If Xiao Chiye said he would return in three days, then he would return in three days. When he hurried back to the foot of Cizhou’s city gates in the middle of the night, the city gates had already been opened, with torches brightly illuminating the city walls. The Imperial Army held the captives in line and entered. Zhou Gui had cleared out the prison in the south for the Imperial Army to hold these bandits in custody. He received Xiao Chiye and said, “Your Lordship has been working hard! The soldiers are tired after having eradicated the bandits. I’ve already gotten men to prepare meals for all. Everyone, this way, please.”
Xiao Chiye dismounted and said, “Thank you, Your Excellency, for going to the trouble.”
Zhou Gui followed Xiao Chiye in and said with a radiant expression, “I saw General Tantai’s report that the bandits have been taken captive in the east. They have been completely disbanded. And Your Lordship personally went after Lei Jingzhe. This is truly… truly marvelous!”
Xiao Chiye had already caught sight of Shen Zechuan, and Shen Zechuan had also seen Xiao Chiye. A few guards were following behind Shen Zechuan, and Qiao Tianya was carrying a lantern in hand; they had obviously been waiting for a long time. Still speaking to Zhou Gui, he said, “I shall have a detailed discussion regarding Lei Jingzhe with Your Excellency in the study tomorrow morning.”
Zhou Gui thought Xiao Chiye was tired from being on the go, so he hurriedly nodded and said, “sure.” Kong Ling was more perceptive than him. Although he was not used to it, he also knew that they were getting in the way, so he threw out a random excuse and led Zhou Gui away.
Chen Yang stepped forward to take the horse. The guards behind all kneeled on one knee and said, “Congratulations to Master on your triumphant return!”
Xiao Chiye undid his arm guards and took off the Conqueror Bow and said, “You may rise. Have you been waiting long?”
Shen Zechuan took the lantern over from Qiao Tianya and turned around to walk with Xiao Chiye along the street. He answered, “Quite a while.”
Xiao Chiye lowered his fingers and took the lantern over from Shen Zechuan’s hand, while Shen Zechuan took the arm guards Xiao Chiye had just taken off to look it over.
On seeing this, Xiao Chiye said, “These are old stuff from a few years back. The metal was cast by Libei, and the leather strings on top were supplied to the Eight Great Training Divisions right from Qudu. It came apart from the chafing the last time I drew the Conqueror Bow here. I’ll think of a way to replace it before I return to Libei.”
The leather strings used for binding on the arm guards were indeed worn out. Shen Zechuan hooked it several times and said to Qiao Tianya. “Take it and put it aside first.”
Noting that both of them were moving in the wrong direction, Xiao Chiye could not help but cast a sidelong glance where the Zhou’s residence was. Then he looked at Shen Zechuan and said, “Have we moved out?”
“Of course, we have to move out.” Shen Zechuan went up the stairs. “It’s not convenient to keep staying in Zhou Gui’s residence. He just had a grandson at the beginning of the year, and his entire family is crammed into two courtyards. It’s too much of an inconvenience to them. I had someone ask around a few days ago, and it just so happened that a residence here caught my eye.”
Both of them had already entered the wide alley as he spoke. The slabstone path led right to the main entrance. Xiao Chiye sized it up and said, “It’s next to the main street, and it’s close to Zhou Gui’s residence. It’ll be convenient to discuss matters during normal hours. You’ve chosen an excellent location.”
“There’s a drawback.” Shen Zechuan said as he led Xiao Chiye across the threshold. “It’s too big. The smattering of men we have aren’t even enough to fill up these few courtyards.”
Xiao Chiye saw a horse platform1 made up of stacked bricks set up before the residence. The wooden carved door pillars were crude, and its patterns were not as fine and meticulous as the ones in Qudu and Juexi; rather, it was more the style of Libei and Biansha. Five courtyards in a compound were really too big for both of them. When Qi Huilian was still the Grand Mentor of the Eastern Palace, the residence he had been bestowed upon was about the same size as this. They would not be able to fill it up even with the addition of servants. Besides, both of them had no heirs or concubines. The stone walls looked a little old, but the double-eaved roof cut an imposing sight. It did not obstruct the light either. It was just the way Xiao Chiye liked it.
“No issues there.” Xiao Chiye stepped through the door and held Shen Zechuan by the hand. “Shifu can take one courtyard, while you and I can share a courtyard. The few of them buddies can have a courtyard. If more people join us in the future, we can split them up according to status. There will be a day we get to see it filled up when we are seventy or eighty years old.”
“The backyard is empty.” Shen Zechuan said. “But we will need to add men to the rear yard and the side rooms flanking the principal room. These courtyards are all connected to one another, so it won’t do for us not to have someone keep watch. It’ll be a bit more troublesome when they are on shift duty.”
As both of them were at the head discussing what they should acquire in the future, Ding Tao was at the back recording down the routes in his book. He whispered, “Although this residence is not as big as our Prince’s residence in Qudu, it is too circuitous. If I were to live at the back, it would take me half a month just to remember the directions.”
“What are you afraid of since we don’t let you take up a mission alone? And you always have Gu Jin around to lead you.” Qiao Tianya said. “This residence isn’t cheap, but my master doesn’t even blink an eye at the price. He sure has deep pockets.”
With a sorrowful expression, Ding Tao wrote a few more words and said, “You don’t understand. It’s precisely because Gu Jin is leading that we will get lost. Sigh, Jin-ge is really a strange one. As a scout in the military, he can remember all those unfamiliar places clearly when he’s investigating matters outside, but not so when he returns to our own home. Eight or nine times out of ten, he will turn into the wrong courtyard. Back at home in Libei, he will often end up somewhere else. I’m telling you, there’s an older sister in that residence called Cuilan, a maidservant of the Consort of the Hereditary Prince. She’s really gentle. Every time Jin-ge makes a wrong turn, she’s the one who leads him back. She even gives me candy. In any case… hmphasdfghjkl!”
Gu Jin clamped an arm around Ding Tao and gagged his mouth shut. He cast a few glances at Qiao Tianya and said, “Hear no evil.”
“I haven’t heard any part that’s ‘evil’.” Qiao Tianya looked astonished and applauded softly, “On the other hand though, you have just shot yourself in the foot.”
“… It’s hard to plant bamboo here. I’ll look for others after a few days.” Xiao Chiye looked back and said to the few of them. “Who is on the night watch tonight?”
All this while, Chen Yang seemed to be preoccupied, but on hearing him, he said, “I’m on guard alone. The few of them are on shift duty these few days.”
Xiao Chiye knew from this that Chen Yang had something to report to him, so he nodded and did not ask further. He already knew that there was an issue when he entered the city and saw Chen Yang’s expression as the latter received him. The hot water was ready when he returned to the courtyard. During the interval Xiao Chiye was taking a bath, Shen Zechuan got someone to warm up the meal.
The weather was hot, and the doors to the principal room were wide open with bamboo blinds hung up to keep out mosquitoes. The window screens were all newly replaced, and there was a round-bellied copper vat placed on the veranda with two red carps in the clear water and three or four lotuses floating on it. Several green plants that had been planted in the courtyard were bathed under the warm light emanating from the room. They clustered around Chen Yang, who was sitting in a daze.
Chen Yang was wearing an old robe. Their clothes had all worn out after they rushed the entire journey here. Shen Zechuan had asked Zhou Gui’s principal wife to look for a tailor to take their measurements one by one. After a period of time, they would all have new sets of clothes to change into.
Chen Yang and Zhao Hui were of the same age. But Zhao Hui already had a family and an established career, while he was still a head of guards who lived together with the other brothers. He seemed to be the most sophisticated of them, but in truth, he was also rough around the edges. He was sitting under the eaves at present, getting quite a number of bites from the mosquitoes. Yet he felt troubled as he continued to deliberate over how he should report to Xiao Chiye in a while.
The bamboo blinds opened up partially. Shen Zechuan had already changed into his regular clothes. He said to Chen Yang, “You’ve been guarding the city wall entrance at night, and you still want to sit here and let the mosquitoes feast on you. Come in and have dinner with Ce’an first.”
Chen Yang rose to his feet in compliance and followed him in.
Xiao Chiye had yet to come out. The meal was very simple; they rarely had lavish meals. Now that Ji Gang was back, he kept a tight watch on their food. All the ingredients to be used and nourishments to be taken were arranged according to the recipes he and Qi Huilian had decided on back at Zhaozui Temple. The few of them guards loved to drink, as did Ji Gang back in the past, and the dishes he made to go with wine were exceptional.
Chen Yang sat on his knees on the mat, and the maidservant set the dishes on the small table in front of him.
It was quiet inside the room. Chen Yang sat with his head lowered and listened as she withdrew out of the room. Shen Zechuan sat at the head. He was not as restrained as Chen Yang was. The wide, white robe he was wearing shifted along with his moments and revealed his wrists, consequently diminishing some of the exquisiteness his appearance had given him. Instead, there was something relaxingly unpretentious about it.
If both of them were to remain here together for long, perhaps they would both end up subconsciously affected by the other.
Shen Zechuan at this moment felt to Chen Yang like Xiao Chiye when he was quiet—they both gave off a vibe that could gradually put one at ease.
“Contrary to expectations, it won’t do you any good to worry too much.” Shen Zechuan set down the wooden chopsticks and said without looking at Chen Yang, “Just report according to the facts. No embellishment, no rephrasing. Tell him as it is. He will naturally have his own thinking. It is often said that those deeply involved in a matter often lack the detachment to see the whole picture. But in truth, that’s not necessarily so. As the one involved, he understands it far more than anyone else. He has perhaps even thought of it way earlier than you did.”
With his head lowered, Chen Yang bowed to him in silence.
“If you underestimate him, then you are underestimating yourself.” Shen Zechuan said unhurriedly. “He chose all of you out of millions of people, but didn’t all of you also choose him out of millions of people too? There will still be rainstorms to brave and turbulent seas to navigate in the future. If you are going to keep hesitating and wavering like you are tonight every single time for every single matter, then, sooner or later, you will not be able to keep up with his pace. They only recognize the Xiao Chiye of six years ago. But what you are seeing is a Xiao Chiye that has been tempered over these six years to the way he is now. Chen Yang and Zhao Hui are both the sunlight,2 and Xiao Chiye and Xiao Jiming are both the wolves of Libei. So what are you still afraid of? Don’t let your time in Qudu befuddle you. All of you have long been on par with them.”
Chen Yang sat on the mat with his head lowered, and an indistinct sob escaped his throat as his fingers curled slightly. He did not say a word for a long time. He thought his own matters were of no importance, so he did not mention it. Although he did not suffer a gross injustice like Gu Jin, he could still sense the cold treatment he had been given back at home. He had been tossing and turning these few days precisely because he did not know how to bring it up to Xiao Chiye. He was even secretly relieved when he left Libei with Gu Jin.
When Chen Yang left Libei, he was in no way inferior to Zhao Hui. He always tried to win credit in every matter, as he was the most fearful of being perceived as being inferior to Zhao Hui, so he kept raising the bar for himself. But when he went back to stay for half a month, he unexpectedly had the notion to avoid Zhao Hui.
He was afraid.
At some point, he thought he had already lost.
He was Xiao Chiye’s trusted aide, and also an aspect that others would use to compare Xiao Chiye and Xiao Jiming, The moment he started to harbor such a fear, then Gu Jin and Ding Tao who were the next in line would inevitably be affected too. They would no longer be able to be placed on par with Xiao Jiming’s guards. To a Xiao Chiye who was about to fall under the harsh scrutiny of Libei, this was a heavy blow.
Xiao Chiye was not anyone else. He was not Xiao Fangxu, nor was he Xiao Jiming. He was his own person. His most arrogant traits were his fearlessness in forging ahead and determination to win. For Chen Yang, following him would be just like chasing after the tempestuous wind. Shen Zechuan was right. If Chen Yang were to feel fear at this point in time, then he would, sooner or later, be left behind. Because the one he had chosen at the very start was a Xiao Chiye who had the guts to remain all alone by himself in Qudu.
Xiao Chiye’s hair was still wet when he emerged with his regular clothes draped around him. He could not help but be taken aback when he saw Chen Yang bent over the ground with his shoulders trembling. He looked at Shen Zechuan, who spread his hands out slightly and gave him an innocent look.