Imperial Calendar, Year 779, December, Stirling received the recall order and was on his way returning to the Capital. When he passed by Xiu’s Company’s base camp, he decided to visit his good friend, ZiChuan Xiu. Two good friends separated by the flames of war on the vast battlefield of the Far East had finally reunited, and the touching scenes of reunion ensued…
“Congratulations, Master Xiu! I heard you have been making a pretty penny lately!”
“Hoho, thank you! Bai Chuan, bring us some tea! So, how is business? Scored anything big?”
All the Officers took the hint and left, leaving only Stirling and ZiChuan Xiu in the room.
ZiChuan Xiu asked: “Stirling, what brings you here? Isn’t the Central Army marching for the frontlines? Who is in charge if you are not there?”
Stirling smiled bitterly and told him the story, pulling out the recall order from his pocket: “I have been recalled. It is probably demotion or worse. Those guys are such a bother! But what can I do. Officially they are…” He watched in surprise as ZiChuan Xiu emptied the garbage can filled with paperwork. Every one of those was the exact same recall order he had received.
“You… you… this is blasphemy…”
“Dude, time is money! My business is booming. I don’t have time to talk to those monkeys! But don’t worry. I already hired a platoon of lawyers to attend the hearings for me!”
Stirling smiled: “So you are a big shot now eh? I heard your business has been going well. Can you do me a favour?”
“No problem! We are families!” ZiChuan Xiu expressed his generosity: “If you want to borrow money, just tell me how much you need, no questions asked!”
Stirling shook his head: “Not to borrow. Those idiots in the Capital are giving me headaches. We are running out of food! I want to buy a million kilo rice from you.”
“Done!” ZiChuan Xiu’s eyes instantly shined with greed: “With the military surplus as base price, plus ten percent. Twenty percent upfront; I guarantee delivery within fifteen days. For every day of delay, you are entitled to half percent of the contracted amount in liquidated damages. Full payment must be made within ten days of delivery. Or you will also be liable to pay half percent for every day of extension. Would you like to pay cash or cheque?”
Feeling confused, Stirling admitted honestly: “I have no clue about this kind of things.”
“Hoho, that is even better! Err, I mean it is all right, I know what I am talking about! Come, did you bring any cheque on you? Let’s make the down payment first, and sign your name here. Basically it means you understand and agree to all the terms of this contract, and sign your name here also. Right, just write Central Army Commander – Stirling! Good, and the date! Very good!”
Still perplexed, Stirling let ZiChuan Xiu talk him into signing his name.
ZiChuan Xiu blew over the ink in satisfaction: “Stirling, you should have put me in charge of the provisioning from the very beginning! Didn’t Ming Hui tell you? I have been supplying his entire army, and I’m doing a much better job than the Logistic Department. The Black Banner Army has been getting way better food than you guys have at the Central Army! Besides, the Logistic Department has their hands full with the Council right now, they don’t have time at all to worry about you… Hey, why are you looking at me like that? I’m not scamming your or anything? We are families, I would never!”
ZiChuan Xiu quickly tucked away the contracts, not letting Stirling see. He changed the subject: “So what is going on at the frontline?
Stirling sighed: “Peace! We have just lost the last chance to end the civil war in the Far East! The Rebel Army already took the bait, and was lured into the open plains. Outside of the forest, they are no match for our lancers! Just when we were about to close the encirclement, the message came from the Elders, ordering us to stand down, and not to attack! So we have no choice but to watch the bulk of the Rebel Army slip away right under our noses! Terrible luck! Those were the elite of the Rebel Forces! If we destroy them, the rebellion would have ended! We were this close!”
ZiChuan Xiu could sense the underlying tone of disappointment and pain in Stirling’s voices. Just the thought of the amount of hard work Stirling had to put in every day and night, the amount of times he had risked his life in the field of battle, because one short message on a piece of paper, everything was for naught. He didn’t know what words will bring Stirling a little bit of comfort. Both of them remained silent.
In the end, it was Stirling who broke silence: “Anything new happening in the Capital? I haven’t even read a newspaper since I left. Like you said, I’m outdated.”
“Same old same old. Headmaster saying: ‘Keep up the good work!’ while Di Lin and Luo Ming Hai trying to tear each other to pieces. Here, have a look at what they are telling the council.”
ZiChuan Xiu handed him a newspaper: “Luo Ming Hai proposes that we should grant mercy to the Far Eastern Rebels in the name of the House, and welcome them back to the fold. Di Lin immediately refuted, saying: ‘Showing mercy as the Victor is an honorable act, but showing mercy as the loser, will only get ridiculed!’”
Stirling took a few glances at the article, asking slightly baffled: “But we didn’t lose?”
“Di Lin is saying that after the few loses we suffered, before and including the disaster at Red Lake, House ZiChuan has basically lost all its pride and credibility. If we offer them amnesty now because we can’t beat them, we will only become a laughing stock. The nobles of the Far Eastern Faction greatly favour his point of view. They advocate for severe punishment for the rebels in order to set an example and uphold the dignity of the nobles! However, the nobles coming from the core regions of the House wanted the war to end, to reduce the pressure of the military expenses. Luo Ming Hai is the spokesman for the faction favouring peace. So both factions have been arguing nonstop. Di Lin accused Luo Ming Hai being an agent for the Rebels, and traitor to the House! Things almost got violent during the Assembly.”
Stirling frowned: “Di Lin shouldn’t have done that. It doesn’t matter whether it is war or peace. They are both doing what they think is best for the House. They simply have chosen a different route.
ZiChuan Xiu secretly laughed at Stirling’s naiveté: When did they start thinking what is best for the House? The only reason Luo Ming Hai advocated for peace was because Di Lin advocated for war. If Di Lin changed his mind tomorrow, saying: “Let’s have peace!” Luo Ming Hai would definitely say: “No! In order to protect House ZiChuan’s honour, we must fight till the bitter end!”
“Never mind them. Stirling, what do you think after reading all that?”
Stirling smiled: “That is not something a soldier should worry about. We have politicians for that. All we need to do is to wait, wait for either the Council of the Headmaster to give us the next order. If they say war, we fight; if they say peace, we retreat. Obedience is the first duty of a soldier.”
Stirling pondered a bit, then added: “If an army starts having a mind of its own, then it will place itself above the society, and become a danger to all.”
ZiChuan Xiu considered Stirling’s every word, and smiled: “There you go again! I’m not asking the opinion from the Central Army Commander – Stirling. I just want to know what my good friend, Stirling thinks about the situation.”
Stirling thought for a long while, finally saying: “I don’t understand politics. I’m also not interested in their honour or dignity. The current situation is, there are two major political parties with conflicting interests, and they both have powerful military backing. I don’t really believe peace can be achieved through negotiations alone. Even if it can, it will only be a false peace, impossible to last. In the end, the outcome has to be decided through trial of strength on the field of battle. It may sound very contradictory, but I believe, true peace can only be obtained through war. None of us wish to see bloodshed or brothers killing brothers, but in order to unite the Far East, and for House ZiChuan to become strong, it is a price we must pay.”
ZiChuan Xiu was in awe. He never thought Stirling would have such deep insight considering how little free time he had while fighting on the frontline.
“Xiu, what do you think?”
ZiChuan Xiu replied: “I understand where you are coming from, but unlike you two, even though I’m born in Di Du, I grew up here. The Far East is like a second home for me. Back then, I saw with my own eyes how the human nobles mercilessly oppressed and harassed the other races, and now, I watched again how the oppressed mercilessly repaid their oppressors. No matter who wins, this is a terrible tragedy of brothers fighting brothers. If this war continues, there won’t be a victor, there will only be two losers. If the Council of Elders can resolve the conflict without needing further bloodshed, then they have my full support. But I’m only saying this to you, or they will call me a traitor again!”
Stirling listened attentively, smiling: “As I said, I don’t care whether you support war or peace. We are both doing what we think is best for the House; we are just walking different paths. I won’t fight you over something like that. However, you need to watch out for what you say to Di Lin. Our big brother has a serious temper.”
“I know! Right, almost forgot. Both Li Qing and Ka Dan told me to deliver their letters. Hold on, let me find it…” ZiChuan Xiu had to look for them everywhere; he finally found the two letters in the pile of toilet paper: “Here, I’ve done my part!”
Stirling’s hand shook with excitement as he received Ka Dan’s letter from him. He respectfully gave the enveloped a kiss, then tore it open. Before he started reading, he kissed the letter once more, but that suddenly got him thinking: Why is there water stain on the pages?! He knew ZiChuan Xiu’s bad habits all too well. He quickly caught him by the arm, asking: “Give me the truth! Did you read it? What is with the water stain?”
ZiChuan Xiu knew if he said even one word wrong, he would instantly be cut to pieces. He answered fearfully: “They are tears! Princess Ka Dan misses you so much; the tears show how much she misses you! Did you know how sad she was the day you left?! She was crying the whole time when she wrote you this letter. That is how the pages were soaked with her lucid tears.”
“I see!” Sounding relieved, Stirling began reading the letter:
This is my first time writing a letter in Human’s language. please forgive me if I made any mistakes.
How have you been? The days are much colder in the Far East, please take care of yourself. I have been doing well; there is no need to worry. Lady Ning has been taking good care of me. Yesterday I went to visit a temple. Everyone tells me that the Gods there always keep the soldiers safe. Lady Ning told me that she used to go there all the time, to pray for Sir ZiChuan Xiu, asking the Gods to keep him safe. It worked every time. Sir ZiChuan Xiu really did return to her safely!
So here I am, praying for you, like the way Lady Ning prayed for Sir ZiChuan Xiu, hoping for you swift and safe return. I hope my prayer would reach the Gods like Lady Ning’s prayer did; I hope the Gods would keep you safe like they kept Sir ZiChuan Xiu safe. In my opinion, if a terrible person like Sir ZiChuan Xiu could receive the blessing of the Gods, then a wonderful person like you should have no trouble asking for Gods’ mercy…
While Stirling lost himself reading the letter, ZiChuan Xiu tried to sneak out of the room, but he only got to take two steps before Stirling’s razor sharp sabre found its way to his neck. ZiChuan Xiu made a dry laughter, then hastily returned to his seat. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out how Stirling was about to see him without shifting his eyes away from the letter.
Exhaling deeply, Stirling had finished reading Ka Dan’s letter. His sharp gaze eyed ZiChuan Xiu up and down, judging him, as if he could see through his soul: “Did you really not sneak a peek?”
“I really have not!”
“Why is there a cut on the envelope?”
“Why is it so neatly cut if it were rats?
“Because it was a rat with golden teeth!”
“Why are there so many black finger prints on the letter? And what is this? The dark brown stuff?”
Just when ZiChuan Xiu was about the run out of answers, a conversation between Luo Jie and Chang Chuan came from the outside.
Luo Jie spoke in a high-pitched voice: “The days are much colder in the Far East, please take care of yourself!”
Chang Chuan pretended to speak like a girl: “Luo Jie, I am praying for you! if a terrible person like Sir ZiChuan Xiu could receive the blessing of the Gods, then a wonderful person like you, Luo Jie should have no trouble going to hell…”
Luo Jie yelled: “Sir Stirling. I have a secret to share! The reason behind the brownish water stain on your letter: One day, when Sir Xiu was going to the outhouse, he ran out of newspapers to read. So he took your letter. He was laughing so hard while reading it, that he lost control and dropped the letter. It wasn’t easy fishing it back up, I tell you…”
He didn’t need to go on, as earth-shattering sound of a deadly struggle and ZiChuan Xiu’s desperate cries for help erupted from inside the room: “Help! Someone help! Luo Jie, you bastard! Help me!”
Bidding ZiChuan Xiu farewell, Stirling rode day and night, nonstop, to get back to Di Du. Not sure why, but he arrived much earlier than the deadline given by the Council. Since the Assembly was still going on, almost all of Nation’s nobles had come to Di Du to watch. The closer the road was to the Capital, the more crowded it became. Some of the chokepoints, Stirling had to flash his Central Army Commander badge to get through. He never expected, but he had become the most famous General of House ZiChuan, and the center of attention. No matter how hard he tried to conceal his identify, the news his return had spread to the Capital faster than he had arrived.
“Ning!” Ka Dan dashed through the door like the wind; her cheeks were flushed from the exertion: “I heard the news on my way home! Did you hear? Stirling is coming back! He is coming back! The whole city is talking about it, everyone is talking about it, he is back! He is back! What do I do? He will be back soon!” The excitement made her words jumble.
In that moment, she was stunned: The guest standing in the room turned towards her. It was Stirling! The couple stared at each other; all the joy and passion hanged in the air, leaving no room for words.
He had changed so much! It had only been a couple of months, but he had aged so much! The searing sunlight of the Far East had covered him in a layer of rugged tan. His young and handsome face was now scarred by the passing of age, and the hair around his temples now laced with grey… making him look aged and worn. He was only twenty-five years old.
Ka Dan felt the sudden rush of gentle tenderness as tears burst out of her. Her beloved, with whom she couldn’t bear to part, had now become the staunch protector of the realm, a hero in everyone’s eyes. Even so, she only had one wish for him, hoping for his safe return. Gods, you finally heard my prayers. She got hold of herself and gave Stirling a deep bow: “I have missed you, Stirling! You look even more handsome than before!”
Stirling returned the same solemn bow: “Your Highness, may you stay forever young, and your beauty forever blossom like this bouquet of flower!” With both of his hands, he presented her the bouquet of fiery red rose; his eyes filled with infinite gentleness and love.
Ka Dan could no longer hold herself back. She accepted the flowers and a flood tears drowned her cheeks, but she still managed to finish her sentence: “The flower will wither, a face will age. In all things, only courage is eternal. You have boundless courage, you are the most beautiful!”
ZiChuan Ning watched silently on the side. Seeing the loving couple finally reuniting in front of her, she was truly happy for them, but she still managed to find humour in the situation: The couple clearly loved each other to death, yet they had to pretend to have a serious conversation. What a dishonest couple.
She was curious as to what happened next, but Stirling’s sharp gazes and Ka Dan’s sparkling eyes both fixated in her direction. Their gazes were so gentle, yet so determined, as if they were telling her: Lady Ning was no doubt the most beautiful, loving woman in the world, but if only she can make herself useful and give us the room, she would be the greatest there ever was!
“Hihi.” ZiChuan Ning laughed dryly, taking a step closer to the door.
Stirling and Ka Dan continued to stare at her in silence. Their eyes had betrayed them. Their minds were filled with endless thoughts.
“Hihihi!” ZiChuan Ning barely walked out the door, and to her surprise, the door had closed shut behind her without her noticing. The last thing she saw through the gap was: Ka Dan leapt into Stirling’s powerful arm, holding each other tightly.
“Ka Dan has found her happiness.” ZiChuan Ning quietly concluded: “Stirling has all the good traits one could wish for in a man. He is upright, courageous, gentle, faithful and he has the whole world ahead of him. A man like that deserves all the love Ka Dan can give.”
She suddenly felt incredibly lost: If so, why would someone fall in love with a dishonest, cowardly, callous and unreliable man with no prospects to speak of?
Over the blue sky, towards east, all the way to the distant land of the Far East, to the place where her beloved warrior was fighting. I miss you, Xiu. Can you feel it from over there?