Translated with: Jia<3
The Bianjun Commandery Garrison Troops stopped to rest at Shayi Camp. They gathered around the bonfire, stripped off the cloth they had used as protection from the snowstorm, and started to wolf down their food. While Qi Zhuyin was removing Zhujiu, she noticed their spears were not the same as before. She took her seat before passing the hot tea over to Lu Guangbai.
For a long time, Lu Guangbai held his silence while holding on to the hot tea. “His Lordship…”
Sipping the tea, Qi Zhuyin hummed in affirmation.
Lu Guangbai asked, “How are Jiming and Ce’an doing?”
“Not too good.” Qi Zhuyin deftly sliced the roast meat with a dagger and popped it into her mouth. “Jiming can no longer ride on horseback ever since he fell from his horse. All he can do now is to sit still in Dajing and oversee battle operations on the ground, which is a tremendous disadvantage when facing up against Hasen. Ce’an received a heavy blow when he gave chase to recover His Lordship, and his injuries are rather serious. The battlefront in the north is now desperately short of a commander-in-chief. Libei is on the brink of an imminent crisis.”
“I want to head back to Dajing with the Commander-in-chief,” Lu Guangbai looked at Qi Zhuyin. “I discovered the Biansha Cavalry’s weakness while traversing the desert. There are several things that can only be discussed in the Commander-in-chief’s and Jiming’s presences.”
“Who knows if you are a spy?” Qi Zhuyin wiped her fingers. “This is Libei, not Qidong.”
“I’ll hand over the troops to Zhao Hui and have them remain in Shayi camp as part of the garrison troops.” Lu Guangbai gently placed his own spear by his feet. “I can offload myself of my troops and armor and let the Commander-in-chief escort me back to Dajing.”
Qi Zhuyin jabbed the dagger back in place. As she stared at that blazing flame, she said, “I’ll be heading back tomorrow. You can come along.”
When the day broke the following day, Qi Zhuyin brought along Lu Guangbai on her journey back. By the time they had made it back to Dajing, it was in the dead of night two days later. Without alerting anyone else, Xiao Jiming stood in front of the steps to receive them.
Light snow was falling when Lu Guangbai dismounted his horse. He regarded Xiao Jiming with a gaze that was both familiar yet foreign. Qi Zhuyin tossed the reins over to Qi Wei and patted him on the shoulder when she walked up the stairs as a signal for him to follow. They stood ahead of him, silently urging him on.
River of Ice Armored Cavalry, Xiao Jiming. Wind Guiding the Scorching Plains, Qi Zhuyin. Fire Beacon Amidst Blowing Sand, Lu Guangbai.
They chased one another in those years of their youth, all too shy to bring up their ambitions. It was as though no matter how much time passed, they would always remain shrouded under the radiance of their fathers. But the churning waves toppled over those walls that had previously kept them sheltered from the elements, and now, they finally reunited again amidst the heavy snow.
Lu Guangbai met their gazes and took a step towards his journey home.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lu Guangbai first paid his respects to Xiao Fangxu, then followed them into the courtyard. The heated, sectioned-off room was located in a remote area that was connected to a ground heating system1 within, which ramped up the temperature until it was hot inside. Qi Zhuyin shed off her coat when she entered and crossed her legs to sit down. The opened side door faced a small pond, and the scattered rocks in between were all blanketed with a layer of fresh snow. A few branches of green plum edged along the snow-white paper of the door at an oblique angle across the night sky—the only embellishment in this secluded quietness.
After a moment of silence, Lu Guangbai spoke up, “Half a year ago, I left the Bianjun Commandery and headed east to the desert. I wanted to wipe out the Qingshu Tribe and take over their pastures so that the Bianjun Commandery and I could mutually watch out for each other. But I failed, and so, I was forced to continue going deeper into the desert. In the fifth month, I reached the eastern side of Gedale, where I saw Amu’er’s granaries.”
“As expected, Amu’er’s supply lines are really in Zhongbo.” With chopsticks in hand, Qi Zhuyin absent-mindedly took a few bites. “Having the granaries placed in the middle is the most suitable if the intent is to supply the northern and southern battlefields.”
“Amu’er’s fields are there too.” Lu Guangbai held the teacup with his fingers and looked at both of them. “He reclaimed the wastelands there, and had the Liaoying Tribe farm the land the way we do at the same time that they send out the falcons to hunt. The Qingshu Tribe down south is merely a ploy to mislead Qidong. Amu’er has partitioned the land east of Gedale into an undisturbed region. He carried out a new experiment there, imitating our garrison reclamation system.2 He is presently working on establishing a new city.”
Xiao Jiming and Qi Zhuyin were both taken aback.
“We must unify the lines of battle in the north and the south.” Lu Guangbai said slowly. “We even have to tell Qudu to cease the infighting. Amu’er has already grown into a behemoth. He wants to become the great ruler on both sides of the Chashi River.”
“There are three objectives for my trip up north this time.” Qi Zhuyin set down her chopsticks and paused for a moment before continuing. “The first is to see what exactly the scorpions are all about, the second is to evaluate whether the Libei Armored Cavalry can still be salvaged, and the third is to persuade Jiming to call a truce and make peace with Qudu.”
“That’s impossible,” Xiao Jiming retorted in a mild tone. “Libei has its own supply line now. Considering that we have formed an alliance with Zhongbo to the south, making peace with Qudu would mean handing over the advantages we have in hand now.”
“If Libei refuses to give up being antagonistic to Qudu, then Qudu will not render any assistance to Libei,” Qi Zhuyin said. “As you know, the empress dowager is a stubborn old mule.”
“I will never…” Xiao Jiming stared at Qi Zhuyin and said, decisively and resolutely, “ever hand my younger brother over to them again, as well as my wife and my son. No one can ever take them away from me again. Libei does not need Qudu’s help. The empress dowager should first get the Eight Great Training Divisions to ensure her own safety.”
Xiao Jiming was rarely this blunt. His overly scholarly and refined appearance often made people forget that he was the one who established the Libei camps. Half a year before, he was also the commander-in-chief of the northern battlefields.
Lu Guangbai was worried that they might get into an argument, so he said in an attempt to appease, “We can…”
“It’s pointless to discuss it again,” Qi Zhuyin raised herself up a little to look at Xiao Jiming, “I know Xiao Jiming will not agree.”
Lu Guangbai sighed and called out in resignation, “Commander-in-chief.”
“I just want to remind you that, before the unification of the battle lines happens, we are no longer in the same camp. If both armies form an alliance, then whose commands do we all heed?” Qi Zhuyin waved her fingertip between herself and Xiao Jiming. “Libei still has to be wary of the regards Qudu sent. If, and I mean if,” Qi Zhuyin said cruelly, “the Libei Armored Cavalry were to lose their commander-in-chief again, then who is going to assume responsibility for the battlegrounds in the north?”
Qi Zhuyin had long warned Libei of how dangerous it was to pin the faith of the entire army on one person. Libei was a rigid iron wall with impenetrable defense that padlocked its commanding generals to its camps. Zhao Hui had to bring along his Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang when he headed up north, and Guo Weili had to take along his Changzhu Camp when he headed down south. The swapping of battle lines was both time-consuming and labor-intensive. If the commanding general died in battle, then the probability of launching a counterattack was akin to zero.
As a matter of fact, all the military camps had this problem in the earliest days when Dazhou set up defenses at the frontier. Due to geographical constraints and varying recruitment stipulations at the various areas, the specifics of the military camps all turned out differently. The commanding general was the heart of the soldiers, and the soldiers were the limbs of the commanding general. If both parties wanted to have a flawless tacit understanding with one another, then they needed years or even decades of learning to get along with one another. For this reason, it was a major taboo to change generals just before the battle.
Qidong was the first to realize this problem. They were not like Libei, who had to face the open grasslands and the complicated swamps. They had the Tianfei Watchtower and Suotian Pass on both sides to shield them. As long as they could keep up with the defenses of their one and only opening that was Bianjun, they would be able to rest easy. Thus, during the reign of Yongyi, Qi Shiyu set the recruitment standard for the entire territory of Qidong. Their soldiers did not need a specific commanding general; everyone was familiar with the same battlefield. When Qi Zhuyin took office, she set up the Generals’ Barrack in the Cangjun Commandery. More than ten of the commanding generals under her command went whenever they were deployed, which made it fairly easy to swap across battle lines. Even if anyone was unfortunate enough to become a casualty, it would not affect the overall war situation.
But with gain comes loss. Qidong did not have generals with such distinctive personalities as those from Libei. Their monotonous selection criteria already determined that generals with such individual styles would remain a rarity in the years to come.
Xiao Jiming said, “There is still Zhongbo between the northern and southern battlefields. It’s not possible for us to merge as one, and there’s no need for anyone to decide whose command to heed. Qudu is now intercepted by Huaizhou, Cizhou, and Chazhou to the northeast. Before they can send their regards to Libei, they would have to first talk to Shen Zechuan. As for being the commander-in-chief, Zhuyin, I have long since lost my qualification to be Libei’s commander-in-chief.”
Xiao Jiming held up the teapot with his long, slender fingers as he brewed tea with deft movements. There were no signs of self-pity or self-reproach to be found in his expression under that thick steam.
“When Hasen took away my father’s head, he told A-Ye that he was returning the favor tit for tat.” Xiao Jiming’s hand paused. His expression was indifferent as he looked at Qi Zhuyin. “I know you think that the way we control the Libei Armored Cavalry is too centralized, but at this point in time, I have to stick to the old path. We will still use the most direct method to fight back, and that is, an eye for an eye. Our faith does not lie in my father. If that’s what Hasen really thinks, then he’s grossly mistaken, for our faith lies beneath our feet. Hasen defeated my father, but he can never defeat Libei. Thirty years ago, my father gained the strength from the land beneath his feet to march forward courageously, and it was with this strength that Libei has come this far today. We will never concede defeat at this point. The new alpha wolf is young, strong, and competitive with the desire to win. He can stand at the very front and take my father’s place. When we start to fight back, he can swiftly rally together the hearts and minds of those who have lost morale. I am not that man, but I have taken over the heavy responsibility of tempering him. I want him to shine in all his glory and brilliance when he emerges from his sheath.”
Qi Zhuyin went on to say, “But as far as I know, he has not truly engaged with the various major camps. Your chief commander of Libei isn’t the obedient puppy of Qidong. He hasn’t won over Libei at all.”
“But he is familiar with the whole Libei territory,” Xiao Jiming said, “He has run through all these roads in these six months; he knows the swiftest paths to deliver supplies, the most direct routes to mobilize reinforcements and the consumption status of the various camps at the sites of battles. These are all gifts my father gave him. Zhuyin, all he lacks is a little time.”
“And here’s where… I come in.” Lu Guangbai picked up the thread of conversation at a well-timed moment. “How to go about unifying the battle lines is for you both to deal with, but how to deal with Hasen ahead and buy time for Libei is the other matter I want to talk about.”
“You modified the spears of the Bianjun Garrison Troops.” Qi Zhuyin remembered those spears.
“That’s right. After my defeat to the Qingshu Tribe, I encountered the other tribes one after another.” With hands on his knees, Lu Guangbai paused for a moment before continuing with a heavy expression, “I lost all the battles.”
“Oh,” Qi Zhuyin racked her brain to console him, “That sure isn’t easy.”
“What’s more, I was fighting on a hungry stomach. I could only scurry between them for the sake of our daily meals. We kept trading blows, and it was from these exchanges of blows that I discovered the cavalry’s weakness.” As Lu Guangbai spoke, he turned back and brought the spear on his back to his knees. He undid the strip of cloth to reveal the body of the spear within.
“You increased the length of the spearhead.” Xiao Jiming measured with his finger. “… but isn’t this a tad too long.”
“You even added barbs.” Qi Zhuyin examined it. “How did you secure them on?”
Lu Guangbai smacked their hands away and fondly caressed the spear like a prized possession. “I’m an infantryman. Back at the Bianjun Commandery, when we fought battles with the Biansha Cavalry, we relied on the terrain for our ambushes. But in the desert, there are only sand dunes. With all the previous advantages we possessed gone, I was forced to go head to head with the cavalry. At first, I wanted to create some distance between us and the cavalry to give us time to make our escape, and so I lengthened the spear. But as it turned out, the spears were too long, which made it hard to hold our direction when brandishing it, and being unable to turn around in time to meet the cavalry’s onslaught of attack would mean being cut down to the ground.”
Lu Guangbai realized during this process that the cavalry were circling them, since they had no way to attack from the front as they had to avoid the spearheads.
“So I changed the pole of the spear back, but increased the length of the spearhead.” Lu Guangbai looked at both of them and smiled, “As long as the battle formation is fixed so that the spearheads face outwards on all four sides, it is a mobile ‘battering ram’. If they charge over at high speed, they will be stabbed off their horses by my soldiers. The excessively long head of the spear also made it impossible for them to wrest it away from the other end. Once they get hit, it’d be hard for them to survive.”
Xiao Jiming and Qi Zhuyin fell deep in thought.
Lu Guangbai continued, “But the cavalry was quick to react. They no longer launched linear assaults but encircled me to hem me in. This feels to me like fishing, so I proceeded to secure the picked daggers I had grabbed from them to the side of the spearheads with hemp rope. Even if we didn’t get to stab them when both sides engaged, we could still make use of the barb to drag the cavalry off their horses. However, hemp ropes wear out easily, and that is why I will have to borrow money from you guys to add barbs to this batch of spears.”
“I don’t have money.” Bringing up this matter was all it took to get Qi Zhuyin mad. “I’m a commander-in-chief, but I own a buttload of debts. I even threw the rouge expenses of my father’s concubines in to pay them off. I will lose my shit with whoever talks to me about money now.”
Lu Guangbai looked at Xiao Jiming.
Xiao Jiming said, “Our Libei… Shen Zechuan is presently at home too. How about you discuss it with him?”
Lu Guangbai wrapped up the spear. He made as if to speak, but then hesitated. Eventually, he only asked, “Why is he here? Didn’t he used to tread on a path different from us in the past?”
“The world is in a state of chaos,” Qi Zhuyin said. “Shen Zechuan is now the Tiger3 of Zhongbo who has a close and mutually dependent relationship with Libei up north and who steers the Yan clan of Hezhou’s ship down south. He has erected a wall around himself northeast of Qudu. Basically, he can be summed up in one word.”
Lu Guangbai said, “Which is?”
Xiao Jiming answered demurely, “Rich.”
“Zhongbo lies between the north and the south, and the issues we have to discuss now all come back to Shen Zechuan—we can’t skirt them around him.” Qi Zhuyin said, “Besides, the so-called unification of the north and south also requires effort on Zhongbo’s end. Now is a good time to cut off that supply line of Amu’er’s.”
“He will bring his advisor,” Xiao Jiming sipped his tea, “during the in-depth discussion tonight.”
“I only have one question.” Qi Zhuyin held up her teacup with both hands. “What exactly did you Libei use to convince him with?”
This question stumped Xiao Jiming. After a moment of silence, the Hereditary Prince replied, “… Looks, I guess.”
Silence momentarily descended upon them.
“Back to the topic. This spear can go up against the cavalry, but it’s not suitable for the Libei Armored Cavalry.” Qi Zhuyin steered the subject back to the matter at hand. “During my time in Shayi camp this time, I discovered the scorpions were not as strong as I had expected. The iron hammers are only effective against your Libei Armored Cavalry. Put them on the battlefields in the south, and they become a liability. They don’t pose a threat to our Qidong Garrison Troops, so, in my opinion, Amu’er will not remove these scorpions from the northern battlefield. But if they remain here, the Armored Cavalry can only cower back into the campgrounds and fight defensive battles. They won’t be able to continue fighting battles in the fields.”
“Before we find a way to deal with the iron hammers,” Xiao Jiming said, “defensive battles can buy us time.”
“Hasen is aware of what you’re planning to do.” Qi Zhuyin recalled the details of the defensive battle at Shayi Camp. “He added iron shields to the cavalry, and equipped them with military weapons meant for sieges from Dazhou. Perhaps he is still adapting to them, but he will soon find his own direction from actual battle experiences. In half a year at most, Hasen will be able to make use of them proficiently. By then, not even defensive battles will be enough to protect Libei.”
“Which is why we need the aid of the Qidong Garrison Troops.” Xiao Jiming knocked on the teapot. “I’m guessing that Amu’er’s crop fields on the eastern side of Gedale have not reached the point where it is enough to supply the four tribes. He remains dependent on the grains from Dazhou. Shen Zechuan will completely choke off Amu’er’s supply lines in Zhongbo. The Qidong Garrison Troops only need to head out of the Bianjun Commandery and go on the offensive against the Qingshu Tribe. Increasing the pressure on Amu’er in the south will suffice.”
Qi Zhuyin’s head started to hurt. She had to obtain approval from the Ministry of War in Qudu to deploy troops eastward. This was not the same situation as not handing over Lu Pingyan; if Qudu broke off their supply of military provisions as a result of this, she would have to deal with the aftermath on her own. But she did not mention this and merely nodded as an indication that she had heard what he said.
◈ ◈ ◈
The next day, Xiao Chiye received Meng in the courtyard.
After remaining at the site of the battle for multiple days, Meng was covered all over with snow, and its claws were filthy beyond recognition. Xiao Chiye let it perch on him and cleaned up its feathers and talons. Gu Jin entered the courtyard and softly reported a few words. Xiao Chiye looked back and saw Lu Guangbai standing in the light snow.
Lu Guangbai had just kowtowed to Lu Pingyan. Instead of entering the building after coming in, he sat beneath the eaves and watched as Xiao Chiye approached. He could not help but sigh with emotion, “You brat… Did you grow taller again this past six months?”
“At this age,” Xiao Chiye released Meng and sat by Lu Guangbai’s side to undo his arm guard. “I won’t be growing any taller.”
Lu Guangbai, who was drenched in snow, looked at him. “You will become stronger still.”
Xiao Chiye stroked the arm guard and said nothing.
“Ce’an, let me tell you a few things, okay?” Lu Guangbai addressed Xiao Chiye by his courtesy name. He no longer called him A-Ye, which implied that Xiao Chiye was not a wolf pup anymore; he could sit as equals at the same table with Lu Guangbai, not just as his little brother.
Lu Guangbai looked towards the courtyard. “You know of your brother’s past, but definitely not the Commander-in-chief’s. During the earliest years, when we were in Qidong, the Qi clan didn’t have an heir of lawful birth. Qi Shiyu decided to find a capable person among his sons of common birth, but to no avail. It was at that time the Commander-in-chief said she wanted to be a general. Qi Shiyu took it as a joke, as did I. I thought there was no way a woman could become a general; it was good enough that she could hold an embroidery needle. But she was so insistent that Qi Shiyu put her under the Cangjun Commandery Garrison Troops, right under his nose.”
Qi Zhuyin threw herself into it with great enthusiasm, but she quickly realized that it was pointless. She did not fit in; there was no one here who was willing to accept her, much less be willing to listen to her orders. They were polite with her, but that was only on account of Qi Shiyu.
“She then insisted on being transferred to the Bianjun Commandery.” Lu Guangbai continued, “Qi Shiyu entrusted her to my father, but she was a very disobedient one. At that time, my brothers were still at home, and I had no wish to become a general at all. After she came, I assumed I would finally no longer come in last, but who would’ve known that she was so tough she left us all trailing behind her in the dust.”
Qi Zhuyin treated herself with the patience she used on embroidery. She got used to hearing the ridicule and even knew what they said about her behind her back, but she never seemed to get angry and continued to remain in the Bianjun Commandery.
Lu Guangbai brushed off the snowflakes on his knees. “Qi Shiyu seemed to let her be, and so she was left in the Bianjun Commandery. Many people wanted to take advantage of her when we were in the desert. Those people yanked her by her ankles and told her to scram back home, but all she would say was ‘no’. She crawled out of the yellow sands with her hands and feet, and even her teeth, falling until she was badly bruised and battered all over. She really looked like she was about to eat up those people then.”
But when Qi Zhuyin stood on the sand dunes, she burst into tears. She was on the verge of a breakdown as she shouted, “you pieces of shit!” She grabbed Lu Guangbai by the collar and questioned him over and over again in anguish, “Which part of me isn’t good enough?!”
The trepidation from the past still lingered as Lu Guangbai continued. “I almost died of fright then.”
Xiao Chiye asked, “What happened after that? Did Qi Shiyu take her back?”
“And then she wiped her snot and tears clean and dragged her blade back to the camp.” Having spoken to this point, Lu Guangbai laughed together with Xiao Chiye, but he followed up closely with a sigh. “Afterwards, she made a small meritorious service. According to the rules, she should have been promoted to squad commander. My father agreed, but no one was willing to go under her command. She sat there from dawn to dusk. Finally, she asked one of the soldiers why he was unwilling to follow her. The latter answered it was ‘because you can’t even lift the executioner blade.’”
The Bianjun Commandery Garrison Troops did not use executioner blades. Such blades were heavy and bulky, and there weren’t many people who could truly carry it onto the battlefields. However, Qi Zhuyin seemed to believe it. From then on, she abandoned the slim blade4 she had previously been using and switched over to the executioner blade.
“It was too ludicrous. Back then, I thought she was stupid. It was as if she could never understand that the reason why everyone rejected her was not that she was not capable enough, but because she was a woman.”
The words this world had uttered the most number of times to Qi Zhuyin were “a pity you’re a girl”, but she herself had never possessed such a sentiment. She thought that there was nothing bad about being Qi Shiyu’s daughter, the same way she thought that there was nothing surprising about how some people enjoyed embroidery and others, being on the battlefield.
Lu Guangbai looked at Xiao Chiye again and said, “Qi Shiyu eventually took her back. She didn’t give up when she returned to the Cangjun Commandery and tagged along with Qi Shiyu’s commanding generals to learn the ropes. Her spectacular talent had already been put on display a long time back, but there was no one willing to appreciate it until that battle that year, when her brothers had all abandoned Qi Shiyu, and there was no one in the Cangjun Commandery willing to step forth and face up to the enemy head-on.”
“That night, Qi Zhuyin rode over to countless homes on horseback, only to have too many doors slammed shut in her face. Against all odds, she left the Cangjun Commandery and attempted to persuade the various major garrison troops until her voice went hoarse, and she did so regardless of whether anyone heard her. Finally, she took her father home just as you did. That was the beginning of her rise to prominence. It propelled her forward into the limelight from then on. Qudu was unwilling to confer upon her a noble rank or title, and many people assumed she would be intimidated because of this. But, Ce’an, I never again saw her cry in anguish the way she once did in the desert. She matured quickly after going through all these trials and tribulations. Qi Zhuyin could assume the position of Commander-in-chief of the Qidong Five Commanderies’ military forces not because she was forced to, but because she can. That is where she should be standing.”
She was born to be on the battlefield.
“The same goes for you too,” Lu Guangbai said.
- 地龙 dilong, an ancient method of warming with an indoor ground heating system, built by concreting circular flue underground where heat would flow from a fire pit outside through the channels to the entire room and raise the temperature indoors.
- 军屯 military troops (mostly in border regions) who carry out garrison duties as well as farm crops to supply the border garrisons with grains
- Tiger, also refers to an extraordinary man or hero. Tiger is a symbol of ferocity, agility, and courage.
- 细刀, literally slim blade, although it may also refer to the miaodao (苗刀, image below)