Translated with: Jia<3
Fuxian Peak was in the midst of collapsing, and Xiao Chiye’s soul was about to take leave of his body at the exact moment he looked up. He grabbed onto the eaves with an arm and stepped on somebody’s head to clamber up the double-eaved roof, then ran for what his life was worth. He caught Shen Zechuan in his arms as he leaped, and the impact careened him off-course. He immediately covered Shen Zechuan with his arms as his back struck heavily against the ridge of the roof, causing the tiles to topple off.
Chen Yang reined in his horse and brandished his whip to point towards the eaves as he shouted urgently, “Laohu, catch them!”
Xiao Chiye panted heavily as his sore arms braced his body. Sweat trickled along his neck. As the falling objects went crashing, he haphazardly brushed aside the hair on Shen Zechuan’s cheek with his trembling fingers and confirmed that Shen Zechuan was still gasping for breath. He let loose a vague curse and held Shen Zechuan so tightly with such force that Shen Zechuan coughed intermittently amid the smoke and dust.
Tantai Hu had already chased all the way to the front of the building. He released Lang Tao Xue Jin’s reins and shouted, “Master!”
Xiao Chiye stepped on the tiles and leaped down. Gu Jin wanted to give him a helping hand, but Xiao Chiye raised his arm to block the former, unwilling to hand Shen Zechuan over to anyone else. As he mounted his horse, Xiao Chiye took the cloak from Chen Yang and covered Shen Zechuan with it.
The contours of Xiao Chiye’s side profile were cold and hard. He patted Tantai Hu on the back with his freed hand, making Tantai Hu stick out his chest, then said in a cold voice, “This place was your elder brother’s battlefield.”
Tantai Hu wiped away the blood on his cheek in silence.
With eyes grave and solemn, Xiao Chiye said. “Tantai Hu, time to go home.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Once again, the Prince of Jianxing’s manor was burned and razed to the ground. Flames accompanied the sound of killing as the fire blazed until dawn. The dark red blood on the downtown streets of Dunzhou had converged into a trickling stream. Meanwhile, the commoners all hid themselves at home, not daring to even sneak a peek. At the third quarter of the hour of chen, the Cizhou Garrison Troops and Imperial Army started to clean up the battlefield. They dragged the corpses to an open, flat area to be disposed of at a later time.
Tantai Hu was presently having his meal. He had just returned from the battlefield, and without even washing his face, he squatted with the guards on the veranda to gobble down his food. Chen Yang called for the chef in the Yan clan’s pleasure house to prepare meals for the soldiers of the garrison troops and Imperial Army, who were all famished after having marched through the night and fighting until the break of day.
“Street fights are still the most thrilling.” Tantai Hu wiped his mouth. “Field operations are thrilling too, but not nearly as thrilling.”
“Master has the foresight…” Gu Jin bit down on a steamed bun before continuing, “not to get the Imperial Army to put on armor. Otherwise, we would have suffered from those hammers last night.”
The curtains of the main hall remained down all the time they rested up here. Chen Yang was a little worried. Clutching at the register of names, he questioned Ding Tao, “Why did you let Young Master go up that tower? You didn’t even go with him.”
Ding Tao hung his head down, not daring to say a word. Fei Sheng and several others who had been injured had hastily bandaged their wounds, and their upper garments were uncovered as they all kneeled in the courtyard and waited to be reprimanded. However, the Imperial Bodyguards put up a beautiful defense last night. They had not allowed Lei Jingzhe to force his way up from the stairs. Two of their own had died. As Fei Sheng had shouted, they had made a name for themselves with this one battle! No one could belittle them in the future. They had real capabilities to speak of, and they could hold their heads high even when they stood before the guards from Libei, for they were no less inferior.
Kong Ling stood in the hall and let his sleeves fall as he waited deferentially at the side. He knew Xiao Chiye was feeding Shen Zechuan medicine when he heard the clinks of the porcelain bowl in the inner chamber. After a while, the maidservant came out with the bowl and curtsied to Kong Ling before leaving the room.
Xiao Chiye lifted the curtain and stepped out. He wiped his hands with a handkerchief and said to Kong Ling, “It’s nothing serious… he hurt his hand. Last time, it was his left hand, and now it’s his right hand. In any case, he’s taking turns to injure them. Sooner or later, he’s going to be the death of me.”
Kong Ling remained calm and unruffled as he lowered his head and listened; he knew the words were not meant for him. The inner chamber was not soundproof, and the way Xiao Chiye mentioned it so casually made the man lying within turn over soundlessly.
Xiao Chiye set the handkerchief to one side, then made way and gestured for Kong Ling to enter. Once Kong Ling lifted the curtains and went in, he strode out of the door to stand under the eaves and whistled to the guards.
“Let Gu Jin dispose of the corpses. Settle it by tonight at the latest. Get whatever cleansing agents needed like vinegar and water from the Yan clan.” Xiao Chiye cast a glance at the weather. “While it’s not that hot in autumn, I noticed last night that the public ditches in Dunzhou are all clogged as well. It’s all too easy for an epidemic to start if they aren’t unclogged. Keep an eye on it.”
Dunzhou had no yamen to manage its affairs, and its network of public ditches was all in a mess. There were plenty of people who built their houses over the ditches, and the cloggage was far worse than it had been in Qudu. It was the reason for the blood pooling into puddles this morning instead of flowing freely like a river.1 Autumn was not as hot as summer, but it was too dry. The fire had raged for so long last night partially because the houses in the residential district were all clustered together, eaves to eaves.
As he stood at the doorway and gave his instructions, Shen Zechuan was also discussing affairs with Kong Ling in the inner chamber.
Kong Ling sat on the small chair by the side of the bed and said, “Once we received your lordship’s letter in Cizhou, we immediately began to check the garrison troops. Yuanzhuo wanted the garrison troops to leave the city right at once and head east to wait for the Imperial Army at the southern border of the Bianbo Camp. He said if the Imperial Army came, they could head south as one. If not, they should remain there and wait.” He smiled when he spoke to this point. “I initially objected to it, because your lordship instructed us in the letter not to act arbitrarily without orders. It’s a good thing Yuanzhuo insisted.”
Shen Zechuan leaned partially against the pillow and read the letter Kong Ling brought along. “Yuanzhuo understood the message behind that letter.”
Shen Zechuan, unable to write a letter then, had to orally dictate many points for inclusion in the letter. At that time, there were still captured bandits around the horse carriage, and many among them were former subordinates of Liu’er. What’s more, Liu’er was Lei Jingzhe’s messenger. Shen Zechuan could not trust all these people, so when he issued his command to Cizhou, he said “do not act arbitrarily without orders”. But then, he followed up right after with the order to head for Dunzhou. He was playing with words here, and Yao Wenyu got the hint right at once.
“Your lordship is circumspect and farsighted. A few days back when we were discussing Dunzhou, we still thought we would only be able to come after spring next year. Who would have expected your lordship to have already worked out the appropriate strategy?” Kong Ling said.
“It was a coincidence this time.” Shen Zechuan was clear-headed. “When I seized those supply wagons, I only knew that there were four hundred scorpions still in Dunzhou. I gave Cizhou a hint to deploy troops initially because I wanted to use this reason to let the Garrison Troops probe into just how deep the waters in Dunzhou run. It would have been enough to capture Lei Jingzhe alive. But who knew, he even brought along more than ten thousand cavalrymen and delivered them right into my hands.”
During their discussion back in Cizhou, they had agreed to first keep King Yi’s small imperial court in Fanzhou under control before attempting to obtain Dunzhou. This was because King Yi could obstruct Qi Zhuyin of Qidong on Shen Zechuan’s behalf. Shen Zechuan now had the two Prefectures of Cizhou and Chazhou in his hands, and he relied on the trade route to rise to power. In Zhongbo, he could only be considered the master of a small plot of land. The various prefectures of Dunzhou, Duanzhou, Fanzhou, and Dengzhou to the east all had their own masters. If Shen Zechuan wanted to remove them from the equation, he needed a logical reason. Otherwise, Qi Zhuyin would have a reason to launch an assault on him the moment he deployed his troops.
In all probability, Lei Jingzhe did not expect himself to come for the sole reason of eliminating Hairigu, only to end up being the perfect reason for Shen Zechuan to attack Dunzhou. But this also illustrated one thing from the side, and that was, Lei Jingzhe had been around Duanzhou for so long that he had already forgotten that Zhongbo was still land that was part of Dazhou. It was brazen and dauntless of him to lead ten thousand cavalrymen deep into Dunzhou. He thought nothing of King Yi of Fanzhou and Dengzhou at all, and even less of Shen Zechuan of Cizhou.
Kong Ling initially still had other matters to report, but then he heard the wind starting to rise outside the window. In no time at all, it started to drizzle. He hurriedly stood up and closed the windows for Shen Zechuan. “This has truly been a dangerous trip for your lordship. Some words ought to have been conveyed to you by Yuanzhuo himself, but it is inconvenient for him to travel long-distance, so I shall be so bold as to do it on his behalf.”
Shen Zechuan seemed to know what Kong Ling was going to say. He set the letter on the blanket and looked at Kong Ling.
Kong Ling took two steps and said, “As the saying goes, a wise man does not put himself in harm’s way;2 for your lordship to repeatedly place yourself in dangerous situations is simply not appropriate. The development of Cizhou’s foundation is still in its fledgling stage, and the system for the registration of Chazhou’s citizens has yet to be perfected. Libei’s mutual trade market has not started either. Your lordship is the head of the household. In doing this, you are hanging in the balance the loyalty of all those who stand behind you.”
Kong Ling’s meaning could not be any clearer. Now that Shen Zechuan was the ‘Prefectural Lord’, he had in his hands the lifeblood of the two prefectures of Cizhou and Chazhou, along with the tiger that was Libei crouching behind him. As the saying goes, embarking on a great undertaking is only the tip of the iceberg. There would be many affairs in the future where he would be the one holding the sole decision-making power. Nothing untoward must happen to him.
Shen Zechuan’s countenance was pleasant as he bowed slightly towards Kong Ling. “Mister is right to lecture me. I will sincerely reflect on it and not take any unnecessary risks again.”
After Kong Ling had taken his leave, Shen Zechuan folded up the letter and put it away on the small table at the head of the bed. His right hand had been bandaged again. His two fingers had been bent out of shape from the pressure he inflicted on them, and when the physician set his fingers right earlier, he had sweated profusely. Even now, he was still in pain.
Rain poured outside, as though it were cleansing the streets on behalf of Dunzhou. There were many matters that Shen Zechuan had yet to attend to, but he was presently leaning back against the pillow. He had no wish to see anyone except for Xiao Chiye, but Xiao Chiye did not come in even after he waited for a little over an hour. Eventually, he ended up drifting to sleep.
The next time Shen Zechuan woke up, he was woken by the heat. He had already been shifted further into the bed. The sky was murky and bleak, accompanied by the urgent howls of wind and rain. He cocked his head to see Xiao Chiye sitting by the outer edge of the bed, reading a letter by the faint candlelight.
The instant Shen Zechuan saw Xiao Chiye, he started to ache all over. He was too lazy to move, having just woken up, so he clung dazedly to the pillow for a while. His foot under the blanket slid over to make light contact with Xiao Chiye’s calf.
Xiao Chiye ignored him.
Shen Zechuan propped himself up to look over at the letter, then explained in a hoarse voice, “It’s from Yuanzhuo… I have to reply back to him later to get Gao Zhongxiong to write up a notice immediately. We have to make it clear to Qidong that Cizhou deployed its troops this time to fight the Biansha Cavalry.”
Xiao Chiye looked at him out of the corner of his eyes, then folded the letter and tossed it to the side. He said nothing.
Shen Zechuan took his chance to lie on Xiao Chiye’s arm and buried his head. “Ce’an.”
“I’ll return to Cizhou with you in a few days.” Xiao Chiye lowered his eyes to stare at Shen Zechuan. “Let’s see. You broke your fingers, and you jumped off a building. Ji Gang-shifu is going to have to lash me until the horsewhip breaks.”
Shen Zechuan said in a muted voice, “Don’t.”
Xiao Chiye fell silent for a moment.
Shen Zechuan nuzzled his face against Xiao Chiye’s arm and called out softly, “A-Ye.”
Xiao Chiye felt that Shen Zechuan really deserved a spanking. He was determined not to fall for it this time, so he raised his other hand to grab the back of Shen Zechuan’s collar and lifted him over to the side. “Who’s A-Ye? No such person.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Er—”
Xiao Chiye simply covered Shen Zechuan with the blanket, then blew out the candle flame. Without even embracing him, he turned his back and lay down, still fully clothed. He still remembered that feeling when he broke into a dash. He had really gone all out then, as if his life depended on it. He would not care to look even if there had been a mountain of swords and a sea of flames before him. He was about to die from all those stabs Shen Zechuan was dishing out to his heart.
Shen Zechuan peeled off the blanket and bumped against Xiao Chiye’s back all the way up to his shoulder. He stuck to Xiao Chiye’s temple and said, “I can’t sleep if you aren’t hugging me.”
Xiao Chiye lay flat and grabbed Shen Zechuan around his waist to drag him onto his body. Shen Zechuan looked at him, and he looked at Shen Zechuan. However, he would not release his grip and instead secured Shen Zechuan in this position so that Shen Zechuan could not move.
“Go ahead and sleep.” Xiao Chiye said.
“This position is rather cramped.” Shen Zechuan motioned to his chest with his eyes. “It’s still pounding.”
“Isn’t that nice?” Xiao Chiye said with a shadow of a smile. “Mine has been pounding all this time.”
Shen Zechuan raised his palm over Xiao Chiye’s chest and rubbed it.
Xiao Chiye lifted him up high and said, “No touching. I’m angry.”3
Shen Zechuan was like a downtrodden cat that had fallen into the water4 as Xiao Chiye held him in his hands while he brandished his paws to scratch at Xiao Chiye’s chest. So light, yet so ticklish. So devilish, yet so pampered. The scratches made even Xiao Chiye’s teeth itch. Look at those expressive, lazy eyes; he was clearly an emboldened one, brazenly acting as if nothing that happened was of his own doing.
Xiao Chiye was miffed, but those scratches wore his bad temper down into nothingness. The way Shen Zechuan looked and acted now could not be found anywhere else, for it was the outcome of being much too indulged and spoiled in Xiao Chiye’s arms. Xiao Chiye knew this very well, but he did not intend to let Shen Zechuan get away with it unpunished.
“This a scrub you’re giving me?” Xiao Chiye said mercilessly. “It’s been two days since I last bathed.”
Special thanks to Tea for proofreading! <3