Translated with: Jia<3
Tantai Hu was still pouring his heart out. “I have no objections if the Viceroy wants me to defend Dunzhou. I just can’t bear to part with my brothers from Libei, and even more so, the Viceroy. Dunzhou is the place my eldest brother was originally stationed. I’m really…”
Xiao Chiye’s fingers sunk into Shen Zechuan’s hair. He patiently caressed Shen Zechuan’s earlobe with his thumb, rubbing it until that jade earring took on a faint hue of scarlet. The window was open, and occasionally, the muffled sound of thunder would rumble. Xiao Chiye paid it no heed.
Given that the inner and outer chambers were merely separated by a bamboo blind, Tantai Hu’s voice was extremely clear. Shen Zechuan was hopelessly flushed in the face, and his words, inarticulate. He looked so tender that he seemed succulent and ripe for the taking. He had hit upon the idea on the spur of the moment. How was he to know it would be so hard to pull off? Not only was his mouth stuffed to the brim, he was also choked to the point his eyes were watering.
When all was said and done, Tantai Hu was a bona fide man, and he felt rather embarrassed and ashamed to kneel here and cry. He composed himself and reverted to addressing Xiao Chiye by his original form of address. “Dunzhou doesn’t have a garrison troop at present. Since Master is willing to leave this place in my hands, I will have to prove myself worthy of this kindness.”
Magnificent waves of pleasure assaulted Xiao Chiye closely one after another as he grasped Shen Zechuan’s right hand while simultaneously pressing Shen Zechuan’s head down with his hand in Shen Zechuan’s hair. It was cramped and narrow under the table. Shen Zechuan was unable to endure the heat, and it did not take long for him to be sweating profusely.
“I’ll leave you five thousand soldiers.” Xiao Chiye’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “All the future accounts will go through Cizhou. You’ll be under Lanzhou’s management. If there are any matters of concern, let Lanzhou know as soon as possible.”
Tantai Hu knew Shen Zechuan was in the inner chamber too. He thought for a moment and said in all seriousness, “Dunzhou has to recruit new soldiers and rebuild the city walls. I have to first discuss the exact figure for this portion of the expenditure with the Prefectural Lord.”
Tantai Hu mentioned some other matters too, all of which were government affairs that required further in-depth discussions. If it had been some other time, Shen Zechuan would have summoned Kong Ling in to draft up a document with Tantai Hu. But he was in no position to be distracted at this moment, and even if he had an opinion, they would all vanish at the press of Xiao Chiye’s hand. The waves in those eyes built up until they eventually consolidated into water droplets that fell off like beads tumbling off a broken string.
This was too stimulating a scene.
Xiao Chiye tightened his grip. The sound of the rain was loud at times, and soft at others. Shen Zechuan could not hold in his saliva. In this harried moment, he did not even know when Tantai Hu had taken his leave. Xiao Chiye lifted a leg and kicked the table away.
Muffled thunder suddenly crashed through the sky. The rain poured even harder, pelting at the windows noisily as broken beads of water splashed all over. Xiao Chiye did not go anywhere else. He remained here, leaning against the chair to teach Shen Zechuan a lesson. Both of Shen Zechuan’s hands were bound behind his back as he straddled Xiao Chiye with his face to him, murmuring under the din of the rain.
In just a couple of times, Shen Zechuan could not take it all in anymore. He shuddered amidst the jolts of pleasure, cutting a pitiful sight as he dirtied Xiao Chiye’s clothes from grinding against him. Xiao Chiye did not play tricks this time. He bound those two wrists of Shen Zechuan’s in place, letting him plead for mercy all he wanted with those “A-Ye” and “Ce’an” of his. He simply settled the account with Shen Zechuan, along with the interest.
The rain was still falling.
◈ ◈ ◈
When the rain came to a stop, Xiao Chiye fell onto the bedding and scooped Shen Zechuan over. He was still grasping the latter’s right wrist as he secured him where he was. Shen Zechuan drifted off and woke up again, his head resting on Xiao Chiye’s chest as he mumbled something incoherent.
Xiao Chiye listened for a long time but could not get what he was saying. He was so tired and sleepy he could barely open his eyes. He gave him a vague reply, and both men grunted incongruously for a moment, with neither making sense of the other, before gradually sinking into a deep sleep.
He slept until noon the next day, and while he was still half asleep, he heard Shen Zechuan calling for him. He opened his eyes and dazedly said, “Hm, hm?”
Shen Zechuan, too sleepy to raise his head, grasped Xiao Chiye’s little braid tightly.
Xiao Chiye slept for a while longer, but with military affairs still on his mind, it did not take him long to wake up. He had been going at it too hard last night, and now he rolled over to pin Shen Zechuan down. “Get up. Time to drink the medicine.”
Shen Zechuan covered Xiao Chiye’s forehead with his left hand and pretended not to hear.
Xiao Chiye sighed and buried his head into Shen Zechuan’s chest to nuzzle against him until Shen Zechuan sank into the bedding. He said in a muffled voice, “Shen Lanzhou, help me out of bed.”
The pressure on Shen Zechuan made it hard for him to breathe, and it did not work when he clutched and tugged Xiao Chiye’s little braid either, so he could only open his eyes and say feebly, “My waist is sore, and my knees are hurting. I can’t get up.”
Xiao Chiye reached his hand under Shen Zechuan and helped him up with his hand supporting the latter’s back, then hoisted him over himself before getting out of bed. Shen Zechuan was still in a daze when he was set down into the water. He leaned against Xiao Chiye, truly not wanting to even move his finger. Xiao Chiye did not want to move either, so both of them remained in this position as they soaked in the water.
Chen Yang had already been waiting the entire morning. He heard the door open, and saw Xiao Chiye dressed in a clean, loose-fitting robe with wooden clogs on his feet. He let the maidservants in first. After a moment, he saw Shen Zechuan, also dressed in a loose-fitting robe, step forth in his wooden clogs.
Both of them looked like they had not slept enough.
“Where’s Laohu?” Xiao Chiye said. “Call him over again later. I forgot to instruct him on a number of issues yesterday.”
“Summon Fei Sheng first.” Shen Zechuan looked at the veranda. “Why is he still kneeling?”
Chen Yang acknowledged the orders and took his leave to get them.
◈ ◈ ◈
Fei Sheng was kneeling at the foot of the veranda when he saw Kong Ling coming in with a straw raincloak draped over him. He bowed his head and greeted, “Mister Chengfeng.”
Kong Ling removed his bamboo hat and took off the straw raincloak, which he hung up at the side. “Why are you still kneeling?”
Fei Sheng answered, “Master has not instructed otherwise.”
Fei Sheng had been kneeling here for two days. Even while Xiao Chiye was giving him the cold shoulder, he did not harbor Xiao Chiye the slightest bit of resentment. Kong Ling’s mind cleared in understanding, and he comforted, “The Marquis and the Prefectural Lord spend more time apart than together, so it’s inevitable for the Marquis to fly into a rage when the Prefectural Lord is injured. Military affairs these few days are rather taxing. His anger should have more or less worn off by now.”
Fei Sheng hurriedly said, “As guards, we ought to be punished for letting our master get injured. I have not seen Master for two days already, and I’m worried about his injuries.”
Kong Ling nodded. “Your loyalty doesn’t go unnoticed by the Marquis. Wait for a while longer, and it should be your turn to be summoned.”
Fei Sheng knew that Kong Ling must have discerned something by saying this, so he said, “I, Fei the Tenth, am an unrefined man of little education. Please enlighten me.”
Kong Ling smiled and looked up to see Chen Yang walking towards them. He merely said, “Don’t panic. Good times will follow after the rough time you had kneeling these two days.”
Fei Sheng was worried that Xiao Chiye was going to wait until the dust had settled before settling scores with him, but then Kong Ling’s words did not seem to indicate that this would be the case. Kneeling these two days had all but dissipated the joy he had felt earlier. He could not be sure how Xiao Chiye was going to punish him given what he had seen of Xiao Chiye’s expression. Hearing himself being summoned, he hurriedly got to his feet and followed after Chen Yang.
Shen Zechuan was sitting on the chair drinking his medicine, and Xiao Chiye was keeping a close watch on him to ensure that he drank up every last drop of it. This medicine was so bitter it made Shen Zechuan frown, but he did not dare to spit it out with Xiao Chiye’s gaze on him, so he forced himself to swallow it.
He would not even drink strong tea because he hated the bitterness. Without Ji Gang by his side, he would pick and choose his medicines. Unless he was seriously injured, like he had been in the horse carriage this time, he would never give in.
Xiao Chiye looked at the military affairs and pushed the small plate of honeyed candies towards Shen Zechuan in passing.
Fei Sheng entered, paid his obeisances, and kneeled in the hall.
It would not do for Shen Zechuan to stuff himself with candy in front of his subordinates, so he retracted his fingertips from the rim of the plate and put up with the bitterness. “Have the brothers’ injuries been attended to?”
Fei Sheng answered truthfully. “Yes, they are all superficial injuries; not at all serious.”
Shen Zechuan said with a solemn countenance, “They should recuperate if they are injured. Exempt them from shift duties these few days and leave the night watch to Chen Yang and the rest. Those two brothers have to be buried with full honors. If they have family in Cizhou, take out forty taels of silver from my account and see to the arrangements for them on my behalf.”
Fei Sheng was delighted at hearing this, but he did not dare to let it show on his face. He hurriedly said, “I’ll surely carry out Master’s instruction down to the letter.”
Not anyone could carry out jobs on Shen Zechuan’s behalf. Tasks like this all used to be done by Qiao Tianya. To be able to draw money from Shen Zechuan’s personal account meant that Shen Zechuan could trust him, and this trust was far more valuable than monetary rewards. Fei Sheng was beside himself with joy, but upon seeing an expressionless Xiao Chiye sitting at the side, he restrained himself and took his leave with his head lowered.
The Imperial Bodyguards had put up a wonderful defense this time, and they did not turn tail and flee from the battlefield in the face of danger. Shen Zechuan was sure to reward them. Xiao Chiye had Fei Sheng kneel because he wanted to knock it into Fei Sheng’s head that as guards, they were at fault for every injury their master sustained, and that they should not forget who they were just because Shen Zechuan did not hold them accountable time and time again. At the same time, there was also another layer of meaning behind his action. If Xiao Chiye were to first punish Fei Sheng, then Shen Zechuan’s reward later would appear all the more considerate, and Fei Sheng would then have to remember Shen Zechuan’s kindness.
Shen Zechuan turned his head, wanting to say a word to Xiao Chiye during this interval. Xiao Chiye raised his hand and stuffed the candy into his mouth. Kong Ling entered.
Xiao Chiye said with his usual expression, “We have now taken down Dunzhou, but how to go about defending it is a problem. Cizhou has no commanding general at present, so I’m leaving Tantai Hu here, along with 5,000 men from the Imperial Army and Cizhou’s Garrison Troop. We have to step up recruitment this winter. Fortifications of the city are also of pressing urgency.”
Chen Yang handed the register to Kong Ling.
There were some words that were Shen Zechuan’s place to say, but he still had the candy in his mouth, so Xiao Chiye continued, “Dunzhou’s yamen needs to be rebuilt. The household registers have to be clean. Chengfeng, think about it and see if there is anyone from Cizhou’s yamen screening process this year that you can assign over to give Tantai Hu a helping hand.”
The screening of the lesser functionaries of Cizhou’s yamen was conducted by Zhou Gui’s advisors. Two men were executed over Gao Zhongxiong’s incident the last time, and by handing this task to Kong Ling, Shen Zechuan was giving the advisors of Cizhou another chance.
Kong Ling rose to his feet and answered, “There are several decent ones. Once I get back, I’ll draft up a list and present it to your lordship for perusal. When the time comes, I’d also like to ask for Yuanzhuo to give advice and counsel from the side.”
By doing this, Kong Ling took the opportunity Shen Zechuan offered him, and in passing, gave Yao Wenyu a boost while lowering his own position. Although Chen Yang had seen advisors before while following Xiao Chiye around in the military tents, all of them did not possess the same kind of magnanimous bearing Kong Ling had. Surprised, he cast a glance at Kong Ling.
“For certain arrangements, just discuss it in detail with Tantai Hu.” Xiao Chiye said. “You are originally the advisor of his eldest brother, Tantai Long, so just speak your mind. He respects you deep down and will not dare to give you the attitude.”
They discussed some more about the governmental affairs in Dunzhou, all of which were plans that had to be drafted and worked out. There were still a bunch of merchants outside the courtyard waiting to see Shen Zechuan. Yan Heru and Hairigu had been placed under lock and key too, as there were still questions about the scorpions that had yet to be cleared up. On the other hand, Xiao Chiye had to maintain correspondences with Wu Ziyu, who had remained behind in Libei. Snow had already started to fall in Libei, and the various bridle paths were either obstructed or damaged. The convoy squad was handed the task of repairing the paths, but they only had so much money and manpower. The priority of paths to be repaired and the process of repairs were all questions that had to go through Xiao Chiye first before a decision could be made.
This tiny bit of respite seemed to be all the free time both of them could get. Shen Zechuan did not want to wake up in the morning precisely because there was too much to do. Once the merchants entered, they started to make such a din with everyone trying to get a word in that Xiao Chiye regretted it a little. They had been going at it to their heart’s content the night before, and as a result, Shen Zechuan had to hang in there and drag his lackadaisical self to handle the day’s affairs.
With that thought in mind, Xiao Chiye turned his head around to look at Shen Zechuan. But who would have known that Shen Zechuan would be leaning against his chair listening to the merchants make a ruckus with a deadpan expression, all the while holding a brush in his hand to draw a tortoise on the paper?
So Xiao Chiye laughed.
And saw Shen Zechuan write his name, Xiao Ce’an, on it.1
Credits: thank you Tea for proofreading! <3