The Xi residence was located in an inner street of Qudu, slightly to the south. In comparison to the Pan’s and Fei’s residences, its total land area was significantly smaller. It was also near Prince Qin’s Manor during the reign of Emperor Guangcheng. The Xi had special permission, but the first few clan heads had much foresight and did not dare build their mansion beyond what was permitted in the regulations. The interior architectural style of the residence was more the style of Juexi, while the building structures such as pavilions and terraces were all average and common.
Xi Hongxuan was on tenterhooks the entire journey back, but once he heard the sounds of horse hooves come to a stop, he knew he was home. Not daring to be careless, he bunched up the hem of his robe, which had been soaked until it was wrinkled, and hurried off the carriage, where he saw Shen Zechuan standing before him sizing up the Xi’s Residence.
“It’s an old mansion.” Xi Hongxuan’s tone was light and relaxed as he tried to keep up with his normal behavior. “Even though we keep saying all these years that we want to renovate it, we never had the time. Come over in a few days when the weather gets warmer to take a look at the blueprint too.”
Yet, Shen Zechuan turned his gaze towards the house next door. Those green glazed tiles at that end were obviously standard specifications1 of a prince’s residence. But the lush trees covering the vermilion walls only made it look eerie.
Xi Hongxuan followed his gaze over and said, “That’s the Prince Qin’s Manor. Prince Qin suffered from tuberculosis and passed away from his illness a year before the former emperor’s ascension to the throne. This residence then fell into disuse. It’ll probably be bestowed upon someone as a reward in the future.”
“It looks even more imposing than Prince Chu’s Manor.” Shen Zechuan did not shift his gaze away.
“Of course.” Xi Hongxuan raised his thumb. “The current emperor was not a child favored by Emperor Guangcheng. At that time, the Crown Prince, Prince Qin, and the former emperor were the most outstanding ones among the imperial heirs. A pity the Crown Prince committed suicide at Zhao Zui Temple, Prince Qin passed away of illness in his residence, and the former emperor lingered on his deathbed…” He suddenly smiled. “Otherwise, how could the current emperor have had the chance to sit on the throne? Prince Qin was also quite the pitiable one. He initially had a close father-and-son relationship with Emperor Guangcheng during Emperor Guangcheng’s last few years, and Emperor Guangcheng often came here. But someone in the manor under him used his influence to commit violence and beat a few villagers to death. Consequently, a lawsuit was lodged against him, and Emperor Guangcheng punished him by putting him under house arrest in this residence. It was during that time Prince Qin contracted tuberculosis. Emperor Guangcheng even made a special trip down for a visit. No one knew what they talked about, but they eventually parted on bad terms, and from then on, Prince Qin fell out of favor. That punishment to self-reflect behind closed doors dragged on and on, keeping him locked up until his death.”
Shen Zechuan tucked this piece of information away in his mind, but he had no wish to discuss it with Xi Hongxuan. When Xi Hongxuan saw that he had no interest in continuing the topic, he raised his hand to wave away the servants who were swarming over to them. He said, “Although this residence of mine is not as big as the residences of princes and aristocrats, there’s still some way to travel. Lanzhou, my body is extremely weak, and I stink to high heavens. It’ll be faster if we take a ride in the small sedan.”2
The servants from the Xi’s residence rushed to prepare the sedans. Xi Dan was originally the household steward, but he did not dare to show himself now, and it was instead Xi Hongxuan’s eldest sister-in-law who came out to greet and welcome them.
Xi Hongxuan loved this woman, or at least he said so himself. He had repeated countless times to Shen Zechuan that he wanted to kill Xi Gu’an because of the hatred he bore Xi Gu’an for seizing his wife away by force. But then, his expression was indifferent as he watched that woman descend the stairs. He did not ask for her to help support him either, and simply dismissed her in a perfunctory manner as he took his seat in the small sedan.
Shen Zechuan lifted the curtain with a finger and saw it all clearly. Qiao Tianya, who was following outside the sedan, wanted to speak, but Shen Zechuan gave a slight shake of his head to stop him.
The small sedans entered the Xi’s residence and made several turns before arriving at the courtyard where Xi Hongxuan usually stayed. His courtyard was different from others. It was not overly decorated, and the long corridor was connected to an office with wide-opened doors and windows, as well as a row of brightly lit lanterns. The sound of abacus within, mingled with various local accents, proved to be particularly noisy. There was a tea table erected under a mat awning on the open ground before the front hall, and seated and standing underneath the awning were the various shopkeepers and bookkeepers who had come from all over Dazhou.
At the sight of Xi Hongxuan, this motley crew of people all stood up and crowded around him. Those who were here to report expenses, prepare stocks, demand payments, and send greetings mobbed him all around, creating a din.
Xi Hongxuan first bowed to the crowd in a greeting, then said, “This humble one has only just returned. Look, with how stinky I smell, I won’t be able to do any work. There’s no need for any of you to be anxious. Wait here with peace of mind and take turns to go into the office on that end one at a time. As for me, I had merely headed out these few days for some fun. It’s nothing of importance. Our business will naturally continue as usual. Oh, as for the shopkeepers here to demand payment, there’s no need for you to fret as well. When has the Xi Clan ever missed our deadlines and defaulted on our debts? As long as you have the memorandum with you, I will pay back all substantiated claims in full!”
Xi Hongxuan hurriedly held Shen Zechuan firm as he pushed aside the crowd and called for the attendants to hurry over and serve tea and attend to them. He cupped his hands to those people the entire way before he managed to lead Shen Zechuan to a relatively quiet hall at the back.
“Lanzhou, take a seat first. I’ll go wash up a little and have a change of clothes before I return!” Xi Hongxuan shook his dirty robe and instructed the servants to prepare the food and wine.
Shen Zechuan took his seat and drank the tea. By the time the wine and food to go with wine were served, Xi Hongxuan had returned too. He was dressed in a brand new dark reddish-brown silk robe. He took his seat and personally poured wine for Shen Zechuan.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting!” Xi Hongxuan touched the flesh between his neck and let out a cheeky chuckle. “Home is still where I feel comfortable. That cell is so awfully damp. I feel so refreshed all over now that I’m done washing up. Here, Lanzhou, drink up! You really did not show mercy this time. A few more days locked up in there, and I’ll be dead meat for sure!”
“It won’t go as far as that.” Shen Zechuan said with a smile, “That was just to intimidate you. I won’t deal you such a vicious blow for the sake of our friendship.”
“You really caused me so much grief!” Xi Hongxuan groused with a bitter smile. “The state of my back looked to be in a frightfully bad state. I’ll still have to call for a physician over to take a look at it later. Say, wouldn’t it do for you to just tell me outright if you lack that four million? Aye, you just had to go around in such a big circle!”
Both men chatted merrily over wine, showing no signs of the mutual hostility an hour earlier when they had been at daggers drawn with each other.
The wine was excellent, as were the dishes. It was only when Xi Hongxuan was almost done eating that he wiped his mouth with a hand towel and spread his arms apart to sprawl back on the chair. He said, “It’s not like I’m unwilling to give you the keys you want. But Lanzhou, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If I return Qi Huilian to you, then I’d lost something to fall back on, so I can’t hand the keys over to you on top of him.”
Shen Zechuan, who did not eat much, set down his chopsticks and said, “I’ve done you a disservice in this matter too. But Second Young Master, there are some matters which I didn’t make up myself. Go make some inquiries out there, and you’ll know that Wei Huaigu truly doesn’t harbor good intentions and has no wish to help you out of your predicament at all.”
“I know they all have their own ulterior motives.” Xi Hongxuan wiped away the fine beads of sweat. “But since you were able to get me out of prison to another place, it means that the imperial court didn’t hand down that much of a punishment on me. This was His Majesty’s idea, right?”
“His Majesty went to great effort to protect you, so the prison can’t overstep their authority to investigate you. Now that you have been temporarily suspended from your post and have returned home, you won’t be able to carry out your duties in the Bureau of Evaluations.” Shen Zechuan changed the topic. “I’ve already sent you back home. The issue of the keys can be re-negotiated, but I want to see Qi Huilian now.”
Xi Hongxuan threw aside the hand towel and smiled as he rubbed his stomach. He said, “As for the keys, we have to discuss and come to an understanding now. Lanzhou, you’ve never conducted a business deal before, so you aren’t aware of the ins and outs of it. It’s not the slightest bit simpler than being an official. Holding those keys will allow you to transfer out the silvers, but those are deadweight silvers. If you take them out, you will sooner or later come to spend it all clean. So why not put it inside and let me continue to take care of the business? Isn’t it wonderful to let your money beget more money for you? However much you need in the future, all you have to do is to just give me a number.”
He sat tight in his chair. The earlier din had already disappeared without them realizing it. The windows and doors in his hall were all wide open, and the weeping willows outside shrouded in the color of ink looked like a row of hanged ghosts cramming at the windows looking in. The endless night was still and quiet, and the candle flame blazed a little. Those servants that had been waiting upon them all seemed to have vanished. It was as if both of them were the only ones left.
Shen Zechuan slowly leaned back in his chair and said, “How the situation has changed. After stepping out of that prison cell, the Second Young Master has indeed toughened up.”
“I’m satiated after having had my fill of food and wine, and I’m not hurting anymore.” Xi Hongxuan looked at Shen Zechuan and pointed to his own head, “And, I’m still sober. I’m telling you, it’s not a choice between Qi Huilian and the keys; your only option is to take Qi Huilian away. As long as you give the nod, I will give him to you immediately.”
Shen Zechuan took his time. The little bamboo fan slid out from his sleeve pocket, and he grasped it for a moment to weigh it up. He said, “That’s not what we discussed earlier.”
Xi Hongxuan answered in a low, muffled voice, “The world of business is ever-changing at a rapid pace. Earlier, you held me by the balls, and now, I’m the one who has you by the balls. The issues under discussion naturally have to change following this shift.”
“What if I insist on both?” Shen Zechuan smiled.
“Then it will all come to naught.” Xi Hongxuan patted his belly. “Let me offer you a piece of advice, Lanzhou. Don’t be that greedy son of a bitch. As the saying goes, be content with your lot. You have already taken away four million. I won’t pursue it further. This is already enough for a gesture of goodwill, right?”
“Before the money has been delivered into my hands, it does not count as having taken it.” Shen Zechuan did not divulge to him the part where these four million taels would be split into two portions to be transported through the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path. Instead, he said, “It’s not an easy journey to make either. You know it better than I do.”
“I have the channels for escorting the goods. No matter how competent Jiang Qingshan is, he can’t keep an eye down there all the time.” Xi Hongxuan had already gained the upper hand. “I can think of ways to get the money to you. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Lanzhou, I’m willing to give you these four million. But you have to tell me the truth. Are the three incidents of collapse, flooding, and plague your doing?”
“Of course not.” Shen Zechuan said. “I’ve long told you the honest truth. For this matter, you have to ask Xue Xiuzhuo. I can see you keeping a tight grip over these keys, so I won’t insist on it. As you’ve said, we cannot do without the other if we want to join forces. Now, can you give me Qi Huilian already?”
Xi Hongxuan pushed his chair aside to get up and say, “I’ve long gotten someone to go get him. You have been waiting for so many days, there’s no need to fret over waiting a little longer now.”
With his rotund potbelly, he took some steps to aid digestion. Looking as if he was considering something. he eventually walked his way to the door and strode a step out, where he shouted, “Where’s the man?”
The servant outside whispered something in reply.
Not hearing it clearly, Xi Hongxuan continued down the stairs. He took a few more steps once he had descended. The courtyard was dead silent. He suddenly jerked around and bellowed, “Shut the doors!”
All at once, the wide-opened doors of the hall were shut tight, and the windows were secured with slabs of planks amid the sounds of “thud”. In the blink of an eye, the hall was completely sealed. Amidst the rustle of the night wind, which sent the grim willows swaying, several figures gradually materialized out of the night to lay siege to the hall.
Xi Hongxuan gritted his teeth in hatred as he ripped off his mask and said, “Shen Zechuan! You still want back Qi Huilian? How insatiably greedy of you, just like a snake trying to swallow an elephant! For treating me like a fool to push around, I shall take your life tonight!”
He retreated a few more steps back.
“Drag over that double-crossing Xi Dan, who bites the hand that feeds him!”
Xi Dan had already been securely bound up by the others. On seeing him, Xi Hongxuan first gave him a kick to the face and sent him toppling over to the ground before he stomped violently on him.
“The audacity of you to sell your master out for money! Despicable bastard, rotten piece of shit! You forgot that I have your parents in my hands. I shall have your whole family follow him to the grave tonight!”
His eyes were already blazing with hatred as he spoke.
“Drag the Eldest Mistress up here too. Does she really think I don’t know she’s addicted to hooking up with this lowlife behind my back? Xi Dan, with that pea-sized gut of yours, you would never dare to betray me. But lust is like a blade hanging above your head.3 Who can you blame if you let someone get a handle against you and ended up involved in the whole sordid affair of betraying your master for money?! Scum!”
Xi Dan was kicked until he rolled all over the ground and howled in pain, while that Eldest Mistress, whose legs had turned to jelly, was flung before Xi Hongxuan, where she wailed and pleaded ceaselessly.
Xi Hongxuan let her hug his thigh as he looked at her and said grimly, “Do you know he wanted to harm me? You know, and you still want to follow him. Were you already planning how to make your escape to somewhere far away with him? I’ve never treated anyone better in this life than I treated you. I put in a hundred percent of my love and handed over eighty percent of my life. And this is how you treat me.”
With a pair of red eyes, Xi Hongxuan hauled up the Eldest Mistress.
“Xi Gu’an snatched you away, and I snatched you back. I give you the same honor and prestige you have always enjoyed, and give you gold and jade so you never lacked for nothing. I hold you in both hands like my most precious treasure. You… oh, you!” Xi Hongxuan was so consumed by hatred that his heart was dripping blood. “Leave with him. I’ll send you both on your way tonight!”
Xi Hongxuan shoved her down coldly and spat, then said with a fiendish smile, “Draw your blades! Mince up these heartless and ungrateful creatures, and we can save on the dishes to go with the wine tonight! This Second Master has the money!”
He fished out large quantities of gold and silver ingots from his bosom and sleeves and dropped them to the ground, where they rolled with a clatter. Amid the sound of money colliding against each other, Xi Hongxuan staggered a few steps and burst out laughing with tears streaming down his face until his laughs gradually gave way to sobs.
“All beings in this world are driven by benefits. I have money. So why bemoan the lack of someone true to me? For money, one can kill their closest kin, their flesh and blood, their beloved!” Having thrown away all his gold and silver, Xi Hongxuan raised both of his arms high and shouted himself hoarse under the glint of cold steel, “Do it! I’m here to collect my debt!”
The crowd promptly drew their blades, and snow-white light flashed.
Thanks Alex for burning brain cells with Lianyin. _(:3 」∠ )_
- 小轿 Small sedan chair typically carried by two people instead of the usual four or more.
- 色字头上一把刀, literally, only the word lust (色) has a knife or blade above it. (referring to the radicals that make up the words 色, i.e. ⺈(a component form of ⼑ which means blade) above 巴 to form the character 色. i.e., lust can lead to bitter consequences.