Book One, Chapter 44: Night talk

“Maybe so,” Xiao Chi’ye looked down at him, “but the person empowered to directly influence the outcome at the battlefront in Zhongbo was Shen Wei.”

With his gaze lowered like that, his eyes were cloaked in an illusion of warmth. The light in them from before had not gone out entirely, and rippled still in his pupils, like fireflies on a summer’s night.

Shen Zechuan watched them for a moment, then said, “There have been no major reassignments within the Ministry of War in recent years.”

“Look into it if you want to,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “I won’t stand in your way on this.”

“Of course not,” Shen Zechuan shifted his gaze back onto his page. “Because you want to look into it too. The Hua family would be a prime suspect, but Shen Wei was already a soiled blade, and there would’ve been any number of simpler ways to get rid of him. They would have risked leaving a trail with such a dramatic assassination.”

“You killed Ji Lei, didn’t you?” Xiao Chi’ye smiled at him. “He would have spilled a good amount of beans to you. C’mon, don’t be stingy, bring them out and we’ll have a crack at them together.”

“Everything you’ve told me, I already knew, but I’m the only one who knows about the things I could share.” Little by little, Shen Zechuan tugged his hand free of Xiao Chi’ye’s grip. “There’s quite a difference in value here, wouldn’t you say?”

Xiao Chi’ye thought about it for a moment, and said, “How’s this— we’ll go one for one.”

“Easily done,” Shen Zechuan said. “If you move over.”

Xiao Chi’ye trapped him in against the bookshelf with his superior height, and as he brought up a casual hand to leaf through some pages, said, “Don’t you know the rules? Secrets need to be spoken quietly.”

Shen Zechuan leaned away. “Quietly doesn’t mean ‘while stuck together’.”

“But what if the walls have ears?” Xiao Chi’ye put his book back, and smiled down at him, his arm propped up against the shelf. “After all, I’ve only just bought this house, and I don’t know it inside out. It’s best to be careful.”

“Xiao Ce’an,” Shen Zechuan kept his eyes on his book, “You really are a jackass.”

“Yep,” Xiao Chi’ye agreed, “And what are you going to do about it? I’m gonna start sharing now.”

Shen Zechuan waited a while, but nothing followed. He looked sideways, and found that Xiao Chi’ye was still looking at him.

For a moment their breaths mingled, and then Xiao Chi’ye finally opened his mouth. “Shen Wei didn’t commit self-immolation. The fire at the manor of the Lord of Jianxing was started by Brocade Guards, and the person who saw to the execution of that order there was Ji Lei. You know that too, right?”

“I do,” Shen Zechuan said evenly. “That’s not a secret.”

“Then do you know the real cause of Duan province’s fall?” Xiao Chi’ye asked.

Shen Zechuan could not turn his eyes away. He could not even allow his thoughts to slow for a moment. If he fell behind Xiao Chi’ye’s train of thought, he could easily tumble into one of his traps.

Shen Zechuan started, “When Chashi river came under attack, Shen Wei ordered the Duan province garrison troops to retreat, and left his firstborn son, Shen Zhouji to give aid at Chashi River. Shen Zhouji was cut from the same sorry cloth as his old man was, and deserted the soldiers at Chashi river to run away with his personal troops. That very same day, he was dragged to his death on the main road behind the horses of the desert riders. Once Shen Zhouji was dead, morale crumbled at Chashi river. When all the soldiers were executed in the sinkhole, no forces remained between Duan province and the desert riders.”

“Well summarised,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “But you don’t know this: before Shen Zhouji died, he and Shen Wei together strangled the commander of the Duan province garrison troops, Tantai Long.”

Tantai Long, Tantai Long!

No wonder Tantai Hu had said that his brother had been at the Chashi sinkhole too.

Shen Zechuan frowned. “Strangled?”

“Because Tantai Long insisted on going out to face the enemy down, and repeatedly challenged Shen Wei in public. After Shen Wei issued the order to retreat, he openly defied it, so Shen Wei feigned an apology over drinks, and after getting him drunk, strangled him in his rooms with Shen Zhouji.” Xiao Chi’ye paused. “Tiger doesn’t know. He thinks Tantai Long died in battle. That’s my first secret. Now you.”

Shen Zechuan swiftly organised his own thoughts. “Shen Wei was involved in the contest for the throne. He was an assassin for the Empress Dowager, and she put him under very close watch afterwards. He sensed danger, and bought off Pan Rugui to escape to Zhongbo.”

“There’s a level of safety in being the watchdog,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “In ordinary circumstances, the Hua family would not choose such an unreliable method to get rid of Shen Wei. It doesn’t benefit the Empress Dowager, who holds the reins of this country. The amount of money needed in the aftermath of the war would exceed the total amount available in Dazhou’s Imperial Treasury. She intends to continue her reign as Grand Emperor. She would compromise herself in that plot, and Shen Wei isn’t worth that much.”

Shen Zechuan nodded slightly. “So Ji Lei’s story may not be entirely accurate, because he was only a pawn himself. This investigation would have to start at the Ministry of War, and it could either lead up to the top, or down towards the bottom.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I’ll take the top, you take the bottom.”

“The hierarchies are interconnected, you can’t split them like that,” Shen Zechuan argued, before realising that he was being made fun of. He went back to his book, and pretended that he hadn’t noticed.

Xiao Chi’ye made a sound that might have been a laugh. He moved aside and said, “Sit down.”

It was warm in the room, and Xiao Chi’ye was wearing his scarlet robes of court, embroidered with motifs of lions. He was the Governor-General of Qu Capital’s twin armies today, and held a rank of Upper Second grade. He must have come directly from the Palace, and had not had time to change. As he sat in his chair, his robes brought out the handsomeness of his features, and erased some of the flippancy in them.

Across the table, Xiao Chi’ye watched as Shen Zechuan read. He made no effort to hide it now, and that naked attention wreathed around Shen Zechuan’s neck, then came to linger on his hands. He was no longer fixated on just one area. He wanted to look at every part of Shen Zechuan’s body.

Shen Zechuan’s fingers reached out, and they would curl upwards as he turned the page. That reminded Xiao Chi’ye of another time, when Shen Zechuan’s fingers would curl just like that into the sheets, damp with sweat, and rocking unsteadily to an incessant rhythm.

Shen Zechuan felt as though his fingers were still being fiddled with, caught in someone’s grasp. Out of nowhere, a font of restlessness welled up in him. He shut his book, and looked directly at Xiao Chi’ye.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Hm?”

Shen Zechuan’s fingers curled lightly in on themselves. He twitched the corner of his lips up and said, “The Imperial Guard has so many assignments these days, you won’t have the time to look into anything else, will you?”

Xiao Chi’ye turned his thumb ring. “The frenzy will pass. If the Brocade Guard finds itself with some free time on its hands, it’s welcome to come share the load with us.”

“I’m only a grunt who holds neither office nor the Emperor’s trust. How can I tell the Brocade Guard what to do?” Shen Zechuan leaned back a little, putting his shoulders against the backrest. “Whereas the Imperial Guard runs the city patrol, but also manages civil cases in the Imperial Court, treading a fine line constantly. It must be both mental and physically demanding for you, Governor.”

Since Xiao Chi’ye began his oppression of the Brocade Guard, he had genuinely become incredibly busy. He could hear the caustic note in Shen Zechuan’s voice there, and so lacing his own fingers, placed his clasped hands before Shen Zechuan. He said decidedly, “You’re going to make some kind of trouble for me.”

“One good turn deserves another,” Shen Zechuan replied mildly. “You’ve taken all of my assigned duties and left me with all this free time on my hands. Of course I’ll have to thank you properly.”

“There’re so many ways to show your appreciation, why can’t you choose one that’ll make everyone happy?” Xiao Chi’ye said. “So it seems you do have friends in the Six Ministries.”

“Silver and riches are no match for a friend in high places. My friend told me some things that I think you, too, will be interested in,” Shen Zechuan said.

Without taking his eyes off him, Xiao Chi’ye said, “I’m all ears.”

But Shen Zechuan had turned his eyes to the library around them, and said instead, “Thinking of it, it’s a pity that after all this time, I still haven’t met this “refined jade”, Yao Wenyu. You’re on good terms, I assume?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Just nodding acquaintances. Hardly anything compared to you.”

“The Yao family is waning in power, but they remain one of the Eight Families. That’s sure to cause some grumbling,” Shen Zechuan said. “Yao Wenyu is Elder Hai’s sole protégé, and yet will not enter politics. That’s no different to tossing away your weapons and giving yourself up to abuse.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “The Yao family looks like it’s weakening, but the power and influence they’ve accumulated over three successive eras lingers on. Yao Wenyu may march to the beat of his own moonlit drum, but he’s definitely not stupid. Who’s thinking of messing with the Yao family?”

Shen Zechuan made a speculative face. “How should I know?”

Xiao Chi’ye fell silent. But quick on the uptake, he picked up immediately, “You’re not this generous. Passing on information just for me? That’ll make me nervous, Lanzhou.”

“Since we’re going to collaborate on this investigation, I won’t turn down a chance to look out for you where I can,” Shen Zechuan said. “I’ve only just remembered this piece of information tonight, after learning you’re on such good terms with the Yao family. The Eight Families are a long-established power. Now that you’re such a golden boy, isn’t it only to be expected that they would want to do something about you? If the Yao family won’t fall in with them, they’ll become one of their targets instead.”

In acquiring the Eight Battalions, Xiao Chi’ye had shaken up every military position held by the Eight Families. Up until now, the Eight Battalions had been the solid capital upon which the Families built their livelihoods in Qu Capital. Losing political office was nothing, because they would have young ones in the family who could take over. But if they lost the Eight Battalions, then they would truly lose their self-determination. It was one thing for the Families to be keeping each other in place, but quite another for Xiao Chi’ye to put them in theirs. It is often said that an empire long divided must eventually unite, and long united, must inevitably divide. Today, Xiao Chi’ye was the common enemy that the Eight Families needed to once more unite against.

Shen Zechuan was right, but Xiao Chi’ye could still smell a trace of incongruity between his seemingly earnest words.

He showed none of that on his face, but said, “I’m not that much of a threat to them yet.”

“You won’t live long unless you nip your threats in the bud. You’ve already shown them your teeth in the Autumn Hunt. It’s too late now to pretend nothing happened.”

Xiao Chi’ye asked abruptly, “Who’s your friend?”

Shen Zechuan smiled at him. “If I told you the truth, would you believe me?”

Xiao Chi’ye stared at Shen Zechuan, harrassed.

He wouldn’t.

Shen Zechuan excelled at deception. While fully lucid, every word out of his mouth would sound simultaneously like a half-truth and a partial lie. He was such a piece of work that Xiao Chi’ye felt as though he might even have been easier to negotiate with in bed.

“I’ll find out,” Xiao Chi’ye leaned in. “As soon as you slip up, I’ll catch you.”

“You’re barely going to be able to look after yourself,” Shen Zechuan said pleasantly. “Best focus on finding a way out of this with all your limbs intact.”

“Aren’t you going to feel sorry for me at all?” Xiao Chi’ye dropped his seriousness all at once. “One night as husband and wife begets a hundred days of blessings. You’re too cold, Lanzhou.”

In exactly the same way he had, Shen Zechuan returned, “Yes, and what are you going to do about it?”

Xiao Chi’ye sat back, and put one leg up over the other again. Propped up against the back of his chair, he considered this for a bit, then said, “There’s an easy solution to this. It’s really no big deal. I’ve got to thank you properly for your tip tonight.”

“It’s the least I could do,” Shen Zechuan said. “At least a hundred liang‘s worth, wouldn’t you say?”

“Don’t have it,” Xiao Chi’ye drawled. “As a bigwig of the Upper Second rank, my entire year’s wages would come up to a hundred and fifty liang. But I can give you something else in place of money. Er-gongzi offers a bed-warming service.”

“I’ll pass on that,” Shen Zechuan declined with a polite smile. “As someone well accustomed to sleeping alone, I don’t need my bed warmed.”

“Customs can be changed.” Xiao Chi’ye brought his hand up to his nose, and sniffed his fingers deliberately. He looked sideways at Shen Zechuan and said slyly, “Are you getting accustomed to the scent on my handkerchief?”

Shen Zechuan accidentally stabbed red marks into his fingertips.

Xiao Chi’ye studied the beauty under his lamplight, watching as he struggled with his composure, watching as his fingertips flushed red. Finally, he tapped a finger at the base of his own ears, and said wickedly, “Lanzhou, a red tide’s rising.”

8 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 44: Night talk

  1. i’m going to die right here and right now wtf thank you so much for the fast update ❤
    we've been starving for so long and now we get to eat!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great work! Thank you for not giving up on this translation. It must feel overwhelming thinking about how far you still have to go, but I hope it gives you some comfort to know that a lot of us here believe you can do it, and are waiting for you to lead the way. Take care ❤


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