No wonder it was all so easy tonight!
In that instant, Shen Zechuan came to an understanding about many matters. He abruptly looked back and was about to blurt it out when he held back and looked at Xiao Chiye.
“Laohu.” Xiao Chiye said swiftly. “Separate out two thousand men to guard this place. Ding Tao, get on your horse and go around to the northeast of Cizhou. Tell the men lying in ambush to head south immediately and block the road on the southern side of Cizhou. The rest of you, follow me back to the city.”
This strategy of luring the enemy away from his base had been planned for a long time already. Very likely, it was already in the works before Lei Changming left Mount Luo. Those reports that were sent back to Cizhou from Mount Luo were all vague statements, the most frequent of which was their sightings of the earthen stoves built by the bandits in Mount Luo. This turned the precise number of Lei Changming’s men into a matter of opinion. The mix of truth and falsehood, reality and pretenses, lured them into conveniently guessing that the 40,000 men were just a front. And so, they assumed that the other party would not dare to launch a surprise attack without careful consideration. No one would have expected the other party to harbor no intent to fight with Xiao Chiye head-on at all.
“It’s impossible for Kong Ling not to recognize Lei Changming.” Shen Zechuan got on the horse using Xiao Chiye’s arms as support. “I suspect at this point that all the rumors about Lei Changming are false. ‘Lei Changming’ is just this person’s ‘shell’.”
Xiao Chiye tossed the umbrella to Tantai Hu and covered Shen Zechuan up with his cloak. Then he put up his arms and turned his horse around. He said, “It’s useless even if he holds Kong Ling under duress. Most likely, he wants to rely on Kong Ling to open Cizhou’s gate. By doing this, he will be the one inside, and we will be the ones outside.”
Xiao Chiye was able to fight against Lei Changming’s “40,000 men” all because he still had Cizhou’s granary behind him to back him up. This allowed him to act promptly and swiftly cut down this mixed batch of soldiers who were already weary from being on the go. To think the other side knew their own shortcomings and did not fight with Xiao Chiye head-on. Instead, they drew on their foes’ strength to make up for their own deficiencies and turned Xiao Chiye into a stray dog in the wilderness. They reversed everyone’s initial position, causing the Imperial Army to be stranded outside with access to the military provisions cut off.
“He has always been in the shadows all this while.” Shen Zechuan said in the wind with his cloak around him. “He knows all our moves like the back of his hand.”
“Cizhou is not our territory after all. He must have an informer in the city. Yet we know nothing about him.” Xiao Chiye suddenly laughed when he spoke to this point. He tightened his arms around him and said, “This man sure is something!”
By now, the rain had subsided. Only the night breeze still carried with it a few threads of rain. Horses’ hooves trampled upon mud as they galloped noisily towards Cizhou. However, no matter how fast they were, they could not catch up with the speed of the other party. Kong Ling had already arrived in Cizhou.
Kong Ling had been a weak scholar ever since he came out of obscurity to take up an official post, and he was almost forty-five now. His bones almost fell apart on impact when he reined in his horse, and he could hardly catch his breath as he slid off the horse to the ground. He let the man hold him up in support, then cupped his hands at the man and said, “It’s, it’s all thanks to you this time. Otherwise, the consequences would be unimaginable.”
“Mister, you are too courteous.” Even though this man looked competent and tough, he had been looking after Kong Ling the entire journey. “I’m afraid the pursuing soldiers behind us will be here in a flash. Mister, drink some water, and we’ll move on. Once we reach the foot of the city gate, get them to open the gate as soon as possible!”
They rested midway in an inn that still had lanterns hung up, although it was not to stay overnight, but to allow Kong Ling – whose legs were still trembling – to drink some hot tea and take a breather. The sides of Kong Ling’s legs were badly scraped, making it inconvenient for him to sit down. He held the bowl in the hall to gulp down. As they were resting, they suddenly heard the sound of horse hooves outside. Although the man did not stand up, his hand quietly fell upon the blade at the side of his waist. He turned slightly sideways to hide his face in the darkness and looked at the door.
A group of travel-worn travelers strode through the door, led by two men of similar stature. The strange thing was that this group of people were all tall and similarly well-built. Even though they were wearing the cotton clothes of commoners, they still had an imposing aura around them.
One of them removed his bamboo hat to reveal a face with stubble and a lock of hair hanging down over his forehead. He swept a seemingly nonchalant glance at the two men in the hall who were still drinking tea. With a smile on his face, he tossed out a bag of money and said to the innkeeper, “Staying for the night. One deluxe room and three wide beds. Any cooked food left? Give us some steamed bun and braised beef with shaojiu wine.”
“We have money, so why do you have to be so frugal?” The other one removed his bamboo hat too. He was powerfully-built. He opened the bag of money and said to the innkeeper, “Deluxe rooms for all!”
A muffled cough rang out from the center that was surrounded by the men. An old man who was wearing a cloak all this while said in a lowered voice, “It’s not easy for us to save up this money. We still have not reached the place. Let’s endure it for one more day. Tianya. Let everyone rest after eating their fill. Don’t goof around.”
Qiao Tianya blew at the hair that had fallen and took the bag of money back from Fei Sheng’s hands. He tossed it into the innkeeper’s hands and said, “Do as I said earlier. Serve the wine and dishes as soon as possible, don’t drag your feet. Shifu, you have braved the elements with us the entire journey, so how can we still let you sleep on the wide beds with us now that we are here? You are our elder. This is something we should do as a show of respect to you. Furthermore, if Master were to know that I let you sleep with us on the wide beds, he will definitely not be happy. Please take a good rest, and you’ll be doting on us.”
Not to be outdone after Qiao Tianya was done talking, Fei Sheng immediately said, “I was too insensible earlier. Shifu, let me help you up to rest. Once the dishes are served in a while, I’ll bring them up to you.”
Ji Gang’s physical strength was not as good as it was before, so he did not turn Fei Sheng down and let Fei Sheng guide him upstairs.
Although Kong Ling did not know who these travelers were, he could sense that they were not one to be messed with. He was worried that they were also bandits, as they were all armed with blades. He thought about it, then put down his teacup and said to the man beside him, “Warrior, I’ve had enough rest. Let’s continue on our way!”
But before they could move, those travelers had already taken their seats. The inn was not big, and all the four square tables were fully occupied. No one knew if it was intentional or a coincidence, but Qiao Tianya sat down right beside Kong Ling and cut off Kong Ling’s access path.
“Yo.” Qiao Tianya poured tea for himself and said offhandedly, “Are both of you in a hurry to get on with your journey too?”
The man curbed his air of toughness, turning himself into an ordinary farmer. He rubbed his hands and smiled shyly, as if he was not accustomed to dealing with unfamiliar inquiries like this, and said, “Aye, I’m hurrying along with my eldest brother.”
Qiao Tianya did not think to make way on his own initiative. He drank the tea and narrowed his eyes slightly, as if he was scalded, and said, “Where are you going? Perhaps we are going the same way. It hasn’t been easy for us on this journey. Didn’t some marquis in Qudu rebel? It’s all men from the local authorities on our way here. They are all so good at fishing for bribes that we are forced to take a detour. Sorry about this chatty mouth of mine. I’ve gotten carried away. Where are you going?”
Kong Ling could neither sit nor walk out. His inner thighs burned with pain. Maintaining his composure, his goatee quivered a little as he replied in Dengzhou dialect, “Malian Town. You know of Malian Town, buddy?”
“The town near Cizhou, huh. Then we are going the same way. We’re heading for the City of Cizhou ahead of Malian Town.” As Qiao Tianya spoke, he put up an arm on the table. He stared at the man and said, “Buddy, you look familiar.”
At this point, the man had already sensed that he was being watched. He glanced at the figures of these travelers in his peripheral vision. The wheels turned a little in his mind, and he more or less could make some guesses about them. But he thought that these travelers were Imperial Bodyguards disguising themselves to hunt down and capture Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan, and that they were only suspicious because of the blade he was carrying. So he relaxed to appear more simple and honest as he answered, “I’m a farmer from Dengzhou.”
As he spoke, he fumbled around his bosom and fished out a crumpled travel permit and a hand-copied household register. There was the official seal of Dengzhou on it. He opened it to show Qiao Tianya and said, “We are going to Malian Town to visit our elder sister who has married over. She has just given birth, and they are hosting a banquet.”
“Oh, a joyous event.” Qiao Tianya was even happier than the man was. He said, “I love kids the most! And when it comes to drinking wine, I love the ones at babies’ one-month celebrations best!”
Seeing as Qiao Tianya was still prattling on, Kong Ling forced a smile and said, “The rain has stopped. In that case, we shall continue on our way. If not, it’ll cost us money to stay here overnight.”
On the other side, Fei Sheng had already come down the stairs. He did not notice it at first, but seeing as Qiao Tianya had never moved away after so long, he started to size up the man too. He suddenly flashed over and sat down behind the man, boxing him in from the front and back together with Qiao Tianya.
“What are you chatting about?” Fei Sheng picked up a steamed bun from the plate the waiter brought over and took a big bite out of it. He looked at them. “Look at how well you’re hitting it off.”
“Chatting about sons.” Qiao Tianya moved the chopsticks over and said warmly, “Have both of you eaten? You didn’t have the time to yet, have you? Then, come on, let’s have our meals together! Waiter! Bring over two more pairs of chopsticks.”
Kong Ling also sensed something off by now. He wanted to sit down and interact with them, but the teacup suddenly overturned, splashing tea over the man. The man hurriedly got up. As he hastily wiped himself with his sleeves, he said to Fei Sheng before him, “Sorry, sorry!”
Taking advantage of the opportunity, he squeezed past Fei Sheng and took two steps towards the waiter, pleading, “Buddy, lend me a towel to wipe myself with.”
Fei Sheng had already stood up. He exchanged glances with Qiao Tianya. Their astute brothers, who had already taken their seats, all grasped their blades. Fei Sheng strode out from behind and bumped into the man’s right back shoulder fast and hard. He pulled the man up by his clothes and said, “You did it on purpose, didn’t you?”
The impact of the bump sent the man knocking into the table and chairs right in front of him. He almost lost his balance. His temples were drenched in sweat, and he was so anxious that he did not know where to put his hands. He repeatedly bowed to Fei Sheng in a conciliatory manner and apologized, “Sorry, sorry…”
This man did not know martial arts.
Fei Sheng cast another glance at Qiao Tianya and shoved the man again. He yelled, “Just my fucking luck.”
The man’s entire body fell backward, tilting the table and chairs over as he crashed into them. He cut a sorry sight as the back of his head struck the corner of the table. Kong Ling exclaimed in surprise and said anxiously, “Why did you hit out at him? He’s bleeding!”
Only then did Qiao Tianya feign to stop Fei Sheng. He said to Fei Sheng, “Forget it, forget it. We are all travelers. Why put others in a spot?”
Fei Sheng let loose a torrent of expletives and acted all like a bigwig as Qiao Tianya persuaded him to go back. He even glared at that man several times. Their party started digging into their food. Fei Sheng stood up again and said, “I got so pissed that I forgot I still have to deliver the meal to shifu!”
Kong Ling had already helped support the man to the entrance. The man touched the back of his head and came away with an entire hand full of blood. He glanced back at Qiao Tianya and the rest as if he was fearful of them, then hastily shrank his head back, looking all timid and afraid of incurring trouble. He untied the horse and walked off into the night with Kong Ling.
Only then did Fei Sheng drop his act and asked, “Why are you interrogating them? We are on the wanted list too. It’s better to lie low now that we are about to reach the threshold of Cizhou; don’t stir up trouble.”
“I always feel like this man…” Qiao Tianya drank two mouthfuls of shaojiu and thought about it for a moment with a frown. “Is there really no reaction from him when you bumped into him?”
“Nope.” Fei Sheng took two bites of the beef. “The person himself can put on an act, but once his body is accustomed to reacting swiftly, then it’ll be very difficult to control himself from parrying a sudden blow. This man is pretty weird, but he indeed doesn’t seem to be a martial artist.”
“What if he can indeed control himself?” Qiao Tianya suddenly asked.
“Then he’s a formidable one.” Fei Sheng gestured with his chopsticks in the air. “He will have to be of the same caliber as Ji Gang-shifu. Think about His Lordship. With a body like His Lordship, there will be no way to hide it. His naturally-endowed physique has blessed him with explosive strength. You have to be careful even when you approach him while he’s asleep or you risk your own life, what’s more touching him? This endurance can only be built up through years and years of practice. This man doesn’t seem to be that old. So, I doubt he can.”
Qiao Tianya ate the dishes and did not ask further. When they had eaten and drunk their fill, the innkeeper worked out the bill for Qiao Tianya. As he returned the silver, Fei Sheng had nothing better to do, so he felt it up and realized something unusual. The weight and relative purity of this silver were subtly different from the silvers they had brought out of Qudu, the ones that had been minted and directly issued by the Ministry of Revenue.
Although Fei Sheng was usually a competitive man who loved to fawn on others, his special skill was unrivaled. With his suspicions aroused by these subtle differences, he held the silver high and scrutinized it for a moment before he asked Qiao Tianya, “Zhongbo has had dealings with Juexi all these years. Most of the silvers in circulation come from Juexi, right?”
“So it is said.” Qiao Tianya propped himself on the counter and turned his head aside to look at those silvers. “This kind of new silvers is rarely seen. The businesses they do are all shady scalping deals, and the general public typically won’t dare to use silvers from Juexi directly. Everyone will exchange them into copper coins, or use silvers issued out from other areas. But with the state treasury empty during the reign of Xiande, there have been very few newly-minted silvers from the various areas. The only one who can still have very new silvers is the Xi—”
The silver warehouses of the Xi clan, who owned silver mines and mined silver.
If these money did not come from Shen Zechuan’s hands, then it came from the people who schemed to empty out the Xi clan’s silver warehouses. Regardless of whether it was the former or the latter, both were important to them!
Qiao Tianya straightened up in a flash and said, “Leave half of the men in place to keep night watch and take care of shifu. The rest of you, come with me. Fei the tenth, you were fucking wrong about him! Chase!”
Good morning, baby.
Thank you Alex for the burning of brain cells!