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.
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?
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