The rain stopped at the crack of dawn, where heaven and earth appeared like a vast, murky expanse under the intersection of light and darkness. Qi Zhuyin trod on muddy water and withdrew from the military grounds. She secured her arm guards and looked at her own deputy general riding his horse into the camp. Her deputy general’s name was Qi Wei, a strong and sturdy man who was also cautious by nature. He could hoist an ax on the battlefield and hold a needle off the battleground. He was a man of prestigious standing among the troops in the army.
Qi Wei dismounted midway and hastily nodded in acknowledgement to the soldiers at the sides of the road who were paying their obeisances to him. He headed straight to Qi Zhuyin’s side and said, “Commander-in-chief, we’ve received news!”
“Qudu or Bianjun?” Qi Zhuyin asked.
“Both.” Qi Wei was not a tall man. He looked around and reported, “Qudu was caught in a sudden bout of rain and got completely washed out. The Second Young Master of the Xiao clan fled in a hurry with 20,000 Imperial Army soldiers and have already arrived at the border of Zhongbo. Looks like he’s going to Cizhou.”
Qi Zhuyin was not at all alarmed. She tightened her arm guard and let out a vague smile as she bit down on the rope and said, “That lad sure runs fast.”
“First there’s the case of the military provisions, and now there’s the encirclement of Xiao Chiye with the intent to kill. The Prince of Libei will no doubt fly into a rage this time.” Following Qi Zhuyin as she walked, Qi Wei said, “If Libei revolts, we will have to set up additional garrison troops in the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. The Zhongbo troops will also fall under the Commander-in-chief’s command and governance….”
Qi Zhuyin put on her outer garment and said, “Zhongbo is such a big place. Even if they transfer them all under my command, I wouldn’t dare to accept. Qudu’s matter is of no urgency. Tell me first, what exactly happened to the garrison troops of Bianjun Commandery? Lu Guangbai fought an ambush all the way into the Biansha’s home state?”
A hesitant expression materialized on Qi Wei’s rugged face. He said, “Commander-in-chief, General Lu disregarded military orders this time and chased the Biansha Cavalry across the border. I suspect…”
He fell silent and did not voice that word out.
Qi Zhuyin said, “The military provisions this year have been reduced by half. It’ll be tough for Bianjun to hold out based just on that. I signed a memorandum of debt with the Yan clan of Hezhou under Father’s name. The money is meant to be set aside to buy grains for the Bianjun garrison troops. So what’s with this suspicion you’re telling me about? I will not listen to a word without proof.”
Qi Wei knew that Qi Zhuyin valued her generals and had always been fair in meting out rewards and punishments. She would never trample upon them because of a mere few words. But it was also because he noticed something odd when he went to Bianjun to scout this time that his suspicions were aroused. Not daring to hide it, he truthfully said, “Commander-in-chief, I wouldn’t dare to say a word if I had no proof. The purpose of this trip to Bianjun is to investigate military intelligence from a few days back. But not only did General Lu not return to camp, he even transferred away the garrison troops at the fire beacon towers.”
Qi Zhuyin stopped in her tracks. She looked at Qi Wei and asked, “He transferred away the garrison troops at the fire beacon towers?”
Qi Wei nodded. He was just about to go into details when he heard a commotion at the side. Both of them turned aside and saw a whole new bunch of people clustered around a sedan with embroidered borders pouring into the camp. They were stopped by the guards.
On hearing that the guards were adamant about not letting them enter, Yingxi could not help but lift the curtain personally and said in a shrill voice, “Don’t you know who I am? What is there to stop my sedan! I’m the Army-inspecting Censor His Majesty in Qudu dispatched over! Go announce my arrival, quick. Tell Commander-in-chief Qi that I have something important to tell her!”
Qi Zhuyin watched from afar and said to Qi Wei, “Go tell him that I’m busy and don’t have the luxury of time to see him. All these eunuchs from Qudu are the same. Just offer him good food and wine and tell him to keep his mouth shut and not cause trouble. I’m going to the Bianjun Commandery now. Lu Guangbai is not one who will turn deserter. Before I return, tell those from Qudu that I’m not around. It’s troubled waters over there. Keep a close watch on Father too. If he sends a message to Qudu, intercept it and tell him to behave himself.”
Qi Wei had more to say, but Qi Zhuyin had already flipped atop the horse.
Before she left, she looked back and said to Qi Wei, “Qudu’s matter needs at least half a month to be settled. No doubt the wedding next month has to be delayed. Remove all those red silks at home first. They all cost money.”
Without further ado after saying her piece, she led the men to skirt around Yingxi’s sedan and headed right for Bianjun Commandery.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan drank the medicine, and his illness gradually showed signs of improvement along the way. The Imperial Army was to continue moving in the northeast direction. They had to think of a way to convince Cizhou’s Prefectural Prefect, Zhou Gui, to let them pass through—but before that, they still had to shake off those pesky and persistent troops pursuing them.
“Han Jin is the one in hot pursuit behind us.” Tantai Hu carried his blade and sat all huddled up on the rock. “If we can’t repel him back before we arrive at Cizhou, then he will use the deployment order to force Zhou Gui to seal off the city and trap us within Zhongbo with our retreat paths all cut off.”
Xiao Chiye folded his arms and said nothing. There was a rudimentary map before him. Xiao Chiye was not at all afraid of coming to blows with Han Jin, but he had to consider the timing too. The longer this drags on, the less advantageous it would be to the Imperial Army. It was only because Qudu was presently in a state of chaos due to the lack of imperial heir that Qi Zhuyin had not deployed troops to encircle and take him down. By the time things settled down in Qudu and Qudu had a hand free to mobilize Qi Zhuyin to pursue and capture them, these 20,000 soldiers of the Imperial Army would be on a collision course with a wall of metal armors.
“That hard part is not in fighting, but in the speed of battle.” Shen Zechuan’s pale face had yet to recover its rosiness. He picked up a stone and drew a few lines on the ground. “Han Jin dared to chase us this far because there is Dancheng behind him. To the Eight Great Training Divisions in his hands, the granary of Dancheng is just like a wide-opened door; they don’t have to worry about food and clothing. Our 20,000 men ran all the way here in one breath without stopping. We have no army provisions to sustain us. If we want to get to Libei via Cizhou, then we must first resolve this issue.”
Tantai Hu was still not used to looking at Shen Zechuan face-to-face. He presently fell silent for a moment, then looked at Xiao Chiye.
Without looking at him, Xiao Chiye said, “Spit it out if you have something to say.”
Tantai Hu changed his sitting posture. Pointing at the ground with his finger, he said, “Cizhou and us are old acquaintances. Can’t we get Zhou Gui to let us borrow some food for emergency use first with the excuse that there was a delay in them getting the news?”
“No.” Shen Zechuan let go of the stone. “At this juncture, all the actions taken implies the taking of sides. Zhou Gui may not have the intent, but as long as he does it, then in Qudu’s eyes, he is a traitor who provided aid to the rebel forces. After we pass through Cizhou, he will be taken into custody in Qudu to be impeached and punished. Zhou Gui has a family. He won’t do this.”
Ding Tao looked up from his book and said, “Chen-ge went to make arrangements for the military provisions, didn’t he? He must be rushing on his way back to us now.”
“The military provisions he prepared have already been dispatched to Libei. It’s Libei Armored Cavalry’s food at the frontline. There isn’t that much surplus left to fill the stomachs of the Imperial Army.” Xiao Chiye squatted down and examined the map. “Even if he and Gu Jin come, they won’t be able to bring much food.”
As the saying goes, food and fodder should go before troops and horses.1 Back then, Libei and Qidong were able to swiftly beat back the Biansha Cavalry because the Biansha Cavalry had no reserve supplies and could not afford to fight a war of attrition. And now, the Imperial Army, caught in a dilemma and sandwiched here, similarly could not afford to fight a war of attrition either. Striking Cizhou down might be an option, but it was definitely a bad one. They had successively spent close to 100,000 taels of silver on Cizhou to foster a mutual relationship with Zhou Gui to look out for one another, and that had been done as a safeguard for the future.
“Turn back and attack Dancheng.” Tantai Hu pondered it over. “Dancheng has a granary. We won’t linger for long in the city. Just take the grains and leave. We can negotiate everything else with Zhou Gui when we arrive at Cizhou.”
“No.” Shen Zechuan let out a soft sigh. “Dancheng has direct military routes to Chuancheng and Qudu. Turning back is to give Qudu time to dispatch the remaining Eight Great Training Divisions. The journey back will take up our time and sap us of energy, and we might not necessarily be able to take down the city swiftly either.”
It was humiliating for Tantai Hu to have both of his proposals vetoed by Shen Zechuan. He rubbed his hands together and said nothing more. His elder brother, Tantai Long, was a brave man who was also a general, but Tantai Hu had no one to teach him. At this moment, he was feeling embarrassed and awkward, but he was pretty much convinced deep down. He was not an unreasonable man. At the very least, he was willing to admit that he was a boor.
Xiao Chiye seemed to have an insight into Tantai Hu’s mind. He lifted a hand to pat Tantai Hu on the back and said nonchalantly, “There may be a time constraint for counterattacking Dancheng, but it is an idea. You have only fought once in the past with the Eight Great Training Divisions on the streets of Qudu. Now that you’ve left Qudu, just ask away if there’s something you don’t know. In the future, there will be plenty of moments where you will be needed to lead the troops and make decisions, and you won’t have His Excellency Shen around every time to give you pointers. Laohu, the sea of learning knows no bounds. It is with the willingness to take a tumble and have fun in spite of it that you will have a bright future ahead of you.”
With the muddy soil on the ground already drawn into a mess, Shen Zechuan looked up at the sun and said, “Han Jin is a descendent from Qudu who usually only rides horses on the hunting grounds. So he won’t be able to catch up to us for the time being.”
“We can plunder Han Jin’s food provisions with an ambush here.” Xiao Chiye surveyed the surroundings. “We won’t even need 20,000 men.”
“He’s afraid of you.” Shen Zechuan’s fingertips were stained with a bit of mud. He said, “He has been hesitant and timid in his pursuit of us all this while. To let him fall for the ambush, we will need a bait first.”
“I’ll lead 500 people to wait here for him. There is a river of silt to the east, backed by mountains on both sides and close to the forest on one side. Laohu will lead 2,000 people to lay in ambush there.” Xiao Chiye wiped the mud away from Shen Zechuan’s fingertip. “Ding Tao will bring some men to the town along the way tonight for food and wine. Say that the Imperial Army has fled here, and they are all demoralized because I’m too poor to buy grain and I can’t get out of Zhongbo either, resulting in many of them turning deserters.”
Han Jin was young, and he had interactions with Xiao Chiye during the time the public ditches were clogged. Shen Zechuan was right. He was indeed afraid of Xiao Chiye. In fact, there were very few among the noble young masters in Qudu who were not afraid of Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye’s physique and character had already made him a veritable tyrant long before the autumn hunt. The Nanlin Hunting Grounds was a watershed. With their fathers and elder brothers looking out for them, it would be a breeze for direct descendants like Han Jin who were not the eldest sons in their family to enter officialdom. They seemed no different from Xiao Chiye, yet they had never stood out the way Xiao Chiye did. Perhaps he would pursue Xiao Chiye with caution because of his misgivings of the latter, but he would definitely not pass up the chance to defeat him.
As long as Xiao Chiye showed him a weakness.
“Other than these.” Shen Zechuan considered it for a moment and said to Ding Tao, “You also have to say that I don’t get along with the marquis and have had so many disputes with him on the way that we are going our separate ways.”
“We are in a difficult position both internally and externally.” Xiao Chiye bared his teeth. “Make it out to be as tragic as you can.”
Ding Tao swiftly took notes in his book.
Not feeling reassured, Tantai Hu asked, “Can Tao-zi act? Say it once for us here first.”
Ding Tao rubbed his eyes and held up the book with both hands to read, “My master is in such a miserable state, doomed as he was by those people. The Eight Great Training Divisions keep pursuing us relentlessly like dogs, so much that my master doesn’t even have money for porridge. When we left Qudu, we were fleeing for our lives, so we didn’t have time to pack up all those manors and shop, and we didn’t even take the money in the residence. Our pockets are now as empty as sheep poop. Master even owes the ear ornaments shop at Shenwu Street several thousand taels of silver, and there’s no way he can pay it back now. His Excellency Shen fell severely ill after getting caught in the rain, but we have no money to call for a physician. Alas, a poor cou… uh, His Excellency has forsaken my master too. Our soldiers and horses are now on the run on empty stomachs. I’m too hungry. I’m so hungry that I’m regurgitating bile. I really can’t take it anymore, so I took a few brothers to rob some houses along the way to cobble together some money for ourselves. We were originally all good men from decent families, and it’s all because we followed the wrong person that we were forced into such a corner. Now we are filling up our tummies a little before we continue on our way to seek asylum with Han Jin in Dancheng! Aye, Han Jin is good. He has money and grains. It’s only by throwing in with him that we will have a future! The future is…”
Ding Tao read with great emotion and feeling.
“This master thinks that was pretty well-said.” Xiao Chiye commented. “Laohu, strip off his little robe and smear mud all over his face. Then give him three strings of copper coins and hurry him on his way. There’s no need to eat and drink in a tavern anymore, just beg for alms along the streets in the town—what are you looking pitifully at Lanzhou for?”
Thank you Alex for the consultation!