Author’s note: A big thank you to my latest, anonymous Patron. Thank you so much for your support!
Hope you all had a wonderful long weekend. Now it’s back to the grind, so sad. Anyways, enjoy. Or don’t. Whatever.
Happy for a break, the squeaking horde of quins plunge into the river, splashing and sliding around in search of food. It’s refreshing to watch them frolic about, especially after days of hard running. I mean on the surface, they look like giant, murderous creatures of fangs and fur, but deep down, all they wanna do is paddle around in the water and sample from the seafood buffet. Hell, I don’t even like seafood but it’s hard to resist jumping in after them. Unfortunately that would be unbecoming of a Warrant Officer.
So bothersome keeping up appearances. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I refused Akanai’s offer to join the Sentinels. So peaceful and relaxing, but probably no Mila or Lin to marry either. Decisions, decisions.
Joining me at the river’s edge, Lin leans against my arm and yawns, giggling as her quins dart back and forth beneath the waters, making up for lost play time. The cats and bears pad in to drink, their distinct personalities showing through in the simple action. The bears, young as they are, think everything is a game, diving in after the quins only to flounder once their paws can no longer reach the river’s bottom. Mafu glides in to teach them, but the quin is ill-suited to the task, blowing out his cheeks in frustration as the cubs continue to sink and flail about.
The cats stay out of the water, their fluffy fur not prone to fast drying. Like a true princess, Sarankho perches on a dry stone, avoiding the mud and leisurely lapping at the water, while Aurie happily traipses through the mud before shoving his face in, eyes wide with delight as he alternates between drinking and blowing bubbles. Jimjam, in a happy medium between the two, lies flat in the grass to hide, eyes darting left and right as he drinks quickly as he can, body tensed and ready to fight or flee.
Three sibling kittens, each with different personalities. Sarankho has her life together, and I suppose I have Mila and Li Song to thank for that. I don’t think Aurie would survive if left to his own devices, though it might be because I spoil him too much. In contrast, Jimjam is too in tune with his instincts, too feral and unrestrained. In his kitty brain, drinking water leaves him at risk of attack, even though he has an entire pack of quins here to protect him. He’s too high-strung and nervous, which in turn makes me nervous. The first to finish quenching his thirst, Jimjam returns to watch over his siblings, shifting from paw to paw in obvious anxiety.
Sighing, I watch the vigilant Jimjam with a heavy heart. Nuzzled against my arm, Lin glances at me in question, allowing me to speak freely without prompting. It’s a small thing, but I’m grateful. It’s tiring having everyone ask me what’s wrong and having no suitable answer for them. Sometimes, a man needs to mope and sulk a little, and I need it more than most. Patting her hand, I shake my head and say, “I don’t know what to do about Jimjam. He’s not adapting to domestic life like the other two.”
Nodding sagely, she replies, “The poor sweetling is nervous. The Defiled attack stressed him out. He’s an ambush predator and doesn’t like being surprised.”
“I know, but it’s getting out of hand.” Reaching out with my foot, I prod Jimjam in the flank. Leaping about, he bares his teeth and hisses, hackles raised in warning. Shooting me a glare, he growls and moves away to resume his vigil, well out of my reach. “See? He’s snapping at anything that surprises him. It’s not safe.” A lump forms in my throat as I consider my options. “I could set him free, but he’s not exactly stealthy and lazy to boot. Is he competent enough to survive on his own or would leaving him be a slow death sentence? Maybe it’d be a mercy to…” Unable to finish the thought, I trail off into silence.
Eyes wide and lips pouting, Lin tightens her fingers around my arm. “You can’t give up on him!”
“I don’t want to, but what choice do I have?” Untangling myself from her grip, I move into Jimjam’s line of sight, slowly approaching as he watches, wary and alert. Patting his neck, his muscles go taut at the touch, his breath quickening and body trembling. Leaving him be, I back away and turn to Lin, helpless and dejected. “See? I’m only making it worse. Like you said, he’s a nervous predator, which doesn’t bode well for those around him. What if he attacks someone, like you or the twins?”
“Hmph, silly Rainy, you’re too nervous and he senses it.” Her jaw set, Lin pushes past and pounces at Jimjam, heedless of the danger. My heart seizes in my chest as her arms wrap around his neck, the massive predator flinching at her sudden approach. My sword is halfway out the scabbard when Jimjam exhales and leans into the embrace, his ears fluttering in happiness. “See?” With a triumphant grin, she rubs her cheek against his neck and coos, “Don’t worry sweetling, if hubby doesn’t want you around, then Lin-Lin will take good care of you, ya?”
A cold bead of sweat runs down my temple as I repress a shudder, unable to find the words. Watching Lin roughhouse with Jimjam sends shivers down by spine, my instincts screaming to put an end to it, to save Lin and kill the beast, but why? I raised Jimjam from a kitten, and even though he’s aloof by nature, he’s never shown signs of aggression. I’ve watched him gently play with the twins and groom the cubs every night before he sleeps, a sweet, gentle giant still in his adolescence. I’ve never been scared of him before, so why now? What prompted the sudden thoughts of putting him down?
Can I blame the Spectres for this? Are they getting craftier, or am I falling deeper into a negative mindset? God dammit, I’m sick of this, it’s impossible to know which thoughts are mine and which are the product of their whispers. Moving to his side, I take Jimjams face in my hands and touch my forehead to his nose, closing my eyes in silent apology. Two days of skittish behaviour and I’m already contemplating killing my kitten, I’m a terrible person. Reaching for Balance, I unleash a sliver of Aura towards him, hoping to convey my love and affection.
A low chuff is my only response before Jimjam shakes himself free. Good enough. Giving him a small nuzzle, I smile at Lin. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m being stupid.”
Looking as serious as she can while hugging a cat larger than herself, Lin says, “It’s okay hubby. You’ve been sad and mopey lately, so I understand. Just don’t do something silly without talking to me or Mi-Mi first, ya?” Again, she leaves the question unasked, knowing I can’t talk freely about my problems.
“Sure thing.” A tiny burden is lifted from my shoulders as I agree with her assessment, though running every decision by them seems a little obtrusive. Still, it couldn’t hurt, at least until I’m in a better state of mind. Jowls dripping with water, Aurie returns and headbutts my chest with Sarankho close behind, and I spend a few minutes playing with them, a smile stretched across my face.
I need a solution to my spectral squatter problem, and soon.
“Warrant Officer Rain?” Standing behind me, Yuzhen appears out of nowhere with Zian at her side, as they often were these days. Perhaps there’s romance afoot? I shouldn’t be too surprised. I mean, she is a member of the Society like him, but I guess I’m a little disappointed. Beauty aside, I thought she’d be different from the others, especially considering how friendly her old man is. Then again, I can’t blame her for not living up to my impossible, imagined standards. It’s nothing personal, merely politics.
Playing my part, I nod while holding Aurie back, my friendly kitten eager to make friends. “Hi. What’s up?”
Coughing politely, Yuzhen raises her eyebrows while Zian rolls his eyes. Jukai’s voice sounds in my mind, the stern older gentleman showing no signs of displeasure. “Young Officer, this is official business. Decorum demands you stand and salute.”
Ah stupid regulations and such. Sending Aurie off, I do as ‘decorum demands’, bowing the full 45 degrees with hands clasped, keeping my head down while waiting for orders. “Major Yuzhen, how might this one serve?” There, better?
“We’re close to the city, but if we’re to fight today, the horses need more rest. I’ve sent messengers to the guards and soldiers stationed outside Sanshu, but they’ll take hours to muster, if not days. For now, we need more information before deciding our next move. Bring your retinue to scout ahead and take stock of the situation.” A pair of boots appear next to hers, large and black. “This is Senior Captain Chu XinYue. He will be joining with a number of his officers, all locals of Sanshu. If possible, escort them within one kilometre of the South-Western Gate where they will attempt to contact the officer in charge. Remain unseen, I’d not like to give the Enemy warning of our arrival.”
“Your will is my command.” Okay, so maybe I’m being overly snarky, but whatever. Stupid Zian, the lucky bastard, always in her tent lately. No stop it Rain, you have two lovely little wives, no need to be jealous. Who cares if Yuzhen checks all my boxes, a beautiful, busty, blonde vixen. Appearances aren’t everything and Lin and Mila are lovely in different ways. Appreciate what you have, asshole.
Soon as her boots disappear, I glance up at the Senior Captain. And up. And side to side. A giant of a man, almost twice my width and towering above me, Chu XinYue almost seems familiar. A chubby, red-faced man in his late twenties, he politely smiles with hands clasped. “Officer Falling Rain, it is my honour to finally meet you. I’ve heard much about you, though if I’m being honest, little of it complimentary. After seeing them in action, I’m quite taken by the soldiers under your command. An impressive bunch.”
If only he knew. “Yes, Tenjin and Tursinai are skilled, though I’d hesitate to say they’re under my command.” Especially while they’re in earshot. Every time I do, Tursinai makes a vulgar joke which sets my cheeks afire. It’s sexual harassment, totally out of line.
“You misunderstand. I’m speaking of your second, Rustram and the rank and file. Disciplined and fearless.” Chuckling at my shock, he shakes his head in disbelief. “He didn’t mention it? No, he wouldn’t, he seems a modest man. Know this, in the chaos and confusion of the Defiled attack, he tried to rally the soldiers for a combined defence. It shames me to say I first refused to join, more concerned with saving my own skin. Thankfully, I am not so far lost. His heroic example in leading your soldiers to stand against the charge shamed me into joining him, along with any soldier who saw him. I reckon the blood toll would have been much higher if Rustram didn’t act as he did.” He offers his hand and I clasp it out of reflex, his massive fingers encompassing mine in a steely handshake, his smile wide and almost condescending. “My uncle always said the best method to measure of a man is to study those under his command. From what I’ve seen, it makes me wonder how you earned yourself such a sinister reputation.”
“You and me both.” The meagre response is the best I can squeeze out, excusing myself to collect my troops. The nerve of him, implying I’m not intimidating. It sucks being normal sized in a world filled with giants. I should ask Gerel how he deals with it, he’s not much taller than I am and about as thin, but he radiates danger and menace with every step.
Wait, wasn’t XinYue complimenting me? All he said were good things. Am I imagining the condescension? Taking a step back, it feels like I’m blowing things out of proportion, too on edge to take a simple compliment. Ugh, going over every thought with a fine-tooth comb is so frustrating. Okay, ride to the city, check things out, kill a couple Defiled, head home, have a pint, and wait for all this Spectre business to blow over. Simple, easy, effective. Stick to the plan.
Not ten minutes later, I’m riding through the forest with my retinue and a handful of soldiers. Rustram was quick to organize everything, even allowing for the mixed nature of our group, a combination of Huu’s and my retinues. A good soldier like Chu XinYue says, maybe I should give him a raise or see if Mila has any single friends. Then again, he gets along pretty well with Li Song, meeting to spar every day no matter how tired they might be. Perhaps there’s romance blooming between them?
“Focus Foundling,” the Guard Leader chides with a silent Sending. “You ride to battle. Pay attention lest you stumble across yet another Defiled scout.”
Ugh. You make one mistake… besides, everything worked out, a near flawless ambush. Biting back my scathing retort, I urge Mafu to run faster and take the lead. I don’t really understand why I hate her, but she get’s on my nerves. Besides, I left Lin behind with the pets to keep them safe, so what’s the Guard Leader doing here anyways? Did Lin send her to watch my back? My anger eases away and my shoulders relax, glancing back to smile at the Leader. Finally, I have an expert looking out for me.
“Don’t be foolish Foundling. I follow you for my own reasons, and it’s not to save your skin. Focus or die, I care not either way.”
Fucking liars. Fine, keep your mind reading magic to yourselves, I’ll figure it out on my own.
Ordering my scouts to take every precaution, our journey proceeds without disruption, not a single Defiled to be found. After two hours of careful riding, the walls of Sanshu rise in the distance. The westward approach to the city is all downhill, and though we keep to the forests and away from the roads, we’ll be forced to cross open ground before reaching the gates. No Defiled line the plains, but neither are there guards walking the walls, my gut warning me of danger ahead.
Then again, maybe I’m just a coward, but better safe than sorry. Under my orders, my scouts find a hidden approach to the walls, with a small wooded vantage point that suits our needs. The short trip there is filled with tension and trepidation as I watch for movement in the trees, half-expecting a Defiled ambush to swoop down upon us. By the time we reach our destination, my shirt is soaked with sweat, my mouth dry and eyes strained.
Dismounting from their horses, Senior Captain Chu XinYue and his soldiers creep to the edge of the tree line and close their eyes, silently searching for someone to speak with. Sending isn’t like texting, not only do you need to be familiar with the recipient, they also need to be in range. The whole point is to reach whoever is guarding the outermost gate, overlooking the area where they inspect the wagons before entering the city. In order for this to be successful, not only does the person on duty have to be close enough, it needs to be someone known to XinYue and his men.
I’m not exactly optimistic about our chances.
“I made contact!” XinYue’s hushed whisper immediately refutes my pessimism. “Such luck, Uncle Mao is in the gatehouse.”
“Uncle Mao?” Oh all the missed opportunities, I should have named one of the cats Mao. Ooo, Chairman Mao. Purrfect. I should have some hats made for the cats, it’ll be adorable…
With a sheepish smile, the large man shakes his head. “Sorry, I mean Mao Jianghong, Guard Captain of Sanshu. Not my uncle by blood, but a family friend.” The smile slips from his face, replaced by an angry scowl. “He says the Defiled are already inside Sanshu. Treachery from a staff sergeant, a woman named Sovanna. She led a rebellion and took the western gate through stealth and surprise, allowing the Enemy to stroll right in.” Placing both hands on my shoulder, he pleads, “Inform Major Yuzhen she must hurry. The city is in danger of falling.”
“Done. We ride back now, no delay.” Somethings off, but that’s for someone else to deal with. At top speed, it’ll only take two hours to get there and back.
Shaking his head, XinYue glances at the gates. “You go, this is my home, I must be there to defend it. Uncle Mao will let me in. I won’t order any of my men to follow or beg for aid, but I will not forget any help that is offered.” His pointed glance towards Tenjin and Tursinai doesn’t escape my notice, but I’m hesitant to volunteer them. They won’t go anywhere without Mila, and I’m not sending my bloodthirsty betrothed in, no matter how adorable she looks while silently pleading.
I give my orders, buying time to think. “Rustram, take ten of our fastest riders back to Major Yuzhen. If they’re already inside the city, then it’s unlikely we’ll need the horses to fight, so she might as well come now.” Not exactly room to maneuver cavalry charges, lots of winding roads and bottlenecks. Turning to XinYue, I find him mounting his horse, ready to ride out into the field. Grabbing his reins, I hold his horse in place. “Wait. Somethings not right. You said Mao Jianghong is the Guard Captain right?” He nods, impatient to be off. “Then what is he doing sitting around the outer gatehouse?”
Opening his mouth to respond, he snaps it shut with an audible click, confusion etched across his brow. After a long pause, he answers, “I don’t know. By all rights, he should be with Uncle Tongzu, coordinating the defenses.”
Huh… Tongzu? Chu Tongzu. Chu XinYue. “You’re Magistrate Chu Tongzu’s nephew?”
“Err, not exactly.” Scratching his nose in obvious embarrassment, he shrugs. “My grandfather is the Magistrate’s cousin, though they rarely met due to a difference in age. After Uncle Tongzu rose to the office, I was sent to… learn from him. Because my uncle lacks an Heir, you see.” Shaking his head, he moves on. “It’s not important. Even though I’m no great hero, I cannot sit idle while Sanshu is in danger.”
Guess I know where XinYue heard all those unflattering details. The Magistrate is not my biggest fan, though to be fair, I left a lot of corpses in his streets. Then again, it wasn’t entirely my fault, so he shouldn’t blame me either. “Look, send word to Mao, tell him you’re leaving to bring word to Major Yuzhen. Meanwhile, we go check the western gate. If everything is as he says, then we’ll swing back around and ask him to let all of us in, no harm no foul. A half-hour at most, if Sanshu falls in that time, then there’s little we could have done regardless. If you insist on going now, then I cannot join you in good conscience.”
XinYue reluctantly agrees to my plan, Tenjin and Tursinai too strong to turn away. Leading the way, I ride through the forest towards the western gate, ears and eyes open for danger. Gripped by pre-battle jitters, my body surges with adrenaline in preparation of glorious combat, the Spectres alternating between whispers of impending doom and spectacular glory, depending on whether I cooperate with them, of course.
Calm down. Do it like you used to, before Baledagh woke up. You fought plenty back then, against bandits, Society grunts and Defiled warriors. You can do this. You practised day in and day out, trained under Baatar and Akanai for this very purpose. Don’t shame them. Make them proud.
Above all else, survive.
A rustle in the trees captures my attention and I glance up to see glimmering metal pointed in my direction.
Fuck my life. Caught off-guard twice in one day.
I wholeheartedly regret not telling Akanai to shove her stupid offer up her ass.
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