Qiao Tianya led the men out of the inn in pursuit. There were already no traces of both men on the streets. Fei Sheng mounted the horse from behind, pointed to the west, and said, “Since he has been alerted, he should know that he can’t remain here for long; he definitely won’t be able to escape our eyes if he’s in town. In all probability, he will choose to leave the town and take a detour to hurry towards Cizhou.”
According to the information Qiao Tianya knew of, Shen Zechuan should still be in Cizhou. He stuffed that silver ingot back into his bosom. Before he could speak, he heard Ji Gang’s voice behind him.
Ji Gang gathered the cloak around him and drank up the bowl of medicine in his hand in one gulp. “Don’t stop for my sake tonight. Let’s head for Cizhou now. No matter what, we have to inform Chuan-er of this matter first.”
As this concerned Shen Zechuan’s safety, Qiao Tianya knew that Ji Gang would definitely not rest tonight, so he motioned for the Imperial Bodyguards at the back to lead the horse over. Ji Gang got onto the horse and straightened his back. Then, with a jerk of the reins, he led the men in a charge towards the town gate.
◈ ◈ ◈
Kong Ling was miserable beyond description. Both his legs had been scraped until they were burning with pain. He did not say a word and followed with a frown behind the man’s horse. Just as Fei Sheng predicted, they did not linger further in the town, but left the town quickly with the man leading the way as they took a detour.
“Mister, please bear with it for a few more hours.” As the man spurred his horse on, he looked back to shout. “We will be able to reach the foot of Cizhou’s city gate before daybreak!”
Kong Ling panted as he nodded and said, “Seems like the road is full of forked paths around here. I don’t think they would be able to catch up even if they wanted to?”
“But the rain has already stopped.” The man’s stamina was so good that he did not even gasp for breath once the entire journey. He continued, “Mister, there’s no way our trail can be covered up now. They are bound to speed up their pursuit of us!”
Kong Ling pulled at the robe on his knees. He gritted his teeth and said, “Continue on! Warrior, we’ll continue on our way! As long as we can reach the foot of Cizhou’s city gate, we can avert disaster.”
That might be the case. But the path they had been taking was very muddy after they diverged from the public road. With their hooves stuck in the mud, the horses could not run at their original speed, and so it was with difficulty that both men traveled. Looking at the man’s back, Kong Ling sighed and said emotionally, “It’s all thanks to your help this time. If you still insist on returning to Lei Changming after we arrived at Cizhou, I’ll select the best horse for you.”
The man let out a hearty laugh and said, “Mister, there’s no need to stand on ceremony. This is what I should do. I’m just a soldier who only knows how to fight and kill. There are some things that need to be done by lofty scholars like you. I hold you in great esteem, and I’m already content to be able to travel with you tonight.”
Kong Ling was taken by surprise. He found this man to be a righteous man and felt a lump in his throat. Then he remembered Shen Zechuan, the turncoat who switched his allegiance to the enemy at the critical juncture, and could not help but wipe his eyes with his sleeve and said, “To think there are still such good men like you in Zhongbo. There’s hope for Zhongbo’s rejuvenation yet! Warrior, may I know how I should address you?”
The man looked back and said, “My name is Piaopo. A crude and inelegant name like this isn’t fit to be heard by Mister’s ears. My parents are both honest people who make a living on the few mu1 of fields they have. There was a drought the year I was born; that’s why my father gave me such a name.”2
Kong Ling hurriedly said, “Brother Piaopo is a righteous man. A name is but a momentary form of address. It sounds good to me!”
It was too dark for Kong Ling to see the path ahead. He did not know if the route Piaopo picked was too well-hidden, but there were really no soldiers in pursuit of them. Kong Ling pounded his thighs. After looking up at the sky several times, he finally saw the first rays of dawn on the horizon as well as the city walls of Cizhou at the end.
“Mister!” Piaopo suddenly pulled at Kong Ling’s horse and led him to ride alongside. “Tell the city officer to open the gate. We shall go pay our respects to His Excellency Zhou now!”
Both men galloped out of the path and trampled through the puddles of water. They had already arrived at the foot of Cizhou’s city walls. Kong Ling hugged the neck of the horse, his energy all spent. He smoothed his goatee to tidy it up, then lifted his head to shout in a hoarse voice, “It’s me!”
Heads popped out above the battlement of the city walls. A military officer was shocked to see Kong Ling and could not help but blurt, “Mister Chengfeng!”
“Quick! Go get His Excellency!” Kong Ling dismounted the horse with trembling legs. He handed the reins to Piaopo. “Tell him I’m back!”
“Open the city gate immediately.” Piaopo said. “Mister, then—”
Kong Ling nodded in response at the same time he gasped for breath. He bent over, with his hands on his knees, and said with a bitter smile, “Let me catch my breath. We are going to enter the city soon. It’s only when we meet His Excellency that we can clear all suspicions of you. Otherwise, we will still end up delayed by the city officer’s interrogation of you.”
Not long after, Zhou Gui hurried over. When he saw Kong Ling from above, he immediately said, “Chengfeng, what’s going on? Quick, open the gate!”
The city gate made a dull noise as several soldiers from within lifted the horizontal bar and pushed the city gates open, letting through the first rays of the morning sun through the gap. Kong Ling wiped his sweat and moved to stride in first. There was a section of bridle path behind the city gate. Zhou Gui hurriedly descended from the city gates and led his man to the head of the bridle path, wanting to meet and receive Kong Ling.
But Kong Ling, who had been walking in front, abruptly changed countenance and bellowed, “Shut the gates!”
The soldiers behind him who were still pushing against the city gate froze. But in that instant, Piaopo had already burst forth. He grabbed hold of Kong Ling’s back collar and dragged him back in a swift retreat. However, Kong Ling staggered and half-kneeled on the ground, dragging his body and waving his hands as he shouted at Zhou Gui, “This man is up to something! Zhou Gui, tell the men to release the arrows! You mustn’t let him go free!”
Zhou Gui had already taken a step forward. He shouted, “Take him down!”
That originally docile horse suddenly neighed. It raised its hooves and turned around to trample over the soldiers who were pushing against the gate. Piaopo flipped atop the horse, and the horse instantly crashed its way out of the city gate. He hauled Kong Ling with just one hand, causing Kong Ling’s entire body to be partially suspended at one side of the saddle with his legs and feet scraping across the ground as he was forcibly dragged along.
Such strength was by no means inferior to Xiao Chiye.
Kong Ling was unable to break free as he was dragged along at high speed. His back hit the iron buckle at the side of the saddle, which knocked the wind out of him. That thin and frail chest of his seemed as if it was about to be perforated from the strikes. He was forced to look at the sky while he struggled with his arms and kicked out with both legs as the man’s grip on him tightened increasingly. He said, “Zhou Gui… release… the arrows! This man has reinforcements!”
An irritated “tsk” escaped between Piaopo’s lips. He suddenly lifted Kong Ling up by the neck and hollered at the soldiers surging out from the city gates, “Go ahead! Zhou Gui, release the arrows! We’ll see if I die first or Mister Chengfeng dies first!”
Zhou Gui was but a mere civil official. At this startling change, he pushed away the guards and shouted, “Stop!”
Kong Ling had been strangled until his face had gone all red. He clawed at his collar with his ten fingers. Piaopo moved his head closer to him and said with a smile, “Mister is truly sharp. Weren’t you still regarding me as a righteous man on our way here? So why have you turned against me?”
“Tantai, Tantai Long’s soldiers!” Kong Ling gasped and said with difficulty, “are all from the three, three prefectures in the east. None of them is familiar with, with the roads in Cizhou!”
Piaopo burst out laughing. He settled down on the horse and said, “So I see. Mister is truly formidable. You were still acting with such sincerity earlier. But since I’ve already arrived at Cizhou, do you think you can simply settle the matter by tricking me into the city and killing me?”
He turned his head to the side and spat.
With that, those pursuing soldiers who had vanished earlier came forth from behind. Although they did not have the uniformed armor expected of a regular army, their numbers were terrifying. They were all dressed in various kinds of clothes, holding up their broadswords and swords as they urged their horses through the woods and grasses in a straight charge forth. Kong Ling could not even catch sight of the end of their line.
“I told Lei Changming to tell you people a few months back that we want grains. Instead, you let the Imperial Army into the territory and let Xiao Chiye take over our granary.” Lei Jingzhe flung Kong Ling to the ground. Reining in the turning horse, he motioned to Zhou Gui, “Do you think you can scare me into retreating by relying on Xiao Chiye’s 20,000-strong Imperial Army? I repeatedly sent men to persuade you to surrender and pledge allegiance to me, but you keep putting off giving me an answer! Zhou Gui, you are now a traitor who financially aids the rebels. I’ll rid the people of a scourge by massacring Cizhou today!”
Zhou Gui looked at those more than 10,000 men, and his heart went half-cold. He even felt a little dizzy. He hastily held on to the person beside him for support and squeezed out the words through gritted teeth, “I can open the granary and give you grains. But you mustn’t hurt the commoners of Cizhou!”
Lei Jingzhe cracked the whip, and the bandits behind him roared with laughter. The hooves of his horse trod around Kong Ling, and those people surrounded Kong Ling, forcing him to roll and crawl. Lei Jingzhe pointed to Kong Ling on the ground with his horsewhip and said, “Now I’m the host, and you’re the guest. The granary is already mine, whether or not you open it up. The fuck you still dare to negotiate with me when I’m taking my men home to eat?”
Zhou Gui staggered a few steps and fumed, “We have already filled up half a granary worth of grains for you Mount Luo bandits last year when Cizhou was hit with famine. If not, how many people on Mount Luo would have starved to death?! Can’t you spare the commoners of Cizhou on account of this favor we’ve done you?”
“What nonsense are you spouting?” Lei Jingzhe’s expression suddenly underwent a change. He said coldly, “Lei Changming bought those grains last year with money at my behest.”
That was right. Lei Changming did indeed pay for the grains last year. But he bought half a granary worth of fine rice in Cizhou at the dirt-cheap price of unpolished rice. The total amount paid was so meagre that it was not even enough to send away a beggar in Cizhou.
Zhou Gui was so stunned by his brazenness and shamelessness that he could not breathe. Thumping his chest and stamping his foot in anger, he said, “You! Are you people still human?! Don’t even think of entering the city today!”
Lei Jingzhe had already run out of patience. He knew that he would not be able to hide the truth at Lei Changming’s end for long. The Imperial Army was very likely to be on the way already. So he lowered his voice and growled, “Zhou Gui, I merely want to enter the city to play for a few days. Must you insist on fighting with me against overwhelming odds like you would throw an egg against a rock?!”
Kong Ling trembled as he hunched over in the mud and let loose a sneer. With a fling of his sleeve, he pointed at Lei Jingzhe and let fly a torrent of curses, “Play for a few days? When have you ever kept your men under control of all the times you people entered the city? For each time Lei Changming comes, more than ten of the womenfolk in Cizhou would meet their end! Bah! You’re clearly all rotten eggs, so what benevolent and righteous act are you putting on?! Everyone will die if we let you enter the city today, so we the folks of Cizhou might as well fight you to the death together!”
The horsewhip at the rear struck Kong Ling so hard on his back that his skin and flesh split apart. Kong Ling initially thought that they could take this man down at the city gate, but he never expected the other party’s soldiers to be following right behind them. He was very much aware that his gullibility this time had brought a catastrophe upon Cizhou. Overwhelmed with grief and sorrow, he bent over the ground and started vomiting.
Lei Jingzhe rode his horse out and led his men in a straight charge towards Zhou Gui. He said. “Kill our way into the city. Once the imperial court’s appointment order is issued, we will become the garrison troops of Cizhou who have eliminated the rebels for the imperial court!”
Zhou Gui saw that fierce horse charging right for him and those countless blades reflecting the morning rays behind him. With an unexpected burst of strength, and despite knowing that he should not do so, he still spread his arms apart and bellowed, “Even if I die today, I cannot let you enter the city!”
Sunlight pierced through the clouds on the horizon, and that wave of golden light broke through the darkness like the raging tides. With his eyes wide open, Zhou Gui watched as those blades came rushing right towards him. In that moment, the ear-piercing sound of a string being pulled rang out, and that “twang” from close to the ground reverberated through the air as an arrow hurtled right for Lei Jingzhe’s head with a violent gust of strong wind following in its trail!
The Conqueror Bow stood firm and steady in the wind. Under the shocked gazes of all those around him, Xiao Chiye held his pose of pulling the bow. The opening of the bone ring on his thumb shifted, revealing the penetrating and forbidding eyes behind the bowstring.