Translated with: Jia<3
As Cai Yu gathered his men with great fanfare on his end, the refugees outside the city had already amassed into a horde. It took merely one night for the news that someone had set up a booth to give out porridge to spread more than ten li around. Refugees who were so starved that they were sallow and emaciated came in droves and crowded around the Cizhou’s porridge booth so closely that not even a drop of water could trickle through.
Qiao Tianya watched as the people came swarming to them. There were no longer enough hands at the front to help maintain the queue of people who came to receive their porridge, so he signaled to Fei Sheng with his eyes. Fei Sheng backed away in understanding and led the Imperial Bodyguards to guard the wagon. He also swapped the guards from Cizhou over to help with the maintenance of the queue order. These Imperial Bodyguards were all dressed in black robes with blades on them, and every one of them looked capable and tough, thus producing a deterrent effect on the restless people all around.
“Master.” Qiao Tianya raised his arm to hold back some people and whispered to Shen Zechuan. “It’s getting dark. We’ve already been here for two days and a night. It’s almost time. You should retreat to the rear.”
Shen Zechuan had just finished chatting with an elderly among the refugees. He did not look back upon hearing him, but he put away the blue handkerchief that he had taken out and said, “There’s no harm in staying.”
Qiao Tianya surveyed the surroundings and looked at the people around them jostling against one another. These were all emaciated refugees. Worried that there would be a conflict in a while and someone might fish in troubled water to make a grab for the grains and hurt Shen Zechuan in the process, he said, “Master, stand behind, or stay close to the wagon.”
Shen Zechuan looked at the forest bathed in the sunset glow of red clouds that looked like torn pieces of red cotton. The setting sun was already midway in its descent; it would not be long before the sky turned dark. He had already stayed outside the city for two days and a night, and now, he withdrew his gaze and said, “There’s no hurry.”
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The sky gradually darkened, and the various stores along the streets in the cities all hung up their lanterns. Chazhou had no wine taverns and tea houses at present, but owing to the proliferation of human traffickers here, there were plenty of brothels set up at remote corners. Cai Yu wanted to rally his men, and the ones he called were all the various heads and chiefs within his own gang. These people relied on Cai Yu for a living and rarely did any proper jobs to earn their keep. Instead, they liked to bully the weak and tyrannize the city. They loved to make their way to the brothels and laze around in there all year round. When they were called out one at a time, they were still holding up their pants, looking all bleary-eyed. Many of them were dead drunk. Cai Yu’s trusted aide did not dare to offend them and had to coax and flatter them before he could get these people to step out.
While they were taking a roll call and lining up in formation on this end, Luo Mu and Kong Ling had also started making their moves on their side.
Kong Ling bowed to the various chiefs of the small-time gangs that Luo Mu had helped in secret and said, “As everyone knows, Cizhou is here this time to sell grains. As long as we can get through this crisis safely tonight, the price of rice tomorrow can only be even lower.”
One of them asked, “Talk is cheap. How do you expect us to believe you with no proof or guarantee?”
So Kong Ling turned aside and gestured to Luo Mu and said, “My words can’t be trusted, but surely you can believe His Excellency Luo’s words?”
Luo Mu had repeatedly extended a helping hand to these gangs, funding them with quite the amount of silver in just this half month alone. They had been beaten down by Cai Yu so badly lately that they did not even dare to step out of their alleys in broad daylight. They were not given a share of that cheap one-tael-for-five-dou grains. Cai Yu had already driven them into the corner, and it was all because of Luo Mu’s financial support that they could survive, so naturally, they were willing to believe Luo Mu’s words.
Luo Mu cleared his throat and said, “At present, all the granaries in the city are managed by Cai Yu alone. The prices are indeed exorbitant. Even people like us can’t afford it, let alone the common folks. Cizhou’s offered price is just right; it’s close to Qudu’s price. What’s even rarer is Cizhou’s promise never to inflate the price in the future. I have already signed the documents with Cizhou. It can’t be fake when it’s all been written down in black and white.”
The various chiefs put their heads together to discuss it among themselves.
Kong Ling continued, “I know all you fellows are worried about the Yan Clan, but it’s better to just get it over with than to prolong the agony. Instead of allowing the Yan Clan to lean on Cai Yu’s authority to control the lifeline of Chazhou, why not let my fellow brothers here decide yourselves? Moreover, the only reason Cai Yu is willing to lower the price today is because Cizhou’s grain price is too low. If we can’t get rid of him tonight, then once Cizhou’s grain wagons leaves, the price of grain in Chazhou will rise back up to what it was originally.”
If one wanted people to work together as one, one first had to talk to them about the benefits. Kong Ling knew this very well. The original price set by Cizhou was one tael for one dan and eight dou of rice,1 but Shen Zechuan had not mentioned this amount at all during these past few days of price reductions, and this was precisely because he was waiting to use this information to inspire the people at the right moment.
Kong Ling paused for a moment before continuing, “According to the Vice Commander, as long as everyone is willing to pitch in, once Cai Yu has been taken down, the price of grain will be lower than one tael for one dan and three dou, by three dou!”
The moment those words were out, the people began to seethe with excitement.
The price of grain in Qudu was just one tael for one dan and five dou of rice, yet Cizhou was willing to offer one dan and six dou. The impact had far exceeded that of Cai Yu’s small gesture. What they were concerned with was not just the grains, but also their future means of subsistence and survival in Chazhou. Most importantly, the first batch of grains this autumn were not paid out of their pockets, but by Luo Mu. After Cai Yu was knocked off his pedestal, Chazhou could still loot from the granaries of Cai’s residence. With the combination of these two sources of grain, they would not have to worry about getting through winter this year!
Sounds of assent beneath rose in harmony, and in no time, morale was running high.
Kong Ling nodded to Luo Mu, then said to the various chiefs, “Cai Yu’s men haven’t left the city, so there’s no need for everyone to fret; we naturally have plans in place.”
At around the hour of zi,2 Cai Yu’s men left the city. These bandits were all using army supplies from the armory belonging to the garrison troops of Chazhou, and even though the equipment was old, it was fully intact. With swords, blades, and shields all in place, they had, at a glance, the appearance of a proper army.
When the trusted aide had sent someone to check up on the situation in the morning, there were only a thousand or so people outside the city, but when he headed out of the city for a look now, the crowd was too dense for him to see through. Clearly, the number of people had doubled. The number of men and horses under Cai Yu in the city amounted to only one thousand five hundred, and he had brought one thousand this trip, and yet they felt a little cowed as they crowded around the city entrance.
“Why are there suddenly so many people here?” One of the chiefs in the back craned his head, “It’s crowded to the ends of the earth!”
The aide turned around, smiling obsequiously as he said, “They’re too hungry to even walk. How can they be considered people? What’s important are the grain wagons. Old Master has already said, as long as everyone can take it down, the grain from Cizhou can be split between each of the chiefs here.”
The chiefs silently observed and saw that they were indeed just some refugees in rags, and the number of guards from Cizhou was pathetically small; thus, they said, “With this assurance from the big boss, we’ll do it! See those guards from Cizhou? We’ll split up according to the number of wagons. The more you kill, the more share of the grain you get later!”
The crowd of the people rubbed their palms, eager for a fight. They did not even need the aide to give a command before they swarmed forth.
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Shen Zechuan had only brought the porridge to his mouth when he heard the battle cries. A bunch of bandits charged out from the public road and brandished their blades to start slashing. Fortunately, the Cizhou guards were guarding at the periphery, and both parties began to combat at close quarters. Fei Sheng immediately opened his mouth and shouted at the group of refugees, “Robbery! Cai Yu sent his men over to snatch the grains!”
Fei Sheng shouted at the top of his voice. His shouts were not loud, but the refugees nearby were already scared out of their wits. They jostled and bumped into one another and shouted after him, “Robbery! Cai Yu sent his men over to snatch the grains!”
Upon hearing this, a chief on the other end grew emboldened and roared with savage laughter. “We’re here to rob grains! Whoever dares to stand in our ways will be sacrificed to our blades! Brothers, charge!”
The Cizhou’s guards were too few in numbers to withstand the momentum of the bandits’ charge, what’s more when all the refugees were right behind them. As they jostled together, cries of those being trampled on rang out all over. On seeing this, the bandits started to harbor the intent to toy with the people, and so they yanked out the elderly, the weak, women, and children and terrorized them with their blades. “Not only are we robbing the grains, but we are also going to kill, kill, kill!”
The bandits dragged along a woman with a child in her arms by her hair, and the gleaming blade frightened her so much that she was trembling all over as she wept and pleaded. But the bandits were used to committing all kinds of atrocious acts, and when they saw her wailing, they did not feel any pity and instead burst out laughing in unison. They even reached out their hands and made to haul over the child in her arms.
Unexpectedly, a hand suddenly reached out from among the crowd of people to stop that blade.
Qiao Tianya tossed aside the hem of his robe and grinned, “Killing is one thing, but why humiliate others? It’s so annoying to hear all these weeping and wailing. Raise your hand and drop the blade in one swift move; get it done and over with!”
This bandit exerted his strength, but the blade did not budge the slightest. He bellowed, “Good grief, bro! Let go!”
Seeing his face flushed with anger, Qiao Tianya took a few steps back, causing the chief to stagger to keep up pace with him.
Shen Zechuan, who was standing back, said, “What’s the point of making a fool of the others? Qiao Yueyue, let go and give it back to him.”
Qiao Tianya said, “Sure, no problem. I’m letting go. I’m letting go right now!”
The words had only just left his mouth when Qiao Tianya really did let go. That bandit was forcefully dragged forward in a lunge towards Qiao Tianya. Qiao Tianya stepped aside to dodge him, then lifted his foot and kicked that bandit in the ass, sending him flying into the crowd and landing right in front of Shen Zechuan’s feet.
As that bandit made to get up, his gaze shifted up along the white robe. Just as it was about to slide up to Shen Zechuan’s chest, the tip of Yang Shan Xue’s sheath pressed against the center of his hair, bringing the upward trajectory of his head to a stop.
Shen Zechuan’s expression turned cold, his gaze sharp and fierce as he spoke with righteousness. “Cizhou is here to provide aid relief to the common folks of Chazhou. It’s fine if Cai Yu doesn’t allow me into the city, but do you people have to tear down the porridge booth too? Then go ahead and tear them down. Don’t hurt anyone.”
His voice was neither loud nor soft, but it had enraptured those in the surrounding vicinity. Chazhou had suffered greatly at the hands of Cai Yu and the Yan Clan’s schemes to increase the price of grain, and the people were presently overwhelmed with sorrow and indignation. As the woman who was rescued cried, quite a number of the others also started to cry.
How could the bandit have known that he’d fallen into a trap? All he could remember was the headcount the chief had mentioned earlier. Unable to raise his head high due to the humiliation, he braced himself and spat hatefully, “Chazhou is the big boss’ domain. If he wants to tear it down or kill its people, can you people stop him?!”
Shen Zechuan very slightly decreased the amount of strength he had been using, “These grains—”
In an instant, the bandit grabbed the blade that had fallen nearby, lifted his arm, and moved to slash Shen Zechuan’s chest. Qiao Tianya had already moved, but the bandit was far closer, and that blade went straight for Shen Zechuan. However, it was at this very moment that the bandit saw the composure in Shen Zechuan’s eyes, as if he had been waiting just for this.
The sheath of Yang Shan Xue made a ‘thump’ sound as it struck the side of the bandit’s blade. However, a few drops of fresh blood followed in the wake of the sound, splattering on Shen Zechuan’s sleeve.
A man standing alongside Shen Zechuan dropped onto his butt, paralyzed and terrified. “They’re killing people!”
Qiao Tianya had initially thought the blood belonged to someone else, but upon closer inspection, it was actually Shen Zechuan’s left hand that was bleeding.
Cries of alarm rang out all around. Fei Sheng, who was far away, bellowed with all his might, “Who dares to harm my master?!”
As soon as he said that, the Imperial Bodyguards all drew their blades. From the moment Qiao Tianya intercepted the blade, one of the chiefs standing in the back knew that they had encountered someone difficult to deal with. He quietly took a few steps back and commanded, “Do as the big boss says. Hack them all to death!”
The bandit in front of Shen Zechuan was not dead yet, so Qiao Tianya kicked him from the back, sending the man rolling onto the ground. But, before Qiao Tianya could draw his blade, several people rushed forward from behind Shen Zechuan, swarming towards the bandits as they threw punches and kicks at them. The crowd was roused to action, their anger having reached its peak. The refugees stampeded forth in unison, fearlessly colliding with the bandits without a care for their lives.
“Cai Yu, open up the granaries! You evil bandits must die! Don’t hurt our benefactor!”