It’s been a long time since I’ve slept alone.
I’m not sure I like it.
There’s a wrongness in the world. No twins to cuddle, no pets to invade my space, no friends to share warmth or brother to chat with, I’m left to pass the night in solitude for the first time in months, if not years. With nothing to distract me and only my breathing to fill the silence, all my errant, unwanted thoughts flood through my mind, demanding attention as I lay in the darkness, so reminiscent of my time spent in the void.
Time. The mere mention sends me off on a tangent, reviewing the ravings of a half-mad mind. Five days spent in nothingness was enough to drive me loopy, yet Baledagh spent years drifting in and out of it, only catching brief glimpses of me living out his life. Even now, he still believes we’re the same person, twin spirits in a single body, though the truth is far more insidious. I’m nothing more than a parasite, stealing control away and leaving him in the darkness. I didn’t mean to, but what use are kind intentions?
I can’t even honestly say I acted in his best interests. Was it wrong for me to hide the truth from him? Would it have changed anything? If I’d sat him down and explained everything, would he be in this situation now, having given up on everything? No, he’s a warrior, he’d fight and struggle until the end. The only reason he gave up, the only reason he hides away in his fantasies, is because he knows the only way to ever have his own life is to kill me. I didn’t tell him because I was selfish, because I knew he’d fight me and win, take control while leaving me in his place or worse. Since his awakening, all he wanted to do was help us stay alive, while all I wanted was to be rid of him. Because of me, he threw away this life which should be his, leaving me alone to wallow in my guilt.
I should be more careful with what I wish for.
Blinking away the tears, it takes little more than a thought to glimpse into his dream world, to see him smile and laugh with his family. His world is so real and consistent it fills me with a twisted sense of pride. My little brother, so confident and self-assured, unlike me he knows exactly what he wants and his dreams reflect it. No sudden shifts or changes for him, his world is real as any. All he lacks is the chance to achieve his dream, because I’m here in the real world, hogging the limelight and making a mess of things. Maybe his life would have turned out exactly as he imagines it if but for a single change. What did he do all those years before I arrived? Who raised him until the age of twelve? He doesn’t remember, but I’d do anything to make his current dreams a reality.
Even at the cost of my existence. Hell, I’ve had my chance at life. He deserves his.
Abandoning my efforts to sleep, I dress and arm myself before leaving in search of distraction, planning to train until exhaustion. Unlike me however, the soldiers of the camp are fast asleep, aside from those busy with sentry duty, and it takes some effort to find a quiet area to practice. Not to be ungrateful or anything, but a small part of me wishes Mila and Huu had come, but I understand why they didn’t. The quins can’t keep pace with horses going full throttle, though the cost is steep. We can’t push the animals too much for the next two days, and since I was brought almost a hundred kilometres in the opposite direction, it’s likely by the time we arrive, the battle for Sanshu will have been won or lost. For the sake of rescuing me, Fung, Zian, Dastan and BoShui likely threw away their chance to be heroes of the Empire and take part in defending against a Defiled insurrection.
A ‘thank you’ doesn’t seem enough to cover it.
In the darkness of night, my eyes spot a small flame in the distance, on a hilltop a short walk from camp. Moving quietly through the shadows, I slip unseen past the tired sentries and head towards the light, more out of curiosity than concern. In a few short minutes, I slip past another group of guards and hide in the shadows at the edge of a clearing, staring at the source of the light, a small brazier illuminating the night. Within the small ring of trees, Han BoShui kneels in silent vigil, his lip swollen and eye bruised, holding an unlit torch across his knees. Blinking away his tears, he seems lost in thought as he stares at the Shrike- no, at Han BoLao, his cousin, resting atop her funeral pyre, hands clasped and eyes closed as if she were merely sleeping.
A sorrowful sight, it reminds me of Baledagh’s silent vigil for Ai-Qing, the entire affair so intimate it seems wrong to intrude. As I turn to leave, BoShui’s choked words sound out behind me. “Please, come out and pay your respects. Though I’d like to send her remains back to Uncle, the circumstances force me to act otherwise.”
Freezing in place, the seconds tick by while I pray he’s talking to someone else, but I’m never lucky. I guess either my sneaking no jutsu isn’t up to par or he has a hidden expert guarding him, not that it matters. Clearing my throat, I step into the clearing and make my way to the pyre, kneeling with head bowed at BoShui’s side while resisting the urge to look at him.
I should have stayed in my tent.
Minutes pass in heavy silence as we kneel side by side before BoShui speaks again, his voice wracked with grief. “We grew up together you know? Born almost a decade apart, but as children, we were inseparable, closer to her than my siblings. My earliest memory is of snuggling in her arms as she read aloud. She smelled like lilacs and wore a purple robe embroidered with the sun and moon, but for all my efforts, I can’t remember what story she read me. Memory is a strange thing, isn’t it?”
Without waiting for an answer, he continues to speak, his misery pouring out of him once he’d found release. “Our time together lasted until I was ten years old. She was eighteen then, so busy with her studies but she always found time for me. She’d steal me away for rides on her horse or bring me to the market and buy me sweets, with a kind word and radiant smile for everyone she met. When I found out Uncle BoHai was being banished to the Wall and bringing her with him, I cried and cried. Father was lecturing Uncle in front of everyone for letting a ‘minor dispute’ get so out of hand. It was the first time and only time I disagreed with him in public. I said, ‘Uncle Bohai was just taking revenge for Aunty’. The words of a naive child.”
BoShui scoffs and shakes his head, a mocking tone to his words. “Father had me beaten, nothing overboard, just a few light strikes on the rump, but at the time, it seemed like such an injustice. Later, in private, mother explained how it was all for the Clan. Uncle should have swallowed his pride and suffered in silence, because in doing so, the Clan would prosper. The Clan first, family second, this was always the way. I didn’t understand because I thought the Clan was supposed to be family, but I nodded along and made my apologies. If I hadn’t, they wouldn’t have let me say goodbye to BoLao.”
Clenching his hands, his shoulders tremble as he continues to vent, his anger growing. “I was fifteen when I learned the truth, and in my rage, I wrote a letter to my Uncle, asking if he would accept me as disciple. When the reply came, I brought it to Father and the sheer disappointment in his eyes almost made me laugh. He had the nerve to ask why I was ‘abandoning my Clan and family’. A hypocrite, speaking without guilt as if he’d not orchestrated a plot to have his own brother tossed aside, just to become Patriarch. After much pleading, Father washed his hands of me and let me do as I pleased. He told me I had plenty of more talented and more appreciative siblings to take my place.”
A small smile crosses his face, his body relaxing as his memories arrive at happier times. “I didn’t care. I was finally free of the Clan and reunited with BoLao. What a wonderful reunion it’d been, our family together once again.” His face fell and hands clenched once again, his voice filled with scorn. “Only for a few years before her Master took her away. To the world, she became the Shrike, the Sanguine Priestess, the executioner of the Purge. They called her a mad dog and cursed her name, shivering at the thought of drawing her attentions. Every time I heard news of the Shrike, I couldn’t reconcile the tales with the memory of my sweet cousin. When I heard we were to meet again, I was prepared to find a raving madwoman, yet she arrived seemingly unchanged, smiling beautifully without a care in the world as she took me into her arms. I was her cousin, her family, and she was so happy to see me, even after I abandoned her to that monster.”
With a shuddering sigh, BoShui stands and draws his sword while I remain on my knees. Staring into his eyes, I see the tortured soul within, wresting with guilt and rage over the loss of his cousin, a feeling I know all too well. “My clan will disavow her and the world will call her a madwoman, but she was my family and I must know. Was she wrong? Answer me Falling Rain, are you Defiled?”
I don’t want to outright lie to him, but I can’t admit the truth. Closing my eyes, I collect my thoughts before turning to the pyre, leaving BoShui standing at my side. “You know, everyone was warning me to tread lightly around her, but my first impression of her was of someone who’d been misunderstood. I thought she followed her beliefs and suffered for them, with rumours and hearsay exaggerating events. Even though I disagreed with her actions, I sympathized in my own way, which I think is why I was so adamant about changing her view on the Purge.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Regretting my decision to leave a bereaved swordsman out of sight, I approach the pyre while BoShui follows closely behind. She looks so peaceful and happy, I almost envy her. “I wasn’t wrong. She was misunderstood and she truly believed the Purge was necessary for one simple reason: she needed to believe. Without her faith to shoulder her burdens, she was left with nothing but years spent as a torturer, her hands covered in the blood of innocents. Laughing Dragon offered a chance for redemption and she couldn’t help but grasp at it, a woman drowning in her guilt.” Placing my palms together, I close my eyes and bow. “I pray the Mother takes you in her arms and grants you mercy, Han BoLao. Your suffering is at an end. Rest in peace.”
Straightening up, I step back and wait as BoShui sobs in silence, his sword point first in the dirt. Long minutes pass before he recovers, clutching his cousin’s hand as he whispered his farewells under the starry night sky, the moon hidden in the vast darkness. Tossing the torch on the pyre, we stand side by side as it ignites, watching the flames cleanse away the remains of Han BoLao. No matter what crimes she committed or what the world might say of her, she was his cousin, she was loved, and she will be missed.
That’s something, I suppose.
Seeing BoShui mourn his loss puts a new spin on things for me. As a detached third-party, I empathize with him, but once I leave, my life will move on, unchanged from before. That’s not true for BoShui. Because of how much he loved her, her loss will cling to him for months, if not years, a private burden to carry. It’s almost too depressing to think about, to know how our greatest joys will someday become our greatest sorrows. Perhaps life would be easier without any attachments.
For example, if I hadn’t gotten so attached to Baledagh, I wouldn’t care if he disappeared or stayed in his dreams forever. Logically speaking, leaving him be would make things so much easier. Who wants to share a life? By all rights, I should thank him for stepping back, for allowing me to be Falling Rain without the burden of guilt. He gave up, passed the torch so to speak, and who am I to argue against his decision?
…You tricky mother fuckers.
The curtains in my mind come crashing down and the world is right once more. I’m his brother, that’s who. Maybe not by birth but close enough.
This world is savage and unforgiving, but I am who I am: a child of two worlds inhabiting a body with two minds.
No matter how absurd it might seem, I must remain true to myself. I stole this body, plain and simple, so I need to make things right. I’ll give Baledagh a kick in the pants and get him back on track. He’ll be Falling Rain and I’ll be me, only in another body. Maybe something with bear arms or rocket cannons, who knows. Demon’s don’t always inhabit people or beasts, so there must be a way to craft myself a body. Fuck the Spectres, they have no power over me.
The Spectres wail over their abject failure as I close them off from my mind, yet remain wary of their meddling. They gave me exactly what I wanted, or at least let me think I did. I had my brother back, my body in full control, and their influence ‘gone’. Hiding themselves in plain sight, their insidious whispers sank deep into my mind, hoping to guide my actions through guile and deceit. After enough darkness covered my soul, they’d reveal everything and force me to see the truth, dropping me into a pit of despair. What would happen if I gave up as well? Would Baledagh emerge, or would the Demons take over?
They care for nothing but pain and suffering, feeding on it, growing strong from it, and I cannot allow this to continue. I need to figure out how to truly be rid of them, but until I do, I need to be cautious and carefully examine every one of my actions. I know what I need to do.
The pyre burns down to nothingness before BoShui ends his vigil and we return to camp together. Parting ways, I head towards to the other side of camp, to a small tent tucked away in a corner so not as to disturb anyone. The guards make no action to stop me, the tent flap held aside to reveal Laughing Dragon, his flesh and organs laid bare while he still drew breath. His pleading eyes stare desperately from behind what remains of his eyelids, his ruined throat issuing indistinguishable groans. His peeled skin threatens to fall right off his body as he shudders and squirms, fighting to free himself from his restraints. At his side, Fung’s nondescript torturer Fu Zhu Li stands with blade in hand, his clothes spotless as he greets me with a bow. “Warrant Officer Rain,” he drones in his bland, monotonous voice. “This one is honoured by your presence. Are you here to watch the proceedings or take part?”
“Neither.” Ignoring him, I speak to Laughing Dragon. “By your own account, you’ve tortured and tormented countless people. What you suffer now is only a fraction of the suffering you’ve administered to others, without mercy or compassion. Many would believe your torture to be a balancing of scales, a justice of sorts. But,” I add, “I disagree. I realized something. Your suffering or mine, it matters not to the Father, so long as someone is suffering.”
Laughing Dragon’s eyes widen as his frantically nods, his grunts and moans seeming to agree with me. He understands, he knows the Spectres want death and destruction, no matter the cost. Human nature makes their jobs easy, but I’ll fight it wherever I can. Peace sings as it cuts through the air and slices through flesh and bone, decapitating the Defiled Warrior in a single slash, blood spraying across my face as relief splashes across his. With a flick of the blade, I return Peace to its sheath and stand, lost in thought.
“Water and a towel, young hero.” Taking my actions in stride, Fu Zhu Li presents me with a wash basin, his head still bowed. Taking the proffered cloth, I absently wipe away Laughing Dragon’s blood, wondering how the torturer feels about my actions. Sensing my thoughts, Zhu Li quirks his lips in a half-smile. “Worry not young hero. So long as you are true to the young master, this servant holds no grudges. These skills were learned out of necessity, not pleasure.”
At a loss for words, I merely nod and thank him for the towel. Somehow, that sours his smile, disapproving of my actions. Storming in to interrupt his work earns me a smile, but thanking him is frown-worthy. I’ll never understand the people here. Marching out of the tent, I find myself walking upright, head held high despite my weariness, a weight lifted from my shoulders. Who cares about doing things the easy way. I’ve never been one to shirk from a challenge. Everything will work out, I’ll figure something out as I go. I mean, I’ve been doing that since the second I got here, and I’m still breathing, so I must be doing something right.
The moment my head touches the pillow, my worries melt away as I fall into blissful, guilt-free slumber.
– End of Volume 10 –
Author’s note: I’d intended on wrapping up Sanshu and the Bridge in this volume, but seeing as I’d only have 3-5 chapters to do so, I decided to leave it to next volume. No hiatus, there will be a chapter on monday as normal.
As always, thanks for reading.
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