Ding Tao sat cross-legged on the veranda, moving aside the fruits on the silver plate as he counted them over and over again. He stood guard here, preventing anyone from coming near. It was getting late, with a few rays of the evening sun still adorning the courtyard walls as bits and pieces of the setting sun peeked through the leaves of the Chinese scholar trees.
Shen Zechuan had just awoken. He had slept for too long and too soundly, so his back and waist were sore and aching. He felt exceptionally tired. He opened the door, blanking out for a moment when he saw Ding Tao.
Ding Tao scratched his cheek, feeling uncomfortable with the way Shen Zechuan was staring at him. He put the hand that was still grasping the fruit behind his back and asked with apprehension, “Young Master, d-dinner?”
Shen Zechuan held onto the door and stood there for a little while, before asking in a hoarse voice, “… What time is it?”
“It’s the hour of you.”1 Ding Tao was surprisingly aware today, and he quickly followed up with, “Young Master has slept for the entire day! Master left the city at the hour of mao2 earlier. His Excellency Zhou and Mister Chengfeng went to send him off together.”
The corners of Shen Zechuan’s eyes were still a little red, and under the lingering reddish-orange glow of the evening sun, he looked as if he was drunk. He was pale to begin with, and Ding Tao found the way he looked when he lowered his eyes to slip on his shoes really handsome.
“Still no word from Juexi?” Shen Zechuan went down the steps, but he was not in a hurry to leave. Instead, he stood under the Chinese scholar tree and tilted his head up slightly to look at the sky as he slowly recovered from the lingering effects of last night’s exertion.
“No.” Ding Tao followed behind Shen Zechuan. Seeing as Shen Zechuan did not look back, he seized the opportunity to hastily stuff the other uneaten half of his fruit into his mouth and gobbled it down ravenously.
Shen Zechuan did not see any sign of Meng, and knew that Xiao Chiye had brought it along with him. He turned back, startling Ding Tao so much that the latter choked and coughed. Shen Zechuan paused for a moment, then said, “No one is going to snatch it away from you. Take your time.”
Ding Tao was choking so much his eyes teared up. As he waved his hand, he tugged at the front of his clothes and said with difficulty, “Y-young Master, cough! Are we going to look for His Excellency Zhou? His Excellency and Mister Chengfeng had taken their dinner in the front hall and are presently discussing matters.”
Shen Zechuan nodded and said, “Let’s go.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Zhou Gui had just finished his meal. At present, he was having a discussion in the study with Kong Ling and the various Cizhou officials of differing ranks. When he heard that Shen Zechuan had come, he immediately got up and dismissed the others.
“His Lordship has told us that the Vice Commander is feeling unwell today, so we thought that we would only be able to discuss military affairs tomorrow. We didn’t expect the Vice Commander to come over today still.” Kong Ling showed Shen Zechuan a seat, then sat down after him so that he would not feel awkward. He faced them slightly and continued, “Although it’s still the sixth month, the trees we have planted in the residence are all tall, lush trees; it’s often cold at night. The Vice Commander is used to Qudu after staying there year in year out. Now that you’re here, you have to take care of your health.”
Shen Zechuan took a sip of tea to moisten his throat, easing up the dryness and hoarseness a little until it was not as obvious. Only then he said, “Mister Chengfeng is right. Mister said that we would be able to discuss military affairs tomorrow. Have both of you already drawn up a charter today?”
“Ever since the Vice Commander agreed on a treaty of alliance with us, I have gathered the advisors along with the various ranking officials in Cizhou over these few days to draft up a simple copy.” With a hand on his knee, Zhou Gui watched as Kong Ling got up to hand a book to Shen Zechuan. He continued, “These are all tentative. We will still need the Vice Commander’s approval for the specifics. Take a look. If there’s anything inappropriate, we can lay it all out for further discussion tonight.”
Although he said that they were waiting for Shen Zechuan’s approval, he also said they could “lay it all out for further discussion”. This meant that most of the content within this book was actually already finalized. Such was the awkward situation in which Shen Zechuan had found himself in right now. He had the money, but no other real powers on hand to speak of; Xiao Chiye’s attitude was the key to the fact that he could even be at the discussion table with these two. Zhou Gui could thank him or even hold him in high esteem, but he would not hand over Cizhou’s policy-making power to him. Because what they had agreed upon was a treaty of alliance, not a pledge of allegiance.
Shen Zechuan read the book amidst the silence in the study. Only Ding Tao was on the outside, teasing his sparrow; there were no servants walking about to disturb them. As Kong Ling drank his tea, a sudden uneasiness overtook him. He maintained his composure as he studied Shen Zechuan’s expression, but he could not discern any sentiments on Shen Zechuan’s face. He then looked at Zhou Gui, who was already letting his expression betray his urgency. He could not help but think to himself.
This Shen Zechuan was still young, yet he was an extremely deep and shrewd one. After spending several days together, Kong Ling still could not tell whether he was a willing party or not; there was no way they could find an appropriate way to deal with him. So the drafting of this book was also meant to sound out his intention as well.
It was only when the sky had slightly darkened that Shen Zechuan closed the book. He rubbed his fingertips against the teacup without saying a word.
Kong Ling was the adviser, so when they were engaged in a serious discussion of official affairs in the study, he could not overstep his authority and bypass Zhou Gui. At the same time Zhou Gui got him to light the lamps, he turned slightly to his side to face Shen Zechuan and deliberated over his words, “So what does the Vice Commander His Excellency think?”
“Your Excellency has also recorded the price fluctuations of the daily necessities of fuel, rice, oil, and salt in Cizhou over the past few years in the book, and the accounts are all clear enough that there won’t be a problem estimating next year’s approximate expenditure. I’ve also seen that Your Excellency has also written about the proportion of military pay and provisions to be allocated for the garrison troops in the future. Your Excellency has worked day and night tirelessly, taking all the various aspects into consideration.” Shen Zechuan said with a smile.
Zhou Gui let out a light sigh of relief; he did not know why he was so strung up. Upon hearing Shen Zechuan, he then replied, “This book is not something I alone can write; I still have Chengfeng and my fellow officials to thank for this. Then, shall we begin to discuss the defenses of the city walls?”
Shen Zechuan’s fingertips paused in place. He said, “There’s no rush. I have some questions.”
To which Zhou Gui hurriedly prompted, “Please, go on.”
“Going by Your Excellency’s estimation of Cizhou’s next year approximate expenditures, there is also a remuneration of 16,000 dan3 of grains for the 20,000 Imperial Army troops other than the rebuilt garrison troops. The total sum for both armies is 110,000 dan of grains.” Shen Zechuan pondered it over. “This is allocated according to the amount of bumper harvest in Cizhou last year, and it’s also what had been saved up for the original number of people in Cizhou at present. But I can see that Your Excellency still has a remaining ten thousand dan of grains left unmarked.”
“That’s right.” Zhou Gui answered.
Although Xiao Chiye said he did not want any remuneration, they could not really not give any for real. This 16,000 dan of grains was only enough to last the 20,000 Imperial Army troops two-and-a-half months. This was more than the monthly amount they allocated to the 20,000 Cizhou garrison troops. Although they were unable to supply a year worth of grains, they had already done their best.
Zhou Gui was worried that Shen Zechuan found it too little, so he said with sincerity, “It is with the hope that the Vice Commander and His Lordship can understand that I showed Cizhou’s accounts to the Vice Commander today. Because of the instability in Dazhou this year, our grains from last year were all successively allocated to Libei and Mount Luo. This is something that we could not have foreseen. We had the Juexi’s granaries to assume responsibility for the supply of military provisions in the past years, but now this responsibility has been split between the two prefectures of Cizhou and Huaizhou. I don’t know about Huaizhou, but our Cizhou really had to skimp and save in order to be able to ship out the grains. It’s not that I’m complaining to the Vice Commander, but to tell you the truth, we are gritting our teeth as we shoulder the burden of the temporary supply of grains from Cizhou to His Lordship’s 20,000 Imperial Army. But even then, we will only be able to hang on for a couple of months. Fortunately, it’s nearing the autumn harvest, and we will be able to make it till then after counting the days, that’s why we are still not at the stage where we are at the end of our rope. I would like to ask the Vice Commander to intercede with His Lordship on behalf of Cizhou regarding this 16,000 dan of grain. It’s not that we want to go back on our words by shifting it to next year, but there is really too much to consider.”
There was already an imprint of a frown permanently etched between Zhou Gui’s eyebrows given how he was always knitting his brows in worry. He rose to his feet and paced for a few steps in the open space before he said to Shen Zechuan.
“Cizhou is a place where the people’s livelihood is at the mercy of the elements. But who could say if Heaven would still be willing to grant us food next year? Seeing as Dazhou has already come to this stage, I fear that once war arises next year, the fertile farmlands that Cizhou had just cultivated would be destroyed in just a moment. When the time comes, even the common folks in the city will not be able to eat their fill. And we won’t be able to afford to provide for the garrison troops even if we established one. We kept a surplus of military grains not only to keep them as emergency life-saving food relief but also as preparation for the Libei Armored Cavalry. Vice Commander, it’s not that we are not willing to take out big sums of money for His Lordship to use, but the Libei Armored Cavalry is the first line of defense guarding against the Biansha Hanshe Tribe. It’s a fact that they are more important than the 20,000 Imperial Army troops.”
“Half of the reason why Cizhou is willing to sign a treaty of alliance with both of you is that I was thoroughly heart-broken and disillusioned by the Wei clan’s military provision case. It’s also because His Lordship is the second young master of the Xiao clan that dispelled many of my misgivings. I did this favor not just for both of you, but also for the Hereditary Prince. Although the Vice Commander has promised that we can still continue to use the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path, I still have to leave myself a way out. After all, Juexi is Dazhou’s granary. To the various clans, that is a place of strategic importance. The Vice Commander covets it, and the Empress Dowager, even more so.”
“Everything I have just said to the Vice Commander is heartfelt words from the bottom of my heart.” Zhou Gui finally paused. He slowly bowed to Shen Zechuan and continued, “No one has it easy trying to make a living in turbulent times. I’m the Prefectural Prefect of Cizhou, and to me, Cizhou’s safety is of utmost importance and priority. His Lordship and the Vice Commander have helped Cizhou out of a spot this time, and I will not hesitate to go through fire and water for both of you. If Cizhou still has a bumper harvest this year, then we can still add on to this 16,000 dan of grains next year. But Cizhou really can’t supply the Imperial Army in the same way we are supplying to the Libei Armored Cavalry. I’ll be frank with you. If Biansha were to invade us in autumn, or if Libei is hard-pressed for grains next year in spring, then Cizhou will allocate the grains to Libei Armored Cavalry first before we allocate it to the Imperial Army.”
The candle flames in the study were not very bright. Zhou Gui lived frugally, eating and dressing simply. Other than the time he had to entertain Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye, his entire family would usually have common dishes for their meals. They even cooked tree barks during the years they were hit with disasters. Cizhou currently seemed to be the most prosperous and well-off place in Zhongbo, but in truth, it was still in shambles compared to compared to the other lands. His willingness to take out the grains was a great load of pressure on his shoulders. Zhou Gui’s suggestion that they request the aid of the Libei Armored Cavalry the first time Xiao Chiye left the city was not made on the spur of the moment; it was an idea that was already deeply ingrained in his mind.
The defeat of Zhongbo’s troops had been said countless times, both implied and stated, but outsiders would never experience and share the same pain as those who had been through it. Zhou Gui even developed posttraumatic symptoms because of the troop defeat case. If he so much heard a whistle at night, he would toss and turn all night in a constant state of anxiety. The defeat of the Chashi River along the boundary was really too tragic. Massacre, massacre—this word made its way back to Qudu from Duanzhou. Everyone was reading this word aloud back then. But to Qudu, bloodbath was merely a smudge of ink on the memorial. To Zhongbo, however, the destruction of properties, loss of lives, and ruin of families were all too real.
It was all because of the Libei Armored Cavalry that Cizhou had a narrow escape. In the eyes of Zhou Gui and everyone in Cizhou, the Libei Armored Cavalry was far more important than the Imperial Army. Xiao Jiming led his godly troops down to save them, and “River of Ice Armored Cavalry” was thus the death exemption token in the face of the Biansha Cavalry at the two borders to Dazhou’s north and east. Lei Jingzhe dared to angle for Cizhou, but he did not have the intent to settle down for long; he was even ready just to rob Cizhou’s grains and leave to seek credit right away from Qudu. What he feared was precisely Xiao Jiming’s deployment of his troops south again.
Xiao Jiming suffered a loss and was wounded in the military provisions case. But none of them had seen it with their own eyes. Those who were waiting for him did not dare to believe it, while those who feared him did not dare to bet on it. If the old-school senior officials headed by Hai Liangyi feared Xiao Fangxu, then the one those juniors down the ranks feared more was Xiao Jiming.
Silent reigned in the study. The candlelight flickered.
Shen Zechuan felt his back and waist aching. There were still traces of Xiao Chiye’s bites on his collarbone, which had been covered up by his collar. Strangely enough, even at such a serious and solemn moment, he remembered Xiao Chiye’s sweat-drenched face, Xiao Chiye’s strong arms, and Xiao Chiye’s kisses that wandered around his neck as Xiao Chiye gasped for breath.
He remembered everything about Xiao Chiye. The only thing he could not think of was a way in which Xiao Chiye was inferior to Xiao Jiming.
Shen Zechuan was silent for only a few moments, and his mind wandered for only a fleeting instant. He said, “I understand all that Your Excellency has said. We will return the exact same amount of the grains that Ce’an and I have temporarily borrowed after our arrival here next year.”
The color promptly drained from Zhou Gui’s face. He tried to explain, “Vice Commander, that’s not what we…”
“The issue I wanted to discuss with Your Excellency is not that the grains you are allocating to the Imperial Army are too little, but that it’s too much.” Shen Zechuan motioned for Zhou Gui to sit and lay it out with clear reasoning, “The fact that Cizhou is willing to allocate so much grains for the Imperial Army’s use is proof enough of your sincerity. But as we mentioned at the beginning, the Imperial Army will only use the grains from Cizhou at this point in time. The Imperial Army has a supply channel for future military provisions, so it doesn’t need to draw from Cizhou’s granary.”
Zhou Gui felt foolish and did not dare to interject arbitrarily, so he looked at Kong Ling and said, “Chengfeng is the one who supervised the drafting of the book, so there are some matters that he understands better than I do. Chengfeng, explain to the Vice Commander.”
Holding on to the back of the chair for support, Kong Ling rose to his feet. Instead of explaining, he asked, “The Vice Commander is so certain that the Imperial Army would not lack grains in the future, and you also said that the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path can still be used as usual. We really can’t think of any countermeasure that would allow us to do this. Would the Vice Commander be so kind as to explain to us? Otherwise, we will still have to ask the Imperial Army to accept this batch of grains.”
Shen Zechuan gently stirred the tea in the teacup with the lid and said, “Before this, I still want to ask both of you if Cizhou is going to live off the land in the future?”
Kong Ling replied, “Cizhou is limited by its geographical position. If not, then how can we survive?”
“What I see is the exact opposite of Mister.” Shen Zechuan put down the teacup and said, “It’s true that Cizhou was initially in a non-ideal position. There’s Libei to the north and Chazhou to the south. It is obstructed by Dunzhou and Duanzhou to the east and restricted by Dancheng to the west. It doesn’t dare to move as it pleases, and it can’t move at will either. But that was when Cizhou was still subordinated to Qudu. You are now on good terms with Libei. Dancheng can no longer rely on Qudu’s power and influence to force Cizhou to carry out orders. Meanwhile, Dunzhou has been occupied by the bandits, and a purge is imminent. With these, the three-sided walls enclosing Cizhou have already collapsed. The remaining Chazhou is not an obstacle, but an opportunity.”4
Zhou Gui wanted to get up again. His robe had already gone all creased from his kneading of it. He asked cautiously, “You mean…”
“Chazhou lies along the waterway that can lead right to Hezhou. After the defeat of the troops, the merchants in Hezhou who had come from all over took advantage of the opportunity to peddle the grains at exorbitant prices in Zhongbo, earning quick and huge profits from bandits of all sizes. It would be truly a shame if this route is only used to make someone else rich.”
“But bandits are also currently in power in Chazhou. What’s more, Chazhou has relations with the Yan clan of Hezhou. They won’t let our Cizhou use the route to do business without good cause.” Kong Ling was growing anxious as he spoke. “Besides, what can we sell? Compared to Hezhou, Cizhou is a remote hinterland.”
“Grains.” Shen Zechuan said.
The moment he said that, Zhou Gui jerked to his feet and exclaimed, “No! Isn’t that the same as those conscienceless thieves who conspire with the Juexi officials and merchants to resell public grains for profit?”
“Your Excellency, please calm down.” The expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes was too calm; so calm that Zhou Gui could not help but sit back down. He said, “The reason why there are people in Juexi and Hezhou reselling grains at exorbitant prices is that there is a shortage of grains in the various lands of Zhongbo, of which Chazhou is the worst hit. In Qudu, one tael of silver can buy you two dan of grains, while the same tael of silver in Juexi can buy you one dan and five dou5 of grains. But in Chazhou, one tael of silver can buy you only two dou of grains. The money the bandits in Chazhou have on hand is all fleeced from the remaining commoners in Chazhou. Because of this, the law-abiding citizens registered on the household register cannot survive, and consequently, they are forced to take risks out of desperation. The number of people who are reduced to being bandits will only increase with time. Your Excellency, this is also the fundamental reason why Lei Changming—that is, Lei Jingzhe, is able to rapidly expand his troops to this number within six months. So, if Cizhou is willing to sell grains to Chazhou at a fair price slightly higher than Qudu, it would be helping Chazhou instead.”
“But,” Kong Ling frowned slightly. “If we sell the grains to Chazhou, then there will no doubt be a shortage in the granary. If we only have silver in our hands, then won’t we be in the same plight as Chazhou is in now? When the time comes, the conscienceless grain merchants in Juexi and Hezhou go even further in trying to fleece money from us.”
“Hezhou is far away. Even if Cizhou wants to do business with it, there’s no hurry to do so in these one or two years. I had some understanding of Huaizhou when I left Qudu. Huaizhou contributed half the effort in the preparation of the military provision this time, and they have an abundance of grains in their granary. Dicheng, which is on the outskirts of Qudu, lies to the southwest of Huaizhou, and it leads directly to Juexi’s harbor too. Huaizhou just happens to lack money if it wants to conduct businesses through Dicheng. Cizhou can first sell the grains to Chazhou, then buy it back from Huaizhou at a price lower than Chazhou. The surplus silver can be used as a subsidy for other areas, while the granary can maintain its abundance of grains at all times. This can give the Libei Armored Cavalry, or Cizhou, some leeway at the crucial moments.”
The Imperial Bodyguards had an assignment to “keep track and record”, which is to take detailed records of the commodity prices in the streets and alleys. When Shen Zechuan was in office as the Northern Judge, he was in charge of the Imperial Bodyguards’ military craftsmen and could leaf through the Imperial Bodyguards’ annual records of the various areas. Ge Qingqing initially wanted to have it copied down, but Shen Zechuan spent the entire night memorizing it all down. He had been prematurely on guard against the unknown future and had not been willing to put all the important stuff down on paper that easily. As it turned out, he did right. They left Qudu in such haste that they had no time to bring anything else along. But all the records, files, and old registries and books he had read before went with him when he left.
Zhou Gui was lost in thought. He contemplated it over and over again, then said, “If Huaizhou isn’t willing…”
“It’s feasible! Luoxia Pass lies to the east of Huaizhou. It can transfer out local specialties from the frontiers of Libei, and it’s a linear route to have them transported to the harbor.” The more Kong Ling thought, the more excited he became. He could not help but walk a few rounds, then he slapped his thighs and said, “That’s right! We should have done it a long time ago! If Cizhou still doesn’t know how to adapt to the circumstances, then won’t it still be trapped in the same cage as before? This is workable!”
Shen Zechuan never answered the question of how he would keep the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path in use, but Kong Ling was already too preoccupied to bother about it. In the candlelight, he seemed to see a new lease of life for Cizhou. From what had happened with Lei Changming, he had thought Shen Zechuan to be a man who would stoop to deception and trickery. But now, he had forgotten all about it. He wanted to grab hold of Shen Zechuan to say his proper thanks, but then, when he extended his hand, he remembered Xiao Chiye, and so he hurriedly retracted them and said, “If we do this, then even if we have an over-surplus of grains in the next few years, we would not have to fear it growing mold in the granary.”
“Then, let’s discuss the garrison troops.” Zhou Gui said from across the table. “And the defenses of the city walls.”
Shen Zechuan drank his hot tea. He had yet to open his mouth when he saw Ding Tao, who had been outside the study, poked his head in and waved his hand vigorously at him.
“What’s the matter?” Shen Zechuan rose to his feet and walked over to the door.
Ding Tao had gone out earlier, and he had been running until his entire head and face were drenched in sweat. He opened his mouth and said, “Young Master, Young Master! They’re here!”
Zhou Gui and Kong Ling came closer too. One moment, they saw a very worked-up Ding Tao. The next moment, he suddenly closed both eyes and burst out crying. As if sensing something, Shen Zechuan walked out of the door in a daze. Sure enough, Ding Tao said as he choked with sobs, “Young Master! The brothers are back! Qiao Tianya is back too! And that Ji—”
Shen Zechuan was already taking large strides out to the courtyard. It was already completely dark outside, and he was still holding the teacup in his hand. As he walked, the tea spilled and scaled his fingers until they were slightly red, but he did not seem to notice; he had completely forgotten about it. He pressed on and walked outside the residence. It was a short journey, but he was sweating all over.
There were several carriages for the transportation of goods parked outside the residence, and a few tall figures were standing all spread out under the lanterns. The shorter one still in his cloak was turned sideways as he stood while resting beside the carriage.
Shen Zechuan’s chest heaved. The rims of his eyes were already reddened, but he forcibly held himself back, unwilling to lay his emotions bare here.
Ji Gang turned around for a look on hearing the movements and saw Shen Zechuan. He forgot all about the stone steps before him and nearly tripped. He revealed a headful of disheveled white hair and opened and closed his lips. Before he had even called out the name, he was already in tears.
“Chuan…” Ji Gang was just like a child with white hair. Even as he was miffed with himself for being inarticulate, he was also anxiously beckoning to him. “You, you…”
Shen Zechuan descended the stairs in two steps and stepped forth to support Ji Gang by the arm. Ji Gang turned his hands around to grab hold of Shen Zechuan’s arms instead and sized him up and down. In this life, he was first an Imperial Bodyguard in Qudu and then a blacksmith in Duanzhou. Later, a great catastrophe befell him, and he lost both of his wife and son to the grim reaper. Even so, he would still push himself to put on a tough act before others. But now, on seeing Shen Zechuan, he could not control the tears from gushing from his eyes.
“Chuan-er…” Ji Gang wiped his tears with his rough fingers and looked at Shen Zechuan over and over again. All the thousands of words he had to say became a single line of “as long as you’re fine.”
He was travel-worn, and he had thinned down quite a bit. Qi Huilian was dead, and he had been feeling apologetic about it. At the same time, he feared Shen Zechuan would have a rough time after leaving Qudu, and so he had traveled at top speed the entire journey, unable to eat and sleep well. All those suffering piled up over his already hunched back. He had long ceased to be the Ji Gang who was renowned in the world. But this emaciated body of his was still willing to shelter and shield Shen Zechuan from the elements. For this son, he could travel thousands upon thousands of li, and he could fight the great heroes of the world. He really had nothing else to ask for; he only wanted to see Shen Zechuan alive and well.
“Why have you become so thin?!” Ji Gang could barely control himself from saying.
“Shifu.” Shen Zechuan’s voice trembled. “Why has shifu lost so much weight?”
“I’m too old to bear any torment.” Ji Gang hastily wiped his tears and said happily, “I’m all good now that I’ve seen you!”
Qiao Tianya brushed the shattered teacup aside and kneeled on one knee. With the intent to ease the poignant moment, he said with a smile, “Although it was a few extra months worth of journey, this mission was smoothly accomplished. Master, how about a reward of a meal and wine? Shifu, let’s take a seat before we talk!”
◈ ◈ ◈
The courtyard that was not big to begin with was all filled with people. Kong Ling told the kitchen to cook up some hot dishes and set up a table in the courtyard, whereupon he used “On Horseback”6 to treat the newly arrived Imperial Bodyguards and Libei guards to a dinner.
Qiao Tianya chased after Ding Tao’s plump sparrow with a pair of chopsticks and said, “We’ve all gone thin from the running, but you fed it until it’s all fat. Are you planning to make it into a dish for us to enjoy with wine?”
Ding Tao was initially happy. But on hearing him, he scooped up the sparrow and said sharply, “No!”
Gu Jin was starving. Even in the intervals when he was busy shoving rice into his mouth, he did not forget to extend his chopsticks and hit Qiao Tianya’s chopsticks back. He said in a muffled voice, “You need a spanking or something? Why do you have to insist on bullying a kid?”
“Your share of the food during the journey was never deducted.” Chen Yang said as he sat and drank the wine. “So why are you still this hungry?
“Brother Gu gave out all his food to the children begging along the way.” It was then Fei Sheng socialized with them. He knew that everyone would be fellow comrades in the future, so he chose his words and picked the nice things to say, “Brother Gu is quite the chivalrous one to dig out a good amount of copper coins to buy steamed buns for them.”
“Help others in an emergency, but not if they are in constant poverty,” Chen Yang said earnestly with good intentions. “You really have to change that habit of yours where you go all soft-hearted when you see others weep. There’s a shortage of food everywhere now. I’m not telling you to refrain from doing kind deeds, but you really need to know your limits.”
“You spent all your money?” Ding Lai sprawled over the side of the table and said, “Jin-ge, didn’t you say the last time that you would hand it over to me? I’ll save it all up for you to marry a wife. I’ve long said to leave it with me. I remember it very clearly.” As he spoke, he fished out his little book. “It’s still written here that you drank wine and borrowed three copper coins from me during the spring festival three years ago. Of course, I don’t care about this bit of money. I don’t care. Really, ge, I’m just…”
Gu Jin ate to his heart’s content. He stuffed the cotton he always brought along with him into his right ear, then turned to the left and said, “Wine from back home? Give me a jar.”
“Only three cups.” Qiao Tianya had already stopped eating earlier. He said, “You have to go with me to report to my master in a moment. Look at you drinking yourself drunk. Are you forgetting how His Lordship punished you the last time? At this time, I’d advise you to act with prudence.”
He was usually laughing and joking. But he was the Vice Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard in the past, and he really gave off an imposing air when he played the part now. His tone was mild, but his words were not as pleasant to the ears.
Gu Jin frowned in irritation, but he still nodded his head and said, “It’s just a craving; I haven’t had a drink for months.”
Gradually, Ding Tao stopped chattering. He was the youngest among these people, and they usually saw and treated him as a younger brother. None of the elder brothers had ever been stingy in buying him candy. As such, he was not afraid of anyone and would dare to get close with everyone. He was born a discerning person, one who was particularly sensitive to the exchange of emotions between people. He could sense that the various older brothers did not seem to be as relaxed as they looked on the surface, so he held his little sparrow in both hands and behaved himself while he sat at the side, making neither noise nor fuss.
When they were almost done with their meals, Kong Ling arranged for some people to clear out the courtyard so that the guests who had been on the road all this while could rest. As it was already midnight, Shen Zechuan sent Ding Tao to lead Ji Gang away for a rest. The few at the head all had matters to report, and so they stood in successive order on the veranda and prepared to take turns to enter.
“Come on in all at once and take a seat. We can discuss it together if there’s something you need to say.” After all of them had entered, Shen Zechuan sat in the main seat and asked Chen Yang first, “Did the preparation of the military provisions go smoothly?”
Chen Yang sat upright and organized his choice of words for a moment before he said, “No. As Young Master had expected before I left, the officials of Huaizhou tried every means and way to stonewall and stall the preparations. The war in Libei was intense at that time, and Master’s two-days deadline was just around the corner. I was burning with anxiety. It was a guard of Luoxia Pass, His Excellency Jiang, who stepped forth to vouch for me that Huaizhou was finally willing to release the grains. Fortunately, we made it in time for the deadline, and the Provisions Bridle Path leads right to Libei, so the military affairs were not held up.” At this point, he fell silent for a moment before he continued, “I saw the Hereditary Prince back in Libei. He’s severely injured. When he heard that Master was caught in a heavy siege back in Qudu, he wanted to lead the troops over to receive him. Unfortunately, His Lordship the Prince overruled him.”
Shen Zechuan did not ask for further details. Instead, he turned to Gu Jin and said, “You came to Cizhou to transfer grains back then. Zhou Gui isn’t that hard to deal with compared to the Huaizhou Prefectural Prefect. So why are you still looking troubled now?”
Gu Jin looked somewhat taken aback to be called. Everyone present could notice his absent-mindedness. Shen Zechuan looked at him. Gu Jin replied, “… It’s true that I did not encounter any difficulties when I came to Cizhou to supervise the preparation of military provisions. I went along with the troops to deliver it to the frontline well in advance, and I even saw His Lordship the Prince at the eastern range of Hongyan Mountains.”
He did not speak quickly, and when he stopped, he hesitated for a very long time.
“I heard that Master had left Qudu, so I’ve been waiting for him to return home. It was when I saw Chen Yang in the army later that I knew Master had stopped over in Cizhou. And so I rushed over.”
Libei was just to the north of Cizhou. By all reasoning, they should have been faster than Qiao Tianya.
Shen Zechuan tapped his fingertips lightly on the tabletop. He skipped over it and said to Qiao Tianya. “How about you? Tell me the details.”
Qiao Tianya propped up his arm on the chair handle and answered very quickly, “I hurried on my way to search for shifu and teacher on Master’s order. I traced the trail in the inner chamber of the Xue’s residence and discovered that Xue Xiuzhuo had moved shifu over to the Donglong’s broker house, but there was no trace of Mister. We were a step late… and we could not get out of the city gate, so we could only go into hiding in Qudu.” As he spoke, he looked at Fei Sheng. “It just happened that he was also leading his men to hide from the noble clans’ searches. We tried every means possible to get out of the city, but Han Cheng had the city so tightly guarded that not even a drop of water could get through. We really had nowhere to go, so we hid at His Lordship’s Plum Blossom Residence. As luck would have it, it was in the Plum Blossom Residence that I found the layout blueprint of Qudu’s public ditches that His Lordship had tricked out of the Pan clan.”
This item was obtained by Xiao Chiye from Pan Lin when he had hosted a banquet after being promoted to a nobility rank. At that time, he was prepared to keep it for himself as a contingency measure. But by some unexpected turn of events, it became the key for Qiao Tianya and the rest’s escape from Qudu.
“We crawled our way out from the public ditches.” As Fei Sheng spoke, he reached a hand out to gesture with his fingers. “The public ditches in the various streets are all newly dug. I don’t know if this was His Lordship’s intent, but they are all narrow on the outside and wide inside. There are even candles and field rations stored in the dry spots. Over fifty of us relied on these field rations to circle around the Eight Great Training Divisions for more than ten days before we finally came out of Qudu at a place near Mount Feng.”
“After we emerged, we realized that there were strictly enforced checks on public roads between Qudu and the eight cities. So we pawned off the gold, silver, and jade pendants on us and disguised ourselves as traveling merchants. We made a detour from the south of Chuancheng to Chazhou, then hurried from Chazhou over to Cizhou.” Qiao Tianya said. “When we arrived at Chazhou half a month earlier, we heard that Han Cheng had already sent the imperial heir into the palace. But news was sparse after leaving Chazhou, so we lost track of what happened after. As for other details, we’ll have to wait for Ge Qingqing’s letter.”
No one disturbed Shen Zechuan as he contemplated it over. He heard the sound of Ding Tao walking on the veranda and waited until Ding Tao walked to the door before he said, “Both of you are tired. So go with Ding Tao and take a rest for tonight.”
Fei Sheng was a discerning man who could take his cues. He was not in a hurry to lay his loyalty bare tonight either, so he rose in one smooth move, took his leave of the master together with Qiao Tianya, and withdrew out of the room.
◈ ◈ ◈
The candle flame flared a little and flickered for a moment.
Gu Jin never lifted his head to utter another sound. He sank in the darkness, with the shadows from the candle flame cast upon the side of his face like two of villains scuffling with one another.
Shen Zechuan was surprisingly cool-headed as he said, “Did something happen to both of you in Libei?”
Chen Yang lifted a hand to partially cover his face and propped up his elbow on the chair handle. He said, “… I’ve been staying close to the Hereditary Prince, so nothing really happened to me. It’s Gu Jin.”
Gu Jin undid his clasps in the unbearable silence, took off his upper garment, and turned around, thereby exposing his entire back right before Shen Zechuan. He said, “These matters should have been reported directly to Master, but Master will only be back a few days later. As per Master’s instruction back in Qudu, I can report to Young Master’s first. I arrived at the area where the war was the most intense. His Lordship and Commander-in-Chief Zuo are both safe. After the conclusion of the military provisions investigation, I temporarily took up my original position as the vanguard of the reconnaissance squad, dealing with the cavalry of the Hanshe Tribe every day. I can’t remember which day, but we ran into an ambush when I was leading the squad back from the eastern mountain ranges.”
That back was already festered. The more severe spots had already been scraped away. Blood could still be seen seeping through the bandaged areas.
“I was hit by an arrow, but I managed to escape. I initially thought it was someone from the Hanshe Tribe, so I led the remaining 200 men and skirted around the grasslands where the Hanshe Tribe lurks to make our way back through the Tudalong Banner’s7 swamps. But who knew, we got ambushed again that very night at Tudalong Banner.” Gu Jin pulled up his clothes over him. As he secured the clasps, he said, “Young Master, I was initially a scout. It’s because of this pair of eyes and ears that I could be chosen by His Lordship the Prince as a guard. I may not be as good as I was before in all these years I’ve stayed in Qudu, but after Master’s admonition, I no longer dared to be negligent, especially on the battlefield where I tread with a lot more caution. That night, my marching route order was directly issued. I’ve never discussed it with anyone. Yet we got ambushed both times. So I started to suspect that there’s a spy from the Hanshe Tribe in the squad.”
“While escaping the second time, I discovered there was snake venom on the arrow. This poison had been smeared on Ding Tao’s steel needles in the past. It’s something that came from the Hongyan western mountain range. My back was festering pretty badly, and we were being closely pursued through the swamps. Then I was also bitten by some poisonous bugs. I couldn’t hold out, and a fever broke out at dawn.”
At this point, Gu Jin stopped.
He spoke dully, and he paused many times as if repeatedly confirming to himself in case he said one word wrong. He knew the implications of his upcoming words.
“Our horses all drowned in the swamp. I couldn’t walk on anymore. The Libei Armored Cavalry’s Changzhu camp lies about ten li or so south of Tudalong Banner. Strangely enough, no one was on patrol that day. I had my trusted junior general head back first while I remained where I was to wait for reinforcements. But no one came even after I waited from dusk to dawn the next day. I was worried that the spy would make use of this chance to enter Changzhu camp, so I pushed myself to hurry back. I barely escaped by the skin of my teeth back to the camp, but I was stripped of my blade and held in custody. I spent the entire night in the prison shack where the Biansha prisoners-of-war were detained. On the second day, I was taken to the front tent to be put on trial with the general of Changzhu camp, Guo Weili, presiding over it.”
Gu Jin omitted the details of the trial. He had no wish to recall it either. That was, to him, not physical pain, but a mental collapse of sorts.
He continued in a very, very soft voice. “They said I was in covert communication with the Hanshe Tribe to wipe out the vanguard squad even further east in the Tudalong Banner. They stripped me of my rank in the military and wanted me to confess if I had done so on someone else’s instructions. I can’t confess to something I have never done. I questioned Changzhu camp why they overlooked both of my consecutive requests for reinforcements, and they claimed that they never received it. According to military law, I would have to undergo a joint trial by three generals and have the current commander-in-chief give the go-ahead in person before I can be executed. But Guo Weili kept insisting that the Hereditary Prince have yet to recover from his severe injuries, and they had the authority to act on his behalf. If not for Chen Yang arriving in time that day, I would not be standing here before Young Master now.”
Shen Zechuan picked out the candle wick with a silver needle, and the flame extinguished. He stared at that candle, which seemed to be shedding tears. In just an instant, countless thoughts had already flashed through his mind. He did not even need to be reminded by Chen Yang and Gu Jin to remember, from the letter of appointment by the Ministry of War, that this Guo Weili was a person Xiao Jiming had single-handedly promoted.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye followed the trail left by Lei Jingzhe and pursued him all the way to the north of the old camping grounds. He dismounted to grab a handful of soil, then looked ahead and slightly narrowed his eyes.
Tantai Hu surveyed the mountain range and said, “They are going to step across Libei’s boundary line if they continue on north; they won’t dare to head there, so they can only split up and flee. Master, I suspect he is leading us on a wild goose chase. It’s too strenuous to keep chasing after them like this.”
“He’s indeed doing just that.” Xiao Chiye loosened his grip. “And they are fleeing in small groups. Naturally, we can’t catch them all in one fell swoop with a large net. But if we split up now, we will fall into the other party’s trap. He’s unwilling to fight me head-on because he can’t handle the momentum of the Imperial Army. He’s worried that his own men will lose focus and morale. They are familiar with this area, so they try every means possible to lure us into splitting up into small groups so that they can break through our defenses one by one.”
“We don’t have enough cavalry.” Tantai Hu examined the terrains. “This brigand is really too crafty!”
“No rush.” Xiao Chiye stood up.
Meng returned from his patrol and landed on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder. It stood together with Xiao Chiye in the night breeze. The wind rustled the grass, scattering a few strands of willow leaves before him.
“Of the five arms, only fire is the most intense.”8 Once again, Xiao Chiye got on his horse. “I want a fire so blazing that he has nowhere to hide.”
Tantai Hu followed suit and got on his horse. He said, “But there are more lands than trees here. If set aflame, I fear the fire will spread to the grasslands of Libei.
Xiao Chiye laughed out loud on the horse and said to Tantai Hu, “I’m not asking you to burn this place down. Go to the big towns and small villages along the way and get them to put up bulletins announcing that whoever harbors the bandits will be executed with immediate effect. If they inform the Imperial Army, they will be rewarded copper coins per bandit reported. I’ll pay as much as they report. And tell them too, Cizhou is about to issue a conscription notice. If they go, three meals a day will be provided if nothing else, and informants who have been rewarded cash from the Imperial Army will be given priority. Since Lei Jingzhe doesn’t want to be found by us, I’ll make him expose himself.”
Tantai Hu was hesitant, but still said, “But didn’t we run out of money…”
“Go report the figures to Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye urged his horse on, then reined it in and looked back to say, “This Second Young Master can’t even dig out some copper coins?”
Tantai Hu looked embarrassed.
Xiao Chiye twirled his thumb ring and said with an unfeeling expression, “Oh.”
Three chapters in one.
A word about the grains. Here, 1 dan≈90kg. Qudu has a special supply granary, so the price of grains generally will not fluctuate too drastically. Officials have monthly income subsidies. In comparison, the price of goods in Juexi is high. 16,000 dan can roughly last the 20,000 Imperial Army troops 2.5 months. But this is based on the premise that there’s no war and the Imperial Army has no cavalry and will not be on the move constantly. It’s a rough calculation I made. Of course, it’s also possible that I was off in my calculation orz.
Thank you for reading.
- 酉时 hour of you, i.e., 5-7 pm based on the system of two-hour subdivisions used in former times
- 卯时 hour of mao, i.e., 5-7 am based on the system of two-hour subdivisions used in former times
- 石 dan, dry measure for grain equal. 1 dan = approximately 90kg (see author’s note)
- 斗 dou, a dry measure for grain equal to one-tenth of a 石 dan
- A strong wine from Libei, as mentioned in Chapter 102
- 旗 banner, administrative subdivision in inner Mongolia equivalent to county in China
- 五兵之中，惟火最烈 From Jixiao Xinshu; New Treatise on Effective Military Discipline 《纪效新书》 by Qi Jiguang (戚继光). It is a military treatise or manual written in 1560 by Qi Jiguang, a Ming Dynasty General famous for defending China from the Japanese pirates’ invasion.