Savage Divinity – Chapter 495


So the announcement for PoE’s next league start date came out, and it’s September the 6th. This means the last chapter I release will be on September the 5th, after which I will be going on a two week break. Yes two weeks, because this league looks sickkkkkkkkkkk, so just be glad it’s ONLY two weeks and not more. I’ll remind you all again when it’s closer to the date, but until then, I will ignore any and all questions as to when I’m going on break, because it’s right here and I don’t like answering the same question twice, much less a bajillion times Very Happy

 

Anywho, prepare yourselves for the coming break and enjoy the chapter.


 

In the wake of the Justicar’s judgment, Nian Zu expected the Bekhai to do what most would: accept the sentence, end the banquet, and gather their allies to discuss their next move. Instead, the reclusive mountain tribesmen surprised him yet again as Baatar and the rest of his family sat in stony silence, not even Sending to prepare for what would come next. A staunch warrior of limitless potential, Nian Zu saw much of his younger self in Baatar, a man who craved the thrill of battle and the heady rush of progress along the Martial Path, but such single-minded dedication came at a cost, and much like Nian Zu himself, Baatar was wholly indifferent to politics and intrigue, treating every problem as one to ignore or smash aside.

 

And from the looks of things, the half-wolf warrior saw the Disciplinary Corps as the latter, an impulse which if acted on, would amount to outright rebellion…

 

An hour ago, Nian Zu would have laughed at the thought of his patient, cunning, and strategic-minded second-in-command making a grossly incompetent decision like rebelling against the Empire without proper preparation, but every dragon has their reverse scale, and Falling Rain was Baatar’s. Were it not for Nian Zu physically restraining the man, Baatar might have upended the dining table and slaughtered the Justicars in plain sight when they announced his son’s punishment, a move which would have played right into their foe’s hand.

 

A righteous warrior fears not the Enemy arranged against them, but must be all too wary of allies hiding daggers behind their backs. A lesson hard learned, but unlike Nian Zu, Baatar lacked a partner with a brilliant political mind to teach him how to play the game. Fortunately, while Baatar and Akanai were wholly indifferent to politics, Falling Rain proved himself a quick study, though a tad haughty and arrogant for Nian Zu’s tastes. After accepting his protection, the Bekhai princeling straightened up, turned to the Justicars, and said, “If you’re waiting for an invitation to join us, I fear hosting members of the Disciplinary Corps might be construed as offering a bribe, so in the interest of propriety, I ask that you remove yourselves if you’ve no other business here.”

 

Even Nian Zu wouldn’t treat a Justicar so harshly, not because he didn’t dare, but because it wasn’t worth the headache. While their strict Oaths prevented them from abusing their power, officials of the Disciplinary Corps were a fanatical bunch who represented the Emperor’s Justice in his stead, and there was nothing in their Oaths preventing them from investigating disrespectful individuals more thoroughly than others. What’s more, laws were dead, but people alive, and it was up to the individual Justicars to interpret the laws as they saw fit, such as in this very case with Dastan Zhandos. A prickly subject, sparing the life of a rebel who fought alongside Defiled, but the boy had displayed Purity and proven himself of sound mind, as had the other survivors of his retinue. In light of Dastan and Sahb’s almost unprecedented accomplishment by Developing their Domains at the tender age of twenty-four, hindsight proved Marshal Chu Tongzu’s decision correct, but even still the Justicars overturned it and sentenced the two young Experts to death, a matter open to debate with no correct answer.

 

That said, this move of the Disciplinary Corps would not sit well with most nobles of the Empire, for it set a precedent in which they might find themselves drafted to the front lines should their slaves prove themselves too outstanding…

 

A fact Falling Rain made plain by stating it out loud, voicing his displeasure before the Enforcers were even out of sight. “Seems I’ve been training and treating my slaves too well,” he said, shaking his head in feigned self-recrimination as the guests chuckled politely in reply. “Such a grave sin, safeguarding the lives of my soldiers on the battlefield and ensuring their morale remains high during periods of rest.” More chuckles this time, including a genuine one from Nian Zu, impressed by the boy’s quick thinking. It wouldn’t hurt to remind everyone present of his exemplary wartime achievements, killing more Defiled and losing fewer soldiers than any other junior officer on the front lines, not to mention his unbroken record of consecutive days spent on the front lines. “No matter. I was getting bored of sitting around in the Citadel all day, so a jaunt to the front lines will do wonders for my mood.” Raising a cup to the crowd, he smiled as the guests raised their own and said, “To all our guests tonight, this Imperial Consort offers his most humble and heartfelt apologies for ruining the night’s festivities, and I shall drink a forfeit in contrition.”

 

Clever to apologize to the guests first, elevating their importance at no cost to himself since guest-of-honour comrade Du was already firmly in his pocket. Even then, Rain didn’t forget to apologize to comrade Du, and even offered a toast to Nian Zu as thanks. After three cups, the boy’s legs were already shaky, but he persevered and invited the guests to stay and make merry. Few took him up on the offer, though most stuck around to bid their hosts a polite farewell before beating a hasty retreat, neither cutting ties with the Bekhai nor committing themselves to confronting the Disciplinary Corps, for it was clear to everyone present that the Justicars were pushing a political agenda. Why else would they act in such a high-handed manner against a young Imperial Hero like Falling Rain, and over such a minor and almost inconsequential matter?

 

Even a ‘lummox’ like Nian Zu could see that this meant another Imperial Scion was involved, one with deep ties to the Prime Minister’s office to hold such influence over the Disciplinary Corps…

 

Though curious to know what Falling Rain did to provoke such a powerful foe, Baatar and Akanai were too busy seeing their guests out to explain matters in detail, and comrade Du in such a foul mood only the bravest of souls dared approach him. Well-versed in such matters, Ryo Da’in sat at her godfather’s side and bade his guests farewell in his stead, while his granddaughter Yan clung to his arm and spoke softly in an effort to raise his spirits. They were both good children and reminded Nian Zu of what could’ve been if he’d been more supportive of Du Yi and Yuzhen, but after what he went through to break ties with his own family, Nian Zu had not been eager to start a new one.

 

Or at least, he hadn’t until recently, but it was far too late for regrets. While comrade Du adopted Yan as his granddaughter only two years past, Nian Zu lacked skin thick enough to ask Yuzhen if she wanted another father or go snatching up Bekhai orphans, not to mention how he had little to offer any prospective heir. His wealth was middling, his teachings mediocre, and his titles not hereditary, so the only thing he had to bequeath was a whole host of grudges just waiting to be unleashed. The writing on the wall was plain to see, Nian Zu’s time had come and gone, and the world knew it, which was why he sat here twiddling his thumbs while everyone rushed to pay their respects to the people sitting at this table who mattered.

 

Perhaps he could take a page from Falling Rain and rear a wildcat or three for companionship…

 

Everything changed when he turned a hundred years old at the beginning of this year, for he no longer stood first amongst his peers as the strongest Martial Warrior in the North, the one deciding warrior who could change the outcome of any trial or dispute he took part in. Instead, he had no idea how he might fare if matched against other century-old monsters, because even though he was confident of killing an Ancestral Beast in an ambush, he had no illusions of standing against even a half-step Divinity in single combat, or even someone far from it. Take comrade Du for instance, who put to rest the decades-old rumours of his infirmity after soundly defeating the married Exarchs Bralton and Erien in a bloodless sparring match, some two years ago when he visited the Northern Bridge. While Nian Zu could defeat the formidable pair in an open match, he wasn’t so arrogant as to believe he could do it without injuring anyone like comrade Du had. Killing was easy, surviving difficult, and defeating your foes without bloodshed the most difficult feat of all, one comrade Du pulled off with relative ease, according to Bralton himself.

 

And now, Du Min Gyu, this monster in human skin counted as one of Nian Zu’s peers, not to mention all the centuries-old hidden dragons of the Empire like Akanai and her husband, Husolt. At less than eighty years of age, Baatar was already strong enough to match Nian Zu, so how strong would his respected Mentor be?

 

With time and attention to spare, he ceased lamenting about old age and paid close attention to how the Bekhai’s guests behaved, for the differences were telling. First to leave were the sycophants and merchants, rushing off to protect their own asses lest the eyes of the Disciplinary Corps turn their way, followed by the ladder-climbing parasites who attached themselves to the Bekhai in hopes of riding their coat-tails to success. Next to leave were those friends-written-rivals, the powerful factions who saw the Bekhai as a threat, but had yet to decide between clash or compromise. They stayed not to show support, but so that they might needle their would-be opponents or learn something of interest, but as a whole, the Bekhai were tight-lipped regarding the reason behind the Justicars’ abnormal behaviour. Falling Rain spoke more than necessary and less carefully than he should, but aside from making light of his sentence and professing a longing to return to the front lines, he said little else regarding the matter of his hearing.

 

Ah, such a waste. Had his Core not been shattered, he would’ve made a fine Martial Warrior, one whose name would have shaken the Empire for decades to come. Perhaps he might even have been the next Ryo Dae Jung or Lu An Jing, but now all the Bekhai hopes lay on Gerel, a talented warrior with promise, but one lacking Rain’s charm and charisma.

 

Take the boy’s circle of comrades, for example, each one loyal to a fault. Notable and not so notable personages came up to give him their regards, people like Ouyang Yuhuan, Exarches Bralton and Erien, Major Chu Xinyue, and other field officers who fought alongside him in Sanshu. Then there were his peers, like Situ Jia Zian, Han BoShui, Jin ZhiLan, Tong Da Fung, Wu Gam, and more, each one a potential rival yet all standing firmly beside their friend, though a few more steadfast than most. Jia Zian’s loyalty in particular surprised Nian Zu, for while he didn’t hear his little clansman’s request as it was delivered through Sending, it was easy enough to infer from Falling Rain’s response. “Don’t be dumb,” the crippled young man whispered while hugging his friend, an intimate gesture which would have the rumour-mongers salivating for weeks without end. “If you come along, my enemies will try to turn you against me. Your mom, your uncle, your concubine’s family, their safety will be put in jeopardy in order to force your hand.” Rolling his eyes in response to Zian’s heated Sending, Rain continued, “Of course I trust you, but why give them the opportunity? If you aren’t there, then there’s no point in blackmailing you, and I don’t have to feel bad about getting you and your entire family killed. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine, plus Nian Zu’s the perfect candidate to watch over me and practically impossible to blackmail, a beloved Colonel General with a spotless record and no family or friends to speak of.”

 

…That last bit hurt more than Nian Zu would ever admit, but the boy wasn’t wrong.

 

Rain’s conversation practically repeated itself with BoShui, except BoHai’s nephew took less convincing, his eyes glowing with worship and admiration when faced with his benefactor. There was once a time when calling BoShui mediocre would have been too much of a compliment, yet after meeting Rain, he’d overtaken his peers in two short years and turned into a giant bear of a man, one who not only stabilized his fragile Aura and Formed his Natal Palace, but also Developed his Domain to become a formidable Expert in his own right. To hear BoShui tell it, he owed everything in his life to Falling Rain, and Nian Zu believed it. Once might be a coincidence, but for so many Experts to emerge from Falling Rain’s retinue in such a short time spoke of more than simple luck or happenstance, but Baatar refused to speak on the matter regardless of how hard Nian Zu pressed him.

 

Others might believe he’d done Baatar a favour by taking the relatively unknown warrior under his wing, but only Nian Zu knew how hard it’d been to convince the intractable tribesman to accept the mantle as next Hero of the Wall. They both desired to keep the province safe, but Baatar cared nothing for fame or recognition, only that he had a suitable outlet for his aggressive, half-wolf nature. In the end, he only accepted after the fiasco with the Society Contests, not because he hoped Nian Zu could help end things amicably, but because he had tried to mediate the situation without being asked to. In Baatar’s eyes, he owed Nian Zu a favour, one he repaid by accepting a promotion to Major General and second-in-command at the Wall.

 

A stubborn and incomprehensible bunch, these Bekhai, but honourable and steadfast, which was more than Nian Zu could say for most.

 

When the last guest finally departed, he fell in beside Yuzhen, Eccentric Gam, and Ouyang Yuhuan to follow Baatar and his family back to the manor, a slow and almost comical procession thanks to Rain’s plodding gait and the overstuffed, lethargic Divine Turtle nodding off every few steps while escorting him home. Why they didn’t arrange a palanquin for the boy, Nian Zu couldn’t say, but after taking five minutes to travel the few hundred metres back to the manor, his patience was all but spent. As soon as everyone bade the Divine Turtle goodnight and he felt the tell-tale suppression of a Sound Barrier close in around him, he asked, “Well?”

 

Stony-faced as always, Baatar merely shook his head, but Akanai was not so polite. “Hmph,” the formidable woman snorted, fixing him with an icy stare. “You should not have meddled in Bekhai affairs.”

 

Not the thanks he expected for blindly jumping into the fire, but it would take more than ingratitude and a glare to cow Nian Zu. “Meddle? You all looked ready to commit murder and treason, so had I not ‘meddled’ then we would likely be locked in a battle to the death.”

 

“How fortunate for you.”

 

“Are you mad, woman?” Unwilling to back down, Nian Zu cautiously eyed his surroundings and readied to fight, not because he believed his life in danger, but he saw no sense in taking chances. “I command over a million soldiers here in the citadel, while you have less than fifteen-thousand. Even assuming each of your warriors are worth sixty of mine, when the dust settles, I’ll be left with an army larger than the one you started with.” Not to mention the many forts and forces scattered between here and SuiHua, or the countless Peak Experts who would be obliged to help hunt the Bekhai down if they were declared traitors, but Nian Zu felt his point had been made.

 

Also, Baatar looked positively ready to rend him to pieces over his disrespectful tone, though oddly enough, Akanai’s husband Husolt paid no mind to the proceedings, exchanging hushed words with the Medical Saint Taduk who stood protectively over Rain with a scowl on his face. That was one to watch out for; few remembered that Healers could end lives as easily as they saved them, and in his field of work, the Medical Saint was second to none.

 

“Putting hypotheticals aside,” Akanai said, ignoring Nian Zu’s point, “Your interference was neither needed nor appreciated. The Bekhai protect their own, and your meddling has ruined everything.” Jerking her thumb at the boy, she explained, “Now he thinks he will survive this journey to the front lines, but I am not so optimistic.”

 

“And committing open rebellion is any different?” Mother in Heaven, had it truly come to this? The Bekhai breaking ties with the Empire and Imperial Scions murdering one another in wartime? Then again, Rain likely didn’t count as a ‘true’ Scion in the eyes of the Eastern Nobility, but they would still have to account for his Patron, the Legate. What had the boy gotten himself into? “Tell me everything,” he demanded, finally accepting he didn’t know enough about the situation. “Did the Legate turn on the Bekhai?”

 

“No, we owe him a great debt,” Baatar growled, his wife’s hand on his arm doing much to calm him. “Our problems stem from Yang Jixing, the Prime Minister’s son, an empty-headed fop who means to take Zheng Luo away.”

 

 

Of all the half-witted, short-sighted, mule-headed reasons to rebel, this one had to be the worst. Or best, depending on how one looked at it. Fighting over a woman, truly the downfall of many great men. “…I hate to be callous, but is giving her up not an option?”

 

“Of course it is.” This time, it was Sarnai who spoke up, while the consort in question withered away in fright. “But Rain asked if she wanted to leave with the fop and she said no. Since that is the case, then the girl stays, end of discussion. Jixing does not seem like a man accustomed to disappointment, but I look forward to teaching him a sound lesson on the subject matter.”

 

Thankfully, Ouyang Yuhuan saved him the trouble of pushing the issue and voiced his thoughts for him. “All this for an Imperial Servant. Is it truly worth it?”

 

“She is not just an Imperial Servant,” Sarnai replied, her glare brooking no argument. “Zheng Luo is my son’s consort and my first daughter-in-law. She is of the Bekhai, her children will be of the Bekhai, her grandchildren will be of the Bekhai, and we will fight to the death to keep her safe.”

 

…Stubborn and incomprehensible, but honourable and steadfast.

 

In the face of Bekhai integrity and Zheng Luo’s teary joy, Nian Zu could do naught but accept things as they were. Luckily, this was merely a spat between the younger generation and nothing more serious, which meant it should be a simple enough affair to protect Rain from Imperial machinations. With the Legate overseeing battlefield command and Yuzhen handling logistics, all Nian Zu needed to do was keep an eye on their ‘allies’ and ensure Rain wasn’t placed in harm’s way. How difficult could it be?

 

Though he didn’t hear the courtyard doors burst open, he felt the gust of wind which accompanied it and he turned to face the possible threat. Marching in at the head of his former retinue, Dastan Zhandos strode forth with weapon drawn and expression grim, pushing Nian Zu and everyone else in his way to stand before Rain. Dropping to their knees, the dozen or so rebels from Sanshu presented their weapons to Rain hilt first. “Our lives are yours,” they said as one, their voices determined and unwavering, each one unable to outright ask Rain to kill them due to their Oaths, yet proving their fealty and dedication through their actions.

 

How Falling Rain could be so beloved by his people yet so antagonistic to outsiders was a mystery to be sure, but seeing the fervent devotion in the eyes of these convicted traitors proved Rain’s worth, for few officers could inspire such feelings in the soldiers under their command, much less slave soldiers who once sided with the Defiled.

 

However, in response to this touching display, the boy groaned and rolled his eyes. “Don’t be fucking stupid. What would killing you accomplish?” Taken aback by the admonishment, Dastan was not alone in his confusion, as Nian Zu and everyone else present save Yuzhen and Zheng Luo turned to Rain for clarification. Doing a poor job of hiding his disdain for their ignorance, Rain explained, “Killing them does nothing. Sure I won’t have to go to the front lines anymore, but Jixing will just find another excuse. He dropped all other charges, which means putting me on the front lines was his end goal, and since the Legate allowed it, I’m certain he wants the same thing, albeit for different reasons. Why else would he assign Brother Biao to my Honour Guard? I don’t need a Peak Expert to guard me if I’m sitting safe in the citadel, so like it or not, this is happening, and I’d prefer it if my Domain-wielding friend were alive to watch my back.” Shrugging, he added, “Besides, doesn’t the Emperor favour young talents? Dastan and Sahb are slaves and rebels, but they’re still ridiculously talented, so killing them won’t just look cowardly, we might even be punished for it.”

 

…Ordinarily, Nian Zu would have lambasted anyone who dared call him ‘fucking stupid’, but considering he’d been ready to end Dastan’s life himself, the criticism was quite valid.

 

Swatting Dastan’s axe handle aside, Rain scowled and said, “You done kneeling and being dramatic yet? I’m headed to the front lines tomorrow, with only you guys, my Honour Guard, and Nian Zu to protect me, so you should probably get some rest and let me do the same.” Holding a hand up to forestall all arguments, he turned to his three betrotheds and said, “No, none of you are coming with me.” Turning to the half-cat girl, he added, “Well… except Song, because she has to… Sorry. No Khishig guardians either, so Jochi and Argat can stay here. We’ll need people to guard Song though. Yes, even you have to stay Grandpa Du, what will you do if they get their hands on… what’s his name. You know… Kai’s kid. Anyways, anyone who comes along will just become a target to exploit, and the fewer options we leave Jixing, the easier it’ll be to guess his next move.” Turning to Zheng Luo, he asked, “How goes the whole forgery thing? And I was thinking…”

 

It was an incredible thing to watch, this young, crippled hero taking charge in a courtyard filled with no less than four General officers and multiple Peak Experts and Experts, but in Nian Zu’s eyes, it seemed oddly fitting. Even if the boy never regained his Martial Strength, his mind was still sound, and he could learn to be much like Du Yi once was, a brilliant and devious strategist who played his enemies against each other and always came out on top.

 

…Granted, Rain wasn’t quite so brilliant and nowhere near as devious, but he had plenty of time to learn with Nian Zu, the Hero of the Northern Wall, standing by to protect him.

 

What else was an irrelevant old man to do if not make way for the future?

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 494

 

I’ve always known the Bekhai love their celebrations. Back home in the mountains, they’d use any excuse they could to throw a festival, from standard celebrations like the solstice or a feast in honour of fallen heroes, to silly things like a boating festival despite only having access to a pond, or commemorating the eighth day of the eighth month because eight is a homonym for ‘prosper’, so eight-eight must be doubly prosperous. Whatever the reason, the Bekhai are never shy when it comes to throwing a party, even after a week of non-stop celebrations. To be fair, they’ve been stuck in Central for nine months and haven’t had a chance to properly let loose until now, but I was all partied out after the first day.

 

And here we are on day eleven, still going strong. I love my family, but if this keeps up, I’ll need at least a month of social-hibernation just to recharge…

 

To welcome Du Min Gyu and Yan to the northern citadel, Mom and Dad have spared no expense turning the park outside our manor into a scenic, lakeside pleasure garden. After importing thousands upon thousands of winter-flowering plants from the Northern Province, Mom and Luo-Luo arranged them alongside the paved stone pathways which wind around the park. The pink callunas, red quinces, yellow aconites, and purple pansies add a much needed splash of colour to the dull, dreary Central landscape, while red-paper lanterns cast a warm and mildly eerie glow over the night’s festivities, with drums, dancing, and performances aplenty to entertain and amaze.

 

The eerie part is probably just me, because the people of this world love the colour red so much, it’s the colour they associate with happiness, luck, prosperity, vitality, and fertility, hence Mila’s staggering popularity amongst the Bekhai and the people of the Empire now that she’s entered the public eye. Red is so beloved, it’s even the colour of wedding outfits instead of the traditional black and white, two colours which are associated with death and funerals respectively. That’s why the Death Corps armour is black and why no one blinked an eye when I wore all black outfits, but while wearing a little bit of white like Lin’s scarf isn’t out of character, few people would ever wear an all-white outfit because this says you’re either a slave or there’s been a death in the family.

 

And to think, all this time I’ve been looking forward to seeing my lovely wives wearing beautiful white dresses. Then again, considering my current situation, maybe they’ll be wearing white soon enough, though I won’t be around to appreciate it…

 

Dragging myself out of my depressing thoughts, I sit at my table and idly consider asking Guan Suo for a hit of his pipe to cheer me up, though I doubt the surly old fart would care to share, or even reply. He hasn’t shown his face ever since my injury, though now that I think about it, he actually disappeared a few days before, after that one time I asked him about how to break through Concealment. A simple no would’ve sufficed, but not only did he tell me to fuck off, he’s also been ghosting me ever since. I know he’s still hanging around because not only would he never leave Ping Ping unguarded, but also because the moment my food arrives, the entire plate disappears right before my eyes, followed closely by the soup and utensils.

 

“You know,” I mutter, randomly glaring around at places Guan Suo might be and enviously eyeing Ping Ping’s pyramid of cabbage and smoked fish. “If you wanted food, you could’ve just asked for a plate instead of stealing from a malnourished cripple.” No answer is forthcoming, which is to be expected, but as a half-gnawed chicken bone appears out of thin air and sails into the grass, I’m tempted to order Kuang Biao to teach this old bastard a lesson. “And stop throwing trash around! My mom worked really hard to plan and arrange everything, and your scattered garbage is ruining the ambience.”

 

Seriously, the flowers and decorations must have been planned weeks in advance to have it ready for today, which means Mom either respects Du Min Gyu more than she lets on, or she wanted this for new year’s day but was delayed by transport or logistics. Probably the latter, if I were to guess, but so long as no one points this out to the guest of honour, he’ll be none the wiser.

 

Since Guan Suo seems committed to his vow of silence, I mutter a few uncomplimentary curses under my breath which sets Lin to giggling as she guards her plate from my grasping hands, except I don’t try very hard because I know she’ll be sad if I actually take her food. Luo-Luo offers her plate to replace my own, but I’d feel bad about taking it and politely decline, which for some reason earns me a teary-eyed pout, the exact expression I was trying to avoid on the other side. After ineffectively consoling my emotional consort with a pat on the hand, I flag down a nearby servant and ask for another serving and replacement utensils, but only after they’ve finished serving everyone else first. I don’t want to look rude in front of the guests, a veritable who’s-who of bigwigs from the Northern Province, all out in full force to greet ‘Great Teacher Du’ and give face to the Bekhai, or Nian Zu and Dad. Invited to sit at our table by the guest of honour himself, Nian Zu and Du Min Gyu hit it off quickly, and it isn’t long before the old relics get to trading war stories and waxing poetic about the ‘good old days’ while Yan and Da’in look on with wide-eyed awe.

 

Marshal Yuzhen is also here, sitting in a prominent position up front with Gerel at her side, not as her Guard Captain, but as her scowling betrothed, decked out from head to toe in swanky red-silk lace like a pretty little boy-toy and all too aware of my not-so-hidden smirks directed his way. Now that I have Kuang Biao’s protection, I feel safer about teasing Gerel, but it’s mostly in good fun. Still, I hope he never finds out I was the one who gifted Yuzhen his current ensemble, not to mention a few other outfits meant for a more private setting.

 

Then again, considering how… enthusiastic Yuzhen’s response was, Gerel might even thank me for it, though I doubt he ever will.

 

Seeing the Bekhai’s most steadfast allies in attendance is no surprise, as the lines have long since been drawn in the sand. While Patriarch Han BoDing is here representing the Han Clan, he’s seated apart from BoHai and BoShui to keep hostilities from erupting, with Yuzhen, Gerel, and Zian’s party acting as a buffer zone. Magistrate Jia Ying of Shen Yun is also present, Zian’s gorgeous cougar of a mother in the citadel to visit her darling son, with the stern and intimidating Lieutenant General Situ Jia Yang, Zian’s uncle who was once the figurehead of my hatred for the Society, but has since cut ties with them to serve under Nian Zu. Also sitting with them is Vichear, the half-bear former Major moving up in the world now that he’s Jingfei’s Mentor, and judging by the goofy grin on his face while he chats with Jia Ying, interested in deepening his ties to Zian by becoming my friend’s step-father, though any hot-blooded male would say the same.

 

Seriously, Zian’s mom is so hot, she looks like his older sister instead of Jia Yang’s, still a city-destroying beauty at fifty something odd years of age…

 

Pleasant appearances aside, Zian and his family being here is hardly noteworthy, except for where they’re seated. Initially, we had Nian Zu in the most prominent guest spot, but since Du Min Gyu invited him to sit with us after Yuzhen had already been seated, Jia Yang now sits in Nian Zu’s vacated chair. At first glance, this is no big deal, but the novice politician in me believes some people may read into this arrangement and think it was all planned in advanced to make it look like Nian Zu is endorsing Jia Yang as his successor. In reality, Du Min Gyu was probably just bored of Dad’s stony demeanour and Mom’s acerbic tongue and wanted someone to talk to, but it wouldn’t hurt for others to think Jia Yang will be the next voluntary Situ Clan outcast since Rang Min’s star has dimmed in recent days. Where he was once the powerful and mysterious Patriarch of the Situ Clan, he lost a lot of face and respect after sending a Royal Guardian out to fight Gerel under the guise of a Situ underling. Not because he wouldn’t fight Gerel himself, but because by sending out a Royal Guardian, his personal image goes from powerful Patriarch to pitiful puppet dancing to an Imperial tune.

 

Personally, I don’t think it changes much, but it’s possible Zian’s mom and uncle can twist this to their advantage. Mentally wishing Vichy the best of luck in his love life and hoping Ying and Yang aren’t up to anything nefarious, I look away before anyone catches me staring at the lady Magistrate’s modestly-exposed cleavage, only to rest my gaze on a much more dangerous pair of mammaries, specifically those belonging to the gorgeous and scantily clad Exarch Erien. Unused to the temperate Central winter’s and unaccustomed to fine silk dresses, the fearsome, tribal warrior sports a low-cut leather vest and little else. Almost nothing else, in fact, aside from whatever she’s wearing from the waist down, but I can’t be bothered to check since her bosom is threatening to spill out from her sleeveless ensemble. It isn’t until Luo-Luo elbows me in the ribs that I realize that the fearsome Exarch has not only noticed my attentions, but is also grinning from ear to ear while leaning forward and subtly squeezing her breasts together with her biceps. To further my embarrassment, her husband, Exarch Bralton, meets my gaze and shoots me a wink and a nod as if saying he understands my fascination, but the best reply I can muster up is to turn beet red and look down at my hands.

 

I don’t know what ties bind the Bekhai to the married Exarch pair, but they’re some of Dad’s most steadfast allies, though they don’t bring much to the table besides themselves. They’re not the type to command troops, nor are they big on taking orders from above besides ‘go here and fight’, but they’re fiercely loyal, highly respected, and have been in the public spotlight far longer than my reclusive dad, which means their friendship has brought many of the smaller factions to our side who might have otherwise remained neutral.

 

Aside from Fung, who brought Seoyoon to sit with Akanai at our table, that pretty much rounds out our trusted allies, a list which is distressingly short. Still, they’re all powerful individuals in their own right, so I shouldn’t complain too much, especially since we also have a fair amount of… less-trustworthy allies here tonight as well. Despite the all-too-true rumours which have me pitted against an unnamed Imperial Scion and the warnings I sent to my business partners of the very same thing, the people of the North don’t share Central’s adoration for the Imperial Clan, so mere rumours of conflict aren’t enough to scare them off. Even if Jixing made his status and stance clear to all, it still might not be enough to sway the people of the North to his side, because while they aren’t all as insular as the Bekhai, they aren’t as welcoming to Central or Eastern influence as the Society either. Northerners are a stubborn bunch, and tribesman or not, I’m more Northerner than some Eastern Imperial ponce. Score one for xenophobia, though I’d probably lose their support if they knew I was a soul-hopping invader from another world.

 

Hell, if word gets out, I’d probably even lose the support of my family…

 

Wishing Alsantset hadn’t forbidden my floofs from joining us at the banquet table, I sit and watch everyone eat while waiting for my food. Unfortunately, Guan Suo holds a grudge over my muttered complaints and intercepts my replacement meal, as well as the next three courses and their replacements too, leaving me the scraps and garnishes which he couldn’t be bothered to take. This is bullying plain and simple, and Lin’s muffled laughter isn’t helping, but in the interest of saving face, I pretend like nothing is wrong and keep asking for more food while wishing I could Send instructions to dose everything with laxatives. It’s almost two full hours into the banquet before I finally put hand to chopsticks and have a proper bite to eat, but by then, the casual dining portion of the night is over and a steady stream of guests make their way over to greet the hosts and guest of honour, which means even though there’s food in front of me, I can’t eat it while making nice with the guests, a hellish torture worse than anything I’ve ever been through.

 

Well, not entirely true, but close.

 

Since I’m no longer able to access my Natal Palace, my memory isn’t quite what it used to be, so the next hour is a stressful one as I try to match names to faces and the relevant details to go along with them. Tyrant Yuhuan and her Patriarch brother, Eccentric Gam and Wu Gam, High Elder Jin ZhiYa and her daughter ZhiLan of the Harmonious Unity Sect are but the first wave of guests, each one of them supposedly on our side but could easily switch at the drop of a hat. The other bigwigs are mostly lower-ranking Officers or wealthy merchants whom I’ve only met in passing, and given my condition, they only stop by to say hello with poorly masked expressions of pity before moving on to speak with Taduk or Luo-Luo, leaving me ample time to stuff my face in peace.

 

Delicious as the banquet food is, it still pales in comparison to the tofu pudding. Honestly, I’m almost willing to be the Legate’s bitch boy if he can promise me twenty-four bowls a day, though I doubt he even wants me anymore, or could afford it…

 

Comfortable in her element, Luo-Luo handles herself well and even negotiates a handful of cursory business dealings, though nothing is certain until the papers are signed and the goods are delivered. As for my reclusive teacher… he isn’t the most sociable person around, nor is he polite, but few take offence at his succinct replies and lack of focus regarding the conversation at hand. Having returned just for tonight’s banquet, he ate everything on his plate without tasting a thing, including the vegetables he so normally hates, which is how I know his mind is stuck on whatever problem he was working on back at the farm. I’d love to ask how his attempts to grow Spiritual Plants are going, but this is hardly the time or place to discuss it. It’s only been two weeks since I told him about my suspicions regarding Pong Pong’s poop, but considering it only took six weeks for a Spiritual Plant to grow large enough to attract Mama Bun’s notice, Taduk should already be seeing progress if my hunch is right. Unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of the subject, we haven’t been exchanging letters and Taduk’s spent almost every day since at the farm, utterly obsessed with his new project and only coming back to the citadel to celebrate the milestone events with Lin and the rest of us.

 

Truth be told, I’m itching to join him out at the farm, not just to help out, but also to get away from all the celebrations. Sadly, thanks to stupid Jixing and his fixation on Luo-Luo, it’s not safe for me to travel away from the citadel and my presence would bring increased scrutiny to Taduk’s experimental Spiritual Plant garden, which is a secret best kept to ourselves.

 

…I wonder if that’s the secret to the tofu pudding: it’s made from Spiritual Soybeans. Or Spiritual Ginger in the syrup. Or Spiritual Cane Sugar… I should ask Taduk to try growing Spiritual Beets. It’d be the perfect cover, hiding Spiritual Beets in a mundane beet farm, brilliant!

 

“Great One.” A sending from Kuang Biao interrupts my musings, and I almost jump in my seat. “The Justicar from this morning is here, along with three others.”

 

What Kuang Biao fails to mention is that this time, the Justicars are accompanied by their respective escorts marching in lockstep, which makes for quite the sight. Their short staves of office held at the ready, no less than a hundred Enforcers ring the four Justicars as they scowl and stomp through the flowers on their way to my table. The sea of guests part aside for this obvious show of force, and I clench my jaw to keep from ordering my Death Corps to teach these bastards a lesson in civility.

 

There are stone paths everywhere, but nooo, they just had to trample over Mom’s flowers. Assholes.

 

My meal still unfinished, I swallow one last mouthful along with my anger and push the plate aside. After wiping my hands and face with a handkerchief, I take Lin and Luo-Luo’s hands to reassure them that everything will be alright. Truth be told, I don’t think either of them need reassuring, as Lin is already glowering at the Disciplinary Corps members and Luo-Luo has drawn herself up to full height, regal and noble in the face of this threat. Considering the Justicars or Jixing likely chose to come now so they could humiliate me before so many guests, I put on a brave face and try to emulate Luo-Luo until I think better of it. I don’t do ‘regal’ well, but I can sure as hell do insolent. Sighing as I crack my neck to get into the mood, I flash a smile at my concerned friends in the crowd and even give Zian a wink, which earns me a roll of his eyes before he looks away to study the Enforcers, his hands reaching for the hilts of his swords without even realizing it.

 

It’s humanizing to know Zian isn’t skilled at everything, because he’s pretty terrible at concealing his intentions. Also nice to know he’s considering fighting the Disciplinary Corps for me, but I’m hoping it won’t get to that. Vainly hoping, but still hoping.

 

The Enforcers march right up to the edge of my table before coming to a halt, and the front ranks loom over me with weapons in hand. Their black robes and covered faces take on a sinister tone in the eerie red light of the lanterns, and for long seconds, no one speaks. The abrupt silence is almost deafening and the heated gazes of the Enforcers stifling to endure, but I’ve suffered worse from Mila on a good day. Instead of asking why they’re here, I look past the row of Enforcers and lock eyes with the Justicar from this morning, recognizable only because he’s standing apart from the other three. There’s no token presented today, no banners declaring who they are, not even a mention of crimes committed as we exchange stares, and true to their word, Mom and Dad leave me to deal with this on my own, until it comes time to flip the board.

 

Which is honestly looking pretty good right about now.

 

Since the Justicars are already hostile, I see no issue with poking their buttons some more. Letting go of Lin’s hand, simply because she’s sitting on my right, I pull my plate back in front of me, pick up my chopsticks, and continue eating my meal, making zero effort whatsoever to conceal the sound. Coughs ring out from the crowd as they stifle their laughter, but a few snorts escape when I slurp my tea.

 

“Imperial Consort Falling Rain!” Unable to bear it any more, the enraged Justicar growls my name, but that’s all.

 

“Yes, that’s me.” Grabbing a slice of lotus root, I chew the crunchy tuber and speak with mouth full. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

 

“You feign ignorance, but this Official visited Imperial Consort earlier today,” the Justicar declares, no doubt playing to the crowd for effect. “You disputed this Official’s judgment and requested I convene a hearing with three of my peers to present your case.” Though his ceremonial headdress covers his face, his eyes give away his triumphant smile as he waits for me to respond, but all I do is nod and wait. Disappointed by my lack of reaction, his smile returns in full force as he announces, “The hearing has convened and judgment passed by the triumvirate of Justicars you see here before you. Dastan Zhandos and his traitorous retinue rebelled against the Empire and fought alongside the Defiled in Sanshu. As such, they should have been sentenced to public torture until dead, but in a grave miscarriage of Imperial Justice, they were instead pardoned by Magistrate Chu TongZu, enslaved, and placed under your command.”

 

I imagine the Justicar expected a collective gasp or a clamour to break out, hence his dramatic pause, but the only way it could’ve been more awkward is if there were crickets to fill the silence. A few heads turn this way and that to see if Dastan is in the crowd, but since this was a banquet for Du Min Gyu, the rank and file weren’t invited to join. Though the food has all but turned to ashes in my mouth, I put another slice of lotus root in my mouth and motion for the Justicar to continue. Eyes narrowing in fury, he speaks through clenched teeth, his voice strained and tone furious. “Thus, the triumvirate hereby sentences the traitor Dastan Zhandos and his retinue to fight on the front lines until death. As it was your commands which allowed these rebels to live in luxurious comfort, and your command to which they are forever bound, the triumvirate declares Imperial Consort Falling Rain is to be stripped of his rank of Warrant Officer Second Grade and conscripted into the Imperial Army, where he is to ensure Dastan Zhandos and his traitorous retinue carry out their sentence.”

 

This time the crowd gasps, but to my eyes and ears, their surprise seems tinged with anger and outrage, so I hope this holds true for the rest of the Empire when word gets out. Waiting several seconds for the Justicar to continue, I finally see he has nothing else to add, or at least he intends to wait until I speak. Chewing my food thoroughly to buy time, I steel my nerves and swallow my food before asking, “Is that all?”

 

“Yes, but know -”

 

“Understood.” Since they have no intentions of pushing the whole bandit or looted goods agenda, I hold out my hand and direct the Justicar to leave. “As we are in the midst of a banquet, I won’t see you out.”

 

“Audacious!” Snarling in mock fury, once again the Justicar’s eyes give him away, brimming with delight at my misstep made in anger. “This Official has yet to finish with your sentencing and you would chase us away? Imperial Consort you may be, but you’ve no right to order the Disciplinary Corps about.” Pleased as punch to ‘put me in my place’, the Justicar holds his head up high and says, “Private Falling Rain will report to -”

 

Hmph.” Unleashing a Chi-infused snort even Akanai would approve of, Du Min Gyu steals the wind from the Justicar’s sails by literally raising a booming gale of his own, one strong enough to buckle servants and merchants alike. Melting away as quickly as it appeared, the Chi-powered winds settle down as Du Min Gyu sneers and asks, “Now who’s being audacious? Since when do Justicars give orders to soldiers regarding deployment or assignment? Ridiculous.” Pointing a wizened finger at me, he huffs and declares, “I am still a Lieutenant General yet, so the boy will serve under me.”

 

“Calm yourself, comrade Du.” Though his words are directed towards Du Min Gyu, Nian Zu’s hand rests on Dad’s shoulder, no doubt keeping him from tearing the Justicar apart. Beside him, Alsantset does the same for Mom, while Charok holds Alsantset back, a daisy chain of emotional restraint which fills me with warmth. “Falling Rain is not only your future grandson-in-law, but also a northern soldier and you a Central officer, so to take him under your command would smack of favouritism and lead others to think you mean to shelter Falling Rain from his punishment. This will not do.” Shaking his head, the old warrior sighs and says, “Since this matter is so severe, I will personally ensure there is no foul play involved, for justice must be served.” Meeting my gaze with the barest hint of a smile, he says, “Private Falling Rain, you are to report for duty at first light, where we will set out for the front lines to carry out the Justicar’s sentence.”

 

Remembering what he once told me about greeting superiors, I stand and salute my benefactor. “By your command, Colonel General, this soldier obeys.”

 

Well, Kuang Biao said that my honour guard was doomed unless I knew a commander who was ‘virtuous to a fault, utterly without weakness, and lacking in greed, past mistakes, dark secrets, or beloved friends and family who can be used against them’. If anyone fits that criteria, it would be the Hero of the Northern Wall, the Shooting Star Nian Zu.

 

I guess this solves the issue of my safety, so now I just need to figure out how to keep Dastan and his retinue alive too.

 

…Rest in Peace Dastan?

 

 

Fuck.

 

Chapter Meme

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 493

 

In an obsidian blur of motion, Blackjack soars through the air in complete and utter silence, diving down from above like the aerial predator that he is. His prey caught firmly between his teeth, his front paws cling tight while his back legs flutter in disembowelling kicks, scratching and scraping until his legs grow tired and jaw sore. Coming to his feet, the tiny hare raises his head high with pride as he drags the corpse of his defeated foe back for inspection, tripping over its body which is twice as long as he. Unable to jump onto my lap while carrying his prize, he butts his head against my shin and thumps his feet to demand my attention, so I scoop him up along with his prey.

 

“Who’s a dangerous apex predator?” I croon, scratching his head so he’ll close his eyes and let go of his hard-fought ‘kill’, a knotted, triangular bundle which was once a face cloth but is now his new favourite toy. “You are. Yea, you. So cute.” Rewarding him with a kiss and a sliver of smoked meat, I stroke his cheeks while he stuffs his face and try not to giggle too much on account of the guests sitting around me. While Lin doesn’t judge me for my love of floofs and is busy cuddling Mama Bun, it’s the people on my left who worry me. Fung likes to poke fun from time to time, and the two ladies on the other side of him are veritable strangers I don’t feel comfortable around just yet. Ryo Seoyoon is as icy as ever, her cold glares utterly ineffective after years of weathering Mila’s, but it’s the older Ryo sister who scares me most.

 

At first glance, Ryo Da’in appears both lovely and demure, a matured, blossomed beauty with a slender, sensuous body and a sultry, self-assured smile which says she doesn’t need no man, but is on the prowl for one regardless. Perky and pleasant though her personality might be, there’s something about Da’in which I find… off-putting, though I can’t quite describe what it is. It could be her predatory stare which coldly appraises each individual fighting on the various stages, or how her lips purse ever so slightly while studying my Death Corps guards as if categorizing them by skill, strength, and level of threat. Mostly what bothers me is the cold and calculating way she looks at me and my pets, assessing us not only for threat, but also possible value as a hostage or bargaining chip.

 

Where Seoyoon is outwardly impassive and inwardly an emotional firebrand, Da’in is warm and bubbly while simultaneously a ruthless, bloodthirsty battle-maniac. If she were faking the first part of her personality, then she’d be like most other nobles I’ve met, but Da’in seems genuinely friendly and sociable now that she’s no longer treating me like a prize to be won. Her callous, cold-blooded nature is simply another facet of her true self which in no way clashes with the rest of her bright and chipper personality, a disparity which I cannot for the life of me figure out. How can she smile and pet Aurie while checking for his blind-spot, or shake hands with Lin while mentally measuring my sweet wifey’s reach in case they should ever cross blades, all without meaning offence? Cordial, but pragmatic, perhaps even to a fault, everything she does is subtly or not-so-subtly laced with killing intent, and I have yet to puzzle out if this is simply her nature or an intended threat.

 

That said, I’d bet my dwindling fortune that this analytical mindset is why Ryo Da’in is still unmarried at twenty-nine years of age. Well, that, and the fact that she is a monster in disguise. I’ve never seen anyone who wasn’t a Peak Expert defeat Mila so handily, as even Gerel and Tursinai are wary of the fiery redhead’s counterattacks, but Da’in dove right in without a care. Some might think her actions rash or ignorant, but I’m guessing she knows exactly how hard Mila can hit and is confident of dealing with her prodigious strength should the need arise. It didn’t, since my beloved betrothed barely had room to breathe much less retaliate, and the match only lasted as long as it did because Da’in was having fun, like a well-fed cat playing with a caught mouse just to slake her murderous urges.

 

Normally, I’d overlook all of this on account of her being Yan’s friend, but they haven’t been friends for long. They met a few times before, but it wasn’t until Nan Ping when they really hit it off, which is ‘coincidentally’ also after I earned my title as Number One Talent in the Empire. The whole thing reeks of a deliberately designed friendship with ulterior motives in mind, and normally I’d just warn Yan and watch Da’in carefully, but with the situation as volatile as it is, I’d much rather not have a near Peak Expert with uncertain loyalties moving freely around my defenceless loved ones. Problem is, as Yan and Du Min Gyu’s guest and sister to Fung’s current obsession, I have no idea how to diplomatically get rid of this lovely, but thorny rose.

 

Noticing my attentions, Da’in bites her lower lip and flutters her lashes ever so subtly, Sending, “Naughty boy, save those hungry stares for your many lady loves, lest I lose all reason and can no longer restrain myself.”

 

As the blood rushes away from my brain to what my body deems are more important organs, it doesn’t escape notice that Da’in’s statement could be taken in one of two ways, but maybe I’m overthinking things. Then again, maybe not, and considering Lin and all my vulnerable floofs are between her and my Death Corps guards, I’d rather not antagonize the viperish beauty. “My apologies for the rude stare,” I say, without looking away, because predators tend to see that as a sign of weakness. “My jealousy got the better of me as I studied a would-be rival.”

 

“You’re jealous of me?” Flutter-flutter goes the eye-lashes and thump-thump goes my beating heart, so enraptured by her half-lidded eyes and piercing gaze. “I don’t know what rumours you’ve heard, but while I’m not above a sordid fling with my female friends, I most definitely prefer the company of men.”

 

…Why am I so attracted to dangerous women?

 

Unable to hold eye contact any longer, I look down at Blackjack instead, the sweet hare finished with his treat and ready to play again. Tossing the knotted cloth for him to chase, I gesture towards Mila and say, “No, I meant I’m jealous about her.” Standing alone in the corner, my freckled beloved practices her favoured combination of Tiger’s Killing Lunge and Wolf’s Rending Fang, performing the same attack again and again to try and understand the secrets contained within the movements. “I used to practise like that too, focusing on one movement or combination of movements at a time, but she always said I was being stupid and should just seek Insight in the Forms. It’s been years and I have yet to change her mind, but all it took was a few words from you to accomplish what I couldn’t.”

 

That said, Mila does look pretty silly repeating the same movement over and over again, which is what I suppose I looked like whenever I practised…

 

“Ah, then Da’in offers her most heartfelt apologies.” Her coy smile and playful tone fail to hide her surprise, and she pauses to think before continuing. “So you also sought to master the Forms. Most Warriors study and seek Insight within them, but few care to do more than scratch the surface and prefer to focus their attentions on mastering Chi skills. Did you have a specific reason for doing so?”

 

Nudging Fung so he’ll stop Sending sweet nothings to Seoyoon and listen, I reply, “The way I see it, Insight is nice, but comprehension is better. You have no control over when Insight will strike, so it’s better to work towards a tangible goal rather than mindlessly demonstrating the Forms and waiting for meat pies to fall from the sky.”

 

“Hardworking and intelligent, a small wonder you achieved as much as you did, unlike a certain toad seeking to eat swan’s flesh.”

 

Though delivered in the same coy and playful tone as before, her cutting words elicit a visible wince from Fung and a stifled giggle from Lin. Giving me the evil eye before melting into a simpering smile, the aforementioned toad turns to Da’in and says, “Older sister, your words do this humble young Magistrate a grave disservice. While I admit my skills and renown are no match for Falling Rain’s, the same could be said of any man unfortunate enough to be born in our generation. My friend here is a once in a millennia prodigy, so of course mere mortals fall flat in comparison.”

 

“Oh? So you’re saying my precious younger sister doesn’t deserve a man better than yourself? A rich silk-pants wallowing in mediocrity?”

 

Oof. While I wordlessly apologize to Fung for inadvertently starting this whole mess, the precious younger sister in question speaks up for him. “Enough Sister. You have no say over my choices.”

 

“That’s where you’re wrong little sister.” Wrapping her arms around the petulant Seoyoon, Da’in kisses her cheek and says, “Mother and Father are strong enough to watch you make your own mistakes, but I cannot bring myself to be so callous. This pompous fool’s flowery words are pleasant to the ear, but he is not fit to court the Ryo family’s auspicious child.”

 

“And who would be an appropriate match, dear sister?” Cold and cutting, Seoyoon sulks in Da’in’s steely embrace while aiming straight at the older woman’s weakness. “Your standards are so high, there is no man alive who can fulfill them. Fung is as strong as Geom-Chi and he makes me smile, so that is enough for now.” Shrugging, she adds, “Besides, you’re speaking as if the rice is cooked, but he’s merely a pleasant distraction and an effective buffer against all the other fools and half-wits who try to court me.”

 

…Double oof. Say what you will about them, but the Ryo women do not mince words. Oddly enough, Fung doesn’t seem offended by his status as ‘pleasant distraction’ and even puffs up with pride, which I don’t really understand. Then again, even though he’s now the weakest member of our group aside from myself, he’s still stands head and shoulders above the crowd when it comes to Martial Strength, so it’s not like he’s mediocre or anything. He might not be leading the pack, but he’s top five percent, probably, which is pretty damn good if you ask me.

 

Thankfully, no one does as the Ryo sisters take their argument private through Sending, nor does Fung hold a grudge over my big mouth as he heads on stage to spar with Rustram. I brought all my promising talents to join in on the fun, including the older ones like Wang Bao and Ulfsaar, or the ones I’m not so sure about like Ral. The latter has promise, but there’s no easy way to say this: Ral be dumb. Real dumb. The big guy has strength in spades, but it still falls short of Mila or Wu Gam’s Blessing Enhanced physiques and is easily tricked by even the most obvious of feints, which means his first life-and-death duel will likely also be his last. Chey has promise though, and with the two half-dogs set to be married within the week, perhaps some of her cunning will transfer over to her future hubby, though I doubt it. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to be at his best as he squares off against Bulat, and it’s only a few moves before Ral is thrown off the stage, but at least this time Bulat didn’t go for the family jewels. Unconcerned by the loss, Ral slinks back to his corner and sits down to pout, no doubt still wondering if his friend will ever return.

 

I hope Jorani makes it back okay. Who would’ve thought visiting a monastery would be so dangerous.

 

Since worrying will do me no good, I go back to playing with Blackjack and chatting with Lin. Honestly, it’s pretty boring sitting on the sidelines with Lin, and she’s a veritable saint for putting up with it for so many years. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed out about not joining in on the fun, but moping about it won’t help. I spent years obsessing over getting stronger, and the Spectres used my obsession to gain a foothold in my mind, so I’m trying not to make the same mistake again. I need to take things slow and grow my strength one step at a time, but sadly my foes are not content to sit back and wait. This morning’s affair with the Justicar was certainly an eye-opening experience, as was my little chat with Kuang Biao, but on the bright side, I’m up to five-hundred steps taken today and still ready to do more, so there’s that.

 

I want more tofu pudding, but the Legate’s delicious elixir has forever ruined me. Unless I get more of the same, tofu pudding will never be delicious again…

 

As the day wears on, more warriors arrive to join in on the fun, including Vichear, Alsantset, and Tursinai arriving to challenge the famed Ryo Da’in. While my sister and Vichear are readily defeated by the fearsome woman, Tursinai puts up a good fight and the two women call it a draw after a mere handful of exchanges, striding off stage arm in arm with matching feral grins following their brief, yet terrifying match. I didn’t catch most of it because they were moving too fast, but even if I were hale and healthy as could be, I doubt I would’ve fared any better.

 

Even though I’ve consigned myself to being left behind by all my peers, I’ve noticed that progress along the Martial Path varies greatly amongst warriors. Some continue to improve at a steady rate like Alsantset and Charok, while others stall and stagnate for no discernible reason, like Fung and Zian. It doesn’t have to do with reaching milestones, because all four of the above have hit all of them short of Domain, but despite my previous meteoric progress, I never did quite close the gap between me and Alsantset while my talented brothers-in-arms have shown no improvement over the past year or so. Granted, a year isn’t exactly a long stretch of time and Fung spent most of it idling about, but Zian’s circumstances are hardly unique. The Imperial Army is filled with people like him, former stand-out talents who got stuck at a certain level of strength and just… never moved on.

 

Why?

 

If this were the regular world, I’d say it’s because there’s an upper limit to each person’s talent, but when you throw Insight into the mix, that hardly makes sense anymore. Does the Mother or the Heavens just stop doling out free information once each person reaches their cap? Why is the Martial Path so inconsistent? Taking a step back, why is the Martial Path limited to only one percent of the population? I used to think it was merely a matter of knowledge, time, and resources, as everyone else was too busy eking out a living to bother with practising the Forms, assuming they even had someone to teach them, but experience has proven otherwise. I’ve been keeping up with reports from the north, but even though my schools and orphanages provide lessons in the Forms for free and enough food for all to eat, the number of potential Martial Warriors is still pitifully low. Learning the Forms isn’t enough, and no matter how much guidance I provide, most still fail to pass Core Creation, which is the first hurdle along the Martial Path.

 

In my experience, Core Creation was hardly a difficult task, so I simply don’t understand how the overwhelming majority of people fail at it. This is without taking into account that the entire Defiled population easily reaches Core Creation, or at least their version of it, and even accounting for the fact that those who fail are killed and eaten, it doesn’t explain the significant disparity in success rates. Even if ninety percent of Defiled children die before Core Creation, which is an absurd, unsustainable number that would’ve seen the Defiled go extinct long ago, this would still mean their chances of success in Core Creation are ten times higher than the Empires’s, and that’s a conservative estimate. It could be as high as fifty percent, and what’s more, the Defiled rate of improvement in the early stages is significantly faster than most Imperial Martial Warriors, while their ratio of Aura users to non-Aura users is also considerably higher. For every hundred Defiled, there is usually one Aura-capable individual, while amongst Imperials, that number is closer to one in a thousand. The only measurements in which the Defiled are inferior is in the number of Peak Experts and total population, but the former doesn’t matter because Demons make up for the lack of Peak Experts while the latter matters even less since the total Defiled population easily outnumbers one percent of the Imperial population, which are the important numbers to look at when talking about warfare.

 

Interestingly enough, even though Yo Ling’s Butchers were all Defiled, the ratio of Aura users in his army was closer to Imperial standards rather than Defiled ones, which means his people were lacking a certain quality that true Defiled share. It’s always good to pay attention to the discrepancies, because once you figure out the reason why things are different, then you have a better idea as to how things work. Take wine and vinegar for example, two distinct liquids which are made through fermentation, yet are different in taste, texture, and a myriad of other ways. The difference? One contains alcohol, and the other doesn’t. It’s a little more complicated than that, but knowing the how allows you to easily control what comes out of your barrels.

 

Which means if I can look at the Defiled and figure out how they go from basic human to full out Defiled, then maybe I can apply that to Martial Warriors and streamline the whole process from pleb to Peak Expert.

 

This is a subject I’ve been sort of obsessed with since shattering my Core. If I can’t repair what I’ve got, why not make a new one? A far stretch since I’d have to get rid of my broken Core first, but even if this isn’t possible and I remain crippled for the rest of my life, if I can pioneer a simple method of training Martial Warriors and increase that one percent to ten percent, then maybe we’ll have a chance of defeating the Defiled on open ground and people will stop with the pitying stares. Those are harder to deal with than snide or hurtful remarks, and there will be plenty to go around later on during Du Min Gyu’s welcome banquet. Mom and Dad decided to use tonight’s events as a litmus test of Bekhai support and invited anyone who’s anyone to join the festivities and show that we are not a third-rate power to be trifled with.

 

Fun, fun, fun. No party is complete without a show of force.

 

Regardless, the idea of a streamlined Martial Path is already halfway done thanks to Dastan and BoShui revealing their whole Natal Soul shtick, which covers the latter two Milestones along the Martial Path in general detail. Create a Natal Soul (preferably without a personality of its own), park him or her in the Natal Palace, merge with said Natal Soul, and then Develop your Domain. Can’t get any more basic than that, and while there’s still some testing to be done, this leaves only Core Creation and Aura Condensation to simplify. The Defiled seem a better place to look for answers regarding those two milestones, so all I have to do is take the best of both Imperial and Defiled practises and put them together in a way that doesn’t create murder-happy rage maniacs.

 

Easy peasy, right?

 

Unfortunately, without Defiled children to observe or really any idea how to move forward, I’m stuck at an impasse, or I was until I remembered someone else tried to do the same thing around eight-hundred years ago, an Imperial Scion, scholar, and monster in human skin by the name of Zhen Shi. While it might seem crazy, desperate, and downright stupid to take notes from a man named True Corpse, who by all accounts was a psychotic butcher who tortured people until they turned into Demons for ‘science’, he was also known to keep meticulous records of his so-called experiments, which means his notes may hold the key information I need to move forward or even complete my methodology.

 

While anyone who’s ever heard the story knows his research documents exist, not many have a copy to call their own. It’s not illegal or forbidden to read through, but macabre fascination with anything Defiled is not only frowned upon, but generally grounds for suspicion, and suspicion tends to lead to unpleasant things, like death by torture and nine familial extermination. I couldn’t really go around asking if I can borrow Zhen Shi’s notes, and since I probably would’ve remembered reading something like a torture journal while perusing through Taduk’s library, it means he either doesn’t have a copy or keeps it safely hidden away, but luckily, my instincts were on point, and the first trustworthy person I asked indeed had a copy and was happy to lend it out.

 

Fung’s manservant/torturer is one scary S.O.B, but say one thing about Fu Zhu Li, he works quick. Since I didn’t want anyone to overhear, I passed him a written note and watched him toss it into the fire without so much as batting an eye, and the next morning, Red Two (who was formerly Red One until Kuang Biao took his place as top dog) handed me eighteen volumes of Zhen Shi’s notes, neatly wrapped and titled ‘Traffic logs for Shen Huo’s twelfth district’ followed by a bunch of nonsensical dates which are too convoluted to figure out. No idea why anyone would carry these volumes around while touring another province, but I didn’t ask and Fu Zhu Li didn’t say, so I’m going to leave it at that.

 

I only had time for a brief look through the volumes this morning, but from what I’ve seen, Zhen Shi’s notes are laid out rather well. Age, gender, physical measurements, appearance, torture methods, and results are merely the tip of the iceberg as he goes into great detail regarding his process and procedure, though he leaves out any and all speculation or definitive conclusions. It’s horrific, stomach turning stuff, but with luck, it’ll be worth the effort and I won’t damn myself and the Bekhai simply by having them in my possession.

 

Had I known a Justicar would come calling today, I probably wouldn’t have brought the matter up. I should probably ask Fu Zhu Li to take the books back and hide them somewhere safe, but even though the notes detail grisly and gruesome events, the information should not be condemned for this. Data is data, and while the methods of collection were undoubtedly immoral, the information itself isn’t inherently evil. Worst comes to worst, I’ll just say I found it on Yo Ling’s island and kept it for shits and giggles, but I can’t afford to give up on such a promising lead. Before the new year, I was happy to take things slow and recover at my own pace, but this is no longer an option. So long as I am weak, people like Yang Jixing will be circling the waters, waiting for an opportunity to strike. While my personal strength might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, if I’m back in the spotlight, then it’ll lessen the pressure on the Bekhai and our allies as a whole.

 

Is what I tell myself, but honestly… I mostly want to be strong again. It wasn’t so bad when I could barely keep my eyes open or think straight because of the drugs, but now that I’m clear-headed and mostly pain-free, I’m hungry for more. Human nature sucks, but I can’t help it. I need to explore this avenue, or I’ll never stop thinking about it, but I’ll just have to hope for the best and plan for the worst. If no one knows about Zhen Shi’s notes in my possession, then if things go south, they can honestly swear they had nothing to do with it, and all that’s lost is one crippled former talent.

 

No big deal, right?

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 492


So new league of Path of Exile is coming up in september, and I’m going to be taking a week or two off to play. I dunno the exact date it starts yet, but I will know next week, at which point I’ll inform you of the exact days I’ll be taking off. This is just a heads up about it, so you can all adequately prepare.

 

Anyways, that’s all. Enjoy.


 

Brimming with disgust and disappointment, Mila stood over her defeated sparring partner with her spear at his throat. “Yield?”

 

“I yield, Senior Sister.” Laid out flat on the stage, Fung flashed what he thought was a charming smile and held his hands up in submission, conceding far too easily in her eyes. Losing wasn’t the issue which irked her so, but rather the way he just accepted his losses as if they were a foregone conclusion. A defeatist outlook which would see his progress suffer and skills stagnate, he wasn’t even trying to win anymore when he still had so much room for improvement. Mila telegraphed her initial thrust and Fung saw it coming, but instead of side-stepping out of the way, he tried to match her in raw strength, so of course he lost. How many times must he lose the same way before adjusting his tactics? Weakness was one thing, but stupidity another, and Mila would not stand for a stupid Junior Brother.

 

She already had an idiot betrothed, she didn’t need more mule-headed fools in her life.

 

Having secured her victory, Mila stepped back and scowled when Fung extended a hand for help. Batting it aside with the rim of her shield, she prodded his ribs with her boot and said, “Again.”

 

“Mercy Senior Sister.” Though not exactly whiny or petulent, Fung’s tone held hints of both as he pushed himself to his feet. “We’ve been at this for at least half an hour and I don’t know how many matches. How many more before your thirst for victory is quenched? Or perhaps you could pick a different partner, like BoShui or Dastan, someone who offers more of a challenge for your superlative skills.”

 

Ungrateful little… Upon hearing Fung’s suggestion, the two named idiots pretended to fight even harder while drawing out their match, no doubt hoping to silently avoid her ire. Even Zian and Sahb backed off from their opponents, Yan and Wu Gam respectively, as if worried Mila might call them over if they ended their matches prematurely. Annoyed by all these cowardly men, Mila focused her frustrations on her junior brother, who was far and away the most lackluster of the bunch. “This isn’t about victory or challenge, idiot,” she snapped, resisting the urge to club him for good measure. “I’m not sparring with you to feel better about myself, I’m here to help you improve.” Shoving him none too gently with her shield, she glared until he skulked off to retrieve his spear from across the room, which was where it landed after she sent it flying thanks to his poorly thought out response. “Honestly, I don’t know what Mama was thinking when she took you in as a Disciple. You’ve talent a plenty, but lacking ambition. If you worked half as hard as Song, then…”

 

Berating him in hopes of lighting a fire in his chest, Mila’s scathing criticism fell on deaf ears as Fung smiled and nodded along with a hateful and conceited expression. This was the worst thing about him, how satisfied he was with his mediocre strength when he could easily stand alongside her at the forefront of their peers if he put in more effort. Instead, he treated combat as another means to show off and impress women, the same way he liked to dress pretty or flaunt his poetry and calligraphy. Mama was too busy these days to correct him, but even if she had the time, how was she supposed to train her Disciple if he was off in another Citadel? Were it not for Seoyoon coming to visit alongside her sister Da’in and Yan, then Fung might’ve spent the rest of the new year festivities chasing skirts instead of being filial and paying his respects to his family, friends, and Mentor.

 

An utter disgrace…

 

They sparred for another half-hour before she finally gave up, even going as far as doing nothing but defend for three minutes per match to let him set the pace, but sadly, he showed no signs of improvement. Even after several years with the weapon in hand, Fung still had yet to wholly adapt to the spear, his slim and lanky build unsuited for a weapon as heavy as his. This wasn’t entirely his fault, because the weapon’s balance was all off, weighted too heavily towards the tip for a spear its size. A hundred and eighty centimetres from base to tip, the weapon was shorter than Fung was tall and awkward for his long limbs to wield, a situation exacerbated by the stylized, double-axehead cross guard which limited his grip to the lower two-thirds of the weapon.

 

A pretty weapon which was all form and no substance, if Mila crafted such a worthless Spiritual Weapon, Papa would’ve disowned her and melted it down for scrap.

 

“Stick to the sword,” Mila advised, and not for the first time. Fung was passable with the longsword, not as talented as Zian, but close to it, which meant he was better than most. “Better to use your spear as a cavalry lance and nothing else until you either grow as big as BoShui or Develop your Domain.” At that point, he should be strong enough to properly control his spear, but not without cost. If you had to Reinforce to use your weapon, then you were better off using a lighter weapon, and the same held true for the Domain equivalent.

 

“Thank you for your advice, Senior Sister,” Fung replied with a bow, always the gentleman in the presence of witnesses, “but Junior Brother feels he has more potential with the spear.”

 

Typical men, always fixated on bigger is better. Smacking the spear out of his hands for the umpteenth time, Mila ignored his surprise and said, “Draw your sword.”

 

“Wh –”

 

Leaving him no time to think, Mila launched a controlled offensive to force him into action, presenting enough threat to break his bones while leaving enough leeway for him to draw his sword. Once he had his weapon in hand, she stepped back and paused for a full second to let him take his stance before resuming her attacks, and this time, he reacted appropriately. Instead of trying to match her blow for blow, Fung finally moved his feet to avoid a head on clash, which was exactly what he should’ve been doing all along. Fighting on your opponent’s terms would at best yield half the results for twice the effort, and even though his spear was ten times heavier than hers, it still wasn’t enough to make up for the difference in raw strength.

 

Not only that, but since his longsword didn’t require both hands to wield, he was both faster and more agile in attack and defence, his feints and counters on point as he blunted her offensive. Round and round they went atop the stage, Mila moving ever forward while Fung gave ground with every step, yet he lasted a full five minutes before exposing a critical weakness and allowing her to disarm him. Standing over him with spear to his throat once more, Mila grinned and asked, “Yield?”

 

“Yes, yes, yield.” Rolling his eyes, Fung stood up and brushed himself off, his chest heaving and brow dripping with sweat. “You’ve made your point, but I still stand by my previous statement. I am standing on the precipice of Insight with regards to the spear, and once I figure it out, then perhaps next time, it’ll be me standing over you asking if you yield, Senior Sister.”

 

“Careful there.” Grinning like a fool from the audience seats, Rain threw a knotted face-cloth at Fung and said, “That’s my betrothed you’re talking to. You keep making statements like that and I might get jealous.”

 

Catching the cotton projectile after it bounced off his cheek, Fung faked a glower and glared. “And you call yourself a friend, impugning my honour like so. I’m wounded by your lack of trust. My Senior Sister and I share a platonic relationship and nothing more.”

 

“I trust you,” Rain replied, tossing another cloth projectile at Fung, but this time Mila snatched it out of mid-air and dabbed away her non-existent sweat, noting Seoyoon’s all too real hostility directed towards Rain. Fung could easily have caught the towel, but he put banter with Rain over his dignity, which wouldn’t matter in normal circumstances, but to do so in front of his lady love was just asking for trouble. At least they weren’t in public, having reserved the arena for the entire afternoon for all their friends and guests, but Mila didn’t understand friendships between men. Though Rain and Fung seemed to get along fine, they did so without real conversation, sharing, or even being nice to one another. All they did was drink and banter, and somehow this was enough. It mattered little to Mila, but if Rain expected Seoyoon to overlook his slights the same way Fung would, then he was in for a rude awakening.

 

Wholly ignorant of Mila’s silent warning, Rain cackled and continued with his joke. “I trust you to be true to your nature, which means I’d be a fool to leave you alone with my beloved.”

 

Idiot. As if she’d ever fall for Fung’s sickening sonnets or bawdy poetry. What Seoyoon saw in him besides a pretty face, Mila couldn’t say, though the same could be said of the reverse, for the youngest Ryo daughter was a prickly, quiet sort who was slow to warm up and quick to anger. Worried Rain’s words might hold a grain of truth, Seoyoon fixed Mila with a warning glare while Rain and Fung continued trading insults, but the frigid maiden was no threat and Mila treated her as such. Instead, she saluted the older Ryo sister and smiled, one every bit as cold as Seoyoon’s glare. “This one has long heard of Ryo Da’in’s skills, and invites her to the stage for a demonstration.”

 

Unlike her icy younger sister, Da’in possessed a warm and almost bubbly personality, her eyes burning with joy and teeth bared in a cute and predatory smile. “Wonderful,” she said, her clasped hands pressed against her cheek in girlish delight. “Yan told me you were strong and domineering, but I never imagined you’d be so… ferociously adorable!”

 

As much as Mila hated being called adorable, she couldn’t help but blush at the praise from the formidable Expert. Feminine, yet militant in bearing, Da’in was a warrior woman in every sense of the term, a combination of grace, elegance, and danger. A slender, sinuous woman with silken, shoulder-length hair and enough curves to be noticed, yet not so much as to ooze sexuality, she was a beauty to behold with her arched posture to her refined, sashaying gait. Making no effort to hide her womanly charms, she wore skin-tight leggings and a fashionably serviceable tunic which clung to her skin and left little to the imagination, but rather than give the appearance of a sultry vixen, the outfit only made her look all the more dangerous, like a venomous serpent ready to strike, both deadly and beautiful.

 

In short, Da’in gave off the exact impression Mila wished she could pull off, but sadly couldn’t.

 

Leaping up from her seated position, Da’in made the movement look so effortless it gave off the illusion that she’d been scooped up in a giant, invisible hand and placed gently on stage. Strutting over with her gliding grace, she shooed Fung away and said, “I agree with your Senior Sister, but not for the same reasons. Perhaps you will find Insight and grow by leaps and bounds with the spear, but the sword will always hold more potential. The spear is king of the battlefield, but the sword, divine.”

 

A lofty statement, but if any one could back those words, it would be the famed daughter of the Sword King, a woman so strong she was expected to become a Peak Expert before forty like her father.

 

Relishing this chance to face such a formidable opponent, Mila raised her shield, lowered her stance, and watched her dangerous foe with wary eyes. Standing with hands folded before her, Da’in sighed in contentment before reaching for her sword, and while little else changed, Mila’s instincts screamed at her to flee. This wasn’t Aura or killing intent, but merely the suppression one felt when placed in grave danger, for Da’in’s relaxed posture was full of menace and threat.

 

Odd how the mind wanders when thrust into peril, for only now did Mila notice that Da’in wore no jewelry or accessories, not even a ribbon in her hair or a decorated sheathe, though her sword’s hilt was wrapped in a purple diamond pattern, so similar to how Mila wrapped Rain’s. The only difference was the colour and the base of Da’in’s hilt bore a bright red tassel which doubled as a wrist strap. Ornamental, most likely, or possibly even religious, a talisman blessed by monks or woven from the hair of some Divine Beast or another.

 

“Ready?” Da’in’s sickly sweet tone brought Mila back to the moment, and she realized she could’ve lost to a single move thanks to her distraction. Cognizant of the cold sweat dripping down her neck, she took a moment to compose herself before nodding in answer. Still smiling her predatory smile, Da’in nodded back and said, “Good. Here I come then.”

 

Despite the warning, Mila didn’t even see her opponent move before being rocked aside by the blow. Domain, that had to be it, because Reinforcement wasn’t enough to explain the overwhelming power contained within Da’in’s slender arms. Her sword couldn’t even be considered heavy, a double-edged jian with a thin, flexible blade less than two fingers wide, yet still she put enough power into her attack to sting Mila through the shield. Reeling in place, she grit her teeth and hunkered down for the next strike, only to find Da’in still standing in place with her hand on the hilt of her re-sheathed sword. “Wonderful,” the fearsome woman said, her eyes glowing in admiration. “You’re still standing. It’s been ages since I faced someone my age who could defend against a full-strength attack, but you’re almost a decade younger. An outstanding talent.”

 

Irked by the undeserved praised, Mila snarled, “Why did you aim for my shield? This match would be over if you’d gone for my head.”

 

Her predatory smile darkening without having changed, Da’in replied, “It’s not about victory or challenge, sweet Mila. I’m here to help you improve.” Having thrown Mila’s words back at her, Da’in cocked her head and asked, “It’s clear from your disdain of Fung’s attacks that you’ve never faced an opponent physically stronger than you, or if you have, they held back too much. I will not be so kind, sweet Mila, so if you’re ready, then I will attack again.”

 

Mila had just enough time to settle into her stance before the powerful blow landed, and though she still didn’t see the attack, or the next one, or the one after that, by the fifth attack, she’d puzzled out why. The attack was an easily recognizable movement from the Forms, Deer Parts the Underbrush, a basic sweep of the weapon even Tali and Tate could demonstrate, but in Da’in’s hands, this basic sweep turned into a deadly killing blow. From the moment she drew her sword until she slammed it back in its sheath once more, Da’in’s upper body remained perfectly, utterly still, so still that if one were to only look at her shoulders and up, as Mila did due to her limited field of view from behind her shield, then there was no indication of movement from start to finish. A monstrous feat which had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with skill, how many times did Da’in draw and sheathe her sword before reaching this level of perfection? By eliminating every extraneous movement and telltale twitch from her attack, she only shaved a tenth of a second off her opponent’s reaction time, but that was all she needed to force Mila into dire straits.

 

As time wore on and Mila got used to the powerful attacks, she realized Da’in wasn’t particularly fast, but the optical illusion left her unable to actively parry or Deflect the attacks because she couldn’t see them coming or react fast enough. Hoping to create distance between them, Mila feinted a thrust and backed away, but Da’in’s image never wavered in her sights. Mother in Heaven, the formidable woman could even move around without wavering, and the next attack almost knocked Mila clean off her feet. Shifting with the impact, she kept her shield up and spear ready, but her opponent was ready and waiting, smashing into Mila’s shield again and again until her forearm went numb and senseless. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t pull out Paragon to use here, because not only was it a poor stage to reveal her greatest work, but she lacked the fine control to use it in a friendly spar.

 

Clang. Clang. Clang. The blows rang out against Mila’s shield in a steady rhythm, the tempo so constant she could set a watch by them, but still she had no recourse to defend. All she could do was turtle behind her shield while this sadistic monster tormented her on stage. Jaw clenched so tight she worried she might crack a tooth, Mila considered surrendering but her pride would not allow it. Defeat was nothing, but to give up before she even tried to attack? Never.

 

Mustering every bit of strength she had left, Mila didn’t use it to resist Da’in’s next attack, but to escape it. Leaping back with all her might, she heard the telltale hiss of air and shriek of metal as the sword glanced across her shield instead of striking it directly. Blood surging with glee, Mila slammed her feet down and reversed her momentum with Bull Traverses the Mountain, charging forward shield first to bash into –

 

Nothing.

 

Without the expected impact to greet her, Mila tripped over her own two feet and went head over heels off the stage. Landing with a heavy crash, she jumped back to her feet with cheeks burning in embarrassment, but luckily no one was laughing. Seoyoon wore the tiniest of smiles, but it disappeared once she met Mila’s gaze, and the icy maiden quickly looked away. Good. Taking a deep breath to calm her anger, Mila hopped back onto stage where Da’in stood waiting, her sword sheathed and hands folded once more. “I’d like to see you attack without my shield blocking my view,” Mila said, leaving out the obvious part where she’d also like to keep her body in one piece.

 

Cocking her head to one side, Da’in asked, “Why?” Eyes lighting up before Mila could respond, she continued, “Oh, you think it wouldn’t be an issue if your shield wasn’t obstructing your view.” Cold metal touched Mila’s burning cheeks, and she flinched at the unexpected sensation, only to freeze in place as she realized Da’in sword was already at her face. “Even without the shield,” Da’in purred as she withdrew her sword, “there are other ways to interfere with your opponent’s perception. You think it merely a single movement, Deer Parts the Underbrush, yes? It’s more than that, a combination of three movements, in fact.”

 

“Snake Shakes the Branch and Oriole Raises the Winds.” Surprised to hear Rain chime in, everyone turned to stare, Da’in and Mila included, but he shrugged and said, “Why you all look so surprised? She wasn’t moving very fast and used the same move like twenty times. It’s not hard to figure out the trick once you know what to look for, especially from the audience.” Raising his head with pride, he added, “It’s not like I forgot all my Martial skills you know. I’m still frigging brilliant.”

 

“Brilliant indeed.” Lacking even a hint of sarcasm, Da’in studied Rain with far too much interest before turning back to Mila. “Your betrothed is correct. It is easier to discern from the audience, though few have eyes as keen as his. Regardless, my father is called the Sword King not because he is stronger than all other sword-wielding Martial Warriors, but because with all else being equal, his victory would be assured through mastery of the Forms alone. The Forms are a tool we are all familiar with, but few care to study them to the extreme. What I displayed today was not learned through Insight, but mundane comprehension and dedicated practice, a feat any Martial Warrior is capable of.”

 

Patting her sword’s hilt, Da’in added, “As for the matter of choice in weapon, I believe the sword reigns supreme, because there is no other weapon versatile enough to unlock the full potential of the Forms.” Stepping in close to pat Mila’s cheeks, Da’in added, “Don’t fret, sweet Mila, you did much better than most Martial Warriors ten years your senior would. Not only did you refuse to concede and offer a counterattack at the end, I also meant to disarm you more than once, but you kept adjusting your shield by instinct so my next attack landed closer to the center rather than the outer edges. So young yet so strong, I do hope you and Seoyoon can get along and learn from one another.”

 

Girlishly skipping off the stage, Da’in sat down beside Lin and beamed prettily at no one in particular, though Mila felt a shudder whenever those brown eyes met her own. Only twenty-nine years old, Ryo Da’in won not through superior strength, speed, or Martial skill, but through sheer mastery of the Forms, truly an eye-opening experience. How strong would she be if she fought without holding back? From what little she displayed, even Alsantset might not be her match, though Tursinai might, and Da’in was even strong enough to threaten Gerel, though she would obviously be at a disadvantage if they were to fight.

 

At least, Mila hoped that would be the case, else Da’in was far more monstrous than she let on…

 

Either way, this dominance through mastery of the Forms was not something Mila had ever seen or heard of, but it opened new avenues of training she’d never considered before, ones worth exploring. Ugh. She couldn’t leave this be, but there was still so much to do, like craft a Spiritual Launcher for the Tyrant and spend more time with Yan before she went back to the front lines. Then there was the matter of Papa taking on more contracts than he could handle, and she also wanted more time with Rain, and not just to scold him for all his past sins coming back to bite him on the ass. She should’ve never let him go to Sanshu unsupervised or explore Yo Ling’s stupid island…

 

Well, there was no cure for regret, so Mila could only plan for the future. If Yang Jixing persisted with his foolishness of sending Rain into battle, then she intended to stand for her betrothed as his champion. None of this foolishness of accepting a veritable death sentence when he could prove his innocence through trial by combat, and so long as her opponent was under twenty-five, she was confident she could defeat them now that she had an Aura of her own.

 

Because regardless if the public recognized her title, she was still Sumila of the People, Number One Talent in the Empire.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 491

 

Breathing easier in the wake of the Justicar’s departure, I quietly pledge to commit less crimes in the future, or at the very least, get better at hiding them.

 

It’s not like I’m out robbing and pillaging to my heart’s delight, but I do tend to skirt around the law whenever possible. The way I see it, if my enemies aren’t playing by the rules, then why should I? I figured it’d be easy to commit crimes in the Empire because there are no cameras or forensic investigations, but what I didn’t take into account was that the standard of proof required to convict is apparently incredibly low. If even the Justicars can’t be counted on to play fair and pass impartial judgments, then it’s only a matter of time before I’ll have no choice but to ask Mom and Dad to step in and flip the board. Not a prospect I look forward to considering there’s no turning back from open rebellion, but in light of Mom’s violent outburst earlier, it almost seems like she can’t wait to start slaughtering Imperials. While she’s calmed down and looking pleased as punch now, I’d rather not see the Bekhai dragged into a revolution over little old me. I have enough remorse as it is dealing with the death of my soldiers, and I don’t need to add thousands of Khishig deaths to my already overburdened conscience.

 

If we were closer to the Saint’s Tribulation Mountains or even just the Northern Province in general, I might be convinced to cut our losses and head home, but here on the border between West and Central, we’re sandwiched between the Imperials and Defiled. If we rebel, we’d have to fight our way out of the citadel, head two-hundred and fifty kilometers north to SuiHua, commandeer enough boats and supplies for fifteen-thousand Khishigs and their families, then break through a series of blockades which are already in place to stop Defiled naval forces from making their way deeper into the Empire, all before even setting foot in our home province. Powerful as the Bekhai are, I doubt we’d even make it to SuiHua given the sheer number of loyal Imperial soldiers around, and I’d hate to force my allies to pick a side.

 

Not that I expect it’d be a difficult decision. Talking about rebellion is one thing, but actually rebelling over such a stupid issue? Even BoShui might have second thoughts…

 

Despite the gravity of our situation, I can’t help but smile at Luo-Luo’s reaction to this whole endeavour, sitting slumped in her chair and taking deep breaths while Yan fans her face. So dramatic, but she tends to get like this when it comes to matters with Imperial Nobles, and she’s been utterly overwhelmed by this minor skirmish with the Disciplinary Corps. Squeezing her fingers to reassure her, I try not to think about how small my hands look next to hers and wrack my brain for something reassuring. “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure this was all a bluff. Shock and awe, you know, scare me into submission by threatening to expose my crimes, but they probably won’t go through with it. I mean, it’s a terrible idea considering how many people it’ll offend, and a few crimes won’t completely tarnish my sterling reputation. Worst comes to worst, I’ll make a big public apology, pay the fines, and head off to the front lines, though I refuse to hand over my people.” I’ll probably have to smuggle them out or something. This would be so much easier if GangShu were here, because then I could lump all my former bandits into the Mother’s Militia and blame their crimes on him. He already took credit for their heroics before and during the battle of Sanshu, so this is just an extension of that.

 

“Pei.” No longer restrained by Alsantset and the Justicar’s presence, Mom’s pleasant mood dissipates as she smacks the dining table with a growl. “Absolutely not! You know as well as I that going to the front lines would mean your death, and I do not mean at the hands of the Defiled. I would sooner consign Heaven and Earth to the Father’s Maw than watch you go meekly to your doom.”

 

Both warmed and horrified by the statement, I let go of Luo-Luo and shuffle over to comfort Mom before her blood-pressure reaches critical levels. Kissing her on the cheek, I hug her tight and smile as she clings to my wrist, as if to ensure I won’t fly away. “Much as I appreciate the sentiment, I think a trip to the front lines wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Yes, my enemies might try to have me killed, but it won’t be so easy, especially since I think the Legate expected a trip to happen. Last we met, he spoke of offering assistance, and the next day, he sent Brother Biao to join my Honour Guard. We all thought this was meant to offend the Yangs, but what if the Legate knew Jixing would accuse me of these crimes?”

 

“Of course!” Recovering from her stupor, Luo-Luo bolts upright in her chair, her eyes lighting up in realization as she lays it all out for us to understand. “Had Lord Husband not pointed out the flaws in the Justicar’s judgment, then he would have been stripped of rank and sent to the front lines in less than an hour’s time, but he would still have his title and command of his Honour Guard. With a young and talented Peak Expert by his side, our enemies would have to think twice before sending someone to assassinate him, and even if Lord Husband were to be placed in an untenable position against the Defiled, Brother Biao could easily bring him away to safety. Thus, as long as Lord Husband lives, Yang Jixing must continue to commit resources to dealing with him, leaving Lord Husband’s Patron free to stir up discord amongst the people of the Empire and turn them against the Disciplinary Corps for forcing a crippled hero into such dire straits.”

 

“Yea…” I totally thought of all that. Not really. I got as far as, ‘Kuang Biao protects me’, which isn’t terrible. What Luo-Luo said makes sense though, and I can’t help but look down on Jixing for not seeing the obvious. Does he really think no one will blink twice if he orders a cripple into an active war-zone, or arrests soldiers for crimes they were absolved of? “Anyway, given this information, I don’t think it’d be the worst thing in the world if I paid a visit to the front lines. I could make a big fuss about how this wasn’t my choice while also showing everyone I’m beaten, but not defeated, you know? Plus, Ping Ping is pretty popular and I know there are plenty of soldiers and camp followers who like to stop by and offer a prayer, which will earn me some much needed goodwill.” The big girl doesn’t seem to particularly care for their piety, but she doesn’t mind it either. I wonder how people would react to learning there was an actual Divine Turtle hiding in Mama Bun’s floof…

 

“It’s dangerous,” Mom says, clearly unhappy with the idea but leaving the final decision in my hands, which given my history, seems like a terrible idea.

 

Even then, my mind is made up. “Less dangerous than the alternative.” I’m always leery about mentioning rebellion out loud, even here in the safety of our home where Mom says I can speak freely. I miss Sending. So much easier to criticize and complain when you don’t have to worry about anyone overhearing. “No point arguing about it now though. It’s possible the Justicars won’t even take away my rank now that I’ve pointed out how dumb Jixing’s plan is, but a voluntary trip could be used to show I’m being pressured. Honestly, I’m kinda disappointed in how incompetent he’s been so far. The Legate has plans within plans, while Jixing just throws tantrums. I expected more from an Imperial Scion.”

 

“A novel way of seeing things.” So quiet I’d almost forgotten he was here, Du Min Gyu gestures at his empty teacup and I head over to fill it. A little annoying considering I’m crippled and the teapot is right beside him, but he’s not purposely making things difficult, just not accustomed to pouring his own tea. Nodding in thanks, he sips his tea with a steady hand and steely gaze as he studies me closely. “Most people of the Empire would balk at even speaking ill of an Imperial Scion, much less outright defying one, to say nothing of the Justicars. You’ve a distinct lack of reverence few can match, one which allowed you to navigate through this trial in a unique manner even the sharpest political minds might not have considered. As for your disappointment… this Yang Jixing is a young man, I presume? One of high birth and accustomed to having his every whim fulfilled?” Seeing my nod, the old man shrugs. “Thus, while the plan might seem foolish from our perspective, Jixing likely sees the issues as insignificant and easily dealt with. Even if he should offend multiple powerful officials of the Empire and heap dirt upon the sterling reputation of the Disciplinary Corps, he is still an Imperial Scion of high standing, so who will make trouble for him? He’s likely more concerned about regaining lost face from your refusal, as his personal reputation will suffer once others learn he was rebuffed by a mere ‘savage’.” Smiling to show he means no offense, he sighs and shakes his head while flashing a wry smile at Yan. “Licentious though your betrothed may be, at least he’s proven himself steadfast. Contesting against an Imperial Scion to keep his Consort, the playwrights will work day and night to be the first to tell this tale.”

 

The statement earns me a gratified blush from Luo-Luo and a smile that’s not quite a smile from Yan as she wrestles with her jealousy. Mila had the same issue all last night during Yan’s welcome party, which leaves me worried for the future. Lin aside, the other ladies in my life aren’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of sharing me, but the only ideas I can come up with to convince them to get along read like a script from a bad budget porno. As fun as it would be to try and sex my wives into friendship and submission, I doubt I have the skills or stamina to do so, though Yan didn’t seem put off by it last night…

 

Dammit. I really owe the Legate big for his tofu pudding. I’ll still probably die on my wedding night with Mila, but at least I can handle normal sex…

 

“Luo-Luo, pick out some works of art to gift to the Legate, as belated thanks for his support.” And to show Jixing that if he sets the Justicars on me for looting, then he’s going to have to ask the Legate to hand over the ill-gotten goods. The little brat might not care about pissing off Marshals and Magistrates, but I doubt he’ll be so quick to move against Shen ZhenWu. In fact, it’s probably better if he does, because like Luo-Luo said, that’d give the Legate a reason to step in. “Are there any unrelated people in power I can drag into this too? We should send them gifts as well.” Get rid of as much stolen property as we can while simultaneously bringing unrelated people into this mess. I mean, I did the same thing when I first got back from Sanshu, but now it’s just a matter of increasing scale. “Also, do we have anything which is definitely not stolen, but we can arrange to look like it was stolen?” Seeing everyone’s questioning gaze, I shrug and explain, “I figured we could send Jixing a ‘stolen’ gift to make it seem like I’m taunting him. If he has enough restraint to swallow his anger, then all we’ve done is annoy him a bit, but if he takes the bait and sends the Justicars after me on erroneous charges, then he loses face again, maybe even enough to send him running home. Sounds good, right?”

 

“No.”

 

“Terrible idea.”

 

“Why poke the dragon?”

 

“Brilliant!” Mom, Alsantset, and Du Min Gyu all shoot my idea down at once, but Luo-Luo is positively glowing with admiration. So excited she doesn’t even notice the stares, she explains, “In conflict amongst Imperial Scions, the greatest loss comes not from death or defeat, but by being manipulated or deceived by one’s foes, and doubly so if it leads one to harm one’s self or one’s allies. Such was Lord Husband’s Patron’s intent in this conflict between Lord Husband and Yang Jixing, to sit back and watch the Prime Minister’s son kick an iron board, but Lord Husband’s level-headed reaction to the Justicar’s accusations may have ruined those schemes. Now Lord Husband can make it up to his Patron with a simple amendment to his plans. Instead of delivering the deceptive gift to Jixing, it would be better if we secretly gave it to Lord Husband’s Patron instead. Then, all we need do is quietly spread word of the ‘stolen’ art in our possession, and when Jixing makes his move against us, then he inadvertently moves against Shen ZhenWu, who will be more than happy to slap the little upstart down, provided we inform him of our plans in advance.”

 

“…What?”

 

Thankfully, I’m not the only one confused by Luo-Luo’s explanation, and even the politically savvy Du Min Gyu seems lost, but Luo-Luo assures us this is the optimal play. After hammering out the details, Luo-Luo rushes off to falsify documents and forge artwork, because apparently she knows how to do both. Despite my earlier pledge, I can think of a hundred different ways to use Luo-Luo’s art skills, none of which involve selling art, but in the interest of good behaviour, I banish those thoughts to the void. In truth, I file them away for when things get desperate, and make a mental note to find out if it’s actually illegal to forge another noble’s seal, and what the penalty for doing so would be. Let’s be real, forged documents would make my life so much easier when navigating the crooked world of merchants and caravans, not to mention how the wrong letter in the right hands could do a lot of damage.

 

Like say… What would happen if Rang Min were to find a love letter written by an ally and addressed to his wife?

 

…No, that’s too cruel. It’d probably get the wife killed. Same thing, but the love letter addressed to him?

 

…Awkward, but probably not too damaging. Whatever. I’ll think of something.

 

Wrapping up our eventful breakfast, everyone heads out to watch the twins Demonstrate the Forms, but I beg leave to go back to bed on account of tossing and turning all night. It’s not until I’m in front of my room that I realize what Yan’s blush, Alsantset’s knowing smile, and Du Min Gyu’s glare meant, and I mentally kick myself for my poor choice of words, but it’s too late to go back and explain now. Scurrying into my room before Du Min Gyu snaps out of his shock, I call out over my shoulder and say, “Brother Biao, if you could join me inside?”

 

This is the real reason I wanted to step away, so I could spare Kuang Biao’s dignity while I question him. Marching into my room without a word, the former Royal Guardian ignores my non-verbal suggestion to take a seat and stands before me at full attention, a tall, handsome man with broad shoulders and a slim waist. Svelte, rather than muscular, a corded whip of a man, though the heavy Death Corps plate armour can make anyone look bulky and imposing. I’ve been trying to show him I won’t treat him like a slave and encourage him to be himself, but the young Peak Expert has wholly embraced the Death Corps persona as if born to it, though he’s far less enthusiastic about my safety than the others. He even tried to convince me to call him by his new designation, Red One, but not only is this dehumanizing, it’s also needlessly confusing since I now have to relearn everyone else’s new numbers.

 

Seriously, I should just give the Death Corps soldiers names, but I don’t want to come up with three-hundred and sixty of them…

 

Since Kuang Biao is determined to stand and I’m not petty enough to order him to sit, I settle down in my walker and hammer out how to word my questions properly. I don’t want to straight up ask what he knows, because I don’t want to accidentally trigger any conflicting Oaths, an issue he informed me of the day he joined my Honour Guard. As a Death Corps soldier, he’s Oathsworn to obey my commands and answer my questions, but after swearing his Death Corps Oaths, Jixing also made him swear an additional one to never reveal any Yang family secrets. I figured those sorts of Oaths would be standard fare for Royal Guardians serving the Five Supreme Families, but demanding strict Oaths from non-slave subordinates is generally frowned upon for the same, traditional reason why Justicars don’t just drag Martial Warriors off and make them confess their crimes under Oath: because history has shown that Martial Warriors won’t stand for it.

 

Powerful, superhuman warriors don’t respond well to overbearing and restrictive demands. Who would’ve thunk it?

 

There’s a thin line between obedience and servitude, but one the Empire treads carefully, making sure to clearly delineate the difference between slave and free person even if the result isn’t all that different. Sure a peasant could defy orders from a powerful Martial Warrior, but it’s probably not the best idea to do so if the peasant wants to keep breathing. The same could be said of a former Number One Talent of the Empire and an Imperial Scion, but what can I say? I have issues with authority.

 

I always thought the general aversion to Oaths was because they hinder you from reaching the Martial Peak. You don’t see a lot of Oath-Sworn slaves reaching Peak Expert status, but apparently, it’s only rare and not unheard of. It’s possible I’m still right and Oaths do restrict progress along the Martial Path, but I’m not certain it’s entirely magical, as it could just be a matter of motivation. Why get stronger if you’re still going to be a slave? Regardless of the reasons, Oaths are a matter of last resort, reserved to prove innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence, rather than as an investigative tool, which is great for me because way too many people know my secrets.

 

Sadly, Jixing is better at covering his tracks, so if I ask Kuang Biao point blank about the little shit-stain’s plans, the former Royal Guardian will probably choke to death on his tongue. “Aside from the Defiled,” I say, triple checking for paradoxes as I go, “If I were to go to the front lines, what sort of threats do you think I might face?”

 

“Traitorous schemes to leave your troops under-equipped and unsupported, nefarious plots to order you into danger, and Imperial assassins masquerading as Wraiths.” The answer comes immediately, but no more is forthcoming.

 

“What about something like poison?”

 

“Unlikely.” Rationing his words like they’re precious jewels, Kuang Biao only explains once he can no longer ignore my raised eyebrow in good conscience. “Poison would raise too many questions, for it is not a tool the Enemy would use.”

 

Guess I won’t need a food taster then. Good thing too, because there is nothing more unappetizing than eating someone else’s leftovers, even if they’ve only taken a single bite. “If left with only my Honour Guard, how confident are you of keeping me alive?” Not only is he the strongest warrior amongst my Death Corps, Kuang Biao is also the only with proper training in battlefield tactics, which means if he thinks I’ve no chance of survival, then he’s probably right.

 

“One-hundred percent.”

 

What? So high? Well this might not be a terrible idea after all. “What about the rest of the Honour Guard? How many casualties might we expect?”

 

“One-hundred percent.”

 

…Well fuck. He’s confident he can keep me alive because he doesn’t intend to stick around and fight. “So if I go to the front lines, anyone I bring with me will die?”

 

“Undoubtedly.”

 

“…How can I change this?”

 

“This is beyond Great One’s ability.” This time, Kuang Biao doesn’t need prompting to continue, as if he enjoys telling me how it is. “Unless Great One knows a commander who is both virtuous to a fault and utterly without weakness, lacking in greed, past mistakes, dark secrets, or beloved friends and family who can be used against them, then the death of Great One’s honour guard is all but certain should he march off to the front lines.”

 

“What if I brought more allies? Like my friends and their retinues?”

 

“Then they might be the first to turn against you.” Shrugging at my surprise, Kuang Biao says, “Not all share your indifference towards Imperial authority, and those in power often have the most to lose. Even if your friends remain true, their soldiers may not, which means every soldier you see may be an assassin hiding in plain sight.” Softening at my disheartened expression, he adds, “It would be best if Great One remains in the Citadel regardless. This one has read the reports of Great One’s last battle, and it appears the Enemy places much value on your death, or at least this Emissary Gen does.”

 

“Yea, what can I say. People love to hate me.” I didn’t think going to the front lines would be such a big deal. I figured I’d head over to Sinuji with Ping Ping, say hi to Hongji and other old friends, smile at the crowd and maybe shake a few hands, then head on home where it’s safe and sound, but I suppose it won’t be so easy. I suppose I should cancel my travel plans, but depending on how Jixing reacts, I might not have a choice if he goes public with my crimes. I can argue my case, but I doubt I’ll win, which means bad times ahead. A shame the Tyrant’s research has stalled and Taduk’s been too busy to help, but no matter. Worst comes to worst, I can leave most of my retinue behind to minimize casualties, which still sucks, but is making the best of a bad situation.

 

After bidding Kuang Biao farewell, I sit in the gloomy darkness of my room and stare at the wall, where my crumbling Spiritual Weapons sit above the last few gourds of Chi Tea I’ve kept. Hoping things might be different this time around, I close my eyes, steady my breathing, and reach for Balance, but find only searing agony awaiting me in the darkness behind my eyelids. The Legate’s tofu pudding did a lot for my recovery, but my Core is as shattered as ever and the Void utterly out of reach. If I still had my strength, I might challenge Yang Jixing right here and now, but I’d be stupid to do so. Aside from the brief period of time when I supposedly became a Water-Wielding Peak Expert, even at my best, I’m probably no match for an Imperial Noble, especially one confident enough to antagonize the Legate, a man holding the title of Divine True Warrior. The Seneschal warned me that there were plenty of youths in the East who could readily defeat me, and I don’t doubt Jixing is one of them, not to mention the shadowy presence who put Ping Ping on her guard that first night we met him.

 

Being weak sucks donkey dick, but recovering isn’t enough. Even if I return my awesome-but-accidental water-wielding prowess, all I’ll be is another Peak Expert, not even a speed bump to the behemoth that is the Imperial Clan. Still, I can’t just give up because it won’t be easy, so instead of going back to bed, I pull out ink and a metal pen to write letters warning all my allies of Jixing’s threat, as well as another letter asking Broken Blade Pichai for an audience. This will be my third letter to him without a response, but until he outright refuses, I’ve no choice but to keep trying.

 

That said, I know better than to put all my eggs in one basket, so once all my letters are written and handed off to be delivered, I set to working on my last resort and lift the top of my table to reveal a hidden compartment underneath. Inside, there are eighteen books which could hold the secret to fixing my ruined body, but could also get me into a lot of trouble if anyone learns I have them in my possession. As much as I’d like to burn the books and never look back, this would be tantamount to burying my head in the sand and hoping things work out for the best, so I grab the first book, steel my nerves, and open it up to read.

 

I need to explore every option I have, no matter how unsavoury it might be.

 

Experiment one. Subject is male, seventeen years old, peasant of common birth and below average build, measuring at…

 

…sixty hours in and still no sign of progress. Resorting to more extreme measures. Note: procure multiple test subjects at once to limit downtime in case of subject death.

 

…heart still beating even with chest cavity open. Will expire without Healing to sustain subject. Taxing and inefficient. Reduce effort required by physically gagging next subject to eliminate distracting screams.

 

Test subject expired, no signs of physical change in moments before death. Note: arrange separate room for future experiments, or devise more sanitary methods of inducing pain and trauma.

 

Disgusted as I am by the book’s horrific and unhelpful contents, I continue reading in hopes of finding salvation. Today’s visit from the Justicar was only Jixing’s first move, and there will be a second and a third, if not from him, then from another like him. All this is happening because I’m no longer a promising young talent, but if I recover, then maybe things will go back to how they were before. I need to be strong again, and if I can’t reach Heaven in a single bound, then I’ll do it one step at a time, even if I have to start over from the beginning. I’ll get there eventually, with or without help. I believe it.

 

So long as I have enough time.

 

 

I wonder if I can convince Pong Pong that Jixing tastes like shrimp? His death should buy me a few months or so, right?

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 490

 

After nine months spent in his company, Luo-Luo thought herself well-used to Lord Husband’s unconventional ways, but each subsequent verdict issued by the Justicar sent her deeper into her churning spiral of obstinate denial and bewildered disbelief.

 

Falling Rain, the former Number One Talent of the Empire and first ever Imperial Consort to outrank his spouse, was a criminal. There was no way around it. Initially, Luo-Luo had scoffed at the ostensibly fabricated charges and thought it’d be a simple matter of proving Lord Husband’s innocence, but one look at his expression was all it took to change her mind. Rather than alarm or confusion, she found grudging resignation etched across his face in their place, the reaction of someone who’d predicted this outcome long ago and had no defence against the charges. How could this be? Why was Lord Husband, a prince of the Bekhai, riding around with a retinue filled with traitors and ruffians? Why was he, with all his brilliant and profitable ideas, looting bandit hideouts to embezzle the spoils? Why was he, with his shattered Core and frail body, being drafted into the army to command slave soldiers? Surely it would make more sense to just have him order Dastan and the other traitors to follow the commands of another?

 

Garbed in his black, judiciary robes and ornate, feathered headdress, the Justicar seemed an inhuman force unto himself as he named Lord Husband’s co-conspirators and listed their respective fines. Luo-Luo only recovered from her shock when Tali and Tate came for the bears, tempting them out into the courtyard with warm hugs and sweet treats, though aside from brother-in-law Charok who followed them out to supervise, everyone else remained where they were seated. Her formidable glare promising pain and suffering, Mother-in-law Sarnai sat with arms crossed beside Sister Alsantset, whose glare was less terrifying, but not for lack of trying. Still as a statue, Great Hero Du sat in impassive silence, his wrinkled face set in a perpetual scowl and sharp eyes betraying nothing of his inner thoughts, but a flash of concern could be seen every time his gaze drifted over to his adopted granddaughter. Clutching Lord Husband’s arm, Yan’s expression wavered between distressed and determined, but her body language spoke volumes to her true thoughts, instinctively sitting at an awkward angle to place herself between the Justicar and her beloved.

 

In contrast, Luo-Luo was sat to his left, but slightly back and away, not because she moved but because the bears needed the extra room to squeeze in around her. Regardless of the reasons, it painted her in a poor light, but she was too terrified to even move.

 

Realizing time was of the essence, she kept one ear on the proceedings and wracked her mind for a solution to this perfidious and perilous problem, but there was little she could come up with. Yang Jixing had played his hand perfectly, for not only would Lord Husband’s life be in grave danger while serving on the front lines, the reputation he’d established would become ashes in the wind once these verdicts became known, and even with all his charitable work and goodwill, it would be decades in the mending. Even if she’d known about these issues beforehand, she didn’t know what she could’ve done to mitigate these damages, for Lord Husband’s crimes were severe indeed.

 

Dastan Zhandos, who only days ago revealed himself as a Domain-capable Expert of the Empire, was in fact a rebel who fought alongside the Defiled in Sanshu. Even given mitigating circumstances, which they must have been considering the Magistrate saw fit to grant clemency, Dastan was still a traitor to the Empire and all the ideals it upheld, so it was unsettling for others to see him live out a life of… not luxury, but leisure. Some people might have already known, but Luo-Luo most certainly didn’t, and it would undoubtedly be the same for most from Central or South, which meant they were in for a rude awakening. Few people were as universally reviled as traitors…

Then there was the matter of recruiting former bandits to his cause. While not exactly against the law, it struck a devastating blow to Lord Husband’s standing. If one walks by the riverside, then one’s shoes will eventually get wet, so for a man in his position to surround himself with cutthroats and marauders, it made it seem like Lord Husband preferred their company to upright and honest soldiers, an impression which would not sit well with the common people of the Empire. They wanted heroes to admire and role models to emulate, so to learn Falling Rain was little more than a bandit himself would be disheartening indeed.

 

As for the matter of looted goods… Well, this mattered slightly less than the others, considering most in his place would do the same, not to mention how word had already spread regarding Lord Husband’s charitable works. The worst that could be said was that he gave away tools and technology, opened schools, and fed the hungry to soothe his guilt rather than out of the goodness of his heart, which was still more than anyone else ever did. Humanizing in a way, but still a crime, and many honest men and women would be sorely disappointed in Lord Husband.

 

Oh Mother in Heaven, how were they supposed to salvage this? The Justicar even implicated all of Lord Husband’s mercantile partners in this mess, or rather the ones who remained steadfast after his downfall, placing them all under suspicion of laundering stolen goods or ill-gotten coin and ordered to present their records for Imperial inspection…

 

The first matter of business was for Lord Husband to establish himself as a cooperative convict, which of course meant he did the exact opposite before she had time to advise him. “Is all this really necessary?” Interrupting the Justicar mid-litany, Lord Husband sat slumped in his chair with arms crossed, shoulders slouched, and lips pursed, the very picture of disgruntled disinterest despite the serious nature of his crimes.

 

Incensed by Lord Husband’s interruption and his lackadaisical attitude regarding his judgment, the Justicar’s eyes narrowed in barely restrained wrath. “You believe upholding the Emperor’s Justice superfluous?”

 

“No, laws are a must and punishment a necessity,” Lord Husband replied, audaciously pausing to sip his tea and give Aurie’s head a pat. “To clarify, what I meant was, why are you telling me about the crimes and punishments of parties not present? I take it there’s a reason you’re using my allies to threaten me?”

 

Though appalled by his lacking manners, Luo-Luo had to admit he had a point, one she’d missed in her horror over the current proceedings. Why was the Justicar taking the effort to inform them of his plans to prosecute their allies? Though these issues were tangentially related, the Disciplinary Corps were not so accommodating as to share their future plans regarding co-conspirators with prosecuted criminals. Unhappy at being questioned, the Justicar silently glowered for long seconds, but Lord Husband was not one to cower before the law, a warrior in spirit even if no longer in body. Huffing in irritation, the masked official flicked his flowing sleeves and crossed his arms, clearly displeased by his next statement. “In light of your exemplary military service record and valiant sacrifice, the Disciplinary Corps is willing to offer leniency. Should Imperial Consort Falling Rain plead guilty to the above crimes and forfeit the rights to his Imperial Peerage, then aside from the loss of his rank and title, all penalties will be waived, fines rescinded, and investigations dropped in order to spare the Imperial Clan’s pride.”

 

A threat? All this was a threat? How dare he? The officers of the Disciplinary Corps were Oath sworn to uphold the law and mediate disputes, so even with the Prime Minister’s son to command them, a Justicar should never have stooped so low as to use these contemptible intimidation tactics.

 

Lord Husband evidently shared her disappointment as he shook his head and sighed before reaching over to take her hand and offer a reassuring smile. Much as she appreciated the gesture, he was sorely mistaken if he thought they still had a choice. Despicable as it was to discover the Disciplinary Corps were little more than the dogs of the Yang family, Lord Husband and the Bekhai had been deftly outmaneuvered by the Prime Minister’s move, leaving them no choice but to accept the deal offered. The alternatives weren’t even worth considering, for it would mean outright rebellion, a crime which would see every one of their people killed or enslaved, and over what? Fiercely independent though the Bekhai might be, Luo-Luo didn’t think it likely for them to rise up in arms to shelter traitors, former bandits, and an Imperial Servant, especially in light of the fact that Lord Husband was a verifiable criminal.

 

Considering the Justicar made no mention of keeping this matter private, this meant the name ‘Falling Rain’ might soon become synonymous for spectacular failure, a man who rose to meteoric heights before being brought down by the weight of his sins. How disappointing, but today was a day for disappointment.

 

Still clinging to hope, Lord Husband kept hold of Luo-Luo’s hand and asked, “I take it forfeit of said Peerage means handing Consort Zheng Luo over to Yang Jixing? Probably along with a few other demands meant to humble and humiliate me?”

 

“…Yes.” The Justicar all but growled his reply, his fury hot and temper provoked by Lord Husband’s flippant tone.

 

“Of course it would.” Taking another sip of his tea, Lord Husband made a great show of studying the Justicar from head to toe, an audacious show of disrespect even in the best of circumstances, and doubly so considering his next statement. “I was told Justicars dedicate themselves to upholding Military Law and nothing else. No friends, no family, nothing to hinder them from their Oathsworn duty. Was I misinformed? What hold does Yang Jixing have over you?” Why Lord Husband felt the need to goad the angered Justicar, Luo-Luo couldn’t say, but she desperately wished she could Send and tell him to stop. Undeterred by the Justicar’s steely silence, Lord Husband continued, “If you believe I’ve committed the crimes I’m accused of, then how can you see this verdict as anything but a gross injustice? I shield traitors and loot from bandits, but now that I’ve been caught, all I need do is give up my title and Consort? Hardly seems fair punishment considering the crime.”

 

Mother in Heaven, was Lord Husband criticizing the Justicar for being too lenient?

 

Putting her preconceived notions aside, Luo-Luo studied the masked Justicar, but aside from enraging an official who held the power to order his death, she didn’t understand what Lord Husband was getting at. Though his black robes of office left only his eyes uncovered, they conveyed enough emotion for Luo-Luo to read, and she found scorn and resentment aplenty, but little else. Only… Why was the Justicar so angry with Lord Husband? Because of what he said? Or because he agreed with Lord Husband’s statement and thought this punishment too light?

 

Then again, take away the robes of office and the Justicar was still a man, one Oathsworn to uphold the Law. Only the most fervent and devoted subjects made it through the Disciplinary Corps’ rigorous selection process, and only the best of them would go on to become Justicars. The official standing before her was one such esteemed individual, and it seemed Lord Husband’s disrespect had touched his bottom line. Retrieving an unmarked scroll from his voluminous sleeves, the Justicar threw it onto the table in a fit of pique and said, “Such insolence. The demands are listed within, and you have twenty-four hours to comply. Were it not for your Consort, this Official would have seen you dragged out in chains and whipped through the streets for your crimes against the Empire. False reputation and nepotism will save you this time, but this Official expects it will not be long before you return to your wicked ways and find yourself awaiting judgment before another official.”

 

The Justicar turned to leave, but Kuang Biao stepped in to bar his path at Lord Husband’s silent command. Expecting the Justicar’s escort of Enforcers to come marching in and matters to escalate into outright warfare, Luo-Luo clung to Lord Husband’s hand and was ready to beg him to stand down, but none of her fears came to pass. No weapons were drawn or shouts sounded to free the Justicar, no demands made or threats offered, Kuang Biao and the Justicar merely stood across from one another while Lord Husband put down his empty teacup and said, “Excuse the discourtesy, but I’ve still many questions I need answered, and if I’m not mistaken, it is your duty to explain these matters in whole.” It took long seconds before the Justicar turned around, and the barely restrained fury was evident in his bearing. “Thank you. So, theoretically, if I were to refuse Jixing’s terms and tell him to eat shit, what would happen next?”

 

Blinking in surprise, the Justicar studied Lord Husband as if seeing him for the first time, his hackles no doubt raised beneath his robes. “…Then you would be stripped of rank, drafted into the Army, and sent to the front lines until your slave soldiers have served their purpose. The former bandits in your employ will be taken into custody and tried for their crimes, and all looted goods will be seized and your wealth subject to forfeiture until your fines paid in full.”

 

“Putting aside my many questions regarding how all this would work and the repercussions of doing so, I’d like to first ask if I ever get to see proof of my alleged crimes.”

 

Neither Luo-Luo nor the Justicar had expected this request, and she held onto the faint hope that these allegations were false, but her hopes were soon dashed. “You deny Dastan Zhandos and his retinue rebelled against the Empire? That your retinue is comprised of former bandits, many of whom had bounties placed on their heads for their crimes against the Empire? That you looted Yo Ling’s secret island hideout and kept your ill-gotten gains, instead of turning everything over to the Lieutenant Marshals so that the stolen goods could be returned to their rightful owners?”

 

“Let’s do this one by one.” Ignoring Luo-Luo’s silent hints to take some time to discuss things first, Lord Husband began with, “Dastan Zhandos and his retinue are undoubtedly rebels. They admitted as much during their trials in Sanshu, but Magistrate Chu Tongzu granted them clemency for a reason.”

 

“For his strength and talent, and Dastan Zhandos certainly has both in droves.” Sneering in disgust, the Justicar continued, “But the Empire has heroes aplenty and need not rely on traitors to protect it.”

 

“True, but have you looked into the circumstances of their rebellion?” Spreading his hands, Lord Husband said, “Though they stood on the side of the Defiled, Dastan Zhandos himself was little more than a pawn, one who was used and lied to since youth. He honestly believed he was fighting against corruption and for a better Sanshu when he rebelled, which was why Magistrate Chu Tongzu allowed them to keep their lives. They believed they were fighting for a good cause, and for their crimes, they now fight for the Empire.”

 

“Hmph. Dastan Zhandos battles in bloodless spars to accrue fame and recognition, hardly a fitting punishment for their crimes.”

 

“They fought plenty until I was injured, so fiercely that only one in four who survived Sanshu still draw breath.” Lord Husband’s tone could still be considered friendly, but now it held a hint of steel. “They fought under Han BoShui while I rested, and they will fight at my side when I make my return to the battlefield. Slaves and traitors they may be, but the Empire values young talents and Dastan and Sahb are both undeniably so, while their prowess serves to bolster morale in a time when it is needed most. If need be, I’ll bring them to the front lines and fight, but I can’t imagine people will be pleased to learn that a crippled hero has been drafted into service.”

 

Perhaps swayed by these words, the Justicar took a moment to ponder this over, but eventually shook his head in regret. “This Official still believes their punishment too lax given the crime.”

 

“Then I’d like to hear a second opinion.” Shrugging, Lord Husband added, “and a third, if possible. Don’t you guys gather in threes to discuss big matters? Regardless of Dastan’s past crimes, he is now a slave and fights for the Empire as my personal property. It is not the place of the Disciplinary Corps to tell me how I should treat my slaves or where to order my soldiers. What’s next? Will a Justicar come tell me my servants’ rooms are too large, or my soldiers’ armour too fine?”

 

A cunning move, changing the focus of the issue. Now it was no longer a matter of Dastan Zhandos the rebel living too well, but the Disciplinary Corps dictating how an Imperial Scion should behave. The facts remained the same, but the nobles of the Empire would wonder if an Official might visit them next. Seeing the issue, the Justicar glowered and said, “You have the right to dispute this judgment, but the facts are not in your favour. We have documented proof you bribed Magistrate Chu Tongzu to secure the life of Dastan Zhandos and his retinue, though for what purposes, only you yourself know.”

 

“Ha!” Slapping the table with a thump, Lord Husband scoffed and said, “So returning stolen goods is bribery now? Seems like no matter what I do, it’s wrong. I gave Chu Tongzu a map to a bandit hideout containing goods stolen from the now defunct Council of Merchants, one I found off the corpse of a Defiled Butcher. Considering one third of the council was proven to be in cahoots with the Defiled and another third was forcibly dissolved for crimes of bribery and corruption, I’d hardly blame the Magistrate for using those stolen resources to rebuild his war-torn city.” Seeing the Justicar’s surprise, Lord Husband shook his head. “Seems like your boss doesn’t have all his facts straight. I figured as much when he demanded I hand over the subordinates of an Ancestral Beast. What a joke.”

 

Eyes widening at this declaration, the Justicar stopped to consider the issue and likely inform his contacts through Sending. Having seen through Jixing’s plans, Luo-Luo used this opportunity to pull Lord Husband close and explain her findings, as well as share her thoughts on what he should do next. After a long, silent deliberation, the Justicar begrudging nodded his head and said, “In light of these new facts, this Official will convene a hearing to discuss this case and pass new judgment on the matter of Dastan Zhandos and retinue.” A small victory, but a fruitless one considering Yang Jixing could simply select three Justicars sympathetic to his cause to oversee the hearing. “And the other matters? The bandits in your retinue and looted goods?”

 

“I have no bandits in my retinue,” Rain declared, without a hint of a smile, and Luo-Luo was gratified to hear him take her advice. “Only soldiers, men and women who have fought the Defiled in Sanshu and on the front lines. Criminal pardons in exchange for military service is a standard offer given to Martial Warriors, so if the Disciplinary Corps intends to sentence them for crimes committed before they entered my employ, then in the future, what criminal will choose to enlist? If you mean to arrest my people, then do as you please and I will respond on a case by case basis.”

 

This was the crux of the matter, one Luo-Luo almost overlooked. Many soldiers had checkered pasts, and while Lord Husband’s retinue might have more former bandits than most, they shared a part in his heroic exploits, most notably his recent record of sixty consecutive days on the front lines without rest, a record which still stood to this day. Prosecuting these soldiers for past sins would not sit well with the people of the Empire, for while traitors were reviled, redeemed villains turned heroes held a special place in many hearts. It would be foolish to act against them, which meant the Justicar’s demand was merely a bluff, one meant to put pressure on Lord Husband alongside the other, more relevant threats.

 

As for the matter of looting, like Lord Husband often said, it was only gold and they could always earn more…

 

Unfortunately, Lord Husband didn’t heed her advice to admit to this last, minor crime, and instead broke into a grin. “As for the matter of illegal looting, if you have proof I have stolen goods in my possession, then please present it and I will happily return the items, alongside their value in gold.”

 

To Luo-Luo’s great surprise, the Justicar merely nodded and said, “For now, this Official shall suspend judgment on all of the above crimes, pending further investigation.” His piece said, the Justicar stalked out of the manor in a stately manner, leaving Luo-Luo blinking in disbelief. They had no proof whatsoever of looted goods? Impossible, Lord Husband had a warehouse full of exotic art which he gifted away like cabbage whenever he –

 

 

Mother in Heaven, so that’s why… having given so many of his ill-gotten goods away, if the Disciplinary Corps pushed the issue, then Lord Husband could force their hand and direct them to reclaim those priceless works of art, many of which were currently in the possession of Shen ZhenWu himself, thus allowing Lord Husband’s Patron to step in and directly counter Yang Jixing. In a low whisper, Luo-Luo passed along her discovery and asked, “Did Lord Husband plan this from the start?”

 

“Uh… no, not the Legate specifically, but it worked out pretty well. Gifting stuff was mostly to get rid of it, though some gifts were to say ‘thanks for keeping quiet’.” Clasping her hand in both his own, he smiled and said, “Mostly, I said what I said because there’s no point incriminating myself. Never admit to anything, you know? If they have proof, fine, but I’m not going to make it easy for them. Besides, I figured since he was bluffing about everything else, then they’re probably bluffing about that too.” Eyes focused in thought, he mused, “Hmm… you think I could use this? You know, send the Legate more gifts and drag him into this?”

 

And with that, Luo-Luo’s sat back in her chair in disbelief, no longer able to sit tall in the face of Lord Husband’s sheer audacity. Never before had she met anyone with such complete and utter lack of reverence for the Disciplinary Corps, and were he faced with the Emperor Himself, Luo-Luo suspected Lord Husband would behave in the exact same manner.

 

A fact which was both laudable and lamentable at the same time.

Chapter Meme

Chapter Meme2

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 489

 

Having spent months listening to rumours and mentally preparing for the worst, Yan was pleased to find Rain in such good health, living comfortably in the northern citadel with only minimal discomfort. The proof was etched in his easy, relaxed smile he lay asleep on his side, snuggling Mama Bun close and more relaxed than she’d ever seen him before. He’d come a long way in the years since they shared a tent on the battlefield, a high-strung, jittery fool who came awake at every noise and movement. Back then, he wore a pensive frown even when fast asleep, tossing and turning about to escape the nightmares of his haunted past, but all that was gone now. It was odd how he could never sleep easy when he was a top tier talent, but now that he’d lost his strength, he’d made peace with his weakness, and while the Empire lamented the downfall of its Number One Talent, Rain seemed a happier man for it.

 

And so long as he was happy, Yan was happy too, though she’d be happier still once his acne scars healed and he put on a little more weight…

 

Careful not to disturb the two sleeping beauties, Yan slipped out from under the covers, quietly got dressed, and snuck out the room, where her hopes of making her way out of the manor unseen were instantly dashed as she almost tripped over sweet Tate. “Morning Yan-Yan,” the sweet child said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes while heading towards the dining room. “Papa wants to know if you want breakfast?”

 

Mother in Heaven… Thankful he didn’t ask why she was coming out of Rain’s room, Yan pinched his soft, white cheeks and smiled at his disgruntled pout. “Sorry sweet pea, Grandpa and Da’in should be having breakfast next door, so I’m heading over to join them, but I’ll come back afterwards to watch you Demonstrate the Forms and see how strong you’ve gotten.”

 

Puffing up with pride, Tate said, “Real strong. I’m gonna be the next Number One Talent, ya?” Distracted by his gurgling stomach and wary of more cheek pinching, he ran off shouting, “Okay, bye-bye Yan-Yan!”

 

With Tate alerting everyone in the manor to her presence, Yan now had no choice but to go greet them before leaving, an awkward and somewhat embarrassing experience she’d much rather avoid. Her future in-laws treated her warmly and no one brought up her overnight stay in Rain’s room, but Yan still lacked skin thick enough to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. Traditional customs aside, being a family of Martial Warriors, they all undoubtedly overheard the entirety of Yan and Rain’s reunion, a minor detail she’d forgotten until seeing everyone again in the morning. It was one thing to sneak into his tent or yurt while out on deployment, and another altogether when his bedroom shared a wall with his parents’ room.

 

Thankfully, Luo-Luo was a late riser and had yet to come out, because Yan didn’t think she could handle the lovely courtesan’s accusatory gaze…

 

Utterly mortified by the thought of her in-laws knowing what she and Rain had been up to last night, Yan escaped as soon as she could, but things were no better next door. Awake and seated at a table in the courtyard, Grandpa and Da’in both smirked when they spotted Yan peeking over the manor walls, and for a moment, she considered just running away and pretending she was never here. Unfortunately, Da’in was not so merciful and waved Yan over with a smile. “Yan! Oh Y-an! How good to see you. Come join us for breakfast.” Ignoring Yan’s scowl as she dropped down from the walls, the slender beauty beamed prettily and said, “Oh Yan, you’re a grown woman now.” The innocuous statement made Yan’s stomach twist and Grandpa choke on his tea, but Da’in pretended like she didn’t notice and continued, “It’s long past time you stopped climbing walls like a child. You should use the door like a normal adult.”

 

Had she known which room was hers, Yan might very well have run into it to hide, but she couldn’t. Instead, she did the next best thing and ignored the jibe as she sauntered over with an air of indifference, carefully stepping around all the adorable bunnies romping about the courtyard. Taking her seat with an apologetic smile, she filled Grandpa’s teacup with a grateful nod, because while he wasn’t entirely thrilled by her behaviour, he was mostly happy to look the other way. The people of Central had a lax view when it came to matters of premarital sex, but it was a topic which Yan and Grandpa were both uncomfortable with, which meant Da’in took great delight in bringing it up as often as possible in their presence. “So tell me,” she said, her wide eyes glowing with excitement, “Was he still fit enough to –”

 

Rain was, but Yan didn’t want to talk about it, especially in front of Grandpa. “Breakfast smells delicious,” she interrupted, spotting Eun coming out of the kitchen with two trays of food. “What are we having today?”

 

“Tch.” Setting a tray in front of Grandpa and Da’in respectively, Eun planted her feet and crossed her arms while facing Yan with an expectant look. “You’ll have air for breakfast until you answer the question, sweet child. Love and loyalty are all fine for the dramas, but this concerns your future happiness.”

 

Mother in Heaven. This was not happening. She must still be asleep, and all this merely a horrific nightmare, but Yan knew if she didn’t say anything, then Eun could do much worse than withhold breakfast. “He’s fine.” Having said it, Yan didn’t like the way her answer sounded, as if she were covering for Rain’s weakness, so she amended, “Better than fine. He’s not as… vigorous as before, but it was… very nice.”

 

“Nice.” Spitting the word out like a curse, Da’in threw herself back in her chair with a pout, still girlish and charming despite her age. “Boring.”

 

“Quiet you. Let her speak,” Eun scolded, having long since taught the Ryo Scion her place in the Du household hierarchy, which as far as Yan could tell, went Eun, Grandpa, then everyone else. “Go on then.”

 

Cheeks burning as she sank into the memory of last night, Yan said, “It was… different. Slow and tender, but sweet and intimate. Not necessarily better or worse from before, but… good. Really, really… good.” There were many other words to describe it, but she couldn’t bring herself to use them with Grandpa right there. Where before, they would engage in a hungry and passionate embrace, last night was an intimate and unhurried affair, with a gradual build up and release instead of a rush to sate their appetites. While this was mostly because Rain’s body was frail and weak, he made up for it with attention to detail and boundless enthusiasm, plus Yan found the need to restrain herself rather titillating, and the results spoke for themselves.

 

At least this time he remembered to lay out towels beforehand…

 

“Better than good, judging by your smile there.” Nodding in approval, Eun left to fetch Yan’s breakfast while muttering, “Injured he might be, but at least the boy knows what he’s doing, which is more than you could say for most…”

 

Grandpa’s cheeks took on a shade of red which Yan had never before been seen, and neither she nor Da’in could restrain their laughter. Clearing his throat, Grandpa waited for their hilarity to die down before asking, “So what are your plans for the day?”

 

“Well, Rain arranged a private arena so we can exchange pointers with his friends, but that’s not until after lunch. There’s also a banquet tonight in Grandpa’s honour, so that will be fun.” Perhaps Yan would even wear her new gift, a lovely, pink formal gown which revealed scandalous amounts of leg when loosened. The outfit also came with a matching set of pink-diamond jewellery, so similar to the outfits and accessories worn by Mila and Li Song during their recent and much-talked-about public spar. “In the meantime, I promised Tate to go watch him train, but you’re free to do as you please.”

 

Huffing in displeasure, Da’in poked at her grilled fish and scowled, yet somehow still looked radiant in doing so. “So just like that, I’m supposed to entertain myself until the afternoon? How cruel, I followed you all this way and kept you company on the journey over, only to be tossed aside for a handsome young face.”

 

“Jealous?” Yan teased, earning herself a hateful glare from her friend. “I could put in a good word, maybe even convince Tate to sit in your lap. A few more years and you might not have a chance anymore, so you should strike while the iron is hot.”

 

“You joke, but I’m this close to taking you up on the offer.” Sighing, Da’in slumped in her chair and lamented, “All the good men of my generation are already taken and I’ll not settle for less. I even considered marrying a younger man, but your Rain makes them all seem so… mediocre. Like that Zian fellow. I expected more from him after hearing how he recklessly offered an open challenge to all of Central’s Experts, but he folded like paper lantern the second I pressed him for an opinion. His answer was so boring and politically correct, I can’t even remember what he said.”

 

“Bah.” Back with Yan’s breakfast, Eun gave Da’in a light swat on the head accompanied by a fond smile. “If he’d said otherwise, you would’ve called him a pompous fool and beaten him to a pulp. Don’t pretend otherwise, he’s not to your tastes.”

 

Giggling as she took the matronly woman’s hand, Da’in sighed and said, “You are absolutely right. Perhaps there will be someone more suitable amongst Rain’s friends.” Insisting Eun join them for breakfast, Yan and Grandpa ate in silence while Da’in grilled the gossipy woman on the eligible bachelors of the north, a list which embarrassingly included people Yan knew like Gerel, BoShui, and Vichear. Worse, they even asked her for her opinion of each man, asking all sorts of questions Yan thankfully didn’t have answers to.

 

She didn’t know any of the men particularly well, but even if they’d grown up thick as thieves, how was she to know what kind of lover someone might be?

 

Thankfully, Grandpa came to her rescue once breakfast was done. “Goddaughter,” he said, stealing Da’in’s attention and putting an end to Yan’s embarrassing plight. “Seeing how the Medical Saint is absent, I decided it wouldn’t do for us to impose on Young Lady Mei Lin any longer, so I procured an empty manor for us to stay in on the south side of the lake. Kyung knows the location, so bring him to fetch your sister and move your things in. It may not be my place to meddle, but I feel it isn’t proper for young Seoyoon to stay under the same roof as that rascal Tong Da Fung, especially without supervision. They’ve yet to be betrothed and the boy has a sordid reputation, one he takes pride in by all accounts.”

 

Was Grandpa upset because Yan stayed the night with Rain? They were already betrothed and Grandpa never mentioned anything about rules or reputation before, but then again, Yan never brought it up. Giving Yan a questioning look, Da’in simply nodded in agreement with Grandpa like a dutiful goddaughter should, but Eun was not so pliant. “Isn’t the citadel packed full of soldiers? Who do you know that would give you a manor to stay in, and an empty one at that? Besides, Seoyoon can handle that Fung, has him wrapped around her finger like –”

 

“Never you mind woman.” Waving her to silence, Grandpa coughed over what Eun was about to say before continuing, “In fact, go with them in case the girls need help.” Though Eun stood to curtsy in compliance, her smouldering gaze said they would have words about this later, and it would not be pleasant. Once they were alone, Grandpa turned to Yan and Sent, “Your betrothed is in dire straits, and I do not mean his health. I’ve been told he’s entered into conflict with an Imperial Scion, one powerful enough to force the Legate to abandon Rain and the Bekhai.”

 

While Grandpa explained what little he knew, Yan did her best to make sense of things. Why didn’t Rain tell her first? Because he didn’t trust her? No, that was silly, he probably just didn’t want to ruin their reunion or didn’t think it mattered much. Yea, that sounded more like Rain, the idiot. Mother in Heaven, how did he piss off an Imperial Scion? Then again, considering his history, it was only a matter of time after coming into contact with them. Rain detested arrogant people abusing their power, and never thought twice about what he said, which was both a part of his charm and maddeningly frustrating.

 

When Grandpa finally fell silent, Yan took a deep breath and Sent, “You were right to find new accommodations, but I will not be going with you. I will stand by Rain and the People until the bitter end, but I hope I can be a part of your family again in the next life.”

 

Even the People couldn’t stand against the Imperial Clan, not in its entirety, but their blood would not come cheaply.

 

“Silly girl.” Reaching across the table to take her hand, Grandpa held it tight and smiled. “You think I would abandon my granddaughter? Is this the man you think I am? You’ll notice I made no mention of moving my own things, or yours for that matter.” Brushing her questions aside, he Sent, “The manor is for Da’in and Seoyoon, and perhaps Gam and little five if they so desire. It would not do to drag the Ryo family into this mess, and the Eccentric would do our cause more harm than good.”

 

Though Yan had hoped he would say as much, Grandpa’s steadfast support brought tears of happiness to her eyes. Even after all he’d done and sacrificed for her, he was still eager to do more. “Thank you Grandpa.”

 

“Bah, what need is there for thanks? This is as things should be.” Settling back in his chair, he added, “Besides, this old man has always held a grudge against the Imperial Clan for not offering to take him in. If the Medical Saint can Heal my injuries, then I’ve no doubt the Imperial Physician can too, so in what way am I lacking compared to that sword-obsessed fool, Jun Bao? Now come. Let us pay your betrothed a visit and find out just what sort of dog-shit mess the in-laws have stepped into.”

 

Next door, Yan and Grandpa were warmly welcomed by Rain as he finished off his hearty breakfast while surrounded by his greedy pets. Though worried about the impending disaster, she was relieved to see him eating so well, and his wizened frame was supposedly improving by the day thanks to his healthy appetite. He wasn’t doing so well before the Legate procured some miraculous tofu pudding for him, which made Yan wonder why the Legate would go to such lengths only to abandon Rain to the whims of another Scion. Even crippled as he was, Rain still had value, and the People had only just displayed a fraction of their true strength to show he wasn’t the only talent amongst their ranks. It made no sense, but Yan’s understanding of politics was next to nil.

 

Instead of confronting him right away, Yan greeted Sarnai and the others before sitting down and taking Rain’s hand. “Is there anything you want to tell Grandpa and I?”

 

Blanching as he sat up straight, Rain asked, “He knows?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Ah well, we weren’t exactly making a big secret of it.” Clearing his throat, Rain turned to Grandpa and bowed in his chair. “I know it’s traditionally frowned upon, but Yan and I have already consummated our love for –”

 

“Not that you idiot!” Wishing she could crawl under the table and die, Yan stared at her feet and squeezed Rain’s hand tight. “About your conflict with a certain faction.”

 

“Um… You’re going to have to be more specific.” Weathering her murderous glare, Rain’s eyes widened as he realized what she meant. “Oh, you mean with err… them. The bigwigs.”

 

From context, Yan took it to mean he understood, but with Rain, it was always best to be sure, so she Sent, “If that means the Imperial Clan, then yes.”

 

“Yea, sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I didn’t want to bring up my problems so quickly, so I figured it could wait. I was going to clear out the warehouse for you to stay in, but Mom and Dad said you guys would be unaffected if you stayed at Teacher’s home, because he’s not one of the People.”

 

This was the first Yan had heard of it, and apparently Rain didn’t wholly understand either, but Mother-in-Law Sarnai nodded and that was good enough for Yan. The Medical Saint had always been a bit of an oddball, but a lovable one with a noble spirit, so if he wasn’t a part of the People, it wasn’t because they wouldn’t have him, but rather the other way around. No matter, because in the end, it was a difference without a distinction considering his close ties to Rain, but it should be enough to keep the Medical Saint insulated from Imperial Wrath should things go poorly. Grandpa wasn’t entirely convinced, but after a brief back and forth between him and Sarnai, the latter snapped and said, “If I say it’s fine, then it’s fine. Should you think my word not good enough, then move your things to the manor the Legate gave you. I care not.”

 

“Mom…” Diplomatically stepping in, Rain quietly elicited a begrudging apology from Sarnai before offering a more heartfelt one himself. “Things are tense,” he said, offering a helpless shrug. “We’re all on edge waiting for our foe to make the first move for a whole week now. I’ve taken hits on the business side of things, like losing all cases in Adjudication and paying fines for trumped-up charges, but otherwise, things are quiet.”

 

“Lord Husband is being modest,” Luo-Luo said, so quiet and unassuming Yan didn’t see her until she spoke up, though it also been because the bears were stuck to her side, their furry, fat forms pressed against her while gurgling in contentment at her touch. “In the past week, we have lost a small fortune and will only lose more as we are forced to turn down new contracts for fear of stumbling into a trap.”

 

“It’s not really losing money if we’re rejecting work. No, I get it, no need to argue again, but it’s just gold.” Spoken like a true silk-pants, and as Luo-Luo’s hands balled up into fists, Yan offered her a sympathetic and encouraging smile. The poor girl worked herself silly training and running his business, but Rain didn’t seem to appreciate her much, somehow unaffected by the beautiful woman’s many charms. Perhaps Yan should have a word with Luo-Luo and point out the fact that Rain was hardly in a position to resist if she were to slip into his room and refuse to leave. Thick though his skin might be, even he would balk at asking his guards or family to help remove his naked concubine from his bed, and once there, it was only a matter of time before he succumbed to lust.

 

Perhaps Yan would even help arrange it and stick around to see how it worked out…

 

Unaware of Yan’s lecherous plots, Rain continued, “What I mean is, if all he can do is hurt our profit margins, then our opponents are not as fearsome as they let on. There’s more coming, but I have no idea what. Not assassins, though there have been people probing our defences these past few days. Whatever our enemies have planned, we will deal with it as it comes, and if they think the People will go down without a fight, then they are sorely mistaken.”

 

Proud as she was to hear Rain’s confident declaration, she feared he was taking this too lightly. Grandpa’s noisy throat clearing told her he felt the same way as he said, “As impressed as I am by your courage and resolve, our foe is not so simple. A crafty, cagey bunch, they see direct confrontation as a weapon of last resort, used only when all else has failed. While the People will no doubt put up a stalwart defence in the event of an attack, I fear our enemy will strike in more subtle and insidious ways.”

 

As if on cue, a Death Corps guard marched in and the room’s mood plummeted as everyone noticed the Justicar only a single step behind. Displaying his Token of Authority for all to see, the Justicar wasted no time with preamble or niceties and jumped straight to business. “Given recent events, this Official has seen fit to review past cases concerning individuals amongst the People and discovered inexcusable lapses in judgment which make a mockery of Imperial Law. For their part in the defence of Sanshu, numerous local bandits were pardoned of past crimes by Magistrate Chu Tongzu, including notable individuals such as Ulfsaar the Voracious and his wife, Neera the Miserly, Hangman Jorani of the Mother’s Militia, Siyar of the Sharktooth Syndicate, Jester Wang of Butcher Bay, and countless others. Given the severity of their many crimes, I have found them unfit for pardon, reinstated the bounties upon their heads, and demand the People hand over any and all criminals hiding within their ranks, especially individuals who once belonged to the Azure Ascendants, Butcher Bay Bandits, and Crossbone Corsairs.”

 

Which meant most of Rain’s retinue were now criminals again, and to contest this would mean a trial by combat for every accused soldier, but the Justicar was not yet done. “Further investigation has also uncovered proof of stolen property in Falling Rain’s possession, as well as individuals found living in Defiled rebel Yo Ling’s island camp where said property was illegally plundered. As such, Imperial Consort Falling Rain is hereby ordered to hand over all ill-gotten gains to the Disciplinary Corps, thereafter to be returned to its rightful owners, as well as any and all suspicious individuals previously residing on the aforementioned Yo Ling’s island for questioning. For his part in concealing these crimes, Imperial Consort Falling Rain will be fined an amount equal to the value of the stolen goods, a figure which has yet to be determined.”

 

Taking a deep breath, the Justicar continued, “For their crimes of rebellion and their part in the Battle for Sanshu, Dastan Zhandos and his retinue should have been sentenced to torture until death, but instead were granted clemency by Magistrate Chu Tongzu. In lieu of execution, they were made slaves to serve in defence of the Empire, but now they sit idle in the Citadel living lives of luxury. Such an affront is an insult to the loyal Imperial citizens who suffered due to their actions, and as such, Imperial Consort Falling Rain is hereby ordered to hand over command of Dastan Zhandos and the remainder of his former retinue, so that they may serve out their sentence on the front lines.”

 

Holding his hand out, the Justicar waited for Rain to obey, but Yan’s idiot beloved shook his head. Trembling from head to toe in rage, Rain growled, “The token burned up and was destroyed in Sinuji.”

 

“Very well.” Wholly expecting this answer, the Justicar moved on. “For his crimes, Imperial Consort Falling Rain is hereby stripped of his rank of Second Grade Warrant Officer and ordered drafted into the Imperial Army as a liaison for the criminal slave soldiers in his possession. Private Falling Rain is to report for duty within the hour, alongside the aforementioned slave soldiers.”

 

You dare?

 

Sarnai’s famed temper erupted and Yan feared for the Justicar’s life, but Alsantset moved to block her mother from doing anything which might be construed as rebellion. Luckily, Baatar had long since left to carry out his duties else Yan feared the Bloody Fanged Wolf might have already torn the Justicar into pieces. Unfazed by Sarnai’s anger or the threat of her Aura crashing down upon him, the Justicar nodded and said, “I dare, for I uphold the Emperor’s laws.” He wasn’t done either, and he announced he was charging Rain’s co-conspirators for being complicit in his crimes and recited a long list of names, crimes, and fines which started with Marshal Yuzhen, Marshal Yo, and Magistrate Chu Tongzu before moving on to other notable personages from North and Central. While the punishment never went any further than a fine, the implicit warning was that their punishments could be raised if Rain didn’t roll over for the Disciplinary Corps, and the message to the world needed no clarification: anyone and everyone who dared to support Falling Rain would share in his misery.

 

Merely the opening gambit and already it neatly cut Rain off from his allies, because while these crimes were neither shocking nor heinous, it showed just how much power their enemy had and just how far he was willing to go, even drafting a crippled war hero and risk angering both soldiers and civilians alike. One thing was for sure though: with the Disciplinary Corps involved, unless Rain contested the charges in hundreds of separate trials by combat, then Yan and even Grandpa could do naught but stand on the sidelines and watch. The Disciplinary Corps represented the Emperor’s justice, and to retaliate meant rebelling against the Empire itself, not so daunting a task when the People were home in their mountains, but here in Central, thousands of kilometres away from home and surrounded by millions of loyal Imperial soldiers?

 

The only outcome was defeat, and Mother help her, Yan had no idea how anyone could save her beloved Rain.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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