The next morning, Emperor Xiande assumed personal command over the Autumn Hunt’s arena. His health did not permit him to go hunting on a horse, so he prepared some rewards and ordered the men present to head to the hunting grounds to try their luck at winning a prize.
Li Jianheng could not get on his horse and had to make several attempts before he could hoist himself onto it. Emperor Xiande looked at him and said, “Jianheng will lead by example. I’ll be waiting to have a taste of your prey!”
Li Jianheng gripped the reins. He had already given instructions to his guards. Even if he could not hit a target, he would not return empty-handed. So he set out in high spirits with a bunch of guards following closely behind him. Xiao Chiye rode his horse beside him.
There was a stretch of forest at the end of the vast expanse of grassland at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds. Morning dews hung on branches and leaves that had yellowed. Startled by the shouts and sounds of horses’ hooves, prey of all sizes that had been set loose scattered among the undergrowth.
Clenching his bow as he sat on his horse, Li Jianheng drew the string apart with great effort and fired an arrow at a rabbit. The arrow jabbed feebly into the ground some distance away from the rabbit. Blind applause and cheers first rang out at the sides, then the guard who had gone over to take a look brought back a rabbit that had been prepared in advance.
Satisfied, Li Jianheng said to Xiao Chiye, “My archery skill isn’t bad, right? It was Imperial Grandpa who taught me back then!”
Xiao Chiye said sincerely, “I have never seen such a display of archery prowess even in Libei.”
Li Jianheng immediately laughed and said, “You have been in Qudu for so long, you couldn’t have forgotten how to draw a bow, could you?”
Xiao Chiye had only brought an ordinary bow along. It was not even as good as the ones the Imperial Bodyguards used. He said, “Let me show you my skill too.”
With that, Xiao Chiye drew his bow and fired an arrow at the clearing before him. His shot was even weaker than Prince Chu’s; it did not even stab into the ground. Blind cheers and exaltation rang out from the sides again. Xiao Chiye reveled in it.
Qian Tianya had already grown impatient waiting behind them. Amused when he saw this scene, he said, “See that? If you don’t train well, you’ll be treated like a fool!”
Looking at Xiao Chiye’s shoulders and arms, Shen Zechuan was once again reminded of that piece of bone thumb ring. He could not help but smile.
Prince Chu had not ridden for long when his back ached. It dampened his willingness to go further. This was the result of having too much to drink last night. At the moment, he was not feeling well all over. He led the horse and wandered around aimlessly for a while, enduring it until it was almost time before he urged his men back.
The guards at the back had not even finished shooting all their arrows when they escorted him back like a gust of wind. They did not even head to the forest in the east.
Li Jianheng dismounted the horse and kneeled before the Emperor. At the side, Pan Rugui made an inventory count of the prey for Emperor Xiande. The more Li Jianheng heard, the more pleased he was. He said, “Imperial Elder Brother! There’s even a red fox. What an excellent fur color. It’ll make the perfect fur collar for you.”
Emperor Xiande was pleased too. He said, “I feel even more spirited now than I was back in Qudu! Pan Rugui, give the stuff to Prince Chu.”
Li Jianheng lifted the silk fabric with great delight, only to see a great bow no ordinary man could draw presented underneath. He instantly lost interest, although he still had to say, “Thank you Your Majesty for the reward!”
Emperor Xiande laughed and coughed a few times before saying, “You don’t like it? This isn’t meant for you to use either. This bow was left behind by the Great Ancestor Emperor1 in the early years. It’s made of black iron coupled with keel and weighs one hundred and twenty catty.2 Even the current Four Great Generals cannot draw it. Bestowing it upon you is because I want you to be diligent at all times. When you face this bow, remember the hardships of the Great Ancestor Emperor in his great undertaking to establish the Empire.”
Li Jianheng acknowledged his words and called for his men to carry the bow away.
During dinner, Emperor Xiande called Li Jianheng over to sit with him and leaned against him. This was a hint that could not be any more obvious. All the officials presented knew it, but they still had to play dumb because Secretariat Elder Hua, Hua Siqian, was still on an equal footing with Prince Chu.
Once everyone had their fill of wine and food, a bonfire was started.
Emperor Xiande had not retreated this whole day, and so all those present could not leave either. Li Jianheng had already grown tired of sitting, but then, he saw that Emperor Xiande still had no intent to retreat for a rest.
What’s going on?
Li Jianheng cast a questioning gaze at Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye pretended not to notice.
By this time, the singing and dancing had already receded, and the flame of the bonfire was raging. Emperor Xiande suddenly gathered his clothes and called out, “My dear minister Hai.”
Hai Liangyi tidied his robe and respectfully kneeled before the Emperor to answer, “This old subject is here!”
Emperor Xiande asked, “What were you going to do today?”
Hai Liangyi kowtowed and replied, “This old subject would like to recommend the Chief Supervising Secretary of the Six Ministries’ Office of Scrutiny for Revenue, Xue Xiuzhuo, to be given the authority to submit a petition before Your Majesty!”
Hua Siqian had already sensed something going on. He stroked his beard and said, “Renshi, why put it in such a way? To begin with, the Chief Supervising Secretary has the authority to remonstrate directly with His Majesty.”
“That may be so.” Hai Liangyi said, “But Xue Xiuzhuo’s memorial3 has repeatedly failed to reach His Majesty. He might as well seek a direct audience with His Majesty.”
“How could there be a memorial that couldn’t make its way to His Majesty?” Hua Siqian asked.
Emperor Xiande said, “I’m curious too. My dear minister Hai, call him up to say his piece.”
Having received the command, Pan Rugui exchanged looks with Hua Siqian and strode two steps out to call out, “Summon the Chief Supervising Secretary of the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue, Xue Xiuzhuo, for an audience with His Majesty!”
Xue Xiuzhuo was not wearing his official robe. He looked travel-worn as though he had just dismounted from his horse. He did not look at anyone when he made his way up. Instead, he kneeled first to kowtow and pay his obeisances to Emperor Xiande.
“What do you have to report?” Emperor Xiande asked amid the wind.
Xue Xiuzhuo said, “This subject is the Supervising Secretary of the Office of Scrutiny. My key task is to audit the financial affairs of the Ministry of Revenue in minute details. In the third month of the fifth year of Xiande,4 this subject audited the expenditure ledger for the fourth year of Xiande and discovered a subsidy of 2,000,000 taels recorded. For the sake of prudence, especially in the light of the Ministry of Revenue’s statement that it was a “subsidy to the Thirteen Cities of Juexi“, this subject personally made a trip to Juexi. The Provincial Administration Commissioner of Juexi, Jiang Qingshan, conducted a reconciliation of the accounts with this subject and discovered that out of the subsidy allocated in the fourth year of Xiande, only 1,530,000 taels had been given to Juexi for real. The remaining 470,000 taels had vanished without a trace. Following this, in the eight month of the same year, the Ministry of War disbursed the salaries and provisions to the troops at the frontiers. The Ministry of Revenue allocated 2,800,000 taels for this purpose. Of that amount, 1,800,000 taels were for Qidong Five Commanderies Garrison Troops, and 1,000,000 taels were for Libei Great Commandery. But by the time this subject chased the money to Luoxia Pass after it was handed down, there were only 830,000 taels left! And this goes on, incident after incident. The deficit of the State Treasury is such a huge sum. Where has all the money gone? Who took them? Elder Secretariat Hua may be unsure, but this subject has the records to submit for His Majesty’s perusal!”
“You are spouting nonsense!” Hua Siqian denounced him in a cold tone. “The Ministry of Revenue has to reconcile the accounts at the beginning of the year right in the palace itself! How is it that you just had to be the one to know when the Minister of Revenue, Grand Secretariat, and the Brush-holding Director of the Imperial Palace’s Directorate of Ceremonial all had no idea that there was a deficit?!”
Hai Liangyi raised his head and said in a steady voice, “This old subject knows! Starting from the second year of Xiande, the account books submitted by the Ministry of Revenue have been split into real and fake copies. When it comes to deciding what is handed over every year, it’s not the Minister of Revenue’s words that counts, but yours, Hua Siqian!”
The “crackle” of the bonfire exploded like a sudden burst of thunder that struck everyone present into silence. None of them had expected Emperor Xiande to raise tough questions in such a manner so suddenly.
“Fine.” Hua Siqian laughed and slapped the table to get up. “So you are making up wild charges now? What Hua Faction?! All the lands in the world belong to the Emperor. I, Hua Siqian, have been open and aboveboard in everything I have done. All along, I’ve placed His Majesty first! If there are any dubious accounts, take them out now. Zheng Guoshi, tally it with him!”
The Minister of Revenue, Zheng Guoshi, kneeled down in a fluster and said, “Your Majesty, this subject would like to ask Chief Supervising Secretary Xue a question. Since it’s the accounts for the Fourth Year of Xiande that has a problem, why did he wait until today to bring it up? If there is truly a problem with it, then wouldn’t he have held up a major issue!”
Xue Xiuzhuo quickly said, “Nowadays, the local officials who have entered the capital do not meet their superiors nor pay obeisance to Your Majesty. Instead, they first send a visitation card5 and head over to the Hua Residence and Pan-gonggong’s secondary residence to pay their respects. The Hua Faction is so powerful and influential. It may well be asked who still wouldn’t dare to follow the lead of Secretariat Elder Hua?!”
“Every year, I have to tell the delegated Investigating Censors to just voice it out if there is a problem! What do I have to fear?! The account ledgers of my Hua Clan have all been presented before His Majesty; it’s all clear and aboveboard!” Hua Siqian stared at Xue Xiuzhuo. “Xue Yanqing, do you still remember who gave you a recommendation when you had to enter Qudu to be an official during the years of Yongyi? I could be partially considered your teacher, and yet you framed me like this!”
Xue Xiuzhuo raised his head and met Hua Siqian’s eyes for a moment. He said, “On the imperial court, there is only the ruler and his ministers; there is no teacher and his student.”
Hua Siqian turned to Emperor Xiande and asked, “Does Your Majesty believe it?”
Emperor Xiande lowered his eyelids and said, “I believe the accounts.”
Hua Siqian raised his head and burst out laughing. He joined his palms together and said, “Fine! Your Majesty, it was a turbulent period in Qudu back then, and the former Emperor chose you on his deathbed. Do you still remember who was the one who supported you, who protected and escorted you all the way?! But tonight, you believed it because of a few disloyal and unfilial scums?!”
Emperor Xiande raised his hand to drink the tea. He finally looked at Hua Siqian. With his eyes brimming with loathing, he said, “Shouldn’t you be clear whether that was protecting and escorting or coercing and commanding a prince?”
Hua Siqian suddenly shoved aside the table and said, “Ji Lei!”
The Imperial Bodyguards at the feast drew their blades with a swoosh.
Hai Liangyi said, “The audacity of you to rebel!”
“I wouldn’t dare.” Hua Siqian said. “But you are already forcing the blades right at me now. Surely you don’t expect me to sit and wait to be killed, do you?”
“What do you want?” Emperor Xiande said coldly, “Xi Gu’an!”
The Eight Great Training Divisions suddenly strode a step forward to stand before the Emperor.
“Take down Hua Siqian!” Emperor Xiande commanded.
“Don’t you dare!” Hua Siqian bellowed. “Xi Gu’an, your wife and child are now having tea with the Empress Dowager. If you dare to take another step forward, the lineage of the Xi Clan will be severed! The Empress Dowager has treated you well over the years, but you have been repeatedly instigated by others. It is still not too late for you to turn back.”
Xi Gu’an had originally been forced and left without a choice. Now, he took a slight step back, afraid.
Emperor Xiande said in a sinister voice, “Not too late? Xi Gu’an, was it not too late for the former Crown Prince? Was it not too late for Shen Wei? Which of them weren’t more loyal than you were?! They retreated, but did the Empress Dowager let them off? I have already asked them to draft an imperial edict. As long as Prince Chu ascended to the throne in the future, the daughter of the Xi Clan will be the Empress of the Empire!”
“It has already become a usual practice for His Majesty to issue and rescind his orders. And you still dare to harbor such wishful thinking?!” Hua Siqian flicked his sleeves. “His Majesty has gone muddle-headed from his illness! Imperial Concubine Wei is already half-a-month pregnant, so how can Prince Chu ascend to the throne?!”
Xi Gu’an gripped his blade. His forehead was drenched in sweat.
Layers and layers of dark clouds had already shrouded the night sky. The wind before the eve of a rainstorm ceased too. Banners of flags at the hunting grounds flapped. No one moved.
Gritting his teeth, Xi Gu’an drew out his blade and turned to Emperor Xiande. With some difficulty, he said, “The illness of His Majesty is… beyond cure.”
“I gave you a chance.” Emperor Xiande looked at Xi Gu’an and gradually began to laugh. The more he laughed, the louder he became. And the louder he was, the more he coughed. He braced himself against the table and said frostily, “If I did not have total confidence when I came to this Autumn Hunt, then how could I hunt down and kill treacherous ministers and traitors like you?! Qi Zhuyin is already leading the troops over to come to my aid. She should be here within four hours! So who are you killing? Hm? Who dares to?!”
Ji Lei suddenly piped up. “Commander-in-Chief Qi is far away in the Cangjun Commandery in Qidong. The Imperial Bodyguards are responsible for all incoming and outgoing correspondences. Your Majesty, it’s time for you to wake up from your dreams!”
Emperor Xiande glared furiously at him and said, “Qi…”
Pan Rugui suddenly covered Emperor Xiande’s mouth and forced him to sit down. He looked around the crowd and smiled. “His Majesty is having a relapse of his illness.”
All the civil servants’ legs were trembling. Hua Siqian looked at Li Jianheng and grinned nastily as he said, “Prince Chu harbored the intent to stage a revolt at the hunting grounds. He even brought a bow and arrows along. The evidence against him is conclusive! What are you waiting for? Kill him!”
Except for the guards beside him, the cold gleams of blades suddenly erupted all around.
Li Jianheng dropped his chopsticks in shock. As he retreated, he tumbled onto the ground along with his seat. He said, “Secretariat, Secretariat Elder! I have no intent to proclaim myself the Emperor!”
“Your Highness.” Hua Siqian said, “Do you know how the four words, ‘in spite of oneself’ is written?”
Thunder exploded in the sky.
Hearing the swarm of footsteps towards him, Li Jianheng hid among his guards. He could not even stand up as he said in a teary voice, “I’m an idle prince by nature! So why go to such an extent?”
The gleam of a blade flashed past before him, and Li Jianheng held his head and yelled. But then, he heard a tremendous crash, and the table before him overturned with a “bang”. Someone gripped his back collar and lifted him up.
“His Majesty bestowed the Conqueror Bow upon you, and so you are the Crown Prince of Da Zhou!” Xiao Chiye let out a sinister smile. “As the Viceroy of the Imperial Army in Qudu, I, Xiao Ce’an, want to see who will meet their fates under this blade of mine! Chen Yang, help the Crown Prince up the horse!”
“Xiao the Second.” Ji Lei slowly drew out his blade. “On account of the friendship between us, do you have to do this tonight?”
“I’ve been fooling around for so long.” Xiao Chiye released Li Jianheng. “I’m itching for a fight.”6
“Capture him.” Ji Lei said, “As long as there is no danger to the Second Young Master’s life, it’s fine to break his arms and legs.”
Xiao Chiye took off his cumbersome outer robe, only to reveal a body-fitting jinzhuang7 underneath. He cast a glance around and said, “Whoever is able to break my arms and legs, I will not only award him a hundred taels of gold, but also call him Master.”
Langli Blade, which had almost never once left its sheath in Qudu, steadily slid out. Inch by inch, light the color of snow glinted, along with a frosty, murderous aura that intimidated.
“But if he can’t break them, then his life is forfeited.”
Credits: Many thanks to saed (@saedee_) for helping with maths because the only maths I can do is Cang Ji + Me = Babies
- 太祖(皇帝) Great Ancestor (Emperor), a posthumous title for the founder of a dynasty.
- 斤 catty, or jin. A unit of weight. 1 catty equal to 0.5kg.
折子 zhezi, also 奏折 zouzhe, is a memorial presented to the Emperor in folded, accordion form
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor (Emperor Xiande, in this case) reigned.
名帖 (also 拜帖), a name card (or visitation card) written or paper or wood used by officials, nobles or distinguished people to notify the other party of their visit. It would usually indicate his name, position, and so on. It’s like a name card in the modern world.
- 皮痒 actually a colloquial term that refers to someone who is asking for a spanking/beating.
劲装 Jinzhuang is a more body-fitting outfit (compared to the usual loose, flowing robes) with the sleeves secured to make movements easier and less restrictive. It’s usually worn by martial arts practitioners to facilitate combat.