The food in the prison was unclean, and so Xi Hongxuan suffered a stomach upset. His constitution was already weakened during the plague period, and now he was in even more of a misery. He was not in a good state mentally, so he often fell into a lethargic sleep. Furthermore, it was dark all around each time he woke up, and gradually, he lost track of time.
Without any window to ventilate the room, this narrow and cramped room smelled foul and stale, with a damp, musty smell thrown in for effect. There was no way an ordinary man would be able to endure it.
Xi Hongxuan was badly ill, yet he was unable to turn and move his body as freely as he would have wanted. All he could do was to lay paralyze on the straw mat and let his consciousness drift along with the dampness and cold.
As usual, the warden moved the flap open and stuffed the rice inside, but he did not hear any movements from Xi Hongxuan today. He looked in through the hole, but all he could see was Xi Hongxuan’s drooping arm. The warden was afraid that Xi Hongxuan had died, thus he opened the door and took the lamp to shake it in front of Xi Hongxuan’s face.
Xi Hongxuan struggled to open his eyes. With dry lips and a parched mouth, he said, “S… sir, please spare me some water.”
The warden flipped his hand over and poured a bowl of water onto Xi Hongxuan’s face.
Xi Hongxuan exerted himself to open his mouth to receive the water, hardly bothering with his dampened collars. He drank the water and pulled himself together to say, “Thank you, thank you!”
The warden threw the bowl away, then grabbed the oil lamp and made to leave.
With an unexpected burst of strength, Xi Hongxuan suddenly grabbed hold of the warden’s clothes. He forced out a smile on his chubby face and said, “Buddy, tell me. This *cough*! This place is not the prison at all, am I right?”
The warden swatted off Xi Hongxuan’s hand. But Xi Hongxuan burst out laughing in a hoarse voice instead, gasping violently as he lay on the straw mat. He pulled at the front of his soaked clothes and moved his eye to stare at the pitch-dark roof. He said, “This place isn’t the prison… I… I should have thought of it a long time ago! It has already been a few days. Even if Kong Qiu doesn’t interrogate me, there should be officials from the Ministry of Justice coming over to make their rounds for a check… Too quiet… It’s too quiet here…”
Xi Hongxuan said, then swiftly fixed his eyes on the warden in a stare.
“I’ve done some calculations. You come to deliver food every day at precisely the same time, and you even push and put the tray into exactly the same position. Buddy, the average warden isn’t this rigid! It has already been a few days, and nobody came to exchange shifts with you in guarding the prison door… You wouldn’t even accept my money, and even these sleeves of yours are so clean and tidy without so much a speck of grease and dust! You are well-built and tall, discreet and reticent—You are an Imperial Bodyguard, right?!”
The warden’s face was expressionless as he carried the oil lamp and walked away to close the door. Xi Hongxuan listened to the sound of metal chains winding around it, then pounded his fists hard on the straw mat under him.
“Shen Zechuan… Shen Zechuan!” Xi Hongxuan pounded until his knuckles reddened. He abruptly let loose a shout at the top of his voice, “Plotting against me… To think you’d scheme against me! You. Tell him. Tell him to come!”
There was no response from the darkness.
Xi Hongxuan dug his fingers into the straw mat. His consciousness was in a muddle as he spat hatefully, “He wants money, doesn’t he? Call him over. As long as he let me out… as long as he let me out…” He forcefully swallowed his saliva, then suddenly pulled at his hair and gasped, “I’ll give him money! I can’t fucking stand this anymore!”
The warden sat down outside with the oil lamp next to him and popped the broad beans into his mouth to down with his wine. With the metal door behind him blocking off Xi Hongxuan, all that could be heard from within was the sound of faint sobs and whimpers, much like the wind in the dead of the night.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xi Hongxuan’s eyes had turned cloudy. He did not dare to sleep again out of fear that he would not wake up if he fell asleep. By the time Shen Zechuan came again, he had already calmed down.
Shen Zechuan remained on his feet as he sized up Xi Hongxuan.
Xi Hongxuan once had a narrow escape from the jaws of death when he headed out to sea. Ever since he fought his way back from certain death, he had never cut such a sorry sight. He was different from the other descendants of the noble clans. He was not afraid of being caught in desperate situations, nor was he afraid of looking wretched. He let Shen Zechuan look as he strained his dry and hoarse throat to let out an unwarranted laugh for a moment before he said, “Lanzhou, you have guts! Four million… I nearly met my end being fleeced by you.”
“This hadn’t been an easy place to find. It mustn’t be too conspicuous, and it can’t be too far away.” Shen Zechuan let out a soft sigh. “I sure wasn’t expecting you to be this meticulous and discerning in your observations.”
Xi Hongxuan shook his arm and said, “Men die for money, while birds die for food. Brother, I’m more than willing to give you this sum of money! But you can’t simply want my life for just this bit of money…” His tone was a little weak and unsteady, but hunger and illness were not able to deprive him of the ability to adapt to his circumstances. He continued, “Lanzhou… I could have still pretended to be in the dark. I’m the only one who knows where the Xi Clan’s keys are. I could have run around in circles with you and extracted myself out of here through trickery. But see, I didn’t do so. I still hold this bit of brotherhood to heart… Lanzhou! We joined forces to kill Xi Gu’an and Ji Lei. You are now the target of envy in the Imperial Bodyguards. If you screw me to death now, you will lose the Xi Clan’s support! The more you climb your way up in the Imperial Bodyguards, the narrower the path you have to navigate. You already know what it feels like to be stuck in a situation so difficult that you can hardly move a step forward, don’t you? Which of those old men with hereditary positions in noble clans will be willing to submit to you? You are an ambitious one. Isn’t it also on my account that Han Cheng could tolerate you? If you kill me, you will become the target of all!”
Shen Zechuan squatted down, holding a handkerchief between his fingers as he looked at Xi Hongxuan and sought his advice with a serious expression. “Then, in your opinion, what should I do?”
Xi Hongxuan had seen this expression of Shen Zechuan countless times; he knew that there was no doubt Shen Zechuan’s intent to kill had been ignited. So he dripped with cold sweat as he traded gazes with Shen Zechuan for a moment before he replied, “We haven’t reached the point where we fall out with one another. Shen Zechuan, I lost this time; I concede! It’s not a disgrace at all to suffer a business defeat. There’s no need for me to create a scene and fall out with you over this bit of trivial matter. I fear you! This is the truth. But it’s also precisely because of this fear that I want to continue to work with you. Think about it. If you kill me, you will only have four million. But if you have me in your grasp, then you’ll have the Xi Clan’s mountains of gold and silver. I concede defeat! So why get your hands stained with this bit of blood? We still have all the days ahead of us to lord it over Qudu!”
“That’s a fair point.” Shen Zechuan said. “But it’s a tad too easy to dismiss me with just the words ‘concede defeat’, isn’t it? I heard that the Second Young Master has sixty-eight keys. So how about we split them forty-sixty? It’d also set my mind at ease.”
Xi Hongxuan slowly propped himself up. The expression in his eyes as he looked at Shen Zechuan was ferocious as he said, “I can give you the keys. But once you take the keys, you can’t ask for Qi Huilian again. How about it? Are you willing?”
Shen Zechuan slowly raised his fingers before putting it down again as if he was bored stiff. He said, “You think Qi Huilian is worth this sum? Naturally, I want the keys.”
“Since he’s worth nothing, then it’s pointless to retain him. I’m killing him then!”
Shen Zechuan suddenly began to laugh. He said, “You think I don’t know where he is? We are already at this point, and you still want to test me.”
“You’re the one who’s testing me!” Xi Hongxuan crawled slowly towards Shen Zechuan, finally revealing a savage expression. “I understand you. Lanzhou, the same trick is useless if you play it one time too many. You are accustomed to deceive others with words. The more you pretend not to give a hoot about someone at this moment, the more important they are to you. You tricked me once that day in the courtyard, and now you still want to use the same trick on me. I, Xi Hongxuan, may not be a person of outstanding smarts, but I’m also not dumb to that extent. You don’t know where he is. If you know, haha! Then you’d have killed me after getting the money! So how did it go, Shen Zechuan? Am I correct in saying that you still couldn’t find him despite searching all over Qudu?”
Shen Zechuan slightly tightened his grip on his handkerchief.
Xi Hongxuan smoothed aside his messy hair and said, “As much as you may be eloquent, you’ve forgotten one thing, and that is, your meticulous and careful concealment of him is already enough to make me suspicious. Even if I believe you a little, I still have to be on guard against you. The thing to fear when having dealings with you is that you’d turn around and give me a stab.”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes were emotionless as he looked at Xi Hongxuan and said, “Then, what do you want?”
“I want to get out of here.” Xi Hongxuan pointed at the door. “I want to walk out of here unscathed. If I can’t get out tonight, then Qi Huilian’s corpse will be left on your doorstep tomorrow morning. Do you believe me? You can try me. Xi Dan, that traitorous bastard who betrayed his master for wealth, must have told you that all the men under my command are children of the domestic slaves in our clan. My safety concerns the safety of hundreds of people. Even if I can’t get out, I still have plenty of ways at my disposal to kill off Qi Huilian!”
Shen Zechuan suddenly got up, and that dreary, ruthless emotion within him burst forth in this filthy room. He took a few steps back, taking advantage of the dimness to blur that face of his into some kind of behemoth lurking in the dark.
“This place is isolated from outsiders. How are you passing on the message to others? Tricking me even when death is near at hand, and you still tell me to try you?” Shen Zechuan said with a shadow of a smile in a frosty tone, “Sure then. Let’s us try. I’ll send you on your way out.”
“If I could be on guard against you in advance, then why couldn’t I take precautions against you prior?!” Xi Hongxuan was drenched in cold sweat on seeing the situation deteriorate. He promptly raised his voice, “I’ve long told the guards on watch that I’ll head down once every half a month. If I don’t, then they will strike! You asked me the last time if I dare to believe your words. Shen Zechuan, this time I’m asking you, do you dare to believe the same?!”
Shen Zechuan did not make a sound.
Xi Hongxuan then slowed his tone, as if soothing him. “Since you can buy over Xi Dan, then you must have already known that I am the only one who knows where Qi Huilian is. I’ve long understood that no one in this world can be trusted, so I have left countless escape routes in place for myself. Lanzhou, why must we both be on the losing end? It doesn’t benefit either of us to infuriate each other. Aren’t you making all these moves for the sake of gains? This deal is so unprofitable, no doubt you won’t do it. Whatever it is that you’re lacking, I have it all, and I’ll give it to you. You only need to lend me this guts and wisdom of yours, and we can thrive and flourish in Qudu. Look at that Li Jianheng. He’s a good emperor, one that’s few and far between. He signifies an even faster path to success for men like you and me. This is a meteoric rise we’re talking about, Lanzhou! Do you think Xiao the Second would be able to accept you if you kill me and offend the noble clans? How long can the Xiao Clan’s prestigious reputation of being infallible and undefeated in battles continue on for? Xiao Fangxu is already old. If Xiao Jiming were to die too, then what is Xiao the Second alone good for? They are doomed to fail and fall!”
Xi Hongxuan seemed to lament, and at the same time, encourage.
“Lanzhou, you and I both have had a hard time being under the control of others, and now you still want to choose to submit to Xiao the Second and be at his beck and call? The only things in this world that can never abandon you are power and money! Join forces with me, and I’ll give you money. You just need to help me keep the Xi Clan’s reputation intact, and we can bring our business deal up a level. When that time comes, it’d be hard for anyone jockeying for power to sway you and me from our positions! You previously wanted me to swallow up the other clans and proclaim myself king. So why are you now bound by constraints and limits yourself?! Then, there’s the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. Don’t you want to rebuild Zhongbo to avenge yourself for the humiliation you suffered in the past? Shen Wei’s name can never be fully cleared, but you can use money to smash the gates to Zhongbo open. They are currently so poor that they even exchange children for food1 in their dire straits. You’ll be like a deity who has descended from Heaven. By that time, who would still dare to refuse to yield to you? Who would still dare to curse you? These are all what money can give you. Can the Empress Dowager do the same? Can Xiao the Second do the same? Lanzhou, what are you still hesitating for? We can still continue to join forces and climb our way up to the top just like before.”
Shen Zechuan was moved by his words. He no longer seemed to be brimming with murderous intent, and his tone had also softened some as he said, “If you had been this candid way earlier, we would not have to go as far as to face off each other in a confrontation, isn’t it? You’re right. It’s by joining forces that you and I can save ourselves a lot of troubles.”
“I’m a merchant. To a businessman, profit comes first. If there isn’t that much of a benefit to our collaboration, then why would I waste my breath like this?” Xi Hongxuan’s back itched. The part that had been wounded by the collapse the last time was scabbing over, and it itched so much these days that it hurt. He took a little breather, then continued, “Then there’s no time to lose. Let me out now. Once I’m out, we can sit down for a proper discussion.”
Xi Hongxuan had more than ten martial arts experts from the martial fraternity in the Xi residence in Qudu. He had spent a large sum of money to hire them to intimidate Shen Zechuan the last time, and he had always kept them in his residence. In truth, he was already burning with anxiety, because he could not figure out what Shen Zechuan was thinking. As such, he had also started to harbor the intent to kill, determined as he was to burn his bridges and fight to the end. No matter what, he had to get out of here first—it was only by getting out that there would be a variable he could exploit to turn things around!
He wanted to kill Shen Zechuan so much that he could not even wait for tomorrow, much less engage in diplomacy with him. Being able to deal with each other for a long time often meant that both parties were evenly matched—they had the room to be able to sit down and trade barbs. Xi Hongxuan felt that the present him and Shen Zechuan had already lost this balance. It was as if he had fallen into a certain kind of pouch that Shen Zechuan had bound to hold him in check as Shen Zechuan climbed his way up the official ranks, thereby rendering him incapable of controlling and swaying the development of the situation like he could at the outset.
Xi Hongxuan still did not know where the problem lay, but based on his businessman’s instinct, he had already discovered his current plight in which he was turning around in circles like a man under a spell2 had everything to do with Shen Zechuan.
They had been working together in cahoots to this date, but other than killing Xi Gu’an to get his hands on the Xi Clan’s keys, the sweetness of every benefit Xi Hongxuan has had a taste of in all that had happened afterwards had been fleeting. Only Shen Zechuan had truly scaled to greater heights with power firmly in hand.
Xi Hongxuan was sure that he had been made a fool of, but he still had a look of sincerity on his face. It was as if he admired Shen Zechuan to the point he worshipped the ground Shen Zechuan walked on, while at the same time, feared him to the point he dared not take any action.
Qiao Tianya pushed the door crack open and cast the light from the oil lamp inside. Shen Zechuan’s exposed wrists were clean. With his side bathed in the light from the lamp, he looked no different from the way he appeared in the daytime as he said politely, “After you, please.”
Xi Hongxuan inwardly breathed a sigh of relief.
Thanks to Alex for the consultation services!
- 易子而食 refers to dire situations during wartime or famine that people exchange children for food (or eat them as food).
- 鬼打墙 a specific phenomenon in superstitions where people find themselves lost in the evening or dark and circled back to where they started, as if a ghost had built a wall that kept them from walking straight.