The waxing moon sat high in the night sky before the army came to a halt, much to Mila’s relief. In her opinion, Major Yuzhen pushed them too hard these past few days, her worries overshadowing her sense and obscuring the simple truth before her eyes. Though time was short, how were they to fight after exhausting all their strength on the journey there? It would be at least another full day of hard riding before they reached the city, and after days of eating nothing but travel bread and jerky, the soldiers were in no condition to fight, to say nothing of the horses. Many war-mounts had already been lamed by the journey and more would follow if they continued at this break-neck pace. Everyone needed to rest, even a half day would do. Perhaps she’d wake early and have a word with the Major, though whether her advice would be well received remained to be seen.
Though she wanted to curl up and sleep, Mila left Song tending to the quins and strode off to attend her own duties. After so many long months of dependence, Song finally seemed comfortable with independence, deciding how to spend her days without prompting. Though all she did was groom the animals, meditate, and practice the Forms, it was a marked improvement over following at Mila’s heels and constantly seeking validation.
It seemed so unfair. Now that Song was more self-reliant, it was supposed to mean Mila was free to go about her days in peace. It’s not that she didn’t enjoy Song’s company, but her constant presence was stifling at times, like when Mila wanted to spend time alone with Rain. However, since leaving the Bridge, she’d gained two new shadows, Tenjin and Tursinai never out of sight. It wasn’t their fault, they were tasked to be her bodyguards, though Mother knows how many more were guarding her from the shadows. How was Mila supposed to grow as a warrior with all this coddling? She needed to experience adversity and take risks, though not as often or extreme as a certain mule-headed fool.
Worst of all, she found her guard’s company especially chafing of late. The two former bannermen had no shame, flaunting their love with hand-holding and food sharing, giggling softly as they whispered sweet nothings to one another in full view of those around them. So nauseating, it made her stomach roil just thinking about it, but there nothing to be done but ignore them. Tursinai found great joy in irritating those around her and if the mischievous hooligan knew Mila found her public displays of affection distasteful, then she’d likely escalate things even further.
Tenjin must have the patience of a saint to put up with her.
With a long-suffering sigh, Mila pushed aside her grievances and set to work, joining Major Yuzhen’s aides in organizing the soldier’s billets, arranging sentry duty, and resolving complaints and disputes. With over ten-thousand elites from four cities, one would think these top-notch soldiers would be competent individuals able to resolve their grievances in a calm, mature manner, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Well used to having their every need catered to, the complete lack of servants turned them into whiny, indignant children, unable to handle most basic tasks. One unit from Shen Yun outright refused to ‘demean’ themselves carrying water, even going as far as suggesting it was a chore meant for ‘inferior half-beasts’ like herself.
A haughty, arrogant, entitled lot, Mila wanted nothing more than to smash a few heads together and put her bodyguards to work. Unfortunately, she’d asked for this responsibility and she was nothing if not stubborn, never one to back down from a challenge or go crying to her superiors. Since the unit from Shen Yun didn’t want to carry water, she set them to task digging latrines every night since. Their angry glares filled her with smug satisfaction as she sauntered past and inspected their work, though she kept the smile off her face.
Elites they might be, they were soldiers, plain and simple. To disobey a direct order during war meant death, and they dared not openly rebel against Major Yuzhen. Though how they’d come to believe Mila spoke with the Major’s authority was a mystery, Mila was in no rush to correct them. After all, she’d never lied and could hardly be blamed for their faulty interpretation. “Well done soldiers,” she said with a nod. “Your unit is on second watch. Report to the eastern quadrant for your postings.” A small, collective groan accompanied Mila’s departure, no longer hiding her smile. Second shift was the least desirable, since sleep was interrupted by duty.
Hmph. Call her inferior, will they?
It took the better part of an hour before Mila finished her duties and returned to her tent, stepping in to find it far too crowded for her tastes. Stinking of dirt, dust, and animal musk, Jimu and Sarankho laid sprawled out across the floor, stubbornly occupying three-quarters of the available space. In one corner, Lin distracted a bear cub which allowed Song to file its nails undisturbed, while in the other corner sat Auric, his hind legs splayed out like a person in an unsightly display. Ears flattened and head drooped, he perked up briefly at her entrance before settling back down with a low chuff, upset she wasn’t Rain.
Heart aching, at the sight, Mila gingerly stepped around the cats and took Auric’s face in her hands, massaging his chin and snout like Rain often did. Closing his eyes, the cat nuzzled her roughly, his chest rumbling in delight. “Oh Auric,” she muttered, shaking her head, “That idiot Rain has ruined you with all his coddling. What part of you looks like the graceful hunter or ferocious warrior you were born to become? At this rate you’ll grow into a fat failure of a housecat…”
“Silly Mi-Mi,” Lin said with a tired smile. “Hubby knows exactly what he’s doing, he doesn’t want the kitties to fight. You saw how sad he was when Mafu was injured, Rainy would be happiest seeing his pets grow fat and lazy.”
“Foolish man, that’s no way for a majestic creature to live.” Shaking her head, Mila’s vexation bubbled up. “He’ll beggar himself caring for all the helpless orphans he comes across. Am I to surrender and accept my lot in life, devoting myself to caring for these deficient creatures? What happens when we have children? Will he coddle and pamper them too, raising them into spoiled brats who can’t wipe their own asses? I suppose he thinks I’ll be content as the housewife, nattering at home and caring for his children and pets while he rides around playing the hero. Well, he’s in for a rude awakening, I’ll not stand for it, not for one minute.”
Fed up with his manicure, the bear cub escaped from Song’s grasp and stood to hug Mila’s calves, grunting mournfully as his little brown eyes stared hopefully at her. Puffing her cheeks, Mila did her best to ignore it but the little cub was too adorable to resist. Picking him up, she nuzzled the beast close as it settled against her shoulder with a contented sigh, happy to sleep in the comfort of her arms. Okay, so having a pet wasn’t all bad, but she had no idea what to do when these bears grew full sized.
Patting her on the leg, Lin patiently smiled. “I miss Rainy too. They’ll bring him back safe and sound, I’m sure of it.”
So strong and brave, Lin was amazing. All her indignation fled as Mila sat down with a huff, leaning against Lin with a pout. “I feel so helpless sitting here, waiting for news. Rationally, I understand it was the right choice to send Fung and the rest, but aside from him, I have no reason to trust any of the other officers. What if Zian purposely lets Rain come to harm or BoShui helps his cousin escape?”
Song chimed in, much to Mila’s surprise. “Then we will hunt down the Shrike and rescue him ourselves.” The simple statement helped Mila compose herself, filling her with confidence and aplomb, which Song immediately ruined by adding, “Or avenge him.” Song shrugged, indifferent to the outcome.
Resisting the urge to pinch her cheeks, Mila thanked her with a hug and prepared for bed. Song was right, whether a joyous reunion or sorrowful funeral awaited them, she had no power to change things from here. Better to rest than fret over the possibilities, there was still a war to fight.
If Rain came to harm, however, Mila would bring more death and destruction to the Empire than the Defiled could ever hope to achieve. It might take her decades or even centuries, but she would not be denied justice.
Sumila, Disciple of Akanai, Apprentice of Husolt, and Sentinel of the People, was not a woman to be crossed lightly.
Within Chao Yong’s luxurious manor sat a beautiful garden, Yong’s pride and joy, so much so that calling it a mere garden seemed an affront. Painstakingly tended to by a veritable army of servants, it boasted of no less than three hundred varieties of rare flowers, chosen and cultured for their coloration and scent. A vibrant feast for the eyes and nose, he had the entrance to his manor moved so his guests were brought through the garden before entering his home. Oftentimes, when the stress of work and life brought him low, he’d have his porters bring him to the seven-story pagoda in the centre of the garden, carrying him up to the highest room where he would bask in the beauty of the multi-hued field of flowers. Most days, after listening to his musicians strum a few soulful tunes and drinking a pot of priceless Zhen Jing tea, all his problems would melt away, leaving him ready to deal with whatever vexing issues lay in his path.
Not today. Today, the fragrant tea sat untouched, cooling in its Imperial Jade pot while the field of flowers went unnoticed. Sitting in his armchair, Yong stared east with intense concentration, focusing only on the manor’s entrance and nothing else as his fingers drummed across the Agar wood table. Alone but for his guards, it was a true trial of fortitude and tolerance. No girls to tend to his needs, no musician to play the classics, no slave to fan him lightly while he sat in the sweltering heat, he waited for what he hoped would be favourable news.
It would have been so much easier if that damned hulking giantess knew her place. A font of vulgar obscenities and uncultured mannerisms, Sovanna’s blatant refusal to open the gates infuriated him to no end. What use were the gates when the Enemy was already inside Sanshu? All they did was bar his departure, though not for long, the Mother willing. Were it not for that cretin’s inhuman physique and the risk of Wraiths coming into his home, he’d have sent his guards to teach her a lesson on who truly held power in this city. A shame, but his time and efforts couldn’t be wasted on a mere Staff Sergeant.
Spying movement at the manor gate, Yong moved to the banister and squinted, able to make out a slave scurrying towards the pagoda. After mere minutes of running, as if attempting to draw Yong’s ire, the scrawny slave stopped to rest, head down and chest heaving, a worthless slacker. This was what the Chief Councilman of the Eastern Prosperity Alliance had been reduced to, sending his musicians to run messages. Once word of Butcher Bay’s impending invasion spread, the damned servants all refused to come to work, huddling inside their hovels with their worthless families. Fools one and all, had they remained loyal and useful, he might have brought them away and saved them from death. A good riddance to them all, more fodder for the Butchers.
In the future, Yong decided to purchase more slaves. In fact, he would transition entirely to a slave force, as he should have from the beginning. It was all Ban’s fault, the fool did a few paltry calculations and claimed it was cheaper to pay servants a pittance instead of purchasing skilled slaves outright. Though they saved coin on expenses like food and amenities by passing those costs onto the servants, it was a small price to pay for absolute obedience.
The memory of his murdered brother put Yong in an even fouler mood, once again reminded how Ban had yet to be avenged. Ever since that half-beast bitch Yuzhen stepped into his fair city, nothing had gone right. Now, with Sanshu on the brink of destruction, Sovanna seemed intent on having all its inhabitants join her in a glorious death. An uneducated half-wit too scared to even think logically, why Tongzu promoted her over anyone else was a mystery, but Yong had no intention of staying to find out.
When the slave stopped to rest again, Yong snapped, “Send my sedan and have him brought up. Wait, have it emptied first, and lay down a clean blanket. He is to touch nothing, I’ll not have my sedan fouled by a slave. Burn the blanket when you’re done.” Returning to his armchair, he smoothed out his robes and waited in stony silence for the slave to arrive.
Still breathless as he stumbled into the room, the musician turned messenger fell to his knees before Yong. “Master, this lowly slave apologizes a thousand times.” Slapping himself across the face, the slave continued to speak as tears fell from his eyes. “This slave is weak, this slave is inadequate.”
“Enough.” On a normal day, he would allow the slave to continue repenting, but time was of the essence. “What news have you?”
“This slave conveyed Master’s wishes to Sergeant Yimu as instructed. A thousand apologies, but the Sergeant has made demands. In return for raising the river gates, he wants five hundred gold and passage for himself, his guards, and their families, twenty-three people in total.”
Extortion is what this was, blatant theft. Gritting his teeth, Yong wave his hand and nodded. “Fine. How long until the barges are fully loaded?”
After a pause, his guard answered, “Twelve hours Great One.”
“Tell them to hurry. Inform the Sergeant we will be leaving in ten hours. I’ll brook no delay, as soon as the barges leave my manor, the whole city will know my intentions.” Frowning, he sat back and contemplated how to accommodate twenty-odd freeloaders. Turning to his guards, he raised his eyebrow and asked, “You know this Sergeant?” A nod. “Can you kill him and his men without difficulty?” Another nod, accompanied by a smile. “After the gates are raised and my barges safely out of the city, send the Sergeant and his entourage over the side to feed the fishes. The five hundred gold promised to them is yours.” As an afterthought, he added, “When the time comes, throw that worthless slave overboard as well.”
No one would miss them, a group of cowards willing to betray Sanshu. Their deaths would go unnoticed since the city was undoubtedly doomed. All was arranged and this time tomorrow, Yong would be safely away from the city, sailing down the Xiang Mi river. Distracted by his relief, he accidentally glanced out the window and saw the billowing plumes of dark smoke, his mood souring in an instant. Tearing his eyes away, he tried to pour himself a cup of tea, but his hands shook too much to manage it. Tossing the pot aside, he stood so forcefully he upended his chair. “Come, I return to the Manor to rest.” Ten hours, he only needed Sovanna and her guards to hold for ten hours, then all would be well.
He prayed the incompetent bitch could manage as much, though it was optimistic to say the least.
Vithar stood in the darkness at his garo’s side, hand clamped firmly around the beast’s muzzle. Though unhappy at the treatment, the creature waited patiently, motionless and silent. The northern wastes were unforgiving and noise carried vast distances in the frozen plains. Creatures incapable of silence rarely survived adolescence.
Things were much different here in the southern forests. Even now in the dark of night, unfamiliar noise filled the air as creatures skittered and flit about in search of food. A bountiful, merciful land, the south fostered weakness and carelessness, though Vithar was too tenacious to let his vigilance slip. Too many of his foes and rivals laid dead in the north because of their negligence. He would know, since he often took advantage of their failings.
Too sloppy and haphazard these southerners, if not for the Uniter’s orders, Vithar would have slain them all and offered their blood to the ancestors. Still, the orders had been to work with the Southerners, not take their orders, so when the aged thief instructed him to wait outside the city, Vithar had disregarded them and left, bringing his riders west.
An army of ten-thousand rode to the city’s aid according to the aged thief. It was not Vithar’s way to sit and wait. He was no goat to be staked out for the garo, he was the hunter, the pursuer. A clever hunter would know this army would be tired and weary. A clever hunter would take the field, killing on his own terms and not the enemy’s. His three-thousand garo riders were easily worth thirty-thousand of these weak southerners, they’d proved as much in the first battle, for the city called Shen Mu. Here, tonight, he held every advantage and he never liked to see an opportunity pass.
His scouts returned and Vithar grinned at their tidings. The southerners were camped only an hour away, fatigued and overworked, their spirits low and bodies taxed. Tonight, his riders would taste blood once more and make a great offering to the ancestors, before returning to the city in victory to partake in its destruction.
Bending knee to the Uniter was the best decision Vithar ever made. War and bloodshed without end, a promise made and a promise kept.
Author’s note: I had a different meme lined up but then I saw this on reddit while eating lunch. It fit too well to let pass. Sometimes, things just fall into place.
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