Stirling arrived on time for the dinner at Headmaster’s House. ZiChuan Shen Xing gave him a warm welcome as he accompanied him into the dining room. Everything was as ZiChuan Shen Xing told him, an ordinary meal. Other than himself, he didn’t invite anyone else tonight, but the dinner was too extravagant for just the two of them. That got Stirling thinking, such sumptuous behaviour was quite uncharacteristic of him. As an officer of the Logistic Department, Li Qing once told Stirling half jokingly: “Our Headmaster is the most modest of all Headmasters in House ZiChuan’s history.” Hinting that sometimes, ZiChuan Shen Xing could be overly stingy. He would spend thirty million to arm an army without a second thought, yet, he was unwilling to pay a few extra coins to add a fish to his evening meal.
“Sir, this is too much. You didn’t have to. The two of us won’t be able to eat all these.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing didn’t seem to care: “Don’t worry about that. I will finish the leftovers tomorrow.” He laughed: “Come, you are guest tonight; you don’t have to hold back. Be at ease, and eat all you can! The days in the Far East must have been tough on you. Have you looked in the mirrors lately? It has only been a few months but your face has darkened and aged so much.”
“It’s an honour to serve House ZiChuan! It is my duty as a soldier; I have only done what is required of me…”
“Didn’t I tell you to be at ease? That is the only flaw of your character, you just can’t let go. Tonight you are not allowed to call me Sir. Treat me as an elder instead and call me Uncle Shen Xing. How is that?”
Stirling had been feeling uneasy since he got here, but after seeing the kind look on ZiChuan Shen Xing’s face, it was like a weight off his shoulder. He finally smiled: “Very well.”
The duo sat down at the table, and ZiChuan Shen Xing began introducing the various dishes he had prepared for tonight: “This is the Patterned Carp Fish from the western regions. They can only be caught during the few selected weeks in the year, and it is even harder to transport them to Di Du while keeping them alive…”
After the dinner, the two sat down in the Guest Room and enjoyed the tea, during which ZiChuan Shen Xing asked with concern about the ongoing war in the Far East. He was mostly interested in knowing the morale and the combat strength of the newly recruited militia forces, since they amounted to over half of all the forces currently active in the Far East.
Stirling considered for a moment then told him the truth: “Majority of the militia forces are farmers and local aristocrats from all parts of House ZiChuan. Even though they didn’t receive much training, they are brave and they are eager. With proper encouragement, they can fight on par with any regular divisions. However, when they are under attack or when they start losing, they panic very easily.”
“A while back, a small militia force was sent to pacify a group of rebels. All it took was a few dozen Beastmen, and several thousand militias were sent fleeing in all directions. Another time late in the night inside Fang Jin’s main camp, a young soldier was having a nightmare when he shouted in his sleep: ‘Demons!’ And instantly, chaos ensued in the camp. One voice soon turned into many, shouting: ‘The Demons are here! Run for your lives!’ Everyone started to panic and run around like headless chickens in the dark, shouting “Run! Run!” Fang Jin did his best to calm everyone down, lighting torches while giving orders: ‘Stay calm! Everyone regroup at my position!’ But even his words could not stem the tide. If it wasn’t for his brave personal guards, he was probably trampled to death by now. By the time the sun came up, several hundred soldiers had been trampled to death during the chaos. It took Fang Jin a whole week to re-gather the scattered forces. Even then a few thousand of them had gone missing. They either turned deserters or were picked off by Rebels when they were separated.”
“Currently, we have four active armies operating in the Far East. My Central Army, around hundred-thousand strong; Ming Hui’s Black Banner Army, also around hundred-thousand strong; Fang Jin’s militia forces, around two-hundred-fifty-thousand strong; finally, there is the remnant of the Far Eastern Army. After regrouping, they total about two-hundred-thousand. However they are mostly spread across the region, including Fort Warren’s, Deja’s and Iriya’s garrison forces.”
“All the active Commanders agree that, despite the numbers of Fang Jin’s forces, in term of actual combat strength, Fang Jin’s forces are the weakest because he doesn’t have a single regular division under his command. If the Rebels wish to break through our lines, they’ll definitely start with Fang Jin. Both I and Ming Hui wish to place one or two regular divisions under Fang Jin’s command, to strengthen his forces.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing listened to his every word while nodding constantly: “Indeed! Soldiers must be trained! I have already arranged for fifty thousand militia forces to be formally trained at Fort Warren!”
Stirling nodded in agreement: “That is most wise.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing quickly changed the subject: “Right, Stirling. You are not that young anymore. Have you thought about settling down?”
Stirling was shocked, answering in a hurry: “Thank you, Sir. But our lands are broken, the Far East is in turmoil, the Rebellion runs rampant and hundreds of thousand enemies have lined up against us. I am fortunate enough to be graced by Headmaster’s and House ZiChuan’s favour. How could I not give my all when the House is in great strife? This is neither the place nor time to consider my personal affairs.”
“That is where you are wrong, Stirling.” ZiChuan Shen Xing spoke very seriously: “Quelling the rebellion, defending the realm against our enemies, those are the duties of every soldier in House ZiChuan. You cannot and should not assume all the responsibility alone! Are you saying without you, we will not be able to pacify the Far East?”
Stirling panicked, hurriedly curtsying: “Yes, Sir. I misspoke. I apologize.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing gestured for him to sit, saying: “As I said, you don’t have to feel responsible for everything. It is a burden that we all share! Yes, from your point of view, it is your duty to serve House ZiChuan, but as House ZiChuan, how can we let a loyal servant suffer so much in its name and ask him to sacrifise all his youth? You are telling me that it has to wait until the rebellion is quelled, but what if the negotiation fails? This war can easily go on for years. Are you really going to wait for another ten years to get married? That would be ridiculous.”
Stirling argued: “But I still have many urgent businesses to attend do; my men need me in the Far East…”
“Oh, it is fine. We are still negotiating anyway. There is nothing you can do for the time being. Why don’t you stay in the Capital for a few more days, get married and then go back? Of course, we may have to rush things along, but you can leave the details to me. I’ll take care of everything. I promise you a wedding worthy of you!”
The Headmaster promised to arrange his wedding, which was such a rare honor. If it was any other day, Stirling would have kneeled and bowed in gratitude, but right now, his mind was a complete mess. Stirling was at a loss for words; he was stunned.
ZiChuan Shen Xing didn’t seem to care for his lack of curtsy, he continued: “It’s not right to keep her waiting without ever giving her an answer. Li Qing is still a lady. Do you really want her to spend her entire youth waiting around for you?”
“Stirling, war is important, but so is guaranteeing our future. Both you and Li Qing are very capable in your own right, and very loyal to ZiChuan. I’m certain that your children will be as capable and loyal as you are!”
“Good, Stirling. Since you don’t have anything to add, then it is settled. Very well, I already picked the date. Two days from now is a good day. You may have a week off for honeymoon, before you have to return to the Far East.”
“How much savings do you have? Do you have enough for the wedding? If not, I can help with the cost. Li Qing comes from a famous Household. We can’t insult her with too poor of a wedding.”
Stirling’s mind screamed in agony, but one thing had always been clear to him: Whatever happens, he must not agree to anything half-heartedly. He spoke with a strained voice: “Sir, I hope to delay the wedding.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing’s face instantly darkened. That was the first time Stirling had ever disobeyed his wishes: “Stirling, what are you saying? Do you think you are too good for her, and she is not worthy of you anymore?”
With the first set of words out of his mouth, Stirling had gotten much bolder: “I wouldn’t dare. Lady Li Qing is noble born; she is beautiful, virtuous, kind and very capable…”
ZiChuan Shen Xing nodded: “Indeed, so what more do you want?”
“No. I just thought, given Lady Li Qing’s beauty and skills, she deserves a better man than I. I am but a soldier, a lowborn. I have no wealth or properties to speak of. I do not deserve someone like her.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing leapt to his feet, asking in a drawn out manner: “Stirling, do you intend to break off the engagement?” He lowered his voice, as if he was trying to suppress his anger.
Stirling gritted his teeth, answering softly: “Yes.”
The moment those words left his mouth, he could feel the wave of dizziness washing over him. He steeled his mind, closed his eyes, and fortified himself against the impending rage of heaven.
To his surprise, only peace and calm came for him. ZiChuan Shen Xing’s voice was unbelievably gentle: “Stirling, if you don’t like Li Qing, is it possible that you have someone else in mind? You can tell me, I won’t blame you.”
“Sir?” Stirling was at a loss for words.
“It doesn’t matter who she is. You can tell me.”
“You are right, Sir. My heart belongs to someone else.” Seeing the kind look on ZiChuan Shen Xing’s face, Stirling gathered his courage and told him: “The one I love is Ka Dan.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing raised his brow: “Ka Dan? Who is she?” Even though he knew everything there is to know about her, he had to pretend hearing her name for the first time.
Stirling mustered up the rest of his courage and told him everything. ZiChuan Shen Xing listened attentively as he paced back and forth inside the room, not saying a word. He finally stopped in front of the window, speaking slowly: “I’m getting old.”
Stirling didn’t quite understand, responding instinctively: “Sir, you are not even sixty. You are still young and energetic. How can you be ‘old’?”
ZiChuan Shen Xing ignored him as he went on: “In a sense, after all these years and being the Headmaster, I have seen it all and done it all. I shouldn’t have any regrets, but there is just one thing I can’t seem to let go.”
Stirling watched him in silence. Tonight, the cunning and calculated Headmaster had laid down his mask, showing a rare sight of honesty.
“Since our founding father, the First Headmaster – ZiChuan Yun founded House ZiChuan, until my brother, who died from battle after he handed me the mantle from his deathbed, House ZiChuan’s bloodline had weathered seven generations of storms of time! I cannot allow the name of ‘ZiChuan’ to perish under my watch! If what we built with seven generations of blood and tears ended up collapsing in my hand, I will not be able to face my brother or House ZiChuan’s ancestor in the afterlife!”
“All I have done and all I have given up, everything was to ensure the future of House ZiChuan. Every sin I have committed, I will gladly face them on my own. Even if I have to suffer in the deepest halls of hell, I will have no regrets!” ZiChuan Shen Xing declared with exceptional determination, even so he could not mask the strand of regret in his voice.
Stirling had some ideas of what ZiChuan Shen Xing meant with the “sins” he had committed, yet, he felt the need to comfort him: “You are being too hard on yourself, Sir. The Far Eastern rebellion is definitely a serious matter, but it will not affect the longevity of ZiChuan, it will not threaten our survival.”
“I was not talking about the Far East.” ZiChuan Shen Xing’s eyed him sharply while gently tapping the tea table with his fingertip: “I can predict, in the ten years after my death, House ZiChuan will be consumed by a succession war. ZiChuan Ning is too young, and knows too little. She is also a girl, with no prestige to speak of. How can she hope to repel the overwhelming opposition and keep her subjects at bay? Seeing the lack of faith in the young ruler of the House, troubling intentions will no doubt rise in the heart of the ambitious ones. With the Imperial grip loosened, soon even the local lords and vassals would attempt to remove her from power. Just like how House ZiChuan was founded after the collapse of Empire of Light, who knows, perhaps there will be a second and a third House ZiChuan, breaking away from us and declaring independence. Think about it, by then ZiChuan Ning will have no army to call upon, no lords to rely on. As a fragile little girl, what can she do when she is surrounded by countless enemies from outside and within?”
Stirling could sense the fear in his every word. He hurriedly reassured him: “Sir, I think you are worrying too much. Yes, there may be a few with malicious intent, but I believe the vast majority of the lords and officers are still loyal to the House. I’m sure you will live a long life, but if the day does come when the heaven falls, I have no doubt that the servants of ZiChuan will love Lady Ning the same way they have always loved you, and give her their loyalty and undying respect.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing shook his head: “Stirling, you are only seeing the good in others! While I’m alive, of course they are all very loyal, but once I’m dead. Haha! I still remember, while my brother was alive, the traitor Yang Ming Hui was also a loyal servant of the House!”
ZiChuan Shen Xing’s words were spoken with wisdom. Stirling had no answers. He asked: “Then what do you intend to do, Sir?”
“In the end, ZiChuan Ning is still a girl. She needs a strong man at her side as regent and protector. He needs to be her blade. He will send fear into anyone who dares to oppose her, keeping them in check. Only then can she survive the first ten years, the most dangerous time of her short reign! That man needs to brave and competent. He also needs to be beyond loyal, or it will only prove to be counterproductive. So Stirling, who do you believe is capable of such feat?”
Stirling considered for a moment then said: “This is a serious matter concerning the future of House ZiChuan. It’s not my place to judge, but since the Headmaster asked, I can only say what is in my heart. Given the current situation, Supreme Commander Luo Ming Hai is certainly the most loyal to you and to the House. He is also a very skilled politician and civil servant. In addition, he has the support of the people. I believe he is most suitable.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing smiled: “I’m sure he is very loyal, but he has a fatal weakness. He has no understanding for war. He doesn’t have the support of the army. He may seem like a good choice for now, but that is because he has my backing. Once I’m gone, he will not be able to handle things on his own.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing thought to himself: First of all, he is no match to Di Lin! Sigh, Luo Ming Hai, you still can’t let go of your family’s death. You have let vengeance blind your eyes and dull your mind. That is not the bearing of a skilled politician! If I were you, I would feel sad, I would mourn their deaths, I would pretend as it was a natural disaster like tsunami or earthquake that took their lives. Even in times of war, accidental deaths are common. Why can’t you face it with the calmness of your heart? Why do you have to make Di Lin your arch nemesis? As long as necessary, a skilled politician can work together with the killer of his parents without a moment of hesitation. How do you not know something so simple? Do you not understand that in order to accomplish anything at all as the Supreme Commander, you will need Inspector General’s support? Even Yang Ming Hua only dared to declare his intent for betrayal after he had obtained Inspector General – Xiao Long’s support. If the two of you joined hands, you can easily do whatever you wanted unimpeded by all, not even me… Then again, if it wasn’t for your grudge, I probably wouldn’t have put you as the Supreme Commander and Di Lin as the Inspector General in the first place…
Stirling pondered a bit then suggested: “Sir, what about Inspector General – Di Lin? He is able, tough and a good general. He is also decisive…”
Before Stirling could finish, ZiChuan Shen Xing interrupted him with a wave of the hand: “I know how capable Di Lin is, but the man enjoys killing and has too many enemies. He cannot inspire loyalty in others. I won’t consider him.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing wanted to say more, but didn’t: Stirling, have you never paid attention to Di Lin’s eyes? His ambition burns so brightly inside! I have never seen a man wanting power as badly as he does! How can I put the life of my niece, the lives of my family in the hands of such ambitious and cold-hearted monster? The only reason I kept him alive is because I still need him to keep Luo Ming Hai in check. I definitely have to kill him before my time comes! Or he will become the greatest threat House ZiChuan has ever faced, hundred times more dangerous than Yang Ming Hua!
But who should I send? I’m sure Luo Ming Hai will be more than willing, which will make Stirling and ZiChuan Xiu his enemies. They will no doubt want to avenge their big brother, resulting in an irreconcilable difference between them and Luo Ming Hai. That will be the best outcome. It is the only way for my niece to remain firmly on the throne, and the only way to ensure the future of House ZiChuan.
We have survived the past two hundred years of upheaval, what is two hundred years more…
Stirling mentioned Ming Hui’s name afterwards, but ZiChuan Shen Xing only laughed: “How can I possibly put the fate of the House in the hand of a coward?”
Even Stirling laughed. He thought about it then said: “There is another, who is very loyal to Lady Ning. He is brave, smart, capable and competent in war. If he was given the power of regency, I cannot think of anyone more suitable than him.”
“Oh? Who would that be?”
“ZiChuan Xiu. Not only do he and Lady Ning love each other, once they are married, ZiChuan Xiu can naturally assume the position of the regent by being the husband of the Headmaster, and take control of the High Command. Since they are husband and wife, there is no reason for them to betray each other. Their child will also systematically become the next generation Headmaster, enabling a smooth transition of power and ensuring the continuation of House ZiChuan’s bloodline at the same time. Furthermore, if ZiChuan Xiu is put in power, he will have both mine and Di Lin’s full support. The High Command and the Ministry will no longer be at each other’s throat like it is now. The House will be united. We can finally turn our attention outward, making House ZiChuan’s dominion over the world no longer a distant dream! Sir, do you not agree?”
Everyone else Stirling had suggested, ZiChuan Shen Xing merely scoffed at, but this time, he was truly tempted, especially the part that ensured the continuation of House ZiChuan’s bloodline and the chance to conquer the world. How could he not? To become the sole ruler of the whole world, that was the dream of the past seven generations.
But he quickly calmed himself down. ZiChuan Xiu is too cunning and too hard to predict! Everyone has an objective: Di Lin’s objective is power; Luo Ming Hai’s objective is Di Lin’s head; Stirling’s objective is being loyal to the House, and princess Ka Dan… Anyone, as long as they have an objective in mind, their intentions and actions will be easy to predict, but even now, I still can’t figure out what ZiChuan Xiu is after. He would give up the chance to work in the High Command in exchange for the Rebels’ lives; He is not interested in woman either. Even though he and ZiChuan Ning are fairly close, he has always kept her at an arm’s length… So what does he really want?”
Di Lin is dangerous, but Di Lin is also predictable. However I cannot see through ZiChuan Xiu. If you say he is a coward, he did attack into Liu Feng Xi Shan’s base camp with only eight hundred cavalries at his side. He even assassinated a Demon General in the midst of an Army all by himself. He also took part in the assassination of House ZiChuan’s number one fighter in the middle of Central Army’s encampment. Not to mention he went to persuade the rebellious Central Army Officers at the risk of being cut to pieces!
Yet, I can’t really call him brave either. After I and Yang Ming Hua exiled him to the Far East for six years even though he just saved the Capital, he didn’t complain even once after he came back. I even purposely tried to provoke him by placing him in the Army Reserve, and just like before, not a word of complaint. Such patience and shrewdness are short of terrifying! Someone like him is capable of just about anything. Today he can be loyal to you; tomorrow he can sell the entire House ZiChuan to House Liu Feng.
ZiChuan Shen Xing stopped his train of thought, sounding more pleasant: “Xiu is a decent choice, but he is too young. He won’t be able to inspire confidence in others. I believe there is an even better candidate than him.”
Failing to defend his friend, Stirling was slightly disappointed. He had to force himself to pay attention: “I’m all ears, Sir.”
“Well, I believe that you are a pretty good choice!”
Blood instantly rushed to his head, Stirling could barely stand straight as he got up from the chair: “Sir, no… Such important task; I’m not worthy.”
“Stirling, sit down and listen to me.” ZiChuan Shen Xing sounded even gentler than before: “I trust your character and loyalty. You have distinguished yourself in the line of duty; you have fought in the war. The army will definitely support you! Everyone knows your reputation, you are honest and just. The people loves you, even those cynical old men from the Council of Elders have nothing but praises for you! What is more, you are a brother to Di Lin and ZiChuan Xiu. If you are in power, they will support you no questions asked! Do you see? You are the only one who meets all the requirements!”
Stirling’s head rang like an anvil. He might be righteous, but he was not immune to the temptation of desires. Seeing the path to a bright and dazzling future set before him, unconsciously, his breathing hastened, his heart raced, and he was overcome by dizziness.
“Soon, you will be both the Supreme Commander and the Central Army Commander. With the elite army of House ZiChuan at your beck and call, you will guard the House from all threats coming from within! As long as you are here, no one would dare having any rebellious thought! You will be the most famous general of House ZiChuan; your name will become legend, reaching far and wide. Even House Liu Feng wouldn’t dare to invade, lest they incur your wrath! How about it, Stirling? For ZiChuan, for me, for yourself, say yes!”
Emotions overwhelmed him, his voice hoarse: “I’m deeply humbled, Sir. I would never have dreamed of such grandeur. I’m honoured by the trust you have placed in me. As long as I’m alive, I will strife to the utmost of my abilities to repay the gratitude of House ZiChuan!”
ZiChuan Shen Xing cheered with joy: “You have made an old man very happy! With you in charge, I will have nothing to regret! I’m sure my niece, ZiChuan Ning will value your loyalty the same way I have. House Stirling’s fate is now intertwined with House ZiChuan’s. We will rise and fall as one! Once you and Li Qing are married, your lineage will continue for countless generations, and your descendants will be born in honor and splendor…”
It was as if he had been doused with cold water, Stirling’s face instantly paled: “Sir, despite everything you said, I cannot agree to marry Li Qing. I and Ka Dan have promised each other for life.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing looked at him kindly as he told him in a gentle voice: “I don’t have anything against Princess Ka Dan. I’m sure she is an exceptional woman, or else she wouldn’t have stolen your heart. I’m not saying you have to marry Li Qing either. In fact, if you fancied any lady from any household within House ZiChuan’s borders, I would not only give you my blessing, I would even make it happen… But you cannot marry Ka Dan!”
ZiChuan Shen Xing sighed: “Stirling, how do you not understand? Wake up! Demons are our greatest enemy. You will destined to become the Supreme Commander, leading House ZiChuan’s armies in battle. If you marry their princess, you will have lost all the faith and respect your men had for you. How are you going to lead them then? The Far Eastern Army will be the first to reject you!”
“Think about it, you and Ka Dan grew up in different worlds. Your living habits are vastly different. You may not realize it now, but once you start living together then things change. Love is not the same as marriage!”
“Besides, given your position and character, finding a suitable mate will be the least of your problems. The truth is, if you are willing, I can even betrothe ZiChuan Ning to you! By then you will be the Headmaster’s husband, and the official regent of the House. You will be second to none!”
“Consider it for a second, Stirling. As a man, you should attach importance to your work, and put the need of the House above that of your own! The love between a man and a woman comes and goes, it won’t last! What is more important? A demon princess? Or your eternal glory and triumph? You are a brilliant man, Stirling. You should know how to make the right decision!”
Stirling’s face paled; he was caught in a maelstrom of emotions. Two conflicting thoughts fought fiercely in the center of his mind, all the while ZiChuan Shen Xing’s enticing voice continued to echo loudly between his ears: “Eternal glory! Second to none!” And a moment later, Ka Dan’s teary gazes appeared in front of him… The thoughts spun wildly inside his head, as if it was about to explode!
“Sir, I’ve already made up my mind.”Stirling rose up and gave the man a deep bow, speaking hoarsely: “I will marry Ka Dan.” His voice filled with unyielding determination.
ZiChuan Shen Xing slumped back into his chair, staring at him quietly. His eyes did not seem all that angry, instead, it looked a little bit sad.
“I’m grateful for everything you have done for me, Sir. I cannot express how much everything meant to me, but I’m terribly sorry. I will have to disappoint you. I hope you can forgive me for my stubbornness. Please believe me when I say that no matter what, my loyalty to House ZiChuan hasn’t changed, and never will…”
ZiChuan Shen Xing interrupted Stirling’s words with another gesture of the hand and closed his tiring eyes.
And silence took over.
After a long while, ZiChuan Shen Xing finally opened his eyes again, asking softly: “Is that your final decision? Are you really going to resign?”
“Yes. I wish to apologize thousand times, Sir. But I will not abandon my duty. If you would allow it, I wish to wait until the rebellion in the Far East has ended before I resign and get married. I will not put you in a difficult position, Sir.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing seemed distracted, perhaps he was listening, or perhaps he didn’t hear a word he said. In the end, he sighed regretfully: “Perhaps it is fate… Leave me.”
Suddenly, the man seemed to have aged for years. Every wart on his face seemed more obvious as every wrinkle smoothed from the exhaustion, gasping, looking incredibly tired. In that instant, Stirling noticed for the first time, the Headmaster had already become a powerless old man.
A sense of pity welled up inside Stirling: The old man had so much weight on his shoulders! He probably expected him to share his burdens, and instead, he was mercilessly refused by him.
The pity turned into guilt: “Sir, you…”
“Leave…” ZiChuan Shen Xing said it for the second time.
Stirling couldn’t help but feel: “The old man in front of him was so incredibly fragile, so incredibly lonely!”
He bowed deeply once more, beseeching earnestly: “I’m leaving, Sir! Please take care of yourself. You are the hope of all of our people! I’m sure everything will turn out for the best in the end. You don’t need worry too much.”
ZiChuan Shen Xing did not answer.
Stirling stopped himself in front of the door, turning around and imploring once again: “Please take care of yourself, Sir. I’m leaving.” As he was about leave, a voice called out to him: “Hold on.”
Stirling turned back: “Sir?”
ZiChuan Shen Xing’s hand quivered as he pulled open the draw, from which he retrieved a black leathery box: “Here, take this.”
Perplexed, frowned, Stirling took the leathery box and opened it. Inside was a beautifully crafted diamond sapphire bracelet. Stirling might not be an expert, but he could tell it was worth a small fortune.
“Give that to Ka Dan. I know you don’t have much, but she is a princess. She deserves a token of love worthy of her stature.”
“Sir, I can’t. This is too much…”
“It’s all right. I have always wanted to give that to you on the day of your wedding. Li Qing, Ka Dan, it is all the same. This is just an old man’s blessing to you! I wish you a long and happy life together, and your years be filled with love and joy!”
Stirling wanted to decline, but somehow he couldn’t utter a word, as if something was stuck in his throat.
“Do not feel sad. I understand, everyone has their own path to follow. I cannot force mine upon you. We will do as you say. You may resign after the war ends. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend your wedding. Remember to get as far away from Di Du as possible, and do not come back. You are too good and too honest for this place.”
“Perhaps after your children are born, you and your family can come visit me, sweep my tomb, light a stick of incense, trim the weeds and clean my gravestone.[] Both you and Ka Dan are beautiful people. I’m sure your children will be just as beautiful. Remember to tell them, here lies your grandfather, Shen Xing. I think by then, you are probably the only one left who still remembers me, and will visit me. Remember, you have to come…”
Stirling couldn’t contain his emotions any longer as tears sprang to his eyes. He cried: “Sir…” as he leapt into his arms, and tears flowed.
ZiChuan Shen Xing held Stirling’s head tightly and close to his chest, whispering to him: “I have always wondered, if you were my son, or if I had a son like you, how great would that be… It would be wonderful I’m sure….” Tears streaked down his cheeks, and splashed onto Stirling’s thick and black hair.
[]A common Chinese ritual to honour and pay respect to the dead.