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…
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 -”
“Fall in love, start a family -”
“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 fine. You’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.
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