Shen Zechuan said, “Oh.”
Not getting the answer he wanted, Xiao Chiye looked back at him and asked, “Why aren’t you rebutting?”
Shen Zechuan raised his hands to open up the umbrella and said, “I don’t have a father or a brother back at home. No acquaintances either. So what’s the point of going back?”
Xiao Chiye picked up the handkerchief to wipe away the water on the back of his neck. He stood up and said, “Oh right. The Prince of Jianxing’s Residence in Dunzhou has already been cleared out. With your identity, you will only be cursed by all if you go back.”
“That’s why when it comes to fate,” Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye quietly for a pause before continuing, “you will only suffer if you don’t get reincarnated into a good life.”
Xiao Chiye did not look at him as he lifted his arm to rub away the raindrops on his forehead. He said, “Then why are you still alive?”
Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “Millions of people want me to die. But how could I feel at ease myself if I were to fulfill the wish of others?”
Xiao Chiye said, “The way for you to survive is to remain in Zhao Zui Temple.”
Shen Zechuan took two steps to bypass the water puddle on the ground and said, “If I remain in Zhao Zui Temple, then you will think that getting executed by decapitation is how I should end up. Xiao Chiye, even if you try your best to hide it, you are already used to looking down from above. You are no different from the people who look down on you today. And all those eyes on you now agonize you.”
He laughed out loud and patted Xiao Chiye on the back with a palm.
“I seek to live. You seek to die. The Xiao Clan once had me trapped, and now the Li Clan does the same to you. Isn’t the ways of this world strange? The bird in the cage longs for its former woods, while the fish in the pond misses the deep.1 Your lot in life has been laid bare from start to end. If you can’t go back, then you are nothing but a loser with lofty aspirations sans actions. The most regrettable thing in this world is to train a wolf into a dog. How long can your fangs remain sharp in Qudu?”
“You followed me during the Autumn Hunt,” Xiao Chiye turned his head to the side to look at him, “and saved my life just for this moment of gratification?”
“I am but an insignificant nobody.” Shen Zechuan said softly, “Even if I didn’t show up, you will still live.”
“Exactly what,” Xiao Chiye’s inebriation had worn off. He asked, “are you up to?”
“Repaying a debt of gratitude.” The brim of Shen Zechuan’s umbrella sheltered Xiao Chiye—This was how close he was to the latter. “Repaying all of you for your mercy in not killing me.”
Xiao Chiye suddenly grabbed Shen Zechuan by the collar and said, “I thought you had repent and turned over a new leaf to become a better person.”
“What wrong did I do?” The glint in Shen Zechuan’s eyes was even colder than this Autumn rain. He pressed in a step closer, almost sticking to Xiao Chiye, and asked, “What is my crime?”
“Didn’t you take a look at various cities of Duanzhou when you climbed your way out of Chashi Sinkhole?” Xiao Chiye tightened his grip. “Everyone in the eight cities was massacred. When the hooves of horses trod through the city gates, all the blood that splashed up was the people’s blood.”
“Shen Wei’s troops were defeated.” Shen Zechuan finally tore off that mask of his, exposing his burning hatred. “40,000 people from Zhongbo were buried in Chashi Sinkhole! I lost my elder brother and shiniang to death that day! Where does my fault lie in this?”
“Shen Wei deserves to be killed!” Xiao Chiye reached the end of his limit too. He suddenly pressed Shen Zechuan up against the wall and said, “Shen Wei should be put to death! You are a Shen too! So how are you blameless?!”2
The oil-paper umbrella tumbled to the ground as Xiao Chiye slammed Shen Zechuan into the wall and lifted him until his toes could barely touch the floor. Shen Zechuan lifted his leg to stomp on Xiao Chiye’s chest. Xiao Chiye retreated a few steps back in pain, but he did not release his grip as he pulled Shen Zechuan by the collar and flung him to the ground.
The pattering rain suddenly intensified and came pouring down in torrents. A burst of crashes rang out from the dark lane, as overturned odds and ends were trampled underfoot.
The courtesans of Xiangyun Villa who had been waiting for Xiao Chiye were startled by the commotion. All of them held on to the doors with their wooden clogs in hands to look.
“Why did they start fighting?!” Xiangyun hurriedly draped on her upper, outer garment and slipped on her wooden clogs to rush over. “My dear masters! Talk it over if you have something to say. This isn’t worth coming to blows over!”
Shen Zechuan rode Xiao Chiye and punched the latter’s head aside. Xiao Chiye grabbed Shen Zechuan’s wrist and tugged him hard towards himself. Licking the blood between his teeth with the tip of his tongue, he said, “Neither you nor I shall dream of having an easy time!”
Xiangyun had already called out the hired help, and they joined forces to drag both men apart. Xiao Chiye jerked his arm, and those tall and strapping hirelings felt the webs between their thumbs and forefingers going numb. However, Xiao Chiye did not pounce again. He raised his fingers to wipe at the wound on his face and said, “Piss off.”
Seeing that the situation did not look good, Xiangyun motioned for the hirelings to hurry over to the prince’s residence to call for help.
Who would have expected Xiao Chiye to say, “I’ll break the legs of whoever dares to alert my father!”
Xiangyun’s voice softened and she took the opportunity to say, “What is this about? Second Young Master has always shown tenderness towards the fairer sex. Why did you frighten the ladies tonight? It is common for gentlemen to swap pointers with one another after a bout of drinking. Let’s forget it and bury the hatchet with a smile, alright?”
Xiao Chiye rose to his feet, stripped off his dirty robe, and threw it to Xiangyun. He said, “Go in.”
Holding his outer robe, Xiangyun attempted to persuade him. “Second Young Master, it’s so cold outside…”
Her voice trailed off as she lost the courage to let out even a squeak. She waved her hand quietly at the courtesans and led them back inside. However, the door was not closed tight this time. All the courtesans clung to the sides of the door and windows to steal a peek.
Shen Zechuan picked up the umbrella. He was so filthy all over he was barely recognizable. He had been drenched by the rain, and strands of hair stuck to his cheeks. The contrast of black on white made his fair skin look even whiter.
“Next time.” Shen Zechuan said, “Go right to my door if you want to look for me. I won’t necessarily make a trip through this alley even in eight hundred years.”
“If I knew you would be passing by.” Xiao Chiye said, “I would not come here even if I have to puke all over inside.”
Shen Zechuan smiled mockingly and said, “Then it must really be a small world for enemies to meet on such a narrow path.”
Xiao Chiye walked up to him. “I’ll watch you closely from now on.”
“You can hardly look after yourself, and you still want to concern yourself over me?” Shen Zechuan raised his umbrella and pulled apart the distance between them. “Old institutions die hard. Just one Autumn Hunt, and you want to bring the Hua Clan down to their knees. You are really delusional.”
“You’d better find a way to preserve your life.” Xiao Chiye pressed his chest against the umbrella and looked askance at him. “How long can you live without the backing of the Empress Dowager?”
“There is already a new master sitting in the Imperial Court.” Shen Zechuan said, “Isn’t it time for you to change all those assumptions you have been taking for granted too?”
“You can’t kill any of them.” Xiao Chiye said, “The ones who owe you are the Biansha Cavalry and Shen Wei.”
“Whatever you say.” Shen Zechuan draped on that layer of tame outer coat again. He closed his umbrella and said gently to Xiao Chiye, “I’ll listen to you, okay?”
That indescribable rage within Xiao Chiye suddenly bubbled up. He said, “Sure. Then you’ll stay with me tonight.”
“You sleep under the bed canopy of a sweet, tender lady.” Shen Zechuan said, “And you still have the fetish to share your bed with another man? I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
No matter how Xiao Chiye looked at him now he looked as though he was up to no good, so he said, “What are you shying away from? Didn’t you say, whatever I say?!”
“Are you,” Shen Zechuan pointed to his head, “out of your mind?”
“All the idlers of the Imperial Bodyguards have been assigned to the Imperial Army.” Xiao Chiye said, “So who is the one out of his mind?”
Shen Zechuan paused for a moment and said, “What does the Viceroy want me to do?”
There was still a red imprint remaining on Xiao Chiye’s cheek. The hostility between his eyebrows dissipated, and he took on the appearance of a lazy slacker. He turned around to sit on the veranda under the eaves and pointed to his own boots.
Shen Zechuan unhurriedly moved the corners of his lips at him and said, “Sure.”
Early in the morning the next day, Chen Yang came to pick him up, and was stunned when he saw Shen Zechuan hugging Langli Blade at the entrance of Xiangyun Villa.
Shen Zechuan, who had been leaning against the door, straightened up his body and bowed a greeting to Chen Yang.
Chen Yang had an ill sense of foreboding for an instant and asked, “Shen… Why is the Red Cavalry3 here?”
“Ji Lei is still in prison and has not yet been sentenced.” Shen Zechuan said, “The Imperial Bodyguards are temporarily serving as Imperial Army under the Viceroy’s supervision.”
Chen Yang looked at his calm face and felt a chill down his spine. He gave a slight nod of his head and hurried up the stairs.
Shen Zechuan watched him go upstairs. At the same time, Xiangyun was coming down the stairs while lifting the hem of her skirt. She said tenderly, “You haven’t eaten yet right? You haven’t changed out of those dirty clothes of yours either. Ling Ting—”
It dawned on Xiangyun then, and she said, “I have gotten used to calling her! Go and bring some food over for this Red Cavalry Excellency.”
When Chen Yang entered, he saw Xiao Chiye still sprawled on the couch sleeping. There was no one around attending to him, so Chen Yang went forward and called out to him softly, “Viceroy, Viceroy?”
Xiao Chiye wearily buried his face and slept for a little longer. He suddenly sat up and asked, “Why is it you? Where is Shen Lanzhou?”
“He’s keeping watch downstairs. Viceroy… What happened to your face?” Chen Yang asked in astonishment.
“Got punched while I was hunting.” Xiao Chiye got off the couch and moved his shoulders and arms. He asked, “Did dage ask you to come for me?”
“It was His Lordship the Prince.” Chen Yang said, “We received information early in the morning. The Shaqiu6 Mutual Trade Market was looted by the Biansha Cavalry last night. We still need to enter the palace later to discuss this matter in detail. Secretariat Elder Hai has summoned the Ministry of War and the Ministry of Revenue for a convention. Us Libei have to deploy our troops again.”
Xiao Chiye wiped his face with water and immediately stepped out of the door. When he headed downstairs, he saw Shen Zechuan with a courtesan. He strode a few steps down, grabbed the small plate from behind, and tossed a pastry into his mouth.
Shen Zechuan looked at him and said. “Eat slowly. No one can save you in time if you choke to death.”
Xiao Chiye swallowed it clean. He smiled at him and put his arm on his shoulder. Leading him outside, he said, “Lanzhou…”
Shen Zechuan looked at him.
Xiao Chiye said frivolously, “Why do you still hold an overnight grudge? I’ve already forgotten all about it after a sleep. Let’s go. Second Young Master will take you along to look for fun…”
Shen Zechuan swatted his hand away with the sheath of his blade and said, “Second Young Master, don’t take advantage of the chance to touch the back of my neck.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Many people gathered in Mingli Hall.
Li Jianheng remained seated on the Dragon Throne, not daring to move. He first tried to figure out Hai Liangyi’s expression with his eyes, then shifted them over to the others while trying his best to look dignified and imposing.
“Now that the Brush-holding Director of the Directorate of Ceremonial’s position is vacant, this old subject will present all the various ministries’ accounts to His Majesty once they are sent to the Grand Secretariat before signing off on them.” Hai Liangyi first said to Li Jianheng, “What does Your Majesty think of the accounts last night?”
Li Jianheng had been listening to the pipa7 with a beautiful woman in his arms last night. So when Hai Liangyi kowtowed to him, he immediately shifted his buttocks with a guilty conscience and said, “Okay, okay!”
Xue Xiuzhuo, who had been kneeling behind Hai Liangyi, initially had on a neutral expression. But he furrowed his brows on hearing these words.
Hai Liangyi waited for a while. But when he saw that Li Jianheng had no intention of saying further, he said, “Autumn is cold and frosty at present. If Libei is to deploy troops, then they must report to Qudu the military salaries and provisions to be paid in advance. Your Lordship, how much do you need this time?”
Xiao Fangxu smiled and said, “I have been ill and out of commission for a long time. All the military affairs have long been entrusted to Jiming. Jiming, tell Secretariat Elder Hai how much money we lack.”
Xiao Jiming kowtowed and said, “The Twelve Tribes of Biansha looted the market at this time because winter snow is about to fall. The grain supply of the various Biansha Tribes have run out, so they could only loot the mutual trade market. If this were in the past, the military fields of Libei can provide for itself and would not need assistance with army supplies. But the former Emperor passed away this year, so it’s likely that the Twelve Biansha Tribes is thinking of taking the advantage of our vulnerability now. If we are to mobilize troops, then we must not only expel them out of our territory but also station our troops there to guard it. I have already submitted the required sum to the Ministry of Revenue.”
The newly appointed Minister of Revenue took out the memorial.8 Shuanglu presented it to Li Jianheng.
Li Jianheng looked at it for a moment and said, “1.2 million taels. What’s so hard about it? As long as the soldiers don’t go cold and hungry.”
The Minister of Revenue, Qian Jin, was a little embarrassed and said, “Your Majesty does not know it but… we still have yet to make up for last year’s deficiency. The State Treasury does not have that much money at such a short notice.”
Li Jianheng said, “Then, 1 million taels should be fine, right?”
Qian Jin kowtowed and said, “During the Autumn Hunt, the mobilization of the Eight Great Training Divisions cost us 230,000 taels, and the former Emperor spent… 540,000 taels. The remaining money in the State Treasury still has to be used to pay out salary arrears to all the senior and junior officials. It’s soon to be the end of the year, and the civil officials all need to celebrate the New Year. We definitely do not have 1 million taels. Your Majesty, we can only allocate 600,000 taels to Libei’s Armored Cavalry. “
Li Jianheng truly never expected there to be a day he would be poor as an Emperor. He had wanted to do Libei a favor, and doing so could placate Xiao Chiye too. Who would have thought that he would have no money? This suddenly put him in such an awkward spot that he wanted so much to dig his way under the table. Instead, he merely uttered a few vague sounds of acknowledgements.
Mingli Hall went silent for a moment.
Xue Xiuzhuo suddenly piped up, “Your Majesty, this humble subject has a way.”
As though he had seen his savior, Li Jianheng said, “Please speak. Tell me.”
Xue Xiuzhuo said, “When the Hua faction was in power, they put a price on some sinecures and welcomed everyone who could pay up. The ‘ice respect’9 they collected every year were all large sums. Then, there’s Pan Rugui who took advantage of the loopholes in procurement to amass wealth blatantly. Both men are now in prison. Why not search both the Hua’s and Pan’s residences and confiscate their possessions to subsidize the military funds? The Second Young Master of the Xi Clan, Xi Hongxuan, has already made amends and submitted a document to the Court of Judicial Review yesterday to report Xi Gu’an of raising his own personal army in private. He even leased out the Xi Clan’s residence in Qudu to repay the empty accounts of the Eight Great Training Divisions while Xi Gu’an was in office.”
The moment Li Jianheng heard they were going to raid the residences, he instantly showed interest. Eager to give it a try, he said, “Sure! I… I10 have been thinking of this too!”
Hai Liangyi hesitated for a moment, then said, “That’s not appropriate. The Court of Judicial Review’s retrial is not concluded yet. How can we bypass the law and carry out the sentence straight?”
Xue Xiuzhuo said, “It’s an emergency. We do not have a choice. Qudu can wait for the retrial, but the Biansha Cavalry will not. We cannot let Libei’s Armored Cavalry fight a war on empty stomachs.”
Hai Liangyi was still hesitating, but Li Jianheng had already slapped the table to give his approval.
When they came out, Xiao Jiming said to Qi Zhuyin, who had been silent the whole time earlier, “How is the Bianjun Commandery holding up?”
Qi Zhuyin raised her head to look up at the rain beyond the eaves and said, “Lu Guangbai is still at Bianjun, so the Twelve Tribes of Biansha will naturally not make a move. But Libei is lacking a chief commander; that makes it inevitably tricky for you.”
Xiao Jiming stood for a moment and sighed, “It’s hard to come by men with military talents. They aren’t easy to find.”
Qi Zhuyin said, “No matter how the situation changes in Qudu, it’s the duty of the commanders and generals to protect his home and defend his country. Jiming, military talents are hard to come by, and it isn’t easy to nurture and train them. Libei is a heavily fortified land at Dazhou’s frontier. It will only prove to be detrimental to Libei if you still don’t choose a successor.”
It was the original aspiration of each and every one of them to be a valiant general of one side and to become an impregnable fortress of Dazhou. However, a man would eventually age.
Entrusting and tethering the lives of an entire army to one person could be overlooked if it was just for a few years, but let it continue for more than a decade, or even a few decades, and the Libei’s Armored Cavalry would turn into one that could not do without Xiao Jiming.
If one day, the Libei’s Armored Cavalry were to lose Xiao Jiming, then what would become of the army that had reigned supreme on the battlefield for decades without any blemish to its reputation?
“I know you have high hopes for A-Ye.” Qi Zhuyin descended the stairs and turned her head back unhurriedly. “But he is destined to never fly out of Qudu. You put your eyes on him. Do you think he never noticed it all these years even though you never spoke of it? The more expectation you have for him, the more agony he’ll be in. Libei is not his wings, but his cage. Jiming, you and I have been buddies for many years. Let me give you a word of advice. Choose someone else.”
The palace eaves in the far distance were all shrouded in fog. A lone crow cawed a few times, and silence descended once more.
The bird in the cage longs for its former woods, while the fish in the pond misses the deep (pool/sea).
From “Return to Nature (or the Fields) Part 1“《归园田居·其一》 by Tao Yuanming (陶渊明), also known as Tao Qian, a Chinese poet who was also known as the Poet of the Fields.
- There is a Chinese proverb, 父債子還, which means the son is obliged to pay his father’s debt. Thus Shen Wei’s crimes became Shen Zechuan’s to bear.
- 缇骑 tiqi; a subordinate of the Imperial Bodyguards. They are mounted cavalry of the Imperial Bodyguards that wear red uniforms and are commonly guarded escorts of an official’s retinue or entourage.
- 妈妈 Mama or Madam, address for the procuress who runs a pleasure house or brothel
- 赎(身) Redeem (a person); paying a price to ‘buy’ the freedom of those who have been sold into certain trades, e.g. slaves and courtesans (i.e. prostitutes).
- 沙丘 Shaqiu or sand dunes
琵琶 Pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments.
奏折 zouzhe, also 折子 zhezi, is a memorial presented to the Emperor
- 冰敬 Literally, ‘Ice Respect’ (or paying respect with ‘ice’ during summer) is one of the objectionable practices of ‘Three Respects’ during the Qing Dynasty, along with ‘Coal Respect’ and ‘Departure Respect’. ‘Ice Respect’ refers to the bribe money officials outside the Capital used to bribe the officials in the Capital during summertime.
- Li Jianheng uses “我” for the first “I”, the swapped to “朕” for the second “I” in this sentence. It’s not apparent in the English sentence, but “朕”, or zhen, is an exclusive imperial term for “I” that the Emperor uses to refer to himself. I’ll just be using “I”, “me”, “my”, etc, in the text for easier reading, but Emperors typically use “zhen” when referring to himself. Li Jianheng’s automatic use of “我” first shows that he is still not used to being, or yet to get into his role as, an Emperor.