There was not much of the sixth month left. Cizhou’s garrison troops were already beginning to take shape, and it was time for Xiao Chiye to continue his journey north. Not once had he sent a personal letter to Libei in the two months he was in Zhongbo; likewise, Libei did not send him one either.
Both parties seemed to have come to some kind of tacit understanding.
Meng began to spend more and more time out hunting. Xiao Chiye knew it was flying north. He stood in the courtyard today, watching the sun sink in the far distance. It was only when Shen Zechuan rapped lightly on the door frame behind him that he returned to his senses.
Xiao Chiye looked back at Shen Zechuan from under the last of the evening rays.
Shen Zechuan felt as if Xiao Chiye had grown a little taller again. Those broad shoulders of his bore the weight of the setting sun; he was far more sturdy than he had been six years ago. Shen Zechuan watched for a moment until Xiao Chiye turned aside slightly and said, “Let’s go horse-riding.”
Unlike the last time they went horse-riding in Qudu, Xiao Chiye was serious this time. He led Shen Zechuan up Lang Tao Xue Jin and explained it all to Shen Zechuan regardless of significance, from how to step on the saddle to how to pull on the reins. It was as if he wanted to leave it all to Shen Zechuan—His horse, his eagle, his heart.
The two men rode on the horse together and trotted along the forested path outside the city of Cizhou. This section of the path was not long. They ran until the last of the sun on the horizon vanished. Stars adorned the vast stretch of the sky behind them, sprinkling the ground with a smattering of light. The lands in the mountain ranges to the north were rich in vegetation and water. Lang Tao Xue Jin ran up the slope. Xiao Chiye reined in the horse and sat in the wind as he said to Shen Zechuan, “The Hongyan Mountains lie at the end.”
Shen Zechuan looked out into the distance. On this cloudy night, the boundless sky stretched on in the far distance. He could vaguely catch a glimpse of the tall, rising peaks of the Hongyan Mountains. It looked like a dragon lying at the end of the earth, asleep in eternal rest. It drew a meandering demarcation line at the very edge of Dazhou. One could see its contours from Zhongbo, but not reach it from where they were. It nourished the vast expanse of land north of Dazhou; it was a natural-formed wall that rose from the earth of Libei.
Shen Zechuan heard the howl of the wind—a wind that was entirely unlike that of Qudu. It blew against him, sending the sleeves of his robe fluttering like a white bird spreading its wings.
“This is the call of the Hongyan Mountains. It’ll miss me too. When we get closer to it, we will be able to hear the song of the wind even more clearly.” Xiao Chiye spurred Lang Tao Xue Jin into a run. They jolted in the wind, shooting across the billows of wild grasses like a bird swooping towards Hongyan Mountains.
Meng flapped its wings and chased after them from behind. It circled in the air and dove, leaving behind a line of bent grass in its trail as it swept past.
Xiao Chiye suddenly said in Shen Zechuan’s ear, “I want to take you there to see it.”
The puff of warm breath from Xiao Chiye warmed up the little jade earring on Shen Zechuan’s ear. Looking ahead, he said, “Xiao Ce’an…”
Xiao Chiye turned his head. Shen Zechuan said something, but the wind was too strong, and Xiao Chiye did not hear him clearly. Refusing to let it drop, he moved in closer and motioned for Shen Zechuan to repeat it.
Shen Zechuan said, “Keep going, and we’re going to cross the border!”
“Then so be it.” Xiao Chiye did not stop. “I’m taking you home to meet my old man and eldest brother—What did you just say?”
Shen Zechuan shouted in the wind, “WHERE . IS . MY . FAN?!”
Xiao Chiye scooped up Shen Zechuan in his arms and suddenly reined in the horse, causing Lang Tao Xue Jin to raise his hooves and neigh. The world turned upside down in Shen Zechuan’s vision, and a muffled thud rang out right after. Both men tumbled and rolled in the grass along the slope.
Xiao Chiye wrapped his arms around Shen Zechuan to shield him. He did not get up when they came to a stop; instead, he spread his arms and remained lying under Shen Zechuan. He said, “You lied to me.”
Shen Zechuan pinched his cheek and asked, “Who lied to you?”
Xiao Chiye stared at Shen Zechuan as he said huffily, “You lied to me. Liar. Scoundrel. Heartless man…”
Shen Zechuan tugged over a handful of grass and plastered them all over Xiao Chiye’s face.
Xiao Chiye did not dodge. He stretched out his arms to embrace Shen Zechuan and forcefully held him to his chest. He said wickedly, “In this life, even if I die, I have to die with you.”
He hugged Shen Zechuan so tightly that Shen Zechuan’s head was buried in the pit of Xiao Chiye’s neck. Shen Zechuan made a few attempts at struggling, but he could not break free, so he said in a muffled voice, “Xiao’Er, if you suffocate me to death, then you’d be murdering your own husband.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Then repeat what you said earlier.”
Shen Zechuan gasped hard for breath and finally managed to peek out from under Xiao Chiye’s palm. With deep feelings, he said, “Xiao’Er, you’re suffocating—”
Xiao Chiye rubbed away at Shen Zechuan’s head until even the latter’s cheeks flushed red and his hair was all tousled, looking not in the least like Vice Commander Shen at all. Xiao Chiye said resentfully, “Shen Zechuan!”
There were bits of grass in Shen Zechuan’s mouth. “Huh?”
Xiao Chiye cupped Shen Zechuan’s cheeks and lifted the latter’s head to kiss him. But just as their lips were about to touch, he stopped and said callously, “Kiss me.”
Shen Zechuan could only remain in this position with his head slightly raised. He endured it for a moment, then said, “Release your hands then.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Nope. Think of a way yourself.”
Shen Zechuan could not reach him. Pursing his lips, he grabbed hold of the front of Xiao Chiye’s robe to yank him over and gave him a peck on the lips.
Xiao Chiye’s expression remained unchanged.
Shen Zechuan was still trying to reach him, so Xiao Chiye lowered his head and kissed him so hard that Shen Zechuan bent backward. Even his bites were merciless. Xiao Chiye’s arms were still locked around his waist in a hug, and as Shen Zechuan leaned back, he felt a stab of pain in his neck and sucked in a breath with eyes narrowed.
In no time, their positions reversed. Shen Zechuan sank into the grass. He could see the entire boundless starry sky as Xiao Chiye entered him. Sounds he could barely suppress escaped his lips as he grabbed a lock of Xiao Chiye’s hair, which wound around his fingers as they tensed and curled. The stars dazzled before his eyes, and his consciousness gradually disintegrated in the wind. He gazed at Xiao Chiye a little dizzily, clearly sensing that the wolf pup was much fiercer than usual.
“Xiao’Er…” Shen Zechuan dragged out the syllables.
Xiao Chiye bent down, enveloping him and blocking out all the wind and stars at the same time.
“I love you.”
Xiao Chiye seemed to have fallen in love with such whisperings lately. The closer he was to home, the more he would act like a child. He took possession of Shen Zechuan, and he was also taken by Shen Zechuan.
He was not stingy with declarations of love such as these. Each time he said it, he would make Shen Zechuan clench hard and tremble in spite of himself.
Shen Zechuan seemed to be sighing and moaning as he immersed in the murmurs of words and clung close to Xiao Chiye, while Xiao Chiye indulged to his heart’s content with wild abandon at the boundary of Libei. Only the two of them knew of the debauchery taking place beneath those seemingly intact clothes. With his back to the Hongyan Mountains, and under that enchanting soughing of the wind, Xiao Chiye revealed just how feral and domineering he could be.
Shen Zechuan gradually forgot all about the milky way above as he kissed Xiao Chiye. He soared high up in the clouds and fell back into the embrace of the wind, eventually melting into the crooks of Xiao Chiye’s arms.
◈ ◈ ◈
When Shen Zechuan woke up, the day was just beginning to break. Thin rays of the morning sun shone through the bamboo blinds. He stretched a hand out and felt the fading residual heat beside him. Xiao Chiye had gone out of the city earlier, leaving his old robe still hanging on the clothes rack. A small incense had been lit in this room to repel mosquitoes. The mingling of heat still lingered on Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan spread his arms apart and took up both of their spaces. He had yet to close his eyes for the second time when he suddenly propped himself up into a sitting position. He hurriedly put on his clothes and wooden clogs and pushed the door open.
“Quick.” The redness at the corners of Shen Zechuan’s eyes was visible. In a hoarse voice, he said to Ding Tao, who was under the eaves, “Send that new pair of arm guards to Ce’an posthaste.”
Ding Tao was feeling a little dispirited because he had been left behind. He was presently sitting cross-legged at the edge of the small pond, drawing as a vent for his feelings. When he heard Shen Zechuan, he did not even put away his brush; instead, he rose to his feet and attempted to run. A sharp-eyed Qiao Tianya deftly caught hold of Ding Tao’s back collar and said to Shen Zechuan, “His Lordship brought it with him.”
The rush of coolness in the morning sobered Shen Zechuan up. He tapped his wooden clog, nodded his head, and made to return to the room when Qiao Tianya added, “But he only took one along. Said to keep the other one for Master.”
Shen Zechuan stood still for a moment without saying a word. He saw it was going to be complete daylight soon, and so he did not intend to return to bed. “How many men from the Imperial Army have been left behind?”
Qiao Tianya answered, “Two thousand. They are all at the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds.”
“Prepare the register of names. The Imperial Army must not be lumped together with the soldiers from Cizhou.” Shen Zechuan pulled the front of his clothes and said, “Mister Chengfeng wants to discuss the purchase and sale of grains between Cizhou and Chazhou in detail. Go tell him that we will discuss it today.”
Qiao Tianya was not in a hurry to leave. He fished out a letter from the front of his robe and said, “Master, you have a letter from Ge Qingqing in Juexi.”
“Good timing.” Shen Zechuan said. “Is the fleet of ships in the Port of Yongyi all good? The Xi clan’s shops have nothing to do with us, so the surface-level policing will not involve them. But Xue Xiuzhuo merely emptied their silver warehouse and left these money-making shops to us. My guess is that he might not have necessarily done it willingly.”
“There are no signs of activities from Qudu. Even if Xue Xiuzhou has a foolproof plan, he can’t be in two places at once. There’s no one to work out a plan for those shops in Juexi for him.” Qiao Tianya released Ding Tao and said, “However, what Ge Qingqing means is that Qudu did not go and created trouble for him, but the Yan clan of Hezhou did.”
The Yan clan of Hezhou owned the waterways of Chazhou. They were prominent merchants south of Qudu. Lei Changming was able to establish his brigade of bandits because the Yan clan was backing Lei Jingzhe. Shen Zechuan had been thinking about them, so he was not really surprised to hear this.
“I know very little about the Yan clan.” Shen Zechuan said. “There’s not much news about them in Qudu either.”
Ding Tao jumped in excitement at his words and said, “Young Master, I know of this! The one supporting Lei Jingzhe is the current head of the Yan clan, a man by the name of Yan Heru. Rumor has it that he’s such an extravagant and ostentatious person that he refuses to go out without a sedan chair worth its weight in gold. He’s not only dressed in gold; even the abacus he carries along with him is made of precious gold and jade! He’s VERY, VERY, VERY rich!”
In his haste, Ding Tao’s pronunciation of “very” came out sounding vague, so he lifted his little book and showed it to Shen Zechuan. There was a scrawl drawn in brush of a figure holding up an abacus. He was dressed in copper coins all over, giving off a strong “rich man” vibe.
“Where did you hear of this?” Qiao Tianya asked.
Ding Tao pointed in the direction of the prison and replied, “Master brought home a silly lad the last time they caught the bandits. He’s almost as tall as Jin-ge, and he’s incomparably strong. I used a few sweets to trick this information out of him. This lad is so simple-minded that he will spill it all if you give him food.”
Shen Zechuan vaguely remembered that Xiao Chiye seemed to have mentioned it. He said, “Weren’t the remaining bandits sent back?”
“Yeah.” Ding Tao nodded. “But Master said he’s too silly. He can’t survive if he returns, so we might as well keep him here with us.”
Shen Zechuan still wanted to know the details of the Yan clan, so he said, “Bring him here.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Zhao Hui fed the eagles at dawn. Wearing an arm guard, he held up his arm to them one at a time to let them perch on him while he fed them meat. At other places, there would be a servant specifically assigned to the eagles to handle matters like these. But when it came to Xiao Chiye’s generation in Libei, they all liked to do it themselves and raised their own eagles they had tamed themselves.
When Zhao Hui fed “Yu”, who had been following Xiao Jiming all this while, he discovered that its back had been badly scratched, and there was a bald spot on it.
“What happened?” Zhao Hui held Yu and pushed aside its feathers for a look. He asked the soldier on the side, “Did it fight with someone?”
The soldier held the leather bag containing the strips of meat and took a few steps with Zhao Hui. He said, “I have no idea, General. It went out hunting a few days back, and when it circled back from the south, it was already injured. I had the physician look at it, and he said this wound was caused by the talons of a bird of prey.”
Yu was a gyrfalcon too, and it was considered large in size among all the flocks of birds in Libei. Xiao Fangxu was the one who was taming it originally, but he later gave it to Xiao Jiming. It had followed Xiao Jiming into battle for the last few years, and it had never been on the losing end against the saker falcons from the Hanshe Tribe.
Zhao Hui scrutinized the wound and wondered, “How strange. Whose eagle is as ferocious as this…”
One of these words sent a sudden jolt through Zhao Hui’s mind. He abruptly turned his head and looked to the south. The breeze was still the same. There were no traces of a gyrfalcon in the skies.
The sky in Libei was still blue.
SPECIAL THANKS TO : Suika<3