Edited and Proofread by KitKat
As the cold winds wreaked havoc over the city, eight hundred soldiers marched in unison outside the city gates, waiting for Xiao Zhige to lead them to Yanzhou. These were Xiao Zhige’s loyal soldiers that he had brought back to Yejing from Yanzhou. After three months of peaceful rest in the prosperous Yejing, they were all in high morale, ready for a fight.
An imperial announcement had also been made that the Northern Warlord would be marching back to Yanzhou to fight the Beidi people.
Wrapped in a fur coat, An Chang Qing craned his neck trying to look through the smoky dust in the distance. He touched the satchel that he was carrying. Inside were some clothes, dry food and wine that he had specially prepared for Xiao Zhige although, Xiao Zhige was probably already at the city gates, ready to depart.
An Chang Qing was worried that he might not have the chance to pass the satchel to him. He sighed and hugged the bag.
The uproar and galloping had attracted the attention of many. The Wang Manor’s soup kitchen was located outside the city gates. In addition to handing out warm porridge every day, the shed was also equipped with a large fireplace with burning charcoal to provide temporary shelter for the people at night. Compared to most low-cost inns, many would prefer to gather at the shed at night. This also included the poor scholars from out of town.
As such, there were two distinct groups huddled at the shed – the scholars and the beggars.
An old beggar listened to the sound of trampling hooves and sighed, “Another battle is going to start. I heard that many in the north have died because of the snowstorm. I’m not sure if we can win this time.”
“With the Northern Warlord’s protection, those Beidi scums still have the guts to attack?”
“Hasn’t the Northern Warlord been absent from the border?” someone whispered, “Those shameless barbarians must’ve taken advantage of this time to attack. If they manage to break through the city’s defenses, countless lives will be lost.”
The beggars discussed on one side as the scholars sat and listened. One of them couldn’t help but laugh and spoke, “The Northern Warlord is not the only general in the whole of Da Ye, it’s not solely dependent on him to secure the border. He’s a ruthless general but you people treat him as though he’s the benevolent Bodhisattva. What a bunch of ignorants!”
The scholar who had just spoken was dressed neatly in a gray cotton-padded robe and carried himself with pride as he looked at the beggars with disdain.
The beggars’ eyes turned spiteful towards the scholar. The old beggar waved his hand to calm them. He then said to the scholar, “We beggars are illiterate but we still know that we shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds us. This gongzi here is so displeased with the Northern Warlord but totally fine with accepting the goodwill of the Wang Manor?”
Whoever did not know that the soup kitchen was built by the Wang Manor? Moreover, the prices of grains and winter clothes had risen everywhere but only those of the Wang Manor’s shops remained the same. Thanks to this, the other shops could not make any sales and were forced to lower their prices.
How the entire situation had played out, the people of Yejing had kept in their hearts. Although it was Wangfei who had managed the operations, everyone knew that it was the combined effort of Wangye and his Wangfei. Since then, no one had said a single bad thing about the Northern Warlord.
The rumors that used to circulate the streets had now been discredited. After all, no one had witnessed the Northern Warlord’s brutality but many had been sheltered by the Wang Manor’s goodwill. Anyone with a conscience would know that they shouldn’t continue to say bad things about the Northern Warlord.
Ironically, it was the learned scholars who could not see the truth.
The outspoken scholar choked up. He thought for a while and retaliated, “The Northern Warlord was only acting under the orders of the Emperor. If you want to thank anyone, it should be His Majesty!”
“And don’t forget, The Northern Warlord had once killed tens of thousands of Beidi prisoners. Such a cold-blooded person, there’s always the possibility that after he has killed all the Beidi people, he would turn to killing his own people for fun!”
The more he said, the more justified he felt regarding his words, “The Da Ye Empire advocates benevolence and filial piety. A cruel and murderous general is not worthy of praise.”
“What nonsense!” A young beggar spat at him, “Our enemies from the north had always been treacherous. To show them mercy is the same as waiting for them to kill us.”
“Exactly! Has reading too many books blinded you!”
“I’ve never been to school but even I can understand that much!”
The little beggars had recently been addicted to the storytellers’ tales of Wangfei and Wangye. Even the fearsome feats of the Northern Warlord from before had become a cause for their idolization. They wished they could join the Northern Warlord in his attempts to fight off the enemies and couldn’t stand to hear anyone besmirch his name.
The scholar’s face turned pale after being demeaned by the group of beggars. He turned to look at his fellow scholars for support but found that they too had moved away from him.
One of them even spoke up, “Regarding the teachings of having integrity, righteousness, and honor, since we have received the grace of others, we should be grateful instead of throwing dirt at our benefactor, which is a very shameful conduct.”
Looking around, the scholar found that he had been alienated. He snorted angrily, flung his sleeves and left the shed.
A little beggar behind him shouted, “If you think you’re so great then don’t come back!”
What had happened on the other side of the soup kitchen, An Chang Qing was unaware of. More so to the fact that the Northern Warlord’s reputation was slowly beginning to change.
An Chang Qing was now sitting in front of the soup kitchen cuddling Xiao Zhige’s things while looking towards the direction of the camp. He held on to a glimmer of hope that since Tie Hu was still with him, Xiao Zhige wouldn’t leave directly.
Just as he thought so, he heard Tie Hu’s voice, “Someone is coming!”
An Chang Qing immediately stood up and looked eagerly towards the group of people in the distance. On the snowy path, a heroic figure carrying a black and golden spear sat on horseback as he rode gallantly against the snow and wind towards the gate.
“It’s Wangye,” Tie Hu said.
Before he could say anything else, An Chang Qing had already picked up the satchel and ran over.
The winds had turned harsh but An Chang Qing did not feel cold. His smile broadened as the sight of that person became clearer.
That’s good. He hasn’t left yet.
There were still many words that An Chang Qing had yet to tell him.
Xiao Zhige’s sharp eyesight was able to spot An Chang Qing standing in the snow waiting for him. He nudged his horse to hasten its pace. Shortly after, he was right in front of An Chang Qing.
An Chang Qing was covered in snow as he looked at Xiao Zhige, eyes brimming with light, “I’m glad I get to meet you once more before you leave.”
He then quickly passed the items in his hand to Xiao Zhige, “I’ve prepared dried food and wine for Wangye to take with you on the road.”
Xiao Zhige hung the satchel on the saddle and sighed. He brushed the snow off for An Chang Qing and held his frozen hand. He gently rubbed it and said, “Why didn’t you wait back at the manor? It’s cold here.”
“I was afraid that you won’t have the time to come back.” An Chang Qing knew that Xiao Zhige had headed straight for the camp after he left the Palace. The matters of war have always been urgent, he did not know if Xiao Zhige would be able to return to the manor and hence, waited for him at the city gates.
Xiao Zhige faintly smiled. He reached out to touch his cheek and spoke to him softly, “I’ll be leaving for Yanzhou as of now. Everything in the Wang Manor is under your command. Tie Hu will stay and protect you. I’ve left 200 soldiers at the barracks outside the city. If anything happens, tell Tie Hu to carry my seal to seek assistance.”
After speaking, he hugged the person into his arms and whispered, “… Wait for my return.”
Their parting was imminent but Xiao Zhige had never been good with words, he could only express his reluctance with a powerful hug.
An Chang Qing snuggled affectionately against his chest before he withdrew from his arms, “I wish Wangye a swift victory and early return. I… I’ll be waiting for you back at the manor.”
Xiao Zhige looked at him longingly before turning to Tie Hu and commanded, “Protect Wangfei at all costs. This is a military order!”
Tie Hu was initially unsettled with not being able to join the fight in Yanzhou but upon seeing how important Wangfei was to Xiao Zhige, he knew that his mission was also of great significance. Tie Hu knelt on the snow and responded, “I understand!”
Finally, Xiao Zhige took one last look at An Chang Qing and strode away. This time, he did not turn back.
An Chang Qing stood and watched Xiao Zhige leave until his back disappeared into the snowscape. Much to An Chang Qing’s chagrin, he clearly had much to say to Xiao Zhige but once he saw him, he had been at a loss for words. He looked at the deep prints on the snow and said, “Let’s go back.”
On the 25th of February, the Northern Warlord led 800 elite soldiers and headed for Yanzhou.
On the 1st of March, an urgent report came in stating that Lord Sun, Hu Yan Ah Te of the Beidi’s army, had led a ferocious troop of 50,000 soldiers, charging straight for Yanyun county.
On the 10th of March, the heavy snow that had blighted Yejing for over a month had finally lifted. The sky turned blue and greenery returned to the land. The snow had melted and Spring had finally come.
The soup kitchen outside the city had also been taken down and only a few pieces of winter clothes were still left in the shops.
An Chang Qing and the store managers began to tally up the accounts. A total of 1.3 million taels were spent to stock up rice, winter clothes and coal. As rice and winter clothes were sold at regular prices and half of it was also used for charity, they could only earn back the cost price. It was the coal that had earned An Chang Qing a profit of 700,000 taels of silver.
An Chang Qing handed a small bonus to the store managers and left with Zhou He Lan back to the Wang Manor.
Currently, the Wang Manor had only one master left and An Chang Qing frequently left the house to patrol the shops. Even the servants were beginning to feel the emptiness of the place ever since Wangye had left.
An Chang Qing sat alone on the bed after having washed and changed into his nightwear. He touched the unwarmed mattress and sighed. Habit is a scary thing. It makes you grow accustomed to a person’s existence and then forces you to get used to his absence.
After reminiscing, An Chang Qing was reminded of a certain matter and reached for the items inside the cabinet by the bed. He blushed and hesitated but thinking of the person who should’ve reached Yanzhou by now, he slowly followed the guidelines step by step…