Translated with: Jia<3
The rain stopped the next day, but the sky was still overcast.
Concubine Cai, who had been rebuked yesterday, pleaded illness early in the morning. Luo Mu did not sleep well during the night either. After his breakfast, his servant came to report that Cai Yu had sent him an invitation to a gathering.
Luo Mu took the invitation, knowing full well Cai Yu’s purpose for the invitation today. He wiped his hands. Without even changing his robe, he straight out said, “Prepare the sedan. I’ll go over now. Let’s not keep Elder Brother waiting for too long.”
Cai Yu was a known bandit in the Prefecture of Chazhou. Yan Heru of Hezhou addressed him as pa.1 Cai Yu was usually generous with his money, and he liked to assist the various bandits financially, so he was well-reputed among them as a loyal and righteous man who was always ready to offer help. However, he did not get along with Lei Changming from Mount Luo. No one knew the reason why. All they knew was that before Lei Changming’s death, both men would pay no heed to the other during the bandits’ gathering-cum-feasts.
When Luo Mu arrived at the Cai’s residence, Cai Yu had already treated them to a round of drinks and food. Cai Yu’s residence was even more luxuriously built than Luo Mu’s, with more than a thousand servants inside. However, he was not a man who was particular about unnecessary and convoluted formalities; after all, most of his visitors were bandits and robbers. As such, the feasts he held were literally wine-and-meat feasts that boasted of all kinds of roast meats and strong wines.
The moment Cai Yu saw Luo Mu, he leaned back and beckoned to him with a smile, “Mengzheng, you’re late. As punishment, you have to drink three cups of wine. Take a seat, quickly.”
Luo Mu had always been servile and docile before Cai Yu, so he complied and took his seat. Even when he saw the weirdly-dressed strangers at the table, he did not probe. Cai Yu waited for Luo Mu to finish his drink before he said, “I heard my younger sister was bothering you yesterday.”
Looking panicked, Luo Mu started, “Elder Brother—”
“You were right to tell her off!” Cai Yu pressed down on Luo Mu’s arm and said with a smile, “You are her husband, and the man is in charge of the front hall. There are indeed many matters that aren’t up to her to dictate as she wishes. She’s used to being willful and spoiled at home, and even when she has gotten married, she has no respect for her elders. In the future, just tell her off where it is needed. There’s no need to give me face. She’s been so pampered that she’s getting more and more out of hand.”
Cai Yu knew everything that happened in Luo Mu’s inner chambers like the back of his hand. He did not apply that much pressure on the hand that was pressing down on Luo Mu, but it was precisely because of this that it seemed to take him no effort at all. If he told Luo Mu to head left, then Luo Mu would not dare to go right. Luo Mu was an official who passed the rounds of imperial examinations at the various levels to make his way to Qudu the proper way, where he then underwent official inspections to be assigned this post outside the capital. But so what? In Chazhou, Luo Mu was just a yes-man. As they said, the sky is high, and the emperor is far—the local cities in remote places were beyond the reach of the authorities in the central administration. Banditry in Zhongbo was already a serious issue during the reign of Yongyi. Before the defeat of Zhongbo’s troops, they did not give two hoots about the Prince of Jianxing, Shen Wei, and after the defeat of the Zhongbo’s troops, they gave even less of a damn about Qudu.
Fine sweat oozed from Luo Mu’s forehead.
Satisfied on noticing this, Cai Yu retracted his hand and said with a laugh, “Come to think of it, it’s really unheard of. Half a month ago, I heard that there was going to be a change of emperor. That Imperial Bodyguards Commander, Han Cheng, was so anxious that he ran back to his hometown just to find a child to be the imperial heir. But who knew, Secretariat Elder Hai did not agree and banged his head in the hall to his death. Blood and brain matter splattered all over Han Cheng, scaring Han Cheng so much that he peed in his pants right there and then.”
All of them burst out laughing in unison. News that had spread by word of mouth had long rendered Han Cheng as a boorish, hunchback scum that bowed to powers that be.
After Cai Yu was done laughing, he let out a long sigh and said, “But even though we are outlaws dealing in illegal trades, we still have to speak of loyalty and benevolence. Respect to the Secretariat Elder for his act! As the saying goes, men who wield brushes die in remonstrations, while men who wield swords die in battles. Dazhou has been through three changes of reign. Emperors have died one after another, and yet upright and unyielding ministers like this are few and far between.”
Luo Mu listened to him, but did not interrupt, nor did he look up. He seemed intent on eating, even if he only dared to pick up the food before him with his chopsticks. Although he looked dignified in appearance, he gave off the impression of someone weak and cowering.
Cai Yu did not look at Luo Mu again. He was speaking with gusto now. “But perhaps the Secretariat Elder himself did not expect the throne to now go to a woman after the Han clan’s child failed to sit on it. There has never been such an incident ever since the founding of Dazhou. Isn’t this a violation of the law of nature2 and the reversal of gender roles?3 This is an omen for the collapse of the Dazhou empire! I’d rather listen to the words of an ignorant child than listen to the orders of a woman. What would it look like for a man of indomitable spirit to pay obeisance to a woman?! Qidong has a Qi Zhuyin. I think she just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Empress Dowager was in power. Otherwise, how could she have gotten the chance to be the Commander-in-chief? If Qudu were to have a female emperor next… gosh, what a mess!”
A chorus of agreement rose all around. One man with a beard smacked the table and said, “Elder Cai is right. That’s what it is. What is it with the female emperor? The first few emperors are indeed awful, but having a man as the head of administration is the law of nature, as Laozi4 said. I’m not willing to concede either. Imagine if the entire court of civil and military officials were to kneel and pay obeisance to her as monarch and subjects, they would be an entire lair of cowardly good-for-nothings. No wonder we keep getting attacked by the Twelve Tribes of Biansha all these years.”
“A daughter she is, yes? Getting married and keeping domestic peace are her duties. No harm done if they dote on her and raise her into a pampered, delicate lady. But it’s a disaster to let them go out and fight battles or lead the government.” Having said that, Cai Yu sighed with emotion. “I heard the students in Qudu are all rather willing. I think they’ve all gone dumb and silly from studying! They can’t even tell good from bad.”
Their conversations went from the political affairs in Qudu to the military affairs in Qidong, then from the military affairs in Qidong to the war in Libei. Finally, the topic turned to Lei Changming.
The bearded man said, “Lei Changming was another one who got a lucky break to have encountered Young Master Yan when the young master was in distress. He gave him a hand, and that was how he could rise in the world. But he was a person who couldn’t last long. He was overbearing as heck, and even wanted to establish a regular army in Mount Luo. But look what happened? He encountered the Imperial Army and immediately met his end, no?”
Cai Yu snorted coldly.
The person next to him said, “Elder Cai and Lei Changming could be said to be the Twin Heroes of Zhongbo, but how is Lei Changming deserving of the name? He doesn’t even come close to our Elder Cai!”
Cai Yu was not moved by this flattery. He spread his arms open and sank comfortably into the chair. “Do you know why I turn my nose up at Lei Changming? I find him filthy.” He emphasized the last word, just as the maidservant came over with his smoking pipe. He took two puffs and continued, “Lei Changming worked as an armed escort in his early years. All of you know this. But why did he stop later? The reason he gave the others was that he had married his younger sister off to the Zhu clan in Duanzhou. He wanted to live in comfort, and that was why he didn’t want to carry on doing such work anymore. But that was not true. Well, he had an addiction.”
At some point, Luo Mu had set aside his chopsticks.
As Cai Yu blew out puffs of smoke, he said, “When I first joined this trade and was about to complete my training, my shifu said that one must be benevolent and righteous even if one were to be a bandit or a robber. There are some things you can’t touch and can’t do. Those are depraved acts that will bring you bad karma. There have been plenty of traveling merchants with families coming and going in Chazhou all these years, but I’d never laid my hands on the widows and orphans when I came across them. However, it was a different story for Lei Changming. He’d also escort family members when he was escorting goods in the past. There was one time he was doing a job in Dengzhou, and the man who was the head of household died midway through the journey, leaving behind his hapless widow and orphan who couldn’t even afford to pay the fees for the escort and transportation service. When they arrived at Dengzhou, the original in-laws on the husband’s side only wanted their grandson, but not the daughter-in-law. The woman was unwilling to part with her child, and so, forced into the corner, she thought of attempting suicide. Lei Changming brought both mother and son back home, saying he was going to provide for them.”
“At that time, I was still a robber in Chazhou, and I thought well of Lei Changming when I heard of this incident. I felt he was different from people like me; he was the chivalrous hero that shifu spoke of. I held him in esteem, and I’d take notice of him when I was out there working. I wanted to find an opportunity to become sworn brothers with him. But when I went to Dengzhou later, I heard that he had quit. It was only when I found the place that I learned that both the woman and child had died. How did they die? He brutalized them after drinking, laying his hands on that five or six-years-old child. The woman resisted, and he beat her to death. The child, having been tormented beyond recognition, lived for only a few days before he died too.”
Cai Yu waved away the smoke and frowned as he had the maidservant take the pipe away.
“He went to Duanzhou, and this indulgence of his never changed. This man valued his own reputation, and he never dared to do it openly. Young Master Yan was still very young when Lei Changming saved him. I could be said to be friends with Old Master Yan at that time, and the Yan clan had helped me before. So even though I had yet to see the young master then, I treated him as my own precious son. On hearing of this incident, I immediately gave chase for four days and nights in a row before I reached Mount Luo and got him back. At that time, the young master was wearing a bright, jade earring. He was fair and lovely, and very smart too. As soon as he saw me, he called me pa. Such a lovable child. Seeing as the young master was unharmed, I didn’t bother to settle scores with Lei Changming.”
Each time Lei Changming met Cai Yu again later, he would self-consciously feel small. Cai Yu held him in contempt, and he did not approach Cai Yu either. To each his own.
“The young master is a good child. He was very grateful to Lei Changming for saving him, so he repeatedly extended a helping hand to the bandits in Mount Luo.” Cai Yu had initially meant to ask Luo Mu about Kong Ling today, but he got carried away talking about these past events. By the time he’d remembered, Luo Mu had already left.
◈ ◈ ◈
Luo Mu got into the sedan chair, but he had not gone far before he changed course and headed for the cosmetic shop with the intent to buy some rouge powders that were all the rage in Qudu to coax concubine Cai. The largest rouge store in Chazhou was owned by a merchant from Juexi, and Luo Mu was a regular customer there. The moment he stepped off the sedan, a steward came over to welcome and serve him tea in one smooth motion. Finally, he bent over to inform Luo Mu, “Apologies, Your Excellency Luo. Unfortunately, we are all out of stock. All the good stuff is being prepared in the shop at the eastern end and has yet to be delivered here. What do you say if we deliver them to your residence tomorrow? Would that be fine?”
Luo Mu nodded and made to leave when he recalled the way Cai Yu was pressing down on his arm earlier. Changing his mind, he turned back and asked, “Which shop at the eastern end?”
The steward called over an assistant to personally lead the way for Luo Mu.
Upon arriving at the place, Luo Mu noted that while the shop was not a large one, it was indeed close to the horse tracks and convenient for unloading goods. He entered and saw only a few people inside. The assistant led him further into the courtyard in the back, then served him tea and told him to wait for a moment.
Luo Mu sat for a moment. The curtain lifted, but the one who came through was Kong Ling.
“Why are you…” Luo Mu asked in astonishment.
However, Kong Ling did not answer. He lifted the curtain and stepped aside, and a man in white behind him bent slightly at the waist to enter. The instant Shen Zechuan raised his head, Luo Mu rose to his feet.
Shen Zechuan came in a sedan chair, and so he did not get wet. He looked at Luo Mu and gestured for him to sit. Qiao Tianya, who was following behind them, came in to change the tea and handed a fresh cup of hot tea to Shen Zechuan.
Seeing that Luo Mu was still standing, Kong Ling said, “Mengzheng, this is…”
“Your Excellency the Vice Commander.” Luo Mu respectfully paid his obeisances. “I’ve long heard of the Vice Commander’s reputation. This pupil Luo Mengzheng is all ears to the advice you have to offer.”
“I’ve previously heard Mister Chengfeng speak highly of Your Excellency Luo for your prudence and excellent judgment. As I see it today, this is indeed the case.” Shen Zechuan smiled slightly. “I’m no longer the Vice Commander of the Imperial Bodyguards now. Without an authority token and an official post, I’m merely a commoner. It is I who should pay my respect to Your Excellency.”
How would Luo Mu dare to accept his bows? The official in the emperor’s inner ministerial circle, Shen Zechuan—just his position as the Northern Judge of the Imperial Bodyguards alone was enough to strike fear in the hearts of the local prefectural prefects. In the past, the Imperial Bodyguards collaborated with the Ministry of Justice, Court of Judicial Review, and Chief Surveillance Bureau to carry out field works at the local areas to audit the accounts and review the local officials’ accomplishments. Shen Zechuan was also on good terms with Cen Yu of the Chief Surveillance Bureau and Kong Qiu of the Ministry of Justice. Luo Mu did not just hear of him. Originally, the main objective of local officials like him who had been assigned posts outside the capital was to gain experience. After building up their political achievements and taking their credentials into account, they would be able to get a promotion to Qudu and become an official in the capital. Their inspections’ evaluations and the lives of both them and their family all lay in Shen Zechuan’s hands.
The key to this was evident in the way Luo Mu called himself “this pupil”.5
Shen Zechuan was different from the Judge preceding him. His origin was not “legitimate”. His birth father was the Prince of Jianxing, Shen Wei, whose Zhongbo’s troops were defeated. Back then, when he entered the capital, he was escorted by the Imperial Bodyguards who had picked him up from the Libei Armored Cavalry. Rumor had it that he was to be executed, but not only did he survive, but he was even repeatedly promoted by Emperor Tianchen, who made an exception for him. The post of the Northern Judge concerned both factions in Qudu, and yet even Hai Liangyi had been willing to give his assent. What’s more, this person was young, which only filled the others with even more trepidation towards him.
It was only then that Luo Mu understood that it was not just a front when Kong Ling said he was confident of success. He was genuinely certain of success.
Fortunately, Shen Zechuan was merely just saying and did not get up to pay his respects. Luo Mu calmed himself down a little. Not daring to sit, he let his hands drop as he stood before Kong Ling and said, “Please excuse this pupil for not welcoming Your Excellency after Your Excellency has personally come all the way to Chazhou. I’ll immediately send someone…”
“I followed the Marquis of Dingdu out of the capital, and I’m now already a traitor of Qudu, so there is truly no need for Your Excellency to stand on ceremony.” Shen Zechuan drank the hot tea, soothing his throat a little before he continued, “I’ve been in Zhongbo for quite some time, and I’ve long wanted to meet Your Excellency Luo. Fortunately, I have Mister Chengfeng to accompany me today.”
Kong Ling looked at Luo Mu and smiled. “Mengzheng, there’s no need to be so formal. The Vice Commander is now the pillar of Cizhou. It’s also to resolve the bandit issue in Chazhou that he came this time. We are all on the same side.”
Luo Mu looked at him, his gaze not as blatant as yesterday. He asked cautiously, “How did you know I’d come?”
“Chazhou is only this big. There are plenty of matters that one can find out with just a little inquiry around. That fourteenth concubine of yours has backing, and she has a temper to boot. She loves the rouges from Qudu. You’ve always had a penchant for pleasing others by catering to their likes, so to coax her, you will naturally make a personal trip down yourself.” Kong Ling smiled at Shen Zechuan and shook his head. “The Vice Commander doesn’t know it, but Mengzheng was very popular with the ladies while he was still in the academy. He was a flirtatious one too. Even before he entered the ranks of officials in the imperial court, he was very knowledgeable about all this stuff.”
Luo Mu relaxed a little when he heard Kong Ling bring up the academy. “I conducted myself with decorum when I was studying. How could I have been flirtatious when I was with you all day? On the contrary, you had countless friends and could fraternize with just about anyone.”
The atmosphere eased up a little at their banter. Kong Ling led Luo Mu to take a seat.
Shen Zechuan sat in the seat of honor. When he spoke, it was not as overbearing and aggressive as Luo Mu expected. “Mister Chengfeng has probably already told you about the purpose of our trip here. It wasn’t convenient to have a thorough discussion yesterday, so it’s inevitable that Your Excellency will have misgivings. Please speak your mind freely today, we can discuss any difficulty you may have.”
Shen Zechuan was mild in his speech, and his expression was natural and at ease. However, there was clearly no room for “discussion” in his last sentence. Beneath his seemingly placid attitude was an unshakeable resolve to get what he wanted. Luo Mu only had to hear this one phrase from Shen Zechuan to understand Shen Zechuan’s intent.
Discuss any difficulty you may have. What was the purpose of a discussion? To allow him to take swift action sooner. Shen Zechuan did not give Luo Mu a chance to refuse at all. The moment he opened his mouth, he had left Luo Mu with no other choice.
When Luo Mu looked up again, his timidity was gone. He said, “If the Vice Commander can suppress the bandits in Chazhou, then I’m willing to take the Vice Commander’s lead. However, Cai Yu isn’t Lei Changming, and the Vice Commander doesn’t have the Marquis’s 20,000 strong soldiers either. It will be indeed tough to rely on the strength of just one man alone.”
Shen Zechuan said, unruffled, “With our meeting today, we can stand up to a million strong soldiers.”
- 阿爷 I’d use pinyin for this except the pinyin is A-ye lmfao. An address used in Classical Chinese for one’s father in old times, although it’s also used as grandpa. (Using pa here since Cai Yu previously mentioned treating him like a son).
- literally violation of Heavenly principles, or nature’s law aka feudal ethics as propounded by Song Dynasty Confucianists
- literally reversal of Yin and Yang, refers to traditional gender roles here. The emperor was traditionally male; women were not supposed to be involved in politics.
- Laozi (or Lao-tzu), reverent term of address for Li Er (李耳), Chinese philosopher of the late Spring and Autumn Period and founder of Taoism.
- “学生” literally student or pupil, a humble form of self-address used by a scholar or an official when addressing one’s teacher, master or a member of older generation