The harsh afternoon sun bore down with relentless heat against the backs of the soldiers. Many of which had stripped down to just their pants as they aided in the rebuilding of a village on the northern outskirts of the training camp. The village had managed to escape complete decimation due to the prompt arrival of imperial troops - although more than half of the town houses along with approximately thirty villagers had been destroyed in the process.
Midway through the removal of the wreckage of a burnt house, Yue paused to catch a breath as she wiped a layer of sweat off her face with the back of her folded sleeves. The summer’s heat was overwhelming; the lack of shade and the strenuous activities at hand was enough to incapacitate several members of her batch mates.
The company’s physician, Dengyu had been kept busy all morning tending to both soldiers and villagers alike who had been unable to take the heat.
It was tough.
The only consolation Yue had was that Kang was their division’s head commander and he was working topless. Ever since the foiled assassination attempt, Yue had tried - but failed miserably - to control her heart’s fluttering at the sight of her commanding officer, therefore she gave up trying after a week or so.
Motivation is always something good isn’t it?
Yue had managed to catch a few brief glimpses of Kang as he went about the village, aiding in the reparations and the release of commands to the lower ranking soldiers, and metaphoric butterflies took flight every time she saw the sweat glistening off his broad muscles.
Glistening? Erghh… What. A. Word.
Mentally slapping herself, Yue was forced back into reality by the call from Lei who had been working nearby.
“Stop day-dreaming and get them hands working!” yelled Lei; his face red from the heat and wet from perspiration.
“It is too damned hot to be working like this. People can die from this heat!” Yue said, her arm reaching up to wipe her damp face once again.
“Yes, so the faster we’re done with this, the faster we can get out of the damn heat.” Lei replied throwing his perspiration soaked shirt in the direction of Yue.
The shirt fell short and landed with a wet splat on the dust-covered ground, inciting a look of disgust from Yue. Although they had gotten off on the wrong foot right at the beginning, Lei was turning out to be someone rather dependable. Zhao and Lang both respected him enough to task him with the duty of company in-charge, where he would relay information and duties to the soldiers within their sector.
Lei was also well-skilled with the sword and had a decent aim on the bow. He could navigate almost as well as the battle-harden officers on horseback and was more than capable of defending himself against several opponents simultaneously.
“If only his attitude was better.” Yue thought silently as she forced herself to pick up the other end of a beam, opposite from Lei.
As they carefully carried it off to a pile of reusable debris at the side of the village, they came across Lang who had just exited from the physician’s temporary clinic – an old shed that had been cleaned up for Dengyu’s use.
Lang’s face was devoid of all emotions save for a deep scowl etched deep into his features. His body was tense and he had not noticed the pair until Yue called out to him, even then, Lang excused himself before they could asked him for any updates regarding the whole situation. Apart from that, Yue had wanted to ask Lang about Zhao – lately, Lang had been the only one to watch over her whilst she washed up and she had rarely seen Zhao around.
“Hey.” Lei started as they trudged slowly along the dirt path. “What do you think about the suicides?”
“What’s there to think about?” Yue replied grudgingly, irritation laced within her words. “You can’t stop people from killing themselves can you?”
“No, I guess you can’t. But don’t you think it’s a little weird how so many of them are taking their lives?”
“Well, this is a high-stressed job; it’s no wonder why some people are unable to handle it.”
“But my men were one of the finest troops, their mental capabilities are not that fragile.”
“Lei, a physically strong person does not equate to a mentally strong person.” Yue explained, her tone harsher than she expected it to be. “Besides, most of them weren’t even that outstanding to begin with - they made up some of the more average-performing soldiers.”
Following her reply, Lei fell silent very quickly. Looking up at him, Yue was rather taken aback by the dark shadow that had fallen across Lei’s features; his eyes were dark and a ferocious glare stared back out at her. His lips were pressed into a taunt thin line and he refused to say another word after that, even after Yue tried to diffuse the tension by changing the subject.
Sighing deeply, Yue watch as Lei’s back stalked furiously away from her after they had deposited the beam at the debris pile. It was rare for Lei to lose his composure like that, Yue guessed that even the stresses of the job was getting to him.
“He’s not thinking about taking his own life is he?” Yue wondered aloud to herself as the thought emerged slowly.
Worry bubbled up from the pits of her stomach as she hurried after the shadow of Lei wanting to catch up with him to talk him out of whatever suicidal tendencies he may have. Try as she might have, she lost sight of Lei very quickly; she had retraced her steps back to the half-collapsed building she and Lei had been working on, only to find it empty. Fear slowly crawled out from the crevices within her heart and took her soul in an icy grip as mental images of Lei taking his own life played across her mind’s eye. Sure, the guy was irritating at times, but Yue would feel guilty if she could have done something about it.
The ghost of Tien’s eyes dimming as blood leaked from his wounds interrupted her thoughts suddenly, caused an eruption of goose-flesh across her skin. The hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood at attention as she recalled Tien’s life disappear from within his eyes; how the shine dulled so very quickly.
All of a sudden, Yue felt the same fear prickle at the tips of her extremities; the same fear she felt on the night Tien was murdered. She was being watched – watched by the very same eyes as the assassin. Yue couldn’t see him just yet, but the gaze held the same murderous intent; enough to cause her organs to turn ice cold. Although she knew he was around somewhere, Yue didn’t dare look up from the single spot her eyes had been staring at.
At that moment, a gush of hot wind rushed through the holes in the fractured building before her; making a sound as though the wind was screaming. Portions of the building which were loose crashed down to the earth tearing through the fear-driven trace Yue had been in and slammed her back into reality. Just as how she knew she had been watched, she knew exactly when the gaze disappeared off her. Her head shot up as she swung round, pivoting on her heel.
Not even the rustling of the branches nor leaves to indicate the exit of the assassin.
“Fuck.” Yue cursed as she scanned the area around her once more.
Where the hell were the boys when she needed them?
Still high on the adrenaline, Yue felt herself spinning before she even registered the thought. She glared at the newcomer with her furiously beating heart in her throat before allowing herself to relax just a little when she recognised the person.
“Where the hell have you been?” Yue asked breathlessly, her voice sounding higher than normal.
“Around.” Zhao replied tiredly, although his eyebrows were raised in amusement. “What’s got you so high-strung for?”
“That crazy fellow who killed Tien was here just now!” Yue cried out, her voice finally cracking.
“Did you engage?” Zhao asked worriedly without a hint of hesitation as he closed the distance between the two of them.
“I doubt I will still be standing here talking to you had I fought him.”
Zhao checked Yue over for assurance, to make sure she was really as healthy as she claimed to be. Satisfied with his scrutiny, Zhao found himself a suitable make-shift chair and sat himself down.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been around lately.” Zhao apologised wearily.
“Where have you been?” Yue asked again once her heart had returned to its original location and resumed its normal beatings.
Looking carefully at Zhao, Yue could tell Zhao had not been sleeping well; the bags under his eyes were dark with a tinge of purple. His complexion looked sickly pale, and his cheeks appeared hollow. His naturally bright eyes were dull in comparison and it was as though his entire body had shrunk; he seemed so much smaller, so much weaker than before.
“I’ve been around.” Zhao repeated his answer from before with a small smile.
“SERIOUSLY? That’s all you’re gonna say? Dude! You look like you’re dying!” Yue roared, her arms failing before her as though they were capable of forcing a proper answer out from Zhao.
“I wish I had the power to send you back to the village.” Zhao sighed, ignoring Yue entirely. “You’re becoming coarser.”
“Well, it ain’t up to you. Kang said the only way we could leave the army was if we died or if we ended up maimed beyond normal function. If I could get back without losing any limbs, I would.”
Sighing deeply, Zhao looked at Yue with sad eyes and a shake of his head. He regretted not trying his best to get her out of the army at the beginning when he had first found out about her disguise. It was because of his hesitation which has landed Yue into this predicament – with a killer on the loose and her name at the top of his to-kill list.
“If I had a way to get you home, would you let me?” Zhao asked quietly after a moment’s silence.
“Will it involve either you or Lang getting into trouble with the higher ups?” Yue asked with a cocked brow.
A small grin formed on the former’s lips and Yue crossed her arms across her chest as a sign of defiance.
“I’ll have to tell Lang to always keep you in his sights then. We don’t know when the assassin will appear again.” Zhao pondered aloud to himself.
“Why not you?” Yue asked.
“Why don’t you spend more time watching over me instead of asking Lang to do it?” Yue asked, her brows knitting into a deep furrow.
“If I could, I would,” Zhao muttered under his breath before continuing aloud: “I’ll be busy from now on. Got to do what a captain’s got to do.”
“Lang’s assistant commander! And he’s always around!” Yue replied exasperated.
“He’s different. He’s capable of juggling all his duties and still get a proper night’s rest. I haven’t had a proper sleep in days!” Zhao laughed, dispersing whatever tension that had settled between the two.
Zhao watched as the worries dissipated from the lines on the younger girl’s face and smiled when he noticed the tension leave her taunt shoulders. He really loved Yue and didn’t want her to be worried for him. He was the older one here, and he certainly didn’t need the younger one to be on his tail – not now. He had been warned, and he didn’t want her to get caught up with the business at hand; he didn’t want to be a cause of misery for Yue.
Zhao motioned for Yue to join him on the rubble as he asked for an update in the comings and goings recently. As Yue complained and ranted on the things that pissed her off, Zhao felt a tinge of guilt building from the pits of his stomach. What he was doing was going to piss her off majorly when she finds out, and he pitied Lang for when it happens.
Because, he wasn’t going to be around to bear the blunt of her fury when it does happen.