Xiao Chiye’s loose outer robe was half-opened, revealing the unclosed collar of his inner garment. When he sat down, he blocked off much of the light. There was still moisture on his body, and he felt a little more comfortable after wiping his face with a clean handkerchief. He then rapped a bent finger thrice on the floor and said to Chen Yang, “What’s the matter? Sit up and talk.”
Chen Yang promptly rubbed his face clean with his arm and sat straight up. He said, “We encountered some incidents during this return trip to Libei. I’m reporting to Master first, as I do not dare to make a decision arbitrarily.”
Xiao Chiye picked up Shen Zechuan’s chopsticks and listened as Chen Yang recapped what happened. Shen Zechuan left the table midway to take a bath. Xiao Chiye finished the rice in his bowl and sat for a moment without showing any intent to ask for another helping. He asked, “How is Gu Jin’s injury?”
“We called for a physician after we left Changzhu camp. Gu Jin’s fever subsided during the journey, but the wound on his back is festering badly. Ji Gang-shifu took a look at it last night and told Gu Jin to abstain from certain foods. He also gave him instructions on several matters and said that he would be able to recover if he recuperates for about a month.” At this point, Chen Yang paused for a moment before continuing. “Fortunately, his eyes and ears were not hurt.”
Gu Jin’s eyesight and hearing far exceeded that of the average person. It was a one-of-a-kind natural talent among these guards. This matter would be a lot harder to resolve had he been wounded in his eyes and ears. If that happened, then even Xiao Chiye would not be able to swallow this injustice, let alone Chen Yang.
“Tudalong Banner is a domain the Changzhu camp of the eastern mountain range would patrol daily. It’s originally quite a distance away from the Hanshe Tribe. To think Gu Jin’s vanguard squad actually retreated all the way there.” Xiao Chiye had gathered plenty from Chen Yang’s statements. He said astutely, “This shows that the Libei Armored Cavalry has been retreating. The battles Father and shifu are fighting aren’t going smoothly.”
The insects’ cries on summer nights created quite the din as it drifted through the bamboo curtains, and it was so hot both inside and outside the room that it made one restless.
Xiao Chiye looked at the candle flame for a moment and said in a hushed tone, “Eldest brother’s incapability to lead the troops is a heavy blow to Libei Armored Cavalry. Father promptly came out of retirement to boost the troops’ plunging morale and soften the impact of the word ‘defeat’. But he has not been on the battlefield in person for nearly fifteen years. On the other hand, his opponent, Amu’er, has never left the front line of the Hanshe Tribe in these fifteen years. Times have changed. Relying blindly on Father is not the way to victory. I often say not to have a change of people right before the battle. Even the best general has to build up a rapport with his soldiers over time. All of Father’s troops fifteen years ago have been replaced, and those who can stage a comeback with him are few and far between. The ones he is leading now are a new school of military officers and soldiers who are already used to Eldest Brother’s style of handling matters. Both sides need to mutually adjust to each other during a critical battle, and this is not an easy thing to achieve.”
When Xiao Fangxu established the Libei Armored Cavalry, the word “Armored Cavalry” was the best description of the Libei Army. At that time, Libei was unable to catch up with the Biansha Cavalry’s horses, so Xiao Fangxu adopted the measure of making them ‘heavier’—he not only had the soldiers all armored up, but even the horses of Libei too. Such an army was a terrifying force to behold in a frontal assault. Like the mighty torrents of the mountains, the impact of the collision was able to annihilate their foes in a blink of an eye. There was simply no time for the Biansha Cavalry to draw their machetes, and even if they did, they could not stab through those armors. Even the ferocious Hanshe Tribe was not willing to fight a drawn-out war with the Armored Cavalry. Their light and swift mobility was their only remaining advantage. And it was on this basis that Xiao Fangxu kept piling on more weight to armor up the Libei Armored Cavalry until he eventually forged the Libei Armored Cavalry into a real “wall of iron”.
When Qi Zhuyin led the Qidong Garrison Troops through the territory, the sounds of their horses’ hooves boomed like thunder. But when the Libei Armored Cavalry did the same, the sound they generated was not just “like thunder”, but real “thunderclaps”. That weight could make one lose the courage to continue fighting just from the sound of it alone, so much to the extent that no one could find the Libei Armored Cavalry’s weakness for as long as five or six years.
However, Amu’er was also a fearless warrior who, among his constant engagement with the Libei Armored Cavalry, made use of their “heaviness” to the fullest. As long as the Hanshe Tribe’s cavalry was fast enough, they would be able to loot, retreat, disperse, detour back, and encircle the foe in that order, like a swarm of blood-sucking flies that, despite being unable to penetrate through those solid and sturdy armors, would also emerge unscathed. The way Lei Jingzhe gathered the bandits together to harass the Imperial Army was precisely an imitation of the Hanshe Tribe’s way of combating the Libei Armored Cavalry. It was just that Lei Jingzhe did not have horses that fast, nor soldiers that strong.
It was at this time that Xiao Jiming took over the Libei Armored Cavalry. The first decision he faced back then was whether to retain the weight of the Libei Armored Cavalry. In the eyes of the veteran generals, he was a lad who was still wet behind the ears, and his refined and humble personality was one aspect of him that the veterans who were used to Xiao Fangxu could not stand. He made a completely different choice from Xiao Fangxu—he reduced the weight of the Libei Armored Cavalry, making the “wall of iron” thinner, but equipping it with the mobility to turn around quickly. And thus, the Libei Armored Cavalry shifted from being a heavy cavalry into a cavalry that veered towards being a little more armored up.
It was with this change that Libei began to possess the characteristic of “fast”. This was where “River of Ice Armored Cavalry” originated from, and it was also the fundamental reason he was able to stride across the borders of two territories in one night. They were able to keep up with the Hanshe Tribe’s speed. Coupled with the constant refining of their battle formations, they became even tougher to deal with. The new school of generals was all selected by Xiao Jiming. Their working style was mutually compatible with Xiao Jiming’s, and they were already used to Xiao Jiming’s receptiveness to their suggestions—Perhaps, they respected Xiao Fangxu just the same on an emotional level, but they might not necessarily be able to adapt to Xiao Fangxu.
Respect alone could not win them battles. The light in their eyes as they looked up to the legendary god of war would be worn down again and again as they mutually butted heads with one another. In the end, the glorious Prince of Libei would also fall off the pedestal on which he had been placed on to become a myth that had faded into obscurity along with the tides of change. When that time came, the legend of the Libei Armored Cavalry would also come to an end. They would become a bunch of disorganized soldiers plagued by mutual discord and internal strife among themselves. A concentrated force excessively dependent on a centralized command was an advantage, but it was also a shortcoming.
Qi Zhuyin was the commander-in-chief who had intensively studied the Libei Armored Cavalry the most. She was very well-aware of the drawbacks in the Libei Armored Cavalry’s reliance on its commanding officer. That was why she had been trying her best to avoid leading Qidong down the same route as the Libei Armored Cavalry after she became the commander-in-chief of the Qidong Five Commanderies’ military forces. She went all out to establish the Qidong generals’ barrack, which took in men who had the potential and the making to lead troops. It was her confidence in her hold over absolute military power and authority that she dared to delegate authority to these men. She gave Lu Guangbai this much authority because Lu Guangbai had the capability. She understood what kind of generals were suitable to lead what kind of squads. In Xiao Chiye’s eyes, Qi Zhuyin was the most qualified person among their generation to be the commander-in-chief.
People who could fight could be the general of an army, but they might not necessarily be able to be a commander-in-chief commanding armies from all quarters. If one were to rank the Four Great Generals of the world, no doubt Qi Zhuyin would be the chief. She had long come to discern the Libei Armored Cavalry’s weakness, and she had reminded Xiao Jiming of it.
Xiao Chiye’s ostracisation was inevitable.
With one hand on his knee, Xiao Chiye poured the melted candle wax into the small porcelain plate. The tips of his fingers came into contact with it, but he liked this kind of searing pain. He watched as the candlelight flickered and said, “Chen Yang, when I left home at seventeen, I asked my eldest sister-in-law when I would be able to return home. This question brought tears to her eyes, and she cried the entire night alone in her room. When my eldest brother and I got on the horses, she stuffed many cakes from Libei into my bundle1 and even hid a flask of ‘On Horseback’2 within. She said she didn’t know when I would be able to return home either, but they would always be waiting for me in Libei. I entered the capital as a hostage because my eldest brother won a victory in battle. I hate Shen Wei to the core. At that time, I thought the defeat of the Zhongbo troops was to be blamed. I never thought of myself to be more outstanding than my eldest brother, but I was equally attached to Hongyan Mountains and the racecourses. I used to lie prone on the ground and listen to the sounds from the lands of Libei. When I left, I even wanted to take the soil of Libei along with me.”
“I attempted to survey the horizons for a glimpse of Libei from the top of the tallest building in Qudu, but even Meng could not see it when it flew up into the clouds. It was then I understood for the first time how much of a remote possibility it was to return home. I’ve learned plenty from shifu, but it was only when I was in Qudu that I began to understand the truths behind those words. I am a man burning with ambitions, and Qudu is the teacher that taught me to restrain all those desires. My encounter with Lanzhou did not happen by accident. He was the last line of defense when I was about to hit my limit and lose it. He is also the indulgence and freedom I lost and regained.”
Xiao Chiye lifted a finger, as if he had drawn a line.
“I am complete. The parts of me that were broken and lacking are now encased with steel. I would no longer stop when I walked out of Qudu again. Whether it was twenty years ago or ten years ago, my father and eldest brother both made the best choice, and now, it’s my turn. The mountain we surmount might not necessarily remain our foes forever. I acknowledge how outstanding my father and eldest brother are. I revere and cherish them, but that is the part that belongs to ‘family’, not the ‘Libei Armored Cavalry’. We are wolves that have strayed from the pack. Our return to the pack is not for us to submit and bow to the commands of others, but to carve out our own place and positions among them.”
Xiao Chiye bent over slightly, his gaze as sharp as a blade.
“Libei cannot suffer another defeat. This isn’t a matter of the Xiao clan. I understand that, as do my father and eldest brother. Who should inherit this iron wall? Anyone. As long as he can shoulder the responsibility. I’m going back to Libei, not just going home. Guo Weili is a veteran of Libei; he knows all of your functions best, and not injuring Gu Jin’s eyes and ears is the most merciful warning he is giving me. So cheer up, Chen Yang. Our opponents are all the battle-hardened seniors who have been fighting on the battlefield for a long time—there is no battle in this world that must be lost. All those impregnable defenses and impenetrable encirclements are but facades. I’m going back. I want a Libei Armored Cavalry that truly belongs to me.”
Chen Yang’s fingertips trembled slightly; Xiao Chiye’s words had him all fired up. He had been sitting on his knees until his legs had both gone numb, but that tingling sensation leaped up his spine as he faced such a Xiao Chiye, his fear all swept away by the fervor coursing through his blood.
◈ ◈ ◈
By the time Shen Zechuan emerged from his bath, Chen Yang had already taken his leave and left the room. Xiao Chiye was lying on the xumi couch3 staring into space. The windows were open, and there was a porcelain jar on the veranda with a few stalks of lotuses in it. Their delicate fragrance wafted through the gaps. Xiao Chiye rested his head on an arm and looked up at the starry night sky.
The breeze of summer nights was always so gentle, coming and going without a trace; one could barely feel it if not for the scent of lotuses permeating the air. Xiao Chiye was not only feeling hot; he was also weary. However, he had his own pride. He was unwilling to show his fatigue easily, so he could only stuff these feelings into these sleepy moments as he stared into nothing and pretended not to be tired at all. The sky was studded with stars this night. He was in a bit of a trance.
Shen Zechuan blew out the candle and threw his outer robe on the back of a chair. He scraped an icy cold finger gently across Xiao Chiye’s cheek, leaving in its path a temperature that belied excitement. Xiao Chiye returned to his senses and locked gazes with him.
Even though he had just showered, Shen Zechuan’s fingers were still icy cold. That icy cold finger brushed across Xiao Chiye’s cheek, as if comforting him.
Xiao Chiye tilted his head a little to the side to be a little closer to Shen Zechuan’s palm.
Xiao Chiye really missed Shen Zechuan. This kind of longing was fervent and urgent, but it was not strange. Every inch of his body missed Shen Zechuan; this was a common occurrence. However, this longing was not just limited to his physical self; it was also the desire raging in his heart. It was a love far deeper and much more indescribable. He felt an unprecedented excitement lying in wait behind all of this fatigue.
Shen Zechuan sensed his rising temperature.
Xiao Chiye had been on horseback for days, but he was unable to fall asleep right now. Only both of them understood the intrusive look in his eyes, which hardened along with the movements of Shen Zechuan’s finger.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. In the near future, there would be countless of such absences. And now, Xiao Chiye wanted to possess every single moment they were alone together. He suspected that vines would sprout out of the longing in his chest and wound around the armored hooves on which he raced across the grasslands, holding him back. He wanted to invade Shen Zechuan, penetrating deep into him again and again, and in the process, leave his own scent on him. Not only that, he also wanted to be filled with Shen Zechuan’s scent.
Both of them had to have the same scent.
This was a childish obsession of the wolf pup. It was as if doing so would prove that they could never be apart. Xiao Chiye pressed his cheek against Shen Zechuan’s palm, sniffing his scent before the small furrow in his brows finally relaxed.
Xiao Chiye wanted to tell Shen Zechuan how much he truly loved him.
Perhaps there were many ways to express love. But now, he only wanted to use the most intense kind.
The xumi couch was not big enough for both of them. Xiao Chiye reached out to pull down the bamboo blinds and covered up that bit of gap in the window, shutting the moon outside. Lanzhou did not need the moonlight. That naked, lithe softness of his only needed one person’s gaze on him—Xiao Chiye’s.
Shen Zechuan rode on Xiao Chiye as they kissed in the darkness. Their hot breaths intertwining inseparably together, its heat edging all the way down to their necks, chests, and even abdomens. Shen Zechuan’s neck was flushed all over. Xiao Chiye felt this to be some kind of silent acclamation; it was also Lanzhou’s indulgence. As with Shen Zechuan’s tremblings, these were all urgings Xiao Chiye could not rein in.
Xiao Chiye’s ferocity caused Shen Zechuan to lift his head and gasp for breath. Shen Zechuan pressed down on Xiao Chiye’s chest and attempted to make him stop this aggressive invasion. But he was also looking down at Xiao Chiye with tears in his eyes, seducing Xiao Chiye with his gaze into continuing with the fierceness, into keeping up with the meanness.
Do all you want.
This was what the expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes was explicitly telling Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye was brimming with energy as he held Shen Zechuan securely on top of him. He was panting. Neither of them averted their eyes, as if they could not bear to look away from each other for even a moment.
Shen Zechuan’s hair gradually scattered all over his shoulders amidst the intense thrusting. He clenched Xiao Chiye’s clothes until it creased, as if he was a drowning man clutching at straw while shudders rocked through him.
“Grow a little more meat on you.” Xiao Chiye said in a raspy voice, “Lanzhou.”
Shen Zechuan’s damp locks of hair stuck to his face. In the moments between kissing and panting, he could not find it in himself to answer. Sighs escaped through his lips as he reached out with his fingers as if to grab on to something. But Xiao Chiye held his hands and did not wait for him to come to his senses as he entered with unhurried tenderness—a slow, gentle ride after the gallop to his heart’s content before.
That is, if he had not gone in that deep.
Shen Zechuan let Xiao Chiye hold him in position as he took him all in to the deepest depths. The never-ending onslaught of thrusts turned his mind into mush. His misty, lidded eyes became even more of an aphrodisiac, while the corner of his eyes glistened with pleasure as Xiao Chiye permeated every pore of his being.
“Ce’an,” Shen Zechuan followed his heart and called out his name, “A-Ye.”
His calls caused Xiao Chiye to break out into a sweat.
Shen Zechuan lowered his head and edged along Xiao Chiye’s temple with the tip of his nose to disperse those beads of sweat. He called out wickedly, “Er-lang”.
Xiao Chiye came to an abrupt stop. He grasped Shen Zechuan’s jaw and corrected the position of his face, then kissed him hard in between gasps. These calls threw all those that once had order into disarray; it messed up the anxieties he had concealed away. Xiao Chiye forgot them all. He did not need any of them; he only wanted Shen Zechuan.
They could not indulge to their heart’s content on the xumi couch, and so the bedding on the bed was pulled down onto the rug. Even the pillow on the rug was drenched after some time. Shen Zechuan’s eyes were half-closed. He was wet to the bone, his energy fully expended. Xiao Chiye propped himself up on his arms. He was still inside him. He lowered his head to press his forehead against Shen Zechuan’s, all the while lightly gasping for breath.
“Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye’s sweat-drenched forehead inched down. He nuzzled against the crook of Shen Zechuan’s neck and called out in a muted voice, “Lanzhou.”
Shen Zechuan lifted his hand and placed it on Xiao Chiye’s hair. They clung this inseparably close together, in perfect harmony in every sense of the word. Shen Zechuan raised his legs, indicating for Xiao Chiye to press down into him. Instead of doing so, Xiao Chiye tightened his arms around him. His embrace was so tight that Shen Zechuan found it hard to breathe. He stroked the back of Xiao Chiye’s head with varying strength and tilted his head to breathe a light puff of air into Xiao Chiye’s ear. Very slowly, he called out, “Lang-zai.”4
Xiao Chiye bit him.
Shen Zechuan let out a husky laugh. He sensed something trickling out of him, so he said, “You came.”
Xiao Chiye switched to kissing him. Both of them grind against each other intimately, squeezing out even more fluid as they moved. It still seemed as though Xiao Chiye’s sexual desire was about to rear its head again, causing Shen Zechuan to sigh repeatedly. Xiao Chiye initially thought of putting the brake on as he had been going at it rather savagely, but when he looked at the expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes, he continued to penetrate deep into him.
Xiao Chiye stroked Shen Zechuan’s cheeks and inserted two fingers into his mouth, leaving Shen Zechuan’s tongue with nowhere to hide. Both of them clung close together, panting at the same pace as they took in each other’s expressions all into their eyes. The last time was not intense; rather, it was more like a never-ending session of tender lovemaking.
When Xiao Chiye finally slid out of him, Shen Zechuan was no longer able to make a single sound. All of his vague grunts and moans had been devoured clean by Xiao Chiye. As the waves of heat washed over him, he grasped Xiao Chiye’s jaw. Tears he could not stop soaked the hair on his temples wet. Xiao Chiye finally lowered his body to snuggle with him, skin on skin.
In the end, both of them were exhausted, Shen Zechuan could barely keep his eyes open. He was still grasping Xiao Chiye’s jaw. Xiao Chiye seemingly let out a laugh and leaned over to kiss him. They kissed for a moment before falling asleep together like this—Xiao Chiye on Shen Zechuan.
Xiao Chiye did not dream.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was already considered late when the day broke the next day. Xiao Chiye had only just returned after leading his troops, so no one would have castigated him for it, but he woke up pretty early. Their lovemaking had dispelled emotions that might have been suppressed otherwise. When he got up, Shen Zechuan made to wake up too, so Xiao Chiye covered the latter with a quilt and kissed him back onto the bed.
“Military affairs.” Shen Zechuan struggled tiredly and sleepily in the darkness, and said with his eyes closed, “I’ll go later, in the afternoon…”
“We’ll discuss Cizhou’s garrison troops later.” Xiao Chiye said. “I want to settle the issue with Lei Jingzhe with Zhou Gui first.”
“Two hours.” Shen Zechuan let out a long sigh. “I’ll be there two hours later.”
Xiao Chiye stroked him and said, “It’s the same if you go tomorrow. There’s no hurry to do it these few days. Go on, sleep. I’ll be back for lunch at noon. Call shifu along too.”
Shen Zechuan uttered an acknowledgement, although it was unknown if he had actually heard Xiao Chiye clearly. Xiao Chiye changed his robe after taking his bath. He did not get anyone to go in and clean up, but he had instructed Ding Tao and Gu Jin well in advance to stand guard in the courtyard. Then he left, taking Chen Yang and Qiao Tianya with him.
◈ ◈ ◈
Zhou Gui was already in the study, having a few rounds of discussion with his advisors. It was getting increasingly bright out there, but there was still no sign of Shen Zechuan. When he finally saw Xiao Chiye, he hurried out to greet him. He dismissed the others, leaving only Kong Ling in the room to serve tea.
Xiao Chiye did not look to be in an amicable mood today, and all his so-called frivolity had been fully curbed. He cut such an intimidating presence that Zhou Gui and Kong Ling did not dare to take deep breaths. Xiao Chiye had something on his mind, and so he did not beat around the bush after taking his seat.
“I let Lei Jingzhe go in the east. He should arrive in Dunzhou in three days.”
Kong Ling had done a headcount of the bandits last night, and he had gotten suspicious when he did not see Lei Jingzhe. Hearing these words now, however, had dispelled his misgivings. They were already on familiar terms with Xiao Chiye, so there was no need to be as punctilious as before. He gave a light cough and said, “Your Lordship presumably must have your own plans.”
Zhou Gui still had doubts, so he asked, “Lei Jingzhe is a scheming man. Is Your Lordship planning to keep him for your own use by letting him go?”
“This man is too shrewd to submit himself into compliance.” There was no warmth in Xiao Chiye’s eyes as he said, “Although we’ve captured the majority of Lei Jingzhe’s men this time, he still has men remaining in Mount Luo. And it’s not just that. There are still plenty of Lei Jingzhe around even without this one Lei Jingzhe. Before Cizhou has its own garrison troops, it’ll prove to be too difficult to get rid of them once and for all.”
Kong Ling thought of what Shen Zechuan had said a few days before. He nodded at Xiao Chiye’s words and said, “That’s right. Just as the Vice Commander said, as long as food is scarce in Zhongbo, there will still be decent commoners reduced to being bandits. There is no way to eradicate this issue just by force alone.”
“Lei Jingzhe lost his right-handed men this time, yet he was still able to escape alone from my hands. Even if he has a glib tongue, he won’t be able to clear himself of suspicions among the bandits.” Xiao Chiye said. “I’m also going to give him a hand and make him the Imperial Army’s ‘spy’ that the bandits of the two prefectures of Dunzhou and Duanzhou will revolt against. This person is capable. He will certainly not sit still and wait for death. With that, the bandits will be thrown into internal turmoil and will be too preoccupied to set their eyes on Cizhou.”
It was only because he had intentionally released Lei Jingzhe that Lei Jingzhe would have to suffer. Cizhou was presently powerless, and this was already the best option out of the better strategies available to them.
Kong Ling caught a hint of his intent when he heard this. He asked, “Your Lordship goes to such an extent to think for Cizhou. Is it because you are preparing to set off for Libei?”
Xiao Chiye turned the teacup around and said. “Time waits for no man, and Libei is currently often at war. It’s inadvisable for me to remain in Cizhou for longer. Moreover, Qidong has already delayed for two months. Once Qi Zhuyin arrives, it’d be hard for me to leave even if I want to. After I leave Cizhou, Lanzhou will still continue to assist Cizhou. As I said before when I deployed the troops, I will not concern myself in all the matters concerning the garrison troops of Cizhou. But if both of you gentlemen still need the Imperial Army, just get Lanzhou to send me a notice, and I’ll be sure to arrive within a day.”
The way he put it was worth pondering over. At least, in Kong Ling’s ears, it sounded like both a favor and an intimidation.
Xiao Chiye said to let Lanzhou inform him; this indicated that he would not listen to the words of the whole lot of them from Cizhou. Lanzhou would have to be the one to decide whether or not to let him lead his troops back. However, Lanzhou was not someone who could be easily fooled, so they could not take advantage of the distance to deceive the Imperial Army into deploying their troops. In addition to the above, there was another layer of meaning.
Kong Ling was a little on tenterhooks as he wiped his sweat.
If Cizhou dared lay a hand on Shen Zechuan, Xiao Chiye was sure to hasten there within a day.
2 Chapters in 1. Short of 700 words orz
Thank you for reading.
This chapter is a combination of the non-censored + revised version for the best of both worlds ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
包袱, a cloth bundle. In the old days, people traveled around with their clothes and possessions bundled up with a piece of cloth. The bundle was then worn across the shoulders and carried around. It also works for carrying food around.
- A strong wine from Libei, as mentioned in Chapter 102
- Xumi couch (须弥榻, ), also known as the Mile couch (弥勒榻) or short couch (短榻), is basically a shorter couch, a common piece of furniture during the Ming Dynasty.
- 狼崽 literally wolf pup