Book One, Chapter 43: Atlas

A few rounds of wine in, much of the sense of estrangement within the room had dissipated. Though the old familiarity remained out of reach, they had thawed enough to make easy conversation.

Ji Gang removed his neckwarmer, and took a sip of wine. As he did, Zuo Qianqiu saw that the burn scars on his face extended down onto his bare neck. He could not help but ask, “When the desert riders rode into Duan province… How— how did this happen to you?”

Ji Gang laughed shortly, turning his winecup in his hand. “Shen Wei retreated so quickly, Duan province didn’t last a day against them. The desert riders had such swift horses, and my legs weren’t what they once had been. How could I have gotten away? I’d already made up my mind to die that day.”

As he spoke, he thought of Hua Pingting, and his throat constricted. He turned his face away and wiped a hand roughly over his face. He did not continue speaking.

Zuo Qianqiu drained his cup. “Shen Wei. He had it coming!”

“Shen Wei wasn’t the only one who had it coming,” Ji Gang said darkly. “Zhongbo fell in such strange circumstances. They heaped all of it onto Shen Wei’s shoulders. They must have known he would not get out of it alive.”

Zuo Qianqiu asked, “It would have been quite some time since you had been in Qu Capital. How can you be so certain that Shen Wei was a scapegoat?”

“Five years ago, when Chuan-er came to the Capital, he was nearly assassinated in the Imperial Prison,” Ji Gang said. “Shen Wei was already dead then, but someone was still intent on eradicating him. What for, if not to silence him?”

Zuo Qianqiu sank into silence, drinking. A moment later, he said, “Everyone involved at the time is dead today. It will not be an easy task to re-investigate Zhongbo’s defeat. Your boy there, does he want revenge for Shen Wei?”

Ji Gang was, by now, drunk. He had wholly quit drinking in these past five years, and tonight, he had broken his vows for Zuo Qianqiu. Now, he steadied himself on the edge of the table, and sneered, “Revenge? Why would Chuan-er seek revenge for Shen Wei? Zuo Qianqiu, how can you be as narrow-minded as the rest of them? Is everyone who bears the surname Shen a criminal now? Chuan-er‘s grown up, he’s capable of reasoned thought, and he can tell right from wrong. He and Shen Wei, it just happened that they were made father and son. They have flesh and blood in common, and absolutely nothing else. Why do you all have to put this on him? Shen Wei is dead! That debt of blood owed to Zhongbo, shouldn’t we be claiming it from the desert riders instead?”

Ji Gang smashed his cup on the ground, his chest heaving.

“Re-investigating Zhongbo’s defeat— it isn’t to avenge anyone— it’s so that we finally find out why he had to suffer like he did! You were once a leader of men too— haven’t you already realised? If someone could orchestrate Zhongbo’s fall five years ago, then five years later, they can do the same elsewhere. The desert riders were so close on our tail. Without an informer, without a map, how could that have been possible?!”

Zuo Qianqiu sighed, and said, “Peace, brother. When Jiming raced to Zhongbo that year, his very first act was to barricade the road from Zhongbo to Dan city, so they could investigate where the desert clans were getting their information from. But the circumstances were dire. You know how difficult it can be. Every piece of evidence seemed to point to Shen Wei, and Shen Wei just happened to take himself out of the equation, leaving only a snubbed, low-born son behind. It was impossible not to have suspicions about him.”

Ji Gan was silent for a moment, then said, “When your boy struck him in his chest, it nearly took his life.”

Zuo Qianqiu drained his cup again. “I won’t attempt to justify that. But hear this one thing from me, brother: we each saw a different angle of the truth, and acted as we saw fit.”

Ji Gang laughed coldly. “Goodness. We’ll fix it all with rhetoric, shall we?”

Without another word, Zuo Qianqiu reached for an empty cup, and called towards the door, “A-ye!”

The door opened right away. Zuo Qianqiu poured with one hand, and pitched with the other. “Come apologise to your Uncle and sect-brother.”

Ji Gang reached out with his chopsticks, and caught the quivering winecup on the tip. He said, “A loss is a loss, and we did lose. Chuan-er, you should make this toast instead.”

And as the words left his mouth, that cup of wine changed direction to fly towards Shen Zechuan. But mid-air, Xiao Chi’ye intercepted it, and said,”Lanzhou, surely you can let your elder brother take this.”

Shen Zechuan kicked up, and knocked Xiao Chi’ye’s arm askew. With a wobble, the cup began to fall. He said, “I have to do as my Teacher asks, elder brother. Oblige me.”

As one open palm slipped past another, Xiao Chi’ye twisted his hand around and shoved Shen Zechuan’s arm backwards. Before the winecup hit the floor, Shen Zechuan had put out his foot and swept it back up.

The air whistled as those two exchanged blows, and that winecup rose, and fell, and rose again, never spilling a single drop.

Ji Gang had not put his chopsticks down. He sampled the cold dishes, commentating, “Those movements aren’t of the Ji school.”

Watching the two fighters, Zuo Qianqiu replied, “That’s the Xiao family’s own style. It mimicks the deadly clutches of a bird of prey. Once you’re caught, it’s almost impossible to fight free again. Lanzhou, go for his legs, interrupt his rhythm.”

Shen Zechuan disengaged immediately, took a half step back, and swept out sharply with his leg. Xiao Chi’ye sidestepped a little, and looked as if he wanted to say something to Shen Zechuan, but refrained on account of the company. As he parried, he caught Shen Zechuan’s ankle in his hand, and taking advantage of the angle, he ran his hand down the curve of that calf where the teachers could not see him, and tugged Shen Zechuan lightly towards himself.

“How vicious,” Xiao Chi’ye kept his face sombre. “I could barely resist that.”

Shen Zechuan, unbalanced by the blatant harassment, barely had time to catch the cup. Xiao Chi’ye waited patiently until he did, then abruptly struck out with his fist, going directly for Shen Zechuan’s face.

“Ji Family Fist!” Ji Gang’s chopsticks halted. He fought with himself for a moment, but in the end muttered, “…no wonder Chuan-er spoke well of him.”

That physique was only too perfect for the style. Not even Ji Gang could find fault with the punch he had just thrown.

Cup in one hand, Shen Zechuan could not meet his blow head-on, and so threw himself backwards. The slipstream swept past his temple, and before he could straighten back up, Xiao Chi’ye had pressed a step closer. As his outstretched fist dropped down and away, it nudged lightly against the inside of Shen Zechuan’s collar, and came away with the remains of that plum blossom Shen Zechuan had bitten into.

“Got you.” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes shone with mischief, and he slipped the rest of that blossom into his mouth. When Shen Zechuan tried again to rise, he blocked him, and looking up quickly cried, “It’s spilling!”

Shen Zechuan froze and glanced up— Xiao Chi’ye immediately seized his hand, his thumb rasping up against the inside of his wrist, and borrowing that hand, he downed the cup of wine in one.

“Thanks for the wine, sect-brother,” Xiao Chi’ye backed off right away, and continued like a civilised person, “It leaves a lovely aroma on the tongue.”

His inner wrist still burning from the contact, Shen Zechuan straightened up, shook his sleeve out, and made a bow, placing the cup back on the table.

Ji Gang, oblivious to their surreptitious shenanigans, observed, “The challenge in the fusion of many styles lies in creating cohesion between them. You’ve taught well.”

Zuo Qianqiu replied, “He’s got a ways to go yet. Rather, Lanzhou’s specialisation in the Ji Family Precepts has given him remarkable control.”

The two elders filled their cups again, and Xiao Chi’ye and Shen Zechuan went back out.

As soon as the door was shut, Xiao Chi’ye snagged Shen Zechuan and said, “They’re not going to stop drinking anytime before sunrise. It’s cold out there, let’s go inside.”

The north end of the connecting corridor led to the Yao family’s old library. To keep the room dry, and the books in good condition, ducts heated the building from underground. Not all the books had been relocated as yet, and scrolls of calligraphy, paintings, and curios occupied four delicate tiers of open-framed bookshelves.

Xiao Chi’ye shed his overcoat and sat down by a reading desk to flip through the books, one leg perched on the other. He said, “This wing was originally commissioned by old man Yao. There’s lots of good stuff hidden around in here, but Yao Wenyu isn’t interested in collecting, so it’s all been sitting around untouched.”

Shen Zechuan wiped his hands clean before picking up a book from the shelves.

The Yao family loved books, and the Yao patriarch kept his books in good order, organised by subject matter. However, he was surprised by how clean the pages were despite their long time in storage. Xiao Chi’ye must have arranged for them to be well looked after, when he had taken over the property. Not a spot of dust lay on them.

They each took a side of the room, and neither spoke again.

Shen Zechuan’s keen eyes found an “Atlas of the Swan Goose Region” amongst the travel section. He opened it, and indeed discovered a topographical map of the Swan Goose mountains.

The Swan Goose mountains could be divided into east and west mountain ranges. The western ranges extended to Luoxia Pass and adjoined Quan City, isolating Huai province, marking Dazhou’s historic border. Later, in Xiao Fangxu’s territorial expansion, he would push that border all the way to the eastern ranges, carving out the contours of the state of Libei today.

Shen Zechuan leafed through the pages, and found a detailed description of the northeastern supply route.

Qu Capital oversaw the dispatch of every granary in the nation. Most of the grain supply to the military came from Juexi’s Qin province. However, because boats could not reach the vast northern and eastern regions, it became necessary to establish specialised supply routes. Qidong’s was a little more complex, but the northeastern supply route which provisioned Libei was very easy to follow. Grain would be transported from Qin province to Port Guanyi, and thence ferried to Qu Capital. From Qu Capital, it would be sent out to Quan city, and from Quan city, it could then be moved as horse-drawn cargo via the northeastern supply route, nearly as the crow flies, until it reached the state of Libei.

The northeastern supply route was a critical channel for Libei’s military provisions, and was guarded heavily by the Libei Iron Cavalry. Even if the Emperor himself was to visit, he would not pass without Xiao Jiming’s seal of passage. Historically, no matter how brutal the battles became at the frontier, the northeastern supply route’s defence had always remained rock solid, never once permitting the desert riders to draw close.

In fact, when Zhongbo fell five years ago, this route was the very reason Xiao Jiming had been able to get his troops down south so quickly. The northeastern supply route happened to pass north-west of Ci province, giving him the insurance he needed for an immediate dispatch.

“The northeastern supply route,” Xiao Chi’ye had at some point invited himself over. Following Shen Zechuan’s hand, he had a quick skim, and said, “You’re interested in warfare too?”

“I’m not,” Shen Zechuan denied automatically.

“Nevermind, Er-gongzi can teach you.” Xiao Chi’ye grasped his wrist, and brought his finger to the easternmost Chashi river. “You know this place, don’t you? Zhongbo’s Chashi river is the middle point of Dazhou’s easternmost border. Past that is the great desert of the Wastelands. Here’s an interesting fact: historically, the desert clans have only ever ventured an attack on the Borderlands.”

Shen Zechuan followed the finger to the southeastern corner of Tianfei Gate. There, directly adjacent to the desert, like the only chink in Dazhou’s armout, were the Borderlands.

“They just happen to be in the worst place. Tianfei Gate guards the region just above them, and Suotian Pass bars access to the lands below. The Borderlands are the soft opening in Dazhou’s southeastern border, the only region which has no geographical advantage to its defence.” Xiao Chi’ye drew closer, intent on the map. “That is where the Lu family stands sentinel. You know Lu Guangbai’s moniker? They call him the “Flaming Beacon in a Sandstorm”, because the Lu family guards the watchtower which stands over ten thousand li of bare desert. The desert riders are cunning, and tend to attack by night. Each time they engage, Lu Guangbai has to light the beacon on that watchtower. The Borderland Garrison are the best night combat infantry in Dazhou, and they specialise in ambushes.”

A touch of joy came into Xiao Chi’ye’s voice as he explained, and he abandoned Shen Zechaun’s wrist to appropriate his finger, tapping with it at the Borderlands.

“Amongst the Four Great Generals, Teacher is the best at defence, because that’s what the terrain at Tianfei Gate requires. Aggressive frontal strikes are not necessary there. Though the Borderlands look pretty shabby, Lu Guangbai is unequalled when it comes to leading a hard war of attrition. In that arena, not even da-ge and Commander Qi can compete with him.”

“The Borderlands have no cavalry.” Shen Zechuan turned his head slightly to cast a glance at him.

Xiao Chi’ye laughed. He seemed more at ease in the moment than ever before. He said, “Lu Guangbai doesn’t need one. His soldiers are the bane of all cavalries. The Lu family has kept watch over the desert for generations. Their climate is bleak, and their barren wasteland can’t be tilled for crops. They’re genuinely dirt-poor, so they’ve never been able to afford horses. But even without horses, they still had to go to war, and under those conditions, the Lu family eventually evolved formation tactics to neutralise cavalry troops.”

“You said it was “interesting”,” Shen Zechuan looked back at the map. “Did you mean to suggest that it was highly unusual for the desert riders to change up their routine by storming the border at Chashi river five years ago?”

“That’s right.” Xiao Chi’ye had the habit of fiddling with his thumb ring as he thought. However, as he was presently holding on to Shen Zechuan, he squeezed him lightly instead, mind supposedly elsewhere. “First, you have to understand this: the “Twelve Desert Clans” is only our name for them. Originally, there were more than just twelve clans out there in the desert. Huiyan Clan, which trades in the Libei exchange market, is a small clan driven out of the fertile regions by the others, and cosied up to Dazhou to survive. Similarly, what we refer to as the twelve desert clans today also differ in their individual strength. They have never appointed a sovereign, and therefore can never agree to diplomacy with us, so warfare becomes the only solution. In truth, every clash between us hurts them more. The strongest amongst them, Hanshe clan, occupies the north regions, and specialises in going up against the Libei Iron Cavalry. Their swiftest Gouma Clan lives in the south, where they can target the Borderland Garrison. That’s the never-changing landscape across the border, shaped that way by years of enduring conflict. But five years ago, Hanshe clan and Gouma clan converged in the centre, and without making a single peep, brought their hammer down at the Chashi river frontier.”

Xiao Chi’ye paused.

“There’s only one possible explanation for this.”

“They had absolute confidence,” Shen Zechuan said. “They were certain that Zhongbo would not hold them, and further, that Libei and the Borderlands would not arrive in time.”

“And thus the speculation that Shen Wei was in collusion with them,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “A direct inland incursion is extremely risky, and it’s no simple task to fuel a campaign on the plunder from each succeeding battle, especially in foreign territory. They would be accustomed to riding in the open desert, so urban warfare would be like fighting in fetters for them. And the closer to Qu Capital they got, the more unmistakable their objective would become.”

“Breaching Qu Capital is not a good choice. Qu Capital sits in the heart of Dazhou. If they tarry here for any length of time, they would fall under threefold siege from the Libei Iron Cavalry, the Qidong Garrison, and the Eight Battalions.” Shen Zechuan lowered his gaze. “I never thought the desert riders were heading for this place.”

“You’re too clever,” Xiao Chi’ye said approvingly, as he slid Shen Zechuan’s finger across the span of the map to land on the westernmost Juexi. “I think this was their destination. Juexi is on the coastline, and has two major ports, as well as major grain reserves in three separate provinces. All military provisions for Libei, Qu Capital, and Qidong are supplied by Juexi. The moment they crossed the threshold into Juexi, even without capturing any of its cities, they would hold the jugular to all three regions.”

“Without backup from inside Dazhou, this would be a pipe dream,” Shen Zechuan mused.

“It’s a straight east-west line between Zhongbo and Juexi, and cutting across Zhongbo is the most direct path there. Shen Wei opened the doors for them, and provided them with the confidence and supplies necessary to continue on inland. If not for the northeastern supply route, da-ge would have needed at least seven more days to move out. Seven days. If the Eight Battalions dropped the ball, the desert riders would have reached Port Guanyi,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “And that’s one of the reasons Libei was furious. No derelict passes beneath our iron hooves. We could have forgiven Shen Wei’s defeat, but we will never forgive this stab in the back.”

Shen Zechuan turned suddenly, and his eyes locked into Xiao Chi’ye’s, bare inches away.

“What?” Xiao Chi’ye had no plans to let him go.

“Shen Wei colluded,” a peculiar smile slipped onto Shen Zechuan’s face. “Shen Wei colluded… if the Twelve Desert Clans wanted Juexi, how in the world would Shen Wei have Juexi’s military map?”

“The Ministry of War would have it,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Money will work miracles. If he spent enough on a bribe, he could have bought it.”

“If that’s so,” Shen Zechuan said, “Anyone else could have done it too.”

5 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 43: Atlas

  1. Oh my goodness, there’s an update already! You’re on fire! Thank you so much for this! Amazing translation as always ❤


  2. There’s a typo here in, “Most of the grain supply to the military came from Quexi’s Qin province.” I think you meant to write it as Juexi?

    Just thought I’d mention it! Please ignore me if I’m wrong and thank you for the updates!


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