The setting sun faded away, replaced by a scattering of stars that adorned the sky peeking through the tree branches. The Imperial Army’s patrol squad made their rounds around the streets and alleys. Giving Shen Zechuan a piggyback, Xiao Chiye walked along the street shrouded under a cloak of shadows. It was a little hot this summer night, and Xiao Chiye had his ceremonial outer garment open as he walked at a speed that was not fast.
Shen Zechuan lifted his head high and put his chin on top of Xiao Chiye’s hair. Xiao Chiye was too tall, causing the upper half of Shen Zechuan’s body to be exposed to the moonlight. He only had to turn his head, and he would have been able to look over the wall into other people’s courtyards.
“I’ll head for the old camping grounds tomorrow morning and intercept his escape route from the east. He won’t dare to head north, and there are troops lying in ambush to the south. I’ll be back in three days, at the very latest.” Supporting Shen Zechuan, Xiao Chiye said, “It has been a long time since we last got news of Qudu. We have to send someone to make inquiries as soon as possible. Only then will we know of Qi Zhuyin’s movements.”
“The marriage between Hua and Qi has been delayed again and again. To seek external aid, the empress dowager will not let Qi Shiyu wait any longer.” Shen Zechuan estimated the dates and said, “The wedding will not be delayed beyond the eighth month at the very latest.”
“Hua Xiangyi can go right ahead and marry all she wants.” Xiao Chiye said. “As long as she doesn’t have an heir, it’s still Qi Zhuyin who has the final say in Qidong. She’s going there to be the second wife,1 and she’s even younger than Qi Zhuyin. If she gives birth to a son, he will be Shi Shiyu’s legitimate son of direct descent. Once Qi Shiyu croaks, mother and son will be the hidden obstacle that stands in the way of Qi Zhuyin from holding on to military power.”
“The prestige of the commander-in-chief among the troops cannot be underestimated. Will she really fear a brother of direct descent who is younger than her by so many years?” Shen Zechuan thought and said, “If she seeks peace back at home and lives in harmony with Hua Xiangyi, then she would instead save herself a lot of trouble.”
“It hasn’t been easy for Qi Zhuyin to be conferred a title. It’s evident from the setbacks she faced when she took over Qidong’s Five Commanderies. Not only is Qudu deeply uneasy over her gender, but even Qidong internal military administration officials had also begun to stir.” At this point, Xiao Chiye paused for a moment before he continued, “Besides, I have already handed over the genealogy records that I got someone to copy to Qi Zhuyin a long time back in Qudu. Just with this alone, she will never let Hua Xiangyi give birth to a child.”
As long as Hua Xiangyi’s standing in Qidong remained shaky, the empress dowager would never be able to turn the Qidong’s Garrison Troops into her own right-hand men. However, this was all based on the premise that Qudu still had no real emperor. If Qudu were to push forth a new emperor before winter arrived, then Qi Zhuyin would be on track to face off Libei.
“I’m worried about Lu Guangbai.” Xiao Chiye kept his relaxed expression in check and said, “After autumn, the Biansha Cavalry will cross the boundary into our territories to plunder food. This is the time when their horses are plump and well-fed, and they will choose to take a risk in order to better survive the winter. The Bianjun Commandery relies on Dazhou to allocate and distribute their military provisions. The Twelve Tribes of Biansha are well aware that they are poor, and they also know that the granary is built right in Bianjun, and it’s close to the camps. That’s why they would go after Lu Guangbai every time. Qidong’s military provisions this year were cut by half. He’s by far the worst off when it comes to surviving and defenses. My leaving of Qudu only serves to exacerbate the situation and make matters worse for him.”
But this was something that even Shen Zechuan had no way to help. If Bianjun’s position had not been so far east, and if there had not been Tianfei Watchtower and Suotian Pass stationed on both sides, then perhaps they could still send a message to Ge Qingqing, who was still in Juexi’s Yongyi Harbor, and get Xi Dan to think of ways to buy a batch of grains from Juexi and send it to Qidong through Hezhou as an emergency measure for Lu Guangbai. But Bianjun just had to be to the east of Cangjun. There were obstacles both to the left and right, and there was no other passage unless they transported it right under Cangjun’s nose. Qidong was not Juexi either. Qi Zhuyin had set up layers upon layers of impenetrable defenses there. It was simply impossible to think of passing through it without so much a sound.2
Bianjun was just like the night watchman standing on the edge of a cliff. It was a place similar to a desperate and hopeless situation.
Finding the atmosphere heavy, Xiao Chiye turned a circle with Shen Zechuan on his back and said, “The utmost priority now is still to pursue and attack Lei Jingzhe. Once we manage to secure Zhongbo, it’ll be easier to help Bianjun. As long as we can cross over Tianfei Watchtower, we will be able to arrive there directly. Why are you still sniffing when I’m reeking of sweat all over?”
Shen Zechuan wiped off the beads of sweat on the side of Xiao Chiye’s neck with his fingers. He snuggled against his cheek and said, “Start running.”
Xiao Chiye jerked him once and answered, “Too tired to run.”
Shen Zechuan pinched Xiao Chiye’s cheek and said, “If the Second Young Master can’t do it, then I’ll do it.”
Xiao Chiye made a show of going to put him down and said, “Get down. This Second Young Master shall see how you are going to carry me back tonight.”
Shen Zechuan tightened his arms around him. As he lifted his legs up, he said in all seriousness, “Why get so fired up over a minor matter? You can do it.”
Xiao Chiye lifted him up again.
Shen Zechuan clung onto his back and edged his fingertips down along the front flaps of his clothes, pulling it down as he said into his ear, “Why can’t Er-lang do it? Er-lang can do anything.”
Xiao Chiye turned his head. He was surprisingly calm as he asked, “Where to?”
Shen Zechuan said, “To—”
Shen Zechuan had not finished his words when Xiao Chiye took a stride out with his long legs and broke into a run. Carrying Shen Zechuan on his back, he ran past the tree shades, stepping upon the moonlight of the summer night as he made his way into the alley where the lights were already extinguished. The patrol squad came and went, but they never noticed both men’s figures. Xiao Chiye easily leaped across the small steps, where dappled shadows of trees fell upon his hair. There was a clatter as their shadows crashed into and broke up the starlight on the ground, like the free and reckless wind among heaven and earth.
The young servant boy guarding the door to the small courtyard was still yawning. When he heard the knock on the door, he thought the marquis and vice commander had returned. With his clothes draped around him and with a lantern in hand, he went to open the door with a smile on his face. But it was empty on the other side of the door.
“A poltergeist?” The young servant boy blurted in a soft voice and poked his head out, but he did not see anyone to his left and right, so he quickly shrank back and trotted back to his room with his outer garment wrapped tightly around him.
The corridor was dark, with no lit lanterns. Shen Zechuan’s footsteps were in such disarray that he almost tripped Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye pressed Shen Zechuan up against the door panel and pulled off the ribbon, which Shen Zechuan had used to tie up his hair, as they kissed. The kisses left Shen Zechuan gasping for breath. He reached out both hands behind his back and felt around in search of the door lock.
“No key.” Xiao Chiye lifted Shen Zechuan slightly. His eyes pressed in close before him, and he looked greedily at Shen Zechuan. “Can’t enter.”
Shen Zechuan’s heels slid down along the back of Xiao Chiye’s waist, but then he raised his hand and pressed his palm against Xiao Chiye’s approaching chin to stop it in place. He breathed out a double entendre, his breath hot, “If you can’t enter, then you can’t enter.”
Xiao Chiye pinched Shen Zechuan’s mouth open and lowered his head to take in that sliding tongue. All of last night’s exhaustion from the rushed journey seemed to have been swept away clean. Shen Zechuan swallowed the saliva and listened to the creaking of the door panel from the bumps. He wanted to ease that jarring sound, so he pulled Xiao Chiye closer until the latter was right on him without the slightest gap between them.
“Let’s build a home.” Grinding against soft flesh, Xiao Chiye’s throat tightened as he said with a sigh that had escaped, “Here. Or anywhere else.”3
Shen Zechuan was sweating as he raised his head with misty eyes blurred by tears. He did not make a sound. He had not done it for a very long time, and he was being so stimulated tonight that he was trembling slightly. Just a few times, and it was all about to come out. He clenched the clothes on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder, creasing it as his chest heaved violently. It was only when he calmed a little after a while that he said under his breath, “No. Can’t. In, into the room…”
But Xiao Chiye took this “no” as a reply to his earlier question and abruptly straightened his back, almost causing Shen Zechuan to cry out involuntarily.
“Why can’t Er-lang do it?” Xiao Chiye held Shen Zechuan firmly in his arms and pinched the latter’s face to correct its position. Then he said, ruthlessly and wickedly, “Er-lang can do anything.”4
Shen Zechuan’s words were cut off by Xiao Chiye’s kiss. The corners of his eyes quickly reddened, and even his half-exposed neck had gone red. He opened his mouth several times in an attempt to answer in between the kisses, but Xiao Chiye would not give him the chance. All he could do was to let other kinds of sounds loose. Sweat drenched through his clothes, and Shen Zechuan gradually found it hard to breathe. His forehead pressed against Xiao Chiye’s chest as the waves of ecstasy crashing over him made him dizzy. It was not even an hour, and he had already surrendered twice.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye was done taking his bath only after Shen Zechuan fell asleep. Seeing the first glimmer of dawn outside the window, he did not take a rest but instead drank a cup of strong tea and crouched by the bedside to watch Shen Zechuan sleep soundly.
He still fell asleep, after all.
Xiao Chiye raised his hand to caress Shen Zechuan’s cheek.
Once he returned to Libei, he had to invite the Venerable Yideng over. Having turned it over in his mind from different angles after the episodes, his conclusion was that the frequent recurrence of Shen Zechuan’s illnesses – whether it was the cold or the epidemic disease – definitely had something to do with that medicine.
Xiao Chiye gazed at Shen Zechuan and thought in the silence that reigned.
Although he had also previously found Shen Zechuan thin back in Qudu, it was still much better than now. Shen Zechuan’s bout of illness after Qi Huilian’s death came and went quickly, but he had still yet to be fed back to health. There was nothing the entire journey here. Xiao Chiye held him, watched him, protecting his growing reliance on him every way he could.
Shen Wei and Bai Cha did not matter.
Xiao Chiye lowered his head and pressed up against Shen Zechuan’s cheek as he stared, with deep hostility, at the sunlight which was attempting to cloak Shen Zechuan.
Shen Lanzhou was his—Xiao Ce’an’s.
◈ ◈ ◈
When Xiao Chiye spurred his horse out of the city, Zhou Gui and Kong Ling saw him off. Reining in the reins, he said, “I will return in three days, regardless of success or failure. The Imperial Army stationed here will stay put for the time being. The instant they detect Lei Jingzhe’s trail, send someone to inform me posthaste. Although Cizhou’s city walls are old and worn-out, you cannot simply just let it be and brush it aside. Lanzhou will explain the specific arrangements for reinforcements to both of you later.”
“Rest assured, Your Lordship.” Zhou Gui said. “All our men in Cizhou will go along with the Vice Commander’s arrangements.”
“As for matters relating to the reconstruction of Cizhou’s garrison troops…” Xiao Chiye paused for a moment and said, “I won’t concern myself with it. That will be military affairs Lanzhou will be deliberating over with both of you. The Imperial Army is only standing in as the authority on patrols. I can’t overstep authority to handle it. So if there are any issues, please discuss them over with Lanzhou. I’m not at liberty to decide.”
Kong Ling felt a warm buzz in his heart before it went cold again. They were originally worried that Xiao Chiye would use the patrols he was standing in for as an excuse to interfere with the reconstruction of the Cizhou’s garrison troops. So he was relieved to hear him say so, but following right after, worries overtook him again. Xiao Chiye did not want Cizhou’s military power. He would not accept Cizhou’s remuneration, nor would he take Cizhou’s grains. Then why did he go to the trouble of running all over to duke it out with Lei Jingzhe? He might as well head north and return home to live a free and unfettered life.
Kong Ling deliberated over his words, but before he could speak, he heard Xiao Chiye continue, “Since I’ve agreed to suppress the bandits for both gentlemen, I’ll not renege on my promise. Your Excellency Zhou is willing to risk his head to let the Imperial Army pass through Cizhou. I naturally have to reciprocate this friendly sentiment. Moreover, the Imperial Army’s food supply these few days is being borne by the common folks of Cizhou. We have eaten your rice, so we will surely fight the battles.”
Zhou Gui bowed to him in farewell and said, “Then we shall wait here for Your Lordship to return in triumph.”
“There are a few more matters I’ll just tell both of you at the same time.” Xiao Chiye’s horse took a few steps around as he looked at Zhou Gui and Kong Ling and said, “I do not have the intention to take a concubine in this life. Now that I’m temporarily residing at Your Excellency Zhou’s residence, there’s no need to send any more people to the courtyard. Man or woman, I don’t want any of them. Moreover, we are currently bogged down with work; I don’t have the spare energy to beat around the bush with you both. So I’m throwing this out here today to make it clear to both of you.”
Kong Ling knew he was referring to the incident the last time, and he could not help but look embarrassed, stuck in a predicament where it would be inappropriate for him to smile or answer.
“Lanzhou has lived in Zhongbo for a long time, and it’s inevitable that there will be someone bringing up old affairs. But, he, Shen Zechuan…” Xiao Chiye raised the horsewhip and pointed in the direction of Qudu, “… is the student of Qi Huilian, the Grand Mentor of the Crown Prince in the Eastern Palace; the last disciple of Ji Gang of Duanzhou; the former Northern Judge-cum-Vice Commander of the Imperial Bodyguards; and the head of household of my – Xiao Ce’an’s – future residence. He has nothing to do with any other names.”
This time, even Zhou Gui did not know how to answer. He was not a person who would fob others off or give others the run-around to begin with, and Xiao Chiye’s words had rendered him dumbstruck. His mouth opened and closed as he said, “Uh, uh…”
Xiao Chiye turned his horse around and rode away with his gyrfalcon in tow.
It was a long time before Zhou Gui returned to his senses. Clutching his sleeves, he asked Kong Ling, “What, what did His Lordship mean by this? Then the Prince of Libei…”
“He has already laid out his cards on the table this clearly. He doesn’t give a hoot about the troops in Cizhou. But don’t mention Shen Wei.” Kong Ling calmly wiped his sweat and said, “And don’t bring up Bai Cha again.”
This is the uncensored version with additional text from revised version thrown in (unless otherwise stated).
- 继室 specifically the second wife after the death of the first principal wife. She will have legitimate status, unlike a concubine, and her son will be a di and not a shu.
- In the revised version, it is:
“Let’s build a home.” Xiao Chiye said in a low and deep voice right close to Shen Zechuan, with a tenderness he himself had never realized. “Here. Or anywhere else.”
- The words Xiao Chiye left unsaid: Including do you.
The can’t do (不行) mentioned throughout their conversation not only refers to Ce’an’s physical abilities (e.g., carry Lanzhou and run) but is also an insinuation of his sexual prowess, i.e., he can’t get it up/can’t do Lanzhou ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)