A Cruel Romance - Volume 1 - Chapter 7

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A Cold Moonlit Night

 

It was difficult to discern Commander Ho's age from his appearance .

His skin was notably fair; not a wrinkle or freckle marred its smooth expanse . This was perhaps the only evidence of his youth . Beyond that, everything about him from his demeanour, his speech, to his interests, was all drearily dull .

Contrivance clouded him was like a thick web, leaching out every last bit of the rawness, fervour, and innocence he should have had .

Perhaps for someone like him, a bit of excitement was needed to rekindle his vivacity . Commander Ho's life didn't lack any excitement . Time after time these excitements had driven him down the abyss, their falls injuring him so severely that he had nearly met his death .

He had thoroughly made himself a laughing stock in front of the person he loved, all at his own discretion . What more was there to be said about that?

Nothing . In the December night, Commander Ho rode out to a riverside by Luyang at full gallop, wearing nothing more than a thin silk gown . He went moon-gazing .

The orderlies and a pair of adjutants tailed after him, the orderlies clothed in wadded jackets and adjutants in thick cloaks . Holding an overcoat, Chao Hsiao-Hu stepped forward with the intention to wrap the coat around Commander Ho’s shoulders . Without turning, Commander Ho raised a hand and signalled his refusal .

The Commander advanced slowly along the river bank . It was cold and the wind gusty, yet he marched calmly on . Stopping near an open view of the water, up towards the glorious moon he raised his head, then down he dropped his head (1)—and wanted to throw himself into the lake .

It was merely a thought; he wouldn't really act on it . There was no need to sacrifice himself for Lan . His life—from heavens above to earth below, from the beginning of time to the moment present—was the most invaluable, simply because it was "his own" . As a last resort, should a time arise when Lan would dare to use the information for his humiliation, he could always kill Lan .

Commander Ho crouched down and reached out a hand to stir the water, only to discover that the shallow part the river had frozen over, while thin fragments of ice floated further in .

Still hugging the overcoat, Hsiao-Hu summoned his courage and ran forward to drape it on the Commander's back . "Commander, let's go back! You'll catch a cold like this . "

Commander Ho stood up and let the loose coat slide to the ground . As if unable to feel the cold, he strode to his horse and mounted it as if his soul has departed its body . He snatched his horsewhip from an adjutant and cracked it in the air, then with a jerk of the rein and without another word, left by himself in a trail of thuds .

- : -

There was quite some distance between the river and the Ho mansion, though on a good horse, Commander Ho didn't spend much time en route . As he arrived at his front gate, he approached a guard .

"Has Lan Bai-Shan left?" he asked .

"Chief Lan just has, sir!"

Commander Ho nodded and strode across the courtyard into his room, falling stiffly into his bed . He hadn't even removed his shoes .

Hsiao-Hu wanted to give him some hot ginger soup, but when he stepped into the bedroom with the bowl, the Commander was already fast asleep . In his deep slumber, his body was cold like a corpse .

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Hsiao-Hu stripped him down and wrapped him in his nightclothes . The palms of his hands were so tender that since he’d been riding without his gloves, the reins had chafed his skin open and revealed the crimson flesh . His feet were like two lumps of ice, their skin so transparent that he could see the tiny mauve veins underneath .

Hsiao-Hu opened his own shirt and hugged Commander Ho’s feet to his bare chest . Moments later, the Commander's body stirred suddenly, making Hsiao-Hu jump .

Hsiao-Hu pulled a bed-quilt over him and left in silence .

- : -

On the following noon, Hsiao-Hu entered the room to wake Commander Ho . His mission ended with the discovery that Commander Ho was flushed with fever and appeared to be delirious .

Panicking, he rushed out to find Adjutant Li who was in charge of everyday affairs . The adjutant took a look inside and had no suggestion to offer, so he proceeded to summon the medical officer .

The medical officer was a typical quack; he didn't know the first thing about Western medicine, and out of every ten, had one-half of a clue about Chinese medicine . He first measured Commander Ho's temperature—with his hand, and learned from Hsiao-Hu about the Commander's moon-gazing activities of the previous night . Coming to a conclusion, he a fetched out a few doses of antipyretics jauntily .

Shortly after the medical officer's departure, Li Shih-Yao appeared .

He had intended to come over for a chat, and was caught off guard by the state of the Commander's health .

"What happened?" He asked Hsiao-Hu .

"He went out in his nightgown last night and caught a cold . " Hsiao-Hu mentioned lightly .

"Out? Where?"

"Nowhere in particular . He just went for a ride . "

His words left Li still quite puzzled . "I'll go see him inside . "

Hsiao-Hu moved into his way . "Commander Ho has just taken his medicine . He’s sleeping at the moment . "

Li glared at him . "I won't be loud, what harm can a single peek do? Out of my way, you little brat!" he said, giving Hsiao-Hu a shove and strode straight into Commander Ho’s bedroom .

- : -

Having just taken his antipyretics, a half-awake Commander Ho lay wrapped in his white linen and red satin covers . In his trance, he was aware of a body approaching his bed, but couldn't find the strength to open his eyes . He gave a feeble groan .

Li's clothes weren't particularly clean, and his relationship with the Commander wasn't particularly intimate . So after a moment of hesitation, he hadn't the nerve to sit down on the bed . Commander Ho's faced was flushed with fever, he observed—it was a normal condition, but on the Commander, it appeared rather curious .

In his sickness, Commander Ho looked more healthy than usual .

Li didn't know how to care for others and had no need to care for others . He stared helplessly at Commander Ho and rubbed his hands .

Meanwhile, Lan Bai-Shan arrived .

Without receiving any form of resistance, Lan marched into the room unchecked . Spotting Li, he gave a smiling nod . "Colonel Li," he greeted quietly, "why are you standing there by yourself?"

Li turned and scanned the room around him, then approached a chair near the windows . As if sitting down in a theatre, he regarded Lan with quite some interest .

"This fever looks pretty bad," he remarked .

Lan sat on the bed casually . He removed his gloves and stuck a hand under the quilt, then turned to Li and nodded assuredly .

"He's burning hot," he confirmed .

Curling the corners of his lips, Li offered no comment . The scene before him looked very interesting, he thought . Lan seemed a bit like a father, but also a bit like a lover . Commander Ho was unrelentingly inviolable, yet Lan was able to touch him freely .

It could thus be deduced that Commander Ho was actually not so 'within sight yet beyond reach' . Perhaps screwing Commander Ho didn't require that big of a fuss . One must always use one's head to gain the most avail at the least cost .

So what should he do?

For the very first time, Li found his own head incompetent . After a prolonged moment of intense pondering, he came to another conclusion—one mustn’t distress oneself; any means is plausible as long as it meets the desired end .

Having reached a conclusion, Li regained his magnanimity and lifted his head again to resume his patient observation of Lan Bai-Shan and Commander Ho .

- : -

Lan was in no place or power to kick Li out . After a while of sitting by a Commander Ho who showed no sign of regaining consciousness, Lan simply decided to take his leave .

Li too found it impossible to sit still, so he got up and moved outside to the courtyard, where he bantered and fooled around with the orderlies . Hsiao-Hu found him extremely loud . The sick was still resting inside, yet outside his walls, the visitor was having a laugh . How irritating!

Commander Ho woke up late in the afternoon . As he opened his eyes soaking in sweat, he felt somehow buoyantly refreshed . A signifier that he was in fact quite fit, despite his outward appearance of being thin and pale .

Seeing that the room was deserted, he called out for Hsiao-Hu, who appeared at the door a moment later with Li .

Startled by Li's presence, Commander Ho stared for a moment . "Colonel Li is here as well?" he asked .

Li stopped at the door . Candlelight flickered in the room . He could not see the details of Commander Ho's countenance, but heard his voice in the shadows .

"I've been here for a while already," Li answered . "Got worried that you were sick, so I stuck around . "

Commander Ho was puzzled . What exactly, he wondered, did he need to discuss with me? If it wasn't something important, he had no reason to linger all day .

Since Li didn't volunteer any information, Commander Ho had no intention of starting a conversation . He simply nodded and turned to Hsiao-Hu .

"Help me up . I'm hungry . "

- : -

Dressed in a light quilted jacket, Commander Ho sat propped up against a pillow as he dispatched a bowl of congee out of Hsiao-Hu's hand . Li had remained standing by the door . He was quite tall, but his graceless posture made him seem sloppy and unimpressive .

Having filled his stomach, Commander Ho finally found the energy to deal with one of the self-righteous "gallants" under his command .

"Colonel Li," he began, "did you need to speak to me about something?"

Li grinned . "Well, there's another bandit uprising in the County of Tianhua . They haven't seized the county town, but they've burned down three villages in a row . It used to be Old Sun's territory there, but the situation is going out his of control . I'd like to lend him a hand, if you don't object . "

After a moment of contemplation, Commander Ho spoke again . "How is it that Colonel Sun can't even take down a gang of bandits?"

"The old brat messed about and overlooked his men's pays for too long . An entire battalion turned against him and gave the bandits some inside help . "

"If you take over Tianhan, where will Colonel Sun go?"

"Aren't the Northeasterners leaving? Let him stay at Tuolo Bay then . "

Considering it for a moment, Commander Ho decided that it would be unwise . Li's territories were already too vast and needed to be contained .

"Wait a bit longer," he said as he fished out a piece of neatly folded white handkerchief . He brought it up to his mouth as if to conceal something . "There’s no rush . "

Li, however, was unwilling to drop the matter . He was determined to unsettle Commander Ho's painstakingly administered balance .

"Why wait? Waiting won't get us anywhere! I can lead my men there and wipe out those ignorant bandits in one go . Three villages—men, grains, livestock . All the things I can take for myself . Why let them pass through those bandits' hands first?"

If there was one thing Commander Ho couldn't stand, it was Li's insolence . As he had just came out of his fever, he became a little lightheaded with anger . Leaning his weight into the soft pillow, he closed his eyes and adopted an imperious indifference instead .

"Colonel Li may have his own opinions," he said, "but when taking action, must bear in mind the situation as a whole . "

Li leaned on the door-frame . "But Commander–"

"See your way out," Commander Ho waved an impatient hand . "I'm tired . "

Li stared wordlessly at the Commander's beautiful yet wooden face . He gazed on for a moment longer, then left with a mindful of dirty thoughts .

- : -

On the following day, Li Shih-Yao pushed to Tianhua with his forces .

Colonel Sun hadn't said anything, but Commander Ho was already out of his seat . He summoned Jin Hwan-Ran and went about instigating him into action . Jin had long thought Li's appetite too extensive, and now that he had the Commander's decree, assembled his forces at once and advanced to Tianhua with the greatest urgency .

Jin had gone too late . By the time he arrived in Tianhua, Li had already secured a swift and immense victory . Emergence of bandits was an endless occurrence in the vast and unregulated area . Li was extremely weary of suppressing bandits, so as he happened to capture a large horde this time, he decided to make a good example out of them, which, incidentally, could also serve as a vent for his anger and amusement for his men .

The location of the execution was at the county-town's main gates, the time high noon . The few chieftains were dismembered alive by five horses before the masses, their torn limbs scattering on the ground and their guts leaving behind long trails . Then an executioner stripped down and tied up a chieftain's wife in an attempt to perform a Lingchi(3), but because of his lacking in skill, the woman gave her last breath after only a few hundred pieces of her flesh had been sliced off .

That had only been the teaser, so it was a bit more diverse in variety . After the teaser, they launched into the main game .

The main game was a doubtless massacre . The two hundred something bandits, young and old, where each dismembered, their bare torsos left hanging on trees in the nearby forest . Looking on in delight, Li almost felt a surge of pleasure .

The even dirt road outside the town gate was soaked muddy red with blood, its pungent sweet taste filling the air over the entire town . Li sat beside a badly frightened Colonel Sun and issued his orders in conceited elation .

"Good work brothers, you may loot freely for two hours!"

Colonel Sun hadn’t dared to stop him . When Jin Hwan-Ran arrived later during the day, anguished howls greeted him as Li's men swept through the county-town like a swarm of mad locusts .

He didn't try to hold them back .

"Pillage on," he thought to himself . "Once you're done, you still have to piss the hell off, you arrogant fool!"

- : -

Li had wanted to occupy Tianhua, but in the end did not succeed .

Jin expressed his dissent . He appeared to be helping Sun and was especially righteous . A civilized argument failed and they found themselves at each other's throat and on the verge of war . Jin didn't mind war, since he wouldn't be at any disadvantage . Li had gotten quite a bit of nice loot this time, and even if Jin didn't win, he could still nick some of it in the heat of the battle .

In face of Jin's enthusiasm, Li hesitated . He knew this was Commander Ho's shady work, but couldn't do anything about it . The Commander was the Old Marshal's Ch'i-Bao, after all, and without the Old Marshal there wouldn't be an Anguo Army . This was why he'd always been helpless when it came to Commander Ho .

He wasn't afraid of Jin-Hwan Ran, or of Ho Bao-Ting . But for the security of his newly looted rewards, he finally withdrew with his forces to Wantong .

________________________________________

(1)A spoof on "Up towards the glorious moon I raise my head, Then lay me down-and thoughts of home arise", a verse from "Night Thoughts" by the Tang poet Li Bai (translated by Herbert A . Giles) .

(2)Lingchi, aka "Slow Slicing", was a form of execution where the condemned's body is sliced into pieces over an extended period of time in public .


 

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