Translated with: Jia<3
The Hereditary Prince’s Consort, Lu Yizhi, and Xiao Jiming were childhood sweethearts who went on to live in conjugal harmony after their marriage. She was a renowned figure in Libei for her virtues. When the Prince’s Consort of Libei passed away from illness, Xiao Chiye was still an ignorant brat. As the saying goes, a virtuous elder sister-in-law is comparable to a mother, and that was precisely what Lu Yizhi was in Xiao Chiye’s eyes. She was not only Lu Guangbai’s younger sister, but also Qi Zhuyin’s bosom friend.
The horse carriage stopped outside the city of Cizhou, accompanied by the Libei Armored Cavalry on both sides of the public road. Lu Yizhi sat within and listened to the incoming sound of footsteps beyond the curtain. Someone called out “Vice Commander”.
Lu Yizhi gently clasped her hands and thought in delight.
Zhou Gui stood outside the horse carriage and paid his obeisances from afar. “Greetings to Your Ladyship. It has been a long, tiring journey for Your Ladyship, so please head into the city quickly.”
Lu Yizhi had never seen Zhou Gui, and naturally, she had never heard Zhou Gui’s voice either. Since it was “Vice Commander” she heard earlier, she took Zhou Gui to be Shen Zechuan. The horse carriage drove towards the city gate, and as the wheels rolled over the gravel, she quietly lifted a corner of the window curtain and saw Zhou Gui’s back.
Zhou Gui was standing with his back to her, so Lu Yizhi could not see him in the face and thought that this Shen Zechuan was rather different from the way Xiao Chiye described him in the letter. She soundlessly put down the curtain, but lifted it again after a moment for another look.
This time, Zhou Gui’s face was revealed. He was much older than Xiao Jiming, of average stature, and had a thin and lean face with a handsome beard to match. Lu Yizhi was so startled that she was struck dumb. Fortunately, she still had her wits about her and could still remember that Shen Zechuan was a good two years younger than Xiao Chiye.
Right at this time, she saw Zhou Gui bow over slightly to make way for a white figure. This white figure was tall and slender. Although he was standing sideways, she could vaguely catch a glimpse of his appearance. Lu Yizhi sized him up carefully, thinking that A-Ye truly wasn’t bragging; he was indeed a looker. Presumably, he took after his mother more.
How would Shen Zechuan know that Lu Yizhi was sizing him up? He spoke to Zhou Gui in a hushed tone. “I’d like to ask the various advisors to draft up the new document today. Other matters can be temporarily postponed for discussion another day.”
Even if Zhou Gui was an obtuse one, he also knew who Lu Yizhi was here to see. He followed Shen Zechuan closely and said, “I’ll immediately assign some men from the yamen over.”
Shen Zechuan was momentarily taken aback. “Whatever for?”
Zhou Gui’s palms were sweating as he answered, “To protect you!”
Shen Zechuan was speechless. He looked at the accompanying retinue of about five hundred men from the Libei Armored Cavalry. If they were really here to capture him, Zhou Gui would not have been able to stop them, even if he wanted to. Xiao Chiye had not sent any letters after the eighth month, so he could only act based on his conjectures. He promptly reassured Zhou Gui in a casual tone, “Perhaps the Hereditary Prince’s Consort is merely passing through. Cizhou leads directly to Chazhou, and it’s a lot more convenient to head into Qidong from there. There is no need for Your Excellency to be overly worried. We are not enemies with Libei.”
Who would have guessed that such a spontaneous remark from Shen Zechuan would really hit the nail on the head?
It was precisely to go to Qidong that Lu Yizhi headed south this time.
Due to Lu Guangbai’s desertion, Lu Pingyan had been implicated, and the imperial court had ordered him to be taken into custody for a trial. However, Qi Zhuyin simply outright detained Yingxi, the Army-inspecting eunuch of the Bianjun Commandery, and demanded an explanation from the Ministry of War on the grounds of Yingxi’s repeated interference in military affairs of Bianjun and involvement in the issue of Bianjun’s army provisions. At the same time, she took Lu Pingyan into her own camp to look after him. Qi Zhuyin had sent a letter to Libei back in the sixth month, asking Xiao Jiming to fetch Lu Pingyan away as soon as possible.
This was a major case, and the crux lay in whether or not Lu Guangbai would throw in his lot with the Twelve Tribes of Biansha. Dazhou currently could not receive any news regarding the Bianjun Commandery Garrison Troops, and by just looking at Lu Guangbai’s act of penetrating deep into the desert, there was a high possibility of him defecting to the Twelve Tribes of Biansha. The court ministers’ request to put Lu Pingyan on trial was meant to hold him hostage in Qudu, so that they would have the leverage to negotiate with Lu Guangbai in the future. The document relayed by the Ministry of War met with obstruction in Qidong, with Qi Zhuyin turning a blind eye to it. At this juncture, the Imperial Bodyguards ought to have been the ones with the responsibility of carrying out the arrest on orders of the imperial edict.
But the capture did not happen.
When the Zhongbo troops were defeated six years ago, it was on imperial edict orders that the Imperial Bodyguards led by Ji Lei detained Shen Zechuan for questioning. It required not only an arrest warrant, but also the official writ of arrest decreed by the Ministry of Justice at the behest of the emperor, as well as the emperor’s orders in ink. After Li Jianheng’s death, the Empress Dowager took over the mandate of heaven in his place. There was originally a plan for the Empress Dowager and Grand Secretariat to jointly issue the paperwork in place of approval personally penned by the emperor himself. However, Qi Zhuyin did not accept this; she only acknowledged imperial orders personally issued by the emperor himself, and as long as the Imperial Bodyguards who went down to Qidong did not come bearing the imperial edict drafted from the hand of the emperor, she would not release Lu Pingyan.
Han Cheng, in personally leading the ceremonial guards of honor for the marriage between the Hua and Qi clans, was also meant to negotiate with Qi Zhuyin. The remuneration offered by the Empress Dowager was rather generous, but no agreement was reached. As Qudu was now reliant on Qi Zhuyin’s military forces, they did not dare force Qi Zhuyin to hand the man over. Xiao Jiming had previously sent people over to inquire about the situation on the pretext of sending congratulatory gifts, to which Qi Zhuyin had verbally given him an unequivocal answer. Lu Yizhi’s current trip was thus for the precise purpose of fetching Lu Pingyan to Libei.
And to help her father-in-law back at home find out the kind of person Shen Zechuan was while she was passing through.
Shen Zechuan naturally could not allow Lu Yizhi to stay over at a relay station, which was rather unfitting of her status, so he made a special point of deploying people to tidy up the courtyard and invite Lu Yizhi to stay for the night in Xiao Chiye’s name. Lu Yizhi noted that the upturned eaves of the residence were all in a style that Xiao Chiye was partial to, and the insides and outsides were both organized and well taken care of. She could not help recalling the letter Xiao Chiye wrote to her before her departure, of which three pages were devoted to showering Shen Zechuan with praise.
Lu Yizhi got off the horse carriage, and Ding Tao joyfully came over to greet her. Lu Yizhi was happy to see him and pulled him along as she gave him a once-over. “Tao-zi has also grown a head taller now. Why didn’t you return home with the Second Young Master?”
Ding Tao replied, “Master commanded me to stay put and stay by Young Master’s side.”
Lu Yizhi called for the maidservant to bring candies for Ding Tao. She sat on the chair, put her hands together under her sleeves, and asked gently, “Does the Second Young Master often stay here?”
Ding Tao hemmed and hawed, having been cautioned by Qiao Tianya before, yet he also did not dare lie to the Hereditary Prince’s Consort.
And so Lu Yizhi spoke in an even softer voice, “When you were home last time, you’d often come over to ease my boredom. The grandson-heir has always known of his Tao-zi gege; he’s constantly longing for you to come home and play with him.” As she spoke, she turned slightly to the side, looking a little sad. “It has been six years since we last saw our little Tao-zi, and he has grown so distant from me.”
Ding Tao hurriedly replied, “No, not at all! Your Ladyship treats me well. Even before I left for Qudu, you instructed Jin-ge to look after me. I remember it all.”
Lu Yizhi then turned back around and said, “You’re young. As the older brothers, it’s their responsibility to take good care of you. When I heard about how A-Ye was constantly bullied in Qudu, I couldn’t eat and kept tossing and turning all night long. I worried for a long time…”
On hearing this, Ding Tao immediately responded, “Master wasn’t injured when he left Qudu. The Eight Great Training Divisions couldn’t catch up to us, and that Han Jin who came after us is still locked up in jail. Your Ladyship need not worry, Master is a very formidable man now.”
“Since A-Ye is this impressive,” Lu Yizhi worriedly spoke, “Why did your journey take so long?”
“The Young Master was injured,” Ding Tao recounted. “Master was trapped in the capital by Han Cheng, and Young Master helped a great deal. But that Han Cheng was truly an abominable one—he even used Young Master’s teacher to threaten him. Young Master didn’t manage to save his teacher, and after leaving Qudu, he fell heavily ill. All the physicians along the way weren’t any help, so we didn’t dare to hurry.”
Lu Yizhi did not know who Shen Zechuan’s teacher was, but she was alarmed to hear this, and her expressions betrayed some of her genuine concern as she asked, “What happened after? Has he recovered?”
Ding Tao was unsure of how to explain this. “He looks to have recovered, but Master and Grandpa both say he hasn’t. The last time Young Master was in Chazhou for business, he fell sick en route, and Master flew into a terrible rage when he came back.”
Lu Yizhi knew it. As expected, Xiao Chiye did indeed come by often. “I’ve never seen A-Ye angry.”
“But Master was in a rush and only stayed a night before he had to leave.” Ding Tao thought about it for a moment before adding on in a small voice, “He got in by somersaulting over the walls.”
Understanding dawned on Lu Yizhi, and she said, “Then, are you happy staying here? If you want to go back with me, I’ll bring you along.”
Ding Tao hesitated; he wanted to return to Libei, but he could not simply just let go of Cizhou either. He had made plans with Li Xiong to go fishing at the outskirts of the city in winter, and had also promised Ji Gang that he would learn a set of moves before the new year. Most importantly, Shen Zechuan never deducted his allowance, and he had never scolded him even when he kept the frogs in Shen Zechuan’s courtyard.
Lu Yizhi looked pensive on observing this. She patted Ding Tao on the head and did not put him further in a spot. If Ding Tao was this hesitant, it meant that Shen Zechuan treated him very well, and this was proof that Shen Zechuan was not a difficult person to get along with; at the very least, he had exceptional patience with this half-grown youth.
Lu Yizhi mused to herself.
Here was a good-looking, domestic, patient, and loyal man who valued ties. Not only could he take care of domestic affairs, but he could also attend to official duties. He could keep A-Ye in check, and yet he was not overly domineering. His health wasn’t the best, likely an old ailment from his earlier years in Qudu. And despite the many setbacks he had suffered in his life, he remained amiable and easygoing.
Such a wonderful child!
Lu Yizhi clapped her hands together and said in excitement, “Quick, prepare the brush and ink. I’ll write a letter. Send it back to Dajing overnight, and have the Hereditary Prince deliver it to His Lordship on the battleground once he’s done reading it.”
◈ ◈ ◈
As a man who was not in Lu Yizhi’s immediate family given her status, Shen Zechuan could not pay his respects to her face-to-face, so he erected a screen in the courtyard to separate them. They had already learned that Lu Yizhi was transiting through and thus prepared a small feast to welcome this guest from afar, with Zhou Gui’s wife as company during the meal.
Madam Zhou was an astute one. She repeatedly praised Shen Zechuan to the skies during her private conversations with Lu Yizhi and picked a few incidents to recount to Lu Yizhi. Lu Yizhi’s initial impression of the Shen clan had all been based on Shen Wei. It was Xiao Chiye who sent her a letter overnight to gush on and on about Shen Zechuan’s good points for a whole three pages. Eventually, he implicitly said that he had been beaten up by his old man at the battleground and even demoted. He also concealed the incident where he had been in danger at the Tudalong Banner and merely said that he was injured, which made Lu Yizhi’s heart ache so much that she did not want to reproach him further regarding this matter.
Lu Yizhi was only staying over for one night. She still had to head south to Chazhou tomorrow. When the feast ended, she specifically summoned Shen Zechuan into the hall. The more she looked, the more good-looking she found him to be, and the more satisfied she was. Remembering Xiao Chiye’s mention of Shen Zechuan’s past, as well as what she’d heard from Ding Tao, she could not help but feel tender affection for Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan thought the way the Hereditary Prince’s Consort looked at him was just like how one would look at a rabbit; she was as gentle as she could possibly be, as though being just a tad fiercer would send him into shock.
“Vice Commander Shen,” Lu Yizhi said in a soft, gentle voice. “I’ve imposed on you and caused you trouble, so I hope you can accept this gift as a gesture of my thanks and appreciation.”
Without even waiting for Shen Zechuan to answer, she gestured for the maidservant to present it to him. Contrary to his expectation, it was nothing rare, just satin in a box. As it was nothing valuable, Shen Zechuan did not turn it down after some polite civilities. But as he accepted it, he found the box heavy.
When Shen Zechuan returned to the courtyard, he opened it to take a look. There were gold and jade bracelets cushioned at the bottom, all intricately inlaid and exquisitely crafted family heirlooms of quality workmanship.
Fei Sheng sneaked a peek from behind him and marveled if this weren’t a set of family heirlooms meant to be passed down to a daughter-in-law! But he dared not vocalize his thoughts and silently shifted his gaze away, leaving Shen Zechuan to stand alone in place all puzzled.