Xiao Chiye said, “Let’s hear more about it.”
Shen Zechuan was feeling so warm from Xiao Chiye’s embrace that he began to sweat. He said, “You’ll lose the fun if you voice it out when it comes to matters like undressing and what happens after.”
Xiao Chiye grabbed hold of Shen Zechuan’s fleeing finger. He laughed for a moment before saying. “You’ll lose the fun if you voice it out? Then, take a moment to hear me out. I’ll say it for you.”
Shen Zechuan looked toward the account books.
Xiao Chiye squeezed Shen Zechuan the pulp of Shen Zechuan’s finger and looked at the account book together with him. He said, “I haven’t even started, so why are you getting all hot?”
Shen Zechuan looked askance at Xiao Chiye and mouthed soundlessly, because of you.
Xiao Chiye looked at Shen Zechuan for a moment, then suddenly lowered his head and buried it into the pit of Shen Zechuan’s neck. All his earlier emotions had melted away at this look of Shen Zechuan. They became another kind of raging torrents that surged along Xiao Chiye’s chest to his entire body. But no matter how tempestuous the waves were inside of him, he did not dare to use even more strength in his embrace of Shen Zechuan.
That kick that had never once turned a hair during all the years in Qudu had, along with the passage of time, cunningly turned into pangs of pain after Xiao Chiye fell into the clutches of love. The turbidness that was love and hatred went through a cleansing by the heavy downpour to become a crystal clear lake. Xiao Chiye drew in his claws, bowing his head in submission to the word “love”.
Shen Zechuan released his hand and held hands again with Xiao Chiye with interlocking fingers. He tilted his head to bump gently against Xiao Chiye’s unmoving head and said, “Have you fallen asleep?”
Xiao Chiye raised his head and said in a hoarse voice, “Oh, how I love you so.”
Shen Zechuan was slightly stunned.
Xiao Chiye looked at him and enunciated each word as he repeated, “I love you so much.”
Shen Zechuan remained stunned for a moment before he said, “I—”
Xiao Chiye could not wait any longer. He turned his head and kissed Shen Zechuan hard, as if he wanted to give all the love in his heart that could not be expressed with words alone to Shen Zechuan. The cool breeze in the courtyard stirred the bamboo blinds, while shadows of flowers shifted under the eaves along with the slanting trajectory of the sun at the same time golden light, having penetrated through the obstacles to make it way deeper in, cascaded over the ground.
◈ ◈ ◈
Beiyuan Hunting Grounds was not that far away from Cizhou, and there was also a bridle path connecting both places. Lang Tao Xue Jin could reach it in half a day, so Xiao Chiye took Chen Yang and Ding Tao to take a look at the site the next day. Shen Zechuan finished sorting out the accounts for this period of time in Cizhou and, together with Zhou Gui and Kong Ling, made some changes to matters relating to the Cizhou garrison troops.
“Although I had the thought that quite a number of people would come forward to answer our recruitment call, I never expected it to be this many!” Zhou Gui was overjoyed. “With this, we can further expand the plowing range next year.”
“There’s a shortage of grains on the outside which Cizhou can supply. To many of those in desperate situations, this is timely help that’s equivalent to sending charcoals in snowy weather. It not only solves their urgent needs but also prevents them from turning to banditry.” Kong Ling looked delighted as he said to Shen Zechuan, “We shall have to trouble the Vice Commander regarding the military arms.”
“With the way things are going, there will be no more bandits in Cizhou’s territory when next year comes around.” Zhou Gui did not sleep the entire night; he had been making a lot of plans. He said, “If we can also help Dunzhou and Duanzhou out of their predicaments, then the bandits from Mount Luo will fall apart without the need for us to attack them.”
“While the recruitment is showing initial success, Your Excellency cannot simply rely on this alone. Cizhou has been able to sustain such a large amount of food consumption because everyone from top to bottom in Cizhou was able to work as one in the past five years. Duanzhou lies close to Biansha. Even if they have a change of heart and wish to reclaim the wastelands for farming, they won’t be able to do it.” Shen Zechuan still has other considerations. He said, “What’s more, we currently do not have an emperor on the throne, and ambitious men are easily born out of troubled times. There’s a Lei Jingzhe in Mount Luo, so Chazhou might just have their own Lei Jingzhe too. Cizhou has only just begun to toddle; there’s no rush.”
“What he said.” Kong Ling nodded and said, “The most pressing task at present is to resolve the issue of household registration. Many of them fled here from other places, and they don’t have any documentary proof on them. If they want to reside in Cizhou permanently, they will need an identity.”
Shen Zechuan paused for a moment and said, “During the reign of Yongyi, the Eastern Palace pushed forth a census registry1 to register common folks as citizens. It was to be checked and verified by the layers of prefectural prefects, district magistrates, and townships of the various lands. Cizhou is less populated at present. Since Cizhou is no longer under Dazhou’s command, you can abolish the original three registers and let Cizhou develop its own new registers, with vagrants still prohibited in the city. Once the registry is finalized, Cizhou will be able to collect taxes based on the registry, and subsequently, the accounts will become clearer too.”
“Then we can get to work and have it straightened out these few days.” Zhou Gui paused for a moment, then continued, “I’m only worried about the Qidong Garrison Troops now.”
“It has been so long.” Kong Ling piped up too. “Why haven’t we heard any news from Qidong at all?”
Shen Zechuan had also gotten an inkling of sorts from this wait.
If Qudu wanted to stop Xiao Chiye from returning to Libei, they only had to mobilize Qi Zhuyin right away, and she would have been able to stop Xiao Chiye at the border of Zhongbo a month ago. But Qudu did not do so. They sent Han Jin, an armchair strategist who was all talk and no action. This legitimate son born of the Han clan was taken captive by the Imperial Army outside Dancheng and was still being held in prison. Going by the division and distribution of Qidong’s Five Commanderies, Qi Zhuyun could assemble 100,000 men within half a month. Yet, there was still no sign of her to date.
It was already late when Shen Zechuan came out of the Zhou’s residence. He estimated the time; Xiao Chiye should still be on the way back to the city, so he was not in a hurry to return home. As he descended the stairs, the path ahead brightened up. Fei Sheng carried a lantern, illuminating the road ahead for Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan had been busy with other matters these few days, and so he had yet to have a talk with Fei Sheng. Fei Sheng tried his best to get close to Chen Yang every day, and he was the most diligent in serving tea and water to Ji Gang. This man, a veteran who had tumbled his way out of Qudu, was presently holding up the lantern for Shen Zechuan, and he did not speak up to interrupt Shen Zechuan’s thoughts along the way either. From all appearances, he looked as if he was already content enough to hold the lantern for Shen Zechuan.
There were some people on the streets. Fei Sheng was carefully guiding the way when he suddenly heard Shen Zechuan said, “I heard you recommended yourself for the job when His Lordship went out this morning.”
Fei Sheng answered with a neutral expression, “I saw that Gu Jin had yet to recover from his injuries, and so I thought of going along with His Lordship on his behalf.”
Shen Zechuan looked at the road and said nothing more.
Once back at the residence, Qiao Tianya took over the lantern. There was still Gu Jin in the courtyard, and it was not Fei Sheng’s turn to be on shift duty. So he went back on his own initiative.
“If Master gives him the cold-shoulder,” Qiao Tianya said, “he might come to harbor resentment.”
As Shen Zechuan entered the long walkway, he looked back to see that Fei Sheng had already made a turn and passed through the moon gate2 on the other side. He said, “I have the mind to use him, but he might not necessarily think highly of me. His rank in the Imperial Bodyguard is higher than yours. Han Cheng could be said to be one of the bigwigs he counted on for backing. He was also Han Cheng’s right-handed man before the former emperor met with sudden death. There has to be a reason why Han Cheng wants to kill him. It has been several days since he came to Cizhou, and yet he has never shown any intent to speak of this reason to me.”
Shen Zechuan stood still and smiled at Qiao Tianya.
“It wasn’t me but Ce’an he was originally gunning for when he willingly staked and gambled everything on that one move of his in Qudu. Ce’an is the second legitimate son of the Prince of Libei. The Hereditary Prince was severely injured at that time, and the others all thought the Ce’an was going back to replace Xiao Fangxu. Fei Sheng was already starting to harbor ill-feelings towards Han Cheng. Rather than compromise and make concessions to achieve his aim, he might as well leave Qudu for Libei to carve out another path for himself. The identity of a life-saving benefactor is enough for him to secure a stable life in Libei.”
Qiao Tianya had some understanding of Fei Sheng. He said, “It’s inconvenient for Gu Jin now that he’s wounded. Fei Sheng recommended himself for the job today because he wants to take Gu Jin’s place. A pity His Lordship is a hard-hearted man and would not give him this opportunity.”
But Fei Sheng was prepared. He had been so attentive towards Ji Gang just so he could leave himself a way out. The self-recommendation today was a kind of test to sound Xiao Chiye out. He had already understood Xiao Chiye’s intent, and so he shifted his gaze back to Shen Zechuan.
“This person has real capabilities.” Shen Zechuan said. “He’s on par with Gu Jin. It’d be truly a pity to cast him aside and not use him.”
They had already arrived at the courtyard while they were speaking. Gu Jin was about to arrange for the people to serve the food, but Shen Zechuan told him to wait.
“He should almost be back now.” Shen Zechuan turned back. “Go wait at the entrance and receive him.”
But this wait lasted for half a night, and Xiao Chiye still had not returned. Shen Zechuan stayed up until the burning candles were gone by half before he heard movements at the front.
Xiao Chiye strode into the courtyard but did not enter the room immediately. He was covered in dust all over. He took off his outer robe in the courtyard and turned back to look at the person behind him, although the words that came out of his mouth were, “Lanzhou.”
Shen Zechuan looked past Xiao Chiye’s shoulder and saw Chen Yang and Gu Jin supporting someone in. The courtyard was not bright enough for Shen Zechuan to make out who this person was.
This person’s robe had been ripped to pieces, and the legs of his trousers were torn. He was wearing a pair of straw shoes that had split apart, and his legs were all caked in dirt and mud. He could not stand firm on his feet and had to rely on Chen Yang and Gu Jin to hold him up as he spouted nonsense. Disheveled and unkempt, he was truly a sorry sight to behold.
Shen Zechuan suddenly thought of something under the faint light. He probed, “Your Excellency Yu?”
That man shivered and struggled for a bit as he peered forward through the dimness in disbelief. His messy hair exposed a pair of eyes among them. He froze for a moment when he saw Shen Zechuan. Then he swallowed a few mouthfuls of saliva. His mouth opened and closed. All of a sudden, he burst out bawling.
“This is draining the life out of me!” Yu Xiaozai cried himself hoarse. He kept wiping his face as he shouted, “Vice Commander! The Grand Secretary is no more! I’m going to die too! I’ve been fleeing and hiding the entire journey here. Life is hard!”
Startled, Shen Zechuan strode a step out and asked in a heavy voice, “What do you mean, Secretariat Elder Hai is no more?”
Chokes of sobs clogged up Yu Xiaozai’s throat. He wanted to answer, but all that came out was the sound of his crying. He cried so hard that he was virtually on the verge of sliding to the ground. He kept shaking his head. At last, overwhelmed with grief and with his voice hoarse from exhaustion, he answered in bureaucratic-speak, “The Grand Secretary… The Grand Secretary risked his life in futile remonstration…”
“Take him away to calm down for a moment and have a change of clothes.” Xiao Chiye said with a cool head. “Gu Jin, go inform the kitchen to make some soup and have it sent over.”
Those wretched cries lingered in the air. Shen Zechuan was still standing in the same spot. For all his hundreds and thousands of guesses, he had never foreseen that Hai Liangyi would die. Hai Liangyi was the stabilizing force of Qudu. He could even hold on tight to his position in the Grand Secretariat back then, when the Hua and Pan factions were at the height of their power and influence. Even if Han Cheng wanted to assist a male offspring from his own clan to the throne after Li Jianheng’s death, Hai Liangyi should still be the first and best choice of a minister inside and outside the imperial court to entrust the child to.
Xiao Chiye held on to Shen Zechuan’s arm to bring him out of his stupefaction. Xiao Chiye said, “I found him among the groups of bandits a few li west of the hunting grounds. It hadn’t been easy for him to get out of Qudu, and he was robbed by the bandits after leaving Dancheng, so he could only walk barefoot towards Cizhou. He has a letter on him, which Cen Yu wrote to you. He has news of Qudu and Qidong as well.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Yu Xiaozai still needed someone to help support him when he entered the room again. He was so famished that he had no strength and had to carry the bowl in his arms to wolf down the food before they had their conversation. Tears were still streaming down his cheeks as he ate. He seemed to be in a rush as he choked on his food and coughed. It was only when his hunger abated some that he covered up his face with a clean handkerchief and wiped away at it for a while.
“It’s truly a stroke of luck that I could live long enough to see the Vice Commander. His Excellency Cen’s letter is in my bosom. I kept it close to me throughout for fear that the bandits would search me and find it.” Yu Xiaozai sat on his heels and said with difficulty, “Before I begin, I have to inform both of you gentlemen that the new emperor who is about to ascend to the throne is a woman.”
- 黃冊 Huangce or census registers/yellow book served during the Ming Dynasty to provide basic data for taxation and recruitment based on the household’s classification according to their occupation. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian, military, and craftsman.
洞门 An opening in a wall separating different courtyards within a residence or palace. It’s also known as a moon gate (月亮门).