Translated with: Jia<3
Huo Lingyun obviously did not know who exactly “he” was, or he would have been able to voice out the name the moment he opened his mouth. However, regardless of whether it was Wei Huaigu or Xi Hongxuan, they were all already dead.
“During the sixth year of Xiande, only the Hua and Pan factions had the capability to make promises of noble titles to Huo Qing.” Yao Wenyu stroked the back of the cat’s neck with two fingers. “At that time, Xi Hongxuan had yet to join the imperial court, and Wei Huaigu was far from having the ability to do so. Why did Your Lordship put your guess on these two people?”
“Noble title.” Xiao Chiye stressed the two words. “Trace this promise up the hierarchy, and you don’t even need to guess to be able to list out the few who could do so. It’s as good as not covering it up.”
“Based on the speculation of Peng Fangmiao’s official career afterward, the promise of a noble title is very likely a sort of disguise. The real bribe used was something else.” Talking about the Scorpions had made half of Kong Ling’s body break out in a cold sweat. “Although Qian Jin was the Minister of Revenue before the eighth year of Xiande, it was still Wei Huaigu who held genuine control over the Ministry of Revenue starting from the first year of Xiande.”
Qian Jin was dismissed from office along with Hua Siqian during the rebellion at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds. However, the key to Dazhou’s money still did not fall into Hai Liangyi’s hands. Wei Huaigu stepped forward immediately right after and took over the office of the Minister of Revenue, where he continued to go around in circles with Hai Liangyi. It was not until Wei Huaigu was imprisoned during the Libei’s military provisions case that the noble clans’ embezzlement of state treasury during the reign of Xiande, which resulted in a deficit that eventually led to the Zhongbo troops’ defeat, finally surfaced.
This was an intricate, complicated web that involved not only the officials from Qudu but even the officials of the various Dazhou local governments. Think about it. If “he” had used the same method to plant covert pawns and chess pieces in Juexi and Qidong, then how many of them now were Scorpions?
“It makes one’s blood run cold,” Kong Ling could not refrain from blurting out. “This is simply…”
Corroding Dazhou from within!
“Panic not.” Shen Zechuan looked around at the various gentlemen. The calm tone he used flicked away the anxiety that was beginning to permeate the air. “It’s all too easy to give themselves away when there are too many threads of clues. Even the most astute scheme is bound by the limitations of the mortal body. Manipulating such a game is time-consuming and labor-intensive, and having too many people involved will only prove to be counterproductive. After all, too many cooks spoil the broth.”
Juexi and Qidong were both not the same as Zhongbo. Zhongbo was the result of a lax administration, while Juexi had Jiang Qingshan who, during his investigation of the deficit with Xue Xiuzhuo, did everything in his power to thwart the noble clans and the Scorpions. Meanwhile, Qidong had Qi Zhuyin, the commander-in-chief who was in charge of all the territories in Qidong. She had her own core team under her command, as well as Qi Shiyu to assist her in governmental affairs. She would never collude with the Scorpions. But Shen Zechuan was certain at this moment that the person who had tampered with the Bianjun Commandery’s grains was a White Scorpion hiding in Qudu, and this Scorpion had not been trying to force Lu Guangbai into rebelling, but to drive him to his death.
Xiao Chiye, however, once again fixed his eyes on Huo Lingyun. “Since the Scorpions were the ones who gave the firearms to King Yi, then who’s the one who taught you to use it?”
Firearms were not broadswords and swords. As a native of Dengzhou, Huo Lingyun would not have had the chance to come into contact with them before this, so he would have had to undergo training if he wished to use them with proficiency. Xiao Chiye had sniped and touched them before in Qudu, and thus he knew them like the back of his hand. Leaving aside the question of whether King Yi himself knew how to use it, if he had known that Huo Lingyun knew how to use it, he would not have kept Huo Lingyun by his side without so much as a precaution against the latter.
Huo Lingyun pursed his lips, his expression solemn in the silence. After a moment, he answered, “Old Fang the Tenth.”
This was one of the reasons why Old Fang the Tenth had been willing to join hands with Huo Lingyun to remove King Yi from the equation. He was a fast learner when it came to using firearms, and he was able to move around by King Yi’s side. What’s more, he could pump him for information on the money vault, as well as keep an eye on King Yi’s movements.
“After Dunzhou was reclaimed, Yang Qiu and Old Fang the Tenth started feeling uneasy,” Huo Lingyun continued. “By the time Cizhou reached an agreement with Libei and Qidong, Fanzhou and Dengzhou were already facing the situation of having armed forces being sent to quell them. They were afraid that King Yi could not hold up under threat and ended up opening the gates to surrender, so they thought of making the first move to do away with him and empty out the money vault.”
Huo Lingyun used the money vault as bait and burned Yang Qiu and Old Fang the Tenth to death. This sum of money was now in his hands, and he was the only one who knew where it was. This was also what gave him the confidence to dare to negotiate with Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye.
Huo Lingyun’s gaze alternated between Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye. “I can use firearms, and I can teach the Libei Armored Cavalry and the Cizhou Garrison Troops.” He looked at Xiao Chiye. “You want to attack Duanzhou in the second month. You can swap me over to the vanguard squad. I can lead the remaining garrison troops of Dengzhou.”
Kneeling at the side for a long time, Fei Sheng’s countenance promptly changed. It was only after he composed himself for a moment that he said, “It’s not my place to interrupt before Master, but this matter concerns the safety of both Duanzhou and Second Master, so I’m left with no choice but to say a few words. This man is dodgy, and it’s inappropriate to put him by Second Master and Master’s sides. Second Master has no lack of generals either. Besides, there’s also Elder Yin following along this time.”
Fei Sheng was really exercising due diligence now. His misgivings towards Huo Lingyun were not without reason. Yin Chang was clearly the one who conquered Fanzhou! If not for this Huo Lingyun’s underhanded tricks, Yin Chang would not have gotten a dressing-down. This was just great now. Yin Chang took down Fanzhou, but Huo Lingyun ended up getting the lion’s share of the credit, making it look like it was only because of Huo Lingyun’s act of arson that they managed to take down Fanzhou.
And that was not all. Fei Sheng found Huo Lingyun to be a man who could endure and dared to be ruthless. When he made his move, he struck with efficiency and decisiveness. His vindictiveness was almost on par with Shen Zechuan. Such a man had both capability and a mind of his own. To let Huo Lingyun remain by Shen Zechuan’s side was to threaten Fei Sheng, and Fei Sheng had no desire to give Huo Lingyun the opportunity to stand out and steal the show.
Fei Sheng was very clear on how things worked, and he also knew where his own opportunities lay. He dared to speak up to interrupt now because he could tell for sure that Xiao Chiye did not like Huo Lingyun.
Sure enough, Xiao Chiye did not want to answer Huo Lingyun at all. He needed the firearms, but he did not need Huo Lingyun. Duanzhou could only be his – Xiao Ce’an’s – playground. He had stopped over in Cizhou for such a long time, spending every single day at the Beiyuan military drill grounds and donning heavy armor to train with Hairigu’s Scorpions, all just to find a breakthrough that could change the current situation in Libei and turn the tide in its favor. If he were to change the vanguard to Huo Lingyun, then it would undoubtedly be a heavy punch to the guts of the Libei Armored Cavalry, whose morale was already low to begin with.
Shen Zechuan’s waist and back started aching after sitting for a long time. The swollen teeth marks on the inside of his thighs had yet to subside. What he had told Xiao Chiye in the morning about his mind being in a whirl was not a lie. And now, his mind was in a fog all over, no thanks to the White Scorpions. They still had to start sending provisions to Dunzhou in the afternoon, and the rations needed for the battle in Duanzhou had to go first… Then, there was also the thorny issue of whether Huo Lingyun could be put to use—or not.
“Since Young Master Huo has his mind set on it…” Yao Wenyu said to Shen Zechuan. “Your Lordship, the Imperial Bodyguards have been recruiting new recruits recently, haven’t they?”
Shen Zechuan understood Yao Wenyu’s intent right away.
Put Huo Lingyun in the Imperial Bodyguards, and Huo Lingyun would not be able to act as he pleased given Fei Sheng’s misgivings of him, and with Qiao Tianya at the side watching over them, Fei Sheng could not go too far trampling over Huo Lingyun either. Not only could they put him at a distance away from Shen Zechuan by doing this, but they could also put him to use instead of letting him go to waste. What’s more, leaving both Qiao Tianya and Huo Lingyun as double restraints to hold Fei Sheng in check could also serve as a warning to Fei Sheng, who was gradually becoming more and more “aloof”, reminding him not to let success go to his head.
“Fei Sheng,” Shen Zechuan said, “Pick from the remaining Dengzhou Garrison Troops. We’ll take everyone who meets your recruitment standards, including this Young Master Huo.”
Fei Sheng only had to think about it to understand the intent of this order. His heart sank, but he had to put on a show of accepting it gladly. “I shall respectfully follow Master’s arrangements. But these Dengzhou Garrison Troops are all Huo Lingyun’s old acquaintances. They may not necessarily be willing to serve in the Imperial Bodyguards.”
“That will be because you are not rewarding them enough.” Xiao Chiye raised his left hand and turned the ring on his right thumb back to its original position. There was no smile in his eyes. “Once they join the Imperial Bodyguards, they are no longer natives of Dengzhou. Their names in the previous military register of Dengzhou can be struck off.”
Xiao Chiye said just enough to make his point.
The Imperial Army the Second Master took in during his early years was even harder to deal with than the Dengzhou Garrison Troops, and his way of managing his subordinates had been none other than to be fair in meting out rewards and punishments. Xiao Chiye was reminding Fei Sheng that these remaining soldiers of Dengzhou could break away from their registered place of origin once they joined the Imperial Bodyguards and even be exempted from field taxes in Cizhou. As long as he could do a good job carrying out the task Shen Zechuan had instructed him, what could he not achieve?
Fei Sheng understood what he meant and hurriedly acknowledged his orders.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was already late by the time the meeting was over. Qiao Tianya pushed Yao Wenyu back to their courtyard.
The slab stone paths in the courtyard had all been cleared, with not even a speck of snow on it. They had gone out of the way to sprinkle salt too, for fear that the wheelchair might skid while going up. The newly planted plum blossoms had all withered, the fallen red dead in the embrace of its branches; encased in ice and snow, they presented a scene that appeared particularly bleak and desolate. The road today was damp, so Qiao Tianya walked slowly, keeping the wheelchair stable and steady as he pushed it along.
Yao Wenyu’s cat was called “Hunu”.1 If it were not stretching itself and licking its paws under the eaves, it would be nestling on Yao Wenyu’s knees, sleeping soundly with its belly exposed. At present, it was a little bundle of energy as it kneaded its paws on Yao Wenyu’s sleeves and nuzzled itself hard against Yao Wenyu’s palm.
Yao Wenyu lowered his fingers to scratch Hunu. The lanterns at the sides shone upon the sides of his face. He had gotten a little fleshy lately, and he looked a lot better as compared to the time when he had first arrived. This was the Yao Yuanzhuo of distinguished demeanor and ethereal appearance.
Qiao Tianya did not speak. His gaze shifted to Yao Wenyu’s collar before he averted it to the cuff of Yao Wenyu’s sleeves.
They had not exchanged a single word today.
The wheelchair entered through the door, and the attendant under the eaves headed in to deliver hot water. Yao Wenyu sat in the inner chamber and read his books, while Qiao Tianya took off his blade and stood outside to look at his own seven-stringed zither.
A long time elapsed, and the servants all withdrew from the room and closed the door gently. Usually, Qiao Tianya was the one who personally bathed Yao Wenyu without any help from the others. Yuanzhuo liked to be clean, and he would not sleep if he did not bathe. Every time Qiao Tianya wiped his hair, he would sit quietly.
He seemed to have accepted the sorry figure he was currently cutting, but only to the extent that no one else other than Qiao Tianya was permitted to look. This was the limit of what he could bear.
Qiao Tianya stood for close to an hour before he finally heard Yao Wenyu call out in a low voice from inside. “… Qiao Songyue.”
Qiao Tianya’s fingers that had been strumming faintly across the zither strings came to a halt, but he did not respond, as though he had not heard him.
After a moment of silence, Yao Wenyu continued. “… time for bed.”
The wind chimes beneath the eaves stirred, drawing in the loneliness in the wind as well. Yao Wenyu saw through the hanging drapes Qiao Tianya’s shadow cast upon it. He seemed to have stood there for quite a long time. On hearing Yao Wenyu, he paused for a moment before lifting the drapes to enter.
The candlelight was very dim. The Yao Wenyu of this hour did not yearn for light, for this was the beginning of his frailty and helplessness every day. Hunu burrowed into the bedding and swatted playfully at the corner of the blanket, completely unaware of the awkwardness in the room.
Yao Wenyu had yet to school the expression in his eyes when Qiao Tianya bent forward with calm and composure to carry him up from the wheelchair. Their clothes touched, and Qiao Tianya placed Yao Wenyu’s arm on the back of his shoulder. At the same time Yao Wenyu made contact with Qiao Tianya’s back, his fingers curled slightly.
Yuanzhuo was a very reserved man; that was the effect of his upbringing as a gentleman of virtue.
Qiao Tianya untied Yao Wenyu’s hair. It was at this moment the expression in his eyes was focused… so focused that Yao Wenyu could not bring himself to meet them. All he could do was to lower his own eyes to avoid Qiao Tianya’s gaze. When he had been stripped down to his inner garment, Yao Wenyu muttered softly, “don’t.”
Qiao Tianya paused for a moment without letting go of the belt he had been pulling at.
Yao Wenyu suddenly clenched his collar with an expression similar to indignation. He repeated, “don’t!”
“Don’t what?” Qiao Tianya, who had been silent this whole time, looked at him, his face a picture of calm.
Yao Wenyu’s “don’t touch me” caught in his throat. He stared at Qiao Tianya with bloodshot eyes, as though Qiao Tianya was some great scourge. His palms trembled slightly, yet the word that came out of his mouth was still, “… don’t.”
Yao Wenyu pursed his lips tightly and started to struggle. He pushed against Qiao Tianya’s chest, rejecting the latter’s touch.
The rattan chair creaked. Flashes of green and white shook in the blurred mirror as wide-sleeved robes and black hair struggled in the crooks of Qiao Tianya’s arms, like spring leaves that were all too anxious to make their escape with the wind. Qiao Tianya let him make a scene as he pleased. Just when Yao Wenyu was about to slide onto the ground, Qiao Tianya suddenly overturned the rattan chair, grabbed Yao Wenyu’s wrists, and pinned him down forcefully onto the woolen carpet.
“What do you want?” Qiao Tianya held down Yao Wenyu’s wrists with one hand and gripped Yao Wenyu’s face with the other hand to correct its direction. “Do you want me to throw you in like this, or throw you here?”
Yao Wenyu was forced to tilt his head up. His breaths quickened as he shut his eyes, biting down on his lip until it went pale. Qiao Tianya released the hand that was grasping his chin and pressed them between his lips to prevent him from biting down on them. He wedged his fingers in, only for Yao Wenyu to clamp down on them as if he was venting his anger.
“What are you afraid of?” Qiao Tianya let him bite, his expression slightly cold. “That wasn’t your fault.”
The intoxicated Yuanzhuo of last night was very different. He briskly forgot the pain of his legs and had a reaction to being touched in the bathtub. A noble young master was still human; what he had lost were his legs, not all that made him a man. He was still so young, and he still had all the same unspoken desires that he kept secret. But he did not even have the opportunity to pleasure himself, and yet he was laid bare and exposed in Qiao Tianya’s eyes every single night—even so, he never accepted such a powerless self.
“What’s wrong?” Qiao Tianya asked in a harsh voice. “Feeling aggrieved because I’m not a woman? My handjob can’t be that bad, right?”
“Stop it,” Yao Wenyu’s face betrayed his agony. All he could do was to yell dispiritedly as he lay here, “Don’t say a word more!”
The rattan chair that had rolled to one side knocked into a small clothes rack, which tilted over and smashed into Qiao Tianya’s back. Qiao Tianya did not even blink. Under the flickering candlelight, Qiao Tianya did not know which part of him was in a rage either.
“How do you see yourself?” Qiao Tianya asked. “Do you think of yourself as a banished immortal?2 Is it wrong to have desires? You—”
“I don’t!” Yao Wenyu’s eyes had gone thoroughly red. His voice trembled as he struggled to say, “I don’t have that sort of… I don’t need them!”
He could not sink to such lows and have his very last shred of dignity destroyed. What would he be left with then? He only had this bit of dignity left, and it was this bit of dignity that sustained him so that he could sit before the others in this weak and frail state and accept all of their pity.
As Yao Wenyu trembled, tears trickled out of his eyes. They did so against his will, but his tears were beyond his control, just like his crippled legs. He was ashamed to face this side of himself, just as he did not dare to face whatever remained of his desires.
Qiao Tianya’s chest heaved. He abruptly flipped Yao Wenyu over.
With a sense of foreboding, Yao Wenyu’s eyes widened in panic as Qiao Tianya pulled him into his arms from behind and undid his inner garment. Yao Wenyu struggled violently, pushing against Qiao Tianya’s arms as he resisted. “I don’t want to! Qiao Songyue, release me, let—”
Qiao Tianya groped for Yao Wenyu’s hand, pulled it into his palm, and led it down to hold Yao Wenyu’s object of shame with his hand over the latter’s. It was in this way he embraced Yao Wenyu and heard Yao Wenyu crying when he was neck to neck with him.
The dim candlelight went out as they clung close to one another in this space. Yao Wenyu’s face was to the woolen carpet, his cheeks wet with tears from the unbearable shame and indignation. A suppressed cry escaped his throat, a cry for the dignity he lost in Qiao Tianya’s hands, and for the self he had gotten a clear look of. He panted for breath in between his sobs, his free hand clutching tightly at Qiao Tianya’s sleeve as the pleasure of being defiled and broken into pieces in Qiao Tianya’s masterfully sliding palm washed over him.
“Kill me…” A choke escaped from Yao Wenyu as he rasped, “Qiao Songyue… I hate you to the core…”
All the while that Qiao Tianya’s palm was gliding up and down in that darkness, he was pressed up against the side of Yuanzhuo’s face, listening to Yao Wenyu’s sobs and ramblings, as well as Yao Wenyu’s pants and rasps.
“You’re not in the wrong.” As Yao Wenyu shuddered, Qiao Tianya whispered into Yao Wenyu’s ear, his voice raspy as he said in all seriousness, “Hate me all you want.”