Translated with: Jia<3
Fei Sheng subconsciously thought. They were already fighting tooth and nail on the other side. Lei Jingzhe’s old injuries had yet to heal, and he was presently having difficulty parrying the other man’s savage attacks. All he could do was to keep dodging. In the midst of blows being traded by the two opposing teams of scorpions in the cramped private room, Shen Zechuan saw scimitars and piked daggers.
Fei Sheng was itching to take action. He wanted to make up for the humiliation suffered earlier today and reclaim the dignity of the Imperial Bodyguards who had been making mistakes after mistakes. Heaven did not fail him; it arranged such a dog-eat-dog scene to give him a helping hand. He drew out his Xiuchun blade and said, “Master, let’s take this opportunity to take down Lei Jingzhe and put him on trial!”
“What’s the hurry?” Shen Zechuan said at his own pace. “They’re giving us a monkey show.”
Fei Sheng originally did not understand, but he saw how nervous Lei Jingzhe looked, and the latter did not seem like the person who planned this. Both sides were equal in numbers, and the sound of things shattering during their fight persisted as glazed lamps and jade vases were smashed to pieces. He observed carefully and noticed that Lei Jingzhe was already showing signs of intention to retreat.
It was pandemonium downstairs, but after the thick smoke dispersed, all was still and quiet again. The lanterns were raised as usual, with huge, glazed palace lanterns of various dazzling patterns hanging in the center of the main hall. The dead maidservants and attendants were all disposed of, and even the bloodstains on the ground were wiped clean. With a lift of the curtain at the back, a new batch of maidservants came pouring in bearing trays in their hands. They picked up those overturned tables and chairs and pulled the various merchants back into position with smiles and chatters.
A bronze gong1 suddenly sounded, and the attendant they had initially seen in the pawnshop stepped onto the stage in his new robe. He struck the gong he was carrying in his hand a few more times and announced in a loud, clear voice, “Mount Luo’s Chief of Bandits, Lei Jingzhe, versus, Dunzhou’s Little Scorpion, Hairigu. Tonight, when martial arts expert meets martial arts expert, who will live and who will die? Gentlemen, place your bets!”
Fei Sheng did not expect such a turn in the course of events. Even though he was used to seeing all kinds of unpredictable and tumultuous situations in Qudu, he still blurted out in shock, “They are betting on lives?”
The bamboo blinds in the fifth-floor rooms were promptly lifted to reveal the wealthy merchants relaxing in their seats, drinking their tea, waving their fans, and smoking their pipes. Lei Jingzhe wanted to leap out of the window to make his escape, only to realize that the window in particular had been nailed shut.
“I’ve long heard that the young master of the Yan clan doesn’t do anything that doesn’t profit him.” Shen Zechuan said, “To think he could do such roaring business too when it comes to such a trade.”
The screen in the private room was cleared aside, and the swift sounds of abacus beads being flicked rang out like the pelting of rain. The other man grinned. “Men flock together and part ways for the sake of their own interests;2 even blood brothers still have to settle their accounts clearly. One ought to make the most of things at their disposal!” Having said that, he stopped what he was doing and hold on to the windows to poke his head over and give Fei Sheng the once-over. He winked at Shen Zechuan and said with a smile, “It’s not easy to find an Imperial Bodyguard. This gentleman seems to me to be dignified in appearance and of the right stature. I can take him to Madam Cuiqing later as an apology. My lordship, sell him to me, will you?”
On hearing him point out Shen Zechuan’s identity with just one sentence, Fei Sheng could not help but tighten his grip on his blade and stand before Shen Zechuan to shield him. This man was three or four years older than Ding Tao. He had a childish air about him, and he was fair-skinned and exquisite-looking, with eyes that seemed to be soaked in honey. He looked particularly likable.
Lei Jingzhe, who was on the opposite end, saw him and flew into a rage. Holding himself back with great difficulty, he said, “Why did the Young Master deceive me? You’d rather offend Gedale for the sake of a couple of scorpions?!”
“Gedale is far away on the eastern side of the Chashi River.” Yan Heru retracted his head and said, “Your maternal uncle owes me 580,000 taels of silver, while you owe me 340,000 taels of silver. Isn’t it only right and proper for you to pay off your debts?”
Lei Jingzhe snapped the chair’s leg broken and did his utmost to dodge the sudden glint from the blade. He suffered a setback in Xiao Chiye’s hands the last time and had to rely on Li Xiong to escape by the skin of his teeth, and now he found himself encircled once again, except this time he had played right into the hands of his own people!
Yan Heru leaned over the railings and swung his legs as he watched Lei Jingzhe fight for his life. He shouted towards those downstairs, “A battle between formidable foes of equal strength is a rare sight to behold, so put up your names to register yourselves and take your hands off after placing your bets. Double your profit if you win, and if you make a loss—heh, treat it as post-meal entertainment! As long as you’re in Dunzhou, I, Yan Heru, will not let anyone walk out of here a broke man without even a pair of pants to cover his ass.”
Lei Jingzhe was trapped in a deadly battle for his life. He had only brought along thirty men because he had been a fool to believe Yan Heru’s lies! Now that Lei Jingzhe had the support of the Biansha Cavalry along with four hundred Scorpions stationed in Dunzhou, Yan Heru would have to show him due respect as long as he still intended to run his business in the east. But for all his machinations, Lei Jingzhe had never expected Shen Zechuan to be the person who had seized the military supplies.
The iron cage in the hall was already up by now. Both Lei Jingzhe and the Scorpions in the other camp had suffered heavy casualties, with more than half of their men wounded and dead. Lei Jingzhe spoke to the man that had come to assassinate him in Biansha tongue, “Hairigu, we are all brothers from Gedale, so why fight each other to the death here? Join forces with me to get out of this predicament tonight, and I will not pursue what happened to that batch of military supplies!”
But the other man did not respond and swept his seaweed-like hair back before pulling out his piked dagger to pounce on Lei Jingzhe.
Yan Heru spoke as he poured the wine, “Is your lordship not curious how I knew you’d come?”
“Liu’er’s informants all come with their own prices.” Shen Zechuan peeled an orange and brought it to his mouth. “As long as the money is enough, any news can change hands and be resold.”
Yan Heru laughed again. “It sounds like I’m not smart enough when you put it this way, but I actually got an inkling right away. Huaizhou’s miscellaneous grains other than rice and wheat to the east have all gone into Cizhou’s granaries. There’s no one else capable of taking them out in such large quantities other than you, Shen Zechuan.”
“What a coincidence then,” Shen Zechuan said, “to be meeting you here.”
“Don’t be so modest,” Yan Heru spoke. “Your lordship is here to lie in wait for the opportunity to present itself, aren’t you? I truly find it strange. How did you know that the person Lei Jingzhe invited tonight was me?”
Shen Zechuan finished up the orange before continuing. “Lei Jingzhe’s trip to Dunzhou this time to search through the goods surely offended all the merchants, yet the Yan Clan didn’t step forth to obstruct him. This suggests that both parties have been keeping each other in the loop. In that case, he would have to invite you over for a drink, wouldn’t he? He can also seize the opportunity to mend his relationship with the Yan Clan; what’s not to like about that? For that purpose, he even went as far as to select a restaurant owned by the Yan Clan as a show of sincerity to you.”
Delighted, Yan Heru commended, “You’re so smart!”
Yan Heru placed his interests first and foremost in everything he did, yet he appeared to be especially innocent and naïve as he held that heavy golden abacus in his bosom, looking all like a child god of wealth. If it weren’t for him being adorned with gold and jade from head to toe, Fei Sheng would never have been able to guess that he was the current head of the Yan Clan had he been walking down a street.
On the other side, Lei Jingzhe was already fatigued from the fight when he saw yet another wave of men rushing up from below. They were vastly outnumbered and trapped in this private room. Lei Jingzhe was unwilling to yield, and the Scorpions in the back smashed the window panels with their elbows.
The night breeze immediately drifted in from the outside. Lei Jingzhe did not make the first move. He merely watched as the scorpion who had created the opening stuck his head out, only to meet with calamity right in the face. In the blink of an eye, his head had been decapitated.
Yan Heru grunted. “This is my restaurant. You leave when I tell you to leave, and you stay when I tell you to stay!”
It was teeming with people both inside and out!
The circle of men surrounding Lei Jingzhe shrunk as they closed in on him. All the merchants at the foot of the building were men who acted depending on the individual in question. So when they saw that Lei Jingzhe was no longer in the position to turn the tables, they hurried to follow in Yan Heru’s footsteps and place their bets against Lei Jingzhe. All of them were waiting for him to die. The atmosphere started to heat up with restlessness. Cuiqing clutched at her handkerchief, not bashful in the slightest as she removed all the bracelets on her arms and bet it all on Hairigu. She had long forgotten about her eldest nephew, Lei Jingzhe.
Shen Zechuan abruptly asked. “Did you scheme to kill Lei Jingzhe because you knew I was in Dunzhou?”
A bored stiff Yan Heru answered, “That’s right. I have to go where the wind blows. The trade route between Huaizhou, Cizhou, and Chazhou is kind of interesting. There’s even the Libei Armored Cavalry for added security, and you can get a ride up to the frontier trade market if you head up. Imagine if we join forces; the three territories in the northeast of Dazhou will be as good as ours, yes? I can keep a chokehold on Qidong’s military provisions for you, and you can take me along for the ride. Each with our own needs.” As he spoke, he switched his posture. “The way I see it, you are gunning for Qudu. You have a bright future full of limitless possibilities ahead of you.”
“So I see.” Shen Zechuan rose to his feet and motioned for Fei Sheng to get his cloak.
“Aye.” Yan Heru rocked his chair as he looked at the shadows and wondered in puzzlement. “The show isn’t over yet, and the man has yet to be slaughtered, so why are you leaving already? Don’t you want Lei Jingzhe’s head?”
Shen Zechuan secured his cloak and looked back. “There’s no one to mind those four hundred scorpions, is there?”
Yan Heru answered, “Your lordship is here. Get your Cizhou Garrison Troops to annihilate them.”
“Then I’ll have to apologize.” Shen Zechuan said with a smile. “I brought only a dozen or so people with me.”
The words had only just left Shen Zechuan’s mouth when the doors to the main hall suddenly crashed open. Yan Heru craned his neck for a look. Scorpions filled the area outside, and they had even taken out the last remaining head cart3 in the armory.
Lei Jingzhe leaped onto the railing and let loose a short whistle to signal the scorpions to attack. The men outside the building were all martial pugilists Yan Heru bought over with money, but pitting them against the scorpions who were specifically trained to fight battles with the Libei Armored Cavalry was no different from throwing an egg against a rock. In no time, their broadswords and daggers were all flung away by the hammers.
A crash rang out from the private room as a chair overturned. Yan Heru bunched up his robe and climbed to his feet with the golden abacus in his arms, intending to flee. The moment he opened the door, he bumped into Fei Sheng. Fei Sheng lifted him up by the back of his collar, and as both of his legs left the ground, Yan Heru cried out, “What the hell?! We’re on the same side!”
Yan Heru’s guards tried to seize him back, but the Imperial Bodyguards had already risen with their blades drawn.
Shen Zechuan said, “Let’s leave together. We can get to know each other on the way.”
Unable to break free, Yan Heru could only let Fei Sheng carry him downstairs like a quail, although he did not forget to yell, “Hairigu, we’re leaving! Come on!”
Chaos descended upon the hall once again. The Biansha scorpions did not give a damn about anything else and simply swung their hammers to smash anyone they came across. Cuiqing watched as blood and brain matter spurted out of the head before her and splattered her all over. Rattled, she held onto the table for support and recalled the savagery of the Biansha Cavalry as they massacred the city several years ago. She could not help but shriek as she scrambled backward in an attempt to dodge. “Eldest nephew, save me!”
There was complete mayhem at the foot of the building, and the exit was completely blocked off. With Yan Heru in tow, Fei Sheng stopped on the third floor and kicked the window of the private room open before stuffing Yan Heru out.
Yan Heru shut his eyes and yelled in the wind, “Stop—! I’m your master—!”
The martial pugilists who were still standing guard outside the building hurriedly kept away their blades. The wind whistled past. Yan Heru opened his eyes with some difficulty and said resentfully, “What the heck did you come here for when you didn’t bring your troops?!”
Fei Sheng said to Shen Zechuan, “Master, there is a shop down from this place, and our carriage lies across the street from it.”
The moment Yan Heru heard it, he clung on to the window and shook his head hard. “I’m not going this way! I don’t know martial arts—”
Shen Zechuan could not be bothered to waste his breath on him, and so with a lift of his leg, he kicked Yan Heru down.
Wind filled Yan Heru’s wide-open mouth as he plummeted down with his arms and legs flailing and watched himself plunging right towards the ground. The fabric tarp at the top of the shop suddenly sank from the weight, but it did not rip apart. With one hand lifting Yan Heru, Fei Sheng climbed the ledges of the building with an arm and swung in the air for an instant before leaping off with Yan Heru and landing on his feet.
The Imperial Bodyguards were all lithe and dexterous men, and this move did not take them much effort to execute. The moment Fei Sheng landed, he tossed Yan Heru to his subordinate, took two swift steps back, and shouted, “Master!”
Shen Zechuan landed deftly on the eaves and stepped on Fei Sheng’s shoulder with help from the fabric tarp before landing on the ground as well. All hell broke loose as the sound of slaughter in the building rose through the roof. Fei Sheng did not dare to confront the scorpions head-on, so the moment Shen Zechuan was sent into the carriage, he waved his hand in a signal to retreat.
The Imperial Bodyguards moved swiftly and drove into the busy streets in the blink of an eye.
Lei Jingzhe pushed the windows open, but there was already no trace of Yan Heru to be seen. He pounded his fist against the window in a fury and turned around to continue speaking in Biansha tongue, “Don’t let these traitors go.”
◈ ◈ ◈
It was silent all around when the horse carriage came to a stop.
Yan Heru clung close to the wall of the carriage, covering his chest with his hands as he pleaded. “If nothing else, we can talk it over, and the prices are all negotiable. My lordship, don’t get mad!”
Shen Zechuan took off his zheyang hat and tossed it aside, then said to Fei Sheng, who stood outside. “Lift the curtain.”
Fei Sheng lifted the carriage’s curtains, and a turbid smell immediately drifted out of the carriage. Fei Sheng thought there was something wrong with this scent, and Yan Heru followed up with a shy, embarrassed smile, “Whenever I get anxious, I’ll feel like farting.”
The Imperial Bodyguards outside immediately started coughing.
Shen Zechuan let loose a laugh, and Yan Heru promptly felt a chill run down his spine. He pedaled his legs to squeeze against the wall of the carriage, and heard Shen Zechuan say in a gentle tone, “Strip him.”
“My mother was right!” Yan Heru was now anxious. “Good-looking men are all beasts! Don’t, don’t do this! I don’t swing that way!”
Fei Sheng held down the back of Yan Heru’s head and stripped him in no time, although he fortunately left his pair of pants untouched. The nights in the eighth month of Dunzhou were chilly, and Yan Heru, being such a delicate and fair-skinned lad, was so freezing cold that his teeth chattered and caused him to stutter.
Fei Sheng said, “Master, there’s no scorpion on him.”
Shen Zechuan slowly folded his arms and went straight to the point as he looked at Yan Heru. “What’s your relationship to the scorpions?”
Yan Heru rubbed his arm and blinked his pair of doe eyes hard. “Why are you asking me this? Your lordship, that’s not right. You should be asking what your relationship to the scorpions is.”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes were unfathomably deep as he asked, “What’s my relationship to the scorpions?”
After a few moments of silence in the carriage, Yan Heru answered innocently, “I have no idea.”
Shen Zechuan continued, “Fei Sheng.”
Fei Sheng reached out to drag Yan Heru out. On seeing this, Yan Heru started to struggle to get up. “I really don’t know! Hairigu, Hairigu! You tell him!”
A man tumbled out from behind the horse carriage and fell to the ground panting. It was the man who first attempted to assassinate Lei Jingzhe earlier. With his prominent nose and deep-set eyes, he had the distinct appearance of a Biansha native, but he had black hair and black eyes, and the contours of his face were much softer than Huhelu’s and Hasen’s. As he turned over, he revealed the scorpion tattoo at the side of his neck.
Hairigu was wounded. At the same time he covered his wound, he looked at Shen Zechuan behind the flashes of swords and answered in a low, deep voice, “Son of Gedale.”
Special thanks to Tea for proofreading! <3
锣 The Chinese gong is a musical percussion instrument that takes the form of a flat, circular metal disc that is hit with a mallet. Also used to call for attention.
- From 天下熙熙,皆为利来；天下攘攘,皆为利往。i.e.. people do things for their own interests
头车 literally head cart according to sources; a complex siege weapon used for mining which can also be used as a protective cover during a siege.