A Cruel Romance - Volume 1 - Chapter 15

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The Fire of New Year

 

On Commander Ho’s orders, Jin Hwan-Ran sent a few of his squads out to deliberately cause trouble . Alarmed, Ts’ui quickly approached Commander Ho with his offerings .

Commander Ho rose to eminence . He soon received his commission from the Nanking Government and became the Director of the Hsian Military Council, and incredibly, the whole affair proceeded without a single hitch . When he had first come to Hsian, Commander Ho never imagined that he would ascent to such a height .

Of course, although the Director of Military Council had the nominal command of the Shensi, Kansu, Ningsia, and Tsinghai Provinces’ military and political powers, Commander Ho’s actual capabilities limited him to managing his immediate surroundings .

The young Commander Ho was barely twenty-four . Prosperous at such an early age, he was almost delirious with delight—and he was not alone . The entire Twenty-Third Army went delirious with him .

Their delirium led to revelry, and the Twenty-Third Army’s idea of revelry was quite terrifying . Since they couldn’t act within the city, they instead went on a killing spree in its surrounding areas . Despite the fact that they were no longer in the remote County of Luyang, they had nothing to fear under their leader, Commander Ho the Director and Commander-in-Chief .

A month after Commander Ho took office, Fu Jing-Yuan was assassinated . With his death, the last remnants of Fu’s forces scattered off like startled birds . Chairman Ts’ui was thrilled at the news, yet outsiders were claiming that Commander Ho was behind the assassination .

Commander Ho found the rumours ludicrous—why would he ever bother to lift his hand against someone like Fu Jing-Yuan?

Dauntless, he took no concern .

Another month later and right before New Year, the Twenty-Third Army was involved in another scandal .   The officers had colluded with caravans from Sikang and were found smuggling drugs in great quantities .

Commander Ho had been in the trade for long enough to find it perfectly acceptable; the outsiders had no cause to be startled . He had forgotten, however, that back in Luyang where he had been something of a crime lord, nobody paid any attention to his undertakings . Now that he’d rose to such prominence, he had not only forgone his self-discipline, but had opted to openly traffic drugs at a time when the whole nation was under prohibition . He was setting the worst possible example .

As a result, Commander Ho’s and his subordinates’ reputations quickly ended up in the gutter . But as much as the onlookers bristled with indignation, the parties involved remained unfazed . The Twenty-Third Army never had a good reputation to begin with and they had indeed been smuggling drugs . They were very magnanimous about it, public opinion be damned .

- : -

Commander Ho’s New Year in Hsian was very festive—almost outrageously festive .

As he received his guests’ flattery and praises, he vaguely experienced the thrill of Lan’s heroin high . It was a feeling of light-headed satisfaction .

Eventually he grew tired of it and stopped receiving guests, and kept to Lan’s side instead . These days, Lan spent most of his time in dozing away . If Commander Ho wasn’t visiting, he could easily sleep through the entire day . Other than getting his heroin shots, he didn’t even seem to eat .

His looks went with his weight . When he appeared at Commander Ho’s banquet on the fifth evening of New Year, no one recognised him .

Normally, Commander Ho’s behavior never went out of line, but when it did it’d go off by thousands of miles . In front of all his guests, he helped his half-dead lover down unabashedly, paying not a heed to his own manifold and eminent status . From his seat, Li Shih-Yao cocked his head and grumbled to Major General Sun: “looks like Ho Ch’i-Bao’s ran out of shame . ”

Major General Sun concurred . “If he’d kept a hare like Major General Sun, no one would say anything . But Chief Lan—Chief Lan barely looks alive now . ”

Li began to laugh: “In any case, Old Lan’s out of luck, but he’s dug his own grave . Remember how he led Ho on? Now look what happens! Didn’t catch the hare but got his eyes pecked out by the eagle! Rumour goes he’s drugging himself to death . Just wait, I think he’s near his end . ”

Sun chuckled with him . “If he goes, Commander Ho might make us mourn his passing . ”

Li laughed . “I’ll mourn his mother’s cunt!”

- : -

Lan Bai-Shan was too weak to remain sitting for extended periods of time—besides, the crowds bustling about the room made his head pound . He didn’t feel shame . His soul had died a step before his body; what the hell was there left to be ashamed of?

“I’m going upstairs,” he said to Commander Ho . “I’m tired . ”

Commander Ho was in the middle of a conversation with Chairman Ts’ui over the table . At Lan’s comment, he rose quickly from his seat and lifted Lan by his arm . With the further support of his walking stick, Lan got up shakily, a footman tailing close behind in case he lose his strength and fall on his backside .

Commander Ho helped Lan to his rooms . After merely ascending the small flight of stairs, Lan’s forehead was already covered in sweat . He sat down on a sofa and let out a deep sigh .

“I need another shot,” he demanded suddenly .

Commander Ho was all compliance . Reaching for the call button, he summoned the private doctor in residence .

A syringeful of heroin later, Lan leaned back into the sofa . He closed his eyes as his breathing evened out slowly . Commander Ho sat down beside him . “Was it too loud downstairs? I’ll sit with you here then . ”

Lan waved him off . “I’m fine . It won’t do to neglect the guests . ”

“Doesn’t matter, I’ll keep you company . I can’t leave you with an empty room while I go socialize downstairs . ”

Lan scowled . “And what about those people down there?”

“I’ll go down in half an hour,” Commander Ho said with a smile .

Lan opened his eyes . “I don’t have anything to entertain you with . Are you going to just sit here?”

Commander Ho considered it . “Let’s drink!” he proposed suddenly .

“Haven’t you had enough downstairs?”

“I’d rather drink with you . ”

- : -

Sitting across from each other, Commander Ho and Lan Bai-Shan finished a bottle of brandy together . Half an hour later, Commander Ho went down to send his guests on their way, and stumbled back up the stairs drunkenly to resume his swigging with Lan . At the end of the night, a fully smashed Commander Ho hugged Lan close and slobbered all over his face . He let out a few barks, and fell to the floor laughing . Lan too had lost his senses . After a session of frolicking on the floor with Commander Ho, he crawled towards a small cabinet in the corner of the room and reached up for the call button .   But searching the wall with his hand and finding no trace of a button, he simply opened one of the upper drawers and took out a small paper bag . He opened it and brought it to his lips, and with a tilt of his head, he dumped its entire content of dusty white powder into his mouth .

His hands shook violently . Bits of the powder went into his nose and incited a few dusty coughs . He found a bottle of wine, and taking a couple of large gulps, he finally manage to wash everything down .

He dropped the bottle and crawled back to Commander Ho . Collapsing on his back, he stretched out his limbs and closed his eyes groggily .

Commander Ho was curled into a ball, already fast asleep .

- : -

On the sixth noon of New Year, Commander Ho opened his eyes .

He really had too much to drink the night before . His head was pounding and dark spots assaulted his vision . With a moan, he turned over and rested his head on Lan’s arm, throwing an arm around Lan and a leg over his waist .

In this new position, Commander Ho dozed off again .

He slept fitfully . His aching brain throbbed painfully as if it had separated itself from his skull . Even his swollen eyes felt a feverish burn .

“Bai-Shan,” he patted Lan on the chest . “Wake up . ”

He rubbed his eyes . “Why do I feel so sick? Don’t you have a headache?”

After a yawn, he suddenly remembered . “Aren’t you getting your shot?”

Lan offered no reply . Commander Ho reached for Lan’s nose and pinched it shut with his hand . “My brother, why are you even lazier than me today?”

He held on to Lan’s nose, and held it for three whole minutes .

Then he suddenly looked up at Lan’s profile . “Bai-Shan?

He let go of Lan’s nose and rubbed his hand on his trousers . Holding his breath, he placed a careful finger under the tip of Lan’s nose .

“Bai-Shan?”

He kneeled in front of Lan . Bending down, he pressed his head against Lan’s chest and listened quietly for a long moment .

Looking up, he called out again softly: “Bai-Shan?”

A deathly silence filled the room .

Commander Ho staggered to his feet . Staring at Lan’s resting form on the ground, he stumbled backwards, and with his hands clasped tight around the hem of his shirt, he began a soul-wrenching scream .

- : -

Lan Bai-Shan had died .

The doctor arrived for an inspection, and decided that his death was caused by heroin overdose . Commander Ho drove out the doctor and the servants in the room . Locking the door, he went and sat down next to Lan with his legs crossed . He did not weep, and simply heaved a heavy sigh .

He sat there from midday to evening, without a word and without a sound . The wary adjutants outside knew of Commander Ho’s moody ways, and grew fearful for him . As they dared not to knock on the door, they rang up the more authoritative figures among their ranks .

Major General Sun was the first to arrive . He too dared not to knock, but he came up with the fanciful suggestion that they should set up a ladder outside the house and send someone to get a peek through the window . The adjutants thought it a feasible plan . Just as they were on their way out to look for a ladder, Li showed up .

Hearing about Sun’s plan, Li found the whole idea ludicrous and rejected it on the spot . He strode up to the upper-floor bedroom and bashed on the door . “Commander, open the door!” he hollered . “We all heard about Lan, and came in to check on you . We’re sorry for your loss, but don’t do anything rash!”

There was no reply in the room .

Li pulled out his pistol and blasted the lock right off .

Kicking the door open, he spotted Commander Ho kneeling in the room with his back to him . The gunshot did not seem to startle him in the slightest . His back looked still and forlorn, and he appeared to have been kneeling for a long time, with no intention of getting up .

Li turned to wave a hand at Sun and the rest of the men, signaling them to leave .

He stepped softly into the room . “Commander?” he called out cautiously .

His head bent low, Commander Ho gave no response .

Li walked up to Commander Ho and squatted in front of him, throwing a glance at Lan in the process . “Look, Commander . What is this you’re doing here? Since Chief Lan has already passed, we should be making arrangements for his funeral . We can’t just leave him lying here . ”

Commander Ho remained expressionless .

Li knew that Commander Ho was probably in shock, like how Jin Hwan-Ran had become Jin An-Ran a while back . But Jin had eventually recovered, which means that as much as the shock can hurt, it wouldn’t leave any long-term aftermath .

“Commander, maybe I should send someone in . Wash Chief Lan up and get him changed . ”

Commander Ho stared impassively into the distance . Suddenly, he raised his hand and slapped himself hard in the face .

Li caught his hand quickly . “Stop that! Why are you hurting yourself over Chief Lan’s death?”

Commander Ho ignored Li’s hold of his hand . His mouth opened dispassionately: “Bai-Shan died by my hand . I have wronged him . ”

That you have, thought Li, but isn’t it a bit late for that particular load of bollocks? Swallowing, he opened his mouth to offer Commander Ho some words of comfort .

However, as soon as his tongue came in contact with air, Commander Ho rose to his feet and said emotionlessly: “Burn him . Once I get back to Peking, I’ll find him a good resting spot . ”

Li did a double take . “What? Burn him?”

Commander Ho turned and walked toward the door . “There’s space in the courtyard . ”

“What? In the courtyard?”

“Go get some firewood . ”

“What? Now?”

Commander Ho didn’t answer him, because he was already a long way off .

Li turned back to Lan’s remains . “Old Lan, what is this fate of yours? You’ve got Commander Ho raving mad, and what about you? Don’t even get to be laid to rest—you’ll be thrown straight into the fire . Each other’s banes, that’s what you are . No good has come of it in this life, but perhaps in the next one, you’ll be born as husband and wife! Ah well, never you mind, rest in peace now . I’ll go fetch you some firewood!”

- : -

Li Shih-Yao stood in the courtyard and directed the orderlies as they piled up the firewood and prepared the buckets of kerosene . Adjutant Feng walked up to him, his face filled with disbelief . “Are we really going burn a man in the courtyard right during New Year?”

Even Li winced a bit . “Well… It’s what he wants . ”

Just then Li Bai ran out from the house, gasping for breath . “Everybody wai—wait! Commander Ho wo—won’t let anyone move Chief Lan . ”

Li clapped his hands . “Great, now he doesn’t want to part with it! If he won’t bury him or burn him and just leaves him rotting in the house, then good luck to you all!”

Fortunately, Li’s prediction didn’t come true . Two hours later, Commander Ho dressed Lan in a new outfit and had the orderlies place him on top of the woodpile, then personally poured two buckets of kerosene over it . Finally he lighted a match, and dropped it on Lan .

The flames leapt into the sky with a whoosh . Commander Ho kneeled in front of it and kowtowed thrice at the fire . He remained prostrated on the ground, like a pious man in prayer .

The servants of the Ho Residence had never seen anyone burn a dead man in their own house . They hid away in the house fearfully, not daring to take even a peek outside . In the courtyard, only Li and a few adjutants managed to remain unfazed . Lan Bai-Shan lay atop the woodpile as he turned from a smartly-dressed gentleman into a scorched skeleton; in the end even the bones were burned crisp, and the flames emitted small popping sounds from time to time .

The fire began to subside after two hours . During this time, Commander Ho remained on the ground without ever lifting his head . Spotting the strange happenings from the gates of the residence, Jin Hwan-Ran and the others slipped in quietly and questioned Li for details in low voices .

- : -

Commander Ho placed Lan Bai-Shan’s cremains in a white porcelain urn—the bones were black .

As he had been kneeling for too long, he staggered as he got up, and nearly stumbled in to the dying fire to accompany Lan . Luckily Li had been keeping an eye on him . He lunged forward and pulled him back, saving his life .

- : -

The smell of a burning corpse lingered persistently above the Ho Residence . Commander Ho placed the white urn against his pillow and refused to see anyone for many days .

By the thirteenth day of the New Year, he could no longer keep to himself—the Nanking Government had relieved him of his post as the Director of Military Council .

Not only had they dismissed him, they had enumerated his crimes such as killing, pillaging, and smuggling, making it clear that they weren’t going to let him off . Commander Ho was bewildered by the turn of events, but he did not panic . After dwelling on it for a few hours, he felt like he was getting an idea of the ins and outs .

Ts’ui had been using him!

He had used him to eliminate the separatist forces of Shensi’s military, and if he could then get rid of Commander Ho, Shensi would be Chairman Ts’ui’s . As for the Central Government—of course the Central Government would never truly rely on a second-rate army like Commander Ho’s .

Commander Ho sneered at the thought . None of it mattered . As long as he had his army, he had nothing to fear .

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