Having gone hungry for a whole day, Lei Jingzhe squatted beside the pigsty with a bowl in hand. He shoved those hard-earned corn1 noodles into his mouth and gulped them down. One of his subordinates was also squatting next to him. He was a little imp around the same age as Ding Tao, but as strong as a young ox. He gobbled down his food just as ravenously as Lei Jingzhe did.
A head poked out of the opened kitchen window, and the man used a stir-fry spatula to bang on the pot rim and yelled, “There’s some soup broth left. Do you want to drink it? If you do, then get your ass over here quick!”
“Yes, yes, we want it!” Before Li Xiong had even finished swallowing the noodles in his mouth, he was already hurriedly running to the window. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as he brought his bowl next to the pot. His eyes never once left that clear soup.
“You have quite the appetite there.” The cook scraped the bottom of the pot. “Tell your older brother to get down to work and find some honest job to do. Then you wouldn’t have to starve to this extent!”
“My bro is going to do great things!” Li Xiong saw the soup was about to drip from the side of the bowl, so he swiped his fingers around it and put his finger into his mouth to suck it clean.
The cook was a strong man in the prime of his life, too. He pulled his apron and wiped the sweat on his forehead. Looking at how strong and good-natured Li Xiong was, he wiped the sweat off for him too while he was at it and said with disapproval, “Your face is as dark as the bottom of a pot, and there’s no one at home to take care of you. Hey, you there. What are you busy with all day? At least clean this kid up a bit!”
Lei Jingzhe smiled simply at the cook. He was still chewing the pickled vegetables. Li Xiong trotted over and poured the soup into Lei Jingzhe’s bowl as if he was offering up a treasure. He said solicitously, “Bro, you eat it!”
“Good lad!” Lei Jingzhe did not stand on ceremony as he tilted his head back and drank it in one gulp. When he finished drinking, he looked up at the sun above his head; it was so scorching that it was making him sweat. He squeezed his stinging eyes shut, shifted his feet, and cursed under his breath, “Fuck his mother!”
“Fuck his mother,” Li Xiong imitated him. He stood up and shielded Lei Jingzhe from the sunlight.
Lei Jingzhe propped up an arm on his knee and asked, “How is it outside?”
Li Xiong stretched his neck out and looked around. He answered in a small voice, “They’re still searching!”
Looking irritable, Lei Jingzhe hung his head down, exposing a scorpion tattoo on the back of his neck that was currently dripping with sweat. He had dispersed his people after he had fled from Cizhou, taking only this silly lad he had raised from childhood with him as he sneaked his way into a small town along the public road. He had sat and watched as the Imperial Army was led on a wild goose chase all over. He was waiting for Xiao Chiye to run out of patience so that he would disperse his own soldiers and come after him himself. Who knew Xiao Chiye was not impatient in the slightest? Instead, he had set this fire along this road, letting it blaze until all the people were burning with anxiety and panic everywhere.
“Bro, the reward money of the Imperial Army’s money is so pathetic.” Li Xiong said with bewilderment. “It’s not enough to even get the brothers some wine. Why are there still so many people going?”
“It’s precisely because the reward is small.” Under Lei Jingzhe’s sweat-sheened brows were a pair of extremely bright eyes. “The price he’s offering is exactly right.”
If Xiao Chiye set the reward money right at the price of a couple of taels of silvers, then the commoners would not necessarily be willing to be his informants. Zhongbo had been hit with many disasters in recent years. The bandits ruled by force, so the higher the reward, the more it suggested that it was no easy feat to do what was asked of them—that it was a task that might jolly well cost them their lives. But a few copper coins were worthwhile. They only had to inform the Imperial Army upon discovering traces of the bandits, and no one would know about it. It was just a few copper coins, and it was normal to spend it all in an instant. Even if this group of bandits came back to seek vengeance, they would not be able to track anyone down.
“Then what should we do?” Li Xiong drenched in sweat from head to toe. He looked at Lei Jingzhe. “Bro, why don’t we just fucking go ahead and do it! He only has 20,000 men.”
Lei Jingzhe was feeling restless too. He could not be clearer about Xiao Chiye’s intentions. Xiao Chiye wanted to force them into making a move out of restlessness so that they would not be able to sit still and continue hiding. But he was extremely clear-headed. He knew that the people he was leading were a motley crew cobbled together from the two prefectures in the east. None of them had received formal military training. They would end up battered and defeated the moment they lost their current advantage and faced off the well-equipped Imperial Army. However, it was not an option to keep hiding either. Lei Jingzhe could hide, but could those rowdy subordinates of his hold it in?
Lei Jingzhe was sweating. He stared at the muck under his feet and said, “That person is a little underhand. He won’t play a game with me by the rules of benevolence, justice, morality, virtue, and the likes. I don’t think he has even set up defenses in the north at all. He just wants to jostle us over. He knows very well that it’s Libei in the north, and he’s betting that we won’t dare to go there.”
But damn it!
Feeling stifled with pent-up frustration, Lei Jingzhe spat.
He really did not dare to go!
“We’ll wait for one more night.” Lei Jingzhe suddenly stood up and said, “Go, tell Liu’er to notify the brothers who are still in the town tonight that we’ll leave if the situation doesn’t look right. If worst comes to worst, we’ll just retreat back to Mount Luo first. I have all the energy to play a war of attrition with Xiao Chiye!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye was eating a few steamed buns paired with pickled vegetables. He sat on a wooden stake used for tethering horses and watched as the soldiers issued paper slips that could be used to exchange for copper coins to the commoners who came to tip them off.
“Master.” Tantai Hu walked over and said, “He really is something to scatter his people everywhere. How is he going to issue his orders this way? He can’t be going around knocking on their doors one by one, can he?”
“As the bandit chief, he naturally has his ways.” As Xiao Chiye spoke, he scratched Meng, who was perched on his shoulder. “The gyrfalcons raised in Libei are also able to pass on military intelligence swiftly.”
“We caught quite a number of them.” Tantai Hu said. “What shall we do with them?”
Xiao Chiye said, “Kill them.”
Tantai Hu turned to look at that other side, then looked back at Xiao Chiye. He said quietly, “But I heard that some of them are gentlemen from respectable families. Kill them all?”
Xiao Chiye looked at Tantai Hu and said, “Since they went to Mount Luo to join the bandits and submit themselves to Lei Jingzhe’s command, they should have expected such a day to come. I’m here to eradicate the bandits. There is no reason for me to show mercy to the enemy forces. Besides, let me ask you. Humans are all born with a mouth. If every one of them says that they are from a respectable family, then who do you believe, and who do you not?”
Tantai Hu said nothing.
Xiao Chiye stood up and watched as Meng flew away. He said, “I know you’re thinking of the Biansha Cavalry. But Laohu, benevolence should not be used in the wrong place. You’ve been in the army for a long time. These are originally words I shouldn’t have to make a special point of telling you. Are you not able to figure it out yourself?”
Tantai Hu lowered his head and made to kneel.
“Remain standing.” Xiao Chiye patted his shoulder. “You are now a general leading the soldiers, not a squad commander standing guard at the main city gate of Dengzhou. Don’t get your position all wrong.”
Xiao Chiye was generous, but he was also quite exacting. The guards around him all knew when to advance and when to retreat. He could even make Chen Yang feel worse than if he had been whipped the last time the latter had sat on the sidelines. However, guards and generals were two different things. Why did Xiao Chiye not let Chen Yang lead the troops? There was no doubt that Zhao Hui, the person by Xiao Jiming’s side, was a valiant general. Xiao Chiye obviously had other considerations in mind.
Xiao Chiye did not fly into a rage, nor was there a change in his countenance, but Tantai Hu was already looking quite ashamed. None of them could get a handle on Xiao Chiye’s true moods and emotions, but with just a relaxed tone like this from Xiao Chiye, Tantai Hu had already begun to reflect on his own shortcomings.
Credit to Tea for image! <3
SPECIAL THANKS TO
Guest Translator: Tea <3
(Edited by Lianyin)