Welcome to Beihai
Original message: “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.”
Repeated message: “Send three or four cents. We are going to a dance.”
--A story about garbled military communications
Chapter 157 – Welcome to Beihai
Li Jing of Beihai had a habit: chewing the leaves of a plant known as srih. It was an expensive, annoying tendency. Not just because the plant had to be imported from its native southern region of Chu, but also his nasty habit of leaving the remains wherever he pleases. He would chew loudly to extract the bitter taste, turning the evergreen leaf into a mushy red paste before spitting it to the side. The sticky remains were difficult to remove and often leave a reddish stain wherever it landed.
Li Jing never took the reprimands and admonishments of his superiors regarding his nasty habit to heart. It was almost like an addiction and the result could be seen whenever he revealed his teeth, for they had turned into an ugly shade of red.
It was rumoured that one reason General Yin Yanzhao had shockingly accepted the transfer back to the capital instead of maintaining his family’s traditional post at Beihai was to finally avoid Li Jing’s srih habit once and for all.
Now that Yin Yanzhao had gone away and Li Jing was in nominal command of Beihai, there was nobody left to restrain his habit. If one was to look for Li Jing, one only needed to follow a fresh trail of gunky, red paste all over the city. It was a source of despair and mockery for its inhabitants.
Fortunately the general was currently outside of the city, awaiting the arrival of the newly appointed Royal Inspector. He was still chewing the leafy paste in his mouth as the caravan halted before his welcoming committee.
A caravan. That was all.
Li Jing was disappointed by the sight, to say the least. And annoyed.
It would be fine if it was someone high up from the army, but from all accounts this new Royal Inspector was a civilian without any actual military rank! Yes, he had heard that the young man had contributed greatly in the campaign in Wei, but that was a disastrous venture in the first place. Surely they had exaggerated the stories to make themselves feel better-
He stopped chewing and nearly swallowed the gooey ball in his mouth when the Royal Inspector stepped out of the carriage.
Despite the light snow, Royal Inspector Huang Ming was dressed lightly, without even a fur-lined cloak. He straightened the creases on his scholarly robes, stretching out his arms as he did so. The young man took a glance of the surroundings before approaching the general with a salutation.
“This humble scholar greets General Li Jing,” the young man greeted with cupped hands.
Li Jing’s aggravation grew when he saw just how young and handsome the Royal Inspector was. Keeping his eyes on Huang Ming, he hawked loudly and launched the mushy paste from his mouth. It landed to the side with a wet splat, the saliva turning the surrounding snow into a sickly red.
“Welcome to Beihai,” Li Jing said with a wide smile, deliberately showing his stained teeth. Li Jing knew the adverse effect it had on people. He took some perverse pleasure in churning the stomachs of those pretentious, hoity-toity types with his vulgar gesture.
Yet Huang Ming did not react, he continued to keep his hands cupped in greetings.
General Li Jing grunted. The young man did not so much as bat an eye at his display. Maybe there was something to those stories after all…
“Well, I’ll show you Beihai,” he said.
Huang Ming climbed the stairs to the city walls, following General Li Jing’s lead. There was no small talk as the general was continuously chewing and spitting srih leaves.
The habit was disgusting, but Huang Ming was used to seeing it in his original life. On Earth, there was a similar custom of chewing and spitting betel leaves. Even the resulting stained teeth was the same. Thus he was not too disturbed, only taking care to avoid stepping on the remains.
Atop the wall, Huang Ming could see the entire layout of the city. Like Tianxin City, it was squarish in shape.
“This is Beihai,” General Li Jing said with a subdued flourish.
Huang Ming nodded, though he frowned when he saw that there were less soldiers than expected manning the city walls and turrets. There were huge gaps in between the sentries standing at attention.
“It’s not the capital and we don’t look like much, but Beihai is the frontline against the Jins,” Li Jing continued, his eyes narrowing.
“I do not mean to be rude,” Huang Ming hastened to say. “But I do admit that I do not understand why you have so few people on the walls. Are your men away patrolling the region?”
“Patrolling? Well, some are. But we are too short-handed as it is. What you see is what you’ve got.”
Huang Ming was startled. “How many men do we have?”
General Li Jing smiled sardonically. “Less than fifteen thousand who are combat effective. More than half of them are veterans, but they too are already approaching the end of their tours.”
“What? But how could that be? Beihai has special dispensation for a standing army, and General Yin maintained a force of thirty thousand men for years. What happened?”
Li Jing grimaced at the mention of his predecessor. “It is difficult to recruit men here. After all, there is real danger of actual combat with the Jins,” he said. “To attract new blood, General Yin revised shorter contract terms. The new recruits would join up and serve for a year or two before being discharged.”
“So that they can go back and brag to their girlfriends and parents that they were war heroes?” Huang Ming asked sarcastically.
Li Jing nodded. “Most of them joined up because of General Yin’s fame. Now that he is gone…”
Huang Ming shook his head. On one hand, General Yin’s action was understandable. Yet on the other hand, it meant that Beihai had a constant movement of part-time soldiers moving in and out of the army. A year or two of service meant nothing at all, there was not enough time to develop a lasting, effective fighting force.
Little wonder then that Yin Yanzhao so easily accepted the post of Commander of the Imperial Guard, and went to the capital instead.
‘So much for the bulwark of the north,’ Huang Ming thought and gave Li Jing a sympathetic look. It seemed that he had underestimated him, the srih-chewing man had inherited a huge problem from General Yin. Perhaps that was the reason for his habit; as a way to relieve his nervous energy.
“I have already written to the capital for troop transfers, and General Yin himself had assured me of reinforcements,” Li Jing said, pointedly looking at Huang Ming as he chewed his srih slowly.
Huang Ming sighed. That explained Li Jing’s surly mood. He had thought Huang Ming was coming with more soldiers.
“Well, at least we have a core of veterans still. How long do we have them for?” Huang Ming asked instead.
“A few months. But don’t expect too much from them.”
Huang Ming tilted his head in askance, silently urging the general to explain.
“Those veterans were recruited under the old terms, meaning that they had signed up for a long service. When General Yin made the new contracts for recruitment, the old contracts were not revised. Therefore what you’ve got now is a bunch of old soldiers grumpy about the unfairness of it all,” Li Jing told him.
Huang Ming noticed the way Li Jing had repeatedly used the word ‘you’, as if he was deferring the problem to him.
“Well, what’s to prevent you from offering them new contracts?” Huang Ming asked, throwing back the emphasis to the general.
Li Jing shrugged. “I’ve tried. More food, better pay. But they won’t agree. They have already served General Yin for many years, and they just want to retire with their lives and limbs intact.”
Li Jing hawked loudly and spat out the srih.
“I’d say you have a big problem on your hands,” he said.
Problems, not just a few,
The more he heard, the more it grew.