Sunday's chapter. Comments and critique are welcome.



“Deliberate tactical errors and minor losses are the means by which to bait the enemy.”
--Sun Bin


Chapter 159 – Betting strategy

Over the next few days, Huang Ming took his time to go about his duties. In the day he moved about the city’s defences anonymously; taking note of the walls, the barracks, training grounds and armoury. The state of the facilities were adequate, though he found that the actual soldiers using them were dismally lacking and shambolic.


Sightings of this young man showing up and quietly observing them soon spread among the soldiers. His arrival at Beihai had not been reported with great fanfare, and soon rumours were rife among the men that someone was spying on them without even bothering to hide himself.


There was little need for Huang Ming to conceal himself. Those on duty were unsure of someone who could walk in and out with impunity, while those who were resting had other things to distract them.


Amazingly, or depressingly; it took an entire week before someone actually took the initiative to question Huang Ming. Rather, Huang Ming had allowed himself to be caught.


He was observing on what was supposed to be a horse-riding training session for the mounted troops. Instead, he discovered a crowd of soldiers gambling on horse racing. Such was the scale of indiscipline that the training grounds saw more use as a race track than actual military usage.


As there was money involved, there were actual guards on duty. Huang Ming’s presence was soon detected, and a few burly looking soldiers soon surrounded him.


“Who are you, what are you doing here?” one of them demanded.


“I heard there was gambling here, I thought to try my luck,” Huang Ming said and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.


“Get lost!”


“How dare you trespass here! This is a military compound, civilians are not allowed to enter!” another soldier said loudly.


Huang Ming thought it was hilarious that the soldiers could say those words with straight faces while the festivities of the horse racing was ongoing in the training field behind them.


“Come on, big brothers,” Huang Ming said ingratiatingly. “I’ve been thrown out of all the other venues, I just need one big win to change my luck!”


“A bankrupt scholar!” they sneered.


“But… but I have money… it’s my last roll of the dice…” Huang Ming whined.


The eyes of the soldiers lit up. They took stock of this young man who seemed to lack the strength to even truss up a chicken, and Huang Ming could literally see their faces itching to say “Ah, fresh meat!”


“Well, this isn’t allowed, but I’m sure we can come to some agreement…” one of them hinted.


“Of course, of course!” Huang Ming said while acting suitably relieved. He presented a few taels of silver and the soldier demonstrated remarkable agility to swipe them into his clothing.


“Good fellow! Come this way,” he said, not even bothering to hide his shark-like grin.


They surrounded him to prevent him from changing his mind. Huang Ming was found himself shepherded to the venue. He did not know whether to laugh or cry when he saw the bustle of activity. There was even a crude concession stand where they were grilling skewers of meat.


He had not seen the soldiers being so lively in his days of observing them. They were listless and lackadaisical while on duty and were not much better than zombies, yet here they were cheering and cursing like bandits.


Huang Ming was soon presented to a mean-looking, battle-scared older soldier who was cursing in disgust at the latest unfavourable result from the races.


“Who’s this?” the veteran growled and eyed him suspiciously.


“Boss, we found an investor,” the soldiers grinned.


“Oh?”


“Yeah, he would like to chip in on our bets,” another said enthusiastically.


Their veteran leader’s sour expression faded slightly.


“Maybe he can change our string of bad luck,” he grunted.


“What? But I’m here to gamble on my own-” Huang Ming began to protest.


The countenance of the soldiers changed. They glared at Huang Ming and began to crowd over him intimidatingly.


“We’re givin’ you the opportunity to roll with the boss of the White Wolves, you gonna say no?”


“How much are we talking here? Are there any limits?” Huang Ming raised his voice, acting like a man who was desperately brave.


The scarred veteran raised an eyebrow. “No limits,” he replied, “But this is more for bragging rights more than anything.”


“Well, what’s the bet?” Huang Ming asked.


“You’re lucky,” the veteran said. “You’re just in time for the main event against the Black Bears. There will be three final races, winner takes all.”


Huang Ming’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know the horses and their riders well?”


“Of course. We have been doing this for a long time,” the veteran guffawed.


Huang Ming suppressed a grimace at the comment. “So it’s best two out of three?” he asked instead.


“Are you deaf? That is exactly what I said.”


“You said winner takes all. You mean as long as you win two races, you’ll come out ahead?” Huang Ming persisted.


“Isn’t that obvious? Why are you asking so many questions?” the veteran fired back in annoyance.


Huang Ming looked at him incredulously. “But you’re still free to decide who competes in what race?”


It was the veteran’s turn to give him a baffled look. “Well, yes. But why? Their abilities are known to everyone, there are no hidden trump cards.”


“Well that simplify matters. Here, take my money and bet all of it. Have your worst horse race against their best.”


“What?”


“For the next race, have your best horse race against their second best,” Huang Ming continued.


“Now you listen here-”


Huang Ming ignored his outburst. “And finally, use your second best against their worst horse. That way you’ll win two out of three.”


The mouth of the veteran leader hung open in mid-protest as he listened to Huang Ming’s advice. His eyes blinked as he processed the information.


“That… that might work,” he admitted slowly.


Huang Ming folded his hands. “Of course, this is assuming you’re accurate about your horses. And that the other side don’t know what you’re doing.”


The scarred veteran nodded in agreement and hastily arranged the horses as Huang Ming told him.


The changes just before the first race caused the opposing side to laugh. The worst horse was up against their best, a foregone conclusion! Even the rookie rider looked terrified at being put in the first race.


“Oi! What are your White Wolves doing to the poor kid?” someone shouted.


“I’m tryin’ to give him some experience!” the scarred veteran shouted back.


It elicited raucous, mocking laughter from the Black Bears; but they did not raise a protest. It was obvious that a fierce rivalry existed between the two units.


The first race proceeded as expected, with a miserable loss for the White Wolves. Even though Huang Ming had told them about the strategy, the White Wolves still shouted themselves hoarse to cheer on their hapless rider. The young rider put up a brave effort but his horse was just too weak when compared against the opposing party’s best.


Then the second race began, with the White Wolves’ higher grade horse and rider taking to the field. The Black Bears thought nothing of it, in their optimistic opinion it was an opportunity for their own horse to cause an upset. The differences between the two were after all quite minor.


But in the end the minor differences were enough to clinch victory for the White Wolves. With the score now tied at 1-1, it was down to the final race.


The faces of the Black Bears became aghast when they realize it was time for their worst grade horse to be up against the White Wolves’ second best. The outcome was just as hard fought as in the second race, but once more the minor differences between the two grades were enough to win the race for the White Wolves.


With two victories, the White Wolves took the entire prize stake.


“Cheating! That’s cheating!” the Black Bears exploded indignantly.


“Shut yer trap you Black Bear scum!” the White Wolves roared back.


The Black Bears wouldn’t have any of it. “You set us up!”


“There ain’t no rules against it! If you’re smart, you could have done it too!” the White Wolves jeered back at them.


Seeing that the atmosphere was boiling over, Huang Ming decided to slip away. Unfortunately, he was the only civilian in the entire field and his scholarly robes stuck out like a sore thumb among the soldiers.


“Is that the guy? He must be the one giving you the tips! Stop him!” the Black Bears roared.


‘Oh boy..’ Huang Ming thought as the mass of soldiers descended towards him.
 

He won the race,
But couldn’t leave with grace.​