Shen Zechuan had, at Zhao Zui Temple, received Qi Huilian’s entire lifetime of knowledge. Six years ago, when he kneeled at Qi Huilian’s feet, he already knew which path he was going to take. It was in pain and anxiety that he tempered his body and spirit. He once naively thought that he could throw off the noble clans’ restraints by relying on power checks and balances alone.
But he failed.
Shen Zechuan looked ahead. The murmuring waters of the river flowed, like life that had plunged into darkness, unable to turn back, and twinkling only because of the starry sky reflected in it. He slowly nudged the little bamboo fan open, then slowly closed it up again. He said, “I left Qudu, but I’m still in a cage. This is a punishment to me for taking my chances. I have to find a new way out soonest possible. Teacher entrusted his entire lifetime of convictions to me. I once promised him to walk to the end of this battle for him. We endured it all in the past because Qudu did not seem to have reached the stage of no return yet. But now, I’ve come to the understanding that it has long been on the decline, like the sun setting beyond the western hills.”
Qi Huilian shouted about the decaying empire in the heavy downpour, yet his raised arms still seemed to be trying in vain to hold up the mansion that was collapsing.1 He had taken an entirely different path from Hai Liangyi, but yet they had both lit up the same torch. In the last moment of his life that had always blazed for the Li clan, he cast aside the crown prince whom he could never let go of in the past and chose Shen Zechuan, who was of humble origins.
Both of Qi Huilian’s students were what the common folks called worlds apart, like clouds and mud. The Crown Prince was the direct descendant of the Li clan, and he seemed to be born just to be a wise sovereign. Qi Huilian thought that they could create a new world, because they were the undisputed legitimate descendants of direct lineage in this world. But then he failed. Subsequently, he found Shen Zechuan in the mire. A Shen Zechuan whose birth mother was of lowly birth and whose father was defeated in battle. A Shen Zechuan who was not a direct descendant. Qi Huilian chose such a Shen Zechuan. This was a change of his lifelong conviction. It was a declaration that he no longer bow to what lineage had in store for them. He wanted such a Shen Zechuan to pierce through this wretched, decaying empire.
“I have given up enduring it all.” Shen Zechuan rested his fan on his knee and turned slightly sideways to gaze at Xiao Chiye. “I’m going to choose another way to fight. I want to remain in Zhongbo. You once said to Tantai Hu, ‘the humiliation of our nation has yet to be redressed, and the feuds of our families have yet to be avenged’. That’s right, Ce’an, the humiliation Zhongbo has suffered should be redressed in Zhongbo itself. This is what I want to do. One day, we will gallop under the skies of Libei, and that will be when I am strong and powerful enough. Two million isn’t enough to marry the wolf pup of the Prince of Libei. Such a betrothal gift is not worthy of my Xiao Ce’an. If I’m in Zhongbo, however, I will one day go on to be your indestructible shield.”
The water bag hurriedly fell to the ground, splashing water all over the ground and onto the corner of Xiao Chiye’s robe, wetting it. Under the soft veil of moonlight, Xiao Chiye suddenly grasped hold of Shen Zechuan’s hand and hugged him.
After a long time, Xiao Chiye’s hoarse voice rang out beside Shen Zechuan’s ear, clinging close to it, “I’ll leave my back to you, and you’ll leave your chest to me. We cannot do without the other. I’ll choose the best horse for you in Libei. We’ll build a house on the Zhongbo-Libei demarcation line and meet there every month—it’s a must. To marry me, two million isn’t enough; I want Lanzhou’s priceless smile that even a thousand gold cannot buy.”
Shen Zechuan raised his hands to cover Xiao Chiye’s back—to embrace this captivating scent. Xiao Chiye was the wind traversing across the meadow to assail and invade the turbulent river in Shen Zechuan’s heart, allowing him to taste the sweetness of love all over. Having lost Duanzhou and his teacher, there was not much he had left. He eventually had to stride across that ravine of unfathomable depths to become a fortress for whatever was left of these remaining treasures.
◈ ◈ ◈
Cizhou’s Prefect, Zhou Gui, had been busy with his official duties in recent days. He had heard that the Imperial Army had already passed Dancheng and was on their way to Cizhou. Because of this, he tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep all night.
Zhou Gui’s advisor was a man from the prefecture of Dengzhou in Zhongbo. His name was Kong Ling, and he used to be fellow students with Zhou Gui. He had prepared the wine and gotten the chef to make several refreshing cold appetizers, and now, he was sitting cross-legged on the veranda of the courtyard with Zhou Gui across the table for a drink and chat. White flowers were falling from the Chinese scholar tree in the courtyard, giving out a refreshing, sweet fragrance.
“I can’t sleep these few days.” Zhou Gui said as he grasped the wine cup.
With his sitting posture casual, Kong Ling picked up the appetizer to eat and swallowed a mouthful of pungent wine before he said, “I know. The bandits in Dunzhou have already converged into a sizable group whose force is not to be underestimated. We have no soldiers and horses; we can’t afford to provoke them. But it just had to be the case that we had a bumper harvest last year. That bandit chief, Lei Changming, is eyeing the granary in our Cizhou.”
“All the grains have been given to the Libei Armored Cavalry as military provisions. The granary in Cizhou is now empty. I wrote a letter to Dunzhou’s Prefect. But as you know, he’s a puppet supported by Lei Changming. How would he dare to reason with Lei Changming on our behalf? I’m really suffering in silence.” Zhou Gui could not even gulp down a mouthful of wine. “Then there’s that Second Young Master of Libei who rebelled and fled the capital. 20,000 Imperial Army soldiers are about to arrive at the foot of the city gate. Chengfeng, I’m in a dilemma. I can’t let them pass, but I can’t refuse to let them pass either.”
Kong Ling set down his chopsticks and said, “If Libei were to rebel, Cizhou, being sandwiched in the middle, won’t be able to waver for long. You have to make a decision as soon as possible.”
“It’s not up to me to decide.” Zhou Gui sighed disconsolately. “This time we are really cornered by wolves in front and tigers at the back. We can’t afford to offend both Libei and Qudu, and there’s still a Lei Changming at the side eyeing us covetously like a tiger eyeing its prey.”
Kong Ling grasped the flower of the Chinese scholar tree and tossed it in the wine. “Lei Changming is a bandit. Sooner or later, he will be besieged and annihilated. But the Six Prefectures each have their own government affairs to handle and cannot join forces to suppress the bandits. There’s no knowing when the Imperial Court will send men over too. Seeing how Lei Changming is getting all arrogant and giving himself air day after day, he has already become the local tyrant of Zhongbo. There’s no point in fretting.”
“Six years ago, when Biansha Cavalry breached into our territory, Duanzhou and Dunzhou were the first to bear the brunt of the attack and became barren wastelands where ‘bones of the dead lay exposed in the wild, and nary a rooster crowed for thousands of li2 around’.3 The ravages of war turned those thousands of li of fertile farmland into abandoned fields. Who is willing to go and serve as a soldier in the garrison troop now?” Zhou Gui looked at the courtyard and raised his hand to point around for Kong Ling, “Cizhou was able to conserve our strength and resources because the Libei Armored Cavalry came to the rescue at lightning speed. I’ve always kept this show of goodwill in mind, so I have no complaints whatsoever about the overall arrangements for military provisions this time. But plotting to murder the emperor is such a heinous crime that I can’t even feign ignorance even if I want to. In less than a month, that Lei Changming will surely come to ask for grain and money, and Xiao Chiye will just happen to arrive in Cizhou. I’m really afraid there’ll be a disaster when these two tyrants cross paths with each other. This is truly what it means by ‘when it rains, it pours’!”
Kong Ling drank the wine and suddenly had a brainwave. He said, “Xiao Chiye brought 20,000 well-trained soldiers from the Imperial Army to Cizhou. Isn’t that our ‘soldiers’? With him here to personally assume command, even Lei Changming himself would have to take measure of his own abilities!”
“The Imperial Army remained in Qudu all year round. When had they ever seen a real battlefield? Lei Changming overthrew the garrison battalions in the two prefectures of Duanzhou and Dunzhou, and he isn’t afraid of the Biansha Cavalry either. What he counts on is the solidarity of the people under his command. What’s more, he’s familiar with Zhongbo’s terrain. Even if they were to come to blows, Xiao Chiye might not necessarily be his match.” Zhou Gui hurriedly waved his hand. “Besides, that Second Young Master Xiao is in the prime of his youth. He hasn’t fought that many battles, and he has his father and elder brother to back him. If something were to happen to him in Cizhou, I won’t be able to account to Libei.”
Kong Ling stroked his goatee and said, “Xiao Chiye has rendered meritorious services by helping Emperor Tianchen ascend to the throne. The fact that the Imperial Army is willing to follow him after he rebelled and fled from Qudu means that he has the capability to lead an army. Otherwise, who would be willing to risk their heads to flee this far with him? However, seeing is believing. We’ll meet him to get a proper feel of him when he comes later.”
“I heard he’s not easy to get along with.” This was what Zhou Gui was worried about. “And he has stayed in Qudu for a long time. If he acts all like a rich young master, then I have to hurry and think of a way to send him away. We can’t afford to have him stir up trouble!”
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later, the Imperial Army arrived at the city walls of Cizhou as expected. Zhou Gui did not dare to let them through directly, and merely opened the gate to welcome Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan in. He had long gotten his people to prepare a banquet, but Xiao Chiye turned it down with the reason that they were exhausted from being on the go the entire way here. Instead, he got Zhou Gui to prepare a table of simple home-cooked dishes to reminisce about the past.
They had never met before and had merely corresponded through letters, so what past was there for them to reminisce about? He was merely looking for an opportunity to have an in-depth negotiation.
Shen Zechuan changed his clothes and stood behind the screen in the room to look at the courtyard through the window. The courtyard was full of well-tended flowers and trees; supposedly, this was a residence used specifically for receiving guests. The unconcealable fragrance of Chinese scholar trees permeated the air, invigorating those who caught a whiff of it.
Xiao Chiye came in late. He was still undressing himself. Having undone half of his clothes, he leaned over the top of the screen to look at Shen Zechuan behind the screen and asked, “Can you get a clear look through the screen?”
Shen Zechuan saw how easily the screen was pressed down by him and thought that this person was really tall. He said, “It’s only when one sees it as if through a dream or an illusion that one’s heart will be moved. It won’t be such an enchanting sight anymore if seen clearly.”
Xiao Chiye’s opened garment exposed half of his chest. His last piece of clothes hung uninhibitedly on him, with those firm muscles faintly visible through the screen. He was still leaning over the top of the screen. After leaving Qudu, he no longer wore a crown, yet his messy hair could not conceal how dashing he was. He seemed to be displaying more and more of his unrestrained and carefree nature the closer he was to Libei.
“What a frivolous fellow.” Shen Zechuan strode closer and raised his hand to cup the back of Xiao Chiye’s head before he raised his head high to kiss him.
Xiao Chiye pinched Shen Zechuan’s chin and took advantage of the fact that Shen Zechuan was shorter than him to lift him up.
“Take a good look.” Xiao Chiye looked at Shen Zechuan’s radiant lips with a watery sheen on them. “Is this not enchanting enough?”
Shen Zechuan licked the sheen of water on his lips, only to make his lips even more red and moist. He said, “Still a little something missing.”
“Five hundred taels for tonight.” Xiao Chiye moved in closer and whispered, “Satisfaction guaranteed.”4
“I’m afraid my delicate body can’t take it.” Shen Zechuan leaned back slightly. His fingertips longingly slid their way down along Xiao Chiye’s chest, with just the flimsy fabric of the screen separating their flesh.
“Don’t think so little of yourself.” The expression in Xiao Chiye’s eyes was dangerous. “Lanzhou.”
Shen Zechuan withdrew his hand and said, “When we came in earlier, I saw another person beside Zhou Gui. Who is he?”
“Don’t recognize him.” Xiao Chiye nimbly changed his clothes. “Should be Zhou Gui’s adviser. We’ll know once we ask during the meal later.”
“Since he did not let us through immediately, it means he still has some misgivings.” Shen Zechuan watched as Xiao Chiye stepped out from behind the screen, then turned his gaze back to the courtyard. “When we discuss it tonight, you mustn’t—”
Xiao Chiye suddenly picked Shen Zechuan up by the waist and turned a circle to press him against the wall by the side of the window. Pinning him down, he kissed him hard. Shen Zechuan lifted his arms to hang them over Xiao Chiye’s body. The sudden and unexpected kisses disoriented him and threw his breathing into disarray.
“Don’t abuse my power to bully them.” Xiao Chiye’s expression was serious. “I know. I’ll do as my wife says.”
Shen Zechuan was still panting for breath. Xiao Chiye fastened Shen Zechuan’s collar for him, then brushed aside Shen Zechuan’s ink-black hair to pinch his right ear.
“I want to hang an earring here as soon as possible and engrave my name, Xiao Ce’an, on it.”
Thank you Peach for the correction! <3
- As mentioned in chapter 96. The idiom 大厦将倾 “the mansion on the verge of collapse” refers to a hopeless situation, like a mansion on the brink of collapse. The titles in chapters 95 and 96 suggest that this mansion has already collapsed, or, i.e., the situation is a total goner.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 白骨露於野，千里无鸡鸣 from Graveyard Song by Cao Cao (曹操)
- 包赚不赔 literally you’ll only stand to earn and suffer no loss.