Translated with: Jia<3
Fei Sheng no longer dared to belittle Yin Chang. The power of last night’s ‘dagger’ had been shockingly terrifying; Fei Sheng had never even heard of that sort of formation before. If not for the sudden appearance of the firearms, they would have already been in the city of Fanzhou this morning.
Having been startled out of his drunken stupor by the firearms, Yin Chang held the bowl in his hands and craned his neck to ask, “what the heck are those things?”
Fei Sheng was staking their victory entirely on the old man this time. Seeing Yin Chang’s empty bowl, he hurriedly filled it up again. “Firearms. Have you never heard of them before?”
Yin Chang shook his head like a rattle drum.1 He had spent half of his life in Cizhou, and the highest-ranking official he had ever met was Zhou Gui. He could not even list out all the Eight Great Training Divisions, let alone know of the Chunquan Battalion. He was truly an old country bumpkin, a barely literate man who had never read a single book on warfare and relied entirely on feeling his way through battles.
“What’s that? It exploded with a ‘bang’, like a strike of lightning.” Yin Chang crushed up the dry rations. “We’ll get struck before even making it up to the front. How are we supposed to fight this war?”
“It can only play its users for fools.” Fei Sheng drew himself closer to Yin Chang. Both of them were equally filthy and covered in blood from head to toe. With his fingers, Fei Sheng made a circle the size of a gun muzzle and showed it to Yin Chang. “The reason why the cavalry didn’t move yesterday was because they were loading their firearms. It takes effort to get it to fire from this opening, and it only works if they’re in close proximity. They blindsided us this time. Damn it. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that those are all the firearms they have, and they used it just for the specific purpose of scaring us.”
Yin Chang finally kind of understood it. “Oh! Aren’t those firecrackers then?!”
“You’re absolutely correct! Think of them as firecrackers; it can’t hit you if you run far enough.” Fearing that Yin Chang would be cowed by the firearms and would not dare to launch further attacks, Fei Sheng went to great pains to explain to him. “Think about it. If this stuff was really that good to use, why did Chunquan Battalion only use it to perform for the emperor? It doesn’t work as well in battles.”
Fei Sheng did not lie. Why did the Chunquan Battalion set the firearms on the back burner? Precisely because it was hard to use. Loading them took time. Use them in street fights, and the firearms would probably still be in the midst of warming up even when the enemies’ blades had already slit their throats. But pull away from the enemy, and the lethality of the firearms would plummet. Furthermore, the recoil would also make it difficult to aim accurately.
“It even burns asses.” Yin Chang was still nursing a grudge over that fired round last night. He thought for a moment while staring at the campfire. “Are these things expensive?”
“Very.” Fei Sheng soaked the dry rations in the bowl and gobbled it down whole. “Even the Imperial Bodyguards don’t have the blueprint. They are manufactured by the Ministry of Works under the supervision of the Ministry of War. The quantity is limited every time, and they even come with numbers engraved on them.”
Yin Chang promptly bared his stained, yellow teeth at Fei Sheng in a grin. “Then fuck it. I only fear that those firecrackers are cheap. Fanzhou is so brokeass poor now, so how would they bear to use expensive stuff as they please? It’s great if its reach is limited. I don’t for the life of me believe they can cower like tortoises in there for their entire lives.”
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Door panels swung and slammed under the intense howl of the north wind. The streets of Fanzhou were strewn with corpses all over. King Yi’s tattered banner fluttered in the wind as beggars fought over it to keep themselves warm. The entrance of the yamen’s wind shelter was crammed with hundreds of people, most of which were the elderly, weak, women, and children. All the young and healthy men in their families had either been abducted away by the bandits or hoodwinked by King Yi into joining his army. These people, so famished they were all skin and bones, were all here to beg for food.
This winter wind was so penetratingly freezing that people were dying of the cold every night.
“Brother Huo wishes to open the granaries and distribute the grains to the people.” Yang Qiu, a bandit of Fanzhou sitting on the taishi chair2 with his leg propped, said with a merry smile. “It’s a good thing. We are all for it. But the Cizhou garrison troops are right at our city gates now, and the soldiers in the frontline can’t go hungry. As long as the soldiers don’t starve, you can distribute the grains to whoever you want.”
Both sides of the hall were packed with people standing or sitting; they were all bandits from Fanzhou and Dengzhou. Yin Chang was right in his guess. To guard against the Cizhou garrison troops, King Yi had assembled together the troops from both prefectures in the hope of bargaining with Shen Zechuan at the critical moment. But who knew? He invited a wolf into his own house and brought disaster upon himself instead. In the end, he was killed by Huo Lingyun and these people the latter was colluding with.
Sitting on King Yi’s seat, Huo Lingyun said, “The city has run out of food, so I will have to borrow grains from my various brothers here.”
“Shen Zechuan has sealed off the routes to the west, and the traveling merchants no longer dare to come this way anymore. After the tenth month, all I’ve been eating are fucking stale grains.” Yang Qiu felt resentful just to bring up the matter. “I was even thinking of borrowing grains from all of you. Old Fang the Tenth, you were working hand in glove with King Yi, and must have had your fair share of licking his balls, so don’t dare you sit here with us and pretend to be poor.”
Old Fang the Tenth, who had a penchant for men, felt so self-conscious on hearing this that his face blanched with anger. He clenched his walnuts and sneered. “What a bunch of bull. Drop that hoodlum act of yours. My grains have long been used to make up for the military grains, feeding ingrates like you.”
“The fuck we fighting a battle for when we have no grains.” Yang Qiu said with ill intentions. “Might as well run while we can.”
“Run?” Old Fang the Tenth spat. “The entire territory to the northwest has been choked off by Shen Zechuan. Either you go over to Tianfei Watchtower and surrender to Commander-in-chief Qi, or you go over to the Chashi River and work in cahoots with the Biansha people. Isn’t Shen Zechuan going to attack Duanzhou in the second month? Say we mess up the game for him and leave an opening in Zhongbo, would he still dare to throw his weight around here?”
These people were bandits. At first, they heard Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye had killed Lei Changming in Cizhou, and then they got wind that Shen Zechuan had killed Cai Yu in Chazhou, followed by Lei Jingzhe in Dunzhou. All the big-name bandit leaders in Zhongbo had met their fucking ends in Shen Zechuan’s hands. Even if they thought with their feet, they knew Shen Zechuan would never let them off.
Yang Qiu initially thought Huo Lingyun was not qualified enough to hold down the situation. He had come here to fish in troubled waters; his plan was to haul King Yi’s money vault away before the city was breached, but when he arrived, he found Old Fang and all these other people having designs on the money vault too. Everyone was presently sitting here mutually scheming against one another, each of them only too anxious for the others to hurry up and die.
Although Huo Lingyun was sitting at the head, he was willing to play second fiddle. Without showing any expression, he said, “On the contrary, there’s no need to be overly anxious. Shen Zechuan sent an old man this time, one without prestige and capability. What’s more, he’s timid. He won’t get anywhere.”
It was true that Yin Chang had no reputation to speak of, but Yin Chang had disposed of nearly half of their soldiers with just one appearance. Huo Lingyun himself was the one who went out to fight last night’s battle, the details of which he kept mum about. All Yang Qiu and Old Fang the Tenth knew was that they had suffered severe casualties.
Yang Qiu thought of Huo Lingyun as just a pretty face who was all looks and no substance, practically good for nada. Even so, he still had a smile on his face as he said, “That’s right. Brother Huo comes from a distinguished family. The hell does an old country bumpkin like him think he is? I’m only worried about food, nothing else. If we keep up with this rate of consumption, we won’t last until spring even if we repel the Cizhou garrison troops.”
“Then what do you have in mind?” Old Fang the Tenth said sarcastically, “Let’s hear your brilliant ideas.”
Yang Qiu rolled his eyes at him and looked at Huo Lingyun. “Yan Heru still has shops in Dunzhou. Let’s trade King Yi’s family assets for grains with him. He doesn’t acknowledge anything except money, so he will definitely do us this favor. As long as we can survive this winter, the throne of King Yi will be as good as Brother Huo’s. It won’t be too late for us to recruit soldiers and buy horses then.”
Old Fang the Tenth listened to Yang Qiu’s nonsensical boasts but did not speak up to warn Huo Lingyun. Huo Lingyun was exactly his type, but he had seen King Yi’s mutilated corpse back at the yamen, which the dogs had gnawed until it was all unrecognizable. He could not help but have the sense that he was not beyond sharing the same fate too.
Having remained close to King Yi these past six months, Huo Lingyun was not aware of the situation outside. Looking as if he believed Yang Qiu’s words, he said, “but with the garrison troops besieging the city now, how are we going to conduct this business with Yan Heru’s shop?”
“My people are most familiar with the areas in Dunzhou. I can use Liu’er’s eyes too.” Yang Qiu had some monkey business going on with Cuiqing, and he had tagged along for a few rides when Cuiqing went to Dunzhou for business in the past. “If Brother Huo is willing to trust me, I’ll make a trip for you.”
Old Fang the Tenth instantly turned hostile. “So you have it all plotted out, huh!”
They snapped at each other and incriminated one another, neither willing to give in. King Yi’s money was future life insurance for them, and no one was willing to share it with the others. As such, they remained locked in a stalemate here, making the atmosphere rather tense and heavy.
Yang Qiu had no way to refute Old Fang the Tenth’s words. He grew more and more restless with anxiety as he sat here, worried that Huo Lingyun could not hold up against the Cizhou’s garrison troops, so he steeled himself, deciding to kill them all and grab the money tonight.
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A Fanzhou soldier stationed on the city wall was relieving himself at a corner when he suddenly heard several whistles coming from below. He fastened his pants. Not daring to stick his head out directly, he glanced down from the middle of the battlement. A bonfire was blazing in the wilderness, and the Cizhou garrison troops had taken up formation in front of the city walls with their shields held up, yet they had not sounded the war horn.
Yin Chang stood at the very front and took a few gulps of wine before shouting, “Is King Yi here? Call him up the city wall. Let’s have a little chat!”
The taste of being pierced by the dagger squads’ sharp blades the night before was still vivid in the Fanzhou troops’ minds. Yin Chang looked exactly like an old maniac when he chased after them, and the impact of that encounter still lingered. The Platoon Commander of Fanzhou, a bandit under Yang Qiu, had been specially assigned here by Huo Lingyun. He leaned over the battlement and spat at Yin Chang. “Chat, my ass. Don’t even think about tricking us out of the city.”
Not to be outdone, Yin Chang cursed back. “All of you in Fanzhou are fucking wimps. Cowering cowards like you are not even fit to kiss my ass! Bah, little brats! Do you even have the balls to fight battles? Get your ass down here and carry our Prefectural Lord’s shoes.”
Yin Chang, having hung out in the streets in his youth, spontaneously blurted out all the obscenities that came to his mind. With wine to add to his fun, he could stand here and curse for three days and three nights without ever repeating himself. His words were crude and vulgar as he swore with great relish and led the garrison troops to jeer with him, having such a merry time it was as though he was celebrating the spring festival.
The Platoon Commander, having served under Yang Qiu, had become accustomed to throwing his weight around in Dengzhou. Even King Yi himself treated him with courtesy when he came to Fanzhou. Seething with resentment now, especially after getting chased all around by Yin Chang and even stabbed in the buttocks last night, he propped himself against the battlement and let loose a torrent of verbal abuse.
The moment the Platoon Commander retorted, Yin Chang waved his hand to instigate the Cizhou garrison troops behind him to holler back with a litany of curses. The Platoon Commander was unable to beat them in might, and his voice was drowned out. Furious, he pounded the wall hard and commanded those at his sides. “Shoot him!”
The Fanzhou troops swiftly put up their bows, and the Cizhou garrison troops below them promptly took to their heels. They cursed as they ran while the arrows rained down noisily on the shields they were equipped with. Once they were out of the Fanzhou troops’ range, they stood at the perimeter and started to boo in unison at the top of the city walls.
Yin Chang leaped beyond the shooting range and raised both hands to signal for them to sound the war horn at the back. The old man’s ruddy face was glowing as he yelled, “Fanzhou—”
The Cizhou garrison troops responded in chorus, “—is all as chicken as they come!”
Yin Chang shouted again, “And King Yi—”
The Cizhou garrison troops continued, “—is a fucking cur!”
The Fanzhou arrows could not reach them. Soldiers of all ranks leaned over the battlements, trying to get a swear word in as they cussed back. A pity its effect was minimal. Yin Chang even composed a ditty for the Cizhou garrison troops, which they hollered at an earsplitting volume from where they stood.
Half of the Platoon Commander’s body was already sticking out as he cussed until his face turned livid with rage. He bellowed across the air, “I dare you to repeat that, you old buffoon! I’ll slice off your rotten tongues!”
“Bring it on.” Yin Chang seemed to be drunk as he stepped on the snow and turned around in circles. As he clapped his hands, he said, “If you don’t come, I’ll take you as my daughter. Daughter, heh!” He pinched his fingers and twisted around to look back at the Platoon Commander at the top of the city wall, imitating the latter as he said in a shrill voice, “I’ll slice off your rotten tongues and tear off your faces!”
Yin Chang was already advanced in years, and he had so many wrinkles on his face he could even make a flower pattern with them. Yet his imitation of a woman was absolutely spot on, having gotten that feminine charm more or less down pat as he stomped his foot and sent pieces of ice beneath it skipping all over.
The Platoon Commander’s face blanched.
The composition of the Fanzhou troops was a rather complicated one; the men could not be considered soldiers at all. Sworn enemies and adversaries were even thrown into a squad together, so who knows? Perhaps they were all now laughing behind the Platoon Commander’s back on seeing him humiliated.
The Platoon Commander had never before experienced such humiliation. He shoved aside the soldier next to him and ordered, “prepare the horse!”
The soldier hurriedly chased after him and said, “Huo—”
“Fuck that Huo,” the Platoon Commander abruptly yanked up a soldier and barked at him. “I’m Chief Yang’s foreman. Huo Lingyun was still a wee kid wetting his pants when I was back there in Dengzhou killing the garrison troops in. Is he even fit to command me? Bring out the guns!”
The sight of Yin Chang scampering away like a frightened rat from the firearms last night was still fresh in the Platoon Commander’s mind. They had lost half their men in the tussle with Yin Chang then, when Yin Chang had split them up with his formation. But with the city of Fanzhou right behind them tonight, they had even more confidence than they did last night. At most, they would retreat back if they had to. What was there to be afraid of?! Either way, they had horses. If Yin Chang still dared to pursue them after they withdrew into the city with their bows at the ready, he would be courting death.
Yin Chang tugged up his trousers. The old man reached back for the hilt of his blade. He dropped the merriment, his cloudy eyes as quiet as this expanse of the night sky as he adjusted his breathing, a strategy he had thought of on his own. As long as he calmed his breathing before a battle, he would be able to stand firm on his feet.
There were incredibly gifted generals in this world; they were young and were not only ambitious but also dazzlingly brilliant. But there was also another kind of general who never had the opportunity to make a name for themselves. They always had their backs to the firmament of heaven, their eyes solely on the small piece of land beneath their feet.
Yin Chang was long past his prime.
The instant the city gates opened, Yin Chang once again felt a rush of fighting spirit coursing through his body. That was the desire that had been burning within him to this very day. He could not see the onslaught of old age assailing him; he was still as young as he had once been. The fervor that blazed anew in him let him draw his blade without the slightest decrease in his speed at all.
Win one battle!
Even if he was no famous general.