Huhelu was known among the Changjiu Tribe as the person most likely to become the Hero. Although he was a cruel and savage man by nature, he was pretty skilled in fighting battles. His squad comprised the best from the various Biansha Tribes, and these cavalrymen only had fear and no reverence for Huhelu, but it was precisely because of this fear that the shock hit them like a ton of bricks.
In just a few blinks of an eye, Huhelu was cut down, and going down along with him was the Biansha Cavalry’s morale. Huhelu had hastily concluded that there were countless Libei reinforcements behind them, and this consequently snuffed out the determination of the now general-less Biansha Cavalry to fight on. They scattered in all directions, with Xiao Chiye as the center.
Countless torches formed into a long line that pressed in towards them from behind, like a procession of a million valiant soldiers.
Within the Shasan Camp, Gu Jin was also launching a surprise attack. Bayin was trapped both on the inside and outside. Seeing how composed Xiao Chiye was, Bayin was also of the impression that Xiao Chiye was leading the main forces of Libei. The crux was that when Bayin cast a glance over, he could see the obscure dark shadows behind those torches that seemed to stretch all the way into the horizon.
Bayin did not want to repeat the same mistake. Holding his horse by the reins, he took a few steps back and gave the command to abandon camp and flee. The Biansha Cavalry beat a retreat so hastily that they did not even collect Huhelu’s corpse before they faded into the night. Xiao Chiye stopped where he was. Tantai Hu led his men and put on a show, shouting and baying for blood as he chased after them for a few li. Only when Bayin dared not look back did he swiftly withdraw and returned to Shasan Camp.
Even by the time Bayin looked back, he could still see those torches extending into the distance.
If Bayin had been willing to look a little more closely, or perhaps if he had been able to calm down, then he would have realized that tonight’s sudden assault was riddled with loopholes. Huhelu’s ability was a cut above the others, but as he had said himself, he was the commanding general in military field operations. Getting him to guard the camp and go on the defensive was to put the cart before the horse. If he had heeded Bayin’s advice and remained in Shasan Camp instead of heading out, he could have swiftly dealt with the small batch of Imperial Army Gu Jin had led in, and he would have then gained the upper hand. The Shasan Camp was an impenetrable fortress with its gates shut. Xiao Chiye had no supplies, and that meant he had no military weapons to launch an assault on the fortress, so there was no way he could forcefully storm his way in. But Huhelu had gotten complacent with his repeated victories after the start of spring this year and could not hold his own against trickery and deception. He thought it was a sudden raid by the Bianbo Camp when he saw Gu Jin scaling the walls, and he thought it was the Libei Armored Cavalry’s reinforcements when he saw all those uncountable torches. When he eventually saw Xiao Chiye, he had already been thrown into turmoil, and that was how he was defeated without ever fighting a battle.
Xiao Chiye lifted Huhelu’s head and scrutinized that face with the stubbly beard for a moment, but he could not remember who this man was. He handed the head to Tantai Hu, who refused to take it, so he passed it over to Gu Jin and said, “Clean up all the bodies in the camp. Bury our brothers from Libei nearby, and bury the soldiers from Biansha far away. The weather is hot, so the corpses can’t be kept around for long. Let’s not start an epidemic.”
Gu Jin took the head and recognized this to be Huhelu. He never expected Xiao Chiye to hack Huhelu dead at their very first encounter. Guo Weili had fought with this man for half of his lifetime, but in the end, the man was gone in just one night.
Xiao Chiye removed Langli Blade and asked, “Why? You recognize him?”
Gu Jin replied, “This man is called Huhelu. Master, he’s the one who beat back Guo Weili in the north and occupied the Tudalong Banner.”
Xiao Chiye had been running for two nights in a row. He still had other matters to attend to at present, so he merely nodded his head in acknowledgment before sending Gu Jin away on his task. He called out to Tantai Hu and tossed the blade over for him to hold as they both headed inside together.
“This camp sure is big.” Tantai Hu surveyed the surroundings and marveled, “The construction of these walls can almost rival those of a decent city. There are even large bows on the battlements and trap pits at the foot, which would allow battles to be fought from close quarters and afar.”
“My big brother spent a lot of money on this place.” Xiao Chiye looked at the walls and said, “Memorize the layout on that wall. If there’s anything you don’t understand, you can keep it in mind to ask Chen Yang or Gu Jin later. Tomorrow, I’ll get the military craftsmen to pass the map of the camp layout to you as well. Memorize it too until you know it by heart.”
Tantai Hu hurriedly accepted his orders. Any discerning person could tell from this that Xiao Chiye was planning to entrust Tantai Hu with heavy responsibilities. From Qudu to the present times, Xiao Chiye had brought Tantai Hu along with him every battle. Despite being barely literate, Tantai Hu still made an effort to learn how to read from Chen Yang, just so he would not let Xiao Chiye down for Xiao Chiye’s recognition and appreciation of his worth and abilities.
It was to see the military craftsmen that Xiao Chiye had been in a hurry to enter. He had laid it all out clearly for Wu Ziyu, but there was one thing he did not mention—he had no plans to return to the Shasan Camp after he had reclaimed it. This place had the best of both offense and defense, and it was also a protective shield for the Bianbo Camp. It could provide Xiao Fangxu with support from the north, and access the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path from the east. It was simply too suitable a location for him.
Whoever wanted to ask him for it would have to come and negotiate with him in person.
By the time Xiao Chiye managed to lie down, it was almost dawn. He slept in the tent for several hours. Chen Yang hurried over from the Bianbo Camp while he was sleeping and did not disturb him. Xiao Chiye only woke up when it was near dusk. As he stood outside the tent with his head lowered to wash up, he heard Meng returning.
Xiao Chiye secured his arm guard and blew a whistle at Meng. Meng hovered in the air for a while before landing on Xiao Chiye’s arm. Xiao Chiye took out the prepared strips of meat from the leather bag and fed them to Meng. As Meng ate, he looked at the large walnut on Meng’s leg.
“His Lordship is well.” Chen Yang smiled. “He’s letting you know he’s safe and sound.”
But Xiao Chiye did not smile. He was, in fact, quite unhappy. He removed the walnut and grasped it in his hand for a moment before tossing it to Chen Yang. “By specifically releasing Meng back, Father is conveying his military orders. Open it up and read it to me. This old man is up to no good.”
Chen Yang opened the walnut and smoothed out the paper.
Xiao Fangxu’s handwriting was bold and wild. He said he had long known that Amu’er would send men around to the southeast camp, but he made no mention of why there had been no measures taken in advance. He also asked if Meng had secretly attacked Yu, and that Meng was too combative, just like Xiao Chiye. Finally, he told Xiao Chiye not to act recklessly and to remain where he was and await his orders…
Xiao Chiye extended a finger and turned the letter over. He skimmed through a few paragraphs in front and pointed to the few brief and concise sentences at the back.
Chen Yang coughed and read out in a steady voice, “No one knows a son better than his father. By the time this letter arrives, it’d have been too late. I know you will definitely go for Shasan Camp. In that case, you can handle the escort and transportation on behalf of Wu Ziyu… as the general in charge of military supplies.”
Dead silence all around.
Tantai Hu could not understand Xiao Fangxu. Even if the Prince of Libei would not praise Xiao Chiye, he still ought to have deployed Xiao Chiye over to the site of battle. Letting Xiao Chiye render meritorious service as soon as possible was the best commendation and recognition he could give. Under the present situation in Libei, making Xiao Chiye a logistical general behind-the-scenes was akin to suppressing back the abilities he had displayed in Qudu. Was His Lordship insane? Or, would he not hesitate to hide Xiao Chiye away for another nine years just to appease those in the Hereditary Prince’s camp?
Xiao Chiye pursed his lips into a tight, thin line and endured it for a while. Without saying a word, he turned his head to look once again at the setting sun descending in the west.
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later, the company of traveling merchants set out from Cizhou and made their way down south along the public road to Chazhou. Kong Ling played the role of the steward, while the Imperial Bodyguards disguised themselves as the attendants and servants of a wealthy family. Shen Zechuan, using illness as a pretext, remained within the horse carriage and rarely showed himself in public.
Kong Ling brought along the travel permit issued by Cizhou, which saved them from a lot of trouble on the way. Nowadays, those who were able to get the proper official documents could not be underestimated. What’s more, with the large number of guards they had, the common bandits did not dare to rob them recklessly, for fear of offending someone powerful.
The beggars they came across on the way multiplied after they left Cizhou’s territory. Even children as young as eight or nine years old were forced to swindle as a means of livelihood. They made all kinds of wild, exaggerated claims – even touching on the supernatural – all in an attempt to cajole the passing merchants into spending money for peace of mind and a safe passage.
It was still fine the first few days, but it rained the next few days. With the weather abruptly turning cold, Shen Zechuan fell ill. Swindlers and charlatans abounded everywhere they passed by, with unscrupulous shops lining the streets one after another. Even if Kong Ling dared to call a physician over to take a look, Qiao Tianya would not dare to let the other party get close to Shen Zechuan. The good thing was that his illness was not serious. His fever persisted for only two days before it slowly receded.
Shen Zechuan was now spending more and more time bent over at his desk, so it was inevitable for him to neglect his martial arts training. After he had sent Qi Huilian off on the Qi Huilian’s final journey, he would often find his body easily overwhelmed, and he was prone to falling ill as the seasons changed. In fact, there had been warning signs of this as early as the epidemic case back in Qudu, where he had simply fallen ill without warning.
The carriage rolled over the mud and arrived in Chazhou in the rain.
When Luo Mu, the prefectural prefect of Chazhou, received Kong Ling’s visitation card,1 he was in his concubine’s room. He turned it back and forth to look it over repeatedly, as though he was going to perform some magic tricks and conjure flowers out of it. Still, he remained seated and refused to move his butt.
His fourteenth concubine was new; they had only just held the banquet a few days back. As his recent favorite, it was inevitable for her to be spoiled and pampered. The concubine, who could read a few words, took the card from Luo Mu’s hands and asked, “Who is this Kong Ling?”
Luo Mu held her on his lap and answered, “Kong Ling? A poor scholar. In his early years, he was a subordinate of Tantai Long, the commander of the Dunzhou’s garrison troops, but after Tantai Long’s death, he went to work for Zhou Gui.”
The concubine giggled as Luo Mu’s beard nuzzled against her. As if afraid of being contaminated by the aura of poverty, she shook the visitation card with her little finger sticking up and asked, “Then how did he come to know Master?”
Luo Mu replied self-mockingly, “We were fellow students.”
“Oh my, then you’ll have to play the good host to him.” This concubine was always giving Luo Mu’s principal wife the attitude. Her elder brother was Cai Yu, one of the bandits in Chazhou whom Luo Mu relied on for backing. She thus harbored the intention to make Luo Mu divorce his principal wife. Plotting to use these outsiders’ visit as a pretext to get the rights to host a banquet herself, she frivolously swatted at Luo Mu with the card and said, “I’ll host a banquet for you, and you can invite my elder brother over too to put them in their place. I heard that a batch of the Libei’s military grains this year came from Cizhou. These people have money.”
Luo Mu did not answer. He merely said, “Why waste all that money? We can just dismiss him with a few steamed buns. He’s most likely here to borrow money. I’m not going to meet him.”
The concubine would not budge and threw a little hissy fit like a spoiled child before Luo Mu. The visitation card slid to the ground.
Luo Mu’s eyes followed the visitation card as it fell. He loosely grasped the concubine’s arm and said, “It’s not too late to do so when we meet him again in Cizhou. Look, the card has fallen, pick it up…”
Seeing as persuasion did not work on him, she rose to her feet and threw a tantrum. Her embroidered shoe stepped upon the visitation card, and she stomped on it lightly a couple of times. “I have yet to entertain any guests on Master’s behalf ever since I married into the family. We are both formally wedded to you, but why am I lower in rank than her? I’m—”
Before she could finish her words, she saw Luo Mu’s expression turn frosty. He bellowed, “Move away!”
Concubine Cai had been doted on and spoiled ever since her marriage to Luo Mu; she had never been shouted at or scolded before by him. This thus came as a shock to her, and she took a few stunned steps back.
Luo Mu bent over to pick up the visitation card. There was a shoe print on it, and he could not wipe it away. He kept away the visitation card with a glum face, then took the concubine’s hand and said with a forced smile, “Don’t bother yourself with the affairs in the front hall. I’ll have a detailed chat with Elder Brother myself. I won’t be staying today, but I’ll come and see you again later.”
Without even waiting for his concubine to get over her shock, he lifted the curtain and left.
It was still raining outside. The attendant opened up the umbrella, and Luo Mu walked under it. “Is he still there? Invite him to the front hall. I’ll go see him now.”
◈ ◈ ◈
When Luo Mu arrived at the front hall, Kong Ling had already been waiting for a while. On seeing Luo Mu heading up the steps, he rose to meet him. Both men smiled the moment they saw each other. Luo Mu gestured for Kong Ling to take a seat. They exchanged pleasantries for a moment before getting down to business.
“It’s also at His Excellency’s direction that I’ve made a trip here to see you.” Kong Ling drank the tea and said, “Cizhou has gradually shown improvements these few years. The fields are recovering well, and there is an abundance of grains. However, the population in Cizhou has been on a steep decline, and we can’t consume that many grains. Store the remaining grains for a year, and they will either turn moldy or end up being gnawed on by mice.”
Luo Mu listened attentively as Kong Ling spoke and noted how healthy his complexion looked; he did not have that much white hair either.
Kong Ling met Luo Mu’s gaze and gave him another smile. “So, we were thinking. The prefecture of Chazhou is still buying grains from Hezhou and Juexi these years at a high price. You’re really getting short-changed. So why not work out a collaboration between our prefectures? Both prefectures are close to each other, which greatly facilitates the transportation of goods. We are willing to offer you a lower price than Juexi for the grains. How about it?”
Luo Mu realized there were wrinkles around Kong Ling’s eyes when he smiled. Looking as though he had just awakened from a dream, he averted his gaze and thought for a moment before saying, “I more or less get what you mean. It’s a good thing, but it can’t be done.”
Seeing as Kong Ling still had more to say, he raised a hand to stop him.
“Chazhou is not Cizhou. It’s indeed bold and resolute of Zhou Gui to just go ahead and do it, but just how much of this courage is built upon his father-in-law? In his early years, His Excellency Liu resolved to eradicate the bandits in Cizhou, and that’s why Cizhou is free of bandits today. But this is not the case for Chazhou.”
Kong Ling had expected this. He fell silent for a moment, then said, “Mengzheng, is there not a chance at all?”
On hearing Kong Ling call him by his courtesy name, Luo Mu hastily turned his head away.
Kong Ling thought Luo Mu was in a difficult position, so he said, “Cizhou has now rebuilt its garrison troops. As long as this deal can be sealed, we are willing to contribute to the important task of suppressing bandits in Chazhou in the future. Mengzheng, the world is in turmoil at present, and all kinds of heroes will no doubt rise from among the people. As long as you live among them, you cannot avoid the strife. You and I have a friendship that goes way back from being fellow students under the same teacher. Why not use this opportunity to free yourself from the control of the bandits?”
“You and Zhou Gui are in Cizhou, so you aren’t aware of my difficulties.” Luo Mu turned back and continued, “If the bandits in Chazhou were that easy to dispose off, then why didn’t you come to me instead of going to seek refuge with Zhou Gui?”
Kong Ling wanted to explain, but Luo Mu had already risen to his feet. “The current grains are all purchased at high prices from Juexi and Hezhou. Various bandit chiefs have a hand in this, and it is from this profit that they live off on. You now want me to buy grains from Cizhou instead, which means you’re cutting off their source of income. There is no negotiating this deal at all. If news of this were to get out, you and I would be in danger. I think you’d best go back.”
Luo Mu got his attendant to see the guest out. He strode a few steps out of the threshold and looked back.
They had not met for many years. Strangely enough, no matter how old Kong Ling looked now, the way he looked as a student still remained firmly etched in Luo Mu’s mind. The rain spattering under the eaves dampened Luo Mu’s shoulders, and he remained standing in this position for a long time.
Kong Ling had missed plenty in his life, just like this moment, where he could not see Luo Mu’s gaze clearly against the backdrop of light. He merely said, “I’m determined to succeed on this trip. If talks fall through today, I’ll return tomorrow. Mengzheng, I’m confident that it will work out, as long as you’re willing to discuss it with us.”
Luo Mu was dumbstruck for a moment. “Who else did you bring with you? You used official paperwork from Cizhou when you entered the city, and you delivered your visitation card to meet me. You’ve already exposed your whereabouts. I’d advise you not to act rashly. You should return to Cizhou after a few more days.”
Without waiting for Kong Ling to answer, he lifted his robe and went down the steps.
◈ ◈ ◈
A little later, Shen Zechuan ate his medicine and listened as Qiao Tianya reported both men’s conversation word-for-word. Unable to help it, he turned back and looked at Qiao Tianya.
Qiao Tianya nodded in understanding and said, “They have been fellow students for many years; their friendship is naturally unlike others. In Master’s view, how should we negotiate this deal? Luo Mu is an interesting character. Although it’s a mess in Chazhou, his position as the prefect of Chazhou remains firm and unshakeable.”
“We’ll negotiate however we ought to.” Shen Zechuan’s nose was a little congested, and his speech sounded a little muffled. “Since he’s still standing, it means he has a mind to remain so. Everything he has said today is all grandiose words; they aren’t necessarily from the bottom of his heart. Think of a way to avoid scrutiny. I want to meet him.”
SPECIAL THANKS TO : Eggy<3