Akanai stood at the top of a hill, the night sounds surrounding her as she watched the Defiled fall back out of sight, away from the ruined fortress. She had expected to fight for weeks, trying to take the walls with her soldiers while her Sentinels whittled away at the Enemy, but when her scouts had arrived, she found that there were no walls for her to take. The fortress was nowhere to be seen, with barely a whole stone remaining in the ruins, a fortification that once could have housed 100,000 soldiers within it's walls, and all that remained was dust. It was a worrisome thought, that the Enemy had the means to inflict such irreparable damage to the walls, and Akanai had no clue as to how they had managed to do so, or why the Enemy had not repeated their destruction at Shen Huo. She could only send her reports to the cities along with her concerns. The Northern Marshal was by all accounts a man of tactical and mechanical brilliance, and far better suited for parsing through this mystery.
None of the advanced scouts had made it to the fortress itself, so it had been quite a surprise to find the Defiled arranged on an open field, with barely any cover to be had. If she had known of the destruction in advance, she would have brought along heavy cavalry in order to run roughshod over the Defiled ranks, instead of the massed infantry she had been given. It would have been a very different battle had she done so, with the Defiled army cut to ribbons before her. Still, a single day of battle had been enough to drive the Defiled back, although they lingered in the area, ready to battle again in the morning.
Focusing on the task at hand, she began organizing her troops, having them to burn bodies and setting sentries to be hidden in the darkness, soldiers and Sentinel alike, stretching five kilometers out. Her husband began ordering troops to dig trenches and put up palisades in anticipation of the counter-attack, the soldiers obeying despite his lack of rank. He had a talent for command that she lacked, able to inspire devotion and loyalty with a few simple words in the short time spent with the soldiers. Akanai was a different type of leader, lacking the dignity and gravity to lead naturally, preferring to delegate those duties away, garnering her respect through strength of arms. So long as the soldiers under her command followed orders, that was enough.
Soon, she was left with nothing to do but enter her too-large tent to read reports. A gaudy, ostentatious affair, it was no surprise that the Enemy was able to so easily target officers, regulations meant that they painted a target where they slept. A simple lean-to tent for her and she was happy enough, no need for the 'honor' of a bright, cloth hut. Sitting at her hardwood desk, another needless luxury on a battlefield, she started with Tokta's report, well used to reading them. Her Vice-Provost was commending Dagen for a single confirmed Demon kill. Unfortunate that it was not witnessed by an Officer of the Imperial Army, which would have all but guaranteed promotion for the fiendish Auxiliary. Dagen was a solid warrior, well-known and well-liked among the surrounding villages. She made a note to offer the man an unofficial command of 1,000 Sentinels, pushing more of her responsibilities onto her junior officers. Easier to command 5 soldiers than to command 5,000.
Alsantset's report was far too lengthy, the girl too green to the position. Too much needless information, noting each loss by name, each name paining Akanai as she read it. While they were Sentinels, aware of what they fought for, each death sat heavily upon her shoulders. She slowed to read each name, committing them to memory, grieving for the ones she recognized, lamenting the ones she did not. It was a foolish practice, but she could not help herself despite knowing that there were other reports to read. Closing out the report in a bittersweet pairing, Alsantset commended Huushal for killing a Champion in single combat, and noted the absence of Rain during the battle. How bothersome, did the boy run away to hide? That seemed out of character for him, especially after his rampage through the forest. He was timid, not a coward.
She brought to mind the reports of abused Defiled left in Rain's wake, after he lit a hamlet on fire. The boy had given no mercy to the dying, leaving them to scream in pain, drawing in more Defiled. Grisly, but it was not surprising that the boy had some darkness in him, and it was better that he worked out his anger, vented a little upon the Defiled. His plan of engagement had been effective, but held many risks, and with only Adujan to support him it could have ended disastrously. The worst was that it had taken her Sentinels hours to keep the fire from spreading, during which her army stood idle, unable to move for lack of competent scouts. Afterwards the boy, injured and bloodied, had matched her glare so well she had blossomed with pride. The boy was finally showing some mettle.
Truth be told, had she seen the described atrocities, she would have torched the buildings herself, but with some prior preparations to keep the fire in check. Knowing this, she let the boy off easy, setting him and Adujan to latrine digging and armor polishing, and he took to the labor with an eerie focus, scowling all the while, determined to hold onto his anger, despite all advice otherwise. Attempts to speak with him had been met with shrugs and silence, a frustrating issue.
She worried about Rain, but there was little she could do but watch and wait until he was ready for her aid, or until he went too far. If she continued to press him, he would only draw farther away, or worse, snap at her, and then she would be forced to discipline him in a harsher manner. He would either adapt, or he would die, such was the way of the world. A light touch was needed here, something she sorely lacked. If only Charok or Taduk were here to counsel the boy, they had a way of reaching him, conversing in silences and grunts as men often did. Alsantset smothered the boy in affection, something that was not helpful at the moment, and from the looks of things, unwanted as well. At least Huushal was doing well, a model Sentinel, and within a few years he would become a great strength for the People. Already she had heard talk, her people calling him a second Baatar. The pup would not be pleased, but Huushal was glowing from the praise.
Moving on with the reports, Colonel Du Kang Bing had held up the western flank, as had the other Colonel that Akanai had conscripted away from the Brigadier Kai. If she were honest with herself, it was not necessity that had prompted her actions, driven more by spite than anything else. She had been pleasantly surprised by the strength of these soldiers, despite their origins from the central plains, so close to the Eastern Province. She had not expected such disciplined soldiers to hail from a region so peaceful and free of turmoil, but she was glad to have them. That her actions had inconvenienced Brigadier Kai only made it that much sweeter.
She noted the total tally of deaths and kills. 9,000 dead soldiers, 89 dead Sentinels, 15,000 total wounded, and in return, her army had managed to kill over 50,000 Defiled warriors, and 5 Demons. It had been a long, grueling day, and tomorrow would be much of the same, but their victory had been overwhelming, due to the constant pressure on the flanks from her Sentinels, and the Enemy's lack of quality equipment. There would be more attacks, but she was confident in her ability to withstand the Defiled, unless they were to receive significant reinforcements. The thought worrying her, she gave orders for her best scouts to infiltrate past the Defiled lines, to keep watch for just such an event.
“Brigadier Man Giao, reporting to the Lieutenant General, seeking permission to enter?”
Sighing to herself as she rubbed her temples, she responded. “Permission granted.” Reluctantly. The Brigadier had been strongly recommended to her by Hai, and it grated on her having to work with him. Politics, yesterday's enemies were today's allies, a bothersome adage to live by, but Hai played the game well. To ally himself with the Man family despite their attempt to overthrow him made Akanai worry for him, but he had reassured her that Man Giao was a consummate professional. The Brigadier was her second-in-command and had been responsible for holding the Western flank, and judging by how well his soldiers had held up in the face of an Ursagon charge, she was impressed despite the lack of a report.
“Good evening, Lieutenant General. I've come to make my report.” He handed her a thick sheaf of papers with both hands, which she accepted while still seated, placing them to the side. More paperwork to look through, even more than all the other reports combined. This windbag could not even write in brief. A cadre of servants had followed him in, setting up a small table for two, the enticing scent of delicious dishes reaching her nose. The large brute of a man pulled out a seat at the small table and gestured for her to sit. “I saw that you had yet to dine, and took the liberty of arranging something. Join me, if you please.”
If only her husband were so considerate, the fool was likely still working away with the engineers, devising more methods of securing their position. She sat in the proffered seat, and without waiting, promptly ate her meal with delight. “Delicious food, my compliments to the chef.” Fish and rice, with steamed vegetables, delightfully spiced, Akanai had not eaten so well in a week. She made a note to send something for her husband to eat.
“Ha, I only borrowed the little magistrate's chef. That boy is too used to comforts, with his silk sheets and feathered beds, even bringing his courtesans to a battlefield. Da Hai spoils him too much, but I can see why. The little magistrate will grow into a powerful warrior within a few years.”
Her eyes narrowed in annoyance. “You should not speak of the Magistrate in such a familiar tone. One would think you lacked the proper respect.”
Man Giao threw his head back, laughing jovially. “True, true, but I was present at Da Hai's hundred day celebration, and there never was a baby that cried louder than he. I watched him go from lowly fifth born child to heir apparent in the blink of an eye, all thanks to you. I find it difficult to show deference to someone less than a quarter my age.”
Smiling pleasantly as she chewed her meal, she eyed him dangerously, choosing her words carefully. “When I arrived at this very fortress all those years ago, I found that a lowly lieutenant had taken charge of 10,000 troops and managed to hold out against all odds for over a week. You may credit his rise to power to me, but those with eyes to see know that Hai is a power to be feared.” She took a small sip of tea, watching for his reaction.
“Ha ha, so I have no eyes, indeed, indeed.” A goofy grin was spread upon his face as he shook his head, no sign of offense taken. “Truth be told, I have no malice towards Hai. I was only hoping to raise the status of the Man Family, foolishly believing Loi Ming would make a better Magistrate than Da Hai.” The man seemed genuine, but Akanai was still wary of being fooled, knowing her own weakness for what it was.
“You no longer believe this to be true?”
“Not after the siege at Shen Huo. By the Mother, Da Hai has been hard at work, both in his duties and his training. Even had you not stood as his champion, he could have thrown away face and fought himself.” Sighing deeply, he shrugged his shoulders. “386 years old, and still the short-lived humans manage to amaze me, generation after generation.” Smiling, he ate with gusto, speaking as he ate. “Speaking of which, your fledgling had already impressed me with his showing last year, fighting with DuGu Tian Yi, but today, I watched him on the battlefield and he has truly grown into a commendable warrior.” He refilled her cup with more tea, a simple thing but few city folk were ever willing to do even such a small gesture.
Oh? Rain was on the battlefield? “And what exactly has the boy done?”
“You are unaware? I would have thought the boy would have protectors.” She sensed no deceit on his face, only true surprise. “No wonder the People have so many fine warriors, for you to be so bold in their training, my admiration for you grows.” Smiling, he began his story. “Your Sentinels rode down the mountain, a fearsome enough feat as it were, but a single rider remained behind, forcing his way around them to the front lines, where he dismounted and fought alongside my soldiers. Nothing of importance as of yet, but the little magistrate recognized the Sentinel as his friend, so I paid a bit more attention to the boy.”
Despite herself, Akanai smiled. So the boy had defied her orders to stay safe and charged towards the meat grinder. Alsantset would be upset when she learned of this, but Akanai was quite pleased by the news. The trip to the Society was worth the trouble, despite her now public feud with them. The elixirs and rings would take time and effort to show results, but the trials had forged Rain well, it seems. Were it not for Fung's corroboration, she would have thought Man Giao mistaken, as this sounded nothing like the timid, whiny child she had come to know. Never was there a man who complained so much of simple bruises and broken bones.
Brigadier Gao continued, a grand smile upon his face. “That boy has grown more skilled than he has a right to be. I barely needed to lift a finger. He put on a wonderful display of skill whilst killing the Ursagons, taking them head on without fear. Lifting the morale of the troops, they held firm and slaughtered the creatures with minimal casualties, unwilling to be upstaged by an outsider.”
Interesting. Akanai had stepped in herself to help stop the Ursagons, and her officers had done the same in the east. The change in Rain was far too pronounced, but it was long overdue that the boy stopped worrying all the time. She looked at Brigadier Gao's face, which was still smiling expectantly. “There's more?”
“Indeed there is. The boy killed a Champion in single combat. A clean victory, roaring to the heavens like a true warrior. The boy is skilled and fights decisively, without hesitation and with no set pattern to his attacks. It's quite impressive for one so young, and I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite should he be matched against the little magistrate. Had your Sentinels made it to the finals of the contest, then that truly would have been a match worth seeing.”
Her grin was beginning to overstretch her cheeks, and she tempered her jubilation. Despite Rain's achievements, she must not forget that he had disobeyed her orders. Something would need to be done about that, but she was reluctant to dissuade his newfound enthusiasm for battle.
“There is yet more.” The words interrupted her musings. “Your little terror attacked a Demon without my protections. The Demon was worried enough about the attack to deflect it, rather than ignore it as one would expect. As if that were not enough, I swear the boy would have attacked the Demon barehanded if I had not stepped in. He suffered some minor injuries from the clash, but I checked with the little magistrate and your boy returned up the mountain, hale and healthy.”
She could do little to contain her joy any longer, anxious to ride up with her husband and speak to Alsantset. The girl was likely already scolding Rain, and knowing the boy's attitude, he would say nothing of his accomplishments. Taking a deep breath, she stopped her restless leg from shaking, and asked, “Very interesting news, but you still have not gotten to the point. You did not come here to give news of my subordinate.” Long winded, stone-headed blowhard. Always an agenda with these city folk, never could they simply enjoy a meal. Placing her chopsticks down, she finished her cup of tea and wiped her mouth. “Speak plainly then. I've no patience for half-truths and insinuations.”
“Ah of course.” His smile disappeared for the first time all evening. “We half-beasts have always held a precarious position within the Empire, venerated for our strength, yet unable to hold office. A measure to keep our strength in check, so that we must always answer to a human.”
Akanai snorted. “I prefer to be referred to as Demi-Human. Half-beast is derogatory.”
The oaf chuckled at her displeasure. “Is it now? I never understood that mindset. I've heard it argued that it frames us as less than human, but I am proud of my beast heritage, and I would not allow any to say otherwise. I've met my Ancestor, and while the old bull is an insufferable ass, his power is awe-inspiring. Half-beast is a moniker I wear proudly.” He thumped his chest to accentuate his point. The idiot.
“And?” She was rapidly losing patience. Politics were why she lived deep in the mountains, away from 'civilization'.
“I can see your disdain for me. You value your freedom, and see me as one who serves, and it is true. I have served the Man family since as far back as I can remember, serving every head of the Man family of my own free will since it's inception. Do you know why?”
“You desire power, and through the Man Family, you can wield it. The head of the Man Family is a mere puppet, and you hold his strings. That is no great mystery. ” Akanai stood, ready to dismiss him. “I have no interest in starting my own 'family', to dive into the snake pit of politicians and nobility. I see no value in it.”
The servile idiot outright laughed at her, and she managed to keep herself from breaking his jaw. “My father took me in as a child, a simple poor farming man, too kind to allow an orphan to starve to death despite barely having enough to feed himself. When he was conscripted for war, I fought at his side and through his achievements, he was raised from common soldier, to officer, all the way up to Marshal of the North in his old age. I stayed at his side until he died, at which point I continued to watch over the Man Family descendants, caring for each one as if they were my own. Some grew to fame, others died in obscurity, but the Man Family as a whole has flourished beneath my administration.”
Akanai pursed her lips. “You've yet to make a point.”
“Patience, patience. The current head of the Man family views me as a grandfather, and his true grandfather also views me as a grandfather. I hold power because they respect me. My entire life has been devoted to the Man family for one simple reason: they gave me my name, Man Giao. Without it, I would be nothing. There is power in a family name, and it binds me to them tighter than any oath, my service freely given due to love and affection. I would do anything to keep them safe, and I tell you all this so that you know that I do not offer this lightly.”
He paused to allow her time to consider his words. “I know of your troubles with the Society and I wish to formally offer the resources and allies of the Man family to the People. I will swear an oath, as will the current Patriarch, Man Loi Ming, so that we may bring low the Society together.”
She answered his heartfelt offer with a single word. “Why?” If she were to ally the People with the Man family, it would set them on a course of no return. While the People could retreat into the mountains, any allies would be left behind, to the mercy of the Society.
“Three reasons.” He lifted a single finger. “I erred in challenging Magistrate Hai, and have lost his trust. While Hai was merciful, the strained relationship makes things difficult for the Man family, and I am hoping that you will speak to Hai on our behalf.” A second finger. “You lead your people, not a human. This fact alone would earn you enemies, and would also have earned my aid. There have been too many talented Half-Beasts overlooked for human's, and it does not sit well with me.” A third finger was raised, the Brigadier's eyes darkening as he scowled. “Lastly, I owe a debt of blood to the Society, that has gone unpaid for too long. With your aid, I can strike back at them, without embroiling the Man Family in a legal feud.” He stood and saluted her, fist in hand, and bowed slightly as the servants packed away the table. “All that the Man Family can offer is within the papers I gave you. Look them over at your leisure, and know that my family and it's allies are all ready to aid in any way possible, whether through strength of arms or weight of purse.”
Without another word, the Brigadier strode from the tent, leaving Akanai to stew alone. The gesture was appreciated, but the weight of the decision was one she did not wish for, not in a time of war. Politics, bah. She had intended to wait until Baatar was able to return her covert missive, but it seemed that she may need to make a decision earlier. Worse, if she chose to stand and fight, little Hai would be drawn into the battle as well, unable to keep to his affairs. Her good mood spoiled, she grimaced as she sat down at her desk once again, grumbling to herself as she read through the papers in order to see what the Man Family brought, and if any of it could be useful in the battle against the Society.