The Divorcee is a Wicked Black Belly Chapter 78: The Burning of Laniang


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The troops traveled to Laniang just after the sun set. They traveled by trucks then stopped some distance away from the village and trudged the rest on foot, faces grim, hands tight on the weapons they carry.

Gu Sheng and Yi Hai led them in the dark, their figures swift, their eyes alert. The decision to let Gu Sheng led the night attack happened naturally. An Ning remembered what he said about not pulling him back and she didn't.

Fifteen was not a young age anymore, not in this era it's not. In this time and age, fifteen year olds can marry, have kids, and if the guy holds the highest title in the land like Gu Sheng, he can have as many concubines as he likes before he even reaches the age of twenty.

So, she didn't hinder him but merely watched from a distance as he trained and exercised with the men and showed them his commitment in keeping not only Yuqui safe but his people as well.

An Ning kept an upper stiff lip when she walked him to the gates and bade him goodbye and watched as the vehicle that carried him away disappeared into the far distance. She thought of Cas and his laughter and joy when he told her he wanted to be a healer like her so he could heal the people he loves. She felt a painful pinch in her heart when she thought of him, who was even younger than Gu Sheng.

She stayed at the gates until Ling Wan came and quietly stood behind her. He didn't say anything just waited without moving. An Ning took a last look at the spot where the long line of trucks disappeared and then turned around and walked away.

In the darkness, Gu Sheng and Yi Hai stared at the village quietly reposing for the night. They waited for the signal from the watch tower and when it came, the men quickly fanned out, surrounding the village and enclosing it in a semi-circle trap.

The first burst of gunfire came from a bazooka, which tore the big fancy house to shreds in a matter of minutes. The gunfire didn't let up until then entire structure was in ruins, and the people inside dead. Grenades were lobbied at houses and structures, while intense firepower were used to bring down a large storage shed surrounded by men who valiantly fought back with gunfire of their own. The storage shed was the lifeblood of any town. It gets destroyed, and the entire town with it. So the men guarding it fought bitterly, holding on until the bazooka whisked past their heads and the shed was shredded killing all the men inside.

A large building which the spy drone showed as a possible armory received the same intense concentration. A couple of hits and the entire building blew up. The large boom was accompanied by the rat-tat-tat of firecrackers, blowing up and lighting the entire night with a kaleidoscope of colors, illuminating the felled bodies on the ground, the suffering and the endless screaming.

The sound of screaming and the shrieks of people frightened out of their wits filled the night sky like a vision from hell. There was nowhere to hide, no place to seek cover. The gunfire struck indiscriminately and without pity. Blood, torn limbs, bodies cut apart by shrapnel littered the streets like a nightmare. The firecrackers illuminated all these, like a fire of tornado that shattered hopes and terminated lives.

Gu Sheng signaled the men to attack. Half of his force burst forward with guns blazing, mowing everything in sight, children, women, old men, kids awakened from their sleep died without knowing why, without even seeing the faces of their killers. They killed everything that moved, even the cats and dogs, the birds in cages, the flowers on vases. A few stragglers, the disabled and the fearful, the cowards, all of them died in a hale of gunfire. In a very short while, that seemed like hours but was actually one minute short of an hour, Laniang disappeared from the face of the earth, with not even a mouse to remember its existence.

The other half of the force which was led by Yi Hai retreated a little distance from the village. They waited in tense silence, listening to the bark of gunfire that shattered and tore the silence of the night. They didn't wait long. From a distance, the sound of vehicles approaching was soon heard.

This time, caution was thrown to the winds. The troops who came to investigate the disturbance were driven by fear and anger. They were alert and ready to kill and they gave fire for fire when Yi Hai gave the order to attack. This time, however, the enemy was not a bunch of innocents awakened from their sleep. They were vicious, angry, and out for blood.

Soon, the number of fallen soldiers from both sides began to pile up. An Ning didn't want a war of attrition so Yi Hai's team tried to retreat as soon as the sound of gunfire in the direction of Laniang stopped. But the enemy became crazed, perhaps knowing what that silence of gunfire in the direction of Laniang meant. The firecrackers continued to pop as the imperial guards some distance away and the crazed soldiers of Laniang finally met.

In moments of combat, the eyes become clouded with a haze of hatred. Faces of friends and family become the same, just phantom figures to be crushed, beaten until victory was achieved. Joy and sorrow become nothing, just ghosts to be set aside to achieve a win.

Both sides fought grimly. Yi Hai saw many of his men fall to the ground. He was nearly spent, his body aching and bleeding but he summoned whatever strength was left and pulled his men out of the carnage by the skin of his teeth. They retreated and made their getaway, running where the vehicles were parked.

Gu Sheng and his team were already there waiting for them. The emperor counted the number of men who returned with Yi Hai. His eyes flickered but he didn't say anything. Of the 2,500 elite palace guards who came with him, half survived. Gu Sheng's forces were thankfully still intact. The men didn't speak just hurried to the trucks and drove away, followed by gunfire that burst out of the darkness like angry flames.

The return to Yuqui was achieved in silence. For Gu Sheng, the journey was a realization of contrasts. The people he killed tonight without mercy were his blood family and imperial subjects deserving of his pity and protection. Instead, he led the assault that destroyed their homes, took part in the systematic violence that ended their lives. His blood family conspired to kill him then wrest power from his dead fingers. So, he killed them, rather massacred them without showing a bit of remorse. But was he really protecting his people or the interests that made him their monarch and king?

When he arrived at the gates of the capital, An Ning was waiting for him. He could tell by the line of tension around her mouth that she had been deathly worried. The surrounding gates teemed with people. He could not remember a time when it was filled to the brim as this night. But it was the silence that frightened him. Hundreds of people mixed and collided and came into contact with each other all in uneasy, brittle silence, which intensified when Yi Hai and his men alighted from their vehicle and walked to where he and An Ning stood.

The strangled gasp that followed was almost unbearable. Yi Hai looked and smelled like death. Blood pooled under his left eye, his shirt was stained with it, an ugly cut can be seen on his left arm and on his chest, and he walked with a terrible limp, almost swaying to his feet with fatigue.

Yi Ying's wife gave a cry and immediately rushed forward, sobbing brokenly as she enfolded him in her embrace. It was the first time Gu Sheng had seen Yi Ying sobbed like a child. It frightened him. It was worse than seeing death up close.

"Where's Xing Lu? Where's my son?" the cry came from a middle-aged man wearing a merchant's cap. No one answered. The men kept their heads down. Gu Sheng strode forward and caught the man as he keeled over and fainted from shock.

The smell of fear was palpable. In this crucial time, hope seemed far and unattainable. Death was near and everyone seemed paralyzed by the thought of it. In that crucial hour, Gu Sheng finally took his place in history and barked a command.

"Everyone back to their places and guard the gates. Some of you, carry the injured into the infirmary. Yi Hai, go with them and take care of those wounds."

"But your majesty...," Yi Hai feebly protested.

"Move! Come back when you've rested." Gu Sheng's eyes faintly showed regret.

As if galvanized by the strength in the monarch's voice, everybody did as they were told and scatterered. Yi Hai gave a reluctant nod and, supported by his parents on both sides, he left.

"How long before they get here?" An Ning asked, resisting the urge to fuss over him.

"An hour maybe less."

An Ning nodded.

"Let's go then."

They separated and went in opposite directions. After taking a few steps, An Ning turned back but Gu Sheng's tall figure had already disappeared among the crowd. She hesitated but turned around and continued to the watchtower where a large group stood tense and waiting, their eyes on the far distance.

A young and handsome man with the air of a scholar watched her approach. He was the grand scholar of the great school of Yuqui, Mu Xing. A few days back, Mu Xing went with some of his students to the imperial love nest near the school and begged an audience with An Ning.

An Ning was surprised and immediately went outside to meet him. The love nest, as Gu Sheng derisively called the house, was very informal and quiet. There were only three people who lived in it, An Ning and two servants who took care of everyday matters. An Ning never stood on ceremony and immediately ordered refreshments be brought in. Mu Xing was surprised but became even more so when the servant brought in tea and pastries along with it.

"It's from Sweet Nothings," An Ning said somewhat apologetically. "I always order a new batch everyday. They're good with the tea."

The young people with the grand tutor were surprised. They eyed An Ning with something like awe on their faces. They were very surprised to see how young she looked, about their age perhaps and very pretty. She was dressed oddly, in loose light grey trousers and shirt, which contrasted starkly with the robes and trinkets and make up the two young women with them wore. An Ning's face was clean of rouge and color, the complexion smooth and flawless. Even her hair was unbound, flowing in dark waves around her shoulders and back. The two young women secretly eyed her feet. They were naked, the toenails exposed since she wasn't wearing any shoes.

An Ning in fact didn't remotely look like their idea of an empress. She wasn't stuffy or cold, she was warm and friendly and it seemed like the rumors were true and that she really had a sweet tooth. Their idea of a warm and fuzzy empress, however, went out the window when Mu Xing started to talk.

The empress stared down at him with cold, disapproving eyes. Seeing the frigid look on her face, the tea and pastries suddenly tasted like straw in their mouths.

"No, absolutely not," the empress said. "I will not allow it."

"But you said yourself, we are short of people," Mu Xing was undeterred by her displeasure and continued. "Your majesty, please reconsider. My students have already made up their minds. They spoke to me and urged me to talk to you. We are here today to beg you to let us do our duty to the country and fight."

"It's too dangerous. These kids are too young."

Mu Xing smiled gently.

"Her majesty and the emperor are not much older."

An Ning was stumped.

Even trapped in this young and budding body, An Ning has never considered herself young and foolish. She was a twenty-six year old mature woman with two kids and she would stay that way even if her body regresses into an infant.

"Your grace, please hear us out. My classmates...we've already talked about this and we're all in agreement. Yuqui is at war. The enemy is out there waiting for a chance to get in to destroy and kill us. This is not a joking matter anymore. If Yuqui falls today, everybody falls with her, including us. If they win, tomorrow, we might not even have our lives or if we live, we become the enemy's whores and slaves. Because we stood by and did nothing, waiting to be rescued like children afraid of the dark. This is our future we are talking about. Don't we have the right to fight for it given a chance?"

An Ning look at the impassioned face of the girl. She looked to be about fifteen, the same age as Gu Sheng. The young face still had traces of baby fat in it but the eyes...they were older and held her gaze bravely and without fear.

Somewhere in An Ning's heart, that pinch smote her again. Her lips quivered. She took a deep breath and released it in a sigh.

"How many of you in your class?" she asked.

"Twenty, your age."

"The eldest is what age?"

"Like me, your grace. Fifteen."

"You are too young," An Ning tried so hard to be firm but the girl's eyes narrowed.

"I am the same age as our emperor," the girl said, outraged.

An Ning turned to look at Mu Xing, who gazed back at her calmly. Help me out here, you idiot, her eyes were telling him but he ignored her plea and looked at the girl instead.

"Mei Mei, tell your grace about what the rest of the class said."

"Mei Mei? Ling Nam's Mei Mei?" An Ning was surprised.

"How did you...I mean, I'm not...That is...," the girl stammered, looking at her teacher with a guilty face.

"It's alright," Mu Xing said, smiling. "Just tell her grace what the rest of your classmates said to tell you."

The girl's embarrassed face seemed to have deflated. Her composure perilously gone as she met An Ning's amused eyes. The girl took a deep breath and continued, despite her face blushing like a newly opened rose.

"They said that if you won't allow us to guard the gates then we will all run away," she finished lamely, not meeting An Ning's eyes this time.

"That's quite a threat," An Ning said, repressing the urge to smile. "And we can't have that, can we? What do you think, scholar Mu?"

Mu Xing was stunned. The full effect of An Ning's smile was turned on him in full effect, like a million bulbs flashing, blinding and brilliant.

He stammered, losing his train of thought. An Ning silently snorted. Idiot, she thought.

"Here's what I can do. I can take you with me and I mean take you. You will be in the reserves if we need it. You have to do what I say and stay with me at all times, is that understood? If I see you doing anything other than that, I'll push you off the parapet so fast your head will spin."

Mei Mei's face brightened in a smile and she nodded her head like bubble toy.

Mu Xing and his students were good as their promise. Even when the emperor arrived and everyone saw the sorry conditions some of the palace guards were in, they stayed put in the watch tower, just watching from above the sad commotion below.

Mu Xing waited for An Ning to reach him. His face was pale, his eyes a little too bright.

"What's the news, your grace?"

"Anyone of you here knows how to clean a wound?" An Ning asked, looking at the young faces staring up at her. Five of the girls and a boy about thirteen raised their hands. "Go to the infirmary and help them out."

"But your grace," one of the girls said.

"You're needed there than in here. Go," An Ning commanded.

The six young people shuffled their feet then reluctantly filed outside one by one without another word.

"They'll be here in less than hour. You still have time to change your mind. I wouldn't hold it against you," An Ning said, looking at the silent group with solemn eyes.

The group looked at the darkness beyond the gates. The horizon used to be something recognizable. But at this moment, it was fraught with peril, unsafe and dangerous. They looked at the rows of houses and buildings inside the gates. It looked peaceful and quiet, untouched by violence just waiting outside. But in just a short while, when the fighting starts, even that illusion will shatter and break. There was no peace this night or any night if the enemy crosses beyond this gate and prevails.

There was no other choice really. That luxury went out when Laniang instead chose a path different from Yuqui's.

They didn't speak. There was no need to. An Ning looked out the tower. Lights from a moving object were closing in. The enemy was here. The real fighting was about to start. She took a deep breath and steadied the heavy sword in her hand.
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