Edited and Proofread by KitKat
Xie Ling left Suzhou’s General’s Manor and traveled for half a day before arriving at Kangyong County.
Kangyong County was now occupied by the Common Man’s Army. Because it was surrounded by mountains and rivers, there were only three traversable paths, all of which were heavily guarded by the people who had joined the rebellion. Members of the rebellion identified themselves using a piece of blue cloth tied around their waist. Most of them either carried a hoe or ax as weapons. Although they all seemed amped up, to Xie Ling who had been fighting the Beidi Army for many years, they looked rather foolhardy.
The might of this Common Man’s Army solely depended on numbers. But the larger the army, the more weapons and armor they’d need. It was impossible to fight all of Da Ye’s troops with the sole mentality of not fearing death. That was simply a mantis trying to stop a chariot.
No wonder Xiao Zhige had sent him here.
Not to mention the Third Prince, if Shen Tu Xu hadn’t been merciful towards them, the Suzhou army could easily disassemble this gathering.
Xie Ling stopped his horse at a junction towards the main road. He scanned the area and not long after, was approached by a watchman holding two axes.
“Who are you? You can’t stay here! Hurry up and leave!”
Xie Ling was relieved to see that although the watchman bore a menacing attitude, he had no intention of attacking innocent people. He dismounted and introduced himself, “I am Xie Ling, I’ve come to take refuge. Please take me to meet the leader.”
The man was suspicious at first but seeing that he was alone, decided to let him in after some deliberation. He notified his colleague and motioned to Xie Ling, “Wait here. I’ll go to consult our leader.”
The two brothers who led the rebellion had been motherless from a young age. When they got older, their father fell ill and needed medication to stay alive. To earn money, the elder brother had learned butchery to support the family while the more intelligent younger brother had studied from the village professor.
Initially, the family was looking forward to sending the younger brother off for the Imperial Exams when the snow storm hit. It took a lot from them to pull through the disaster but unfortunately, shortly after, the county magistrate came and demanded payment. On top of that, each family was forced to send one person to work on the construction of the pagoda.
Within their family, only the elder brother was fit for such strenuous labor but he was also the breadwinner of the family and, without him, their livelihood would be lost.
With no other choice, their sickly father had begged the officials to let his eldest son stay in exchange for money. But the officials had been merciless. They had kicked him aside and caused him to hit his head against the wall. The father had then died on the spot.
The elder brother heard the news of his father’s death and immediately ran home. After he had buried his father, he gathered the villagers and went to find the officials who had killed his father. He took his revenge by hanging their corpses at the village gate. Seeing this, the quick-witted younger brother proposed that they might as well band together and revolt since that seemed to be the only way to survive.
And so, as the hatred for the local officials increased, more and more people had come to join their cause.
Because the elder brother was powerful and the younger brother was persuasive, the villagers had unanimously established them as their leaders.
When they heard that someone named Xie Ling was requesting an audience, the brothers looked at each other in befuddlement. Even among the flow of people wanting to join their cause, only a handful had wanted to meet them. Furthermore, with the news that the Third Prince had been sent to subjugate the rebellion, they couldn’t help but raise their guard.
The younger brother considered briefly and said, “Let him in. There’s only one of him, we don’t have to fear.”
Xie Ling led his horse along as he followed the guide into Kangyong county’s courthouse which the two brothers had taken over.
He entered the hall and saw two young men in their twenties sitting next to each other. One with a strong and frightening appearance and the other rather delicate and mellow. They must be the pair of siblings leading the rebellion.
Xie Ling stepped forward and introduced himself, “I am Yanzhou’s Lieutenant, Xie Ling. Greetings to the two leaders.”
Once the younger brother heard his words, he looked at him with surprise and panic, “Yanzhou? You’re under the Northern Warlord’s command?”
Xie Ling nodded, “That is correct. The General has sent me to discuss matters of great importance with you both if you would hear me out.”
The elder brother was uneducated but the Northern Warlord’s reputation was not alien to him: the God of War who could not be defeated by any means.
He tried to put on an expression of indifference but couldn’t help turning to look at his younger brother. The younger brother coughed lightly and sent the guard away. He then led Xie Ling to the study.
After knowing Xie Ling’s identity, the brothers were much more respectful. Although Xiao Zhige had a bad reputation, many people in the northern parts looked up to him for his years of effort in driving away the Beidi people and keeping them safe.
During their talk, Xie Ling checked them out and believed that they were not power-hungry individuals who had used the people’s suffering for their own gain. And thus, he told them about the Third Prince’s plot and Xiao Zhige’s plan for them.
After listening to his words, the elder brother swore loudly but was stopped by his younger brother. As a learned person, the second brother showed a better temperament, “How do we know that what Lieutenant Xie speaks of is the truth? You do serve the court after all.”
Xie Ling responded, “If you refuse to believe me, I can only have my people spread this news. By right, this should have nothing to do with Yanzhou. However, the General could not bear to see the people of Da Ye die in vain so he had sent me to warn you. Furthermore, do you two really think that the troops of this county are incapable of stomping out this poorly equipped army?”
Xie Ling’s words were hard to hear. The elder brother was disgruntled but the younger brother was not perturbed. This was an issue he had been worrying about since the beginning.
“General Shen Tu Xu is benevolent and cares for his troops. He did not want his soldiers to have to fight their relatives which is why he had been staying on the defensive. It was not that he dared not fight but because he did not want to.” Xie Ling continued, “But when push comes to shove, if the Third Prince arrives and gives the order to attack, he will have no choice but to fight. When that time comes, Kangyong County will fall and countless lives will be lost. Is this what the two of you want?”
The younger brother contemplated and sadly, had to agree with Xie Ling, “Lieutenant Xie is right. But if we agree to withdraw peacefully, how can we ensure the safety of these villagers? They are really at their wits end, that’s why they have joined us.”
Xie Ling replied, “If you two are willing to cooperate with us, the General will fight to ensure the safety of these people.”
The elder brother was swayed by Xie Ling’s words. Seeing that his brother was still hesitant, he said, “We brothers have no families or relatives. If we die, then so be it! However, we cannot implicate the young and old who have come under us.”
The younger brother agreed, “We are willing to cooperate with you. Please do not break your promise.”
Seeing that they actually cared for their countrymen, Xie Ling was beginning to feel some respect towards them. He handed them a token and some identification prepared by Xiao Zhige and explained, “If everything goes according to plan, once you hear the rumors being spread that the Third Prince is planning to poison the river, seek refuge with General Shen Tu Xu under the guise of surrendering. After that, we will have made arrangements for you and your people to be transported along the borders of Xi Wei heading to Liangzhou where you will enter as immigrants.”
By the time Xie Ling had finished relaying the plan, the sky had turned dark. The Third Prince could arrive any time; It was best that he did not stay in Suzhou any longer. He quickly sent a letter to Xiao Zhige and left in the cover of night.
When the Third Prince arrogantly brought his troops to Suzhou, Shen Tu Xu personally brought his men to welcome him.
The Third Prince greeted him with a kind expression and friendly attitude. Having seen his courtesy, Shen Tu Xu did not want to believe that he was capable of coming up with the idea to poison the river.
He led the Third Prince’s group into the manor and held a brief meeting. The Third Prince sat in the head seat sipping his tea while the people in the room took turns to voice their opinions. After everyone had spoken, the Third Prince calmly interjected, “Your ideas are not bad but I have a better way to solve this.”
Shen Tu Xu heard this and felt a sense of dread. He listened in consternation as the Third Prince spoke with a straight face on killing thousands with poison.
The other generals looked unsure but none were ready to refute. Shen Tu Xu clenched his fists. After a short hesitation, he stood up and said, “Your Highness’s strategy is indeed clever … however…”
The Third Prince raised his brows and beckoned for him to continue.
“The day before, there was a Taoist Priest in the rebellion’s army who foretold that Your Highness will be using this strategy. By now, not only the rebels but almost everyone in Suzhou is aware of this. If we insist on carrying out this plan, I’m afraid they’d already found ways to counter…”
“That’s impossible!” The Third Prince glared at him. He then narrowed his eyes and put on a misgiving expression. Other than Father and Master Liao, he did not disclose this to anyone else. How could it possibly leak?
Shen Tu Xu continued to persuade, “This has spread to all corners of the city. You can even ask the children and they will tell you.
The Third Prince had now lost his composure. He sat back and declared, “If you can’t poison them then simply take them by force! It’s only a bunch of villagers, nothing to be afraid of!”
“This…” Shen Tu Xu hesitated and said, “But the two leaders of the Common Man’s Army heard of Your Highness’s deployment and have already fled. Last night, someone from their camp came to announce their surrender.”
The Third Prince was speechless.
The Third Prince gritted his teeth and snapped at Shen Tu Xu, “Anything else? Why don’t you just say it all at once!”
This time, Shen Tu Xu answered with speed, “I have nothing else to report.”
The Third Prince gnashed his teeth in anger. His plan to poison them couldn’t be carried out and now, he couldn’t even attack them if he wanted to. He lashed out, “I’ll write back to seek father’s advice. Since they dared to revolt, even if they surrender, we can’t let them off this easily!”
After Xie Ling rushed back to Yanzhou, he immediately went to the General’s Manor to report to Xiao Zhige.
Xiao Zhige heaved a sigh of relief upon hearing the news and smiled, “Next is all up to Minister Li’s abilities.”
Xie Ling thought of the last step in the plan and couldn’t help but feel happy, “The General is truly brilliant. If those people can arrive in Yanzhou safely, it’ll be perfect.”
Yanzhou had always had a sparse population with all the death tolls due to the years of war. If Xiao Zhige’s plan was carried out smoothly, the rebels who had no place to go could help to repopulate the city.
“Let’s wait for the response from Yejing. It shouldn’t be long.” Xiao Zhige looked at Xie Ling’s sooty appearance and said, “Go back and rest up. I have to tell Wangfei the news, he’s been worried about this for several days now.”
Xie Ling understood that that was his cue to leave. He saluted and left promptly.
Xiao Zhige went off to find An Chang Qing.
In the past few days, An Chang Qing had not been sleeping well. An Fu had tried to help him sleep by cooking some somniferous soup but An Chang Qing had vomited it out after taking a small sip. Hu Shifei was asked to take his pulse but found that nothing was wrong. For him to get some shut eye, Xiao Zhige had to soothe him until late into the night.
When Xiao Zhige found him, An Chang Qing was reading under a pavilion in the courtyard.
Since he was neither able to sleep at night nor day, An Chang Qing went through the books he had read before to find if there was anything that could be useful to Xiao Zhige.
Xiao Zhige sat down beside him and filled up the teacup on the table.
An Chang Qing let out an “en”. Although he was looking slightly pale, he pointed in high spirit to Xiao Zhige a paragraph in the book he was reading, “I was about to go find you. Wangye, have a look at this.”
Xiao Zhige took over the book from An Chang Qing and found that it was an exploration journal. The part An Chang Qing was pointing out was an interesting story that the author had happened to witness:
One day, I met a street performer who placed serpentine and stones into a bamboo tube and was able to shoot it five steps away. He repeated the act but accidentally added too much serpentine. It ended up injuring many passersby and he was arrested.
When An Chang Qing read this before, he only felt amusement. Now that he read it again, he found that it held great prospects.
If a little serpentine in a small bamboo tube could easily hurt people, then what about a larger quantity of serpentine and the stones changed to something else? Couldn’t they create a weapon which could help them defend the city?
It’s just that An Chang Qing was not familiar with weaponry so he sought Xiao Zhige to have a look.
Xiao Zhige mulled over this passage for a long time. He laughed suddenly and grabbed An Chang Qing’s hand. “Nuo Nuo is really my lucky star.”
An Chang Qing was a little embarrassed. He pulled away his hand, took back the book and pretended to flip through it, “What nonsense are you talking about again?”
Xiao Zhige shook his head and spoke in earnest, “Nuo Nuo doesn’t know this but according to some of the First Emperor’s records, there were several mentions of weapons made of serpentine.”
Unfortunately, the First Emperor had not managed to develop it during his reign and the subsequent emperors had failed to inherit his insight. Now that An Chang Qing was able to discover this, Xiao Zhige believed it would warrant great results. If successful, Yanzhou would gain a formidable weapon.
Not expecting that he was of some help, An Chang Qing’s face lit up with excitement, “Really?”
Xiao Zhige nodded, “Tomorrow I will gather the military’s craftsmen and have them prepare the experiments.”
After speaking, Xiao Zhige was pleased to report to An Chang Qing, “There’s another good news. The poisoning incident has been resolved. If everything goes according to plan, the ten thousand rebels from Suzhou will be sent to Yanzhou.”
Xiao Zhige rubbed An Chang Qing’s head and comforted him in a warm voice, “Nuo Nuo can sleep in peace now.”
An Chang Qing muttered in refute, “It wasn’t entirely because I was worried about this. I simply can’t fall asleep.”
Xiao Zhige did not want to disagree with him and sensibly dropped the topic. He whispered softly to An Chang Qing, “It’s ok. Hu Shifei has concocted a special lubricant. I’m sure I’ll be able to help Nuo Nuo sleep well tonight.”
An Chang Qing glared at him with red ears and silently scolded the hooligan in his heart!