The course of a person's life is like a spirit coming to earth, suffering, then dying. But because he works hard, because he suffers so much throughout his life, future generations won't have to...
The downpour started at twilight, the moment the walls were breached.
For six months the city withstood the seige, the Prince of Ning's forces suffering heavy casualties. After paying such a high price just to enter the city, they were again met with stiff resistance, fighting in the streets inch by inch, making headway street by street, the corpses piling up like a mountain, blood everywhere mixed in with the rainwater.
The Prince Qin's commanding general Fu Yanjing braved death to resist the attacks, holding Taizhou for half a year, ultimately killing his own son for urging him to surrender, then leading his troops out into the streets to fight to the death. His men were also loyal, all of them fighting to the last man; not one of his men surrendered.
"What a good Fu Yanjing!" Seeing the piles of bodies, listening to his general report on the casualties sustained in fighting, the Prince of Ning on horseback, bedecked in his silvery-white armor, sneered. "So he thinks jade and stone should burn together? Bring me his corpse and have it publicly dismembered, and wipe out all those commoners who helped defend the city. Kill their entire families, no mercy!"
"Yes, Your Highness." The general beside him received his orders, hesitated a moment, and said, "This attack went on too long. Our soldiers are exhausted, and our provisions are almost gone. So..."
"Butcher the city for three days!"The Prince of Ning didn't hesitate to issue the order. "Allow the soldiers to enjoy themselves a little bit to boost their morale. Meanwhile, resupply the troops--I want to let everyone under heaven know the consequences for crossing me!"
Outside the downpour mixed with the sounds of fear and screams of panic.
A fourteen year old boy stood in the courtyard of an inn, watching as outside the gates people burst out everywhere, in the blink of an eye amassing into a stream of people fleeing from every street and alley.
The innkeeper had already packed up and fled for his life, no explanations even for his waiters. A chaotic group had formed in the shop, guests coming and going, everywhere people crying and screaming, and looting.
He had long ago packed up his few belongings, but he hadn't left. He was watching a group of travelers from Yangzhou. The young lady amongst them was said to be the daughter of the richest family in Yangzhou, returning from Quanzhou from visiting her parents when they were caught up here after Prince Ning led his troops to Taizhou. Because of the fighting, they had been unable to leave the inn.
Prince Ning laid seige to the city for six months, so for six months she and her retainers had been holed up here. In those six months, he had formed a sibling-like relationship with her. The daughter of such as wealthy family, yet she had a gentle and soft temperament. She was very cordial to him, laughing and calling him Little Brother, not at all regarding him as a lowly waiter. A soft and gentle beautiful girl like her should not have to be exposed to such chaotic times. The moment he heard that Prince Ning was inside the city, he was determined to protect her, even if it meant his life.
His father had said to him once, before he died, that if he didn't want to get caught up in the ways of the world, then he should conduct himself in a quiet, restrained manner, and shouldn't rashly display his abilities; just focus on being a citizen--that's the way to keep oneself protected during troubled times. So, as he matured, he kept hidden the military strategy and martial arts he had learned. For fourteen years he had kept it hidden.
But today it was a risky situation, and he aimed to protect them from those murderous soldiers.
"Little Brother, you still haven't left yet!" In the midst of the confusion, the young lady had still paid notice to the waiter in coarse clothes, and had stopped to speak with him. Her retainers, once the chaos began, all took off and left. She carried herself a small cloth bundle as she hurried out herself, the only one accompanying her a servant girl named Yinghong.
"I'll lead you out of the city, Sister Shuyu!" He went to take up her things, but was blocked by Yinghong. The servant girl eyed him with disdain and suspicion.
"Miss, don't hand over your things to a stranger! That bundle is all we have." But the rich girl laughed good-naturedly and paid no attention to the servant girl's admonitions.
On the contrary, she handed over the cloth bundle to him and said in a soft voice, "Then, I'll trouble Little Brother to lead the way." The boy nodded and was getting ready to lead everyone out when the gates were kicked open with a bang.
"The Prince of Ning decrees: 'Massacre the inhabitants for three days! Burn all the houses to the ground, and take all their heads!'" A mass of unruly soldiers crowded in behind the proclaimer, all of them covered in blood, carrying swords and spears, their eyes gleaming murderously. The boy picked up a stick from the courtyard, and step by step, shielded the two girls as they backed into a corner.
"Brother, brother, don't fight with them!" Behind him, the rich girl in a low voice pleaded with him, fearfully tugging at his clothes, her fingers trembling. "You're no match for them...You're still a child, you're still a child."
"Miss, don't worry, he's a boy! Don't worry about him, just let him ward them off for a moment so we can escape out the back" Yinghong hurriedly came up and took the cloth bundle and pulled the rich girl back. "Let's escape quick! Don't worry about him."
"Haha, pretty girls, you can't run away!" Upon seeing such a beautiful girl, the brutish soldier couldn't hold back, and he charged towards her. The boy blocked the way, his eyes red, and with one sweep of his stick knocked the soldier to the ground.
If he dies here, what's the difference? He was a child, but he couldn't just stand there and watch as Sister Shuyu was taken away by those beasts...Anyway, he had no parents or close relatives.
After seeing their comrade downed, the other brutal soliders were taken aback, and then all at once they rushed in from all sides surrounding the boy...
The seventh time he was knocked down, the boy's ribs cracked sharply and blood gushed out, mizing with the rain-soaked mud . He struggled, but couldn't get up. Damn. If only he knew, he would have practiced his martial arts more. He had thought to keep himself aloof from the world, that the skills had learned would be of no use, but today...
"How does it feel, little guy?' the captain of the troop said. You dare to resist us. Pull him up and take him out. Let the horses trample him!" He grabbed the boy by the hair and pulled him to his feet, and spit in his face. The boy struggled with all his might, but it wasn't enough. He was beaten by two tall and strong soldiers, and then they made to drag him out.
"Don't hit him! Don't hit him!" The beautiful girl suddenly charged out from the rear courtyard, pulled the captain's hand off the boy, and hugged the boy, guarding him with her body. "He's still small, just a child. I'll do what you want, just please don't hurt him...
"Sister Shuyu!" He struggled again, feeling as if his strength were renewed, but his broken body wouldn't hold out, and blood still flowed from the corner of his mouth. "What did you come back for? Hurry and escape!"
Miss Shuyu lowered her head and smiled. "I can't just abandon you here. Besides, where can I escape to? There are soldiers everywhere, and I'm just a woman. In such chaotic times as this, how could I survive?" Though she smiled, her eyes couldn't conceal her sorrowful fate. Her body gave off a light fragrance--something vaguely like the scent of jasmine.
When they saw that beautiful girl foolishly run back in, the soldiers laughed wantonly, and grabbed her. Shuyu clung tightly to the door frame, and lowered her head to look at the youth. "Little Brother, Little Brother! I'm not that important, and you're still young. You must survive! You're a boy now, but you'll grow to be a strong man...You mustn't die, you must do all you can to live..." She forced a smile, but her tears dropped like pearls onto the boy's face.
Suddenly, he felt a fire ignite in the bottom of his heart--the bloody, chaotic scene in front of him had stimulated his youthful blood, stirring up some brave and valiant energy that had been buried deep inside him.
"Enough! Let's go back to camp and join our brothers in celebration!" The girl's hands were roughly pulled away from the door frame. The captain and his men laughed uproariously and pushed the boy to the ground and began kicking him with all their strength.
"You little bastard. For her sake, we'll let you off this time."
"Captain, This time we should draw tallies to decide who gets her first. We can't let you take her all for yourself!"
"Haha...Don't worry, I won't keep these precious goods from you." The group of bandits took up Miss Shuyu and swaggered off.
The boy, with great effort, struggled to his feet. He looked down at his knees, the ghastly white bone already visible, blood from his collar dripping freely, the rain spreading it all over his body.
"Miss! Miss!...Those evil thieves!" He spotted Yinghong emerging from her hiding spot, the cloth bundle gripped tight in her hands.
She put on an act, crying, "Little Brother, hurry and lead me out of the city! I have to go back and tell Master to come rescue Miss Shuyu." He snorted coldly, then suddenly turned and left, leaving the slave girl there by herself in that ransacked inn.
"You little brat! How can you just leave me here!" That voice originally choked with sobs had now turned to swears, caustic and angry. "You're a boy, shouldn't you protect me and help me escape? You cowardly, worthless beggar!" His child-like face suddenly twitched. Bitch.
"Hey soldiers!" Outside he ran into a group of soldiers. He thought a moment, then suddenly stopped, a furtive smile forming. He pointed behind him towards the inn courtyard. "There's still a pretty girl hiding in there; you guys don't want to miss your chance!" Then, he continued on heedlessly. In the distance he could faintly hear from the courtyard the sound of Yinghong's terrified screams.
He chuckled unexpectedly, in his eyes a darkness quietly brimming...starting from this day, would his hands be spoiled by blood? Was there anything he would be unable to do?
Everywhere flames, everywhere screaming, everywhere fresh blood. All the places he used to frequent were up in flames, the wooden planks cracking and burning. He could even hear the sound of bones breaking, and of women and children screaming...It felt like the end of the world.
His neighbors, aunts and uncles, just a day before were walking around, telling jokes. Now, in a flash they had all turned to sword-scarred corpses. And the others were celebrating, laughing madly...on the horses women, their plunder, tied up, and from the saddle hung still-dripping severed heads, the men carrying in their hands more loot they had stolen...
--Is this what we call a world? Where people live?
And not only here. This city, the entire Central Plains had been embroiled in the chaos of war for almost five years now.
"Whoah!" A horse was suddenly pulled to a halt, its master pulling hard on the reins in surprise, the horse's hooves coming up in the air, waving about, then landing on the ground, rainwater mixed with cold sweat from the master's forehead dripping down onto his armor.
"Who are you? You have a lot of nerve to block my horse like that!" The Prince of Ning turned around and saw a boy covered in blood lying prone in the mud, trying hard to prop himself up to look at him.
That calm, meaningful expression was really not like that of a young boy. The Prince of Ning was surprised and found himself utterting the command for his guards to halt. He dismounted and went over to the boy, lowered his head and said, "Little guy, you care litle about your life, don't you?"
You're Ning, the Prince of Ning?" The boy, little more than ten yeard old, struggled to look at him, saw him nod his head yes, then said a sentence that the Prince of Ning would not forget as long as he lived. "Let's make a deal. Help me rescue Sister and I'll serve Your Highness for the rest of my life."
Looking at this boy, splotched all over with blood, the Prince of Ning couldn't help but laugh. "Oh? Really? What ability do you have? You're just a child." Clearly the boy's leg had been broken when the horse trampled him, but contrary to his expectations, the boy calmly stood, his legs shaky and unsteady, and he raised his head.
"Does Your Highness not want to destroy all the other rulers? Does he not want to reign over everything under Heaven? Does he not want to found a new dynasty? If you do, I can help you!"
"You have that much skill? Then you can make yourself king, little guy!" The Prince of Ning laughed with great interest. Though on the battlefield he was fierce and brave and ruthless, he was gentle and cultivated towards others, due to his imperial upbringing.
"Although you might be right, if I want to make the world a stable, peaceful place, won't I have to wait many years?" The prince couldn't believe the boy took his ridicule seriously. The boy thought a moment, then added, "Your Highness, you have a strong force; in less than five years everything under Heaven will be yours, and that will be the end of these troubled times. So, why wait until later?
"My father once told me what it takes to be a powerful leader. Your Highness, you are heroic, courageous, enterprising, and you have the right blood and a military force...I think, it's probably enough, isn't it? If you have some deficiencies, let me make up for them. Even if I have to get my own hands dirty, it doesn't matter." When he heard those words, he was astounded. Curious, The Prince of Ning began to see the youth in a new light.
He said, "Your father is..."
"My father was Gao Tiancheng."
The Prince of Ning was suddenly quiet. Gao Tiancheng, the late emperor's right hand man, there when the dynasty was founded. During more stable times, he had disappeared without a trace, and the King, the Prince of Ning's father, relied on him more than anyone, so much so that before his death, the King sighed and said to the Prince of Ning, "After I die, your four brothers will certainly rebel. It looks like the world is again going to lapse into chaos....Ah, if only my beloved Gao were still here!" So it turns out that Gao Tiancheng had taken his wife and children to live in seclusion in the town? So, this youth is Gao Tiancheng's son? Then I must not look upon him with contempt.
"All right...no matter who blocked my horse's path, it takes a lot of guts to say that to me. To see someone so young have so much courage...I'll help you retrieve your Sister. Anyway, it will be an easy task." The Prince of Ning suddenly laughed and clapped the boy on the shoulder, discovering in the process just how thin and weak he was. "We have a deal!"
"Her name is Shuyu. Please, please give the order quickly to go find her. Otherwise, it will be too late..." Hearing the man's promise, the boy's expression quickly turned to one of exhaustion. His strength was gone, and he collapsed in the mud.
The drizzle gradually thinned, the war clouds covering the city like an unescapable net. The setting sun appeared from out of the dark clouds, spreading bloodcolored light over the land.
to be continued...