The snow fell for three or four days. Xiao Chiye became lazy to the point he hardly went to the military drill grounds. He had recently made the acquaintance of several Longyou merchants1 and purchased some valuables such as pearls imported from Yongquan Harbor and jasper produced from Hezhou, all of which were exquisite items.
Li Jianheng was very diligent now. No matter how cold the weather was, he would attend court sessions as usual and ask Hai Liangyi to give lectures every day. When he saw Xiao Chiye neglecting his tasks, he would also exhort him a word or two. He seemed as if he genuinely had a change of heart.
Xiao Chiye was glad to see the change in him. He hunted two deers from Mount Feng and presented them to the palace. Frightened by the donkey roast the last time, Li Jianheng kept wild creatures at arm’s length and bestowed the deers to Hai Liangyi instead.
It was soon to be the end of the year, when the sacrificial ceremony2 and officials’ banquet were major events. The Six Ministries and Twenty-four Yamen of the Imperial Palace were all up to their neck in work. The Directorate of Ceremonial lacked manpower, and there were many matters that they could not get a grasp on, so they still had to ask Li Jianheng. Li Jianheng was baffled when it came to these matters too, so he had to trouble Hai Liangyi and the Ministry of Rites to decide every time.
It began to grow busy in Qudu. When Li Jianheng saw that Xiao Chiye had nothing to do, he gave him an important job and handed him the task of reviewing the Eighth Great Training Divisions’ roster. This way, Qudu’s patrols and defenses fell completely into Xiao Chiye’s hands.
Xiao Chiye could not turn it down, so he had no choice but to start busying around.
Shen Zechuan followed Xiao Chiye as the latter bustled about. Consequently, that made it inevitable for him to run into the Imperial Army.
Tantai Hu had yet to remove his blades after his patrol ended this one day. When he returned to the office, he saw Shen Zechuan standing outside. He rubbed his frozen, scarred face and strode over.
Shen Zechuan turned his head and watched as Tantai Hu moved menacingly towards him.
“Shen the Eighth?” Tantai Hu stopped in his tracks and said coldly to Shen Zechuan. “Shen Wei is your old man, right?”
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Shen Zechuan asked, “Are you looking for my old man or for me?”
“Of course, I’m looking for you. Shen Wei has already been fucking burned to ashes.” Tantai Hu paced around Shen Zechuan and said, “Your days in Qudu are still comfortable. Look at this figure. It’s comparable to the courtesans in Donglong Street. The pampered kind with an appetite for food and wine.”
Hearing his tone, Shen Zechuan knew that he did not come with good intentions. Chen Yang said nothing beside him, while the Imperial Army in the courtyard all craned their necks to watch the show.
Tantai Hu continued, “Perky ass and a slender willow waist. Rosy peach blossom cheeks and foxy eyes. In Xiangyun Villa, you’d be a first-class top courtesan material. Why are you running around in the wind and snow with our Viceroy instead of living the good life?”
Tantai Hu stood fixed in place and stared daggers at Shen Zechuan. He continued, “It was only because Shen Wei licked the hooves of the Libei Armored Cavalry horses five years ago that the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo did not turn into manure pits for the Biansha Twelve Tribes’ horses. And now you are also learning from your old man. Which part of our Viceroy are you going to lick? The brothel prostitutes are all great talents skilled in a certain technique once they let down the bed curtains. What skill do you have that makes you worthy of standing together today with all the men who have fought battles?”
Shen Zechuan said with a smile, “If I’m not worthy, then is the Vice Commander going to revoke my authority token and drive me out of the courtyard?”
“Why would I want to waste that much effort?” Tantai Hu said, “You are the dog at our Imperial Army’s doors. Even a kick is an honor to you. It’s also on account of the Viceroy that I’m here saying a few words to you. Since you have become another man’s ‘thing’, then you must have the cognizance of being an object.”
“I hung up the Imperial Bodyguards authority token on the Son of Heaven’s3 orders. And that means I’m here on official business. How is that being someone else’s ‘thing’?” Shen Zechuan said. “If I’m the Imperial Army’s dog, then all of you sirs aren’t that different either. We are all men receiving a salary from the imperial court walking around Qudu. If there is any awareness to be had, then everyone must work with one mind and heart to be enlightened.”
Tantai Hu’s tiger-like eyes widened in a stare as he held up his twin blades and fumed, “You, the same as us? Disrespectful Shen dog! Back then, I was the Senior Battalion Commander of the Dengzhou Garrison Troops of Zhongdu.” He strode a sudden step forward and seethed with hatred. “At that time, when Chashi River was defeated, my brothers were in the Chashi sinkhole! Do you know what a sight that was? Men shot alive with arrows until they turned into hedgehogs! Forty thousand men buried together in the sinkhole! Forty thousand men!”
Shen Zechuan’s expression remained unchanged.
Tantai Hu said, “My old man and mother were in Dengzhou too. The Biansha Cavalry came attacking, and that traitor Shen fled, abandoning all the old, weak, women, and children in Dengzhou like my parents to the Biansha Cavalry! They massacred the cities one after another. My younger sister was dragged by the Biansha Cavalry for two li4 before she was raped and slaughtered at the city gates! But you are living such a carefree life with no need to worry about the necessities! Just stick out your ass for others to fuck, and any sin you are guilty of can be pardoned!”
The cold wind blew in the courtyard. Chen Yang saw that the situation was getting out of hand and wanted to stop him, but it was already too late.
Tantai Hu lifted Shen Zechuan by the collar and said, infuriated, “How dare you talk back when I’m lecturing you today? You are all young masters used to a life of luxury. How would you know exactly how many people died in that battle? How would you know there are still countless people who have starved to death in Zhongbo even in this day and age?! How’s life in Qudu, huh? You sleep well, live well, and there are always people absolving you of sin one after another. Then what about those people in Zhongbo who have died? Who is going to be held accountable for their deaths?!”
Shen Zechuan grabbed hold of Tantai Hu’s arm and suddenly flung him over to the ground. It was such a shocking move that everyone around them retreated in unison.
Shen Zechuan rubbed two handfuls of snow and looked at Tantai Hu. He said, “Who? Ask your own people. It took an entire month for the Biansha Cavalry to enter our territory and moved along the banks of Chashi River to Dengzhou. When Shen Wei cowered back from battle, you iron-willed, valiant men should have broken his neck and dispatched troops to fortify defenses.”
Shen Zechuan stood up.
“Even if you humiliate me and hate me, it’s no skin off my nose. This world calls for repaying a debt of blood with blood. Killing me is thus considered enforcing justice on behalf of heaven and appeasing public wrath.” He spat at Tantai Hu and smiled maliciously. “What a fucking load of crap. The one who massacred the cities is the Biansha Cavalry. They are also the one who killed those forty thousands soldiers. You want to screw me, Shen Zechuan, then get your ass straight first and wash the Biansha Cavalry’s piss off your head. My life is lowly, and my death is not to be regretted. But will my death write off the Biansha Cavalry’s debts?”
Tantai Hu said, “Don’t you fucking try to absolve yourself from guilt! Wasn’t your old man the one who let the Biansha Cavalry into the territories?!”
“Then kill me.” Shen Zechuan raised a finger to make a slashing motion across his neck. “Please, hurry and kill me. Kill me, and the Shen traitor’s bloodline will be severed.”
Tantai Hu suddenly stood up, pulled out his twin blades, and pounced on Shen Zechuan.
Having just woken up, Ding Tao had only just strode through the door when he saw what was happening. Alarmed, he shouted, “Laohu,5 don’t hurt him! I have to keep watch on him!”
Tantai Hu was already beyond listening. He slashed out with his twin blades and sent the wind whistling. Ding Tao leaped three feet6 high, intending to charge in, but Gu Jin lifted him by his back collar to stop him from going.
“Laohu’s entire family died in Zhongbo.” Gu Jin said. “You can’t expect him to let Shen Zechuan off.”
Ding Tao said, “But wasn’t the culprit Shen Wei? What does it have to do with Shen Zechuan?!”
Gu Jin hesitated for a moment, but did not continue the conversation.
Tantai Hu’s blade sliced the air before Shen Zechuan’s face, and Shen Zechuan spun around to kick his blade-holding wrist askew. As soon as Tantai Hu’s arm went numb, he hurled his blade out.
Right at that time, the curtain to the office was lifted. Yang Zongzhi, the Vice Minister of the Ministry of War, stared at the blade with widened eyes as it came hurtling towards him.
Chen Yang instantly raised his arm in an attempt to grab the hilt. But who would expect Xiao Chiye to be faster? With a swing of his sheath, he struck the blade down into the snow.
The steel blade stabbed into the ground with force so violent it shocked the entire courtyard of Imperial Army into kneeling. They said in unison, “Viceroy, please pardon our offense!”
Ignoring them, Xiao Chiye hung his blade back and raised his hand to lift the curtain for Yang Zongzhi. With an apologetic smile, he said, “I failed to discipline my subordinates and have thus caused alarm to Vice Minister Yang.”
How would Yang Zongzhi dare to linger? After concurring awkwardly for a couple of times, he hurried out of the courtyard, got into his horse carriage, and slipped away without even wanting anyone to see him off.
Once Xiao Chiye was done seeing him off, he turned back to look at the entire courtyard of kneeling men.
Knowing that he was in the wrong, Chen Yang hastened to say, “Viceroy, it’s this subordinate who has been negligent in my supervision and didn’t—”
“You’ve watched the show long enough.” As Xiao Chiye spoke, Meng landed on his shoulder. He took out some white meat and fed it to the gyrfalcon, saying only, “Zhao Hui wouldn’t do such a thing.”
Chen Yang’s face turned white.
Xiao Chiye did not reprove Chen Yang as he stood before the others, because Chen Yang was his chief of guards and his trusted aide. He could not give Chen Yang a slap in the face right under the watchful eyes of the men, since that would make him lose his standing among his Imperial Army brothers and make him unable to hold his head up before them. But these words of his cut Chen Yang’s heart the deepest.
Chen Yang and Zhao Hui were both men with good potential that Xiao Fangxu selected himself. Zhao Hui was calm and steady, and his meritorious military deeds were innumerable as he followed under Xiao Jiming’s command. He was a deputy general whom few would dare to show displeasure to when he came to Qudu. Meanwhile, Chen Yang had remained behind in the Libei Prince Manor until he finally followed Xiao Chiye five years ago. He was prudent, and he was most fearful of others saying that he was inferior to Zhao Hui. This was a contest between them brothers of the same clan.
And Xiao Chiye’s words today not only gave him a wake-up call, but also made him extremely ashamed.
“When I took over as the viceroy five years ago, it was said that the Imperial Army was all a bunch of rotten ruffians who gave scant regard to military discipline and rules and who held the viceroy in contempt.” Xiao Chiye stroked Meng and said, “I can’t lead these kinds of soldiers. If you want to remain in the Imperial Army, either you buck up and abide by the rules, or you pack up and scram right now.”
Tantai Hu’s chest heaved as he said indignantly, “It’s as what the Viceroy said. We have all listened to you in the past. But what is he? Can he even be called a soldier? I’m appointed the Vice Commander, and I’m several grades higher than him. Was it wrong of me to lecture him? I may feed myself with this job, but no way am I going to bend myself over for someone who sells his ass!”
“The authority token he’s hanging on his waist is of the Imperial Bodyguards. And now he is on the job as a guard. If you can sit in my position before giving him the attitude, then you’d have proven yourself capable. “Xiao Chiye lowered his eyes to look at him. “You think you aren’t in the wrong?”
Tantai Hu straightened up his neck and said, “That’s right!”
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“Then why stay on and suffer indignities?” Xiao Chiye said, “Leave.’
Tantai Hu suddenly raised his head in disbelief. “For this man, the Viceroy wants to remove me from office?!”
“There shall be no personal grudges in the Imperial Army. So don’t fucking try to play matchmaker. I’m not doing this for anyone.” Xiao Chiye lowered his voice. “I have the final say in the Imperial Army. Since you can make your own decisions, then why call me Viceroy? Strip off this armor and remove these twin steel blades, then you are free to demand repayment for any blood debt you are owed. If you can take him down within three moves, I, Xiao Ce’ an, will immediately kowtow to you and acknowledge my mistake. But when you don this armor and hang up the Imperial Army’s token on your waist, then you can only obey me. Every one of you here had a great show to watch today. You trample all over my dignity to your great delight. You have backbone. You’re gutsy enough. So what’s there for us to talk about military discipline? Wouldn’t it be much more gratifying for all of you to scram and become the Kings of the Mountains7 instead?!”
Everyone lowered their heads and dared not say a word more. Meng finished eating his meat and raised his head high to stare at them.
Xiao Chiye said, “Don’t you usually like to say that I’m a muddle-headed lecher? Then I’ll do precisely that today. I’ll revoke Tantai Hu’s authority token and send him out of the door!”
The Imperial Army said in unison, “Viceroy, please be appeased!”
Tantai Hu would not admit his mistake. He pulled the authority token off with a trembling hand and said, “As brothers with the Viceroy, I’ve received the Viceroy’s kindness these five years, and I’m even willing to lay down my life for the Viceroy! But what wrong am I guilty of today? The Viceroy wants to break my heart and dismiss me from my post because of a pretty man. Fine! I, Tantai Hu, concede defeat!”
With that, he placed his authority token and helmet together on the ground and kowtowed thrice — thud, thud, thud — to Xiao Chiye. Then he rose to his feet and stripped off his armor. Wearing only his inner garment,8 he looked at Shen Zechuan.
“I’ll see how long you can survive by seducing those you serve!9 I will naturally seek vengeance on the Biansha baldies in the days to come. But you won’t be able to run either!”
Tantai Hu wiped his eyes and cupped his fists to everyone around him.
“My brothers, we shall meet again!”
Then he strode a step forward and left for real.
Credits: Many thanks to saed (@saedee_)♥ and kotoni♥ for the help!
- 龙游商人 Longyou merchants, from the Longyou Group (龙游商帮), were famous merchants during the Ming and Qing dynasties for its operations in jewelry, book publishing, and paper-making industries.
- 祭祀 offering of sacrifices to the gods or ancestors
- 天子 Son of Heaven, refers to the Emperor.
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 老虎 Laohu, or Old Hu (after the Hu in Tantai Hu name), but Laohu is also a word for tiger. (the Hu 虎 in Tantai Hu means tiger.)
- 尺 a Chinese foot. 1 Chinese foot = one-third of a meter
- 山大王 literally, King of the Mountains, i.e., bandits.
里衣 (or also 中衣) This is the set of garment people in ancient days wore under their outer robes. They usually sleep in this.
- 以色侍人 from 以色事人, which refers to using one’s own beauty to win the adoration and favors of men.