Translated with: Jia<3
Gao Zhongxiong did not dare to ask any further and sat at the side, all prim and proper. The freezing cold had gotten to him quite badly on his way here. It was gradually getting better now, with some sensation restored in those ears that had been frozen numb.
Seeing as Gao Zhongxiong’s robe was still old, Zhou Gui said, “It’s bitter cold in Cizhou. You’re way too flimsy dressed.”
Gao Zhongxiong looked a little embarrassed as he clenched the hem of his clothes and answered in a small, mosquito-like voice, “Yes… yes.”
Kong Ling could see that something was up. “As someone in a yamen with limited funds,1 you’re in a far worse position than the others with lucrative posts. Money that passes through your hands are all bits and pieces of silver. What’s more, you have only just arrived in Cizhou, and it isn’t easy for you to settle down in a whole new place. If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to bring it up.”
The show of concern put Gao Zhongxiong at ease. His eyes misted over, and he hurriedly stood up. “You have all shown me utmost solicitude, and His Lordship, too, has treated me with such tremendous kindness…”
Zhou Gui immediately waved his hand. “Take a seat. There’s no one else here tonight; there’s no need to be so formal.”
Gao Zhongxiong had no wife, children, or relatives in Cizhou. No one dared to let him pick up the tab during the usual yamen’s social functions either. By all logic, his monthly salary should have been sufficient. However, he dared not tell a soul that his money had all gone to finance Han Jin.
Last autumn, Shen Zechuan released Han Jin from prison and put him up at the side courtyard. Han Jin had a hard time in prison, and with adequate food practically guaranteed on his release, he ate and drank to his heart’s content for quite an extended period of time. There were people in the courtyard taking care of his needs, and when he was back in the pink of health, a young male servant even came over to play with him. The lad took him along to throw dice and hold cricket fights, keeping him so entertained he abandoned himself to pleasure. In less than two months, he forgot all about returning to Qudu. Then he got addicted to gambling. Unable to remain in the courtyard, he started venturing outdoors with the lad, having the whale of his time drinking and having fun without a care in the world.
But there was only so much monthly budget Shen Zechuan allocated to Han Jin. Since he could not stop himself from gambling, he had to think of a way on his own. And so, he set his sights on Gao Zhongxiong again. He ran to Gao Zhongxiong’s house almost every day, shouting “disloyal, turncoat slave” 2 as loud and clear as he possibly could and stood in Gao Zhongxiong’s path, demanding money.
Gao Zhongxiong could do nothing about him, and he was embarrassingly low on funds, so how would he still have the money to buy winter clothes?
Inside the inner chamber, Shen Zechuan’s fingertips had already gone numb from being grasped by Xiao Chye, although he was as perspicacious as ever as he listened to their conversation.
The wind had picked up again at night, sending the cotton-like snow dancing all over the sky and the wind chimes under the eaves tinkling ceaselessly. Fearing that the din would disrupt the discussion within, Gu Jin, who had just returned from Beiyuan military drill grounds, called for someone to take them down. As he swept away the snow from his hair, he saw Fei Sheng walk over to him from the walkway.
“Looking for the Second Master?” With medicine in hand, Fei Sheng motioned to the room with his chin. “He’s resting. Master doesn’t allow us to call for him. The journey has been hard on all of you.”
“It’s snowing so hard that just spurring on the horse alone is enough to be the death of me.” Gu Jin had just gotten off his horse, and his ears had gone so numb from the biting cold wind that he could feel nothing in them. “Second Master hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep for half a month running.”
Fei Sheng sighed.
Gu Jin made way for him. “Go on ahead. Don’t hold the Prefectural Lord up from taking his medicine.”
Before Fei Sheng entered the room, he said in a hushed tone, “I think everyone will be busy for quite a while, and there’s no need for anyone to guard this place too. When Chen Yang and Qiao Tianya come over later, go to the duty room with them for a break. I’ll get someone to serve snacks and hot tea. Just make do with these first to fill your tummies.”
It was hard to say when Xiao Chiye would wake up, and when he did, he would no doubt want to discuss official business. They had been on the go for several days running, and they would not be able to withstand standing like a pole here under the eaves with the wind blowing. This was indeed very thoughtful of Fei Sheng. The duty room was just a stone’s throw away from the courtyard, and they would be able to come over right away without any delay if they were called.
Accepting his kindness, Gu Jin cupped his fists to say his thanks and held up the hanging screen for him.
Shen Zechuan did not let them light up the lamps, so Fei Sheng naturally did not carry one. He entered with the tray in his hands and ladled out the medicine into a porcelain bowl. They were still speaking softly in the outer room at a volume Shen Zechuan could hear. Shen Zechuan took the spoon with the hand he could move and drank it slowly.
Fei Sheng tried his best not to make a sound, but Xiao Chiye still woke up.
With brows furrowed, Xiao Chiye took a moment to orient himself before he sat up in one swift move. His black shadow abruptly enveloped Shen Zechuan, giving Fei Sheng a fright. Xiao Chiye was still drowsy from his sleep. After a moment of silence, he looked at Shen Zechuan and asked in a hoarse voice, “What time is it now?”
Shen Zechuan set his spoon down and looked at Fei Sheng.
“Second Master, it should be the hour of hai now,” Fei Sheng answered.
To Xiao Chiye’s surprise, he had slept for almost six hours, and he was still holding onto Shen Zechuan’s hand. As he lowered his head, he rubbed his nape with his other hand and asked, “Is Gu Jin back?”
Fei Sheng took Shen Zechuan’s medicine bowl and answered, “Just did. They are all currently in the duty room. If Second Master wants to call for them, I’ll get someone to summon them.”
“Do it.” Xiao Chiye said right at once. “Tell them to go over to the side hall. I’ll be there in a while.”
On hearing the sound of talking in the inner chamber, those outside stopped conversing. Fei Sheng stepped out with the empty bowl, signaled to the various gentlemen with his eyes, and made his way out under the hanging screen to get someone to summon Chen Yang and the rest over.
Shen Zechuan moved his numbed fingers that had reddened from Xiao Chiye’s grip. At the same time Xiao Chiye put on his outer robe, he asked, “Have you been sitting here all this while?”
All Shen Zechuan could feel in his mouth was the bitterness of the medicine. He was still thinking over the matters in Fanzhou, so he half-heartedly replied, “been sitting until my waist ached.”
Xiao Chiye poured himself a cup of cooled tea and held it in his mouth as he dressed himself quickly. When he saw Shen Zechuan stand up, he stood in Shen Zechuan’s path, refusing to let him leave. As Shen Zechuan looked at him questioningly with raised eyebrows, Xiao Chiye pinched the latter’s chin and fed him the tea, mouth to mouth, taking away that lingering bitterness.
Shen Zechuan was not tall enough to reach up to Xiao Chiye to begin with, and Xiao Chiye did not lower his head when he held Shen Zechuan’s chin, so Shen Zechuan could only stand on tiptoe. Xiao Chiye led Shen Zechuan into his arms, and Shen Zechuan gripped Xiao Chiye’s sleeves as Xiao Chiye created such havoc in his mouth that Shen Zechuan felt weak all over. Unable to hold in the tea and sensing that it was about to spill, Shen Zechuan had no choice but to swallow it down hastily, only to choke on it and burst out into fits of coughing.
Those in the outer room had already drunk their fill of tea. Listening to the coughs, Zhou Gui was worried that Shen Zechuan had caught another cold. He was about to voice his concern after a moment when Kong Ling interrupted him.
“The ground heating system is making this room too warm. I’ll push Yuanzhuo to the door to get some air.”
Yao Wenyu wrapped his overcoat around himself and said, “Then I shall have to trouble Mister Chengfeng.”
They whisked Zhou Gui outside and stood under the eaves for less than an incense time3 when they saw Xiao Chiye lift the hanging screen and step out. The group bowed in obeisances and greeted, “Second Master.”
Xiao Chiye’s chin was red from being bumped against. Seeing as Chen Yang and the rest had arrived, he returned the greeting and said, “I’ve been busy on the road these few days and inadvertently ended up holding all of you back from your discussions. I’m truly sorry.”
“Second Master has been working day and night tirelessly on the battlegrounds. It’s time you take a rest.”
They bowed once more to Xiao Chiye. Without further ado, Xiao Chiye stepped away and led his men over to the side hall.
Zhou Gui felt cold standing in the same place. He swept a glance around the rest and asked in bafflement, “Shall we go in?”
Yao Wenyu sighed softly at Zhou Gui, but he could not help but smile as he lifted his hand in a gesture and replied, “Let’s go in. Your Excellency, you first.”
◈ ◈ ◈
While Cizhou was having discussions through the night, Fanzhou had already received the proclamation.
This was not the first time King Yi had received a denunciation-cum-declaration of war from Cizhou, but the few times it happened last year had all been all talk and no action. Shen Zechuan did not have the intention to mobilize his troops to fight him, so he took the proclamation this time as an empty threat too and did not think much of it.
Fanzhou’s yamen had been expanded and renovated anew; King Yi housed all the gold, silver, and treasures he plundered from the two prefectures here and called it the state treasury. He claimed to be saving them to purchase grains and lands after spring, but in reality, he had appropriated them for himself and was using it to fund his debauchery.
With the snow as heavy as it was this year, the number of common folks from the two prefectures who either starved or froze to death was beyond measure. A few days ago, the residential dwellings in multiple locations had also collapsed and crushed even more people to death. The lower ranks reported this to King Yi, but he had turned a deaf ear to them all and continued to indulge in the company of women.4
A bunch of those who had stood by King Yi’s side from the very beginning of his revolt had been slaughtered in the fight for crop fields, and the majority of people who still remained were bandits from the two prefectures. When King Yi was establishing his position, he had once promised the scholars of both prefectures that he would change the current situation of the prefectures and restore the livelihoods of its people. But he wielded his blade the moment he took control over the yamen and slain the scholars who remonstrated against him.
Many of the commoners of the two prefectures, finding themselves in a perilous situation, attempted to flee under cover of the snow, but they were executed on the spot by the soldiers under King Yi’s command. Even if someone was brought back alive, they would be branded with a mark on the chest and set aside in Fanzhou’s prison as “animals” for King Yi’s winter hunts.
It was after the third night watch at midnight, and King Yi, with his potbelly, lay on satin cushions drinking himself drunk under the music of reed pipes. He lifted his golden cup high and said, “Fill it up!”
Two scantily clad women on both sides of him poured the wine for him. King Yi held his arm up and muttered, “Keep pouring! Keep pouring!”
The red pomegranate-like wine spilled over the rim of the cup, and the woman twisted aside to cover her face seemingly bashfully as King Yi roared with unbridled laughter. King Yi had long lost his sense of propriety and was now exposing himself with a public display of his degenerate, gluttonous self. Due to his obesity, he had difficulty moving, and he even had to open his arms as wide as he could to hug the women by his sides.
Cuiqing was sitting in the seat to the bottom left of King Yi. She had a new face with dashing looks holding her pipe for her. As she smoked, her eyes darted down below his waist. “I escaped death by the skin of my teeth and fled back from Dunzhou. What will Your Highness reward me with? I think this one will do. He is going to be incredible after a period of training from me.”
This man was a handsome one with an unpowdered face, broad shoulders, and a narrow waist. Kneeling before Cuiqing, he raised his head to look up at her upon hearing her. The expression in his eyes was sultry and frank, and it was so titillating that it sent an electrifying tingle through Cuiqing’s body and made her heart itch.
King Yi, being too obese, needed the woman serving him to help him turn his head. He cast a glance at that man and sneered. “You have got a good eye. Do you know who this is?”
Cuiqing lifted a foot to step on the man’s chest, feeling the solidness underneath. “I’ve never seen such a character… Honey dear, would you like to leave with me?”
King Yi roared with laughter and hissed maliciously, “His surname is Huo. He’s Huo Lingyun, the eldest, lawful son of Huo Qing, the Garrison Troops Commander of Dengzhou who was bitten to death by dogs. Back then, when I wanted to take over Dengzhou as its master, Huo Qing would rather die than yield and killed my second younger brother during the battle. After his capture, I had him tortured for seven days and seven nights before dumping him at the hunting grounds to let the dogs tear him to pieces!”
Cuiqing uttered an “oh, my” in surprise and moved in to scrutinize Huo Lingyun. With a cackle, she said, “Then Your Highness is truly a magnanimous one to have kept him by your side and raised him to be so well-built.”
“I initially wanted to kill him,” King Yi said contemptuously. “He looks the part of a gentleman, but he’s as timid as a mouse. When he saw his old man being eaten by the dogs, he immediately kneeled down to hug my thighs and begged me to spare his life. For that, he was even willing to slave like an ox or a horse for me, so I kept him by my side as a dog.”
Cuiqing started feeling up Huo Lingyun, and Huo Lingyun showed her an ingratiating smile. She tenderly gave him a push and said, “Good dog, show me exactly how obedient you are.”
King Yi tossed aside his golden cup and said, “There is nothing he can’t do, and he holds up pretty well. I sent him over to Chief Fang for seven or eight days to have fun with, and he was still alive when he returned.”
The expression on Cuiqing’s face frosted over, “Old Fang the Ninth is already so advanced in age, and yet he’s still so despicable! He can’t even control his bowels anymore, yet he still wants to vie with me over a man! Baby, look at me. I’m much better looking than Old Fang. It must have been hard on you serving an old macaque like him.”
Huo Lingyun’s chest heaved. He was in a partial state of undress, with his clothes secured around his waist. He was all docile and obedient as Cuiqing came pressing in towards him. The interior of this hall was already a lewd scene, made even more obscene by the whiny moan Cuiqing let loose at being fondled by Huo Lingyun. She fell back onto the cushion and motioned for him to continue.
King Yi, having over-indulged in carnal pleasures, was presently only bothered with drinking his wine. He loved wine as he did his life, and he drank himself bloated in this rowdy ruckus as he rested upon the tender, fragrant bodies of the women serving him while they massaged his shoulders and kneaded his legs. His snores boomed like thunder.
The snow outside the hall fell for half the night, and the people inside were all dead asleep by the time it was almost dawn.
King Yi, his arms spread out, exhaled stale air that reeked of wine. Huo Lingyun wiped down his body and cleaned up the sweat. He looked at King Yi a short distance away from him amidst the undulating snores, then soundlessly stepped over the others to make his way over to squat down next to King Yi’s pillow.
King Yi did not like to bring his guards along when he was making merry. He feared death, so the guards, armed with their blades, all had to stand outside the doors. Huo Lingyun had served as a plaything under King Yi’s command for an entire six months, suffering all kinds of humiliation imaginable before he managed to get such an opportunity.
He looked at King Yi as if he was looking at those dogs that had bitten his father to death.
Three soft knocks sounded, right outside the door.
And that was when Huo Lingyun knew that the matter had been done. He did not stand up, however; instead, he patted King Yi’s cheek at the same time he picked up the cushion.
King Yi’s snores were cut short in his throat. He reached out a hand to brush away that empty golden cup, and as the cup clattered noisily to the floor, he opened his eyes. On seeing Huo Lingyun, he broke out in a cold sweat and reproved in a stern voice, “Get away—”
Huo Lingyun had already burst into action. He ruthlessly held down the cushion over King Yi’s head. King Yi struggled violently, and the flailing of his thick limbs startled the others in the hall awake. Huo Lingyun held down that pasty flesh with pudgy rolls of fat; under the cushion, King Yi was still gasping for breath.
Cuiqing woke up, but she did not realize what was happening around her.
The terrified King Yi shouted in a muffled voice in between heavy breathing, “Men, men, save me—!”
Huo Lingyun started laughing even as King Yi was struggling. He suddenly released his grip, abandoning his attempt to smother the latter. King Yi tried to scramble up in a panic from under his hands, but he was too fat, and he sank into the cushion, shouting himself hoarse, “Men! Come quick!”
Huo Lingyun touched something from the bunched clothes around his waist. He followed after King Yi.
King Yi crawled on the ground naked like a maggot, gradually coming to a realization amidst his shouts. It was as if the guards outside the door were dead—they were indeed dead.
King Yi started to cry. He moved his obese body with stacks and rolls of fat and prostrated himself at Huo Lingyun’s feet. “Ling, Lingyun!” He reached out to pull over a woman and shoved her towards Huo Lingyun. “Don’t kill me, and I’ll give you Fanzhou. I’ll give you everything t-that’s mine! I’ll even give you the title of King Yi too!”
With his chest heaving, Huo Lingyun bent his head down and yanked King Yi by the hair to drag him towards himself. King Yi did not understand how the situation could have changed so abruptly. Everyone from top to bottom in Fanzhou was still at his command before he had fallen asleep. He kicked out his legs and squealed loudly like a pig being slaughtered.
It finally hit Cuiqing what was happening. She fumbled for her clothing in a fluster. Seeing Huo Lingyun dragging King Yi towards herself, she hurriedly shook her head. “It has nothing to do with me! Nothing to do—”
A blast rang out at this instant, and the thunderous sound of something blowing up on impact roared in Cuiqing’s ears and made her ears buzz. She cried out involuntarily, her eyes wide opened as she froze in place, stupefied, and with a face splattered full of red and white filth.
The area between Huo Lingyun’s thumb and the index finger was hurting intensely from the recoil of the bronze gun.5 The burning sensation thrilled him. King Yi’s head was just like a watermelon being trampled into pulp.
Deadly silence descended upon the hall, and then Cuiqing suddenly shrieked out loud and crawled on all fours like a madwoman. Clutching her clothes, she ran barefoot across the hall and lunged at the doors. The doors opened, but Cuiqing stepped back and fell on her buttocks, her eyes on the doorway where there were firearms everywhere.
“You abducted women for him.” Huo Lingyun stood in the gloomy darkness and sent the splattered gore from King Yi into his mouth. He promptly spat it out. As he stared at Cuiqing, he said in an icy voice, “You even reared mastiffs you held in captive for him.”
Cuiqing shook her head and covered her body as she scooted across the floor. She heard the sound of barking and saw those mastiffs boring their way out between the gaps of the humans’ legs.
Huo Lingyun stepped on King Yi’s corpse and said as though he was sizing up meat on the chopping board, “All of you ought to get a taste of it.”
Cuiqing’s eyes widened. She wanted to run, but she had gone weak in the knees. She could only watch helplessly as those mastiffs broke free of their chains and pounced on her at the same time she screamed uncontrollably.
Under the sound of the mastiffs tearing and devouring, Huo Lingyun draped his wide-sleeved robe over his shoulders. He picked up the proclamation that King Yi had flung away and promptly proceeded to crumple it.
- 清水衙门 government office with low receipts or expenditures and hence little or no chance of corruption.
- 三姓家奴 literally, a slave with three surnames. The term originates from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 《三国演义》 and refers specifically to Lu Bu. It’s used mockingly to refer to capricious, disloyal and unrighteous people who serve traitors.
- 一炷香 the time an incense stick takes to burn. Some sources suggest one stick takes 30 minutes or one hour, but it really depends on a variety of factors (the environment, wind, length of the stick, etc).
- 温柔乡 land of warmth and tenderness, or a place where a man can find solace in feminine charms, such as a brothel, etc.
铜火铳 Huochong, or blunderbuss (according to baidu), or sometimes known as a hand cannon, is a tube-like projection firearm used as a gun. The Huochong gun was an important invention as the Ming Dynasty was creating weapons to defend themselves from attackers.