The snowstorm was still raging the next day at the hour of mao, and the charcoal braziers in the military tents had all gone cold. Various generals gathered around a map on the table in the tent and waited for Xiao Chiye to speak.
The battle over at the Chashi Sinkhole was not considered a tough fight, but it was rather perilous. Xiao Chiye took advantage of the snowstorm and led A-Chi away on ice from the southeast to the Chashi Sinkhole, where the deployment of Biansha troops was relatively weak. A-Chi’s reinforcement troops came so quickly because there was still a relay station in Duanzhou, but as he had shifted his focus to the southeast and was helpless against Xiao Chiye’s Libei Armored Cavalry, he gave Tantai Hu, who always had his eyes on the movements in Duanzhou, the opportunity to provide diagonal support.
Xiao Chiye had already removed his armor last night. After the military medic withdrew from the tent, he moved his shoulders and arms a little and looked around at them. “We are not here this time to fight a showdown battle with them but to wrest Duanzhou from them. Now that A-Chi is dead and a large number of their troops are still stationed in the northeast, the number of troops in Duanzhou is less than 10,000. It’s an excellent opportunity.”
Fei Sheng brought the medicine to Shen Zechuan and stole a few glances at the latter, noting the Prefectural Lord to be in passable spirits.
“Quite a number of cavalrymen escaped yesterday.” Yin Chang pressed a finger down to the southeast of Duanzhou. “The troops here will suspect we are going to attack Duanzhou once they receive the news. They will definitely move to intercept us first.”
The old man feared no one during military discussions. He even casually tied his messy beard together. It was just that he did not dare to drink in Shen Zechuan’s and Xiao Chiye’s presence and could only rely on strong tea to satisfy his cravings.
Xiao Chiye did not reply immediately; instead, he left the opportunity to Tantai Hu.
In these two years, Tantai Hu had gradually come to gain some insights and opinions of his own. He pondered over the Second Master’s meaning and raised a hand to point at Duanzhou’s location. “We are now at the Chashi Sinkhole, which is some distance away from Duanzhou. If the troops in the southeast come here to intercept us, then the military strength in the city of Duanzhou will remain unchanged.” He looked at Xiao Chiye with some apprehension and continued when he saw Xiao Chiye’s neutral expression. “Get Wu Ziyu, who is stationed in Mount Luo, to make a detour to the west gate of Duanzhou when that happens, and we will be able to launch a surprise attack directly.”
Xiao Chiye nodded as an indication that Tantai Hu was right.
With a slightly heavy expression, Gu Jin looked at the Chashi River and said, “We can lure all the troops to the Chashi Sinkhole by being bait, but Master, the Chashi River lies right behind us. The moment Amu’er seizes the opportunity to mobilize troops for a sneak attack, or if Hasen is deployed over from the south, then we will end up being attacked from the front and rear. By then, Wu Ziyu would have already gone around to the west of Duanzhou. We will be left without reinforcements.”
“By saying that, you’re breaking the hearts of those in the war zone.” Xiao Chiye watched Shen Zechuan drink his medicine in between speaking. When he was done, he continued, “Is the Shasan Camp not reinforcement?”
Gu Jin paused for a moment, then shook his head. “I can’t trust Guo Weili.”
Xiao Chiye did not continue the thread of conversation. He raised his hand and patted Gu Jin lightly on his back. “My eldest brother has a clear view of the situation from where he is in Dajing. We must obtain Duanzhou at all costs. There’s still Lu Guangbai and shifu on the battlegrounds. The Three Great Camps will certainly do their best to stall Hasen. As for Amu’er…” Xiao Chiye smiled derisively. “The tribe he can deploy at such urgent notice is the Qingshu tribe.”
Qi Zhuyin wanted to send troops to attack the Qingshu tribe. The Empress Dowager and the Ministry of War did not consent, but did that mean there was absolutely nothing she could do about it?
“Qidong’s military provisions are being supplied by the Yan clan, and the carriages are already heading for the Cejun Commandery three days ago.” All Shen Zechuan could taste in his mouth was bitterness. “Commander-in-chief Qi should have already eaten her fill by now.”
As long as they could let Qi Zhuyin eat her fill, she would dare to play games with Qudu. She did not venture into the capital the last few years to contend with those wily old foxes because she did not want to go looking for trouble. But now that the scimitars were almost right before her eyes, all those concerns went flying out of the windows.
“The speed of the cavalry’s advancement in the snow is not as fast as it usually is. We still have time here to prepare,” Xiao Chiye said. “The current campground is rather rudimentary. Have the Dunzhou Garrison Troops dig horizontal trenches in the vast expanse of open ground. Take turns to carry out night patrol duty, and send the falcons out for reconnaissance too. The Imperial Army and Libei Armored Cavalry have been fighting hard for several days, so rest up whenever possible. We have to conserve our strength and stall the enemies long enough for Wu Ziyu.”
With the heavy snow obstructing the roads, it would be too late to deliver the message on horseback to Mount Luo. The good thing was that the Libei Armored Cavalry all brought along their own falcons, which could deliver the message by flying northwest for a few hours.
Everyone responded in the affirmative. When they started to discuss among themselves, Xiao Chiye reached under the clothes on his chest and groped around for a moment. Shen Zechuan set down the medicine bowl and grasped the folding fan in his sleeves when something suddenly sprang onto him between his sleeves. He fixed his eyes on it—it was a piece of candy wrapped in oil paper.
Xiao Chiye looked at the map with a straight face, looking as if he was not the one who had done it.
◈ ◈ ◈
Wu Ziyu slept in Mount Luo until he was awakened by the deputy general at midnight. He opened the letter the falcon delivered, read it by the candlelight in the tent, and was instantly wide awake. Not even daring to sleep anymore, he rose to put on his armor. “Where’s that Yan Heru?”
He had only just said that when Yan Heru popped his head out from the side of the hanging screen and answered, “Here!”
Wu Ziyu clutched the letter and said gruffly, “Is everyone dead? How can you let him enter as he wishes?”
“Aye, come on now, don’t be mad.” Yan Heru made his way in with his hands around his little golden abacus. “His Lordship told me to wait here, so I did. What can I do, man? Master Wu, aren’t you being a tad too cautious?”
“Marching troops to war is different from merchants transporting goods. If something goes awry, we will literally lose our heads.” Wu Ziyu had dealt with the Mount Luo bandits before when he was preparing military provisions for the Libei Armored Cavalry last year, so he was not flustered to encounter those like Yan Heru. He put away the letter first before saying, “I’m going to mobilize troops soon. The Mount Luo bandits have only just been eradicated, so it doesn’t reassure me to leave you here. Let’s do this. Go and pack up quickly. You’ll be leaving with me.”
Yan Heru had conducted deals with the Biansha people before. There would be no one to watch him if they were to leave him in Mount Luo, and Wu Ziyu found it inappropriate. He had to keep an eye on him.
Yan Heru was so frightened that his face turned a shade whiter. Hugging his abacus to his chest, he followed behind Wu Ziyu and said, “Blades and swords have no eyes, Master Wu. Why are you taking me with you? My family’s businesses all depend on me, so I can’t have anything happen to me. You know about Qidong’s military provisions? I’m the one delivering them now. I’ll just stay behind. Or how about you assign someone to send me back to Cizhou? Dunzhou is fine too!”
“Don’t tell me we aren’t capable of protecting you given how many soldiers we have.” Wu Ziyu bared his frightfully white teeth at Yan Heru. “I’ll send you back after the battle. You won’t go wrong going with the Prefectural Lord. I assure you it will not hold up your affairs.”
Then, without waiting for Yan Heru’s reply, he yelled for the guard outside to stuff Yan Heru into the horse carriage and secured him to take him away with the troops.
Wu Ziyu exhaled deeply at the entrance of the tent. It was dark. He took out the crumpled letter earlier to read through it again. The candlelight from the tent fell upon his back. He stared blankly at the word “surprise attack” for a long time.
Launching a surprise attack on Duanzhou concerned Xiao Chiye’s safety. This battle had to be fought not only quickly but also steadily. Two men who were inextricably linked to the war situation were now both at the Chashi Sinkhole, and Wu Ziyu could not afford to take responsibility for the loss of either one of them; he had to shoulder the load of this weight.
But I’m just an escort in the convoy squad.
Deep creases formed between Wu Ziyu’s brows as he frowned. He gazed out through the long night and recalled the first time he met Xiao Chiye.
“Aren’t you the Libei Armored Cavalry?”
Under the blazing sun, Xiao Chiye partially looked back with eyes deep and quiet.
To this day, Wu Ziyu still did not dare to answer Xiao Chiye. He seemed to have tacitly agreed that all he could do was to escort the supply wagons, but at the same time, he was loath to accept it. In his early years, he had been sent to Bianbo Camp as a punishment by Xiao Jiming for drinking on the job. He watched as Zhao Hui became the Commanding General of the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang, and now he was watching as Chen Yang and Gu Jin were successively entrusted with heavy responsibilities. Meanwhile, Xiao Chiye held him back in Bianbo Camp, never putting him at the forefront.
Wu Ziyu spat and stuffed the letter back into his bosom. He took two steps in the snow before suddenly leaping up and swinging his clenched fists around in the air a few times.
Since Xiao Chiye dared to give him the opportunity, then he would dare to stake his life and all that he held dear to fight a battle for Second Master!
◈ ◈ ◈
The snow gradually lightened at the hour of you the next day.
Xiao Chiye put on his heavy armor in the military tent. His armor had taken some damage from the assaults of the iron hammers the day before. The left and right arms were the most severely battered, especially the left arm which had repeatedly taken the brunt of A-Chi’s iron hammers; it was even somewhat dented.
“Wu Ziyu has already arrived at the western side of Duanzhou. Last through this night, and we will be able to make a simultaneous attack from the front and back with him tomorrow morning.” Xiao Chiye appeared visibly taller when he was in armor, so much so that he was almost blocking off all the light before Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan sat on the plank bed. In the eyes of the others, his presence here had a far deeper purpose. Xiao Jiming’s current daringness to pull out all the stops and let the Three Great Camps in the war zone assist Zhongbo in the battle of Duanzhou was not just because Xiao Chiye was here, but also because Shen Zechuan was here; this was the sincerity Libei saw.
“Fei Sheng, in leading the Imperial Bodyguards to follow after Hairigu, can make up for the temporary lack of scouts.” Shen Zechuan looked on as Xiao Chiye put on his arm guard. “If you don’t come back tomorrow, then the remaining troops will be put at the forefront of the battle.”
The troops that Xiao Chiye left behind were meant to serve as a protective barrier for Shen Zechuan. If something unexpected were to happen, these people would escort Shen Zechuan up north. When the time came, Shasan Camp would naturally come to receive him.
Xiao Chiye’s hand that had been securing the arm guard paused slightly. He looked at Shen Zechuan, understanding what Shen Zechuan meant. Shen Zechuan motioned for Xiao Chiye to squat down. It was inconvenient for Xiao Chiye to squat in his armor, so he simply withdrew a leg and kneeled on one knee on a spot near Lanzhou.
Snow outside the tent fell like light willow catkins. Intermittent sounds of Fei Sheng lecturing Yin Chang about his drinking drifted through the air. Meanwhile, the Libei Armored Cavalry in their heavy armor stepped in the snow and moved in concert with one another. It was noisy all around. Inside the tent, tea that had been set above the charcoal brazier with firewood burning in it started to boil.
The expression in Xiao Chiye’s eyes was penetrating. Of late, the dazzling brilliance of his talent was becoming harder and harder to conceal. “Wait for me here.”
“As a matter of fact, I would like to go.” Shen Zechuan’s overcoat slipped off his shoulders. Imitating Xiao Chiye’s past action, he pinched Xiao Chiye’s chin and cocked his head slightly. “But I don’t have that capability. All I can do is to remain here as the wife who shares hardships with his husband.”
Xiao Chiye, who had been letting Shen Zechuan pinch as he wished, burst out laughing on hearing him.
Shen Zechuan listened as Gu Jin stopped outside the tent. He took the helmet over and put it on for Xiao Chiye. In that brief exchange of glances, he and Xiao Chiye exchanged a kiss across the steel.
“After tonight,” Xiao Chiye’s icy iron fingers caressed Shen Zechuan’s cheeks, his voice low and deep as he said, “my Lanzhou will be the overlord of Zhongbo.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye tested his new blade on A-Chi, but it was far from enough. He was so ravenous he could devour the north and south battlefields. Every battle was a trial; he wanted to hone his blade even faster here.
The Biansha’s massive troops in the southeast numbered 25,000, of which 5,000 were the Scorpions. The remaining cavalrymen lacked horses, so many of them could only stand in temporarily as infantrymen. They lost their commanding general, and they were unable to obtain updates from the opposite bank of the Chashi River. Obstructing Xiao Chiye was a measure they were forced to take in order to ensure the safety of Duanzhou.
What Xiao Chiye wanted was for them to be forced into doing so. Once these 25,000 men moved, the western side of Duanzhou would be completely vacated, and Wu Ziyu could immediately begin his attack on the city. The advantage in having Shen Zechuan seal off Zhongbo would then become apparent—Duanzhou would not get any form of assistance, and since their grains had already been supplied to A-Chi’s 20,000 soldiers, the 8,000 troops remaining behind to keep guard on Duanzhou would all have to meet the enemy’s attack on empty stomachs.
When the battle in Zhongbo started, it was in the dead of night over at the Bianjun Commandery.
News of A-Chi’s defeat had yet to make it to the Qingshu tribe, whose night patrol squad was presently roaming around the Bianjun Commandery. The commanding general of the Qingshu tribe was called Sumeng, who used to be Hasen’s deputy general and could also partake in the discussion of official affairs when he was under Amu’er command. But because his tribe was not powerful enough, he lost the opportunity to follow Hasen up north. He had also crossed swords with Lu Guangbai here before.
The Bianjun Commandery was devoid of snow tonight. From afar, Suotian Pass looked like a sleeping beauty lying in slumber upon the city. There were bits of floating snow in the air, while no trace of the moon could be seen when one raised their head.
Sumeng felt the Bianjun Commandery to be too silent tonight. It made him feel ill at ease, so he increased the number of people on night patrol, keeping all eyes on the eastern front of the Bianjun Commandery in case of a surprise attack from the garrison troops.
During the latter half of the night, the night patrol squad set up a bonfire in the wilderness, where they filled their stomachs with melted snow as they roasted the dried meat jerky they carried with them.
“The Scorpions in the north have been winning battles.” A cavalryman of the Qingshu tribe said in the Biansha tongue as he broke off the dried meat jerky. “They’re about to merge into the Twelve tribes and become a tribe near the north. By then, will we still be able to get our hands on provisions?”
Sumeng drank the melted snow, shaking his head as he said, “The Hero will never allow the Scorpions to become a tribe of their own. They are the slaves of the Liaoying tribe.”
The mothers of the Scorpions were all natives of Dazhou, and with the emergence of traitors like Hairigu, it would be difficult to convince the masses even if they were victorious in battles. Moreover, the person who all the tribes in the desert answered to was Hasen.
“If they can give us Gedale,” the cavalryman smiled at Sumeng, “then we won’t have to worry about starving in the future anymore.”
Sumeng gulped down the melted snow and did not answer immediately. He had sounded Amu’er out before, but did not receive a response. The Qingshu tribe was not a powerful tribe, and the Liaoying tribe of today was no longer the minor tribe it had been in the past. In addition, the Huiyan tribe had thrown in their lot with Libei, leaving their Qingshu tribe behind here to choke on sand with the Bianjun Garrison Troops. But who would have expected the Bianjun Commandery Garrison Troops themselves to take off in the end? After being stationed here day in and day out, Sumeng could not see a future. He pinned all his hopes on his son, but as it happened, his son came to a premature end at the beginning of spring this year.
“There is purpose in waiting.” These were the only words of comfort Sumeng could offer. “At least we won’t face reprisals from Libei if we stay here.”
The cavalrymen burst into laughter.
Halfway through the bonfire, a cavalryman saw several stray dogs behind him. He brandished a withered branch at them and shoo-ed at them to drive them away. But these stray dogs were so starving they were drooling and panting warm air as they circled the cavalry.
“Chase them away,” Sumeng ordered.
So the cavalryman stood up, grabbed his scimitar, and started to stomp his feet as well. The stray dogs cowered back for a moment, and the cavalryman, with his bulging belly, turned back to suggest to Sumeng. “We can hunt them. Dogskins can—”
Before the cavalryman could finish his words, the stray dogs pounced. It was as though they had gone mad as they tore at the cavalryman with their fangs and dragged him with such force that he fell over to the ground. The dogs latched onto his arm that had been holding onto the scimitar. The leather could not withstand the sharp fangs of the stray dogs, and the pain cut so deep that it sent him screaming.
Sumeng promptly stood up, and the cavalrymen on night patrol caught up to the cavalryman in distress and kicked out at the stray dogs as they dragged him back. Sumeng noticed that the eyes of these dogs were oddly red with rage, so to be on the safe side, he told the cavalrymen, “Shoot them to death with the bows. Something’s wrong with these dogs.”
A few faint cries of a Chinese francolin reverberated through the night. As if sensing danger, the stray dogs turned tail and fled as the cavalrymen got on their horses and drew their bows. The dogs ran westward in a panic, and the cavalrymen followed in hot pursuit.
A stray dog took an arrow to the leg and limped as it continued to flee onward. The cavalryman behind it drew his scimitar and leaned down with the intention to end the stray dog with one slash in between the sprinting of his horse. They galloped wildly, splashing froths of snow in the air. An explosive “whoosh” rang out, and a long arrow came hurtling from the west. The cavalryman instantly fell off his horse. His legs, however, were still hanging from the saddle, and he ended up getting dragged by the horse across the demarcation line.
Sumeng swore to himself, feeling a sense of foreboding. Amu’er had long instructed them not to engage Qidong in battle at this moment. As long as they did not attack, Qi Zhuyin could not step to the fore. He immediately reined in his horse and shouted, “Fall back!”
But the torches ahead lit up all of a sudden, illuminating the surroundings brightly.
“Qi Zhuyin!” From where he was on horseback, Sumeng decried in the Dazhou tongue, “Women are devious—”
Qi Zhuyin stood in front of the combat-ready garrison troops in full battle array. As she crushed the snow beneath her foot, she leisurely said, “Light up the beacon tower. Inform Qudu that the Qingshu tribe has breached the boundary line and invaded our territory.”
The Qidong Garrison Troops abruptly lined up their shields, and the cold steel of their blades glinted and flashed.