Translated with: Jia<3
There was something amiss with Yao Wenyu’s medicine; the physicians from the Pan’s residence could not figure out what was wrong, but this no doubt had something to do with Pan Yuan, considering that he had been the one taking care of Yao Wenyu. The Commandery Princess Zhaoyue later checked on the Longyou merchant who had paid off Pan Yuan’s debt, but the other party had long disappeared without a trace. Not long after Yao Wenyu left, Pan Yuan fell off his horse and died, and thus, the trail leading to the identity of the person who instigated him to poison Yao Wenyu hit a dead end. However, Pan Lin had the blame pinned on Xue Xiuzhuo, and both parties’ relationship in Qudu continued to deteriorate.
Gao Zhongxiong sensed the atmosphere in the room growing tense. When he remembered he was also on friendly terms with Pan Yuan, he felt as though he was sitting on pins and needles, worried that Yao Wenyu would blame him for it by association. The silence was too much for him to bear, and he could not help breaking it. “Although I am acquainted with Pan Yuan, we do not share the same ideals. All the typical exchange of formalities over wine we had are merely a matter of necessity.” He was not adept at flattery and stumbled over his words, “On the contrary, I am in admiration of Yuanzhuo’s talent… we once had an encounter over a poetry meet during the reign of Xiande, and Yuanzhuo’s talent and bearing were so out of this world that it was truly an ethereal sight to behold…”
Yao Wenyu waited for Gao Zhongxiong to finish before he calmly said, “The past is but a dream: it’s all now water under the bridge. It’s fate that we can meet again in Cizhou alive. Now that I’ve found a good master, may I ask what plans you have for the future?”
Gao Zhongxiong stole a glance at Shen Zechuan. “What plans could I even have now that I’ve been reduced to such a state?” He revealed a bitter smile as he spoke. “I’ve made a laughingstock of myself with my behavior today. I’ve persevered in my studies for so many years, but in the end, it has all come to nothing.”
Shen Zechuan clasped his folding fan under his sleeves. The room felt chilly to him; it was time to get someone to prepare the hand warmer. He pulled his wandering mind back in an instant, his jade earring turning to the side slightly as he spoke politely to Gao Zhongxiong, “The political climate is currently unstable, and the various heroes are fighting over themselves to make a play for the top. Since Mister Shenwei has come to Cizhou, why don’t you reside temporarily in my residence and take your time to decide?”
Gao Zhongxiong could not help feeling greatly touched when he heard Shen Zechuan calling him “Mister Shenwei”. He had been through a lot of hardships on this life journey of his, and the masters he had successively encountered and served had not been good masters. And so he stood up and bowed deeply to Shen Zechuan, his words even more awkward and inarticulate. Shen Zechuan comforted him a little, and it was an hour later before Gao Zhongxiong withdrew.
Yao Wenyu looked at the bamboo blinds falling back into place. He waited until Gao Zhongxiong had walked out of the walkway before he asked, “Does the Vice Commander find this man to be of no use?”
Even if Shen Zechuan truly thought so, he could not say it outright. Thus, he answered, “He must have his forte for you to recommend him to this extent.”
“That’s right.” Yao Wenyu said. “Gao Zhongxiong’s courtesy name is Shenwei, and he has always been known as the ‘eloquent brush’ when he was in the Imperial College. Back then, when Xi Hongxuan was setting the storm in motion in Qudu by inciting the Imperial College, he chose Gao Zhongxiong precisely because of the latter’s penmanship. Gao Zhongxiong was a student who entered the capital in the fourth year of Xiande, which coincided with the defeat of Zhongbo’s troops. It was a scene of devastation everywhere in the Six Prefectures then, and the ‘Lamentation of Chashi’ he wrote under the influence of wine caused the students to fall over themselves to transcribe private copies for distribution. When it made its way into Cen Yu’s hands, it even made Cen Yu shed tears by the candlelight, deeply moved as he was.”
Shen Zechuan drank the tea and said, “So that’s how it is.”
The Imperial College’s disturbance that Xi Hongxuan had facilitated was, in fact, instigated by Shen Zechuan. Gao Zhongxiong led the students to demand answers for Shen Zechuan’s release from the temple and ended up being forcibly quelled by Pan Rugui and Ji Lei. This led to a turnabout of the then-students’ direction, turning the entire farce into a dispute between them and the Pan faction. Ji Lei and the others were caught off-guard before they could act, and subsequently, they lost the initiative to land a decisive blow on Shen Zechuan to take him down.
Shen Zechuan himself knew best what had played a key role in that fiasco, including the Imperial College uproar that Xue Xiuzhuo had later stirred up again. They had both gotten a firm grasp on the inclination of the public sentiments before herding them into moving in the direction they wanted. To do this, compelling rhetoric and articles that had the power to move men were the most indispensable. Yao Wenyu’s meaning was clear—Gao Zhongxiong’s writing had such power. He could stir up a storm, and it was precisely such literary prowess that Shen Zechuan was in need of right now.
“The Chazhou trip has made the Vice Commander a well-known name, but because of the taint that is Shen Wei, it’s still far from enough if you want to lead and command the various heroes in an open and aboveboard manner.” Yao Wenyu paused for a moment. “Even if the full story of the defeat from start to end is made public in the future, it’d still prove to be hard for Shen Wei to be absolved of blame.”
An ill reputation lends no weight to one’s words. This was a problem that Shen Zechuan could not circumvent.
King Yi of Fanzhou was currently drafting up documents to attack and vilify Cizhou, and he had made reference to the defeat multiple times. Shen Wei’s withdrawal from battle without so much a fight was a fact, and there was no way to refute that even if Zhou Gui wanted to. Firstly, Shen Zechuan was indeed Shen Wei’s eighth son of common birth; he was Shen Wei’s son by blood, and the so-called “unfavored” treatment he had received held no water in quelling the anger of the public. That was a blood relation, one unlike Fei Sheng with a remote common birth connection, where a glib tongue was all that was needed to convince the people. Secondly, the defeat of the troops was a tragedy caused by Hua Siqian and the rest’s attempts to fill up the void in the state treasury, but the evidence had all been destroyed. Shen Wei committed suicide by self-immolation, Hua Siqian died in prison, and Wei Huaigu succumbed to poison. Not a single trace was left of their collusion with the Biansha Cavalry to sell out Dazhou’s military defense maps.
This was the dark cloud that was constantly hanging over Shen Zechuan’s head. It was also his greatest pitfall. He had risen to power in Cizhou, but why was he faced with such a scarcity of talents? Because the talents of the world refused to come to him. They’d rather follow heroes like King Yi who had risen in rebellion among the common people than throw in their lots with Shen Zechuan.
“The Vice Commander executed an advisor of Cizhou today, and it’s only by holding the trial publicly that the Vice Commander’s name did not fall into further disrepute. But with the rise of Cizhou and the allegiance of Chazhou, the Vice Commander must first drop the title of ‘Vice Commander’ if the Vice Commander wishes to advance a step further.” Noting Shen Zechuan’s neutral expression as he fiddled with his folding fan, Yao Wenyu knew then that Shen Zechuan had already considered this, so he continued, “Cizhou has long freed itself from Qudu’s control. Using the former title makes it all too easy to confound the status of master and subordinates. It’s no longer apt to keep the address, ‘Vice Commander’.”
By the time Yao Wenyu had spoken to this point, both men had reached a tacit understanding.
Shen Zechuan could be addressed as “Vice Commander”, or even “Judge”—those were his titles in the Imperial Bodyguards, although they were rendered void when he left Qudu. He was now in Cizhou, and Cizhou’s prefectural prefect was Zhou Gui. If he had no new form of address, it would imply that he was still the guest and Zhou Gui was the host and the master. The offending advisors could still remain securely seated in place in the partitioned area despite what had happened at the yamen because they still treated Zhou Gui as the master of Cizhou. They did not see themselves as subordinate to Shen Zechuan. There was still a line between both parties.
Only Kong Ling had long since recognized the problem. He brought this to Zhou Gui’s attention before he set off for Chazhou the last time, and he had reminded Zhou Gui again when he set off for Huaizhou this time. But Zhou Gui truly was not well-acquainted with the ins and outs of the matter, and that was why he had been slow to react.
Shen Zechuan could not proclaim himself king, at least, not now. King Yi of Fanzhou established himself so early that he was literally the prey standing right in front of Qidong. Qi Zhuyin already had the time to catch a breather and get back in the game. Once she filled in the gap at Bianjun Commandery, she would have spare resources to deploy troops to Zhongbo, and the first one she was going to fight would be these random kings that had risen from among the common people.
“There are benefits to being nameless nobodies.” Shen Zechuan leaned back slightly. “At least if Qi Zhuyin dispatches troops without any justifiable cause, she would not be able to bypass the other five prefectures to come after Cizhou.”
Cizhou did not have bandits or self-proclaimed kings. Xiao Chiye, who commanded the Imperial Army, was the one the Eight Great Training Divisions were pursuing. Shen Zechuan was at most a “fugitive”, and Cizhou was at most “harboring a fugitive”. Zhou Gui had not openly and blatantly hung up the rebel flag, and he was still the “prefect” in the territory. His turning of a deaf ear to Qudu’s orders could be put down to the long distance between Cizhou and Qudu, and just based on this alone, Qi Zhuyin could not attack Cizhou—not unless she used the suppression of bandits as a pretext to route her troops to the western side of Cizhou, then enter Cizhou with the excuse that she was just transiting through. However, the deployment of troops like this meant that the military expenditure required would increase exponentially, and Qudu might not necessarily be able to spare the money. The best option was still for the Eight Great Training Divisions to deploy their troops. They had support for provisions from Dancheng and were located close enough, and they could also use the reason of tracking down Shen Zechuan to take him in for questioning to launch a war with Cizhou. But Han Jin was too impatient. Not only were his troops broken up by Xiao Chiye, he was also beaten silly by Xiao Chiye. This consequently led the Eight Great Training Divisions into cowering back.
But such a situation could not last for long.
Because the Eight Great Training Divisions were bound to stage a comeback. Once the three parties in Qudu entered a period of stability, the Ministry of War would re-elect a new chief commander. It was to guard against this situation that Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan purchased the Beiyuan Hunting Grounds from Zhou Gui for use as the Imperial Army’s camp. This way, a 20,000-strong Imperial Army would be the shield at the west of Cizhou, used for the specific purpose of resisting the Eight Great Training Divisions. But at the same time, the Imperial Army only had to return to Cizhou’s territory, and Qi Zhuyin would be able to head north and launch a direct assault on Cizhou on the grounds of eliminating the rebel forces.
Therefore, Shen Zechuan was in no hurry to get rid of King Yi of Fanzhou. He wanted King Yi to be the mountain that straddled between him and Qidong. However, he could not allow King Yi to expand unchecked either.
“I once made a proposal for the Vice Commander to take down Fanzhou swiftly, but it’s no longer a good time now.” The tea in Yao Wenyu’s palm had cooled. He continued, “If the Vice Commander wants to keep King Yi going, then you have to first hack off the hand he is reaching out to the north with.”
“A few months ago,” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were clear. “Lei Jingzhe was sent back to Mount Luo by Ce’an, where he became the target of public censure and could no longer command the bandits, resulting in chaos on Mount Luo as the various internal factions turned against one another. Now that King Yi wants to form an alliance with Mount Luo, Lei Jingzhe, who wholeheartedly wants to stage a comeback, will not miss this opportunity.”
Something stirred in Yao Wenyu’s eyes. He said, “Vice Commander means to…”
Shen Zechuan suddenly opened his folding fan and partially covered his face. With a smile in his eyes, he slowly said, “I’m going to give him a helping hand.”
The wind had picked up outside the window; it looked like it was about to rain again.
◈ ◈ ◈
Han Jin gouged away at the walls until his ten fingers were scraped bare. He had been in the Cizhou prison for close to three months, and he had gotten so emaciated he was barely recognizable. What’s more, he still had to put up with verbal abuse and insults from the others. At first, he could not stand it, and he would even cry himself a river, but as time passed, he gradually grew numb.
“Mealtime.” Carrying a tub in hand, the warden knocked on the cell doors one at a time with a wooden spoon and hollered, “It’s mealtime!”
They were adept at this and could swiftly dish out the broth and rice, filling the bowl to the brim without missing a drop. On hearing his voice, Han Jin hurried over to the cell door and reached out for the bowl. Unexpectedly, the warden passing by behind kicked the bowl over, sending the mixture of rice and broth spilling all over the ground.
Han Jin was so hungry he was having gastric pains. He kneeled and pinched up the rice on the ground with his fingers and desperately shoved them into his mouth. There were grains of sand and gravel among the rice, which made his teeth ache as he chomped down on them. He pressed his head against the cell door and reached into his mouth with his dirty hand to dig out the stones.
As he was doing so, he suddenly saw a pair of legs stopping at the other end of the cell door.
Han Jin carefully lifted his eyes and looked out evasively.
Gao Zhongxiong, who had initially meant to come and take a look at his former master, never expected Han Jin to be reduced to such a state.
Han Jin was Han Cheng’s younger brother, and he could be said to have been a free-spirited young master in Qudu. He succeeded Xi Gu’an as the viceroy of the Eight Great Training Divisions, and he had also been there in person during the public ditches case and gone into the waters. At that time, he had great respect for Xiao Chiye.
Gao Zhongxiong felt a lump in his throat. There were several times he wanted to open his mouth and speak, but words failed him.
Han Jin looked blankly at Gao Zhongxiong, then abruptly pounced over to grab the bars and ask in a tearful voice, “Is my elder brother here? Tell me, has my elder brother come?”