Before Xiao Chiye entered the palace, Shen Zechuan already had an audience with Li Jianheng at Mingli Hall and was conferred the title of a fifth-grade1 Judge2 of the Imperial Bodyguards. As such, his authority token was replaced to a gold-plated bronze token embossed with a Xiezhi3 amidst patterns of clouds, and with the words “Guard” on one side and “Emperor’s Entourage” on the other.
Having only received some rewards this time, Han Cheng was inwardly unhappy. He knew that he had been used by Shen Zechuan as a stepping stone. But he also knew that Shen Zechuan was now in the Emperor’s good graces, so he must not let ill will form between them.
Back at the office hall, Shen Zechuan’s comrades all came forth to congratulate him. Shen Zechuan responded to them one by one. When Han Cheng saw that the men had more or less dispersed, he said, “This is the first time you’re wearing a gold token. There are matters that you’re still unsure of, right?”
Shen Zechuan humbled himself and said, “I’ll still need Your Excellency the Commander-in-chief to guide me.”
Feeling flattered, Han Cheng said, “This gold token for guards must be worn at the waist when you are on duty, and should not be shown externally when you are on break. Those who are part of the Emperor’s entourage usually still hold a post in the Twelve Offices. You can’t behave like you used to; you have to be more prudent with your words. Although you have carried out missions in the past, it’s different now. For future missions, if it’s an ‘arrest warrant’, don’t be in such a hurry to initiate the arrest. You have to head to the Office of Scrutiny for Justice and let the Supervising Secretary there affix his signature. If it is a ‘local order’, then you will have to leave Qudu for said place to investigate the case. Before you leave, you have to make a trip to the Ministry of Justice and Chief Surveillance Bureau to sign off on it.”
With modesty, Shen Zechuan listened to his teachings.
When Han Cheng saw that his attitude was respectful and was no different from how he was before his promotion, he could not help but to feel an urge to foster this talent. He continued, “In the past, the Eastern Depot lorded it over us. Each time we see the Eastern Depot eunuchs when we head out, we have to bow down to them and fawn on them. But now the Twenty-four Yamen is vacant and unattended, and the Eastern Depot is all but dismissed from office. They are the ones who should bow on seeing us now. There’s no need to play nice to the eunuchs. However, there is one thing you must remember—that is, although the Imperial Bodyguards take orders from the Emperor, we still need to have dealings with the Three Judicial Offices. Most of the time, when we go elsewhere for fieldwork, it’s with the Censor from the Chief Surveillance Bureau. Everyone’s functions and authority seem detached from one another, but in fact, they still need each other. So when you are out on missions, you must maintain a good relationship with the officials from the Three Judicial Offices. Never lose your temper at them. If you unwittingly leave behind pent-up animosity, you will have a hard time with your future assignments.”
Shen Zechuan already knew these matters by heart, but he listened intently as if this were his first time hearing of them.
Lastly, Han Cheng gave him a favor and told him, “If you need a new batch of manpower, go to the Duty Records Room and choose from the book register.”
After thanking him, Shen Zechuan stepped out of the door and walked along the corridor to make his way outside. He was not in a rush to head to the Duty Records Room to choose his men. When he walked out of the palace gates, Xiao Chiye was sitting in the horse carriage waiting for him.
Shen Zechuan paused in his tracks and was about to turn around.
Xiao Chiye partially lifted the curtain and said unhurriedly, “Now that you’ve gotten a promotion and a raise, you wouldn’t be too stingy to treat me to a drink, would you?”
Shen Zechuan saw Ding Tao and Gu Jin standing on either side of Xiao Chiye, glaring at him like tigers watching their prey. So he scoffed a breath of cold hair and answered calmly, “I wouldn’t. I was just looking for you.”
Both men went to the courtyard that Xiao Chiye had used to invite both of their shifu for a meal. The inside of the house had been cleared of tables and chairs. Small screens4 were used to partition out seats on all four sides, and there was a simple but exquisite table with curved ends5 in the middle. It was a very suitable place to have a drink and a chat.
It was hot in the room. Both men both took off their coats.
Xiao Chiye sat cross-legged in a casual pose, whereas Shen Zechuan sat on his heels in a dignified fashion. Xiao Chiye laughed and said, “When it comes to our bearings, you look more like the gentleman of noble birth. Did Ji Gang-shifu also teach you all these?”
This had all been beaten into him by Grand Mentor Qi’s ruler.6 Instead of answering, Shen Zechuan asked, “So why were you waiting for me by the palace gates today?”
Xiao Chiye looked on as the maidservant served the wine dishes and waited until she closed the door before saying, “Weren’t you looking for me? You first.”
“I noticed that you didn’t enter the palace to seek an audience with the Emperor. You were busy working the entire night last night. I presumed you were at the torture prison.” Shen Zechuan took a few sips of tea first to warm his body, then continued, “Fuling was an easy one to investigate, wasn’t she?”
“Indeed.” Xiao Chiye poured wine for himself. “She was such a breeze to investigate that she doesn’t seem like the kind of person you should use.”
“Not only does she have an elderly mother, but she is also soft-hearted. Someone like her with so many weaknesses to exploit is the easiest to manipulate, but also the most likely to change her tune.” Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “You’re right. If it were me, I’d surely not use someone like her.”
“But Shen Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye stared at him as he drank, taking a moment to moisten his throat before saying, “Even if you did use this kind of person, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“I’m human too.” Shen Zechuan took the wine jar from Xiao Chiye’s side. “I still have some feelings.”
“But you’ve reserved none of those feelings for me,” Xiao Chiye lamented.
Shen Zechuan poured wine slowly and said, “Same goes for you.”
“I reached out to you repeatedly.” Xiao Chiye said with a genial expression. “But you turned a blind eye to my efforts, and even hardened your heart to fight it out with me, no?”
“Even if you reach out, but only give me useless information,” Shen Zechuan set down the wine jar before looking at him and continuing, “then wouldn’t this alliance be too cheap of a deal?”
“So you turned around and allied with Xi Hongxuan.” Xiao Chiye scoffed, “What is he that he’s even better than your Second Young Master?”
“Second Young Master was more impressive when he beat me down.” Shen Zechuan said, “You can’t blame a capable man for taking up the top position.”
“How could I bear to blame you?” Xiao Chiye asked through the steam from the pot, “Are you annoyed that you couldn’t trample over me last night?”
“No.” Shen Zechuan answered with a smile.
“Sometimes your gaze is truly very ruthless.” Before Shen Zechuan could reply, Xiao Chiye continued, “But of course, a little ruthlessness gives you flavor.”
Shen Zechuan restrained himself for a moment before retorting, “Then you have very special tastes.”
“You’re not lacking either.” Xiao Chiye made a double entendre. “This is the first time I’ve met someone who likes getting bitten.”
“Back to the topic.” Shen Zechuan diverted the course of conversation. “Why were you looking for me?”
“To have a drink.” Xiao Chiye downed the wine in his cup. “And to have a little chat while we’re at it. The human broker on Donglong Street has a backer. However, we each minded our own business, so everyone has lived in harmony in the past. But now that they are framing this on me, I’d naturally have to investigate the one backing them.”
Shen Zechuan scooped a portion of the dish from the pot.
Xiao Chiye said, “How strange that my investigation only led me to Xi Hongxuan. When we were here the last time, you even went out of your way to tell me that the Eight Great Clans would ally together to deal with me. But then you turned around and trampled on me together with the Eight Great Clans. After thinking it over for a long time, I still couldn’t figure out what your motives were. But as soon as I reversed the course of events, I understood.”
Shen Zechuan ate the fish like a cat did—neatly and beautifully. Without raising his head, he merely mumbled an “uh-huh” to indicate that he was listening.
Xiao Chiye twirled the wine cup on the table and continued, “I should have rearranged and put your scheme to ‘trample me’ before ‘alliance with the Eight Great Clans’. That way, everything would make sense. Your aim was not to bring me down at all. You incited Xi Hongxuan and urged him to ally with the other clans, but you also leaked news of it to me. You wanted me to react and use my authority of office over the Eight Great Training Divisions to convince the other clans not to ally with Xi Hongxuan. What do they call it? The art of political maneuvering?7 Using words alone to sow discord within and to sabotage the potential alliance of the Eight Great Clans is but a trivial issue. Leaving bad blood between them from the subsequent fallout is the real prelude to the great task that you truly intend to undertake.”
Shen Zechuan glanced at him and asked, “Did you come up with this just from finding out that Xi Hongxuan was one of the backers of the human broker on Donglong Street?”
“Some clues are like spider webs and horse tracks.” Xiao Chiye said. “You can’t wipe them clean. When Xi Gu’an was held in the Imperial Prison, Xi Hongxuan sold out the former’s life in exchange for an official position. Now that I think of it, that should have been your suggestion too. Otherwise, Xi Hongxuan wouldn’t heed your advice so readily.”
Shen Zechuan wiped his fingers with a handkerchief and thought for a moment before saying, “The one who can make him listen to advice readily isn’t me.”
“I initially thought that you were in a hurry to be promoted so that it’d be easier for you to investigate the case of Zhongbo troops’ defeat.” Xiao Chiye poured wine once more and continued, “Who knew your appetite would be so great? What good would it do you to divide the Eight Great Clans? You are well aware that Qudu is surrounded by the Eight Great Cities and that they have far outlasted the Li Clan. You’ve seen Hua Siqian’s rebellion at the hunting grounds and how big of a case it was, yet the Emperor Dowager has still emerged unscathed. How can you harbor the delusion of using the power of one man to break them up and oust them from power? Pry apart this mist of Qudu and take a good look underneath. You will see that they have already been standing tall for several hundred years with their roots deeply entrenched underground.”
Shen Zechuan’s chopsticks came to a complete stop. When he sat upright, it felt as though he was about to launch into light intellectual conversations. He was not angry. In fact, he was very composed as he said, “I’ll only ask you one question.”
Xiao Chiye paused for a moment before saying, “Go ahead.”
Shen Zechuan spoke, “All along, the Xiao Clan and Hua Clan have been holding each other back. Owing to the Nanlin Hunting grounds incident, the Hua Clan started to show signs of decline, while the Xiao Clan got the upper hand. But, did you win?”
Xiao Chiye gripped his wine cup tightly.
It was already dusk outside, but the lamps in the room were still not lit. Shen Zechuan’s seated shadow before the window appeared frail. He said, “You’ve quickly come to the realization that it’s not just the Hua Clan you are facing. Perhaps in the beginning, you could still console yourself that they only want the Eight Great Training Divisions. But you only have to think of the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo to understand that what they want is far more than this.”
“There isn’t a decisive ruling on the defeat of Zhongbo yet.” Concealed in the dark, Xiao Chiye stayed silent for a brief while. “And yet you’re so sure that they are the ones who did it?”
“This is a bad debt.” Shen Zechuan said, “We’ve gone through the case regarding the defeat of Zhongbo again and again with the intent to ascertain whose fault it was. But in fact, this was never a matter that a single person could control. Furthermore, there was one thing in the defeat that no one could quite figure out even to this date.”
Xiao Chiye stated, “Why?”
“That’s right. Why?” Shen Zechuan affirmed his words. “Biansha defeated the frontier and entered our territory, and everyone’s morale and spirit took a beating. The tens of thousands of lives lost in Zhongbo was only a temporary issue. The dilemmas that followed also include the loss of years of taxes from the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo, the resettlement of the population, the redistribution of the farmlands, and the rebuilding of the massacred cities and towns. The State Treasury could not bear this burden, and so Zhongbo became the national debt. The most difficult part was the restructuring of the Garrison Troops. Without sufficient manpower, Zhongbo will be defeated once more. How much longer can the reinforcements from Libei and Qidong last? This directly concerns the safety of Qudu. Did all these questions not pass through anyone’s minds before the Zhongbo’s troops defeat, or was it done precisely because these were expected? Perhaps the Eight Great Clans were not the main instigators, but without their power and influence, this sort of thing could not have been done either.”
“They are always involved each time there’s political unrest in Dazhou. The turning point for Hua Clan’s rise to power began twenty-five years ago while Emperor Guangcheng was on the throne. To fortify her power, the Empress Dowager killed the Crown Prince, a virtuous talent who observed propriety. But eighty years ago, during Emperor Yong’an’s time, the clan who held sway over the Imperial Court was the Yao, a prestigious clan that produced three talents. Even the Grand Secretariat was known as the ‘Hall of Yao’. Then, there was the Xi Clan who became the key to Dazhou’s granaries when Juexi opened up Yongyi Harbor a hundred years ago. Making use of this opportunity to claim the gulf saltern of the Xu Sea to the west, they became the head of all the tycoons in the world. Even the Li Clan has to borrow money from them for the matrimony of their nobles. None of these happened because of personal scores. Rather, they were taking turns to be the leading powerhouse of the clans while Emperors came and went. Since the beginning, none of these clans have truly been on the decline.”
“Poor households do not produce noble sons. Very few of Dazhou’s significant officials who could influence the political situation of the imperial court were born from a poor family. How many years did it take for a Qi Huilian to surface? And how many years did it take for a Hai Liangyi to appear? They are just like a sloppy stroke of the brush that, despite having endured and making it this far, was also hastily brushed off as a mere mention in history.”
“If we must mention someone who is able to stand tall amidst the iron web of the Eight Great Clans, then this man is someone you are most familiar with.”
Shen Zechuan watched Xiao Chiye as he enunciated each word.
“The Prince of Libei had a humble beginning and was born at the foot of the Hongyan Mountains. At the age of fifteen, he was drafted into the army at the Luoxia Pass, where he was promoted to the Luoxia Pass Garrison by age twenty. The Garrison Troops was defeated at the foot of the Hongyan Mountains when he was twenty-three. He went on to build the horse range of Luoxia at twenty-six and established the cavalry of Luoxia at twenty-eight. When he was thirty, he battled against the Biansha Hanshe tribe once more. He crossed the Hongyan Mountains by thirty-two and set foot all over the eastern Hongyan mountain range by thirty-five. From here onwards, the Luoxia Cavalry was disbanded and took on the name of Libei Armored Cavalry. No longer part of the Luoxia Pass Garrison, he was thrice bestowed and conferred the title of the different-surnamed Prince8 of Libei in Dazhou. The scale of Libei’s Great Commandery was then determined, and Dazhou thus occupied the entire range of the Hongyan Mountains.”
“The war between the Xiao Clan and the Eight Great Clans is not only a power struggle, but also a battle between nobility and the common people. The man who had broken through the barrier to reach the peak was Xiao Fangxu. From a very long time ago, you and the Eight Great Clans were already at the stage of irreconcilable antagonism.”
Shen Zechuan lowered his gaze slightly and arranged the bowl and chopsticks in front of him neatly. He said, “To ally with me, you have to bring forth a sincerity like mine at the very least, and not just a word or two about the Imperial Army’s accounts. Those are worthless to me.”
The small screens isolated the sound of wind from them as both men sat each in their own posture opposite one another. The window lit up slightly, and the indistinct glow of snow gleamed upon both men’s side profiles, reflecting the chills of the pitch-black night. Placed in opposition with one another, Langli Blade and Yang Shan Xue were sheathed; yet the room still flashed with cold glints from the cutting edges of both blades.
- 品 Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there was a Southern and Northern Prison (镇抚司) subordinated to the Imperial Bodyguards. The Southern Prison was in charge of interpreting military laws and managing military craftsmen while the Northern Prison was responsible for cases entrusted by the Emperor.
- 獬豸 Xiezhi, a lion-like mythological creature with a single horn and a spiky back, was a symbol of justice and law and the insignia of the censors who sought out corruption and maintained discipline among other court officials.
- 小插屏 something like
Variations: images one | two
- (龙牙)翘头案 something like
- 戒尺 a teacher’s ruler in the old days for punishing errant pupils (typically by hitting them on the palms)
- 纵横捭阖(之术) from Strategies/Intrigues of the Warring States (战国策); a maneuver among various political groupings, i.e., the use of political and diplomatic means either to unite the small states against a dominant, powerful state or to undermine the solidarity of the small, weak states and bring them under the rule of a strong one
- 王 Princes, or lords, during the Ming dynasty were titled and salaried members of the imperial bureaucracy with nominal lordship over various fiefs throughout China. Conferred princes are those who were bestowed the title by the Emperor and typically had different surnames (i.e., not blood-related to the royal family). We have used a different naming system for both kinds of princes to make it easier to distinguish between real princes (Prince Chu) and conferred princes (Prince of Libei).