Translated with: Jia<3
Xiao Chiye gave the horse that Lu Yizhi left behind to Shen Zechuan and accompanied Shen Zechuan horse-riding on the grasslands of the war zone while he still had time to spare. This horse was snow-white all over, with only a small patch of black on its chest. It was both pretty and intelligent, and even more lively than Lang Tao Xue Jin.
There was no war going on today. Xiao Fangxu sat on top of the railing in his armor and watched as Shen Zechuan made rounds on his horse. He said to Zuo Qianqiu, “This habit…”
“This habit?” Zuo Qianqiu squinted his eyes against the sunlight to look at the prescription in his hand. “Complete your sentence, man.”
“Is like A-Ye’s mother.” Xiao Fangxu stretched out a finger and traced Shen Zechuan’s trajectory twice. “Can’t ride straight.”
“He stays in Qudu all year round and isn’t adept at horsemanship. Just let A-Ye take him out riding more often in the future.” Zuo Qianqiu raised his head. “Have you found Yideng?”
“The Venerable Master is an elusive one. His comings and goings are unpredictable. He’s not easy to track down.” Xiao Fangxu was still holding his helmet in his hand as he brushed the dust off it. “Why?”
Zuo Qianqiu said gravely, “We have to get Yideng to take a look at this child’s illness. I saw him in Qudu last year. Although he appeared weak and frail outwardly, there was no major, internal damage. But looking at him now, he’s already showing clear signs of deterioration.”
Xiao Fangxu sized Shen Zechuan up. “That serious?”
“You have to pay the price two-fold for consuming the medicine this long.” Zuo Qianqiu said, “He successively suffered misfortunes thrice in Qudu, and what happened with Qi Huilian was a heavy blow to him. The good thing is that A-Ye and Ji Gang are both paying attention.”
“Can he be treated?” Xiao Fangxu withdrew his gaze and looked at Zuo Qianqiu.
With a slight frown on his face, Zuo Qianqiu folded up the prescription and returned it to his bosom. “… I think it’s tough. Let’s get him nursed back to health first.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan’s table had an extra bowl of fresh milk during mealtime in the afternoon. He did not understand the distribution of supplies on the battleground, so he merely thought that it was on Xiao Chiye’s instruction. But later, when Xiao Chiye entered, he brought with him another bowl of fresh milk for Shen Zechuan to drink his fill.
Xiao Chiye said nothing as he ate his meal, believing the milk to be from Zuo Qianqiu. Just as he was about to go thank his shifu, he bumped into Chen Yang, who had come to collect the bowl.
“Is it shifu’s?” Xiao Chiye nimbly put on his outer robe. “I’ll send it back to him.”
Chen Yang set the bowl in the tray and said in a hushed tone, “It’s our Lordship’s.”
Xiao Chiye’s movements slowed.
“His Lordship instructed Wu Ziyu in the morning to give his own portion to the Young Master. He even got the Bianbo Camp to send milk-producing cows and sheep to Cizhou.” Chen Yang picked up the tray. “Then he made a special point of telling us not to make it public or tell Master about it.”
This old man.
Xiao Chiye nodded, “Give mine to my father tomorrow morning to make up for it.” After a moment’s hesitation, he called out to Chen Yang just before the latter was about to leave the tent, “… Forget it. I understand.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan could not stay for long in the war zone. The weather in the Hongyan Mountains underwent an abrupt turn, and he had to return after staying for two days. Heavy fog descended on them on the day of departure, and the humid wind in the eastern mountain range blew so hard it sent the military banners flapping.
Xiao Chiye secured the cloak for Shen Zechuan and put the fur collar on him. Seeing as Xiao Chiye was still wearing a single piece of garment, Shen Zechuan asked in a quiet tone, “It’s about to be winter here soon. Is there still no word on the winter coats for the military?”
“Eldest sister-in-law is thinking of a way.” Xiao Chiye shielded Shen Zechuan from the wind and propped himself against the carriage door. “After the new year this year, come to Dajing with Ji Gang-shifu.”
Shen Zechuan cast a glance behind Xiao Chiye and moved in to whisper, “Can I?”
Xiao Chiye answered in a whisper too, “Hurry up and come marry me to make things clear to my father. Otherwise, we’ll keep looking like we are having a clandestine love affair.”
How would Shen Zechuan know that Xiao Chiye had already laid out his cards on the table to Libei? He actually nodded on hearing him and said, “Eldest sister-in-law even gave me a set of bracelets the last time. I’ll send a gift in return during the new year.”
Xiao Chiye found Lanzhou adorable. He laughed and stroked Shen Zechuan’s cheek again. “The Armored Cavalry will follow along on your way back. Write me a letter when you reach Cizhou. I’ll return to Bianbo Camp in another three or four days. It’s closer.”
“I’ll write you a stack.” Shen Zechuan slowed down his speech, as if that would slow down time.
“The fan isn’t made yet. I was so busy I forgot all about it.” Xiao Chiye touched the jade earring lightly with his fingertip. “I’ll craft a new one for you after the new year.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Then, I’m leaving.”
Xiao Chiye lowered his head to enter, but before he could move closer, Shen Zechuan cupped his cheeks and kissed him. This kiss was brief, a touch lasting just a fleeting moment. Xiao Chiye rose to leave the carriage, then put the curtain down and took a few steps back.
Fei Sheng stood at the side, wanting to say a few words to ingratiate himself with him, but before he could say a word, Xiao Chiye pressed him over.
“Wherever Lanzhou is,” The expression in Xiao Chiye’s eyes was cold and detached. “You better be there.”1
Fei Sheng felt as if it was an iron vise gripping him by the nape, suffocating him until he could scarcely breathe. He nodded hastily, and Xiao Chiye let him go.
The horse carriage began to roll. Xiao Chiye stood where he was and watched as the carriage left. Shen Zechuan tugged the curtain open. Half of the Hongyan Mountains behind Xiao Chiye were partially concealed among the clouds and mist while the wind howled. At this very moment, Xiao Chiye’s figure oddly overlapped with the Hongyan Mountains.
Shen Zechuan gazed at him.
Several falcons suddenly circled out of the wind, and the head of the cast of falcons, Meng, let loose a cry that reverberated through the camp. Military tents of all sizes instantly lifted their entrance flaps, while a long whistle sounded from the top of the watchtower.
When Xiao Fangxu stepped out of his tent, his battle steed was already in position. He held his blade and flipped atop the horse, where he said in a deep voice, “Squad Three to guard the camp. Vanguards to move first! Convoy squad, turn around immediately and retreat down to Sha’er camp to protect the military craftsmen!”
As Xiao Chiye stepped back, he put on his helmet and turned to mount Lang Tao Xue Jin, which had just trotted over. The wind was so strong Shen Zechuan could not open his eyes. He clung on to the carriage door, watching as Xiao Chiye receded further and further away amidst the strong wind.
The clouds dispersed, scattering into millions of snowflakes that danced in the skies of Libei.
The first snow of the battlefield had come.
◈ ◈ ◈
At the third quarter of the hour of yin, Li Jianting opened her eyes right on time. She sat up, and the palace maid in attendance stepped up to pull up the heavy drapes. Fengquan, dressed in the official robes of eunuchs, nimbly and diligently helped Li Jianting to put on her shoes.
Mu Ru assassinated Li Jianheng, and Fengquan found a scapegoat. All this while, he had been hiding in the Xue’s residence, and after Li Jianheng’s burial, he became Li Jianting’s personal eunuch. Now that Li Jianting was living in the palace, Fengquan returned with her. At first, Xue Xiuzhou did not plan to use him again, but Li Jianting insisted, so Fengquan changed his name and continued to stay at Li Jianting’s side.
Li Jianting did not sleep well. She did not seem to have adapted to this massive bedchamber as yet. All the palace maids serving the heir apparent to the throne knew that Li Jianting only allowed Fengquan to remain serving in the hall at night. As they waited outside, they would occasionally hear the sound of her being trapped in the throes of a nightmare.
The people in the bedchamber moved lightly and softly as they soundlessly helped Li Jianting dress. When she was all properly presented, Fengquan stepped forth with a bow and lifted his sleeve to carefully affix the flower embellishment2 on her forehead. The heir apparent to the throne did not suit fair colors; she was best decked out in scarlet red.
By the hour of mao, Li Jianting was already waiting under the eaves for the various officials participating in the classics colloquium to come over for lectures. It was windy today, and Fengquan covered her with a cloak before standing at the side to shield her from the wind. He was so freezing cold that his lips turned purple.
Li Jianting looked at Fengquan and said, “It’s already autumn. Didn’t the Caps and Kerchiefs Service issue new coats?”
Fengquan was not permitted to look at Li Jianting directly, so he turned slightly to her and answered, “To reply Your Highness, they did.”
Li Jianting raised a finger to touch her own cloak, but it promptly dawned on her that every single move of hers as she stood here was being watched. It was indeed inappropriate for her to undress for an eunuch, and it would easily give others grounds for gossip. She looked towards the upturned eaves shrouded in gloom a short distance away and paused for a moment, but in the end, she did not say a word more.
She did not know if there had been a delay on the way here today, but the officials were late to arrive. Li Jianting stood until her legs went numb. She looked at Fengquan again, and this time, she saw Fengquan’s ear in the dimness.
Fengquan thought Li Jianting was cold, so he said, “This slave shall send someone over to take a look…”
“You have an ear piercing.” Li Jianting gazed fixedly at Fengquan’s ear.
Fengquan looked abruptly at Li Jianting and subconsciously thought of blocking his ear. But very quickly, he lowered his eyes and nodded quietly as he cautiously slowed his breathing. He found this tiny hole in his ear a nightmare, one that made him gag indistinctly and amplified his panic under Li Jianting’s silence.
After a long interval, Li Jianting saw an eunuch leading the officials over towards the eaves. She nodded her head respectfully and waited for them. As she lowered her head, she said softly, “Looks really nice.”
At the same time the officials lifted the curtain, Fengquan threw a swift glance at Li Jianting. But Li Jianting did not look at him. It was as if she had not spoken at all as she bent over and followed the gentlemen in.
The fists that Fengquan had hidden under his sleeves broke out in sweat. He retreated to the side of the door, and after a long period of time, he stealthily looked askance through the gaps in the door curtain where he saw the hem of Li Jianting’s skirt, feeling bewildered and uncertain of her words earlier.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan’s return journey was not considered quick; the roads were difficult to maneuver on a rainy and snowy day, and Fei Sheng dared not be careless for fear that Shen Zechuan would fall ill on the way. As such, he attended to everything personally. Even with the Libei Armored Cavalry’s accompaniment, the inner sides of the horse carriage continued to be guarded by the Imperial Bodyguards. The daily brewing of medicine was also supervised by Fei Sheng himself.
The horse carriage came to a stop after passing the Bianbo camp. The bridle paths had been damaged by mudslides, and repairs would delay the journey by a day. Consequently, the troops opted to spend the night in the open.
Shen Zechuan stepped off the horse carriage and brought Ding Tao along to walk the horse further ahead.
“Has Young Master given this horse a name yet?” Walking backwards, Ding Tao pillowed his arms at the back of his head and asked.
”Feng Ta Shuang Yi.” Leading the horse along, Shen Zechuan stroked its mane.
Shen Zechuan looked towards the south, and Ding Tao turned to do the same. He said, “Riding in that direction for eight or nine days will bring you to Dunzhou.”
“So close.” Shen Zechuan had not expected that. “I don’t see any of Libei’s relay stations in the vicinity.”
“They used to exist, but were deserted afterwards,” Ding Tao said. “Now everyone has headed northeast to fight with the Biansha people.”
Shen Zechuan let out a breath of hot air, turned his gaze away, and continued strolling for a while more with Ding Tao.
At night, Fei Sheng led his men on overnight duty. He sat alongside the Libei Armored Cavalry and warmed himself by the campfire. He shrank his neck back and said, “Libei is seriously cold; it isn’t even winter yet and there is already snow on the battlefields. It’s indeed not easy on my fellow brothers. Here, have some meat!”
The accompanying Libei Armored Cavalry was a brigade commander of the mobile corps. He did not stand on ceremony with Fei Sheng and sat around the fire with the rest of them as he gorged on meat. “The snow in Libei always comes early. In previous years, we would be going home around this time, leaving only a few battalions to guard the frontier.”
“I don’t think this war will stop.” Fei Sheng accepted the proffered On Horseback and took a few mouthfuls. The resulting burn made him cheer with appreciative satisfaction. “If it wasn’t for all of you holding the fort here, all the prefectures down south would have to suffer.”
“It can’t be helped.” The brigade commander ate until he was all ruddy in the face. “We are the Libei Armored Cavalry.”
Fei Sheng got emotional in an instant. “Everyone says that the Libei Armored Cavalry is the bastion of iron of the north; all of you are true warriors of iron. I was already in great awe back in Qudu. That old Han dog loved to get all jealous when he saw that Libei was in the emperor’s favor and kept spouting bullshit. I couldn’t take it lying down and contradicted him multiple times. Now that I’ve actually arrived in Libei, it turns out that I was right; all my fellow brothers here are men worthy of befriending! In the future, If anyone were to come to Cizhou for work, don’t prepare a thing. Once you get off your horse, go to the yamen and give them my name, and I’ll make the arrangements for everyone here!”
Thrilled, the brigade commander patted Fei Sheng and commended, “A worthy friend indeed!”
Everyone had a merry time chatting and feasting on quite the amount of meat. The fire was not extinguished at night to prevent wolves from being lured in by the aroma. The Libei Armored Cavalry had a night patrol squad which made a few rounds in the vicinity. When they returned, they leaned over and said a few words in the brigade commander’s ear.
The brigade commander wiped his mouth and curbed his expression. “Put on your armors!”
Fei Sheng immediately stood up after him. The Imperial Bodyguards in the back were instantly wide awake too.
Shen Zechuan had yet to sleep. He sat in the horse carriage, reading the latest letters from Cizhou under the candlelight. On hearing footsteps, he asked without raising his head, “Someone’s nearby?”
Holding onto his blade, Fei Sheng stood by the carriage and spoke quickly, “Libei’s night patrol squad discovered traces of horse carriage tracks in the south. Master, this place is close to Bianbo Camp. When the Bianbo camp was attacked during the sixth month, it was also from the south that the stone catapult had come around.”
Although Fei Sheng was a chatterbox, his observation skills were impeccable, and his intelligence-gathering was first-rate. While he did not possess Ding Tao’s photographic memory, he could retain everything he had ever transcribed in his mind; he would not miss out on any traces.
“Let the Armored Cavalry lead the way.” Shen Zechuan donned his cloak and disembarked the horse carriage. “Send someone to follow after them first. Don’t alert the enemy.”
Fei Sheng responded with a sound of affirmation.
Shen Zechuan observed the canopy of heaven, then looked towards the south. “The southern side is adjacent to Dunzhou. If we really run into the Biansha Cavalry’s transportation escort squad, then it is very likely that they took a detour around Dunzhou.”
Fei Sheng dredged the mud by his feet and got up. “It just snowed a few days back. The bridle path here has fallen into disrepair, making the path hard to travel. The military supplies they carry are extremely heavy, so they must have arranged for quite the number of people to follow along as guarded escorts.”
“Send someone to follow them first.” Shen Zechuan thought for a moment. “The carriage shall follow after. We can make it in time to Dunzhou for a look.”
The Prince of Jianxing’s residence was in Dunzhou—it was Shen Wei’s former home grounds. Fei Sheng did not dare to make wild guesses. He turned around to instruct the men, then extinguished the campfire to wipe out all traces of them before keeping up pace with the others under the cover of the night.
- aka. “he lives, you live.”
花钿 known as huadian, these are flower embellishments affixed or painted onto the forehead for cosmetic purposes. Flowers are common patterns, although there may be others.
- 风踏霜衣 Feng Ta Shuang Yi, i.e., wind treading upon a plumage of frost (literal garment of frost)
浪淘雪襟 Lang Tao Xue Jin, i.e., waves washing over a bosom of snow (literal clothing front/lapel of snow)