Qiang Jin Jiu – Chapter 204 : Empress Dowager

Translated with: Jia<3

Xiao Chiye deployed troops to Duanzhou in the second month, and Shen Zechuan had the grain wagons set off first. Tantai Hu, who was in Dunzhou, was all prepared and ready. To the north, Xiao Jiming dispatched Wu Ziyu to lead 5,000 Libei Armored Cavalrymen to standby at the northern side of Mount Luo. Once there was a change in situation, they would be able to combine forces with Shasan Camp to jointly attack Duanzhou.

Fine snow danced at the spurring of the breeze on this day. The outskirts of the city stretched on into the distance, where a panoramic view of the empty, boundless horizon provided a treat for the eyes. Xiao Chiye was clad from head to toe in his heavy armor, which sank into the thin snow. He looked just like a block of wall standing before Shen Zechuan. 

“There are still bandits remaining on Mount Luo.” Shen Zechuan, wrapped securely in his coat, gazed at him. “You have to be careful when passing through the territory.” 

Meng landed on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder. “I’ll remember it. This has to be a quick battle. I’ll be back in the third month at the very latest. If the soldiers you send to Dengzhou aren’t enough, let the Commander-in-chief know. She can transfer soldiers from Tianfei Watchtower. No problem there.”

Snow brushed past the hair on Shen Zechuan’s temples and landed on his collar. Xiao Chiye raised his hand to set his palm down on the top of Shen Zechuan’s head. A quote inexplicably came to his mind. 

For my wife is still in the springtime of life;
and tender are the words to comfort my beloved you.

Lanzhou was only twenty-two of age this year, and he would be by his side for decades to come. Xiao Chiye, however, would be fighting battles on all fronts in the days to come, regardless of life or death. Overthinking and dwelling too much on it would only serve to make him timid.

Shen Zechuan was the reason Xiao Chiye became tough. He was also the reason that Xiao Chiye mellowed. Xiao Chiye wanted to protect this man until the very end of his life, and as such, he was willing to give his very best in every single battle. But even the strong, like Xiao Fangxu, would also come to an unpredictable end. Xiao Chiye thought plenty after that incident. He loved this man, but he also worried for this man. 

Perhaps other people in this world did not need him, Xiao Ce’an, that much. But Shen Zechuan did. 

“I’ll wait for you here.” Shen Zechuan raised his palm to caress Xiao Chiye’s cheek. In a soft voice, he said, “Don’t fool around with others on the way. Not even a glance.” 

All of a sudden, Xiao Chiye hugged Shen Zechuan. In this snow, as he huffed breaths of hot air, he felt as if he owed Lanzhou too, too much; the latter clearly could not even leave him in his sleep. 

“Ensconce yourself in the throne at the Hall of Distinction,”1 Xiao Chiye nuzzled against Shen Zechuan’s temple and whispered, “and let not the snowstorm come unto you.”

Without waiting for Shen Zechuan to answer, Xiao Chiye released him. He put on his helmet, flipped atop Lang Tao Xue Jin, and turned his horse around to lead the Libei Armored Cavalry into a gallop east. 

Seeing that Shen Zechuan did not move, Fei Sheng held up the umbrella to shield the Prefectural Lord from the falling snow. Shen Zechuan stood in the snow, clutching his blue handkerchief until it was silent all around.

◈     ◈     ◈

Qudu experienced consecutive days of clear skies, and one could occasionally catch a glimpse of the birds flying in diagonal formations between the double-eaved roofs of the imperial palace. The heir apparent was a fast learner. Although she still did not possess the authority to make decisions, she was allowed to listen in on the discussions on state affairs in Mingli Hall. She rarely spoke up, yet in that pair of eyes of hers, Cen Yu saw her dedication to government affairs.      

Other than reading and practicing calligraphy in the past six months, Li Jianting had no other hobbies. She rose early each day and did not even slack off on the days when she fell ill. The Chief Surveillance Bureau, which used to lecture Li Jianheng in the past, gradually could not find any shortcomings in Li Jianting they could admonish her for. In the eyes of these fastidious censors, this heir apparent was one who was the most like a proper crown prince since the Crown Prince of the reign of Yongyi. Even Kong Qiu, who was initially quite critical of her, no longer took to talking about her lightly.    

No one knew how Xue Xiuzhuo had done it, but he had completely destroyed “Ling Ting”, and now, only Li Jianting existed in this world.  

The Empress Dowager had been plagued by headaches lately. Initially, incense had been lit in the hall, but she had Matron Liuxiang snuff it out as the scent made her feel unwell. The amount of gray hair along her temples had increased; old age was eroding this person of power who had a hand in the storms and turmoil of Qudu for as long as thirty years. In the face of Li Jianting’s youthful appearance, she felt all the more willing in spirit but lacking in strength.  

“Yesterday, Han Cheng presented a memorial to the throne. He’s still requesting for troops to be deployed to Cizhou.” The Marquis of Helian sat below and groused to the Empress Dowager. “Conflicts are now abound between people on our own side. Why is he still thinking about Zhongbo!” 

The Empress Dowager let Matron Liuxiang massage her shoulders as she leaned back on the couch. She looked over Han Cheng’s memorial, then said, “Shen Zechuan has taken down Fanzhou, and now he even intends to use military forces in Duanzhou. After spring, he will become the tiger of Zhongbo. He harbors a deep-seated hatred towards Han Cheng for the murder of his teacher. It is only natural for Han Cheng to be afraid.” 

The Marquis of Helian did not want to bother with Han Cheng’s personal feud at all. What he was currently worried about was of another nature. After the ninth month last year, the practical doers faction led by Xue Xiuzhuo collaborated with the Chief Surveillance Bureau to investigate the crop fields of the eight cities in preparation for the resurveying of the crop fields. This had always been the case for the past years, but those had been merely done for show. The officials going on inspection tours simply went through the motions and visited the eight cities as a mere formality to get things over and done with, then submitted a figure that everyone had agreed on beforehand to the Grand Secretariat to muddle their way through the process.  

But it seemed that Xue Xiuzhuo was serious about it this time. 

“I told all of you in the past to tell the rural manors you have in your names to restrain themselves. But did anyone listen? How many people froze to death in winter last year? Other than the three cities of Dicheng, Jincheng, and Quancheng that provide disaster relief to save the people, everyone else would rather be cowering cowards.” The Empress Dowager tossed the memorial onto the small table. The eastern pearls by her ears swayed along with her voice. “Why did Pan Lin have to antagonize Xue Xiuzhuo? Now Xue Xiuzhuo is going to work with Cen Yu and the rest to investigate the accounts. Was this not an opportunity Pan Lin himself served up to him?!”

The Marquis of Helian married Commandery Princess Zhao Yue to Pan Lin’s younger brother, so their Fei clan and Pan clan were now both in the same boat and would sink or swim together. He had initially thought the marriage would be an insurance against future troubles given that three members of the Pan clan – Pan Xiangjie, Pan Lin, and Pan Yi – were all significant officials of the imperial court, but who would have expected this Pan Lin to be such a pain in the ass?! 

The Marquis of Helian did not dare to take the blame for Pan Lin, but he could not let Pan Lin continue with his ways either. Pan Lin was currently stuck in the opening that was the Minister of Revenue. The job he did was significant and crucial, yet he did not receive a promotion in name. Everyone was wrought with anxiety, fearing that Pan Lin would keep on getting defeated in this tussle between both sides and ended up handing the Ministry of Revenue on a silver platter to the officials from humble origins.  

“Chengzhi is impatient by nature. I have no idea how he offended Xue Xiuzhuo.” The Marquis was restlessly burning with so much anxiety he was like an ant on a hot pan as he pleaded. “But Pang Xiangjie and Pan Yi are both loyal to Your Majesty. You have also watched our Zhaoyue grow up into a lady. She and the Third Missy are—”  

“The gall of you!” The Empress Dowager cut him off and even righted herself to berate him. “How dare you push political disputes of the court onto my little baby?! Back then, when I wanted Zhaoyue to marry a lad of the Han clan, you refused and insisted on coveting that bit of petty advantage the Pan clan could offer you. Now that things have gone south, you have to shoulder the responsibility for it yourself!”

The Empress Dowager rarely flew into a rage like this. The palace maids and eunuchs both inside and outside the hall hurriedly fell to their knees and bent low over the ground, holding their breaths. How would the Marquis still dare to sit? He fell to his knees in a fluster, shuffled forward on his knees, and slapped himself several times as he pleaded, “Your Majesty, please be appeased!”

“The Third Missy has already been married away to Qidong,” the Empress Dowager declared solemnly. “She is the first lady of Qi Shiyu. With a proper rank now, every word she says and every action she makes comes under close scrutiny. The encroachment of the commoner’s fields by the rural manors under you people has nothing to do with her, so don’t bring this up again. You’re already at such an advanced age. Do you still need me to teach you to watch your words?”  

“You, you’re right…” The Marquis of Helian was not a man with guts to begin with. The only lawful descendants of the Fei clan in this generation were the younger Marquis Fei Shi and the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue. Fei Shi spent his days fooling around, and even now, he still did not hold a proper official position. Because of this, the Marquis of Helian hesitated over the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue’s marriage for a long time over every little thing. Who would have known that trouble would still come knocking on his door? 

The Empress Dowager rose to her feet. With Matron Liuxiang supporting her, she made her way over to the Marquis of Helian’s side. The Marquis was up in years, and for what it was worth, he was still a noble; it was a disgrace for him to keep kneeling like this. The Empress Dowager calmed down some and said, “Get up. This is so unbecoming of someone your stature.”   

The Marquis of Helian scrambled to his feet and stood helplessly by the Empress Dowager’s side, not daring to stand too close. 

The Empress Dowager raised her head back slightly to look along the palace eaves at the bright and clear sky. After thinking for a moment, she said, “Fei Shi has also come of age. If his inclinations do not lie in scholarly studies, then he can join the military. There are so many vacancies in the Eight Great Training Divisions; let him learn from them. He doesn’t need to carve out a distinguished career, as long as he can temper himself and settle down. Once he has put in the hours and has the record of service to prove it, he will naturally be promoted to the Ministry of War.”

The Empress Dowager had pointed out the Marquis’ sore spot. He only had Fei Shi, this one son, and he had kept him sheltered back at home ever since the latter was young. After Fei Shi entered society, he was adept at all things related to the drinking of wine and the soliciting of courtesans, except for learning. What’s more, he was an obstinate one who was close friends with Pan Lin. To date, he was not even willing to show Xue Xiuzhuo due respect. He spent his days wallowing in vice on Donglong street, typically listening only to what the courtesans had to say.    

The Marquis of Helian’s eyes momentarily grew moist. He lifted his sleeve to wipe his tears. “Your Majesty is the compassionate mother of all in the world; your graciousness knows no bounds. This humble subject originally wanted him to join the Eight Great Training Divisions as well, but with that temperament of his… alas!”  

The Empress Dowager was fed up with the Marquis of Helian. She knew what he meant. The Eight Great Training Divisions were no longer a glamorous, lucrative post that managed Qudu’s patrols. Given its proximity to Zhongbo, they might even be deployed to fight wars in the future. The Marquis of Helian was reluctant to send his son in to give his life for the cause for fear that Fei Shi might meet with a mishap on the battlefield, so he was hoping the Empress Dowager could get Fei Shi into the Six Ministries instead.  

But Qudu was now no longer the playground of the noble clans. Domestic strife and foreign invasion were imminent. Shen Zechuan was not eliminated from the equation, and in just a short six months, he had become the overlord of Zhongbo, working in collusion with Libei. If not for the pressing threat of the Biansha Cavalry, he would have already fought his way to Qudu by now. Qi Zhuyin, on her end, had also written a letter to Qudu saying that she was going to use military force against the Qingshu Tribe in the fourth month. Meanwhile, Xue Xiuzhuo was pressing in on them every step of the way. Although he professed it to be a private feud with Pan Lin, his impeachment memorials were all legitimate. The eight cities did indeed encroach on the people’s fields, and it would be a tough battle once investigations started after spring.  

The situation was already at such a stage, and the Marquis of Helian and a few others were still only thinking of themselves and those small tracts of fields their rural manors have for fear that they would be confiscated.  

The Empress Dowager recalled the times during the reign of Xiande. From Hua Siqian to Wei Huaigu, which of them was not a capable minister or general? And now, the Marquis of Helian was a bungling oaf who was good for nothing, Pan Xiangjie was a fence-sitter who swayed where the wind blows, and Han Cheng was a rapacious one with wild ambitions. Dealing with the Grand Secretariat exhausted the Empress Dowager, both physically and mentally. 

“Xue Xiuzhuo’s investigation of the eight cities’ fields is meant to pave the way for the Heir Apparent to ascend to the throne.” The expression in the Empress Dowager’s eyes was deep. “It’s still not time for the Heir Apparent to step into the limelight. Go back and make it clear to Pan Xiangjie that he should open up the granaries in Dancheng and Chuancheng to distribute the grains as aid relief while the snow has yet to melt. Clean up the accounts in his hands as well, and return all those unnecessary fields to the people. Xue Xiuzhuo does not have the power to abuse as yet. If he wants to investigate, then let him investigate.” 

Alarmed, the Marquis of Helian exclaimed, “if those accounts were to fall into this hands, it’d be hard to exculpate ourselves!” 

The Empress Dowager looked at the Marquis of Helian and said, “Pan Lin has served in the Ministry of Revenue for so long, and the appraisals of him have been good. He also has capable men working under him. Xue Xiuzhuo wants to assist the Chief Surveillance Bureau, but even so, he can’t sidestep the Ministry of Revenue. The previous year’s field records are all in the Ministry of Revenue, which also manages the auditing of the account books. Pan Lin can avoid arousing suspicions; just get him to appoint someone he can trust over. Get through this, and Xue Xiuzhuo won’t have any way to force the issue.”

The Marquis of Helian pondered it over for a brief period. “Pan Lin has a man named Liang Cuishan under him. He was originally promoted by the Emperor Tianchen during the public ditch incident, and he has also been guided by Pan Lin before. This person’s appraisal last year was outstanding, and he also has a good reputation with the officials of humble origins. His home is in Qudu, and he doesn’t have much of a history, which makes it most convenient for us to hold him in our grasp.” 

“As long as the Pan clan can survive this,” the Empress Dowager said, “they will be able to come out of it for the better.”  

Since there were problems with the fields in the eight cities, then just how clean could the Xue clan’s Quancheng be? Xue Xiuzhuo’s audacity in touching the eight cities’ fields account was tantamount to laying a hand on a slice of the noble clans’ pie. This matter concerned the future interests of the noble clans, and no doubt heads would have to roll if the field taxes were to be investigated. The Empress Dowager wanted Pan Lin to use Liang Cuishan to choke off the opening in Dancheng. As long as the investigation could not move forward and the bookkeeping was messed up, they could make things difficult for Xue Xiuzhuo on the imperial court and turn the tables around to investigate his Xue clan’s Quancheng first. 

Under the sunset glow of the setting sun, the Empress Dowager took off the prayer beads on her wrists and tossed them on the couch. Incense smoke from the prayer hall behind her rose in spirals, accentuating the Empress Dowager’s dignified and poised appearance that almost belied her old age had it not been for her gray hair.

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Credits: Special Thanks to MaruChan for proofreading! <3

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  1. 明堂 or mingtang, a ceremonial hall in a palace where the emperor issued governmental instructions, declared punishments and rewards, and carried out large ceremonies. Other names used include Hall of Light/Brightness/ Brilliance.