The night rain had just stopped, but the sensual dampness between the beddings lingered.
The hot springs had been renovated anew; although it was small, it was completed. With his clothes draped over him, Xiao Chiye fed the horse and gyrfalcon. All that could be heard on Mount Feng at the third quarter of the hour of mao1 was the sound of water dripping from the eaves. He soaked in the mountain breeze for a moment with the front of his clothes opened. The chill of early spring gradually calmed the stimulation and excitement that had lasted all night. He had sobered up, but his passion had become all the more thick and viscous, followed by a kind of post-indulgence relaxation and tenderness.
This was the pleasure of indulging in desire.
Xiao Chiye removed the saddle on Lang Tao Xue Jin’s back and gestured to Meng. Meng promptly spread its wings and flew out of the eaves into the forest.
Xiao Chiye turned around to enter the room, where the heat and dampness had not receded. Shen Zechuan was sprawled over the pillow with the blanket over him. There was no way to tell if he was asleep or not. His half-exposed right ear was still wearing the earring. Xiao Chiye lowered his hand to take it off for him and, in passing, rubbed his ear that had gone red from being clasped by the earring.
Shen Zechuan let loose a sound. He had yet to fall into a sound sleep. He laid there for a moment, then slightly opened his eyes to look at Xiao Chiye and said in a hoarse voice, “… It’s time we leave.”
Xiao Chiye rolled over and lay down beside Shen Zechuan. He looked at him in the eye and said, “It’s the day off today. It’s still early.”
Shen Zechuan uttered a sound of acknowledgment and said, “There is still work to be done in the imperial prison.”
“A busy man.” Xiao Chiye grasped his fingertips and pulled him towards himself. “In just one day, you rose to the position of Northern Judge, and you were also promoted to Vice Commander. The people you have to deal with now are all noble descendants of hereditary ranks. It’s going to be hard for you to manage them; there’s bound to be someone who wants to trip you up with underhand means.”
Shen Zechuan said, “It’s not easy to be the Son of Heaven and the officials in his inner ministerial circle.”
It was in this way Shen Zechuan lay, with the word ‘satiated’ written all over his expression. Both men looked at each other for a moment. Like the gentleness after a rainstorm, their kiss was both light and slow. In this humble thatched cottage, they wholeheartedly bared themselves to one another. It was as if in these few hours they left Qudu, they could cast aside all the so-called maturity and prudence to become young men of similar ages.
Xiao Chiye whispered, “This place is too small, with the view of the sky all blocked by vermilion walls, and the mountains and plains all surrounded by cities. Lang Tao Xue Jin can’t run to its heart’s content… When we return to Libei someday in the future, I’ll take you galloping all over Hongyan Mountains.”
Shen Zechuan pressed against his chest and asked, “Is the moon in Libei as round as the moon in Duanzhou?”
Xiao Chiye thought for a long while before he said, “I’ve already forgotten… Is the grass in Duanzhou as tall as the grass in Libei?”
Shen Zechuan also said, “I’ve already forgotten.”
They suddenly burst out into laughter, dispelling that bit of melancholy. Shen Zechuan took in Xiao Chiye’s scent as Xiao Chiye pressed his chin against the top of Shen Zechuan’s head.
Xiao Chiye said, “Let’s go together.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Home?”
Xiao Chiye tightened his arms around Shen Zechuan and said, “Home… Let’s ask Ji Gang-shifu to go together with us. Libei is so big; there will be plenty of places to stay.”
Shen Zechuan laughed out loud and said with lowered eyes, “Shifu wants to return to Duanzhou. I’m afraid we won’t be able to go together.”
Xiao Chiye also lowered his eyes and said to him, “As long as we are out of Qudu, we will be able to go together, even to the ends of the earth.”
Shen Zechuan met Xiao Chiye’s gaze and said, “The wolf pup should be in Libei. Otherwise, it’d be a pity for it to become flabby due to a long period of inactivity.”2
Xiao Chiye’s eyes were calm and serene as he said, “Libei has my eldest brother, and the Libei Armored Cavalry has my father. Horse-racing is the only thing that suits me.”
Shen Zechuan lifted Xiao Chiye’s chin and gazed at him. He said, “Natural talents are bound to have their own uses; it’s just that the time has yet to come. Ce’an, Ce’an—All of Libei’s hope lies in these two words.”
Xiao Chiye laughed in a deep voice and suddenly rolled over to pin Shen Zechuan down. Pressing his forehead against Shen Zechuan’s forehead, he said, “Do you want me or not?”
Shen Zechuan’s waist was sore, and his back was aching. As he recovered his strength and eased up his muscles, he squeezed the back of Xiao Chiye’s neck and said in a husky voice, “Are you giving me or not?”
Xiao Chiye lowered his head to kiss him and pulled up the blanket over them.
◈ ◈ ◈
After that rainy night, Qudu’s weather took a turn for the hotter.
The Grand Secretariat demanded Pan Xiangjie’s dismissal from his position of the Minister of Works, while the Chief Surveillance Bureau submitted more than ten memorials in a row to impeach Pan Xiangjie. Their daily contentions in the imperial court were so heated that it made Li Jianheng’s ears ache.
Originally, Wei Huaigu and the major-league ministers from the other noble clans would stick together for mutual benefits; thus, they would not easily abandon anyone. For example, men like Fu Linye were eventually demoted with a reduced salary and not exiled out of the capital. After the fall of Hua Siqian, Hai Liangyi took over the position of the Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat. Although he entrusted Xue Xiuzhuo, who was from a noble clan, with heavy responsibilities, he had also successively promoted several low-grade officials from humble backgrounds. Of them, Kong Qiu was the most conspicuous, and both sides pit against one another, overtly and covertly. However, what happened this time was a matter of grave importance. If Pan Xiangjie was not impeached, then Wei Huaigu would have to be impeached. Someone had to take the blame for the clogged official ditches. There was no way to find a scapegoat at all.
The way things were playing out, the Ministry of Revenue was obviously much more important than the Ministry of Works. To the noble clans, the one who did manual labor could be cast aside, but the one who managed money must be retained. It was not just Pan Xiangjie who had to be dismissed and prosecuted. Even his eldest son of lawful birth, who was the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Revenue, had to be suspended from his post to await impeachment.
Li Jianheng no longer spoke up on the imperial court that easily. After adjourning the court, he called for Xiao Chiye, and both men wandered around the garden for some spring appreciation.
“I heard that you braved the rain to head out of the capital some days back.” Dressed in bright yellow regular wear, Li Jianheng picked some candied fruits from the table and shared half with Xiao Chiye. “For what purpose?”
“The military drill grounds are close to Mount Feng. I get worried each time it rains. It has only been a few days since the public ditches incident, so I rushed over that night to take a look.” Xiao Chiye smiled and replied, as if he did not notice that Li Jianheng had sent someone to keep an eye on him. “Your Majesty knows of that military drill grounds too. It cost the Imperial Army a lot of money. If it were to get damaged from the rain, those 20,000 men of mine would have to share and put up with the Eight Great Training Divisions.”
“If you bring the Imperial Army to the Eight Great Training Divisions’ military grounds, the Ministry of Revenue will promptly allocate the funds to you tomorrow.” Li Jianheng tossed the candied fruit into his mouth and said, “I’ve seen enough these days to understand that they are guarding against you. They are only too glad to be as far away from you as possible.”
Xiao Chiye said self-mockingly, “We are all attending to official duties. Where did they get that many ideas from?”
Li Jianheng recalled the last time Xiao Chiye was besieged and attacked on all sides by these people on the imperial court and promptly said, “They are full of evil tricks, and they are crafty to boot. Each one of them is such an eloquent speaker when it comes to handling matters, but in truth, they are all for the specific purpose of setting others up. They even dare to cajole me, what’s more, you? We have to punish this Pan Xiangjie this time. He did not do his job properly and almost caused me to die. And guess what? Last night, Commandery Princess Zhaoyue entered the palace to keep the Empress Dowager company. The Empress Dowager knew better and said she would not interfere in state affairs. Only then did she manage to send her away. Tell me, how would a lady who’s about to get married know about the insides and outs of these matters? Isn’t it all because she was forced to by the Marquis of Helian? After all, both of their families are in-laws!”
Xiao Chiye followed Li Jianheng down the stairs and walked beneath those newly-sprouted branches. He said, “Has Your Majesty made up your mind to punish Pan Xiangjie severely?”
Li Jianheng said, “Of course. We mustn’t let him off easily. There was a picture of the disaster victims from the low-lying area sandwiched inside the memorial Cen Yu submitted; they are really too pitiful. I’m the Emperor who lives in the imperial palace. Just like what the Secretariat Elder said, there are many matters I can only find out through word of mouth. Pan Xiangjie’s negligence and tardiness in clearing up the clogged ditches caused so much harm to the others. I definitely have to punish him. The Secretariat Elder has the same intent too.”
Having tasted the sweetness from dishing out rewards and having been praised by the imperial censors, he now wanted to single out Pan Xiangjie to make an example out of him.
“I happen to disagree with the Secretariat Elder.” Xiao Chiye said out of the blue. “Pan Xiangjie deserves to be punished. But this man mustn’t be too easily removed from office.”
Li Jianheng turned his head back and said with a frown, “If we don’t deal with him after he makes such a blunder, then are you going to keep him around for him to make another one?”
Xiao Chiye cast a glance at the clear sky overhead and remembered what Shen Zechuan had said. He suddenly laughed and said to Li Jianheng, “Of course Your Majesty has to deal with him. But if you dismiss him from his post, it’ll be tantamount to cutting off his career path. Pan Xiangjie is currently advanced in age, and he has also made some contributions in his position of the Minister of the Ministry of Works. Your Majesty, the blockage of the public ditches this time caused a surge in slop, which has indeed flooded and damaged the streets. Yet the embankments of Kailing River remained solid and secured like a wall of iron. In previous years, when the localities were flooded, there were very few dams and embankments that could hold up. Clearly, Pan Xiangjie has put some thoughts into this and has not cut corners.”
“But his negligence and oversight of the public ditches is a fact, too. There’s no reason to let him off easy just because of Kailing River.”
“Your Majesty.” Xiao Chiye said, “The court assembly this morning discussed the allocation of funds for the spring plow. The Ministry of Revenue has been wrestling with the localities over this, and this matter has been stuck at an impasse for half a month. If we wait any further, we will miss the time.”
“What has this got to do with not dismissing Pan Xiangjie?” Li Jianheng was not too pleased. “Even if we retain him, the Ministry of Revenue will not allocate the fund. Wei Huaigu’s subordinates are all very articulate. Even the Secretariat Elder can’t be bothered to waste his breath on them. Only the imperial censors from the Chief Surveillance Bureau can tie with them when it comes to rebuking and condemning others.”
“The Ministry of Revenue? The subordinates who are currently capable of attending official duties are all Wei Huaigu’s proteges, so naturally, they will act according to Wei Huaigu’s will. But Pan Xiangjie’s son, Pan Lin, also happens to hold the post of Vice Minister of the Ministry of Revenue. If Your Majesty can simply go through the motions in dealing with Pan Xiangjie this time, then their Pan Clan, graced with imperial favor, will surely remember Your Majesty’s kindness. By then, his son would be just like Your Majesty’s son. If Your Majesty has to deal with the Ministry of Revenue in the future, you’ll have your own man in the Ministry of Revenue who can speak up on your behalf. Furthermore, once Pan Xiangjie is dismissed and prosecuted, the Ministry of Works will have to nominate someone else to take up the ministerial post. The new person may not necessarily be more loyal than Pan Xiangjie.” Xiao Chiye paused here and let Li Jianheng think for himself.
Li Jianheng took a few steps and said hesitantly, “But if he’s not dismissed, there still has to be a punishment that can convince the masses.”
“Pan and Fei are related through marriage, while Fei and Xi are close to each other. What they don’t lack the most is money. Your Majesty can fine Pan Xiangjie and get him to cover all the expenses incurred during the dredging of the public ditches, then hand him the punishment of flogging.”
“Flogging?” Li Jianheng said in astonishment. “He’s so old; won’t he be beaten to death?!”
“How is he going to mend his ways and be grateful if you don’t let him have a taste of ‘death’?” Xiao Chiye smiled. “Let the imperial censors rebuke him to their satisfaction. By the time Your Majesty summons him for an audience again, he will be deeply grateful even if Your Majesty tells him to bark like a dog in public, let alone cover the expenses.”
Delighted, Li Jianheng circled back and said to Xiao Chiye, “As usual, you’re the resourceful one!”
“Wei Huaigu is also the one who ran the audit of the expenditure this time. I fear he has, out of impure intentions, doctored the accounts. So it’s still better for Your Majesty to go over this case again and act with prudence.”
As expected, Li Jianheng looked to be put in a spot as he said, “This is a job for the Ministry of Revenue. Where would I have the man? The other ministries can’t interfere in this matter either.”
“Then find one of those in the Ministry of Revenue to do it. The official at the top can’t give a clear explanation, but the petty officials at the bottom are all honest men who actually carry out tasks for Your Majesty.” Xiao Chiye brushed aside a branch and seemed to think about it before he continued, “I met a competent official at Zhao Zui Temple this incident, He was the one who kept records of the accounts for the medicinal herbs which the Imperial Army had submitted earlier. Even the Secretariat Elder was full of praise for him. Your Majesty, how about letting him try?”
Overjoyed, Li Jianheng said, “If even the Secretariat Elder has praised him, then we can’t go wrong with him!”
Xiao Chiye said in a steady voice, “This man’s name is Liang Cuishan.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xi Hongxuan was taken into custody in the prison. He originally thought that with Li Jianheng to protect him and Xue Xiuzhuo to use his power to help him, he would be quickly released. Who would have known that he would be locked up for so many days? No one delivered messages to keep him updated either; thus, he guessed that something must have gone wrong somewhere in between.
When Shen Zechuan arrived at the prison, he had his authority token with him. He was someone who had a drink with Kong Qiu before, and he was a newly appointed official who rose to prominence the fastest. So Qiao Tianya only had to use a few catty of wine to talk the warden around.
When Xi Hongxuan saw Shen Zechuan, he hurriedly got up and asked through the bars, “How is it? Why has there been no news? Has Pan Xiangjie been punished? If so, then it’s time for me to be released!”
Although Shen Zechuan had his authority token hung, he was not wearing his official robe. He was dressed in a dark blue everyday wear with his collars tightly secured. His facial features were enveloped by the dim light when he entered, and the contrast of his clothes against the color of his skin made him look extremely white, with a hint of frostiness.
“You’re still waiting for Pan Xiangjie to be prosecuted?” Shen Zechuan said, “There’s been nothing about Pan Xiangjie these days.”
“He’s in charge of the Ministry of Works. How will they justify it if they don’t punish him after there’s such a big problem with the public ditches? Even His Majesty won’t be able to justify it.” Xi Hongxuan clenched and tightened his fists. “What went wrong in between?”
“To shirk responsibility and shift the blame, Wei Huaigu relentlessly latched on to Pan Xiangjie. But as you know too, things can backfire when it reaches its limits. Even a rabbit can bite humans when it’s forced into a corner, let alone Pan Xiangjie? To mitigate their crime, the Pan Clan wants to cover the expenses this time. The porridge shack over at Zhao Zui Temple has yet to be dismantled, and the womenfolk of the Pan Clan has already gone over to give out porridge to the disaster victims. They put on a meticulous show and did a careful job of keeping up appearance while assuming the stance of eating humble pie, as if they were submitting themselves to physical and verbal abuses from the others. Like they say, not for the sake of the monk but for that of the Buddha.3 So even the Secretariat Elder would have to take this into consideration and reconsider his punishment.” Without a smile on his face, Shen Zechuan said, “There’s no way the Ministry of Revenue’s delays of the accounts can be covered up. For everyone’s good, Wei Huaigu should also admit his mistakes and endure a scolding. Yet, he is simply too oblivious and doesn’t know when to advance and retreat. Second Young Master, since Pan Xiangjie isn’t dismissed and Wei Huaigu isn’t punished, then they can only single you out this time and put you on the chopping board.”
After a moment of silence, Xi Hongxuan said, “Wei Huaigu is too money-minded. The reason he’s suppressing this matter and refusing to relent is because he’s afraid that the Ministry of Revenue’s disparity cannot be covered up after he admits his mistakes, and Hai Liangyi would then have him in his grasp. Going by his temperament, if he can’t kick out Pan Xiangjie to take the blame for him, then he will force me to fish out the money. No matter what, he won’t let himself suffer. Fuck it, that wily old fox!”
When they were all bashing Xiao Chiye together, they all wanted to ride on the Eight Great Training Divisions’ coattails and have a share in the benefits reaped from the Eight Great Training Divisions. But now, Xiao Chiye had not even been knocked out, and they were fighting among themselves. Xi Hongxuan felt indignant. He had previously spent quite a sum of money on the matter concerning Xi Gu’an. The good thing was that their family’s salt mines were not confiscated and sealed off, so they were still raking in money. In any case, the imperial court had no idea about the Xi Clan’s private accounts. But it was different when Wei Huaigu wanted money. The Eight Great Clans knew best what the Eight Great Clans were like. The Xi Clan sold salt and headed out to sea, and they even kept and maintained a large batch of ships at the Port of Yongquan—these were stuff the Eight Great Clans knew all too well.
“Spending money to ward off calamities.” Shen Zechuan said gravely and earnestly, “With yourself behind bars now, you have to choose a man you can trust to handle this matter for you on the outside. You are transferring money within private accounts. If the Wei Clan wants some ten thousand taels, then just the transportation alone would be a big problem. There has to be someone who can organize it all for you. Furthermore, this matter is of utmost urgency, so have it done as quickly as possible.”
“Look for Yanqing” Xi Hongxuan blurted out. Having done so, he hesitated again.
Xue Xiuzhuo knew the ins and outs of the Xi Clan, and it was hard to say if he might get some other ideas during the process. The Xi Clan’s accumulated mountain of gold and silver was something the previous few generations risked their lives to hoard, and they had countless successions of connected shops and businesses in Juexi and Hezhou. Xi Hongxuan could afford the money, but there was no one he could really entrust it with. With Xi Gu’an dead, the few Xi Clan concubines were really going at it with their abacuses. Perhaps even before he, Xi Hongxuan, died in prison, he would end up dying by his own family members’ hands.
Xi Hongxuan suddenly said, “Lanzhou, you’ve been promoted to Vice Commander, and you also manage the imperial prison. You have the special rights to enter and exit Qudu to handle cases. It’s too inconvenient for Yanqing, with him currently being in the Court of Judicial Review and all. I’m afraid he will be too conspicuous and end up being investigated by the others. How about you handle this matter instead?”
Shen Zechuan was rather surprised and said, “I’ve neither managed accounts nor dealt with Wei Huaigu before, and I’m not familiar with your businesses on the outside too. So how would I be able to handle this well?”
Unfamiliarity was exactly what he wanted!
Xi Hongxuan said, “There are managers appointed by me over at the salterns. They are quick and efficient, so you don’t need to worry about the money. It’s just that transportation would prove to be particularly troublesome if the sum is too large. Tens of thousands of money worth would pile up into mountains when loaded onto the carts. You can’t go the water route. All my family’s routes are sea-based. Head inward to the north, and the Hua Clan of Dicheng has the final say, while the Yan Clan of Hezhou calls the shots in the south. So you can only take the overland route, which would require you to traverse the thirteen cities of Juexi…Motherfucker! I don’t believe this much money can’t bury that Wei Huaigu to death alive! In any case, you don’t need to fear anything else while passing through Juexi, but you must be on guard against Jiang Qingshan. This man is a tough one. If he catches us red-handed, I’ll be skinned!”
Shen Zechuan was in no hurry to agree. He said, “This is an important issue. You should have a word with Xue Xiuzhuo and let him know.”
“No.” Xi Hongxuan considered it carefully. “Yanqing is not a person who can handle this kind of matter. It’d work to the contrary if he were to intervene again. You only need to tell him to continue to think of a way to plead for mercy on my behalf on the imperial court. His Majesty’s momentary hesitation is no big deal, but when I get out this time, Wei Huaigu will be the first one I’ll kill!”
After he said that, he smiled at Shen Zechuan.
“There’s no need for you to panic. I know you have never conducted a business transaction before. I left a bookkeeper in my Qudu residence. His name is Xi Dan, an old hand in my employ. Let him accompany you… I’ll naturally have my own plans once I see him.”
Xi Hongxuan was quick-thinking. He did not dare to trust Shen Zechuan just yet. He remembered how Ji Lei had been played to death, so he held back and insisted on seeing his own man before he would take out his money. The Xi Clan’s keys were in a place only he knew of. Without the key, all the Xi Clan’s money vaults could not be opened.
“Give it a few days.” Shen Zechuan said softly, “I’ll bring him to see you.”
Many thanks to Alex for the advice! ❤
- 卯时 Time in those days was divided into two hours blocks. The hour of Mao is around 5-7am
- 髀肉复生 literally thighs become flabby from inactivity, i.e., to be out of action for a long time with one’s aspirations unrealized.
- 不看僧面看佛面 to do something for someone out of reverence or consideration for someone else of greater importance