Translated with: Jia<3
Due to the recent death of Emperor Tianchen, it was customary for the marriage between Hua and Qi to be postponed. However, Xiao Chiye rebelled his way out of Qudu, and Qudu had favors to ask of Qidong, so the Empress Dowager and Grand Secretariat mulled over the matter numerous times before eventually deciding to marry Hua Xiangyi off in the seventh month.
The Empress Dowager went all out this time, and the dowry she prepared for Hua Xiangyi spanned more than ten li. Arrangements made by the Ministry of Rites were all done in accordance with the wedding protocols for a princess. The ceremonial guards of honor sending her off were personally led by Han Cheng himself, and there were countless wet nurses and maidservants following along in her retinue.
Hua Xiangyi boarded the horse carriage. Just as it was about to depart, the Empress Dowager took two steps after it and almost called out to her. But she had to be mindful of her image and uphold her dignity after all, so she could only hold on to Matron Liuxiang’s arm and muttered softly as the eastern pearls by her ears swayed. “My little darling…”
The ceremonial guards of honor left Qudu and headed for Qidong along Chuancheng’s public roads, during which they would pass by Chazhou. Han Cheng was initially worried that the bandits from Chazhou would rob them, so he specially brought along men from the Eight Great Training Divisions, but the journey was unexpectedly uneventful; Luo Mu even sent over his congratulatory gifts when they passed by. They continued to travel south, where Qi Zhuyin was already waiting for them within Qidong’s borders.
“Speaking of this Qi Zhuyin,” Han Cheng’s horse stuck close to the carriage as he spoke to Hua Xiangyi with the carriage curtain between them. “Third Missy hasn’t met her before, right?”
A soft sound of affirmation rose from within.
Han Cheng loved flaunting his seniority. On hearing her, he perked up and said, “Let this old subject share some domestic trivialities with the Third Missy. Although Qi Zhuyin is a girl, she is not easy to get along with. The Third Missy typically resides in the inner palace, so you must have not known how ferocious she looks every year she enters the capital. The Ministry of Revenue was in a tight spot during the reign of Xiande, and yet she dared to command her soldiers to obstruct His Excellency Wei’s sedan for the military salaries for the Qidong troops. But the Ministry of Revenue genuinely could not afford to pay up, and left without a choice, she associated herself with the ruffians who were also loan sharks in Qudu and hung out with them in the streets.
Hua Xiangyi had only seen Qi Zhuyin through a screen before. In that Feast of A Hundred Officials where all the civil ministers and military generals were men, Qi Zhuyin was a special case. She did not stand out much during her early years in Qidong. Before Qi Shiyu handed over his commander seal, everyone was speculating about which of her brothers would take over. After the expedition to rescue Qi Shiyu, Qi Zhuyin was first denied entry to the capital. The imperial court dragged the matters on for several months on the grounds that her ‘military achievements were still pending investigation’. Then, there was the Yulong Terrace fiasco when the day of her conferment drew closer. Even with the backing of the Empress Dowager, Qi Zhuyin merely took over Qi Shiyu’s commander seal and did not inherit Qi Shiyu’s title. In other words, every battle that Qi Zhuyin fought today only built up prestige for Qidong and not for herself. If she did not get married in this life, she would continue to be considered a ‘daughter of Qi’ even after retiring from the front lines, with no title to her name. Conversely, her brothers would be set for life as long as they beget sons soonest possible.
Han Cheng was still talking, but Hua Xiangyi seemed to have fallen asleep inside the carriage. Han Cheng gradually felt bored and stopped talking in awkward embarrassment.
The ceremonial guards of honor traveled until the hour of you when a streak of red suddenly emerged on the horizon. Horses’ hoofs thundered in unison amidst the billowing waves of heat, revealing the light cavalry that stretched far into the distance, all dressed in red robes. The military flag of Qidong fluttered in the wind, like a dragon soaring straight for them, while a storm of yellow sand surged forth and slapped Han Cheng’s entire face full of dust.
Qi Wei took the lead and dismounted his horse, brandishing the flag as he bellowed, “WEL—COME—!”
The light cavalry behind him got off their horses and simultaneously went down on one knee, their armors clanging resoundingly as they raised their arms and shouted in chorus, “We extend our respectful welcome to Madam!”
These two thunderous roars left the palace maids from Qudu so shaken that their hearts went pounding; even Han Cheng almost clutched at his chest. Beating away the dust, he knitted his brows and asked, “Where’s the Commander…”
The sound of horse hooves circled over towards them, then that red figure was already right before the horse carriage. Before Han Cheng could stop her, Qi Zhuyin lifted the curtain with the sheath of her blade and tilted her head to peer inside.
Hua Xiangyi had yet to have her head covered with a veil, and there was a golden jade phoenix coronet perched on her head as she looked at Qi Zhuyin in shock, her chest pounding hard. She did not have a clue what Qi Zhuyin was trying to do.
“Yo.” Qi Zhuyin greeted her. “Stepmother.”1
Shocked, Han Cheng hurriedly stepped forward to close the carriage curtain. He could not help but rebuke, “We have yet to arrive in Cangjun Commandery, so how can the Commander-in-chief simply lift the Third Missy’s curtain?!”
“Just taking a look.” Rebuffed, Qi Zhuyin retracted her hand and said, “How many times have you taken a break during the journey? According to the estimated time, you should have arrived yesterday.”
Han Cheng followed after Qi Zhuyin’s horse and answered, “It’s a long journey, and it’s hard to guarantee that nothing will happen if we are in too much of a hurry. I thought the Commander-in-Chief would be waiting to receive us at the southern side of Chazhou, but in the end, we didn’t see you even after all that waiting.”
“I’m only just hurried back from Bianjun, so I don’t have much time to spare.” As Qi Zhuyin spoke, she looked back and asked Han Cheng, “Why are you getting off your horse?”
Han Cheng looked around the place. “It’s already the hour of you now; it should be here…”
Qi Zhuyin pointed to the east with her horse whip and said, “Continue on your way for a little further, and you’ll be able to reach Cejun Commandery at the hour of hai. There’s a bridle path in Cejun, and the road to Cangjun Commandery will be a tad smoother. Get on your horse.”
Han Cheng had been on the go for an entire day, and he was exhausted at this point. He still wanted to say something, but Qi Zhuyin had already spurred her horse on and left. Qi Wei mounted his horse from his end and led his light cavalry to surround the ceremonial procession, then said to Han Cheng politely, “Commander, let’s go.”
Even if Han Cheng was a bigwig in Qudu, he had no authority over the affairs of the Ministry of War and Ministry of Revenue. The Imperial Bodyguards could throw their weight around in Qudu and other places, but to Qi Zhuyin, they were of no threat. She was the Commander-in-Chief of Qidong’s Five Commanderies’ troops. Qidong was her territory. Han Cheng had no say here, what’s more when the Empress Dowager herself even had to rely on the Qidong Garrison Troops now.
Han Cheng bore a grudge deep down, but he could not let it show on his expression yet. All he could do was smile at Qi Wei and get on his horse to continue with the journey.
Hua Xiangyi returned to her senses, her heart still palpitating from the fleeting glimpse of the stunning sight earlier. The curtain of the carriage swayed, and she tilted her head slightly to look through the gap, where she saw the back view of Qi Zhuyin as she rode her horse ahead.
Qi Zhuyin was tall and slender. She must have made a special effort to dress up today. She had to ride a horse, so she did not have her hair up in a high bun as was common in Qudu, but she still looked very chic. There were no hair accessories like hairpins, double-edged fine-toothed comb, or exquisite pearls in her hair, making her appear all the more neat and tidy.
She was a pretty one.
Hua Xiangyi still wanted to continue sizing her up, but then she saw her look back abruptly.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye said to send his congratulations, but he still had someone prepare a gift. Xiao Jiming also had to prepare a gift on his end. Their relationship with Qidong was not all that bad. Even if it was a little delicate at the moment, the friendship was still there, especially with Qi Zhuyin.
The wedding between Hua and Qi was a declaration of the temporary victory of the Empress Dowager in the tussle for power in Qudu. The Grand Secretariat could only first stabilize the Heir Apparent to the throne before they had the latitude to continue with the contention for dominance. It was at this moment Xue Xiuzhuo made a wise decision. He submitted a memorial to negotiate with the Grand Secretariat and had Jiang Qingshan released back to Juexi, thereby securing the granaries in Qudu.
Yao Wenyu sat in the wheelchair and let Qiao Tianya push him outdoors. The weather in Cizhou had been rather bad lately. Autumn rain was on its way, and the scenery in the outskirts of the city was even more bleak and desolate. Yao Wenyu had been out of the sun for many days, and right this moment, he seemed to have become a jade laid bare out there for all to see.
“It’s just as you expected.” Shen Zechuan looked at the vast expanse of autumn leaves and the solemnly quiet lands as he stood at Yao Wenyu’s side. “He really transferred Jiang Qingshan back to Juexi.”
“I originally thought Jiang Qingshan ought to have gone to Huaizhou even if it was to suppress Cizhou.” In a rare moment today, Zhou Gui was wearing a body-fitting outfit,2 having also ridden his way here on horseback. He wiped his sweat and said, “Luoxia Pass is close to the city of Quancheng, and Quancheng is the native hometown of the Xue clan. It’s only to be expected for him to be worried. I didn’t think he would really be willing to send Jiang Qingshan back to Juexi.”
Holding the cat in his sleeve, Yao Wenyu said, “It’s because of the geographical location of Luoxia Pass and the city of Quancheng. It’s inevitable that both of you would have such concerns. Going by the present situation, putting Jiang Qingshan in Huaizhou would be the most advantageous to Xue Xiuzhuo and the Xue clan.”
The soles of Shen Zechuan’s boots trod across the fallen leaves. He stood still and lost himself in his thoughts.
If Jiang Qingshan was transferred to the prefecture of Huaizhou, he would, firstly, be able to challenge Cizhou and obstruct the trade route between Cizhou, Chazhou, and Huaizhou from taking shape; secondly, he would be able to ensure that Quancheng would be safe and sound, as well as join forces with Quancheng to put pressure on Luoxia Pass, and subsequently, Libei. These were all matters that Shen Zechuan could think of himself, and naturally, so could Xue Xiuzhuo. Yet, he still forsook the safety of Quancheng and chose Juexi, just like Yao Wenyu predicted.
“Xue Xiuzhuo had Jiang Qingshan released back.” Shen Zechuan’s expression was grave. “And this is what makes him tough to deal with.”
This maneuver not only meant that Xue Xiuzhuo would restrict Libei’s and Zhongbo’s development through the grains, but also that he did not give a damn about the personal gains and losses of the Xue clan. In other words, he harbored no selfish desires, which made him completely different from Hua Siqian, Wei Huaigu, and the others. What he sought was not benefits for one party.
“Jiang Qingshan takes a hard approach on policies, and his local governance is effective. There are rumors in Qudu that he will not tolerate a thorn in his side, but in truth, it’s quite the opposite.” Yao Wenyu flexed his fingers and stroked the cat. “Juexi has thirteen cities, with two prefectures and two harbors; it’s now a veritable granary of Dazhou. The Xi clan’s business is by far its largest in Juexi, and even the waterways of the Hua clan in Dicheng have to go through it. If the Vice Commander has been to Juexi before, you’d understand that Juexi’s prosperity did not happen by coincidence. Jiang Qingshan is an extraordinarily broad-minded man who uses people regardless of their family status and social standing. He would never make excuses to decline in the face of major matters, but he also knows not to go too far when dealing with minor issues. He never lets go of all that he ought to have a firm grip on, and he never regrets all that he should relax his hold on. With such a Provincial Administration Commissioner, it’s not surprising for Juexi to swiftly get back on its feet after the natural disaster in the reign of Xiande. Jiang Qingshan is such a person. He cited Xue Xiuzhuo as his bosom friend in life, precisely because they shared the same political views and ambitions.”
On hearing this, Zhou Gui nodded. “I’ve long heard of the political achievements of these two people. When the Grand Secretary promoted Xue Xiuzhuo to the Court of Judicial Review back then, no one in the imperial court opposed.”
“The Vice Commander has also read Xue Xiuzhuo’s essays on contemporary politics before.” Yao Wenyu said. “Does the Vice Commander still remember the Grand Mentor’s wish?”
Shen Zechuan knew it by heart, because he inherited Qi Huilian’s knowledge and understood best what Qi Huilian wanted to do back then. After a moment of silence, he said, “To unify the management of Dazhou’s household registries; to survey all the fertile farmlands in the world; to consolidate the miscellaneous local taxes; and to restore the cash flow of the state treasury.”
Yao Wenyu looked at the mountains in the distance and said, “These are what Xue Xiuzhuo wants to accomplish. He and Teacher are both striving for the same thing if you look at it on this point alone. Teacher has the support of Kong Qiu, Cen Yu, and the various officials of humble backgrounds, while Xue Xiuzhuo has the support of the industrious and practical action-takers with Jiang Qingshan at the lead. He’s not alone.”
But could the current Dazhou really do it?
It took Qi Huilian many years to implement the registration of households into the census registry3 in the local areas. Why was the Eastern Palace framed for rebellion? Because the next on the list was the surveyance of farmlands. The misappropriation of the commoners’ fields in the Eight Cities of Qudu was rather severe. Once the policy was implemented, the noble clans not only had to return the commoners’ fields and receive their sentence according to the law, they also had to bear the land and field taxes themselves. Killing the Crown Prince would prevent the policy from being implemented. Hai Liangyi taught Li Jianheng the way he did to treat the problem at its source. He hoped Li Jianheng would be able to maintain a tight hold over the Grand Secretariat and wield his authority to make changes and overhaul the system from top-down. For this, he was willing to charge valiantly forth in Li Jianheng’s place.
But Li Jianheng could not do it.
Xue Xiuzhuo realized this way earlier than Hai Liangyi did. He instantly abandoned Li Jianheng, no longer holding out any hope for this emperor, or even the Li clan. He needed a new emperor, one who could sit quietly on the throne. It had to be the case that this emperor would never interfere with the Grand Secretariat, nor sway left and right in the struggle between those from the noble clans and those of humble backgrounds. Even more so, he would not be partial towards the frontier with heavy military presence for the sake of so-called brotherhood. And so he found Li Jianting.
But a plan like this took too long. Qudu was changing every single moment. Shen Zechuan himself was a variable. In Qudu, he was at best an abandoned pawn on Xue Xiuzhuo’s chessboard, one who could be off-handedly discarded after dealing with Xi Hongxuan and Wei Huaigu, wiped out in that heavy downpour just like Xiao Chiye. Xue Xiuzhuo had no selfish desires, and this was what was so terrifying about him. Xue Xiuyi had repeatedly ridiculed, mocked, and even humiliated Xue Xiuzhuo, but Xue Xiuzhuo did not kill off this lawful eldest brother of his, because, in his eyes, Xue Xiuyi was not important at all. Dead or alive, he made no difference, just like the dust at his feet.
He wanted to kill Qi Huilian, because Qi Huilian was the tutor of the emperor of Dazhou. He wanted to kill Yao Wenyu, because Yao Wenyu was a phenomenal talent. He gave these two men the chance to choose before, but in the end, both of them turned him down. Releasing a strategist, who could not be used for his own purpose, back into the wild was akin to gifting the world’s famous sword to another. And it was only by killing them that he would be able to eliminate the roots of troubles down the road.
◈ ◈ ◈
A solitary wild goose flew across the horizon. Frost and fog gradually materialized, and a hue of colors washed over the cold-blighted forest. It was getting more and more chilly by the day. Qiao Tianya casually covered Yao Wenyu with a thick coat; they were still in the forest.
Shen Zechuan tapped his folding fan against his palm, his gaze following Hongyan Mountains southward as he said, “When Xue Xiuzhuo was teaching the Heir Apparent to the throne, he likely did not think that Dazhou would have collapsed to such an extent in just a mere few years. There is no one in this world who can take every single thing into account and come up with a foolproof strategy. The military provisions incident that forced Lu Guangbai into rebelling is a variable. Qidong missed the opportunity to hunt down Ce’an because they lost Lu Guangbai, and Qudu went from besieging Xiao Chiye to releasing a tiger back to its mountain.”4
The events that befell men were always unexpected, be it Lu Guangbai, Shen Zechuan, Xiao Chiye, Yao Wenyu, or even any of the other nameless faces out there. Heaven gave every person a different challenge, and in climbing back to their feet and surviving, those who had initially been trapped in their circumstances had all fought and broken free of their shackles. Turbulent times meant that the order of the world no longer existed; anyone could fight for a slice of the pie if they so wished. If there were those who clung on to the fragments already broken, then there would also be those who brandished their weapons to break through the impasse.
This was the era of treacherous ministers and traitors.
It was in the midst of the thick fog when the raindrops fell. Fei Sheng opened up an umbrella and held it over Shen Zechuan. They reined in their horses and made their way back. Autumn had finally come to Cizhou. The wind sent the sleeves of Shen Zechuan’s robes billowing, nearly blowing away his blue handkerchief. At the same time Shen Zechuan grasped onto the handkerchief, the falling leaves dancing all over the sky passed by him. Yellow, withered leaves spiraled up in the wind, where the rain pelted at them, sending them falling at Xiao Chiye’s feet.
Gu Jin returned on horseback, waving a small flag as he shouted, “The bridle path ahead has collapsed. Master, we are trapped here!”
Xiao Chiye mounted his horse. Wu Ziyu spurred his horse on forward from behind and braved the rain to say, “Zhao Hui’s troops haven’t arrived, and the Tudalong Banner lies ten li away from here. Hasen’s cavalry is nearby!”
“The grain wagons are too heavy.” Tantai Hu wiped off the rainwater. “Unless we abandon the provisions and take a detour, we are bound to come across Hasen’s cavalry tonight.”
“There are insufficient supplies at the battlegrounds; if this batch of provisions falls into Hasen’s hands, His Lordship is going to get hit hard.” Chen Yang tugged at the reins, his face red from the cold. “We can stay here, but Master has to go.”
Based on the military orders a few days ago, Xiao Chiye, on making a detour from Dajing to the north, had to go past the bridle path of the original Changzhu camp to first provide supplies for Zhao Hui, then head towards the battlegrounds to replenish Xiao Fangxu’s stock. When they arrived at this spot, they should theoretically be received by Zhao Hui’s Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang, but Zhao Hui had not appeared. Meng was also unable to fly too far to carry out reconnaissance due to the rainstorm today. It was as though Xiao Chiye had been blindfolded.
The expression in Xiao Chiye’s eyes was unbelievably calm as he gave free rein to the raindrops trickling across his cheeks and commanded in a grave tone over the noise, “Turn around. We’re heading for the Tudalong Banner.”
Special Thanks: to Yuka! <3
- 小娘 xiaoniang is a term for one’s father’s concubine. In Qi Zhuyin’s case, it’d be closer to a stepmother, since Hua Xiangyi is marrying into the family as the second wife and not a concubine.
劲装 Jinzhuang is a more body-fitting outfit (compared to the usual loose, flowing robes) with the sleeves secured to make movements easier and less restrictive. It’s usually worn by martial arts practitioners to facilitate combat.
- 黃冊 Huangce or yellow registers/yellow book served during the Ming Dynasty to provide basic data for taxation and recruitment based on the household’s classification according to their occupation. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian, military, and craftsman.
- 放虎归山 i.e., set free a deadly enemy, thereby setting the stage for future disaster.