A Cruel Romance - Volume 1 - Chapter 21

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He squatted in the corner of the room with his arms around his knees . He’d just been dunked in the river and scrubbed down from head to toe, and now everything hurts .

The brush was originally intended for horses . They slapped some soap on it and set to work, scrubbing off both dirt and skin . After he’d been adequately sanitized, they proceeded to shave off his hair and shoved him into a set of large uniforms . The orderlies looked at his tiny body hiding in the uniforms, and at his skinny neck and his round, bald head sticking out of the collars, and they couldn’t help but laugh, horse brush still in hand .

After they’d done laughing, they gave him two buns of bread and watched him wolf everything down . They laughed again at the sight .

The old battered door swung open with a creak . A tall man stepped in .

He dared not to raise his head, and stole a quick glance at the stranger .

The man wore beige wool uniforms . His coat was unbuttoned, and his white shirt hung loose over his trousers . His knee-high riding boots, however, were black and polished .

These boots came forward and stopped directly in front of him . A gloved hand reached out with a horsewhip, and tipped up his chin .

He was suddenly afraid—not just afraid, he was utterly terrified . His small body shook evenly and his broken skin chafed against the rough uniforms, but it seemed as if his senses were dulled, and the only real struggle was for breath .

He looked down . Driven by some primal instinct, he would not meet the man’s eyes .

“Do you know who I am?” The man asked dispassionately .

He opened his mouth and revealed a small patch of clean white teeth . With what seemed to be all his might, he squeezed a tiny sound out of his throat . “You’re…the Commander, Sir . ”

“Are you afraid of me?”

His mind blank, he nodded stupidly .

The horsewhip moved away from his chin, and gave him a little pat on the face . The voice above him became tinged with vicious amusement . “You’re right to be afraid . ”

He gave an inexplicable shudder . He glanced up for a brief second, and caught himself looking into a pair of black upturned eyes . Straight long lashes fanned out around their rims, like decorations for these elegant eyes .

“What’s your name?”

He swallowed . “Hsiao-Shun,” he said, timid as a kitten .

- : -

Hsiao-Shun made quite a spectacle on their journey .

The troops kept a few German shepherds . The soldiers assigned him the task of feeding the dogs, except Hsiao-Shun ended up stealing the dog food . The orderlies made him empty chamber pots in the morning, only to later find him dozing off with them by a ditch .

Clumsy and timid, he was a lacking in every way, and was beaten every day .

- : -

Commander Ho always felt that he had no man of his own in the army . His willingness to drag survivors out of mass graves was born out of his need for absolute loyalty, which could be achieved by establishing himself as a savior .   Chao Hsia-Hu was such an example, but sadly a counter example . It was like Fate giving him a big fat slap in the face .

Commander Ho was not given to altruism, and he could not reconcile himself to the results of the only charitable deed he’d done . He was determined to start over again with Hsiao-Shun, and prove that his methods were not invalid, and that Hsiao-Hu was an accident .

Commander Ho had learned from his mistakes with Chao Hsiao-Hu . He believed that Hsiao-Hu’s transgression was the consequence of his own kindness . He had treated him as one of his own, and spoilt him so much that he’d be insolent enough to even think of such a violation .

It could thus be deduced that men were despicable by nature . If he wanted to gain an adequate subordinate, he should never treat him like a man! He must start off with a solid foundation and beat some obedience into him .

Under the guidance of such an ideology, Hsiao-Shun was in for the most unfortunate ride .

As he was hilariously dense, at first there were soldiers who would go and fool around with him for laughs .   Eventually they stopped approaching him, since his presence reminded them of Commander Ho, which tended to send shivers down spines .

After a few months of getting properly fed, his dark and tiny body stretched out gradually . He was round-faced, his looks indistinct, but his brows were clear and his large, heavy-lidded eyes were terrified and vague—like those of a trapped fawn, knowing that death was approaching, but harboured no thoughts of resistance . His teeth were white and straight, which was rare among country folk .

Commander Ho beat him obsessively, in such a way that beats all the beatings one could beat in a lifetime and possibly beat into the afterlife . During the day he waited on and served tea to the Commander, and during the night he’d spread out a small rug in the corner of Commander Ho’s room and curl up on it like a dog, ready to be called upon at any time . He was right at an age when boys slept the most, and after a long day of hard labour he’d lie down and fall asleep right away . Sometimes Commander Ho would fail to rouse him, and he’d get up in the dark and light a candle, then stalk toward the boy in silence and kick him right the face . Hsiao-Shun would then jump into the air with a yelp and then kneel trembling on the ground, not even daring to wipe away the blood streaming out of his nose .

One day he brought over a bowl of tofu pudding for Commander Ho, who took one sip of it, and detecting some unknown fault, overturned the bowl and smacked it right onto Hsiao-Shun’s head . Startled, he dropped to his knees reflexively . The large bowl slipped off his head smashed into the ground with a clatter, and he squeezed his eye shut and clenched his teeth, scalding tofu dripping all over his face .

Li Shih-Yao was just arriving through the door, and took a step back at the sight . “Fuck! What the—“

Upon closer inspection, he finally exhaled . “Heavens . I thought you blew his brains out!”

Commander Ho gestured toward a chair . “Please have a seat, Major-General Li . ”

Li sat down and took in Hsiao-Shun, who was still enduring his face getting burnt off in silence . “Boy did he grow! Look at him, he’ll be a great tall thing one day . ”

Commander Ho spared Hsiao-Shun a glance, and gave him a square kick in the chest . He was painfully thin, and fell backwards like a paper cut-out .

Li laughed at the sight . “Why don’t you just shoot the boy if you don’t like him . What’s the point of torturing him by bits?”

Commander Ho waved a hand impassively . “I’m educating him . ”

Seeing his gesture, Hsiao-Shun picked up the large bowl and scrambled up, and backed all the way to the door before turning around and running off .

When only Li and Commander Ho were left in the room, Li smiled and began: “what did you want to speak to me about?”

Commander Ho regarded Li, and found that he still despised him, as he is uncultured, ignorant, and rude . But he was in fact one of the men who brought him out of school—and the only one left, for that matter .

As it was, Li was something like a token of remembrance for him .

He covered his mouth and gave a light cough, deciding to initiate a little heart-to-heart .

“Major-General Li, I’ve been considering this recently—it’s been more than six years since I left Peking . ”

Li nodded . “You were still a kid back then! I remember Old Lan dragging you on—I was in the rear, carrying your book bag, and Old Jin was in the front, clearing the path . And there was that nun at the school, screaming at us in some foreign tongue . It all seemed to have happened yesterday, but, well…”

Li thought about his rivals who all died in Hsian, and felt a bit gloomy himself .

Commander Ho had no intention of sharing a remembrance of things past with Li, and the moment Li shut his mouth, he continued: “When you put me in charge, it was with the intention of keeping the one hundred thousand or so men under the same banner . Now that all that’s left are the ten thousand men under your command, there’s no longer the need for a commander-in-chief . Major-General Li, I wish to return to Peking in a few days . The remaining men will be yours to rule, and will have no more to do with the House of Ho—“

With a loud creak, Li dragged his chair toward Commander Ho . “I’ll be damned . Are you trying to run off?”

Commander Ho was not expecting Li to suddenly come so close . He wanted to back away, but to avoid potential embarrassment, he held still and pressed on . “I’ve never been commander material to begin with . There’s nothing in it for either of us but awkwardness, so why stay?”

Li stared straight at Commander Ho’s eyes . “Commander, however you feel like I’m mistreating you, just talk to me! How can you just leave?”

Commander Ho remained unmoved by Li’s persuasion . “I haven’t been in touch with Peking for years; I don’t know what the situation is like back home . I can’t go back empty-handed . We’ve made something of an ill-gotten fortune when we retreated from Hsian . A thousand silver-dollars shouldn’t be too much to ask for . ”

Li frowned . “Commander—“

Commander Ho didn’t give him a chance to speak . “Silver-dollars will be inconvenient on the road . Keep an eye out for Sikang caravans for me, I’ll be exchanging the money into Pounds . ”

When he spotted Li opening his mouth again, he quickly continued: “All you have to do is send a battalion with me to Hopeh . That’s all I wanted to speak to you about . You may leave . ”

“Like hell I’ll leave!” Li finally exclaimed . “All we did was listen to you speak, I haven’t even opened my mouth! Commander, what’s gotten into you? I know staying in this place is difficult for you . I spotted something off with you the moment we set foot in Luyang last month . But then again, we only had ten thousand men left the first time we came to Luyang, but didn’t we make it back to Hsian? Old Jin and his bunch were all idiots, I tell you! We gain nothing with them and lose nothing without them . Just give me a couple of years, I myself can recover all our strength, and then—“

Commander Ho was not interested in speculating the future with Li, and silenced him with a raised hand . “That is indeed a wonderful prospect, but it can be achieved by your strength alone, and has little to do with me . I too had once desired a remarkable career, but now I am beaten and tired .

“At your age?” Li placed a hand on Commander Ho’s knee . “Besides, how will you even make it out? Do you know how many enemies we have in this area, not to mention elsewhere?”

Commander Ho remained under Li’s hand and detected nothing untoward . “It’s not like I’m leaving tomorrow . Worst happens, I’ll take the long way around . The world is round—I’ll end up in Peking one way or another . ”

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