“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you're gonna see some serious shit.”
--Emmett Lathrop ‘Doc’ Brown, Ph.D.
Chapter 254 – Shared load
“What is so important that you call me here?” He Ding asked as he stepped into Lei Yan’s office.
“Have a seat, you are about to meet a fool and the errand that I am sending him on,” his friend invited.
“This better be worth my time,” He Ding grumbled.
He had hardly sat down when there was a knock on the door.
“A moment please!” Lei Yan called out, causing He Ding to look at him questioningly. Lei Yan then pulled out a snuff box and hurriedly stuffed a pinch of the powdered tobacco into his nostril.
He Ding frowned but Lei Yan silently urged him to do the same. Still suspicious, He Ding followed his example and allowed himself to indulge in the act.
Only after Lei Yan had seen that his friend had taken a breath of the snuff did he call for the person to enter.
The door opened and a young man walked in hesitantly. He Ding recognized him as the son of the merchant who had given their army a loan. The fresh and bright face of the young man all those weeks ago was replaced with visible unease and lack of confidence.
Suddenly He Ding realized the reason for the snuff: the moment the young man drew near, there was a subtle but noticeable scent in the air.
‘Ah, that’s right. We sent him to work in manure processing…’ He Ding remembered.
He cast his eyes dispassionately over the young man, willing himself to look as impassive as possible. Even with the hit of snuff in his nose, He Ding could smell the odour emanating from the spy. He Ding could not help but shift slightly in his seat; and almost immediately he could see a flicker of despair on the young spy’s face.
“Ah, Zhou Bien, I have been expecting you!” Lei Yan greeted.
To the unfortunate spy’s credit, he managed to carve a wan smile on his face. It was obvious that he was completely conscious of his condition.
“You called for me?” Zhou Bien queried.
“Yes, I was thinking that you are due for a promotion,” Lei Yan said brightly.
The shadow from Zhou Bien’s brow lifted hopefully.
“Yes, you have been quite diligent and, uh, meticulous in your current duties. Your talents are better utilized elsewhere.”
“Thank you, sir!” Zhou Bien said gratefully.
“We can discuss further once you come back,” Lei Yan smiled broadly.
“You have not gone back to Tianxin City since you arrived, correct? Take a few days off, go home and visit your father,” Lei Yan suggested.
He Ding admired his friend’s duplicity; it was as if Lei Yan was completely unaffected by the stench which was getting stronger by the second.
“Yes, I will do just that!” Zhou Bien exhaled with relief. He could not wait to return to civilization for a thorough cleansing. He had seen the look the people in the fort had given him… and no matter how hard he had washed there was always a stench around him.
“Ah, there is one thing,” Lei Yan said as he pushed a sealed document on the table towards the spy.
“Yes?” Zhou Bien asked as he eyed at itwarily.
“This is a purchase order. When you return to Tianxin City, deliver this to our supplier. The shipment would be ready by the time your leave is up. There is already a unit of our soldiers having their furlough in the city; they will be done and ready in time to escort you and the shipment back here. Very efficiently planned, if I say so myself,” Lei Yan said proudly.
There was no way for Zhou Bien to refuse after seeing how Lei Yan had puffed up his own chest.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing strenuous. Think of it as your last task before your promotion proper,” Lei Yan said assuredly as he stuffed the document into Zhou Bien’s hands. “Now make haste, I am sure your father is eagerly awaiting your return.”
“Yes, I will leave immediately,” Zhou Bien said happily.
There was a spring in his step as he left the room.
Almost in sync, both He Ding and Lei Yan relaxed and exhaled with relief.
“I am leaving,” He Ding said as he rose to his feet and covered his nose with disgust.
“Me too. I should not have called for the meeting to be in my own office,” Lei Yan groaned as he fanned his face, wanting to dispel the lingering aroma away.
“Are you not being too cavalier? What if he runs away, or worse, steals something?” He Ding asked as they walked out.
“Whatever he had stolen were planted and faked by us. Completely useless and unrelated to our new weapons,” Lei Yan winked. “Besides, even if he managed to lay his hands on sensitive information, there is no way for them to decipher our codes. Lady Qiong’s cipher is very clever.”
“I sure hope so. Surely the general isn’t that incompetent to be fooled by all this,” He Ding sighed.
“It’s something Huang Ming had said. Something about letting your opponent know your next three moves,” Lei Yan replied.
“Isn’t it just ‘two moves’?”
He Ding sighed so deeply that Lei Yan stopped in his tracks to look at his friend in concern.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“This. All of this,” He Ding said with some melancholy.
Lei Yan blinked, it was not very often that his mathematically inclined friend would be so emotional.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you not think that there is something wrong with the world today? A few years ago we were merely a group of young heirs, content to spend our days in leisure before we inevitably inherit our respective trades. Never mind taking over the family business, today we are the captains of our industries. What happened? How are we responsible for building factories, great machines and fearsome weapons?” He Ding wondered aloud.
Lei Yan shrugged. “How the worst of us end up as the strategist of the kingdom is beyond me. Now that he’s at the top of the food chain, he’s putting us all to work on so many new-fangled things. We all grew up, that is what happened. That is what Ma Jun said the last time he came here.”
He Ding arched an eyebrow. “That is unexpectedly mature of him. Of course, I can see the irony of a wine-brewer saying something so profound.”
“Our stout friend is no longer just a wine-brewer. He fancies himself as an alchemist now, don’t you know? He’s busy, ah, ‘figuring out the elements of creation’. Or so he says. Like us, everything he is working on is based on Huang Ming’s letters.”
“That is another thing that is bothering me. How on earth did Huang Ming think of these ideas and inventions?” He Ding asked, with a tinge of jealousy. He had seen the drawings, schematics and instructions Huang Ming had given them, some of them had revolutionary ideas that simply never occurred to He Ding at all. As someone who loved mathematics, seeing the complicated designs and new ways of thought had been a blow to his pride for some time before throwing himself into the new world.
“What makes you think it all came from him?” Lei Yan snorted. “If you listen to the rumours, many of the things we are doing now had already been done in the north. He’s probably stealing these things from the Princess of Jin.”
“Perhaps,” He Ding said doubtfully. “Or maybe our friend is just as much of a savant as she is.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter who came up with what. What is important that we need to be prepared and keep ourselves ahead of everyone else,” Lei Yan said.
“Which brings us back to that spy, Zhou Bien. You asked him to escort a shipment back? What if he steals the shipment? What exactly is it?” He Ding asked as they walked.
Lei Yan chuckled, and He Ding grimaced as understanding dawned, feeling a twinge of pity for Zhou Bien. The spy would have been eager to return to Tianxin and waste his money on fragrances and such…
“What else. It’s another cargo of-”
“Shit! You have been away for months and all you have gotten is shit!”
The genial face of the old merchant who had given Lei Yan the interest-free loan was now twisted with fury as he berated his son.
Unable to refute his words, Zhou Bien could only bear his father’s vicious scolding quietly.
Exhausted, the old man collapsed into his chair and panted. Yet his eyes still glowered furiously at his son.
“General Yin tasked us to get samples, prototypes! And instead you bring these pieces of useless paper and pieces of wood! And what on earth is that smell? You absolutely reek! Get cleaned up!” his father roared.
Zhou Bien slinked away resentfully. ‘I’m supposed to stay here a few days, but I’d rather work with shit than to see your wrinkly old face!’ he thought.
Of course, how was he to know that his wish would come true?
Gave them a full deuce,
And tightened the noose.