This bout of sparring lasted a long time, pushing their satiety level to an even greater height until it became an insatiable desire for more after they had taken their first taste of the forbidden fruit. They were used to testing each other’s limit in the dark. As their love grew increasingly deeper, a mere kiss was no longer able to fill their hunger. Desire, in its prime, laid bare at its rawest. Such a cloyingly sweet and clingy intimacy was a unique treat distinct to lovers, simply because it was a luxury to be in each other’s company at all times. Since there were many eyes and ears inside the Imperial Prison, a kiss could only be considered a kind of tacit compensation between them.
When it was time to end the kiss, Xiao Chiye asked, “Where did you go?”
As Shen Zechuan eased into his seated position, his thighs ground against the sides of Xiao Chiye’s legs. He took his time slowing down his breathing. With a hint of veiled seduction in his half-lidded eyes, he replied, “Counting money.”
Xiao Chiye squeezed him and said, “Did you get off on counting money?”
Shen Zechuan let out a husky laugh. “Getting off from being squeezed by you.”
At Shen Zechuan’s laugh, Xiao Chiye felt restless. He grabbed Shen Zechuan’s chin to hold it in place and said, “Keep going with this seduction of yours.”
Shen Zechuan’s collarbone was peeking out from his undone collars, and the brutal bite marks from the last time had yet to fade. Paying them no mind, Shen Zechuan wetted his bitten lips and said, “I have to discuss something with you.”
Xiao Chiye held him up and said, “What a coincidence. I have something to discuss with you too.”
Shen Zechuan was so scalded by Xiao Chiye’s gaze that his mouth felt dry and parched. He said, “The military supplies this year have to wait until April before they can be dispatched from Juexi. I need to borrow and use the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path.”
Xiao Chiye only had to think for a little to know what he was up to. “The military supplies passing through the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path are personally escorted by the Libei Armored Cavalry themselves. There are no inspection checkpoints along the way. You can use it to transport the silvers, but it’s all subjected to my elder brother’s approval.”
“If this money belongs to me, the Hereditary Prince naturally won’t agree to it. But if this sum of money is yours, the Hereditary Prince will surely agree.” Shen Zechuan raised his chin slightly. “Here is my betrothal gift. Keep it for me, Second Young Master.”
“Only this much as a betrothal gift?” Xiao Chiye laughed as he freed up one hand to place the meal box on the table. “A tough deal.”
Shen Zechuan sniffed and said, “There’s grilled fish.”
With that, he promptly forgot about the betrothal gift and pulled out chopsticks inside the box. It was in this way that Xiao Chiye watched as he ate. In a blink of an eye, the bowl of rice was half gone, and there were only bones left of the fish when it returned to the plate.
Xiao Chiye actually did not like eating fish. He had lost his mother when he was young, and his household was not one to spoil its children, unlike how the Eight Great Clans pampered their offspring. Although he had a nanny and maidservants to wait upon him, he had to feed himself once he had learned how to hold the chopsticks. He was headstrong, and there were plenty of toys he loved to play with, so he did not care to waste his time picking out the fish bones. After getting choked on it enough times, he hardly ate it anymore.
Xiao Chiye looked at him and said, “Does it smell good? Apparently, it’s from a chef from Hezhou, who is even harder to hire than the imperial chefs from the palace.” Shen Zechuan picked out the fish bones and fed Xiao Chiye the meat with his chopsticks. Xiao Chiye tasted it and commented, “Passable.”
Having eaten his fill, Shen Zechuan set down his bowl and chopsticks and said, “What do you want to discuss with me?”
Xiao Chiye handed him a handkerchief and said, “The earlier investigation into Xiangyun missed one piece of information. A few years earlier, Xue Xiuzhuo bought a batch of people from Xiangyun Villa and kept them in his residence. I’m afraid even Xi Hongxuan doesn’t know about this matter.”
As expected, there was a shift in Shen Zechuan’s expression. He said, “He’s not one to keep and raise prostitutes in private. This kind of thing is also almost unheard of in Ouhua Pavilion. This action is too abnormal.”
“That’s right. It’s abnormal.” Xiao Chiye leaned back against the back of the chair. “I have a hunch that the reason Xiangyun made a false charge against me lies here.”
“He bought them a few years back.” Shen Zechuan gradually furrowed his brows. “If it was truly to get Xiangyun under his control, then this move was planned much too early.”
“Why would Xiangyun fall under his control because of this? Some pawns, if planted too early, would not necessarily be able to stand up to the test of time. I feel that he’s not making such a move just to get a handle against Xiangyun.” Xiao Chiye sorted out his line of thought. “Your plotting of the assassination is not something he would be able to predict in advance. So the subsequent post-developments would definitely be hard for him to guard against.”
Xiao Chiye groped around these messy threads of clues, one at a time. His wolf-like intuition told him that this matter would not be that simple.
“Improvision.” Shen Zechuan suddenly righted Xiao Chiye’s face and said, “You are right. The puppet string connected to Xiangyun was not specifically intended to be used for dealing with you… Xiangyun’s act of perjury was simply an opportunity he seized for his own purpose. The fact that he could simply throw out Xiangyun to use shows that Xiangyun is of little significance to him. There is another reason he bought those people, and Xiangyun is merely a convenient pawn that incidentally came with this reason. What’s more, she’s a pawn he can’t wait to discard.”
“Then, the key to his purchase of those people is…” Xiao Chiye was on the same wavelength.
“… among the batch of people he bought.” Shen Zechuan completed his sentence softly.
Both men looked at each other, caught yet again in another puzzle of unknowns. Xiangyun Villa was a brothel. What person could there be in a brothel who would be of great importance to Xue Xiuzhuo?
“He bought over ten people to obscure the truth and throw everyone off scent so that no one can tell who exactly was his intended purchase. No doubt Xiangyun herself doesn’t know the answer either.” Xiao Chiye said. “I have to get Xue Xiuyi to probe into this matter again. His status in the Xue Residence would allow him free access to the residence. Xue Xiuzhou might be able to obstruct and deny entry to outsiders, but he definitely can’t do that to Xue Xiuyi.”
This piece of information was indeed important, but Shen Zechuan could not figure it out at present. He had maneuvered Xi Hongxuan into action this time also because he had apprehensions about Xue Xiuzhuo, who similarly had Xi Hongxuan in his grasp. Instead of becoming more distinct and decipherable with the passage of time, this person had, on the contrary, became increasingly obscure and unreadable.
“… There’s still time.” Shen Zechuan seemed to be thinking aloud to himself. “We will be thrown off kilter the moment we get overly anxious, and that could easily put us in a disadvantageous position. Since he has not made his move, then it means it’s not time yet, and this is an opportunity we can exploit. At this time, we are the ones hiding in the dark, while he’s out there in the open. We will definitely learn some crucial information if we follow the clues… Xi Hongxuan has always been on friendly terms with Xue Xiuzhuo all these years. Even if he’s unaware of Xiu Xiuzhuo’s purchases of those prostitutes, there will still be something he knows that others don’t. I’ll probe him again later.”
“After saying so much, you still haven’t let this Second Young Master in on the details,” Xiao Chiye did not let him get off him. “How much silver did you swindle from him?”
Shen Zechuan snapped out of his thoughts and pursed his lips slightly. He raised four fingers, just like he had done so before.
Xiao Chiye immediately grasped those fingertips tight without demur. “Sweet. Worth it. Put it down as your betrothal gift, quick.”
Shen Zechuan said, “You should act with a little more reserve instead of jumping at it. Four million is too little still.”
Xiao Chiye said, “It’s too generous. A starting price at four million? For someone who can make this much money as you do, this Second Young Master will take whatever price you offer.”
Amused by him, Shen Zechuan said, “I told him that Wei Huaigu wanted four million silvers. There was not the slightest bit of hesitation or reluctance on his part at all, which shows that four million is simply a drop in the ocean to the Xi Clan.”
Seeing how happy he was tonight, Xiao Chiye made no further mention of Xue Xiuzhuo’s matter. He jerked his legs to jolt him and said, “Only the Xi Clan themselves know precisely how much money the Xi Clan has. All the others can only see are the salterns and copper mines they operate. The extent of their enterprise isn’t just limited to the whole empire, but also stretches as far as the foreign lands. The common rich young masters play by hitting the brothels and the gambling dens, but Xi Hongxuan’s idea of fun is to run brothels and gambling dens. That broker house on Donglong Street is also his shop, and its internal dealings implicate plenty of imperial court bigwigs, all of whom have fields and businesses at stake in his hands, so they have no choice but to give him face. This time, it’s four million, but how much will it be the next time? The Northeast Provisions Bridle Path is only opened twice every year. How to hide and spend that much silver are all issues you have to think through very carefully.”
“No one has ever broken through the Xi Clan’s money vault, so putting the money inside is the most secure. No matter how that money is spent now, it’d be hard to escape the eyes of the imperial court. The accounts of your 20,000-strong Imperial Army already have to be checked and triple-checked in successive order. If this sum of money is not spent and disposed of perfectly, then the Second Young Master would have to be detained in jail to await trial.”
His curiosity piqued, Xiao Chiye said, “Spending money, huh? What else is there other than frittering it away by playing and having fun… Or are you preparing to save it for Zhongbo?”
“Nowhere in mind for the money to go to for the time being.” Seeing that it was almost time, Shen Zechuan fastened his cloak with one hand. “The Second Young Master doesn’t handle household affairs, so how would you know how valuable the daily staples like tea, rice, oil, and salt are? There will be plenty of uses for the money in the future, so there’s no harm in keeping it on hand, even if we can’t spend it all for the time being. It’s better to be prepared for all contingencies.”
Both of them were clearly set on defrauding Xi Hongxuan by convening in this way to discuss the latter’s household finances and assets with such serious expressions. Xiao Chiye still had to return to Kailing River, and after saying a few words, he had to leave. He had rushed over as soon as he had the free time to see Shen Zechuan, and now, having fed the latter, he could not afford to sit and linger any longer.
As Xiao Chiye turned over to mount his horse, he recalled something else and pulled the reins to say, “The inspection will happen these two days. The Grand Secretariat has already proposed a candidate for the Provincial Administration Commissioner for the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. That Jiang Qingshan of Juexi had hurried over to report to Qudu on imperial orders. My guess is that it’s likely him.”
“I’ve long heard of his name and reputation. I remembered how he displayed courage and foresight when he handled the aid relief efforts for the thirteen cities of Juexi six years ago.” At this point, Shen Zechuan recalled that this person was also on good terms with Xue Xiuzhuo and could not help but hesitate.
“Although his personal friendship with Xue Xiuzhuo is pretty good, it does not necessarily mean that he’s in Xue Xiuzhuo’s camp. When he enters the capital, you can meet him to try to get a grasp on him. He isn’t a descendant of a noble clan, and he doesn’t rely on the noble clans for backing. You can decide for yourself whether or not we can use him when the time comes.” Seeing Shen Zechuan standing on the steps, Xiao Chiye raised a hand to beckon to him.
Shen Zechuan was all ears to hear him out. He did not expect Xiao Chiye to simply say nothing and merely caressed a handful of his hair with his palm. With a lift of its hooves, Lang Tao Xue Jin broke into a gallop. Ge Qingqing pushed the gates open, and Xiao Chiye rode away into the night.
Thanks to Alex for burning brain cells with Lianyin. Muacks<3