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As I left the command tent after the discussion, I noticed a rather rotund fellow hurrying towards me. Quirking my eyebrow curiously, I waited for him to approach and state his purpose… Only to be left standing awkwardly when he passed by my side and slung his meaty arm over the shoulder of the boy who exited the tent right after me.

“Brother,” he whined. “You took a good long time in there. Your little brother might have starved to death!”

His brother shrugged off his arm expressionlessly and replied with an equally monotone voice, “You needn’t have waited for me.”

Undeterred by the cold reception, the jolly fellow cracked a smile that narrowed his eyes into seams and made his fat cheeks jiggle. “Ah? How can that be? How can we eat without senior brother?” Stepping closer, he locked arms with the boy and began dragging him off impatiently. “Come, come. Junior brother and junior sisters are waiting for you. The food will get cold if we don’t hurry.”

The boy quirked an eyebrow. “You mean they didn’t let you start without me.”

“Haha.” The fatty rubbed the back of his head and chuckled embarrassedly, but his grip on his senior brother didn’t loosen and his strides didn’t slow one bit.

I recognized them. Both were members of the elite team Huaxia had sent to participate in the Swayamvar. The boy was the leader, Shang Qing, and if I recalled correctly, the fatty was Yu Qing. They had one more male member in their team: Tai Qing. These three brothers along with their wives had arrived just one week ago to participate in the ‘Trial of Water’ which was what we were euphemistically calling the war with the Shogunate.

They were disciples of the Heavenly Court – the strongest, most mystical of all Huaxian sects and their de-facto leader.

Flowing black hair that reached his waist, a vertical crimson mark in the middle of his forehead – the symbol of his successful marriage, and a slim, perfectly proportioned build. Shang Qing’s most distinctive features were his eyes – dark grey with two pupils in each eye. They lent his gaze a supernatural weight. No wonder they called them heavy pupils in Huaxia. Legend had it that only the ones favoured by the Heavens could possess such eyes.

I don’t know about legend, but his performance in the tent had been most impressive. His words had been few, but each one had been pertinent. And despite being the same age as me, he had already broken through to Tier 3 initial stage.

Looks, brains, and magical talent, he had them all. The only defect in something perfect was his wooden face and excessively dry tone of voice.

Shaking my head at their two-man comedic sketch, I began to walk away.

Taking travel time and convenience into consideration (crossing Shogunate occupied territory would be a hassle), the elite teams of Swayamvar participants from the rest of the nations had joined the Western Armada while the Huaxian team had joined us here at the Eastern Armada. Of course, all of us would meet once again on the Bay of Kings as the two fleets convened before the decisive confrontation with the Shogunate fleet.

“Hey.”

I halted my footsteps again as Shang Qing called out to me from behind.

“Yes?” I asked.

“You were going to have dinner, right?”

“Yes,” I acknowledged.

“Then you’re invited to have it with us.”

If his delivery of the line wasn’t so monotone, I might have considered it a warm invitation. His interpersonal interactions needed work.

“Pardon, my wives are waiting for me. Some other time maybe.”

He frowned slightly at my rejection and studied me silently. Just as Yu Qing behind him grew impatient and was about to urge him, his brow stretched.

“Fine. Some other time then.”

Then without another backward glance, he turned on his heel and strode off, leaving Yu Qing to hurry to catch up after him.

I knit my brows as I rubbed my forearms. The fine hairs on both of them were standing erect and my skin was dimpled with goosebumps. In the flash that he had turned his gaze on me, I had sensed an extremely strong threat from him.

Letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding, I turned and walked away. I needed to be careful. It appeared that I wasn’t the only monster around.

//

Beads of blood welled up from the mark on Shang Qing’s forehead, joining together into a bright red rivulet that trickled down the side of his nose. As it reached his lip, his tongue stretched out and licked it off.

Beside him, Yu Qing asked worriedly, “Brother, why did you suddenly break the seal? You know how much of a burden it places on all of us when you do that.”

Reaching up, Shang Qing wiped the blood off with one of the voluminous sleeves of his robe. He looked down at his sleeve, the bloody red in sharp contrast with the pristine white of the fabric.

“Because he gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. Like he could see right through me, but was choosing not to. I’ve only had this feeling once before… when I was called up right in front of the Supreme. I had to test if our trump card was still valid against him.” His tone became dignified. “It’s no wonder that Supreme wanted him gone. If left alone to grow, he poses way too much of a threat.”

Yu Qing complained, “This mission of ours isn’t easy to do. Not only do we have to get rid of the fellow when he is surrounded by his allies, friends and family without drawing suspicion on ourselves, now we have to do it when he might just be strong enough that nothing but our flashy trump card works against him.”

He rubbed his cheeks in exasperation.

Suddenly his stomach growled in protest. Throwing his hands up in surrender, “To hell with the mission,” he cried out before speeding up his steps to their assigned dwelling. “It can wait till after I’ve had something to eat.”

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