A cacophony of human voices hung over Kailing River. Xue Xiuyi sat cross-legged on the couch, cracking peanut shells and drinking wine. When Xiao Chiye entered, he hurriedly brushed his robe clean and got off the couch to pay his obeisances to Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye sat directly opposite Xue Xiuyi, and Chen Yang came over to pour wine. Xue Xiuyi placed his fingers at the sides of his legs and subconsciously rubbed them on his robe to wipe his hands. At the same time, he said, “That’s enough, that’s enough… Your Lordship, too much of this wine is bad for your health!”
Holding the cup, Xiao Chiye said to him with a smile, “The Eldest Young Master is quite meticulous. You must be diligent in keeping yourself in good health back in your residence, right?”
“Only a little.” Xue Xiuyi did not dare to take his seat without explicit permission. He was short and small-sized to begin with, and hunching over to Xiao Chiye in a bow made him look even more humble and lowly.
Xiao Chiye cordially said, “Please sit. I’ll still have the Eldest Young Master’s advice to seek.”
With his backside at the edge of the couch, Xue Xiuyi said, “I wouldn’t dare to be so presumptuous as to offer advice.”
Xiao Chiye noted from Xue Xiuyi’s appearance that the latter was clearly poles apart from Xue Xiuzhuo. For Xue Xiuzhuo to have to submit to such an elder brother, it was only natural for him to be unable to take it lying down.
“It has been a while since I last saw His Excellency Yanqing.” Xiao Chiye drank his wine. “I heard that he has been busy investigating cases with Minister Kong. It has been hard on him.”
“It’s only because the Secretariat Elder has promoted him that he’s basking in glory now.” Xiu Xiuyu had long disliked Xue Xiuzhuo. He had been making things difficult in all kinds of ways possible for this younger shu brother of his, but a pity Xue Xiuzhuo had always been like a cotton that cushioned all his damages and made all his efforts come to naught.
“He’s the Eldest Young Master’s younger brother of shu birth. According to customs, the one leading the way to join the ranks of officials in the imperial court should be the Eldest Young Master. So why is it the other way round in your household?”
Xue Xiuyi accepted the wine, not daring to refuse it. He had already lost his sense of propriety after downing a few cups and was now feeling the earth spinning at his feet. At Xiao Chiye’s question, he gripped the cup and said with a snort, “Well, he has the capability, no? Your Lordship doesn’t know it, but he has always been one since young to ingratiate himself with men in power for personal gains. He’s a shrewd and deep one! There was heavy snow in the year he was born. When the time came for him to be named with the generation name1 ‘xiu’, he was supposed to be named ‘gui’, but a Daoist priest predicted that he would meet an extremely distinguished benefactor in his life, and calling him by this name would instead prove to be adverse. His birth mother, who was a resourceful woman, fawned upon our Old Master in all ways possible, pleading for him to be named with a ‘zhuo’ instead. As in, cultivation of virtues and outstanding capabilities,2 with the courtesy name3 Yanqing. He sure has a charmed life…”
Xue Xiuyi’s eyes dimmed when he spoke to this point.
Xiao Chiye comforted him. “Eldest Young Master, why contend with him? You are the eldest di son of the Xue Clan; you are way more esteemed than him.”4
His words hit right at Xue Xiuyi’s sore point, making him feel stifled. Sure enough, Xue Xiuyi set down his cup and let out a long sigh.
“Your Lordship…” Xue Xiuyi was already drunk, and subsequently, he grew bolder. “You are the second di son of the Prince of Libei. There is no one of shu birth to pose as a threat to you, so you are unaware of the specifics. People like us fear having a capable younger brother of shu birth back at home. He’s of lowly birth, yet he’s a notch above me. Whether it’s at home or out there, who doesn’t praise him to the skies? What is this? How am I supposed to live with this? Look at the Eight Great Clans. Which of them has a descendant of shu birth as the head of the clan? How is it that only our Xue Clan has produced a Xue Xiuzhuo?!”
It was all because of his own selfish desires that he detested Xue Xiuzhuo this much. But then, it was also precisely all because of Xue Xiuzhuo that the Xue Clan was able to make a comeback and secure its position among the Eight Great Clans. Just the heirs born to the principal wives in the Xue Clan alone numbered in the hundreds, all of which took on the label of being a “di”. Beneath them, there were also countless shu sons born by the concubines. All the momentous family occasions such as marriages and funerals, monthly salaries and monetary rewards, expenses for living in separate residences, as well as taxes and costs for the country estates, came from the Xue Clan’s coffers and assets.
Initially, Old Master Xue planned to support Xue Xiuyi and let this eldest di son of his take charge of the household as well as manage the family affairs. But the latter was either engrossed with cultivating the way of immortality or lavishing money on undeserving imposters and swindlers. It was just like what the Empress Dowager had said in the beginning. The descendants of the current Xue generation were all worthless good-for-nothings. Other than Xue Xiuzhuo, who was of shu birth, there was no one else worthy of notice.
At present, Xue Xiuzhuo was the Court of Judicial Review Assistant Minister. At the same time, he was also the head of the Xue Clan. In these few years, he managed to put a stop to the downward decline of the Xue Clan and secured its position among the noble clans. He had plenty of brothers at home who simply loafed around and contributed nothing, and he still had both paternal and maternal uncles up there who devised schemes all day to cheat the clan out of money. All of them lived off Xue Xiuzhuo even as they spat at him, shamelessly seeking personal gains on the sly while cursing him for being of too lowly a birth.
Xiao Chiye was perfectly well aware of this. He had the same thinking as Shen Zechuan, and that was, if not for their uncertainty in where Xue Xiuzhuo stood since he had all along been hiding behind the noble clans, then they, valuing talents, would have been willing to pull this person over to their side. The Quancheng silk incident was the key.; it obscured Shen Zechuan’s vision of Xue Xiuzhuo, turning him into a person they must guard against—A man who was so astute and shrewd to the extent that he had already planted hundreds of thousands of threads of puppet strings as a precaution for future planning long before everything happened was no doubt someone who would not easily put himself at the disposal of another.
When Xiao Chiye, who was stroking his wine cup, thought to this point, he said, “As long as you are human, there will be times you will be down on your luck. There’s no need for the Eldest Young Master to be too anxious over this. He seems to me to be doing a pretty good job of attending to official duties at the Secretariat Elder and Minister Kong’s side. And he typically doesn’t go drinking or fool around with the other; he’s a decent person who knows his place.”
Xue Xiuyi immediately got all worked up. His wine-induced hiccups persisted, and he covered his nose and mouth for a moment to compose himself before he impatiently said, “That’s all just an act! Your Lordship, you know of the Twin Flowers on Donglong Street, right? That’s Ouhua Pavilion and Xiangyun Villa! A few years back, Xue Xiuzhuo bought a batch of people from Xiangyun villa and hid them in the residence to groom!”
Xiao Chiye suddenly smelled something fishy when he heard Xiangyun Villa mentioned. His gaze sharpened as he repeated in a lowered voice, “He bought people from Xiangyun Villa?”
“He did!” Xiu Xiuyi extended his fingers. “He bought over ten… boys… and girls… all from Xiangyun Villa!”
After a moment of silence, Xiao Chiye rose and said, “Chen Yang, keep Eldest Young Master company. I think it’s about time for Yao Wenyu to arrive. I’ll go welcome him.”
The moment Xue Xiuyi heard Yao Wenyu’s name, he sat upright and repeatedly stated his agreement, not daring to pester or bother him further.
As soon as Xiao Chiye stepped out of the door, he shouted, “Gu Jin!”
Gu Jin dropped down from above, got down on one knee, and said, “Second Young Master!”
Xiao Chiye questioned, “How did you not find out Xiangyun sold over ten people to the Xue Clan when I told you to investigate Xiangyun Villa earlier?”
Stunned, Gu Jin did not dare to raise his head and promptly said, “I beseech Young Master to punish me!”
In the previous assassination case, Xiangyun switched sides and provided falsified evidence of Xiao Chiye accepting bribes. This matter was fishy. Their investigations to this date threw up no clues as to why Xiangyun suddenly threw in her lot with the noble clans. Xue Xiuzhuo was no womanizer or lecher, so exactly what secret was there in his buying of so many people from Xiangyun Villa and taking them back to his residence to hide without so much a word of it all this while?
Shen Zechuan was right.
Even if Xue Xiuzhuo had nothing to do with it, he had already appeared in every single incident ever since the Nanlin Hunting Grounds episode, perhaps even before the Nanlin Hunting Grounds incident.
“Of course, you should be punished. You have drunk quite the volume of wine ever since you came to the capital. Have you drunk yourself so drunk that even those eagle eyes of yours now have gone blind? No doubt you ought to be heavily punished for your incompetence and dereliction of duty. Go on your own to ask Chen Yang for a whipping!”
Gu Jin started sweating profusely.
Xiao Chiye handed Gu Jin’s this job because he appreciated Gu Jin’s meticulousness in his work, and Gu Jin was also the most skilled in conducting searches. As a former scout in the Libei Armored Cavalry, he had never made such an oversight. Xiao Chiye was right. He had stayed in Qudu for so long that he even dared to take his assignments lightly.
“I give you two days to run another check. Get to the bottom of the number of people Xiangyun sold to Xue Xiuzhuo, their names, places of origins and ages, and even who their parents and distant relatives are.” Xiao Chiye strode past him and said in a frosty tone, “Make another oversight, and you need not remain in this position anymore.”
Gu Jin said nothing and kowtowed, then he rose to his feet and headed for Xiangyun Villa.
Chen Yang, having gotten freed up, came out and saw Xiao Chiye’s displeased expression. Thus, he said, “Master, Xue Xiuyi is taking a rest now.”
“Get someone to send him back tomorrow morning.” Xiao Chiye turned back to cast a glance inside. “There is a set of rare books that are the only extant copies in the Plum Blossom Residence. Give it to him when you send him away tomorrow morning.”
Chen Yang reminded him. “Those are the Yao Clan’s collection of books. Should we inform Young Master Yao?”
“Yao Wenyu sold the Plum Blossom Residence to me, that means he has already decided that he doesn’t want them anymore. For most part of the year, he’s out there traveling and living in foreign lands. He doesn’t care for these.” Xiao Chiye had drunk a large amount of wine this night, yet he did not seem to be drunk. He tossed aside the handkerchief he used to wipe his hands. “Besides, even if he returned to the capital, he’s so elusive that it’s hard to get hold or even catch a glimpse of him. He will definitely not attend a banquet like this. This is not an easy man to invite.”
“Had it not been for the fact that Young Master Yao didn’t join the ranks of officials in the imperial court, I’m afraid Xue Xiuzhuo would not even have the chance to shine today.”
Still looking displeased, Xiao Chiye said, “The turbulence of politics cannot be equated with the engagement of academia. Yao Wenyu may not necessarily do better than Xue Xiuzhuo. These two are interesting; they are opposites in every way.”
“When all is said and done, he’s Secretariat Elder Hai’s student. If Xue Xiuzhuo is a traveler of the secular world, then Young Master Yao is an immortal who transcends the mundane world.” Chen Yang pondered it over. “But looking at Secretariat Elder Hai, he cherishes Young Master Yao more.”
“That’s right. Hai Liangyi imparts his knowledge to Yao Wenyu without reservation. He did not hesitate to break his original beliefs and overlook the noble clans’ prejudice to accept him as his student. This alone is enough to see how much he values him. Xue Xiuzhuo’s political achievements all these years are decent, yet Hai Liangyi still would not give him the dignity of being real teacher and pupil. What’s more, Hai Liangyi does not have the slightest intent all these years to force Yao Wenyu to serve as an official. Yuanzhuo, Yuanzhuo. It was out of fatherly love that Hai Liangyi bestowed this courtesy name on Yao Wenyu back then. The closeness of a teacher and pupil whose relationship has already reached that extent is already something no one else can compete with.” Xiao Chiye said, “Yao Wenyu is a legitimate noble young master of a noble clan. Going by their way of thinking, Yao Wenyu is even more legitimate than those so-called ‘legitimate di descendants’ of the Pan, Fei, and Xue Clans. The Yao Clan is honorable and distinguished. Even the ladies of the Hua Clan would find it hard to marry into the Yao Clan in the past. Mountains of gold and silvers are, to him, not that much of a rarity as a bowl of wild herbs.”
Chen Yang had not seen Yao Wenyu that many times. When he bought the residence, he only had a brief encounter with him once. He remembered the latter as a scholar with a zhaowen bag5 on him, one who did not like to ride horses or sit in sedans, and instead kept a donkey.
“Is Ding Tao back?” Xiao Chiye suddenly asked.
Chen Yang said, “… He hasn’t left yet.”
“Let him play.” Xiao Chiye strode into his own house and removed the brocade robe on him to replace with a set of ordinary clothes. “At this point in the banquet, I should have already drunk with all those whom I ought to keep company. There’s still some spare time before daybreak. I’ll be back soon.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan stepped out of the alleyway, and Xi Dan followed after him from behind. Xi Dan did not dare to overtake Shen Zechuan and simply stood behind him as he waited for orders with his head lowered.
Unexpectedly enough, Shen Zechuan was gentle. After turning around to look at him for some time, he said, “You spoke well tonight.”
Xi Dan quickly bowed and replied, “It is this lowly one’s greatest aspiration to help Your Excellency with your frustrations and difficulties.”
“But Xi Hongxuan is suspicious by nature; it’s not possible to trick him out of real money with only a few words.” Shen Zechuan commented. “Are you fully aware of his businesses across the various lands?”
Xi Dan said, “Yes, yes, I am! His accounts, whether big or small, would always be sent to his residence in Qudu every month. The sixty-eight shopkeepers under him are all sons of domestic slaves; the parents, wives, and children of these people are all in his grasp. They were raised specifically for the purpose of managing his accounts. There is no way to hide any big or small goings-on in the storefronts from his eyes; he knows the score. And that’s why there has never been a problem in his business empire all these years.”
Shen Zechuan then replied, “If Xi Hongxuan wants to withdraw these four million, he has to brief you to take the money from the money vault and hand you the key to open the vault door. I only want to ask: how will this money be transferred?”
Xi Dan silently made some mental notes and said after a while, “There is, in fact, a huge risk when traveling on land. When escorting the money carts, cargos are needed as a front to conceal the silvers. This is four million we are talking about. Without a business with a long history to serve as the cover, then Jiang Qingshan, the Provincial Administration Commissioner of Juexi, would be able to see through it right away. Moreover, Your Excellency, if we travel by land, then we must first bypass the thirteen cities of Juexi, as well as Dicheng. These are all difficult checkpoints to pass. Most importantly, Xi Hongxuan is right; there is no place to conceal this sum of money in Qudu at all.”
These were silver ingots and not paper bills. Even if one had vacant a quarter to keep them hidden, there was no knowing whether it would be able to accommodate all four millions of them. Then, there was also the headache of spending this money once he had the money in hand.
Shen Zechuan pondered as he looked into the night, then said, “This sum will not enter Qudu.”
Xi Dan did not dare to make a sound.
Sure enough, Shen Zechuan continued after some time, “The shipment is subjected to inspections by Juexi whether it is transported by land or by sea. Four million is too great of a sum. Even if we are thorough in our planning to keep a tight lid on this matter and hide the shipment from the prying eyes, those who carry out the orders won’t necessarily do a good job of the same. It’s also pointless if the money can’t be spent when it comes in. And so, this money won’t reach Qudu.”
Trying to figure out what Shen Zechuan was thinking, Xi Dan tentatively probed, “What Your Excellency means… is to trick the money out of him, keep it there, and circulate it through trading?”
“One half of it will be handed to you to do just that,” Shen Zechuan said, “I’ll come up with something for the other half. Be prepared. The Xi Clan’s business is extensive, and they can’t do without a manager. When Xi Hongxuan falls, you’ll be the next in the line.”
Xi Dan quickly answered in agreement.
Without another word more, Shen Zechuan climbed into the horse carriage and parted with Xi Dan for the time being. He still had to return to the imperial prison to review the files of all cold cases within the last two decades to infer some clues from them. He did not even have the time to go home and sleep.
The horse carriage reached the Imperial Prison. Ge Qingqing, who was on night patrol, had long since opened the gates to wait for Qiao Tianya to drive in.
When Shen Zechuan stepped off the carriage, Ge Qingqing came closer and whispered, “His Lordship the Marquis is here.”
Shen Zechuan unclasped his outer cloak and stepped onto the front porch. He nodded towards Ge Qingqing, who then took his leave. Shen Zechuan pulled off his cloak and hanged it on his arm as he pushed open the door.
Xiao Chiye, having drunk wine, could not rid himself of the scent of wine even after he had a change of clothes. He slumped on Shen Zechuan’s chair, with an opened book covering his face. When he heard the sound, he lifted the book but did not move.
“Come sit here.” Xiao Chiye tossed the book onto the table.
Shen Zechuan shut the door. He hung his outer cloak on the clothes rack and undid the clasps on his clothes in passing. Meeting Xiao Chiye’s gaze, he swung one of his legs over Xiao Chiye’s thighs, coming face-to-face with him before suddenly drawing even closer to him. Xiao Chiye reached out to wrap his arms around Shen Zechuan’s lower back, and their delicate lips met as they first kissed to their hearts’ content.
- 字辈 generation name, where each member of the same generation (i.e., siblings and paternal cousins of the same generation) share a common syllable. In the Xue Clan, this character is “Xiu” for Xiuyi and Xiuzhuo’s generation.
- 修德卓能 literally cultivation of virtues and outstanding capabilities, the first and third characters are the characters used in the name Xiuzhuo (修卓)
- 字 A literary name or courtesy name, also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one’s given name.
- To recap, Xue Xiuzhuo is a son of shu birth. Children in those days were classified according to whether they were a di or shu child. A di son (嫡子) was born by the legal first wife (this was the wife who has been officially married into the family, also known as a zhengshi (正室)). Being the eldest of the legal wife made him the legitimate heir. They also had higher social status and often received better treatment compared to the shu sons (庶子) born by concubines.
- 招文袋 a small bag hung at the waist for keeping documents or money.