Thick, steaming mist, coupled with the drumming sound of the rain.
Shen Zechuan was about to enter and soak in the water. As he bent down, Xiao Chiye, who was behind him, got a clear look at the curvy contours of his waist and buttocks, which became more and more conspicuous with each of his movements.
Has muscles. Very toned.
But he did not look like a martial arts practitioner the slightest. Because the way Xiao Chiye saw it, he did not have that threatening vibe.
Shen Zechuan submerged himself into the water. His legs, which had soaked in the rain until it was cold, gradually warmed up. Xiao Chiye entered the water and leaned far away from him at the other end.
Shen Zechuan asked in astonishment, “Why are you hiding so far away?”
“It pleases me to.” Xiao Chiye roughly folded the wet handkerchief to cover his eyes, then put up his arms without looking at Shen Zechuan again.
But after a moment, Xiao Chiye found it inappropriate, so he raised his hand to pull off the handkerchief and stared fixedly at Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan felt that Xiao’Er was very much like his gyrfalcon right this moment; it was as if he would start going on the offensive with just a little jab.
“What do you want to see?” Shen Zechuan’s expression was as warm as the spring breeze as he used the tone of one cajoling a child eating candied hawthorns1 on the street. “Tell me. I’ll let you see.”
Xiao Chiye bent up a leg and pulled off the only remaining cover around his waist without batting an eyelid. He said, “I’ve already touched them all earlier.”
Shen Zechuan sank a little lower into the water, exposing only a pair of eyes to look at him.
Xiao Chye felt even more irritable being sized up by that gaze of his. He said, “What?”
Shen Zechuan revealed his lower jaw and replied, “You were in a good mood earlier. Why the sudden change?”
“My mood right now is also pretty good.” Xiao Chiye said, “Soaking in the bath means one can shut up; There is no need to talk… Can you stop looking up at me like that?”
Shen Zechuan slowly lifted his body, and the water trickled down along his chest. His scattered hair spread out like ink saturating the water. It was as if he was a magnolia flower climbing out among this water mist.
Xiao Chiye could not stand it anymore.
Why had he thought of “flower”?
He watched with wide-open eyes as Shen Zechuan came closer to him. He could even smell Shen Zechuan’s scent when the latter sat beside him.
Not fragrant. Mild scent. Feel like catching a few more whiffs.
Xiao Chiye retracted the arms he had put up at the edges and suddenly pulled over a garment from the clothes rack. He stuffed all of it into the water to cover up his waist. After doing this, he looked calmly at Shen Zechuan and said, “What? Surprised? I’m afraid you might get funny ideas at the sensual sight of Second Young Master; hence, the cover.”
“Then I thank you…” Shen Zechuan said with a displeased expression.
Xiao Chiye lowered his head, only to realize that the clothing he had pulled off belonged to Shen Zechuan.
“…For washing my clothes on my behalf.” Shen Zechuan said, “Now I’ll have to soak in here until tomorrow.”
The awkward silence permeated through the air rapidly as both men looked at each other. Outside, the wind rustled amid the cold and dismal autumn rain.
After a long while, Xiao Chiye said, “This clothing won’t dry even if we leave it be. Meng can go and call Chen Yang over.”
With that, he raised his head and whistled.
There was a moment’s silence in the hot spring. Neither Lang Tao Xue Jin nor Meng came.
Xiao Chiye whistled again.
Outside, Meng shrank its head under its wing and ignored him. Such a heavy rain—it had absolutely no wish to fly out and get itself wet.
The silence seemed endless.
Eventually, Shen Zechuan said, “… I’ll wring it dry.”
Xiao Chiye pressed the clothes back down, and said while gnashing his teeth at him, “Wait a moment!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Both men were stranded in the hot springs for a night. By the time their clothes dried, it was already the hour of mao.2 Shen Zechuan finally put on his clothes at long last. As he secured his waist belt, he could still sense that ravenous gaze of a tiger eyeing its prey. But he said nothing and feigned unawareness.
Xiao Chiye lifted the hanging screen. It was still dark outside. The air was thick with mountain fog and the scent of dampness after a rain. It was inconvenient to head down the mountain, as the stone stairs were all covered in thin ice.
Both men moved in a single file, with one in front and one at the back.
“The military drill grounds occupy the southwestern side of Mount Feng.” Shen Zechuan surveyed the place from above. “Although it’s very close to Qudu, its view is completely blocked by Mount Feng. The Eight Great Training Division won’t conduct their patrols here. Your location choice is really excellent.”
“I wouldn’t have chosen this land if not for Mount Feng.” Xiao Chiye pushed aside the maple branches and turned back to indicate to Shen Zechuan to make his way over under his arm.
Shen Zechuan passed under it. The scenery before him suddenly opened up as all the obstructions turned to mist. He could see the Imperial Army’s military drill grounds clearly. There were already squads running around the grounds.
“The Imperial Army did not make a move during the Autumn Hunt.” Shen Zechuan sized it up for a moment and said, “But I can see that they are all fully equipped. Hua Siqian is dead now, the moment the seizure of his assets following the Autumn Hunt is concluded, the Chief Surveillance Bureau will be coming for you.”
Xiao Chiye obviously could not afford to raise 20,000 Imperial Army soldiers based on his salary alone, and he could not misappropriate the military salary and provisions of the Libei Armored Cavalry either. But going by the annual budget the Ministry of Revenue allocated to him before the Autumn Hunt, the Imperial Army obviously would not have the money to establish themselves on such a scale. Xi Gu’an died because he “could not explain” himself. And now, it was time for them to be demanding answers from Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye said, “Let them come.”
As for where the money had come from, he did not speak further on the issue, and Shen Zechuan did not ask again.
After a while, Xiao Chiye said, “Many errands from the Ministry of Works requiring manual labor were all handed to the Imperial Army to be carried out. Since five years ago, every sum of money paid out to the Imperial Army for the assignments were all recorded down in black and white in the account books. Even if the Chief Surveillance Bureau investigates it, they won’t be able to find anything nefarious.”
It was for this reason that Xiao Chiye became the infamous debt collector in the Ministry of Revenue. All of them thought he was asking for money to spend on women and wine. They did not know that he was actually saving money over the years, and that the only account he had that could be said to be an extravagant expense was money for wine. Li Jianheng might be muddle-headed, but he was generous when it came to his buddies. Every time he invited Xiao Chiye to Donglong Street, he was the one who paid out of his own pocket for the girls and for the feasts to treat his bunch of disreputable friends .
Li Jianheng lived off government coffers, and he had no principal wife to keep him in line. If he had no money, he would ask the palace for it. Emperor Xiande had never been stingy with him when it came to him spending money. Even if he had to take the funds from his own coffers, he would also give him the money. So, Li Jianheng never lacked money.
Xiao Chiye did not manage to return to Libei, but he had never resented Li Jianheng for it. Because he knew it better than anyone else that Li Jianheng regarded these disreputable friends of his as his real brothers.
Thinking to this point, Xiao Chiye said, “The reason the Empress Dowager saved you is naturally because she wants to use you. If all is calm, you can perhaps enjoy a steady rise to the top in the Imperial Bodyguards. But the former Emperor suddenly started resisting. The Empress Dowager… The Empress Dowager has gone looking for you, hasn’t she?”
Shen Zechuan met Xiao Chiye’s eyes.
He must not evade it. Not even for a moment. Xiao Chiye had an extremely keen sense of smell. He only had to show a trace of guilt and Xiao Chiye could definitely tell.
Shen Zechuan replied with certainty, “Never.”
The chilly wind brushed past them and swept up the hems of their clothes.
Xiao Chiye slowly exhaled cold air and smiled unconcernedly. “Then your luck is pretty good.”
It was already daybreak by the time they returned to Qudu. Xiao Chiye said from atop his horse, “I have to rush over for the morning court session.3 You head back first.”
Shen Zechuan nodded and watched as Xiao Chiye spurred his horse on to leave. When he returned to the abode, he did not see Chen Yang. Presumably, the latter had already left to wait for Xiao Chiye at the palace gate.
Shen Zechuan took out the eastern pearl from his sleeve and held it between his fingertips to scrutinize it under the faint light. But before he could remove the strip of cloth, he paused.
When he undressed, he had placed the eastern pearl into his right sleeve. But now, it was from the left sleeve he took the eastern pearl out of.
Shen Zechuan clicked his tongue lightly and frowned.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye arrived at the palace gate, dismounted, and made his way into his family’s horse carriage where he quickly changed into his official robe. Chen Yang had also prepared breakfast, and the porridge was still hot. Xiao Chiye drank a bowl.
“I went to the military drill grounds last night to look for you, but you weren’t there.” Chen Yang kneeled beside the curtain and whispered, “It isn’t stable in Qudu these days. Someone ought to go along with you when you venture outdoors.”
Xiao Chiye set aside the bowl and said, “Get someone to keep a close watch on Shen Lanzhou at all times.”
Chen Yang acknowledged his order and said, “It’s all our own men outside the abode. As long as he ventures outdoors, he definitely will not escape your eyes. It’s just that the Hua Clan has been defeated. Viceroy, what advantage is there for us to watch him closely now?”
Xiao Chiye did not answer. He did not look too good as he lowered his eyes for a long time. It was not until Chen Yang mentioned the morning court session that he wiped his hands with a clean handkerchief and said, “I find that man unpredictable. If you look at him now, can you tell that he knows a little martial arts?”
Chen Yang replied, “He looks clearly weaker than he was when he joined the Imperial Bodyguards. If Viceroy had not spoken of his help during the Autumn Hunt, I’d definitely not be able to tell. But if Viceroy gets Zhao Hui to take a look, perhaps he might be able to catch something.”
“Zhao Hui met him face-to-face the last time he entered the capital, and he did not see anything off about him.” Xiao Chiye said, “That body of his…”
His voice stopped abruptly. After a while, he continued, “Send a letter to Libei immediately and request shifu’s presence here.”
Stunned, Chen Yang said, “You want to ask…”
“No matter what method he used to cover it up, it will definitely not escape shifu’s eyes.” Xiao Chiye twirled his thumb ring around and said apathetically, “Besides, there’s… something I need to speak with shifu.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Li Jianheng shelved the morning court session today. He had yet to sleep his fill when he heard Shuanglu reporting to him that Hai Liangyi was kneeling just outside. Li Jianheng was immediately wide awake, but Mu Ru, who was in his arms, was still asleep. For a moment, he could not free himself, so he could only raise his neck and instruct Shuanglu in a whisper, “Go! Send him away. “
Shuanglu had only gone out for a while before he returned to kneel. He said, “Secretariat Elder said he must see Your Majesty. This slave said Your Majesty is still asleep, so Secretariat Elder said he will kneel and wait for Your Majesty.”
Li Jianheng panicked. Mu Ru had only just woken up in his embrace when he hurriedly coaxed her, “My dear, get dressed quickly and go to Chenming Palace at the back for your meal! I have to receive and meet the Secretariat Elder!”
Mu Ru was dainty and delicate, with black hair like a waterfall. At this moment, she did not pester him or make a commotion and simply dressed herself obediently. Once she was done, she glanced seductively at Li Jianheng with her adoring, affectionate eyes and helped him up as if the honor he had bestowed on her was too much for her to take.
Li Jianheng loved this look of hers to bits. He tugged at her hand, reluctant to part, wanting so much to hold her on his knees while holding court.
“Next time,” Li Jianheng kissed her several times in a row. “Next time, I’ll not ask you to retreat.”
He embraced her and spoke for quite a while. It was only when Shuanglu entered again to hurry him up that Li Jianheng reluctantly let Mu Ru go.
Hai Liangyi entered with a solemn expression and kowtowed.
Li Jianheng sat on the dragon throne and said, “Please rise, Secretariat Elder. Please rise quickly.”
Hai Liangyi remained in place and kowtowed again.
Not getting a response, Li Jianheng looked left and right, feeling his face burning. He coughed twice and said, “I’ve caught a cold these two days, so I wanted to sleep in a little longer in the morning…”
Hai Liangyi said, “This old subject has heard that Your Majesty has been diligently holding night courts. It’s just that there has been no responses to all the memorials that have been submitted. After giving the matter careful thought, this old subject has come to admonish Your Majesty in the face. Your Majesty is now in the prime of life and at the height of power. If Your Majesty exercises diligence in governing the state, then a bright, thriving future will be close at hand once the depressing atmosphere from before has been swept away.”
Li Jianheng let out a few dry laughs and said, “I guess so…”
“But Your Majesty resides deep in the inner palace surrounded by castrated traitors serving him. If I indulge Your Majesty and let Your Majesty be, then Your Majesty will over time turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to advice and stray far from current politics!” Hai Liangyi said resolutely and firmly. “This subject has heard that Shuanglu, the eunuch personally serving Your Majesty, has been bribed into staffing plenty of dubious and low-down people around Your Majesty. According to the palace rules, anyone who isn’t acting on imperial orders yet has the audacity to lead outsiders into the palace should be flogged to death!”
Shuanglu fell to his knees with a “thud” and looked at Li Jianheng in terror. He said, “Your Majesty, Your Majesty…”
“Mingli Hall is a just and sacred place in this world. How can we tolerate eunuchs making a din here?” Hai Liangyi looked at Li Jianheng, “Your Majesty!”
Li Jianheng’s chest was pounding hard. He looked at the stern Hai Liangyi and recalled the extreme danger of that night. His palms were sweating, and he wiped them on his dragon robe like a loser. He did not even dare to say a word in reply.
The guards outside had already entered to drag Shuanglu away. Shuanglu cried out as he slid across the floor, “Your Majesty, Your Majesty!”
“His crime…” Li Jianheng looked at Shuanglu. “His crime is not punishable by death…”
“Your Majesty.” Hai Liangyi said firmly. “Pan Rugui formed an eunuch clique and colluded with Hua Siqian to stir up havoc within and outside Qudu. It’s now the time to nip it in the bud as a warning to others! Not only that, promiscuous members of the imperial harem who seduce and bewitch the Emperor in an attempt to sway him should also be flogged to death!”
Trembling with fear, Li Jianheng said, “I wouldn’t dare, I wouldn’t dare! With such a virtuous subject like Secretariat Elder to supervise and prompt me every day, how would I dare to act arbitrarily and fool around?! Secretariat Elder mustn’t be taken in by those groundless rumors.”
But Hai Liangyi said mercilessly, “There’s no smoke without fire. Your Majesty, we must not allow beautiful women who are the sources of troubles4 to remain!”
Li Jianheng was really scared now. How could he bear to let Mu Ru die? He rose to his feet in a panic, cutting a sorry figure as he said, “Secretariat Elder, I’ve realized my mistakes. Shuanglu has served me for many years. Just… drop the matter today, and I’ll surely administer affairs of state with due diligence in the future!”
Hai Liangyi kowtowed, deferring to him when all had been said and done to preserve some of his dignity.
Li Jianheng held on to the table and listened to the sound of flogging outside. Blow after blow, one after the other. It was as if the one being hit was himself. He looked at Hai Liangyi with mixed feelings; there was aggrievement and also fear.
Xiao Chiye was just in time to see others splashing water and wiping the floor when he entered. Bloodstains spread under his feet. They were so vividly red that it was terrifying. All the eunuchs in Mingli Hall were quietly kneeling outside; not one of them dared to raise their heads.
Xiao Chiye strode inside, where Li Jianheng was sitting stupefied like a piece of wood on the dragon throne. When Li Jianheng saw Xiao Chiye enter, he stared blankly at him for a moment before he burst out bawling.
Li Jianheng smashed objects around as he cried and shouted, “What kind of Emperor is this? To think someone would point a finger to my nose and humiliate me like this! Which land under the heavens isn’t land of the Emperor?!5 What’s wrong with me bestowing favors on a woman? Where’s the wrong in it?!”
糖葫芦 Tanghulu, aka. candied hawthorn that comes on a stick. It is a traditional Chinese snack.
- 卯时 hour of mao; 5-7 am
- 早朝 Court sessions held in the morning for the Emperor to discuss state affairs with his ministers. It was typically held daily, but occasionally varied from emperor to emperor.
- 红颜祸水 kind of a femme fatale; beautiful women who bring troubles upon men.
- 普天之下，莫非王土 Which land under the heavens isn’t land of the Emperor?
From 《诗经·小雅·北山之什·北山》 the Book of Songs: Minor Odes of the Kingdom (one of the three main divisions of the Book of Songs) – Northern Mountain