I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron OxenThunder and my other anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!
So heads up, I’m having some issues with the next volume which I won’t go into here, but I’ll be taking a break after chapter 481 (which is the end of the volume) to sort them out. How long this break lasts, I don’t know, but at least 1 chapter delay, and maybe more. I’ll let you know when I know, so this is just fair warning.
And now, to take away from the sting of that announcement, here is some fan art from a new artist. Submitted by Burningwombat, he saw the lacking representation of floofs and has sought to retify this by drawing a portrait of Zabu, looking adorable yet probably still muderous.
This is gonna sound weird to a lotta you, but lookit that rump. I wanna grab it. and those murder mitts! Kyaaaaaaa!!! 😻Would pet, 10/10 adorbs.
Anywho, enjoy the chapter!
After nine months of doubts and hardships, the dark clouds looming over Luo-Luo’s uncertain fate had finally dispersed and she could see the sun once more.
Though marred by their conflict with the Prime Minister’s son, once everything was accounted for, she considered this an auspicious start to the new year. Twice now, Lord Husband had metaphorically slapped Jixing in the face, once directly in the privacy of his manor, and a second time publicly after her performance in the central square, but since then, there’d been no response from the arrogant young Scion. Though tall, handsome, and highborn, his behaviour was no different from those pompous, good-for-nothing silk-pants who followed Lord Husband around the citadel, mocking him day in and day out despite being little more than wastrels and drunkards themselves. Jixing likely only wanted Luo-Luo to fulfill his youthful fantasies and would probably discard her out of hand once he grew bored, a true rapscallion with only lust and indulgence in mind.
Oh how far she’d regressed… how dare she treat a noble so rudely, even in her own thoughts? Though antagonistic to Lord Husband, Yang Jixing was an illustrious Noble from one of the five Supreme Families and his arrogance well deserved. Not only was Jixing’s father the Prime Minister, a powerful man whose hand could conceal the sky and cover the earth, but their ancestors were also worthy of veneration. Yang, Liang, Xing, Tian, and Di, each of their surnames had been gifted by the First Emperor himself as reward for their ancestors’ exemplary service. Named for the Sun, Moon, Stars, Sky, and Earth respectively, the five Supreme Families represented everything under Heaven which they helped secure for the First Emperor, namely the Azure Empire itself. As a mere Imperial Servant, it was not Luo-Luo’s place to criticize Jixing, a descendant of men and women who toppled mountains and overturned seas.
Except she too was a descendent of those same people, only she’d been tossed aside due to a mere quirk of fate…
No, the Mother had a plan for all her children, so whatever life she might’ve had was lost to her forever now, and she was merely Imperial Servant Zheng Luo, Consort to Falling Rain. While truly grateful for Lord Husband’s actions and suitably impressed by how he’d handled the Situ Patriarch, she worried Yang Jixing would make things difficult for their family and the Bekhai. Thus far, there’d been no consequence to Lord Husband’s brazen actions, likely out of fear or respect of Lord Husband’s backer, but that didn’t mean nothing would ever come of this. Though an Imperial Scion himself, there was a strict hierarchy which all Scions adhered to, but Lord Husband paid it no mind and risked everything in his reckless bid to save the bald Guard Captain’s life.
As regal and commanding as his actions had been, when Lord Husband demanded the Royal Guardian receive his token, Luo-Luo had almost fainted on the spot. While she had also noted the discrepancy in the Guardian’s boots, she would have never imagined Lord Husband would call the man out, especially not in public. What if the Royal Guardian had been a Noble himself? Though he gave no family name, Kuang Biao could very well have been a highborn Scion using a pseudonym, and if this had been the case, then Lord Husband would be lifting a rock to smash his own feet. Where Yang Jixing ranked amongst the upper echelons of nobility, a mere Imperial Consort such as Lord Husband rated close to the bottom, if not the very bottom considering his unique status. Any minor Noble would outrank him, even an illegitimate son or daughter of the five Supreme Families, the likes of which were scattered throughout the ranks of Royal Guardians. Luckily, Kuang Biao appeared to merely be a base-born soldier with outstanding talent, someone who ranked below even the most humble of nobles, but had it been otherwise, then Lord Husband would have erred gravely in trying to command a social superior.
At best, he would be let off with a light beating, but if Kuang Biao had a peerage equal to Yang Jixing’s, then even assassination wasn’t unheard of if Lord Husband’s Patron didn’t care to shelter him…
While she’d explained all this in great detail to Lord Husband in the months before his accident and again immediately after, his attitude regarding the social pecking order was far too nonchalant considering it was a matter of life and death. He only cared about explicit rules and ignored almost all implicit ones, even though custom and tradition were oftentimes stronger than law. This wasn’t all, because by revealing his conflict with another Imperial Scion to the public, Lord Husband lessened the status of the entire Imperial Clan in the eyes of the public, a grave sin for any Scion regardless of rank. To make matters worse, in the two short days since the incident, public opinion had not only sided with Lord Husband, but had also ‘concluded’ that his Patron, Shen ZhenWu was at fault. Whether he was directly responsible and had ordered Kuang Biao to action, or indirectly responsible by allowing another Scion to act against their beloved crippled Hero, the public couldn’t agree, but every bar-room argument and bed-room discussion unanimously lay the blame solely at Shen ZhenWu’s feet.
Regardless of the dire repercussions which had yet to arrive, Luo-Luo found it gratifying to see how commoners rallied to Lord Husband’s defence, beloved not only for his goodwill, recent or otherwise, but also for his heroic sacrifice in Sinuji. Likewise, his popularity had single-handedly improved the plight of crippled soldiers all across the Empire, or at least this was what MuYang believed. No longer were injured and unfit warriors cast out or hidden from society, but welcomed with open arms as the heroes they truly were, though Luo-Luo wasn’t so sure she’d lay credit at Lord Husband’s feet. Though most claimed the war had yet to begin in earnest, handicapped warriors were a common sight these days, even in SuiHua before they moved into the citadel. Hard to ignore so many disabled veterans, and it wouldn’t surprise her to learn that this newfound goodwill was specifically contrived by the powers that be. It would be poor for morale if every border town and shipping port was packed to the brim with homeless, destitute cripples, a dismal portent of things to come for every soldier heading towards the front lines.
Lord Husband did his part, but even he couldn’t afford to house or Heal every wounded soldier who came their way…
However pleasant public opinion might be, Luo-Luo knew just how fickle and forgetful commoners could be. All it would take was one shameful scandal or disreputable rumour to ruin Lord Husband’s reputation, and already she could sense them forming in the shadows. ‘He thinks too highly of himself’, ‘he belittles the efforts of hardworking soldiers of the Society’, ‘he seeks vengeance when the Empire should stand united’, these quiet whispers hinted at the work of their enemies, but thankfully, they had yet to gain traction. Paying them no mind, Lord Husband continued about his new year celebrations as planned, and Luo-Luo enjoyed the festivities alongside him. Yesterday, they took part in a Bekhai banquet at his new farm, the perfect location to accommodate fifteen-thousand Khishigs and their families. As much as it pained her to think of the costs, at least Lord Husband wasn’t footing the entire bill for this event, and Luo-Luo hadn’t even been asked to help arrange things since Akanai had her own people to handle it.
One of whom was Mother-in-law Sarnai, and having seen the results, Luo-Luo was suitably impressed.
The banquet had offered an eye-opening experience into Bekhai culture, for it was the first time she’d ever seen the war-like tribesmen in a non-military setting. The quiet farmlands had transformed overnight as the empty fields were filled with stalls and carts packed with all manner of food, drink, toys, and trinkets. Everything there was provided by the vendors themselves and given away freely, and though Lord Husband’s family had their own contributions, these were hardly the focus of the event. Instead, as befitting their combative nature, there were a multitude of contests and events for all skills and ages, from strength, archery, acrobatics, and more, the likes of which amazed and astounded her. There was a quaint appeal to the festivities, with rhythmic drumming and colourful decorations a plenty, and she would be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the simplistic nature and charming intimacy of the event, where she’d been introduced to more people than she could possibly remember before being hustled on stage for yet another musical performance.
Finally feeling as if she’d finally been accepted, Luo-Luo played her heart out and gave a performance to top her two previous ones, so when the last note stilled and the thunderous applause shook the ground beneath her feet, she felt it was a dream come true. Her new family finally valued her for her true talents instead of leaving her to languish on her own, which meant the world to a virgin consort who had yet to win her Lord Husband’s affection. At least this way, she wouldn’t be cast aside or worse…
As for today, Lord Husband hosted an open feast for anyone willing to attend, a day-long affair to welcome his Patron to the citadel. Luo-Luo had worked hard to make certain everything was in its place, since with matters already strained as they were, this event could prove the difference between life and death. Lord Husband’s actions against Yang Jixing had forced Shen ZhenWu’s hand, and if he rescinded his protection, then there would be dark days ahead for the Bekhai, but Luo-Luo seemed to be the only one concerned about this issue. When she brought it up with Mother-in-law Sarnai, the fierce woman flashed a dangerous smile before waving Luo-Luo’s concerns away. “Even if the sky should fall,” Sarnai had said, giving Luo-Luo’s cheek a comforting pat, “There will be others to shoulder the burden.”
Despite these reassuring words, Luo-Luo’s heart threatened to burst out of her chest as she stood next to Lord Husband and the rest of the welcoming committee while three Zhengui rosewood palanquins made their way through the citadel gates. The gathered crowd cheered and threw coloured paper pieces to welcome their Imperial Legate, escorted by Mother knows how many Death Corps and Royal Guardians. How many people here knew what these palanquins signified, that these resplendent works of art were reserved for highest echelons of Imperial Nobility? Even Yang Jixing didn’t qualify unless he rode with his esteemed Father, but Shen ZhenWu had brought two extras to use as decoys, an extravagance only he could afford using his status as younger brother to the Emperor, nephew of the Grand Marshal, and heir apparent to the throne.
Luckily, thanks to the nature of their offices, the Grand Marshal was forever at odds with the Prime Minister, so with this man’s support, dealing with Yang Jixing would be as simple as turning a hand. Without it… well, she might as well pray for the best, because the worst was too horrible to imagine.
Stepping out of the foremost palanquin, Shen ZhenWu was a force to behold as he greeted the welcoming party with open arms, a proud, charismatic Son of Heaven who didn’t find it beneath himself to smile and wave at the crowd, a minor effort on his part which won the affection of commoner and soldier alike. Perhaps conscious of the rumours, Shen ZhenWu even took the time help Luo-Luo’s kneeling Lord Husband back to his feet, an action which would do wonders towards putting those rumours to rest. The Guardian Turtle also received a pat in greeting, but she seemed just as agitated as she had during their visit to Yang Jixing’s manor, and Luo-Luo prayed the gargantuan creature wouldn’t do anything to embarrass them or worse.
Luckily, Shen ZhenWu didn’t try to hug the Guardian Turtle like Lord Husband was so fond of doing and he strode off to give a rousing speech, after which her day continued without incident until shortly after dinnertime. While dessert was being served in the privacy of their manor, an Imperial Messenger barged in once again with a summons for Lord Husband and Luo-Luo, though this time it was appropriately addressed and made no threats of death. Perhaps having learned from Jixing’s error, Shen ZhenWu arranged to receive them at the citadel’s seat of power, a sturdy stone building which backed onto the stage where Luo-Luo had given a performance not two days ago. Though the details were unknown to the general public, it was here where Lord Husband had publicly butted heads with Yang Jixing, and quite fittingly, here is where Shen ZhenWu would decide their fate.
While the Guardian Turtle waited safely outside on ground level, Luo-Luo noted. Were it not so absurd, she might even suspect Shen ZhenWu was afraid of the big, gentle girl…
Outside the building, the Legate’s seneschal greeted them with a litter to carry Lord Husband up to the fifth floor, a good sign considering the ongoing festivities had taken a toll on his stamina. Though still ruddy-cheeked and clear-eyed, his shoulders sagged and head drooped as they made their way to the top floor, a sure sign of exhaustion if she’d ever seen one. Worse, judging by his whitened knuckles and furrowed brow, his pain medication had almost run its course and his agony was creeping back into perception, so she prayed this meeting would be over and done with before his discomfort grew too much.
For the second time, Lord Husband’s Patron met them in a surprisingly intimate setting, inside a private side room with only four lacquered armchairs lined up in a row and a small table in front of them laden with desserts. “I’m told the Imperial Messenger interrupted your meal,” Shen ZhenWu said, arms folded behind his back as he stared out the window. “Sit and help yourselves, then we shall speak.”
Despite the friendly nature of his greeting, he sent mixed signals by not turning around to greet them, a churlish gesture meant to convey his displeasure. Gracious, yet aloof, thoughtful, yet haughty, perhaps Shen ZhenWu meant this as a clue to say he had yet to make up his mind regarding Lord Husband’s actions. Wishing she could Send, Luo-Luo tried to silently inform Lord Husband to immediately beg for forgiveness, but exhausted as he was, his only thought was to sit down. “Thank you, Imperial Legate,” he said, shuffling over to the closest chair until Luo-Luo guided him to the correct one. “I love tofu pudding. No need to chew.”
Desperately wishing he would watch his words more carefully, Luo-Luo declined partaking in dessert and sat down beside him, but only because she was afraid he’d make a fuss if she didn’t. With only the clinking of his porcelain spoon to fill the silence, it felt like an eternity before he finally finished his bowl, and Luo-Luo thanked the Mother he didn’t slurp loudly or lick his spoon clean. Eyeing the table as if thinking of having another bowl, he accepted Luo-Luo’s handkerchief and wiped his mouth instead. Missing her overt signals for silence, he then turned around and said, “Thank you for the treat. It was delicious. There was something different about it which I couldn’t quite place.”
“Have another.” Still staring out the window, Shen ZhenWu’s tone implied it wasn’t an offer, but rather a demand. “Eat as much as you so desire.”
Oblivious to the nuances of their situation, Lord Husband nodded and replied, “Thank you, I think I will.” Reaching for another bowl despite Luo-Luo’s attempts to warn him, he added, “I don’t know what it is, but even though I don’t eat much these days, there’s something about this pudding…” That was as far as he got before the spoon reached his mouth, and Luo-Luo was consigned to awkward silence once again. There were eight bowls on the table, each one barely larger than a teacup, but given Lord Husband’s poor appetite in recent weeks, even one bowl should have been enough to sate him, yet after the second bowl, he reached for a third, then the fourth, and so on. Though ravenous, his movements could not be considered fast, and by the time he finished the eight bowl, Shen ZhenWu had been standing at the window for almost half an hour, and Luo-Luo’s back was covered in cold sweat.
Of all the times for Lord Husband’s appetite to recover, why did it have to be now? She could just imagine Shen ZhenWu ordering him to continue eating until he died…
Leaning back in his chair with a sigh, Lord Husband smacked his lips and Luo-Luo moved to cover them, wordlessly pleading for him to mind his manners. “Thank you,” he said, once she was certain he wouldn’t make any other strange noises and withdrew her hand. “I don’t think I’ve felt this comfortable and clear-headed in months.”
“As well you should,” Shen ZhenWu replied, finally turning away from the window. Not daring to look directly at him, she couldn’t tell if he was smiling or frowning, but he casually took his seat and said, “What you just ate cost a small fortune, enough to purchase half the materials used to build this fortress. Unlike the materials though, even if you had the coin, no one would sell you a portion, much less eight.”
“Oh.” Luo-Luo’s first panicked thought was poison, as was Lord Husband’s judging by his reaction, but luckily, he was not so foolish as to voice it out loud. “…What was it?”
“Tofu pudding.” This time, Luo-Luo could hear the amusement in Shen ZhenWu’s voice, a good sign, but not definitive. “Sweetened with cane sugar syrup mixed with a restorative elixir. It won’t repair your Core, and I fear no elixir can, but this will put more meat on your bones and keep you from looking like death warmed over.”
His words made Luo-Luo’s heart surge with joy, and she hurriedly bowed in thanks while urging Lord Husband to do the same. “This one thanks Imperial Legate for his consideration.”
“I thank Imperial Legate for his consideration.”
“You will thank me by making sure everyone hears about my consideration.” The amusement was gone now, replaced by steel and fire. “I’ll not have it said that Shen ZhenWu is an ingrate.”
“You most certainly aren’t. I feel better already.” He looked better too, sitting upright and without support for the first time since his injury. “So about that restorative elixir… would it be too much to ask for the recipe?”
“Shame. Even if I paid? I’m really, really, really rich.”
Worried Lord Husband would continue to push his luck, Luo-Luo shuffled closer to ‘support’ and gave his side a light pinch. It usually worked for Sister Mila, but Lord Husband barely flinched and moved on. “Is there anything else Imperial Legate would ask of me?”
Still unable to read Shen ZhenWu, the next few seconds stretched on into eternity while she awaited his answer. Fingers tap, tap, tapping away at his armrest, he eventually sighed and said, “It pains me to say this, but I almost wish you’d have died in Sinuji. A martyr would be more useful than the cripple before me now. A foolish cripple to boot.” Rising from his chair, he set to pacing about the front of the room, five steps to the right, followed by five steps to the left. “Had you held your tongue regarding the Royal Guardian’s true identity, then we would have a dagger in hand to wield against that idiot Jixing, but now you’ve gone and played our hand too soon. Worse, you’ve irked his father in doing so, because your actions have disgraced the Yang family name, an insult he cannot let slide.”
“Jixing disgraced the Yang family name. I just pointed it out.”
Despite his dire straits, Lord Husband still had the mind to nitpick, but Shen ZhenWu was a magnanimous man. “A difference without a distinction, as far as the Yang family is concerned, and I’ve been forced to state my position on the matter. Giving you up means losing public favour and a drop in morale, but keeping you sheltered will require more effort than I am willing to exert for someone who was supposed to be my sacrificial pawn.”
Was this a hint asking Lord Husband to swear fealty? But why? Crippled as he was, it could be decades before he regained his full strength, or was Shen ZhenWu so confident in Lord Husband’s rehabilitation that this was a gambit to snatch him up while he was still weak? Regardless of the reason, Lord Husband paid it no mind. “I am grateful for your help and everything you’ve done for me, and I could not in good conscience ask for more.” No, what was he doing? Did he intend to sacrifice himself to the Yang family? “You need not protect me anymore. Let the Yang family do what they will, and the Bekhai will respond in kind.”
…Mother in Heaven, did he just threaten to go to war against one of the Supreme Families?
So shocked she forgot to keep her head down, she saw Shen ZhenWu’s jaw drop in surprise before he caught her staring. Closing his mouth with an audible click, he coughed to hide his embarrassment and favoured her with a wink and a smile, as if asking her to keep his secret. “You have my admiration,” he said, a statement which made Luo-Luo freeze in astonishment, her poor heart barely able to keep up with all the surprises. The future Emperor admires a mere crippled young hero, one not even twenty years of age? “Very well then. I will wash my hands of this, but for reasons of my own, I cannot allow you to face the Yang family unaided, nor can I offer you overt support. I’ll make the arrangements and send word in the morning, and then we will not meet again for some time. Now enough of this unpleasant business.” Clapping his hands twice, the doors opened up and a Royal Guardian marched in carrying a beautiful, purple jade zither, which he placed at the side of the room before leaving. “I’ve heard tales of Consort Zheng Luo’s musical talents, so today, I hope to experience them for myself.”
“This servant would be happy to oblige.” Smoothing her skirt before she rose, she mustered every scrap of grace and dignity before making her way over to the zither, hoping that her performance could win Lord Husband more support from his powerful and inscrutable Patron. Why the future Emperor placed so much value on a foreign young talent, Luo-Luo was hard-pressed to say, especially now that Lord Husband was crippled. Regardless of the reason, she would do everything in her power to help win Shen ZhenWu over, though she prayed he was not like Jixing and harbouring hidden motives. Sitting behind the zither, she set to tuning the strings and found there was little for her to do, as the instrument had already been properly adjusted. Giving Shen ZhenWu her best smile, she said, “This servant hopes her humble skills are to Imperial Legate’s liking, and shall start with ‘The Plum Blossom Blooms Thrice’.”
“No.” Shen ZhenWu’s refusal came without hesitation as he watched her with attentive eyes, though they lacked the hunger and lust she’d seen in Jixing’s eyes. There was still a hint of greed, or perhaps even jealousy, but not for Luo-Luo’s beauty or talents. What his gaze meant, she couldn’t say, but it was a mystery to unravel in the future. “Play ‘Rise to Glory’.”
“This servant shall comply.”
Having modified her original composition since she first played it on new year’s day, she couldn’t spare the attention to watch Shen ZhenWu’s reaction, but she poured her emotions into the song in hopes of moving his heart. In fact, this was why she’d chosen ‘The Plum Blossom Blooms Thrice’, for it was a melody about hard work and perseverance paying off in time, but alas, he’d seen through her intentions. Still, ‘Rise to Glory’ was the result of twelve years of work and twenty-four years of her personal experiences, so perhaps it too could sway him.
From the first note to the last, Luo-Luo gave it her all, and when the song came to an end, she received yet another standing ovation, this time from the future Emperor instead of the current one. Falling to her knees, she kowtowed in thanks, only to belatedly realized Lord Husband had dozed off in his chair and was unaware of the offence being given, but there was little she could do to save him. After her ninth kowtow, she found herself being lifted to her feet and face to face with Lord Husband’s Patron. “Well played,” he said, his soft eyes filled with delight and… pride? “Well played.” Glancing back at her sleeping Lord Husband, Shen ZhenWu winked again and said, “Worry not. A young hero can be forgiven many things, especially if he lives up to expectations.” Removing his fan from his belt, he opened it to display the Imperial Sigil and indicate he spoke with the Emperor’s voice before Sending, “Hear me. Should you end up in the hands of the Yang family, you are hereby ordered to refuse service and invoke the Privilege. Never speak of this command to anyone, including the Justicar who comes to hear your grievances. Thus hath it been said, and thus shall it be.”
The blood drained from her face as she watched Shen ZhenWu leave, but she recovered quickly once he was out of sight. Why the Emperor would demand such a price, Luo-Luo did not know, but it was a moot point. Shen ZhenWu had likely expected this when he gifted Luo-Luo to Lord Husband and knew Yang Jixing would enter into conflict with the Bekhai. Perhaps he even arranged for it to happen, though she could not even begin to guess why. It didn’t matter though, because now she understood Lord Husband and the Bekhai’s resolve, ready to go to war against one of the most powerful families in the Empire on her account. It was almost unthinkable for someone like herself, an Imperial Servant raised to revere the Emperor and His nobles, but there was something exhilarating and uplifting about her new family’s fierce independence. Lord Husband was determined to be the master of his own fate, and Luo-Luo yearned to do the same.
If the Bekhai dared to challenge the Yang family, then how could she lack the nerve to do the same? Should she end up in Yang Jixing’s hands, then it would mean Lord Husband and the Bekhai had died trying to keep her safe. If this were the case, then Luo-Luo would have invoked the Privilege regardless, since she’d sooner join Lord Husband in the arms of the Mother than serve his killer.
A heinous and heretical thought crept into her mind, and try as she might, she could not banish it. If she intended to invoke the Privilege and take her own life, then why not do it after she avenged Lord Husband and their people?
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