Savage Divinity – Chapter 362

 

“Here you go, Rain my boy.” Gingerly handing me Sir Inky’s egg-sized stone, Taduk shuffles off to the other end of the boat and clasps his hands together, possibly in prayer but more likely to stop himself from stealing the stone back. His brow furrowed in anguish, Taduk’s gaze is firmly locked on the tiny patch of Spiritual Algae left behind, barely enough to cover the nail on my pinky finger. It pains his heart to part with even this minuscule amount, but it’s for a good cause.

 

It’s weird though. For as long as I’ve known him, Taduk’s goal has been to cultivate a garden full of Spiritual Plants, but he’s never been covetous of the plants themselves. Back at the Bekhai village, he had twenty-three Spiritual Plants within walking distance of his warren, but he didn’t harvest a single one. Every week he’d bring me and Lin out on a day trip to check on one or two of the plants, though now that I know he can run across empty sky, I’m fairly certain sure those trips were mostly an excuse for the three of us to spend more time together.

 

I’m glad he did. Those trips through the beautiful mountain forests are among my safest and happiest memories. Back then, every time I went out on my own, I almost always inevitably encountered a close brush with death, but with Taduk and Lin at my side? Not even once. Well, that’s not true, there was the time Lin almost let a flock of giant birds carry her off a cliff because she refused to let go of her captured kite, but that’s the only time I almost died when they were both nearby. Again, I now know it’s because Taduk has OP shadow guards watching his back, but back then I thought Taduk and Lin were my lucky charm, keeping me safe and sheltered from all the scariness in the world.

 

Thinking back on those days, Charok and Alsantset were pretty negligent letting tween me wander the mountain on my own, but I guess they respected my need for space and solitude. At least they had the sense to insist I bring Pafu and Suret with me else who knows what sort of animal poop I’d end up as. Snake, bear, boar, bird, wildcat, the list goes on.

 

As much as I’d enjoy a long trip down memory lane, the big takeaway is that Taduk had easy access to multiple Spiritual Plants, but left them untouched for years until Guard Leader uprooted them to feed Mama Bun and her babies. Poor Taduk, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but what I don’t get is why he’s making such a big fuss about losing this bit of Spiritual Algae. Its only real value is its ability to replicate, and according to him, the Algae hasn’t done so since we stole it from Sir Inky. Considering how quickly algae grows, with some strains doubling in size every day, then it stands to reason this Spiritual Algae’s replication process requires more than just sunlight and water.

 

Enter, the octopus. Opening the lid on Sir Inky’s portable home, which is merely a cauldron by another name, I greet the molesting face-hugger with a cheery smile and hope he’s in an obliging mood. Familiar with our routine, Sir Inky pulls himself up onto the cauldron’s rim and stretches his tentacles towards my wrist, ready to enjoy his hour of bobbing around in the bay. Eyes widening in alarm, Sir Inky zooms in on the stone clenched in my fist and tilts his head, giving my knuckles a polite tap-tap before shooting me a hopeful look.

 

Either I’m projecting human emotions onto Sir Inky or this octopus is wicked smart and has learned how to read and give social cues. Even though he tried to impregnate my face and is still a weird, lumpy, alien-looking thing, Sir Inky is starting to grow on me. Okay, so long as he shares his secret horticultural skills with us inferior-brained, land-dwelling bipeds, I’ll overlook his previous transgressions and call off the octopus genocide I have in the works.

 

Plucking the stone from my open palm with a dexterous tentacle, Sir Inky gives it a thorough inspection through squinted eyes. Quivering from head to… chin, I guess, he tucks the stone under his tentacles and into his mouth before closing his eyes in sheer satisfaction. A few seconds later, he pulls the stone back out and plops it into my still open palm, wet, slimy, and Spiritual Algae free.

 

…I don’t know why I thought this would go differently. A blind man could’ve seen this coming.

 

Unbothered by Taduk’s shrill shrieks of disbelief, Sir Inky slides back into his cauldron and settles down for a nap, presumable to digest his Spiritual Algae snack. With no choice but to accept things as they are, I cover Sir Inky up and head over to soothe my distraught teacher’s temper. There’s little I can do though, with no more clever plans or schemes to offer. Whatever his secret, Sir Inky doesn’t seem inclined to share, all too happy in his new, comfortable home.

 

I can’t blame him either. I mean he has free food, shelter, and a chance for sex. He’s got it good.

 

An hour later, after Ping Ping finishes her afternoon swim and the quins are all tuckered out, we head back to shore where I immediately order my men to move Sir Inky’s tub out of Taduk’s yurt and into the safety of my own. Praying he doesn’t go full tentacle beast and rape me in my sleep, I change clothes and get ready for my business dinner with Yo Shi-Woo. The name sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve heard it before. All I know is what Yuzhen wrote in response to my request for a recommendation, that Yo Shi-Woo is the younger cousin of Central’s Marshal Yo Jeong-Hun and well equipped to aid me in my venture. All I need are able hands, sharp minds, a place to work, and a mountain of raw resources. Then, if everything goes according to plan, the rest will fall into place and open the doors for an age of innovation and discovery.

 

Then again, when does anything ever go as planned?

 

Wishing I had Diyako, Husolt, or really, anyone smart here with me, I head over to Luo-Luo’s yurt and knock on her door. Cracking open ever so slightly, an unfamiliar face peeks out and asks, “Who is it?”

 

Did I knock on the wrong yurt? “Er… Falling Rain. Is Luo-Luo in?”

 

“Ah, Lord Husband.” Luo-Luo’s voice sounds from within the yurt, and she adds, “Invite him in little Sorya, but remember to close the door behind him.”

 

“Yes Lady Luo-Luo.” Opening the door enough for me to squeeze through, Sorya, a fetching young woman wearing flowing white robes and two silk ribbons in her hair. “Master Rain, the Lady bids you enter.”

 

Uncomfortable with all this formality, I step inside where I’m immediately assaulted by all manner of pleasant scents. Towering over her wooden partition, Luo-Luo greets me with a bare-shouldered smirk, obviously in the middle of changing. With great effort, I tear my gaze away from the tantalizing sight of her exposed skin and focus on the fully-clothed woman beside her, almost an exact copy of Sorya helping Luo-Luo get dressed. Picking up on the unspoken question, my concubine introduces the two strangers as her new handmaidens, Sorya and Anrhi. It turns out they’re Jorani’s sisters, both former slaves in Sanshu and freed by Jorani after the first attack on the merchant convoy. Following him back to the Wall, they were here in Nan Ping serving as camp followers, helping launder clothes, cook meals, and perform other miscellaneous tasks my soldiers are too inept to handle.

 

Akanai wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of bringing non-combatants to Nan Ping, but the former bandits in my retinue have no concept of hygiene or cleanliness, much less the ability to cook anything besides charred meat. All it took was a single week at the Wall without camp followers and my Grand Mentor caved, disgusted by the horrid conditions my retinue were willing to tolerate. It’s partially my fault. Between training, recovering, sleeping, and sentry duties, they don’t really have time for anything else. Not everyone can be like me and only sleep four hours a night. Hell, even I can’t keep it up anymore, I’m so tired all the time now…

 

Nodding at the two handmaidens, I say, “Welcome. Thank you for taking care of Luo-Luo.” Feeling my self-control waning, I head for the door while speaking over my shoulder. “I’ll wait outside. Come out when you’re done.”

 

“Sorya, don’t let him leave.”

 

Leaping to obey, the little handmaiden blocks the door with her body, her eyes widening in terror as realization sinks in. Sparing the poor girl my displeasure, I turn back to find Luo-Luo grinning like a cat, evidently pleased by her new handmaiden’s loyalty. “Lord Husband,” she begins, her voice sweet and seductive, “This one begs forgiveness, but she would be remiss in her newly appointed duties. Sorya, help Lord Husband look presentable as we discussed.”

 

“Yes Lady Luo-Luo. Master Rain, please sit.”

 

Taking the proffered stool, I resign myself to my makeover while Luo-Luo slowly gets dressed, pretending not to notice my errant stares while doing everything she can to ‘nonchalantly’ entice me. Eventually, I lower my head and stare at my feet, shutting out the inviting smells, sights, and sounds as I reach for Balance, but sweet relief is denied me for the second time today. Before, I was too sad, but now, I’m too… agitated.

 

Yea, lets go with ‘agitated’.

 

Twenty hellish minutes of brushing, clipping, tucking, and straightening later, Luo-Luo deems my appearance ‘presentable’ and we set out for our meeting. With the Death Corps soldiers jogging alongside, I endure a hellish scene of tantalizing seduction as I cram into Taduk’s rickshaw with Luo-Luo, Lin, and Li Song. Too small to hold four people, Lin seats herself in my lap and leans into my embrace, while Luo-Luo rests the side of her breast against my shoulder, holding my arm tight so I can’t escape from her long rendition of things I’m not supposed to do or say. It’s not like I have anywhere to escape to, since Li Song sits on my other side in full armour, her arms crossed and eyes daring me to make a move so she finally has an excuse to cut me down once and for all.

 

Well, that last bit is probably all in my head. Maybe. Hopefully? Truth is, I didn’t expect her to come along, with Mila busy doing her Captain competition, I guess Li Song has no where else to go. It seems I really am stuck with her for the rest of my life, but it wouldn’t be so terrible if she didn’t hate me so much. Plus, now she’s lecturing me about brushing my pets everyday? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

 

Also inviting themselves along, Ping-Ping follows behind with all my pets in tow, Shana, Zabu, Mafu, and the pups included. Luckily, I had the foresight to warn my hosts of this possibility and asked they not prepare any food for the Guardian Turtle or any of my pets. Frankly, they’re all getting too fat, and adorable as it is watching Roc scurry around like a chicken, it breaks my heart to see him left behind as his flock soars through the skies without him.

 

Sorry my floofies, but its time all of you went on a diet. Even Mama Bun and her babies are getting kinda round, and they’re vegetarians. I need you all to live long and happy lives so you can keep my family company after I’m dead and gone.

 

After resisting my erotic urges during the longest half hour of my life, my trip in the Rickshaw of Excessive Temptation comes to an end as we pull into view of the Yo Family estate, a stately, elegant riverfront manor in central Nan Ping. Waiting at the gates is Yo Shi-Woo himself, a man in his mid-fifties, alongside two familiar, painted faces which set off alarms in my head. Feathered Big Bro and Snivelling Young Fop stand together at Yo Shi-Woo’s side, their fake smiles doing little to hide the smouldering rage and blistering dissatisfaction burning in their glares. I don’t blame them either, I beat the crap out of both on my first day in Nan Ping. I even gave a whole speech about how useless Snivelling Young Fop was, humiliated and shamed him by comparing him to my other defeated foes. Why would Yuzhen send me here? Is she trying to get me killed?

 

Despite my reservations, I approach with Luo-Luo and Lin clinging to my arms, ready to defend them with my life if need be. It doesn’t seem necessary as the Yo family patriarch bows at the waist and greets me with what looks like a genuine smile. “Yo Shi-Woo greets Imperial Consort. Your grace honours this one’s humble home with your presence.” Turning to his children, he frowns and says, “What are you two waiting for? Don’t be rude, greet the Imperial Consort.”

 

I’ll never hear that title and not feel ashamed. Falling Rain, Imperial Manwhore, reporting for duty. Ugh. Mistaking the reason for my displeasure, Yo Shi-Woo growls at his sons who hop to obey, introducing themselves as Yo Chong-Woo and Yo Sung-Hun. Regular names are hard enough to remember, but Central really pushes the envelope. Still, I make an effort to remember which one is which, but almost immediately forget as Shi-Woo brings us inside and introduces the rest of his family, alongside a few close family friends who just ‘happened’ to be here visiting. Luo-Luo warned me this might happen, so out of respect, I smile and nod through a hundred or so introductions while Lin, Li Song, and Luo-Luo head inside to settle down and freshen up.

 

I’m so glad I requested a private meeting. Who knows how many people would be here if I hadn’t.

 

The good news is that after the introductions, Shi-Woo shoos everyone out the door and brings me to his private garden for dinner and drinks. As per usual with the people of this world, no one’s supposed to discuss business before the food is cleared away, but the problem is, the Yo family prepared a lot of food. As the only prominent guest, I can’t even enjoy the meal in silence as I’m forced to make polite yet awkward small talk with Shi-Woo while his sons sullenly push food around their bowls. Lin, Li Song, and Luo-Luo are all free to eat to their hearts content, and in an uncharacteristic display of good behaviour, Lin even conducts herself as a proper young lady should, her smile dazzling and manners impeccable throughout the entire meal.

 

It’s adorable, almost as adorable as all my pets lined up and drooling behind me. Except for Ping Ping, the big girl doesn’t drool, and she seems content to nap next to the fish pond too small for her to swim in.

 

Thankfully, all of Luo-Luo’s careful warnings pay off and I miraculously make it through dinner without offending our host too much. Once the servants clear away the last course, I settle in to do what I came here for, strike up a partnership with the Yo Family and get cast iron items into the hands of the people. Following the pre-arranged script Luo-Luo had me memorize before hand, I delegate this arduous task to my business-minded concubine and sit back to enjoy my tiny cup of warm rice wine.

 

Truth be told, I’m pretty impressed with how Luo-Luo handles herself, especially given how male-dominant the Empire can be. She never outright refuses or corrects Shi-Woo, only making an inference here or a suggestion there, allowing him to reach to the conclusion on his own. It’s silly, some of the strongest warriors I know are women, but the gender bias is real. I should do something to fix it, but how?

 

Even though I understand every word exchanged, at times it feels like they’re speaking in a different language as they jump from one topic to the next with seamless effort. From the price of grain to the distance between provinces, or the population of Nan Ping and how many people drink tea or cook their own meals. I don’t understand what they’re rambling on about or how any of it is connected, but Shi-Woo seems impressed and enthusiastic, so I figure it’s in my best interests to keep my mouth shut and let the smarter people talk.

 

No Rain, don’t let your ego get in the way. You’re an idiot, remember? Be quiet and nurse your delicious wine. This is good, you got the schemes and Luo-Luo’s got the know how.

 

Five cups later and it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open. Not because I’m drunk but because Luo-Luo’s nonsensical conversation with Shi-Woo is putting me to sleep. Luckily, I’m not the only one as the currently featherless Feathered Big Bro also looks ready to crash. Snivelling Young Fop seems to be following along well enough, and even chimes in to mention something about art and decor, to which Shi-Woo and Luo-Luo both nod in approval.

 

I don’t get it. What does any of this have to do with cast iron?

 

Noticing my boredom, Shi-Woo chuckles and says, “The night grows late and these dealings tiresome. Let me speak with my people to set things in motion, and our representatives can discuss the details of our arrangement in the morning.” Clapping twice, he summons a swarm of scantily dressed maids into the courtyard, a neat trick I’d like to learn sometime, so long as Mila doesn’t murder me for it. Claiming old age and infirmity have taken their toll, Shi-Woo excuses himself from the festivities and leaves me with his two hostile sons as the maids play a merry tune and dance for my pleasure.

 

It quickly becomes evident this isn’t a dance meant for children, and Lin is less than pleased. Li Song is downright murderous, but in my defence, I didn’t ask for this. At least Luo-Luo isn’t glaring daggers in my general direction. In fact, she seems pleased by this turn of events, though why, I don’t know. Either way, I put a stop to the music and the dancing as soon as I can, waving my hands for silence and definitely not in panic. Making eye contact with Feathered Big Bro, I smile and say, “As much as I appreciate the effort, I am a man more accustomed to quiet gatherings.”

 

Taking the hint, Feathered Big Bro dismisses the maids with a wave of his hand, though not before wrinkling his nose in silent disappointment. Equally displeased, but less diplomatic about it, Snivelling Young Fop snorts and says, “Spineless. Falling Rain speaks and you jump to do his bidding, how fitting. Do you even know how much those girls cost?”

 

…Is he slow in the head? He literally gave up without a fight and he has the audacity to criticize his stronger older brother? At least Feathered Big Bro was brave enough to face me. Reminding myself to play nice, I try and be upfront about things. “Let’s clear the air.” Filling both of their cups, I lift my ridiculously tiny wine cup in both hands and offer a toast. “While we may have had a rocky start, why don’t we treat today as a new beginning in our relationship. Let bygones be bygones, our former enmity merely water under the bridge. A toast, to this collaboration between our two groups.”

 

“Pei.” Emboldened by too many cups of wine, Snivelling Young Fop dumps his wine on the ground, which I guess is supposed to infuriate me. It’s a little inconvenient, because now my fur babies will want to come over for a taste, but otherwise, I couldn’t care less. “You think you have us fooled?” Snivelling Young Fop asks, his face red with fury and drink. “You know as well as I, you’re nothing but a puppet, a figurehead for whoever stands -”

 

Hand over his little brother’s mouth, Feathered Big Bro puts and end to Snivelling Young Fop’s rant. “My apologies,” he says, still struggling with the younger hothead. “My brother has had too much to drink. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

 

“It’s fine. Let him go.” Waving Feathered Big Bro out of the way, I drain my cup and settle back into my chair. I’d much rather have a comfy couch, something I can sink into, but then again, I could hardly expect to find one out in the garden. Pouring myself another cup, I do away with civility as I address Snivelling Young Fop. “You’re unhappy because of the things I said after you tried to yield during our duel.” Draining my cup, I sigh and continue. “I stand by my words. You’re a snivelling little brat who has no place on the battlefield. Being there will only get yourself killed, or worse, someone important killed.”

 

Feathered Big Bro grabs Snivelling Young Fop’s shoulder and shakes his head, shifting his body in front of the little shit just in case I feel like attacking them. He’s a good big brother, but Snivelling Young Fop needs to learn his lesson. “You’re a smart kid. No really, I mean it. You’re smart. Why not follow in your father’s footsteps? You think all this was easily earned? No, it took hard work and dedication, generations to build up this much wealth, so why not continue the tradition? Armies need quartermasters just as much as they need generals, if not more, so why trade good food, good wine, and a beautiful home, for a soldier’s life?”

 

Surprised by the question, Snivelling Young Fop blinks in question and looks to his brother for advice, but Feathered Big Bro is just as lost. With the confidence of youth, Snivelling Young Fop musters his courage and replies, “I want t-to fight the Defiled and f-find honour and glory in battle.”

 

“Hah!” Moving to pour myself another tiny cup, Li Song takes the pot of rice wine and shifts it out of reach. Resigned to my fate, I rest my head on the table fix Snivelling Young Fop with a sad smile. “See, now I know you’ve never been to battle. I mean, I could’ve guessed, but your answer gave it away.” Time for a truth bomb, one he needs to hear. “A soldier’s lot is one of sacrifice. You leave the warmth and comfort of home and family and trade it for a hard cot in a drafty tent. You spend hours riding and marching, training and patrolling, always watching for the Enemy’s approach. When nothing happens, you’re relieved, but bored beyond belief, because there’s nothing to do except wait and pray the time for action never comes.”

 

Closing my eyes, the memories of war flood through my mind, all the discomfort, exhaustion, and sheer terror of battle, the close calls and near deaths all made real once more. “But it will. Action always comes, and when it does, there’s no time to think. You take up your weapon and you fight, because that’s the only option left to you. You fight, and you fight, and you fight, and you pray the battle ends before you can fight no more.”

 

Voice dropping to a whisper, I sigh and conclude, “There is no honour or glory in battle. There is only victory or death.”

 

Wooo.

 

Chapter Meme

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents

Next Chapter

 

Savage Divinity – Chapter 361

 

The world of the wealthy was entirely different from the world everyone else lived in.

 

This didn’t come as a surprise, because on a basic level, Jorani had always known this was the way things were, but having never been a wealthy man, this was his first experience with just how different their lives really were. Like this carriage for example, a beautiful, gilded piece of art on the outside and a sturdy, spacious, luxurious affair on the inside, bedecked in so much silk, leather, and cotton he worried he’d foul the whole thing just by sweating. The interior was so big, all four passengers could lay down and sleep comfortably, or rather as comfortable as Jorani could be considering present company. Then there was the table he was using, a polished, hardwood piece which probably cost more than ten of his watches. When not in use, the table came apart in the middle and folded into the sides of the carriage through a bit of clever carpentry and, for all he knew, impossible magic.

 

Despite all the bells and whistles, the carriage wasn’t even unique. Another just like this one was following behind and Mother knew how many more in the Legate’s convoy. Each one was pulled by a team of six creatures which were probably horses, but looked so arrogant and condescending they’d probably be offended if ever called one. Prancing, long-maned, white-coated buggers, they set a speedy pace, pulling the carriage over grass and stone so smoothly his inkwell barely trembled. Hell, if it weren’t for the sound of synchronized hoof beats and the parted curtains revealing grasslands passing by at breakneck speeds, Jorani would have thought their carriage had yet to set out, still sitting in the courtyard he’d been ordered to report to early this morning.

 

Reminded of said orders, he went back to mapping the Canston Winery and noted down everything he remembered, from guard positions and patrol timings to obvious and possibly hidden defences. Sitting beside him, Siyar did the same, expertly waving his brush to create a shockingly detailed rendition of the outpost, so neat and orderly, Jorani suspected this wasn’t Siyar’s first time doing something like this, not too far a stretch considering his former profession. Memorizing layouts to draw them out later seemed like a useful skill for a smuggler and sneak thief, but seemed just as useful to a military scout.

 

Seeing his ugly scrawls laid out next to Siyar’s masterly strokes had Jorani burning with shame, and he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Sitting across from him, the nameless old man peered at Jorani’s work with both disgust and interest, like he’d been presented with one of them lewd drawings the bossman seemed so fond of collecting. “What are those?” he asked, pointing at Jorani’s markings.

 

“Err, thems represent the guards, Ser. Eight swords, eight guards, out on patrol.”

 

“Mhmm… And this line is their route?”

 

“Yes ser.”

 

“This… this is a clock? Indicating they complete the patrol in a half hour?”

 

“Yes ser.”

 

Proud someone could parse through his scribbles, Jorani’s ego deflated as the old man asked, “And you’re the superior officer? A commander of a hundred men?” Gesturing at Siyar’s work which included what Jorani assumed were detailed written instructions at the side, he added, “More specifically, his superior?”

 

“…yes ser.” This old wet-nurse… Don’t show the anger Jor. Smile and nod.

 

Shaking his old, wrinkled head, the Legate’s Seneschal fell back into his cushions with a sigh. “The Bekhai are truly an unorthodox bunch. Strength is important, this I do not dispute, but to have an illiterate warrior in command of a hundred soldiers? How is he supposed to write an after-action report or read sealed orders?”

 

“He’s no Bekhai.” The fourth occupant of their carriage was another old man, one whose name Jorani knew well. With a look of disdain, Old Du sneered and said, “You can see it in how respectful he is, like a proper subordinate in the presence of his superiors. Were he a true Bekhai warrior, he’d outright ignore your questions or answer them in obvious irritation, as if you were a simpleton wondering why the sky was blue or water is wet. A cold and arrogant bunch, with little respect for status and no love of courtesy. Besides,” Old Du added, showing signs of a smile before catching himself, “The Bekhai teach their children how to read and write, even their orphans. Least there’s one thing they do right.”

 

The old Seneschal fixed Jorani with a stare and raised his eyebrow in question. “Is he right, soldier?”

 

“Lieutenant General Du is correct, this one be Sanshu born and raised.”

 

Jorani could almost see the old Seneschal put the pieces together, his eyes widening as he said, “Ah, I thought the name sounded familiar.” Glancing at the Spiritual Weapon looped over Jorani’s shoulder, he added, “Should have noticed it sooner, but you weren’t carrying the weapon first time we met. A smart move, it’s not exactly subtle, now is it? Put the brush down, you’ve wasted enough ink and parchment. Instead, tell me how a ‘righteous’ bandit like yourself ended up in Falling Rain’s retinue?”

 

“Er… Well, I suppose I’ll start from the beginning. See, I used to be a Freebooter…” Cursing his stupidity for forgetting the bossman’s orders to keep his weapon hidden, Jorani launched into the prearranged version of their tale, how he evaded capture from Falling Rain’s forces by sheer luck and returned home to find honest work. Disgusted by the blatant exploitation and abuse of his fellow commoners, he gathered his like-minded cronies and formed the Mother’s Militia to strike back against the greed and tyranny of the Merchant Council of Sanshu. Privy to their back room dealings with bandits, he developed informants amongst their paid thugs and thus knew exactly when, where, and how to strike at the Council’s shipments. The rest of his mythos he attributed to rumour and hearsay, the idle talk of drunkards and housewives, while barely touching on his part in the defence of Sanshu.

 

Listening intently, Old Du waited until Jorani finished his tale before speaking up, opening with a contemptuous snort. “A fine tale indeed, for that’s what it is. Pure fiction and make-believe. According to the reports, you stole every shipment the Council dispatched, yet the Northern Wall reported no late or missed deliveries. Are we to believe you robbed the Council and shipped their goods to the Wall out of patriotic duty?”

 

Wilting beneath the living legend’s glare, Jorani had no answer to give, but the Seneschal spoke in his defence. “Old Du, your eyes must be failing. Look closely and you’ll see the strings attached to our virtuous bandit. Who benefited the most from the entire debacle? Why, the talented Marshal Yuzhen, of course. While penalties for late shipments are standard procedure, her idea to charge compound interest was inspired work. She knew the Council would believe it more important to send out another shipment before paying the ‘paltry’ penalty, and by the time they realized what a costly a mistake they’d made, they owed more than what the contract was worth. A brilliant woman, far better than those fools in the Society who believed themselves the reigning kings of the North.”

 

Stifling his grin, Jorani imagined how they’d react if he told them the identity of the true puppet master. Everything, from robbing the Council to charging them compound interest had come from the bossman’s beautiful mind.

 

“Hmph. Petty merchant trickery and deceit,” Old Du retorted. “What use are they in the face of absolute strength?”

 

“Ha, that’s rich coming from you. Had you learned a trick or two, you might’ve kept your relatives from robbing you blind.” Appalled by the lack of respect, Jorani made himself as small as possible while the Seneschal lambasted the Hero of the Hoplesh Rebellion. “I don’t know what you were thinking. You want to adopt a foreign grand-daughter, fine, but why did you make no effort to secure your holdings before announcing it? What did you think would happen? The girl has talent, far more than you or I at her age, but is it really worth it? How many years do you have left? A decade, at most? Do you really want to spend your twilight years in a drafty hovel with no one to care for you?”

 

“Shows what you know.” Unconcerned by the lack of respect from someone who was essentially a glorified servant, Old Du retorted, “What else can I do? You think I should order the deaths of my flesh and blood? I held each one of those children in my arms and swore to keep them safe, named three of them myself. When they came of age, I gauged each one’s potential, and after finding them lacking, I did everything I could to ensure they’d succeed in life.” Sighing, Old Du deflated in his seat, appearing to age twenty years in the blink of an eye. “I had hoped they would understand that it wasn’t about my fortune, but alas, they don’t understand a warrior’s mindset. This is about my legacy. The Great Teacher Du who lacks even a single outstanding disciple, what face would I be left with?” After a brief pause, Old Du added, “Besides, you might have grown old and feeble, but I’ve never been stronger. I still have a hundred years of life left in me, so my ungrateful nieces and nephews can have my wealth. It’s a small price to pay to cut ties and I can always earn more money. Even if I can’t, I won’t die in poverty. My granddaughter will care for me, for in ten years, she’ll be a force unto herself, far above the likes of Wu Gam and Falling Rain.”

 

Rolling his eyes, the Seneschal said, “Fine, fine, as you say, you’re in peak physical condition and the girl the greatest warrior the Empire will ever know.” Snickering, he continued, “I must confess, for a time, I was worried you’d truly fallen from grace, but I should have known better than to believe the rumours. The people do so love to exaggerate, I heard you were shambling around with a limp and addicted to Dream Smoke.”

 

“Both true.” The Seneschal’s smile died mid-laugh at Old Du’s admission. “In part, I owe my recovery to my grand-daughter, so even if it costs me a thousand times more than what I’ve already lost, I would still believe it well worth the price.”

 

“Well… I wish I’d known that before convincing the young master to trust you…” The Seneschal fell into silent contemplation, only for his eyes to light up a second later. “The Bekhai’s Medical Saint?” At Old Du’s confirmation, the Seneschal whistled in admiration. “My young master hoped to meet him, but he’s a strange one. I couldn’t even make it in to see him, stopped by his guards at every turn.”

 

Strange didn’t even begin to cover it. Lately, the hare-eared Healer had taken to teaching the bossman’s retinue while wearing a bowl on his head, but none of the soldiers batted an eye, well-used to his bizarre and unusual behaviour. What guards though? As far as Jorani knew, the Healer kept to himself, and the Seneschal was a damn sneaky bastard who made Siyar look clumsy in comparison. When he woke to find the old bastard looming over him with Imperial Edict in hand, Jorani’s shrieking would have woken the entire city if not for the Seneschal’s Chi shenanigans keeping things quiet.

 

Sucking his teeth like a disapproving house wife, Old Du wrinkled his nose at the Seneschal. “When you first left for the Eastern Province, I believed you were bound for glory and greatness. You can imagine my disappointment upon learning my old rival has been playing nursemaid to an Imperial Scion. Deliver his messages, launder his clothes, prepare his meals, what a glorious life. You wipe his ass too or would that be reaching beyond your station?”

 

Old rival? Forgetting to hold his tongue, Jorani blurted out, “Yer Solitary Sword Zhang?!”

 

“Oh?” Wagging his bushy grey eyebrows, the Seneschal smiled and offered a mocking bow. “This one is honoured to be recognized by Hangman Jorani.”

 

No wonder the old fart had the audacity to talk down to the Sanguine Tempest, he truly had the qualifications. “Are you kidding? Every kid in the Empire’s heard of ye! Zhang Jun Bao, the orphan and commoner who, on his twenty-second birthday, came down from the mountains for the first time and defeated all five members of the Hwarang in a single day.” Excited to meet one of his childhood heroes, Jorani continued listing Jun Bao’s exploits. “They say ye learned the forms from studying real mantises and orioles in the wilds, defeating each of yer opponents in a single, decisive blow. Even Du…” At this, Jorani trailed off, withering before Old Du’s glare, and for good reason. He’d been about to bring up the old man’s defeat at the hands of Solitary Sword Zhang, shortly after the former rose to prominence.

 

“Ha. To think, after so many years of absence, there are still those who know my name.” Studying Jorani with a practised eye, he added, “Though you hardly look old enough to have been alive during my prime.”

 

With a sheepish grin, Jorani confessed, “I used to sneak off and watch the park operas in the mornings. Twas always second-string actors performing outdated works, so I got to know the classics real good. The Butcher of Kun Lun was always me favourite, but Solitary Sword Against the World is a close second.” It was actually the reverse, but since Jorani couldn’t afford to offend Old Du, he offered a little flattery to smooth things over.

 

Despite his snort of derision, Jorani could tell it worked as Old Du changed the subject. “Enough. Leave the past in the past and let us look to the future. Tell me about the boy. What sort of man is he? Be honest, for if I catch you lying, I’ll have you bound and dragged behind the carriage for the journey back.”

 

Unsure why Old Du wanted to know, Jorani merely shrugged laid out the truth as he saw it. “Ain’t no two ways about it. He’s the best person I know, which ain’t saying much, but he’s better than any man I could even imagine.”

 

“Yes, yes, you’re a loyal, devoted soldier who would die for him, but what of the man himself?” Elbows resting on the table, Old Du tented his fingers and awaited Jorani’s answer.

 

“Beggin’ your pardon,” Jorani began, scratching his head in discomfort. “But the Lieutenant General is wrong. I wouldn’t die for him.” Ignoring their puzzled expressions, Jorani pushed on. “See, the bossman ain’t like the rumours. Yea, he’s a little hot-blooded and ain’t afraid to step on toes or make enemies, but truth is, he ain’t a man in love with bloodshed. He’s damned good at it, true enough, but he’ll always try to solve his problems without killing anyone.” Chuckling, Jorani added, “Even though lot of the time, things’d go easier if he did.”

 

Taking a second to gather his thoughts, Jorani carefully chose his next words. “You know he lost a good half of his soldiers in Sanshu? It’s why he took me and mine in, but when he got home, he didn’t forget about his people. He saw to it their families were taken care of, fed and clothed, educated and employed, a damn sight more than the army does.” Shaking his head, Jorani’s voice dropped to a whisper. “The way I sees it, If I die, I’d be a burden to him, a debt owed. I won’t die for him, because he’d be happier if I lived and looked after me people meself, ye get me?”

 

Scowling, Old Du shook his head. “The boy shows weakness unbecoming of a commander. Death is unavoidable in war, and sometimes hard decisions must be made in the heat of battle. What good does it do to save a handful of soldiers if it dooms his entire retinue, or worse?”

 

Glancing at his rival, Old Zhang shrugged and asked, “Why are you so interested anyway? You’ve already poached one Bekhai talent, surely your skin isn’t thick enough to poach a second?”

 

“Never you mind why I’m interested,” Old Du snapped, before turning his attention to Siyar. “You done drawing the map? Good. Explain it in detail. Jorani, chime in if you see anything he missed.”

 

They spent the next few hours poring over the map and answering Old Du’s questions while Old Zhang sat and watched in silence. The thickness of the door, the density of the buildings, how many slaves and how many guards, Old Du was relentless in his quest for knowledge, full of scathing condemnations and blistering retorts each time Jorani failed to give a satisfactory answer. Luckily, Siyar had a sharp eye and a sharper memory, and while he couldn’t answer Old Du’s answers directly, he supplied enough information to silence the cantankerous bastard’s venomous tongue.

 

Truth be told, Jorani wasn’t sure what they were here to do. Even though the bossman seemed convinced the Canston Trading Group were Defiled traitors, he wasn’t exactly what you’d call an unbiased bystander. Then again, the reports spoke of stone walls crumbling to dust at dawn, and now they found the Canston Trading Group had a substance which ate stone in the light of day, but it was still a leap of logic to go straight to traitors of the Empire. For one, how were a bunch of merchants supposed to spread their black gunk over the fort walls without anyone noticing? Maybe Old Du was here to investigate, with Old Zhang to oversee everything?

 

When the carriage rolled to a stop, Jorani followed Old Du’s instructions and left his Spiritual Weapon in the carriage. Hiding his rat-ears under a metal helmet, he stepped out into the mid-afternoon sun and blinked in surprise at the familiar fort standing before him. A distance which took him three days to cover on foot only took the Legate’s super horses six hours, and they weren’t even breathing heavily. Granted, he’d been taking his time and had to live off the land, but still…

 

Hands clasped behind his back, Old Du strode towards the door with Old Zhang at his side, followed promptly by a fox-eared vagrant in dirty robes and a colourfully armoured southerner wearing a fearsome, metal mask. Around them, the Death Corps dismounted from their utilitarian wagons and spread out, surrounding the fort in short order as the Bristleboar guards watched on from the parapets, with their weapons at the ready and their steel-reinforced doors shut tight.

 

The moment the Death Corps finished encircling the fort, Old Du spoke in a quiet, yet commanding voice, using Chi to relay his words to every ear inside. “This one is Lieutenant General Du Min Gyu, here on orders from the Emperor. Lay down your arms, open the gates, and prepare to receive the Imperial Inspector.”

 

The Canston Trading Group’s reply was utter silence, the tension settling uncomfortably on Jorani’s shoulders. Dammit, how was he supposed to fight without a weapon? The only weapon he had was a dagger, though to be fair, it was almost as long as the bossman’s sword. Glancing around in search of a spare spear or bow, he prayed the bristleboars didn’t see fit to use their horrific gunk against them. Even with two living legends at his side, Jorani had no confidence to face the Canston Trading Group’s flesh-eating sludge in full daylight.

 

After five minutes without a response, Old Du turned and glanced at the half-fox vagrant. “It appears they do not mean to comply. Eccentric Gam, if you would be so kind as to open the gates?”

 

While Jorani reeled at meeting a third living legend, Eccentric Gam replied, “Hmph. How typical, send the half-beast in to do all the heavy lifting while the humans stand around with their thumbs in their asses. Perhaps you’d like me to curtsy too, and afterwards, I can have the honour of sucking your shrivelled cock.” Without uttering a word, the armoured southerner strode off and Eccentric Gam’s rant came to an early end as he asked, “Where’s he going?”

 

Picking up speed with every step, the armoured southerner sprinted towards the towering gates. Reaching back with both hands, he grabbed hold of his massive, long-handled scimitar and brought it over his shoulder in a powerful slash. The fort trembled at the impact and several bristleboar guards at the top lost their footing, but still the gates stood. Undeterred, the armoured southerner struck a second time, then raised his foot and kicked the gate with a resounding boom. With a tortured shriek of metal, a triangular section fell to the ground, revealing an opening large enough for three men abreast to walk through. The armoured southerner disappeared into the opening and soon after, the sounds of slaughter drifted out.

 

“Hmph.” Mouth set in a pout, the Eccentric marched up to the broken gate, and Old Du, Zhang, Siyar, and Jorani all followed behind. Glaring at the opening made by the southerner, the strange half-fox moved to the other half of the gate and threw a half-hearted punch, more of a knocking gesture really. Although the execution was rather lacklustre, the results were anything but as the gate splintered and exploded inwards from the touch, leaving an opening twice the size of the southerner’s. Sniffing primly, Eccentric Gam strode through with his head held high, almost as if out on a stroll instead of wading through a battlefield. Any bristleboar who came too close received one of his half-hearted slaps and smashed into the ground, their bodies pulped beyond recognition by the Earth-blessed warrior’s prodigious strength.

 

Old Du and Old Zhang traded grins and shrugs before running off to join the fray, and Jorani watched as the four experts ran roughshod over the defenders, leaving little for the Death Corps to do but clean up the remains. Awed as he was by this display of overwhelming strength, he was curious to know: If this was their plan all along, why was he even here?

 

Chapter Meme

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents

Next Chapter

 

Savage Divinity – Chapter 360

 

“Lord Husband, is… is this position c-correct?”

 

No. Not even a little. Still, the sight of my voluptuous concubine posted on all fours has my heart racing and mouth dry, her head bowed, eyes closed, and arms trembling. Suppressing my inner sadist, I ignore the urge to criticize or castigate and stick to offering instructions. “Spread your knees and lower your behind.”

 

Knees still locked together, Luo-Luo’s plump butt drops a centimetre or two before rising higher than it was before. “Like this?”

 

It’s amazing how someone so gorgeous can look so awkward. “You know, this would be easier if you opened your eyes.” And could see how ridiculous you look.

 

Visibly flinching at the mild criticism, she whispers, “But… Luo-Luo is scared, she’s never done this or anything like it before…”

 

I can’t believe I gave up my nap for this. Choking back the mother of all sighs, I go against my drill sergeant instincts and try a kind and supportive tone. “Look at me.” Hazel eyes brimming with tears, Luo-Luo’s chest shudders as she fights to hold back her sobs, so wretched and terrified it makes me question my motives. Am I in the wrong here? No, I made the suggestion, but she didn’t want to wait, all but begged me to start right away. “I know this is new and different, but you can do this. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You won’t get hurt, I promise.”

 

She might get hurt, but if she does, she’ll have no one to blame but herself. It’s no big deal though, Taduk’s yurt is a short walk away and he’ll have her fixed in a jiffy.

 

“It’s just… He’s so large, it’s intimidating…”

 

“Yea, he’s bigger than most, but it’s not about size.” What’s that you’re trampling on? Oh, it’s just my pride, no big deal. “He has a sweet and gentle temperament, the perfect choice for your first.” It’s not like she’s some dainty little girl either, I have to look up to see the bottom of her chin. “This might be new to you, but he’s done this thousands of times before. He knows how this goes, so trust him okay?” Resisting the urge to force her legs apart, I repeat myself once more. “Now spread your knees, lower your behind, and enjoy the ride.” Noticing her white-knuckled grip, I frown and add, “Loosen your death grip, will you? He’s tender there. No need to clench or tug.”

 

Five minutes later, Luo-Luo still isn’t ready to go. Growing impatient, her partner scuffs his feet in protest and the movement sends her into a panic, putting us right back where we started, with her head tucked and ass up like she’s ready to dive off at a moment’s notice. Steadying her with one hand, I mutter more reassurances while Lin and the twins howl with laughter, having abandoned their plans to fly kites in favour of watching Luo-Luo’s humiliating ordeal.

 

When her laughter dies down to a mere giggle, Lin skips over to lend a hand, squeezing herself under Luo-Luo’s arms to join in. “Don’t be scared Luo-Luo, it’s really easy and a lot of fun, ya?” Gently straightening her back while sitting on Luo-Luo’s thighs, Lin uses her body to guide the taller woman into a proper posture, not quite sitting upright, but close enough. “Stop squeezing so hard with your calves, he doesn’t like it. Isn’t that right Mafu-fu?”

 

Letting loose with an aggrieved squeak, Mafu lowers his head and massages his cheeks, a sure sign of frustration if I’ve ever seen one. Utterly vexed by his clumsy new rider, my poor, sweet quin has been snarling so much his face is tired. Wrapping one arm under his chin, I pull him close for a nuzzle and silently apologize for putting him through this harrowing ordeal. A less tolerant quin would have already thrown Luo-Luo off, but Mafu is a veritable saint, though even his patience is wearing thin.

 

My poor, sweet, chubby floof. Upon Zabu’s return, Mafu has been relegated to backup quin because, and it pains me even to think this, Zabu is objectively a better mount. Unlike Mafu, Zabu is trained to fight and is far more confident amidst the chaos and bloodshed of battle than Mafu will ever be. Granted, Mafu did well enough during my time in Sanshu, but I mostly fought on foot because I knew he’d be unreliable. It’s not his fault, he’s a sweet, gentle quin who loves snuggles and kisses, while Zabu is anger and fury given physical form.

 

Okay, so I like Mafu a little more than Zabu. Who says I’m not allowed to play favourites?

 

Since Mafu no longer has a rider, I figured he’d be a good match for Luo-Luo, because not only does her palanquin move slowly, I feel horrible for the Death Corps soldiers forced to carry it. While I plan on getting her a rickshaw like Taduk’s so she can travel in comfort, she still has to learn how to ride. She doesn’t know how to Lighten so she’s too heavy to double up with anyone besides Lin or maybe Alsantset, which means it’s best if Luo-Luo knows how to ride on her own. Most importantly, I thought it’d help her feel more included and less isolated from the family and the Bekhai as a whole.

 

Fifteen minutes into our first lesson, I wholeheartedly regret everything.

 

Seriously, it’s not fucking rocket surgery. All she needs to do is stop screaming and sit her ass down on the quin.

 

Seeing Lin make actual progress with the lesson, I leave them to it and take a seat in the grass, close to but not beside Li Song. Tali and Tate bring their quins to join in on the fun, Pafu and Suret’s adolescent pups bounding about the clearing while the cackling twins cling on for dear life. The bears and wildcats also enter the fray and Mafu voices his displeasure with a piteous squeal, announcing his desire to throw Luo-Luo off to go play, but Lin signals for him to hold steady and the obedient quin stands in place. Staring at me like I abandoned him on the side of the road, Mafu’s head dips in misery as he lets out a mournful, heartbreaking squeak.

 

I’m so sorry Mafu. Daddy still loves you.

 

Wifey is a much better riding instructor than I am and soon enough, she guides Mafu out on a slow walk while keeping Luo-Luo calm with reassuring pats and smiles. The two ladies make for an odd-looking pair, but they’re becoming fast friends, which isn’t exactly a surprise. Lin gets along with everyone, a bright, cheery, lovably young woman who can make even the surliest of grumps Guan Suo crack a half-smile. So vibrant and full of life, my wifey’s appearance never fails to brighten my day and I don’t know what I’d do without her.

 

In comparison, every time I see Luo-Luo, my mood goes into a nosedive. I’ll admit she’s easy on the eyes, but looks aren’t everything. I have never met anyone so smart, yet so inept. It took her less than five minutes to learn the number system but she still needs help changing her clothes. She’s wearing a wide-sleeved blouse and loose, flared pants, what could she have possibly needed help with and why did it take so long? Does she have to stitch herself into the clothes or something?

 

Maybe I’m not being fair, but I can’t see her as anything besides a pampered, spoiled, grown-ass brat. Sure, she plays music and reads poetry or whatever, but what use is any of that? Can she defend herself from bandits with a song, or convince the Defiled to leave with a poem? Even Lin, spoiled as she is, has the skills to survive on her own, but if I left Luo-Luo alone for a full day, I’d probably find her cold, lifeless corpse lying right where I left her.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I love pampering Lin and Mila, but that’s because it feels good knowing my capable, industrious brides-to-be rely on me for certain things. Mila works hard at the forge and harder in training each and every day, giving her all in the pursuit of the Martial Path, and while it might look like Lin spends her days sleeping in and playing around, she’s a young Healer in the making and often spends hours with Taduk teaching my soldiers how to treat injuries in the field.

Then again, seeing how relaxed and happy Luo-Luo is while riding double with Lin, I might be the problem in our newfangled relationship. Maybe I’m being too hard on Luo-Luo, antagonistic because I’ve been forced to accommodate her during a difficult period of life, or because she’s so damn tall I feel embarrassed standing beside her. Whatever the reason, I haven’t given her a fair chance, labelling her as a scheming and manipulative woman just because she wanted to show her best side and was eager to please the man who, in her eyes, would control her entire life. She’s a product of her upbringing, raised in luxury and trained to see herself as an accessory and baby maker instead of an actual person, so she needs time to get over that mindset and discover who she really is. I can’t write her off as entitled and worthless solely because she’s used to having maids or is utterly terrified of quins.

 

No matter how much I want to…

 

Ambling over to greet me with a stream of happy grunts, Banjo and Baloo barrel into my arms and force me to confront the whole truth. It’s not something I care to dwell on, but in the interest of mental health, I think it’s time to come clean.

 

I don’t like Luo-Luo because she reminds me of Qing-Qing.

 

It’s stupid and illogical. They couldn’t be more different. Aside from their girlish naming convention and black hair, the only other similarity they share is a beauty mark beneath one eye. It’s not even the same eye, but it’s enough to dredge up old memories I’d much rather forget. Memories of diligent, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth Qing-Qing, who despite having almost nothing to her name, took in an injured stranger and refused to let him die. She spent weeks tending to my injuries, cleaning my soiled bedding, and sharing what little food she could scavenge, only to earn the scorn of her fellow villagers. Then, after I woke up, I complained about the food, called her village a shit-hole, and furthered the divide between her and her people because I wanted to rescue this ‘poor village girl’ and bring her away as my wife.

 

Kind, beautiful Ai Qing, humming her mournful melody while doing needlework by moonlight, so serene and angelic in her coarse, faded clothes…

 

Qing-Qing spent weeks nursing me back to health, but after revealing most of the people she knew and grew up with were probably dead, I couldn’t take two minutes to comfort her. I was too engrossed in my own delusions, too busy pretending to be someone I wasn’t to properly think things through. I can’t blame her for not trusting me and wanting to see things for herself, and I still could have saved her if I hadn’t been so busy toying with Gen. In the end, she died at the hands of the Demon Bei, but my actions led her there. Causing Qing-Qing’s death is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done and I will never forgive myself.

 

Never.

 

On that bright note, I close my eyes and reach for Balance, but it’s kept just out of reach by sorrow and self-loathing. Giving up with a defeated sigh, I grab Baloo and pull him into my lap, knowing jealous Banjo will amble around and lean against my back, resting his big head on my shoulder as a cry for attention. It’s hard to be sad when you’re the filling of a cuddle bear sandwich, but this is a temporary solution, and not because the bears will soon grow too big to manhandle. Whether it’s bears, bunnies, birds, quins, or kittens, eventually I’ll have to stop hiding and face my problems.

 

Emotional implications aside, there are other questions which need to be asked and answered regarding my mental instability. Seeing as how I’m not a Spiritual parasite sent here from another world to devour this body’s original inhabitant, what’s up with Baledagh’s ‘memories’ of life before the mines? They were never anything concrete like a name or a face, just jumbled emotions and faint recollections of specific sensations. Darkness, cold, hunger, and exhaustion mostly. Pain too, but not the pain of torture or abuse, just general physical suffering. Cuts on my feet, abrasions on my skin, and bruises all over, yet the strange thing is, it was just… there. A part of life, so it seemed, background noise not to be concerned with. A harsh life for a kid, but are these genuine memories or did I falsify them to make Baledagh’s origin story seem more real?

 

Brain, why you do this?

 

“Hi hubby!” Lin’s enthusiastic greeting shakes me from my thoughts, her toothy grin and frantic waving so endearing as she slowly approaches while riding tandem with Luo-Luo. My chubby quin’s mood is much improved as he saunters over one careful step at a time, his head and tail swinging out in opposite directions with each stride. Red-faced with shame, Luo-Luo offers a shy nod while attempting to hide behind Lin. Smiling through the pain and regret, I tell myself Luo-Luo is not trying to replace Qing-Qing, nor does her existence somehow invalidate my first true love.

 

It doesn’t make it hurt any less, but I can’t hold Luo-Luo responsible for my mistakes.

 

Lin’s toothy grin turns into a devilish smirk and a split second later, Mafu explodes into a run. Luo-Luo’s terrified shriek trails off as he zips around the clearing at full speed, ecstatic to finally have permission to cut loose. On his third time around, I finally manage to pull out a handful of dried fish and the greedy quin slows down to avail himself to the treats. Her blouse soaked in cold sweat, Luo-Luo dislodges herself from the harness and stumbles to the ground, panting in breathless fear as she clutches the grass, ready to fight tooth and nail if someone tries to put her back on the quin. Hiding my smile, I shake my head and admonish, “Wifey, that wasn’t very nice.”

 

Blinking in the perfect picture of innocence, Lin shakes her head and says, “No hubby, you don’t understand. I did this to help Luo-Luo get over her fear, ya? Now that she’s experienced Mafu’s speed and survived, she doesn’t hafta worry anymore, right Luo-Luo?”

 

Giving the wide-eyed Luo-Luo a cursory glance, I reckon she would disagree. “I don’t think she heard you wifey.” I hope Lin didn’t scare the literal piss out of her. One bathroom incident was bad enough, I doubt poor Luo-Luo’s sanity would survive a second. Gesturing with her hands, Lin urges me to comfort her before riding off with Mafu once more, this time bringing the twins, pets, and Li Song away and leaving me alone with my possibly incontinent concubine.

 

Thankfully, there was no accident to clean up. Using a lot gentle coaxing and a little forceful pushing, I bring Luo-Luo back to camp and into my yurt for tea. It’s not that I particularly enjoy being alone with her and suffering through her clumsy attempts at seduction, but the quin pups think the bunnies are their little cousins, so they’re all curled up together in the rabbit enclosure. To protect them, Zabu and Shana have claimed the area around the enclosure and guard it fiercely while Mama Bun grooms her five new, oversized babies. This wouldn’t normally be a problem except overprotective papa Zabu still thinks Luo-Luo is an intruder trying to steal his babies, and considering her recent trauma, I thought it’d be best to keep them separate.

 

I don’t know why, but animals do not like Luo-Luo. The bunnies scream and run away, the bears stand and growl, while friendly, lovable Aurie likes to bat at her ankles. Maybe she smells funny or something, but whatever it is, having her around puts a real damper on my floof-loving lifestyle.

 

Taking her warm cup of tea in both hands, Luo-Luo sips it with a faraway look, like a soldier who just survived her first battle. A tad melodramatic, but I’ll let it slide. After giving her enough time to recover, I pull out a sheaf of papers detailing the camps daily expenses and explain each section, hoping she’ll settle into her role as my financial advisor sooner rather than later. I hate dealing with this stuff and she’s a smart girl, but I’m not entirely trusting enough to hand over full control of my hard earned wealth to someone I met a handful of days ago. What if she spends all my coin on another banquet or a new dress? How will I eat if I have no money? As much as I like poking fun at her pampered lifestyle, I’d rather die than go back to eating brown mush twice a day.

 

Back in her element, Luo-Luo’s mood rapidly improves as we go over my finances. She offers no suggestions and doesn’t try to change things, which I see as a good thing. If she wanted to make rapid-fire alteration before understanding the whole operation, I’d know she was full of shit, figuratively speaking.

 

It’ll take a week to replenish what she lost during our tandem toilet session.

 

“Lord Husband is smiling.” Beaming in delight, Luo-Luo fills my cup, then her own, before asking, “Would he care to share his thoughts?”

 

He would, but he doesn’t want you to burst into tears again. “Err… No, I’m okay.” Grasping for a topic to fill the now-awkward silence, I ask, “So…What haven’t you told me about the Legate?”

 

Choking on her tea, Luo-Luo coughs and sputters to clear her throat, a most suspicious reaction to my probing question. Once recovered, she tries play if off and asks, “Whatever do you mean?”

 

“C’mon. You told me not to trust him, because no Imperial does anything without an agenda, and I quote, ‘much less one with a title formidable as Shen Zhenwu’. Sounds innocuous enough, but I’m thinking there’s more to the Legate than you’ve let on.” I was too distracted with Inky to notice at first, but after sleeping on it (twice) and deliberating her choice of words (for a very, very, long time), I asked Taduk about it and he said I should ask Luo-Luo.

 

So… here we are.

 

Deliberately placing her teacup aside, Luo-Luo folds her hands on the table and leans forward so we’re eye to eye. Quashing my irritation, I study her expression as she carefully answers my question. “Luo-Luo apologizes, but she has nothing to say regarding Lord Husband’s Patron or his identity.” Giving me a knowing look, she adds, “But we, as a people, venerate strength, so a title like ‘True Warrior’ would not be given lightly.”

 

With nothing else to add, Luo-Luo excuses herself to prepare for our cast iron business meeting/dinner with the Yo family, while I settle down for a nap and carefully consider her warning. If she didn’t know anything about the Legate, she wouldn’t have to answer in such a roundabout way, which means…she knows something, but can’t say it, right?

 

I also noticed she never calls him the Legate, always referring to him as my Patron or Shen Zhenwu. This seems important because she’s incredibly particular about titles. Even though I asked her not to, she still calls me Lord Husband, so from her perspective, Legate is too humble a title for Shen Zhenwu. He’s a bigwig, but what I want to know is: how big is he really?

 

 

That didn’t come out right…

 

As for the last bit, she brought it up before, but I chalked it up to standard noble conceit. I guess the Legate’s Martial skills are the real deal, which means his concerns regarding my ‘diminished’ Natal Palace are more serious than I thought. What benefit does a bigger Natal Palace bring? How does one even measure a Natal Palace? I mean, technically, it’s a mental construct, so its size is hardly stable. When Baledagh was around, it went from palm-sized to village-sized in the blink of an eye, because I liked to pretend we each had our own separate spaces. Then again, it’s not like it was village-sized to begin with. When I first formed my Natal Palace, it was no bigger than my bedroom, while the rest of the manor had to be manually created each time I popped in.

 

It was a… hardware issue, I guess. I had the RAM to create the manor, but only enough hard-drive space for a single room. Every time I left, the system would reset and wipe the RAM. Afterwards, my Natal Palace would revert to a one-room construct, because that’s all I had saved on the hard drive. Leaving Baledagh ‘in’ there kept the system from resetting and wiping everything, but I’d rather not create another personality unless absolutely necessary. Then again, who knows. Maybe I have enough space on my hard drive to save the entire province now, who knows.

 

…What the fuck is RAM and why does it wipe on reset? I swear, I remember the most useless things…

 

At the time, I didn’t even know I had a Natal Palace or what that was. I thought of it as my happy place, a memory I used to calm and centre myself. I only built the place up because I enjoyed looking at the scenery and reflecting on happier times. How long did it take to piece together? A year? Two? More? Less? I can’t remember, but half a year minimum, and I didn’t notice a change in strength, at least not anything I can attribute to a bigger mental playground. Maybe it’s not about the size itself, but a larger Natal Palace means you’re better at multi-tasking, which means you’re better at using multiple Chi skills at once.

 

Bah. This is all guesswork, especially since I can’t pop in to test things out. Taduk didn’t have any answers and I haven’t asked anyone else, but it doesn’t matter. I see no reason why bigger is better and there’s no shame in having a perfectly average sized Natal Palace, no shame at all.

 

…Not that I have a small Natal Palace or anything. I’m a grow-er, not a show-er. The shrinkage is temporary. Shut up. Why do I have to defend the size of my Natal Palace anyways? The Legate should mind his own business and quit peeping. ‘Divine True Warrior’ my ass. More like Divine True Pervert. Disgusting.

 

Whatever. Does it really matter? I should focus on more important things, like finding Balance and Blobby.

 

As if summoned by the thought, Taduk lets himself in without knocking. “Rain my boy, I’ve decided. We’ll give the octopus his stone. Come, come, we mustn’t tarry.” Finally noticing I’m tucked into bed, Taduk places his hand atop my forehead and asks, “Are you feeling all right, my boy? It’s not like you to nap.”

 

Yea, well, depression is real exhausting. “I’m fine, Teacher. Thanks. Let’s go see an octopus about some Algae.”

 

I could really use a win right now, especially if it’s Blobby back in my corner. At least then I don’t have to worry about going full-Defiled.

 

… I wonder what the Legate’s doing about the Canston Trading Group winery?

 

Chapter Meme

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents

Next Chapter

Savage Divinity – Chapter 359


Again, sorry about missing a chapter on sunday. Wrote it out and decided I didn’t like what I had, so set to rewriting it. Will do my best not to keep doing this.


 

Cursing her foolish pride and pampered lifestyle, Yan dreaded the aching thighs and bruised bottom she would soon experience. Had she known this would happen, she would never have snuck Shana and Zabu into Rain’s hut, a hasty decision made in a fit of pique and unreasonable jealousy. What did she expect to happen? For the quins to ruin Rain’s marriage night and send his new concubine screaming into the night? That he, so frustrated by the lack of sex, would ride through the city and storm into her room to demand an explanation for her actions? Then, in the heat of anger and throes of passion, they would fight with bare fists, pulling and tearing each others clothes off until…

 

Ridiculous. Now she paid the price for her actions, forced to endure inhumane abuse to her lower-half before a crowd of her peers and commoners.

 

There were few things worse than sitting upright on a hard, lumpy saddle and bouncing about on the back of a horse.

 

Losing her seat on Shana’s soft, stable hindquarters wasn’t even the worst of it, Yan also lost those adorable pups to play with and their ferocious papa-quin to protect her. She’d traded them away for a moody, skittish, gelding who seemed liable to run off at the first sign of danger. If only she’d put more effort into practising horsemanship, but after Grandpa took her in, she’d only ever ridden Shana or in a carriage. How anyone endured hours bouncing on these tall, steel-backed creatures and walked away whole was beyond her comprehension, her inner thighs already aching from strain after a few minutes of riding.

 

Why would anyone ride horses when quins were the objectively superior mount? A steadier gait and softer seat were the least of it, quins also required less maintenance and fewer supplies than these skittish, four-legged monstrosities. Being scatter-brained herbivores wasn’t enough, horses also had sensitive feet and selective diets. Too good to eat the plentiful grass all around them, her Acasian Trotter ate nothing but the best grain money could buy, and plenty to boot. The five kilogram bundle packed in her saddlebags would only last the horse a single day, and should this stupid contest run longer, she’d have to buy more grain instead of sending it out to forage for itself.

 

Considering how often they took an enormous, putrid shit mid-stride, they could stand to eat a little less.

 

Quashing her animosity, Yan awkwardly patted her mount’s neck in apology and prayed it wouldn’t rear up and throw her off if spooked. The placid creature didn’t notice her efforts to make nice, but it made Yan feel a little better about her rude inner-monologue. Since it did nothing for her pained muscles and poor temper, she focused on the task at hand instead, the contest from which she hoped to emerge victorious, though she hadn’t the slightest idea how she was supposed to accomplish such a monumental task.

 

Stupid Legate and his stupid contests. When the Eastern pretty-boy announced his ‘feats of strength, skill, speed, and spirit’, she imagined something more like a massed melee or a foot race of some sort, something combative and hot-blooded. Instead, she’d been assigned a meeting place where she was to meet her team and an Imperial Guardian masquerading as a civilian merchant. Then, they were to sortie off into the wilderness on some stupid task before moving on to the next part of the contest. It all seemed like a meaningless waste of time, but with Grandpa out of the city, she had nothing better to do, so she might as well play along and see what silly farce the Legate’s people had cooked up.

 

While riding towards her destination, Yan envisioned a harrowing escape through stony city streets and back alley paths, dragging the Guardian behind her in a desperate struggle against a second group of contestants assigned to stop them. In her imagined scenario, she’d step forward and take command of her fellow Captains and Warrant Officers, telling them to look after the Guardian while she single-handedly defeated her opponents in an overwhelming display of Martial skill, neatly proving her prowess and saving herself from the torture of riding a horse all afternoon.

 

The only way she could be more uncomfortable is if she were strapped face-up to her horse’s belly with her mouth positioned right below his asshole. Horses were the worst.

 

Arriving at the city outskirts, Yan found the stone marker where she was to meet her team. Despite her poor riding skills and slow pace, she was not the last to arrive and actually among the first. Standing with arms crossed and brow furrowed, an older, burly, dark-skinned southerner with an elaborately-styled moustache greeted her with a cold, silent stare. Unlike the other southerners she’d seen, this one was far less colourful, wearing standard-issue everything, right down to his standard-issue boots and standard-issue haircut. A career, common-born soldier then, one unaffiliated with clan, sect, or faction, yet still talented and fortunate enough to climb the ranks and even be issued a Spiritual Weapon, the wickedly curved one handed scimitar strapped to his waist. Though others might look down on his lack of backing, Yan immediately felt an unspoken kinship with the man. Were it not for a stroke of luck and meeting Grandpa, she undoubtedly would have followed in this humble soldier’s footsteps and become a career soldier herself, or at least a career Sentinel.

 

Beside him stood a tall, plain-faced man with a narrow physique and impassive expression, the Royal Guardian turned ward for the day, judging by his ill-fitting travel robes. Clumsily sliding off the saddle, she lifted the reins to greet the two men with a clasped-fist salute and a friendly smile. “This one is Du Min Yan. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

 

“This one is Qiang,” the Guardian replied, so uninterested in her smile he seemed ready to fall asleep. “We will go over the parameters of your mission once the rest of your team arrives.”

 

Seeing he had nothing else to say, Yan turned to the dour Southerner and smiled. “It appears we’ll be working together for the interim, Captain…?”

 

The Southerner frowned in silence for what felt like an eternity before grudgingly opening his mouth to utter, “Sutah.” Not the friendliest man around, but then again, she wasn’t here to make friends. Still, there was nothing wrong with being civil, so she kept smiling and nodded politely before positioning herself on Qiang’s left, her shield at the ready should she require it. Doing a quick visual check of their surroundings, she found there wasn’t much to see aside from the busy Imperial Road, with the city to her south, the Azure Sea to the West and unending swathes of grass stretching out in all other directions before disappearing off into the horizon, where sky met earth in a most disorienting fashion.

 

Even after living in Central for more than a year, Yan still often found herself unnerved by how flat everything was. There were no mountains dotting the horizon or dense forests blotting out the sun, only small mounds of grass which passed for hills and the odd tree to break up the monotonous scenery. Not to say Central was boring and ugly, there was beauty here, but it was a cultivated beauty, one of neat little gardens or carefully designed manors, lacking compared to the wild, untamed beauty of the North.

 

As much as she loved Grandpa Du and Eun, she missed living in the village and being part of a close knit community where everyone looked out for their neighbours. Hopefully, when her time in Central came to an end, there’d still be a place for her among the People, though considering how Mila and Big Huu snubbed her earlier, Yan wasn’t entirely optimistic about her chances. Mila she understood, the temperamental red-panda was upset over Yan’s ‘rejection’, but in her defence, Rain never meant for Zabu to be a betrothal gift. Returning him along with his pups was only the right thing to do, and Yan could still say Shana was only there on loan until her pups were old enough to separate them.

 

As for Big Huu… Hopefully, the big lug had been too distracted to notice her greeting. Before Rain, Big Huu had been her closest friend, her sparring partner and confidant, always happy to help her train and willing to endure her verbal barbs. She’d even had a crush on him for all of a week until she realized how boring and naggy he could be.

 

Maybe he was still mad because she accidentally revealed his pre-marital tryst with the lovely twin sisters to his militant and strong-armed Mother Ghurda…

 

The rest of Yan’s party took their sweet time arriving, three rich fops in their early thirties laughing and fawning over their last companion, a lovely young warrior woman. None were dressed appropriately for a military mission, the men wearing colourfully embroidered tunic with wide sleeves, gaudy, flared leggings, and adorned in a wide assortment of dangling hair ornaments and feathered decorations. Not to be outdone, the woman had an actual tiara to complete her full set of jewellery, including seven rings and countless bangles on both forearms and ankles. Her low-cut tunic and short skirt left plenty of skin bare, though at least she had the sense to sit side-saddle instead of displaying her nether regions for the entire world to see. How she expected to fight from horseback like that was a different question, but from what Yan could see, none of the latecomers were all too concerned about winning the contest.

 

Just her luck, getting stuck with a team of fops and dandies out on a lark. They’d even stopped to buy gourds of wine, presumably why they were so late…

 

None of the latecomers moved to dismount or introduce themselves, instead chatting away and fawning over the young lady who feigned modesty but did everything she could to encourage their rivalry. None of them seemed to notice Yan and Sutah’s displeasure, but seeing how Qiang voiced no objection, she held her tongue and waited for them to quiet down. Seizing a lull in their conversation, Yan smiled and saluted them in the spirit of cooperation. “Well met, fellow officers. This one is -”

 

“Hmph.” The leading ponce interrupted her mid greeting with an audible sneer. “We know who you are, harlot.”

 

Looking down her nose as if presented with a pile of garbage, the woman drew back from Yan and said, “Taking advantage of an aged hero of the Empire, how disgusting.” Making of show of studying Yan’s horns and chest, she added, “Small wonder he never married. Who knew the celebrated Du Min Gyu would have such… unique tastes.”

 

Well, fuck cooperation. Before Yan could drag the bitch off her horse and slap her senseless, Qiang spoke up. “This one is Royal Guardian Qiang.” Finally taking notice of him, the latecomers remained mounted and nodded in reply, probably believing a mere soldier not worthy of their friendship or courtesy. None of them offered their names, so Yan labelled them Ponces One through Three, and the woman earned the lofty designation of Floozy Prime.

Undeterred by their cold reception, Qiang explained the parameters of their mission in greater detail. They were to escort him to a military outpost north of the city, where he would then pass on news of ‘vital military intelligence’. Why he couldn’t tell someone in Nan Ping was a mystery, but Yan figured it’d be better to play along with the narrative. Qiang warned them there ‘might’ be attempts on his life, to which Ponce One snorted and said, “If one assassin comes, I will kill one, if ten comes, kill ten. This will be easy as turning my hand.”

 

Unable to help herself, Yan smiled and asked, “Did someone push your hairpins in too deep? This is an exercise, remember? Killing is forbidden.”

 

Fixing Yan with another sneer, he retorted, “Insolent cur. Do not think yourself unmatched because you were awarded a rank for sparring with other children on stage. The younger generation get worse each year, allowing an actual child to seize the title of Number one Talent in the Empire, much less two half-beasts to stand in the top three. An utter disgrace.”

 

Ponces Two and Three uttered their agreements and offered to put Yan in her place should she get ‘uppity’, and she prayed they’d find the courage to make a move. Ignoring their threats and disrespect, Qiang asked if anyone had questions and Sutah spoke up. “Map?”

 

At least now Yan knew Sutah was consistent with his monosyllabic utterances.

 

“I do not have one,” Qiang replied, voice wooden and flat as if reading from a script, “but I have travelled there many a time. Go north along this Imperial Road until the twenty-seventh stone marker, and our destination will be two hours directly east from there.”

 

Yan almost walked away right then and there, her spirits crushed by the prospect of travelling more than four hours on horseback. Longer considering how packed the roads were, with a constant flow of wagons and workers going in and out of Nan Ping. If not for the possibility of promotion by one rank, Yan might very well have given up, but as Ponce One and Floozy Prime so helpfully demonstrated, her disastrous performance on stage and new promotion were hardly enough to silence the rumours stirred up by Grandpa’s horrible relatives. A few years ago, a twenty-year-old Warrant Officer Third Grade would have been the talk of the province, but Falling Rain recently set a new standard for outstanding and overshadowed all of Yan’s exploits.

 

Even after a year and half of separation, Rain could still frustrate Yan to no end.

 

“If there are no more questions, then it’s best we leave now.” Playing his role with all the charisma of a rock, Qiang once again stressed, “The information I bear is of the utmost importance, and concerns the safety of Nan Ping itself. Many would seek to silence me and stop this information from reaching the right ears.”

 

“Very well.” Still putting on airs, Ponce One fancied himself in command and said, “Mount up. Let’s get this over with.”

 

Resisting the urge to challenge his authority, Yan pulled herself back onto the horse and reminded herself why she was here. She needed to prove herself and silence the wagging tongues of Central, show everyone she deserved to be Grandpa Du’s Terminal Disciple and shift public opinion to their side. As for being his Granddaughter, they could all eat shit. What business was it of theirs if Grandpa Du took her in as family? She loved the old man like a father and only his stubborn insistence regarding his old age kept her from calling him as such.

 

Then again, she didn’t have to prove anything, especially after Grandpa had just been tapped by the Legate to carry out some super secretive mission. He couldn’t say what he’d be doing, but he’d been so excited, he’d ignored all decorum and exited in style by leaping off the Ryo Family balcony.

 

Someday, she too would fly through the skies and never have to ride a horse ever again…

 

Taking his place as their glorious leader, Ponce One led his entourage away, leaving Yan, Sutah, and Qiang in their wake. Shaking her head with an amused grin, Yan awkwardly manoeuvred her horse to Qiang’s left while Sutah mirrored her actions on his right, the optimal setup for both to defend their ward. Sitting in place until Yan gestured for him to follow, Qiang behaved exactly as a merchant would, neither taking the lead nor eager to leave his escort’s side as they led him to the road.

 

Unfamiliar with travel protocol, Ponce One tried to bring them onto the side of the Imperial Road reserved for Military and noble use, but quickly discovered Qiang did not have the proper token of authority required to use them. After a brief argument with the guards, during which he invoked his father’s name no less than four times, a shame-faced Ponce One wandered over to the ‘peasant’ side of the road, much to Yan’s delight. She’d long since spotted another group of contestants with their ward on the slower moving side of the road, and was only too happy to let Ponce One humiliate himself to no end. Sutah and Qiang hardly seemed amused, but Yan’s smile couldn’t be any wider despite the less than ideal circumstances.

 

Minutes passed in arduous silence as their party proceeded at a slow and steady pace, bogged down by the heavy traffic and late start. Most travellers were on foot or riding in wagons, and while Yan kept an eye on the other riders, she noticed they were all fellow contestants stuck in similar straits. If an ‘assassin’ wanted to remain hidden, they’d have to proceed on foot, which meant any one of these travellers could be waiting to strike as they passed. Voicing her opinions, she asked Sutah to watch those travellers moving with them, while Yan accepted the more difficult task of watching those shambling towards them.

 

The other four were less than useless, driving forward with no regard for anyone’s safety, be it their own, their ward’s, or even their fellow travellers. Still, it wasn’t overly difficult keeping watch, and Yan fell back on an old hunter’s technique to remain focused for hours on end. The trick was to let your mind relax, but not wander, mentally listing anything and everything of interest without committing your mind to it. A moving branch, a rustling leaf, the howl of wind, or the call of a bird, it kept your mind active without overtaxing it, a tranquil focus in which one sought nothing, but found everything.

 

A gruff man reaching for a weapon hidden in his waistband, an elderly woman rummaging through a chest for a bow, a wandering apothecary in a little too much of a rush, Yan noted anyone and everyone who might be a threat and let her body respond without thinking. It was all meaningless of course, the gruff man was merely scratching his balls, the elderly woman looking for a parasol, and the apothecary likely rushing to save a life, but it never hurt to be cautious. Even then, after ninety minutes of butt-numbing travel, Yan was fast approaching the limits of her patience.

 

This was ridiculous. How was this supposed to prove her worth? A boring, event-less ride to the nearest military outpost and back, how taxing indeed. Then again, she should thank the Mother for small favours. Yan shuddered to think how her poor posterior would fare at any pace faster than a walk. Besides, the trip wasn’t entirely in vain; Yan’s grin widened as she watched Ponce One get his purse stolen and saddlebags rummaged through from right under his nose. When the daring, yet handsome thief noticed he’d been caught, Yan merely winked and waved him away, all too happy to let the idiot young noble suffer a loss.

 

Upon reaching the twenty-seventh marker, Qiang helpfully reminded Ponce One that the outpost was due east, even though Yan was prepared to quietly leave them behind. Her actions didn’t escape Ponce One’s notice, but she merely smiled and continued on her way, scanning the cobbled stone path and surrounding grasslands for signs of danger or ambush. A pointless endeavour, for any ambush could be spotted from a kilometre away, but still she kept her guard up.

 

Despite her protesting groin, Yan picked up the pace in hopes of reaching their destination or whatever surprise Qiang had planned for them a little sooner. Ultimately, her hopes were dashed along with what remained of her pelvis as they arrived at the outpost without incident or excitement. Dreading the ride back, she stayed at Qiang’s side as they joined the line of contestants waiting outside the gates, where the Royal Guardian who’d given a speech earlier today was evaluating each team’s progress.

 

Spotting a familiar head of curly red hair at the front of the line, Yan yearned to saunter over, say hello, and explain her actions to Mila. It’s not that she didn’t want to meet or speak to the People, but she couldn’t. Already, Grandpa’s family claimed Yan was a Northern puppet here to steal Du Family wealth and power, so it was best for everyone involved if they stayed apart. Central nobles were a proud and insular bunch, ready to unite at the first hint of ‘foreign’ invasion into their local markets. Unfortunately, for those same reasons, Yan couldn’t walk over and chat with Mila, or respond to their letters, or even be seen riding Shana or Zabu.

 

Mila would understand, right?

 

“What?” The incredulous utterance came from one of Mila’s companions, his face turning red with anger. “We all completed the same challenge on the same team, so why does she pass,” he asked, pointing at Mila, “while the three of us fail?

 

With a sigh, the lead Guardian rolled his eyes and answered, “Your goal was to escape pursuit and bring news of an imminent rebellion to this outpost, correct? So why, despite Captain Sumila’s protests, did you stop and challenge your pursuers to single combat?” Without waiting for an answer, the Guardian continued. “Not only did all three of you lose to your opponents, you also tried to escape during Captain Sumila’s bout despite being ‘incapacitated’. You only succeeded because she defeated all six pursuers in massed combat, led you away, and saw off two more attacks and an ambush using her bow.” Nodding at Mila in appreciation, he added, “This one commends you on your skill and restraint. Even blunted arrows can cause grave injury, but the worst your pursuers suffered was a blow to their pride. Captain Sumila, I invite you to enter the outpost.”

 

Beaming with joy, Mila held her head up in pride and led Atir into the outpost while her three teammates slinked away. Happy as Yan was for her friend, she couldn’t help but wonder why Mila’s test was so much more exciting than her own.

 

When it came time for Yan’s group to be judged, Qiang greeted the Guardian with a salute, while Yan and Sutah followed suit. Ponce One not only failed to salute, he even had the audacity to step forward and point at the Guardian. “What is the meaning of this,” he demanded, waving his finger at the Guardian. “Our contest was – ow, ow, owie, owwwww!”

 

The last was uttered as the Royal Guardian grabbed hold of Ponce One’s finger and wrenched it about, dropping the pampered dandy to his knees while his face contorted in pain. Ignoring his cries, the Royal Guardian calmly nodded at Qiang and said, “Report.”

 

“These four,” Qiang said, pointing out everyone aside from Yan and Sutah, “Fail. Throughout our journey, they drank five gourds of wine and died seventeen times.”

 

“What?”

 

“Your clothing,” Qiang replied, not bothering to even spare Floozy Prime a glance. “The assassins marked you with red chalk each time they approached.” While the others checked their clothes for the telltale markings, Qiang gestured at Ponce One and added, “This one was so inept, the assassins helped themselves to his food, wine, and coin without his notice.”

 

A sinking feeling settled into the pit of Yan’s stomach as the lead Guardian asked, “And these other two?”

 

“Both demonstrated sufficient awareness in identifying threats, but a complete lack of leadership qualities. She,” Qiang said, gesturing at Yan, “Caught one assassin rummaging through her comrade’s things and waved the culprit off, while he behaved like a subordinate the entire time. This one believes neither one suitable for promotion at this time, and thus recommend both be failed.”

 

Well… fuck.

 

“Disappointing,” the lead Guardian said, his eyes focused on Yan. “I had high hopes for this one. A rare talent, even if brought back to the homeland. Did she have reason to let the assassin off?”

 

“Children’s games,” Qiang replied. “Verbal barbs were traded, but an officer of a thousand must rise above such things, or settle them with an iron fist.”

 

“Would it be too late to smack him around now?” Yan asked, smiling wryly at the lost opportunity. “And if so, would you mind terribly if I still beat him regardless?”

 

With a bark of laughter, the lead Guardian shook his head. “No need. I deem Qiang’s judgment too harsh. Leadership is easier to teach than vigilance and caution. Both of you pass, but be warned, the next portion of the contest will not be as easy. Warrant Officer Du Min Yan, Captain Sutah, I invite you both to enter.” Glaring at Ponce One, whose finger was still caught in his grasp, the Royal Guardian said, “I invite the rest of you to scram.”

 

Sauntering into the outpost, Yan couldn’t resist smirking over her shoulder as her former teammates scrambled away from the irate Guardian, their horses throwing up a cloud of dust in the wake of their retreat. When she faced forward once again, she found Mila standing in front of her with arms crossed and smile cold. “I like your horse,” Mila said, her teeth clenched and eyes blazing. “So pretty and tall. I hope his speed will keep you safe in the days to come.” Shooting the creature a glare as if it had personally offended her, Mila stomp off without another word while sweet Atir followed behind. Her good cheer slipping away, Yan sighed and resigned herself to fate. Even if she corrected their misunderstanding, there was little chance for victory.

 

Not when competing against the true number one talent of the Empire, Sumila of the People, a woman so far above her, Yan didn’t even deserve to be called a rival.

Chapter Meme

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents

Next Chapter

 

 

Savage Divinity – Chapter 358

 


Sorry for being late 2 chapters in a row.

 

I intend to correct this grave error and ensure it never happens again.

 

To do so, I will be moving my standard posting time to 4 hours later. I used to post at 4pm GMT -4. Now I shall post at 8pm GMT -4.

 

To those who are negatively affected by this change, I apologize, but it just makes sense. Most of the time, when I post at 4, i go walk my doggo, come back, and spend the rest of the night reading comments. This is unproductive. Instead, i could use that extra time to write more, so I will.

 

That is all. Enjoy!


 

Biting into her dumpling, Mila tore a hole in the delicate skin and watched as the fragrant steam escaped its doughy confines. The greasy, glistening, soup-filled centre taunted her with its meaty, savoury deliciousness, but years of experience taught her to let it cool lest she embarrass herself by scalding her tongue. Counting the seconds with arduous effort, she barely reached five before popping the dumpling into her mouth, whereupon she moaned in blissful satisfaction. “Delicious,” she said, speaking around a mouthful of meat, oil, and herbs. “Too delicious. My compliments to the talented chef.”

 

Beaming in delight, Tate’s eyes all but disappeared as he basked in her praise, his open-mouthed smile infectious to all who saw it. Nose wrinkled in a pout, Tali held out her plate and said, “Try mine now Mi-Mi, try mine.”

 

Happy to oblige, Mila swallowed her first dumpling, took a sip of tea ‘to clear her palate’, and inspected Tali’s dumpling, much like she did for Tate’s. Repeating her actions without deviation, she ate her second dumpling and extolled its deliciousness using the exact same words. Pleased as she was, little Tali would not be dissuaded from her initial query, planting her tiny fists on her hips in what she thought was an intimidating glower. “Which one tasted better? Rainy said Tate made more dumplings and mine looked nicer, but what about the taste, ya?”

 

Nodding in mock severity, Mila replied, “A most grievous oversight.” Making a show of deliberate contemplation, she sighed and shook her head. “Sorry sweetlings, but I can’t decide. Both dumplings were equally delicious.” And as well they should. Rain not only made the wraps and the filling, he also steamed them while the twins played with their prizes, two gaudy, lion puppets. Suspended from strings attached to crossbar, the silk-swaddled puppets ‘danced’ when dangled about, all thanks to a few words from Rain, a bit of clever carpentry from Charok, plenty of creative sewing from Alsantset, and many long hours of hard work from the latter two to get the puppets in working order.

 

Once again, Mila’s beloved underestimated the effort required to execute one of his ‘simple’ ideas.

 

The idiot.

 

Despite her delicious breakfast and the twins’ adorable antics, seeing Rain happily chatting with Zheng Luo soured Mila’s good mood. It couldn’t be helped, it was in her nature. Even seeing him cuddle with Lin made her seethe with jealousy, much less a stranger they met only three days past. With her jade-like skin, voluptuous figure, and eyes like clear Autumn water, calling the Imperial Servant extraordinarily beautiful would be an understatement, but no woman liked to see her man fawn over someone else.

 

Devouring yet another delicious dumpling, Mila eyed the pair of would-be lovers and begrudgingly admitted that perhaps ‘fawning’ wasn’t entirely accurate. With Baloo sprawled across his lap, Rain’s focus lay primarily with massaging the indolent bear’s scalp while Zheng Luo sat well out of reach from both man and bear, lecturing ‘Lord Husband’ on his appearance. “Like it or not, proper grooming and a polished appearance are key to garnering respect from your peers and lessers,” she declared, missing Rain’s hidden look of exasperation. “Just as one would not trust a skinny chef or a sickly Healer, most find it difficult to respect an unkempt noble. Lord Husband need not put forth even a modicum of effort, for this matter can be settled by hiring an attendant, someone like young magistrate Fung’s manservant.”

 

“Ha!” Rolling his eyes, Rain replied, “Impossible. Even if I wanted to, I doubt I’d find a second Fu Zhu Li sitting around with nothing better to do than to launder my clothes and brush my hair. Besides,” he added, running his eyes over his Death Corps escort, Guan Suo, Tenjin, Tursinai, and Lin’s Guards, “There are already too many people hanging around me. A man needs his space.”

 

Pleased by their misunderstanding, Mila kept silent and continued eating dumplings, leaving it for someone else to inform Zheng Luo of Fu Zhu Li’s… comprehensive skill-set. After long seconds, Mila realized no one else noticed as Lin was still half asleep and Alsantset busy fixing Tali’s torn puppet. Now, it was too late to explain things and the guilt ate away at Mila’s conscience. Though she couldn’t bring herself to accept Zheng Luo with open arms, getting rid of the Imperial Servant meant consigning her to death, an outcome Mila couldn’t accept. She disliked sharing Rain with yet another woman, but not to the point of sending her to death without reason.

 

Things would be so much easier if Zheng Luo weren’t so damned perfect, with her impeccable manners and graceful poise…

 

It pained Mila to admit she liked Zheng Luo better when Rain treated her with indifference, but this morning, things had changed. Don’t think Mila didn’t notice her loose collar and flushed skin, not to mention how Rain casually mentioned the two of them spent time ‘chatting’ alone in his yurt and ‘getting to know one another better’. This incorrigible, lecherous, adulterous man… even if he hadn’t already tasted his new concubine, Mila saw how quickly he warmed up to this beautiful and enthusiastic woman, sitting with his back to her in a subconscious show of trust and seeking her out for advice when Mila could have told him the same thing. She’d never harangued him about his appearance because she found his dishevelled and tousled look charming, and who cared about the respect of strangers? If an untucked shirt was enough for someone to dismiss you, then their friendship wasn’t worth having. Appearances were deceiving, while actions spoke true.

 

Just like Rain’s lustful behaviour with Luo-Luo, making excuses to spend time alone with her…

 

Finally noticing her foul temper and angry glares, Rain sidled over to her and flashed his irksome, handsome grin. “Don’t be jealous,” he said, leaning close to kiss her shoulder while Baloo sniffed at her plate of dumplings.

 

In no mood to be teased, Mila shrugged him off and turned away, stuffing the last of her dumplings into her mouth so she wouldn’t have to speak or share. Stupid man, could he not see how upset she was? And still he tested her patience. Swallowing her food, she put her plate aside and pulled the nearby Tate into her arms. “Remember sweetling,” she said, making no effort to keep her voice down. “When you grow up, you must be more like your Papa and less like your Uncle, understand?”

 

“Okay.” So darling and agreeable, Tate nodded as he made himself comfortable in her arms. “Mi-Mi, are you mad at Rainy?”

 

“Hmph. Why would I be mad?”

 

“I dunno, but you sound mad, ya? Did Rainy do something wrong?”

 

“Never you mind, just remember what I said.”

 

“Okay Mi-Mi. I’ll be more like Papa and less like Rainy.” Pursing his lips in thought, Tate fell silent for a moment before speaking again. “…But I don’t like cooking, so can I be like Granpapa instead?”

 

“Even better.” Charok’s love for Alsantset was only surpassed by Baatar’s devotion to Sarnai. Mila would never understand how Rain turned into such a lecherous fool when he had two fine upstanding examples to learn from.

 

Still able to laugh in the face of Mila’s anger, Rain pinched Tate’s rosy cheek. “Smart child. Whether it be your Papa or Grandpapa, both are better role models than I.” Turning his attention to Mila, he asked, “Excited for the contest? Should I come cheer you on from the side?”

 

“Absolutely not.” Annoyed by his lack of sense, she smacked his hand away from poor Tate’s face. “Need I remind you, someone has already tried to kill you twice.”

 

“Not entirely true, my love.” Smirking as he slipped his arm around her waist, he tried to kiss her shoulder again and again, she shrugged him off. “It’s entirely possible I was targeted by two separate people who want me dead. Your betrothed is a man with many enemies.”

 

Rolling her eyes, she leaned into his embrace before remembering she was still mad at him, but stayed there regardless to enjoy his warmth. “Either way, the last thing you should do is traipse off and give your enemies more opportunities to kill you. Even a blind archer will sometimes hit the target.”

 

“Fair enough.” Snuggling against her, he gazed fondly at Tate, though she noticed his eyes also lingered on her chest. Most days she’d purse her lips and frown, but today, she let him be. “Sad though, I wanted to see my lovely betrothed’s rise to glory. Warrior, strategist, blacksmith, and enchantress, the Saga of Sumila begins today.” Stifling a yawn, he added, “I’ll just stay here and take a nap, soon as I find Zabu and his adorable pups. He’s hiding them from me, I know he is, that greedy little cuddle-hog.”

 

Putting aside her indignation at Yan for returning Rain’s betrothal gift, Mila swallowed her anger to focus on Rain. He was never one for sloth or idleness, and while yesterday’s long, afternoon nap could be attributed to the action-packed opening day of the Imperial Grand Conference, for him to nap two days in a row was… not exactly worrying, but concerning. Her poor beloved was so strong, yet so fragile. Rain deserved all his accolades and more, for even though he started later than most, he soon surpassed his so-called peers and now rivalled common warriors a decade his senior. Few knew the dark secret to his success, of how his strength was built upon a past rife with hardship and suffering. Rain pursued strength not out of desire, but compulsion, his single-minded focus and iron-determination arising out of abject refusal to ever be helpless again.

 

As the number one talent in the Empire and newest member of the Imperial Clan, perhaps the burden of success had unravelled his last nerve and he was finally cracking under the pressure…

 

Resting her head against his, she asked, “Are you okay?” Switching to Sending, she added, “Know this, I am always here for you and love you regardless of rank or station.

 

“Love you too.” With a wry smile of appreciation, he shook his head and sighed. “It’s nothing serious,” he said, lying through his teeth. “I’m just a little demoralized is all. About the er… book, and how no one wants a copy. I put a lot of effort into researching and writing it, but I can’t even give copies away.”

 

There was more to it, but if this was all he wanted to reveal, then she would not press for more. She’d warned him this would happen, but to her credit, Mila refrained from saying as much. Rain had good intentions, but many of his ideas were too abstract or unwieldy to be of use. For example, as impressive as having a water clock might seem, what benefits would it bring which could justify the expense? A caliper was useful for drawing maps, but mapmakers were an arrogant and insular bunch, unlikely to embrace Rain’s creative tool no matter how helpful it might prove. His buckles were clever and convenient, but tying knots wasn’t exactly an arduous task, and cast iron was inferior to wrought iron by every metric except cost. The most useful item in his book was the soap, but it’s not as if soap didn’t already exist. Rain only made a milder, better-smelling soap, not exactly a world-shattering development. Paper lay among the same vein, as those who could afford to write would hardly celebrate saving a few dozen gold coins every year.

 

This was all without mentioning the unfinished projects he insisted on adding, believing not only that his ideas were feasible, but there was someone else out there as mule-headed as he was and willing to waste both time and resources exploring them.

 

Unable to think of anything nice to say and unsure how else to raise his spirits, Mila’s hesitation cost her dearly as Zheng Luo spoke up during the lull. “Lord Husband’s book will bring great change to the Empire, only… With all due respect, this one believes Lord Husband erred in giving his knowledge away for free.”

 

Hmph, as if someone would pay for it…

 

Oblivious to Mila’s rude thoughts, Rain asked Zheng Luo to explain, and the temptress was all too happy to oblige. “It’s merely human nature. Even a priceless work of art can be mistaken for garbage if left on the side of the street beside a pile of trash. In giving the book away, the perceived value of the knowledge within becomes nil, because such is the value assigned to it. Even the most impoverished citizens would think twice before digging through garbage in search of treasure, while people in position to use Lord Husband’s knowledge would lose face if they did the same.”

 

“So… no one believes I have any useful knowledge… because I’m giving it away for free?” Making a face, Rain whined, “But I sent copies to Yuzhen, Fung’s Dad, Teacher, and others too. They all read it but none of them found anything particularly useful.” With another sigh, Rain continued, “I thought it was because they didn’t understand, but maybe they’re right. Maybe my ideas are stupid.”

 

“Absolutely not, Lord Husband is a brilliant man, standing head and shoulders above his peers.” Eyes brimming with confidence, Zheng Luo’s unwavering support for Rain made Mila uncomfortable. They only met for a few days, how could she already have so much faith in him?

 

Worried Rain was being set up for more disappointment, Mila interrupted their conversation. “Then how would you suggest we fix this?” Now Zheng Luo was forced to offer something substantial besides excuses and suggestions, lest Rain see her for the charlatan she was.

 

“If Lord Husband is adamant he spread this knowledge, then Luo-Luo has a suggestion.” With a knowing smile and a leisurely shrug, Zheng Luo explained, “Lord Husband only needs to show there are benefits to be had, and opportunists will arrive like thunder and depart like the wind, all too eager to profit from your brilliant ideas.”

 

“Yea, but if I knew how to make money from this stuff, I wouldn’t have resorted to crowd-sourcing ideas.” Grinning, he quipped, “I spend coin faster than I earn it, and only a… significant windfall has kept me from going broke. I gave paper to the Legate, because the logistics of setting up a paper industry made my head spin, but the rest of my inventions aren’t exactly big money makers. Buckles cost next to nothing, same with soap and all those little tools I made. A few gold coins here and there, but it’ll hardly make anyone filthy rich and is still too expensive for most people to afford. Considering the Empire’s current situation, I’ve been trying to come up with something useful to the military, but so far, nothing. We couldn’t figure out how to safely concentrate and contain Rattan Gas into lethal doses, nor did we ever make anything explode with the yellow dye. Liquid stone was a bust, and for some reason, nobody thinks crossbows are useful.”

 

Unable to remain silent, Mila explained, “Your crossbows either have an impressive rate of fire and lack power and range, or fire too slowly and can only be used by a select few. They’re also prohibitively expensive to make and require expertise beyond most expert craftsmen, to say nothing of amateurs.”

 

“Lord Husband’s thinking is too narrow.” Pulling out a copy of Rain’s book from her bosom, Zheng Luo opened the book to the page on cast iron and held it out for Rain to see.

 

…Was she holding it at chest level because she wanted to flaunt her bosom, or because it was the optimal height for Rain to read from?

 

More importantly… “Cast iron?” Mila asked, her voice tinged with doubt. “It’s too brittle and inflexible for weapons or tools, liable to shatter if struck wrong. It’s cheap and easy, but I’d be consigning soldiers to their deaths if I gave them weapons made from cast iron. It’s an interesting discovery, but limited in use.”

 

“Indeed, as noted in Lord Husband’s book.” Lips still upturned in her patient, perceptive smile, Zheng Luo continued, “But Luo-Luo disagrees with Sister Mila’s conclusion. Considering cast iron requires only a simple furnace and little to no expertise to create, the possibilities are numerous as stars in the sky. Cast iron could replace all manner of things used in our daily lives, such as cheap iron pans and kettles, or more complicated and expensive items like large bells or sturdier wagon frames and wheels.” Presenting Mila with a seated bow, Zheng Luo perfectly portrayed a humble, but dignified woman, so proper and refined she could be a daughter of the Mother Herself. “Luo-Luo lacks a profound knowledge of metallurgy and defers to Sister Mila, but could reinforced doors or walls work?”

 

“…It could, and it’d work well too.” Damn well. Thinking things through, Mila voiced her thoughts out loud. “Even if a Honed weapon could cut clean through it, two brick walls with a cast iron plate between them would be simple enough to craft and slow all but the most powerful of warriors. If the iron were thick and heavy enough, it would even present a challenge to peak Experts, provided they can’t leap over it.”

 

After Zheng Luo brought up using cast iron for common items, Mila’s mind couldn’t stop coming up with examples. Furniture, decorations, lanterns, and ploughshares, so long as it wasn’t meant for high impact use, cast iron could make it better. Damn, the crossbows she just claimed were prohibitively expensive would drastically fall in price if the gears and inner workings were made from cast iron moulds. Even weapons like throwing spears and arrow shafts might benefit from cast iron’s brittle nature, showering the enemy in a debilitating rain of metal shards upon impact. Tch, with how cheaply cast iron could be made, it could even be used to build taller buildings and longer bridges at greatly reduced cost, connecting parts of the Empire which had long since lain impassable or unreachable…

 

Having lost herself in her thoughts, Mila came to her senses and found Rain and Zheng Luo listening to her idle musings with rapt attention. Whooping with joy, Rain hugged her tight and kissed her cheek, but Mila felt no joy or pride. Skin flushed in humiliation, she left Rain and Zheng Luo discussing whether to borrow money and establish their own foundry or partner with an established merchant enterprise.

 

She doubted they even noticed her absence, and if so, were probably relieved to be rid of this nuisance to their budding romance.

 

Burying her face in Atir’s fur, Mila headed for the city outskirts and cursed herself for a fool. Zheng Luo, brilliant, hateful, perfect Zheng Luo, how was Mila supposed to measure up? Why was that hateful woman so damn smart? Weren’t noblewomen supposed to be large-breasted simpletons who did nothing but fritter their lives away spending coin and playing Mahjong?

 

Hmph. No matter. If need be, Mila wasn’t opposed to using force to intimidate her rival into submission. If ‘Luo-Luo’ insisted on acting smug and superior all the time, then Mila would hold her down and beat her with a switch, and if she dared complain to ‘Lord Husband’, then Mila would beat him too.

 

When it came to matters of love and war, Mila would show no mercy. Mercy to one’s enemies was cruelty to oneself.

 

Arriving at the contest staging grounds, she easily made her way through the crowd with Atir, the horses shying away from the large, hungry predator, or perhaps scared off by Mila’s enraged visage. She almost wished some uppity young fool would make a comment regarding her age, gender, or heritage just so she would have an excuse to hurt someone. After registering her name with the clerk, she brought Atir to wait alone to one side, greeting a few familiar faces but refusing to approach them. The details of the contest had yet to be announced, so it stood to reason that everyone here was now a rival, thousands of Captain ranked talents gathered together and all vying for fame and promotion.

 

She spotted Zian, BoShui, and Fung almost immediately, standing amidst a growing crowd of would-be bootlickers and flunkies. With them were Ryo Geom-Chi and Seoyoon, though their older sister Da’in was nowhere to be found. A good thing too, Mila had only shared a brief exchange with them during Rain’s wedding banquet, but she sensed that the eldest Ryo sibling was not a woman to take lightly. Huu stood off in the shadows with his new quin, though too focused in thought to notice Mila’s subtle greeting. Quyen Dienne and his two comrades were also present, the latter two seated upon one-horned rhinoceroses while the former sat atop a massive, hulking elephant. The contestants had all been told to bring their mounts, travel bags, and a single day’s worth of rations and feed, but there were no restrictions or limits regarding what else could be brought. Dienne took full advantage of his beast’s size and power, its back bristling with luggage, gear, and rations enough to feed ten, and more with his lackeys.

 

Thank the Mother Rain’s higher rank disqualified him from entering, since he’d be shameless enough to claim Ping-Ping as his mount…

 

After spotting the other members of the Hwarang, Mila stopped looking for there was no one else she knew. In fact, she deliberately overlooked Yan and outright ignored her, still furious she’d refuse Rain’s proposal without so much as an explanation or note. A member of the Hwarang and newly promoted Warrant Officer Third Grade, ‘Du Min Yan’ was apparently too good for Rain and the People now. Typical of his stupidity, Rain was too enamoured by the five quin pups and his new concubine to realize what Zabu and Shana’s return meant, a rejection from yet another woman he undoubtedly loved. Mila didn’t have the heart to tell him, and truth be told, she was both saddened and relieved to know Yan didn’t want to marry Rain. Their bonds had been forged in the heat of battle, first against the Society and again with the Defiled, but Rain’s harem was already crowded enough as it was. Worse, if Yan were to join, Mila would drop from third favourite to fourth.

 

Whether the deer-horned girl could surpass Zheng Luo to take second place was a mystery, but no woman would ever shake Lin from the number one place in Rain’s heart.

 

“Contestants.” Standing atop his lion’s back, a Royal Guardian raised his hands and the crowd fell silent, his voice audible even without enhancement from Chi. “Each of you gathered here today holds the rank of Captain or its equivalent, a commander of a hundred warriors. Climb one step higher in rank and you will have the privilege to command ten times that number, a thousand warriors of the Empire, not an insignificant force by any measure. Thus, the single step between Captain and Senior Captain has always been an arduous one, for upon the battlefield, a thousand men could spell the difference between glorious victory and disgraceful defeat.” Solemn and without cheer, the Royal Guardian gazed out over the contestants, his eyes lingering on a select few, Mila included. “At the end of the Grand Conference, some of you will be awarded with a promotion for your performance in these contests and challenges, but I assure you, you will be tested in all aspects whether it be strength, intelligence, leadership, or cunning. Should you emerge victorious and secure a promotion, rest easy in knowing you have earned it.” The last was delivered as a threat, an ominous portent of things to come. Pausing to let his words sink in, the Royal Guardian soon continued. “You are all warriors of the Empire, thus killing is prohibited. Anyone found purposely sabotaging their comrades will be punished by military law. Form ranks.”

 

Falling in line, Mila stood beside two soldiers who towered above her, not an unfamiliar situation, but an unpleasant one all the same. Patting Atir’s neck to keep her from eating a horse, Mila watched and waited for further instructions, but none were forthcoming. Instead, she noticed multiple Royal Guardians making their way through the ranks in utter silence. When Mila’s turn arrived, her Royal Guardian Sent, “Your commanding officer has stumbled across plans for an imminent rebellion within the barracks. Unsure who to trust, he has tapped you and three comrades to bring word to the nearest garrison. You have four hours to complete your mission, and if successful, you will be issued another by your point of contact.” Mila was then given a location to meet her comrades and a password for her contact before the Royal Guardian moved on to the Captain beside her.

 

Grinning in anticipation, Mila stood in place and used this time to go over her orders and study her rivals. Though the mission appeared straightforward enough, who was to say each contestant would receive the same orders? Perhaps her neighbour was being told to hunt down a group of escaped criminals, and she would be his quarry. Also, considering the scenario, one or more of her comrades might well be a rebel in disguise, with orders to silence the rest before they could reach their destination.

 

How fun.

 

Determined to win and earn her promotion to Senior Captain, Mila set out with fire in her belly and victory on her mind. No matter how talented and hardworking Rain might be, being outranked by her beloved vexed her to no end and this was her chance to balance the scales. Someday, when she deserved it, she would topple the balance once more and claim her place as Number One Talent in the Empire.

 

Someday.

 

Chapter Meme

 

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents

Next Chapter

 

Savage Divinity – Chapter 357


Sorry for missing sunday’s chapter, had a wedding on sat and spent sunday recovering. To make up for it, I’ll skip this coming civic holiday. I’d try to write more, but as it stands, i’m already late for chapters haha. Anywho, here it is. A little rougher than I like, but yea. Enjoy!


 

With heavy eyelids and mounting frustration, Luo-Luo left the warm embrace of her new, silk comforter and shuffled across the cold wooden floor. Fumbling with the handle, her tired brain took an eternity to remember how to unclasp the latch, a process made more difficult by her inability to keep her eyes open or yawns stifled. Opening the door, she greeted the persistent guest knocking at her door and found the ever-stoic Li-Li standing in the soft light of the rising sun, her hair neat and armour polished. Belatedly remembering she’d imposed upon Li-Li to come wake her in the morning, Luo-Luo sleepily said, “Good morning”, while inwardly cursing her own stupidity.

 

Of course a dedicated Martial Warrior like Li-Li would rise at dawn. Luo-Luo wanted to wake earlier so not to offend Sister Alsantset, but this was overdoing things…

 

Nodding in wordless reply, Li-Li stood in place, her expression unreadable and posture impeccable. Spotting three of Lord Husband’s thuggish soldiers passing by, Luo-Luo’s sleepiness vanished as she glanced down at her thin nightclothes and uttered a squeak of panic. The soldiers weren’t looking in her direction, but all they’d have to do is turn their heads ever so slightly to see Luo-Luo’s exposed figure and who knows how they would react. Pant like slavering beasts in heat and perhaps even become emboldened enough to lose all reason and approach them, subduing Li-Li before gagging Luo-Luo and dragging them into the yurt, where they would both be used and abused for hours on end until someone came to save them.

 

Panicking due to her overactive imagination, Luo-Luo dragged Li-Li into the yurt and shut the door behind them. Cheeks flushed and heart pounding, she cursed herself for letting fear get the best of her, not to mention the minor thrill of excitement which came with it. Wracking her brain for a proper excuse for her actions, she came up with nothing, but luckily, instead of waiting for an explanation, Li-Li wordlessly offered to brush Luo-Luo’s hair and did so using an emerald-studded jade comb with surprising adeptness.

 

A woman of few words and glacial expressions, Li-Li was a kind, considerate soul who welcomed Luo-Luo into her family with open arms. If only Mila and Sister Alsantset could do the same.

 

Sadly, having accepted Li-Li’s help made it all but impossible to go back to sleep, so Luo-Luo grit her teeth and left her yurt at this unholy hour. If yesterday’s events were any indication, Mila and Lin-Lin wouldn’t wake for at least another four hours, though Lord Husband already sat by the campfire wrapping dumplings with the twins. Glancing up from his work, he nodded and offered a polite, but distant smile in greeting while Luo-Luo flashed him a coy look beneath fluttered lashes, only to be outright ignored as he went back to rolling perfectly round dumpling skins for the twins.

 

What an infuriating and inflexible man. Could he not offer her more than a brief glance and a cold smile?

 

Abandoned by Li-Li for the company of rabbits, bears, and wildcats, Luo-Luo laid a cloth on the grass and settled down to watch her Lord Husband at work. It boggled the mind seeing a man of his status lower himself to do menial labour like cooking or cleaning, but he looked so content and at peace as he tended to the campfire and oversaw the twins, it was difficult to fault him for it. With skills which ran the gamut and included cooking, duelling, herbalism, and tinkering, her Lord Husband was an odd little man, a thoughtful, humble, brilliant man who seemed wholly indifferent to fame, rank, face, or reputation.

 

In short, he was the exact opposite of what she’d been taught to expect.

 

“Time’s up,” Lord Husband declared, clapping his hands in a cloud of flour. “I shall now choose the winners of this first ever, Imperial Grand Conference Dumpling Wrapping Competition!” Stroking his chin, he left streaks of flour on his cheeks as he counted and inspected each twin’s plate of dumplings, hmm-ing and ha-ing while pretending not to notice their giggles. After long deliberation, he nodded and said, “Okay. Totalling in at twenty-three to fifteen, Tate wins in dumpling quantity, but because nine of his dumplings aren’t entirely sealed and all of Tali’s dumplings are both beautifully wrapped and evenly sized, she wins in quality. Congratulations! You both win the grand prize!”

 

“What did we win?” The twins asked in tandem.

 

“Your prizes are… a plate of delicious dumplings for breakfast!”

 

“Booo!”

 

While Lord Husband laughed at the twin’s pleas and protests, Luo-Luo imagined what life would be like if he loved her. In all her years, she’d often embarked on flights of fancy, dreaming of becoming a renowned musician, famed poet, or a secondary wife of this prominent general or that notable Imperial Scion, but never did she dare dream for love. Such was life as an Imperial Servant, brought up as a trophy, a keepsake, someone to bear and teach her Lord Husband’s successors, but Falling Rain made her yearn for more. He had so much love to give, for his family, for his wives, for his pets, why couldn’t he spare a little love for Luo-Luo? Perhaps his smile would warm after she bore him a child of his own, though they had yet to share a bed. Were it not for her fear of encountering his fearsome quin Zabu once again, she’d have long since snuck into Lord Husband’s yurt under the cover of darkness. She refused to believe he would be heartless enough to send her off in shame, especially if he found her laying naked atop his bed…

 

Luo-Luo would never have thought herself a bold woman, but Lord Husband’s frosty demeanour left her no other options. After his initial greeting, he paid her no attention, though Luo-Luo did little to merit it, too busy resisting the urge to lay her head down and rest. Curiously enough, Li-Li was uncharacteristically talkative during breakfast, lecturing Lord Husband on properly caring for his many, many pets. Though annoyed by the censure, he nodded along and promised to help groom the animals, arguing they didn’t need to be brushed everyday, a sentiment Luo-Luo wholeheartedly agreed with. In response, Li-Li merely fixed him with a glare and a pout, and after a long, awkward silence, during which Lord Husband looked positively distressed, he finally relented and agreed before escaping with the Divine Turtle in tow, off to swim in the bay with the Medical Saint and his octopus.

 

With breakfast finished and nothing better to do, Luo-Luo joined the train of pets and followed Li-Li to the sparring grounds, where Lord Husband’s soldiers abused one another in the pursuit of strength. Swathes of brawny warriors stood in place while their comrades beat them all over with heavy, wooden rods, leaving thick welts, broken skin, and dark bruises behind. Men and women alike endured this abuse, with muttered curses and pained cries aplenty to fill the air. When their thrashing came to an end, the beaten warriors limped off to the side to join their seated comrades in silent meditation. Only then did Luo-Luo notice the half-healed injuries on those already seated soldiers, their cuts sealing and bruises fading almost before her eyes.

 

Small wonder their wedding banquet had a monk from the Penitent Brotherhood in attendance; Bekhai training methods bordered on the sadistic.

 

Prescribed beatings were not even the worst of it. During her short jaunt through the sparring grounds, she witnessed no less than fourteen warriors suffer debilitating injuries in the course of a spar, only to be carried off to join the growing crowd of meditating soldiers. Impressed by their expertise in Healing, a quiet voice in Luo-Luo’s mind wondered what dark fate awaited those who failed to reach such levels of proficiency. Approaching the matter from a different angle, Luo-Luo speculated if this harsh training stemmed from Lord Husband’s empathy and compassion, wanting his soldiers to learn Healing so they could survive their injuries and return home alive. A harsh kindness indeed, and she shuddered to think what Lord Husband had to endure to earn his title as the Undying Savage.

 

Upon reaching their destination, Luo-Luo stood a respectful distance from the cart filled with bears, wildcats, and aggressive rabbits while Li-Li met her axe-wielding opponent in a clash of blades. At first, the repeated clang of metal of metal had Luo-Luo’s heart jumping in her chest, but after a solid hour of non-stop sparring, she finally grew accustomed to the din and allowed her mind to wander off.

 

How might she make herself useful to Lord Husband? He showed little interest in art, poetry, music, or dance, and any attempts to make conversation always led to the same awkward silences. Should she try to help groom his pets? Impossible, she could barely bring herself to look at the fearsome creatures, much less touch one. Throw away her years of education and demean herself by laundering his clothes and cooking his meals? Perhaps, but considering she was a complete novice and how much he seemed to enjoy cooking, would he even appreciate her efforts?

 

In the end, Luo-Luo’s years of training were of little use in her current circumstances. She had much advice to offer him, but in the current state of affairs, any suggestions she made would be dismissed out of hand, or worse, cause Lord Husband to dig in his heels out of sheer spite. Li-Li’s direct approach in demanding he brush his pets everyday was the wrong way to go about it. An obstinate man not without his own pride, it wouldn’t surprise Luo-Luo if Lord Husband failed to keep his end of the bargain, merely agreeing to brush the animals every day in order to get away from what he viewed as an unpleasant situation. A cowardly approach, but one he used often enough, as evidenced by her current situation, drifting through her days with nothing to do despite his promises otherwise.

 

Like everyone kept telling her, Lord Husband was a stubborn man, one who required a lighter touch to guide and govern. Aside from staking it all on one throw and seducing him, Luo-Luo’s only other option was to earn his trust the hard way, difficult to do when he left her with no responsibilities. Even though he agreed to have her oversee his business ventures, he had yet to present her with any documents, instructions, or guidelines. The fifteen percent stake in his business hardly interested her, despite amounting to a fair bit of wealth from what she’d already seen. No, what she yearned for was a chance to prove her worth to Lord Husband and earn his trust, the first step in her plans to win him over. Once she had his ear, she would set about making sweeping changes to his habits and lifestyle, slowly reshaping his image and behaviour into someone befitting of his reputation and accomplishments, a true Dragon among Men.

 

To this end, she approached a scholarly-looking soldier sitting at the entrance to camp. The soldier, Silva, had been tasked with collecting invitations and marking names of prospective allies hoping to meet with the ‘boss’, a futile effort considering Lord Husband refused to meet with anyone aside from his friends and family. Lamenting his lack of political acumen, Luo-Luo borrowed paper and ink to mark down her thoughts on how to best help her Lord Husband improve himself.

 

To begin with, there was the matter of his complete and utter lack of ambition, too happy to meander his way through life as a simple warrior and caring little for rank or fame. Presented with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he refused to attend any and all events or social gatherings during the Grand Conference, instead choosing to while away his time with long naps and pleasure trips out on the bay. He even refused to take part in the contests and competitions, ‘humbly’ claiming he would be ‘outmatched by anyone of the same rank’. While undoubtedly true considering he was the youngest Second Grade Officer or Senior Captain by at least half a decade, if Lord Husband were to make even a modicum of effort and merely show up, many would see fit to give face to the newest member of Imperial Peerage, so why not take advantage?

 

Then, there was his appearance, which could only be described as slovenly. While he couldn’t be considered lazy, he paid no mind to anything he considered inconsequential, and appearances sat high on that list. His close-cropped hair had never known the touch of a comb, often flattened to one side if not sticking out in all directions. His clothes were never pressed and usually covered in animal fur, with loose shirt-tails hanging out and buttons left undone for comfort. This, alongside his weak chin, gaunt, round face, and dearth of facial hair, made him look even younger than his paltry nineteen years, an issue exacerbated by his tendency to slouch. A maid or manservant would do wonders to fix his image, but he’d already proven adverse to the idea, though she noted to bring the matter up again and mention how the Legate would be displeased to see an Imperial Scion not look the part.

 

She continued to list his flaws and the best approach to fix them, all the while imagining what he would be like when all this was done. His greatest flaw was his height, or rather the lack thereof, though Luo-Luo refrained from marking it down as she lacked any means to correct it. She could only pray his final growth spurt would be a large one, for while a commoner might have reached his full height, Falling Rain had another five or six years to gain both height and bulk. Twenty centimetres of height would not only make him look more suitably domineering and imposing upon the battlefield, but also make their future intimacy less… unwieldy.

 

“Lacking ambition?” Lost in her thoughts, Luo-Luo almost jumped out of her skin at the sound of Lord Husband’s voice, scrambling to cover up her damning list of faults. Ignoring her efforts, Lord Husband gently swept her arms aside and took the paper in hand, reading it aloud with naked displeasure. “Slovenly appearance? Poor posture, shifty eyes, undisguised impatience? Inability to hide inner thoughts? Sighs too much? Tch. Just my luck. Came here looking for quin pups to cuddle and instead I find a long list of personal flaws. What fun. Come on, we should talk.” With a dark scowl, he folded the paper up and shoved it into his sleeves before pulling her by the arm to bring her away.

 

Dying of shame and regret, tears streamed down Luo-Luo’s cheeks as Lord Husband gently led her away for punishment. She never meant for anyone to see the list, much less Lord Husband himself, but this was no excuse. Were she not too tired to think, she would have known better than to write her thoughts out, especially in such a blunt and unforgiving manner. Just reading it alone was enough to bring disgrace upon the Bekhai, and if anyone were to learn Falling Rain’s new concubine saw him in such poor light, Lord Husband would have no face left to him.

 

Would he have her locked in stocks and publicly shamed? Or would he be more direct and drag her back to his yurt for a beating? He could even have her quietly executed and no one would care, for her purpose had been served. The whole Empire would know Falling Rain was an Imperial Consort, with or without Luo-Luo at his side.

 

Pulling her into his yurt, he left the door half open and directed her to sit at the table. Flopping down across from her, he sighed, but stopped halfway and sucked his teeth. Another bad habit of his, one shared by many members of the Bekhai, though thankfully one she had yet to mark down. “Please, stop crying,” he said, his voice soft and warm. “I’m not angry. Well… a little upset, but it’s nothing to cry about, okay?” Patting her head, he continued, “Look… since you’re so unhappy, I’ll talk to the Legate and see what we can do. He said he intended to raise other people to Imperial Peerage, so maybe there’s a way I can keep my ‘lofty’ title and you can go home. If not… well, regardless, I’ll find a way to send you back. Okay?”

 

Luo-Luo shook her head and wiped her tears, though several seconds passed before she found her voice. “Luo-Luo does not want to go back. Luo-Luo’s place is with Lord Husband. Please do not send her away.”

 

“You don’t have to lie.” With a self depreciating chuckle, he added, “You were mad enough to write a list of all my faults, but you forgot to add ‘short’ and ‘oblivious’ to the list. Sorry. I didn’t know you were so unhappy, but I promise I’ll make things right.”

 

“Luo-Luo apologizes for shaming Lord Husband, but it was not because she is unhappy.” Correcting herself, she said, “Luo-Luo is unhappy, but only because Lord Husband does not trust her. She only wrote the list in desperation, believing her only recourse was to offer suggestions to help Lord Husband improve his public image.”

 

“…Why?”

 

Taken aback by the question, Luo-Luo looked up for the first time since Lord Husband caught her. “…because… Lord Husband’s public image… is…”

 

Leaning back on both hands, Lord Husband laughed and said, “I know, I know, it’s atrocious, but what I meant was why are you so eager to help? Why aren’t you more upset about being given away to a stranger as a prize? Wouldn’t you rather go home?”

 

Confused by his line of questioning, Luo-Luo took her time in answering. “Such is Luo-Luo’s purpose, ordained on the day of her birth. She is an Imperial Servant, her fate to serve wherever the Emperor deems appropriate. Home… Home is a small room in the Imperial Academy, a gloomy, joyless place no different from a gilded cage. For six long years, Luo-Luo sat and waited for her opportunity to Serve, stagnating while her peers and juniors moved on with their lives.” Wiping away the last of her tears, Luo-Luo sat up straight and held her head high. “Having met Lord Husband, Luo-Luo believes it was time well spent. Between his incredible accomplishments and brilliant mind, Lord Husband is undoubtedly a dragon among men who stands at the forefront of his generation.” Offering him a seated bow, Luo-Luo added, “However, talent and hard work are not enough to soar through the Heavens, and as such, this one hopes Lord Husband will accept her humble aid.”

 

Unimpressed by her flattery, Luo-Luo’s words still had an effect as Lord Husband sat up and leaned forward. “Why were you kept back for six years? Bad student?”

 

“On the contrary, Luo-Luo was a most excellent student.” Pleased to finally have his attention, she told her story, stopping often to answer his queries and explain some nuance of Imperial life he didn’t understand. When her throat ran drop, he stopped to make tea and snacks and Luo-Luo belatedly realized this was their first, real conversation together, with only the two of them sitting alone in his yurt. With his back turned, she quickly fixed her hair and loosened her collar, desperately wishing she had a pocket mirror to check her makeup as she prepared to seduce him out of his pants.

 

Sadly, despite all her best efforts, Lord Husband seemed utterly immune to her charms. Laughing at his witty rejoinders, leaving her hands in easy reach for him to hold, fanning her collar to bare her skin, all her best tricks only amused him, his infuriating, knowing smile showing he was wise to her ways. So aggravating, if he knew her intentions, then how could he sit there and ignore them? Did he have no pride as a man? Did he not find her attractive? Or did it amuse him to watch her repeatedly throw herself at him? Was that what he wanted? A shameless, brazen harlot begging to fulfill his every desire?

 

Too ashamed to act so boldly, Luo-Luo finished telling her story and answering his questions, at which point Lord Husband stood and stretched with a might yawn. “I see. I still don’t entirely understand this whole Servant thing, but then again, there’s a lot I don’t understand about this world we live in.” Shrugging easily, he flashed her a genuine smile, so warm and bright it made her heart swell with joy. “Perhaps you can help explain it during lunch, and we can talk about improving my public image too. I’d also love to hear you play the zither sometime, but first we have to go wake Mila. She signed up for a contest which is starting soon, and she’ll never forgive herself if she’s disqualified for being late.”

 

Beaming as she followed him out, Luo-Luo thanked the Mother for bestowing fortune amidst disaster. Lord Husband was truly a magnanimous soul, so easily forgiving Luo-Luo for her dire misstep, though he seemed intent on teasing her for a little while longer. No matter. She had confidence in her skills, and once he had a taste, then they would see who teased whom.

 

Now, if only she had some way to send Zabu away…


No times for memes. Sorry.


 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents

Next Chapter