DuGu Ren has more bodyguards with him today, as well as another well dressed Young Master. I wave at them all. “Hi. Can we just... not fight? I was just enjoying a newfound epiphany.” It can't hurt to ask.
“Drag that peasant out here!” At Ren's shrill shouts, his bodyguards move towards the wagon. I hop off, motioning for Sumila to stay in the wagon. The gate guards are coming in as well, and unlike the bodyguards, their weapons are drawn.
“Halt. Disturbances will not be permitted at the checkpoint. All offenders will be dealt with harshly.” A big burly guy, in the red and black armor of the city guard shouts assertively. The other guards point their weapons, at all of us.
DuGu Ren points at me and yells, “Do you dare leave the checkpoint?”
I laugh at his challenge. I can't help it. It's absurd. “Of course I don't. You have like 10 guards with you. Why would I?” What an idiot.
The other young master looks at me. “This is the one who assaulted you?” At Ren's confirmation, he walks towards me, studying me. He's a tall, well-built, young man, maybe 20, 22 years old. His hair is neatly done, with a single long ponytail. His fingernails are lacquered, sharp pointy tips attached to them. It looks stupid, in my opinion. Why does a man need painted nails? “A scrawny, poorly dressed, yellow eyed freak managed to defeat you? Someone of low breeding, from some backwater, no doubt. Disgraceful, little Ren. The entire family has lost face because of you.” He gives a girlish little sniff. Poorly dressed? Okay, so I'm not in my Sunday best, but I was doing manual labor. He has a pretty boy face, one just perfect for punching.
No, no. Calm down. No punching. Let's roll for diplomacy. I clasp my hands. “Yesterday, we were both in the wrong, Young Master Ren. You have my most heartfelt apologies for striking you. How about we leave it at that, and let bygones be bygones.”
“You insolent child, I'll have you flayed! How dare you presume to lecture me.” Ren is almost frothing at the mouth, red in the face from yelling. He won't come any closer though, staying well back, behind his guards and brother. Coward. “You're nothing but a no name miscreant. I am a favored Son of the DuGu family. Brother, I want him beaten and tortured.” Guess that was a critical fail on that diplomacy roll.
Sumila climbs out of the wagon, and Husolt comes back as well, staying behind me. Neither of them speak, but Husolt pats me on the back, and softly says, “No need to worry, lad.” I told them all about my run in with Ren, but none of them seemed overly concerned. Well, the guards should keep us safe, and once past the bridge, it's just a short distance to the villa. We should be fine.
Ren's brother takes out a token of wood and jade, flashing it at the City Guards. “Acting in my capacity as Warrant Officer of the Imperial Army, I, DuGu Ang, hereby order all city guards to stand down as my men deal with these criminals here. Interference will result in a military hearing.” He turns back to his guards and orders them, “Cripple the men. Bring me that girl unharmed. I'll have some fun with that one.”
The burly guard in red looks at us in apology, before stepping back, along with his friends. What the fuck is happening? He waves some carving around and we're fucked?
DuGu Ren starts cackling. “Cripple him.”
The bodyguards draw the weapons, advancing with threat. My hand is on Peace, ready to fight. I need to protect Husolt and Sumila. I watch the guards close in. Shit. What to do?
Husolt bolts forward, a steel staff in his hands, twirling it about, swinging left and right. He moves gracefully for a large man, every swing striking multiple guards, breaking limbs and spines with ease as he mows through them. The crack of bone and screams of pain fill the air, Husolt showing no mercy, a whirlwind of steel and death. In a few heartbeats, several guards are dead, the rest injured, crawling away or unconscious.
Ang pales visibly, standing still, shivering uncontrollably. Husolt grabs him by the lapel, picking him up like a sack of potatoes. “That girl,” Husolt spits out venomously, “Is my daughter.” Lifting Ang over his head one-handed, Husolt smashes him into the ground. A resounding splat echoes through the checkpoint, Ang's head exploding like an overripe melon, the brains splattering about, painting the gray stone in crimson.
Note to self: Don't piss off Husolt, Psycho Daddy. Standing uselessly, sword not even drawn, I shiver, awed by the display I just witnessed. Just his aura of blood thirst and anger is enough to paralyze me with fear, and it isn't even directed at me.
Husolt isn't even a warrior by profession. He's a blacksmith. Are all the villagers this strong? Am I fucking weak? I mean, Sumila is physically stronger than me, and she has a spiritual weapon. Can I beat her in a fight? Looking at the gory scene in front of me, would I even want to? If she ever challenges me, I might as well just lie down and let her stab me. It'd be more peaceful than what Husolt would do.
He stands there, covered in viscera, not even breathing heavily, scowling at the onlookers. Rage seethes beneath his exterior, a bomb ready to explode. The city guards haven't moved, probably in terror. Turning around, Husolt reaches into his shirt and pulls out his writ, the same one he's been using all day, staining it with blood and holding it out for the city guards. After a long moments pause, the large one, who spoke earlier, gingerly walks forward, avoiding several broken and battered bodies, taking the writ in two hands, unable to look Husolt in the face. He glances at it for a moment, barely reading it, eyes wide, knees shaking, before bowing a full 90 degrees, holding the bloody writ out in front of him. Husolt calmly receives it, placing it back into his shirt, before walking back to the wagon. I'm pretty sure the same thing would have happened if Husolt gave him a lump of shit. Well, he wouldn't keep a lump of shit in his shirt, but if he did, I sure as hell won't be the one to call him out on it.
DuGu Ren is staring wide-eyed at the scene, terrified. He's the lone survivor of the group, spared only because he was farther away. Sighing deeply, my legs still weak, I crawl back onto the wagon, shivering. I hope this doesn't make trouble for our group. It would be my fault if it does, having made trouble with Ren. Why did the city guards just let us leave? They don't seem very good at their job. Sumila sits wordlessly, a proud smile on her face.
The wagon moves through the checkpoint, onto the bridge, while the gory scene fades away into the distance.
Long minutes pass before I can speak. “What happens now? Do we run, leave the city?”
Husolt chortles, replying, “No lad. That trash was abusing his authority as a Warrant Officer, and threatened us with bodily harm, inside a city of the Empire. That guard sergeant will report that to his superiors, and that we defended ourselves legitimately. We're citizens in good standing, so there's no need to worry. I'm surprised he so blatantly broke the law. Even had we not resisted, the Magistrate would hear of it and punish him soundly.” He seems the same as always, a regular shopping trip.
It cannot be that simple. Just like that. I press him for more. “What if the sergeant is in their pocket? He could falsify his report. Aren't you worried about retribution from the DuGu family.”
“The city guards are loyal to the Empire. They swear an oath to the heavens to uphold the laws. They cannot be bribed. As for the DuGu family,” Sumila smiles at me, all teeth and threat, “Let them try.” She has a steel short spear in her hands, smacking it against her palm. Her spiritual weapon, I guess. She's as bloodthirsty as her father. Where was she keeping that spear? And where did Husolt pull his staff from? He was so savage and ruthless, a veritable god of death.
I move to the front, to speak to Husolt privately, swallowing hard to find the courage. “How do you do it?” I ask quietly, “Kill without hesitation like that?” I have to know. “And just be... normal, afterwards?”
No smiles or laughs from Husolt this time. He just looks at me sadly. “You just do it. You're a good lad, but you care too much. You need to make a clear division, between those you love, and everyone else. Anyone who threatens you and yours, dies. Simple as that, lad. Simple as that.” He pauses, and looks away. “It becomes easier with practice.”
This is the mindset I'll need to survive. I look down at my sword, realizing I didn't fully understand my branding ceremony. I was even been so smug about it earlier. I am an idiot.
The certainty and determination that Husolt showed, while I stood there, Peace still within it's scabbard, shows how far I still have to go. I have no qualms about killing them. They'd already been ordered to cripple us, and would do worse to Sumila, but even then, I was still hesitating, trying to come up with possible peaceful solutions. My newfound resolution to fight pales in comparison to that mentality. The pattern repeats. The harsh realities of this world are once again thrown into my face. Everyone devalues life, because we are surrounded by death. No life is precious except those you hold dear.
I settle back down, deep in thought. Live and die by the sword. Or just die. Those are my options, it seems. I keep telling myself I'm okay with killing, that I can do what needs to be done, but am I just fooling myself? Every time I encounter death, I have a crisis. I think about the people the dead leave behind. Did Green-Eyes have a family? Did Young Bandit have a sweetheart? Those guards, did they have any family, any children? How do I stop, and just ignore that annoying little voice?
I look at Sumila, who looks back, patiently watching without judgment, calm and undisturbed. How does she do it? She doesn't seem bothered by death at all. She barely even blinked while her father murdered people in front of her, even smiling at it.
Understanding dawns on me.
It's not murder to them. It's just... business as usual. Someone threatens you, you kill them. Cause and Effect. Simple as that. No morals involved, just the strong against the weak. The bile in my stomach starts to rise, and I swallow it down, bitter and painful. Sumila hands me some water, and I drink. Alcohol would be better. She pats me on the shoulder and smiles kindly, settling down next to me. “I know you would have fought just as hard as Papa. You hesitated, but you were ready to fight, to defend us. Papa just acted faster. Don't worry about it. I know your worth.” She misunderstands why I feel bad. It's the thought that counts though.
Might as well ask now. “How good of a fighter are you?”
My question elicits a surprised look, and a small blush. “Mama says I'm 'passable'.” I chuckle. I don't think Akanai is big on praise. The best I've gotten is 'barely passable', and that was about my strongest point, the demonstration of the Forms. Judging by her answer, Sumila is probably much stronger than my rating of 'absolutely pitiful'. Here I was all proud of myself. I'm not strong. I'm not determined. I'm just a dreamer, living in a world that doesn't fit the fantasy in my head.
I need to think on this, but after I clear my head. Time change the topic. “So that... outfit … that you were looking at. You had someone in mind while looking at it, didn't you? Who's your sweetheart in the village?” I grin. Lighten the mood.
She pouts and elbows me, hard. Guess we aren't that chummy yet.
Husolt's voice, icy and hard, questions us. “What outfit?”
After we returned and informed Akanai of what happened, she ordered all villagers to be escorted by sentinels and cadets within the city. I decide to do some training in the courtyard, to take my mind off things and stay safe. It's been awhile since I've had time to go through the Forms. Concentrating on my mental image, I try to emulate Akanai's performance, smooth and graceful at times, yet abrupt and harsh at others. A combination of several different forms. The tiger form 'Stalking the Dragon' into the bull form's 'Uplift the Sequoia'. Mantis form 'Hanging Branch Grasp' into Snake form 'Darting Fang'. It's rough, and unpolished, even after several tries. No good. It requires too much focus for me, leaving me unable to reach Enlightenment. Stopping my practice, my breaths coming in pants, I sit down and meditate.
It's not just Akanai. Husolt is incredible as well. I can see the Forms in his fighting. A charging thrust, Deer form 'Pierce the Horizon'. Spinning his staff overhead, Oriole form, 'Fluttering Raindrops'. The over-hand body slam. Husolt form, 'Papa Smash'. Terrifying.
I can't make out all the forms either of them demonstrated. They're too abstract, too varied, even in the short demonstrations I saw. Asking them won't help, it'll probably just confuse me even more. I just need to come up with my own combinations of the forms. I can't puzzle anything together in my head. I just need to move, let my body tell me what needs to be done. Enough rest. Standing, I take my stance, and begin Performing the Forms again. Not the rote repetition I do every morning, but instead, I picture myself fighting the bandits once again. This time, I stay out of my body's way, just letting it move, reacting to my imaginary foes, random forms flying out in different attacks. I move against the shadow bandits, sometimes killing them, mostly dying to them. I raise them up again, only to strike them down or be struck down in different ways. They come at me one at a time, or all at once. I fight them again. And Again. I kill and I die for hours, and I kill and die some more.
A sensation on my face and I jerk away, snapping around to thrust my weapon at the new disturbance. Deer Form, Pierce the Horizon, stopping midway. Mei Lin in front of me, smiling. My hands are empty. Jumping back, shaking my hand loose, I grimace and slap myself on the cheek twice, lightly. I lost myself in my training, forgot my enemies were all in my mind. I wasn't actually holding my sword, thankfully, or I might have actually hurt Mei Lin. Still could have, if I followed through.
“You're so silly, Rainy. It's almost dinner time. You skipped lunch, but you can't skip dinner. Go take a bath, I don't wanna sit next to you all sweaty like that.” Her chubby childish cheeks, smiling at me innocently, unaware I just attacked her. I grab her cheeks and pinch lightly. Dangerous, I need to practice somewhere safer from now on.
Mentally apologizing while patting her on the head, I walk to the bathing rooms. A tub is ready for me, arranged by Mei Lin in advance. She's too good to me, an adorable, doting little sister. A servant remains behind, cutting my hair after a quick rinse, leaving it longer than I'd like, but still looking nice. I could get used to this pampering. She leaves me alone to wash up. I was kind of hoping she would stay behind, maybe insinuate something, but no dice. I soak in the tub, enjoying the heat.
I didn't come up with anything new or useful during my training, but it was still somewhat productive. Mostly half-baked ideas that won't work in real combat, but eliminating what doesn't work is helpful. It's good practice, shadow fighting, but I need a more solid image of an opponent, someone closer to my level. If I use Akanai, Baatar, or Alsantset, I'd lose too quickly. They're too strong. I wonder how many of the villagers are as strong as them? The bandits, on the other hand, were too weak. If I had fought them with good light, one on one, it would have been too easy, instant death for all of them. I need a good sparring partner. Maybe Sumila, if she's willing. Unless she's too strong as well, which would be embarrassing. Gender roles are very equal in the village, but even then, I don't think my pride could handle being roughed up by a teenage girl.
New clothes are waiting for me, a beautiful blue high collared jacket with what I think are white pearl buttons, and white fur cuffs. No stupid loose sleeves, either. A scenic picture is stitched in, three birds in a pond, with a plum-tree in full blossom. The pants are matching, and just as ornate. A servant helps dress me, wrapping me in a white sash, while the pretty haircut servant brushes my hair. She even put a ridiculously tiny hat on me, more of a hair decoration than anything. Like a little tiny cloth bun on my head. I like it.
“Why do I need to dress so fancily?” I'm kind of enjoying it, if I'm honest. It's not every day I get dressed up by lovely ladies, and in such nice clothes as well. It makes me feel... pretty. I will never admit that out loud.
“Young Master will be dining with His Esteemed Magistrate, Tong Da Hai, tonight, at his Palace.” My stylist gives me a smile, with big pouty red lips. I wonder how they taste. Damn. Yesterday's fun didn't slow my sex drive down at all. I smile back at her. How do I seduce a woman? Especially a servant, I don't want her to think I'm pressuring her into anything. I keep quiet, due to my own lack of wits. She probably wouldn't want anything to do with me anyways. This is just her job. When they're done dressing me, I walk out, sword tucked into my sash. Dressed to impress, but still comfortable and easy to move in. I could fight in this if I had to. I need more clothes like this. Fancy. Poorly dressed, my ass.
Mei Lin is waiting for me in the hall. She has a similarly tiny hair piece, among many pins and clips all with tiny bells, immobilizing her ears. She jingles as she curtsies in her short, loose blue dress, a second longer layer underneath, with a white furred hem, matching my outfit. It has an eye-catching pattern sewn into it, repeated in several areas on the dress, and a white silk scarf around her shoulders, wrapping around her arms. It's jeweled and a chain runs along its length, and just seems prohibitively long. If she puts her hands down, the scarf will drag on the floor. Fashion, I guess. “You look adorable, little Mei Lin.” I bow back, smiling. She ruins it by sticking her tongue out at me, and latches onto my arm as we walk out into the courtyard.
Taduk, Husolt, Akanai, and Sumila are waiting for us. We all match, blue and white, but in varying shades, patterns and cuts. Sumila looks adorable as well, and I receive the same reaction, minus the arm grab, when I tell her. Why can't anyone take a compliment? Husolt looks just as fierce and imposing, adding majestic to his qualities, eschewing the hair ornaments. Akanai is a knockout, lacking the longer inner dress, dressed in a short tight piece, her bare, pearly white calves on display, open toed cloth shoes on her feet. The overall effect is a little ruined, seeing as they are both armed to the teeth, Husolt with his staff, Akanai with a double crescent ax-lance hybrid. Daggers and swords line their belts, bracers on their wrists. Akanai's hair ornaments are even hanging tiny daggers instead of bells. Sumila is similarly armed, carrying a patterned polished steel round shield in addition to her short spear, both held in one arm by the straps like a purse, even managing to look ladylike.
Taduk claps me on the back, looking dashing in his outfit, hares all over, holding only a fan. “You look fetching, my boy.” He gestures towards a servant, who walks forward presenting me with my long spear. Accepting my weapon, I tilt my head at Taduk.
“You do as well Teacher. Why are we so heavily armed? I was told we are having dinner with Fung's dad. Are we … invited?” God I hope so.
Taduk laughs. “Of course we are, my boy, but don't refer to him like that outside these walls. Courtesies and all that. Mei Lin will explain. We've been invited to a gathering, with good food and good wine. There just may be a tiny bit of bloodshed as well. Don't worry, you shouldn't be in danger, and if you are, just don't die, and I can heal you back up in no time.” He pats me on the shoulder, and my stomach drops. Before I can say anything, he climbs into his rickshaw and leaves. Husolt and Akanai's rickshaw follows, Sentinels marching alongside, fully armed.
Dinner and bloodshed? They don't do anything peacefully here. 'Just don't die' he says. Thanks for the advice. I help Sumila and Mei Lin into the last rickshaw, and climb aboard. I hope we at least get to eat before the fighting starts. I'm starving. Wouldn't want to die on an empty stomach.