Shen Zechuan was unable to bring 2 million this trip, but he brought sincerity. Lei Changming looked at those few chests of silvers. They were all genuine stuff, stacked neatly in order. He grabbed a handful at random to get a feel of that heavy weight and said, “These few chests of silver are something that even the brothers under my command selling sugared biscuits can produce. Aren’t you looking down on me a tad too much?”
“The chief might not necessarily dare to accept it if I had really brought over 2 million.” Shen Zechuan had already taken his seat. He said, “Good deals are worth discussing over slowly. The ones who should be anxious at present are Cizhou and Xiao Chiye.”
Lei Changming waved a hand to get his men to drag Kong Ling out of the tent, leaving only his own guards and Shen Zechuan behind. From start to end, he remained unwilling to leave his seat. Without taking even half a step closer to Shen Zechuan, he said, “You and Xiao Chiye broke out of the siege in Qudu. You could be considered sworn friends who have been through life and death, so why did you fall out with him suddenly and come to beg me instead?”
“Since the chief knows of me, then you must have also known that Shen Wei is my old man. Shen Wei let the enemies into Dunzhou and caused a long-standing grudge to form between me and Libei. Xiao Chiye and I may be able to bury the hatchet, but Xiao Jiming may not necessarily be willing to use me.” Shen Zechuan looked troubled. “A man’s aspiration is to make a name for himself. Xiao Chiye is like a clay Buddha crossing the river who can’t even save himself. So how would he have the energy to carve out a path for me? There is some misunderstanding between me and His Excellency Han, but those are all minor issues that do not warrant the death penalty. As long as someone can vouch for me, I’ll be able to return to Qudu to serve the Imperial Court again.”
“So that means you still want to be an official, huh?” With both hands on his knees, Lei Changming said, “Brother, to tell you the truth, I want to be an official too. We used to hang out in the mountains and wilderness back then, and we lived pretty much a carefree life. But when all is said and done, it’s not a proper job. Every single one of our movements will come under close scrutiny by the Qidong Garrison Troops.”
“The chief and I have a common goal.” Shen Zechuan lifted his little bamboo fan slightly. “Isn’t this just perfect?”
“But, I’ve been deceived by scholars like you until it scares me now.” Lei Changming put on a look of dread. “This 2 million of yours are still in Cizhou. How are you going to get it to me? And that Han Jin too. How are you going to help me save him? Make yourself clear today, so I know how things stand. Only then can I truly take you under me.”
“The silver is not an issue. The chief can pick a trusted man to go to Cizhou and ask Zhou Gui for the money. He knows where the silvers are kept. As long as you can move it, you can take the money away now.“
“You think he would be willing to give me if I ask him for it?” Lei Changming rubbed his fingers together, as if he still wanted to touch those silvers.
“You have Kong Ling in your hands. That’s Zhou Gui’s trusted aide.” Shen Zechuan said with a smile. “You have 40,000 soldiers and horses too. How would Zhou Gui not dare to give you? He always wanted to be a good official who loves his people like his children. He won’t infuriate you at this critical juncture.”
Lei Changming looked at Shen Zechuan, as if he was getting a measure of him. The tent quietened down. It was all Lei Changming’s guards to Shen Zechuan’s left and right. He touched the teacup, but did not drink up. In this long stand-off, Lei Changming suddenly laughed and said, “I have ample reserve supplies. I’m not in a hurry to ask for money. It doesn’t matter if this 2 million is left there for a few more days. Men, serve tea to Young Master Shen. Our top priority is to discuss how to save Han Jin. after all, our meeting of Han Cheng in Qudu hinges on him.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Kong Ling was locked up in a stable. He lay across the weeds and panted heavily, securely bound by coarse hemp ropes. The horse that was resting before him stuck out its hoof and discharged steaming hot dung. That stench made Kong Ling dizzy, and he tried to turn his head away to gasp for breath. The band of bandits surrounding him outside the stable roared with laughter.
Kong Ling shouted indignantly, “The traitor deceived me! Bah! A gentleman would rather die than be humiliated. Don’t even dream of using me to threaten Cizhou!”
Horsewhips jabbed at Kong Ling’s face. He was covered with mud and horse dung all over, and being watched by these people all around him caused waves of giddiness to wash over him. He said with shame and hatred, “You people are in cahoots! You! Lei Changming! What good end will you come to by conspiring with such an unrighteous person?!”
But no matter how Kong Ling cursed and cussed, there were only roars of laughter all around him. He was a well-read and well-educated man. Whether it was Tantai Long or Zhou Gui in the past, they all treated him with courtesy. Who would not respectfully address him as Mister Chengfeng everywhere he went? But now, not only was he tied up in a stable, he was even ridiculed and laughed at by these people. He thought again of the snowy night when he fled Dunzhou. The face of these bandits gradually overlapped with the faces of the Biansha Cavalry, with vague sounds of laughter everywhere. Unable to restrain his emotions for a moment, Kong Ling started to choke with sobs.
“Patrol guards!” An officer suddenly walked out from the other end and bellowed, “What are all of you gathering here for? Is this old fart more important than the task of patrolling the camp? If the patrol is delayed, I’ll see how all of you will get skinned! Move it, disperse!”
The surrounding people broke up noisily. Kong Ling shifted over to the edge of the stable and put his head against the railing to let the dripping rain water wash away the filth. He took deep breaths, as if he was breathing in fresh air. His goatee was so dirty that it had become a cake of mud.
People went in and out of the tent in the distance. When they lifted the flap of the tent, he could see Lei Changming preparing to host a feast to entertain Shen Zechuan. Kong Ling spat and closed his eyes in the rain. An unspecified amount of time later, someone gave Kong Ling’s cheeks a light pat.
Kong Ling opened his eyes. It was the man he had seen earlier. This person seemed to be in his early thirties. His face was dark, and he had an air of toughness to him. He called out, “Mister Chengfeng!”
Kong Ling was alarmed.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m Tantai Long’s old subordinate. I used to hold a post in the Dunzhou Garrison Troops. I’ve met you once.” This man forced a smile, then sighed and said, “Mister… really ought not to have ended up in such a state.”
“Since you are Tantai Long’s former subordinate, how can you follow a bandit like Lei Changming to stage a rebellion?” Kong Ling said woodenly. “Tantai Long hated these villains the most when he was still alive.”
“I was driven into a corner.” This man said with a bitter smile. “After Dunzhou was recovered, the Imperial Court transferred the grains away and used it to fill up Juexi’s deficit. Those of us who survived were so starved that we had to chew tree barks. Although the chief is a bandit, he is righteous and generous. It’s only by following him we can have enough food to fill our stomachs. We have no choice.”
Kong Ling knew he was telling the truth, but words failed him, and he could only remain silent.
This man helped Kong Ling up and said, “I heard the intent of the chief earlier at the table. He’s prepared to use you to negotiate with the Prefectural Prefect of Cizhou. I was worried that you would be too strong-willed and could not bear the humiliation. So I found a chance to step out. Mister, I’ll take you away on horseback right now!”
Kong Ling looked at his sincere expression and said, “If you let me go, Lei Changming will definitely not let you off lightly.”
This man untied Kong Ling’s ropes and quickly said, “I’ll send you to Cizhou and come back to apologize. I was originally a loyal and righteous soldier under General Tantai’s command. But now, I’ve been reduced to a bandit just so I have food to fill my stomach. I can’t live with myself deep down. But the chief has been kind to me, so I can’t turn my back on him either. Mister, let me help you up the horse!”
After being helped up the horse, Kong Ling held his arm and choked with sobs, “You are a sensible man.”
The man got onto the horse too and draped a cloak over Kong Ling. With a shake of the reins, he led Kong Ling around to the main gate of the camp. There were still people patrolling in the rain. On seeing him, they all paid their obeisances to him. Without saying a word more, he flashed his token and brought Kong Ling out of the camp.
Both men had been galloping for only a moment when they heard the sound of berating behind them. It was soldiers in pursuit of them.
“This place is still a thousand li1 away from Cizhou. Mister!” The man braved the rain to guide the way. “We’ll run without a break all night!”
Kong Ling swayed from the jolts and bumps. He clutched the reins tightly and followed swiftly after the man. The sound of pursuit behind him never stopped. Branches in the dark night lashed at his face. Kong Ling did not even dare to look back. He endured the pain, determined to hurry back to Cizhou and waste no time in tipping off Zhou Gui!
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan ate very little. He ignored the singing and dancing in the tent and sat down at the lower area to drink wine.
Lei Changming had brought along quite a number of concubines with his troops in their march forward; many of them were women he had grabbed in broad daylight back in Duanzhou. He told one of them to go over and pour wine for Shen Zechuan, then urged him with great gusto as he sat on his seat. “Brother Shen, drink up! I bought plenty of excellent wine this trip. Drink as much as you want tonight.”
Shen Zechuan saw that Lei Changming had drunk until he was flushed in the face. His voice was growing increasingly loud, and he did not hold back as he teased the others. The woman in his arms had been pinched until her neck and shoulders were covered in bruises. Shen Zechuan raised the cup slightly and downed the wine without saying a word.
Lei Changming said as he ate the meat, “You’re the son of the Prince of Jianxing, Shen Wei. You never had to endure hardships since you were young, so you don’t know how valuable grains are. But you sure have the candor of someone from the marital fraternity by giving this 2 million at the mere drop of a hat! Brother Shen, not that I’m bragging, but I think you did well by throwing in your lot with me now! That Xiao Chiye is just a brat. He could still be of some use in Qudu, but now that he’s returning to Libei, what available path is there for him? He still has 20,000 soldiers with him. The Libei Armored Cavalry will definitely not take them in! Don’t tell me the Prince of Libei can still make him the commander-in-chief of Libei? That Xiao Jiming is the one who’s truly formidable!”
Not letting those women touch his wine jar, Shen Zechuan poured himself a cup of wine and said with a smile, “Yeah.”
Lei Changming gobbled down the pork shoulder and wiped his mouth before he said, “Speaking of these generals, I’m only afraid of Qidong’s Commander-in-chief, Qi Zhuyin! Of the four great generals of the world, she’s the only woman. I saw her once when I worked as an armed escort in Hezhou. What the fuck. Such a pretty lass, and yet the weapon she wields is an executioner’s blade! An executioner’s blade.2 The blade Xiao Chiye uses is also an executioner’s blade, isn’t it?! One straight slash, and it can cleave apart bones and flesh. What it relies on is real physical strength. It’s also to do her a favor that I came to Cizhou this time. I’ll capture Xiao Chiye on her behalf and send him back to Qudu. This will allow their Qidong to break with Libei without being directly involved. Say, with such a merit like this, will I be able to get a position as a general under her command?”
“I heard that Commander-in-chief Qi has five great generals under her command. Each of them is skilled in combat, and they are all men she single-handedly trained all these years over at the Qidong Garrison Troops.” Shen Zechuan said. “If you really go over, you’ll naturally come up top and be the big brother of them all.”
Lei Changming boomed with laughter. He scooped up the woman in his arms and kissed her haphazardly in spite of the cries. He wiped his greasy hands clean on those silk fabrics and said, “It is from the mountains that I made my mark. I’ve been running all over all these years, and I’ve also fought some battles. Mention me, Lei Changming, in Zhongbo, and who doesn’t know that I can fight? Brother Shen, you know Lu Guangbai of the Bianjun Commandery, right? Their Lu clan is poor as heck. He gives one the impression of being an unyielding man, and it’s all by virtue of his vigor that he could keep up the desperate fights at Bianjun. He doesn’t have any other capabilities. In my opinion, Lu Guangbai is the most incompetent one among the four great generals. He’s called, what do you call it, the ‘Fire Beacon Amidst Blowing Sand’ or something. Bianjun lights up the beacon towers every year, so what’s so special about this? Might as well vacate his post and let me take over instead. I guarantee I’ll be way better than him!”
Seeing that he was drunk and starting to boast, Shen Zechuan lowered his fingers and gently righted the chopsticks on the table, He said with a smile, “He’s indeed not very impressive.”
“Men like Commander Zuo are the real heroes.” Lei Changming poured wine into his mouth, which leaked over half of his body. Too late to wipe it, he tossed the wine cup away and said to Shen Zechuan, “He who took down the enemies’ heads from a thousand li away, and he who struck fear in enemies’ hearts with one arrow! He was all the storyteller in the teahouse in Hezhou spoke of in the past. Said he killed his wife to protect the city, and consequently, his hair rapidly turned white. Oh man, one can’t help but shed tears to hear his story! A pity there was no avoiding the disillusionment of a hero, and he still ended up retiring early. Otherwise, he and I might even get to be sworn brothers!”
It was pandemonium in the tent, as if a host of demons were dancing and running wild within. Those so-called guards, deputy generals, all showed their true colors as they stood or lay down and pulled the prostitutes over to drink and make merry. Such an army like this has no military discipline to speak of. They were the same as Lei Changming—bandits who depended on weapons at the very beginning to plunder and loot.
Sitting among them, Shen Zechuan had a subtle sense that something was off .
Lei Changming should not be such a man. If he was this kind of short-sighted man who enjoyed life while he could, then how could he have stood out from among the crowd of bandits? What this man had on display was completely different from what Shen Zechuan had heard of him from rumors.
Lei Changming got up to chase after the prostitute and pulled her into his arms to fondle and grope. He drank the wine, sang some obscure farm song from Dengzhou, and danced and gesticulated with merriment like a bull that had rashly crashed its way onto the chessboard. He enjoyed himself to his heart’s content, and drank himself drunk. But unexpectedly, he smacked his forehead and said as he pointed at Shen Zechuan, “Your mother is a dancer from Duanzhou! Brother Shen, quick, get up and dance for us!”
Thanks Peach for the typo correction! <3