Savage Divinity – Chapter 387

 

There is something profoundly wrong with me.

 

I have a good life. Better than good. A great life, with so many people who love and care about me. In this room alone, I have the radiant Mila with her lustrous red hair, a perfect match for her fiery personality which had her ready to rend flesh and break bone as retribution for my injuries. With one arm wrapped around my waist, she uses the other to feed me spicy fish balls and salted fried squid, knowing I’ll need more calories in the coming days to regrow my missing hand and foot. Meeting my grin with a ferocious scowl, her button nose scrunches up in darling disapproval as my hand slides down her lower back and under her long shirt. Shoving a piece of squid into my mouth, she none-too-gently directs my gaze away with her chopsticks, wielded deftly in her left hand to reveal yet another of her hidden talents.

 

While doing nothing about my hand clamped to her firm yet supple butt cheek.

 

Turning my attention to the other side, Lin happily nibbles away while snuggled in my (fortunately handless) embrace, wholly unperturbed by my raw and exposed injuries. Never one to sit still, she bounces in place to an unheard beat, her head bobbing from one side to the next as she thoroughly enjoys the late night snack and company. Unable to resist her charming allure, I plant a kiss on her temple and smile as she leans into it, favouring me with a contented grin before reaching for more food, moving carefully so not as to disturb the snoring Mama Bun or reveal the adorable Pong Pong resting in her embrace.

 

While the powerful turtle and sleepy bun buns aren’t interested in our late night snack, the same can’t be said for the rest of my pets. Creeping closer in hopes of a treat, they lick their jowls and nudge our arms until Li Song reveals a bag of dried meat hidden in the folds of her blanket. Doling them out with a ghost of a smile, Li Song is rewarded with nuzzles and headbutts which she accepts with impassive serenity. The massive gulf between us still exists, but it’s shrunk considerably since we first met, seeing how she no longer insists on treating me like a dangerous predator and can relax in my presence, not to mention endlessly nag me about brushing my floofs. There’s still a long way to go before either of us are willing to even consider Lin’s notion of us as a happy couple, assuming she’s the mysterious candidate for my fifth wife. Either way, I’m glad to have her around since I’d get nothing done if it wasn’t for her helping out with my pets, and if things develop further, well… I’d count myself lucky to call this beautiful, stoic, half-cat my wife.

 

Though less lucky if our marriage is a loveless, sexless sham…

 

Speaking of sham marriages, Luo-Luo sits with perfect posture on the other side of the table, droning on about the political climate and whatnot. Wrapped in a soft summer cloak, it’s not enough to hide her voluptuous frame, so tantalizingly displayed by the sheer, seductive nightgown underneath. I know this is important and I should listen to what she says, but it’s hard to concentrate when the mere act of breathing makes her exposed body jiggle in so many enticing ways. Sometimes, I wish she had a horrible attitude or a grating voice, some negative trait I can focus on to keep her at arms length, but between her melodic articulation and eager willingness to please, only my illogical prejudice and dumb luck have kept me from succumbing to her considerable charms.

 

Not even the nauseating memory of what happened in my poop tent is enough to diminish my enthusiasm…

 

“Lord Husband? Is this permissible?”

 

Abandoning my efforts to peer through her nightgown, I look up and almost lose myself in her eyes, as deep and fathomless as the Azure Sea. Thankfully, in her moment of triumph, Luo-Luo’s mask slips and she allows herself a smug smirk of self-satisfaction which douses my ardour with cold clarity. For all her beauty and charms, I cannot forget she is a cunning and conniving social chameleon, one trained to use her brain, body, and beauty as weapons only marginally less dangerous than sword or spear. Who knows if she’s really a nervous, apprehensive young woman caught out of her element, or a devious trickster playing me like she (presumably) plays the zither. The Legate and his Seneschal were clear about their intentions, which means Luo-Luo’s true loyalties are still suspect.

 

I can almost see it. Her robes need to move a half – no, a quarter centimetre to the side all will be revealed…

 

“Yea…” Drawing out the single word, I shake my head and say, “The gift and apology are fine, but leave out the bit about proving my loyalty. I wouldn’t want to give him the wrong idea. I mean, it’s nice having the Legate in our corner, but I want nothing to do with his plans and schemes.” Speaking over Mila’s indignant surprise and Luo-Luo’s fretful agitation, I push on and explain, “Oversell and under deliver, it’s the oldest trick in the book. The Legate’s offer sounds nice, but what is he actually promising? Fame and reputation? Pass. Imperial secrets to make me stronger? I doubt they’ll come without a steep cost, one I’m unwilling to pay. So what’s left? I get to be his morale-raising figurehead, a beacon of hope for the hopeless masses. So bothersome. I’ll do it if that’s what’s best for the Empire, but I’d really rather not.” Stifling a yawn, I conclude, “I’ll happily cooperate and work alongside him, but if he expects blind, unquestioning loyalty, then he’s setting himself up for disappointment.”

 

Cutting through Luo-Luo’s shocked silence and Mila’s miffed mutterings, Lin’s chiming tittering is a balm for the soul. “Rainy’s the best,” she declares, popping up to kiss my cheek. “He doesn’t need any stinky Imperial secrets to become strong, he’ll get there himself, ya?”

 

I’m not gonna lie, I was thinking the same thing, but I’m too modest to say it outright. I mean, even knowing a reliable path to martial greatness exists is enough to ignite my inquisitive spirit. What’s their secret? Is it drugs? Secret Forms? Time dilation chambers? Memory transmission? Who knows, but I’m raring to find out. I already know I’ll need a massive Natal Palace, so I’ll take it one step at a time and see where it goes from there.

 

“So what is Lord Husband’s plan of action?”

 

Sputtering my lips, I respond to Luo-Luo’s question with a helpless shrug. “Dunno. Send him the letter and a gift I guess. Maybe delay our inevitable falling out for as long as possible and pray the war ends before it happens. You think he likes roosters? There’s one carved from jade in the wagon somewhere, or are jade roosters grounds for a grudge-ing?”

 

Unamused by my flippant attitude, Luo-Luo quietly says, “This one urges Lord Husband to rethink his decision, for men like Shen ZhenWu do not respond well to disappointment. There are many benefits to be gleaned in his service, but should he deem Lord Husband a threat, then we can only wait for death.”

 

God dammit. Since they were called away to an important, military meeting, I never got a chance to talk to Akanai or Baatar about the Legate. Taduk passed along the broad strokes through Sending, but they only responded with a simple, “Do as you see fit,” which I find grossly irresponsible of them. Then again, if they were in my place, I’m almost positive they’d reach the same decision I have. They’ll work with the Legate, but not for him.

 

“Look at it this way.” Doing my best to ease her worries and maybe convince her of my motivations in case she’s passing info back to the Legate, I shrug one more time and say, “If he’s the sort of person to get all worked up over something as minor as this, especially in our current dire circumstances, then he’s not a man I’d want to serve. My decision stands. With luck, he’ll put the good of the Empire over this petty grievance and we can all work together and come out of this as winners. Otherwise…”

 

I really hope it doesn’t get to otherwise, because I don’t know what comes next. Murder the Legate, I suppose, though that seems counterproductive.

 

With a mournful sigh, Luo-Luo agrees with my choice of gift and asks about the language I’d like to use in my apology, but I wave her questions away and tell her to write whatever she thinks is best. Though ready to keel over in exhaustion, I don’t want to send anyone away, especially since who knows when the next opportunity to caress Mila’s butt will come around. Sadly, my beloved can read me like a book and elbows my hand away before declaring I need to rest, and my tired mind is unable to come up with a coherent excuse to convince any of them to stay, especially after I notice Luo-Luo bidding me goodnight with a seated bow, which offers an unobstructed view of her bosom as her physics-defying robes finally fall out of the way.

 

As I burn the image into memory, I thank the Heaven’s I lopped off my right hand instead of trusty old lefty…

 

So utterly entranced by the visual feast, I fail to notice Lin and Li Song stealing away my bears and wildcats, leaving me with only the quins and bun buns to snuggle with. Disappointing, but it’s only fair. I can’t expect to have five wives and monopolize all the floofs, but I’m still sad about sleeping alone without Aurie sprawled across my legs or Banjo spooning me from behind. My good mood vanishes in an instant and I sit there in the flickering torchlight wondering why I’m never happy.

 

It brings me back to my earlier thought, of how there’s something wrong with me, with the way my brain is wired. Even though Yan clearly has no romantic feelings for me and the jury’s still out on Li Song and Luo-Luo, I’m doubly blessed to be loved and in love with both Lin and Mila, not to mention having a wonderful family who were ready to uproot their lives and join me in exile. Now, I’ve validated their decision to stand by me. I’m an Imperial Scion, the Number One Talent in the Empire, the youngest Second Grade Warrant Officer in history, and poised to become the most politically influential member of my generation, but even with so many reasons to be happy, all I can focus on are the negative aspects of life. It’s like I’m actively trying to be sad, because I can’t be satisfied unless I’m miserable.

 

Why can’t I just be happy?

 

The answer eludes me for long minutes as I sit in utter silence, my mind blank and eyes unseeing. So engrossed in my non-thinking, I almost jump out of my skin when a Sending arrives and shocks me out of contemplation. Heart pounding in my chest, I struggle upright with the help of Mahakala’s Spade and hobble over to the door and dismiss my Death Corps guards. Hopping back to the table, I settle down and pray I stop trembling before my guest arrives.

 

My prayer goes unanswered as the door cracks open and my guest slips in, so quietly I wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t staring directly at it. Flashing a wry grin as she takes a seat beside me, Yan brushes her bangs aside and says, “Good to see you? You’ve had weeks to prepare and that’s the best line you could come up with?”

 

“Yea. Sorry.” God she’s beautiful. Stop staring. “Wine?” Blushing like a schoolgirl, I reach for the pot to pour myself a cup, having forgotten about my missing right hand. Despite having been lopped off, moving my non-existent fingers sends a jolt of pain shooting up my arm. Working on pure reflex, I grit my teeth and clench my toes to soldier through the discomfort, which sends a fresh wave of agony lancing up my leg, courtesy of my missing foot. In my rush to retract my foot, I bump the stump against the table and am treated to yet another wave of agony, and the world goes dark and spotty. Breathless from my repeated bouts with unexpected and self-inflicted torment, I fight to stay upright since I’d rather not curl up into a ball and cry in front of Yan.

 

Chopping limbs off sucks balls.

 

Growing limbs back is worse.

 

When my vision clears, I find Yan’s concerned gaze centimetres away from my face, my head resting on her shoulder and her arms wrapped over mine. Dramatically sagging into her embrace, I affect a feminine sigh and fan my face while speaking in falsetto. “Why thank you kindly young hero, I don’t know what came over me.” With a coy smile, I add, “How can I ever repay you?”

 

Rolling her eyes, Yan gently helps me sit up and pours two cups of wine, shaking her head the entire time. After downing her cup without offering a toast, she refills it and says, “Mother’s sagging tits, it’s been what, two hours since I last saw you? Take my eyes off you for one second and you slip off to lose a hand.”

 

“A foot too. Found my waistline was getting out of control and figured this was the easiest way to lose weight.” Tossing back my drink to dull the pain and misery, I ask, “So… You can Send now, that’s incredible. How have you been?”

 

Though obviously curious about my missing body parts, Yan graciously drops the topic and smiles. “Good. A little lonely, but good. Grandpa treats me well and I love him dearly, but I miss the village and feeling like I belong to something. Here in Central, I’ve learned to trust no one and suspect everyone, a tiring way to live.” Without skipping a beat, Yan refills my cup one last time before hoisting the pot for a toast. “Enough about the past. I think our little reunion deserves a toast, don’t you?”

 

“Of course.” My tired, drunk brain has finally figured out why Yan is here, why she came to visit at this late hour and seems every bit as nervous as I am. I still can’t figure out why she gave me the cold shoulder earlier tonight, but honestly, I don’t care. She’s here, she still cares about me, and that’s all that matters. Lifting my cup, I tap it against the pot and say, “Bottoms up.”

 

It doesn’t take long for me to empty the tiny cup, leaving me plenty of time to watch Yan finish what remains in the pot. It’s not an insignificant amount since I was the only one drinking and had less than half, so by the time she’s finished, her cheeks are flushed and skin glowing. Placing the pot aside, she looks me up and down with a smirk while gently nudging me with her shoulder, skirting a little closer as she does. “I’m glad to see you took my advice. You’re taller now, and with more meat on your bones too.” Pointedly glancing at my missing hand, she adds, “Though I see you skipped the part about having more bones for meat to go on.”

 

“Not entirely by choice.” As happy as I am to see Yan being her usual, smarmy self, my spirits remain low as I brood over how I failed to save Mahakala. Even after I chopped my hand off, I can still feel his hand gripping mine, holding tightly for dear life as he confesses his deepest regrets. I should have saved him, would have if I weren’t such a massive screw up. Not rejecting my first Awakening, not losing Blobby a second time, not thinking to immediately bring Pong Pong to save him, there were so many things I could have done differently…

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Forcing myself to smile, I look Yan in the eyes for a brief second before glance away. “It’s nothing.” Don’t ruin this idiot.

 

“I don’t believe you.” Throwing her arm over my shoulders, Yan hugs me close, and without thinking, I slip my arm around her waist. “If you don’t want to talk about it, then say so. Don’t lie or sidestep around it with stupid jokes.”

 

“Hey! My jokes are not stupid. They’re hilarious.”

 

“You see me laughing?”

 

“It’s not my fault you have no sense of humour.”

 

“Rain…” The frustration in her voice is clear, and even though I know I could end this conversation with a simple ‘I don’t want to talk about it’, the truth is, I do want to talk about it, but I don’t know where to start. There’s so much I need to confess to, so much I want to tell her… Oh hell, she doesn’t know I was almost Defiled. How will she react? What if she goes running off into the night, screaming my secret for the world to hear? What if she recoils in terror, or worse tries to kill me? Do I let her? It would certainly solve all of my problems, and the Legate’s too. Yan would make a perfect replacement, since not only is she more talented and hardworking, she’s also –

 

Interrupting my spiralling panic with a tired sigh, Yan hugs me tight and says, “Remember what you said before we parted ways?”

 

“Yea. I said you should live your life and enjoy yourself, meet -”

 

“After that.”

 

“Fall in love, start a family -”

 

“After.”

 

“Uh… I don’t think there was anything else.”

 

Smacking me on the side of the head with her horns, Yan fills in the blanks for me. “You told me that when we see each other again, we’d pick up our friendship where it was back then, and tell each other all about our experiences. I’m sorry Rain, I forgot to ask. How have you been?”

 

Taking a deep breath to calm my nerves, I open my mouth to lie, but the truth slips out instead. “Not well.”

 

And just like that, the dam breaks.

 

Still cognizant enough to switch to Sending, I free myself from Yan’s embrace and turn to face her. “For the longest time, I was on the brink of turning Defiled.” It takes every iota of courage I have to keep from closing my eyes or turning away, so terrified of seeing anger, disgust, or hatred flash across Yan’s face, but it’s too late for regrets now. I’ve made my choice, and now I must live with it, for better or for worse.

 

Pursing her lips, Yan’s eyes widen ever so slightly in surprise before returning to normal. “Yea, I thought you might, but you’re fine now.”

 

Not a question, but a statement, a minor difference which means the world to me.

 

I came close.”

 

But you’re fine now.”

 

Only due to luck. How’d you put it? Like meat pies falling from the skies.

 

Even without luck, you would’ve been fineYou’re too stubborn to turn Defiled.” Tilting her head, Yan asks, “What else you got?

 

Completely blown away by her nonchalance, I blurt out, “I love you.”

 

Not my proudest moment.

 

“I love you too.” Hopping to her feet, Yan holds her hands out to help me up. “Now get up. I didn’t sneak out to sit around and chat. I was too indecisive before we left, but I won’t make the same mistake twice. Injured or no, you’re mine for tonight, so lose the clothes and get under the covers.”

 

Taken aback by her forward declaration, I shy away ever so slightly. “Erm… As much as I’d love to oblige, could we take a time-out for a second? I haven’t exactly discussed this with Mila and Lin, and it wouldn’t be right to do this without knowing how they feel.” Lin isn’t a problem, but Mila is a jealous and prone to extreme violence.

 

“Lucky you.” Pulling a letter out of her pocket, Yan drops it into my lap to read. Unfolding the parchment reveals a letter from Mila, in which she informs Yan of her desire to be sister-wives. There’s plenty to go through, but the gist of it is, Mila and Lin know Yan and I are in love, and they’re both okay with it. As a footnote, Mila adds that she hasn’t told me about this letter and is waiting for me to bring the matter up with her. Should I fail to do so and make a move on Yan, or should Yan make a move on me and I succumb without mentioning my other betrotheds, Mila asks to be informed of my wicked ways so she can ‘break me’.

 

Oh thank the Heavens.

 

“Wow, I really dodged… a…” My words trail off as I look up to find Yan lying on her side in bed, wearing nothing but a sultry smile and a hungry gaze.

 

Like I said, life is good.

 

Chapter Meme

 

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 386

 

There was a storm brewing over the horizon, a coming calamity from which Luo-Luo feared she could not escape from. The signs were all there, a glance here or a smile there, minor things when taken separately, but when put together, they painted a most ominous portent. Luo-Luo did her best to maintain composure, but the more she looked and remembered, the more ouclues she uncovered, and she soon worked herself into a nervous tizzy imagining all the worst case scenarios her mind could come up with.

 

As much as she wished it were otherwise, she knew her fears were well-founded because they made too much sense. Earlier, she’d ironically been pleased by Lord Husband’s attention to his manner of dress, arriving at her hut without prompting to request she help choose his outfit. She’d taken it as a sign of improvement, but sadly, Lord Husband had an ulterior motive, one which revealed itself to Luo-Luo after he disappeared mid-banquet.

 

An impressive feat considering he slipped away with the Guardian Turtle in tow.

 

Given how concerned he was with ‘looking nice’ and his lusty nature, Luo-Luo had a good idea why Lord Husband made an escape, but no idea which harlot he snuck away with. Her first guesses were Du Min Yan or Ryo Da’in, because of the former’s supposed history with Lord Husband and the latter’s shameless and brazen display of interest, all but stripping Lord Husband bare and ravaging him with her eyes. At least Du Min Yan showed a modicum of propriety, but in Luo-Luo’s eyes, this was merely a ploy, feigning disinterest to entice Lord Husband to join the hunt. Judging by Lord Husband’s obvious disappointment at her cold reception and his ravenous stare, the horned hussy’s ploy worked fabulously and Luo-Luo feared for her already tenuous place at Lord Husband’s side.

 

A most formidable foe, this Du Min Yan. Strong, beautiful, and confident, ‘Yan-Yan’ already had Mila and Lin-Lin’s blessings, though Luo-Luo took a small measure of satisfaction at seeing her rebuffed by Li-Li. From what she could piece together from overheard snippets of conversation, Yan grew close with Lord Husband while under pursuit from their enemies and fought side by side in battle, long before they experienced their meteoric rise to fame. Had she not been selected as Du Min Gyu’s Terminal Disciple and adopted Grand Daughter, then Yan would have most likely already been betrothed to Lord Husband, a stunning revelation which left Luo-Luo seething with jealousy.

 

Were she wedded to almost anyone else, Luo-Luo would hardly bat an eye at how many wives or lovers her Lord Husband took, but Falling Rain had strange views on love and marriage, namely being that marriage required love. While love had its place, Luo-Luo was taught that marriage was largely a political tool, and should love blossom from such a union, then she would be doubly blessed by the Mother. Now, not only did she yearn for her Lord Husband’s love, she worried he would have none left to spare after doting upon Lin-Lin and Mila. What would it be like if a third, fourth, or fifth wife was added to the mix? Luo-Luo hated being the outsider looking in and now it seemed she was fated to be pushed away ever further to make room for the accomplished and talented Du Min Yan, or whatever temptress succeeded at stealing him away during the celebration.

 

And to think, Luo-Luo foolishly believed she was making good progress with Lord Husband…

 

So engrossed in keeping up a brave front, Luo-Luo almost missed the startling change in the banquet’s atmosphere. By the time she noticed, many of the most prominent guests were already on their way out, while onlookers gabbed and gossiped about this stunning breach in etiquette. At first, the whispers attributed the departures to Du Min Gyu’s disappearance, having abandoned the festivities to sort out his family matters, but this rang false to Luo-Luo, especially given the aged hero’s recent contribution and glowing endorsement from the probable heir to the throne. Leaving a party would hardly be enough to upset any politician in their right mind, and considering most were leaving together, this meant the exodus was either a coordinated show of disdain for a living legend, or some matter of the utmost importance had drawn all these powerful men away.

 

Calmly making her way to Mother Sarnai’s wheeled chair, Luo-Luo quietly shared her observations, but Mother merely smiled and patted Luo-Luo’s cheeks. “No need for you to worry girl,” she said, brimming with confidence as her eyes narrowed in joyous anticipation of the unknown. “Even should the sky fall, there are taller and broader shoulders around to bear it.” Despite Mother’s assurances, Luo-Luo noted Father Baatar and Mother-in-law Akanai looked none too pleased as they too made ready to leave.

 

Retaking her place at Mila’s side, Luo-Luo arrived just as they were bidding their hosts farewell. “… and come visit soon, ya?” Still nestled in Yan’s (insignificant) bosom, sweet Lin-Lin seemed unwilling to part, so enamoured by the pale, short-haired beauty, though why, Luo-Luo couldn’t say.

 

“I will, I promise,” Yan replied, squeezing Lin-Lin tight with a knowing smile, and Luo-Luo suspected it’d be sooner rather than later.

 

Mila also shared a hug with Yan, but when Li-Li’s turn came around, the half-cat girl rebuffed her with a preemptive martial salute, which was perfect since Luo-Luo was having difficulties feigning a smile. With all the grace and charm she could muster, Luo-Luo curtsied before Yan-Yan as proper decorum demanded, but it went unnoticed as Yan-Yan frowned at Li-Li’s back, utterly befuddled by the half-cat’s cold attitude. Using this to her advantage, Luo-Luo offered her thanks and slipped away before Yan could recover, less of a slight than Li-Li’s outright disdain, but Luo-Luo had to tread carefully. If the talented Du Min Yan took offence, there was little Luo-Luo could do but cower and plead for mercy.

 

Gnawing on her lip the whole ride home, Luo-Luo decided she could no longer afford to be subtle. While she’d all but thrown herself at Lord Husband already, if she wanted to win his affection, she would have to be even more shameless than her competition. Seeing how Zabu and Shana travelled with Yan for more than a year, Luo-Luo could easily see her or Ryo Da’in forcing their way into his bed, possibly even conspiring to do so together. Well, they weren’t the only ones who could tempt Lord Husband with quantity, Luo-Luo’s handmaidens would undoubtedly leap at the chance to serve Lord Husband in a more intimate fashion…

 

Cheeks burning from her forward imagination, Luo-Luo put her plan into motion the moment they dismounted outside their yurts. Feigning a modest yawn, she turned to Lin-Lin and said, “Today’s excitement has driven Luo-Luo to exhaustion. This one begs leave to retire early.”

 

“Silly Luo-Luo, you don’t hafta ask permission, ya? Goodnight, see you in the morning.” With a cheerful farewell, Lin-Lin gathered all the animals and marched off with Mila and Li-Li in tow.

 

Right into Lord Husband’s hut.

 

“Ah, where are you going?”

 

Luo-Luo blurted out the question before she could think better of it, but Lin-Lin replied with a cheery smile. “We’re gonna wait up for hubby cause Mi-Mi wants to know where he ran off to. I told her not to worry about it, but you know how Mi-Mi gets.”

 

Thickening the skin of her face, Luo-Luo pretended as if the idea never occurred to her and said, “Oh, then allow this one to join you in waiting.” Struck by a sudden flash of inspiration, she added, “Perhaps we should all change into something more comfortable first?”

 

If Luo-Luo had to debase herself and find partners to entice Lord Husband with, it would be much better to join hands with her senior sister-wives instead of introducing even more women into the fray.

 

Thankfully, Lin-Lin, Mila, and Li-Li were all too kind to bring up Luo-Luo’s sudden change of plans, though the first two tried to talk her out of joining them, but Luo-Luo would not be dissuaded. After throwing on a sheer, seductive night-robe which left little to the imagination, Luo-Luo wrapped herself in a cloak and made her way over to Lord Husband’s hut, keeping her eyes down so she wouldn’t have to face any leering stares from nearby soldiers. It wasn’t her imagination, for she heard the two guards snicker as she closed the door behind her, and her cheeks burned with shame. “There is nothing to be ashamed of,” she silently told herself. “You are Lord Husband’s concubine and this is perfectly natural behaviour.”

 

Perhaps that last bit was a stretch, but she’d learned early on how to adapt to new circumstances.

 

As last to arrive, all eyes were on Luo-Luo as she turned around, studying her choice of outfit while she studied theirs. Wearing a loose, long sleeved tunic with her white scarf wrapped around her, Lin-Lin looked darling as she snuggled with the sleeping Mama Bun, so charming and defenceless despite the complete lack of eroticism in her choice of outfit. Beside her, Mila sat in an over-sized shirt with bare legs folded to one side and a single freckled shoulder also on full display, so similar to what she usually wore but somehow more enticing than usual. Li-Li had also changed out of her party clothes and sat wrapped in a blanket with two wildcats, the third off in the corner sleeping with the bears, quins, and rabbits. While there was nothing overtly enticing about Li-Li’s outfit, her actions were a distinct change from her usual aloof demeanour, showing a touch of vulnerability which even Luo-Luo found hard to resist.

 

Not for the first time, Luo-Luo marvelled at Lord Husband’s eclectic and varied tastes.

 

With so many women and animals crammed inside, Lord Husband’s large hut seemed a little cramped for what she had planned, but Luo-Luo could make do so long as the animals kept their distance once things were put into motion. She’d been taught to expect and accommodate a multitude of perverse desires, but hopefully, Lord Husband loved his pets and didn’t love his pets…

 

For some odd reason, everyone was behaving more subdued than normal, especially sweet and adorable Lin-Lin, who kept sending wary glances Luo-Luo’s way while shifting Mama Bun around in her arms. As Luo-Luo moved to sit beside her, Lin-Lin’s eyes widened in alarm and she shrank away. “Ah, no Luo-Luo. Go away!” Hurt and confused, Luo-Luo shrunk back and gawked as Lin-Lin corrected herself. “I mean… um… there’s no room here, so go sit with Li-Li yea?”

 

Even as she spoke, Lin-Lin shifted over into the space Luo-Luo had been about to take, and Mila and Li-Li soon followed suit. Unsure why she was being bullied so, Luo-Luo accepted her place without question and sat in hurt silence for the next few minutes, wondering what she could do to mend this divide. Were her clothes too scandalous, even for a concubine visiting her husband? Or was she intruding on some unspoken alone time for Lord Husband and his proper wives? Or had Lin-Lin realized her marriage bed was getting too crowded, and thought to get rid of Luo-Luo to make more room for ‘Yan-Yan’?

 

Before Luo-Luo could decide whether it’d be better to stay or retreat, she heard Lord Husband’s voice from outside the door. “Jochi, Argat,” Lord Husband began, greeting his guards like close friends. “Glad to see you both still here. Sorry for the bother. Anything happen while I was gone?”

 

“Nope.” Luo-Luo didn’t know which guard answered, but she could hear the hidden mirth in his voice. “Nothing happened, nothing at all.”

 

“Don’t you worry about us, boss,” the other guard said, seemingly on the verge of laughter. “You head on in and get off your… foot.” The first guard snickered while the other continued, “You need a hand?”

 

“Hilarious.” Lord Husband’s tone said otherwise, but it all seemed in good fun. It baffled her why he let his subordinates speak with such familiarity, but it wasn’t her place to criticize. Nor did she understand what all the mirth was about, at least not until the door swung open to reveal her tired, blood covered Lord Husband standing in the torchlight, his right hand lopped off at the wrist and his right leg amputated just below the knee.

 

Drowning out Luo-Luo and Lin-Lin’s horrified gasps, Mila’s feral snarl spoke volumes as she leapt to her feet. “Who did this?” the red-haired heroine demanded. “Who hurt you? I’ll kill him!”

 

“Really?” Supporting himself with a polearm, Lord Husband flashed a wry smile while pretending to cower. “In that case, I beg for mercy, beloved. Spare my dog life, I beg you.”

 

“You mean you did this to yourself?” Rushing over to help steady him, concern and disbelief warred across Mila’s lovely face. “Why?”

 

“Long story, but no need to worry. I’ll tell you all about it, but you mind if I sit first?” Shaking his head, Lord Husband muttered, “Can’t trust those idiots with anything. They only had one job: Let no one in my yurt, but they couldn’t even do that.”

 

“Sorry hubby.” Uncharacteristically subdued, Lin-Lin remained seated the entire time, still cuddling Mama Bun in her arms. “I forgot about… yanno… but it’s okay because…” Almost as terrible a liar as Lord Husband, Lin-Lin’s actions gave away she had something she couldn’t talk about, but Luo-Luo magnanimously pretended not to notice. Perhaps it had something to do with whatever Mama Bun had hidden in her paws, but Luo-Luo was too relieved to care. At least now she knew her sister-wives weren’t scheming to get rid of her, though she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t hurt by their lack of trust.

 

As Lord Husband found a seat beside Lin-Lin with Mila’s help, Luo-Luo’s handmaidens brought in food and wine before making themselves scarce, as per Luo-Luo’s instructions. While pouring wine into five cups, she avoided looking anyone in the eyes so as not to give away her plan, hoping to lower everyone’s inhibitions before making her indecent proposal. Undeterred by Lord Husband’s missing hand and foot, Luo-Luo intended to strike while the iron was hot, or before she lost her nerve, and there could be no better time than now, whilst Lord Husband was tired and vulnerable.

 

Draining not only his cup, but also everyone else’s, Lord Husband politely gestured for more, but Luo-Luo hesitated to obey. Experience showed he couldn’t hold his liquor, and five cups was already four too many since she wanted him drunk, not comatose. Still, something in his eyes told her not to argue, his pain and sorrow visible for all to see, so she poured him yet another cup as he told his tale. Thankful he merely played with his cup instead of emptying it into his gullet, but Luo-Luo’s relief was short-lived as she listened in fearful apprehension, cursing Lord Husband for focusing on all the wrong details as he glossed over the broken Treaty and an entire room filled with Ancestral Beasts and Imperial Dharma Protectors.

 

She didn’t know the portly monk who’d attended her wedding banquet was a Dharma Protector, but she’d heard tales of their legendary prowess. The finest warriors in all the Empire, a Dharma Protector was a title reserved for those a half-step away from harnessing the pure Energy of the Heavens. Even longer lived than normal Martial Warriors, they were on par with Ancestral Beasts and reportedly powerful enough to be mistaken for living gods. Even the Emperor only had a single Imperial Dharma Protector guarding him, so for a vagrant Dharma Protector to take an interest in Lord Husband showed just how important he really was.

 

Only now, his Dharma Protector was dead…

 

“… and I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.” With his head resting against Mila’s, Lord Husband nuzzled Lin-Lin’s ears and sighed. “Either I keep my word and anger the Legate, or I ignore a dying man’s last wishes and become the Legate’s designated ass-kisser.”

 

“Don’t worry about the Legate hubby,” Lin-Lin exclaimed, her lips set in a darling little pout. “You do whatever you think is best. If he turns against you, then… Hmph.”

 

Mila did not agree. “Is the message really so important? You said yourself, it was more a personal confession rather than anything of grave importance. Can it not wait until later? It’s often said Imperial Scions are stronger than most Martial Warriors, but it’s always been attributed to their superior bloodlines or the Mother’s favour. If there really are Imperial secrets, then this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Can you really afford to pass it up just to deliver a message?”

 

“Hubby doesn’t need their stinky help, he’s…”

 

As Lin-Lin and Mila argued back and forth, Lord Husband sat in silence, but Luo-Luo didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. After going over his words a second time, she waited for a lull in the conversation before tentatively asking, “Er… Lord Husband, perhaps Luo-Luo is slow and foolish, but this one doesn’t understand why the decision must be one or the other.”

 

“What do you mean?” There was no anger in Lord Husband’s voice, only confusion. “I can’t stay here and deliver the Monk’s message, they’re two mutually exclusive decisions.”

 

“…Could Lord Husband not send a message?”

 

“No, like I said, the Monk specifically told me the message must go from my lips to the Abbot’s ears.”

 

“Yes,” Luo-Luo replied, wondering if she was making a fool of herself. It was so obvious a solution, but no one else had mentioned it, so there must be something she couldn’t grasp. Nonetheless, Luo-Luo pushed on and asked, “But if Lord Husband sent a message explaining his current predicament and asked the Abbot to come to us, would this not solve the issue? As a Junior Officer, being unable to travel freely in a time of war is a reasonable excuse for the imposition, is it not?

 

Lord Husband’s open-mouthed shock made Luo-Luo think he was about to scold her for being an empty-headed concubine who should know better than to open her mouth, but instead, he groaned and tried to palm his face, forgetting his right hand was missing as he smacked his chin into the tender wound. Wincing in pain, Lord Husband took a deep breath, then another, then a third before declaring, “Wow. I’m an idiot.” The tension melting from his shoulders, Lord Husband favoured Luo-Luo with his charming smile and said, “Thank you. Got any other really obvious solutions I’ve overlooked? Any advice at all, really.”

 

“This one is always happy to be of service.” Taking a second to calm her beating heart and gather her thoughts, Luo-Luo resisted the urge to clap in delight before explaining, “Even should Lord Husband remain in Nan Ping, some damage has been done to your relationship with Shen ZhenWu. For a man as powerful as he, it’s beneath him to even need to persuade Lord Husband. In his eyes, Lord Husband should be honoured to be his servant, so…”

 

While this wasn’t exactly the night she had planned, Luo-Luo found things had worked out even better than expected. Though she might not have his love and affection, at least she’d won his respect while keeping the tattered remains of her dignity intact.

 

Now if only she could get him drunk enough to forget about the toilet incident…

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 385

 

A withered, blackened husk is all that remains of the once bulky and enigmatic Monk, his body ravaged by the Demonic Gunk and his soul’s ultimate fate left unknown. A horrific and terrifying end, yet all I can think of is the Monk’s teary smile because I called him a coward and wishing I could take it back. He died because he was trying to protect me from the Confessor, and even though I resent him for giving up, I know how difficult it is to keep going in the face of abject failure. Hell, it’s not like that’s the only reason he had for giving up, he saw the writing on the wall and accepted his fate with grace and aplomb while still resisting until the bitter end despite how futile it must have seemed. I didn’t know him well, but he struck me as a flawed man doing his best to better himself and the world around him. It makes me wish I knew more about him, had trusted him sooner and listened to his advice or learned more about him. We only had one, real conversation together, but in that one exchange, he forced me to face a hard truth about myself and I’ll always be grateful for his help.

 

Thank you and goodbye Mahakala. Hopefully, your struggles are at an end and you’re resting peacefully in the arms of the Mother while awaiting your next turn at the wheel of life instead of being devoured by the feral Spectres and consigned to oblivion, or worse, joining their ranks like some zombified, ravenous ghost.

 

 

Well, that’s a depressing thought.

 

With Taduk’s help, I grab the Monk’s inert Spiritual Spade and hop out the room, regretting my choice to sacrifice my right hand and foot. Not the sacrifice itself, since I’d do it again if given the choice, only I’d be smart about it and cut off my right hand and left foot instead of taking both from the same side. At least then I’d be able to hobble around with a crutch, but alas, I am not a clever man. Doing my best to ignore all the confused stares, I leave it to Taduk to explain my disabled state, which he does with a simple statement. “The Dharmapala has passed away, and the substance is much hazardous than I first suspected. Although it corrodes all manner of materials, it would appear it feeds primarily upon human flesh, or perhaps even Chi. Easy there, Rain my boy, there you go.” Plopping me down on a bench beside the wall, Taduk gestures to GangShu and continues. “After we left the room, the substance’s speed of replication increased exponentially and infected the boy here. I’m uncertain if the timing is coincidental or if it was waiting for us to depart, but either way, this is a most troubling discovery.”

 

“How, pray tell, did it spread to his foot? Why did he take off his shoes in the first place?” One Beardie seems utterly confused, but thankfully, everyone else ignores his question.

 

Stroking his beard alongside the rest of his look-a-likes, a second Beardie asks, “Is there no way to combat this vile substance?”

 

Having been warned by Taduk to keep Blobby and Pong Pong’s existence secret, I keep my mouth shut as GangShu answers in my stead. “Short of a possessing an Elemental Spirit? Don’t get hit, I suppose.”

 

Well, at least now I know what to call Blobby’s siblings, assuming I ever stumble across one. I’d settle for Blobby back though. Stupid teardrop, running off at such an important time. I could have saved the Monk if Blobby was around, or if I hadn’t rejected my first Awakening and had more time to practice, or…

 

Breathe, Rain. Breathe. No point playing this game. Things happened. You can’t change it, so deal with it.

 

Grimacing at GangShu’s levity, a second Beardie chimes in. “This is a national crisis, and you of all people should appreciate the gravity of the situation. If the Medical Saint’s hypothesis is correct then the Defiled are now in possession of a weapon which can kill a Divinity.”

 

Is he calling the Monk a Divinity or is he speaking hypothetically? C’mon Beardie, be more clear about it.

 

“An understatement, if anything.” Withdrawing the copper vessel from his sleeve, the Legate gingerly places it on the table and the others instinctively recoil from its presence. “If the boy’s scouts saw true, then this is a weapon which can be mass produced and wielded by commoners. Imagine an army of Defiled lobbing these canisters towards you, or Wraiths hidden in the shadows while waiting for you to lower your guard. Small wonder Zhu Chanzui and the Defiled care nothing for the treaty. This insidious weapon affords them every advantage in a battle of Divinities, and until proper countermeasures are in place, who would dare ride out to meet them?”

 

The room falls silent as everyone considers the implications, myself included. It’s funny, I’ve been trying to find a way to even the odds and right the balance of power, but it looks like the Defiled beat me to it. I want to tell them about the Feral Spectres and what the Monk said about this gunk being Anathema and whatnot, but it would mean explaining how I ended up in the Monk’s Natal palace and he was pretty clear in warning me I should keep it a secret.

 

Wait… When he said ‘this ability’, was he talking about my Natal Palace diving thing, or the Devouring thing? Or maybe it’s the whole Water-Chi cleansing thing, or the Blobby thing… Dammit, I have too many secrets, be more specific with your final warnings! Well… whatever, one secret, four secrets, what’s the difference?

 

The silence is broken as a teacup shatters in the fox-lady’s grip, and she growls in frustration. “If I had known things would turn out like this,” she says, dabbing away at her soaked, ragged robes with a towel speedily provided by the Seneschal, “Then I’d have crushed that haggard mole-bitch like a bug.”

 

Shaking his head, the half-bull says, “Better had we heeded our absent friend’s advice and taken her hostage. There are still many questions to be answered.”

 

Yea, like who’s this mole-bitch and who are all of you? Also, where do I find the Abbot? That seems important, but more of a me thing as opposed to a group discussion.

 

Clenching his fist, the half-rhino speaks through gritted teeth. “It matters not. The Enemy has broken the Treaty, and in doing so, they have sealed their fate. We stand on the side of righteousness and those who were once neutral will flock to our side, and together, we will destroy the Defiled once and for all. This substance will not be enough to save them from the iron fist of justice.”

 

It’s adorably naive he actually believes that… If anything, I feel like revealing how dangerous the Demonic Goop is will encourage neutral Ancestral Beasts to go deeper into hiding, if not outright join the Defiled in the interest of self-preservation.

 

The half-bull agrees with my unspoken thoughts. “Assuming said neutral parties uphold the end of the Treaty.” Sipping his tea with a dainty slurp, the half-bull looks at no one in particular as he asks, “Well? It was not a rhetoric question. Answer wisely, for those who do not stand with us…”

 

With all the subtlety of a brick, the half-bull Expert leaves the rest unsaid, but GangShu laughs in response. “I’d always heard you were an arrogant idiot, but the rumours don’t do ye justice. Say I refuse, what’re ye gonna do? Fight me with the largest gathering of soldiers in the Empire’s history sitting outside the gates? You ever heard the term ‘collateral damage’? Talk about cutting yer nose to spite yer face.”

 

Shrugging, the half-bull smiles in response. “Is that a refusal?” he asks, putting his teacup down to crack his neck, and suddenly, his actions don’t seem delicate or dainty at all. “If so, I’ll happily teach you which of us is the arrogant idiot. I should thank you in advance. Only yesterday I told you I was growing bored, and now you’re kind enough to provide me with this much needed distraction.”

 

You know… Seeing how eager he is to go toe to toe with Ancestral Beast GangShu, I’m starting to think he’s not a half-bull after all…

 

Holy shit… is this a meeting for Divinities? Is that Mama Gam? What constitutes a Human Divinity? Why don’t I feel like nuzzling any of the Ancestral Beasts besides GangShu? And did he just imply he’d fuck up the millions of soldiers camped around Nan Ping? How strong are Ancestral Beasts, and how massive must Guan Suo’s balls be to sit at this table and smoke his pipe? The man gives zero fucks, and even as a fight between Divinity brews right beside him, he’s still puffing away without a care in the world.

 

Then again, it might be whatever he packs into his pipe. I still can’t get a read on him, but at least he’s on my side. Or Ping Ping’s side, and she’s on my side, so same thing.

 

Thankfully, in the midst of all this tension, the Legate keeps a cool head. “Please, Great One,” he says, standing to bow at the bull. “Antagonizing our allies serves no purpose.” Turning to GangShu, he offers a second bow, though this time not as deep. “It is not the Empire’s intention to force you to a decision, not yet. This one has sent word back to the Emperor, Blessed be His name, and must await further instructions. Whether we invoke the Treaty is still yet to be decided, but should such a day come, it would ease many troubled minds to know where the Great One’s stand.”

 

“Haven’t decided,” GangShu answers, giving no face as he slides his empty teacup forward, indicating he’d like it filled.

 

Foxy Mama Gam offers more than a non-answer, but hardly what the Legate is looking for. “My boys won’t be leaving any time soon. One dreams of dying in glorious battle while the other yearns for honour and infamy, so I too will remain to guard them, but for me to submit to Imperial authority? An unlikely prospect.”

 

No one else speaks, but the Legate’s grimace deepens as he nods in reply to a Sending (or pretends to for the sake of ignoring GangShu’s teacup). After a short pause, he salutes everyone in turn and says, “Then this one will not keep you all any longer. Forgive me for not seeing you out, as matters of national security demand this one’s attention.”

 

As handy a dismissal as any, but I still have to ask him about taking leave to deliver the Monk’s message. Pushing myself to my… foot, I call out without thinking. “Hang on.”

 

Without pausing his footsteps, the Legate fixes me with a disgruntled glare, none too pleased at being stopped in front of all the gathered Divinities. Standing at his side, the Beardie who asked about my missing shoes snarls and asks, “Audacious! Watch your tone, boy. Who do you think you’re speaking to?”

 

I could blame it on the bloodless, pain, or grief, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t care enough to play games right now. “I’m speaking to the Legate.” Hopping closer to stand before him, I ignore Chief Beardie’s glare and bow deeply to the Legate, or as deeply as I can without toppling over, and pray he doesn’t have me killed out of spite. “Sorry for my blatant disregard for protocol, but in my condition, I worried I wouldn’t be able to chase you down. The Dharmapala has entrusted me with a message for the Abbot, so I will be leaving Nan Ping at dawn.”

 

Belatedly, I realize how poorly worded my statement was. I should have presented it as a request instead of merely informing the Legate of my departure like I don’t care about his opinion. A minor discrepancy in my eyes, but it could also be construed as a complete lack of respect and face. Combine this with mouthing off to a Divinity, and it’s possible I’ll find out first hand if Mahakala made it to the arms of the Mother after the Legate orders my execution, a real possibility considering Shen ZhenWu’s heavy breathing and angry silence. Gesturing for me to follow behind, he strides out the room and I do my best to keep up, but even with Taduk’s help, the Legate is left standing in the courtyard for several seconds before we catch up. Before stumbling down the stairs, I turn back to find Guan Suo and GangShu following closely behind, with no sign of the other Divinities to be found.

 

Snapping his fan open, the Legate draws himself up to full height while displaying the stylized, painted dragon, though the whole image is ruined by Ping Ping sitting in siege mode behind him. “What message does the Dharmapala have for the Abbot?”

 

Too tired to bow again, I feign breathlessness while thinking about how to best frame my answer. “My apologies, but the Dharmapala’s message involves secrets of the highest order, and he was adamant I deliver the message in person, from my lips to Abbot’s ears and none other. Command it, and I will gladly reveal its contents, but otherwise, I am bound by my word.”

 

“Hmph.” Chief Beardie offers another snort of disdain. “What secrets could he share with a child outside the order?”

 

“None.” Nodding sagely, I continue, “So it’s a good thing I am a member of the order, acknowledged and admitted by the Abbot himself. The Dharmapala claimed he chiselled my Dharma name into the wall with his own hands, and told me I stand second only to the Abbot and none others.” With a half-hearted shrug, I add, “I don’t understand it myself, but that’s what he said. I can swear an Oath and verify my words if you’d like.”

 

The antagonistic Beardie trades a surprised glance with the Legate before asking, “What is the nature of your relationship with the Dharmapala?”

 

With another shrug, I stick to the truth. “We don’t have one, not really. He showed up a few days before the Conference began and told me he was here to act as my Dharmapala, along with everything else I just shared. I don’t know why and if I’m being honest, didn’t entirely buy into it either, but he died trying to bring my poisoner to justice, so passing on a message is the least I could do.” Sensing it’s now or never, I ask, “Who’s the Confessor and why is he trying to kill me?”

 

Ignoring my question, Chief Beardie and the Legate exchange yet another glance, but the Seneschal is kind enough to provide an answer. “You met his Disciple in Sanshu, Han BoLao. As for why he wants you dead, I imagine it has something to do with her death.”

 

“… Oh. I see.” Please don’t piss your pants in front of the Legate. Or while leaning on Taduk. He won’t hold it against you, but it’s still embarrassing.

 

After a short and silent discussion, the Legate closes his fan and tucks it into his belt. “I will not command you to reveal the contents of your message, nor will I forbid you from delivering it. However, I will urge you to think twice before committing yourself to this path. The Empire needs its heroes now more than ever, and Falling Rain of the Bekhai stands high among them.”

 

Having said his piece, the Legate turns around and leaves with his Chief Beardie, but the Seneschal remains behind. Waiting until they’re both out of sight, the Seneschal leans in close to look me in the eye and say what the Legate will not. “Boy, feel honoured, for my young master has great plans in store for you. Think. Why would he award you with such a great honour, one never before bestowed upon an outsider? Surely you’re not foolish enough to believe your strength warrants it?”

 

It takes longer than I’d like to admit to figure out what honour he’s talking about, so unused to seeing Luo-Luo’s presence as a good thing. “Well if I had to guess? It’s because he knows the Bekhai and Akanai in particular have no interest in politics, which means improving my social standing and future prospects comes at little to no cost since I’ll be unlikely to use it.”

 

Smiling at my blunt reply, the Seneschal shrugs and replies, “I won’t lie and tell you you’re wrong, but you’re not entirely correct. My young master expects great things from you, even after seeing your reduced state. You must understand, Sinuji was meant to be our command post in the war against the Defiled, and once word of its destruction spreads, the people’s faith in the Empire will waver. We need heroes young and old to bolster their confidence and keep them from succumbing to despair, for every citizen who turns Defiled is one more threat brought to bear against us.”

 

With a wary glance at Taduk, Guan Suo, and Gang Shu, the Seneschal gingerly places a hand on my shoulder and smiles. “My young master believes none better suited for this than you, but it cannot happen if you leave now during this most critical of junctures. Remain in Nan Ping and my young master will raise you and the Bekhai to heights unheard of. You think yourself strong? There are young talents in the East who will put your skills to shame, but should you learn our secrets under the Imperial Protector’s tutelage, which we can freely offer now that you are an Imperial Scion, you will rise up to surpass all others and truly become the number one talent in the Empire. More than that, your meteoric rise will leave the Empire in awe as you surpass your Mentor in two decades, and your Grand Mentor in three. Given time, you might even grow to become a Divinity yourself, a supreme warrior standing at the peak of the Martial Path, but only if you choose to stay. Leave, and we must offer this chance to another, but think twice before you do. The quickest way to raise a young warrior’s reputation is by treading upon yours. This is no threat, only the cold, hard truth, for such is life, my young friend, and though you are our first choice for this honour, never for a moment think you are our only choice.”

 

…Wow. The Seneschal’s sales pitch is convincing, but I’m not the wide-eyed youth I appear to be. He offers secrets and strength but makes no mention of cost or sacrifice. I don’t see them offering Imperial secrets for free, not all of them at least. They’ll give me a small taste and my strength will rise by leaps and bounds, but then I’ll plateau or reach a bottleneck and the Imperial Protector will have a solution, but not one he can share without consequence. An Oath of fealty, he’ll suggest, and I’ll resist, but then he’ll offer me another choice, a lesser Oath perhaps, or something else to prove myself. Slowly, but surely, they’ll drag me deeper into their clutches until I’m a warrior bound to obey the Legate’s will as surely as any slave, and I’ll thank them every step of the way.

 

Raise me to Divinity? Maybe they will, but only if it serves their purpose.

 

Even knowing how things will likely turn out, I still find myself wanting to accept their offer. Not because I necessarily want the Legate as my backer, but mostly because I don’t want him as my enemy. I don’t trust him, but I don’t mind working with him, so long as our goals are aligned. Offering them one more out, I swallow my trepidation and say, “It is not my intention to refuse the Legate’s goodwill. I am grateful for all he has done, and were circumstances different, I would gladly do as you suggest. However,” I stress, hoping he understands that the ball is in the Legate’s court, “Failing this, I must stay true to my word and fulfill the Dharmapala’s dying wish. I will travel with the utmost haste and endeavour to return as soon as possible, but if the Legate does as you’ve said and chooses a new partner to work with, then know that I will help in whatever way possible to smooth things along. I will bear no grudge for I know he acts with the Empire’s best interest in mind.” Or at least I hope he does.

 

“Disappointing.” Shaking his head, the Seneschal says, “I urge you to consult with your Mentor and Grand-Mentor before committing yourself to this path, for those who do not stand with us…”

 

Like the Ancestral Bull, the Seneschal leaves the rest unsaid, but I complete it for him. “Stand against us? Not always true. Some people only want to be left alone.”

 

With a sad smile, the Seneschal turns away and leaves. “Even if you mean it,” he Sends, “My young master’s enemies might think to use you against us, and we cannot afford to let this happen. Blame your own talent, Falling Rain, for it makes you too dangerous to leave unchecked.”

 

Burying my face in Taduk’s robes, I close my eyes and sigh.

 

Politics are the worst.

 

“Well Teacher,” I say, feigning a smile. “Let’s go tell Grand-Mentor the good news and see what she has to say.”

 

Seriously though, I would really love it if someone older and wiser made this decision for me.

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 383


Rejoice, for Jess has graced us all with yet another dazzling piece of artwork for everyone to salivate over. In case some of you have missed it, recently, Bowserette has taken the internet by storm, the King Koopa turned into blonde bombshell. I’ll leave it to you to google Bowserette on your own, but I will warn you to wait until you’re at home and alone to do so, for obvious reasons (It’s mostly porn). That said, the Peach crown has made it’s way into SD and now we have fem Legate to feast our eyes upon.

Spoiler: Probably NSFW, so better safe than sorry. Here’s the link.

I love the colours and style of this so much, but I also especially love the booty. 😀

For those of you who were speculating the Legate is secretly a woman, well… here you go. Your dreams made true.

Thanks so much Jess, it’s always a delight to see your work.


 

Despite the dire circumstances I’ve found myself in, I can’t help but resent Guan Suo, my only ally in all this. With Ping Ping in tow, we follow Daxian the Virtuous through the busy streets of Nan Ping, and it soon becomes clear no one notices our passing. Normally, everyone stops what they’re doing to gape, pray or scurry out of our way, but tonight, everyone goes about their business as usual, paying no attention to the giant turtle in their midst. It’s almost surreal seeing people unconsciously flowing around us, our bodies invisible but our presence noted. Coolies and rickshaw runners zip right by Ping Ping’s legs while children dart beneath her without ever noticing her majestic self, much less Guan Suo, Daxian, or myself, as if we’re ghosts wandering among the living or the world around us is merely a projection rather than reality itself.

 

Honestly? It’s awesome, but I’m irked because if this is possible, then why doesn’t Guan Suo do this all the time? If Daxian can do it, I refuse to believe the grumpy old red-panda can’t, and it would’ve made travelling through Nan Ping so much easier…

 

After a few minutes, our destination becomes clear and my heart skips a beat. “We’re going to the Magistrate’s Palace?” This can’t be good. What are the chances the Legate isn’t involved? Ancestral Beast or not, I doubt even GangShu could evade detection from the Legate’s protectors. I mean, why would Ancestral Beasts sign a Treaty if the Imperial Clan wasn’t strong enough to enforce it?

 

My question earns me a harsh glare and a silent warning from the oh so Virtuous Daxian, which is a stupid title to begin with. He’s a former soldier turned bandit, so how virtuous can he be? Maybe he’s a certified, card-carrying virgin so they call him the virtuous, though I don’t know why anyone would want such a shitty title much less wear a breastplate proclaiming it to the world. Resisting the urge to draw Peace and hamstring the uppity bandit, I clench my fists and swallow my anger for Taduk’s sake. My teacher has been taken hostage and killing Gerel-lite here won’t do either of us any good, assuming I could even pull it off.

 

Bah. I should have told Guan Suo to snap the bastard’s neck when I had the chance, or better yet, left Lei Gong and the Tyrant to drown in the Azure Sea. This is how they want to repay me? Well, courtesy demands reciprocity, and the same can be said of discourtesy. I don’t give a shit if GangShu is an Ancestral Beast or if he has the Legate’s backing, if they hurt Taduk, I’ll make them pay. I can’t beat them in a stand up fight, but I bet a bullet to the head or heart will ruin their day.

 

Ah, shit. Really wish I’d grabbed Unity from Zabu’s harness on my way out…

 

Whatever happens, you must endure. Smile, nod, go along with their demands, do whatever it is you need to do to get out alive, even if it means you have to give them Pong Pong. Then, after the dust settles, you can firebomb the whole fucking palace if that’s what it takes to get even.

 

 

Woah, calm down, murderous subconscious me. You haven’t figured out explosives yet, remember? No worries though, your enemies aren’t the only ones who know how to use poison, and if that doesn’t work, then head back to the mountains and bide your time. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

 

 

Wow, even my logical half is starting to sound murder-hobo-esque. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but its GangShu and the Legate who’ve pushed me this far, so they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. If this is how they’ll treat me and my loved ones, then the Empire can go fuck itself.

 

Taking a circuitous route through an underground passage I didn’t know existed, Daxian brings us under the walls and into the Magistrate’s Palace, emerging in the courtyard of what I assume is one of the guest manors. Ping Ping voices her displeasure when I follow Daxian into the main house, but thankfully, instead of throwing a fit, the big girl settles down with a thud, glaring at me and Guan Suo as we leave her behind.

 

Poor girl, but perhaps this is for the best. I don’t know what’s waiting for me inside, and I’d rather Ping Ping not get wrapped up in all this.

 

Opening the main door, Daxian stands aside and gestures for me to go through. “Mind your manners,” Daxian Sends, remaining outside as he closes the door behind us. “Not even you can get away with mouthing off in there.”

 

Well, that’s not foreboding at all. Gathering my courage, glance at Guan Suo and say, “You know, it’s not too late for you to back out. I appreciate your help, but you don’t have to be here. In fact, I’d feel better if you brought Ping Ping away to safety, not that I can order you around or anything.”

 

Raising one bushy white eyebrow, Guan Suo asks, “Safety? Pei. She’s safer sitting in that courtyard than anywhere else in the world right now, boy. What do you think is happening here?”

 

“Uh… my teacher was taken hostage by an Ancestral Beast?”

 

With an uncharacteristic smile, Guan Suo pats my back and pushes me along. “Your teacher is fine, boy. Go on in, time is wasting and in short supply.”

 

Confused and relieved, I head into the manor’s sitting room to find the Legate drinking tea with what can only be described as a smattering of eclectic Experts. The Legate’s usual guards are nowhere to be found, though the four human Experts on either side of him are on full alert. I specify human because the remaining three Experts are half-beasts, which is surprising considering the general sentiment towards half-beasts. More surprising is that the Legate is playing the part of junior in all this, filling everyone’s tea cups without complaint or grievance, even the cups of his Expert guards. Taking a careful look at the Experts, I commit their faces to memory on the off chance I see them all again. The human Experts are all cut from the same cloth, slender, bearded men with grumpy expressions, but the half-beasts are a varied bunch.

 

As usual, the sole woman in the group catches my eye first, a bushy-tailed half-fox with an ageless grace, a lovely, white-haired beauty who could pass for anywhere between forty and seventy years old. Unfortunately, her heritage combined with the ragged robes and quarterstaff tells me she’s in league with the Gams, which means I want nothing to do with her or her odd, half-brothers. Beside her is a stately, long-horned half-bull dressed in luxurious, embroidered robes, a hulking warrior who looks ridiculous sipping at his dainty teacup, but I’ll leave it to someone braver or stupider than me to inform him. The third half-beast is a little more difficult to place from his ears alone, but his colourful armour marks him as a Southerner. Add this to his wide, bulbous nose with a tiny, almost imperceptible white bump on the end of it makes me think he’s a half-rhino, and until someone tells me otherwise, a half-rhino he will be.

 

Unsure how to proceed, the decision is made for me as the Legate’s Seneschal bars my path and drags me away from the table of Experts, heading towards a room deeper inside the manor. “You do what needs to be done, boy,” Guan Suo Sends, and I glance back to see him join the other Experts while the Legate smiles and pours him a cup of tea. “I’ll be out here if you need me.”

 

Once again, I’m forced to reevaluate Guan Suo’s standing, but there’s precious little time to think. All but shoving me over the threshold, the Seneschal bows and shuts the door behind me, leaving me trapped in a room alone with GangShu. No, not alone, as Taduk is toiling away over a bed in the corner, using Chi, scalpel, and medicine to tend to a bruised and battered warrior, missing so many chunks of flesh it seems more corpse than man. So covered in blood and injuries, I barely recognize the monk laying right before my eyes, and only piece the clues together after seeing the Spiritual Spade leaning against the wall beside him.

 

Now I feel bad about wishing him harm for running out after my wedding banquet…

 

Tearing my eyes away from the bloodied monk, I turn to GangShu for answers. Ignoring the urge to run over and hug him, I place my hand on his forearm and Send, “What happened?”

 

“Near as I can tell, Zhu Chanzui happened.” Shaking his head, GangShu sinks into his chair and sighs. “What a day. Losing my Runic Barge and the chance to find a drop of Heavenly Water was bad enough, but now I find out the Immortal is Defiled as they come and strong enough to reduce the Dharmapala to this… Mark my words boy, dark days are coming ahead. The Treaty is broken, and all hell will break loose.”

 

I fucking knew that pig was no good. “I don’t understand. Why did Big Poppa Piggy attack the… Dharmapala?” The Monk had nothing to do with what happened at the Winery. More curious is how the monk called himself my Dharmapala, or Dharma protector, so why does GangShu say it like it’s a title?

 

Snorting with laughter, GangShu smiles and Sends, “Big Poppa Piggy, I like that. Think I’ll use it the next time I see him.” Shrugging, he continues, “Few days ago, the Dharmapala dropped by to tell Wugang he was chasing down the Confessor. Said the old coot tried to kill you again, so he was off to smash the crazy bastard into meat paste. Fer a self-professed pacifist, the Dharmapala seems like an ornery feller, but I ain’t one to judge. Then, half an hour ago, he turns up looking like that and stays conscious long enough to tell us Zhu Chanzui’s Defiled, broken the Treaty, and that Sinuji ain’t there no more.”

 

… Who the fuck is the Confessor and why is he trying to kill me? What does that have to do with the Defiled Big Piggy? Also, Sinuji is on the border between Central and West, clear half-way across the province from here, at least ten days by boat, but the Monk’s only been gone for four days. What the fuck is going on here?

 

“Rain my boy.” Looking up from his work, Taduk calls me over to the Monk’s side. “Come. He wants you to hear his last will and testament.”

 

With a heavy heart, I kneel at the Monk’s side and take his hand, knowing that if Taduk can’t save him, then no one can. Only one of the Monk’s eyes is opened, the other sporting a lump so large he can’t see past it, a minor injury compared to the missing chunks of flesh dotted across his body. To one side lies a shred of cloth covered in a familiar black gunk, now inert without the light of the sun shining over it.Turning to Taduk with a raised eyebrow, he confirms my suspicions with a helpless sigh. “It’s the same substance your people found at the winery, but its far more dangerous than we gave it credit. Jorani’s quick thinking saved your soldier’s life, for the longer this dark substance remains on the afflicted, the more dangerous it becomes. Not only does it eat away at flesh and bone, it uses whatever it devours to multiply and spread. He’s too far gone for me to save, as the substance is deep in his organs and replicating faster than I can remove it.”

 

And judging by all the scattered bits of flesh and organs around us, Taduk gave it his best.

 

Opening his cracked and bloodied lips, the Monk locks his one eye on Taduk and utters, “Privacy?”

 

“No one will hear what you say,” Taduk assures him, patting my head as he steps away. “Not even myself. I swear it upon my honour.”

 

Waiting long enough for Taduk and GangShu to leave the room, the brutalized Monk deflates as he pulls me close, his voice barely above a whisper as he speaks his last. “Brother SanDukkha,” he wheezes, his voice filled with urgency, “You have yet to take the vows of the Brotherhood, but this one must burden you with my dying words. Swear you will bring them to the Abbot, for he must hear them.”

 

“I swear, I’ll send word -”

 

“No!” With startling strength for a dying man, the Monk sits up with a glare. “The words must go from your mouth to his ear, understood? No other is to hear what I am about to say, for they concern secrets of the highest order! Swear brother, this one begs it of you.”

 

Unable to bring myself to refuse, I nod and say, “I swear it. I’ll tell him everything in person, but I can’t promise it’ll be anytime soon. All out war is about to begin, so I can’t just wander off to go visit the Abbot.”

 

“Tell the Legate what I’ve asked you to do and he will grant you permission.” Taking it as a matter of fact, the Monk settles back down into his pillows to gather his thoughts, and I busy myself making him comfortable. Just as I’m about to check if he’s still conscious, the Monk whispers, “Tell the Abbot Mahakala has failed, and to use my story as a warning to all others. Goujian was to be my Disciple, my successor, but instead, my teachings turned him into the Confessor, a reprehensible murderer and torturer. Such is my greatest shame, but not my greatest failure. My greatest failure lies rooted in pride, which kept me from correcting the error of my ways. Pride kept me from asking the Abbot for his help, and pride kept me from doing what I knew needed to be done, to give up salvation in this life and put down the monster of my own creation. How many thousands of lives could I have saved in exchange for a mere two, his and my own? How many lives were ruined by my pride, by my refusal to see what was clear to all? And once again, pride has brought me low, for I believed myself stronger than Zhu Changzui, and arrogantly announced their plans for all to hear. How many more died because of my actions? Such pride, such sin…”

 

Though having trouble following along, I commit the Monk’s every word, inflection, and micro-expression to memory using my Natal Palace, so I can listen to it over and over again and pass it along without a single mistake. Shaking his head with a sigh, the Monk continues, “Devoted as I was, I could never truly adhere to the precepts or keep to the Eight-fold path. I’m sure the Abbot could see a path to take, a way to fix everything without death or violence, but again, my pride blinded me to it. Mahakala holds more seniority, so why was he not chosen as Abbot? Mentor, your Disciple is blind and is not worthy of your teachings, but I now see the wisdom behind your decision.” Fixing me with his steely gaze, he says, “Remember, Brother SanDukkha, no matter what trials or tribulations you may face, the Mother always leaves a path to salvation. Our world is imbalanced, and it is the Brotherhood who strive to fix it. No longer trapped by the cycle of samsara, itinerant souls seek to break through the barrier of existence and end it. If everything is in nihility then time and space become meaningless. An end to suffering yes, but an end to all else, the desperate last effort of the lost and destitute, Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.”

 

…See, I understood all those words, but I have no idea what he just said. “Uh… Okay?”

 

“Learn from Mahakala’s mistakes,” the Monk insists, his steely grip crushing my hand. “Do not let pride and arrogance bring you low, as it has done for me. Trust in the Abbot, and trust in those around you. Remember my words, and act on them, whether you be SanDukkha, Falling Rain, or Baledagh.”

 

Closing his eye, Mahakala slumps back into the pillow and passes out, his breathing labored and nearing its last. We didn’t know each other well, but I trusted him, enough to share one of my deepest, darkest secrets with him. Is that what his warning was about? Trust those around me and tell them how thoroughly broken I really am? Easy to say, but if it was so easy to follow through, I’d have done it years ago instead of living a lie.

 

What am I doing? Deliberate later, we could still save the Monk. I have a tiny bit of Heavenly Energy, and while it’s not enough to heal him to full, maybe it’s enough keep him alive so Taduk can work his magic. Unfortunately, I’m unable to free myself from Mahakala’s iron grip, and since my Teacher promised not to listen in, all my yells for help go unnoticed. Knowing time is of the utmost importance, I’m left with a sinking sensation as I ponder a somewhat difficult decision to make.

 

In order to possibly save the Monk’s life, do I cut off his hand, or mine?

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 382

 

Well this is awkward…

 

I wouldn’t call myself socially adept, but even I can see there’s something hinky going on. It’s never a good sign when, after a long separation, your old friend doesn’t immediately come over to say hi and instead greets everyone else around you. Another bad sign is when said friend stops smiling after you tire of waiting and approach her first. Even worse is when she throws out a half-hearted ‘Good to see you too’ and immediately calls her scary-intense friend over to run interference, then leaves to go talk to someone else.

 

The writing on the wall is plain to see. Yan’s avoiding me because she no longer harbours any romantic feelings and is worried I won’t handle rejection well.

 

I won’t lie, it hurts. Not so much the rejection, which I knew would be a real possibility and was prepared for, but mostly, it’s finding out she thinks so little of me, she’s concerned about how I’ll react. I guess she believes all the unsavoury rumours she’s heard about me, or thinks I’ll use my new Imperial Manwhore status to pressure Du Min Gyu, or maybe she’s just not thrilled at the prospect of being the fourth woman in the relationship, but regardless of her reasons, it’s clear the spark between us is gone and she no longer even trusts me.

 

What a difference a year makes.

 

It’s all right. I’ll be okay. So Yan doesn’t want to pick things up where we left off. Big whoop. It was a teenaged romance driven by hormones and instincts, which is exactly why so many of them end in abject failure. At that age, it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’, which means she’s probably been dreading this moment since her arrival in Nan Ping. That’s why she avoided you all this time and never tried to get in touch. Hell, if she had any lingering feelings, they probably evaporated after you invited her to a banquet in honour of your concubine. Oh god, is that why she gave Zabu and Shana back? To draw a line in the sand and show where she stands? I’m such an idiot for not seeing it sooner and getting all worked up about this reunion.

 

Whatever. It’s fine. Just keep calm and carry on. Show her you’re okay with how things are, and maybe you can go back to being friends at least. Besides, you wouldn’t even know what to do with four or five wives. It’s nice in theory, but look at the facts. You have two betrothed and a concubine, but you’re still cranking it out on your own every chance you get. No wonder Yan doesn’t want you anymore, she probably kicked herself for being an idiot the second her mind cleared up, wondering why on earth she was ever attracted to a spineless, brain-dead loser like yourself.

 

 

Well, that escalated quickly. Also, again, stop talking to yourself, especially if all you’re gonna do is insult me. Er… you. Whatever. Shaddup. Please and thanks.

 

Leaving Mila and Luo-Luo to handle the intimidating Ryo Da’in and her penetrating stare, I head over to greet the other guests of honour at tonight’s festivities. While Du Min Gyu is undoubtedly the star of the show, with his table sitting at the front of the banquet hall, Eccentric Gam and Broken Blade Pichai each have their own tables beside him. Dressed to the nines in his colourful, blood-covered, and battered armour, the Southern Expert Pichai sits alone in quiet meditation, his eyes closed and food untouched amid all the celebration, a picture of calm and serenity which puts me at ease. Conversely, on the other side, Gam Prime seems like the embodiment of chaos and destruction, inhaling all the food before him like his life depends on it while Wu Gam and the other guests watch on in a mixture of horror and amusement. Seeing this peak Expert behave like an animal makes me embarrassed for him, and the other guests aren’t shy about their derision.

 

Politics aside, something doesn’t add up. Jorani was very evasive when outlining the whole ordeal and all but glossed over the final moments of the battle, ending with a simple ‘then the Defiled broke and ran’. Defiled don’t break. They might retreat or withdraw, but they never break, not in the manner Jorani and Mila described, running like headless chickens through the Central Plains. Also, Jorani never mentioned Du Min Gyu being injured, but on the way in, I overheard two guests speculating about what injuries the Great Hero Du had taken and reference an apology he made earlier this evening. I’m not sure what Jorani is hiding, but he wouldn’t lie or omit details unless put up to it. Having seen the cracks and dents in Pichai’s armour and how urgently Gam Prime is replenishing his body mass, it’s clear the battle wasn’t as cut and dried as the Legate would have us all believe.

 

What happened at the Canston Winery and why aren’t they allowed to talk about it?

 

Putting my curiosity aside, I approach the two Gams first since I at least have a rapport with the younger one. It’s amazing how similar they are, not only in physical features with their slender builds, fluffy white fox ears, and threadbare robes, but also their demeanour, both moving to guard their plates when I approach, as if worried I’ll steal the food right out of their mouths. Tempted to ask for a bite as a joke, I quash the urge when Gam literally growls when my eyes stray to his plate, a sure a warning and threat as I’ve ever heard.

 

I now see why they call him ‘the Eccentric’.

 

“How’d you do it?”

 

Interrupted as I draw breath to greet them, the most eloquent response I can manage is, “Er, what?”

 

Popping a piece of chicken into his mouth, Gam chews loudly while pointing with his chopsticks, both things even Tali and Tate know not to do. “Little five here says you got into his head and he froze up, blames himself and poor nerves for his loss, but I didn’t raise no mousy warrior, so I wanna know how’d you do it?” Switching to Sending, he continues, “How’d you cheat with no one noticing? You and the Legate in on it together? You his illegitimate son or something?”

 

God, I wish. Things would be so much easier if I was, but sadly, amber eyes are hereditary and the Legate’s are a lovely shade of brown. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The lie comes easily but Gam is not so easily convinced, staring me down to intimidate me into submission. Weathering his gaze with only minimal cringing, I find it difficult to keep a straight face while the half-beast Expert chews with his mouth open, an ordeal which is horrify to watch and listen to, especially in stereo with Wu Gam doing the same beside him. After a torturous pause, my last nerve snaps and I say, “I’ve no illusions about our respective strengths. Though I won our first match, who’s to say what would happen if we fought again? Perhaps ‘little five’ will surprise everyone and emerge the victor.”

 

…Why? Why did you add that last bit? Why taunt the big, strong warrior who could crush your skull with one hand?

 

Neither Gam is pleased by my flippant response, but the crowd loves it, none-too-quietly snickering in the background as they eavesdrop on our conversation. If not for Gam restraining him, ‘little five’ would have likely jumped to his feet and demanded a duel right here and now, something I’d hoped to avoid for… well… forever. Eager to change the subject, I offer them a military salute to smooth things over and say what I came to say. “Congratulations on a battle well fought and exposing the corruption lurking in our midst.” Even though I discovered it and handed the honour over on a silver platter.

 

I wanted to go kill piggies…

 

Following Luo-Luo’s instructions to the letter, I take my prepared gift from my Death Corps escorts and hold it out with both hands, waiting for Gam to accept it instead of placing it down in front of him. Thankfully, the quirky half-fox is quick to forgive and his eyes light up as he snatches the gift away to inspect it. There are a lot of unspoken rules to giving gifts, and while I wanted to pick three pieces of art from the wagon, Luo-Luo insisted I put more thought into my gift since whatever I presented would be scrutinized by the watching crowd and dissected for hidden meanings and significance. There’s a whole list of general things to avoid like pears, umbrellas, shoes, handkerchiefs, or anything to do with the number four, not because they’re shitty gifts, but because they’re homonyms for parting, breaking, evil, farewell, and death respectively, which I guess is seen as a veiled insult or something. It was hands down the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard.

 

And then, Luo-Luo kept talking.

 

Sharp objects are no good because it means I’m severing my relationship with the individual, while anything black or white is bad because those are colours associated with funerals, as are flowers, incense, candles, and more. In the same vein, green is also not a good colour, especially green hats for reasons Luo-Luo wouldn’t explain. I’m also supposed to avoid giving away jewellery or combs because those gifts have an intimate connotation, so much so that giving someone else’s wife a necklace might have you duelling her husband in the streets.

 

There’s more, but that’s all I could handle in one afternoon. It’s reasons like this why I hate social interaction. What’s the point of making things so complicated? Sometimes, a gift is just a gift, especially since I’m only giving one because not giving a gift would be rude and grounds for a grudge-ing. Going with Luo-Luo’s suggestion, I picked out a bunch of herbal remedies, health supplements, and general body care items for the three aged warriors, though judging from the grease and grime built up in the Eccentric’s beard and hair, I have a feeling the bath bombs and scented soap will go unused. It’s all packaged in a fancy jade box too, because a gift that looks cheap is worse than no gift at all. Never mind that the medicinal ingredients themselves are expensive enough, the important thing is it must look expensive.

 

Slipping away while Gam Prime rummages through his gift, a definite social faux-pas according to Luo-Luo, I approach the meditating Broken Blade Pichai and find myself presented with something of a challenge. Decorum demands I stand and wait until he accepts the gift, but since his eyes are closed and no amount of throat clearing can get him to open them, I’m not even sure if he knows I’m here. Quickly losing patience in these silly power games, I smile and pretend I’m nodding at a Sending and carry on a fake, silent conversation, one which comes to an abrupt end as I place the box on the table and walk away without a word, not caring if the crowd reads too much into it. At least this way no one will think I was rude, since the only way Pichai can expose me is if he admits he was rude first.

 

I can’t believe I’m only coming up with this now. Pretending to receive instructions through Sending is frigging brilliant, the perfect way to avoid responsibility for my actions. All I have to do is stare off into the shadows, smile, nod, and then do whatever I want. Voila, responsibility free! If my actions offend anyone, they’ll blame it on a hidden Expert they can’t find, so they’ll be too scared to take their frustrations out on me.

 

I’m a genius.

 

Since Du Min Gyu is off with the snot-nosed brat and Yan’s working hard to avoid me, I hand the last gift to Song’s half-brother, a man so still and impassive he almost blends into the furniture without any Chi shenanigans. While the crowd deliberates over the contents of my gifts, haphazardly spread around his table by a disappointed Gam Prime, I escape to the safety of Ping Ping’s shadow, where no one is brave enough to approach lest the Divine Turtle smite them down in front of Empire’s finest and fattest. Still recovering from this morning’s clash out in the Azure Sea, the big girl ignores the fish and cabbage laid out for her in the middle of the banquet hall and instead sequesters herself in a corner, laying with arms and legs splayed out in all directions as she rests her head on the cold, hard tiles.

 

It’s a sad-turtle sploot, both adorable and heartbreaking at the same time.

 

Settling against her shoulder, I use my Loving Aura to lift her spirits, but to no avail. Ever since the embarrassing revelation with Sir Inky, I’ve been leery of throwing Love around willy nilly, but Pong Pong’s Aura of Despair really did a number on his future wifey, so I’m doing what I can to put her back together. Appreciative of the gesture, Ping Ping nuzzles me ever so gently before settling back down with a melancholic sigh.

 

That’s the thing about depression; it’s largely a solitary, uphill battle. While it never hurts to have help, all the love and support in the world can’t save you from yourself.

 

Honestly, I’m not doing much better. Having realized I’ve been rejected by Yan, I yearn to return to camp and snuggle my floofs, but leaving before saying goodbye to the guest of honour is more grounds for a grudge-ing. This is stupid, what am I supposed to do when the guest of honour skedaddles first? Sleep on the floor until he comes back? Plus, it’s a nerve-wracking to be out here mingling while Pong Pong naps in my yurt, snuggled in Mama Bun’s embrace and guarded only by the unreliable and ignorant Jochi and Argat. I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, since bringing Pong Pong around would be so much worse, especially if Ping Ping or Guan Suo recognize the tiny turtle for what he is. The two half-monkey brothers complained about being left behind, but I made up something about finding poisoned tea and they relented. Hopefully, they follow orders and keep everyone out, because I can only imagine what would happen in someone snuck in and disturbed the tiny terrapin tyrant from his peaceful slumber.

 

Tidal waves of fury or something of the like, I’d assume.

 

Taduk told me to say nothing and leave everything to him, so I’m not sure who knows about Pong Pong besides him, Lin, and Guard Leader. Hopefully, my scatter-brained Teacher thought to put more reliable guards on my yurt, since I’d only put 50/50 odds on Jochi and Argat sticking around for the entire time. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Yan, I wouldn’t have even bothered coming out, doubly so if I’d known how she felt about me beforehand. Feeling in need of a pick me up, I extend my loving Aura to Blackjack and laugh as the fearless hare scampers off of Ping Ping’s head and leaps into my waiting hands. Nose twitching as he devours a meaty treat, Blackjack seems none the worse for wear after this morning’s ordeal, my sweet little hare too tough for –

 

“Falling Rain?”

 

Yelping in surprise, I leap to my feet and find a sneaky stranger looming over me, well within striking distance should he attack. Clad head to toe in brigandine armour, the stranger’s handsome, angular face sports a grimace which seems entrenched there for all time. Though the spear in his hand garners most of my attention, I also notice the crowd’s uncharacteristic lack of response to my high pitched shriek, and I’m not sure if I should be relieved or worried no one noticed my unmanly reaction.

 

“Stay your hand.” The stranger’s grimace deepens as I reach for my weapon, and breaks into a snarl as I draw it, but then, his eyes widen in surprise. Much as I’d like to claim credit, it turns out my scream didn’t go entirely unnoticed as Guan Suo’s fingers wrap around the stranger’s neck, his bushy white eyebrow raised in question as if asking for permission to kill.

 

Studying the stranger for clues, I feel like an idiot once I notice a giant ‘Virtuous’ engraved on his chest-piece. “Err, don’t kill him. He’s with those people we met this morning, an Azure Ascendant.” What’s his name again? “Daxian, right? Sorry, I didn’t recognize you. What did you need”

 

Please don’t let this be about Pong Pong…

 

Rubbing his neck, Daxian’s cheeks burn red as he scowls at Guan Suo, though subdued enough not to say anything. “I’m here to bring you to see a mutual friend. Your Teacher is already there.”

 

My stomach drops at the thinly veiled threat. Gesturing for him to lead the way, I follow Daxian out with Ping Ping and Guan Suo in tow, wishing I could send them both away and spare them from Gang Shu’s fury, but Ping Ping refuses to remain behind and Guan Suo ignores all my silent warnings. How we slip out without anyone noticing, I’ll never know, but it is with a heavy heart I go to meet my fate.

 

What else could it be? Gang Shu must have found Pong Pong and was so furious with my deception, he took Taduk hostage to lure me out. I don’t know why he has to jump through all these hoops, but if I had to guess, it’s probably because of my status as an Imperial Scion. Either way, I doubt it’s enough to protect me from the wrath of an Ancestral Beast, though maybe I can beg him to spare Taduk, Guan Suo, and Ping Ping.

 

As for Blackjack… Even GangShu wouldn’t murder the cutest little hare, right?

 

Chapter Meme

 


Sorry this is late, noticed last minute I had a whole chunk written in the wrong tense. Plus, I had to write this note:

 

Monday is Canadian Thanksgiving, and normally i take a day off, but since I missed a ch last… whenever, I’ll write one for sunday as normal. Rejoice! The cliff will not last until tuesday. Enjoy!


 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 381

 

Resisting the urge to break decorum and hug him, Yan’s heart broke as she watched Grandpa struggle with his emotions, unsure how to proceed after Rain’s ‘demonstration’ forced him to action. Still laying on the floor, Jin Tok gaped like a fish on land while alternating his wide-eyed stare between Rain, Grandpa, and the crowd of disdainful nobles, unable to comprehend the nuances of what just happened or why no one would speak out against Rain’s actions. Arrogance and stupidity blinded Jin Tok to the truth laid bare for all to see. Grandpa was no longer merely a respected Teacher and former hero past his prime, but had reclaimed his standing as a Peak Expert of the Empire, a living legend few could hope to match, a man almost above criticism and reproach. What’s more, since they first met, Rain had gone from nameless ‘savage’ to publicly accepted Number One Talent of the Empire and Imperial Consort, his standing so far above Jin Tok’s, they were as different as Heaven and Earth.

 

A child born into wealth and reputation, Jin Tok was a feckless half-wit dumbass who still had yet to realize how far his family had fallen. His ‘heroic’ father made many enemies in life and Grandpa had to call in every chit and favour he had left just to keep the Cho family alive, but they were all too mule-brained to see it. What Jin Tok thought he could accomplish by ruining Grandpa’s return to glory, Yan would never understand, but despite the snivelling shit-bag’s hateful actions, she knew Grandpa would forgive him, for such was the price of love.

 

Much as she loathed Jin Tok, Grandpa only saw the child he once held in his arms and swore to cherish and protect, not the hateful man that child grew up to be. It broke her heart to see Grandpa in so much pain, so against her better judgment, she reached out and gave him a gentle push, so light it was more of a pat, but that was all the prompting he needed. Marching over with resolute purpose, he lifted Jin Tok onto his feet with a harsh glare, but ruined the authoritative atmosphere by straightening the shit-bag’s clothes and smoothing his hair like a proper doting grandfather would. Whatever Grandpa Sent made Jin Tok shrink like a turtle into his shell, but from his aggrieved expression, Yan wagered the idiot hadn’t learned a damned thing from the experience.

 

They would have all been better off if Rain had cut Jin Tok’s throat, but Grandpa would never forgive him for it, especially since he was already partially responsible for instigating the feud between Kai and the People which started the sequence of events which led to Kai’s death.

 

Keeping a firm grip on Jin Tok’s arm as if afraid he’d bolt and run, Grandpa apologized the crowd and excused them both, dragging the shit-bag away for a verbal haranguing, but he was too soft-hearted to do more. A real shame since Jin Tok could do with a caning or twelve, but sadly, all Yan could do was learn to tolerate his presence since it seemed like he would once again be a part of Grandpa’s life. Putting it out of her mind, she commanded Shana to hang back as she approached the Chief Provost and the Blacksmith, hoping to get through the next bit without the sweet girl chittering for hugs and treats. Careful to stop at a safe distance so she wouldn’t accidentally poke anyone with her horns, she showed her respect with a full bow while her words made her position clear. “Du Min Yan greets Lieutenant General Akanai and Divine Blacksmith Husolt. On behalf of Grandfather, this one thanks you for coming and apologizes for his unexpected departure.”

 

Still yet to recover from Jin Tok’s disruption, the crowd didn’t even pretend they weren’t listening in on the conversation, waiting to see if the Chief Provost would claim credit for Yan’s impressive Martial prowess or otherwise denigrate the living legend. Truth be told, the People deserved at least half the credit, for while Grandpa’s teachings sped things along, at least once a week he’d sigh and shake his head while admitting she would have excelled even without his guidance. It was a matter of pride and it wounded his greatly to believe he’d stolen Yan from the People, but she knew they didn’t see it that way.

 

Well… most didn’t.

 

With a smile and a nod, the Chief Provost replied, “Your time in Central has served you well. I hardly recognized you on stage the first day during your phenomenal performance against Wu Gam.” Her reminder earned her a derisive snort from the surly Eccentric sitting nearby, but the Chief Provost merely ignored him and continued. “So young and already utilizing External Chi, Du Min Gyu’s prowess as a teacher may even surpass his already formidable skills as a warrior. Admirable indeed.” While the crowd voiced their agreement, the Chief Provost Sent, “It gladdens my heart to see you thriving child. I know how difficult it must have been as a woman and demi-human in Central, so allow me to profess my admiration for your strength of will and character.”

 

Her cheeks blazing from the high praise, Yan mumbled her thanks as the Blacksmith winked and nodded at her shield hanging from her shoulder. “Your fan is a pretty piece, but I told you before, your shield is a piece of Inspired work, some of my best. Don’t neglect it now, or you’ll break my heart, girly.

 

Beaming from the amicable exchange, she nodded and chose her words carefully so not as to give away their silent exchange. “Thank you for the high praise. This one is undeserving and still has much to learn, but she will always remember her roots.” A month ago, she wouldn’t have dared utter those last words as it would have given rise to a public condemnation of both her and Grandpa, but now she could proudly declare her origins instead of hiding them like a shameful secret.

 

It stung to admit it was mostly due to Grandpa and Rain rather than her own efforts, but she wouldn’t complain too much about it.

 

Once the Chief Provost dismissed her, the crowd lost interest in Yan’s reunion and she allowed herself to relax a little. Standing before the Bloody Fanged Wolf Baatar, all Yan could think of was how her thick-skulled hero once mistook her for a boy, so she said her greetings and moved on before breaking into nervous laughter. Though her face bore more lines than before, Speaker Sarnai still looked the part of cold, mature beauty, her gaze sharper than ever as she sat in her wheeled chair and studied Yan like a lamb on the chopping block. Thoroughly intimidated, Yan beat a second hasty retreat and was met with warmth and cheer as Alsantset ignored all decorum and politics to pull her into a hug. The twins were equally exuberant to see her as they leaped into her arms, clamouring about all the things she’d missed while showing off their lion puppets.

 

Oh how she missed their pale, chubby cheeks and little nub horns…

 

Promising to come visit and play soon, Yan extricated herself from their grasp and exchanged a warm smile with Charok before braving the next hurdle. Skipping past Mila’s surly grimace, Yan opted instead to face Lin’s adorably bashful expression, the sweet girl clearly holding herself back because of their present surroundings. “Well?” Yan asked, holding her arms out wide. “I don’t even warrant a hug now?”

 

Giggling in delight, Lin threw herself into Yan’s embrace and said, “Hi Yan-Yan. I missed you lots. I almost forgot how nice you smell, like a warm summer breeze.” After enjoying the embrace for another second, Lin remembered herself and leaned back, though she kept her arms firmly wrapped around Yan’s waist. With an endearing, tearful pout, Lin whispered, “How come you never wrote back?”

 

I’m sorry,” Yan Sent, squeezing the darling girl tight. “I wanted to, but anything I wrote would have been intercepted, altered, and used against me or Grandpa. I’m not even sure if I received all of your letters, the first one came six months after I left.” A poorly scrawled letter from Rain which rambled on far too much without really saying anything of note. “You heard all the trash Jin Tok spouted just now, but a year ago, the result would have been much worse.

 

“But things are better now, ya?”

 

Lin’s optimistic gaze was too much to bear and Yan almost broke down into tears of joy as she nodded in reply, too choked up to speak. As wonderful as Grandpa and Eun were, there were still times when Yan had been so lonely in Central, with no one her age to trust and talk to. Even though they’d never been the best of friends, she’d formed a deep bond with Lin and everyone else during their travels south to see the Society, a bond she cherished deeply and longed for ever since she took her first step in her journey to Central.

 

Flashing her beautiful toothy grin, Lin hugged Yan tight once more and said, “Good. Now, enough stalling, go make up with Mi-Mi ya? Don’t worry, she looks angry, but she isn’t, not really. You know how she is, she’s not happy unless she has something to be grouchy about.”

 

True to Lin’s words, Mila stood with arms crossed and lips pursed, but Yan steeled her nerves and wrapped her arms around the stiff redhead, hugging her tight while explaining everything through Sending once again. With a dainty, derisive snort, Mila finally relaxed and returned Yan’s hug, squeezing so hard her ribs creaked and feet lifted off the ground. “Politics,” Mila Sent, her disgusted tone conveying exactly what she thought of them. “I still haven’t completely forgiven you yet. What were you thinking returning Shana and Zabu like you did? You could have left a note at least. I thought you refused his betrothal, but Lin believes otherwise. Which is it?

 

A good question. “… I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve spoken with Grandpa about, but I’m sure he won’t stand in our way, only…” Did Grandpa have other plans for her, like a political marriage, or worse, a marriage with Jin Tok? No, Grandpa would never be so callous as to use her that way, he himself never married because his parents insisted he marry the “right” woman without caring for his opinion, but the question remained, was Rain even still interested? “I’m sorry for causing you worry Mila. I didn’t think things through, returning Shana was a knee-jerk reaction after I received an invitation to his banquet in honour of his new concubine.” And she regretted it every second since, barely able to bring herself to wake in the morning without the adorable squeaks of the quin pups to greet her. Besides, Rain had enough adorable pets around him, from the friendly, long-haired wildcats to the round and skittish black bears, not to mention the darling hare perched atop the Guardian Turtle, looking so fetching with his silken bow-tie and angry scowl. Focusing on her conversation, Yan put on a brave front and asked, “Was he upset?”

 

It was a stupid question to ask. Either he was devastated by her backhanded refusal and she caused him pain or didn’t care and she meant nothing to him anymore, but regardless of how he took it, she needlessly complicated things with her actions. If only she’d waited a single day, then she would have known there was no longer a need to hide their connection and could openly flaunt their friendship. She cared nothing for the benefits his new status brought, only that it allowed her to be both Du Min Yan and Adujan of the Bekhai.

 

Ha!” Rolling her eyes, Mila Sent, “You forget, but he’s not the sharpest spear in the armoury. The mule-headed idiot never gave your motives a second thought and is still clueless as ever, too busy spoiling those pups silly and ruining any chance they have of growing into proper battle quins.”

 

The unsharpened spear in question stood a little ways off, the centre of attention now that Grandpa was gone, fending off a horde of fawning bootlickers with his customary tactless, unintentional discourtesy. She’d already noted this during his improvised strip show on the streets of Nan Ping, but Rain had changed considerably in their time apart. Gone was the scrawny, slouching, bedraggled youth, and in his place was a strapping young man dressed to impress and brimming with confidence. Although he still had plenty to go before he could be called anything but lean, his wiry athletic form filled out his high-necked tunic well, his shoulders broader and back wider now that he stood up straight, and his pants were just tight enough to give an impression of his cute butt and shapely calves. Though shorter than most, if not all the guests, there was an air of command about him, not demanding respect, but expecting it, yet still friendly and approachable thanks to his easy, charming smile. Longer than she remembered, his silken black hair was brushed to one side, showing off his piercing amber eyes to full effect. When his sharp gaze locked onto her eyes, a chill of fear ran down her spine while a shudder of excitement coursed through her, ready to follow him into the closest room and do whatever he bid her.

 

Mother Above. He had no right looking as handsome as he did, no right at all. How was a woman to resist?

 

Freeing himself from the crowd with the help of his Death Corps guards, Rain made his way over to Mila’s side and greeted Yan with his brilliant smile, so genuine and goofy her heart melted to see it. “Yan,” he said, slipping his arm around Mila’s waist. “It’s so good to see you again.”

 

And that was it. No ‘I missed you’, no ‘I still love you’, not even a joke about becoming his fourth wife. Just, ‘good to see you’ while being all lovey-lovey with Mila. When did they become so intimate? Uptight Mila seemed perfectly fine with this public show of affection despite her parents standing only a few metres away. It wasn’t anything overtly salacious or indecent, merely one hand resting on her hip, but their actions were so casual and practised it spoke of a deep level of trust and affection, far more than they’d shared when Yan parted ways. To make matters worse, Rain’s new concubine towered over them nearby, a gorgeous goddess with long legs and huge tits whose every action exuded sex appeal as she clung to her ‘Lord Husband’s’ sleeve and studied Yan with a wary gaze. With Lin’s undeniable charisma thrown into the mix, was there even still room for Yan in Rain’s cluttered love life?

 

Fucking hell. What a difference a year makes…

 

Summoning a phony smile, Yan swallowed her disappointment and replied, “Good to see you too.” Turning aside, she wave Da’in over and said, “Let me introduce you to my new… What would I call you anyways? My God-Sister?”

 

The willowy woman’s smile had a seductive cast to it, her eyes half-lidded and head held at a slight tilt, giving her the illusion of vulnerability despite being one of the most dangerous young women Yan knew. “Actually,” she drawled, linking arms with Yan as she spoke, “We’ve met, and since you call Godfather ‘Grandpa’, I would technically be your God-Aunt. Be a good little girl Yan-Yan, and greet your God-Aunt nicely.” With a petulant smile, Da’in switched to Sending and said, “You naughty, deceitful seductress. To think, I spent an entire morning raving about how bold and daring Falling Rain was yet you didn’t see fit to tell me he’s smitten with you.”

 

“Smitten?”

 

“Yes, utterly smitten and ready to heel at your command. Have you seen the way he looks at you? Like a starving predator lying in wait. I’ve already forced you to share your beloved Grandpa, so your God-Aunt won’t fight you for your little lover, even after such a spectacular and seductive display of arrogance and power.” Pursing her lips, Da’in added, “That said, he seems like a man of voracious appetite, so if he’s looking to add to his harem, be sure to think of your dear God-Aunt first, okay? I won’t settle for being his concubine, but neither will I insist on the position of primary wife. Mother and Father have been nagging me to marry for years now, and I fear they’re contemplating having me drugged, chained, and sold off to my prospective husband-to-be.”

 

Starving predator huh? Brimming with confidence thanks to Da’in’s perspective, Yan completed the introductions and stepped aside to greet Li Song, even though the two of them weren’t that close. In fact, the surly wildcat seemed overtly antagonistic and Yan had no idea why, but she couldn’t be bothered to puzzle out why. Knowing Rain was still interested filled Yan with both joy and trepidation, her heart pounding and nerves aflutter as she struggled for control. He still cares, so don’t screw it up, but you’re not orphan Adujan anymore. You’re Du Min Yan and you can’t afford to be seen throwing yourself at men. You must be ladylike and demure lest you bring shame upon the Du family name, even though no one blinks twice when the men of Central whore about with reckless abandon. Thus, she had to be sneaky about throwing herself at Rain and wait until after nightfall to seduce him.

 

Only a few hours more, and then…

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 380

 

Hiding his sigh with a sip of tea, Du Min Gyu endured meeting with his latest guests for the sake of propriety, wishing he were anywhere else but here. Perhaps he’d grown maudlin with age, but his triumphant return to glory was not what he expected. No, he corrected, it was exactly what he expected, better in fact thanks to the Imperial Grand Conference and Ryo Da’in’s careful planning and attention to detail. Inside the Ryo Family’s luxurious banquet hall, he sat at the table of honour with Yan at his side and Kyung at his back, while musicians played in the background and dancers performed at the sides. The gathered guests were some of the most influential and prominent figures from across the Empire, all here to pay their respects as they quietly mingled amongst themselves with drinks in hand while awaiting their turn. Three Marshals and two Colonel Generals were here in attendance and anyone without an invitation and with less standing than a Major General would be turned away at the door, else even the Ryo Family Manor would not be large enough to contain all the well-wishers, much less the banquet hall, not with everyone and their grandmother hoping to meet the Heroes of the Empire who’d been commended by the Legate himself.

 

This was the moment Min Gyu had dreamed of for decades now, to have the world acknowledge his greatness once again, but now that his day had arrived, he wondered why he’d ever yearned for something so… meaningless. What use were fame and reputation? Where were these ‘close friends’ and ‘devoted fans’ a week, or a month, or a year ago? Much as he appreciated the dutiful Da’in’s efforts, which included convincing her notoriously spendthrift of a father to bear the significant cost of tonight’s events, he found it difficult to muster any interest or enthusiasm in the proceedings, instead wishing he were away from all this grandiose splendour and at home across the street, enjoying a quiet dinner with Yan instead of surrounded by a host of fawning flunkies or insincere politicians looking to attach themselves to his rising star.

 

Hypocrites the lot of them, moving whichever way the wind blew. They sang his praises and gushed with adoration, but he saw past their nonsense for the lies they were. The louder they claimed not to believe the hateful rumours spread by his relatives and the Cho family, the less he believed them, but worse were their curious glances and probing questions, subtle tests to check the veracity of said rumours and verify if he truly was a lecher being manipulated by his young, half-beast paramour or a senile old fool puppeted by foreign powers. What irritated him most was how most of the guests all but ignored Yan’s presence, treating her as little more than a decoration once finished with their appraisal. There she sat, his publicly acknowledged grand-daughter and Terminal Disciple, a warrior who displayed her shockingly advanced Martial skills on stage only a few days past, yet these bigots and short-sighted fools couldn’t see past her horns and offer her a few words of greeting.

 

Only his appreciation to Da’in and her father kept him from losing his temper, and even that was wearing thin and it showed. After he sent off his latest well-wisher with a forced smile and a nod, Da’in approached with a fresh cup of tea and offered it with a bow. “Teacher Du, is something amiss? Please instruct this foolish student and she will do her best to correct her failures.”

 

Lamenting his lack of social grace, he accepted the cup and urged the respectful girl to straighten up. “My foul mood is no fault of yours child,” he said loudly enough to be overheard. “Everything you’ve prepared is more than I could ever hope for, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for you and your family’s efforts.” Placing the teacup aside, he clasped his fist in a salute and greeted the watching guests with a self-deprecating chuckle. “Forgive my foul mood, for I’m a crotchety old man who took grave injury only last night, tired and irritable from the pain of recovery. Please, take no heed of this one’s scowls and grimaces, your presence here is much appreciated and your support well-remembered.”

 

The guests replied with a chorus of assurances and statements saying his apologies were unnecessary or his foul mood unnoticed as they went through the tired motions of social decorum. What infuriated him even more was Gam’s Sending, delivered without hesitation as the graceless buffoon devoured the food laid out before him. “Bah, barely over a hundred years old and already so frail. I’m five times your age and suffered far more debilitating injuries, but you don’t see me bellyaching about it, now do you? What you need is more meat on your bones. Can’t call yourself a proper warrior being all skin and bones, else you’ll be laid out for weeks every time you take injury. What’s the matter, got no appetite anymore? All this good food and you’ve barely touched a bite. Seems wasteful if you ask me, but no one ever does, even though…”

 

Putting the cantankerous cretin’s ramblings out of mind, Min Gyu cursed the half-fox for a fool. Eccentric Gam was a warrior he’d gladly stand beside in battle, but otherwise, he wanted nothing to do with the aggravating man or his moon-eyed disciple Wu Gam. The Heaven’s would fall before Min Gyu gave Wu Gam permission to court Yan, no matter how talented or promising he might be. The thought of being related to the rambling eccentric was enough to send a shiver down Min Gyu’s spine, a fate worse than death in his eyes.

 

Well… he’d make an exception if the relationship was one of step-father and step-son, but sadly, Gam’s gorgeous Divinity of a mother had not deigned to make an appearance. Worse, the Legate demanded they keep any Ancestral Beast involvement a secret, which meant no one could know about his harrowing experience against the fearsome Defiled Mole-woman, nor could he make inquiries about Gam’s mother without drawing unwanted attention.

 

Ah, but to gaze upon her shapely buttocks once more…

 

Wishing his would-be step-son could be more like Broken Blade Pichai, who sat silently on the left with eyes closed in contemplative meditation, Min Gyu stewed in irritation until Yan nudged him in the side. The girl said nothing and only surreptitiously glanced towards Da’in sheepishly standing on one side, as if wondering if she’d been right to arrange all this. Poor girl, she’d been seeking his approval of so many years now and refused to give up even after he’d accepted Yan as his Terminal Disciple. Even more laudable was her behaviour following the rumours and his final refusal to teach Seoyoon too. Though the Ryo family grew distant, Da’in defied her father’s orders and drew even closer to Min Gyu in his time of trouble, becoming something of a sister figure and sparring partner to Yan.

 

The past year revealed much about Min Gyu’s family and so-called friends, and he put far higher value on those who stood by him without gain over those who’d come slinking back once his fortunes improved, and Da’in was undoubtedly the former. Cursing his foul disposition, he gestured for Da’in to step closer now that the crowd had finally relented and left them some space. “No need to worry child, your efforts have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.” An ill-tempered and domineering young woman, Da’in flushed with uncharacteristic joy as she read too much into his words and he scolded himself for speaking carelessly. “Tell me, why do you think I refuse to take you as my Disciple?”

 

Taken aback by his abrupt question, Da’in hesitated briefly before answering, bold and daring as always. “Because this lowly one lacks talent and comprehension, not worthy of –”

 

“Bah.” Snorting in derision, Min Gyu interrupted her with a wave of his hand. “You are the undisputed number one talent of your time, a firebrand who dismantled all opposition with ease. If you are lacking in talent, then what of your defeated peers? What of the rest of the Empire’s young warriors? No child, talent is one thing you never lacked. As for comprehension? Genius is a title used far too often in my eyes, but you are undoubtedly worthy, yet still I won’t take you as my Disciple. Why?”

 

By now, their conversation was now the centre of attention as the crowd listened in, with many of them wondering the same thing. Few talents could match Ryo Da’in, and even Wu Gam and Falling Rain’s stunning performances failed to measure up, yet still the fabled Teacher Du Min Gyu refused her. Cheeks flushed with embarrassment, Da’in struggled to rein her fabled temper in as she stood with head hung low, unable to understand why he was chastising her in public after all her efforts. Patting her arm, he softened his tone and explained, “If talent and comprehension were all that mattered, I would have taken you in as my Disciple the first time you asked over a decade ago. Back then, you were but a child and already a rising dragon of Central, and although you attributed your achievements to listening in on a few lectures of mine, I had little to do with it. You are a child of the Ryo Family, the daughter of Ryo Dae Jung, and a warrior bound for greatness with or without my help. To call myself your Mentor would be dishonest, for I would have had little hand in shaping the person you would become.” Spreading his hands, Min Gyu concluded, “Just look at what you’ve accomplished without my tutelage, or what your younger brother and sister have accomplished. I could hardly claim you would have done better with my aid, and in fact, you might have suffered for it. Your temperament is unsuitable for my favoured style and I could not bear the thought of ruining such a promising seedling.”

 

Pushing himself to his feet, he placed both hands on Da’in’s shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Though I did not accept you as my Disciple, all these years you have treated me like your Mentor, and for this, I am grateful beyond words. Since I lack skin thick enough to claim myself worthy of teaching you, I’ve taken the liberty to speak with your parents and asked to become your godfather, and they agreed so long as you are willing. What say you child? Speak your mind, I’ll take no offence no matter your answer.”

 

“Godfather!” Da’in blurted, throwing herself into his embrace while nodding in excitement. “Thank you godfather, goddaughter Da’in will not disappoint.”

 

“You couldn’t even if you tried, girl.” Patting her head, he turned to Yan and smiled wholeheartedly, for without her suggestion, he wouldn’t have thought of such an elegant solution. Now, his little family had grown by one, and it filled him with more joy than a thousand tense lunches with the Legate or a million compliments from his peers. He had more adoptions in mind, but they would have to wait until his family life was out of the public eye. As the crowd congratulated them, he kept Da’in’s father’s request in mind, to help the contentious and capricious young woman find a suitable husband, for even though Da’in was a lovely young woman of twenty-eight years, her parents had yet to have a single suitor come calling and they worried one never would.

 

How hard could it be? Little Da’in was so devoted and compliant, any man would be lucky to have her.

 

Once his new goddaughter joined them at the table, Min Gyu’s mood was much improved and the guests saw this as permission to approach. Suffering through their empty flattery and hot air, he put on a happy expression and counted the minutes until he could leave without causing offence, for even though he cared nothing for their opinions, his goddaughter had worked hard to arrange all this.

As the night wore on, he spotted a familiar face in the crowd and smiled in greeting, but little Jin Tok feigned ignorance and looked away, still angered by what happened after his father’s death. Kai was far from perfect, but he’d been like a son to Min Gyu and it pained him to be estranged from little Jin Tok. As much as he wanted to blame the boy’s mother and uncle for their current circumstances, Min Gyu knew in his heart of hearts the boy was also culpable. It didn’t matter, all he wanted was to be a family again. Jin Tok lacked his father’s boldness and perseverance, but perhaps if Min Gyu put more effort into his training, the boy might amount to something after all.

 

Maybe. Possibly. He wasn’t overly optimistic, but stranger things had happened…

 

Cheeks aching with the strain of smiling, Min Gyu was about to excuse himself when a commotion caught his attention. Heads held high, the Bekhai delegation displayed their customary arrogance and disdain as they marched through the banquet hall with their roosequins in tow and ringed by their Death Corps escorts. As if bringing their mounts into the banquet hall wasn’t rude enough, Falling Rain even had the temerity to bring his damned pets along too, those wildcats and bears padding alongside the massive Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao while his black rabbit rode atop her head.

 

The long-eared creature was almost as arrogant as Rain himself, its nose pointed towards the sky as it lorded over the best and brightest of the Empire from high above.

 

Leading the Bekhai delegation, Akanai greeted him with a military salute. “Lieutenant General,” she began with a smirk. “Congratulations on your first victory over the Defiled.”

 

He’d never admit it out loud, but Min Gyu enjoyed their little verbal spars. Before he could answer, their exchange was interrupted by storm of squeaks as Yan’s over-affectionate roosequin brought her shrieking brood over for hugs and treats. Try as she might to resist it, Yan’s smile bloomed as she embraced the creatures, nuzzling them close while the most important figures in the Empire watched on. Well, no matter. His reputation was whole once more and he no longer needed to hide his affiliation with the Bekhai, involuntary though it may be. Coming to his feet, he returned Akanai’s salute with one of his own. Taken aback by his courtesy, the hateful woman fell silent until Min Gyu prompted her along. “And this gentleman is?”

 

“My husband, Divine Blacksmith Husolt.”

 

“Ah yes, you crafted Yan’s six-pointed shield. A master of your craft indeed, you have my admiration.” Thus they played their little game for everyone to see as Akanai introduced each member of her family one by one, confirming once and for all that Du Min Gyu was on friendly terms with the Bekhai, as he offered a word of praise or a gesture of fondness for each, whether it be a smile or a wink, a laugh or a compliment. Granted, this was partly because of the boy’s new status and partly because he saw how smitten Yan still was with him despite her best efforts to hide it. Try as he might, he couldn’t refrain from scowling when he came face to face with the womanizing little scamp, standing there with the surly Sumila on one arm and a rabbit-eared damsel on the other, but that wasn’t all. Looming behind him was his Imperial Servant, while off to the side stood Li Song, now the adopted daughter of Akanai and possibly Falling Rain’s fourth paramour, meaning Yan would only be one of five.

 

How dare this scrawny runt lay eyes on the apple of Min Gyu’s eye. No, not just Yan, the boy had the audacity to eye Da’in too, so bold and daring a philander.

 

Opening his mouth to condemn the runt for his womanizing ways, a familiar voice interrupted him before he could speak. “And so the truth is laid bare for all to see,” Jin Tok said, sneering as the crowd parted aside, as none of the guests wanted to risk being mistaken for the source of such vitriol. “Du Min Gyu, celebrated hero of Central, is revealed to be nothing more than a foreign puppet.” Clapping sarcastically, Jin Tok scoffed and shook his head. “How far the mighty have fallen. I’m glad my father, Brigadier Cho Jin Kai and Du Min Gyu’s first Disciple, didn’t live to see his hero and Mentor reduced to such a disgrace, wrapped around the finger of his half-beast whore and leaping to obey the commands of a foreign bitch.”

 

Grabbing Da’in and Yan by the arms, he pulled them both to his side and shook his head. “Don’t,” he whispered, still hoping to make amends with Jin Tok. “Let me speak to him.” Turning to the troubled boy, his words froze in his throat when he saw Rain striding over with sword drawn and a cold glint in his eyes.

 

Blanching in fear, Jin Tok stumbled away and stuttered, “W-What are you doing? I a-am a law-ab-ab-abiding citizen of the Empire! You think you can kill me to silence my tongue? This is murder!”

 

“Shhhhhhh… stop yelling, guy whose name I’ve forgotten,” Rain replied, his words inducing a host of scattered, nervous chuckles. Truth be told, no one was sure how much protection his title of Imperial Consort would afford him, but until such a thing was made clear, there were few brave enough to openly stand against Falling Rain. Imperial Scions had gotten away with far worse than murdering an uppity son of a middling merchant family, and Rain’s reputation was of a man who liked to test his limits. Darting forward without warning, Rain swept Jin Tok’s feet out from under him, a victory so effortless it could hardly be called a fight. Stamping his foot down to pin Jin Tok in place, Rain loomed over the prone, frightened boy with an easy smile, so devoid of emotion he could have been smiling at a bug, rather than a living, breathing human. “I want to show you something,” Rain said, giving his short sword a flourish. “So watch carefully and don’t blink, got it?”

 

Without waiting for an answer, Rain tossed his sword into the air without looking, his eyes focused firmly on Jin Tok’s expression. Higher and higher the blade went, and the crowd joined Jin Tok in watching it spin end over end as it shimmered in the candlelight. Reaching its peak, the sword paused in flight before plummeting back to the earth, so beautifully balanced its razor sharp tip pointed straight down despite the half-hearted throw and perfectly positioned to plunge into Jin Tok’s chest as the boy lay helpless and afraid, his eyes closed and face covered.

 

Or it would have if Min Gyu hadn’t stepped in to catch it.

 

Grinning like a cat, Rain nodded in appreciation as he retrieved his sword from Min Gyu’s grasp, sheathing it behind his back with careless ease. Giving Jin Tok a soft kick, Rain scoffed as the boy uncovered his eyes. “Coward. I told you to watch carefully, didn’t I? If you had, you would understand.” Gesturing around the room, Rain continued, “In this room, filled with the greatest heroes of the Empire, there’s only one person who cares about your worthless life, and it’s the man you came to insult.” Crouching down, Rain grabbed Jin Tok by the lapel and pulled him close. “Say what you will about Cho Jin Kai, but your father died fighting the Defiled and I respect his sacrifice. Do not shame his memory again.”

 

Releasing Jin Tok, Rain straightened up and said nothing about the rest of the allegations before falling back in line with his wives. A correct choice, since protesting would only make it seem like he had a guilty conscience, and truth be told, with his new status, the Bekhai only needed to ask and a dozen different factions would fight for the chance to work with them. It seemed like the anxious and uneasy young man had grown into a proper young hero in this past year and his title of Number One Talent in the Empire not entirely undeserving.

 

Even then, he still wasn’t good enough for Yan, not by a long shot. The boy would have to do something suitably impressive to win his approval, like… become the youngest Exarch in the history of the Empire or something comparable. Besides, Da’in’s parents were being ridiculous. Twenty eight was far too young to marry, and forty seemed like a much more appropriate age for long-lived Martial Warriors.

 

Ah… the pains of being father to a daughter…

 

Chapter Meme

 


I wanted to do a dbl ch to make up for missing one, but I had a very unproductive saturday. Blame rimworld and youtube. Worst case scenario, canadian thanksgiving is on oct 6, so i just wont take a break again to make up for it. 😀


 

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