Translated with: Jia<3
Qiao Tianya had still yet to leave the room. Shen Zechuan said, “When you return later, let Yuanzhuo know about the port of Liuzhou. We’ll discuss it in detail later. The weather has been cold recently. Keep the ground heating running. Don’t let him fall ill again.”
Qiao Tianya, who was more at ease before Shen Zechuan than Fei Sheng was, answered, “I’m keeping my eyes on it.”
Shen Zechuan thought for a moment. “There are quite a number of people this year sending in their visitation cards1 with requests for a meeting in the hope of seeking a prospective career here. Ward them off these few days until Yuanzhuo recovers from his illness. You did well today. Yan Heru has ulterior motives. Don’t let him in next time too.”
Qiao Tianya fished out a folded paper from his sleeve and pushed it before Shen Zechuan. “I’m here about this matter, actually. There are quite a number of scholars with a literary reputation among those who sent in their visitation cards. Yuanzhuo has taken a close look at them and prepared two lists of names for you.”
“Two?” With warm fingertips, Shen Zechuan brushed the paper open for a look.
“This is a list of those you can retain but cannot use.” Qiao Tianya pointed to the left. “While this is a list of those you can retain and use.”
Shen Zechuan looked over the list of those that could be retained but not used; they were all scholars who were rather well-reputed. Of these people, few were usable, because what Zhongbo was in urgent need of at present were practical doers who would actually get things done. But these people came all the way from afar to throw in their lots with Shen Zechuan. For reputation’s sake, Shen Zechuan could not slight them either. He had to keep them in his residence as literary retainers. On the contrary, those of use in the other list were basically all unknown nobodies.
“We need a group of people after early spring,” Shen Zechuan said. “When the time comes, include the talents picked out from Zhou Gui’s end and draw up a name list for the various prefectures to make arrangements to settle them in.”
Shen Zechuan intended to reclaim the remaining three prefectures before spring. That way, he would be able to make it in time for the spring plowing. Otherwise, he would have to stress over the provisions again at the end of the year.
Qiao Tianya acknowledged his order. On hearing the sound of footsteps under the eaves, he rose to his feet and announced with a smile, “The Second Master is back.”
After Xiao Fangxu’s demise, Xiao Jiming became the Prince of Libei, and calling Xiao Chiye “Second Young Master” was no longer appropriate, so they simply changed their address of him to “Second Master”. 2
Xiao Chiye stood still under the eaves as Chen Yang and Gu Jin each stood to his left and right and helped him take off his coat. The maidservant waiting in attendance at the side presented a hot handkerchief to him, which he took to wipe his hands. Ding Tao hurriedly lifted the hanging screen for Xiao Chiye to enter.
Ever the tactful ones, Qiao Tianya and Fei Sheng promptly made to retreat, but Xiao Chiye asked, “Where’s Hairigu?”
Fei Sheng cast a sideways glance at Shen Zechuan and answered only when he saw Shen Zechuan give his tacit consent. “To reply Second Master, he’s at our Beiyuan military drill grounds.” Taking his cue, he bowed to take the handkerchief from Xiao Chiye’s hands. At the same time, he said, “Master has made arrangements for the Imperial Bodyguards to do a daily headcount to prevent them from running all over the place.”
“Gu Jin,” Xiao Chiye looked back and said, “Make a trip to the Beiyuan military drill grounds later and look for Hairigu.”
Shen Zechuan was sitting right behind, so naturally, Fei Sheng would not speak out of turn and ask why. He bowed again to Xiao Chiye and withdrew with Qiao Tianya. As guards, they could not very well stand under the eaves and converse with each other with their master still inside, so the few of them simultaneously headed to the foot of the veranda at the side to discuss matters.
It was warm inside the room. As Xiao Chiye removed his blade and undressed, Shen Zechuan gazed at him from where he was seated. Xiao Chiye, having ridden his horse non-stop from the battlefield to Bianbo Camp, and from Bianbo Camp to Zhongbo, found it all worth it to see the expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes. He leaned over, his body completely blocking off the chair from view. “Losing weight now, are we?”
Shen Zechuan was still holding the brush. He caressed the smooth shaft of the brush with the pulp of his fingers and whispered back softly as if he could not understand his words, “Kissing, where?”
Xiao Chiye lifted a hand to pinch Shen Zechuan’s chin to prevent him from shying away, then moved his head close and pressed him up in the chair for a kiss. When Shen Zechuan tilted his head up like this, he would reveal his bobbing Adam’s apple as he absorbed all of Xiao Chiye’s iciness and dissolved it into nothingness. Not wanting the brush anymore, he slid his hands up along Xiao Chiye’s arms. At the same time, Xiao Chiye picked him up and wrapped them around Xiao Chiye’s neck.
There was no consolation in a lover’s kiss—that was a sentiment that could also be bestowed upon by others. Only the insatiable desire laid bare during moments in which they sought each other out was the real deal. This was a lick like no other between lovers. Xiao Chiye needed such a dependency that was both secretive and extreme. That was where he belonged; it was also his territory.
Shen Zechuan was burning up from the kiss. Xiao Chiye set him on the table and braced himself against the table with his arms to gaze at him with all the seriousness he could muster. It did not take long for the flush from the tips of Shen Zechuan’s ears to spread rapidly to the corners of his eyes. He seemed as if he could not hold up against Xiao Chiye any longer; he could not even withstand such an invasive gaze. That was, to him, a different kind of… devastating seduction.
Both of them were evidently intimately familiar with one another. Even with their eyes closed, they could find each other’s most sensitive spots. But at present, Shen Zechuan could still feel his heartstrings stirring from Xiao Chiye’s tantalizing gaze. The quickening of his breath brought on tiny beads of sweat that trickled across his smooth, satiny back.
Xiao Chiye looked so very dangerous, as if he would ravage Shen Zechuan like a tempest once he was freed of the shackles holding him back. He needed Shen Zechuan way too much, but he was remarkably restrained. Desire surged like magma under thin ice. Through Xiao Chiye’s eyes, Shen Zechuan sensed a love so doting and gripping it would physically hurt.
This was the change elicited by the suppression of desire.
Very slowly, Xiao Chiye kissed Shen Zechuan and reached his arm out to toss his outer robe into the chair. “I’m going to the bathhouse.”
Shen Zechuan brushed off Xiao Chiye’s fine sweat with his fingertip, then pulled away and blinked to motion for him to go on ahead.
◈ ◈ ◈
By the time Xiao Chiye came out again, he had already changed into a clean set of attire. He was wiping his hair in the inner chamber when he saw a small box on the table. He opened it—it contained jades Yan Heru had sent over.
Outside, Chen Yang was talking to Shen Zechuan. “I have to return to Bianbo Camp three days later, but Master will be staying.”
Shen Zechuan seemed to be looking at the documents and was slow to answer. “The second month is right around the corner. Is the location to build the stables on Mount Luo already decided?”
Xiao Chiye picked up a piece of red jade and caressed it.
Chen Yang answered, “Yes. Once we reclaim Duanzhou, we can begin construction.”
Shen Zechuan said, “The new spears General Lu wants will be more or less ready at the end of the second month. When the time comes, transport it via the new bridle path to avoid taking another detour.”
The rest were all about trivial and tedious duties. As Xiao Chiye listened, he thought of the defensive battle a few days back.
Xiao Chiye was now leading the Imperial Army to guard Sha’er Camp in Jiang Sheng’s place. Guo Weili and Zhao Hui were both transferred back to their original camps, while Zuo Qianqiu and Lu Guangbai were jointly in charge of guarding Shayi Camp. Xiao Jiming’s intent with this arrangement was obvious—the Libei Armored Cavalry had given up on advancing and was now relying on the two men who were best at defenses to face Hasen’s attacks. Libei had completely switched from going on the offensive to being on the defensive.
Not only that, but Xiao Jiming had also made an adjustment to the battlegrounds. In the past, a change of general was equivalent to a change of battle line in which the Armored Cavalry in the same camp had to be swapped out as well. It was different now. Other than Zuo Qianqiu, who would remain in place, the other three commanding generals of the three camps would all be irregularly rotated. This gave Guo Weili a headache. Soldiers he was used to leading would no longer follow him, and there was even Zuo Qianqiu to keep an eye on him when he fought defensive battles. It was like his chain had shortened to the point it was strangling him by the throat; it made him uncomfortable all over. Xiao Chiye had to break away from the Imperial Army and learn to adapt and get along with the Armored Cavalry of the remaining two camps. This was even more so for Lu Guangbai. He had to familiarize himself with the cavalry and reverse the way he thought as an infantry on the ground… Everyone seemed to have been tied up by the limbs as they crashed into one another, unaccustomed as they were to fighting battles in this way.
But the effect was evident.
Since the rotations were not in order, Hasen could not be sure who exactly his opponent was each time he launched an attack. Without Xiao Fangxu, the morale of the Libei Armored Cavalry was indeed low, but even so, the Biansha Cavalry did not get their wish. Hasen not only faced Zuo Qianqiu, who used to guard Tianfei Watchtower, but also had to guard against the Bianjun Commandery Garrison Troops, who could conceal themselves in the snow.
Hasen had no idea what happened to Libei behind that wall, except that victory did not come as he expected, and both parties had instead fallen into some kind of unsettling stalemate. It was here Hasen finally got a taste of how formidable Xiao Jiming truly was. The new Prince of Libei was totally poles apart from Xiao Fangxu. He seemed to have cowered back and holed himself up, but in reality, he had delimited a battle line in the east, making it impossible for Hasen to press forward even the slightest.
Xiao Chiye put aside his distracting thoughts and closed the box.
Chen Yang had already taken his leave, and Shen Zechuan was still writing something. The rustle of ink and brush blended into the sound of the snow. Xiao Chiye did not go out to disturb him. He knew Shen Zechuan was in a rush to take down King Yi before the second month. What’s more, Shen Zechuan still had to go to the study later to further discuss the deployment of troops. Xiao Chiye set down the handkerchief at the side and fell back onto the bedding.
He did not know if it was intentional or not.
But Shen Zechuan did not let the maidservants clean up the bed when he got up last night, and Xiao Chiye could still seem to catch a whiff of Shen Zechuan’s scent as he rested his head on it. It relaxed him enough to dispel the heavy, depressing mood that had tagged along with him from the battlefields.
Xiao Chiye closed his eyes and fell asleep before his hair had even dried.
At the hour of you, Fei Sheng came to call Shen Zechuan, who extracted himself from his work and said, “open the windows. It’s rather stuffy.” As he rose to his feet, he remembered something else and added, “Never mind, wait for me at the door.”
Fei Sheng retreated out of the room with his head lowered.
Shen Zechuan’s nape was aching from having bent over the desk for too long. He lifted the hanging screen of the inner chamber and heard Xiao Chiye’s steady breathing when he entered.
Xiao Chiye lay on his side, with half of his face burrowed in the bedding. He was in such a deep sleep that it was apparent he had been exhausted for a long time. The injury on the back of his shoulder had yet to fully heal, and he seemed to feel nothing even though he was pressing down on it in his sleep. Shen Zechuan leaned over and gently pulled away the back of Xiao Chiye’s collar for a look. Afraid that Xiao Chiye might aggravate the injury by pressing his weight down on it like this, Shen Zechuan pushed him over so that he laid on his stomach.
Xiao Chiye, smothered as he was in the bedding, was still not fully awake, and it was in this way he remained sprawled on the bedding and murmured, “military intelligence report…”
Shen Zechuan leaned in closer to Xiao Chiye’s ear. “No military intelligence. Go back to sleep.”
Without opening his eyes, Xiao Chiye turned his face to the side to breathe. Shen Zechuan lowered his fingers to wipe his sweat for him very carefully, with exceedingly gentle movements. Xiao Chiye grabbed that hand of his and grasped it in his palm, refusing to let it go.
Shen Zechuan murmured admonishingly, “I’ll be back real soon, hm?”
Whenever he used to speak in this tone back in Qudu, chances were that he was miffed at Xiao Chiye. But now, the way he said it was so light and so gentle, like the caress of a soft feather. Not even hundreds of Yan Heru could hold a candle to him.
But Xiao Chiye did not let go.
Fei Sheng waited for quite a while at the door. Seeing as it was getting dark, he feared that Shen Zechuan would catch a cold should the snowstorm intensify at night if they delayed any further, so he hurried in and said softly across the hanging screen at the door, “Master, it’s almost time.”
After a moment’s pause, Shen Zechuan replied, “Go stop Yuanzhuo from heading over to the Zhou residence and tell him to come straight here instead. Then send someone to summon Zhou Gui and Chengfeng over.”
Fei Sheng could tell from his words that he meant to discuss official business at home tonight. He asked, “Then, shall I invite the various gentlemen to the side hall?”
Sitting at the edge of the bed without lighting up any lamps, Shen Zechuan said, “Let’s hold the discussion just outside of here. We’ll just keep our voices down.”
Fei Sheng nodded and took his leave, aware that the operative phrase here was “keep our voices down”. Hence, before the gentlemen made their way over, he called for his subordinates to quietly set up a screen in the hall, moving the venue of the discussion off to the side corner.
Zhou Gui and Kong Ling did not see Shen Zechuan when they came in. As they looked at each other, Fei Sheng hurriedly guided them behind the screen. Keeping his voice low, he said, “Master is in the inner chamber.”
Kong Ling lowered his voice, “The Second Master too?”
Fei Sheng nodded slightly. As if still not reassured, he added, “He’s sleeping.”
They were in the middle of brewing tea when Qiao Tianya pushed Yao Wenyu in. Fei Sheng had laid out a rug inside earlier so that the wheelchair would not make any noise when it entered. As Kong Ling watched, he could not help but let loose a laugh, thinking Fei Sheng to be truly a genius.
Yao Wenyu did not inquire about Shen Zechuan’s whereabouts after settling in. Handling the teacup with care, he said, “Shenwei’s proclamation was published today. There should be activity from Fanzhou later on; I will have to trouble Your Excellency to keep a close eye on the matter.”
The three of them did not have loud voices, so they were all rather at ease gathered here. Zhou Gui nodded his head in answer. “Fanzhou has now been surrounded. King Yi and Mount Luo have not come to an agreement, and the troops under the former are too weak to resist. My guess is that he will not put up a fight to the death, but he will definitely make use of the opportunity to bargain with us.”
“It would be best not to have to deploy troops.” As someone who had suffered the ravages of war, Kong Ling would rather resort to reason. “King Yi made a series of boasts to the citizens of Fanzhou during his rise to prominence, yet he has achieved not a single one of them to this day. He should also be aware of just how powerless he is to resist.”
“The only concern is that the men under King Yi will not concede even if King Yi himself is willing to.” Yao Wenyu thought about it and said, “Fanzhou and Dengzhou, where King Yi is sitting, both have a major banditry problem, one that is even worse than it is in Chazhou. Then, there’s also interference from the brothels where Cuiqing and the likes are selling women from decent families; these people all know that surrendering is akin to a death sentence.”
Shen Zechuan raised his hands to cover Xiao Chiye’s ears as he listened to their discussion in the darkness.
Yao Wenyu was right; whether for official or private reasons, there was no way that Shen Zechuan would let off these bandits and brothels. These people were the root cause of the decay in Fanzhou and Dengzhou, and keeping them alive would mean retaining a scourge of calamity that would hinder the two prefectures’ progress, so Shen Zechuan would never go soft on them when he started killing them.
“What if we pretend to pardon them when our troops are at their gates?” Zhou Gui said, “Then make the arrests after the city gates are open?”
Kong Ling shook his head and said as he served the tea. “Have you ever considered that if they make use of the opportunity to incite the common folks of both prefectures, it will equate to tarnishing the Prefectural Lord’s reputation?”
Shen Zechuan was presently treading with caution everything he did. It was imperative they took Shen Zechuan’s reputation into consideration while striving to take over the world. In order to overwrite Shen Wei’s notoriety, every move they made from Chazhou onward had been conspicuously one of benevolence and magnanimity. That was why they had to have a justifiable reason for his deployment of troops into battle; there must be no involvement of any kind with the bandits. Otherwise, even if they occupied Zhongbo in the future, Shen Zechuan would not be able to establish a virtuous reputation for himself.
Shen Zechuan was listening to their conversation when there came the sound of footsteps beneath the eaves. Fei Sheng had gone to the kitchen to call for someone to brew the concoction, so how was Gao Zhongxiong supposed to know what was happening inside? He patted the snow off him and called out as he entered. “My greetings to Your Lordship, that proclamation—”
The three people who were off to the side turned their heads towards him in unison and shushed him.
Gao Zhongxiong was so freezing cold his cheeks had gone red. He immediately stopped talking and shrunk his neck back. He was still feeling trepidation when he saw Zhou Gui beckon to him, but seeing as none of the gentlemen said a word, he gingerly tiptoed over to them and bowed down to say in a very soft voice, “I’m here to submit my report to His Lordship.”
Unsure how to go about explaining it, Kong Ling could only say, “Later. Why don’t you take a seat first and have some tea?”
- 名帖 (also 拜帖), a visitation card (or name card) written on paper or wood used by officials, nobles or distinguished people to notify the other party of their visit. It would usually indicate his name, position, and so on. It’s like a name card in the modern world.
- In this context, the “young master” would be Xiao Xun, since his father is now the “master” of the household, so it makes sense to call Xiao Chiye the second master (after Xiao Jiming) as calling Xiao Chiye young master would make it seem like he’s Xiao Jiming’s son instead.