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In all his years of military leadership, Chu Tongzu never wholly understood the allure of cavalry. So much time and effort went into training both rider and animal only to be left with a unit heavily dependent on favourable terrain. Too muddy, too steep, too dense, or a thousand other problems, and your expensive troop was of no use. In his opinion, the best use of horses were to reposition his infantry or carry his supplies.
For example, while heavy cavalrymen were simple enough to train, equipping even a few hundred soldiers required no small investment. At the barest minimum, each soldier required a trained mount, heavy armour, a sturdy polearm, and a servant to care for both rider and animal. While few things could match the sheer impact and devastation caused by charging cavalry, Mother forbid your opponents have time to prepare long, sharp sticks. The bane of mounted soldiers everywhere, no creature alive would willingly skewer themselves, which meant coordinated, disciplined infantry armed with spear or pike could deter any cavalry assault. Without the momentum of the charge, your expensive soldiers were left with little to do but twiddle their thumbs until opportunity presented itself.
On the other end of the spectrum, bow-wielding light cavalry required a literal lifetime of training, starting from a young age to develop the body required to draw a bow with only upper body strength, while simultaneously controlling your mount without hands. While not an impossible task, any self-respecting warrior with the dedication required to become an expert archer wouldn’t bother. Only the dregs of the army were content to remain archers their entire career. With no glory or fame to be won, even standard infantry were paid better, to say nothing of the elites.
Further limiting the uses of cavalry, experience taught him that cavalry shock tactics were largely ineffective against the Defiled. Perhaps if matched against rebels they would be of more use, but the fanatic Defiled fought to the death for the sheer joy of it. With the amount of carnage required to inspire fear and panic, battles were all but over before the Defiled would break. These Butchers were far less enthusiastic, a small blessing, but Sanshu was not built with mounted combat in mind.
Then there was the considerable cost of upkeep. Regular horses were fine with hay and grass, but a Chi enhanced warhorse required enormous amounts of fine grains, oats, and corn to stay strong. He shuddered to think how much it would cost to feed a more exotic mount like the lions of the Royal Guardians and the rams of the Penitent Brotherhood, or the armoured rhinos and gargantuan elephants from the south. Given a choice, Tongzu would always choose cheap, versatile infantry over expensive unreliable cavalry.
Unless those cavalry were roosequin mounted Bekhai.
Led by Gerel, the elite Bekhai cavalry moved to strike the left flank. Under his directions, Tongzu’s soldiers backed away and reformed their lines, giving the Bekhai, numbering only in the dozens, plenty of room to charge. And charge they did, shouting with unbridled fervour as half the Bekhai riders crashed head on with the veritable wall of Defiled infantry. Despite their ferocity, the Butchers held the line as the roosequins were lacking in pure mass and momentum. Expecting everything to go to shit, Tongzu readied to send his reserves to rescue Gerel only to discover his help wasn’t necessary.
Even after seeing the massacre wrought by Falling Rain and his roosequin, Tongzu had trouble believing the playful, overgrown, bipedal otters capable of such carnage. No longer though, as he watched the chittering creatures set upon the Butcher’s like a pack of wolves. Working in flawless coordination within the limited space, the first wave of Bekhai effortlessly disengaged from the Defiled and circled left, clearing a space for the second wave of roosequins to charge in. Again and again the Bekhai cycled their charges in an indiscriminate slaughter which left the Butchers no time to breathe much less rally a competent defence.
Wholeheartedly atoning for thinking the Bekhai a disappointment, Tongzu’s heart soared with joy. Expert warriors the match of any elite squadron riding creatures capable of chewing through armour and flesh, truly a sight to behold. Before the servants finished boiling his tea, the Butcher’s left flank crumbled beneath their fearsome onslaught. Without missing a beat, Gerel led them to strike the remaining Butchers from the side, the Bekhai playing hammer to Tongzu’s anvil. An unfamiliar role for the Unstoppable Golden Vanguard, but Tongzu welcomed the change, ecstatic to see Defiled falling beneath blade and fang. Sending orders to his officers to better coordinate the two forces, his instructions were largely unneeded as the Bekhai made similar short work of the Butcher’s core warriors and sent them all fleeing in a full-blown rout. Hundreds, if not thousands of Defiled were cut down as they scrambled to escape, leaving the plaza firmly in the hands of Sanshu’s defenders.
All in the time it took to boil a pot of tea.
Shocked and delighted by the turn of events, Tongzu closed his gaping jaw and turned to Gerel’s mysterious ‘Mentor’. “A superb display from a warrior without peer, Sanshu owes Senior Captain Gerel and the Bekhai a debt of gratitude.” A little flattery never hurt.
“Hmph.” The Expert huffed before leisurely sipping the tea, bringing the cup beneath her veil instead of removing it. “What good is gratitude? Will it shelter you from cold or fill an empty belly? Words are merely empty air, but actions speak true.”
“Of course, of course, most profound. I, Chu Tongzu, am a man of action. Should he desire it, the post of Guard Captain of Sanshu is his.” Blessed Mother, please make it so. “Failing that, I will ensure his rank is raised to the appropriate levels. A Lieutenant Colonel…” The Expert’s eyebrow twitched ever so slightly and he corrected himself immediately. “Nay, a Colonel at the least, if not Brigadier. Even if I need call in every favour I’m owed, I will see that he receives the recognition he deserves. His name will echo across the Empire as a rising dragon of the Bekhai.” Damn Shing Du Yi for stealing a march and betrothing his adopted daughter to Gerel. If only Tongzu had a daughter or niece of an appropriate age.
The Expert seemed unmoved, shrugging as she nibbled on a rice cracker. Apparently not one for conversation, Tongzu didn’t press the issue for fear of vexing her, merely keeping her company while silently coordinating Sanshu’s defence. Bekhai scouts ventured into the South-West district to keep an eye on the Butchers while his guards built ramshackle barricades at the plaza’s entrances. Servants and volunteers arrived in droves to help remove corpses, setting guards and soldiers aside for burial and stripping Defiled before throwing them to the fish. Reports flooded in through Sendings and missives, his aides frantically chronicling each errant word and detail for posterity’s sake. A valiant defence against Defiled traitors and bandits, full of valiant heroics and compelling intrigue, the historians would have a field day with this, not to mention the playwrights.
The city was not yet won, and though he appeared calm and relaxed as he sipped his tea, Tongzu never let his guard down, poring over every nugget of information presented to him. Emissary of Flame defeated by Sumila, daughter of Akanai. Demon grievously injured by unnamed slave and Sumila. Two more crouching tigers of the Bekhai, Tongzu couldn’t even find it in himself to be surprised. Three bandit captains killed at the northern bridge, taken down by Lei Gong, Jariad, and an unnamed armoured Militiaman respectively. Guard Captain Sovanna awaiting orders. Ravager Kaliyan defeated by unnamed Bekhai. Traitor Mao spotted with Kaliyan, defeated but escaped unharmed. Three bridges secured, all forces to dig in and await reinforcements. The Crossbone Corsairs are venturing deep into the South-West district, Bastard Liu yet to be sighted. Send word to request they fall back and coordinate with defences. Defiled forces gathering around the Crystal Jade Cauldron restaurant, where Gerel suffered defeat at Yo Ling’s hands. Their base of operations perhaps? Thousands of mercenaries moving in force from the Northern District towards Central.
Sputtering as he choked on his tea, Tongzu Sent for clarification on the last report. Mercenaries moving inside his city? Under whose control? Likely the Golden Highlands Coalition given the location, but why? Last he’d checked, the Council was embroiled in vicious infighting, though their conflict had yet to spill into open battle. If Chief Councilman Xiaobo was deploying his troops then surely the other forces would follow? He shuddered to think of the damage they would cause. To defeat the Defiled only to lose his city to warring merchants, what had he done to offend the Mother?
After what seemed like an eternity of spine-tingling suspense, Tongzu finally let out a breath of relief. There were no signs of Eastern Prosperity or Western Treasures taking action, in fact, quite the opposite. Several councilmen from both factions were found dead in the streets, including Chief Councilman Chun Lei of the Western Treasures Union. Chief Councilman Chao Yong was nowhere to be found, though his barges were still anchored outside the Eastern River gate, which meant the Eastern Prosperity Alliance had no clear leader. No wonder Xiaobo acted so openly, his opponents were all dead or missing. These mercenaries were a show of force for Tongzu, an overt reminder of who held the reins.
A half hour later, Tongzu finally spied the procession approaching, banging their drums and clashing their cymbals in an upbeat rhythm. Waving their flags sporting the Golden Highland’s emblem, they paraded through the streets to ensure everyone knew who ‘saved’ Sanshu, swooping in after the lion’s share of work was done. A massive palanquin carried by two dozen slaves emerged from the street, followed by thousands of mercenaries marching in step. The sunlight glinted off their gold and green armour, a blatant copy of the City Guard’s gold and red. Vultures and scavengers the lot of them, where were these ‘warriors’ when Sanshu was poised to fall? How many lives were lost while these mercenaries guarded coin and cargo?
For now, all Tongzu could do was swallow his rage. Even if he included Major Yuzhen’s reinforcements among his numbers, retaking the city would be a long, arduous process. He needed all the manpower he could get, and these mercenaries counted no small number of experts among them, spotting many Spiritual Weapons on open display. In the meantime, Xiaobo would use Tongzu’s distraction to quietly consolidate his spoils and root out any remaining resistance. After the dust settled, it was likely Sanshu would no longer have a Council, with everything falling neatly into Xiaobo’s grubby hands.
Coming to a stop before Tongzu, the slaves gently set the palanquin down. Emerging from behind silk drapes, Xiaobo stepped out with his balding head held high, basking in the cheers of his hired warriors. An ugly toad of a man, Xiaobo was famous for his disgusting habits and practices, a man who’d indulged in every degenerate vice and carnal debauchery at least once. Flicking his silk sleeves, the arrogant toad approached with a smile. “Magistrate Chu Tongzu,” he said with the barest inkling of a nod, not even bothering to clasp his hands. “The Golden Highlands Coalition offers its humble aid in this time of trouble. These ten thousand mercenaries are at your disposal, and more will arrive as my people sort out my new holdings.”
Inwardly seething, Tongzu stepped forward to greet the mercenaries with a rote speech about patriotism and victory. Meanwhile, word would spread through home and hearth of the Golden Highland Coalitions coming to save the day, carried on the winds of rumour and helped along by Xiaobo’s flunkies. The worst part this was that most citizens would eat up all the crafted lies, because it would be the first news to reach them regarding the battle for Sanshu. Victory was within Sanshu’s grasp, but the version of events the citizens heard would be far from the truth. All the hard work and heroism of the past few days would go largely overlooked, and once Xiaobo finished swallowing his prize Tongzu would be left with little recourse to oppose him. In a few hours, the arrogant toad would have sole possession of over 50% of the Northern Province’s industry, becoming one of the wealthiest individuals in the Empire overnight. Add to this his formidable force of mercenaries and the loyalty of young talents like Dastan Zhandos, Xiaobo was now a powerhouse to be feared and respected.
It would appear that war is good for business after all.
From the balcony of the restaurant, Yo Ling watched his Butchers filter into the market square, a mangy, defeated lot. How disappointing to see the army he’d raised over fifteen years in such a state, defeated by rabble and riffraff. Not even three days had passed since he’d dined with all his captains in this same room, and now not a single one still drew breath. Killed by nameless warriors and unbearded youths, this was to be the core of his all-conquering army?
Grinding his teeth, he turned away from the sight and poured himself a cup of wine. Downing the glass in a single gulp, he threw away all propriety and drank straight from the jug, the drink spilling onto his fine robes. Worthless degenerates one and all. The plan was never to take Sanshu with merely fifteen thousand Butchers, they were little more than a distraction, but to see them beaten like dogs was a humiliation like no other. Things would not have gone so poorly if he still had proper soldiers to command, soldiers like Yue Jin, Zhang Bo, Gao Qiu…
The empty jug shattered against the floorboards, thrown in a fit of rage. Moving on to smash the table and chairs, Yo Ling vented his frustrations through reckless destruction. Why did his oldest comrade forsake him? It was beyond comprehension. The Red Devil was his finest soldier and closest companion, with many a drink and laugh shared between them. For years, Yo Ling groomed him to become a weapon, a slaughterer, a Demon cloaked in human flesh, but after all his meticulous work was for naught. Gao Qiu chose to die rather than accept the truth, starting a fight he knew he couldn’t win. Damn him for a fool.
“I see you’re enjoying yourself.” Mao Jianghong slipped into the room unannounced, with a pointed glance at the damaged furniture. “I like what you’ve done with the decor.”
Snarling in wordless rage, Yo Ling stepped across the room and grabbed the traitorous dog by the throat, slamming him against the wall. Caught off guard by the attack, Jianghong moved to draw his saber only to stop as his bones creaked beneath Yo Ling’s steely grip. Trembling with indignant fury, Yo Ling imagined crippling Jianghong and skinning him alive, roasting him over a bed of coals and eating him piece by piece. Why not? This traitor’s job was finished, there was no need for him anymore.
Composing himself, Yo Ling closed his eyes and listened to Jianghong gurgle for breath, his useless struggling growing feeble as he drew closer to death. Releasing the traitor, Yo Ling flicked his sleeves and turned away, still struggling for control. “Did my guards not tell you,” he said, through gritted teeth, “I asked not to be disturbed?”
Coughing and gasping, Jianghong took almost half a minute to respond. “They did, but I felt the intrusion necessary.” He hid his anger well, his voice raspy but calm. “I’ll not make the same mistake again.”
No, the next time Jianghong intruded on Yo Ling, it would be to kill him. No matter, even a warrior like Jianghong was no match, but Yo Ling needed the traitor Guard Captain for a few days yet. “So? What is so important that you saw fit to bother me?”
With a few more coughs, Jianghong answered, “We’ve been beaten back at all three bridges. We’re stuck here in the South-West district, trapped like rats. The Bekhai, the Crossbone Corsairs, the Azure Ascendants, even the Golden Highlands Coalition has joined the defence.”
Gesturing for Jianghong to hurry things along, Yo Ling said, “Yes, all this is known. Your point?”
Eyes wide with shock, Jianghong froze for a moment before continuing. “Are you mad? We’ve lost! Your ‘Venerated Ones’ cannot win us the day and your ‘Transcendents’ are no better than fodder before so many experts. Within the hour, Major Yuzhen will arrive to cut off our only retreat, yet here you are throwing tantrums and breaking furniture!”
Barely keeping his rage in check, Yo Ling took a deep breath and counted backwards from ten. Twice. Finally trusting himself to speak, he turned to Jianghong and shrugged. “You wish to flee? Then go. The gates are wide open, I’ll not stop you or your guards from leaving. Take horses, supplies, whatever you need, and run as far as you can.” Stepping forward, he smiled as the traitorous dog instinctively stepped away, keeping hands well away from his weapons. Good, Jianghong knew his place now and wouldn’t dare openly show signs of defiance. “But know this,” Yo Ling said with a dark smile. “Once I’ve finished with Sanshu, I’ll have no choice but to hunt you down and make an example of you. Politics you know, can’t have my Butchers thinking I’ve gone soft now, can I?”
Returning to the balcony, Yo Ling reached out with his mind and reported to the Venerated Ones. They were less than pleased with the delay, but they were well versed with patience. Looking over his Butchers, he haphazardly chose new captains to lead his men, picking out the few faces he still recognized. It didn’t matter, everything was coming to an end, his long years of planning finally coming to fruition. As soon as his people were in place, Sanshu would fall and his true work would begin. With the city’s wealth and industry to supply him, he would raise an army like no other and march across the Empire, conquering all within his path. Feeling calmer now, he turned to find Jianghong still waiting in place. Smiling, Yo Ling asked, “You stayed? How surprising.” Not really.
“Yes.” A pause. “I’m no fool, you’ve been hiding something this entire time.” Jianghong watched expectantly, hoping for an explanation. With none forthcoming, he sighed. “Better to see this through to the end than spend the rest of my life in hiding.”
“Good.” Yo Ling patted the traitor on the shoulder. “You think us defeated, but far from it. We are on the cusp of victory my friend. Go find the boy, he and his wife should be all patched up by now, but hurry. None of you will want to miss this.” Whistling a merry tune, he marched down the stairs slowly, pausing every now and then to appreciate the paintings on the walls. So what if he had no friends and incompetent underlings? Regardless, in a few hours, he would be the new Magistrate of Sanshu, the first step on his road to becoming Emperor.
A shame about Gen losing to some no name wench. The boy was something of a disgrace, but he was new to his powers. At least there were plenty of other options for a successor. The Devourer here in the city was one, defeating Black Heart Nazier in single combat, a most impressive display of skill. Then there was the brat raised by his compatriots in the city, also nearby, but the Spirits were less enamoured of that one.
No matter. One thing at a time.
Today Sanshu, tomorrow, the world.
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