Translated with: Jia<3
Who exactly was the young master in white handing out porridge on the outskirts of the city? Countless commoners inside and outside the city were all scrambling over themselves to guess. Some said he was an adviser of Zhou Gui; some said he was a distant nephew of Kong Ling. Rumors flew all over without a single concrete explanation. It was only when Shen Zechuan left the city that his identity as the eighth common son of the Shen clan spread like wildfire and promptly became the talk of the town in Chazhou.
Compared to the storm of public opinion in the city, Shen Zechuan’s return journey was calm and quiet; it could even be said to be silent. They returned along the public roads, in not that much of a hurry.
Because Shen Zechuan had fallen ill once on his way over. Kong Ling and Qiao Tianya went to great pains to make prior arrangements before they embarked on the journey back; they even bought an overcoat from a peddler from Hezhou, just to cope with the sudden turn of cool weather during their journey.
Kong Ling, being attentive, told Qiao Tianya, “It’d be better to get a physician to take a look at the Vice Commander when we return. He can afford to build up his health while he’s at home. Otherwise, we’re all going to be on tenterhooks if he has to venture out again on business the next time.”
Qiao Tianya held the bowl of water in his hands and looked at the horse carriage parked under the shade of trees. “Where are we going to find a good physician? With the way my master’s health is… only a formidable physician would be able to make a diagnosis. As his guards, there is no matter concerning our master that is troublesome. I’m just worried that my master will feel apologetic for inconveniencing us.”
Kong Ling knew nothing of Shen Zechuan’s consumption of medicine in his early years; he always thought that Shen Zechuan was just not in good health. But from the way Qiao Tianya put it, Shen Zechuan used to be in better health back in Qudu than he was now.
Qiao Tianya drank a sip of water and made no further mention of this matter.
He had been feeling bored during the journey these two days, and thus he had repeatedly thought back to that night the bandits went on a rampage to hurt the others. He felt that even if Shen Zechuan wanted to deploy the trick of injuring himself in order to trap the enemy, he should not have been so badly hurt. Once his body was used to reacting swiftly, it would be even tougher for him to control himself from warding off the blow right that very instant.
Qiao Tianya had seen Shen Zechuan draw his blade before. To the others, Yang Shan Xue was too long, but because Shen Zechuan was swift enough, it was solely just right for him. Qiao Tianya saw the wound on Shen Zechuan’s palm after the incident and found this injury to be unusual.
Although Shen Zechuan looked as he always did usually and never revealed a word of it, Qiao Tianya guessed that it was for the sake of concealment that Shen Zechuan did not draw his blade recently. If that was truly the case, then Shen Zechuan might have sensed that his body was no longer what it once was much earlier than the people around him. However, it had not even been six months since the day they left Qudu.
This matter had to be conveyed to shifu and the marquis.
As Qiao Tianya thought about it, he splashed away the remaining water, kept away the bowl, and rose to instruct the men around him. “It’s almost time. Let’s hurry on with the journey.”
The sound of movements outside woke Shen Zechuan up. His neck was sore and aching. Thus he leaned his head to one side to rest it against the wall of the carriage and slowly exhaled. The curtains of the carriage were not lowered, and he was too lazy to move, so he remained in this position and watched the trees along the way shift backwards slowly as the horses started to run.
“Where are we?” Shen Zechuan’s voice was slightly hoarse.
Qiao Tianya put on his bamboo hat to block out the sunlight and sat outside the curtains to drive the carriage on. “We can arrive at Chazhou’s borders tonight. Travel for another two more days, and we’ll be within Cizhou’s territory.”
This public road had fallen into disrepair in the last few years, and traveling along it made for a journey so bumpy that it gave Shen Zechuan a headache. “The next time the grains are sent to Chazhou, get Luo Mu to fork out money and hire a repair team to fix it up properly .”
Qiao Tianya pretended to sigh with emotion, “Then what about when we travel to Libei? The roads there are even more difficult to travel on.”
“The tracks in Libei are all bridle paths.” Shen Zechuan perked himself up a little as he spoke. “They were constructed to be wide and flat to facilitate the passage of the armored cavalry. Be careful not to let the marquis hear you fabricating stuff up behind his back.”
Qiao Tianya took down the stalk of grass he had been holding in his mouth. “It’s fine even if I said it to the marquis’s face. If he comes back this time, you should first make sure he doesn’t see that injury of yours.”
Shen Zechuan raised his left hand. Even though the wound had been bandaged, the wound area was prone to being soaked with sweat due to the hot weather, and the sensation was akin to being bitten by ants. “Xiao Ce’an is currently busy; there’s no way he’ll be back for a month or so. If you don’t mention it, he naturally won’t find out.”
Qiao Tianya bit back down on the stalk of grass.
Shen Zechuan asked, “Are you going to tell on me?”
Qiao Tianya said as he steered the carriage, “Later. Let’s talk about it later. I can’t hear you clearly from here.”
Shen Zechuan lowered his arm. “I’ll write him a letter when we get back, and we’re considered done with this matter.” He thought about it for a moment after saying so, feeling the nape of his neck starting to tingle with itch faintly, then as if remembering the sensation of being bitten by Xiao’Er, he emphasized his words, repeating once more, “The matter is considered over and done with.”
Agreeing on the surface, Qiao Tianya pulled at the reins as he thought about it.
As expected, telling the marquis is the best way to handle him. Tried and tested!
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan had left for a little less than half a month this time. Gradually, the heat of the seventh month subsided. Due to its proximity to Libei, Cizhou was much colder than Chazhou, with signs of autumn already beginning to show.
Zhou Gui had been looking forward to their return, and he started waiting outside the city very early on. Upon seeing the horse carriage approach, he lifted his robes and walked over with a beam. “Vice Commander, Chengfeng! It has been hard on you the entire journey. Please enter the city now. I’ve already prepared a feast to welcome you back!”
They paused for a bit outside of the city gates to exchange courtesies before heading in together. Zhou Gui hosted the feast in his own residence, hardly discussing official affairs at the table. He knew that Shen Zechuan had fallen ill during the journey, and so after the meal was over, he personally saw Shen Zechuan out of the residence. He emphasized that there was no urgency regarding the affairs on hand, so there would still be time for a discussion after the Vice Commander had rested for the night.
Even then, Shen Zechuan still had Qiao Tianya remain in the Zhou residence, so that when Zhou Gui and Kong Ling gathered the fellow advisors in the study to discuss the trip to Chazhou, Qiao Tianya could stand by to listen and answer any questions so as to not slow down the proceedings.
On the other end, Ji Gang, who had also been waiting for a long time, came over to receive Shen Zechuan when he saw the latter coming from where he stood at the entrance of the alley a distance away. The sky had turned to dusk, and with Shen Zechuan’s sleeves hanging down, Ji Gang did not see his injury. He gave Shen Zechuan a once-over, and followed up with a question, “How did you fall sick on the road? I even asked Songyue to prepare a coat in advance, worried that the weather would change while you were travelling.”
Shen Zechuan lifted his right arm and led his shifu through the door. “It’s just a cold; I’m fine, it’s no big deal. Has shifu taken your meal yet? I sat down for a meal earlier in the Zhou residence, but I haven’t eaten my fill yet.”
Ji Gang walked side by side with Shen Zechuan through the door. He still meant to ask about his illness, but Shen Zechuan’s “haven’t taken my fill” steered him off course, and he happily said, “I’ve guessed it. I knew you’d arrive home today, so I made a special trip out this morning to choose some plump fishes. What do you want to eat? Shifu will prepare it now for you. They have already been cleaned up, and the ingredients are all prepared and ready, so it’ll be ready in no time!”
Ding Tao came up from behind them and poked out his head. “Young Master, Young Master is back!”
Li Xiong followed suit behind him and shouted “Young Master” too. Ding Tao’s sparrow leaped onto his shoulder and chirped away. It was merely a few steps from the entrance to the courtyard, and yet it was even more lively than it was outside. The flowers and plants in the courtyard had been tended to with such care that they were in an even better condition than they had been before he left. The hall of the principal room was spacious, and the bamboo blinds had all been lifted; it looked comfortable.
Shen Zechuan ate another meal with Ji Gang and asked about Ding Tao’s and Li Xiong’s progress in their martial arts. Fortunately, it was his left hand that was injured, and he rested it on his knee the entire time during the meal, so Ji Gang did not suspect a thing. The lively vibe in the room kept up until the hour of zi,1 when Ji Gang told Shen Zechuan to rest early. As it was Qiao Tianya’s turn to be on duty tonight, he took up Ding Tao and Li Xiong away.
It was only when the room fell silent that Shen Zechuan breathed a sigh of relief and took off his outer robe. The maidservants let down the curtain and lit the incense. All along, no one was permitted to remain in the room to serve at night, so the maidservants withdrew from the room to the hallway, leaving only Shen Zechuan behind.
Shen Zechuan took a bath, changed his clothes, and returned to the room where he put on the outer robe again. Then he lit a lamp and began to write a letter. At the first quarter of the hour of chou,2 Qiao Tianya returned and set the new book Zhou Gui and the rest had newly drafted up on Shen Zechuan’s desk.
Shen Zechuan sealed the letter and asked, “What’s the latest news in Libei?”
Qiao Tianya, who had his coat over his arms, said, “Bad news. It’d be better for Master to hear it tomorrow morning so that you can get a good night’s sleep tonight.”
Shen Zechuan flipped through the book. “The worst news I can hear is that those from Biansha have already fought their way to our threshold. So go ahead and tell me.”
Qiao Tianya turned the chair over and sat astride it. “Not to that extent. It’s the marquis. The marquis brought the Imperial Army into Libei territory, but he did not head north back to Dajing to meet with the Hereditary Prince. Instead, he went to Bianbo Camp near Zhongbo. The marquis stayed in Bianbo Camp for a night, then led the troops east the next day to launch an assault on the Shasan Camp, thereby scoring a military achievement and distinguishing himself to His Lordship the Prince.”
Shen Zechuan lifted his eyes and thought for a moment. He smiled. “The Shasan Camp is no small achievement.”
“Right?” Qiao Tianya picked up the conversation. “Such a significant merit ought to be rewarded.”
On hearing this, Shen Zechuan asked, “What did His Lordship reward him with?”
Qiao Tianya stretched out a finger. “One camp.”
Shen Zechuan raised his eyebrows slightly.
Qiao Tianya continued, “The Bianbo Camp. His Lordship kept the marquis there and handed over the Shasan Camp, which the marquis fought to take back, to Guo Weili instead. Does Master still remember this person? It’s the same dude who previously framed Gu Jin for colluding with the enemy. The handover between both parties was not pleasant. The marquis retreated to the back, sandwiched between Shasan Camp and the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang. There was completely no sign of him in the battles to the north and east.”
Shen Zechuan released his fingers and closed the book. “The Bianbo Camp is a main camp the Hereditary Prince used as a supply site. By remaining there, Ce’an would be managing Libei’s military supplies and gears.”
However, there was no shortage of generals of military supplies in the Libei Armored Cavalry, so why did Xiao Fangxu insist on getting Xiao Chiye to do it? All else aside, it was far harder for Xiao Chiye to be a general of military supplies than to be a commanding general of Shasan Camp. If Xiao Chiye were in the Shasan Camp, then as long as he led the Imperial Army to fight successful battles with the Biansha men and earned military merits to his name, all sorts of rumors and gossip against him would naturally evaporate into thin air. When the time came for him to step into the battlefield in the north, he would have the confidence and credence to engage with the other Libei commanding generals. But as the general of military supplies in Bianbo Camp, he would be lower in rank than the other commanding generals. He had to heed the requests assigned to him from the various parties and run all over Libei to deliver supplies. This was not only a hard job to do, but would also make him easily susceptible to being bullied and mistreated. When it came to it, his military achievements would not be up to par as the commanding generals fighting battles ahead of him, and yet the hardships he had to put up with would be no less than the others.
After a moment of silence, Qiao Tianya probed tentatively, “Did His Lordship pick up the marquis from somewhere and adopt him? The disparity in his treatment of the marquis and the Hereditary Prince is really great.”
Shen Zechuan looked at him and said, “Seems to me like you’re the one who was picked up.”
Qiao Tianya raised his hands in surrender and shut his mouth.
Shen Zechuan passed the sealed letter to Qiao Tianya and said, “Get someone to deliver it tonight. It’s late now; there’s no need for you to stand guard outside. Go back to your courtyard and get some rest.”
Right before Qiao Tianya was about to step out, Shen Zechuan called out to him.
When he looked back and saw Shen Zechuan’s expression, he said in earnest, “I know. I remember it. The part about you getting injured is over and done with. I won’t mention it to the marquis.”
His quip made Shen Zechuan forget what he was about to say, so Shen Zechuan waved his hand at him in speechless silence as an indication for Qiao Yueyue to leave.
Shen Zechuan did not remain sitting for long after Qiao Tianya left. It was already late at night now. He blew out the lamp and lay on the bed, listening to the croaking of frogs from the courtyard pond. He did not know if it had been Ding Tao or Li Xiong who had caught them and brought those frogs to the pond, but they created such a din that he could not sleep.
It was only after an unspecified amount of time later that Shen Zechuan’s consciousness started to dim. There was no one beside him except for the refreshing sweetness of the incense for company, but somehow, it turned into the metallic stench of blood in his dreams. The Chashi Sinkhole, which had not appeared for a very long time, now lay beneath his feet. Shen Zechuan looked down at it, but there was nothing inside.
The faint croaking of the frogs hovered in the air. Shen Zechuan broke into a sweat and subconsciously turned over with his back to the croaking.
There was no snowstorm over the Chashi Sinkhole tonight. The sun rode high up in the sky, blazing to the point Shen Zechuan felt the stinging pain on his skin and sweated profusely. There was evidently no corpse in this pit, and yet Shen Zechuan felt himself surrounded all around by people he could not see. They smothered him, making it hard for him to breathe. He could not help but pull apart his tightly fastened collar. Drops of sweat dampened both of his eyes as he gasped for breath. He saw a person lying in the sinkhole.
It was his own self.
A chill suddenly ran down Shen Zechuan’s spine. He thought of Qi Huilian. His teacher shouted for him, but his voice was drowned out by the croaking of the frogs. Shen Zechuan never used to be afraid of returning to the Chashi Sinkhole again; he had no fear of this place at all. Yet, at this moment in time, he had the urge to flee.
Someone approached Shen Zechuan, and Shen Zechuan opened his eyes almost instantly.
Xiao Chiye had only just partially removed his armor as softly as he could. How could he have expected Shen Zechuan to wake up so suddenly? He promptly froze by the bedside, still with his arm guard in his lifted hand.
Both men looked at each other for a moment
Sensing something amiss, Xiao Chiye tossed the arm guard onto the desk and pulled up a portion of his sweat-drenched, narrow sleeves. He squatted at the side of the bed and cupped Shen Zechuan’s cheeks with his palms. “What are you peeking at?”
Only then did Shen Zechuan seem to snap back to his senses.
Xiao Chiye drew closer to him and looked at Shen Zechuan with a sharp, penetrating gaze. His eyes were like stars in the pitch-dark room, so bright and calm that Shen Zechuan’s mind gradually cleared. Xiao Chiye stroked his slightly damp hair and whispered, “It was such a bumpy ride here. Get Zhou Gui to fix the road as soon as possible. He closed off the city; I squatted outside and yelled for half a day.”
For some inexplicable reason, Shen Zechuan was amused into smiling as he nestled in Xiao Chiye’s palms. It was then that he woke up from his nightmare. The scene of his own corpse lying at the bottom of the pit was still clearly imprinted in his mind, but in just the twinkling of an eye, he had forgotten it all.
Shen Zechuan let out a partial smile before asking dubiously, “Then how did you get in?”
Xiao Chiye took a deep breath and answered slowly, “I somersaulted over. Lang Tao Xue Jin is still tethered out there.”
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