Author’s note: Sorry for missing monday’s chapter. Taco Fest is going on the list of things I should never do. Plus, now that I’m older, I find it takes me longer to recover than before. I used to game for 20 hours, sleep for 8, then go back in for another 20. Now, I miss a few hours of sleep and I’m useless for days. 😦
Though his exhausted body demanded rest, Rustram’s mind refused to settle and leave him in peace. Seated in the grass next to his splayed out roosequin, he idly scratched his mount’s neck while watching elite soldiers bustle to and fro, digging trenches, building barricades, fetching water, and generally preparing for the battle ahead. Menial work mostly, unsuited for warriors of distinction, but there were no camp followers here, their supply trains left far behind with the infantry. Many pointed looks turned his way as he lazed about and each time, Rustram suppressed the urge to rush over to apologize and assist, humility and subservience ingrained into him from an early age. The nobles were to be pampered, at least until he was rich or powerful enough to join them.
Why did he feel so guilty? They were all soldiers serving the cause, and Rustram earned this break as did his Sentinels, riding all day without rest. So what if they were the pampered sons and daughters of nobles and wealthy merchants, accomplished duelists one and all? These so-called ‘elites’ were nothing more than peacocks of the army, accustomed to strutting about and flaunting their strength in the city without ever fighting on the front lines. Shrimp soldiers and crab generals, let them experience the drudgery of war and learn how the majority of a soldier’s efforts were spent outside of battle. Travelling, scouting, positioning, fortifying, days or weeks of labour all for a few hours of bloody, exhausting battle, only to be rewarded with more work should you survive. That’s what war was all about.
It was almost enough to make a grown man cry.
Looking as miserable as he felt, the adorable Mei Lin trudged over with a veritable menagerie of beasts in tow. Five roosequin, three wildcats, and two bears cubs roaming about and exploring the camp amidst the hectic preparations. Looking uncharacteristically concerned, Mei Lin sat at the edge of the Sentinel resting area, tugging at her braids and sighing as she leaned against Jimu, the largest, meanest wildcat of the three. Poor girl, working so hard to be cheery and bright. The Bekhai raised their children strong, even a non-combatant like her, but all the stress from the past week piled on with the impending battle was finally affecting her mood.
Feeling it was his duty to reassure her, Rustram walked over and greeted her with a smile, warily eyeing the vigilant wildcat. “Lady Mei Lin, are you feeling unwell? Should I request Major Yuzhen set aside a place for you to rest, perhaps somewhere quieter in the centre of camp?”
Scrunching her nose and shaking her head, Mei Lin puffed her cheeks and sighed. “Thank you Roo-Roo, but she already offered and I’m not tired. I took a nap on the way here. I’m just upset, I thought we were going into the city, but Major Yuzhen said we’re staying out here.”
“You want to go into the city?” The words slipped out in surprise. Taking no offence at his incredulous tone, Lady Mei Lin merely nodded and buried her face into Jimu’s fur, putting an end to their conversation. Truly a fearless young woman, willing to brave Defiled Bandits to be at the boss’s side, no matter the risk. Falling Rain was a lucky man, blessed by the Mother in love and life.
Unwilling to press the issue or admit he’d rather be out here, Rustram smiled and excused himself, making his way over to where young magistrate Fung and Warrant Officer Dastan were holding a meeting. His arrival earned him a raised eyebrow from Dastan. There was no scorn or contempt in his eyes, only questioning why this unranked soldier dared approach two Officers like equals.
As he should. Belatedly realizing his mistake, Rustram turned red with embarrassment as he saluted and bowed, furiously searching for something to say. No longer in command of Rain’s retinue, Rustram had no place here, but luckily, young magistrate Fung gave face. “Ah good, we could use your input here Mister Rustram. This fine soldier is Falling Rain’s second-in-command and a sound tactical mind. He oversaw the construction of the fishing town after our first clash against the Butcher Bay Bandits.”
Smiling warmly, Officer Dastan offered Rustram a salute. “Ah yes, the brave warrior who rallied the soldiers. I also hear you’re responsible for negotiating a substantial pay increase for the fishermen. Clever move convincing the various villages to pool together before selling, it gives them significantly more leverage against the Council.” Despite being a member of said Council, Dastan’s praise seemed genuine and heartfelt.
Saluting and bowing again, Rustram’s face reddened even further. “I merely offered the idea, the villagers worked the rest out by themselves.” The niceties done with, they went over their defences together, discussing what actions to take in case of emergency. Out on the southern flank, they were isolated from the bulk of the army, guarding against ambush and held in reserve in case of a frontal action. There wasn’t much to review, with little over two hundred soldiers between them, every response to any emergency was essentially ‘fall back towards Major Yuzhen’.
Their business concluded, young magistrate Fung insisted they all dine together in his tent, even inviting Lady Mei Lin. Feeling awkwardly out-of-place at the table, Rustram ate his meal in silence, savouring the hot stew and soft buns somehow procured by Fung’s manservant/torturer. An odd career choice to be sure, but an expert in both his crafts. Dastan followed suit while Fung and Mei Lin chatted like old friends. Their meal passed in relative peace, and they sat around the small table and sipped tea. Feeding the bear cubs half a bun each, Fung shook his head in fascination, smiling as he watched the little animals eat. “Seeing Rain’s success with rearing animals almost makes me want to brave the carnugator island to search for eggs. I daresay I’d strike a dashing figure riding into battle atop a massive, armoured lizard.”
“Carnugators aren’t as smart or sweet as these babies.” Mei Lin smiled while soothing a begging Auric, his head firmly planted in her lap. “Besides, Rainy doesn’t intend to battle-train them. He’ll spoil them rotten and keep them as pets.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Rustram said. “The boss is a kind soul, always making it known we’ve a choice whether to stay and fight. Wouldn’t be like him to force animals into battle, no matter how fearsome they might be.”
Chiming in for the first time all meal, Dastan spoke his mind. “Officer Falling Rain is a fascinating person, not at all what I was expecting. Truth be told, when we first met at the bridge, I expected him to be more… vicious, considering his reputation.”
Exchanging glances, Mei Lin and Fung smiled while Rustram explained. “You’ve never seen him in battle have you? The boss looks out for his own, but in the midst of battle, it’s almost like he becomes a different person. His smile turns… sinister, for lack of a better word, a look in his eye like he’s enjoying the challenge. He’s good to his friends, but merciless to his enemies.” Lowering his voice, Rustram added, “I’m surprised he let young magistrate Zian live after their duel, but I’m guessing it wasn’t by choice. The boss isn’t exactly one to consider long-term consequences.”
Nodding emphatically, Dastan’s eyes shone with admiration. “He is a man of passion, this much I know, willing to stand up for his beliefs regardless of the danger. You should have seen how he needled the Shrike when she tried to rope us into her cause. Fearlessly questioning her beliefs without hiding his revulsion, risking his sanity in a fruitless effort to remember commoners whom he’d never met.” Shaking his head, Dastan seemed ashamed. “These people are my own, citizens of Sanshu like myself facing the Purge, as if suffering beneath Council exploitation and the Magistrate’s greed was not enough. I should have been the one to defend them, but I lacked the courage to speak. Rain was fearless, pointing out the Shrike’s fallacies and questioning her actions at every turn, refusing to let the matter drop. He even subtly implied she enjoyed her work, though asking if she was tainted was out of line. Then…” Pausing, Dastan sighed and raised his cup in toast. “Suffice to say, Falling Rain is a far better man than I, and I can only aspire to his example.”
Whatever the boss had done to so aggravate the Shrike, Rustram knew the boss had good reason, so he let the matter drop. Both Fung and Mei Lin were far too well-mannered to ask outright, and even if they did, Dastan could not tell them, so their lively discussion came to an abrupt halt. After several awkward minutes of silence, Dastan coughed and stood, clasping his hands. “Thank you for the meal, young magistrate Fung. A welcome relief from dried hardtack and jerky.” Glancing around, he leaned forward and whispered, “Remember, should things take a turn for the worst, retreat immediately. Sanshu will endure with or without our aide, of this much I am confident.” With those strange parting words, Dastan exited the tent. Of everyone present, he had most reason to rush into the city, but Dastan seemed wholly content to wait out here on the sidelines, but since no one else brought up the issue, Rustram let things lie and escorted Mei Lin out.
Only a few steps away from the tent, Fung called out to him, leaving his tent in a hurry. “Mister Rustram, rally your soldiers. I’ve received word of Garo riders are converging upon our position and an army marches behind them, at least eight thousand strong in total.”
Flooded by a mixture of apprehension and relief, Rustram gripped the hilt of his Spiritual Weapon and smiled. Whatever the outcome, at least this was an end to the waiting. Turning to bring Mei Lin away to safety, he found her mounted atop her roosequin and strapping a quiver to her belt. With bow in hand, she smiled prettily and gestured for Rustram to follow, her guards appearing out of nowhere, fully armed atop their mounts. “Hurry Roo-Roo,” she urged, “After we kill them all, maybe we can meet up with Rainy and Mi-Mi.”
He’d said it before, but the Bekhai raised their people well. Brave souls, one and all, it was his pleasure to serve in their defence.
Greedily swallowing the last drops of nectar, Gen struggled to pull Bei back in for another taste of sweet bliss, but no matter how he suckled, there was no more to be had. The heady rush of euphoria soon faded, leaving him in pain as his body mended bone and knit flesh. “Stupid bitch,” he growled, through gritted teeth, his shoulder sending waves of agony through him. “Feed me. Your husband demands it.” Unable to comply, Bei knelt at his side with hands neatly folded, a broken, subservient thing. Wrapping his claws around her flawless neck, he squeezed tightly, letting his nails press against the surface, but there was no reaction, no panic or apprehension. She merely stayed in place, her head cocked in question, ready to obey.
How boring. It was no fun like this, better to see the defiance and fear in her eyes. Like this, she was no better than a doll. “I’m still in pain, you worthless tramp,” he said, releasing his hold on her. “Go drain more corpses and return as quickly as possible.” He didn’t care that her injuries had yet to be treated, her arm in tatters and gaping chest wound still leaking corrosive ichor down her pale, pink belly. Her purpose was to serve him and nothing more, the useless bitch defeated by a pair of girls. He hoped Bei was in pain, and intended to leave her like this as a lesson.
Bei disappeared before his eyes and Gen was left to stew over his defeat, sitting in the ruins of some rich bastard’s manor. Running his fingers over the shattered pauldron and breastplate, he shuddered at the sheer destructive power displayed by that monstrous Sumila. This armour protected him through days of battle, Honed weapons unable to pierce its surface, yet unable to block a single throw of her spear. There was no life in the armour, not anymore, a broken, useless husk ruined in an instant, though he retained the knowledge of how to better summon the flames. Somehow, he knew the armour was done for, whatever holy magics empowering it gone for good.
Inhuman, that was the only word to describe Sumila, the bestial whore relying on her tainted blood to overpower him. Besides, everyone knew half-beasts lived for hundreds of years, so it was impossible to tell her true age from a single glance. Perhaps she was decades old, using her appearance to bully the young. His defeat wasn’t all bad, fuelling his desire for power and showing him the need for caution. The heavens were high and the world larger than he expected, and while Gen held great potential, he needed time and diligence to reach the apex.
While ruminating on this thought, Bei returned with two corpses in hand, dissolving their flesh and tending to his wounds, his pain washing away beneath her tender ministrations. Finally doing something right without his prompting, Bei offered him a new breastplate, scavenged from the battlefield and thrumming with life. Trying it on, he felt it shift around, a little too large for his slender frame, but the Spirits assured him he would grow into it. Checking himself in the mirror, he found it less eye-catching than his first breastplate, though its dark, bloody surface matched his silvered-plumed helm well. Without seeing his reflection, he almost forgot he was wearing it, so smooth and comfortable around his head like a second skull.
Jianghong’s voice sounded in Gen’s mind, giving him a start and summoning him to the restaurant. Hardly able to contain his excitement, he took Bei’s hand and ordered her to bring him away. The world blinked in and out of existence around him, and in a matter of heartbeats, he appeared at his destination, standing on the lowest balcony of the restaurant with Yo Ling and Jianghong.
“Gen my boy.” The greeting was less enthused than usually, Yo Ling’s face flushed with drink. “I see you’re wearing Nazier’s armour.” Snorting, he snidely remarked, “Might as well, the fool has no use for it. Dying to a brat like Falling Rain, Nazier’s a disgrace to the Butcher name. You’re unharmed?”
Nodding, Gen hung his head in shame. “I’m sorry, I lost too.”
“Aye, but at least you’re still breathing. Defeat seems to be a common theme of late. Lost Kaliyan and a few others, but our former guard captain survived, running away with his tail tucked between his legs.” At Yo Ling’s taunt, Jianghong’s eyes flashed with anger, his hand jerking towards his sword hilt before catching himself. Ignoring the danger, Yo Ling turned his back to them both and strode to the rail, looking over his army of Butchers. Raising his voice to a booming echo, he spoke to everyone present. “You’ve all disappointed me these past few days. A city primed and ready for the taking, yet we’re still stuck in this first district, something the enemy gave up without a fight. Disgraceful.”
The silence was deafening as every warrior in earshot stopped what they were doing, their full attention given to Yo Ling. Glancing slowly across the crowd, every eye turned away from his gaze, too ashamed to meet his eye. “You can make excuses all you want, blame it on all the riffraff coming out to defend Sanshu, but I know your measure, and so far, you have been found lacking. I look out from this balcony, and you know what I see?”
Monsters. A small voice in Gen’s mind piped up but he ignored it without thought, hanging onto Yo Ling’s every word. “I see my Butchers, my comrades, my conquering army. Some of you worry we’ve been trapped inside the city now that the Marshal’s little pet is at our door, but I tell you, you’re wrong. Some of you gaze upon our enemies and despair, seeing soldiers, guards, Corsairs, Militia, and Bekhai all arrayed against us. I tell you again, you are wrong, but talk is cheap.”
Leaping from the balcony, Yo Ling landed with a heavy crash, brandishing his mace with a grin. “Come my comrades,” he roared, pointing to the north. “Beginning with our oldest rivals, the Crossbone Corsairs, we will destroy our enemies one by one, and before the sun sets tonight, Sanshu will be ours. Let us show the traitor surnamed Liu the error of his ways. For Butcher Bay!”
“For Butcher Bay!”
Leading the way, Yo Ling marched towards the northern bridge, lifting the mood and dispelling all doubts through sheer charisma, a general leading his troops to victory. Emerging from the shadows, a half-dozen Transcendents surrounded him, an honour guard for the greatest warrior of his generation. Gen’s heart soared at the sight and he leaped down to join them, though far less gracefully. Knowing they would need Bei’s strength, he sent her away to heal her wounds, instructing her to return with all haste.
This was history in the making, and Gen was lucky enough to see it with his own eyes.
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