October 5th, Stirling’s Central Army had left the province of Yun and into the province of Deja.
Most of Deja’s and Iriya’s local population were Humans. When the storm of Rebellion was sweeping through the Far East, the provincial Governor, Gu Lan showed his commanding talents and his poise. Together with the newly drafted militias, he managed to raise a large provincial defence force of close to a hundred thousand men. In conjunction with the garrison force of the nearby province of Iriya, they formed a united defence front. Even though their army was not big enough to suppress the rebellion, it was more than enough to hold their ground. As a result, those two provinces were the only regions left in the entire Far East untouched by the flame of war, and the only place where Humans thrived.
Ever since they crawled out of the swamp of Yun, Stirling had never felt so relieved. He had returned to the fast-paced world of men, a place far away from the fighting, the clashing of steel and the desperate struggle for survival. Seeing the quiet and peaceful villages again, the bustling and rowdy streets of the city, the clamorous tavern and brothels, the busy market filled with merchants trying to promote their wares… everything of the world in front of him seemed so strangely unfamiliar in his eyes. Only then did the memories of blood and steel slowly begin to fade into the back of his mind.
As one of the highest ranking officers, the Commander of the Central Army, he was constantly accompanied by a large escort of local officials, trying their hardest to please him. Fireworks, flowers and wines, thousands of crowd gathered on the day of his arrival. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the mightiest of ZiChuan’s army. No matter where he went, the local nobles, gentries and officials would hold banquet in his honour, for he was the Central Army Commander, the most famous and accomplished general of House ZiChuan who had Headmaster’s favour, and the heavy weight of ZiChuan’s ruling echelon with many promising prospects. They all sounded so eager, all claimed to be his best friend when they asked: “Sir, you have to grace us with your presence!”
Stirling being a good-mannered gentleman, he didn’t want to offend anyone, therefore he often let himself get dragged away like a child.
Sadly, his stomach was too used to the barely cooked gruel-like meals in the battlefield. Suddenly changing his diet to wild delicacies, rare seafood and expensive wines, he could not make the adjustment. Consequently, he spent most of his day running between the outhouses.
And he wasn’t the only one, every Central Army Officer, from Deputy Commander, Staff Officer down to every division captain, everyone was soundly defeated by the banquet table.
Even for a group of Officers born in the capital, the luxurious lifestyle of the Far Eastern Nobles was truly something else.
Only after Stirling had reached the provincial capital of Deja, the City of Deja, did Stirling start to feel better, but before he got the chance to fully recover, another deadly invitation had already arrived: “Provincial Governor of Deja – Gu Lan, Administrator – Liu Zi Feng, Provincial Governor of Iriya – Eeling, Administrator Luo Lin Shuang, and other relevant officials and local nobles wish to hold a banquet tonight to welcome Central Army Commander – Stirling and his officers, to our corner of the Far East.”
Stirling really didn’t have the patience to deal with those sketchy officials anymore; He turned to Staff Officer, Tang Ping: “Can we skip that?” Tang Ping shook his head: “Sir, even though they are only ranked Red Banner Masters, all our current supplies still have to rely on the province of Deja and Iriya. And Deja’s Provincial Governor, Gu Lan comes from a powerful family in the region. Amongst all the Governors and Administrators of the twenty-three provinces in the Far East, their family alone holds the positions of nine. In addition, both Gu Lan and Luo Lin Shuang are members of the Council of Elders. Even when Commander Ge Ying Xing was still alive, he had to pay them respect. We have no choice but to do the same.”
Stirling smiled bitterly: “I understand. Another one of those we cannot afford to offend. All right, tell everyone to get ready.”
A long line of local officials and nobles had been waiting for them outside, curtsying everywhere they go. Feeling slightly uneasy, Stirling wanted to object, but before he could, sound of fireworks already exploded over the small distance. A group of smiling faces quickly surrounded them like flies to manure, extending their greetings: “Sir, you must have been weary from the journey!”, “I wish you ever victorious, and your fame forever growing”, “Sir, on behalf of the people of the Far East, we are eternally grateful for everything you have done!”, “Sir Stirling is still so young and have accomplished so much. I’m sure you’ll have a bright and promising future ahead of you.”
While Stirling was busy responding to the overwhelming crowd, an officer dressed in military uniform stepped forward: “Greetings, I’m Gu Lan.”
Stirling hurriedly greeted back: “Greetings, Governor Gu Lan.” He carefully considered the middle-aged man standing in front of him, slightly obese and bloated body, a pair of plump and well-cared-for cheeks faintly showing the underlying spots of white from excessive alcohol consumption, a typical pink red nose of a drunkard, and a pair of glazed and bloodshot eyes.”
Stirling’s first impression of the man was that of a useless drunk or a spoiled rich kid, which surprised him greatly: The rumors had it that Governor Gu Lan displayed incredible calm and resolve during a time of crisis. Could he really be a drunkard? Or perhaps, he shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance too quickly.
As the host of the evening, Gu Lan introduced Stirling to all the other guests of the evening: Administrator of Deja – Liu Zi Feng, a wrinkled old man.
The moment Stirling saw him, his face reminded Stirling of the dried meat they had left from the military reserve. He was much older than Gu Lan, yet for some puzzling reason he kept following Gu Lan’s lead in almost anything of importance, constantly curtsying and throwing glances seeking Gu Lan’s approval.
By regulation, a provincial Governor and Administrator were given the same rank, the only difference between the two was that: one was in charge of the military affairs while the other dealt with the civil affairs.
Next up, Administrator of Iriya – Luo Lin Shuang, a pale faced young man.
Stirling gave him a friendly greeting: “How are you, Sir Luo?”
Luo Lin Shuang hastily boasted: “Sir Stirling, perhaps you haven’t heard, but in term of seniority, Sir Luo Ming Hai is a distance uncle of mine!” Stirling reconsidered the arrogant young aristocrat in front of him, sighing: “Distant cousin of Sir Luo Ming Hai, how are you?”
Amongst all the guests, the only one Stirling took a liking to, was the Governor of Iriya – Eeling.
A middle-aged man, bulky frame, imposing appearance, direct and decisive, polite and measured mannerism, compared to the forced servile attitude from the other officials, he was a significant improvement: “He at least looks like a soldier, just that constant smirk of his, is giving the man a mean look.”
Out of all the Red Banner Master ranked officials attending the banquet, there were a few Governors and Administrators from the already fallen provinces present as well. Their own prefecture was long overrun by the rebels. They came here seeking refuge.
A moment of bowing, saluting, greeting, shaking hands, patting the shoulder and curtsying later, everyone finally took their seats. Gu Lan announced loudly: “Today, we are here to welcome Sir Stirling and the Central Army Officer’s arrival. Everyone please feel free to speak your mind!”
Throughout the extravagant feast, Stirling acted humble and honest, amiable and easygoing. He attentively conversed with every guest, cheering with them. His eloquent and graceful mannerism quickly earned him everyone’s admiration.
There were several mentions of the rebellion during the feast, and each time the guests took turn to express their deep hatred for the cunning, treacherous and barbaric Rebels.
Governor Lu Hai who fled here from a province near the border explained angrily, telling how he used to have seven Beastmen divisions and three Serpent divisions, almost forty thousand men under his command. When the rebellion began, all of his troops mutinied. He had lost the battle before the fight even began, or else he would have been able to do something about the rebellion instead of running away in such embarrassing fashion.
Everyone comforted him saying: “That is right; those lowly rebels are all bunch of shameless, dishonest turncoats!”
Sitting on the right side of Stirling, Governor Eeling tilted the corner of his mouth into a half smile. Stirling thought there had to be more to the story, asking in a whisper: “Why? You disagree?”
Eeling was caught by surprise, hastily denying: “No, of course not. My apologies.”
Stirling smiled, but his words were sharper than razor: “In other words, Sir Eeling does not wish to share it with me?”
Eeling’s couldn’t hide it any longer, he whispered closer to Stirling’s ears: “When Lu Hai first came to us, his wives and mistresses alone could form a whole platoon. Amongst his luggage, there were several carts filled with gold.”
Stirling frowned, whispering back: “Where does a Garrison Commander get so much money from?”
Eeling whispered softly: “Officially, he was supposed to man a defence force of fifty thousand, however in reality, he could barely field a force of twenty thousand. The salaries of the left over thirtyish thousand men all ended up in his pocket! Furthermore, he only ever paid one third of what he owed to the twenty thousand Garrison forces he had. It would be a miracle if his men didn’t mutiny!”
Stirling was shocked: “He embezzled the funds and took the blood money from the soldiers?”
Eeling nodded; Stirling’s expression instantly darkened. Both of them no longer spoke about the matter.
Another old nobleman cried, saying he couldn’t understand how the rebels could be so ungrateful and join the rebellion, even though he had always treated other races well, “taking care of them in every possible way.”
Eeling smiled coldly as he told Stirling: “Every possible way indeed! In his territory, the Beastmen had to pay tax even if they wanted to brush their teeth.”
There were a few other nobles talking about the exceptional cruelty shown by the non-human races in their home town, killing any human they saw. Everyone agreed wholeheartedly, saying how ungrateful they were despite what House ZiChuan did for them. Instead of repaying us with their gratitude, they turned their weapon against us, killing humans, especially human nobles, the symbol of authority! And how they should have wiped out every non-human race instead!
One of them turned to Stirling: “Normally I wouldn’t say bad thing about the deceased, but it really was Commander Ge Ying Xing’s fault. He had always been too lenient towards those lowly savages, taking their side against ours – the ones of noble birth. If he had ruled with a firmer hand, perhaps everything that happened today could have been avoided. Hereby I have to praise Sir Stirling again for crushing the Rebels the way he did, decisive and ruthless, unlike that timidly and cowardly Ge Ying Xing!”
Everyone quickly shifted their gaze towards Stirling after the noble had finished. Seeing Stirling’s cold and unappreciative expression, everyone knew the flattery had missed its mark and no one laughed.
The flatterer forced a few dry laughter, then buried his head into the plate before him and remained silent.
Stirling whispered: “Who was he?”
Eeling described him in the same casual manner: “Administrator of Lange, Tang Guo.” He continued in another whisper: “He was very motivated when he exploited the Serpents and extorted the Beastmen in his territory, but when the Rebellion began, the first thing he did was ordering every officers in his province to stand fast and defend their ground, all the while fleeing to safety himself. The big bearded fellow laughing next to him is the Governor of Garin. When the Rebellion first began, the Rebel Army was still relatively small. Seeing the nearby provincial capital of Minske being besieged by the rebels, he and his thirty thousand garrison troops didn’t lift a finger, even though Garin was right next to Minske. His excuses were: “We have to protect Garin at all cost; we cannot abandon our post!” As a result, the Governor of Minske, Lin Wei died heroically in battle. Greatly emboldened by the victory, the Rebel Army turned their spears towards Garin. And there you have it, the supposedly “We cannot abandon our post” brave Governor, fled the city during dark, leaving the soldiers and the citizens to fend for themselves. His army didn’t put up much of a fight afterwards. The rebels got in and killed tens of thousands civilians, leaving a sea of corpse in their wake…”
“Enough!” Stirling harshly interrupted Eeling’s words. Watching the group of graceful, classy and charming men who were supposed to be the backbone of ZiChuan sitting in front of him, he was disgusted beyond words.
The whispers, laughter and discussions instantly quieted down. No one knew why Sir Stirling was suddenly so angry; everyone kept their mouth shut in fear. Countless infuriated eyes all fixated on Eeling sitting next to Stirling, hinting: You bloody idiot, what have you done this time, to make Sir Stirling so angry?
Noticing the sudden uncomfortable silence, Stirling realized he had lost his cool. He forced himself into a smile as he tried the fancy dish in front of him, saying: “The meat is a bit salty!”
The atmosphere on the table instantly became lively again as everyone firmly stood behind Stirling’s assessment. “Indeed, the meat is way too salty!” Saying each one with a serious face, as if they were just given an important task by Stirling, some even began listing several possibilities as to why the meat was so salty!
As the host of the evening, Gu Lan had seen it all happen. It was clearly Eeling’s fault. Whatever he said in whispers had angered Stirling greatly. Initially, he was a little bit jealous of Eeling today, being able to sit right next to Stirling and getting along with him so well, but now he was feeling much better: Well done! Eeling you cynical idiot, looks like your flattery has missed its mark as well!
Gu Lan decided to strike while the iron is hot, pushing closer: “Sir, I’m terribly sorry for the overly-salty meat, I will punish those stupid cooks accordingly later. Sir, would you like to try one of our local specialties? It is delicious; I guarantee it. I will have the cooks prepare it now.”
Stirling didn’t know if he should cry or laugh; he never expected his careless words would cause so much trouble.
Seeing two servants carrying a pot of whitish, tofu-like substance, Eeling gasped: “No way!” He turned towards Gu Lan, smiling coldly: “You sure spared no expenses!”
Gu Lan restrained himself: “It is nothing special. I’m sure someone like Sir Stirling has been to places and seen things we couldn’t even dream of. In a remote place like the Far East, we don’t have many things of value. This is just something insignificant we have prepared to show our gratitude.”
The words piqued Stirling’s interest, he asked: “So, is this very expensive? I wouldn’t want to impose!”
Eeling and Gu Lan answered at the same time: “Not expensive at all.”
Eeling murmured quietly: “The ingredients are in fact very easy to find.”
Gu Lan cracked a huge smile: “We don’t have anything valuable to offer in a desolate place like the Far East. This is but a local delicacy, please try it.”
Given the situation, Stirling had to be the first to try, or no one else would. He smiled softly: “Very well, if you insist.” He fetched a spoonful and savoured it. Indeed, it was delicious. Smooth texture, not too greasy, it was a true delicacy.
The Central Army officers followed suit and all shouted praises. Yet, no one could tell what it was made of, except that it was very tasty.
Gu Lan spoke with enthusiasm: “It is all right. Sir, if you like how it tastes, for the rest of your stay here in Deja, I will have a pot prepared for you every day!”
Stirling hurriedly declined: “You are too kind, but that would be too much trouble.” However, Stirling asked out of curiosity: “But what is it made of? It looks like tofu, but it is much smoother; it taste like eggs, but more delicate… I simply cannot tell.”
“Nothing special really. It only took about a dozen Beastmen’s brain to make a pot. Am I right? Sir Gu Lan?” Eeling spoke nonchalantly. Knowing all too well what kind of man Stirling was, he simply let Gu Lan to dig a deeper grave for himself.
Gu Lan smiled: “Only Beastmen’s brain is not enough to produce such delicacy. I even had them add some of Serpent and Goblin’s brain juice… Sir, you don’t have to so modest. I can have them prepared for you daily. Or perhaps, I can teach you the recipe? The ingredients are all very easy to find. I have many slaves and even more prisoners. The key lies at the preparation. It has to be fresh. You have to keep them alive when you crack open their skull. I even have a special crafted scoop. Only then can it stay fresh… Sir, are you feeling all right?”
Stirling rose to his feet and his face was chalk-white, asking: “Where is the bathroom?” Meanwhile, Tang Ping and the rest of Central Army Officers had already dashed for the back entrance and began throwing up.
Suddenly, noises sounded from afar, louder and louder. Most of guests at the banquet were soldiers; they could tell right the way: It was the marching sound of an army, and it was rapidly approaching!
They each looked at each other, asking: “What is going on? Who ordered the army to enter the city?”
“I didn’t! Me neither! Are those Rebels? I don’t recall hearing the reports of rebels in the area. Besides, there are thirty thousand garrison troops stationed inside the city alone, in addition we have close to hundred thousand elites of the Central Army as well. Which Rebel force is stupid enough to attack us?”
One of Gu Lan’s guards rushed into the dining hall in panic, whispering to his ears. Gu Lan’s face instantly paled. He quickly stood up and rushed outside in a hurry together with the guard.
Stirling knew something was up; he turned to instruct Tang Ping: “Take my Commander’s Seal, and order my division and Wen He’s division to get here right now.”
Tang Ping immediately made for the entrance together with a few of his men, it didn’t take long however, and he came back, reporting to Stirling: “Sir, the Governor’s Manor has been surrounded by armed forces. We are stuck here!” Stirling was shocked, asking: “Who are they?”
“They won’t say, but from the looks of their uniforms, they are City Deja’s garrison force.”
Stirling felt a chill down his spine: Deja’s garrison force? Aren’t they Gu Lan’s men? What is he trying to pull? Stirling terribly regretted for being so trustful; he didn’t even bring his personal guards. If only he didn’t try to rush things…
He stood up and looked around: “Where is Governor Gu Lan?” All the guests began searching for him as well, but Gu Lan was nowhere to be found!
Stirling started to panic, but he forced himself to remain composed: “Don’t worry. Deputy Commander Qin Lu has stayed behind at the Central Army base camp. Once he notices something is amiss, he will come for us.”
Stirling’s words seemed to have eased everyone’s mind. Staff Officer – Tang Ping however, still looked troubled: Even if Qin Lu sends help the moment he notices something is wrong, it is going to take at least half an hour. If Gu Lan makes his move right now, the dozen Central Army Officer here at the table won’t even last five minutes.
Stirling turned around to look at everyone at the table. Including the provincial Administrator – Liu Zi Feng, everyone was scared, trembling and in a state of panic. Even that arrogant Sir Luo Ming Hai’s distant cousin from earlier was now standing nervously on his feet… Stirling’s mouth jerked into a mocking smile, but he knew, they had nothing to do this.
Yet, there was one who continued to savour the delicacies on the table without a care in the world… The Governor of Iriya – Eeling.
Stirling knew there was more to it, he moved closer, asking: “You must know what is going on, right?”
Eeling put down his wooden sticks and answered politely: “Well Sir, it is show time! Gu Lan’s garrison force has mutinied!”