There was nothing but dense, swirling clouds of water vapour, and the steady drumming of rain.
Shen Zechuan went to enter the spring. As he stooped to ease himself in, Xiao Chi’ye was able to clearly trace the curve of his waist and hips from behind, accentuated by the movement.
Toned, and finely muscled.
But not at all like the body of a fighter. It held no suggestion of a threat to Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes.
Shen Zechuan sank into the water, his rain-chilled feet slowly regaining some temperature. Xiao Chi’ye followed, and settled himself all the way on the other end of the spring, far away from him.
Bewildered, Shen Zechuan asked, “Why’re you all the way over there?”
“Because I want to be.” Xiao Chi’ye brusquely folded up a piece of wet cloth, laid it over his eyes, propped his elbows against the edge of the spring, and proceeded to ignore Shen Zechuan.
Just a few moments later, Xiao Chi’ye decided that was a poor decision, and pulled the cloth off his face again to glare fixedly at Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan was strongly reminded in that moment of the man’s own gyrfalcon. If you only prodded him a little, he might pounce.
“What would you like to see?” Shen Zechuan smiled, pleasant as a spring breeze. In the tone of voice a candied hawthorn vendor might use to swindle a child on the streets, he coaxed, “Tell me what you want to look at, I’ll show you.”
Xiao Chi’ye bent a knee up, and tugged surreptitiously on the last piece of modesty he wore about his hips. He said, “I’ve already touched everything just now, anyway.”
Shen Zechuan sank down a little further, so that only a pair of eyes remained above the water, watching him.
The calm contemplation got even further under Xiao Chi’ye’s skin. “What?”, he snapped.
Shen Zechuan’s chin rose out of the water to say, “Weren’t you in a pretty good mood just now? How temperamental.”
“I’m still in a pretty good mood,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “You can shut your mouth while in the bath, we don’t have to tal— will you quit looking up at me like that?!”
Shen Zechuan came up slowly, water trickling down his chest, his submerged hair fanning out about him, dark as ink. He unfurled like a lily-tree blossom rising from the mists.
Xiao Chi’ye’d had it with himself.
How did his mind conjure up a word like “blossom”?!
He could only watch as Shen Zechuan approached. When Shen Zechuan sat down beside him, they were so close that he could smell him.
There wasn’t a particular fragrance. It was a light, subtle scent. He wanted more of it.
Xiao Chi’ye took his arm back from the water’s edge, then reached across to yank down a set of robes from the small clothes stand, and shoved all the billowing fabric down under the water and about his waist. When all that was done, he looked back up at Shen Zechuan casually. “What, surprised? I’m just covering up in case you get any funny ideas from the sight of Er-gongzi‘s body.”
“I thank you…” Shen Zechuan said, expression dark.
Xiao Chi’ye looked down, and only then realised that the robes he had dragged down were Shen Zechuan’s instead of his own.
“…for helping me with my laundry,” Shen Zechuan continued. “So I’ll have to marinate in here until tomorrow.”
As their eyes met, the awkward silence metastasised at the speed of sound. Some distance away, the wind sighed, and the autumn rain continued its miserable downpour.
Several minutes passed before Xiao Chi’ye said, “Well, it was never going to dry in this weather anyway. Meng can fetch Chen Yang.”
He lifted his chin and whistled.
A brief silence echoed in the springs. Neither Snowbreaker nor Meng appeared.
Xiao Chi’ye whistled again.
Outside, Meng tucked his head under his wing, ignoring him. The rain was so heavy. He was not at all inclined to fly out there and get himself all wet again.
The silence stretched, vast and boundless.
Finally, Shen Zechuan said, “…I’ll just wring it out.”
Xiao Chi’ye shoved the robes back down, and ground out, “In a minute!”
The two of them camped out in the hot springs that night. By the time their clothes were dry, it was already eight in the morning. As Shen Zechuan— at long last— put his clothes back on, he could still sense those intent eyes on his back as he knotted his belt. He said nothing, however, and pretended not to notice.
Xiao Chi’ye flapped the door curtains away to step out into the still-dim light. Fog swirled in the air, rich with the damp scent of petrichor. Their descent was cumbersome, as the stone steps were frosted over with a layer of thin ice.
They went slowly, one ahead, the other behind.
“Your training grounds sit southwest of Feng Hill,” Shen Zechuan said, looking down from the high ground. “It’s quite close to Qu Capital, but completely blocked from view by the hill, so the Eight Battalions won’t look in on you. What a deliberate choice.”
“If Feng Hill hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have picked this place.” Xiao Chi’ye lifted aside some maple branches, and turned his head to indicate to Shen Zechuan that he should come duck under his arm.
Shen Zechuan went. On the other side of the branches, the view before them opened up considerably. Everything else in their line of sight dissolved away like mist in sunlight, and the Imperial Guard’s training grounds came into such clear view that he could see that there were already cohorts of men marching on the field.
“The Imperial Guard made no moves in the Autumn Hunt.” Shen Zechuan considered for a moment, then continued, “However, it was noticeably well-equipped and organised. Now that Hua Siqian is dead, as soon as the final raids and seizures are over, the Censorate will be turning their attention to you.”
Xiao Chi’ye obviously could not feed and cloth twenty thousand Imperial Guards on his wages, and neither could he appropriate the Libei Iron Cavalry’s allotment. But going by the annual allowance dispensed by the Ministry of Revenue before the Autumn Hunt, the Imperial Guard definitely did not have the funds to build itself up to such proportions. Xi Gu’an had lost his life to the “inexplicable”, and the very same “inexplicable” would be coming for Xiao Chi’ye now.
Xiao Chi’ye said, “Let them come.”
As for where the money had come from, he made no attempt to elaborate for the moment, and Shen Zechuan did not pursue the matter.
A while later, Xiao Chi’ye said, “The Ministry of Works commissions the Imperial Guard to do quite a bit of its grunt work. For the past five years, every sum paid to the Guard for its commission has been documented in black and white. The Censorate can probe as far as they like, but there’s nothing else for them to dig up.”
This was the reason Xiao Chi’ye had become one of the most infamous debt-chasers to haunt the Ministry of Revenue. Everyone assumed that he was chasing up money to throw around on women and drink. No one knew that he had really been keeping quite a tight budget these few years. The only item in his books he might have splashed out on was, indeed, alcohol. As much of a scumbag as Li Jianheng was, however, it must be said that he was generous with his brothers. On every occasion that he asked Xiao Chi’ye along to Donglong Avenue, whether they had sent for girls, or feasted their cronies, the money had come from Li Jianheng’s own pockets.
Li Jianheng himself lived on Imperial funds. He did not have a primary consort to introduce any kind of discipline into him, and therefore simply asked the Palace for money whenever he was short. Emperor Xiande had never stinted him on his spending, and would always give him what he wanted, even if he had to draw from his personal treasury. All of which was to say— Li Jianheng never wanted for money.
Xiao Chi’ye had not made it back to Libei, but he had never begrudged Li Jianheng for it. He knew better than anyone that Li Jianheng took every one of their gang of disreputable friends for blood brothers.
Following where his thoughts led him, Xiao Chi’ye spoke up again. “The Dowager saved you so she could use you. In untroubled times, you might have been able to climb the ranks in the Brocade Guard. But when the late Emperor sprung his trap… The Dowager… she has made contact with you, hasn’t she?”
Shen Zechuan met Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes.
He must not flinch, not even for a second. Xiao Chi’ye had an extraordinarily sharp nose for these things. If he let slip even a half-sliver of guilt, Xiao Chi’ye would be onto him.
Shen Zechuan said firmly, “No.”
A cold wind whisked by, catching the hems of their robes.
Xiao Chi’ye slowly blew out a huff of cold air, and smiled indifferently. “Lucky you,” he said.
There was faint light by the time they returned to Qu Capital. Xiao Chi’ye said from his horse, “I have to run for Morning Court. You should head back.”
Shen Zechuan nodded in acknowledgement, and watched Xiao Chi’ye ride off. When he returned to the house, Chen Yang was not there. Likely he had already headed off to the Palace gates to meet Xiao Chi’ye.
Shen Zechuan retrieved the Eastern pearl from his sleeve, and held it between the tips of his fingers, examining it in the dim light. Before he could unknot its strip of cloth, however, he froze.
When he took off his robes, he had tucked the pearl into his right sleeve-pocket. But just then, the pearl had come from his left sleeve.
Shen Zechuan clicked his tongue lightly, and furrowed his brows.
Xiao Chi’ye arrived at the Palace gates, dismounted, ducked into one of his own carriages, and swiftly changed into his court attire. Chen Yang had even prepared his breakfast, and the congee was still warm. Xiao Chi’ye had a bowl of it.
“We went looking for you at the training grounds last night, but we didn’t find you,” Chen Yang spoke in a low voice, kneeling by the curtains. “Qu Capital has been restless these days, it would be best to take someone with you when you go out, sir.”
Xiao Chi’ye put down his bowl. “Get someone to keep an eye on Shen Lanzhou at all times.”
Chen Yang acknowledged. “Our men are posted all around the perimeter of the property. He will not be able to leave the grounds without you knowing about it, sir. Only… the Huas have fallen, Governor, what is there to be gained from watching him these days?”
Xiao Chi’ye did not answer. He let his eyes fall, and was silent for a long time, his face grim. Only when Chen Yang, still outside, raised the question of Morning Court, did he stir to wipe his hands with a clean cloth and say, “I think he’s full of surprises. Looking at him now, can you pick out any sign at all that might suggest he knows kungfu?”
Chen Yang said, “He appears for all the world even more frail than when he first entered the Brocade Guard. If you had not mentioned how he’d lent you a hand during the Autumn Hunt, Governor, I would never have guessed from his appearance. That said, if you’d have Zhao Hui take a look, Governor, perhaps he might be able to see something.”
“Zhao Hui met him the last time he came to the Capital. He didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary either,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “That body of his…”
Then he broke off abruptly, and after a moment resumed, “Write to Libei immediately, and ask if Teacher will come.”
Chen Yang startled. “You want— “
“Whatever he’s doing to disguise himself, it’ll never get past Teacher’s eyes,” Xiao Chi’ye said coldly, turning his thumb ring around and around. “Besides, I… need Teacher for something else as well.”
Li Jianheng ditched Morning Court today. But before he had had a chance at a decent sleep-in, he was woken by Shuanglu announcing that Hai Liangyi was on his knees in front of the Palace. Li Jianheng was wide awake in an instant, but in his arms, Muru remained asleep. Unable to extricate himself in a hurry, he craned his neck up at Shuanglu and whispered, “You go! Find an excuse and get rid of him.”
Shuanglu went, but not long after was back on his knees before him, saying, “The Elder insists that he must see Your Majesty. I said that Your Majesty has not yet arisen, but then the Elder said he would wait on his knees for Your Majesty.”
Li Jianheng panicked. In his arms, Muru was just stirring, and he hastened to coo, “Darling sweetheart, quick, put your clothes on, and go have some breakfast in Chenming Palace out the back! We have to see the Elder now!”
Muru was a lovely, delicate girl with dark hair that tumbled behind her like a cataract. She did not make a fuss now either, and only put her clothes on as she was told. When she was dressed, she darted Li Jianheng a look with her eloquent, adoring eyes, and came to help him rise, brimming with gratitude for his attention.
She was absolutely killing Li Jianheng. He took up her hands again, and would have had her sit on his knee for court sessions if he could.
“Next time,” Li Jianheng promised as he rained kisses down on her, “Next time, we will not ask you to keep away.”
He held her in his arms and spoke with her for a good while after, and it was only when Shuanglu came in to chivvy at him again that he reluctantly let Muru go.
Hai Liangyi’s expression was grave as he entered and made his obeisance.
On the throne, Li Jianheng said, “Please rise, Elder Hai, please do rise.”
Hai Liangyi did not budge, but kowtowed again.
Li Jianheng, left hanging, looked to the left and right, and felt his face begin to burn. He coughed twice, and said, “We had caught a cold these few days, and we were just trying to get a little more sleep in the morning…”
Hai Liangyi said, “I have indeed heard that Your Majesty has been hard at work in the evenings recently. However, as no response has been received from Your Majesty on any of the reports submitted, after much deliberation, I have come to speak with Your Majesty in person. Your Majesty is at the full prime of your life today, and dedicated to the work of government. The lethargy and dispassion of yesteryear has been thoroughly swept aside, and we may now look forward to prosperity and progression in the near future.”
Li Jianheng gave a few uneasy laughs, and demurred, “Certainly, certainly…”
“However, where Your Majesty resides, deep within the Palace, he is surrounded on all sides by despicable cut men. If they are not kept in line, in time, Your Majesty will be blinded and deafened to the world beyond, and led far astray from the affairs of governance!” Hai Liangyi’s voice was steely. “Your subject has heard that a junior eunuch who serves Your Majesty closely, by the name of Shuanglu, has been bribed to tuck unsavoury riff-raff into Your Majesty’s inner circles. According to Palace regulations, unless one has been commanded to do so by Imperial decree, any person who introduces an outsider into the Palace must be put to death by the rod!”
Shuanglu fell to his knees with a thump, and looked to Li Jianheng in terror, stuttering, “Your Majesty, Your Majesty…”
“Mingli Hall is the sacred representation of the utmost righteousness in the land. Cut men cannot be suffered to make a commotion here.” Hai Liangyi looked to Li Jianheng. “Your Majesty!”
Li Jianheng’s heart was pounding in his chest. Meeting Hai Liangyi’s stern eyes, the ordeal of that perilous night came to mind again. His palms began to sweat, and he wiped them shamefully on his Imperial robes. He could not even find his voice.
Guards from outside were coming to drag Shuanglu away. Shuanglu skidded along the floor, wailing, “Your Majesty, Your Majesty!”
“He…” Li Jianheng’s eyes followed Shuanglu. “His crimes don’t warrant death…”
“Your Majesty,” Hai Liangyi said firmly. “Pan Rugui had been so bold as to form an illicit alliance of eunuchs, conspire with Hua Siqian, and stir up trouble both within the Capital and without. We must nip these audacities in the bud, and make an example of this one! Not only him, but any person who would introduce debauchery to the Inner Palace, and attempt to beguile the Emperor, should be put to death under the rod as well!”
Li Jianheng quavered with fear, and cried, “Never, never! With virtuous ministers such as yourself watching over us, we would never think of messing about! Please, Elder Hai, you must not take fanciful hearsay seriously.”
But Hai Liangyi said ruthlessly, “There is no smoke without fire. Your Majesty, you must not allow these deceptive, ruinous women to remain at your side!”
Li Jianheng was truly frightened now. How could he ever bear to allow Muru to die? He scrambled to his feet, and begged, “Elder, we have seen the error of our ways. Shuanglu has served me for all these years, surely it’s enough that you… today? We will be dedicated to our work in future, we promise!”
Hai Liangyi kowtowed, and left his last shred of dignity alone.
Li Jianheng held himself up by his desk, and listened to the unremitting thuds of the court staves outside, feeling as if each blow was landing on his own body. A whirlwind of emotions overwhelmed him as he looked upon Hai Liangyi, both plaintive, and afraid.
When Xiao Chi’ye came, the servants were splashing water about to clean up. Bloodstains paved the ground beneath his feet, an eerie scarlet. All the eunuchs of Mingli Hall were kneeling outside. It was silent, and no one lifted their head.
Xiao Chi’ye stepped into the hall. Li Jianheng was sitting on the throne, stunned as a wooden cock. When he saw Xiao Chi’ye, he stared blankly for a few more seconds, then erupted into a barrage of tears.
As he bawled, Li Jianheng flung things to the ground, wailing, “What kind of Emperor am I, that they can point their fingers at me and humiliate me like that! Isn’t every piece of earth under the sky mine?! Why is it wrong for me to like a girl? Why is that wrong!”
One thought on “Book One, Chapter 32: A Night on the Hill”
Love the chapter! >_<