Even after so much time spent together, Song still couldn’t make heads or tails of Rain’s curious behaviour.
Following his retinue’s first failed patrol thanks to a powerful Demon he almost affectionately named ‘Pudge’, Rain brooded and sulked like a child denied dessert before dinner throughout the entire journey back to Sinuji. His attempts to put on a brave face were ruined by his constant sighs and forlorn stares, a testament to his ‘quiet arrogance’, as Niece Alsantset so aptly put it. The combined efforts of six Experts were unable to defeat Pudge, yet Rain foolishly believed he should and could have done more to affect the outcome, a belief which had no basis in logic or rationality, yet he believed wholeheartedly nonetheless.
In Song’s opinion, Rain’s performance was more than adequate, but he was never one to strut about and celebrate his victories. Instead, he fixated on his shortcomings like a man desperate for punishment, paying no mind to how his rowdy, Spiritual Rifle-armed subordinates claimed first blood against the Demon and proved the worth of his bizarre weapons, nor how he stood tall during the Demon’s foul birth whilst most shied away, Song included. Of the Experts who stepped up to face Pudge, any one of them could’ve beaten Rain while blindfolded and two of those Experts took grave injuries in the battle, yet he still presumed he should have done more. Small wonder even the venerable Guan Suo snapped at Rain, though to be fair, it didn’t take much to infuriate the pipe-smoking Peak Expert.
A trait Mila shared with her half-brother. Perhaps it had something to do with their red-panda blood, but it was strange for creatures so adorable to possess such surly tempers…
Upon returning to Sinuji, Rain’s mood changed for the better thanks to the loose tongue of one Situ Gulong, and Song almost wanted to thank the arrogant fool for his aid. While renewed conflict with the Society would undoubtedly make trouble for Mama and the Bekhai, allowing a nameless nobody to question Rain’s courage would’ve been far worse, especially considering his recent actions were already detrimental to morale. Song wholeheartedly approved of Rain’s ploy, for convincing the fool to remove his own tongue was fitting as both punishment and warning, not to mention a much needed boost to his retinue’s flagging spirits. Rain’s included, judging by his subsequent bouts of frenetic training, whether it be meditating in his bathtub or demonstrating the Forms for several hours in full view of camp. Granted he then spent most of yesterday obsessing over gourds of water and teasing the turtles, but his air of focused intensity was a large improvement over his mopey gloom.
The best takeaway from Rain’s brief and bloody encounter with Gulong was readily seen in the Death Corps soldiers. Overall, the Death Corps were not adapting well to Rain’s… eccentricity, and she sympathized wholeheartedly. Trained from young and wholly devoted to the Imperial Clan, the slave warriors had precious little to take pride in aside from the noble they served, and Rain was hardly what they expected. While there was pride to be found in defending the (publicly styled) Number One Talent in the Empire and first outsider to hold title as an Imperial Consort, Rain did not behave as a noble should, behaviour which caused no small amount of apprehension.
The problem was, Rain didn’t understand the Death Corps mindset, not entirely. When he tried to make friends, offer to help with a chore, or coddled them like children, he gave off the appearance of looking down on their ability and insulting their pride. Slaves though they might be, even the lowest-born servant had dreams and aspirations, and for the Death Corps, their dreams largely consisted of service to a worthy master and aiding in their rise in power, a dream which was next to impossible with Rain. As an Imperial Consort outside the Imperial Clan, Rain’s status was both unique and questionable. No one could argue Rain wasn’t a valid member of nobility, but having cut their teeth on Imperial politics and intrigue, the Death Corps were wholly aware his title lacked substance. A consorts’s power derived largely from their spouse and familial connections, but Rain’s title came through marriage to an Imperial Servant and he himself had no Imperial ties to call upon. The Death Corps even knew of his falling out with the Legate, thus putting an end to their vicarious ambitions for their foreigner master.
Now, they were truly a Death Corps, for all that remained of their honour would be found through death in battle, a fact which Rain seemed wholly oblivious to. Using his title to set an arrogant noble straight instilled his Death Corps with pride, but now Rain trampled over it through sheer ignorance. “For the last time,” he said, his frustration mounting, “I’m not bringing anyone except quin riders out today. We’re going scouting and speed is of the essence. I don’t have extra quins and I wouldn’t bring you even if I did. I don’t need novice riders slowing me down.”
Refusing help washing his bathtub was bad enough, but now he refused to bring them into battle? Foolish Rain, one step forward and three steps back.
Kneeling at the edge of camp, the Death Corps soldiers prostrated themselves before their master, their faces touching the dirt while Red One voiced their desire. “A thousand apologies Great One. If Great One finds us lacking, then we deserve punishment, but duty compels this slave to beg permission to serve.”
Faced with this heartfelt admission, Rain had the gall to roll his eyes. Thankfully, the Death Corps were all face down in the dirt and unable to see his gross contempt. “It’s not that I find you lacking. You’re great soldiers, some of the best in the Empire no less, but like I told you, this is a scouting mission. We’re going out to look for Defiled, not fight them. If I only bring light cavalry, then we can retreat at the first sign of the Enemy, but with heavy infantry at my side, we’ll be forced to fight it out.”
“Begging Great One’s forgiveness,” Red One whispered, his voice muted as he flattened himself into the dirt, “But this slave still requests leave to follow at Great One’s side.”
“Enough,” Rain snapped. “Stand – arggh… There’s no need to grovel. Don’t you get it? There’s no benefit to bringing you along, only risk.” Another oddity of Rain’s, refusing to give the Death Corps commands outside of battle. Though Song had come to appreciate his thoughtful consideration, she remembered how distraught she’d been when she first came to join them, no longer sure of her place in the world once given so much freedom, and she suspected the Death Corps felt the same. By leaving them behind, Rain was all but telling them they had no value in his eyes, and there was no fate worse than a lifelong slave who’d been cast aside.
No longer able to stomach this idiocy, Song snuggled Mama Bun for courage and stepped in close to Rain, keeping the affectionate rabbit between them to be safe. Not because she expected him to lash out in rage, but if tempted to, perhaps the presence of his beloved pet would rein him in. Even when enraged, she couldn’t picture him hurting his beloved pets, though she would sooner see herself crippled than allow the precious Mama Bun to come to harm. “Commander,” she said, her voice quivering only a little, “Perhaps you should rethink your decision to leave the Death Corps behind.”
“Really, Martial Aunt?” The too-familiar appellation put a frown on Song’s face, for she had warned him it would set a poor precedent for discipline. Rolling his eyes once again, Rain grudgingly corrected himself beneath her bristling glare. “Sorry, Team Leader Song. Why should we bring the Death Corps on a scouting mission?”
“The logic is clear, Commander.” Annoyed by his poorly concealed amusement, Song abandoned all pretense of giving face and voiced her arguments at a normal volume. “Even with careful forethought and skilled Bekhai scouts, it is impossible to claim there will be no battle for the Enemy is cunning and devious to the extreme. Since you will not be personally scouting ahead and must ration the animal’s stamina, the Death Corps shouldn’t have any trouble keeping up in wagons. Should no mishap occur, then they will at most be a minor burden, but their presence will prove invaluable should the worst come to pass. Sacrificing speed for caution is a worthwhile trade, especially this close to Sinuji.”
Not to mention the cold hard truth: should the Enemy successfully ambush their scouting party, then the Death Corps could be left behind to guard their retreat. Though she wholehearted wished they too would eventually learn the joys of freedom, there was precious little chance the Imperial Clan would let such a thing come to pass. Such was their purpose, their lives devoted to this singular cause, and it would be rude for Rain to deny them even the chance.
“Well, Team Leader Song has never steered me wrong, so I suppose you can all come along.” Despite going along with her suggestion, Rain hardly seemed thrilled. “You going to keep lying in the dirt or can we leave now?”
Uttering a chorus of thanks, the Death Corps kowtowed in unison as Rain stalked away, the sound of their helmeted heads striking the ground loud enough to startle poor Mama Bun awake. Discomfited by the plethora of grateful stares from the Death Corps, Song busied herself checking Erdene’s harness and comforting Blackjack and Mama Bun, while also staying close to Rain’s side to study his odd choice of provisions. Poking out of Zabu’s saddlebags were no less than eighteen gourds of water, the same gourds he’d been obsessing over. He had marked them, held them, studied them, sniffed them, listened to them, did all manner of things except drink them, and now he arranged them so they’d be close to hand while he rode.
Were it not for Big Ping and Little Pong’s blatant interest, Song would’ve written a letter to Mama and Brother Baatar to inform them Martial Nephew Rain had gone stark raving mad. Luckily, the two turtles’ undisguised greed made it clear there was something special about the water in those containers, one hovering at his side and the other perched on his shoulder in hopes of a treat. She assumed their desire had something to do with Rain’s Awakening or the droplet of Heavenly Water he’d somehow misplaced, though with him, it was hard to say. While Song believed Rain wasted far too much time and effort infusing Chi into water for the turtles, she kept her opinion to herself, for he had a history of doing strange things which eventually worked in his favour.
Truly a man beloved by the Mother and blessed by the Heavens.
While waiting to get underway, Song eyed her new protector. The Tyrant Yuhuan sat with a surly pout dressed in her assorted jewellery and sheer black robes, its pouches bulging with all sorts of odds and ends. Runic Devices one and all, as the arrogant woman so proudly proclaimed during their first and only meeting, also mentioning she’d crafted Song’s breastplate and how the work was now too embarrassing to look at. Engrossed in designing a new Runic Device, she spent most of her time inside her yurt and was currently letting everyone in earshot know she was none too pleased about being pulled away from ‘vital research’ for a ‘fool’s errand’.
Much like her disciple Daxian, the Tyrant was accomplished, attractive, and astonishingly abrasive.
As Rain led his scouting party west, Song admitted the Tyrant might have a point about this being a waste of time. Talented as Bekhai scouts were, the Army scouts could hardly miss something as obvious as a Defiled warband camped within a day’s march of Sinuji, and if the Defiled were further away, then there was nothing Rain could do to help. Regardless, she was happy for any excuse to exercise Erdene as the sweet quin was far too adept at swindling meals from her many would-be suitors. Eager for treats from rider or quin, Erdene stuck close to Rain and Zabu, squeaking from time to time to attract their attention while they cantered westward over the Central plains. Big Ping played a similar role on the other side of Rain, having no trouble matching the quins brisk pace while Lightening her bulky frame, intent on keeping close watch on the precious gourds.
Thus they rode in peaceful silence, as everyone was well used to the routine. The only difference today was Song had no responsibilities aside from watching Mama Bun, Blackjack, and the Death Corps soldiers, but none needed much looking after. The Death Corps alternated between jogging and riding to give their quin-drawn wagons a lighter load, and the animals slept in her embrace, the tiny hare happy to take advantage of Mama Bun’s affection whilst Little Pong rode with Rain. With little else to do, Song kept abreast of Rain and the details of his forward scouts in case he needed help, but there was little she could offer with Argat and Orgaal to advise him.
Boredom and dissatisfaction mounting, Song worried she would soon become obsolete, more burden than boon in the war against the Defiled. No Awakening, no Aura, no Natal Palace, no Spiritual Rifle, the list of Song’s deficiencies grew longer by the day, especially since her place as Rain’s advisor had been usurped by Daxian and Orgaal. All she could do now was fight, and though she’d seen some improvement in recent days, it was far from enough.
After an hour of travel, Rain ordered the party to slow to a walk and Song saw her chance to speak with him. Extending her hand, Song waited as he struggled to understand the meaning behind her gesture. Long, awkward seconds passed and she flushed with embarrassment as she remembered when not too long ago, she’d mistakenly suspected him of having immoral intentions for making this same gesture. “Sending.”
“Ah.” Reaching out to clasp her hand, Rain brought Zabu closer and Sent, “What’s up?”
To start, Song explained, “I do not trust the two bandit Experts, so it’s best we speak in private.” The half-truth came easily, as it was a reason to speak through Sending, but not the only reason.
“Sure,” he replied, once again unable to hide his amusement. “What about?”
“I wish to ask for advice.” Ignoring his surprise and delight, Song powered through and spoke of her issues through Sending, starting with her non-existent knowledge regarding Aura and her inability to form a Natal Palace. “Mama’s latest letter is no different, stating I should continue with my exercises and let nature take its course, but I thought you might have some unique insight to the Martial Path considering your swift advancement.”
“I would love to help,” he replied, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze, “But I myself just learned how detrimental a minor misconception can be. My personal insights might not even be helpful, considering I don’t really know how I condensed my Aura or formed a Natal Palace. Are you sure you want to hear this? If this ends up hindering your progress, Grand Mentor will pin my hide to the wall.”
Though Song knew he was merely joking, she still bristled at the implication that Mama would ever lay a hand on him in anger. “Yes,” she Sent, nodding once for effect. “Start with something simple. What was it like when you first used your Aura?”
Rain’s smile melted away as his eyes unfocused and shoulders slumped, a strange reaction to reminiscing about a grand success. “It’s not something I like to think about, but I’ll tell you if you want to know. Be warned, you know about my… issues with Balance and… Defilement, so I don’t recommend you follow in my footsteps. Do you still want to hear about it?”
“Yes.” Song had no fear of turning Defiled, for her Oaths expressly forbade it. Death would come the moment she realized what she’d become, and the Heavens would punish her for any rebellious thoughts against her master.
“Alright.” Pausing to consider his words, Rain Sent, “The story starts after I fell into Western Treasures Lake, and drifted onto shore almost a week later. As you know, a young woman named Ai Qing saved and nursed me back to health, but what I never told anyone was that I wasn’t myself.” Retreating into his thoughts, Rain explained how he’d adopted a different persona, a split personality he named Baledagh or Warrior to deal with his growing issues with Defilement. One mind to embrace the lies and one mind to resist them, it made for a most fascinating tale, and Song was the first to hear it. It made sense now in retrospect, how he often went back and forth between timid and harmless to dangerous and unrestrained. Brother and Warrior, a curious dichotomy, but inwardly, Song disagreed with his conclusion.
Rain believed his true self to be the Brother, a kind-hearted young man who wanted nothing more than to be happy and loved, but in Song’s eyes, Rain was the Warrior to his core. There were valid arguments to be made in either direction, but if he were truly Brother, then their paths would never have crossed, for long before his brush with Defiledment, it was the Warrior who taunted Cho Jin Kai inside that nameless restaurant, not the Brother.
When he finished telling her about Baledagh and Brother, Rain sighed with relief, and though he didn’t seem to notice it, he clenched her hand tight while averting his gaze, as if ashamed of admitting his faults. Song sensed there was more to it, but she didn’t press him for more. Oddly enough, she was pleased he’d confided in her before anyone else, for not even Mama, Sister, Lin, or Yan knew about his ‘Mental Disorder’, as he termed it. Only the Monk had known, his intervention vital in helping Rain recover and move on.
That said… “You still haven’t told me about Aura.”
Lifting his head in surprise, Rain blinked and stared before bursting into laughter, which drew the eye of everyone around them. Waving them off, he wiped the tears from his eyes and Sent, “Oh Song… Your single-minded dedication to the pursuit of strength is admirable, barely even blinking when I tell you one of my darkest secrets.”
Ignoring his inadvertent slip of the tongue, Song nodded and Sent, “You were unwell, but you are better now. I am happy for you. If you wish to speak of it more, then I am happy to listen.” Listening was easy. It would only be an issue if he wanted her to speak.
“Maybe later,” he Sent, flashing a grateful smile. “As for Aura… I was Baledagh at the time, so my memories are… spotty. I told you about the Defiled bandits who attacked Ai Qing’s village right? Well, I went in to save the villagers and came across Laughing Dragon, their Aura-capable leader. Once unleashed, his Aura paralyzed me with ice-cold terror and left me helpless as he and his bandits beat me bloody. Then… I don’t know. Something inside me snapped. The fear disappeared, but it wasn’t courage which took its place, nor was it anger. In its place was an unquenchable blood-thirst free from anger or hatred, virtue or integrity, just pure… exhilaration as I exulted in battle and conflict. I didn’t fight to save the villagers or kill Defiled in vengeance, I fought because I wanted to fight and for no other reason.” Shaking his head, Rain added, “I didn’t even know I’d condensed an Aura until Laughing Dragon mentioned it. What’s weird is, now that I think about it, even though I remember the fight, I have no idea how I pulled it off. I Healed, Deflected, Lightened, Amplified, and Reinforced, all while new Insights flooded into my mind and faded away the moment I performed them. At some points, I think I even used External Chi, though I don’t know how I managed it…”
“The Mother always leaves a path to salvation,” Song quoted. “Perhaps She took interest in your conflict and offered much-needed assistance.”
“Perhaps.” Rain’s tone was steeped in skepticism, which was strange for a man so blessed by the Mother. “Anyway, like I said, I’m not sure my experiences are of any use.”
They weren’t, but Song was grateful he’d shared something so difficult to speak of. “What about a Natal Palace?”
“Right to the point as always.” Chuckling beneath his breath, Rain puffed his cheeks and Sent, “Well… Grand Mentor has you on the right track with your poetry recitals, and I think I know what she intends to happen, but I’m not sure if I should tell you if she won’t.” Sighing, he muttered something about grabbing a tiger by the tail and Sent, “Look, you know the basic premise right? Split your focus and work on two things at once. That’s why she has you reciting poetry in battle.”
“Yes, but how do I go about forming the actual Natal Palace?”
A hint of exasperation slipped into her tone, but Rain nodded in sympathy. “Well… let’s try this. What do you see when you meditate?”
“My eyes close and conceal the light,” Song Sent, “But true darkness comes after I reach Balance. Then… nothing. My mind is quiet and senses blocked, with only the warm embrace of the Mother to accompany me, a tranquil, soothing flow of Chi sinking into my Core.”
“Okay… good. I’m the same way. Has Grand Mentor asked you to try anything while meditating?”
“Well, try reciting poetry while you meditate. I think the Monk did something similar, but I could be wrong. Also, what I do is envision something which holds personal meaning and significance, a place of safety or comfort which is always there. My Natal Palace has all my favourite locations, like Taduk’s cottage in the village and Mila’s forge at the Northern Wall. Because they’re so near and dear to my heart, keeping the locations in mind at all times is simple, which is the basic premise behind creating a Natal Palace.”
…What significance and meaning did Sister’s forge hold?
Clarity struck and Song knew exactly what to do, so she quickly extracted her hand and passed Mama Bun and Blackjack over. Giving Erdene free rein, Song closed her eyes and reached for Balance, submersing herself in the darkness of the void. Rain said to envision something which made her feel safe, but he also said it should be something Song could always keep in mind. If she disregarded the first requirement, then she had the perfect object to envision, though it would require a little creativity to implement.
Drawing upon the Energy of the Heavens flowing towards her, Song focused her mind and brought her will to bear. Silver light burst into existence within the void, encircling her in a ring of radiant chains while a bed of shimmering green emerald emerged beneath her feet, fine metal and precious stone twin to the necklace worn around Rain’s neck, the innocuous piece of jewellery which Song was bound to. Dark and empty no longer, the void shimmered with pale green and bright silver, marking out an area of undefined size around it. It seemed to grow and shrink every time she looked away, and she knew this would not do. Here and in the physical world, the chain and emerald represented her Oaths to the Heavens, Oaths which confined and restricted her during every second of every day, but so long as she was here, she was free from their influence, free to do as she pleased. Her Oaths to the Heavens bound her, but her family and loved ones had set her heart and mind free. She was safe here, she knew this to be true. This was her refuge from the outside world, a place where she could truly be at peace, a realm crafted using the tools given by the Mother. Mama helped too, and in recognition of her efforts, Song recited poetry until it became second nature, the oration continuing even as she stepped away, as if spoken by another mind.
And another voice, for Song recognized Mama’s tender voice reciting the Classics of Poetry, delivering each stanza with enunciated passion.
As the dulcet tones of Mama’s recital rippled throughout the void, the chains of Song’s Natal Palace withdrew into the distance. Difficult to say exactly how far, but far enough so she felt unfettered and free, her little piece of paradise stable and secure. Taking one last look around, Song nodded in approval before stepping out of the void and returning to her senses. “How am I to know if I’ve succeeded?” she asked, not bothering to extend her hand to Send.
“So quickly? It’s only been a few minutes… well, if it doesn’t work, then everything will be gone the next time you go back.”
Nodding, Song closed her eyes and returned to the void, a process so effortless she surprised herself. What’s more, the emerald bed, silver chains, and Mama’s voice were all waiting for her, the recital having continued in her absence. If Song had to guess, the constant reminder of her Oaths and the poetry recital were both required to keep her Natal Palace intact, and she felt a little safer knowing a part of Mama would always be here with her. An unexpected surprise, but a welcome one, for Song loved Mama with all her heart. Lingering to listen a little while longer, she waited until the end of the poem before returning to reality. Eyes turned towards the heavens, Song cherished this moment and committed everything to memory, from her light-headed fatigue and ensuing torrent of emotions to Erdene’s swaying gait and Rain’s reassuring presence, for this was her crowning moment of success.
“I succeeded,” she said, staring at the beautiful blue sky and wondering what wonders still lay ahead. “At twenty-one years of age, I, Li Song, Daughter of Akanai and Husolt, Sister to Sumila and Baatar, have become an Expert of the Bekhai.”
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|