Edited and Proofread by KitKat
After bandaging his wound and putting on his garb, Xiao Zhige looked completely fine, as though he was void of injuries. If An Chang Qing had not seen the long gash with his own eyes, he would not have noticed that the man was carrying an injury.
An Chang Qing looked at him with distress and anger, “You’re a General, why do you still have to go to the battlefield when you’re this badly hurt?”
Xiao Zhige rubbed his head and smiled, “On the battlefield, swords and spears are blind. Who doesn’t carry an injury or two on them? As long as your arms and legs are still intact, it is not a fatal injury.”
Seeing that he was still worried, Xiao Zhige added, “You should’ve seen the Supreme Commander of the Beidi army. I’ve torn off his arm but to boost morale, he has continued to lead his troops into battle. I went head to head with him a few days ago, it’s a pity I couldn’t bring back his head. Otherwise, there would’ve been more ‘lanterns’ at the front gate.”
An Chang Qing was taken aback, “Lanterns?”
Xiao Zhige was worried of scaring An Chang Qing and rephrased his words carefully, “The Beidi army have committed many heinous crimes over the years. The soldiers together with the civilians of Yanzhou have a life-and-death grudge against them.”
Over the years, there had been over a hundred heads hung outside the city gates. Whenever a battle culminated, the heads would be sent to a stone hut outside the city with the captured Beidi soldiers to intimidate the enemy forces. Accumulated over the years, there were now a countless number of such places spread across the battlefield.
An Chang Qing was astounded upon hearing this. He had never left Yejing in his previous life and whatever he had heard of the war were all word of mouth. Now that he had heard Xiao Zhige speak about it with such indifference, he came to realize that what he knew was only scratching the surface of the cruelties of war.
Between these two armies, neither will rest till the other has been eliminated.
To intimidate a ruthless opponent, one has to be willing to outdo their ruthlessness. An Chang Qing thought of the things he had heard in his previous life. Numerous scholars had criticized Xiao Zhige for his bloodthirst in killing the Beidi captives but had they lived in Yanzhou even if it was only for a short time, they would have come to hate them as well.
“What about when we fall into the hands of the Beidi people?”
“The Beidi people have much more cold-blooded means than us.” Xiao Zhige fiddled with An Chang Qing’s hand and said, “Any captives would be branded and kept together with the livestock. The men will be forced into hard labor while the women are left for the soldiers to enjoy at will. And if there is a shortage of food, they will be slaughtered…”
Xiao Zhige sighed and looked at An Chang Qing, “This is why I did not want you to come to Yanzhou.”
Yanzhou’s border had always been a warzone. It was afflicted with sandstorms in spring and summer and bitter weather in fall and winter. There were no peaceful days. Everyone was constantly on alert because a battle could break out at any time. Everything in this place was not what Xiao Zhige wanted An Chang Qing to experience.
However, An Chang Qing only smiled and shook his head, “I’m not afraid.”
“I might not be used to it in the beginning but I can adapt.” An Chang Qing raised his head and said, “I’m not some pampered young master.”
A surge of tenderness filled Xiao Zhige’ eyes. He felt An Chang Qing’s hand that seemed to be skinnier and said, “But I don’t want you to have to face any hardships.”
Xiao Zhige’s words were sincere and serious while his tone was soft as snow. An Chang Qing met his gaze but had to look away shyly, mumbling to himself: why does it seem like after being apart for a month, this person had suddenly learned how to sweet talk?
An Chang Qing’s ears turned slightly red. He cleared his throat and said, “It’s fine, I don’t feel the hardship.”
He then looked at Xiao Zhige and grumbled, “Now I know the truths behind the rumors in Yejing. How dare those people spin such tales without having a toothache!”
Xiao Zhige smiled, “There’s no need to get upset over someone else’s opinions. Now, let’s go get something to eat.”
Since he had turned down eating with his subordinates, Xiao Zhige called a chef to the General’s Manor to make porridge and some side dishes for An Chang Qing.
The cook worked for the military kitchen and was used to cooking in large quantities. His skill in making small dishes was average. Fortunately, the dishes were simple and since An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige had been chatting up till now, they were both beginning to feel hungry.
An Chang Qing filled his stomach with a whole bowl of porridge, leaving the side dishes for Xiao Zhige to finish.
After they had their dinner, the sky was still bright. Thinking that the air was still warm, Xiao Zhige decided to let An Chang Qing do some shopping from the streets.
The street was still crowded and there were long queues of people waiting with sacks in their hands.
“What are they doing?”
“Queuing for rice.” Xiao Zhige explained, “During the food shortage, the people had donated all the rice and meat in their house to feed the soldiers. It was not easy taking food from civilians but we were at our wit’s end. So we registered every household that had donated and promised to return the grains once the rations arrived.”
Although food was still scarce, they could not continue to let the people starve. Therefore, a portion of the newly delivered grains had been allocated to the civilians.
An Chang Qing was impressed by the smiling faces of the Yanzhou people, “The people here don’t seem to be affected by the war.”
“En, they’re used to it. As long as the gates still stand, they can live on.”
The people of Yanzhou are like the grass that grew there, tough and resilient. As long as the roots are still there, it will continue to strive.
Although he had only been here for less than a day, An Chang Qing had already grown fond of the place.
An Chang Qing strolled along the streets and found that there were not only people queuing for rice but also vendors with goods that he had never seen before.
Xiao Zhige led him to a stall with clam shells on display.
“Do you have more?”
“Yes.” The stall owner looked at An Chang Qing curiously before taking out a bag of goods from under the table. He placed the items neatly and said courteously, “These jars contain the highest quality lamb oil. Wangfei, feel free to pick any of them.”
“You know me?” An Chang Qing was surprised. This was the first time he had left the General’s Manor, how did the peddler know that he was the Wangfei?
The peddler smiled and said, “Everyone already knows. It was Lieutenant Qi who spread the word. He told us that Wangfei had personally delivered the grains to us and that Wangfei is very good-looking. So I knew that the person who could stand next to the General and be as handsome as yourself could only be Wangfei.”
After all, in the many years that Xiao Zhige had been in Yanzhou, he had earned the admiration of countless misses and bachelorettes. Although he had always had a grim look on his face, there were still many who were daring enough to pursue him. However, none were successful.
All these years, no one had seen the General browse the streets and yet, the moment that Wangfei had arrived, he was seen strolling with someone by his side. Who else could it be if not his Wangfei?
An Chang Qing pursed his lips and squinted at Xiao Zhige. He then turned back to the porcelain jars and asked curiously, “What is lamb oil used for?”
The young peddler began to promote enthusiastically. It turns out that not only was Yanzhou surrounded by sand and powerful winds, it also had very low humidity. Especially in winter when the air was particularly dry, it could easily damage the skin. This was why in every household, they would store a special kind of lamb oil to protect the skin. Ordinary people would use low-grade oil stored in shells and only the rich would use top-grade oils stored in porcelain jars.
“You’re from Yejing and must not be used to this climate. You should apply this everyday to protect your skin.”
An Chang Qing had to agree that the air in Yanzhou was indeed dry. He picked up a jar and asked the peddler for the price.
The peddler immediately waved his hands and said, “Wangfei had sent us food from thousands of miles away, this is a great benevolence to us. This lamb oil is not worth much, please take it if you like.”
An Chang Qing naturally could not accept the handout. From what he could tell, the people of Yanzhou were not doing well themselves. In the end, he still insisted on paying.
After buying the lamb oil, An Chang Qing went on to purchase little trinkets from other stores. Xiao Zhige did not let him carry the items and instead, carried them for him. For someone who did not know who Xiao Zhige was, he would’ve thought that he was An Chang Qing’s servant.
The people looked at them with good-intentioned curiosity as they have never seen their General act that way.
Even the ladies who had previously called him a male vixen for robbing them of Xiao Zhige were now singing his praises. After they knew that Wangfei had provided Yanzhou with food, all they could see was a handsome young gongzi who was very pleasing to the eyes. Some even blushed and claimed that if they were Xiao Zhige, they would’ve picked Wangfei as well.
After shopping, the couple returned to the General’s Manor under the curious stares of bystanders.
At the door, Xiao Zhige suddenly stopped and spoke coldly, “Get lost!”
An Chang Qing was starting to ponder when he saw a few figures coming out from behind the wall. One of them An Chang Qing was familiar with – it was Lieutenant General Qi whom he had spoken to. The other three were towering men of muscular build. They were probably the other lieutenants under Xiao Zhige’s command.
Seeing the four of them looking at him cordially, An Chang Qing hesitated before smiling back at them awkwardly.
As though his smile was the signal, the four men immediately sprang forward with Qi Wei leading the way. They stood in line and saluted with big smiles, “Greetings to Wangfei!”
After the salutation, Qi Wei corrected, “Wangfei sounds too unfamiliar! It should be ‘big brother-in-law’!”
With that, the group saluted An Chang Qing once again, “Greetings to big brother-in-law!”
Xiao Zhige stood at one side with a charred black face, “What are you lot doing here? Leaving your post without permission! Go back and give yourselves thirty paddles each.”
Qi Wei shrunk back and pleaded for mercy, “Please don’t. We were only worried that our big brother-in-law was not accustomed to Yanzhou so we came especially to deliver these.” Qi Wei frantically gestured for the soldiers to bring up an ox cart piled with loads of items. An Chang Qing could even see a six-legged ornamental heater.
Xiao Zhige’s face eased up considerably. He waved with impatience and said, “We’ll take the items. You can leave now.”
Qi Wei dared not taunt the tiger any longer. He pulled back his neck and said, “If brother-in-law needs anything else, you can always tell us!”
Before An Chang Qing could respond, Xiao Zhige took up the whip from the carriage and hurled towards them. The band howled and quickly scurried away.
“They’ve brought so many things for us, shouldn’t we at least keep them for tea?” An Chang Qing looked at the cart full of things and felt a little guilty. Although it was nothing expensive, they were all practical items.
Xiao Zhige still had a gloomy expression on his face, “They just wanted an excuse to skip work. You can ignore them.”
In addition to the newly delivered grains, they had also managed to push back Hu Yan Xun’s army. This was why those lieutenants were beginning to feel relaxed and began looking for trouble. Xiao Zhige told himself that he should probably increase their workload.
Hiding his intentions from An Chang Qing, he spoke to him without a change in expression, “Let’s have someone move these inside. We’ll keep whatever that is usable.”
An Chang Qing responded with an ‘en’ and followed him in.
After they had arranged the items, it was time to rest.
Since An Chang Qing had bathed in the morning, he only took a quick wash.
Xiao Zhige had just changed his bandage and was sitting on the bed, fiddling with the porcelain jar of lamb oil.
When he saw An Chang Qing coming out from the bathroom, he patted on the space next to him and said, “Come here.”
An Chang Qing climbed onto the bed and squeezed into the blanket. Although spring had come, the cold was still quite intense at night. He rubbed his hands while his feet were wrapped around Xiao Zhige’s leg, trying to take in the warmth.
Xiao Zhige squeezed his hand and observed it under the candle light, “It’d gotten coarse.”
He then opened the porcelain jar, scraped out a portion of lamb oil, and rubbed it on An Chang Qing’s hand. He carefully massaged from each finger to his palm. When the lamb oil had melted and soothed An Chang Qing’s skin, his frown finally loosened.
An Chang Qing used the hand that had been applied with the lamb oil to caress Xiao Zhige’s face. He smiled and said, “Why are you only doing it for me? Why don’t you use it on yourself?”
“I’m used to the dryness. There’s no need.”
As he spoke, he pulled An Chang Qing’s feet out from under the quilt. The skin on it was whiter than his hands. The toes were round and tender but patches of dry skin were beginning to form at the soles. If left unattended, it would eventually chap.
Xiao Zhige dug a large chunk of lamb oil and started massaging his feet, “Let’s buy a few more jars of lamb oil next time.”
An Chang Qing ‘hm’ softly. He wiggled his toes and said, “Will Wangye apply it for me every day?”
An Chang Qing was only teasing him but unexpectedly, Xiao Zhige responded without hesitation, “En, I will continue to apply it for you everyday.”