The Triumph Square was one of the largest and most important places in the capital, and the Arc of Triumph located in the square was one of the most iconic. Many important government buildings were located in the vicinity. Proudly flying the military’s banner was the Army’s recruitment office, also situated near the Arc of Triumph.
According to Tanghe Empire law, only men between sixteen and forty five years of age could enlist in the army. Once enlisted, they were not allowed to leave without the approval of the military, and those who did would be branded as deserters and punished accordingly.
Due to the large population of the empire, the manpower of the army had always been copious, leading to the creation of a professional recruiting system. Due to the empire containing a strict hierarchy throughout the entire country that was divided into several estates, many lower and middle class people joined the army as a means to change their own destinies from the few opportunities afforded them.
At the top of the estates was the royal family, which referred to the immediate family members of the emperor and his close relatives.
The second estate consists of the nobility, distinguished military personnel, and political scholars who have induced revolutionary ideas for reform and governance. Ennoblement is hereditary, but Imperial law dictates that only one individual may inherit the title in order to regulate the nobility. Also, following generations of established nobility must contribute similarly to the state within three generations, or else they would lose their title. Nevertheless, descendents from a fallen house of nobility will still be granted preferential treatment for government and military posts.
The third estate contains the upper class, containing state bureaucrats, merchants, landowners, business owners, and other similar individuals that have caught the attention of local and regional magistrates due to their positive contributions to society. To be allowed here, a person must submit an application listing their merits to the Central Imperial Administration, and once approved, they and their descendents would receive the permissions of the upper class.
The fourth estate consists of the normal citizens, officially known as “freemen”. They are simply regular citizens with nothing particularly of note, who work in various professions and spin the lowest cogs of society.
People in the third and fourth estate are considered as normal citizens.
However, there exists another group of individuals whose existence has not been recognized by Imperial Law – slaves. Having given up their freedoms due to crimes, debt, or being prisoners of war, they have the lowest standards of living. For a slave to return to being a freeman, his or her owner must produce documents detailing how they had obtained that status, and submit them to the regional magistrate for approval. The second way is for the Emperor himself to grant the freeman status to the slave.
As this social structure is rigid and there exists a long history of preferential treatment being given to nobility, those of the third and fourth estate often need to give several times more effort to receive recognition for promotion. Due to this, no matter how brilliant an individual of a lower estate is, their achievements are often buried between the upper aristocracy.
This has become a major issue for the empire, and in Li Wufeng’s mind, an even more pressing concern than the threat of foreign invasion.
Some scholars had realized the deficiencies of such a social system, and had raised inquiries with the Emperor in the past. However, due to the topic concerning the privileges of the aristocracy, the group which politicians mainly consisted of, the proposals of the scholars were met with strong opposition and were suppressed, leading to no result.
Li Wufeng had once asked his master what was necessary to achieve success. It wasn’t the martial ability to beat other experts, nor was it moral integrity; it also wasn’t knowledge of complicated stratagems, for that matter. The answer that he had reached was that it was the ability to make the right choices and manage talents well, having a heart for tolerance and forgiveness – that defined true success. However, with the Empire’s currently existing governing system, ‘commoner’ talents are often suppressed to the point of being unable to lift their heads and lead a respectable life in the Empire. Many are driven out, and end up seeking other lands. Utilizing their talents to the benefit of the Empire’s belligerents, some have even become a threat against the Empire.
When he arrived at the recruitment office beside the Arch of Triumph, the square was crowded despite it being early in the morning.
The Empire had always placed a great emphasis on its military achievements, but in recent years, the foreign war efforts that the Empire undertook were often fruitless, greatly harming its reputation with the international community. This was one of the reasons why the current Emperor had placed even bigger attention at finding accomplished soldiers and heavily awarding their achievements.
While citizens of lower estates might find it difficult to cross the insurmountable gap of social class in the political arena, the same cannot be said about the battlefield. As long as they have courage, there will be a great many number of opportunities to advance in the military, driving enthusiasm for enlistment within the lower estates to an all-time high.
Looking at the reason for the current recruitment drive, Li Wufeng saw firsthand how dire the extenuating circumstances of the Empire were, with new divisions being created to reorganize the City Guards. While these guards were stationed near the city, many of the capital’s citizens had also come out to enlist.
After waiting for two hours, Li Wufeng finally arrived at the counter. Presenting his identification to the middle-aged officer, he saw the officer’s eyes gleam with shock, double-checking his information before filling out the recruitment forms. The reason for this reaction was because it was extremely rare for a noble to enlist in the army using the commoner’s venue. Normally by using connections, those of the second estate would join the military as either an officer or as an official with the army administration.
It wasn’t long before the recruitment office approved Li Wufeng’s application, and shortly afterwards, became the newest soldier of the City Guard Army’s Third Division.
During the three initial months of basics training, Li Wufeng demonstrated his talents, gaining the praise of the officer in charge of training. With his recommendation combined with Li Wufeng’s noble background, it wasn’t long before he was appointed as a lieutenant, the leader for the Second Platoon of the City Guard Army Group, Third Division, Fourth Brigade, Fifth Battalion, Third Company.
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After having received his promotion, Li Wufeng couldn’t help but feel excited. It was his first achievement following his initial step, and the path that he had chosen wasn’t easy. Usually, a normal soldier would find it extremely difficult to rise up the ranks, but despite that, Li Wufeng had already been promoted twice, receiving the rank of platoon leader having not even reached 17 years of age.
A platoon is composed of 3 squads consisting of roughly 35 men in total. Whether Li Wufeng could fulfill his duties satisfactorily and gain the respect of the men under his command was yet to be seen. It was certain that veterans and other accomplished individuals would purposely make it hard for him, and to solve this problem, Li Wufeng thought it simpler to deal with these problems as soon as possible rather than waiting for conflict to arrive.
Thinking up to here, Li Wufeng displayed a confident smile.
“Gentlemen, before everyone is seated, let me introduce myself. I’m Li Wufeng, hailing from Zhongzhou. As comrades in arms in the future, I will be acting as your squad leader, so I hope we will all be able to cooperate,” said Li Wufeng, making a concise introduction.
Standing before him were the men under his command. He could see a mixture of different emotions on their faces, ranging from surprise, dissatisfaction and jealousy. However, they all kept silent, as via military law, if one showed contempt of authority, he would be court martialed.
In a noticeably different tone, Wufeng spoke his following words, “Despite not saying anything, I’m sure that many are thinking, ‘where did this beardless brat come from? Did his relatives meddle with military affairs to allow him to make a living, but why is he all the way down here?’ I will clearly tell everyone that I, Li Wufeng, was born as a member of the nobility, but I didn’t come here to trod along for the income. Right now, I realize that many have not accepted me as being their leader. If there’s anyone who questions my ability, let him come and teach me. As fellow soldiers of the infantry, the only thing that matters is our killing proficiency! I swear upon my honor that I will not seek revenge against those that challenge me regardless of outcome, and if I go against my word, may the heavens punish me! If someone can best me, I will give you my position, and resign to be an ordinary foot soldier instead. Heeding the words of the old proverb, ‘Whether it be horse or mule, just let it try!’”
Li Wufeng’s speech had immediately caused much commotion within the platoon. As he had sworn in front of everyone, he wouldn’t be able to retract his words. There would be no negative outcome for them if they took up the challenge, and they could gain a promotion if they were to win. How could the men’s hearts not be tempted by such a deal? Besides, how hard could it be to beat a youngling?
“What, does no one have the courage?”
As soon as these words left Li Wufeng’s mouth, a shout came from a sturdy man around 23-24 years of age from the crowd.
“I will! Private Kang Jianguo seeks guidance from the lieutenant!”
Sizing up the heroic man who was holding a shield in his left hand and a sword in his right, Li Wufeng took a spear from a nearby soldier before shouting, “Come!”
After bowing towards Li Wufeng, the man took a ready position, not hesitating in any of his actions. With the shield on his left arm protecting his body, he immediately stepped forward, throwing his entire mass into his preemptive attack.
To counter this, Li Wufeng pivoted his frame and thrusted his spear towards the lower abdominal of his opponent. Immediately, Kang Jianguo struck his left arm along with the shield in a smooth downwards motion, deflecting the tip of Li Wufeng’s spear.
The sound of metal clashing against metal could be heard as the shield defended against the spear, and both people retreated a few steps. While Li Wufeng was impressed by his opponent’s martial skill, he failed to realize that his audience had already been shocked speechless by his own performance. After all, Kang Jianguo had the reputation of being the most fearsome and skilled individual among the new recruits of the entire 3rd Division, and Li Wufeng was fighting head on with him!
The disparity between the power behind each individual’s strikes was also shocking. It could clearly be seen that Kang Jianguo had used all his upper body strength to deflect Li Wufeng’s spear strike, but a shield is incomparably sturdier and tougher than the tip of a spear. In comparison, Li Wufeng had only used the strength of his arms, a noticeable difference to everyone watching.
Kang Jianguo was the person who knew best about his current situation. Despite having been able to deflect Li Wufeng’s previous strike, his left arm had already been struck numb and wasn’t able to exert any strength. However, all he could do was ignore his discomfort and continue to persevere.
Shaking his shield, Kang Jianguo executed a fast forwards roll, arriving directly in front of Li Wufeng and swung his sword without mercy. Li Wufeng was prepared for this, taking an immediate step back, avoiding the swing before thrusting his spear to Kang Jianguo’s throat without hesitation.
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Turning his head to the side in an attempt to avoid the thrust, Kang Jianguo bashed his shield forward while simultaneously adopting a defensive sword pose.
Parrying the shield bash with the length of the spear, Li Wufeng took two steps back and thrusted his spear in the direction of Kang Jianguo’s sword this time. Unable to muster any strength in his arm, Kang Jianguo was overpowered as Li Wufeng swept the spear in an upwards motion, with his sword flying to the ground several meters away.
The speed in which Kang Jianguo was defeated had shocked all the people present. A silence descended upon the field.
Awkwardly standing with an embarrassed expression, Kang Jianguo was only able to awake from his stupor when Li Wufeng stabbed his spear into the ground and picked the sword up, offering it back to him. Seeing this, Kang Jianguo bowed before apologizing, “Your subordinate has committed an act of contempt of authority, and had eyes but couldn’t see Mt. Tai. Please forgive me, respected official.”
“I had already stated that I welcome everyone’s guidance. You are without fault, so there is no need for a punishment.”
As Li Wufeng finished saying this, several veterans turned their eyes towards a man standing at the very left of the line. He was around 1-2 years older than Kang Jianguo, but despite not having Kang Jianguo’s build, he emanated a presence that made others recognize that he was no newbie.
Choosing to remain silent, Wufeng simply smiled in the direction of this individual. While his face clearly displayed reluctance, the man still came out and bowed in the end, caving to the pressure of the multitude.
“This one is named Liang Chongxin, the leader of the first squad. Please enlighten me.”
His tone was incomparably more polite compared to Kang Jianguo’s.
Not wasting any time, Li Wufeng picked up the sword and shield previously used by Kang Jianguo. Analyzing him as he slowly walked out with a halberd in his hand, Li Wufeng concluded that Liang Chongxin’s abilities were far superior to Jianguo’s.
Li Wufeng’s actions had caused immediate murmurings among the audience. Earlier, Li Wufeng had demonstrated his proficiency of the spear, easily using it to disarm the sword and shield that Kang Jianguo had used. Now, facing against a halberd, he had switched to a bladed weapon. To the platoon members, this action meant that Li Wufeng was not just proficient with one type of weapon, but rather a master of all trades in terms of usage of weaponry.
Liang Chongxin’s nervous expression turned grave upon witnessing this. ‘Fine, since this demonstration is only to fulfill his curiosity, I’ll just try my best, regardless of outcome.’
Immediately pumping himself up with a shout, Liang Chongxin began his assault with a clean thrust of the halberd’s tip. Looking at the attack’s proficiency, the audience immediately started cheering.
However, with a simple tap against the halberd’s tip with the shield on Li Wufeng’s left arm, the force behind it was dispelled. It could be seen that Li Wufeng wasn’t slacking, and the audience cheered even louder for the brilliance behind Li Wufeng’s simple defense.
After countering Liang Chongxin’s attack, Li Wufeng threw his body forward and swung his sword at his opponent’s head. Using the blade on his halberd, Liang Chongxin parried the attack before following with a thrust towards Li Wufeng’s stomach with the spear tip. Despite Li Wufeng avoiding this thrust by taking a step back, Liang Chongxin pressed forward with the relentless momentum of his attacks, continuing to pommel the tip of his halberd in the direction of Li Wufeng’s ribs.
Knowing that not disrupting the flow of his opponent’s attacks would result in his defeat, Wufeng met his adversary’s blade with his shield, locking it in place. Advancing forwards, the blade in his right hand cut its way towards Liang Chongxin’s midsection.
As Liang Chongxin did not anticipate that Li Wufeng would choose to advance rather than retreat, he was caught unprepared, unable to defend himself with the halberd. He was forced on the defensive, but the tables were turned – it was now Li Wufeng who was unrelenting with his merciless stream of attacks, forcing Liang Congxin into a corner.
The series of consecutive attacks made it impossible for Liang Chongxin to display the strengths of a polearm, while capitalizing upon the strength of the sword – speed. It wasn’t soon after that a hole appeared in Liang Congxin’s defenses, which was able to be exploited by Li Wufeng who cut off the shoulder strap of the armor.
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This action could already be viewed as lenient, as if the fight was on a battlefield, Congxin would have already lost his life from that attack.
Liang Chongxin felt that this outcome was somewhat expected. From the very beginning, he was already mentally prepared for the possibility of defeat. It could be said that having persevered for this long was already fulfilling the expectations of his peers. Noticing how his opponent was clearly holding back, it would be unreasonable if he did not admit defeat.
“Your subordinate admits his loss. Many thanks to the official for this mercy,” Liang Chongxin said respectfully, bowing in a curtsy.
“This is nothing. It was mutually beneficial; not to mention, we should all be brothers from now on,” Li Wufeng replied while helping Liang Chongxin up.
Witnessing Li Wufeng’s modesty, a trait seemingly nonexistent in youths of the aristocracy, Liang Chongxin and the other soldiers couldn’t help but be moved.
Using his own ability to demonstrate his worth, Li Wufeng had earned the respect of everyone in his unit. With his reputation secured, from that moment on, there wasn’t anybody in the second platoon that dared to view him as ‘simply another child’.