The first glimmer of dawn appeared in the sky. Yu Xiaozai was a scholar after all, and it was hard for him to hold up mentally after a time, so Shen Zechuan got Chen Yang to lead Yu Xiaozai away for a rest. They could always discuss the remaining matters another day. Yu Xiaozai did not force the issue and withdrew out of the room after leaving behind the letter Cen Yu wrote to Shen Zechuan.
Xiao Chiye went to take a bath, while Shen Zechuan read Cen Yu’s letter under the candlelight. The morning light from the courtyard seeped into the room. Shen Zechuan read the part about Bianjun Commandery. He waited for a moment, but Xiao Chiye was still not back. He set aside the letter, lifted the bamboo curtain, and walked along the narrow corridor to the inner area. Then he stepped around the screen for a look. Xiao Chiye was soaking in the pool, fast asleep.
Xiao Chiye had been feeling a little tired as he thought about some matters, but who would have known that he would fall asleep while thinking? A sudden chill on his cheek woke him up.
Shen Zechuan scooped up the water and stroked Xiao Chiye again. He said, “The water has gone cold. Go back and sleep in the room.”
Xiao Chiye rose, sending water droplets splashing all over. He lowered and buried his head into Shen Zechuan’s bosom, rubbing against him until half of Shen Zechuan’s body was wet. He said in a muffled voice, “Hug me.”
Shen Zechuan lifted his hand to squeeze Xiao Chiye’s nape. He said, “Aren’t you making things difficult for me?”
Xiao Chiye said, “Then I’ll hug you instead.”
Shen Zechuan kicked off his shoes and stretched his arms around Xiao Chiye’s neck that still had water droplets on it. He said a little lazily, “Come on then.”
Xiao Chiye raised his head to press his forehead against Shen Zechuan’s forehead. He embraced him and said, “I’ve seen the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds. It’s still passable. It can be made into a military camp after a little tidying up, but the towers have to be constructed anew. All these will cost money.”
The lamps were not lit on this side, and the lightning added a touch of sensuality to the atmosphere.
Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye pressed against each other up close. Shen Zechuan said, “The city of Dancheng lies to the west of the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds. If we are going to come face to face with the Eight Great Training Divisions in the future, we can’t skimp on this place.”
“No rush.” Xiao Chiye exerted a little force to pick Shen Zechuan up and carry him into the room.
Shen Zechuan knew that Xiao Chiye did not intend to use those silvers of his. The Imperial Army’s expenditure could not always be pegged to Cizhou. What’s more, Xiao Chiye was about to return to Libei soon. To lack money was to lack confidence. He was probably considering this matter himself.
“Cen Yu went to the trouble to get Yu Xiaozai to bring a letter to you. He must have a favor to ask of you.” Xiao Chiye got onto the bed. Without even taking off his robe, he leaned back against the pillow, half-embraced Shen Zechuan, and rested his chin on top of Shen Zechuan’s head. He asked, “What is it?”
Shen Zechuan had already finished reading the letter. Resting his head against Xiao Chiye, he folded the letter and answered, “Cen Yu hopes that you can give everyone another chance and act as the bridge between Qudu and Libei.”
With his eyes half-closed, Xiao Chiye said, “They are in need of help now, that’s why they are willing to lower themselves. If the Grand Secretariat and the empress dowager get along in the future, then Libei will have to send another person in as a hostage. If not me, then Xun-er.”
The grandson-heir was already six years of age now, and Xiao Chiye still had yet to meet him. But this did not prevent him from doting on his nephew. This matter was non-negotiable.
Xiao Chiye softened his voice. “Cen Yu is aware this is a difficult matter to achieve, so he hopes I can head south to Qidong and convince Qi Zhuyin to halt the marriage alliance between Hua and Qi.”
“Cen Yu is in Qudu year in year out. He doesn’t know the details when it comes to Qidong. The commander-in-chief doesn’t have a say in matters relating to the marriage alliance.” Xiao Chiye said. “It’s Qi Shiyu who is going to marry Hua Xiangyi, not Qi Zhuyin. Qi Shiyu is a wily old fox. Seeing as the present situation isn’t boding well, he does not want Qidong to follow in Libei’s footsteps, and so he wants to strengthen ties with Qudu through marriage. What can Cen Yu and the rest give Qi Shiyu? With Hai Liangyi’s death and the empress’s enthronement, all past promises have become worthless. They have no bargaining chips that they can use to convince Qi Shiyu…”
Xiao Chiye’s voice gradually became a murmur as he spoke.
Shen Zechuan counted in silence for a few beats, then turned over to look at him. Sure enough, he had fallen asleep. Shen Zechuan opened up the letter once again. His eyes lingered on the word “Bianjun” for a moment before he closed it.
Xiao Chiye had a good night’s sleep.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xue Xiuzhuo, however, did not fall asleep.
He had been resting in his study for several days in a row. The whole affair about the emperor’s daughter could convince the students, but it could not convince the shrewd and astute imperial court officials. Kong Qiu felt that the blow Xue Xiuzhuo dealt to the Grand Secretariat by taking advantage of present circumstances was not what a gentleman should do. He had already submitted several memorials in succession to protest against the empress dowager’s tacit consent. But it was a futile endeavor, and he received no response.
A conniving, ambitious man of great designs.
Thinking how wrong he had been about Xue Xiuzhuo, Kong Qiu threw these words at him and refused to discuss any further with him.
Whether or not the emperor’s daughter ascended to the throne, the imperial court officials led by Kong Qiu had failed to reap any benefit this time round. They fought with Han Cheng and lost their pillar, and they saw Han Cheng make a concession only for Xue Xiuzhuo to come barging out of nowhere midway. What he delivered was not the emperor’s son, but the emperor’s daughter. Everything they had done had been in vain.
Cen Yu did not concede defeat. The criticism of the imperial censors was far more intense than Xue Xiuzhuo had imagined it to be. Xue Xiuzhuo thought Dazhou was already at the point where they would let the emperor’s daughter ascend to the throne. Was he not implying by this that the state and its rule were coming to an end, and that was why an incident such as the reversal of gender norms and the confounding of right and wrong could have happened?
Back then, Qi Zhuyin had merely been conferred a title as commander-in-chief, and she had already been repeatedly censured. And now, the Ministry of Rites poured over book after book for details regarding the enthronement ceremony of the emperor’s daughter, and there were too many areas in which they had simply had nothing to reference at all. The sounds of castigation in the imperial court never stopped, and memorials impeaching Xue Xiuzhuo numbered in the dozens.
“Are all of you I see here pansies?”1 Pan Lin had now made a name for himself in the Ministry of Revenue after all the ordeals he had been through. As a descendant of Pan Xiangjie from the old-school noble clan, his reaction on the imperial court was the most intense. “Dazhou never had a female crown prince in all its hundred years! Feudal ethics2 is the Way of Heaven. Although the common descendant of Prince Yan has passed, he still has descendants. Even if the royal bloodline is hard to find, Her Majesty can temporarily exercise the rights of the Son of Heaven. We will search again!”
Xue Xiuzhuo stood alone in the middle of these two groups of officials who were polar opposites and said in a steady voice, “All the later descendants of Prince Yan take his surname. Do you mean to tell me that the Li clan’s empire should also change its surname to his? It’s indeed entirely justified for the empress dowager to act on behalf of the Son of Heaven. Since the harem can lead the administration, then why not a female crown prince?”
“You’re distorting the facts!” Cen Yu turned aside to look at Xue Xiuzhou. “The empress dowager acts on behalf of the Son of Heaven; she does not take his place. As long as the crown prince ascends to the throne, the harem will naturally have the authority returned to its rightful master! But if the emperor’s daughter has an imperial heir in the future after ascending to the throne, will she be able to return the power?!”
Han Cheng’s expression was livid. He understood deep down that he had been duped by Xue Xiuzhuo too. The empress dowager and all these old-school noble clans were dissatisfied because the attitude Xue Xiuzhuo was manifesting was not that of compliant submission. He held the emperor’s daughter firmly in his hand, which meant that after the emperor’s daughter ascended to the throne, he would have the influence to control court administration and state affairs. To those traditionalists, this was a kind of betrayal.
Seeing as the empress dowager, who was sitting behind the beaded curtain, had still yet to speak up, Han Cheng said, “Moreover, the emperor’s daughter has never been out there in the world, limited as she is to her chamber. How can she assume the responsibility of managing state affairs? In my opinion, the empress dowager should still lead the administration after the enthronement ceremony.”
On hearing this, Kong Qiu wanted to throw up his hands and quit. This situation was like one big sticky mess. At present, none of the parties were satisfied. They were displeased if the emperor’s daughter were to ascend the throne, and they were unhappy if the empress dowager were to head the administration, but what else could they do? Let the eight cities deliberate state affairs, and that would upset the students!
Kong Qiu wanted so much to beg Heavens to hurry and drop a prince from the sky! They were blinded and muddleheaded over ten years ago not to let Emperor Guangcheng beget more sons. If there was still an imperial heir around, would they be in such a predicament?
Xue Xiuzhuo lifted his arm to point at the old stone inscription outside the hall. He said, “The forefathers had explicitly said that ‘the harem shall not interfere with politics’, not ‘the emperor’s daughter shall not lead the administration’! Since the various gentlemen here are so critical of me today, then may I be so bold as to ask what, in the various gentlemen’s opinions, should be done? Do we oust the emperor’s daughter and install an emperor of another surname, or do we leave the throne empty and have the empress dowager lead the court?!”
A loud buzz rose in the imperial court, but no one stepped forth to give a definitive statement. It was like this too when they appointed Li Jianheng as the crown prince back then. It was as if they were being pushed to the precipice of the cliff with each step they took with no other choice open to them.
If Xue Xiuzhuo had come forward a few days earlier to say that he still had the emperor’s daughter in his hand, the empress dowager and the Grand Secretariat would all have a strategy to deal with it, and they would also have been willing to treat him cordially. But he just had to pin everyone down by their vulnerable point in an attempt to hold the initiative to call the shots in his own hands. He now had the emperor’s daughter in hand, and public opinion to back him up. Who would dare to lay a hand on him at this juncture?
Kong Qiu took a step back and gave in. He knew such a stalemate was non-beneficial to Dazhou and to them. He said, “There is something the commander said which I find true. The emperor’s daughter has been limited to her living quarters for long. Even if she ascends, she still needs to study the classics. In the interim, the empress dowager will be in charge of the administration with the assistance of the Grand Secretariat.”
They had to stand firm in this last stand they took. They had to turn themselves into the threshold that determined if the emperor’s daughter had the capability to participate in government independently. Kong Qiu’s intent was clear. It was only when the Grand Secretariat found the emperor’s daughter capable that she was capable. Otherwise, she would always remain a student sitting on the throne. To the empress dowager, this was also a kind of threat. If the empress dowager dared to support the Han clan as she did for the Hua, Pan clans during the reign of Yongyi, then they would immediately put the emperor’s daughter in charge of the administration and force the empress dowager back into the rear palace.
The empress dowager sat in silence behind the beaded curtain for a long time before she said, “I feel uneasy all day to act on behalf of the emperor. Since there is now a crown prince candidate, it is indeed inappropriate for me to continue doing so. After the enthronement ceremony, I shall retreat to the Buddha hall and will no longer show myself in public.”
Since she was going to beat a retreat for the sake of moving the situation along, all those present could only kneel in unison and shout, “Your Majesty is the matriarch of the world. You mustn’t put your esteemed self down.”
Xue Xiuzhuo kneeled among them, his back drenched in sweat as he bowed in a kowtow. Surprisingly enough, he did not refute Kong Qiu.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye was brimming with energy after a sleep. He had just finished his breakfast and was sitting cross-legged under the eaves feeding Meng. When he heard the news Bianjun had revolted, he and Meng looked back at Shen Zechuan together.
Yu Xiaozai sat on his heels at the side. On seeing this, he hurriedly said, “I was shocked when I heard it too. General Lu comes from a clan of military talents; how could he have revolted? Minister Kong requested right away for the Ministry of War to check the state of military affairs in Bianjun. The Imperial Bodyguards put the supervising eunuch on trial, and it took nearly a month for them to find out that the initial military provisions allocated to Bianjun were moldy.”
Xiao Chiye was still stunned. He rose swiftly to his feet, blocking off the light inside the room, and said, “Moldy? We agreed back then to reduce Qidong’s military provisions by half. No one said anything about letting them pass off inferior grains as quality grains.”
The warring situation in Libei was critical at that time, but Bianjun also had to fight battles with Biansha. No matter how anxious Xiao Chiye had been, he would never let anyone stuff Lu Guangbai with moldy grains. He dispatched Chen Yang and Gu Jin to supervise the process precisely because he was worried someone would mess with the military grains, but he had never expected someone to make a move on Bianjun.
“No wonder the commander-in-chief has yet to come and fight me.” Xiao Chiye raised his arm to let Meng perch. His expression was grave. “She lost Lu Guangbai. Qudu would not dare to be hasty and let her head up north to confront us. They have to let her close up the gap in Bianjun. But Lu Guangbai…”
This was Lu Guangbai they were talking about!
Xiao Chiye’s heart sank. He said, “The 20,000 soldiers in Bianjun are all infantrymen. With nowhere to go, Lu Guangbai can only lead his troops deep into the desert. The desert is the Biansha Cavalry’s territory. He will lose the advantage of laying ambushes that he has back in Bianjun. No doubt he will have to change his usual style of fighting battles. Why didn’t he head for Suotian Pass?!”
It would have been fine if he went to Suotian Pass or Tianfei Watchtower. There were still troops of the Feng clan stationed in Suotian Pass. Both of these places could be said to be Zuo Qianqiu’s former units. Zuo Qianqiu was now a general in Libei, and Lu Guangbai’s sister, Lu Yizhi, was Xiao Jiming’s wife. No one would ill-treat him if he went to either of these places.
But why did he decide to head east?
There were only the Twelve Tribes of Biansha in the desert.
To be edited ;;;;
SPECIAL THANKS TO : Suika <3