Xiao Chiye seems to have forgotten having lost his cool last night. He spurred his horse on through the street, causing cries of discontent to rise all around from the stall vendors on both sides of the street. He hurried over to the palace gate just in time to see the horse carriage from the Xiao Clan’s Prince Residence.
Zhao Hui lifted the curtain for Xiao Fangxu and said, “Second Young Master is here.”
With his hand on his knee, Xiao Fangxu looked out of the carriage. His gaze passed past his youngest son and landed upon the man inept in riding behind him—Shen Zechuan. He paused for a moment, but said nothing. When Xiao Chiye arrived before him, he saw the injury on Xiao Chiye’s face and asked, “What did you do last night?”
“I went drinking.” Xiao Chiye reined in his horse and laughed as he held his horsewhip. “I forgot the time. By the time I woke up, it was already late. Father, are you done with the discussion?”
Xiao Fangxu nodded and asked, “Is that Shen Wei’s son?”
The Autumn wind suddenly came assaulting Shen Zechuan in the face. It grazed past his temples. He met Xiao Fangxu’s eyes and felt a shudder for no reason. His grip on the reins tightened in uneasiness.
But Xiao Fangxu did nothing.
The sideburns of Libei’s old King of the Wolves were white. Even though he was sitting all hunched over in the horse carriage, one could still make out his extraordinary height and build. That commanding presence was not something anyone could develop overnight. It was a majestic dignity honed out of a mountain of corpses and a sea of blood. It was a formidable strength so tempered with bones and blood that even his “sickness” could not overshadow it.
Xiao Chiye’s naturally endowed, sturdy physique was completely inherited from his father. His shocking arm strength, exceptional height, wide shoulders and back, and explosively swift long legs, were all gifts from his father.
Compared with the gentler and more elegant Xiao Jiming, Xiao Chiye was the true wolf pup. If one were to glance over while the two brothers stood together, there would be no doubt that Xiao Chiye was the one who gave off a more aggressive vibe.
And now, the real King of Wolves was watching Shen Zechuan attentively. Despite already learning how to restrain himself, Shen Zechuan still had the strong urge to flee.
This was utterly different from being pinned down by Xiao Chiye. This was a gaze that would make one shiver subconsciously.
At this very moment, Shen Zechuan recalled Grand Mentor Qi’s words.
“It’s Xiao Jiming’s time to shine now that Xiao Fangxu is off-commission from illness. Everyone fears Xiao Jiming. But, Lanzhou, twenty years ago, the one who truly secured the frontier with his steed was Xiao Fangxu. From today’s point of view, Qi Shiyu clearly has more authority of office as the Commander-in-chief of the Five Commanderies, but he has not been conferred the title of a prince.1 That is because Qidong is a ‘bestowed fief belonging to the Emperor’. The five commanderies are all founding lands of Dazhou that belong to the Son of Heaven. But it’s different for Libei. The vast territory of Libei stretches from Luoxia Pass to the end of Hongyan Mountain Ranges in the northeast, and these are all hard-won lands Xiao Fangxu led the Armored Cavalry of Libei to conquer inch by inch during the years of Yongyi!
“Xiao Jiming is now the Commander-in-chief of Libei’s Armored Cavalry. ‘River of Ice Armored Cavalry’—How awe-inspiring. But it was Xiao Fangxu who established this powerful regiment of cavalry. The Libei’s Armored Cavalry doesn’t have a long history like the Bianjun Commandery Garrison Troops. They are heavy cavalry that Xiao Fangxu specially set up to deal a heavy blow to our external foes during the years of Yongyi when the Biansha Cavalry repeatedly invaded Luoxia Pass. Libei’s battle steeds, Libei’s soldiers, and Libei’s steel blades with hanging chains… Every symbol of the Libei’s Armored Cavalry you can see today all came from Xiao Fangxu.”
“The Eight Great Clans have forcibly entrenched themselves in Qudu For a long time. They are the sores and ulcers of Dazhou. The Xiao Clan can stand up to the Hua Clan as equals because Xiao Fangxu’s status is secure in Libei. As long as Xiao Fangxu is alive, the Xiao Clan will be the towering tree firmly rooted in Libei! The title of the King of Wolves is, by no means, undeserved.”
Xiao Chiye looked back and said, “… He’s Shen Wei’s son.”
Shen Zechuan dismounted and paid his obeisances to Xiao Fangxu.
Xiao Fangxu looked at him for a moment and said, “Shen Wei is already dead, and his child is innocent. Since the former Emperor has let you out, that means he has absolved you of guilt. But why are you following this lad?”
Shen Zechuan kneeled on one knee and hung his head down to say, “This humble servant was assigned to the Imperial Bodyguards. Now that it’s now temporarily under the Imperial Army, I’m at the Viceroy’s disposal.”
“So I see.” Xiao Fangxu looked towards Xiao Chiye. “And why are you making things difficult for him?”
Xiao Chiye licked the wound in his mouth and said, “How would I make things difficult for him? He and I are now sworn friends. Isn’t that right, Lanzhou?”
Without looking at Shen Zechuan again, Xiao Fangxu started to chat with Xiao Chiye.
Shen Zechuan propped himself up with a knee and looked at Xiao Chiye’s unrestrained smile and the way Xiao Fangxu gazed at his son through the puddle of water on the ground.
Splashes of raindrops messed up the scene in the puddle.
Shen Zechuan retracted his gaze.
By the time Xiao Jiming emerged, Xiao Fangxu had already left. Qi Zhuyin walked a few steps with him and suddenly asked, “Who is that?”
Xiao Jiming looked beside Zhao Hui and replied without a change in expression, “That’s Shen Zechuan.”
Qi Zhuyin halted in her tracks and said with some surprise, “Shen Wei’s son? Why is he following A-ye?”
Xiao Jiming said, “A-ye is playful. Most likely, he’s making things hard for him.”
Qi Zhuyin looked for a long time before saying, “That appearance of his is too outstanding. I heard that his mother was a dancer from Duanzhou. Fortunately, she was a dancer from Duanzhou and not the Cangjun Commandery.”
Commander-in-chief Qi Shiyu was the most fond of beauties. He was a man who would not move his feet whenever he saw a pretty woman. Although Qi Zhuyin had very few brothers, she had countless yiniang2 back at home.
“Speaking of which.” Qi Zhuyin turned sideways. “A-ye is already twenty-three years of age, right? Isn’t he going to marry a wife?”
“Yizhi is also getting anxious on his behalf.” Xiao Jiming said. “Libei doesn’t need him to marry a noble lady from a powerful and honorable clan. Just a girl from an ordinary family with a clean background will do. Yizhi keeps sending portraits of all the Libei women she picked out on his behalf to Qudu every year, but not one of them has ever caught his fancy.”
Qi Zhuyin laughed. “A noble lady tends to be haughty; she can’t play with him. While a common girl is too timid; she will get frightened the moment she’s near him. Besides, how many maidens can handle that temper of his? Finding someone who he is mutually in love with and vice versa is harder than ascending to Heaven. What’s more, he loves to make his way to the alleys of pleasure houses. You’d better keep an eye on him, or he’ll really bring a courtesan back to marry one day.”
Xiao Jiming knew that her stepmothers were all famous courtesans in Qidong. They would kick up such a row in the backyard all day long that she would always get a headache the moment she got home. That was why she had detested courtesans ever since she was young.
“Who can stop him if he really meets someone he fancies?” Xiao Jiming felt like letting out a long sigh. He said with a headache. “Even ten bulls won’t be able to haul him home.”
“You’d better prepare for rainy days.” Qi Zhuyin thought for a moment. “Never mind about all the others, but her personality must not be too intense. Your Yizhi is gentle by nature. If he brings home someone with a temper, then Yizhi would have to suffer indignities every day, wouldn’t she?”
“Nothing has even begun to take shape yet.”3 Xiao Jiming suddenly laughed out loud. “It’s still too early.”
“Marriages are the most unpredictable.” Qi Zhuyin laughed too. “Perhaps someday he will see the light?”
Xiao Chiye felt as though there was a chill on his back. He looked back warily and saw Shen Zechuan standing beside Zhao Hui, looking contemplative.
“I’ll go to the Imperial Army Office in a while to collect the waist token.” Xiao Chiye blocked the light in front of Shen Zechuan. “Before the final deployment order of the Imperial Bodyguards is given, you will have to follow me day and night.”
“Day and night.” Shen Zechuan repeated the words and looked up at him. “Do I still have to lift the chamber pot for the Second Young Master at night?”
“If you want to, then sure.” Xiao Chiye took a step closer. “I’m busy these few days. I have to stay at the residence behind the Imperial Army office.”
Shen Zechuan did not answer.
Xiao Chiye had already turned around to receive Xiao Jiming.
◈ ◈ ◈
The review of the Court of Judicial Review had yet to conclude when both the Hua and Pan residences were searched and seized. Li Jianheng took the opportunity to close off access to the Empress Dowager’s Enci Palace on the grounds that the Empress Dowager was “troubled by worries to the point of anxiety.”
With some difficulty, enough money was finally gathered to make up for the shortfall in Libei’s military fund for salaries and provisions. Xiao Fangxu and Xiao Jiming could not stay for long, and so they left a few days after.
Xiao Chiye unexpectedly did not look reluctant to part with them. It was as if he had abandoned the ambitions he had during the Autumn Hunt after that night of inebriation. From time to time, Li Jianheng would bestow him with rewards, and each time, he would accept it with delight.
Not only that, he also started to loaf on the job. Originally, the Imperial Army had the important task of conducting patrols. But he worked in fits and starts like the fisherman who fished for three days and dried the net for two days.4 There was often no sight of him where he should be. The Ministry of War gradually began to voice their doubts about him as they grew more inclined to have him replaced.
But Li Jianheng refused to agree and even used the tactics of making a scene and throwing his tantrum. He even went to the extent of almost falling out with the Vice Minister of the Ministry of War who presented the petition.
He flung away the memorial5 from the Vice Minister of the Ministry of War and said, “Xiao Ce’an has made great contributions in coming to my rescue. Why isn’t he up to being the Viceroy of the Imperial Army? It’s not like he has bungled matters or held things up. I won’t replace him!”
Both men reverted to the way they were before the Autumn Hunt, and Li Jianheng felt a little more relaxed. The Xiao Chiye of that night was more like a figment of his imagination, while this man without an iota of decorum was his buddy.
Li Jianheng also felt glad that Xiao Chiye did not mention a word about returning to Libei. He was of the view that this was his buddy’s consideration of his situation. There was really nothing he could do! And it was still possible to play while remaining in Qudu, wasn’t it? Now that he had even become the Emperor, Xiao Chiye could throw his weight around as he liked given their relationship, no?!
So why return to Libei? How could that bitter cold land be as comfortable and carefree as in Qudu?!
When Xiao Chiye wanted to head out of the city to race his horse, Li Jianheng approved it. When Xiao Chiye wanted to expand the Imperial Army Office, Li Jianheng approved it too. And when Xiao Chiye wanted to be on duty for half a day and idle at home for the other half, Li Jianheng not only approved it, he even approved it with great delight.
When both men had nothing to do, they would ride horses and play ball. Li Jianheng could not head for Donglong Street to fool around, but he could ask Xiao Chiye over to listen to the pipa6 together with him. That Mu Ru now lived in Mingli Hall. Li Jianheng originally thought that Xiao Chiye would say a few words of admonishments. Instead, Xiao Chiye said nothing and merely joined in the fun with him.
It feels so fucking good to be an Emperor!
During the last rain in Qudu, Xi Gu’an was sentenced to execution by decapitation by the Court of Judicial Review. Because Xi Hongxuan distributed his wealth and sought forgiveness, he got into Li Jianheng’s good graces and was transferred to the Ministry of Revenue where he took up a modest position. Xi Hongxuan was originally adept at having fun, and this was just perfect for Li Jianheng, so Xi Hongxuan would go looking for Li Jianheng every day to offer him suggestions on what and how to play.
Xi Gu’an had only just been sentenced when Hua Siqian committed suicide by biting off his tongue in the prison. In the testimony he gave, he shouldered all the crimes without so much a word implicating the Empress Dowager. At present, it was just Ji Lei and Pan Rugui who had yet to be sentenced. Hai Liangyi wanted to pry a confession out of these two men’s mouths, but he never succeeded.
It was not until the house was damp that Shen Zechuan returned. As soon as he opened the door, he saw an eastern pearl7 on the table. Shen Zechuan closed the door. He had only just picked up the pearl in his hand when he heard Chen Yang knocking on the door.
He opened the door, and Chen Yang said, “The Viceroy is calling for you.”
Shen Zechuan grasped the eastern pearl in his hand. The strip of cloth it came with was soaked. He said naturally, “I’ll go once I change my clothes.”
Chen Yang said, “Don’t bother. Just go like this. The Viceroy doesn’t have the patience to wait for others.”
With that, he took a step aside, wanting to leave together with Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan could only let his hands drop and stride out of the door to leave with Chen Yang.
Xiao Chiye was wearing a cloak. When he saw him coming, he said, “Take the blade and come with me.”
Shen Zechuan went out of the door. It was only when Xiao Chiye led the horse over that Shen Zechuan realized Chen Yang had not followed them.
Xiao Chiye got up the horse, and the gyrfalcon shook the water droplets off its neck before landing on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder. Shen Zechuan could only follow after him. The horse left the city and braved the rain to head for the military drill grounds at Mount Feng.
When they arrived at the drill grounds, it was empty and void of people. Xiao Chiye removed the reins for Lang Tao Xue Jin and gave it a pat to let it run around to play by itself. Meng flew under the veranda, unwilling to soak in the rain any longer.
“Take off your clothes.” Xiao Chiye turned around and said to Shen Zechuan as he untied his cloak.
Shen Zechuan held the blade in his arms and raised his chin. The water trickled down the front of his clothes, exposing that fair, delicate neck of his.
Xiao Chiye felt just like a person seeing a cat every time he looked at Shen Zechuan’s neck; he always could not help wanting to give it a few rubs.
What the heck is wrong with him?
He had already taken off his outer garment while he was thinking. When he saw Shen Zechuan still not moving, he urged again, “What are you standing there blankly for? Strip quickly!”
Shen Zechuan raised his fingers and placed them on his own waist belt. He glanced at him and said slowly, “If I strip, there will be nothing left.”
- 王 Princes, or lords, during the Ming Dynasty were titled and salaried members of the imperial bureaucracy with nominal lordship over various fiefs throughout China. Conferred princes are those who were bestowed the title by the Emperor. I have used a different naming system for both kinds of princes to make it easier to distinguish between real princes (Prince Chu) and conferred princes (Prince of Libei).
- 姨娘 yiniang, or maternal aunt. Yiniang is also a term of address for the concubines of one’s father.
- Just some extra nugget, skip if you want! This line is from 八字没一撇 literally the first stroke of the character 八 (eight) has yet to appear. 八字 also refers to a person’s eight characters, one’s birth data for astrological or fortune-telling purposes, combined from year, month, day, hour, heavenly trunk, and earthly branch. Parents in those days would usually check their children’s’ eight characters against each other before matchmaking them. Their eight characters typically had to match before a marriage could take place as couples whose eight characters clashed would be deemed to be at odds with one another, which in turn was believed to lead to an unharmonious and unhappy marriage. So 八字没一撇 here in this context could also be taken to mean their eight characters have not even been written out for matching purposes since they don’t know who the other person is. i.e. it’s still too early to say since Xiao Chiye doesn’t even have a (confirmed) love interest (yet)
- 三天打鱼，两天晒网 literally fish for three days and dry the net for two days; i.e., to lack perseverance and work in fits and start.
奏折 zouzhe, also 折子 zhezi, is a memorial presented to the Emperor
琵琶 Pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments.
- 东珠 literally eastern pearl, a rare treasure also known as the northern pearl (北珠) or tana in Mongolian. During the Qing Dynasty, pearls produced in northeast China were called the eastern pearl to distinguish them from the southern pearl produced in the south. The rulers of the Qing Dynasty regarded the eastern pearls as treasures and used them to inlay their crown and clothing with it to represent authority and honor.