The raid ended abruptly as it began, the Defiled disappearing into the night without a trace and leaving the camp in quiet disarray. Standing on the brink of exhaustion, Yuzhen’s sword trailed in the mud as she wandered the camp, blood and death assailing her from every direction. As she struggled to set order to the chaos, she noted more than one warrior sporting a blank, unfocused gaze, still reeling from the unexpected end to the deadly and shocking attack.
Difficult to believe this was her army of elites, so dazzling in the light of day but so pitiful once illuminated by the flames of war. Suppressing the urge to hide away in her tent, Yuzhen fell headlong into her duties, first organizing a new sentry detail, for whatever good it might do. Another team went out to collect the horses, their panicked flight likely doing as much damage to her soldiers as the Defiled had. An ironic way for a soldier to die, trampled beneath the hooves of his own mount, but war was a perverse thing, delighting in all manner of misery and destruction. Once the other tasks were sorted out, all that was left was to clean up, an unpleasant task even in the best of times.
Throwing herself into the work alongside her soldiers, she listened as they shared tales of valour and despair alike. For every hero who stepped up and excelled, it seemed there were three more who died in vain, the haunted narrations of her soldiers sending chills down her spine. So easy to forget, elite soldiers they might be, these were men drawn from city garrisons, more used to hunting bandits and beasts than dealing with the Enemy. Not that she was some hardened veteran, well-versed in the ways of war. Her inexperience caused all their misfortunes, such was the harsh truth.
Having been trained by the best tutors money could buy, Yuzhen’s failures would be used to point out the hazards of half-beasts in command, while the accomplishments of great warriors like Akanai and Baatar were largely invalidated by her incompetence. Though not the most stalwart advocate of half-beast rights, she knew many of their hopes rested on her shoulders and she’d failed them in spectacular fashion. Now, rising dragons like Sumila and Huushal would suffer all the more for her mistakes, a burden she would carry for the rest of her life, short-lived though it might be.
Hearing tales of Sumila’s bravery and talent only brought feelings of envy and inadequacy. Akanai’s daughter had done admirably, rallying the soldiers on the eastern flank in a staunch defence, and the other Bekhai made their mark known. Between Sumila’s resistance, Rustram’s reckless bravery, and Officer Huushal’s mounted defence, they’d dissuaded the Defiled from continuing their assault, snatching survival from the jaws of plausible defeat. Were it not for their combined efforts slowing the Defiled momentum, a single, concentrated sweep might have routed Yuzhen’s entire army, and the survivors knew it.
Knowing she’d failed her old man and ruined everything he’d worked for filled her with bitter remorse. Sure, she could whine and complain of her dog-shit luck, mention how it was unreasonable to expect an untested Major to excel under these gruelling conditions, but it was nothing more than an excuse. She’d been tasked with the delivery of supplies from Sanshu to Shen Yun, an assignment so straightforward a damn monkey could have accomplished it with ease. She only needed to offer the Council of Sanshu more gold and her soldiers would deliver the supplies, then all would be right in the world. Simple.
Instead, she’d made a gamble which failed spectacularly, a series of unfortunate events culminating in the possible fall of Sanshu. This marked the end of her military and political career, if not her life as well. Regardless of the city’s fate, someone would have to pay for this entire debacle and even her old man would be hard pressed to find someone more suitable. Resigned, she ordered her soldiers to dig in and rest while her aides tallied the fallen and wounded. With nothing else to do, she continued the unpleasant task of readying the dead for the funeral pyre, her guilt growing with each passing minute.
“Major Yuzhen?” Sumila’s voice startled Yuzhen out of her reverie, blinking as she gathered her wits. The sun was so bright and glaring, when had it risen? Moving to rub her eyes, she stopped just in time as she saw the blood and filth caked over her fingers, the rest of her body in similar condition. “You’ve been working non-stop for hours now, even after ordering a shift set. Perhaps it’s time for a rest?”
With one last forlorn glance towards the pile of dead soldiers, stacked side by side in a neat and orderly fashion, Yuzhen swallowed hard and tried to speak, but words failed her. Nodding, she allowed Sumila to lead her back to her tent, where the slave girl Li Song sat tending to the brazier, warming a basin of water. Graciously accepting their aid, Yuzhen gulped down a cup of warm tea while the two girls undressed and cleaned her. Thank the Mother she’d had time to dress properly before going out to fight. Perhaps it was time to end her habit of sleeping nude, at least out in the field.
Then again, what did it matter? This would all be over soon.
After a quick bird-bath, Yuzhen sat at her desk and ate a cold meal with the two girls, barely tasting the food despite her ravenous appetite. Aside from her hands and face, Sumila was almost as filthy as Yuzhen had been, her red hair dishevelled and clothes in disarray. It did little to diminish her beauty, a certain rustic charm to her that many men would go mad for. In contrast, the gorgeous Li Song was immaculately dressed in her runic armour, with only a few bloodstains on her clothes to mark the night’s events. Even her brown hair was perfectly braided and set, swaying as the tired girl fought to stay awake. Before she could help herself, she patted them both on the cheek in an overly familiar gesture. “Thank you Sumila, thank you Li Song.” It seemed so inadequate, but it was all she could offer at the moment.
“It’s our duty,” Sumila replied with a tired smile, “and my pleasure. We can’t have our esteemed commander work herself to exhaustion. There’s still plenty to do before the day is out.”
Poor naive child, Yuzhen scoffed at her words. “What ‘esteemed commander’? I’ve made a mess of everything. I was so hungry for glory and reputation, I let my pride overcome reason and everything has gone downhill from there.”
“That’s not true,” Sumila replied. “You led us well, the camp is abuzz with the stories of your valour. They’re all saying you made the Defiled pay dearly in the attack, killing one after another in a dance with death.”
Shaking her head, Yuzhen smiled at Sumila’s thinly veiled attempt to cheer her up. “I hear the same of you, a brave young hero no less than your betrothed. I’d recommend you for merit if not for the fact that my endorsement would do more harm than good. With your skills, you’ll be fine without my aid, I’m certain of it.”
Sumila blushed with pride and Yuzhen made comment of Li Song’s skills too, the slave-girl accepting the praise with stoic indifference. Interrupting their little bonding moment, an aide arrived with report in hand, setting it down with obvious reluctance. Though she thought herself prepared for the worst, Yuzhen’s heart sank at the final tally. In a single night, her army of twelve thousand one hundred and twenty-four soldiers was cut down to seven thousand, including the wounded. A hefty butcher’s bill, for less than a thousand Defiled slain in return, a resounding failure by any measure.
This was the end of her journey. Even if she were to leave her injured undefended and continue on with every healthy soldier available, she lacked enough horses to carry them all. Sanshu would have to fend for itself and she prayed for Gerel’s safety. Sending Sumila and Li Song away, Yuzhen retreated to her bedroll and fell asleep before her head touched the pillow, seeking comfort in the emptiness of oblivion.
Even that was denied her for long. In the blink of an eye, she found herself shook awake as an aide informed her of the Shrike’s death and Falling Rain’s return. Good, at least the Bekhai wouldn’t be too upset at her old man, and she could die long before having to answer for the Shrike’s passing. Passing along her orders, she stood and waited for her guests to arrive, unable to muster the effort to dress herself properly.
Her night-clothes didn’t go unnoticed as Jia Zian entered her tent with Jukai close behind, the young Warrant Officer raising an eyebrow in question. So cold and aloof, the handsome young Zian, were it not for her current circumstances, she’d be fantasizing of breaking him beneath her will. “Thank you for coming to see me, though you must be tired from your endeavours. I apologize for my appearance and for the lack of manners,” she began, gesturing for them to take a seat while she poured tea. “The situation is dire, though I suppose you already know this.”
“And you asked me here because…?” Zian cut straight to the point, his personality unsuited for diplomacy.
Knowing this, she answered plainly. “I require a favour.”
Zian’s refusal was immediate. “I cannot speak on behalf of the Situ Clan nor will my words hold sway with them for long. I’ve decided to relinquish my position as young patriarch and remove myself from Clan and Society politics. I wish to focus solely on the Martial Path.” With a wry smile, he added, “Mother and Uncle won’t be pleased, but if need be, I’ll beg Nian Zu for a post at the Wall and they’ll be left with no recourse.”
Surprised by his determination to leave so much behind, Yuzhen’s evaluation of the young man went up several notches. Nodding in approval, she said, “I wish you the best in all your endeavours, but I don’t intend to beg for mercy at the Society’s feet. I made peace with my fate long ago, this has only accelerated the inevitable.” Turning to Jukai, she nodded at the older warrior. “I intend to recuse myself from command and hoped you would step in to take my place. Though failure here might negatively impact your reputation, as a former Colonel with an illustrious career, you are by far the most qualified soldier available, the next in line being an untested Major.”
Shrugging, Jukai spoke. “The decision is yours, young master. This one will obey.”
Zian sat and stared at Yuzhen for several seconds. Though well-used to attention, this was far from the amorous or lusty gazes she was more accustomed to, and she squirmed beneath the attention. Oh how she longed for more carefree days, when young men like Zian and Rain looked at her with erotic desire instead of cold calculation. After an eternity of awkward silence, Zian tilted his head and asked, “Why?”
Taken aback once again, Yuzhen was at a loss. “…Because I failed. Since arriving in Sanshu, every action I’ve taken has been a mistake and I’ve tired of giving my enemies more rope to hang me with. Should this continue, even my old man won’t be able to escape unscathed. I’m begging you to allow Colonel Jukai to take command. Though I’ve not much to offer, I will do anything in return for your aid.”
She left the suggestion hanging in the air, knowing he understood the implication. Expecting a lecherous smile, Zian instead laughed, a genuine smile cracking his frosty demeanour and injuring her pride. She wasn’t asking for much and she knew plenty of men who’d be drooling at the offer. After a bout of hearty laughter, Zian shook his head and exhaled. “You know, you seem so confident and capable all the time, I’d forgotten you are a politician first and soldier second.” Standing from his chair, Zian waved for Jukai to remain. “She’s delicate and frail, so coddle her a little and explain her error. I’ve no patience for this.”
As he strode out the tent, Yuzhen sat in silence, alternating between Jukai and the swinging drapes of her tent. “What just happened?”
“The young master has offered you his aid.” Jukai answered, pouring himself another cup of tea. “This one is at your service.”
Hope surged and she asked, “So you’ll take command?”
“This was not young master’s intention.” Sipping his tea, Jukai smiled proudly, his eyes distant. “He’s matured much in the past few months.” Setting the teacup down, his smile faded as he returned to business at hand. “There will be no more talk of recusal, you will see this through to the end.”
“…But I’ve made so many mistakes, I have no business being in command.” Desperate for him to agree, she listed all her faults. “I turned a simple mission to escort supplies into outright war against the Council. I flaunted my power over them while weakening Sanshu’s garrison, using them in a feigned war against Butcher Bay. I ordered a Purge in which no Defiled were found and drove the Shrike to betrayal and death.” All those poor innocents condemned by her own hand, it pained her to even think of it. “My actions arguably forced Yo Ling’s hand after what could be decades of inactivity, bringing the full force of his Butchers to strike at a Sanshu made vulnerable by my own actions. Worst of all, I pushed my troops too hard and too fast, leading an exhausted army right into the Enemy’s trap. Don’t you see? I’m a failure of a commander. Please, I can’t bring this down on my old man, he’ll die trying to save me…”
A single tear dripped down her cheek, but Jukai sat unmoved by her act, calmly sipping his tea. “If that’s how you truly feel, then I agree, you are a failure. However, the young master ordered me to coddle you, so coddle you I must.” Shrugging, he placed his empty cup down. “Things are not as dire as you make them. You, like all politicians, immediately forget a soldier’s successes and rail over their failures. You listed your accomplishments in the worst possible light, and perhaps your enemies will do the same, but I doubt it. They won’t dare say anything negative about you, you’re a hero to the people, beloved by all”
Her mouth opened and closed, then opened once more, hanging agape like an idiot before she finally squeezed out a single word. “What?”
“Too much a politician, but with enough effort, I might make a soldier of you yet.” He gestured her to fill his cup while he loosened his collar, and she mechanically obeyed, pouring tea while hanging on his every word. “You declared war against corruption itself. You faced down the Council, Butcher Bay, and the Crossbone Corsairs all at once, something not even your father dared do. Careful now, you’re spilling the tea.” Lifting the teapot, she mopped up the puddle with her sleeve while Jukai continued. “You believe forcing Yo Ling to strike works against you? By the Mother, you uncovered a cancer growing in the heart of the Province. Butcher Bay been around for decades and you scared them into action, which is a success by any measure. The people love you. Even should Sanshu fall, the blame will not rest with you, but on the Council. Though not commonly known by the populace, those in power will remember how the Council rose to prominence in the first place, paying bandits to attack their rivals. This is merely reaping what they have sown.”
Though they spoke of the same events, the way Jukai listed them filled Yuzhen’s chest with pride, her jaw still agape as she thought things through. “What about my failure here? I lost so many soldiers, if I’d been more careful, perhaps…”
“What do you think soldiers are for, girl? Parades and escorts? You’re riding to Sanshu’s aid, not out on a lark. You need to be more pragmatic, that you survived at all is a testament to the Enemy’s pitiful numbers. A garo is built for raids like this, power and speed unmatched in short bursts, with sharp vision on even the darkest of nights. Unless your sentry line is kilometres out, you’ll never wake in time to defend against it. They number four or five thousand at most, we’ll chase them down and give them a taste of Imperial steel before day’s end, problem solved.” Fixing her with his steely gaze, Jukai spoke carefully. “I know little of politics and can stomach even less, but you’re the only qualified candidate endorsed by the current Marshal. If the Society is smart, they’ll throw their weight behind you and pray you’re as reasonable as your father. In recent years, the Society’s popularity has waned and they need the goodwill that will come from your appointment, a Society affiliated half-beast in a position of power.”
The more she thought about his words, the more reasonable it seemed, but she couldn’t get over how Jukai referred to her old man. Her father. For so long, she’d called him her ‘old man’, unable to publicly refer to him as ‘father’ because of Clan politics. Such a small thing, but it was enough to send tears, real tears, streaming down her face. As Jukai explained their next move, Yuzhen, for the first time, started to believe. In a few years, she could be Shing Yuzhen, Marshal of the North. It could really happen…
Truly a matter of not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
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