Savage Divinity – Chapter 305

 

Taking great pains to conceal his presence, Goujian found work with a group of sheep herders, travelling with them for weeks as they made their way along the coast to Nan Ping. Covered from head to toe in mud-spattered rags, he stumbled down to the beach and washed his feet in the cool, refreshing waters of the Azure Sea. He could easily Heal away the raw sores and broken blisters or better yet, prevent them from ever developing in the first place, but how many times had he seen the Enemy give themselves away in the same manner? Huntsmen bringing in too much game, miners who never coughed, farmers carrying too heavy loads, or fishermen with pale skin, free of tan-lines or scars, he only needed one loose thread to untangle an entire web of lies and deception. As he often told his disciples, ‘Overconfidence breeds failure’ and as always, ‘failure is not an option’. The stakes were always too high and now they were higher than ever. The fate of the Empire, if not humanity itself, rested in his hands, so what were a few minor discomforts?

 

After wrapping his feet in somewhat-clean rags, he turned his gaze eastward towards the city walls, still a half-day’s travel in the distance. Using his shepherd’s crook to keep his wards from swimming out too far out and drowning, he busied himself caring for his flock of dimwitted animals. It was not unlike his normal duties, protecting the people of the Empire from themselves, but as much as he enjoyed the parallels, he cursed himself for a fool. Had he joined a caravan instead, he would have arrived in Nan Ping a week ago with plenty of time to prepare, but sheep were not the smartest or speediest of creatures. Since these beasts were destined for the soup pot, the shepherds were loath to push them too hard, worried they’d be too tough and scrawny for consumption.

 

An oversight, but all was not lost. This charade was his only hope to escape Imperial attention, a necessity for him to carry out his sacred duty unhindered.

 

While pulling back yet another of his seemingly suicidal charges, Goujian caught a flash of movement on the water. Pretending to adjust his straw hat, he focused his Chi to Watch the disturbance, knowing exactly what he would find. A Defiled agent cloaked in the skin of Falling Rain swam about beside a giant turtle and a horde of water weasels, while three guardians sat in a nearby skiff. His informants kept him appraised of the situation inside the city and it seemed like every tongue was wagging about the ‘Divine’ beast and her Attendant. How the duplicitous Defiled youth convinced the Legate to issue such a foolhardy Decree was a mystery which had Goujian tearing at his hair in frustration.

 

The Enemy had always been a wily, deceitful foe, but never like this. Their guile was shallow and instinctive, hiding in plain sight until their numbers grew large enough to bolster their courage, but Falling Rain was something else. This was a scheming, calculating foe and Goujian was almost helpless to face him. Who could have expected the boy to enslave the Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao, a beast idolized by the locals and renowned throughout the Empire? Then there was the matter of his protector, the Smiling Slaughterer Guan Suo, an Ancestral Beast famed for his explosive temper and erratic behaviour. In retrospect, it should have been obvious from his actions that Guan Suo was Defiled and the implications were horrifying to consider. Even now, Goujian’s disciples were hard at work trying to sway factions who had enslaved or allied Ancestral Beasts to his side, but his Disciples were not chosen for their skill in diplomacy.

 

Only BoLao had excelled in that field, and she’d been taken from him by the Enemy.

 

Bristling with rage, Goujian watched Falling Rain float aimlessly in the water and was reminded of the unpleasant memory of being forced to flee from the Northern Wall. While he couldn’t be certain it had been Guan Suo who threatened him that day, he prayed it was so because otherwise, he’d be facing two or more Defiled Ancestral Beasts. How many of them were hidden within the Saint’s Tribulation Mountains? Those corrupted powerhouses no doubt played a part in the destruction of Shen Mu, but without proof, the Imperial Dharma Protectors were powerless to act.

 

Since returning to Central, Goujian had thrown himself into unravelling the mystery of the North. Their plan was so cunning and insidious, abandoning the northern assault so their agents could infiltrate Central’s defences and spread the Father’s vile contamination to those still untouched. Now that he knew a display of Purity could be falsified, he couldn’t trust anyone who came in contact with Falling Rain, not even the Living Legend Nian Zu or the Legate Shen Zhenwu. While unfamiliar with this particular Imperial Scion, Goujian knew any name with the character ‘Zhen’ was not a true Imperial name, but something akin to a title. For such a young man to be designated a ‘true warrior’ meant his skills in warfare would not be lacking, making him an enticing target for the Enemy. If his fall went unnoticed then the Enemy gained a powerful agent who could infiltrate the Imperial Clan itself.

 

Worst of all, he couldn’t fault the Legate for behaving as he did. Politically, backing Nian Zu and Akanai over the other Northern delegates was the correct decision. Nian Zu fought to defend the Empire while Akanai fought for reasons unknown, but both had proven an utter lack of interest in fame, fortune, or expansion. If the Defiled were thrown back and either warrior still alive, they would both easily relinquish what power they held in Central and return home to the North, unlike the opportunistic vipers of the Society who would use their newfound influence to wage war against an exhausted Central.

 

Did the Enemy foresee this and move to compromise these two stalwart warriors? If so, then the Enemy was far more formidable than anticipated. Knowing this, he turned his attentions to the Southern Province but found no overt signs of corruption. Either the Enemy had focused their subversive actions to the North and West, or the Southern corruption was so well hidden not even he could untangle the truth.

 

Worried he was fighting a losing war, Goujian steeled his nerves, gathered his flock, and herded them towards Nan Ping, all while keeping a Watch on Falling Rain. Their skiff travelled with no apparent direction, meandering about the dangerous waters of the bay. Perhaps he hoped to find a suitable creature of the depths to tame for his nefarious purposes. How was it even possible? Wildcats, bears, rabbits, and even birds, there was no rhyme or reason to Falling Rain’s mysterious ability. While the giant turtle was the only formidable beast in his menagerie, if he were to tame a kraken or some other archaic sea-dwelling monstrosity and use it to slaughter travelling soldiers or block crucial shipping supply lines, this ‘final’ war against the Defiled might end before it truly began. With millions of soldiers gathered in Nan Ping, they’d quickly strip the area bare of food and turn to rebellion long before they starved to death.

 

Few things drove good men to desperation like hunger, despair, and misery, all favoured tools of the Father’s agents.

 

For the second day in a row, Falling Rain spent hours in the water, submerging himself for a handful of minutes at a time. It was unnerving to see the Enemy so close and so relaxed, with Goujian’s heart skipping a beat every time one of the nearby guardians glanced in his direction. Aside from Guan Suo, there was the half-hare Healer Taduk and an unknown veiled woman, both of whom he dared not underestimate. Even if Taduk had never fought a day in his life, all Healers were dangerous foes, adept at manipulating Chi which could harm as easily as it could heal. While it wasn’t the easiest or most efficient way to kill a man, dead was dead, no matter the means.

 

Then there was the veiled woman, whose actions showed she was subservient to the other two but not to the point of submission or reverence, more a courtesy than anything else. Considering her companions were a Medical Saint and an Ancestral Beast, it meant she was someone of importance even in such prominent company. A peak expert perhaps, though why she spent most of her time coddling a bicorn rabbit was a mystery.

 

Thus far, his experience with the Northerners could be summed up as a puzzle wrapped in a riddle and hidden inside an enigma. It was aggravating to see them at work and wonder if they were bumbling idiots or patient geniuses for going about things in the most roundabout way possible. Either the Defiled contagion had not spread as far as Goujian believed or these were the most inefficient and duplicitous Defiled he’d ever come across in all his years.

 

For example, instead of using the celebrated hero Nian Zu to their advantage, they kept him idling inside his borrowed estate while spreading rumours of his subservience to Falling Rain and the Divine Turtle. Though it couldn’t be called hiding, all the Living Legend did was train himself and his guards, giving advice and working alongside whoever caught his eye whether it be a lowly foot-soldier or an elite Brigadier. In his stead, they sent their publicly-ridiculed puppet-Marshal Yuzhen out as the sole representative of the North to meet and greet Central’s nobles and officers, while other high-ranking members like Lieutenant Generals Akanai and Situ Jia Yang kept to the shadows. The latter hadn’t even made his presence known to the Legate, a most baffling turn of events.

 

Completely at odds with the actions of the older generation, the younger generation aggressively displayed their strength in one dazzling bout after another. After impressing the Legate with his eight-against-one duel, Falling Rain accepted and won another twenty duels as a means to display the extreme wealth he’d bestowed upon a mere slave. His close friend Han BoShui defeated the famed Tam Taewoong in an informal match before challenging six other known Experts under the age of thirty, winning four and losing two in a series of exceedingly close duels. While not exactly an overwhelming performance, Han BoShui proved his reputation as a paper tiger to be utterly false, surprising everyone including his own father and Patriarch, Han BoDing, who arrived on the heels of the Situ Clan.

 

Making a name for himself in a different manner, Tong Da Fung became the enemy of all men as he endeared himself to the eligible young maidens of Central with his impressive collection of original poems and songs. While he sent none himself, he received countless challenges from the jealous young men and overprotective brothers of Central, but declared he would only fight one opponent a day who would be chosen at random since he ‘had no interest in painted, effeminate men’. Playboy though he might be, Fung’s martial skills were formidable compared to the average youth, handily winning three matches against unremarkable opponents.

 

Looking to outdo Rain’s example, Situ Jia Zian annexed a duelling stage not even an hour after arriving in the city and publicly challenged all of Central to take him on. Eighteen duels later, his winning streak finally came to an end when the famed, thirty-one year old Major Chon Dae Il took the stage, resulting in a close match which demonstrated Situ Jia Zian’s martial prowess to its full extent and brought his reputation soaring to new heights.

 

There were other northern youths who were far less impressive and still more to watch out for, but in the face of such overwhelming dominance, Central’s pride suffered grave injury. Never one to care for public honour, Goujian was more concerned with the blatant extremes in the Northerners approach. Was this aggressive behaviour an inescapable byproduct of their youthful and Defiled nature? Were the older Defiled biding their time or were they too afraid to battle in public for fear of exposing their vile tendencies? Was the north trying to show the strength of their youths before revealing their allegiance to the Father, thinking to entice the weak of will over to the darkness? Or was this all the result of untainted youths hungry for recognition? Though Falling Rain was undoubtedly Defiled, the same could not be said of anyone else, not definitively.

 

In these turbulent times, the Empire needed every soldier and hero they could spare if they hoped to survive, and even Goujian was leery to kill them all and let the Mother sort things out.

 

Unable to make heads or tails of it all, Goujian focused on what he could do. Taking note of the Legate’s public history lesson, he had his adherents seek out the clans and factions which might hold a grudge against Akanai and the Bekhai. Not an easy task considering the events happened fifty years ago and the news had been so ruthlessly suppressed this was the first he’d ever heard of it. Still, with their shame revealed by an Imperial Scion, the affected houses couldn’t silence a million wagging tongues and his people were well-versed in separating truth from fiction. By the time his flock arrived outside the gates of Nan Ping, his disciples had already gathered enough interested parties for a clandestine meeting.

 

Still tending to his flock, he Sent to his eldest disciple, “Report.”

 

“Disciple Wen Zhong greets Master.” Goujian preferred this form address over the more common ‘Mentor’, because in his eyes, a disciple’s place was to learn and obey. “This one has gathered nine representatives from various clans and houses, all ready to hear Master’s words. This one apologizes for his inadequate results, though he is confident he can find more allies should Master allow this one to use Master’s distinguished name.”

 

“No, anonymity is essential to this undertaking.” With the Legate publicly backing the Bekhai and Falling Rain, he needed to avoid Imperial attention. Word of the Confessor seeking allies would spread like wildfire considering his infamy. Vital though his Holy Duties might be, many of the faithful would happily see him dead if not actively seek to kill him outright. In his decades of service, he’d Purged countless souls with no distinction for aristocrat or peasant, for in the eyes of the Mother, they were all Her children. Unable to accept the failings of their corrupted loved ones, many an anguished noble blamed him for the deaths of their kin, not realizing he was merely Her tool. So what if he couldn’t easily expose Falling Rain for what he was? The Mother guided Goujian’s hand in all things and he was certain she would guide him through this latest trial.

 

If not, then it would only be because humanity had fallen from Her grace and their collective fate well deserved. Such was life.

 

After a brief exchange with Wen Zhong, Goujian Sent, “Begin the meeting, but relay my words through an expendable agent, a proxy. Keep me up to date with the proceedings.” Complicated and convoluted, but their safety lay in secrecy. The Legate would see this as an affront, a challenge of Imperial authority, but Goujian was above such worldly concerns. His was a Divine Calling which trumped all matters such as earthly fealty or social niceties. This was a war for the very existence of humanity, and he would do everything in his power to win. Even if history ultimately branded him as a rebel and torturer, he knew the measure of his character and that his ultimate fate lay in the arms of the Mother.

 

“Distinguished guests,” Goujian’s proxy began, as narrated by Wen Zhong’s Sendings. “We gather here today to discuss how to deal with the Bekhai interlopers.”

 

Since the room was full of expendable agents, everyone felt free to speak their mind.

 

“What can we do?”

 

“We must strike back, temper their arrogance. The savages are making a mockery of us all once again.”

 

“But the Legate’s Decree… our hands are tied.”

 

“Assassination and outright warfare is forbidden,” Goujian’s proxy said, speaking over the dissenting voices, “but the Central Province has deep roots to draw upon. I refuse to believe these Northern interlopers strong beyond compare. They might have talented youngsters, but what use will they be now that war draws near?”

 

“…So we ignore the youths and challenge their contemporaries?”

 

“We cannot go overboard lest we draw out monsters like Nian Zu and Akanai.”

 

“Hmph, so what if they come out? Central has its own heroes, like Ryo Dae Jung, Mitsue Juichi, Shuai Jiao, and Du Min Gyu.”

 

“I wouldn’t count on Du Min Gyu. Haven’t you heard? His disciple is from Akanai’s clan or tribe or whatever those barbarians count themselves as. A half-breed to boot, it pains me to see a great hero fall so low.”

 

“The point is moot. Du Min Gyu aside, Central’s heroes have yet to arrive in Nan Ping, young or old.”

 

“Then we stick to the lower end of the current generation, twenty-five to fifty years of age. Who are our targets? Can’t say I’ve heard of any northerner in that age group.”

 

Perfectly set up by his allies, Goujian’s proxy took control of the situation once more. “The Bekhai have a number of warriors who fit the criteria. Gerel, thirty-two and a recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel, and Vichear, forty-five and a former Major until discharged for injury over two years ago. Both owe their newfound fame to the battle of Sanshu. Then there’s Major Alsantset, thirty-one, but take care not to overdo it as she’s also Baatar’s daughter and Akanai’s grand-daughter.”

 

“Weren’t there another two at Sanshu? I remember hearing about a married couple who faced off against the traitor Mao. How old were they?”

 

“Twenty-eight. The man, Tenjin, is Blessed by fire, but they’ve yet to arrive.”

 

“Could be tricky. What about the Society? We should also bring them down a notch or two.”

 

With targets laid out before them, the gathered parties discussed how to best defeat them and Goujian left them to it. Whether they were successful or not mattered little, but the turmoil would serve as a distraction for the Legate and his scouts while Goujian handled more delicate matters. Turning to gaze out over the Azure Sea, he allowed himself a small smile.

 

It would be such a shame if the Divine Turtle came to harm while swimming in dangerous waters. As the man responsible for her safety, Falling Rain would certainly be punished for it, and punished dearly. Could a Defiled youth easily accept the lash without betraying his true nature? It might not even matter; Falling Rain could very well die in the scuffle.

 

It might be overreaching to ask for so much, but like he always told his disciples, ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best’.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 304: Dichotomy


Wooo new art from Jess. This time, it’s young Rain, who’s a total bishie.

 

 

Thanks for the art Jess!


 

Holding his head up high, Zian rode behind Patriarch Rang Min and cousin Gulong as they led the Situ Clan warriors through the massive gates of Nan Ping. Sweltering beneath the afternoon sun, he inwardly cursed Rang Min for insisting they wear full parade uniforms, swaddled in padded armour and thick ceremonial robes. A welcome extra layer in the frigid North, wearing it here it the Central province was pure agony but there was nothing to do but endure. Aching for the cool breeze coming off the Azure Sea, he sat atop his Guonei Charger and suffered in stoic silence, wishing he had a full-faced helmet to hide his sweating face.

 

It was all so asinine. What did Rang Min expect? For Nan Ping’s residents to stop and cheer at the sight of their banners? Forget the Situ Clan, even if the Society of Heaven and Earth were all gathered together they weren’t prominent enough to merit such treatment, not here in Central and especially not with so many factions gathered in one place. Still, he had to admit, the Situ Clan warriors made for a resplendent sight in full battle dress, waving their banners and advancing in step to the beat of their drummer. Gathered behind him were the core elite of the Situ Clan’s strength, close to a hundred and fifty named Experts, each one a decorated veteran and ranked officer. A fighting force which could easily overpower most regular factions, this was but a small fraction of the power the Clan could call upon. Considering recent revelations, Zian harboured conflicted feelings over the Clan and Society but he still took pride in what his ancestors had accomplished.

 

The banner on his back bore the Situ family name but Zian was also a son of the Lu family. No one would ever remember his father, Lu An Jing, an Expert of the Empire and rising dragon of humble origins who died too young. Now, the man likely responsible for Zian father’s death was riding a single horse-length away. How easy it would be to kill Rang Min here and now in front of all the clan Experts. All Zian needed to do was take his spear and ram it through Rang Min’s neck. The Patriarch would never see it coming, not with his nose pointed towards the clouds and eyes locked on the horizon. While escape would be impossible, none of the clan Experts would dare openly strike him down with so many witnesses around, for with Rang Min dead, the mantle of Patriarch naturally fell to Zian. It wouldn’t be the first case of Clan Patricide in history, though it would undoubtedly be the least covert assassination ever.

 

If only he had proof Rang Min played a part in his father’s death. Though the Patriarch benefited most from Lu An Jing’s death, that wasn’t enough for Zian to act on. Neither was the blatant attempt to turn Zian into a hedonistic dandy, hardly an offence worth killing over. What father didn’t want their own son to succeed? It was human nature and he couldn’t fault the Patriarch for his actions, a rather delicate and non-combative way to get Zian out of cousin Gulong’s way. During his years spent living at the Clan ancestral home, it would have been all too easy to have Zian killed since he’d more often than not been under Rang Min’s personal care. This meant that even if Rang Min had Zian’s father killed, he wasn’t willing to murder Zian in cold blood.

 

The only thing Zian knew for certain was someone had set his father up for failure, if not death. While Rang Min benefited most and was the obvious suspect, it could also have been the work of a sycophant hoping to get into Rang Min’s good graces, or a jealous, jilted admirer of Zian’s mother, or an enemy of both Clan and Society. Until he knew for certain, Zian refused to openly act against his people but it was impossible for him to pretend as if nothing had changed.

 

Luckily, Zian’s concubine was as conniving as she was lovely, a woman to be feared and respected. Following her directions, Zian played the part of dutiful Situ scion with little enthusiasm and much reluctance, neither of which he had to fake. Then, during the formal Clan dinner, he’d ‘drunkenly’ divulged his dissatisfaction over Clan responsibilities to a handful of listeners, citing a fervent desire to focus on his Martial Path and restore his reputation to its former heights.

 

This was hiding his enmity in plain sight, a solution so obvious yet Zian would never have come up with the idea in a thousand years. Not only did it explain his sour moods and angry glares, it would also give Rang Min an excuse to eventually remove Zian from his position as Young Patriarch, which was exactly what they both wanted.

 

A shame Jing Fei was so untrustworthy and free with her poisons, else she’d make the perfect wife.

 

Outside the Magistrate’s Palace, Zian left Uncle Yang behind for his audience with the Legate. By all rights, as the Clan’s highest ranked Military Officer, Uncle Yang should have been invited in to meet the Legate, but Rang Min decided to bring his son instead. Giving Uncle Yang’s place to a callow, unranked youth was undoubtedly an insult, but since he didn’t make a fuss, Zian swallowed his anger and went along with it.

 

After the Crier announced their arrival, Zian marched into the throne room on Gulong’s heels and greeted the Legate, who sat at his throne surrounded by guards. Otherwise, the room was empty, which was odd since these greetings were usually done publicly with an audience, but apparently the Legate decided otherwise. “Ten thousand years of boundless longevity upon the Emperor. Imperial Servant Jia Zian greets Imperial Legate.” Leaving out his Clan name brought him a small measure of satisfaction, especially after hearing Rang Min choke on his own spittle.

 

“Warrant Officer… Jia Zian.” The Imperial Legate sounded amused as he ignored Rang Min and Gulong. “I’ve heard stories of your prowess and having met your rival Falling Rain, I look forward to seeing you in action.” Sitting on his throne, he smacked his palm with a closed fan made of white-jade which presumably bore the Imperial Sigil. Even the politically ignorant Zian was alarmed by the Legate’s casual disregard for Imperial Authority, even forgetting to be annoyed at being called Rain’s rival. Either the Legate was a foolish, arrogant idiot drunk on power or someone so highly ranked he didn’t fear Imperial reprisal.

 

Since the fate of the Empire depended on this Imperial Grand Conference going smoothly, Zian safely assumed the latter. Could this surprisingly young Legate perhaps be a direct descendant of the current Emperor? One still in line for the throne even?

 

Realizing he’d been silent for too long, Zian hurriedly responded, “Imperial Servant thanks Imperial Legate for the praise and will endeavour not to disappoint.”

 

“Skilled yet humble, a promising young warrior of the Empire,” the Legate replied, before switching to Sending for only Zian to hear. “Or should I say, ‘promising young expert’? Truly, the north continues to surprise.”

 

Unsure how to respond, Zian merely nodded and thanked the Legate again. Could he peer into Zian’s soul and see his Natal Palace or was it merely a guess? Luckily, the Legate was content to allow Zian his secret and continued speaking out loud. “On behalf of the Emperor, I formally welcome you all to the First Imperial Grand Conference. My seneschal will go over the rules of the Conference and I look forward to hearing of the Situ Clan’s accomplishments.” With that said, the Legate stood up and unceremoniously walked out of the throne room while the seneschal, a wrinkled, stately servant, stood on the lowest step, unfurled a scroll, and read it word for word in a bored, droning voice. Most of it didn’t apply to Zian, since it had to do with securing food, campgrounds, and what not, but Zian committed it all to memory regardless.

 

Ignorance was no excuse when it came to Imperial Law.

 

After almost boring everyone to sleep with his voice, the senescal presented the scroll to Rang Min with both hands. Accepting it in the same fashion, Rang Min nodded and said, “We’ve travelled a long distance. Have a servant direct us to our quarters and we’ll be off.”

 

In his same bored tone, the seneschal replied, “The Northern Province campgrounds are along the Northern shore of Nan Ping Bay. You are free to remain within the walls to dine and freshen up, but do keep in mind the city curfew. Anyone found inside the city after curfew without a lodging permit will be subject to military law.”

 

“…Surely there’s been a mistake,” Rang Min answered, keeping his tone polite. “I am the Patriarch of the Situ Clan, one of three leaders of the Society. How am I to represent the interests of the Northern Province while camped outside the walls?”

 

Raising an eyebrow, the seneschal tilted his head in question. “My apologies,” he said, speaking slowly, “but I believe Marshal Yuzhen, Colonel General Nian Zu, and Lieutenant General Akanai are the highest ranking members of the Northern delegates, representing Imperial Administration, Army, and Defence Forces in turn. Three days ago, they were given quarters inside the Palace at the Legate’s command, but if you show this servant proof of rank, then I shall inform the Legate of this oversight and have the Crier disciplined for his neglect.”

 

Caught by surprise, Zian almost forgot himself and laughed out loud, though he disguised it with a cough. Red-faced with anger and shame, Rang Min stammered and sputtered before turning to leave, unable to vent his frustrations on this high-ranking member of the Legate’s staff. Given how he’d never held rank or publicly declared himself an Expert of the Empire, officially, Rang Min was merely a civilian figurehead akin to a mayor or chief. Uncle Yang might have merited lodgings inside the city, but since he wasn’t brought in to meet the Legate, why would the Legate bother to accommodate him?

 

Zian’s amusement was short-lived as he considered the implications of the Legate’s actions. By ignoring the Northern Province’s political climate, the Legate was telling the Society and all the other factions of the North to fall in line with the ‘disgraced’ Nian Zu and ‘puppet’ Yuzhen. While Zian agreed with the Legate’s stance in these dire times, he was savvy enough to know things wouldn’t go so smoothly.

 

Outside the Magistrate’s Palace, Rang Min proved Zian’s point by ordering a Clan Elder to lead everyone out of the city while he left on his own, presumably to seek an audience with whatever allies he had in Nan Ping. After telling Uncle Yang what happened inside through Sending, he clapped Zian on the back and grinned. “Come,” he said, looking both relieved and amused. “We’ll stop for a meal before going back to camp. Bolin and Jukai can handle things outside.”

 

Ignoring the protesting Clan Elder, Zian removed his ceremonial garb and armour and followed Uncle Yang into the city. Bursting at the seams, the city was bustling with activity as Zian rode through the crowded streets, listening to the jumble of a thousand voices speaking at once. Unable to make heads of tails of the noise, he ignored their jabbering and focused on keeping up with Uncle Yang, who appeared to have a specific destination in mind. A half hour later, they stopped at a restaurant and handed their horses to a stableboy. Across the street, two painted fools pranced about on a square stone stage, showing off their supposed skills to a massive crowd’s delight. It was nothing special and Zian looked forward to showing the citizens of Nan Ping what true talent looked like in the days to come.

 

After heading up to the second floor, Uncle Yang went straight towards a table occupied by a Central noble bedecked in jewels and ornaments, sitting alone except for a guard behind him. Taking the seat across from the noble, Uncle Yang helped himself to a bowl of wine before greeting the noble. “So, Shi-Woo, this is how you greet an old friend? Or does the disgraced Situ Jia Yang no longer warrant an invitation into your home?”

 

“You’re lucky I’m meeting you at all, though it has nothing to do with your supposed ‘disgraced’ status. Mother above Yang, I don’t remember you being so dramatic.” Sniffing primly, Shi-Woo looked Zian up and down as he took a seat, noting how the noise from the crowded room and busy streets had disappeared. Sound suppression, already in place before they sat down, which meant either the noble or his guard was a peak expert. “This is your nephew?” Shi-wo asked. “He has your nose. A shame, he’d be so handsome otherwise.”

 

“Enough.” Amused by the noble’s words, Uncle Yang rolled his eyes and asked, “What happened? The Legate outright snubbed my Patriarch at today’s greeting and I don’t understand why. Has my blunder placed the Situ Clan in dire straits?”

 

“Unlikely,” Shi-Woo replied, sliding a sheaf of documents over. “Considering only you seem to know what your blunder is, so I suggest you keep it that way. I had this copy made but I read the originals with my own eyes this morning. Honestly, you made it sound so serious I was ready to destroy all proof of our friendship, but whatever you did, it wasn’t reported.”

 

Shuffling through the papers, Uncle Yang skimmed through the reports like a madman. Glancing over a discarded page, Zian found Major General Baatar’s writing style completely devoid of embellishment or elaborations, merely laying out the facts as they were. What must have been a heroic last stand had been rendered down to the driest terms possible, almost reading like a checklist of events. “I don’t understand,” Uncle Yang said with a frown. “Why didn’t he report me? Where’s Akanai’s report? The petty bitch uses every chance she has to trample over my pride. I cannot believe she’d ignore this one.”

 

“Her report is at the back, but I’ll save you the trouble. It reads the same as Baatar’s, ponderous and uninspired. No mention of any folly of yours, only stating you did an adequate job. Not exactly glowing praise, but it’s the most praise anyone received, including their own people.” Shrugging, Shi-Woo leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Judging by the look on your face, I’d say you owe the Bekhai a favour, and a big one at that.”

 

“… It makes no sense. Why spare me? Their reports make it seem like the Defiled were thrown back by our stalwart defence, but…” Remembering himself, Uncle Yang held his tongue, but Zian remembered his Uncle’s words. The Defiled’s victory was all but assured and Uncle Yang ordered his soldiers to pull back to Shen Yun, in direct violation of Baatar’s orders, who held command at the Wall. Only the Defiled’s inexplicable retreat at the first sign of rainfall kept the Northern Province from sharing the fate of the West. If Baatar and Akanai had reported his infractions, depending on how the Justicar felt, Uncle Yang could have been stripped of rank and possibly even executed for dereliction of duty.

 

So why didn’t they? And Why didn’t they use this to blackmail Uncle Yang?

 

More confused than relieved, Uncle Yang peered suspiciously at Shi-Woo and asked, “If I haven’t been disgraced, then why did the Legate treat my Patriarch so coldly? Why did you insist we meet here at a private restaurant instead of inside your home?”

 

“Because the Legate favours the Bekhai and I cannot afford to back the Society against him. How much do you know about Akanai?”

 

“Akanai?”

 

“Yes, Akanai. The Herald of the Storms.” Leaning close, Shi-Woo whispered, “The Legate admires her. Respects her even, and with good reason.”

 

As Shi-Woo narrated the events of the past few days, Zian’s eyes grew wider with every word. Rain taming the Divine Turtle and earning the Legate’s favour was surprising, but even more unexpected was Akanai’s past exploits. They’d known about Akanai saving the future Magistrate of Shen Huo which earned her a promotion to Major General, but the details of her antics in the Central Province had been ruthlessly quashed. Little surprise there, who wanted to admit they’d lost so many experts to a previously unknown half-beast? No wonder the Bekhai had been so confident to let their dispute with the Society go to trial. Even without Nian Zu’s interference, they were likely to win, if Shi-Woo’s tale was to be believed.

 

“Akanai’s enemies won’t act against her, not while she enjoys the Legate’s favour.” Spreading his hands in helpless surrender, Shi-Woo shrugged. “And as I said before, I cannot afford to help you, not unless you make things right with the Behkai.”

 

Hmph. Whatever. If the Bekhai saved Uncle Yang’s career, then Zian would thank them for it, but it didn’t make up for things between Rain and him. Saying his farewells to Uncle Yang and Shi-Woo, Zian hopped over the railing and landed lightly in the streets. Pushing his way through the crowd, he waited for the duel to conclude before hopping on stage, giving no time for the victor to even bow. Raising his voice, he yelled, “I am Warrant Officer Jia Zian, twenty-five years of age. Long have I heard of Central’s prowess and today, I hope to experience it for myself. Who among you would seek to enlighten me?”

 

“Hmph. You northerners are all so arrogant.” Dressed in blue silk robes, a young warrior leaped onto stage and drew his sword. “Radiant Sword Ryo Geom-Chi, twenty-five years of age, accepts your challenge. Spiritual Weapons, to injury or submission.”

 

Frowning, Zian asked, “Didn’t you already lose to Tong Da Fung?” No need to be overly polite, he would offend many with his actions today.

 

“I won!” Geom-Chi snarled, face turning purple with shame.

 

“Oh. My mistake. You’ll do then.” Leaving his sabers sheathed, Zian smiled and waited for the Justicar to go over the rules. Just because he and Rain were in different age groups didn’t mean they couldn’t compete. Since Rain defeated twenty-eight young talents in two days, then Zian would beat thirty young Experts in one and therby prove his superiority. 

 

A minor handicap having to face older opponents, but only fitting for Jia Zian, son of Lu An Jing, disciple of Jukai, and a dragon among men.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 303

 

Eyes locked on the receding shoreline, I cuddle with Mama Bun and watch as my waving wifey, worried family, and playing pets fade from view. Seated at the back of the skiff, I try not to think about how small and fragile the vessel is or what dangers might lurk beneath the waters. Instead, I use my newfound optimism and focus on the good things in life, like how I won’t have to worry about the nobles of Central, or what the Legate is plotting, or about the Defiled if I die out here on the Azure Sea.

 

Okay, so I’m not great at the whole optimism thing, but it’s all new to me. I’ll get better with practice.

 

Probably.

 

In my defence, I can hardly be blamed for my lack of optimism. It turns out, our ‘skiff’ is a rickety lifeboat which seats six, and while ours only holds four plus a bunny, there’s barely enough room to turn around in this tiny, choppy deathtrap. I’d hesitate to even call it a boat. The ships we arrived in, now those were boats. A hundred meters long, fifty meters wide, and twenty meters tall, we travelled in relative safety and smooth comfort the whole way here. In comparison, if I stretched my arms out on both sides, my hands would be outside the skiff and barely thirty centimetres above water, water which often splashes in to pool at the bottom of our paddle-powered dingy.

 

I hate boats.

 

I thought we’d be travelling in something like the big, forty-man boats the Butcher Bay Bandits used, but no, my crazy teacher decided this wooden tub would make for perfect transportion to bring us out into the Azure Sea. Forget giant kraken, Mafu could probably capsize this thing if he felt like it. Why did I agree to this? I need to learn how to say no to Taduk, but it won’t be easy. His single-minded determination is unshakable and his wide-eyed, pleading pout could give Lin’s a run for her money. Like father like daughter, and now with Blackjack in the mix, I suppose it’s my lot in life to bow before the whims of the cloud chaser hare community.

 

“Quit your moaning and groaning boy. Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of valiant young hero?” Puffing away at his pipe, Guan Suo blows out a cloud of acrid smoke which the wind brings directly into my nostrils as I turn to face him. “You’re as safe as can be considering the circumstances, and well-protected to boot. Over-coddled if you ask me, but no one ever does.”

 

Over-coddled my ass. Guard Leader is here to keep Taduk safe, while Guan Suo himself will ditch me in a heartbeat if his precious turtle is in danger. Shooting him a dirty look as I cough, I reconsider my first five scathing retorts before settling on a more diplomatic response. “You think we’re safe? There’s really nothing to worry about?”

 

Okay, so I’m also super nervous.

 

“Pei. That thinking’s a good way to get yourself dead. No one is ever safe, not entirely.” Shrugging, the dishevelled old man absently combs his fingers through his tangled, greasy white beard. If he took better care of himself and smiled more, he’d look like a sweet, ruddy-cheeked old grandfather everyone loves to dote on. Instead, for some unfathomable reason, he chooses to look like an unkempt, crusty beggar no one wants to look at. Maybe he doesn’t care, or maybe he’s going senile and doesn’t notice, but either way, I’m tempted to boot him overboard with a bar of soap. “With the three of us here,” he continues, “not to mention the old girl and all these quins around, I reckon there ain’t much cause for worry. Things’d be different if we leave the bay, but long as we don’t go too far out, the old girl is queen in these waters and them quins her brave soldiers.”

 

Turning a skeptical eye to the queen in question, I smile at Ping-Ping’s joyous expression. Eyes wide and mouth half-opened, if she had lips I’d swear she was grinning. I can’t help but marvel at her majestic presence as she glides along with effortless grace, cutting through the water like a hot knife through butter and parting the waves with little to no disturbance in her passing. On land, she is a hulking, lumbering behemoth of beak and shell, but out here, Ping-Ping is poetry in motion. Like a massive island floating behind us, she effortlessly follows the skiff for several minutes to make sure I’m not up to any shenanigans. Then, without warning, she submerges beneath the waters and circles the skiff in a wide, swooping arc while doing the mother of all barrel rolls. Thoroughly enjoying herself, she flaps her tree-trunk legs like leathery wings and drifts through the waters, devouring fish, shrimp, and seaweed in massive gulps. Around her, the quins go wide-mouthed with delight as they frolic in her wake, taking turns spinning and tumbling about like giant, furry eels caught in miniature riptides around her.

 

For a bunch of mountain-born, battle-trained, apex predators, roosequins act a lot like sea puppies once they’re in the water.

 

“Rain my boy.” Taduk interrupts my quin gazing and reaches over Guan Suo’s head with two grasping hands like an overeager child. “Rabbit please.”

 

Carefully passing Mama Bun over, I wince as he takes her away with one hand on the scruff of her neck and the other under her belly. Struggling in his grasp, Mama Bun flails and squirms about in an attempt to escape, almost slipping out of his grasp and into the water. “Support her back legs so she’ll stop kicking and you can let her lean against you.”

 

“Hmph. Hug this oversized long-eared rat? Never! I’ll be picking its damned hair out of my robes for weeks.” Still holding her by the scruff of the neck, Taduk compromises and supports Mama Bun’s bum and back legs with his other hand, pointing her belly towards the front of the skiff like a lantern who will light the way. Snorting in his grasp, she huffs and stills as her twitching nose scents whatever attracted her attention this morning. Craning her neck, she stretches out towards the left side of our skiff (port I think?) and Guard Leader works the paddles and brings us in the same direction.

 

It brings a small measure of relief to see that despite all their bickering and squabbling, Taduk is still the dominant one in their relationship. While I’m not clear on exactly how strong she is, Guard Leader is probably an expert as strong or stronger than Akanai, which means she stands at the peak of Martial strength but still has to row the skiff when my teacher demands it. That’s the respect a Medical Saint deserves, even if this particular Medical Saint is a goofball who can’t cook to save his life.

 

As our skiff follows Mama Bun’s fickle guidance on a meandering course through Nan Ping’s bay, my smouldering anxiety and trepidation has plenty of time to build up into a roaring fire of panic and terror. Though land is still visible on the north and south shore, and the city sits static to the east, I can’t help worrying about the dangers hidden within the crystal clear water around us. Even at its narrowest points, the opposite shores are still kilometres apart, so if things go wrong, it’s a long swim to shore and safety. Then there’s all the boats going in and out of the city. Even the largest ships avoid the midsections of the bay we’re currently navigating through, and if I have to head for shore, I’ll need to be careful not to get run over by a ship or swept back out into the bay by the currents.

 

Calm down. Nothing’s gonna happen. The waters are crystal clear and the quins escorting us in strength, what could be hiding there? Sure, squids and octopuses are masters of camouflage and we’re far enough out so the sea floor is shrouded in darkness, but I’m sure Taduk knows what he’s doing. My teacher is excitable, but he’s a responsible adult who knows when to stop.

 

“Bah!” Turning Mama Bun around so he can glower at her, Taduk lets out a frustrated growl. “You dumb, flea-bitten, sorry excuse for a mop-head. Pick a direction and stick with it, or you’d best learn to swim!”

 

Okay. Taduk is a responsible adult most of the time.

 

“Enough.” Coming to her feet without rocking the skiff, Guard Leader snatches Mama Bun away and cradles her like a baby. “Her indecision is likely because she is scared and uncomfortable. Give her time to acclimate herself to the swaying of the skiff before we try again.”

 

Huffing in displeasure, Taduk grumbles beneath his breath too quietly for me to hear, but Guard Leader hears and she turns to face him. Veiled though she may be, I know a death glare when I see one but Taduk pointedly ignores her and looks away. Wishing I could escape their feuding, I pluck up my courage and lean over to watch the quins play with Ping-Ping beneath the waves. It’s incredible, she doesn’t come up for breath often, and when she does, she doesn’t seem tired or out of breath, more like she’s here to make sure I haven’t left. While she’s surfaced, some of the more adventurous quins climb onto her shell and launch themselves back into the water with barely a splash, diving deep down before coming back up with food in their hands or clamped between their jaws.

 

Once her inspection is finished, Ping-Ping sinks back into the waters and the quins squeak and chitter in delight, once again following behind and playing spinning teacups in the water. I don’t know why they’re only doing it around Ping-Ping, with how agile they are, the quins could spin and twirl wherever they want. Why do they even need to take turns?

 

Unless they’re not spinning themselves…

 

Wish a gasp of shock, I exclaim, “She’s controlling the water around her! Look! She’s spinning the quins around for fun. How is she doing that?” Ping-Ping Sensei! Teach me your ways!

 

“Bah, child’s play.” Glancing into the water with his customary, casual arrogance, Taduk sniffs and declares, “Thousands of years old and her skills are only so-so. Not surprising considering no lizard has ever taken the final step to become an Ancestral Beast. Probably because their brains are too small. Don’t worry, Rain my boy, mark my words: in a handful of years, her skills will seem mediocre and unexceptional compared to your own.”

 

Flattered as I am by his high opinion in me, I’ve learned not to take his silly declarations as gospel. Maybe it only took him a couple of years, but he’s supremely talented beyond measure, while I…

 

Sigh…

 

Sharing my misgivings, Guan Suo is far less polite about it. “Pei.” His derisive snort cuts through the wind, displaying nasal mastery beyond compare. “The boy has ability and dedication I’ll give him that, but the Divine Turtle’s comprehension of water is unmatched, instinctive and effortless. To overcome her in a ‘handful’ of years? Hmph, if you’re going to fart from your mouth then at least have the decency to stand downwind.”

 

Bristling with contempt, Taduk reels back and looks the scruffy woodsman up and down. “Have you gone senile? Since when was it your place to speak about talent? A geriatric old fossil who only knows how to bully the younger generation, you wouldn’t know talent if it snuck up behind you and bit you on the ass.”

 

Before things get out of hand, I splash both fussy men with a handful of water. “Play nice you two, this is a tiny boat and we’re a long way from shore.” Ignoring their incredulous stares, I strip down to my makeshift cotton undies and hold out my hand. “Hand me the rope and don’t move the skiff please, I’m gonna go for a swim and try to figure out how Ping-Ping is controlling the water.”

 

Looping the rope around my shoulders and chest, I tie it off into a makeshift harness and hand the free end to Guan Suo. Peering over the side of the skiff, I try to drum up my courage and dive in. Relax, there’s nothing to worry about, you have Ping-Ping and like a hundred quins to keep you safe. All the fish are swimming away and if something dangerous were hanging around-

 

“Why’d you wrap a woman’s scarf around your crotch? You some kinda pervert or something?”

 

Guan Suo’s question interrupts my pre-dive psych up and it takes me a moment to respond. “No, it’s to keep me decent while I swim.” Noticing Taduk’s discomfort, I quickly add, “I bought the scarf today. It’s brand new, never worn.” God this is mortifying, he thought it was one of Lin’s scarves. I want to add ‘I’m not a pervert’, but that might be protesting too much.

 

And let’s be honest… I am kinda pervy. I can’t help it. I see boobs, I ogle. Such is life.

 

“And I pray it never will be.” Catching me off guard with his foot, Guan Suo none-too-gently boots me out of the skiff and into the clear, cold waters.

 

Suppressing my instinct to scream and panic, I roll with the impact and right myself, treading water as I tighten my undies so they don’t unravel or slip off. “Err, thanks. I needed that. Don’t fight now, I’d like to have a skiff to swim back to.” Turning to find a familiar face, I swallow my girlish scream and pinch Mafu’s fat cheeks for almost scaring the piss out of me, only to receive yet another scare when Ping-Ping emerges from the water behind him. Nudging me with her beak to make sure I’m not in any distress, the giant turtle does a full-body wiggle before diving back under, flying through the water on a massive circuit before returning to wait nearby and see what I’ll do next.

 

Aww that’s so sweet, the big girl wants to play.

 

Taking a deep breath, I dive underwater to watch Ping-Ping in action, though the doting Mafu distracts my attention. Floating beneath me on his back, my chubby quin exhibits his concern by keeping careful watch on his silly, frail human. Unable to resist, I dive down and hug the silly floof before turning my attention back to Ping-Ping. Also keeping a close eye on me, the giant turtle floats in the water and does nothing else, no longer sending quins spinning in her wake. Doing my best to communicate my wishes, I exhale through my nose and do somersaults in the water until I’m too dizzy to continue. Tilting her head as she watches me make a fool of myself, Ping-Ping continues to float and watch.

 

After unsuccessfully trying to get my point across a couple more times, I stop to check on Baledagh and Blobby. They’re both doing what they do with little to no change in behaviour. Maybe my little brother would like to swim around, but he doesn’t like me interrupting his training so I’ll wait until his normal break time to ask.

 

Tightening around my chest, my rope harness drags me upwards and I rocket up out of the water, clearing at least a meter above the surface before landing in the boat. Stumbling to keep my balance, I steady myself with Taduk’s help and stare at Guan Suo in confusion. “What happened? Was it a kraken? You see a kraken? It’s a kraken isn’t it? Why aren’t we moving? There’s a kraken in the waters!”

 

“Calm down.” Turning me left and right to inspect my face, Guan Suo furrows his brow and says, “You’re hysterical, but not out of breath.”

 

“Uh… okay…?”

 

“You just spent ten minutes underwater. I figured you ran out of air and passed out.” Lifting my chin, he pokes the sides of my neck. “You half-fish or something? I don’t see no gills or anything.”

 

Was I really underwater that long? Glancing at Taduk, he smiles and shrugs, unbothered by my unexplained water-breathing. “You say you spent a week underwater in Sanshu, so ten minutes isn’t so surprising. I would have told him to leave you be but you stopped moving for a bit and I got nervous.” Nudging me back towards the water, he continues, “Don’t concentrate too much on the how, I know you like to agonize over every detail, but sometimes, the Mother gives and does not explain, so don’t overthink.”

 

Plunging back into the cold water, I do my best to listen to his advice but to no avail. The press of water weighs heavily on my lungs as I try not to worry, but all I can think about is how I’m going to drown. Relax, calm down, and take a deep breath. Just do it, you were breathing fine before. God, it’s hard to force myself to breathe underwater. I mean, breathing is easy, I’ve been doing it my whole life, but underwater, I’m instinctively holding my breath and I can’t shake it. Oh god, I’m running out of air. I’m lightheaded, my lungs are burning for more, I need to surface for another breath. No, No, fight the instinct. You’re fine. Just let yourself go and bre-

 

Water rushes up my nostrils and into my lungs and I sputter and choke in panic. Struggling to the surface, I cough and breathe as Mafu floats up to support me, lifting my up onto his soggy belly. After emptying my lungs of water, I sheepishly shake my head and avoid eye contact, pained by the pity emanating from Taduk’s eyes. “Sorry Teacher,” I gasp. “I couldn’t not think about it.”

 

“Don’t worry, Rain my boy,” he says, leaning over to pat my head. “You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.”

 

Leaning back, I gaze up into the afternoon sky and organize my thoughts. This little fiasco shows I’m not actually ‘breathing water’, which means I’m getting oxygen some other way. It’s not Blobby’s work, which means I’m doing… something… somehow… If I can figure it out, then I’ll be one step closer to flinging bullets, blades, and shields of water. I’m so close I can feel it, information and comprehension just floating in the outskirts of my brain.

 

Lightheaded from exertion, I rest a little longer to catch my breath clear my head. It’s beautiful out here, peaceful and calm, with only the sounds of the waves to keep me company. Almost drowning aside, I like it out here and it’s the perfect excuse to get away from all the bothersome things back on land. As long as Rustram finds someone to supply us with fresh food, then I can stay out here and avoid all the annoying nobles who will no doubt come to pester me in droves as they arrive from all over the Empire, not to mention avoid whatever the Legate has intended for me, at least for awhile.

 

It’s the perfect excuse. He’s the one who told me to guard Ping-Ping, so he can’t criticize me if I spend all my time out here.

 

Smiling, I knock on the boat and announce I’m ready to try again before diving down under the waves. I’ve got my own little piece of paradise out here, where no one will come to bother me. Hell, if someone tries, I bet I can convince Ping-Ping to capsize their boat and make others think twice. This is her domain and I intend to make the most of it.

 

Plus, if I can learn something about manipulating water, then even better. It’s not fire or lightning, but it’s something…

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Riding through the city gates, he found a cooler reception than he’d expected. There were no cheers or applause, with only a few scattered eyes turning his way, nothing like the glorious parades of his youth. Those watching lacked awe or recognition, with only meagre curiosity for his mount at best. They all saw an old man past his prime and nearing death, but soon enough, he would prove that his best years still lay ahead. Last time, he’d swallowed his pride and sat in silence when the Emperor passed over him for a commission, but never again. He was the Hero of the Hoplesh Rebellion, the Sanguine Tempest of the Central Province, and admired teacher of the Empire, Lieutenant General Du Min Gyu.

 

Mentally parsing through his steward’s Sendings, he smiled and shook his head. “Girl, it seems your old rival kept himself busy. He won twenty-eight duels in two days, a feat even you would be hard pressed to match.” Accomplished and hardworking as she was, her Chi and stamina were average at best. Her slender frame was better suited to explosive bursts of power and she required time to recover between bouts, but knowing her competitive nature, he sought to temper her expectations.

 

Bringing her quin close, she took his hand and squeezed tightly, flashing her beautiful smile as she Sent, “Don’t worry grandpa. Rain likes to think himself clever and cunning, but he can be dumb as a rock at times.” Glancing at every young warrior in sight, she assessed their skills and ogled their looks before dismissing them from memory, all unworthy to challenge her skills. “All he knows is how to work hard. Quality over quantity I say. Forget fighting twenty-eight trashy young masters, I’ll find the strongest talents and beat them into submission.”

 

“Good, good.” His chest swelled with pride as he gazed at this young woman who favoured too-tight clothes and had come to mean so much to him. His granddaughter and arguably the number one young talent in the Empire, Du Min Yan.

 

“Good.”

Chapter Meme

– End of Volume 16 –

 


PSA for those who care, I’ve named this volume Sojourn. That is all. Have a good weekend, see you all monday.


 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 302

 

When I made my wager, I figured twenty thousand gold would be a lot of money.

 

I was wrong.

 

Okay, yea, twenty thousand gold is a whole lot of buying power but I figured it’d be more physically impressive. I imagined myself leaving the city with a wagon full of coins, or at least an overflowing chest or something. Instead, my winnings fit neatly inside two wooden boxes, each about the size of a briefcase and easily carried in one hand. I suppose I could have done the math and saved myself the disappointment. Twenty thousand gold is only two hundred gold cards, which at 250 grams each means I only won 50 kilograms of gold in total. It’s my fault for having unrealistic expectations but I can’t help feeling cheated as I stare at my visually disappointing winnings sitting on the restaurant table.

 

If it wasn’t for the Justicar’s meticulous measurements and credible reassurances, I’d weigh and count each gold card myself to make sure I wasn’t being cheated. I would’ve been happier if I’d been paid in coins, not only would it be more satisfying to look at, it’s also impossible to use gold cards unless I’m making purchases for my entire retinue or something. How’s a street-side snack vendor selling meat skewers at two coppers apiece supposed to make change for a hundred gold? That’s 98 coppers, 9 silvers, and 99 gold he’d have to pay back, or the equivalent of selling 49,999 skewers.

 

Dammit… Now I want skewers… I’m so hungry, I could eat a whole cow.

 

Due to several opponents giving up towards the end, I finished my twenty duels faster than expected, so our meal isn’t waiting for my triumphant return like I’d hoped. Having learned from my mistakes, this time I brought twenty guards instead of four and had them occupy the tables around me. I’d bring everyone inside if I could, but someone has to look after the quins and keep the crowd away from Ping-Ping. Guan Suo made a snarky comment about the quality of my retinue, so I left more guards than necessary. I would’ve let the unfriendliest red-panda bring more of his Protectorate to guard Ping-Ping, but they refuse to dress nicely and I was worried someone would make a stink if I let the Divine Turtle plod around with a shabbily-dressed entourage. The last thing I need is the Legate to reprimand me for not outfitting the Divine Turtle’s guards properly.

 

“You look so distressed little brother,” Charok teases, reaching across the table to flick my forehead. “Unsure how to spend your hard earned winnings with your little wifey at your side?”

 

Tightening her grip on my arm, Lin pouts and puffs her cheeks as if worried I’ll leave to tour the brothels of Nan Ping. “You shouldn’t spend it all, ya? You’re wealthy but it’s all tied up in your schools and artwork. You’ll need the coin to buy food for everyone and more.”

 

“Don’t worry little wifey, your hubby is a changed man who knows to behave.” Patting her hands, I smile and shake my head, keeping my disappointment to myself. Over the small pile of money, not the lack of prostitutes in my life. I’ve come to terms with the latter. Removing a stack of ten gold cards, I slide them over to Li Song and ask, “Is five percent a fair price for using your ring and armour as collateral? Sorry I didn’t ask first, but I was caught up in the moment and you’re the only one here who owns anything of value.”

 

In the middle of counting her winnings, the cat-girl’s green eyes flash with greed and surprise. It’s so easy to read her thought process it’s almost laughable. First delight, then suspicion, followed by conflict and inner struggle, she sits in silence and carefully thinks things through. Why am I offering so much money? Do I have ulterior motives? Am I low-balling her? And so on and so forth. It’s a little hurtful she still treats me like a hostile stranger, shying away when I get too close or keeping close watch on my actions out of the corner of her eye, but at least she doesn’t treat me worse than any other man barring her papa Husolt. Even Charok, the kindest, sweetest guy I know had to switch seats with Alsantset after noticing how uncomfortable Li Song was with sitting across from him. She’s come a long way since she joined our little family, but she’s still has a long way to go before making a full recovery.

 

Assuming she ever makes it that far. Some traumas just can’t be healed…

 

Either way, five percent is more than fair and while money can’t buy happiness, poverty can’t buy shit, so if you’re gonna be miserable, it’s better to be rich and miserable. Accepting my terms with a silent nod, she goes back to counting her winnings and stringing coins onto twine loops. The real winners today were the bookmakers since almost everyone bet on me to lose, but Alsantset and Li Song are close seconds as both bet on me to win all twenty matches, albeit at a measly 50:1 odds. If Bulat had been there, he’d have talked them into giving higher odds then borrowed money to bet on my win, but my sister and martial aunt aren’t the savviest of gamblers and accepted the poor rates without question. What irks me more is Li Song asked to be paid in coins and the bookies were happy to hand her a fat sack of coins.

 

I hate how it jingles when people walk across the restaurant. Despite being worth twice as much, the ten gold cards stacked beside it seem paltry in comparison.

 

Whatever, I should stop complaining. I made stacks… Well, a stack of money and I didn’t even tear my clothes. There were a few close calls but my opponents were not particularly talented or skilled, though still better off than yesterday’s. A handful of them might’ve given Baledagh a good fight, but I’m confident my little brother would be the last man standing at the end, especially with me to help heal his cuts and bruises. Dastan, Fung and BoShui too probably, though twenty matches is a lot to ask of them. Li Song and Zian for sure, and there’s no need to mention Mila.

 

As for Huu… maybe? I want to go test his skills but I’m too scared to talk to him. I’ll stand on stage and duel whoever Central throws at me but I can’t find the courage to ask my friend if he hates me now. Almost becoming Defiled isn’t something easily excused. It’s like finding out someone almost became a pedophile. This person hasn’t committed a crime, but they’ve thought about it, been tempted by it, and almost went through with it, which is arguably almost as bad. You can never look at that person the same way ever again, and you definitely won’t leave your kids unattended around them. I don’t regret coming clean about my near-Defiled status but if anyone outside the Bekhai were to ever discover the truth about me or Gerel or Dastan, then we’d all suffer for it. I can’t blame Huu if he doesn’t want to be friends anymore, but I wish things were different.

 

Then again, he hasn’t been hateful or mean, just distant, so there’s still hope. Until Huu makes his position clear, I’m happy to wallow in blissful ignorance.

 

As soon as our meal arrives, I abandon my moping in favour of delicious indulgence, marvelling at dish after dish of enticing Central cuisine. Say what you will about their bigotry, chauvinism and all-around arrogance, but damn do these bastards know how to cook. As a rule of thumb, I’m not a huge fan of seafood but that’s because I’ve only ever had it steamed or boiled. Yuck. Simmering in a bed of garlic vermicelli, fried in fragrant chili oil, or battered, baked, and drowned in a savoury sauce, Central has opened my eyes to the wonders of the sea. Even if I have to fight another twenty duels, I’m coming back here for dinner so I can try everything on the menu.

 

The spicy fried squid is easily my favourite, and while these particular tentacles cannot match the size or majesty of Ping-Ping’s lunch, the chewy, mouth-watering appendages are almost enough to make me reconsider my fear of the deep unknown. I mean, if the kraken are running from Ping-Ping, how tough could they be? She’s a big girl, but considering the size of the tentacle she ate, I’d imagine the kraken was at least twice her size, if not more. Who knows, maybe giant squids aren’t as scary as they seem and it’d be criminal to starve poor Ping-Ping like that. One tentacle can’t be enough to keep her full for long, so she’ll probably go out again in the afternoon. I could tag along and keep an eye on her through the crystal clear water from a distance…

 

I kinda understand why the Defiled are so fearless now. If I were starving and found my enemies delicious, I’d be brave too.

 

Delicious as the meal is, the best part is watching Tali and Tate enjoy themselves. An hour ago, they were scared out of their minds, but now they’re happy as can be, eating all the crab legs and fried duck their tiny bellies can handle. Lin and Li Song are almost as adorable, but my wifey doesn’t like it when I watch her eat and it’d be weird to stare at Li Song, so my niece and nephew are all I get. Dastan and his people take turns eating and politely keeping the riffraff away, though few people try to approach. I guess they know the quality of their young warriors and don’t find my twenty victories any more impressive than I do.

 

I went easy on them too. Not to toot my horn or anything, but I could have made them suffer if I wanted to. A couple broken bones is a small price to pay for insulting my family, so if Central’s young warriors continue bothering me and mine, then I’ll start dismembering, disembowelling, and dissecting the painted bastards until they get the hint. Everything’s fine so long as nobody dies, right? No problem, my teacher’s a Medical Saint who can heal anything short of death.

 

After gorging ourselves on surf and turf, my family and I bring Ping-Ping on a stroll through the nearest bazaar for a bout of sight-seeing and shopping. While I’m not great at it, I love watching people haggle and bargain. No one pays asking price for an item, not unless they’re socially inept like me or trying to impress someone with their wealth, but everyone has their own bargaining strategy. Alsantset makes the merchant gather everything she might want to buy, then offers a price; if the merchant accepts, fine, if not, then she walks away, leaving a mess for the merchant to clean up. More often than not, the merchant will change his or her mind and accept my sister’s offer, not only because of the hassle of putting everything back, but also because she tends to offers a fair price, just not an incredibly lucrative one.

 

Li Song has a unique, silent approach to haggling. She’ll pick up a single item and hold it until a price is offered. If it’s not to her liking, she’ll shake her head and wait for a second offer. Then she repeats steps one and two until the price meets her satisfaction or the merchant refuses to go any lower, a long and lengthy process but almost as effective as Alsantset’s, and all without making eye contact or saying a single word.

 

Then there’s my sweet little wifey, whose girlish charm and heart-melting pouts earn her the best prices from the hawkers and vendors with little to no effort. It’s funny to watch a customer bicker and quarrel with a merchant until it almost comes to blows before deciding on a price, then see that same merchant smile and offer Lin a lower price for the same item. Whether it’s her big brown eyes, her plump, blushing cheeks, or her lovable, toothy smile, there’s something about my sweet wifey that makes it almost impossible to refuse her and she’s quick to take advantage.

 

Or maybe its because Ping-Ping glares at anyone who yells at Lin. Seriously, my wifey is too charming, she even bewitched a giant turtle into becoming her loyal protector.

 

Despite the Divine Guardian’s presence, our little party sees more than its fair share of sneers and snubs from merchants with products too good to sell or gaggles of aristocrats and socialites loudly expressing the non-specific disdain in our general direction. Lucky for them, we’re some of the most restrained and non-violent members of our family, content to ignore their insults or let them off with a threatening glare. It’d be a whole different story if Sarnai, Akanai, Baatar, or Mila were here. Those merchants and aristocrats would’ve been left with soiled pants and snot-filled nostrils as they retreated from the wave of scalding Bekhai fury.

 

Thankfully, our outspoken detractors are outnumbered by the more amicable or silent members of Nan Ping, allowing us to enjoy our shopping spree in relative peace. Personally, I’m more concerned by the atrocious behaviour of my laughing birds, especially Roc. The fat, feathered bastard has upgraded from scavenging beggar to sneak thief, snatching food right out of his unsuspecting victims’ hands. The other laughing birds soon learn to mimic their fearless leader’s actions with great success and I whisper a small prayer of apology for unleashing this plague of flying rats upon Nan Ping.

 

After witnessing one angry, white-faced noble screaming at his guards to kill the ‘winged vermin’, I clear my throat and raise my voice, hoping to save my poor birdies from the slaughter. “Excuse me! Sorry, but please don’t kill the laughing birds. As er… mischievous as they are, they uh… play a vital role in the Divine Guardian’s well-being.” Ignoring the angry noble’s hateful glare, I lie through my teeth and hope no one questions me on this. “They’re uh… hand-trained to dig around her shell and eat all the pests and parasites bothering her. You know… molluscs and.. leeches and whatnot. So uh… yea. Please do not kill the birds. No matter how annoying they might be.”

 

Pointing at his elaborate yet ruined headdress, the angry noble screeches, “Those creatures assaulted my distinguished self and stole one of my gemstones!”

 

I can’t apologize or I’d be admitting fault. It kinda is, but that’s beside the point. One gemstone I can handle, but who knows how much damage these damn birds have caused in the short time we’ve been here? “Um… Might I suggest using an umbrella to keep them away? Honestly, everyone should probably use one while they’re around, they’ve stole- err… eaten… a lot of greasy, spiced meat. I’m guessing it won’t sit nicely inside their bellies, which mean… well… yea.”

 

Having said my piece, I awkwardly ignore the still glaring noble by pretending to be interested in some wares. At least the noble stopped his guards from slaughtering my birds but he won’t leave. Meanwhile, I’m stuck here because Li Song is still silently bargaining with a confused hawker who has yet to realize what he’s dealing with. Exacerbating the situation, Yipi flutters down and lands on my shoulder, swinging a broken silver chain clamped in her beak as if asking, ‘what can I get for this?’.

 

Amidst the choked laughter of those around me, including the angry noble’s guard, my cheeks burn with shame as I trade Yipi for her shiny. Returning his broken jewellery, I weather the angry noble’s murderous glare and say, “Err… The gemstone’s still attached so it shouldn’t be hard to fix. Sorry.”

 

Ah fuck me. Sighing, I reach into my coin purse and pray I have a couple gold coins to spare, cursing my apologetic reflexes and the dumbest custom ever invented. Why does apologizing mean I take responsibility? Can’t I just be sorry for his misfortune?

 

To avoid any more embarrassing exchanges, I rush everyone out of the city as soon as possible and head back to our camp, arriving with hours to spare before dark. Forget going back for dinner, I’ll just hang out here and never go back in unless I have to. Stupid birds. Waiting outside my yurt, Taduk and Guard Leader sit in strained silence at two different tables, sipping tea and exchanging glances from a short distance. Bounding out of Guard Leader’s lap, Mama Bun stands on her hind legs and inspects her babies with Li Song’s help while I take a seat next to Taduk and Lin tells him all about our fun-filled afternoon, including long descriptions of everything we ate.

 

When my wifey’s tale comes to an end, I ask “How’d your underwater search go?”

 

“Not well my boy, not well.” Pouting in Mama Bun’s general direction, Taduk shakes his head and sighs. “We brought the little buck-toothed idiot out on a skiff but she wanted to go farther than I felt comfortable with. Even the greatest experts are hindered when fighting underwater and my half-witted associate has proven herself unable to adapt to changing circumstances.”

 

“Says the man who feels most comfortable living in a burrow.” With a pointed sip of her tea, Guard Leader adds, “You always were overly cautious and afraid of change.”

 

Hmm, maybe that’s why there’s so much sexual tension between them, because my teacher isn’t adventurous enough. Then again, Guard Leader seems like the type to enjoy pegging, in which case I can’t blame Taduk for refusing. I shouldn’t make jokes before hearing the whole story, but I want him to have someone to share his life with. I love him like a father and don’t want him to be lonely after Lin marries me. I’d happily invite him to live with us, but considering he once told me he can hear a mosquito fart at twenty paces, it’s better for everyone involved if we lived in separate houses.

 

If he wasn’t exaggerating, then separate villages might be even better. Mental note: ask Diyako to look into soundproofing. Or learn how to do it myself.

 

Ignoring Guard Leader’s barb, Taduk empties his tea cup and stands, gesturing for me to follow along. “Anyways, now that you’re here, we can resume our search. Come, come. Bring the rabbit.”

 

“I’m not sure I understand,” I say, lifting Mama Bun into my arms, who happily rests her chin on my shoulder like a big floofy baby. She’s so sweet and lovable now, I can’t wait for all her bunnies to grow up. “Why am I needed?”

 

“Because Rain my boy,” Taduk says with a grin, pointing at Ping-Ping following behind us. “You come paired with a most formidable aquatic guardian.”

 

Oh no… No no no no no. “Be reasonable teacher, we don’t even know if there’s actually a Spiritual Plant out there.” Proving me wrong yet again, Mama Bun twists in my embrace to stare intently out to sea, her little nose twitching violently in anticipation. Dumb long-eared rat, I should’ve left you to drown. “Who knows how far out it might be? Is it worth risking our lives for one Spiritual Plant?”

 

“No need to try and dissuade me, my mind is set.” Looking like a man on a mission, Taduk marches ever southward towards the beach, with a spring in his step and a glint in his eye. “If we don’t claim the Spiritual Plant then that veiled wastrel will, an injustice I cannot abide. Besides,” he added, flashing me his goofy smile, “I’ve never studied a Spiritual Plant which grew underwater. Who knows what mysteries we might uncover? Don’t worry my boy, it’ll be perfectly safe. Probably. We brought rope and everything.”

 

From bitter experience, I know it’s pointless to argue. It’d be easier to get rid of Ping-Ping than change Taduk’s mind once it’s made. What’s more, after today’s lunch, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in going for a swim. While I’d like our underwater adventure to go smoothly and without incident, I’d also like to know if kraken tastes better than squid.

 

They say men die for wealth and birds die for food, but it appears I’m willing to die for either or. Does that make me better, or worse?

 

Chapter Meme

 


For reference, in the Empire a gold coin weights 2.5 grams, gold bar 25 grams, and gold card weighs 250 grams.If my math was wrong, please tell me so I can cry myself to sleep for being incompetant.

 

Also, currently gold is trading at > $40k USD per kilogram, meaning Rain is pretty damn rich by both world’s standards. This has nothing to do with the buying power in SD, just something I thought was interesting.

 

Here’s some pictures of gold, for further reference and so I don’t have to do this in the comments when someone doesn’t believe my measurements.

 

This card weighs 50 grams and about as thick as a credit card. Stacked 5 thick would be the gold cards in SD.

And this is 1kg of gold, which means 25 of them would probably fit in a briefcase.

That is all :D. Hope you enjoyed the chapter.


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 301

 

Quashing the desire to fly into a rage, Yo Shi-Woo reminded himself this was a public venue. Appearances must be kept, so he unclenched his jaw, steadied his breathing, and relaxed his shoulders, all while imagining having the arrogant northern savage whipped for his insolence and ignoring the laughter of the other diners around him.

 

“How mortifying it must be to have both your sons defeated by a diminutive northern primitive.” Insolent as always, Ru Minsu happily added oil to the fire, fanning the flames Shi-Woo’s anger and hoping to provoke him into an unsightly anger. Amateur. “At least your older son didn’t disgrace himself by surrendering, but there’s something to be said about knowing one’s limits.”

 

Taking a sip of tea to calm his fury and order his thoughts, Shi-Woo smiled at the uncultured philistine and said, “Alas, mine is a family of merchants and politicians, unskilled in the ways of war. Arithmetic and logistics are my sword and shield, but unfortunately my sons were unwilling to follow in my footsteps. As their father, I could not bear to deny them this chance, and while my eldest son recently brought great pride to my house by forming his Natal Palace at twenty four years old, how could my untalented sons be a match for the scions of the illustrious Ru Family? My grandfather used to sit me on his lap and tell stories of your ancestors’ glorious victories, warriors one and all. Come, bring out your crouching tigers and hidden dragons, show this ignorant old man what true talent looks like.”

 

“See old friend, that’s the thing.” Minsu smirked, as if privy to some great joke. “I know my limits.”

 

Deriving little pleasure from Minsu’s subdued response, Shi-Woo turned back to the duelling stage with a smile. After Minsu’s fathers and uncles died in battle and Minsu’s grandfather passed away from old age, the Ru family had fallen into decline and barely counted as a third-rate power now. Shi-Woo’s ‘untalented’ sons were far superior to the Ru Family scions and Minsu knew it. Such was the problem with warrior families, they rose and fell with their greatest talents. If a merchant family produced a talented warrior, then their name would soar into the heavens, but even without, they always had the family business to fall back on.

 

Shi-Woo’s self-satisfaction didn’t last long as he discovered the second and third matches had begun and ended in the time it took to put Minsu in his place. As before, the northern savage dragged his comatose opponent to the corner in a show of utter contempt. Shi-Woo was too far to hear, but his servant standing stage side Sent him updates on everything the boy said. Leaning over his pile of defeated foes, the boy roughly handled Shi-Woo’s son before asking, “Excuse me, Justicar sir? Will I be held responsible if these guys bleed to death? Because if they’re delaying their healers just to get me in trouble, then I need a minute to keep Feathered Big Bro from bleeding to death or choking on his vomit.”

 

A burst of laughter inside the restaurant told Shi-Woo everyone else had also heard the boy and it took every scrap of self-control not to overturn his table and storm out. The savage went too far. Feathered Big Brother? Who’s your brother, you brazen whelp! You think yourself a Yo Family scion now? Brother your head! Faint-headed from anger, he Sent instructions to have his son brought down despite the tardy healer’s instructions. If his eldest suffered further injuries then so be it, Shi-Woo would find him the best healers in the Empire. A man can be defeated but not humiliated, and the Yo family would have their vengeance.

 

After receiving assurances he would not be held responsible for his defeated opponent’s safety, the savage promptly defeated three more opponents, all battles without a hint of suspense. Six opponents, six victories, and all in about as many minutes. The savage was on track to repeat yesterday’s performance, only this time in front of a crowd of thousands. As the architect behind today’s debacle, Shi-Woo would face heavy criticism for bringing shame to so many of Nan Ping’s young heroes and leading them to the slaughter. Their families would be hungry for blood and not even Central’s Marshal, his cousin and closest confidante, could save him after offending so many distinguished houses.

 

Without looking at his Chief Guard, Shi-Woo Sent, “You told me the boy was a paper tiger. ‘Talented, but not overly so. Strong, but unrefined and unpolished’. Those were your words, verbatim.”

 

“Master, this useless slave begs your forgiveness. The boy is crafty and hid his skills deep.” Though an Oathsworn slave, the man had served Shi-Woo his entire life, purchased and trained for the sole purpose of defending his master. Simply named Shou Yi, or ‘Guard One’, his loyalty could not be questioned and were he a free man, he had sufficient skill to earn the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Were it anyone else, Shi-Woo would have him strapped and castrated for this failure, but Shou Yi was irreplaceable. Out of twenty Oathsworn slaves, Shou Yi was the only one to condense his Aura and form a Natal Palace, making him a true hidden powerhouse.

 

Reminding himself Shou Yi had never let him down before, Shi-Woo Sent, “Elaborate.”

 

“Yes Master. In yesterday’s bout, the savage appeared fierce and powerful, but in this slave’s eyes, also reckless and impulsive. While able to overpower his opponents, he left himself open and vulnerable too many times, and were he met with stiffer resistance then his defeat was all but certain. Even against eight relatively unskilled youths, he almost took grave injury twice, winning through a combination of intimidation and luck. This slave has seen it before, brash, overconfident children who think themselves invincible, and in his foolishness, this slave believed the savage boy to be one of them. Today, he fights like a different man, careful, calculating, and cautious.”

 

While Shou Yi spoke, the savage won his seventh match by submission after breaking his opponent’s leg. Heaping disgrace upon defeat, he even had the audacity to ‘help’ his defeated foe by supporting him off the stage. Faced with this indignity yet unable to refute, the hapless young man could only swallow his pride as the savage all but carried him away. Forced to admit his failings, Shi-Woo reevaluated the savage before him. A clever, scheming child, today his insults were indirect and subtle, nothing like yesterday’s outspoken blockhead. Who was it guiding his actions?

 

It wasn’t Situ Nian Zu, the man was notorious for his political incompetence. A peak expert with skill and fame to rival Du Min Gyu, yet stuck with the most unprofitable and unrewarding task in the North for over four decades. Were he a shrewder man, Nian Zu would have swallowed his pride, taken a wife, and carried out his duties. So what if his tastes ran contrary? He didn’t need to love his wife, he merely needed to get drunk and sire a few heirs. A small price to pay to escape the cold, barren Northern Wall but the man refused to play the game as it should be. A short-sighted fool like that couldn’t possibly be the mastermind behind Falling Rain and the Bekhai.

 

Was it the half-fox marshal of the north? Rumours said she was nothing but a big-breasted, empty-headed tramp, yet she seduced the former Marshal, learned his greatest secrets, and consigned the entire Shing Clan to death. While likely acting as someone’s puppet, Shi-Woo hadn’t the faintest clue who could be pulling her strings. Things would be made clear once his Society allies arrived, but whatever mastermind was behind all this played his hand well, rushing across the board before Shi-Woo’s pieces were all in place.

 

Perhaps the puppeteer was hiding in plain sight. Nothing in Han BoHai’s history spoke of a masterful schemer but such skills could be learned and recent actions made him a man to be wary of. Not only was he present at yesterday’s meeting with the Legate, he was also the only person of consequence present during Han BoShui’s match with Tam Taewoong. A ‘well-known’ paper tiger and disreputable drunkard, the young BoShui’s victory over the former Hwarang was an unpleasant surprise to all. Even worse, though dead and cremated, BoHai’s daughter had once been feared across the lands as the Bloody Shrike and the Confessor’s chosen heir. Was BoHai responsible for the Confessor’s recent, uncharacteristic silence? What other weapons was the man hiding?

 

These northern delegates were far more formidable than expected. Had he been double-crossed by the Society and fed inaccurate information? How convenient for his greatest allies, the Situ Clan, to be so conspicuously absent, giving this barbarian tribesman time to run roughshod over Central’s youths. He’d been told the boy’s victory over Teng Wei Chuan, Ouyang Yu Jin, and Situ Jia Zian had been more luck than skill, but if so, then why was the boy still breathing? Situ Jia Yang had been disgraced and Teng Wei Chuan’s immediate family dead, but it was hard to believe the Ouyang Patriarch would let the death of his prized son and heir die without retaliation. The Society had long been looking to expand southward and only an unspoken allegiance among Central’s factions had kept them out. Could this be a united Northern effort to shame and supplant Central’s noble families?

 

A commotion on stage interrupted Shi-Woo’s contemplation and he refocused his attention, Sending a query to his stage-side servant. “What’s happening?”

 

This servant reports, the boy is trying to take back his runic items.” What followed was a reiteration of the boy’s words.

 

… Do none of you understand what ‘collateral’ means? I won ten matches, so I’ve won ten thousand gold, which is enough to cover the rest of my matches. Since I don’t need collateral anymore, why can’t I give my martial aunt her stuff back? You want a chance to win them? Then put up another thirty-thousand gold between the ten of you.”

 

It’s as if every word out of this scrawny savage’s mouth were meant to incite animosity and exasperation. An absurd and obvious provocation meant to defraud more out of Central’s noble young warriors, but they had no choice but to endure his taunts. Strength was respected above all else, and the boy was nothing if not strong. “Shou Yi,” he Sent, reconsidering his options. “How strong would you say the boy really is?”

 

Hesitating, Shou Yi took long seconds before Sending his reply. “Unknown, Master. He is still holding back. He’s less brutal than before but far more precise, using just enough strength to defeat his opponents which makes it difficult to gauge his true strength.”

 

Your best guess then.”

 

Master, this lowly slave believes none but the best can challenge the boy, unless we step outside his age group. Take young master’s bout. Though it appeared as if he walked into the boy’s sword, the truth is the boy struck at the perfect range and angle to connect through the young master’s defenses. This requires superior perception, control, and overwhelming confidence. In the second match, he saw through his opponent’s Ghost Step in an instant. If he’d studied the movement before and was waiting for his chance then I wouldn’t be so impressed, but the boy only arrived yesterday and the Ghost Step is a prized secret. Where could he have seen it before? Then…”

 

Shou Yi continued rattling off praise for Falling Rain’s prowess and the boy continued defeating his opponent’s with ease. Nineteen years old and already so accomplished, today’s matches proved Falling Rain’s reputation was well deserved. Eventually, his final opponents forfeited and the matches were done, leaving Shi-Woo and his peers stewing in silent contemplation while the savage collected his winnings.

 

Until one brazen man laughed and applauded.

 

Drawing the ire of everyone present, they all turned to glare at the culprit in question, but everyone quickly tempered their anger. Surrounded by his Royal Guards, the Legate had slipped in unnoticed during the duels, his youthful features alight with a grin as he clapped. “Magnificent,” he praised. “Eight versus one yesterday and twenty separate duels today, what a hot-blooded young hero. Such is the passion of youth!” Glancing at Shi-Woo, he added, “Isn’t that right, Servant. Yo. Shi. Woo?”

 

Shivering in fear, Shi-Woo vacated his seat and fell to his knees to kowtow. “I-Imperial Servant b-begs Imperial Legate for f-f-f-forgiveness.”

 

Oh? I see you share your son’s penchant for stuttering.” The Legate’s boots approached but Shi-Woo didn’t dare stop kowtowing. All his prepared excuses fell to the wayside now that the Legate had come out to meet him. It was now obvious he placed far more importance on Falling Rain than Shi-Woo thought, but if that were the case, why didn’t the Legate warn him against acting? After yesterday’s disastrous meeting, the Legate surely realized the nobles of Central would not stand for Falling Rain’s arrogance, but he did nothing to dissuade them, merely dismissing everyone as soon as possible.

 

Was that not giving his unspoken permission to take vengeance into their own hands?

 

You seem confused,” the Legate said as he took Shi-Woo’s vacated seat. Shi-Woo continued kowtowing, his forehead aching with every knock on the floor. “You’re wondering, ‘Why is the Legate here to protect Falling Rain?’, am I right?”

 

Imperial Servant dares not question the Legate’s motives.”

 

You know, lying to an Imperial Scion is a grave offence. Should I demand an Oath to verify the truth?” Shi-Woo whimpered in reply but the Imperial Legate merely chuckled. “Oh calm down and stop kowtowing. Drink some tea and compose yourself.” Shi-Woo did as ordered and steadied his breath, cheeks burning with shame as he stood before his peers and enemies as a disgraced man. Playing with his closed fan as he addressed the crowd, he said, “Contrary to your beliefs, I’m not here to protect Falling Rain.” Grinning, he slapped the fan against his palm for emphasis and added, “I’m here to protect all of you.”

 

Taking a dramatic pause, the Legate waited while his tea and cup were tested for poison. Taking a long sip, he exhaled in delight. “Ahh, good tea. Now where was I? Ah yes, protecting you. On his deathbed, my father, may he rest in peace, told me a story, one you should all know well. Fifty years ago, during the hum-drum of daily activity, he came across a report written by a young lieutenant of the North. In this report, the lieutenant claimed an army of fifty-thousand Defiled had attacked and almost razed the border fortress he served in. Immediately, this drew my father’s attention because if this was true, then why was a mere lieutenant, a leader of ten men, writing the report?”

 

Taking another sip of tea, the Legate shook his head and sighed. “It was tragic really. The entire fortress’s general staff had been assassinated by Wraiths, leaving said lowly lieutenant as the sole surviving officer. The Mother’s blessing shone upon the Empire as this lieutenant was a man of talent, taking control of the fortress and holding out against the Defiled for ten, long days, longer than anyone thought possible. On the tenth day, word of reinforcements finally arrived, but our heroic lieutenant was crestfallen to find only a mere three-thousand friendly cavalry archers waiting outside his gates. ‘They were doomed,’ he thought, and he made his peace with the Mother.”

 

Chuckling wryly, the Legate continued, “According to the report, these three thousand archers, mounted on giant, fanged weasels and led by a nameless Major of the Imperial Defence Forces, broke a Defiled force almost twenty times their numbers in a single afternoon. Instead of expounding on the miraculous victory or his personal accomplishments, the lieutenant went on to make more ludicrous claims like how the Major plucked Defiled heads like apples and slaughtered Demons like pigs. The report made the rounds and everyone laughed and jeered, calling it a work of pure fiction and utter nonsense. Everyone except for our Imperial Emperor’s father, who was of course, at the time, the current Emperor.”

 

A Royal Guard arrived bearing plates of food and once again, everything was tested for poison. With fan in one hand and crab leg in the other, the Legate continued his tale between bites, but Shi-Woo didn’t need to hear it. He knew the rest of the tale and had even been there for parts of it. Back then, he couldn’t have been much older than Falling Rain was now, a young man learning the family business at his grandfather’s side. He remembered sneering at the foolish lieutenant and nameless major, both dressed in utilitarian garb as they approached the Emperor’s representative, fully expecting them to fall to their knees and beg for forgiveness for their lies. Instead, they swore an Oath of truth and claimed the report held no falsehoods, and for a moment, the entire court fell silent as they waited with bated breath for the Mother to strike these lying fools dead. When She didn’t, everyone present realized they were standing in the presence of greatness, an expert tactician, peak expert, and Hero of the Empire.

 

The Herald of the Storms, whose name he now remembered was Akanai of the Bekhai, Grand-Mentor of Falling Rain.

 

The damned Crier from the Magistrate’s Palace had only introduced Akanai by rank, not title, else he’d have long since figured this out. How could he have been so foolish to forget? Shi-Woo’s grandfather had danced a ditty in his office when news of their rival’s misfortune came to light. Akanai and her escorts had proved themselves formidable beyond all measure, killing dozens of decorated heroes and vaunted Experts of Central in one fell swoop before escaping through the mountains with minimal casualties. Grandfather even hoped Akanai would return at the head of an army to seek vengeance and made preparations to join her in uprooting their rivals, but sadly, nothing came of it. Ostensibly, the former Emperor soothed her anger by promoting her another rank to Major General, but Shi-Woo never believed it to be true. If a woman like her was so easily swayed, then her name would have long since echoed through the Empire.

 

The memory had almost been lost to time, but apparently not so for the smiling Ru Minsu. Scowling at the smug bastard, Shi-Woo cursed his own stupidity. No wonder the Ru Family refused to join the fight against Falling Rain, they still remembered their hard-learned lesson, paid for in the blood of Minsu’s father and uncle. The Ru family might have even sought to curry favour with the Bekhai and revealed the secrets of Central’s young warriors, enabling Falling Rain to defeat his opponents with ease. How devious, how dastardly, how brilliant.

 

Well played old friend, well played.

 

Still eating, the Legate spoke to his captive audience. “Now some of you might wonder why my father told his children this particular story on his deathbed. On the surface, it seems like a tale of politics and backbiting, business as usual, but if you look closer, it reveals what’s rotten at the core of the Empire. Take the fortress for example. After ten days of bitter fighting, why were the first reinforcements to arrive a group of tribal mercenaries? Where were the Emperor’s soldiers?” Tossing an empty crab leg to the floor, he snarled. “The closest commanders believed the fortress would fall before reinforcements arrived, so instead of mustering out to save their comrades, they hid behind their walls and ignored the lieutenant’s messengers day after day. Cowards.” The Legate spit and many followed suit. “Then there is Akanai herself. Were she a human male, Central’s greatest families would have fought a bidding war to bring this hero into their family, but a beautiful female half-beast with sapphire eyes and hair of gold? Everyone saw her as a commodity, a plaything to take and own, instead of what she truly is, a Hero of the Empire.”

 

Glancing around at the gathered nobles, the Legate unleashed his Aura and no one dared to resist it. Trembling from head to toe, Shi-Woo stared at his feet and prayed for mercy, helpless as the Legate snapped open his fan and revealed the Imperial Sigil for all to see, speaking as the Emperor’s chosen voice. “Hear me. The Empire will face dark days ahead, and only through solidarity can we overcome our trials and tribulations. Any individual who threatens our unity, threatens the Empire itself.” Snapping the fan closed, the Legate added, “Challenge the boy, defeat him if your honour demands it, but do not overstep your bounds. The Empire needs warriors and wealth, but not necessarily you yourselves.”

 

Rescinding his Aura, the Legate stood and brushed himself off. “Good tea, good food, and good company,” the Legate said as he marched down the stairs. “Reward the owner with a hundred gold.”

 

After waiting several minutes in case the Legate returned, Shi-Woo mopped the sweat from his brow and collapsed into the recently vacated chair. Too close, this was far too close. In a single day, he’d almost crossed the Legate and Akanai both, and the day was still young. Calming his beating heart, he made preparations to pay the Lieutenant General a visit and shower her with gifts and praise, doing everything possible to convince her he held no grudge against the boy.

 

Talented though he might be, Falling Rain’s foul tongue was bound to upset someone and get himself killed. When that happened, Shi-Woo hoped to stand beside Akanai, or failing that, anywhere besides in front of her.

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 300


Okay, first off, Happy Chinese New Year! Year of the Doggo!

 

 

Second, sorry for the late chapter. I changed my mind about something while in final edits, which meant I had to rewrite a big chunk. Originally, this was gonna be a 2 pt chapter, but I cut some rambling and went for it.

 

Third, we are at a milestone today, with 300 chapters. Wow. Just wow. I have no words. When I started writing Savage Divinity, I figured it would be a little side thing I do for fun and if I’m lucky, a couple dozen readers might skim through it. Now, almost two years, three hundred chapters and a million words give or take, I’m blessed to still have thousands of readers keeping up with my work. Writing has consumed my life and I cannot imagine going on without it, and I have all you readers to thank.

 

These are my metrics on Royal Road, and honestly… those numbers are way too high to feel real.

 

I cannot say this enough: Thank you all for reading, commenting, supporting, reviewing, voting, making a wiki, chatting on discord, drawing fan art, and a thousand other things I can’t think of. We’ve come a long way since chapter 1, and we still have a ways to go, but I hope you’re all still with me when I reach the end.

 

That is all. Enjoy.


 

Then we built a fire, dried off, and waited until Ping-Ping came back chewing on a tentacle. After that, I woke you up and now we’re off to lunch.

 

Punctuating my Sending with a kiss on her cheek, Lin smiles sleepily and reclines in my arms. Hiding a yawn with her ever-present white silk scarf, she narrows her eyes in concentration for several seconds, looks at me expectantly, then pouts and asks, “Is Mama Bun okay?”

 

Talented as she is at Lightening, my wifey has yet to learn how to Send, much to her chagrin. To help her get a feel of it, she asked me to speak only in Sending while she tries to respond in kind. I’m always happy to see her apply herself and if I’m being honest, I love her sulky, pouty expressions. She’s so happy and cheery most of the time, this is a rare chance to enjoy her adorable grumpy expressions. “Mama Bun’s fine. Teacher looked her over, Guard Leader swaddled her in blankets, and both scolded me for not paying proper attention.” Taduk’s been much nicer to Mama Bun ever since she led him to a stalk of rime bamboo and therefore vindicated my decision to raise a horde of bicorn bunnies.

 

After another concentrated effort and abject failure, Lin whispers, “Poor hubby. Why do you think Mama Bun went for a swim? Do you think she found… something? And umm… did the other thing… do anything?”

 

Shrugging, I Send, “Who knows. It’s possible she smelled a Spiritual Plant, but it might also be she wasn’t paying attention and forgot to jump off of Ping-Ping. Hell, maybe she wanted to get away from her sixteen needy babies. As for Blobby, he didn’t react, he’s doing what he does best.” Which is nothing, the slacker.

 

“Are you gonna go look?” Sensing a chance for adventure, Lin’s eyes widen in excitement as she bounces in place, having forgotten we’re sitting together on Mafu’s back while surrounded by hundreds of devout citizens here to see Ping-Ping. Control yourself Rain. Sure, Lin’s not a little girl anymore, nor is she as skinny and scrawny as she used to be. She’s a lovely, petite young woman with a plump, round posterior. Her bright brown eyes are so warm and inviting, I could lose myself in them for hours on end, while her dusky skin is so soft and fragrant it makes you want to wrap your arms around her and never let go. Even now it’s taking all my self-control not to nibble on her ears or send my hands out on an exploratory expedition, curious to know what her reactions will be once I…

 

er…

 

What was I getting at again?

 

Right. Propriety and boundaries. “Stop bouncing around please.” Maybe we should stop riding together, but I love cuddling with my tousle-haired little wifey. What was her question? “…I doubt Mama Bun can sniff out plants growing underwater and even if she can, it’s not safe to go deep diving in the Azure Sea.” If I’m feeling suicidal, there are much easier ways to off myself. “Teacher and Guard Leader are already looking, so if something’s there, then they’ll find it together.” Poor Mama Bun, doing her best impression of a soggy mop while Taduk and Guard Leader fight over who gets to bring her diving. If Mama Bun’s mid-morning swim was a mistake, it’s not one she’ll make again any time soon.

 

With a disappointed grunt and almost provocative full-body wiggle, Lin settles in and closes her eyes for a nap, her long, velvety hare ears hidden beneath a headscarf. While going skinny dipping with my lovely little wifey is a tempting idea, I’ll definitely lose control the moment we’re alone together. Steeling my nerves, I focus on anything and everything that isn’t the enchanting, innocent, defenceless young woman wrapped in my arms.

 

Though I wasn’t allowed to keep the Royal Guards, Dastan and his former retinue are doing an admirable job as escorts, looking stately atop their massive warhorses while keeping the crowd at bay so my family and I can head into the city for lunch. Not that I need the guards, the more zealous onlookers are quick to reprimand anyone who breaks one of their unspoken rules, and most people are happy to admire Ping-Ping from afar. Or maybe it’s just their self-preservation instincts keeping them away from the gargantuan turtle. They’d be screaming in fear instead of kneeling in reverence if they’d seen her chomping on a still-writhing tentacle, thicker than a person and longer than she is.

 

Fuck going into the water. She was gone for less than half an hour, which means the giant, tentacled monstrosities aren’t exactly far from shore. No wonder everyone sticks to the coastline, that shit is fucking terrifying. Even more terrifying is how capable Ping-Ping appears to be, defeating and devouring sea-dwelling behemoths without breaking a sweat. She returned unharmed with only the one tentacle, so I’d imagine there’s an irate kraken still swimming around out there short an arm. For a kraken to cut and run shows how formidable Ping-Ping really is.

 

It’s possible the quins stole and ate most of Ping-Ping’s meal while she swam back to shore, but I doubt it. They love Ping-Ping even more than the devout citizens do, clustering around her as much as possible. Despite being banned from my yurt, Mafu hasn’t voiced a single squeak of complaint, happy to camp outside next to the terrapin along with the other quins of my retinue. They even trust her enough to let their pups play on and around her, which is extremely rare. If you’re not a quin or one of their favourite people, you could easily lose a hand by reaching for a pup, something I learned firsthand after Zabu tried to gut me way back when the pups first hatched.

 

I wonder if Yan’s here yet. I miss her hearty, unrestrained laughs at my vulgar or obscene jokes, not to mention our silent training sessions. Then there were the long awkward nights sharing the same tent, where I’d do my best to avoid temptation while dreaming of her long, shapely legs and luscious pink lips…

 

No! Bad Rain. You have Lin and Mila already, which is two more wives than you deserve. Stop overreaching before you end up with nothing. Yan’s the disciple and heir of Du Min Gyu, which is almost royalty here in Central. She probably has more suitors than she can shake a stick at and considering her nature, a dozen infatuated pretty boys dancing to her tune and three dozen more waiting in the wings. Whatever Mila wrote in her letter and wants me to pass along, I doubt it was encouraging Yan to join my harem. Probably the opposite, in fact, warning Yan to stay away. Despite her many virtues, my freckled beloved is a jealous woman, which I find utterly endearing and only a little scary.

 

It’s her parents who really scare me.

 

With Ping-Ping at my heels, the gate guards let us through without question while a long line of angry nobles and uppity warriors glare from the side. Once past the gates, the number of Mother lovers declines sharply, which is no surprise. The wealthy and powerful rarely care for anything outside their own interests, and the people who would be interested in paying their respects either already did so last night or are busy working. Picking up the pace, I lead the way back to the same restaurant we ate at last night, since it’s the only place we can go to where Ping-Ping can park herself and keep an eye on me without blocking traffic. To my surprise, we find a table ready and waiting for us as the owner welcomes us into his establishment and thanks us for our patronage.

 

Finally, things are looking up. I mean, I’ve nearly died countless number of times since I arrived in the world and skipping lines hardly seems like an adequate reward, but I’ll take what I can get.

 

Unlike the owner, the restaurant’s clientele appear less than enthusiastic to see me and my family, though it probably has more to do with Roc and his squawkers settling in on the windowsills or my well-dressed bears and cats sniffing at their meals. Flashing a polite smile and apologetic looks, I herd my floofs to our table with Lin and Li Song’s help. Giggling and waving at the gawking Ping-Ping, Tali and Tate sit with their parents on either side, looking angelic with their white hair and horns peeking out from under their hoods. Similarly covered, Alsantset even went to the trouble of hiding her tiger tail as she surveys our surroundings.

 

While I’ve yet to see a local half-beast, I don’t understand why Alsantset and Lin feel the need to hide their half-beast traits. Li Song’s walking around with her cat ears and tail in plain sight, and so far nothing’s happened. Taking my seat across from my sister, I reach over and squeeze her hand while the owner lists the day’s specials. “Relax,” I Send with a wink. “Relax, everything’s gonna be fine. Your little brother is a man of status now.”

 

Rolling her eyes, Alsantset smiles and shakes her head. “Liar. We both know the Legate is using you.

 

Yea, but for what? “Doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage. Look how happy the twins are and your husband is all but drooling.” No one hates travel food more than Charok and while he is an excellent cook, there’s only so much he could do with what we have on hand.

 

I know but Papa was adamant we remain vigilant, so vigilant we shall be.” Taking a cue from Alsantset, I double check to make sure my defenders are in place. Standing between us and the other diners are Pran, Saluk, Sahb, and Dastan, with about forty more of my retinue just outside in the streets, along with the chain-smoking Guan Suo and I assume the well-hidden Jochi, Argat, and Lin’s three remaining guards. Then there’s Ping-Ping herself, peeking through the windows with both eyes wide open, making sure I don’t try to escape out the other side. I don’t know if she’ll defend me from an attack, but she makes for an intimidating deterrent. Mentor also has guards in place looking after his precious daughter and grandchildren, though I’m not privy to the details nor am I capable enough to spot them. Along with the Legate’s decree, my little group is as safe as can be, which means it’s okay to relax and enjoy myself.

 

As if the universe were out to prove me wrong, peril immediately rears its ugly head. Stomping up the stairs in military fashion, a crowd of painted young nobles march into the restaurant and fixate on my family. Exactly twenty overdressed fops and at least twice as many guards surround us and quietly intimidate our neighbours into abandoning their tables. Taking their seats, their angry glowers stifle all conversation at my table, though they do nothing else. Arms crossed and heads high, they’re careful never to reach for their weapons or make threatening gestures, and while technically they’ve broken no rules or laws, their goal is clear.

 

They’re here to goad me into a fight.

 

And it might even work. Tate and Tali are putting on a brave face, but anyone can see they’re terrified out of their minds. Alsantset and Charok can’t even take the time to comfort them since they’re busy getting ready to defend against all comers. Instead, my beautiful, adorable niece and nephew cling to one another and do their best not to cry, staring left and right with wide-eyed apprehension. Even my pets are affected by the oppressive atmosphere as they crowd around the twins in search of comfort, though Jimjam and Sarankho both seem ready to fight. Soothing my animals with Aura, I ready myself to unleash hell upon anyone who dares to threaten my family.

 

I guess lunch in the city was a terrible idea…

 

“So,” a young noble says, his voice thick with sarcasm. “This is why the Divine Turtle’s Attendant is too busy for a duel.”

 

“Now now,” chimes in another. “You must see things from his perspective. To you and I, it looks like a normal meal, but think of how much effort these savages went through to prepare for this monumental occasion.”

 

“Aye, eating lunch with a bunch of primitives takes dedicated effort.” A third voice pipes up as the others smile and chuckle.

 

“It’s fascinating, really. Look how they mimic human behaviour by wearing clothes and using cups.”

 

“It’s almost like they’re real people. So uncanny.”

 

“Went a little overboard though, he even dressed the animals.”

 

“Well, you must allow the savage a few indulgences. For all we know, one of those filthy animals is his lover, maybe even all of them.”

 

Enough.” Slamming the table, I choke down the burning rage and suppress my desire to cut down every one of these bastards who dared to insult my family. Besides, if this goes on much longer, Alsantset will kill someone. Taking a deep breath, I turn to the closest noble and growl, “So you’re the ones who sent the challenges I declined. Fine then. I accept your challenges, all of them. Right now. Where are the duelling grounds?”

 

I should’ve taken Ulfsaar’s advice and saved myself the hassle.

 

‘Escorted’ by my challengers, I stop to pay the owner on my way out. “Please have our food ready in an hour.” The gathered nobles laugh and jeer, but I ignore them and head for the arena which is conveniently located across the street. Blocked from sight by Ping-Ping’s girth stands a square, stone stage surrounded by four more empty lots just like the one Ping Ping is parked in. On stage, two painted idiots dance about with their swords for a small, barely interested crowd. In no mood to wait, I jump onto stage and interrupt their ‘match’ with a perfunctory, “Leave.”

 

To my surprise, both contestants stop fighting and scurry away, though it might have more to do with the twenty nobles following me up on stage. While I stretch, the spokesperson for the nobles turns to address the crowd. “People of Nan Ping, you know me and the warriors standing at my side. While some of us are tied by blood or faction, we are by in large an unaffiliated bunch who share but one common bond: each of us challenged the Northern Savage and each of us were spurned. However, as you can see, the Northern Savage has reconsidered his position and is here to officially accept our duels.”

 

At his words, a waiting Justicar makes his way onto stage, wearing the customary flowing black official’s robes and featureless metal mask which marks his office. “As Justicar of the Empire, I warn you, the Legate’s decree is in effect. Duels to the death will not be permitted and murderers made an example of.” Without waiting for anyone to acknowledge his words, the Justicar turns to me and says, “You are here of your own volition?”

 

“Yes.” Not really, but these bastards need to pay for threatening my family and delaying my lunch.

 

“As the challenged, how do you wish to proceed?”

 

“One on one with each challenger. Blunted weapons, until knockout or submission.” No point taking dumb risks, but I also don’t want to fight twenty duels in a row. “However, my time is valuable, and thus would like to place stakes on the battle. One thousand gold a match. No money, no fight.”

 

“Ridiculous,” scoffs a young noble. “Do you even have a thousand gold?”

 

“You realize a Second Grade Warrant Officer is paid a thousand gold a month, right?” The young noble flushes with shame, probably because he’s grossly outranked by a ‘Northern Savage’. I’m miffed they removed the ‘Undying’ part. That’s the best part. “Whatever. Li Song, may I borrow your ring and armour please?”

 

Luckily, she only hesitates for a second before agreeing, removing both with Lin and Alsantset’s help. Bringing them onto stage, she reluctantly hands them over with a small sigh before retreating to Lin’s side. At least she said yes, it would’ve been embarrassing if she refused. Handing both to the Justicar, I say, “A Runic cultivation ring and a Runic breastplate should easily sell for twenty-thousand gold, collateral if I can’t pay in full. There’s my wager gentleman, so I must insist you all pay yours upfront as well.”

 

My scheme pays off in spades. Overcome with greed, the twenty idiots agree to my terms and send their people to collect the money, all while arguing over how to split to proceeds as if my defeat and bankruptcy is guaranteed. I don’t have twenty-thousand gold in coin, but I only need to win ten matches to break even.

 

By the time the gold arrives, a large crowd has gathered to watch, shouting and clamouring as they place their wagers. Not on victory or defeat, but on how many opponents before I’m defeated. Ever confident, Alsantset and Li Song both wager on my complete victory while Lin cheers me on with the twins on Ping-Ping’s shell. My first luckless opponent is a painted young noble wearing a white robe embroidered in red, blue, purple, and green and a circlet spouting three really, really long, curved feathers, almost longer than he is tall. Approaching with a sneer, Feathered Big Bro points his blunted jian and says, “Yesterday, you humiliated my younger brother, but I am an Expert of the-”

 

Rolling my eyes, I interrupt with a loud groan. “Don’t care, didn’t know his name, don’t wanna know yours. Ready.”

 

“Arrogant savage. Ready.”

 

“Begin.”

 

Leaping back at the Justicar’s signal, Feathered Big Bro makes himself look like an idiot as I stand in place, crouched behind my practice shield. Like I’m going to charge out, there are nineteen other matches to fight. Planting my feet, I stand and patiently wait while he leaps and twirls, waving his jian around in fancy patterns to the cheers of the crowd. I don’t understand, he’s not particularly fast nor are his movements all that refined, but the audience loves it. I suppose it’s pretty to look at, with his flapping robes and fancy feathers bobbing in the wind, but it’s hardly practical. Akanai would say it’s all style and no substance, a performance instead of a battle.

 

The moment Feathered Big Bro slips in range, I strike. Lunging forward, the tip of my shortsword clips his chin and rattles his brain. The heavily Reinforced blow shatters his jaw and sends his comatose body crashing aside as his teeth rattle off the stage. Sheathing the sword, I grab Feathered Big Bro by the boot and drag him to a neutral corner, leaving a wet trail of blood behind us and soaking his pretty feathers. Returning to centre stage, I draw my shortsword and say, “Ready.”

 

That was close. If I’d connected with the side of his head or on his neck, Feathered Big Bro would be dead. A hundred percent Reinforcement is too much, gotta tone it down. Fifty maybe?

 

My second opponent is another painted idiot who looks exactly like the first, wearing a predominantly red robe with hints of white, blue, and purple. No feathers this time, but he has literal bells in his hair which jingle with every step. Maybe I’m racist but I can’t really tell these guys apart except for their clothes, so I don’t really know who said what back in the restaurant. Are they all related? Is that why everyone seems retarded? Because they’re all inbred? As Bells opens his mouth to monologue, I preemptively interrupt and say, “Ready.”

 

“I am -”

 

“Ready,” I repeat, interrupting Bells again. “I have eighteen more matches to finish before lunch in forty-five minutes, I don’t have time to listen to your verbal diarrhea.”

 

The crowd falls silent except for the twins chanting, “Verbal Diarrhea! Verbal Diarrhea! Verbal Diarrhea!”

 

Oof. I’m gonna pay for that later, Alsantset will not be pleased. Eyes narrowed in anger, Bells says, “Ready.”

 

“Begin.”

 

Darting to my left, Bells stops and tries to pivot right, stupidly pausing right in front of me. The crunch of bone fills the air as my shield slams into his face, followed by a peal of chimes as Bells drops to the stage and groans. Hmm… fifty percent Reinforcement is too little, but at least Bells isn’t choking on his teeth. Stomping his head once, I check if he’s unconscious before stomping once more for good measure. I’d forgotten how hard it is to knock someone unconscious. Sheathing my sword, I grab his boot and drag him off to join Feathered Big Bro in the corner.

 

Two down, eighteen to go, and still plenty of energy left in the tank. Is this really all they got? I mean, I understand these are mostly local kids and not indicative of the entire province, but this is way too easy. Seriously, if they’re all this bad then this’ll be the easiest twenty-thousand gold I’ve ever made, and I’ve earned tonnes of easy money.

 

Honestly, if this is what Central is like, then we might as well call it and head home. The Defiled are gonna make this province and everyone in it their bitch, and I ain’t dying for them.

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 299


Happy Valentine’s day all!

 

If you’re feeling down because you have no one to share it with, don’t worry about it. No one loves you on the other days of the year either, so why should today feel worse than any other day?

 

For realsies tho, I love you all for reading, but I don’t do butt stuff, cause poop is gross.


 

As the sun rises on our second day in Nan Ping, I celebrate our accomplishments with a nice, long stretch in bed. Things are going better than expected; Baatar and Akanai are living it up in the Magistrate’s Palace, BoShui and Fung have made a name for themselves by defeating two famous young experts, and I have yet to encounter a single assassin. Things are going much better than I expected. I thought we’d all be snubbed or met with outright hostility, but the young Legate seems to have things well in hand. When Han BoHai asked me to curry favour with the Royal Guard Captain and trash talk Central, I thought we’d have to slaughter our way out of the restaurant, but everyone sat back down and finished their meals without so much as a dirty look.

 

For the first time ever, I experienced the true advantages of power and authority, and damn does it feel good. I can’t wait to exert my authority all over Nan Ping.

 

Cuddling in bed with my goofiest of floofs Aurie, I smile as my fifteen baby bunnies go through their morning routine of running, hopping, and headbutting around the yurt like self-propelled pinballs. Growing larger with each passing day, my bicorn bunnies are almost old enough to differentiate by gender, which comes with a whole slew of problems I’d rather not deal with. As proliferate as they are, I’m probably gonna need to separate the boys and girls before they multiply exponentially and I’m up to my eyeballs in rabbits. Honestly, I’m a little surprised Aurie and Jimjam haven’t started sniffing around Sarankho. They might be siblings, but animals don’t care about things like that. I’m glad Banjo and Baloo are both boys, but their solitary, territorial nature is a whole other issue I’ll need to deal with eventually. Then there’s Roc and company, who are utterly fearless around humans and willing to peck, squawk, and steal to their hearts content. Eventually, some angry noble will hunt them down and grill them over a spit if I don’t figure out a way to keep them safe.

 

Fine. I admit it. I have a pet hoarding problem, but it’s not the worst vice in the world. I just wish they’d stay young and cute forever.

 

After washing up, I make my way to the foot of my bed and come face to face with a comatose Mama Bun, flopped out on her side atop my clothes chest. Avoiding the messy, milk-stained trap which is her belly floof, I gently stroke her whiskers until she comes awake with a snort. After a languid stretch and jiggly, full-bodied shake, she hops off the chest to feed her babies, revealing the tiny black mass of fur which was previously hidden behind her. Still barely larger than my palm, Blackjack squeaks in alarm and leaps at me, unwilling to brave the chaos on the ground as fifteen bicorn bunnies jostle and shove for a place at the breakfast table.

 

Comforting him as he burrows beneath my hands, I unleash my loving Aura to soothe his nerves. Although slightly larger than the other bunnies, Blackjack weighs far less than his herbivore cousins and can’t keep up with their rough and tumble ways. The first time I let him loose among the bunnies, he got bowled over and screamed bloody murder. The born predator and future ruler of the treetops had his foot broken by a common, thug of a bunny, which means head-banging, jump-kicking, bunny-play is out of the question. Traumatized by the incident, poor little Blackjack refuses to bond with the bunnies and will only nurse from Mama Bun after all the bunnies are done, like the runty patsy of the litter.

 

Needless to say, Taduk was not pleased by this brittle-boned, faint-hearted hare. Personally, I have a soft spot for downtrodden and after our unpleasant first encounter, we’ve now become the best of friends. Showering my hand with tiny licks, Blackjack seems determined to win my affection or is possibly reminiscing about how delicious I taste. Who knows. I hope he doesn’t bully his cousins when he gets all swole and buff, or worse… eat them.

 

Snatching up a random bunny who already finished eating, I plop it down next to Blackjack and Aurie, hoping my big goof can keep the little bun in line so Blackjack can make a new friend. Finally free to get dressed, I pull out the fanciest outfit I own, a blue, satin-silk, high-collar shirt with white pearl buttons and white-fur trim and cuffs. A gift from Taduk, I wore it to Tong Da Hai’s Magisterial challenge and in my ‘duel’ against DuGu Tian Yi. While it suffered a few nicks and tears, seamstress Cierna did a wonderful job patching it up, and while I’ve never worn it again, I pull it out from time to time to admire the beautiful stitching. Three birds taking flight from a pond while a blossoming plum-tree sits in the background, it’s a stunning work of art made by a master who has reached the pinnacle of tailoring.

 

Or so I thought until yesterday.

 

My prized silk shirt is practically utilitarian compared to the getups worn by the nobles of Central. Bright tunics peek out from under elaborately embroidered, multi-coloured, wide-sleeved robes, lacking a single patch of unadorned silk as they tell intricate tales of wisdom and courage. Complex hats and hairstyles are all the rage as men and women alike boast a variety of head-gear and hair ornaments, everything from feathered headdresses, pom-pomed hairnets, tasselled crowns, and jewelled hair clips.

 

It’s got me wondering if I should stick a handful of Roc’s feathers in my hair so I can fit in. Better yet, I could train him to sit on my head like a living ornament. Get on my level Central, though the bird poop will probably ruin the whole effect. Wearing Banjo around like a back-pack is probably a better choice, but his claws will definitely tear the silk.

 

Jealous as I am of everyone’s magnificent and time-consuming outfits, I can’t say the same for their heavy layers of makeup. I always figured opera actors wore exaggerated and outlandish makeup for effect, but every noble in Central looks ready to step on stage and sing their heart out. Painted white faces and red or black rouge around the eyes is the norm, though others go to much greater lengths to stand out. While individually, most people look downright ridiculous, when they gather in a group, they blend together into a pleasing composite of opposing imagery, like how a collage of dissimilar images and varying colours creates a different, overall impression when viewed from afar.

 

While the Legate wasn’t quite so ostentatiously dressed, I felt extremely out of place arriving in travel-stained cotton clothes. As the Divine Turtle’s Attendant, I should try to look the part of heaven-blessed hero, or at least avoid looking like a common mercenary. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to properly dress myself in my fancy shirt, pants, and sash, a far more complicated process than clothes have any right to be. Folding up my fancy threads, I pick out a more practical outfit, a brown, fitted, high-collared tunic and pants. I still look pretty fancy compared to my normal loose shirts and baggy pants, but without ornamental embroidery or expensive buttons, it lacks a certain flair.

 

Whatever, doesn’t matter if I’m wearing plain shirts with bone buttons, I still have my stunning amber eyes to dazzle the masses. I’d like to see the nobles of Central try to copy those, because I look handsome and fabulous.

 

At least, that’s what Lin tells me and I choose to believe her.

 

Rescuing Blackjack from the bullying bunny’s attentions, I carry the trembling hare out the yurt while leaving the bunnies to their own devices. After feeding fifteen babies, Mama Bun’s gonna need an hour or two to rest and reload her milk-bags while her babies nap, which gives me enough time to eat and train unhindered. Luckily, Blackjack is old enough to nibble on dried jerky with Roc’s flock, putting his little chubby cheeks hard to work atop Ping-Ping’s head. My terrapin stalker greets me with a beaky smile, though considering how massive her mouth is, it’s more than a little terrifying.

 

“Good morning.” Dug into sleeping pit, Ping-Ping’s chin rests on the dirt, perfectly positioning her dark, forward-facing eyes to stare deep into mine. Ugly as she is, I only sense warmth and good-will emanating from her as she gently nudges me for a hug. Happily obliging, I whisper, “Sorry sweetie, I know you want more water but you need to wait until tonight.” Fewer eyes to spy upon my dealings, but her emphatic insistence makes me feel like a drug dealer. I still don’t understand what she loves about the water, nor have any of my other animals shown any changes since I began feeding it to them. Either way, Ping-Ping gets super cranky if she doesn’t get her daily fix and I don’t want to deal with a turtle temper tantrum, especially not when said turtle can crush me underfoot.

 

Leaving Ping-Ping to chill in the dirt, I enjoy a light breakfast with my family before heading off for my morning constitutional. That’s the worst part about Nan Ping, the flatlands stretch out in all directions as far as the eye can see, so it’s almost impossible to find a sheltered place to poop in. Lacking any other option, I had my officer’s tent set up by the latrines and dug a two meter deep hole inside for my personal use.

 

Pooping is serious business. Controlling water is merely the first step towards building my personal, indoor, flush-able toilet. If I can’t science the shit out of my chamber pot, I’ll magic it out.

 

After practising the Forms outside my yurt, I call a mini-meeting inside to discuss the minutiae of leadership with my top brass, Rustram, Dastan, and Ulfsaar. The big bear earned a spot in my inner circle through diligent competence and raw strength, easily the most capable warrior of my retinue, and while Dastan and Wang Bao are almost his match, I can’t really give an Oathsworn slave or former Butcher an official rank. Bulat is still my number three after Rustram, but he’s busy running drills and keeping order in the camp. Every person plays their part in keeping my retinue together, and I’m grateful for their assistance.

 

Doing my best to look dignified while a horde of bunnies scamper around us and Blackjack nurses from Mama Bun, I stand tall, cross my hands behind my back, and say, “Report.” Gotta work on my image, and practice makes perfect.

 

Rustram starts off. “Our men are all settled in and the camp well defended. Though we couldn’t find lumber for fences, I improvised and used the lattice walls from extra yurts. They’re not the sturdiest walls and the soldiers are sleeping four to a yurt, but they’ll sleep better knowing there’s a barrier to stand and fight behind. We’ve enough dried rations for three more days, but a fresh meal would be much appreciated.”

 

Mm… kinda makes me feel guilty for going out for dinner last night, but those are the perks of leadership. I should take the family out for lunch, they’ll love it. More importantly, I’ll love it, and we don’t have to worry about arrogant young nobles ruining everything. “The Legate implemented strict policies to discourage hoarding or price gouging, but we’re still on our own when it comes to luxuries like fresh meat and vegetables. What are the restrictions on hunting or fishing?” How does everyone keep such perfect posture? It’s been like twenty seconds and I’m already hunched over again.

 

I haven’t gotten around to reading the long scroll of rules, but Rustram and Dastan have it covered. There are oodles of guidelines to keep in mind, but they’re necessary for Nan Ping’s continued existence. If we over-hunt and over-fish the region to extinction, the city will be forced to import food for years while the region recovers. It’s an optimistic view considering the Defiled are probably gonna pillage the city and burn it to the ground in a couple of months, but what do I know?

 

No no, positive thoughts. We’ll win.

 

Totally.

 

Maybe.

 

I dunno, it’s too early to tell.

 

After half an hour of back and forth, we finally come up with a reasonable plan. First, we send Rustram and Chey into town for fresh supplies, while Wang Bao and Ulfsaar ride north to hunt. The other four officers remain in camp and hold the fort. It’s kinda shitty for the Emperor to order us here and make us pay for food and accommodations, but them’s the breaks.

 

Once the issue of supplies has been settled, Dastan hands me a bag of scrolls, all with the wax seals still affixed. In response to my raised eyebrow, he smiles and says, “Letters of Challenge. You’re a popular man, boss.”

 

Ugh. There’s like… twenty of them, do I really look that weak? Maybe I need a beard or something. If only my hair growth formula worked on cheeks and chins. Or maybe I should be like Gerel and go bald. He’s kinda intimidating, I guess, but he’s also tall and intense, which I can’t really mimic. “Do I have to respond to each one individually? How does this work?”

 

“If you accept a challenge, then you pick a second and send them to the duelling grounds to arrange everything. Otherwise,” Dastan says with a shrug, “you burn the letter and ignore the jeers.”

 

Perfect. “Sound’s great. Burn them publicly and say something about me being too busy looking after the Divine Turtle. Next?”

 

“A word of caution, boss.” Ulfsaar’s soft-spoken manner belies his ferocious reputation, but he’s a decent sort all around. The bunnies certainly love him, crowding around his ankles and headbutting his boots. Or maybe they think he’s a threat. “Doing so would be unwise,” he says without trying to spare my feelings. “Strength is respected and cowardice spurned. You conquered unworthy foes before the Magistrate, yet sat silent when faced with true challengers, which leads others to believe you were protected by the young magistrate and young patriarch. These challenges are a test, and refusing to fight and offering an excuse will only earn you scorn and stoke their courage.”

 

“True… but I know nothing about Central’s talents and it’s a waste of time fighting them one by one.” Nor am I brave enough to randomly pick eight and fight them all at once. That’s Baledagh’s thing. “Any suggestions?”

 

Smiling, Ulfsaar nods and says, “Burn the challenges.”

 

… “Wasn’t that the plan to begin with?”

 

“No boss.” Lightly poking me in the chest, Ulfsaar says, “Burn them yourself at the duelling grounds and belittle your challengers. Then, find and defeat Central’s strongest for all to see. This will put an end to their games.”

 

My people have far too much faith in my abilities. Ryo Geom-Chi and Tam Taewoong didn’t seem too impressive, but they were both drunk and probably unused to fighting without their Spiritual Weapons, while Fung and BoShui have had months of practise without them. Most people forget that Spiritual Weapons are a large part of a warrior’s strength, as the Binding ritual makes it a part of you. At times, it’s like the weapon is guiding you along, teaching you the proper way to kill and fight. Using an unfamiliar weapon is like running in uncomfortable shoes or swimming fully clothed, a handicap which can easily throw you off. Besides, duelling isn’t my strong suit, not when the fight ends at first blood. Most of my prowess comes from my ability to trade injuries and outlast my opponent.

 

In short, there’s more to lose then there is to gain, so no dice. “Let’s keep that plan in our pocket, should we need it. No sense in ruffling anyone’s feathers unless we need to.” Unperturbed by my refusal, Ulfsaar nods knowingly as if I have a master plan in mind. Crazy bastard probably thinks I’m waiting on a bigger audience or more formidable foes or something.

 

After seeing Rustram, Dastan, and Ulfsaar out the yurt, I reward myself for completing my occupational obligations with a bunny cuddle session. Unleashing the full strength of my loving Aura, I lay down and giggle while a horde of bunnies hop, flop, and snuggle around me, all ecstatic to be in my presence. I can only target three at a time, but even after my Aura switches to a new target, the bunnies either still remember how it feels or are too dumb to notice it’s gone.

 

Whatever. This is pure bliss. Fluffy, cuddly, bunny bliss.

 

Everything comes to an abrupt end as Ping-Ping stands and makes her hunger known with a loud, adorable squeak. Reluctantly packing the bunnies into their saddlebag, I bring them out of the yurt to find a famished turtle impatiently waiting for me to follow. The big girl eats a lot but refuses to go hunting in the sea unless I wait by the beach. It’s ridiculous, but what other options do I have? Lightening myself, I hop onto her back and enjoy the ride as she scurries towards the sandy beach, less than five minutes south of my yurt. Packed to the brim with Sentinels and quins, they all make way for Ping-Ping as she barrels towards them. Hopping off before she reaches the water, I wave goodbye as she heads out for lunch. Pausing before she submerges, Ping-Ping turns and cocks her head, as if asking why I’m not coming along.

 

Ha, like hell I’m going to swim out into kraken infested waters. I’d rather starve. “Go on without me!” I yell, waving goodbye. “Have fun.” I’m not sure if she understands what I’m saying, but Ping-Ping snorts and heads out into the Azure Sea. Thankfully, the Legate’s fishing rules only applies to people so the giant turtle and our massive pack of roosequins are free to scour the Azure Sea clean of clams, mussels, fish, and whatever else they eat.

 

Better to take everything and leave nothing behind for the Enemy. If I had my way, I’d burn all of Central and salt the earth in my wake, before going home to the North to hide behind our giant-ass walls.

 

…I wonder if I can train a quin to bring crabs back? I’m not a huge fan of seafood, but last night, Li Song ordered this delicious, spicy, deep-fried crab which was to die for. Ping Ping usually takes around thirty minutes to eat, helped along by the pack of quins driving food towards her, so after she comes back, we’ll head into town for lunch. While I feel bad for my retinue who are stuck outside the city, I can’t bring myself to choke down another meal of dried meat and hard bread. Things got so bad, I even had a dream of eating Mama Bun, which is a big no-no since Guard Leader would kill me if…

 

 

Where’s Mama Bun?

 

Spotting a hairy white blob floating in the water, I choke on my spit and hand my saddlebag of bunnies to the closest Sentinel. “Hold that, I’ll be right back.” Running into the water, I leap over the gentle waves until the water’s deep enough to dive in, reaching the half-drowned Mama Bun in less than thirty seconds. Panicked and afraid, she bites and claws at my hands until I lift her clean out of the water, shocking her into stunned compliance. After giving her time to recuperate, I lower her gently to my chest and swim backwards to shore, consoling the poor, shivering, stupid bunny the entire time. “There’s a good bun-bun,” I say in my sweetest voice. “Everything’s gonna be all right. You must be the dumbest creature alive, yes you are. I have no idea how you survived this long. Why would you run out into the sea if you don’t know how to swim?”

 

Seriously dumb. How am I supposed to keep fifteen more of them alive? I guess I need harnesses. And help, lots of help. This is my life now. Falling Rain, Turtle Attendant and Rabbit Lifeguard.

 

Oh well. At least she got a bath. The rancid rabbit milk was really starting to stink.

Chapter Meme

 

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