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redwolf

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They are Europe’s most feared mercenary company. They bled on the walls of Constantinople, survived the siege of Belgrade, fought and emerged victorious in numerous battles all over Europe and North Africa.


In April 2008, the Free Company returns once more to the EU3 forums as they prepare for a new campaign in the Far East.


Multi-award winning WritAAR Amric and Redwolf in a Hurricane Productions/ Redwolf collaboration presents a new feature AAR…





The year is 1449. The Ming Dynasty of China faces her worst crisis since the Dynasty’s inception…


An Emperor captured,

A Tyrant holds the reigns of power,

A loyalist pursued by enemies as he seeks help to rescue his Emperor,

An Empire in chaos cries out for heroes to restore peace and order​
From the Italian city of Ancona, a group of exiled former Ming Imperial Guards answers the call.

Together with elements of the Free Company, they embark on a journey of epic proportions to the Middle Kingdom in a tale of Glory, Honor and Redemption

Journey to the Far East – A Free Company Spin-off (2008)



Dear readers, please place any comments you may have regarding this AAR in the OOC thread we have set up. Thanks.
 
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redwolf

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Amric and I are proud to announce a Hurricane Productions/Redwolf Collaboration, Journey to the Far East – A Free Company Spin-Off (2008)





For the uninitiated, the Free Company is multi-writer collaboration started by Lord Durham and chronicles the story of a mercenary company known as the Free Company. Over the span of 4 years from 2001 – 2005, many of the greatest writers in AARland contributed and told the story of the Free Company over 7 Books as listed below.

Burgundy: Origin of the Free Company: Book One
King Harry and the Free Company: Book Two
The Free Company in Italy - Vae Victis: Book III
The Free Company and the Last Bastion of Empire: Book IV
The Free Company- Book V: Bloody Retribution
The Free Company - Book VI: For Whom the Bells Toll
The Free Company and the Spanish Gold

A short summary of the Free Company as told by Lord Durham can be found here.


Journey to the Far East is a spin off story from the Free Company series. The story is set 7 years after the end of the Free Company Book VI: For Whom the Bells Toll and carry on the stories of Amric's and my characters from Book V and VI.



In 1449, Emperor ZhengTong of China’s Ming Dynasty was captured by Mongols while leading a campaign against them. Upon hearing the news, a group of exiled Ming Imperial Guards living in Ancona, Italy, along with elements of the Free Company whom they had joined, makes the long journey to the Far East to rescue their captured Emperor.

Amric and I actually started the story in 2005 but it was never completed due to my real life commitments. The premise of this revised version is similar to that of the original but we have overhauled it and improved it and hopefully, we will be able to complete this AAR this time.

The old AAR is still somewhere about in the EUII library for those interested although I would suggest not reading it as reading the original might provide some though not a lot of spoilers since we have changed the story a fair bit but it might still ruin the reading experience.

And now on to the story....
 

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Prologue

October 16 1931, Beijing, China

The Harbor was overflowing with people. Thousands of people male, female, young, old rich and poor shoved, pushed and tried to squeeze their way through the crowd. Some had cartloads of luggage, carried by porters while others only had the clothes they wore on their backs but their goals were the same, to get hold of a precious ship ticket that will allow them to leave the city.

In a corner, sitting on one of the few seats available in the harbor, an Englishman reads the newspaper he was holding, totally ignoring the hustle and bustle of the busy harbor.

“Fierce Fighting continues in Manchuria”, screams the headlines of the newspaper

James Bank, Professor of Physics in the University of Beijing sighed as he read the headlines. It had been a few months since the Manchurian Incident in which the Japanese had launched their invasion of Manchuria. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese Army, the Imperial Japanese Army continues it advance south in Manchuria and rumors are now spreading that Japan may invade China itself.

Jiang Menglin, President of the Beijing University, squeezed his way through the crowd towards James. Glancing at the newspapers, Jiang commented, “You’ve seen the news.” It was not a question. James nodded.

“Damn those Japanese! Despite our brave soldiers best efforts, they continue to advance. At this rate, they are going to be in Beijing within a year.” Jiang ranted.

James nodded again,” This is indeed a possible scenario. Are you sure you don’t want to leave with me? It will be safer in London.”

Jiang shook his head,” This is my home. Should the Japanese attack, I will do my part. Your duty on the other hand is to make sure the collection is safe.”

James glanced back as the porters moved the last of the items aboard ship. With the possibility of war coming to China soon, the University of Beijing had decided to send it’s precious collection of historical items to London to ensure it will be safe in the event of a Japanese attack.

James took another look at his watch before returning his attention to Jiang,” Well then I guess it’s time to leave.” Extending his hand, James continued, “Goodbye and good luck.”

Taking the offered hand, Jiang replied, “Good journey James, I hope I will see you again when this war is over.”

Releasing Jiang’s hand, James made his way on board the ship that will take him back to England. Once aboard, he made his way to the storage room to where the items were stored where he started checking items off an inventory.

As he started ticking off items, his elbow accidentally brushed against a small box which smashed onto the floor, breaking into two pieces. The contents of the box, an old looking book and what appeared to be a folded black cloth slid several feet away from James. James swore angrily, furious with himself for allowing this accident to happen. All of these items were several hundred years old and many were fragile and easily damaged.

Putting down his inventory list, he walked over to where the contents of the box laid. Picking them up, he moved over to a nearby table where he laid them out to check for damages.

He first looked at the black cloth. Hmm strange, the cloth appeared to look brand new where in reality it should be several hundred years old. He recovered his inventory list from where he had laid them and checked for the contents of the broken box.

"There we are", he said aloud, "Box 270, contents one Flag and one Book, era Ming Dynasty during the reign of Emperor ZhengTong." That puts the flag at close to five hundred years old but yet the cloth in front of him looked like it had only been fabricated recently.

Curious, he started unfolding the cloth and as the last half was unfolded, he stared at the flag in shock.

A skull appeared in the middle of the flag with a dark red rose between its teeth. Two swords crossed behind the skull. Above the skull were the words, Free Company and below the skull was the motto, Death rides with us.

James frowned. He had heard of the Free Company before from an acquaintance of his during his days in Florence, Sir Thomas York. Sir Thomas was involved in some research on the Free Company, a mercenary company which existed in Europe during the 1400s. According to his research, the Free Company were involved in some of the fiercest battles fought in Europe during that era. And right now, in front of his very eyes, one of the Company’s banners has appeared among a collection of Ming Dynasty artifacts.

He looked at the other item on the table. Unlike the flag, the book does look very old. The cover of the book was blue in color although the blue had faded quite badly. The pages within were turning yellow with age.

The drawing on the cover of the page was definitely not fading with age. Drawn in Chinese calligraphy style was the banner of the Free Company and like the flag, looked like it may only have been drawn yesterday.

He looked at the name of the author written at the bottom of the cover page, Chen Hui. The name was written in Chinese script but having spent the last decade in China, James now had a fair understanding of the Chinese script. He searched his mind for some semblance of recognition at that name. None came. James shrugged his shoulders, slowly turned the page and began to read, “This being an account of our adventures in China. It all began in 1449 at the battle of Tumu Fortress….”
 

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October 16, 1449 – One Thumb’s Tavern – Ancona


The noise in One Thumb’s Tavern was no louder than usual, a clash of multiple languages amidst the pounding of mugs on oak tables, deep raucous laughter at some ribald joke and off-key singing to the accompaniment of cheers and jeers.

John Brandon sat at a corner table near the brick fireplace, a table that had served the Company officers since their arrival in Ancona many years back. Each seat was occupied save one. John glanced at it, and for a brief moment visualised a commanding figure sharing jokes, plans and idle conversation. But then the image of his father faded.

Lochlan, the veteran Ranger, now some 55 years of age, still spry, still deadly, cocked an eyebrow. His eyes flicked to the vacant seat in a moment of understanding. Since their return from Belgrade seven years past, it had remained empty out of respect for the person who had once occupied it: Robert of Brandon, known to all as Captain, founder and leader of the Free Company.

Seated across from John, Amric Al'Aeshir nudged the sullen form of Dian Wu’tu, dragging a curse from the hulking Mongol. “Another ale, goat-face? Or is twenty too many?”

The Mongol belched and leaned forward, his thick forearms resting on the solid oak table among several empty mugs. He lowered his head and mumbled something in his native tongue.

Amric shook his head, caught Lochlan’s eye and winked. Looking over his shoulder toward the bar, he ordered two ales from One-Thumb, pointing at the dour Mongol and mimicking a swigging motion.

One-Thumb laughed and produced two brews, passing them off to one of the many barmaids circulating among the boisterous mercenaries.

Erik Jaeger leaned back and sighed, his expression dour. He rapped his fingertips on the table with a tightly controlled cadence.

Kent scratched at his full red beard and asked, “Why the long face, Jaeger? No one to kill?”

Jaeger smiled wryly. “I hate this down time between campaigns. The boredom makes me restless. Watching Wu’tu drink can be amusing for only so long. What do you say, Captain? Any contracts coming our way?”

John Brandon frowned. Though commander of the Free Company since 1445, he remained leery of the title Captain. He felt it should have died with his father at Belgrade. Still, he understood the need for tradition, and this was one of the many quirks that made the Company what it was: the most feared mercenary group in Europe and beyond. So Captain it was. “A few things have crossed my desk, Erik. Nothing outstanding.” The men paused as he spoke; a fact that unsettled him. Every man at the table was years older than his 24, and much more experienced. And yet they took note of his every word. Did they really see his father in him? Internally he shuddered at the thought. Quietly, he said, “I have something else in mind. A trip.”

Amric nudged the Mongol again. “Where to? Wu’tu likes trips, don’t you Wu’tu?” The Mongol belched and grinned.

John smiled and ran a finger along the handle of his mug. “I think…” Suddenly he stopped as the noise in the tavern died. He looked up, following the eyes of nearly every man seated or standing in the crowded building.

At the entrance stood his sister Kathleen. Dressed in riding breeks, a wide leather belt and billowing silk shirt, her brown eyes swept the room with a mischievous twinkle. Her dusty russet curls bobbed as she stepped in.

Immediately there was a scuffle as Artur de Bloomfield, several other young men, and Amric’s adopted son James, rushed to offer their arm as escort. In his haste de Bloomfield tripped over his scabbard and landed at the feet of John’s sister, the others sliding to a crashing stop to avoid a similar embarrassment.

Kathleen looked down and laughed; a husky, rich sound. “It pleases me to see you in your favourite position again, Artur. You and the floor of One Thumb’s have much in common.” Smiling widely, she stepped over the prone form of de Bloomfiled and, taking James' arm, allowed herself to be led to the officer's table.

The men made room, and she sat between Amric and Chen Hui. Still smiling brightly, she turned to Chen and asked in fluent Chinese, “Tell me about this birthday you celebrate. I believe it’s for Emperor Zhengtong, is it not?”

Chen nodded enthusiastically. It was common knowledge Kathleen had a gift for tongues. He hadn’t realized how strong her command of his language actually was.

Kathleen glanced at the confused looks from the men around her. She continued in Chinese, “You can answer in your own language, if you want. It will frustrate these men all to hell…”
 

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October 16 1449, One-Thumb, Ancona

Chen Hui laughed as de Bloomfield landed at the feet of Kathleen.

Looking at the crowd of young men surrounding Kathleen, he noticed his nephew RongTai was not among them.

Glancing around, he spied his nephew near one of the tavern windows. He was talking to Alyssa, Amric’s daughter. His attention was totally focused on Alyssa and he paid no attention to Kathleen or the crowd of young men milling around her.

A couple of seats away sat Alaric, Alyssa’s twin brother. He has a sullen look on his face as usual whenever he spied his sister hanging out with RongTai. He disapproved of RongTai being near his sister but as his sister apparently disagreed with his view, there was nothing he could about it other than sulk.

Kathleen took a seat between Amric and Chen Hui. Still smiling brightly, she turned to Chen and asked in fluent Chinese, “Tell me about this birthday you celebrate. I believe it’s for Emperor ZhengTong, is it not?”

Chen nodded enthusiastically. It was common knowledge Kathleen had a gift for tongues. He hadn’t realized how strong her command of his language actually was.

Kathleen glanced at the confused looks from the men around her. She continued in Chinese, “You can answer in your own language, if you want. It will frustrate these men all to hell…”

Chen Hui grinned but he replied in English, “Yes, we celebrate the birthday of our Emperor ZhengTong. The little celebration we hold here today to honour him is nothing compared to the celebrations being held in the capital Beijing right now. The whole city will be brightly lit by colourful lanterns. Paper boats will be released in the rivers, each with a message of well wishes to the Emperor. And the fireworks, oh the fireworks, will be a display that you can never see and imagine here.”

“And a good thing that is too!” Johan who was standing nearby listening to the conversation exclaimed. A former sergeant in the Company’s Heavy Cavalry, he had recurring nightmares of the Chins fireworks. The last time the Chins attempted a fireworks display before the Battle of Cremona, a stray rocket had exploded beside his horse, causing it to panic and stampede through the Company’s camp, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

That got a laugh from the Chins seated in the tavern. Lim Hui, Chen’s fellow Chin and currently also a sergeant in the Light Cavalry, picked up where Chen had stopped, describing to the rapt audience the splendors of the Ming Empire they had left behind.

As the festivities started picking up again, Chen Hui quietly slipped out of One-Thumb. Outside the tavern, Chen found a bench to seat on. Leaning back comfortably against a beam, he looked up into the night sky and thought about his homeland.

It was more than ten years now since he had left China. Born in 1410, 39 year old Chen Hui was the first born son of Lord Chen, governor of the Guangzhou Province. As the first born of a high ranking noble, he underwent rigorous training in both books and the martial arts to prepare him for the time where he will succeed his father.

Joining the elite Imperial Guards, he fought in many campaigns for his Emperor. However in 1437, disaster struck. The Imperial Guards under Prince Yonjin, younger brother of the Emperor, fell into a Mongol trap while on campaign against the Oirats. After a fierce battle, the Imperial Guards fought their way out and even won the battle. However, the Prince Yongjin, whom they were charged to protect was slain in that battle.

Upon return to Beijing, the Emperor wanted to execute the survivors of the battle for their failure to protect his brother, but Chen Hui’s father used his influence in the Imperial Court to change the sentence to exile from China.

After leaving Beijing, the Imperial Guards ran into a Venetian merchant who was returning to Venice after trading in China. Intrigued by the merchant talk of Venice and Europe, the Guards signed on as body guards to the merchant and made their way to Italy.

Upon reaching Italy, the Imperial Guards and the Venice merchant went their separate ways. Within a short time, their funds ran out and they had to look for a source of revenue. It was then they encountered the Free Company in Ancona and they signed on with them.

Since then, the former Imperial Guards had fought and proved their worth to the Free Company many times. Chen Hui himself had been promoted to Lieutenant and he now leads the Light Cavalry of the Free Company. He had also married Christine Rossi, daughter of the Venetian merchant who had brought him out of China and into Italy. Many of the Imperial Guards had also married local women and settled into their new lives in Ancona


Even though they had found a new home in the Free Company, there are many times where Chen Hui still thought of and missed the homeland he had left behind.

“Thinking of home again?” a voice from behind roused Chen from his thoughts. Turning behind, he saw Amric approaching with two mugs, one of ale and one of cider.

Chen accepted the mug with a nod of his head. For a while, the two veterans sat in silence, observing the night sky, each deep in thoughts. Finally, Chen turned to Amric and asked, “Amric, you’ve served in the Company as long as I have and you have never mentioned anything about your homeland. Do you not miss England?”
 
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Amric

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Amric rolled his eyes at de Bloomfield’s antics. He also repressed a smile as James offered Kathleen his arm and escorted the young woman to the table. Her sudden use of Chin startled him as he hadn’t realized she had been studying the language. He had been taking lessons from Chen for the past few years. It was somewhat similar to the Mongolian he already knew.

He placed the two cups in front of the semi comatose Wu’tu with a sly grin. And listened as first Chen and then other Chin described the celebration for the Emperor. He’d heard it before, in fact last week Chen had been waxing poetic about it. He didn’t have to completely understand it to appreciate the reverence his Chin friends placed on the celebration.

When Chen rose and strode toward the door he noticed the expression on his friend’s face. One of not on nostalgia, but of heartsickness as well. Nodding to Captain and the others he sauntered up to One Thumb.

“Two mugs,” he ordered, “My usual cider, and one of ale.”

One Thumb nodded and quickly passed them across the bar. With a smile of thanks he took them outside. He had a good idea where he’d find the Cavalry officer. The brightly burning torch next to the door of the tavern showed the other man in the shadows sitting on a bench.

He spoke up as he approached, “Thinking of home again?”

Chen accepted the mug with a nod of his head. For a while, the two veterans sat in silence, observing the night sky, each deep in thoughts. Finally, Chen turned to Amric and asked, “Amric, you’ve served in the Company as long as I have and you have never mentioned anything about your homeland. Do you not miss England?”

Somewhat surprised by the question Amric looked up at the stars for a moment. They were pretty much the exact same ones he’d seen all over Europe. Whether it had been England, Lithuania, Poland, or the border of the Golden Horde it was the same. It had been the same at Cremona and Belgrade. No different here in Ancona.

“I don’t know that I do,” he admitted finally.

“Why not?” Chen voice expressed his curiosity.

Taking a sip of his cider he paused to consider his answer, “ You have to understand something, Chen. I’ve been away from England for over 20 years now. I remember the smell of the air among the forest or meadow after a Spring rain. But my other memories weren’t all that happy.

I’m the third son of a minor baron in Lancashire. No prospects for me other than an arranged marriage to some fat merchant’s daughter, no doubt. My father doted upon my eldest brother, since he was the heir. He spent time with my other older brother on the off chance that the oldest might die in some accident. I was an afterthought. He had hoped for a couple of girls to help cement relations with other lords.

I always managed to disappoint him. I wasn’t studious enough. I spent too much time sparring with the armsmen. Or riding my horse at breakneck speeds through the forests. I wasn’t humble enough. I didn’t treat my older brothers with enough respect. My antics got me in trouble on more than one occasion.

But it was the deflowering of a neighbor’s daughter that was the final straw. He was another baron, but one with more powerful friends and relations. My father was rather willing to give me up to the girl’s father. I escaped from assassins on more than one occasion while in England. Oddly enough I had an opportunity to join the Falcon Company when Sir Draco was recruiting in England.

It was one last ditch effort to kill me that made me lose the use of my right hand for a while. While escaping a sinking ship I injured it. I had to learn to use my left hand. I had always been able to write, eat, and so forth with either hand anyway. So learning to fight left handed just kind of came naturally to me.

Fighting in first Lithuania and then Poland against the Golden Horde brought me up against some rather terrible foes. Being captured by them was no thrill either.”

Chen nodded, “I’ve seen the scars. I’ve always been amazed that you managed to escape them.”

“Not without losing my stones, though,” he sighed, “It was near that time that I learned that I had fathered the twins from that girl in England. I began sending money back to England.

Alyssa and Alaric didn’t know I was their father until after their mother’s death. They chose to come find me. For that I am eternally grateful. I had thought I would never see them again. Their mother had begged me in a letter not to tell them I was their father. I had accepted her wishes. That is why I adopted James.

Not being able to father more children meant that the one way to experience being a father would be to adopt. Or so I thought when I adopted the lad. The twins finding me was a miracle in and of itself. I have a family now, Chen. For me, they are England.

They are the only parts of England that really matter to me. My family, brothers, father, mother, and sister turned their backs on me. I was dishonored and disowned. The smell of the air after a rainstorm isn’t enough to pull me back. I’m happy enough to live in Ancona. Some day I’ll retire and then what the hell will I do?

Fighting is about the only thing I know.”

“What about that Goucken?” Chen chuckled.

“Okay, periodically it was dreadfully dull during the winter in Poland,” Amric sighed, “I learned to do some cooking. I was tired of eating burnt or undercooked food.”

“Understandable,” Chen sipped his ale.

“If you could go back to Chin, would you?” Amric inquired.
 

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October 16, 1449, One Thumb, Ancona

“If you could go back to Chin, would you?” Amric inquired.

Chen considered the question for a very long moment before replying, “If you had asked me this question seven years ago, before the siege of Belgrade, I would probably have said yes.

Since Belgrade, things have changed. The bonds of brotherhood we have established with the Free Company in our many campaigns are something that cannot be easily broken. Secondly, many of us have settled down in Ancona. I for one have married a most wonderful lady.”

“With a baby on the way as well.” Amric cut in with a wide grin.

“That too.” Chen nodded with a grin of his own. “No, as far my band of Chin is concerned, the Free Company is our home now and it’s very unlikely we will return home.

That does not mean however that we do not miss home, especially on an occasion like this. I really miss walking along Chang’An Jie during festive periods. I have a good friend back in China. He is an Imperial Guard just like me. His name is Li Tie and he loves occasions like this. I can bet a month’s salary at this very moment he is walking down that street enjoying the good food, gambling, maybe even making friends with a young unmarried lady….”

Angry noises erupted from inside One-Thumb. Chen listened for a moment before sighing, "Amric, looked like my nephew had found some reason to disagree with your son Alaric again."

The sound of a mug smashing against the floor bought a wince to Amric's face," Indeed. I suggest we go in and sort things out before things get out of hand."

The sound of another mug smashing against a table quickly brought the two veterans on their feet as they hurried into the tavern.


October 16, 1449,Tumu Fortress, 40km north of the Great Wall, China

At that moment, Li Tie was definitely not walking the streets of Beijing. Rather, he was trapped inside a remote fortress, forty kilometers north of the Great Wall.

Li Tie, Commander of the Ming Imperial Guards, stood on the walls of Tumu and took a deep breath. The stench of the dead filled the air. The dead lay on the field in front of Tumu Fortress, their corpses feeding the thousands of birds that had landed on the fields.

He shook his head in disgust as he witnessed the birds feeding on the dead. It was a dishonor, he thought. They should be given a proper burial, not this! But yet any attempt to leave the walls of the fortress would be met with a volley of arrows and hence the dead were left alone to slowly rot.

A boy walked up to Li with a bucket of water. Nodding his thanks, Li slowly removed his helm and washed his soot filled face in the cool water. A moment later, as he dried his face, he took a long look at the Chinese soldiers manning the walls of the fortress. Behind the safety of the walls, thousands of wounded soldiers lie on the cold floor of the courtyards. Despair and hopelessness filled the faces of all the soldiers he could see. Shaking his head once more, Li thought sadly, how could things have come to this?

It all started in the spring of 1449 when Esen Tayishi, Khan of the Oirats Mongols tribe launched a sudden attack on China. Totally unprepared for the attack for it had been some years since the Ming Dynasty had went to war, the Imperial Court had advised the Emperor to hold off the Mongols at the Great Wall. However, Chief Eunuch Wang Zhen who had great influence over the Emperor for he was the Emperor’s childhood tutor, argued that it was a cowardly and disgraceful act to hide behind the safety of the Great Wall. Finally Wang Zhen succeeded in persuading the Emperor to lead an army to repulse the Mongol invaders. Wang Zhen himself commanded the army even though he had no military experience.

A week later, an army of 100,000 troops marched northwards to engage the Mongols. It was a disaster. The Chinese troops were woefully unprepared for war, many of them lacking proper training compared to the battle hardened Mongols. The Ming Armies met the 20, 000 strong Mongol army at Da Tong. Using the terrain and their superior fighting skills to their advantage, the smaller Mongol army defeated the much larger Ming army and only the brave rear guard action of the Ming Imperial Guards, elite troops of the Ming army, had prevented it from becoming a rout.

The defeated Ming Army made their way south towards the safety of the Great Wall, but for some reason which Li could not fathom, Wang decided to halt the army and make camp at the abandoned Tumu Fortress instead.

Li clenched his fist. 40 kilometers, that’s how far they were from the safety of the Great Wall. Instead they were now surrounded by the Mongols in a small fortress just a few days away from the Great Wall.

“Incoming!”

Li dived for cover as projectiles launched from Mongols catapults rained down on the fortress. One of the fired projectiles landed beside Li and his eyes widened when he realized that it was a human head. Swallowing hard, he turned the head around to look at his features. His blood turned cold. It was the face of a Chinese soldier, a soldier who had been part of a group of soldiers who had broken out of the fortress a few days earlier in an attempt to call for reinforcements.

All over the fortress, groans and cries of despair could be heard as the implications sank in. The call for help had failed. No help would be coming. Even as the thought ran through his mind, Li shook he head fiercely. It is not over, it is never over until I lie dead on the battlefield. Putting back on his helm, he walked around the fortress, assuring soldiers that all is not lost and that they can still survive.

An hour later, a eunuch approached Li,” Commander Li, the Chief Eunach would like to see all the military commanders.” Li nodded, gave one last assuring smile to the soldier he was talking to and made his way to the make shift war room.

Most of the military commanders had already arrived when he stepped in. He made his way in and greeted Wang Zhen, chief eunuch and commander-in-chief of this campaign.

“Good to have you with us, commander. You arrived just in time to hear my plan for the breakout.” Said Wang Zhen.

Breakout? Li glanced at his fellow commanders. All had the same confused look on their faces as he did. Wang Zhen allowed a moment for the commanders to resettle before he laid out his plan.

“The Mongols expects us to sit here and wait for reinforcements to come relieve us. So we shall do the unexpected. At dawn tomorrow, our forces will break out from every gate in the fortress and hit the Mongols in every direction. With the element of surprise and a three to one advantage in numbers, we can win this battle and drive the Oirat Mongols back where they belong!” Wang Zhen finished with a flourish and looked up expectantly at the commanders.

Li was stunned. This was a plan? Wang Zhen must surely be dreaming if he expects to gain the element of surprise. And a three to one advantage, that’s even more laughable. Of the 100 000 soldiers that started out on the campaign, nearly half were dead and many in the remaining half were wounded and incapable of fighting.

Before he or any of the other commanders could disagree, Wang Zhen pulled out a yellow silk parchment from his robe. It was a Royal Edict. Seeing the Royal Edict was equivalent to seeing the Emperor. Every commander in the room went down on his knees.

Wang Zhen announced, “This is a Royal Edict from the Emperor, giving his approval to my plan and that all commanders are to follow my instructions as if it comes from the Emperor himself.”

“As the Emperor wills it!” Every commander on his knees intoned, Li included though he could only feel the cold chill of fear in his bones. He could feel disaster about to strike tomorrow on the battlefield and there was nothing he could do since the Emperor had already approved of Wang Zhen’s plan.

Wang Zhen beamed with delight,” Good good. Now get up on your feet and return to your men. Your troop assignments will be ready within the hour.” As the commanders filed out, Wang Zhen smiled to himself. If all goes well the next day, he could still steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

After the crushing defeat by the Oirats at Da Tong, Wang needed a victory to redeem his honour. Retreating to the Great Wall would preserve the strength of the Army but do nothing to make up for his earlier error. Instead, it will only prove that he was wrong and that the Emperor should have listen to his other commanders and hold the line at the Great Wall. Such a loss of face was unthinkable, not to mention the potential loss in political power. Somehow he must make up for it and victory over the Mongols at Tumu was the perfect solution. His smile grew wider as he finished up the various commanders assignment, this might yet be his finest hour…
 
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October 17, 1449, Tumu Fortress

The Emperor and Wang Zhen rode up to where Li and the Imperial Guards had formed up. Every man went down on his knees. The Emperor absently waved them onto their feet. Li approached Wang Zhen and the Emperor.

“Ah, Commander Li. There has been a slight change of plans. The Imperial Guards will not join in the attack. Instead they will stay here and protect me..er I mean his Majesty in case of any unexpected trouble.” Wang Zhen said to Li.

“What?! We are the elite of the Ming Army. If there’s to be any chance of us breaking the Mongols, it will be us. By not putting us in the fight, you risk defeat and the loss of this entire army!” Li protested.

Now the Emperor looked troubled but Wang waved off his protests,” Do not worry Commander, nothing will go wrong. But if your men are really itching for a fight, perhaps I shall let you take part in the mopping up.” Wang laughed and then he and the Emperor went up to the walls to observe the battle.

Shaking his head, Li went back to his men but his heart was heavy with worry. He feared the worst for this battle.

The horns and war drums sounded. A moment later, every artillery piece in the Ming army from rockets to cannons and catapults fired. For several long minutes, the Ming artillery pieces pounded away at the Mongol lines. Then the gates of the fortress open and with a great cry, the soldiers of China charged out to engage the Mongols while archers from the battlements fired volleys of arrows to provide the charging soldiers with some covering fire..

Li and his men waited in the courtyard and could not see how the battle was going though they could clearly hear the sounds of fierce combat. Every now and then, men will come in through the gates and head up to the Emperor and Wang Zhen, bearing military dispatches. From the look of the Emperor’s and Wang Zhen’s face, the situation did not look very good.

Finally after getting yet another dispatch, Wang Zhen whispered something to the Emperor. Emperor ZhengTong nodded and the 2 of them quickly made their way down the walls towards the Imperial Guards.

“Li, ready your Imperial Guards! We head out the South Gate and ride for the Great Wall now!” Wang Zhen shouted even as men brought horses to him and the Emperor.

Li felt his heart sank. If the Emperor and Wang Zhen were about to attempt to flee to the Great Wall, the battle must be going bad. But still orders were orders. Imperial Guards drew weapons and prepared for battle. Horns sounded, prompting the South Gate to be opened.

Taking a deep breath, Li gave a great shout,” Imperial Guards, for the Emperor, Charge!” Screaming war cries, the Imperial Guards spurred their horses on and charged out of Tumu Fortress, the Emperor and Wang Zhen, safely within the body of Imperial Guards.

Leaving the fortress, Li got his first look at the battle and was dismayed at what he saw. Thousands of Chinese lay dead on the ground between the fortress and the Mongol lines, many with arrows stuck in their bodies. That stretch of ground had become a deadly killing ground for the Mongol archers. Those soldiers that had actually made it to the Mongol soldiers were now locked in close combat but it can be easily seen that the battle was going the way of the Mongols.

If anything, the Chinese assault tied down most of the Mongol soldiers and no one noticed the Imperial guards leave the fortress for some time. Quickly the Imperial Guards came to within bow range of the Mongol forces. Li raised his hand and then brought it down quickly. At the signal, the Imperial Guards fired their arrows.

The results were deadly. The Mongol soldiers did not notice the arrow storm at all until they came raining down on them, so intent were they on finishing off the Chinese soldiers. Hundreds of Mongols crumpled to the ground and immediately a gap appeared in the Mongol lines.

“The gap, through the gap!!” Li screamed, spurring his men on. Already, the Mongols were trying to close the gap, a group of Mongol cavalry moving to cover the position. Approaching the Mongols, the Imperial Guards put aside their bows and drew swords and spears.

The Imperial Guards had the momentum and they used the weight of their horses to great effect as they smashed right through the Mongol lines. Li in the vanguard of the charge slashed left and right as he sought to break through the mass of bodies.

One moment he was hacking away and the next Li found himself behind the Mongol lines. They had broken through! Just as he was about to give the order to ride for the Great Wall, a shout came from behind,” The Emperor’s in trouble!”

Pulling his reins hard, Li turned around and his heart missed a beat. The Emperor was still in the thick of combat, surrounded by a mass of Mongol soldiers. His golden armor acted as a beacon to the Mongols and slowly the Emperor was being surrounded.

Fearing for the Emperor, Li and the Imperial Guards already through the gap quickly turned their horses around and charged back into the melee. Further away, Wang Zhen had broken through the Mongol line as well. Hearing the Emperor was in trouble, Wang Zhen quickly glanced back but seeing that more Mongol soldiers were moving to cut off their escape, he abandoned his Emperor and continued on his escape to the Great Wall.

Meanwhile, Li and his men tried to fight their way through to the Emperor who was now heavily pressed, but Mongol reinforcements had arrived and the Imperial Guards could not find a way through. Still, the Imperial Guards pressed on, fighting with wild abandon as they sought a way through to their Emperor.

Li was knocked off his horse but he quickly got back on his feet and continued hacking away. He took down another Mongol and was about to engage another when he felt a heavy blow on his head. Images started to swim in front of him and everything started to turn black. As he fell forward, he saw the Emperor being dragged off his horse. Around him, Imperial Guards were falling as more Mongols entered the fray.

This is the end, he thought as darkness engulfed him…
 

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October ?, 1449: Mongolian Steppes


The sun burned with fiery intensity, beating down on the naked man staked to the ground. His nude body was a mass of heavy bruising caused by severe beatings. His hair lay a few feet away after it had been roughly shorn from his head. The numerous cuts to his head had finally scabbed over. The blood from them was all over his head and face.

His captors had not been gentle with him. The fingernails from each hand had been cruelly torn out. As had those nails from his toes. A band of leather across his throat continued to dry, constricting further his ability to move his head, let alone breathe. Ants crawled all over his body, causing him to experience a most unpleasant itching sensation.

One he had no way to relieve as his bonds were getting ever tighter as they too dried in the sun’s light. Eyes and mouth tightly closed he continued to heave at his hands and feet. The Oirat had left him like this at dawn. They had tortured him fr three days prior, culminating in his head being shaved just before dawn. Even in as much pain as he was he refused to give in to despair.

He felt ants crawling into his ears and over his eyes. Oddly enough they avoided his nostrils. Grimacing with effort the tendons on his arms standing out he felt a slight give in one of his bonds. He opened his right eye to a bare slit. He could barely see his hair nearby. Right next to it sat a leather water skin. It had amused his captors to leave it there.

“All you need to do, Li Tie,” one smirked, “is reach that water and take a drink.”

They had laughed as they rode away, leaving him to the burning embrace of the sun.

He remembered falling down during the battle, overwhelmed by Mongols. The ground had softened, turning to mud from the blood and churning hooves. He had dropped unconscious, unaware of his Emperor’s fate. The Oirat had taken few prisoners. Any Chin who ere more than slightly wounded had been eliminated. Those who live, those precious few, had been stripped and their hands tied before them. Then led in a coffled line that stretched from throat to throat.

It had been a long and miserable march in the dry, searing heat through grasses taller than a man’s head. Summer had lasted far longer this year than in years past, and the dryness in the air and ground were unyielding. Those who faltered during the march were ruthlessly cut down and the coffle line repaired. Many hours later, those still alive staggered and swaying with exhaustion were finally allowed to stop. Most fell to their knees, heads hanging down in weariness.

One was released. That man brought each Chin warrior in turn a cup of tepid water. Li Tie, like the others, had greedily sucked down the meager offering. His fellow captives could only tell him that the Emperor had been captured and taken away prior to his awakening.

Once the men had been watered each of them had been staked out upon the ground within a few feet of each other. They couldn’t converse with one another as they had all been gagged. One by one each Chin soldier had been taken away. Li Tie had been one of the last ones removed. He imagined his ordeal had been little different than that of the others before him.

His reverie was interrupted by the loud shrieks coming from circling carrion eaters. His tongue was beginning to swell due to his increasing dehydration. The right hand spike suddenly ripped from the ground. He grunted in pain as the spike smacked him a glancing blow to the jaw.

Ants scurried away as he reached for his throat. Grasping the leather he tore it away, gasping for breath. Grimacing in pain he tossed it aside. His tiny invaders had fled completely as he gingerly twisted and wrenched his left arm free as well. Grunting with the painful effort he rose to an upright position and worked his feet free as well.

The sun was touching the horizon when he finally released himself. Unable to stand he crawled toward the leather sweating leather bag. Picking it up he squirted the lukewarm contents into his mouth. He swirled the water around in his mouth for some time before spitting it out. It soaked into the soil and quickly disappeared. He took a long pull, his throat moving visibly as he drank.

Iron discipline made him stop drinking. Too much water after his ordeal would be a bad idea. A short sip. Then another. It felt extremely painful. But he managed to stand on his feet. In his desire for the water he hadn’t even freed his hands from the leather straps. The iron spikes still dangled from them. His senses dulled from pain and deprivation he hadn’t noticed.

The thunderous drumbeat of hooves upon the hard packed ground finally penetrated his pain fogged mind. He looked up to see his captors charging toward him. He looked around quickly. There was nowhere to hide. He was in a large circular area of hard packed dirt. He could try to run for the tall grass outside, but he realized that there was little point. He was certain his body wouldn’t allow him to move anywhere near fast enough to make it before the Oirat took him down.

He plugged the skin and set it down carefully. Remembering the straps and the spikes he snatched them into his hands and crouched, ready to fight for the last time. The riders began to ride in a circle around Li Tie silently. Only the pounding hooves of the horses could be heard. He spun slowly, his eyes glued to the horsemen.

The horses were reined in, facing the surrounded Chin warrior. Lit Tie, licking his chapped lips, spun the spike in his left hand slowly. The two sides stared at each other for some time in the waning light. Lie Tie refused to break eye contact or bow his head.

“I will not give them the satisfaction,” he thought to himself, “Let them kill me if they will, but I will show them what a true Chin soldier is like. Perhaps I might slay one or two before I die.”

He continued to glare at his chosen target with all the determination at his command. Despite his pain he kept his expression placid and his limbs from trembling with exhaustion. The last rays of the sun showed the man facing him smile slightly.

“Very good, Li Tie,” he took a sack tied to his saddle and flung it at the Chin’s feet,” You were not the first to free yourself. But you were the first to face us rather than attempt to flee.”

Li Tie frowned slightly, “Meaning?”

“You are free,” the other shrugged, “that is if you survive your next challenge. There is a letter to the Emperor’s family in that sack along with your uniform.”

“My weapons?” Li Tie inquired mildly.

“Spoils of war. You have your life,” he pointed southeast, “Your useless wall is in that direction.”

Li Tie nodded silently.

“You have two days to reach it before we come for you.”

Li Tie peered into the growing darkness, “You might as well kill me now. There is no way I can do it. We were more than 1 day’s march from the wall when we fought.”

“Three days, then.”

“One week,” Li Tie countered, “In my current condition I will be lucky to do it in that amount of time.”

“Four days.”

Li Tie grimaced, “With a horse I might just make it. Otherwise perhaps I can do it in six days. Six full days.”

“No horse. Five days. Starting now.”

Li Tie shrugged, knowing it was the best offer he would get, “Very well.”

The Oirat wheeled and galloped away. Li Tie carefully opened the sack to his torn and stained uniform within. With great care he pulled the clothing on and winced at the weight of it against his deeply bruised skin. He groaned as he slung the water skin over his shoulder. Peering into the bag he found a scroll and some bits of jerky. Little in the way of provisions, but it would have to do. If he couldn’t reach the wall he likely die of starvation before the riders caught him.

He began to shuffle forward. Looking at the sky he fixed his position and began slowly…painfully…walking. The sounds of various night creatures echoed over the steppe. The screeching of a hunting owl. The flapping of bag wings as the creatures dove after flitting bugs. The music of crickets looking to mate.

The howl of a wolf in the distance startled him as he continue to trudge forward ever so slowly. In spite of his pain and exhaustion he marched. He ate a small bit of the jerky and drank sparingly of the water. His focus narrowed to the ground in front of his feet. Nothing else mattered. Just keep moving. So great was his concentration and didn’t realize dawn’s rapid approach. A silvery sheen glittered just ahead. The sight intrigued him.
 
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October 18, 1449, the Great Wall of China, China




“My Lord, We have reached the Great Wall!” A soldier exclaimed.

Wang Zhen nodded his head in irritation. He was not blind. Of course he could see the Great Wall looming in front of him as it had for the past hour or so. What he was irritated about was being disturbed from his thoughts.

He looked around him. Barely a thousand men had escaped the Mongol entrapment. The rest had perished. He sighed. The loss of a hundred thousand men was nothing. He would willingly sacrifice a million men if needed to advance his political agenda. But now, not only had he lost a hundred thousand men, he had also allowed the Emperor ZhengTong to be killed by the Mongols. How was he going to get himself out of this political quicksand he had gotten himself into?

For the past day, since escaping the Battle of Tumu, he had been thinking hard how to salvage the situation. Having lost a hundred thousand men and the Emperor had put his political power in deep jeopardy and he wasn’t sure if he will even survive the next few days. His political rivals will surely demand his death to atone for the defeat suffered at Tumu.

The gates of the Great Wall quickly opened, allowing the survivors to enter and into safety. Soldiers quickly came to help their comrades who had just returned, many of them injured. Other soldiers surrounded the survivors and shouted questions at them, hungry for news of their friends and of the Battle. But the survivors kept silent, many were crying openly as they remembered the comrades lost at Tumu.

Wang Zhen rode through the crowd of soldiers, ignoring them. The soldiers recognizing the Chief Eunuch quickly opened a path for him to ride through. After riding through the crowd of soldiers, he saw a familiar face in front of him. General Shi Heng, Commander of the Beijing Garrison, stood at the head of a squad of Imperial Guards, awaiting Wang Zhen.

Wang’s eyes narrowed. Shi Heng was a follower of the Emperor ZhengTong’s younger brother, Prince JingTai, and also political rival of his. It looked like Shi Heng was not even willing to wait for him to return to Beijing before striking at him.

Stopping his horse before Shi, Wang dismounted. Before he could a say a thing, Shi asked him, “The Emperor and the rest of the army?”

Shaking his head and putting a heavy air of sadness, Wang replied, “All dead at Tumu.”

Wang caught a slight smirk on Shi Heng’s face before he managed to cover it up. Shi nodded gravely, “Just as the Prince JingTai had suspected.

Sighing heavily as if about to perform a most difficult task, Shi continued speaking, “Wang, it is with a heavy heart that I am doing what I am about to do to an old friend.”

Wang snorted, “Stop playing your games. We both know our relationship to each other. Say what you have to say.”

The grave face of Shi turned into a evil sneer, “As you wish, Chief Eunuch. By the orders of Prince JingTai, the Chief Eunuch is herby arrested on charges of Treason to the Empire and murder of the Emperor.”

Wang Zhen raised an eyebrow in surprise. He had considered several scenarios where his rivals can frame him but THAT he had not expected. “And the evidence against me?” he asked in a mild tone.

“The Prince has found enough evidence to condemn you, I am told. All will be explained back in Beijing. Guards! Arrest him!”

Two Imperial Guards stepped up to him but before they can put him under chains, Wang raised his hand, “No need for that. I give my word as the Chief Eunuch I will not escape.” The Guards hesitated and looked back to Shi who considered for a moment before nodding his head, “Very well Wang. On account of your high station, we will forgo the usual treatment for traitors but do not try any tricks or else..”

As Wang Zhen mounted his horse to ride back to Beijing with Shi, he allowed himself a slight smile. So Prince JingTai has decided to play the political game as well. Things were starting to get interesting…
 
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October 25 1449, Forbidden City, Beijing, China,


Prince JingTai

Prince JingTai sat on a chair beside the Throne in the Hall of Military Eminence. The Hall of Military Eminence is one of the smaller Halls in the Forbidden City that the Emperor used for meetings with smaller groups of ministers. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is only used for a meeting of the full Imperial Court.


The Dragon Throne in the Hall of Military Eminence

JingTai took a glance at the Throne on his left. How he would love to sit on the Throne but is was only reserved for the Emperor and he had no right to sit there, yet.
His oldest brother ZhengTong took the throne at the tender age of eight. JingTai was just six years of age then. As he grew older, he started becoming upset with the situation. As the youngest of four brothers, he was a long way down the line of succession. He always believed that he was more capable than his other three brothers but yet he was last in line simply because he was born later. To him, this was unfair and he decided this wrong had to be corrected. He decided to seize the Dragon Throne for himself. If that means killing his brothers, then it had to be so. The Empire should be ruled by a capable man and who else was more capable than him?

He arranged for his second brother LongWu to be killed by a stray arrow during a hunting “accident”.

His third brother YongJin was killed in battle fighting the Oirat Mongols. JingTai chuckled at the memory of that incident. He knew in advance that the Oirats had set a trap for his brother. But instead of warning YongJin of the trap, JingTai encouraged his brother to unknowingly walk into the trap.

It was a resounding success as far as JingTai was concerned. His brother was slain in battle. The Imperial Guards in the battle managed to turn things around and even win the battle. However these Imperial Guards were later exiled from China for their failure to protect the Prince. For a fleeting moment, he wondered where those exiled Imperial Guards are now, but he dismissed the thought quickly. They were of no concern to him.

With his two older brothers dead, JingTai was now second in line for the throne. He now concentrated his efforts to try to kill his oldest brother. Unfortunately for JingTai, ZhengTong was aided by the devious Wang Zhen and try as he may, all his plots failed as Wang Zhen thwarted all his efforts. To make things worse, the birth of ZhengTong’s first son push him back into third in the line of succession.

Then came the Oirat invasion of China. Wang Zhen saw this opportunity to gain more political power for himself and he persuaded his older brother ZhengTong to lead a campaign in the Steppes.

The result of that campaign was more than he expected. He had hoped that his brother might die in battle though he had not much hope of that happening. How could a mere twenty thousand Mongols hope to stand against the hundred thousand strong army of the Ming Empire?

Then a few weeks into the military campaign, an urgent military dispatch for Prince JingTai’s eyes only arrived in Beijing. JingTai eyes widened as he read the contents. The Army had been routed at Da Tong and are now trapped at Tumu Fortress. Reinforcements were to be sent at once to Tumu for a counter attack.

This was a golden opportunity for JingTai. He had the messenger killed at once. Everyone who had come into contact with the messenger was also silenced. There would be no reinforcements sent to Tumu. He hoped the Mongols would take care of things for him at Tumu.

However, just in case the Emperor managed to break out, he had sent one of his supporters General Shi Heng to the segment of the Great Wall nearest to Tumu. Should the Emperor make it back to the Great Wall, the gates of the Wall are to be closed and the Emperor killed on sight.

In the end, that was not necessary as only Wang Zhen and barely a thousand men survived the Battle at Tumu. General Shi Heng had made up an excuse on the spot to have Wang Zhen brought back to Beijing immediately. JingTai made a mental note to himself to have Shi Heng rewarded for keeping Wang alive and sending him back to Beijing. He was going to slowly torture Wang Zhen as his revenge for thwarting so many of his plots.

A eunuch stepped into the Hall then. Going on his knees, he announced, “Your Highness, Wang Zhen has arrived at the Forbidden City and is waiting outside.”

JingTai smiled. He nodded to the eunuch, “Very good. Have him brought in at once.”

As the eunuch went out to relay the Prince’s orders, JingTai smiled even wider and said to himself, Wang Zhen, Wang Zhen, you have pitted yourself against me for the last time. Now you shall pay the ultimate price…
 

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October 25 1449, Forbidden City, Beijing, China,

The two men stared at each other for a long moment with a fierce intensity, Wang Zhen from the foot of the dais and JingTai from the seat beside the unoccupied Dragon Throne.

Finally JingTai broke the silence, “Well Wang Zhen, what do you have to say for himself?”

Wang Zhen laughed, “I have nothing to say. Rather, I am waiting to hear what reward you have to offer me for the great service I have done for you.”

That last statement took JingTai by surprise but he recovered instantly, “Service? Reward? Has the heat of the Mongolian Steppes made you lose your senses? You encouraged my brother, the Emperor ZhengTong to make a senseless campaign into the Steppes which resulted in a loss of a hundred thousand soldiers and worse, you allowed the Emperor to be killed in battle! How do you intend to answer for it?

That got a chuckle from Wang Zhen, “Come on now, isn’t that what you wanted? The death of the Emperor means you are now only one step away from the Throne.”

“How dare you! You dare accuse me of plotting to kill my beloved brother? Do you know I can have you beheaded for what you just said?” Exclaimed JingTai. He had stood up from his seat now, face red with rage and fist clenched tightly.

Wang Zhen kept silent for a moment, a look of bemusement on his face at JingTai’s last remarks. Just as JingTai was about to comment further, Wang Zhen raised a hand to stop him before speaking himself, “You Highness, enough of games. Let’s make a deal.”

JingTai started laughing then. “A deal? You want to make a deal with me? Do you know the situation you are in? You are facing the death penalty and you still have the audacity to make a deal with me? Right now, you should be…”

“I have evidence of the deaths of your two older brothers.” Wang Zhen said in a quiet voice.

JingTai stopped in mid speech, his face suddenly one of shock at Wang Zhen’s revelations. The cool autumn breeze could not prevent the droplets of sweat which were starting to form on his face.

Taking a few deep breaths to calm his nerves and wiping his sweaty palms against the silk cloth of his robes, he ordered everyone out of the Hall except Wang Zhen.

“What do you know about the deaths of my brothers?” JingTai asked once the Hall was emptied.

Wang shrugged, “Enough to know that you will be in serious trouble if the rest of the Imperial Court knows the real truth behind their deaths.”

JingTai walked down the steps of the dais to Wang Zhen. Staring intently at Wang Zhen, JingTai said in a threatening voice, “I can kill you now and no one will know anything then.”

Wang Zhen dismissed the threat with a wave of his hand, “I am not so stupid to come here and meet you unprepared. I have prepared instructions to my subordinates. Should I not make contact with them within a certain period of time, they will release the evidence of your brothers death to the rest of the Imperial Court.”

“You are bluffing!”

“Go ahead and kill me then if you think I am bluffing.”

A long moment of silence descended on the Hall as JingTai hesitated on what his next move should be. Once more it looked like Wang Zhen had gained the upper hand on him. He was not sure if Wang Zhen was bluffing but he dare not take the risk. Heaving a sigh of defeat, he said to Wang, “You said you wanted to deal. What are your terms?”

Wang smiled, “Very simple. I help you become Emperor. You retain me as your Chief Eunuch and advisor.”

JingTai snorted, “With ZhengTong dead, I am but one step away from the Throne. What makes you think I need your help?”

Wang sighed exaggeratedly before continuing in a patient voice, “Have you forgotten ZhengTong has a son? He may only be two years of age but he will still be the Emperor, not you. At best you will be Regent during his growing up years but once he reaches 18 years of age, you will still have to relinquish power to him”

“As you said, he is only two years old. I can arrange for his death and once he is gone, I will be next in line for the Throne.”

“Why take that risk when you can take the Throne legally? Between the two of us, we have enough influence over the Imperial Court to arrange for the Throne to bypass him and to you. Given the crisis we now face with the Mongols, it will be easy to say we need a strong Emperor on the Throne to guide us through the crisis and a two year old baby is definitely not able to do that.” With that, Wang grabbed a surprised JingTai firmly by the hand and guided him up the dais onto the Dragon Throne.

He pointed to the Throne, “Your Highness, the Throne is yours for the taking. All you have to do is to accept my offer and the Empire is yours to command.”

“The Throne may be mine if I accept your offer but you will still be the silent power behind the Throne.” JingTai said in a sullen tone.

“Now, now Your Highness,” Wang Zhen said in a soothing tone, “We both need each other. Without you, I cannot keep my position and power. On the other hand, you need my help to gain the Throne. I think it’s a reasonable deal and after that, we can share the Empire between us.”

JingTai reached out his hand and touched the armrest of the Throne reverently. He was just one step away from the Throne, the Throne which he had desired for so long. All he had to do was to accept the offer from Wang Zhen.

He closed his eyes. He could see the ranks upon ranks of officials, thousands of them stretching back as far as the eye could see, all bowing to him, all awaiting his command. Crowds of adoring people will cheer him and chant his name as he rides through the streets of his cities. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers will go forth to war at his command, ready to conquer and die in his name. Under his reign, China will flex her military might once more, bringing new lands under the rule of the Empire. His name will be remembered in history books as one of China’s greatest Emperors.

His eyes snapped open. The Throne lay invitingly in front of him. He made his decision. Turning to face Wang Zhen, he sat down on the Dragon Throne of China and said, “You have your deal.”

Wang Zhen nodded approvingly, “A wise decision indeed, Your Majesty.” With that, Wang went down on his knees, forehead touching the ground, announced in a loud voice, “Long live JingTai, Emperor of China!”
 

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October 25, Mongolian Steppes,

Esen Tayishi, Khan of the Oirats Mongols sat in the yurt studying the map of China when his aide Bugidai entered the yurt.

“What news?” asked Esen without even bothering to look up.

“Our mole has returned to Beijing”

“And?”

“JingTai has been persuaded to take the Throne of China.”

Now Esen did look up,” Does JingTai has enough influence in the Imperial Court to claim power?”

“Between JingTai and Wang Zhen, I believe they do.”

“So everyone believes ZhengTong is dead?”

Bugudai nodded, “They do. Even our mole believes he is dead.”

Esen laughed, “Wait till they receive news that their Emperor still lives.” That got a laugh from Bugidai as well.

“Where is our messenger now?” Asked Esen.

“He should still be trekking back to the Great Wall.” Came the reply.

“Do you think he will make the journey back to China alive? It’s not easy for anyone to journey across the Steppes, let alone with one as injured as he is.”

Bugidai shrugged, “He’s a tough one, that Chin. We gave him sufficient provisions for him to survive. Anyway, if he fails, we will just send another.”

Esen nodded, “Well, just make sure that message gets through to Beijing. I want their Imperial Court to be so busy fighting among themselves that they ignore what goes on outside their borders.”

Bugudai gave a savage grin, “So when can we invade south beyond the Great Wall?”

Esen shook his head, “Not so fast. We need time for our men to recover from Tumu. We did take casualties as well and we need to recover from that. Also, negotiations with the Manchus move slowly. Until we can form an alliance with the Manchus, we will not be able to make a successful invasion of China. So in the meantime, let our mole know that his main duty is to keep the Imperial Court fighting among themselves.”

Bugudai bowed, “As you command, my Khan.”

October 25, Chang An Jie, Beijing

The two Englishmen walked down Chang An Jie, one of Beijing’s busiest streets, ignoring the stares and exclamations from the Chinese that passed by them. They were used to the reactions. Ever since they arrived in China, they had been subjected to the same reactions they now received.

Geoffrey Houghton, a Corporal in the Free Company infantry, spied a road side stall peddling a new kind of food which he had yet to encounter so far. Grabbing his companion by the shirt, fellow Free Company Corporal Cyril, he approached the store and spoke to the owner in his broken Chinese, “How much this food?”

The stall owner’s jaw dropped in surprise. He had never seen men such as those before and they were now speaking to him in his native tongue.

Cyril grinned with amusement. That too was a reaction he was used to. His Chinese was better than that of Geoffrey’s, having spent many hours learning under Chen Hui, “Are you alright sir? My friend is asking how much for these items?”

“He speaks! The barbarians speak a civilized tongue!” The stall owner exclaimed to the nearby Chinese, whom were also staring at Cyril and Geoffrey.

That got a frown from Geoffrey, “Excuse me but we are definitely not barbarians. We come from the far away lands of…”

“It does not matter where you come from. If you are not from China, you are a barbarian, simple as that.”

Before Geoffrey could reply to that, another voice interrupted him, “There you two are!”

The two Englishmen turned to see the Venetian merchant and Chen Hui’s father-in-law, Lorenzo Rossi walking towards them with an irritated expression on his face.”

Lorenzo walked up to them and spoke to them in a not too please tone, “Cyril and Geoffrey, if I recall correctly, I hired you two to be my bodyguards during this trading trip to China. But since we entered Beijing, the two of you have been holidaying about in the City rather than doing your jobs! What do you think Chen Hui will do to the two of you if you go back without his father-in-law who came to some mishap due to lack of sense of responsibility?”

“He might thank us.” Muttered Cyril.

“What was that?” demanded Lorenzo but Cyril kept silent.

Lorenzo glared at the two of them for a moment longer before continuing on, “Anyway our business in Beijing is concluded here. I’ve managed to sell off my goods and I got a whole of goods to bring back to Ancona to sell. We will leave for Ancona tomorrow. You two may have the rest of the day to yourself but don’t stay out too late. We still have lots of packing to do before tomorrow”

Cyril and Geoffrey looked at each other and sighed. As Lorenzo turned to return back to the tavern where they were staying, Cyril turned his attention back to the stall holder, “So how much for these?”
 

Amric

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October ?, 1449: Mongolian Steppes



Raising his head he saw a small stream winding away before him. Dropping to his knees he cupped his hands and raised the cool water to his lips. He savored the clear refreshing taste of it. Taking another drink he sighed in contentment. A small, deeper pool of water was at his left. Within were three fish swimming lazily about, unable to escape to the stream itself. They had somehow reached the deeper pool even though the small area between the pool and stream was quite shallow.

He put his left hand into the pool and waited patiently. His reward came when one fish decided to investigate the fingers idly swaying in the water. With a quick turn of his wrist he snatched it by the gills and pitched it out on the stream’s bank. The doomed fish flopped around desperately, taking its time to die.

Li Tie dug a shallow pit and filled it with branches and twigs as well as dry grasses. A brief search found no appropriate rocks, so he eventually got a fire going with the second oldest method known to man. Letting the fire get going he covered the fish in wet clay and placed it on a rock within the fire. Yawning mightily he sprawled by the fire for a few moments.

Soon he slithered over to the stream and poured out the contents of the water skin. Refilling it he secured it, allowing the stream to keep it cool. Once the clay had hardened he used another rock to break it open. The scaled came away with the clay, leavin the sweet tender flesh of the fish behind. Sucking on scorched fingers he gobbled it down, leaving only the bones. Once the fire was properly banked he lay his trembling exhausted form down and closed his eyes.

His nap stretched out far longer than he’d anticipated. The late afternoon sun shone into his eyes awakening him from his exhaustive slumber. Jaw popping as he yarned he blew on the coals of the fire. The flickering embers within slowly came to life. He tossed more twigs and sticks to build it back up. The little pool still held the two remaining fish within. He tickled them out and wrapped them in clay.

When they were done he devoured them and drank his fill of water before taking up his water skin and sack. Moving stiffly at first he managed to begin walking quickly. Once his joints and muscles warmed he went into a mile eating jog. Estimating his time at fifteen minutes he forced himself into a run. He endured the pain for a while before slowing down to a jog and then back to a walk. He repeated the process over and over again as the sun was swallowed by the horizon and full darkness. Once more the odd sounds of the Steppes kept him company on his lonely journey. Stumbling in the brightening light from the east he realized he’d covered more ground than he would have thought possible in his condition.

He noticed that he had been unwittingly retracing his steps back toward Tumu Fortress and the site of the battle. He jogged onward to find the mass of bodies strewn over a huge area. There wasn’t much left after the Oirat had stripped them of anything of value. Hordes of carrion eaters, both of the ground and air, were devouring the remains. Grinning skulls stared at him as he tip toed through the carnage. Huge swarms of flying insects created artificial clouds around those bodies not being picked over by the other creatures.

Li Tie swallowed his bile and kept his eyes roving from side to side as he moved forward slowly. Finally passing the last vestiges of the battle he started jogging again. There had been a hidden supply cache in the fortress. Nearly dropping with fatigue he entered the broken gates of the fortress. No one stirred within the once mighty fortress. Dust devils swirled in the massive courtyard. Bodies were strewn about here as well. Nothing of value seemed to be left.

He made his way to the stables and stumbled as he entered the empty building. Rotting hay lay in abandoned stalls. Even the tools had been taken. He groaned as he shuffled toward the tack room. Everything in there had been stripped away as well. Pegs where bridles had been kept already showed a thin layer of dust upon them. Placing his hands on the third and eighth pegs he pushed upward and then twisted to the right.

The pegs moved. A slight clank from underneath his feet reminded him to move quickly to the left. The floor suddenly swung down with a swiftness that nearly caught him unaware. A ladder along one side allowed him to make his way to the bottom of the shaft. Punji sticks lay at the bottom in a deep ten foot pit below the level of the lower floor. A nasty way to die if one didn’t move quick enough after unlocking the trap door.

He stepped to the right and made a face as he realized that he had no way to light the torch in the barrel at his right hand. With a grimace of irritation he shuffled forward along the short tunnel into a large room underneath the fortress itself. In pitch darkness he stayed to the left and felt along the walls where wooden shelving had been placed. His fingers finally found what he sought, a fire striker. With a sigh of relief he made his way back to the barrel of torches and struck one alight.

Feeling more comfortable he returned to the storeroom and smiled in relief. Foodstuffs were in barrels, crates, and boxes. Salted meats, dried vegetables and fruits. Wine, beer, and vinegar laced water barrels stood along one of the walls. Fire strikers, sacks and other pieces of equipment sat on the shelves. He snatched some of the salted meat and shoved it into his mouth.

Chewing vigorously he took a mug and tapped a wine barrel. Taking a generous swig of wine he upended a small crate of dried apples and sat down with a sigh. He grabbed more food and continued to eat until he was full to repletion. He stood up slowly and made his way back to the ladder. He climbed up slowly and walked over to the smithy.

Inside the anvil had been pulled over and the tools had been taken away, much as anything else of value in the fort. He groaned when he saw the open hole in the ground. Apparently the Mongols had discovered the hidden cache of weapons. He clambered down the ladder and sighed as he entered the storeroom underground. Not a single weapon remained. His disappointment was palpable.

Shaking himself he went to his chambers within the fort. His pallet had been destroyed, as had his desk. The papers within had been scattered to the four winds. A small painting of the Emperor’s palace had been sliced to ribbons and left on the floor to be trampled by the intruders before they had left. Working his way through the barracks he found nothing there that could be conceivably used.

He made his way back to the food storeroom and lay down to rest. His limbs trembled with the overexertion he had forced on them. His eyes closed as the torch guttered in the sconce on the wall. His gentle snores echoed in the storeroom as he slumbered.

Awakening in the dark he briefly forgot where he was for a moment. His heart raced in panic until he forced himself to think rationally. His memories flooded back and he rubbed his face briskly. He felt his way to another barrel of torches and lit one before placing it in another sconce. He started to fill a sack with dried meats, vegetables, and fruits. He filled a water skin with wine, and a second with the vinegar laced water. He kept two fire strikers. A picked up two small knives as well. They weren’t useful as weapons, really, but it was better than nothing at all.

He climbed out of the hole and marched out of the fortress. He didn’t know the secret of how to get the trap door back up and relocking the hidden storehouse. It wasn’t that important. Thanks to his fortitude he had a real chance to get to the wall before his time was up. That is if he hurried.


October ?, 1449: The Great Wall


Gasping for breath as he ran, the Great Wall rose before him in the distance. The sun was lowering in the western sky as he hustled toward the Gate. Sweat stung his eyes as he took great heaving breathes through a wide open mouth. Shouts came from the soldiers atop the Wall as he came closer. He speed had slowed to a lumber, shambling, stumbling shuffle.

His energy spent, the shadow of the Wall startled him, causing him to stagger to a halt. His head rose as he craned his neck up…and up…and up. His body, overwhelmed at last overbalanced and he toppled over onto his back. He lay unmoving, his eyes temporarily unfocused. As the Gate began to creak open Li Tie fell prey to his exhaustion. His eyes closed as he fell unconscious.
 
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Amric

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October 27, 1449: The Great Wall


The murmuring of voices as he swam out of the darkness brought Li Tie to full awareness. Among that was a burning thirst and ravenous appetite. The voices were that of a man and woman discussing his condition. He cleared his throat painfully and opened his eyes to find himself in a small chamber, almost like that of a monk’s cell. Two faces came into his vision.


The first was that of the woman, dark hair going grey around a still smooth face with dark eyes that looked upon him in concern. The other was that of the Commander of Juyong Pass, his iron grey hair cut severely short to accommodate the helmet crooked in his left arm. His eyes also showed concern, and something else the bedridden man couldn’t quite discern.

“Water?” the woman inquired.

Li Tie nodded weakly. She gently raised him up slightly as she lifted a glass to his lips. He drank sparingly, to her obvious approval. She lowered him and put the glass next to a pitcher on the table next to the bed.

“So you survived,” the Commander intoned with his gravelly voice.

“So it seems,” Li Tie whispered, “I have important news.”

“It can wait until you are stronger,” the woman said sharply.

“No, it cannot,” Li Tie’s voice strengthened, “It is about the Emperor.”

“Rest easy. The Chief Eunuch has already passed through and told us of the Emperor’s death.”

“Wang Shu,” Li Tie groaned, “Commander. The Emperor is not dead!”

“What?” Wang Shu exclaimed, “The Chief Eunuch was most specific.”

“Then he lies,” Li Tie snorted, “More water, please.”

The woman raised him up again and gave him more of the precious liquid. He nodded slowly and refused to lay down again.

“How long have I been here?” he demanded.

“Two days,” Wang Shu replied, “We were uncertain you would survive at the beginning.”

“I see,” he turned toward the woman, “I suppose I have you to thank for my continued existence?”

She nodded with a fierce grin,” Zong Shera, Captain. Glad to be of service.”

“Thank you,” he half bowed, “What day is it?”

Wang Shu told him. He frowned in thought.

“I must get to the Forbidden City and inform JingTai that his brother is still alive and give him the missive from the Oirat.”

He tried to rise and realized that his strength wasn’t up to the task. He slumped back into the bed with a growl of frustration.

“Damn this weakness!” he snarled, “I cannot…the Emperor cannot afford it right now.”

Wang Shu nodded in sympathy, “I can send a courier with the missive and the news.”

Li Tie thought for a moment. His eagerness to do the task himself warred with the concept that the sooner the information reached the Forbidden City the better. He bowed his head in acceptance.

“I accept, Commander,” he said softly, “The needs of the people, of the Emperor, are more important than my desire to do the deed myself.”

“I will send for him immediately,” Wang Shu nodded and left the room.

Li Tie looked at his healer and smiled slightly, “I don’t suppose I could get some food? Rice, and perhaps some meat of some sort?”

“Broth,” she demurred, “You have been asleep for two days. Your stomach will not be ready for such food. Broth will allow it to remember what it ought to be doing and perhaps in a day or so we can bring you up to solid meals.”

Li Tie opened his mouth to protest, but at her severe look subsided, “As you say.”

“I will have some broth prepared for you,” she nodded as well and left him to himself.

Wang Shu returned with a slightly built younger man in tow, “This is the courier who will bear the missive to the Forbidden City.”

Li Tie nodded around the room and saw the items he had brought with him to the wall in a far corner. He pointed toward the sack in the corner of the room.

“Bring me that sack there.”

Once in his hands he opened it and took out the roll with the Oirat demands upon it. He looked at it pensively for a moment.

“Listen to me carefully,” he glared at the courier, “Do not, under any circumstances bring this to the Chief Eunuch. Only JingTai, the brother of the Emperor is to see this.”

The courier nodded as he accepted the scroll, “It will be as you say, Captain.”

“Remember this,” Li Tie cautioned, “The Chief Eunuch has lied and betrayed us. Only JingTai must learn of this. Do not fail me. Or your Emperor.”

The courier bowed and left the room to Wang Shu and Li Tie. The Commander frowned at the Captain lying in the bed.

“Don’t you think you laid it on a little thick?” he inquired.

“No.”

The raised eyebrows of the Commander invited further detail. Li Tie told him at length what had occurred during the battle against the Oirat. The Emperor becoming surrounded by the Mongols. His decision to turn back and try to help him. The Chief Eunuch’s response to his demand to help. The fact that the men the Chief Eunuch had led away would have been the difference in getting the Emperor out of harm’s way and back to the Wall.

Wang Shu shook his head, “Interesting. He claimed that you foolishly convinced the Emperor to charge into battle against superior forces and led him to his death.”

“The Emperor is not dead,” Li Tie snapped, “I’ve told you that.”

“Oh, I believe you,” Wang Shu raised a hand to silence the younger man, “I’ve known the Chief Eunuch for some years now. He’s as slippery as a greased snake. The scroll with the waxed seal of the Oirat also had me convinced when I saw it two days ago.”

“You went through my things?”

“Well you were on the brink of death,” Wang Shu reminded him, “By rights and law I should have sent a courier the moment you returned to the capital to inform them of your return.”

“But you didn’t?” Li Tie was slightly surprised.

“I know there is a rivalry between the Imperial Guard and those of us who serve on the Wall,” Wang Shu sighed, “But that doesn’t mean I don’t hear and see the truth when it smack me in the face.”

Li Tie reddened slightly, “A point there, Commander. So now what?”

“We wait to see what the response will be. It will be nearly two weeks before we know. Take that time to rest and recover. There is no doubt you will be recalled to the Forbidden City.”

“Thank you.”

“You’ll need all your strength and wits for that battle,” Wang Shu smiled slightly, “Do not think the Chief Eunuch will give in gracefully when the news comes out that the Emperor is alive. He’s been in power for a long time. It has corrupted him, no doubt. He will not relinquish it easily, nor willingly.”

Li Tie rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “Very true. I have never liked him, but I just didn’t think he would do something like this. At least not so openly.”

“Openly?” Wang Shu laughed, “This is all in the shadows. No one but us knows the Emperor is alive…..”

“So you think this is a plot for him to place JingTai on the throne as his puppet?”

Wang Shu raised both hands up, “I imagine nothing. I suspect things, but a wise man hedges his bets. I am not your friend, Chen Hui, willing to leave for some barbarous realm where savages eat their enemies.”

Li Tie made a face of disgust, “I see. So why do you help me?”

Wang Shu smiled wider, “Just because I hedge my bets doesn’t mean I am unwilling to tip the odds more in favor with the end result I prefer.”

Li Tie puzzled over that statement as the older man half bowed and left the room.
 
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redwolf

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October 27, 1449, Juyong Pass, Great Wall of China

Li Jing was the name of the courier selected by Wang Shu to carry Li Tie’s letter. After leaving the room where Li Tie was resting, he quickly gathered a few more soldiers to escort him to Beijing. It would not do if he went alone and was then ambushed by some bandits, resulting in the letter not being sent to Beijing.

Once the gathered soldiers were told of their assignments, they raced to get ready for their trip. Stable hands quickly saddled horses as the men packed whatever items was needed.

Within the hour, the soldiers were ready to depart Juyong Pass for Beijing. As the men prepared to depart, one of the soldiers leaving with Li Jing, was called to meet Commander Wang Shu.

The soldier entered Wang Shu’s room and bowed in respect. Wang Shu nodded, “Your name is Meng Ao?”

“Yes Commander.” Came the reply.

“Meng Ao, I got a task for you. I have a letter here that needs to be delivered to Beijing. The name of the person is written on the letter. This letter is to be delivered to him personally. No one else is to know about this letter, not even the people traveling with you to Beijing. Do you understand?”

Meng Ao nodded, “I understand Commander.”

As Wang Shu passed the letter to Meng Ao, Meng looked at the name on the letter for which the letter was to be delivered to and his eyes widened slightly as he recognized the name.

“Remember, this letter must reach him personally and no one must know about it.” Wang Shu reminded Meng once more.

Meng Ao rejoined his fellow soldiers just as they were about to depart. Quickly they left the Pass and headed south to Beijing.

Not knowing the contents of the letter but knowing the urgency in which the letter must reach Beijing, the men pushed their horses hard, stopping only at military rest stations to change fresh horses and to grab a some food and water.

By November 1 they arrived at the gates of Beijing. Their uniforms still carrying the dust and dirt of the road they traveled, they were quickly escorted into the Forbidden Palace the moment the City Guards were informed of the urgent letter to JingTai.

Arriving inside the Palace, they were taken to a small waiting room while a Eunuch went to inform JingTai about the arrival of the messengers.

After waiting for what seemed like a very long time, General Shi Heng walked into the room and demanded, “Alright who is Li Jing?”

Li Jing stood up, “I am Li Jing, General”

Shi Heng gave Li a quick look over, noticing the dirt and dust still on the uniforms of the soldiers, “What is this urgent message that Commander Wang Shu has for Prince JingTai? Are the Mongols massing near Juyong Pass?”

Li Jing shook his head, “No General. I myself do not know the details except that I need to deliver this letter into the hands of Prince JingTai. I was instructed so by Commander Li Tie.”

“Excuse me, did you just say Commander Li Tie? Li Tie of the Imperial Guards? Hasn’t he died at Tumu Fortress?” asked a disbelieving Shi Heng.

“It is that very same Li Tie, General. He arrived at Juyong Pass a few days and collapsed at the Gate. When he awoke later, he told Commander Wang Shu that he had a very important letter concerning the Emperor ZhengTong.”

Shi Heng took a deep breath, “A letter concerning Emperor ZhengTong? Let me see the letter!”

Li Jing shook his head stubbornly, “I am sorry General. Commander Li Tie said the letter can only be handed to the Prince.”

The audacity of the lowly ranked soldier to reject his command shocked Shi Heng for a moment. He considered snatching the letter from Li anyway but thought better of it.

“Very well. Li, come with me. I will bring you to the Prince. The rest of you will stay here and wait.” With that Shi and Li left the waiting room.

After the pair had left for a while, Meng Ao informed his fellow soldiers he had a stomachache and quickly left the waiting room. Upon leaving the waiting room, he spied a Eunuch and quickly stopped him.

Showing the cover of the letter to the Eunuch, Meng asked, “Can you tell me please where to find this person? This letter is from Commander Wang Shu of Juyong Pass to him.”

The Eunuch took a quick look at the name written on the letter, looked back at Meng Ao before finally looking at the surroundings around them to make sure they were alone. Satisfied they were alone, the Eunuch indicated for Meng Ao to follow him.

Meng Ao was quickly led to the eastern end of the Palace. Stopping outside a door, the Eunuch asked Meng to wait while he went in to announce Meng’s presence.

A short moment later, the Eunuch re-appeared and nodded for Meng to enter. Entering the room, he saw a man sitting on a chair at the far end of the room, sipping a cup of tea. The man spoke, “I believe you have a letter for me?”

“Yes I do, Chief Eunuch.” Meng Ao replied.
 

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November 1, Forbidden Palace, Beijing,

“I believe you have a letter for me?”

“Yes I do, Chief Eunuch.” Meng Ao replied.

As Meng Ao passed the letter to Wang Zhen, Wang asked, “Other than the letter, are there any other messages for me?”

Meng shook his head. “Very well, you may rejoin your fellow soldiers.” Said Wang Zhen

Meng Ao gave Wang a bow and quickly made his way back to the waiting room to rejoin his fellow soldiers.

After Meng Ao left the room, Wang waited a moment longer before opening the letter.

Dear Cousin,

Li Tie of the Imperial Guards has shown up at Juyong Pass, claiming the Emperor ZhengTong is still alive. He also claims that the defeat at Tumu is caused mainly your actions.

Li arrived carrying a letter from the Oirats to be passed to Prince JingTai. However, because of his injuries inflicted by the Oirats, he is unable to return to the Capital at the moment but he has the intention to denounce you in front of the Imperial Court once he is recalled to the Capital. He does not know that you and I are related by blood and he trusts me enough to have told me what I have written in the letter

Please take steps to protect yourself and let me know if there’s anyway in which I can help you.

Your Cousin, Wang Shu


After reading the letter, Wang read it again to make sure he did not leave anything out. So, Li Tie has somehow survived against the odds, and the Emperor ZhengTong himself still lives. How should I play this game now, Wang Zhen thought to himself.

It is very obvious to him that Emperor ZhengTong and Li Tie both cannot be allowed to return Beijing. The two of them are the only ones who know Wang’s role in the defeat at Tumu and he cannot have either of them returning to expose him.

ZhengTong was an easy matter. JingTai was only two weeks away from the Throne. He would never, under these circumstances, even consider bargaining for his brother. Most likely, JingTai would keep secret the contents of the letter until after his coronation, Wang reasoned. Once he had gained absolute power, he would raise the matter of whether to bargain for his brother in the Imperial Court, a matter which the Imperial Court would almost certainly dismiss. The Empire does not bargain with barbarians!

Li Tie was a totally different matter. At the moment, JingTai and Wang Zhen were in an uneasy power sharing alliance. If Li Tie was to return the Capital, the balance of power might shift as JingTai might use Li to remove Wang from power. Furthermore, given that there was an important dispatch from Juyong Pass that has just arrived, Wang Zhen should have been informed of it. Instead, JingTai had chose not to inform Wang, hoping to keep him in the dark. This made things obvious to Wang that JingTai was planning to use Li Tie to remove him from power.

This made things very simple then. Li Tie must not be allowed to live. As long Li Tie is dead, Wang would still be able to manipulate the Imperial Court to keep his power base. Matter decided, Wang quickly took ink and brush and paper and started to pen a letter to Wang Shu.

Dear cousin,

Thank you for your warning regarding Li Tie. I have things under control here in the Imperial Court although the situation would change if Li Tie is allowed to make it to the Capital.

As a result, I would need to beg a favor from you. Li Tie cannot be allowed to live. He knows too much about me and if exposed can result in the execution of the entire Wang Clan which includes you.

Thus, you must eliminate Li Tie. For your sake and for the sake of our family clan, you must kill him. You will have the gratitude of the entire clan for your brave act. I trust you will not fail us.

Your cousin, Wang Zhen


He quickly sealed the letter in an envelope and called for a courier. Once the courier arrived, Wang informed him, “This letter is to be delivered to Commander Wang Shu of Juyong Pass and is of the utmost importance and urgency. I want this letter in his hands four days from today. Also, no one is to know about this letter. If anyone finds out, your entire family will hang. Do you understand?”

The courier nodded, “Yes Chief Eunuch, I understand. I will have the letter delivered to Commander Wang Shu in four days.” The courier bowed once more and took his leave to prepare for the trip to the Great Wall.

As the courier left the room, Wang Zhen though to himself, Li Tie, Li Tie, you may have survived Tumu and whatever tortures the Mongols inflicted on you through sheer luck but your luck will run out sometime and you will surely not expect to be stabbed in the back by someone you trust….
 

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November 1, Forbidden City, Beijing,

Prince JingTai’s coronation ceremony was still two weeks away but already he was up to his neck with the preparations needed before the ceremony. By Imperial Tradition, after the death of the previous Emperor, there should be a period mourning before preparations could be made for the coronation of the next Emperor.

Wang Zhen however argued that China was facing a time of crisis with the crushing defeat at Tumu and the usual time of mourning should be forgone so a new Emperor can be crowned to head the Empire.

With the successful argument, the Imperial Court had went full scale with the preparations for JingTai’s coronation. Even then, lots of time was required before the actual coronation ceremony for the endless amount of traditional rituals and ceremonies which must be completed before the actual ceremony.

Along with the preparations for his coronation ceremony, he still had to continue with the day to day administration of the Empire which was what JingTai was doing when Shi Heng entered the Hall of Military Eminence with Li Jing in tow.

“What is it, General Shi? I thought I left precise instructions not be disturbed unless it’s absolutely necessary.” JingTai spoke, his attention still on the document he was reading at the moment.

“It is absolutely necessary, Your Highness. This messenger Li Jing, carries news from Li Tie, Commander of the Imperial Guards. He says it’s regarding your brother, the Emperor ZhengTong.”

Now JingTai did look up at Li Jing. “You have news of my brother?” JingTai demanded.

Taking a deep gulp, Li Jing replied in a trembling voice, “Er… yes, Your Highness. Commander Li arrived at Juyong Pass a few days ago bearing a letter he says contains important news of the Emperor.”

“A letter you say. Well, pass it up quickly!”

The letter was quickly passed to JingTai who tore the envelope open and started to read the contents of the letter. As he read, his eyes grew wide. His face turned an obvious shade of white and Li Jing could see the sweat tickling down JingTai’s face.

There was a long drawn out moment of silence after JingTai was finished reading the letter as he sat motionless, deep within his own thoughts.

Finally, JingTai looked back at Li Jing and asked, “Where is Commander Li Tie now?”

“He’s now at a small barracks a few miles south of Juyong Pass. Since his appearance at the Great Wall, there had been intense speculations over the news he carried. Commander Wang decided to move him away from the Juyong Pass to somewhere quiet so that he may recover and also to prevent unwanted news to be spread out.”

JingTai nodded, “Who knows of the contents of the letter?”

Li Jing shook his head, “I don’t think anyone knows sir, except Commander Wang. Commander Wang gave strict instructions that no one is allowed to enter Li Tie rest chambers at all unless it has Commander Wang’s approval. Also, he had been spending a lot of time with Commander Li so if anyone knows the contents, it will be Commander Wang only.”

JingTai nodded once more, “Thank you. You have preformed a very important service to me. General Shi, please take care of our messenger here and his escorts and come back to me when you are finished.”

General Shi nodded and led Li Jing out. A short while later, General Shi returned, “I have taken care of Li Jing and his escorts. So what is in the letter, if I may ask?”

JingTai led out a long sigh, “My brother is still alive. The Oirats are holding him captive and demanding a huge ransom for his release.”

“The Emperor ZhengTong is alive?! My Lord, surely you are not going to bargain with them for his release?”

JingTai scoffed, “Of course not. I have waited so long to earn the Throne and I will not be thwarted at this late stage. The news of my brother being alive cannot be allowed to be leaked out.”

“We may be able to keep the news for now, but we cannot keep the news suppressed forever. Sooner or later, people will know ZhengTong is still alive.” Shi Heng pointed out.

“I know that! We just need to keep the news hidden until the coronation ceremony. Once I become Emperor, it does not matter if the rest of the Empire knows or not if my brother is alive. By then I will have absolute power and even the news of his survival will not affect me.”

“But how are we going to hide for the next couple of weeks? For all we know, Li Tie may be spreading news of the Emperor’s survival now.”

“That is why Li Tie must be eliminated. General Shi, you were at Juyong Pass recently. How big is that barracks that Li Jing has mentioned.”

“From what I remember, the barracks can house possibly about a couple hundred soldiers.”

“On the safe side, we must eliminate the whole barracks. No one from the barracks must be left alive to tell tales.”

“How are we going to do this, your Highness? We can’t very well send out the army to kill our own soldiers.”

“Of course we can’t send out the army. It’s as good as confessing we have something to hide. I have a better idea.” JingTai smiled then, an evil smile. “We will send the East Squad.”
The East Squad was the Secret Police of the Ming Emperors. Their offices were located in the Eastern Part of the Palace, hence the name East Squad. Among their many duties were assassinations of people whom the Emperors deemed dangerous.

JingTai continued, “General Shi, go to the East Squad and make the arrangements. I want that barracks razed to the ground before the week is out.”

“Yes your Highness. One question, should we inform Wang Zhen?” Asked Shi Heng

JingTai considered for a moment before shaking his head, “No. Do not let him know of my brother’s survival. After all he was his tutor for over ten years. For all I know, upon hearing of his student’s survival, he will conspire to rescue my brother and remove me from power. No, the risk is too great. Wang Zhen must not know.”

I understand. I will leave now to make the preparations.” General Shi Heng bowed and left the Hall.
 
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Amric

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November 1, 1449: Lesser Barracks


The shuffling figure in the practice yard swung his borrowed blade slowly in an attempt at an attack sequence. Wearing an overly heavy suit of armor and using a heavier practice blade Li Tie worked hard to regain his strength and endurance. If anyone was watching they would presume that he was barely capable of keeping his body upright, let alone hold onto his weapon. But they would be wrong in their assumption. He was purposely showing himself to be still recovering from his ordeal with the Mongols.

The reality is that his bruises had mostly healed. Stubble covered his head and the nails on his hands and feet were slowly growing as well. His act was solely in case there were spies to inform Wang Zhen of his progress. His suspicions had been aroused when Wang Shu had argued for him to move to the Lesser Barracks so that he would be better able to recover without being bothered by so many soldiers interested in hearing of his tale of betrayal and perseverance.

His mind returned to the conversation he had with Wang Shu just a few days before.

“I believe it would be best for you if you went to the Lesser Barracks,” Wang Shu repeated.

“It is more out of the way and not as secure as this place,” Li Tie reminded him.

“Who else other than the soldiers and myself know you are here?” the other countered, “You’d have a more relaxed atmosphere and if any spies were to reveal that you are here to the Chief Eunuch it wouldn’t be known of your new location. We shall tell no one that you will be going there. The story will be that you are heading directly to the Forbidden City.”

Li Tie nodded slowly, “There is that. I will leave tomorrow morning.”

“I will make sure you have a gentle horse for your journey,” Wang Shu smiled.

Li Tie didn’t bother to tell the Commander that after he had left him on the day he had sent the courier to the capital he had watched as the man left the Fortress from his window. He had been surprised to see another courier leave from the Commander's office shortly beforehand to join the other man. He had considered asking Wang Shu about it, but decided against it. The omission of telling him that he had sent a second courier also heightened Li Tie’s worries.

Therefore he worked hard to get back into shape. His strength had mostly returned, as had his endurance and speed. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but he no longer trusted Wang Shu. His main hope was that the Emperor’s brother would send a contingent of Imperial Guards to retrieve him, taking him back to the Forbidden City to speak to him directly.

He was fully prepared to lead an expedition back into Oirat territory with the required ransom. Li Tie was fully convinced that his presence on such a journey would be necessary. His honor demanded it, and he had no intention of being left out.

Stopping for a moment he lifted the heavy helm off his head. Steam rose off his head as he stooped to take a dipperful of water and pour it over his over heated pate. The heat of summer was a memory now. The air was crisp and cool with a light breeze blowing from the north. It seemed like the heat of just a few days ago was a distant memory. Once he took a drink of the water he placed the helm back on his head and continued his leisurely workout.

Unbeknownst to him he was being watched. Had he known, he would still have been unconcerned. His whole ploy was meant for someone to notice and report back that he was still not fully recovered from his wounds. Allowing his potential enemies to believe him still weakened and easy prey would prove to be a mistake on their part. But one he fully intended to take full advantage of when the time came.

That time, he felt, was rapidly approaching. He didn’t know if Wang Zhen’s toadies would get to him before the Imperial Guards. He hoped the Guards would press hard. But it all depended on how swiftly the Emperor’s brother moved.
 
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redwolf

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November 1, a few hours after the conversation between JingTai and General Shi Heng, Goddess of Mercy Temple, Beijing

The fortune teller sat at his table in the corner of the temple observing the hundreds of devotees entering and exiting the Goddess of Mercy Temple.

The Goddess of Mercy is one of the more popular gods among the Buddhist Gods and her temples were always filled to the brim with devotees. The smoke from thousands of lighted joss sticks irritated the nose and eyes of many devotees. The fortune teller however was not bothered at all. Having worked so long in the temple, he was used to the smell of the incense and the smoke of the joss sticks.

A young monk walked up to the fortune teller then, “Sir, I was asked to pass this letter to you.”

The fortune teller nodded in thanks. Once the monk had left, he slowly opened the letter and read the contents.

Black Birds of Prey threaten my harvest at Juyong Pass. Please send me some white lotus from the Goddess’s Lotus Seat to save my harvest. I would be most willing to pay a token sum of money in return for the white lotus. Please name your price

The fortune teller frowned. It had been a while since anyone had requested his services. There was no name on the letter but he recognized the style of writing. The sender had requested his services before. To most people, he is known as the fortune teller, but to a few, he is also known as the contact to the White Lotus Clan.

The White Lotus is a clan is a clan steeped in mystery. Their members were said to be highly trained in many skills such as spying, espionage, assassinations among others which members of the White Lotus would carry out for price. However, it was very difficult to find a member of the White Lotus and only a person with the right contacts would know how to contact them. Even then, it would take a high price to get the White Lotus to accept a mission. But once the White Lotus had accepted a job, they never failed.

It was obvious that the black birds of prey here referred to assassins from the East Squad. Harvest referred to someone whom the sender of the letter wanted protected from the East Squad. This was going to be a very expensive mission, thought the fortune teller. It was obvious why the sender would ask the White Lotus for help. The assassins of the East Squad were, just like those of the White Lotus, highly trained and the White Lotus were probably the only group of people capable of stopping the East Squad from succeeding in their mission.

The East Squad were the Emperor’s private assassins so it was obvious the harvest was someone that the Emperor wanted dead. To dare block the Emperor’s assassination attempt… This means that if the White Lotus accepts the mission, they might be seen as pitting themselves against the Emperor. The fortune teller shrugged, not that he cared anyway. If the customer was willing to pay, the White Lotus would accept the mission.

Taking brush and paper, he quickly penned a letter back to the sender. In the letter, he set the price for which the White Lotus would carry out the mission and if the sum was agreeable, to provide the details of the harvest to be protected.

Once the letter was completed and sealed in an envelope, he called the same young monk over, “Boy, I need you to deliver a letter for me.”

“Sure, where do you want me to deliver it to?”

“To the residence of General Cao Qin” the fortune teller replied.

Back at the Forbidden City,

General Shi Heng was walking back to the Hall of Military Eminence to find Prince JingTai when he was met by General Cao Qin. Like Shi Heng, Cao Qin was born of Mongol parents but they had taken great pains to hide their Mongol ancestry.

As they walked down the corridors, Shi Heng asked Cao in a quiet voice, “What is it?”

Cao looked around the surroundings to ensure no one is eavesdropping before replying, “It’s arranged with the fortune teller. The White Lotus will leave soon to intercept the East Squad. I have also make arrangements with the White Lotus to er.. drop some clues to make it look like they were sent by Wang Zhen to stop JingTai.”

Shi Heng nodded his approval, “Very good. Let’s see how Wang gets himself out of this situation.”

“Do you think the White Lotus will be able to stop the East Squad from killing Li Tie?” Asked Cao Qin.

“It does not matter if they succeed or not. The main objective here is to let JingTai know he has opposition to his claim on the throne. If the White Lotus succeeds in their mission, it’s a bonus. If not, we are still following the Khan’s orders to sow discord within the ranks of the Imperial Court, not that they need much help from us in the first place.” Replied Shi Heng.

Arriving at the Hall, Cao departed to return to his duties while Shi Heng went to report to Prince JingTai.

“Is it arranged” Asked Prince JingTai.

“Your Highness, All is arranged. 200 members of the East Squad will set off shortly for Juyong Pass. Li Tie will not live to see the sun rise five days from today.” General Shi Heng announced to Prince JingTai

JingTai nodded, “Very good. Once Li Tie is dead, no one will stand in my way of being the Emperor!”

Shi Heng went down on his knees, announcing in a loud voice, “Long Live JingTai, Emperor of China!” Inside he thought to himself, Enjoy your dreams of the Throne while you can. Soon the Oirats will overthrow the Ming and restore the Yuan dynasty! China will be ruled by us Mongols once more! The day of reckoning is at hand.
 
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