Ji Gang rose to his feet abruptly. “Nonsense!”
Although Li Xiong had been beaten back by Ji Gang, he was not afraid of him. He retorted resolutely, “I’m not talking nonsense. I have seen him before. There’s a portrait of him in Gedale. My big bro used to live there. I remember it clearly!”
Fei Sheng thought this did not augur well, considering that he was not Shen Zechuan’s trusted subordinate yet, so there were some matters he was not at liberty to remain here and listen. Thus he got up and said, “Seems to me like he’s more or less done with eating. Master, I’ll inform the kitchen to stop serving up the meat.”
Once Fei Sheng withdrew, Shen Zechuan asked Ji Gang to sit and said to Li Xiong, “Look carefully. Are you sure it’s my portrait?”
Li Xiong grasped the handkerchief he used to wipe his mouth with two fingers and scrutinized Shen Zechuan for a moment. He answered hesitantly, “It kind of looks like… yet also kind of doesn’t…”
Shen Zechuan felt a slight stir in his heart. He stirred the spoon in the soup and lowered his eyes. “The person in the portrait you’ve seen is a woman, yes?”
It finally dawned on Li Xiong. “Oh, right. That’s a woman; you’re a man.”
In just a short moment, Shen Zechuan made plenty of conjectures. He watched the sour plums stirring in the soup and thought back to what Zhou Gui had once said. He also remembered his mother, Bai Cha, as well as Lei Jingzhe who had just returned to the Prefecture of Dunzhou’s territory.
“What place is this ‘Gedale’?” Shen Zechuan asked without batting an eyelid.
◈ ◈ ◈
“Gedale lies to the east of Chashi River and is a part of the area within the Biansha’s borders. In the early days, it was a temporary residence for the Zhongbo bandits to hide from the pursuit of the Zhongbo garrison troops, but later, they engaged in the illicit trade of selling women from decent families and was wiped out by the garrison troops of two prefectures led by my elder brother, Tantai Long. The remaining people defected to the Biansha Cavalry, and the one roaming around this place back then was the Biansha’s Liaoying Tribe.” Tantai Hu raised his head to watch Meng pass through the layers of clouds. “Lei Jingzhe came from that place. After leaving the Zhu clan, he had nowhere to go. He thought of following the Zhongbo bandits to make his fortune, so he went to Gedale. But for some reason, he failed to build up a brigade of bandits there and eventually returned to the Prefecture of Duanzhou, where he met up with Lei Changming and started to make his mark.”
“After Tantai Long wiped out the Gedale’s bandits, the Liaoying Tribe headed north. Those bandits who had initially defected to them followed them north too.” Chen Yang squatted on the ground and rubbed at a handful of dry soil. “The Liaoying Tribe is now the reserve cavalry of the Hanshe Tribe. All the saker falcons of the Biansha people are tamed by the Liaoying Tribe. At first, their status among the Twelve Tribes of Biansha was pretty low, equivalent to that of an ‘eagle slave’, but twenty years ago, an ‘esuheri’1 appeared in the Liaoying Tribe.”
Tantai Hu was not from Libei, so he did not know the implication of this form of address.
Gu Jin explained from the side, “That is, ‘hero’.”
“You know Biansha is made up of numerous tribes, right?” Chen Yang looked back and smiled at Tantai Hu. “Only tribes where ‘heroes’ have appeared can be called as one of the Twelve Tribes. Coincidentally, our lord and this ‘hero’ were both born in the same year. Ever since His Lordship established the Libei Armored Cavalry at Luoxia Pass, this ‘hero’ conquered the three tribes of Liaoying, Gouma, and Changjiu in the desert and defeated the old chief of the Hanshe Tribe in the north with saker falcons. From then on, he became the one and only ‘Great Hero’ to command the four tribes since the reign of Yongyi. He also became Libei’s arch-enemy.”
Tantai Hu gave a start. “Don’t tell me it’s…”
Xiao Chiye had been standing behind them at some point onwards. He tilted his head to drink up the water in the water bag, then picked up from where they left off as he secured the opening of the water bag, “It’s Amu’er.”
They made way for him, and Xiao Chiye stepped onto the clod of earth to look at the Hongyan Mountains in the far distance.
“Amu’er is currently the person most likely to be the monarch in Biansha. He has the ambition to subdue the Twelve Tribes.” Xiao Chiye had a prominent nose that cast some shadows when he turned his head to the side. He continued, “He formed the strongest cavalry in Biansha and became the person since the dawn of history to attack and breach the furthest into the lands of Dazhou. Laohu, the Biansha Cavalry you see now is actually the Biansha Cavalry that Amu’er has reformed. He combined the horses from the Gouma Tribe and the saker falcons from the Liaoying Tribe together, lowered the height of the Hanshe’s Tribe but increased their speed, and completed the deployment that would allow him to battle with Libei in the air.”
“Lowered the height?” Tantai Hu looked at Lang Tao Xue Jin and said, “Master, are the battle steeds from Libei and Hanshe Tribe different?”
“Of course they are different.” Xiao Chiye let loose a laugh, but his smile was faint. “At first, in order to keep up with the Hanshe Tribe’s speed, my father opened up a new stable at Luoxia Pass and stopped using the battle steeds from Suotian Pass. The current battle steeds of the Libei Armored Cavalry are all reared from that time on. Strong and muscular, they are all wild horses from the foot of the Hongyan Mountains, and also the same breed of horses the Hanshe Tribe once used. But Amu’er later came to realize the drawbacks prematurely. He thought that for the same breed of horses, the Libei Armored Cavalry’s weight-bearing capacity was stronger. Once the Libei Armored Cavalry removed their armors, the Hanshe Tribe’s speed would no longer be an advantage. So he took down the Hanshe Tribe’s horse ranch on the Hongyan Mountains and swapped them for the Gouma Tribe’s ponies.”
Lang Tao Xue Jin shook its mane and circled around Xiao Chiye to eat grass.
“We have come to grief because of those ponies.” Chen Yang gestured to indicate the height for Tantai Hu. “The Gouma Tribe’s horses caught the Libei Armored Cavalry off guard.”
Tantai Hu did not understand. He had been in the Prefecture of Dengzhou and the Imperial Army successively, but neither of these was the main forces of the cavalry, so he did not know what was so formidable about the ponies.
“They are astonishingly fast.” The expression in Xiao Chiye’s eyes grew a little frosty as he recalled the fleeting glimpse he had caught many years before. “Those horses are valiant and strong. Although they are small and short, they have great endurance. The Gouma Tribe has been fighting battles with the Bianjun Commandery all this while. Outsiders do not understand; they think Lu Guangbai doesn’t live up to his name and isn’t worthy of being ranked as one of the four generals in the world, but put them in his position, and they will know after a trial run that it isn’t an ordinary cavalry his infantrymen has been launching night raids on to wear them down, but the world’s fastest cavalry. Qidong has been stationed in the south with increased military strength for many years, yet they have never managed to weaken the Gouma Tribe, and this is all because they could not catch up with the latter. This is also the reason why Qudu isn’t willing to let Lu Guangbai dispatch his troops. When they appeared in the grasslands of Libei, they nearly crushed the Libei Armored Cavalry, which was just beginning to take shape. The weight increase by my father turned the Libei Armored Cavalry into prey at the mercy of the Hanshe Tribe’s machetes after the Hanshe Tribe’s change of horses. To solve this problem, my father chose to continue piling on the weight and turned Libei Armored Cavalry into an iron wall that could move.”
With the strong wind stirring on the grassland, Xiao Chiye lost himself in his thoughts.
“Laohu, the reason the Biansha Cavalry was able to fight their way through Zhongbo six years ago had everything to do with Amu’er’s change of battle steeds. If they had continued to use the wild horses at the foot of the Hongyan Mountains without any army supplies, they would not have the stamina to last that long. These horses are not only fast but also tough, and they won’t slow down at all when passing through the desert. Paired with the saker falcons acting as reconnaissance outposts, they will prove to be a great catastrophe to the Zhongbo garrison troops.”
In fact, this was an issue that had Xiao Chiye tossing and turning all night after the defeat of the Zhongbo troops. He had followed Xiao Jiming into battle when he was in Libei, and his memory of the Hanshe Tribe’s present structure had been deeply impressed in his mind. He even pondered to himself more than once what else he could do – other than increasing the weight – if he had been his father faced with such strong troops back then. He looked forward to his eldest brother’s answer, and Xiao Jiming’s choice to this was to thin down the Libei Armored Cavalry’s armor and enhance their mobility. However, Xiao Chiye was not satisfied.
He was a greedy wolf. He could not simply give up the Libei Armored Cavalry’s advantage.
However, this was not a problem that could be solved with imagination. For this reason, Xiao Chiye opted to head south with the army before entering Qudu to witness the slaughterhouse that was Zhongbo with his own eyes. He also saw Lu Guangbai’s infantry.
“I can’t catch up with them. They are too fast.” Six years ago, Lu Guangbai squatted on the ground and drew a map for Xiao Chiye. “But Bianjun Commandery is pretty good. The beacon towers stretching ten thousand of li can transmit news quickly. At night, we are the ‘bag’.2 As long as we block off the narrow opening, they won’t be able to enter and exit freely. When the truncated squad falls behind, then no matter how fast their speed is, they can only be headless chickens.”
Zuo Qianqiu once said, “A-Ye, ‘an attack is an opportunity to defend, and defense is a strategy to attack’.3 The reason the Tianfei Watchtower is able to stand firm without falling is not because of how strong I was as a leading general, but because Heaven has bestowed upon Tianfei Watchtower a strong geographical advantage. However, Tianfei Watchtower was forced to take a defensive stance because once our troops head out, we will not be able to stand up to the Biansha Cavalry’s assaults. I was the general who cower behind the city gates. In this world, the only army who can pit themselves against the Twelve Tribes of Biansha when it comes to going on the offensive is the Libei Armored Cavalry. I told your father numerous times never to let the Libei Armored Cavalry become a real shield; that would cause Dazhou to lose its spear completely. If you become a general one day, remember the set-up of opportunities and strategies. The battlefield is a place that undergoes myriad changes in the twinkling of an eye. The moment you fall into the rhythm and pace of the other side, you will lose all your advantages. You have to seize your opportunities firmly; you must learn forbearance. Sometimes, a perfunctory, painless blow is the prelude to exhaustion. The fist has to strike the vital point.”
But it was too hard.
Xiao Chiye had yet to think of a solution better than what his father and eldest brother had come up with. He could not even engage in guerrilla warfare like Lu Guangbai did. But he could not forget Zuo Qianqiu’s admonition, and he agreed wholeheartedly that the Libei Armored Cavalry could not be just shields. They had come this far after having gone through countless refinements not to bask in past glory. In Xiao Chiye’s eyes, it was all too easy to beat back the Biansha Cavalry, but way too difficult to repel Amu’er,
Because the Biansha Cavalry was continuously becoming stronger and stronger under Amu’er’s command. This man had the final say in four tribes; he had nothing to worry about from the rear. He was like a vulture born in the desert, eyeing the meat that was Dazhou, all the while attempting to invade it. When Xiao Fangxu changed the Libei Armored Cavalry, Amu’er changed the Hanshe Tribe. When Xiao Jiming changed the Libei Armored Cavalry, Amu’er changed the Hanshe Tribe right off. He had an uncanny understanding of the pack of wolves from Libei. Looking at it from a certain angle, they were confidants. He understood the Libei Armored Cavalry even better than most of those from Libei themselves.
Xiao Chiye’s gaze was blocked by the Hongyan Mountains, just like how he had always been blocked by his father and eldest brother. He had not gone head-to-head with Amu-er before, yet he was already seeing the other party as an opponent he had to defeat.
That was a worldly-wise vulture, well-versed in the ways of the world. Xiao Chiye was still a wolf who had just embarked on his journey home.
Meng suddenly swooped down, bringing along a gust of wind in its trail that brushed across the guards’ faces. It landed on Xiao Chiye’s shoulders, the bloodstains on its sharp talons leaving rough streaks of blood behind. It had already exceeded the size everyone used to imagine it would be; the only ones who were able to hold it up were Xiao Chiye—and Shen Zechuan, who was particularly gentle with it.
Xiao Chiye collected his runaway thoughts and indicated to Chen Yang that there was no need for him to take the leather bag. He turned his head to look at Meng and said, “It has already hunted its fill.”
But Meng was acting a little unusual today. It stared at the sky with a sharp, penetrating gaze, never once shifting its gaze even when Xiao Chiye bent his fingers to stroke it.
Xiao Chiye followed its gaze and looked over.
It was quiet up there in the skies and down here on earth. The strong wind springing out of the grass was like a long serpent. At the same time it bared open its bloody mouth, Meng took to the air once more and pierced through the wind to clutch hold of the saker falcon that was attempting to extricate itself from the grass. As the other bird spread its wings and flailed, Meng abruptly rose. By the time it brought the saker falcon before Xiao Chiye, this lone saker falcon had already become a bloody pulp of ripped flesh.
Xiao Chiye abruptly mounted his horse. As he pulled on the reins, he surveyed his surroundings. His gaze finally landed on the east. He frowned.
He had just entered Libei’s territory and had not even reached the Libei relay station yet, so how could the saker falcon of the Biansha Tribes appear here?
“The sound of drums.” Gu Jin raised his head and turned around with the wind. “Master, it’s coming from the east!”
“That’s the Bianbo Camp, which is also the patrol camp. They have a backup support track that leads right to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path.” Chen Yang swiftly got on his horse too. Before he lifted his whip, he suddenly remembered something and turned his head back in astonishment to say to Xiao Chiye, “The Shasan Camp lies to the east of the Bianbo Camp.4 That’s where His Lordship’s frontline military forces are, along with a year-round reserve of battle steeds to be supplied to the battlefields up north for emergency use—”
Has the Biansha Cavalry fought their way here?
Then what about Shasan Camp?
What about the Prince of Libei?
Xiao Chiye clenched the reins and spurred his horse into a gallop.
- Again, for foreign names in this novel, we decided to go with pinyin for the time being due to unfamiliarity with the language involved and to avoid mistranslations with the actual names in its original language. If we do get official subtitles someday, we will replace them in the translation (the same goes for titles). Until then, please bear with us.
- ‘攻是守之机，守是攻之策’ from “Questions and Replies between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong” 《唐太宗李卫公问对》, a dialogue between Emperor Taizong (599-649 AD) of the Tang Dynasty and Li Jing (571-649 AD), a prominent Tang general. It discusses matters of military strategy and is considered to be one of the Seven Military Classics of China.
- For those referring to the map for reference, it says Shasan Camp is to the east of the Bianbo Camp in the text but it’s Shayi Camp that’s to the east of Bianbo on the map. :V It’s likely the AD mixed it up and Shayi and Shansan were swapped around. I’ve revised the maps to reflect the correct position in the novel (that is, until the next time it changes again lmfao).