For those who don’t know, the number 4 is terrible luck in chinese culture, because 4 is a homonym for death. 14 is even worse, because it is a homonym for ‘certain death’. I normally don’t put stock in stuff like this, but I started joking about 444 being cursed, and then I had to take a break to finish it. Now, I’m releasing Chapter 444 on 04/14, and I’m certifiably spooked. If Truck-sama gets me, please wait ten to fifteen years for me to reincarnate, defeat the Demon lord, and return to this world to resume SD chapters. You patience will be appreciated.
On a happier note, we got some arttttttttt. First off, we have a new artist from Discord named Bri, who drew a lovely rendition of Lin, Mila, and Song, complete with beffitting fancy outfits. Love it, especially the embroidery on lin’s dress.
Next up, we have two submissions from Rocky, depicting our MC Rain in Spectre-vision versus reality.
Thanks again to Bri and Rocky for sharing their hard work. Its always a treat to see how people imagine my characters and as per usual, I’m greedy and would love to see more . Pm me here, DM on discord, comment in the chapter, or whatever, show me that arttttttttttttttt. I craves itt…
Anywho, that’s enough from me, he’s the chapter!
Stifling a yawn as she stepped out of her tent, Yan flicked her bangs out of her eyes and took a seat at the dining table, where Kyung poured her a cup of piping hot tea to enjoy beneath the late-morning sun. Though wholly capable of pouring her own tea, Yan had long since given up trying, for though he would never voice his displeasure, the handsome half-cat would pout oh-so prettily if she did anything which even remotely resembled ‘servant’s work’. In truth, she rather enjoyed being pampered, though when she heard Rain lived like his soldiers while out on patrol, she’d been suitably embarrassed about serving in relative luxury. Admiring his show of solidarity, she brought it up with Kyung in private, but he snorted and called Rain a brainless idiot, stating, “How can his strength and status be respected when he presents himself as a common grunt?”
Were this before her adoption, Yan would have laughed and taken Rain’s side, but she’d since learned the value of reputation and how easily it could be shaped by perception alone. While Rain’s actions might endear him to his soldiers, it was more likely to alienate him from them. There were expectations which went hand in hand with rank and power, namely money, status, and reputation, so seeing Rain break his teeth on hardtack or labouring to unload wagons was likely to alarm low-born commoners treading the Martial Path. To be strong was to be respected, but Rain’s actions disrespected his strength, a confusing paradox which had Yan’s mind spinning in circles.
When she shared her misgivings with him in SuiHua, Rain had merely waved her concerns aside and said, “Hard work and perseverance are more worthy of respect than a lavish lifestyle.” He wasn’t wrong, for those were qualities which should be respected, but most people only saw the surface and never cared to look any deeper. There was no end to envious young nobles wishing they’d been adopted in Yan’s place, but few ever commented on the sacrifices she and Grandpa had made to get where they were now. Hard work and gruelling efforts aside, there was the little matter of uprooting her life to come to Central, where half-beasts were not so tolerated as they were in the North. What’s more, wonderful as Grandpa Du had been, she missed having an entire community around to cheer and support her. Back home, countless friendly faces would greet her each day, whether it be friends, teachers, housemarms or neighbouring aunties and uncles. Everyone worked together for the betterment of all and shared in one another’s successes, but here in Central, no one could be trusted because politics and backbiting were second nature. Even family couldn’t be counted on, a harsh reality she faced upon seeing all of Grandpa Du’s loved ones turn against him for adopting an orphaned half-beast as his granddaughter.
A fact which made her love him all the more for going through with it. There was no political advantage to be gained in adopting her, as Yan was perfectly content as his Disciple or even as his student, but Grandpa wanted to give her a family even if it cost him the one he already had.
With this in mind, she gratefully partook in the simple traditional Yantainese breakfast cooked by Kyung, a multi-talented warrior who would make for a wonderful husband. Hot and spicy soy bean milk, fragrant wheat-cakes with scrambled eggs, savoury beef-stuffed scallion wraps, scalding soup-filled lamb dumplings, delectable steamed pork buns, and to top it all off, a sweet and flaky walnut pastry for dessert. A hearty meal even for a Martial Warrior, but Eun and Grandpa both thought Yan too thin and bony, so if she didn’t clear every last plate, she would be subjected to Kyung’s forlorn expression and later, Grandpa and Eun’s. Not that Yan ever complained about the food; Kyung’s cooking was almost as good as Eun’s, who was easily Charok’s equal in the culinary arts, and judging by Rain’s roving eyes and wandering hands, he certainly appreciated Yan’s padded figure.
Delicious as the food was, she would have much rather dined on hardtack and jerky while nestled in Rain’s arms, or better yet, invited him over to share her food and bed. Unfortunately, Grandpa had expressly forbidden any ‘dalliances’ while out in the field. It was one thing for a young noblewoman to indulge with a paramour in private, but to do so while serving on the front lines would reek of impropriety, or so he said. Since she was no spoiled fop or love-struck maiden, Yan agreed without giving the matter much thought, but after seeing Rain’s covetous gaze last night, she cursed herself for a fool. Who would speak ill of a woman tending to the needs of her husband-to-be? Unfortunately, she was a woman of her word, so instead of spending the night entangled in Rain’s warm embrace, she slept alone in her cot plagued by dreams of what could have been.
Though determined to obey Grandpa, Yan still wanted to spend time with her beloved, so after breakfast, she headed over to his camp with Kyung in tow, where they found Rain sparring with a spirited Han BoShui, glaive and gauntlet ringing as they traded blows and friendly smiles. So much had changed in Yan’s absence, for when she first left the Northern Province, Rain was but a nameless young warrior and the People and the Society were locked in bitter conflict over the fallout from the Contest. Now, merely two years later, Rain was the Number One Talent in the Empire and sparring with his good friend, the Young Patriarch of a prominent Society Clan. Over in another sparring field stood two more of Rain’s friends, Situ Jia Zian, another Young Patriarch and a man who almost killed Rain during their fateful duel at the Wall, matching blades against Dastan Zhandos, a traitorous Warrant Officer turned Rain’s subordinate. One clean-shaven and the other ruggedly-bearded, the two too-handsome men should’ve been Rain’s greatest rivals but instead were fiercely loyal to her beloved, an outcome almost too fanciful to believe. Being friends with Fung was different, for the man hardly behaved as a proper noble should, but Yan mistrusted these Society popinjays.
Truth be told, even having heard the stories several times from different people, Yan still found it difficult to wrap her head around Rain’s swift rise to glory and bitterly wished she could have been there to see it firsthand.
Despite their thrilling reunion, subsequent whirlwind betrothal, and an entire month spent catching up in SuiHua, it was still far from enough to process all the new changes. Much as Yan enjoyed Rain’s physical changes, there was more to it. When they first met, Yan thought he kept apart from his peers because he considered himself better than they were, but he was merely deathly shy of strangers, a detail she found utterly endearing. That was gone now, for in her absence, Rain had blossomed into a charismatic leader and cunning politician, a man so comfortable with games of nobility it seemed as if he’d been born into them. From his awe-inspiring entrance into Nan Ping with the Divine Turtle at his back to his thunderous debut in the duelling arenas, Rain struck fast and struck hard to ensure his name would stand out amongst the hundreds of other young heroes in the three provinces. Then, after proving he could play their games, he abruptly withdrew from the public eye and let rumour and hearsay do their work while forcing his rivals onto the offensive. It worked out wonderfully for him, and even though Rain claimed he never gave any of his actions much thought, this only made it all the more impressive because it showed his instincts were so sharp they guided him in the optimal direction.
That said, after a month of Luo-Luo’s patient tutelage, Rain could hardly claim to know nothing of politics, especially given his latest exploits. The Rain she knew would never have thought to cozy up to his superior or been capable of manipulating a foolish young noble into removing his own tongue. Rain understood the game now and he played it well, better than most in fact, though to be fair, part of this was due to his unique status. Between his Imperial Peerage, Martial Talent, brilliant book of inventions, and burgeoning mercantile enterprise, he stood poised as the Empire’s most eligible young man, one with a proven lustful history and no official wife to bear his legitimate heirs.
It wouldn’t surprise Yan if Baatar and Sarnai were drowning in letters from prospective partners for their oh-so-talented son. Luckily, her beloved fool seemed unaware of his true value and adamant to obey Lin’s directive of only having five wives, else Yan feared Rain would soon have a harem numbering in the hundreds. Even luckier still was that underneath all the pretty trappings and newfound confidence, he was the same sweet generous soul she’d fallen in love with, a fact proven by his loving devotion and growing menagerie of adorable pets. Despite her initial antagonism towards him and his humiliating misunderstanding, Yan had quickly been won over by his kind and considerate nature, a wonderful, loving man plagued by doubts and insecurities and who cherished friends and family above all else. Rain was still the man who pushed her out of the way of a giant snake at great risk to himself and all but single-handedly slaughtered the beast, yet insisted they each take an equal share in the profits. He then gifted her with the resulting Spiritual Weapon as if it were a mere cabbage, and during their flight from the Society, stood tall and overcame his fears to risk his life time after time, all to protect his family and loved ones. He even rode back to rescue Yan from certain death at the hands of an Expert and nursed her back to health, but most of all, she would always remember how he supported her decision to leave with Grandpa Du and told her what she needed to hear most, that they would pick up exactly where they left off after their next reunion.
A promise which she kept despite how sorely mistaken he’d been regarding where their relationship had been, the mule-brained idiot.
Tearing her eyes away from Rain before she succumbed to her lust and jumped him on the sparring field, Yan took a deep, calming breath and headed over to say hello to Song. Taking a seat beside the stony-faced cat-girl, Yan smiled as she sidled in close and pretended not to notice Song tensing up. According to Mila, Song was leery of strangers and kept her distance from them, which meant the best way to win her over was like taming a skittish quin, by showing them you were no threat and allowing them to grow acclimated to your touch and presence. Thus far, it wasn’t working, for Song remained ever guarded in Yan’s presence, always watching her through narrowed eyes and pouting lips. Were it anyone else, Yan would think the half-cat didn’t like her, but Mila assured her this wasn’t the case, so she had no choice but to persevere. “What a beautiful day,” Yan said, hoping to chip away at Song’s defences with harmless small talk. “The afternoons in Central can often be unbearably hot, but these cool mornings are so pleasant and lovely.”
A monosyllabic response was all Yan got for her efforts, but she didn’t let this failure discourage her. If small talk wouldn’t work, then perhaps comfortable silence might. Greeting Ping Ping, Mama Bun, Pong Pong, and Blackjack in turn, she resisted the urge to intrude further into Song’s personal space and instead turned her gaze to the skies. Holding out her hand, she whistled sharply and summoned one of Rain’s kingfishers to her arm, a large, brown-feathered sweetheart named Yipi. All but ignoring Song, Yan laid the trusting bird in her lap and stroked its chin and belly, marvelling at how tame and docile the creature had become. Only Rain could take wild animals and charm them with love, a skill Yan envied with all her heart.
Though she could do without the perverted octopus…
“Good morning, Warrant Officer Yan.” Having finished his spar, Rain stood over her with a fetching half-smile stretched across his pretty face, looking magnificent as his sweat glistened in the sunlight. “You slept well, I presume?”
Scrunching her nose, Yan rolled with his verbal jab and fanned the collar of her shirt, almost bursting into laughter as his eyes widened at the view. What was it with men and breasts? Yan’s measured barely a handful yet Rain’s interest in them bordered on the obsessive. “I’m afraid not,” she replied, sighing heavily for dramatic effect. “It’s so hot and stifling inside my tent, I spent half the night tossing and turning in bed. If only there were something I could do to tire myself out beforehand…” Kyung’s sub-vocal growl warned her she might have overstepped the boundaries of propriety, but Rain’s ravenous expression made it well worth it. Hoping to escape before either of them lost control, Yan cradled Yipi in her arms and hopped to her feet, giving the sweet bird a kiss before letting her fly away. Ignoring Rain, Yan turned to Song and asked, “Would you care to spar? I’ve been sitting around all week with little to do and could use the exercise.”
“No.” The immediate rejection stunned Yan for a moment, but the half-cat had good reason to refuse. “I’ve already sparred with Mister Rustram today and Rain promised to answer questions about Auras.”
“That I did.” Casually reaching over to pat Song’s head, Rain smiled apologetically to Yan and explained, “I thought we’d be done with our talk before you woke up.”
Why did he feel the need to explain why he was spending time with Song? It’s not as if she were one of his conquests… or did he intend for her to become one? Did Song know of his intent? Did Mila and Lin? Did they approve? Neither had spoken of it in SuiHua, but seeing how Yan had only recently made peace with Luo-Luo joining their marriage, perhaps they intended to wait and give her time to acclimate before springing more wives on her. Where Yan had once been closest to Lin and Mila, it seemed like their time apart had changed more than she realized.
All of this flashed through Yan’s mind in the blink of an eye, but she merely smiled prettily and nodded. “Do you mind if I sit in on your conversation?” Yan asked, while covertly watching Song’s reaction. A frown, as if displeased to have her alone time intruded upon. Not good. “I see much benefit in hearing about the experiences of the Number One Talent in the Empire.”
Rain replied, “Sure.”
At the same time, Kyung interjected with a stern, “No.” All eyes turned to Yan’s surly protector, whose chiselled features were pursed in a pout. Giving way before their inquisitive stares, he grudgingly explained, “Aura is an abstract concept best left for each warrior to explore on their own. Master experimented with explaining Aura in full and surmised this more often than not did more harm than good. A fish cannot teach a bird to swim any more than a bird can teach a fish to fly.” Fixing his glare on Yan, Kyung added, “If the slave girl wants to ruin her future and listen to his inept teachings, then so be it, but I’ll be damned if I let you do the same. You are Master’s Terminal Disciple little Yan, so trust in his teachings and let matters progress as they should. Birds can swim and fish can fly, but they each do so in their own way.”
For a split second, Yan celebrated at the sight of Song’s flattened ears and dejected expression until she realized the reaction had come too quickly. The poor half-cat wasn’t sad about being rebuked, but because of Kyung’s cold indifference regarding her future. All of sudden, everything made sense. Yan’s intuition was correct, Song didn’t like her and the reason was obvious. Yan’s life could easily have been hers, for Song was every bit as talented and hard working, perhaps more so considering she’d just formed her Natal Palace. Why shouldn’t she resent Yan, who’d been taken in by Grandpa Du, the same man who cast Song aside? Heart melting at the thought of her distress, Yan elbowed Kyung in the ribs and Sent, “Would it kill you to be nicer to Song? She is your half-sister after all.”
If Yan could accept Luo-Luo, then why not accept Song as well? Stupid lecherous Rain, gathering all these beautiful women to his side and charming their skirts off…
Rolling his eyes, Kyung Sent, “She is a slave girl, yes? We share a common parent, but the same could be said of dozens others. I am close to twenty years her senior and knew her for less than two, during which Master trained her to guard Jin Tok in the Society Contests, just as I was trained to protect Jin Kai. She is as much my half-sister as you are, but if you order it, I will be… nicer.”
Though said to discredit Yan’s argument, she warmed at the sentiment of being his half-sister. “It’s not an order big brother,” Yan Sent, grinning from ear to ear when he flinched at the appellation, “But this is for your own good. The next time you offend someone, I might not be able to protect you from retribution.” In hindsight, perhaps it would’ve been better to let Yuzhen shave him bald and dress him in frilly, colourful silks, a harmless punishment which might teach him to choose his words more wisely. Grabbing his arm, she pulled him down as she took her seat once more, keeping him and Song on either side to guard against Rain’s wandering hands. “I have an idea,” she said, snuggling in close to Song. “Since Kyung thinks it’s a bad idea to let Rain teach us, why don’t I share what Grandpa taught me instead?” It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing, and Song seemed excited by the prospect. “Rain and Kyung can listen in and warn us if we stray from the correct path, while you and I muddle our way along the Martial Path. How does that sound?”
And perhaps afterwards, Yan could leave Kyung and Song to bond while she snuck off with Rain. Not to do anything inappropriate, but so she could extract whatever advice he’d given Song in forming her Natal Palace. Magnanimous as she was in the affairs of love, Yan preferred to negotiate from a position of strength. While defeating Mila would remain her eventual goal, Yan felt the pressure mounting as her position of Rain’s second strongest wife fell into peril. Truth be told, while Song was clearly the more prominent threat, Luo-Luo’s expeditious progress left Yan awed and petrified. After a single month of practice, the Eastern-born courtesan was almost ready for the battlefield, her skills already superior to most caravan guards. Admittedly, those were the bottom of the barrel for Martial Warriors, but her speed of improvement was impressive and her comprehension bordered on the supernatural. Where others puzzled things out step by step, Luo-Luo made seemingly indecipherable leaps of logic which thus far had all been correct. If Luo-Luo’s talents were standard fare for Imperial Scions, then it was no wonder the Imperial Clan reigned supreme for so many millennia.
After gathering her thoughts, Yan began, “As Grandpa explained it, Aura first came about as a defence against the vile corruption surrounding Demons. They, and to a lesser extent the Defiled, do not belong in this plane of existence, and as such their mere presence taints the world around them, emanating an unnerving wrongness powerful enough to bring lesser warriors to their knees. To combat this, the Mother taught her children to tap into their emotions and use Chi to release them into the world, where they might bolster an ally or restrain an enemy. Just as Balance has nothing to do with morality, so too is it with Aura. One can use any emotion to power an Aura, whether it be love and affection, blood-lust and killing intent, or anything in between.” With a shrug, Yan concluded, “And that’s about it. Grandpa said he would tell me more once I was further along.”
“…I know all this,” Song declared, not out of impudence but frustration. “What I do not understand is how to condense an Aura. How am I to tap into my emotions? How do I release those emotions into the world?”
“Yea,” Rain chimed in, even though he had an Aura and should already know this. “Also, if Aura is powered by Chi, then how come it works externally? Shouldn’t it fizzle out when Chi turns back into Heavenly Energy?”
Amused by his questions, Yan replied, “How am I supposed to know? You’re the one with an Aura.” It was a good question though, so she turned to Kyung for help.
Scoffing as he shot Rain a glare, Kyung growled, “Aura isn’t External Chi manipulation. It’s… using Chi Internally to do something externally. Or not. I don’t know how to explain it.” Crossing his arms with a scowl, he turned to Yan and said, “See why we don’t speak of it little Yan? This discussion isn’t helping.”
“No, it is. It’s totally helping.” Oddly enough, it was Rain who benefited from this short discussion, his brows furrowed as he mumbled his thoughts out loud. “Using Chi Internally to do something externally. I internalize the emotions and gather them within me before unleashing them on the world at large. Aura is powered by Chi, but the Chi remains Chi instead of dissipating into Heavenly Energy once outside my Core because… because the emotions are mine? Or because the Aura itself is a part of me? Does this apply to anything else?”
Having said that, Rain closed his eyes and fell deep into meditation, forgetting everyone around him in his pursuit of Martial Strength. Feeling mildly scorned, Yan sighed and stationed guards around to keep people from disturbing Rain now that he was sort of on the right track. It was so like him to find Insight while trying to help someone else, meat pies falling from the sky once more. Linking arms with Song and Kyung, Yan drew them close and said, “Well, at least some good came from all this. Why don’t we continue our discussion elsewhere?”
If she couldn’t steal Rain away and learn his secrets, then perhaps she could help Song and Kyung form a bond, and later convince Grandpa to acknowledge them both. Though blood was not enough to make a family, it was a better starting point than most, and both half-cats deserved to have more love in their lives. Besides, if Kyung saw how well Song was treated by the People, then perhaps he’d agree to let Yan help him improve his relationship with Grandpa, because even though both men were too stubborn to admit it, in her eyes, they were already a family.
A strange and nontraditional family, but family nonetheless, for the only requirement was love.
Nestled between the two resistant half-cats, Yan basked in the thought of expanding her beloved family and the heartfelt contentment which came with it. The love and affection from Grandpa Du, the care and concern from brother Kyung, the burning passion she shared with Rain, and the sisterly consideration she had for Mila, Lin, Luo-Luo, and now Song, all so similar yet wholly different and distinct, she cherished each and every one of these feelings. Cycling her Chi on a whim, she gasped as her emotions took on a life of their own, welling up inside until they overwhelmed her and burst out into the world, sheltering every person around her in its warm embrace and allowing them to draw strength and courage from her love of family and desire to protect them. Soon every eye in the vicinity was faced her way with grateful smiles aplenty, aware of what she herself only just realized. Turning to Kyung, Yan blinked and asked, “Is this Aura?”
His stony expression cracking a rare smile, Kyung puffed his chest and nodded. “Well done, Du Min Yan. Master will be proud.”
And coming from big brother Kyung, this was high praise indeed.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|