Qiang Jin Jiu – Chapter 205 : Duanzhou

Translated with: Jia<3


It was not until the second month that Qi Zhuyin received a reply to the memorial she sent to Qudu. She read it over while she was at the residence in the Cangjun Commandery, then said to Qi Shiyu, who was lying on the bed, “I said to fight the Qingshu Tribe, but the Ministry of War dismissed the notion. The Empress Dowager told me to wait as she’s concerned about the military expenses, but Zhongbo is already at war now. I’ll miss the golden opportunity if I wait any longer.” 

Qi Shiyu was getting much better these days, although he stuttered a little while lying on the bed, and he had to clutch a handkerchief in his hands when he spoke. “H-hurry.”  

Qi Zhuyin distorted his meaning and set the letter down. “That’s right. I’m in a hurry. How could I not? When it all comes down to it, the defeat of Libei’s troops will not benefit Qidong in any way.” 

Only then did Qi Shiyun complete his earlier words, “What’s the h-hurry?!”    

While leaning back in her chair, Qi Zhuyin heard her father’s concubine in the courtyard wailing and making a commotion. She had ridden for half the night on her horse last night before arriving, and here she was now, sitting and relying on strong tea to keep her spirits up. Furthermore, she still had to ride back later. Vexed on hearing the cries, she said to Qi Shiyu, “Can you tell her to shut up?” 

The concubine in the courtyard had given Qi Shiyu a son before, and now she was the picture of a tear-stained beauty as she leaned against her maidservant and sobbed out loud in the direction of the room, “Old Master… Can’t you even let me see the Old Master? Commander-in-chief, how very heartless of you!” 

Qi Wei stood still under the eaves as he watched that particular concubine cry until her eyes were all red and swollen and she was almost sliding to the ground. He clicked his tongue lightly and shuffled his feet around to face the wall. Listening to her was giving him a headache. 

Qi Shiyu could tell which concubine this was. Before he had a stroke, he was a tender one towards the fairer sex. He clenched the handkerchief tightly, his chest heaving violently as he shouted with all the might he could muster, “I-I’m telling you to sh-shut up!” He then paused to catch his breath for a moment and covered the corner of his mouth with the handkerchief as he addressed Qi Zhuyin, “Li-Libei, has no…” 

“That was so many years ago.” Qi Zhuyin took over the conversation for him. “You’re already at such an age, and you still want to sulk about His Old Lordship? The commanding generals of Libei’s battle camps are quite the interesting batch. They are no longer the same as they were a decade or so ago.”

“Then, then Xiao Jiming, and, Xiao Chiye…” It was a strain on Qi Shiyu to speak, and even he had to frown on hearing himself. He tried his best to speak more coherently. “Can they beat A-Amu’er? By deploying troops now to clean up their mess, the Empress Dowager will view you with suspicion. Once the battle is over, watch how Qudu takes you to t-task!” 

Several decades back, Qi Shiyu was the prince charming of many Dazhou ladies. He came from a distinguished background, and he was handsome. Of the Four Great Generals during the reign of Yongyi, he was the earliest to make his name in Qidong. Even Feng Yisheng was a high-ranking military officer under his command. At first, he had hopes of being conferred the title of a prince, but who would expect Xiao Fangxu to rise to prominence in Luoxia Pass all of a sudden? The Libei Armored Cavalry elbowed out the Qidong Garrison Troops’ military glory, trampling over Qi Shiyu for life.

There was no enmity between them, although they loved to pit against each other and had even fought before in Qudu. Qi Shiyu made little of Xiao Fangxu’s humble origins, and Xiao Fangxu once called Qi Shiyu names for being just a pretty face that was all looks and no substance. Feng Yisheng was the oldest among them when he was still around, and it was all because he went to a lot of effort – with Lu Pingyan following his lead – that Qidong and Libei could stay brothers for so many years. 

Qi Shiyu rose to the challenge to prove his worth, but never could he have expected himself to be without a son and heir of lawful birth. At first, he had the idea of having Qi Zhuyin marry Xiao Jiming, but he felt rather awkward deep down and eventually did not broach the topic.  

“Take me to what task?” Qi Zhuyin removed her blade. “If Libei is gone, so is Zhongbo, and if Zhongbo is gone, Dancheng will be a goner too. Who is the Empress Dowager going to take to task? Herself? For all their shortcomings, Xiao Jiming and Xiao Chiye are both His Old Lordship’s sons. With that bit of capability Han Cheng has, does he have the ability to stop the Biansha Cavalry when the time is nigh? Everyone might just as well let the state perish.” 

Qi Shiyu was rendered so speechless by her that he wheezed for breath. 

Qi Zhuyin poured a cup of tea while she was at it and continued, “You should rest for a while.”   

“No!” Qi Shiyu’s obstinate nature took center stage as he childishly tossed the handkerchief at Qi Zhuyin. “You foolish woman! Bar, bargain with the Empress Dowager. At least have a noble title to your name before you g-go to war!” 

Qi Zhuyin fell silent for a moment. She knew Qi Shiyu’s heart was aching for her. She had served as the commander-in-chief of the military forces of Qidong’s Five Commanderies for quite some years, but she still had no noble rank. If she were to get injured or disabled in the future, all Qudu needed was a transfer order on paper, and they would be able to remove her.  

“At the very least, you’d have a reputation in life, and…” Qi Shiyu’s voice started trembling, “status in death!”

Otherwise, a hundred years on, she, Qi Zhuyin, would just be “a woman of the Qi clan”. No matter how illustrious her military achievements had been, she could never leave her rightful name and title behind.   

Qi Zhuyin held the teacup with her fingers and studied the patterns on it. “A soldier only knows to die on the battlefield for his country; what need is there to concern himself with the return of his body home after?1 If I were to really die in battle, etch my name on a memorial tablet2 at home—it’s all the same.” She raised her head and smiled at Qi Shiyu. “Our Qidong is under the control of others, and we have to discuss every single matter with Qudu. As long as the Empress Dowager is willing to give us military provisions, I can do away with a title. It is what it is.” 

Whether it was because of his old age or not, no one knew, but Qi Shiyu suddenly started shedding tears. He would not even let Qi Zhuyin wipe it away for him as he hung his head down and choked with sobs. “If only you were a boy…” 

Qi Zhuyin folded the handkerchief and set it down beside the bed. When Qi Shiyu was a little better, she continued, “Brothers who have died before in battles are aplenty, but can each and every single one of them leave their name behind in history? General Feng was not conferred a title either, was he? I’m telling you this so that you know how things stand. We are really going to war this year. Before the turn of the year, I heard that Chen Zhen was in ill health. It’s also because of his powerlessness that the Ministry of War did not agree to my deployment of troops this time. Once he retires, we will have no one else in Qudu. I’m worried that it’ll be even harder to ask for military salaries and provisions. We should save on the various expenses in the residences as much as we can. Stop getting swayed by all those pillow talks. Those concubines of yours have the manors they want and the shops they ask for. Even if I die, they and those sons of yours won’t starve to death.”  

Qi Shiyu said, miffed, “All, all the manors I gave you…” 

“Were used to make up for the shortfall.” Qi Zhuyin thought for a moment before comforting him. “There’s a small plot of land left though. My mother used to plant flowers and herbs there, and I couldn’t bear to sell it off. I can still make a living with it in the future.” 

The concubine outside went silent. It was an overcast afternoon, with thick clouds covering the sky, and it was even dimmer inside the room with the drapes let down. Qi Shiyu looked at his daughter from the couch, her skinny shoulders set against the weak light from the window, and his late wife’s hairpin in her hair.  

Qi Zhuyin resembled her mother, and she looked charming when she smiled, especially when her imposing aura did not dominate her facial features—the Commander-in-chief was not as full of heroic spirit as the rumors made her out to be.

Qi Zhuyin waited until Qi Shiyu fell asleep before she left. She changed her shoes under the eaves, then stepped into the snow with her deerskin boots to ask Qi Wei, “Where is she?” 

“Madam invited her away.” Qi Wei answered as he followed behind her. 

Qi Zhuyin had yet to see Hua Xiangyi upon her return, and she hesitated for a moment. As she passed by Hua Xiangyi’s courtyard, she heard sweet, delicate voices like the pleasant trillings of orioles and sparrows from within. From where she was on the other side of the moon gate, she saw Hua Xiangyi in between that plum blossom branch.

Hua Xiangyi was bundled up in a fox fur robe today. Going by the quality of the material, she had most likely brought it along from Qudu. It was pure, unadulterated white. Fluffy fur lining the sides of her cheeks accentuated her clear-as-autumn-waters eyes, bringing out the vividness in them and making them appear even more distinct. She looked just like someone’s pampered daughter. The fingertips on the plum blossom branch were fair and dainty, never having been tarnished with a single speck of dust before in this life. 

Qi Zhuyin inexplicably inclined her head and watched for a long time. 

“The in-house accountant has prepared the account books and is waiting for you in the office. Our residence’s expenditure last year…” After saying a bunch, Qi Wei looked up to see that Qi Zhuyin had not moved, so he followed her gaze over. 

Qi Zhuyin raised Zhujiu and blocked Qi Wei’s view with its sheath. 

On the other end, Hua Xiangyi picked up the plum blossom branch with her fingers. A petal-like flower embellishment lay between her brows.3 She laughed as her maidservant whispered in her ear, then turned sideways where she was hidden from view. 

Without turning her head, Qi Zhuyin said to Qi Wei, “Let’s go.” 

Qi Wei, having not seen a thing, repeated, “Let’s go?” 

Qi Zhuyin lifted her foot and left. Qi Wei, not making head or tail of what was happening and not daring to ask either, followed after her. Qi Zhuyin headed straight to the office to reconcile the account books with the accountant. She did not have the time to sit and settle down, so she simply stood and flipped through a couple pages. 

“Has there been a change of steward?” Qi Zhuyin suddenly asked. 

The accountant hunched over and answered in a small voice, “To answer the Commander-in-chief, no.” 

“That’s strange.” Qi Zhuyin turned a few more pages. “The balancing of accounts has always been a mess in the previous years, with records that couldn’t be more vague than the last. So why are last year’s accounts so clear?” 

These accounts were more than just clear. Even this year’s advances had been separated out in a separate book, with the expenses of the various branches of the family all listed out clearly. Her father’s concubines’ cosmetic spending had also been halved at Qi Zhuyin’s request, while the manors Qi Shiyu could not explain were also listed on it. This was simply done more beautifully than the Ministry of Revenue’s accounts.

“The accounts in our residence were originally diverse and complicated, and with the various concubines unable to give a detailed account of their spendings, the various gentlemen were all at a loss where to start.” The accountant took the teacup and held it out with both hands to Qi Zhuyin. “The Commander-in-chief wanted the residence to be more frugal, but we couldn’t get a clear count of the rural manors in our name, and the monthly tributes were a mess when combined with the logistical expenses.” 

Qi Zhuyin raised her eyes to look at the accountant. 

“This time, it was Madam who did the accounts.” Afraid of incurring Qi Zhuyin’s displeasure, the accountant hurriedly added, “Madam manages domestic affairs, so she has to look through all the accounts of the various concubines. She specifically sent someone to tell us that these accounts were too messy, and we had to redo them for the sake of your upcoming military salaries and provisions expenses. We rushed to redo them a few times, but we couldn’t stand up to the commotion the various concubines kicked up. Many of them had manors hidden, and they refused to tell the truth…” 

This was true. 

Her father’s concubines were all afraid that Qi Shiyu would kick the bucket, and so they kept a tight hold on the manors and shops in their hands. They even kept fishing for more from the residence, and none of them spoke the truth when it was time to settle the accounts. Qi Zhuyin did not live at home in the back courtyard, and her trusted subordinates like Qi Wei were all men that did not belong to the immediate family, so it was inappropriate for them to intervene. That was why these accounts had always remained a mess. She got a headache every time she thought of it. 

So it seems that this Hua the Third is a rather capable one. 

Qi Zhuyin took the account book and said, “And the concubines listened to her just like that?” 

“At first, they pulled a long face and gave her a hard time.” The accountant said. “They are all mothers to the young masters, and they counted on the Old Master’s affections to refuse to hand over the accounts. They even wanted to head over to the Old Master’s courtyard to kick up a ruckus. Didn’t the Commander-in-chief put Miss Hongying at Madam’s disposal? So she had Miss Hongying send the concubines who cried until they fainted back to her courtyard and called for a physician to take a look at them. The physician couldn’t tell what was wrong, so she had them all buried in the courtyard.” 

It did not immediately sink in for Qi Zhuyin. After being stupefied for a moment, she parroted, “buried in the courtyard?” 

“Buried in the courtyard!” The accountant said. “This was just great. The concubines cried themselves a river and said they were going to complain to the Commander-in-chief.” 

“Huh,” Qi Zhuyin said, “Complain to me?” 

“So she gave them horses and opened up the gates to let them go.” 

These concubines typically had to be waited upon even when they were getting dressed, so who would know how to ride a horse? Qi Shiyu did not fancy women of such ilk! It was such a cold day to boot, and yet Hua Xiangyi would bury anyone who dared to go wailing at Qi Shiyu’s courtyard like she was planting radishes. In no time, the concubines passed out from the freezing cold. 

The matrons by Hua Xiangyi’s side were all old hands the Empress Dowager had carefully selected. If the concubines dared to make a scene, then they would dare to switch tactics to teach those concubines a hard lesson. The concubines kneeled in the walkway and waited in attendance, but they could not even get a glimpse of Hua Xiangyi’s face. When the concubines returned in tears to their own courtyards, their sons took over. 

“Oh, it’s the young masters,” Hua Xiangyi sat behind the screen and said in a gentle tone. “I heard that you have yet to repay the debt of several hundred taels of silver you owe someone outside several days back, and they have already come hounding us at the residence. How would that do? As the lady of the house, I feel sorry for you brothers, so I asked the matrons to make the repayment first. Don’t be afraid. The memorandums of debt with handprints and signatures are with me for safekeeping in case the creditors claim not to have received the payment and go looking for the Old Master later… Young masters, are you leaving already?”   

“And that was how it went.” The accountant was done mimicking Hua Xiangyi for Qi Zhuyin’s benefit. “Madam has the young masters’ debts in her hands. She only has to report to us, and the young masters’ shops will all be transferred under her name as collateral. Who would still dare to make a commotion now?” 

Qi Zhuyin closed the account book and stood for a moment before opening it again. “That’s quite the temper she has there.” 

This account had indeed been tidied up beautifully. Qi Zhuyin could not help but wonder if she would still need to fear those wily old foxes from the Ministry of Revenue if the military accounts out there could be this well done. But Hua Xiangyi was, after all, the apple of the Empress Dowager’s eye. So, after thinking about it, she dropped the idea. 

◈     ◈     ◈

The snow gradually abated in the second month, and the number of sunny days in Cizhou saw an increase. Once Shen Zechuan had free time, he brought Yao Wenyu to the outskirts of the city for a stroll. 

It was cloudless for miles around today, with the bright, clear sky in a shade of azure blue. The snow in the forest had already begun to melt, and thawing stream water tinkled as they ran. There were already signs of wildlife to be seen. Ding Tao had to let Feng Ta Shuang Yi out to pasture, so he brought Li Xiong along to play at the edge of the forest.

“You don’t look too well these few days.” Shen Zechuan wiped his hands with snow and cast a glance at Yao Wenyu. “Are you not sleeping well at night?” 

Yao Wenyu’s pale side profile was reflected upon the frosty leaves. He smiled at Shen Zechuan. “It’s cold, and my legs are hurting, that’s all…” He paused. “It has been half a month since the Second Master arrived in Dunzhou. Has Your Lordship received any news yet?” 

“Tantai Hu discovered that there were still leftover bandits wandering on Mount Luo, so Ce’an was delayed for a few days there. It was reported the night before that the Mount Luo bandits have already been cleared out, and the Libei Armored Cavalry have occupied Mount Luo.” Shen Zechuan had changed into a jade-colored narrow-sleeved robe with a long, velvet outer garment today that made him look even younger. He was wearing the dogskin arm guard on his right arm, and as he raised his arm, he whistled. Meng came spiraling down from the forest and landed on his right arm. 

Meng was too heavy, so Shen Zechuan could only let it perch for a while. He fed this messenger which had been traveling to and fro on both ends some white meat before letting it go off to play. 

“There’s no need to worry over Mount Luo.” Yao Wenyu watched as Meng flew away. “The difficulty lies in Duanzhou.” 

The entire Duanzhou battle line was directly facing the Chashi River, and it had been completely infiltrated by the Biansha Cavalry these few years. No one knew exactly how many Scorpions lurked within. Xiao Chiye only brought 5,000 Imperial Army soldiers along. The rest were all from the Libei Armored Cavalry. He was unwilling to completely give up the Libei Armored Cavalry, so no doubt he would have to find a way to deal with the Scorpions in the battle of Duanzhou. 

Shen Zechuan’s heart was hanging on tenterhooks over Duanzhou. 

“Now that the connection between the relay stations is running smoothly again, we will be able to send reinforcements immediately even if there is a change in the situation.” Seeing Shen Zechuan’s grave expression, Yao Wenyu said soothingly, “Besides, Second Master is a man blessed by Heaven.” 

“Lu Guangbai said that Amu’er is planting grains on the opposite bank of the Chashi River.” Shen Zechuan pushed aside the withered branch bedside his ear. “My concern is that he has long been wary of Zhongbo, and his placement of the crop fields near Gedale is meant to situate them in a better position to fight a protracted war with Duanzhou.” 

Libei could not afford any delays now. If they could not take down Duanzhou, then the Shasan Camp would be in a rather perilous situation. Furthermore, Zhongbo was unable to completely shut their gates. Amu’er had set his sights so far and wide that Shen Zechuan even felt that nothing from south to north could miss his eyes. 

Think back to last year’s battles. Amu’er first used Huhelu to hold down Guo Weili and give Hasen time to head up north. The Scorpions’ infiltration of Zhongbo to smuggle supplies back then was to prepare for the time they stormed and seized Libei’s battle camps. Now that he had used Hasen to take Xiao Fangxu out and reduce the pressure on the northern battlefields, he would have more confidence to face up against Qi Zhuyin. He relied on the Scorpions to hold Libei in check, then depended on the cavalry to engage Qi Zhuyin in a deadlock. Zhongbo was the weak and vulnerable belly. As long as he could free out another leg, he would be able to stomp down the battle line that had only just been stabilized. 

The battle in Duanzhou would be a tough one.   

Yao Wenyu was just about to say a word when Fei Sheng spurred his horse over. He dismounted to pay his obeisances to Shen Zechuan. “Master, Yan Heru is here.” 

Shen Zechuan knew that Qudu was just done investigating Hezhou’s transportation of grains by water to the capital, so presumably, Yan Heru was here to whine about it. Besides, they still had yet to come to an agreement regarding the new Port of Liuzhou in Juexi. Thus, he turned around and said, “Let’s head back.” 

◈     ◈     ◈

Yan Heru was indeed here to whine and grouse. He arrived too late, and Zhou Gui and the rest sat with him and briefly discussed some Liuzhou matters with him. He only got down to business when Shen Zechuan returned and told him all about the issue with the shipments of grains by water in Hezhou. 

“The official from the Ministry of Revenue who was initially in charge of the transportation of grain shipments in Hezhou is called Liang Cuishan. He also led the collection of taxes on salt in Juexi. Last year, he put the thirteen cities in order with Jiang Qingshan. The reason our business has been difficult is all thanks to these two people.” Yan Heru disliked how hard the chair was and shifted in his seat before he said, all bright and chipper, “Oh man, Your Lordship, I’m telling you, I really got worried there! This person is not an easy one to deal with, and he isn’t one to accept bribes either. But guess what happened? Before I could think of a plan, he was transferred away. They said it was to investigate the crop fields of Dancheng with the Court of Judicial Review. The imperial court has really done me a great favor~”   

Shen Zechuan found this name to be a familiar one. He repeated, “Liang Cuishan?”

“Liang Cuishan, courtesy name Chongshen.” Yan Heru sprawled face down on the table and winked at Shen Zechuan. “Do you know him? You should’ve said so sooner! Then I don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

Naturally, Shen Zechuan knew him. After all, Shen Zechuan was the one who had Xiao Chiye recommend Liang Cuishan for office. He promptly asked, “they had him transferred to Dancheng to investigate the fields?”  

“That’s right. Pan Lin is currently fighting it out with Xue Xiuzhuo. Xue Xiuzhuo is truly a real man to be stirring up the hornet’s nest.” Yan Heru said enigmatically. “Your Lordship, guess how many fields have the eight cities seized over the years? If Xue Xiuzhuo were to really get to the bottom of the accounts, even the Empress Dowager would be taken to task for it, let alone the Pan clan. At present, the noble clans all want him dead.” 

The noble clans’ appropriation of the commoners’ fields had led to an increase in the numbers of displaced refugees. Those who had flocked to Zhongbo last year were all commoners who had been forced to leave. Qi Huilian relied on the implementation of the census registers4 to curb the problem, but it proved to be ineffective in the eight cities, and now, Xue Xiuzhuo was using Yao Wenyu’s matter as an opportunity to deal the first blow to the Pan clan of Dancheng. 

Even Yao Wenyu had to concede that Xue Xiuzhuo had guts. 

“Liang Cuishan was promoted by Pan Lin.” Shen Zechuan understood it in a flash. “The noble clans want to rely on Liang Cuishan’s use of his Ministry of Revenue authority to obstruct Xue Xiuzhuo from investigating the lands and drag things out until the beginning of spring.” 

“What a fine show of battle between those in power. Let them kill their fill in the bloodbath.” Yan Heru clapped his hands lightly and said to Shen Zechuan with a smile. “Best if they fight until Zhongbo is stable, and Your Lordship will be able to free a hand to teach them a lesson!” 

“Then I fear you’d be disappointed.” With his folding fan, Shen Zechuan pushed away Yan Heru’s fingers that had made their way before him. “This Liang Cuishan…”   

A commotion suddenly broke out under the eaves. Shen Zechuan stopped talking, and the gentlemen in the room all looked over. Zhou Gui rose slightly and inquired, “What’s all the din about? A discussion is currently underway in the hall!” 

Fei Sheng lifted the hanging screen with a hand. His gaze moved past the others to land on Shen Zechuan, his face pale as he called out, “Master…” 

Wind escaped from the dark vault of heaven, blowing over the corner of the hanging screen with such force that the various gentlemen all raised their sleeves to shield their faces. Shen Zechuan stood up. The expression in Fei Sheng’s eyes gave him a sense of foreboding. He even took a few steps forward as he stared at Fei Sheng under the flickering candlelight. 

“Incoming message of utmost urgency,” Fei Sheng said in a solemn voice, “Second Master—” 

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Footnotes

  1. 只解沙场为国死,何须马革裹尸还 a line from the poem 《出塞》by Xu Xilin (徐锡麟). The return of the body here specifically refers to wrapping the corpse in horsehide to be sent back to the camps or hometown for burial (a typical practice for the fallen in battles).

  2. a spirit or memorial or ancestral tablet, with the name, birthday, etc., of the dead inscribed and placed in shrines at home or in temples, etc.

  3. 花钿 known as huadian, these are flower embellishments affixed or painted onto the forehead for cosmetic purposes. Flowers are common patterns, although there may be others.
  4. 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