Shen Zechuan’s shackles were removed. He moved his wrists as he listened to the Squad Commander grumble on and on. Ji Gang pushed the wheelbarrow and swiftly finished unloading the wine for the Imperial Army. With a coarse cloth wrapped around his head, he shifted over to them.
After ordering Ji Gang to finish tidying up the courtyard before spring, the Squad Commander went outside again to instruct the squad on guard duty that night not to spread word of the incident.
“Are you hurt?” Ji Gang pulled Shen Zechuan’s arm.
“No.” Shen Zechuan raised his hand to wipe the nape of his neck, where Xiao Chiye had left strangulation marks. He called out, “Shifu.”
Ji Gang asked, “Where does it hurt?”
Shen Zechuan shook his head. He considered it for a moment, then said, “His external martial arts1 is strong and fierce, and his fists and kicks are powerful. It feels familiar to me.”
Ji Gang’s burned and disfigured face looked astonished. He said, “Our Ji Clan Boxing Style has never been imparted to outsiders.”
“I didn’t dare to counter his moves the moment he struck.” The taste of blood seemed to linger in Shen Zechuan’s mouth. He licked the edges of his teeth with the tip of his tongue and thought for a moment. He said, “I was afraid he might get an inkling, so I did not dare to pull out all the stops. It’s just that making a scene and playing dumb could not deceive him either. Shifu, why does he hate me so much? Teacher spoke of the current political situation. Aren’t those relatives of the Empress Dowager with her at the lead the ones he should hate the most?”
“That brat is drunk!” Ji Gang said with loathing. “And bullies always pick on the weak. So he could only turn to you.”
Shen Zechuan shook out his left hand. “He was looking for this. Does shifu recognize it?”
Lying quietly on his palm was that aged and worn out bone thumb ring.
“Those with impressive arm strength in the army often use large bows and must wear these kinds of thumb rings when they are pulling the bowstring.” Ji Gang scrutinized the thumb ring and said, “This kind of wear and tear is most likely from drawing the Libei Cavalry’s Great Bow of Heaven. However, this Second Young Master Xiao is not heading into war. So what is he wearing this for?”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye slept in silence. It was Lu Guangbai who woke him up.
“You were really a piece of work last night.” Lu Guangbai did not hold back. He sat on the chair and said, “You have only just gotten a post, and you have already gone and looked for trouble. I just saw Jiming leaving the residence earlier to head for the palace.”
Xiao Chiye’s throat felt uncomfortable as he lay covered under the quilt. He said, “I drank too much.”
“In a few more days, we will leave the capital.” Lu Guangbai said in all earnestness. “You can’t continue drinking like this. What are you going to do if you drink until your martial art skills are rendered useless and your body collapses?”
Xiao Chiye did not reply.
Lu Guangbai continued, “They devastated your elder brother’s heart at the banquet last night, so you should show him some understanding. He is busy with Libei’s military affairs and, at the same time, concerned about your sister-in-law. And now he has to leave you behind here. He feels terrible. A-Ye, who doesn’t speak highly of him before others? But all of them hope that he will never come back again every time he sets off for battle. For these people, he has to lead the troops to the battlefield year after year. He won’t say it himself, but he’s made of flesh and blood. So how would it not hurt him?”
Xiao Chiye lifted the quilt and let out a long sigh. He said, “Do I not understand all that you have said?”
“What do you understand?” Lu Guangbai threw the tangerine in his hand at Xiao Chiye and said, “If you understand, then get up and apologize to your eldest brother.”
Xiao Chiye caught the tangerine and sat up.
Lu Guangbai looked at the bandaged wound on his hand and could not help but laugh. Sitting on the chair, he ate the tangerine and said, “Why did you provoke him? You just had to go and get yourself bitten before you are satisfied!”
“I told him to sing a tune.” Xiao Chiye said. “But he said I wanted his life. How is this guy a pushover?”
“You are no pushover either to start a fight with a confined prisoner on the street. Fortunately, Jiming reached in time. Otherwise, there will be another uproar in the city again today. “Lu Guangbai asked, “Are you badly hurt?”
Xiao Chiye raised his hand for a look and said in irritation, “He’s born in the year of the dog.”2
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Jiming came back only in the afternoon. Zhao Hui followed behind him and saw Xiao Chiye waiting under the eaves.
“Dage.” Xiao Chiye called out.
Xiao Jiming took off his cloak, and Zhao Hui took it. The maidservant came over, carrying a copper basin in her hands. Xiao Jiming washed his hands and ignored him.
Zhao Hui looked back at him and said, “Young Master, aren’t you going for the Imperial Army investigation today? Go get the Viceroy token3 and come back for dinner tonight.”
Xiao Chiye said, “I’ll go if my elder brother tells me to.”
Xiao Jiming wiped his hands and finally looked at him. He said, “I didn’t tell you to go last night, but you still went ahead, didn’t you?”
Xiao Chiye said, “I ran in the wrong direction. I had meant to return home.”
Xiao Jiming placed the handkerchief back into the copper basin and said, “Go get the token, then come back for your meal.”
Only then did Xiao Chiye leave.
◈ ◈ ◈
Since the Imperial Army was dismissed from its duty of guarding the capital, the former office had fallen into a state of desolation. Xiao Chiye spurred his horse over and saw several men in short jackets secured with waist sashes sitting around basking in the sun chatting. Their idle and lazy looks had none of the valor one would expect of an “army”.
Xiao Chiye dismounted his horse. Carrying his whip, he strode into the courtyard. There was a bald pine tree standing in the courtyard, with the accumulated snow casually shoved into a heap. No one removed the icicles hanging on the eaves of the veranda, and from the looks of it, the tiles on the rooftop were due for a retiling too.
Welp, they were poor.
Xiao Chiye continued to scrutinize the surroundings. The paint was already peeling off the plaque. He went down several steps to the main hall. Then, lifting the curtain with his whip, he bent over slightly to enter.
The men sitting around the stove cracking peanuts inside immediately turned their heads over to look at Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye laid down his horsewhip on the table and lifted over the chair to sit down without standing on ceremony. He said, “So, everyone’s here.”
The people around him all stood up with a clatter, stepping noisily over those peanut shells under their feet. Most of them were over forty years of age from old military households. Having muddled along in the Imperial Army for such a long time, they had no other capability to speak of, except for being adept at acting shamelessly to extort money. Seeing Xiao Chiye now, their gazes sized him up and down before they exchanged sneaky looks at one another with ulterior motives in mind.
“Second Young Master!” One of them wiped his hands on his robe and said with a smile, “We have been waiting for you to collect the token today!”
Xiao Chiye said, “I’m here now, no? Where’s the token?”
The man said smilingly, “We waited for you this morning, but you didn’t come, and the Ministry of Works were urging us to get to work, so Assistant Commander Cao took the token first to deploy the men. He will be back late. Once he’s back, I’ll send someone to deliver it to your residence.”
Xiao Chiye returned his smile and said, “And you are?”
The man said, “Me? Just call me Lao Chen!4 I used to be the Company Commander of Dicheng’s Company.5 Master Hua Shisan recommended me for a promotion, so here I am now in our Imperial Army.”
“That’s weird.” With one hand on the chair’s handle, Xiao Chiye leaned his body to the side and looked at Lao Chen. “Right below the Viceroy should be the Imperial Guards Regional Vice Commander. How did it end up in the hands of an Assistant Commander?”
“You aren’t aware of it but….” When Lao Chen saw Xiao Chiye listening attentively, his body, which had been bent over in a bow, straightened up imprudently. “The Zhongbo’s troops were defeated last year, and the grains from Jincheng could not be shipped over. That led to an emergency of food shortage in Qudu. The bureaucrats from the Ministry of Personnel could not afford to pay out yearly salary, and so they cut the staff in the Imperial Army Office by half. At present, we do not have a Vice Commander. The closest is Assistant Commander Cao. All that’s left are just the few of us.”
“So you’re saying.” Xiao Chiye said, “Anyone can get their hands on the Viceroy’s authority token?”
“Our usual practice in the past was to just take the token and go. The Ministry of Works’s tasks can’t wait, and it’s all lifting lumber to the palace. We are in a humble position, and our words carry little weight. We can’t afford to offend anyone. We don’t have a choice.” Lao Chen started pinning the blame. “If you think this is against the rules, you have to make it clear to the Ministry of Works.”
“I’m a legitimate viceroy with a token of authority.” Xiao Chiye said, “Why do I have to explain myself to the Ministry of Works? The one in command above the Imperial Army is the Emperor. It was on account of camaraderie that the Imperial Army helped the Six Ministries6 out in the past without settling accounts with them when they wanted our help. But whoever wants manpower from today onwards, if they can’t give a proper explanation of the tasks involved and a clear accounting of the schedules, then they better not count on the deployment of my men.”
“You can say anything you want.” Lao Chen and the others began laughing. He said, “However, we aren’t in charge of patrols and defenses now; we are errand-runners and odd-job laborers! We could still prove ourselves useful by helping out at the Six Ministries. Besides, His Majesty the Emperor had never said a word about this over the past few years. Second Young Master, having money in your pocket is not as good as having friends in the imperial court. You lived in Libei in the past, but the situation of the Imperial Army differs from the Armored Cavalry of Libei. Some things simply won’t work here! Moreover, our Imperial Army is no match for the Eight Great Training Divisions. Who—”
Xiao Chiye stood up and said, “Who did you say recommended you for a post here?”
Lao Chen’s expression glowed as he straightened his back. How he itched to repeat it out loud thrice. “Master Hua Shisan! You know him too? He’s the Empress Dowager’s grandson of common birth. He’s Third Missy Hua’s—”
With a lift of his foot, Xiao Chiye gave him a kick! Lao Chen was still speaking with a glowing face, and the kick caught him off-guard and sent him toppling over and crashing into the table and chair. The teapot smashed onto the ground, splashing tea all over the floor. It startled Lao Chen back to his senses, and he trembled as he crawled and kneeled on the ground.
“The loafer raised by a concubine from the Hua Clan.” Xiao Chiye swept aside the peanut shells on the table. “He used to carry my boots in the past. What kind of influential backer do you think he is? At best, he’s just a small potato. I want the Viceroy’s token of authority. Instead, you tell me the rules. Are you so blinded that you can’t even tell who I am? From now on, I’m the one who has the final say in the Imperial Army!”
Lao Chen propped himself up with his hands and kowtowed to him. Having received a rude awakening, he hurriedly said, “Second Young Master, Second Young Master…”
“Who the fuck is your Second Young Master?” Xiao Chiye’s eyes were piercingly cold. “As the Imperial Army Viceroy, I’m your master who is in control of your life. Putting on airs before me and pretending to be some local ruffian? The Ministry of Works needs manpower for manual labor, and the men deployed are all from the Imperial Army. If there were no money exchanging hands in between, then would you have found it worthwhile for you to throw yourselves at their feet? Everyone at the bottom is working themselves to their deaths, but you sure have kept yourself fat without lifting a finger. What? Hua Shisan said he would protect you, and you really think of yourself as having the Death-Exemption Golden Token7 in your possession?!”
“I wouldn’t dare. I wouldn’t dare!” Lao Chen shuffled a few steps on his knees and said, “Your Excellency! This humble servant was spouting nonsense…”
“Half an hour.”8 Xiao Chiye said. “Authority token, register of names, and twenty thousand soldiers. I want to check them all. It’s fine if one is missing, you gentlemen can just substitute it with your heads.”
Lao Chen hurriedly rose to his feet and dashed out.
◈ ◈ ◈
The various generals left the capital a few days later. Emperor Xiande led hundreds of officials to send off Xiao Jiming. He coughed intermittently as he held Xiao Jiming by the arms in the heavy snow.
“Jiming.” Emperor Xiande was wrapped in a cloak, and yet he was still frightfully skinny. He said, “We can only meet again next year once you leave today. It has been restless over at the Libei frontier. Although the Biansha Cavalry had beaten a withdrawal, they still refused to bow and submit to us. The rapacious ambitions of the Twelve Tribes are crystal clear for all to see. You are my trusted official, and also a valiant general of Da Zhou. You must be cautious in everything you do.”
“We came to Your Majesty’s rescue late this time, and yet Your Majesty still showed favor to us. Both Father and this humble servant feel stricken. As long as Your Majesty gives the command in the future, Libei will surely risk life and limb for Your Majesty.” Xiao Jiming said.
“Ever since your father fell ill, he has not met with me for many years.” Emperor Xiande slowly turned his head back and gazed at masses of human heads within the city gates. Then he looked at the magnificent palace that had towered over Qudu for a hundred years. He said softly, “I’ve let all the loyal soldiers who have lost their lives on the battlefield down with the way the matter of the surviving member of the Shen Clan played out. But I have been on my sickbed for such a long time, and there are too many matters where my hands are tied.”
Xiao Jiming followed his gaze. After a while, he said, “The wind and snow are raging in Qudu. Your Majesty, please take care of your health.”
Emperor Xiande slowly released his grip on Xiao Jiming’s hand and said, “My good son, go.”
Lu Guangbai spurred the horse out of the city. As expected, he saw Xiao Chiye waiting alone at the pavilion at the foot of the mountain. He remained on his horse as he whistled at Xiao Chiye from afar and said, “Brat, we are leaving!”
Xiao Chiye led the horse and said, “Storms are rife in the martial fraternity; a vessel dreads its captain abandoning ship.9 You must be careful!
“Just say it if you have something to say. Why recite a poem?” Lu Guangbai laughed heartily. “Just wait. You will eventually be able to return home one day.”
“That depends on fate.” Xiao Chiye smiled too.
The sound of horse hooves rang out behind them. Lu Guangbai looked back. The horse rider coming towards them in the snow was dressed in a simple old robe and had black hair tied up in a high ponytail. Lu Guangbai quickly turned his horse around and shouted, “Commander-in-Chief! Let’s leave together.”
Qi Zhuyin slowed down. She was dressed light in an overcoat and an old outer robe while carrying a long sword on her back. If one were to look at just her appearance, then she could have been merely an ordinary woman in the martial fraternity. It was only after the wind passed that her face crystallized into a surprisingly lovely face.
“That horse of yours is second-rate.” She raised her eyebrows and smiled, instantly showing her might. “It can’t catch up with mine, can it?”
But Lu Guangbai liked it. He said, “It isn’t as agile and brave as the Commander-in-Chief’s steed, but it’s a good boy that has survived the battlefield. Let’s have a race, and we’ll find out if it can keep up or not.”
“Now, that one over there looks rare to me.” Qi Zhuyin raised her chin at Xiao Chiye. “Swap with me?”
Xiao Chiye stroked his steed’s mane and said, “No, thanks. No matter how I look at it, I’m the one losing out.”
Qi Zhuyin raised her hand and threw an object to Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye caught it with both arms. It was an unusually heavy executioner’s blade10 still in its sheath.
“Before the new year, Libei raised a batch of fine battle steeds for Qidong, and the credits go to you. That thing was forged by the best craftsman in my account books. It cost me a lot of precious materials.” Qi Zhuyin said, “How about it? Not losing out now, huh.”
Xiao Chiye weighed it in his hands and laughed. He said, “Commander-in-Chief, from now on, you’re my dear jiejie! The blade I’ve brought from home might be good, but it’s too light. It’s not as smooth to wield as this one.”
Qi Zhuyin said, “Jiejie? Wait till you unsheathed the blade, and you’ll be calling me yeye!”
Xiao Chiye asked, “Has this blade been given a name?”
“I did think of one.” Qi Zhuyin said, “He who speaks of the ruthlessness of the wolf is himself insatiable and ruthless.11 Isn’t that just perfect for you?”
But Lu Guangbai said, “The word ‘ruthlessness’ is a little too fierce. He’s just—”
“Fierce.” Qi Zhuyin flung the horsewhip out with a crack, and the steed under her saddle instantly galloped away. Without looking back, she said, “What you’d want for a man of Libei is precisely for him to be fierce! ”
The main army on the other side had already started moving. The red tassels12 from the sea of spears of the Qidong Garrison Troops followed closely behind Qi Zhuyin and surged towards the wilderness in the east. Lu Guangbai did not linger. He waved his hand at Xiao Chiye, then spurred his horse on to catch up with them.
The next moment, Xiao Chiye could hear the Armored Cavalry stomping across the ground. It almost seemed as if the earth beneath his feet was quaking slightly. Xiao Chiye looked out into the distance and saw his eldest brother in the lead. Like a wave of black tide, the familiar Armored Cavalry of Libei swept across the snowy plains and galloped north.
The gyrfalcon broke through the wind to chase after them. It hovered in the air over the Armored Cavalry of Libei and screeched. Xiao Chiye stood clenching his blade, watching on as the Armored Cavalry of Libei vanished amidst the boundless sea of snow.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan’s mind was wandering, and Grand Mentor Qi knocked him back to his senses.
“Now that the various generals have returned to their positions, Qudu has once again lapsed back into a stage of impasse.” With his hair all disheveled, Grand Mentor Qi craned his neck and looked at Shen Zechuan. “You don’t have much time. You can’t keep on being willing to remain a trapped turtle in a jar!”13
“They are the butcher knife, and I’m the meat on their chopping board.”14 Shen Zechuan looked up and said, “Teacher, do I really still have a chance to leave this place?”
“Fortune and misfortune are interdependent. Being confined is not necessarily a bad thing.” Grand Mentor Qi opened the gourd stopper and took a few gulps of wine. “It’s easier to lay low and bide your time if you remain behind closed doors. You will have plenty of opportunities in the future!”
The palace bell tolled in the distance. The new year had begun.
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Credits: Many thanks to Rie (@SHlZUNS) for the correction! ♥
- 外家拳 ‘external’ martial arts, originates from Shaolin, where one uses one’s physical strength in combat to go on the offensive. The opposite 内家拳 ‘internal’ martial arts originates from Zhang Sanfeng, where one mobilizes one’s internal energy instead. The latter is more concerned about the spiritual and mental aspects rather than the physical aspects. An example of internal martial arts is Taiji (Tai Chi).
- The Chinese Zodiac is based on a twelve-year cycle, and each year in that cycle is related to an animal sign. These signs in order are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
腰牌 literally authority token or token, it’s a small tablet or token hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity. I’ll also be calling this an authority tablet or tablet of authority.
- 老陈 Lao Chen, or literally, Old Chen. Lao can be used as a prefix before the surname of an older person to indicate affection or familiarity.
- 百户所 The “Company” here is a military unit.
- 六部 Six Ministries, specifically the Ministry of Works, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Personnel, Ministry of Rites, Ministry of Revenue (or Finance in modern terms), and Ministry of War.
- 免死金牌 Death-Exemption Golden Token; a tablet or token bestowed by Emperor which would allow a person to be exempt from the death penalty.
- 半炷香 literally the time half an incense stick takes to burn. Some sources suggest that one stick (一炷香) takes 30 minutes or one hour (one hour is the generally agreed time), but it really depends on a variety of factors (the environment, wind, length of the stick, etc). So half a stick is presumably anywhere from 15 to 30 mins.
- 《梦李白其二》·杜甫Dreaming of Li Bai 2 by Du Fu.
鬼头刀 literally ghost-headed blade. It’s a kind of blade used for beheading people sentenced to death in old times.
- 凡言狼戾者，谓贪而戾也 by Yan Shigu (颜师古), a famous Chinese historian, linguist, politician, and writer of the Tang Dynasty. The full line is 「狼性贪戾，凡言狼戾者，谓贪而戾(也)。」 (A wolf’s nature is insatiable and ruthless. He who speaks of the ruthlessness of the wolf is himself insatiable and ruthless.)
- 瓮中之鳖 literally turtle in a jar. i.e., to be trapped in a tight corner
- 人为刀俎，我为鱼肉, literally translated as “he’s the knife and chopping board; I’m the fish meat” (to be the meat at someone’s chopping board). i.e., to be at someone’s mercy.