Pan Lin was in a depressed state of mind as he sat on the couch near the window after he had a change of clothes. Feeling guilty, Fei Shi sat before him and made to speak, only to have the words die on his lips.
“You don’t have to say a word.” Pan Lin looked out of the window at the old but brilliantly-lit brothel courtyard. “It’s just my bad luck to come across a lowlife like him.”
Fei Shi said, “You know he’s a lowlife who has an extremely narrow mind. Then why get angry with someone like him? Chengzhi, it’s not worth it.”
Pan Lin let out a self-mocking laugh and said, “Has our Pan Clan fallen into such a sorry state? I can give up my moral integrity had it been for the sake of a meal. But I’d rather die than to let him mock me like this.”
Seeing how sorrowful he looked, Fei Shi knew that the social snubbing these days had really hurt him. Although Fei Shi was a loafer, he was pretty much a person who took it easy. He comforted, “As long as the green hills remain, one need not fear a lack of firewood to burn—Where there’s life, there’s hope. His Majesty has not even issued the edict yet! Chengzhi, didn’t His Lordship say so? His Excellency Pan is a veteran minister of three reigns. He’d still carry some weight in His Majesty’s heart.”
On the other side, Gu Jin lifted the curtain, and Xiao Chiye bent over to enter. Fei Shi and Pan Lin stood up together to pay their obeisances to him.
Xiao Chiye raised his hand and said, “Gentlemen, there’s no need to stand on ceremony. Your Excellency Pan, please take a seat.”
Pan Lin took his seat and said to Xiao Chiye, “Not only have I ruined Your Lordship’s fun tonight, but I’ve also held Your Lordship up from enjoying the wine. I deserve a beating.”
Xiao Chiye did not really mind. As he sat, Gu Jin served him tea. He took a few sips and said, “I’ve long heard of Your Excellency’s talents, but I have never had the chance to strike up a conversation. It could be said to be fate and luck that brought us here tonight.”
On hearing this, Fei Shi smiled and threw Pan Lin a signal with his eyes.
Pan Lin hurriedly bowed. Xiao Chiye motioned for him to take a seat again and said, “I was the one who carried out the task of dredging up the public ditches, so I know very well how it feels. The public ditches on Donglong Street were old to begin with, having been haphazardly dug before His Excellency Pan took up the post of Minister of Works. There are too many points in this matter that don’t make sense. If you ask me, the blame for the rise in water level this time shouldn’t be pinned on His Excellency Pan.”
A surge of warmth welled up in Pan Lin’s heart. He said, “A few years ago, my father specifically asked someone to draw up a blueprint. But the Zhongbo troops just happened to suffer a defeat back then, and the state treasury lacked money. The Ministry of Revenue refused to allocate the funds, so this matter was passed over. Who would have known… sigh!”
“To think there’s still such a thing.” Xiao Chiye covered the teacup with the tea lid. “But Wei Huaigu didn’t mention a word about this before the emperor. Aren’t both your families on good terms with one another?”
Pan Lin said nothing, and Fei Shi hastened to say, “Your Lordship, why is that Wei Huaigu is going all out to curry favors? It’s all for the sake of being a top-league official. He endured for all these years, finally becoming qualified enough and just in time for the inspection this year. He’s waiting for the evaluation to be submitted so that he can be promoted to Deputy Secretary; this is so he can stand up to Secretariat Elder Hai as equals on the imperial court in the future. No one expected the public ditches to end up clogged at this juncture. Of course, he has to think of ways to disassociate himself from it. He’s not the slightest bit willing to shoulder the responsibility for this at all.”
“I didn’t expect him to be such a person.” Xiao Chiye looked slightly surprised. “Having seen how the Ministry of Revenue’s accounts these years have been clear without any glaring errors, I initially thought that it should be Wei Huaigu’s turn for a promotion this year. But who would have known that he would turn out to be such a vile person who seeks personal gains this shamelessly? What happened to His Excellency Pan is truly unfortunate.”
Hearing the hint of appreciation in his words, Fei Shi could not resist plucking up the courage to say, “Everyone has been pretty much closemouthed about the information lately. Your Lordship, Chengzhi and I had asked quite a number of people, and we still don’t know what punishment His Majesty has conveyed to the Ministry of Justice. If His Excellency were to be sentenced… would be he assigned out of Qudu?”
With his heart in his mouth, Pan Lin looked at Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye sat tight in the chair and twiddled with his thumb ring. Only when he had them on the edges of their seats that he said, “It’s hard to say. His Majesty seems to me to be hesitating too.”
Fei Shi promptly said, “As long as the imperial edict has not been issued, there’s still a chance to turn things around. Your Lordship is truly an official in the Son of Heaven’s inner ministerial circle now! I hope Your Lordship can put in a few good words to His Majesty regarding this issue.”
“I won’t put in a good word for His Excellency Pan.” Seeing both men’s expressions change, Xiao Chiye continued unhurriedly, “I’ll only speak the truth. His Excellency is talented and has made contributions to the state. Even if he has made some minor mistakes, it does not merit execution or banishment. I’ll speak to His Majesty again when I enter the palace tomorrow. If all goes well, the pardon should arrive at your residences within four days.”
Pan Lin was so delighted that his eyes reddened when he stood up. He did not dare to overstep his boundary and touch Xiao Chiye, so he could only grasp his own sleeves and fall to his knees hard as though he was transplanting rice seedlings and said, “Many thanks… many thanks to Your Lordship for saving our lives!”
“Gu Jin, quick, help the Vice Minister up.” Xiao Chiye said with a smile, “This is what I should do. There’s no need for Your Excellency to take it to heart. When you return today, tell His Excellency Pan to rest well. There are plenty of state and governmental affairs where His Excellency is still needed in the future.”
Fei Shi, who was frank and outspoken, said, “If there is anything we can do for Your Lordship in the future, please just say the word! Chengzhi, let’s go. We have to head back and tell His Excellency the good news!”
Pan Lin thanked him again and said to Xiao Chiye with sincerity, “Please let me know if I can be of help to Your Lordship in the future! Libei is too far; I’m afraid I can’t help you there. But as long as it’s in Qudu, I, Pan Chengzhi, will definitely do my utmost as long as Your Lordship gives the word!”
Xiao Chiye said, “There’s no need to act like a stranger. However, you mentioned earlier that His Excellency Pan had found someone to draw up a blueprint for the public ditches of Qudu. I also happen to be worrying about the repairs for the public ditches. So could I trouble you to ask His Excellency Pan if he could lend me the blueprint for a look?”
Pan Lin said, “There’s no need to ask. I’ll send someone to deliver it right to Your Lordship’s residence once I return home.”
Xiao Chiye comforted him some more, then watched as Gu Jin sent them off the boat. He listened to the reed pipes music from the pleasure boat for a moment before turning back to say to Ding Tao, “Eat what you like. Tell the cook to go ahead and dish it up. Once you’re done eating, prepare some sweet and spicy dishes, then get the cook to grill some fishes carefully and have it delivered to your Young Master Shen. Don’t alert anyone else.”
With his notebook in his bag, Ding Tao ran off. Chen Yang came up from behind and said to Xiao Chiye in a hushed tone, “Master, Xue Xiuyi isn’t going to stay for long inside; he’s still waiting to see Yao Wenyu. Are we going over?”
“Yes. Of course, we are going over.” Xiao Chiye looked back with icy cold eyes, “Xue Xiuzhuo planted a time-bomb for me in the Quancheng silk matter. I have to give him a big gift in return. Tell the attendants to serve a few more pots of excellent wine. This Xue Xiuyi is of great use to us.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The prison, which fell under the charge of Kong Qiu, was strictly monitored, so Xi Hongxuan could not send out any information. It was as if he was cut off from the world. The more he waited, the more anxious he became. After waking up one night, he found himself detained in isolation, having been swapped over to a windowless room.
“Why is there a sudden change in place?” Because Xi Hongxuan was obese, he could not squat down as freely as he would like. All he could do was to bend over slightly and call out through the gap to the warden who was delivering his food, “Bro! Sir! At least tell me something.”
That warden paid no attention to his words and opened the flap to push the rancid rice and leftover soup in. Then he picked up the tray and left.
“Ay, buddy, please hold it!” Xi Hongxuan raised his voice. “I still have some silver in my pocket. Looking at how hard you’ve been working these few days, why not take it to buy some wine? Consider it my show of respect1 to you!”
The warden turned back and spat a mouthful of saliva at him.
Snubbed, Xi Hongxuan sat on the straw mat in a daze without even taking his meal. He could not even sleep well these few days he had been waiting. He thought it over from different angles, but he did not where it had all gone wrong. The more time lapsed, the more uncertain he felt. This taste of being subjected to the whims of another was simply too hard to take.
This room was damp, with no ducts for ventilation and no windows to let in light. Xi Hongxuan would usually find it tough to sleep even on bamboo mats, and now, it was even more of a torture for him. Eczema had broken out on his back again, and he could not reach it even if he wanted to scratch.
Later, Xi Hongxuan heard a movement at the entrance. The door creaked open, and Shen Zechuan strode in. Behind him, Qiao Tianya, who was disguised as a stoic-faced youth, lit the lamp.
Xi Hongxuan struggled to move his legs and said, “What’s going on? Why am I locked up here? Is this Kong Qiu’s idea? I’ve never heard of there being such a room in prison!”
“You are not a long-staying convict of the prison, so it’s only right that you don’t know about this place.” Shen Zechuan pulled off his cloak and handed it to Qiao Tianya, then said to Xi Hongxuan, “The food here is not fit for human consumption. I’ve specially prepared some dishes. Eat some, and we’ll talk.”
With the cloak hanging over one of his hands, Qiao Tianya opened up the food box with his other hand and served up the delicacies they had bought earlier on the way here.
Xi Hongxuan sat on the straw mat and watched Qiao Tianya’s movements in silence when he suddenly let out a laugh. His expression quickly cooled off, and he said, “This looks like a farewell dinner.”
“This case doesn’t merit a death sentence, so why scare yourself?” Shen Zechuan sat down on the bench that Qiao Tianya had dusted clean. When he noticed that Xi Hongxuan had not moved his chopsticks, he got Qiao Tianya to take out another pair of chopsticks. Then, he picked a few dishes to eat before sampling a mouthful of wine.
It was only then Xi Hongxuan moved his chopsticks.
Shen Zechuan set down the chopsticks and looked at him. He said with a smile, “We are brothers. Do you have to be so tightly guarded against me?”
Xi Hongxuan picked out the steamed twisted roll and gobbled them down. It was only after his hunger subsided that he said, “Times are special. If you were in my shoe, won’t you act the same way? How did that matter go? Have you seen Xi Dan?”
Shen Zechuan finished up the wine in his cup and nodded to Qiao Tianya. Qiao Tianya opened the door and led the man in.
“Second Young Master!” Xi Dan pounced in. When he saw Xi Hongxuan, he lowered his head and wept, “You have suffered!”
Steadying his hand, Xi Hongxuan drank up the last drop of wine and said, “Get up! Don’t make a fool of yourself! It’s not the time for me to meet my maker yet!”
Wiping his face, Xi Dan said, “During these few days when the Second Young Master was not at home, I’ve already informed the shopkeepers of the various areas to manage their accounts carefully. I wouldn’t dare to let them mess up. But you’re the pillar of the clan. We still need you to take charge of the affairs personally.”
Xi Hongxuan ate his dishes in silence. After a long while, he said, “Tell me the situation out there.”
Xi Dan replied, “His Majesty wants to pursue responsibility for the matter, and both the Ministry of Revenue and the Ministry of Works do not want to shoulder the blame. At present, Pan Xiangjie has already been suspended, and he has already received a flogging. Seeing as the situation did not bode well, I went to plead with His Excellency Xue, but he was too busy with his official duties that I did not manage to get to see him at all!”
“Yanqing did not see you?” Xi Hongxuan suddenly threw his chopsticks away and looked at Xi Dan with slightly narrowed eyes. “Are you telling the truth?”
On seeing his disbelief, Xi Dan hurriedly said, “Second Young Master, how can this be falsified? All you have to do is to ask when you are released to find out the truth, isn’t it? How do I dare to hoodwink you when it comes to such matters?! Doesn’t this coincide with His Majesty’s issuance of general amnesty? The Court of Judicial Review is going to coordinate with the Ministry of Justice to leaf through all the past old cases. His Excellency Xue has to go through the files with Kong Qiu and the others. I don’t dare to block his sedan chair either, and that’s why I never got a chance to meet him.”
It was only when Xi Dan explained it in this way that Xi Hongxuan more or less believed him. He said, “What rotten luck to be framed at this kind of timing… Lanzhou, exactly who instigated His Majesty to leave the palace? Is there still no update from the palace regarding this matter?”
“There are only so many people around His Majesty, so just throw out a guess.” Shen Zechuan said. “But it’s obvious His Majesty is reluctant to investigate. He’s clearly of the mind to protect the other party.”
“Mu Ru is the only one who can make His Majesty protect her to such an extent.” Xi Hongxuan clenched his fists. “Bitch is ruthless. There must be a reason for her to do so. You have to be careful… She’d better not be pregnant with an imperial heir and eyeing the throne to rule behind the screen!”2
“Since she is in Xue Xiuzhuo’s camp, I doubt she will conceive that easily.” Once again, Shen Zechuan brought up the past. “It was also Xue Xiuzhuo’s idea for you to transfer to the Bureau of Evaluations. If it’s indeed the case that Mu Ru wanted to harm you… I can no longer get what Xue Xiuzhuo is thinking.”
On the day Xi Hongxuan abducted Qi Huilian, Shen Zechuan had also mentioned that it was Xue Xiuzhuo’s idea for him to enter the Bureau of Evaluations. Now that he had brought it up again half a month later, the implication of his words had taken on a different undertone.
Xi Hongxuan pondered it over for a while, then said, “Let’s leave these matters aside for the time being. Lanzhou, the priority is to get me out of here. What did Wei Huaigu say? How much does he want? I’ll give him!”
Shen Zechuan extended four fingers.
Xi Hongxuan said, “400,000?”
Shen Zechuan did not move.
Xi Hongxuan propped himself up on the table and stood up. He exclaimed, “4,000,000?!”
The dishes and bowls on the table collided. Xi Hongxuan’s expression under the lamp gradually grew savage. He flung the wine cup without warning and seethed, “Good one there, Wei Huaigu… Well-played, the Wei Clan! So, four million…”
He began to laugh grimly.
“This is the total military expenditure of Dazhou; it’s almost as much as the cost of rebuilding Zhongbo! So much money. Fuck. How’s he going to get it? That’s truly a real mountain of silver. It would take half a year just to transport it separately from the west! And it’ll also cost money to bribe the various passes and checkpoints during this period of time when the money is being escorted across territories! Even if the money makes its way to Qudu, where is he going to store it? There’s simply no way to hide this much money!”
“What he is doing now is ripping you off by making such an exorbitant demand, so why would he care that much? The Imperial Bodyguards have just gotten the news that the Wei Clan indeed has their eyes on Zhongbo. Think about it. Wei Huaigu currently has the Ministry of Revenue in his grasp. If he manages to take down the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo, then this sum of money would be really used on military expenses. By the time the Wei Clan has their own troops, and… with the Empress Dowager… then the Xi Clan would be at their mercy.”
Xi Hongxuan suddenly turned his head to look at Shen Zechuan, “When you advised me to join forces with them back then, have you ever thought that this would happen today? Lanzhou! These people are all wolves and tigers; they are all insatiably greedy. The moment they have us in their hands, then you and I will never be able to get back on our feet again in this lifetime!”
“Back then, when I advised you to join forces with them and kick out the Yao Clan, you hesitated. The Yao Clan was initially a good target for you to punish as a warning to others. You missed the chance, so the situation today is only to be expected. Xi Hongxuan, if you don’t kick them, then they will think of ways to boot you out.” As if lamenting, Shen Zechuan said, “This situation is ever so fast-changing. It’s no longer the same as it was decades ago when everyone could still talk reason to one another. The Eight Great Clans is such that one clan rises when another falls. It’s wearing down from within. You should have long swallowed up the others and declare yourself king.”
Xi Hongxuan’s breathing quickened slightly. At this very moment, he regretted his inaction. His palms were drenched in sweat as he faced the flickering candlelight and said, “Lanzhou… When I get out this time, I’ll heed your advice in all future plans! Since it has already come to this now, we have to think of a way first to get those four million…”
“Four million is still too much.” Shen Zechuan said. “There’s simply no way for that much money passing through Juexi to escape Jiang Qingshan’s eyes. Wait a little longer. I’m going to negotiate with Wei Huaigu.”
At this point, there was no other choice but to wait. Holding himself back, Xi Hongxuan said, “It’d be best to hurry. The situation in the imperial court changes too fast. What’s more, His Majesty is indecisive and doesn’t have a mind on his own. If Xiao the Second or Mu Ru were to coax and win him over, then it’ll really be too late.”
It was inadvisable for Shen Zechuan to stay too long. As he put on his cloak, he asked, as if offhandedly, “Oh, right. You are in prison, then what about Qi Huilian? He’s important too, so don’t let anyone see him.”
Xi Hongxuan was about to say something, but he changed his mind in a split second. He softened his voice as he said to Shen Zechuan, “Don’t you worry. Qi Huilian will not starve to death. I’ve found someone to watch over him. It’s just that the place is well-concealed. I’ll return him to you when I get out of here.”
It was under this dim light that Shen Zechuan partially turned his head back with a hint of a smile in the uplifted corners of his eyes. As he secured his cloak, he softly said, “Sure.”
A cold draft of wind slipped in through the crack between the door, causing the hairs on Xi Hongxuan to stand on ends. He rubbed his arms, wanting to say a few words more to reassure him, but Shen Zechuan had already stridden out of the door.
- 孝敬 literally showing respect and filial piety, but it also refers to bribes.
- 垂帘听政 literally to hold court behind a screen or curtain. A practice in ancient China, where the Empress or Empress dowager was allowed to preside over the imperial court without actually being seen by her subjects since women were prohibited from politics. This would usually be done by a child emperor’s mother, who would serve as regent and rule in place of the Emperor.