Kong Ling did not dare to grouse to himself for fear that Xiao Chiye might sense something amiss. After wiping his sweat, he took a sip of his tea trying to cover it up, only to make it more conspicuous. He said as he nodded, “Your Lordship is returning to Libei to fight battles with the Biansha Tribes, so Cizhou can’t possibly trouble the Imperial Army any further. Moreover, with the Vice Commander’s presence here, Lei Jingzhe won’t be able to get anything out of it even if he stages a comeback.”
Zhou Gui still had not gotten the hint at this point. He merely said, “The march of an army over a long distance is beset with difficulties. Cizhou is to the south of Libei, so Libei has nothing to worry about back here. If we can be of any use to Your Lordship in the future, Cizhou will surely do its best to help. As for those bandits who have been taken into custody at the prison, how does Your Lordship wish to deal with them?”
“Several of those bandits were once one of the few bandit chiefs from Mount Luo. There’s not much use in killing them, so why not release them together with Lei Jingzhe?” Xiao Chiye already had a plan in mind. He said, “I’ve already bribed a few of the bandits to spread around the news that Lei Jingzhe has been released by the Imperial Army. Half a month later, they will break out of the prison and flee with Ding Niu and Liu’er. When the time comes, Cizhou can just send men to pursue them and drive them back to Dunzhou’s territory. They have men who died at the hands of the Imperial Army. Once they conclude that the siege in the east was a leak from Lei Jingzhe, they will never let him off.”
Zhou Gui and Kong Ling nodded in unison. Thinking as Xiao Chiye was about to return to Libei soon, Zhou Gui decided that he had to discuss the military provisions with him. They had conferred with Shen Zechuan a few days ago regarding the military provisions’ allowance for the Imperial Army next year, but Shen Zechuan had promptly turned it down.
“Cizhou had originally planned to give the Imperial Army an allowance of 16,000 dan1 of grains after spring next year.” Zhou Gui faced Xiao Chiye and deliberated over his words. “We know it is a small amount, but it’s a little token of appreciation from Cizhou to Your Lordship. I have already told the Vice Commander of this. The Vice Commander understands Cizhou’s difficulties. He wants us to sell these grains at a suitable price to Chazhou and use the money as funds for the reconstruction. We have been thinking about it for these few days, and we still feel bad about it. Your Lordship, there is a piece of vacant land to the northwest of Cizhou. It’s the former site of the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds.2 At the very beginning, we wanted to till the land and cultivate fields there, but the soil isn’t suitable, and we couldn’t grow any grains except sow some rapeseeds. Rather than leaving it idle, we might as well gift it to Your Lordship to create a track for horse riding or to build a new camp as you wish.”
The emergence of the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds preceded the Nanlin Hunting Grounds. Owing to the rise of Xiao Fangxu in the north later, the Li clan canceled the annual ceremony at the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds and had the venue changed to Nanlin Hunting Grounds, where they could feel more at ease. This piece of land was not small; it was even bigger than Xiao Chiye’s military drill grounds at Mount Feng in Qudu. It was far enough to pose a threat to Dancheng and close enough to provide support to Cizhou. And it also stood on Libei’s boundary line. It was an excellent position from which to advance and retreat, launch an assault and defend.
Xiao Chiye’s interest was piqued. He dreaded the Qidong Garrison Troops in the south. Shen Zechuan was remaining behind in Zhongbo. If he did not have a place to station his troops, he would have to rush to and forth between both ends. Never mind if it was just him alone. But if he ran around like this with tens of thousands of men in tow, then he would not only expose their tracks but also draw unnecessary troubles to themselves.
But Xiao Chiye had no money. He had scrimped and saved to build up the military drill grounds at Mount Feng. It was not as imposing as the Eight Great Training Divisions’ military grounds, but it consumed real silvers. His noble title was useless now, and there was no one to pay him a salary. His residences in Qudu had turned into lifeless objects he could see but not eat. Even taking out a handful of copper coins would prove to be a problem for him.
The little jade bead earring Shen Zechuan was presently wearing on his right ear was polished by Xiao Chiye himself. In the past, Xiao Chiye would not even blink an eye at losing a few ivory fans. Now that Lanzhou’s little bamboo fan had gotten stained on one side and he had promised to have it replaced, he was thinking of making one himself later.
Seeing as Xiao Chiye had still yet to say a word, Zhou Gui thought that the piece of land was not to his liking, so he said, “The place is big. Although it is a venue for hunting, it has fallen into years of disrepair, and the errand-runners have all left. The perimeter wall seems to me to be still solid. After Your Lordship takes over, you’ll just need to fortify its defenses a little, and you’ll be able to use it.”
Kong Ling also added, “Your Lordship helped Cizhou out of its predicament. Naturally, we will not try to fool Your Lordship on this matter. We had also mentioned this place to the Vice Commander yesterday, and the Vice Commander said he would personally make a trip down to take a look when he finds the time these two days. Seems like he likes it too.”
It had been a passionate night last night, and Shen Zechuan did not get the time or chance to bring this matter up. What’s more, Xiao Chiye had left in a hurry in the morning, and Shen Zechuan was still not wide awake then.
“The place is good. It’s suitable as a resting place and temporary lodging for the Imperial Army. Lanzhou and I both like it.” Without a change in expression, Xiao Chiye said, “There’s no need for both of you to stand on such ceremony, but thank you.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan got out of bed and put on a plain, white set of regular clothes. He originally wanted to go out, but the traces from their lovemaking were too obvious. The marks on his chest, waist, side of the legs, crook of the neck could be covered up with clothes. But he was too thin-skinned. As long as they had gone at it vigorously at night, the lingering redness at the sides of his eyes would not fully recede the next day.
Ding Tao was standing on the veranda feeding the red carps. He was also rattling on and on, telling Gu Jin a story. The fish bait in his hands kept leaking into the vat, where the two red carps gobbled it down. By the time Gu Jin realized what was happening, one of them had already gotten so bloated that it flipped belly up.
Gu Jin made to beat up Ding Tao. Sensing trouble, Ding Tao hurriedly stuffed the remaining fish bait into his pocket and fled to the principal room. He yelled, “Young Master! Bad news! Jin-ge fed the fish to death!”
Shen Zechuan picked up the sweet soup from the tray. He gave a bowl to Ding Tao and told him to sit under the eaves to drink it. He then asked Gu Jin, “How are your injuries today?”
Gu Jin saw Shen Zechuan wearing wooden clogs and knew that the latter would not be heading out today. He bowed in greeting and said, “Much better. The physician came as scheduled to change the bandages. Since Young Master is not going out today, shall we get the kitchen to prepare the meals now?”
Clusters of tree shades decorated the grounds in the courtyard, while shadows of flowers adorned the panels of the two wide-opened doors. The weather was fine today. It was not yet noon, but it was already starting to get hot. Shen Zechuan’s fingers that were basking in the sunlight looked as though they were clutching a handful of crystal clear amber. He could not stand the cold, and he also disliked the heat. He looked to be exhausted today, and his entire person exuded laziness.
“The weather is hot. Shifu dreads greasy food, and Ce’an gets cranky easily. Get the chef to choose and make some light dishes. You’re currently nursing an injury, so do as the physician and shifu say and get the kitchen to make an individual portion for you.” Shen Zechuan retreated half a step and returned to the coolness of the shade under the eaves. “Ding Tao, go to the courtyard and call shifu over.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Ji Gang did not stay in the separate courtyard Shen Zechuan had initially given him. Instead, he lived in a courtyard together with Qiao Tianya and the rest. People tend to fear loneliness when they grow old, and it was inevitable for him to get all sentimental now that Qi Huilian was no longer around to squabble with him. The good thing was that there were those from Libei and those who originally came from the Imperial Bodyguards among this batch of guards. All of them held the Ji clan’s boxing style in esteem, and they hoped to gain pointers and guidance from Ji Gang. That was why they liked to hang around Ji Gang when they were not on duty. What’s more, they were all lads who had yet to get married. Ji Gang found them boisterous and lively, and it made him happy to be around them too.
Ji Gang went to bed early and woke up early nowadays. He got up at the first quarter of the hour of mao3 today and watched Qiao Tianya and the others practice shadowboxing in the courtyard. After drinking his tea, he came out for a stroll and found that Shen Zechuan was still asleep. So he took another stroll with his hands at his back and returned to find that Shen Zechuan was still not up. So on seeing him now, he could not refrain from asking, “Why did you get up so late today? Have you fallen ill?”
Taken aback, Shen Zechuan paused for a moment before he said, “… I overslept.”
Ji Gang noted that he seemed to be under the weather today, so he said, “Although there are plenty of issues at present, you also have to take care of your health. I’ll cook a couple of fish dishes for you tonight.”
As they chatted, Xiao Chiye returned. He saw Ding Tao at the entrance of the courtyard and knew that Ji Gang had come. He took off his outer garment and asked Chen Yang as he washed his hands, “Did shifu come in the morning too?”
Chen Yang answered truthfully, “Young Master bought shifu a skylark a few days earlier, and shifu would always take a stroll with the bird every morning when he gets up. Young Master was still sleeping when he came to the entrance of our courtyard this morning, so he asked about it several times.”
Xiao Chiye wiped his hands and walked along the walkway to the front. When he entered, he carried out a disciple bow to Ji Gang. He had been very respectful to Ji Gang and Zuo Qianqiu back then at the Plum Blossom Residence, but Ji Gang could not forget that kick he gave Shen Zechuan six years ago. Now that Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye were in the same boat rowing towards a common goal, Ji Gang thought that they had buried the hatchet in private and were merely friends on good terms with one another. So, for Shen Zechuan’s sake, he would not give Xiao Chiye the stink eye.
Ji Gang and Zuo Qianqiu were brothers. According to seniority, Xiao Chiye’s paying of obeisance to him was etiquette. Ji Gang nodded and said concisely, “Your Lordship may dispense with such formalities.”
Xiao Chiye took his seat. Ji Gang was at the head, so Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan were sitting face to face with one another. During the meal, Ji Gang asked questions relating to the suppression of the bandits as well as stuff about Zuo Qianqiu. Xiao Chiye answered him all in full detail. He did not hope to give a perfect answer; all he strove for was to be genuine in his responses.
Ji Gang was a person who greatly valued relationships and ties. In his younger years, he screwed up his assignment because of drinking and caused his adoptive father, Ji Wufan, to lose the favor of Emperor Guangcheng. This had been weighing heavily on his heart. Later on, Duanzhou fell into the enemies’ hands, and he never touched wine again. He did not have Qi Huilian’s illustrious reputation for his talents, but he had great prestige among the Imperial Bodyguards. He was the main reason why the group with Ge Qingqing at the head was willing to go all out to help Shen Zechuan when Shen Zechuan was flogged and thrown into the imperial prison, even extending their assistance to him in the period after. When Ji Gang was still serving as the Vice Commander in the Imperial Bodyguards, he rarely abused his authority to oppress the others. He also abhorred Pan Rugui and the likes. Again and again, he had helped the innocents to redress the injustices they had suffered, and because of this, he had offended quite a number of powerful officials.
When it came to elders like this, Xiao Chiye would not resort to dubious tricks for his own personal advantage. He had to take out all of his sincerity. Only then would he be able to make Ji Gang see him in a new, more favorable light.
Their meal lasted an hour. Ji Gang thought that they still had important matters to discuss, and so he did not stay for long and left early.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye was changing his clothes. When his upper body was bare, he pulled over Shen Zechuan’s hand and placed it on his back to touch it.
Shen Zechuan was still sitting on the mat with a brush in one hand as he calculated the expenses for this period of time. As he touched Xiao Chiye’s sweat, he lifted his eyes and said, “Just how nervous were you?”
“That was scary.” Xiao Chiye swiftly put on his clothes. “I was worried my answers were not sincere enough, and it would alienate shifu from me even more. I’ve been really busy this period of time. I will have to find a day later to talk it over with shifu.”
“A father loves his child without asking for anything in return.”4 Shen Zechuan set the brush down. “There is no transactional exchange of benefits and profits when it comes to shifu, only genuine affection and sincere concern. Second Young Master has a long way ahead. That kick of yours really set you back a long way.”
Xiao Chiye slumped into the rattan chair. He thought for a moment and said, “If it had been my old man sitting there today, we might not even get to finish the meal.”
Still feeling the trepidation, Xiao Chiye touched his own chest and looked at Shen Zechuan, who was deep in thought over the accounts. He held the brush, then set it down, and his sleeve slid down to reveal a portion of fair skin. The expression on his side profile was calm. There was no one else in the room, and his collar that had been slightly loosened because of the heat exposed a snow-white expanse with traces of lovebites on it.
For a moment, Xiao Chiye was in a daze as he gazed blankly at Shen Zechuan. He thought of many things, and yet it also seemed as if he had figured out nothing.
“Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye inexplicably called out to him.
Shen Zechuan’s mind was not here. He just happened to be thinking that he should get Ge Qingqing to find a few stewards from Juexi who could do the accounts and have them sent over when he suddenly heard Xiao Chiye’s voice. Although his eyes never left the accounts book, he turned his face slightly and answered, “Spit it out if you have something to say.”
Xiao Chiye abruptly stood up, turned around a few times, and suddenly squatted behind Shen Zechuan to embrace him. Shen Zechuan was still writing. It was all thanks to the power of his extraordinary focus that he did not mess up his strokes.
Xiao Chiye nuzzled against Shen Zechuan’s cheek from behind until Shen Zechuan’s face felt hot. Shen Zechuan had no idea what was up with Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye never said a word as he touched Shen Zechuan all over and scooped Shen Zechuan into his arms, clinging on to him like glue.
And just like this, Shen Zechuan sat in Xiao Chiye’s embrace and continued to do his accounts. When he ran into difficulty, he got Xiao Chiye to stretch his fingers out, but Xiao Chiye was unwilling to and did the sums orally as he continued to hug him. Surprisingly enough, he was pretty swift in his calculation.
“Second Young Master.” Shen Zechuan pushed the abacus aside. “You have a bit of a knack for this. Calculate these all for me, will you?”
Xiao Chiye pulled the abacus back and said, “Count long enough, and I’ll fumble. It’s so complicated that it’s better to hand it over to the professionals. Do you know who in Qudu is the best in arithmetic?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “That, I really don’t know.”
“Third Missy Hua, Hua Xiangyi.”
So Shen Zechuan asked, “Then do you know who in Zhongbo is the most skilled in employing diversionary tactics to lure the enemies?”
Xiao Chiye ventured a guess. “… Tantai Long?”
“It’s Xiao Ce’an.” Shen Zechuan finally looked at him and said in all seriousness. “Look at him nuzzling away at me until my heart goes all pitter-patter and I’m too preoccupied to get down to serious business.”
“I’m unworthy of the reputation.” Xiao Chiye moved in closer. “It’s only because I saw how sweaty the little Young Master is and with clothes in such a state of disarray that I’ve specifically come over to drop you a reminder or two.”
“Then you are a real gentleman.” Shen Zechuan brushed the tip of this finger that was moistened with tea water across the back of Xiao Chiye’s hand and said, “Unlike me and my mind working in overdrive.”
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Yunyun
- 石 dan, dry measure for grain equal. 1 dan = approximately 90kg (see chapter 113 author’s note)
- 北原猎场 literally Northern Plains hunting grounds.
- 卯时 hour of mao, i.e., 5-7am, based on the system of two-hour subdivisions used in former times. one ke (一刻) is at approximately the 15 minutes mark.
- 慈父爱子，非为报也。The original quote speaks of a mother’s love instead (慈母爱子，非为报也。) by Liu An (刘安).