Han Cheng captured several deserters from the Imperial Army one after another. All of them were covered in filth and were so starved that they looked sallow and emaciated. After making several enquiries, he found out about the predicament the Imperial Army was in, but still, he did not dare to act rashly and advance his troops without careful consideration. This was because a 20,000-men strong Imperial Army was not a small number. He was continually weighing his chances of winning against Xiao Chiye in a head-on battle.
“The Imperial Army’s performance at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds was out of the ordinary. They killed many a number of people when they vied with us for the city gate patrol back then.” Han Jin sat inside the tent and looked at the deserters below. “Now that you people have followed Xiao Chiye into defecting from the capital, how can you simply just break up at the drop of a hat?”
“To reply Your Excellency, we can’t go far.” The army deserter who was kneeling at the foot of Han Ji’s seat said, “We fled all the way here, far away from civilization with no villages or shops in sight. We have no food nor camping site. Cizhou lies ahead of us, and there’s also the Qidong Garrison Troops if we look south. It’s obvious we are going to be caught in an encirclement like a dumpling being wrapped.”
Han Cheng thought it over for a moment carefully and asked, “Are there many deserters?”
The deserter said, “When I fled, there were about a few hundred. The Imperial Army is now like duckweeds in a muddy ditch that will scatter at just one strike. It won’t be able to withstand a blow!”
Han Jin wondered, “And Xiao Chiye didn’t think of a way? I heard that he strictly enforces military law. The soldiers under his command are all very afraid of him.”
“Your Excellency doesn’t know this, but…” Having spoken for so long, the deserter swallowed his saliva and said, “can you give me some rations first? I fucking ran for the entire way, and I’m now so starving I can’t explain it clearly!”
Han Jin motioned for the men to give him some rations, and the deserter began to gobble it down on the spot. As he chewed on his food, he said, “They are afraid of him! In the past, we brothers had nowhere to go in Qudu, and so we had no other choice but to follow him, and we ended up offending the various masters of the Eight Great Training Divisions. Now that he even went on to become a traitor, how would we still dare to continue following him?”
Han Jin noted that all these deserters did indeed seem to be down and out. What’s more, they were captured back. It did not look like they were faking. He could not help but make some mental calculations carefully in his mind. First, he got the men to take the deserters out. Then he began to deliberate over the battle strategy in his tent with his advisors.
Among the advisors was a man called Gao Zhongxiong, who had been the person taking the lead back then when the Imperial College had stirred up a disturbance. As he had offended Pan Rugui and was thrown into prison with no one to vouch for him, he gave up the idea of an official career and threw in his lot with Han Jin. He was a high-spirited scholar full of patriotic fervor who abhorred traitors to the state all his life. Shen Wei, Pan Rugui, and the likes were all men he held in contempt. And now, hearing that Xiao Chiye had fled the state after carrying out an assassination, he was even more worked up, unable to condone it.
Gao Zhongxiong pointed at the map and said, “Since Xiao Chiye is already at the end of his rope, we cannot tolerate him being on the run within Zhongbo’s territory. The Viceroy has a strong army with sturdy horses and Dancheng to fall back upon. In my view, there’s no time to lose. We will be able to deploy troops to pursue and attack him shortly. As long as he is captured before he enters Cizhou, it’d be a meritorious service rendered.”
Han Jin was still hesitating. He said, “But Xiao Chiye still had more than 10,000 men, and they are all real men who have been through the Nanlin Hunting Grounds incident. If there’s a trap…”
Gao Zhongxiong did not think the same. He said, “The soldiers of the Imperial Army are demoralized, and they are all not of one mind. There’s no difference between 10,000 men and one man. They are now just a motley crew of disorganized men; they are nothing to worry about. The Viceroy had already pursued him all the way here. If we can’t capture him as soon as possible and bring him to justice, we won’t be able to account for it to Qudu either. ”
Pretty much stirred, Han Jin asked, “What should I do if he’s in cahoots with the Prefectural Prefect, Zhou Gui, to hatch a plot to do me harm?”
Gao Zhongxiong said with slight urgency, “Viceroy, that Zhou Gui is a man with a family. Would he cast aside a decent official position to plot a revolt with the traitor Xiao Chiye? He won’t dare to. If we dispatch troops now, we will definitely catch Xiao Chiye by surprise. Then we can follow up the victory and press home the attack, and we will be able to return in triumph.”
Han Jin had been sleeping in the tent for days in a row and was already displeased from all the mosquitoes and bugs bites over his body. He was still thinking of Qudu, where his eldest brother, Han Cheng, had aided the Empress Dowager in gaining charge of the government. The glorious rise of the Han clan was right before him. It was just the perfect time for him to return and call up his friends and associates for a lavish celebration. The longer he stayed here, the more irritable he became. So right after hearing Gao Zhongxiong’s words, he weighed over the pros and cons and promptly agreed.
The next day, Han Jin woke up early and led the troops onwards while there was still dew outside. Using the information provided by the deserters, he followed the trail to the forested area outside the river of silt. There were earthen stoves dug all over the forest, but not in a way that could provide food for 20,000 people.
Han Jin thoroughly believed the deserters’ words now. With his spirits soaring, he drew his blade from where he was on his horse and brandished it forward, saying, “The traitors have no way out now. Search the forest all over. We will surely find their traces!”
The soldiers of the Eight Great Training Divisions surged forth.
Xiao Chiye was squatting by the stream, washing his face. On hearing sounds, he looked back just in time to see Han Jin spurring his horse over.
The moment Han Jin saw Xiao Chiye, he hurriedly bellowed, “The traitor is here. Catch him quick!”
Xiao Chiye whistled to summon Lang Tao Xue Jin. The smattering of five hundred men all seemed to be in a panicked fluster, shouting and yelling as they were chased through the forest. On seeing the situation, Han Jin could not help but get all fired up. He laughed out loud a few times, then shouted from afar, “Your Lordship, to think you’d fall into such a state today!”
Xiao Chiye ignored the soldiers and fled away alone on his horse. Han Jin was afraid he would make his escape and hurriedly led his men in hot pursuit. The Eight Great Training Divisions charged through the forest, following Han Jin towards the northeast at full throttle. The more Han Jin ran, the more anxious he became. He shouted after him from behind, “Xiao Chiye! You’re already at a dead end. Surrender yourself quickly!”
Xiao Chiye looked back on horseback and led his men in an attempt to resist, but they were no match for the Eight Great Training Divisions’ ferociousness. The sight of the five hundred men being chased was a sorry sight to behold. In the blink of an eye, they had already fled out of the forest. They made a beeline towards the river of silt, where they were finally boxed in at the side of the river.
“Xiao Chiye!” Han Jin reined in the horse and waved his sleeve. “Look around you. It’s all soldiers from my Eight Great Training Divisions! You’re currently besieged and under attacked on all sides. So what are you still struggling for? Beg for mercy now, and I’ll spare your life!”
Lang Tao Xue Jin dug its hooves where it stood. Xiao Chiye said frostily, “You want me to die, sure. I’ll just ask you one question. Why didn’t Han Cheng come himself today?”
“My eldest brother is currently the noble regent, with weighty and taxing official duties to attend to. How would he come here to deal with you?” Han Jin pointed at Xiao Chiye with his sword. “If you get off your horse to await capture, your Xiao clan will still have a slim chance of survival. You alone committed such a heinous and grave mistake, yet you are willing to let your entire family pay for it with their lives now?
“I’ve indeed made many mistakes.” Xiao Chiye nodded slightly and looked askance at Han Jin, “But it’s not your Han clan’s place to talk about it with me.”
The moment the words left his mouth, several hundreds of people suddenly climbed to their feet from both sides. Tantai Hu took the lead and completely surrounded Han Jin from behind. Leading the soldiers from the back, he slashed away at everyone he saw, throwing both men and horses off their feet into utter confusion and a crushing defeat. Han Jin’s guards on his left and right were all Imperial Bodyguards whom Han Cheng had assigned over to protect Han Jin. On seeing this, they realized that they had fallen for the trap and immediately raised their whips to whip Han Jin’s horse in an attempt to lead him to break out of the encirclement from the side of the forest.
Where had Han Jin ever seen such a battle array before? He was pretty much an expert when it came to past military exercises held at the Qudu military grounds. But he had never truly fought a war before. He was already totally frightened out of his wits. The pain jerked the horse into action, and it broke into a mad dash towards the periphery of the encirclement in the forest, with the Imperial Bodyguards forming a protective circle around it.
With his blade in hand, Shen Zechuan stood in the shadows of the tree and looked at Han Jin.
Han Jin still wanted to charge on ahead, but a sharp-eyed Imperial Bodyguard deftly reined in the horse. Under cold sweat and fresh blood, the group of people exchanged eye signals with each other. Eventually, the man at the head spoke, “Vice Commander! It’s affinity that leads us to encounter each other today. How about letting us go on account of our past comradeship?”
Shen Zechuan had lost a lot of weight in the past few days. The wrist bones on the hand he was grasping the blade with looked just like a crescent moon peeking out in an icy-colored arc from that plain white sleeve opening of his. His eyes seemed to harbor solid ice that never melted throughout the seasons, yet a smile infused with the warmth of spring gradually materialized on his face. He said, “I do understand that the various brothers have been entrusted by another with this mission and, therefore, had no choice but to do it.”
That man knew Shen Zechuan was malicious and ruthless by nature. So when he saw him reveal a smile, he shielded Han Jin and took a few steps back instead. The thunderous sound of fighting and killing filled the air behind him. Xiao Chiye was also closing in on them, one step at a time. Sweat trickled down the man’s temples. He said, “Your Excellency has a bright future ahead of you, so why follow a traitor and suffer untold hardships here? If you are willing to release Viceroy Han back to the capital, the Commander-in-chief will definitely forgive and forget past grudges and welcome you back to the capital!”
Unexpectedly enough, Shen Zechuan chuckled. His voice was clear and unhurried, and he was a pretty sight to behold when he smiled. That pale skin of his looked extraordinarily delicate under the speckles of sunlight. Very slowly, he drew out his blade, scraping Yang Shan Xue’s slender and long blade against its sheath.
“I’m very grateful to Han Cheng.” Shen Zechuan backhandedly grasped hold of the hilt and paused. “Words cannot express the extent of my gratitude towards him. When you return this time, please bring him a thank you gift on my behalf.”
Han Jin felt a chill on his back and nearly tumbled off his horse.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye rinsed away the blood on the blade at the edge of the water. Shen Zechuan squatted at the back to clean his hands. He buried his entire palms into the stream. Even when Xiao Chiye was done washing his blade, Shen Zechuan did not remove them. Xiao Chiye squatted opposite Shen Zechuan. He was much taller than him, but he could still put his head against Shen Zechuan’s. Both men’s palms met in the water, and Xiao Chiye grasped hold of his fingertips.
Shen Zechuan’s sobs seemed to be a dream of the night, seeing as how he was clean and composed under the sunlight. Very slowly, his index finger stroked along Xiao Chiye’s hand and made its way through the gap between Xiao Chiye’s fingers. His palm fitted into Xiao Chiye’s palm, bringing along with it the icy-cold softness of the water current.
Tantai Hu was presently leading the men to clean up the battlefield. They still had to stay over for a night in this forest. There were soldiers not far away all around them, but Shen Zechuan’s hand clung to his, as if he was nonchalantly playing with it. At the same time, it also seemed like a seduction long premeditated.
He still had the stench of blood on him.
Xiao Chiye let him do as he wished and said, “You left only one soldier alive and sent him back. He might not necessarily be willing to bring the message back to them.”
Shen Zechuan looked at the shimmering surface of the stream and said, “He’s an Imperial Bodyguard. As long as he is still alive, he has to complete the mission. Han Jin has fallen into our hands. If he doesn’t bring news of it back, then he has failed in his mission. He’s going to die anyway, might as well die with a little more dignity. Furthermore, the heads in that burlap sack are all those of Imperial Bodyguards on the job with a authority token. He has to bring his brothers home.”
Xiao Chiye wanted to wipe away the droplets of blood on Shen Zechuan’s wrists. But there were people all around. Both of them gazed at each other for a moment. He suddenly grasped Shen Zechuan back, then slowly leaned forward and said, “The earring dropped in Qudu. I’ll make a new one for you once we arrived in Libei.”
“You still have an outstanding bill of several thousand taels of silvers.” Shen Zechuan looked at him. “Tighten your belt and make some money first, er-gongzi.”
“I can marry into a rich family. Pledge myself in marriage in exchange for money.” Xiao Chiye lowered his voice.
Propping himself up against the soft sediment at the bottom of the stream, Shen Zechuan whispered into Xiao Chiye’s ear, “Five hundred taels for one night…”
That bit of enchanting sensuality had yet to pervade the atmosphere between them when Shen Zechuan suddenly looked back with a stern countenance and said to Tantai Hu, who had wanted to go over but did not know what posture he should adopt to walk over, “Han Jin must not have brought plenty of provisions along this time considering that he had been thinking of going back to Qudu soonest possible and that he had Dancheng to fill in whatever he was lacking. Have everyone cook all those provisions tonight. Tomorrow morning, we—”
Shen Zechuan stopped abruptly for a moment. He swiftly cast a sidelong glance at Xiao Chiye before he continued, “… will continue on our way to the northeast.”
Xiao Chiye said nothing and washed the handkerchief in all seriousness, all the while conveniently caressing Shen Zechuan’s hand that had been covered under the handkerchief until it turned a shade of light red.