The moment the words left Zhou Gui’s mouth, he felt he had been too presumptuous.
Shen Zechuan’s birth mother was called Bai Cha, but she was not a lady of the Bai clan from the Qidong Cejun Commandery. She was called by this name because when she was still in the establishment, someone praised her for being “as fair as white jade, as if made out of porcelain; whether her face is heavily or lightly painted, she beats them all in the establishment.” At that time, Duanzhou was still a well-known red-light district in Zhongbo, where the world’s beauties gathered. The literati vied with each other to organize banquets to critique these “flowers”, and came out with a “ranking list” for those in the establishments. Every season, they would deliberate over the commentaries and adjust the ranking of the beauties on the list.
Bai Cha was the “most popular flower” during the reign of Yongyi, and in all of five years, she was never dethroned from her top rank. Each time she listened to the commentary of the courtesans through the screen, everyone in Duanzhou would turn out en masse. When she danced for the Prince of Jianxing, Shen Wei, there would be huge crowds of people thronging the streets of the establishment. Countless people climbed onto the ridges of roofs or stepped on the shoulders of others, all just to catch a glimpse of that faint figure of hers through the layers upon layers of hanging drapes. Her beauty became more and more legendary in those odes of the flowers that others fall over themselves to sing. Even Emperor Guangcheng, who resided deep in the imperial palace, had heard of her. Wanting to take advantage of the emperor’s inspection tour to catch a glimpse of this beauty in person, he had repeatedly asked Hai Liangyi, who was still the Grand Secretariat Deputy Grand Secretary back then, “when will the inspection tour be scheduled?”
Zhou Gui had previously seen Bai Cha during the Zhu clan’s newborn baby boy’s full-month celebration banquet, but he had only sneaked a peek at that legendary beauty through a gap in the screen. Lei Changming’s younger sister was initially from the establishment too. Before she was taken as a concubine by the Duanzhou commander, she was an old-hand who could be considered a “mama” when coaching the fledglings. It was on behalf of the girls of the establishment that Bai Cha went to attend the banquet and send congratulations.
This had all happened many years ago, and Zhou Gui’s memory of it was already pretty vague. But when he looked at Shen Zechuan earlier, he realized that Shen Zechuan’s side profile was rather similar to Bai Cha’s, and so in a moment of excitement, he had inadvertently blurted it out.
Without a change in expression, Shen Zechuan said, “Then that’s really a coincidence.”
He was not intrigued, nor was he worked up. His memory of his birth mother was a blank piece of paper. Even though he had heard hundreds of rumors about her, there was no trace of her in his mind that was worth remembering. The role of “mother” in his life belonged to his shiniang, Hua Pingting, just like the role of the father belonged only to his shifu, Ji Gang. That was why he would go to great lengths to kill and destroy Ji Lei, who had harmed Hua Pingting. The two people who gave him life were never involved in Shen Zechuan’s life. Bai Cha died early and never left so much a word for Shen Zechuan, while Shen Wei detested Shen Zechuan. The Princess Consort of Jianxing was in charge of all domestic matters in the residence. Before the age of seven, Shen Zechuan and Shen Wei had only met a grand total of seven times, and all of that had been during the family feast during the Spring Festival celebration. He and Shen Wei never even had an exchange of words that would have been expected between a father and son.
Shen Wei’s loathing of him, however, was evident.
They were not like father and son; rather, they were more like mortal enemies born to abhor each other. Shen Zechuan’s life in the Prince of Jianxing’s residence was confined to a corner of an eave in the inner courtyard; he could not leave his own courtyard arbitrarily. His daily leisure activity was to sit on the veranda and count the white clouds that drifted past that small corner of the blue sky every day. When he was seven years old, he could already recognize a lot of words, and he learned all these on the sly by digging his way out of the dog hole in the courtyard every month to eavesdrop under the windows of the school Shen Zhouji and his other older brothers attended.
At that time, the power struggle between several of his older brothers, who had already come of age, was extremely intense. Even the various concubines of his father were scheming against one another. It was pandemonium in the entire inner courtyard, so much that even Shen Wei himself was reluctant to return home and stay. He kept a mistress outside the residence, and lived there for several months in a year, turning a blind eye to the strife within the residence. Later, Shen Zhouji, who was a son of direct descent born by the principal wife, emerged victorious and sent all his brothers, who were born by the concubines and who had already come of age, away to the various prefectures to take up various respectable sinecures. The Princess Consort of Jianxing was worried that those sons born of concubines who had yet to grow up would later cause trouble again in the future. So she decided to send them away, ostensibly to settle them down in their ancestral home in Chazhou with a teacher hired to teach them. In truth, however, it was to eliminate the possibility that a son born of a concubine could ever compete for power again.
Shen Zechuan was the only son whom Shen Wei personally issued a directive to have him sent to the old residence in Duanzhou. Shen Wei even refused to let him attend school or even hire a teacher for him. In that residence, he was taken care of by a deaf and dumb old woman servant who was also hard of seeing, while a maidservant his mother had left in the old residence would take over the job if he stepped out of the residence. That woman was greedy for money. Every month, she would siphon off the silver allocated by the Prince of Jianxing and cut down on Shen Zechuan’s meals. Three meals a day gradually became two meals a day until it eventually became one meal a day. What’s more, these were all cold leftovers.
Shen Zechuan felt the hunger in his tummy when he thought to this point. He loosened his grip on Yang Shan Xue and said, “Ding Tao, help Mister Chengfeng inside to have a change of clothes. Ce’an and I will play the host today and invite both gentlemen to a meal. We will talk about it in detail during the feast.”
Zhou Gui was not an articulate speaker, and Kong Ling was afraid he might say something else to incur Shen Zechuan’s displeasure, so he hurriedly grasped Zhou Gui by the arm and let Zhou Gui support him into the city.
◈ ◈ ◈
Zhou Gui was still turning around in circles after Kong Ling finished changing his clothes. He said anxiously, “Say, why did I go and mention that?”
“Really.” Kong Ling said, “Of all things to mention, you had to go and mention that. Doesn’t bringing it up make it seem like you are suspecting him of being involved with the traitors? Fortunately, both of them are not suspicious by nature. Otherwise, we would be in a quandary.”
“It was a slip in a moment of haste. I’ll have to apologize to the Vice Commander later during the feast.” Zhou Gui sighed and said, “He came to help Cizhou out of a fix. I can’t trample on his goodwill like this.”
“Don’t make a conscious effort to bring it up during the feast.” Kong Ling sat up and thought for a moment before saying, “If Shen Zechuan is such a narrow-minded person, he wouldn’t have come. If you take this matter too seriously and insist on apologizing to him, then it’d look like you and I are the ones who are bothered by it. Besides, he might not really care about this matter. Compared to his mother, Shen Wei is the one who is truly abominable.”
It was not appropriate for them to let Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye wait for long. So they only took a short break before setting off for the feast.
Despite it being called a feast, it was actually just a simple lunch. Everyone had been rushing on their way over last night, and then they had engaged in close combat with the bandits at the foot of the city today. Shen Zechuan took Kong Ling’s age into consideration and did not keep them further for social engagement. Once they were done with their meals, he let Kong Ling head back early for a rest.
Xiao Chiye had to make arrangements for the Imperial Army’s patrol, and he still had to dispatch someone to the old camp to keep in touch with Tantai Hu. By the time he was done busying around, it was nearly dusk. He searched around and found Shen Zechuan at the top of the city walls.
“There’s still work to be done after tonight.” Xiao Chiye climbed up to the top of the city wall and said, “I thought you were still taking a short break in the courtyard.”
“I slept for an hour.” Shen Zechuan turned his head back to gaze at Xiao Chiye. “There is still something on my mind. I won’t be able to sleep even if I try.”
Xiao Chiye inclined his head and patted Meng, who was perched on his shoulder, to tell it to go and play by itself. He did not have the time to change his clothes, and so there was still dust and dirt on him as he stood beside Shen Zechuan. He asked, “What can you see from here?”
Shen Zechuan looked at the rise and fall of the mountain forest. The impending darkness that was about to blanket the sky was still huddled among the shade of the trees, while the inclining orange-red sunset shone in the sky at a side. Meng soared among them, like a pebble running rampant among a sea of silk-tree flowers, stirring up clouds of waves.
“The future.” Shen Zechuan answered calmly. “In the future, Cizhou will be the button that connects the Libei’s merchant route. We’ll open up a bridle path in the southwest that leads straight to Hezhou, and it’ll end at the entrance of the berth in Hezhou. That way, from dismounting to embarking, all the commercial goods can arrive at Yongyi Harbor in half a month. The Xi clan’s fleets of ships can open up trading opportunities with local specialties internally and exotic rarities externally. The silver warehouses that had been cleaned out can one day fill up again. I do not begrudge those money or where they have gone; we will have even more in the future. Cizhou is also behind Dunzhou and Duanzhou, which have become the ‘gates’ of Zhongbo. If they want access to the grains and commodities in the future, then they can only live in harmony with Cizhou.”
“No doubt there is a need to strengthen defenses after the reclamation of Dunzhou and Duanzhou. The rebuilding of the garrison troops is of urgent priority. You have to be very careful in your choices. Let those you can trust and who are up to the task attend to garrison duties. But those who are capable might not necessarily be willing to submit to another. When the time comes…” Xiao Chiye turns around and points in Libei’s direction. “I’ll build an armored cavalry barracks on the southeast of the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path. If anyone dares to mess around, just send me a whistle, and I’ll lead my men right over.”
Shen Zechuan laughed and said softly, “Cizhou is too important to you and me. This city cannot be ceded over to anyone else. Zhou Gui is a good official, but he isn’t suited to be the prefectural prefect of an entire prefecture. He can’t save anyone by relying on zeal alone, especially in this situation where he is surrounded by a pack of wolves lying in wait on all sides.”
“We are short of people.” Xiao Chiye had been thinking about this matter ever since he left Lei Changming’s old camp.
If Cizhou were to be the starting point for both of them, then they would be increasingly stretched as the territory expanded. This strain referred to the lack of capable, right-hand men to administer official affairs. If Qiao Tianya or Chen Yang was still around, then the perilous situation of Cizhou today might not have materialized, but their position that was currently not obvious would still gradually go on to reveal contradictions.
“Zhou Gui is suited to be the Tax Circuit Intendant of the Six Prefectures. His love for the people is fundamental. A man like this would never let officials and merchants collude for selfish gains when he goes around on an inspection tour. But he’s also too benevolent. He won’t and won’t dare to mete out severe punishments, that’s why he can’t suppress the local hoodlums. It was precisely because Kong Ling has an assessment of Zhou Gui’s character that he went to him to help him get rid of the obstacles in his way and to help him handle matters efficiently.” Shen Zechuan spoke unhurriedly. “If both of them can continue to work as one, then they would still be able to achieve plenty in the future.”
“That Lei Jingzhe.” Xiao Chiye asked. “What do you think of him?”
“This man must be defeated without a doubt.” Shen Zechuan moved along the battlements of the city wall and took a few steps forward. He said, “I also thought he was something when we left the camp. But I no longer think so after seeing his bearing and behavior today.”
“As expected, you and I are on the same wavelength.” Seeing as it was getting dark, Xiao Chiye moved next to Shen Zechuan and walked together with him. He said, “Lei Changming is his uncle related by blood. In order to get a head start in Cizhou, he left Lei Changming behind at the camp as an abandoned chess piece. In doing so, he might not be able to win his men over. And in his attempt to dodge the arrow when he was fleeing, he used the henchman by his side as a shield. From these two incidents, we can see that this man has no lack of shrewdness but is severely lacking in benevolence. If he wants to submit and pledge allegiance to Qudu and obtain an official position there, he will have to turn the bandits under his command into a regular army. But he still doesn’t seem to understand yet that being a bandit is very different from being a general. Prestige and trust are not something that can be accumulated by brutality alone. He keeps changing his orders again and again on the battlefield. As they say, a general does not retract the order he has given; he has to be impartial in dishing out rewards and punishments; and he must remain steadfast and unwavering, only then will he be able to lead and command the soldiers.1 He is simply not cut out to be a general at all.”
“That’s why I’m more worried about Qi Zhuyin than this man.” Shen Zechuan hesitated before the stairs. He said, “The marriage alliance between Qidong and the Hua clan cannot be reversed. Now that Libei has rebelled, Qidong is the last crutch that Qudu has left to rely on. Within the next few days, Qi Zhuyin will no doubt receive a promotion and a noble rank. The empress dowager already has great admiration for her to begin with. Once her noble title is confirmed, it would be time for her to deploy troops north. No matter what, I have to turn Cizhou into an impregnable fortress before Qi Zhuyin arrives.”
“The Commander-in-Chief isn’t an easy one to fight. My eldest brother is the heavy cavalry, Lu Guangbai is the guerilla, while Qi Zhuyin is the cavalry and infantry combined. Having resided in the Cangjun Commandery for a long time, she won’t deploy the troops easily, but she has a tendency to launch a violent assault and storm the enemies. Back then when she penetrated deep into the desert to save Qi Shiyu, she was like the sudden onslaught of rainstorm that gave her opponents a jolt. It’s her usual practice to cut down foes with one blow to strike fear in the heart of others, so that when they faced her in battle, they will not help but be frightened.” Xiao Chiye mulled it over for a moment. “I want to fight a battle with her.”
Shen Zechuan looked at him.
Xiao Chiye patted his shoulder and said, “It’s not like I want to fight her now. The way you look at me is so fierce.”
Shen Zechuan took a step down the stairs. As if remembering something, he looked back and asked, “Where’s my fan?”
Xiao Chiye pinched his chin and strode down three steps with one stride. Then he crouched down before him and said, “Come on up, and I’ll give it to you.”