A Cruel Romance - Volume 1 - Chapter 4
Good Men and Bad Men
On the afternoon following the meeting, Jin Hwan-Ran appeared at the Ho Residence silently .
Only two years ago, Jin had still been a thoroughly handsome man . Unfortunately, shellfire of the battlefield knew no mercy, and a piece of shrapnel landed just below his eye and streaked all the way down to his chin, leaving behind a long, clean gash . The wound later healed and became a red line drawn abruptly across his face, disfiguring it effectively .
Commander Ho was very polite to him . "Colonel Jin, please have a seat . Bring in some tea!"
There was no smile on Jin’s face . He sat down with disciplined propriety and got straight to his point . "Commander, there's no need for courtesy . I heard from Ma Ho-Tian that you’ve asked for me, please issue your orders . "
"This isn't about me, it’s Li Shih-Yao . You should know what I mean . "
Jin Hwan-Ran jerked his head up . "Before seizing Wantong, he borrowed sixty carts of my provisions . Now that he's in the county, why can't I tag along for a small gain?" He said with disdain .
An orderly appeared with tea . Commander Ho took one of the cups and raised it to his lips ambiguously .
"You have a point . But Li Shih-Yao thinks otherwise . "
Jin Hwan-Ran sneered . "I know exactly what he thinks . He simply wants Wantong all for himself . But there’s no way that will happen!"
"Nobody's asking you to withdraw your troops . Wantong will be split equally between you and Li Shih-Yao . "
Jin Hwan-Ran sighed a bit with relief . "This is why I only bow to you, Commander . You are fair with your decisions, just like the Old Marshal . It is what they mean by 'tigers do not sire dogs'"
Commander Ho sighed a bit as well . "Naturally, I must maintain fairness on my part . However, being fair is much easier said than done . I want to grant you fairness, but its actually success is not entirely up to me . Colonel Jin must try to understand my difficulties . "
Jin nodded . "I'm no fool, Commander . If Li Shih-Yao dares to cause any trouble, I won't stand by . "
"You're very straightforward," Commander Ho chuckled, "it's what I like about you . You are from the Academy, unlike Li Shih-Yao and his lot, so you must strive for the best in every aspect . A young man must not only take care of his interests, but also his name . It is the only way to wealth and glory later in life . "
Jin Hwan-Ran nodded his acceptance earnestly . "Commander, though you are young, your words are filled with invaluable wisdom . I thank you for your teachings, Commander, and shall remember every word by heart . "
Commander Ho decided that Jin had already given him enough face with his respectful attitude, and knew when to leave off: "I don't have anything else for you, you may leave . "
Having received his dismissal, Jin promptly took his leave . Commander Ho remained in the drawing room, and for some incomprehensible reason, let his thoughts wander back to Lan Bai-Shan .
The hard wooden chair pressed uncomfortably against his backside as flames of jealousy burned his soul . Clenching his hands tightly around the arms of the chair, Commander Ho gritted his teeth and felt his body tense . The black clouds above his head gradually transformed in a dim figure of a schoolgirl .
In the end he could no longer remain seated . He stood up and strode toward the courtyard, only to discover that the air outside was too cold, and had to turn back to fetch a cloak .
With the newly added warmth, he walked on with remarkably more energy . Except when he emerged outside the main gate, an adjutant came running to him .
"Commander, the car isn't starting!"
"We're out of gas . "
A sudden flare of rage engulfed him . A car without gasoline—life was indeed coming to an end!
He took a deep breath, quenching his anger in the process .
"Prepare me a horse!"
- : -
Commander Ho arrived at the Lan Residence at around five in the afternoon, almost as if he had come specifically to join him for dinner . Lan Bai-Shan was, in fact, having dinner at the time . The dinner consisted of white rice, stewed pork and dried vegetables . By Luyang standards, it was already bordering on luxury .
After his initial surprise at Commander Ho's sudden arrival, Lan hurried to swallow his mouthful of dried vegetables and rinsed his mouth with tea . He rushed out and greeted Commander Ho with ebullience .
"Commander, please come in!" He said as he stole a glance outside . "You got here by horse? That's too much trouble . If you wanted to speak to me, you could have sent someone after me . You didn't have to travel here in person . "
Commander Ho still held his horsewhip in his hand . Staring at Lan Bai-Shan, he was at a loss of words .
"It's nothing, I just wanted to see you," he said when he finally conjured a sentence .
Lan beamed at him . "You came all the way here just to see me? I must thank you for your concern, Commander . It's cold out, come inside . "
Commander Ho followed him in noncommittally . Lan smiled at him again . "Have you eaten?"
Commander Ho had no intention of cadging a meal at Lan's, but slow as he was, he'd already muttered out a "No" before considering his reply .
Lan drew him in to an inner room that was half occupied by a heated brick bed . A small table was lying atop, bearing a feast of stewed pork, dried vegetables and half a bowl of rice .
Commander Ho realized that he had come at a bad time .
Sitting down at the edge of the brick bed, he tossed his whip away and lowered his head, then began to remove his gloves with wholehearted concentration . Lan filled him a bowl of rice and placed a pair of chopsticks in front of him .
"Ji-Ch’ing, I don't have anything fancy here, but please have something to eat . "
Commander Ho didn't have the appetite . He merely raised his eyes and scanned the table .
"You're eating by yourself?" he asked .
"Of course I am," Lan replied .
"What happened to the schoolgirl?"
Lan started laughing . "I sent her away . "
"To where?" Commander Ho stole him a glance .
"Hsian . Otherwise she kept making a fuss . Says there's nothing here and the place isn't humanly inhabitable . "
Commander Ho started to feel a little better, as if he'd just had a drink of iced plum juice during the hottest of the dog days .
"Oh . . . You sent her away . "
Lan fixed his gaze at Commander Ho and chuckled meaningfully .
"Ji-Ch’ing my Ji-Ch’ing, you’re such a child . "
Detecting the conversation's digression towards the inappropriate, Commander Ho raised his head sharply .
Lan's smile was warm and open, emitting a faint trace of elderly affection and resignation . "Why are you speaking in riddles with me? You don't want me to bring along a woman, yet instead of talking to me about it, you throw a fit at the meeting . Why?"
Commander Ho felt that Lan Bai-Shan was ridiculing him, and wanted to give him a personal whipping, but . . .
Gathering his gloves and whip, an expressionless Commander Ho left the mansion . Come and gone like the wind—or a madman . But Lan Bai-Shan didn't mind him at all . The fact that Commander Ho had allowed himself to play his temper out meant that only Lan could jolly him along . This, at the same time, testified for the intimacy of his relationship with the Commander . The term "to have the emperor in one's power and order the dukes about in his name" would be referring the soldier-less and fund-less Chief Lan .
- : -
Back at his own place, Commander Ho felt as if his heart was being pinch by an invisible hand, relaxed for one moment and tense for the next, all without his consent . In his irritated depression, he wanted to set the house on fire and then go slaughter Lan Bai-Shan . Lan had been toying with him right from the start—he saw it now!
"Commander, do you want your dinner?" Chao Hsiao-Hu inquired behind him with great trepidation .
Commander Ho turned around and gave him a shove .
Hsiao-Hu stood slightly further away . "Do you want walnuts then?"
Commander Ho snatched off his army cap and hurled it at Hsiao-Hu's face with all of his might . Hsiao-Hu saw that the weapon lacked lethality, so he merely stood there and allowed the light touch of a strike to land on him .
"What do you want to do then? Go to bed?"
Commander Ho sat on his old-fashioned chair and buried his head in his hands, muttering, "I don't want to live . "
Hsiao-Hu wasn't even slightly frightened . "Again? I know, Chief Lan must have offended you . "
Commander Ho gazed dramatically up at the sky and let out a long sigh .
"What's he really thinking? Why don't I have the slightest idea? Hsiao-Hu, do you think he's a good man, or a bad man?"
"A bad man," Hsiao-Hu answered squarely .
Commander Ho looked at him in surprise . "A bad man?"
"You're friends with him, that's why you can't see any of his faults . Even if you do, you wouldn't think they are faults . You really shouldn't be asking me, I don't like to talk behind people's backs . "
"Good . Splendid . " Commander Ho nodded . "Even you won’t speak the truth . ”
Hsiao-Hu curled his lips . He went forward the table to pour a cup of hot tea, and removed the lid to let it cool off .
A myriads of words stood at Commander Ho's throat in a cluttered mess, rushing to emerge without any consideration for their lack of audience . Unable to repress them any longer, he rose up and seized Hsiao-Hu's wrist, his lips trembling .
"Just wait and see . If he dares to reject me, I will kill him! Who does he think he is? Just another dog my father used to keep, yet now he comes to me and pretends—he fucking pretends to—"
Commander Ho couldn't go on . The excessive amount of excitement was sending him to the verge of breakdown . Other than his firm grasp of Hsiao-Hu's sturdy wrist, he could reach neither the heavens nor the earth, not single support to lean on . His expression remained dull, yet his eyes shone as if his entire soul was buried in there, clamouring for eruption .
Hsiao-Hu was becoming a bit frightened by his erratic display . He reached out and patted the Commander on the arm . "Commander, are you all right? Sit down, please sit down first . "
Commander Ho took a rigid step back and fell stiffly into the chair, his fingers still gripping Hsiao-Hu's wrist .
"I don't want to live anymore!" he said, and suddenly started screaming in an amplified volume . "I want to go home—sons of bitches, fuck all your mothers—I WANT TO GO HOME!"
His voice broke off at the last word . Hsiao-Hu stared at him, dumbstruck . He saw tears in the Commander's eyes .
“Poor him,” Hsiao-Hu thought . “Nobody really cares for him . He sleeps with a pillow—he's truly friendless and alone . ”
- : -
After his outburst, Commander Ho slumped back into his tall, rigid chair . His pallid face appeared even more lifeless than usual . Only the occasional tremor of his eyelashes indicated that he was still a living being of flesh and blood . He appeared to be either resting or impending death .
Carefully, Hsiao-Hu dislodged the fingers around his wrist and turned to fetch the hot tea . He tilted the cup toward Commander Ho’s lips . "Do you want a sip, Commander? Just open your mouth . "
Commander Ho opened his mouth and slowly drank half of the tea out of Hsiao-Hu's hand . The slight warmth of the tea reanimated his body and mind . He sat up straight, his gaze moving across Hsiao-Hu's face like a blade .
Hsiao-Hu curled his lips again . "Are you going to bed this time?"
"All right," Commander Ho looked down tiredly . "There's nothing else to do . "
- : -
Having discharged his madness, Commander Ho slept soundly through the night with his pillow . Late in the following morning, he rose out of bed languidly, stared, yawned, washed, got changed, and strode into the drawing-room, starting a new round of guest reception feeling quite refreshed .
Li Shih-Yao came .
Li was about to go to battle with the North-Eastern troops . Out of courtesy, he came to notify Commander Ho in advance . Commander Ho didn't want him to fight the North-Easterners; he fantasized demoting him to a commoner—or even better, slaughtering him, had that been possible .
Realizing that the Commander was refusing to make a stand, Li wanted to pinch those porcelain cheeks and see if he could break them .
"Commander, why the—" he swallowed the “fuck” on his lips, and decided on a more civilized approach . "Why are you still hesitating? I barely laid my hands on those flocks at Wantong, and before our own brothers could even quit being vegetarians, they came and stole half of them . Now what kind of logic is that? If we don't teach them a lesson, they'll think I could be bullied!"
Commander Ho kept his head down, since he couldn't be bothered to look at Li . "Those Tuolo Bay troops, what's their designation again?"
"What designation? They were withdrawn from Mukden and somehow managed to end up here . They're even more irregular than us!"
"Their commander is . . . "
"Ron Hsiang . "
Commander Ho lifted his head in sudden revelation . "Right, Ron Hsiang . There's no need to go to war over something like this . The two parties can negotiate . If the negotiation fails, then we declare war . "
"Negotiate? With who?"
"Ron Hsiang . "
"You'll do it?"
"I'll do it . "
Li rubbed his bristled head . "You?"
Commander Ho pounded the table, about to lose his temper again . "What, you have a problem?"
Li rose to his feet and gave a frivolous bow . "I wouldn't dare . Negotiate if you will, but I won't take the loss in vain . "
Commander Ho couldn't afford to rebuke him, so he held his anger back and lowered his head again . "You may rest assured . Refrain from screaming for bloodshed at every occasion . War has its expanses, after all . "
Li looked up, catching the sight of him seated upright, a hand still resting on the table . The hand was truly fine to look at . Tts snowy skin and long fingers clearly had never been subject to any physical toil . In comparison, his own palms felt like sandpaper .
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