Lei Changming was a native of Chazhou. In his early years, he served as an armed escort with the others and carried out manual labor. He never studied or attended school. During the reign of Yongyi, the commander of the Duanzhou Garrison Troops took his younger sister as a concubine, and she pretty much gained favor in the commander’s residence. Because of this, Lei Changming had a comfortable life for a period of time and spent all day at the gambling dens. A pity the good times did not last long. The Duanzhou commander was not a devoted man, and within a few years, he spurned Lei Changming’s younger sister. With no one to repay all those debts he owed, Lei Changming could only set out once more to work as an armed escort.
At the end of the reign of Yongyi, Lei Changming took on a job from the Yan clan of Hezhou. During the journey, he risked his life to fight off the robbers and protect the youngest young master of the Yan clan, Yan Heru. Consequently, he got into the Yan clan’s good books. In the reign of Xiande, after the defeat of the Zhongbo troops, he used money borrowed from the Yan clan to recruit men and buy horses. He then started a mutiny against the Duanzhou garrison battalion and killed off the commander that the Imperial Court had appointed at that time. From then on, he became a bandit of Duanzhou.
Lei Changming initially only had a few thousand men, but with the imperial court’s passive course of action after the defeat of the troops, Zhongbo was never able to recover from the heavy blow. People who were reduced from being commoners to being bandits increased, and he gradually became an overlord of sorts in Duanzhou. To date, the troops under his command had already far exceeded the numbers of garrison troops soldiers in the various Zhongbo prefectures.
“Half a year earlier, Lei Changming had a total of 14,000 people or so in the prefectures of Duanzhou and Dunzhou.” Zhou Gui held up his sleeve and pointed at the map for Xiao Chiye. “He used Mount Luo between Duanzhou and Dunzhou as his base camp and established his own nest of brigands. When the imperial court rebuilt the garrison troops of Dengzhou, they once tried to besiege Mount Luo, but they always returned empty-handed the few times they tried. Thus, they gave up, and no one bothered about it anymore.”
As Xiao Chiye secured his arm guards, he leaned partially against the table to look at the map. He said, “He’s bringing 40,000 people to Cizhou. No doubt he still has to leave behind enough men and horses to keep guard at Mount Luo. So it seems that he has at least 60,000 soldiers and horses. This number is two Qidong commanderies’ garrison troops worth of men.
Although Xiao Chiye had no intent of blaming anyone, he still made Zhou Gui sweat. This was because the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo all fell under the jurisdiction of legitimately appointed prefectural prefects, and yet, in the span of six years, they simply just watched the bandits grow in dominance until they were on the same scale as a regular army.
“Although His Excellency has no dealings with Duanzhou and Dunzhou, there are usually field officials who would go forth to handle the military garrisons’ cases.” Kong Ling sat in his chair and said, “He has assembled this many people in just half a year, and to think we never got wind of it.”
“Your Lordship.” Zhou Gui said earnestly. “I originally thought that Lei Changming has merely 10,000 men or so, and besieging him to annihilate him would be merely a matter of a month or so. But now, he’s charging towards Cizhou with 40,000 troops, and we only have 20,000 men from the Imperial Army. I fear we are in a perilous position! Why not…”
Why not get someone to head for Libei immediately to pass the news to Xiao Fangxu and have him deploy the Libei Armored Cavalry troops guarding the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path south to provide reinforcements?
Xiao Chiye finished securing his arm guards, yet he did not speak. Zhou Gui still wanted to persuade him, but Kong Ling sensed something else from Xiao Chiye’s silence. Taking advantage of his action as he served tea, he pressed down Zhou Gui’s arm, and Zhou Gui promptly swallowed back his words.
“There’s no need for Your Excellency and Mister Chengfeng to panic.” Shen Zechuan sat on another chair. He was still looking at that courier report. “Lei Changming’s 40,000 men have to eat too. He can’t travel fast, and his logistics squad needs to carry along sufficient rations in order to sustain them as they stride across hundreds and thousands of li to Cizhou to fight a battle with us. Besides…”
A peculiar expression materialized on Shen Zechuan’s face.
“This report might not be accurate either.”
“Why does the Vice Commander say so?” Zhou Gui hurriedly lifted the hem of his robe and approached him to look at the courier report as well. “This is an urgent report sent back personally by the official who went to Dunzhou to handle the bandit case. How can it be inaccurate?”
“He didn’t see Lei Changming 40,000 soldiers and horses with his own eyes.” Shen Zechuan mulled it over. “It’s too hasty and sloppy to believe Lei Changming’s words based on just the traces of earthen stoves. I suspect Lei Changming already knows that the Imperial Army has arrived in Cizhou. That’s why he put up the banner of 40,000 men—to throw us into disarray.”
“That’s right.” With his eyes lowered, Xiao Chiye said. “If he really has 40,000 people, the battle would be a lot easier to fight. A war of attrition depletes way too much resources. He would be in more of a dire strait than us.”
“But he still has the support of the Yan clan of Hezhou.” Zhou Gui said anxiously. “It was all because of the Yan clan’s financial assistance that he was able to expand to such a scale. There is a river course in Hezhou that leads right to the granary in Juexi. It’s easy to supply him with additional rations.”
“How muddle-headed Your Excellency is.” Shen Zechuan suddenly laughed. “If Lei Changming still has the Yan clan’s full support behind him, then why would he be in such a hurry to rush to Cizhou? Have you forgotten that his purpose in coming to Cizhou is to get his hands on the grains?”
“He came once before the new year, and came visiting again a few months later.” Xiao Chiye said, “This not only indicates that he might have fallen out with the Yan clan, but also that his assets back at Mount Luo are no longer enough to fill his tummy. It’s the Chashi River to his east, and the Biansha Cavalry is even better at plundering than he is. He has no one to turn to, so he could only come repeatedly to Cizhou to demand grains.”
“Then why did he have to wait until the Imperial Army arrived at Cizhou to make another trip instead of coming here earlier or later?” Kong Ling circled around the table, slowed down for two steps, and said, “Your Lordship’s arrival in Cizhou is clearly disadvantageous to him.”
“Because Han Jin is in the Imperial Army’s hands.” Shen Zechuan closed the report and stood up. He said, “It’s all because of the Yan clan’s help that he can survive this long. Now that he has parted ways with the Yan clan, he will have to seek new help if he wants to continue holding on to his mountain stronghold and keep on being his overlord. He’s a bandit. The more people he has under his command, the more troublesome it will be. Those living on the other mountains can live off the mountain,1 but Zhongbo is poor and barren. Even if he digs out the entire mountain, all he can eat is soil. This person is very good at grabbing opportunities. He’s able to gain fame and fortune because he made the right choices at the three turning points in his life. He has soldiers, and Zhongbo just happens to be short of soldiers. However, he has no connections, and Ce’an just happens to lead the Imperial Army here to pass through Cizhou. If he is able to defeat the Imperial Army and save Han Jin, then he would be able to report this meritorious service of his to Qudu and seek a military official position in Zhongbo through the Han clan.”
“A good plan indeed, to have his eyes set on metamorphosing into a real official of the imperial court.” Indignant, Zhou Gui stomped his foot and said, “Is he totally showing no regards for the commoners of Cizhou?!”
“This is merely just a conjecture. We still have to trade blows with this person before we can get a better feel of him.” Xiao Chiye hung up Langli Blade and said to Zhou Gui, “Libei lies behind Cizhou. If Lei Changming can’t sneak through Cizhou and go around the back, then he won’t be able to surround the city and trap us. Your Excellency can then immediately get people to seal the city gate—even the dog holes have to be filled up and sealed. Those under his command are all a motley crew not registered in the household registers; they will not be able to guard against this.”
“By this, is Your Lordship going to fortify the city and face them off in a confrontation? Kong Ling looked to be in a spot. “Cizhou’s city walls are old. I’m afraid they won’t be able to withstand Lei Changming’s assault.”
“The Imperial Army can’t enter the city and defend to the death.” Xiao Chiye held his sword and slightly bared his teeth. “I’ll make a bet with you. Lei Changming will definitely not dare to charge head-on at my soldiers. This is what he fears.”
◈ ◈ ◈
At dusk, Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan made an inspection tour of the city walls. Both men brought their blades with them and walked side by side atop the city wall.
“This city wall was last repaired during the reign of Yongyi.” Shen Zechuan attempted to push at the battlement of the wall, and earthen clay that had been eroded by the wind and rain tumbled to the ground.
“That’s because Zhou Gui is poor. He’s been urgently trying to resolve the issue of food these few years. Naturally, he would be too preoccupied to pay any attention to the city’s military defense.” Xiao Chiye picked up a chunk of earth and rubbed it into pieces in his hand. “The Imperial Army can stand before Cizhou to defend it, but it cannot retreat into the city.”
Xiao Chiye was well aware that Zhou Gui wanted to seek assistance from Libei, but he was unwilling to ask for help. He could return to Libei soon, but the arrangements for these 20,000 Imperial Army men he had brought with him were something he had yet to discuss with his father and eldest brother. He understood the Libei Armored Cavalry. Such a complete army like that would be unable to come to a swift acceptance of the Imperial Army—these two armies would predictably have to go through a very difficult bonding process for them to learn to get along with one another. If he opened his mouth at this time to ask for help and Xiao Fangxu came, then Xiao Chiye would never have the chance to shine again when he returned to Libei.
This battle was his first battle on returning home. He had to win it. He had to win it on his own.
The sunset clouds on the horizon spread out and tinted half of the sky red. Rows upon rows of houses with curling smoke lined the city amidst the clamorous buzz of human voices. Shen Zechuan lowered his hand to cover the center of Xiao Chiye’s head. Both men – one standing and one squatting – looked at the scene beneath them.
“Lei Changming can be considered a capable man.” Shen Zechuan said. “But you are the one who decides whether he is a bandit or an ambitious man.”
“Ambitious men are born out of troubled times.” Xiao Chiye put his arms on his knees and propped himself up. “I’ll take the Conqueror’s Bow with me.”
He stood here, like a lush tree bathed in the dimming light of dusk, like a mountain standing tall before the city wall. Shen Zechuan watched those shackles gradually vanish. Poised and ready for action, it was time for Xiao Chiye to show his real mettle in this chaotic situation.
“When you return to Libei,” Shen Zechuan gazed at him. “His Lordship will realize that you’ve grown taller again.”
“I was already taller than him the last time I saw him.” Xiao Chiye smiled. “As a child, I thought my father was like a towering tree. He put me on his shoulder and lied to me that I’d be able to touch the clouds. My eldest brother wanted to sit on my father’s shoulder too, but he was already old enough to attend school then, and he felt that he had to maintain his dignity as the older brother, so he never said a word to my father and would be happy just to watch me sit.”
Shen Zechuan smiled too. He gazed back at the sky and said, ”They all said that the Hereditary Prince looks like the Princess Consort of Libei.”
“Somewhat, I guess.” Xiao Chiye’s eyes reflected the entire sky of rose-tinted clouds. “Not as much as I resemble my father. Actually, my eldest brother was once miserable. When my father retired back sick to the Prince’s Residence, my eldest brother was only in his teens. All of a sudden, he had to fight a way out from those ferocious men. Tough. Initially, he was mocked the most for being unlike Father—he did not have a sufficiently strong and well-built physique. He once said to Zhao Hui…”
The side of Xiao Chiye’s face was calm and serene. He seemed to recall that day, but then a certain wave of sadness inexplicably washed over him. He turned his head and took Shen Zechuan’s hands. His Adam’s apple bobbed a few times before he said, “Us brothers are truly strange. I envy my eldest brother’s steadiness, and I also envy his composure. I used to think, ‘if only I had been born a few years earlier’. Then I would be the eldest brother, the Hereditary Prince. I would have been able to go galloping to my heart’s content. I wouldn’t have to leave Libei a single step. But one day, he came home wounded and saw me in the courtyard shooting arrows. And he said to Zhao Hui, ‘I really envy A-Ye’.”
“I thought my father and eldest brother would never feel pain and would never fall. They would shed blood and never tears. But on the day my eldest brother got married, he drank himself drunk. Yet, such a steady person like that gingerly took my eldest sister-in-law’s hands and got all teary-eyed at her. It was as if he had already anticipated the future. He saw her as his precious treasure. He would feel fear too.”
“There is nothing about me that is better than my eldest brother. If I had to say, then it’d be that I’ve totally inherited this fine physique from my father.” Xiao Chiye gripped Shen Zechuan tightly. “I never really understood in the past why he had to get all teary-eyed at my eldest sister-in-law. But now, I do.”