“Sounding somebody out is merely to test the waters.” Xiao Chiye’s eyes were cold. “Honest sincerity is like the process of undressing. It’s only by proceeding in a proper sequence that we can come to have a heart-to-heart talk today. You are right. After the incident at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds, I thought that there would be changes to the Grand Secretariat led by Hai Liangyi. However, he still reused Xue Xiuzhuo of the Eight Great Clans, putting him in an important post. This shows that even when he reached the position where he could overhaul the system, he still had to bow to the noble clans’ power and influence. Under such circumstances, the Xiao Clan alone cannot do anything, much like one log alone cannot prop up an entire building.”
“Then how should one describe them?” Shen Zechuan pondered over it a little. “When there is no common enemy, they are their own enemies. Keeping the balance and not letting the bowl of water overturn due to inherent bias is far more difficult than dealing with someone else. Before the Xiao Clan’s appearance, the Eight Great Clans merely underwent internal change following the rise of one clan and the fall of another. But after the Xiao Clan surfaced, they began to separate the wheat from the chaff. The defeat of the Hua Clan is just temporary. The Imperial Court purged itself of the Hua Clan’s remnants, but no one, not even Hai Liangyi, proposed to hold the Empress Dowager accountable. The current marriage alliance between the Hua and Qi Clans is to preserve the Hua Clan’s usefulness and to whittle away external help that the Xiao Clan can seek. Some things, when seen on its own, might not necessarily tell you anything. It’s only when the dots are connected that they will give you the shivers.”
“Are you talking about the defeat of the Zhongbo troops and the Hua-Qi marriage alliance?” Xiao Chiye asked.
“The strategy of befriending a distant state while attacking one nearby.”1 Shen Zechuan extended a finger and drew a circle on the table. “After taking down the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo, a void will open up in Libei’s defense on the southwest side. Cizhou lies close to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path, which is the lifeblood of Libei. With no one from Zhongbo to defend it now, it becomes the territory of the Eight Great Clans of Qudu. Bring the marriage alliance with the Qi Clan of Qidong into play, and you will be left high and dry with your back to Hongyan Mountains, the Biansha Tribes to the east, and double enemies to the south.”
“There’s a five-year gap between both events. Who could have guaranteed that Hua Siqian would definitely rebel? And who could have ensured that I’d surely come to the Emperor’s rescue?” Xiao Chiye slowly furrowed his eyebrows.
“There must be a purpose for the defeat of Zhongbo’s troops.” Shen Zechuan said after a moment of silence. “It’s not hard to control the situation. The difficulty lies in controlling the direction in which the situation progresses. If my guess is right, then there is someone hidden among the Eight Great Clans who can control the way the wind blows.”
“If there’s really such a person,” Xiao Chiye said, “then it means that everyone is on the chessboard, and every step is within his anticipation. He is no longer a genius, but a ‘God’ who has Dazhou in his control. How are you going to fight him? The strategy of driving a wedge between the Eight Great Clans can’t overcome the relationship forged through decades of marriage alliances between clans. They are inseparable in the face of public enemies.”
“The unpredictability of the turbulent tempest is better than the tranquility of the calm sea. It’s only when the water is muddied that they won’t be able to distinguish between friend or foe. In actuality, they are not invulnerable to attacks.” Shen Zechuan retracted his finger and continued, “How is it that Xiao Fangxu was able to break through the noble clans’ defenses? If this web is really tight enough, then how could significant ministers like Qi Huilian and Hai Liangyi rise in spite of their humble backgrounds? Your father was able to establish the Libei Armored Cavalry’s predecessor, Luoxia Cavalry, because the officials of the Eastern Palace headed by the Crown Prince implemented the Yellow Register system2 to keep records of households. This enabled the frontiers to conscript soldiers for its troops. At the same time, it allowed the soldiers to have a hereditary household register3 so that they could belong under the jurisdiction of the commandery city’s military. This separated it from the command of the Qudu noble clans’ younger generation who have been appointed a post outside the capital, thereby allowing the Prince of Libei to unify military power so that he would no longer be subjected to the control and surveillance of the local civil officials. Not only that, the current well-trained and powerful army of Libei also has Dazhou’s implementation of the state farm system4 to thank. You know better than I how important these military troops who carry out both garrison and farming duties5 are.”
Why was Lu Guangbai having a harder time than Xiao Jiming?
Because the Bianjun Commandery had no way of putting the policy of army farming into practice. The desert wastelands could not be cultivated to produce food, so Lu Guangbai could only rely on the subsidy of Qudu’s military funds and provisions. Deploying “70% of the military troops for farming and 30% for military affairs and defense” might not allow the frontier troops to achieve full self-sufficiency. But it still greatly reduced the pressure for provisions on the frontier troops. And this was of vital importance to the frontier troops.
Grand Mentor Qi would rather pretend to be a lunatic if it allowed him to drag out an ignoble existence. Other than his unappeasable hatred, he was also loath to abandon the wounds that had been torn open. The Eastern Palace had dozens of subordinates, all of whom were officials from humble families the Crown Prince had personally hand-picked himself. To assist the Crown Prince, Qi Huilian forked out all that he had learned in his lifetime and invested it in him. Each word of “the die is cast” he shouted with his hands raised five years ago was tears of blood that represented his inability to simply resign himself to it.
“You encroach into my territory one step at a time, and indulge me again and again as I test your limit, all just for tonight—to get me into the same boat as you.” Xiao Chiye leaned forward slowly, his eyes cold. “But if I had not followed the trail to Xi Hongxuan tonight or figured out your purpose, would you really trample down on me and use me as a stepping board?”
“You are a wolf with a keen sense of smell.” Shen Zechuan said, “Why do you make yourself out to be so pitiful? If I weren’t me, you wouldn’t give me a chance to step in at all. We wouldn’t even be having a conversation. You and I are such a breed of people. Instead of asking me, why don’t you ask yourself first?”
Xiao Chiye said, “You are an asshole.”
Shen Zechuan said, “It isn’t easy to find like-minded assholes.”
Xiao Chiye stopped contending with him and went straight to the point. He said, “You are now the one who wants to borrow and make use of my power. But one needs a little bargaining chip before a treaty of alliance can be established.”
“We share weal and woe.” Shen Zechuan said. “Your Yao Clan is about to be kicked out of the game soon. Doesn’t that make you anxious, Second Young Master?”
“I can’t use Yao Wenyu.” Xiao Chiye said, “You don’t understand. The reason why the Yao Clan is on friendly terms with me is really not to vie for power. It’s purely because Yao Wenyu is… Well, if you get to meet him, you’ll understand. The reason he didn’t enter the ranks of officials is not because Hai Liangyi couldn’t bear to let him, but because he himself was unwilling. The members of the Yao Clan all used to be some important ministers in the past. It was only until his father’s time that they started to fall into decline. But the remaining prestige of his grandfather is still present. They are a major clan highly respected among the literati, and their reputation among the civil officials is by no means something people like Hua Siqian could ever compare to. It’s not difficult if he wants to make a comeback, but he’s willing to be free and unrestrained like a wild crane rising above the drifting clouds. If Xi Hongxuan can really kick the Yao Clan out, then he will be all the more carefree and unfettered by worldly concerns.”
“Seeing as the Yao Clan is already linked to the Fei Clan through a marriage alliance, then he is Commandery Princess Zhaoyue’s elder cousin brother?” Shen Zechuan asked suddenly.
“That’s right,” Xiao Chiye picked up his chopsticks and confirmed. “Zhaoyue most likely wants to marry him, but Marquis Helian is so cowardly that he dances to the Empress Dowager’s tune.”
“Then perhaps both of you can become relatives.”
“The marriage fell through, didn’t it?” Xiao Chiye said, “You sabotaged my marriage and cost me a beauty. Shouldn’t you compensate me?”
Shen Zechuan raised his eyebrows slightly.
Xiao Chiye rinsed his chopsticks in the cold tea and lifted his eyes to look at him. He asked, “Do you know that there is only a two-word difference between ‘sharing a boat on the same river’ and ‘sharing a pillow on the same bed’? If you ask me, there’s no harm in mixing up these sayings, or even these actions, in the future.”
The heat in the room smothered Shen Zechuan and made him slightly dizzy. Without replying, he turned to open the window.
Xiao Chiye did not touch any of the dishes. Instead, he said, “I brought you here, let you eat my dishes, drink my wine, and you aren’t even the least suspicious?”
Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye. The caress of the cool wind finally made him feel a little parched and hot. Thin sweat materialized. His fair neck lay within that tightly fastened collar of his, and the red plums leaning down from the window complimented his black hair, making him look all the more indescribably ravishing.
Salt-like snow drifted outside the window, and some fell along the window onto the back of Shen Zechuan’s hand, where they quickly melted into a splotch of water. This bit of coolness made the heat in his body even more distinct. In his trance, Shen Zechuan really had some other thoughts—he wanted to undo his clasps.
“This clause is not part of the alliance treaty.” Shen Zechuan said, “And I’ve no shortage of people to warm my bed of late.”
Xiao Chiye put up his long legs and said, “Right now, you don’t look like the kind of person who has no shortage of people to warm your bed. Work and personal affairs are separate matters. Now that we’re done talking about work, we can slowly straighten out our personal affairs. Was the one from Ouhua Pavillion last time given to you by Xi Hongxuan? I heard he only likes ladies. Since when has he changed his taste too?”
“Homosexual relationships between men are no longer uncommon.” Shen Zechuan replied, “I don’t know if his taste has changed. Why? Has the Second Young Master’s taste changed?”
“I don’t have a fixed taste.” Xiao Chiye picked up the hair hanging down before Shen Zechuan’s knees. “It always depends on my mood.”
Shen Zechuan lifted a finger to pull back his hair that was already matted with sweat. He said, “Some people make themselves out to be romantic and charming. They look like they can conduct themselves in an orderly manner when, in fact, they only know how to gorge themselves ravenously. They must have been out of practice.”
Xiao Chiye pushed aside the small table and grasped the wrist Shen Zechuan was about to pull back. He said, “… And some people look so pitiful when they are drenched in sweat.”
The heat in Shen Zechuan persisted, and the spot that Xiao Chiye was holding onto scalded him intensely. Propping himself up with an arm on his knee, Shen Zechuan demanded, “What drug did you add?”
“Make a guess.” Xiao Chiye tugged Shen Zechuan on the wrist. Changing the topic, he said, “Ji Gang isn’t up to teaching you such stuff, so who is your shifu… or should I say, teacher?”
The corners of Shen Zechuan’s eyes reddened as he replied softly, “I’m not telling you.”
Xiao Chiye took a light sniff from a short distance away and suddenly said, “You smell so good.”
Shen Zechuan’s breathing quickened as he countered, “Have you reached the stage where you’d use your beauty to ensnare a man?”6
“I’m far from being a ‘beauty’. Why? Just a little chat, and you’re getting impatient?”
Sweat soaked through Shen Zechuan’s inner garment. His heat, tempted by this ambiguous atmosphere that had taken shape for no rhyme or reason, turned even more sticky and damp. He wanted to wipe his sweat. Frowning, he asked, “What exactly did you add?”
Xiao Chiye laughed aloud and said flirtatiously, “Just fooling around with you. It’s just medicinal wine.”
Shen Zechuan found his gaze extremely dangerous. He could not help but close his eyes and force himself to stay calm. He said, “Xiao’Er—”
Xiao Chiye raised his cup and downed the cold wine. At Shen Zechuan’s words, he suddenly bent his head down and covered his lips. Shen Zechuan was pushed back towards the window, and the plum blossom branch shook on contact. He leaned back slightly, feeling like his waist was going to break under the tight hold. Some snow fell on Xiao Chiye’s nape, but he ignored it. Half of his body was almost pressing down on Shen Zechuan. His fingers pushed their way through the gaps between Shen Zechuan’s fingers, forcibly interlocking them together.
Ever since that glance at the Feast of A Hundred Officials, Xiao Chiye had already wanted to kiss him! He wanted to even more so during their night talk today; he had already been enduring and restraining himself for an entire night. Xiao Chiye saw how ruthless and merciless he was, and how he could retreat and advance as he pleased. He could not get a feel of him among the myriad sensations, and so he only wanted to pin him down and kiss him until he was flushed all over with desire brimming in his eyes.
Shen Zechuan’s chest heaved. The wind had blown through his entire body of sweat, chilling him so much that he shuddered. His teeth could not stop the wine that Xiao Chiye was feeding him. As it slid to his throat, he started to choke. But Xiao Chiye was biting the tip of his tongue, preventing him from coughing it out. So all he could do was to endure it until his eyes watered. Even if the sky were to fall right at this moment, Xiao Chiye would not release him.
A sudden “thud” rang out above, and someone tumbled down immediately after. Ding Tao plunged headlong into the pile of snow, then abruptly popped out his head. It was so freezing cold that he rubbed his arms hard. About to give someone a piece of his mind, he raised his head and came face-to-face with the window. He could not help but gape in shock, frightened out of his soul.
Shen Zechuan instantly kicked Xiao Chiye away and held on to the window, coughing. The back of his ears were all flushed, and his mouth was saturated with the fragrance of wine. Xiao Chiye’s breathing was a little urgent as he looked darkly out of the window.
Ding Tao’s teeth chattered as they fought against each other. Trembling, he stretched out his forefinger slowly to point up and whispered, “So-so-sorry, Young Master…”
Above them, Qiao Tianya and Gu Jin held their breaths and looked on with rapt attention as they wisely pretended not to be there. Without waiting for Xiao Chiye to say a word, Ding Tao sprang up and fled. He climbed the tree with swift movements, then made his way back to the roof with a “swoosh”.
For relevant information on the military troops with military and farming duties, refer to the “Treatises on military affairs in the History of the Ming dynasty”.7 The military troops for military and farming duties system should be interdependent with the military garrison system,8 but many of the actual contents here have been simplified and are not rigorous enough. Just read it for fun, everyone.
Thank you for reading.
- 远交近攻 “Befriend a distant state; attack one nearby” from the Thirty-Six Stratagems (三十六计)
- 黃冊 Huangce or yellow registers/yellow book served during the Ming Dynasty to provide basic data for taxation and recruitment based on the household’s classification according to their occupation. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian, military, and craftsman.
- 户籍 Household registers. In the Ming Dynasty, the central register was also known as the Yellow Register.
- 屯田制 state farm system, literally “scion fields”, were agro-colonies, mostly in border regions, that served to supply the inhabitants and military units with agricultural products.
- 军屯 military troops (mostly in border regions) who carry out garrison duties as well as farm crops to supply the border garrisons with grains.
- 美人计 honey traps
- 明史·兵志 “Treatises on military affairs in the History of the Ming dynasty”, or Mingshi Bingzhi, is one of the important documents often consulted by people while studying the military system of the Ming Dynasty
- 卫所制度, 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.