In the darkness, Xiao Chiye used his thumb to wipe the corner of his mouth, where there was still residual wine. He said, “One kick for one kiss. Neither of us loses out.”
Shen Zechuan turned back to look at him.
Xiao Chiye smiled at him. “Each is a horse of a different color; let’s not confuse them. Aren’t you still going to trample on me in public in the future? Go ahead and step on me, Lanzhou. I’ll pay each debt back in full plus interest.”
Shen Zechuan used his tongue to wet the spot he had been bitten and told him, “You won’t have this kind of opportunity every single time.”
Xiao Chiye took a step closer, completely shrouding him under his own shadow. He replied, “And you won’t be able to run away every single time.”
Having said that, Xiao Chiye extended his hand to pluck the red plum beside Shen Zechuan. He rubbed the petals into mush and sent that redness into his mouth. Under his gaze, Shen Zechuan had the illusion that he himself was that red plum. In his evaluation of Xiao Chiye, he quietly added “having the determination to win” in addition to having a “keen sense of smell”.
Shen Zechuan once thought that desire would overcome Xiao Chiye and make him retreat from the setback. But Xiao Chiye’s behavior was beyond Shen Zechuan’s expectation. That arrogant character of his meant that he only knew how to march forward bravely. Any retreat or concession was only in preparation for the next time he made a better-planned attack.
He was an overwhelmingly dangerous threat.
“Light the lamps.” Xiao Chiye turned his head to shout out.
After a short moment, the maidservants pushed the door open and entered. They moved out a small screen, cleared away the leftovers, spread a mat over the rug, and swapped to a big, square tea table with girdled waist and horse hooves’ legs.1 Chen Yang changed his shoes and entered. He placed the Imperial Army’s military affairs and name register of personnel on the tea table, then took over the teapot from the maidservant’s hands and kneeled at the side to steep tea for both men.
With someone else present, both men resumed the roles of upright gentlemen when they took their seats again.
Shen Zechuan had partially sobered up. Bathing in the wind had helped him break free of his earlier hot flushes and tipsiness. Only the scarlet on his face remained, further accentuated by the dim light of the lamp that enveloped him. Even Chen Yang did not dare to look straight up at him, for fear that his gaze would be an affront to both Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye, making them displeased.
Chen Yang brewed the tea and thought, no wonder Tantai Hu is worried. Shen Lanzhou is clearly born with the looks of one capable of bringing ruin to the nation and misfortune upon the commoners. What’s more, he has such a temperament. Anyone who is on familiar terms with Master, even a little, should be afraid.
What was Xiao Chiye most fond of?
Taming horses and tormenting eagles!2 During the tormenting process, Xiao Chiye would not sleep when the eagle wasn’t sleeping. The harder it was to tame, the more attention he would pay it. The harder it was to domesticate, the more he would favor it. Back then, while they were fighting the Biansha Cavalry, Xiao Chiye could lay in wait for so long simply because he adored the process of domestication and torture. He inherited from Xiao Fangxu the desire to conquer and subjugate, far surpassing that of the common man. This was the most different trait between him and Xiao Jiming.
Chen Yang presented the tea to both of them, made a slight bow, and said, “If Master has any instructions, please call for me.” Then he rose and retreated to change back into his boots and stand guard outside the door.
Gu Jin hung his head down from the rooftop, tossed a wine bag to Chen Yang, and cast him an inquiring gaze to ask about the inside situation.
Chen Yang slowly exhaled and said, “… It’s all fine. Master has a measure of propriety.”
Ding Tao was still hugging his head and murmuring, “Am I going to die, die, die…”
“Hard to say.” Qiao Tianya nudged against the snow to pull out his pipe and laughed out loud. “On this day next year, gege will remember to burn paper offerings for you.”
Ding Tao’s tears were about to fall. Grabbing his hair, he glared at them in anger and complained, “It’s all you two’s fault! If you didn’t fight, I wouldn’t have tried to break up the fight. If I didn’t intervene, then I wouldn’t have tumbled off. If I didn’t fall, then I wouldn’t die! I hate you both!”
Qiao Tianya concentrated wholeheartedly on starting a fire with the flint, while Gu Jin folded his arm and dozed off.
Ding Tao hated them so much that he fished out his book and jotted at high speed to vent all his fury within, cussing them both as the world’s greatest bastards. Once done, he wiped the tears at the corners of his eyes, then turned around to continue venting his thoughts as they gushed forth like spring water.
Having had a change of tea, the men in the room continued their discussion.
Xiao Chiye said, “Returning to the topic, you said that there is someone hiding in Qudu who is able to manipulate the Eight Great Clans. I thought about it and found it highly unlikely.”
That medicinal wine burned up Shen Zechuan’s throat so much that it was billowing smoke. He drank several cups of tea before saying, “You think it is not possible because it is too difficult to do such a thing effectively.”
Xiao Chiye said, “That’s right. Let’s leave the others aside for now. Even the Empress Dowager herself would not deign to listen to the directions of another.”
“What if she wasn’t aware of it herself?” Shen Zechuan asked, “Sometimes, you don’t need to command others in order to manipulate the situation. With just one finger, you can nudge the ‘powers’ into action and change a lot of things from there.”
“You have to prove the existence of this person first.” Xiao Chiye looked at him and said, “… You look like you’re feeling quite warm.”
Shen Zechuan lifted his fingers to undo his clasp. That clasp gently broke free of its fastener to gradually reveal his smooth neck between his fingers before coming to a stop at the top of his collarbone. Tiny beads of sweats slid along the contour of his neck into that depression, wetting his fingertips.
“Although Xi Hongxuan is a chess piece in the open, he’s very important. Xi Hongxuan is needed to confirm whether this person exists or not, so you can’t take him off the game this time.” Shen Zechuan paused for a moment. “You can’t take him down, anyway. He never once showed himself during this assassination case. Fuling’s confession can only prove that she was coerced. And the most likely suspect is now you.”
“It was your idea to frame it on me.” Xiao Chiye looked at that disappearing bead of sweat.
“You are now an official in the Son of Heaven’s inner ministerial circle, one deeply favored by the Emperor. If this incident can remove you from position and put you off duty, Xi Hongxuan will not pass up the chance. He will definitely try to seize an opportunity to seek the Eight Great Training Divisions’ authority of office. It’s only by luring them out of their lairs that we can get a clearer look at whom to attack. Besides, His Majesty trusts you. Even if he demotes you, he will not immediately and easily put his trust in others. After a period of time, he will see the blazing rise of the Eight Great Clans’ power and arrogance, and he will realize that he had been played for a fool. He will instead harbor guilt towards the innocent ones who have been implicated, and then he will try ways to make it up to you.” Shen Zechuan’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he drank the tea. He said, “My guess is that you had already thought of a countermeasure before you came to me.”
“Sure, let’s play.” Xiao Chiye poured tea for him. “I’ll merely be beating you at your own game and letting you guys trample on me.”
“This is much wiser than fighting back at this point.” Shen Zechuan said. “The more anxious you are at this time to clear your name and involvement in this matter, the more suspicious His Majesty will be.”
“I know His Majesty.” Xiao Chiye said, “He is a credulous man and easily susceptible to persuasion. He cannot stand being instigated,3 but he cannot stand being humiliated either. I’m his buddy, and the first person he promoted to his side after he ascended to the throne. I’m kind of a symbol for the way he faces his court officials. Trapped both on the inside and the outside, I’ve become livestock in his hands—one that he penned in and raised. To him, I’ve no one to rely on, and it’s only with his backing that I can secure this position of mine. If someone were to scheme against me, thereby kicking me down, then he will definitely have the feeling of sharing the same fate, just like how teeth feel cold when the lips are gone.4 The Hua Faction is his sore point and the source of his anxiety. The reason he feels reassured in getting Hai Liangyi to make decisions regarding government affairs is because he knows that Hai Liangyi will not form cliques or join political factions.”
“We mustn’t let such a golden opportunity slip.” Shen Zechuan held his teacup and considered it for a moment before saying, “This time, we must make Xi Hongxuan take action.”
“I have to remind you of one thing.” Xiao Chiye propped up his elbow on the table and beckoned to Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan put down his teacup and leaned over.
Xiao Chiye whispered, “If you can’t hold your liquor, then don’t go drinking with others. Not every bastard has Second Young Master’s level of willpower to remain unswayed by distracting thoughts5 and remain an honorable, well-behaved gentleman before you.”
Shen Zechuan looked askance at him and emphasized his words, “But this honorable gentleman has harbored quite the thoughts too, hasn’t he?”
Xiao Chiye gazed at him and said, “Once we step out of this door tomorrow morning, you and I will be mortal enemies. Since enemies know best how to hold each other in high regard, then isn’t it only fitting for me to think of you?”
Shen Zechuan said, “I don’t think of you.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Every plan you make these days can’t escape me. I’m afraid it’s not that you don’t think of me, but that you think of me day and night.”
“How did that kick from the Feast of A Hundred Officials not get to you?” Shen Zechuan raised his hand to block Xiao Chiye’s breath on him and said, “It could have sobered up the Second Young Master.”
The tip of Xiao Chiye’s nose was pressing against Shen Zechuan’s palm. He stared at Shen Zechuan and said wickedly, “How callous, Lanzhou. You tease me in all ways possible before bedding me. And now that you’ve bedded me, you set up defenses in every way possible to guard against me. You heartless cad, fickle man.”
His gaze made Shen Zechuan slightly averted his eyes. Shen Zechuan said, “… Xiao’Er, you sure are drunk tonight, aren’t you?”
Xiao Chiye suddenly retreated and said, “During the court session tomorrow morning, someone will surely raise questions and apportion blame. Kong Qiu will present Fuling’s previous confession statement as it is. When the time comes, the Chief Surveillance Bureau will have to hold me accountable for my negligence in supervision.”
With his palm now empty, Shen Zechuan said, “Even if you wish to take a step back, you can’t make it too obvious.”
“Once I’m caught in a vicious siege of verbal and written condemnation, it’ll be up to His Majesty to decide on my punishment.” Xiao Chiye said.
“At best, your salary will be halted for a few months. At worst, your tablet will be suspended and you will have to reflect on your mistake. The Hereditary Prince is still in Qudu. Everyone still has to give him face, so they won’t overdo their criticism of you.”
“Dage’s time in Qudu is very short.” Xiao Chiye stopped. “Once I’m punished, there’ll be no one else to stop the marriage between Hua Xiangyi and Qi Shiyu.”
“It’ll take time for the union between Qi and Hua to happen.” Shen Zechuan thought for a moment. “The current Commander-in-chief of Qidong Five Commandery military troops is Qi Zhuyin. Perhaps we can start with her.”
Xiao Chiye thought of something and said, “I have an idea.”
Shen Zechuan asked, “What?”
“The Ministry of Rites has past marriage records of the Hua Clan. I’ll get someone to polish it up a little, then give this transcribed copy to Qi Zhuyin. She will not accept Hua Xiangyi easily.”
“It’s not taboo for distant relatives to marry in Dazhou; even marriage between cousins is fine.” Shen Zechuan said, “Or is Commander-in-Chief Qi bothered by it?”
“She is.” Xiao Chiye explained. “As we all know, Qi Shiyu is a lecher, and he has taken many beautiful women all over Qidong Five Commandery into his residence as his women. One of them is his niece. A few years back, this madam gave birth to a baby, who was born with a defect and was abnormally sick and weak. The baby lasted for only a few days before it was buried. From then on, each time Qi Shiyu takes in a concubine, Qi Zhuyin would be particularly wary of breaking this taboo. As long as there were some blood relations between them, even if she was a distant relative, Qi Zhuyin would not allow the woman to marry into the family.”
“But Hua Xiangyi’s marriage to Qi Shiyu was specifically dictated by the Empress Dowager herself.” Shen Zechuan said. “I doubt the Commander-in-Chief can stop it even if she wants to.”
“Since there’s already no way she can stop it, then she can only take a step back to make a concession and let Hua the Third marry.” Xiao Chiye’s eyes were cold. “But she can’t let her give birth to a child. Hua Xiangyi is marrying Qi Shiyu as his second wife, which means she will be the legitimate and rightful madam of Qidong. The child she gives birth to will be a di child6 who can claim to be of the same direct line of descent as Qi Zhuyin. Qi Zhuyin is a woman. It’s indeed not easy for her to subdue and bring Qidong Five Commandery military forces under her control for all these years. She is a great general who has truly shed blood. But who can guarantee that no one will have something else in mind? If Hua Xiangyi were to give birth to a son, Qi Zhuyin would have no choice but to be caught up in an internal struggle for military power. She is in need of a reason to suppress Hua Xiangyi.”
“I heard that there are male sons in the Qi Clan. But Qi Shiyu was hell-bent on having his own way to give to Qi Zhuyin the Commander-in-Chief position of the military forces.” Shen Zechuan said, “Wasn’t this out of an appreciation for talents?”
“That’s right.” Xiao Chiye said, “Qi Zhuyin was born by his first legitimate wife, and she is also a talented field commander he personally taught. When he still had no sons, he treated and raised Qi Zhuyin as one. He came to have sons later on, but none of them could be compared to her. At that time, Qidong was still at war with Biansha. Qi Shiyu was seriously injured and was unable to lead the troops. They were trapped at the east side of Biansha linked camps, and none of the Qi Clan sons dared to step up to take up the mantle. It was Qi Zhuyin who carried a blade on her back and rode a horse through the night to go canvassing for reinforcements from the Chijun Commandery, Bianjun Commandery, and Suotian Pass Garrison Troops and got them to follow her into battle. Then, with the help of the wind, she set fire to the Biansha linked camps and burned them all down. This was the battle that made her famous. She’s now called ‘Wind Guiding the Scorching Plains’ precisely because of how she led the soldiers that battle to draw their swords while braving the fire to carry out Qi Shiyu on her back. Qi Shiyu was originally hesitant and undecided. But after that time, he immediately handed over the commander seal and gave the Five Commandery military troops all to Qi Zhuyin.”
“The conferment of the Commander-in-Chief title requires the approval of Qudu.” Shen Zechuan said, “It wasn’t easy for her.”
Xiao Chiye smiled. He touched the thumb ring on his thumb and said, “You would have never imagined that Emperor Guangcheng was not the one who conferred the title on her.”
Shen Zechuan tilted his head slightly.
“Back then, when news of it spread back to Qudu, the various parties all denounced it. Because Qi Zhuyin is a woman, the Ministry of War questioned whether her military exploits were fabricated. Thus, they submitted a petition to the Grand Secretariat requesting them to dispatch the Chief Surveillance Bureau Censor and Imperial Bodyguards to Qidong to carry out a thorough investigation. Seeing how worked up the crowd was, Emperor Guancheng delayed Qidong’s request and did not approve it. Her meritorious military service was later verified, and the Ministry of Rites submitted a memorial allowing her conferment. However, she was not allowed up Yulong Terrace,7 which is used by military officers and generals, to receive her conferment. She could only kneel and kowtow before the stairs of Mingli Hall.”
Xiao Chiye paused for a long time.
“It was the Empress Dowager who stood her ground against the objections and obstacles and allowed her to step onto Yulong Terrace so that she could be conferred, in an open and aboveboard manner, the title Commander-in-Chief of Qidong’s military forces.”
Special thanks to Alex!! <3
束腰, 马蹄足 A table with specific designs as described. Kind of like the above.
- 熬鹰 literally torturing falcons, it’s one of the ways to train them by not allowing it to sleep and torture it to exhaustion to wear down its wild nature.
- 最受不得教唆 this line could also be read as he cannot hold up to instigation.
- 唇亡齿寒, when the lips are gone the teeth will be exposed to the cold; if one of two interdependent things falls, the other is in danger and will most likely share the same fate.
- 定力 Specifically in Buddhism, this refers to the ability to free one’s mind of distracting thoughts and the willpower to remain unswayed by them or temptations.
- To recap, children in those days were classified according to whether they were a di or shu child. A di child (嫡子) was born by the legal wife (this was the wife who had been officially married into the family, also known as a zhengshi (正室)). Those of di birth were considered legitimate (direct line of descendants) and they had higher social status and often received better treatment compared to the shu children (庶子) born by concubines.
- 玉龙 Yulong, literally translated as Jade Dragon