Shen Zechuan was in a slight daze as Xiao Chiye’s stubble rubbed against his palm until it felt ticklish. He gazed at Xiao Chiye and said, “… Prickly.”
“Does it not feel comfortable to the touch?” Xiao Chiye asked.
Shen Zechuan replied, “Comfortable.”
Both men were just a short distance apart, yet it seemed as if there was no gap between them. Xiao Chiye was dirty and unkempt. He hardly had time to spare these few days to tidy up. Now, he leaned close to Shen Zechuan, giving no regard to his slovenly state as he let Shen Zechuan touch him.
Chen Yang gripped the door curtain, reckoning that it was about time. He wanted to let the others enter, but then he did not hear Xiao Chiye give his permission, so he remained stuck at the entrance with a group of guards, each of them staring at the sky and the ground with a blank expression.
“Feel good touching it?” Xiao Chiye could not help but laugh out.
“Almost.” Shen Zechuan pursed his lips and whispered into Xiao Chiye’s ear, “So prickly, it’s hurting me.”
“Where does it hurt?” Xiao Chiye tilted his head and pressed his forehead against his.
Shen Zechuan gazed at him with eyes that seemed like mountain lakes moistened with fog. He put that bit of yearning for more in those eyes and revealed it all to Xiao Chiye as he exchanged gazes with him. Even the corners of his eyes contained the barest hint of faintly discernible emotion.
Xiao Chiye suddenly covered Shen Zechuan’s eyes. After a moment’s pause, he said, “This is not the right time to egg me on, is it?”
Shen Zechuan said, “What are you thinking? I’m just looking at you.”
“Not letting you look.” Xiao Chiye said, “Do it when we get back.”
Outside, Chen Yang let out a few coughs and raised his voice to say, “Master…”
Xiao Chiye shifted his palm away, stood up, and said, “Come in.”
Only then did Chen Yang lift the curtain, and everyone entered in a single file.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan leaned against the pillow with an overcoat draped over him. As he drank the medicine, he listened to them recount the details of what had transpired in recent days. When Qiao Tianya was done speaking, he contemplated for a moment before he said, “That’s right. There’s something fishy about this matter from start to end. I also suspect that the collapse of Ouhua Pavilion is not a coincidence, but a deliberate act that took advantage of the opportunity offered by the blockage of Donglong Street’s public ditches.”
“It has only been half a year since His Majesty’s ascension to the throne. With so many things waiting to be done now, it’s just the time for everyone to get their big break.” Xiao Chiye sat on the bench beside him. “Who could bear to let him die?”
This was also what Shen Zechuan could not figure out. He finished his medicine and handed the bowl to Qiao Tianya, then said, “We can’t very well investigate matters in the palace. We need to have a suitable person on the inside before we can do it.”
It was not a good thing for the position of the Brush-holding Director of the Directorate of Ceremonial to be vacant. Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan both could not interfere in matters within the palace. That was the Empress Dowager’s territory. The Empress Dowager had the final say over who would be appointed to the post in the future. But it was better than nothing. If they had a planted agent inside, then that would also be a lot better than being completely blind.
When Shen Zechuan thought to this point, he suddenly asked, “You wanted to investigate Xiang Yun the last time. Did you find out anything?”
Xiao Chiye said, “I was so busy I forgot about that. Gu Jin.”
Gu Jin stepped out and said, “I didn’t find out any crucial information when I went to Xiangyun Villa. Xiangyun has only those few patrons. I checked them out one by one, and none of them had anything to do with the perjury matter the last time.”
Shen Zechuan somehow kept feeling as though there was something he had missed. There was an unseen hand pulling strings behind the scenes that gave rise to these incidents. There must have been some causal relationship between them. He lost himself in his thoughts again. He did not know if it was because he had just recovered from a bout of illness, but no matter how he thought, he could not figure out the link.
“His Majesty is still unconscious, and his disease has not completely subsided. We still have a few days to spare; there is no rush at this point in time.” As Xiao Chiye spoke, he moved his shoulders and arms. “The public ditches are now unclogged. So everyone should rest well these few days. This matter will eventually be resolved. It’s now more important to conserve our strength and energy for the next stage.”
The guards echoed in agreement and retreated out of the house. Once they were all gone, Xiao Chiye sat at the edge of the bed and took off his boots.
“You’ve gotten your fill of sleep, but this Second Young Master is still barely hanging on.” Xiao Chiye lay down beside Shen Zechuan and said, “Come closer. Be my blanket and cover me.”
Shen Zechuan turned his head sideways and said, “Sleep with an overcoat draped over you.”
Xiao Chiye closed his eyes and said, “You do it.”
Shen Zechuan tucked the pillow under Xiao Chiye’s neck. Xiao Chiye made a blind grab for Shen Zechuan’s hand and grasped his wrist in passing. Then he pulled Shen Zechuan towards him and embraced him.
“Too thin.” Xiao Chiye touched him. “So much that your bones jab against me when I hug you. Once autumn arrives, the wild game from Libei will be here too. You’ll need all the nourishment you can get then, and you’ll be able to fatten up by the time it’s winter.”
Xiao Chiye’s breathing was slightly heavy. Feeling sleepy, he turned his head and pressed the tip of his nose against Shen Zechuan’s temple. Then he forced a smile and said, “… Sleep with your Second Young Master for a while.”
Xiao Chiye was exhausted. He had not got any shut-eye these few days as he had to stay awake in both the day and night like a lone wolf pacing around his base. No matter how physically strong he was, there would come a time he would exhaust his strength and energy. Shen Zechuan was on top of him. Xiao Chiye found this weight just perfect, with the pressure on him making him feel warm and content.
Xiao Chiye initially wanted to sleep for a while so he could do a proper tally at night for the medicinal herb expenses incurred over the last few days. But who knew that he would sleep until the third quarter of the hour of yin1 the next day? Still in a trance when he woke up, he turned on his side and buried himself between Shen Zechuan’s arms.
Xiao Chiye was momentarily dazed before his mind suddenly cleared. He propped himself up for a look. Turned out that his head had slipped off the pillow last night, and he had been lying on Shen Zechuan’s arm for the latter half of the night. Shen Zechuan had turned to his side with his head resting on the pillow, while his other hand had pulled over the overcoat and covered him with it. This was a posture similar to a protective hug.
Dawn had yet to come. It was dark inside the room.
Xiao Chiye fell back onto the pillow and hugged Shen Zechuan over to himself, face-first. The overcoat just about covered both of them. He asked in a husky voice, “Did I make your arm numb?”
Shen Zechuan, half-awake, let out an affirmative “hm”.
Xiao Chiye rubbed Shen Zechuan’s stiff arm and said, “Can’t you just call me?”
Warmed, Shen Zechuan said, “Xiao’Er…”
Xiao Chiye said, “Hm?”
Shen Zechuan opened his eyes to look at him and said, “You were calling out for Shen Lanzhou in your sleep.”
Xiao Chiye smiled and kept his voice down as he said, “Just dreaming about what I think of in the daytime.”
Both of them were very close to one another. Shen Zechuan’s gaze on him made Xiao Chiye’s body and heart both hot. His recently recharged energy from having slept enough skyrocketed. He wanted to tease Shen Zechuan, but at the same time, he also wanted to let Shen Zechuan sleep.
Some random bird was cooing outside, sending a ripple reverberating through the silent night.
Xiao Chiye said, “Was the reason you asked about Xiangyun earlier because you thought of something?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Where is Mu Ru from? Was she the girl the former Emperor bought?”
“She was a birthday gift the manor down there gave to His Majesty.” Xiao Chiye wrapped his arms around Shen Zechuan. “At first, she was kept in the manor. It took a lot of effort just to train her. I saw from her registered birthplace that she’s a native of the City of Jincheng. You think it’s her?”
“Because of the assassination attempt, His Majesty came to detest eunuchs completely. There has never been any eunuch he’s on close terms with after Shuanglu. The palace maids who usually wait upon him by his side are all carefully selected people. The only person who can egg him on and help him out of the palace is Mu Ru.” Shen Zechuan lost himself in his thoughts again as he spoke. “If it’s her, there must be a reason… She does not have an imperial heir at present. She can only live if His Majesty is alive. So she should be more concerned about His Majesty’s safety than anyone else.”
“That’s the thing.” Xiao Chiye said. “The one who can pull off such a scheme must have thought it through carefully. There has to be a reason. The late Emperor’s sudden death and the Hua Clan’s subsequent fall from power did not simply result in the removal of a few wusha hats.2 It even affected the situational arrangements of Dazhou’s various lands. In the past six months, Hai Liangyi has been locked in a stalemate in his face-off with the noble clans and barely managed to stabilize the situation. It would benefit no one if the current Emperor were to meet with misfortune now.”
“We have to wait for His Majesty to wake up before we can know more.” Shen Zechuan said. “The Ministry of Works made such a slip-up this time. Pan Xiangjie will be hard-pressed to absolve himself of blame. He will definitely be censured and held back for investigation. Have you seen the governmental clerk from the Ministry of Works, Liang Cuishan?”
“Yup, I’ve seen him.” Xiao Chiye thought for a moment. “He is one diligent man.”
“I got him to keep a detailed record of all the medicinal herbs coming and going these few days. Once we go out, the Ministry of Revenue and the Chief Surveillance Bureau will come to check the accounts. You just have to hand over this book to them.”
“Well done.” Xiao Chiye was not stingy with his praises. “When the plague broke out, there was no time at all to wait for the memo from the palace. I got my men to get the herbs from the medicine shops. The Imperial Army has our own handwritten notes on record. But, when all is said and done, it’s not as convincing as the testimony of a man from the Ministry of Revenue. With this book, the Imperial Army and the Ministry of Revenue won’t have to rip into each other.”
Xiao Chiye hated to deal with the officials from the Ministry of Revenue. It was so much trouble just to reconcile accounts with them every year. With this major issue of the public ditches being clogged, those old foxes might even think of dragging the Imperial Army into the mire so as to put the Grand Secretariat in a spot; after all, the law could not be enforced if everyone was an offender! The beginning of spring was also the most complicated time for political affairs, where piled-up mountains of official documents instantly gave the Grand Secretariat a massive headache.
“You have no wish to see the Ministry of Revenue, and they are also afraid to see you.” Shen Zechuan laughed. “The matter of Quancheng silk the last time implicated Wang Xian. I see that he has already been transferred to the Ministry of Rites. Was that your handiwork?”
“I bear no personal grudge against him. The collections of debts in the past were simply official business. Because of me, he was implicated and slapped with an ill reputation for bribery. Shifting him over to the Ministry of Rites is merely a stop-gap measure.” Xiao Chiye said. “His hope of getting an ‘outstanding’ this inspection is definitely dashed. Even if he’s appointed a post outside the capital, he’ll only be sent to somewhere remote and barren.”
Wang Xian was unlucky. He originally served as the Secretary in the Ministry of Revenue and had a very hard time dealing with Xiao Chiye. A few years ago, when the Imperial Army’s equipment was worn out, Xiao Chiye was the one who personally hemmed him in to reconcile accounts and hound for money every time they carried out manual labor. He had no personal relationship with Xiao Chiye to speak of at all. Who would have expected an unexpected calamity to come flying out of the blue? Xiao Chiye was denounced before the Emperor, and by sheer coincidence, those Quancheng silks passed through his hands; there was no way he could explain himself. In the end, Xiao Chiye and Li Jianheng fell back on their brotherly ties and acted out the roles of a harmonious ruler and his minister. But he was stripped of his Secretary post for real and almost became a prisoner. He could no longer be an official in Qudu now, and even if he were to be assigned a post outside the capital, there was nowhere decent to go. He even got an assessment of “negligence of duty” for the inspection. Half a lifetime of prudence and caution—wasted. What a grave injustice.
But something clicked in Shen Zechuan’s mind, and he said, “Don’t tell me you are thinking of making use of this opportunity and assign him to Zhongbo?”
Xiao Chiye laughed and said, “To think you could even guess this.”
Xiao Chiye gave Wang Xian a helping hand and had him moved to the Ministry of Rites. At the very least, the latter managed to secure his job and means of livelihood. In the past, Wang Xian disliked him, but now he had to be deeply grateful to him. Xiao Chiye planned to transfer Wang Xian to Zhongbo when the latter was appointed to a post outside the capital. At present, Zhongbo was full of rogues and bandits. Everyone all wanted to stuff their own people in there.
“We can’t get close to other places. But we must plant manpower in Cizhou.” Xiao Chiye relaxed and said. “That was a good suggestion you gave for the demolition subsidy. Cizhou’s Magistrate of Municipality, Zhou Gui, is now on good terms with us. He will naturally understand the implication if we put Wang Xian under his command. The Six Prefectures of Zhongbo will definitely put an emphasis on supervision this year. But no matter who the imperial court deploys over, Cizhou has to remain under my watch.”
Cizhou was close to the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path. By doing this, Xiao Chiye was keeping an eye from where he was in Qudu on the main entrances to the granaries for the Libei Armored Cavalry. He and Xiao Jiming had hardly exchanged correspondences, but the two brothers understood each other perfectly.
“The Quancheng silk is a latent danger. If Fu Linye had not been too eager for fast returns and messed up by some freak coincidence, then this account would be a blade buried deep in the Imperial Army’s account book.” Shen Zechuan moved his head and said, “Was this account handled by Xue Xiuzhuo?”
“That’s him, all right.” Xiao Chiye said. “Xue Xiuzhou, huh… What do you think of him?”
“I didn’t really pay him any notice at first. But I checked his evaluations for the past few years’ inspections, and they were all outstanding. He joined the imperial court during the reign of Yongyi, those last three years of Emperor Guancheng. It was only when Emperor Xiande ascended to the throne that he assumed the post of Chief Supervising Secretary in the Ministry of Revenue. He held this position for eight years until the sudden rebellion at Nanlin Hunting Grounds last year. He was then promoted and transferred to the Court of Judicial Review, where he became the Assistant Minister of the Court of Judicial Review. He then went on to handle two major cases that concern Hi Majesty’s safety—the Hua and Pan’s rebellion case and the Feast of A Hundred Officials’s assassination case. He has a good reputation, has extensive contacts in the Eight Great Clans, and is on good terms with the officials from humble backgrounds headed by Hai Liangyi.” Shen Zechuan pondered over it for a moment before saying, “But I know nothing of his background before he entered the imperial court.”
“I know of it pretty well.” Xiao Chiye said, “Ask me.”
Shen Zechuan raised his eyebrows slightly and said, “Tell me.”
“Why doesn’t that sound like someone who has a favor to ask of?” Xiao Chiye gathered the overcoat around him and put his head to Shen Zechuan’s. “I’ll tell you only if you coax me until I’m happy.”
The way he said it was frivolous, partially to tease Shen Zechuan. He did not expect Shen Zechuan to look at him, part his lips to puff out a breath, and murmured under hot and soft breath at such close quarters, “Ce’an~”
That tiny puff of damp heat landed on Xiao Chiye’s cheeks and edged along his straight nose to the front of his lips. Both men touched, almost imperceptibly.
Xiao Chiye suddenly rolled over and propped himself up above Shen Zechuan, leaving a space between them. He pinched Shen Zechuan’s chin to correct its position and said, “All talk and no action—this Second Young Master won’t fall for it.”
- 寅时 hour of yin, i.e., 3-5 am, based on the system of two-hour subdivisions used in former times. The third quarter (三刻) is at the 45min mark.
- 乌纱帽 wusha hat, or black gauze hat, is the headwear of Ming dynasty officials, comprising a black hat with two wing-like flaps of thin, oval-shaped boards on each side. Simply refers to officials here.