Xiao Chiye had a quiet time for half a month before he finally received a reply from Ji Lei informing him that the matter of the military drill ground was a done deal. He immediately headed out of the city with Chen Yang to take a look at the place.
It was a piece of wasteland that was originally a mass burial site. The platform used for execution by decapitation1 was later shifted away to another place, and so this place became empty.
“Although Mount Feng stands between it and the city,” Chen Yang dismounted the horse, sized up the area, and continued, “it’s still too far.”
“We just have to run for three hours before dawn to reach it.” Xiao Chiye pointed his horsewhip at one end. “We have to treat those wily old men from the Ministry of Works to a good meal to cobble together some materials so that we can fill up this side. Tidy it up a little and make do with it. This place is so remote that even the patrols of the Eight Great Training Divisions will not make it here. “
“Viceroy, for us to spend money on them.” Chen Yang said, “I can’t even say how uncomfortable that makes me.”
“Hold it in even if you are uncomfortable.” Xiao Chiye said. “Even if they squat on our heads to pee on us, we still have to fix up this place.”
“Okay.” Chen Yang did not dare to say a word more.
Xiao Chiye stayed until it was evening before he rode his horse back. The moment he entered the city, he saw Li Jianheng’s guard waiting for him at the entrance.
“What’s the matter?” Xiao Chiye reined in his horse and asked.
The guard paid his obeisances and said, “His Highness has organized a feast at Huixiang Tavern on Donglong Street. He’s waiting for Your Excellency to go over for a meal.”
Xiao Chiye thought for a moment, then spurred his horse over.
The main street of Donglong faced Kailing River. Lanterns blazed the moment night fell. Wine taverns and pleasure houses flanked both sides of the street, while all kinds of gaily painted pleasure boats and small, light boats parked on the river.
Xiao Chiye dismounted his horse at Huixiang Tavern. The shopkeeper followed at his beck and call and personally led him up upstairs. It was only when he raised the curtain for a look that he realized this feast was not simple.
Everyone present at the feast was either well-known or young masters whose fathers or elder brothers were working as governmental officials. Next to Prince Chu was a fair-faced little eunuch who looked delicate and pretty. This should be the grandson Pan Rugui had found for himself again after Xiaofuzi’s death.
“Ce’an is here!” Li Jianheng called out to him. “Come and take a seat. We’re waiting for you!”
Xiao Chiye picked a vacant seat at random to sit. He said with a smile, “What a large turnout.”
“Let me introduce. This is Pan-gonggong’s grandson, Feng Quan, Feng-gonggong!” Li Jianheng said to Feng Quan, “This is my good buddy, the Second Young Master of the Libei’s Xiao Clan, and the Viceroy of the Imperial Army, Xiao Ce’an.”
Feng Quan was more pleasing to the eye than Xiaofuzi had been. He bowed respectfully to Xiao Chiye and said, “I’ve heard a lot about the Viceroy.”
Xi Hongxuan sat opposite them with one leg crossed over the other. He took up two seats and was so warm that his plump face was perspiring profusely. He said, “Let’s dispense with the formalities. Your Highness, which other guest has yet to arrive today? If everyone is here, let’s start the feast!”
Li Jianheng raised his eyebrows at Xiao Chiye and said, “I have also invited a distinguished guest whom everyone wants to meet.”
Xiao Chiye was baffled by his unexpected gesture. Just then, he heard the waiter behind him lift the curtain and announce, “The distinguished guest has arrived!”
Everyone at the feast fell silent.
Xiao Chiye looked back just in time to see Shen Zechuan, dressed in his Imperial Bodyguards’ robe, striding in. Shen Zechuan was visibly stupefied on seeing him. However, his expression was so obvious that Xiao Chiye did not believe it at all.
Everyone present knew that there was discord between them. For a moment, the atmosphere was strange. Those waiting to watch the drama exchanged meaningful glances at one another.
Li Jianheng said warmly, “This is Shen Lanzhou. Everyone knows who he is, right? Lanzhou, take a seat. Shopkeeper, start the feast!”
Xiao Chiye felt that Li Jianheng must have been possessed to invite Shen Zechuan over just because of that face of his.
Of all places to sit, Shen Zechuan just had to pick the seat beside Xiao Chiye. Both men looked at each other as he sat down.
“So, this is Shen Lanzhou, whose name has been making waves in Qudu lately.” Xi Hongxuan looked askance at Shen Zechuan. “Seeing is truly believing.”
“I heard that Lanzhou’s…” Li Jianheng said, “… mother was an unparalleled beauty in Duanzhou back then. Shen Wei had to stake half of his princely residence before he won her heart! So how could Lanzhou not be born pretty?”
A scattering of laughter rose in the room. Everyone openly and surreptitiously glanced at Shen Zechuan’s face. Even Feng Quan made noises of appreciation and lamented, “If this Master had been born a female…”
“Then what will the lady of the Hua Clan be good for?!”
The group of rich young masters tacitly burst into laughter. Out of the corner of his eye, Xiao Chiye saw Shen Zechuan with his head partially lowered. He could not read the latter’s emotions.
The nape of this man’s neck was shrouded under the dim light of the glazed lamp beside him. It extended under his collar like white jade, looking as if one could taste ecstasy by kneading it. It waited defenselessly for someone to make a move. The contours of his side profile were smooth and beautiful, and the arch of the bridge of his nose was gorgeous. The corners of his eyes were the most devastating; everything that could make one’s heart itch all lay within them. A faint hint of a smile followed as those corners curved upward.
Xiao Chiye took another look.
Shen Zechuan was indeed smiling.
“Have you mistaken me for someone else?” Shen Zechuan tilted his eyes towards Xiao Chiye.
“Just looking at you in a different light.” Xiao Chiye retracted his gaze.
Shen Zechuan raised his eyes and smiled subserviently at the various gentlemen present at the feast. He said, “I’m just of average looks. Everyone has been too kind to me.”
On hearing his words, those who were still carrying themselves with decorum loosened up. The more they spoke, the more vulgar their words.
Xi Hongxuan said, “Wasn’t there a new trick that had come into vogue recently on Donglong Street? It’s called ‘playing with cups’. Fill up a golden cup with top-grade wine and place it in the fragrant shoe of a beauty and pass it around to drink for fun. Your Highness, have you played it before?”
Li Jianheng laughed and said, “I have the wine, but I can’t find a beauty.”
Xi Hongxuan motioned flippantly, “Isn’t one sitting right here?”
All along, Shen Zechuan looked as if he was not acquainted with him. He forced a smile and said, “I’m not worthy of the ‘beauty’ label. If everyone really wants to have fun, then I’ll invite everyone to the brothel tonight to play to your hearts’ content.”
When all is said and done, Shen Zechuan still had the Hua Clan to back him. On seeing this, the others did not dare to push it. Only Xi Hongxuan seemed as if his eight characters2 conflicted with Shen Zechuan’s. The more ruckus he created, the uglier the situation became. There had been news lately that Xi Gu’an had lost favor with the Empress Dowager, so all of them simply thought that Xi Hongxuan was venting his anger on Shen Zechuan for his elder brother.
Shen Zechuan was about to speak when he suddenly heard Xiao Chiye say beside him, “How can you ask His Highness Prince Chu to play what others have played before? This drinking from shoes and playing with cups is such an old game from centuries ago. Even the prostitutes in the south aren’t interested in it. How about we try a different way of playing? Second Young Master Xi, take off your shoes, and we can use them as boats to fool around with.”
Those at the feast roared with laughter. Xi Hongxuan was obese, and his feet were much bigger than the average man. No one usually dared to bring it up, so they did not expect Xiao Chiye to poke fun at it.
“That works too.” Xi Hongxuan rolled with it and graciously raised his legs. He ordered, “Men! Remove my shoes!”
Li Jianheng started to have fun and cussed a few words.
Shen Zechuan did not expect Xiao Chiye to help him out of a fix either. He and Xi Hongxuan had been putting on a show. He looked at Xiao Chiye again.
Xiao Chiye ignored him and picked up his chopsticks to grab some food to eat.
The little eunuch, Feng Quan, sat for a moment. When he saw that the dishes were more or less served, he said, “Having fun is a matter for you gentlemen here. So let me add another dish for everyone tonight.”
As he spoke, he clapped his hands. The waiters downstairs who were already prepared a long time ago hurriedly entered to serve the dish.
However, this “dish” was a small donkey that was still alive.
Feng Quan said, “Of all the delicacies in the world, donkey meat is the best. Gentlemen, have you ever tried ‘donkey roast’?”
The noise in the room died down. Everyone looked at the donkey in the center.
Li Jianheng asked, “What’s ‘donkey roast?”
The waiters dumped some soil on the ground and deftly made a small circular plot of land out of the soil. They chased the donkey onto the soil and buried its four hooves in it so that the donkey’s belly was touching the soil. Then, they covered the donkey with a thick padded quilt.
“Gentlemen.” Feng Quan said amicably. “Watch.”
A waiter half-crouched as he took the ladle and scooped out the boiling soup that came fresh out of the pot and poured it all over. Those assisting beside him held down the quilt and wiped it down over the head of the braying donkey to scald off its fur while it was still alive. But they were still not done. The waiter who had poured the boiling soup set aside the ladle and gouged the meat out of this seared donkey’s body.
The meat was placed in the dish, and the man by the side of the stove roasted it on the spot. After he was done, he passed the plate one at a time to everyone present.
The braying of the donkey grew even more tragic. Even the people downstairs were alarmed.
The color drained from Li Jianheng’s face. He looked at this donkey meat and covered his nose and mouth to say, “Feng-gonggong, isn’t this dish a little too…”
“Your Highness, why don’t you try it first? This donkey meat is the most delicious when it is gouged out right after boiling soup has been poured over it. Food must be eaten fresh.” Feng Quan pointed out. “There’s a meaning to this ‘donkey roast’. Let’s take a certain person as an example. If said person were to fall into the hands of others, then he must put himself at the mercy of others. If the master tells him to kneel, he must kneel. If the master wants him to cry, he must cry. And if the master is eyeing his flesh, he must let others gouge him like this.”
Shen Zechuan’s situation was like this donkey. He looked at the bloodstained quilt. The blood trickled into the soil until the stench of it permeated the air. It was as if he was looking at Ji Mu and himself five years ago.
“Excellent taste!” Xi Hongxuan ate a few slices. He seemed like he did not grasp the meaning behind and was only concerned about proclaiming how much of a thrill it was.
All this time, Shen Zechuan’s chopsticks did not move, while Xiao Chiye’s chopsticks never touched the meat.
Li Jianheng felt something odd about those words when he heard it. He said apprehensively, “It’s really too depraved. Take it away!”
“Hold on.” Feng Quan finally looked at Shen Zechuan. “Young Master Shen, my godfather was the one who specifically asked me to serve this dish. Why aren’t you eating it?”
Pan Rugui was his god-grandfather, so by extension, Ji Lei could really be considered his godfather! Exactly what connection or backing did this lad have for him to get Pan Rugui’s favor and trust this quickly? Not only did he take over Xiaofuzi’s duties, he even got into Ji Lei’s good graces.
Ji Lei could not kill Shen Zechuan. And now that Shen Zechuan had come under his command, he could not touch him either. Coming up with such a lowdown way to humiliate Shen Zechuan tonight was to make it clear that the grudge between them was not over.
Shen Zechuan picked up the chopsticks.
Before Shen Zechuan could finish his words, the chair beside him was suddenly pushed aside as Xiao Chiye rose to his feet. He picked up the plate containing the donkey meat and flung it in Feng Quan’s direction. It crashed to the ground with a “clatter”.
Li Jianheng hurriedly stood up and said, “Ce, Ce’an…”
Xiao Chiye stared at Feng Quan.
Whoever Feng Quan wanted to humiliate on Ji Lei’s behalf was not something he could interfere with. But he, Xiao Chiye, was also a caged beast right this hour and day. He was no different from this donkey.
This was a slap in his face too. And it hurt.
Feng Quan looked at him in puzzlement and asked, “Is it not to the Viceroy’s liking?”
Xiao Chiye pressed his thumb down on the hilt of Langli Blade3 at the side of his waist. Screams rose in the entire room as he drew his blade. His hand rose, and the blade fell to decapitate the donkey, killing it. Its miserable braying ceased. Blood seeped out of the soil onto the ground, turning the floor vividly red. The others all held their breath, not knowing what Xiao Chiye would do.
With his back to the dim light, Xiao Chiye wiped the edge of his blade clean with the tablecloth. Only then did he casually turn around and smiled at all those present. “—Gentlemen, please continue.”
Li Jianheng stared at his blade and said softly, “Ce’an, Ce’an, keep, keep it away.”
Xiao Chiye kept the blade back into its sheath and threw a look at Feng Quan. He raised his foot to lift a chair over and sat unreservedly in the middle. He said, “Roast it all together. I’ll be here tonight to watch Feng-gonggong eat.”
In the end, Feng Quan called for his sedan chair and left in a hurry.
Li Jianheng drank some wine and wept as he said to Xiao Chiye, “Ce’an, I really didn’t think of this. Who would know that castrated crook to be so despicable? We are buddies. You mustn’t let this matter hurt our friendship!”
Xiao Chiye tugged at the corners of his mouth and said, “There’s a distinction between those close to you and those distant from you. I understand. You go on ahead first.”
Li Jianheng tugged at his sleeves, wanting to say more. Xiao Chiye simply got Chen Yang to stuff Li Jianheng into the sedan.
“Send Prince Chu back.” Xiao Chiye said. “I’ll walk back myself.”
In no way would Chen Yang ramble on when he saw the unhappiness in Xiao Chiye’s expression, so he got on his horse and left with Prince Chu’s sedan.
Xiao Chiye alone stood under a lantern. After a moment, he kicked over somebody else’s potted plant.
The potted plant, which was worth a lot of money, tumbled on the ground and hit the bottom of the stairs. A hand gently held it up.
Shen Zechuan stood on the stairs and said unperturbedly, “Are you that rich? You’ll have to compensate for this, you know?”
Xiao Chiye replied coldly, “I have lots of money.”
With that, he felt around his waist. But it was empty.
Shen Zechuan waited for a while, then turned to the shopkeeper and said, “Put it on this master’s tab. He has lots of money.”
The dish (or a variation of it) mentioned is in this chapter is one of the top 10 forbidden dishes in China known as Huo Jiao Lu (活叫驴) meaning “Live-braying Donkey” (literally). The animal would have its legs tied and its body held down, while the chef would cut its body and serve it immediately to the diners who then ate it among the ear-splitting cries of the animal. A variation of this dish is called JiaoLu Rou or “Water Donkey Meat”, where the donkey’s skin would be pulled off, and boiling water poured on its raw flesh until it is cooked alive.
Typically, a raised wooden platform or stage where executions by beheading were carried out.
- 八字 Eight Characters, one’s birth data for astrological or fortune-telling purposes, combined from year, month, day, hour, heavenly trunk, and earthly branch. People whose eight characters clashed with each other would be deemed to be at odds with one another.
- 狼戾刀 Langli Blade, the name of Xiao Chiye’s blade, which was a gift from Qi Zhuyin (see chapter 11).