Translated with: Jia<3
Shen Zechuan’s gaze roamed over Xiao Chiye’s body, like an imperceptible tease. It lasted merely a split second, so fast that Xiao Chiye could only catch that last modicum of it.
“What benefits will Libei get out of it if I let you use the frontier trade market?” Xiao Fangxu wiped his hands clean. “Libei isn’t dependent on the trade road for survival.”
“In the past, the noble clans adopted the strategy of befriending distant states while attacking one nearby1 in order to hold Libei in check. This rendered the southern side of Libei powerless and left Libei isolated and cut off from assistance. I’m now willing to be the link connecting Zhongbo and Libei again, as well as serve as a buffer zone between Libei and Qidong.” Shen Zechuan said, “Libei has to fight a protracted war with Biansha, and it’ll be too dangerous if it can’t be allies with Zhongbo.”
Xiao Chiye sat down next to Xiao Fangxu. After Chen Yang presented him with a new pair of chopsticks, he picked up a piece of lamb meat from the plate to eat.
Xiao Fangxu glanced at Xiao Chiye out of the corner of his eye, then looked at Shen Zechuan and said, “You are not the Prince of Jianxing, Shen Wei. Your words still don’t carry enough weight to represent the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. I know you wrestled away Zhou Gui’s Cizhou using ‘transiting through’ as an excuse, and you also subdued Luo Mu’s Chazhou into submission under the pretext of ‘delivering grains’. But King Yi of the two prefectures of Fanzhou and Dengzhou and the bandits of Mount Luo of the two prefectures of Dunzhou and Duanzhou aren’t under your control.”
Shen Zechuan already had a scheme in mind. “King Yi is a commoner forced into rebellion by the bandits. The two prefectures of Fanzhou and Dengzhou have less than 30,000 troops. He can’t beat the Biansha Cavalry to the east, and he doesn’t dare to face up against Qi Zhuyin directly to the south. He can only establish a small imperial court in Fanzhou and attempt to join forces with the bandits from Mount Luo. This person is just like a paper tiger, not significant enough to fear. The bandits of Mount Luo are presently mired in internal strife and torn apart by disunity; they are no longer a threat to Zhongbo. Besides, neither of them will negotiate with Libei. Only Cizhou comes with a sincere heart. Given that the trade route between Huaizhou, Cizhou, and Chazhou has already taken shape, Cizhou is able to bypass Qudu to conduct monetary transactions with Juexi. If Libei so needs, Cizhou can supply the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path.”
Xiao Fangxu and Zuo Qianqiu thought at the same time.
To supply the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path was to supply Libei with military provisions. Shen Zechuan’s greatest assets in Juexi lay in the Xi clan’s stores. He had long decided to continue using the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path when he left Qudu. The military provisions case brought the scalping of grains in Juexi to light, but it also allowed Shen Zechuan to lock on to a loophole. Xi Hongxuan was held back by the Hua clan of Dicheng to the north when he had to go through the Hezhou waterways while dealing in grains in the past. But now that Shen Zechuan had Huaizhou, he would be able to purchase grains from Juexi.
“But at the same time,” Shen Zechuan changed the subject. “I hope the newly established garrison troops of the six prefectures can receive guidance from the Libei Armored Cavalry and buy battle steeds from Hongyan Mountains in the future.”
This time, not only Xiao Fangxu turned his gaze to him; even Xiao Chiye did so.
“You want to establish a cavalry too?” Xiao Fangxu’s interest was piqued. “In Zhongbo, along Chashi River?”
Shen Zechuan drank the hot milk to warm himself a little. “Duanzhou needs a cavalry.”
Zhongbo had no grasslands, so the garrisons of the six prefectures of Zhongbo were mainly infantries. However, Zhongbo’s terrains did not enjoy the same natural geographical advantage as Qidong, which had the two checkpoints of Tianfei Watchtower and Suotian Pass for protection. The terrain along Chashi River was a vast, open expanse, and the line of defense Duanzhou set up there could not withstand the repeated assaults of the Biansha Cavalry. Zhongbo had long needed to rebuild the Chashi military defense.
“My elder brother’s name was Ji Mu. He was a Squad Commander in the Duanzhou garrison troops when the troops of Zhongbo suffered a defeat.” Shen Zechuan paused for a moment. “He was familiar with the area along the Chashi River. Like Libei, it’s a wide expanse of flatlands. The defense camps established at that time did not have the beacon towers of the Bianjun Commandery that stretched for tens of thousands of li, nor did they have the falcons reconnaissance of Libei. When they were breached one after another by the Biansha Cavalry, there was no time at all for them to pass on military intelligence.”
This was one of the reasons for the fall of Duanzhou. The public roads’ relay horses could not outrun the Biansha Cavalry, and they were all slaughtered en route to their destinations. With military information delayed in transit, the various cities in the rear could not receive any updates. What greeted them when the cities’ gates were broken down were the Biansha Cavalry’s scimitars right in their faces, and this was followed right after by the massacre of the cities.
Ji Mu had died with a grievance.
All the 40,000 garrison soldiers in the Chashi sinkhole died unjust deaths; they had the determination to die protecting their homes and country, but they never got the opportunity. Heavy snow blanketed the Chashi sinkhole, and from then on, the men of Zhongbo became the stray dogs of Dazhou.
“Duanzhou needs a light cavalry.” Shen Zechuan said firmly. “After the defeat of the troops, the area along Chashi River fell into the hands of the Biansha people, and whatever few were left of the Duanzhou’s defense camps all fell into disuse. To rebuild them, Duanzhou needs an army of light cavalry.”
Xiao Fangxu stroked his chin. “There are plenty of options if you only want a route to pass on military information efficiently. Re-establish a dense cluster of relay stations along Chashi River and repair the bridle paths as soon as possible, and you can be as swift as you want. But if you want an army of light cavalry that can rival the Biansha Cavalry, then Libei can’t help you.”
Zuo Qianqiu nodded and said to Shen Zechuan, “The Biansha Cavalry’s strength lies not only in their speed, but also in how far more adept they are on horseback than any of Dazhou’s soldiers; this is something that not even the Libei Armored Cavalry can compare to.”
“Furthermore, a Duanzhou that relinquishes its defenses is akin to an infant in swaddling clothes.” Through his peripheral vision, Xiao Fangxu watched Xiao Chiye stealthily push that plate of meat with his fingers towards Shen Zechuan. He shifted his foot and stomped on his son’s foot under the table.
Xiao Chiye sucked in a breath and said, “I think it’s… feasible!”
“The hell you know.” Xiao Fangxu reproved.
Xiao Chiye turned his thumb ring around twice. “I actually do know something.”
He looked towards Shen Zechuan again and felt a very subtle itch when their gazes met; Xiao Chiye knew exactly what Shen Zechuan was thinking.
“Why must this light cavalry compare to the Biansha Cavalry? Even if we remove the heavy armors of the Libei Armored Cavalry, we will not achieve the same results as the Biansha Cavalry.” Xiao Chiye felt a little lazy after eating his fill. “Lanzhou still has the Imperial Bodyguards in his command, and using them for information-gathering, data-tracking, and record-taking is too much of a waste. But, as long as you pair the Imperial Bodyguards with the best horses, they’ll have a chance to break through Biansha’s defenses along Chashi River.”
“How many men are there in the Imperial Bodyguards?” Xiao Fangxu scoffed. “Their addition to the battlefield is comparable to a strand of hair on an ox.”
“The Imperial Bodyguard can always be expanded according to their selection criteria if there aren’t enough men. Not only does Lanzhou have the fastest intelligence-gatherers in Dazhou, he also possesses assassins who are the most adept in the art of camouflage.” Xiao Chiye said, “Is having few men a shortcoming? Not always. As a light cavalry of assassins, being small in number is their advantage. Rather than calling them a strand of ox hair, why not call them a piece of steel needle.2 Use this needle in the right place, and even a vulture will fall.”
Shen Zechuan was inspired by Xiao Jiming’s mode of warfare. If he were to establish camps along the Chashi River that could supply the frontline, then he still lacked a military force that could act as a heavy hammer like the Libei Armored Cavalry. But there was no way the Libei Armored Cavalry could be replicated, so Shen Zechuan swapped the hammer for a steel needle.
Think about it, a sufficiently fortified defense wall that could be built spanning from Dunzhou to Duanzhou. If Shen Zechuan had the infantry shifted behind this wall and transformed into bowmen equipped with additional defensive weapons, then had a troop of light cavalry with eccentric whereabouts placed along the Chashi River, he would possess a bird’s eye panoramic view of everything within and beyond the wall. This cavalry – or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call them the assassination squad evolved from the Imperial Bodyguards – would be able to go under disguise; they would remain Shen Zechuan’s eyes and ears on the ground.
Silent. And omnipresent.
As long as Shen Zechuan so desired, he would be able to hear everything.
Zuo Qianqiu inwardly sucked in a breath of cold air. Having been stationed in Tianfei Watchtower for so many years, he understood best the stealthiness of assassins such as this. This assumption was enough to give one the chills.
Silence descended upon the tent. Everyone was waiting for Xiao Fangxu to speak. Xiao Fangxu thought for a long time before he said to Shen Zechuan, “You may trade grains for horses, but if you were to succeed in establishing this light cavalry, don’t ever let them take a single step into Libei.” He pushed the plate away, propped up his arm on the table, and said to Shen Zechuan with a smile, “Or I’ll kill them, and kill you.”
An imposing aura that was all too substantive came bearing down on him, crushing him. Before Xiao Chiye could get to open his mouth, Shen Zechuan pressed down on his arm. He stood his own against the weight of the alpha wolf’s gaze on him and, in that long, endless moment, slowly replied, “Deal.”
Xiao Fangxu bent his finger and flicked it at the rim of the bowl, retracting his imposing aura just as freely as he had released it.
◈ ◈ ◈
When everyone had dispersed, Xiao Fangxu sat by the fire and rotated the dagger to heat it.
“It’s still not too late,” Zuo Qianqiu sat down, “for regrets.”
Light from the flame cast upon the side of Xiao Fangxu’s face. He said, “This lad is too dangerous.”
“You do know who his teacher is, don’t you?” Zuo Qianqiu soothed him. “What’s more, he’s Ji Gang’s disciple. He’s really not bad at heart.”
“Don’t try to fob me off with that. Even brothers born of the same parents differ from each other. Qi Huilian is not one to keep to his own devices either.” Xiao Fangxu caressed the blade with his thumb. “Cracks abound everywhere in the world. Men like this can’t fight battles, yet they can come out on top to stand upon a mountain of corpses amidst a sea of blood.”
After a long period of silence, Zuo Qianqiu asked, “Then why are you still willing to agree to it?”
Xiao Fangxu looked at that sliding glint of the blade as light from the flame bathed it in red. He examined his own reflection on the blade under the small crackling of the bonfire. Eventually, he said, “My son has himself made into a lock.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan undid the clasps on his coat as he faced the candle flame, looking a little weary.
He had not had this kind of feeling for a very long, long time—the sense of setback from being exposed for his bluff.
Shen Zechuan had never told anyone about Duanzhou’s light cavalry, not even Qi Huilian and Xiao Chiye. Many of what he did in the past had their roots in impure motives. As long as he got his hands on it, he would fully exploit it. He called all of those “hypocrisies”, and they were even more atrocious before Xiao Chiye had come into the picture. That was why he could not—dared not tell anyone.
Shen Zechuan loosened his collar, as if he would be able to breathe by doing so.
The sounds of footsteps rang out outside the military tent. Xiao Chiye spoke to the guards, and Shen Zechuan stopped what he was doing when he heard his voice. Just then, Xiao Chiye lifted the flap and entered.
“A-Ye.” Shen Zechuan did not turn around and merely inclined his head slightly to the side as he called out to him.
Xiao Chiye pressed his chest against him from behind.
Shen Zechuan melted under Xiao Chiye’s breathing, and the feeling earlier eased up some. As they nuzzled each other intimately, the temperature gradually rose, so hot was it that they were both sweating. Shen Zechuan breathed out hot air. It was as if Xiao Chiye’s kiss had scalded him. He put on an expression similar to pain, but the corners of his eyes brimmed with pleasure as he indulged and lost himself within.
He was fond of Xiao Chiye’s kisses.
Xiao Chiye took hold of both of Shen Zechuan’s hands and brought them behind the latter as though he was binding him up. He extinguished the candle, and amid the remaining wisps of white smoke, edged along the nape of that neck where he buried his own despondency.
“Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye savored the word in his mouth.
All of a sudden, the table was swept clean. Shen Zechuan wanted to reach for the edge of the table, but his hands were bound and grasped so tightly by Xiao Chiye. Shen Zechuan tilted his head up until he could see the side of Xiao Chiye’s face.
Shen Zechuan mouthed silently.
But Xiao Chiye did not. He remained where he was a small distance apart and did not move again.