“Are you sure that we should be doing this, Rainy? It doesn't seem right, ya?”
Mei Lin is so timid sometimes, it's adorable. Flashing her my best smile, trying to make my eyes sparkle, I speak kindly, trying to convince her. “Don't worry, Mei Lin, everything will be fine. I know what I'm doing, and I know you can do it. It will hurt, but that doesn't matter too much. It's worth it, trust me. Just be a good girl, and follow my instructions.” She gives me a shy little smile. Excellent, now just to convince the other one.
“I don't want to do this. This is humiliating.” Sumila is red in the face, staring at the ground. Always so concerned about what other people think of her. I can fix that, she just needs more self-confidence. She's an incredible person, and I respect her strength, but she's still just a kid. Easily manipulated.
Placing my hands on her shoulders, I wait until she looks me in the eyes before speaking. “Please? It has to be you. Who else can I trust, if not you, Sumila? I need you for this. You can't let Mei Lin do this alone, right?”
She quivers a bit, a pout on her lips. “But why do we have to do it here? Everyone will be watching.”
I smile at her, flashing my amber eyes. “Let them watch. Pay them no mind. Just focus on the task at hand.” Maybe a little teasing to push her along. “I know you want to do this, Sumila. I can see it in your eyes. Just give in. I won't think less of you, and neither will Mei Lin. What others think don't matter.” Her cheek twitches a little, hiding a smile, I think. I've got her. She'll comply. I look at both of them, standing side by side. They've grown quite a bit in the past year, Sumila is actually a bit taller than me now. Just a bit, the ears make her look taller than she is. Mei Lin is still short though, maybe half a head shorter, with more meat on her, finally looking like a proper young lady, rather than a girlish child. Her ears aren't as droopy as they used to be, only half drooping now, stiffer at the base. Will they just stand straight up after a few more years? I know dogs ears are sometimes like that. I don't really understand Demi-human biology. It seems so arbitrary. Whatever, time to do this. It took an entire week of pleading for them to come around.
Nodding at both of them, they take their positions as I've already instructed. I lift my arms to my chest, hands covering the back of my neck, and hunch forward a little, ready for it the begin. A deep breath, and I lightly enter the State of Balance, holding it loosely, just as a state of mind for the coming ordeal, to numb the pain.
Thwack! The sound of wood hitting my flesh, a snap that draws the attention of the bystanders. A second snap sounds out, followed by another, and another. The repeated sound of Mei Lin and Sumila, striking my back and shoulders with light wooden rods is all I hear, while I focus on ignoring the pain. They continue for five minutes before stopping, putting their rods down, and looking at me with worry. I smile at them, and close my eyes, fully giving myself to nothingness. With inner examination, I see my back is a mass of orange, with some hints of yellow, bruised and abused. Not hard enough, healing this will do nothing. I open my eyes, the shock of the pain registering once more, and speak to them, a little more harshly than intended. “Not hard enough, you need to damage the bones, without breaking them. Hit harder, just don't strike my head or neck. I'll be fine.”
I feel a little bad making them do this, but I need the help. I can't do it myself that well and everyone else I asked either refused, or were 'too busy'. This is body strengthening. It works, even Baatar agrees. My muscles and bones are solid, more dense than others my age. I weigh quite a bit more than it would seem at first glance. It makes swimming a bit more difficult, but not that noticeably. I worked out most of my body on my own, but now I just need to work on my back, and this was the best way I could think of. They both continue swinging, the dull impacts almost rhythmic, my stomach and inner organs jostling with each strike, making me a bit queasy. Focus. Breath. Just accept the pain, it is necessary. No pain, no gain.
It takes 20 minutes for them to finally lose their inhibitions and really start doing damage. After some time, I give them the signal, and they stop, a little out of breath. They've been smacking me for almost 45 minutes, and they're only a little out of breath? Sumila, I get, she's working as a blacksmith and is an incredible fighter. Mei Lin though, she makes me piggy-back her home after picking herbs sometimes. She's more frail and weak. Why isn't she tired? Has she been tricking me? No, no time to think about that. I have work to do.
I sit down and immerse myself in the State of Balance, and begin drawing in the Energy of the Heavens. I just let it circulate around my body, rather than directing it to heal. It's better this way. If I use my chi to heal me, I won't benefit as much. Letting the Energy of the Heavens enter my body, it begins to strengthen me. It'll fix my body along the way, giving more benefit than if I were uninjured. A nice discovery from my trip to the city, over compensation from the Mother, in a sense. I could be wrong though, but it feels like I'm stronger. I feel the warm energy infuse me, and I mentally fall back into its embrace. There isn't much to do, but wait, aware of nothing but awareness itself.
Ever since officially becoming a cadet, I haven't really had many responsibilities. I still had my morning training with Baatar, until he leaves in the spring. I couldn't go back to Alsantset's classes, since those are for kids, so Akanai took over my training. Without being asked to. I used to think Baatar was a hard-ass, but Akanai makes him look downright cuddly. Poor Baatar, having to put up with her when he was younger. Poor Sumila as well. She gets personal training from her mother as well. We've been sparring a lot, and she generally kicks my ass with glee. Lately I've been able to put up a better fight, but it still ends the same way. After he returned in the autumn, Baatar would just come by to watch and maybe offer some guidance, helping me when Akanai is busy. I think he's been muscled out, but he seems pretty happy, tail wagging even when Akanai scolds him. Weird guy, probably a masochist. Explains Sarnai's temper though, they're a match made in heaven.
I've also continued my studies with Taduk, herb picking and memorization, medicine making and diagnosing some villagers, while Taduk stands by. Many ailments are chronic, so it's better to treat them with normal means and letting it fix itself, rather than healing with the Energy of the Heavens. If someone else heals an injury, it will just come back in a few days, since it's usually caused by repetitive stress. Let it heal from cultivating, and it will strengthen the injured area. I'm not quite a full-fledged physician yet, but Taduk says I'm doing well. There's always new books to read through, new things to study.
Late afternoons and nights are my own. The twins don't need me to look after them as much anymore, so almost all my free time goes to training. I still go on the occasional hunt, bandit or animal, usually with a few other cadets. I haven't really made any close friends, more like acquaintances, or working partners. We almost always bring back enough materials or stolen goods to more than settle our monthly quota in one easy day trip, so it's a simple affair. The stuff we bring back is distributed among the poorer families, or the sick and injured. We look after our own, and it makes me feel good to help out. Just a single one-ton boar a month fills my quota, but it can be anything really. Medicines, herbs, leather, furs, coin, whatever is needed. Sometimes I even have fun doing my job, until something almost kills me.
Being a cadet is pretty laid back, as it were. Having partners while hunting make things go much smoother. I haven't had a near death experience in 41 days now. I started a count. It seemed like the right thing to do. It's my longest record so far, the last one being 35 days, ended by the bite of a very poisonous snake, which then proceeded to try to swallow me whole. I fucking hate snakes. My dream is to go an entire year, without almost dying. I won't let my dreams just be dreams.
I had to take a trip to the city in the ninth month, as a cadet training exercise, but it was much less eventful than my first trip out. I had my own things to sell this time too, medicines and furs mostly, as well as my pay from being a cadet to spend. I also sold balms, salves, unguents, and pills, with various medicinal, cosmetic, and recreational effects, which is where the bulk of my wealth came from. A merchant flat out bought everything I had for almost 80 gold. Those nobles have money to spare, and they love their recreations.
I had kept in touch with Fung through letters, but seeing him again in person was great. He seems to have given up on Mei Lin, asking me to drop the matter when I brought her up. Guess he found someone new, that's fine. Seeing the ladies at the Golden Swan was also a fun time. So expensive, but worth it, especially compared to the more... economical alternatives. Those were a nightmare, not just in quality of lady, but quality of living. Not every brothel is slave free, or fun and games. The rest of my coins I gave straight to Alsantset when I returned, maybe 15 gold. Not like I can spend it in the village, and I can't be a freeloader forever. I feel like I'm rich when I go to the city, but I don't know if it's inflation, or if cost of living is just really low over there. Economics might as well be magic, with what I know.
All in all, life is good. Spring will almost be here, and Baatar will be setting out once again. I'm 17 and a half, and the twins are almost through the Fearsome Fours, but still adorably lovable. The pups are bigger now, not big enough to ride, but old enough to start training. Zabu moved in with Suret and Pafu as my personal mount, and is currently the low quin on the totem pole, but he seems happier, always grooming the pups, stealing them away for carrying and cuddles. He's much less fussy around me now, still not very affectionate, but I'll take it. He ruined my first streak of 3 days without an incident, after he tried to disembowel me for taking a pup from him. I just wanted to hug it. Suret put him down hard for that, saving my life. She's the Queen of the Pen, and no one messes with her meal ticket. No hard feelings though, I guess Zabu just wants a family. I should find him a lady friend. I should find me a lady friend. I can't keep spending all my gold at the Golden Swan, and months of abstinence followed by a few days of debauchery can't be healthy. Plus, I think I'd like to start a family of my own, but there's a certain way things are done in the village. Married at 20, kids at 25, no earlier, no single parents allowed. I haven't met anyone close to my age in the village that I can see marrying though, and the older women are already married for the most part. Guess I'll just have to wait for that special someone. Or those 7 special someones. A man can only dream
A poke to the cheek interrupts my contemplation. “Rainy, it's late now, you should go home, ya?” Mei Lin is crouched in front of me, smiling, looking tired. Damn, I meditated through dinner.
“Thank you both so much for your help. You didn't have to wait.” Patting Mei Lin on the head, I stand and stretch, feeling good, bruises healed, but still a little tense. “I'll cook you both something delicious as thanks, not today, but soon, I promise.” Heading home, the moon and stars give off enough light to see by, and I arrive quickly. Peeking through the door, I can see the twins still playing, so it isn't too late. I need to learn to tell time from the sun and moon. Or buy a pocket watch, but they're ridiculously expensive. I could stay a month at the Swan and never leave, and still have money left over, instead of buying a watch. I know which one I prefer.
Swooping in and grabbing the twins, I hug them while they laugh and giggle.
“You late Rainy! Gonna be in trouble.” Tate is delighted that someone else is going to be lectured, besides him.
“Story time?” Tali is just happy I'm here. Sweet precious child.
“After I eat, sweet bun.” I carry them to the dining room to use as tiny little shields, where Alsantset and Charok are sitting, drinking. “So sorry I missed dinner, I was cultivating.” Food is sitting on the table for me, cold but still smelling delicious.
“Eat, eat. We have to discuss something.” Alsantset smiles at me kindly, while Charok grins. Glad they're not upset. I dig into my dinner, ravenously. Cultivating always leaves me incredibly hungry. Tali tugs on my shirt, mouth open, and I feed her with my chopsticks, Tate following suit shortly after. “Akanai was here earlier. She wanted to speak with us while you were present, but you were gone for too long.” Bullshit, they all knew where to find me. Ten minutes and I would have been here. What are they plotting?
Charok laughs at me. “I told you he would not believe that.” He grins at me. “No need to worry, Akanai has your best interests at heart. She just wants you to take a small trip with her, leaving in six days.”
“I'm not going.” I go back to eating, shoveling rice into my mouth with my chopsticks.
Grimacing, they share a look with one another. Charok speaks first. “You have yet to ask about the destination.”
“Don't care. Staying home.” It doesn't matter even if it's a day trip. They must think I'm an idiot. No good comes from traveling with Akanai. She's bossy and critical of everything I do, a pretty package wrapped around a sour core. She may be helping me with training, and I appreciate it, but she goes way too far. I'm willing to be beaten by wooden rods to get stronger. She wants me to switch to lashes. Says I need to toughen my skin as well. She's fucking crazy.
“If you go, you could get a Heart for a new weapon.” I perk up, hearing that. A Heart. I do want one. I've been doing research on different spiritual weapons, and they get way more fancy than just swords and spears.
“What kind of Heart?” The heart is the base upon which the weapon is made. Can't do much if the heart is something like a small plant or a fang, but a kilogram of ore? Or something like horns or claws from a 5,000 year old Defiled beast? Those would make great weapons. Fighting animals with a short sword is my #1 cause of resetting the count. I still suck with a bow, and you can't kill what you don't hit.
“Let me explain.” Alsantset looks happy at my interest. “Akanai wants to take you, as well as several of the more prominent youngsters, to go visit the Society of Heaven and Earth.” My quizzical expression elicits a smile. “They are a prestigious group, made up of many great clans and sects in the region, each of whom contribute greatly to the defense of The Northern Bridge.”
No, no, no. I'm not going to the forefront of the war against the Defiled. Pass. Hard pass. Not worth. I break eye contact and go back to eating, turning aside so we no longer face each other.
Charok laughs uproariously, slapping his leg. Alsantset continues when he finishes, ignoring my apparent lack of interest. “Don't be silly, little Rain. The Society is located almost 2500 kilometers from the Bridge, 25 days of travel by good horse, 20 by quin. So a total of 24 days of travel from here, maybe with some rest in between. Plenty of time for you to escape if the Defiled break through to overrun the province.” She sounds a little sarcastic and Charok snickers a bit. Okay, so I'm terrified at the thought of war. Gimme a break.
Not my problem. I don't need to know any of this. I'm just going to finish my dinner, and go play with the twins and the pups. Awkward silence ensures, only the sound of my chopsticks and bowl to fill it. Finally, Tate tugs on my shirt and asks, “You bring back more toys, ya?” Little traitor. He wants me to risk my life for toys? Tali is sweeter, she grabs onto me, asking me not to leave. I know who my favorite is now.
“Well? You have no questions?” Glancing up, I'm met by Alsantset's plaintive look. That's not fair. She never really asks me to do anything, and this seems important to her. Unless it's just because Akanai is blackmailing her into it. Ya, that's probably it.
“Why do I need to go?”
She brightens at my question, happy and girlish. I've been manipulated. Dammit. “There's a contest being held, a hunt and a tournament, in order to display the strength of youngsters with talent, ones from ages 16 to 20. You were specifically mentioned in our invitation. It is quite an honor, you must go. Groups from more than 8000 kilometers away will be coming to test their skills, and you will beat them into submission.” She beams at me. That fucking fight against DuGu Tian Yi. Every time I overhear the story, it gets more ridiculous. Last time in the city, I heard someone say I cut him with a hunting knife, leaving my name carved into his chest before he could blink. That's not even possible. My name takes 11 strokes to write in Common. “There will be prizes, and this year, they claim they have five weapon Hearts to gift to outstanding youths, as well as other treasures, so there could be even more people than normal. Your victory would bring glory to the People.” Her eyes are wide and hopeful. It's sometimes easy to forget just how bloodthirsty she is, but she is true to her more animal-like nature. A veritable tigress.
Sighing deeply, I try to think of any possible reasons to decline. “There won't be any fighting to the death right? No cage fighting with monstrous animals, no blood debts to be paid, no inter-village rivalries I need to be wary of?” She shakes her head quickly, Charok snorting at my questions. What, it could happen.
She stands up and grabs a box from the corner, opening it and showing me the contents. “I know you are worried about danger, but we'll be escorted by Papa part of the way, and Akanai for the rest. We also had this armor made for you, from carnugator skin, ones you slew so heroically.” I left my arm inside it too, can't forget that. Unless it was the other gator, in which case I left a foot. I wonder if they found it when they skinned the gator?“You'll look so dashing and gallant in it, and you can show all those at the tournament the strength of the People.” She's talking like it's already decided.
I barely even glance at the beautiful armor, resisting the obvious bribe. Well... I do want a Heart for a new weapon. If there was only one, I wouldn't be too confident. Sumila is probably going, and if she doesn't win, I'll have to re-evaluate my perception of strength around here. It probably won't even be a fair fight, plus she already has two spiritual weapons. Wait. Why do they even need me to go? I'm being used. They want me there to take attention away from Sumila! That has to be it. I can get a weapon some other way. Slowly and steadily build up my standing with the Sentinels, until Akanai decides to help me find one. I can wait. I'm patient. Sumila can take care of the tournament on her own. “I decline. As much fun as it sounds, I couldn't possibly separate myself from these two little sweet children again, especially for so long. I'm so distraught every time I'm in the city, away from them. Besides, I have my Sentinel duties to attend to, can't go running away for pleasure trips.” I lift Tali into my lap, my new favorite. I give Tate a kiss on the head as well, because I still love the greedy little scamp. I smile at Alsantset, safe in my denial.
“O no problem, little Rain.” Her smile sends shivers down my spine, at odds with her sickly sweet tone. “Your duties are fulfilled simply by going, and of course, I wouldn't send you off on your own. We will all go, together as a family, to watch and support you. Your friend Fung will be there as well, representing his city. It will be a grand outing for us all.” No, wait, no. This isn't right. The twins hop off onto the ground and begin running around, shrieking and laughing in delight at the prospect of a trip, traitors, the both of them. Alsantset has already turned away, the discussion over, and begins talking to Charok about things they need to pack, and chores to be done before we leave. I can't stop this. It's impossible. The decision was made before I even stepped foot inside the manor. I never stood a chance.
Resigning myself, I continue eating my dinner mechanically without tasting it. Nothing good ever happens when I leave home.