“Then what will you fall for?” Shen Zechuan’s narrowed his eyes from the pinch, making it hard to tell if he was in discomfort or pleasure. His expression was very alluring, as if fanning the flames.
Light through the window was faint. Xiao Chiye observed Shen Zechuan at close proximity, then reached out and stroked the corner of Shen Zechuan’s lips with his thumb. He said, “Get a feel of it yourself.”
“I’m afraid someone will say one thing but mean another.” Shen Zechuan’s lips parted and closed as he spoke. The tip of his tongue appeared indistinctly, casting moist warmth on Xiao Chiye’s thumb, yet Xiao Chiye could not touch a thing.
“Who’s acting contradictorily?” Xiao Chiye leaned over and pressed down on him. “Second Young Master is so honest.”
“Honest indeed.” Shen Zechuan sighed. “You’re so hard.”
“I just had my fill of sleep.” Xiao Chiye was feeling him up. “And I’ve been abstaining for quite a number of days to let it all build up. So give me a sweet little treat?”
Shen Zechuan exchanged a gentle kiss with him and said, “I just recovered from a serious illness, so let’s keep it first for another time. I really… don’t have the energy.”
“Who would bear to let you exert yourself in bed?” Xiao Chiye asked, “Would I bear to do that?”
“You would.” Shen Zechuan gazed at him and said softly, “Whatever you say now are just words to coax and trick me. Once we get on the bed, it all counts for nothing.”
Xiao Chiye chuckled. “Is that so? So what did I say when I cajoled you?”
Shen Zechuan lifted a finger to block Xiao Chiye’s lips, which was about to drop a kiss. “If you want to hear all about it, then first tell me about Xue Xiuzhuo.”
Xiao Chiye tightened his arms around him and asked, “What do you want to hear? His background before he served as an official is nothing impressive. Xue Xiuzhuo is a son of common birth, born of a concubine in the Xue Clan. Since his early years, he has never been a favored child. Look at his age. He’s older than Xi Hongxuan and Yao Wenyu by a few years. By all logic, he shouldn’t be attending school at the same time as them, so how did he become their fellow student? It’s all because he has been neglected at home back then, and the delay by his family caused him to get a late start in his education.”
“This person looks refined and has a way in the way he conducts himself in society and deals with people. Compared to Xi Hongxuan, he seemed more like a son of lawful birth from the noble clans.”
“He was already eleven years of age when he enrolled in the academy.” As if recalling this person, Xiao Chiye thought it over carefully for a moment before he continued, “He’s talented and intelligent, and he’s willing to study hard, so it didn’t take him long to stand out from the bunch of noble clans’ descendants. But the good times didn’t last long. A few years later, Yao Wenyu also enrolled in the academy.”
“Everyone now wants to associate with ‘Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo’1 to show that they are genuine talents too. But at that time, their teacher was Teacher Chang Zong, who was well known for being harsh and exacting. Once Yao Wenyu joined them, the number of times the others got criticized and punished increased. This was because no one could outdo Yao Wenyu when it came to strategies and literary essays. The moment his writings surfaced, no one else’s works could ever again catch Teacher Chang Zong’s eyes. Xue Xiuzhuo’s limelight was thus stolen in those few years. After that, he never displayed his talents again.”
“Later on, Yao Wenyu became Hai Liangyi’s student. You know what Hai Liangyi is like, so you can get a glimpse of how talented Yao Wenyu must be for him to be able to become Hai Liangyi’s student. But what the others didn’t know is that the one who first sent a visitation card2 to Hai Liangyi was Xue Xiuzhuo. He kowtowed thrice to Hai Liangyi, but in the end, Hai Liangyi didn’t accept him as his student. If this had happened to someone else, then even if they didn’t have a falling out with Hai Liangyi, they would still bear a grudge. But that’s what’s so impressive about Xue Xiuzhuo. He was there on the day Yao Wenyu underwent the rites to become a formal pupil of Hai Liangyi. Not only was he there, but he was also even the one holding the crown. Hai Liangyi disliked him, yet Xue Xiuzhuo had never once uttered a word of grievance and resentment. Hai Liangyi’s residence was bestowed upon him by Emperor Guangcheng back then. The Secretariat Elder is usually particular about having his peace and staying clean; he doesn’t receive local officials as guests in private, and he doesn’t arrange for excessive errand-runners to assign tasks. There was this one year when his pavilion collapsed. When Xue Xiuzhuo heard about it, he didn’t even take his meal and instead went to replace the stones for Hai Liangyi personally.”
“He holds Secretariat Elder Hai in high esteem.” Remembering, Shen Zechuan said, “When I looked up his past inspections’ evaluations, I also saw his essays on contemporary politics from those few years when he had just entered public service. They were all discourses on increasing incomes and reducing expenditures, and straightening out the local field books,3 which were also issues that gave Hai Liangyi headaches when he first entered the Grand Secretariat.”
“He is more like Hai Liangyi’s student than Yao Wenyu. Hai Liangyi used to serve in the Ministry of Revenue for over ten years, so he’s very well aware of all the dirty tricks used in the local accounts. To get to the bottom of the accounts then, Xue Xiuzhuo was the one he assigned. As such, Xue Xiuzhuo took on the post of the Ministry of Revenue’s Chief Supervising Secretary with the specific purpose of inspecting and auditing the various accounts.” Xiao Chiye lay back down on the bed with Shen Zechuan in his embrace and continued, “I think that his current social connections were all established back at that time. He remained in the Chief Supervising Secretary post for eight years, and his evaluations were all outstanding. He should have long been promoted, but he never received a promotion. Why? Because Hai Liangyi had the intent to hold him back.”
“Looks like Secretariat Elder Hai was moved by his sincerity. To think he was willing to spend time to polish Xue Xiuzhuo. With this camaraderie, even if both men aren’t teacher and pupil in name, the relationship between them has already surpassed even that of one.” Shen Zechuan slowly furrowed his brows. “Serving as the Ministry of Revenue’s Chief Supervising Secretary, he can go down to the localities. He has subordinates handling the accounts under his leadership, and he also holds the special privilege of directly submitting petitions to the Emperor. It’d be a piece of cake for him to befriend anyone he wants to be friends with.”
“That’s right. The Provincial Administration Commissioner of Juexi is Jiang Qingshan. This is not a man to be underestimated. The last time when Xue Xiuzhuo blew the whistle on Hua Siqian, Jiang Qingshan was the man he investigated the accounts with. Jiang Qingshan’s achievements are remarkable. Back then, when Qudu fell behind on the aid relief funds to Juexi, it was him who did all he could to bear the costs and carried on handling the matter without letting the Thirteen Cities of Juexi succumb to starvation. He is bold and decisive in what he does; he has the courage to act first and report later. A man with an iron fist. But he has a bad temper and doesn’t really socialize much with the officials from the capital. When the parties of Hua and Pan were at the height of their powers, he never once paid Pan Rugui ‘ice respect’.4 He’s a dauntless man, and he has the capability to go with it. That’s why even though Hua Siqian hated him, he was not able to get him demoted. A man like him who doesn’t even think much of Yao Wenyu could still be on close terms with Xue Xiuzhuo and call Xue Xiuzhuo his brother. So you can imagine how good Xue Xiuzhuo’s ability to make friends is.”
Xiao Chiye suddenly paused.
“It’s actually all due to Xue Xiuzhuo’s own competence that Secretariat Elder Hai would later come to promote him. Last time, you spoke about luring the noble clans into a trap. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s no telling if Xue Xiuzhuo can really make it into the Grand Secretariat.”
“I noticed that this person is very contradictory.” Shen Zechuan said. “His essays on contemporary politics in the previous years were all about the commoners’ welfare and livelihood. He went down to the localities, and the stuff he did was all practical and real. Yet, he’s inseparable from the noble clans’ younger generations like Xi Hongxuan and the likes. The matter of Quancheng silk is a critical point. I think he’s a deep one; he’s not acting at random, but planning far ahead.”
“Didn’t you say that there was a man at the helm hiding in Qudu?” Xiao Chiye’s expression grew a little more serious. “He’s a good candidate.”
“His official grade wasn’t high six years ago when Zhongbo troops were defeated, and he was young to boot. So how can he manipulate those noble clans’ old foxes? Just one Wei Clan is a pain to deal with. My guess is that if there’s really such a person, he should be of the same age as Hai Liangyi. Otherwise, with this kind of credentials, it would be hard to convince the others.”
“Nevertheless, there are too few clues. We’ll still need to deal with them carefully in the future.” Xiao Chiye rubbed Shen Zechuan’s wrist and said, “The collapse of Ouhua Pavilion is not without benefits. Xi Hongxuan is frightened out of his wits this time. Even if he wants to look for you for a drink in the future, there is nowhere to go.”
“Wine can be drunk anywhere. Even if his Ouhua Pavilion has collapsed, there are still other establishments. It’s Xiangyun who is gone that will be really gone for good.” Shen Zechuan looked askance at him. “Second Young Master has really suffered a loss.”
“Without Xiangyun, I can always look for someone else.” Xiao Chiye looked at him. “Beauties are aplenty; isn’t there one right here?”
With his fingertips, Shen Zechuan drew a few strokes on his palm and said, “If you don’t have five hundred taels, I won’t drink with you.
“I am filthy poor.” Xiao Chiye caught his teasing fingertips. “I have no money, so I can only give you something else.”
“What rare item is that to be able to move my heart?” Shen Zechuan asked.
Xiao Chiye guided his hand to land on his waist. “Second Young Master is a fine specimen of a man. So, what do you think?”
“I, Shen Lanzhou, am also a dashing man.” Shen Zechuan said leisurely, “I can just admire myself in the mirror; there’s no need for another person.”
“You still don’t know how to have fun.” Xiao Chiye said. “How can self-admiration be as delightful as being admired by me? Both of us have to be reflected in the mirror for it to be aesthetically rousing.”
With glistening eyes rippling with desires, Shen Zechuan asked, “So what’s considered aesthetically rousing?”
“Seeing is believing.” Xiao Chiye checked Shen Zechuan’s temperature. “Try it with me one of these days, and you’ll find out.”
His caresses made Shen Zechuan gasp softly for breath. Both men had not found relief for a long time, and they had just survived the epidemic. All the energy that had just been recovered pooled in their lower abdomens, weighing down on it. And now, all these hugging and fondling had ignited the first signs of desires.
“Shen Zechuan with a pure heart and few desires.” Xiao Chiye sighed with deep feelings under his breath. “Why can’t I tell which is it?”
“That is Shen Zechuan; you are calling for Shen Lanzhou.” Shen Zechuan asked, “Who do you want?”
“I want both of them.” Xiao Chiye scooped Shen Zechuan up, made him lean on one side, and pressed down against him from behind. “Are you giving, or not?”
With half of his face buried in the bedding, Shen Zechuan merely panted without saying a word. Xiao Chiye bit him. His ears were sensitive, and the licking and biting caused his gasps to hitch. Scarlet tints materialized at the corners of his eyes.
“Chen Yang boiled some water. I’ll let you wash up before dawn.” Xiao Chiye lowered his head and called out to him in a nasal tone, “Lanzhou.”
The bed was makeshift for emergency use. It was small and narrow, and it was a strain on both men to squeeze onto it. Xiao Chiye did not dare to thrust right in. Instead, he entered slowly and gingerly from the side. The Imperial Bodyguards outside all had keen hearing. Shen Zechuan did not make a sound and tugged at the overcoat amidst those alternating deep thrusts and shallow withdrawals, even as the sensation of melting apart engulfed him.
They were breathing unevenly—both afraid the other would cry out loud, so they kissed, neck against neck. The bed shook gently. Xiao Chiye’s repressed desire fired up, but he could not rock hard into Shen Lanzhou. All he could do was to grind against him.
Between the kisses, Xiao Chiye said in a hushed tone, “Cry out for me again.”
Shen Lanzhou said, “Ce…… Mhn……”
Xiao Chiye laughed. He thrusted a little harder and said, “What does ‘Ce’an, mhn, Ce’an’ mean?”
Shen Zechuan could not take it anymore and did not dare to reply. Xiao Chiye’s finger pressed into his mouth, moving and stroking for a little while as he hugged him tightly from the back, thrusting in deep until Shen Zechuan almost moaned out loud.
Without them realizing it, the day began to break outside as their bout of lovemaking left them drenched in sweat. Considering that Shen Zechuan had just woken up, and that it was not the place for this, Xiao Chiye only did it once. Even after they hastily concluded things, Shen Zechuan remained flushed for a long while. He did not even want to lift a finger during the cleaning up.
◈ ◈ ◈
On the other end, Liang Cuishan looked at the sky and saw that it was almost dawn, so he sorted out the books from these few days and put them in order in preparation of making his report when he met Shen Zechuan. He took a detour to the place and saw Ge Qingqing drinking tea under the rain shelter awning, so he greeted him and asked, “Is His Excellency the Judge better today? This humble subordinate has tidied up the accounts and specifically come to report the details.”
Ge Qingqing did not speak. Chen Yang just happened to walk down and replied, “His Excellency the Judge has just recovered from a serious illness, and the epidemic has just passed. His Excellency is also concerned about infecting all of you, so he’s not receiving guests today. If the nature of this account permits, I can send it in on behalf of Your Excellency later?”
Having been ordered by Shen Zechuan to record the accounts, Liang Cuishan did not dare to be sloppy. Naturally, he could not just hand the accounts over to Chen Yang. Thus, he merely said, “I’m glad His Excellency is fine. Since it’s not convenient today, this humble subordinate will request an audience again tomorrow.”
Chen Yang nodded, and Liang Cuishan took his leave. Before he left, he noticed that there was no one else around that house, so he knew that the area had been cleared of people, and there were personal guards standing watch. The Imperial Bodyguards were on duty, and Shen Zechuan was personally appointed by the Emperor himself, so he reckoned that there was probably still work to be done. Not daring to take another look or ask another question, he hurried away.
Not long after, the shadow before the door shook slightly. Xiao Chiye lifted the curtain and stepped out. He had already changed into a clean robe. There was a pair of half-aged boots on his feet, and Shen Zechuan’s ivory fan in his hand. He asked, “Was he here to report the accounts?”
“I told him to come tomorrow.” Chen Yang said.
Xiao Chiye walked down the steps. Now that he felt refreshed, the hostility that had been in his expression a few days before had all dissipated. He asked, “Has Laohu’s fever subsided?”
“Yes. He’s feeling more spirited too, and he ate quite a bit this morning. He wanted to pay his respects to Master. I told him to come again tomorrow too.”
“I’ll go see him.” Xiao Chiye weighed the fan in his hands and said, “The water in the streets has receded, and the sky is now clear. We won’t need to stay at Zhao Zui Temple for two days before there should be news from the palace. How about Xi Hongxuan?”
“He has woken up. But men from the Eight Great Training Divisions are keeping a tight watch on him. They aren’t letting anyone see him.”
“There’s no hurry.” Xiao Chiye said with a hint of a smile. “His Majesty should have already woken up too. Xi Hongxuan can’t escape this. The Chief Surveillance Bureau is waiting to impeach him.”
The public ditches had been dredged up, and the epidemic did not manage to break out in full. The entire matter was beautifully handled. The people at the top did not have to suffer, and it was due to all the credit of those who rolled and crawled at the bottom. It was time to settle the score. He, Xiao Ce’an, had now slept his fill and ate to his content. He had all the spirit and energy to dawdle with them.
Chen Yang was by his side when Xiao Chiye suddenly asked, “The earring I had you made the last time, are they done crafting it? When we return to the residence in a few days, I’ll go collect it on the way.”
Chen Yang said, “I told them to craft it as quickly as possible; it should be done by now. But what rationale is there for a master to go personally? I’ll collect it on your behalf.”
“I have to collect this thing personally,” Xiao Chiye tossed the ivory fan in his hands to Chen Yang and took the lead as he walked away “Let’s go. We’ll go pay Tantai Hu a visit.”
This is the combined version of the original, uncensored version and revised, censored version.
- 璞玉元琢 literally, Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo (Yuanzhuo is Yao Wenyu’s courtesy name); unpolished jade here refers to a talent who is still unknown but with the potential to be “polished” into someone that shines, like a top scholar (also known as a zhuangyuan (状元), who would have a bright future before him.)
- 名帖 (also 拜帖), a name card (or visitation card) written or paper or wood used by officials, nobles, or distinguished people to notify the other party of their visit. It would usually indicate his name, position, and so on. It’s like a name card in the modern world.
- 田册 field books, a register that records fields and farmlands.
- 冰敬 Literally, ‘Ice Respect’ (or paying respect with ‘ice’ during summer) is one of the objectionable practices of ‘Three Respects’ during the Qing Dynasty, along with ‘Coal Respect’ and ‘Departure Respect’. ‘Ice Respect’ refers to the bribe money officials outside the capital used to bribe the officials in the capital during summertime.