It takes a lot of hot water and hard scrubbing to get rid of all the dried blood plastered across my skin and hair, but the work leaves me clean and invigorated. I’ve been intensely fixated on water lately, itching for a nice hot soak or a cool, refreshing plunge. I want to hold my head beneath the water and let the water wash away all my problems as I drift into oblivion. It’s a little fucked up, I’m terrified of dying and yet I can’t stop romanticizing the closest brush with death I’ve ever had.
Every time I think about my week-long journey through the lake, I never focus on the numbing cold or the desperate struggle for air, nor the fear and panic overwhelming me as I fought for the surface. Those minor details are unimportant when compared to the calm tranquility which followed. Suspended beneath the waters and staring up at the fading light, I finally felt like everything was right in the world, giving up my futile struggles and letting the current carry me away. In an instant, everything changed, so peaceful and warm, safety and serenity found at long last. No more worries, no more pain, nothing but an unspoken promise of rest and solace. I knew everything was gonna be all right, once I stopped fighting and let go.
I may have some serious mental issues.
Well, nothing to do but keep on keeping on, aside from developing a drinking/drug problem. Maybe I should go for a dip in the water and clear my head, remind myself how unpleasant drowning really is. This is Sanshu after all, can’t go a kilometre in any direction without crossing a stream or river. In fact, there’s one running west of the camp, where I assume Lin filled this basin. I bet the quins will go for a swim in the morning and it wouldn’t hurt to join them. Their presence would keep me safe from aquatic predators, and I could use a proper scrub with soap and water.
Then again, it’s one thing for the giant bi-pedal otters to go for a swim, but quite another for Falling Rain, the Undying Savage. I need to remember my purpose here, to raise the reputation of the Bekhai, and I won’t win points by splashing around naked in everybody’s drinking water. Everyone else is doing their part, Mila, Rustram, and Huu performing admirably during the ambush. Of course, their efforts pale in comparison to Tenjin and Tursainai’s incredible display of strength. I have no idea why neither of them are taking point as the Bekhai front man or woman, leaving that job to my woefully under-qualified self. I’ve seen several soldiers avert their gaze whenever the former Bannermen walk by. I’m guessing they’re the same soldiers who were a little too forward with their stares and leers, but they’ve got nothing to worry about. Tursinai loves the attention and Tenjin reaps the rewards, so if anything, they’re both a little gloomy about the lack of ogling. Whatever, at least they’re happy.
Anways, they’re both riding with Mila, so I have nothing to worry about. They’re more than capable of keeping her safe. Well, safe as can be while riding through pitch-black darkness in search of Defiled. I shouldn’t have let her go by herself, I should have gone with her or made her come back with me. Concern and hunger gnawing at my belly, I call Aurie over for a cuddle to soothe both our worries, my sweet kitten still wide-eyed and jumpy. In a rare display of grace and poise, he bounds to my side with an effortless leap, his chest rumbling in delight at the attention. “What am I gonna do with you Aurie? You can’t be a big ol’ scaredy cat all your life.” He’s picking up all my worst traits. “Maybe it’s time I teach you to hunt like your sister, you and Jimjam are old enough to help with the food bills.”
Hearing his name, Jimjam flicks his ears and opens his eyes, curled up with the bear cubs by the fire. Seeing nothing for him to eat, he settles back down with a huff, annoyed at the interruption. Yea, my cats definitely need some discipline instilled into them. Mafu too, I didn’t notice until we rode into camp, but he was the only quin who returned from our ride with a snack. So embarrassing, especially since he refuses to share, hissing at any quins who approach his prize, even warning Jimjam and the cubs away with his insistent chittering. Resource guarding is a big no-no, I can’t have my quarter-ton killing machines fighting over food. Eyes half-closed in a mixture of exhaustion and delight, Mafu’s fat head droops as he gorges away at the carcass, eventually falling asleep mid-meal, with unchewed strips of meat hanging from his open mouth.
His ridiculous appearance brings a smile to my lips, though it quickly fades as he slides off the garo with a thump, rolling onto his side. Rushing over, I gently shake him to no effect, his breathing rough and pupils unresponsive as he lays limp as a noodle, his fat cheeks swelling even as I watch. Glancing around for help, I see Lin wandering over with a cooking kettle in her hands, her shoulders slumped and lips turned down as her two guards follow. “Grab my healing kit, something’s wrong with Mafu.”
Tilting her head, Lin smiles and shakes her head as she continues her approach. “Don’t worry hubby, he’ll be fine after a little nap.” Placing the kettle next to Mafu, she pats his head, eliciting a grumbling snore. “He’s so silly, garo meat is a little poisonous but he loves the taste. It’s like how Daddy eats things so spicy it makes him tear up and sweat, ya?”
Rummaging through her pack, she hands me a new shirt while reassuring me he’ll be fine. Stupid, greedy quin, making me all flustered and concerned over nothing. Tasking Pran and Saluk to dispose of the carcass, I sit with my comatose quin and bunny-eared betrothed, eating noodles straight from the kettle as Lin’s beaming smile eases away my worries. Pinching her cheek, I fake a scowl and mutter, “Stop staring, you’re making me all self-conscious.”
Ignoring me, she asks, “Are the noodles yummy hubby?”
“Delicious,” I lie, knowing full well she cooked them. Gifted though she may be with Chi manipulation and herbalism, her talents don’t extend to cooking. It’s the thought that counts.
Giggling, she bashfully hides her face. “Rainy is a bad liar, but still the best.” Shaking her head, she strikes a determined pose. “I’ll ask Char-Char to teach me how to cook. Then next time you and Mi-Mi go riding out, I’ll have a big delicious meal waiting for you when you return.” Shooting an angry glare at her guards, she adds, “I’m sorry, it’s all I can do.”
Patting her bunny ears, I shake my head. “You don’t need to do anything. I’m happy enough knowing you’re here waiting for me to return.” I’d rather she was waiting safe and sound at the Bridge, but no point beating a dead horse.
And now I’m sad about all the dead horses. Great.
Truth be told, I love having her around, her sweet smile a beacon of light through these weeks of darkness. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I’m an idiot for letting her waltz into danger for my own selfish needs. She’s probably terrified from yesterday’s attack, though she seems remarkably resilient, putting on a brave face so I won’t send her away.
“Hmph.” The Leader’s sneer is clear even with the veil draped across her face. “The girl finally shows initiative and you discourage her. One would almost believe you seek to turn her into another one of your worthless pets.”
Without glancing at her, I retort, “The help should be seen and not heard.” Woo, I’ve been holding that one for awhile, but she doesn’t speak often and even less when I’m around. It’s not the smartest thing to keep antagonizing her, but no one calls my fur babies worthless, much less my adorable wifey. “I see two guards are missing though. Did you give them the night off, Lin? I understand if you want to be nice, but they’re your guards and should be with you at all times.”
Seeing Lin’s troubled pout, I feel bad for using her to indirectly criticize her guards. I don’t really know their relationship and she is rather subdued around them. Before I can apologize, the Leader harrumphs. “We are in agreement, the girl’s safety is paramount. Since we can no longer rely on that bumbling kit Yuzhen to keep her head on straight, I sent the others to keep watch on the Enemy, ensuring we have ample warning when they return for another attack.”
“…Wait, you know where the Defiled are camped?” The Leader’s eye’s narrow in annoyance and she turns away, ignoring my question. Unwilling to let things lie, I press the issue. “Why haven’t you told anyone? We would’ve known this was a bait and slept through it. Hell, we could ride out and return the favour, striking as they sleep.”
Her glare sends a chill down my spine, her displeasure crashing over me. “I am no slave to your cause, Foundling. I do what I must and no more. I’ll not risk my people fighting to defend an Empire who would see them all in chains.”
“Lady, you’re barking up the wrong tree.” The other guard bristles at my idiom, but the Leader raises her hand for silence before turning away, ignoring me entirely. Unperturbed, I move into her line of sight, continuing my argument. “The Empire’s stance on half-beasts is horrific, but I doubt the Defiled would be an improvement. You’re strong enough to stand alone, but what about the other half-beasts across the province? What about the innocent civilians in and around Sanshu?” Tugging at my sleeve, Lin shakes her head, silently urging me to stop, but I can’t. I’ve seen a ray of hope and can’t help but reach for it. “You think the Empire isn’t worth fighting for, and I don’t entirely disagree, but I’m not asking you to fight. Please, share what you know so we at least have the option to fight back.”
My pleas fall on deaf ears as the Leader turns away again, like a petulant child ignoring the world. Unwilling to give up, I try a different tack. “You won’t fight, you won’t speak, so how can you expect anything to change? Things won’t get better just because you want them to. Akanai, Baatar, and Yuzhen all strive and struggle to improve the bigoted and intolerant attitude of the Empire, working to make a difference in the world. You’re as strong as them, maybe even stronger, but what good is strength with you hiding your head in the sand?”
Her eyes quirk in a patient smile, her hands neatly folded over her knee, waiting in silence for several seconds. Angling her head, she feigns surprise and flutters her eyes, gesturing towards herself. “Oh my, were you waiting for a response? My most sincere apologies, I was told the help is to be seen and not heard.”
Fuck. “I apologize for calling you the help, but my point still stands. Stop being petty, personal power isn’t enough, not in a matter of this scale. You want half-beast lives to change for the better, and if ever there were a person who could make it so, it’s Yuzhen. Will her victory here end all prejudice against half-beasts overnight? No, but if she fails, her detractors will undoubtedly use it as an excuse to keep the status quo. If Yuzhen defeats this Defiled incursion and saves Sanshu, then maybe the next time someone finds an orphan in the woods with extra ears, they’ll think twice before selling it into slavery or leaving it to die.”
Shaking her head, her eyes are a mixture of sorrow and amusement. “So hopelessly naive and foolishly optimistic, just like your Teacher. No wonder he dotes on you so. Know this, your mentors care little for the plight of half-beasts. They fight for personal glory, because their blood demands it. The younger one seeks bloodshed and the other, control. It is in their nature. Yuzhen’s appointment to Marshal will make no difference, assuming she even survives to claim the office. Mark my words Foundling, in a hundred years, while you lie old and feeble on your death bed, you will look out into the world and see that nothing has changed.” Sighing, she waves away my rebuttal. “I’ve Sent word to your Bannermen. Upon their return, they will claim to have found a Defiled trail and the general location of their camp. What the Major does with this is no concern of mine, though it would be best if she cleansed these lands of Defiled filth so we might return home. I grow weary of this journey.” Turning aside once more, she dismisses me without another word.
Clasping my hands in thanks, I wander back to sit with Lin and Aurie, watching as Mafu shudders back to life, nose twitching in search of his meal. Seeking me out for comfort, he buries his fat head in my arms while mourning the loss, still groggy and discomforted, but craving more. While waiting for Mila to return, I go over my conversation with the Leader, a little surprised at how insistent I became over this issue, and how much it hurt when she told me Akanai and Baatar aren’t fighting for the betterment of all half-beasts.
I guess I wanted more from my heroes, projecting my values and principles onto them. They’re not the paragons of virtue I’ve made them out to be, but it doesn’t matter. Actions speak louder than words, and they’re out there fighting while I’m here preaching and praying I don’t have to get my hands dirty. I cannot in good conscience call myself Baatar’s Disciple or Akanai’s Grand-Disciple unless I do my part. Besides, regardless of their intentions, their actions help the half-beast cause. If I want them to do more, then I can hardly sit back and do nothing. How hard can it be? All I’m trying to do is change thousands of years of ingrained racism, and maybe abolish slavery while I’m at it.
Taking a deep breath, I take a mental step back and readjust my plans. Forget directly changing things like racism and slavery in my lifetime, it’s too much for one person. What I should do is alter people’s perceptions and expectations, make them believe change is necessary and let that build momentum. Many hands make light work, I only need to get the ball rolling. How though? Maybe start in Shen Huo, with Fung. He’s an appropriately dashing and heroic type, well connected and in the public eye. If he treats half-beasts and slaves well, then maybe it’ll start a trend. Can he pass laws? That’d be way faster. Oh, Nian Zu might be another candidate, he’s already rocking the boat by promoting Baatar, I’m sure he’d be willing to do more. I have no idea what though…
The Spectres’ laughter echoes through the void, quiet and subdued, but present. Catching myself before I get carried away, I lean back to stare at the night sky. What am I even doing? This is probably exactly what they want, for me to get in over my head until I’m forced to turn to them for help. Maybe they’re even egging me on, setting me up to fail so they can swoop in while I’m vulnerable. Hell, I’m barely equipped to deal with my own problems, yet here I am trying to change the world. It’s outrageous, delusional even. What happened to living a nice, quiet life in the mountains, with my lovely wives and many pets? Forget saving the world and ending slavery, it’s nothing but a pipe dream.
I’m no hero. I only want to save my little brother, and then myself, and live a nice, quiet life in the mountains.
The world will survive without me.
Or maybe it won’t. Either way, I don’t care.
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