TW: Wanton cruelty to an animal.
Xiao Chi’ye sat on his hands for half a month. When he finally received word from Ji Lei that the training field was a go, he rode out immediately to scout the place with Chenyang.
Their destination was a barren piece of land which had once been an unmarked burial ground. When the executioner’s scaffold was later moved elsewhere, the place was abandoned.
“Though we’ve got Feng hill between us and the city here,” Chenyang dismounted to have a better look around. “Aren’t we a little too far out of the way?”
“It’ll just be three hours of riding before daybreak.” Xiao Chi’ye pointed with his riding whip. “We’ll have to treat the old devils at the Ministry of Industry to a good meal, get some fill dirt mixed up, and level off that area. It needs a little bit of tidying, but we’ll make do. Here in the middle of nowhere, the Eight Battalion patrols won’t run into us.”
“Governor,” Chenyang said. “For some reason, it makes me feel ill to spend our money on them.”
“Suck it up,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Even if we have to let them piss on our heads, we have to get this place sorted out.”
“Yes, sir,” Chenyang said no more.
Xiao Chi’ye stayed until sunset before heading back. Upon entering the city, he found one of Li Jianheng’s guardsmen waiting for him by the gates.
“What is it,” Xiao Chi’ye checked his horse to ask.
The guardsman bowed to him. “His Highness is hosting a dinner tonight at Huixiang Pavilion on Donglong Avenue, and wishes to invite the Governor-General to his table.”
Xiao Chi’ye thought about it, then rode off towards the Avenue.
Donglong Avenue ran close to the Kailing River. Upon nightfall, it would come ablaze with lights and lanterns. Restaurants and ‘flower houses’ bustled on either side of the Avenue, while small skiffs and pleasure-boats idled on the river.
Xiao Chi’ye dismounted at Huixiang Pavilion, and the manager emerged to make a fuss over him, and personally escorted him upstairs. Only when he lifted the curtain to the room did he realise that this was no simple banquet.
All the guests at the table were men he knew by name. The least amongst them were young gentlemen whose fathers or brothers held office. Seated by Prince Chu was a fair-faced little eunuch with delicate features, presumably Pan Rugui’s next grandson after losing Xiao-Fu’zi to the great beyond.
“Ce’an’s here!” Li Jianheng greeted him, crying, “Come sit down, we’re all waiting for you!”
Xiao Chi’ye picked an empty seat and sat, laughing, “What’s the occasion?”
“Let me introduce you. This is Pan gonggong’s grandson, Feng Quan, Feng gonggong!” Li Jianheng said to Feng Quan, “This man here is my dear friend, Libei’s Xiao Er-gongzi and Governor-General of the Imperial Guard, Xiao Ce’an.”
Feng Quan was easier on the eyes than Xiao-Fu’zi. He bowed courteously at Xiao Chi’ye, and said, “It is an honour to meet you at last, Governor-General.”
Opposite, Xi Hongxuan sat with his ankle propped on a knee, occupying two seats at once, his round face sweating in the heat. He called, “Let’s have done with the formalities, Your Highness, who else are we expecting tonight? If we’re all here, let’s get the dinner going!”
Li Jianheng lifted an eyebrow at Xiao Chi’ye, and said, “I’ve also invited a special guest, whom I know everyone has been wanting to meet.”
As Xiao Chi’ye puzzled over this unexpected nudge-and-wink, he heard a server lift the curtain behind him to softly announce, “A distinguished guest has arrived!”
The room quieted.
Xiao Chi’ye turned to see Shen Zechuan enter, still wearing Brocade Guard robes. When his eyes fell on Xiao Chi’ye, Shen Zechuan appeared to be taken slightly aback. However, his expression of blank surprise was so conspicuous that Xiao Chi’ye rather questioned its veracity.
Everyone in the room knew about the bad blood between them, and the atmosphere turned rather awkward for a time. The ones who loved a good show shot meaningful glances at each other.
Li Jianheng received Shen Zechuan warmly, introducing, “You all must know him, this is Shen Lanzhou. Lanzhou, come sit. Manager, start serving!”
Xiao Chi’ye reflected that Li Jianheng must really have relocated all of his mental faculties southward. He’d actually gone and brought the guy to dinner just for the sake of his face.
Shen Zechuan deliberately came to sit next to Xiao Chi’ye. As he sat, they exchanged a look.
“So this is the man everyone in Qu Capital has been talking about lately,” Xi Hongxuan squinted at Shen Zechuan. “Truly all the talk is no match for the man in person.”
“I heard,” Li Jianheng shared, “That Lanzhou’s mother used to be one of the wonders of Duan province. Shen Wei had to throw in half his estate as collateral before he could carry his lady off! Is it any wonder he’s a looker too?”
Laughter rippled from the table. Every pair of eyes, whether baldly or surreptitiously, swept across Shen Zechuan’s face. Even Feng Quan tutted and sighed, “If this gentleman had been born of the fairer sex…”
“Then there’d be no room for the Hua family’s girls!”
The fine gentlemen at the table roared with laughter at their little joke. Xiao Chi’ye watched Shen Zechuan out of the corner of his eye. His head was half-bowed, his expression hidden from him.
The nape of his neck was draped in the dim light of an adjacent lamp, where its soft, nephrite curve could be traced for a brief stretch before it disappeared under the collar of his robes. The skin there lay open and vulnerable to the air, as if waiting for a hand to be laid upon it, promising the taste of rapture. Seen from the side, the lines of his face flowed beautifully, the bridge of his nose a truly ingenious arch. Most perilous of all were the corners of his eyes, where he kept all of the things that might catch at a heart. There was mirth hidden in their upward cant.
Xiao Chi’ye looked again.
Shen Zechuan really was smiling.
“Got the wrong guy?” Shen Zechuan asked, looking at Xiao Chi’ye out of the corner of his eye.
“Just looking at you in a whole new light.” Xiao Chi’ye returned his eyes to the front.
Shen Zechuan looked up and smiled obligingly at the table. “You’re being too kind about my middling looks,” he said.
His tameness finally loosened some of the more reserved tongues. The conversation was becoming increasingly unfit for polite company.
Xi Hongxuan said, “There’s been a new game taking off on the Avenue, hasn’t there? It’s called ‘Juggling the Cup’. You pour a measure of the finest vintage into a gold cup, put it in a beauty’s sweet slipper, and pass it around to drink. Your Highness, have you played it?”
Li Jianheng laughed. “Fine wine we do have, but where do I find a beauty?”
Xi Hongxuan gestured lazily, “Isn’t there one sitting right here?”
He and Shen Zechuan had been keeping up their pretense of being strangers, and Shen Zechuan only smiled thinly at him now. “I would never dare answer to a name like ‘beauty’. If you gentlemen really wish to play, I shall be happy to accompany you to a madam’s house tonight to play to your hearts’ content.”
Shen Zechuan had after all been spoken for by the Hua family, and everyone else at the table saw the line and toed it. Only Xi Hongxuan seemed to have it out for him, and his words only grew uglier by the minute. It had been on the rumour mill recently that Xi Gu’an had lost favour with the Empress Dowager. Everyone assumed that Xi Hongxuan was taking out his brother’s frustrations on Shen Zechuan.
Just as Shen Zechuan was about to open his mouth, Xiao Chi’ye spoke from beside him, “How can we make Prince Chu play an old game that everyone else has worn out? This ‘drinking from a shoe’ business is so outdated even the street-whores in the south don’t use it anymore. Let’s put a spin on it instead. Young Master Xi, take off your shoes, we’ll bring them to the river and row them like boats.”
The table roared with laughter. Xi Hongxuan was a very large man, and his feet too were above-average in size. No one would have ordinarily dared take a crack at him for it, but he was fair game for Xiao Chi’ye.
“Alright then,” Xi Hongxuan took the out he was given and gamely thrust his feet up, calling, “Guards, attend! Come take these shoes off your Young Master!”
Li Jianheng began to laugh, and told him off cheerfully for being shameless.
Shen Zechuan had not expected Xiao Chi’ye to intercede in his behalf. He and Xi Hongxuan had been acting from their playbook to begin with. Now, once again, he looked toward Xiao Chi’ye.
Xiao Chi’ye did not look at him. He had picked up his chopsticks and was having a little food.
The young eunuch, Feng Quan, had been sitting quietly by. When most of the food had been served, he finally piped up, “Games and such are for you gentlemen to enjoy. For my part, I shall add another dish to the table tonight.”
He clapped his hands as he spoke, and the men standing by hurried in to present his dish.
The ‘dish’, however, was a small, live, donkey.
Feng Quan said, “Out of all the delicacies in the world, donkey meat is said to be the best of them. Gentlemen, have you ever had ‘donkey grill’?”
The hubbub at the table slowly died down as everyone turned to look at the donkey standing in the middle of the room.
Li Jianheng asked, “What’s ‘donkey grill’?”
In answer, the men heaped some soil on the floor, and deftly shaped it into a little mound. They then drove the donkey onto the mound, and buried all four of its hooves in dirt, until eventually its belly pressed against the heaped soil. Then, they covered the donkey with a thick cotton quilt.
“Gentlemen,” Feng Quan announced humbly, “Watch closely.”
One of the men, half-crouched, took a ladleful of boiling soup from the steaming pot, and poured it onto the creature. Two men on either side bore down on the quilt and swept it backwards from the head of the screaming donkey, skinning it alive. But that was not all. The man who had poured the soup now put down his ladle, and began to carve flesh from the burning donkey.
As a platter filled with meat, a man beside the grill cooked it right away, then passed the grilled meat around to the table.
The donkey’s screams grew more dreadful. Even the guests downstairs, disturbed by the noise, came up to investigate.
Li Jianheng blanched as he looked at his plate of donkey meat. He said, covering his nose, “Feng gonggong, don’t you think this dish is too…”
“Your Highness, please have a taste first. When the meat is carved immediately after scalding, its flavour is at its freshest, and the flavour is what we’re after with this dish.” Feng Quan continued meaningfully, “There is a moral behind this ‘donkey grill’. If a person, like this creature here, falls into another man’s hands, then he has no choice but to be at his master’s mercy. If his master would have him kneel, he must kneel. If his master would have him cry, he must cry. And if his master covets the flesh on his bones, then he must stand thus to be carved alive.”
Shen Zechuan’s predicament was just like the donkey’s. He stared at the blood-soaked quilt, trickling stench into the soil, and seemed to be looking at Ji Mu from five years ago, as well as his own younger self.
“It’s delicious!” Xi Hongxuan had already had a few slices. He seemed not to grasp its significance, and praised the taste loudly.
Shen Zechuan’s chopsticks were untouched. Neither did Xiao Chi’ye’s ever touch the meat.
Li Jianheng had heard the queer undertone in Feng Quan’s spiel, and said uncomfortably, “Goodness, this is really awful karma, take it away!”
“One moment.” Feng Quan finally looked towards Shen Zechuan. “Shen gongzi, this dish was specially arranged by my godfather. Why won’t you take a bite?”
If he had claimed Pan Rugui as his adopted grandfather, then Ji Lei could indeed count as his godfather! Who was this guy, and how did he win Pan Rugui’s favour, step neatly into Xiao-Fu’zi’s role, and gain Ji Lei’s approval in such a short time?
Ji Lei had tried and failed to kill Shen Zechuan, and now that Shen Zechuan had fallen under his thumb, his hands were ironically tied. This vulgar attempt to humiliate Shen Zechuan tonight was his way of making it clear that the feud between them would never be over.
Shen Zechuan picked up his chopsticks.
Before he could speak, the chair next to him was shoved violently aside. Xiao Chi’ye stood, lifted the platter of donkey meat, and hurled it to the ground before Feng Quan, where it crashed.
Li Jianheng got up quickly. “Ce- Ce’an…”
Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes were fixed on Feng Quan.
It was none of his business who Feng Quan wished to humiliate on Ji Lei’s behalf, but right here, right now, he, Xiao Chi’ye, was also a captive beast, no different from that donkey.
This slap to the face had caught him across the cheeks too, and it stung hard.
Feng Quan looked at him, perplexed. “Does it not suit your taste, Governor-General?”
At his waist, Xiao Chi’ye thumbed the grip of his blade, Avarice. When he drew, shrieks rang out from around the room, but as his blade flashed, it was only the donkey which fell to the ground, beheaded. The terrible screaming was silenced. Blood seeped from the drenched soil, pooling scarlet on the ground. No one breathed, waiting for his next move.
His back against the dim light, Xiao Chi’ye wiped his blade clean on the tablecloth before turning casually back to the rest of the table, smiling. “— Don’t mind me, continue.”
Li Jianheng murmured, his eyes still on his sword, “Ce’an, Ce’an, let— let’s put that away now.”
Xiao Chi’ye sheathed his sword, threw a look at Feng Quan, and dragged a chair over with his foot. He sat himself down squarely in the middle of the room and said, “Grill it all. I’ll sit here tonight and watch Feng gonggong eat.”
In the end, Feng gonggong was carried back into his palanquin. They left in a hurry.
Li Jianheng had had a little to drink, and whined now at Xiao Chi’ye, “Ce’an, it really didn’t even cross my mind, I had no idea that scumbag eunuch would be such a lowlife! We’re brothers, yeah? Don’t let this get between us!”
Xiao Chi’ye twitched a corner of his lips up into a facsimile of a smile. “I know who my friends are, don’t worry. Go on ahead.”
Li Jianheng hung on to his sleeves, looking like he had more to say, but Xiao Chi’ye made Chenyang stuff him into his palanquin before he could.
“Send Prince Chu home,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “I’ll walk.”
Chenyang took a look at his dark face, and, without a second word, got on his horse to follow Prince Chu’s palanquin.
Xiao Chi’ye stood under the lantern alone. A moment later, he booted the restaurant’s bonsai to the ground.
The potted plant, which had cost quite some silver, rolled away to clunk to a stop against a flight of stairs, where it was righted by a gentle hand.
Standing on the steps, Shen Zechuan asked impassively, “Did you bring money? You have to pay for this.”
Xiao Chi’ye said coldly, “I’m loaded, thanks.”
Then he reached for his waist, and found it empty.
Shen Zechuan let it sit for a moment, then turned to the manager. “Put it on this gentleman’s account. He’s loaded.”
One thought on “Book One, Chapter 18: Donkey Grill”
I will always love how even before cezhou get together, xiao chiye is already finding him very attractive, including his nape which hes gonna be obsessing about lol