Boqin swung his wooden log around, his arms quivering as he held it high above his head and lowered it down. Sweat glistened across his body and his worn front shirt was draped haphazardly over a stack of hay. He breathed out deeply and raised the makeshift weapon once more, swinging it around and lunging forward. His breaths came in shallow gasps and he strained himself as he continued swinging in concise movements. I, meanwhile, watched him for a few seconds, mildly interested.
“Practicing once more?” I called out to him as I shifted my weight from one leg to another, my muscles cramping from picking the crops from the field. I pulled my straw hat closer to my forehead to avoid the sun and grinned at my younger brother, who was still holding his position. “How long will you take?”
He lunged once more with the log and grimaced as he almost lost his footing. “I don’t know,” he said as he held the thick wooden stick with one hand, his muscles tightening and straining under the weight. “I need to get stronger; this whole country is torn up with war, so might as well start practicing for when I have to be a soldier myself.”
“You’re only fourteen,” I said with a sigh. “Anyway, don’t shirk your duties. I had to help pick the crops with Father because you weren’t around.”
He dropped his weapon on the ground and frowned. “Sorry about that.” He trotted over to where his shirt was lying and quickly pulled it over his head. “Didn’t Mother forbid you from going outside? Your skin will darken, you know.”
“I know.” I pointed an accusing finger at him. “But, I wouldn’t be outside helping out if you did your work.”
“Ok, ok.” He raised his hands in defeat, his lips easing up to a smile. “So, has the wedding been announced?”
“Mine or Ting’s?”
“Yours, obviously.” He raised a brow and wiped his sweaty hands on the front of his shirt before pushing back his dark hair. “Ting hates her fiancé, right? I thought she would pass out last week when she met him.”
I nodded solemnly; Ting had almost burst into tears when he had left the house. Even now, she was miserable, refusing to speak to anyone or go anywhere. “Well,” I said with a shrug, “Mine will be here in three weeks if he gets here on time. He’s supposed to come back in a week.”
“Soldier life is unpredictable, though,” Boqin said as he bobbed his head. Unfortunately for the both of us, we knew exactly what the struggles of being a soldier in this warring period entailed.
Three of our oldest brothers had died in the battlefield when we were too young to understand why they were gone, and another two were still fighting. Many men that left for war from our tiny village rarely came back. They either died or went missing, and if they did return, they were crippled. “How long until the war with Ki is over, do you think?”
“Who knows,” I mused. “It’s been going on for how many years. Fifteen? Twenty? I doubt it’s going to end anytime soon, unfortunately.” I shook my head. The Huo Empire had been constantly at war this past century. Rebellion after rebellion, states breaking away from the empire, coming back, breaking once more. Fighting, fighting, fighting. It wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Currently, the six states that had broken away at some point during the hundred year warring time had formed their own kingdom, the Kingdom of Ki. The Huo Empire was continuously fighting Ki for land, and trying to bring back Ki under its clutches. Meanwhile, Ki was trying to secure as much land as possible and keep the Huo Empire at bay.
“I still don’t like how you’re marrying a soldier,” Boqin said. “What if he dies and leaves you alone? Worse yet, what if he dies after you have a young child, and leaves the both of you poor and starving? It’s not like he’s rich either, so he could still provide for you regardless if he dies or lives; he’s dirt poor, like us.”
“It’s not like I have much of a choice.” I brushed down my clothes and walked alongside Boqin as we made our way down the dirt path that led to our house. “Mother grew up with his aunt and knew her, so it’s only natural that they try to set us up together. Besides, it was either him or the sixty-five-year-old man from seven villages over.”
“We haven’t even met him,” he grumbled. “I wonder if I’m stronger than him. I’d like to beat him and see how good of a fighter he is.”
“We’ll meet him soon,” I said softly.
“What if he dies before even coming here?”
“I don’t know about the what ifs.” I tried to shake off the unpleasant air hanging around me. It wasn’t as if I cared for my betrothed—I didn’t even know him—but if marriage to him didn’t work out, I would probably be married off to an old man. “He’s already survived his first campaign,” I added. “He probably has some sort of survival skills if he’s still alive. Most young soldier die within their first campaign.”
He sighed. “I wonder what he’s like. He better be a good guy to be taking you from us.”
“Let’s hope so,” I murmured. I was the second girl of the family. We had an older sister, but she had died from childbirth a few years ago, leaving behind a weak baby that eventually died at age three. I was the last remaining daughter and the second youngest child; I wasn’t exactly the doted one in the family—that was Boqin, since he was a boy and the youngest—but I had a special spot since I was the only remaining sister and daughter.
“I wonder if our two brothers will come to the wedding,” Boqin said offhandedly as our rickety old house came to view. He clasped his hands behind his head and walked nonchalantly, casting me a side glance. “Huan and Jiang are still fighting, but I think Huan should be coming back.”
“I don’t think so; Huan is going to be with his wife. He’ll be too far away to be with us.”
“I still can’t believe he chose to go over to her village instead of staying in ours!” He shook his head and huffed out loudly. “Well, whatever. At least I’ll be there, as will Ting and the other cousins.” He paused when we were a few feet from our house, before spinning around to face me, a hand placed on his hip. “I still don’t want you to be married off, Lihua. I’ll be alone when you’re gone.”
Although Boqin tried to act like an adult, he was still a young fourteen-year-old boy. I took in the image of my little brother, staring at the way his hair was too short and cropped too closely to his head, the way his black eyes shone with mischief and naivety, at how he had grown taller than me within a year. How many years would pass until I would see him again once I was married? Would I ever see him again?
Brushing away my worries, I forced a wide grin across my mouth. “Don’t worry about me.” I patted his shoulder as I walked past him to the house. I rested a hand on the door, glancing over my shoulder at him. “You’ll be fine without me. You have our cousins to play with and you have friends in the village.”
He mumbled a response as I pulled open the door of the house and waltzed inside.