Stirling eyed Eeling’s satisfied smile sideways, saying: “You, come with me.” then walked towards the hallway adjacent to the dining room.
Eeling seemed distracted for a moment, then quickly followed.
The empty hallway was dead silent.
Stirling took a firm stand: “Did you incite the mutiny?” He asked Eeling standing behind him without turning around.
The words caught Eeling by surprise, he hurriedly explained: “Sir, it has nothing to do with me! I’m a servant of ZiChuan. I would never do something so outrageous like that. Besides, those men are from Gu Lan’s forces. I can’t command them even if I tried. Also…”
As if Stirling didn’t hear a thing Eeling said, he turned around smiling and asked again: “You incited the mutiny? Why would you do something like that?”
“Sir! It was pure luck that I found out about Gu Lan having problems with his men. It was a wild guess that is all. I don’t know anything for certain…”
“Luck?” Stirling smiled slightly: “You, “just happen” to sit right next to me. When someone say something, you “just happen” to crack a smile, and let me notice it? And naturally, it was all a “coincidence” that you told me all those stories… It must be my lucky day then that you somehow know everything there is to know about them… What is more, you “just happen” to know that Gu Lan’s forces are going to munity. Even though he doesn’t know that himself, you somehow did!”
Stirling continued on with a gentle smile: “Sir Governor, I still remember very clearly what a friend of mine, Di Lin once told me: The first time it could be luck, the second time it could be a coincidence, but the third time…”
He moved closer towards Eeling and whispered to his ears: “It would be on purpose! So now, Governor Eeling, you purposely incited the mutiny, what do you want? You can say it now.”
Eeling’s face paled: “Sir, I really have no intention to cause anyone any harm; I merely want…”
“You merely want: First, the Far Eastern Army has always consisted of three Deputy Commanders. After Lei Hong mutinied, there is now a vacancy; Second, historically all Deputy Commanders are promoted directly from the active Red Banner Masters. Out of the twenty-three provinces in the Far East, only your province of Iriya and Gu Lan’s province of Deja survived the rebellion, therefore your accomplishment are the greatest amongst your peers, which means only you two are qualified to compete for the position of the Deputy Commander; Third, if Gu Lan’s men mutinied, regardless what the outcome would be, I wouldn’t be pleased. In other words, he would have lost the right to compete against you, and thus the juicy position of the Far Eastern Army Deputy Commander would have fallen into your hands… Is that what you want? Governor Eeling?”
All this time, Stirling still carried that gentle smile on his face, but every one of his words was like daggers aiming at Eeling’s heart. Only then did he realize, the always smiling, political ignorant young Commander whose only thoughts were about winning the war, had in fact such keen insight and acute judgment. There was no way he could fool him with a lie. Eeling always thought himself being quite competent, but in front of Stirling, he felt like a naked child. Stirling would see through him in less than a second. How ridiculous it was he had thought only a moment ago, that he could somehow make this inexperienced brat dance on the palm of his hand.
Against such opponent, the only way and also the best way, was to tell the truth.
“Sir, I admit, those thoughts have indeed crossed my mind. It was my wishful thinking that one day I could become the Deputy Commander of the Far Eastern Army.”
Stirling’s voice slowed down a little: “Water streams down, man climbs up. You are already a Red Banner Master; it is natural to hope one day to become more. You held your ground despite being surrounded by enemies; you kept millions of lives from harm’s way. You have accomplished something incredible! But you shouldn’t have resorted to such underhanded tactics, framing your comrades, even inciting mutiny…”
“Sir?!” Eeling interrupted him: “You thought I was framing them?”
Stirling watched him silently.
“Sir, I admit. My motives are not pure. I want to rise, and I want to get rich. I purposely made you notice me, remember me. I tried to manipulate you into mentioning my name to the High Command, telling them that Eeling is quite capable and suited to become the next Deputy Commander! I admit completely, that I’m nothing compared to the already deceased Far Eastern Commander – Ge Ying Xing who was so honest, he never took a cent that didn’t belong to him; And I’m nothing compared to Governor Lin Wei who died a hero’s death on top of the walls of Minske. I also admit that I embezzled funds too, about fifteen soldiers worth. The salary of a Red Banner Master was not nearly enough to cover my expenses. I’m a coward, most of the time in battle I stand behind the lines of soldiers shouting them on. I admit to all those!”
“But…” Eeling exuded immense hatred, his teeth chattering: “Compared to the human wastes sitting inside that room, even my shit is hundred times cleaner than they are!”
“Sir! You don’t believe me? I have proof! It is simple. Those assholes sitting there right now is the proof! Tang Guo is the Administrator of Lange, and now province Lange has fallen. Countless casualties, but why is he still sitting there without a scratch? Lu Hai is the Governor of Dusa. As a garrison commander, it is his duty to defend the province. What in God’s name is he doing in Deja? Sir, what more proof do you need?! They have abandoned their people, abandoned their men and abandoned their district! Governor Lin Wei died, Red Banner Master Li Qi leading the assault died, three hundred thousand soldiers from the Far Eastern Army died, millions of Civilians also died… But why are they still alive, sitting there like kings? They are the root of all this evil!”
“They extorted and overtaxed non-human races by force. Even when they were so poor they couldn’t even afford their own pants, they had to pay tax! If they couldn’t, they would get beaten to death! Those men in there… are animals! That is right, animals! You saw it for yourself in there; eating fresh brains is nothing new to them. Some of the stories make your hair stand on end just hearing about them. I will spare you the details; they will only give you nightmares!”
“And so, they provoked their anger, causing them to rebel. Even though it was those men’s fault, that every Beastmen, Serpent and Dragonkin in the land hated us to the bones, they simply ran away… Sitting in their expensive carriages, carrying millions worth in gold and under the protection of their guards, they, their countless wives and mistresses simply ran, leaving only the helpless civilians behind to quench the Rebel’s anger! It was their evil doings, but it was the soldiers and the civilians who had to pay the price! Several provinces in the Far East had some of the most prosperous cities in the whole nation. Have you seen what is left of them Sir? Did you find anything else other than a sea of human skeletons?!”
Stirling stood there quietly while listening to Eeling’s moving speech. His heart was constantly being battered by tidal waves. In conjunction with everything he had seen and heard on his way here, he knew Eeling was telling the truth. In fact he already knew from seeing his indignant and reddened cheeks: The man was not telling a lie.
He said quietly: “Don’t we have another good officer here? Other than Governor Lin Wei who died, didn’t Governor Gu Lan also hold his ground?”
“Ha……ha!” Eeling made an exaggerated laughter: “Gu Lan? He is worse than all those men combined! If he really was such loyal and devoted officer, why would his men want to mutiny?”
Eeling told Stirling bluntly: “When the Far Eastern Rebellion first started, Gu Lan was the first to panic. He gave his men a beyond ridiculous order; he wanted to round up all non-human populations in the province and kill them; because he was afraid of some might join the rebels. Luckily there was a well respected Division Leader in his garrison force, who brought everyone together and refused to execute the order. He told Gu Lan that if they really tried to kill them all, before the rebels even got here, they would already have a rebellion on their hand!”
Stirling nodded in agreement: “Well said. What is that Division Leader’s name?”
Eeling answered: “His name is Garcia, a Banner Master.” Then continued: “But then came the news of Far Eastern Army’s devastating defeat at the Red Lake. Gu Lan was scared shitless, he packed everything worth of value and was ready to flee to Fort Warren. That Division Leader knew, if Governor Gu Lan had fled, the morale of the army would crumple overnight. They would have lost the fight before it even began. So he made a prompt decision and placed Gu Lan under house arrest, confining him to the Governor’s estate and stopping him from contacting any outsiders. Then he claimed to be Governor’s proxy and gave out orders in his name. He confiscated Gu Lan’s properties and sold them to cover the military expenses needed to arm the newly drafted militias. It wasn’t easy, but that was how he formed a defence force of almost hundred thousand men and thwarted the Rebel’s attacks time and time again by uniting the entire province as one. Even in such dire times, he still managed to rescue my province Iriya when we needed.”
Stirling praised: “Brave and capable! Where is he? Why isn’t he here tonight? You have to introduce me to him.”
Eeling shook his head: “Sir, he is dead.”
Stirling was abashed: “He died fighting the rebels?”
“No, Gu Lan had him assassinated.” Eeling sighed: “When the dangers passed, Gu Lan was again the mighty Governor. He called Garcia to the Governor’s Estate, promising him promotion and reward. Garcia was naïve enough to happily go there with a few accomplished fellow officers, hoping for promotion, but as expected, they were ambushed by Gu Lan’s guards and killed. Gu Lan wanted revenge, but most importantly, he was afraid of Garcia telling you what actually happened. And thus, the heroic deeds of war, doing the impossible, well, everything became Governor Gu Lan’s accomplishments. This is top secret, no one else knew. The garrison forces who surrounded us outside are all Garcia’s men; they are here to demand their officer’s release. I can’t wait to see what Gu Lan is going to tell them!”
Stirling pondered for a long time, then a rather import question came to his mind: “But how did you know all this?”
“Sir, before Gu Lan made the move against Garcia, he came to me asking for help, because Garcia is well respected in the army, and he was afraid of using his own garrison force. I refused. And before tonight’s coup, Gu Lan’s garrison force has made contact with my men, asking them to join their efforts. Together they would be able to apply more political pressure. Perhaps I haven’t been absolutely terrible to my men so far; my men refused them and even told me about it.”
“You knew Gu Lan’s garrison force is going to mutiny and you didn’t inform him?”
“Sir. I’m not his father, nor his son. Why do I have to inform him? Sir. You also have nothing to worry about. This entire coup is aimed at Gu Lan and him alone. If you tell the soldiers who you are, I’m certain that they have no intention to harm you. You can leave freely if you want to, nobody would stand in your way.
Stirling stared deeply into Eeling’s eyes, asking his last question: “Why are you telling me all these? Aren’t you just like them, also a Governor in the Far Eastern Regions?”
Eeling faced Stirling’s razor sharp gazes head on, answering with confidence: “Sir, yes I’m a Governor, but I’m also a human being.”
The gates opened wide, as a group of officers approached the rebellious soldiers. The one leading the pack was a young man, not very tall, and slightly fatigued. There was something about his stares, and it wasn’t anger, but it gave him a sense of awe that made others unable to face him. The most noticeable thing about him was the shiny golden eagle badge on his epaulet… In the entire Far Eastern Region, there were only three men who had the rights to carry that badge, and right now in the city of Deja, there was only one.
Soldiers saluted spontaneously in unison: “Sir Stirling. We salute you!”
Stirling responded with a salute: “Greetings, gentlemen.”
A leading officer stepped forward with a salute, then asked: “Sir, may I ask where you are headed?”
Stirling answered calmly: “I don’t believe I’m obligated to explain my intentions to you, do I?”
The officer was at a loss for words. He thought about it then said: “Sir, We don’t intend to harm you in anyway. We just want Gu Lan to give us our commanding officer back. We express our sincere apologies for any inconvenience we may have caused for you and your men.” He turned around and gestured to the soldiers: “Make way for Sir Stirling!”
All the soldiers behind him simultaneously stepped to their side, creating a path. The officer gave Stirling a bow and gestured “please”.
Everyone exhaled in relief. They were allowed to leave. But Stirling suddenly halted his steps, asking: “I want to know, what is everyone doing here?” All the Central Army officers anxiously stamped their feet behind Stirling: Is he crazy, why aren’t we leaving while we still can?!
The officers raised his volume slightly: “Sir, I don’t believe it concerns you. You should leave while I still have control over my men…”
Stirling interrupted him: “I’m a member of the High Command, in other words, I have the rights to concern myself with anything that happens within House ZiChuan’s borders… Unless, province Deja is no longer House ZiChuan’s territory? Or are you no longer soldiers of House ZiChuan’s army?”
The officer frowned, and a wave of disturbance began to spread throughout the soldiers behind him: They disapproved of Gu Lan’s actions, but they did not intend to rebel. The officer relented: “Sir, I have already told you. We are waiting for Gu Lan to return us our commanding officer, Banner Master Garcia… I suggest you leave right now, Sir. We all admire you greatly; it would be very unfortunate if something was to happen to…”
Stirling interrupted him again: “Thank you for your concerns. However, I’m just another soldier of House ZiChuan; my safety is no more and no less important than anyone else’s. I also want to ask, if Gu Lan is unwilling to give you your commanding officer, what do you intend to do?”
The officer declared adamantly: “We will wait, until he does!” His voice was firm, and without hesitation. He fully intended to be true to his words.
Stirling was moved by his determination: A Banner Master called Garcia, someone whom he had never met, for some reason had such powerful charisma. Even after his death, his men were still so loyal to him. They would even attempt a coup if it meant they could secure his release! Given time, a man like that would definitely become the priceless treasure of ZiChuan, a hero amongst men… Of course, if only he was still alive…
Stirling sighed: “Banner Master Garcia is no more.”
The news came as a shock. Noises soon exploded from the group of soldiers in front of him. Eeling pulled at his hairs in frustration: Why is he telling them at a time like this?! If the soldiers lose control, the outcome…
The officer couldn’t believe his ears: “What? How? Impossible? Sir Garcia was such a great man, how…” Seeing Stirling’s solemn expression, it hit him like a wrecking ball: It was all true.
A tall husky fellow instantly collapsed, he slowly dropped to his knees and pulled his head together in tears.
The soldiers whimpered: “Sir Garcia is gone? What do we do now? Who will lead us? Who will defend Deja? Damn you, Gu Lan!”
A voice shouted: “Gu Lan must die!”
And many more voices answered: “Yes! Let’s go and hang Gu Lan by the neck!” Several soldiers took the lead; they were practically fuming with rage, unsheathing their sabres and ready for violence.
“Stop!” A thunderous roar had frozen everyone where they stood. Stirling’s shadow planted firmly in front of the gate, like an unmovable mountain he had blocked the soldiers’ path: “Soldiers! Do you realize what you are doing? This is mutiny!”
“You have lost your admired officer; House ZiChuan has lost one of its finest servants… We all feel the pain! I understand how you feel! But do you realize, what you are about to do? If you go in there now, and stain your blade with blood, you will be traitors, unforgivable traitors!”
“We are soldiers. We do not fear death! But there are worse things in life than death! If you die, your families will mourn your passing from a place far away. They will shed tears in your honour, remember you, they will bring the whitest of all flowers to your grave every year and announce with pride: ‘My good husband, my good sons, they gave their lives in the service of our nation, they have no regret in the eyes of God or anyone else!’ Your sons will be proud to carry your name, he will stand before others with his head held high!”
“But if you die as a traitor, who will remember you? Who will mourn your death? Your body will not be publicly buried. It will be thrown away to the dogs! Your name will bring shame to your entire family. Your sons and wives will never again be able to raise their heads in front of their neighbours! Soldiers, please have restraint and stay calm!”
Stirling’s words echoed in everyone’s ears like clear thunder. All the soldiers halted their steps, listening attentively. A soldier yelled: “Do we leave Sir Garcia’s death unavenged? Has he died for nothing?”
Stirling declared in a stern voice: “May Sir Garcia’s spirit forever watch over us! Soldiers, I promise you right here and now: Justice will be served! That is me, Stirling, my promise to everyone as the Central Army Commander! Banner Master Garcia has served his nation with great distinction. Despite his unfortunate death, I, on behalf of the High Command, shall award him with the posthumous promotion of the rank Deputy Commander! Everyone, listen to me! On behalf of House ZiChuan, I beg you, return to your camp. I promise, I will give you a satisfying answer!”
The soldiers hesitated, and argued. In the end, it was that teary officer who stood up. He wiped his eyes and said to Stirling: “Sir. You made us a promise!”
Stirling replied without hesitation: “I did! I will give you justice! That is my promise!”
“All right! Sir Stirling! We trust you! We will do as you say!” The officer stared deeply into Stirling’s eyes, then turned around, shouting: “A-ten-shun! To the left! Forward!” Soldiers readily followed suit; marching away in large formation, and slowly disappearing into the distance. Soon only the rhythmic sound of their boots remained, quieter and quieter…
Everyone was relieved that bloodshed was avoided. Tang Ping and other Central Army Officers hurriedly complained to Stirling for his unnecessary recklessness: What if the soldiers didn’t listen…
Stirling smiled back, telling them he had everything under control. He knew what it was like being a soldier and how they felt.
Eeling stared at Stirling, his action had left him stunned: In that moment, when Stirling stood alone in front of the group of angry soldiers, the image of Stirling’s imposing figure and his awe-inspiring appearance was deeply engraved in his mind. Eeling had only one sentence to describe what he saw: Beyond reproach. Then, a thought had popped into his head: “Stirling will one day become a man amongst man.”
Stirling’s smile suddenly turned sour: A group of Far Eastern Officers came out from the hiding place in the back. The one walking in front was no other than the missing Governor Gu Lan from earlier!
He quickly approached them with a flattering smile on his face, speaking loudly: “Phew! Sir Stirling. That was close. Luckily you were here. You overwhelmed those ungrateful fools with your presence alone! We were all cheering for you. You single-handedly sent them packing! Your fearlessness is only matched by your peerless courage! You truly opened our eyes today!”
The rest of his group hastily added: “That is right, Stirling is clearly the bravest warrior of ZiChuan!”
The Central Army Officers all looked at them with contempt: Where the hell were you guys earlier? Coming out now to gloat!
Stirling smiled uncaringly.
Eeling couldn’t stand their shamelessness anymore, and sneered: “You all came out just in time!”
Gu Lan continued in his cheeky tone: “I was planning to come out much sooner to fight alongside with Sir Stirling, but my stomach was acting up. It must be something I ate. I had to go to the bathroom… by the time I came out… well, thanks to Sir Stirling’s invincible gallantry, overcoming thousands of enemies all by himself…”
Before he could finish, a large contingent of soldiers had appeared from both ends of the street.
Gu Lan’s face instantly paled: “Shit, my stomach, Ouch. It is acting up again… Sir, hold on, I will be…” He was ready to turn and run, but Stirling’s powerful arm had clenched his shoulder, rendering him unable to move.
Stirling smiled: “Governor Gu Lan, there is no need for panic. Take a closer look, those are my men!”
Despite his thick skins, Gu Lan only managed to mutter a few soft laughter under his breath, unable to speak.
Central Army Deputy Commander – Qin Lu arrived with a whole division of infantry. He said to Stirling laughingly: “I heard some rebellious soldiers surrounded the Governor’s Estate and I came to help. But by the looks of it, I came for nothing.”
Stirling laughed back: “You didn’t come for nothing. Let me introduce: This one is Deja’s Governor – Gu Lan, this one is the local Administrator – Liu Zi Feng, over here we have Administrator – Luo Lin Shuang, Governor – Lu Hai, Administrator – Tang Guo, and we also have a celebrity at our hands…” He introduced every one of them to Qin Lu. Feeling flattered, everyone hurriedly stepped forward and shook Qin Lu’s hand.
Finally, still smiling, Stirling said: “They are the nobles and the high ranking officers of Far East, the soul of ZiChuan! Qin Lu, have you memorized their names?”
Qin Qu wasn’t quite sure what Stirling meant, he answered honestly: “Yes, I have memorized their names.”
“Good!” Stirling wiped away his smile, revealing a dense aura of killing intent between his eyes: “Take them all into custody!”
Arresting over a dozen high ranking officers all of a sudden, even Stirling wasn’t sure how to best handle the situation. When he asked for advice from his men, each suggested something different, leaving him even more confused than before. In the end, he decided to write a letter to Di Lin and ZiChuan Xiu, asking them for advice.
ZiChuan Xiu was shocked when he received the letter. He knew people like Gu Lan wasn’t the problem, but the faction of power behind them was not something to be trifled with. Stirling had just stirred up the hornet’s nest.
He hastily wrote back to Stirling, suggesting: There are two solutions to the problem: One, release them all and apologize to them in person, pretending as if nothing ever happened; (Stirling shook his head repeatedly) Two, kill them all, and blame their deaths on the rebels. Letting any of them live is a recipe for disaster!
Stirling did not approve either of ZiChuan Xiu’s suggestions: Yes, Gu Lan and the others are guilty for many things, but not all of them deserve to die. Also, they have the rights to a fair trial, and to be tried on legal ground. Charges need to be brought forth and they need be punished in accordance to the law. Only then can we have justice! If he kills them in secret, how can he claim to be just? And how is he any different from Gu Lan who killed Garcia in secret?
Stirling liked Di Lin’s idea much better. Di Lin officially dispatched a company of constables together with a juridical officer to take over the custody of the offenders from him. Stirling was overjoyed when he saw their arrival; he quickly handed juridical officer the letter of accusation. He had to work whole night to get it finished in time. In it contained the large amount of proof and witness statements he had managed to gather. He told the officer: “I wrote the letter myself. It contains all the details of what they are being accused of: Desertion, Corruption, Murder, Dereliction of Duty and many other charges. Please present the letter to the Judge during Court Martial.”
The juridical officer responded politely: “Rest assured, Sir. The ministry will give them a fair trial, and judge them in all honesty and fairness. They will get the punishments they deserve!”
The officer bid his farewell and left with the offenders. They didn’t get very far however, near the forest at the first intersection after leaving the province of Deja, the officer gave the order to hang Gu Lan and others by their necks from the tree.
Watching Gu Lan’s feet swinging back and forth in mid air, Cobra… the juridical officer, who was in reality Di Lin’s personal guard Captain, grabbed Stirling’s letter of accusation from his bag and set it on fire. He turned to ask one of the constables: “Anyone needs to lit a pipe?”
Captain Cobra raced to Fort Warren as fast as he could. As the envoy of the Inspector General, he requested an audience with Commander Fang Jin, and was granted a private meeting. After they discussed for a while behind closed doors, Captain Cobra left, very quietly. All the constables he left the Capital with, stayed behind and were sent for the frontline as vanguards by Commander Fang Jin.
The next day, a report came from Commander Fang Jing: “Province Deja and Iriya were under attack by unknown Rebel forces. Thanks to the courageous display of every soldier and civilian alike, the Rebel Army was finally repelled! Governor – Gu Lan, Administrator – Liu Zi Feng, Garrison Division Leader – Garcia, Administrator – Luo Lin Shuang and other thirteen high ranking officers all fought bravely in battle, and were unfortunately killed in action. The pain of grief has struck us all. It is my recommendation for the High Command to award the listed officers with posthumous promotions for their valiant efforts. Attachment: A list of all personnel who died in the battle and their heroic deeds.”
When the report reached the High Command, Luo Ming Hai quickly handed it over to ZiChuan Shen Xing for review.
ZiChuan Shen Xing lamented: “Who says officers of House ZiChuan are all cowards? Who says we have no heroes amongst us? This is proof! No matter how dire the situation is, as long as we still have such spirit of heroism in our hearts, as long as we still have such brave men amongst us, there is no mountain we can’t climb, no river we can’t cross! They are all finest of House ZiChuan. We should award them accordingly, to encourage the newcomers and to show the people that we are Just! The word ‘Justice’ is what House ZiChuan was founded upon…
“Di Lin, what do you say?” He turned to Di Lin. When the reports came, Di Lin happened to be reporting his recent work from the Ministry.
Di Lin humbly bowed his head: “Well said, Sir. Those were wise words! Do good deeds, and be rewarded, do evil and be punished. That is what justice is!”