“Here you go, Rain my boy.” Gingerly handing me Sir Inky’s egg-sized stone, Taduk shuffles off to the other end of the boat and clasps his hands together, possibly in prayer but more likely to stop himself from stealing the stone back. His brow furrowed in anguish, Taduk’s gaze is firmly locked on the tiny patch of Spiritual Algae left behind, barely enough to cover the nail on my pinky finger. It pains his heart to part with even this minuscule amount, but it’s for a good cause.
It’s weird though. For as long as I’ve known him, Taduk’s goal has been to cultivate a garden full of Spiritual Plants, but he’s never been covetous of the plants themselves. Back at the Bekhai village, he had twenty-three Spiritual Plants within walking distance of his warren, but he didn’t harvest a single one. Every week he’d bring me and Lin out on a day trip to check on one or two of the plants, though now that I know he can run across empty sky, I’m fairly certain sure those trips were mostly an excuse for the three of us to spend more time together.
I’m glad he did. Those trips through the beautiful mountain forests are among my safest and happiest memories. Back then, every time I went out on my own, I almost always inevitably encountered a close brush with death, but with Taduk and Lin at my side? Not even once. Well, that’s not true, there was the time Lin almost let a flock of giant birds carry her off a cliff because she refused to let go of her captured kite, but that’s the only time I almost died when they were both nearby. Again, I now know it’s because Taduk has OP shadow guards watching his back, but back then I thought Taduk and Lin were my lucky charm, keeping me safe and sheltered from all the scariness in the world.
Thinking back on those days, Charok and Alsantset were pretty negligent letting tween me wander the mountain on my own, but I guess they respected my need for space and solitude. At least they had the sense to insist I bring Pafu and Suret with me else who knows what sort of animal poop I’d end up as. Snake, bear, boar, bird, wildcat, the list goes on.
As much as I’d enjoy a long trip down memory lane, the big takeaway is that Taduk had easy access to multiple Spiritual Plants, but left them untouched for years until Guard Leader uprooted them to feed Mama Bun and her babies. Poor Taduk, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but what I don’t get is why he’s making such a big fuss about losing this bit of Spiritual Algae. Its only real value is its ability to replicate, and according to him, the Algae hasn’t done so since we stole it from Sir Inky. Considering how quickly algae grows, with some strains doubling in size every day, then it stands to reason this Spiritual Algae’s replication process requires more than just sunlight and water.
Enter, the octopus. Opening the lid on Sir Inky’s portable home, which is merely a cauldron by another name, I greet the molesting face-hugger with a cheery smile and hope he’s in an obliging mood. Familiar with our routine, Sir Inky pulls himself up onto the cauldron’s rim and stretches his tentacles towards my wrist, ready to enjoy his hour of bobbing around in the bay. Eyes widening in alarm, Sir Inky zooms in on the stone clenched in my fist and tilts his head, giving my knuckles a polite tap-tap before shooting me a hopeful look.
Either I’m projecting human emotions onto Sir Inky or this octopus is wicked smart and has learned how to read and give social cues. Even though he tried to impregnate my face and is still a weird, lumpy, alien-looking thing, Sir Inky is starting to grow on me. Okay, so long as he shares his secret horticultural skills with us inferior-brained, land-dwelling bipeds, I’ll overlook his previous transgressions and call off the octopus genocide I have in the works.
Plucking the stone from my open palm with a dexterous tentacle, Sir Inky gives it a thorough inspection through squinted eyes. Quivering from head to… chin, I guess, he tucks the stone under his tentacles and into his mouth before closing his eyes in sheer satisfaction. A few seconds later, he pulls the stone back out and plops it into my still open palm, wet, slimy, and Spiritual Algae free.
…I don’t know why I thought this would go differently. A blind man could’ve seen this coming.
Unbothered by Taduk’s shrill shrieks of disbelief, Sir Inky slides back into his cauldron and settles down for a nap, presumable to digest his Spiritual Algae snack. With no choice but to accept things as they are, I cover Sir Inky up and head over to soothe my distraught teacher’s temper. There’s little I can do though, with no more clever plans or schemes to offer. Whatever his secret, Sir Inky doesn’t seem inclined to share, all too happy in his new, comfortable home.
I can’t blame him either. I mean he has free food, shelter, and a chance for sex. He’s got it good.
An hour later, after Ping Ping finishes her afternoon swim and the quins are all tuckered out, we head back to shore where I immediately order my men to move Sir Inky’s tub out of Taduk’s yurt and into the safety of my own. Praying he doesn’t go full tentacle beast and rape me in my sleep, I change clothes and get ready for my business dinner with Yo Shi-Woo. The name sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve heard it before. All I know is what Yuzhen wrote in response to my request for a recommendation, that Yo Shi-Woo is the younger cousin of Central’s Marshal Yo Jeong-Hun and well equipped to aid me in my venture. All I need are able hands, sharp minds, a place to work, and a mountain of raw resources. Then, if everything goes according to plan, the rest will fall into place and open the doors for an age of innovation and discovery.
Then again, when does anything ever go as planned?
Wishing I had Diyako, Husolt, or really, anyone smart here with me, I head over to Luo-Luo’s yurt and knock on her door. Cracking open ever so slightly, an unfamiliar face peeks out and asks, “Who is it?”
Did I knock on the wrong yurt? “Er… Falling Rain. Is Luo-Luo in?”
“Ah, Lord Husband.” Luo-Luo’s voice sounds from within the yurt, and she adds, “Invite him in little Sorya, but remember to close the door behind him.”
“Yes Lady Luo-Luo.” Opening the door enough for me to squeeze through, Sorya, a fetching young woman wearing flowing white robes and two silk ribbons in her hair. “Master Rain, the Lady bids you enter.”
Uncomfortable with all this formality, I step inside where I’m immediately assaulted by all manner of pleasant scents. Towering over her wooden partition, Luo-Luo greets me with a bare-shouldered smirk, obviously in the middle of changing. With great effort, I tear my gaze away from the tantalizing sight of her exposed skin and focus on the fully-clothed woman beside her, almost an exact copy of Sorya helping Luo-Luo get dressed. Picking up on the unspoken question, my concubine introduces the two strangers as her new handmaidens, Sorya and Anrhi. It turns out they’re Jorani’s sisters, both former slaves in Sanshu and freed by Jorani after the first attack on the merchant convoy. Following him back to the Wall, they were here in Nan Ping serving as camp followers, helping launder clothes, cook meals, and perform other miscellaneous tasks my soldiers are too inept to handle.
Akanai wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of bringing non-combatants to Nan Ping, but the former bandits in my retinue have no concept of hygiene or cleanliness, much less the ability to cook anything besides charred meat. All it took was a single week at the Wall without camp followers and my Grand Mentor caved, disgusted by the horrid conditions my retinue were willing to tolerate. It’s partially my fault. Between training, recovering, sleeping, and sentry duties, they don’t really have time for anything else. Not everyone can be like me and only sleep four hours a night. Hell, even I can’t keep it up anymore, I’m so tired all the time now…
Nodding at the two handmaidens, I say, “Welcome. Thank you for taking care of Luo-Luo.” Feeling my self-control waning, I head for the door while speaking over my shoulder. “I’ll wait outside. Come out when you’re done.”
“Sorya, don’t let him leave.”
Leaping to obey, the little handmaiden blocks the door with her body, her eyes widening in terror as realization sinks in. Sparing the poor girl my displeasure, I turn back to find Luo-Luo grinning like a cat, evidently pleased by her new handmaiden’s loyalty. “Lord Husband,” she begins, her voice sweet and seductive, “This one begs forgiveness, but she would be remiss in her newly appointed duties. Sorya, help Lord Husband look presentable as we discussed.”
“Yes Lady Luo-Luo. Master Rain, please sit.”
Taking the proffered stool, I resign myself to my makeover while Luo-Luo slowly gets dressed, pretending not to notice my errant stares while doing everything she can to ‘nonchalantly’ entice me. Eventually, I lower my head and stare at my feet, shutting out the inviting smells, sights, and sounds as I reach for Balance, but sweet relief is denied me for the second time today. Before, I was too sad, but now, I’m too… agitated.
Yea, lets go with ‘agitated’.
Twenty hellish minutes of brushing, clipping, tucking, and straightening later, Luo-Luo deems my appearance ‘presentable’ and we set out for our meeting. With the Death Corps soldiers jogging alongside, I endure a hellish scene of tantalizing seduction as I cram into Taduk’s rickshaw with Luo-Luo, Lin, and Li Song. Too small to hold four people, Lin seats herself in my lap and leans into my embrace, while Luo-Luo rests the side of her breast against my shoulder, holding my arm tight so I can’t escape from her long rendition of things I’m not supposed to do or say. It’s not like I have anywhere to escape to, since Li Song sits on my other side in full armour, her arms crossed and eyes daring me to make a move so she finally has an excuse to cut me down once and for all.
Well, that last bit is probably all in my head. Maybe. Hopefully? Truth is, I didn’t expect her to come along, with Mila busy doing her Captain competition, I guess Li Song has no where else to go. It seems I really am stuck with her for the rest of my life, but it wouldn’t be so terrible if she didn’t hate me so much. Plus, now she’s lecturing me about brushing my pets everyday? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Also inviting themselves along, Ping-Ping follows behind with all my pets in tow, Shana, Zabu, Mafu, and the pups included. Luckily, I had the foresight to warn my hosts of this possibility and asked they not prepare any food for the Guardian Turtle or any of my pets. Frankly, they’re all getting too fat, and adorable as it is watching Roc scurry around like a chicken, it breaks my heart to see him left behind as his flock soars through the skies without him.
Sorry my floofies, but its time all of you went on a diet. Even Mama Bun and her babies are getting kinda round, and they’re vegetarians. I need you all to live long and happy lives so you can keep my family company after I’m dead and gone.
After resisting my erotic urges during the longest half hour of my life, my trip in the Rickshaw of Excessive Temptation comes to an end as we pull into view of the Yo Family estate, a stately, elegant riverfront manor in central Nan Ping. Waiting at the gates is Yo Shi-Woo himself, a man in his mid-fifties, alongside two familiar, painted faces which set off alarms in my head. Feathered Big Bro and Snivelling Young Fop stand together at Yo Shi-Woo’s side, their fake smiles doing little to hide the smouldering rage and blistering dissatisfaction burning in their glares. I don’t blame them either, I beat the crap out of both on my first day in Nan Ping. I even gave a whole speech about how useless Snivelling Young Fop was, humiliated and shamed him by comparing him to my other defeated foes. Why would Yuzhen send me here? Is she trying to get me killed?
Despite my reservations, I approach with Luo-Luo and Lin clinging to my arms, ready to defend them with my life if need be. It doesn’t seem necessary as the Yo family patriarch bows at the waist and greets me with what looks like a genuine smile. “Yo Shi-Woo greets Imperial Consort. Your grace honours this one’s humble home with your presence.” Turning to his children, he frowns and says, “What are you two waiting for? Don’t be rude, greet the Imperial Consort.”
I’ll never hear that title and not feel ashamed. Falling Rain, Imperial Manwhore, reporting for duty. Ugh. Mistaking the reason for my displeasure, Yo Shi-Woo growls at his sons who hop to obey, introducing themselves as Yo Chong-Woo and Yo Sung-Hun. Regular names are hard enough to remember, but Central really pushes the envelope. Still, I make an effort to remember which one is which, but almost immediately forget as Shi-Woo brings us inside and introduces the rest of his family, alongside a few close family friends who just ‘happened’ to be here visiting. Luo-Luo warned me this might happen, so out of respect, I smile and nod through a hundred or so introductions while Lin, Li Song, and Luo-Luo head inside to settle down and freshen up.
I’m so glad I requested a private meeting. Who knows how many people would be here if I hadn’t.
The good news is that after the introductions, Shi-Woo shoos everyone out the door and brings me to his private garden for dinner and drinks. As per usual with the people of this world, no one’s supposed to discuss business before the food is cleared away, but the problem is, the Yo family prepared a lot of food. As the only prominent guest, I can’t even enjoy the meal in silence as I’m forced to make polite yet awkward small talk with Shi-Woo while his sons sullenly push food around their bowls. Lin, Li Song, and Luo-Luo are all free to eat to their hearts content, and in an uncharacteristic display of good behaviour, Lin even conducts herself as a proper young lady should, her smile dazzling and manners impeccable throughout the entire meal.
It’s adorable, almost as adorable as all my pets lined up and drooling behind me. Except for Ping Ping, the big girl doesn’t drool, and she seems content to nap next to the fish pond too small for her to swim in.
Thankfully, all of Luo-Luo’s careful warnings pay off and I miraculously make it through dinner without offending our host too much. Once the servants clear away the last course, I settle in to do what I came here for, strike up a partnership with the Yo Family and get cast iron items into the hands of the people. Following the pre-arranged script Luo-Luo had me memorize before hand, I delegate this arduous task to my business-minded concubine and sit back to enjoy my tiny cup of warm rice wine.
Truth be told, I’m pretty impressed with how Luo-Luo handles herself, especially given how male-dominant the Empire can be. She never outright refuses or corrects Shi-Woo, only making an inference here or a suggestion there, allowing him to reach to the conclusion on his own. It’s silly, some of the strongest warriors I know are women, but the gender bias is real. I should do something to fix it, but how?
Even though I understand every word exchanged, at times it feels like they’re speaking in a different language as they jump from one topic to the next with seamless effort. From the price of grain to the distance between provinces, or the population of Nan Ping and how many people drink tea or cook their own meals. I don’t understand what they’re rambling on about or how any of it is connected, but Shi-Woo seems impressed and enthusiastic, so I figure it’s in my best interests to keep my mouth shut and let the smarter people talk.
No Rain, don’t let your ego get in the way. You’re an idiot, remember? Be quiet and nurse your delicious wine. This is good, you got the schemes and Luo-Luo’s got the know how.
Five cups later and it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open. Not because I’m drunk but because Luo-Luo’s nonsensical conversation with Shi-Woo is putting me to sleep. Luckily, I’m not the only one as the currently featherless Feathered Big Bro also looks ready to crash. Snivelling Young Fop seems to be following along well enough, and even chimes in to mention something about art and decor, to which Shi-Woo and Luo-Luo both nod in approval.
I don’t get it. What does any of this have to do with cast iron?
Noticing my boredom, Shi-Woo chuckles and says, “The night grows late and these dealings tiresome. Let me speak with my people to set things in motion, and our representatives can discuss the details of our arrangement in the morning.” Clapping twice, he summons a swarm of scantily dressed maids into the courtyard, a neat trick I’d like to learn sometime, so long as Mila doesn’t murder me for it. Claiming old age and infirmity have taken their toll, Shi-Woo excuses himself from the festivities and leaves me with his two hostile sons as the maids play a merry tune and dance for my pleasure.
It quickly becomes evident this isn’t a dance meant for children, and Lin is less than pleased. Li Song is downright murderous, but in my defence, I didn’t ask for this. At least Luo-Luo isn’t glaring daggers in my general direction. In fact, she seems pleased by this turn of events, though why, I don’t know. Either way, I put a stop to the music and the dancing as soon as I can, waving my hands for silence and definitely not in panic. Making eye contact with Feathered Big Bro, I smile and say, “As much as I appreciate the effort, I am a man more accustomed to quiet gatherings.”
Taking the hint, Feathered Big Bro dismisses the maids with a wave of his hand, though not before wrinkling his nose in silent disappointment. Equally displeased, but less diplomatic about it, Snivelling Young Fop snorts and says, “Spineless. Falling Rain speaks and you jump to do his bidding, how fitting. Do you even know how much those girls cost?”
…Is he slow in the head? He literally gave up without a fight and he has the audacity to criticize his stronger older brother? At least Feathered Big Bro was brave enough to face me. Reminding myself to play nice, I try and be upfront about things. “Let’s clear the air.” Filling both of their cups, I lift my ridiculously tiny wine cup in both hands and offer a toast. “While we may have had a rocky start, why don’t we treat today as a new beginning in our relationship. Let bygones be bygones, our former enmity merely water under the bridge. A toast, to this collaboration between our two groups.”
“Pei.” Emboldened by too many cups of wine, Snivelling Young Fop dumps his wine on the ground, which I guess is supposed to infuriate me. It’s a little inconvenient, because now my fur babies will want to come over for a taste, but otherwise, I couldn’t care less. “You think you have us fooled?” Snivelling Young Fop asks, his face red with fury and drink. “You know as well as I, you’re nothing but a puppet, a figurehead for whoever stands -”
Hand over his little brother’s mouth, Feathered Big Bro puts and end to Snivelling Young Fop’s rant. “My apologies,” he says, still struggling with the younger hothead. “My brother has had too much to drink. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
“It’s fine. Let him go.” Waving Feathered Big Bro out of the way, I drain my cup and settle back into my chair. I’d much rather have a comfy couch, something I can sink into, but then again, I could hardly expect to find one out in the garden. Pouring myself another cup, I do away with civility as I address Snivelling Young Fop. “You’re unhappy because of the things I said after you tried to yield during our duel.” Draining my cup, I sigh and continue. “I stand by my words. You’re a snivelling little brat who has no place on the battlefield. Being there will only get yourself killed, or worse, someone important killed.”
Feathered Big Bro grabs Snivelling Young Fop’s shoulder and shakes his head, shifting his body in front of the little shit just in case I feel like attacking them. He’s a good big brother, but Snivelling Young Fop needs to learn his lesson. “You’re a smart kid. No really, I mean it. You’re smart. Why not follow in your father’s footsteps? You think all this was easily earned? No, it took hard work and dedication, generations to build up this much wealth, so why not continue the tradition? Armies need quartermasters just as much as they need generals, if not more, so why trade good food, good wine, and a beautiful home, for a soldier’s life?”
Surprised by the question, Snivelling Young Fop blinks in question and looks to his brother for advice, but Feathered Big Bro is just as lost. With the confidence of youth, Snivelling Young Fop musters his courage and replies, “I want t-to fight the Defiled and f-find honour and glory in battle.”
“Hah!” Moving to pour myself another tiny cup, Li Song takes the pot of rice wine and shifts it out of reach. Resigned to my fate, I rest my head on the table fix Snivelling Young Fop with a sad smile. “See, now I know you’ve never been to battle. I mean, I could’ve guessed, but your answer gave it away.” Time for a truth bomb, one he needs to hear. “A soldier’s lot is one of sacrifice. You leave the warmth and comfort of home and family and trade it for a hard cot in a drafty tent. You spend hours riding and marching, training and patrolling, always watching for the Enemy’s approach. When nothing happens, you’re relieved, but bored beyond belief, because there’s nothing to do except wait and pray the time for action never comes.”
Closing my eyes, the memories of war flood through my mind, all the discomfort, exhaustion, and sheer terror of battle, the close calls and near deaths all made real once more. “But it will. Action always comes, and when it does, there’s no time to think. You take up your weapon and you fight, because that’s the only option left to you. You fight, and you fight, and you fight, and you pray the battle ends before you can fight no more.”
Voice dropping to a whisper, I sigh and conclude, “There is no honour or glory in battle. There is only victory or death.”
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