A Cruel Romance - Volume 1 - Chapter 22

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Guests from Afar

 

Commander Ho said that the world was round . As long as he could take steps outs and not die in the process, he’d make it to Peking eventually .

What would he do once he reached Peking? Li Shih-Yao asked the same question, to which Commander Ho answered without a second thought: “Retire . ”

This came as a surprise to Li . “How old are you? You’re retiring already?”

Commander Ho considered this . “I’ll grow old in retirement . ”

Li’s eyes lit up as he scanned downward from Commander Ho’s face . “My, my…” He sighed with regret, rubbing his hands together . “To keep such a great man idle at home… Such a pity…such a waste…”

Not catching on, Commander Ho thought Li was lamenting over his golden youth . “That’s no big deal . The ancients used to say: ‘even thousands of gold cannot buy an inch of time’, but even if men were to have heaps of time, how many wouldn’t spent it in vain?”

Li scowled . “You can’t put it like that .   The best years of a man’s life are short . After that point it’s like overripe vegetables—who’d want to chew on withered cabbage?”

Perplexed, Commander Ho thought to himself: is he talking about me? Fucking bastard . He’s calling me a piece of withered cabbage! But as he gave it more thought, he felt that it couldn’t be—nobody phrased insults like that . Then what on earth did it mean?

Commander Ho pondered over this for a moment in silence, and decided to drop the topic for now . Just as he was about to order Li to leave, he found Li staring at him hesitantly, his grinning face awkward and flushed, and looked as if he was biting his tongue .

Commander Ho lifted an eyebrow . “Major-General Li, you have something to say?”

Li lowered his head and looked down at his hands, which lay clutched together in his lap, and felt a bit short of breath . He scolded himself: why the fuck should I be scared of him?

After such a reprimand, he seemed to have recovered some courage . He cleared his throat and said to the floor: “Uh—Commander, I have this idea, I don’t know if it’s appropriate . ”

In face of his sudden and unusual embarrassment, Commander Ho grew very curious . Somewhat fascinated, he leaned into his chair and rubbed his chin . “Go on,” he encouraged .

Li had never been afraid of charging into forests of bayonets and hails of gunfire, but in front of Commander Ho—who didn’t really warrant any fear—he found it almost impossible to breathe over his racing heart . “Uh—Commander—I think you’re a great fella, so—so—“

Commander Ho had never been subjected to a comment like that, and since Li was being uncharacteristically nervous, he couldn’t help but smile . “So what?”

Li sucked in a very deep breath and exhaled slowly . He hardened his resolve and blurted out: “I want to sleep with you!”

Rubbing his chin, Commander Ho regarded Li smilingly . After a long moment, he asked: “What did you say?”

Having gotten the crucial part out, Li felt himself relax little by little . He looked up at Commander Ho, a tiny hint of a grin sliding back onto his face . “I want to sleep with you . ”

Still smiling, Commander Ho extended a finger at Li . “You, want to—” He then pointed it to his own chest . “Sleep—with Me?”

Li forced himself to remain calm . “Yes . That’s right . ”

As if speaking to himself, Commander Ho nodded . “Sleep… How?”

“How did you do it with Lan? But I have to be on top!”

Commander Ho’s smile receded like an ebbing tide, and vanished without a trace in an instant . He stood up and circled a few rounds before Li, then in one abrupt motion, he hauled up a nearby chair and sent it barreling into Li . “YOU’VE ASKED FOR YOUR OWN FUCKING DEATH!”

Li was adept at physical combat, and had leapt away the moment Commander Ho turned . Failing to land a strike, Commander Ho dropped the chair and raced to the hallstand for his gun . Li realised that things weren’t going to bode well for him and made a run for the door, yelling: “Think about it! You’re not going anywhere until you agree! I shall take my leave!”

He dashed through the courtyard like the wind, and sparing no time to call his orderlies, jumped onto a horse and fled .

- : -

Commander Ho sat in his house and felt like he was going mad with rage .

A sense of unutterable frustration accompanied his rage . He gave the toppled chair a violent kick and let out a frigid laugh . Unbelievable . All walks of life had the nerve to crawl on top of him these days! There’s no shortage of women in the army—Li was going out of his way to disgust him!

If Li had delivered these lines a year ago, Commander Ho could probably find a way to successfully slaughter him . As he had neither any troops of his own nor any real military control, he devoted himself to personnel management, and for years he sought favours and spurred conflicts among his officers, using his manipulations to establish a balance of power and maintain his supreme authority . But now that most of the personnel are dead, his work with personnel management had to be put on hold . Commander Ho had thus become a true loner .

He dared not to dispatch Li, but whenever he thought of Li’s demands, he almost wanted to go take a bite at someone in anger . In fact, he could simply forget about the whole business and continue playing the Commander-in-Chief properly, since however lewd Li was, he wasn’t going to leap over and pull off his pants . But he couldn’t let the matter go—his narrow-mindedness prevented him from letting anything go . Li’s words reverberated in his head from dusk till dawn, ceaselessly and tirelessly .

- : -

After spilling his guts in front of Commander Ho, Li Shih-Yao did not show himself for three days .

Commander Ho spent his days wallowing in resentment and rage, and was certainly not going to seek him out .

Hsiao-Shun, unfortunately, bore the brunt end of it .

Whenever Commander Ho’s irritation became unbearable, Hisao-Shun would be hauled over and used as a punching bag . He kneeled on the floor with his glassy-eyed look and endured the abuse complacently, only curling up and putting his arms around his head when the pain became too much for him . He never made a sound or begged for mercy .

He was weak and helpless; his life was cheaper than dirt to the nefarious Commander Ho . His refusal to cry or beg was only form of rebellion he could accomplish . The rebellion was modest but firm—it was a silent declaration: beat me to death if you can!

Commander Ho eventually noticed his oddness . He bent down and grasped the boy’s chin .   “Why aren’t you making any sound?”

Hsiao-Shun looked at him with large limpid eyes; there was absolutely nothing in them .

Commander Ho suddenly began to suspect that he was actually simple, or had become simple . What was he doing with an idiot?

He gave him a kick in the chest . “Say something!” He roared between clenched teeth .

Hsiao-Shun swayed and collapsed to the ground . After getting properly fed, he had indeed grown a lot taller at an astonishing speed, but because of this, his lengthening body was so  thin that it looked like it was carved out of cardboard . If Commander Ho had put any more force behind the kick, he’d have sent the boy flying .

- : -

The orderlies spotted Hsiao-Shun emerging from Commander Ho’s room in the evening .

Somebody behind him asked quietly: “Hsiao-Shun, did you get beaten again? What happened to your face?”

Hsiao-Shun didn’t respond . His head low, he headed to the kitchen to collect Commander Ho’s dinner . An unbroken patch of swollen red stretched over his face, its burning sting like splinters pricking into his skin and stabbing around aimlessly in his flesh .

This was the product of the hot wax Commander Ho poured over him . He warned that if he continued to stay quiet, he’d switch the wax to boiling oil . Hsiao-Shun finally broke down and begged, “Have mercy, Commander,” his voice like a kitten’s .

He received an instant slap in the face . “What did you call me?”

Hsiao-Shun no longer felt any pain . “Have mercy, Ch’i-Yeh”, he corrected automatically .

Commander Ho had instructed the boy to call him “Seventh Master”, since Hsiao-Shun was a bound servant he meant to keep .

Hsiao-Shun had relented, yet Commander Ho continued to beat him, calling him a coward for showing weakness instead .

And Hsiao-Shun endured . His life consisted of eating, sleeping, working, and getting beaten . Since the punishments were reasonless and inevitable, he lived in perpetual fear and uncertainty .

Because of this, he was actually less anxious after the beatings . Before the abuse starts, there were an endless number of horrifying possibilities, but when all is said and done, he only had to find a corner to hide in and get through the pain silently .

- : -

Three days later, Commander Ho had gotten somewhat calmer . He decided to take a walk .

There wasn’t much around in terms of scenic sites . He rode to the riverside as if the early winter weather wasn’t already cold enough . Hsiao-Shun followed behind, and his frame could now hold up his shapeless wadded uniforms .

Commander Ho dismounted and took a few steps along the riverbank . He suddenly thought of Lan Bai-Shan .

After the bloodbath at Ching-Yun, Li Shih-Yao sent in his men and retrieved every single item the bandits had looted from the train . Commander Ho recovered Lan’s urn and held on to it once again .

If Lan was still alive, Commander imagined that he would be consulting him about running away together . It sounded almost like elopement . Romantic and dangerous, it consisted of all the elements of a love story . His life had never resembled anything roseate, and he’d give anything to experience such an extraordinary romance, even if it meant dying at the hands of bandits on their journey .

At the thought, Commander Ho smiled dreamily . Elopement—they could run away into the dazzling world, but Lan would never be willing to stay someone planning to retire . What would he do then? Perhaps he’d kill him!

In that light, he was probably better off staying alone . Besides, Lan probably wouldn’t elope with him . It had always been a one-sided affair, an unrequited love that was both physically and emotionally destructive .   But thinking back, it was still a good thing to have somebody to love, even if his lover had ended up wasting away .

Enthralled by his thoughts, Commander Ho stood alone by the river in a trance .

Since Marshal Ho’s death, he’d been searching a new “love”, both under the broad light of day, among the shining heavens and the sunlit earth, and in the silent darkness of night, among the streams of blood and fields of carcass . In the year of his father’s death he was still a boy; his love had been too precise and too powerful, and when it suddenly disappeared, his was left empty and dejected, like a man losing one half of his life .

So he needed love, a powerful and tempestuous love . Such an emotion could only be invoked through a passionate romance .

To his infuriation, nobody wanted to be involved in a romance with Commander Ho .

He’d fallen for Lan alone and offered himself willingly, but the other man merely laughed it off and played dumb, refusing to accept him .

How infuriating!

- : -

Time crept away silently in Commander Ho’s contemplations . A chilling wind sailed along the surface of the lake and flited against Commander Ho’s face, tumbling and scrambling into the bushes up above . Commander Ho stood in the wind for a while, and gave a sudden sneeze . He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his nose, pausing his meditation for the moment . Right then, he noticed a few soldiers crossing the small bridge nearby .

Li Shih-Yao was in the lead, and among the soldiers behind him there were two strangers tied up in ropes . He could tell that they were from out of town right away, since one of them was suited and the other was wearing a Tibetan leather robe, like he belonged to a Sikang caravan .

Li also spotted Commander Ho . He paused briefly and shouted: “Commander! What are you doing there?”

Commander Ho watched Li, and gave another sneeze . Li’s manners appeared perfectly ordinary, as if he wasn’t the very man who had proposed to sleep with him just a few days ago .

His mind raced for a moment . “Major-General Li,” he said with a nod, his tone nonchalant .

On long legs, Li made his way to him in large strides . “Aren’t you cold, Commander?”

Commander Ho pointed behind him . “Where did these men come from?”

“They were lurking around unidentified . I happened to catch them right at it,” Li said idly .  “I was going to take them back for interrogation . If they can’t explain themselves, I’ll just dispatch them as spies . ”

Commander Ho blinked . He suddenly wanted to challenge him .

“Let them go, let them go . Are you going ban people from just passing through your territory?” Then he turned to the pair of men . “What are you really doing here?”

Seeing that somebody was coming to their aid, the men were obviously not going to pass up on an opportunity to ensure their continued existence . The suited man was shorter than average, at most in his twenties, and he stepped forward to answer: “Mister Commander, I’m a traveler, not at all a spy; my background is as clear as stream water!” He pointed his restrained hands at the man behind him . “This is a friend I travel with, he is an interpreter; his heart is as kind as a sheep’s!”

Commander Ho burst out laughing .

It turned out that the little man did not only have a peculiar way of wording and phrasing, but his pronunciation was absurdly standard . His Official Mandarin had no hint of any regional accent or dialect, and sounded almost like a radio broadcast .

- : -

Commander Ho brought the men back to his residence . His sole purpose was to have a chat with the little man, who turned out to be Japanese . An excellent student back at language school, he was able to speak Mandarin fluently—if a bit academically, like he was reciting from a book . He was a good conversationist, and since he came from the outside world and had a great deal of news and information to offer, his company held great appeal to Commander Ho .

Li Shih-Yao didn’t join them . He merely stared intently at Commander Ho’s retreating figure—focusing only on the middle section, right at his ample backside .

The men sat in the central hall where orderlies served them hot tea . The little man lifted his cup and took a sip right away . “Commander, I thank you for saving our lives . What is your honourable name?”

“Ho Bao-Ting,” Commander Ho answered .

“And your courtesy name?”

“Ji-Ch’ing . ”

The small man gave a clap . “What a noble name! My humble name is—” and rising from his seat, he pulled out a business card and presented it to Commander Ho with both hands . “—Arimitsu Kiyoshi . ”

Commander Ho accepted the card and noted that under Arimitsu’s name, there is another line that said “Sino-Japanese Trading Company, Trustee” .

“Mr . Arimitsu is a trader?” he asked .

Arimitsu sat back down and shook his head . “I’m a traveler, a traveler . I have no money, the Trading Company is my brother’s . It is a titular title, I receive monthly salaries . Idle when young, remorseful when old . It is my great shame!”

Commander Ho turned to the man in Tibetan garbs, a smile on his face . The man had just successfully untied the knot under his chin and removed his large fur hat .

Without the hat’s obstruction, his face were finally on full display . He looked to be about thirty, his fair skin and soft features giving him a mild and gentle demeanour . A pair of gold-rimmed glasses sat on his nose, making him appear all the more cultured and neat .

Smiling gently, he raised his eyes to meet Commander Ho’s .

Commander Ho stared at him with a frown, and found his face increasingly familiar by the second . It was an unnerving familiarity, like there was a thin film right before him, and once punctured, the whole truth would be exposed .

But what was the truth? Commander Ho didn’t know . He merely stared at the other man dumbly, wordless and brusque .

In the end, it was the man who spoke first . “So this is where you’ve been . ” He then gave a slight nod and said with a well-mannered smile: “You probably don’t remember me . ”

Commander Ho forced out a smile . “You are…”

The man’s countenance remained placid like water in a still pond, his smile a breeze gliding over its surface . “I’m Bai Su-Ch’en . We haven’t seen each other since my sister died . It’s been a long time—if I hadn’t learned your name just now, I’d never be so bold as to address you . ”

Commander Ho straightened up instantly . Like someone had poured sunshine right in his face, a look of joy took over his features . “You… You’re Little Uncle!”

I kept typing "Hsiao-Hu" instead of "Hsiao-Shun" . Then I realised they're only two letters apart . . .

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