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About Traditional Art / Student Stacey Lynn LeBlancFemale/United States Group :iconsunstones-family: Sunstones-Family
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(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
Meng, the Fugitive

The village of Fupo were surprised with their recent string of visitors as of late and weren’t afraid to show it. Within the past three weeks, they saw men of various authorities pass through their village in search of a fugitive- a soldier had killed another in a dispute and had the nerve to flee from punishment. None claimed to have seen him, despite the likelihood that he would flee home, and for the most part, the authorities of Yuan Shu were willing to leave it at that.

The ones that passed through now, however, weren’t the same as Yuan Shu’s and it was clear as day to see from the moment of their arrival. For starters, there wasn’t an entire regiment at the three riders’ backs, no fancy banners or a crier at their front, and when they passed through the gates, there were no loud shouts or demands for their attention. In fact, had they not been on horseback, their arrival might have been missed entirely and that only made the villagers all the more curious.

“It’s a lot nicer than Yuan Shu’s men claimed it to be, but then again we probably shouldn’t have held too much merit as far as appearance of things go in their eyes.” It was just like Sun Ce to make such a statement, taking in the humble little village and offering the curious bystanders a welcoming smile. It seemed that his openness and appearance were well known in the village, as they all but flocked towards him now. He was the first to dismount and the two men that flanked him followed suit shortly after. Neither man were surprised to see just how quickly the villagers warmed up to the young Sun lord as with any member of the Sun family, there just seemed to be a natural attraction and when it came to Sun Ce, it was impossible not to see his appeal. Why else would others flock to join his ranks?

Their arrival may have been noticed, but their intention was a mystery to most of the villager. Some had their suspicions but none addressed the matter. Lü Meng knew, though. He knew exactly why they were here and only treated further into the shadows of the home he was cooped up in. He didn’t need the village elder to tell him that they were here for him and he gave the elderly man a compliant and silent nod, before he left him alone. Thus far, the elder Zheng Zhang had managed to throw off the men that Yuan Shu sent earlier, but could he do the same now? How would a tiger’s sense of smell compare to the hounds that came before him? And if caught, how much trouble would he put the kind old man in, or his family? Deng Dang and Fa Shi were already going to suffer much. How much more would Lü Meng’s conscious allow him to endure, all for the sake of hiding?

“Welcome, Lord Sun Ce,” Zheng Zhang said, wasting no time in greeting the esteemed visitor, wearing nothing but a kind smile and a cane to keep himself from completely reliant on the young lady that accompanied him. Unlike the officers that came before them, Sun Ce wasn’t afraid to close the distance between them and clasped the hands of the village elder. “We’re honored by your and your colleagues’ presence, though I’m afraid we do not have much to offer you in regards to hospitality. Whatever we do have we will be more than happy to share with you.”

“It’s good to be welcomed, but don’t stress on hosting anything grand for us. We’re here on a quick mission and we certainly wouldn’t want to impose on you all for too long.”

There was a surprised mumble among the crowd that gathered but all of it good. From where Lü Meng spied on them, he could see that whatever weapons they brought with them were sheathed and holstered on their horses, giving the impression that they were not here to impose any harm or threat. But Lü Meng wasn’t fooled. He knew they were here for him, but he couldn’t fault the villagers if they surrendered him to Sun Ce and his men. Better to turn him over to them than to Yuan Shu’s men directly…

He ducked down again when one of his men looked to be turning his way, uncertain if he was spotted or just barely missed. The one that looked his way was curious and certain that he had felt someone’s eyes upon him, but Zhou Yu didn’t see anyone besides the crowd that gathered around them. The feeling lingered for a moment more, and he looked to his lord and friend, his voice soft but certain to be heard over over the excited murmurs that circled them. “We shouldn’t take up too much of these good people’s time, Ce. They have a harvest to prepare for and we would not wish to distract them any longer than we must.”

“Right,” Sun Ce said and like a switch that’s been turned on, he addressed the crowd with an authoritative but still friendly tone, never alarming them from where the fugitive remained hidden from. “Citizens of Fupo, we apologize for imposing upon you without notice, but we’re here to recruit young officers into our army. We’re looking for strong, capable, and most of all, willing recruits, to help keep the land free from the threat of bandits and anyone else that disrupts the peace. Those wishing to enlist can speak to either myself or Han Dang here,” he motioned to the rather squinty-eyed looking officer next to him before he continued. “We’ll understand if some of you are unable to enlist, as your farms will need tending and your crops are valuable to not only yourselves but to us as well. Zhou Yu will be conducting an investigation to see what we can do as far as repairing damages left by recent raids or weather.”

This only pleased the villagers all the more and if his aim was to endear the people to him, then he didn’t have to try hard at all. Only when there was a mild uproar did Sun Ce turn to his officers and address them in a hushed tone. “Keep an eye and ear out for any news. Yu, if you spot him…”

“Be discrete,” Zhou Yu said with a smooth as silk grin. “Of course. Why else would you have brought me?”

“Well I’m serious about the repairs part, you know.”

Zhou Yu’s laughter was like a calm, trickling stream and was meant to sooth his friend’s spirit. Lü Meng couldn’t hear the men’s words over the crowd, but he could see its effect from where he hid and felt a part of himself longing for such a comforting feeling from that laugh. “No worries, I’ll keep an eye on that too. You can count on me.”

“My lord, not to question you or Master Zhou Yu, but why do you think he came back here?” Han Dang asked, his own curiosity peaked and his voice almost too soft to hear thanks to the lack of conviction in his tone. He was the hardest to hear. “Yuan Shu's men claimed to search the place top to bottom and couldn’t find him. How do we know he didn’t flee to the next village?”

“Call it a hunch. I’ll explain once we either get news of him or find him, but I’m certain he’s here.”

Han Dang did not question him further, seemingly either having lost all courage by this point or simply trusting his lord. Thankfully, Zhou Yu was willing to get one more question out before they dispersed into their respective tasks. “And if we find him and he resists?”

Now, a stern expression appeared on the Sun lord’s face and Lü Meng retreated deeper into the hut, where he could no longer peer out of the window. He suspected the worst and was preparing to bunker down. They had to be here for him, they just had to be, and what luck that it was Sun Ce and his tigers that came for him? Had Lü Meng waited a second more, he might have found comfort in Sun Ce’s softened gaze and the smile that followed after it. “Appeal to him and keep him still until I can get a good talk with him.”

Both men nodded and moved into position. Now one knew how long that would remain in Fupo but they were determined to make sure they enjoyed their stay, as well as provide a good distraction from their secondary mission. What they did not know but highly suspected was that the citizens of Fupo had long since discussed their own plans and had managed to keep keep Yuan Shu’s men off of the fugitive’s scent, and that they would do the same for Sun Ce. As they traversed through the village, the three officers found it hard to obtain any information on the fugitive, as any chance to talk about him was met with either a smooth diversion or blatant ignorance. Had they not been told the fugitive’s name from the reports, they wouldn’t have even been able to obtain that! As the day dragged on, the three officers found that the people of Fupo were steadfast in their efforts to protect one of their own, or perhaps simply that Sun Ce’s hunch may have been wrong.

Zhou Yu, however, had complete faith in his childhood friend and not once did he allow that faith to waver. Eventually, someone would slip up and he simply had to wait for an opening to present itself. The task that Sun Ce gave him had at least provided a decent enough distraction from any disappointment he felt when his efforts were stonewalled and had managed to keep a running tally in his head on how much supplies they’d need. Menial things, but he never denied its importance. Even if they didn’t find their fugitive, at least he’d feel better knowing that they had helped those in need and further Sun Ce’s public image. That in itself would have made this trip worth it.

Eventually, he made his way to the set of huts at the end of the village where he assumed the farmers resided in, where most of the repair would would need to take place. Most of the homes were empty, all of its inhabitants either in the fields or in the village with Sun Ce and Han Dang. This allowed Zhou Yu a chance to muse the damages he saw for himself, as well as noticed that he wasn’t quite as alone as he thought he was. He had reached the far end of the huts when he spotted her. A middle aged woman with thick black hair, decorated with streaks of white starting from the temples and spiraling into a tight, well kept bun. Her dark eyes, filled with barely contained concern, observed him and resisted his charm, a very admirable trait, he found, but not as admirable as her blunt approach. “You’re here looking for my son, Meng. Aren’t you?”

“Of all of the villagers I’ve spoken to today, you are the first to acknowledge his existence, my lady,” Zhou Yu said but only after a moment of lingering silence fell upon them, and he held his ground as she approached him. Her gaze was steady, fierce, unrelenting, and Zhou Yu wouldn’t have been ashamed to admit that he wasn’t sure what to expect from the woman. Despite orders, he chose to be honest, countering her honesty with his own in hopes of appealing to her. “It is on the list of things I was sent here to do, along with accessing repairs for your village.”

She wore neither a smile nor a scowl, her expression a careful neutral. If he was to win her trust, he would simply have to try harder. “This isn’t my village. Not anymore. Meng used your lord’s reward money to get us out of here, and yet it seemed something will keep us coming back here.”

“He participated in the recent operation against the Shanyue then?” This genuinely took Zhou Yu by surprise and he allowed it to show, hoping that his honesty would help his cause. That was a detail that Yuan Shu’s men seemed to overlook and Zhou Yu made a note and tucked it away for later. “His efforts were certainly appreciated, my lady. I’m sorry that things did not seem to work out for him or yourself.”

“Are you really, or are you just saying that to woo me into giving away where my son is?”

Shrewd, honest. The fugitive’s mother was certainly a gem and possibly a worthy rival. Zhou Yu’s smile morphed from forced polite to genuine in a heartbeat in response to her scrutiny. Still, he could not be bested either by her or anyone, he told himself as he retaliated in a soft, and most sincere tone. “I assure you, I am quite genuine. However, forgive me if I have assumed incorrectly, but I believe that you have every intention of telling me where he is, in exchange for requesting amnesty for his crime on his behalf to my lord. Am I wrong?”

He observed her closely, looking for the telltale signs of either surprise or understanding, and what he received was something more akin to a relieved resentment. How much had the fugitive worried her and how strong was she to speak on his behalf despite this? A few moments passed but eventually she let out a sigh and genuine and true relief escaped those lips. “And tell me, what does your lord intent to do with my Meng, if he turned himself in?”

Now this was something that Zhou Yu was uncertain of and wished he could assure her of. He wanted to offer her some solace, but the truth of the matter was that he wasn’t sure of Sun Ce’s intentions, or why he showed so much interest in this mission. Yuan Shu was eager to pass it off to them after the first attempt and left the man’s fate in their hands, but Zhou Yu wasn’t sure he could give her the answer she wanted to hear. So, he did the only thing that seemed proper and thus far had worked. He gave her the truth and made sure to smother his words with honey in hopes of making it easier for the woman to accept. “It is hard to know what my lord will do unless he hears of the event itself so that he can judge. It would also greatly benefit you son if he were to turn himself and present himself to Lord Sun Ce. It would likely allow for my lord to judge him more favorable, if he were to confront the matter instead of fleeing from it. I can assure you that Sun Ce will listen to him and give the matter thought before he casts judgement.”

The look that the woman gave him offered him some hope and her smile was warmer than it had been moments ago. Yes, this was exactly what she wanted to hear. “If it’ll improve his chances, then I’ll tell you what I know happened. I will even see if I can convince him to turn himself in. All I ask is that if you get the chance, speak for my son. He’s not the best with words and I’m sure none of this has helped him any.”

“My lady, I promise you, I will do my best to speak for your son when I can, but it will help him greatly if he was to stand on his own. I can coach him and guide Sun Ce’s decision to the best of my abilities. Now please, tell me what transpired and how I may help, lady…”

“San Shilimai.”

~*~*~

It was inevitable that someone would have caught him, but Lü Meng had hoped that he could have held out for one more night at least. Had he done so, he could have fled Fupo and spare his kinsmen from having to lie on his behalf, assuming they did not rat him out already. He had already shamed them with his actions before, how much more would they be willing to tolerate on his behalf? He was still coping with the fact that they were willing to shelter him at all…

Even after he came in soaked in sweat and blood caked on him from the day long journey and barely able to speak, the village elder lead him into his home and tended to him without ever once asking what the teenager had done. Lü Meng had want to speak, to explain himself and to thank him, but his voice refused to emerge. His voice, so appalled in what he had done, had retreated and refused to come out, leaving the teen mute except in his own head. But Zheng Zhang never prided, never pushed, merely told him to lay down and rest until his body had recovered. He was assured that he was in shock and not anything more and that it would all eventually pass, and though Lü Meng had his doubts, he simply bobbed his head up and down and tried to sleep without Yu Mao’s face creeping up on him. He longed for a reprise from Chinmai, but this wasn’t the replacement he was hoping for at all!

It didn’t take long for the authorities to arrive and when they did, he was nearly inconsolable! What shock he was in and had been recovering from only intensified and how Zheng Zhang was able to calm him down enough was a mystery to him. Maybe he rendered him unconscious or drugged his drink. There had been some small gaps in memory since he fled camp and perhaps not all of it could be blamed on shock, so truly anything could have been possible. The hours spent hiding in the bedding of hay were the longest he ever remembered and it gave him too much time to think, to dread the inevitability of him being caught. He didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts and yet what choice did he have? Perhaps it was part of his punishment to have to lay in solitude and go mad with the fear that Zheng Zhang would turn him in once he realized what heinous crime he committed. They’d have to tell him, and why wouldn’t they have? They deserved to know. Let all of Fupo know that Lü Meng killed a fellow soldier, and that he would have the nerve to flee instead of standing his ground and accept his punishment as a man would.

‘Yu Mao was right.’ He remembered thinking bitterly and for the millionth time he reminded himself of this. ‘I’m just a child. A nestling. And now a murderer.’

To think, his first blood came from a soldier that stood besides him before and even saved his life.

Once Zheng Zhang knew of his crime, what choice would the elder have but to turn him in? He wanted to remove himself from the haystack to do so to spare the old man the shame of being caught housing him, but he just couldn’t do it. He was afraid of what the punishment might be. Would he be executed? What would become of his family? He had worked hard to get them out of Fupo and with Deng Dang and what good did that do him now? If Deng Dang was to be punished in his place, then Yenji would suffer dearly! What would his mother think? What would become of Fa Shi for allowing him to flee when he should have apprehended him that night?

So many thoughts passed through his head, some of which repeating for a few times, all the while waiting for either the return of Zheng Zhang or the authorities to enter the hut and drag him out. After an eternity, the elder returned, and in a calm, wavering voice, told him that it was safe, but it took him awhile before he stepped out. As the village elder promised, he was safe, but the look in his eyes told Lü Meng that he knew of his crime, and that someday, he would have to confront it. At least it would not be that day.

Very few words were spoken between them from then on. Even when Lü Meng recovered his voice, he simply had little to say. He could not defend or justify his actions and he figured that whatever voice he did have would have been best spent with whatever official that managed to catch him. Not that he planned or wanted to be caught, but since it seemed inevitable, he figured his words would be best spent there. And Zheng Zhang, kind and patient, never questioned him and let him be, and when the next set of authorities came, he continued to smokescreen the youth until he was ready to surrender himself.

Would today be that day, he pondered to himself as he laid in the haystack, a familiar sanctuary now and his only companions a few rats that nibbled on the straw strands but never dared venture closer to the teenager. He had not expected to see Sun Ce himself coming for him, even under the guise of recruitment and repairs, and he began to wonder who else that would be sent if Sun Ce returned empty handed. Would they just give up on him? Who else would Yuan Shu send? Even if there would be others after Sun Ce, what kind of life could a fugitive think to live? He’d be hounded and if anyone recognized him, he’d have to pack up and begin anew once more. How far would he be willing to go? How long before his guilt turned against him? Would that life be any better than the one that that he already tried to escape from?

His thoughts came to an abrupt end when the door of the hut swung open and he grew stiff. Others were entering the hut now and he had no way of knowing if it would have been the village elder and his granddaughter, Ren, or one of the officials until they spoke. He waited in silence, wishing that the rodents around him would stop fidgeting before they gave him away. Were they trying to find him too? ‘Stop that. Now you’re just being paranoid.’

“My lady, you are in no condition to have ridden out. Think of yourself and the child.” The first to speak was Zheng Zhang, relieving Lü Meng for a moment but catching himself before he could give himself away with his relieved sigh. After all, there were others that entered with him. “Please, have a seat here.”

Lü Meng wasn’t sure which should have made him panic more: the sudden shifting of the hay that indicated that he was no longer alone on the bed or the shrill his sister’s voice took. ‘Yenji!’

“How could I not? Not when Meng…”

He almost sprang out of the hay but instincts stopped him as he heard one of Sun Ce’s men speak up. What was his name again? “Please, my lady, you must settle down. Whoever this Meng is-”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know who he is or why you’re here! He’s my baby brother and he’s the one you and your lord are looking for! We’re poor, farming folk, not stupid!”

‘Leave it to Yenji to be so blunt,’ Lü Meng thought, resisting the urge to respond physically to his sister’s outburst. He wanted to snicker at what he thought the squinty-eyed man would look like when he draw back in surprise, but he was too busy pondering what Zheng Zhang had meant. ‘What child?’

Somehow the officer’s stammering was not as satisfying as he thought it would be, which meant that Yenji’s concern outweighed her fierceness. “Ah, my lady, you see… uh, it’s not the only reason we’re here. My lord is very sincere about recruiting soldiers and getting engineers on the repairs. Could I get you anything? Food? Water?”

“Yes you can get me Meng!”

She slammed her hand down on the bedding and had no idea how close she came to socking him. As Han Dang was reduced to a stuttering mess, Zheng Zhang moved to assist her, his voice a familiar, comforting trill, meant to soothe her. “Dear Yenji, please calm yourself as this anger does not compliment your complexion at all. I know it’s been difficult for you and that you’ve ridden far, but it will do neither yourselves or your brother good to get yourself so distressed. Ren, please, make some tea for all of our guests.”

Ren gave a soft ‘yes’ and promptly left, heaving the men to deal with the now weeping Yenji. “How could this have happened? Why did he run away like that? He’s such a stupid boy!”

“Now, now, my lady, please…”

Lü Meng wanted to tell the man not to even bother but in doing so would give himself away. Yenji would not be consoled with mere words. She only continued to wail, every word a spiked whip to Lü Meng’s conscious. “My husband told me everything but he won’t tell me where he is, and he’s going to drive us crazy worrying over him! My mother already left to look for him, so what else could I do? How can I sleep another minute in my new home when I know he’s out there, alone and frightened?”

“Lady Yenji, please, do not be so hard on him or yourself,” said Zheng Zhang, drawing closer to the bedding to console the sobbing woman. Lü Meng was grateful as he wasn’t sure how much longer he could take it. “Lü Meng is but a young man, dear Yenji, and one that has undoubtedly made a mistake. I cannot speak for him directly, but I do know that he has likely fled simply because he did not wish to bring harm or shame upon his family. He lashed out and could not foresee the consequences of his actions. Perhaps he still has not, or perhaps he has and is merely seeking the courage to accept what he’d done and return to you once more.”

He had a feeling that the words were not meant for just Yenji and despite there being hay between them, the hidden teenager was certain that Zheng Zhang’s eyes rested on him, and he tried to shrink deeper into the bedding but to no avail. Though Yenji continued to cry, at least she sounded a little calmer than moments ago. “I just… I don’t care why he did it, I just want him safe. I want him to come home. I don’t want to lose another of my dear siblings! Wasn’t losing Chin enough?”

Lü Meng couldn’t imagine how awkward it must have been for the officer to be there and had Yenji not brought up Chin he might have been able to pull himself away from his misery long enough to pity him. Between the two of them, though, Han Dang was definitely the more courageous and when his voice wasn’t a wavering mess, it could be extremely soft and almost comforting. “My lady, I’ll admit that we were ordered to come here to look for him, or in the very least, gather more information, my my lord’s intentions in finding your brother go beyond just turning him in.”

“It… it is>?” The hope that crept into Yenji’s voice was contagious. “You mean, you’re going to listen to his side first?”

“Already done,” said Sun Ce, his voice suddenly filling the room and more footsteps padded against the floor, alerting Lü Meng know that Sun Ce wasn’t alone. He imagined all eyes had turned to their guests and now any chance to flee was gone from his mind entirely. “Zhou Yu spoke with Lady Shilimai and myself, and our earlier report from Lieutenant Deng Dang himself gives good enough idea about the circumstances, though I’m still interesting in hearing his side of the story from him personally. After all, he’s the only one that really knows what happened that night.”

Zheng Zhang sounded both pleased and surprised and managed to inform the teenager who else had arrived to the now crowded hut. “Lady Shi, you can never seem to stay away from Fupo, can you? Please, have a seat here next to Yenji. Ren, please, prepare more tea, won’t you?”

Once again, Ren’s reply was soft but present, and before Lü Meng could panic about finding another body on him, his mother kindly declined but did approach her crying daughter. “I’ll be fine, thank you. As for you, Yenji, I’m not surprised to see you here in your condition. He, or she, is going to be just like his uncle if you’re not careful.”

Again his sister’s ‘condition’ was hinted at and again Lü Meng didn’t understand, but it was hardly important now. No, whatever mystery revolved around Yenji would have to be resolved later, as the officer he suspected to be Zhou Yu drew everyone’s attention back to him. “Han Dang, I’m guessing that Master Zheng Zhang and Lady Yenji have given you some insight on the matter. Would you like to contribute your input?”

“Yes, sir, but… would here be the most appropriate place?”

He was referring to the mother-daughter pair, of course, and there was no question where Yenji or any of her siblings had gotten their blunt honesty from. “Whatever you three have to discuss involving my son is for us to hear. He is our family and our benefactor and it is our right.” Then, in a softer tone, she addressed her daughter and was likely wiping tears from her face. “However, you need to stop wailing long enough so that they can hear each other talk, Yenji,”

Eventually Yenji had settled down enough to where Han Dang didn’t sound so tense and he relaxed as he gave his report, as meager as it may have been. “My lord, from what I was able to get from some of the potential recruits, Master Zheng Zhang and the lady here tells me that our fugitive is nothing more than a frightened and possibly confused youth and not the menace that Lord Yuan Shu’s men made him out to be.”

“Those were my findings as well,” Zhou Yu said, his voice soothing and having an immediate effect on his sister as she had calmed down considerably. “His crime was the result of months of abuse from the man he eventually killed, as well as personal grief. From Deng Dang’s report, as well as Lady Shilimai’s account, on the night of the altercation, seemed that Yu Mao had simply gone too far and struck a raw nerve and our fugitive merely reacted. A terrible lapse in judgement, but hardly at all anything premeditated or thought out.”

“Still, it resulted in the death of a soldier, nevertheless.” Lü Meng noticed that there was a distinct lack of anger in the Sun lord’s voice, as though the notion that he killed a man was simply secondary and not the true focus at all, when it should have been. “A pretty serious offense, but not worth sending so many out to find him, don’t you think?”

“Lord Sun Ce, are you suggesting that we call off the hunt?”

“Yes, and no. He committed an offense by killing a soldier that was bullying him, but his greatest offense was him fleeing and choosing to hide while his family worries for him. It’s been roughly three weeks now. Surely enough time has passed for him to realize how much pain they’re going through.” Sun Ce spoke with confidence, but within that there was also a hint of compassion, and how Lü Meng squirmed to resist the shame from consuming him and forcing him to act out right now! Sun Ce was right, but how could he just show up now? “If he’d present himself to me, I’d be willing to hear his story and do what I can, but that depends entirely on him.”

“It would take an extreme amount of bravery to turn oneself in. Even more so before his family here.”

The way that Zhou Yu had said the words was peculiar and for a moment, he was reminded of Fa Shi. He’d have a way of pushing Lü Meng and others into action, without physically touching them or giving a direct order. Goading, is what other recruits had told him. It was a method of manipulating someone by directly attacking their pride, and Lü Meng could tell that Sun Ce and Zhou Yu were goading him. Was that not what got him in trouble in the first place with Yu Mao? And yet, if he did not act, he’d be not only admitting to his cowardice, but would it not make matters worse in the end?

He knew he had to make a choice, and it seemed he would have to make it soon, as Sun Ce let out a sigh, heavy with what he could only guess was disappointment. “Pretty brave indeed. Alas, there may be hope yet. We should finish our business here and be on our way. After all, the village isn’t going to repair itself and we have a lot of work to do with our new recruits.”

They would be leaving soon, which meant if he was going to act, it would have to be now. And yet, the fear that crippled him had tried to dig its claws in deep and refused to let him go. Wait a few moments more and they’d be gone, and he would have a least a few more days until Lord Yuan Shu decided to send more officers out to find him. By then, he’d be long gone from Fupo. But… he knew he couldn’t. Not when he knew just how much he had made his family suffer. So, even if it meant falling into the obvious trap, Lü Meng took a breath and emerged from the hay bedding, startling not only the rats and Yenji with the sudden movement but the three officers as well. Not his best idea, but since when did that ever not ring true with Lü Meng?

He didn’t consider how his abrupt entrance could have triggered any of the officers’ fighting instincts or what effect it may have on poor Yenji, but now he had little choice but to commit to the act. Without taking the time to remove the strands of hay from his hair and clothing and practically flying over his sister’s form, he never once stopped his forward motion until he had reached the Sun lord and by then he had practically dive bombed at his feet. No grace worthy of a tiger but it was all that the teenager could muster, his shout threatened to be muffled from the bow he took as he addressed Sun Ce. “Lord Sun Ce, I… I turn myself in!”

Moments passed without noise or words spoken and it was far more unbearable than anything Lü Meng had endured thus far in his short life. Thankfully, there were no swarm of hands and ropes that apprehended him, and Sun Ce wasn’t keen on letting him suffer for too long, as his voice boomed in his ears and once again filled every inch of the hut with life. “Good lad, I was wondering how much we’d have to… wait, I know you, don’t I?”

He was forced to look up when Sun Ce knelt down in front of him and the intrigue of his voice the perfect lure for Lü Meng to raise his head from his bow to look at Sun Ce face to face. Lü Meng didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need to. “Oh, right! ‘Breathe’, wasn’t it? Small world.”

If Lü Meng had the courage, he made have made a joke about fate or destiny, but all of that courage drained away in a heartbeat, for now he found himself surrounded on all sides. Tigers of the Sun family at his front, and two extremely angry and emotional women at his back, and not even Ren’s timid voice could spare him from the sense of being overwhelmed. “Oh… well… I guess I’ll go prepare another cup of tea then.”
A River's Final Meandering -- Chapter Six
Chapter One: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Two: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Three: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Four: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Five: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…

DISCLAIMER: This is a piece of fiction, inspired by the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the video game series Shin Sangokumusou | Dynasty Warriors. Names of individuals that I could not find their names either through the Koei Warriors Wiki or Kongming Archives are given false names and (hopefully) bare no resemblance to any other persons or characters, either living or dead.


Summary:

In which Lü Meng's efforts to flee from custody are foiled by three prowling tigers...

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(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
Nestling's Flight

Something wet ran down his cheek and Lü Meng beyond hoped it was rain that had broken through into the realm that he and the mystic shared. He wasn't sure if any of the outside world could reach them in this realm or if he was even visible in the real world. For all he knew, he could have disappeared from sight entirely, right before Zhu Ran’s very eyes and caused widespread panic among his troops. He knew nothing of magic and would have preferred to wrap his head around that than to relive what he was feeling right now. Anything, short of death, would have been a relief compared to remembering his dear sister.

Lü Meng was torn between begging, or demanding, Zuo Ci to move on, or simply enduring the pain that was to come. He had no means of making such demands from the mystic and knew all too well that he was his prisoner in this realm, so it would likely resort to begging, something Lü Meng wasn't too familiar with. But he knew how to do it if it came down to it. It was a disgusting feeling and he suspected he would be horrible at it as the times he remembered resorting to the act never panned out well for him. Would begging do him any good? Would Zuo Ci show mercy? He wouldn't hold it against him if he didn't. He seldom showed mercy in his younger years, so in truth, Lü Meng wasn't expecting any now.

So, he chose not to beg. If Zuo Ci felt this was necessary to understanding him for his mission, then he would simply have to endure, as he always did, as he always will. Endure, and hope it wouldn't be the blow to cripple or kill him.

“Your sister was very dear to you, was she not?”

Lü Meng could not stop himself from scowling and he managed to reign most of it in. Years on the battlefield and putting up with Gan Ning had helped him with that sometimes. While there still may have been some residual anger in his deep green eyes, he managed to force a more neutral expression on his face as he gave his answer. “Indeed. For my entire childhood, she was my companion, sometimes my better half. She was very, very dear to me.”

It was something he could not deny, nor would he. He wasn't sure how much or how deep this mystic planned on prying into the matter, so he figured it would be wise to enlighten him before he attempted to dig any deeper and strike nerves that he spent decades reinforcing. “She was never a healthy girl, though. I was the stronger of the two.” And somehow, he found himself smiling as he remembered something. “She’d joke that I took all of the strength and health, while she had all the brains and good looks. Heh… seems she wasn't wrong.”

Chin often made that joke, but Lü Meng could only a weak smile in response. The guilt and the memory of her spending most of her days imprisoned in a bad killed any humor she tried to instill in him. Even now, decades since he last held her hand and felt her life, as fragile as those dainty little fingers had been, slipped through his own, he couldn't do more than offer a sardonic smile, feeling nothing short of pure sorrow linger at even that. He looked at Zuo Ci, hoping that giving himself something to focus on would help combat the reawakened sorrow within him and offer him the strength he knew he had.

“Looking back at it now, do you feel it was worth the cost? Was losing your sister, you’re self proclaimed better half, worth it?”

Maybe he was being merciful and chose not to push further into the memory, or perhaps he was merely biding his time and waiting for the second that Lü Meng to drop his guard. At the moment, the Chief-Commander was still reeling to be able to judge which one it was, but he remained alert nevertheless. “Yes, because I know it was what she’d want. She knew she wouldn't live long, even if we lucked out and I found fortune earlier, but… I wanted to prove her wrong. I wanted to have hope… but…”

“If it were to soothe you, it is not your fault. Had you returned early or never left at all, death would have still came for her at the time it did.”

Somehow, it did soothe him, but he also had decades to cope with this truth. Perhaps fifteen year old Lü Meng didn't understand this, nor would he truly until a ridiculous amount of time later, but the seasoned Chief-Commander did. “It took me a good while to come to terms with it, but there were moments where I didn't understand and I lashed out.”

And then, he felt his heart sink, as he looked to the mystic that began to fade away from view. “And let me guess, you’re more than happy to remind me of such moments?”

“I must, if I am to know who you truly are.” Zuo Ci’s tone was almost apologetic, even as he disappeared into the shadows of the dimly lit hut that a young Lü Meng once called home, many, many decades ago. “You may have changed, Lü Meng, but the past shapes everyone and deserves.”

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

But Lü Meng didn't want to give it any attention! He didn't want to move or acknowledge anything. He didn't want to accept that outside those walls, there was life and things to do. No, he didn't want to eat, didn't want to drink, or sleep. He didn't want anything, unless it was Chin getting better!

It seemed like hours passed since the Taoist priest said his prayers and departed, but time might as well have become non-existent for Lü Meng. It had taken much effort for them to calm the teenager down and now, he simply laid at Chinmai’s beside, awake but silent, not really living but breathing, and existing, if one could even call it that. Sometime in the night, Deng Dang arrived with Yenji and they conversed with Shilimai, but he paid it no mind. Maybe they were discussing wedding arrangements, or discussing how Deng Dang was going to move their family out of Fupo, or even Chin’s funeral arrangements. They may as well been speaking another language to the teen as it was all simply noise to him. He laid at an angle that threatened to bring pins-and-needles sensation to his legs should he attempt to stand and the small of his back would creak and threaten to snap, but he truly did not care. He never considered the possibility that he would ever move from the spot again anyways. To the teenager, the world would have simply ceased to be once Chin passed away, he convinced himself…

He knew it was childish and considering he had just proved himself to be of equal standing with the rest of the soldiers, it was inexcusable, but he could no more fight that depression that gnawed in his chest than he could help but breathe. Surely, no one would blame him, he thought.

And he was horribly wrong.

Someone nudged him and called his name, and he hoped that it was Chin waking him up and teasing him for falling for her prank. He wanted to hear her laugh, her triumphant gloating, for her to say ‘haha, got you good, Meng! You silly boy!’

But it wasn't Chin. He looked into Yu Mao’s face and had not recognized him until his eyebrows twisted into a scowl, and his words, accompanied by the cuff to his cheek, finally pulled Lü Meng back into reality. “Lü Meng, pay attention!”

The interior of the worn down hut dispersed into a thousand little lights and Chin, passive and at peace, crumbled before his eyes, giving way to the harsh reality that he wasn't home, nor was he even in Fupo anymore. That Chin had died that night six months ago. That Yu Mao caught him with his guard down and that was only opening the door up to even more misery.

He must have been taking too long to respond and was immediately rewarded for it with another blow, and this was the one that caused the teenager to hit the ground, much to the delight of his fellow soldier. He didn't know what Yu Mao struck him with but he knew another one was imminent if he didn't acknowledge his presence. “I’m sorry, sir.”

He didn't know what Yu Mao wanted from him as his apology did nothing to appease the intense hatred he saw in him. Those too close to the confrontation scuffled away, not wanting to get caught in the crosshairs of the fight that was apparently about to occur. Was that what was happening? Were they in the middle of a drill and he neglected his role? He wasn't sure but he could not bring himself to ask. Any attempt to speak further would have made his voice crack and would give Yu Mao more fuel for his rage and he didn't need anymore of that. “Sorry doesn't cut it! You need to pay attention or it’s your life! Now get up and do the drill again!”

Lü Meng did as he was told, but there was no appeasing the man. That look of disgust ran deeper than any river in all of China and it continued to flow as he picked himself up, reaching for the quarterstaff that he had dropped and eager to just go make into the motions. All the while, he kept his head low and refused to meet Yu Mao’s eyes, approaching like an omega would to its angered alpha, knowing that one wrong move and those fangs would find themselves in his neck. Part of him longed to fight back and in a way, he suspected that Yu Mao welcomed the idea, but even after the strikes, Lü Meng refrained and simply endured. Once again, he stood at the ready and the drills continued, and this time, Lü Meng was careful not to let his mind wander too far. He wasn't sure if he could handle Yu Mao’s abuse and the violent jerk to reality a second time in a single day.

He stood at the ready and hoped it was enough, but Yu Mao was an impossible man to please. He slapped his quarterstaff on Lü Meng’s leg and then his shoulder, forcing the youth to shift positions, and his words cut deep, saying them loud and letting every soldier nearby hear him, much to Lü Meng’s dismay. “Your form’s incorrect! A bandit with no eyes could disarm you with a single swing, child! Do it right!”

Lü Meng didn't think, he simply reacted. No warning, no words. He lifted his quarterstaff and swung it at Yu Mao’s head, the only possible thought that could have existed in his mind was shutting him up though he felt it was more instinctual than any genuine thought process. The staff never connected and in a fluid, almost invisible movement, Yu Mao struck back. Seconds later, if even, the teenager found himself on his back, reinforced wood pressing down on his throat and a boot on his chest, and only then did he look Yu Mao in the eyes as the man stood over him, his face twisted with a murderous rage. He looked ready to kill him, and maybe he would have if Deng Dang’s shout not cracked through the air like a bolt of lightning. “Yu Mao, desist!”

Yu Mao was quick to obey, removing both the weapon and his boot from the teenager and stepping back to give him room. He stood at attention and bowed, while Lü Meng tried to gather his strength to at least pull himself into a seated position but to no avail. Only now did he feel the effect of his body hitting the earth and he was grateful for his brother-in-law’s interference, even at the cost of his own pride right now. Soldiers parted and allowed the lieutenant to pass, saying nothing and knowing better than to get in the middle of them as Deng Dang addressed Yu Mao. “Yu Mao, you’re completely out of line!”

By this time, Lü Meng had managed to get himself up to where he was sitting and he was certain that the only thing that kept Yu Mao from simply pushing him back down was Deng Dang himself. The way he held himself made it clear to not just them but to the rest that such behavior wouldn't be tolerated, but not even his presence could spare Lü Meng from the venom in Yu Mao’s words and the effect it had on his self-esteem. “He lashed out first and I merely put him in his place. He has no business being here at all and you do us all a disservice to keep this child with us. What can this nestling do? Having him in the army is no different than having a piece of meat around for a tiger!”

Something burned within Lü Meng and it had been so long since he felt anything but that deep sense of loss from Chin’s death that he almost didn't recognize it at first. It stirred within his gut and caused him to lash out once before and when it returned a second time, the teenager knew it to be hatred. The same hatred that Yu Mao apparently felt for him had been resting within him and the man’s blows and harsh words only seemed to cultivate it, and what horrible luck that Deng Dang had arrived before he could return the favor to Yu Mao! He hated that look that Deng Dang gave him but could make no action against it, and he held his tongue, knowing that if he even tried to speak that the one to suffer for it was his brother-in-law. “That’s not for you to say, Yu Mao. He’s pulled his weight and then some, so he has just as much a right to be in this army as you do. You need to lay off of him-”

“And you should not coddle him.” Yu Mao held his ground and practically spat in Lü Meng’s direction, as if daring the youth to try and retaliate. So long as Deng Dang was there, he couldn't strike out without shaming him in front of his soldiers, and so Lü Meng simply endured in silence as Yu Mao carried on. “You may as well send him home before he loses his life out there, sir! He is nothing but dead weight and dead weight should be abandoned first.”

Lü Meng wasn't sure what he was expecting from Deng Dang, but to hear him gloss over the matter was carrion comfort to him. “That will be up for me to decide and until that comes, you are to refrain from attacking or provoking your fellow soldiers. The next offense I see, either it be against Lü Meng or another soldier and you will be lashed publicly for all to see. Do you understand?”

What else could Yu Mao do? He complied, but Lü Meng knew he didn't mean it. No, he made have conceded but it was all a ruse, as he could hear the disdain in his voice as he addressed the lieutenant. “Yes, sir…”

“And as for you…” Now Deng Dang turned his gaze to Lü Meng and the youth kept his head down, refusing to look at him and see him struggling to maintain his composure. He knew he’d be trying to hide the pity in his eyes and the teen simply didn't want to see it. He didn't want pity. He didn't want to be treated differently, for better or for worse. All it had taken was a single movement and he was on his feet once more, but still he could not look Deng Dang in the eyes so he settled for his forehead. “You’ll have stable duties for the remainder of the evening since you can’t seem to get your head on straight. Making mucking out the stalls will clear your head. Go on.”

Once again, Deng Dang had favored him without anyone knowing, and not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Lü Meng obeyed without question. He bowed his head and stormed towards the stables, wishing that he could have taken a shot at Yu Mao before retreating but knowing that he had lost his chance. He should have taken comfort in Deng Dang’s willingness to threaten Yu Mao, but he knew it’d do him no good. The next time he’d simply mask it under a drill and feign ignorance, even blame Lü Meng for not paying attention. He’d find a way to torment him and skirt by the rules, until either Lü Meng left the unit or Yu Mao was put to death.

Not even the happy whickers of the horses could elevate his mood any. He grabbed the pitchfork and immediately went to work on the first stall, offering the horse a half-hearted rub on the muzzle to comfort him before getting on task. Yes, Deng Dang had favored him in giving him this duty instead of the drills but it hardly did anything to appease the maelstrom of emotions within him. His motions were quick, forceful, gripping the hilt of the tool tightly to stop his limbs from shaking, and it didn't take long for him to work up a sweat. Time passed and he had worked so vigorously that his hair slipped from its top knot and stuck to the back of his neck, and on a normal day, he wouldn't have minded the horse’s fuzzy lips nip at his loose strands, but he was simply too riled up. Far too round up and threatening to snap, and his victim would have been the horse if it kept at him.

“Meng!”

Deng Dang’s arrival startled not only the horses but the teenager as well and no amount of effort could stop him from letting the tool slip from his sweaty palms. Thankfully it and the manure he was digging at fell harmlessly just short of the stall door and away from the horse, but it hardly stopped the sting of embarrassment from washing over him. His only comfort was that Deng Dang wouldn't have laughed at him. Fuss him for being clumsy, perhaps, but he wouldn't kick him while he was down. Once the horses settled down, the lieutenant ventured deeper into the stables and wasted no time blasting him, his voice strained from holding himself back. “Meng, explain to me what just happened there.”

“My hands were sweaty, and the pitchfork slipped.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it! Damn it, Meng,” Deng Dang said, storming towards the pitchfork and grabbing it before Lü Meng could reach it and setting it aside, making his intentions clear. “Did I not warn you to stay away from Yu Mao? Didn't I?”

“You did.” Lü Meng saw no point to deny it. Lying wasn't in his nature and honestly he was no good at it. Now that he wasn't working, he could catch his breath and think, but that wasn't what he wanted. He didn't want to think. If he thought, he’d think of Chin. “Can I have it back now?”

“No, you’ll listen and you won’t do any of that if you’re mucking the stalls. You’re barely even listening to me now.”

Now it was Lü Meng’s turn to scowl and he didn't regret it like he knew he should have. “I -am- listening, sir.”

Deng Dang didn't seem to believe him and held his tongue, and only when Lü Meng gave in and looked at his face did he speak up again. This time, there was a weight in his voice, one that Lü Meng recognized and immediately wanted to escape from. “You say you are, but I don’t believe you. Meng, I know these past six months have been rough on you… at first I thought it was commendable of you to take up your duties when you did, but now I think you’re a damn fool. You weren't ready to come back to this.”

“You said I was welcomed back in and my mother gave me permission to enlist,” Lü Meng said, his voice frigid and rejecting the sorrow that weighted Deng Dang’s words. He had enough of his own sorrow to cripple him and he didn't need anyone else’s thrown on his back right now.

“Yes, but that was before… augh, Meng, I have every right to send you back until you've recovered, but what good is that going to do me? You’d just come back again and again, wouldn't you?” Deng Dang shook his head and his lament did little to Lü Meng’s conscious. The way he held himself made it clear that he was torn between striking his brother-in-law and pulling him into a hug, or perhaps his ulcer was getting the better of him again. Lü Meng didn't know, nor did he care. Whatever discomfort or pain Deng Dang was feeling was nothing compared to his own and there was nothing that the lieutenant could do to help him, so why he even bothered was beyond Lü Meng. Something closed tight around his shoulders and he was forced to look at Deng Dang as he gave him a squeeze, and the desperation in his voice threatened to undo him from his turmoil, but he resisted with all his might. “I don’t know what to say or do with you right now, Meng. I try to comfort you and you brush it away. I try to keep you busy and your mind simply wanders and you find some way to make trouble.”

“I didn't make trouble this time. He found me, and I fought back.”

He wanted to fight back harder. He wanted to slam the quarterstaff against his cheek and knock all of those teeth out of his skull. He wanted to teach Yu Mao a lesson, but Yu Mao was too fast for him. He provoked him and then disabled him in front of the entire regiment. Only now did he feel the wound to his pride and it should have been humbling, but all it did was feed his anger.

“Meng, I know he hates you. Heavens only knows why he hates you so much, but you need to stay away from him, until we can figure out some kind of compromise.” Deng Dang never let up on his hold, even when it was clear that the youth wanted nothing more than to shy away from him.

“What’s there to compromise?” Lü Meng asked, not afraid to show his ignorance now. After all, everyone just watched Yu Mao completely wipe the floor with him and it was no lie that he wasn't the brightest in the bunch, so what did he care what Deng Dang thought of him now. “Why bother compromising? We’ll never get along. He hates me for something that’s beyond my control and it’s not like I can just… magically age up or anything. Even if I could, he’d find something else to hate me for.”

He never understood the depths of Yu Mao’s hatred and he refused to think too much about how the man saved his life that morning of the ambush. Nothing about that made any sense to him and he figured it was easier to think that perhaps he had imagined the ordeal entirely, or simply mistook the man that saved him and imposed Yu Mao’s face there in some pathetic attempt to assure himself that the man couldn't have possibly hated him. Now, he knew he did, and for such a stupid reason.

“Perhaps, but that’s not the point. Whether you like him or not, Yu Mao’s a fellow soldier and your ally, and thus you should make an effort to co-exist with him. You don’t have to like him. I know I don’t, and if he keeps treating you this way or starts acting out against the other soldiers, I’ll be more than happy to flog him until he’s singing a different tune, but until then, he’s your ally and you’re his. And we don’t attack our allies, even if they may deserve it.”

Lü Meng was taken back by Deng Dang’s words, but not for the wisdom in them. He paid little attention to that, far too young to understand why the lieutenant harped on such dribble. How could he possibly think to work or co-exist with someone that absolutely hated him? No, he was determined that he’d never co-exist with Yu Mao and that simply avoiding him would have been the more practical approach. What surprised him was Deng Dang’s confession and the conviction that was behind his threat, and he couldn't help but feel hopeful as he asked, “Why don’t you just flog him now, or ask him to leave? He’s the one that keeps provoking me, so why should I be punished?”

Deng Dang offered him a knowing smile and Lü Meng hated it. It came off smug, like he had all the answers and was merely looking for the chance to rub it in his face about it, but what could Lü Meng do but listen and try to understand, despite its uselessness? “Meng, the older you get, the more you’ll realize that there’s things in this world that you can’t change. People, places, conditions. There will always be some kind of adversity ahead of you and you can’t control them. You can try with all your might, but there will always be something you can’t control. What you can do, though, is control how you approach the situation and how you react. Control yourself, so that others can’t control you.”

Lü Meng looked at his brother-in-law, finally breaking his pact not to look directly at him and staring him in the eyes as he said that. He took in his words and he tried… he genuinely wanted to understand what he was saying. He wanted to absorb his words and let him fill him with wisdom, instead of the sorrow and hate that existed in almost perfect unity inside him, but the words didn't stick. And he couldn't help but feel himself wanting to despair that he simply didn't understand what Deng Dang had meant, but he resisted the urge and combated it with anger, resentment, emotions he was more akin with. And Deng Dang, knowing his words did nothing, let out a sigh and released Lü Meng with enough force to make the teenager back away a step. “Why do I even… you’ll understand when you’re older. For now, simply avoid Yu Mao. I’ll make sure to punish him for provoking you though I’m sure that’s only going to make matters worse. What am I going to do with the two of you?”

The teenager thought long and hard about what he was going to say, but never did it not cross his mind to refrain from saying it in the first place. “You could just execute him for attacking me and be done with it.”

Something about the comment or the way he said it in a completely serious tone made Deng Dang crack and the man laughed, the sound strained and fragile as a shaky leaf clinging to the branch during a storm. And how tragic was it that Lü Meng couldn't even bring himself to smile at the sound? “But then wouldn't I have to execute you for doing the same? You’re not too good with hindsight, but I admire your honesty and how straightforward your solution is. I just wish it was that simple. Now, get back to cleaning. You can sleep in here if you want to, but I’m certain that Yu Mao won’t be pestering you again for at least a little while. Be well, Meng.”

“And to you, Dang,” Lü Meng said, trying to give him a smile but certain that he’d see right through it. His attempt was at least appreciated, as Deng Dang returned the smile and left him with the horses. What Lü Meng should have done was take in everything that Deng Dang had said, absorb it, contemplate on it until he figured it out, but he didn't. He couldn't. He simply didn't understand how he was expected to not react, as simply reacting had done him well up until now. He would simply have to train harder, work harder, to best Yu Mao the next time they’d meet, because he may have been stupid, but he wasn't a fool. He knew they’d encounter one another again, and he knew that Yu Mao would never let go of his hatred for him, not unless Lü Meng beat it out of him. Until then, he’d simply have to avoid him and work hard, and once again he dove into the task of mucking the stables, welcoming the chore and hoping it’d drive him into exhaustion so that when he curled up in the nearest hay stack that he’d go straight into a dreamless sleep. He missed Chin dearly, but he could do with a few nights where her smiling face didn't cause him to wake up with tears soaking his face and bedding…

~*~*~

The days dragged on and there were few things that the grieving Lü Meng couldn't recall. On those days, the easiest thing to do was shut his mind off and simply react, or do, despite Deng Dang’s suggestion. He simply did as he was told and simply chose to exist, at least until the pain would pass. If he worked, he couldn't focus on his loss or invoking Yu Mao’s wrath, and by the end of the day, he would be too exhausted to think and would sleep through the night so heavily that a raid would have occurred around him and he wouldn't be any the wiser. Most of his days were uneventful, which was perfectly fine, and Lü Meng didn't want to admit to anyone that there were some good days thrown in. Small things, little things that reminded the teenager that life wasn't so bad and that life could continue without Chin, and it was on one of those days that Yu Mao caught him off guard entirely.

He didn't mean to drop his guard, but Yu Mao was simply an opportunist and closed in on him without warning. Perhaps he had noticed Lü Meng’s smile, or perhaps he had made an incorrect motion and was wanting to jump at the chance to correct him again, but whatever opening Lü Meng left, Yu Mao exploited it.

“Nestling!” Yu Mao had become attached to that nickname for him, according to the soldiers that talked with Lü Meng. The word was flung about as though it were his name and everyone in their unit knew whom he was referring to when he muttered the words. Others had taken a liking to the name as well and mumbled it beneath their breaths as Lü Meng would pass, but he did his best to ignore them. Deng Dang also gave him some advice on this and used some flattering words, but the youth couldn't be bothered to remember any of it outside of it boiling down to ‘just ignore it’. Ignoring other soldiers when they taunted him was easy, but for Yu Mao? Impossible. “Where do you think you’re going?”

When Yu Mao caught him, his hands were full and in them were a heavy saddle, some armor and a sheathed sword, all belonging to Deng Dang. He fought down the urge to sneer and gave the man a prompt answer, never once looking around to see if they were alone. With the way no one intervened, barring Deng Dang or Fa Shi, they may as well have been alone, and for the short-tempered youth, this wasn't a good thing. “I’m going to polish this armor and saddle.”

Keep his answers short, give him only what he needed, and hope he’d lose interest and move on. That’s what Lü Meng was hoping for with this encounter with Yu Mao, but of course, his tormentor wasn't willing to let him go that easy. Couldn't just look away or be quiet. “Ah, so he’s finally put you in your proper place, Nestling? A child like you has no business raising a sword, much less polishing one for your elders.”

Those words hurt and if it was meant to be a trap, then Lü Meng fell for the bait perfectly. “I’m doing this for the lieutenant, not because I was ordered to.”

“Polishing armor and mucking stalls is all you’re good for until your feathers grow in.” Yu Mao drew closer to him and Lü Meng felt his back stiffen in lieu of the mocking tone of his voice. He should have walked away but he knew Yu Mao wouldn't let him, but he couldn't take the sound of his voice anymore, especially since he had given him more fuel to sling his insulting words at him. “Trying to get into the lieutenant’s good graces won’t do you any good, either. We all know the only reason he allowed you into our unit in the first place was for you to obtain the money you needed for the dowries and simply hasn't figured out how to get rid of you yet. It’s only out of pity that he keeps you now even though he knows you’ll be picked off the moment we see battle again. Perhaps that’s what he’s hoping for! If I thought I was doing him a favor, I would have let you die that first battle and be done with it- what’s another useless death in the Lü family?”

Something in him snapped and all Lü Meng could do was respond. He didn’t think, he didn't speak, and he was certain that he wasn't breathing either. Yu Mao had kept on talking and talking and talking but Lü Meng had long since stopped listening. His hands were full but not for long, as the armor and saddle fell from his hands, but not the sword. It wasn't an unfamiliar weapon to him now as it once was and before the drills he never thought he could wield anything shorter than a spear, and if he wasn’t consumed with rage, he would have been surprised with just how easily the blade slipped from the sheath and how easy it was to thrust it forward. How easily it tore through clothing, flesh and muscle, but he’d never forgot how easily it silenced Yu Mao, but only for a little while, as even when there was a sword plunged deep into his chest, he managed to croak out a few words, his hatred finally giving away to shock. “You… killed… me?”

Lü Meng wasn’t sure what made him let go of the hilt, whether it was the blood that now soaked his hands and arms or the horror in his eyes, but when he released the grip on the sword, Yu Mao fell to his knees. One hand wrapped around the hilt and tried in vain to remove that sword, and the other grasped for any part of his murderer be it clothing or an appendage, but his efforts were as futile as removing the blade from his lungs as Lü Meng practically scrambled out of his reach. He didn't know enough about combat or injuries, but he knew it was grave. He should have called for a medic or tried to help the man, but he couldn't bring himself to move. Had he tended to the man, maybe he’d live, but Lü Meng kept his distance and watched as he collapsed to the ground, the life that fled from his body manifesting in the form of blood pooling onto the earth. Lü Meng would have continued to stare at the dying man, too, had someone not stepped in the puddle and forced his gaze upwards. Shock and horror were clearly visible on Fa Shi’s face and the more he took it in, the more it began to dawn on him as to what he had just done.

He killed a man. There was no doubt about it as the evidence was clear as the moon in the night sky. He wasn't sure what kept him standing, but at least he knew what it was that got him running, as Fa Shi was suddenly upon him, pulling his attention away from Yu Mao’s lifeless body and the soldiers that were beginning to gather around them. He was expecting to be berated and accused and the threat of punishment upon him, but no such words came out of him. His voice was strained and if he listened carefully he could hear the tremble in them, but Fa Shi’s panicked response and his pushing made it hard for him to focus his mind on anything for too long. “Lü Meng, you need to leave. Now.”

He knew that much. He killed a man. He killed a fellow soldier and it didn’t matter if it was justified or not. What would become of him when Deng Dang found out? He was destined not to know, as Fa Shi just kept pushing and pushing, refusing to let him linger long enough to find out. “Go! Now! I’ll talk with Deng Dang about this, but you need to go before they send for the marshals. Go, for heavens’ sake, go!”

What else could Lü Meng do? He wasn't sure why Fa Shi didn't turn him in nor why he was helping him, but he had no time to question him. Fa Shi told him to leave, and he’d do so running. Where would he go? How long could he possibly run for? What would happen if he got caught? What would become of Fa Shi for helping him? He had no idea and he didn't want to think about it. All he could do was run, run, run!
A River's Final Meandering -- Chapter Five
Chapter One: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Two: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Three: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Four: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Six: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…

DISCLAIMER: This is a piece of fiction, inspired by the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the video game series Shin Sangokumusou | Dynasty Warriors. Names of individuals that I could not find their names either through the Koei Warriors Wiki or Kongming Archives are given false names and (hopefully) bare no resemblance to any other persons or characters, either living or dead.


Summary:

In which Yu Mao simply goes to far and Lü Meng seeks to put an end to his insults...

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(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
To Catch a Tiger's Cub

The trek home felt considerably shorter than the trek there, but Lü Meng accounted that to the fact that there were no drills and no battle preparations, and absolutely no rush to get to their destination as it was before. It was strange. It felt as though it should have taken even longer to get back to Fupo considering their lax journey, but his concept of time had simply been horribly skewed. He barely remembered the last stretch of the fight, much less any of the other battles that took place during their campaign against the Shanyue. After the failed ambush on the supply line, everything seemed to become a blur and all that he knew was that they had succeeded in repelling the Shanyue and were victorious. That’s all that should have mattered was that they were victorious and with any luck, the Shanyue would never pose a problem, either to the territories that Yuan Shu and Sun Ce held, or to Runan and Fupo ever again.

He had hoped to make the journey back home to Fupo in solitude, barring the company of the mare he had calmed that fateful morning, but it seemed it wasn't meant to be. Deng Dang would eventually find him and assault him with either a verbal lashing, to warm him up for what was waiting for him when he got home, and sure enough, the lieutenant caught up with him so quickly after he thought of him that he swore he summoned him here by sheer force of will.

Lü Meng braced himself for either a stern insult or a strike, but neither were forthcoming. They both said nothing for awhile, which only drove the stake of apprehension deeper and the first to finally break that silence was Deng Dang, his tone softer than it had been since the start of their operation. “Meng, talk to me.”

He sounded so informal that it took the teenager completely off guard. It wasn't an order, but something of a mixture of a request and a demand. Maybe even a plea. Lü Meng answered in earnest. “I’m not sure what to talk about?”

“You just had your first battle, so there’s plenty to talk about. Talk to me, Meng. How do you feel?”

Lü Meng wasn't sure where this came from or where it was going and he made no hesitation to show this as he asked, “But aren't you worried about upholding your promise to treat me no different from the rest? Aren't you worried they’ll think you’re favoring me?”

“They’re dealing with their own problems right now and the immediate danger is over, heavens willing. For now, I’m Dang, your future brother-in-law, your family, so please talk to me.”

There was a hint of aggravation, no, desperation, in his voice, and finally Lü Meng gathered his thoughts into words without sounding like a bumbling idiot or a coward. “I’m not sure what I can say or how I feel. I’m happy we won, I guess.”

“With Lord Sun Ce at our lead, we could only have succeeded.” Deng Dang sounded confident and with good reason. Even the ambush on the supply chain had been thwarted fairly quickly, though Lü Meng could take no credit for that. No, all he did was calm down a horse and then hid in the carriage until the victory drums sounded from their end. It was all Sun Ce’s army and Deng Dang’s men, he told himself. “You don’t seem happy. What was your part of the fight? I was told the supply chain was attacked.”

Lü Meng didn't want to talk about it, but he knew he’d be given no choice in the matter. Better he know from him, than to ask around and hear it from someone else. “It was, but we held out. I just kept this horse calm and chased after her when she tried to run away.”

“That’s good. Heavens know we needed those supplies there. You did a good job, Meng.”

“But I didn't do anything… you know, noteworthy.” Lü Meng was quick to argue, struggling to keep his voice low so that only Deng Dang could hear his frustration. He wanted to simply take whatever praise came his way, but it felt wrong. “I shouted when I saw them coming and the only one I engaged wasn't even killed by my own blade.” Deng Dang flashed him an inquisitive look and the teenager explained, bitterness dripping from his lips as he confessed. “He was crushed beneath the carriage. I would have been too if it wasn't for Yu Mao.”

Now Deng Dang’s expression softened and his smile might not have compared to Sun Ce’s, but it was still nice and comforting to see. “A casualty, especially that of your enemy, is still a casualty. Just because he was killed by a runaway carriage doesn't make it any less helpful to the our cause. Are you upset that you weren't the one that killed him?”

Lü Meng felt that it was a loaded question like before, but he did what he always did. He answered with the truth and hoped that Deng Dang wouldn't think any less of him, if that was even possible at this point. “Yes. How could I prove my worth as a soldier if I didn't even get the final blow on my enemy?”

If anything, Deng Dang’s smile grew deeper, deeper than it ever had been when in his presence. It wasn't as vibrant as Sun Ce’s, nor was it as passionate as the smiles that Lü Meng caught Deng Dang wearing when around or thinking about his older sister, but he had seldom seen such an expression on the man’s face that it might as well been on par with them. Now, why he was smiling in lieu of his brother-in-law’s distress was a mystery to Lü Meng, but he held his tongue and hoped that Deng Dang would explain himself, and that if he did, that he himself would understand. “There’s more to being a soldier than mindless slaughter, Meng. That’s what makes us different from the barbarians we just fought. Makes us better. We don’t fight because we want to inflict pain or spill blood, but because we need to, to stop those that do. If anything, you should be grateful to be returning home without blood on your hands. Not many soldiers have the good fortune to come back with a clean conscious, much less their own lives.”

Just as Lü Meng feared, he didn't quite understand him, but he knew better than to question Deng Dang’s wisdom. Yes, he was grateful to come out of the fight alive, even if he felt as if he hadn't fulfilled anything grander than securing supplies, and he did understand some bit about coming out of a fight unscathed, though he wasn't quite sure about that himself. He may not have driven his spear into a man that day, but the sounds he heard going on around him, memories of the constant raids that occurred in the dead of night. Those still clung to him, but after such a defeat, perhaps they wouldn't be a problem anymore. Eventually, they’d fade away with time, or would, had Lü Meng ever held any hope that the peace would last forever, but the teenager suspected that there’d be another fight later down the road. And apparently, so did Deng Dang, as he carried on, offering Lü Meng a comforting pat on the shoulder when he suspected his words flew over the youth’s head. “It’s something you’ll come to understand as you get older, Meng, so don’t hurt yourself rushing to try and understand it now. Besides, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of chances to bloody your hands for the next time Lord Sun Ce calls on us.”

Initially, Lü Meng didn't get his meaning, but when it did, Deng Dang’s smile had deepened and turned downright smug. The teenager didn't care, though. As far as he was concerned, he had every reason to be smug and Lü Meng could barely contain himself, almost spreading it to the mare he guided and receiving a retaliatory grunt to warn him to ease up on her bridle. He did and gave her a comforting pat, but that was his only form of apology before turning his attention to Deng Dang entirely. “Deng Dang, s-sir, you’re going to let me accompany you in your unit again?”

“Keep your head, Meng- there’s no need to announce it to the whole army, but I guess I can’t blame you for being excited,” Deng Dang said, motioning for Lü Meng to calm down and thankfully few seemed interested enough to look towards them. He tried to act tough and stern, but his smile made it hard for it to stick and even he knew it. “You've done well enough as it is and didn't once complain during Fa Shi’s drills, and with any luck, you’ll be much older by the time the next summons rolls around, so I figured you can remain under my unit and work your way up from there. No sense in depriving my unit of willing soldiers. However, before you run off thinking you’re going to be some hero, know this. Your lifespan’s just become considerably shorter, assuming you survive the beating your mother is going to give you when we return to Fupo, and all of this lies on her shoulders. I am willing to take you in as a soldier and I’ll make sure you work just as hard, if not harder, than anyone else in my unit, but it’ll ultimately be her decision. Do you understand, boy?”

And just like that, the opportunity to become a soldier and earn his living might as well have been shot down. All of that excitement drained from his body and threatened to pool at his feet in a physical form, but he tried so very hard to prevent that. He clung to the smallest of hopes before it could slip away, though, as he found himself looking to Deng Dang for advice. “I do, but… you know she won’t let me go. I could be well into my fifties and she wouldn't let me go. What should I do?”

“Besides defy her, which you seem to be well-versed at? Talk to her, convince her to let you join, just like you convinced me. Granted, I’m a pushover compared to her, and it’s not going to be easy, but that’s all up to you. You have to be the one to convince her, not me, so I’m going to recommend spending the rest of this journey thinking long and hard about what you’re going to say, Meng.” To anyone else listening, Deng Dang’s words may have came out harsh, but for Lü Meng, it was the best thing that his future brother-in-law could offer. He knew it’d lie on his shoulders and held nothing but respect to his elder, but he knew that he couldn't do this for him. He had to do this for himself, as terrifying as that prospect was. He already stared down a Shanyue and watched his life pass before his eyes, so surely confronting his mother couldn't have been any worse.

“I’ll do my best. I don’t know what I’ll tell her, but I’ll think of something.”

“I’m sure you will, just give it some thought. Oh, which… while I’m here.” Deng Dang looked over his shoulders, his eyes searching for a familiar face among the caravan and appearing pleased when he couldn't spot him. His rare smile faded into a more sullen expression and it was hard not to feel a tinge of apprehension claw at him from within to see such a visible change in the man in such a short time frame. “It would be wise of you to avoid Yu Mao for awhile.”

This shouldn't have surprised Lü Meng, but his nerves were already raw and exposed, so he found it hard for him to cope with this advice. He always tried to avoid Yu Mao, but to be told to do so by Deng Dang now worried him. He couldn't ignore his own curiosity, as he found himself looking around for the man, just in case Deng Dang had overlooked him perhaps. “Why? I know he doesn't like me for whatever reason, but he saved my life.”

“He did, but still, I wouldn't put too much thought into that. He likely did it out of impulse or perhaps to get on my good side, not exactly an indication that he’s come to accept you as a full fledged soldier.” Deng Dang shook his head, giving Lü Meng’s shoulder a firm, but comforting squeeze before releasing it. It was meant to instill some shred of confidence in him and ease that apprehension he saw forming in the teenager’s eyes, though he wasn't sure if it’d have the desired effect that he wanted it to. Perhaps he should have said nothing at all, but still, he felt the need to address the matter, just in case. The growing pit in his stomach, and Fa Shi’s warning, wouldn't allow him to do otherwise. “Nevertheless, I’d like for you to try and avoid him, at least until I've spoken to him myself. He’s never been keen on me allowing you into my unit and has made a point to stress this periodically. He lacks a certain… subtlety.”

Now that hardly surprised Lü Meng at all. Somehow, it felt better knowing that his unease around the officer was warranted, but still, to have his ire at all…

“Ah, I shouldn't have said anything. You have enough on your mind and better to focus on one enemy first instead of fighting two enemies at once. Worry about your mother first- if you fail to convince her to let me take you, then whatever quarrel you’ll have with Yu Mao would be moot anyways. I’ll talk with Yu Mao in the meantime and see if I can get to the bottom of whatever’s plaguing him.”

What else could Lü Meng do but nod his head? He held no anger against him. If anything, he was thankful that he had given him so much to work with thus far, and he wished he could have found the words to express his gratitude, but he had a feeling that there may have simply been no words. At least, none of which could come from him. If he was going to use words to appease anyone, it would have to be spent on his mother, and the thought of returning home and knowing she’d be waiting for him was almost as terrifying, perhaps even more so, than facing down that Shanyue barbarian. And this time, there wouldn't be a carriage, or Yu Mao, that would save his neck.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The laughter that came out of Zuo Ci’s mouth startled him, but in a good way. Thus far, the mystic had reflected very little emotions, so much that Lü Meng couldn't help but find himself envious. What had suddenly caused the man to laugh, he wondered, but not for too long. “What’s so funny?”

“I mean no disrespect,” Zuo Ci said, his laughter subsided slowly and gently, a trickle of it remaining in his voice as he explained himself. “I simply find it humorous that you feel more apprehension in facing your own mother than a man that tried to kill you.”

“Then you’ve never met my mother, or any woman of the Sun family. If you did, you’d know why my fears were legit…” He considered this, before correcting himself. “Are legit. One of them still has the occasional bout of ‘terrorize others’, but thankfully she’s several districts away.”

He hoped, anyway. He tried not to think too much about Lady Shangxiang and the obstacle she’d present in the near future and the mystic in front of him made it easy for him. “You were naught but a child then, though like so many lured into conflict and forced to face your fears early on. You didn’t necessarily fear her or what she might do to you, but you feared disappointing her. You feared hurting her, and your family, did you not?”

“Plotting with Chin and running away to join Deng Dang’s unit was easy. Coming back and facing her well-deserved wrath was… much harder than I ever thought it could be.” Years ago, when he was nothing more than a stupid, fifteen year old boy playing hero, he thought facing his mother would have been the greatest challenge of his life. Now it was his turn to laugh, but there was no humor or mirth. Only bitter resentment at how incredibly stupid he was.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Deng Dang was a man of his word, though far kinder than he really needed to be. While Lü Meng had made the trek to his home on his own, he soon discovered that Deng Dang had sent a messenger to alert the Lü family to inform them of their arrival, so at least he wouldn't give them all a panic attack when he suddenly showed up at their door once more. By the time they made it to Fupo, there was already a crowd to welcome them back despite the low light and the onset of night. Lamps were lit and though exhausted from a good day’s work, the villagers welcomed back their fellow man with open arms, celebrating that they returned alive and that their families could be complete once more. Neither Shilimai nor Chinmai were among those in the streets, but Lü Yenji was there, tears streaming down her face as she rushed towards her brother, wailing and making a scene like she had a want to do. And for once, Lü Meng didn't mind. He braced himself for his sister’s embrace, grateful that Deng Dang had convinced him to remove his armor before they reached the village as though to prepare him for Yenji’s ferocious onslaught of hugs and kisses.

“Meng, Meng, you stupid boy!” Yenji cried, threatening to crush him in a bear hug but not once did the teenager gasp or try to wriggle himself free. It wasn't like Yenji to cry so openly in front of others and he knew that he had put her and his family through so much already with his actions, so he accepted this as his punishment. To be smothered against his sister’s bosom as she continued to shower him with both insults and praise. “You’re very brave, but you’re really, really stupid too! Oh what in the heavens’ name were you thinking? You could have been killed and then where would we be? Have you any thought or concern for your dear mother and sisters?”

What Lü Meng wanted to do was pry himself away and explain his reasoning. Perhaps telling Yenji that he had enough money to procure the dowries that she needed would have sucked the venom out of her words, but Yenji spared him no quarter. The one that spared him was Deng Dang, and though Lü Meng tried to pry his head away so that he could see the man’s rare smile, Yenji simply refused to let go, as if fearing that releasing her brother would make him disappear again. “You already know he did all of this for you and the rest of the family, unless you didn't read my letter, Yenji. Take it easy on the boy, or in the very least, leave something for your mother to discipline.”

He couldn't see Yenji’s face from this angle, but Deng Dang’s plot worked like a charm. The vice grip that his sister had on him disappeared and she rushed over to the lieutenant, assaulting him now with tearful wails, insults, and praise mixed in. Lü Meng took this moment to flee towards his home, determined not to let Deng Dang’s sacrifice be in vain. Also, something about eavesdropping on them during the love fest that was to come simply didn't settle right with him. He never had anything against their budding relationship, but it was something that he felt should have been private and personal to them and he would not be one to impose upon it. So, he took his leave and went straight to his home, right into the belly of the beast.

He knew better than to delay this and in truth he wasn't sure if he could handle being away from home another moment more. What had started off as a small pang had festered into a gut-wrenching homesickness and Yenji’s display had almost unleashed the floodgates within himself. Now more than ever he was grateful for Deng Dang stepping in to handle Yenji; he wasn't sure he could handle both her dramatics and his mother’s justified anger at once. His solaces were few: seeing and knowing they were safe thanks to the efforts of Sun Ce’s army and all those who enlisted, the possibility that he could continue as a soldier and pull his family out of the hole they were in, and, of course, seeing Chin, who had helped him so much. He took comfort in knowing that he wouldn't have to explain himself to her. She knew his reasoning, more than anyone else could and when others tried to smother the passion to act, she kindled it until it was a roaring flame. Chinmai was the best and the worst influence for him and the more he thought of seeing her again almost made him break out into a full blown run. He forced himself to stay at a steady pace, if only to give himself a little more time to rehearse his speech. What little of it he could scrounge up, anyways. He had a feeling that it’d all go out of the window the moment he set eyes on her, but at least he could resort to begging for forgiveness, he told himself. It would not have been his most flattering display, but it seemed like a decent enough plan to fall back on.

His heart threatened to abandon him when he reached his home, but he braved the journey forward, not stopping until he had let himself in. He barely had time to remove his boots before his mother’s silhouette loomed over him. The teenager managed a tight bow to hide his terror, though he was certain it’d be to no avail. “I’m home, mother.”

He only caught a glimpse of Shilimai but it was enough to tell him how much his decision affected her. In his short absence, he could now count every new strand of white hair that salted her thick black locks and the light that cascaded over her face highlighted each wrinkle that deepened, her scowl not all all helping in the least. Her dark eyes were wide at first but settled into a squint when she recognized him and he had looked away before he could read any emotions besides livid anger in them. It was only a glimpse, but it was enough to make him quiver. Her approach was slow, methodical, almost predatory like a cat stalking a mouse that pretended to play dead. Any moment and she’d close those sharp claws around him and squeeze the life out of him, but he kept still, for he knew there’d be no escape.

At last she came to stand before him and was merely at arm’s length now, but there came no touch, either harmful or loving. The wait was killing him and he found himself stammering his words, his courage threatening to abandon him, when he undoubtedly needed it the most! “Mother… I… uh…”

“Meng, you put us through much, and you can’t even speak for yourself?” Her words were cold, but her voice betrayed everything. Her fear, her relief, the joy she felt to know that her only son had returned alive. It was all of that which comforted Lü Meng and gave him strength, as she carried on. “Before I punish you, I want to know why you did this. What ever could possess you to run out and put yourself in danger like that?”

Lü Meng took in a deep breath, never more grateful for Lord Sun Ce’s advice than now. He knew now was his time to act. Deng Dang had warned him that his chance to prove himself to his mother and Lü Meng knew for certain that he would only get one chance. He spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking about what he would say, what he could possibly to convince Shilimai that his reasons were justified and why she should allow him to fight again. He had one chance to free his family from this hell, give his mother the peace of mind she deserved, for Yenji to live with the man she loved, for Chin to get the medical care she so desperately needed so that she could grow up with her brother as she always dreamed to. For better or for worse, he had to take that chance.

“Because we’re poor, mother, and we can’t stay poor forever,” he started, being blunt and earnest. The respect that he had for his mother would not allow him to approach the manner in any other way. He wanted to keep his head down, but he knew it would do him no good, so he stood at his fullest now, looking down at his mother but still feeling so incredibly small in the wake of her shadow. He faced down a Shanyue barbarian that was out for his blood, so he should have been able to face his mother. “It was dangerous, but I had to do something. I took a chance, and if I succeeded at something, then surely fortune would come. With the money, I can give it to Yenji for her dowries and then Deng Dang can take us in. You’ll all have a chance to live comfortably, as you deserve.”

He wasn't sure where the words came from. It sounded stronger in his head, more powerful, but it simply lacked… something. He wasn't sure what, but he did it with earnest, and that’s all he could do. His mother continued to look at him, her expression unreadable, trained perfectly in the art of masking her true emotions and letting nothing bubble to the surface for others to see. He often tried to imitate her but she was a master of the art. And yet again, her voice betrayed her turmoil, as she said softly to him, “And at what cost? Why should it be on your shoulders? What if… you don’t come back the next time? What if I lose my son?”

The slight tremble of her voice almost zapped him of his strength, but she left him an opening and he took it, with little thought or hesitation. Couldn't think right now. Only act. Breathe, and speak! “If it were to help my family get to a better place, then it’d be worth it. Isn't there a saying, ‘if you don’t go deep into the tiger’s den, how can you hope to catch a tiger cub?’”

Part of him feared he butchered the phrase, as he only heard it once in passing, but he showed no such fears to his mother. Shilimai continued to stare at him in silence, but at last, she broke and her mask crumbled to pieces when she broke into a smile. Moments later, she made her attack, but it only came in the form of a hug and she threatened to steal that breath of his with just how tight her hold on him was. Not that he’d dare complain! She had many, many hugs to make up for thanks to him, after all. “I don’t know who coached you, but… alright. Fine, you may go and train with Deng Dang… it wasn't as if you weren't going to go do that anyways, I was simply hoping you’d wait a few more years, that’s all.”

Lü Meng knew it took much for his mother to say that, but he had a feeling that, despite his best efforts, she may have already decided his fate before he even returned. He knew that Chin would eventually have to tell her where he was and while she and Yenji worked hard in the fields, she’d have plenty of time to muse his actions and her response for if he returned, perhaps telling herself that she’d give him a such a beating to distract herself from the possibility that her son may not have returned at all. Or perhaps he was discrediting himself and he had truly won her over? He tried not to think about it. Only to respond, as it had been working great for him thus far. He returned the hug now and manage to ease himself into a more comfortable embrace, allowing him the chance to breathe so that he could properly address her. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I won’t let you or my sisters down. I’ll do my best to provide for you, no matter the cost.”

Now that she was in his arms, he could feel how much she trembled, but before he could fear that he had went too far in worrying her, she was quick to explain herself, as well as the man that emerged from the back bedroom that suddenly caught the teenager’s age. “I know you will, Meng. I know.”

“Mother, there’s a Taoist priest here…?” Lü Meng took one look at the man before he retreated back into the room, the look of surprise and shame sticking out even in the dim candlelight of the room. He only caught a glimpse, but he’d recognize those robes from anywhere. For a moment, his thoughts escaped him and a pit suddenly formed in his stomach, as though all of his anxieties that he gathered up in preparation for confronting his mother had suddenly imploded and laid waste to his insides. Then, it occurred to him and he was surprised he could even talk. “Chin? Where’s-”

It was a stupid question to ask and his own brain shut down in retaliation to just how incredibly stupid of a question that was. And his mother, his brave, strong mother… how could she not want to strike him and berate her son for asking such a stupid question when the answer was so obvious and staring at him in the face? It was a testament to her strength and love for him, he would tell himself later, but now, he simply had no other thoughts in his head, except that he knew exactly where Chin was, and why there was a priest in their home.

They were praying for her soul...
A River's Final Meandering -- Chapter Four
Chapter One: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Two: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Three: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Five: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Six: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…

DISCLAIMER: This is a piece of fiction, inspired by the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the video game series Shin Sangokumusou | Dynasty Warriors. Names of individuals that I could not find their names either through the Koei Warriors Wiki or Kongming Archives are given false names and (hopefully) bare no resemblance to any other persons or characters, either living or dead.


Summary:

In which Lü Meng returns home to face his family...

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(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
Breathe

It was strange, to say the least, to have witnessed something from his childhood, though there seemed to be something incredibly off. Lü Meng had witnessed his fair share of unusual events, though most of them took place on a field of battle, not so much… here, in whatever realm this was. He had no other word for it at the moment and he hoped that the mystic would have been kind enough to enlighten him, but it seemed that he would have to find Zuo Ci first. When the world around them changed, Zuo Ci vanished with it. It took a considerable amount of effort for the Chief-Commander not to panic, but the thought of that being the point forced him to swallow whatever fears or apprehension he might have felt and endured, even when the world around him had changed. He recognized everything around him and he watched with a sense of curiosity and nostalgia. Of course he’d recognize this…

“This is my past.”

“Correct.” Zuo Ci’s voice wavered into existence, as did he himself, and Lü Meng blinked, swearing that he hadn't noticed the man sitting in front of him before until he addressed him. Now that he was there, Lü Meng was determined to keep him in his sights, ignoring the realm around them, knowing them not to be real and merely a smokescreen. “All that you see are merely flashbacks, stemmed from you and those that have affected your life.”

“Such as Deng Dang,” Lü Meng said, uttering the name of his brother-in-law for the first time in years and feeling some lingering shame start to swell within him. It had been a long, long time since he saw the man and he never fooled himself into thinking that he didn't put his brother-in-law through the ringer, but he had forgotten just how much the man did for him. He fought down the feeling and tried to focus on the mystic instead, all too aware of his existence now and his mission. “I don’t recall giving you permission to do this, though.”

“You did not, but I think it can be said that Guan Yu did not give you permission to occupy the Jing Province either.”

Lü Meng felt the sting of that one, and the worst part about it wasn't so much the truth behind that statement, but the delivery of that retaliation itself. It was spoken in a calm, but purposefully coy manner with neither a smile or a laugh to accompany it, as though it wasn't meant to be as potent of a verbal counter as it came out to be. The Chief-Commander wasn't fooled in the least, but he couldn't deny that was perhaps the best retort any man could have flung at him. So, he tried to be graceful in his defeat, though he made it clear that he wasn't ready to yield entirely from the matter. “Very well then, nicely put. Now that you are here, though, what exactly do you wish to accomplish by forcing me to relive my past? How will any of this convince me to not to move forward with our occupation?”

“You are not so much reliving the past, but witnessing it. The motions, the faces, whatever you may feel, they can be consuming, but you are here as a witness, as am I,” Zuo Ci said, taking the time to correct him on the matter and keeping his voice level. Never threatening, never intimidating, despite having invaded his memories or having dragged him into this realm. He was certain that in his own way, he felt he was helping Lü Meng in some manner, and perhaps he was. He never suspected that this mystic’s intentions were malicious against Wu, only hindering, but that didn't make him any less of a problem, did it? In Zuo Ci’s mind, he could very well be trying to help Lü Meng, whether the officer wanted his help or not, and that’s what made him all the more dangerous. To have the power and to take it upon himself to use it. “I told you before but it appears my initial entrance may have overwhelmed your senses. I wish to see the man you once were and how it has shaped the man sitting before me now, to see if I can convince you to pull out your forces.”

“I’d hate to waste your time, but nothing short of my death would stop me, and even then, I have left my plans with others who I know are capable of carrying on my work.” Lü Meng may have shaken his head, but not once did Zuo Ci slip from his gaze, now that he knew what he was capable of.

“You are certainly stubborn, but at least I can see where it comes from... “ Zuo Ci’s eyes never wavered. Lü Meng was beginning to question if he needed to blink by now. There was no time to address the matter, though, as Zuo Ci simply blinked out of existence, leaving Lü Meng confused and forcing him to turn his head this way and that but to no avail. His voice, however, was still present and curled into his ear, not once giving away any humor he might have felt when the Chief-Commander twisted around to try to spot him, only to see that he wasn't there. Only Fa Shi, looming over him, yelling at him and only at him, even when there was a sea of soldiers around him, just as Deng Dang ordered him to. The shame he felt stir within him at the mere mention of Deng Dang’s name earlier had quickly soured and turned into resentment, though not all of it was directed at his brother-in-law…

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

This was his life now, Lü Meng reminded himself, rubbing the muscle and trying to relieve the tension in there before Fa Shi or anyone else could notice where he was and think he was trying to shirk his responsibilities. He wasn’t, not truly or at least not intentionally, he thought. They had been on the road for about a week now and the training that Fa Shi put him and the other recruits through was grueling, though not entirely unexpected. Lü Meng had known it’d be rough, even without Deng Dang’s warning, but he told himself that he was willing to go through with it and endure, all for the chance of fighting the Shanyue barbarians that had ravaged his village’s field and home and threatened his family. He had to endure, so that he could be rewarded and buy Yenji’s dowries, he told himself. He had to endure, so that he could bring his family fame and some fortune…

Assuming he even survived!

He knew that Fa Shi would uphold his promise to Deng Dang, but he never expected him to take it to the extremes as he did. Lü Meng wasn’t a fool. He knew that Fa Shi was getting some measure of enjoyment out of this ordeal, as it was only too visible to see on his face. The way his mustache curled and highlighted his smile was a dead giveaway that maybe Fa Shi was enjoying himself a little too much, but Lü Meng dared not complain. Not now, and heavens willing, not ever, or else Deng Dang would have sent him back to Fupo. And Lü Meng was determined not to return home until he had a few barbarian casualties to his name.

But the training was grueling, and the journey didn’t help in the least. Between the drills and the marching, there was little time to sleep and their meals were minimum, though there were few among the recruits from Fupo that voiced any complaints about it. A meal was a meal, something that they sometimes had to do without from time to time thanks to the Shanyue and the occasional bandit raid. There were certainly no complaints from Lü Meng, despite feeling the pangs of hunger all of the time. Some of the older recruits, those that knew him and remembered working alongside him on the fields, had initially tried to sneak him some extra rice but one verbal lashing from Fa Shi quickly put an end to that. But it didn’t bother the teenager. He ate his fill and carried on, acting like he wasn’t constantly hungry, like he wasn’t near exhaustion, acting as though he wasn’t sore and stiff from the harsh drills and constant motion. When there were others around, he was strong and unyielding, but alone…

Only then did he let his defenses drop and allow his discomfort to be released from its prison. Before now, he didn’t know much about anatomy and muscle, but he learned real quick on how to recognize when a muscle knotted and how to rub them out. He couldn’t get to the ones on his back, but those he’d have to just live with he told himself. Right now, his calves hurt more and were relatively easy to access and thus became the focus of his attack, all the while trying to stiffen the urge to cry out when the cramp became unbearable. He went at it viciously, all the while looking over his shoulder, keeping an eye and ear out for Yu Mao.

He may not have had brains in his head, as he was constantly reminded by Fa Shi as of late, but Lü Meng knew some things, and he knew that look that Yu Mao gave him from time to time during training. He knew that look entirely too well and recognized it as nothing short of pure and utter disgust. The teen was no stranger to such looks, but it was strange to see that it came from a soldier, and not the usual nobleman that passed through Fupo. He wasn’t sure why Yu Mao wore that look around him or what he had done to earn such a look, but he never thought to ask. Not that were was ever any opportunity to ask thanks to Fa Shi, but he couldn’t ignore the feeling in his gut every time he felt Yu Mao’s eyes on him. He told himself that it was best not knowing; better to focus his attention on avoiding any contact with that officer altogether, less he do something stupid to justify that blatant disgust that man felt for him.

Finally, after much fuss, he managed to rub the knot in his calf completely and just in time, as Fa Shi’s shout rung throughout the camp, demanding the recruits and soldiers to get into inspection position. He threw on his boots and yanked down on his trousers at the knee, pretending not to notice how they failed to cover the leg entirely and exposing the skin between just below the knee and where his boots reached the midpoint of his shins. As feared, he had hit another growth spurt, but he was counting on Deng Dang and Fa Shi to be too busy to notice. Yu Mao might notice, but what could the man do? Punish him for growing up?

With any luck, no one would notice and there’d be something more demanding of their attention. With great effort, he forced himself to walk without limping and fell into line with the rest of his fellow recruits, blending in almost seamlessly as Deng Dang, Fa Shi and another officer, one of undoubtedly high rank, looked them over from the far end of the line. Lü Meng resisted the urge to crane his neck to get a good look at the high ranking officer, but he kept his gaze set forward, knowing that the moment his gaze strayed, Fa Shi, or worse, Yu Mao would come in for the kill.

“We appreciate you making the effort to rush down here,” he heard the man say, as he and Deng Dang moved down the line, his voice was loud, filled to the brim with life, so much that Lü Meng swore it sounded ready to burst at the seams. It certainly made the impulse not to look towards him difficult, but he kept his form perfect as they got closer and closer. “And in record time, too!”

“My lord, your orders made it sound as though it was imperative to mobilize so quickly,” Deng Dang said, doing well in hiding whatever apprehension he may have felt, at least from where Lü Meng was stationed. He had said ‘lord’ and the only one that could even come close to fitting that position was Sun Ce himself!

Closer and closer they came and the teenager fought the butterflies that churned deep in his gut, knowing that soon they’d be upon him. Unaware of his or any of his officer’s nervousness, however, the young lord Sun Ce took his time and let out a chuckle. “Eager to fight then? I don’t blame you. That’s quite a large group you have, too. Are they all from Runan?”

“Most of them, yes. They’re from the villages ravaged by bandits and the Shanyue, so they have a good reason to be here.”

“Good. Everyone deserves the chance to stand up for themselves! I like that kind of spirit.” And now, then and only then when he passed in front of him did Lü Meng see the young Sun lord, and fearing that it may be brief, he tried to absorb every feature before he slipped from sight. Everything about him screamed life, vitality, a courageous and untamed spirit that could barely be contained in the confines of muscle, skin and bones. Their eyes locked briefly, but even then, that powerful spirit threatened to overwhelm him, but Lü Meng remained firm and held strong, waiting for Sun Ce to pass by and finish the inspection. Waiting so that he could breathe again. Breathe. Breathe. “Breathe.”

Lü Meng didn't even realize that Sun Ce was talking to him until he let out his breath and sucked it back in. He felt his body go completely stiff and his senses returned to him in a rush. Sun Ce was standing in front of him and, to his surprises and horror, stopped right in front of him. Had he been brave, he would have turned his head slightly to the left to see Deng Dang’s horrified expression, and somewhere among the ranks, Yu Mao was sporting a wolf-like grin, but no, all he had to look at was Lord Sun Ce, and his smile and nod were, by far, the most comforting gesture he had ever received from anyone in his short life. “There you go!”

And just like that, Sun Ce stepped forward and moved on, passing by without another word to him, though Lü Meng was certain his spiritual residue remained and he was breathing it in right now. It was scentless, but present, and potent as well, even as Deng Dang caught his gaze. His commanding officer said nothing, but his crooked smile was a welcome reprise from the disapproval he was expecting. And then, he too disappeared from his sight, following after Sun Ce further down the line, sparing Lü Meng and the rest of the nervous recruits for a moment.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“Did you know then that you would serve Sun Ce?”

“You mean, did I feel that moment of destiny?” Lü Meng considered Zuo Ci’s question, distracting him from the realm around him for the moment. They were not missing much; from there, they were assigned their duties and Lü Meng was given the task of guarding the supply line. Despite his talk and cold treatment, Deng Dang was favoring him after all, he thought, and only now did he think it was so foolish of him to think so. “At that moment, no. I was just nervous. Stupidly nervous. Someone of great importance walked by me and I simply locked up. I don’t think I can claim that the hands of fate had anything to do with that.”

He wished he could have said yes. He wanted to, but somehow, he knew better. Though he snuck aboard a carriage and secretly accompanied Deng Dang in the past, he never thought himself to be a good liar. Bluffer, probably, but those were entirely different things from straight up lying. If he lied, then Zuo Ci would know. He could dig deep into his mind and pluck out the memories- it was a horrifying thought, Lü Meng had to admit, but he worked hard to keep his wits about him. Perhaps Zuo Ci wanted him to lie? Perhaps this was part of the test?

The problem was, Lü Meng wasn't certain if this was a test where the best income would lie in passing or failing.

“But you wanted to serve him, or perhaps not him, but a greater cause.” Zuo Ci pointed out, fading into view for only a moment before being whisked away, a horse shaking its mane and letting out a nervous whicker chasing away the image of the mystic and luring Lü Meng’s mind away once more. “I could see it in your eyes then, even if you yourself couldn't understand the desire that was taking form within you.”

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The horses were nervous, but with good reason. The sounds of battle hit the air just before the sun had breached the horizon. The pounding drums, the clash of metal, screams of anger, shouts from officers, generals, the terrified shrieks of horses and pained cries of men wounded would have woken the heaviest sleeper from their slumber, but Lü Meng was certain that no one was really sleeping in the first place. There couldn't be rest now. From the moment the order was given to march, there could be no rest for the new recruits. Those ordered to stay behind and guard the supply chain initially felt that they had lucked out, but hearing the fight escalate throughout the night had done a great job trying to unnerve them. Lü Meng wasn't too proud to admit that he was nervous, but he was too proud to allow the thought of abandoning his post to get in his mind.

‘I made this decision,’ he told himself, gripping his spear with white knuckles and forcing himself to remain perfectly still so that no one could suspect, even for a second, just how scared he was. It wasn't just Yu Mao he hid from, but everyone! Lord Sun Ce, Deng Dang, Fa Shi, and any officer in between. No one could see his fear, or else he’d fail, and if he failed, he’d had let down his entire family.

He tried not to think of them, not wanting to add homesickness on top of his fear. ‘Don’t think of mom. Don’t think of Yenji, or Chin...’

Perhaps he simply should not have thought at all? He took Sun Ce’s advise and focused on breathing, and little by little, his vision became clearer, the world suddenly less terrifying and the tightening in his chest began to ease up. Not entirely, of course, as it remained uncoiled on the side, merely biding its time and waiting for the next opportunity to constrict him again. ‘Shut off your mind, and just breathe.’

It didn't change his situation but it made his life a little easier. It was short-lived as one of the horses let out a shrill cry and triggered a chain reaction to the rest. Those near the carriages immediately jumped to attention and Fa Shi’s shout sent Lü Meng and others scrambling to the bound horses. “Calm those horses before they give away our position!”

Lü Meng couldn't blame the horses as even he could tell that the fight was getting closer. It was easy to hide whatever turmoil he felt when it came to comforting another. Gripping the bridle of the nearest horse, he pitched his voice low, trying to maneuver his spear within his hand to pat the horse’s thick, muscular neck. “Shh, shh, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

The horse’s response was immediately and her panicked whines settled into nervous grunts, breathing heavily against Lü Meng’s hand and digging her hoof into the ground. Others were slow to respond to their handlers, but Lü Meng thought little of it. All he thought about was keeping the horse calm and quiet, whispering sweet nothings into the mare’s ears and keeping a firm hand on the bridle, despite how she yanked and pulled to look away. It was her insistence that probably saved his life. He tried to pull her gaze back to him and only then did he he spot the gleam of the sun’s first light flash against metal in the nearby woods, and he shouted on instinct, never once thinking or looking closer before he yelled. “Shanyue!”

Would his warning be enough? Was his warning even necessary? He didn't consider the possibility of it being a false alarm or even perhaps their own officers returning. He simply reacted, and so did the others. He managed to get a grip on his spear when the enemy began to flood from the woods, and bucking mare saved Lü Meng’s life from the barbarian that went straight for him, blocking his charge with her upright, bulky form. This gave Lü Meng the chance he needed to defend himself. He thrust his spear forward without really looking, hoping he hit the barbarian coming for him and not the horse and managing to hit neither. By this time, soldiers had rushed to meet the barbarians that came out of the woods and the clash of metal that taunted them from afar was suddenly upon them. Screams of anger, pain, terrified shrieking from the bound horses threatened to consume him, but Lü Meng kept his gaze firmly on the man that came for him. He bore no true distinguishing features, not that Lü Meng could tell. The murderous glint in his eyes told him all he needed to know as to who this man was. He would either be his first kill, or his own killer. Fa Shi’s voice rang in his head and threatened to drown out the world around him but never did it distract him from his opponent, who gave a blood curling scream in hopes of unnerving the young soldier in front of him.

Had Fa Shi not borderline harassed him for the weeks they traveled, maybe the Shanyue’s scream might have caused Lü Meng to panic and drop his spear. Had Lü Meng not heard the battle cry mere moments before the bandits rushed out and ravaged their fields and homes in the dead of night, maybe Lü Meng might have fallen onto his back and rose his hands to defend himself from the enemy’s death blow. Had he not fought with one before and was thrown to the side while they closed in on Chinmai, he would have found himself begging for mercy by now. Instead, years spent fearing them, other bandits, helping his fellow villagers recover and heal after their raids, had accumulated into nothing short of hatred and he was certain that his deep green eyes had reflected the same emotion that the Shanyue had projected onto others. He countered the Shanyue with a scream of his own and sought to strike first, throwing himself forward and almost ignoring the bucking horse that was trapped between them and seeking to drive his spear through the enemy as the man brought his own weapon down. The horse that Lü Meng had helped calm down was beyond her breaking point and lashed out, slamming her hooves down and jerking her body in a frantic attempt to break away from the carriage but to no avail. As the two officers met, she ran forward, taking the carriage with her and threatening to crush them both. Had someone not grabbed Lü Meng by the back of his shirt, he would have fallen over and been crushed by the rotating wheels of the carriage. He watched in surprised as the man he was hoping to kill fell forward, his battle cry cut short by a crushing wheel and a loud SNAP at least offered him a quick demise, and just like that, the blood lust that had tried to consume Lü Meng was gone.

Deng Dang had asked him if he ever took a life and he did, but it wasn't a human life. No, ending the life of a chicken so that his family could eat hardly compared to that of a human life. Lü Meng wanted to think that killing the Shanyue would have felt the same. He really wanted it to, because he held nothing but hatred and contempt in his heart for them. Their plundering, their mindless slaughter, their disregard for human lives deserved no pity, no sympathy, and that, as well as the reward, were what pushed Lü Meng into sneaking in here with Deng Dang and his men. And yet, to see a life, a human life, end right in front of him…

“Lü Meng, clear your head or lose it!” His savior, Yu Mao, snapped at him, before releasing him. The teenager looked towards him, as though looking at the man would suddenly make him saving his life seem more believable, but it did nothing for him. Even when he pulled him to safety, there was nothing but contempt in Yu Mao’s dark gaze and he pointed to the fleeing horse before pushing the teenager forward. “Stop that horse before it gets too far! We need those supplies!”

“But, the Shan-”

“Leave the fighting to the ones who can handle it! Go or else you’ll never catch up with it!”

And if his harsh words weren't enough to get him moving and the insult laced with it, the gripping of his shoulder and the forceful shove did the trick. Lü Meng wasn't sure what he was feeling right now- he wanted to be angry at Yu Mao’s words and his rough treatment of him, but the battle that escalated around them chased away those ill-feelings within him and forced him to run after the horse as he was told. ‘Don’t think,’ Lü Meng told himself, running as fast as his feet could take him and thankful that the mare carried such a heavy burden behind her as it made catching up with her easier than it should have been. ‘Don’t think, just react. Fight. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.’

He clung to Sun Ce's words, simple advice but effective. Somehow, though, it didn't hold the same effect when he wasn't here to remind him to breathe.
A River's Final Meandering -- Chapter Three
Chapter One: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Two: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Four: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Five: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Six: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…

DISCLAIMER: This is a piece of fiction, inspired by the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the video game series Shin Sangokumusou | Dynasty Warriors. Names of individuals that I could not find their names either through the Koei Warriors Wiki or Kongming Archives are given false names and (hopefully) bare no resemblance to any other persons or characters, either living or dead.


Summary:

In which a young Lü Meng recalls his first battle, and almost forgets to breathe...

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(Contains: violence/gore and strong language)
Stowaway

Runan province was never renowned for its wealth, at least in regards to golds or monetary goods. If one looked at its value in terms of crop and export, however, one might have considered it being worth of being the constant target of recent bandit and Shanyue raids. Perhaps this was what pushed farmers to abandon their fields and replace their gardening tools with swords and spears, or perhaps it was a sense of pride and the resiliency to simply allow criminals to raid their stores and homes and trample their fields with no respect for their hard work and sacrifice. Or perhaps it was the reward that the young Sun lord from the south offered that appealed to their desire to free themselves from the monetary pitfall that they found themselves trapped in? Whatever the reason, Deng Dang was content with the turnout.

Even if it meant splitting the reward multiple ways, he preferred it that way. Better to split the earnings than to find himself and his unit horribly outnumbered when it came to dealing with the likes of the Shanyue barbarians.

In all honesty, Sun Ce’s edict and reward were not entirely necessary to entice people to move into action against the ones that threatened to ravage their province, but it certainly didn't hurt when pulling in the numbers. To the people of Runan, there was no love or sympathy to spare for the barbarians that harassed them. ‘And good,’ Deng Dang thought as he looked over the rather hodge-podge troops that had gathered at the makeshift barracks with some matter of pride swelling in his chest. Outwardly there was little unity among the troops that had gathered and his own soldiers seemed to stick out among the crowd like a sore thumb, but to see so many farmers among them willing to take a stand, even at the risk of their own lives, gave him hope.

As well as the starting of an ulcer.

While Deng Dang was unimaginably pleased with the turnout, he was more than a little concerned about supplies, and more so than that, the condition of his growing unit. Few had ever fought in combat, even fewer of them had held a sword or spear! One recruit already managed to injure himself before they had even marched out and it took much convincing to make him leave to tend to himself. They needed training, his second Fa Shi said to him earlier in the day, and while he was absolutely correct, there was simply no time. Their solution was to train them on the road and pray that it’d be enough.

“With any luck, we’ll act as either the supply line or back-up,” Fa Shi said to him, catching up with the lieutenant as they marched on towards the edge of Fupo, eager to leave the village behind and get on the way. Despite their inexperience, there was little remorse in the recruit’s eyes as they passed through the entrance of their village, for some might never see it again, and Deng Dang could only admire them more for that. Either bravery or ignorance, it was admirable to see none of them look back. As the scenery changed from a tattered and barely kept buildings and walls to open fields, littered with the farmers either too old or unable, and unwilling, to enlist, Deng Dang began to plot the next few days in his mind, trying to think of important dates and strategies, and how he’d squeeze in training for the new recruits between here and their next rendezvous with Lord Sun Ce himself. Not that Fa Shi was helping any. “Every horse we have is tied to a carriage and it won’t be long before the new recruits start to complain about their legs and feet.”

“I’m sure there will be something for our men to do, though I’m more concerned to keeping our supplies in our hands on the way there.” Deng Dang looked back at their caravan and was content to see that all three carriages were surrounded by a fair number of soldiers. Though he’d prefer there’d be more security, as the Shanyue weren't opposed to altering their patterns and going out of the way to attack a heavily guarded caravan just to see what was inside. He said none of these things aloud to Fa Shi or any of his men, however, as he was more determined to get his men and the supplies to their destination before any barbarians caught wind of their movement. “I want eyes on them at all times. Lord Sun Ce’s counting on us to deliver food and I certainly don’t wish to disappoint any member of that family.”

Fa Shi wore a smile that would have gotten him a good scolding, had anyone higher than a lieutenant were present now. “No, angering tigers is usually a bad thing.”

That was another concern that Deng Dang had, but he knew better than to even mention it. Their route would take them through a dense forest and though none had seen a tiger prowling in this region, it didn't mean that running into one wasn't within the realm of possibilities. Every second his ulcer was getting worse and worse and he looked out into the open fields to take his mind off the matter of tigers and barbarians.

Curious eyes from the farmers were upon them as they passed by on the road, offering their silent appreciation, farewells to their fellow farmers who sought fame and glory elsewhere and general good luck in silent nods. Deng Dang returned the gesture with little thought, as his mind turned elsewhere. One farmer even bowed to them as they passed, reminding him of something very, very important. “Fa Shi, do me a favor and check the contents of the carriages.”

It was a simple request and had he given the order to anyone else, they’d simply salute and obey. Fa Shi, however, wore a forlorn expression, all humor gone within seconds. He was obviously thinking the same thing as he was. “You don’t think-”

“Just do it. Humor me.”

And then Fa Shi wore a wry grin, bowing his head before he ran back to the caravan. “I’m afraid to, sir. The joke’s getting old.”

Deng Dang shared the same sentiments. Yes, it was getting old, except that he knew it wasn't a joke. As Fa Shi moved to the first carriage, Deng Dang took a moment to survey they farm, hoping to spot a familiar figure among the farmers to put his mind at ease. He didn't want to think that there’d be a problem so early in their operation, but the feeling in his gut wouldn't allow him to take any chances at this point. By the time Fa Shi moved to the third carriage, they were passing by the last stretch of rice fields, where a line of humble looking huts were stationed between the nearby forest and Fupo. There weren't usually people hanging around that area at this time of day, especially when the fields needed tended, but today seemed to be an exception. The wives, mothers and sisters of the newest recruits stood near the huts, too distraught to tend to their work just yet and those unable to work helping their fellow sisters cope with their loved one’s departure. It pained him to see such a reaction and he hoped his recruits wouldn't lose spirit at the sight of it, but it seemed out of his power to instruct them to look elsewhere. They had made their decision and now they had to commit. For the sake of their village, their fields and, most importantly, for the people they loved.

His gaze immediately shot to the hut third to the end, distinguishable to him not due to any outward sign or physical differences, but the ones who resided there. Even from this distance, he could see two of the inhabitants of that hut, the elder woman comforting her neighbor who sobbed uncontrollably and her daughter standing at the doorway. There was a considerable distance between them, but Deng Dang could memorize every single detail of her beautiful, heart-shaped face. There was a sadness lingering in her dark eyes, but also, understanding and strength that most women her age lacked, but only because she had fought hard to earn it. Their eyes locked, even from this distance and she didn't spare a wave for him. Instead, she gave him an approving nod, and once he returned the gesture, she was content enough to retreat back into the hut.

As much as it did his heart well to know she supported him and their troops, she wasn't the one he longed to see. Instead, it was her younger brother and he looked until he spotted the youth. He was off near side of the hut, hoe in hand and his back turned to the unit that marched on, as if to will himself to ignore their presence when others were captivated by it. Despite the distance and the angle, he’d recognize that profile from anywhere and immediately, the fist in his stomach uncurled itself and allowed for the lieutenant to relax. And if that wasn't enough, Fa Shi’s report eased the rest of his anxieties on the matter. “Checked every single one of them. Nothing but food, water and the usual stuff, sir.”

“Thank the ancestors for that,” Deng Dang said, pointing to the youth that outright refused to look towards them for Fa Shi to see. “Maybe he’s finally found some damn sense.”

“Or maybe she knocked some into him, if he couldn't find it. He seems resentful.”

“You think so?” Deng Dang didn't bother to consider that possibility simply because he knew he was. He knew that family well, too well, and Fa Shi’s assumption wasn't entirely inaccurate either. He hoped that wasn't the case, but it wasn't a concern of his anymore. Knowing that he was here, in Fupo, tending the fields even if begrudgingly, was enough for him to let the matter slide and focus on the more important task of mobilizing his unit to the rendezvous point and get his men prepared and trained along the way. The more he thought about it, the more he hoped Fa Shi was right one their role in the upcoming operation. He would address the matter with Lord Sun Ce when they reached Changsha, barring any unforeseen incidents. “Have a scout run ahead. I’ll have Yu Mao act as the vanguard in case we run into any trouble. Take the rear and keep an eye out for any of our enemy or tigers.”

Fa Shi gave a tight salute and had waited until he was well out of arm’s reach before he commented in a low but snide tone. “Or Lü Meng’s…”

“I really wish you wouldn't joke about that. Get going.”

~*~*~

In a way, Deng Dang should have known better. His gut instincts had warned him several times throughout the trip to go back and check Fa Shi’s work but his mind refused to let him obey, distracting him with the daunting task ahead of him and how he was going to train the new recruits along the way. They had made such good time that day and surprisingly enough there were fewer complaints than what he was expecting from the farmers turned soldiers. They only stopped when it became too dark and the path too dangerous for them to venture out alone, and even then, his gut was telling him to check the carriages, check the boxes, check the supplies. But he didn't. He busied himself with reports from his scouts and his men, allowing his soldiers to handle the supply carriages and the preparation for camp. He should have listened to his gut.

“Stowaway!”

He had been dreading that word, almost as much as news of their enemy or tigers. Someone might as well have screamed ‘disaster’ or ‘ambush’ at him, as though it brought confusion in the ranks, Deng Dang knew exactly what the shout had meant, and who it was referring to. He wanted to kid himself and think that it was someone else- a thief that was attracted to the horse-drawn carriages and the heavy patrol that guarded them, or an enemy spy that hoped to either overhear their plans or assassinate him in the middle of rest. Not that he was looking forward to any of those possibilities, but it would have been nice to pretend that it wasn't who he was dreading it’d be.

There was a slight ruckus and Deng Dang moved to put an end to it quickly. The last thing he wanted was the new recruits or the horses getting spooked because the guard that caught the stowaway overreacted. Recruits stood at the ready but thankfully no one had raised their weapons yet, as the officer pulled the stowaway away from the carriage and pushed him at Deng Dang’s general direction. It didn't bring Deng Dang any pleasure to see the youth stumble on his feet and fall to the ground in front of him- if anything, it threatened to snap his waning patience and he checked the officer before he could remove his sword from his sheath. “Don’t. That won’t be necessary.”

“But, sir-”

Deng Dang didn't say anything, raising his hand and giving the officer a stern look, before casting his gaze down at their stowaway. By now, the youth had managed to push himself into a more respectable position in front of him, prostrating himself into a kowtow though Deng Dang wasn't fooled in the least. Though he bowed, he was completely still, no shaking or trembling, which meant there was no fear in him when there should have been. It was enough to drive Deng Dang insane! “As for you, Lü Meng, I have every right to let this man cut you down right now, but I won’t. For now. You, have Fa Shi and Yu Mao report to my tent,” he said to the guard, trying so desperately hard not to let too much of his anger bubble out right now, though not for the youth’s sake or even his own, but for the recruits right now. He didn't want to scare them so early in their journey and he was afraid that if he let them see just how deep that anger of his went that they’d find him more terrifying than any barbarian they’d face. “We’ll discuss the fate of our stowaway there.”

“Yes, sir!” The officer said, and once he left, Deng Dang leaned down and pulled the teenager to his feet, trying not to grunt when he offered some resistance though it was short lived. He stood but not quite at his full height just yet and he kept his head down, though Deng Dang wasn't sure if it was out of defiance or respect or fear that Lü Meng didn't look at him. He’d straighten that out once they were alone, and if there wasn't fear in him, he’d have to work it into him himself, because there should have been!

Neither officer made him wait for long and Fa Shi was besides himself when he arrived, barely waiting to take his helmet off before running his mouth, muffling out a part of his rant though no one felt the need to ask him to repeat himself. “... heaven’s name did you manage to stowaway in the carriage? I checked them himself!”

“That’s what I’m curious to find out as well.” Deng Dang couldn't blame his second for his anger and he was grateful that he managed to keep it contained in a shout and not striking at the youth that had yet to say anything since he dragged him in. Yu Mao’s reaction was more tamed, though he was relatively new to his unit and so he didn't have to deal with Lü Meng’s antics nearly as much as he and Fa Shi had. Now that they were all present, he drew his attention back to the troublemaker and rejoiced in silence when he caught him flinch. “So, how did you do it this time? I know Fa Shi checked each carriage thoroughly. Explain.”

He took in Lü Meng’s expression, despite his efforts to keep his gaze diverted. He knew this game. He was pretending to be respectful or ashamed, but Deng Dang knew better than that. More likely he was hiding a grin, getting some measure of glee in outsmarting both of them for this long. Even now he caught a glimmer in his deep green eyes as he finally confessed. “He didn't check the ceiling of the second carriage. He never looks up.”

“Ancestors…”

“Hush, Fa Shi.” Deng Dang cut him off before he could give Lü Meng anymore fuel. He may have tried to hide it but Deng Dang could see the way the edges of his lips tightened to hide the desire to smile. He wished he’d try a little harder for Fa Shi’s sake, but he came to expect little from the unruly teenager these days. “Alright, so you clung to the ceiling. For the entire trip, or only when he came to check?”

“Only when he came to check. I couldn't stay up that long.”

‘So the whole time.’ Deng Dang shook his head, not meaning to suspect the worst out of the youth but far too weary to take him at face value now. This wasn't the first time he’d do thing and he felt the tingling of indignation swelling in his gut that Lü Meng had the nerve to think that he wouldn't have caught on by now. He wouldn't try that trick again, at least not from the ceiling. “From now on, I’ll be inspecting them, ceilings and the undercarriage. Maybe even under the horses if you’re stupid enough to try that, even! Alright, so now explain how you managed the trick on the field. Who was that?”

That definitely wiped the smile off of his face but Lü Meng was a good sport about it at least. That’d just mean he’d have to find another way of sneaking in the next time, and the lieutenant was irritated that he wasn't even willing to delude himself that there wouldn't be a next time. Lü Meng glanced away but said nothing, and Deng Dang took the silence at an opportunity to guess, immediately wishing he was wrong. “Was it Chinmai?”

Lü Meng didn't say anything but the way his shoulders hunched told him all he needed to know. Fa Shi and Yu Mao didn't understand that body language, but Deng Dang did, and now there was nothing that could contain the lieutenant’s anger. “You… idiot! Using your sister like that!”

“She wanted to do it,” Lu Meng said with a shout and now it made sense why he was holding himself in such a manner, as Deng Dang strode forward from his desk and cuffed the teenager on the head. Lü Meng let out a grunt but made no move to fight back or defend himself. The wisest decision all day for him, but one that would be undone mere seconds later by simply opening his mouth to speak. “I didn't even ask her to-”

He was cut off by another cuff, this time pelting him on the temple and Deng Dang suspected he might have hit him a little too hard that time, but he refused to apologize in front of his men. No, if there were to be any apologies and that’d be a big IF, it’d wait until he was alone with the teenager, but he didn't see it in the near future. After the second strike, Lü Meng’s shoulders grew tense and his hands balled into fists, but he went silent once more, knowing that whatever he’d say would only earn him a third strike. “It doesn't matter, Lü Meng! Chinmai had no business being out there in her condition. You could have made it worse.”

Only now did Yu Mao interject, but it wasn't for Lü Meng’s sake that he did so. “Who’s Chinmai?”

“Lü Chinmai, Meng’s sister.” Fa Shi answered, trying to fathom how not only Lü Meng but Chinmai managed to pull the deception off. “His twin sister, though they never looked too much alike. How did she manage to pull that off?”

Deng Dang didn't give Lü Meng a chance to answer, trying to reign his anger back in before it got the better of him but failing miserably. The only relief he felt that it was concealed to the rest of his troops besides Fa Shi and Yu Mao, as small of a reprise as that was now. “Hay, probably, stuffed under her garments. Not to mention being viewed at the distance they were at, there was no way we could have spotted the differences. For the love of… Lü Meng, what could you possibly have been thinking, coming with us like this? Do you have any idea what we’re doing?”

It was an invitation to talk, but now Lü Meng was showing some hesitation. Maybe he struck him too hard that second time? He looked him over and saw no blood or cuts, but it’d probably bruise a little, nothing that the teenager couldn't handle and certainly not the worst he ever sported. Before Deng Dang could strike him again, he managed to collect his voice, no pain or fear in it though there was some hesitation as he spoke. “Yes sir. We’re going to fight the Shanyue, and I wanted to help.”

Deng Dang shook his head as he cried, “But you’re too young! You’re only thirteen!”

“Fifteen.” Lü Meng corrected, and he braced for another attack that, thankfully, did not come. “And it doesn't matter. I want to help.”

“Like hell it doesn't matter! You’re too young to be marching into battle like this!”

Fa Shi stepped in before it could become a yelling match, though he was smart to keep his distance between the two. Though young, Lü Meng was tall and rather stout for his age and while he was willing to take a few blows from the lieutenant, he was certain that he wouldn't tolerate any of that from his officers. “Fa Shi, Yu Mao, can you please step out for a moment so that I can talk some sense into Lü Meng?”

Neither argued nor disobeyed. If anything, they seemed eager to get out of there, now that the tension was becoming near unbearable. They left without so much as a parting glance or a word to the youth nor their commander. The silence that filled the tent was thick, dense and downright suffocating, but neither one was willing to be the first to break it. Finally, Deng Dang cracked under the pressure and caved in, though his voice barely carried any weight and thus made whatever he had to say nothing more than empty words. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in? Or I’m in, for that matter?”

“A lot,” Lü Meng answered promptly. Little by little, the tension was easing up but neither dropped their guard.

“Your mother will be enraged with us both, you know that, right?”

Again, not much good could be said for the troublesome youth, but he was at least quick to respond and never bothered to flatter him with words. “Very, very angry. She’ll probably have us black and blue when we come back.”

“She’ll have -you- black and blue. I’ll be dead! You’ll make poor Yenji an early widow and then she’ll beat you black and blue in my honor.” Deng Dang shook his head, the impulse to smack Lü Meng again strong but the impulse to laugh even stronger. He kept his gaze averted so that Lü Meng wouldn't get any ideas that he wasn't taking the matter seriously. Anyone else and the punishment might have been swift, even deadly, and he was certain that Lü Meng knew that and was taking advantage of it in some way. “Did you even think of your family when you committed to this? Have you considered how much this will affect them?”

Now Lü Meng rose his head to look at him straight on, and for a second he almost forgot the teenager was only fifteen years old as his stare pierced him. With it being just the two of them, there was no need to act meek, and it reflected in his voice. “Of course I did. I’m doing it for them.”

“For them?”

“I’m tired of being helpless! I don’t care if I’m too young, I want to help get them out of Fupo where they’ll be safe.”

Deng Dang considered the youth’s words and knew he was being sincere. Lü Meng, nor anyone in that family, weren't known for withholding their feelings or sugarcoating their words, though never did they come off as unfriendly or prickly. Just honest in regards to their feelings or opinions, whether the matter called for brutal honesty or not. So he knew that Lü Meng was being honest with him and that it didn't help Deng Dang in the least. “Alright, so you say, but how do you think you can accomplish that here?”

“By… killing barbarians.” There was a small inflection in his voice at the end as confusion struck him at the last minute, as though he were perplexed that there’d be any more to his scheme.

“So, you’re doing this to kill barbarians and not because of the reward that Lord Sun Ce offered?”

Neither answer was a good one. To admit that he wanted to kill the Shanyue indiscriminately would imply that he held bloodthirsty tendencies. However, to admit that he was in it for the reward would imply that he was greedy. Both were highly frowned upon and wouldn't fly well with his mother when he returned the youth home. Eventually, Lü Meng admitted, some hint of shame coating his words as he spoke. “I’d… use the money to buy Yenji’s dowries, so that you can finally take us out of Fupo, like you promised you would.”

It wasn't exactly what Deng Dang was expecting the teenager to say and he could not even bother to try and hide it. It was a rather taboo subject in and of itself within the family and to his officers as well, and for Lü Meng to bring it up so readily told Deng Dang just how much thought his future brother-in-law had given this matter. It brought Yenji so much shame that she couldn't afford the dowries but never had she asked or pleaded with another for help, even from her own kin. It’d be ‘beneath her’, she said, to expect others to give her assistance, and the lieutenant had tried to respect her decision, even when he wanted to bypass the matter entirely.

And now it seemed that Lü Meng had forced him to make a move, because he knew that the moment he confessed that, Deng Dang couldn't send him back, not without breaking Yenji’s heart.

“You’re going to be the death of me, Meng,” Deng Dang said with a sigh, the last of his defenses breached but the fight still raging on though apparently on its final stretch. He wanted to feel angry and yet the feeling didn't stick. He was angry, but Lü Meng was no longer the cause of it. “You’re too young to fight-”

“But sir-”

“Shut your mouth and let me finish before I pop you again. You’re fifteen years old and you've never carried anything heavier than a hoe. Our swords are a lot heavier than they look, and with armor on it’d be even heavier, with an even shorter range than what a hoe could give you.”

Again, Lü Meng tried to interrupt, but Deng Dang was a man of his word, cutting him off with an open-palmed slap to the back of his head before he could even get any further than a syllable. “What did I tell you, boy? Now, have you ever taken a life?”

Lü Meng was hesitant to answer, but not because of being ashamed to admit the truth. Deng Dang lowered his hands to his side to show that he wouldn't strike him for now, and only then did the teenager answer. “Once.”

Deng Dang was almost impressed, but it didn't last long. “Animals don’t count.”

“... then no, sir. If animals don’t count, then none.”

“And with having no experience with a sword or moving around in armor and no blood on your hands, you want me to allow you to enlist? What if you can’t handle it? What if you freeze up? What if you’re better off staying home? If you’re here, then who is at home, protecting your family?”

He did not mean to be so forward and he suspected he’d come off as cold and belittling, but he knew better. He couldn't let Lü Meng think, even for a second, that he could make such a decision on a whim and that there wouldn't be any consequences from his actions. He would be punished for stowing away on this operation, there was no question of that, but merely what his punishment should be. Then of course there was the matter of what -his- own punishment would be, for allowing one so young to accompany them on this operation. He’d already be receiving an earful from Lü Meng’s mother and that alone would have been enough, but he knew it wouldn't end there. If he were to show up to the Sun lord with a child among his ranks, he’d be the laughing stock of the entire operation and the ridicule that he’d receive, or what Lü Meng and his entire family would receive, could have been even worse than anything that dear Shilimai would throw at them. And then, there was the possibility that Lü Meng could very well die, and then how could he ever face his family again? How could Yenji ever forgive him if he allowed any harm to fall upon her brother?

The easiest solution would be to send him home, and he knew he should have. But he knew he couldn't. Even before he confessed what he would use his reward money for, Deng Dang knew that nothing short of rendering him unconscious and strapping him onto a horse would send Lü Meng back to Fupo, and they didn't have the horses to spare as every single one was tied to a carriage. Even after he barraged him with what he thought was a dose of well-needed reality and after a few justly deserved swipes, he still stood there, feet planted firmly beneath him and the way he lowered his head did nothing to hide that determination he saw in his eyes and how it only seemed to grow in strength. Also, a part of him knew that the reward wasn't what called to Lü Meng, and it was knowing just how deep his near hatred of the Shanyue lied that made Deng Dang want to enlist him. Just like the rest of the new recruits that had joined at Fupo, Lü Meng’s reasons to dislike the Shanyue was personal and Deng Dang couldn't blame him, or any of them. There was no love for the Shanyue, as sad as it was to think that. Knowing what he knew, he couldn't send him home. Not now.

“Fa Shi! Yu Mao!” He waited until both men were back in his tent before addressing either them or Lü Meng, and when he did, he made sure any mirth or anything that could be construed as mirth was void from his voice. Nothing he was going to say should be taken lightly. “Yu Mao, take Lü Meng here and have him suit up. His size shouldn't be a problem. Lucky bastard hit his growth spurt early on. Just pray he doesn't hit another one along the way-”

The atmosphere changed dramatically and neither man could hold in their surprise. The first to speak was Yu Mao himself. “But he’s-”

“Shut up, I know. If he’s old enough to decide to join us, then he’s old enough to die with us.” Deng Dang did not mean to snap, nor did he mean to be so grim, but he simply had no control left. Thus far, Lü Meng hadn't said anything, but he counted on him being too overwhelmed to say anything yet, not so much that he had suddenly been blessed with common sense. “Issue him a spear. It’s the closest thing we have to a hoe and the range should do him some good. A sword’s standard, but too different and he’ll be too encumbered for it to be of any use to him.”

Yu Mao was still baffled by his orders, but his surprises didn't last long at all. Eventually, his face shifted from surprised to something akin to anger, before he bowed his head and fled the tent to retrieve the armor and spear for their newest recruit. Thinking little of it, Deng Dang turned to Fa Shi now. “He’ll be your soldier, Fa Shi. I want you to be strict, stricter on him than on the other recruits. Make him a sparring dummy, target, errand runner, whatever you need to make an example of. I want our men and him,” he said as he glared at the teenager, ready to pop him the moment he even tried to look smug, “That he would be taken any less serious or treated special among the ranks.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Deng Dang had a feeling that he would come to regret his decision but that would be a problem he’d deal with later. For now, his priority was getting Lü Meng suited up and putting him to work. “Lü Meng, from here until the end of this operation, you’re a soldier, which means you’re expendable. At any time, we can be attacked. You will be in danger, just as much as any other soldier out there. The enemy will show you no mercy, nor will we. In fact, from here on out, you and I are no longer family. You’re my subordinate, and I am your superior officer. Do you understand?”

Lü Meng didn't understand, but he’d never admit to it. No, the way his eyes lit up and how he strained not to smile told Deng Dang that the teenager didn't understand, not truly. He thought he understood, but he didn't, and the lieutenant could only hope that there’d be life left in Lü Meng at the time he would come to understand exactly what he was getting himself into. “Yes, sir! I’ll give you my all.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t… ah, nevermind. Just go find Yu Mao and get suited up before I let my conscious get the better of me!” Deng Dang made a waving motion with his hand and hoped it’d distract the teenager from the slightest hint of a smile that crept onto his face, and thankfully, he was too excited and eager to notice it, as he bowed his head and all but fled from the tent. The moment he was gone, though, he spun to face Fa Shi and waved a finger at him, catching his smile and the starts of a chuckle and seeking to put an end to it immediately. “And you, that’ll be enough of that. I meant every word I said. I want you to be extremely hard on him.”

“Why? So that we can send him running back home?” Fa Shi was trying his best to stiffen his laughter, though the look in Deng Dang’s eyes did a great job in helping in the matter. There was so much remorse in those eyes that it’d be impossible to hold a smile or mirth of any kind, as merely looking at them sucked all of it out of him. Still, he held nothing against the lieutenant for that and cleared his throat, his tone very serious and his smile more polite than humored. “Don’t worry, sir. I’ll do my absolute best, short of terrorizing him. We may not want to scar him too bad, unless you want an angry Shilimai on our case when we return.”

Deng Dang scoffed. “When… you say that with such confidence. Very well, I’ll leave the matter in your hands. Use your discretion, just try not to look like you’re having too much fun with this?”

Fa Shi gave a bow of his head, his smile only deepening but at least it wasn't fueled by the glee he’d have with whipping the teenager into shape, or at least Deng Dang could hope. “I’ll do my best not to smile, then.”

“Good, now let’s get back to work. And pray that we’re not ambushed by barbarians or tigers… or his mother, ancestors help us if that happens
A River's Final Meandering -- Chapter Two
Chapter One: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Three: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Four: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Five: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…
Chapter Six: chibigingi.deviantart.com/art/…

DISCLAIMER: This is a piece of fiction, inspired by the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the video game series Shin Sangokumusou | Dynasty Warriors. Names of individuals that I could not find their names either through the Koei Warriors Wiki or Kongming Archives are given false names and (hopefully) bare no resemblance to any other persons or characters, either living or dead.


Summary:

In which Deng Dang encounters a snag of his own on the way to meet Lord Sun Ce's forces in the form of an overeager and brash fifteen year old...

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I will be taking TEN people at a time, and when I am done with all ten people, I will open for the next ten people. I add people to the list as I receive requests. Even if all ten spots are filled, feel free to send in your request! You will be added to the reserved list, and when the first set of tens are done, you will be moved up to an active slot.  If there are any changes made to this list, you will be notified via Note on DA, Tumblr or email (I will be: chibigingi@gmail.com) if you do not have a DA or Tumblr account.  I hope this seems fair to everyone.


The Dos and Don’ts of Commissions

I DO:

-Original characters: Humans, elves, orcs, furry, mecha, Gaian Avatars, MLP etc.
-Fan art: PLEASE INCLUDE REFERENCES as I may not know the character
-Erotic art: Soft heterosexual and homosexual, artistic nudity
-Mild violence: Blood, small wounds, etc.

I DO NOT:

-Pornography of any type
-Anything derogatory or discriminatory to a specific race, religion, group, etc
-Political statements
-Excessive violence and gore

If you have questions on whether your commission idea is acceptable, please message me and we’ll discuss it.


PRICING


Inked Lines

Bust - $10

  • $2 for any extra character (per character)

Full Body - $15

  • $5 for any extra character (per character)

Flat Colored

Bust - $15

  • $2 for any extra character (per character)

Full Body - $20

  • $5 for any extra character (per character)

Full Colored

Bust - $20

  • $2 for any extra character (per character)

Full Body - $25

  • $5 for any extra character (per character)


Additional Notes

If you request seems complex or if I have any questions, I will message you before proceeding.  I just want to make sure I don't make any mistakes with your product (those are always irritating for the buyer). Only after I have verified what you want and after the payment has gone through will I start the commission, and I do them in order of which I get them.

In general, the process of a commission is thus:

  1. You request a commission.

  2. I verify your request.

  3. You accept/clarify my verification.

  4. You send me payment.

  5. I send a work-in-progress as I go down my commission list (there will be one for each stage/correction if needed).

  6. You accept/clarify any changes to the art.

  7. I send you final art.


HOW TO PROPERLY REQUEST COMMISSIONS

Or better yet, how to properly write a good description so that the artist doesn't make mistakes.  If there is one thing I'm nitpicky about, it's people saying 'draw me' or 'draw my character, he looks like Cloud'.  Sorry, those aren't the best descriptions.  What I am looking for is at least a paragraph worth of details, as well as some previously drawn images or even examples from pre-existing characters to go along with it.  I need to know what they look like, how their personality is, and if desired, what kind of setting they're in.  If I have questions about anything, I will verify a few things, even send a rough sketch before putting in the details and ink.  I just want to make sure that I don't muck up your character/request, that's all.


LENGTH OF WAIT TIME

While I am employed full time, I plan on using most of my free time to work on my portfolio as well as my commissions.  Most of my commission work, however, will be done on my days off, which will fluctuate due to the nature of my job.  Lines should take about a week, and colored pieces should take about two weeks.  If there are any circumstances that would otherwise prevent me from finishing within those times, I will contact you and let you know as soon as I can.


THE LIST

In order to appear on the list, you MUST Note/PM/email me, with the subject 'Commission'.  

1.) TheVEO

2.) 

3.) 

4.) 

5.)

6.)

7.)

8.)

9.)

10.)

Reserved List

1.)

2.)

3.)

4.)

5.)

6.)

7.)

8.)

9.)

10.)


Payment Methods


I will only accept PayPal, or e-check via PayPal, at this time. If you have any problems with PayPal, then contact me via NOTE/PM/email and we can discuss alternative methods of payment.  Please send the payment to chibichan35@hotmail.com.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can I donate?
A: I will always accept donations; it's your choice if you want to donate or not.  I appreciate it muchly, though!

Q: How long should a commission take?
A:  Lines should take about a week, and colored pieces should take about two weeks. It may take longer depending on the number of characters in a piece or if multiple changes are needed between WIPs. If my times change for any reason, I will let you know via Note/PM/e-mail as soon as I can.


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chibigingi
Stacey Lynn LeBlanc
Artist | Student | Traditional Art
United States
Current Residence: Land of Crawfish (Louisiana)
Favourite genre of music: J-Pop and techno
Favourite style of art: Anime/Cartoon
Operating System: OSX
MP3 player of choice: iTunes
Favourite cartoon character: Lu Meng (DW), Date Masamune (SW), Revolver Ocelot (MGS), Knock Out and Breakdown (Transformers Prime)
Personal Quote: "No Venture, No Gain"
Interests

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Comments


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:iconkodyboy555:
KodyBoy555 Featured By Owner May 15, 2015  Student Digital Artist
Do you do requests and art trades?
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:iconwuggernugget:
wuggernugget Featured By Owner Apr 23, 2015  New Deviant Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
Happy Birthday! I wish you a lot of happiness today!MenInASuitcase Hide Birthday Emote birthday cake Happy Birthday Godliek :D 
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:iconbatboyexe:
BatboyEXE Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015
Happy Birthday! :) :cake: :party:
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zkfanart Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015
Happy B-Day! ^^ :iconcakeplz: :hug:
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thelavendercat Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015
Happy birthday! :iconkermityayplz:
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LordRavenCake Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015  Hobbyist Artist
Happy Birthday!!! :D
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Candyshade Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015
HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!
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PhantomMuse Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015
Happy birthday! :iconcakeplz:
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ChocolateChick611 Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015  Student General Artist
Happy Birthday! 
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bubblvicous Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2015  Student
happy birthday
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