Chapter 116 Swinging a blade
In the vicinity of Puzhou, the opposing armies had been engaged in a standoff for almost two weeks.
The rebels, with their scarce provisions rapidly depleting, were not only devoid of confidence but also plagued by restless uncertainty among their leaders, stirred by rampant rumors.
Despite being born into a noble lineage renowned for their uprightness, Pei Ji, a man of candid demeanor, never confined himself to rigid military strategies on the battlefield.
After thwarting the clandestine scheme to withdraw troops and redirect the offensive towards Doji Road, he patiently awaited the perfect timing. He instructed his men to disseminate a carefully crafted message throughout the city of Puzhou, insinuating that An Yi Kang, ostensibly concerned about maintaining their military might, had privately acknowledged the diminishing chances of triumph. This, in turn, implied his intention to abandon Cao Si Liang’s forces to confront the situation in Puzhou alone, while he secretly sought an alternate path.
At first, these rumors went unnoticed by the rebels. But as the days dragged on, and the incessant murmurs filled their ears, even those who fought hard to suppress any inkling of belief found themselves gradually succumbing to their influence.
Cao Si Liang had misjudged the situation due to his perception that Hedong’s army was held back by the Turks, hindering their capabilities. This led him to believe that An Yi Kang’s rebel forces had a substantial advantage. Consequently, he switched sides in the heat of the battle. But now, witnessing the tables turning, his once feeble determination began to falter once again. The growing doubt intensified, fueled by suspicions that An Yi Kang had intentions of sacrificing him, adding to his increasing unease.
In the span of almost two weeks, Cao Si Liang and An Yi Kang had found themselves in numerous conflicts, some of which were known throughout the entire army. Li Jing Hui, caught between the two, felt increasingly helpless and flustered as the situation grew more chaotic and disheartening.
As the disintegration of the rebel forces neared, only a final exertion of strength away, Pei Ji promptly made up his mind. He instructed his men to venture to the enemy’s camp and shout messages, repeatedly urging them to surrender and promising lenient treatment.
Hedong’s army had relentlessly battled for months, enduring fatigue equal to that of their adversaries. It was their unwavering unity and resolute spirit that allowed them to surpass the rebel forces in terms of momentum.
It was this surge of unwavering momentum that once again overwhelmed Cao Si Liang’s indecisive heart.
Three days later, a secret letter arrived in Hedong’s army camp, written by Cao Si Liang, stating his desire to surrender and pledge allegiance.
Contrary to his anticipation, Pei Ji did not immediately embrace the surrender as he had assumed. Instead, he issued a decisive command to launch a fierce and relentless counteroffensive against the rebel forces.
It was already springtime, and the riverbanks were alive with the surging waves of spring.
The two armies stood opposite each other, poised like taut arrows, suddenly unleashed amidst the powerful thundering of drums.
Amidst the thunderous roar of horses and the clash of weapons, a voice suddenly pierced through the chaos, tearing through the air. “General Cao! General Cao has betrayed us!”
“General Cao has defected!”
The voice of one person quickly spread, echoing through the air. Soon, it was joined by others, growing from three to ten, and then dozens. Before long, the cries reached the ears of everyone. Within the rebel ranks, confusion ensued.
From the vantage point of the watchtower, Li Jing Hui’s face turned ashen. Consumed by a sense of urgency, he hurried towards An Yi Kang and pleaded, “Cao Si Liang has proven unreliable! With the enemy outnumbering us, we must retreat quickly!”
An Yi Kang remained resolute and towering on the elevated platform, paying no heed to his words. His sharp and menacing gaze quickly scanned through the crowd, finding his target in an instant. With an emotionless face, he effortlessly drew his bow, readying an arrow.
With a swift and silent “swoosh,” the arrow flew over the heads of the crowd, finding its mark in the back of Cao Si Liang as he raced on his horse towards the enemy lines.
Cao Si Liang’s broad back suddenly shuddered, unable to contain his fury. He squinted his eyes in pain and leaned forward, urging his horse to gallop faster. In the midst of his struggle, he turned his head to cast a glance.
As the distance was considerable, the arrow only grazed his back. Without a moment’s hesitation, An Yi Kang swiftly pulled out another arrow, this time targeting Cao Si Liang’s trusted horse, aiming with precision before releasing the arrow.
The horse, charging with great speed, was struck by the arrow, causing it to emit a tortured and desperate neigh. In a wild frenzy, it violently tossed its body, forcefully ejecting Cao Si Liang, who was already struggling from his previous wounds.
The impact with the ground jolted Cao Si Liang, and he landed on his back, his eyes wide open with an expression of disbelief and fury. The force of the fall caused the arrow, previously lodged only slightly in his back, to forcefully penetrate his body, revealing a bloodied and bent arrowhead emerging from his chest.
“Run!” An Yi Kang’s icy stare swiftly shifted away from the disheveled figure of Cao Si Liang on the ground. He firmly seized the still astonished Li Jing Hui, wasting no time, they sprinted down from the elevated platform and quickly mounted their horses, galloping away.
With his signal, the pounding war drums shifted their rhythm, now echoing the urgency of a hasty retreat. Witnessing this, some discarded their helmets and armor, surrendering by prostrating themselves, while others, swayed by the drum’s beat, hastily turned back and fled in disarray.
Amidst the disarrayed troops, Li Jing Hui found himself impaled by a stray arrow in his left arm, crimson blood gushing forth. Unable to attend to his injury, he pressed on, relentlessly sprinting while crimson droplets marked his path.
“General, should we give chase?” Zhang Jian swiftly recognized the enemy’s intentions and urgently sought Pei Ji’s approval.
“Give chase!” Pei Ji’s decision was swift, devoid of any hesitation. He personally mounted his steed, urging it into a rapid gallop, declaring, “I’ll lead the pursuit myself!”
During their retreat, Li Jing Hui’s injuries worsened, his body gradually weakening, and his dwindling strength unable to match the speed of their retreat.
“General, I… I’m reaching my limit,” he gasped, his forehead covered in perspiration, desperately clutching the saddle to prevent himself from toppling off the horse, his face drained of color.
An Yi Kang maintained his speed without any reduction, casting a cold glance at Li Jing Hui. With a somber face, he stated, “That’s not an option, Your Highness. We must retreat and flee. We have pursuers behind us, and if we halt at this moment, there’s only one way ahead—death.”
Li Jing Hui clenched his teeth, tightly clutching the saddle before him. He refrained from speaking, his body instinctively lowering itself.
Observing Li Jing Hui’s weakened appearance, An Yi Kang’s eyes revealed a trace of disdain. Suddenly, as if struck by a realization, he forcefully pulled the reins, causing their progress to decelerate.
“General?” His loyal confidants questioned anxiously from behind, fearing that he would, in truth, delay their chance to escape for the sake of Prince Rui.
Observing Li Jing Hui’s state, he suddenly selected a few individuals and commanded, “You, along with your respective followers, remain here and safeguard His Highness, maintaining a slower pace. I will lead the others and proceed to the designated rendezvous point.”
“No—” Li Jing Hui promptly attempted to reject the proposal.
An Yi Kang didn’t grant him the opportunity to speak, stating directly, “Your Highness, don’t fret. I will proceed first, as our forces have already divided into three paths. It is still uncertain if they will discover our specific group. Furthermore, considering Pei’s relation to you as your cousin, he shouldn’t pose too much trouble.”
“An Yi Kang, you—”
“Your Highness, have no worries. I shall remain unharmed,” An Yi Kang declared, dismissing Li Jing Hui’s concerns. With a contemptuous smile, he resumed the journey with his men.
Li Jing Hui, as the Emperor’s own brother, Prince Rui, was nothing more than a pretext for him to launch a legitimate military campaign. Since Li Jing Hui had become useless to him, An Yi Kang no longer extended any courtesy.
Li Jing Hui wanted to continue galloping alongside them, but the injury on his left arm deprived him of all strength. He could only allow the horse to trot forward, gradually falling farther and farther behind the main force until they were no longer visible.
Amidst utter despair, the soldiers chasing from behind closed in with every passing moment.
“Cousin,” Pei Ji clenched his lips and rode ahead, galloping towards Li Jing Hui. As he observed Li Jing Hui, injured and disheveled, clinging to his horse, he used the familiar title that hadn’t been spoken in years.
“Third Brother,” Li Jing Hui hesitated, unexpectedly using the title from their younger days. Back then, Pei Ji had not yet taken on his adult name, and because they were of similar age, they shared a close bond.
As a young nobleman, Pei Ji assumed his adult name before reaching the age of twenty. Additionally, at the tender age of sixteen, he donned his adult name and entered military service. Since then, he seldom employed the title of “Third Brother”.
“Cousin, given the current circumstances, is there anything else left unsaid?” Pei Ji’s expression grew complex. Earlier, he had harbored many words, intending to question Li Jing Hui directly. However, as the moment approached, he found himself hesitating to speak.
Li Jing Hui locked eyes with him, his mind flooded with countless thoughts in that fleeting moment. Eventually, as he glanced at the ferocious and vengeful individuals behind Pei Ji, he relied solely on his instincts and said, “An Yi Kang—he’s right ahead. Zi Hui, swiftly lead your men in pursuit. We may still have a chance to catch up!”
Pei Ji refrained from speaking and signaled to Huangfu Jing behind him. Without delay, he directed the majority of the cavalry to press on in pursuit, while he chose to remain in his current position.
“Considering the situation we face now, do you feel regret?”
“Regret?” Li Jing Hui hesitated, gazing at the colossal bow clutched in his hand. The previously harbored fear within him was abruptly replaced by a surge of exhilaration. A ruddy hue flushed his pale face due to blood loss as he declared, “I’m not the one who should feel remorse—it’s him, my eldest brother! If only he hadn’t taken Li-niang away, if only he hadn’t engaged in such vile deeds, how could our brotherhood have led to our present circumstances?”
Disappointment flashed in Pei Ji’s jet-black eyes. “Simply due to your personal grudge, are you willing to conspire with foreign adversaries?”
“What other options do I have?” Li Jing Hui bellowed furiously. “For all these years, I held no influence within the court. What do you demand of me to oppose him? Should I squander another ten or twenty years?”
“And what of those innocent lives lost? What about the displaced people, forced to wander aimlessly due to the Turks? What of the soldiers who perished? What about… my father?” Pei Ji’s eyes welled up with sudden redness, and his voice trembled with a hint of choked emotion.
If Li Jing Hui had genuinely immersed himself in political affairs, building influence and reputation in both the court and society, compelling his elder brother to yield, there might have been a hint of admiration and respect from Pei Ji. However, it was absolutely unforgivable that, driven by his personal grudges, he united with foreign adversaries, bringing suffering to his own subjects!
When Pei Yan was mentioned, Li Jing Hui fell into a momentary silence, his eyes betraying a sense of distress. However, in an instant, as if suddenly remembering something, his eyes widened with fury. “Yes, I admit I can’t measure up to you. Everyone regards you as a noble and restrained Third Young Master Pei. But who would have imagined that you were the most deceitful of them all! Before I left the capital, I entrusted you with Li-niang’s care. How did you handle it? How can you claim to be a principled gentleman? You’re nothing but a conniving hypocrite, forgetting your obligations for personal gain!”
Pei Ji silently observed him, his eyes void of the anticipated guilt or avoidance. Instead, he shook his head and spoke in a deep, solemn tone, “Indeed, I cannot claim to be an honorable gentleman. However, I would never sacrifice the well-being of the populace by colluding with foreign enemies for personal gain. Moreover, I would never expose her to the storm of public scrutiny and endure the unjust criticism and scorn of countless individuals just to satisfy my own ego. You bear the Li surname and have the imperial blood of Great Wei flowing within you, yet you have never fulfilled the duties befitting your royal lineage.
“Take a look at the people you’ve aligned yourself with,” Pei Ji’s gaze shifted towards the few individuals standing by his side. “An Yi Kang, full of ambition and oppressed by Xiao Ling Fu in the court. Someone like him, lacking strong leadership, how could they possibly exert control?”
Li Jing Hui recalled An Yi Kang, who had abandoned him moments ago, and an involuntary shiver ran through his body. Crestfallen, he hung his head and gazed at the blood oozing slowly from his wound.
The pain he had momentarily subdued surged back, gradually consuming the last remnants of resistance within his heart.
A voice from behind Pei Ji exclaimed, “General, why waste your breath on him? Treacherous scoundrels like him, even if he were the ruler of the world, we cannot spare him. It’s better to finish him off in one swift strike!”
Li Jing Hui let out a bitter laugh, knowing that there was no retreat. Eventually, he lifted his head and uttered, “It is my own incompetence that has led to this complete defeat. If you want to kill me, then go ahead.”
His face turned ashen and indifferent, amidst the crowd’s chorus of “traitor,” he appeared utterly disheveled. There was no trace left of the spirited young man who once rode through the streets of Chang’an!
Pei Ji glanced briefly, clenched his teeth, and rode closer.
“This will be the final time I call you ‘cousin’. We were true and loyal brothers in the past. I owe you my gratitude for your protection. Today, this Third Brother, standing here, wants to say ‘thank you’ with the hope that in your next life, you will not entangle yourself in the affairs of Emperors.”
With those words spoken, he raised the large blade in his hand and swung it down in front of the watching crowd.
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