Book One, Chapter 50: The Same Boat

“I was only testing the waters.” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes were steely. “Trust happens like an undressing. We proceed in due order, one layer at a time, to finally arrive at this candid conversation today. You’re right— after the Nanling incident, I had hoped that Hai Liangyi’s cabinet might undergo some changes. Unfortunately, he still appointed Xue Xiuzhuo of the Eight Families to a key position. It was evidence that even at his position, with his overwhelming influence, he remained subject to pressure from the aristocracy. In these times, the Xiao family is a single pillar under a tipping roof.”

“Then how shall we characterise the other party?” Shen Zechuan considered this briefly. “In the absence of a common adversary, they are their own worst enemy. Balancing a bowl of water so that it doesn’t tip over into catastrophe— that’s a far more difficult task than going after anyone in particular. Before your family came onto the scene, power had only ever circulated amongst the Eight Families, one waxing when another waned. But after the appearance of the Xiao family, the Families actually began to refine themselves. The Hua family did fall, but that fall was temporary. The Court flushed out the remnants of the Hua party, but not once did anyone suggest looking into the Empress Dowager, not even Hai Liangyi. We see the value of preserving the Hua family now, in the Hua and Qi marriage: to whittle away at the Xiao family’s allies. Some events may not look like much in isolation, but tied together, the picture will make your blood run cold.”

“Are you talking about Zhongbo’s defeat and the marriage between Hua and Qi?” Xiao Chi’ye asked.

“The stratagem of courting your distant neighbours and striking the one at your doorstep.”1 Shen Zechuan drew a circle on the table with his finger. “Striking down Zhongbo creates an opening in the southwest of Libei: Ci Province lies right up against Libei’s lifeline, the northeastern supply route. As there are no Zhongbo troops to defend it now, it’s become the property of the Eight Families. The moment they tie the knot with Qidong’s Qi family, Libei will be left out in the cold, with your back against the Swan Goose Ranges, the desert clans to your east, and twin adversaries in the south.”

“Zhongbo fell five years before the marriage was proposed. Who could’ve predicted that Hua Siqian would start an insurrection, and who could’ve promised that I would’ve been in the right place to rescue the Emperor?” Xiao Chi’ye slowly began to frown.

“There had to be a purpose behind Zhongbo’s fall.” Shen Zechuan was quiet for a moment, then said, “It’s easy enough to gain control of a chessboard. What they have managed to do, however, is manipulate the direction of play. If I’ve guessed correctly, then amongst the Eight Families, there exists an unknown person with the power to manipulate the trajectory of the political climate.

“If this person exists,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “Then we’re all pieces on his chessboard, and no one can make any move he hasn’t foreseen. That makes him not a political genius, but Dazhou’s ruling deity, so how do you propose to go up against him? Your plan to set them all against one another won’t hold up against the decades of intermarriage amongst the Families. Up against a common enemy, they’re unbreakable.”

“Even so, I’d prefer an uncertain sky to a calm horizon. Only in muddied waters will they mistake friend for foe. And in reality, they’re not as unbreakable as you might think.” Shen Zechuan withdrew his finger. “How did Xiao Fangxu break through their line of defence? If their web was as tightly woven as it seems, then how did commoners like Qi Huilian and Hai Liangyi appear in their midst? Your father was able to establish the Luoxia cavalry, forerunner to the Iron Cavalry, because adherents of the East Palace at the time were pushing the Yellow Register.2 Under that register, the border regions became able to conscript soldiers, and the “soldier” became a hereditary caste. These soldiers were then considered to be under the jurisdiction of the regional military, instead of the regional civilian government, whose administrators would have been sent from amongst Qu Capital’s noble sons. This allowed the Lord of Libei to consolidate power within his army, fighting free of the control of regional civilian officials. In addition to that, the strength of Libei’s military force today is intricately linked to the implementation of conquest farming in Dazhou.3 And you know better than I do just how important military agriculture is.”

Why was Lu Guangbai’s life harder than Xiao Jiming’s?

Because the Borderlands could not benefit from military agriculture. As their barren sands could not be tilled for crops, Lu Guangbai was left at the mercy of Qu Capital’s budget. Though the policy of employing seven-tenths of an army to till the lands and three-tenths to defend it may not give an army self-sufficiency, it significantly eased the burden of feeding regional armies. This was invaluable to these regional forces.

Grand Tutor Qi feigned madness to live. He had clung onto life not only because of the hate within him, but also because he was loathe to give up on that first foot in the door. All those dozens of men who had called themselves adherents to the East Palace had been handpicked by the Crown Prince himself, each one from a commoner family. Qi Huilian had given every last drop of his lifelong learning to the service of the Crown Prince. Five years ago, when he raised his arms to the heavens and cried “the dust has settled!”, every word had bled with his fury against the dying of that light.

“You came, step by step, into my territory, and time and time again allowed me to push your boundaries, all for tonight, all so you could put yourself in my boat.” Xiao Chi’ye slowly leaned forward, his eyes frosty. “But if I had not dug up Xi Hongxuan tonight, if I hadn’t figured you out, then you would have driven your foot down on me, and really made me your stepping stone?”

“Keen-nosed wolf,” Shen Zechuan said, “How can you make yourself sound so sad? If I had not been who I am, you would never have allowed me to take that first step. We would not even have had a conversation. This is who we are, you and I, so rather than asking me, why don’t you do some self-inspection first?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “You’re the jackass.”

Shen Zechuan said, “Like-minded jackasses are hard to come by.”

Xiao Chi’ye quit fencing with him and went straight to the point. “The way it is now, you’re the one who needs me. But don’t we need some sweeteners to seal this deal?”

“Our fortunes are conjoined,” Shen Zechuan said. “Your Yao family is about to be kicked out of the game. Aren’t you worried, Er-gongzi?”

“I can’t use Yao Wenyu,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “That’s the thing you haven’t realised— it really wasn’t for leverage that the Yao family struck up a friendship with me. It’s only because of who Yao Wenyu is as a person… you’ll understand once you’ve met him. He’s kept out of the political scene, not because he was too precious to Hai Liangyi, but because he preferred not to engage. The Yao family ancestry has no lack of political heavyweights. His family only began to founder in his father’s generation, but his grandfather’s prestige still stands, and they’re still a revered family amongst the scholars. Their standing amongst the civil ministers is beyond anything that the likes of Hua Siqian could have achieved. If he wanted to rekindle those flames, it would not be hard, but he’s content to wander outside our worldly realms. If Xi Hongxuan really manages to kick the Yao family out, it’d really only free him.”

“The Yao family once intermarried with the Fei family, so he must be Lady Zhaoyue’s cousin?” Shen Zechuan suddenly asked.

“Yep,” Xiao Chi’ye took up his chopsticks. “Zhaoyue probably wanted to marry him instead, but the Marquis of Helian has the wits of a mouse and does everything the Dowager asks.”

“Then the two of you may well become kinsmen.”

“Well, the match failed, didn’t it?” Xiao Chi’ye said. “You derailed my wedding plans and lost me a lovely lady. Don’t you owe me some sort of compensation?”

Shen Zechuan raised an eyebrow incrementally.

Xiao Chi’ye swished his chopsticks in the cold tea and looked up at him. “Do you know, there’s only the difference of a few syllables between “sailing in the same boat” and “sleeping in the same bed”? Personally, I wouldn’t mind getting it wrong, in speech or in action.”

The stifling warmth in the room was making Shen Zechuan a little lightheaded. He did not reply, but turned aside to open a window.

Instead of reaching for the dishes on the table, Xiao Chi’ye said, “I led you here, had you eat my food and drink my wine, and you didn’t think to suspect anything at all?”

Shen Zechuan looked towards Xiao Chi’ye. In the cool breeze, he began belatedly to feel uncomfortably warm, and a thin sheen of sweat touched his skin. His tight-clasped collar folded around his fine, pale neck, and his dark hair found complement in a sprig of red plum peering through the window. It made an exquisite picture.

Snow like salt drifted in the open air, sailed through the window, and landed on the back of Shen Zechuan’s hand, quickly melting into a spot of moisture. This pinprick of coldness made him feel warmer than ever, and for a distracted moment, aberrant thoughts did pop into Shen Zechuan’s head. He wanted to undo his collar.

“This isn’t included in the deal,” Shen Zechuan said. “I’ve no need of a bedwarmer at the moment.”

Xiao Chi’ye drew one of his long legs up and said, “You don’t look very much like someone who doesn’t need one. Business is business, and pleasure is pleasure. We’re done talking business, now we can take our time going over some private matters. Did Xi Hongxuan send you that boy at Ouxiang Lodge the other day? But I heard he only liked girls. Or have his tastes changed too?”

“It’s hardly unusual now to prefer men,” Shen Zechuan said. “I wouldn’t know if his tastes have changed. Why, have yours, Er-gongzi?”

“I’m fickle.” Xiao Chi’ye picked up a lock of hair that trailed at Shen Zechuan’s knee. “It’s always depended on how I feel that day.”

Shen Zechuan reached out and retrieved his lock of hair. He was growing quite damp with sweat. He said, “Some people talk a good game and look all cool and collected, but really all they manage to do is jump on you like a starving animal. Are we a little out of practice?”

Xiao Chi’ye shoved the table aside and caught the wrist that he was pulling back. He said, “…And some people look quite the sorry sight, all drenched in sweat.”

Shen Zechuan was still burning up, and where Xiao Chi’ye held on to him, his skin almost seared with heat. He steadied himself on one arm braced before his knees, and asked, “What did you drug me with?”

“Have a guess.” Xiao Chi’ye pulled Shen Zechuan’s wrist closer, then suddenly turned the question onto him. He said, “Ji Gang wouldn’t have taught you these things. Who is your teacher— or should I say, your mentor?”

Shen Zechuan’s eyes were faintly rimmed with red. He said softly, “I’m not telling you.”

Across that small space, Xiao Chi’ye sniffed lightly, then suddenly said, “You smell so good.”

Shen Zechuan’s breaths came a little quicker. He said, “Have you sunk so low that you have to hitch your skirts up to get what you want?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “My skirts have nothing to do with it. Why, am I getting under your skin? We’re only talking.”

His under-robes were damp with perspiration. Drawn out by the unreasonable tension in the air, the heat was turning viscous and humid. Shen Zechuan itched to wipe the sweat away. Frowning, he demanded, “What exactly did you put in my food?”

Xiao Chi’ye laughed out loud and said irresponsibly, “Just pulling your leg. It’s only medicinal wine.”

Shen Zechuan saw such a dangerous light in those eyes that he could not help but close his own against them. Fighting for some composure, he said, “Xiao Ce’an—”

Xiao Chi’ye drained the cold wine from his cup, and in that moment, dipped his head down and caught those lips. Shen Zechuan was pressed towards the window, setting the plum branches aquiver. Arched slightly backwards, he felt as though his waist might snap. Snow from the branches slipped into the back of Xiao Chi’ye’s neck, but he paid it no mind at all, half-pinning Shen Zechuan as he slid his own fingers between each of Shen Zechuan’s, forcefully clasping their hands together.

Xiao Chi’ye had been thinking about kissing him from the moment their eyes met, in that final moment at the banquet. Tonight only added fuel to the fire, and he had been bottling it up the entire evening. All through their acquaintance, Shen Zechuan had been first unfeeling and ruthless, then unflappable and devious, and Xiao Chi’ye could make neither head nor tail of him, but was left with only the desire to pin him down and kiss him until he was deeply and thoroughly flushed, and his eyes were awash with desire.

Shen Zechuan’s chest rose and fell, his sweat-damp skin drying in the wind, making him shiver. He was unable to defend himself against the mouthful of wine Xiao Chi’ye delivered to him, and as it slid down his throat he began to choke. But Xiao Chi’ye had caught the his tongue between his teeth so that he could not cough, and tears stood out in his eyes as he struggled for breath. In this moment, even if the earth had shattered beneath them, Xiao Chi’ye would not have released him.

Then there was first a clatter from above, then a tumbling figure. Ding Tao plummeted into the snow, then immediately pulled his head out, rubbing his arms furiously in the cold. Getting ready to do some yelling, he looked up and found himself looking directly at the window, whereupon his eyes bulged, his jaw dropped, and his soul left his body.

Shen Zechuan immediately kicked Xiao Chi’ye off himself and began to cough, holding himself up against the window, the back of his ears scarlet and his mouth full of the aroma of wine. Xiao Chi’ye, breathing a fraction quicker, looked out from the window, something ominous in his eyes.

Ding Tao’s teeth chattered. He reached out a trembling finger, and pointed very slowly upwards, whispering, “S—…s—s—sorry Gongzi…”

Qiao Tianya and Gu Jin held their breaths up above, wisely pretending not to exist. Without waiting for a response, Ding Tao leapt up and ran for it, nimbly scaling a tree and shooting back onto the roof with an almost audible zip.

Author’s notes: Information relating to conquest farming referenced from “History of Ming: Treatises on the Military” (明史·兵志). The concept of conquest farming would have been interlaced with the concept of garrison troops, but I have simplified many historical details here, and the representation is neither complete nor accurate enough, so just take it as light entertainment.

[1] There are several references to the Thirty-Six Stratagems (三十六计) in this chapter. This stratagem holds that it is wiser to attack a close-by nation and avoid over-extending your resources.

[2] The Yellow Register was a (revolutionary) register of citizens for the purposes of taxation and conscription. Rather than simply recording who lived where, each individual was considered a unit of their family or bloodline, with an associated and permanent caste (e.g. craftsperson, soldier, scholar). Unauthorised movement between castes was strictly forbidden.

[3] Conquest farming is the policy of using newly conquered land for agriculture. Soldiers may be assigned to pieces of land, or the common people may receive it from the government as a loan (for which they will be taxed).

18 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 50: The Same Boat

      1. Sorry rei and Raven :((((((( Between leaving my job and moving to a new country, this project and my side Tumblr account got brushed into a small dark corner. Thank you so much for checking in, and I’m very sorry for causing concern!


  1. Is there someone who knows how to contact Awa? Didn’t they say they’ll tell us the next time there’s a hiatus? I hope they’re okay…


  2. Just found this translation and omg the quality is so high, can’t believe I’ve almost finished it already…

    So glad to here you’re back on it after a hiatus, I’ll be sure to follow your updates! Thank you so much for your hard work


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