It rained several times in the tenth month of the lunar year, following which the maple leaves in Mount Feng turned red. Shen Zechuan had already caught sight of some slight frost while herding the elephants during the morning court. Emperor Xiande’s illness improved somewhat along with the coming of autumn. Word had it that his meals had resumed, and his coughing during the morning court had eased off a lot.
According to tradition, the Emperor could only head to the Nanlin1 Hunting Grounds only in the eleventh month. But Emperor Xiande seemed to be worried that traveling might prove difficult in cold weather, so he gave orders for the preparations of the Autumn Hunt to be carried out at the start of the tenth month.
“The ones responsible for patrol duty are still the Eight Great Training Divisions and the Imperial Bodyguards.” Chen Yang carried the blade for Xiao Chiye and said, “Viceroy, didn’t His Majesty flew into a rage the last time?”
“That was last time.” Xiao Chiye had just come from the military drill grounds. He wiped his sweat. “His Majesty was furious last time because he felt that there were safety concerns both on the inside and on the outside. But it’s different this time. Xi Gu’an had been despised and shunned by Her Majesty. Having been left out in the cold for two months, he will be desperately wanting to put himself back into the limelight.”
“Are such small favors able to move Xi Gu’an?” When Chen Yang saw no one nearby, he said, “After all, Her Majesty has been gaining power for a long time, and His Majesty is ill. Even if he is willing to hand Xi Gu’an an olive branch, Xi Gu’an wouldn’t dare to accept it, would he?”
“You said it yourself, that it’s a small favor.” Xiao Chiye put on the outer garment he had grabbed. “What if His Majesty gave Xi Gu’an great power and authority? A few days ago, His Majesty even asked about the age of the Xi Clan’s daughter. Prince Chu does not have a Princess Consort. If he really bestowed marriage upon them, then even if Xi Gu’an did not have the intent to, it would appear differently to Her Majesty.”
Chen Yang said, “A pity we don’t have a Missy at home.”
“It’s better that way.” Xiao Chiye said, “If I were to have a sister, she would have to be like Commander-in-Chief Qi. Otherwise, she would have no control over her life. Most likely, she will be forced to marry a husband she has never seen before.”2
Having said to this point, he slowed his pace.
“The Hua Clan has always been the first choice for imperial concubines. At this age, Hua Xiangyi, who has been raised and nurtured by the Empress Dowager, has yet to be bestowed a marriage. Even His Majesty does not dare to offend her and could only call her his younger sister. When it comes to whom she will be betrothed to in the future, it’s Her Majesty’s arrangements that they still have to go along with.”
Chen Yang said, “Fortunately, our Hereditary Prince is already married… But who else can Third Missy Hua be betrothed to? Viceroy, I really can’t tell at all. “
“The Qi Clan is the best choice.” Xiao Chiye smiled. “If Qi Zhuyin was born a man, the Empress Dowager would have long betrothed Third Missy Hua to her. A pity Qi Zhuyin is a girl, and the Hua Clan does not have any man of lawful birth in this generation. So they can only eye this piece of meat but not move their chopsticks. They are getting anxious.”
The horse was led over, and Xiao Chiye stroked it.
“Come on. Let’s go to the East Market on Donglong Street again.”
Shen Zechuan had only just stepped into Donglong Street.
Having been released from his imprisonment, he could naturally no longer stay in Zhao Zui Temple. As no one mentioned it at the outset, this matter was set aside. But in the eighth month, Qiao Tianya suddenly took notice of it and followed him to Zhao Zui Temple. When he saw Grand Mentor Qi all covered in mud acting like a lunatic, he got Shen Zechuan to open an account in advance with the Imperial Bodyguards so that he could find a proper place to live in. Thus, at the end of the ninth month, Shen Zechuan moved to an old alley. The rent was cheap, and the place, suitable for his current status.
“Who exactly is this person Shifu wants me to find?” Shen Zechuan took the indenture3 and looked at the word “Songyue”. The place of origin above was blank.
Ge Qingqing looked around the crowd and said, “Uncle didn’t mention it either. He only said that the teacher has permitted it. That is, to let this person take care of your daily living in the future.”
After Shen Zechuan moved out of Zhao Zui Temple, it became inconvenient for him to communicate with Grand Mentor Qi. He was unwilling to raise messenger pigeons. Firstly, it was too easy to expose themselves, and secondly, Xiao Chiye’s gyrfalcon was too fierce—it left a deep impression on him. At present, they could only rely on Ji Gang and meet up when Ji Gang used his identity as an errand-runner to venture outdoors to make purchases. It was extremely inconvenient, but they had no better option for the time being.
“He should be in the East Market.” Shen Zechuan said to Ge Qingqing. “Let’s go for a look.”
Donglong Street was near Kailing River. It was a pleasure district. There was a trading market set up on the eastern side to deal in “human goods”. Those who were selling themselves to bury their parents would also choose this place to kneel.4 Because the common households and residences would all come here to pick errand-runners or maidservants.
Xiao Chiye gripped a register of names from Prince Chu’s residence with the intention to come here to investigate some of the men’s origins.
He had only just strode out of the middleman’s place when he saw a familiar nape.
Chen Yang said, “Isn’t that…”
Xiao Chiye raised his hand, and Chen Yang fell silent.
Shen Zechuan kept the indenture. Feeling a chill on his nape, he looked back. Xiao Chiye was already standing behind him.
“Oh, a bigwig.” Shen Zechuan said, “Why are you standing behind me?”
“Looking at you.” Xiao Chiye stuffed away the register in passing and strolled over to Shen Zechuan’s side. “Are you here to buy servants?”
Shen Zechuan said, as if in jest, “I’m selling myself. How on earth can I afford to buy someone?”
“Already reduced to such a state, huh?” Xiao Chiye sized him up. “Isn’t it said that many people are seeking you at high prices?”
“It’s all about the feels.” Shen Zechuan continued to walk. “They have to catch my eye before I can decide whether to receive them or not.”5
Xiao Chiye knew what kind of men they were and said, “It sure isn’t easy to choose between the ugly and the repulsive, is it?”
“I’m no match for the Second Young Master.” Shen Zechuan looked askance at him. “Following Prince Chu must have given you your fair share of flesh.”6
Xiao Chiye said, “Envious? Come look for me.”
Shen Zechuan smiled too and said, “I haven’t been reduced to that stage yet.”
Both men had almost arrived at the end. Shen Zechuan turned aside and said, “Then I won’t bother Second Young Master to accompany me further. I’m heading back.”
“No hurry.” Xiao Chiye remained where he was. “This Autumn Hunt, we still have to look out for each other.”
“The Imperial Bodyguards and the Imperial Army have no common ground.” Shen Zechuan looked at him. “So what is there for me to look out for you?”
Xiao Chiye said, “How distant. If I often go over to you to stretch my legs, we can come to share a common ground.”
Shen Zechuan did not answer him. After he left, Xiao Chiye was still rooted at the same spot.
“Who is he looking for in this place?” Xiao Chiye gently stroked the hilt of the blade with his thumb. “Ge Qingqing… As expected, it’s Ge Qingqing. Chen Yang.”
“Go and check it out.” Xiao Chiye said, “Look into all eighteen generations of Ge Qingqing’s ancestors.”7
After Shen Zechuan’s search for the man had been disrupted by Xiao Chiye, he was placed on consecutive rotational duties, and so he did not manage to find any more free time. On the eve of the Autumn Hunt, it was finally his turn to receive an assignment. Sure enough, it was to accompany the Emperor to the Nanlin Hunting Grounds.
One day, Shen Zechuan got off work and returned home. Before pushing the door open, he sensed the presence of someone else in the house.
With a cloak around him, Feng Quan drank his tea with his fingers sticking up8 and said from the other side of the door, “Aren’t you coming in?”
Shen Zechuan pushed the door open. There was no light lit in the house. With his snow-white face immersed in the darkness, Feng Quan looked like a wandering soul.
He set aside the tea and said, “I’m here to convey a message from Her Majesty.”
Shen Zechuan threw his dirty robe on the small clothes rack9 with curvy raised ends and said, “Thank you for the trouble.”
“Yeah.” Feng Quan looked at Shen Zechuan maliciously and tossed him an object. “If it weren’t a matter of urgency, would I have needed to come in person? You have been graced with so many favors from the Empress Dowager. And now it’s time to repay it all one at a time. If this matter falls through this Autumn Hunt, then you won’t be able to survive through it either.”
Shen Zechuan caught the object. It was an eastern pearl10 wrapped in a strip of cloth. A wipe of his fingertip revealed the ink traces of half a character on the strip of cloth—Lin.11
Shen Zechuan’s eyes shifted back to Feng Quan’s face.
Feng Quan stood up and walked over to Shen Zechuan. He said, “If you succeed, the Empress Dowager can still spare your life and treat you like a dog to order around. But if you fail, then there’s no point in keeping you.”
“Martial arts experts will be as plentiful as trees in a forest.” Shen Zechuan said. “I’ll try my best.”
Feng Quan stared daggers at him for a while before he let out a mocking smile. He strode out of the door, shook on his cloak, and melted away into the darkness of the night.
Shen Zechuan lit a lamp and stood by the side of the table as he burned away the strip of cloth.
The tongue of the flame licked the fabric, turning the word “lin” into ashes.
The Nanlin Hunting Grounds was located on the southeast side of Qudu and encompassed a wide area. Half of the usual ingredients used by the Court of Imperial Entertainments came from this place. The Eight Great Training Division forces, half of which had been mobilized, followed after the Emperor in a grand display of might.
Shen Zechuan was herding the elephants when he heard the thunderous sounds of galloping horse hooves. He did not have to look back to know whose horse it was. Sure enough, he saw the gyrfalcon swoop over his head and haul up a wild mouse from among the grass before it went soaring into the sky again.
Xiao Chiye and Li Jianheng, along with a group of rich young masters from Qudu, spurred their horses past him and noisily dashed straight ahead. The jet-black steed with a snow-white patch on its chest under him was truly a conspicuous sight.
Xiaowu looked up in envy and said, “This Viceroy Xiao’s eagle and horse are all wonderful treasures!”
Shen Zechuan said, “All wild animals.”
Xiaowu was young and could not stand loneliness, so he was always wanting to converse with Shen Zechuan. Sitting on the horse, he munched on dried sweet potatoes13 and said in a Huaizhou accent, “Chuan-ge, do you know the names of that horse and eagle?”
Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “They are wild… there’s only so much they can be called.”
Xiaowu stretched his body out and said expressively, “That eagle is called Meng! Don’t you think it sounds fierce? But that horse’s name isn’t fierce. It’s called Lang Tao Xue Jin.”
He enunciated each word, sounding so childlike that it amused the group of adults.
Gasping for breath, Li Jianheng looked back and said to Xiao Chiye, “Man, each time I see him, I always wonder why he wasn’t born a woman!”
Xiao Chiye turned around the horse and looked at Li Jianheng.
Li Jianheng said, “I know, I know. I’m not befuddled to that extent!”
“When we arrive at the venue in a moment.” Xiao Chiye said, “You have to tell me when you venture out. Don’t stray away from the guards around night time. Not one of the women you brought must be allowed into the tent either.”
“I didn’t bring a woman along.” Li Jianheng put on a bold front to quibble.
Xiao Chiye threw him an indescribably wicked smile.
Behind them, Chen Yang spurred his horse on and caught up to them. He said, “Viceroy, I’ve gotten someone to send all those women back.”
Upset, Li Jianheng bit the tip of his tongue. After a while, he said, “Ce’an, honestly speaking, if you won’t even let me sleep with them, then what fun is there to be had at the Autumn Hunt?”
“Plenty.” Xiao Chiye said, “Even basking in the sun is more interesting than you being cooped up in the tent.”
Li Jianheng kept sighing as he continued on, listless and dejected, with the rest of the journey.
When they arrived, it was nearly dark.
Shen Zechuan was not on duty on the first day, so he stayed behind to do odd jobs. Qiao Tianya came too and called the Imperial Bodyguards over to treat them to some meat.
He saw the bowl in Shen Zechuan’s hand and suddenly said, “So you can drink, huh.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Just a bowl.”
Qiao Tianya did not expose him. This man did not look like an Imperial Bodyguard. He was more like someone from the martial fraternity. He used a dagger to wipe the roast meat and said, “Eat all you can now that you are at the hunting ground! This happens only once a year. What you are eating is all stuff the palace usually uses. So seize the opportunity before you miss it.”
He chewed on the meat and said.
“You have to bring a blade while you are on duty. When your turn comes tomorrow night, use Qingqing’s blade. Why didn’t you bring one? Didn’t the Domesticated Elephants Office teach you two stances?”
“The blade is too heavy.” Looking as though he was too weak to lift it, Shen Zechuan said, “It’s too much for me to carry it along with me.”
“The bones in your body…” Qiao Tianya said, “Couldn’t have been broken by that kick of Second Young Master Xiao, could it? What a pity. That’s a first-grade hoodlum, we can’t extort him. Otherwise, with that one kick, this older brother can fleece him out of all his family fortune.”
The Imperial Bodyguards around them laughed.
Shen Zechuan moved the corners of his lips. As he sipped the wine, he took a quick look around along the rim of the bowl.
All of them were inseparable from their blades.
Other than him, who else was here to kill Prince Chu? Apart from those present here, there were still the assassins in the unseen shadows, and how many of them were lying in wait with cool detachment? Even if Xiao Chiye was a natural-born talent, what were the odds that he could successfully protect Prince Chu under this heavy siege?
Several tents away, Xiao Chiye and Li Jianheng were still drinking wine and playing dice with the others.
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- Literally Southern Forest
- Marriages in those days were mostly decided by the parents. In families of status or power (e.g. nobles, officials, the wealthy, etc), parents would usually find someone equal to (or better than) them in status. It was common for such families to use marriages between their children to form alliances to strengthen or benefit both sides, and children, especially girls, have no say over who they will marry.
- 卖身契 more specifically, it’s an indenture or a deed of sale of oneself or one’s family member to someone else (e.g. into slavery, etc)
卖身葬父 literally selling oneself to bury one’s father (parents). Filial piety was a big thing in those days. When the poor had no money to give their deceased parents a decent burial, they would sometimes kneel by the roadside with a sign to sell themselves as slaves (girls sometimes end up as concubines) to the person who can pay for the burial. There were sometimes practical considerations too, e.g. if the person selling themselves had younger siblings to raise after the death of their parents, etc. Selling themselves would then be a ‘better’ alternative compared to all of them starving to death, etc.
- As in receive them as patrons; i.e., selling his body.
- 开荤 to begin or resume a meat diet after abstinence or break a vegetarian diet (especially as a practice observed in certain religions). It also refers to someone who has a novel experience. Here it refers to him getting his taste of ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
- 祖宗十八代, literally eighteen generations of ancestors, i.e., he’s asking him to do a complete and thorough background check.
- Considered an effeminate gesture, which was typical of eunuchs
- 东珠 literally eastern pearl, a rare treasure also known as the northern pearl (北珠) or tana in Mongolian. During the Qing Dynasty, pearls produced in northeast China were called the eastern pearl to distinguish them from the southern pearl produced in the south. The rulers of the Qing Dynasty regarded the eastern pearls as treasures and used them to inlay their crown and clothing with it to represent authority and honor.
- 林 (Lin). The word 林 also means woods or forest.
- 林 (Lin) is also a radical used in 楚 (Chu) i.e. the 林 form up half of Chu 楚. This is the same Chu in Prince Chu.
红薯干 dried sweet potato (strips)