I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron Choiven and my other anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!
Good news bad news time.
I’ll start with the bad news. There’s a long weekend coming up, so there will be no chapter this Sunday. I repeat. No Chapter on Sunday, February 17, 2019. Anyone who shows up and asks ‘Where’s the chapter?’ will be named and shamed on the 19th, because it makes me happy to do so.
Good news is, more art! Once again, Rocky has been hard at work bringing the characters of Savage Divinity to life. First up, we have Jorani stealing one of Rain’s signature catchphrases.
And next, we have Taduk soaring through the clouds with Mama Bun and Blackjack. He’s even got a bowl on his head, perhaps so his moss-covered stone can collect more sunlight and grow faster.
Anywho, that’s it for now. Thanks again to Rocky for his efforts, and enjoy the chapter.
As much as Yan loved romance novels, they weren’t without their flaws. Most were formulaic and unoriginal, featuring a banal title and a main character who falls in love at first glance, usually while having little to nothing in common with their prospective lover. Putting aside their vast differences, there would also be some conflict keeping the ‘fated’ lovers apart, something silly and frivolous like a family rivalry or difference in status, but the main character would always want to do things the ‘right’ way, when it would be so much easier to wash your hands of the silliness and elope with your lover or even find someone else more worthy of their efforts.
What Yan found most unrealistic was how there was always a rival, if not several, characters whose despicable behaviour bordered on the extreme. Usually, the rival was a petty, spiteful individual who would stop at nothing to interfere with the main character’s relationship. More than once, she thought it strange for someone to go to such great lengths to sabotage another, especially when the rival usually held so many advantages over the main character. A childhood friend, an arranged marriage, a similar background, or shared employment, the rival’s time would be better spent winning over the love interest instead of plotting contrived and nonsensical schemes against the main character which required everything to go perfectly according to plan.
It all seemed so absurd right until this very moment when Yan realized she was the petty and spiteful rival doing everything she could to sabotage the star-crossed lovers, Zheng Luo and Falling Rain.
The Imperial Servant’s dance was unlike anything Yan had ever seen, the familiar movements of the Forms given new life by Zheng Luo’s beauty, grace, and poise. To call her dance complex or even technically difficult would be a far stretch, nor were the movements exceptionally innovative or beneficial from a Martial Warrior’s perspective, but neither of those things took away from its simplistic elegance and breathtaking artistry. Were Yan to execute the same movements in the same order, her performance would fall laughably short of Zheng Luo’s for there were a myriad of minor details contributing to this exquisite display. Her shimmering hair, soulful eyes, shapely body, and gorgeous features only added unnecessary ornamentation to the performance, for its beauty went beyond the physical. There was something about the way she flowed that aligned with the natural order of the world, like how the grass swayed and wind blew to accentuate her movements, or how her weapon came to life like a partner dancing alongside her, or how the tilt of her neck and angle of her fingers seemed to twist sunlight and shadow about her, as if the Mother herself were taking part in Zheng Luo’s awe-inspiring demonstration of the Forms.
To call it beautiful would be to do it a disservice, but Yan couldn’t find it in herself to appreciate the performance, because she was far too busy being jealous and catty.
Illogical is what it was, irrational and absurd, but Yan couldn’t help it. Only now did she realize what love did to a person and she hated it with a passion. Every time she looked at Zheng Luo, Yan saw a woman so unreasonably flawless it drove her mad with envy. Beauty and brains, usually wrapped up in a tight, alluring dress, Zheng Luo couldn’t be more perfect if she tried, yet here she was, doing exactly that. It didn’t matter if she had her beautiful hair done up in twin buns, or if she wore bulky, protective leathers and wielded a heavy, unfamiliar weapon, Zheng Luo still danced with effortless charm and stunning refinement, and Yan hated her for it.
Still, Yan had never purposely sabotaged Zheng Luo during their week of training sessions, though she admitted she didn’t try as hard as she should have. While giving the Imperial Servant a taste of the switch was satisfying at first, Yan’s soft-hearted empathy prevented her from using it as much as she’d like. The hateful woman was too damned charming and lovable to hurt and her teary, weepy eyes made Yan feel like an inhuman monster for gently correcting her mistakes. Yan did her best, but Zheng Luo seemed utterly hopeless as a Martial Warrior, so why put her through more physical pain than necessary? Yan was no sadist, so she eased back and waited for Zheng Luo to quit, but the woman was stubborn and driven to succeed. Now, in light of her consummate dance, it looked like Yan had tried to suppress Zheng Luo’s skills and prevent her from becoming a Martial Warrior, which was completely untrue.
Stupid Rain. Why did he have to be so damned smart sometimes?
Seeing her lover so enchanted by the sight of another woman, Yan elbowed him in the ribs and Sent, “Leave your tongue out any longer and the sun will turn it to jerky.”
Confused, Rain studied her for long seconds before his eyes lit up in genuine surprise. “Mother in Heaven,” he Sent, the message delivered through their intertwined fingers. “You’re actually jealous!” Idiot. Elbowing him again, Yan looked away so he couldn’t see her cheeks burning with shame, but Rain kept on Sending. “I thought you were kidding around, but you’re seriously mad.”
“Of course I am, shit-for-brains!”
“…Is this why you’ve been so… affectionate lately? Because you’re worried you’ll lose me to Luo-Luo?” Yan hated how he called her that, so sweet and sickly, and she especially hated how he almost seemed delighted by her jealousy. “I mean, I get Mila being jealous because she’s jealous about everything, but I didn’t expect this from you. How am I supposed to survive with two jealous wives?”
“Whose fucking fault do you think this is, you smug, insufferable twit?” Turning around to gently headbutt her idiot lover, Yan hit Rain a bit harder than she’d planned, though still lighter than he deserved. Kissing his forehead in apology, she went right back to being angry. “It’s not like I want to be jealous, but you keep collecting lovers like you want one for every night of the week. I hate what it does to me and I hate you for doing it.”
Clearly trying not to laugh, Rain pulled her close and nuzzled her neck. “Don’t be ridiculous. Lin already set a hard limit of five wives.” When he finished laughing at his own stupid joke, he continued, “You have nothing to worry about, not from Luo-Luo. I didn’t ‘collect’ her, she was forced on me, and I’ve no intentions of being with someone I can’t trust, much less not in love with.”
Yan scoffed. “You say this now, but how long will it last? What happens once Zheng Luo proves herself trustworthy? Or if she becomes a proper Martial Warrior? How am I supposed to compete with your beautiful, brilliant, hardworking, and compassionate concubine?”
“First off, it’s not a competition.” Punctuating the statement with a kiss on her neck, he continued, “Seriously, I will not play favourites or assign any hierarchy, because I truly love all three of you equally.” His lips brushed her shirt collar aside to kiss her shoulder, and Yan found herself yearning for more. “Also, if this were a competition, Luo-Luo wouldn’t even be a participant and you’d be in the lead, solely on account of what we did last night and earlier today.” This time, she elbowed him like she meant it, but he grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “If you’re still feeling insecure, then why don’t we sneak off and widen your lead?”
Sometimes, Yan wondered what crimes she committed in her past lives to warrant falling in love with a buffoon. Still, his words lifted Yan’s spirits, though now she felt bad for Zheng Luo. The Imperial Servant had no say in the matter, but it sounded like Rain blamed her for intruding. Looking back, she realized his attitude towards her did seem unusually distant, something she’d overlooked in her haze of jealousy. Rain barely even glanced at Zheng Luo’s exquisite, hip-hugging dress last night, a sight which even Yan had difficulty tearing her eyes from, which spoke to the depths of his resentment. This newfound understanding made Yan feel even worse for being so antagonistic with the poor woman, so she ignored Rain’s proposition and turned her attention back to their problematic student.
Neither fast nor slow, the dance continued at a moderate pace on the grassy plains of Central, lasting under an hour from start to finish. Barely restrained by her dark leather vest, Zheng Luo’s chest heaved with exertion and her skin glistened with sweat as she gazed longingly at Rain, her eyes full of hope and expectation. Barely giving the alluring enchantress a second glance, Rain said, “Okay then. What have you learned?”
Crushed by the lack of praise or applause, Zheng Luo visibly deflated and hugged her weapon close. “…Apologies Lord Husband, but Luo-Luo does not understand. What sort of answer is Lord Husband looking for?”
A little harsher than necessary, Rain shook his head and sighed, making Yan’s heart ache even more for Luo-Luo. She was trying so hard, but Rain couldn’t even spare a kind word or soft smile. He didn’t even say anything about how amazing her performance was. “Remember what I told you earlier?” He asked, his tone mildly impatient. “It all comes down to what you perceive. It’s not a pretty dance you do to impress people, the Forms are meant to guide you along the Martial Path, so you must seek Insight within them. What do you think about when you’re dancing?”
Her head hung low, Luo-Luo couldn’t even bring herself to speak and Yan yearned to spring forward and take the poor woman in her arms. Mother in Heaven, was she going to have to help her rival win her lover’s affection?
Completely without mercy, Rain continued lecturing Luo-Luo as she fought back her tears. “You know the Forms, and that’s a good start, but knowing isn’t enough. It is literally the first step along the Martial Path, so now you must take the next. Performing the movements through rote memorization is useless, you must explore the movements and delve into their mysteries. Think of it like… mathematics. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are your basic Forms, and with enough study, you can discover how to derive the volume of wagon based on its dimensions or calculate the interest on a two-percent loan.”
“…But why can’t you teach Luo-Luo these things?” Even her petulance was endearing, and Yan had to resist the urge to demand Rain treat his concubine better, because watching a grown woman pout and stomp her feet was too much. “Tell Luo-Luo how to hold her weapon, where to place her feet, and other simple instructions she can follow. Going by Lord Husband’s example, those mathematical formulas are already in existence, so what point is there in having Luo-Luo rediscover them on her own?”
“Because the formulas change from person to person.” Smiling like an idiot, Rain smacked himself on the forehead. “I can’t believe it took me this long to figure out. The answer was right in front of me, but I never pieced it all together. Listen closely Luo-Luo, because this took me seven plus years to figure out: I can’t tell you how to fight because it’s better if you learn on your own. What works for me might not work for you, and the same goes for Yan, because we are each our own unique individual. You might find success following in another’s footsteps, but the only way to realize your full potential is to forge your own path using the Forms to guide you.”
…Which was the foundational basis of the People’s teachings. Why was Rain only learning this now?
Understanding dawned upon Luo-Luo’s fair face, but she still seemed unconvinced. “But… Luo-Luo does not understand the ways of war, so how is she to find Insight in the Forms?”
Seeing an opportunity to chime in, Yan said, “Maybe you already have. Do you always dance with a weapon in hand?” Blinking in confusion, Luo-Luo shook her head and Yan continued, “Then how did you know what to do with the sceptre?”
“…Luo-Luo merely did what felt right.”
“Exactly!” Excited to finally make progress, Yan beamed from ear to ear. “You keep asking us to tell you what to do, but while you were dancing, did your sceptre ever get in your way? Did you stop and think about how to hold it, when to twirl it, where to move it, or anything along those lines? No, you followed your instincts and did what felt natural. In other words, you let the Forms guide you. Remember this feeling the next time you sit down to bind it, because that’s what it means to become one with the weapon, treating it not as an object, but as an extension of your body.”
Between the physical exertion and mental acrobatics, Luo-Luo seemed ready to fall to pieces, so after a few more words of advice, Yan suggested she take a break to rest and think things over before going through the Forms a second time. Dragging Rain away for a quiet stroll around the field of cattle, Yan voiced her misgivings through Sending. “You should be kinder to Luo-Luo. Don’t speak so harshly and maybe compliment her every now and then. Her performance was phenomenal but you skipped right over it to lecture her.”
“Oh? It’s ‘Luo-Luo’ now, is it?” Rain’s smug smile made Yan want to headbutt him again, but she graciously let him be. “What happened to ‘Zheng Luo’? Were you swayed by her phenomenal performance? You’re free to court her if you’d like. I don’t mind so long as I get to watch.”
Rethinking that headbutt, Yan rolled her eyes and Sent, “Idiot. I don’t understand you at all. A gorgeous woman is desperate for your approval, but every time you speak you almost bring her to tears. It’s like you’re trying to make her hate you.”
“I’m not that mean to Luo-Luo.” Seeing the look she gave him, Rain blinked and asked, “Am I?”
“Mean might not be the right word. Cold perhaps, or distant. You treat her like a stranger, but when you treat everyone else in camp like a dear friend, the contrast is obvious.”
“…She is a stranger. We met three months ago and spent two of those months apart.”
“…Fine, but how can you bear to make her cry? Heartless cad. Callous fiend. Cruel beast.”
“Oh please.” Crouching down to let an insistent bunny hop into his arms, he showed her its adorable face and Sent, “Don’t get taken in by her deception. Luo-Luo changes moods faster than Thumper here twitches his nose. She is a master manipulator and knows exactly what to say and do to get you on her side. That’s why I’m so guarded against her, because I know she’s trying to play me. Even after I told her I didn’t want a loveless relationship, she’s still pushing for sex so she can wrap me around her little finger.”
Much as she appreciated Rain’s sentiment, Yan was mildly horrified by what he considered proper behaviour. “You told Luo-Luo you didn’t love her and didn’t want a physical relationship? Okay, now I’d say you’re mean.” Taking the bunny away because Rain didn’t deserve its sweet kisses, Yan gave it a quick nuzzle while it settled into her embrace, inwardly gushing at its adorably angry expression. “What did you expect to happen? For her to accept your words and do nothing? She’s a young woman who was thrust into a scary and unfamiliar situation, one trained in the arts of diplomacy and seduction. Of course she’ll rely on what she knows. You can’t seriously be blaming her for trying to make friends and seduce her ‘Lord Husband’, are you? What you call manipulative, I say is adapting to circumstances. Only an idiot like you would try to impose their will in unfamiliar surroundings.”
His expression darkening with each sentence, Rain’s grimace was both adorable and darling. “...This isn’t fair!”
“How so? Have I said anything that isn’t true?”
“No, but you’re twisting the facts and making me feel bad. Stop bullying me, I don’t like it. And why’d you change your mind so quickly? First you hate her, now you love her. You were jealous, but now you’re supportive. How am I supposed to keep up?”
Laughing at Rain’s childish tantrum and sullen pout, Yan decided that was enough for today. Perhaps Rain was right and Luo-Luo was a manipulative charlatan, but Yan would find out for herself. “Fine. Let’s talk about something else. What’s your secret to success on the front lines? Healing can’t account for all your accomplishments.” Over the last week, Yan made great strides in utilizing the miraculous Panacea with Lin as her teacher, and she already intended to beg Akanai to share it with Grandpa. A shame she couldn’t share the secret with her retinue, but she understood why.
Half-expecting him to laugh off the question, Rain answered, “Crossbows. Want some? Talk to Luo-Luo, she’ll outfit your whole retinue with them. Your hubby will foot the bill.”
“How generous.” Wishing he’d given a different answer, Yan sighed. “Sadly, I don’t think I can accept your offer. If I armed my retinue with crossbows, they’d toss them in the latrines and mutiny.” Stupid Martial pride. Grandpa even made her give up the bow, called it a weapon ‘unbefitting’ for an Officer.
“Well, they’re super helpful. Point, fire, and a bunch of Defiled die. Armour and discipline helps too, and so do good scouts, but so far, range is king.” Having picked up an escort of cattle joining them on their stroll, Rain patted the closest one on the flank, a shaggy, reddish-brown behemoth with white patches around his eyes. “You want a couple war-bulls? They’re not all suitable for the battlefield, but wild cattle like Big Mac here are something fierce. Give Luo-Luo a few days and she’ll have them hitched to chariots, or if you’re feeling less daring, wagons.”
Though Rain claimed not to trust Luo-Luo, he certainly had faith in her skills. Suppressing her jealousy, Yan bit her lip and sighed. “The chariots I want, but the war-bulls… not so much. I think your cattle are adorable and their fierce reputation precedes them, but if I ride into battle in a modified ox-cart, I’ll be laughed at by the world over.”
“Because they’re cattle, the means of conveyance for peasants who can’t afford horses. I have enough problems with my reputation as it is without adding fuel to the fire.” And, despite their darling dispositions, cattle were notoriously difficult to train and also stank to High Heaven.
Luckily for him, Rain knew her better than to try and fix her problems or convince her his methods were better. Yan didn’t want a hero to sweep her off her feet, but a partner to support her, and Rain played his part perfectly. Squeezing her hand, he gave her a reassuring smile and Sent, “…Okay, no cattle then. Trained warhorses are in short supply, but since I don’t have to worry about public opinion, I’ll use the cattle and you can have my Guonei Chargers and Acasian Trotters.”
Yan wanted to refuse them, but she wasn’t sure she could afford to. Even Grandpa would find it difficult to purchase trained warhorses within the year, especially considering his bleak financial situation. Still, she couldn’t let Rain cripple his retinue and cast aside reputation to help her, so she Sent, “You keep them. Pretty boy Dastan won’t look quite as dashing sitting atop Moomie.”
“All the more reason to be rid of the horses. Dastan keeps making me look bad.” His troubled smile cast a pall over the joke as he added, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep enough mounts for his people and give you the extras. At this point, I have more horses than horsemen.” This time, it was her turn to support him and she did her best, resting her head against his shoulder as they wandered aimlessly around the field of grazing cattle. It didn’t feel like she was doing enough, but she knew Rain would only retreat if she pressed him to open up, so instead, she focused on avoiding the many cow turds in their path while giving him time to recover. It didn’t take long, but he quickly changed the subject. “My turn to ask questions. What’s your secret to using Chi externally? I’ve been trying for weeks and this is the best I can do.” Pursing his lips like he was about to whistle, Rain spat out a small stream of water which dissipated before hitting the ground.
Pretending to swoon, Yan Sent, “Oh such a daunting attack, I fear I will never be your match!” When she finished cackling, she kissed his wet, pouting lips and smirked. “What happened to ‘reaching your full potential by forging your own path’? Or is it do as I say and not as I do?” His pout darkened even further, but the lines around his eyes told her he was faking, shaking with barely contained mirth rather than unrestrained fury. “Honestly, what you did was fairly impressive. You already know how to materialize your Element, so now you need to focus on manipulation.”
“…and how do I do that?”
“I’m not sure it’ll help, but here’s how Grandpa explained it.” Taking a moment to gather her thoughts, Yan shared Grandpa’s lessons with Rain. “One cannot tame the wind, only shape the setting so the wind chooses to follow your will. Wind is a capricious element, and while many believe it embodies freedom, it follows a strict set of rules like any other force of nature…”
Hand in hand, they circled the field while Yan expounded on the intricate mysteries of the Divine Wind. Each time they completed the circuit, they checked in on Luo-Luo and picked up more followers until the entire herd of cattle and bunnies were accompanying them on their quiet stroll, but Yan still wasn’t finished. Rain had plenty of questions and when she didn’t know the answer, they discussed the possible answers together, during which Rain had many insightful remarks to further Yan’s understanding. While they continued their discourse with their entourage of cattle and bunnies, Luo-Luo performed her dance twice more, but she seemed to have exhausted herself after the last iteration. There she sat with her mace laid neatly across her lap, while Yan and Rain circled the field three more times. As they came around the fourth time, Yan opened her mouth to chide Luo-Luo for shirking her training but before she could speak, the Imperial Servant sprang to her feet and struck an elegant pose. Arms out at her sides, her mace dangled loosely from her fingers as she arched her back and stared up at the sky, a mortal standing in supplication of Heaven above.
And then, using her body and weapon as instruments, Luo-Luo performed a piece composed by the Heavens itself.
Steps light and strikes heavy, the beautiful warrior leapt and pranced about the field, wielding her mace with spirited purpose in a deadly dance of destruction wholly unlike her previous performances. Swiping the Rushes paired with Gliding Wing, Parting the Underbrush followed by Fluttering Raindrops, Raising the Winds melded with Darting Fang, her movements announced themselves before Yan’s disbelieving eyes, the secrets of each underlying Form laid bare in these intrinsic configurations. Simple, yet sophisticated, rudimentary, yet intricate, at first glance Luo-Luo’s movements all seemed easy to learn, but each hid a myriad of complexities within which made them difficult to master.
While Yan struggled to commit each detail to memory, Luo-Luo’s performance continued unabated, her weapon gradually transforming from primitive mace to refined flail and her simple movements evolving into elaborate compositions. The flail howled as it spun through the air, one moment graceful and flowing, the next, twisting and snapping. A creature given life through Luo-Luo’s exhaustive efforts, body and weapon working in concert to strike down their foes. The weapon soared high and struck low, circling and spiralling like a serpent given wings, a formidable beast which struck fear into Yan’s heart, for were this creature to bare its fangs towards her, then she saw death as the only possible outcome.
And when the consummate performance ended, Luo-Luo stood with arms at her sides, weapon coiled about her feet, and eyes facing skyward, an arrogant warrior standing in defiance of Heaven.
“Fuck my life,” Rain muttered, thoroughly ruining Yan’s appreciation of the moment. “Why are all my wives more talented than I am?”
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|