Xiao Chi’ye seemed to have clean forgotten his indiscretion last night as he spurred his horse across the streets, setting off tides of complaints from the roadside vendors. As he arrived at the Palace gates, he caught sight of one of the carriages from the family manor.
Zhao Hui drew up the curtains for Xiao Fangxu, saying, “Er-gongzi is here.”
Xiao Fangxu put his hands on his knees and peered out of the carriage. His eyes swept past his younger son to catch Shen Zechuan, an inexpert rider, trailing behind him. The sight gave him a moment’s pause, but he made no comment. Only when Xiao Chi’ye came up before him, and he saw the bruise on his son’s face, did he ask, “What were you off doing last night?”
“Drinking,” Xiao Chi’ye came to a stop with his whip held in one hand. He laughed, “I lost track of time, and when I woke up I was already late. The meeting’s done, dad?”
Xiao Fangxu nodded. “That’s Shen Wei’s son?” he asked.
An autumnal wind rushed into Shen Zechuan’s face then, grazing past his ears. As he met Xiao Fangxu’s gaze, an inexplicable tremor rose within him, and his fingers curled uneasily into the reins.
But Xiao Fangxu had not moved a muscle.
Libei’s grizzled king of wolves wore silver at his temples. Even as he was in this moment, squashed into a carriage, his extraordinary stature was difficult to hide. The presence and authority he carried in every inch of his body was nothing that could be hastily assembled. His was a gravity forged beneath tides of blood and avalanches of corpses. It was a strength etched within his very bones, which even “illness” could not disguise.
Xiao Chi’ye’s exceptional physique was a chip off the old block. His alarming arm strength, outstanding height, broad shoulders, and long, powerful legs; all of those things had been gifted to him by his father.
Presented beside the milder, more gracious Xiao Jiming, Xiao Chi’ye was more truly the wolf’s pup. When they stood shoulder to shoulder, at a casual glance, Xiao Chi’ye would unquestionably be more fearsome brother.
But in this moment, the true wolf-king had fixed his eyes upon Shen Zechuan, and Shen Zechuan, who thought he had learnt to suppress his instincts, found himself struggling with an intense desire to flee.
This was wholly different to being pinned by Xiao Chi’ye. It was a kind of scrutiny that pressed an instinctive tremor from its subject.
Grand Tutor Qi’s remarks flashed into Shen Zechuan’s mind then.
“Since Xiao Fangxu’s retirement, Xiao Jiming has stepped forward to unsheathe his own edge, and every man knows to tread lightly around him. But Lanzhou, twenty years ago, the man who had first conquered the borderlands on horseback had been Xiao Fangxu. By today’s measure, the Commander-in-Chief of Qidong’s Five Counties, Qi Shiyu, clearly holds higher office, and yet it is not he who holds title of vassal king. That’s because Qidong is “bequeathed land”: all five of its counties sit on land that had belonged to Dazhou since its founding. But Libei is different. The vast territory that is Libei: from Luoxia Pass, to the very limits of the Swan Goose Ranges in the north-east— all of that had been conquered in the Year of Yongyi, inch by inch, by the Libei Iron Cavalry under Xiao Fangxu’s command!”
“Xiao Jiming is General of the Libei Iron Cavalry today. “The Iron Destrier of Coursing Ice”— what an impressive title. But this mighty cavalry had been Xiao Fangxu’s creation too. Libei’s Cavalry does not have as long a history as the Borderland’s Garrison. It was the blunt-force heavy cavalry unit Xiao Fangxu had put together in answer to the Wasteland Riders’ repeated assaults on Luoxia Pass, in the Year of Yongyi. Libei’s warhorses, Libei’s soldiers, Libei’s chained swords: every symbol of the Libei Iron Cavalry you can see today had originated from Xiao Fangxu.”
“The Eight Families have been around for a very long time. They are a deep-seated rot at the heart of Dazhou. The Xiao family has only been able to stand on equal footing with the Hua family because Xiao Fangxu holds the fort in the north. As long as Xiao Fangxu lives, the Xiao family remains a towering shade-tree, firmly rooted in Libei! The King of the Wolves does not wear his name without good reason.”
Xiao Chi’ye turned around to look, and answered, “…that’s Shen Wei’s son.”
Shen Zechuan dismounted to give his formal respects to Xiao Fangxu.
Xiao Fangxu considered him for several moments, then said, “Shen Wei has died for his sins, and children are innocent. When His Majesty the late Emperor released you, he forgave you of your crime. Why are you following this brat around?”
Shen Zechuan stayed kneeling on one knee, his head held low. “I was enlisted to serve in the Brocade Guard. For now, we temporarily belong to the Imperial Guard, and are commanded by the Governor-General.”
“I see,” Xiao Fangxu looked back towards Xiao Chi’ye. “What are you picking on him for?”
Xiao Chi’ye pressed his tongue against the wound in his cheek. “Me? I would never pick on him. He and I have been through life and death together, haven’t we, Lanzhou?”
Xiao Fangxu turned his attention from Shen Zechuan then, and slipped into idle talk with Xiao Chi’ye.
Shen Zechuan remained on his knee. In a puddle on the ground, he saw the careless grin on Xiao Chi’ye’s face, and way Xiao Fangxu looked at his son.
Raindrops scattered the image in the water.
Shen Zechuan withdrew his gaze.
By the time Xiao Jiming emerged, Xiao Fangxu had left ahead of him. Qi Zhuyin walked with him a little, and asked suddenly, “Who is that?”
Xiao Jiming looked towards the man beside Zhao Hui. His face was impassive as he answered, “That is Shen Zechuan.”
Qi Zhuyin stopped in her tracks, rather taken aback. “Shen Wei’s son? Why is he with A’ye?”
Xiao Jiming said, “A’ye likes to get up to mischief. He’s probably tormenting the boy.”
Qi Zhuyin kept looking at them for some time, and said, “What an exceptionally attractive face. I hear his mother was a danseur in Duan province. Thank heavens it was Duan province, and not Cang county she danced in.”
General Qi Shiyu loved his ladies. He was the kind of man whose legs stopped working as soon as he caught sight of a beautiful woman. Though Qi Zhuyin had few brothers, she shared her home with countless “aunts”.
“Speaking of which,” Qi Zhuyin turned to him. “A’ye would be three years into his twenties, wouldn’t he? Isn’t he to be married yet?”
“Yizhi frets for him too,” Xiao Jiming said. “Libei doesn’t need him to marry into wealth or status. Any girl from a decent, honest family would suit. Yizhi sends portraits to Qu Capital every year. She’s picked over all of Libei’s daughters for him, but none of them seem to have caught his fancy.”
Qi Zhuyin laughed. “High-born girls think too much of themselves to horse around with him, and common girls are too timid to get close. Not to mention, how many girls would be able to hold their own against that temperament of his? I reckon it’ll easier to scale the heavens than to find someone he’ll hit it off with. And he’s got a habit of diving into pleasure-houses too. You’ll have to watch out that he doesn’t actually end up taking a courtesan home one day.”
Xiao Jiming was well aware of the fact that Qi Zhuyin’s own step-mothers were a veritable who’s who of Qidong’s top courtesans. They did nothing but squabble in the back of the house from morning to night, giving Qi Zhuyin a headache every time she went home. Because of them, she had been deeply disgusted with courtesans from a young age.
“If he really finds someone he likes,” Xiao Jiming suppressed a long sigh, and grumbled, “Who’s gonna stop him? You couldn’t drag him back if you hitched him to ten buffaloes at once.”
“Best be proactive about it,” Qi Zhuyin thought about it for a bit. “Never mind the rest of it, but she mustn’t have too much of a temper. Your Yizhi is a mellow one. If he brings home someone fiery, she’ll walk all over Yizhi.”
“We’re match-making our eggs before they hatch,” Xiao Jiming let out a chuckle. “It’s way too early yet.”
“You can never tell with affairs of the heart,” Qi Zhuyin said, laughing as well. “Who knows, one of these days he might suddenly catch a clue.”
Xiao Chi’ye could not shake the feeling of a chill on his back. He looked behind him warily, and saw Shen Zechuan standing beside Zhao Hui, thinking about heavens knew what.
“Go collect your badge from the Imperial Guard’s administrative office later,” Xiao Chi’ye cast a shadow over Shen Zechuan’s eyes. “Before the final assignations for the Brocade Guard are released, you’re going to follow me day and night.”
“Day and night,” Shen Zechuan repeated the phrase, looking up at him. “Does Er-gongzi need me to carry his chamber-pot at night too?”
“If you’d like to, you may do that as well.” Xiao Chi’ye took a step ahead. “I’ll be busy these few days, and I’ll be staying in the houses behind the administrative office.”
Shen Zechuan made no reply.
Xiao Chi’ye turned his back on him, and was already moving on to greet Xiao Jiming.
The Court of Judicial Review had yet to conclude their re-examination, but the raids on the Hua and Pan manors went ahead. Li Jianheng seized the opportunity to seal off the Dowager’s residence, Enci Palace, with the excuse that she had been “overcome with concern”.
A round million was eventually scrounged together for Libei’s military provisions. Xiao Fangxu and Xiao Jiming could not stay long after that, and were gone again just days later.
Xiao Chi’ye did not appear to miss them. After that one drunken night, he seemed to have tossed aside all of the drive and ambition he had shown during the Autumn Hunt. Li Jianheng would award him this or that bauble from time to time, and he received them all with apparent delight.
He had also begun to slack off. The original Imperial Guard still retained its primary patrol duties, but Xiao Chi’ye would be around one day and gone the next, and often could not be found at all. The Ministry of War began to question his behaviour, and became gradually more inclined to replace him.
But Li Jianheng would not hear of it at all, and did everything in his power, including throwing a tantrum, to prevent it. He almost had a falling-out with the Assistant Minister of War, who had presented the suggestion.
He had flung the Assistant Minister’s proposal to the ground and said, “Xiao Ce’an has given excellent service to the throne. We owe him our life. How can he be unworthy of the role of Governor-General of the Imperial Guard? It’s not as if he’s doing a bad job. We will not replace him!”
The two of them had gone back to their pre-Hunt, degenerate ways, and that made Li Jianheng feel a little more at ease. The Xiao Ce’an he had met that night seemed more like a mere figment of his imagination. The man he called brother was this laid-back, irreverent scoundrel before him.
Xiao Chi’ye never brought up the subject of returning to Libei, and that pleased Li Jianheng very much as well. He reckoned that his brother understood and sympathised. He couldn’t help it either, could he? They could lark around just the same in Qu Capital. Plus, now that he was Emperor, on the merit of their connection, Xiao Chi’ye could do whatever he damn well pleased, and run rampant in Qu Capital.
Why would anyone want to return to Libei in the first place? That cold, bleak landscape could never compare with the leisure and comfort of Qu Capital!
Xiao Chi’ye wanted to go riding in the countryside; Li Jianheng said yes. Xiao Chi’ye wanted to build expansions for the Imperial Guard’s administrative office; Li Jianheng said yes. Xiao Chi’ye wanted to work half-days and slack around the other half; not only did Li Jianheng say yes to that, he had said it with loud and enthusiastic approval.
At every likely moment, the two of them could be found playing ball, or racing horses, or otherwise amusing themselves together. Li Jianheng could no longer fool around on Donglong Avenue, but he could call Xiao Chi’ye in to listen to the pipa with him. That girl, Mu Ru, lived right there in Mingli Hall now. Li Jianheng had thought Xiao Chi’ye might have had a few words to say about that, but Xiao Chi’ye had said not a word, and was as gleeful about it as he was.
It was a goddamn cushy job, this Emperor business!
By the last rains of the season, Xi Gu’an had been sentenced to decapitation by the Court of Judicial Review. But by volunteering his own guilt and discarding his wealth, Xi Hongxuan had unexpectedly caught Li Jianheng’s eye, and was assigned to a modest position at the Ministry of Revenue. He had always been a connoisseur where pleasure was concerned, which delighted Li Jianheng. He now went to Li Jianheng on the daily to tell him about all the best ways to entertain himself.
Not long after Xi Gu’an was sentenced, Hua Siqian killed himself by biting off his own tongue in his cell. In the confessions he left behind, he claimed sole responsibility for the entirety of his crimes, and left the Dowager entirely in the clear. Only Ji Lei and Pan Rugui remained unsentenced now. Hai Liangyi still hoped to pry their mouths open, but had yet to succeed.
Dampness hung about the room. Shen Zechuan had just returned. The moment he opened the door, he had caught sight of the eastern pearl laid out on his table. Shen Zechuan had closed the door behind himself, and had just picked the pearl up, when he heard Chen Yang knocking.
He opened the door again. Chen Yang said, “The Governor-General has called for you.”
Shen Zechuan’s palm closed around the pearl, its strip of cloth growing damp. He answered in a normal voice, “I’ll be there after a change of clothes.”
Chen Yang said, “No need for that, just come as you are. The Governor doesn’t like to be left waiting.”
And he stepped to the side, clearly waiting to leave with Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan could only let his hand fall to his side, and stepped out to head off with Chen Yang.
Xiao Chi’ye was putting on his great-coat when they arrived. He said, “Take my sword and follow me.”
Shen Zechuan followed him out. When Xiao Chi’ye walked off to get his horse, he noticed belatedly that Chen Yang had not come with them.
Xiao Chi’ye mounted his horse, and the gyrfalcon came to settle on his shoulder, shaking a shower of droplets from its ruff. Shen Zechuan had no choice but to follow. They rode out of the city in the rain, heading towards the training grounds at Feng hill.
When they arrived at the training grounds, scarcely anyone was around on the wide, empty field. Xiao Chi’ye took the reins off Snowbreaker and gave him a brisk pat, letting him run off as he pleased. Meng flew under the shelter of the corridors, refusing to spend another second in the rain.
“Take your clothes off.” Xiao Chi’ye turned around, taking off his own great-cloak as he said this to Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan, still bearing Xiao Chi’ye’s sword, lifted his chin. Rain trickled down the front of his robes, and that pale neck lay carelessly bare.
Xiao Chi’ye reflected that Shen Zechuan’s neck might be to him like what a cat was to other people. You couldn’t help but want to run your hands against it.
What kind of a weird compulsion was that??
He had stripped down to his inner robes as he thought. Then he noticed that Shen Zechuan had not moved, and prompted, “What’re you waiting for? Hurry up!”
Shen Zechuan laid his fingers against his belt. He flicked his eyes towards Xiao Chi’ye, and said sedately, “If I take this off, there’ll be nothing left.”
2 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 30: King of the Wolves”
i just love how ce’an’s family are talking about the type of person would be able to handle him, and the irony is that they are indirectly talking about lanzhou who’s been able to stand up to him and keep up with his temper.
I really love how this whole family gossips about xiao ce’an when he’s not there xD