Translated with: Jia<3
Huo Lingyun had seen wolves before. In the wilderness of Dengzhou, those wolves that were all skin and bones had their tails between their legs as they ran on King Yi’s hunting grounds, their eyes glowing with ravenous hunger. But at this moment, the wolf he was seeing was one that hailed from Libei; not only did this wolf possess a strong physique, but it also had an aura so oppressively intimidating that he gripped his chains tight. Even the muscles on his back had tensed up with tension.
Huo Lingyun must not gasp for air, because if he opened his mouth again, Xiao Chiye would throttle him and snap his throat. Xiao Chiye completely dominated the atmosphere around him as he remained kneeling in place. It conjured the illusion of being pinned down by the back of his head.
Xiao Chiye wanted Huo Lingyun on his knees, with his head down.
Huo Lingyun broke out in a sweat as he simmered in that unending silence. He did not want to compromise, but by the time he returned to his senses, he had already averted his gaze and bowed his head.
Since that bout of heavy snowfall, the Libei Armored Cavalry had never won again. The battles they were fighting on the battlegrounds at present all proved to be aggravating. Gone were the days when the Armored Cavalry reigned over the battlefield. Huo Lingyun initially planned to crush Xiao Chiye’s spirit and level the playing field for both parties during the negotiations. Yet he had run right smack into an iron plate and was now being held down to the ground by Xiao Chiye instead.
Xiao Chiye’s shadow did not shift. His lowered gaze locked on to the back of Huo Lingyun’s head as he repeated with cold detachment, “Can it?”
Huo Lingyun clenched his teeth as he deflated and swallowed down his indignation.
To think he had gotten afraid!
Xiao Chiye was completely poles apart from Shen Zechuan. He would not feign civility at certain moments; instead, he would dominate and dictate. He would hold down the heads of all of those who provoked him and offer them only one way out. The Imperial Army in its earlier days knew this very well from experience.
Shen Zechuan covered the teacup with the lid and tapped his fingers against it intermittently. He possessed the ability to warm up the atmosphere after a cold spell, and through this subtle action, he curiously unraveled the tension in the hall, allowing Fei Sheng, who was still kneeling, to resume breathing.
Outside the door, Gu Jin exhaled lightly and released his grip on the hilt of his blade.
It was only until Huo Lingyun’s entire back was drenched in sweat that the shadow enveloping him pulled back. Xiao Chiye did not withdraw his gaze; he merely leaned back into his comfort zone, as though he had lost interest in the Huo Lingyun who had his head down.
It was at this moment Shen Zechuan opened up the lid and said in between sips of tea. “You’re very well-acquainted with the situation in Duanzhou.”
These two men took over from one another seamlessly, yet they both exuded a dangerous aura. Huo Lingyun’s palms were all sweaty; he retracted his contempt, all the more certain that he had been right in his decision to come.
“The Scorpions came looking for King Yi before,” Huo Lingyun decided to show his sincerity. “During the twelfth month last year, he instigated King Yi to ambush Chazhou and cut off your contact with Qidong. To that end, he gifted King Yi with a shipment of firearms.”
In a flash, both Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye thought of the White Scorpions. These Biansha spies concealed themselves deep in Dazhou, collaborating with Amu’er from within and without to pierce through the heart of Dazhou.
The twelfth month of the previous year was the turning point when the Libei Armored Cavalry switched from offensive to defensive. Had King Yi been gutsy enough to launch a surprise attack on Chazhou at the Scorpions’ instigation, Shen Zechuan would undoubtedly be held in check by this diversion and reduced his aid to Libei. Additionally, they only had to cut off the route to Chazhou, and Qi Zhuyin would have to make a detour from the eastern side of Tianfei Watchtower to head up north, where she was bound to pass through the territory of Fanzhou. With the Scorpions lying in ambush en route, the Commander-in-chief’s life would be in peril.
“They’re keeping a close watch on Commander-in-chief Qi.” Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye, the expression in his eyes conveying all the words he left unspoken.
Hasen’s encirclement of Xiao Fangxu to kill him was not only to deal a blow to Libei, but also to capitalize on the opportunity to lure out Qi Zhuyin. As expected, Amu’er knew Dazhou like the back of his hand.
“But King Yi didn’t make his move. He was most willing to remain in Fanzhou like a cowering coward, and then he had his head blown off by you with a gun.” Xiao Chiye’s words were scathing. “So, did the Scorpions come looking for you?”
Huo Lingyun stared at both his knees. “No.”
“You’re lying.” Shen Zechuan skimmed the tea foam and raised his eyes to say with certainty through that willowy spiral of steam, “You’ve had contact with the Scorpions before.”
When Shen Zechuan was in the Imperial Bodyguards, he successively served as the Southern and Northern Judge, and the amount of time he had spent in the imperial prison was not exactly short. He naturally had his own means of interrogating people, just like how he had once tricked Ji Lei and Xi Hongxuan through his conversations with them. He was adept at using environments to manipulate the atmosphere.
Sometimes, one had to keep their words short without revealing more than necessary, and the other party would naturally let his thoughts run wild.
Huo Lingyun had to remain clear-headed. If he so much as gave a wrong answer again as he kneeled here, he might end up literally losing his head. He held up against the pressure from both men and exhaled deeply, as if exhorting himself to remain calm. He was already at a dead end, and the worst that could happen was happening now. Thus, when he lifted his head once again, he regained some of his composure.
“That’s right,” Huo Lingyun said. “I’ve had contact with the Scorpions long before King Yi. My father fought a winning battle during the sixth year of Xiande, and he dispatched someone over to persuade my father to give up Fanzhou. He also promised my father a noble title, but my father turned him down.”
Shen Zechuan inclined his head slightly, concealing the lingering redness at the corners of his eyes under the slanting, backlit shadows. “You said ‘he’.”
Huo Lingyun recalled the night a few years ago, when the horse carriage from Qudu brought along a valuable letter of significance. Huo Qing stood by the candlelight and opened it, where he touched the heavy promise within.
If the Bianjun Commandery was the most wretched station for troops in Qidong, then Dengzhou was the poorest prefecture of Zhongbo. These two places were similarly poor. Dengzhou’s one and only advantage was that it did not have to face the onslaught of attacks from the Biansha Cavalry all the time like the Bianjun Commandery had to. After the Zhongbo’s troops’ defeat, the rampant banditry put Huo Qing in a terrible fix, and he remained stranded in this corner, unable to get any assistance from the imperial court.
That letter was the last chance Huo Qing had to get out of his predicament, but he did not take it and ended up as dinner in the dogs’ bellies.
“Yes, ‘he’.” Huo Lingyun enunciated the word through clenched teeth. “This man is hiding right in Qudu, and he’s by no means an ordinary person if he can make such a promise. After my father refused the bribe, he was impeached by that Peng dog. Consequently, the Ministry of War refused to promote my father. They believed that cursed Peng’s one-sided lies and stopped giving Dengzhou the military funds it was due. That was when the Dengzhou bandits resurfaced. Yang Qiu went to Fanzhou and joined hands with Cuiqing to set up a brothel trade and got back into the business of selling women. He also took the opportunity to make contact with Lei Changming of Mount Luo.”
The dots were all connecting now!
Shen Zechuan remembered his puzzlement when he was checking the Yan Clan’s accounts in Dunzhou. How did Biansha not leave any traces behind when they stole away such a large batch of resources from Dazhou? The reason was that they were not on the Dunzhou, Mount Luo, and Duanzhou route at all. From start to end, Lei Changming and Lei Jinzhe had merely been a smokescreen Amu’er set up in the northeast of Zhongbo.
No wonder Yan Heru was so sure about this—he had indeed never touched these goods before. However, he must have been in the know, because the merchants in his hands all had dealings with Cuiqing. Coupled with what Yu Xiaozai had said about Peng Fangmiao’s impeachment of Huo Qing during the sixth year of Xiande, Shen Zechuan was even more certain of his guess.
“The goods were transported from Fanzhou.” Shen Zechuan held the teacup in his hands. “They sent the goods directly to the banks of Chashi River without even passing through Dunzhou.”
“He” initially wanted to use a noble title to bribe Huo Qing into being a White Scorpion and turn the Dengzhou Garrison Troops in Huo Qing’s hands into delivery escorts for the goods. After Huo Qing turned him down, “he” sought out the Prefectural Prefect of Dengzhou, Peng Fangmiao, who accepted the bribe and subsequently started to impeach Huo Qing vehemently.
“Youjing.” Shen Zechuan suddenly asked Yu Xiaozai. “Which year was Peng Fangmiao transferred down to Dengzhou? Before that, whose student was he?”
Yu Xiaozai racked his brain, but all he had to say was, “… I can’t remember. Zhongbo was negligent in its administration after the fourth year of Xiande, and the prefectural prefects in Duanzhou, Dunzhou, Fanzhou, and Dengzhou changed frequently. All I can remember is the impeachment memorial…”
The officialdom was as vast as the sea, with innumerable key positions of varying importance just in Qudu alone; the trivial posts in the local governments were even more complex. Even without Qudu in the mix, it was impossible for Yu Xiaozai to remember all the various vice magistrates under the Thirteen Cities of Juexi, not to mention minute details such as the year the other party was transferred or the person they had received advice from.
It had to be known that in Qudu, when someone sent in a visitation card to call on a powerful household in Qudu, all it took was for the head of the clan to be willing to see said person and exchange a few words, and said person could proclaim themselves as the other person’s “student” the moment they stepped out of the door; they were also sure to address the other as “teacher” whenever they met. On top of that, the Hua and Pan factions had countless of lackeys after the reign of Xiande, when both factions plunged the imperial court into turmoil.
“Ding Tao,” After a moment of silence, Xiao Chiye called out. “Come in.”
Ding Tao anxiously stuck his head out. Frightened by Xiao Chiye’s expression, he walked in with the same side of his arm and leg moving in tandem. Everyone in the hall looked towards Ding Tao. He opened his eyes wide, wanting to look at Shen Zechuan, but not daring to.
Xiao Chiye was in no hurry. He shifted his arm slightly, then asked Ding Tao, “Do you still remember the name ‘Peng Fangmiao’?”
Ding Tao shook his head blankly.
Outside, Qiao Tianya had a sudden brainwave and piped up, “Tao-zi, this person should be in the Ministry of Personnel’s reference list after the fourth year of Xiande. Think again. Hua Siqian, Wei Huaigu, or even Pan Rugui.”
During the fourth year of Xiande when the Biansha Cavalry slaughtered the city, the people left in Dengzhou were Tantai Hu and the others, all of whom were taken into the Imperial Army by Xiao Chiye. The original Prefectural Prefect of Dengzhou had also died during that massacre, so Peng Fangmiao could only be a court official assigned over after the fourth year of Xiande.
Other than his exemplary ability in writing, Ding Tao’s memory was also rather astounding. His family’s notebook was modeled after the record-taking of the Imperial Bodyguards, and Ding Tao had grown familiar with the procedure during the times he tagged along with his father. Back in Qudu, Qiao Tianya had once visited the residence of the Prince of Libei at night but was turned away by Ding Tao and Gu Jin. Ding Tao could tell the origin of the concealed weapon he had tossed out at just a glance, a feat that Qiao Tianya still remembered to this day.
Ding Tao fished out his little notebook, staying silent amidst the rustling of pages being flipped.
At this sight, Yu Xiaozai also began to remember. Without realizing it, he spoke out, “Our Chief Surveillance…”
Ding Tao’s eyes abruptly lit up. He bookmarked a page. “Chief Surveillance Bureau! That’s right, the Chief Surveillance Bureau! Young Master,” Ding Tao looked towards Shen Zechuan as though he was seeking praise. “The assassination case in Qudu! The Imperial Bodyguards and Chief Surveillance Bureau wanted to investigate Master at that time. There was someone surnamed Fu. That’s him!”
Of course Shen Zechuan remembered the assassination case. He had sensed something amiss with the Quancheng silk while he was investigating that case. At that time, the person who had shirked responsibility for searching the Prince of Libei’s residence and passed it on to him was the Right Censor-in-chief, Fu Linye.
Yu Xiaozai suddenly slapped his thigh and even stood up. He was so miffed with himself he just had to laugh at the ludicrousness of it. Chortling himself silly with Ding Tao, he said, “I remembered it now too. Your Lordship, before the assassination case, everyone thought that Fu Linye was an official of humble origins! It was precisely because of Fu Linye that Second Master suffered so much back then. So that son of a bitch had long been colluding with Wei Huaigu!”
The tussle between the noble clans and those of humble origins happened after the fourth year of Xiande. Back then, Hua Siqian led the Grand Secretariat, and he also had the help of the Empress Dowager and Pan Rugui. Hai Liangyi thus had no choice but to rely on the Chief Surveillance Bureau’s evaluations of the various officials for promotion and delegation to hinder the minions of the Hua and Pan clans from running amok in the local regions‘ governments. Fu Linye, who was at that time pretending to be a gentleman of worth, had considerable influence over Hai Liangyi and the other officials of humble origins’ consideration of those on the Ministry of Personnel’s reference list.
“If Fu Linye was the one who assigned Peng Fangmiao to Dengzhou,” Shen Zechuan paused for a moment, “then Wei Huaigu and even Xi Hongxuan could be this ‘he’.”