Lei Changming arrived at the mountainous area a hundred li1 away from Cizhou. It started to drizzle. He did not act rashly and march his troop on. Instead, he occupied the area to take a break and started to set up camp.
“They meant to fight a protracted battle.” Tantai Hu crouched in the grass and looked down. “He drags out the troops in such a long line that it’s impossible to tell how many soldiers and horses there are.”
“But their stoves are so densely clustered together that it makes me afraid just to look at it.” Ding Tao drew a circle at the spot where Lei Changming stationed his troops. “I went to the towns along the way to probe for information. All of them said he indeed brought more than 40,000 men this time. They took in all the bandits near this part of Cizhou on their way here.”
“It’s by mixing falsehood with truth that would make it impossible for others to distinguish between truth from lies.” Xiao Chiye rose and brushed aside the branch of leaves with water droplets on it. “If he really has that many people, why would he still need to recruit deserters and traitors? An army that’s about to fight a battle fears last-minute addition of soldiers the most. That will forcibly throw the long-standing rapport between the soldiers into disarray, thereby turning a ferocious army into a motley crew.”
“That’s what I surmised too.” Tantai Hu followed Xiao Chiye out of the forest. “The more he wants others to know he has 40,000 men, the more he has a guilty conscience. Master, he’s afraid of us.”
Xiao Chiye took off his cloak in the drizzle and tossed it to Ding Tao behind him. As he hung up his blade, he looked at Tantai Hu and said, “If he’s afraid, he wouldn’t have come. By doing this, he’s seizing the opportunity to intimidate us. He saw that we were from Qudu and wanted to scare us.”
A battle did not break out at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds because Qi Zhuyin led the Qidong Garrison Troops to suppress the rebellion. On the surface, it looked like it had nothing to do with Xiao Chiye. The Eight Great Training Divisions used to belittle the seemingly obsolete Imperial Army in the past back in Qudu. Although the Imperial Army had taken over Qudu’s patrols these few years, the substitution was due to a change of hands in authority. They never fought a decent battle, and so they, along with Xiao Chiye, were deemed by Lei Changming to be lads who were still wet behind the ears.
“His underestimating of the enemy is to our advantage. But if we follow suit and underestimate him too, then we deserve to be beaten. Lei Changming is no ordinary man. He must have his own strengths to be able to dominate the southeast of Zhongbo.” Xiao Chiye flipped atop the horse, lifted the reins, and said, “Tantai Hu, six years ago, you escaped from Dengzhou to Qudu, and now we have returned. Let me ask you, do you still remember what I said when you led your troops to register and join the Imperial Army?”
The rain dropped into Tantai Hu’s eyes. He looked up at Xiao Chiye and said, “This humble subordinate would not dare to forget for even a moment. Master said that the humiliation of our nation has yet to be redressed, and the feuds of our families have yet to be avenged!”
“That’s right.” Xiao Chiye reined in the horse and lifted his eyes to look at the dense cluster of heads in the rain. He said in a quiet voice, “The people from Biansha carried out massacres in several cities of Zhongbo. Libei Armored Cavalry and Qidong Garrison Troops fought them off, but was this enmity avenged? To the Biansha Cavalry, this was merely just them riding their horses to and fro for amusement! What was that circulating around in Qudu? They said they’d rather be a dog than a man of Zhongbo! So how can we now just hand over the humiliation Zhongbo suffered under those slaughter blades to others to redress it for us?! We gallop all night without stopping in our dreams, and now, Lei Changming is the obstacle that stands in our way. The opportunity to battle with the Biansha Cavalry is right before our eyes—do we lose?”
Victory and defeat were commonplace in the military, but no army would be willing to keep losing forever. In the past six years, they have transformed from a motley crew lacking in cohesion and organization into a well-trained and combat-ready army. The Imperial Army was just like Xiao Chiye’s silhouette, buried among the golden sand as tens of thousands of worthless bugs in the crevices of Dazhou’s mighty army. Never mind how the others describe them as in the past. Never mind if they were slapped with the label of a good-for-nothing. They were finally about to reveal their true mettle from the gravel.
A sudden gust of strong wind blew the banner open. Tantai Hu pursed his lips tightly and said, “We must win.”
The sound of rain swiftly grew urgent.
Tantai Hu wiped his eyes roughly and said in a hoarse voice as the shouts behind him gradually became a wave, “We must win!”
We must win!
From this time on to the moment they battled to the death, “we must win” had to become the Imperial Army’s one and only creed. Faced up against their senior who had made a name for himself a long time ago, they had to draw their blades; they had to spur their horses on swiftly in an advance; and they had to defeat everyone standing in their way, one at a time—they could only win! The Libei Armored Cavalry could lose, as could the Qidong Garrison Troops. Even Lei Changming’s forces could suffer a defeat. But the Imperial Army and Xiao Chiye could not. At the same time they broke free of their shackles, they also left their backer. If they could not win, then they could only die.
Xiao Chiye turned his horse around and wiped away the rainwater on his chin. It was as if he was a wolf who had caught a whiff of blood and meat. He drew out that blade which symbolized avarice and ruthlessness and said to the wolf pack behind him, “Time for us to eat.”
The rain pitter-pattered down and broke up the water surface.
◈ ◈ ◈
Lei Changming heard that the special envoy from Cizhou had arrived, so he received him in the tent.
“Mister Chengfeng.” With a cloak around him, Lei Changming sat on the raised tiger seat and scrutinized Kong Ling. “It has been quite some days since we last met.”
Kong Ling bowed in greeting and said, “The chief often comes to our Cizhou in the past. We’re all old acquaintances, so why take up arms and create such a big stir this time?”
Surprisingly enough, Lei Changming was not a boorish fellow. There were no ornaments adorning his scarred arms, and his clothes were simple and plain. The broadsword he carried with him had already been polished until there were visible marks. If one were to suddenly look over, he was no different from the peasant commoners of Zhongbo who always had their face to the ground and back to the sky. He never studied before. He had the aura of a bandit who bumbled his way around the martial fraternity all year round. But that seemed to be only a disguise, for he was quite perceptive.
Lei Changming did not feign civility with Kong Ling. He next fixed his eyes on Shen Zechuan and said with a grin, “Since we are old acquaintances, why did Mister Chengfeng bring along an Imperial Bodyguard when it’s just for a drink?”
With a composed expression, Kong Ling said, “Didn’t the chief bring such a large number of troops to put pressure on the city all to see His Lordship and Vice Commander Shen? Today, I’ll be so bold as to mutually recommend both of you to each other. Your Excellency the Vice Commander, this is Chief Lei, Lei Changming, whose name is renowned in the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. He’s the one of highest power in the two prefectures of Dunzhou and Dunzhou. Chief, this is Vice Commander Shen, Shen Zechuan, an official in the Son of Heaven’s inner ministerial circle whom Qudu personally made an exception to promote.”
“I’ve heard much of your great name.” Lei Changming said, as if he was a little interested. “Shen Zechuan. You’re Shen Zechuan. I heard Han Cheng devised a scheme to seal the city and besiege you. You alone killed his remaining elite troops. Every strike of yours was lethal, and each blow was so fast it was hardly visible. Why are you hanging out with Zhou Gui and the others instead of following Xiao Chiye to Libei? Such a law-abiding Prefectural Prefect like him can’t accommodate a killing machine like you, can he?”
“I’m also a law-abiding person.” Shen Zechuan lifted his right hand slightly to reveal the side of his waist. “I didn’t even bring my blade along to see you, Chief Lei.”
Lei Changming raised his hand to wave back the guards who were pressing in because of Shen Zechuan’s movements. He pointed at Shen Zechuan and said, “You don’t even remove your blade when you see the Son of Heaven. Yet you do it wholeheartedly on seeing me.” He laughed out loud in a booming voice, and said loudly, “Could it be that I’m even more honorable than the Son of Heaven?”
“The Empress Dowager is in charge now, and court discipline is lax. There has long been no such thing as the Son of Heaven.” Shen Zechuan smiled. “The chief is a peerless hero. I naturally have to observe the etiquette.”
“You are all people who have been in Qudu for a long time. Your words are all pleasing to the ears.” Lei Changming leaned against his seat and pried apart the sweet potato on the plate. He took two bites and said, “Spit it out. What do you want with me?”
“My purpose for coming to the chief’s tent today is to: firstly, pay you a special visit, and secondly, express my willingness to discuss with you about the future.” Shen Zechuan scrutinized the tent as he spoke, “Pitching camp here is, after all, not a long-term measure. If the Imperial Army doesn’t come, then is the chief going to keep waiting day after day?”
“You understand Xiao Chiye better than me.” Lei Changming finished his sweet potato in a few bites. “His father and eldest brother are all renowned generals. How bad can he be? I’ll wait for him to come to me for a discussion. Cizhou is only just this big. I can guess where he is hiding even without searching. I can’t enter Cizhou if he occupies Cizhou and refuses to leave! There has to be a resolution to this matter, right? I’ll wait for him. I’m in no hurry.”
“His 20,000 Imperial Army are skilled in horsemanship and archery. Their capabilities on horseback are no less inferior to the Libei Armored Cavalry. Fighting with him now would be detrimental to the chief instead.” Seeing those guards about to move again, Shen Zechuan let out a pre-emptive smile and said, “He is in the city, and has Cizhou granary for sustenance. The chief is outside the city, and can only rely on army rations from the backend to sustain the forces. The expenditure of 40,000 men is an appalling amount. The longer this battle drags on, the more the chief will lose out. I’m sure the chief understands this more than me.”
“So what? I can afford to dawdle. But the Imperial Army can’t, right? Xiao Chiye can’t live on Cizhou’s grains for an entire lifetime. The Prince of Libei is still fighting a war in Libei. Xiao Chiye is in a hurry to go home. I’ll only stand to lose money the longer this drags on, but it’s lives that hang in the balance for Xiao Chiye. He rebelled, but Qidong Garrison Troops didn’t. Qi Zhuyin only needs half a month to lead her troops here. When the Libei Armored Cavalry comes forth to provide reinforcement then, they will have a headache on both ends. Qi Zhuyin is not easier to fight than the Biansha Cavalry. This lass’s capability is something you people who have had frequent dealings with her know best. She even dared to set the Biansha’s throne on fire. It’s simply too easy for her to fight against one Cizhou. But, does Xiao Chiye dare to?” Lei Changming wiped his mouth. His smile was casual, and the expression in his eyes was cool and collected. “Is Xiao Chiye even worthy?”
Shen Zechuan revealed a regretful expression and said, “If the reserve rations the chief has is truly adequate, then there’s no need for me to say a word more about it. Truth be told, it’s precisely because I’m worried about Commander-in-chief Qi’s arrival any time now that I thought of discussing a deal with you.”
Kong Lin turned slightly pale and walked two steps closer toward Shen Zechuan. He said, “Vice Commander, we have yet to…”
“What deal do you want to discuss with me?” Lei Changming interrupted Kong Ling.
Shen Zechuan said, “If Xiao Chiye is able to pass through Cizhou without a hitch, then it’s all good and well for everyone. But since the chief has come forth with your own soldiers, then that 20,000 Imperial Army of his is no longer my only choice. The deal I wish to discuss with the chief is precisely regarding the army rations. I still have 2 million silver in my hands, and I’m willing to invest it in the chief to be used for food rations expenditure this battle. But in exchange, you have to vouch for me before Han Cheng to preserve my life when you become an official in the imperial court in the future.”
Stunned, Kong Lin said, “Shen Zechuan! How can you dupe us?! Didn’t we agree that those 2 million will be given to Cizhou to rebuild the garrison troops?!”
“I only said I was willing to.” Shen Zechuan tilted his head a little and said to Kong Ling with sincerity, “ I didn’t say I definitely would.”
Kong Ling grabbed hold of Shen Zechuan’s sleeve and said, “You lied to us! You treacherous lad!”
Lei Changming laughed again. With his hands on his knees, he said, “Are you for real? Shen Zechuan, if you really have that much silver, would you still have let the Imperial Army gnaw on mud the entire way while fleeing for their lives? You people are not plotting to deceive me, are you?”
How was Kong Ling still of the mind to listen to what he was saying? His face flushed red, and his goatee trembled as he said to Shen Zechuan in disbelief, “Was that impassioned speech of yours a lie too? You! You used Zhongbo’s calamity to lie to us and lay a trap. Are you still human?!”
“Every man has his own ambition.” Shen Zechuan smiled lazily. “Cizhou and the Imperial Army are already cornered like turtles in a jar. It’s natural for me to seek a new master. Mister Chengfeng, you of all people should understand it best.”
“If you can really produce 2 million silver,” Still sitting in place, Lei Changming said, “and help me to save Han Jin. Then I’ll take care of it on Han Cheng’s end for you.”
“I’ve already gotten someone to bring some silver over.” Shen Zechuan said. “So is this proof enough of my sincerity, chief?”
Thanks to AliceLiddell for pointing out the typo!! <3