So the announcement for PoE’s next league start date came out, and it’s September the 6th. This means the last chapter I release will be on September the 5th, after which I will be going on a two week break. Yes two weeks, because this league looks sickkkkkkkkkkk, so just be glad it’s ONLY two weeks and not more. I’ll remind you all again when it’s closer to the date, but until then, I will ignore any and all questions as to when I’m going on break, because it’s right here and I don’t like answering the same question twice, much less a bajillion times
Anywho, prepare yourselves for the coming break and enjoy the chapter.
In the wake of the Justicar’s judgment, Nian Zu expected the Bekhai to do what most would: accept the sentence, end the banquet, and gather their allies to discuss their next move. Instead, the reclusive mountain tribesmen surprised him yet again as Baatar and the rest of his family sat in stony silence, not even Sending to prepare for what would come next. A staunch warrior of limitless potential, Nian Zu saw much of his younger self in Baatar, a man who craved the thrill of battle and the heady rush of progress along the Martial Path, but such single-minded dedication came at a cost, and much like Nian Zu himself, Baatar was wholly indifferent to politics and intrigue, treating every problem as one to ignore or smash aside.
And from the looks of things, the half-wolf warrior saw the Disciplinary Corps as the latter, an impulse which if acted on, would amount to outright rebellion…
An hour ago, Nian Zu would have laughed at the thought of his patient, cunning, and strategic-minded second-in-command making a grossly incompetent decision like rebelling against the Empire without proper preparation, but every dragon has their reverse scale, and Falling Rain was Baatar’s. Were it not for Nian Zu physically restraining the man, Baatar might have upended the dining table and slaughtered the Justicars in plain sight when they announced his son’s punishment, a move which would have played right into their foe’s hand.
A righteous warrior fears not the Enemy arranged against them, but must be all too wary of allies hiding daggers behind their backs. A lesson hard learned, but unlike Nian Zu, Baatar lacked a partner with a brilliant political mind to teach him how to play the game. Fortunately, while Baatar and Akanai were wholly indifferent to politics, Falling Rain proved himself a quick study, though a tad haughty and arrogant for Nian Zu’s tastes. After accepting his protection, the Bekhai princeling straightened up, turned to the Justicars, and said, “If you’re waiting for an invitation to join us, I fear hosting members of the Disciplinary Corps might be construed as offering a bribe, so in the interest of propriety, I ask that you remove yourselves if you’ve no other business here.”
Even Nian Zu wouldn’t treat a Justicar so harshly, not because he didn’t dare, but because it wasn’t worth the headache. While their strict Oaths prevented them from abusing their power, officials of the Disciplinary Corps were a fanatical bunch who represented the Emperor’s Justice in his stead, and there was nothing in their Oaths preventing them from investigating disrespectful individuals more thoroughly than others. What’s more, laws were dead, but people alive, and it was up to the individual Justicars to interpret the laws as they saw fit, such as in this very case with Dastan Zhandos. A prickly subject, sparing the life of a rebel who fought alongside Defiled, but the boy had displayed Purity and proven himself of sound mind, as had the other survivors of his retinue. In light of Dastan and Sahb’s almost unprecedented accomplishment by Developing their Domains at the tender age of twenty-four, hindsight proved Marshal Chu Tongzu’s decision correct, but even still the Justicars overturned it and sentenced the two young Experts to death, a matter open to debate with no correct answer.
That said, this move of the Disciplinary Corps would not sit well with most nobles of the Empire, for it set a precedent in which they might find themselves drafted to the front lines should their slaves prove themselves too outstanding…
A fact Falling Rain made plain by stating it out loud, voicing his displeasure before the Enforcers were even out of sight. “Seems I’ve been training and treating my slaves too well,” he said, shaking his head in feigned self-recrimination as the guests chuckled politely in reply. “Such a grave sin, safeguarding the lives of my soldiers on the battlefield and ensuring their morale remains high during periods of rest.” More chuckles this time, including a genuine one from Nian Zu, impressed by the boy’s quick thinking. It wouldn’t hurt to remind everyone present of his exemplary wartime achievements, killing more Defiled and losing fewer soldiers than any other junior officer on the front lines, not to mention his unbroken record of consecutive days spent on the front lines. “No matter. I was getting bored of sitting around in the Citadel all day, so a jaunt to the front lines will do wonders for my mood.” Raising a cup to the crowd, he smiled as the guests raised their own and said, “To all our guests tonight, this Imperial Consort offers his most humble and heartfelt apologies for ruining the night’s festivities, and I shall drink a forfeit in contrition.”
Clever to apologize to the guests first, elevating their importance at no cost to himself since guest-of-honour comrade Du was already firmly in his pocket. Even then, Rain didn’t forget to apologize to comrade Du, and even offered a toast to Nian Zu as thanks. After three cups, the boy’s legs were already shaky, but he persevered and invited the guests to stay and make merry. Few took him up on the offer, though most stuck around to bid their hosts a polite farewell before beating a hasty retreat, neither cutting ties with the Bekhai nor committing themselves to confronting the Disciplinary Corps, for it was clear to everyone present that the Justicars were pushing a political agenda. Why else would they act in such a high-handed manner against a young Imperial Hero like Falling Rain, and over such a minor and almost inconsequential matter?
Even a ‘lummox’ like Nian Zu could see that this meant another Imperial Scion was involved, one with deep ties to the Prime Minister’s office to hold such influence over the Disciplinary Corps…
Though curious to know what Falling Rain did to provoke such a powerful foe, Baatar and Akanai were too busy seeing their guests out to explain matters in detail, and comrade Du in such a foul mood only the bravest of souls dared approach him. Well-versed in such matters, Ryo Da’in sat at her godfather’s side and bade his guests farewell in his stead, while his granddaughter Yan clung to his arm and spoke softly in an effort to raise his spirits. They were both good children and reminded Nian Zu of what could’ve been if he’d been more supportive of Du Yi and Yuzhen, but after what he went through to break ties with his own family, Nian Zu had not been eager to start a new one.
Or at least, he hadn’t until recently, but it was far too late for regrets. While comrade Du adopted Yan as his granddaughter only two years past, Nian Zu lacked skin thick enough to ask Yuzhen if she wanted another father or go snatching up Bekhai orphans, not to mention how he had little to offer any prospective heir. His wealth was middling, his teachings mediocre, and his titles not hereditary, so the only thing he had to bequeath was a whole host of grudges just waiting to be unleashed. The writing on the wall was plain to see, Nian Zu’s time had come and gone, and the world knew it, which was why he sat here twiddling his thumbs while everyone rushed to pay their respects to the people sitting at this table who mattered.
Perhaps he could take a page from Falling Rain and rear a wildcat or three for companionship…
Everything changed when he turned a hundred years old at the beginning of this year, for he no longer stood first amongst his peers as the strongest Martial Warrior in the North, the one deciding warrior who could change the outcome of any trial or dispute he took part in. Instead, he had no idea how he might fare if matched against other century-old monsters, because even though he was confident of killing an Ancestral Beast in an ambush, he had no illusions of standing against even a half-step Divinity in single combat, or even someone far from it. Take comrade Du for instance, who put to rest the decades-old rumours of his infirmity after soundly defeating the married Exarchs Bralton and Erien in a bloodless sparring match, some two years ago when he visited the Northern Bridge. While Nian Zu could defeat the formidable pair in an open match, he wasn’t so arrogant as to believe he could do it without injuring anyone like comrade Du had. Killing was easy, surviving difficult, and defeating your foes without bloodshed the most difficult feat of all, one comrade Du pulled off with relative ease, according to Bralton himself.
And now, Du Min Gyu, this monster in human skin counted as one of Nian Zu’s peers, not to mention all the centuries-old hidden dragons of the Empire like Akanai and her husband, Husolt. At less than eighty years of age, Baatar was already strong enough to match Nian Zu, so how strong would his respected Mentor be?
With time and attention to spare, he ceased lamenting about old age and paid close attention to how the Bekhai’s guests behaved, for the differences were telling. First to leave were the sycophants and merchants, rushing off to protect their own asses lest the eyes of the Disciplinary Corps turn their way, followed by the ladder-climbing parasites who attached themselves to the Bekhai in hopes of riding their coat-tails to success. Next to leave were those friends-written-rivals, the powerful factions who saw the Bekhai as a threat, but had yet to decide between clash or compromise. They stayed not to show support, but so that they might needle their would-be opponents or learn something of interest, but as a whole, the Bekhai were tight-lipped regarding the reason behind the Justicars’ abnormal behaviour. Falling Rain spoke more than necessary and less carefully than he should, but aside from making light of his sentence and professing a longing to return to the front lines, he said little else regarding the matter of his hearing.
Ah, such a waste. Had his Core not been shattered, he would’ve made a fine Martial Warrior, one whose name would have shaken the Empire for decades to come. Perhaps he might even have been the next Ryo Dae Jung or Lu An Jing, but now all the Bekhai hopes lay on Gerel, a talented warrior with promise, but one lacking Rain’s charm and charisma.
Take the boy’s circle of comrades, for example, each one loyal to a fault. Notable and not so notable personages came up to give him their regards, people like Ouyang Yuhuan, Exarches Bralton and Erien, Major Chu Xinyue, and other field officers who fought alongside him in Sanshu. Then there were his peers, like Situ Jia Zian, Han BoShui, Jin ZhiLan, Tong Da Fung, Wu Gam, and more, each one a potential rival yet all standing firmly beside their friend, though a few more steadfast than most. Jia Zian’s loyalty in particular surprised Nian Zu, for while he didn’t hear his little clansman’s request as it was delivered through Sending, it was easy enough to infer from Falling Rain’s response. “Don’t be dumb,” the crippled young man whispered while hugging his friend, an intimate gesture which would have the rumour-mongers salivating for weeks without end. “If you come along, my enemies will try to turn you against me. Your mom, your uncle, your concubine’s family, their safety will be put in jeopardy in order to force your hand.” Rolling his eyes in response to Zian’s heated Sending, Rain continued, “Of course I trust you, but why give them the opportunity? If you aren’t there, then there’s no point in blackmailing you, and I don’t have to feel bad about getting you and your entire family killed. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine, plus Nian Zu’s the perfect candidate to watch over me and practically impossible to blackmail, a beloved Colonel General with a spotless record and no family or friends to speak of.”
…That last bit hurt more than Nian Zu would ever admit, but the boy wasn’t wrong.
Rain’s conversation practically repeated itself with BoShui, except BoHai’s nephew took less convincing, his eyes glowing with worship and admiration when faced with his benefactor. There was once a time when calling BoShui mediocre would have been too much of a compliment, yet after meeting Rain, he’d overtaken his peers in two short years and turned into a giant bear of a man, one who not only stabilized his fragile Aura and Formed his Natal Palace, but also Developed his Domain to become a formidable Expert in his own right. To hear BoShui tell it, he owed everything in his life to Falling Rain, and Nian Zu believed it. Once might be a coincidence, but for so many Experts to emerge from Falling Rain’s retinue in such a short time spoke of more than simple luck or happenstance, but Baatar refused to speak on the matter regardless of how hard Nian Zu pressed him.
Others might believe he’d done Baatar a favour by taking the relatively unknown warrior under his wing, but only Nian Zu knew how hard it’d been to convince the intractable tribesman to accept the mantle as next Hero of the Wall. They both desired to keep the province safe, but Baatar cared nothing for fame or recognition, only that he had a suitable outlet for his aggressive, half-wolf nature. In the end, he only accepted after the fiasco with the Society Contests, not because he hoped Nian Zu could help end things amicably, but because he had tried to mediate the situation without being asked to. In Baatar’s eyes, he owed Nian Zu a favour, one he repaid by accepting a promotion to Major General and second-in-command at the Wall.
A stubborn and incomprehensible bunch, these Bekhai, but honourable and steadfast, which was more than Nian Zu could say for most.
When the last guest finally departed, he fell in beside Yuzhen, Eccentric Gam, and Ouyang Yuhuan to follow Baatar and his family back to the manor, a slow and almost comical procession thanks to Rain’s plodding gait and the overstuffed, lethargic Divine Turtle nodding off every few steps while escorting him home. Why they didn’t arrange a palanquin for the boy, Nian Zu couldn’t say, but after taking five minutes to travel the few hundred metres back to the manor, his patience was all but spent. As soon as everyone bade the Divine Turtle goodnight and he felt the tell-tale suppression of a Sound Barrier close in around him, he asked, “Well?”
Stony-faced as always, Baatar merely shook his head, but Akanai was not so polite. “Hmph,” the formidable woman snorted, fixing him with an icy stare. “You should not have meddled in Bekhai affairs.”
Not the thanks he expected for blindly jumping into the fire, but it would take more than ingratitude and a glare to cow Nian Zu. “Meddle? You all looked ready to commit murder and treason, so had I not ‘meddled’ then we would likely be locked in a battle to the death.”
“How fortunate for you.”
“Are you mad, woman?” Unwilling to back down, Nian Zu cautiously eyed his surroundings and readied to fight, not because he believed his life in danger, but he saw no sense in taking chances. “I command over a million soldiers here in the citadel, while you have less than fifteen-thousand. Even assuming each of your warriors are worth sixty of mine, when the dust settles, I’ll be left with an army larger than the one you started with.” Not to mention the many forts and forces scattered between here and SuiHua, or the countless Peak Experts who would be obliged to help hunt the Bekhai down if they were declared traitors, but Nian Zu felt his point had been made.
Also, Baatar looked positively ready to rend him to pieces over his disrespectful tone, though oddly enough, Akanai’s husband Husolt paid no mind to the proceedings, exchanging hushed words with the Medical Saint Taduk who stood protectively over Rain with a scowl on his face. That was one to watch out for; few remembered that Healers could end lives as easily as they saved them, and in his field of work, the Medical Saint was second to none.
“Putting hypotheticals aside,” Akanai said, ignoring Nian Zu’s point, “Your interference was neither needed nor appreciated. The Bekhai protect their own, and your meddling has ruined everything.” Jerking her thumb at the boy, she explained, “Now he thinks he will survive this journey to the front lines, but I am not so optimistic.”
“And committing open rebellion is any different?” Mother in Heaven, had it truly come to this? The Bekhai breaking ties with the Empire and Imperial Scions murdering one another in wartime? Then again, Rain likely didn’t count as a ‘true’ Scion in the eyes of the Eastern Nobility, but they would still have to account for his Patron, the Legate. What had the boy gotten himself into? “Tell me everything,” he demanded, finally accepting he didn’t know enough about the situation. “Did the Legate turn on the Bekhai?”
“No, we owe him a great debt,” Baatar growled, his wife’s hand on his arm doing much to calm him. “Our problems stem from Yang Jixing, the Prime Minister’s son, an empty-headed fop who means to take Zheng Luo away.”
Of all the half-witted, short-sighted, mule-headed reasons to rebel, this one had to be the worst. Or best, depending on how one looked at it. Fighting over a woman, truly the downfall of many great men. “…I hate to be callous, but is giving her up not an option?”
“Of course it is.” This time, it was Sarnai who spoke up, while the consort in question withered away in fright. “But Rain asked if she wanted to leave with the fop and she said no. Since that is the case, then the girl stays, end of discussion. Jixing does not seem like a man accustomed to disappointment, but I look forward to teaching him a sound lesson on the subject matter.”
Thankfully, Ouyang Yuhuan saved him the trouble of pushing the issue and voiced his thoughts for him. “All this for an Imperial Servant. Is it truly worth it?”
“She is not just an Imperial Servant,” Sarnai replied, her glare brooking no argument. “Zheng Luo is my son’s consort and my first daughter-in-law. She is of the Bekhai, her children will be of the Bekhai, her grandchildren will be of the Bekhai, and we will fight to the death to keep her safe.”
…Stubborn and incomprehensible, but honourable and steadfast.
In the face of Bekhai integrity and Zheng Luo’s teary joy, Nian Zu could do naught but accept things as they were. Luckily, this was merely a spat between the younger generation and nothing more serious, which meant it should be a simple enough affair to protect Rain from Imperial machinations. With the Legate overseeing battlefield command and Yuzhen handling logistics, all Nian Zu needed to do was keep an eye on their ‘allies’ and ensure Rain wasn’t placed in harm’s way. How difficult could it be?
Though he didn’t hear the courtyard doors burst open, he felt the gust of wind which accompanied it and he turned to face the possible threat. Marching in at the head of his former retinue, Dastan Zhandos strode forth with weapon drawn and expression grim, pushing Nian Zu and everyone else in his way to stand before Rain. Dropping to their knees, the dozen or so rebels from Sanshu presented their weapons to Rain hilt first. “Our lives are yours,” they said as one, their voices determined and unwavering, each one unable to outright ask Rain to kill them due to their Oaths, yet proving their fealty and dedication through their actions.
How Falling Rain could be so beloved by his people yet so antagonistic to outsiders was a mystery to be sure, but seeing the fervent devotion in the eyes of these convicted traitors proved Rain’s worth, for few officers could inspire such feelings in the soldiers under their command, much less slave soldiers who once sided with the Defiled.
However, in response to this touching display, the boy groaned and rolled his eyes. “Don’t be fucking stupid. What would killing you accomplish?” Taken aback by the admonishment, Dastan was not alone in his confusion, as Nian Zu and everyone else present save Yuzhen and Zheng Luo turned to Rain for clarification. Doing a poor job of hiding his disdain for their ignorance, Rain explained, “Killing them does nothing. Sure I won’t have to go to the front lines anymore, but Jixing will just find another excuse. He dropped all other charges, which means putting me on the front lines was his end goal, and since the Legate allowed it, I’m certain he wants the same thing, albeit for different reasons. Why else would he assign Brother Biao to my Honour Guard? I don’t need a Peak Expert to guard me if I’m sitting safe in the citadel, so like it or not, this is happening, and I’d prefer it if my Domain-wielding friend were alive to watch my back.” Shrugging, he added, “Besides, doesn’t the Emperor favour young talents? Dastan and Sahb are slaves and rebels, but they’re still ridiculously talented, so killing them won’t just look cowardly, we might even be punished for it.”
…Ordinarily, Nian Zu would have lambasted anyone who dared call him ‘fucking stupid’, but considering he’d been ready to end Dastan’s life himself, the criticism was quite valid.
Swatting Dastan’s axe handle aside, Rain scowled and said, “You done kneeling and being dramatic yet? I’m headed to the front lines tomorrow, with only you guys, my Honour Guard, and Nian Zu to protect me, so you should probably get some rest and let me do the same.” Holding a hand up to forestall all arguments, he turned to his three betrotheds and said, “No, none of you are coming with me.” Turning to the half-cat girl, he added, “Well… except Song, because she has to… Sorry. No Khishig guardians either, so Jochi and Argat can stay here. We’ll need people to guard Song though. Yes, even you have to stay Grandpa Du, what will you do if they get their hands on… what’s his name. You know… Kai’s kid. Anyways, anyone who comes along will just become a target to exploit, and the fewer options we leave Jixing, the easier it’ll be to guess his next move.” Turning to Zheng Luo, he asked, “How goes the whole forgery thing? And I was thinking…”
It was an incredible thing to watch, this young, crippled hero taking charge in a courtyard filled with no less than four General officers and multiple Peak Experts and Experts, but in Nian Zu’s eyes, it seemed oddly fitting. Even if the boy never regained his Martial Strength, his mind was still sound, and he could learn to be much like Du Yi once was, a brilliant and devious strategist who played his enemies against each other and always came out on top.
…Granted, Rain wasn’t quite so brilliant and nowhere near as devious, but he had plenty of time to learn with Nian Zu, the Hero of the Northern Wall, standing by to protect him.
What else was an irrelevant old man to do if not make way for the future?
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