The imperial court was so solemn and quiet that one could even hear the drop of a pin.
Xiao Chiye’s eyes gradually dimmed as he removed his own authority token.
With his chest heaving violently, Li Jianheng announced, “The Imperial Army Viceroy, Xiao Chiye, is suspended from duties and confined to his residence to await investigation! The internal and external patrols of Qudu shall now be taken over by the Imperial Bodyguards and the Eight Great Training Divisions.”
Xi Hongxuan, who was among the crowd, looked stolidly through his wusha hat1 at Xiao Jiming, who had never once uttered a word. Xiao Jiming remained stable and still on his feet, unperturbed by what was happening.
He sure is steady!
Xi Hongxuan cursed inwardly.
As expected, this Xiao Jiming was a tough nut to deal with. To think he could still maintain his composure on seeing Xiao Chiye in such a predicament. He was not in the least flustered; he did not even look like he had the intent to speak up.
After morning court was dismissed, they gathered at Ouhua Pavillion.
After taking his golden token and changing into an elegant pale-blue patterned robe with wide sleeves, Shen Zechuan let the courtesan lead him upstairs. Xi Hongxuan was lying on the xumi couch2 watching someone brew tea.
On seeing him enter, Xi Hongxuan laughed out loud and said, “Lanzhou, that was such a delight today! Ever since the hunting ground incident, Xiao the Second has been one-upping me in every matter. This payback feels so gratifying!”
Shen Zechuan took his seat and said, “Fu Linye was a good move. I never thought you could even take him under you.”
“What do you think the Fu Clan was in the past? They were cow dung collectors outside Chuncheng’s city gates. If not for our Old Master’s appreciation of talent and assistance in helping them to break free of their original registration,3 their Fu Clan would still be herding cattle today.” Xi Hongxuan accepted the tea the maidservant presented to him and sampled a few mouthfuls before continuing, “But what a waste of the trap Elder Wei set. Xiao Jiming didn’t take the bait.”
“Suppressing Xiao’Er is already a challenge.” Shen Zechuan tasted the tea and said, “I’m afraid the loss will far outweigh the gain if you touch Xiao Jiming now.”
“The best policy is to follow up on our victory and press home the attack. If we don’t fight now, then when are we going to wait for?” Xi Hongxuan raised his hand to dismiss the maidservant. He straightened up in his seat. “Even if we can only make Xiao Jiming suffer a small loss in Qudu, it’d still be a chink in their armor.”
“I thought your intent was Qudu. I didn’t think you would already be thinking of eyeing the outskirts for a fight even before your foundation is stable.” Shen Zechuan said, “The Eight Great Training Divisions have yet to get a firm grip on power. You’ll most likely tumble and suffer a setback if you skip over Xiao’Er now.”
Xi Hongxuan set aside the teacup and asked, “Then, in your opinion, what else should we do?”
“You said it earlier.” Shen Zechuan smiled. “The best policy is to follow up on victory and press home the attack.”
Xi Hongxuan pondered it for a moment and said, “Our move today has already caused Xiao the Second to lose the Emperor’s confidence and trust in him. Even his authority token was removed, making it impermissible for him to move about before the start of spring. But he has been buddies with the Emperor for many years after all. It is impossible to take him down with just this incident alone.”
“As long as Xiao’Er is still the Imperial Army Viceroy, the authority over Qudu patrols will still fall back into his hands. Did you all go through so much trouble with me just to get temporary authority of the Eight Great Training Divisions to play around with for a month or two, before returning it to him with your thanks?” Shen Zechuan said, “You dealt Xiao’Er a blow this time. But once he bounces back after spring, how are you going to face his counterattack?”
Xi Hongxuan spread his folding fan open and fanned himself with it a few times before saying, “What else can we do? We definitely won’t be able to knock him down now.”
“You can’t. But you can wear him down.” Shen Zechuan was not fond of drinking strong tea, so he did not touch it again after a taste. He said, “His Majesty is already suspicious of him, and his suspicion in the days to come will not be lower than this. This is the time for you to act.”
“I have neither talent nor merit.” Xi Hongxuan smiled and said, “So how can I be compared to him?”
“There’s no need for you to be humble.” Shen Zechuan tapped on the tabletop. “The tunes in this Ouhua Pavillion are unconventional and original. Even His Majesty, who is used to fooling around red-light districts, would find it a breath of fresh air. Second Young Master Xi, do you still feel that you can’t be compared to Xiao’Er when it comes to playing?”
“Leaving aside Secretariat Elder for now, even if I play, there’s no way for me to play my way up to Xiao the Second’s position.” Xi Hongxuan said, “You must have a trick up your sleeve, don’t you?”
“After Xue Xiuzhuo entered the Court of Judicial Review, all he has been handling one after another are major cases. But he is, after all, just one man. When it comes to talent and fame, he is also outdone by Yao Wenyu, who roams free and unfettered over the lands. If he wants to go further now to prepare for his entry into the Grand Secretariat in advance, then he needs someone to exalt him.” Shen Zechuan drew a small circle on the tabletop with his fingertip. “You stood in the limelight before the students of the Imperial College the last time and left behind a good name. Isn’t this just perfect for you to do him, Xue Xiuzhuo, a favor? Lately, Secretariat Elder Hai has also been thinking of setting up an Imperial College. From here, Xue Xiuzhuo would be able to choose his soldiers and generals.”
“Expand manpower to make waves.” Xi Hongxuan turned it over in his mind and said, “But Yanqing has his own men. Why must he go to the Imperial College?”
“To deal with Xiao’Er, there is a need to bury the hatchet with the other clans and join forces to strike a blow at the enemy. But the Yao Clan isn’t willing. Think about it. The position of the Yao Clan in the hearts of the literati is like a boulder. Never mind if they aren’t willing to work with you. The fear is that they will turn around and act in cahoots with Xiao’Er. If that’s the case, why not kick the Yao Clan out as early as possible and leave the position to someone competent enough to be up to the task?”
Xi Hongxuan unexpectedly laughed and said, “You were born in Zhongbo, so you don’t understand the origins of the Eight Great Clans. Even if the Yao Clan isn’t willing to join in, we absolutely cannot kick them out. Because there’s no way to kick them out at all.”
“Think back to the heyday of the Yao Clan and survey the Imperial Court. There was no place for the Xi Clan.” Shen Zechuan took out his handkerchief to wipe the water droplets. “I know about the noble clans’ origin, but I’m asking you to hold down the Yao Clan. The current situation can no longer allow for actions from another party. Second Young Master, he who hesitates is lost.”
Xi Hongxuan did not dare to take the decision into his own hands. Thus he said, “We’ll discuss this again. Let me think about it.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye was in the midst of sharpening his blade. He wiped down Langli Blade carefully, leaving not a stain of dust on it.
Zhao Hui handed Lu Guangbai a cup of tea and asked, “Is the Second Young Master wiping the blade over and over again to hack someone?”
Lu Guangbai laughed as he drank his tea. “The way he is today, venturing outdoors with his blade is going to be no piece of cake. Jiming, did you get a clear look? I thought this lad was going to cry when he removed his token earlier.”
“It was a rare sight.” Xiao Jiming smiled too. “To think there’d be a day where the brat can’t vent his anger.”
“Who are you disparaging?” Xiao Chiye folded his handkerchief rather unhappily.
“We’re praising you.” Lu Guangbai sighed and said, “As expected of someone who has stayed too long in Qudu. What an act that was.”
“Isn’t that all I’ve learned here?” Xiao Chiye sheathed his blade, then took his seat and propped up his legs. “Old Wei was trying so hard that I really had to think a little more highly of him. Never mind if it was someone else, but why are all my gege happy to see me being pinned down and pummeled by others?”
“That was truly a rare sight,” Zhao Hui sighed with emotion.
“I was even worried you’d feel sad.” Lu Guangbai said, “Of all people to play with, you just had to play with the Son of Heaven.”
“His Majesty ascended to the throne all of a sudden, and was attacked again and again. He isn’t a bold man to begin with, so it’s only to be expected for him to be afraid now.” Xiao Chiye said, “I just never expected Fu Linye to be cut from the same cloth as them.”
“Fu Linye has some connections with the Xi Clan. But he’s still not that far gone to be the noble clans’ lackey.” Xiao Jiming said, “He’s most likely thinking of seizing the opportunity to win His Majesty and Wei Huaixing’s favor by impeaching you.”
“You pushed Wei Huaixing pretty hard too, to make him take out his last trump card.” Lu Guangbai said, “Now that he has taken it out, we can fight back.”
“Wei Huaixing has been around for so long, and yet he has never been able to enter the Grand Secretariat. This definitely has to do with this person’s temperament.” Xiao Chiye thought for a moment. “Although Hua Siqian used him when he was still alive, he disdained him a lot. Now that Secretariat Elder Hai is fearful of the noble clans taking over the Grand Secretariat, he’s also holding him back without letting him get promoted. He bears a grudge. If he wants to fight it out with Secretariat Elder Hai, then he has to join forces with Xi Hongxuan and storm through the enemy ranks for them. He wants to cross this threshold that has been holding him back for more than ten years. I only need to flinch back a little this time, and he would definitely keep up his pursuit and take out that last memorial.”
“This is a matter of utmost importance. Even if the evidence was forged, he would still do a pretty realistic job of it.” Xiao Jiming said, “He started from the Imperial Army’s accounts, knowing that Hai Liangyi is so particularly nervous about the disbursement of military funds after the Hua Faction incident that he would not tolerate anything objectionable when it comes to this matter. The Chief Surveillance Bureau will come to investigate you during these few days. They can’t let Fu Linye investigate it alone. They will have to pick someone impartial from the Chief Surveillance Bureau or among officials with the authority to carry out audits to conduct the investigation together.”
“Most likely, someone from the Imperial Bodyguards will coordinate with Fu Linye to investigate.” Zhao Hui paused. “After all, this is an assassination case.”
“Imperial Bodyguards.” Lu Guangbai looked towards Xiao Chiye. “We are not only without a helper in the Imperial Bodyguards; they are even full of our adversaries. A-Ye, you’re going to take a beating for real this time.”
Xiao Chiye gave a somewhat wicked laugh and said, “… Imperial Bodyguards, huh. I’m on familiar terms with one.”
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later, the Chief Surveillance Bureau started their investigation of the Imperial Army’s accounts. Before Fu Linye set off, he saw Shen Zechuan, who was coordinating with him to audit the accounts. Knowing that the other party was a favorite in the Emperor’s employ recently, he did not dare to slight him and thus got someone to serve up excellent tea first.
Shen Zechuan drank a few mouthfuls and said mildly, “It’s my first time on the job, so I’ll have to trouble Your Excellency Fu to guide me this trip.”
Fu Linye regarded him as one of the noble clans, but he still had some fear of him in spite of the sense of closeness. Thus he merely said,” I’m not worthy enough to guide, so I’ll have to trouble Your Excellency the Judge to make this trip with me. The Imperial Army is as impenetrable as a metal bucket. I’m afraid there will be many accounts that are both authentic and doctored. When the time comes, I’d like to ask of Your Excellency the Judge to do a thorough search.”
As for who and where to search, Fu Linye spoke not a word about it. He did not want to throw in with the noble clans and offend Hai Liangyi, and he had no wish to throw in with Hai Liangyi and step on the noble clans’ toes either. He was a fence-sitter who observed the direction of the wind and went whichever way the wind blew. But he knew that he had severely offended Xiao Chiye this time. They were bound to make things hard for him when he went to check the accounts. Who didn’t know how much of a jerk Xiao the Second was? Searching his residence would only be adding fuel to the fire. So he was unwilling to steal all the limelight this time round. He shoved Shen Zechuan out and let Shen Zechuan conduct the search, all to let Shen Zechuan be the footsoldier.
Shen Zechuan readily accepted it.
On seeing this, Fu Linye’s fear of him receded; instead, he saw him as a greenhorn.
Everyone split up and went about their ways. Fu Linye headed for the Imperial Army’s office compound, while Shen Zechuan went to the Prince of Libei’s residence.
He was still far from arrival when Ding Tao, who was sprawled on the rooftop, saw him. He sighed and said, “How can he be like this?”
Gu Jin asked, “What do you mean by like this or like that?”
Ding Tao hemmed and hawed.
So Gu Jin said, “You are referring to how he’s on good terms with Second Young Master and yet still helps others investigate Second Young Master—like this?”
Ding Tao interrupted. “They aren’t on your average good term!”
“Such are men.” Gu Jin twisted the wine bag open. “You will understand when you grow up. Everyone is like this. Hugging together is a domestic affair done inside the house, but everything else that happens once you put on your clothes and step out of the door are public affairs that stay out there. You cannot talk about them in the same breath… Don’t jot this down!”
Shen Zechuan came to the door, where Zhao Hui and Chen Yang greeted him. With Zhao Hui on military appointment, Shen Zechuan was instead the one who had to pay his obeisances to him.
“The Hereditary Prince’s courtyard is in the north.” Zhao Hui said to Shen Zechuan. “It mostly houses Libei’s military affairs.”
Shen Zechuan replied tactfully, “The purpose of this humble servant’s trip here today is to investigate the Second Young Master. It has nothing to do with Libei.”
Understanding that he did not come here for the specific purpose of creating trouble, Zhao Hui nodded and signaled to Chen Yang with his eyes. Chen Yang stepped forth and said as he led the way, “The Second Young Master’s courtyard is in the east. May I trouble Your Excellency the Judge and the various Imperial Bodyguards brothers to follow me.”
Shen Zechuan bowed to Zhao Hui and followed after Chen Yang.
Xiao Chiye’s courtyard was large. Going by structure size, it surpassed the Hereditary Prince’s courtyard, but Xiao Fangxu was already too lazy to change it back then, and the brothers themselves did not mind, so all along, it had been Xiao Chiye who was staying here. After he took up office as the Imperial Army’s Viceroy, he hardly returned. Most of the time, he rested in that small residence near the Imperial Army office.
When Shen Zechuan saw him, he was fishing by the pond with a woven raincoat draped over him.
“Your Excellency the Judge is so early.” Xiao Chiye held the pole. “Have you taken your breakfast?”
“I’ve eaten back at the Chief Surveillance Bureau.” Shen Zechuan said, “The Viceroy sure has such refined taste for leisure.”
“I’m just an idler placed on suspension. How can I be compared with Your Excellency the Judge?” Xiao Chiye shook his pole. “To search my courtyard, you must show me the search warrant first.”
“All of us are old hands who often run assignments in Qudu.” Shen Zechuan said unhurriedly, “It’s pretty silly for the Viceroy to obstruct me in a huff.”
“Let me verify the document.” Xiao Chiye stood up and tossed away the fishing pole. “It doesn’t please me to let you enter my courtyard without showing the warrant.”
On seeing the situation, the Censor from the Chief Surveillance Bureau who was tagging along hurriedly stepped forth to mediate and pacify both sides. “Easy there. Easy does it. Viceroy, please wait a moment. Your Excellency the Judge, please don’t take offense either.”
“The Imperial Bodyguards know better than anyone else when it comes to playing it by the book.” Xiao Chiye moved closer and rebuked him coldly, “Have you still not learned of this after all this time since your release from Zhao Zui temple?”
Shen Zechuan looked at him and said, “The tiger that ends up on the flatlands would be insulted by dogs.4 Whether a wild dog like me gives you the document today or not, you’d still have to welcome it all with a smile.”
Wiping his sweat, the Censor squeezed his way between both men and cupped his hands repeatedly to plead with them. “Let’s just talk this over. It’s all—”
“That’s quite the mouth you have there.” Xiao Chiye pushed aside the Censor. “Don’t tell me you’d still dare to come to blows with me?”
“No blows. You mustn’t fight!” The Censor craned his neck to shout. “We have the search warrant. Please take a look, Viceroy. We have to search the compound too. Judge, please wait. Let’s just talk this over. Easy there! Why y’all gots to get so anxious fo’?!”
In his moment of anxiety, this Censor had even lapsed back into his local accent!
- 乌纱帽 wusha hat, or black gauze hat, is the headwear of Ming dynasty officials, comprising a black hat with two wing-like flaps of thin, oval-shaped boards on each side.
- Xumi couch (须弥榻, ), also known as the Mile couch (弥勒榻) or short couch (短榻), is basically a shorter couch.
- 脱籍 removal or erasure of oneself from the census records (original categorization (civilian, military, and craftsman) in the yellow register.)
- 虎落平阳被犬欺, i.e., a powerful man who loses position and influence may be subjected to much indignity by those weaker than him.