Human feet trampled over the shrubbery. As though it had smelled something, the hound nudged aside the branches and leaves with its snout and pawed at the ground.
Shen Zechuan was doused with dirt all over his neck. Moving up or down were both out of the question, so he could only remain frozen in position.
Xiao Chiye felt even more uncomfortable. This posture made it hard for him to loosen up. Every single moment, he was in constant contact with firm, delicate skin. The man riding on his body was not a person at all, but a mass of clouds enveloping him like wet mist—ubiquitous, and all-pervasive.
This atmosphere whipped him up. The place he had not relieved for a long time remained in high spirits. It was so hard he just wanted to take a cold shower right at once.
Raindrops splashed his hair wet.
In this endless stalemate, Xiao Chiye finally regained some of his strength. His fingers twitched as the sense of numbness slowly receded.
The man above their heads finally moved away, but Shen Zechuan’s tensed body did not relax. Pressing up against each other in a corner of this danger zone turned it into another precarious situation concerning their safety in another way.
Keeping his cool, Xiao Chiye did not shift his eyes away.
He could not look away. He only had to show just a fraction of evasiveness and it would look like he really had a thing for Shen Zechuan.
“You are pressing me too tightly.” Xiao Chiye said nonchalantly.
Shen Zechuan did not reply.
For the first time, Xiao Chiye knew how to read the words “he who rides a tiger finds it difficult to dismount”.1 He wanted to raise his head and gasp for air, but he did not do so, because doing so would look like he was a rascal who was too impatient to even wait.
He swore that he did not have that intention.
It was just that they were too close to each other. He was instinctively bewitched by this minute touch and distinctive scent, and his body consequently submitted to the impulses of his bestial desires.
Xiao Chiye felt Shen Zechuan sliding down along his chest. The very instant Shen Zechuan separated from him, he breathed out a light sigh of relief as if he had been relieved of a huge burden.
But before he was done heaving his sigh of relief, his collar tightened around him. His person rose, scraping against the moss before he was hurled into the stream without warning.
Before Xiao Chiye landed in the water, he backhandedly grasped hold of Shen Zechuan’s wrists. Then he lifted his leg to hook and trip Shen Zechuan. Just as Shen Zechuan fell into the stream too, Xiao Chiye rolled over, lifted Shen Zechuan’s wrists, and heavily pinned him under his body.
“We have already done the amorous stuff.” An uncompromising Xiao Chiye refused to let Shen Zechuan move. “Isn’t it too unrighteous to raise your hand at me now?”
The ten fingers on both of Shen Zechuan’s clasped hands were slightly parted, and his hair scattered in the water. He could only gasp for breath with his chin slightly raised. Pulling at the corners of his lips slightly, he said, “It’s not a good choice to force yourself upon others.”
“I don’t have that intention.” Xiao Chiye itched so much to crush every word into pieces with his teeth.
Shen Zechuan pressed his knee against him and looked at him with a meaningful gaze.
With a hint of forbearance in Xiao Chiye’s expression, he hung his head down and shook his dripping wet hair. The water droplets spattered over Shen Zechuan’s face. Without waiting for Shen Zechuan to react, he had already reached out his hand to rub the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck ruthlessly and stubbornly until that bit of mud that was always on his mind was all but rubbed away. Then, he fastened Shen Zechuan’s collar tightly and securely around him..
“Rainy nights are wet and cold.” Xiao Chiye loosened his grip on Shen Zechuan and stepped down from his body. “Take care of your body!”
With that, he dunked his head into the water without giving Shen Zechuan a chance to reply. Water droplets slid down and dripped when he raised his head up again, and he had already more or less calmed down.
Splashing a handful of water, Xiao Chiye grasped his blade up with penetrating eyes and said, “It’s almost dawn. Let’s go.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Ji Lei noticed that the day was about to break, yet they still had yet to find the man. He could not help but increasingly fret.
Qiao Tianya peeled away the collar of the dead soldier, but he did not find any traces.
“This batch of men are Xiao the Second’s men.” Qiao Tianya squatted down and pondered it. “Every move of his in Qudu cannot escape our eyes. When did he come to raise these kinds of formidable soldiers who have no fear of death?”
“Finding him now is the top priority!” Ji Lei looked toward the northwest of Qudu. “The Eight Great Training Divisions should have already taken control of all the main city gates of Qudu. We mustn’t lose our heads.”
Looking at Ji Lei’s hand that had never once left his blade, Qiao Tianya felt that his restlessness was definitely not just because Xiao the Second and Prince Chu had yet to be found. It seemed as though there was another reason.
“Xiao the Second is the life-saving token.”2 Qiao Tianya maintained his composure and watched Ji Lei. “Yet there are other assassins thrown into the mix tonight. Does Your Excellency have any idea?”
“The number of people the Xiao Clan has offended isn’t small. Someone wants to fish in troubled waters.” Ji Lei suddenly stared at Qiao Tianya. “How would I know who it is?”
Qiao Tianya spontaneously spread his hands out and said, “We can’t find Xiao the Second at present. Your Excellency, he must have come prepared, that’s why he has slipped from our fingers the entire night. It’s almost dawn now, and he has played us into running around in circles. It seems more like we have fallen into his trap.”
“Fallen into his trap?” Ji Lei furrowed his brows.
“I’m afraid the reason he put himself in danger is to delay time.” Qiao Tianya stood up and looked out into the grassland in the distance. “My guess is that he has reinforcements.”
“The troops on all four sides have not moved. So where is his reinforcement from?”
Qiao Tianya did not answer, because he did not know either.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xi Gu’an rode his horse back to the capital and found it silent all around when he entered the city gates. With his doubts roused, he drew his blade while on horseback and asked his deputy general, “Are there any anomalies in Qudu tonight?”
The deputy general came over to lead the horse. Seeing his nervous expression, he replied, “No, it’s all as usual.”
Xi Gu’an said, “Gather the men. Except for those on strict guard duty at the various city gates, all the rest will follow me to encircle and defend the palace!”
With that, he spurred his horse on towards the palace. His wife and son were still in the palace. As long as the night was not over, the Empress Dowager would definitely not let him see his wife and son. So even if he had to risk his own life, he had to ensure the Empress Dowager’s safety.
The deputy general went to deploy his men, but as he led the patrol squad, he came across a group of drunken men from the Imperial Army.
The Eight Great Training Divisions had always looked down upon the Imperial Army. Without getting off his horse, he brandished the whip and cursed, “Scram!”
The vice commander of the Imperial Army was a man with a blade scar on his face. After getting lashed, he unexpectedly grinned and rolled at the hooves of the horse. He shouted, “We are both a part of the garrison guard system.3 My rank is a little higher than yours. Why did you hit me? How dare you hit me!”
The deputy general sneered, “Lowlife pests of the government coffers.4 Scram! Don’t hold up the Eight Great Training Divisions from important business!”
The man swiftly turned and rose to his feet in a single move and smiled malevolently at the deputy general. He said, “Important business? The Imperial Army is the important business you will get a taste of tonight!”
He had only just said that when the Imperial Army, whom had been in various stages of drunkenness, drew their swords in unison. The deputy general reined in his horse in shock. The rows of men behind him already had their throats slit.
The deputy general snapped, “Is this a rebellion?! The Eight Great Training…”
The glint from a blade flashed before him, and he instantly fell off the back of his horse. His blood spilled over the ground.
The man kicked the deputy general’s head aside and wiped his blade clean on the deputy general’s chest. He said in a steady voice, “Keep daydreaming. The political situation has changed. It’s time for my Imperial Army to piss on your heads from the top!”
Faint white lines appeared on the horizon. Sunrise was fast approaching.
◈ ◈ ◈
Qiao Tianya hurriedly drank some water and tossed the water bag5 in passing to the man behind him. He wiped his mouth and said, “Keep searching.”
But then, after he took a few steps, something clicked in his mind. He suddenly turned his head and carefully sized up the subordinates behind him.
Where was Prince Chu hiding?
There was no way he could have escaped out of here, so why had they been unable to find him? Because they had been pursuing “Prince Chu” all night, but it was possible that Prince Chu had already become an Imperial Bodyguard!
Qiao Tianya instantly gave his order. “Inspect the waist tablets!6 Everyone on the duty record tonight must be verified face to face. Check now!”
The Imperial Bodyguards removed their waist tablets and presented them without exception to the Judge to authenticate against their faces. The Judge7 checked each tablet and swept a glance across each man it belonged to. He conducted his check with his photographic memory until the very end of the line.
“Waist tablet.” The Judge raised his eyes and stared at the other party like an eagle. “Hand your waist tablet over.”
The other party pushed his waist tablet onto the tray, and the Imperial Bodyguard leaning closely next to him suddenly began to tremble. The latter hung his head down, not daring to raise it.
The Judge did not seem to notice. Using his brush, he drew a tick in the book and said, “Which bureau?”
Chen Yang replied, “Office of Ceremonial Swords.”8
“I haven’t seen you during a mission.” The Judge said, “First time?”
Li Jianheng trembled so much that Chen Yang knew they could not escape this. He remained unruffled and said, “Strangers at the first meeting, friends at the second. You will find me familiar enough after seeing me a few more times.”
The Judge pointed at Li Jianheng with the brush and said, “Waist tablet.”
Li Jianheng did not manage to pull it off even after a few attempts. The Judge smiled and reached a hand out as if to remove the tablet for him.
The moment the Judge extended his hand, Chen Yang’s body tensed. Who would have expected Li Jianheng to have already lost heart? As the Judge moved, Li Jianheng flinched back holding his head and cried out involuntarily, “Don’t hurt me!”
Right at this critical moment, they suddenly heard a shrill whistle. Following right after, a horse with a white chest and black back unexpectedly galloped out of the forest. As the day broke, the gyrfalcon finally led the way back, circling in the air towards them.
Hua Siqian heard the movements and saw a troop of military forces galloping across the grassland towards them in an attack. He asked in a stern tone, “The Eight Great Training Divisions?”
But these men had no insignia on their armors. They did not even carry banners.
Knowing that the time had come, Chen Yang immediately supported Prince Chu and said in a loud voice, “Under the protection of the Imperial Army, all those who bear swords before His Royal Highness the Crown Prince will be slain. Move back now!”
Hua Siqian took two steps forward in disbelief. He looked back and shouted, “Prince Chu is being held hostage by traitors. What are you all waiting for?!”
Li Jianheng had no way to retreat. Seeing the Judge pounce on him, he could not help but yell. A long blade that was suddenly tossed out from the forest stabbed into the ground right before Li Jianheng.
Xiao Chiye leaped down, took off his waist tablet, and threw it into the tray. He said a deep voice, “With the main forces bringing up the rear, who still dares to move?”
Ji Lei had just arrived riding his horse. On seeing this, he bellowed too, “What a load of bullshit! Just a mere Imperial Army—”
The gyrfalcon landed on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder. Xiao Chiye stroked the gyrfalcon as though he was rewarding it. He said, “If Old Ji has the balls to, then try.”
Ji Lei looked towards the grassland again. The vanguards of the Imperial Army had already arrived. Yet there seemed to be no end to the long stretch of military forces behind. The Qidong Cangjun Commandery banner suddenly unfurled, and he saw that the one at the head of the galloping horses was precisely Qi Zhuyin.
Hua Siqian retreated several steps. Holding on to Pan Rugui, and said in a hoarse voice, “The letter to Qidong has been intercepted. How could they so soundlessly…”
“If all the letters in the Qudu have to go through the hands of the Imperial Bodyguards,” Xiao Chiye kept away his blade. “Then how troublesome would that be?”
Seeing that the situation was beyond salvation, Hua Siqian sat on the ground and murmured, “The Empress Dowager is still around…”
“The Empress Dowager is advanced in years. In order to take care of her health, she has already handed all matters pertaining to the patrol and defense of Qudu to the Imperial Army to take charge.” Xiao Chiye had run for the entire night, and now, he pulled up Li Jianheng and said, “Your Highness has been on the move all night. It has been hard on you!”
Qi Zhuyin’s horse had already arrived. She turned to dismount and kneeled to Li Jianheng to pay her obeisances. She said loudly, “Your Highness, do not worry. The 200,000 military forces under Qidong’s command are on full alert. This subject, Qi Zhuyin, will go all out to ensure the safety of Your Highness!”
As if he was in a dream, Li Jianheng looked blankly at Qi Zhuyin, then looked to his left and right. Qiao Tianya was the most discerning and astute. Seeing that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, he immediately kneeled. As soon as he did so, the Imperial Bodyguards discarded their blades and kneeled down one after another in succession.
Li Jianheng clenched his empty palms as though he was clutching on to some life-saving straw. He practically wept with joy. The tears in his eyes trickled down even while he was still muttering.
“Now that I’m the Crown Prince…9 I’ll surely heavily reward everyone’s great kindness in the future!”
Lianyin’s Note #1:
While the author mostly based the novel on the governmental system of the Ming Dynasty with a combination of elements from the Qing Dynasty, please remember that it is a work of fiction after all and is not a 100% precise and factual representation of history itself. Also, some of the offices’ names are literally translated if I can’t find the corresponding English term for it in my sources. (Which you probably can tell because LiAnYiN sUcKs at nAmiNg ThiNgS).
Lianyin’s Note #2:
Chapter 25 onwards are all VIP chapters on JJWXC! If you have enjoyed the novel so far, please support the author Tang Jiuqing by buying the chapters and the novel on JJWXC!
→ Qiang Jin Jiu Novel on JJWXC
→ Guide to buy on JJWXC by 書庫
- 骑虎难下, lit. he who rides a tiger finds it difficult to dismount, i.e., to have no way to back down (or find it hard to stop what one is doing).
- 令牌 Military token of authority
- 卫所(编制) or 卫所(兵制), Weisuo, or the (Military) Garrison (Guards) System was a military establishment during the Ming Dynasty. It was a system where the troops of each garrison were fed by agro-colonies belonging to the garrison and worked by soldiers, while their salary came from the central government.
- 皇粮 i.e. imperial funding for troops
水囊 water bag, a portable water bag typically made out of animals’ hide.
腰牌 literally waist tablet or token, it’s a small tablet hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity.
- 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there was a Southern and Northern Prison (镇抚司) subordinated to the Imperial Bodyguards. The Southern Prison was in charge of interpreting military laws and managing military craftsmen while the Northern Prison was responsible for cases entrusted by the Emperor.
- 班剑司 Ceremonial (or motif) Swords was a subordinate organization under the latter Imperial Procession Guards during the Qing Dynasty in charge of ceremonial banners/flags, ceremonial weaponry, and stuff.
- He actually literally said “I’m the Eastern Palace.” 东宫, or Eastern/East Palace is where the Crown Prince traditionally resides. It’s also used by extension to refer to the Crown Prince himself.