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"Never stop until you pierce the stars!" (closed)


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It was raining like a monsoon… Too the shock of nothing, it was that time of year after all. Yet ‘Róngyù’ was still outside training. Every day for weeks she’s pushing herself to the breaking point and then past it. She had to give everything she had as so much was at stake. The fact she’d even be let in past the gates… the fact they’d even humor with an audition for Royal Guard status made every passing day feel like a week. All her paperwork looked over a dozen times, every soldier and fellow captain she named in her papers were spoken with again and again. Nothing can be left to risk, nothing overlooked. This moment was years in the making and even if a Yokai lives for a very, very long time… she truly did not want to waste so much time. This grand game and bet was far from over after all. And laziness on her part will not see her lose it so soon. 

 

The other soldiers at the base watched with slack jaws as her blade slammed in to the next dummy. Steel caved in, wood splitters as it was not cut in half but more blown apart from the impact. Her muscles hurt, hell all her body hurt. For all the years she’s used Bullbraker it was still a huge hunk of iron to swing about. And she’s never pushed herself this hard with it before as well. In a way she was thankful for the rain dumping on her head, otherwise she’d be overheating even worse. At least she can rest easy knowing her troops had a good show to watch…. She had one more week. She’d train for six more days, rest on the last and go over there papers again. Then early in the morning depart for Huangjing.

 

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‘Never stop until you pierce the stars!’ That was one line repeated over and over in Honor Quest. No matter what came, how low she was laid, the mare in that comic never gave in. never gave up. And looking up from the warn pages of the comic Róngyù watched the walls of Huangjing come in to view. She’d never stop, she came close one time. Never gain. Not until she pierced the stars. Putting away the comic she pulled out her papers, thick as a hoof and detailing everything she can think of to prove her merit. A few more hours…

 

---

 

She took a deep breath. Everything was in order. Washed up, trimed, captain's armor polished waxed and detailed. She was rested and looked alert and ready. Another deep breath, if only she can look relaxed. Glancing at the monster of a balde strapped to her side she looked it over. Clean, polished and sharp as the thick beast can be… Well, this was it. She moved her cloven hooves and looked up at the towering gates of the Royal Palace. She’d not meet the empress, odds are she’d not even see inside the building. But she did get to go into the Courtyard to meet the one that will do her audition. She did wonder what he’d be like. He’d have to be a real hero, a true champion of this land! Oh she was so close!

 

Stopping at the gates she looked up at them and wondered what she was supposed to do now. Nock? Stay put? She’s never even been this close to the palace's walls before and felt worried she’d do something out of line. They’d know she was coming, she was on time after all and some guards must have seen her walking up. So… “Hello? Captain Róngyù Rènwù, I’m here as requested for a meeting with Feng Yinhaitao for an audition.” She spoke up some, but did not try knocking on the wooden gates for the moment. She did her best to look relaxed, at peace, but stress was eating away at her every passing moment.

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Fate was a strange thing.  Feng had, during long stays at the infirmary, read the takes of the great philosophers of Long Guo upon the question, but most of what they had to say could be summed up in those five words.  Who among them, for instance, would have seen the village troublemaker he was, and be at all able to predict that mere years later he would not only be in the Empress' personal guard, but be put in charge of evaluating others for appointment to such a post?

 

The fact that Empress Yue had only recently set up that group of the Guard, reporting directly to her rather than the heads of either the Army or the Watch made it slightly more likely, of course.  That he would be the first and founding member, though...  *Bah, need to shake off these thoughts.  Hanabi was right, I shouldn't succumb to imposter syndrome.  The Empress believes I am worthy, therefore I must be.*  He could only hope this confidence would hold up under what would be his first real test.

 

 

On his way out to the courtyard, he reviewed in his head everything that was in the papers sent to him about Róngyù.  The Qilin's record was good enough to not be dismissed out of hand.  Solid anti-banditry work done in the provinces, always putting in extra training hours, rapid series of promotions... that bit about the sword, though, seemed exaggerated.  This wasn't some comic, after all-

One look out in the courtyard put paid to that line of thinking.  Good grief, that looked as if it weighed as much as he did!  Large as she was, Róngyù would have to be a little bit crazy to wield that 'Bullbreaker' as her chosen weapon.  Feng grinned. 
 *Looks like we're gonna get along just fine.*  Taking off from the top step, he glided down into the courtyard, golden scales shining in the sunlight, bright against his brown fur and feathers.

 

"Well met and welcome, Captain.  You have traveled far for what must seem an uncertain chance.  What has driven you, may I ask, to bear the weight of anticipation and steel upon your back from the provinces to here?"

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Róngyù stayed put as stands by the door, pondering if she needed to knock on it… But lucky for her it seems she did ponder long about where the meeting was supposed to be or if she missed it. Her ears aimed at Feng as he took wing and glided down to meet her. Turning about to face him as he landed she stood tall and raised a hoof up before pounding it onto her chest in greeting. She looked every part a soldier as looked down at him. But inside her head… Feng was a lot smaller than she was thinking he was going to be. By a lot. He looked like a colt next to her! But on the other side golden scale buddies! So maybe that will even things out, matching scale buddies was the best after all and, oh, he was talking!

 

 

“Greetings Feng Yinhaitao, thank you for meeting this day and offering this chance no matter how uncertain it may be.” She says with a bowing, a trate she’s still yet to shake off from her homeland. She took a moment to think about what he asked her. Why was she here at all? It gave her a moment of pause. “Glory and honor sir, for nothing may hold more than serving the Empress and defending Her. Not as some shadow striking in the dark unknown, but seen by all uncompromising in my duty to Her. I can not dismiss some of my desires as selfish, I spoke of them first and will not hide them or dismiss them. Yet I feel they can be found here and tempered as well. A true hero lives not for thareself, but for the better of others. And so I came before you ready to give all I have to earn the glory and honor I crave and most of all… Learn to look past it for something more.”

 

She pulled up from her bow and looked down at Feng, she already felt worried about her words. She was a brave mare and countless times rushed ahead of her troops in to the thick of combat. Bandits, raiders, worse. But so much was resting on this moment. In her words. No training can make this less taxing. Yet she kept eyes focused and body firm. She’d give this all she had, that she knew.

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Keeping his stance at Parade Rest, Feng looked up at the larger mare listened to her words.  Glory and Honor, eh?  To see that as a motivation was not in the least surprising, in fact he himself had gone to the capital in search of the Honor his village refused to give him.  And, through a manner not quite straightforward, he had found it.  Glory, too, had come his way, though he suspected Ronyu did not include foreign athletic competitions in her definition.  

 

What was a little surprising was to hear this speech, paired with the recorded years of service in the Regulars.  Veterans at that level tended to have a little more jade in their eye, hardness in their bite, cynicism in their soul.  To be able to speak such words with sincerity spoke of a soul of unusual resilience.  A point in her favor, perhaps.  "There is no greater honor in Long Guo than to be accounted a faithful servant of the Empress."  He said, with full sincerity on his part.  "And in serving well, there is glory."  The seriousness of his expression lightened a bit as he continued, "So that part's alright, as long as you remember not to let your heroism get in the way of your primary duty."  It was a good thing that he was smiling, because that wasn't a sentence he could say with a straight face, exactly.  It was just that his rise through the Watchers had been a thorough education in just how much he could get away with.  The village troublemaker within yet lived...

 

 

Motivation down, he now figured his best move was to assess her skill.  "Now, if you wouldn't mind going through a sword kata with that, Bullbreaker, I believe you called it?  I still find myself not quite believing that can be used in any practical sense..."

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She was glad to see his expression lighten as the tone of things shifted, that was a good sign most of the time. “Heroism and duty go hoof to hoof, to forget or forfeit one's duty is to toss away their honor as well. When I give my vows to uphold such things I can never forget them.” She says looking down at Feng with a small fanged smile. It was the truth, more so than he’d know. If she gave some vows to keep the empress safe then… Well, she needed to be careful in her words. She had no plans to be bound forever as guardian of the Empress. She’d give it a dozen years and see if this was the stepping stone she needed to take and if not…

 

Looking at her sword as Feng talked about it she nodded her head. “It won the name Bullbraker by the troops I was honored to lead. I’d be happy to show you how it won that name… I hope you are ok losing some target dummies. They don’t last more than one swing most of the time.” She says with a bigger fanged smile, easy to see why some gave her the nickname ‘Viper’ with a grin like that. “You will start believing soon as I start swinging.” She lifts a leg and brushes the long sheath of her blade as she speaks. It was for a time nothing more than a burden on her. But now she loved it, it was her mark in this world and when name was spoken far and wide this blade will be spoken with it. Her brothers did not lie about that, with it by her side nothing can claim it was not her.

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And here Feng was thinking that she got the name 'Viper' from using snake-style kung fu.  Showed how much he knew.  With an impressed whistle at the drawn blade, he nodded towards the training dummies in the far corner.  "The Imperial Budget can probably stretch that far, yes.  But enough talk; let's see some action!"  Taking wing, he glided across the yard, waiting at the end to see Rongyu work her Bullbreaker!

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“Very well, lead on!” She says back, rushing after feng… She wished she had wings. Well, maybe she can give herself wings. Can she? Honestly she didn't know and now really was not the time to test that. Focus! Slowing down her run she trots to a stop in the training yard and looks at the targets, a nice line up of them. Some close together as well… And some clearly made to the size and shape of a caribou. Moving for the wood caribou with a big fake axe in its muzzle she leans her head to the side, teeth unlocking the sheath of her blade so it dropped off her body. Without stopping her trot the blade was pulled free as the sheath stayed behind on the ground.

 

With her blade free she pushed in to a fast dash for her target before swinging her blade in a tall arc that came down like a thundering hammer blow on its back. Wood splinters then shatters as the blade bit deep, then passes out the other side as the wooden dummy was ripped in half by the blow. She did not slow down, pulling her blade free she swung at the next target. Three pony shaped dummies side by side. The scale mail on them did nothing to even slow the blade as the small plates shattered, wood broke. The first one was cut in half, the second one crushed from the impact and the last dummy was up rooted but not ‘killed’. That did not last long as she swung the blade around and slammed it down on the dummy's head, crushing its helmet underneath the monster of a blade. 

 

Bullbraker was nothing like the blades most think of from her homeland. Nothing about it was swift, subtle or cutting like a razorblade. Every blow hit more like an axe than sword as her targets were as much crushed as they were cut apart. Legs, heads and other parts were sent flying with every swing and crushing blow of her sword. Even for wooden dummies the carnage her weapon inflected was unnerving if one was squeamish. It may be unnerving even for a veteren as the mare smiled like a wolf on the hunt with each swing as a thin trail of fog seems to follow in her wake of dummy destruction. But soon it was over, every dummy laying broken and in pieces all over the training field as she rested the blade over her back, holding it in place with one leg as she rested.

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Feng had barely touched down on the field when he found himself having to leap back into the air to give himself a wide berth from the cloud of splinters that Bullbreaker Blade made of the training dummies.  Certainly, if the Empress ever found herself menaced by the formidable raiders of Whitescar, this Rongyu would be just the sort of fighter Feng would really want around her.  The fact that she left none spared, though... gave him a little bit of a worry about collateral damage.  The absolute last thing he wanted was for one of his newly-founded Royal Guards to accidentally cut a civilian in half!  Yu Yue would never forgive him...

There was only one way to judge her control in a fight though.  "Well, that was certainly impressive, but wooden dummies don't hit back.  I want you in the center of the field for spar.  You got thirty seconds to take a breather before I expect you there."  He took wing, gliding over to the center of the field where a ring had been drawn out on the grass for outdoor sparring.  He hovered, waiting for her as he counted to thirty in his head.  This would give him a chance to test endurance, as well as fighting skill and control.  A guard who blew herself out after a minute in a fight wasn't exactly useful for defending an Empress, after all.

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It was good she pushed her endurance so hard in training for this day. As it seems he was going too test that heavily, what use was her blade if she was too tired to use it and do her duty? “Thank you, as you wish.” Róngyù says as she starts the countdown in her head. She used the small moment of rest for just that, relaxed her breathing and focused her mind on the task at hoof. A spar. Something she was nervous to do with others. Bullbraker was not a weapon that behaves well with such tasks and use. Even if Feng timed every block flawlessly the mass of her blade may see him hurt. So she’d walk a fine line between puting on her best hoof and keeping to safe sparing techniques. 

 

Time’s up. Soon as her clock hits 30 she spins on the spot and heads for the center of the field and the marked out ring. It was not far. Reaching the rim of the ring she looked up at the hovering Longma and adjusted the heavy sword on her shoulder. “I’m ready when you are, but I will voice once my worries of sparing with my sword. She bites hard and heavy, I will not swing with full force, I will not lead a strike that may land. I’d prefer a training sword. That is all.” With that she steps past the line in the sand.

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Given the absolute size and threat Bullbreaker represented on the field of battle, it was only fair that it be set aside for a friendly spar.  Live exercises could come later.  That did leave Feng with a problem, in that no training weapon of any comparable size was available.  No one thought such a thing would be needed, after all.  *Ah well, we can test her versitality as well as her endurance.*

Kicking up a short wooden blade from the ground, he tossed it over to Rongyu with a flick of his leg.  "Catch.  And I've counted thirty, on your guard!"  And with that, Feng kicked off skyward, shooting up only to fold his wings into a diving kick, aimed right at his prospective recruit!

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Rongyu acted fast, jaws snapping for the blade as it was flinged her way as she pushed the bullbraker out of the way. She did not have much time to think as Feng wasted no time too get things going. So she fell back in her training, much as she fussed the instructors were very much truthful. Sometimes you have to act without thinking. So you best train your body what to do when you need too act faster than the brain. 

 

And so swung her head and aimed the wooden tip to be in his oncoming path, he’d have to halt his dive, swing it far to the side or smash his flank in to the wooden blade. All can give her an opening to doge, react or push an attack.

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The first rule one learned about the fast pace at which martial arts matches were resolved was that you had to fight with your mind, not with your eyes. Firstly because if you were acting after you saw what your opponent was doing, you were already behind; secondly, your eyes were the best clue to your intentions.  You had to think ahead to what your opponent was likely to do in reaction, and anticipate their response.  Actually doing such a thing required experience and hours of training time, which advantage Feng had.

 

Even as Rongyu was lifting her blade, his left forehoof was in position to deflect it's strike with minimal effort, while his right rear hoof was swinging around for a blow at the back of her neck.  He'd feel the wooden sword glance against his scales, but their protection was sufficient for now.

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Feng’s speed put her on the back hoof, his training was in many ways better than what she was given and learned in the army. Yet she was far from beaten yet as her woodend blade ran over his scales, contact made she pulled the blade against him, he was hardly more heavy than Bullbraker as she pushed him away to her side with the swing as his hoof clipped her ear. 

 

He’d recover fast, faster than she’d have time to act on him being pushed off his path. So she used the opening to leap back and get eyes back on target. He seemed like the aggressive type in combat, so she needed to make him back off and go on the defense. She may not have Bullbraker but she was skilled at overpowering a defense, raw strength and size were her strong points. If she was on the defense his small size and speed played against her.

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While there was no great impact or bruising, the sheer amount of force Rongyu was enough to deflect his dive entirely.  An impressive, if brute force solution.  She wouldn't be able to do that indefinitely, if he read her endurance right.  

Rather that fighting the flip he was thrown into, he simply used his forelegs to bounce and spin off the ground, ending up facing her.  The initiative was not yet lost to him, though, as he leapt forward even as she was landing from her backward jump.  His golden-shined cloven hooves, scuffed from the dirt of the training ground, lashed out in a flurry of blows aimed at her head, muzzle, jaw, temple, all in succession.  Press the advantage, that was the ticket, if he was ever caught on the backhoof... well, the sheer size of the absolute unit of the recruit would likely just bowl him over.

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She did not have as much time as she hoped for, he was back at her again in a flash and pushed her back on the defense trying to keep up with his much faster attacks. Strong and big as she was it meant nothing when you were the one being attacked, in fact it made it harder for her defence as his small size gave him the speed to zip around her when he had free run like this. 

 

Getting out was the hard part, he was staying on her and it was clearly a front to keep her in this defence. Trying to think of how she can break his assault was no easy feat when blocking his japs and strikes. So much easier when you can club someone with a sword that doesn't care how good they blocked. But she did not have that. So she just make do and trust in her grit and strength and… maybe some luck.

 

And that luck was a jab at her muzzle and a flash of teeth and fang. She felt a flash of pain, a tooth or two must have been knocked out of her maw but she didn't care, not in the moment. She had his hoof firmly in a bite and swung her head hard to the side, pulling the hoof, leg and the pony attached along for the ride.

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Jarring as it was to be suddenly seized by his target, this move scored Rongyu points in his eyes.  Initially trained as a member of the Imperial watch, he was quite familiar with martial arts techniques and moves thought of as "dishonorable" by the normal military, which included biting.  So, good job Rongyu!  But Feng had a couple of tricks up his own sleeve...

 

The breath of a longma was not as magically strong as that of a qilin, and Feng's wasn't even useful as an offensive weapon, as it merely emitted a cloud of relaxing mint-scent.  But it had applications in a situation like this, where he was seized in strong jaws.  Once Rongyu breathed it in, and she would have little choice, given that her grab would keep Feng in close range, her jaw muscles would relax, allowing him to pull free.  It was a solid hit, though, with his foreleg hurt and bleeding.  He knew he had but a moment, too, before the adrenaline in his system and the relaxant in hers wore off, one last moment of advantage for him to press.

With a grunt and flap of his wings, he got behind her, wrapping his hind legs around her neck in a submission hold.  Whether she'd power through it or submit was her decision at this point, the initiative was hers to seize... if she still had the energy to do it.

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The last thing she’d ever think of when swinging a pony about in her jaws was… Mint. She can’t even register where the smell came from as she spat out the hoof and started dry heaving well stumbling back. Mint was awful in ways she can never put in to words, the smell of it made her feel sick. The blast of awful sent shot up her nose was indescribable for how vile and gut wrenching it was. And so she was left wide open, her body shaking as she wheezed and gagged. And just as she was trying to get air back in her lungs free of that disgusting sent two for-legs wrapped around her neck as Feng munted up on her back. 

 

She trashred, bucking and leaping about trying to remove him from her back. Every buck and leap got weaker with alarming speed, she didn't have the air or recovered in time frome dry heaving to keep going. Her head felt dizzy. Yet she kept pushing it, trying to bite at his legs, at his face, whatever she could reach with her jaws until she was seeing stars. Falling down she weakly slapped her hoof on the ground a few times, she had to submit. The juggernaut of a mare was down and she hated it. She failed, she lost. If she was not so out of breath she may have started crying then and there. No way they’d keep her after losing in such a humiliating way.

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Seems the last trick he had up his sleeves was just enough.  Once Rongyu tapped out, he released his hold, rolling over the large mare's back to land on his own hooves.  Three of them only, her jaws had done a number on his fourth, and he wasn't ready to trust it with his weight just yet.  Bleeding as he was, he still smiled.  "Well, you show promise.  I see you haven't quite made dealing with highly-trained threats second nature yet, but that can be covered with more training, now that I've got a sense of what your capabilities are.  Remember, even if you aren't able to prevail, as long as the enemy is occupied with you, and not the Empress, you've done your job."  He cocked his smile into half a grin.  "Though we might need to get you a face mask for on-duty work.  If that's how you react to mint, an anise bomb is gonna really mess you up."

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Róngyù stayed down as she panted, her head was still swimming from the lack of air and it took her a moment to even register what Feng was saying. He seemed… Impressed? She’d prototest that but in the moment lacked the will to fuss. It was only after she got some much needed air back in her lungs and her eyes cleared she even tried to sit up. “My…” She takes a few more deep breaths. “My only wish is to be a hero, kown far and wide. I’d give my life in her place to see her to safety, nothing is more heroic.” She gets out, shaking her head to clear it more. She honestly did not think she’d die, she’d just fake her death or something. Róngyù will go down as a hero and she can go home to her brothers haveing won the bet. But such dreams are far away, but at least…

 

“I did not fail? You beat me. Soundly. The last time I lost this fast was in boot camp. You trashed me Sir.” She pulled herself up now, had more clear but that smell of mint still clung to her nose. It made her gag some more as she blew her nose and snorted, trying to clear the scent out. “But if you think I hold promise I swear to do all I can to meet it. Just like boot camp, no matter how impossible it felt to best my trainer I did. I can do it again. Maybe. You are a cut above army trainers. Never seen a pony come at me like that, most of all just using hooves. I think if I can go even with you I'd call it a victory.” She pulled herself back up on all four legs. “And Sir, I have no clue what anise is. But if it's worse than mint I hope to never smell it in my lifetime… So if some mask can keep me safe I’d be happy to use it.”

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Feng found Rongyu's voiced willingness for heroism in service of the Empress a gratifying confirmation that his decision to make her his first recruit was a good one.  "Well, you've got the skill and drive to do that much.  I'll make sure you get the training to actually survive your heroics."  He grinned, not entirely unaware of the hypocrisy involved from him, the record setter in number and severity of Palace infirmary visits.  It was the reason, for one thing, why the sight of him sparring always prompted proactive action by acolyte healers, one of whom was already wrapping his leg.

Testing his weight on the bandaged limb, he thanked the healer with an unintentionally heart-melting level of charm, before offering his good foreleg to help Rongyu up.  "I've been at this business a little longer than you, professionally.  Started training younger, too, so some stuff got built into growing muscles and mind.  Still, I feel I'd be a fool to let that level of strength go on account of one loss.  By the time you finish learning everything you can from me... well, you'll be something amazing no doubt."  He turned around, gesturing with a wing to follow.  "Come on, let's get you inside and fitted for your uniform... ooh, but we should stop by the kitchens on the way, this calls for a little celebratory snack, and I'm friends with the Palace chef, so there's almost always some dumplings on reserve!  Yanhua makes the best dumplings."

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She was still somewhat shocked he did not think she failed, this grew in to just full on confusion as he talked more. It sounded like… she passed? Like she was done? “Wah?” She was getting her uniform? How in the… She had to blink a few times watching him walk away. She passed… that was… easy? She honestly was lost for words and just followed him trying to understand how she passed. It didn't feel like she did. There has to be more too this. More tests. 

 

Speeding up for a moment she falls in line walking side by side with him. “Sir, do you mean I passed? Or is this uniform for washing the outhouse?” She asked, looking down at the small male. “I feel… I feel unworthy, are there yet more tests? There must be.” She added, looking and around as they walked. It really was pretty out here, if not for what she was doing she’d love to spend some time just enjoying the peace of this place. “I hope the kitchen has coffee. And not some tiny cup of it.” Well if they are going to the kitchen… She may as well get something to perk up and clear the last of this mint out of her nose. Blessed coffee, wonder drink of soldiers the world over.

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Rain. 

If there was anything in the wide world that got on the palace chef's nerves, it was rain. It stirred up all sorts of stuff when it fell and made everything wet and soggy. Her dislike of this sort of climate had been a characteristic since she was a kit, but her time in the sacred forest so long ago had soured her so much that just looking at the stuff outside the kitchen window put her in a bad mood. Rainy days were days when Feng wasn't able to come as often as a colt, no partner to play with, noone to talk to, just her and the dark, cold wilderness for sometimes days. Besides the crippling loneliness of those times, Rain always messed with her sense of smell. It didn't dampen the many scents in the environment, no, it magnified and mixed them until it was the olfactory equivalent of looking at a bad watercolor painting. 

What made that most frustrating was that since she woke up and made her way to the kitchen, she had noticed a curious scent. Normally she could place what sort of thing might be making it, but with the great blend of scents it was simply lingering in the background while Hanabi's instincts told her to investigate. While she tried to place the foreign scent in the palace it was starting to concern the staff in the kitchen. Apparently she had been sniffing at the air every few minutes and the kitchen crew were worried she could be coming down with a summer cold. She waved off their concerns, just saying some flower in the garden must have been bothering her, and she'd be fine after some tea. 

They urged her to take some time off anyway, as she'd been working harder than usual to handle a banquet last week. Despite her best efforts the consequences of a massive endeavor left a mark of exhaustion on her.  In the end she reached a compromise: She'd stick to the background while they took care of the workload and they'd call her in the event of an emergency. She could rest in one of unused kitchen rooms and recover her energy. So she did.

She kept herself amused by organizing pots and pans and deciding to cook some simple snack. A bag of the various ingredients were set up on the counter. As per usual the qilin leaned over them and took a whiff. At first they smelled fine, but then she caught wind of that mystery smell again. What In Long guo was it? This would drive her mad if she didn't figure it out in time, but soon another smell entered her mind: One that instinctively brought a smile to her face. She made her way to the door just as the pair entered the kitchens where one of her assistants pointed them to the room she was relaxing in.

"Feng!" She called out and waved over to him, "Already eager for a snack are you?"

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Feng shot a grin back over his shoulder at the still-incredulous qilin.  "Of course!  All of life is a test, and to pass is to live another day."  In truth, it was fair to say that Rongyu presented more of a test to Feng than Feng could ever present to Rongyu.  He suspected, as a new transfer to the Guard from the Watchers, that his pool of candidates had undergone some... 'pre-selection' as a kind of hazing.  Service rivalries were a thing in all nations, and while few would dare antagonize a Watcher in active duty, Feng suspected that the corporals who handled the paperwork did not want to pass up the opportunity to have a bit of fun at his expense by sending a plausibly impressive, but difficult, first recruit.

*Hah, I'll show them, though!  Six months, a year tops, and she'll be out, bright, and shining!  The Empress will be most impressed...*  His thoughts then drifted into daydreams of what might result from so impressing Yu Yue, but the smell of the kitchens drew him back to reality.  "I don't know about coffee; that's usually brewed in the barracks directly, but there's always a pot of tea on.  But speaking of which..."

 

He nosed through the crowds of kitchen workers, effortlessly dodging limbs, ladles, and plates.  All the staff were familiar with him, though the larger companion drew no small amount of stopping and staring.  He himself didn't stop until he reached the little corner where his friend had her personal retreat.  "Hehe, yup.  Did some intense work on the sparring yard today."  He showed off his bandaged limb in demonstration.  "Oh, speaking of which, meet Rongyu, newest recruit of the Empress' Honor Guard!"

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Rongyu gave Feng an odd look, his reply was confusing to say the last. She was used to clean and dry orders. Blunt and to the point. His was… Well, it sounded like something some old gray muzzle would say at the noodle shop. Confusing and maybe deep but something she just can’t be bucked to think about for long. She hoped he was not like this all the time. “As you say Sir.” Was all she could come up with in response. 

 

At least the smell of cooking did wonders to help kick out the last of the mint from her nostrils as she took in a few deep sniffs at passing food items. The cooks did not seem all too thrilled about the giant mare towering over them and sniffing at there work with hungry eyes. Some of that food looked… Maybe a hint to fancy for her own taste. Maybe it was the years of eating army cooking but it looked more like a joke than a real plate of food… She was going too be fed by them now wasn't she? Or were they just for the oh so blessed staff of this place only? She’d have to ask Feng later. If they were to feed her, some pony was going to need too learn how to cook a real serving of food. 

 

Looking over at Feng she speeds up to stay on his tail as they move in to far back room of the place, nice and cozy and seemed to be the resting spot of his friend. A friend that… Well. Something about this qilin… Oh what was it? She can’t seem to place a hoof on what was itching in the back of her mind. Something about this qilin seemed off yet she can’t pick up on why. Whatever. “Nice to meet you Mis, and worry not, I'm not so hungry as to try to eat all of Feng today. He needs some more salt and time over the fire I think.” She says with a big grin. “Oh, and do you have coffee?”

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SHe grimaced at the sight of that bandaged limb. It always concerned her when she saw Feng was injured. She knew he had become one of the toughest stallions in all of Long Guo, but some part of her still worried about him. Her head turned her head towards the new recruit and looked her over. By the ancestors, Was she tall! No wonder she was a candidate, she looked like the sort who could take care of a battalion on her own. The only thing diminishing the air of intimidation that came with her stature was all the sniffling and wiggling her nose was doing. Yanhua could detect the faintest hint of mint on the air and in seconds she'd put two and two together.

 

"Hit her with the mint distraction breath, did you?" She gave Feng a Wry smile before  gently patting Rongyu's shoulder, "Don't worry, Miss Rongyu I'll start brewing something to clear those sinuses... and as a word of warning, try to avoid that talk of eating my favorite guard: Only the empress or myself can have a bit of this troublemaker." 

The chef let out another laugh but then paused, for a moment it seemed as though she had completely frozen in place. Her nose gave a twitch and she leaned forward towards the new recruits. Through the clatter and clangs of the kitchen atmosphere Rongyu might have heard the faintly audible sniffing of the chef. For a moment, her nigh perpetually closed eyes opened as her brow raised. Her green eyes did a once over the aspiring guard before she took one more whiff and then shut her eyes to the slits they were most used to being. 

"Hm... " She cleared her throat and brushed a fetlock to her muzzle, "We happen to have a few grounds in the room I was resting in. I just started making some dumplings before you came by, putting on some coffee won't be much fuss.  Come along then!"  With a seemingly knowing smile she sauntered along back to the backroom  with the couple in tow. Once the two were in there was a click as the door behind them locked, Yanhua across the room looking through the cabinets and soon pulling a sack of beans from their depths. 

 

 

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