The Emperor's Dream - Chapter Seven

Wanyi raced northward, ignoring the sting of cold wind on his face. Ban flew next to him, at his request. Together, they startled several groups of wind mhonglun, their forms eddying in the wake of their passing.

**Chapter One**

**Welcome to chapter seven The Emperor’s Dream, an epic fantasy novella from the wider world of The Mhong Chronicles. I’ll be publishing chapters each week, but remember, these are some of the very first drafts, which means you’re in on this at the very beginning. Thank you for being here, friend. I hope you enjoy it.**

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79 Days Until the Vote

Wanyi raced northward, ignoring the sting of cold wind on his face. Ban flew next to him, at his request. Together, they startled several groups of wind mhonglun, their forms eddying in the wake of their passing. Wanyi thought he heard their songs take on a note of annoyance for a beat before they resumed their usual cheerful melodies.

The land north of Shanshia flattened out considerably. A windswept belt of grasslands guided the River Shan to its junction with the wider Shi River in the Nanshi forest. Before the war, Hukan had had a loose claim on the territory. Now the grass was all that separated Hukan from the Tohk Empire. Few Sentients made their homes in the exposed wind channel, save for a few settlements of Hukan who deemed themselves “Clanless.”

Wanyi loosely followed the one highway that split the grasslands in twain, a great gray serpent stretching itself across the landscape from north to south. As the first arms of the Nanshi forest came into view, he turned to the west and sought out his and Yishan’s usual meeting place—an unobtrusive stand of trees with a roughly crescent moon shaped clearing in the middle.

Descend with me, Wanyi said to Ban as he spotted the clearing. He circled once, tucked his wings, and leaned forward, stooping into a dive. Wind rushed past him, rippling the true feathers of his crest and the Kuanghi-infused feathers of his wings as he sped faster and faster.

Just before he leveled with the tops of the trees, Wanyi extended his wings again, beating them against his descent. Despite not being part of his natural body, he still felt the strain on his wings as if his own muscles were protesting and being pulled tight.

Yishan was waiting for him when he landed, bow in hand and a bristling quiver of arrows strapped to his hip. He too sported azure wings, though they seemed shaped more like an owl’s. With his face set in determined lines, the image of the gangly clerk had vanished and been replaced with that of the spymaster and man-at-arms.

“Follow me,” Yishan said, “They’re not far north of here.” He flapped his wings and took off into a low glide through the trees.

Yishan tended to skip the proprieties when he was out in the field. Wanyi didn’t mind. It was nice to simply focus on the task at hand every once in a while without worrying about the “sires” and “m’lords” that had somehow seeped into the urban Shanshian culture.

“How many?” Wanyi asked after he had caught up. The younger growth on the fringes of the forest was still thick with low-hanging branches, which meant he had to do a good bit of weaving before he was able to fly next to Yishan unimpeded.

“Hard to say with all these trees. I saw enough fires for at least a few hundred before I sent that sparrow. I’m sure there are more.”

“Thank you. You were right to wait, Yishan.”

“I know.” From Yishan, it didn’t sound prideful. He had simply made the calculations, and he was confident in his figuring. Sometimes Wanyi forgot the man actually enjoyed his clerical duties nearly as much as those of being a spymaster.

Several hundred Tohk soldiers on their border. More than enough cause for alarm, but perhaps it didn’t have to be. Their emperor was currently in Hukan. Perhaps they were an escort, or some kind of contingency force tasked with rescuing Ramreunya if something had gone horribly wrong.

Wanyi continued on in silence, hoping that the soldiers’ presence was only coincidental.

Suddenly, Yishan dipped down and landed, tucking his wings tightly behind him as he dropped into a crouch. Wanyi followed, scanning the forest for any signs of enemies. He deepened his bond with Ban, and summoned the hawk’s eyesight for himself.

About a hundred paces in front of them, still mostly obscured by the forest, a group of Hetanzou were working at felling large trees. Now that he was standing still, Wanyi could hear the thock of axes dealing mighty blows. He began to creep closer, careful not to tread on dry twigs, and beckoned for Yishan to follow. The spymaster nodded once and advanced on silent feet.

Keep some distance, he said to Ban. There are potentially dangerous men ahead.

Understood, friend Wanyi, came the reply. He sensed Ban’s presence somewhere above and behind him. The hawk had likely alighted in a tree where he would be obscured by the foliage.

As he drew nearer, Wanyi began to hear the men’s voices. It sounded like mostly just idle chatter. Coarse joking, complaining, generic stories of manly bravado. They were soldiers alright.

A little closer, and he could see the whole group of Hetanzou unimpeded. Two wielded axes, and were alternating strikes at the base of a hickory tree. A few others were stripping the bark and branches off of another tree that lay nearby. Wanyi gritted his teeth against the noise of the axes. Each chop sounded like a thunderclap, and bit deeper into the trunk than an ordinary man should have been able to manage.

He soon saw the reason for their enhanced strength. Not too far from where the men worked, two oxen were chained to a tree. The beasts stood still, their legs locked, their eyes wide. Both were panting heavily, their sides heaving in and out as sweat foamed around their backs and shoulders.

Those men were beastmasters.

Wanyi felt his crest rising involuntarily as he fought the urge to fly in and stop them. Beastmastery was inexcusable. Those men had seized control of the animals against their will and would drain their strength until there was nothing left. They might leave the two oxen with just enough energy to live, but it would only be enough for them to do the same work tomorrow.

But Wanyi and Yishan couldn’t simply burst into the clearing, armed as they were, and demand that the men release the beasts. Besides the axes, the men carried swords, and he saw at least one wielding a l’anti staff. Things could get violent quickly, and they were technically in the Tohk Empire now. The story of a Hukan chief attacking a peaceful group of Tohk soldiers for no good reason could be propagated all too easily.

That’s what had led to the war with the Het Kingdom. The story of Hukan soldiers slaughtering innocent Hetanzou villagers had spread like wildfire through both nations. Except it hadn’t been a Hukan chief, or even true Hukan warriors, no matter what people believed.

As much as it infuriated him, Wanyi remained silent, and tried to determine the intent of the soldiers. Chopping down multiple trees of that size could mean they were simply on logging duty. There were easier methods of getting firewood, but armies needed larger pieces for building all kinds of things. But if that were the case, why send armed soldiers to do the labor? Surely some of the camp’s followers were able to do such work. Wanyi’s gaze drifted back to the soldier with the l’anti staff.

A horrible memory surfaced in his mind—a memory of the last time he had seen great trees like this stripped of bark and used by Hetanzou.

Wanyi had only been a child when the Het had invaded. They had used massive trees to channel Lan Banti. While most people only used staffs and wands, those trees had been turned into weapons that had brought down the old walls of Shanshia and had blown countless Hukan soldiers to pieces.

He laid a hand on Yishan’s arm. The man had silently drawn an arrow from his quiver and was nocking it to his bowstring.

“We can’t fight them right now,” Wanyi whispered as quietly as he could. “We have to figure out why they’re here.”

Yishan lowered his bow, but kept his fingers on the string, staring daggers at the beastmasters. Wanyi couldn’t tell if he had made the same connection between the trees and the war, but beastmastery alone was a crime worth putting arrows through the men’s necks.

Thank the Silent Lord he knows how to restrain himself.

Wanyi inhaled slowly, smelling damp earth and wood chips. He breathed out, and began quietly making his way around the soldiers. The noise of axes and chatter would cover the worst of the sound of his movement, but it paid to take care.

As he and Yishan slowly worked their way north, they came across another similar group of soldiers, felling trees and stripping the bark. Whatever they were working at, it certainly wasn’t logging. The longer he thought about it, the less Wanyi could see them doing anything other than preparing weapons of war.

After the second group, they began seeing the signs of the larger company. More and more tracks were easily traceable in the muddy forest floor. Smaller trees and logs had been harvested for firewood, as was evidenced by the patches of hacked off stumps and wood chips. But most telling of all was the smoke.

It hung in the windless forest like a heavy curtain, white clouds that came from burning damp, green wood. It gave Wanyi more cover, but it also stung his eyes and made it harder to see. Even with Ban’s sight, the smoke limited his vision. They reached the perimeter of the Tohk camp almost without realizing it.

By the time Wanyi saw the cookfire, they were far closer than they should have been. Only a soldier’s raucous laugh had given him the warning to be on the alert and to approach more slowly.

Around the fire, he counted nine Hetanzou soldiers eating, while one was serving himself another scoop of rice from the pot. Behind them, a ring of tents had been erected in a haphazard circle. Freshly-worn walking paths made muddy trails that led off deeper into the camp, where Wanyi could see the outlines of more tents and the glow of more fires.

If the numbers were consistent—and Ramreunya seemed like the type to enforce order and consistency among his people—then that meant there were ten soldiers per fire. Now that he knew what to look for, Wanyi saw far too many fires for his liking.

As he and Yishan made their way around the perimeter of the camp, Wanyi’s mood grew worse. He counted thirty fires quickly. Then fifty. By the time he had reached one hundred, he felt like he had stones in his stomach.

A thousand men, at least. And that was only what he had been able to count from the perimeter. He wouldn’t be able to see the depth of the camp without risking his life or worse—triggering a war with the Tohk. Of course, the camp was sure to have many people who weren’t soldiers, but Wanyi had seen too many swords and l’anti staffs to hope for a much better count.

Over a thousand soldiers on Hukan’s doorstep. Over a thousand soldiers with trees that could act as giant channels of devastating Banti. Ramreunya didn’t need that kind of force to keep him safe while he traveled. He wasn’t actually concerned with the vote of the Council.

He was planning to take Hukan either way.

“Do you realize what this is,Yishan?”

“A Tohk force preparing to invade our lands? Yes, I see it. But the question is how do we stop them?”

Wanyi didn't know how to answer. Shanshia was defensible, thanks to its terraces and ravines, but fielding enough fighting men to defend against a Tohk army would be nearly impossible. At best, Shanshia's forces might be enough to stall the Tohk long enough for its people to starve in a siege. At worst, the Tohk would raze the city to the ground with those trees. There simply weren't enough Hukan practitioners of Lan Banti to counter that kind of firepower.

He closed his eyes, breathing in the smoke again. Behind his eyelids, he saw his home burning. His people dying. His father and brothers, slain in their prime. A nation bruised and bloodied, with hardly a man left to help put it back together.

A twig snapped behind him.

Wanyi whipped around, just in time to see a man streaking away through the forest, away from the Tohk camp. He exchanged a look with Yishan, and in an instant the two of them were airborne.

Through the trees and smoke, the man appeared to look back at them over his shoulder. Then, unmistakably, azure wings sprouted from between the man’s shoulder blades and he too flew ahead of them, dodging low-hanging branches and tree trunks.

Wanyi nodded to Yishan before peeling away to his left. Wanyi would break off and attempt to intercept the man farther to the south and east. Yishan would pursue the man directly, herding him in Wanyi’s direction. It was a maneuver they had practiced numerous times.

As he flew above the trees in an attempt to gain a better perspective, Wanyi’s confidence surged. He didn’t see any other groups of soldiers that the man could be leading them into. He could also tell—now that he could see him from a bit of a distance—that the man wasn’t as skilled of a flyer as Wanyi and Yishan were. Wanyi could intercept him even sooner than he had planned for. He saw Yishan flagging behind, letting the man think he was getting away. Wanyi moved into position, then dove.

Moving at an angle to the man, Wanyi tucked his spear behind himself and lowered his shoulder. The last moments were a blur of azure light as Wanyi crashed into the man and they both tumbled to the ground, kicking and rolling apart before regaining their feet.

It was Fahyo, the brother of that Montililun woman, Meisun. Instead of the brown they had been before, his eyes were now a crimson red. And he had a sword in each hand, one shorter than the other.

Wanyi raised his spear. His shoulder protested from the way he had landed, as did his wings. Something had jabbed him in the ribs, and he could also feel a knot growing in his thigh from where he had taken a kick from Fahyo on the way down.

“Lower your swords,” Wanyi said, his crest rising.

Fahyo advanced with a grunt, his swords flashing out to one side. Wanyi reflexively stepped back, deflecting the blades while keeping his spear point leveled at Fahyo.

He hesitated. With his greater reach, he had the upper hand in the fight, as long he maintained his distance. But he could hardly kill the Montililun man simply for startling him.

Fahyo seized his opportunity. As Wanyi considered, the Mon swordsman slashed again. Wanyi leapt back, countering just in time. Fahyo was quick. Quicker than any Sentient ought to be. And stronger. The blades of his swords bit deep into the wooden haft of Wanyi’s spear and lodged there, the impact rattling Wanyi’s wrists and sending a stab of pain into his aching shoulders.

Wanyi acted nearly without thinking. Rather than trying to wrench his spear free from Fahyo’s swords, he released it and charged forward, grappling the smaller man and sending them both to the ground once more.

It shouldn’t have been a fair fight. Wanyi was much larger than Fahyo, but the merchant guard—or whatever he was—fought like a cornered wolverine, and his strength seemed to match Wanyi’s.

Mhong enchantments. Montililun were the Singing Folk, masters of Lan Mhong. They could Sing songs that could strengthen bodies and minds, among other things. Fahyo had to have Sung over himself to be this strong.

Which meant, if he were truly a master, it could be hours before his strength gave out.

Wanyi’s mind raced as they tumbled over and over. How could he have been so foolish? He hadn’t noticed it was Fahyo, or indeed a Montililun, until after they had collided the first time. But he should have realized after seeing Fahyo’s quick, powerful strikes that Lan Mhong was at play.

His ears rang as Fahyo’s knuckles connected with the side of his head. Silent Lord, the man was strong. Wanyi tried to wrap his arms around Fahyo’s shoulders, his neck, anything he could get a hold of, but Fahyo resisted, instead wriggling around until his forearm clamped over Wanyi’s throat.

He’s really going to to kill me, Wanyi thought as he kicked and struggled. Ashamed by the fear that he felt, he cast his mind about frantically for anything that would help him break free. Where is Yishan?

Fahyo’s arm pressed harder over Wanyi’s windpipe, sending swirling flecks of black around the edges of his vision. Suddenly, he became aware of something jabbing him in the side.

My wand!

Straining, Wanyi reached for the l’anti wand he had tucked into the belt of his diani, thanking the Silent Lord that it had miraculously stayed there as he had wrestled with Fahyo.

Wanyi quickly severed his bond with Ban, and felt his wings disappear. He would need all of his concentration for this to work. A tiny gasp of sweet air was all he got before Fahyo clamped back down harder, closing the gap left by Wanyi’s wings. He drew the wand and reached it behind his head, trying to get it as close to Fahyo’s temple as he could. His lungs and muscles burned for lack of oxygen. The black flecks grew as his vision dimmed. Focusing as best he could, Wanyi visualized a fist of wind made manifest and pushed.

A green light flashed, followed by an immediate thud, then Fahyo’s arms went slack. Precious, wonderful air flooded back into his lungs as Wanyi flung himself away from the Mon man, his chest heaving as he sucked down greedy gulps of it.

He turned to check on Fahyo, who lay unconscious but breathing. A bruise was already beginning to form around his left eye. Wanyi looked down at his l’anti wand. A bit of dust still clung to the end of it, and it was a bit shorter than it had been when he had tucked it into his belt that morning, but it had saved his life. He slid it back between his diani and his belt where it belonged. His last reservations about improving his knowledge of Lan Banti vanished.

A precious skill indeed. And Ramreunya would have us willingly forget it.

Wanyi crawled a bit farther away, and sat with his head between his knees, breathing heavily. His heart still pounded, and his lungs hadn’t yet recovered. As he caught his breath, Yishan arrived in a rush, his wings stirring up gusts of wind as he landed.

“What happened?” Yishan asked, “Who is this man? And why is he still breathing?” He immediately went over to inspect Fahyo, who was beginning to stir. Yishan drew his belt knife.

“Wait!” Wanyi said, his voice raw and ragged. “Just tie him up. I need answers from him.”

Yishan obeyed, and immediately began cutting off some viney growth that had crept up the trunk of a tree. Once he had Fahyo’s wrists tied behind his back, Yishan unstrung his bow and tied its string around the Mon’s ankles. “For good measure.” “Good,” Wanyi said, having recovered most of his wind. “Make it tight. He’s been Sung over.”

Yishan nodded once and set about checking his knots. The spymaster needed no further explanation.

“He is one of those Montililun traders that arrived recently,” Wanyi said. “Do you know The Enchanted Shanty?” “Yes, I remember penning their license to do business in the Owl District. But why is this man here?”

“That’s what I’m hoping to find out.”

Wanyi stood, and walked over to collect his spear, stepping around Fahyo as he did. The man’s eyes were open, but he still looked dazed. His left eye was already nearly swollen shut. Wanyi pried the two swords out from where they had gotten stuck in his spear shaft, then,with the butt of his spear, prodded the Mon man in the ribs.

“Why are you here, Fahyo?” Wanyi asked.

Fahyo grunted. His one good eye flicked back and forth between crimson and brown. “I haven’t done anything wrong, chief.”

“You attacked a chief of Hukan!” Yishan interjected. “You’re lucky we don’t put a spear through you here and now!”

“Peace, Yishan. We are not in Hukan. And, I’m sorry to say, we attacked him first.” Wanyi wasn’t sure if Yishan had truly lost his temper or if he was simply playing a part in order to get Fahyo to respond. The spymaster-clerk had many talents.

“Forgive me, Fahyo,” Wanyi said, “I was wrong to attack you before I had determined if you were an enemy. But please, tell me. What are you doing out here?”

“None of your business why I’m here,” Fahyo said, “Now if this is all really your fault then untie me and leave me alone. I have a headache.” He glared at Wanyi, his eye holding its steady crimson color.

Wanyi sighed and looked tiredly to Yishan, whose eyes never left Fahyo. The man really did look like a crane with his gangly limbs and intense stare. “We’ll have to take him back with us.” He leaned on his spear and tried to think of a good way to transport Fahyo all the way back to Shanshia. “Then we can pay The Enchanted Shanty another visit and see if we can determine its legitimacy.”

If Fahyo, Meisun, and their Band of Montililun traders were somehow working for the Tohk, Wanyi would have to find a way to oust them from the city. If not, then there wasn’t much he could do except hope they didn’t somehow incite the people of Shanshia against him further.

He knelt to untie Fahyo’s ankles. “You can fly back with us with your hands tied. But if even for a moment I think you’re trying to escape, I’ll have Yishan tie you like a lamb and carry you back over his shoulder.”

Fahyo glared back at him, but said nothing. Wanyi didn’t think the man would try anything rash. His hands were tied, he was injured, and he was likely trying to get back to Shanshia either way.

Nodding, he handed the coiled up bowstring back to Yishan and reached out with his mind for beasts. Amidst the typical woodland creatures, he quickly sensed Ban, along with an owl that he presumed Yishan had bonded, and an unfamiliar type of eagle that probably belonged with Fahyo.

Friend Wanyi, Ban said as he opened the bond, Is everything alright?

I’m fine, Ban, Wanyi said, touched by the hawk’s concern. Are you ready to return to the city?

I am, friend Wanyi, however…

What is it?

I must request that you occasionally rest from flying on the return journey. We have been bonded much this day, and I’m afraid I don’t have the strength to fly myself all the way back while also lending my wings to you.

Oh! Wanyi said, I am sorry, Ban. Yes, we will go at whatever pace you need. Thank you for your help today.

Of course friend Wanyi. Thank you for your understanding.

Wanyi turned back to Yishan and Fahyo. The former was checking his knots once again now that the latter had regained his feet.

“Are you two ready, then?” he asked, stooping down to pick up Fahyo’s swords.

Yishan nodded as Fahyo grunted, rolling his shoulders.

“Then let’s be off. We’ll be lucky if we make it back before sunrise.”

**That’s it for this week! If you’d like to support the work I’m doing here, you can buy me a coffee here. Or, if you’d like to become a monthly supporter, you can do so by becoming a paid subscriber below. Whatever floats your boat. I’m grateful either way. See you next week!**