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Awakened by the dazzling rays of the morning sun, Rustram met the beam of light head on without moving and blinked until his eyes adjusted. A trivial hardship to put himself through, but he knew she’d wake if he moved and he loved watching her sleep. With her slack expression and mouth half-open, there was an innocence to her which didn’t fit with her image of a seasoned Protectorate warrior-woman, a crack in the facade she presented to the world at large, and it warmed his heart to know she trusted him enough to show it.
There he lay basking in her beauty as she stirred in the sunlight, scrunching her cute little nose and snuggling deeper into his embrace in a last ditch attempt to ward off the waking world. Stifling a yawn, she melted against him and nuzzled his neck while her free hand stroked his chest, her dainty fingers tracing the contours of his flesh. Though he’d always been trim and fit, months of training and battling in restrictive leaden armour had melted the excess fat from his bones and sculpted his body into a dense, robust form, one belonging more on a sculpted statue than nameless soldier. It still surprised him to see taut skin and chiselled muscles whenever he looked in the mirror, but Sai Chou was rather vocal in her appreciation and delighted in seeing him blush at her ribald comments.
Mother forbid he mention her soft curves, wide hips, or full breasts, with her pert, rosy nipples and…
Instinct took over as they both succumbed to desire and indulged in the other’s company. Their relationship was measured in mere days, half of which was spent beneath the covers, yet even if they continued like this for another decade, he would still thirst for her touch, her smell, her laugh, and her smile, for she made him feel more alive and awake than anyone else he’d ever met. For two long months they’d been separated while she stayed in the citadel with the Guardian Turtle and he fought on the front lines with Warrant Officer BoShui, and their time apart and showed him just how much the gruff, no-nonsense, shabbily-dressed woodswoman meant to him. After weeks of exchanging letters, they reunited a few days before the new year and he wasted no time or words as he strode over and greeted her with a kiss, their first ever.
Thankfully, he hadn’t read the signs wrong and she reciprocated his feelings, else he would’ve lost all face in front of his soldiers.
How much time passed, Rustram couldn’t say, but eventually his stamina gave out and he collapsed beside her, chest heaving and skin slick with sweat. Her throaty chuckle filled him with desire, but alas his body was no longer up to the task, so he rolled his eyes and nibbled on her ear. “Yer gettin’ better at this,” she murmured, her teasing smirk stoking the flames of his passion. “Less fumblin’ and more confidence. Maybe in a year, I could call ye halfway decent.”
“I’ll tame you yet,” he whispered, and her body quivered at the statement, but he couldn’t tell if it was in anticipation of his success or failure. She did so love to challenge him, but she was also a contrary woman, sometimes fighting him tooth and nail for the upper hand and other times surrendering without resistance, though there was no rhyme or reason to her mood. Despite their difference in physiques, she’d made it clear in no uncertain terms that she held the power in their relationship, and he was all too happy to oblige. As second-in-command to Falling Rain, Rustram held more authority than he ever cared to have, so ceding over control in their love life was almost a relief. In the seven days since they shared their first kiss, there had been no talk of marriage or children, he was hers for as long as she would have him, and that was all he cared to know.
Because when all things were said and done, Rustram was a soldier and would rather spare Sai Chou from becoming a widow.
Just before he was ready to renew their horizontal hostilities, a knock came at the door and Bulat’s voice sounded through. “Oh Mister Rustram,” he said in a sing-song voice, no doubt aware of his company. “Wakey wakey. The sun has risen and the new year awaits, with much fun and festivity to be had outside of bed. Oh,” he added, as if an afterthought, “Also, yer Mentor says to get dressed and meet her in the central square forthwith. ‘No training armour, but full battle gear’ she ses. Got a list of names yer to bring with ye, but ses yer welcome to bring more.”
“Inform the soldiers. I’ll be out forthwith.” By now, Rustram was already wiping himself down with a towel and cold water while Sai Chou laid on her side and watched with a hungry stare. Were the message from anyone else, he would’ve ignored it in favour of Sai Chou’s insatiable desire, but Mentor was not a woman to be kept waiting. Whatever this was, he knew it was business else she would never have let him go without the training armour, not after she learned he’d once gone into battle wearing it. Since he’d proven himself able, then he might as well continue to wear it so not to waste a single opportunity to improve, or at least, that was her logic, and nothing he said could convince her otherwise or make her lower her exacting expectations. Had he known this would be his reward, he would’ve kept his mouth shut and begged Colonel Hongji to leave his exploits out of the reports, for the more Rustram accomplished, the more Mentor demanded. “Talent is good,” she said while handing over a newer, heavier suit of training armour. “Hard work is better.”
With a mother like her, it’s no wonder the boss became the Number One Talent in the Empire. Anything less and he might not have survived to adulthood…
After gathering every name on the list, Rustram marched double-time to the central square and left Sai Chou and other onlookers to follow at a more leisurely pace. When he arrived, he found a growing crowd gathering around the stone stage while posters, banners, and criers announced an imminent musical performance from Falling Rain’s consort, Imperial Servant Zheng Luo. Though he missed her first impromptu concert yesterday at the park, anyone lucky enough to have been there couldn’t stop singing praises of her phenomenal skills, breathtaking beauty, and captivating charm. Impressed as he was to hear how she calmed a rioting crowd by plucking a few strings, Rustram wasn’t entirely sure why Mentor demanded his presence for this concert, much less instructed him to arrive in full-battle regalia. Spotting her sitting on the top floor of a tea-house overlooking the central square, he brought the named soldiers up to greet her. “Good morning Mentor,” he said, bowing low with hands clasped while making silly faces at her darling grandchildren. “This Disciple awaits instruction.”
“Mm, names first,” Mentor said, running a critical eye over the soldiers he’d brought with him. “So I know who is whom.”
Going through them one by one, Rustram introduced Ulfsaar, Neera, Dastan, Sahb, and Wang Bao. Once finished, Mentor merely nodded and pointed at the table beside hers. “Good. I welcome you all on behalf of my son. Food and drink will arrive soon, but order whatever you desire at our expense. Please sit, relax, and enjoy the show. Disciple?” Grabbing Rustram’s arm to keep him from joining the others, Mentor guided him to the chair beside hers and Sent, “Tell me about them. Start with Ulfsaar.”
“A force of nature in combat,” Rustram Sent in reply, though it took some effort to do so. He still wasn’t used to Sending and required physical contact to do so, but he was steadily improving with practice. “Unpredictable and prone to losing his composure, but unstoppable on cattle-back and unmovable on foot, a stalwart warrior who serves well in the vanguard. Neera is formidable in her own right, but much of her focus is on reining him in and keeping him from overextending or picking battles he cannot win instead of seeking glory for herself. Though she rarely has a chance to shine whilst serving beside him, she is his equal in massed melee and superior in single combat.”
“Unquestionable,” Rustram replied, for there were few as devoted to the boss as the devout half-bear couple. “Their hatred of the Defiled is matched only by their faith in the Mother, and they believe the boss is Her child above all others.” Their belief never wavered even after seeing him struck down on the fields of Sinuji, though why, only they knew, for no matter who asked, they would never say what the boss did to win them over so tightly.
“Good. Dastan I know, but Sahb?”
“A career soldier who’d go far if he had more emotion than a stone. Not as outstanding as Dastan or ferocious as Ulfsaar, but still a cut above the rest. Hard to read and keeps to himself, but Dastan trusts him and his Oaths compel him, so nothing to worry about there.”
“And they are content?” Seeing Rustram’s confusion, Mentor asked, “The slave soldiers, do they laugh, cheer, drink and carouse, or do they sit around and mope when there are no battles to fight?”
“They… seem content? They don’t behave much differently from most others in the retinue, though on the whole they’re a bit… reserved? Only compared to former bandits mind you, they’re as raucous as any other soldier while on leave.”
“Good.” Eyes narrowing in muted displeasure, Mentor asked, “And the former Butcher? This Wang Bao, what do you make of him?”
Ugh. “A model soldier who toes the line without exception. Hair cut, beard trimmed, shirt tucked, and boots polished, he shows up every morning looking like he’s ready for parade march and fights like a man possessed. A brutally efficient warrior, the wolf to Ulfsaar’s bear, Wang Bao’s combat expertise is nothing to sneeze at, but his greatest strength lies in his leadership abilities. Even the former Corsairs under his command would stride into the Father’s Maw on his command, while Wang Bao would happily lead the way for nothing more than a story to tell.”
“You dislike him,” Mentor noted, her lips curling into a rare half-smile which made her look twenty years younger. A striking woman with pride in abundance, if she were to dress more fashionably and put a little effort into her appearance, then one might even mistake her for the twins’ mother, but with her love of gloves and veils, she wore the air of a grandmother well. “Why when he is so much like you?”
Rustram wanted to disagree, but found himself without argument, so he refilled Mentor’s tea cup instead. “His attitude irks me.”
With a casual shrug, Mentor nodded and Sent, “Fair enough. I’ve killed others for less. Which of these five, if any, are worth grooming?”
Praying Mentor wasn’t looking for another disciple, Rustram thought it over and said, “All of them. Ulfsaar and Neera are older and in their fifties, but for half-beasts, that’s well before their prime.” Mentor wrung her hands and shifted in her seat, which he’d never seen her do before, even when she needed a wheeled chair to get around, but he pretended not to notice. He’d forgotten about the horrid rumours spread by Mentor’s husband’s detractors, rumours he thought she ignored like any others, but what woman didn’t long for youth and beauty? Moving on, he continued, “On the other hand, Dastan and Sahb are both young and malleable, only a few years older than the boss himself and Aura-capable Experts to boot. Were they not slaves, I wager both their names would sit just below BoShui’s when people speak of young talents in the Empire, their potential no less than any of their peers. As for Wang Bao… he’s older, but also worth investing in since he’s gotten this far with minimal formal training and his loyalty is unquestionable.”
After going back and forth for a while over the other five soldiers, Mentor smirked and Sent, “What about your girly, the protectorate second? Why have you not brought her to greet your Mentor?”
“Ah… well… That is…”
“Oh to be young again.” Patting his cheek lightly, Mentor Sent, “I’ll send someone to your room with a choice of outfits for the lady so you can bring her to the banquet tonight.”
Since it wasn’t a request, Rustram could only nod and Send, “Yes Mentor.”
The boss arrived soon after with his betrotheds and pets, so Rustram stood to greet him. “You’re looking sharp,” the boss said after a hearty hug, peering up and down at Rustram’s new steel battle-armour, a princely gift from Mentor which had been waiting for him when he returned. Though nowhere near as ornate as what the Legate or even BoShui wore, the rose-embossed breastplate and segmented pauldrons at least helped him stand out from the other soldiers. “Try not to ruin it like I do with all of mine.”
“Uh… Yes boss.” How could he possibly ruin his armour in a tea house? It’s not as if a spill would stain the metal.
“Bah, armour is meant to defend,” Mentor said, beaming as the boss leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Better he ruin the armour than need to reattach a limb.”
“I disagree,” the boss replied, flashing a roguish grin which made him look like a child too young for the battlefield. It was a good look on him, serene and contented while lacking all the stress and restlessness of years past. “It’s cheaper to patch clothes and reattach limbs than it is to buy a new set of armour every time one gets ruined. I’ve pretty much given up on anything short of runic. What’s the point?”
Rolling her eyes at her son’s foolishness, Mentor bade him to sit down while Rustram greeted the boss’s betrotheds, each looking lovely in their new year dresses. Lady Sumila, Lin, and Li Song all wore identical high-necked dresses in red, blue, and green respectively, trimmed in golden thread and bearing lifelike embroidered scenes of nature. Form-fitting to hint at the curves concealed beneath, but modestly cut to cover their legs and shoulders, they were a sight to behold with their elegant, long scarves wrapped around them and matching ruby, sapphire, and emerald studded jewellery. While Rustram had grown accustomed to Sai Chou’s rustic charm in (and out of) her ragged woodswoman clothes, he couldn’t help but imagine her wearing a similar dress, perhaps in purple or yellow, colours he’d never seen her wear before but would look absolutely stunning in.
It’d probably cost him half a year’s wages to have one tailored for her, but it’d be well worth it and more…
Looking around the square in search of his lover, it seemed like every big name in the citadel had come out to watch Zheng Luo’s performance, and only the presence of Death Corps and Imperial soldiers kept things from getting out of hand as entitled latecomers tried to squeeze their way in. In contrast, the third floor of the tea house housed only the Bekhai and their allies, with Bulat sitting nearby with his wife, mother, and step-father, the hulking Dagen who stood shoulder to shoulder with Pran and Saluk. Viyan, Birca, and Silva were busy filling their bellies, likely only here for free food on the boss’s copper, but at least they had the decency to mind their manners. Ravil was also here, lurking in a shadowy corner as per usual, while Siyar stood across the room but in a similar shadow. The deadly smuggler aside, they’d all come a long way since their time as crippled cast offs in Shen Huo, and Rustram hoped they still had a long way to go ahead of them, for these men were his brothers through bonds forged in the fires of war.
For better or for worse, they would stand and fight together, no matter the odds stacked against them. Alas, even though Bulat had Dagen to offer him advice and Ravil was improving steadily on his own, the others were fast falling behind and Rustram didn’t know how to help them. Perhaps Mentor knew someone who would take in Pran and Saluk, though he didn’t dare ask her to find someone for the slacker trio. Considering their poor work ethic and unwillingness to change, they would find it difficult to become Experts, much less peak Experts before they died of old age.
There were others here too, most notably Lang Yi and Lang Er, Chu Xinyue and his officer cadre, a few familiar Khishigs, and more. No one from the Protectorate, but knowing them, they’d opted to stay on ground level to look after the Guardian Turtle, and though Rustram kept an eye out for Sai Chou, he still couldn’t find her in the press of bodies.
The crowd fell silent as Zheng Luo took the stage, looking resplendent in her flowing purple and gold silk dress with an elegant phoenix tiara holding up her coiffed hair. Aside from that, she wore no other jewellery, yet she looked more noble and elegant than any other woman in sight as she glided across the stage and set up her zither with help from her twin handmaidens. So quiet they could hear the wind brushing over the strings of her instrument, Rustram almost jumped out of his seat when Mentor Sent, “Pay close attention. Do not focus too much on the notes or the technical aspects of her melody, nor should you care about her actions or appearance. Seek Balance while you experience the song and let the music draw your emotions out, then do whatever you feel is natural. Everything else is of secondary concern.”
Though unclear why Mentor was treating this concert like a solemn event, Rustram heeded her instructions as Zheng Luo stood to bow, greeting the gathered audience with a sublime smile which was warm as the summer sun and refreshing as the spring breeze. “This one is Imperial Servant Zheng Luo, Consort to Honoured Husband Falling Rain. Greetings to you all on this fine day.” Holding the audience’s attention with her smile alone, she gracefully sat back down in front of her zither and positioned her hands over the strings. “This one is pleased to offer her humble musical composition for all to hear, an original arrangement titled, ‘Rise to Glory’, including a new final movement which this one only composed last night. This one hopes it will be to your liking, so without further ado, let us begin.”
And with that, she struck a single note which rang out into the crowd and lifted Rustram’s heart from his chest, not because it was loud or jarring, but because the sound was so pure and clear it cleared away the strain and fatigue from this morning’s activities. More notes followed after, and though he lacked the technical terms to describe it, he could sense the heavy sorrow within the slow and despondent melody, filled with a mournful self-pity and bleak despair which he knew all too well. The tune embodied his lowest lows, the day he’d been sent away to begin his career in the army, and the day his career ended when he woke up in a medical tent missing his sword hand.
Then, the melody picked up in tempo, still sombre, but building up to something more. Again, this resonated deeply with him for he’d felt the same way during Army and Bekhai training. Those were not easy times, nor were they happy ones, but they were days filled with meaning and purpose, which was more than he could say for most. The music carried him back to those stressful, strenuous, but rewarding times, filled with inspections and assessments, exams and exercises. Each day, he made a little bit of progress, with small victories bringing him forward into larger ones, while minor defeats taught him the valuable lessons he’d need to continue moving forward. This was enough for him, for he had a goal, and every day he strove to reach it. The same held true for his time spent learning to Heal, a skill he once believed reserved only for the best and brightest in the Empire. These were happier times spent alongside his crippled comrades, because Falling Rain had given them more than mere purpose, he gave them all hope.
Zheng Luo continued performing her musical piece, and each new twist brought with it a different memory as Rustram’s life journey played out within his mind, though not in any particular order. The devastating loss of so many comrades in the wake of Sanshu and the guilt and self-recrimination which followed; the reunion with his father where the old man finally deigned to show the depths of the love he had for his second son; the joy and pride Rustram felt when taken in by his Mentor, and the subsequent horror and regret in the days that followed; joy and sorrow, hope and despair, pride and guilt, love and regret, the music took him on a journey of emotion dredged out of memory by Zheng Luo strumming on silken string, and it was both exhausting and exhilarating at once.
The music took on a forlorn tone once more as all hope was lost, which brought to mind the dire straits ahead, with endless hordes of Defiled savages sapping away at the Empire’s strength while the Enemy grew stronger and stronger. Better training, better equipment, better leadership and more, soon the Defiled hordes would disappear only for Defiled armies to take their place, and woe to the Empire should the Enemy strike with unity and purpose. To make matters worse, Falling Rain had been struck down in Sinuji with his recovery long in the waiting, and though he tried to be optimistic about it, Rustram worried he would never fight again with the Mother’s Chosen Son to command him.
But all was not lost. Rustram instinctively sensed when Zheng Luo’s song reached the last movement, for the tone was not of cheerless melancholy, but one of quiet hope. The chipper tune rose in volume and clarity, each note standing on its own as they declared that the Mother always leaves a path to salvation, and that it is always darkest before the dawn. Eyes drawn to the crowd, he found his beloved Sai Chou as easily as breathing, and in a strange twist of fate, she found him at the same time. When their eyes met, she smiled and he felt that even though there was this railing and packed crowd between them, she was right there beside him. Even if they were separated by the breadth of the Empire, they would still be together, because she loved him, and he loved her.
And together, he would fear nothing, not even the Father himself.
Yearning to shout his love from the rooftops, his Chi took on a life of its own as it surged out into the world, carrying his ardour and devotion out with it. It wasn’t just for Sai Chou, but for his friends and comrades, his allies and countrymen, for the basest peasant and most arrogant noble in existence, because even if he never met them, so long as he drew breath, he would fight to defend them from the Father and His wicked minions.
Rustram was not the only one to make such a wordless declaration, and he sensed more than understood what was happening. Bulat was there, steadfast and courageous, as was Lang Yi, his anger cold and passion burning, and then Lady Sumila burst onto the scene with her customary heat, a blazing fury of power and intensity. Ulfsaar and Neera joined in, their essences intertwined so tightly it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. Dastan, proud and aloof, but loyal and steadfast, while Sahb’s presence spoke of unyielding determination. Wang Bao’s demeanour came as a surprise, not murderous or bloodthirsty as Rustram expected, but righteous and noble, a man who lived by his own moral code and stuck with it.
Then there was Mentor, who overshadowed them all, a mountain on the horizon or a star shining bright in the sky, a guidepost for them all to follow in order to reach the Peak of Martial Might. Glowing with pride, she reached over and took Rustram’s hand as the song came to a resounding end. Squeezing his fingers tight, she Sent, “Congratulations on successfully Condensing your Aura, Disciple. You have made this old woman proud.” Still reeling from shock and emotion, he gaped like a fish on dry land while the crowd erupted in applause, but Mentor spoke right over his disbelief. “But this is no time to rest on your laurels. Dastan and the others have revealed what they call a ‘fool proof’ method to Form a Natal Palace and Domain, but I am not convinced, so we will progress traditionally instead of fumbling around with souls and such. Prepare yourself Disciple, because the time for coddling is over, and now the true hardship will begin. You’re a clever boy, so I doubt it will take long, but it will take as long as it takes. We’ll start with some light mental exercises, but not until later today. Right now, we have challenges to make and fools to crush, so pay attention. Your turn will come soon enough.”
Nodding in absentminded agreement, Rustram couldn’t help but think about all the times he threw up from exertion, collapsed from exhaustion, or almost died because he was laden in several hundred kilograms of leaden armour while fighting. How could anyone consider that coddling?
Wait… “Apologies Mentor,” he Sent, his brow furrowed in confusion. “Who are we challenging? And why?”
“Who does not matter. You will fight whoever dares to accept, and as for the why, it is because some fool of an Imperial thinks he can bully my boy.” Mentor’s tone sent a chill down Rustram’s spine as her grip nearly crushed his fingers. “It is long past time the Bekhai sent a message: though my son is injured and recovering, the Bekhai have no lack of talents, whether they be young or old.”
Mouth dry and heart palpitating, he said a small prayer for the young talents who would leave here scarred beyond repair, for he spotted Lady Sumila readying to spearhead the charge. The fierce redheaded warrior woman struck fear into the hearts of all who faced her, Defiled and Imperial alike, and now that she’d Condensed her Aura, her name would be known across the Empire as a contender for the new Number One Talent in the Empire.
And may the Mother have mercy on the luckless fools stupid enough to stand in her way…
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