens, something reliant on luck. I’m not wholly convinced it’s impossible, but then again, when am I ever? Either way, if I could grow an entire field of fox-glove root, I’d be able to supply my troopers with medical super glue en masse, which means they could survive anything short of a death-blow.
Maybe when I get home, I’ll try my hand at gardening. At least it’d be a hell of a lot safer than soldiering.
Shortly after finishing my rounds, Lin leaps into my arms in greeting. “Morning hubby.” Her smile melts from her face as she stands on her tiptoes, sniffing my neck with suspicion. “How come you smell like Mi-Mi?”
If not for the bunny ears on her head, I’d think she was half-bloodhound. Ignoring my first instinct to lie, I bring her aside and gently explain what happened. My sweet little wifey takes the news in stride, only pouting a little as her arms clamp around my waist. “Unfair, Mi-Mi stole a march on me. Okay, from now on, I’ll be staying in your tent hubby.”
“Absolutely not.” The Guard leader’s refusal is immediate, her tone brooking no argument, though Lin tries regardless.
“You told me I should do whatever I want. I want to sleep in Rainy’s tent.”
The Guard leader pauses, the first sign of hesitation I’ve seen from her. “…That advice was conditional on the basis of my support. You may do whatever you please, so long as I allow it. You will not be sleeping in the foundlings tent.”
“His name is Rainy, not foundling, and while we’re at it, it’s Li-Li, not thrall!” Defiant and fearless, my little wifey stands with her fists on her hips and head held high. “And I am sleeping in Rainy’s tent.”
Sensing this argument will take too much time and not wanting a repeat of my earlier idiocy, I kiss Lin on the cheek and tell her not to be stubborn, smoothing things over with a promise to spend more time with her when I can. True to my promise, I bring her on my inspection around the camp before we head back to Yuzhen. It’s not like my soldiers need me looking over their shoulders, but the attention keeps them on their toes, a little trick I learned from Baatar. “Silva, straighten up your quins harness, it’ll rub him raw like that. He has to carry your fat ass so the least you can do is make him as comfortable as possible. Viyan, Birca, if you have time to sit around jerking each other off, your time can be better used meditating. Cham, hand over the flask and report for latrine duty every day until further notice.”
Faced with my ire, these hardened soldiers merely smile sheepishly and salute, a world of difference compared to how they act when my bully sergeants Ravil or Bulat lay down the verbal abuse, but maybe it has something to do with Rustram rushing ahead to tidy up the worst offenders. A few minutes ago, Silva’s quin wasn’t even harnessed, Viyan and Birca are only sitting around because they’re hiding their dice game, and at least Cham has a nice hot cup of tea to sober him up.
Rustram’s doing a great job as good cop to my bad cop, but he tries too hard to be liked when he should work harder to be respected. It’s not his fault entirely, I should have told him to keep his weapon binding dilemma to himself. Things will change as soon as he binds the rapier, the first of my band of former cripples to receive one. Maybe it’d be easier to fill my retinue with skilled Sentinels, but I prefer the group I have. I don’t even know if skilled Sentinels would want to follow me, and I’m comfortable around my people. This scrappy little group of mine is determined to reach the apex, so I’ll do everything I can to see they survive the journey.
Besides, who doesn’t love an underdog story?
Her head throbbing, Yuzhen took a deep breath and resisted the overwhelming urge to curl up into a ball and cry. It would be unseemly. Swallowing her fear, she studied the two Bekhai youngsters standing tall before the gathered Officers. Huushal, battered but not beaten, his handsome face marred and bloodied, in stark contrast to Rain, standing without a scratch on him, cold and aloof. No smile or blush for her, not today and perhaps never again. “This is grave news,” she said. “The Butcher Bay Bandits have been in place for decades, who knows how far their influence truly reaches? Worse, what if the Corsairs and countless other bandit groups are also Defiled? It explains how an army of 20,000 went unnoticed for so long.”
“They’re not your normal Defiled either.” Rain gestured to his second who handed her a massive, two-handed sword. “I took this off of Hideous Helvend. Try channelling your Chi into it.”
Raising her eyebrow, she only hesitated for a moment. Though they now knew Helvend was Defiled, this was still his Spiritual Weapon and attempting to use it while he was still alive would be disastrous. Surely Rain wasn’t angry enough to have her killed, especially in such an overt manner? Dismissing her doubts, she exerted her efforts and sent a thread of Chi into the weapon, almost dropping it as she recoiled in revulsion. The core of the weapon was a writhing mass of darkness made furious over the intrusion of Heavenly Energy, an unclean object of power. “A Defiled weapon, hidden in plain sight.”
“Probably helped them escape detection, no one thinks to question someone wielding a Spiritual Weapon.” Shaking his head, Rain lowered his voice. “Every single bandit I killed had one like it, down to the most basic warrior. Not only do they outnumber the soldiers in Sanshu, but last I checked, not every guard in Sanshu carries a Spiritual Weapon.”
“The Enemy also counts several Wraiths among them,” Huushal’s second, Kalil added, speaking for the injured Warrant Officer. “Though three less after our clash.”
Yuzhen heard the unspoken advice in the older warrior’s voice, nodding in thanks for his discretion. “And you were unable to confirm the Enemy numbers?”
“No, but I know why they’re hitting the outposts, and it’s not only to whittle down the numbers.” Again, Rain gestured and this time his second handed her a dark container stamped with Sanshu’s seal. “The outposts are all armed with wall-mounted catapults and keep a small cache of oil on hand. The group we came across had enough oil gathered to level a small town. My best guess is they’re stocking up to make it easier for Gen to burn Sanshu to the ground.”
“I’m still not entirely convinced they’re aiming for the city.” Yuzhen ran the numbers through her head once more, confident in her appraisal. “Even if there were twice as many Defiled, the city has enough soldiers and guards to hold the walls indefinitely, or at least long enough for help to arrive.”
“I agree with the Major on this.” Kalil chimed in, his words slow and firm. “They would do far more damage by avoiding the city altogether.”
“If Sanshu isn’t their target, then why group up?” Rain shrugged. “The smart move would have been to split the twenty-thousand strong army into 200 groups of 100 men each, and send them off in different directions. Gerel wouldn’t have found them so easily, and we wouldn’t have been tipped off. They could have caused more chaos and made it harder for us to contain and control. No, they’re fixing to burn the city to the ground and confident in their chances. Remember, Yo Ling has had decades to get his people in place, so the city guards may be unreliable. We need to change course and ride directly for the city. No more scouting forays searching for targets to hit, keeping only a few outriders ahead to make sure we’re not riding into an ambush. If I’m right, Sanshu could already be under attack.”
“Insolent whelp.” An officer from Shen Yun sneered at Rain. “Who are you to give commands here?”
“Silence, I’ll not have us bickering amongst ourselves.” Yuzhen exerted her authority immediately, keeping Rain from making yet another enemy. “His suggestion holds merit. Even if the Enemy avoids Sanshu, we will need the aid of the soldiers stationed there to remove these traitorous Defiled from our lands. Move with all haste, we set out for Sanshu within the half-hour. I want to be knocking on the gates before tomorrow night. Dismissed.”
As she rode away from the meeting, one of BoLao lackeys stood waiting. “The Priestess Han requests your presence, along with Falling Rain’s. She wishes to discuss the prisoners.”
Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Yuzhen collected Rain and followed the Aspirant. These past few days, BoLao was near inconsolable, a complete wreck as she struggled with her inner turmoil, unable to come to grips with the truth. Though she sympathized with the poor woman, her patience was wearing thin, especially after BoLao publicly broke down when Yuzhen suggested they return to sleeping in separate tents. The resulting display had set the soldier’s tongues to wagging as they spread word of an illicit affair between the Shrike and the future Marshal of the North. Some of the rumours which reached her ears were absurdly detailed, and while Yuzhen was open-minded, she’d sooner stick her fingers into a dragons mouth than strike up a courtship with BoLao. She’d hoped giving the poor girl a few Defiled to torment would make things better and prayed this wasn’t another meltdown.
Dismounting from her horse at the edge of camp, Yuzhen pushed past the Aspirants and crossed her arms, in no mood to deal with BoLao’s antics. Fully garbed in her torturer’s gear and her vambraces strapped to her wrists, BoLao appeared calmer than she had in days, an easy smile on her lovely face. “Thank you for coming so quickly Major, it’s much appreciated.”
Perhaps torturing the Defiled did put her head in the right place. “Get on with it, BoLao. My men are breaking camp as we speak. I know you’d rather carry on with your holy duties, so you and your Aspirants are free to remain behind, but I cannot leave you with any guards and must commandeer your horses.”
“You’re most welcome to them, Major.” BoLao merely nodded, her eyes fixated on Rain who weathered the gaze admirably.
“Well?” Rain asked, his eyebrow raised. “What’s all this about.”
Turning aside, BoLao revealed her Aspirants dragging out one of the Defiled prisoners, his naked chest sporting a flapping square of skin, hanging open like a grotesque window into his flesh. “Aye, that’s him, I seen him, felt him,” Laughing Dragon babbled, the fear evident in his eyes. “Called himself Baledagh then, but I sussed out who he was. Falling Rain, and he’s Defiled as any, I swear it to be true. See, I’m willing to help, I’ll be yer bloodhound and pick out all the Defiled in the province, in the Empire itself if need be.”
Taken aback, Yuzhen gaped as the Aspirants turned on Rain, clubbing him into submission. “This is madness,” she screamed, diving in to save him, but BoLao moved to intercept. “You saw yourself, he proved his purity multiple times in front of everyone. Laughing Dragon is lying, he’d do anything to spare himself the pain.”
“Perhaps he is,” BoLao allowed, her smile slipping. “But too much of what Laughing Dragon says rings true. His confession reminded me of Falling Rain’s claims, that there were no Defiled among the prisoners. How did he know if he is not Defiled himself?” Her eyes hardened. “I must put the boy to the question and I knew you’d object. Thank you for your aid and support Yuzhen, but my faith demands this be answered.”
BoLao struck, and with Yuzhen’s sword still in its sheathe, she was little match for the armed Shrike. Breaking through her guard in three passes, BoLao’s knee impacted against Yuzhen’s jaw, rattling her brain as she collapsed in the dirt. Her vision fading, she watched the Aspirants ride off into the west, carrying Falling Rain away from Sanshu.
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