Savage Divinity – Chapter 480

I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron OxenThunder and my other anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!


So heads up, I’m having some issues with the next volume which I won’t go into here, but I’ll be taking a break after chapter 481 (which is the end of the volume) to sort them out. How long this break lasts, I don’t know, but at least 1 chapter delay, and maybe more. I’ll let you know when I know, so this is just fair warning.


And now, to take away from the sting of that announcement, here is some fan art from a new artist. Submitted by Burningwombat, he saw the lacking representation of floofs and has sought to retify this by drawing a portrait of Zabu, looking adorable yet probably still muderous.


This is gonna sound weird to a lotta you, but lookit that rump. I wanna grab it. and those murder mitts! Kyaaaaaaa!!!  😻Would pet, 10/10 adorbs.


Anywho, enjoy the chapter!




After nine months of doubts and hardships, the dark clouds looming over Luo-Luo’s uncertain fate had finally dispersed and she could see the sun once more.


Though marred by their conflict with the Prime Minister’s son, once everything was accounted for, she considered this an auspicious start to the new year. Twice now, Lord Husband had metaphorically slapped Jixing in the face, once directly in the privacy of his manor, and a second time publicly after her performance in the central square, but since then, there’d been no response from the arrogant young Scion. Though tall, handsome, and highborn, his behaviour was no different from those pompous, good-for-nothing silk-pants who followed Lord Husband around the citadel, mocking him day in and day out despite being little more than wastrels and drunkards themselves. Jixing likely only wanted Luo-Luo to fulfill his youthful fantasies and would probably discard her out of hand once he grew bored, a true rapscallion with only lust and indulgence in mind.


Oh how far she’d regressed… how dare she treat a noble so rudely, even in her own thoughts? Though antagonistic to Lord Husband, Yang Jixing was an illustrious Noble from one of the five Supreme Clans and his arrogance well deserved. Not only was Jixing’s father the Prime Minister, a powerful man whose hand could conceal the sky and cover the earth, but their ancestors were also worthy of veneration. Yang, Liang, Xing, Tian, and Di, each of their surnames had been gifted by the First Emperor himself as reward for their ancestors’ exemplary service. Named for the Sun, Moon, Stars, Sky, and Earth respectively, the five Supreme Clans represented everything under Heaven which they helped secure for the First Emperor, namely the Azure Empire itself. As a mere Imperial Servant, it was not Luo-Luo’s place to criticize Jixing, a descendant of men and women who toppled mountains and overturned seas.


Except she too was a descendent of those same people, only she’d been tossed aside due to a mere quirk of fate…


No, the Mother had a plan for all her children, so whatever life she might’ve had was lost to her forever now, and she was merely Imperial Servant Zheng Luo, Consort to Falling Rain. While truly grateful for Lord Husband’s actions and suitably impressed by how he’d handled the Situ Patriarch, she worried Yang Jixing would make things difficult for their family and the Bekhai. Thus far, there’d been no consequence to Lord Husband’s brazen actions, likely out of fear or respect of Lord Husband’s backer, but that didn’t mean nothing would ever come of this. Though an Imperial Scion himself, there was a strict hierarchy which all Scions adhered to, but Lord Husband paid it no mind and risked everything in his reckless bid to save the bald Guard Captain’s life.


As regal and commanding as his actions had been, when Lord Husband demanded the Royal Guardian receive his token, Luo-Luo had almost fainted on the spot. While she had also noted the discrepancy in the Guardian’s boots, she would have never imagined Lord Husband would call the man out, especially not in public. What if the Royal Guardian had been a Noble himself? Though he gave no family name, Kuang Biao could very well have been a highborn Scion using a pseudonym, and if this had been the case, then Lord Husband would be lifting a rock to smash his own feet. Where Yang Jixing ranked amongst the upper echelons of nobility, a mere Imperial Consort such as Lord Husband rated close to the bottom, if not the very bottom considering his unique status. Any minor Noble would outrank him, even an illegitimate son or daughter of the five Supreme Clans, the likes of which were scattered throughout the ranks of Royal Guardians. Luckily, Kuang Biao appeared to merely be a base-born soldier with outstanding talent, someone who ranked below even the most humble of nobles, but had it been otherwise, then Lord Husband would have erred gravely in trying to command a social superior.


At best, he would be let off with a light beating, but if Kuang Biao had a peerage equal to Yang Jixing’s, then even assassination wasn’t unheard of if Lord Husband’s Patron didn’t care to shelter him…


While she’d explained all this in great detail to Lord Husband in the months before his accident and again immediately after, his attitude regarding the social pecking order was far too nonchalant considering it was a matter of life and death. He only cared about explicit rules and ignored almost all implicit ones, even though custom and tradition were oftentimes stronger than law. This wasn’t all, because by revealing his conflict with another Imperial Scion to the public, Lord Husband lessened the status of the entire Imperial Clan in the eyes of the public, a grave sin for any Scion regardless of rank. To make matters worse, in the two short days since the incident, public opinion had not only sided with Lord Husband, but had also ‘concluded’ that his Patron, Shen ZhenWu was at fault. Whether he was directly responsible and had ordered Kuang Biao to action, or indirectly responsible by allowing another Scion to act against their beloved crippled Hero, the public couldn’t agree, but every bar-room argument and bed-room discussion unanimously lay the blame solely at Shen ZhenWu’s feet.


Regardless of the dire repercussions which had yet to arrive, Luo-Luo found it gratifying to see how commoners rallied to Lord Husband’s defence, beloved not only for his goodwill, recent or otherwise, but also for his heroic sacrifice in Sinuji. Likewise, his popularity had single-handedly improved the plight of crippled soldiers all across the Empire, or at least this was what MuYang believed. No longer were injured and unfit warriors cast out or hidden from society, but welcomed with open arms as the heroes they truly were, though Luo-Luo wasn’t so sure she’d lay credit at Lord Husband’s feet. Though most claimed the war had yet to begin in earnest, handicapped warriors were a common sight these days, even in SuiHua before they moved into the citadel. Hard to ignore so many disabled veterans, and it wouldn’t surprise her to learn that this newfound goodwill was specifically contrived by the powers that be. It would be poor for morale if every border town and shipping port was packed to the brim with homeless, destitute cripples, a dismal portent of things to come for every soldier heading towards the front lines.


Lord Husband did his part, but even he couldn’t afford to house or Heal every wounded soldier who came their way…


However pleasant public opinion might be, Luo-Luo knew just how fickle and forgetful commoners could be. All it would take was one shameful scandal or disreputable rumour to ruin Lord Husband’s reputation, and already she could sense them forming in the shadows. ‘He thinks too highly of himself’, ‘he belittles the efforts of hardworking soldiers of the Society’, ‘he seeks vengeance when the Empire should stand united’, these quiet whispers hinted at the work of their enemies, but thankfully, they had yet to gain traction. Paying them no mind, Lord Husband continued about his new year celebrations as planned, and Luo-Luo enjoyed the festivities alongside him. Yesterday, they took part in a Bekhai banquet at his new farm, the perfect location to accommodate fifteen-thousand Khishigs and their families. As much as it pained her to think of the costs, at least Lord Husband wasn’t footing the entire bill for this event, and Luo-Luo hadn’t even been asked to help arrange things since Akanai had her own people to handle it.


One of whom was Mother-in-law Sarnai, and having seen the results, Luo-Luo was suitably impressed.


The banquet had offered an eye-opening experience into Bekhai culture, for it was the first time she’d ever seen the war-like tribesmen in a non-military setting. The quiet farmlands had transformed overnight as the empty fields were filled with stalls and carts packed with all manner of food, drink, toys, and trinkets. Everything there was provided by the vendors themselves and given away freely, and though Lord Husband’s family had their own contributions, these were hardly the focus of the event. Instead, as befitting their combative nature, there were a multitude of contests and events for all skills and ages, from strength, archery, acrobatics, and more, the likes of which amazed and astounded her. There was a quaint appeal to the festivities, with rhythmic drumming and colourful decorations a plenty, and she would be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the simplistic nature and charming intimacy of the event, where she’d been introduced to more people than she could possibly remember before being hustled on stage for yet another musical performance.


Finally feeling as if she’d finally been accepted, Luo-Luo played her heart out and gave a performance to top her two previous ones, so when the last note stilled and the thunderous applause shook the ground beneath her feet, she felt it was a dream come true. Her new family finally valued her for her true talents instead of leaving her to languish on her own, which meant the world to a virgin consort who had yet to win her Lord Husband’s affection. At least this way, she wouldn’t be cast aside or worse…


As for today, Lord Husband hosted an open feast for anyone willing to attend, a day-long affair to welcome his Patron to the citadel. Luo-Luo had worked hard to make certain everything was in its place, since with matters already strained as they were, this event could prove the difference between life and death. Lord Husband’s actions against Yang Jixing had forced Shen ZhenWu’s hand, and if he rescinded his protection, then there would be dark days ahead for the Bekhai, but Luo-Luo seemed to be the only one concerned about this issue. When she brought it up with Mother-in-law Sarnai, the fierce woman flashed a dangerous smile before waving Luo-Luo’s concerns away. “Even if the sky should fall,” Sarnai had said, giving Luo-Luo’s cheek a comforting pat, “There will be others to shoulder the burden.”


Despite these reassuring words, Luo-Luo’s heart threatened to burst out of her chest as she stood next to Lord Husband and the rest of the welcoming committee while three Zhengui rosewood palanquins made their way through the citadel gates. The gathered crowd cheered and threw coloured paper pieces to welcome their Imperial Legate, escorted by Mother knows how many Death Corps and Royal Guardians. How many people here knew what these palanquins signified, that these resplendent works of art were reserved for highest echelons of Imperial Nobility? Even Yang Jixing didn’t qualify unless he rode with his esteemed Father, but Shen ZhenWu had brought two extras to use as decoys, an extravagance only he could afford using his status as younger brother to the Emperor, nephew of the Grand Marshal, and heir apparent to the throne.


Luckily, thanks to the nature of their offices, the Grand Marshal was forever at odds with the Prime Minister, so with this man’s support, dealing with Yang Jixing would be as simple as turning a hand. Without it… well, she might as well pray for the best, because the worst was too horrible to imagine.


Stepping out of the foremost palanquin, Shen ZhenWu was a force to behold as he greeted the welcoming party with open arms, a proud, charismatic Son of Heaven who didn’t find it beneath himself to smile and wave at the crowd, a minor effort on his part which won the affection of commoner and soldier alike. Perhaps conscious of the rumours, Shen ZhenWu even took the time help Luo-Luo’s kneeling Lord Husband back to his feet, an action which would do wonders towards putting those rumours to rest. The Guardian Turtle also received a pat in greeting, but she seemed just as agitated as she had during their visit to Yang Jixing’s manor, and Luo-Luo prayed the gargantuan creature wouldn’t do anything to embarrass them or worse.


Luckily, Shen ZhenWu didn’t try to hug the Guardian Turtle like Lord Husband was so fond of doing and he strode off to give a rousing speech, after which her day continued without incident until shortly after dinnertime. While dessert was being served in the privacy of their manor, an Imperial Messenger barged in once again with a summons for Lord Husband and Luo-Luo, though this time it was appropriately addressed and made no threats of death. Perhaps having learned from Jixing’s error, Shen ZhenWu arranged to receive them at the citadel’s seat of power, a sturdy stone building which backed onto the stage where Luo-Luo had given a performance not two days ago. Though the details were unknown to the general public, it was here where Lord Husband had publicly butted heads with Yang Jixing, and quite fittingly, here is where Shen ZhenWu would decide their fate.


While the Guardian Turtle waited safely outside on ground level, Luo-Luo noted. Were it not so absurd, she might even suspect Shen ZhenWu was afraid of the big, gentle girl…


Outside the building, the Legate’s seneschal greeted them with a litter to carry Lord Husband up to the fifth floor, a good sign considering the ongoing festivities had taken a toll on his stamina. Though still ruddy-cheeked and clear-eyed, his shoulders sagged and head drooped as they made their way to the top floor, a sure sign of exhaustion if she’d ever seen one. Worse, judging by his whitened knuckles and furrowed brow, his pain medication had almost run its course and his agony was creeping back into perception, so she prayed this meeting would be over and done with before his discomfort grew too much.


For the second time, Lord Husband’s Patron met them in a surprisingly intimate setting, inside a private side room with only four lacquered armchairs lined up in a row and a small table in front of them laden with desserts. “I’m told the Imperial Messenger interrupted your meal,” Shen ZhenWu said, arms folded behind his back as he stared out the window. “Sit and help yourselves, then we shall speak.”


Despite the friendly nature of his greeting, he sent mixed signals by not turning around to greet them, a churlish gesture meant to convey his displeasure. Gracious, yet aloof, thoughtful, yet haughty, perhaps Shen ZhenWu meant this as a clue to say he had yet to make up his mind regarding Lord Husband’s actions. Wishing she could Send, Luo-Luo tried to silently inform Lord Husband to immediately beg for forgiveness, but exhausted as he was, his only thought was to sit down. “Thank you, Imperial Legate,” he said, shuffling over to the closest chair until Luo-Luo guided him to the correct one. “I love tofu pudding. No need to chew.”


Desperately wishing he would watch his words more carefully, Luo-Luo declined partaking in dessert and sat down beside him, but only because she was afraid he’d make a fuss if she didn’t. With only the clinking of his porcelain spoon to fill the silence, it felt like an eternity before he finally finished his bowl, and Luo-Luo thanked the Mother he didn’t slurp loudly or lick his spoon clean. Eyeing the table as if thinking of having another bowl, he accepted Luo-Luo’s handkerchief and wiped his mouth instead. Missing her overt signals for silence, he then turned around and said, “Thank you for the treat. It was delicious. There was something different about it which I couldn’t quite place.”


“Have another.” Still staring out the window, Shen ZhenWu’s tone implied it wasn’t an offer, but rather a demand. “Eat as much as you so desire.”


Oblivious to the nuances of their situation, Lord Husband nodded and replied, “Thank you, I think I will.” Reaching for another bowl despite Luo-Luo’s attempts to warn him, he added, “I don’t know what it is, but even though I don’t eat much these days, there’s something about this pudding…” That was as far as he got before the spoon reached his mouth, and Luo-Luo was consigned to awkward silence once again. There were eight bowls on the table, each one barely larger than a teacup, but given Lord Husband’s poor appetite in recent weeks, even one bowl should have been enough to sate him, yet after the second bowl, he reached for a third, then the fourth, and so on. Though ravenous, his movements could not be considered fast, and by the time he finished the eight bowl, Shen ZhenWu had been standing at the window for almost half an hour, and Luo-Luo’s back was covered in cold sweat.


Of all the times for Lord Husband’s appetite to recover, why did it have to be now? She could just imagine Shen ZhenWu ordering him to continue eating until he died…


Leaning back in his chair with a sigh, Lord Husband smacked his lips and Luo-Luo moved to cover them, wordlessly pleading for him to mind his manners. “Thank you,” he said, once she was certain he wouldn’t make any other strange noises and withdrew her hand. “I don’t think I’ve felt this comfortable and clear-headed in months.”


“As well you should,” Shen ZhenWu replied, finally turning away from the window. Not daring to look directly at him, she couldn’t tell if he was smiling or frowning, but he casually took his seat and said, “What you just ate cost a small fortune, enough to purchase half the materials used to build this fortress. Unlike the materials though, even if you had the coin, no one would sell you a portion, much less eight.”


“Oh.” Luo-Luo’s first panicked thought was poison, as was Lord Husband’s judging by his reaction, but luckily, he was not so foolish as to voice it out loud. “…What was it?”


“Tofu pudding.” This time, Luo-Luo could hear the amusement in Shen ZhenWu’s voice, a good sign, but not definitive. “Sweetened with cane sugar syrup mixed with a restorative elixir. It won’t repair your Core, and I fear no elixir can, but this will put more meat on your bones and keep you from looking like death warmed over.”


His words made Luo-Luo’s heart surge with joy, and she hurriedly bowed in thanks while urging Lord Husband to do the same. “This one thanks Imperial Legate for his consideration.”


“I thank Imperial Legate for his consideration.”


“You will thank me by making sure everyone hears about my consideration.” The amusement was gone now, replaced by steel and fire. “I’ll not have it said that Shen ZhenWu is an ingrate.”


“You most certainly aren’t. I feel better already.” He looked better too, sitting upright and without support for the first time since his injury. “So about that restorative elixir… would it be too much to ask for the recipe?”




“Shame. Even if I paid? I’m really, really, really rich.”




Worried Lord Husband would continue to push his luck, Luo-Luo shuffled closer to ‘support’ and gave his side a light pinch. It usually worked for Sister Mila, but Lord Husband barely flinched and moved on. “Is there anything else Imperial Legate would ask of me?”


Still unable to read Shen ZhenWu, the next few seconds stretched on into eternity while she awaited his answer. Fingers tap, tap, tapping away at his armrest, he eventually sighed and said, “It pains me to say this, but I almost wish you’d have died in Sinuji. A martyr would be more useful than the cripple before me now. A foolish cripple to boot.” Rising from his chair, he set to pacing about the front of the room, five steps to the right, followed by five steps to the left. “Had you held your tongue regarding the Royal Guardian’s true identity, then we would have a dagger in hand to wield against that idiot Jixing, but now you’ve gone and played our hand too soon. Worse, you’ve irked his father in doing so, because your actions have disgraced the Yang family name, an insult he cannot let slide.”


“Jixing disgraced the Yang family name. I just pointed it out.”


Despite his dire straits, Lord Husband still had the mind to nitpick, but Shen ZhenWu was a magnanimous man. “A difference without a distinction, as far as the Yang family is concerned, and I’ve been forced to state my position on the matter. Giving you up means losing public favour and a drop in morale, but keeping you sheltered will require more effort than I am willing to exert for someone who was supposed to be my sacrificial pawn.”

Was this a hint asking Lord Husband to swear fealty? But why? Crippled as he was, it could be decades before he regained his full strength, or was Shen ZhenWu so confident in Lord Husband’s rehabilitation that this was a gambit to snatch him up while he was still weak? Regardless of the reason, Lord Husband paid it no mind. “I am grateful for your help and everything you’ve done for me, and I could not in good conscience ask for more.” No, what was he doing? Did he intend to sacrifice himself to the Yang family? “You need not protect me anymore. Let the Yang family do what they will, and the Bekhai will respond in kind.”


…Mother in Heaven, did he just threaten to go to war against one of the Supreme Clans?


So shocked she forgot to keep her head down, she saw Shen ZhenWu’s jaw drop in surprise before he caught her staring. Closing his mouth with an audible click, he coughed to hide his embarrassment and favoured her with a wink and a smile, as if asking her to keep his secret. “You have my admiration,” he said, a statement which made Luo-Luo freeze in astonishment, her poor heart barely able to keep up with all the surprises. The future Emperor admires a mere crippled young hero, one not even twenty years of age? “Very well then. I will wash my hands of this, but for reasons of my own, I cannot allow you to face the Yang family unaided, nor can I offer you overt support. I’ll make the arrangements and send word in the morning, and then we will not meet again for some time. Now enough of this unpleasant business.” Clapping his hands twice, the doors opened up and a Royal Guardian marched in carrying a beautiful, purple jade zither, which he placed at the side of the room before leaving. “I’ve heard tales of Consort Zheng Luo’s musical talents, so today, I hope to experience them for myself.”


“This servant would be happy to oblige.” Smoothing her skirt before she rose, she mustered every scrap of grace and dignity before making her way over to the zither, hoping that her performance could win Lord Husband more support from his powerful and inscrutable Patron. Why the future Emperor placed so much value on a foreign young talent, Luo-Luo was hard-pressed to say, especially now that Lord Husband was crippled. Regardless of the reason, she would do everything in her power to help win Shen ZhenWu over, though she prayed he was not like Jixing and harbouring hidden motives. Sitting behind the zither, she set to tuning the strings and found there was little for her to do, as the instrument had already been properly adjusted. Giving Shen ZhenWu her best smile, she said, “This servant hopes her humble skills are to Imperial Legate’s liking, and shall start with ‘The Plum Blossom Blooms Thrice’.”


“No.” Shen ZhenWu’s refusal came without hesitation as he watched her with attentive eyes, though they lacked the hunger and lust she’d seen in Jixing’s eyes. There was still a hint of greed, or perhaps even jealousy, but not for Luo-Luo’s beauty or talents. What his gaze meant, she couldn’t say, but it was a mystery to unravel in the future. “Play ‘Rise to Glory’.”


“This servant shall comply.”


Having modified her original composition since she first played it on new year’s day, she couldn’t spare the attention to watch Shen ZhenWu’s reaction, but she poured her emotions into the song in hopes of moving his heart. In fact, this was why she’d chosen ‘The Plum Blossom Blooms Thrice’, for it was a melody about hard work and perseverance paying off in time, but alas, he’d seen through her intentions. Still, ‘Rise to Glory’ was the result of twelve years of work and twenty-four years of her personal experiences, so perhaps it too could sway him.


From the first note to the last, Luo-Luo gave it her all, and when the song came to an end, she received yet another standing ovation, this time from the future Emperor instead of the current one. Falling to her knees, she kowtowed in thanks, only to belatedly realized Lord Husband had dozed off in his chair and was unaware of the offence being given, but there was little she could do to save him. After her ninth kowtow, she found herself being lifted to her feet and face to face with Lord Husband’s Patron. “Well played,” he said, his soft eyes filled with delight and… pride? “Well played.” Glancing back at her sleeping Lord Husband, Shen ZhenWu winked again and said, “Worry not. A young hero can be forgiven many things, especially if he lives up to expectations.” Removing his fan from his belt, he opened it to display the Imperial Sigil and indicate he spoke with the Emperor’s voice before Sending, “Hear me. Should you end up in the hands of the Yang family, you are hereby ordered to refuse service and invoke the Privilege. Never speak of this command to anyone, including the Justicar who comes to hear your grievances. Thus hath it been said, and thus shall it be.”


The blood drained from her face as she watched Shen ZhenWu leave, but she recovered quickly once he was out of sight. Why the Emperor would demand such a price, Luo-Luo did not know, but it was a moot point. Shen ZhenWu had likely expected this when he gifted Luo-Luo to Lord Husband and knew Yang Jixing would enter into conflict with the Bekhai. Perhaps he even arranged for it to happen, though she could not even begin to guess why. It didn’t matter though, because now she understood Lord Husband and the Bekhai’s resolve, ready to go to war against one of the most powerful families in the Empire on her account. It was almost unthinkable for someone like herself, an Imperial Servant raised to revere the Emperor and His nobles, but there was something exhilarating and uplifting about her new family’s fierce independence. Lord Husband was determined to be the master of his own fate, and Luo-Luo yearned to do the same.


If the Bekhai dared to challenge the Yang family, then how could she lack the nerve to do the same? Should she end up in Yang Jixing’s hands, then it would mean Lord Husband and the Bekhai had died trying to keep her safe. If this were the case, then Luo-Luo would have invoked the Privilege regardless, since she’d sooner join Lord Husband in the arms of the Mother than serve his killer.


Or perhaps…


A heinous and heretical thought crept into her mind, and try as she might, she could not banish it. If she intended to invoke the Privilege and take her own life, then why not do it after she avenged Lord Husband and their people?

Chapter Meme


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 479


Today was full of surprises, and Yuzhen loathed surprises.


Traditionally, the second day of the new year was reserved for visiting close friends and compatriots, so she’d been quite flattered when Baatar personally delivered a handwritten invitation to Zheng Luo’s performance. Considering their difference in status, most would see it as the Northern Marshal gracing a promising Major General’s event with her attendance, but in her eyes, she was finally being accepted by her beloved’s fellow people. The Bekhai were an independent bunch who rarely mingled with ‘outsiders’ unless necessary, and even her upcoming nuptials weren’t enough to establish herself as one of their own, so imagine her surprise when she arrived and found she wasn’t the only outsider to have been invited. Nian Zu, Han BoHai, Man Giao, and the married Exarches Bralton and Erien, none of them were tied to the Bekhai by more than friendship, yet they too had been invited alongside a plethora of acquaintances and associates who could barely be counted on to remain neutral in event of a political conflict, much less lend aid to Baatar or his kin.


So why did they also count as close friends and compatriots? Yuzhen would soon marry into their stupid, insular tribe, but she had yet to even be invited to a casual meal, much less anything more intimate…


Her disappointment aside, she was relieved to see the brusque half-wolf making an effort to connect with possible political allies, but there was still plenty of room for improvement. All of the Major General’s colleagues, some of the most powerful and influential people in the North and Central, had been hosted on the fourth floor alongside Yuzhen, while Baatar’s family and the reclusive elites were on the fifth and highest floor above them. While not an intentional slight, someone ignorant of Bekhai ways would see it as a snub, but the reclusive mountain dwellers cherished family above all else and community coming in as a close second. Though most would have no choice but to swallow the perceived insult, Yuzhen did what she could to soothe bruised egos and hurt feelings by quietly suggesting these arrangements were to keep the Major General’s talented but troublesome son, with his ailing physical condition and all too many pets, out of the public eye.


Ah Falling Rain, truly a name for the history books. Most of the Empire lamented the loss of such a promising young Warrior, but Yuzhen saw things differently. The Mother always left a path to salvation, and Rain had many other talents to choose from. Considering his imaginative and revolutionary thought process as well as the talents demonstrated by his Imperial Consort, Yuzhen had offered him a high position in her administration whenever he felt ready to put his financial talents to good use, but the poor child seemed all too happy to spend his days idling about while frittering away a vast fortune. Whether it was buying Spiritual Plants, funding Runic research, or simply giving his coin away, she feared even Consort Luo’s business acumen could not keep up with Rain’s profligate spending habits, though having seen the girl’s most recent marketing proposal promising an alternative laxative to mandrel stalk, it seemed Zheng Luo was doing better than most would in her shoes.


Add in her phenomenal musical talents and she was a true treasure of a woman, one Rain and the Bekhai were lucky to have.


Bringing her mind back to the present, Yuzhen quashed the urge to scream in frustration and slowly put her tea cup down so as not to give away her trembling hands. Though she’d known this year would be a tumultuous one for her office and allies, she thought she’d have more than a single day’s respite before having to deal with any political disasters, but it seemed like neither time nor the Bekhai were willing to wait. The thirty-sixth year of His Imperial Majesty’s reign marked a momentous occasion for the North and the Society in particular, because Nian Zu, the black sheep of the Situ Clan and antagonist to so many of the Society’s ambitions, had turned a hundred years old. A small stone which created countless ripples in the surface of Northern politics, for the balance of power swung heavily in favour of the Society now that the aged Colonel could no longer keep them in check. The Hero of the Wall once dominated his peers in the twenty-five to ninety-nine year old age group, but now that he was a centenarian, participation in a trial by combat meant he would have to face the likes of ancient, powerful half-beasts and monstrous half-step Divinities. Judging by the injuries he’d taken some fifteen months ago at the hands of a mere three Demons and a host of Wraiths, the famed hero’s abilities were no match for the hidden behemoths of the Society, which meant his once-domineering influence had faded away with the changing of the year.


And now, it appeared the Bekhai meant to fill the void left in Nian Zu’s wake. That’s what all this pomp and pageantry was about, using Zheng Luo’s concert to draw in a crowd before parading a remarkably long line of young talents to exhibit their skills for all to see. Though Rain was now crippled, Sumila’s tyrannical talents would ensure Bekhai supremacy in the under twenty-five category for the next five years, and her shapely bared legs in that scandalous red dress would have the Empire talking for more, but the Bekhai didn’t stop there. Alsantset, Charok, Vichear, and Dagen were warriors she knew of, but there were at least a dozen new names she marked to watch out for in the future, not to mention the surprising progress made by the members of Rain’s retinue. Most notable were the five new Domain-capable Experts, two half-beasts in their prime and three humans under thirty, two of whom were Oath-bound young Experts, which meant the Bekhai had already revealed enough talent to shake the Empire to its core.


Though they had yet to show a Warrior capable of matching Nian Zu, by trotting out so many remarkable Martial Warriors from the younger generation, the Bekhai insinuated that just as a sparrow can not beget a hawk, a tiger son could only have a tiger father. A bold, brazen warning to their political opponents, but one which struck fear into the hearts of many, for who knew how many Peak Experts were hidden in the shadows or what their ages might be. If the Society were united in this feud, then perhaps they too could match this demonstration of younger talents, but considering both Han BoDing and Jin ZhiYa were also Bekhai guests in the tea-house alongside Yuzhen, only the Situ Clan and its allies were opposed to an alliance with the Bekhai, a stance which could very well change today.


That is, unless someone was stupid enough to spit on the Situ Clan’s honour and offer a not-so-subtle challenge to Patriarch Situ Rang Min, like Yuzhen’s idiot betrothed just did.


Heart pounding and mouth dry, she dared not take another sip for fear of dropping her cup. Though she knew Gerel was vain and prideful, she never thought her handsome, passionate beloved would be so arrogant as to declare himself a Peak Expert at thirty-three years old, not to mention challenge a man rumoured to be the Society’s answer to Nian Zu. In truth, knowing how heated tensions between the Situ Clan and Bekhai were, she half-expected something like this to happen, but it should have been the Bloody-Fanged Wolf Baatar to offer challenge instead of Gerel. Did he intend to make her a widow before even going through their marriage ceremony? They were scheduled to be wed at the end of the new year festivities, but she refused to become the bride of a corpse, nor would she be like one of those idiot doe-eyed maidens from the dramas who threw themselves atop their beloved’s funeral pyre or some other such nonsense. All the same, she loved him so much it hurt, so why would he risk this? He wouldn’t be the first Warrior to die in a ‘friendly’ spar nor would he be the last, and were she not concerned about affecting his confidence and certain her efforts would bear no fruit, she would have rushed onto stage and dragged him off to be beaten and scolded.


This fool of a man had no right to look so damned handsome while causing her so much distress…


“Ease your worries, child.” The Sending startled Yuzhen so much she almost jumped out of her chair, but a calm, reassuring hand kept her in place and squeezed her shoulder ever so gently. Having snuck up behind her, the Living Legend Nian Zu offered an encouraging smile before nodding at Gerel down below. “I’ve been sparring with your betrothed these past few months, and make no mistake, his claim is justified.”


“What? When? Why?”


“A Marshal must always remain calm.” Winking to show he meant no criticism, he Sent, “Your father was a master at keeping a straight face, and none will ever match him. I once snuck a trained carnugator into his bedroom and scattered my torn, bloodied clothes about, then Concealed myself nearby to watch his reaction, but all my hard work was for naught. Du Yi just opened the door, blinked twice, and gently closed it without breaking a sweat. Later, he tells me he almost had a heart attack, but you wouldn’t know it from looking.”


…Why was Nian Zu sneaking into her old man’s bedroom? Or playing childish pranks despite knowing how to Conceal? No, as much as she’d like to hear more stories about her father, now was not the time. “Why have you been sparring with Gerel?” And why didn’t he tell her? Well, she knew why, because she explicitly warned him against bothering the Colonel General, but it seems like her Guard Captain was not as obedient as she thought.


“Hmm?” Lost in his memories of past mischief, Nian Zu returned to the present with a distracted look in his eyes. “Oh right, your betrothed. After the tragedy in Sinuji, Baatar wanted to spend more time with his family, so he requested I take over his late afternoon duties. I thought he meant paperwork or troop inspections, but no. He spars with your betrothed for at least an hour every day, and the young man is tenacious.” Swelling with pride, he gave Yuzhen a grandfatherly smile and said, “While he’s not the most… socially adept person in the Empire, his courage and devotion are unmatched. One only need broach the subject of you to know he loves you with all his heart, and I believe Du Yi would have wholeheartedly approved.”


Why was he being so… familiar? Nian Zu had been good friends with her old man, but never the kind to be so intimate. Perhaps he felt guilty for not taking her in as a Disciple, though in his defence, she had been none-too-thrilled at the prospect of learning under a ‘mace-wielding muscle-head’. She favoured the jian, a light, double-edged sword which had nothing in common with the mace, and she dreamed of having a heroic, female instructor to guide her along the Martial Path, a woman to look up to and model herself after. Her old man never married or even took a lover in all his years as Marshal, and she wanted to set him up with a powerful Martial sweetheart to support him in office, but all her attempts had fallen flat.


There was a story there, one her old man never shared, but perhaps Nian Zu might know…


Focusing her thoughts on the matter at hand, Yuzhen took a deep breath, reached for Balance, and cast her fears and apprehension into the void, a trick she’d actually learned from Nian Zu. Calm and emotionless, she Sent, “What are his chances for victory?”


“Near nonexistent,” Nian Zu replied, filling her cup with tea before pouring one for himself and taking a seat. “Gerel is a phenomenal talent and never makes the same mistake twice, but I fear he’ll need a few more years of training before he can defeat Rang Min.” Noticing her clenched fists and grinding teeth, he quickly added, “Fear not. While victory might be out of reach, he’s not so weak as to be slaughtered out of hand. Besides, Rang Min is a coward at heart, a shrinking turtle who will take no unnecessary risks. He’ll send someone out to test the waters, but I doubt he has anyone young and powerful enough to pose grave threat to your betrothed.”


While it’d been several months since she last saw Gerel spar, she didn’t think his skills were advanced enough to be considered a Peak Expert, and she voiced these concerns through Sending. Nodding in agreement, Nian Zu replied, “He wasn’t a Peak Expert four months ago either, but he’s improved by leaps and bounds ever since. Do you know who his Mentor is? I would like to meet and learn from the brilliant warrior guiding your betrothed’s steps along the Martial Path, but he refuses to even name his Mentor much less give an introduction. He’s not much of a conversationalist, your betrothed. I don’t think I’ve heard him speak more than ten words in our time together, four of which are ‘greetings, let us begin’.”


Strange. Nian Zu had always kept himself away from most political affairs, but now it seemed like he intended to throw his support wholly behind the Bekhai, and was asking her to make the introduction. Why not ask his protege Baatar? “His Mentor is a woman,” Yuzhen absently Sent, noting there was finally movement among the Society’s ranks in response to Gerel’s challenge. Who would they send out? “I don’t know her name and have never seen her face, but she’s one of the Bekhai’s hidden Dragons to be sure, a reclusive Expert who wears a veil and sticks close to the Medical Saint.” No harm passing this information along, because she explicitly asked Gerel if she could, but she knew little else.


“Ah yes, I’ve seen the woman before. Didn’t she escort Rain into Nan Ping? An influential woman then, and powerful enough to escape my detection. Good, good.” Finally noticing the gargantuan Society Adherent stepping on stage with a massive maul, Nian Zu chuckled and shook his head. “Sang Hyoon is in for a rude awakening. Look at him swagger like a man half his age, as boorish in age as he was in youth. Worry not, this match will be without suspense.”


Easy for him to say, as he had no vested interest in keeping Gerel whole, but Yuzhen loved his mind almost as much as she loved his body, and even a glancing blow from the weighty weapon could render him into a drooling mess. “I am Sang Hyoon,” the hulking adherent declared, raising his maul overhead in a single hand. “Father of Sang Ryong and First Elder of the Seven Star Sect. Brigadier of the Heaven and Earth Battalion, and Peak Expert of fifty-seven years. Does this humble one qualify to challenge the illustrious guard captain?”


The last was said with a sneer and elicited a few laughs from the crowd, but Gerel’s reply put them in stitches. “No, but I’m feeling generous. Fifty moves.”


Forcing out a harsh laugh, Sang Hyoon smacked his chest and asked, “You think you can defeat me in fifty moves?”


No.” Shaking his head, Gerel spoke in deliberate monotone, which made his remark all the more cutting. “I’m gifting you with fifty moves, because I can defeat you in one.”


Silence fell over the central square aside from the barely perceptible sound of Sang Hyoon’s teeth gnashing together in frustration. Then, the audience burst into excited discussion over Gerel’s bold claim while Yuzhen closed her eyes and took another deep breath. It wasn’t enough to defeat a decorated Peak Expert thirty years his senior, no, Gerel had to humiliate him too.


Mother in Heaven, why was she so aroused?


Fuming at the insult, Sang Hyoon took his stance while Gerel did the same, and then the battle began. Letting loose with a bellowing cry, the First Elder hefted his hammer high and brought it crashing down onto the stage. Gripping her armrests to keep from leaning forward, Yuzhen willed her heart to slow down before she grew lightheaded from shock, because Gerel’s feet were still planted in place and yet to move a single step. Glaive resting on Sang Hyoon’s shoulder after Deflecting the attack aside, her betrothed smirked at having proven his claim and retracted his weapon. “My mistake. Saw the opportunity and instinct took over. I’ll give you an extra ten moves as recompense.”


Red-faced and veins throbbing, Sang Hyoon almost looked shamed enough to leave the stage, but instead he roared incoherently and brought his weapon to bear. Lashing out with a combination of Swipes the Rushes and Traverse the Mountain, he charged forward with a powerful swing which cut through the air with a howl. Forced to retreat, Gerel skipped back a single step, then another to avoid the next attack, but on the third, he reversed his momentum and slid forward underneath his opponent’s swift and intense attacks, his feet flat on the stone stage yet gliding across as if it were ice instead. Though not as graceful as other warriors like Han BoHai or even Vichear, Sang Hyoon was light on his feet and quick to react, but no matter how he twisted or turned, Gerel stuck close to his back without giving him a chance to come face to face. Laughing at the comical display, the crowd’s reaction brought Sang Hyoon to the height of fury as he used the haft of his weapon like a spear and thrust blindly behind him. Lancing directly towards his opponent’s chest, the accuracy of his blind strike was a testament to the First Elder’s consummate skills, and it forced Gerel to parry and side-step only to be met with Hyoon’s meaty backhanded punch.


A gasp slipped out as she watched the blow connect, but her man did not disappoint. Turning with the impact, he emerged unscathed without so much as a bruise before returning to his deadly dance, stepping, sliding, and leaping about the stage with a hunter’s grace. Aside from their first exchange, Gerel never met Sang Hyoon head on, dodging first and parrying only when forced to. Ten moves, then twenty, then thirty were quickly used up, but the First Elder had yet to land more than a glancing blow, all of which did no damage as they were unable to break through Gerel’s Domain. Though lacking a Domain of her own, Yuzhen knew enough to understand the basics. While it didn’t offer invulnerability to attacks, a Domain’s defensive properties were nothing to sneeze at, for most Martial Warriors would have to go to great lengths to even scratch the armour on a Peak Expert. Her former guard captain, a silvered grandfather who served her old man well, had implied it wasn’t a physical barrier which guarded the Martial Warrior, but wouldn’t go into more detail because she “wasn’t ready”.


The last thirty moves went by quickly, and when Gerel finally struck again, his glaive flashed faster than the eye could follow and severed Sang Hyoon’s hands off at the wrist. Sweeping the appendages up with the flat of his blade, Gerel flung them out over the crowd and buildings to sail off into the distance, and Yuzhen almost choked trying to restrain her laughter. “Best run lest a stray dog find them first,” Gerel said, ignoring his defeated opponent’s murderous glare. “Is this the best the Society has to offer?”


This time, Yuzhen recognized the warrior who stepped out, an Arhat from the Baiji Sect named Teng Hong Chuan. Though considered superior to his deceased cousin Major General Teng Wei Sheng, Gerel gave the Arhat a handicap of thirty moves and the man was smart enough to merely accept it without bluster. Her betrothed had already proven himself a worthy opponent and there was nothing to be gained from grandstanding, so both Peak Experts let their weapons do the talking. Fast as Sang Hyoon was powerful, Hong Chuan lived up to his moniker, ‘Vast Fist’, by unleashing a dizzying array of kicks and punches which seemed to disappear before Yuzhen’s eyes, but Gerel had no trouble warding them off while both men zipped back and forth across the stage. A symphony of metal sounded as gauntlet met glaive, but since she could barely track their movements, she focused on committing the battle to memory for future study.


Impressive as this duel already was, she also needed to account for what she couldn’t see. Not just their speedy movements, but all the tricks and tools available to a Domain-capable Expert were largely invisible to the naked eye. Waves of Reverberations trailing after his attacks, pockets of Lightening or Reversed Lightening to throw off his opponent, and shards of Honed Chi protruding from one’s weapons, these were but a few of the Peak skills Hong Chuan could be using, but if so, Yuzhen saw no sign of them or any other skills she knew of. This didn’t mean they weren’t being used, but rather that Gerel was dealing with them so easily that they might as well not matter. What’s more, she saw no sign of Domain Deflection from her betrothed, and though a few hits landed, he merely twisted aside or moved with the attack to minimize the impact, all without slowing his footwork a single beat.


When they first met, Yuzhen had thought them both somewhat equal in skill, but in less than three years, Gerel had left her far behind on the Martial Path.


Pride and delight overwhelmed her as Gerel defeated Hong Chuan without dismembering him, offering respect where respect was given. The courtesy won him praise and applause from the crowd, which he accepted gracefully with a Martial salute. “Enough games,” he said, once the bustle died down. “Situ Rang Min, have you the courage to face me, or will you continue to hide behind your allies?”


Half-giddy and half-terrified, Yuzhen felt like an eternity passed between each heartbeat before Rang Min finally answered. “Insolent whelp,” he uttered, cold and without passion from his hidden vantage point, like a lord addressing his subjects. “Who are you to meddle in the affairs of your betters? A mere rankless soldier is enough to deal with you. Kuang Biao, teach this savage a lesson he won’t soon forget.”

Cloud-stepping over the audience, the soldier’s graceful entrance was a cut above Gerel’s, but in all fairness, this ‘Hurricane’ wasn’t laden with heavy armour and a massive glaive. Wearing a wrinkled brown robe and carrying only his naked sword, Kuang Biao hardly lived up to his name, a young, slender, man with long, unkempt hair which looked like it might have recently been braided. Standing at full attention, he towered above his opponent even while offering a Martial salute, and Gerel responded in kind. “This one is Kuang Biao, thirty-seven years of age. By Great One’s order, this one shall defeat you.”


The audience burst into chatter about the soldier’s young age, then again when Gerel put aside his glaive in favour of his longsword, and a third time as he took up his stance without offering Kuang Biao a handicap. By now, any fool could see Gerel felt threatened by his unassuming opponent, and everyone settled in for an exciting match, but the two combatants did not oblige. Standing a mere five meters apart, they were close enough to strike, yet neither one moved a muscle as they held their swords in identical stances, both hands on the hilt and tip pointed at their opponent.


Long minutes passed without movement and in the deafening silence, all Yuzhen could hear was the beating of her racing heart. Then, without warning, both men moved, but only to change their stances, with Gerel moving his sword to one hand and holding it over head for a chop, while Kuang Biao cocked his arm and brought his sword back for a thrust. Over the next ten minutes, they changed their stances thrice more, but still they merely stood and stared while an invisible battle took place between them, one of Aura, Domain, and positioning, and Yuzhen could only sit and wait.


It was over in the blink of an eye, their movements so quick she only saw the outcome. His left hand severed at the wrist, Kuang Biao’s right hand held his sword with the point stuck in Gerel’s gut, whose hands were whole and unharmed, but empty as his weapon slid across the stone stage. A clear win for the self-proclaimed rankless soldier, but Kuang Biao was not yet done as he withdrew his sword and raised it high for another blow.


“Hear me. Receive Imperial Consort’s token.”


Though not bolstered by Chi, Rain’s voice carried easily over the shocked, silent crowd, and a blur of motion shot out from the top floor of the tea-house. Catching the projectile easily with his one remaining hand, Kuang Biao barely looked at the token before falling to his knees and lowering his head, leaving his sword unsheathed but pointed away from Yuzhen’s beloved betrothed. “This one awaits your command, Imperial Consort.”


Resisting the urge to lean over the railing and gawk like a child, she made a personal vow to learn to Scry as soon as possible, even if she had to beat the method out of her idiotic husband. “Why mar such a stunning exhibition with death?” Rain asked, his voice light and amused, and Yuzhen imagined his gaunt, sickly frame standing on the balcony above for all to see, perhaps supported by his wives or family. “Stay your hand.”


“By your will, Imperial Consort.”


“Kuang Biao, is it? An impressive display for one so young, I am awed by your attainments upon the Martial Path.”


“This one is unworthy, but thanks Imperial Consort.”


“More than worthy.” Yuzhen could hear the smile on his lips, for he spoke in that same, knowing tone he usually reserved for humbly bragging about his accomplishments or the newest trick his pets had learned. “But I must confess, I am rather confused, and I hope brother Biao could clear things up.”


“This one will endeavour to answer whatever questions Imperial Consort has.”


“How did an Imperial Royal Guardian end up working under Situ Rang Min?” With a condescending tone, he added, “Your boots. Lion-hide and Imperial marked. Standard issue for Royal Guardians. Who commanded you to come up on stage?”


Damn it, Yuzhen should have seen it too, but she’d been too distracted by her concern for Gerel. Now that Kuang Biao was kneeling, it was easy to see his boots were those of an Imperial Royal Guardian, though it still begged the question of how Rain noticed such a minor detail. Perhaps someone else noticed and Rain was merely the mouthpiece, but it mattered not, for the scheme had been uncovered and the Situ Clan exposed as a mere cat’s-paw for an Imperial Scion, one at odds with the still beloved young Hero, Falling Rain.


Hmph.” Displeased at being publicly called out and by name no less, Rang Min asked, “Is there a rule against Royal Guardians competing in a friendly spar?”


Instead of answering the question, Rain asked with a slow, deliberate tone, “And who are you, to meddle in the affairs of your betters?” Muffled laughter was heard from the audience as Rain threw Rang Min’s words back at him, mirth which quickly died down as they remembered who they were laughing at. Though crippled, Rain was still an Imperial Consort, and with his token received, this made his conversation an Imperial affair, so Rang Min had truly erred in speaking, but that didn’t mean he would look the other way while his lessers mocked and derided him. Long seconds passed in utter silence until Rain finally spoke again. “Still not apologizing? No matter. I am a magnanimous man, and for the sake of my friend Zian, I’ll overlook your insolence this once.”


Slap after slap dealt to Rang Min’s face, and Yuzhen could no longer hold in her laughter, nor could the rest of the crowd. Even Nian Zu cackled and stomped his feet, his normally stoic expression twisted with delight. The laughter continued as the Situ Clan and their allies stormed off, but Kuang Biao remained behind, no doubt abandoned by his Master to shoulder the blame for this deception. Luckily for the Royal Guardian, Rain wouldn’t bully a man who’d clearly been used and dropped the matter forthwith. Instead, he extolled the virtues of Imperial Martial superiority before inviting ‘brother Biao’ up to the tea-house to enjoy another musical performance from Zheng Luo.


Sublime as the musical performance was, nothing could outshine Rain’s performance, a crippled youth of twenty years verbally sparring with one of the most influential Peak Experts of the North and emerging victorious. When the music came to an end, everyone applauded politely before standing to leave, no doubt intent on telling the tale to anyone who would listen. Yuzhen looked forward to hearing how the truth would be contorted and garbled in the telling, but as she bade Nian Zu farewell, the old warrior reached out and took her hands in his own. “Err… This is difficult to say,” he Sent, looking less like a living legend and more like an embarrassed grandfather. “When it came to matters of office, Du Yi never let me help. Said I was hero enough for the rest of the Empire, and didn’t need to swoop in to save him too. ‘Politics would be handled politically, not by swinging a honking big mace,’ he’d often say.” Clearing his throat despite speaking through Sending, he continued, “But he knew I was there if he needed me, and I want you to know the same.” Gesturing towards the direction Rang Min retreated in, he said, “Now that the Imperial Clan is mixed up in things, the waters will muddy fast, so if you find yourself in over your head, then you only need speak and I will be there to help you, even if it is an Imperial Scion who seeks to sink you.”


“Thank you,” she Sent, genuinely touched by the offer. She knew Nian Zu and her old man had been good friends, but not the depths of their friendship. To even imply going against an Imperial Scion could have dire repercussions, but he did so without hesitation or obfuscation, which was a good as placing himself in the palm of her hand. Watching the Living Legend awkwardly scurry away, she reflected on his story about sneaking a carnugator into her old man’s bedroom and wondered just how the greatest warrior of three generations had become such close friends with a politician like her father. Sure, they worked closely to keep the Bridge in order, but practical jokes and unprompted promises of absolute support spoke of more than just a working relationship.


So how come she only remembered meeting Nian Zu once outside of her old man’s work, when the gruff warrior refused to take her in as his Disciple? Was that when they fell out with one another? How sad. If she’d known how close they were, she would’ve used her charms and convinced Nian Zu to accept her. Turning north, she stared far off into the distance as if she might see her old man’s unmarked memorial all the way at the Northern Bridge. Muttering a small prayer under her breath, she told him how much she missed him and how glad she was to have had him in her life.


A new year had arrived, the second without her father here to wish her good fortune and happiness, but he need not worry, because in less than two weeks, she would marry the love of her life, a man who would do anything for her, and a man she would do anything to be with. Marching downstairs to check on her beloved’s condition, Yuzhen wasn’t sure if she wanted to kill him or kiss him, but either way, she would box his ears first for not telling her about this grand scheme in advance. Worst of all, he put on such a provocative and exhilarating show which got her all riled up and ready to go, then had the sheer audacity to let himself get badly wounded in the final stretch.


The Bekhai best have their Healers ready and waiting, because if Gerel wasn’t in top-notch condition by the time the sun set, then her passion and ardour just might kill him…

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 478


Eyes gleaming with excitement and good cheer, my adorable wifey bounces in her chair and cheers for Luo-Luo’s performance, a reaction shared by most of the crowd judging by their deafening applause. Even Mila stands to join in, her customary taciturn scowl replaced by a beautiful, teary-eyed smile which fills me with longing and makes me wonder if there’s something emotionally wrong with me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Luo-Luo’s performance, but I wasn’t moved by it, not like everyone else seems to have been. Even my pets appreciated the music more than I did, each of them leaning against the carved wooden railing to better enjoy the show. While Luo-Luo played, the wildcats swayed and the bears rocked back and forth to the rhythm of the song, but now they seem to be in a trance or something, their bodies relaxed and utterly still while staring at the stage. Nestled between Song’s ears, Blackjack sits upright and at attention but otherwise non-responsive, and even the laughing birds settled down in the aftermath of the performance, utterly silent unlike the cacophonous appreciation they offered yesterday to this same song.


Well… not exactly the same. Today’s piece was the same basic tune, but more technically complicated than how she played it yesterday, with more strumming and harmonies and whatnot. I dunno, I’m not a musician, but it was definitely longer while looking and sounding more difficult to play, without really interfering with my enjoyment. An evocative and moving arrangement, lovely to the ear, but… it’s still a one instrument song. No vocals, no bass-line, no percussion, no dancing, just Luo-Luo doing a solo on stage and flexing for like thirty minutes.


My attention span is not long enough to focus on one instrument for so much time…


I dunno, maybe I’m just a pleb when it comes to the arts, but Mama Bun and Pong Pong share my lack of interest and are the only other creatures in the crowd to not be entranced by the performance. Poking his head out from his shell, the tiny turtle glares in Luo-Luo’s general direction while my sweet bunbun flattens herself on my lap in protest of the thunderous applause. I’d probably hate it too if I had giant floppy ears, so I’m glad I left the rest of the bunbuns at home. Wishing I could block out the noise for her, I stroke her head and soothe her nerves, but to no avail. Pong Pong could probably put up a sound barrier, but I have no idea how to communicate with the little guy. I’ve noticed he uses Chi a lot in daily life, always running faster and jumping higher than any turtle should be able to, but his movements go unnoticed by everyone except me. Even Mom and Dad don’t see him zipping by, which is weird because you’d think Martial Warriors would be keen on keeping track of a Divine Beast powerful enough to summon tsunamis. I asked about it, but no one really had an answer, only guesses, the most common of which being some sort of selective Concealment. Mama Bun and I can see him, but everyone else overlooks his presence unless I point him out, a skill I desperately want to learn so I can use it during social events.


And for other things… I’m not proud of wanting to peep, but I can’t help it. It’s a sickness.


While the applause is still going strong, Mila looks down and fiddles around with her long, red gown, a tight, formfitting piece which modestly accentuates her womanly curves while leaving her covered from neck to ankle. The dearth of bared skin does nothing to take away from her alluring appearance, especially since she usually keeps her body hidden beneath loose, baggy shirts, not to mention how fetching she looks with her coiffed hair done up in a neat bun, leaving her pale, freckled nape and ruby-studded earrings on full display. Lin and Song wear similar dresses in blue and green respectively, and as lovely as they both are, I can’t tear my eyes away from Mila’s rounded hips as she fumbles with something around her waist, and doubly so when she bends over to do the same around her ankles.


Calm down. You’re in public. Mom is two seats over. Akanai and Husolt are also somewhere in the room. Most importantly, Mila will not respond well, so do not, I repeat, do not slap that ass, no matter how tempting it might be.


Just as I rein myself in, temptation strikes again as the bottom half of Mila’s gown comes apart and exposes her shapely leg from thigh to ankle. Almost choking on my tongue, I drink in the lovely sight as Mila undoes the bindings on the other side to similar effect before taking up her spear and shield. Standing at the railing in her battle-ready evening gown and jewelled tiara, she is the portrait of a dignified and domineering warrior no matter the outfit, and her bared legs only adds to her city-destroying beauty without taking away from her intimidating bearing. So mesmerized by the sight of her milky-white thighs, my brain almost ignores the stunning declaration she makes to the crowd once their applause dies down.


“I am Captain Sumila of the Bekhai, twenty years old,” she shouts, her feral, toothy smile sending a shiver of fear and longing down my spine. “Daughter of Lieutenant General Akanai and Divine Blacksmith Husolt, Sister to Li Song and betrothed to Falling Rain. After hearing such a rousing performance, I’ve fortuitously Condensed my Aura, so in gratitude to my Sister-Wife Luo-Luo, I would like to give a demonstration of my meagre skills as well.” Her eyes burning with anticipation, she slowly takes in the watching crowd and says, “Would any of my peers care to engage in a friendly spar?”


All but growling her last few words, there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this spar will be anything but, yet some fool from the Baiji Sect is still stupid enough to immediately accept, no doubt hoping to humiliate the Bekhai princess they see standing before them. Whatever. Mila deserves to celebrate her success and the Baiji Sect already hates us because I killed their golden boy Teng Wei Chuan, so I cheer my freckled, fiery wifey on and belatedly wonder if she wore something appropriate under her gown, in case… you know.


Hang on… what does her successful Aura Condensation have to do with Luo-Luo’s ‘rousing performance’? While Mila marches downstairs to meet her competitor on stage, I give voice to my question without expecting an answer, but Mom is quick to reply. “I suspected as much after hearing about your consort’s performance and the Imperial Scion’s offer, but the effect was even better than expected.” Though veiled, I can still see Mom’s joyous expression beneath the sheer, dark silk, holding her head high while patting Rustram’s cheek. “The specifics are not for you to ponder until you progress further along the Martial Path, but as you know better than most, Aura is intrinsically tied to emotion. Zheng Luo would not be the first artist to influence a Martial Warrior’s development, whether it be through song, verse, painting, or dance, but I must admit, I am surprised by how effective her performance has been. Four new Aura users have been born today in this room alone, a result which I dared not even dream of.”


“Wow.” Wait. “…Are they using Aura right now?”


“Yes.” Mom’s proud demeanour collapses as she realizes the implications of my question. Switching to Sending, she hides her worry and asks, “You do not feel their Auras?!”


“No.” Which puts a real damper on the whole affair. Even broken and crippled, I should feel the effects of Aura, friendly or otherwise, yet here I am surrounded by three new Aura users and utterly ignorant as to who they might be. This isn’t the time to bring down the mood with my problems, so at my prompting, Mom supplies me with names and I put a fake smile on to congratulate Rustram, Bulat, and Lang Yi on their newfangled success.


Not gonna lie, even though I’m happy to see everyone making great strides along the Martial Path, I can’t help but resent them for it too. Where I once stood at the forefront of my peers, now it’s only a matter of time before I’m left behind in the dust, surpassed by all my friends and subordinates until my accomplishments are little more than a memory. How long will it be before I can stand at their side again? I don’t even really want to be a warrior again, but all my friends are warriors and I don’t wanna be left out…


I peaked too early.


Watching Mila kick ass with her powerful, pale thighs isn’t enough to bring me out of my funk, and it only gets worse once Aurie snaps out of his trance and slinks over to my side, his head low, shoulders hunched, and tail drooping. With pupils so dilated he could star in a tragic, animated movie, my sweet floof oh-so-gently rests his head on my knee and blinks slowly to show his love. It breaks my heart to see him so distressed, because whether it’s offensive or defensive, animals don’t respond to Aura the same way people do. My sweet runty kitty is spooked by all the emotions in the air and is looking for comfort, specifically for my loving Aura to soothe his nerves and tell him everything is gonna be okay, but I can’t do that anymore. Leaning over to rest my head against his, I summon all the warmth and affection I can muster and try to transfer it over, but without Chi to power it, my Aura remains buried and inert. I don’t even know if it’s still… Condensed, or whatever the term would be, or if it went the way of the dodo alongside my Core and Natal Palace.


This sucks. Instead of enjoying the sight of Mila’s thicc thighs while she bashes idiot young nobles on stage, I’m trying to hold back tears while mourning everything I’ve lost. The physical weakness is nothing, but I can’t tell my sweet kitten I love him anymore. He knows right?


A hand lightly strokes the back of my head and I assume it’s Lin’s until Song Sends, “There. There.” Almost laughing at how stiff and robotic she sounds while trying to comfort me, I carefully turn and smile in thanks, and she merely nods and retracts her arm before returning her attention to the match on stage. Taking a deep breath, I sit up and pat Mila’s empty chair, which makes Aurie’s face light up with joy as he hops up and leans against me like the clingy kitten he’s always been. While pointy fur prickles are still an issue, the minor discomfort is worth it to cheer up my runty kitten, though seeing how he towers overhead when we sit side by side, I’m not sure I can call him runty anymore.


Out on the stage, Mila dispatches several more opponents with ease, though my eyes fail to track how she goes about it. The movements are too fast and the matches end in the blink of an eye. The first idiot is disarmed, another gets his ribs broken, and a haughty female Captain gets thrown into the audience, much to their delight. Afterwards, it’s just more of the same, with most of Mila’s matches ending in a single move, and after kicking her latest opponent off the stage, a Senior Captain from Shen Jin whose name I didn’t catch, my beautiful warrior betrothed draws herself up to full height on stage and looks out over the crowd, not even sweating after defeating seven or eight of the North’s best talents. Though she has yet to show the depths of her skills, it would take an opponent on the level of Zian, BoShui, or Dastan to push her to the limit, but aside from my friends, I don’t think there is anyone both talented and young enough left in the North to match Mila here today.


Were I healthy, stupid, and not her betrothed, I might’ve volunteered to get my ass kicked just for a chance to touch her deliciously plump thighs, but luckily, the young men of the North are more sensible than I. Luckily for them that is, because if Mila doesn’t kill them, then I most certainly will. Pudge and other Demons can shake off bullets to the face, but Martial Warriors are decidedly less durable.


After a long, quiet minute with no new challengers stepping up, Mila gives a dismissive huff which is easily heard in the awkward silence, her unbridled arrogance well deserved after her overwhelming display. “Are there any Martial Warriors under thirty who care to come up?” Her invitation gets the crowd all riled up and a few names are called, with BoShui and Zian being chief among them, but neither of them step out, nor does anyone else for that matter. While I’d like to think it’s because everyone’s been cowed by what little strength Mila has already revealed, it’s more likely the older warriors don’t care enough to bother. They’d have nothing to gain and everything to lose by challenging a twenty-year-old half-beast, because anything short of their overwhelming victory would only serve to stoke the flames of Mila’s new and explosive reputation.


Hell, even if they do beat her handily, she’ll be the twenty-year-old who matched blades against a warrior a decade her senior. Even at my prime, I doubt I could’ve awed my opponents like Mila just did, displaying overwhelming strength, skill, and general superiority in a mere handful for matches. I’ve always said she’s the real Number One Talent of the Empire, and now the citizens of the North know it too.


As if hearing my thoughts, Mila meets my eyes and favours me with a gorgeous smirk before locking eyes with Song. “Then since no one is willing to come up, might I invite my Sister, Li Song of the Bekhai down for an exhibition match?”


Trying not to ogle as Song does the same wondrous things to her gown and bares her long, olive legs, I join my voice to Lin’s and we clap and cheer for the sisters on stage. Eyeing my sweet wifey’s gown, I notice she has the same knotted buttons holding it together and my imagination goes wild. I’ve never been much of a leg guy, but I think today has awakened something inside me and I like it. I would love to see Lin’s bare, slim legs, with her honeyed skin and dainty feet…


After Song makes her full introduction, the match between sisters kicks off without preamble. In their opening exchange, Song proves her skills by being the first opponent to force Mila to retreat, driving the previously-dominant red-head back and eliciting a surprised gasp from the audience. Before anyone can complain about rigging the match, Mila’s counterattack leaves everyone stunned as she charges forward and actively parries a powerful two-handed slash. Thrown back by the impact, Song narrowly avoids Mila’s lightning quick follow through and returns the favour with a thrust of her own, and then the match begins in earnest. Again, it’s hard to make out the specifics of their battle as they trade lightning fast blows, but even a pleb like myself can tell they aren’t holding back in this deadly dance of steel, silk and skin, a dazzling exhibition of Martial Skill and finesse which only two closely matched opponents can bring out.


Wow… They came ridiculously close to seriously injuring one another in that last exchange. Uh oh. Did I tell Song to ‘do her best’ and accidentally order her to go all out?


Before I can succumb to panic and shout for the match to stop, Mila gets a good shield slam in and sends Song sliding across the stage to end the match. Dazed and unsteady, Song slowly pushes herself back to her feet before breaking out into a rare and charming smile, and the two lovely sisters share a warm embrace on stage amidst the audience’s applause, a heartfelt moment which I can’t help but perve over. I can’t help it. Women fighting in sexy dresses is just too provocative, it really gets me going. Maybe afterwards, I’ll invite Mila to sneak off and convince her to bare her legs in private, so I can check if she really wore shorts under her gown…


I bet Lin didn’t think to wear shorts either, and I doubt Song would even care to…


As soon as Mila and Song step off the stage, Alsantset takes their place, looking formidable in her more utilitarian outfit, a short, tight tunic and hip-hugging trousers similar to what Yan wears. I suppose she picked up the fashion while they served in Sinuji together, and the outfit combined with her ripened allure and half-tiger heritage sets the crowd to mooning over her breathtaking beauty. After introducing herself in Behkai fashion as an Expert of the Empire, she repeats Mila’s challenge almost word for word, and even I can see there’s something going on here. A show of strength, I suppose, and though Alsantset’s smouldering glare is obviously goading the Society into action, they’re all too happy to swallow the bait and send one of their lambs up to be slaughtered.


As domineering and arrogant as Mila might be, most of the injuries she caused were to her opponents’ pride. In contrast, Alsantset likes to spread the damage equally between pride and physique, so she promptly mutilates her opponent in a single pass, a bloody demonstration which leaves a seasoned Martial Warrior screaming in agony while the crowd watches on in horrified silence.


After her initial bloody demonstration, the sparring heats up and my sister wins two more gruesome matches before battling to a draw against a Domain capable underling of the Situ Clan. Charok takes her place, but lacking an actual rank, a handful of matches pass before the crowd realizes he’s no less powerful than his wife, albeit more merciful. After nine victories, he’s finally pushed to the limits while matched against a Seven Star Sect Disciple and ekes out a minor victory by injuring his opponent with a concealed throwing spike, a twenty centimetre long weapon I convinced Mila to make a few months ago. Yet to be sated, the crowd cheers for more blood to be shed and both Bekhai and Society are happy to oblige, but rather than moving up in skill level, Mom makes the call to send Bulat out to fight, a nameless soldier with no rank or backing.


And if I’m being honest, despicable to boot. I almost understand shame after seeing him grab his opponent by the balls and throw the poor bastard off stage…


More and more challengers take the stage, including Rustram and Lang Yi, but after a dozen or so lower-level matches, Ulfsaar steps up and announces himself as an unranked, Domain-Capable Expert over fifty, which is news to me. Impressive as I think his achievement is, in the eyes of Peak Experts, the half-bear’s accomplishments aren’t noteworthy enough to stand out, and the results speak for themselves. Even against a random Domain-Capable Expert from the Society, Ulfsaar has a tough time and eventually loses in his first match, but at least he displayed his raw power. Neera goes up next and announces herself as the same, then secures a hard fought victory, followed by Wang Bao who is twenty years younger and has no age appropriate opponent, yet still wins his first match through sheer grit and tenacity, then gives a good show in his next match before admitting defeat.


Afterwards, Sahb takes the stage, and the crowd goes wild at his introduction as they cheer for a twenty-four year old Domain-capable Expert.


And again when Dastan takes the stage afterwards, and introduces himself the same way.


Neither of them win their matches, but considering they both faced opponents at least twice their age, it was to be expected. The crowd cheers louder for the two Oath-Bound soldiers from Sanshu than any others, because young talents are always treasured above all else. Clever of Mom to send the other Domain-capable warriors out first, emptying the Situ Clan’s roster of their younger Experts and leaving no one more age-appropriate to match Dastan and Sahb.


Expecting this was planned to end on a high note, Mom motions for me to sit and wait while a new challenger takes the stage.


By Cloud-stepping over the audience.


Leaping off the balcony of the level below us, Gerel’s footsteps impact against empty air and echo throughout the square to announce the arrival of a Peak Expert, or something close to it. Bald as always, the gleam of his scalp is eclipsed only by the shine of his silver armour as he lands on stage with his sword on his hip, glaive over his shoulder, and a scowl on his face. Without looking at anyone in particular, he infuses his voice with Chi and announces, “Captain of the Marshal’s Guards, Gerel of the Bekhai. Thirty-three years old and challenging any Peak Expert under forty.”


The crowd falls silent for long seconds before bursting into excitement, because a Peak Expert under forty is almost unheard of aside from a legendary few, an accomplishment shared by illustrious heroes such as Nian Zu, Lu An Jing, Shuai Jiao, and Ryo Dae Jung. Suffice it to say, there is no one in the crowd today who meets his criteria, so after a long pause, Gerel smirks and ups the age limit to sixty-three. An oddly specific choice until someone in the audience remarks that the Situ Patriarch just happens to be exactly sixty-three years old, and everyone falls silent once again to wait and see how the Society will react to this blatant challenge.


You know, if Gerel wasn’t such a massive jerk, he’d be a man after my own heart.


Chapter Meme


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 477

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Awakened by the dazzling rays of the morning sun, Rustram met the beam of light head on without moving and blinked until his eyes adjusted. A trivial hardship to put himself through, but he knew she’d wake if he moved and he loved watching her sleep. With her slack expression and mouth half-open, there was an innocence to her which didn’t fit with her image of a seasoned Protectorate warrior-woman, a crack in the facade she presented to the world at large, and it warmed his heart to know she trusted him enough to show it.


There he lay basking in her beauty as she stirred in the sunlight, scrunching her cute little nose and snuggling deeper into his embrace in a last ditch attempt to ward off the waking world. Stifling a yawn, she melted against him and nuzzled his neck while her free hand stroked his chest, her dainty fingers tracing the contours of his flesh. Though he’d always been trim and fit, months of training and battling in restrictive leaden armour had melted the excess fat from his bones and sculpted his body into a dense, robust form, one belonging more on a sculpted statue than nameless soldier. It still surprised him to see taut skin and chiselled muscles whenever he looked in the mirror, but Sai Chou was rather vocal in her appreciation and delighted in seeing him blush at her ribald comments.


Mother forbid he mention her soft curves, wide hips, or full breasts, with her pert, rosy nipples and…


Instinct took over as they both succumbed to desire and indulged in the other’s company. Their relationship was measured in mere days, half of which was spent beneath the covers, yet even if they continued like this for another decade, he would still thirst for her touch, her smell, her laugh, and her smile, for she made him feel more alive and awake than anyone else he’d ever met. For two long months they’d been separated while she stayed in the citadel with the Guardian Turtle and he fought on the front lines with Warrant Officer BoShui, and their time apart and showed him just how much the gruff, no-nonsense, shabbily-dressed woodswoman meant to him. After weeks of exchanging letters, they reunited a few days before the new year and he wasted no time or words as he strode over and greeted her with a kiss, their first ever.


Thankfully, he hadn’t read the signs wrong and she reciprocated his feelings, else he would’ve lost all face in front of his soldiers.


How much time passed, Rustram couldn’t say, but eventually his stamina gave out and he collapsed beside her, chest heaving and skin slick with sweat. Her throaty chuckle filled him with desire, but alas his body was no longer up to the task, so he rolled his eyes and nibbled on her ear. “Yer gettin’ better at this,” she murmured, her teasing smirk stoking the flames of his passion. “Less fumblin’ and more confidence. Maybe in a year, I could call ye halfway decent.”


“I’ll tame you yet,” he whispered, and her body quivered at the statement, but he couldn’t tell if it was in anticipation of his success or failure. She did so love to challenge him, but she was also a contrary woman, sometimes fighting him tooth and nail for the upper hand and other times surrendering without resistance, though there was no rhyme or reason to her mood. Despite their difference in physiques, she’d made it clear in no uncertain terms that she held the power in their relationship, and he was all too happy to oblige. As second-in-command to Falling Rain, Rustram held more authority than he ever cared to have, so ceding over control in their love life was almost a relief. In the seven days since they shared their first kiss, there had been no talk of marriage or children, he was hers for as long as she would have him, and that was all he cared to know.


Because when all things were said and done, Rustram was a soldier and would rather spare Sai Chou from becoming a widow.


Just before he was ready to renew their horizontal hostilities, a knock came at the door and Bulat’s voice sounded through. “Oh Mister Rustram,” he said in a sing-song voice, no doubt aware of his company. “Wakey wakey. The sun has risen and the new year awaits, with much fun and festivity to be had outside of bed. Oh,” he added, as if an afterthought, “Also, yer Mentor says to get dressed and meet her in the central square forthwith. ‘No training armour, but full battle gear’ she ses. Got a list of names yer to bring with ye, but ses yer welcome to bring more.”


“Inform the soldiers. I’ll be out forthwith.” By now, Rustram was already wiping himself down with a towel and cold water while Sai Chou laid on her side and watched with a hungry stare. Were the message from anyone else, he would’ve ignored it in favour of Sai Chou’s insatiable desire, but Mentor was not a woman to be kept waiting. Whatever this was, he knew it was business else she would never have let him go without the training armour, not after she learned he’d once gone into battle wearing it. Since he’d proven himself able, then he might as well continue to wear it so not to waste a single opportunity to improve, or at least, that was her logic, and nothing he said could convince her otherwise or make her lower her exacting expectations. Had he known this would be his reward, he would’ve kept his mouth shut and begged Colonel Hongji to leave his exploits out of the reports, for the more Rustram accomplished, the more Mentor demanded. “Talent is good,” she said while handing over a newer, heavier suit of training armour. “Hard work is better.”


With a mother like her, it’s no wonder the boss became the Number One Talent in the Empire. Anything less and he might not have survived to adulthood…


After gathering every name on the list, Rustram marched double-time to the central square and left Sai Chou and other onlookers to follow at a more leisurely pace. When he arrived, he found a growing crowd gathering around the stone stage while posters, banners, and criers announced an imminent musical performance from Falling Rain’s consort, Imperial Servant Zheng Luo. Though he missed her first impromptu concert yesterday at the park, anyone lucky enough to have been there couldn’t stop singing praises of her phenomenal skills, breathtaking beauty, and captivating charm. Impressed as he was to hear how she calmed a rioting crowd by plucking a few strings, Rustram wasn’t entirely sure why Mentor demanded his presence for this concert, much less instructed him to arrive in full-battle regalia. Spotting her sitting on the top floor of a tea-house overlooking the central square, he brought the named soldiers up to greet her. “Good morning Mentor,” he said, bowing low with hands clasped while making silly faces at her darling grandchildren. “This Disciple awaits instruction.”


“Mm, names first,” Mentor said, running a critical eye over the soldiers he’d brought with him. “So I know who is whom.”


Going through them one by one, Rustram introduced Ulfsaar, Neera, Dastan, Sahb, and Wang Bao. Once finished, Mentor merely nodded and pointed at the table beside hers. “Good. I welcome you all on behalf of my son. Food and drink will arrive soon, but order whatever you desire at our expense. Please sit, relax, and enjoy the show. Disciple?” Grabbing Rustram’s arm to keep him from joining the others, Mentor guided him to the chair beside hers and Sent, “Tell me about them. Start with Ulfsaar.”


“A force of nature in combat,” Rustram Sent in reply, though it took some effort to do so. He still wasn’t used to Sending and required physical contact to do so, but he was steadily improving with practice. “Unpredictable and prone to losing his composure, but unstoppable on cattle-back and unmovable on foot, a stalwart warrior who serves well in the vanguard. Neera is formidable in her own right, but much of her focus is on reining him in and keeping him from overextending or picking battles he cannot win instead of seeking glory for herself. Though she rarely has a chance to shine whilst serving beside him, she is his equal in massed melee and superior in single combat.”


“Their loyalty?”


“Unquestionable,” Rustram replied, for there were few as devoted to the boss as the devout half-bear couple. “Their hatred of the Defiled is matched only by their faith in the Mother, and they believe the boss is Her child above all others.” Their belief never wavered even after seeing him struck down on the fields of Sinuji, though why, only they knew, for no matter who asked, they would never say what the boss did to win them over so tightly.


“Good. Dastan I know, but Sahb?”


“A career soldier who’d go far if he had more emotion than a stone. Not as outstanding as Dastan or ferocious as Ulfsaar, but still a cut above the rest. Hard to read and keeps to himself, but Dastan trusts him and his Oaths compel him, so nothing to worry about there.”


“And they are content?” Seeing Rustram’s confusion, Mentor asked, “The slave soldiers, do they laugh, cheer, drink and carouse, or do they sit around and mope when there are no battles to fight?”


“They… seem content? They don’t behave much differently from most others in the retinue, though on the whole they’re a bit… reserved? Only compared to former bandits mind you, they’re as raucous as any other soldier while on leave.”


“Good.” Eyes narrowing in muted displeasure, Mentor asked, “And the former Butcher? This Wang Bao, what do you make of him?”


Ugh. “A model soldier who toes the line without exception. Hair cut, beard trimmed, shirt tucked, and boots polished, he shows up every morning looking like he’s ready for parade march and fights like a man possessed. A brutally efficient warrior, the wolf to Ulfsaar’s bear, Wang Bao’s combat expertise is nothing to sneeze at, but his greatest strength lies in his leadership abilities. Even the former Corsairs under his command would stride into the Father’s Maw on his command, while Wang Bao would happily lead the way for nothing more than a story to tell.”


“You dislike him,” Mentor noted, her lips curling into a rare half-smile which made her look twenty years younger. A striking woman with pride in abundance, if she were to dress more fashionably and put a little effort into her appearance, then one might even mistake her for the twins’ mother, but with her love of gloves and veils, she wore the air of a grandmother well. “Why when he is so much like you?”


Rustram wanted to disagree, but found himself without argument, so he refilled Mentor’s tea cup instead. “His attitude irks me.”


With a casual shrug, Mentor nodded and Sent, “Fair enough. I’ve killed others for less. Which of these five, if any, are worth grooming?”


Praying Mentor wasn’t looking for another disciple, Rustram thought it over and said, “All of them. Ulfsaar and Neera are older and in their fifties, but for half-beasts, that’s well before their prime.” Mentor wrung her hands and shifted in her seat, which he’d never seen her do before, even when she needed a wheeled chair to get around, but he pretended not to notice. He’d forgotten about the horrid rumours spread by Mentor’s husband’s detractors, rumours he thought she ignored like any others, but what woman didn’t long for youth and beauty? Moving on, he continued, “On the other hand, Dastan and Sahb are both young and malleable, only a few years older than the boss himself and Aura-capable Experts to boot. Were they not slaves, I wager both their names would sit just below BoShui’s when people speak of young talents in the Empire, their potential no less than any of their peers. As for Wang Bao… he’s older, but also worth investing in since he’s gotten this far with minimal formal training and his loyalty is unquestionable.”


After going back and forth for a while over the other five soldiers, Mentor smirked and Sent, “What about your girly, the protectorate second? Why have you not brought her to greet your Mentor?”


“Ah… well… That is…”


“Oh to be young again.” Patting his cheek lightly, Mentor Sent, “I’ll send someone to your room with a choice of outfits for the lady so you can bring her to the banquet tonight.”


Since it wasn’t a request, Rustram could only nod and Send, “Yes Mentor.”


The boss arrived soon after with his betrotheds and pets, so Rustram stood to greet him. “You’re looking sharp,” the boss said after a hearty hug, peering up and down at Rustram’s new steel battle-armour, a princely gift from Mentor which had been waiting for him when he returned. Though nowhere near as ornate as what the Legate or even BoShui wore, the rose-embossed breastplate and segmented pauldrons at least helped him stand out from the other soldiers. “Try not to ruin it like I do with all of mine.”


“Uh… Yes boss.” How could he possibly ruin his armour in a tea house? It’s not as if a spill would stain the metal.


“Bah, armour is meant to defend,” Mentor said, beaming as the boss leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Better he ruin the armour than need to reattach a limb.”


“I disagree,” the boss replied, flashing a roguish grin which made him look like a child too young for the battlefield. It was a good look on him, serene and contented while lacking all the stress and restlessness of years past. “It’s cheaper to patch clothes and reattach limbs than it is to buy a new set of armour every time one gets ruined. I’ve pretty much given up on anything short of runic. What’s the point?”


Rolling her eyes at her son’s foolishness, Mentor bade him to sit down while Rustram greeted the boss’s betrotheds, each looking lovely in their new year dresses. Lady Sumila, Lin, and Li Song all wore identical high-necked dresses in red, blue, and green respectively, trimmed in golden thread and bearing lifelike embroidered scenes of nature. Form-fitting to hint at the curves concealed beneath, but modestly cut to cover their legs and shoulders, they were a sight to behold with their elegant, long scarves wrapped around them and matching ruby, sapphire, and emerald studded jewellery. While Rustram had grown accustomed to Sai Chou’s rustic charm in (and out of) her ragged woodswoman clothes, he couldn’t help but imagine her wearing a similar dress, perhaps in purple or yellow, colours he’d never seen her wear before but would look absolutely stunning in.


It’d probably cost him half a year’s wages to have one tailored for her, but it’d be well worth it and more…


Looking around the square in search of his lover, it seemed like every big name in the citadel had come out to watch Zheng Luo’s performance, and only the presence of Death Corps and Imperial soldiers kept things from getting out of hand as entitled latecomers tried to squeeze their way in. In contrast, the third floor of the tea house housed only the Bekhai and their allies, with Bulat sitting nearby with his wife, mother, and step-father, the hulking Dagen who stood shoulder to shoulder with Pran and Saluk. Viyan, Birca, and Silva were busy filling their bellies, likely only here for free food on the boss’s copper, but at least they had the decency to mind their manners. Ravil was also here, lurking in a shadowy corner as per usual, while Siyar stood across the room but in a similar shadow. The deadly smuggler aside, they’d all come a long way since their time as crippled cast offs in Shen Huo, and Rustram hoped they still had a long way to go ahead of them, for these men were his brothers through bonds forged in the fires of war.


For better or for worse, they would stand and fight together, no matter the odds stacked against them. Alas, even though Bulat had Dagen to offer him advice and Ravil was improving steadily on his own, the others were fast falling behind and Rustram didn’t know how to help them. Perhaps Mentor knew someone who would take in Pran and Saluk, though he didn’t dare ask her to find someone for the slacker trio. Considering their poor work ethic and unwillingness to change, they would find it difficult to become Experts, much less peak Experts before they died of old age.


There were others here too, most notably Lang Yi and Lang Er, Chu Xinyue and his officer cadre, a few familiar Khishigs, and more. No one from the Protectorate, but knowing them, they’d opted to stay on ground level to look after the Guardian Turtle, and though Rustram kept an eye out for Sai Chou, he still couldn’t find her in the press of bodies.


The crowd fell silent as Zheng Luo took the stage, looking resplendent in her flowing purple and gold silk dress with an elegant phoenix tiara holding up her coiffed hair. Aside from that, she wore no other jewellery, yet she looked more noble and elegant than any other woman in sight as she glided across the stage and set up her zither with help from her twin handmaidens. So quiet they could hear the wind brushing over the strings of her instrument, Rustram almost jumped out of his seat when Mentor Sent, “Pay close attention. Do not focus too much on the notes or the technical aspects of her melody, nor should you care about her actions or appearance. Seek Balance while you experience the song and let the music draw your emotions out, then do whatever you feel is natural. Everything else is of secondary concern.”


Though unclear why Mentor was treating this concert like a solemn event, Rustram heeded her instructions as Zheng Luo stood to bow, greeting the gathered audience with a sublime smile which was warm as the summer sun and refreshing as the spring breeze. “This one is Imperial Servant Zheng Luo, Consort to Honoured Husband Falling Rain. Greetings to you all on this fine day.” Holding the audience’s attention with her smile alone, she gracefully sat back down in front of her zither and positioned her hands over the strings. “This one is pleased to offer her humble musical composition for all to hear, an original arrangement titled, ‘Rise to Glory’, including a new final movement which this one only composed last night. This one hopes it will be to your liking, so without further ado, let us begin.”


And with that, she struck a single note which rang out into the crowd and lifted Rustram’s heart from his chest, not because it was loud or jarring, but because the sound was so pure and clear it cleared away the strain and fatigue from this morning’s activities. More notes followed after, and though he lacked the technical terms to describe it, he could sense the heavy sorrow within the slow and despondent melody, filled with a mournful self-pity and bleak despair which he knew all too well. The tune embodied his lowest lows, the day he’d been sent away to begin his career in the army, and the day his career ended when he woke up in a medical tent missing his sword hand.


Then, the melody picked up in tempo, still sombre, but building up to something more. Again, this resonated deeply with him for he’d felt the same way during Army and Bekhai training. Those were not easy times, nor were they happy ones, but they were days filled with meaning and purpose, which was more than he could say for most. The music carried him back to those stressful, strenuous, but rewarding times, filled with inspections and assessments, exams and exercises. Each day, he made a little bit of progress, with small victories bringing him forward into larger ones, while minor defeats taught him the valuable lessons he’d need to continue moving forward. This was enough for him, for he had a goal, and every day he strove to reach it. The same held true for his time spent learning to Heal, a skill he once believed reserved only for the best and brightest in the Empire. These were happier times spent alongside his crippled comrades, because Falling Rain had given them more than mere purpose, he gave them all hope.


Zheng Luo continued performing her musical piece, and each new twist brought with it a different memory as Rustram’s life journey played out within his mind, though not in any particular order. The devastating loss of so many comrades in the wake of Sanshu and the guilt and self-recrimination which followed; the reunion with his father where the old man finally deigned to show the depths of the love he had for his second son; the joy and pride Rustram felt when taken in by his Mentor, and the subsequent horror and regret in the days that followed; joy and sorrow, hope and despair, pride and guilt, love and regret, the music took him on a journey of emotion dredged out of memory by Zheng Luo strumming on silken string, and it was both exhausting and exhilarating at once.


The music took on a forlorn tone once more as all hope was lost, which brought to mind the dire straits ahead, with endless hordes of Defiled savages sapping away at the Empire’s strength while the Enemy grew stronger and stronger. Better training, better equipment, better leadership and more, soon the Defiled hordes would disappear only for Defiled armies to take their place, and woe to the Empire should the Enemy strike with unity and purpose. To make matters worse, Falling Rain had been struck down in Sinuji with his recovery long in the waiting, and though he tried to be optimistic about it, Rustram worried he would never fight again with the Mother’s Chosen Son to command him.


But all was not lost. Rustram instinctively sensed when Zheng Luo’s song reached the last movement, for the tone was not of cheerless melancholy, but one of quiet hope. The chipper tune rose in volume and clarity, each note standing on its own as they declared that the Mother always leaves a path to salvation, and that it is always darkest before the dawn. Eyes drawn to the crowd, he found his beloved Sai Chou as easily as breathing, and in a strange twist of fate, she found him at the same time. When their eyes met, she smiled and he felt that even though there was this railing and packed crowd between them, she was right there beside him. Even if they were separated by the breadth of the Empire, they would still be together, because she loved him, and he loved her.


And together, he would fear nothing, not even the Father himself.


Yearning to shout his love from the rooftops, his Chi took on a life of its own as it surged out into the world, carrying his ardour and devotion out with it. It wasn’t just for Sai Chou, but for his friends and comrades, his allies and countrymen, for the basest peasant and most arrogant noble in existence, because even if he never met them, so long as he drew breath, he would fight to defend them from the Father and His wicked minions.


Rustram was not the only one to make such a wordless declaration, and he sensed more than understood what was happening. Bulat was there, steadfast and courageous, as was Lang Yi, his anger cold and passion burning, and then Lady Sumila burst onto the scene with her customary heat, a blazing fury of power and intensity. Ulfsaar and Neera joined in, their essences intertwined so tightly it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. Dastan, proud and aloof, but loyal and steadfast, while Sahb’s presence spoke of unyielding determination. Wang Bao’s demeanour came as a surprise, not murderous or bloodthirsty as Rustram expected, but righteous and noble, a man who lived by his own moral code and stuck with it.


Then there was Mentor, who overshadowed them all, a mountain on the horizon or a star shining bright in the sky, a guidepost for them all to follow in order to reach the Peak of Martial Might. Glowing with pride, she reached over and took Rustram’s hand as the song came to a resounding end. Squeezing his fingers tight, she Sent, “Congratulations on successfully Condensing your Aura, Disciple. You have made this old woman proud.” Still reeling from shock and emotion, he gaped like a fish on dry land while the crowd erupted in applause, but Mentor spoke right over his disbelief. “But this is no time to rest on your laurels. Dastan and the others have revealed what they call a ‘fool proof’ method to Form a Natal Palace and Domain, but I am not convinced, so we will progress traditionally instead of fumbling around with souls and such. Prepare yourself Disciple, because the time for coddling is over, and now the true hardship will begin. You’re a clever boy, so I doubt it will take long, but it will take as long as it takes. We’ll start with some light mental exercises, but not until later today. Right now, we have challenges to make and fools to crush, so pay attention. Your turn will come soon enough.”


Nodding in absentminded agreement, Rustram couldn’t help but think about all the times he threw up from exertion, collapsed from exhaustion, or almost died because he was laden in several hundred kilograms of leaden armour while fighting. How could anyone consider that coddling?


Wait… “Apologies Mentor,” he Sent, his brow furrowed in confusion. “Who are we challenging? And why?”


“Who does not matter. You will fight whoever dares to accept, and as for the why, it is because some fool of an Imperial thinks he can bully my boy.” Mentor’s tone sent a chill down Rustram’s spine as her grip nearly crushed his fingers. “It is long past time the Bekhai sent a message: though my son is injured and recovering, the Bekhai have no lack of talents, whether they be young or old.”


Mouth dry and heart palpitating, he said a small prayer for the young talents who would leave here scarred beyond repair, for he spotted Lady Sumila readying to spearhead the charge. The fierce redheaded warrior woman struck fear into the hearts of all who faced her, Defiled and Imperial alike, and now that she’d Condensed her Aura, her name would be known across the Empire as a contender for the new Number One Talent in the Empire.


And may the Mother have mercy on the luckless fools stupid enough to stand in her way…


Chapter Meme


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 476


 Happy Independence Day!

As Jess is also a patriotic American, she’s offered some beautiful beach themed art for this America’s day to share with you all. Beware, for aside from our MC Falling Rain, the other pics are a little risque, so be warned!

There we go. A little eye candy for everyone, so I hope you all enjoy the chapter after you finish up in 30 seconds to 30 minutes (depending on your speed) and wash your hands.

Bye now!


The Prime Minister is one of the three most politically powerful men in the world, just below the Emperor and on par with the Grand Marshal. While the former holds absolute authority as head of state, and the latter drafts laws and manages issues of economic, the Prime Minister acts as judge, jury, and executioner while working through his army of clerks, Enforcers, Adjudicators, and Justicars. He speaks with the Emperor’s voice and dispenses justice in the Emperor’s name, and now I am at odds with his stupid son because the little shit thinks he can buy Luo-Luo.


What a way to kick off the start of a new year. Wooooo.


The carriage ride back from Yang Jixing’s manor goes by without incident, and after thanking the borrowed Death Corps for their help, I send them back with a poop-free carriage and a barrel of rice wine for their troubles. It’s not their fault they’re working for an irate man-child, and the Death Corps do love their wine. I don’t know why it surprised me to learn they like to unwind with a drink or two, but seeing Ravil and Bulat organize a team drinking contest with the Ones was an eye-opening experience.


And not just because none of the Death Corps seem to have a gag reflex. What the fuck were the Imperials training them for?


I hope Jixing doesn’t punish his Death Corps for escorting me home. I don’t think anyone expected me to get back in the carriage after having Ping Ping flatten half the manor, but fuck it. I’d rather be ambushed and assassinated than walk all the way back or wait for a rickshaw. I’ve already done my three hundred steps today, and I’m fucking exhausted.


After hugging Ping Ping good night, I hobble inside and find my entire family battle-ready and armed to the teeth, though this didn’t stop them from enjoying new years cake. Not exactly surprising, though Lin’s war gear warrants a double take, looking oh-so-adorable in her form-fitting leather armour, scandalously tight leggings, and ever-present white silk scarf. Wider and longer than I’d deem practical, my wifey wears the scarf like a hood and mantle, draped over her head and wrapped snug around her shoulders before spiralling down both arms where they’re tied off at the wrist, probably to keep it from getting in the way of her archery. Though I’d prefer she never got within bow-range of an enemy, better to have and not need than need and not have. “I love your outfit wifey. Very forest-ranger slash hunter-chic.”


Beaming at the compliment, Lin snuggles into my chest and giggles while I soothe Mila’s jealous pout away with a smile and assure everyone I wasn’t harmed or humiliated. Once they’re all convinced there’s no need to exact vengeance or preemptively retaliate, I sit down at the dining table and narrate the course of events while envying Luo-Luo’s unusually warm welcome from the floofs. Aurie, Jimjam, and Sarankho are almost fighting for the right to rub against her legs while Banjo and Baloo nestle their heads in her lap, and I sit here two seats over all but ignored. Though they’ve been getting along lately, this is the first time I’ve seen the animals be so affectionate with her, and I can’t say I’m not jealous.


Man… If I knew Luo-Luo’s music would make my fur-babies love her more than they love me, I would’ve torched her stupid zither months ago. Didn’t even sound that great, a boring, one instrument melody with no accompaniment or vocals, though I do admit, there was something about her performance which made me think. I can’t quite put my finger on what was so entrancing about her song, but if I had to put it into words, it felt like… her music was more than just the strumming of notes on her instrument, but a melody which came to life and tugged at the heartstrings of emotion, a piece which transcended the mundane and approached the divine, almost a natural force unto itself.


It was… an ineffable, spiritual experience, and Luo-Luo used it to steal the love of my floofs…


Luckily, Mama Bun still loves me best since she wasn’t present for the recital, so I stroke her ears and tell my story while the sweet bun cuddles Pong Pong and snores in my lap. When I get to the partial destruction of the manor, everyone accepts my actions with the same stoic pragmatism as always. Akanai, Dad, and Alsantset nod in approval while Charok and Mila shake their heads and laugh, but Mom seems a little put off by my actions. Never one to hold her tongue, I soon learn she’s not mad because I offended an Imperial Scion, but because I didn’t explore my options. “A replacement consort was only the opening offer,” Mom explains, swatting aside Dad’s futile attempts to keep her quiet. “I am not advocating we accept and sell your consort, but you could have at least bargained to see how much value he places upon the girl.” Fixing Luo-Luo with a calculating stare, it’s plain to see Mom doesn’t understand why the Imperial Scion is going through so much effort to… obtain her, but my consort only tears up a little in the face of Mom’s casual disregard.


Poor Luo-Luo, life must be rough with a dragon lady for a Mother-in-law, but to be fair, Mom grumbles about all my wives. In her eyes, nothing short of absolute adoration and dutiful devotion is good enough for her son, so even Lin, Mila, and Yan fail to make the cut. Song might pass muster if she threw her name in the hat, so they’re not exactly healthy or realistic standards, but all mothers want the best for their children, so Luo-Luo shouldn’t take the disapproval too seriously. Unfortunately, Akanai makes things worse by opening her mouth. “Perhaps the offer was a sham, a ploy to shame the boy by taking what is his. Accept, and he earns a reputation as a cuckold, refuse and he earns himself a powerful enemy, a situation designed solely to make trouble for us.”


Flashing Luo-Luo a smile to raise her spirits, I shake my head and reject Akanai’s theory. “I don’t think so. If that were the case, the offer would have been made publicly. Jixing expected me to agree and was genuinely surprised when I rejected him. Offending me wasn’t his purpose because in his eyes, I’m nobody, a mere savage of no consequence and an ant to crush without thinking. He seemed upset we were even breathing the same air, so why go out of his way to ensure a private meeting using an Imperial Missive? No, he’s legitimately interested in Luo-Luo, I’d stake my fortune on it.”


But why?


Though I’m too polite to voice the question, Husolt has no qualms about dealing another blow to Luo-Luo’s pride. “Don’t see why he’d go to all this effort. He would’ve had to get permission to come all the way out here, and Imperials outside the East are about as rare as a rat on a sinkin’ ship. Lovely and special as yer girl is, I can’t see an Imperial puttin’ so much significance on a servant, especially considering how they like to keep their bloodlines pure and whatnot.” Wincing as Akanai pinches him under the table, Husolt adds, “No offence.”


Seeing as Mila inherited her jealous streak from her mother, I’m not sure if the pinch was because of his blunt statement or because he called Luo-Luo lovely. “Pure bloodlines?” I ask, glancing around the table. “Are Imperial Scions really so much stronger?”


“Hard to say.” Half-smiling and half-sneering at the thought of a challenge, Dad explains, “Every few decades you hear tales of Imperial Scions coming out to test the Empire’s greatest warriors in single combat and offering employment to those they deem worthy. The Scions usually win these duels, though whether this is the truth or merely the challenged warriors giving face, only the participants themselves can say. The matches are always carried out in secret with no witnesses allowed, and oftentimes the recruited warriors simply disappear, either killed or brought back east without fanfare.”


Which explains why everyone thought Solitary Sword Zhang Jun Bao was dead until he showed up as the Legate’s seneschal. Hmm… Turning to Luo-Luo, I ask, “Could this have something to do with you being first generation of nobility? They want you to… uh, procure a stronger bloodline?” Considering it sounds like the Imperial Clan is big on keeping things in the family, I’m not sure they’re doing bloodlines right. If anything, constant inbreeding would result in a weakening bloodline, but whatever. It’s not like I have a leg to stand on in this argument; I’m marrying one adopted aunt and lusting after the other one, which while technically is not incest, it treads a fine line.


Brightening as if being valued for her pedigree is a good thing, Luo-Luo nods like a chicken pecking at grains. “It’s possible, but difficult to say since this one has no knowledge of her heritage. It could also be due to this one’s humble talents.” It hardly sounds humble when she says it, but the statuesque beauty continues without shame. “Perhaps Yang Jixing was present during this one’s graduation ceremony and grew infatuated by her performance. As you may recall, this one rejected an offer of employment from both the Prime Minister and the Grand Marshal since she could not afford to offend either one.”


Not gonna lie, I totally didn’t know that. Well shit. No wonder he behaved so irrationally and hated me sight unseen, the woman he’s obsessed with rejected him due to politics and somehow ended up with me instead. Am I the bad guy here, standing in the way of true love? Nah, he could’ve been more polite about it, and I asked Luo-Luo if she wanted to go with him. She refused, so not my fault. Still, she must have put on one hell of a performance to still have Jixing on the hook seven years after the fact, so I guess this makes her the local equivalent of a pop-star. Is it superficial to be more attracted to her now that I know she’s famous?


Perhaps misreading my stare, my troublesome consort’s pride deflates as she bows low in her seat, her forehead touching the table and bosom threatening to burst out of her robes. “Luo-Luo begs Lord Husband’s forgiveness for the troubles she’s caused. The consequences for offending the Prime Minister’s son will be grave, so this one will abide by whatever decision the family makes, but regardless of the final outcome, know that she is grateful for Lord Husband’s actions this night.” Drawing herself up to full height, she regains her proud, noble demount and adds, “Also, should Lord Husband and the family decide to keep Luo-Luo, she will strive to prove her worth and become a Martial Warrior of note, one who will not bring shame to the Bekhai.”


Says the woman who once screamed at the sight of Aurie. “Thanks, but there’s no need to prove your worth. The day we met, I promised you no one would treat you like a slave or force you to do anything you don’t want to and that still holds true. As for the Martial Warrior thing… Don’t push yourself too hard. No one expects you to become a Peak Expert, the training and weapons are mostly for self-defence. By all means, train if you want to, but don’t do it because you feel compelled to.” Noticing all the blank stares directed my way, I worry I’ve overstepped and ask, “Err… Right? Or… no? Are we… gonna… you know?”


“Of course not,” Akanai scoffs, while Mila playfully pinches my cheek. “Worry not girl,” my Grand-Mentor adds, offering Luo-Luo a comforting smile. “The boy speaks true. No one will force you away, nor should you ever feel compelled to train.” Why is everyone looking at me while Akanai repeats what I just said? Because I asked if we would sell Luo-Luo? I don’t want to, but this is the Prime Minister we’re talking about, so I asked because I didn’t want to overstep and throw the Bekhai into another huge conflict against an overwhelming enemy…


With our decision made, the topic of conversation turns to what our next move should be. Considering what Yang Jixing threatened to do, we make arrangements to give up on our cases still awaiting adjudication and discuss less scrupulous actions we could use to settle them, such as theft or blackmail. There’s also the matter of Mila beating the snot out of those pompous young nobles a few days back, and a whole host of inter-unit issues which naturally arise when you have thousands of battle-trained warriors brimming with arrogance and testosterone gathered in one area. It’s all minor stuff, but adequate enough excuse for Adjudicators and Justicars to find trouble with our people. When all is said and done, our enemies must make the first move, so all we can do is prepare for the worst and wait for the hammer to drop.


Exhausted from the longest first day of the year in memory, I almost fall asleep at the table before Alsantset sends me away, and Lin, Luo-Luo, Mila, and Song all help me bathe and get into bed. Normally, I’d be titillated about having four gorgeous women undress and wash me, but I’ve been sweating all day and none of them care to get naked, so it’s not as fun as I’d hope. Though I’ve gotten used to my gaunt, frail body, I see their initial revulsion and cannot blame them for it. I’ve tried to eat more, but I have no appetite and eating too much gives me unbearably painful stomach cramps, so there’s not much I can do except pray my sugar beet idea pans out.


Snuggled with Mama Bun in my comfy silk pyjamas, I smile as Lin, Mila, and Luo-Luo each give me a kiss on the cheek while Song offers a friendly nod and pat on the shoulder, which is a lot coming from her. Tired as I am, sleep eludes me as I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling even though I can’t make anything out. Terrible night vision, yet another way in which I am diminished, less than what I was. So many minor and major issues and inconveniences, all of which put together make the weakest human in existence. Freed from the haze of painkillers, my mind focuses and sharpens as the agony creeps back into perception, a slow and insidious sensation which usually lingers at the edge of awareness. I welcome the pain, because it means I still live, and where there is life, there is hope.


Gritting my teeth, I close my eyes, reach for Balance, and choke back my screams as my body is set aflame.


Not in reality, but in perception, and when it comes to pain, what’s the difference?


Lung’s heaving and chest damp with sweat, I lie in bed and wait for the agony to subside, the consequence of gathering Chi with a shattered Core and broken Spiritual Self, the Chi circulatory system if you will. I don’t try this often for obvious reasons, but it hasn’t gotten any better in the four months since Sinuji. I don’t know what else to do and Taduk didn’t have any suggestions on how to fix it besides bed-rest and time, but it would appear I’ve run out of the latter.


On the upside, my Oaths no longer work and I can talk about the Brotherhood or the Purge all I want, so there’s that. No idea if this is permanent, or the Heavens just won’t affect me till I fix my Core, but for now, it’s mostly a non-issue.


Today was a… not exactly an eye-opening experience, but a wake up call. If I were still Falling Rain, Number One Talent in the Empire, would Yang Jixing have the gall to march in here, where my father holds power, and straight up demand my woman? Ugh, calling Luo-Luo ‘mine’ feels so wrong, but in the eyes of this world, in Jixing’s eyes, she belongs to me and he thinks he can just take her. This crisis is only happening because I am weak, which means maybe it’s time I got working on a real solution instead of waiting for one to fall into my lap.


So what are my options besides waiting years for my Core to naturally heal? Well, I could go the Ancestral Human route and solve the age old mystery of how to manipulate Raw Heavenly Energy. My Core is shattered and I can’t use Chi, but who says you need a Core to use Heavenly Energy? Instead of jumping through hoops to turn Heavenly Energy into Chi, I could manipulate the Energy of the Heavens directly and grow myself a brand new body with a working Core or whatever it needs to withstand this hellish death world. Problem is, it’s kind of a tall order, doing what no human has ever done before, so putting all my eggs in the Ancestral Human basket seems like a recipe for disaster considering I don’t have the faintest clue where to start.


Another route I could take is the Demonic one and invite the Spectres in to refurbish and redesign me from the ground up. Demons create new forms when they take over their hosts, so presumably they could do the same for me, though I’m not exactly sure how to go about controlling the process or retaining control in the aftermath, not to mention the fact that I haven’t seen any Spectres since Sinuji. Apparently a broken Core means no Spectre vision, but I’m sure I can think dark thoughts and manage without it. Besides Gen figured out how to partially Demonize, so it shouldn’t be too hard to pull off, though if I’m being fair, no one has ever heard of another Defiled succeeding in a partial Demonic transformation, which kinda makes Gen a genius. Another problem is that Demons tend to lean on the side of the grotesque, and while I wouldn’t call myself vain, I’d rather not turn into a monster, which is what I imagine I’d become if I gave the Spectres free rein to remodel as they see fit.


Metal hands wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but what if I go full Pudge? I don’t want to be fat…


Or ugly.


Or an inhuman murderous monster.


But mostly, it’s the fat thing. Gross.


Initially, I thought those were my only two options if I couldn’t fix my Core, but Pong Pong’s poop offers a third alternative. Divine Poop gives rise to Spiritual Plants, which Bicorn Bunnies and presumably other animals eat to help Forge their Spiritual Hearts. If that’s the case, then theoretically, I could eat Spiritual Plants and turn my body into a Spiritual Heart too, or at least parts of me. How it works, I’m not entirely sure, but I’ll figure it out as I go. From past experience, I know Divine Poop can give rise to Spiritual Plants in as little as two weeks, so Taduk should have results in another ten days, but I’d like there to be more time between the ‘poop fertilization’ and the ‘going into my mouth’ steps, for both sanitary and sanity reasons.


Historically, studies have shown eating Spiritual Plants does nothing for humans, but no one has ever sat down and actually tested it out. Why would they? Spiritual Plants are too valuable to waste on feeding plebs, and while some have reported suffering complications from eating certain varieties of Spiritual Plants, that’s not conclusive evidence. It’d be like saying all plants are bad for you because hemlock is poisonous. Sure, there are certain varieties of plants people shouldn’t eat, but what if I grew Spiritual Turnips or Spiritual Rice? So long as I eat enough, I could have Spiritual Bones, Spiritual Muscles, Spiritual Organs, and even Spiritual Skin, turning myself into a nigh invincible warrior the likes this world has never before seen. Forget feeding an army of rabbits, I could feed an army of people and have indestructible warriors out the wazoo once Taduk figures out the specifics of how to grow the right variety of Spiritual Plant.


Okay, that’s not exactly how Spiritual Hearts works, but a man can dream. Seriously, personal power through eating has got to be the best training regimen ever. No sweat, no effort, just om nom nom and a Martial Warrioring I will go, right along the easiest Path to the Martial Peak. Besides, if it turns out Spiritual Plants don’t do a body good, then I can still use Pong Pong’s Divine Poop to grow useful resources like Idamare, fox-glove, Blood Needles and other stuff. The little turtle is now eating three servings of shrimp per day and pooping an equal amount, and the only reason he isn’t getting more is because I’m worried he’ll get bored of the taste.


I have a few other theories in the mix, like how raw cannibalism is the secret to the superior Defiled physique, but I’d rather not dive off the deep end until I’m well and truly desperate. There are also external sources of power I could use, but most of those would only put me in more danger, not less, because people are greedy. Lastly, I could appeal to the Legate for help, but I doubt he’ll care enough to keep me safe, unless the Prime Minister happens to be one of those political enemies he keeps harping on about. Even if they are at odds, relying on the Legate isn’t a viable long-term solution since once I no longer have anything to offer, he has no reason to keep sheltering me. I need personal strength, and essentially my options are as follows: accomplish the impossible and become an Ancestral Human, succumb to the heretical and become a Demon, or take a page from animals and form a Spiritual Heart. Those are my three choices for getting better, and each one is a tall order for a frail, drugged up cripple besieged by enemies on all sides.


Traversing the road to recovery will be a long and arduous journey, one I am determined to see through, but the problem is: will my enemies give me the time I need, or will they strike before I am ready?


There’s nothing I can do about it except take things one step at a time, starting with a letter to Broken Blade Pichai begging for advice. As for the rest, I have family to rely on, and besides, even without personal strength, I am not entirely without fangs. Yang Jixing may have a Prime Minister in his corner, but I have a family and allies of my own, not to mention a vast fortune, Spiritual Guns, Runic Devices, and Divine turtles to boot. If the little Imperial Shit wants to throw down, then I’ll gladly send him running back east, whether it be through economic, military, or terrapinian might.


Terrapin-ion? Terrapinician? Turtilian? Whatever. Turtles, I got them, and soon, maybe super powerful bunnies too. Then, the world shall know true fear as I, Falling Rain, unleash my hordes of heavily-armed heavenly floofs against them!



I swear I’m the good guy here.



Most of the time.


Chapter Meme


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 475

I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron Ben and my other anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!


Also, as warned, I am now going on a 2 chapter break for Canada day. Next chapter will be July on 4th. Bye!


“Happy new year!”


“Wishing you good health and good fortune.”


“May you be blessed with happiness and prosperity.”


While Lord Husband shouted couplets and handed out red envelopes from the back of a wagon, Luo-Luo’s smile grew strained and her heart heavy as she tallied the total costs in the secluded safety of her rickshaw. For months, she toiled from dawn till dusk keeping his business ventures solvent and profitable, but it was like he felt compelled to spend faster than she earned, handing out red envelopes with ten coppers a piece instead of the customary five. The envelopes themselves also cost a small fortune to manufacture thanks to the scarcity of red dye, and Lord Husband had several wagons of these ‘red pockets’ to hand out. He also had a stash of similar red envelopes in his jacket pockets containing one silver each, which he handed out far too liberally to anyone he thought might need more. They mostly went to undernourished children or the frail elderly, but as word of his generosity spread, the crowd only grew larger and larger.


While Luo-Luo didn’t understand why he insisted on red envelopes when red string was cheap, traditional and in abundance, at least he’d taken her advice to do this away from the packed citadel streets. Here on the open fields by the pond and cattle ranch, even his Death Corps Honour Guard were having issues keeping the agitated crowd in line, but there was plenty of room so people wouldn’t trample over one another. Clever of him to stamp every recipient’s hands with indelible ink (yet another added expense to this costly charity), but even then, there were far more people in the citadel then Lord Husband had red pockets to give, and she worried things would turn violent once he ran out. Not that she thought the commoners had a chance of injuring him, for even as frail as he was, the Death Corps were more than capable of keeping him safe, but it would be a poor start to the new year if they were forced to slaughter their way out of an unruly mob. Thus, while Lord Husband played the part of generous philanthropist and exchanged hard earned coin for fleeting goodwill, Luo-Luo made her own arrangements in case things took a turn for the worse.


How could she allow Imperial soldiers and Death Corps to spill blood on this most auspicious of days?


The first day of the new year was supposed to be a day of goodwill and renewal, but Lord Husband and his people had strange ideas regarding how to celebrate. Instead of hanging paper lanterns and playing upbeat music, yesterday, everyone returned home to clean and prepare for the coming new year, after which each household held their own personal family banquet. It was Luo-Luo’s first time dining with Lord Husband and his parents alone, and to call it stifling would be a grand understatement. Oh how she yearned to have sweet Lin-Lin, Tali, or Tate to keep her company, but they were all off having meals with their own parents, though where Sister Alsantset and Brother Charok brought the twins, Luo-Luo couldn’t say. She only learned this after the fact, but technically, Lord Husband should have also hosted his own meal since he was already married and had his own household by Bekhai standards, but as much as she would have loved to share a private meal with just the two of them, his parents were not quite ready to let go of their talented but crippled son.


After four hours of blunt remarks and cutting questions, Luo-Luo was determined to help Lord Husband recover and gain his independence if only so she would never have to sit through such a shameful ordeal ever again.


Putting the tense and stressful meal out of memory, she stroked Jimjam’s cheeks and calmed the jittery wildcat while watching Lord Husband give away a veritable fortune with a smile. Though still gaunt and frail, he’d improved over this last month since he started exercising again, taking short strolls around the park each and every day. Rosy red cheeks and bright eyes made a world of difference, as did the tailored jacket she had specially made for his new year gift, a red and gold silken affair embroidered with all his animals and stuffed with soft yak wool to ward off the cold. Though not as thick as his old jacket, his new one was just as warm and didn’t make him look like a child wearing clothes he was meant to grow into, so he struck a striking figure atop his wagon with Lin-Lin to support him. Li-Li and Mila were also there handing out red pockets with considerably less enthusiasm, though the latter had beamed prettily enough earlier this morning when handing out those same red pockets to her Bekhai tribesmen.


Thankfully, Father-in-Law had his own soldiers and gifts to hand out, and Mother-in-law was there with him, but Sister Alsantset sat next to Luo-Luo and much like her mother, the fierce tigress was none too fond of her. While the warrior woman had no qualms about bringing the twins to sit in the rickshaw with her little brother’s consort, she sent her husband away to stand with Lord Husband as if worried Luo-Luo would seduce the man in broad daylight. While she’d been prepared for jealousy and resentment from Lord Husband’s other wives, she never expected to have to contend with his older sister as well, a fearsome woman who even Lord Husband tiptoed carefully around. It was amazing how quickly Sister Alsantset could go from smiling beautifully whilst in the arms of her husband or holding her children to scowling darkly whenever Luo-Luo came into view. Worst of all, the tigress’s apparent disdain didn’t keep her from sticking close to Lord Husband as often as possible, as if she’d appointed herself as his guardian, caretaker, and overseer while leaving little work for anyone else.


Luo-Luo found herself neglected in these last few days, ever since Lord Husband missed their last business appointment. Seeing how it was the same day his retinue returned from the front lines with Mila, Luo-Luo attributed his absence to their joyous reunion, but the next day, he missed their rescheduled meeting as well for reasons unknown. He claimed he’d been busy speaking with his Grand-Mentor Akanai, yet another fearsome woman who disapproved of Luo-Luo. The gorgeous blonde had a frigid intensity about her, and her blue, wintry eyes struck fear into Luo-Luo’s heart, for she had no idea what to call this woman who was Lord Husband’s Grand-Mentor, Grandmother, and future Mother-in-law. Regardless, she assumed Lord Husband had snuck off with Mila to get his hand broken, whatever that meant, and that was that.


It was tiresome dealing with all the ever-present, disapproving stares, but Luo-Luo did her best to power through. Even though Sister Alsantset hadn’t spoken a single unkind word, her disapproving stares were judging Luo-Luo for not standing at Lord Husband’s side while he squandered his wealth, but she didn’t approve of his wasteful spending and used her absence to convey disapproval without outright entering into conflict. Besides, if she stood beside him, she worried their staggering height difference would lessen him in the eyes of these strangers, so she took it upon herself to step away from the public eye. If it was about having a beauty at his side, Lin-Lin fit the bill nicely, a petite enchantress who charmed everyone with her winning smile, and the daughter of the beloved Medical Saint Taduk to boot. Mila and Li-Li were also stunning women in their own right, each one a unique and exotic city destroying beauty and utterly devoted to their charming and lovable Lord Husband.


Yan too, but the horned hussy was spending the new year with her adoptive Grandfather Du Min Gyu in the Central Citadel, almost two-hundred and fifty kilometres away and still too close for Luo-Luo’s liking.


Time dragged on and eventually Lord Husband’s supply of red pockets dwindled to almost nothing, so Luo-Luo prepared to act. Stepping down from the rickshaw, she strode over to a nearby stone bench where Lord Husband often sat, equidistant from both pond and cattle ranch. There, Mafu and the other quins laid stretched out to bask in the sun, and she laughed as the wildcats and bears bounded over to be received with warm hugs and welcoming squeaks. All of Lord Husband’s darling animals were so sweet and obedient, following along at her heels simply because he commanded them to stay close, and she wondered how she could have ever been afraid of the gentle fur-babies. Even as fragile as he was, Lord Husband had nothing to fear from them even if he were to lay in the grass while they romped around, for they always tread carefully around him and never laid tooth or claw upon him or anyone else.


Well, not after a few minor accidents in those first weeks…


Taking a seat on the bench, Luo-Luo shooed Sarankho aside before setting up her zither upon its stand, and she finished just as the crowd realized Lord Husband had handed out his last red pocket and was stepping down from his wagon. Disappointment and displeasure soon gave way to angry grumbles and entitled demands, a turn of events which caught Lord Husband off-guard, but one Luo-Luo had long since expected, so she eschewed warming up and set to strumming the strings on her zither. Slowly and quietly at first, but with each pass of her hands, she went faster and louder until the discordant scales matched the intensity of the rowdy mob of citizens raging around Lord Husband. Foolish and naive, he stayed put and tried to reason with them instead of retreating to safety, but this too was a part of his charm, the willingness to believe in the best of people, rather than seeing the worst for what it was.


Putting errant thoughts out of mind, she focused on her playing and increased the tempo of her dissonant tune. Losing themselves over to the jarring melody, the mob followed her lead and worked themselves into a near frenzy as her hands blurred over the strings at ever increasing speeds. Even the animals joined their voices to her symphony, groaning, mewling, grunting and chittering in protest of the unsettling sounds of her zither’s resonating tones, but she continued without slowing. Once the crowd was wholly connected to her music and at the height of emotion, she slammed both hands down onto the zither and stilled the strings as her thunderous strike echoed into the abrupt silence while citizen, guard, and animal alike froze in place. The strings quivered beneath her palms as the crowd turned to see why she had stopped playing, and she greeted everyone with her most fetching smile. “This one is Imperial Servant Zheng Luo, Consort to Honoured Husband Falling Rain,” she said, her soft voice carrying far over the hushed crowd. “Although there are no more red pockets to hand out, this one offers her meagre musical skills as recompense. Please, gather round and listen to this one’s original arrangement titled ‘Rise to Glory’.”


Without any further ado, she plucked out the opening notes to her composition and submersed herself wholly in the music and the bittersweet memories which came with it. Twelve years she’d given over to this piece, but after performing it during her graduation competition, she never played it again. How could she? Though she received a standing ovation from the Emperor Himself, her ‘Rise to Glory’ was also the source of all her subsequent misery, for by shining too brightly, she had attracted the attentions’ of two powerful men she could not afford to offend, the Grand Marshal and the Prime Minister, respectively. Because of this, she languished in the dormitories for six long years, the forgotten servant too talented to serve, before Shen ZhenWu brought her out of the Academy and the Eastern province to betroth her to a foreign ‘savage’. Though it took time to get used to her new circumstances and there was still a long way to go, she had long since accepted her new lot in life and would wholeheartedly stand by her Lord Husband and support him until he saw fit to truly accept her.


Which would hopefully be soon; so long as Lord Husband approved, then it didn’t matter how Akanai, Sarnai, Alsantset, or any other woman in his life felt about Luo-Luo…


Not even a quarter way through her song, she realized the animals had joined their voices to the tune once again. Aurie mwared and Mafu chittered, the birds cackled and cattle mooed, and though all these noises clashed with her melodious strumming, she felt they were oddly appropriate, somehow fitting into the space between her notes and filling a void which she’d never quite noticed before. The more she played, the more the animals’ accompaniment seemed to fit, but no matter how she tried to understand it, she found herself unable to unravel the mystery of harmonious commotion, from the dismal opening, into the steadfast midsection, and right up until she plucked the final triumphant note and let the strings fall silent on their own.


And then the thunderous applause shook Luo-Luo out of her contemplative state, so focused she’d forgotten she was playing for an audience.


Standing to accept her accolades, Luo-Luo curtsied towards the crowd while taking in their unbridled delight. Even without Death Corps guards to keep them back, the once unruly mob had settled in around her in a neat semi-circle, while the lazing quins had gathered around behind her. Even the Guardian Turtle had come out to listen, her head bobbing and mouth opened wide in thorough appreciation of her performance. The wildcats and bears pressed against her legs, while Lord Husband’s kingfishers perched about in the trees and the cattle lined up at the fences, all of them still making a racket as if singing her praises. No wonder Lord Husband wanted her to play for the cattle, for they seemed like her most appreciative audience out of everyone here.


Truth be told, the crowd’s warm smiles and resounding applause made her much happier than the Emperor’s solitary standing ovation, so genuine and heartfelt it brought tears to her eyes.


The crowd chanted for her to play again, so she sat back down and obliged, beaming as Lord Husband and his family cheered her on from the side. The hours passed quickly and she played until her fingers cramped, then she played some more until she could no longer continue, and only then did she beg leave to rest. The crowd gracefully acquiesced after she promised to play another concert tomorrow, and she packed her instrument away while reflecting on her “Rise to Glory”. Back then, she’d written the piece thinking her performance for the Emperor would be her crowning achievement, but things had not worked out as she hoped, with her true glory yet to come. There was more to the song, and she felt it coming together within her, the chords, progressions, harmonies, and resolutions all but writing themselves.


Committing the changes to memory, she shooed away the curious Jimjam and Baloo before they broke her zither case and left it for the Death Corps guards to bring away. Rejoining Lord Husband, she beamed as he, her sister wives, and her in-laws all praised her musical talents, concise and short-lived though their compliments might be. Though Lord Husband had little to say and faked his enthusiasm, Sister Alsantset seemed less miffed by Luo-Luo’s presence and gave her a pat on the head as if she were a mere child, but the fierce tigress treated Lord Husband the same way, so Luo-Luo took no offence.


Dinner was a festive affair as all of Lord Husband’s family gathered together to celebrate the end of the first day in the thirty-sixth year of the current Emperor’s reign. Luo-Luo was twenty-four years old now, a full four years older than Lord Husband yet still a girl without child. More importantly, by Bekhai tradition, Lord Husband and Mila were both of marriageable age, which meant their nuptials would happen soon enough. Once the fierce, freckled Mila was sated, then Lord Husband would finally be free to lay with Luo-Luo as well, and their bond would only deepen. Perhaps next time, Luo-Luo would welcome the new year with a babe in her belly, or if they acted quickly enough, in her arms.


While they ate and laughed, everyone praised her musical talents and Mother-in-law Sarnai seemed especially interested, asking questions and making arrangements for tomorrow’s concert while sending invitations to all her friends and associates. Delighted to finally have obtained the dragon lady’s approval, Luo-Luo committed to finishing Rise to Glory for tomorrow’s performance even if she didn’t sleep a single wink, a minor sacrifice now that she was a fully-fledged practising Martial Warrior.


As the festivities came to an end, Luo-Luo cuddled a sleepy Tate in her arms and prayed for these joyous, happy days to last forever, but she spoke too soon as an Imperial Messenger arrived strode in without fanfare, flying the Emperor’s dragon banner to denote official business. Without need for reminder, Lord Husband and his family all fell to their knees and bowed their heads, albeit a little slower than Luo-Luo would have deemed respectful. “Ten thousand years of boundless longevity upon the Emperor,” they all said in chorus, the traditional greeting to receive an Imperial missive. “Imperial Servant Zheng Luo awaits her orders.”


Obviously the others stated their own names, but the Imperial Messenger had no time to listen to their introductions one by one. Striding over to Luo-Luo, he placed the missive into her waiting hands and said, “The Emperor Demands.”


“And this servant obeys,” she replied, keep her head low until the Imperial Messenger’s boots could no longer be heard, at which point she raised her head and broke the seal on the scroll. Why her? Why not Lord Husband or his parents or Grand-Mentor? “It is a summons,” she read, answering the unasked question. “Demanding the presence of…” Her eyes widened as she saw the order the names were written in, but she dared not recite them out of order, for this missive represented the Emperor’s will. “Demanding the presence of Imperial Servant Zheng Luo and Falling Rain. There is a Death Corps escort waiting outside, and we are to proceed alone and unaccompanied by any others, including our own honour guard under threat of execution.” Rereading the missive, she quickly pointed out the discrepancies she noticed, knowing time was of the essence. “This is not signed. There are no other orders. The threat is written without flaw, almost in a bored manner.” Meaning whoever penned it was used to issuing death threats over minor matters. “There is no location stated, no time frame for return, and no reason for the summons, but we must obey.”


“Go then,” Akanai said, her voice strained and eyes angry as the rest of her warrior family bristled with indignation. “If you do not return, know you will not die alone.”


While a bit over-dramatic, she wasn’t wrong to worry since Lord Husband’s status presented something of an issue. Imperial Scions were meant to be seen as superior to all others by virtue of birth alone, and even though he was merely an Imperial Consort, Lord Husband’s condition brought disgrace to the Imperial Clan as a whole, which meant it was entirely possible he would be made to disappear. Idly wondering which of his wives Akanai meant to send after Lord Husband in death, Luo-Luo helped him board the waiting carriage and sat with him in silence, clutching his arm close to calm her nerves while he read through the missive himself.


“Don’t worry,” Lord Husband said, stroking her hand gently. “If they meant to execute me, they wouldn’t have sent such a nice carriage.”


A statement which made no sense whatsoever, but his intentions were good, and she settled her nerves to think. This wasn’t Shen ZhenWu’s work, this much she knew, because even if he intended to dispose of Lord Husband, it would have been done in secret since there was nothing to be gained from alienating the Bekhai and their many allies. No, this was a calculated move meant to humiliate and enrage, which meant the summons came from someone at odds with Lord Husband’s patron, someone inferior to Shen ZhenWu since he wasn’t publicly scheduled to arrive for another three days, and only the weaker party would avoid direct conflict. Games and schemes, but even though Luo-Luo sat at the heart of the matter, she had yet to understand the rules and stakes.


Though it didn’t last long in terms of minutes, the carriage ride felt like it stretched on into eternity, and when it finally came to a stop, Luo-Luo’s heart skipped a beat. It was entirely possible their mysterious host would have them both executed out of hand and lay the blame on Lord Husband after the fact, but as she stepped out into the night’s gloom, she breathed a sigh of relief. Silent despite her ponderous size, the Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao had followed them to their destination, which might mean the difference between life and death. After helping Lord Husband out with his walker, she held his arm for support and followed him in through the inconspicuous manor gates. Her path barred by Death Corps soldiers, the Guardian Turtle squeaked in protest until Lord Husband turned around to address the silent guards. “The big girl is sweet and all, but she’s also super attached and doesn’t like letting me out of sight. If you keep her from following, she will squash you all and break down the gates. Not a threat, just the facts.” Shrugging as if it were no concern of his, he turned back around and proceeded into the empty manor courtyard, ignoring the increasingly insistent squeaks emanating behind him. The Death Corps outside must have received new instructions, for soon after, the Guardian Turtle shuffled inside to loom protectively over Lord Husband, her meaty legs encircling them both while she watched over from above.


Though usually a gentle creature, today the Guardian Turtle seemed agitated and protective as if sensing a threat, news which did nothing to calm Luo-Luo’s nerves.


Stepping out of thin air, their host appeared in the empty, but well lit courtyard, a golden armoured Imperial Scion much younger than Shen ZhenWu. If the man before them was a day over twenty five, then she would dance naked in the streets, for his youthful features had yet to take on the timeless gleam shared by older, yet still youthful-looking Martial Warriors. What’s more, he completely ignored Lord Husband and stared at Luo-Luo with a ravenous gaze, and this unbridled arrogance and obvious disdain spoke volumes to his inexperience since it put even her politically blind Lord Husband on his guard.


Seeing no Imperial Dragon Banner or Imperial Dragon Sigil in sight, Lord Husband clasped his hands and offered a Martial Salute in lieu of bowing, giving their host what she hoped was an intended slight. “Imperial Consort Falling Rain offers greeting. I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, as I’ve no idea who you are.”


Mother in Heaven, if these slights weren’t intentional, then Luo-Luo would have to give yet another long, lengthy lecture on etiquette. Perhaps she could illustrate it for him, since he didn’t seem too taken by her music or poetry…


Seething with rage, the Imperial Scion’s hand strayed to his sword, but Lord Husband merely smirked in response. His cavalier attitude gave their host pause, as did the Guardian Turtle looming overhead, so with a well-practised sneer, the young Imperial placed his hands behind his back and said, “Your ignorance is expected, savage. Clean your ears and listen properly. This Noble is – Yiii?”


Retreating several steps as Lord Husband picked his ears and flicked his finger clean, the Imperial Scion looked positively horrified. “Sorry,” Lord Husband said, wiping his hands on his jacket. “Ears cleaned. You were saying?”


“…This Noble,” the Scion said, his face twisted in fury, “Is Yang Jixing.”


“Uh huh, and the purpose of this meeting?” Though Lord Husband was unimpressed, Luo-Luo inwardly gasped at the youth’s name. The surname Yang meant this young noble was related to the Prime Minister, perhaps even directly related considering he had the gall to offend the favoured Heir to the throne like so.


Annoyed by Lord Husband’s lack of reaction and dismissive tone, Yang Jixing’s neck pulsed as he visibly swallowed his indignation. Speaking through clenched teeth, he uttered each word with great effort and lacking restraint. “Your Imperial Servant, Zheng Luo. This Noble wishes to purchase her. Her talents are wasted on a savage like you. I will gift you with another Imperial Servant who will also bestow the title of Imperial Consort upon you, so you need not worry about the loss of your title.”


“Not for sale.” Lord Husband’s refusal was direct and without hesitation, a response which warmed Luo-Luo’s heart. “If that’s all…?” Though his words implied asking for leave, Lord Husband was already turning for the door.


“You… Do you know who I am? Who my father is?”


Barely containing a snort of laughter, Lord Husband coughed and said, “No, but I suppose you’ll tell me.”


“My father is the Prime Minister of the Empire.” Pausing as if he expected Lord Husband to recoil in fear or grovel for mercy, Yang Jixing frowned as Lord Husband continued hobbling away, though the Guardian Turtle didn’t seem willing to move just yet. “Do you not understand what this means? My father’s word is the Emperor’s justice. You have many cases awaiting adjudication, and I only need crook my finger to have them all ruled in favour of your opponents.”


“Really? That’s a shame.” Frowning in consternation, Lord Husband sighed and looked up at the night’s sky. Or not. “Ping Ping, I’m tired and don’t want to walk around you, so could you please move?”


The Guardian Turtle didn’t respond, but Yang Jixing exploded with anger, screaming, “You worthless fucking savage! You should be grateful this Noble is even interested in your woman! You will hand her over or –”


“Or what? You’ll kill me here and now? No? Then I’m leaving.” Unconcerned by Jixing’s tantrum, Lord Husband gave a bored look over his shoulder and said, “The Imperial Missive demanded our presence here, but it said nothing about staying or listening to anyone. I doubt the Emperor would let an idiot like you speak with his voice, so whoever sent the summons isn’t willing to directly intervene. You can threaten all you want, but Luo-Luo is not for sale. She is my Consort, not a commodity to be traded.” Glancing at her in apparent apprehension, he added, “That is… unless you want to go with him. Do you?”


Warmed by his declaration and genuine concern, Luo-Luo moved close and took his arm once more. “No Lord Husband,” she said, her eyes wide and glowing. “This one will not leave you unless ordered by the Emperor himself.”


“Cool. Let’s roll.” Unromantic as always, Lord Husband nodded and bumped the Guardian Turtle with his walker. “Excuse me Ping Ping. Beep Beep. Back up.”


With an adorable squeak of challenge, the Guardian Turtle backed away slowly with mouth open and eyes wide, glaring not at the young Scion but at his protector or backer hidden in the shadows. “You’ll regret this,” Jixing yelled, but Lord Husband paid him no heed. “She will be mine, but now I will destroy you and everyone you hold dear to take her. You hear me?”


Apparently, he did, as Lord Husband made a sharp turn away from the gates and directed the Guardian Turtle back through the manor’s bedrooms where her rear destroyed everything in her path. “Oops,” he said, glancing around as if lost. “Hard to see with Ping Ping blocking my sight. Which way are the gates? This way?” They destroyed two more buildings before Jixing finally wised up and stopped screaming obscenities, but by then Luo-Luo could barely restrain her laughter. Outside, Lord Husband even had the gall to commandeer the carriage for the journey back home, urging the Death Corps to be quick about sending him home and muttering about filling the carriage with cattle dung for the journey back.


While crippled and nothing like the dashing Lord Husband she’d envisioned as a younger woman, Luo-Luo was thankful she’d been gifted to such a wonderful man. Even though he didn’t love her, he didn’t hesitate to offend a powerful Scion and son of the Prime Minister just to keep her at his side, not out of love, affection, or even power, but because he treated her with the same dignity and civility he gave anyone else.


In his eyes, she wasn’t an Imperial Servant, but merely a woman, one free to do as she pleased, and this more than anything, made her truly fall in love.


Chapter Meme


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 474

More and more art. Not just from Jess either. Battling a cold, Rocky has risen up to the challenge and responded with a submission of his own, a lovely portrait of Akanai and her big… Axe lance, if ya know what I mean 😉

Them thicc, exposed thighs gonna be relevant later, but not for a few chapters. I’ll bring it up again when we get there.

Next on Jess’s Total War checklist is our boi Dastan!!! Give it up for the beardy beau, with his stunningly handsome good looks. We got a poster with and without text, and a cover with and without text, so here they are.

Okay so now, am I crazy, or does Dastan actually look like he from one of those mixed border countries next to china? One of those -stan countries, where they look like they sorta asian but sorta not? Like it’s uncanny how close Jess got to the same ethnicity I pictured in my head for Dastan, Rustram, Bulat, and all those non-noble characters. Also, He’s stupid handsome, no homo. I can see why he’d be worried about his chrysanthemum around a degenerate like Rain.

Anyways, enjoy now. Byeeeeeeee!



A new day dawns, and it’s looking to be a good one, with plenty to look forward to in the near future. Not only is my beloved Mila back and acting extremely affectionate, but my friends and retinue have returned too. In a few days, we’ll celebrate the new years as one big happy family, with plenty of food, gifts, and good cheer to share and indulge in. The only person missing is Yan, but she’ll be here a week after new years, so I have more to look forward to. What’s more, Taduk is off at the farm testing the efficacy of Divine Poop Plant Fertilizer, with thousands of Khishigs there with him to provide protection and distraction for the low, low cost of room and board. If things work out, then at the bare minimum we’ll have a near endless supply of Spiritual Plants to use as we please, yet another fortune simply waiting to be spent.


Expecting another peaceful morning with Mom and the twins, I am instead greeted with a crowded dining room filled with a half-dozen guests, namely BoShui, Dastan, Sahb, Wang Bao, Ulfsaar, and Neera. Alsantset and Charok are also here, which is to be expected since we all live together, but the others are an unexpected surprise, and not just because of the odd grouping or early hour. Though unsure why BoShui brought all my recent Experts to visit, judging by the looks of relief etched across their faces, I’d say they regret swinging by so early and without mentally preparing for the force of personality I call Mom.


I love her to bits, but I’ll be the first to admit she takes some getting used to. For the first few weeks after I arrived in the village, I thought she wanted to straight up murder me. Fierce.


Ignoring the brief expressions of pity flashing across most of their faces, I wave and say, “Hi everybody!” No one returns the greeting with ‘Hi Doctor Rain’, but I don’t blame them since I have no idea why they should. While hobbling over to the dining table, I watch the twins Demonstrate the Forms in the courtyard and wonder how much longer it’ll be before I can do the same, because even though I’m enjoying this sedentary lifestyle, I’d like to go on strolls around the citadel without almost collapsing in exhaustion. Tate is focused as ever, but sweet Tali slows her movements to show me a wide-eyed, miserable pout, one which breaks my heart despite knowing she’s faking it and just wants to eat pastries. Her mother knows it too judging by the way Tali jumps in surprise and gets back to the Forms, no doubt being scolded through Sending for trying to take advantage of her soft-hearted uncle.


Still… the poor girl looks so sad and blue, maybe this training is too much. I should talk to Alsantset about it, or at least save a few pastries for them. They don’t need to be too strong, because I will straight up murder anyone who even looks at them funny.


…Is this how arrogant young masters are born? Bah, who cares. They’re cute, so they can be as arrogant as they want. I’ll allow it.


Waving away everyone’s attempts to help me over, I notice Alsantset would’ve ignored me and come anyway if not for Mom’s silent intervention. Though we’re technically adopted siblings, my sister sees herself as part-time mother as well, and she never got used to letting me be. Taking a seat between Mom and surrogate Mom, I suppress a sigh as Alsantset shifts closer, and a second sigh once the coddling begins. Sliding the giant, communal plate of pastries in front of me, she says, “Eat little brother,” her tone sweet and gentle but eyes hard and unyielding while draping a cloak over my shoulders and blowing on my cup of tea.


Pushing the plate away so I have room to rest my arms, Alsantset’s hand snaps out to make sure it stays nearby while glaring at our guests to warn them from eating any more. Dastan even goes as far as to raise his hands in surrender before catching himself, though BoShui and the others remain cool under pressure, which is to say they avert their eyes and pretend they’re not hungry. Clearing my throat to hide a laugh, I say, “Thank you sister, but lunch is soon and I don’t want to spoil my appetite.”


“Eat now and we’ll have lunch a little later.” Alsantset’s smile is so lovely, yet oh so dangerous, less disarming and more threatening. Chances are, she’ll delay lunch by five minutes and expect me to clear the table by myself, then complain about how I don’t eat enough and set Charok to cooking more.


Knowing it’s futile to argue, I pick out an egg custard tart and take a bite while my friends suffer through a coughing fit of their own. They laugh, but they don’t understand. People think I don’t give face, but Alsantset is on another level. If I don’t eat something, she will guilt me into eating, and if that doesn’t work, she’ll feed me by hand even if people are watching. She means well and is only concerned about my health, but thanks to painkillers and a shattered Core, I don’t have much of an appetite even for delicious baked goods. The flaky pastry doesn’t come without pain either, as my tongue, lips, and teeth can withstand the temperatures of the heated pastry, but not my throat, and by the time I realize it, the searing agony has around brought tears to my eyes. “Delicious.”


“Good, then I will have a fresh batch waiting for you each morning.” Eyes darting to the twins, she raises her voice and adds, “And only for you if your niece and nephew continue to shame themselves in front of our guests.”


Oh my poor sweet darlings, I’m so sorry. Your uncle Rainy wants to help, but his older sister is too scary, so you’re both on your own. I’ll protect you from everyone else though, I promise.


Nibbling away at my pastry, I make small talk and sip my until Alsantset looks away. Seizing the moment, I throw the rest of my tart to the bears and ask, “So what brings you all here this morning?”


“We stopped by to visit,” Wang Bao replies, which is weird because why is he answering and why do BoShui, Dastan, and Sahb look so guilty? Ulfsaar and Neera are fine, though the Voracious lives up to his name by eyeing the pastries with a covetous gaze. Worried he might pop a blood vessel from straining so hard, I grab a red bean bun I have no intention of finishing and slide the plate over. Risking Alsantset’s ire, Ulfsaar helps himself to two pastries but stops himself before grabbing a third, every bit as terrified of my older sister as anyone in their right mind would be. Dutiful wife that she is, Neera helps herself to two pastries as well and cradle both in her hands, no doubt saving the treats for her hungry hubby while beaming prettily at my sullen sister.


I missed hanging out with my soldiers. Most are a simple bunch, not exactly respectful of rules or boundaries, but decent, genuine people unlike most nobles or Martial Warriors I meet. Sadly, even XinYue and his elite soldiers are a little too stuck-up for my tastes. They treat me well and we get along great, but I can’t help but think none of them would give me the time of day if I were Average Joe instead of Falling Rain. The former bandits would rob and plunder, even kill if someone resisted, but they were happy to take anyone in so long as they could contribute. For example, before I met him, Jorani had a Core but wasn’t much of a warrior, yet the Freebooters kept him around as a scout and lookout, whereas he probably would’ve been kicked to the curb if he’d been a guard in Sanshu. It’s not exactly a high bar, but standards for basic decency are pretty low in the Azure Sea Empire.


I wonder what’s keeping Jorani and GangShu from coming back. Maybe the Abbot converted them and they’re both bald, rat-eared eunuchs now, busy flailing themselves and chanting sutras or whatever it is monks do…


Realizing my friends and soldiers have something to say but won’t say it in front of my family, I idly wonder why they don’t just Send their request over instead. After eating four halves of pastries under Alsantset’s watchful eye, I make an excuse about going to see my retinue and abandon the twins to their mother’s merciless tutelage. It’s okay, their grandma is there to look after them and I’ll make it up with toys and sweets later, but for now, I need to figure out why BoShui and Dastan are being so squirrelly. Once out the courtyard gates, I ask my Death Corps escorts to step back and turn to BoShui and Dastan. Raising an eyebrow in question, I let the silence do the talking, a difficult prospect while hobbling along on a walker.


At least Mila cleared out all the stupid fops and they haven’t come back. BoShui and Dastan would both stand up for me no doubt, but I don’t want to trouble them. Honestly, this whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Who cares about what a few idiots say? Even if nothing comes of Mila’s violent retaliation, I’m still worried about possible repercussions, and it’s way easier to tune out the peanut gallery than it is to turn off the annoying little voice in my head.


No Spectres here, just plain old anxiety which can be crippling all by itself.


…Well, it probably would be, but drugs. Woooooooo!


After a long, silent exchange with Dastan, BoShui throws his hands up in frustration and Sends, “We were hoping you could get us a meeting with your Grand-Mentor.”


“Okay, but why?”


“…I’d rather not say.” Ha, he’s blushing.


Contrary to BoShui’s statement, Dastan looks eager to speak and silently hints for me to ask so he can claim he has no choice but to answer. It feels scummy using his Oath to compel him so I don’t, but my curiosity eats away at me as I try to puzzle out what all these gathered visitors have in common. They’re all Experts, but when you throw BoShui into the mix, it means this has nothing to do with my retinue. Or maybe it does, since everyone here was Tainted at one point, not quite full on Defiled, but getting there. “Does this have something to do with what happened in the hidden cave on the secret island?” Smooth double speak there. No one will figure out what you’re talking about unless they have half a brain and an account of your history.


Maybe I should lower my dosage of painkillers. I can’t afford to be any dumber…




“…Then why can’t you just say it?”


“…We just can’t. It’s about the Martial Path.” Realizing he’d fucked up, BoShui wishes he could take back what he said, because now I’m confused and intrigued, which means I have to know. “Truly, it’s in your best interests not to ask,” BoShui says, inadvertently stoking the flames of curiosity. “I promise it has nothing to do with you, but we need to speak with your Grand-Mentor as soon as possible.”


“Well…” Dastan hems, and BoShui shoots him a dirty look. Shrugging, Dastan continues, “I wouldn’t say it has nothing to do with the boss. Remember what Vichear said? About the beggar in Feng Huang?”


“Shit. You’re right, I didn’t even think about that.”


“Exactly. What if they don’t know?”


“But Zian said –”


“I know what he said. I was there, but this is the boss we’re talking about. There’s nothing to worry about. If you could trust Zian, then you can trust the boss.”


This is ridiculous. “Enough with all this cryptic talk. What’s going on?” Holding a hand up to forestall Dastan, I add, “That was not an order. You are not compelled to tell me, but I’d still like to know.”


Making a face because I screwed up his plan, Dastan and BoShui have another silent exchange through Sending, a longer one this time, with shifting expressions and wild gestures. It’s like they’re trying to fill the silence with exaggerated motions, which would be comical if I weren’t so impatient. Finally, after minutes of back and forth, BoShui rolls his eyes and glowers while Dastan exults in his victory and Sends, “Remember the party Fung threw after he Formed his Natal Palace? You said something then which stuck with us…”


Minutes later, all of my curiosity has been stamped out and my frail heart stressed to the point of bursting thanks to the twists and turns revealed during Dastan’s tale, one of gross misunderstanding and deliberate mental illness which resulted in a brand new Martial Path. The Dao of Accidental Success as it were, one of Natal Souls, self-acceptance, and self-love. When all is said and done, I take a seat on my walker and wonder who else knew there was more than one Falling Rain living inside my head, or if I’d erred in getting rid of Baledagh so completely. I don’t even remember the conversation which sparked all this off, no doubt lost to the haze of alcohol, so how did things get so out of control? “…You got all this from a drunken slip of the tongue?”


Me and my big drunk mouth.


“Yea,” Dastan replies, and he still has the gall to look proud about it. “So… would it be a problem if we brought this up with your Mentor?”


“No, I already told them all about my err… You know.” Baledagh, who apparently was a super advanced Natal Soul. Lamenting over the loss of Sending, I ask the Death Corps to get my rickshaw and ponder the implications while bringing everyone to see Akanai. If Baledagh was a Natal Soul, then why was he so different from all the other lifeforms I created in my Natal Palace? At one point, I had people, birds, bunnies, and whatnot populating my replica village, though I got rid of all of them because they were so creepy and lifeless. Also, how come this Natal Soul method of Domain Development is so different from mine? Hell, from what Dastan told me, his method and BoShui’s aren’t all that similar either. While they both merge with their Natal Souls and become One with the World, that’s where the similarities end. Where BoShui accepts his flaws to do so, Dastan instead embraces his hopes and dreams, which are embodied by a chibi version of himself, but somehow it results in the same thing. How does it even work?


According to Dastan, his chibi Natal Soul represents the Internal workings of Chi while his physical body represent the External, and by merging both together, he blurs the line between Internal and External to Develop a Domain. This is apparently true for BoShui as well, and worked for Sahb, Wang Bao, and Neera over the last week or so of training. Ulfsaar has yet to succeed, but everyone assumes it probably has something to do with the violent and downright antagonistic nature of his murderous Natal Soul.


As for me? Unlike what they’d hoped, I didn’t use this method to Develop my Domain, or even anything remotely close to it. I got rid… I… accepted and ‘joined’ with my Natal Soul several months before the craziness in Sinuji, but I didn’t have a ‘One with the World’ epiphany. Instead, I told the world to fuck off and carved out a piece of it for myself, seizing power where Dastan and the others were granted permission to wield it.


Does this mean the Mother is real? Was I supposed to ask for Her permission before Developing my Domain? Because the way Dastan tells it, it sounds like they were all authorized by a higher power to wield Chi in the External World, whereas I skipped the line and helped myself. Then again, maybe I didn’t need authority because I wasn’t using Chi, but rather the Heavenly Energy I’d gotten from cleansing Spectres. I processed it, so why would I need permission to use it? I really hope this is the case, because otherwise what I did was tantamount to robbery.


Or worse… Heresy… Am I a heretic? Should I be purged?


Calm down Rain. Just calm down. I mean, sure you forced your will upon Heavenly Energy, but how is it any different from using a windmill or waterwheel? You didn’t commit any unspeakable crimes, you leveraged the laws of nature. Or magic. Or Chi, whatever. Who says you need approval to Develop a Domain? This isn’t real estate, we don’t need any permits or mandates from Heaven or any of that nonsense. If it’s wrong, but it works, then it’s not wrong, just… different.


Feeling better after rationalizing away all the panic and religious overtones, I calm my nerves and reinforce the belief that everyone forges their own Martial Path, so I should stick to mine, a sentiment Akanai vehemently shares after I explain why my friends need to speak with her alone and under a sound barrier. “Fool,” she growls, looming overhead in a dark fury. “You should not meddle in matters you do not understand. Martial Warriors do not discuss the Path lightly, because even a minor misunderstanding can lead someone down a dead-end fork.”


“I know, but –”


“No buts. Away with you. Go about your day and forget you ever had this conversation while I deal with these idiots.”


“I can’t.” Standing tall against her barely restrained fury, I explain, “I’ve already heard this much, and I have questions, questions which need answering. Otherwise, I’m just going to obsess over them until I drive myself crazy.”


“Which is exactly why you should have never discussed this in the first place!” Delivering a scathing glare towards my friends and subordinates, I can see Akanai weighing their existence against my future Martial Path, and I truly believe that if I wasn’t crippled, she would make all six of them disappear just so I can’t question them.


Hobbling over to stand with them, I draw myself up to full height and try not to shrink back from Akanai’s glare. “The rice is cooked, Grand-Mentor. I’ve already heard what they had to say, so what’s the harm in hearing more?”


After a long period of deliberation, Akanai say, “They cannot hear you anymore, so tell me what questions would you ask of them?”


Ah right. The dangers of discussion goes both ways. Selfish of me not to consider it. “Well… off the top of my head, I want to know if any of them manifested their Natal Palace in the world, along with their Domains. They never mention it, but isn’t that what a Domain is?” I distinctly remember seeing my carved wooden ceiling take shape in the real world, and I’ve told Akanai as much.


“Yes, but they must realize this on their own.” Faltering before my wide-eyed, inquisitive stare, Akanai sighs and massages her forehead. “You’ve touched upon some of the truth. Core Formation, Aura Condensation, and Natal Palace Formation all have a part in Domain Development, like pieces of a puzzle coming together to form a whole. Do not dwell on it for now, focus on getting better first and the rest will come naturally. Next question.”


Going through all the questions I came up with on the trip over, Akanai dismisses them one after another for either being nonsensical, irrelevant, based on an erroneous premise, or unable to be answered. Everyone’s Path is different, though some are more different than others, and she refuses to tell me how different mine is, or get into a theological discussion regarding the existence of the Mother. In her words, religious debate could infringe upon her Martial Path, because it is the linchpin to everything she’s built upon. The Mother must be real, or else Akanai’s Martial Strength is built on a lie, so she will not even entertain the possibility that she might be wrong.


Self confidence is kinda a big thing for Martial Warriors, which makes me wonder how I ever got as strong as I did…


Even after an in-depth debate, Akanai still refuses to let me sit in on her discussion with the others, and she even intends to interrogate them one by one to better understand what Dastan calls a ‘simple method for Natal Palace Formation and Domain Development’. Honestly, doesn’t really seem all that simple, or else I’d have more Experts in my retinue since Dastan blabbed about it to everyone who would listen. Five successes are a start, but Akanai says it could be decades before we know if this is truly a viable Path to the Martial Peak. Even if they all fail to reach the Peak, it doesn’t mean the Natal Soul Path isn’t viable, because hard work doesn’t guarantee success and luck is always a factor.


While standing to leave, I remember something important and say, “Oh yea… I don’t think it was a Natal Soul, but Mahakala and Pong Pong both had Spiritual Representations of themselves inside their Natal Palaces, same with Bei and Yo Ling. Does everyone have one? If so, what makes it different from a Natal Soul?”


Brow furrowed in confusion, Akanai asks, “Who?”


“Mahakala. The Monk. Am I saying his name wrong?”


“…Did you not swear an Oath never to reveal his name?”


Oh fuck. Wait. “No no no, I swore an Oath to keep the Brotherhood’s Defiled roots a secret, but not sharing his name was more of a courtesy thing, so…” Akanai’s eyes widen in alarm and as I realize what I just said, the blood drains from my face and I curse myself for a fool.


What a fucking way to go out, slain by the Heavens over a slip of the tongue.





Wait a minute…


“Uh… Grand-Mentor, why am I not dead?”


Chapter Meme

Chapter Meme 2

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