Xiao Chiye was conscious of the fact that he was reeking of sweat after having ran around the military drill grounds for the entire day, so he did not go around to the other side of the table but instead took his seat on this side. There were stacks of case files on the table, some of which were sealed with the Ministry of Justice’s memorandum slip. From the time indicated on top, they were all from a very long time ago.
“You’re investigating old cases.” Xiao Chiye put up one hand on the back of the chair and picked up the little bamboo fan that Shen Zechuan had set on the table to fiddle with. “Just the Imperial Prison’s cases alone took you half a month to investigate. Why are you even looking at the cases from the Ministry of Justice now?”
“There was a vacuum in the imperial prison in the four years before the former emperor ascended to the throne.” Shen Zechuan looked at the files. “At that time, Ji Lei had Pan Rugui as his backing, so it’s unlikely he would muck around to the point where he did not have a single assignment. But the imperial prison did not leave any case records behind, proving that many cases of that time could still uphold the standard judicial process of the Three Judicial Offices’ Joint Trial. Ji Lei could only follow behind the Ministry of Justice running odd jobs for them.”
“What I mean is.” Xiao Chiye exerted a little force on two of his fingers to use the fan to block Shen Zechuan’s view of the files and lifted his chin. “What are we looking into the old cases for?”
“It was also here we previously discussed the case in which Zhongbo’s troops were defeated.” Shen Zechuan set down the brush. “I spoke of ‘befriending a distant state while attacking one nearby’.1 Do you still remember?”
Xiao Chiye withdrew the fan and rose to his feet. He sidestepped the table and walked towards the inner side of the bookshelf. After a while, he emerged, carrying a scroll of a map. Shen Zechuan pushed away the documents on the table, and Xiao Chiye tossed out the scroll to spread it out on the table. It was an extremely detailed military topographic map.
“This is a treasure of mine I stashed away for special occasions.” Xiao Chiye used the fan to draw a circle around the location of the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. “I naturally remember all that you’ve said. You’re referring to the fact that someone used the Biansha Cavalry to knock out the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo, which lies close to Qudu. This is ‘attacking a nearby state’. Then, the Hua Clan fell into decline, and the Empress Dowager was forced to marry Hua the Third to Qidong. This is ‘befriending a distant state’. If we put these two together, then we can see that it’s to take away Libei’s powers by subtle means, rendering it powerless so that Libei would be caught in a predicament where it has no support nearby and no assistance from afar.”
“But the time such a game plan needs is too long, and the variables are countless. If the other party wants to ensure that every chess move he makes is without error, then he has to remain in a position where he can view the entire game.” Shen Zechuan rose and slid his finger from Zhongbo on the map to Qudu. “He has to be here. The former emperor reigned for eight years, which is too short to hatch a plot for the defeat of the Zhongbo’s troops. The time has to be pushed forward. Many things have happened during Emperor Guangcheng’s reign in the era of Yongyi, and these incidents have more or less influenced the direction in which the situation moved. He has to be somewhere within. I’m thinking of using these old cases to find some clues.”
Xiao Chiye looked at the map and said, “It’s hard to get a full view of it just from the files alone. You have to find someone who was involved, or someone who knows the details.”
Propping himself up, Shen Zechuan looked aside at him and said, “I don’t have such a person.”
Xiao Chiye returned the fan to Shen Zechuan and said, “On the contrary, I do have a candidate to recommend… but, what are you going to bribe me with?”
Shen Zechuan smiled and grasped the other end of the fan, but he did not take it away. Instead, he simply looked at him in this way and said, “Let me guess. The one you want to recommend to me is Yao Wenyu, right?”
“He’s a member of the Yao Clan. He would indeed know better of the many incidents that had occurred during that period. What’s more, he later went on to acknowledge Hai Liangyi as his teacher. Hai Liangyi has successively served in an official capacity in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Personnel. He would, of course, know the details best.” Xiao Chiye pulled the fan closer. “Or, do you not care to meet him?”
“I’ve long heard of his name.” Shen Zechuan said. “Whether he truly has the capabilities or is simply all form and no substance, I will know after meeting him. I do want to meet him. But when will he come? After today, I’ll be tied down with work for the latter half of the month.”
“Everyone else is queuing up to present their visitation cards2 to him so that they can meet him. Which of them has such the prestige as His Excellency Shen? “Xiao Chiye said with a smile.
“He is like the banished immortal3 who has fallen from Heaven, not meant for me to use. So even if I rack my brain and try every means possible to play up to him, it’d be a futile effort.” What Shen Zechuan said was the truth. He had indeed heard of Yao Wenyu, but if they were to put this man together with Xue Xiuzhuo, he would rather choose Xue Xiuzhuo. This was because what they were doing was secular work; there were simply too many sordid matters down here. So even if one were to praise such an otherworldly divine being to the skies, he still did not have the inclination to woo said person over to their side.
Scholars were basically and practically useless.4 Being an official was no less carefree than the courtesan prostituting herself in a brothel. Flattering those above you and trampling those under you; ingratiating yourself with another; taking a beating with a smile—each one of these acts was an art in itself. That Hai Liangyi did not get Yao Wenyu to descend to this mundane world was already enough to get a glimpse of Yao Wenyu’s temperament. Who could bear to hold an immortal down in the quagmire? Just let him remain free and happy as he always had been.
But Xiao Chiye thought differently. However, he was in no hurry to voice it out and only said, “I’m merely a casual acquaintance of his. He has friends all over the world, but those who can truly sit with him for a chat are few and far between. His courteous but distant exchange of pleasantries is just the same as yours. You can just meet each other briefly and make an impression on each other. Should a need arise in the future, you’d be able to make each other acquaintances.”
Hearing him put it this way, Shen Zechuan did not turn it down further. Xiao Chiye would not recommend a person for no rhyme or reason. Shen Zechuan made a mental note of it, planning to get Qiao Tianya to free up some time later to meet him first.
Xiao Chiye had spoken with Shen Zechuan as soon as he entered. It was extremely hot at the moment. The sweat he had worked up riding the horse on the way here had yet to dry up, and the sky outside had already gone dark. Seeing as his temples were still wet, Shen Zechuan said, “Go take a bath and have a change of clothing. By the time you come out, you’ll just be in time for dinner. We can discuss the other trivial matters later.”
“Virtuous.” Xiao Chiye lifted his leg to push aside the chair and suddenly bent over to hoist Shen Zechuan over his shoulder again. “Being considerate in words is only considered half of it. Let’s bathe together. We get to save time, economize effort, and conserve water.”
Shen Zechuan lowered his hand, wanting to correct the position of the brush that had been knocked askew. But Xiao Chiye had already taken a stride out to walk away. The hot water at the back was prepared pretty fast. Once the curtain was pulled down, it remained there for close to four hours. No one dared to interrupt the flow of firewood throughout. Chen Yang, being the most tactful, could read the situation best. Seeing as Xiao Chiye was about to take a bath, he instructed the kitchen to prepare the ingredients for the main dishes first, since there was no hurry to cook them as yet.
Shen Zechuan understood one thing, which was that he could starve anyone but not Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye could not endure it the slightest. He would place all those days Shen Zechuan had owed him inside, demanding his repayment as he held him in his grip. He was full of vigor and energy, and whatever bit of capability Shen Zechuan had simply could not be compared to Xiao Chiye’s diligence and thirst for learning.
“I know it all.” Xiao Chiye reached a hand out to rub Shen Zechuan’s right earlobe and clung close to Shen Zechuan’s ear to say, “There’s no hurry to discuss Xi Hongxuan’s matter tonight. You’ve been getting Ge Qingqing to scout around lately; are you looking for Ji Gang-shifu? The Imperial Army is keeping guard at the gates on our end. If there is an anomaly with the comings and goings, I’ll send someone to notify you.”
Shen Zechuan reddened from the rubs. He propped his back against Xiao Chiye’s arm and closed his eyes to catch his breath, exposing his fair neck before him. His entire chest was heaving.
“Other than this.” Xiao Chiye fastened the earring for him. “This Second Young Master will not talk about anything else tonight.”
Shen Zechuan leaned forward, and the waves built up, layer by layer. He had a feeling of having a full stomach and on top of this, he tasted the pleasure and thrill of extreme abandon. It threw his consciousness into chaos, making him murmur vague words under his breath, so much that Xiao Chiye, hearing him, went numb all over.
Between them, there was no putting away the wine cups after taking a tiny sip, only making merry to their hearts’ content.5
The undisguised desire was what they sought from the other. Both men needed that headlong rush of when they held each other. Every worry they had could all be washed away into oblivion by this extremely harmonious and passionate coupling. They never whispered sweet-nothings in the most intense moment, when the surge of lust and desire for love interweaved. Instead, they replaced them with kisses in unspoken agreement; the impassioned it was, the more they had to kiss.
The water in the bathroom splashed all over the ground, and the steamy water vapor covered all remaining light from the window. The night was so deep, so quiet, that other than Shen Zechuan’s voice, Xiao Chiye could not hear anything at all. He threw himself entirely into it, leaving nothing behind.
By the time Xiao Chiye finally had his fair share, he had already lost all track of time. He brushed away Shen Zechuan’s thoroughly soaked hair and caressed Shen Zechuan’s wet cheeks. Shen Zechuan lifted his fair neck high, hooked him closer, and licked his lips wet.
Xiao Chiye had yet to pull out. He kissed Shen Zechuan in this position and picked him up.
Shen Zechuan let him kiss as he reached out his fingers to feel his way to the messy discharge. He rubbed it all on Xiao Chiye’s body until he was utterly exhausted and drained.
◈ ◈ ◈
After they were done, Shen Zechuan ate a little porridge and got stuffed several more mouthfuls of steamed twisted rolls by Xiao Chiye. He had already changed into a clean inner garment. With Xiao Chiye’s robe draped over him, he watched Xiao Chiye eat his meal.
Xiao Chiye had an astonishing appetite lately. Shen Zechuan did not know what he was doing over at the military drill grounds at Mount Feng, but he keenly sensed that Xiao Chiye was not in a good mood today.
“Go sleep on the bed.” Xiao Chiye lifted his head to glance and Shen Zechuan and said, “You’ll catch a cold if you lie prone here.”
Shen Zechuan moved a fish over and grasped his chopsticks to pick out the fish bones. He was indeed tired to the point he was dozing off, but he still took his time to say, “The repair and renovation of the military drill grounds have only just concluded, and there are enough funds to cover the costs. Looking at your expression though… is someone playing dirty tricks?”
Xiao Chiye ate for a moment with a calm expression before he said, “I want to add firearms6 to the Imperial Army’s arsenal.”
Shen Zechuan instantly knew the reason for his displeasure today.
At present, firearms were only allocated to the Eight Great Training Divisions. This stuff was valuable, and the Ministry of War would not assign it out easily, much less assign it to Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye had long set his eyes on them. The Eight Great Training Divisions had consigned this batch of bronze guns to their arsenal, where they had been sitting idly all this while. He had taken a few out to play with the last time, and it was from that time onwards that he started harboring the intent. But Xiao Chiye knew that this request of his would definitely hit a wall at the Ministry of War. Even Li Jianheng himself had no say in this matter, because it was of great significance, and the power to decide lay firmly in the hands of the Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat—Hai Liangyi.
Shen Zechuan thought for a moment. He held out the fish meat with his chopsticks to Xiao Chiye and said, “This thinking of yours in letting the Imperial Army test the waters in preparation for Libei’s Armored Cavalry is too obvious. Considering the current situation in which they can’t set you free, Hai Liangyi will no doubt disagree.”
Xiao Chiye did not like to eat fish because he was too impatient to pick out the fish bones, but now that he tasted it, he found it to be still acceptable. He ate as much as Shen Zechuan fed him and only said when the chopsticks were set down, “Even if he doesn’t agree, I’ll still think of ways to get my hands on them. Libei has military craftsmen. With the blueprint in hand, they should be able to copy it, like drawing a tiger with a cat as a model.”
As long as they had the blueprint, everything else would be a breeze.
“It’s just that this blueprint is not easy to get our hands on.” Shen Zechuan rinsed his mouth from Xiao Chiye’s hands and thought for a moment before he continued, “Hai Liangyi keeps a pretty tight watch on this thing.”
But Xiao Chiye was determined to have it, and the reason he had to have this thing was something Shen Zechuan understood the best.
Hua Xiangyi was about to marry down to Qidong soon. Qudu’s strategy of “befriending a distant state while attacking one nearby” was already beginning to take shape. Libei must make corresponding adjustments as soon as possible. The Libei Armored Cavalry was not an invincible army. The reason it remained infallible was that its two successive commanders-in-chief were resourceful and adaptable to changing circumstances. If the Qi Clan really fell out with Libei because of the marriage alliance, then, other than considering strategies to deal with the Biansha Cavalry, Libei would also need to consider tactics to deal with the Qi Clan’s infantry.
“The Minister of War, Chen Zhen, and Kong Qiu come from the same hometown. With this layer of connection, he could also be considered an official under Hai Liangyi. This man has some friendly relations with my father. He wouldn’t necessarily even do my eldest brother a favor in the past. And now that it’s come to me…” Recalling the displeasure of yesterday, Xiao Chiye paused for a moment before he merely said, “… There got to be another way somehow.”
Once Xiao Chiye had finished his meal, Shen Zechuan extinguished the lamp. Both men lay on the bed, sharing a pillow.
Shen Zechuan had a plan in his mind and spoke up, “It’ll be hard to go through Chen Zhen. Since he is from the same hometown as Kong Qiu, then it means he’s from Qidong. Between Qidong and Libei, he would already have an inherent bias towards one. Firearms… The Imperial Bodyguards might have the blueprint.”
Xiao Chiye pulled him over for an embrace. He closed his eyes and said, “Xi Hongxuan has only just died, and those keys have already become a masterless gold mine. Everyone is watching you now; they are all dying to rip you apart to search for them. And you just happen to incur your colleagues’ jealousy and envy at present. You need not bother with this matter—Look here. This Second Young Master has a way.”
Shen Zechuan did not answer. Instead, he smiled.
Xiao Chiye slowly opened his eyes and said, “Those two million taels of silver will not enter Libei. I’ve already spoken to my eldest brother. The money will stop at Cizhou. You can take out these silvers anytime you go back there. You can’t even play for nuts with four million taels. This Second Young Master wants to give you even more.”
They were clearly trapped in Qudu, yet the way he said it was so genuine and sincere. Perhaps Xiao Chiye had told lies in the past, but he would not lie at this very moment. He was like a wolf pup collecting and hoarding up the stars, wanting to stuff it all to Shen Zechuan like that entire jewelry box of pearls and jade earrings. More often than not, he carried it out in action than to voice it with words.
On hearing this, Shen Zechuan suddenly looked back and said, “Actually, it’s not just four million. Xi Hongxuan had indeed kept his keys securely hidden away. But he’s no sage. It would be inevitable for him to divulge a word or two here and there to people close to him after hearing some pillow talk. The clandestine love affair between his eldest sister-in-law and Xi Dan had gone on for quite some time. Both of them were actually tricking the secret out of him all along… Sixty eight keys, thirty of which I know of… “
Meanwhile, Xiao Chiye, who was so poor that he was on the verge of selling his residences, was a little shamed into anger. He turned over to block off Shen Zechuan’s mouth, biting him until Shen Zechuan gasped lightly for breath.
“Xiao’Er.” Feeling the pain, Shen Zechuan was resentful. “You’re—”
Xiao Chiye pinched his chin to stop him from voicing it out. Both men toppled into the bedding, trading peremptory kisses.
The wind outside the room came and went, leisurely and carefree, sending the wind chimes under the eaves tinkling.
Ding Tao just happened to be on the rooftop feeding that plump sparrow of his. He had kept the sparrow in his sleeves, fishing it out from time to time to take a few looks at it. It was at this moment he heard the sound of the pillow being pushed off inside the room. He held the sparrow, wanting to stretch his head out for a look, but not daring to. Looking around, he saw his various gege each in their own respective daze. He gulped and said, “I, I, uh… I guess I’ll tell you a story. My father previously wrote it in the book. There was this…”
Qiao Tianya and Gu Jin kept their voices down and said evenly, “You shut up.”
This is the combined version of the original, uncensored version and revised, censored version.
- 远交近攻 “Befriend a distant state; attack one nearby” from the Thirty-Six Stratagems (三十六计). This was in chapter 50.
- 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.
- 谪仙 literally, an immortal banished (to live on earth); refers to a wayward genius
- 百无一用是书生 Because in traditional times, the scholars could not really do any practical work.
- 浅尝即止 stop after scratching the surface; do something cursorily.
酣畅淋漓 make merry/indulging and drink to one’s heart’s content. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
火铳 Huochong, or blunderbuss (according to baidu), or sometimes known as a hand cannon, is a tube-like projection firearm. The Huochong gun was an important invention as the Ming Dynasty was creating weapons to defend themselves from attackers.