Edited and proofread by KitKat
When Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing returned to the General’s Manor, Zhou He Lan had managed to invite a craftsman back.
Yanzhou was not a prosperous land. Even the rich lived frugal lives. As such, there were only two jewelry stores and their products were mostly gold and silver with small pieces of jade inlaid for design.
After inquiring one by one, Zhou He Lan was able to find an old craftsman with decent skills to bring back.
The old craftsman took a long time to carefully study the emerald stones and concluded, “There’s no mistake, this is jade. But some are of a pure color and translucency while the rest are of poor qualities, these cannot be sold for much.”
He then separated the dozen or so stones into two piles; the larger pile was the inferior jade and the other consisted of clear and flawless Imperial-grade jade. But even so, the few pieces of precious stones could still be sold for lucrative sums in Yejing.
The business-minded Zhou He Lan who had always been calm was starting to get excited.
By the time An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige came back, Zhou He Lan had arranged a place to rest for the old craftsman. Seeing them, he reported the findings.
An Chang Qing fiddled with the jade pieces, feeling like a pie had suddenly dropped from the sky. He looked at Xiao Zhige with bright, sparkling eyes.
Xiao Zhige considered briefly and asked Zhou He Lan if he remembered the location of the mountain range with the jade mine so he could have Chang Zai Chang send troops to survey the land.
Zhou He Lan searched his memories and came up with a rough location. He drew a topographic map and described the shape of the mountain range. Xiao Zhige then personally wrote a letter and placed his private seal on it before having it sent to Liangzhou with speed.
Liangzhou was right next to Yanzhou and a round trip would take only three days. Xiao Zhige informed An Chang Qing, “We should receive a reply in three days.”
However, on the third day, there was still no reply from Chang Zai Chang. Even the messenger had not returned. A scout came to report that Hu Yan Xun’s army, which Xiao Zhige had previously driven back, had regrouped and was preparing for an attack.
Xiao Zhige gathered his lieutenants to discuss the countermeasures. At present, although the food crisis had been temporarily resolved, it would not last for long. In addition, the spring harvest was approaching. During this time, the soldiers were also responsible for assisting the farmers with plowing the fields in between battles. If this war was dragged out, the Beidi people could afford to feed their army through any means necessary but Yanzhou could not force its citizens to do the same.
“We have to make a quick decision,” Xiao Zhige said authoritatively.
“But Hu Yan Xun will not withdraw easily this time,” Qi Wei noted solemnly, “Our spies reported that the Beidi territories had suffered too heavily from the snow disaster. Their sheeps and cattle were killed by the cold and more recently, they lost their spring harvest due to crop infections. This all-out battle against Yanzhou was them fighting with their backs against the river.1 If they cannot conquer Yanzhou, as the supreme commander, Hu Yan Xun will be condemned by the Beidi Court.”
Otherwise, Hu Yan Xun would not have continued to join the subsequent battles after his loss of an arm and the defeat at Hongya. Like a cornered beast, even in death, he had to at least take a bite of Yanzhou.
Xiao Zhige pondered extensively before placing his finger on the Beidi Court on the map. “For this decisive battle, Hu Yan Xun will deploy majority of the remaining troops, leaving the Imperial City loosely guarded. Why don’t we use this opportunity to pull the rug from under his feet and destroy our enemies at the root?”
The Beidi Imperial Court lied deep in the northern desert surrounded by labyrinthine terrains. A rash attack could result in an ambush and subsequent annihilation. However, with their main troops having been deployed, this was a golden opportunity to fell the Beidi Empire in one swoop.
“It’s too risky,” Xie Ling, who had always been cautious, disagreed, “To do this without Hu Yan Xun’s notice, we can only deploy a small platoon. But with such a small number, we don’t know if we can overpower the remaining Beidi soldiers. And if Hu Yan Xun discovers the ruse and leads his troops back, they will have to deal with enemies at both the front and rear.”
The other lieutenants nodded in agreement.
Xiao Zhige spoke up after a long silence, “I’ll personally lead the ambush team.”
Qi Wei immediately objected, “General, you can’t take this risk. If anything happens to you, Yanzhou will lose its morale.”
After all these years, it can be said that Xiao Zhige is Yanzhou’s indispensable pillar. As long as he was here, the soldiers and civilians were willing to grit their teeth and defend this land. He was like the sky over Yanzhou and if he fell, the city was lost.
This was simply too risky.
The other lieutenants were in agreement with Qi Wei, believing that Xiao Zhige shouldn’t be the one to go.
Xiao Zhige paced two steps and pointed to the Beidi Court, “They are in the midst of an internal strife and with the city empty of troops, we can easily wipe them out with an army of 5000.”
He thought briefly and continued, “Moreover, Hu Yan Xun had always been in disunity with the Beidi Emperor. Only punishment awaits should he return in defeat. But if the Emperor was killed, he can easily stage a takeover.”
The Supreme Commander Hu Yan Xun was the younger brother of the Beidi Emperor. As Hu Yan Xun was courageous and had achieved many meritorious exploits, he was well-liked by the people but hated by the Emperor.
“With this maneuver, we could bring about the downfall of the Beidi people and years of peace for Yanzhou,” Xiao Zhige looked at the lieutenants determinedly, “Would you like to take this gamble?”
A long silence followed.
Disrupting the Beidi monarchy and bringing peace to Yanzhou; to the lieutenants who had been stationed here for many years, this was undoubtedly a great temptation.
After a long pause, Qi Wei was the first to speak, “A gamble it is! But the General can’t go! I’ll go! My life for the head of the Beidi King, it’s worth it!”
“Old Qi is too rash and not fit for a covert operation! Let me do it!” Xie Ling objected.
The rest of the lieutenants followed and volunteered themselves to lead the ambush.
Xiao Zhige raised his hand to quieten the room and said in a n indisputable tone, “I’ll lead. I’m the most familiar with the terrains of the northern desert.”
The lieutenants wanted to oppose but did not know how to back their words because all these years, the battles they had fought were along the edge of the northern desert. Only Xiao Zhige who had fought further north was most familiar with the layout.
Seeing that they had ceded, Xiao Zhige discussed his plan, “Hu Yan Xun will attack the city tonight. I will show up briefly on the battlefield then have Qi Wei take over while I leave with our men through Amugu Path. You only need to stall Hu Yan Xun for five days for me to take over the Beidi Imperial Court.”
The lieutenants looked at each other and finally declared, “We will not fail you!”
After having arranged everything at the barracks, Xiao Zhige returned to the General’s Manor.
An Chang Qing was still awake in the bedroom. He was polishing a rare piece of dark purple jade. This piece was of the highest quality and An Chang Qing had taken a liking to it at first sight. He had borrowed some tools from the old craftsman to personally chisel the stone.
In his previous life, being idle in the mansion, he had picked up crafting jade as a hobby. However, as it was self-taught and he only had basic tools and materials on hand, he could only craft simple designs. Seeing the beautiful piece of unpolished jade, his hands were itching again. He borrowed the tools from the craftsman to personally craft the jade.
“Nuo Nuo even knows jade crafting?” Xiao Zhige was surprised but frowned when he saw the wound on his finger, “Why not have the craftsman do it?”
An Chang Qing vaguely replied that he had done some reading and said, “I want to do it myself.”
He actually wanted to make something for Xiao Zhige but at the moment, he still had nothing to show and did not want to let him know yet.
Hearing that An Chang Qing wanted to try, Xiao Zhige did not intend to spoil his interest and could only sigh. He then took out a jar of salve and applied it on An Chang Qing’s fingers, “Be careful with it next time.”
An Chang Qing wrinkled his nose and moaned, “I know. I’ve only started today so I wasn’t careful.”
Xiao Zhige finished applying the medicine and began tidying up the tools, “Doing it at night is harmful to your eyes. In the future, work on it during the day.”
An Chang Qing obediently replied with an ‘oh’. Seeing that he did not argue, Xiao Zhige’s eyes relaxed.
The two took turns to bathe in the side room before snuggling into bed together. After returning from the barracks, Xiao Zhige’s mood had seemed a little gloomy. An Chang Qing was leaning against his chest when he saw the ‘川’ between his brows. He reached and smoothed out his forehead, “Why are you frowning?”
The ambush on the Beidi’s Court was a top secret mission, Xiao Zhige was not allowed to disclose it to anyone. Moreover, he also did not want An Chang Qing to worry and simply left out the details, “Hu Yan Xun will lead his troops to attack the city tonight.”
“You have to leave for the war again?” An Chang Qing sat up and looked at him with worries in his eyes.
“Um, I will lead my troops to fight them back.”
Having stayed in Yanzhou for the past few days, An Chang Qing was influenced by the people’s absolute trust in Xiao Zhige’s abilities. His concern was somewhat lifted, “I will wait here for your victorious return.”
Xiao Zhige held his hand and smiled, “Um, I will definitely return.”
An Chang Qing nodded thinking that this was going to be another regular battle, not noticing the conviction in his words.
Because Hu Yan Xun might be attacking the city this night, the pair did not get any sleep. The city was cloaked in darkness while troops were being deployed for the upcoming battle.
At roughly 1 in the morning, scouts reported that Hu Yan Xun’s troop was already ten miles from the city.
Xiao Zhige put on his armor and said goodbye to An Chang Qing.
An Chang Qing watched Xiao Zhige leave. He did not go back to sleep but asked for a ladder and climbed to the rooftop to look around.
Lights began to lit up one by one in the barracks as the war horn tore through the night. The civilians woke and illuminated their houses, filling the streets with light. Footsteps could be heard rushing from all directions in the General’s Manor.
At the yin hour (寅时 3-5a.m), the preparations for the upcoming battle was completed. Hu Yan Xun’s army charged forth and the sound of fighting roared from outside the city.
An Chang Qing stretched his neck to look into the distance but all he could see were tiny heads reflected by the flickering lights.
As the battle outside the city raged on, Xiao Zhige had stealthily led 5000 armored soldiers to Changri county, bypassing the front battlefield and deep into the hinterlands of the desert where the Beidi Imperial City lay.
1 背水一战 Fighting with one’s back against the river: Meaning being forced to fight and win or die.