“That may be so.” Xiao Chiye lowered his eyes, “But the one directly connected to the success or failure on the frontline was Shen Wei.”
The expression in his eyes looked particularly tender and loving when he lowered them this way. The brilliance from earlier had yet to dissipate. It shimmered in his eyes, like fireflies in the night.
Shen Zechuan looked at him for a moment and said, “The Ministry of War has no personnel transfer these years.”
“Investigate if you want to.” Xiao Chiye said. “I won’t stop you.”
“Of course you won’t.” Shen Zechuan shifted his gaze back to the book. “Because you want to investigate too. The most obvious suspect should have been the Hua Clan, but Shen Wei was already a tainted blade. There are thousands of simpler ways to dispose of him. Involving too many people would only just make it easier to leave behind a trail that could be used against them.”
“You killed Ji Lei, no?” Xiao Chiye smiled. “He should have given you plenty of information. There is no fun in hiding it away, is there? Lay it out on the table so that we can speculate together.”
“I know everything you have said, yet what I’ll be saying is known only to me.” Shen Zechuan extracted his hand bit by bit. “It’s really too unfair a trade.”
Xiao Chiye thought for a moment, then said, “How about this then? We’ll do a one-for-one exchange.”
“Sure.” Shen Zechuan said, “You go first.”
Making use of his height, Xiao Chiye barricaded Shen Zechuan at the side of the bookshelf and raised a hand to flip through the pages at random. He said, “Don’t you know the rules? Secrets have to be said on the quiet.”
Shen Zechuan leaned forward and said, “Said on the quiet, not said while sticking together.”
“What if the walls have ears?” Xiao Chiye put the book back, propped up his arm, and smiled at him. “After all, I’ve only just bought this compound. I have yet to acquaint myself with it that well. It’s better to exercise caution.”
“Xiao’Er.” Shen Zechuan looked at the book. “You’re truly an asshole.”
“That’s right.” Xiao Chiye said, “But what can you do? Alright, I’m going to start.”
Shen Zechuan waited for a moment but did not hear any sound. The moment he turned his head, he realized that Xiao Chiye was still looking at him.
It was only when both men’s breathing intersected that Xiao Chiye said, “Shen Wei didn’t set himself on fire. The fire at the Prince of Jianxing Manor was set by the Imperial Bodyguards. The one who went there with the orders was Ji Lei. You know that, right?”
“Yes.” Shen Zechuan said calmly. “It’s no secret.”
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“Then, do you know the real reason for the fall of Duanzhou?” Xiao Chiye asked.
Shen Zechuan could not turn his eyes away. He could not even take his time to ponder over it. Because the instant he could not keep up with Xiao Chiye’s train of thought, he would easily fall into the other party’s trap.
Shen Zechuan said, “When the Chashi River was attacked, Shen Wei ordered the Duanzhou Garrison Troops to retreat, leaving behind the Hereditary Prince, Shen Zhouji, to head over to Chashi River to provide support. Shen Zhouji was cut from the same cloth as his old man. He abandoned the Chashi River soldiers and took his own bodyguards to flee right before the battle, but he was dragged through the public road to his death on the same day itself by the Biansha Cavalry. With Shen Zhouji’s death, the Chashi River’s morale took a beating. After the soldiers were massacred, Duanzhou no longer had any military forces to stand before them.”
“That’s right.” Xiao Chiye said, “But there’s one thing you don’t know. While Shen Zhouji was still alive, he worked with Shen Wei to strangle the Commander of the Duanzhou Garrison Troops, Tantai Long, to death.”
Tantai Long. Tantai Hu!
No wonder Tantai Hu said that his own brother had been in the Chashi Sinkhole too.
Shen Zechuan frowned and asked, “Strangled to death?”
“Because Tantai Long insisted on deploying troops to meet the enemy head-on. He repeatedly contradicted Shen Wei in public. After Shen Wei’s withdrawal order was issued, Tantai Long defied the command and refused to obey. So Shen Wei pretended to make amends with wine. After the drink, he joined forces with Shen Zhouji to strangle Tantai Long to death in his room.” Xiao Chiye paused. “Laohu doesn’t know. He thought Tantai Long was killed in battle. And this is the first matter I’m telling you. Your turn.”
Shen Zechuan quickly sorted out his thoughts and said, “Shen Wei was a participant in the struggle for the throne and carried out assassinations for the Empress Dowager. Afterward, he was closely watched by the Empress Dowager. Sensing danger, he bribed Pan Rugui and went to Zhongbo.”
“One mustn’t lay a hand on one’s watchdog.” Xiao Chiye said. “Under normal situations, the Hua Clan would not choose this kind of risky way to take down Shen Wei. There is no benefit to the Empress Dowager, who is already in control of Dazhou’s administration and governmental affairs. The demand for money after the battle far exceeded the availability in Dazhou’s Treasury. The Empress Dowager still wants to be the Grand Emperor1 behind the screen.2 Doing so would be detrimental to herself. Shen Wei wasn’t worth the price.”
Shen Zechuan gave a slight nod of his head and said, “So whatever Ji Lei said might not necessarily be entirely right, because he himself was just a pawn too. If you want to investigate this matter, you have to start from the Ministry of War, which could lead you either way to the top or bottom.”
Xiao Chiye said, “I’ll investigate the top. You investigate the bottom.”
“Top and bottom are all linked; they are inseparable.” It was only when Shen Zechuan spoke to this point that he realized that Xiao Chiye was making a pass at him. He flipped through the book and feigned obliviousness.
With a hint of a smile, Xiao Chiye stepped aside and said, “Take a seat.”
It was hot inside the house. Xiao Chiye was dressed in a scarlet court robe3 with an embroidered lion.4 He was now a bona fide Second-Grade5 Viceroy of two armies in Qudu. Presumably, he had headed straight here after leaving the palace and had yet to change out of his attire. His facial features were all the more dashing set against the contrast of his outfit as he sat in the chair; it had even dismissed the frivolous air around him.
Both men faced each other across the table. Xiao Chiye looked on as Shen Zechuan read the book. He did not even bother to hide it now, and that undisguised interest of his circled Shen Zechuan’s neck and settled on Shen Zechuan’s hands. He was no longer fixated on one spot; he wanted to see all of Shen Zechuan’s body.
Shen Zechuan’s fingers would bend when he reached out to flip the pages. This made Xiao Chiye think of a different moment when Shen Zechuan’s fingers – slicked with hot, damp sweat – would also curl up like this to grip the bedding even as they rocked like the surging waves.
Shen Zechuan felt as though his fingers were still being grasped and played with in a certain man’s palms. Feeling restless out of the blue, he closed the book and looked right at Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye said, “Hm?”
Shen Zechuan slightly clasped his fingers together and said with a curve of his lips, “The Imperial Army is bogged down with tasks lately. I’m afraid you won’t have the time to investigate other matters.”
Xiao Chiye twirled his thumb ring around and said, “Being busy is just temporary. If the Imperial Bodyguards have the time to spare, they can share our Imperial Army’s worries and help with our problems.”
“I’m just a mere soldier. I have no official post, nor do I enjoy the trust and favor of the Emperor. How could I command the Imperial Bodyguards?” Shen Zechuan leaned back slightly against the back of the chair. “The Imperial Army has to manage patrols in Qudu, as well as private cases of the Imperial Court. They have to be prudent in everything they do, while the Viceroy has to go to great pains and expend great effort. It isn’t easy.”
Xiao Chiye was truly busy now that he had suppressed the Imperial Bodyguards. He could read the provocation in Shen Zechuan’s words. So he laced his fingers, set them right before Shen Zechuan, and said with certainty, “You want to create trouble for me.”
“Tit-for-tat.” Shen Zechuan said mildly. “You intercepted all my duties, thereby giving me free time. Naturally, I have to thank you properly.”
“There are so many ways to express your thanks. Why not choose one that would delight everyone?” Xiao Chiye said, “Looks like you indeed have friends in the Six Ministries.”
“Having money at home is not as good as having friends in the Imperial Court. My friend told me something. I guess you’d be interested too.” Shen Zechuan said.
Xiao Chiye stared at him and said, “I’m all ears.”
But Shen Zechuan surveyed the study and said, “Come to think of it, it’s a pity that I have yet to meet this ‘Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo’,6 Yao Wenyu. Are you on good terms with him?”
Xiao Chiye said, “A passing acquaintance. He can’t be compared to you.”
“The Yao Clan is on the decline, yet they still stand among the Eight Great Clans. It’s inevitable that there would be people who can’t accept this.” Shen Zechuan said, “Yao Wenyu is Secretariat Elder Hai’s pupil, yet he doesn’t join the Imperial Court as an official. This is just like throwing away his weapon to let others slaughter him as they please.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Even though the Yao Clan seems to be on the decline on the surface, the remnants of power and prestige accumulated over three reigns are still there. Yao Wenyu might be a refined man of leisure, but he is by no means a fool. Who would want to mess with the Yao Clan?”
Shen Zechuan put on a contemplative expression and said, “How would I know about that?”
Xiao Chiye fell silent, but he reacted quickly and said, “You aren’t that generous a person. By going out of your way to give me news, you’ve instead made me uneasy, Lanzhou.”
“We are going to investigate the case together. Anything I can help with, I’ll not decline to.” Shen Zechuan said, “It’s only when I saw you on good terms with the Yao Clan that I remembered this. The Eight Great Clans have stood tall for a very long time. Seeing how powerful and mighty you are now, wouldn’t it only to be expected if they were to be scheming something? If the Yao Clan isn’t willing to associate with them, then they would inevitably become the target of their ire.”
Xiao Chiye took over the Eight Great Training Divisions and upset the Eight Great Clans’ military power. All along, the Eight Great Training Divisions were the Eight Great Clans’ assets for contingency purposes that circled around Qudu. Losing an official post was nothing; they still had the younger generations at home to replace them. But losing the Eight Great Training Divisions meant that they would fall under the control of others for real. It was one thing for them to mutually contain one another, and another to be controlled by Xiao Chiye. As the saying goes, it’s a general truism of the world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide.7 And now, Xiao Chiye was the common foe the Eight Great Clans had to reunite again to deal with.
What Shen Zechuan had said was not wrong, but Xiao Chiye could still smell something fishy about these seemingly honest words.
Xiao Chiye said without batting an eyelid, “The threat I pose to them hasn’t reached that extent yet.”
“The permanent solution would be to nip it in the bud. You have already displayed your abilities during the Autumn Hunt. Pretending that nothing had happened now is merely deceiving yourself, much like plugging your ears while stealing a bell.” Shen Zechuan said.
Xiao Chiye suddenly asked, “Who’s your friend?”
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Shen Zechuan smiled at him and said, “Even if I tell you the truth, would you dare to believe it?”
Xiao Chiye stared restlessly at Shen Zechuan.
He wouldn’t believe him.
Shen Zechuan was good at bewitching others. Every word he said while he was sober was a cocktail of truths and lies. This man was so difficult to deal with that Xiao Chiye even felt that he was much easier to talk to in bed.
“I’ll ferret him out.” Xiao Chiye leaned closer to him. “You only need to expose your trail, and you won’t be able to escape my eyes.”
“You are already about to be unable to fend for yourself.” Shen Zechuan said cheerfully. “You’d best think of a way first to ride out this storm safely.”
“To think your heart doesn’t even ache for me at all.” Xiao Chiye suddenly made a switch away from his solemn expression. “One night together as husband and wife is affection for a hundred more.8 Lanzhou, you are too callous.”
Shen Zechuan imitated his previous words and said, “That’s right. But what can you do?”
Xiao Chiye sat down and propped up his leg again. Reclining back against the chair, he pondered for a moment and said, “This matter is an easy one to resolve. It’s not really that big of a deal. I’ll have to thank you for your reminder tonight.”
“That’s really too kind of you.” Shen Zechuan said. “One hundred taels will do.”
“No money.” Xiao Chiye dragged out his words. “My annual salary as a second-grade official is only one hundred and fifty taels. But even without money, I can use something else in exchange. This Second Young Master will warm your bed for you.”
“Then forget it.” Shen Zechuan smiled politely. “I’m used to sleeping alone. I don’t need to warm my bed.”
“Habits can be changed.” Xiao Chiye lifted his fingers to his nose to take a sniff. Casting a sidelong glance at him, he jested, “Are you getting used to sniffing my handkerchief so far?”
Caught off-guard, Shen Zechuan clenched his hands, leaving red marks on his fingertips.
Xiao Chiye sized up the beauty under the lantern. He looked as the latter forcibly braced himself to put on a calm front, then at his reddened fingertips. Finally, he pointed to his own ear and said in a wicked tone, “Lanzhou, you’re blushing.”9
- 太上皇 Taishang Huang; Emperor Emeritus or Grand Emperor; a title assumed by an emperor’s father who abdicated in favor of his son; also refers to a backstage ruler (or someone holding the power behind the scenes), etc.
- 垂帘(听政) literally to (hold court) behind a screen or curtain. A practice in ancient China, where the Empress or Empress dowager was allowed to preside over the imperial court without actually being seen by her subjects since women were prohibited from politics. This would usually be done by a child emperor’s mother, who would serve as regent and rule in place of the Emperor.
Round-collared robe/attire typically worn by officials in the Ming Dynasty.
- 补子 rank badge, or mandarin square, was a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official to indicate the rank of the official wearing it. (i.e., the square image on the robe in the previous footnote). Squares depicting birds were used for civil officials while animals were used for military officials. So for a second-grade military official like Xiao Chiye, this animal would be a lion.
- 品 Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- 璞玉元琢 literally, Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo (Yuanzhuo is Yao Wenyu’s courtesy name); unpolished jade here refers to a talent who is still unknown but with the potential to be “polished” into someone that shines, like a top scholar (also known as a zhuangyuan (状元), who would have a bright future before him.)
- 天下之(大)势，分久必合，合久必分 From Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) It is a general trend of the world that long periods of division precede unity and long periods of unity precede division.
- 一夜夫妻百日恩 Husband and wife for a night, affection (devotion) for a hundred days (or for life). Once the relationship between husband and wife is established, deep feelings last forever.
- Or take your pick:
“Lanzhou, it’s red.”
“Lanzhou, red tide incoming.”