Translated with: Jia<3
As Yang Qiu left the yamen and stood under the eaves, he saw the commoners who were seeking refuge in the wind shelter. Finding it just his luck to come across them, he spat and ground it with his foot. “Are you people dead?” He said to the men in attendance. “Huo Lingyun may be ignorant, but all of you too? The poor are like venereal diseases. It’ll be too late to cry by the time they infect the yamen!”
The men behind him responded with fear and trepidation and hurried over to berate and drive the commoners away.
Yang Qiu got on the carriage and closed his eyes to rest, fuming as he recalled the conversation in the yamen. Midway through his journey, his subordinate suddenly piped up through the curtain, “Chief, there’s a message!”
Yang Qiu opened his eyes. “Tell me.”
“Old Fang the Tenth has not returned to his residence at all,” the subordinate said. “He resorted to trickery to shake off the informer following him, then swapped out the carriage and made a beeline for the money vault!”
Yang Qiu promptly pulled the carriage curtain open and glared for a moment. Fearing that he had already lost the opportunity to get a jump on the others, he said, “Quick, gather our men!”
In less than an hour, the subordinate reported back that the Cizhou Garrison Troops had attacked the city. The Platoon Commander had charged out with firearms in hand, but he had not even reached the Garrison Troops when the Imperial Bodyguards, who had been lying in wait for a long time, broke his head with one clean, efficient twist. As the turn of events had been so unexpected and sudden, the city gates were not shut in time, and now the banners at the top of the city wall had all been set on fire.
Yang Qiu’s face turned deathly pale when he heard about the death of the Platoon Commander. Holding on to the carriage door, he looked towards the city walls, where he saw that there was indeed a raging fire against a backdrop of purplish clouds.
The 4,000 men that Yang Qiu had brought along had filled in for half of the spots at the top of the city walls. At first, in order to have a hold over Huo Lingyun, he had arranged to place the fiercely strong men under his command there too. Who could have known that they would be so easily killed by the Garrison Troops?
Yang Qiu flew into a sudden rage. “Is he out of his mind?! The heck he’s defending the city for? It’s not even my fucking city! Bring along your broadswords and head right over to the money vault. If you come across that Old Fang cur, hack him to pieces! Once you’re done loading the money and valuables into the chests, leave immediately!”
A flurry of footsteps resonated throughout the city as the bandits’ boots trampled over the slurry of snow, sending the slush splattering over the legs of their pants and smearing it with streaks across the hems of their robes. Sounds of whistles fused into one. No one could tell who was who when the several gangs bumped into one another. Without so much a word, all of them first drew their blades to cut the others down to the ground. Puddles and puddles of blood coagulated in the snow. The bandits, in hankering after the money vaults, were all frantic with anxiety.
When Yang Qiu barged into the money vault, he saw stacks upon stacks of treasure chests. He pried open the nearest chest, which was filled to the brim with dazzling gold. All at once, Yang Qiu was frozen in place, unable to move his feet an inch. He gathered them up into his bosom several times and wept with joy. “King Yi really is rich!”
Shen Zechuan had locked off the northwest of Zhongbo, and Yang Qiu was feeling quite suffocated from being boxed in. But now that he had gold, he would be able to bribe his way out of Shen Zechuan’s encirclement, even if that meant he had to drop a ton of money to do so.
“Move them, quick.” Yang Qiu stared fixedly at the gold in his arms. “Move them all onto the carriages!”
Yang Qiu’s horse carriages were parked in the money vault’s courtyard, but there were too many chests, and they were all exceedingly heavy. They had only moved half of the chests when Yang Qiu’s fleets could no longer take more. However, he was unwilling to leave the rest of the chests behind, so he had his subordinates go and snatch more carriages.
Having just arrived, Old Fang the Tenth got all anxious the moment he got off his horse carriage. Waving his handkerchief, he yelled, “Block him! Don’t let him leave!”
The door to the money vault was narrow. A great number of bandits, greedy as they were for money, had hidden the gold on them when they were inside moving the chests, only to be slashed to death by Yang Qiu when he found them out. He had already lost his mind and could not tolerate anyone fighting with him over the money. Just as they were moving the chests, Old Fang the Tenth’s fleet of horse carriages entered from the back and mixed in along with the other party’s carriages, forming a jumbled mess that completely blocked off access to the courtyard door.
Leading his men, Old Fang the Tenth leaped his way across the carriages into the courtyard and hacked away at Yang Qiu’s men whenever they encountered one. Yang Qiu’s subordinates were all crowding in the spaces between the carriages, and with their hands full with the chests, they did not even have the chance to fight back. A slash of the blade, and they all toppled over to the ground, dead.
Old Fang the Tenth cursed, “Sneaky son of a bitch! Return the money!”
Wiping away the blood on his face, Yang Qiu kicked the money vault door open and charged in with blade in hand to hack away at the men. They slaughtered one another in this cramp and narrow space. Blood colored the chests a deep shade of red. The carriages at the back were still jostling against one another, knocking over the chests that had yet to be secured in place. Rocks tumbled all over the ground.
“Rocks,” someone shouted. “Why the fuck are these rocks?!”
Yang Qiu and Old Fang the Tenth stopped at the same time and saw the rocks rolling on the grounds. Yang Qiu panicked. Not bothering with killing anymore, he turned and lunged at a horse carriage and smashed a chest open, only to see that it was all rocks inside too. Only a few chests on these dozen or so carriages contained gold; the rest were all rocks. Under the sound of chests being opened, Yang Qiu’s legs went weak. He supported himself against the carriage, his eyes so bloodshot they were about to drip with blood.
Old Fang the tenth looked all around in a fluster. “We’ve been had!”
A carriage at the entrance of the courtyard suddenly moved as someone stomped it through the door. Following right after, the courtyard door banged shut. Liquid poured down from the top of the walls all around. A bandit who was close by took a sniff, and the color promptly drained from his face as he exclaimed in a panic, “kerosene!”
“Smash down the door.” Old Fang the Tenth clung on to the horse carriages and jostled his way to the entrance of the courtyard, where he yelled, “Quick, smash down the door!”
Huo Lingyun stepped on the snow at the top of the wall. The night was so freezing cold his hands had turned blue.
Yang Qiu heard the sound of flint being struck and bellowed, “Huo Lingyun, you son of a bitch—!”
Huo Lingyun clutched a bunch of yellowish papers—these were all notices that King Yi posted outside the yamen. He set those nonsensical lies on fire and, under the glow of the licking flames, said with repulsion to Yang Qiu, “Go to hell.”
Trails of fire suddenly blazed forth and swept through the courtyard of the money vault like tempestuous waves. There were not only rocks in the chests but also flammable weeds. The waves of flames engulfed everyone, and Yang Qiu and Old Fang the Tenth struggled in the blaze. They rolled on the ground, cursing Huo Lingyun venomously amidst blood-curdling screams.
Huo Lingyun watched the raging fire. Like belated firecrackers, the sound of splitting and crackling flesh exhilarated him. He roared with laughter under the stench of charred flesh, his eyes equally bloodshot from having stayed up all night.
Burn these scums to death.
Power and influence were a bunch of crock. All he ever desired was for these people to pay with their lives! From King Yi to Cuiqing, and from Yang Qiu to Old Fang the Tenth.
Not a single one of them shall get away scot-free!
Left with no means of escape, the bandits pounded on the wall with their arms and wailed in the raging fire. Kerosene got on them as they rolled about, and the inferno tore away their hair and burned them to an unrecognizable crisp. The flames made their way out of the compound, blazing all the way along the eaves of the houses and setting the whole of Fanzhou ablaze.
“Who’s setting the city on fire?” Yin Chang, who was carrying the Platoon Commander’s head in hand, was in such a state of anxiety that he stomped his foot. “The Prefectural Lord still has to pay out of pocket for the damages after it’s done burning!”
Fei Sheng wiped away the bloodstains and looked in the direction where the flames lit up the sky. “Internal strife, huh…”
The city gates had been beached, and no one came to their aid. Distracted and fatigued from shooting all those arrows, the Fanzhou soldiers defending the city did not even put up a decent attempt at resistance the moment they saw the Platoon Commander dead.
Fei Sheng returned to his senses and signaled with his eyes to the Imperial Bodyguards behind him to search the whole city and seize all the firearms.
In the gap of time when Yin Chang was not cussing at others, he had a craving for wine, and he insisted on drinking two cups after the battle was fought and won. He scratched his cheeks with his empty hand and handed the still warm head to Fei Sheng as though he was giving him a gift. “Take him. Keep him well.”
Fei Sheng dodged out of the way to avoid the blood. “Why the hell are you always carrying him around?!”
Looking as though he treasured the thing, Yin Chang said with a cheeky laugh, “Heh heh, hand it over to the Prefectural Lord on returning as evidence for meritorious service rendered.”
Fei Sheng felt a chill run down his spine the moment he thought of that scene. Shen Zechuan wore all white when he sat in the front hall. Push this bloody thing over, and he would have to die if a drop of the blood so much as splattered onto Shen Zechuan’s folding fan. He hurriedly took the head and, while Yin Chang was preoccupied drinking his wine, shoved it to a junior soldier and sent him out to bury it.
◈ ◈ ◈
Sure enough, the Cizhou garrison troops returned in triumph. Zhou Gui set up a welcome reception by the city gates to receive them; as encouragement for these new soldiers, he had the kitchen prepare a spread of roasted meat and grilled fish to let them eat their fill. While the soldiers stopped at the gates, the commanding general had to enter to meet the Prefectural Lord.
Yin Chang did not even dare to take a sip of his wine today. He followed Fei Sheng into the residence. The door to the study was open, and Kong Ling and the rest were all waiting by the steps. Upon seeing them enter, Kong Ling immediately came forward to welcome them.
“Elder Yin,” Kong Ling smiled at Yin Chang. “A warrior’s treasured blade truly never ages. Looks like you still have it in you!”
Yin Chang was on familiar terms with him. He craned his head to look in and asked softly, “the Prefectural Lord is inside?”
“Waiting for you.” Kong Ling guided them up the steps. Aware that Yin Chang always went weak at the knees whenever he met officials, Kong Ling made a special effort to say to him, “The Prefectural Lord was the one who personally assigned you to this battle, so there’s no need for me to tell you what that sentiment means. Just answer the questions His Lordship asks of you later accordingly. Don’t worry and just relax.”
Fei Sheng answered from the side. “I’ll back Elder Yin, I won’t let him blunder before His Lordship.”
It would have been fine if they hadn’t mentioned it; the moment they did, Yin Chang’s legs turned into jelly. He placed his hands on the steps for support in a panic, scrambled to his feet with an “oh, my”, and asked after Kong Ling, “What’s His Lordship gonna ask? What if I can’t answer?!”
Kong Ling turned back and was just about to answer when Yin Chang’s body odor – the result of not bathing for two months – hit him full-on and made him so dizzy he could not continue the conversation. Earlier, he had been standing somewhere windy to receive them and so did not notice the smell, but now that they were already standing right before the hanging screen, it was too late to withdraw.
Kong Ling threw Fei Sheng a look.
Why didn’t you remind Elder Yin to take a bath?!
Fei Sheng felt suffocated with aggravation building up in his chest. He wanted to respond, I told him to but he wouldn’t do it so what was I supposed to do. This crafty old man even had a ton of excuses at his disposal. What was that about winter being too cold and it was more practical to be dirty since they had to march the troops to war and the accumulation of dirt could keep them warm and prevent their feet from freezing in their sleep and all that hogwash.
The hanging screen had already been lifted, so Kong Ling could only enter. Out of habit, Yin Chang lifted his leg to stride across the threshold, only to realize that this doorway had no threshold. With Yao Wenyu in a wheelchair, Shen Zechuan had long gotten someone to tear down the thresholds inside and outside the residence. Yin Chang gently set his foot down and shuffled in.
Shen Zechuan had seen Yin Chang before, but it had been from a distance away. Previously, when the garrison troops had yet to be rebuilt, the Imperial Army was the one who fought against the bandits from Mount Luo. Later, during the period when the garrison troops were recruiting, Shen Zechuan made several consecutive trips outdoors, so both men could more or less recognize the other.
Shen Zechuan was wearing a wide-sleeved robe over his regular wear today in a shade so white he looked ethereally pure and untainted. He sat in the master’s seat and watched as Yin Chang entered.
Kong Ling said, “Your Lordship, this is—”
Kong Ling had not even finished his words when Yin Chang fell to his knees on the ground. A series of “thud, thud, thud” rang out as the old man kowtowed repeatedly in Shen Zechuan’s direction. This has all gone to the dogs, Fei Sheng thought as he kneeled to kowtow too. Once he was done, he hurried to help Yin Chang up. But how would the advisors behind them know what was going on? They had only just entered when they saw those in front of them kneeling, and thinking that the Prefectural Lord was in a rage, they followed suit and kneeled too.
The atmosphere in the hall turned weird. The Prefectural Lord – suspected of being enraged – grasped his folding fan, the words he was about to say all but cut off by their kowtows. He floundered, for it wouldn’t do for him to remain seated, and it wouldn’t do for him to stand up either.
Yao Wenyu was quick to react. He bent over from his wheelchair and spoke gently to Yin Chang before him, “Elder Yin headed into battle and narrowly escaped death, so it is not unusual for you to feel worked up upon seeing His Lordship. But your return in triumph today is a joyful occasion, so let us not be so somber.”
From the side, Yao Wenyu’s words appeared to be praising Shen Zechuan’s judicious selection of a general, which inspired such gratitude in the old general that he was moved to the point of tears. At the same time, he was also telling the advisors at the back that this pair of master and servant was on good terms with each other and that all was well between them.
It was then Shen Zechuan figured out what to say. “It has been hard advancing the army. Fei Sheng, help Elder Yin up. Gentlemen, please get up as well and sit as you would.”
Fei Sheng helped Yin Chang up, but how would Yin Chang dare to look at Shen Zechuan? He exercised the caution he applied in battle and did not even dare to breathe too hard.
Kong Ling was between laughter and tears. What had initially been a pretty relaxed atmosphere was destroyed by this one kneel of Yin Chang, and now everyone was finding it ill-advised to be all smiles.
Fortunately, Shen Zechuan had sway over the atmosphere in the hall. He lowered his voice and was much gentler than usual. He was in no rush as he asked Yin Chang about the food and clothing while on the move and the weather on their journey back. After a series of questions and answers, Yin Chang’s answers flowed a lot more smoothly.
It was then Shen Zechuan cut to the chase.
Fei Sheng had initially planned on covering it up, but Yin Chang’s body odor was just too strong. It was not that big of a deal for the old man to skip bathing for two months, but having just returned from the battlefield, they were reeking all over from head to toe with the stench of blood, a stench which was presently being amplified by the heat within the hall.
Sitting downwards of Kong Ling, Yu Xiaozai was listening to the exchange when he suddenly caught a whiff of a certain odor. Distracted, he attempted to decipher the scent, thinking that it was similar to a mix of rancid rice and stinky feet, and yet it also resembled salted fish soaking in swill. It was a smell like he had never smelled before, a one-of-a-kind odor like nothing else. What’s more, this odor – sharp and intense – was a force to behold. In no time, it pervaded the entire hall and lingered at such intensity that Fei Sheng, who had an acute sense of smell, near about fainted.
Shen Zechuan’s expression remained unchanged throughout.
Anyone else could cover their noses with their sleeves, but not Shen Zechuan. Yin Chang had fought the battle for him, so if he were to reveal any hint of disdain here, he would be hurting the old man’s feelings. Moreover, in consideration of the earlier defeat, the rewards accorded to Yin Chang were not all that generous, at least on the surface. If Shen Zechuan were to cover his nose, that would give those beneath him the guts to belittle Yin Chang.
Unaware of what it was like around him due to his odor, Yin Chang gesticulated wildly as he told Shen Zechuan about the firearms in Fanzhou, his excitement increasing as he rambled on.
Xiao Chiye, who had been staying over at the Beiyuan military drill grounds for the past few days, was late to arrive. He had hurried over for the specific purpose of meeting this old man when he heard of the latter’s return. Having made his way under the eaves, he did away with the briefing.
Gu Jin was helping Xiao Chiye remove his coat when he took a sudden sniff and revealed a horrified expression. Seeing the change in Gu Jin’s expression, Xiao Chiye asked in puzzlement, “what’s wrong?”
Before Gu Jin could respond, he heard a “CRASH” from the hall, followed by Yu Xiaozai’s panicked voice. “Why’d he faint?!”
Fei Sheng, having heard of Xiao Chiye’s arrival, was worried that Xiao Chiye would also catch a whiff of the odor when he entered. After all, the person sitting here was Shen Zechuan; he could not afford to shoulder the responsibility should something happen to Shen Zechuan due to the stench. Yin Chang had fought a winning battle, so everyone would not blame the old man for sure. That meant that they could only settle the score with him, Old Fei the Tenth. It couldn’t be helped. Who asked him to be the Attendant Officer?! Everyone around them was close to getting overwhelmed by the stench. This was truly too gross an injustice for Fei Sheng. And so, he simply went the whole hog and made the first move to collapse and play dead before Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan immediately lifted his folding fan and put on the impressive air of a commander commanding his magnificent army. With calm and composure, he said, “Hurry, help him to the side hall and call for the physician to take a look at him. Elder Yin must be tired after the journey. Chengfeng, send someone to prepare warm water for Elder Yin. Once Elder Yin has bathed and rested, we can start the banquet.”
The moment Yin Chang heard the mention of a bath, he just about jumped in alarm. “Your Lordship, I don’t—”
Xiao Chiye called out from outside, “Qiao Tianya.”
“Got it.” Qiao Tianya bent to enter and simply hoisted Yin Chang over his shoulder. As the old man struggled, he laughed, “Elder Yin, happy new year. Time for a bath now!”
The gentlemen in the hall were so relieved that they did not even need Shen Zechuan to say the word before they hurriedly stood up to open the windows. The rush of cool breeze across their faces felt so refreshing that everyone sucked in a deep breath all at the same time.