Baths are really an underrated pleasure, especially without running water or plumbing. The hot springs in the village are the best, even if you exclude the lovely view. At Taduk's villa in Shen Huo, there were servants to fill the large round tubs, so I didn't properly appreciate the difficulty that goes into making a bath. First, you need to draw the water from the well, filling a large bucket. Then, you carry the bucket to the bath, filling the larger tub, one bucket at a time. Repeat these steps until your tub is full, and move on. In Shen Huo, they poured heated water into wooden buckets. In the Society, you have stone bathtubs, with a stove underneath. So you light the fire, and the water heats up slowly. This adds a bit more work to the process, since now you need to chop wood for the fire as well. After about 20 - 60 minutes, depending on how much water you have, your bath is now hot enough to luxuriate in.
I tried that my first day at the Society. I ended up rinsing myself off with three buckets worth of cold well water instead. Today, I'm soaking blissfully in hot water, scented with oils and flower petals, while a lovely serving girl washes my hair and a second scrubs my feet, both making sure my hands stay dry while I sip heated wine. Money makes all the difference in the world. Settling into my extravagant bathtub, I recline in complete relaxation, pampering myself for the first time in months. There's just something about having someone wash your hair that's so sensual,yet relaxing. She's really taking her time, getting down to the roots, giving each square centimeter a good amount of pressure before moving on. It's heavenly.
I'd never been in a brawl before the one at the restaurant, and it was strangely exhilarating. No one was trying to kill or cripple anyone else, just a good old-fashioned bar fight. Akanai, the six sentinels, Adujan, Huushal, and myself, trading kicks and punches with 20 or so soldiers, smashing chairs and tables, breaking floorboards and pillars. The rest of our table remained sitting, and none of the soldiers approached them, a sort of brawler's honor I guess. We kicked their asses, Akanai laying out the Brigadier with a single punch, while the Sentinels did work on the soldiers. I'm still not wholly convinced they aren't all kung-fu ninjas, with all their leaping and martial arts bad-assery. After the fight, we had to wait around for a Justicar, a member of the 'Imperial Disciplinary Corps', who took statements from Akanai and the Brigadier before making us pay for damages and leaving us with a stern warning, and me without my kowtows. It was surprisingly cheap, at 25 gold split between me and the Brigadier, especially considering the amount of chairs and tables we broke. I'm starting to worry that my expensive habits are getting out of hand, considering just how much I spend on luxuries. This bath alone is costing me eight gold, but I feel like it's worth it. Maybe it's not an everyday thing, just every … third day, maybe?
After that, it took us a few days of travel to finally reach the Society. It is an impressive place, I have to admit. Not as beautiful as the village, but grand and resolute. A roaring river more than two kilometers wide runs outside the 25 meter high walls, radiating power and stability, fierce-looking busts on the crenelations, stretching more than 3 kilometers long. We arrived too late to cross, camping outside a night and crossing by ferry in the morning to a narrow stretch of land outside a single gate, shiny steel and 12 wagons wide. The river acts as a natural moat to enemies from the North, the Society headquarters built in a natural choke point, a gateway to the central plains of the Empire. There are mountain passes you can cross through, but nothing big enough for an army to move through. Two giant statues of animal-faced men, a dragon and a tiger, built taller than the wall, standing on either side of the gate, long spears crossed together, a fearsome presence suffusing them, inspiring awe as you walk between them.
Once into the city, I was astonished once again by the sheer ingenuity of architecture and engineering demonstrated. Wide canals ran perpendicular to the roads, intersecting them, creating multiple choke points and defensible positions at the stone bridges. The buildings were three-storied, stone, sturdy, and solid, crenelated roofs with connected pathways across each of them. Most doors were made of heavy bronze, some even iron or steel. Every facet of the outer city was made to be defensible, to make any invaders pay heavily for every step taken, an enormous sprawling city planned with military efficiency in mind. No sprawling towers or artistic architecture, it was all very militarized.
That isn't to say it's not a beautiful place. There were ornate statues, carved moldings, and painted murals, but the overall mood was one of an impenetrable fortress. People moved about with hurried efficiency, no carts or vendors to block the roads, no beggars or homeless scattered about the streets. We made our way through the city, crossing bridge after bridge, guided by a soldier to our assigned quarters, a stone building with a backyard and attached stable.
My first day in the new city was spent eating and sleeping, almost a months worth of travel and all the healing weighing heavily on me. The others were all tired as well, and even the twins were too tuckered out to be excited for more than an hour, falling asleep on their nice comfy bed. I was assigned a room with Huushal, who snores like a bear, but it doesn't keep me from sleeping. We're getting along pretty well now, after the snake incident and the brawl, chatting and laughing together on the journey. Amazing how quickly you can make friends, just by beating the crap out of strangers together. He's actually in the building somewhere, with his own bath and lovely ladies. I can't wait to introduce him to Fung when he arrives in a few more days. Adujan still hasn't warmed up to me, despite sharing the same experiences. I'd rather not be his enemy though, because he's brutally efficient in hand to hand combat, with a rough and tumble style, unafraid to go for the balls. His horns are like giant protrusions of hard bone coming out of his forehead, and even though the points go straight up, he still packs a mean headbutt. I found out firsthand after I invited him to join us at the baths. Kind of a jerk move, I think I should give up on trying to be his friend.
On the second day, Alsantset had wasted no time handing the twins to me, running off on a date with Charok. So adorable, the two of them, still so madly in love. Even Akanai and Husolt walked off together, arms linked, lost in their own little world together. They've probably been together for decades, if not centuries, and they're still so good to each other. I want that for myself, a loving wife to spend my days with. Like the cat-girl I beat up. That sounds terrible, and I feel a little bad for her, but mostly because I thoroughly ruined any chance I had with her. Tall and leggy, toned and busty, with long-brown braided hair, olive skin and a cute scowl, she was exactly my type, a sexy bombshell wrapped in a tight little outfit. If only we had met some other way, with a real meet-cute.
I brought the twins around the city, along with the rest of the cadet crew, seeing the sights and eating food. We were all flush with coin from selling all of the herbs we had picked, splitting the profits among the five of us. Almost everything had been taken by Taduk to use, leaving us with 5 Kg of Dragon Whisker Grass to sell. At 50 gold a Kilogram, it was a decent little profit, especially if you take into account the Heart and Blood Needle we found. I definitely should stop there on the way back, as long I keep my eyes open for more giant snakes and bring Akanai as well as all the Sentinels. They would have killed that snake in an instant, no muss no fuss.
The city is broken up into natural districts by all the canals, and the further south you go, the less militarized the city gets, looking more like a proper residential or commercial area, rather than a fortress. There are more plants and trees, softer lines in the architecture, brighter colors, and a more relaxed pace. The market lane is very different from the chaotic bazaar of Shen Huo. Tidy little buildings with giant windows displaying their wares, polite greeters enticing you into their stores. Guards patrol the area, on the lookout for thieves and brawlers, showing no leniency to either. I watched them club more than one would-be duelist into submission, despite protests from them all over who they were, or who they knew, or how the guards would regret it. It brings a big grin to my face, watching arrogant pricks get what's coming to them.
In a sense it's safer here than it is in Shen Huo, where the guards are part of the Imperial Army, and need to obey any superior officers. Here, everyone is loyal to their clan or sect first, then the Society, and then the Empire. Even if you're a local big-shot, you can't assume the guards will be on your side, as they could just as easily be from a rival faction. More weird politics, as can be expected from so many different groups in one place. I'm surprised that the Emperor allows it. I don't know much about politics, but I do know that the Society Guards are essentially an army, and if I were the Emperor, I wouldn't want too many independent armies running around my country. That's how revolts get started and emperors get beheaded.
It wasn't all fun and games though, I spent a good deal of time training. I'm here to win a contest, and in order to do that, I will need to master usage of my chi. Chi is incredibly versatile. Just by inserting it into a spiritual weapon, it becomes unable to rust and more difficult to break, the most basic of uses. I can also use my chi to Hone the blade, giving Peace a razor-sharp edge sturdy enough to cut through armor and bone without blunting. Those are both external uses of chi, since the weapon isn't technically part of my body. It's just capable of absorbing chi and keeping it from dissipating, a container of sorts, cheating in a sense, when it comes to using the Energy of the Heavens.
Two months ago, Baatar decided I finally had a stable enough core, so he taught me a new trick, Amplification, an internal use of chi. That means I don't need a spiritual weapon to make use of it. It starts with a simple concept, to move your chi in tandem with a strike, igniting the energy, and it then explodes at the point of impact. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. I figured I'd have it down pat in an hour and throwing combinations of brutal chi enhanced attacks within the week. I practice by punching a metal post, and when done properly, I should leave a fist sized dent in it.
I have succeeded exactly zero times since I started.
It's maddening. The movement of the chi is simple enough, just a mental direction and we're good. It's the ignition process that's the problem. I can't reliably ignite my chi, and even when I do, the time required for it to explode varies greatly. It makes it difficult to match the explosion with the exact moment of impact. Amplification is a force multiplier, increasing the power of my strikes, but with no actual force of its own. Explode too soon, and you're just throwing a regular punch, too late and the same thing. You need to be precise down a tenth of a second. I practiced every day until my chi was empty and my fists were bleeding and bruised. I've put a moratorium on healing until I manage to pack on a few more kilos in body weight, or else I'm going to break like a twig at the competition. My fists are currently slathered in unguent, hence the need to keep them dry. It's why I had to hire help for my bath. Well, one of the reasons. It helps that they were so pretty and insistent.
There are only a few more days before the contest begins, and I need to be in top form by then. The post is still smooth and unblemished, mocking me with its shininess. I'd practice with a weapon, but it's supposed to be easiest to learn with your body. I should ask Huushal for help later, maybe he has some tips for me. Sumila is still being kind of frosty, and I've avoided asking her questions until she warms up.
“Young master?” A sweet chiming voice rouses me from my thoughts, eyes opening to see the lovely two serving girls smiling in front of me. “Is there anything else you require from us?” They both bat their eyes at me coquettishly, lightly glancing into the tub, trying to entice me into spending more. Well, I did keep some Dragon Whisker Grass for myself, spending a few hours turning them into pills, a simple enough process. It's pretty much an erotic stimulant for males and makes for some very fun times with the right company. It's always in high demand, one of the real life costs of having a harem. I smile at the two serving girls, lovely dark-haired, pale skinned vixens. There is plenty of room in the bathtub, and I have more than enough coin. Easy come, easy go. Who needs financial security? For all I know, I could be dead tomorrow.
Mila watched Rain eating his meal, chatting with Huushal like they were best friends. He had lost a lot of weight on the trip, the injuries and travel rations taking a toll on his already slight frame. He shoveled rice and meat into his mouth, claiming to need [carbs] and [proteins], whatever those were. Sometimes the things he would say made no sense whatsoever. Mila worried for him, but the idiot hadn't even noticed. He barely even talked to her on the trip, spending all his time keeping the twins occupied and entertained. He would make a good father in the future, but most likely a terrible husband, with his philandering ways and ignorance in how to properly treat women. He had Charok as a role model, the perfect husband, but learned nothing from him.
Huu was turning out to be less desirable than she had thought as well. Now that he was all chummy with Rain, his true colors were showing. She had overheard them whispering, talking about their 'bath' and how effective his 'medicine' was. Rain was a horrible influence, corrupting pure, sweet Huu like that. It was simply appalling how easily he was fouled, a few gifted coins and a small pill, and Huu was running off to the prostitutes, wagging his tail. Men. Rain had even tried to get his hands on Adujan, trying to convince her to join him in the baths, the lech. Why did he even choose to flirt with her in the first place? Adujan hated Rain.
“Mi-Mi, you're gonna get wrinkles if you frown so much.” Lin poked her in the cheek, prompting a smile. “Don't let Rainy grate on your nerves. Like Daddy says, boys will be boys.”
“Hmph. I'm just aggravated by that idiot. I don't even know why you like him.” Mila turned away from him, to chat with her friend.
“Hehe, it's cause he's the best!” Lin beamed, placing some meat and vegetables in Mila's bowl. “We should go to the park later, it's supposed to be very lovely with all the trees just starting to blossom. Just us girls, ya? That sound good Yan-Yan?” The person in question was noncommittal, probably worried it would interfere with her training.
“I want to see the opera as well, Mama said the auditorium is fantastic and they're performing 'The Dark Lady'.” Mila delighted in the idea of leaving the boys behind. Let them be debauched together for the rest of their lives. What did she care? There were plenty of eligible young heroes at the Society, perhaps she would find one of them to court.
A peal of gongs interrupted their conversation, shocks reverberating through the room. “News from the battlefront! The Enemy has appeared!” A city Crier with an announcement, voice booming throughout the restaurant as if he stood next to them. Others would be doing the same, throughout the city. Everyone quieted down as he repeated himself, so that the Crier could grasp everyone's attention, dread and hope intermingling together in anticipation. The Enemy. It had been years since a major attack. Was the Bridge overrun? She squirmed in her seat, staring out the window, even though the crier was nowhere in sight.
“The Enemy arrived at The Northern bridge 16 days past. Over one million strong, they charged the walls of the Bridge, a frenzied horde of fanatics, intent on our destruction.” The Crier paused, Mila chewing her nails, horrified. One million Defiled, facing 350,000 soldiers at the Bridge, she could not even imagine it. “But the soldiers of the Empire held true! For ten long days, they fought back the dastardly scum, allowing the Enemy no purchase upon the battlements, killing them like plucking chickens.” A cheer sounded throughout the area, celebrating their victory. It took a long minute for the cheering to die down, for the Crier to resume his duty. “Throughout the battle, 209 Demons were confirmed killed, sent back to the nether, slain by heroes such as Exarch Bralton and Exarch Erien, the ferocious married pair who killed 4 demons each.” A cheer broke out again, ending quickly this time. “Colonel General Situ Nian Zu, who slew 9 demons with his famous mace, Shooting Star.” Another cheer, louder this time, for a local hero, one of their own, judging by the name. “But the crowning achievements of the battle belong to members of the Imperial Defense Forces, Captain Baatar and Private Gerel of the Iron Banner, slaying 10 and 11 Demons respectively, together accounting for 1 in 10 of the total slain Demons in the battle!” Thunderous applause broke out, Mila cheering and whooping. Baatar and Gerel had brought the People great honor, and the entire city cheered their new heroes. She smiled until her cheeks hurt.
The herald began listing the rewards to be given, as well other achievements of note during the battle. Baatar was to be promoted two ranks to Major, and Gerel to be promoted five ranks, from Private First Class to Senior Captain. An incredible feat, Baatar now a field officer, with the authority to command up to 5,000 troops, and Gerel a top ranked Junior Officer. The Iron Banner Mercenaries could truly become a force for the Empire now, previously limited by their lack of a field officer. She looked at Rain, more jubilant than ever, Alsantset hugging her children, whispering of her father's achievements. Even Mama was glowing with pride, with the accomplishments of her disciple being lauded in the streets.
The news was not all good, however. Three mountain fortresses had fallen, large groups of unaffiliated Defiled using the distraction at the bridge to move through the mountains and mount an attack, clearing two paths into the province. A general call to arms was being announced, an army to be raised to hunt down the invaders, replacements required for the soldiers lost, stepping up the presence in other areas and higher frequency of patrols. One of the fortresses was close to the village, a few days of hard riding, a sobering thought amidst the celebrations. Mila worried for the village, and for those who stood with Baatar. How many would return in six months time, when their tour was over? An army of one million, this battle was far from over. The Defiled would regroup, reinforce, and attack again. She said a prayer to the Mother for the Iron Banner Company, and for the Empire, that the walls would hold and none of the Enemy slip past.
War was once again upon the Empire. Turbulent times lay ahead.
Map of where the Defiled broke through.
Author's note: Chapter of exposition, with more to come. Two more chapters after this, focused more on characters than straight action. It's difficult setting the scene, without going on an on, but I'm at a loss on how to skip it or fix it, sooooo..... maybe come back in three days.
On another note, I made a page for military rankings, because I didn't want to list it in story. I drag on enough as it is.