Chapter 268: Famine
As the Qins slowly acclimated to their new life, the situation in the capital reached new heights of tenseness.
The Valiant Tigers had the city gates under heavy guard and patrols monitoring the surroundings. Those inside the capital were hard pressed to get out even if they could fly. They’d lost all contact with the outside world.
Setting aside the fact that South Yan controlled the waterways and supply lines, even if Liu Yingshi didn’t exist and the emperor emeritus was willing to give up the nation’s fortune, it was veritably impossible for Weichi Yan to buy food.
What remaining grain in the city turned into exceedingly precious treasure. Weichi Yan led by example and was the first to switch to watery porridge. He decreed that all rations were to be given to the army first. However, the many hands that handled the rations ensured that not much reached the army at all.
After half a month of this, Weichi Yan and his empress lost more than five kilograms, but many officials could still put rice on the tables. Meanwhile, rations became poorer and poorer for the frontlines.
An Indian summer was in full swing, but the soldiers only had two meals a day. Each meal consisted of a flinty, black chunk of mixed grains that was the size of a woman’s fist.
“F*ck. this. f*cking. shit! Is this for people to eat?!” A city defender almost broke his tooth after taking a bite out of the dry flat cake. He chewed for a good, long while before finally swallowing.
“Count your blessings that we still have these flat cakes. The people in the city have been digging up wild vegetables and stripping off tree bark. Apparently lots have died from hunger, and some are even eating their children.” The speaker took a small nibble, like he was savoring the taste, and carefully washed it down with a mouthful of cold water.
“Ai, did you guys hear? Minister Liu’s manor was overrun yesterday. The people didn’t even look at the valuables after charging in. They only wanted food. But there wasn’t any left in the minister’s home.”
Those next to the speaker piped in, “Those officials are living more comfortably than the emperor! They still have steamed bread at home while the emperor’s had a month of watered down porridge.”
“We may not have good food, but we won’t starve to death. The people’s in for it though. Great Zhou’s got the city surrounded and it’s impossible to break out. They’re going to have us all die in here.”
“I have no idea how we’re going to keep fighting this war. Great Zhou is way too ruthless.”
Out of the originally 350,000 defending troops, thirty thousand had been lost under the Prince of Ning, and now the Duke of An held only three hundred thousand. However, the Valiant Tigers had lost less than a thousand men, and they were besieging a city! It was utterly humiliating.
Stark differences in battle strength, as well as trepidation from hunger and cut supply lines, made the Great Yan soldiers lose their appetites. They felt that the lord of the underworld and his minions were hovering next to them, cackling.
The group looked down the walls and saw that the adjacent enemy encampments had also started fires to cook food. There was even the faint smell of stewed meat.
Though Great Zhou’s supply lines were stretched long, their army hadn’t been encircled. They could still hunt and fish when rations ran low, dig up some wild vegetables or even plant their own. The Valiant Tigers were much more comfortably off compared to the trapped Great Yan capital.
The defending soldiers’ mouths watered upon catching the tantalizingly elusive smell of meat. The tasteless, rock-hard flat cakes became even harder to swallow.
Footsteps sounded on the platform at this time. A greeting rang out, “Your Grace, Grand Preceptor Qin.”
The group quickly rose to their feet to see the Duke of An, clad in golden armor and holding a tasseled helmet, arrive with the grand preceptor half a step behind him. Grand Preceptor Qin was wearing pale-green scholar robes and had lost a lot of weight. There was an exceedingly beautiful pageboy behind him and a middle-aged follower.
Everyone on the walls hastily made their bows. The duke waved them off and looked down over the city gates.
An endless stream of army tents greeted his eyes. Valiant Tiger flags and banners rippled and cracked in the wind, the golden tiger on them baring its teeth. It seemed it would leap down from the poles at any time and pounce on its prey, devouring them whole.
Just a glimpse of the sight made the Duke of An weak at the knees. Only when he’d really fought Pang Xiao had he experienced the might of the Valiant Tigers, how each one of the enemy could fend off ten Great Yan soldiers. Understanding had also dawned on why Pang Xiao was reputed to be a gifted mastermind when it came to strategy.
The duke had originally thought that since Wise Pan An was a renowned, resourceful advisor, it was impossible for the strategist to not defeat Pang Xiao. He’d once successfully schemed against even the prince’s father, after all!
But in reality, the two were well-matched in the field.
Though the Valiant Tigers were fewer in numbers, they were much fiercer and more highly trained. But, they were also at the disadvantage of besieging a city.
Though Great Yan had great numbers, their battle strength was weak and lacked order. But, they held the advantage of defending against a siege.
After multiple skirmishes between Qin Huaiyuan and Pang Xiao, the original 320,000 strong defending army had been whittled down to three hundred thousand.
After a while of refusing to engage in battle, the Duke of An fell for a ruse and was trapped in the mountains to the west of the capital for a full day and night. If it hadn’t been for Qin Huaiyuan arriving in the nick of time, even the duke would’ve been lost, much less the twenty thousand also in the mountains.
The duke’s heart still pounded when he recalled the events of that day. From that day forth, he refused to open the city gates to meet the enemy in battle, no matter what manner of insults the Great Zhou army called out. The duke pretended to be deaf to all of them.
A shudder ran through the Duke of An. He pointed at the Great Zhou encampment not too far from the city gates, where the delicious scent of meat wafted from, and asked darkly, “How do we fight this?”
Qin Huaiyuan stood with his hands behind his back, his gaze thoughtful. He knew in his heart of hearts that no matter how Great Yan fought, she was at the end of her tether.
If there had been bountiful food supplies, he would’ve been confident in fending off a hundred thousand Valiant Tigers with only thirty thousand men. He could’ve dragged things out until the attackers ran out of supplies and were forced to retreat.
But there were no more reserves left in the capital.
Soldiers risked their lives in the battlefield simply for a mouthful of food and water. When the army commanders couldn’t even offer that, what else could they offer as sustenance? Grand dreams of wealth and prosperity or thoughts of devotion to the emperor?
Commoners were dying of starvation everyday. They would turn into angry mobs when the whip of famine lashed them. Which of the noble houses now yet remained untouched by the crowds? Some aristocratic families had lost even their lives, while others fled in panic and horror.
But just making off with scraps was far from enough to feed the people. When wild vegetables ran out, they turned to tree bark. When that was gone, there were grass roots. But the capital was limited in size. What else could they eat when there wasn’t even grass to be found?
There would only be people left…
This was what desperate civilians would do, so what about the soldiers? They’d likely mutiny before they had to resort to eating people!
Qin Huaiyuan’s head trailed down, thinking of the chaos in the capital, an emperor who stumbled from hunger, his family eating wild roots and berries… helplessness once more roiled through him.
Great Zhou wouldn’t need to expend much effort at all. Extending the siege for another half month would bring the city to its knees without engagement. A nation was truly in ruins when its people ate each other.
The marquis closed his eyes, feeling his chest tighten and his head spin. He wavered and pitched to the ground.
“My lord!” Cao Yuqing noticed Qin Huaiyuan waver. She quickly supported him and with Qitai’s help, slowly laid the marquis out on the ground.
The duke was also startled and anxious. “Is Grand Preceptor Qin lightheaded from hunger? Someone get some water and rations.”
The soldiers who’d been complaining about the hard-to-swallow flat cakes moments ago were struck with a wave of sadness. Even Grand Preceptor Qin had fainted from lack of food. It looked like they really were going to go without.
Qin Huaiyuan was helped down the city walls by Cao Yuqing and Qitai.
In the Great Zhou encampment not too far away from the city gates, Pang Xiao put away his ‘Farseer’, looping it carefully with a silver chain and hanging it on his waist. He frowned worriedly.
“What did you see, master?” Huzi asked curiously.
“We’ve besieged the capital for 43 days now.”
“Yeah.” Huzi sat down cross-legged next to Pang Xiao. “It looks like the capital is at the end of it’s rope. It’s such a hot day and all the people are trapped in the same city, starving. There’s no way they don’t go crazy.”
Pang Xiao’s forehead knit together even tighter. “Right. So she’s starving as well.” Pang Xiao gradually lowered his head and tugged at his hair with both hands.
Huzi finally understood what his master was thinking about. And it was true, there were so many in the capital and a complete lack of supplies. Everything that could be eaten probably had been, so all there was left to do was for starving people to start dying in droves.
Under those circumstances, it was an unknown whether a weak girl like Qin Yining, one whose injuries were yet to heal, would make it…
Huzi only dared think about this. He’d never say it in front of his master. He changed the topic instead. “Your Highness, do we continue cooking the meat stew? Why don’t we let the brothers have some first?”
The Valiant Tigers purposefully cooked a pot of meat stew beneath the city walls everyday so that the defenders could smell the deliciousness. This was also a way in which Pang Xiao battered Great Yan’s morale.
He did so partially to ensure that the enemy couldn’t really put a finger on the Valiant Tigers’ true condition, and partially to undermine the Great Yan people’s heart. It was inestimable mental torture, temptation, and oppression for those starving to see the enemy eating meat everyday.
But to be honest, the Valiant Tigers were having the same issues with their supplies. They just had the benefit of being free to move around. If the situation really became dire, they could forage further away. They weren’t rapped in a city like Great Yan, waiting to die of hunger.
Pang Xiao kept his head down, quiet for a very long time. “Keep cooking. This war must be over as soon as possible. The longer we keep this up, the more I’m afraid…”
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