Translated with: Jia<3
This was the second time Shen Zechuan heard of “Gedale”.
Gedale was located to the east of Chashi River, and it fell under the jurisdiction of Biansha’s territory. It was initially the temporary site of residence for the Zhongbo bandits. Shen Zechuan was pretty sure he had never been there before. His understanding of Gedale was limited to the Bai Cha portrait that Li Xiong had once mentioned. Going by the way Hairigu meant it, Shen Zechuan could also call himself a “son of Zhongbo”.
“We are all sons of Gedale.” Hairigu stood up, his eyes alert as his gaze wandered among the Imperial Bodyguards. He lifted a hand gently and said, “We have a reason to sit down for a chat.”
“My brother died on the battlefield.” Shen Zechuan was unmoved. “Before you make yourself clear, we are enemies.”
“Your enemy is the Biansha Cavalry.” Hairigu tightened the bandage around his wound. “I’m the enemy of your enemy. We can be friends.”
“Sure, friend.” Shen Zechuan said. “What do you want to talk to me about?”
Hairigu pursed his pale lips and paused for a moment before saying, “We can join forces to kill Lei Jingzhe.”
Moonlight streaked across the shadow of the carriage. Shen Zechuan’s expression was cold and detached. He could not even be bothered to answer, but his meaning was clear. If Hairigu continued to beat about the bush without explaining himself clearly, then he would not deign to give him any response.
“I know that the emperor of Dazhou is dead and that it’s the emperor’s mother who is managing governmental affairs now. You were driven out of Qudu, and then you fled back to Zhongbo. You want to exact revenge, and you hope you can stage a comeback.” Hairigu looked at Shen Zechuan with a complicated expression. “You are swallowing up Zhongbo right now.”
With his elbows propped on his knees, Shen Zechuan stuck his face out from the shadows and looked down from above at Hairigu. “Your information is too detailed.”
Hairigu kept his hands raised as though he was pacifying some kind of beast and said, “This is information I have to dig out if I am to survive in Zhongbo. Please do not take offense. You have already erected your own city walls in the west, and now you want to head east and take back Dunzhou, Duanzhou, and even the Chashi Sinkhole. But Lei Jingzhe is standing in your way, and it will be very troublesome for you if you can’t kill him. Brother, I want to kill him too, so we can join forces.”
Shen Zechuan raised a finger and pointed to the side of his neck. “You both have the same tattoo.”
“Because we are all sons of Gedale.” Hairigu repeated this phrase. “Lei Jingzhe is a white scorpion. They are all men from Dazhou who have defected to Amu’er.” As Hairigu spoke, he spread his upper garment open to reveal the scorpion tattoo on the side of his neck. “I’m a black scorpion.”
Fei Sheng observed it carefully and said, “There’s no difference at all between your tattoos.”
“We don’t tell each other apart by our tattoos.” Hairigu explained. “The tattoos are just markers the Biansha people used to distinguish those from Gedale with the others.”
“Gedale lies within Biansha’s borders, and it falls under the control of the Liaoying Tribe in its early days.” Shen Zechuan said. “So what’s the difference between you people and the Biansha people?”
“If you understand the Liaoying Tribe in its former times, then it will occur to you why we are being differentiated from the others.” Hairigu put on his clothes. “Before the Liaoying Tribe had Amu’er, they were eagle slaves from the various major tribes. The Gedale that was under their control was even more lowly. The bandits of Zhongbo did business in Gedale by selling women, and these women were very popular with the various major tribes—the noble Hanshe Tribe, in particular, was very fond of women from Dazhou.”
“But they were besieged.” Fei Sheng tossed a water canteen to Hairigu. “These bandits ran rampant along the Chashi River, and the women from decent families in Duanzhou suffered greatly. The Zhu clan, unable to deal with the disturbance, reported it to Shen Wei and requested for Dunzhou to deploy troops for assistance. The commander of the Dunzhou Garrison Troops, Tantai Long, promptly sent his troops to fight their way to Gedale and crush these bandits.”
“But the respite was temporary.” Hairigu took the canteen. “Those bandits had the protection of the Liaoying Tribe. They threw in their lots with the Liaoying Tribe and became the Liaoying Tribe’s slaves, but they were never respected. They became the lowest class of people among the Twelve Tribes of Biansha and continued to round up women for the people of Biansha. These women were sent to the various tribes, where they became exchangeable commodities.”
Tantai Long failed to eradicate the bandits completely, and it did not take long for them to return to Gedale, where they established their base.
“The children born to the women from Dazhou were called ‘wumengyun’.” Hairigu tugged at his black hair. “That is, ‘bastard’ in Dazhou tongue. These bastards could not exist in the various major tribes; they would carve out a portion of the purebred cattle and sheep when they grew up. So, the various tribes drown them in the Chashi River, or throw them back to Gedale.”
Fei Sheng, having been born of the Fei clan, was unable to comprehend the rationale behind this move. “These children all carry the blood of the various tribes. Even if their mothers are not honorable enough, there’s no need to go to the extent of drowning them, is there?”
“Do you know Hasen? That’s the son Amu’er truly acknowledged. The Twelve Tribes are different from Dazhou. In the desert, women take charge of child-bearing in the tribe and even the distribution of cattle and sheep. They are an indispensable aid to tribal survival and are capable of standing on an equal footing with men. It takes an honorable mother to decide the future direction of a child. Amu’er has so many sons, and there are plenty of smart ones among them, but the moment they were born, they all lost the qualification to fight for power with Hasen, and this is precisely because Hasen’s mother is the most honored and respectable woman in the Hanshe Tribe. Her role in Amu’er’s formation of the elite forces in the north is indispensable.” Hairigu took a few sips of water. “Bastards are unworthy of taking on the surnames of the tribes, and so we were branded with a tattoo along with the bandits.”
Shen Zechuan made some inferences from the timeline and said, “Since you are distinguished between black and white, then you must each have your own uses.”
“You have to understand one thing first. The so-called scorpions is a form of address that came about after Amu’er’s rise to prominence. Before Amu’er’s time, Gedale was a place where the bastards lived together. It was only after the rise of Amu’er that Gedale was really put to use. White scorpions, with their appearance resembling those of Dazhou, could infiltrate deep into Dazhou.” Hairigu screwed the canteen shut and made a crawling motion with two fingers. “They can penetrate deep within, and they have played their roles to unimaginable effect in the last ten years or so. Meanwhile, the black scorpions are left behind in Gedale, where Amu’er gives us the best teachers to train us to be strong enough to stand up to the Libei Armored Cavalry.”
“Mutual assistance between black and white—you were helping each other.” Realization dawned on Shen Zechuan. “There are no iron mines in the desert. To equip yourselves with that kind of hammer, you’d have to steal it from Dazhou.”
“That’s right.” Hairigu tossed the canteen back. “The white scorpions secured equipment and grains for us from within Dazhou. Other than those, there were military maps too.”
The military map of the six prefectures of Zhongbo!
“Whose information did Amu’er act on six years ago when he attacked Zhongbo?”
Hairigu spread his hands apart and said, “I don’t know. I wasn’t involved. But I can tell you that Amu’er has countless inextricable links to Qudu. The defeat of the Zhongbo troops was merely a trial run to test the waters, and it proved to be remarkably effective—Libei was held in check, and the repercussions are still being felt a few years later with the subsequent disintegration of Dazhou.”
Fei Sheng inwardly drew in a breath and looked at Shen Zechuan in shock.
“Why do you call me a son of Gedale?” The jade earring on Shen Zechuan’s right ear glinted.
Hairigu inclined his head and said, “Because Bai Cha split—”
Hairigu had yet to finish his words when an arrow fired in secret pierced through the wind with a “swoosh” and stabbed into the carriage. Yan Heru, who had been too afraid to make a sound and who had been hanging in mid-air playing dead, promptly yelled, “They are here!”
Fei Sheng immediately yanked the curtains down and commanded, “Get on the horses!”
The carriage charged into the darkness of the night under the escort of the Imperial Bodyguards, while Yan Heru was thrown back into the carriage. The downtown streets of Dunzhou were wide and spacious. The Yan clan had expanded it to facilitate the smooth passage of the various merchants’ carriages. At present, the streets were bustling with activity, with carriages coming and going in never-ending streams.
Yan Heru tripped all over the place as he put on his robe and said in a hurry, “Head for the Prince of Jianxing’s manor! I tore down the former site of the Prince of Jianxing’s manor and reconstructed a private residence in its place. There are a hundred or so compound guards in there!”
Fei Sheng promptly turned the horses around.
◈ ◈ ◈
The glazed tiles of the Prince of Jianxing’s manor had long been torn down. After Shen Wei’s self-immolation, all that was left of this place was its dilapidated ruins. Yan Heru loved the place, so he had reconstructed it into a private residence modeled in the style of those in Qudu. A tall building with double-eaved roofs had been built within this residence, and if one were to stand on top of it, they would get a panoramic view of Dunzhou.
Fei Sheng carefully surveyed the manor before he entered. He found Yan Heru rather strange. The latter had actually built a wall of bricks on the outer layer and knocked down a hole in the wall to install bows and arrows, with the mechanism connected to the parapet. Looking at just how thick the wall was, it could even stand up to an assault from a stone catapult.
“As businessmen, we fear being targeted in the dark and stabbed in the back. There are plenty of unscrupulous people who would do these kind of asshole deeds. I cherish my life. It surely stands to reason for me to have a safe haven in Dunzhou, and I won’t feel at ease if I don’t construct an impregnable fortress.” Yan Heru invited Shen Zechuan upstairs. “This place is known as ‘Fuxian Peak’. Aye, it’s a tall one. Your lordship, please come with me upstairs to have some drinks and enjoy ourselves. We’ll see how that silly fool Lei Jingzhe gets all distraught with anxiety and frustration outside.”
Fei Sheng could not hold back from asking, “Aren’t you scared he’ll fight his way in to hack your head off?”
Yan Heru turned his head back from atop the stairs and looked at Fei Sheng with a brilliant smile. “What do I have to fear? A real man isn’t afraid of a big scar. At most, my head will roll, but I’d still be a hero again in eighteen years!”1
Yan Heru might have been exceedingly flippant with his words, but he was genuinely unafraid. He was pertinent to the businesses of the merchants from the two prefectures of Zhongbo. So many people depended on him for their livelihoods. Despite having suffered such a massive humiliation tonight, Lei Jingzhe would not dare to kill him for real, for Yan Heru still had Hezhou as his shield. In reality, Lei Jingzhe’s relentless pursuit was directed at Hairigu.
This little brat was an extremely crafty one.
Shen Zechuan guessed that the reason Lei Jingzhe and Hairigu were embroiled in such a fierce fight with each other in Dunzhou was likely because Yan Heru had been adding fuel to the flame. His past support of Lei Changming failed to reap any results, and it was only due to Lei Changming’s respect for him that he could retain the store in Dunzhou. If it had been anyone else, this piece of business would have been long gone. For this reason, he was apprehensive about the monopoly on power Lei Jingzhe’s party possessed. As such, he secretly funded Hairigu’s batch of scorpions to let them mutually hold each other in check until they both eventually had to rely on the Yan clan.
The maidservants entered in a single file and lit up the lights in successive order. Thick and heavy draperies were lifted, while pearl-white sheer fabrics were let down to take its place. There was even a small covered veranda hanging with climbing figs and devils’ ivy, surrounded by a murmuring stream the width of an arm. An open-air pavilion was erected in the middle of it, adorned with a refined rock garden that sat at an angle. The entire sky of stars seemed to be within reach if one were to just gaze out into the distance from here, along with an unobstructed view of the lantern displays in Dunzhou.
“This building was built for the purpose of ascending high enough to appreciate the view. If you stand here and look far out into the east, you’ll be able to marvel at the Chashi River, which mirrors a jade belt2 in Heaven and on Earth. This is a magnificent view you cannot find anywhere else.” Yan Heru leaned against the railings and said to Shen Zechuan, “It’s impossible to leave Dunzhou for the time being. Your lordship can go ahead and stay here, and we can discuss business.”
Shen Zechuan’s cloak fluttered in the wind as he held onto the railing and looked down. He could see Lei Jingzhe’s forces coming through the streets. “You sure are a dauntless one.”
Yan Heru flicked the beads on the golden abacus. “Money is king. Lei Jingzhe himself has to call me granddaddy. I have nothing to fear. On the other hand, your lordship will be in danger if the Cizhou Garrison Troops are really not coming.”
“I come and go silently.” Shen Zechuan said. “It’s easy for me to leave if I want to.”
“Bai Cha is the reason you came to Dunzhou this time.” Yan Heru said to Shen Zechuan with a smile. “Hairigu knows everything. You almost got a glimpse of the whole story, so you must be burning with anxiety now, right? Bai Cha’s exact relationship to the scorpions is something Hairigu knows best. Your lordship, I’m sincere in discussing business with you. As long as you agree, Hairigu will be at your disposal. If we join forces to get rid of Lei Jingzhe, occupy the territories in the north and east, and develop the trade route, the silver will come flowing in like water, no? What happened in Chazhou will be written off immediately; I will not blame you for Cai Yu’s death.”
Shen Zechuan bent over to lean against the railing too and laughed.
Yan Heru’s smile gradually vanished, and he asked unhappily, “What are you laughing at?”
“Lei Jingzhe came here today for Hairigu. If you don’t hand Hairigu over, Lei Jingzhe will settle the score with you. You are now thinking of using a forfeited pawn to trick me into doing business with you. Such a good deal doesn’t exist in this world.” Shen Zechuan looked out at the far end of Dunzhou in the direction of Duanzhou. “The trade route between Huaizhou, Cizhou, and Chazhou belongs to me. If you want a share of the pie, you have to first convince me.”
Yan Heru fell silent for a moment as he faced the wide expanse of the night, then laughed again. “Is your lordship still trying to deceive me at such a juncture? Without your troops now, you are merely a trapped beast. I won’t hand over Hairigu, but I can hand you over.”
“You plotted to butcher Lei Jingzhe tonight. Going by Lei Jingzhe’s character, this feud is as good as already inked in blood. Even if he can tolerate you for a moment for the sake of money, he will never let you off in the future. Moreover, you’ve already shown your card that is Hairigu tonight.” Shen Zechuan tilted his chin up slightly to bathe in the breeze. “Even if Lei Jingzhe is willing to bury the hatchet with you, the same can’t be said of the Twelve Tribes of Biansha backing him.”
Hairigu was not one man. He had also brought along a bunch of scorpions who were similarly living a vagabond life in Zhongbo. These people hid themselves all over the place, and most of them had defected from Gedale. Yan Heru had provided them with financial assistance in order to keep Lei Jingzhe in check, and there was no doubt that the Twelve Tribes of Biansha would be settling this score as well.
“At least I won’t die tonight.” Yan Heru said softly.
“Then let us just perish together.” Shen Zechuan tapped his icy fingers on the railings. “Hand me over to Lei Jingzhe tonight. Once I die, I can wait for you down there in the underworld.”
“After tonight, I have plenty of ways to leave Dunzhou.” Yan Heru snorted childishly in a loud voice.
“Then let me tell you this.” Shen Zechuan looked at him out of the corner of his pitch-black eyes. “If I die, Dunzhou and Duanzhou will die with me. No one will remember Zhongbo’s lost territories. Qudu is too preoccupied with its own affairs, and Libei and Qidong can’t be in two places at once. This place is a wide-opened strategic gateway of Dazhou that can provide the Biansha Cavalry with direct access in. They did not launch an assault in the past six years because the granaries in Zhongbo had yet to be fattened up. The time is now ripe, and Dazhou is already torn asunder by disunity. Sooner or later, this place will become the territory of the Biansha people.”
“Xiao Fangxu will not sit and do nothing. This place has a bearing on Libei’s battlegrounds in the southeast.” Yan Heru said quickly. “Qi Zhuyin has a well-trained and powerful army too. You’re just trying to scare me! Shen Zechuan, without you, Zhongbo will have just a few more random self-proclaimed kings. The overall situation won’t change at all!”
“In that case,” Shen Zechuan raised his eyebrows slightly. “What makes you go to such lengths to discuss with me?”
Oh shit. Yan Heru bemoaned to himself. To think he had been led by Shen Zechuan’s words!
As they spoke, they heard a thunderous noise beneath them. Yan Heru shifted his gaze over to look and could not help but freeze, “Why are there so many people…”
“Ever since stepping foot into Dunzhou, I’ve been puzzled by a question. There is clearly a bridle path leading right to Duanzhou, so why did Lei Jingzhe still forgo what is close at hand and seek what is far afield instead? Then, there is his proficient way of searching the goods in the city. My guess is that this isn’t the first time he has been robbed. The people hiding here are the thorns in his side.” Shen Zechuan smiled slightly. “Even I could guess that you are the one funding Hairigu, so do you really think Lei Jingzhe won’t be able to make the same guess? He came prepared this time. That invitation was indeed to lure a snake out of its hole, but the one who took the bait was you.”
The lanterns on the streets were knocked over as the sounds of horses’ hooves flooded in from outside, while the cavalry with no end in sight resembled dark clouds that completely devoured the river of lights from view. The troops Lei Jingzhe had brought over had been hiding outside the city, all for the purpose of getting rid of the mortal malady that was Hairigu once and for all. Fei Sheng saw the saker falcons in the night sky. He briskly walked around the railing and realized that those dark clouds were presently steamrolling across the entire city of Dunzhou.
“He doesn’t dare to kill me.” Yan Heru involuntarily exposed his panic as he hugged his golden abacus to his bosom and took several steps back. “Hezhou…”
The head cart3 Lei Jingzhe brought along crashed heavily into the front gates. Unable to withstand such a violent impact, the iron sheet-covered latch on the other end of the door let loose a shrill shriek in protest. Horses snorted and grunted urgently, while circling saker falcons stirred up the overcast clouds. The starry sky earlier had dimmed, leaving only the wind to continue howling in never-ending torrents.
There was no use for scheming in the face of a strong army.
These iron hooves had no qualms trampling over the heart of Zhongbo once before. What’s not to say they couldn’t do it again this time?
Special thanks to Tea for proofreading! <3
- 十八年后还是(又是一)条好汉 i.e., reincarnate again as a hero after death.
- 玉带 literally jade belt, or belts made of jade worn by high-level government officials in the course of duty. It’s also a term in Fengshui where the road surrounds the building, much like how the jade belt embraces the waist of the wealthy in graceful semicircular arcs.
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.