Translated with: Jia<3
Xiao Chiye felt as though he had been doused with a bucket of icy water that not only sober him up but also caused his hairs to stand on end. He sat up and stared at Xiao Fangxu for a moment, yet his mind was blank. It was as if he had been punched so hard by someone that even the insides of his chest cavity were a rotten mess. He abruptly pushed Xiao Fangxu aside and got off the couch to put on his boots. But he knocked against the corner of the table and almost couldn’t get up. Where in the hell were those damn boots?
Chen Yang and Gu Jin were initially standing outside the tent to keep watch for the night when they heard the sound of the flap being lifted and saw Xiao Chiye stumbling out like a wandering soul with one foot stepping down on the back of a boot and the other stepping on the ground. He did not even have his outer robes on as he went over to undo Lang Tao Xue Jin’s reins.
Gu Jin was the quickest to react. He strode a step out to tug at the reins and called out in an urgent voice, “Master!”
Chen Yang followed closely behind, intending to head inside to look for his robes and boots.
Xiao Fangxu bent over to step outside and asked in puzzlement, “You didn’t know? Didn’t this happen a long time ago? When he went to Chazhou.”
Chen Yang observed Xiao Fangxu’s expression, and realization suddenly dawned on him. He slapped his forehead and turned around to shout, “Chazhou! Master, it’s Chazhou! Young Master is fine!”
These shouts were so strikingly loud that they shocked Xiao Chiye’s startled soul back into his body. He turned around and made a beeline for Xiao Fangxu, so agitated that his eyes had gone red. When he came to Xiao Fangxu, he spun around on the spot once before he finally wiped at his face and said, “Good grief, father dearest!”
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The scabs on Shen Zechuan’s palm had fallen off, leaving only a scar behind.
As soon as the eighth month passed, the rain in Cizhou ceased. The frost intensified, and the weather grew even colder. Yao Wenyu, having caught a cold in recent days, remained indoors with the hand warmer in hand and rarely ventured outdoors. Shen Zechuan still had Fei Sheng following him around. Contrary to expectations, Li Xiong hardly mentioned Lei Jingzhe again.
“Is Han Jin still in prison?” Shen Zechuan drank his medicine and asked Fei Sheng as he stood by the window.
Fei Sheng answered, “He’s still there. Master is benevolent not to kill him, yet he keeps raising a hue and cry the whole day without so much a sign of repentance.”
Shen Zechuan gripped the porcelain bowl in his hand and looked at the pattern for a while before he said, “He’s Han Cheng’s younger brother.”
Fei Sheng lowered his eyes for no reason and shivered.
Han Cheng executed Qi Huilian right there on the streets. Based on what Fei Sheng had figured out regarding Shen Zechuan’s temper, the reason Shen Zechuan had kept Han Jin alive without killing him was not to coerce Qudu at all, but to retain him for a bigger purpose. Fei Sheng did not dare to guess. He had no wish to guess either. As a guard, he was Shen Zechuan’s dagger. Shen Zechuan’s wish was his command.
Shen Zechuan raised his eyes and looked out of the window at the cold rays of sunlight on the ground, which left trails of tear stains through the frost. He let out an inexplicable smile and said, “Release him.”
Fei Sheng acknowledged the order.
Shen Zechuan added, “Get him a bath and a change of clothes, then give him a meal and a soft couch. There is no need for him to do anything. Just let him play to his heart’s content.”
Fei Sheng did not dare to object and merely uttered his acknowledgment again before taking his leave. The moment he left, Qiao Tianya lifted the curtain and entered.
“Letter from Libei.” Qiao Tianya set the letter on Shen Zechuan’s table. “It was sent posthaste. Must be something Master needs to be informed of.”
“Is Yuanzhuo doing better?” Shen Zechuan asked as he opened the letter.
Before Qiao Tianya could answer, he saw Shen Zechuan’s stunned expression as he reread the letter several times.
“It’s about the frontier trade market in winter.” Shen Zechuan paused for a moment. “I’m going to the battlegrounds in person to have a face-to-face discussion with the Prince of Libei.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The weather in Libei was capricious. The remaining clear, sunny weather of autumn was few and far between, but once it made its appearance, it would get so hot that it made one want to strip.
Xiao Chiye returned to the battleground again at the end of the eighth month and did not leave again for the time being. After that defeat, he had never taken a break. Whether it was to head north to transport military supplies, or going west to contact Dajing, he was the one who led his men to make the trips. It was as if his rough edges had been completely tempered down by Xiao Fangxu to the point that he was starting to willingly serve as a young general in charge of military supplies.
When Chen Yang went to fetch water, he saw Xiao Chiye standing on the withered and yellow grassland training a horse. The keyword was training, but in truth, Xiao Chiye was a lot more gentle. That horse, snow-white all over with a patch of black on its chest, was the horse Lu Yizhi wanted to keep for Xiao Chiye’s wife. When Xiao Chiye had been running errands for the last month, he brought it out with him, wanting to tame it himself.
Xiao Fangxu rode his horse over from the other end, and Meng came swooping down in the wind and brushed past Xiao Fangxu with a “swoosh”. Then it took off again along the grass and soared into the air, where it spun around once before flying away.
Xiao Fangxu dismounted and threw the reins to the deputy general behind him. He took off his helmet, spat out the dust in his mouth, and narrowed his eyes to look at Xiao Chiye. After a while, he removed his heavy armor and took off the saddle on the back of his horse. He then flipped atop it once more and beckoned to Xiao Chiye from a distance away.
Zuo Qianqiu leaned over the railing, his white hair fluttering in the wind as he watched father and son side by side. Wu Ziyu ran a few steps closer and stepped up the railing to straddle over it. Behind him, the Libei Armored Cavalry and Imperial Army came up and crowded around them on this side of the railing so closely that they were all packed like sardines.
It was so squeezed that Tantai Hu could not free his hands, so he craned his neck and yelled, “What’s this about?!”
Wu Ziyu held up a steamed bun and shouted at the top of his hoarse voice over the din, “If the Second Young Master wins today, the convoy squad will be the champions this month! They will even have to give us two more scoops for our meals!”
On seeing this, Zuo Qianqiu said with a laugh, “It will take a few years more before A-Ye will defeat his old man.”
“The Second Young Master will not let us down!” Tantai Hu shouted defiantly as he wiped the sweat that had trickled down onto his cheek. It was so scorching hot that his face was tanned and flushed.
Zuo Qianqiu asked, “What if His Lordship wins?”
Chen Yang was just about to say something when he heard Tantai Hu say in a booming voice, “Then we will run along the grassland and bark as we run—”
Wu Ziyu and Gu Jin, who were behind him, promptly leaped up to shut his mouth up.
Zuo Qianqiu did not let the opportunity slip. “Fine! A-Ye, you heard that? If you lose to your father today, your whole squad will have to go woof woof!”
Xiao Chiye lifted his finger and whistled, and Lang Tao Xue Jin circled over to his side. He mounted the horse and asked Xiao Fangxu, “Where to?”
Xiao Fangxu seemed hesitant as he parroted, “Where to…”
Before the words had fully left his mouth, he had already spurred his horse on ahead.
The Imperial Army booed in unison. Tantai Hu struggled to free his mouth and exclaimed, “How can His Lordship cheat?!”
Lang Tao Xue Jin shot forward like a black arrow leaving the bowstring, and the wind started rustling in an instant. The sun in the clear skies on the horizon was blinding, and the back views of father and son as they rode their horse were almost identical. Meng suddenly broke through the clouds and went all out to chase after them, sticking closely right behind Xiao Chiye as it looked down upon that pair of arrows, one in front and one at the back. Blades of grass went flying all over as horses’ hooves trampled over them, while the wind stirred up the endless expanse of luxuriant grass, sending them swaying in one direction. They rode amidst it, like a duo of big and small stars shooting into the waves of the ocean, leaving a long trail in their wake among the grasslands.
Xiao Chiye gazed at Xiao Fangxu’s back as he listened to the soughing of the wind.
Xiao Fangxu was not old yet. How could he be old? He looked so robust and strong, no different than he had been twenty years ago. As long as he raised both arms, he could lift both sons, laughing on the grasslands as he tossed them in turn until they cried.
Xiao Chiye gradually caught up to him. Lang Tao Xue Jin was far more sturdy and younger than that horse beneath Xiao Fangxu. It charged forth, full of vigor, its eyes staring fixedly ahead as if nothing could stop it.
Gradually, both men came to ride neck to neck with one another, both riding until they were drenched in sweat. The sun blazed overhead, searing their backs. This was perhaps the last sunny sky with a scorching sun in Libei this year.
There was a stone monument at the finishing point, with the names of the Libei Armored Cavalry who had died in battle the past year engraved on it, along with the falcons that had fallen with them and the battle steeds that had carried them. At the very last moment when father and son were about to reach, Meng beat them to it and darted over. It circled once before landing on the stone monument, thereby winning first place.
“The falcon is mine.” Xiao Chiye slowed down and said, “So I win.”
“The land is mine.” Xiao Fangxu came to a stop and turned around to face Xiao Chiye while pointing at his feet. “I was here 800 years earlier than you.”
Xiao Chiye apathetically ignored this statement.
They dismounted. The sun was already on its downward descent in the west. Xiao Fangxu headed up the stone steps and stood before the stone monument, then reached out to wipe away the dust on it. The wind was strong here. It sent his hair fluttering and tousled up the hair on his temples, revealing some streaks of white. He said, “Herein lie my brothers.”
Xiao Chiye came up behind him and stood beside Xiao Fangxu.
“Ten years ago, I brought your eldest brother here.” Xiao Fangxu pointed at a certain spot. “There was a lad here by the rather unique name of Suining. He was the same age as your brother.”
Old names on this stone monument would be scrapped off every year and filled in with new ones. This signified that generation after generation of the Libei Armored Cavalry all existed here, and it also signified that generation after generation of the Libei Armored Cavalry had vanished here. It was here the stone monument, with its back to the Hongyan Mountains, lay in eternal rest. They were the wind of the Hongyan Mountains, and at the same time, the stars of the Hongyan Mountains.
“I want to be here.” Xiao Chiye pointed in the center. “The place is big, the location is good, and you can look far out into the distance.”
“That’s my spot.” Xiao Fangxu said pettily. “I want all the spots here.”
“What about my mother?” Xiao Chiye turned his head aside to scrutinize Xiao Fangxu. “You left her alone in Dajing.”
Xiao Fangxu didn’t respond. He gazed past the stone monument to look at the Hongyan Mountains. Then, as if dazzled by the setting sun, he turned around and looked in the direction of Dajing. He could barely open his eyes from the wind. “We can look at each other from afar, eyes to eyes—forever.”
Xiao Chiye followed his gaze and looked over.
“It is here we are born, and it is here we will die worthy deaths. People from Libei lie on the mountains and rivers with their faces to the blazing sun. Men or women, the bones on which the sun shines are all unyielding heroes.” Xiao Fangxu opened up his palm, and the wind burst past his palm so softly it felt like the long hair of his wife. This was the only indulgence he had allowed himself in the past decades. “One day, I will return to her embrace.”
Xiao Chiye looked at the waves of billowing grass at the other end; it was like a never-ending torrent. The so-called sorrow of parting and joy of reunions of every single person out there was merely a fleeting moment in the timelessness of the universe. In just the blink of an eye, it would disintegrate, and from then on, all would be silent, every vestige of it gone.
An encounter was truly a very precious thing.
Xiao Fangxu turned around and threw Xiao Chiye a punch, then lifted his arms to give Xiao Chiye a tight hug. But very quickly, he let go and said, “You still need a good several years before you can surpass me!”
“Who knows?” Xiao Chiye patted his own chest to hint at his height.
Xiao Fangxu took a few steps and made as if to pick something off the ground. Having horse dung flung at him had left a shadow over Xiao Chiye’s heart, and so he promptly turned around and ran. The moment he ran, Xiao Fangxu burst out laughing.
The wind was still blowing as the father and son made their way back, bathed in the evening glow of the setting sun.
Dusk was not yet over. As Xiao Chiye was drenched in sweat all over, he stripped off his upper garments and stood in the river to bathe. The surface of the water shimmered. As he poured water using the wooden bucket, dancing ripples of golden light covered the muscles on his entire back.
Xiao Chiye bent over and rinsed his arm guard in the water. The quality iron had been smashed to the point it was no longer usable, but he still did not have it changed. When he took it out of the water, he ripped away the badly worn dogskin rope on it and turned around to say, “Hand me the—”
A travel-worn Shen Zechuan stood on the slope by the riverside, the sunset glow spilling over the hems of his robe with bits of grass on it.
Xiao Chiye missed him so much.
And here he stood before Xiao Chiye at the very moment the last rays of the setting sun faded away.
Credits: Many thanks to Tea for proofreading!