Translated with: Jia<3
The dark blue dome of heaven lay out in a spread behind Shen Zechuan. He lifted his arms to remove his overcoat, exposing the earring on his right ear as he moved. His sleeves slid down to reveal the secured, snow-white sleeves of his inner garment underneath. He was just like a white bird stopping for a rest in this still and silent world, commanding all of Xiao Chiye’s attention in just a matter of an instant.
Xiao Chiye did not blink. As he watched Shen Zechuan descend the slope in a few steps, he subconsciously opened his arms. The impact when Shen Zechuan rushed into him sent him half a step back, but at the same time, he took all of this white bird into his bosom, embracing him in a tight hug.
The swift, running waters of the river crashed into both of their legs, sending up sprays of water.
“You scared me,” Recovering from his astonishment, Xiao Chiye abruptly lifted Shen Zechuan high and laughed as he looked up, “falling out of the sky the way you did!”
Shen Zechuan was a little short on breath as he said, “I’m here for an inspection.”
Xiao Chiye lifted his palm to touch Shen Zechuan’s cheek, then covered the back of Shen Zechuan’s head with it and held him down for a kiss. Dusk closed in on them on all sides, their lips a scenic scene under the dimness. Shen Zechuan’s palms slid up to cup both of Xiao Chiye’s cheeks as he responded to him passionately.
The shimmer of water on the river surface disappeared, and the subsequent, pervading darkness of the night blurred the boundary between heaven and earth. They clung close together ever so intimately, unbosoming themselves of their fervent longing. Xiao Chiye kissed him so hard that Shen Zechuan could not help but suck in a breath when they parted and licked the spot that was nearly torn by his bites.
“Go ahead and inspect.” Xiao Chiye laughed. “Come on. I’ve already stripped for you to inspect all you want.”
Shen Zechuan put up his arms over Xiao Chiye’s shoulders and tapped on Xiao Chiye’s sturdy back with his dangling folding fan. “I disappeared without a trace the moment I got off the horse carriage. His Lordship has yet to meet me yet. I’ll inspect you tonight.”
“Ohhh.” Xiao Chiye dragged out the word and said with displeasure as he continued to hug him in this posture, “So you’re here to see my father.”
Shen Zechuan swung the folding fan between his fingers and said, “That’s something I have to do in passing while I’m at it. My heart is all here.”
Xiao Chiye waded through the river and carried Shen Zechuan towards the riverbank. “I don’t believe you.”
Shen Zechuan felt that Xiao Chiye looked too dashing like this. When he landed on the ground, he leaned over to scrutinize him, so Xiao Chiye raised his arm and pressed against Shen Zechuan’s forehead to put a little more distance between them.
“You should have seized the chance while you had it.” Xiao Chiye picked up his clothes and said, “That’s all I’m showing you.”
Shen Zechuan teased him, “I’m leaving then?”
Xiao Chiye put on his robe and tilted his head up slightly to say, “Go ahead.”
Shen Zechuan nodded in understanding and took a few steps backward. Seeing no movement from Xiao Chiye, he turned around for real. But who knew? Even before he had the chance to stride a step forward the moment he turned around, Xiao Chiye lifted him back and covered his head to kiss him until his waist went numb.
This wide robe that cloaked him was filled with Xiao Chiye’s scent all over, the coolness and refreshingness of which engulfed Shen Zechuan whole. In that meager film of darkness, he revealed his avaricious nature, breathing hotly to seduce Xiao Chiye before he finally said into Xiao Chiye’s ear, “Your. Father. Is. Coming.”
The group of well-intentioned guards who had been squatting behind the slope started to cough violently in unison.
Xiao Chiye pulled back from the brink right in the nick of time and tore off the robe in a fit of pique.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Fangxu had long known that Shen Zechuan was here, but he did not communicate this to Xiao Chiye. At present, there were plenty of people in the military tent. The commanding generals from Changzhu camp, Sha’er camp, and the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang were all present and were in the midst of discussing the news from Dajing.
“If the Biansha troops don’t withdraw, this battle will no doubt last until winter.” The commanding general of the Sha’er camp was called Jiang Sheng, who had been wounded some days back; his shoulders were still bandaged with gauze. He said, “If we are still going to keep up with the fight like this in winter, then the few battalions in the frontline will need to consider deploying more military craftsmen. Otherwise, we won’t be able to make it in time if we simply rely on the convoy squad to make the deliveries back and forth when the wear and tear of the equipment gets too severe.”
“Deploying more military craftsmen is an option.” Zuo Qianqiu warmed himself by the fire and said, “but the need for military provisions will increase as well. If we transfer all the people from Dajing to the frontline, there will be no one back at home to cultivate the fields at the beginning of spring next year.”
Now that Libei had lost the granaries in Juexi, its military provisions in the future were cut by half. They all had to rely on the military fields in Libei to survive. This was a matter that pertained to their success or failure on the battlefields.
“As the Hereditary Prince suggested,” Zhao Hui said, “Building a new supply camp behind Sha’er camp will allow us to mutually guard and assist the Bianbo camp to the south, as well as meet the needs of the battlefields even faster than before. In times of emergency during the war, the territory can scrimp and save to supply the frontline.”
“Winter is right around the corner, and the coats have yet to be distributed.” Jiang Sheng knew everyone was in a difficult position, so it would not do for him to go too far with his words. He frowned worriedly in silence for a moment. “The Hereditary Prince’s Consort is leading the old and weak, women and children to hasten production for the winter coats back in Dajing, and even the cotton used to make them was given to us by Luoxia Pass. We are in for a tough time this year. If we can’t survive this winter, we can forget about discussing anything for next year.”
“You are a veteran general.” Xiao Fangxu drank hot milk and said, “So why lose heart? The men on the frontline aren’t totally wiped out yet. If it’s rough-going for us, it’ll be even tougher on the Twelve Tribes of Biansha. Amu’er has still yet to make it as their Great Lord. There are only six tribes under him that can be truly said to have pledged allegiance to him. The remaining ones merely want to have a share of the spoils and take risks with him. But when it really comes down to the last critical juncture, they might not necessarily be willing to stake it all with him.”
“Biansha is gaining so much momentum this year.” Zhao Hui said. “They must have come prepared.”
“No doubt they have been planning for it for a long time.” Zuo Qianqiu turned both of his palms over and pondered it over for a moment before continuing, “In the third year of Xiande, he colluded with others from within and from without to break through the Zhongbo’s defenses line. It went all too smoothly that time, giving him a taste of sweet victory. That’s why it comes as a surprise now that he’s concentrating his attacks on a tough nut like Libei. But from this, we can tell that he is indeed now harboring the intent to invade Dazhou, and he wants to first smash down this side of the wall that is Libei in order not to repeat the same mistake.”
“Someone out there is supplying grains to Amu’er.” Xiao Fangxu’s eyes were sharp and cutting. “Jiming was out of commission after the military provisions case, and Amu’er instantly transferred Hasen north. I don’t believe it if you tell me he did not know about it in advance. So we should thank our lucky stars that Qudu did not have Libei’s military defense map considering that Amu’er’s inside contact is still hiding in Dazhou. A-Ye rebelled at the start of spring this year. Was it a bad thing? No, he did good. If Libei was still under Qudu’s control, this battle would no longer be just a matter of worrying over provisions. As the saying goes, it is easy to dodge a spear in the open but hard to ward off an arrow in the dark.1 It’s too dangerous.”
“No more eunuchs coming over to inspect the military and breathe down our necks.” Jiang Sheng finally smiled a little and said as he shook his head, “This battle is really a comfortable one to fight.”
“There are ways to resolve the issue of provisions next year.” Xiao Fangxu set down his bowl. “And it’s for this specific purpose I’ve found someone who can offer us a way.”
Zuo Qianqiu laughed and rose to his feet. “Alright then. I’ll invite this little buddy in.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Wu Ziyu wanted to take a look at Shen Zechuan, but it was inappropriate for him to be too brazen. He followed behind Tantai Hu and asked, “… This’s the one?”
Tantai Hu looked back and whispered, “Just address him as ‘Young Master’ later.”
Wu Ziyu saw Shen Zechuan listening to Fei Sheng. He could not tell if Shen Zechuan was happy or not from his side profile, but his entire person was like a brilliantly colored painting just by sitting there alone. His skin was fair, yet his facial features were so ravishing it was enthralling, so much that one dared not shift their eyes away, even though looking at him for too long would inexplicably give one the chills. But this chill was not obvious; it merely ran up one’s spine, so cold it gave no indications of its advance. By the time realization dawned, the person would have already subconsciously sensed danger and felt the urge to dodge his cutting brilliance.
Ding Tao shot his mouth off and popped out his head to whisper, “See that jade earring? Our Master polished it personally. Young Master wears it every day.”
That jade earring adorned his right ear, and it was still debatable whether Shen Zechuan embellished it or it embellished Shen Zechuan. It was like a needless warning that concealed Xiao Chiye’s undisguised possessiveness behind that smoothness, making it clear to all that no one else, other than Xiao Chiye, could touch Shen Zechuan.
Wu Ziyu had only just burrowed his way among them and had still yet to decide what demeanor he should adopt to greet and welcome Shen Zechuan. But seeing as everyone around him looked as they usually did, he did the same as well, his prying gaze warded off by that jade earring.
By the time Shen Zechuan was able to meet Xiao Fangxu, it was already nearly the hour of zi. Chen Yang lifted the flap for him to let him enter.
Xiao Fangxu was initially sitting with his leg propped up, but on seeing the white figure entering, he suddenly sat straight up. But then, he felt he was really being too unnatural, so he attempted to cover it up by propping his hand on his knee to appear more imposing, only to look all the more conspicuous as he looked at Shen Zechuan without so much a smile.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting in the tent for so long.” Zuo Qianqiu guided Shen Zechuan. “It’s been a tough journey here, hasn’t it? Come have a meal with us first. We’ll talk as we eat.”
With that, he turned his head and signaled to Xiao Fangxu with his eyes.
Xiao Fangxu scrutinized Shen Zechuan. He still remembered this face, but his aura was completely poles apart from the person he had seen one year ago. He thought, well then.
He’s truly too damn stunning.
“Sit.” Xiao Fangxu said coolly.
Gu Jin served the tea, and Chen Yang brought out the dishes. The meal was simple, consisting of a large bowl of lamb stew, tea blended with fresh milk, piping hot flatbread, and commonly seen cabbages and green vegetables at the frontlines.
Shen Zechuan stared at the spread before him; they clearly overestimated him.
Zuo Qianqiu gestured for Shen Zechuan to dig in. He tore apart the flatbread and said, “There isn’t much good stuff here. We wanted to welcome you with a meal, but there isn’t much here, so this will have to do. If we can get a truce during the new year, we will surely not put you through such aggrievement when we are back in Dajing.”
Shen Zechuan found the word “aggrievement” strange. He was here to discuss the frontier trade market and the use of paths with Xiao Fangxu. Xiao Fangxu was willing to meet him, so no matter how he looked at it, the word “aggrievement” should not be part of the picture at all.
“It’s been half a year since we parted. When we met in Qudu the last time, you were not this thin.” Zuo Qianqiu said, “Is your shifu well?”
Without putting down his chopsticks, Shen Zechuan nodded in reply. “Shifu has been in good health lately and leads a carefree life in Cizhou. He often misses you. Before I came, he specially instructed me to deliver a letter on his behalf.” He then looked back and shouted, “Fei Sheng.”
Fei Sheng handed the letter over to Chen Yang. As Zuo Qianqiu and Shen Zechuan exchanged pleasantries for a few moments, Xiao Fangxu sliced the lamb meat with a dagger and said, “Are you here to discuss the trade market with me?”
“That’s right.” Shen Zechuan replied, “And the matter of the bridle paths as well.”
“Access to Libei’s bridle paths will not be given for free,” Xiao Fangxu placed the sliced lamb meat onto his plate, “It’s all good as long as you can afford to pay. However, the mutual trade market is not for external loan.”
“If Your Lordship doesn’t permit external loan of the trade market, it will be left vacant this year.” Shen Zechuan sampled the flatbread before continuing, “The war this year is intense, and the grasslands of the Huiyan Tribe have been commandeered for use by the Hanshe Tribe; they’re now waiting to trade their remaining cattle and sheep for grain at the trade market to get through winter. If the trade market doesn’t open up, then thousands of people will starve to death in the heavy snow.”
“Libei’s willingness to vacate land for the Huiyan Tribe to get through winter is already a magnanimous show of benevolence. They are well aware that we are in a difficult predicament this year.” Xiao Fangxu wiped the dagger clean and looked towards Shen Zechuan. “Do you know what it means to let you have the trade market? It means that your people can shuttle in and out of Libei this winter. It’s currently wartime. What if bandits of Mount Luo who have defected to the Biansha people infiltrate their way in? Dare you bear the consequences then?”
“I dare not,” Shen Zechuan locked eyes with Xiao Fangxu. “That’s why I will eliminate all possibilities of this ‘what if’.”
Xiao Fangxu tossed the dagger into the tray at the side, “I don’t believe that.”
“Then how about I hand the authority to inspect over to Your Lordship?” Shen Zechuan grasped his handkerchief and slowly let out a smile. “Cizhou will provide the grains. As for how to send it over, Libei will have the final say.”
“What do you want in exchange?” Xiao Fangxu asked in a quiet voice. “This transaction is not at all a good deal for you.”
“I want a road in exchange.” Shen Zechuan stretched out his index finger and drew a line in the air. “A commercial trade road that can run through the entire northeastern territories of Dazhou, one that will give Libei and Cizhou the opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with one another.”
Xiao Fangxu did not respond. The flap of the tent on the other side lifted, and Xiao Chiye entered.