Everything changed when the Butchers attacked.
Prior to the disastrous Defiled insurrection, Chun Yimu had been a respected, twenty-two year old Sergeant of the Guard in Sanshu, wielding his trusty truncheon in service to his coin purse first, and the Magistrate’s peace second. Back then, people feared and respected him, for his Spiritual Weapon and familial connections to Western Treasures Union afforded him far more power than a mere Sergeant should have, and he wasn’t shy about using it to his advantage. Small advantages to be sure, for his status in the Union was mediocre at best, but it was enough to let him open a tab at every luxurious bar, brothel, and bathhouse in Sanshu, tabs he had no intention of ever paying off. While his meagre Sergeant’s salary left him destitute after paying his Union dues, he drank and played for free while bribes and kickbacks bought him a cozy little courtyard manor, one he filled with second-rate art and counterfeit antiques, a necessity for anyone of worth in Sanshu. He would’ve much rather filled his modest home with slave girls and courtesans, but appearances must be kept, for he was not the only Chun Yimu in Sanshu.
It was a name he loathed with all his heart. His mother’s fault, for she idolized her older brother and hoped her son would be just as heroic, hopes which fell woefully short. As such, no one, his mother included, ever called him by name, only ever referring to him as Junior.
When the traitorous bastard Mao Jianghong let Yo Ling and his Defiled Bandits through the gates, Junior’s cozy little life came to an abrupt end. Using his connections, he secured himself a safe posting in the north-eastern gatehouse, as far from the fighting and the Butchers as he could conceivably get, but as the hours stretched into days and news trickled in from the battlefront, even the guardhouse didn’t feel safe anymore. Thus, when a slave representing Chao Yong, chairman of the Eastern Prosperity Alliance, approached him seeking passage out of the city, Junior seized the chance for salvation. The Butchers were already inside the city, so what harm could come from opening the gates? Five hundred gold and safe passage away was a small price to pay for someone like Chao Yong, but more than enough for Junior to set up in Jiu Lang or Nan Ping, even when split four ways with his fellow guards.
It’d been a close thing, a matter of mere minutes. The moment Chao Yong’s barges arrived, Junior gave the order to open the sluice gates and let them through, but his order had been met with silence. When he turned around, he was greeted by cold steel and a colder smile, both belonging to the infamous half-stag Jariad, second-in-command of the Crossbone Corsairs and a name which stood alongside the likes of Gao Qiu, Bastard Liu, and Yo Ling himself. Junior’s nanny had used those names to frighten him as a child, her words painting Jariad as the Forest Lord and a fearsome bandit more terrifying than the Defiled themselves. She warned him that misbehaving children were the Forest Lord’s favourite treat, but only after they’d been impaled upon his antlers and left there for days, for the suffering made their flesh all the more tender. Junior had been utterly terrified and run straight to his mother, which resulted in the nanny being whipped and cast out of the manor, but the damage had already been done.
It took him years to get over his fear of the forest, so it was easy to understand why, when confronted with the scarred face of his childhood nightmares, he lost control of his bladder.
Though Jariad spared Junior’s life, he almost wished the damned bandit had slit his throat instead, for following Yo Ling’s miraculous defeat, it seemed like all Sanshu could talk about was how Chun Yimu pissed himself when confronted by the city’s bandit saviours, a ‘rumour’ which reached the ears of his namesake and Uncle, current Lieutenant Colonel and Guard Captain of Sanshu, Chun Yimu Senior. Needless to say, Uncle Yimu was less than pleased to hear about it and called Junior in for a haranguing, after which he was stripped of rank and sent for retraining alongside the new recruits, who just so happened to be the same Corsairs who’d spread the rumours in the first place. That had been a brand new sort of hell, for not only did his ‘comrades’ scorn and look down upon him for his ‘spoon-fed’ upbringing and inferior Martial skills, with his name being a joke and his rank stripped away, Junior could no longer throw his weight around like he used to. With no income and no power, his debtors soon came calling and repossessed his manor, but not before they tore the walls and floorboards apart searching for his savings, savings which he’d already lost because he had them with him in the gatehouse.
It burned him to know that a soldier he called comrade had likely pocketed his nest egg and was laughing about it every time they crossed paths.
So there he was, sharing a bunk in the guard barracks with eleven other men and sitting in a dirty, dimly-lit bar one month after Sanshu’s victory. Nursing his watered-down drink because he couldn’t afford another, he was busy mentally cursing both former and current Guard Captains of Sanshu when he’d been approached by a spy, an innocuous young man named MuYang who spoke with a poorly-concealed Central accent. It started off so innocuously, with a friendly face offering to buy a drink for one of ‘Sanshu’s finest’, but Junior saw through his intentions and was happy to partake. Having grown up in Sanshu, he understood how the game was played, and this MuYang (undoubtedly a fake name, since not even the stupidest peasant would name their son ‘Shepherd’) wasn’t asking for much. Information on the Western Treasures Union and Sanshu in general, nothing specific or treasonous, just simple things such as the city’s overall mood, whether citizens or nobles were meeting in secret, whether crime was high or low and such.
So Junior did as he’d been taught: he bragged about his lofty family connections, told MuYang enough truth to solicit a bribe, then reported the entire encounter to his Union superior first thing in the morning, where he was rewarded handsomely for turning in a spy. After a short investigation, he was then given a list of ‘facts’ to pass on to MuYang, and for the next few weeks, Junior milked the stupid ‘shepherd’ for all he was worth. Though far from enough to return him to his previous heights, it gave him a taste of the glamorous life he’d burned alongside his urine-soaked trousers, right up until MuYang disappeared without a word. Bereft of his spy, the easy money dried up and Junior was cast back into the wretchedness of poverty.
To make matters worse, when his retraining finally finished, he found out his instructor had failed him. There it was, written on the board for all to see: Chun Yimu, Failed. It was a small comfort knowing most guards couldn’t read, right until one of the former Corsairs loudly asked, “Why’s the Guard Captain’s name up there? And who’s got the balls to fail ‘im?” What followed was the most humiliating two minutes of Junior’s life as another Corsair patiently explained for everyone in earshot that the Chun Yimu on the board wasn’t the Guard Captain, but rather the Guard Captain’s nephew, the same Chun Yimu who pissed his pants when the Corsairs entered the city to fight Yo Ling. It’s not as if people ever forgot, they’d just grown bored of talking about it, but after washing out of retraining, Sanshu buzzed anew with talk of the Guard Captain’s worthless nephew. Were it not for his mother’s begging, Uncle Yimu might’ve taken drastic action, but since he doted on his younger sister, Junior got one last chance to prove himself.
With the threat of death or banishment hanging over his head, Junior worked harder than he’d ever worked during the second round of retraining and miraculously eked out a passing grade. Unfortunately, his celebration was short-lived because he soon learned he would have been better off failing again, for the City Guards were immediately ordered to ship out in force and escort Magistrate Chu Tongzu to Central for the Imperial Grand Conference. Camping in the fields for months on end was hardly Junior’s idea of fun, nor was he excited about ‘seeing the world’ or ‘expanding his horizons’. All he wanted was his cozy little life in Sanshu back, when he had the respect of the people and coin in his purse, but alas, the Mother, and Uncle Yimu, had different plans in store for Junior, as he discovered when he was sent to work for the Number One Talent in the Empire, Falling Rain.
Before meeting his new employer in SuiHua, Junior already knew he didn’t want to be there. Officers like Rain reaped all the glory, but it was nameless soldiers like Junior who paid the blood-price. He tried everything to get out of it, writing letters to mother, father, and everyone else he knew who might influence Uncle Yimu’s decision, but the old man would not be swayed. “Falling Rain is the future of the Empire,” Uncle Yimu had told him. “Attach yourself to his side, prove your worth, and fame and fortune will follow.” As if that were possible. Junior wasn’t even an officer, mere fodder in the eyes of Rain, so instead, he lived every day as if it were his last, though his celebrations were lacklustre thanks to his dearth of coin and strict military guidelines. Being a soldier was worlds apart from being a guard, and Junior hated everything about it, with more rules, more training, and more supervision, all so they could die in service to the Empire. Even luck had abandoned him as he diced his days away, losing a small fortune in silvers to Viyan and Birca, two of Falling Rain’s retinue who seemed friendly enough.
Then, whilst nursing yet another watered-down drink in a different dimly-lit bar, Junior was once again approached by MuYang. Somehow, the ‘shepherd’ learned of Junior’s new posting and come to SuiHua to purchase information on Rain. Were this like before, Junior would’ve gladly obliged and sold the bastard out, but this time, the shepherd wanted specifics like patrol routes, guard schedules, sleeping arrangements and more. Without even remembering to solicit a hefty bribe first, Junior had thrown his drink in the spy’s face and brandished his truncheon. Though many things, he was no traitor, and he would have no part in the assassination of an Imperial Hero, one who helped save Sanshu itself from the clutches of the Enemy.
A heroic sentiment which lasted right up until he came face to face with his first Demon.
In the days following that horrific nightmare, Junior seriously considered desertion, but seeing how a death sentence awaited him if caught on the long journey back north, he had few other options. What else could he do? No true Martial Warrior, his truncheon more decoration than Spiritual Weapon, and he lacked an Aura, Natal Palace, or Awakening to make him stand out from the rest. Hell, he even had issues finding Balance and Enlightenment most days, so the moment they arrived in Sinuji, Junior wrote a letter to mother begging her to help him get home safely. He told her everything, about how the Defiled were far worse than the likes of Jariad, how unsuitable he was for this life, and how if she left him here, then his death was all but certain, for he was nothing like his uncle and namesake.
No matter how much she wished otherwise.
An hour after dispatching the letter through supposedly secure channels, Junior received a Sending from a familiar voice. “If you want to leave the front lines alive and wealthy,” MuYang Sent, revealing his true status as a skilled Martial Warrior, “Then come speak with me in person.” Instructions followed, and in his desperation, Junior snuck out of camp and met with the shepherd, who greeted him with the letter in hand. Nondescript was the best way to describe MuYang, with a face and build so average it was difficult to pick him out in a crowd, which made it difficult to believe he was quite possibly an Expert of the Empire, or at the very least, more skilled than Junior. In what he suspected was a calculated bluff, MuYang was garbed in infantry armor bearing ‘Han’ on one shoulder and ‘Heaven and Earth’ on the other, which meant MuYang was Society or wanted Junior to believe he was. Either way, it didn’t matter; this was now a matter of life and death, and he desperately wanted to live.
Even if it meant turning traitor and helping someone kill Falling Rain.
That had been four days ago. Since then, Junior had wavered on going through with this, but every time he thought about coming clean to Rain, he balked and cursed himself for not speaking out when MuYang approached him in SuiHua. It never occurred to him because he didn’t think Falling Rain would reward him for it, but if he went to Rain now, the bloodthirsty young hero might have Junior tortured just to find out if he was hiding anything else. Besides, a man like Rain had enemies a plenty, so telling him about this one specific assassination attempt would be like trying to put out a forest fire by pissing on it. The best case scenario now would be if everything went perfectly to plan, but Falling Rain survived anyways and never found out about Junior’s involvement.
As such, he busied himself making sure there were no trails leading back to him, and thus far, it seemed like he’d done a good job. In the days since their first meeting, Junior had quietly smuggled three sets of armour and weapons to MuYang by wearing an extra set out of camp. Then, early this morning, he told his three yurt mates they’d been rescheduled for a different shift, then snuck out to take his turn on guard duty all by his lonesome. Spinning a yarn about how his comrades had drunk too much and were running late, he begged the relieved guards to keep quiet about their gaffe while covertly palming each of them a silver coin. It’d been more difficult than he’d thought to get rid of them, but eventually, they accepted the coin and stalked off with a warning, at which point MuYang emerged from the shadows with three of his companions. No, not companions, but assassins and killers, each garbed in the Bekkie armour Junior had smuggled out and ready to take Falling Rain’s life.
It was at this point, Junior wished he could call it all off. What was he doing? This was treason! Better to die a deserter than a traitor, but it was too late…
Saying nothing, MuYang handed Junior a wooden token, the key to the oath-bound assassin’s loyalty. Slaves one and all, the killers were mute, illiterate, and under orders to kill their target and die in the process. Junior had insisted on this point, that they be slaves under his control, for only then could he ensure their silence. If they survived, then they could easily give him away, but this also guarded against MuYang in case he intended to have the slaves survive and implicate Junior in Falling Rain’s death, setting him up as the patsy in this traitorous venture.
They needed Junior for this, that much was apparent. A man like Falling Rain would undoubtedly have an incredible hidden protector watching for Concealed assassins, which meant that even though the oath-bound assassins were masters of stealth, a covert attack meant dealing with said hidden protector. Thus the need for Bekkie armour and weapons, so they could hide in the open and blend in with every other soldier in the retinue. This would be enough to trick the hidden protector guarding Falling Rain, which meant the assassins only needed to slip past the mundane guards and get close to their target. This was where Junior came in, for the guards kept track of the comings and goings of soldiers leaving camp, but no one questioned the guards coming off duty. Even if the guards were questioned after the assassination, Junior would pretend he’d been on duty with his yurt mates and was confident they’d keep their mouths shut, because speaking up meant admitting they’d slept through guard duty and gotten their ‘boss’ killed, an infraction punishable by death. The plan was foolproof.
At least it had been last night. What if his comrades chose to speak up? What if the guards he’d relieved remembered and mentioned how he’d arrived alone? What if the slave assassins weren’t actually slaves and merely devoted killers willing to give their lives to kill an Imperial Hero? A shame Junior hadn’t thought of any of this before MuYang left, because it was too late to call it off now. For hours, he covertly tested the three assassins and their supposed Oaths, ordering them to do things true slaves would be unable to follow through with, like acknowledge his lies as truth or go against their Oaths of silence. While their inability and distress could have been faked, he couldn’t afford to push them too hard lest someone wonder why there was a guard rolling around in pain.
Looking up at the Heavens, Junior mopped his brow with a sweat-soaked handkerchief and prayed he’d made the right decision. He shouldn’t have agreed so easily, should’ve taken a few more days to consider everything, but he had panicked. The giant, water-manipulating Demon had unnerved him, because even strong as Falling Rain and his protectors were, they still couldn’t do anything to that Demon, a newborn one which was supposed to be at its weakest. Those rifles had injured it yes, but it would take so much more to kill a Demon, and rumours spoke of dozens, if not hundreds, of Demons being born all across the front lines.
Junior just wanted to go back to Sanshu and live in peace, and MuYang was his only chance to get there with his neck intact.
After an eternity spent in anxious worry, their uneventful guard shift ended when the relief team arrived right before lunchtime. Instructing the oath-bound assassins to keep their heads down and mouths shut (not that the latter mattered since they were mutes), Junior did the same as he pretended to yawn and hid his face, hoping they wouldn’t look too closely at him or the visitor’s log with the forged names of his yurt mates. Making a quick escape, he pulled his helm low as he brought the oath-bound assassins into the camp, speaking quietly so they wouldn’t be overheard. “You know what to do,” he muttered, clutching the wooden token in his pocket and praying it truly gave him power over them. “He’s probably outside his yurt, so go and get it done before someone sees us together. Make sure you die when it’s finished.”
The three assassins marched off without a word, but Junior’s stomach continued to churn. Mother in Heaven, how was it possible no one had noticed them yet? They stuck out like a sore thumb, marching about with backs straight and knees high like Death Corps on parade instead of walking like the normal soldiers of Rain’s retinue, but somehow, no one seemed to care. Wringing his handkerchief out, he mopped his brow again and watched the assassins slowly make their way to the centre of camp to kill Falling Rain. Realizing it would be best if he were seen by others, he scurried off to find Viyan and Birca for a game of dice, stopping when he saw Silva eating his lunch. “You seen those two blackguards about?” Junior asked, faking a smile and shaking one hand like he was throwing dice. “I’m fixing to throw some bones and win some coin.”
Shaking his head, Silva replied, “They’re over by the training field, but I doubt you’ll get a game. They’re standing guard over the boss while he has himself another Insight or something. Never met a man more blessed by the Heavens, but he works damned hard for it.”
…Mother above, if Falling Rain was distracted by Insight, then the assassins might actually succeed. Stomach flopping about in panic, Junior hurried to the training fields and froze in place as he spotted the assassins marching towards their target. Viyan and Birca were there standing guard alongside the half-monkey Expert Argat, stationed around Falling Rain who stood in place, head bent as he studied the flat of his sword, which he held horizontally with both hands. Undeterred by the guards or Rain’s drawn weapon, the assassins split up to surround their target’s position, and though their intentions seemed obvious to Junior, not a single soldier glanced at them twice.
Torn between shouting a warning and making himself scarce, Junior stood and watched in abject terror as the events unfolded before him. Save Falling Rain and doom himself, or stand back and let a Hero of the Empire die? Then, in a moment of ingenuity, he realized what needed to be done and reached for his truncheon. Let the assassins strike, and regardless of failure or success, Junior would then strike them down in turn. It was the perfect solution, for not only would other see him fighting to save Falling Rain, he could also ensure no one would take the assassins alive.
Hell, if he was lucky, then he might even emerge a hero from all this…
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