It was already the end of the sixth month, so the departure date was scheduled for the seventh month. After Shen Zechuan left, the advisors withdrew from the room, and Zhou Gui asked Kong Ling, “Why did you insist on letting the Vice Commander go? It’s complete chaos in Chazhou. If the Vice Commander were to meet with mishap, there would be no way Cizhou could explain it to the marquis. I was initially thinking of getting you to go and have yourselves disguised as merchants during the journey. We are still on friendly terms enough to negotiate with Luo Mu, the prefectural prefect of Chazhou.”
Kong Lin poured tea and nodded when he heard him. After swallowing it, he replied, “We can still disguise as merchants with the Vice Commander going, and there are Imperial Bodyguards going along too. It’s much safer than our own plan.”
Zhou Gui pointed at Kong Ling and said, “You’re generally smart as a rule, but this time you’re a fool. With the Vice Commander’s… appearance, how can he disguise as a merchant? Those sharp-eyed ones can tell something off at just a glance.”
Kong Ling looked at Zhou Gui for a moment with tea leaves in his mouth. He felt that Zhou Gui really did not understand, so he said, “You’re truly an honest one. Let me ask you, from the rebuilding of Cizhou’s garrison troops to the planning of our business in Chazhou, which one of them is not a proposal of the Vice Commander? Cizhou has been truly benefiting from him, but there are no free meals in this world.”
Zhou Gui said, “I don’t understand? I do! We currently can’t afford to recompense them for military expenses; that’s why we are supplying the Imperial Army with grains and giving them Beiyuan Hunting Grounds. Doesn’t this more or less repay our debt to them? Cizhou is also doing its best to repay the Vice Commander for his kindness to Cizhou.”
Kong Ling swallowed the tea leaves he had chewed on until bitter. “We can’t repay it now, and all the more we can’t repay it in the future. The marquis repelled the bandits from Mount Luo, leaving plenty of time for Cizhou to rebuild itself. We currently can’t even afford to supply half a year’s worth of grains for the 20,000 Imperial Army soldiers. We did give them the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds, and I’m telling you, that will be the Imperial Army’s camp-cum-drill grounds in the future. No matter how we try to draw a line between them and us on our end, Cizhou already belongs to the Imperial Army in the eyes of others. Moreover, once the business in Chazhou gets moving, how are you going to repay the Vice Commander for this bonus? Also, the Vice Commander said he’s going to assign Qiao Tianya to protect me, but who is Qiao Tianya? He’s the former Imperial Bodyguard Vice Commander in Qudu; his rank is way higher than you if you were to compare. When we enter the capital in previous years, we not only have to get off our sedans to pay our obeisances to him when we see him, we also have to move aside to make way for him. The Vice Commander assigned him to protect me, but how is a mere commoner like me worthy of receiving such a favor? And between him and me, who exactly will be in charge when we reach Chazhou? Yet you still agreed to it so readily! That’s why I said you are truly an honest one.”
Zhou Gui had never been an official before. He was already holding office in Zhongbo right from the start. His teacher was also his superior and benefactor. Zhou Gui served as a Tax Circuit Intendant under him. He did a good job of it, and he was a man of knowledge too. His teacher valued talents, and so he betrothed his daughter to Zhou Gui. As such, Zhou Gui was spared a lot of the nastiness that took place in the official circles. He was later promoted to the position of Cizhou’s Prefectural Prefect based on his qualification and experiences. Before the defeat of the Zhongbo’s troops, his career had been pretty much smooth-sailing. He was not like Liang Cuishan and the rest who were trampled upon by the officials from the noble clans in Qudu. He never had to endure that kind of hardship, so he truly did not understand much of that circuitous and convoluted stuff.
Zhou Gui was stupefied on hearing this. He said hesitantly, “I am worried too. I have to worry about your safety when you head over with the others to discuss business. The garrison troop is recently established, and the Imperial Army has left. The only ones at present who can be of use are the Imperial Bodyguards by the Vice Commander’s side.”
Kong Ling said, “Initially, when the Vice Commander said he wanted to remain in Cizhou, it was because we could not trust the Imperial Army then. Before the marquis left, you and I no longer harbor the same doubt, but the Vice Commander still stayed behind. To Cizhou, he is ‘the rain that bedews all things in silence’.1 I fear he has already planned it all before entering Cizhou. It’s too late for you and me to realize it now.”
After getting along with Xiao Chiye these days, Zhou Gui felt that Xiao Chiye was hard to speak to, but he was very efficient when it came to handling matters, and he showed others the respect due to them. He was someone who laid his cards on the table. However, Shen Zechuan was different. Shen Zechuan sat in the seat of honor when he discussed matters with them, yet he treated all those advisors courteously and even respectfully addressed Kong Ling as “Mister Chengfeng”. He was open to discussion when an issue cropped up, thereby giving the others the impression that he was a humble and unassuming person who showed respect for the learned. Zhou Gui’s wariness of him had already vanished over time.
Zhou Gui stood up, his hands still grasping his robe. He was rendered speechless for a long time. No matter how obtuse he was, he understood it now. Shen Zechuan had been going all out to help them all because he saw Cizhou as good as his. He said in a daze, “If the Vice Commander… is willing to restore Cizhou to its former glory, then I wouldn’t mind giving this prefectural prefect position to him.”
Kong Ling looked out into the night. A gray moth, attracted by the light from the study, pounced towards the side of the eaves, only to barge into the spider web concealed between the upturned eaves.
After a moment of silence, Kong Ling said, “Zhou Gui, it’s time to dispense with the title ‘prefectural prefect’. With Hai Liangyi’s death, the moderates in Qudu have come under attack by the students. There is no longer anyone who can maintain the peace in Dazhou on his own. The empire is falling apart. If Qudu is the ‘deer’,2 then Cizhou is the ‘rabbit’. Without the wolf and fox to guarantee our safety, Cizhou will be the ‘meat’ in the eyes of the jackals in Qudu, and you and I are powerless against them.”
Zhou Gui and Kong Ling were fellow students in their youth. They had many years of friendship between them, and Zhou Gui had rarely seen him so solemn. Thus, he said, “I know how much care and thought you have expended on it. All I ask is that the Vice Commander will live up to our expectations today and won’t let us down… I’m afraid of such a person.”
Kong Ling remembered the night when he met Lei Changming. Shen Zechuan had simply changed on a whim, chatting with a smile while surrounded by sharp blades all around. He spoke so genuinely, and even the expression in his eyes was sincere. Not only had Lei Changming believed him, but even Kong Ling himself had also believed the act. It was precisely after that incident that Kong Ling began to size up the man, Shen Zechuan.
Kong Ling retracted his gaze and said with a slightly troubled heart, “I stood out too much tonight and is already considered to have crossed the line. I fear the Vice Commander will remember this. I’m your advisor, and I shouldn’t have shown off before the Vice Commander… I should watch myself in the future.”
◈ ◈ ◈
While both of them were having an in-depth discussion in the study, Shen Zechuan returned to his residence. Ji Gang was already resting, so Shen Zechuan did not send someone over to disturb him and simply returned to his own courtyard. He crossed the veranda and saw Fei Sheng still on night duty in the courtyard, keeping guard with his men.
It was only when Shen Zechuan went into his room that Fei Sheng relaxed a little. Qiao Tianya shared some of his remaining tobacco with Fei Sheng. When he saw the light in the main room extinguished after a while, he got the men to put out the lanterns in the courtyard as well.
“It’s hard for Master to fall asleep without the marquis here.” Qiao Tianya stood under the tree and said in a hushed tone. “And his sleep is fitful too. So if you hear any noise in the second half of the night, don’t let anyone enter and disturb him.”
The gears in Fei Sheng’s head turned, and he knew what was up. He shifted the pipe away and puffed out a breath into the night. “Understood. The Chashi Sinkhole is a nightmare. Thanks.”
Qiao Tianya, however, did not smoke his pipe. He braced an arm on the tree trunk and listened to the croaks of the frogs in the pond for a moment. “You’ve been idle for so long. Master finds it a pity for you to be a guard. There are two missions. I’ll get shifu to hand you the authority token tomorrow morning.”
Fei Sheng understood very well that Shen Zechuan wanted to use him, but did not intend to keep him close by. At least, he would not be able to replace Qiao Tianya. He smoked in silence for a moment, then knocked the pipe a few times, and answered with a smile, “Sure, I look forward to it. But give me a hint. What missions?”
Qiao Tianya looked at Fei Sheng and said, “Keep track and record.3 Easy-peasy.”
Fei Sheng probed, “And the other one?”
“Investigate both men from the Lei clan, especially Lei Changming. Report every detail of his life to Master.” Qiao Tianya smiled. “It’s truly a waste of talent to hand this task to you. Actually, Ding Tao works fine too, but he’s too young, and I fear he has no sense of priority when it comes to carrying out the task, so you are still needed. You’re an expert when it comes to this. How about it?”
Fei Sheng smiled too. He nodded and said, “As long as it’s Master’s instructions, there’s nothing that can’t be done.”
Qiao Tianya went on. “On my end, there’s another matter that I’d like your help with.”
Fei Sheng twirled his pipe. “You and I are brothers, so no need to stand on ceremony. What is it?”
Qiao Tianya retracted his arm and said, “I’d like you to check the whereabouts of a person for me when you send someone out to keep track of the prices.”
Fei Sheng took note of it and cast a few glances at Qiao Tianya. “Who?”
Qiao Tianya answered, “Yao Wenyu.”
◈ ◈ ◈
It was in the dead of night, and the Imperial Army had yet to rest.
Wu Ziyu was drinking milk tea with Chen Yang. The military medic applied medicine for him, and he simply squatted on the ground and asked Chen Yang, “What exactly does the Second Young Master intend to do?”
As Chen Yang sorted out the name registers of military craftsmen in the Bianbo Camp, he said, “It’s Master who has the final say. Why ask me?”
Wu Ziyu said, “You and I are old acquaintances. Can’t you just give me a little hint here?”
Chen Yang compiled the name registers and looked at Wu Ziyu, unruffled. “If you want to have a personal chat, we will drink and dine here. If you want to discuss military affairs, I’d first have to address you as the battalion general. What am I supposed to answer you when you mix personal and official affairs together?”
Wu Ziyu put on his clothes and said, “Well then, I’ll lay it all out clearly for you. The Second Young Master wants to head over to the east to fight the invaded Shasan Camp. I don’t think it’s workable. It can’t be done. The current Libei Armored Cavalry in Bianbo Camp is my squad. We are not the vanguards; we are the transportation escort squad between battlefields. We can still play with the Liaoying Tribe, but if we have to fight the Hanshe Tribe… then I’m sorry, I’ll retreat with my men right away.”
Chen Yang nodded. “Excuse my inability to escort you farther.”
Wu Ziyu clicked his tongue. With a look of impatience, he asked, “What do you mean by this?”
Chen Yang set aside the name registers and said, “If you say these words to my Master, this is how he will answer you too. If you want to leave, then sure, just go.”
Wu Ziyu said, “When I talk about leaving, it’s not because I’m afraid of fighting a battle with the Hanshe Tribe, but because I can’t afford to fight a battle against them at present. Why throw an egg against a rock and court defeat by fighting against overwhelming odds? The battle steeds and military craftsmen from the Bianbo Camp are valuable resources for Libei. What good will it do to waste more time here with those Bianbo people? Send them on to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path as soon as possible, and we will have reinforcements from the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang. It won’t be too late to turn back again then.”
“Won’t be too late.” Xiao Chiye just so happened to lift the curtain. He stooped over to enter, then wiped away the water on his hands. “How did you come to this conclusion? Tell me about it.”
As soon as Xiao Chiye entered, Wu Ziyu felt it growing darker in the tent. The military medic packed his medicine case, bowed in farewell to Xiao Chiye, and withdrew from the tent.
Feeling somewhat embarrassed, Wu Ziyu did not dare to continue looking at Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye tossed the handkerchief to Chen Yang and made his way over to sit by the stove. There was still milk tea being kept warm on it. It had been a long time since Xiao Chiye had last drank it. Gu Jin came over from behind and poured a bowl for Xiao Chiye.
Silence descended in the tent, and Wu Ziyu felt unaccustomed and uncomfortable. Even when he erred in Xiao Jiming’s presence, it was not as oppressive as being in Xiao Chiye’s presence.
Xiao Chiye drank a mouthful and asked Wu Ziyu, “Any more fresh milk?”
Wu Ziyu shook his head hastily and said, “No, just this one pot, and this one was specially kept for the Bianbo Camp to satisfy its cravings.”
“How about plain tea?”
Wu Ziyu answered in the affirmative and said, “How would we not have something to perk ourselves up? There are plenty of tea leaves in the granary. If you like it, I’ll get someone to pack some for you.”
Xiao Chiye propped up his elbow and looked at Wu Ziyu. “Even if you stand here all night, I’ll still leave before dawn tomorrow morning. You run at the sight of an attack. Aren’t you people the Libei Armored Cavalry?”
This was the second time Wu Ziyu heard Xiao Chiye say “you people the Libei Armored Cavalry”. He was fuming inside. He endured it for a moment and was just about to say a word when Xiao Chiye spoke up. “Go pack some. Gu Jin, seal it in the case later and send someone to deliver it to Cizhou tomorrow morning. While you are at it, tell Lanzhou that all is well.”
How would Wu Ziyu know who “Lanzhou” was? The way he heard it from Xiao Chiye’s tone, Xiao Chiye wasn’t taking the war seriously; instead, he was thinking of gifting tea to someone else. Unable to bear it, he blurted out, “Second Young Master—”
“When we are talking about military affairs, I’m not the ‘Second Young Master’; I am the Viceroy of the Imperial Army, Xiao Ce’an. I asked if you are the Libei Armored Cavalry, and not once did you answer me in the affirmative. Libei doesn’t have an independent ‘transportation escort squad’ in Libei; it only has the Libei Armored Cavalry. Your soldiers ride the same battle steeds at the vanguards and are equipped with the same long sword4 as the vanguards.” Xiao Chiye stared at Wu Ziyu, drank up the milk tea, and said in a slightly mocking tone, “Is this all a commanding general of Libei has to offer?”
Author Words: (Lianyin’s addon in brackets)
Six Prefectures of Zhongbo: Cizhou, Dunzhou, Duanzhou, Dengzhou, Chazhou, Fanzhou
Eight Cities of Qudu: Quancheng, Dancheng, Chuncheng, Chuancheng, Dicheng, Jincheng, Wucheng, Cuocheng
Five Commanderies of Qidong: Cangjun, Chijun, Cejun, Chujun, Bianjun
Huaizhou is located behind Luoxia Pass, northwest of Quancheng. Hezhou is south of the military grounds on Mount Feng, the outskirts of which can be connected to the mountain ranges where Suotian Pass is. (Probably a typo. It’s Tianfei Watchtower on the map :V) Although these two are called “prefectures”, they are not under Zhongbo’s jurisdiction. For reference, please refer to the military grains case in book 1.
Yuzhou is in Juexi, along with Baimazhou, Qinzhou, and the Thirteen Cities, including two great harbors/ports.
So far, the tribes from the Twelve Tribes of Biansha that have made their appearances are: Liaoying (Eagle), Gouma (Horse), Hanshe (Snake), Changjiu (Vulture)
Referring to chapter 43 of book 1, the Huiyan Tribe that Ce’an first mentioned has already defected to Dazhou. It’s a small tribe that’s active around the fringe of the mutual trade market.
The Libei’s Camps that have appeared thus far are: Changzhu, Bianbo, Shayi (Sand #1), Sha’er (Sand #2), Shasan (Sand #3), Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang.
I’ll draw a more detailed map for everyone when I have the time. (NOTE: you can refer to the audio drama map HERE.)
Thank you for reading.
Special Thanks to: Peach for the correction!
- 润物细无声 from Spring Rain (春夜喜雨) Du Fu (杜甫), a distinguished poet of the Tang Dynasty who is widely regarded as an undisputed genius of Chinese poetry. In Tang Poetry, spring rain is seen as gentle and crucial for the spring sowing season by moistening the soil, which in turn helps germination and thus, bringing hope and life, and it does this gently and quietly, almost unnoticed.
- Deer is also a metaphor for the throne, as in 「秦失其鹿，天下共逐之」 from Records of the Grand Historian • Biography of Marquis Huaiyin 《史记·淮阴侯列传》
- To recap (chapter 85), “keep track and record” was to have the Imperial Bodyguards record all minor and major matters in a book, including the prices of grains, rice, noodles, and tea
Specifically a changdao, or a two-handed, single-edged Chinese sword.