Zhou Gui did as Xiao Chiye said and set up a tableful of home-cooked dishes in his own courtyard. Shen Zechuan, on stepping into the courtyard, found it to be quite unconventional despite its simple setup. It was close to nature, and had no valuable wares such as gold and jade.
Zhou Gui welcomed Xiao Chiye and invited him to take his seat. It was presently the sixth month. The side of the small table was encircled by a cool and clear stream, with hanging branches brushing against its water. It was pleasantly cool and cheery. Zhou Gui did not get anyone else to serve them. Only Kong Ling remained standing in attendance by his side to pour wine for them.
Xiao Chiye cleaned his hands and watched as the wine in the cup was gradually filled to the brim. He said, “Your Excellency Zhou has truly gone to much trouble. Even the wine prepared is ‘On Horseback‘ from Libei. I’ve been away from home for so many years, and it has been a long time since I last drank it.”
This wine was wine from the Libei Armored Cavalry made out of grains. It was bold and intense. Just a few sips in the snowy winter could warm the body up. The reason it was called “On Horseback” was because more than thirty years ago on his wedding night, the Prince of Libei, Xiao Fangxu, received a military report of the Biansha’s breach into the territory. With no time for him to remove his wedding outfit, he flipped onto the horse to head into the battlefield to kill the enemies. Before he set off, the Princess Consort of Libei, who was similarly still dressed in her wedding outfit, lifted the jar to pour wine and exchanged a cup of matrimony wine1 with Xiao Fangxu, who was sitting on horseback. This was a common scene at the frontiers, but with this person being the reputable Prince of Libei, everyone could not help but lament the fact. From then on, ‘for most of three hundred and sixty days in a year, on horseback he rides, weapon in hand”2 came to be how the Libei Armored Cavalry was portrayed.
When Zhou Gui saw Xiao Chiye looking calm and serene, some of his anxiety eased. He said, “We are close to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path. When the military provisions were being escorted for delivery last month, the army sent many jars of wine over. Your Lordship is about to return to your hometown, but there is nothing good in Cizhou to entertain you with, so I can only offer you such a borrowed gift.”3
Xiao Chiye laughed and said, “It’s the local dishes that are the most flavorful. Compared to the delicacies of Qudu, this entire table of dishes shows more sincerity. There’s no need for Your Excellency to be modest. The arrangements for matters relating to the military provisions are complex, and it’s all because of Your Excellency’s valuable assistance that Cizhou could finish sealing and loading in just a few short days. It’s only fitting for me to give you a toast as a show of my appreciation.”
Zhou Gui did not dare to accept the toast sitting down and hurriedly rose to his feet. He held up the wine cup in both hands for a toast, then drank up with Xiao Chiye. It was only after he was done drinking the wine that he took his seat and said, “The Libei Armored Cavalry is fighting a battle with the Hanshe Tribe at the front line, and the military provisions are crucial to their success and failure on the battlefield. What I did was merely my duty. How can it be worthy enough to have Your Lordship make a special point of expressing your thanks? I really don’t deserve it.”
“Although Cizhou had a bumper harvest last year, it has been continuously providing aid to Duanzhou and Libei since the start of spring. Those are all grains the commoners of Cizhou saved up. I should thank you for this.” With that, Xiao Chiye raised his hand and slightly stopped Kong Ling as the latter moved to pour wine. He said, “Since it’s a private family feast, there’s no need to stand on ceremony. This gentleman, please take a seat too.”
Kong Ling was swift to react. He promptly bowed where he stood and sat down.
“Where is Mister from?” Shen Zechuan asked with a smile.
The gears in Kong Ling’s mind turned even faster. He saw Xiao Chiye starting to dig in, and so he knew the main negotiator tonight was this Vice Commander Shen. He bowed his head and answered, “I do not dare to be addressed as such, given that I’m merely a commoner from the countryside. I’m a native from Dengzhou.”
“Dengzhou has no lack of talents. May I know how I should address you?”
“My name is Kong Ling, and my humble courtesy name4 is Chengfeng.” Kong Ling sat upright and said as he looked at Shen Zechuan, “Tantai Hu of the Imperial Army is the blood brother of a close friend of mine, Tantai Long.”
“To think one would run into an old friend in a foreign land.” Shen Zechuan turned his head to the side and said to Xiao Chiye with a smile, “Ce’an, let’s get Laohu to meet up with mister Chengfeng another day. It isn’t easy to have an encounter in turbulent times.”
He called Xiao Chiye Ce’an, and this address alone was enough for Kong Ling to re-evaluate this orphan of Shen Wei. Shen Zechuan was pretty much inconspicuous when he entered Cizhou, or rather, far less conspicuous than his mortal flesh. Kong Ling knew he was Shen Zechuan, the Imperial Bodyguards Vice Commander that Emperor Tianchen personally made an exception to promote. But after leaving Qudu, Shen Zechuan lost his basis to command the world—In Kong Ling’s eyes, he had no soldiers and no men. He was merely a vassal who had fled with Xiao Chiye to this place. But then, a vassal could never sit as equals at the same table with Xiao Chiye and call him by his courtesy name.
Xiao Chiye poured wine for himself and said, “You decide.”
Zhou Gui cast a glance at Kong Ling, then looked at Shen Zechuan. Kong Ling stood up to toast him and said, “I’ve long heard of the Vice Commander’s name…”
“You are too kind.” Shen Zechuan said, “Please sit and lets us talk as we drink,”
Kong Ling said, “I’m just a minor clerk under His Excellency’s command. How would I dare to discuss official affairs with Your Excellency? It’s already half a lifetime of blessing for me to be able to sit here and listen to your guidance with the cup of wine I’ve received.”
The corners of Shen Zechuan’s lips lifted slightly. He said, “Mister is truly too modest. I heard that you also used to be Tantai Long’s adviser in Duanzhou. When the Biansha Cavalry breached into our territories, Tantai Long advocated war, and you were the one who devised all his battle strategies.”
They had only just entered Cizhou, and they had already dug up all the inside stories. Kong Ling’s heart sank. He said, “I was merely an armchair strategist strategizing on paper.”
“A pity Tantai Long died in Shen Wei’s hands.” Shen Zechuan drank his wine. “And Duanzhou fell without even being attacked.”
Shen Zechuan said it so lightly that it was as if Duanzhou’s fall was merely a stack of paper cards that had collapsed—that it was nothing worth hating; nothing worth resenting.
Kong Ling’s expression gradually grew glum as he remained sitting. A long while later, he forced a smile and said, “The Vice Commander lives a life of luxury in Qudu. How would you know the suffering of the people after the city of Duanzhou fell? White bones stretching thousands of li5 from the Chashi River to Dunzhou remained uncollected. It’s not that big of a deal that Shen Wei was a rat who shrank from battles. But he and Shen Zhouji set up a banquet to strangle Tantai Long to death… The troops of Zhongbo suffered a defeat. I, Kong Chengfeng, was able to have a change of master and continue living. But the pro-war faction led by Tantai Long was completely wiped out. You’re right. It’s a pity Tantai Long died in Shen Wei’s hands. He was a good man of Zhongbo.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Mister had a narrow escape. With your talents and learning, you’d be able to come across a Bo Le6 even if you go to Qudu. Yet you remained in Cizhou. I don’t understand.”
Kong Ling wanted to stand up, but then he could not leave his seat arbitrarily. He could only raise his head to look at Shen Zechuan and said, “The Vice Commander doesn’t understand. How can you understand? The calamity that is the ravages of war came out of the blue and turned Zhongbo into a scene of devastation everywhere. But here, there is no fame nor fortune here. Perhaps in the Vice Commander’s eyes, it is just like the scattered willow catkins in the air, but to us, Zhongbo still has hope of getting back on its feet.”
Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “Duanzhou lost its garrison battalion, and subsequently a band of bandits proclaimed themselves king. The fields have fallen into disuse, and there’s no signs of human lives beyond half a li outside the city. So is this hope you speak of exactly the opportunity to get back on its feet for the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo, or just for the single city of Cizhou? On one hand, Cizhou intends to drag out an ignoble existence with Qudu, but on the other hand, Cizhou accedes to every one of Libei’s requests. To be such a fence-sitter… I indeed don’t understand.”
Kong Ling suddenly rose and said, “How would you know of Cizhou’s difficulties? Qudu had their hands full with internal strife after the defeat of Zhongbo’s troops, and we never got a reply despite our numerous memorials to ask for help. It was His Excellency who personally handled the reclamation of the wasted fields. It took three years before we could have this bumper harvest. That’s right. Cizhou is indeed stuck in a dilemma between Qudu and Libei, but Cizhou has always gone all out to help each time Libei is faced with a difficulty. Vice Commander, isn’t it a tad too cutting to say that Cizhou is a fence-sitter?!”
“It is as you said.” Shen Zechuan suddenly changed his expression and said with a stern countenance, “I know Cizhou has its own difficulties, so we’ve come for the specific purpose of talking things out with both of you. We’ll go straight to the point. Your Excellency isn’t willing to let the Imperial Army pass for fear of being censured by Qudu in the days to come. But with the disintegration of the current state of affairs, holding on to what is left is not the wisest strategy. Han Cheng devised a scheme to murder the Son of Heaven. The reason Ce’an and I left Qudu was not to flee for our lives, but to pick up the pieces. The Empress Dowager now has control over the administration of the imperial court, and the noble clans have once again sealed off the main gate of Qudu. How long can the Imperial College still thrive? Wasn’t it precisely because of Hua Siqian’s perfunctory attitude back then – when Your Excellency and Mister Chengfeng submitted repeated memorials after the defeat of Zhongbo troops – that Zhongbo has no hope of getting back on its feet? I’ve long heard about the bandits in Zhongbo back then when I was in Qudu. As long as those bandits aren’t eliminated, Zhongbo will remain unstable. So how are you going to continue in your plans to restore Zhongbo to its former glory? The beginning of an undertaking is full of hardships, like one driving a wooden cart in tattered clothing to blaze a new trail through the mountains and forests.7 I very much admire both gentlemen’s determination for restoration. It’s just that the road ahead is difficult. So why not change your course and leave Zhongbo’s affairs to Zhongbo itself to handle?”
Holding his wine, Zhou Gui held Kong Ling in place and said, “Since the Vice Commander is so frank, then I shall not beat around the bush. It’s indeed the case that I’m not willing to let His Lordship pass because I’m worried that Qudu would hold us responsible and increase Cizhou’s tax as a punishment. If Cizhou disregards Qudu’s deployment order and acts on its own, I fear it’d be hard for us to accomplish anything in the future without support. We have no military force and no wealthy merchants to provide financial aid. Furthermore, we don’t have the same level of confidence as Libei. The Vice Commander may persuade me thus, but there is no way I can use the lives of Cizhou’s commoners to take a gamble.”
“On the contrary.” Xiao Chiye motioned for Kong Ling to sit. “By saying this, Lanzhou is not persuading Your Excellency to fight alone. Cizhou is close to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path, and it has, at present, yet to establish a fully working garrison of its own. As long as Your Excellency is willing to allow my troops to come and go without obstruction, then, until Cizhou’s garrison troop is formed, my Imperial Army of 20,000 men can take over the patrol duty in its place.”
Zhou Gui contemplated it in silence. Kong Ling said, “Your Lordship will naturally keep your promise. But I also have to ask Your Lordship, if Libei were to revolt, the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path will naturally become obsolete. Where then will military provisions for the Libei Armored Cavalry come from in the future? Cizhou?”
“The Northeast Provisions Bridle Path is a key route that was opened up for the specific purpose of escorted transportation after the establishment of Libei Armored Cavalry. Isn’t it too much of a pity for it to go to waste just like this?” Shen Zechuan fiddled with the wine cup. The expression in his eyes was calm and unhurried. “The Libei Armored Cavalry and the Imperial Army has a total of 140,000 soldiers and horses. The military provisions will still have to go through the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path in the future.”
Kong Ling exchanged a glance with Zhou Gui and said in astonishment, “Your Lordship currently has the charge of regicide hanging over your head. How would the thirteen cities of Juexi still dare to prepare military provisions for the Libei Armored Cavalry again?”
Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “Juexi is Juexi. Qudu is Qudu. Mister Chengfeng, since I dare to say so, I naturally have my means. How about it? As long as Your Excellency Zhou is willing to let the Imperial Army pass through tonight, Cizhou will never have to fight alone in the future.”
Zhou Gui hesitated and held his voice steady to say, “I can trust His Lordship’s moral character, but I can’t trust this rapidly changing situation. Both of you keep saying that the Imperial Army will suppress the bandits after passing through. But if both of you renege on your promise after the transit, then Cizhou will really be caught in a dead end with no way out!”
“No need to fret.” Shen Zechuan put down his wine cup and said placidly, “I alone shall remain in Cizhou until the Imperial Army squashes the bandits. If Your Excellency still has misgivings, we can hand over our current captive, Han Jin, to Your Excellency. That way, even if we go back on our word in future, Your Excellency can use Han Jin’s life as an excuse to appease the wrath of Qudu.”
Li Jianheng was dead, and there was still no news about a new ruler from Qudu. The region was already beginning to stir and show signs of restlessness. It was only out of fear of the Qi clan in Qidong that no one dared to follow in the wake of Libei and set up their own banner to stand on their own feet. But Cizhou was different. It was so close to the Libei Armored Cavalry. If it could really get the assistance of the military forces, then they would no longer need to submit to the deployment orders of the noble clans.
“News of my entry into the city today has already spread to Qudu.” Xiao Chiye continued unhurriedly, “Whether Your Excellency let me through or not, the Empress Dowager will have misgivings of Cizhou after tonight.”
Zhou Gui’s countenance suddenly changed. “Your Lordship, Your Excellency. You!”
“Besides.” Shen Zechuan followed close on Xiao Chiye’s heels and said in a mild tone, “If both gentlemen want to establish a fully working Cizhou’s garrison troop, then the most pressing task at hand is to recruit soldiers and buy horses. Cizhou relies on the farm fields to eat and make a living. There are no businesses inside and outside of Cizhou that are connected to Juexi and the harbors. I’m afraid it will take you until several years later to achieve this aim if you just use tax money alone. I just happen to have some savings, and I’m willing to contribute whatever little I have to the best I can—So Your Excellency Zhou, can the Imperial Army leave now?”
- 交杯酒 nuptial cups; a formal exchange of cups of wine between bride and groom as traditional wedding ceremony; a toast in which one links one’s arm with a partner to drink from one’s cup of wine.
- 一年三百六十日, 多是横戈马上行 from《马上作》Qi Jiguang (戚继光), a Chinese military general and writer of the Ming dynasty. Refers to how most of the time he is on the battlefield wielding his weapon on horseback.
- 借花献佛 literally to make an offering to Buddha with borrowed flowers (flowers given by another), i.e., make a gift of something given by another.
- 草字 a humble or self-deprecating term used to introduce one’s courtesy name to another party in ancient times.
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 伯乐 a figure famed for his ability to judge the quality of horses. Refers to someone who is a good judge of talents. (Here referring to a master who recognises and appreciates his talents.)
- 筚路蓝缕，以启山林 From Zuozhuan, or the Commentary of Zuo《左传》i.e.; to endure great hardships of the sake of pioneering work.