What If They Had a War, and Nobody Came? (Part 2)

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General Lei was agitated, to say the least. ‘What are they doing?’ he asked again.

His adjutant, Captain Bai, lowered his spyglass. ‘Not very much, sir. That, you might say, is the difficulty. Commander Ma was trying to harangue his troops into action earlier, but he appears to have given up, likely out of frustration. You can see him just over there, with his head in his hands.’

With a full complement of guards, messengers and servants in attendance, the two of them stood atop a rise that commanded a clear view of the battlefield below. Or what would have been the battlefield, if the troops lined up on both sides had been engaging in anything resembling battle. Instead…

‘Do you mean to say, they’re just sitting there?’

‘Well, two of the platoons in the sixteenth battalion appear to be starting a kickball match, sir. But other than that, yes. We should count ourselves lucky that the Yi troops appear to be doing exactly the same thing. Although —‘ Captain Bai raised his spyglass again.

‘What? What is it? Are they attacking?’

‘No, sir, but they do appear to have stolen a march on our troops where the midday meal is concerned. One of their platoons seems to have returned from a hunting trip, with two, no, three deer in tow. Quite substantial ones, I might add.’

‘Why aren’t they fighting?’

Gu Qing, who was lurking in the shadow of a supply wagon — the wagons were guarded, of course, but the guards had ostentatiously turned a blind eye when they saw Gu Qing sauntering up — exchanged glances with her fellow lurkers, Shi Yi and Qian Sangu. Shi Yi had been a blacksmith in the capital before falling on hard times and joining the Beggars’ Guild; he had been a crossbowman for two years by the time Gu Qing enlisted. Qian Sangu was one of the few women in the Zhuo cavalry; she came from one of the towns near the border with Yi, where her family ran — or, at least, had run — a small livery stables. At Gu Qing’s signal, all three of them straightened and stepped into view.

‘I believe we have the answer to that, general,’ she called.

Both General Lei and Captain Bai spun around. ‘Who let you up here?’ the general demanded. ‘Who are you?’

‘Gu Qing of the sixteenth battalion, general. With me are Qian Sangu, representing the cavalry, and Shi Yi, representing the crossbow units. Together, we speak on behalf of the Zhuo troops assembled below. Not a single one of us will raise a weapon until our demands are heard and met.’

General Lei’s face, already flushed, took on a distinct tinge of purple. ‘You claim to be responsible for this?’ he said, disbelievingly. He looked her up and down, noting the absence of any insignia of rank on her uniform, and snorted. ‘The very idea … You two!’ he snapped his fingers at the nearest pair of guards. ‘Take these three away and lock them up until I have time to question them.’

The two guards shuffled uneasily, and clutched their spears tighter. They were from the seventh battalion, Gu Qing knew, nine-tenths of whom had thrown in their lot with what she had begun to think of as the movement; she only wished she knew their names, but sheer numbers made that impossible. She held her breath. This was the true test, she knew. It was one thing to look away while Gu Qing and her associates ducked behind a supply wagon; it was another to disobey a direct order from the general.

The guards glanced nervously at each other, then looked Gu Qing straight in the eye, and did not move. And did not move.

Gu Qing sent up a silent prayer of thanks to any ancestors of the Feihua Pavilion who might be watching over her.

General Lei looked from her to the two guards, and back again. He sucked in a breath. ‘This is mutiny,’ he hissed.

‘Call it what you like, general,’ said Gu Qing. ‘You asked me who I was, and the answer is: nobody. Just the humblest of footsoldiers marching under the banner of Zhuo. You, on the other hand, are a highly-decorated general. The difference between us is that between heaven and earth. But answer me this: if a general gives a command, and there is no soldier willing or able to carry it out, how much is that command wor—‘

With a roar, General Lei drew his sword and swung it at her. She dodged it easily enough. General Lei was a good enough fighter by Zhuo military standards, but his bladework — made even less precise by rage — was no match for the Feihua Pavilion’s qinggong.

She ducked another blow, making sure to keep her hands well away from her own sword as she did so, keenly aware of all the eyes on her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Shi Yi shoot her a questioning glance, his hand going to the long knife at his belt. Gu Qing shook her head minutely. I promised we could end this without shedding one more drop of blood, and I’m going to prove it. All she needed was an opening that would let her disarm and restrain him as efficiently as possible —

There was a blur of movement, followed by a thump.

General Lei slumped forward, unconscious but still breathing.

Captain Bai lowered his halberd, flicking a trace of blood away from the handle. ‘The general appears to have over-exerted himself,’ he said calmly. He gestured at the same pair of guards, who were, by this point, clutching at each other in sheer terror. ‘You two. Take the general back to his tent, and find a physician to tend to him.’

The two guards looked towards Gu Qing again, and it was only after she nodded that they stepped forward to pick up General Lei’s prone body. She saw Captain Bai take note of this.

As the two guards, carrying the general between them, began to make their way down the rise, Captain Bai fixed his gaze squarely on Gu Qing. Gu Qing had the sudden sensation of being weighed, measured and catalogued, down to every last strand of her hair and twitch of her toes. ‘The Yi army,’ Captain Bai said at length. ‘That’s your doing as well?’

‘Our doing, yes,’ said Gu Qing. ‘In a manner of speaking.’

‘Some might call that colluding with the enemy.’

‘Some might. We prefer to think of it as making common cause in the name of shared interests.’

‘Shared interests?’ Captain Bai looked down at the plain below. ‘We’ve lost nearly ten thousand soldiers to them already, and we stood to lose even more, if battle had been joined today. Tell me, why would they throw away such an advantage?’

Gu Qing shrugged. ‘Someone like you might see an advantage, captain, but to a common footsoldier, whether Zhuo or Yi, all it means is more death and dying. Our demands are simple. A peace treaty to be negotiated between the Empires of Zhuo and Yi. An imperial guarantee that there will be no repercussions for any soldier who chose not to take up arms today, whatever their rank. Full compensation for all soldiers who have sustained injury over the course of this campaign, and for the families of soldiers who have lost their lives. We also ask for compensation for all households that have experienced death, suffering or displacement as a direct result of this campaign. The amounts will have to be worked out, naturally, but Qian Sangu here has produced some basic calculations—’

Captain Bai held up a hand. ‘And will the … representatives of the Yi troops be making the same demands of their generals?’ At Gu Qing’s nod, that weighing-and-measuring look came into his eyes again. ‘You managed that? But how? They are winning, after all.’

Gu Qing sighed. ‘As I said, captain. We all want the same thing, in the end. To go home. To not die, or see our friends die in front of our eyes. Not to have to kill someone just because they happened to be born on one side or another of a border.’

Captain Bai eyed her keenly. ‘Some might say that is nothing more than your duty.’

Gu Qing matched him stare for stare. ‘Then with all due respect, captain,’ she said, in tones that made it clear the amount due was precisely none, ‘perhaps it shouldn’t be.’


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