A Cruel Romance - Volume 2 - Chapter 11

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A Sudden Development

 

Once he’d reached a truce with Chao Chen-Sheng, Commander Ho enjoyed a few days of peace and quiet .

Of course, this was an objective assessment . From Commander Ho’s subjective point of view, his lack of things to do granted him neither peace nor quiet . His anxiety persisted despite the uneventfulness of his days, its cause unclear .

It was easy to fall into reveries and illusions when one suffered from prolonged periods of inner turmoil . Commander Ho was no exception . In addition to men, his enemies now included ghosts .

Bai Su-Ch’en still lurked nearby—he was certain of it . There was no other explanation for the vision of the smartly-dressed shadow that bent down over his bed and whispered “little Ch'i-Bao, where’s my head?” whenever he closed his eyes .

He spent his days in pious worship . Prostrating himself before the Buddha statue with his forehead on the floor, he gleaned a sort of masochistic pleasure from the cold, hard surface .

- : -

Feng Guo-Chung came to visit .

He fancied himself a trusted follower among Commander Ho’s inner circle, so he didn’t bother getting a guard to announce his arrival . He strode straight through the courtyard and into the house .

Hsiao-Shun opened the door for him and shushed him with a finger raised to his lips . Feng softened his footsteps and tiptoed to the parlour’s entrance .  Commander Ho knelt on a cushion before a Buddha statue, his back turned . He was holding a string of jade prayer beads and murmuring a scripture .

Feng waited in silence .

Commander Ho completed the scripture and made to get up . Perhaps he had been kneeling for too long and had lost feeling in his legs, he slumped to the side mid-rise and fell right on his tailbone .

Feng rushed forward . Wrapping a hand under Commander Ho’s arm and another around his waist, he half-dragged and half-lifted Commander Ho into a nearby chair . Despite his grievous injury, Commander Ho’s face showed no sign of pain . He accepted a teacup from Hsiao-Shun and took a sip, then looked up at Feng . “What is it?”

Feng broke into a smile . “About the funding I mentioned last time…”

Commander Ho’s face darkened, and he waved a hand at Feng irritably . “You’re nothing but a waste of space! What’s the first thing you do when you see me? Ask for more money!” He gestured at Hsiao-Shun . “Even he’s more useful!”

“That can’t be! I must be better than him, at the very least!”

“He helps calm my nerves! What can you do beside get on my nerves?” Commander Ho wrapped the prayer beads around his wrist and stood to pace on the floor . “I’ll give you thirty thousand silver coins this time . Don’t you dare ask for more within six months . ”

Feng grinned . “That’s enough . Thank you, Commander . ”

With a clatter, Commander Ho pulled the prayer beads off his wrist and flung them in a circle around his finger . “We’ll need more recruits . Who knows when the next war will break out, and once it does, keeping them fed won’t be an issue . I’m telling you—OW!”

Feng watched as the string of beads sail through the air and hit Commander Ho right in the eye .

- : -

A jade prayer bead struck Commander Ho under his left brow, nearly popping an eye . Commander Ho rested tearfully for two days . On the third day, they were to hold a meeting at the Command Center, and Commander Ho had no choice but to attend with a black eye .

Feng did not broadcast the cause of Commander Ho’s injury, but the orderlies were loose-tongued and had gone around recounting the details of Commander Ho’s self-inflicted injury with lively enthusiasm . The officers, having learned of the incident, already found it amusing . Now that they beheld the Commander’s countenance in its full bruised glory, they could barely contain their laughter .

Commander Ho was somewhat embarrassed by his appearance, and after quickly getting caught up on the goings-on of each department, he ended the meeting and left with haste .

- : -

Commander Ho viewed the accident as a sign of the Buddha’s abandonment . While it was true that he had committed a few atrocities, his faithfulness to the Buddha couldn’t be faulted . He presented Him with offerings and kowtows daily, never faltering, yet the Buddha still saw fit to allow some prayer bead to nearly take out his eye, which was surely an indication of the Buddha’s own lack of honor!

He had a mind to smash the Buddha statue to pieces, but he feared that the Buddha was indeed all-powerful, and would collude with Bai Su-Ch’en to seek revenge . After much deliberation, he decided on a more diplomatic approach and got on his knees in front of the statue . He gave two respectful kowtows and began to recite the Diamond Sutra softly .

As he chanted the scripture, a thought suddenly occurred to him . “If everything is Emptiness,” he thought to himself, “then life is Emptiness, death is Emptiness, man Emptiness, matter Emptiness, good Emptiness, evil Emptiness . So if I’ve killed and stolen, I’ve killed Emptiness and stolen Emptiness . ‘Emptiness’ means nothing, naught . That is to say, I’ve killed no one, stolen nothing; in other words: everything I’ve killed and stolen were for naught . Then by this logic, I’ve never actually committed any sins—I’ve done nothing at all!”

Arriving at this conclusion, he wanted to throw himself at the Buddha’s feet out of sheer admiration . He kowtowed once more for luck, thinking: “praise be, the Buddha’s far more ruthless than me! Then what am I afraid of? If it really comes to it, I can always ‘drop the butcher’s knife and become a Buddha’!”

- : -

Having reached an understanding with the Buddha, Commander Ho felt deeply reassured . Not long after feeling reassured, the Japanese launched an attack .

- : -

When kidnapping civilians and robbing commoners, the men of the Garrison Army were all exceptionally fearsome and valiant . When it came to actually defending against the Japanese, they turned collectively into melons ripe for the picking . Aside from serving as target practice, they could only wet themselves in terror as they retreated, not even bothering to pick up their weaponry and supplies .

Commander Ho was taken aback by the utter uselessness of his men . But although he was quite shaken by the situation, he refused to send out Feng Guo-Chung’s elite troops . Feng had a few thousand men under his command, all well-equipped and trained to proper Academy standards . They were Commander Ho’s last resort . Short of guarding his own safety, he’d never put them on the battlefield .

They could only watch while the Japanese laid waste to Chifeng and headed straight for Chengde . Without hesitation, Commander Ho made a quick exit and fled away with his personal army .

- : -

Commander Ho was normally a man of a slower temperament, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he was able to run for his life with a speed swifter than wind and lightning . He could no longer retreat to Mongolia, so he made for Longhua as he telegrammed Chao Chen-Sheng for help .

Chao was not in Longhua . He’d left Li Shih-Yao and his division stationed there . Before Chao’s orders could reach him, Li had decided to open the city gates—but only to admit Commander Ho and his guards .

Commander Ho felt a bit anxious without his troops, and since Li wasn’t a stranger, he demanded bluntly: “why didn’t you let them in?”

Li wore a grin . “Commander, I haven’t actually heard back from General Chao . I’m acting without permission here, so I can’t openly let an army in . The Japanese won’t reach us for some time . Just let them stay outside for now . Once General Chao’s orders arrive, I’ll open the gates right away . ”

The explanation seemed reasonable, and Commander Ho couldn’t find a retort .

“Are you tired?” Li asked .

Commander was still musing over their previous topic of conversation, and he replied irrelevantly: “Those are the only useful men I have left . If the Japanese show up, you must let them in right away! Or else I’ll have your head!”

Li nodded repeatedly . “All right, all right . I understand . ”

Commander Ho matched Li’s steps, then paused when something occurred to him . “Where are we going?”

Li assumed Commander Ho was still disoriented from his trying escape, so he answered patiently: “I need to find somewhere for you to stay . Longhua’s a large place, it’s not like you and your men can sleep in the streets . ”

Hearing this, Commander Ho gave Li a sudden shove . “Fuck you! Longhua used to belong to me! Now you’re telling me to sleep in the streets?”

Caught off guard, Li staggered on his feet . He was not angry, but he certainly wasn’t pleased . He worried that Commander Ho might claw him . “Who’s telling you to sleep in the streets? It was a figure of speech! Am I not allowed to use a figure of speech?”

Commander Ho considered this, realizing that he was being unreasonable . He quelled his unwarranted annoyance . “Never mind . Let’s go . ”

Li sidled up to him and set out, muttering internally: “Did the brat swallow gunpowder? All that temper for what little he’s good for! What’s a little thing like him doing leading an army, anyway? Better to just get in bed and wait for my cock!”

- : -

Commander Ho and Li Shih-Yao ended up staying at the same place .

Commander Ho was immensely displeased by the turn of events . Li noted his displeasure and assured him unhurriedly: “it’s safer for you this way . What if there’s some secret agent or spy in town? Are you able take a straight up bullet?”

Commander Ho glared at him . “You’re right, Major-General Li . I’m not . Are you able to take one?”

Li did not respond to the veiled insult . We’ll see, he thought . No wonder they made a point to cow new brides into submission . People wouldn’t know their place without some active discipline .

But how exactly should he go about this?

Li took in the furnishings in the room thoughtfully . While he schemed, he instructed the orderlies to fetch beddings and toiletries from the storeroom . Eyes scanning the entrance, he spotted Hsiao-Shun .

“Hey! Little whelp—” He strode up to Hsiao-Shun . “Do you still remember me?”

Hsiao-Shun kept his head down and answered softly: “I do . You’re Major-General Li . ”

Li smacked his shoulder . “Good lad! All grown up, eh? You were like some underfed monkey just a few years ago, but look at you now! Commander Ho, you’ve got a real eye for quality!”

Commander Ho had already taken a seat on the bare brick bed . He was slightly mollified by Li’s comment, feeling like he hadn’t failed completely .

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