Ting Ting camped out on the kitchen, facing the veranda, painting her toenails while Tian was braiding her hair and serenading a tune.
"According to this, I'll marry a warrior," Ting Ting announced, alternating between sweeping the brush of vermillion hue on her nails and turning the page of the latest astrological prediction published by a famous astrologer.
"Poor guy. He would have to cook, washes the dish and work super hard, so you can spend the time to do your nail and shopping," Tian replied with a glint of amusement. "Not to mention he would have to foot my salary too."
Ting Ting was not in the mood to banter as she did not engage with the retort as she usually did. Ignoring Tian's mock, she went on. "It says that this week will be my auspicious week to find lo..―"
"Hold on that thought," Tian said, jumping into her feet when she heard the familiar chime of the bell indicating someone had entered into the front shop. She pushed her head to take a peek between the curtain and said with an excited squeal, "It's the gentleman in armour that came last week! I bet he is coming for you; I swear I saw hearts coming out of his eyes when he...―"
The two of them headed towards the front shop. As soon as hearing their footstep, the soldier snapped into attention.
"Morning, Ladies," he said, a little bit breathlessly. And from his stature, he couldn't be more than a few years older than her. He couldn't be categorised as handsome, but still attractive and his smile...well, it was kind of cute.
"Yes, how can we help?" Tian said primly. Next to her, Ting Ting gracefully flicked her hair off her shoulder, inviting all attention towards the pale column of her neck. Tian bit a grin when she saw the soldier's eyes darkened as they travelled up her collarbone.
"Do you know how to kill infatuation?" Tian whispered loudly into Ting Ting's ears. "Next time I'll come here with a cannon."
Realizing Tian's sarcastic retort, the soldier blinked and rubbed his eyes as though he was just woken up from a serious coma. "I...uh, I come to buy more pumpkin," he said, grinning awkwardly towards them.
"Are you sure you are here for the pumpkin?" Tian said in faux seriousness. "Not...anything else? Or shall I say… anyone… else?"
The soldier gasped, looking flustered and terrified like a little child being caught red-handed for stealing sweets. "I…―"
"Save your breath soldier. We all knew," Tian said between her laugh and batted her eyes towards Ting Ting in a manner she could only describe as suggestive. "I shall leave you two to deal with some…. pumpkin business," Tian said with a mischievous grin.
"One more word and you can kiss you payday goodbye," Ting Ting hissed with fake outrage as Tian made her exit with a hysterical laugh.
"Sorry about my friend. By the way, I am Ting Ting," she said politely.
"Oh, uh… I am Ling. Such a...uh… pretty name," he stuttered, standing mesmerised. His eyes glazed over as though he suddenly slipped into a particularly pleasant daydream.
"Very….very pretty nail you have there," Ling said, twisting the hem of his training robe.
Ting Ting could only smile. Ling was so nervous it was acutely adorable. "Oh, thanks! You are the first one to notice."
"Yes," Ting Ting said.
"Well… red is my favourite colour," he said quietly. "It's hard not to notice."
"I like red too."
"Really? What a coincidence!" He was positively beaming up at her as he spoke.
Feeling emboldened, Ting Ting went on and proposed. "I know this kind of forward for a lady to ask this, considering we just met a handful of time. But if you are free, would you like to join me for a cup of tea?"
Although Ling had politely implied that he was more than capable loading the pumpkin into his cart himself, Ting Ting still made an effort to assist him.
"So, here is the pumpkin. Is your encampment far from here? Because this they are quite heavy to car…―"
Their pleasantries were interrupted by a whirlwind of dust, clothes, and dark hair streaking into her shop, missing the garlands of onion and a crate of eggs by only mere centimetres.
"Please tell me if he is gone!" the man―though really, hardly more than a boy―said, thankfully managing to a stop, albeit a little on the tipsy side. He hid behind Ling, as though he was avoiding something… or perhaps someone.
Ling ignored the boy's plea. "Ping, what did I say about…?"
After making sure whoever in pursuit of him was not in view, the boy went out from behind him, sheepishly smiling. "Uh, sorry… am I interrupting something?"
"What do you think?" Ling said, crossing his arms and tapping one of his feet on the ground.
A trickle of light amusement running through her at Ling's long-suffering tone. Earlier, Ling had a chance to tell her a story about the brutal training he went through before facing the battlefront. He told her about the food ration, the strict schedule, the inhumane amount of physical exercise. There was nothing pleasant about it. However, during this time of trial, Ling had a handful of friends who kept him standing on his toes. Chien-Po and Chef Zhang to name a few. And there was Ping, his best friend, who accidentally provoked the entire battalion into a fighting frenzy.
"Call me Ting Ting," she offered pleasantly to the boy, and though she already knows the answer, civility is of vital importance in a first impression, "And you are…?"
"...Fa Ping!" he said with an adorable, lopsided grin.
Ping had lost one of his shoes, his man bun half loose, and traces of soot covering part of his face. "People call me Ping," he said between heave and brushing his soothed forehead, turning to Ling whose eyes comically bugged out from their sockets.
"Sorry, I know I shouldn't run but… there is a very large, burly man and his toes..―" Ping looked around and grinned smugly. "I think he lost me."
"Ping, save it," Ling interrupted with a sigh, and Ting Ting's amusement only grew at Ling's ultra-dramatic eye-roll.
"Pleased to meet you, Ping," she said, smiling. "You seems to be very young to be a soldier. How old are you?"
Ping slapped his own chest, coughed a few time before producing the most unconvincing masculine falsetto she ever heard. "Fourteen this year, Miss," he said, posture exuding false confidence.
Ling cleared his throat to invite everyone's attention. "As we were discussing, Ping, I am taking Miss Ting Ting out for a drink, just ten minutes…"
"I can handle the rest of the list," the boy chipped in quickly. He might be clumsy but was clever enough to conclude this "tea party" was more than a friendly social call. And most importantly, he wasn't invited.
"Okay, so you need to go and see Mr. Ping, the potter. Please double check the number of cups and make sure no crack in each one of them," Ling reminded as he gave the boy some money. "...And try not to burn and crash into anything while I'm gone," Ling said, sparing a look that Ting Ting could only describe as an exasperated big brother over his shoulder, which the boy returned with a half-apologetic, half-defensive.
"Look, Chi-Fu's tent was just the one time!" and he tripped on Ling's shoes, nearly fell back into one of the empty crates if Ling's astounding reflexes didn't catch him.
Ting Ting felt her smile grow only incrementally larger. She rather imagined it had been more than one time.
"You two go have fun," Ping threw a cheeky wink at them. "...And Ling, make sure the lady didn't have to pay," he added cheerfully, slapping a teasing hand down on Ling's shoulder as he exited.
Ting Ting thought she was doing quite well at battling down the laugh that wanted to escape her throat.
Then, there was a crash, and a yelp, followed by an angry yell, and Ling's exasperated, "Ping, what did I just say?!" echoed out from the room.
Ting Ting lost her valiant fight and succumbed to her mirth.
This had become a routine for a couple of weeks to come―Ling and Ping coming to town to do their errands and then Ting Ting would invite them for tea. Ping's answer had always been the same though. He said he hated tea and the smell of chamomile made him felt nauseous.
"See you two later at five," Ping said.
Ting Ting watched until Ping's petite figure swallowed among the mass of people doing their business in the market square and blended in into indistinguishable form. "He is an interesting chap," she said, tongue only partially in cheek as they head into the tea house.
Ling, in turn, took the opportunity to tear his eyes away from her face, because she just indeed noticed him staring, "The horse cart he totalled certainly disagreed. Our captain even suspected the enemy sent him to jeopardize us from the inside."
"Really?"Ting Ting said. He is undeniably handsome when blushing, she thought to herself. "But what can they do to him? Put him in jail so he stopped harming anyone?"
"D'aww…" Tian said from behind them. She had agreed to join them but prefer to sit by the porch, claiming she liked the scent of cold, fresh air. Ting Ting knew this wasn't true, but played along because Ling didn't know who she or Tian was just yet. "Ping is too cute for a jail."
Minutes later, they sat at the tea house, on the corner table, hands cradling matching little ceramic china, the steam of oolong wafted from them.
Then, Ling told a story about his embarrassing experience of losing a couple of teeth during training and his regret for cutting gym. The conversation drifted to the highlight of his rather poor sporting career, joining the village Chinese Football club only to got his shin fractured a week after.
Ting Ting continued to find it endlessly amusing. Ling was a great storyteller.
"So, when you get to know Ping?"
Ling leaned back with a deep exhale and a sentimental smile before he began.
He and Ping were childhood friends. They had a great age gap, but for the record, Ping always owned the latest gadget from Chang'an, his father would bring him when he returned. It only helped that Ping's house geographically laid right next to his. The last time he saw Ping was when the lad turned ten when he left the village and moved elsewhere with his parents.
They reunited as strangers, as men with stories and secret of their own. And as a man, Ling's life and concern were remotely different from Ping who was barely a teenager. But war had a strange ability to make family out of strangers, brothers out of friends, and after all, they'd been through together these couple of weeks, Ping was probably his best of friend and so he let himself be drawn back into this friendship.
Ling didn't say much about Ping's current family situation other than the reason why the young man had decided to join the battalion in place of his elderly father―a story that she found deeply heart moving.
Ping didn't come across as how a soldier should look like, in fact pretty would be the right word to describe how he looked. Pretty Ping. And for whatever reason, she felt his voice somehow unnaturally low, almost like her after eating too much deep fried stuff the night before.
She knew Ling notice it too, but he was too much of a gentleman to mention it.
Then Ling told her about his training days, the endless hikes, the aiming practice, sword fighting lesson….and what expected of him when the training ended. It was hard not to think that he, and hundreds of other soldiers alike, were crafted into becoming a weapon of destruction.
And there was silence.
"I hate war," Ting Ting admitted finally. She truly meant every word, but he didn't expect Ling to understand the depth of it. Of course, the man didn't know who she really was. "I wish for peace. I am tired of hearing people killing each other for nothing. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for soldiers, but I don't see how violence could solve anything."
Ling took a slow swig of his tea as though he was thinking.
"No soldier delight in war," he replied with unexpected seriousness, but there was no ire in his tone. "We were trained for it, yes, it is not war that had fueled us. It is for protection."
And after hearing such wisdom, she has no room for anything in her heart but…admiration.
"You're a good man, Ling. I know that."
And then, Ling twined his fingers together and then, to look up to her, with a pragmatic air, she found no way she could take her hand back.
"Once a great war strategist told me: True soldiers fight not because what they hate is in front of them, but rather because what they love…. is behind them," Ling explained, with the most exquisite smile she couldn't help but to return.
...because what they love is behind them.
Tian was right, this week's horoscope seemed to be quite accurate. Ting Ting knew she could only hope.
"So….You fancy the lanky one?" Tian asked her with a hushed tone when they retreated back into the shop. She definitely noticed the giddy smile on Ting Ting's face as she cradled a small bouquet of osmanthus Ling had shyly given as they parted.
"Who's his name again? Ling...is it not?" Again Ting Ting didn't answer straight away. Her mind was drifted into the tea house where Ling…―"
"Earth to Ting Ting," Tian snapped her finger.
"Yes, you…―," Tian repeated, jabbing her finger to Ting Ting's chest. "You like that Ling guy. I can tell."
"Who? Me? Fancy him? Ack. No," Ting Ting denied, trying to calm her racing heart that seemed to rebel in every reference of Ling's name.
Tian rolled her eyes. "Your blushing face said otherwise."
"Who is blushing?!" Ting Ting said with faux innocence. "We are…. We are just friends. We just met. I hardly know him!"
"Friends who hold hands and look into each other eyes," Tian snorted.
"He didn't hold my hand! He...he accidentally touched it. He thought it was his chopsticks!" Ting Ting said lamely.
"Oh, come on!" Tian snickered. "You don't use chopsticks to drink tea. I swear I can hear your heart pounding from out there."
Ting Ting shrunk at her seat, and Tian smiled. "But fear not. I think the sentiment is mutual," she said in a hushed tone.
"People have meaningless crushes all the time," Ting Ting replied. The worst feeling in the world was when you liked someone... and turned out he was just having an empty fling―superficial sense of admiration, nothing more.
Tian smiled and bid Ting Ting to follow her into her bedroom and shut the door behind them.
"He can barely speak to you. All he does was staring. And I just can see the stupefied affection spilling from his eyes. It definitely not just a meaningless crush."
"But many men in the court looked at me that way!"
"Many men who tried to betroth you knew you are an affluent royalty, but this guy… all he knew that you are a daughter of a vegetable seller who couldn't tell the difference between pumpkin and flower bulbs."
"Yes, naming the produce would've been my limit." Ting Ting chuckled, their pleasant conversation replayed in her head. "I am sure Ling wasn't at all skinny. It's an optical illusion. Besides, he has a great sense of humour."
"...said the girl who said it was merely a friendly chat," Tian teased. She laughed when Ting Ting turned red from head to toe. "It's hard to believe, really. You're living among many affluent nobility, handsome princes, wealthy traders and powerful politician… why a soldier?"
"Sorry to say that my feelings know no money, status or position. Besides, those royal brats are usually shallow, childish, insubstantial….. and uninteresting."
Tian nodded in contemplative understanding. "And are going to say anything about this to Prince Shao about this…. new friend of yours?"
Ting Ting shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe. When the time is right."
Tian cringed. "There won't ever be a right time for that. You know how insanely protective he is of you since…-" Tian chewed her lips, watching rising sadness and anger brimming on Ting Ting's delicate features. "What I want to say is….―There is no question that he loves you. I mean, he had gone this far to hide you in here, travelled great length, pulled various connection to make you stay away from the grip of political demands and…―"
"If he loved me as he claimed, then he'll understand," Ting Ting told her firmly. "I'm tired of being men's property."
"I am just saying…―" Tian trailed off. She knew this kind of discussion would never reach conclusive ends. Ting Ting may look like a fragile rose in a glass vessel, but her will and wants were tougher than steel. "Talking of which, we haven't seen Shao for weeks," Tian mentioned, changing the subject.
"Yes. I heard he has a lot on his plate lately."
"Oh no, don't tell me. Is it a girl he took home from the bar two months ago has claimed she is pregnant with the royal heir? Or… he's overshot his weekly allowance in a gambling den?" They both laughed. Shao's irresponsible lifestyle had often provided necessary entertainment to them both.
"He cut me off if he heard us bad mouthing him. Ack. No. I can't survive without my nail polish provision!"
"Relaaax," Tian placated. "We all knew he is perverted and we still love him for it."
They both giggled again.
"So, what's his problem now? Has Chi-Fu been agonising him?"
"No. Much worse," Ting Ting said. "He said he has a personal-space-invasion problem after General Li assigned his son―Captain Li Shang―who had been watching him like an eagle 24/7. General Li was gravely concerned about Shao's safety and commanded Captain Li to follow Shao anywhere around like his shadow."
"Yes. I heard there is no privacy, not even in the toilet!"
"Ugh. No. That's…. That's bad," Tian made a face. "But it may be a good thing. You know how many Huns want his head hanging on their wall?"
"I know," Ting Ting sighed into her tea.
"Isn't that ironic? After what Prince Wei Zhang did to General Li and Miss Xia many years ago? And now their son and Shao Wei…―"
"Well, General Li is a loyal man, that I know for certain. I don't think he would ever compromise his integrity over an old love affair," Ting Ting said. "And if General Li does have a personal grudge or vendetta against Prince Wei Zhang, I doubt he will cross the line and goes as far as harming the royal heir. Shao Wei has nothing to do with this mess."
"It is surprising that General Li hasn't chop your father's head off. He had plenty of chance to do so," Tian said. "No offence there."
"None taken," Ting Ting replied. "And given the way he treated me...calling him a father will be a compliment," she added grimly.
"Hey, I'm sure Shao's plan will work out this time. And things will return to the way it was." Tian soothed.
"No," Ting Ting shook her head. "I don't want things to return to the way it was. Court life is a poison," she said bitterly. "It is not a place to find real laughter or love. Everyone pecks everyone else for the slightest scrap of power. It's…. It's a terrible place. I much prefer to be here, leading a peasant life in peace and simplicity," she sighed somberly to herself.
"Although the Palace is as beautiful and opulent as many had heard it recited in novels and poems, it is also a hard, cold place full of ambitions and relentless jealousies. It's nice to be here, to be 'Ting Ting, the daughter of the vegetable seller'. No one dictates where I'd need to go, what I'd need to say, who I'll marry… No one gives a damn about what I...―"
"Hey...hey," Tian rubbed her back comfortingly when Ting Ting emotion ran high. "You'll get there in the end. It's just...―It takes time."
"You must think there is something wrong with me," Ting Ting told her, leaning with her shoulder slumped. "Freedom. Yes. I am willing to trade it with my wealth…. my privilege or my life! Don't ask me why. Maybe it's the allure of something that I can never have."
"Sorry, I shouldn't…―I shouldn't burden you with my problem," Ting Ting looked over to Tian who was resting her head on her palm, eyes glazed with both burden and sympathy.
"Not at all," Tian replied quickly and rose to her feet. "I think I'd better help my father to write his report back to Prince Shao Wei. I can't let him wondering too long what has happened to his favourite princess," she announced, watching Ting Ting toying with the bouquet of osmanthus Ling had given her earlier.
"Of course," Ting Ting muttered but grabbed Tian by the hand as she walked. "Tian…―"
"Not a word," she promised. "To Prince Shao Wei, to my father. To anyone. On the Emperor's honour, not a word."
"On the Emperor's honour?" Ting Ting said, impressed. Tension left her body, and all her worry seemed to melt away. "Tian. I―… I like him."
Ting Ting honestly thought Tian would hoot, squeal, and tease her to no end like she usually did. But instead, Tian only looked over her shoulder, astonished at her frankness, then turned carefully and smiled. "That's wonderful. I am happy for you."
"Thank you. I owe you one. I promise you once I'm free from all this, I will reward you and your father accordingly."
Tian smiled, squeezing their clasped hand together in a gesture of reassurance. "Family owe nothing," she said simply and left.
This morning a load full of gunpowder and rockets arrived together with an army of escorted convoy from Imperial City. Shang must've thought that his men were ready for the final stage of their training―learning to use and aim the weaponry on the targets.
Unlike arrows, rockets were dispatched in a limited amount, so the recruits had to learn to use it judiciously and efficiently. Unfortunately, it was easier to be said than done. First, none of his recruits managed to aim the missile on its target, sending it on random direction that caused themselves more harm than the enemies.
Well, one of his recruits actually hit a target―not the desired target, but still, Ping lit the fuse and Ling, who was too eager to help, accidentally stumbled on it. In his panic moment to restore the position of the rocket, Ping set it upright, firing the missile to the sky and towards their distant encampment and went indiscriminately straight to Chi-Fu's tent, incinerating the whole thing instantly.
Shang couldn't filter his awe. The boy could be both lethal and accurate as much as clumsy and weak. Ping was certainly a very unpredictable soldier.
"He could decimate the entire country," complained Chi-Fu.
"He is still very young. Give him time to…―"
"The time that we don't have," Chi-Fu grumbled. "Captain Li, while I appreciate your long-suffering attitude towards your brother-in-law, I can't see this kind of treatment do him any good."
Shang throw himself on the makeshift bed, letting "yet another" apocalyptic episode of training replayed in his mind. He stretched his arms and grunted, feeling his muscle ached in an unpleasant way, adding towards his already foul mood after seeing the havoc his recruit had caused. Today was not any better than last week.
It would take a dynasty to make a soldier out of this mess. Chi-Fu's disdainful babble echoed in his head. Perhaps the bony councillor was right when he objected his father's decision to put him on promotion. He was too young, too inexperienced in this field. It wasn't the skill that Shang was lacking. It was the ability to motivate and encourage the recruits that he struggled.
Then, he remembered Fa Ping. The young man was clearly fallen behind his peer. In the beginning, Shang gave him the benefit of the doubt due to his young age and his comparatively lanky frame. Soon he realized he had singled out and compromised his hard approach.
He spared some of his time to spar with him in private. He let Ping go with only stern words after he was caught cheating in archery. He assisted him when he collapsed during the hike while he wouldn't say he would prepare to do the same should it was Ling or Yao who fell behind. And if Ping's blunder still sounded innocent enough, Shang had allowed the boy to get away after nearly barbecued Chi-Fu alive.
You liked him, that's why―said the voice in his head. You like him like a man to a woman would! You loved him, and you WANTED him.
No! That's...that's absurd! Shang ran both of his hand on his face and groaned frustratedly. He realised that this special treatment had to stop. Not only this behaviour had kindled his feeling for Ping to root deeper, but detrimental to Ping's overall behaviour. The boy needed to learn to fend himself! Shang wasn't here to babysit; he was here to turned the boy into a man―a soldier worthy of battle. In the real war, there was no playing the-protective-big-brother, there was no mercy, and there was no room for mistakes - and Fa Ping was simply a liability to the team and a danger even to himself.
Perhaps, perhaps I should just dismiss him… sending him home. Shang considered. But in all honesty, there was a part of him that won't let the boy go―a dark part of him that strangely wanted Ping to stay… and to be close to him.
Snap it you pervert! He is your brother-in-law! rebuked the voice in his head. Are you going to let him stay and watch him being butchered by a Hun, can you?
But what would you tell him? You'll tell him that he is hopeless and better to seek a career elsewhere? That's going to crush his soul!
His train of thoughts was interrupted by a voice in front of his tent. "Captain Li?"
"Chi-Fu," Shang greeted, opening the entrance of his tent. He didn't even bother to mask his irritation of having the old councillor disturbing him this late. "Is there anything I can do for you this late at night?"
"May I come in Captain?" he said, his tone urgent.
"Of course," Shang said. "Please do sit." This is better be important, he muttered under his breath.
"This is about the Prince of Wei," Chi-Fu said quietly and scrupulously, which Shang never thought the prying councillor ever capable to do. "He wrote me a note, saying he'll be gone for about a week for a meeting in Chang'an." He produced a terse note from inside his pocket that Shang recognised immediately as Shao Wei's―he had never seen such eloquent, formal strokes elsewhere.
Shang took a moment to read. There was no abnormality that perked suspicion in its content. It was just a polite information stating the address and purpose of his absence.
"Anything wrong with this?"
"Captain Li, I'd like to point out that we are on the strict order to watch Prince Shao Wei whereabouts," Chi-Fu said, a little vexed. "And that's the responsibility that unfortunately fell on you and I."
Well, perhaps he wants to go to see some street slattern and unwanted to be seen. Shang thought to himself. He is famous for relentless partying, cavorting with women, drinking and smoking, is he not? But Shang didn't say it out loud, knowing it would just raise a heated debate and further lecture.
"I understand. I'll go and catch up with him tomorrow morning," Shang said diplomatically. Chi-Fu nodded and seemed to be pleased with Shang's instantaneous compliance.
"Anything else?" Shang asked when Chi-Fu still parked himself on the mat in front of his bedroll, unmoved. "I have an early drill to run, and if you want me to catch up with the Prince, I might..―"
"Captain Li," Chi-Fu sounded inexplicably grim. "Have you saw Prince of Wei doing something odd lately?"
Shang gave him a blank look. "Odd? Like what?"
"Like sneaking out when you are not watching."
That hit him. The episode of the Prince's encounter with a foreign princess flashed in his mind. But Shang schooled his expression to his usual steely mask and calmly replied,"Why do you ask? Have you caught him doing something he shouldn't?" Shang baited.
"Well, I didn't. But Chien-Po saw him around eight weeks ago. He was in the Xi'an market doing our weekly shopping when he saw him."
"Eight weeks ago? Then why you just notify me now?!"
Chi-Fu bristled at Shang's accusation. "Because there is a spreading rumour that Princess Wei Ting is still alive!" He snapped, slamming the piece of formal looking parchment on Shang's table. "I received this yesterday. One of the Imperial Intelligence spot her at the…—"
"...Xi'an market?" Shang gasped, shocked and aghast as he read the report from the Palace Intelligence. The eighteen years old Princess of Wei had been mysteriously missing since last year. Some had speculated she was kidnapped by anonymous guerilla―Huns or Chinese no one knew, but no ransom demand had ever arrived. Further down the road, to avoid public outcry and abate relentless gossip, the Palace official had announced that the Princess had died of strange illness.
"Precisely," Chi-Fu took the parchment back and kept it under his sash. "She was talking to one of our soldiers when they did," Chi-Fu added.
Shang ran through his memory. He recalled Chef Zhang had sent two of his recruits to buy their weekly supply. Yes, Ling and Ping. Shang made a mental note to ask the two about this. After all, Xi'an was the closest village to the encampment…―
A look of comprehension crossed Chi-Fu's face, which immediately overshadowed by fear. "Are you saying that the Prince of Wei is up to something…—something that related to our missing Princess?" Something on the back of his mind was telling him this wasn't a mere coincidence.
Suddenly everything fell into its place. Shang realized what had brought Shao Wei to join the low ranking regiment, what had made him willing to endure uncomfortable lifestyle and pointless training with a bunch of men that never be his match. Because all this nonsense was just a decoy! An illusion that he had been crafting to mislead people from seeing his real motive and intention!
But...why? Why would anyone like a Princess of Wei fake her own kidnapping? Shang's mind begged. Has Father known about this hence ordered me to follow the Prince closely in the hope he would eventually unravel some clues? Another thought occurred to him.
Just as he thought spiralled into a bottomless pit, another voice echoed in front of his tent and Shang dismissed Chi-Fu in a hurry.
"Evening Captain. Hope I didn't disturb you."
Shang frowned when he realized the conflicted look on the recruit's face. "No. Is there...anything wrong?"
"Captain Li, I know it's late. But there is something you need to know….―"
"Yes?" Shang turned, watching the hesitation on the recruit's face. "I…―This is….―This is about Fa Ping."
It was a long journey from Xi'an to Kangi, the village on the border of China that the Huns army had used as a base.
Hayabusa had been living in Kangi for the past three years, working together with the huge entourage of Huns warrior and serving as the loyal strategist for the Khan.
He was seven feet tall. His body was covered with hair. His head was part-shaven and his faces decorated with tattoos made with needles dipped in soot. Upon his broad chests were etched suns and moons and faces with writhing snakes for hair, his dusty backs adorned with bloody handprints slapped on by their comrades.
Despite his menacing look, Hayabusa was a familiar fixture in the Xi'an ever since the tension between the Chinese and the Huns thickened. But people of Xi'an itself had never treated the Huns traders and customers differently from Chinese. To them, they were equally beneficial to the capitalist economy of their little town.
Hunting and herding was the foundation of the Hun economy. Even after his appointment as the Khan's strategist, Hayabusa had been trading his cattle herd and widely known in Xi'an for his excellent bred horses. In return, he sought cloth, coins, weapons, and alcohol.
The sun slowly crept to the edge of the horizon when Hayabusa and his entourage made halfway through the journey. Occasionally, he nursed the sore spot on his toe―courtesy of a small, clumsy Chinese soldier who accidentally tipped a heavy clay urn to his feet. And walking nearly a day back into the Huns encampment did not give his sore foot any favour either. But he knew far better than confronting the timid soldier that stood no chance of in hand to hand combat against him.
"Do we need to stop, Master?" one of his soldiers asked conscientiously. For a young seventeen years old warrior, Attila was surprisingly observant and he seemed to have noticed Hayabusa's growing discomfort.
"No," he answered firmly. "I'm fine Attila."
"I can return to the market and capture that little urchin," Attila announced. "And you can have the privilege to watch the life drain out of him."
"No. I know we can capture and kill him―no big deal. But I don't want to shed a vain death without a greater purpose," he said to the young man. Attila tilted his head as though begging for explanation.
"I have a feeling our path will cross again―and maybe, that little soldier can be of greater use to us."
"But Master, what if that prick reported us to their leader? And I am sure General Shan Yu..."
"Yes, I know, General Shan Yu would just finish that stupid Chinese boy on the spot where he stands. He tends to be light handed on this kind of thing," Hayabusa clipped him. "He even will flatten the market to the ground if that needed to be."
Attila hummed his agreement. Shan Yu was renowned as a formidable enemy to the Chinese because he possessed massive, possibly even super-human strength that made him a hardened fighter and a lethal combatant, armed or not. He could break down a barricaded door with minimal effort, climbed and smashed through a rooftop with ease, and simply sliced massive pillars to shreds with his sword. Yet even then, it cannot quite do justice to the man whom his trembling Chinese enemies dubbed "The Scourge of God". Shan Yu adopted the nickname with alacrity and a sardonic grin. He relished it, as befitting a man whose military brilliance was matched by a savage sense of humour.
But his strength and brutality sometimes could work against him as he tended to act swiftly without much thinking, and for that, the Khan had appointed Hayabusa―a much calculative and crafty thinker of the two.
"Sometimes we have to consider our move carefully―to lose a small battle and win the war. After all, I am appointed to be Shan Yu's strategist for a reason. Yes?"
Attila fell silent. Hayabusa's leadership was matched by his cunning intellect. In addition to having the idea to scale the seemingly-impenetrable Great Wall with grappling hooks, he was able to infiltrate the Palace of Wei and poisoned Prince of Wei's most notable and influential consort―the mother of Prince Shao Wei, the only heir to the Wei's throne. He did so to instil fear to the people of Wei and to make a point, that to the Huns...losing is never an option.