Without even thinking, Zhen Congyun assumed Ling Shu was just talking nonsense to fool her.
"I heard that after the downfall of the Ling family, you and your siblings relied on each other for survival. Your sister used the remaining family assets to send you abroad, and she told everyone that you would come back with great success. At that time, I had a cousin who came back and told us as a joke that your sister's ambitions were too high and her fate too fragile. Even though she had fallen to this point, she still boasted about you, thinking that you could really make a comeback!"
As she spoke, her sparkling eyes couldn't help but twinkle with amusement, silently mocking and seeming to say, 'Your sister really exaggerated her achievements. Her so-called successful brother came back only to rely on his brother-in-law's connections and ended up working as a lowly police officer.'
"You should thank Yue Dingtang. Without his support, you would still be stuck in that small police station, bowing and scraping to anyone you meet. You wouldn't even have the chance to associate with me."
At that moment, Zhen Congyun felt like she was still the privileged Miss Zhen, the pride of the family, adored by all.
Ordinary people were like dirt beneath her feet, not even worth a glance.
"My older sister had scraped together all our family's savings just to barely afford my tuition for studying abroad. Once I left on that ship, who knows when I would be able to return. Even if I did come back, it wouldn't necessarily mean anything. Without connections, I might not even be able to secure a government job, let alone a stable career to revive the Ling family's fortunes. At that time, I was young and full of ambition. On one hand, I sympathized with my sister's struggles, but on the other hand, I didn't want her to look down on me. I wanted to make a lot of money and prove myself to her, so I sold my ticket and went to Yunnan alone.
"I heard that tobacco trade is thriving in Yunnan. If one has the courage to join the army and find the right connections, one can earn a good income every year. So, I joined the Yunnan Army and became a lowly soldier in Long Yun's platoon. I was determined to make a name for myself and didn't shy away from hard training. With a little money my sister left me in my pocket, I made friends with my comrades and superiors. I had good relationships with everyone in the platoon.
"At that time, the soldiers were barely making enough to feed and support their families. Many of us had to take on side jobs to earn extra money. I joined the army with this purpose in mind, but our platoon leader was a peculiar person. He not only held himself to strict standards, but also forbade us from engaging in any side jobs. My superior, the squad leader, was caught smuggling tobacco and was punished in front of everyone. As a low-ranking soldier, I was excluded from these activities by the older members of my squad, but surprisingly, I was promoted to be the new squad leader by the platoon leader.
"Not long after, Long Yun was sent by Tang Jiyao to attack Guangxi. Our platoon was in the forefront, led by Platoon Leader Old Zhou, let's just call him Old Zhou since you don't know him anyway. Old Zhou led us to fight in Nanning, but we couldn't take it down. As a new recruit, I didn't know anything and everything we trained for was completely different on the battlefield. Bullets flew past my ears and shells exploded right next to me. Do you know what that feels like?"
The smell of burnt flesh from comrades being blown to pieces lingered in the air, like uncooked barbecue with a hint of stench. He wanted to vomit, but nothing came out except dry heaves. If you hesitated for even a second, you could be the one blown to pieces.
Ling Shu could only dodge left and right, feeling lost and confused.
All his marksmanship and composure vanished in a burst of blood and courage.
Before the decline of the Ling family, Ling Shu was full of confidence, feeling like a talented individual of the heavens. The new era was right in front of him, and even if he couldn't achieve great things, he still wanted to make some accomplishments.
After the Ling family's decline, he made a solemn vow to single-handedly support the family and make those who once looked down on them regret it.
He wanted his sister to no longer have to face their parents' graves with a troubled expression every day.
However, on the battlefield, he only had one thought: to survive.
The smoke and stench mixed together, making it impossible to see the road ahead. Even if he retreated, he couldn't go home.
Zhen Congyun didn't want to hear any more of those descriptions that made his mind wander.
She interrupted him sternly.
"Don't think that you can scare me like this. Even in such danger, you still managed to survive!"
"I'm alive, but I should have been one of those cannon fodder who died on the battlefield."
"It was Old Zhou who pushed me away before the shell fell, and his own legs were blown off."
"Old Zhou's two legs flew over my head, and I was dumbfounded. Later, I don't know how I dragged Old Zhou away from the battlefield and survived until the reinforcements arrived."
"A few days later, Old Zhou woke up in the hospital. Because my arm was injured, I didn't have to go back to the battlefield and stayed to help take care of him. Old Zhou found out that he had lost his legs, but he seemed quite calm. It was actually me who was worried that he couldn't accept it, and I watched him closely all the time.
"Once, Old Zhou called me over and asked me to apply for retirement after my injury healed. He promised to help me and even gave me a recommendation letter to attend the Yunnan Military Academy. He said I was still young and could learn quickly. I shouldn't die on the battlefield for these meaningless and endless internal wars. Instead, I should go to school and learn more advanced and systematic knowledge, and also learn how to be a qualified soldier.
"Do you remember? I joined the Yunnan Army just to get some benefits and make some money, and then go back to revive my family business. But Old Zhou actually said I had the potential to be a soldier."
As Ling Shu spoke, Zhen Congyun opposite him didn't laugh, but he himself laughed first.
However, within the laughter, there were many meanings that even he couldn't explain.
He still remembers Old Zhou from back then, his face pale with illness but not defeated, only the lower half of his bed empty.
"When the country is in trouble, we must strive to become stronger. You are a good seedling, don't waste your life as cannon fodder, not knowing how you died. My legs are useless for the rest of my life, so you can walk around for me. After graduating from the military academy, it doesn't matter what you want to do, you don't have to join the army, but you can't mix with mediocre and greedy people and go astray.
That's what Old Zhou said to him, and he still remembers it vividly to this day.
It's funny to think about it.
He originally wanted to go along with the crowd and do whatever it takes, but he met Old Zhou and was forced back onto the right path.
"You didn't have to go," Zhen Congyun said. "His legs are useless, he can't stop you anyway."
Ling Shu said, "But I owe him my life. Even if all he did was send me to school, I would still repay him even if it meant giving him my own legs."
Zhen Congyun sneered, "If it were me, I wouldn't repay him. He volunteered to save you, no one forced him. Just give him a little more money. Nowadays, a few dollars can buy a life. Even if he's just a small platoon leader, it's only a few more dollars!"
Ling Shu fell silent.
Zhen Congyun furrowed her brow. She had a feeling that Ling Shu didn't like or even resented her words, but she couldn't tell if he was too afraid to argue or simply too lazy to do so.
The latter possibility made her uncomfortable all over.
Seeing that Yue Dingtang had not yet arrived, she became anxious and couldn't help but urge Ling Shu.
"Continue," she said, "how did you end up joining the army in the northeast after studying in Yunnan?"
After a long pause, Ling Shu finally spoke.
"When I graduated, the Northeast Army had already changed. It was no longer a local warlord's army, but a local army under central leadership. At that time, Japan was making frequent moves in the northeast, and rumors spread throughout the country. Although many people didn't say it out loud, they all knew that sooner or later, this war would break out, and it was very likely to happen in the northeast.
"Old Zhou passed away when I graduated. He caught a cold and, being already weak from having lost both legs, couldn't survive the winter. I watched him close his eyes on his deathbed and knew then that I couldn't go back to Shanghai. I owed Old Zhou my life and had promised him something. But in Shanghai, with its endless distractions and temptations, I couldn't fulfill my promise and only wasted my time."
"Among my classmates at the time was a man from Northeast China who also wanted to return home. So we packed our bags and headed north together. That's when I met Yuan Sansi. We were in the same platoon, slept in adjacent beds, trained together, and fought side by side in the trenches.
"No, that's not right!" interrupted Zhen Congyun. "Everyone says that Yuan Sansi is the steward of Old Lady Guan, and has been with the Guan family for many years. When did he join the army?"
Ling Shu replied, "You're talking about Yuan's twin brother. His older brother was indeed Old Master Guan's confidant, but he died of illness two years ago. Old master Guan knew about it and allowed Old Yuan to take his brother's place and continue to stay by his side. But except for Third Master Guan, most people in the Guan family don't know about this. Before old master Guan passed away, he had the final say in everything in the Guan family, and everyone was used to his authority. His sons were all mediocre and never thought to investigate further. This kind of thing is not a big deal to them."
Zhen Congyun caught a name and asked suspiciously, "Third Master Guan? Isn't he the most useless person in the Guan family?"
Footsteps could be heard in the distance, getting closer and closer.
Ling Shu changed the subject, abruptly ending the story.
"Miss Zhen, now that Old Yue has returned, can we take a break from the storytelling?"
Zhen Congyun wasn't in the mood to continue listening either.
She only wanted to know how Old Yuan and Ling Shu had met.
She had unknowingly listened to him ramble on about something else.
If it weren't for the boredom of waiting for Yue Dingtang to return with the stone, she wouldn't have had the patience to listen to him.
"Where's the stone?" she shouted at the approaching person.
"It's with me," it was indeed Yue Dingtang's voice.
"Go open the door!"
Ling Shu narrowed his eyes.
Upon seeing Yue Dingtang, Zhen Congyun instinctively aimed her gun at him. To her, Yue Dingtang's return was a bigger threat than Ling Shu.
Little did she know, Ling Shu was waiting for this moment!
He suddenly made a move.
With a leap, he pounced towards Zhen Congyun. Before she could move the gun back, he was already in front of her!
Zhen Congyun was startled.
She fired the gun!