A resounding boom assaulted Wang Jing’s ears, slamming a steady pain into the right side of his head like a hammer to its anvil. As he struggled to open his blurry eyes, the weight of gaoling steel pushed his eyelids down. By the high gods, how much did he drink last night?
As his vision cleared, he saw the source of the loud pounding. Wang Bao was making his way over slowly to his side, carrying a tray of tea and food. He stopped at Wang Jing’s bedside, and the deafening sound ceased.
Wang Jing’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the fading bruise on his younger brother’s face. Wang Bao was still young and had very little magic healing ability. The boy set the tray on the side table and offered a bowl soundlessly, his face full of concern.
Wang Jing grimaced at the vile tasting tincture, but within moments, the pain from his overindulgence was no more. Then suddenly, he was overwhelmed by the throbbing spreading throughout the rest of his body. That’s when the full memory of last night came to him, and reading his older brother’s face, Wang Bao’s eyes turned remorseful.
The boy clasped his hands together tightly and cleared his throat with difficulty. “Da Ge. I..I… please forgive me.”
Wang Jing winced as he sat up in bed and Wang Bao shot forward to help him, guilt etched on his face.
He pulled the boy down to his side to probe his face. “How long has this been going on?”
“Just for the last two years.” He raised his gaze. “Nothing like this has ever happened before. It’s always been a clean trade, with no trouble. I swear, Da Ge!”
“And why have you been trading your inventions?”
“I’m trying to advance my skills in magical weaponry from the devices I receive in trade.”
It was an innovative way to progress, Wang Jing admitted to himself, but it disturbed him what type of weapons Wang Bao may have created and traded. “And what of your own weapons?”
Wang Bao blinked and then comprehension dawned. He hurriedly reassured Wang Jing. “Only small novelties, Da Ge. Nothing powerful, I promise!”
Wang Jing eyed him dubiously, “Those paint brush darts last night looked quite lethal.”
The boy’s eyes widened and he held his breath, hesitant to respond.
There were very few fears Wang Jing ever experienced. But the thought of harm coming to this child he had raised, gripped his chest like a giant fist and nauseated him. Wang Jing drew a cleansing breath to push the discomfort away. Wang Bao’s Da Ge knew his temperament. No matter the threats he made to this boy, Wang Jing wouldn’t be able to stop him from continuing on this dangerous course. He could only guide him safely. He sighed in resignation.
Last night, he had stumbled to the rear room of the flower house, having enjoyed too much drink and two lovely petals the house provided. They had been sweet and delicious, but there had been a part of Wang Jing that was never satisfied after one of these encounters. Hence, the extra girl to slake his desire.
The sight that had met Wang Jing had struck him cold. Then a fierce rage had swept through him. Wang Bao had been tied down by the tail of a black skinned creature. It had three arms that were exploring the outer garments of the boy, and its whiskered flat face breathed in his scent like he was a fine meal.
Yet that young fool Wang Bao had literally laughed in the face of danger. He had been well trained in the art of battle, but the naïveté that the boy exhibited, showed Wang Jing how sheltered his little brother truly was. The brat needed to be thrown into the fray. To sleep, to eat, to figure out his place in the lowest of ranks of the troops.
The creature had taken the boy’s arrogance in stride, his three-fingered claw roughly running down the fresh face. Another claw slipped a silken paint brush out of the boy’s robes, twirling it deftly before viciously shoving the sharp pointed end into Wang Bao’s ribs.
Rage had consumed Wang Jing, but in his inebriated state, he had been less than equipped to take on the creature in hand-to-hand combat. Concentrating as well as he could, Wang Jing had willed his body to camouflage itself, a skill he had perfected but never attempted while drunk.
He had attacked the creature soundlessly, taking it by surprise. But as Wang Jing had been about to deal the final blow, his vision became blurred and his already precarious power faltered. A claw caught him unawares and he toppled to the ground. After that, it was a maelstrom of brawling with the hulking figure as Wang Bao repeatedly failed to insert himself, taking a few painful punches for his trouble.
His rage had apparently not been enough to fuel a triumph over his opponent. The hulking body had him in a death grip when Wang Jing felt it go lax. Extricating himself from the stench, his eyes focused on the small red dart that protruded from the neck of the black rubbery skin. Wang Bao had stood above him brandishing the brush like an artist, his stance projecting that damn irritating smugness Wang Jing had come to despise.
Now Wang Jing gently rubbed the discolored bruise on Wang Bao’s temple with his thumb. He looked deeply into his eyes. “This stops now, Wang Bao.” He spoke softly, but his tone wasn’t to be taken lightly. Wang Bao knew his brother couldn’t be reasoned with at this moment. But it wasn’t in him to give up so easily.
“Da Ge, I promise it won’t happen again…”
Wang Jing cut him off. “No, it won’t. You will not be in this position again for it to happen.”
“Da Ge!” He protested.
“Enough!” Wang Jing ground out savagely. His large veined hand suddenly grasped the other’s soft chin and squeezed. “You will never do this again...without me.” His dark eyes pierced into Wang Bao’s stunned gaze.
“If you ever thwart me, I will send you back to Father and let him make a foot soldier out of you. Under his terms! You will never have access to any magical weaponry, no freedom to leave the barracks, no time to yourself, and you will rarely ever see me.”
All fight left the boy. The thought of being a veritable prisoner in the low ranks of the battalion was frightening enough, but to give up his love of creating and the loss of his closest family member completely broke him. He knew Wang Jing would follow through on his threat. His Da Ge never gave second chances. He was hard that way and had no patience for disobedience. But he also knew how generous his Da Ge was being. He would let him continue but under his strictures only. It was something, and he would take it.
Wang Bao nodded solemnly, his eyes locked on the hard gaze of his elder.
Having proven his point, Wang Jing released his jaw and patted his cheek with a resounding smack. Wang Bao immediately cringed and the defiance returned to his features but he kept quiet.
A deep mocking laugh rolled out of Wang Jing’s chest. “Now Xiao Bao, how were the talents of that sweet flower I chose for you last night?”
Wang Bao rolled his eyes. “She was satisfactory,” he drawled in a bored tone. “But so clingy afterward! Next time Da Ge, I’ll choose my own woman.”
“As you wish.” Wang Jing smirked. “You must have finished...quite fast...to meet up with the trader.”
“Not all of us need to take more than one beauty to bed to be satisfied.”
“Don’t be jealous, Didi. One day, when you grow up, you too may have such an enduring stamina.”
Wang Bao scoffed, disgusted. Wang Jing once again laughed devilishly. One of his most enjoyable pastimes was teasing Wang Bao. It had been this way since the boy was very small.
“And yet it took you 125,000 years to get to that point. It doesn’t bode well for the years ahead. I feel pity for your future bride, Da Ge.”
The subject of a future bride did not phase Wang Jing. When he had last visited his parents, his father had tentatively broached the subject. Wang Jing had immediately redirected him to a skirmish in the West Seas region. His father had eyed him for a moment before silently agreeing to delay the conversation.
His family was one of five highest ranking members of the Black Ox Clan with the strongest and most abundant males to lead its armies. His was a clan of military-bred immortals, each gifted with their own magical abilities. But it was his father who had proven the strongest of all the generals in the clan. And the most prolific!. His small wife had born him seven equally strong and resourceful sons. Not one daughter!. His mother still lamented that fact.
Wang Jing was the fourth son. No better and no worse than his brothers, the competition among siblings, both on and off the battlefield, was fierce. The brothers had a good rapportreport, but it was in their nature to be competitive. And because of this nature, each Wang son excelled, even. Even young Xiao Bao in his own way.
Thus, the brothers Wang were considered a good match for many high ranking brides. And the connections it afforded his father were also prized. Already, his eldest brother had been married, with the second and third promised. It was only natural that Wang Jing’s father would start looking to cement his fourth son’s future. He really hadn’t thought about a marriage arrangement, but the more the thought resonated, the more his instinct told him that wasn’t what he wanted now.
Wang Jing once again noted the bruise on the boy’s face. He pointed at it. “Don’t go to the medicine man for that. It will be a healthy reminder of your mistake.” Seeing Wang Bao compress his lips in annoyance, Wang Jing threatened, “Unless you want another one on the other side to match.”
Wang Bao put up his hands defensively, “No, Da Ge! I’ll wear my dishonor happily.”
Wang Jing’s eyes twinkled and he returned to his breakfast tray. Off-handed he asked, “Any missives today?”
Wang Bao’s eyes widened, and his Da Ge knew he had forgotten something important. Lately, his little brother had been serving as his secretary, but many things seemed to slip his mind.
With a flick of the wrist, the forgotten white missive appeared in the boy’s hand. He immediately handed it over to his brother.
Wang Jing scanned the missive, then rolled it once again and set it to the side dismissively. “Start packing my armor and don’t forget my leathers,” he stressed, before picking up his cup of tea to sip.
Wang Bao accepted the command as if it was an everyday occurrence, but he pursed his lips at the dig to his lack of attention. But when Wang Jing flicked his gaze up, he saw the question in his younger brother’s eyes.
Wang Jing gave the boy a crooked smile. “The Gahai Grasslands.”