Qiang Jin Jiu – Chapter 183 : Inseparable (Like Fish & Water)

Translated with: Jia<3

Ji Gang was feeling lonely at home with Shen Zechuan faraway on his trip and Ding Tao and Li Xiong both absent. All he could do every day was to brew some tea and take a stroll with his bird. His culinary skills were exemplary, so he took care of Yao Wenyu for Shen Zechuan. He was nothing if not meticulous, and in half a month, the color began to return to Yao Wenyu’s complexion.

When the weather was fine, Qiao Tianya would accompany Yao Wenyu out to bask in the sunlight. He had collected quite the number of old books, which Yao Wenyu read in the courtyard.

As Yao Wenyu’s mobility was limited, Qiao Tianya helped him wash up before bed every night. But there was one occasion where Qiao Tianya noticed the reddened tips of Yao Wenyu’s ears while wiping him down and came to the realization that the latter had never looked him in the eyes in the bathhouse. It was only during such a time that Qiao Tianya could find back that Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo from the fourth month in spring. 

They did not actually converse much.

Besides voicing his thoughts during discussions, Yao Wenyu spent his usual time sitting in idleness. He kept vigil by the chessboard, contemplating his moves every day. It was not uncommon for him to hold on to a book for an entire day, with the page he was on in the morning still the same page when he closed the book at night. Sleep did not come easy for him. Both his legs were not wholly numb; instead, they hurt every single moment. It was only when Qiao Tianya was playing the seven-stringed zither that he would feel a tad better. 

Sleeping to the murmurings of the zither felt to Yao Wenyu as though he were sitting in a drizzle with his eyes closed.   

Qiao Tianya cut back a lot on his drinking nowadays, and he had shaved his stubble clean. He was spending even more time lying outstretched in his chair with his arms behind his head, staring out of the window in a daze. From his occasional observations of him, Yao Wenyu found that the way Qiao Tianya was set against the snowy mountains and dense fog beyond the window made him appear so very tranquil. It was as if all the tempestuous vicissitudes of the martial fraternity had been banished from his memory, turning him from a vagabond wanderer into the pine beneath the moon. 

Yao Wenyu had never addressed him by the name of Qiao Tianya; “Qiao Tianya” was someone who needed a refuge where he could brush the wanderlust off himself. He laughed and cursed in his state of intoxication, executing his swordplay as he pleased and to his heart’s content, and when he sobered up, he was a solitary shadow from which an aura of frost emanated. They seemed to be like two broken pieces of jade that had encountered each other to mutually make up for what the other lacked, and, in doing so, pieced back together those bygone days of free-spiritedness.

◈     ◈     ◈

“Fanzhou has been a lot quieter lately.” Gao Zhongxiong sat by the fire and warmed his hands. “King Yi should have already gotten the news about Dunzhou. He must be terribly on edge now.”  

“The army has to pass by the north of Fanzhou on their return journey. It’s only natural for King Yi to be afraid given how close the army is.” Zhou Gui said as he sipped his hot tea. 

“I can’t understand.” Gao Zhongxiong said. “Fanzhou is surrounded by enemies on all sides. King Yi’s haste to rebel and establish himself under his own banner seems more like he’s in a rush to court death.” 

“King Yi claimed himself to be the ‘Great Progeny’ of Fanzhou. He not only renovated the original yamen of Fanzhou but also brazenly scoured for beauties in Fanzhou in the name of choosing his consorts.” Zhou Gui lamented. “Rather than say he wants to join in the fight for the imperial throne, you might as well say he just wanted to make merry while he can.” 

When King Yi first established himself, he had not expected Shen Zechuan to move that quickly. Huaizhou, Cizhou, and Chazhou severed all possibilities of him expanding his territory northwest. He was not as tough as Shen Zechuan, and he did not have as many talents under his command as Shen Zechuan did. He initially rose in rebellion because he could no longer put up with the bandits. The people he had led were all his neighbors. At present, the military commander he had appointed in Fanzhou was a butcher, and his civil officials were all elderly gentlemen. All they petitioned about during the daily court sessions were matters like who snatched whose donkey and who committed adultery with whose husband. 

“Going by what the prefectural lord said,” Gao Zhongxiong piped up. “King Yi cannot fall for the time being. We have to keep him alive until next year. King Yi knows he is too powerless to resist; that’s why he attempted to seek Lei Jingzhe’s help. But now that Lei Jingzhe is already dead, he is left high and dry. He ought to be scared to death now.” 

“King Yi is not an iron shield after all.” Zhou Gui said. “We have to think of another way to deal with Qi Zhuyin. Yuanzhuo, what are your views on this?”   

Yao Wenyu snapped back to his senses. With the hot tea still in hand, he said, “My guess is that Qi Zhuyin’s delay in deploying troops to crush the rebels in Zhongbo is not merely because of Lu Guangbai’s desertion.” 

Zhou Gui blurted out a sound of surprise and asked, “Do you mean to say that there’s another reason for it?” 

“During the wedding between Hua and Qi, the Hereditary Prince’s Consort personally made a trip to Qidong to deliver gifts for the purpose of taking her father back. Qi Zhuyin’s willingness to risk the wrath of Qudu to protect Lu Pingyan was not just for personal reasons, but also to show Libei her stance.” Warmth returned to Yao Wenyu’s fingers. “If Qi Zhuyin obeys Qudu’s command and heads north to quell the rebels in Zhongbo, then she will have to face two battlefronts alone going by the current territories. Should Qudu forcibly order her to attack Libei once she recovers Zhongbo, then the battleground in the north will be precipitated into crisis. The moment the Armored Cavalry of Libei falls apart, she will become the last line of defense in the east. All her troops on hand will have to be deployed into battle, and her geographical advantage in Qidong will vanish. When the time comes, all she can do is to grit her teeth and push on.”  

Realization struck Gao Zhongxiong then, and he said, “If it comes to that, then even if Qi Zhuyin is able to defeat Amu’er in the end, she would not have the strength and resources left to act as a counterweight to Qudu.” 

Yao Wenyu nodded. “The Qidong Garrison Troops is what Qi Zhuyin is counting on. Without these troops, Qudu will be able to replace her easily.” 

For a long time, Zhou Gui could not snap out of his shock. In the end, he could only say, “The commander-in-chief is indeed far-sighted. Yuanzhuo, how did you come to that conjecture? Before the eighth month when the prefectural lord was still here, we all thought that Qi Zhuyin would come.” 

“It was only after the wedding between Hua and Qi that I made that inference.” Yao Wenyu said. “Before the wedding, the commander-in-chief did not immediately head north under the pretext that there was no one to guard the Bianjun Commandery, which in turn allowed the marquis to return to Libei. The empress dowager’s sending of Han Cheng to escort the bride to the groom’s residence was, in part, also meant to press Qi Zhuyin into action. But after the wedding, the commander-in-chief remained stationed in Bianjun without making so much as a move.” 

The empress dowager wanted to convince Qi Zhuyin to deploy her troops, but she did not have enough bargaining chips in her hands. Her last trump card was Hua Xiangyi, and she had already shown her hand, but as things played out, Qi Shiyu had a stroke, and this card of hers was as good as forfeited. Everyone under the empress dowager’s command was going to be secretly gnashing their teeth in resentment over the fact that Qi Zhuyin was not a man.   

They were still chatting around the fire when Qiao Tianya suddenly lifted the curtain and announced, “The prefectural lord is back.” 

Zhou Gui and Gao Zhongxiong promptly rose to their feet. Gao Zhongxiong wanted to push the wheelchair for Yao Wenyu, but he was a step too slow. Qiao Tianya beat him to it and took over the wheelchair with natural ease to push Yao Wenyu out through the curtain that had been lifted for them.  

◈     ◈     ◈

Fei Sheng took extreme care on the road, but the ninth month was just right around the corner, and Shen Zechuan could not avoid the ambush of the cold even when he was huddled up against Xiao Chiye. He fell ill again, this time with a fever so high it seemed to burn away whatever bit of composure he had possessed back in Dunzhou. 

The recruitment for the Dunzhou garrison troops was of utmost importance, and the advisors had all been waiting in the study for a day. Even while lying in bed, Shen Zechuan was still mulling over the matter.

“Hand the accounts from Dunzhou over to Yuanzhuo,” With his cheeks slightly flushed and palm over his eyes, Shen Zechuan said in the dim light. “Have Chengfeng assist. Come up with an estimate of the military expenses for Dunzhou tonight and send it over to Tantai Hu in two days at the latest.”

Blocking him, Xiao Chiye combed his fingers through Shen Zechuan’s slightly damp hair to brush it aside. He said in a hushed tone, “I’ve got it all in mind.”

Shen Zechuan did not wish for Xiao Chiye to leave, but the matter on hand was pressing, and the Biansha Cavalry would remain a menace to them with the situation in Duanzhou still unclear. It was imperative that there would be no delays to the establishment of Dunzhou’s defenses. He glanced at Xiao Chiye with half-lidded eyes and said. “Tell Qiao Tianya about the arm guard; he’ll know what to do.”  

Xiao Chiye hummed an acknowledgment in reply and watched as Shen Zechuan closed his eyes. He waited a moment for the latter’s breathing to become steady before getting up to change his clothes and leave. When he walked down the stairs, he said to Fei Sheng, “Wake the Prefectural Lord up when the medicine is ready. Make sure he finishes it.” 

Even after returning to their residence, Shen Zechuan’s medicine was still decocted under Fei Sheng’s watchful eyes. Fei Sheng strode a few steps with Xiao Chiye and nodded his head in acknowledgement.   

“If the Prefectural Lord is awake when shifu comes, invite him in. If not, then ask him to head back first.” Chen Yang came over to drape the cloak over Xiao Chiye. While Xiao Chiye was putting it on, he said, “If shifu asks about what happened in Dunzhou, omit the part about Fuxian peak. I’ll tell shifu about it myself afterward.”

Xiao Chiye stood still and looked at the sky.

“I’ll be back before the hour of hai.” He was still speaking even as he was striding out. “Remember to prepare candies when the medicine is ready. It’s also fine to swap it for honeyed water…”

He had already walked off even before the words had fully left his mouth.

Xiao Chiye arrived at the study, and everyone stood to pay their obeisances, but he had already taken his seat, skipping all the formalities. As Yao Wenyu looked over the account books of the Yan clan and Dunzhou, Kong Ling updated him with a detailed account of the situation.

Not a single one of the advisors dared to smoke their pipes today as they sat, all prim and proper. The marquis’ oppressive aura overwhelmed them, keeping them from lifting their heads, and their reports were all concise and comprehensive. They did not even dare to overdo the flattery. 

The situation in Dunzhou was complicated; the key issue lay in its distance from Cizhou, along with the fact that Fanzhou was between them. As a result, many matters had to be discussed in detail. Zhou Gui initially assumed that Xiao Chiye would not be as familiar with the topography of Zhongbo as Shen Zechuan was and had someone present a map. Unexpectedly, Xiao Chiye had Zhongbo’s map clearly imprinted in his mind from all those times he had been making the rounds transporting military supplies in Libei, and he did not make a single mistake during the conversation that anyone could find fault with.

They lit lamps in the study to discuss official business, while Shen Zechuan alternated between consciousness and sleep within the room. 

Shen Zechuan woke up when he heard Fei Sheng bringing in the medicine. He drank the medicine without even popping a candy this time and fell back asleep. Fei Sheng closed the door and had the people serving in the courtyard change their shoes. The maidservants, having also taken off their pendants and hairpins, made no sound as they walked. 

Perhaps it was because of the quiet; Shen Zechuan surprisingly slept for a long time. When he woke up again, he heard movement outside the door and thought Xiao Chiye had returned. But Xiao Chiye never came in, and Shen Zechuan fell asleep again. In the middle of night, he was woken up by the scalding heat, only to find Xiao Chiye sleeping soundly on him. Unable to move, Shen Zechuan remained pinned under him until he was all drenched in sweat. It was only near daybreak when he felt a little more rejuvenated. 

Shen Zechuan feebly put his hand on Xiao Chiye’s back, only to come into contact with a section of gauze. All traces of sleep promptly deserted him. Wide awake now, he wanted to get up to take a look, but Xiao Chiye pressed him back into place. 

“Hm?” Xiao Chiye buried his face and said in a heavy voice, “Getting water?” 

Shen Zechuan felt along the bandage for a while, his alarm intensifying the more he touched. 

Xiao Chiye caught Shen Zechuan’s hand to stop him from groping blindly, “Watch where you are pressing. It hurts.” 

Both men looked at each other for a moment, and Xiao Chiye suddenly clasped his arms around Shen Zechuan, preventing the latter from moving.

Shen Zechuan stared at Xiao Chiye and drawled, “Didn’t I say not to ask for a lashing?” 

His illness had rendered him all thin and sallow, and his voice was hoarse. He looked as if his eyes were going to redden the next instant as he looked at Xiao Chiye in this way.

After the incident in Chazhou the last time, Xiao Chiye had told Ji Gang to whip him once for each time Shen Zechuan got hurt. Shen Zechuan had coaxed him back in Dunzhou, and he had gotten severely “punished” for it. He thought Xiao Chiye would let it drop. But who would have known that Xiao Chiye would act so quickly upon returning? In the short amount of time that Shen Zechuan had taken a nap, Xiao Chiye had already received his whipping.

Xiao Chiye bumped his forehead against Shen Zechuan’s and stuck close to him. Sensing that his fever had receded, he lazily uttered a “hm”. He remained in this way with his shoulder and arm bare, his back bandaged with several layers of gauze. Xiao Chiye had injured his right arm when he faced up against Hasen at the Tudalong Banner, and the wounds had left scars behind, and now, new scars criss-crossed with the old, making them tingle with numbness and pain. 

The lashings pained Shen Zechuan. Just touching that gauze alone hurt him so much that his fingers curled. Xiao Chiye remained close to him, making him breathless for air. He hated Xiao Chiye to death. But as he lay here, he only wanted to repeat over and over again,

He regretted it now. 

◈     ◈     ◈

Ding Tao sat in low spirits under the eaves playing cat’s cradle1 with Li Xiong. Seeing as Ji Gang had been standing under the eaves for an hour, he tugged at the corner of Ji Gang’s clothes and asked, “Grandpa, why don’t you sit?”  

Ji Gang’s mind was still wandering. He asked Ding Tao, “Did I hit too hard?”  

Ding Tao comforted him. “Master was the one who made the request and forced you into it. You could do nothing about it either.” 

Ji Gang felt ill at ease as he sat down. After a while, he stood up and said, “I’d best go get some ointment.” 

Fei Sheng was originally waiting on the veranda. On seeing Ji Gang’s approach, he hurried over to greet him.

Ji Gang gazed at the principal room, looking as though he wanted to say something only to swallow his words back down. He handed the ointment to Fei Sheng, and after thinking for a moment, asked, “Was the Marquis also staying together with Lanzhou when they were on official business in Dunzhou?” 

Remembering Xiao Chiye’s instructions, Fei Sheng maintained his composure and said, “Yes. The Marquis and Master are living examples of what the stories described as confidants. They are like fish and water—inseparable from one another.” 

Seeing how frank and unperturbed Fei Sheng was, Ji Gang felt that it was he who had read too much into it. As they said, bosom friends were hard to find. What’s more, Lanzhou and Xiao’er had gone through life and death together. For them to be far closer than the norm was only to be… he could not go on thinking any further. Somehow, he still felt that something was not quite right. But Ji Gang was reluctant to veer his thoughts into another direction, unwilling as he was to make conjectures about Shen Zechuan on these cues. They had gone to propose marriage for Ji Mu when Ji Mu was still around, and back then, Shen Zechuan had said that he also wanted to marry a wife in the future. Consequently, Hua Pingting went scouting for quite a number of maidens. They were all poor, humble families in the neighborhood who stayed close by. Shen Zechuan only had to like one of them, and they would have gone to call on the family for a visit. 

Shifu?” Fei Sheng called out tentatively. 

Ji Gang placed his hands behind his back and said, “Continue to keep watch. I’ll come again later.” 

Ji Gang wanted to have a talk with Xiao Chiye again, but Xiao Chiye was too busy. The latter seemed to be in a never-ending rush as he went back and forth between the residence and the Zhou residence. The dust in Dunzhou had only just settled when the letter from Libei came. Once Shen Zechuan recovered from his illness, Xiao Chiye would have to depart for Bianbo Camp. 

“The winter coats will arrive in Libei in the ninth month. You can just dispatch someone to assist at the Bianbo Camp.” Shen Zechuan secured the arm guard for Xiao Chiye and asked, “Is it snowing heavily in Libei?” 

“Intermittently, I guess.” Xiao Chiye answered. “It’s often sleet at present. The maintenance of the bridle paths is of utmost importance. We have to ensure that the paths run smoothly unobstructed by the time heavy snow descends in the eleventh month.” 

“Tell His Lordship that we have already secured the military provisions for the beginning of spring next year.” Shen Zechuan’s hand slid from the arm guard to Xiao Chiye’s palm. He looked up at the latter and said, “The construction of the bridle path from Dunzhou to Bianbo Camp will also start next year.” 

They wanted to connect Zhongbo and Libei together so that Bianbo Camp had direct access to Cizhou and Dunzhou. The information coming from Dunzhou had to be fast and up to date.   

Xiao Chiye might not be able to return these two months. He had to keep an eye on Libei’s territory at all times. In addition, he also had to be precise in his calculations of the reserves of supplies on the battleground, lest heavy snow unexpectedly collapsed the paths and cut off access, and the lack of supplies ended up causing those on the battlefield to be caught up in an arduous battle.

“If Ding Tao gets too mischievous, send him back to Dajing. Eldest sister-in-law can deal with him.” 

As Xiao Chiye spoke, he lowered his head and led Shen Zechuan with both hands to step on both of his own feet. Then he clasped him by the back of his head and stood with him to exchange a kiss. 

The fabric of their clothes chafed against one another. Shen Zechuan propped himself against Xiao Chiye’s arms and melted away into his scent. 

Xiao Chiye liked the way Shen Zechuan tilted his head up like this. This was him seeking him out, and all that pervaded the air when they touched was desire borne out of love. He bore all of Shen Zechuan’s weight; he was capable of picking up Shen Zechuan with ease. It was only a kiss to begin with, but he did not let go as they entwined together intimately amidst the interweaving of their breaths. 

“I’ve already asked Eldest Sister-in-law to make preparations.” Xiao Chiye said, “Chen Yang will be sent over before the new year to take you and shifu to Dajing.” 

Shen Zechuan’s breathing had grown ragged from the kiss. “I’ll prepare a gift…”   

Silly Lanzhou.

Xiao Chiye cupped Shen Zechuan and kissed him with even more intensity. 

Xiao Chiye came in a hurry and left in a hurry too. On this overcast day shrouded in fog in Cizhou, he braved the rain and headed north even as he bore those wounds he had received from the lashings. All was calm and peaceful for the time being in the three prefectures of Zhongbo. Xiao Chiye planted Tantai Hu in Dunzhou, leaving the latter as a bulwark for Shen Zechuan.  

Cizhou entered a brief period of respite, and Shen Zechuan seemed to have reined in his brilliance and gone into a state of dormancy. But very quickly, Xue Xiuzhuo, who was faraway in Qudu, came to learn just how formidable this round of hibernation was. 

During the Hanyi Festival2 in the tenth month, Chazhou hosted a banquet with funding from the Yan clan and invited all the talents in the world over regardless of whether the person was a distinguished man from the countryside or a reclusive statesman in a bustling city. As long as they were academically accomplished, they would all receive the invitation to participate in the intellectual discourse3 between the literati.

If it had been a nobody, he naturally would not have stirred up a storm. But this time, it took less than three days for the ox carts and boats to set out in full force as all the virtuous and wise talents flocked to their destination.

For the one who had sent the invitation was a man named Yao Wenyu. 

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  1. Cat’s cradle, a game which involves making string figures with the hands.
  2. 寒衣节 Hanyi Festival, or literally winter clothing festival, which is also called the ancestor worship festival, falls on the first day of the tenth lunar month, where winter clothes made of paper or cloth are burned in memory of the deceased ancestors. It also marks the arrival of the severe cold winter.
  3. 清谈 Qingtan is a Chinese philosophical movement and social practice among political and intellectual elites where the literati engaged in highly sophisticated intellectual and philosophical discussions on lofty and non-mundane matters.