Initially, the guard had already left the camp when he saw the men from the Imperial Army charging in like wolves and tigers. This squad was more excited than afraid; to date, they had never fought a battle to their hearts’ content, having been held in check back in Qudu and Zhongbo. It had not been easy for them to encounter the Eight Great Training Divisions lead by Han Jin, but the other party was like dough that shrunk back at just a squeeze, and now, they finally got to come face to face with the Biansha soldiers. With a frenzied spurt of energy and vigor, the Imperial Army drew their blades and charged.
Not many men from the Biansha Liaoying Tribe had come, since they were relying on the stone catapults to take the Bianbo Camp by surprise. It seemed as if victory was within their reach, but they were caught off-guard by these troops that came killing out of nowhere.
The Imperial Army resided in Qudu all year round, and the battles they fought were all street fights. Their blades were not as long as the Libei Armored Cavalry, yet they were artful in wielding them. They were an incomplete squad before Xiao Chiye took up the post of the Imperial Army Viceroy, and their main force had another name in Qudu, called “the military oilmen”; they were the best at mucking around and loafing on the job. In other words, this was a ‘slippery’ squad. They were not an organized wall like the Libei Armored Cavalry was. As long as they could stab their blades through the enemy forces, they would even resort to using low-down means.
And now, the Biansha soldiers had become the target of a surprise attack. The guard who had turned back cut off their retreat route. The men at the periphery quickly withdrew with the stone catapults, while the Biansha soldiers who were still inside the Bianbo Camp could only fight to the death with the Imperial Army.
By the time Wu Ziyu was able to get up, the fire had abated some. With his blade in his hand, Chen Yang checked the corpses and reported to Xiao Chiye, “Master, they are indeed from the Liaoying Tribe.”
“The stone catapults, being heavy equipment, are inconvenient to move around. If they want to take it with them when they flee, they won’t be able to run fast.” Xiao Chiye said to Tantai Hu, “Laohu, lead the cavalry and give chase.”
On seeing this, Wu Ziyu immediately said, “My horse can still run. Buddy, take mine.”
Tantai Hu said his thanks and flipped onto the horse. Gu Jin turned his horse around. “Laohu, follow me. We’ll go after them together.”
They led the men away. Half of Bianbo Camp had already been razed by the fire. Xiao Chiye was looking at the horse stables and granary. Wu Ziyu followed close behind him and called out, “Second Young Master…”
“Although Bianbo Camp is a patrol camp, it’s also a camp where reserves are stored. This place is still a distance away from the boundary line. There’s Shasan Camp to the east acting as a shield, and there are also sentry posts and checks along the way.” Xiao Chiye squinted his eyes from the glare of the sun. He looked at Wu Ziyu again. “Yet they made their way this far back. Where is your patrol squad?”
Wu Ziyu recognized Xiao Chiye. In his early years, he was picked along with Zhao Hui and Chen Yang to serve as Xiao Jiming’s guard in the Prince’s residence, and that was when he saw Xiao Chiye. But the Xiao Chiye back then and the Xiao Chiye at present were just like two different people. His excessively tall stature meant he was always looking down from above, and being gazed at in such a way made Wu Ziyu feel a lot smaller for no reason.
Wu Ziyu averted his gaze. “The patrol squad that went out last night did not return.”
“The patrol squad that went out last night did not return, and yet you, as the commanding general, sensed nothing odd about it even when noon came around.” Xiao Chiye looked as if he was just engaging in idle chatter. He had an intimidating presence that gave others great pressure, but his attitude was quite mild and calm. “Shayi Camp is the battlefield, while Bianbo Camp is the resource supply site for Shasan Camp. Every slight disturbance here will affect the battle at the frontline. You’re really quite the laidback one.”
Wu Ziyu could tell what he meant by these words. Xiao Chiye had never held a post in the Libei army. His only military rank now was that of an Imperial Army Viceroy in Qudu; what’s more, he was a viceroy whom Qudu no longer acknowledged, so he was in no position to reprimand Wu Ziyu. But the more insipid his tone was, the more it made Wu Ziyu ashamed.
News that the Second Young Master was going to return to Libei had been circulating in Libei for over two months. Leaving aside the common soldiers, each of the high-ranking military officers like them had their own thinking about it. Of the current military officers in the Libei Armored Cavalry, other than the few who were seniors from Xiao Fangxu’s era, the rest were all juniors whom Xiao Jiming himself had promoted.
Xiao Jiming was wounded, and no one knew when he would be able to return to his position. Would the Second Young Master take Xiao Jiming’s place upon his return? All sorts of rumors were running rampant. Whether they were those who were ready to throw in their lots with Xiao Chiye or those who continued to reject and ostracize Xiao Chiye, they were all waiting for Xiao Chiye to return and reveal his true colors. Six years was not a long time, but it was not a short time either. There were all kinds of strange rumors about the Second Young Master. Wu Ziyu was also observing Xiao Chiye.
“We are the troops that retreated from the battlefield at Shayi Camp only yesterday. Our main task is to plan and coordinate the transportation of equipment and grains for the battlefield.” Wu Ziyu paused for a moment. “The original garrison squad from the Bianbo Camp has already been switched over to Shayi Camp, so there are no main force troops here for the time being. What’s more, Bianbo Camp is located behind Shasan Camp. I truly didn’t expect…”
Wu Ziyu’s voice gradually faded away. The disquieting atmosphere was getting to him. That niggling, pressing sense of urgency was even more pronounced than the blazing sun. He quickly looked at Xiao Chiye. His Adam’s apple throbbed, but he did not dare to continue speaking.
Meng turned its head a little to look at Wu Ziyu. Its beak, which looked like an iron hook, had yet to be wiped clean.
Xiao Chiye’s nape lay exposed to the scorching sun. He lifted the other hand to cover it and raised his head slightly. He was still looking at the horse stables. “Aren’t you people the Libei Armored Cavalry?”
Wu Ziyu remained standing still in silence.
Xiao Chiye’s left arm was steady. The combined weight of Meng and the arm guard was nothing to him, but he did not let Meng rest for too long. Once Chen Yang was done doing a headcount of the bodies, Xiao Chiye released Meng into the air again.
“Master.” Chen Yang lifted his head to look at Meng. “Should we get a squad to follow?”
“Considering that the Biansha men brought along the stone catapults to launch a sneak attack, it’ll be tough for them to avoid the Shasan Camp’s patrol. But they were able to make their way here, which shows that Shasan Camp has already fallen into the enemy’s hands.” Xiao Chiye did not smile. “Father allowed the transportation squad to retreat to Bianbo Camp, likely because he still doesn’t know that Shasan Camp has already been breached. Meng is going over to Shayi Camp to deliver news of it. We’ll rest for a night and head for Shasan Camp tomorrow.”
“Second Young Master has no cavalry or supplies. If you continue on east, you will come face to face with the Biansha soldiers. Since they are able to take down Shasan Camp without so much a noise, then it’s very likely that the people stationed there are from the Hanshe Tribe who are skilled in the art of storming enemies.” Wu Ziyu could not refrain from speaking out. “Right now, it’s safer to wait for the reinforcement from the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang. I’ll send someone to deliver the message right away. The Hereditary Prince will definitely dispatch Zhao Hui over.”
“If you had sent the message to the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang yesterday when you arrived at Bianbo Camp, then there might still be a chance to make it before sunset tomorrow. Send the message now, and it’ll take a day and a night to rush at top speed to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path. Zhao Hui needs another one day and one night to rush to the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang from Dajing. By the time he arrives at this place, Bianbo Camp will be of no more.” Xiao Chiye pointed to the spot where the watchtower collapsed. “Rebuild the watchtower now. Don’t set it up in areas facing the east; shift it to the southeast corner. Do a headcount of the grains and battle steeds, and have the military craftsmen prioritize the repairs of the camp’s defense walls that the stone catapults have smashed.”
“If Young Master is worried about the Biansha soldiers returning, then you should move the grains and battle steed to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path.” Wu Ziyu caught up with Xiao Chiye. “There’s simply no time to rebuild the Bianbo Camp. Shasan Camp is only tens of li away from this place. The horses of the Hanshe Tribe can make their way over within a day.”
Xiao Chiye took a few steps up the railing and jumped over it to the other end. He turned around, motioned Wu Ziyu not to follow him, and asked in passing, “Honestly speaking?”
Wu Ziyu did not understand what Xiao Chiye meant by this. He continued at lightning speed, “All we can do now is to abandon the Bianbo Camp and try our best to reduce the loss of supplies—”
As Xiao Chiye stepped back, he asked, “Well, don’t you have the slightest notion to step out of this place and give chase?”
By now, the sun has begun to tilt. Wu Ziyu stood on this side of the ruins, baffled by Xiao Chiye’s gaze. The burns on his back stung from the scorching sunlight. With a frown on his face, he watched as Xiao Chiye turned back. He could not help shouting with all his might, “I can’t win them. Second Young Master, I said it before, I’m from the transportation squad…”
Xiao Chiye did not reply to him and merely waved his hand at Wu Ziyu with his back to the latter. The meaning was clear—Wu Ziyu could shut up now. He stood before the collapsed granary, his expression cold and detached, and his lips, tightly pursed.
He stood there for a very long time.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Fangxu sat unreservedly in the tent and raised his head to drink up the last mouthful of milk tea. The salted milk tea brewed with plain leaves had already gone cold from being set aside. The clotted cream felt moist in his mouth, and there was a milky aroma. His shoulders were bare, and the military medic was applying medicine.
“Amu’er is a good opponent.” Xiao Fangxu moved his shoulder after it was bandaged. “I’ve been observing the Hanshe Tribe for the past ten years or so, but I didn’t expect their attack power to be so strong. When people grow old, their reactions slow down. I’m no longer the man I once was.”
“Libei’s advantages are prominent, and its disadvantages are, likewise, obvious.” Zuo Qianqiu grabbed up a handful of sand and watched as they trickled down between his fingers. “Amu’er changed his attack strategy for you. He definitely won’t dare to make a sudden assault like this in the past when he was facing off against Jiming. Jiming is skilled in the art of war. The camps he set up on the boundary line are all interlocked. The armored cavalry heads out to face the enemy with chains on their back, supplied by Xiao Jiming himself. Once the situation changes, Jiming can haul the main force back any time to avoid heavy losses. Now that Jiming has retreated and you’re back in command, the speed in which news is passed on is a lot slower. What’s more, your style is completely different from Jiming. The vanguards don’t dare to go all out when they charge, and the reserve troops’ initial rhythm is all messed up. Will Amu’er let this opportunity slip?”
Xiao Fangxu got up to get dressed. Scars covered the bulging muscles on his back. He said he was old, but this intimidating body of his was far more sturdy than before. He put on his robe and started to put on his armor meticulously every step of the way.
“If Dazhou is still in the period of resurgence, then Jiming would be the best commander-in-chief of the Libei Armored Cavalry. Ha has performed extraordinarily well, and is the best candidate to keep Libei at the top of its game.” Xiao Fangxu strapped on his blade and continued with a stoic expression, “But Dazhou is already in a state of collapse, and our dogged strategy to be the ‘wall’ is no longer suitable for the Libei Armored Cavalry. Amu’er is the ‘Great Hero’ Heaven bestowed upon Biansha. He roams around the various tribes, wanting to create a new world. Jiming’s conservative strategy is just giving him enough time to grow and develop. Qianqiu, you and I both need to face up to one thing, and that is Biansha is no longer a bunch of incohesive small tribes that rely on looting and plundering to make a living. They are like rivers converging together to become the boundless sea under Amu’er’s leadership. Has it ever occurred to you that by the time Amu’er unifies the Twelve Tribes, Biansha will become a behemoth capable of devouring Dazhou? To fight and defeat him, it can only be now.”
“I’m the ‘spear’ of Libei, and Jiming is its ‘shield’. At the same time the Libei Armored Cavalry shed off its weight, they are gradually falling into the trap of complacency. An armored cavalry that has lost its desire for victory is akin to a wolf that no longer feasts on meat. Sooner or later, it will be replaced by some other armies.”
Xiao Fangxu was expressionless when he spoke to this point.
“Jiming’s defeat is not a bad thing for him and for the Libei Armored Cavalry. I put him in the military camp when he was just a teenager not because I hope he can maintain the so-called glory and honor of zero defeats. There are no legends on the battlefield—even I myself will suffer a defeat. I have to make the current Libei Armored Cavalry understand earlier that what we want is not constant victory, but to win; even if we lose, we will climb swiftly back on our feet. As long as our limbs are not broken, we can still fight. Both Jiming and I have successively accomplished what we ought to have done, and now, it’s time for Libei to feel the ‘hunger’.”
Xiao Fangxu paused for a long time, his gaze meaningfully deep.
“The Libei Armored Cavalry is in urgent need of a new commander-in-chief. This person must be different from us, even to the extent of being our polar opposite. He has to tear off the layer of scholarly elegance that Jiming has implemented. He has to be avaricious and savage. He has to make the Libei Armored Cavalry ravenous and let their wolfish nature rear its head once again.”