He had felt watched all day.
When his customers came into the store, seeking herbs and roots to aid in their health, the old man wore a jovial smile and acted as if nothing were wrong. The moment they left, however, he was on high alert. He had even grabbed a broom and swept the area in front of his store, hoping to see if anything outside was amiss.
But everything was normal.
Everyone was normal.
By the time evening fell and it was time to lock up for the night, nothing terrible had yet to happen. He blew the candle out in the front of the store and retreated to the back half of the building -his home.
His wife having passed three years earlier and their sons had been lost to war, leaving him alone to care for himself. It wasn't very hard for him; one person didn't make much of a mess or eat much in the way of food. It was lonely, though, and he found himself often wishing to have his wife's company -and cooking- once again.
While he prepared his meal, he had an old, battered kettle heating over the fire. By the time he was ready to cook his meat and vegetables, steam was billowing from the neck of the kettle. Tossing his ingredients into a bowl, he covered them with the boiling water -not the tastiest method for making soup, he knew, but he wasn't much in the mood for eating- and then shuffled across the small kitchen to grab a fresh brick of tea.
As he reached for the brick, he paused. He could have sworn he had heard something rustling. He looked around the kitchen, trying to find anything that could have made the noise; a mouse, a snake, a cat, something.
"Ancestors help me," he murmured, shaking his head when he found nothing. "I must be going insane…"
Returning to the brick of tea, he broke off a chunk and, after pounding it to dust in his mortar, he poured it into the kettle. At last, his meal was complete. Grabbing his bowl and the kettle, he carried them over to a small table and set them down.
A quiet grunt left his mouth when he eased himself down onto the cushion. His knees ached from the effort, but it was nothing new. They had ached for years.
The old man poured himself a cup of tea; it was made with ingredients that would help relieve the pain in his joints. It wasn't the best tasting concoction, but it helped. He blew the steam from the tea's surface a few times before daring to take a sip.
It was still fiercely hot, but the warmth that spread through his body made the pain worth it. A content sigh left his mouth.
But again, there was a strange rustling noise.
He didn't have time to turn before an arm wrapped around his throat. His nose was pinched shut and his mouth covered. The old man tried to struggle, but the person holding him was far stronger. It took some minutes, but eventually, his body went limp as he fell into unconsciousness. The person held him for a moment longer before releasing his nose and mouth.
"Sorry, grandfather," the assailant whispered, easing the old man onto his side. "You should thank your ancestors I don't like killing elderly people."
Standing upright, she grabbed a candle from the center of the table and headed into the front of the store. She made sure to shield the majority of the light, only allowing enough to pass through her fingers to let her read the labels on the vast amounts of drawers.
'Ginger…galangal…no. I need the mixtures,' she thought, carefully picking her way through the store. 'I watched him make it just yesterday; he has to have it here somewhere.'
Letting just a touch more light shine through, she made a quiet sound of achievement: She had found the mixtures on a shelf towards the front of the store. With a small smirk, she crouched low to the ground and set the candle down.
She then reached into her coat, pulling out a cloth bag. It already had something in it, but that didn't matter. "Alright, grandfather, let's see how much of this medicine you've got," she whispered, opening the bag. Then, finding the right drawer, she slowly drew it out so as to avoid making any noise.
Her eyes lit up; the drawer was practically full. "Shan Yu is going to be pleased by this…" she whispered.
A groan from the other room caught her attention. Silently cursing, she dumped the entirety of the drawer's contents into the bag.
'Waking up already?' she thought, shoving the drawer back into the cabinet.
The old man cursed; it sounded like he was fully awake by this point. The thief blew out the candle, but stayed low to the ground. Nearing the doorway separating the front of the building from the back, she pressed herself against the wall as she heard footsteps coming in her direction.
Light spilled into the room and the man came limping in. "Who's there?!" he called out. Holding up the lantern, he bathed the room in front of him with warm light. "Come out, you coward!"
'If I were a coward, I would have killed you and made this an easier job,' the thief thought, rolling her eyes. With the old man distracted, she darted back into the living quarters. She quickly made her way into the dark hallway; the old man's voice grew fainter as she headed for the end of the hall. From there, she made her way through the dark into the old man's bedroom.
Her eyes adjusting to the total darkness, the thief made her way through his room, towards the open window. With a hop, she pulled herself up and out, closing the shutters behind her. There was a triumphant smirk on her lips as she hurried away from the building.
The dark, moonless night made for perfect cover and she was able to reach her horse with no trouble.
"Come on, sister," she quietly told the mare as she mounted it. "Let's go find Ruga and Mundzuc. They can't have gotten too far." She gave a slight tug on the reins and the mare turned, taking off at a trot into the night.
"No; you're just impatient."
Mundzuc cocked his brow, looking across the campfire at his companion. "Impatient? No." He poked at the fire with a stick, gathering the coals into the center. "She was supposed to be back before the moon was halfway through the sky." Using the stick, he gestured at the sky. "Well, the moon is more than halfway through and she isn't back. Either she's been found, she's lost, or she got herself killed."
"She's none of those," the other man, Ruga, argued. "She was more than likely forced to wait longer than she planned." He sniffed before spitting into the flames. "You know as well as I do that she wouldn't have gotten herself caught."
Mundzuc grunted. "She's young. We've taught her well, yes, but young warriors are cocky. They've too much pride that hasn't been beaten down yet."
Ruga stared at him, a bland look on his face. "For nearly thirty summers, she's been with us. For fifteen of those summers, we've been teaching her how to be one of us. If she's learned anything from that training, it's how not to let her pride get in the way of her duty."
"You only say that because you and Roua trained her."
"We've all trained her. Including you." He sneered at Mundzuc as he rolled his eyes. "In fact, she wouldn't even be on this mission if you hadn't trained her in stealth."
Not having anything in the way of a rebuttal, Mundzuc grumbled as he stood up and walked away from the fire. Ruga smirked to himself as his victory.
It was as Mundzuc was returning to his spot by the fire when they both heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats. Both men looked in the direction of the sound and shielded their eyes from the light of the fire. Squinting, they could just barely see the silhouette of a horse and rider coming towards them.
"Told you she'd be here." He didn't much care when Mundzuc reached over and gave him a light kick.
"She's still late," he grumbled.
Turning back towards the fire, Ruga grabbed a large stick that was speared through a roasted grouse carcass. He stabbed it into the ground so that the meat could warm up next to the fire.
Just a few minutes later, the rider arrived. Hopping off her horse, she tied the reins to a low branch where two other horses were standing.
"You're late," Mundzuc told her as she sat down.
"Sorry," she replied. "The shopkeeper took his time closing up shop." She pulled off her cap and sighed. "I tried to be quick, but I couldn't risk him finding me out." She thanked Ruga as he handed her the re-warmed grouse.
Ruga smugly grinned at Mundzuc. "I told y-"
"If you want to keep your tongue, you won't finish that sentence," he growled, rolling his eyes.
Zhu cocked her brow as she chewed some meat and looked between the two men. Ruga -and his twin, Roua, for that matter- had never really gotten along with Mundzuc, so why Shan Yu had sent the two on the mission, she would never know. She knew better than to question their leader, though, so she merely shook her head.
Something seemed off about Mundzuc, though. His skin looked a bit paler than normal and he was grumpier than usual. Most times, he was able to join in when the others made jokes.
"What was it Shan Yu had you get?" Ruga asked, distracting her.
She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her coat. "I can't say."
Mundzuc tucked some of his long hair behind his ear. "If you had to pillage two shops in order to get whatever it is, it must be important."
"It is." She tore a leg from the grouse and began picking the meat off.
"Is it big?" Ruga questioned, glancing at her then at Mundzuc.
She tossed away a bit of cartilage. "I told you: I'm not telling. If I were to tell you and Shan Yu were to find out, his elite would be down to five instead of six."
Ruga somewhat pouted. Taking notice of how quickly she was eating the grouse, he raised his brow. "When was the last time you ate?"
She paused, thinking it over. "Before dawn, I believe." Using her teeth, she tore a chunk of meat from the breast.
Mundzuc sighed, closing his eyes. "After you've eaten, go straight to sleep. We're leaving shortly after dawn."
"What, no bedtime story?" joked Zhu, earning a snort from Ruga. She grinned teasingly as Mundzuc opened an eye to glare at her.
As the smaller man grumbled to himself, Ruga sighed. "Ignore him. He ate some bad meat a few days ago and he's only just finished paying the price."
Zhu's brow rose somewhat as she looked at Mundzuc with a slight bit of concern. "Really?"
"A bit of my dried meat hadn't been dried well enough," he sighed.
"Did you have enough supplies on hand to help you through it?"
Ruga nodded. "He wasn't able to keep much food down, though he was able to drink plenty of ginger-mint tea."
"I was able to eat a bit of meat today," Mundzuc grumbled. "Fresh meat, mind you."
She nodded in understanding. "I'm glad you're feeling better."
He grunted, saying nothing in return as he shifted himself further between the tree's roots. Zhu knew this was one of his many ways of irritably saying thanks.
When she could eat and drink no more, Zhu got up and walked some ways away to relieve herself. Ruga was laying down with his bedroll by the time she got back. He didn't seem to have any intention of going to sleep, however, as he propped himself up on an elbow and poked at the fire with a stick.
"I'm taking first watch," he told her, keeping his voice quiet so as to not disturb the now-sleeping Mundzuc. He watched as she laid out her bedroll near him. "Did you have to kill anyone while you were on your mission?"
She nodded, folding up her cap to use as a pillow. "Just one."
He looked surprised. "Only one? Your last mission you got ten."
"My last mission was to kill the eldest sons of a rival clan leader," she reminded him, voice bland. Sighing, she laid down and closed her eyes. "My ribs still ache at times from that mission and it was nearly a year ago."
"You came back with three broken ribs," he reminded her, "on top of a broken nose, a split lip, two black eyes, and a dislocated knee. It's a wonder you came back at all." He let out a heavy sigh, shaking his head; the sigh sounded rather exasperated. "You're just lucky Edeco is our best healer."
Zhu rolled her eyes. "I'm just lucky I was able to get the job done. If I came back without their headers, Shan Yu would have had mine."
"Not true. He may have only taken your tongue." He smirked when he felt her lightly kick him in the back. "Get some sleep, Zhu. Tomorrow, we make for the Great Wall."
It was an eerily quiet night; even the insects remained silent. In the sky above, heavy clouds blocked out the moon and the stars, leaving the three riders trusting in their horses to navigate a path through the trees. It was a well-earned trust, though, and their horses were able to easily pick their way around tree trunks and bracken.
Suddenly, the forest gave way to a wide, open strip of land. The riders let out a gasp of awe: Standing tall before them was a massive, stone wall seemingly carved from the earth itself: The Great Wall of China.
"Are you sure this is the right tower?" Ruga whispered, his eyes wide as he stared up at the wall.
Mundzuc squinted at the night sky, searching for something. Then, he lightly smacked Ruga's arm and pointed to a barely-visible dot in the sky. "There's Hayabusa," he whispered. "We're at the right spot."
"Good. I need to stretch my legs," Zhu said, dismounting her horse. "I'll go see what their patrols are like."
Before the other two had the chance to dismount, she crept off into the shadows. The land south of the wall was left bathed in darkness thanks to the long shadow it cast. This suited them perfectly; the last thing they wanted was to be seen.
Zhu made her way towards the beacon tower. The closer she got to it, the more she noticed that the wall hadn't been carved at all -it was built of bricks. The ones at the base of the tower were larger and darker in color while the rest were long, thin, and lighter in color. She admired the craftsmanship; the wall had been mortared so that it was as flat as possible.
'That'll make climbing a bit harder for the others,' she thought with a frown.
Once she was closer to the beacon tower, Zhu knelt down on the ground. Above her, the falcon continued to circle the area, letting her know that she and the others still had time to accomplish their part before the signal was given. On the wall, she could see the silhouette of a single, patrolling soldier.
Looking back to the tower, she saw that there were two sets of stairs -one on the east side and one on the west side. Idly chatting between the stairs were two guards; judging by their relaxed stance, they hadn't any idea of the danger lurking nearby. A warm glow was coming out of the doorway on the eastern stairs and she could just barely see shadows of more men inside.
'I'll have to take out those two guards so no alert is given to the ones inside,' she thought, narrowing her eyes. She pulled her bow from her back, unwinding the string from the grip and placing it in the notch. Then, slowly, she drew an arrow and nocked it.
A noise behind her caught her attention and she looked over her shoulder. Ruga and Mundzuc were approaching her. The men knelt on either side of her, observing the scene before them.
"Two guards outside," she told them, her voice a whisper, "and one on the wall. More men are inside the tower. I don't know how many, but expect them to put up a fight."
Ruga glanced down at her. "You'll have to be quick with that bow of yours. Once you bring one guard down, the other is going to try to shout."
Her eyes focused on the guards as she waited for them to move ever so slightly. "Or I can bring them both down with one arrow."
The guard on the western side took a step closer to the guard on the east, laughing as he gave him a playful smack upside the head.
"You're not Bleda," Mundzuc frowned as she drew back the bow. "I will kill you if you mess this-"
The eastern guard shifted his weight to his other leg, bringing him perfectly in line with his companion. Zhu let go of the bowstring. The three Huns watched as the two guards fell to the ground in unison, clawing at the arrow piercing both their throats.
Neither Mundzuc nor Ruga congratulated her on her shot. Instead, they both jumped to their feet and hurried forward to drag the bodies out of sight of the soldier on the wall. Zhu drew another arrow and nocked it before creeping forward. By the time she reached the base of the stairs, the two men had finished their task.
Drawing his sword, Ruga started up the stairs. Mundzuc, following his lead, drew his own sword and started to head up the stairs. Zhu took up the rear, her bow still at the ready. As she reached the top landing, though, Mundzuc grabbed the front of her coat and shoved her against the wall.
"When Hayabusa gives the signal," he whispered harshly, "stay out of our way. Shan Yu may trust you to not fail, but I don't."
Used to such threats from him, she raised her brow. "Doubting Shan Yu's leadership?" she replied, voice ice-cold. "He wouldn't like to hear that." A hiss of pain left her mouth as he backhanded her, the force splitting her lip.
She knew she would come to regret backtalking him, but she didn't expect to regret it so soon.
"Next time, I'll carve out your tongue," he threatened, letting go of her coat. He watched with mild amusement as she spat some blood onto the ground before turning around. Ruga was glaring at him, but he ignored the glare and instead looked at the sky.
As he did so, Hayabusa gave a shrill cry and tucked in his wings, beginning to descend.
Zhu watched the two men run into the tower. As surprised curses came from inside, she grumbled and skulked towards the doorway, her sleeve pressed against her lip. Her brows rose in surprise as a soldier went flying past her, over the edge of the landing. Stepping forward, she watched as he fell the nearly twenty feet to the ground only to land face-first on the ground.
Somehow, he had survived the fall, though it was clear he was in a great amount of pain. Zhu tilted her head, watching as he started to crawl forward. She drew her bow and fired the arrow, hitting the man in the back of the neck. With an indifferent shrug, she spat more blood from her mouth and turned back around.
Blood was starting to ooze out onto the landing. She dared to poke her head through the doorway only to find the bodies of seven men sprawled across the floor.
'They never were the cleanest,' she thought with a sigh. 'At least they got the job done.' Crossing the room, she was forced to walk through the growing puddle of still-warm blood.
She was about to head up another flight of stairs when the door on the western wall of the tower burst open. A single soldier came racing in, his eyes wide with fear. He had his mouth open, ready to tell his companions of the danger outside, but the words fell silent in his throat as he saw their bodies.
He looked up, staring at Zhu with horror and hatred in his eyes.
"If you want to see the morning, then run," she sneered at him.
The soldier, his skin as white as the moon by now, spun around and sped back outside.
"Aren't you going to kill him?" Ruga had come back down the stairs, his chest and arms splattered with the blood of his victims.
She shrugged. "Why waste the arrow? Someone else will do the job for me."
He gave a small nod of agreement before starting back up the stairs. "Come. Shan Yu wants to speak with you."
Zhu followed him up the stairs, taking care to not slip thanks to her blood-soaked boots. When they reached the top landing, she could hear a great deal of commotion outside. Stepping through the doorway, they were greeted by the sight of dozens of Huns climbing over the wall and onto the parapets; the invasion had begun.
Ruga pointed to the top of the tower where a hulking figure was silhouetted against the beacon fire. Her brow rose when she saw the broken ladder, but then a curse left her mouth as Ruga crouched down and grabbed her by the legs. He hoisted her up, allowing her to grab the edge of a merlon and pull herself up.
The figure didn't turn to look at her as he watched the Huns climbing up the wall. "Shan Zhu," he said, his voice both soft and harsh at the same time.
She bowed respectfully. "Shan Yu." Though he was her uncle, she knew better than to call him such when they weren't alone. It would show weakness, he had once told her, and weakness was not something a Hun showed.
He turned, staring down at the young woman. "How much were you able to get?"
"Enough to last you at least three months," she replied, standing upright.
"Good." Reaching out, he caught her chin between his thumb and index fingers. He gently forced her head back, letting the firelight better illuminate her face. "Mundzuc's work, I take it?" he questioned, running his thumb along her swollen lower lip.
She somewhat flinched as he touched the injury; she avoided making eye contact with him. "Yes. My own fault; I backtalked him."
"A just punishment," he told her, letting go.
Saying nothing, she merely nodded.
Shan Yu turned his back on her once more. "I have another mission for you, Zhu. One you won't start quite yet, but it is vital to the success of this invasion."
Her brows furrowed in confusion. "What is it you'll have me do?"
"I need you to kill someone. Someone extremely close to the emperor." He glanced over his shoulder, seeing an unsure look on her face; he chuckled. "You needn't worry; I'm not having you kill any of his children. No."
Turning, he once more caught her chin in his hand. He gently forced her to turn her head to the left and to the right, his eyes narrowing as he scrutinized her features. She had changed a great deal since she had first come into his care. It was to be expected; she was only half Hun, after all. Her Chinese mother ensured that her face would soften with age and her skin would lighten somewhat. But she still had the long face and cold eyes of her Hunnic father.
Zhu swallowed hard, doing her best to not show any fear despite her stomach churning with it. "Then who's my target?" she asked, voice somewhat muffled.
"The Emperor's advisor," he told her, finally releasing her face. "Once the Emperor hears of our invasion, he will send out a summons for new soldiers to be trained while his army goes to the front lines. It is the job of his advisor to oversee the training of new recruits and to let the Emperor know when they are ready to fight."
She nodded in understanding, lightly rubbing her chin as Shan Yu went to warm his hands by the fire. "But, if we're heading straight to the Imperial City, why would we need to worry about them?" She stepped forward as he beckoned her towards the beacon. "They're fresh. Unhardened. They've never faced an army, let alone killed people. Won't they be too terrified of us to put up a fight?"
Shan Yu shot her a cold look and smacked her, hard, upside the head. "Use your brain, girl," he hissed as the blow sent her stumbling. He watched as she caught herself against the wall before she could fall. "Those men have families they will want to protect. They have homes they will want to protect. Even the most docile of animals will put up a fight if their homes are threatened; why would humans be any different?"
"S-sorry for questioning your plans, Shan Yu," Zhu mumbled, rubbing the side of her head. "I should have known better." Her brain throbbed inside her skull.
"Yes, you should have." His voice was emotionless.
"When—" She paused, unsure if she should speak again. When Shan Yu didn't make any effort to hit her again, though, she risked it. "When am I to leave?" She clenched her eyes shut for a moment; the throbbing in her skull was beginning to fade, leaving lightheadedness in its place.
"Not for a few days," he answered. "I need to gather more information before I send you anywhere. I won't have you returning nearly dead again."
Despite knowing he wouldn't see it, she slowly nodded. "Is—is there anything else you need me for?"
"Bring me that which I sent you out for."
"Yes, Shan Yu," she murmured. Crawling over the side of the wall, she let herself drop down onto the closest merlon. From there, she hopped down onto the parapet.
Still feeling a bit lightheaded, she made her way through the flood of Hun soldiers. None of them noticed her occasional stumble -or, if they did, they didn't much care. Eventually, she made it back to her horse.
"I'm back, little sister, but not for long," she murmured, stroking the mare's nose. Closing her eyes, she let out a heavy sigh and rested her head against her neck for a few minutes. "Shan Yu needs me to bring him the med—the tea to him." She glanced around, hoping no one else was around to hear her slipup.
The mare snorted and pawed at the ground, earning a small laugh from Zhu.
"Alright, alright -I'll feed you first," she said. As she reached into her saddlebag, though, she frowned. "Maybe not…" Looking up at the wall, she saw the figure of Shan Yu walking along the parapet, giving orders to the men. She cursed under her breath and pulled out the bag of medicine instead of a bag of feed. "I'm sorry, Umut, but I've already upset him once. I promise I'll feed you when I come back, though."
Umut snorted in displeasure, as if she could understand Zhu's words.
"I'm sorry," she apologized again. "I've already been hit twice for my insolence tonight -I don't want it to happen a third time." Before Umut could protest further, she sprinted off.
A few minutes later, she was doubled over and breathing heavily while holding the bag out to Shan Yu. Snatching it from her, he untied the string closure and opened the bag. He reached in, feeling the amount of tea rather than seeing it. Pulling out a handful, he smelled it.
"Most of this is still rather fresh," he commented, letting the bits of dried roots and herbs slide back into the bag.
"I—I watched the old shopkeeper make up a batch three days ago," panted Zhu. She stood upright, pressing a hand into her side; she had a painful stitch, but tried her best to ignore it. "I chose—chose his store over a larger one be—because of that." She swallowed hard and clenched her eyes shut.
Drawing the bag shut once more, he tucked it inside his coat. "You did well, Zhu," he told her, taking her by surprise. "That's all for now. I suggest you go get some rest." As Zhu bowed and took her leave, he smirked, quietly telling himself, "These next few days will be…exciting to say the least."