After three bouts of drinking in the house, much of the sense of estrangement had dispersed. Although they still had not warmed up to each other, it was already more than enough for them to have a chat over wine.
Ji Gang removed the muffler around his neck and took a sip of wine. When Zuo Qianqiu saw the burn marks on his exposed neck too, he could not help but ask, “Back then, the Biansha Cavalry invaded Duanzhou. How did you… how did you end up in this state?”
Ji Gang twirled his wine cup around and smiled, “Shen Wei beat such a quick retreat that Duanzhou did not even hold out for a day. The horses of the Biansha Cavalry were too fast, and my legs aren’t as fast as they used to be, so how could I have escaped? At that time, I was already ready to fight to the death.”
At this point, he thought of Hua Pingting and could not help but choke with emotion. He turned his head aside and rubbed his face. He did not continue.
Zuo Qianqiu downed the cup of wine and said, “Shen Wei deserved to be killed!”
“It wasn’t just Shen Wei who deserves death.” Ji Gang said bitterly, “The defeat of the Zhongbo troops was so fishy. For the blame to be pushed to Shen Wei alone means that they were certain he wouldn’t survive.”
Zuo Qianqiu said, “You have been away from Qudu for a long time. How can you be so sure that Shen Wei was a scapegoat?”
“Five years ago, when Chuan-er entered the capital, someone plotted against him while he was in the Imperial Prison.” Ji Gang said, “At that time, Shen Wei was already dead. Yet someone still wanted to wipe out his family to eradicate potential sources of trouble. Why? Wasn’t it precisely because they wanted to silence him?”
Zuo Qianqiu drank his wine in silence. After a while, he said, “Now that they are all dead, I’m afraid it won’t be easy to relaunch a thorough investigation into the defeat of Zhongbo troops. Is your disciple thinking of seeking revenge for Shen Wei?”
The wine had already gotten to Ji Gang’s head. These five years, he had completely abstained from drinking, and he could be said to have broken his vow of abstinence tonight for Zuo Qianqiu. Holding on to the table edge for support, he sneered, “Revenge. Why would Chuan-er want to seek revenge for Shen Wei? Zuo Qianqiu, how can you be as narrow-minded as they are?! Are you telling me that everyone in the world with the surname Shen is guilty of sin? Chuan-er has grown up. He’s sensible enough to know better, and he can tell right from wrong. He and Shen Wei just happened to be born as father and son. Other than that body of flesh he got from Shen Wei, they have nothing to do with each other. Why are all of you pushing him into such a corner? Shen Wei is already dead! Shouldn’t you look to the Biansha Cavalry to avenge this so-called blood feud of Zhongbo?!”
Ji Gang suddenly smashed the wine cup. His chest heaved.
“Conducting a thorough investigation of the Zhongbo’s troops defeat isn’t for anyone, but to get to the bottom of the matter. Why should he be made to bear such a sin?! You have been a general too. Haven’t you thought of it? Five years ago, someone could make the Zhongbo’s troops suffer a defeat. Five years later, he could do the same to another place! Back then, the Biansha Cavalry could keep up with such a tight pursuit. Would they have been able to do it without inside help and map?!”
Zuo Qianqiu sighed and said, “Gang-di,1 please be appeased. Back then, when Jiming rushed over to Zhongbo, the first thing he did was to cut off the main route leading from Zhongbo to Dancheng in order to investigate where the Twelve Tribes of Biansha’s information came from. But the situation was critical at that time. Do you know how difficult it was? All the evidence pointed to Shen Wei. Yet, Shen Wei just had to burn himself to death, leaving behind a son of common birth whom he did not favor. How could anyone not get suspicious?”
After a moment of silence, Ji Gang said, “That kick your disciple gave him almost killed him.”
Zuo Qianqiu downed the wine again and said, “I won’t defend him, but listen. Gang-di, we each have our own experiences, and we each act in accordance with our own wants.”
Ji Gang sneered and said, “Sure thing. Just pay lip service and consider it a closed case.”
Without saying a word more, Zuo Qianqiu turned over an empty cup and shouted out, “A-Ye!”
The door opened right at once. Zuo Qianqiu poured wine with one hand and tossed a cup over with the other hand and said, “Apologize to your shishu and shidi.”
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Ji Gang leveled his chopsticks and caught the wine cup on the tip. He said, “We were the ones whose skills left much to be desired back then. Chuan-er, come and make the toast!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he turned the wine cup towards Shen Zechuan. Xiao Chiye blocked it mid-air and said, “Lanzhou, let’s not fight with shixiong over this, alright?”
Shen Zechuan lifted his leg to hit Xiao Chiye’s arm askew. That wine cup wobbled and fell. He said, “It’s hard for one to defy his shifu’s orders. Shixiong, please give way to me.”
Both men’s palms intersected. Xiao Chiye backhandedly pushed back Shen Zechuan’s arm. That wine cup was about to hit the ground, but Shen Zechuan extended his leg and lifted it to bring the wine cup up again.
There seems to be the sound of the wind as both men exchanged blows. That wine cup rose and dropped, but not even a drop of wine was spilled.
Without letting up his chopsticks, Ji Gang ate a few mouthfuls of cold dishes and said, “This martial art stance is not imparted from the Ji Clan.”
Zuo Qianqiu looked at both men and said, “That’s the Xiao Clan’s martial arts. It’s like a raptor grabbing its prey. Once caught, it’ll be hard to break free. Lanzhou, focus on attacking his lower body to throw him into confusion.”
Shen Zechuan immediately withdrew his hand and took a step back to throw out a sudden kick. Xiao Chiye dodged a little. He wanted to say something to Shen Zechuan, but in the end, he said nothing in the presence of both shifu. As he parried the blow, he grabbed hold of Shen Zechuan’s ankle and took advantage of the obstruction of his body to grope Shen Zechuan’s leg along the curve of Shen Zechuan’s calf. Then he gently led Shen Zechuan toward himself.
“How ruthless,” Xiao Chiye’s expression was calm. “Your kick makes me too powerless to resist.”
Being touched by Xiao Chiye caused Shen Zechuan to almost lose his balance, and he still had to catch hold of the wine cup. Xiao Chiye patiently waited for him to catch the wine cup before he suddenly threw out a punch right in Shen Zechuan’s face.
“Ji Clan Fist!” Ji Gang’s chopsticks paused. He held back for a moment, but in the end, he conceded, “… No wonder Chuan-er praised him.”
This body of his was simply too suitable. His punch was so perfectly executed that even Ji Gang could not find fault with it.
Shen Zechuan made a grab for the wine cup with one hand, but it was ill-advised for him to press on and catch hold of it, so he abruptly leaned back. The wind that exploded forth from Xiao Chiye’s fist swept past his temple. Before he could get up, Xiao Chiye strode forward and pressed in towards him. In passing, he lowered the fist he had thrown out and reached inside Shen Zechuan’s collar to pinch out the remnant of the plum blossom that Shen Zechuan had bitten earlier.
“You’ve fallen for my trap.” Xiao Chiye’s eyes glinted with mischief as he sent this half of the plum blossom into his mouth. Shen Zechuan wanted to get up, but Xiao Chiye thwarted his attempt and raised his head to say quickly, “The wine is spilled!”
Stunned, Shen Zechuan lifted his head for a look—and Xiao Chiye grasped hold of his hand and pushed his thumb up along Shen Zechuan’s inner wrist to drink up the wine in one toast from Shen Zechuan’s hand.
“Thank you shidi, for the wine.” Xiao Chiye immediately stepped back and said gentlemanly, “The taste of it leaves a lingering aroma on the buds.”2
The inner side of Shen Zechuan’s wrist was still scalding from being stroked by Xiao Chiye. He rose to his feet and bowed with a brandish of his sleeves before putting the wine cup back on the table.
Ji Gang did not know about the exchange of undercurrents between them. On seeing the outcome, he said, “The difficulty in blending the stances of a hundred schools of martial arts is in threading them together into one. You have taught him well.”
Zuo Qianqiu said, “He still has a long way to go. Lanzhou specializes in Ji Clan mental techniques. His focus is truly impressive.”
Both men poured wine again, while Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan retreated out for the second time.
The moment the door closed, Xiao Chiye grabbed hold of Shen Zechuan and said, “This bout of drinking won’t end tonight. It’s cold outside. Let’s sit inside the house.”
The original study of the Yao Clan was to the north of the corridor. In order to keep the room dry so that the books would not be damaged, a ground heating system3 was built underneath. The books had yet to be removed at the moment, and all four shelves of the open bookcase were full of antique calligraphy and paintings.
Xiao Chiye took off his overcoat and sat at the desk with one leg over the other to flip through a book. He said, “This courtyard was originally built by the Old Master of the Yao Clan. Plenty of good stuff is hidden here. Yao Wenyu doesn’t like to play with them, so they have been shelved here all this time and have never been moved before.”
Shen Zechuan wiped his hands clean before touching the books on the bookshelf.
Those from the Yao Clan loved books. The Old Master of the Yao Clan had sorted them out into different categories and arranged them neatly. It had been so long, and yet the pages were still clean. It must have been Xiao Chiye who got someone else to take good care of them once he took over the compound. There was not even a speck of dust on them.
Both men each stayed at a side. No one spoke again.
Shen Zechuan, having kept his eyes open, saw a Hongyan picture book in the local records. He opened it and, sure enough, saw the chorographical map of the Hongyan Mountains.
[For help with the upcoming text, you can refer to the maps HERE.]
Hongyan Mountains were divided into two ranges: the east and west. The west mountain range passed through Luoxia Pass to connect to Quancheng and separate out Huaizhou. It used to be the line of defense at the borders of Dazhou. Later, Xiao Fangxu expanded the territory and extended the line of defense all the way to the east mountain range, thereby shaping Libei’s Great Commandery into the way it was today.
Shen Zechuan flipped towards the back and saw a detailed description of the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path.
Qudu dispatched to all the granaries in the world, with army provisions mostly transferred from Juexi’s Qinzhou. Deliveries towards the two major regions of the north and east could not be done through the waterways, so they could only dig out bridle paths for the specific purpose of transporting provisions. The situation in Qidong was more complicated, whereas Libei’s Northeast Provisions Bridle Path was clear-cut. Food provisions were transported from Qinzhou to Yongyi Harbor,4 from Yongyi Harbor to Qudu, then from Qudu to Quancheng. From Quancheng onwards, they could spur the horses on in a straight line along the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path to reach Libei Great Commandery.
The Northeast Provisions Bridle Path was an important military supplies transportation route of Libei, guarded by multiple layers of Libei Armored Cavalry. Even if the Emperor himself went, he would not be able to pass through without Xiao Jiming’s Commander’s Tally5 for Authorization of Passage. All along, the defense of the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path had always been unassailable no matter how brutal the battles at the borders were. Not once had they ever allowed the Biansha Cavalry to get close before.
In fact, five years ago, when the troops of Zhongbo were defeated, the reason Xiao Jiming had been able to deploy troops to the south so swiftly was because the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path just happened to cut across the northwestern side of Cizhou. This gave him the confidence to dispatch his troops right at once.
“The Northeast Provisions Bridle Path.” At some point in time, Xiao Chiye had leaned over towards him. He swept a few glances down along Shen Zechuan’s hands and asked, “Are you interested in the deployment of troops into battles too?”
“Nope.” Shen Zechuan replied without thinking.
“Doesn’t matter. Second Young Master will teach you.” Xiao Chiye held Shen Zechuan by the wrist and led his finger to slide towards the easternmost Chashi River. “You recognize this place, right? The Chashi River of Zhongbo is Dazhou’s easternmost line of defense. Pass through it, and you’d be in the Great Desert of Biansha. Come to think of it. It’s pretty interesting. All along, Biansha had only dared to attack the Bianjun Commandery.”
Shen Zechuan looked down along his finger at the southeast corner of Tianfei Watchtower. There, close to the desert looking like the only breach to Dazhou, was the Bianjun Commandery.
“Because the Bianjun Commandery is too much of a coincidence. The places above it have Tianfei Watchtower to bar the way, while the places below it have Suotian Pass to block off access from the side. Only the Bianjun Commandery is a strategic point in the southeastern part of Dazhou that cannot make use of the terrain to fortify its defenses.” Xiao Chiye moved closer and focused on the map. “It’s here where the Lu Clan defends. You know of Lu Guangbai’s title? The reason he’s called ‘Fire Beacon Amidst Blowing Sand’ is because the Lu Clan defends tens of thousands of li6 of desert fire beacon towers. The Biansha Cavalry are crafty. They like to launch night assaults. Every time they cross swords, Lu Guangbai has to light up the fire beacons. The Bianjun Commandery Garrison Troops is Dazhou’s best infantry for night attacks. They are experts at laying ambushes.”
Xiao Chiye was a little excited by the time he spoke to this point. So he simply held Shen Zechuan’s finger and pointed to the Bianjun Commandery.
“Of the four generals in the world, shifu is the general most skilled in defenses, as necessitated by the terrain of the Tianfei Watchtower, so there is no need to press an attack or dispatch troops. Don’t be fooled by how unremarkable the Bianjun Commandery look. In fact, the one best at attrition warfare7 is Lu Guangbai. Even my eldest brother and Commander-in-chief Qi aren’t as formidable as him when it comes to this.”
“There are no cavalry in the Bianjun Commandery.” Shen Zechuan turned his head slightly to the side and cast a glance at him.
Xiao Chiye smiled. He seemed particularly relaxed at this moment. He said, “Lu Guangbai doesn’t need them. His soldiers are the bane of all cavalries. The Lu Clan has been standing guard in the desert for generations. The climate is bad, and the wasteland can’t be cultivated at all. They are genuinely poor, so they can’t afford to raise horses. But even without horses, the battles still need to be fought. So the Lu Clan developed a battle array through trials and errors for the specific purpose of resisting cavalries.”
Shen Zechuan looked back at the map. “By interesting, are you referring to how unusual it was for the Biansha Cavalry to deviate from their usual way of doing things to storm the Chashi River’s line of defense five years ago?”
“That’s right.” When Xiao Chiye was deep in thought, he would turn his thumb ring out of habit. But at this moment, he was holding Shen Zechuan’s hand; thus he ended up pinching the latter without seeming to be conscious of this act. “You have to know one thing first. The Twelve Tribes of Biansha is a collective title. At the start, there were over twelve tribes of them in the desert. The Huiyan Tribe, which has dealings with Libei’s mutual trade market, is a small tribe that was driven out of their land rich in water and grass by the other tribes. To survive, they threw in their lot with Dazhou. In short, the current Twelve Tribes of Biansha are distinguished between the strong and weak too. They never had a designated sovereign, so they have never been able to come to an agreement with us and could only fight. Actually, each battle fought is a heavy blow to Biansha. Their strongest tribe – the Hanshe Tribe – lies to their north, dealing primarily with the Armored Cavalry of Libei. While their swiftest Gouma Tribe lies to the south, dealing primarily with the Garrison Troops of the Bianjun Commandery. These are fixed patterns formed over long periods of confrontations—but five years ago, the Hanshe Tribe and Gouma Tribes came together in the middle to deliver a severe blow directly to the Chashi River’s line of defense without warning.”
Xiao Chiye paused.
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“There is only one possibility in such a situation.”
“They had a plan all worked out in advance.” Shen Zechuan said. “They were sure that Zhongbo could not stop them, and Libei and the Bianjun Commandery would not come to the rescue in time.”
“And that was how rumors that Shen Wei had colluded with the enemies came about.” Xiao Chiye said. “It was a very risky thing for them to dive straight in. It won’t be easy for them to rely solely on their spoils of war to continue battling8 in an unfamiliar environment. They are already used to galloping across the desert. To them, combat on the streets is like fighting with their hands and feet bound. Furthermore, the closer they got to Qudu, the more obvious the intent for their troop deployment was.”
“Breaching Qudu was not at all a good choice. Qudu is the heart of Dazhou. Stay here for too long, and they would end up trapped in a three-way siege from the Libei Armored Cavalry, Qidong Five Commanderies Garrison Troops, and the Eight Great Training Divisions.” Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes. “I’ve never believed that the Biansha Cavalry wanted to attack Qudu.”
“You are too smart.” Xiao Chiye praised him. He slid Shen Zechuan’s finger across the entire map and pointed to Juexi at the westernmost part. “I think they wanted to head here. Juexi faces the sea. It has two major harbors and three major grain reserves prefectures. All the military provisions from Libei, Qudu, and Qidong come from here. As long as they entered within Juexi’s boundary, they wouldn’t even need to attack and take down the cities and towns and they would already have all three parties by the throats.”
“If there were no inside help, then this would be a flight of fancy.” Shen Zechuan pondered over it and said.
“It’s just a straight line from east to west from Zhongbo to Juexi. Crossing through Zhongbo is the shortest route. Shen Wei opened the gates for them and gave them the courage and provisions to continue further in. Without the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path, dage would not be able to send troops for at least another seven days. Seven days. If the Eight Great Training Divisions failed to defend Qudu, then the Biansha Cavalry would have already arrived at Yongyi Harbor.” Xiao Chiye said, “This was one reason for Libei’s wrath. There is no room for blatant disregard of ethics in the face of the enemy’s forces. We can forgive Shen Wei for the defeat of his troops, but we will never forgive Shen Wei for this stab in the back.”
Shen Zechuan suddenly turned his head and looked at Xiao Chiye in close proximity.
“What’s the matter?” Xiao Chiye did not intend to release him.
“Shen Wei colluded with the enemies,” Shen Zechuan revealed an odd smile. “Shen Wei colluded with the enemy… The Twelve Tribes of Biansha wanted to attack Juexi. But where did Shen Wei get his hands on Juexi’s military map?”
“The Ministry of War has it.” Xiao Chiye said, “Money makes the mare go. Bribe them heavily, and you can buy it.”
“In that case,” Shen Zechuan said, “… anyone else beside Shen Wei could have done it.”
- Younger brother Gang
- 口齿生香 literally emitting fragrance in the mouth, but the entire word by itself means words or text that are profound or significant.
- 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 whole room and raise the temperature indoors. Since the fiery pit and smoke jack was set outdoors, this heating method was safe, clean and practical.
- It says Guanyi harbor in this chapter in JJWXC, but I think it’s supposed to be Yongyi Harbor unless this Guanyi Harbor is a small harbor not mentioned in the rest of the novel and map.
- 兵符 a tally used in ancient China as a proof of military authorization.
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 消耗战 Attrition warfare is a military strategy where the enemy is worn down to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel, equipment, and supplies.
- 以战养战 using the manpower, food provisions, weaponry/armory, money, one obtained from an invaded and occupied city to fund the next battle.