Ge Qingqing had been out of the capital for a little less than half a month. The Xi Clan’s money vaults that were opened one after another all turned up empty, but the good thing was that the stores in the various regions could be managed by Xi Dan. Coupled with the four million silvers he had gotten earlier, Shen Zechuan did not end up totally empty-handed with nothing to show for.
The two million that had been transported via the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path in the fourth month had already arrived at Cizhou. When the letter was delivered back to Qudu, it was directly handed over to Shen Zechuan right from Ding Tao’s hands.
Shen Zechuan wiped his sweat. Before he opened it, he waved to Xiao Chiye, who was similarly drenched in sweat. Xiao Chiye took off his clothes and went inside to take a bath. He said from the other side of the screen, “Just read it out to me.”
Shen Zechuan read out the letter. Xiao Jiming had been brief and concise in his message, which was that the silver had arrived in Cizhou without a hitch, and the army provisions for Libei’s Armored Cavalry this summer and autumn had also arrived at the warehouse.
“Jiang Qingshan was transferred to Zhongbo to take up the post of the Provincial Administration Commissioner of Zhongbo. Then was this batch of army provisions prepared by someone else?”
Xiao Chiye took a quick bath. As he wiped himself, he said, “It was jointly prepared by the Assistant Administration Commissioner of Juexi, Yang Cheng, and the subordinated Vice Prefects along with the various Juexi Vice Magistrates. They are all old hands under Jiang Qingshan’s command, and they are the fastest when it comes to the past preparation of the military provisions.”
Shen Zechuan set down the letter on the desk. He wanted to say that since it had not been through Jiang Qingshan’s inspection, then the military provisions should still be properly inspected before distribution. But he thought the better of it when it came to his mind that Xiao Chiye was not managing Libei’s military affairs. Xiao Jiming should know the ins and outs of this matter; there was no need for an outsider like him to interfere, so he dropped it and did not bring it up again.
Xiao Chiye draped on a dark-colored wide-sleeved robe over his inner garment. He could hold his own against these solemn colors. Even with it hanging loosely over his shoulders, he cut an imposing figure. He drank a cup of tea that had gone cold when he came out and said, “Gu Jin went to the Xue Residence to check it up last night. Teacher and Shifu are most likely detained in one of the lofts.”
“Common places aren’t able to trap shifu.” Shen Zechuan touched the brush. “I want to see it for myself.”
“If someone as vigilant and wary as him were to discover it and transfer Teacher and Shifu to another place, then we will be looking for a needle in a haystack.” Xiao Chiye removed the crown for Shen Zechuan. “I’ve already called for men to take turns to keep the periphery of the Xue’s Residence under surveillance. We have to think of a safer method.”
“There’s still one thing I can’t figure out.” Shen Zechuan let Xiao Chiye comb his hair for him. That clumsy back and forth was not at all like the Second Young Master. “How exactly did he empty out the Xi Clan’s money vaults? Ge Qingqing did not find out anything in Qinzhou either.”
Xiao Chiye cast a glance at Shen Zechuan in the mirror and said, “Can’t figure it out? I already did.”
Shen Zechuan looked at him.
“We know that four million silvers you got are all subjected to inspections at the various regions’ checkpoints as long as they are transported through a trade route, regardless of whether it was by land or water. He must have this concern too, so there’s no point checking the trade routes.” Even as Xiao Chiye spoke, his hands did not remain idle. He weaved a little braid the width of a finger for Shen Zechuan and slowly continued, “The governmental posts Xue Xiuzhuo holds in successive order are all important positions. A Chief Supervising Secretary audits the accounts in the various regions, and when it’s close to the Banquet of A Hundred Officials, he no doubt has to have dealings with the Transport Office. The Transport Office is responsible for the management of the local taxes paid out to the imperial court. It can’t get any more convenient for him to enter and exit Qudu if he smuggles the silvers in between.”
Suddenly enlightened, Shen Zechuan asked again, “Then where did he hide them? Although the Xue’s Residence is larger in scale than the Xi’s Residence, it’s not of a real heritage as the Yao Clan. Even if he dug into the ground, he can’t hide that much money.”
“That depends on how exactly he wants to use them.” Xiao Chiye released his fingers, and Shen Zechuan’s black hair cascaded down like water. It was soft to the touch, and totally lacking in aggressiveness. He pressed down on Shen Zechuan’s shoulders from the back, and both men appeared in the mirror. He said, “His hometown is in the City of Jincheng, and down south is the Prefecture of Hezhou. Hezhou’s waterways are developed and are dominated by the Yan Clan, who have business dealings with the Xi Clan’s boats in the harbors of Juexi. Now that he has kicked off Xi Hongxuan, he will have to find someone who can play around with money as well as Xi Hongxuan if he wants this money to start moving once more. And this person is none other than the Yan Clan of Hezhou. So, my guess is that he most likely entrusted these silvers to the Yan Clan of Hezhou.”
Shen Zechuan had never been to Hezhou before. All he knew was that the Yan Clan of Hezhou was very capable. They were not like the Xi Clan where legitimate sons born of the principal wife ruled the roost. What they counted on was capability, regardless of whether one was a son of lawful birth born of the principal wife or a son of common birth born of concubines. During the first year in the reign of Xiande, the Yan Clan made a fortune trading in tea in Hezhou. They rarely went near Qudu other than to pay tributes. Shen Zechuan knew very little of them.
“Second Young Master’s braids are all so prettily done.” Even as Shen Zechuan was thinking, he did not forget to look askance and poke fun at him, “Truly an erudite man of many talents.”
“This Second Young Master has braided many a number of them.” Xiao Chiye teased him. “Aren’t Lang Tao Xue Jin’s little braids pretty? I was the one who braided them all.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I put all my heart and soul into saving up the betrothal gift for you. Yet you regard me as Lang Tao Xue Jin?”
Xiao Chiye lowered his body and jested to the mirror, “A horse, hm.”
There were all sorts of expressions in Xiao Chiye’s eyes. Pressing against Shen Zechuan like this made Shen Zechuan remember the debauchery of the last time they rode the horse on a rainy night. His smooth neck no longer had those love bites, yet it had already learned to blush when Xiao Chiye whispered into his ears.
Shen Zechuan lifted his chin slightly, completely exposing the arc of that exquisite, jade-like neck. It was like a crescent moon in the dim light; not that sharp, and innately smooth and lustrous. He softly asked, “Am I?”
Xiao Chiye fell under his spell. He kissed the corner of Shen Zechuan’s eye, then stared at the man in the mirror and said with a smile, “Would I bear to? You’re the master of me. I only want to take you riding.”
Shen Zechuan’s anxiety that had persisted for days on end dispersed some. When he smiled, it carried with it a hint of seductive allure that even he himself did not notice.
◈ ◈ ◈
The temperature in Qudu suddenly rose in the fifth month. They had not even enjoyed the refreshing coolness of spring to their hearts’ content when that summer heat came assaulting them in the faces. The subordinate officials could not take sedans as they went about their tasks, so each of them lifted their robes and fanned themselves. They were drenched in sweat as they entered and exited the various office compounds, with the blazing sun already causing their lips to peel and faces to redden.
Liang Cuishan had only gotten some free time after receiving a succession of promotions owing to his audits of the Imperial Army’s accounts. He was now working under Pan Lin, the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Revenue, handling the task of auditing the various regions’ taxes.
Pan Lin was now overwhelmed with gratitude towards Xiao Chiye. This was because not two days after he returned home the last time, Li Jianheng really granted his father, Pan Xiangjie, a pardon for his offense. He was not banished to the frontier; instead, he only received a salary suspension pending observation and was excluded from this year’s inspection.
Xiao Chiye had never recommended and vouched for Liang Cuishan for promotion in public, but they were all astute people who knew that Liang Cuishan was someone Xiao Chiye had recommended before the emperor. So even though Xiao Chiye did not give any prior notification, Pan Lin still took good care of Liang Cuishan, sparing him from Wei Huaigu’s reproach.
“It’s the grand wedding of Hua and Qi next month. We have to familiarize ourselves with the processes the Ministry of Rites sent over, and the various expenses all have to be clearly calculated in case we can’t give a flawless answer when the Empress Dowager asks about it after the wedding banquet.” Pan Lin drank the green bean soup. He was so hot that his back was thoroughly soaked.
Pan Lin was much younger than Liang Cuishan. But he joined the imperial court earlier, and his rank was high, so even if Liang Cuishan did not address himself as “this humble subordinate” before him, he had to address himself as “this pupil”.
Liang Cuishan was feeling hot too. But they were in the office compound, and they had to pay attention to officials’ etiquettes, so he could not strip off his robe as he liked; otherwise, he would be chastised if he were to encounter the imperial censors from the Chief Surveillance Bureau. He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief and said with a nod, “This humble subordinate shall heed Your Excellency’s instructions. I will not dare to forget a single amount in this account.”
Pan Lin gave him a few more instructions on the other matters. He still had to go to the Ministry of Rites to verify some details, so he stepped out to get on the sedan and left.
Having owed a debt of gratitude to Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye for their recognition and appreciation of his worth, Liang Cuishan never dared to be shoddy in his work and so promptly set about reconciling the accounts. He sat for only a moment when he heard someone outside barging in.
It was midday at present, and there were not many people around. Liang Cuishan hurriedly went down the steps to greet the person. Seeing as this person was an unfamiliar face, he asked, “Brother, who are you looking for?”
This person was sweating profusely as he shoved an entire document to Liang Cuishan. He said, “This humble subordinate is an official from the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path Postal Relay Station! Your Excellency, this is an urgent report dispatched from Juexi’s Prefecture of Baimazhou the night before. It comes with the authentication tally from the Provincial Administration Commission of Juexi. This is a matter of extreme urgency!”
Northeast Provisions Bridle Path!
The moment Liang Cuishan heard this name, he knew it was a major matter which concerned Libei. He accepted the stuff and said in an urgent voice, “Why deliver it to the Ministry of Revenue? All the matters from Libei are considered military reports and should be delivered to the Ministry of War!”
“This is an urgent report dispatched from Baimazhou.” This person said. “It bears the tag of the Ministry of Revenue! Your Excellency, please present it to the Minister’s desk quickly. The consequence of delaying this express relay report is not something you and I can bear!”
Liang Cuishan promptly headed inside with the document under his arm and hurried over to the place, only to turn up empty. But while he did not see Wei Huaigu, he saw Wei Huaigu’s attendant. The attendant accepted the stuff, but took his time and told Liang Cuishan to go back first, saying that there would be arrangements made for it later.
Liang Cuishan intuitively sensed a problem. How could an express relay report be handled so flippantly? They were clearly stalling for time! His heart pounded hard as he retreated out. But instead of returning to the office compound, he turned around, lifted his robe, and ran to where the Imperial Bodyguards were on duty.
It was scorching hot all the way there. Liang Cuishan was panting hard when he arrived. Without even daring to drink a mouthful of water, he hurried into the courtyard and requested to see Shen Zechuan.
“What’s the matter?” Qiao Tianya led him in. “Why did Your Excellency run all the way here?”
“It’s an urgent matter!” Liang Cuishan could hardly care to explain to Qiao Tianya. When he saw Shen Zechuan upon entering, he hurriedly said, “Your Excellency! This humble subordinate has something to discuss with you!”
Shen Zechuan got Qiao Tianya to serve the tea. Setting aside his official affairs, he said with a fixed gaze, What’s wrong?”
Liang Cuishan did not dare to sit. He exerted himself to take a breather and said, “This humble subordinate received an express relay report dispatched from Juexi’s Prefecture of Baimazhou earlier at the Ministry of Revenue’s office compound earlier. It concerns the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path! This humble subordinate delivered the report to the top, but never got to meet His Excellency the Minister. This stuff is inextricably connected to Libei. Your Excellency, I fear something has happened to the military provisions sent to Libei last month!”
Shen Zechuan immediately rose and said, “Head over to the Imperial Army’s office compound and inform His Lordship of this matter! Take my horse. Say that the Imperial Bodyguards is on official duty and spur the horse all the way there!”
The military provisions concerned Libei’s war affairs this year. If Wei Huaigu was indeed delaying reporting this to the higher-ups, then there must have been a slip-up somewhere that he alone could not shoulder the responsibility for. Although the preparation for the military provisions was handled by the Prefecture of Baimazhou in Juexi, the overall inspection had been carried out by the Ministry of Revenue.
◈ ◈ ◈
This sweltering heat was abnormal. It was only the beginning of the fifth month, yet it felt just like the Great Heat.1 The sun was still scorching at midday, and by the afternoon, the weather had turned overcast and windy, looking as if a rainstorm was fast approaching.
Wei Huaigu had sat on the chair for an entire hour. His back was already soaked through. He felt dizzy, having already finished reading that postal relay report much earlier. Several times, he wanted to speak, but he could not bring himself to say a word. Eventually, he steeled himself, abruptly rose to his feet, and said, “Prepare the sedan! We’re going into the palace!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye had not even dismounted yet, and the bean-sized raindrops had already come pelting down. Meng stopped on his shoulder. Just as he was about to enter the city, he saw Qiao Tianya galloping towards him.
Qiao Tianya had not reached him when Ding Tao also came spurring his horse over from the other end. He tumbled off the horse’s back and said in a quivering voice, “Your Lordship! Something bad has happened! We received a military report earlier, which says that the Hanshe Tribe had trespassed into our territory the day before yesterday and encountered the Hereditary Prince on the eastern mountain range. The Hereditary Prince—”
Ding Tao’s tearful voice rose.
“The Hereditary Prince is severely wounded. We’ve been defeated!”
Qiao Tianya abruptly reined in his horse. Sudden thunder detonated in the sky, blasting apart the darkness cast by the billows of gloomy clouds. Rainwater came pouring down in torrents. Xiao Chiye was still on his horse. For the first time, he had on a dazed expression, as if he did not understand what Ding Tao meant.
In nearly thirty years since Xiao Fangxu established the Libei Armored Cavalry, Libei had never suffered a defeat. Even when Xiao Jiming led his troops of light cavalry2 to pursue and attack the Hanshe Tribe for several hundred li3 in the past, he had been able to retreat from the desert unharmed.
Xiao Chiye had never thought that his eldest brother would be defeated.