Translated with: Jia<3
It all dated back to the time during the reign of Emperor Guangcheng.
Shen Zechuan was of the opinion that the resurgence of Yongyi brought about by Emperor Guangcheng had been Dazhou’s last hope. Although it had been short-lived, it had brought on an emerging wave of countless talents. The reign of Yongyi was an era of the rise of wise and virtuous men. It was a period that signaled the revival of Dazhou.
At that time, Qudu was ruled by a strong, decisive emperor who was at the peak of health. His civil officials included Qi Huilian and Hai Liangyi, and his military generals counted Qi Shiyu and Xiao Fangxu among the lot. These virtuous men of superior capabilities had all followed a sovereign. All of them possessed the same dream, and the resurgence during the reign of Yongyi was a ray of light, a glory, these people jointly created.
Amu’er, who was once an eagle slave, stood on the banks of the Chashi River and gazed across the turbulent river, where the Dazhou he saw was an impregnable behemoth. The Twelve Tribes of Biansha were helpless when faced against such a Dazhou. Their strongest Hanshe Tribe was repeatedly beaten back by Xiao Fangxu in the north. Once winter came around, cattle and sheep that had frozen to death were a common sight everywhere.
At first, Amu’er led the Liaoying Tribe to leave the banks of the Chashi River just to find a land where they could survive. His brothers all starved to death in the snowstorm. As the Liaoying Tribe was small and weak, Amu’er had no choice but to lead his tribe to live a vagrant life in the desert. In the process of roaming, he saw the mutually destructive infighting among the Twelve Tribes of Biansha. The Huiyan Tribe, a small and weak tribe just like the Liaoying Tribe, could not survive being trampled upon by the strong tribes, and so they left the desert and defected to Xiao Fangxu. But Amu’er had enough of shackles and fetters. He did not believe that the saker falcons the Heaven bestowed upon them were born to be slaves. He did not want the mercy of the strong at all. He only wanted to stand on his feet.
Amu’er rose to power in the desert. He was still an eagle slave when he defeated Sude of the Hanshe Tribe and married Sude’s younger sister, Surina. The next time Amu’er faced up against Dazhou again, his opponent was Xiao Fangxu. Amu’er came to the realization that the Twelve Tribes of Biansha had to be united like Dazhou. He had to become the ruler of the desert and grow to be as powerful as Emperor Guangcheng, so he started to swallow up the other tribes.
But the Libei Armored Cavalry had military supplies and gears, and the construction of their iron wall proved to be an impregnable defense that prevented Amu’er from penetrating deeper into the territory. In all those times he crossed swords with Xiao Fangxu, he discovered that Emperor Guangcheng was already old, and Dazhou was no longer as vibrant and flourishing as it had been a few years ago. It dawned on him that there was more than this one way to defeat Dazhou. Gedale proved to be an opportunity when he set his eyes back on the banks of the Chashi River, and Amu’er decided to use the scorpions of Gedale to dismantle Dazhou’s defenses.
Bai Cha was the immovable force that stood in Amu’er’s way in Gedale.
But exactly what kind of method did Amu’er employ to kill Bai Cha?
“Why do you people still want to live in Gedale?” Xiao Chiye propped up his arm. “Given that Bai Cha had set up a safe haven in Duanzhou.”
“Because of the implementation of the census registers.”1 Shen Zechuan thought of Qi Huilian. “This was a brick wall.”
“That’s right. The majority of the women didn’t have a household registration. During the times when Zhu colluded with the bandits, they reported many deaths in the name lists they sent to Qudu in order to cancel these women’s records. Even if a small number of the women’s families were still around, they would end up being sold away by their brothers at home, just like my mother.” Hairigu felt a little downcast. “The courtesans led by Bai Cha were limited in their power, and to resolve the issue of the household registration, the majority of them married the lesser functionaries of the Duanzhou yamen. Bai Cha partitioned an area in the pleasure quarter as our residence and raised the children there. But as the number of people increased, it became extremely tough to hide ourselves. The hardest part was children like me, whose appearances were so conspicuous that it was of no use even if we were to get the household registration papers. Unable to see the light in Duanzhou, we lived off the women’s savings in the backyard of the courtesans’ quarters. Later, the bandits were suppressed, and Gedale gained a period of peace. It was at that time we returned to Gedale. When Amu’er was rallying the scorpions together, he promised to give us land, as well as cattle and sheep. Jida believed him. I couldn’t stand up to the pursuit of the Biansha Cavalry, so I could only return here once more. After Bai Cha’s death, the courtesans continued to help us, but their strength was no longer what it had once been. I led my people to live on the outskirts of Duanzhou. A few years later, Amu’er launched a surprise attack at the Chashi River’s line of defense, and Zhongbo no longer came under the jurisdiction of the yamen. That was the time I entered Zhongbo, where I lived until now.”
Hairigu’s mouth was parched from all that talking. Chen Yang poured him another bowl of water. Hairigu said his thanks in a small voice and held up the bowl with both hands to drink it all up.
“The timing is just right.” Xiao Chiye looked at Shen Zechuan. “Amu’er got his hands on the scorpions after Bai Cha’s death and had them divided into black and white. The white scorpions passed him information from within Dazhou, and the military defense map was just one of them. During the reign of Xiande, Juexi was hit with a calamity, and Hai Liangyi traced the account books and called for Hua Siqian to account for it. To make up for the state treasury’s deficit, Hua Siqian asked the officials from the noble clans who were in collusion with him for money.”
“He didn’t get it.” Shen Zechuan said with certainty. “Hua Siqian resold the Hua clan’s fields and houses to Xi Hongxuan during the third year of the reign of Xiande precisely because he did not get the money he wanted from the noble clan officials. But the deficit was too huge a sum, and the Hua clan had no way of making up for it.”
“Then the Zhongbo troops’ defeat happened.” Xiao Chiye frowned.
The route taken by the Biansha Cavalry in carrying out their surprise assault was deeply ingrained in Xiao Chiye’s memory. They once analyzed it back at the Plum Blossom Residence. The destination of the Biansha Cavalry back then had been Juexi. If there were white scorpions hiding among the noble clans, Amu’er should have known that Juexi was already out of food at that time.
Xiao Chiye silently drew a couple of strokes on the ground. After a moment’s pause, he said, “Juexi isn’t easy to defend. It was a risk for Amu’er’s cavalry to invade deep into Dazhou. The strength of the Biansha Cavalry of that time was their use of resources obtained from the battles to sustain themselves in the war;2 they were incapable of defending the cities. If their goal was still Juexi, then this route is a straight path to their own demise. They would end up facing a three-way siege in Juexi.”
“What if the officials from the noble clans who were involved in the military defeat case wanted Amu’er dead?” Shen Zechuan covered up the military sketch Xiao Chiye drew and said out of the blue, “There was no one to hold them in check, and Amu’er couldn’t control them. They wanted to treat Amu’er like a dog the same way they did Shen Wei. They could have lured Amu’er deeper into the territory then taken him out with the combined power of three armies. This would have completely turned the case of military defeat into a case of Shen Wei’s collusion with the enemy.”
“That would mean that the noble clans were not aware of the existence of the white scorpions.” Enlightened, Xiao Chiye tossed away the branch, “They thought they could manipulate Amu’er.”
Both parties had their own ulterior motives, and each had their own goals in this game. Perhaps Amu’er had pretended to be a fool from Biansha; he did not reveal the card up his sleeve, and the noble clans did not even have a clue that there were white scorpions among them. Amu’er seized the opportunity and took advantage of the situation to ambush Zhongbo. It was as he had originally planned. What he desired was not one instance of victory, but to completely bring about Dazhou’s collapse from within.
The Zhongbo troops’ defeat was a crucial node that signified the absolute end of the resurgence during the Yongyi reign. Due to the Zhongbo troops’ defeat, Dazhou underwent a radical change internally, starting from the fourth year of the reign of Xiande. Hai Liangyi thus embarked on the path of openly opposing the noble clans. Together with Xue Xiuzhuo and the others, he launched an investigation into Hua Siqian for as long as six years. Libei was forced to send in Xiao Chiye as a hostage, thereby sowing the seed for the insurgency that would later go on to occur. The Empress Dowager also cleared out the imperial court during the reign of Emperor Guangcheng. With everyone deeply enmired in internal strife, the Zhongbo troops’ defeat became the pebble Amu’er used to test the path ahead. Perhaps he had not expected Dazhou’s collapse to come about this soon, but this pebble hit right on target—it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“We thought Shen Wei killed Bai Cha.” Hairigu piped up again in the solemn atmosphere. “He was possibly influenced by the remaining bandits, who poisoned his mind until he saw Bai Cha as a spy from Biansha.”
Shen Zechuan lowered his gaze to stare at his right hand in contemplation.
“If that’s the case,” Xiao Chiye said, “Shen Wei didn’t collude with the enemy. Then, all his actions during the reign of Xiande make no sense.”
There was no scouring Shen Wei’s guilt clean, because he cowered back from battle and fled, then collaborated with his lawful son, Shen Zhouji, to hold a banquet to strangle Tantai Long, who advocated war, to death. He did not only retreat, but also asked the military officers and generals to do so along with him. The six prefectures had been handed over on a silver platter, and this was what Xiao Chiye despised most about Shen Wei.
Why did Xiao Chiye try every means possible to take the remaining soldiers from the Zhongbo garrison troops under his command when he later took over the Imperial Army? Precisely because it was too humiliating. These soldiers suffered the infamy of cowering away from battles. Forty thousand people died in the Chashi Sinkhole, yet they had no chance to fight back. It was with the thought of setting the Zhongbo soldiers led by Tantai Hu back into Zhongbo one day that Xiao Chiye took to heart what Tantai Hu had said that day—“the humiliation of our nation has yet to be redressed, and the feuds of our families have yet to be avenged”.
He who is owned the debt shall collect it himself.
“Think about it the other way around.” Shen Wei’s face repeatedly appeared in Shen Zechuan’s mind. He muttered, “It will make sense once it’s reversed.”
Hairigu did not understand what he meant.
The voices from the merchants next door had already quietened down. In the momentary silence under the cold, forbidding moonlight in the courtyard, Xiao Chiye raised his hands to drape the cloak over Shen Zechuan’s shoulders.
“Since the noble clans did not know of the existence of the white scorpions, then they could only rely on their own abilities to contact Amu’er.” Shen Zechuan gathered his cloak around him. “And there are only three places where they could reach Amu’er—Libei, the Bianjun Commandery, and Duanzhou. I once interrogated Ji Lei back in Qudu, and he said that Shen Wei was sent to Zhongbo because the noble clans wanted him to intercept and sever the connections between Libei and Qidong. Perhaps he wasn’t just sent there to play watchdog, but also to get in touch with the various tribes of Biansha on behalf of the noble clans.”
Hairigu’s blood ran cold as he said, “Then wouldn’t that mean he married Bai Cha as a test?”
Shen Zechuan swiftly organized his line of thought and said in a clear, methodical manner, “Zhu gave the bandits free access in and out of Duanzhou as they pleased. Even the women of Dengzhou suffered greatly because of it, so it wouldn’t stand to reason for there to be fewer victims in Dunzhou. Dunzhou and Duanzhou are so close to each other. It was impossible for Tantai Long to be in the dark about the bandits’ selling of the women. Ever since I heard Hairigu mention Zhu’s forging of the household registrations, I’ve been harboring a guess. Zhu was merely a minor prefect at the frontier; how could he have the ability to alter the census registers far away in Qudu? Zhu had backers, and these people were not men Tantai Long could lay his hands on. Shen Wei came to Zhongbo to conspire with Zhu, and he went to Duanzhou to investigate the network Bai Cha had concealed.”
This was also the part that had baffled Shen Zechuan earlier. If Bai Cha had been able to pull the wool over Shen Wei’s eyes, then it was implausible how the bandits in Dunzhou had been able to find out and trace it to her so easily. She married Shen Wei to put an end to the banditry, and Shen Wei’s deployment of troops to eradicate the bandits had been to test Bai Cha.
Before his death, Ji Lei had mentioned one thing.
Shen Wei acted on the Empress Dowager’s orders and colluded with Ji Lei to fabricate the Eastern Palace rebellion case. They killed the crown prince at Zhao Zui Temple. Not long afterward, Shen Wei noticed the presence of spies all around his residence, and there were always people moving around on the roof. He could not sleep at night because of this, thinking that Empress Dowager wanted to get rid of him after he had outlived his usefulness. So he bribed Pan Rugui with a huge sum of money and was subsequently sent to Zhongbo.
“Shen Wei was afraid of death. He was already suspecting that the noble clans had treated him as a useless pawn to be discarded. For this reason, he went to Zhongbo to seek a way out for himself in addition to helping the noble clans get in touch with the various tribes of Biansha. He wavered between the noble clans and Biansha, until Amu’er appeared. ”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes were dark.
“Shen Wei was the scorpion.”
Credits: thank you Tea for proofreading! <3
- 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.
- 以战养战 using the manpower, food provisions, weaponry/armory, money, one obtained from an invaded and occupied city to fund the next battle.