Savage Divinity – Chapter 342


Author’s note: The more astute readers will have noticed that tomorrow, on June 1st, Path of Exile begins it’s new incursion league. As is tradition, I will disappear for some time to play until my hands are raw and bleeding, so all y’all can suck it.

 

I don’t know when I’ll be back, but it’s minimum two weeks. Join Discord if you want more up to date new about my return, or to try and tempt me back with pictures of cute otters.

 

Anyways, enjoy the chapter, or don’t, because it’s the last for awhile :D.


 

The more Luo-Luo uncovered about Falling Rain, the more peculiar he seemed.

 

Having overheard sweet Tali asking her handsome Papa what they should cook for dinner, Luo-Luo learned there were no plans for a welcome party in motion, a most depressing realization. Heart heavy and spirits low, she cringed at the thought of confronting Falling Rain about the evening festivities, knowing she would be blamed for the expenditures and ‘inconvenience’. Her new husband was a man of violence and bloodshed, proven quick to anger and likely even quicker to act. Though he had yet to threaten her physically and often commented on her safety, Luo-Luo feared her death could come at a moment’s notice should she upset or disappoint her Lord Husband, Falling Rain.

 

Or worse.

 

Earlier, he told Luo-Luo to eschew her marital duties, but as a woman and a Servant, she was determined to fulfill her purpose, only… what if he were to lose his head in the throes of passion and forget she was but a frail young damsel? Unlike Mila or Li-Li, Luo-Luo’s body would crumble under any rough or violent handling. Though lacking firsthand experience, she’d studied all the books there were on the art of lovemaking and knew only too well how frantic and brutal men could be. No matter how many times she studied those diagrams, Luo-Luo couldn’t imagine how she was supposed to derive pleasure from such strange, contorted positions.

 

No matter. If things went well, Luo-Luo would find out soon enough, after her Lord Husband was suitably plied with drink and more relaxed in her presence. Though she wanted to bring up the party the moment she discovered one wasn’t being planned, she feared to do so without help from her sister-wives. Unfortunately, Lin-Lin had fallen asleep in her ‘hubby’s’ embrace while Mila and Falling Rain exchanged quiet smiles and soft touches, so comfortable in each others presence it’s as if they were in their own little world with just the three of them and the adorably fluffy Mama-Bun. Burning with jealousy, Luo-Luo imagined what it would be like were she to switch positions with Lin-Lin or Mila, but all she could think about was how uncomfortable it’d be considering their stark height differences.

 

Such is life. This was but a trial placed in her path by the Mother, and like all other trials, Luo-Luo would come out on top.

 

In a manner of speaking.

 

Despite her growing anxiety, Luo-Luo couldn’t bear to disturb Lin-Lin’s nap, who looked so darling as she snuggled with both husband and bunny. Instead, Luo-Luo clutched the precious book to her chest and took measure of the Bekhai tribesmen who marched on stage, adjusting her views accordingly. Savage tribesmen though they might be, her Lord Husband’s people were undoubtedly a powerhouse of the North, with his family prominently standing out. A Lieutenant General for a grandmother and a Major General for a father, Falling Rain was the tribesmen equivalent of a noble prince, though how he came to be adopted was still a mystery. For two half-beasts to rise so high in rank was no easy task, and one of them a beautiful woman no less, a testament to their ambition and ability, especially considering the family lacked a powerful civil servant. With a family member in both the Defence Forces and Army, not to mention how he was the youngest Second Grade Warrant Officer in history, Luo-Luo concluded that Falling Rain, despite his uncouth appearance and ill-mannered attitude, was a man of both means and wealth, especially considering he’d only just won twenty-thousand gold gambling a week past.

 

A tight-fisted, penny-pinching man of means and wealth who seemed overly protective of his cooking pot, but surely even he would understand the need to please his benefactor.

 

When the opening ceremonies came to an end and the charming half-hare finally woke from her slumber, Luo-Luo immediately drew the sweet girl aside and plied her charms while Falling Rain busied himself collecting his pets. Turning Lin-Lin to her cause was much easier than expected, those fetching brown eyes going wide with gleeful anticipation at the thought of hosting a party. As Luo-Luo painted a picture of what was to come, Lin-Lin became so excited she launched herself onto Falling Rain’s back, her arms wrapped around his neck and chest as her feet dangled in the air, joyously going on about the splendid party to come.

 

Endearing as it was, Luo-Luo’s heart stilled as Lin-Lin’s spontaneity ruined all her carefully laid plans, the half-hare’s over-eager approach too much for Falling Rain to accept. Shutting down Lin-Lin’s enthusiasm with a single uttered ‘stop’, he tore Luo-Luo’s suggestions apart without mercy. No dress, no jewels, no handmaidens, he even thought six restaurants too many whereas she thought it too few. Did he care nothing for face? How was he to hold his head high as the ‘number one talent in the Empire’ and properly thank his benefactor with a shabbily dressed concubine in a one-restaurant banquet? And what was this nonsense about not knowing enough people? Did he not see the opportunity to connect with nobles, politicians, and soldiers from across the Empire? If anything, he should be worried about having too many people to invite rather than too few and making enemies of snubbed guests or worse.

 

Once her Lord Husband finished scolding her, Luo-Luo curtsied and apologized, accepting her undue criticism with grace and dignity, but Falling Rain surprised her with his response. Instead of dismissing her opinions, he asked her to work with him and find a middle ground they could agree on. Emboldened by his willingness to compromise, she followed him into his hut only to belatedly realized this was her first time inside a man’s private quarters, her Lord Husband’s no less. If everything went according to plan, though Luo-Luo had little reason to believe they would, in a few hours, this was where she would surrender her maidenhood to Falling Rain.

 

Inside a musky, poorly-lit hut in the middle of an open field, without having so much as bathed beforehand. Not exactly the venue she’d have chosen for her first time, but the choice was never hers to begin with.

 

To her immense surprise, Falling Rain gestured for them both to sit as he personally boiled water and set about fixing snacks. While Luo-Luo made idle conversation with Lin-Lin, Falling Rain fed the pets and washed his hands, using a fragrant bar of soap and a bowl of water to scrub his skin and nails clean like a man possessed. Once finished scraping his hands raw, he wiped them dry with a clean washcloth hanging on the water bowl. Still holding the washcloth, he used it to open a hatch in the hut’s floor to reveal a small, underground larder, his actions quick as he removed a side of meat and a cloth sack. Snapping the hatch closed, he was just in time to stop Jimjam from diving into the larder, an opportunistic hunter who’d been lying in wait to steal a bite from the trove of edible treasures.

 

His actions revealed a new side of her Lord Husband, his movements deft and well-practised, his smile wide and laughter genuine. While Lin-Lin brought her to wash their own hands, Luo-Luo watched Falling Rain with growing interest, wondering why a man with his talents would have to prepare his own food and tea. Fending off the bears and wildcats with gentle nudges of his hips and knees, he placed the meat onto a platter and cut it into thin slices, generously trimming the fat and tossing it to his pets. His warm smile was so natural and unrestrained, his mouth moving in silent praise as he made sure each animal got their fair share. Sensing food to be had, a plump, rotund bird fluttered down from an opening in the roof to a land on Falling Rain’s shoulder, squawking out an almost human laugh of delight. Unperturbed by the intrusion, Falling Rain greeted the bird cordially and tossed it a chunk of meat. “Good afternoon Roc. No shinies today? Well, that’s all right, better luck tomorrow.”

 

Luo-Luo half-expected the bird to answer, but Roc fell silent as it gobbled down his treat. Finishing his preparations just as the water boiled, Falling Rain brought over the meat platter and placed it in front of Luo-Luo alongside a second plate stacked with round flatbread and a dish of chopped herbs. While he busied himself preparing the tea, Lin-Lin took a disc of flatbread, sprinkled on a dash of chopped herbs, wrapped it around a piece of meat, and nibbled away in a dainty, lovable fashion. “Help yourself, Luo-Luo,” Lin-Lin said with mischievous grin. “Hubby makes the best snacks. He calls this a beef wrap.”

 

Her preconceived notions of Falling Rain shattered beyond repair, Luo-Luo fashioned her own wrap and bit in, eager to taste what her Lord Husband prepared. As the burn of hot pepper and horseradish flooded her nose and mouth, she learned why Lin-Lin ate with dainty nibbles, the too-spicy treat setting her lips ablaze and eyes to watering. Suppressing the urge to regurgitate the fiery mouthful of piquant beef, Luo-Luo chewed and swallowed as quickly as manners allowed, praying it wouldn’t burn her throat as it went down. “Delicious,” she uttered, though the lie was evident.

 

“Oh sorry, I should’ve warned you.” Handing her a cup of lukewarm tea, Falling Rain admonished the giggling Lin-Lin with a small shake of his head. “Go easy on the spices, you only need a little to feel the heat.” Fashioning a second wrap, he exchanged it for Luo-Luo’s half-eaten one with a smile and urged her to try it. “Just a small dash for flavour is good enough.”

 

Draining the tea in a single gulp, Luo-Luo silently whimpered as she stared at the wrap, reluctant to subject her mouth to further torment but unwilling to disappoint her Lord Husband. Chuckling at her hesitation, Falling Rain filled half her teacup with hot, fresh-brewed tea before topping it off with a second pot of cold, spring water. A considerate and sweet gesture, though to be fair, it was his fault Luo-Luo was suffering to begin with. Steeling her nerves, she took a deep, cooling breath, drained her tea cup once more, and bit into the wrap.

 

In a word: Delicious.

 

“Yummy right?” Lin-Lin asked. “Told you, hubby makes the best snacks.” Holding her teacup out, she beamed with pride as if she’d hunted and cooked the food herself while Lord Husband poured her tea. “Wait till you try his rice crackers, he makes them so deliciously crispy and…”

 

While Lin-Lin extolled the virtues of Falling Rain’s cooking, Luo-Luo made another wrap and reconsidered her opinion of this odd, affluent Lord Husband. Unlike most men of his status, Falling Rain had no attendants to clean his hut, no maids to launder his clothes, and no slaves waiting to help him change. There was no sign of any help waiting nearby, with Falling Rain living alone in his hut and taking care of his own needs. No, not just his own, whether it be pouring tea for his sweet wifey or eating with one hand while stroking his supine bird’s belly with the other, Falling Rain was a man who enjoyed caring for others.

 

Hardly the attitude expected from the number one talent of the Empire. Even the lowest of merchants could afford a maid or two, and Falling Rain was far richer than a common shopkeeper. As much as she wanted to commend his humble nature and frugal lifestyle, he took things too far. How could he be so miserly, sitting on so much coin and refusing to spend it on even the most basic necessities? He kept plain clothes which had been mended and patched, slept on a wooden bed resting on four stones, cooked his own meals, made his own tea, and likely even emptied his own chamber pot. Was his avaricious nature truly so domineering that he couldn’t bear to spend enough for even a single domestic slave?

 

As Lin-Lin and Falling Rain finished the last of their wraps, a soldier arrived with a bundle of documents for them to peruse. Clearing the table, Falling Rain placed the dirty dishes aside and wiped down the surface before settling down to business, ready to negotiate and quibble over every last copper spent. Pulling out a blank sheet of paper, he ground his ink and prepared to write, only instead of a proper brush, he held a thin metal stick with a pointed tip which he dipped in ink. Unable to contain her curiosity, Luo-Luo leaned over to study the implement, finding nothing out of the ordinary about it, merely a tool he used in place of a brush to write with. Maddeningly oblivious to her interest, Falling Rain looked through the documents and scrawled down a series of symbols, the likes of which Luo-Luo had never seen. Minutes passed in silence aside from the scratching of his stick, his calligraphy uninspired and lacking, like random scratches made by a blind man. The only saving grace was how tiny the symbols were, though what they entailed was still a mystery.

 

“Okay,” he said, drawing a large circle around four symbols at the bottom of the paper. “I’ll run the numbers again to double check, but I can afford to spare around two thousand four hundred gold. Assuming she’s willing, we could borrow another thousand gold from Li Song, and probably more from Grand-Mentor and Marshal Yuzhen, but I’d rather we didn’t have to. Asking my future mother-in-law to fund my concubine’s wedding banquet is… well, lets just say I want to live a long and happy life.”

 

“Luo-Luo is grateful for Falling Rain’s understanding.” Three-thousand four-hundred gold would have to do, but her curiosity demanded she ask, “How did Falling Rain arrive at this number?” Was he trying to trick her?

 

“Stop using my name like a title, it’s awkward. Drop the formalities and speak like a normal person please.” There was no smile for Luo-Luo, but he answered her question regardless, pointing at document and writing out the numbers in Common next to his illegible symbols. “According to these documents, as of this morning I have twenty-eight thousand, seven hundred and sixteen gold left in my war chest. This would have lasted me almost half a year, but now I have to factor in another three hundred and sixty soldiers. Deduct wages, food costs, other estimated expenses, and a reserve fund for emergencies, we’re left with two-thousand four hundred and thirty five gold, the absolute most I can spare. Keep in mind, this is it. There’s no more money coming in either, aside from my wages as a Second Grade Warrant Officer. A piddling thousand gold per month which won’t even cover feeding my retinue, ridiculous.”

 

Blinking in confusion, Luo-Luo sifted through the documents in search of the final number, surprised by her Lord Husband’s substantial income and confused by his staggering expenses. Why was he paying his soldiers such high wages? Were his scruffy, thuggish soldiers all Experts? This was all out of pocket no less, was his family lacking coin or could it be a custom of his people, to teach their youth the value of coin? The food costs alone were exorbitant, exacerbated by his choice of top quality feed for soldiers and mounts alike, not to mention the vast swathes of income ear-marked for ‘Tanaraq’. A name of someone or something perhaps? Hush money for an illegitimate lover or child? No, this was far too much… ‘Pensions’ were another large part of his expenses, though it didn’t say who or what he was paying for. It was all a mess, but there were more pressing matters to attend to. “Luo-Luo is confused. How did you arrive at this value without an abacus?”

 

“Uh… Math?” Unwilling to explain, Falling Rain glanced at Lin-Lin for help.

 

“Mm, don’t worry Luo-Luo, hubby has the right amount, he’s really good with numbers.”

 

Unable to accept how quickly he derived an answer, Luo-Luo studied Falling Rain’s scrawls for more clues, her Lord Husband and sister-wife happy to give her time. Finding a pattern in the illegible scrawls and the Common Script he’d written for her benefit, understanding dawned on Luo-Luo. “These symbols represent numbers?” she asked, pointing at the page. “This vertical line represents ‘one’? Why change the number one? It’s already written as a horizontal line…”

 

“Wah, Luo-Luo is so smart!” Lin-Lin’s praise was without derision, nodding as she explained, “This symbol is two, and this one is three, and-”

 

“Lin,” Falling Rain interrupted. “Maybe we should leave the numbers lesson for another time and stay on point.”

 

Desperate to understand, Luo-Luo pointed at the four circled symbols and asked, “Then how does this represent two thousand four hundred and thirty five?” To write the same out in Common Script would take seven characters, and while she recognized the new symbols for two and three and assumed the others were four and five, she was at a loss on how to decipher it to arrive at the above total.

 

Rolling his eyes, Falling Rain sighed and hastily explained his system, and while Luo-Luo wanted to dismiss it as absurd, the more she heard, the more impressed she became. His explanation was a little lacking, but it was essentially a positional numeral system where the first column had a place value of one and increased by a factor of ten for each column to the left. It eliminated the need to write out the qualifying terms like hundred, thousand, or ten thousand, leaving only numbers on the page, a clean and simple solution to a minor, almost negligible issue, though still useful to save time and add clarity. Only… “Why did you need to make up new symbols for each number? Why not use the numerals of the Common Script?”

 

Lin giggled. “Because Rainy didn’t know how to write numbers in Common, so he had to make up new ones.”

 

“No… Well, yea, but that’s not the only reason. You also don’t have to lift your brush. You know. More convenient.”

 

He didn’t know how to write numbers, so came up with numbers of his own? Then he arranged them in a well-thought out system which would remain logical all the way to infinity? He must have had help, perhaps from his Teacher? Eager to brag, Lin-Lin continued explaining the merits of her hubby’s system and how writing the numbers in certain arrangements helped the reader with mental arithmetic. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and even division was made simple so long as one had access to ink and paper, solving complex equations using logic and a few strokes of the brush rather than rote memorization. He even had symbols to denote what type of calculation took place, allowing someone to easily double check their work or a reader to follow along without notes or explanations from the author.

 

Mother in Heaven…

 

“See, isn’t Hubby smart?” Lin-Lin asked, her eyes barely visible through her smile. “Everyone should write numbers like this, it makes so much more sense.”

 

Reeling with shock, her thirst for knowledge overpowered caution and Luo-Luo asked, “Why wasn’t this in the book of inventions?”

 

Surprised by her tone, her Lord Husband didn’t take offence or scold her, taking it in stride as he sipped his tea and shrugged. “I thought about adding it, but I had to cut a lot to keep the book at a reasonable length. Besides, it’s just a different way to show numbers, it’s not that big a deal.”

 

Not that big a deal? Was Luo-Luo’s Lord Husband an idiot or a genius? This system would revolutionize how the Empire approached mathematics, a language of numbers and nothing else. The possibilities alone…

 

Forestalling her next question, Falling Rain asked, “Look, let’s get back on topic. We have two thousand four hundred gold, but it’s hardly enough for a six restaurant banquet. Stuff is a lot more expensive than I realized, and while I have art and things I could sell, it’ll raise uncomfortable questions. Hell, if I hadn’t won twenty-thousand duelling all those greedy idiots, I’d barely have enough to feed my people for the next two months, assuming prices don’t increase.”

 

Oh her poor Lord Husband was no miser, but a man weighed down with debt and duty. Wishing she could help lighten his burden, Luo-Luo set her mind to work parsing through his holdings and contracts to find ways to help him save money, but there was too little information. Unfortunately, money still had to be spent, for Lord Husband’s exalted status demanded no less. Were he to host a substandard or shabby wedding party, he would lose face for both himself and his benefactor, while driving away allies and emboldening enemies with his poor reputation. Chewing her lip, she mentally revised the menu for this reduced budget and asked, “What items do you intend to sell? If reluctant to part with it, perhaps we could find a pawn broker instead? This banquet is important after all.”

 

Before Lord Husband could answer, a brief knock sounded at the door as it swung open, revealing an older woman in poor health being carried in the arms of a handsome, blue-eyed half-wolf. Lips pursed in a frown, the older woman’s brown eyes narrowed as the focused on Luo-Luo, scrutinizing her as if she were a prized horse. Visibly unimpressed, the older woman snorted and said, “Pei. A wastrel and a milksop. Not even here for half a day and already you ask my son to sell his hard earned valuables? What makes you think you’re worth the expense?” Smacking the half-wolf on the chest, Luo-Luo’s Mother-in-law added, “Enough looming about, you blockhead. Put me down, I’m feeble, not crippled.”

 

While her Lord Husband fetched cushions and helped his mother get comfortable, Luo-Luo stood and curtsied, greeting the fearsome woman and her silently disapproving husband with trepidation. “Consort Luo-Luo greets Father and Mother.” Did everyone in her new family eschew convention? Why would his parents not send word of their arrival?

 

Waving off her husband and son as they fussed about, Luo-Luo’s Mother-in-law sat on her cushion with back straight and neck craned, sipping her cup of tea. “Oof, get down girl, you’re too tall as it is.” As Luo-Luo knelt to obey, the domineering woman asked, “Now what’s this about pawn brokers?”

 

Cheeks burning with shame, Luo-Luo answered as quickly as she could, hoping to reverse the poor impression her in-laws had of her. Oh, this was so mortifying. Why didn’t her Lord Husband or Lin-Lin speak up in her defence?

 

“Hmph.” Unimpressed with the explanation, Luo-Luo’s Mother-in-law pinched Falling Rain’s cheek. “Unfilial child, have you no respect for your parents? We’ll pay for your wedding banquet as is custom, though this is getting out of hand. A third woman? How many will you have before you’re satisfied? Think of how poor Mila and Lin must feel.” Turning to her dour husband, she added, “This is your fault you know, yours and Akanai’s for always leaving him to fend for himself. Not only has he picked up these bad habits, the boy doesn’t even think to ask for help, he just shoulders everything by himself without a second thought. Irresponsible is what it is, but luckily I insisted we come visit. Oh, how shameful would it have been if people found out Falling Rain, the number one talent in the Empire, had to borrow money for his wedding banquet? Rain, go fetch your second, the smart one with the moustache, not the wispy-bearded pretty-boy. There’s work to be done and not much time to do it.”

 

Awed and intimidated, Luo-Luo knelt in place as her Mother-in-law took command, a dragon among tigers who possessed an air of natural authority and brazen impudence. Her needling statements made Luo-Luo want to curl up and cry, but at least Mother-in-law wasn’t stingy, looking down on Luo-Luo’s suggestion of hosting the banquet at six restaurants. Instead, Mother-in-law decided the Magistrate’s courtyard would be their venue and proceeded as if it belonged to her, declaring, “No one’s using it so why not?” While ordering extravagant delicacies and ostentatious decorations to be put in place, she simultaneously interrogated Luo-Luo on her history and what she needed for the banquet.

 

No wonder Luo-Luo’s Lord Husband was henpecked. His father and brother were too…

 

In short order, Mother-in-law decided she needed to be on-site to plan the banquet and Luo-Luo was quick to offer the sharp-tongued woman the use of her palanquin. Heart pounding with fear and excitement, Luo-Luo sat across from her Mother-in-law and beamed with delight, happy to finally get the banquet she’d dreamed of as a little girl, with promises of a new dress, jewellery, and even a zither to perform with. Of course, the banquet wasn’t so important anymore, Luo-Luo only placed so much emphasis on it because she thought she was destined for a wretched and gloomy existence, married to an uneducated brute and deceiver. After learning more about him and his burdens, Luo-Luo was now thoroughly convinced of her Lord Husband’s worthiness. It didn’t matter if he had help creating his number system and other inventions, for he excelled in both Martial and intellectual pursuits while others struggled to excel in one or the other. The Heavens had not forsaken Luo-Luo, for even with all his quirks and shortcomings, her Lord Husband Falling Rain was a brilliant man and worthy Patron. With or without this banquet, Luo-Luo would be proud to bear his children, children who would be destined for greatness.

 

With her Lord Husband’s talents and the blood of Emperors running through their veins, how could their children be anything less?

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 341


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patrons Connor Campbell from Brooklyn and Joseph. Thank you both so much for your support!


 

After a short break for lunch, the Imperial Grand Conference picks back up where it left off once the Legate and his soldiers parade back onto the floating stage, a process which is less than exhilarating. Then again, it’ll be hard to match this morning’s levels of excitement. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m fairly certain my stunning victory over Wu Gam will be the highlight of the day, a milestone moment which will be spoken of for years to come.

 

Okay, fine, I’m tooting my own horn, but so what? It feels good. Nothing wrong with a little self-toot every once in a while. Not like I’ll go blind, that’s just an old wives tale.

 

Sadly, the day’s victory was tainted by the arrival of my unwanted concubine and her accusing, tear-filled gaze. It’s so weird, why does a Servant need 360 soldiers? Who’s trying to kill her? And since when were dowries not a gift for the husband? Whatever. Putting her out of mind, I try to forget my problems and enjoy some good old-fashioned blood sport, but sadly, the Legate calls a steady stream of miscellaneous yet somehow important bigwigs to the stage to present their gifts in a non-violent fashion. I can’t blame him for milking this, because who doesn’t love getting gifts? Bored by the pageantry and exhausted from my action packed morning and the sleepless, traumatizing night preceding it, I cuddle up with Lin, Mila, and Ping Ping for a nice afternoon nap beneath the sun, hoping all my problems will be gone by the time I wake.

 

To my immense disappointment, my problems still exist when Lin wakes me to watch Akanai take the stage with Husolt, Tokta, Dagen, Ghurda, and a multitude of other Sentinels and former bannermen. Looking resplendent atop their well-groomed and well-disciplined battle quins, the difference is like day and night when compared to my rag-tag retinue, leading me to consider stricter dress codes or uniforms. Joined by the married Exharches Bralton and Erien and a few other mercenaries I’ve never heard of, they represent the Imperial Defence Forces of the Northern province. And only the Northern Province.

 

Boo. No inter-province rivalries settled or feuds enacted today. Boring.

 

Having denied Akanai the opportunity to show off her superior ass-kicking prowess, I take solace from the fact that the Legate does the same to everyone else. When it comes time for the Northern Imperial Army to present themselves, my Mentor stands as Nian Zu’s right hand man and successor, with Situ Jia Yang and Han BoHai beside them. Baatar’s exotic appearance stands out among the sea of almost identical humans, his silver-white hair and clear blue eyes visible even from a distance, a resplendent and dignified warrior in his gold-trimmed armour and black cloak bearing his wolf insignia. Even Baatar’s hulking roosequin Balor is sporting armour today, though neither rider nor mount have a chance to put it to use as the first day of the Imperial Grand Conference eventually comes to an end without any further violence.

 

This sucks. I wanted to see Akanai and Baatar smack the shit out of a bunch of famous people like the original Gam, Shuai Jiao, Du Min Gyu and Ryo Dae Jung. It would’ve been fun for the whole family to display our martial prowess and dominate our rivals throughout the Empire as a whole but I guess the Legate didn’t want powerful Martial Warriors duking it out on a raft, especially while he’s sitting on it. Understandable, I suppose, considering the young talents already did a fair amount of damage to the stage and there couldn’t possibly be an endless supply of replacement rafts to fix it. Besides, I’m sure there’s some personal safety issues with letting peak experts fight so close to the Imperial Legate, though I don’t know why anyone would want him dead. As far as Yuzhen knows, Shen Zhenwu is a nobody, a youngish Imperial Scion who no one in the outer provinces has ever met before.

 

This gives me all the more reason not to trust him. It might be the paranoia speaking, but why would the Emperor send an unknown and untried youth to handle something of this magnitude? The Emperor has a Grand Marshal, a Prime Minister, and a General of the Army, but decided this thirty-something year old pretty boy was better equipped to ensure the continued survival of the outer provinces? No fucking way. Chances are, Central’s already been given up for dead and we’re all here as meat for the meat-grinder.

 

Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean the Emperor isn’t out to get us.

 

Although this day feels like it’s been going on for weeks now, it’s still only mid-afternoon and there are plenty of festivities left to enjoy. Being the anti-social recluse that I am, I’d much rather stay here on the beach, lounging with Ping Ping and my two brides-to-be while Mama Bun stretched across our collective laps. It’s nice to sit arm in arm with my two lovely betrothed while ignoring all my issues and responsibilities. Lin napping on me in public is nothing new, but Mila is surprisingly forward today, holding my arm hostage throughout the entire ceremony. In light of the warmer Central climate, Mila’s taken to wearing long, loose shirts and little else, making for an alluring sight whenever her shirt slips to one side and exposes a single, lightly freckled shoulder. Throw in Lin’s sleep murmuring and Mama Bun’s aggressive snuggles and I could lay here all week if the world left me alone.

 

Unable to resist her allure, I kiss Mila’s shoulder and Send, “So my love, how does it feel to be betrothed to the number one talent in the Empire?”

 

After an adorably grumpy grimace, Mila bares her teeth and replies, “How should I know? I should be be asking you the same thing.”

 

Fair enough, but let your beleaguered betrothed enjoy his moment for a few hours before you take it away, okay?” If she challenges me in public, I’ll be faced with a difficult decision. Either I fight fair and let her take away my glory or use Aura to save face and suffer in private. While I don’t care too much about the title or the fame which comes with it, it’s nice to be on top for once, instead of the perpetual underdog and life’s whipping boy.

 

Hmph. Enjoy your head.” Her sultry glare makes me wish we were back at the Wall and alone in her smithy, where the walls are thick and the neighbours loud enough to drown out any noise we make. “You’ve enjoyed yourself plenty and I deserve a win. I’m sure your new concubine will soothe your hurt feelings afterwards.

 

Don’t be jealous.” Nuzzling her shoulder, I sigh and shake my head, enjoying the soft texture of her bare skin. “Seriously, I’m not joking. I barely even know her and already I don’t like her.

 

…About that.” Nudging me none too lightly with her shoulder, Mila puffs her cheeks in sullen anger. “I can’t believe you’re making me stand up for your new concubine, but don’t you think you’re being too harsh with her? A few sentences into your first conversation and you already made her cry.

 

Oh please, you say that like you’ve never made me cry.

 

You asked for my help, practically begged me to hit you. Besides, what sort of number one talent cries after a few hits?

 

One who feels pain. Sorry for crying over my broken bones, but in my defence, I’m merely a fragile mortal man.” Kissing her cheek to show there’s no hard feelings, I go back to the topic at hand. “You’re too trusting my love. Who knows what agenda Luo-Luo has? For all we know, she was sent here by the Legate as a spy.

 

Why would he want to spy on you?

 

Silly, naive Mila, so trusting of strangers, even the ones trying to steal her man. For an insular people, the Bekhai are pretty laid back with their see-how-it-goes attitude when it comes to taking in strangers. They’re willing to give almost anyone a chance, which is nice, but alarming. Luo-Luo’s already charmed Mila and my wifey, and now she’s working on my sweet niece and nephew. Insidious woman, I’m onto her schemes. Not really, but I’m watching her. To see if she does anything suspicious, not in a creepy, stalker way. “I don’t know why the Legate would want a spy in the Bekhai, but I know we have too many secrets to let her walk around freely. Panacea, Blobby, my Aura, all the former bandits in my employ, and who knows what else? I bet Grand-Mentor will feel the same way, just you wait and see.” Hopefully, Akanai or Yuzhen will have some way to get rid of Luo-Luo without pissing the Legate off or dooming a possibly innocent girl to… whatever happens to rejected Servants.

 

It’s probably not a pleasant end, but if it’s a choice between Luo-Luo’s life and my freedom, I’ll make the same decision every single time.

 

Oh please.” Feigning anger, Mila bites my shoulder but my shirt absorbs most of the pressure. “Don’t pretend like you’re upset about adding a beautiful woman to your ever-growing harem. I don’t know what sin I committed in my past lives to warrant a punishment like falling in love with a man like you, a faithless beast in perpetual heat.

 

Her light banter hits a little too close for comfort considering my recent revelations regarding Yan. Add an unwanted concubine into the mix and my marriage just doubled in size, which means Mila can’t be feeling great about it. “I’m sorry beloved. You deserve better.

 

Enough.” Biting my shoulder for real this time, the sharp pain is mitigated by Mila’s adorable scowl. “I love you, but you keep saying I deserve better like you aren’t worthy. It’s tiresome. If it were true, I would have left long ago, or Mama would have never allowed our betrothal.” Nestling her cheek on my injured shoulder, she adds, “You’re not without your flaws, but like you said, that merely makes you a fragile mortal man. If Luo-Luo is a spy, then trust that Mama will deal with her appropriately, but until she proves otherwise, it wouldn’t hurt to be a little nicer. It’s not Luo-Luo’s fault you have a lascivious and vile reputation, and since we’re stuck with her for the time being, there’s no reason we can’t be civil.

 

It’s not like I threatened her or anything. I lost my temper a little and said one harsh sentence. How was I supposed to know she’d fall to pieces? It’s like she expects me to drool all over her and cater to her every whim just because she’s a little pretty.” When I’m done rolling my eyes, I wiggle my eyebrows and smirk. “She’s not all terrible though, her presence has made you much more affectionate.

 

Idiot.” With a pouty smile which makes my heart skip a beat, Mila sighs and leans harder into my embrace. “Did it never occur to you that I’m being more affectionate because I missed you this last month? And, you put on a spectacular performance on stage this morning, defeating Wu Gam in a single blow. I’m suitably impressed, so much so that I’ll overlook how you beat him so readily because you were taking revenge for Yan.” With a mischievous twinkle in her eye, she forestalls my argument with a shake of her head. “Don’t lie and deny it, I’ve long since resigned myself to your voracious appetite. How is Yan anyways?

 

My mouth hangs open as I struggle to find the words to respond with, as Mila just gave me too much to think about. “Err, first off, I missed you too.” Great, now it sounds like you felt obligated to say it, even though you really missed her. No way to fix it now, move on and do better. “The stage thing wasn’t that impressive, you would’ve beaten Wu Gam in a far more dominating fashion. Hell, I think Dastan could’ve done the same too, did you see his fight? I think he’s been holding back in our spars.” Stop stalling and get to the important stuff. “As for Yan, we didn’t really talk, but I wanted to. I miss her.

 

As well you should.” There’s no blame or accusation in Mila’s eyes, only a sad, quiet acceptance that she fell in love with a womanizer, which only makes me feel worse. “She’s an incredible person and you should go win her back. If you’re looking for my blessing, then you have it. Lin’s too, but that goes unsaid.

 

This feels like one of those ‘shut up and take it’ victories, but curiosity overpowers reason. “Why? If you asked for my blessing to bring another man into our marriage, I’d murder him out of sheer spite.”

 

Good. At least you care.” Blushing like I’d just said the most romantic thing ever, Mila closes her eyes and lets out a contented sigh. “You’re a lecherous man of carnal appetite, and as much as I’d like to have you all to myself, I know that would never work. Luckily for you, I love you enough to share and trust you enough to believe you won’t mistreat me.

 

You really don’t deserve her, but moping about it won’t help. Instead, be better. Become worthy. Don’t be the reason for her regret. “I could never bear to mistreat you my love. I can’t promise you’ll always be happy, but I promise I’ll never stop trying to make it so.” Now follow through with it for the rest of your life, jerk. If you ever make Lin, Mila, or Yan cry, you deserve all the pain and misery which follows.

 

With a knowing smile, Mila leans in for a short kiss before breaking it off. “It doesn’t matter too much anyways,” she Sends with a teasing smile, “I’ll outlive you by three to four hundred years, so after you’re gone, I’ll find a new husband to satisfy my needs, a tall, handsome, strapping young man all for myself.”

 

Oof. She’s joking, but it’s a little too real. Then again, it’d be stupid to expect her to live out the rest of her life alone after I’m gone…

 

Satisfied with her victory, Mila gingerly moves Mama Bun’s legs off of her lap and hops to her feet, stretching her arms and back with a series of sexy grunts. “I’m in the mood for a little exercise. Song, do you want to spar?”

 

Thankful to have been spared the shame of a public defeat, I wave goodbye as Mila saunters off with Li Song, leaving me with Lin, Luo-Luo, and all my pets. After waking Lin with a soft kiss and putting my loving Aura to good use, I wrangle all my animals and head back to my yurt carrying Sir Inky’s cauldron, hoping the angry octopus is still alive. He hasn’t made a peep since this morning’s horrifying tentacle mouth molestation and I’m too scared to check. Not in public at least, I have an image to maintain after all.

 

While I’m distracted thinking about how to get Sir Inky to love me in a less physical manner, Luo-Luo and Lin-Lin share a lengthy whispering session which comes to an end when my lovely, long-eared wifey hops onto my back and declares, “We’re throwing a welcome party for Luo-Luo tonight, hubby. You don’t hafta do anything, you just have to be there, okay?”

 

Ugh. “Does it have to be tonight?” Or you know… ever?

 

“Yup. The Legate gifted Luo-Luo to us, but if no one knows about it then he won’t be happy, so the sooner the better, ya?”

 

“Okay, but don’t go overboard. Last I checked, we’re running low on coin and 360 more soldiers won’t help.”

 

“Hm, about that hubby.” Resting her cheek on my shoulder, Lin makes sure I can see her big brown eyes before whispering, “We might actually earn coin by throwing a party. It’s not exactly a wedding, but since she’s your concubine, it’s sort of like a wedding, ya? People will bring gifts, so I think we should spend a little more.”

 

God, it’s been a few hours and Luo-Luo already has Lin and the twins wrapped around her finger. “How much?” I ask, not bothering to lower my voice.

 

“Not too much.” Judging by Lin’s averted glance, that’s not true at all. After a long silence in which my raised eyebrow refuses to drop, my wifey flashes a sheepish smile and continues. “We need a big space for all our guests, so I said we could rent out the six restaurants around the duelling stage we always go to. As the bride, Luo-Luo also needs a red dress, she only has purple, gold, green, blue, black, and yellow. She doesn’t need new jewellery, but it’d be nice to have something she can show the guests and say was from you. She also needs a zither to perform for the guests and at least two handmaidens to accompany her. We’ll hafta hire servers and cooks, maybe some other entertainment, and -”

 

“Stop.” Dear sweet Mother in Heaven, has Lin lost her mind or is Luo-Luo’s charisma stat through the roof? How did she convince my sweet wifey to spend so much money? Turning to face the towering succubus, I break the news as gently as possible, because I cannot deal with a woman’s tears. “Look, I don’t know what standards you were accustomed to or what misconceptions you have about me, but I’m not some princeling or rich young noble with vast estates and holdings. I understand the need for a party, but I can’t afford the opulent and luxurious lifestyle you’ve envisioned for yourself. I’ll talk to Mister Rustram and see what we can spare, but I can tell you right now, new dresses, jewellery and handmaidens are almost certainly out of my price range.” Probably the zither too. Instruments are expensive, right? “And six restaurants? I don’t think I even know enough people to fill six restaurants. If you’re upset because I took away your guards, I’m sorry, but it had to be done.” There’s no way I’m letting that many soldiers wander around camp unchecked under the control of a possible spy, but it’d be rude to mention it. “I promise I won’t let you suffer a loss, but like I told you earlier, I’m having money flow issues, issues which a big extravagant party would only exacerbate.”

 

Throughout the whole spiel, Luo-Luo’s expression goes from cheerful and excited to utterly depressed in the span of a single minute. Visibly choking on her tears, she curtsies and responds with a simple, “It shall be as Falling Rain says. Luo-Luo apologizes for overstepping her bounds.”

 

God if she’s faking then she’s the best actress in the world. I hate how she says my name like it’s a title, but I don’t want to correct her more than necessary. “No. Don’t just shut down and accept whatever I say. I’m not angry or upset and even if I were, you have nothing to fear from me. Please, be reasonable and let’s work together. We need to throw you a welcoming party to give the Legate face. I have monetary concerns. How do we solve this? Let’s go inside, sit down, and discuss this like sensible people.” Putting the cauldron down, I crack the lid open, toss in a handful of dried fish, and slam the lid back down, all the while praying Inky is still alive so I won’t disappoint Taduk. Leaving Ping Ping to guard our new friend and the bunny enclosure, I head into my yurt with Lin, Luo-Luo, and the rest of my pets to plan a party I neither want nor can afford.

This morning, I became Falling Rain, number one talent in the Empire.

 

Judging by Luo-Luo’s sulky pout, I’ve earned a new title: Falling Rain, cheapskate party pooper.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 340


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron Nadav. Thank you so much for your support!

 

The more astute observers will have noticed a new cover page for SD. Drawn by Jess, it features the newly introduced Luo-Luo and her fabulous… dress. 😉

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There are a few more versions, but in the interest of saving space, I’ll link those here and only post one more, the more safe for work version edited by Dsul from Discord.

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Thank you Jess for the phenomenal work, this is some top tier art and really made my whole month.

 

That is all. Enjoy.


 

Luo Luo had much to be aggrieved about.

 

Not just today, but her entire life read like a tragedy written for the opera stage. A member of the first generation of nobility, Luo-Luo should have been raised as a pampered Imperial Lady but the circumstances of her birth conspired against her. Sharing a birthday with the anniversary of the Emperor’s coronation, cruel fate robbed her of a life of luxury but such was the Mother’s plan for her children, trials and tribulations without end. As a child, she’d believed those lies and worked harder than anyone around her, determined to excel in every way possible and become the best Servant she could be, the best the world had ever seen.

 

And she succeeded.

 

At seventeen years old, Luo-Luo was declared the top student at the Academy and sent to compete against the best students from Academies across the homeland. After four days of competition, she strode onto stage for the fifth time and knew that every Noble, Royal, and Imperial in the room was watching her with bated breath, having already been awed by her superlative skills in poetry, calligraphy, painting, and dance. Although Luo-Luo failed to take first place in any of the previous categories, she had only lost out to the truly phenomenal performers, such as the lyrical verses of handsome poet Wah On or the seductive dancing of the exquisite Diao Chen. What made Luo-Luo stand out from the crowd was how she’d ranked second or third in every category, making her a rare, multi-talented Servant worth employing. It hadn’t been easy to reach her level of mastery in so many different skills, with years of her life spent in dedicated practice, but such was her burden to bear. Her pride would allow no less, and while the crowd hungered to know if she would finally take first in the final event, music, Luo-Luo had no doubt what the outcome of the final event would be.

 

Music was her chosen field and most practised skill after all.

 

On their first day of practice, her music instructor placed Luo-Luo in front of the zither and told her the ‘Zheng’ character in her name was taken from the instrument. Although it wasn’t a name given to her by her birth parents, that tiny connection was enough to convince the five-year-old Zheng Luo to pour her heart and soul into practising her namesake. Twelve years later, on that fateful day of the final event, she performed an original arrangement she’d spent years composing and perfecting, and when the strings fell silent, so too did the crowd, every single person there falling to their knees in surprise and wonder. Only one person stood and clapped for her performance, but as Luo-Luo kowtowed to accept her applause, she knew all her hard work had finally paid off.

 

For she had received a standing ovation from the Imperial Emperor himself.

 

In an instant, Luo-Luo’s star soared high into the heavens, rising far and above her peers as she became the most sought after Servant in all the Empire. Not only would her skills earn her patrons a tidy sum renting her out, Luo-Luo was a woman with talent enough to tug at the heartstrings of the Son of Heaven. As she knelt and received her applause from the Son of Heaven, she’d envisioned herself inundated with offers of Service from across the homeland and living a pampered life playing songs, painting scrolls, and composing poems for her patrons. Her days would be spent in leisure and her nights attending parties, with handmaidens to do her bidding and wanting for nothing, a blessed existence for one with her status.

 

Unfortunately, cruel fate had other plans in store for there was such a thing as too valuable a prize. Contrary to her lofty expectations, Luo-Luo received only two competing offers for her Service. There were no mention of terms or conditions, no efforts to sway her choice with promised benefits or expensive gifts, not even an assurance of her safety or well-being. The two offers arrived in the form of a single scroll each, borne by the lowest of servants and containing nothing more than her prospective patrons’ seals and signatures, one from the Grand Marshal and the other from the Prime Minister, the two most powerful members of the Imperial Court.

 

Only then did Luo-Luo realize she’d grossly overestimated her value. Although she enjoyed certain privileges at the academy due to her unique circumstances, in the end, no matter how talented she might be or illustrious her background, she was nothing more than a mere Servant, hardly worth the price she would have otherwise demanded. Worse, with the Grand Marshal and Prime Minister competing for her services, Luo-Luo sat atop a mountain of blades within a sea of fire. No matter her decision, she would offend a man with the power to overturn mountains and drain seas, and while her patron might offer her adequate protection, it was much easier to kill an individual than it was to protect one.

 

On the advice of her teacher, Luo-Luo had no choice but to reject both offers on the grounds of being unworthy of such prestige and in doing so, doomed herself to a life of oblivion. After rejecting the Grand Marshal and Prime Minister, who in their right mind would dare accept her Service? She was merely a talented Servant, hardly worth offending two of the most influential men in the world. Thus, she languished in the Student dormitories and watched with envy as her peers, then her juniors, then their juniors entered Service year after year, having learned the price of hubris from Luo-Luo’s example, the forgotten Servant too talented to Serve.

 

And now, after six years spent dreaming of what could have been, Luo-Luo finally had a chance to Serve. While becoming the concubine of the Undying Savage was not ideal, at least Falling Rain was a talented hero blessed with a brilliant mind. Or so she thought until she first laid eyes on her bantam Lord Husband and saw how he reacted to her charms. While her lessons were long behind her, Luo-Luo played her part to perfection and did everything as she’d been taught to. She was demure, yet available, timid, yet eager to please, swallowing her embarrassment at being reduced to a mere breeding sow as she presented her best features for her Lord Husband’s viewing pleasure.

 

And his response?

 

He. Yawned.

 

YAWNED.

 

In what way did Luo-Luo lose out to the women around her? Yes, Lin-Lin, Li-Li, and Mila were all beauties in their own right, but so too was Luo-Luo. Why was he not entranced or even interested in her? It’s not like he was any prize himself, so what right did he have to be so judgmental of her? Worst of all, her Lord Husband seemed amused by her antics, disdainful of her attempts to win him over, and generally annoyed by her presence. Worried his rejection would send her back to the Academy or worse, Luo-Luo even overstepped her bounds and hinted at her lineage, but neither he nor Luo-Luo’s senior sister-wives gave any reaction when she mentioned she was of the first generation of Nobility. Did none of them understand what that meant?

 

As if to rub salt in her wounds, her Lord Husband not only forbade her from referring to him as such and was intent on turning their marriage into a sham, now he showed more interest in her Honour Guard than he’d shown for Luo-Luo. For the first time, she saw his surly grimace shift into a smile, gazing upon the Death Corps soldiers with a covetous eye. How mortifying to be valued less than her slaves, a blow to Luo-Luo’s pride from which she might never recover. Was this to be her fate, a caged bird with no one to appreciate her song? Would she grow old and ugly, unloved and untouched, an unwanted stranger in her own home?

 

Perhaps now was the time to invoke her Privilege. At least she would leave behind a pretty corpse upon the funeral pyre, even if no one would mourn her.

 

“So, your soldiers are from the Imperial Death Corps.” Striding through their ranks, her Lord Husband all but disappeared among her Honour Guard as he inspected them one by one, and Luo-Luo had to stifle a giggle. “Which one of you is the ranking officer?”

 

Mother above, his ignorance was almost too much to bear. Hesitating over what to call him out loud, she settled on using his full name as he’d instructed her. So what if it was disrespectful, he hardly deserved her respect. “Falling Rain, the Imperial Death Corps has no officers, only soldiers. Only Royal Guardsmen may hold rank in the Imperial Army.”

 

“Oh.” Stepping out from the sea of soldiers, Falling Rain reappeared with his surly grimace back in place. “That’s disappointing. So they’re all just common soldiers huh? Damn, I was hoping for some elites. Well, whatever, I can work with soldiers. Listen up. I am Second Grade Warrant Officer Falling Rain and you are all now members of my retinue. Conduct yourselves properly and we will have no problems. Saluk, bring these soldiers to Mister Rustram and tell him we have 360 more mouths to feed and bodies to shelter.”

 

Distressed at the loss of her guards, Luo-Luo watched in muted protest as they saluted and strode off. It was her fault for telling them to obey his orders, but for him to so openly covet her dowry made Luo-Luo worry for her future. She had little else besides her Honour guard, merely her bedding, clothing, a small box of jewellery, and a basket of items for her firstborn, but Falling Rain would likely take those away too. Stupid girl, she’d even been dreaming of having a hut for herself and perhaps a handmaiden or two, but Falling Rain cared nothing for propriety at all. She’d probably be lucky to have a bed at all, seeing as how he told her to forget about being his concubine, and now that her guards were no longer hers, he might even gift her to his soldiers to sate their animalistic desires. If she invoked her Privilege, would he even comply, or would he laugh and throw her to his soldiers anyways?

 

“Hmm, so many more soldiers to pay for. I’m not sure I can afford them.” With a grin which made him look even younger than his nineteen years, Falling Rain sighed in contentment, “Oh well. Nothing I can do except work harder and earn more. Ah wait, Luo-Luo, how have you been paying them?”

 

So shameless! He wanted nothing to do with Luo-Luo but was only too happy to take her things. Where was his pride? Before Luo-Luo could lose her temper, Mila took his hand spoke softly. “They’re not expecting to be paid, beloved. They’re Oath-sworn slaves, every last one of them.”

 

The change in Falling Rain was startling to see, his eyes flooding with compassion and empathy as he watched the Death Corps stride by, not emotions she expected to find from a man in his position. “Ah, fucking hell.” Without glancing her way, he stretched his hand out towards Luo-Luo and said, “Their Token. Give it to me.” His voice burned with cold anger and hinted at violence to come should she refuse, and Luo-Luo scrambled to unclasp her pendant, arms trembling all the while.

 

Coming to her rescue, Lin-Lin interposed herself between Luo-Luo and Falling Rain. “Hubby, you can’t do that, ya? That’s Luo-Luo’s dowry, you can’t just take it.”

 

“Huh? Isn’t the dowry a gift for the groom?” Genuinely confused, the ferocious, steel-backed warrior melted away beneath his adorable wifey’s disapproval, puffing his cheeks in frustration in a mirror of Lin-Lin’s expression. They were so adorable together, two childhood friends turned lovers. Why couldn’t Luo-Luo be so lucky to be loved like that? All she wanted was a place at her Lord Husband’s side and a chance to earn a small fraction of the affection he had for the others, but he refused to even give her that.

 

“No silly,” Lin-Lin replied, leaning against Luo-Luo’s chest with a reassuring smile. “The dowry belongs to the woman. That’s how it works, ya?”

 

“The dowry is to ensure a secondary wife or concubine will be cared for in the event of her husband’s death.” Also leaping to Luo-Luo’s defence, Li-Li added, “By custom, the husband should add to, if not match, the dowry as a gift to his new bride.”

 

“Tch.” Annoyed by the prospect of parting with his wealth, Falling Rain wrinkled his nose and grumbled, “I’m not giving her more soldiers. I only have 500 myself. Besides, what does she need so many guards for and how does she expect to pay for their food and other expenses? I suppose I’m footing the bill for that too. Unfair.”

 

Grateful to her senior sister-wives, Luo-Luo sniffled and stepped aside, curtsying as she presented the jade pendant to which her Honour Guards were sworn to. “As Lor- Falling Rain says, this one has no need for soldiers. Please, accept them with this one’s blessings.” Like she had a choice. Why did it matter anymore?

 

At least Falling Rain knew enough to look ashamed as he took her jade phoenix pendant, the only item she had to remember her birth parents by. Whoever they were, she was forbidden to know, but she’d hoped against all hopes that they still remembered her and had swelled with pride when Luo-Luo performed her masterpiece during the competition. She never resented them for offering her as tribute, for such was her place as defined by fate, but in the past six years, she often dreamt about what life would be like if they’d kept her.

 

Mostly, she wondered if they regretted the decision. Did they know of her troubles now? Would they even care?

 

Tears spilled out of Luo-Luo’s eyes and down her cheeks as she stared at her feet, trying not to make a scene. After a long silence, Falling Rain sighed and said, “Look, I’m sorry I was so curt. Please stop crying. I’ll… reimburse you for the soldiers, okay? Double in fact, just as soon as I have the funds available. I promise, I won’t let you take a loss on this.”

 

Dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, Luo-Luo nodded without answering, too choked up to speak. Ever the sweetheart, Lin-Lin hugged her tight and whispered, “Don’t worry, ya? Hubby’s been really grumps lately, he isn’t always like this. Give him some time to warm up to you. Lin-Lin will help.”

 

Feigning a smile, Luo-Luo nodded and wiped her tears. Her spirits low and future grim, she followed her sister-wives in silence as they discussed matters with Falling Rain, but she didn’t care anymore. Let him have all her possessions, Luo-Luo would not be long for this world regardless. As soon as she had some privacy, Luo-Luo would write out her grievance and find some way to send it to a Justicar before taking her own life. Hanging perhaps, though it seemed a painful way to go. Cutting herself was out of the question, she lacked the stomach and nerves to end things so messily. The how wasn’t important, but what mattered was getting word of grievance to a Justicar. She only hoped it would reach the Emperor’s ears and he would care enough to demand justice for poor Luo-Luo, the Servant who once moved him with a song.

 

Oh, who was she kidding. If she had the courage to face death, Luo-Luo would have thrown caution to the wind and chosen a patron instead of wallowing away in obscurity for six long years…

 

Once they arrived at the beach, Falling Rain plopped down in the sand without so much as a blanket. Inwardly grumbling at having to dirty her best dress, Luo-Luo posed herself so not as to reveal too much to anyone who turned away from the stage. Curling up next to Lin-Lin, Luo-Luo yelped as the Divine Guardian settled in around them, her beak a mere arm’s length behind them and eyes blinking in lazy satisfaction. With a head larger than Luo-Luo was tall, the Divine Guardian was an awesome sight to behold, a powerful, fearsome creature which filled her with admiration and reverence.

 

Which begged the question: Why was the Divine Guardian so attached to Falling Rain?

 

For that matter, what about all the other animals? Bears, wildcats, rabbits, and even the birds settled around Falling Rain, seeking him out for delicious treats and soft pats. From the interaction with her Honour Guard, he didn’t seem all that charismatic, so why do animals love him so? It defied common sense. Truth be told, animal taming skills aside, Luo-Luo wasn’t impressed with the number one talent in the Empire. The title wasn’t even apt, there were probably dozens of young warriors under twenty five in the homeland who could defeat him and his ‘brilliance’ was undoubtedly untrue. It took three explanations from three different people for him to understand the significance of his rank as Imperial Consort and despite it all, he still seemed annoyed by the honour. Falling Rain might be a talented warrior, but a genius mind? Not so much.

 

In short, Falling Rain was a shameless, uncivilized bully, disdainful of Luo-Luo’s charms and all too happy to take everything she owned and leave her with nothing. He even denied her the right to play her part as dutiful concubine and forbade her from calling him Lord Husband. Was she really so horrible to be around? He wouldn’t even give her the chance to prove herself, his mind made up within seconds of their meeting. At least he still kept her around, even if only to keep up appearances. Otherwise, how was she, a beautiful, destitute, and unguarded woman, to survive on her own? She’d heard the stories of rebels sharpening their blades and Defiled hiding in the wilderness of the vast, untamed outer provinces, where a fate worse than death awaited her.

 

“Hi big sister.” Hugging a sheaf of documents to her chest, sweet Tali ran over and crashed down beside Luo-Luo, making herself comfortable as children were inclined to do. “Lin-Lin said you wanted to see Rainy’s book, ya? I like the pictures, but it’s not a good story book. Do you know any good stories?”

 

“Hmm, have you heard the story about the greedy little dog?” Launching into a silly children’s tale, Luo-Luo smiled and silently greeted Tali’s parents and brother as they sat down beside her. Carrying the adorable, chubby-cheeked Tate in her arms, Tali’s mother Alsantset was a stunning brunette half-tiger, her every movement brimming with grace and confidence. With a cursory nod, Alsantset acknowledged Luo-Luo’s existence while keeping careful watch on her precious daughter, ready to act should this stranger prove a threat. Further away, Rain’s older brother Charok patted the Guardian Turtle before offering Luo-Luo a polite smile. Aside from his amber eyes, he shared few similarities with Falling Rain, with a stronger jaw, more prominent cheekbones, and a taller frame. Perhaps Charok would be more receptive to the idea of a concubine and treat Luo-Luo better. He only had the one wife and it wouldn’t be strange for a successful younger brother to pass on a gift to his older brother…

 

To this end, Luo-Luo tested the waters once she finished telling her story, treating Alsantset with her warmest smile. “Your sweet Tali is such a delight, she has the most impeccable manners. You must be so proud of her.”

 

“Thank you,” Alsantset replied, baring her teeth in what seemed like an icy smile but felt more like an open threat. “But proper manners are not much to be proud of, or are you so surprised because she hails from a tribe of savages?”

 

Shrinking back from the fearsome tigress, Luo-Luo abandoned all thoughts of seducing Charok. At least Falling Rain’s wives were kind to her, even Mila who so obviously felt threatened by Luo-Luo’s existence. The temperamental redhead had immediately switched tack when she learned about the Privilege, a gentle, affectionate soul willing to share the man she loved so Luo-Luo wouldn’t take her own life. Well, Mila had nothing to worry about. Falling Rain clearly had no warm feelings for Luo-Luo, sitting there with Lin-Lin on one side and Mila on the other, both women nestled in his warm embrace. They looked so happy together it made Luo-Luo bristle with jealousy.

 

Well, Falling Rain would have no choice but to pretend to like her during the party in her honour. At least that was something to look forward to…

 

In an effort to distract herself, Luo-Luo opened Falling Rain’s book and marvelled at how smooth and thin the parchment was, making a mental note to beg her sister-wives to procure some for her use. Ignoring the hubbub around her, Luo-Luo immersed herself into reading as she so often did, scoffing at the author’s so called ‘mission statement’, declaring his goal of bringing about a new age of knowledge and prosperity to the Azure Empire. Such hubris, as if such a feat could be accomplished by one man.

 

Despite her skepticism, Luo-Luo cared nothing for all the warriors’ pageantry occurring on stage, so she continued her reading. With each page turned, her doubts lessened as she absorbed the knowledge contained within them, her mind working at full force as she came up with alternative uses for each technology. The most impressive thing she found was cast iron, a cheap, low-effort alternative to smelted iron. It was noted as brittle and inflexible, but so long as the tensile and compressive strength didn’t suffer, then it could easily be used in all manner of items which were deemed too uneconomical for regular iron, things like durable wagons with iron axles and wheels which could carry more goods in a more reliable manner, or reinforcing walls and doors to better defend against the Empire’s enemies, or even something as simple as cheaper farming implements or different musical instruments.

 

And that was just one item in the book. Written on these pages was so much potential and so many more uncompleted projects yet to complete. Using sand and high heat to create a transparent ceramic, or mixing water with volcanic ash to form a liquid stone which hardened after settling, producing a stable, non-flammable yet destructive explosive made from a yellow dye or an invisible, scentless gas which was lethal even to Martial Warriors, each one of these unfinished inventions seemed more impactful than the last. Although the writer had yet to work out the specifics, the possibilities left her trembling in both fear and excitement. Closing the book, she half-heartedly applauded along with the rest of her new people, mind reeling as she absorbed the information while absently smiling at Tali cheering for her ‘great-granma’ on stage.

 

Falling Rain put his name on the work and only his, though the book mentioned several nameless collaborators. Whoever the real brilliant minds behind this book was, Luo-Luo was determined to meet them, to speak with them, and gauge the calibre of their soul, for they were a group destined to bring about great change to the Azure Empire.

 

Or one destined to commit unspeakable horrors.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 339


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


 

In the last twenty-four hours, I’ve had to accept a few hard truths about myself.

 

For starters, I now realize I am bat-shit crazy and have been talking to myself as a coping mechanism for almost three years now. On the flip side, I also learned that I am incredibly adept at compartmentalizing my problems, setting them aside, and leaving them for future me to deal with. Like top percentile. No one compartmentalizes better than me. No one. Some would call that a flaw and on most day’s, so would I, but I really need a win right now. Between mourning for a lost little brother who never existed and dealing with a whole slew of mental problems and anger issues, I’m faced with yet another hard truth which is bumming me out.

 

I, Falling Rain, youngest Second Grade Warrant officer in history and number one talent of the Empire, am a manlet. It’s true. At 175 cm tall, I’m only short in the company of Martial Warriors, a differential easily ignored in normal circumstances, especially since Mila’s around the same height as me and calling Lin 165 cm would be generous. Besides, most common born Martial Warriors aren’t all that tall either, usually averaging around 185 cm tall, which means most of the time, it’s like I’m living in a normal-sized world with the odd pack of freakish giants passing through.

 

Standing over two meters high, my new concubine shatters all illusions as I stand eye-level with the hollow of her neck. Now, it’s a lovely neck and her towering height aside, she seems outwardly perfect. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe her. Blessed with skin so pale it almost glows in the sunlight, she wears her long, lustrous black hair up in an elaborate coiffure, held in place with a gilded circlet of two kissing birds which seems deliberately fashioned to frame her beauty. Glittering amethysts draw my sight towards her best features, hanging above her smoky, hazel eyes, dangling from her dainty earlobes, and wrapped snugly around her exquisite wrists and ankles. Rosy red cheeks, dainty ears, an alluring neck, and a beguiling little beauty mark just under her left eye all make her a ravishing beauty, the single, minor imperfection enhancing her overall appeal.

 

With her eyes lowered in submission, she flashes a demure smile and curtsies before me, dropping a little lower than decorum demands. “Consort Zheng Luo greets Honoured Husband Falling Rain.” Her delicate, honeyed voice engulfs me like a warm blanket and sinks into my skin, sending a tingle down my spine and directly to my loins. The reaction is so immediate and visceral I suspect it might be magic, but a woman like this doesn’t need magic to get me all hot and bothered. Crowding out all rational thoughts, her short, purple dress demands my attention, rising ever so slightly as she holds her curtsy, which exposes just enough of her juicy thighs without turning into indecent exposure while leaving me wanting for more. Further pushing my limits, her silk shawl slips aside and offers a tantalizing view of a bird-shaped jade pendant nestled neatly in the valley of her bountiful bosom, openly visible through the convenient boob-window of her dress.

 

Were she not a country destroying beauty, Zheng Luo’s contrived display would have me rolling my eyes in disbelief. Everything about her is elaborately designed to entice and entrap, from her sparkling jewellery to her seductive movements. Like, am I seriously supposed to believe she doesn’t realize her dress is sliding up, or that her shawl just ‘happened’ to slip aside as she leaned over? C’mon now, she waited a few seconds before ‘fixing’ her ‘mistake’, and her none-too-subtle studious glance disguised as embarrassed desire isn’t fooling anyone. Zheng Luo’s got the goods but her performance leaves much to be desired, a callow, untried girl’s first try at seduction in the real world. Too bad she’s up against someone who’s seen it all and possesses an iron-like will. Hmph, it’s not so easy to seduce Falling Rain, number one talent in the Empire.

 

Hehe. The more I say it, the less guilty I feel about winning through alternative tactics. Adapt or perish, that’s how it is.

 

Having met my concubine, I can’t take sole credit for my restraint. Much of it is due to Mila strategically standing in my line of sight while sending murderous scowls my way, a firebrand bristling with jealousy as I meet the newest member of my harem. Wholly terrified of possible heavy-handed repercussions and regretting my off-colour joke to the Legate about imaginary orgies, I fake a yawn and rub my eyes to force myself to stop staring at Zheng Luo. “Nice to meet you,” I say, too scared to look directly at the statuesque beauty. “I’m Rain. Err, no need to be so formal or worried, you’re safe and among friends. As for the whole concubine thing, don’t worry about it. Put it out of your mind and forget about it. You’re absolved of all err… concubinely duties from here on in. No one among the Bekhai will treat you like a slave or force you to do anything you don’t want to, this I promise you.”

 

“But why?” Zheng Luo’s distraught tone catches me off-guard and sadness clouds her lovely features, her mask slipping as she asks, “Is it because Lord Husband finds Luo-Luo unattractive? Or is it because Lord Husband dislikes slaves? Luo-Luo is not a slave so please do not discard her, she will do her utmost to satisfy all of Lord Husband’s needs.”

 

Mm, ‘Lord Husband’. I like that. Just the implication of submission is enough to get my engines revving, imagining what I’d do to my meek, obedient consort… But ‘Luo-Luo’ though? Mm, not a huge fan of grown-ass women acting like cutesy children. I mean, yea, Lin does the same thing, but she’s adorable and it comes naturally to her. Zheng Luo is a refined, mature beauty, too dignified to pull off ‘cute and naive’ like my sweet wifey and should stick to a more regal and proud persona.

 

…Do I subconsciously want Lin to stop acting so childish? At some point in the distant future, I suppose yea, but it’s part of her charm and there’s nothing wrong with indulging my spoiled, indolent little wifey, right?

 

Learning so many new things about myself today. Not enjoying it all that much. Ignorance truly is bliss.

 

Mistaking my glance for a questioning look, Lin shrugs and grins in response. “Don’t worry hubby, I think you should marry her. She’s pretty, tall, and so sweet with children, but she’s the last one, ya? Luo-Luo makes five, so that’s it. No more or I’ll be sad.”

 

Hugging my sweet wifey close, I inwardly worry about her ability to count, an important skill considering she handles most of my finances. Lin, Mila, and possibly Yan makes three, then Luo-Luo would be number four. Who’s the fifth? Is Lin counting Li Song? That’s not fair, she barely even tolerates my presence. Wait, I’m focusing on the wrong thing. Still cuddling Lin close, I turn my attention back to Luo-Luo and ask, “You’re not a slave?”

 

“No Lord Husband,” she replies, recovering from her shock and falling back into the role of dutiful concubine. “Luo-Luo is an Imperial Servant, gifted in tribute to the Imperial Clan upon her birth and bound by no Oaths. Although Imperial Mandate guided Luo-Luo to Lord Husband, she remains here of her free will and wishes only to serve at Lord Husband’s pleasure.”

 

I am not proud to admit this, but my gut reaction to the news is, “Well, fuck.”

 

I believe slavery is horrible in any way, shape, or form, and it sounds terrible even thinking this, but… the Oaths are convenient. I have way too many secrets floating around to have an unaffiliated courtesan hanging around, all up in my business and possibly ready to report me to the authorities for any rebellious acts or sacrilegious statements. I’m not saying she’s a spy for sure, but for all I know, she’s the Legate’s tool sent here to find out the secret to my strength or here to shame me into hanging myself for being so short.

 

If I get enough Heavenly Energy, could I make myself taller? No, that’d be ridiculous, it’d be a complete waste of a scarce and valuable life-saving resource. I shouldn’t do that. Yea, no…

 

Getting back on track, I pull out the white-jade token given to me by the Imperial Messenger and study it thoroughly. There are no words on the token, just a carved depiction of a fancy looking bird with spread wings and a single long tail-feather, like a quasi-plucked peacock or something. “If you’re not a slave, then what’s this token for?” I need to start reading documents all the way through, but in my defence, I had a minor panic attack after reading the word ‘concubine’ with Mila standing right beside me. I love making her jealous but there’s only so far you can push a woman before she snaps, and if Mila snaps, so too will my spine.

 

Kneeling before the token, Luo-Luo bows in devotion and reverence, giving me yet another look at her soft, bouncing breasts before answering. “Consort Luo-Luo reports, the token signifies Lord Husband’s new status as an Imperial Consort of the Court, a title granted to Lord Husband upon marriage to Luo-Luo.”

 

“Uh, I don’t understand. Why does marrying an Imperial Servant make me an Imperial Consort?”

 

With a patient smile one usually reserves for uninformed children, Luo-Luo explains, “For most Imperial Servants, it would not. As Mandated by Heaven, after nine generations of nobility, all Imperial Scions are obligated to offer the tenth generation to the Imperial Clan as tribute. Stripped of name, wealth, and title, the tenth generation Serve where their ancestors Ruled, a much needed Balancing of the scales of life.” Drawing herself up to her full height, she proudly puffs up her voluminous chest and continues. “Unlike most, Luo-Luo is not of the tenth generation, but of the first, born and offered freely as tribute on the twelfth anniversary of Imperial Emperor’s Coronation. As such, Imperial Emperor permitted Luo-Luo certain privileges despite her status as Imperial Servant, one of which was this transfer of title to her Lord Husband.”

 

Ugh. The thought of giving your children away as tribute makes my stomach turn, but I suppose it’s necessary to prune the royal family tree every now and then, else everyone would be a royal scion in some way or the other. Nine generations is sufficiently long enough I guess, but it all seems so arbitrary. Now how do I put this delicately? “What are the… benefits… of being an Imperial Consort?”

 

Fuck you brain. I hate you so much.

 

Embarrassed by my straightforward question, Luo-Luo’s cheek twitches as she answers, “This is a great honour for Lord Husband, but as for specifics, this one cannot say. Never before has there been circumstances quite like ours, where an Imperial Consort outranked his or her partner.”

 

“You mean you’re the first Imperial Servant to be permitted this ‘privilege’?” Does that make her super special or something? Who were her parents?

 

“No Lord Husband.” Her beautiful smile washes over me and her eyes shine with pride. “Historically, the title of Noble, Royal, or Imperial Consort was reserved for foreigners of prominence who married a ranking member of the Imperial Clan. By itself, the title carries no rank or privilege, nor does it allow the title-holder’s children to inherit anything from the title-holder’s spouse unless explicitly notarized in a public will.”

 

Worthless. “So it’s a trophy title? A way of legitimizing an affair without endangering the rightful wife and heirs?”

 

“Lord Husband is correct, but not entirely so.” Still beaming, her next words are spoken carefully, as if worried I won’t understand. “Previously, although other Imperial Servants have been granted the same privileges as Luo-Luo, they were all gifted to people of higher status within the Imperial Clan, thereby rendering the title of Imperial Consort moot. While foreign heroes and nobles can marry into the Imperial Clan, Imperial Scions are forbidden from marrying out, which puts Lord Husband in the unique position of being the first Imperial Consort to outrank his or her spouse and not reside in the Eastern Province.”

 

Woo, another first. Suck it, predecessors, get good. But… Isn’t it still a useless title? As if reading my thoughts, Mila snorts and explains, “It means you’re of Imperial Peerage without being beholden to Imperial Politics. If you wanted to, the title allows you to take up residence in the Eastern Province, but only technically. In reality, it won’t be so easy.”

 

Still seems kind of useless. Giggling at my prolonged confusion, Lin tugs on my shirt and whispers, “It means you’re socially above everyone who isn’t an Imperial Scion, but below anyone who is. It doesn’t mean much to you, but most nobles would do anything for the same title.”

 

“Younger Sisters Mila and Lin-Lin are correct, but there is much more and Luo-Luo will be happy to explain in great detail.” With all the dignity of a proud teacher watching her students excel, Luo-Luo curtsies once more and implores, “Please, Lord Husband, do not send Luo-Luo away. The benefits are many and if this one displeases you, then you need only tell Luo-Luo what you wish changed and she will do her utmost to satisfy your demands.”

 

Will… to resist… crumbling… must… stop… staring… at cleavage…

 

Rubbing my temples like I have a headache, I hide Luo-Luo’s bewitching figure from my eyes. “Relax, I’m not sending you away or anything. Look, we’ll figure it out as we go, all right?” I can’t afford to offend the Legate, especially now that I understand the value of his gift. I’ve been made pseudo-royalty by affiliation, which is a big deal to most people. It just so happens I don’t care, which might be exactly why the Legate gifted Luo-Luo to me. He gets to be seen as open-minded and generous for rewarding a savage so highly, while not having to worry about me abusing the privilege.

 

Holy shit… What if that’s why the Legate is being so nice to the Bekhai? He can afford to empower Akanai and the others because unlike more ambitious nobles of the Empire, he knows the Bekhai will give up everything they’ve gained and go back North when the war is over. It’s an optimistic view of the future, but I bet he’s been doing the same with other factions of the Empire, trying to keep the balance of power in place no matter what the outcome. By favouring the smaller, insular factions, the Legate not only ensures they’ll stick around to defend a foreign land, but he also makes the other, more powerful factions work harder in hopes of a similar reward.

 

I doubt that’s his only reason either, but I gotta say, it feels pretty good to be the golden child.

 

Relieved by my assurances she won’t be discarded out of hand, Luo-Luo immediately sets to work endearing herself to my inner circle, likely realizing she won’t get anywhere without their approval. Watching her out the corner of my eye as I try to get some rest, I marvel at how easily she makes friends with everyone, an accomplished socialite in her element. Lin is easily won over by simply calling her Lin-Lin, my adorable wifey blushing at the overly-familiar and childish designation, while Mila takes a little more effort. Sadly, it doesn’t take long for Luo-Luo to figure Mila out, soon realizing my fiery-haired betrothed loves flaunting her knowledge, especially about things near and dear to her heart like her forging talents. Li Song is even easier to charm as Luo-Luo promises to play a game of chess when they’re done brushing the bunnies, lending a hand by keeping track of who still has yet to be brushed without interfering with Li Song’s enjoyment.

 

Shit. I guess Li Song does count as one of my future wives, though it’ll undoubtedly be a frigid, loveless union of convenience.

 

Luo-Luo’s tricks and games come so naturally to her, it leaves me suspicious of almost all her actions. Is she truly as she appears, a serene beauty eager to please, or does she harbour ulterior motives? Does she believe Ping-Ping is a Divine Beast or is she putting on a show for the stupid bumpkins? Is her respect for Alsantset and Charok real, or is she faking it because they’re my family? What about Tali and Tate? Is everything as it seems and she thinks they’re adorable, or is she inwardly cringing because she’s forced to hug two ‘half-beast mongrels’? Is she asking about the rabbits’ names because they’re cute and fluffy, or because she knows I care and wants to feign interest?

 

Most importantly, how does she feel about being a concubine while Mila and Lin are the legal wives? The Empire makes a big fuss about wife hierarchy, putting great emphasis on the official wife while treating secondary wives and concubines more like servants. Does it upset her to be placed beneath two (or more) women? What if she’s harbouring thoughts of usurping their positions? Happy wife, happy life, but how am I supposed to deal with a power-hungry noble from the east?

 

Truth be told, all this is conjecture, but I don’t want Luo-Luo around for mostly one reason. I could say it’s because she’s too phony, too tall, or too beautiful, or I could claim it’s because I don’t trust her and have too many secrets to hide. Hell, I could even blame it on my antagonistic nature and claim I don’t like being told who to love, but even if I put all that aside, I can’t bring myself to like her. She’s just too… perfect.

 

Yea, I know, horrible right? She has no discernible flaws, whatever will I do? It seems petty, but it’s true. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and can play more instruments than I can name, a pleasant and accommodating young woman who seems wholly comfortable in her unfamiliar circumstances and willing to make the best out of a bad situation, which is unnatural. Any normal person in her situation would freak out, but she’s handling it like just another day, all unperturbed and nonchalant. It’s weird and I don’t like it.

 

Besides, I like women with flaws, because people are inherently flawed. Lin’s adorable lethargy and carefree attitude, Mila’s passionate jealousy and excitable nature, Yan’s vulgar contentiousness and independent nature, those qualities are part and parcel of what I love about them.

 

…Shit.

 

I love Yan.

 

Damn it. I’m the worst betrothed/hubby in the world. At least I’m not in love with Li Song too, though it’s utterly adorable watching her interact with my pets… No, bad Rain. Stop it. Get your libido under control. Haven’t you figured it out yet? More women equals more problems! You should’ve stopped at three wives!

 

With all these gloomy revelations bringing me down, I grab Inky’s cauldron and head over to the beach to watch the rest of the festivities, knowing Akanai will head up next. Ping Ping and the girls all follow along behind me, chatting like they’re the best of friends. I don’t get how girls make friends so quickly. I don’t even chat that much with my friends. Then again, I couldn’t even if I wanted to, Fung’s usually too busy, BoShui is all fan-girly, I have this weird power dynamic with Dastan, Zian still pretends like he hates me, and Huu ghosted me months ago.

 

I miss having Baledagh to chat with. This sucks.

 

On my way through camp, I notice the black-armoured guards who escorted Luo-Luo here still standing where we left them, though the Imperial Messenger is nowhere to be found. “What are they still doing here?” I mutter under my breath, just as an excuse to hear my voice.

 

Luo-Luo, ever the opportunist, seizes the chance to open a dialogue. “Where would Lord Husband like them to stand instead?”

 

Though she’s handling things better than I expected, Mila’s sullen glower makes my heart ache, wishing I could be the man she deserves. It’s stupid, she’s an incredible warrior and brilliant blacksmith, she shouldn’t have to share a husband with so many other women, and same goes for Lin and Yan. To this end, I respond to Luo-Luo more sharply than intended. “Stop calling me Lord Husband, my name works just fine.” Whoa back it up. “You can order them around?”

 

Hurt and confusion etched across her lovely features, Luo-Luo nods and explains, “These soldiers are a part of Luo-Luo’s dowry, three-hundred and sixty members of the Imperial Death Corps here to guard her honour. Speak your orders and they shall obey.”

 

Nice. More soldiers and Imperial ones at that. The Legate was right, I do like my gift.

Chapter Meme

 


Author’s note: If you’re wondering why Rain thinks the phoenixes are peacocks, it’s because they look like this. More tailfeathers means more powerful, so Rain’s token with one tail feather means he’s low ranking.


 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 338

 

The Mother was truly unfair to Her children.

 

The thought tumbled around Luo-Luo’s mind as she waited for permission to disembark from her sedan. Hands trembling and jaw clenched, she smoothed her dress and patted her hair to calm her nerves, determined to endure through whatever trials and tribulations life had in store for her. Clutching her handkerchief, she faked a demure smile and inwardly lamented her fate, her life turning out so differently from the one she’d imagined. Even as a child, she’d stood out from her hundreds of rivals as she so rightly should, always one of the first to learn a new skill or grasp a new concept. Such was life within the Imperial Academy, where the scions of discredited families were sent to learn a trade in service to the Imperial Clan, a cutthroat world in which the winners became valued prizes and the losers worthless property.

 

With her mastery in calligraphy, painting, dance, and music alone, Luo-Luo was undoubtedly a most valuable prize, but cruel fate conspired against her. While her inferior rivals were gifted to Imperial Princes and Heavenly Generals back in the homeland, she had the misfortune to be hoarded away for almost six years before being spirited off and abruptly gifted away without warning. Only an hour ago she’d been sitting in the palace gardens and ignoring the commotion going on outside the walls while composing a poem to best convey her sorrow when the Imperial Mandate arrived, overturning her life at a moment’s notice. She was to be given away to an outsider, an uncultured tribesman four years her junior by the name of Falling Rain. The Undying Savage they called him, a member of some tribal village in the northernmost mountains of the Northern Province, could this outcome be any worse?

 

For long minutes after receiving the Mandate, Luo-Luo sat in stunned silence, wondering if she should invoke her Privilege and refuse the order, but she’d worked too hard to throw it all away before even meeting her husband. Perhaps things weren’t as terrible as she’d feared and he was some benevolent savage, oxymoron though it might be.

 

The curtains parted and Luo-Luo flinched before putting on a happy face to receive her new husband. Instead, what greeted her was the adorable grin of a chubby-cheeked half-beast, a young girl with twin braids of snow-white hair and large, inquisitive eyes. “Hiya,” the girl said, climbing into the palanquin with a precious smile. “Wah big sister, you’re so tall and pretty!”

 

“Why thank you,” Luo-Luo said, smiling as she scooted aside so the child could sit. “Such a lovely child, come sit with big sister.” Were this girl a student in the Academy, she would be a rare treasure, with her porcelain skin and snow-white hair, the exotic traits of a half-beast heritage. Judging by her embroidered, red-silk clothes and carefully braided hair, the child was someone of importance so Luo-Luo did her best to make friends. It never hurt to have too many allies, no matter their age or station. “This one is named Zheng Luo, but everyone calls her Luo-Luo. If it pleases you, what should Luo-Luo call you?”

 

“I’m Tali.” Climbing onto the cushioned seat, little Tali stood to inspect Luo-Luo’s headpiece, a gilded crown shaped like twin phoenixes with a half-dozen amethysts dangling above her eyes. Luo-Luo worried little Tali would grab them and ruin her hair, but the child kept her hands to herself despite the obvious desire to do otherwise. Were she not about to meet her husband for the first time, Luo-Luo would have happily taken the crown off for Tali to play with, but a woman only had one chance to make a first impression. Charmed by the child’s manners, Luo-Luo reached into her sleeve for a bag of candied fruits and offered them instead. “Yummy, thanks!” Plopping down on the seat, Tali helped herself to the treats with gusto, still studying Luo-Luo’s jewellery and clothes. “Your dress is so purple and pretty, but it looks super tight and your chest is showing. Mama says only vixens wear tight dresses and show off their chest, but I don’t understand. Where are your fox ears?”

 

Mother above, were these tribesmen a prudish bunch? Thank goodness little Tali was here to warn her. “Sweet child, Luo-Luo doesn’t know what your mama meant, but Luo-Luo is human.” Reaching for a shawl to cover her bare shoulders and exposed cleavage, she reminded herself she was no longer in the homeland and would have to adapt to her new family lest she be shunned or worse. Had she more time, she’d exchange her short, form-fitting dress for a more conservative robe, but her new husband could call on her at a moment’s notice. She knew little about him aside from what she’d heard in passing. Falling Rain, the youngest Second Grade Warrant Officer in history, attendant to the Divine Turtle, and most importantly, a man already betrothed. It was always a difficult prospect encroaching on another woman’s territory, but Luo-Luo was confident she could deal with any noblewoman in the Empire, much less an unschooled tribal tent-wife.

 

Had she known this was what fate intended for her, Luo-Luo wouldn’t have worked so hard to excel and stand out above her peers. Maybe then she’d have been gifted to a minor noble or minister in the homeland like most of them had, a far better outcome when compared to being banished to the feral north-lands…

 

Putting aside her regrets, Luo-Luo returned to the matter at hand, stroking Tali’s silky-smooth hair as she munched on candied fruits. “So tell me Tali, have you met Falling Rain?”

 

“Yup! Rainy’s my uncle and he’s the best.” With Luo-Luo guiding the conversation, Tali revealed much about who Falling Rain was, a kind, gentle man who cared for Tali and her brother Tate, a learned man who taught them to read and write, or brought them out to fly kites and make pinwheels. Ignoring the child’s wild tales of bears, birds, and wildcats, Luo-Luo stitched together an impression of what to expect from her husband, but it was a jumble of clashing traits and personalities. Somehow, he was both a dedicated Martial Warrior and educated scholar, a warmhearted family man and charming scoundrel, a talented cook and budding herbalist, and lets not forget a successful businessman and generous philanthropist.

 

How could one man be so many different things? Even allowing for the viewpoint of a child, this was too unrealistic to fathom.

 

Worst of all, Luo-Luo learned she wasn’t encroaching on one woman’s territory, but three. According to Tali, Falling Rain was always surrounded by beautiful women his age, namely Lin-Lin, Mi-Mi, and Li-Li. There was also talk of finally reuniting with Yan-Yan, whoever that might be, which meant not only was Luo-Luo faced with an unfamiliar setting, she was also outnumbered by his many legal or prospective wives. Her new husband was a man of voracious appetites, but this was good news since he wouldn’t be immune to Luo-Luo’s womanly charms. Even better, all the other women were half-beasts, which meant Luo-Luo was the only one who could give birth to an heir, her most valuable bargaining chip in all of this.

 

How depressing. Despite all her training and tutelage, she was reduced to the value of her womb. Then again, given how well Tali was treated and the prevalence of half-beasts, it’s possible these tribesmen care less for the difference between adopted and true-born kin…

 

The curtains parted once more and Luo-Luo smiled prettily for her husband, a smile which slipped away as she identified the intruder. Sniffing around the palanquin was an honest to goodness black bear, its golden-brown muzzle parted in obvious hunger. A small bear, but a bear nonetheless, wandering around on its own with only a white bandana to restrain it. Gathering Tali into her arms, Luo-Luo brought her away from the voracious predator, only to find a second black bear poking its head in from the other side. With cushion in hand, she readied to fight the creatures off but instead, Tali giggled in delight and tossed out a handful of candied fruits. Struggling out of Luo-Luo’s embrace, she jumped down to pet the bears and said, “This is Banjo and this is Baloo. Or maybe the other way around, it’s hard to tell, ya? Rainy can and Tate says he can, but I think he’s just pretending.”

 

It took several minutes for Luo-Luo to accept what was happening right in front of her, watching with wide-eyed disbelief as the two bears climbed into the palanquin to devour their treats and nuzzle the child with warm affection. Their warm furry hindquarters brushed against Luo-Luo’s bare calves as they clamoured for more treats, licking their chops and bowing their heads in obvious submission. Sensing no threat from the wild creatures, Luo-Luo tentatively reached out and stroked the closer one’s shoulder, marvelling how docile and gentle the large creatures were, sitting like dogs as they emitted a low, pulsating chortle and carefully took treats from Tali’s hand, allowing neither fang nor claw to touch her skin.

 

How incredible… if Tali’s stories were true, then didn’t that mean there were wildcats and birds too? Were they all as well-behaved as Banjo and Baloo? How did Luo-Luo’s husband tame them? Perhaps she could impose on him for a pet of her own, like a tiny fox or adorable mink…

 

The curtains parted a third time and again, Luo-Luo smiled for the intruder, this time a hare-eared, honey-skinned young woman in blue robes and a white shawl. “Hi,” she exclaimed with a toothy grin. “I’m Lin-Lin.”

 

Heart skipping a beat, Luo-Luo resisted the urge to hug the diminutive and adorable girl. Instead, she curtsied in her seat as best she could, restrained by the twin bears crowding around her feet. “Consort Luo greets Madam Lin.”

 

Though at least twice Tali’s age, Madam Lin shared the same hairstyle and reaction, her brown eyes going wide with wonder. “Wah, so tall and pretty!” Patting her cheeks, she squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head before continuing. “Madam sounds so stuffy. I don’t like it. Call me Lin-Lin and I’ll call you Luo-Luo ya?”

 

Hesitating a moment, Luo-Luo lowered her head and waited before replying, “If Lin-Lin insists then Luo-Luo is happy to comply.”

 

Smiling so hard her eyes turned into lines, Lin-Lin tugged on her braids and nodded while giggling in delight, won over with a single sentence. “Come,” she said, reaching for Luo-Luo’s hand. “I’ll bring you to meet everyone. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll all get along fine, ya? Tali, why don’t you take Banjo and Baloo to play with Tate?”

 

This sweet, beautiful girl was almost too much. If her husband’s other wives were like this, then Luo-Luo would have nothing to fear.

 

Holding hands and merrily chatting with her new ‘friend’, Luo-Luo stepped out of the palanquin and took in her first glimpse of her husband’s soldiers. The mere sight of so many tribal tattoos had her mind spinning in turmoil, wondering if she’d just been married off to a society of rustics and cave dwellers. Her husband’s soldiers were a motley, boorish bunch, especially when compared to the uniform and disciplined Imperial Death Corps around her. Hopefully her husband’s status would be enough to protect her from his brutish troops, but if not, Luo-Luo was not without her own defences.

 

Leaving the Imperial Death Corps behind, Lin-Lin brought Luo-Luo on a short jaunt through the camp and what she saw set her mind a little more at ease. While these tribal warriors lacked discipline, they had plenty of respect, parting for little Lin-Lin with smiles and waves, like kindly uncles sending their niece off on a trip to the market. Many of her husband’s soldiers appeared scruffy and unkempt, but there were a handful of more presentable ones, mostly surrounding a handsome young man with long hair and a styled moustache being heartily congratulated for something or the other.

 

Their curious domiciles were rather intriguing too, large canvas or leather covered huts with room enough for at least eight people side by side and height to spare for her to stretch. Even if Luo-Luo had to share with her handmaidens, it was a significant improvement from the linen tent she’d expected to find, which did wonders for her spirits. Then there were her husband’s war mounts, the large, bipedal otters who supposedly enjoyed frolicking in the waters, though the ones she saw bore long fangs and sharp talons which gave her pause. As they approached the camp’s centre, the Divine Turtle came into sight, a majestic creature of power and might laying next to the commander’s hut. Heart aflutter, Luo-Luo readied to meet her husband, but regrettably, Lin Lin steered her towards a different hut sitting across from her husband’s. Ducking her head to step through the doorway, Luo-Luo came face to face with a scowling, freckled red-head and a stony, cold-blooded brunette. Instantly recognizing them from Tali’s descriptions, she ignored the large wildcats sprawled around the room and gave a flourished curtsy, taking a calculated risk as she greeted them with a smile. “Consort Luo-Luo greets Madam Mi-Mi and Madam Li-Li.”

 

How depressing. Luo-Luo lowered her guard and let Lin-Lin to lead her right into an ambush.

 

A cold snort sent a chill down her spine and told her she’d made a mistake, so she fell to her knees and waited for permission to rise. This only seemed to infuriate ‘Mi-Mi’, who growled, “Oh for the Mother’s sake, not this again. Stop grovelling and stand up straight.”

 

Cursing herself for her carelessness, Luo-Luo kept her eyes down and did as she was told. Unlike Lin-Lin, Mi-Mi and Li-Li were warriors, so aptly demonstrated by the various weapons bristling from their persons. Surely they wouldn’t beat or mutilate Luo-Luo before meeting her husband? Then again, being uncivilized tribesmen, they might not understand the repercussions of such an action. Resisting the urge to back away, she cursed herself for wasting so much time on chess, history, and politics instead of practising her Martial skills.

 

In retrospect, it seemed silly to treat Heavenly Energy as little more than a beauty treatment, but how was Luo-Luo to know she would have to fight one day?

 

Long seconds stretched by, and Lin-Lin was first to break the tense silence. “Don’t be so grumpy Mi-Mi,” she said, still holding tight to Luo-Luo’s hand. “Hubby already said he’s sorry about all this, and it’s not Luo-Luo’s fault. The Legate gifted her to Rainy, so it’d be rude to send her back, so we’re stuck with her, ya? Besides, she was so sweet with Tali and when Banjo and Baloo snuck in, Luo-Luo moved to protect her, so she’s not a bad person.”

 

It took every scrap of self control Luo-Luo had to keep from staring at Lin-Lin, annoyed she’d underestimated the adorable half-hare. The dainty young woman was more calculating than she appeared, having sent little Tali in to see how Luo-Luo would react. Oh, such a shame to be married to a hen-pecked husband, having to play these games with his wives before even meeting him. How could she rely on his protection if he couldn’t keep his house in order?

 

Deflating with a sigh, Mi-Mi uncrossed her arms and stepped forward, standing at about chest height as she gazed up at Luo-Luo’s face. With her short, fiery hair, pale complexion, and endearing freckles, Mi-Mi had a different beauty and possessed a tantalizing athletic frame to boot. Proving her husband was a man of varied tastes, Li-Li differed from Lin-Lin and Mi-Mi, a buxom, full-figured, bronze-skinned woman brimming with sensuous allure. With each woman here a unique beauty, Luo-Luo’s hopes of standing out through looks alone came to a crashing end.

 

Though things looked dire, it was still too early to invoke the Privilege. Luo-Luo still had other charms besides her appearance, she only needed to survive long enough to entice her husband with them.

 

Crinkling her button nose in an adorable grimace, Mi-Mi muttered, “Too beautiful,” beneath her breath and shook her head. With another sigh, she shook her head and said, “It’s all his fault. Even if he didn’t outright ask the Legate for a concubine, Rain’s indecent behaviour led to this.” Holding a hand up to forestall Lin-Lin’s arguments, Mi-Mi continued, “No, don’t make excuses for that mule-headed fool, you saw his stupid, perverted smile when he found out.”

 

Excellent, at least her husband was interested in Luo-Luo, else she might as well give up now. Seizing the opportunity, she played the part of meek, frightened young girl, difficult as it was while being the tallest person in the room. “Honoured Madams, Luo-Luo has yet to decide if she will submit to Imperial Mandate, so if she could meet dear husband, then perhaps all your concerns will be laid to rest.” Let them believe she was ready to refuse so she could finally meet her husband and decide her fate.

 

“Wait,” Mi-Mi asked, confusion plastered across her face. “You have a choice in the matter? You’re not a slave?”

 

Bristling in indignation, Luo-Luo drew herself up to full height and replied, “This one is no slave, but an Imperial Servant, gifted in tribute to the Imperial Clan and educated at the Academy.”

 

The three women traded puzzled glances and shrugs. “What’s the difference?” Lin-Lin asked.

 

Calm yourself, Luo-Luo, they ask not out of malice, but ignorance. “A slave is bound by their Oaths, while a Servant suffers no such restrictions, attending to his or her duties out of loyalty to Imperial Clan. Imperial Mandate proclaimed this one to be the concubine of Falling Rain and this one obeys, because such is the Will of the Son of Heaven and Emperor of All Mankind.”

 

The girls traded awkward glances once again before Mi-Mi asked, “So… you can refuse to marry Rain?”

 

Luo-Luo nodded. “All Servants may refuse their duty by invoking the Privilege. At such a time, our patron is duty-bound to summon a Justicar so the Servant may submit their grievances for the Emperor’s perusal before they ascend into the afterlife.”

 

“You’d rather die than marry Rain?” For some odd reason, Luo-Luo’s stance seemed to upset Mi-Mi. “Why? Is it because of the rumours? He’s a lecher, but really not all that bad.”

 

Li-Li spoke for the first time, giving Luo-Luo a knowing nod. “If you do not wish to marry him, you need not take your own life. Sister will keep you safe.”

 

“But you should marry hubby. He’s the best,” Lin-Lin added, hugging Luo-Luo’s waist as if afraid she’d run away.

 

Head spinning from the abrupt reversal, Luo-Luo responded without thinking. “This one has yet to decide not because she is reluctant but because she knows nothing about her husband aside from his name.”

 

“Oh, we can fix that.” Dragging Luo-Luo down to sit, Lin-Lin launched into a tale, dead set on convincing Luo-Luo to become Falling Rain’s concubine by telling tales of his kindness and generosity. Though less enthused, Mi-Mi also chimed in with stories of his martial prowess while Li-Li sat silently on the side and brushed the lazy wildcats, nodding along when she agreed and frowned when she did not.

 

It was all very informative, but were it not for Luo-Luo’s impeccable manners, she’d have called her new sisters liars a half dozen times. There was more to Falling Rain than they would say, but overall, she was dazzled by his astonishing accomplishments and lofty pursuits. Little Tali wasn’t far off the mark with her fanciful stories, though she neglected to mention Luo-Luo’s husband was the newly-crowned number one talent in the Empire and a genius inventor. That alone was enough to convince her the Imperial Mandate was without fault, quashing all her thoughts of invoking the Privilege. Eager to meet him and especially eager to read his book of inventions, Luo-Luo steered the conversation towards that end and soon enough, Lin Lin was happily escorting her to meet him, with a less enthusiastic Mila (as she preferred to be called) and an apathetic Li-Li (whose ears fluttered in delight at the familiar appellation) following behind.

 

Following Lin-Lin around the Divine Turtle’s bulk, Luo-Luo held her breath as she laid eyes upon her husband for the very first time. Broad of shoulder and slim of waist, he laid curled up against the Divine Turtle’s arm, no doubt exhausted after a long morning of gruelling, hard fought duels. A fierce and indomitable warrior, he hardly looked the part while curled up with more than a dozen rabbits, including one fully grown rabbit snuggled against his chest. While not the most handsome man she’d ever seen, a little skin care and make up would go a long way towards enhancing his appearance, not to mention a proper haircut and tailored clothes. As Lin-Lin skipped over to wake him, Luo-Luo glanced down and made sure everything was in place before donning her best smile and raising her head to meet her husband.

 

Only to realize she raised it far too high, for she stood a full head taller than the number one talent in the Empire.

 

Oh Mother above… her husband was so short!

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 337


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patrons Lmao Zedong and Folkensedai. Thank you  both so much for your support!

 

Also, May 21 is Victoria day in Canada, which means no chapter this Sunday. Woooo for me, boo for you, but a man has NEEDS. Poker needs. Hopefully, I shall return with a new chapter for you all on Tuesday the 22nd, but it’s also possible I’ll have gambled away my life’s savings and will be stuck working dark corners and back alleyways to pay off my debts.

 

Wish me luck and have a great weekend all 😀


 

Gazing out at my adoring fans, I soak in the applause and adulation I so desperately desired for so many years. With no cheats, the roughest of starts, and almost dying countless times along the way, I’ve finally made it big. It’s taken me seven long years to get where I am, standing at the forefront of my peers as the number one talent in the Empire. While even I don’t believe I’m the strongest person under twenty-five, no one in Nan Ping can deny I have the qualifications to be here, having defeated my rivals in single combat for everyone to see. This is my moment of glory, my time in the spotlight, the acclimation and renown I’ve dreamed of for so long.

 

So why does it feel so… empty?

 

Probably because Baledagh isn’t here to share this with.

 

I miss him…

 

For years now, I’ve tried to pretend like this wasn’t what I wanted. This was my silly little brother’s dream, he’s the one who wanted to be a hero. Me, I was more mature about it, wanting nothing more than a nice, comfy life with my family and pets, but it turns out that’s not true. I’ve always wanted the best of both worlds. That’s why I balked at the idea of giving up on the Martial Path to focus on Healing, because I wanted to ride in to save the day, lead armies against the dark lord, or go on a quest to save the world. To be fair, who doesn’t want to be the hero of their own story? Why else would I have been placed here, in this world with memories of my former life? Am I meant for something greater than I can imagine, or am I merely the result of some giant, cosmic mistake?

 

Then again, maybe you feel bad because you cheated to win.

 

Guilt compels me to check on my fallen opponent, being tended to by one of the Legate’s Healers. Poor Wu Gam, his fox-ears droopy and jaw slack, sitting there in a daze and trying to figure out why he froze during our fight while the Healer puts his intestines back where they belong. I did my best to avoid his spine, but even then it can’t feel good getting stabbed in the stomach, not to mention getting beaten in one exchange. I had no choice, his match against Yan had me shitting bricks, wondering how I’m supposed to beat either of them. Wu Gam has overwhelming power combined with impenetrable Chi-armour, how is that even remotely fair?

 

Then there’s Yan, whose style I can barely recognize anymore. It’s been a year and a half since her Awakening, only a few days ahead of my first, but here she is chopping up fools with wind blades while I’m spitting water for party tricks. Unfair. As much as I love Baatar and Akanai, their whole ‘figure it out for yourself’ mindset has me more than a little irked. I’m sure it worked out great for them, but different people learn in different ways. It doesn’t really matter, I don’t know any Water Blessed Martial Warriors to ask for advice, having killed the only one I ever met.

 

I wish Ping Ping could speak. Hurry up and turn human so you can teach me your ways.

 

It’s a shame Yan lost, but she’s a big girl, she can handle the disappointment. She did a real bang up job though, I thought she won for sure when she slashed his throat, but Earth-Chi is too OP. Sadly, it’s clear she was the underdog from the start. Anyone watching could see she gave it her all while Wu Gam was happy to wait for his moment, because frankly, he could afford to. If all he wanted to do was win, he could’ve ignored Yan’s attacks and splattered her across the stage during their first exchange, but he didn’t. He’s a big old softy I suppose, making moon eyes over Yan instead of caring about the title, but knowing her, she won’t appreciate his ‘chivalry’.

 

Anyways, after he broke Yan’s arm, he looked more worried than happy, and that’s when I decided I couldn’t let him win. He wouldn’t appreciate it and I did him a favour. With his Earth-Chi armour and powerful physique, he holds a staggering advantage over his peers, but that won’t last forever. Fung beats him through superior range, Zian through martial superiority, and BoShui… well, BoShui probably loses, and so does Dastan, but it’s okay. Better he learn his failings here and now than out on the battlefield against the Defiled.

 

Then again, considering the rumours surrounding his eccentric mentor, I may have just signed his death warrant. I really hope that doesn’t happen, I feel guilty enough about cheating as it is…

 

To be fair, it wasn’t exactly cheating per se. It’s not like I drugged his food or stabbed him while no one was looking. All I did was use my Beyblade Aura to make him flinch and lower his defences before the moment of impact. It’s no big deal, only honour-bound idiots like Gerel would consider it cheating. Winning through superior Aura is a legitimate strategy, like laying in wait for an ambush or attacking while your enemy is distracted. All’s fair in love and war. I worked hard to Hone my Aura, so why shouldn’t I use it? I mean, no one thinks Wu Gam using his Blessing of Earth is cheating, so why should using my Aura be any different?

 

I understand the general mindset is that, in battle, there will always be multiple overlapping Auras, so crushing one person’s Aura is pointless and more effort than it’s worth, but my Honed Aura is different. It’s not like I just came up with the idea either, this is something I’ve been practising for months now, mostly with Gerel. The idea is simple: instead of shattering my opponent’s Aura, which takes too much time and effort, all I do is give it a little poke at the right time. A sharp, Honed poke, but a poke nonetheless. This takes much less effort and Chi than breaking an Aura and, assuming I successfully kill my opponent, it accomplishes the same goal of removing an enemy Aura user from the field. As cool as it is to crush my enemies’ Aura and render them helpless with my all-powerful Beyblade Aura (God I need a better name for this), it’s always a risky gamble. If I come across someone with an Aura too strong to break, by the time I realize it and give up, I’ll have already squandered significant amounts of Chi powering the Beyblade.

 

So, after pondering on the matter for some weeks, this was my solution, to use my Beyblade Aura (sigh) for a brief, infinitesimal moment and catch my opponents off guard. Essentially, my Aura penetrates through their defences and renders them helpless, but only for a fraction of a second. Timed properly, it allows me to attack while they’re still reeling from my Aura, leaving them shocked and helpless before me. It’s pretty fun, the first time I successfully used it against Gerel, I gave him a black eye and a fat lip. In retaliation, he chopped off both my legs above the knees and called me a deceitful trickster. The man has zero chill, and the lack of Spectres has not improved his mood.

 

I still can’t believe Baatar made him the Iron Banner’s spokesperson. He’s not exactly what I’d call friendly customer service. Then again, maybe that’s exactly why Baatar made him the Iron Banner’s spokesperson…

 

When the applause finally dies down, the Crier invites me to approach the dais. Bowing for the umpteenth time today, I stand before the Legate with a nervous smile, hoping he doesn’t admonish me for my use of Aura. Unlike regular Aura, which spreads out in all directions and encompasses everyone in the vicinity, my Beyblade Aura is more concentrated and targeted. Only my intended victim should feel the effects, but considering the Legate can see into my Natal Palace, who knows what other tricks he’s got. It’s unsettling not knowing what he knows about me, but since he didn’t have me captured and killed after our first meeting, I can at least assume he doesn’t know about Blobby.

 

Falling Rain,” the Legate says, his voice booming for all of Nan Ping to hear, “Congratulations on your stunning victory. Truly a performance worthy of applause.

 

“Thank you,” I reply, bowing once more for good measure, “But Imperial Servant believes his victory was more luck than skill.” The Legate’s surprised expression is priceless but I keep a straight face as the Crier repeats my words. Thankfully, all my trash talk before the match went unheard by everyone except those nearby, so my humble demeanour plays over well with the crowd. It’s not like I’m lying either, I was damn lucky to win against Dienne, much less Wu Gam. Ryo Seoyoon… she wasn’t terrible, but not quite up to par with the rest of the competitors. “This one was able to study his opponent beforehand and switched weapons for every match. Were we to fight again, Wu Gam will undoubtedly have countermeasures in place to deal with this one’s tricks and the outcome would be much closer. Truth be told, this one puts his chances of victory at 50/50 in a fair and even fight.”

 

Amused by my antics, the Legate nods along and glosses over my modest speech. “Your weapon is intriguing, a blunt-tipped two-handed sword which transforms into a glaive. Such impressive craftsmanship. Tell me, which brilliant mind came up with this design?

 

Huh… blunt-tipped sword sounds way better than shallow axe… I’m stealing that. Glancing at the northern shore, I look for Mila among the crowd but fail to find her. I hope she’s watching because this is her moment. “My transforming weapon was crafted by my betrothed, Captain Sumila of the Bekhai, daughter of Lieutenant General Akanai and Divine Blacksmith Husolt. Not only is she a nineteen-year-old Divine Blacksmith, but she is also the reason why I remain humble despite my victory today. Were she standing on this stage, she would have emerged victorious as the true number one talent of the Empire, of this I have no doubt.”

 

My statement doesn’t have the impact I expected it to. There are no surprised gasps or indignant outbursts, only a smattering of muted, polite applause. I feel like I’ve goofed somehow, but I’m not exactly sure how. Taking things in stride, the Legate nods and replies, “Impressive work from one so young. I look forward to hearing of her future accomplishments.” Ah, I figured out where I went wrong. No one cares about my endorsement, Mila has to earn her reputation on her own. Shit. Well, at least people know her name now, and more importantly, that I’m taken. I feel sorry for any ladies looking to win my affection after this jaw-dropping display of strength, but it’s best for all of us if they stay away. Mila is definitely the jealous type and the last thing we need is for her to start a blood feud with a gaggle of flirtatious noblewomen vying to win my affection.

 

Moving on, the Legate says a few sentences lauding my achievements before asking, “Speak. What reward would you ask of me?

 

Uh oh. No one covered this during my preparations. What am I supposed to ask for? Money? Runic Gear? Or am I supposed ask for one of his gifts piled off to the side? Re-gifting seems kinda crass to me, but who knows how these people think. Plus it’d be convenient for him, I suppose, fulfilling my request just like that. I shouldn’t though, mostly because I don’t really want anything my rivals gave him. A bunch of shitty art, sculptures, decorative armour, and jewellery, all worthless junk in my eyes. I want books on runes or Martial manuscripts, stuff like that. Oh, I could ask for a black-maned kitty, but I kinda have too many pets as it is. Besides, with my luck, it’ll be misinterpreted as a request to join his Royal Guardians or something. Bleh, no thanks. Those lion mounts are regal and dignified, but hardly cute, all serious and grumpy-faced. Aurie, Jimjam, and Sarankho are way cuter, so why settle for an inferior kitty?

 

Think Rain, think. You can’t leave the Legate hanging… or are you supposed to refuse the gift? That’s totally a thing right? You seen people do a whole dog and pony show about declining gifts before accepting it, but is that appropriate here? Ugh, manners are so confusing. Whatever, let’s play it safe. Eyeing the Crier to make my intentions known, the Legate smiles and signals for him to remain silent. Keeping my voice low, I say, “Last night, this one requested Marshal Yuzhen bring a matter to Imperial Legate’s attention. This one requests Imperial Legate look into the matter at his convenience, and should he deem action be taken, this one requests to take part.”

 

“How cryptic.” The Legate smiles, keeping our conversation private. “I will keep your request in mind, but I cannot allow you to walk away empty-handed.”

 

Face again, probably. “Then this one will be content with whatever Imperial Legate sees fit to reward him with.”

 

“You are a conundrum, young Falling Rain. Clever enough to not overstep your bounds, but brave enough to risk my displeasure.” Noticing my confusion, the Legate graciously explains, “You sent a known traitor to face off against the greatest talents in the Empire and risked killing Wu Gam for victory. Do you not fear reprisal?”

 

Uh oh… “Um… I’ll be honest. I forgot about the whole ‘Dastan is a traitor’ thing. Truth be told, he was duped alongside many others, a young warrior who dreams of bettering the lives of his fellow man.” I’d call him a patriot, but I’m afraid the Legate wouldn’t agree. “He was misinformed and misguided, and he’s paid a heavy price for his mistakes. As for Wu Gam,” I continue, glancing over to find him standing, hale and healthy as can be aside from the bloody robes, “With a Honed blade, the internal damage should be minimal, and I neither Amplified nor added Reverberations to the attack itself.” Technically, I failed at the first and don’t know how to do the second, but the Legate doesn’t know that. I would’ve held back even more, but Wu Gam is straight up terrifying. I can heal broken bones but not fast enough for it to matter against him, so I had to take him out before he took me out. “I aimed for a clean gut wound, which takes hours to bleed out, so I was confident he would survive.” And that if he didn’t, well… the Legate wouldn’t want two young talents dead on the opening day of the first ever Imperial Grand Conference. It’d be like a bad omen or something, right?

 

“No reward without risk, as they say. A bold young hero indeed, and your performance certainly did not disappoint.” I’m super glad the Legate likes me, or at least is pretending to like me. I’m still not sold on his friendly demeanour, mostly because Ping Ping doesn’t like him much, but he’s beginning to win me over. Chuckling beneath his breath, he goes back to Speaking. “Your request will be taken into consideration. As to your reward, it shall be sent to your camp post-haste.” Winking, he Sends, “I daresay you’ll enjoy it.”

 

“Imperial Servant thanks Imperial Legate.” I wonder what he’s giving me. I hope it’s a kitty, I was lying when I called those lions inferior, they’re majestic as fuck. Retreating to my place, I stand and smile as the Legate congratulates us all and names us future heroes of the Empire. Weathering the displeased glares from my defeated rivals, it’s all I can do to keep from smirking as their envy and jealousy makes me feel all warm and tingly inside.

 

Too bad for Yan though, she’s taking her loss really hard, with no more flirty smiles or fluttering lashes as she stands there hugging her arms and looking forlorn. Truth be told, if things had turned out differently and I had been matched against Wu Gam earlier, then she might be number one instead of me. I doubt Dienne could have made her show all her cards, and if I’d beaten Wu Gam, I’d probably be all confident and cocky going into our match. She could easily have caught me off guard with her crazy windstorm strike and secured the victory.

 

I know I said she can handle herself, but should I like, send a gift basket or something? What’s the etiquette here? I’ll ask Mila and Lin when I get back.

 

His speech finished, the Legate dismisses us all and calls a break in the ceremony, with tables of food popping up on the streets and wagons going out to the camps all on the Legate’s dime. Yan slips away before I have a chance to speak with her, so I lead my retinue back to camp, riding along the shoreline while Ping Ping swims in the bay beside us. As I dismount from Mafu, Lin greets me with a dainty flying tackle. “Hooray! Congratulations hubby. I always knew you were the best, and now everyone else knows it too, ya?”

 

“Thanks wifey, but you’re the best.”

 

Arms crossed and lips pouty, Mila treats me to one of her adorable snorts. “Hmph. Well fought, but once I condense my Aura, you can be sure I’ll challenge you for the title.” Her red-panda ears cease fluttering as she switches gears, but her tail keeps lashing about. “Foolish man, what were you thinking? No good comes from claiming I would have emerged victorious, words are nothing but empty air. Now everyone think you’re a henpecked fool, currying favour from your nagging betrothed.”

 

“Sorry beloved. I wanted people to know about how strong you are.” Punctuating my apology with a kiss on her cheek, I Send, “That’s why I asked you to come on stage with me. I figured the Legate would want to put on a show and who better to represent the North than my multi-talented and not-at-all-naggy betrothed? Instead, I had to settle for Dastan.” Who kicked ass. I need to work harder so I don’t fall behind.

 

Ridiculous,” she retorts, pinching my sides. “More like you wanted to borrow my retinue to make yours look bigger.”

 

True, but who says I can’t have more than one reason for doing things?” When it comes to retinues, I believe size does matter. Some might say I’m overcompensating, but that’s the jealous mutterings of tiny-retinued individuals. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, that’s what I say.

 

Our alone time ends as everyone else floods in to congratulate me on my victory. Taduk has no words, merely wrapping his arms around me in a warm, heartfelt hug, while Tate and Tali skip about, laughing and yelling in sheer delight. Alsantset and Charok both tell me how proud they are, and I can’t help but tear up as I thank them for everything they’ve done. Song stands off the side and puffs her cheeks, giving me a grudging nod of approval as I stop by to say hi to my furbabies. Fung and his father are all smiles and back slaps while Han BoHai and BoShui are equally enthused, the normally dour Major General more boisterous than I’ve ever seen him and already a little drunk. My fellow warrant officers from the Society Sang Ryong and Jin ZhiLan say a few polite words while their elders thank me for inviting them to watch from my camp, but I can tell they’re seething inside which makes me smile.

 

By the time the food arrives, my cheeks are strained from too much smiling, enjoying my moment in the spotlight. For some odd reason though, the procession is guarded by a few hundred soldiers, not Royal Guardians but the infantry types, with their intense stares and boring, black armour. A little overkill for guarding food, but I soon realize there are no wagons of food, only a single palanquin, a simple, wooden affair which seats four instead of the polished monstrosities the Legate used in his parade. At the head of their procession is a Royal Messenger, who bows and hands me a scroll and a jade plaque with both hands. Confused and hungry, I accept the plaque and unfurl the scroll, eyes widening and heartbeat rising with each passing word.

 

Bad news. Bad, bad news. This is not good. Shit. Oh god. Breathe. In and out. In. And out. Okay. Calm down. There’s nothing to worry about. This is a simple miscommunication, is all. Look troubled. Yea that’s it, frown. Sigh a little too, but not too much. Remember, you didn’t ask for this, so whatever you do, Do. Not. Smile.

 

Your life depends on it.

 

Sensing my inner turmoil, Mila asks, “What’s wrong?”

 

Okay. Make her believe it, because it’s the truth. “It’s seems there’s been a misunderstanding; as reward for becoming the number one talent in the Empire, the Legate sent me a concubine.” Mila’s darkening expression sends a chill down my spine, and I do my best to appear nonchalant. “What a wacky mix-up, right? Haha.”

 

God dammit, you had one job: Don’t smile. Way to fuck it up.

 

Welp, we had a good run buddy. Better luck next life.

 

Chapter Meme

 

– End of Volume 18 –

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 336

 

Standing before the largest audience the Empire had ever seen, Du Min Yan felt neither anxiety nor fear. This was her moment in the sun, with millions of people watching as she faced off against her formidable opponent, Wu Gam. His match against Yong-Jin showed just how strong the fetching half-fox warrior was, easily dispatching a veteran soldier of nine years with a single thrust of his long, thick staff. As much as she wanted to joke around about it, if he were to hit her with a similar thrust, she’d fare much worse in comparison considering she lacked Yong-Jin’s brawny frame and steel breastplate. Not that the armour did him any good against her opponent’s overwhelming physical strength, exploding inwards and embedding Yong-Jin’s taut flesh with shards of sundered steel.

 

The Mother truly loved to play favourites, but Yan herself was Blessed too.

 

With his adorable silver-fox ears and unremarkable build, Wu Gam might as well be a second Mila, both of their lithe, slender frames hiding an absurd amount of power. Thankfully, while Wu Gam might rival Mila in pure physical strength, he lacked her dominating presence and deadly grace. Though it shamed her to admit it, when Yan discovered Mila’s absence on stage, she felt a surge of relief and said a small prayer of thanks. After eighteen months of gruelling training and first-rate instruction, Yan had risen farther along the Martial Path than she previously believed possible, and still she wasn’t confident about winning a match against the Mila she remembered, much less one a year and a half stronger. In contrast, Wu Gam was a slow, ponderous man who moved with deliberate care and rarely lifted his feet during spars, a weakness Yan intended to exploit with no remorse. Beat Wu Gam, beat Falling Rain, maybe beat that impressive pretty-boy Dastan for fun, and claim her title as number one talent in the Empire.

 

After all his hard work and sacrifices, she owed Grandpa this much at least.

 

Blowing out a long breath, Yan reached for Balance and immersed herself in the Blessing of the Divine Wind, keeping Grandpa’s teachings in mind. ‘One cannot tame the wind, only shape the setting so the wind chooses to follow your will’. Wind was a capricious element and while many believed it embodied freedom and liberty, like any other force of nature, it followed a strict set of rules which governed its behaviour, arbitrary though those rules might seem. Yan spent many a night studying various dusty texts on how the wind behaved and how it could go from gentle breeze to cataclysmic hurricane, all so she might learn to harness its destructive power.

 

Having long since familiarized herself with the surrounding conditions, Yan waved her lightweight Spiritual Battle-Fan back and forth, testing how the air around her reacted to small changes in pressure while going over what she knew. A strong western breeze fluttered in from over the cold waters of the bay, displacing warmer air in an updraft where water met land and creating a cyclical convection over the docks. Constantly in flux, the air here was humid and unstable, cresting and subsiding like the waves of the bay, the wind whipping about as hot and cold vied for supremacy. All this meant her long-ranged attacks would require more effort to produce and maintain, with her external Chi easily broken down by a natural flurry of wind, but her attacks would also be heavier and more impactful were she to harness the natural opposing forces. Not the best place to display her talents but not the worst either, unlike Wu Gam’s current predicament. There wasn’t much he could do with the Blessing of Earth while standing on a floating platform in the middle of a bay. An unfair advantage? Perhaps, but Yan was happy to exploit it.

 

Like Rain once said, all’s fair in love and war.

 

Dismissing all thoughts of the arrogant, amber-eyed idiot who couldn’t even remember to smile for her, Yan focused on the task at hand, defeating Wu Gam. Throughout her preparations, the lunkhead stood in place with his staff in hand, shoulders slumped and head hung low, wearing a doleful expression as he waited for her first move. Such arrogance, playing the part of chivalrous hero in a match this important, allowing the ‘little lady’ the first move. Where was his zeal and drive for victory? So handsome but so dull, it annoyed her to be treated like a damsel playing at games of war.

 

Gathering her Chi into her battle-fan, Yan harmonized with the flow of air and prepared her strike, a nail-length wisp of Chi which mimicked the properties of Wind. Slashing the empty air before her, she sent the wind blade lancing towards Wu Gam and watched it cut a hole in his robes and reveal a sliver of pale, white skin beneath. Though most of the audience missed it, Wu Gam lifted his head as his eyes went wide in surprise, more shocked than injured by her attack. Pleased by his reaction, Yan smirked and said, “You’re not the only one with an Awakening.” Dumbass.

 

The damage done was minimal, barely nicking the surface of his chest. Such were the limits of practising Chi skills without a Natal Palace, but even though Yan knew the attack represented the upper limits of her abilities and cost her a tenth of her Chi reserves, Wu Gam couldn’t be certain of the same. For all he knew, her attack was merely a warning telling him to take the match seriously lest she cut his throat from a distance, which meant he had no choice but to close the distance. Taking a defensive stance, he held his staff like a spear and cautiously advanced, finally treating her like an opponent instead of a fair maiden to woo. Not that she minded his shy blushes and stolen glances, but there was a time and a place for having her fun and this certainly wasn’t it.

 

Knowing her opponent liked taking his sweet time, she held her ground, used her Runic ring to restore her spent Chi, and waited for her moment. Step by careful step, Wu Gam shuffled forward on the swaying platform while Yan smiled and waved her fan back and forth, rotating it in the palm of her hand and building her Chi within it. All the movement and pageantry wasn’t necessary, but it helped her get a feel for the wind so she could mimic it, a crutch of sorts until she could correctly visualize the process on her own. Her Wind Sliver was nothing compared Grandpa’s massive, multi-layered Wind Chakram, but it wasn’t the only skill at her disposal, nor was it the most powerful, merely her skill with the longest range.

 

The first part of Yan’s plan had worked perfectly, drawing Wu Gam out of his comfort zone and forcing him to advance. Unfortunately, his staff still held the advantage in range which meant Yan had to act soon and execute her plan flawlessly lest she be spattered across the stage by an errant swing.

 

Honestly, having so much strength was practically cheating.

 

Once Wu Gam was almost in range, Yan drew her arm back for an attack, reminiscent of her first wind blade. Reacting to her feint, Wu Gam balked and drew his staff back defensively, giving Yan the opening she so desired. Bounding across the platform, she closed the distance and caught Wu Gam on the back foot, the blockhead realizing his mistake a heart-beat too late. Having slipped past his optimal range, Yan opened with an uppercut from her six-pointed shield aimed directly at his exposed hands. The impact shot up her arm and Wu Gam barely moved, as if she’d smacked a damned boulder instead of a human hand, but she followed through with a downward chop at the same target. Circling left to avoid his counter strike, Yan kept her battle-fan ready to block or strike and relied only on her shield for offence, smashing it against his exposed hands as she ducked and dodged his attacks. She got in six good hits before Wu Gam stepped forward to shove her away, at which point she was forced to retreat from his assault and skipped away to take her distance once again.

 

Exhaling to calm her nerves and steady her breathing, Yan stifled a grimace as she gazed upon Wu Gam’s hands, still pale and unmarked despite her best efforts. The Honed edges of her shield failed to pierce his skin, glancing off the invisible protective layer of Earth Chi sitting just under his skin. Were it not for his distraction and ‘gallantry’, Yan’s first attack would have never made a mark. A powerful offence paired with his formidable defence, two factors which made Wu Gam a most formidable opponent.

 

No matter. His Earth-Chi didn’t make him invulnerable and his reserves were finite. Through quality or quantity of attacks, Yan’s plan was to wear her opponent down and seize victory, a simple, but risky endeavour considering he could end it in a single strike. Luckily, although Wu Gam’s expertise with the Blessing of Earth was astounding, his basic Martial Skills and experience were utterly lacking in comparison. If Yan had a spear or another weapon with a range greater than his, her plan would be much easier to carry out, but unfortunately, her shield and battle-fan were all she had to work with.

 

While Grandpa could easily afford a third Spiritual Weapon for her, Yan refused to be the first to bring it up. He’d already done so much for her, accepting her into his family and sacrificing his holdings and reputation to defend her from his ungrateful relatives, how could she bear to ask for more? All she wanted was to show the world the truth, that Du Min Gyu was still sound of mind and the greatest Mentor in the history of the Empire.

 

Raising her battle-fan, she repeated her previous actions and Wu Gam played along like an obedient child, taking a defensive stance so she could slip in and attack, dancing and weaving about as she hacked and slashed away, only to escape before he could mount a proper counter-offensive. For long minutes, the half-fox warrior became Yan’s training dummy, helpless to respond to her measured aggression as she chipped away at his defences, using only her shield while keeping her battle-fan in reserve. As she raised her battle-fan to begin her fifth assault, Wu Gam finally smartened up and didn’t fall for the feint, holding steady to fend her off with a warding thrust.

 

About damn time too. Why are the pretty ones always so stupid?

 

Charging forward, she struck out with her battle-fan and unleashed the power she’d been accumulating the entire match. Teeth bared in a grin, Yan’s spirits rose as her weapon made contact with Wu Gam’s staff and sent five blades of wind hammering into his chest. Reeling from the attack, Wu Gam staggered away and she pressed her advantage, advancing on Wu Gam with a flurry of strikes. Knee, shoulder, hand, and belly, she battered whichever target presented itself, desperate to end the match here and now. Her surprise attack left her Chi reserves dangerously low, which meant she had to break through his Earthen defences soon if she hoped to win.

 

Robes in tatters and chest dripping in blood, Wu Gam rallied from her onslaught of attacks and countered with one of his own, his staff lancing out to buy him space. Twisting her body aside, it took all the strength she could muster to parry his thrust, reluctant to waste more Chi on Deflection. Shoulder sore from the attempt, the pain bought her an opportunity to slash Wu Gam’s throat, praying he wouldn’t bleed out before the Healer reached him. Her battle-fan hacked at his neck and she waited for the spray of blood, but to her dismay, it never came, her Honed sword sliding across taut skin without leaving a mark.

 

Then, his staff smacked into her bicep and Yan watched the world sail by before her vision went dark.

 

Coming to with a gasp, Yan sat up and immediately wished she hadn’t, collapsing back into the arms of her attendant, a sweet, matronly woman named Eun who made the tastiest dumplings and loved to fuss about Yan’s scandalous outfits. “Tch, sweet child, rest your head,” Eun said, gently stroking Yan’s cheek as she closed her eyes. “You gave me a great fright with your nasty fall at the end there, opened up a big gash on your pretty little cheek, all full of splinters and such. Broke your shoulder too, but thank the Mother for the Legate’s Healers, fixed you right up they did.”

 

I lost?”

 

That you did sweet child, but you gave it your best. Oh it’s such a shame you weren’t awake to hear it, the applause was almost too much for my old heart to handle.”

 

Dammit. She should’ve stayed in bed this morning. “Who won the next match?” Perhaps with Wu Gam’s Chi reserves low, Rain finished the job.

 

It hasn’t started yet dearie, that Falling Rain insisted on a break so Wu Gam could recuperate. Not a bad fellow, and handsome too, although Wu Gam isn’t too bad either.” Yan opened her eyes to find Eun fanning herself with her hand, the greying, plump woman wearing a devilish smile. “You put on quite the show for us ladies, shredding his robes up like that. If it weren’t for all the blood, I wouldn’t have been able to tear my eyes away from his bared chest and chiselled stomach.”

 

It was a game they played often, gossiping about every handsome man in sight. “Mhmm, a shame I didn’t have time to properly appreciate it.” Forcing herself to her feet, Yan swooned in place as the blood rushed to her head, but she grit her teeth and endured it. She was back on the sidelines again, forced to stand furthest from the centre by her ‘peers’ in the Hwarang because she was a demi-human and a woman. Flower Knight was a stupid name anyways, she only joined to prove her strength and show that she deserved to be the Disciple of Du Min Gyu, but her efforts did nothing to stop her detractors.

 

And now that she failed, Yan might never get the respect she deserved. Bah, if only she’d won…

 

Wearing new robes and looking none the worse for wear, Wu Gam sat cross-legged on the platform, immersed in quiet meditation. Leaning against his… axe, Rain waited across the stage from his opponent with a bored, inattentive expression, watching Wu Gam with half lidded eyes and drumming his fingers in impatience. After their long absence, Yan was surprised by how much he’d changed, plumping up rather nicely in all the right places from what she saw while he changed in the streets. While she appreciated the free show, she was still miffed he’d forgotten to smile for her like he’d promised to before she left. Instead, he treated her to a vacant, confused expression like someone trying to remember who she was, not at all how she expected their reunion to go.

 

How frustrating. She should have taken action when he had no working arms to defend himself. Surely he’d remember her then, but now it was too late…

 

Even now as she caught his attention, all he did was smile and look away. No lustful stare or suggestive smirk, no concealed wink or mouthed message, just a stupid, polite smile. It was probably her makeup, or those jewels she’d worn in her hair. They didn’t suit her and he was too polite to say so. Ugh, she wanted nothing more than to head over to his camp and catch up on old times, but Grandpa couldn’t afford to publicly side with the People. Doing so would cost him his last few remaining allies, and he needed them on his side for a chance to prove himself during this First Imperial Grand Conference.

 

Yan wished she could do more to help, but her only chance just slipped through her fingers when Wu Gam refused to fall.

 

Choking down her bitter defeat, Yan sighed and waited for the final match to begin. Unfortunately, although she wanted Rain to win, after seeing how poorly he’d fared against Dienne, a victory for the North seemed unlikely. Stupid, arrogant idiot, Rain should have gone ahead with the final match without giving Wu Gam time to rest. Pride was one thing and victory another. He was too clumsy with the new axe, unfamiliar with how it handles and unable to use it to its full potential. While his reputation was greater than ever and there was the whole spectacle with him Awakening in the bay, it seemed like Rain’s progress was lacking compared to her own.

 

Which made her feel a little better about losing, but not by much. She’d been looking forward to sparring against him again, although she’d prefer a more… secluded venue.

 

After another quarter hour of waiting, Wu Gam stood and indicated he was ready to begin. Flashing his insolent smile, Rain tilted his head and asked, “You sure? I don’t mind waiting until you’re fully rested. I wouldn’t want anyone claiming I had an unfair advantage.”

 

There it was, Rain’s casual conceit which naturally oozed from his every pore. It wasn’t the haughty disdain or smug hubris other nobles shared, but a more subtle, cheeky presumption he couldn’t contain. Thinking everyone was as talented as him or selling medicine to his competitors, and now stating he wanted a clean, unblemished victory, this was just the sort of charming arrogance Rain was full of.

 

This one has rested enough,” Wu Gam replied, taking no offence at Rain’s statement.

 

All right then. Let’s do this.”

 

Both men bowed and took their places, Wu Gam with his staff and Rain with his axe, neither one the least bit nervous as the Crier announced the start of their match. In the opening seconds, both men stood in place, neither one in a rush to exchange blows. Fiddling around with the haft of his weapon, Rain smiled and said, “I had some time to think while you rested, and I’ve a few things I’d like to share. You’re an impressive rival and your Awakening is so practical I’m bursting with envy. Easily the most formidable youth I’ve come across in all of Central.”

 

Yan couldn’t resist smiling as Wu Gam asked, “Only Central?” So the lunkhead had some pride after all, but too bad for him, he would always be second best to Mila.

 

Yep.” Unstrapping his shield, Rain slung it around his shoulder and pulled on a loose strap, tightening the shield against his back. More arrogance. If he intended to put a weapon away, why wait until the match began? “Personally, I’m more impressed by Dienne and his two comrades from the South. They train to kill Defiled. That’s what they do, it’s all they train for, it shows in their movements, and I respect that. You, on the other hand,” Rain said with a shake of his head, “you’re more talented and stronger than I am, but your basic skills are a little lacking and your performance far from overwhelming. Do you even have an Aura?”

 

I do.” Wu Gam’s voice was a little strained, Rain’s taunting finally getting through.

 

Oh. Good for you.” Thank the Mother the audience couldn’t see her smile as Yan enjoyed Rain’s needling. “Your Mentor did you a disservice focusing so much on your Awakening at the cost of your foundation, which is the only reason why I can still beat you.”

 

Wu Gam snorted softly. “Prove it.”

 

Oh I will. Watch.” Stretching his arms out to either side, Rain lowered his defences and closed his eyes, standing in place and inviting Wu Gam to attack. Wary of a trap, the fox-eared warrior settled into his stance and waited, but nothing came of it. Peeking out from one eye, Rain grinned and said, “See what happened there? I gave you the perfect opportunity to strike but you didn’t take it. You didn’t even think about taking it, a costly mistake. Was it because you’re afraid? Of course not, you’re Wu Gam! You think you’re going to win regardless, because you’ve always won before. To you, victory is a foregone conclusion, merely a matter of time. That’s why you let chances pass by, why you don’t seize every opportunity, and why you don’t fight with everything you have. You don’t hunger for victory, you believe it will always come to you, a mistake you won’t make again, not after I defeat you today.” Lifting his axe from the ground, Rain flicked it to the side and Nan Ping gasped as the blades slid up the shaft and clicked into place, transforming from axe to glaive in one smooth motion. Waiting for the crowd’s surprise to die down, Rain shrugged apologetically as he took his stance. “I’m going to charge and stab you in the stomach now, so try not to die.”

 

And then true to his word, Rain did just that.

 

Balance on Windy Leaf into Pierce the Horizon, a combination she’d seen Rain practice countless times before, but today’s Rain was a whole different beast. Leaving shattered wood in his wake, he dashed across the stage in the blink of an eye and pierced through Wu Gam’s defences like they didn’t exist. Flying back in a spray of crimson blood, the half-fox crashed into the soldiers of Hideo’s retinue, bowling over a dozen people before coming to a stop. Healers rushed in to tend to the wounded and for long seconds, Yan and all of Nan Ping stood in silence, eyes wide and mouths open in utter disbelief as they watched Rain casually flick the blood off his glaive before bowing to the Legate.

 

And just like that, the match for the title of number one talent of the Empire came to an end, the victor decided in a single exchange.

 

Fucking. Unfair.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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