How was there still room for Zhou Gui to refuse when the words had already been laid out so clearly? Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan had hit them right where their weakness was, using both carrot and stick. Everything they spoke about was all the most pressing issues in Cizhou at present. The private banquet could only end here.
Zhou Gui personally saw both men back to their courtyard, then strolled back with Kong Ling with a lantern in hand. He asked with a worried frown, “What do you think?”
Kong Ling said as he strolled, “Difficult. Both of them are tough nuts to deal with. But what they have said so far is true. At present, the Empress Dowager is in charge of the imperial court, and Secretariat Elder is old and ill. With the recent rise of disputes within the Grand Secretariat, Jiang Qingshan’s transfer to the post of the Provincial Administration Commissioner of Zhongbo is no longer that certain. If they arbitrarily appoint an official from the noble clans over, then the good days in Cizhou will come to an end.”
“That’s what I think too.” Basking in the aqueous moonlight, Zhou Gui contemplated it for a moment and said, “I’m worried that if we agree too quickly, both of them will think Cizhou is too easy to control. But agree too slowly, and I fear that they will run out of patience and Cizhou will lose the chance to get back on its feet. It’s really hard to get a measure of this.”
“We might not necessarily be able to trick and trap Xiao Chiye by playing cat and mouse with him.” Kong Ling looked back at Zhou Gui. “We should make up our minds on this matter as soon as possible. Dragging it on too long will only prove to be disadvantageous to us.”
Kong Ling was right. They could still negotiate with Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan now because Xiao Chiye was currently in a hurry to pass through Cizhou. Considering the influence of Cizhou on the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path, Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan could not forcibly barge their way through, nor could they fall out with Cizhou. So, Cizhou was the one with the upper hand. But the longer Cizhou hesitated, the more it would be detrimental to Cizhou. This was because the group of bandits led by Lei Changming was a menace to Cizhou. If Lei Changming entered Cizhou’s territory to plunder them, Zhou Gui would have to ask the Imperial Army for help. By then, Xiao Chiye would trade places with Cizhou and become the one with the upper hand.
“Seeing how Xiao Chiye isn’t bothered about trifles, he shouldn’t be the kind of person who will simply sit and watch from the sidelines.” Zhou Gui was still hesitating. “Let’s wait… for Qudu to make a move.”
“How rare of you to be this muddle-headed.” Kong Ling gave a long sigh. “Risking all the lives in a prefecture on just an assumption that he ‘isn’t bothered about trifles’. We may know a person’s face, but not his heart! If they raise their prices there and then, they won’t be this accommodating and open to negotiation as they are today.”
“It’s precisely because this matter concerns the lives in an entire prefecture that I’m hesitating.” Zhou Gui caught up with Kong Ling in a few steps. He shook his sleeves to extend his hands out and said to Kong Ling, “Chengfeng, is it really that easy to go independent and make yourself king? Think about the former Crown Prince. That’s truly a real fall from grace. Libei has revolted now, but if you think about it from various angles, how is this battle an easy one to fight? It’s not all that beneficial to Libei. They not only need to take the Biansha Cavalry into consideration, but also be on guard against Qidong’s advances. If the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path is cut off too, then wouldn’t they become a trapped beast in a cage? They can’t survive for long! When the time comes, Libei won’t even be able to fend for themselves. Then what should our Cizhou do? Won’t we end up at others’ mercy like meat on a chopping board? We will even have to live with the infamy of being a traitor!”
“With matters already coming to this stage, it’s impossible to think of escaping unscathed.” Kong Ling said in all earnestness. “You should think it over carefully again tonight.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The moment Xiao Chiye stepped into the room, a graceful, delicate figure walked towards him. This fair-skinned maidservant with jet-black hair worn in a bun daintily kneeled before Xiao Chiye, exposing a large portion of her nape through her low neckline. Smoothing over the lock of hair at her temples, she called out in a soft voice, “Your Lordship…”
Xiao Chiye did not look at her and moved to take off his outer garment. On hearing his movement, the maidservant hurriedly got up to take off the clothes for Xiao Chiye.
Shen Zechuan bumped into Xiao Chiye’s shoulder, and Xiao Chiye grasped hold of him. Letting Xiao Chiye support him, Shen Zechuan lifted his chin slightly and gently kicked off his shoes.
Xiao Chiye said, “Go prepare some hot water. The Vice Commander is drunk.”
The maidservant gathered her clothes around her and bent over to pick up Shen Zechuan’s shoes. But Shen Zechuan lowered his little bamboo fan to lift her face up. She did not dare to move and could only look up along the fan at Shen Zechuan. She saw that Shen Zechuan’s brows were slightly knitted, yet the corners of his eyes looked as though they were soaking with wet peach blossoms that accentuated the glistening in his eyes. A sense of inferiority overwhelmed her, and she hastily averted her eyes, not daring to look right at Shen Zechuan again.
Shen Zechuan said nothing. He merely took a few looks at her and moved his fan away. The maidservant deferentially put the shoes together neatly, then retreated quietly with her head lowered.
“Pretty?” Xiao Chiye waited for the door to close before he pulled Shen Zechuan closer into his arms and asked.
With his fingers over the bamboo fan, Shen Zechuan did not answer and merely stepped on Xiao Chiye’s insteps with feet covered in clean socks. He pulled at Xiao Chiye’s outer garment that had yet to be taken off and moved in closer. As Xiao Chiye led him, he saw the indolent expression on Shen Zechuan’s face. It was a relaxed expression of one after having drunk wine. He lowered his head, wanting to kiss him. But Shen Zechuan leaned back slightly and did not let Xiao Chiye kiss.
The breaths of both men carried with it the sweet intensity of “On Horseback”. All the weariness of being on the go the entire journey eased up during these few days of rest. Shen Zechuan always looked pale after leaving Qudu, but with Xiao Chiye’s care and affection, he began to look like a jade stone that had been warmed up by his caresses. In Xiao Chiye’s palms. he was both hard and hot.
“Kong Ling is Tantai Long’s old subordinate. As long as Lei Changming is not eliminated, the anxiety in his heart will remain.” Xiao Chiye helped Shen Zechuan to undress. He pulled off Shen Zechuan’s clothes and caressed Shen Zechuan’s lower back, even though the words from his mouth were, “Lei Changming is anxious to get his hands on grains. Sooner or later, he will target Cizhou. As long as the stakes are conveyed to Kong Ling, he will think of a way to persuade Zhou Gui.”
“Hm…” Shen Zechuan could not take such a strong wine like “On Horseback”. His cheeks were flushed, but he was still gazing at Xiao Chiye and listening to him seriously. Yet the expression in his eyes revealed another kind of seriousness.
“Letting the Imperial Army take the place of Cizhou’s patrol feels a little like holding them under duress. Never mind if it’s just for the time being, but if it goes on for long-term, Zhou Gui will definitely not agree. It’s all thanks to Ding Tao this time for finding out so quickly that Kong Ling was once Tantai Long’s old subordinate.” As if Xiao Chiye could not read the expression in Shen Zechuan’s gaze, he muttered under his breath, “Hm?”
Shen Zechuan stood on tiptoe slightly, then dropped back down. The more calm his expression was, the more intense the scarlet grew. The potency of the wine made him sweat.
“Give me a kiss.” Xiao Chiye said in a deep voice. “I did as you said today and did not bully them the slightest.”
Shen Zechuan clenched Xiao Chiye’s clothes until it was all wrinkled. He endured it for a moment, then said, “I can’t reach you.”
Xiao Chiye’s heart thumped, and he lowered his head once more. Shen Zechuan wanted to kiss him, so he lifted him up and said, “Let’s take a bath first.”
Shen Zechuan raised his chin high and half-opened those lips moistened red by the wine. His tongue, which was wandering between his teeth, licked the corner of his parched lips. He was merely gazing at Xiao Chiye like this, and he set an entire body aflame with lust, seducing Xiao Chiye until the latter no longer teased him. In the past, he did not understand the air of extremely seductive allure he had about him, but with their constant intimate interactions, he seemed to have learned how to fan the flames of lust without saying a word.
◈ ◈ ◈
Zhou Gui had only just woken up the next day when he saw Kong Ling leading the maidservant in. Stunned, he said, “What’s going on? Didn’t I tell you to stay by the marquis’s side and serve him well?”
The maidservant clutched her handkerchief and turned aside to hide her face as she said, “Your Excellency, shouldn’t one get it clear before taking appropriate actions? Who do you think is the man standing beside His Lordship? I don’t even dare to touch the corner of his clothes! Both of them have the hots for each other. Neither of them even looked at me in the eye!”
At first, Zhou Gui did not understand, but the color drained from his face soon afterward, and the handkerchief he was wiping his face with fell. He was a scholar over the age of forty who did not even frequent the brothels. Even the running of his household was very much in order, with a concubine he took at his mother’s directive. In the past, he had only heard a little about other men’s penchant for men. He never expected the relationship between Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan to be of this kind too.
“This… this!” Zhou Gui wiped his face and groused to Kong Ling, “Why didn’t you remind me of this? Now we have offended him through and through!”
Kong Ling did not look too good either as he said, “How would I know…”
Both men looked at each other and sighed in unison. During the stalemate, they heard a young servant lad kneel outside the door and shout, “Your Excellency, an urgent report from last night. Lei Changming of Dunzhou has gathered 40,000 bandits and is heading towards our Cizhou!”
“Why are there so many people?” Zhou Gui’s heart suddenly went cold. “Half a year earlier, he only had about 10,000 or so people…”
“It’s truly the case that what you fear will come!” Kong Ling promptly said, “Quick, go and invite His Lordship over. Tell him we agree to last night’s treaty of alliance!”
Ce’an 195cm. He’s taller than his father and brother.
It’s been hard following the updates. Thank you for reading.