Dumbstruck, Grand Mentor Qi pulled his hands back. He turned his head away, refusing to look at Shen Zechuan. He had been imprisoned here, deranged for twenty years, hating everyone beyond this place. Yet, tonight, he had to persuade himself not to hate the son of his enemy.
“Then…” Grand Mentor Qi’s voice sounded plaintive. “Then, who can I kill now?!”
The snow fell silently, and the crow in the courtyard flew away from the branch. The tattered curtain in the temple fluttered along with the wind. Grand Mentor Qi trembled and rose to his feet, then staggered with his arms raised high, devastated and inconsolable.
“The die is cast! The victor emerges king, and the loser is the rebel. His Highness’s virtuous name has been smeared, and you and I are those treacherous traitors doomed to be condemned by posterity! Who do I kill? I’ll kill this muddleheaded and blind Heaven! Twenty years ago, His Highness’s blood was spilled here. What have we done wrong? That the Emperor would be so ruthless to wipe us out?!”
Tears poured down Grand Mentor Qi’s face. His body trembled as he kneeled at the entrance of the hall and banged his head repeatedly on the floor.
“Kill me now as well!”
The snowy night was miserably cold. No one in the empty temple responded. It was in this way Grand Mentor Qi kneeled, just like that deteriorating and battered Buddha statue. Fragments of cotton-like snow covered him as he remained still and silent under this brilliantly illuminated Qudu night.
An hour later, Ji Gang helped Grand Mentor Qi up, and the three men sat in a circle before the incense altar.
“Many things happened tonight because of me. I will take this opportunity and explain to my heart’s content.” Ji Gang lifted his sleeves and said, “Grand Mentor, Chuan-er was born in the Shen Clan. He’s Shen Wei’s eight son of common birth. Eight years ago, the situation between the lawful and common factions in the Prince of Jianxing’s Residence were as irreconcilable as fire and water. Shen Zhouji, the Hereditary Prince of Jianxing, won the favor of his father and reassigned his brothers of common birth out of the residence. At seven years of age, Chuan-er was sent back to Duanzhou, but his enlistment as a soldier to bolster the army numbers failed to work out. So he lived in the side courtyard to be raised by his mother’s maid. But that woman was greedy and extravagant and often misappropriated the child’s food rations. Pingting was on friendly terms with his mother. When she learned of this, she asked me to take Chuan-er back so that we could raise and nurture him.”
Grand Mentor Qi sneered and said, “Shen Wei himself was of common birth and had his share of injustices in his childhood. How ludicrous of him to favor those of lawful birth when he came to have sons later. What’s more, he’s such a lecher and went on to beget so many sons. What a sin!”
“We have repeatedly sent letters to the Prince Residence, but not once has Shen Wei ever replied. Grand Mentor, look at the Eight Great Clans of Qudu. We have never heard of such blatant abandonment even among the son of common births of those clans.” Ji Gang furrowed his eyebrows. “And so it was like this that Chuan-er came to follow us. That time, Mu-er was fifteen of age. He was so delighted to see his younger brother. Since then, our family of four has settled down in Duanzhou. We even had to expend a lot of effort just to be able to get into the Military Service’s Yellow Register.”1
After a moment’s silence, Grand Mentor Qi said, “You left the capital bearing the name of a criminal. It’s naturally difficult for you to register your household. It was precisely to suppress rebels and prevent civil unrest that His Royal Highness strictly enforced the Yellow Register system to record households back then.”
Ji Gang said, “I understand. Grand Mentor, what happened in Qudu after I left? How did His Royal Highness the Crown Prince end up in that state?”
Grand Mentor Qi pulled over the tattered curtain and wrapped it around his shoulders. He said gloomily, “… After you left, Ji Wufan lost the confidence of the Emperor. Pan Rugui, having received the Emperor’s favors for serving the Empress, took up the post of Brush-holding Director at the Directorate of Ceremonial. As a result, the Imperial Bodyguards fell into decline, and its Twelve Offices existed in name only. After Ji Wufan’s death, Ji Lei took up the mantle alone. From then on, the Eastern Depot2 became the Godfather of the Imperial Bodyguards and ceased to associate with the Eastern Palace. Later on, the Emperor suddenly fell ill and was frequently bedridden, so the trivial affairs of the court were handed over to the Grand Secretariat and the Eastern Palace to manage. But the Hua Clan relied on the Emperor’s favor of the Empress to install many incompetent people in the court, and this led to the resurgence of Six Ministries’ practice of bribery. The troubles that were the Empress Dowager’s kin3 were now out in force. His Royal Highness the Crown Prince went many times to submit a memorial to His Majesty. But he never expected Pan Rugui to rely on his authority of office in endorsing memorials4 to take over control of government affairs with the Empress. There was no way His Royal Highness’s memorial would ever make its way before the Emperor. Not only that, after the Emperor fell ill, the Empress stopped the Grand Secretariat and the Eastern Palace from paying their respects to him.”
“Those castrated bunches are a menace to the empire!” Ji Gang repeatedly sighed. “If I had known Pan Rugui harbored such ambitions, I would never have stopped Father from killing him!”
“Even if you kill a Pan Rugui, there will still be a Pan Ruxi and a Pan Ruyi!” Grand Mentor said in a daze. “The harem interferes in state affairs, while their kin runs rampant. Ji Gang, you don’t understand. These are all the deeply rooted maladies of the Eight Great Clans. As long as all the Eight Great Clans are not eradicated, history will just repeat! How is the Empress able to control the affairs of the imperial court when she has lived for so long in the inner palace? It’s all due to the long-amassed power and influence of the Hua Clan. Even if the Empress wasn’t a Hua back then – even if the Empress was someone from one of the other Eight Great Clans – this would still happen.”
“But.” Shen Zechuan could not help asking, “Isn’t His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of lawful birth by the Empress herself?”
“No.” Grand Mentor Qi lowered his head. “His Royal Highness’s biological mother was an imperial concubine. The Empress was childless, having never given birth before. But His Royal Highness was taken to the inner palace and personally raised by the Empress herself. As the saying goes, even a tiger will not eat its own cubs… Kinship doesn’t exist in the Imperial Clan.”
The hall fell silent again.
Ji Gang let out a breath of cold air and said in a hoarse voice, “My father lost the favor of the Emperor because my excessive drinking bungled up matters. If it weren’t for this, His Royal Highness would never have come here.”
“I initially thought that Ji Lei would not have become a turncoat if there’s Ji Wufan before you.” Grand Mentor clutched the tattered curtain. Recalling it still left a bitter taste in his mouth. “Who would have known that he…”
“Grand Mentor, you are unaware of it.” Ji Gang looked at Shen Zechuan. “Chuan-er didn’t know it either. My father, Ji Wufan, was sworn friends with the former Emperor. He was also the Commander-in-chief of the Imperial Bodyguards. But Father’s first wife died early and he had no intention to remarry, so he adopted three sons. Besides me and Ji Lei, there was also Eldest Brother. Eldest Brother could not bear the malicious acts in the Imperial Prison, and so he left the capital in his adolescence and went to Tianfei Watchtower to be a soldier there. Ji Lei and I served in the Imperial Bodyguards and remained by Father’s side to look after him as a show of filial piety. This set of Ji Clan’s Boxing Style and Ji Clan’s Blade Style were all taught by Father. Later, due to several incidents, Father felt that Ji Lei was harboring evil intentions and suspected him of currying favor, so he only imparted the Ji Clan’s Mental Cultivation Techniques to me. But this entirely created a divide between us brothers. After Father’s death, Ji Lei did an overhaul of those under his command. Many of the old guards were let go. From then on, the Imperial Bodyguards… were no longer what they once were.”
Grand Mentor Qi murmured, “Such is fate. The Eastern Palace’s subordinates joined forces and worked as one but still failed to protect His Royal Highness. The Emperor suspected His Royal Highness of staging a rebellion, but the authority for the Eight Great Training Divisions of Qudu all lay in the hands of the Eight Great Clans. The Imperial Bodyguards found the treason documents and asserted that it was His Royal Highness behind it. Our people were sent to the Imperial Prison, and many of them died. Those who could not withstand the punishments finally gave in. The sick Emperor flew into a rage and believed Pan Rugui’s slanders. From then on, His Royal Highness was trapped in a dead-end.”
Tears drenched his face as he seemed to go insane again.
“His Royal Highness was here, trapped in a dead-end! Why didn’t they kill me? How do they expect me to hang on to my last breath till now? Living a life like this is worse than death. Yet I still can’t hurry on my way to the Underworld.”
He suddenly stared at Shen Zechuan, and his tone turned frenzied.
“—I can’t take this lying down! Years of strategic and tactical planning have all gone down the drain! Countless Eastern Palace’s aides have been killed and wounded, and the injustice His Royal Highness suffered has yet to be redressed. I can’t take this lying down! “He grabbed Shen Zechuan’s arm again.” You are so young. You still have a chance!”
“Grand Mentor…” Ji Gang rose intending to stop him.
“You can protect him for a moment, but can you protect him for life?” Grand Mentor Qi gripped Shen Zechuan tightly. “I can stop hating or blaming him today on account of your fatherly affection, but can you make everyone in this world think this way? As long as his surname is Shen, there will be plenty of people wanting to kill him! Can he really sleep with a peace of mind just because he is skilled in martial arts? Ji Gang, your father was a martial arts master, but didn’t he still end up dying of illness all alone?! In this Qudu, where the tides of power ebb and flow, it’s killing someone with invisible means that’s the most fatal! How could you have the heart to let him face the predators stark-naked!”
Ji Gang clenched his fists and said nothing.
Tugging Shen Zechuan, Grand Mentor Qi went down on both knees. He looked at Shen Zechuan and said in a trembling voice that was choking with sobs, “I’m Qi Huilian from Yuzhou! You don’t know me, so I’m telling you. I’m, I’m the Triple Yuan5 Top Scholar in the fifteenth year of Yongyi.6 From the founding of Da Zhou to this date, there are only five people who have come out first in all three levels of the civil examination. I’m a subordinate of the Eastern Palace and also the Minister of Personnel of the Ministry of Personnel-cum-Deputy Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat. I taught the Crown Prince. And I’ll now, now teach you! I’ll teach you everything I have learned in my life—alright?”
Shen Zechuan stared into Grand Mentor Qi’s eyes. He was unusually calm. After that brief silence, he fell to the ground on his knees with a “thud” and kowtowed thrice to Grand Mentor Qi.
“If Teacher imparts the classics to me, I’ll kill your enemy for you.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Ge Qingqing went out at the hour of Mao7 and headed for Zhao Zui Temple. The air was clear and cold along the way, and it even snowed. He huffed into his hands and looked for a steamed bun stall as he walked.
He heard the sounds of someone calling him from afar. There was a red silk umbrella unfurled among the snow, and the person under the umbrella swayed slightly as he moved towards him. Those who could hold up red silk umbrellas in Qudu were all bigwigs of fifth grade8 and above.
Ge Qingqing stood by the side of the road and supported his blade as he paid his obeisances. The thick smell of wine assailed his nose as the person staggered his way before him.
“The Red Cavalry.”9 This person stopped and reached out a hand to pull Ge Qingqing’s authority token.10 He looked at it for a moment and said, “Where is Company Commander Ge going now? It’s freezing cold.”
Ge Qingqing stared at the man’s black boots and answered, “To reply Your Excellency, this humble subordinate is on office duty today and ought to be heading for the palace.”
Xiao Chiye had been drinking all night, and his clothes were in disarray. He dangled the authority token and said, “This doesn’t seem to be the way to the palace.”
Ge Qingqing raised his head to reveal a shy smile and said, “The Second Young Master is noble and does not know how much of a clutter these civilian alleys are. From here, you can make your way through a few civilian alleys and you’ll be able to turn into Shenwu Street, which will lead you straight to the palace gate.”
On hearing this, Xiao Chiye smiled and threw back the authority token to him. He asked, “You know who I am?”
Ge Qingqing caught hold of the authority token and buttered him up, “The Armored Cavalry of Libei are brave and skillful in warfare. The Hereditary Prince and Second Young Master have rendered meritorious service in coming to the Emperor’s aid. Who in Qudu does not know of you? Second Young Master, are you heading back to your residence? The road is slippery. May this subordinate be so bold as to ask if you need me to send you back?”
Xiao Chiye looked at him and said, “Do I look like a drunkard? You may leave.”
Ge Qingqing bowed again and left.
When Zhao Hui arrived, he saw Xiao Chiye rapping hard with the red silk umbrella and yelling at the steamed bun stall to hurry. He approached and said, “The residence has prepared breakfast. Why is Young Master standing here to have your meal?”
Xiao Chiye said, “I’m too hungry to walk back.”
Zhao Hui shook the cloak open and said, “Wine and lust will only lead you astray. Young Master, let’s go home.”
Xiao Chiye draped himself with the cloak but did not move his feet. He ate two steamed buns, taking no notice of the gazes of those around him. He asked Zhao Hui, “Can one reach Shenwu Street from here?”
“Yes, but it’s not an easy path to walk.” Zhao Hui replied. “Civilian alleys with state-owned ditches. The narrower the alley, the more polluted the ditch water. Qudu has never repaired the public ditches in recent years, and this piece of land is rotten beyond recognition. Once the weather warms up, the snow melts, and the rain falls, the sewage will flood the streets. Think about it, is such a path a smooth one to take?”
Xiao Chiye said, “I only asked you one question. Why give such a long reply?”
Zhao Hui said, “What I’m saying is that you must be sure to take the correct path. Young Master, there’s no hurry to drink. If you take a detour instead, you will make your way there even faster.”
Xiao Chiye wiped his hands and motioned Zhao Hui to fish out his money. “That’s really strange. Go make some inquiries if there are any official records of someone called Ge Qingqing on duty in the Twelves Offices of the Imperial Bodyguards today—Old man, find another line of work as soon as you can; this steamed bun tastes really bad.”
I’ll briefly talk about the Imperial Bodyguards and Eastern Depot here. Influenced by relevant films and dramas, people often mistakenly think that the Imperial Bodyguards are a sub-committee of the Eastern Depot and that the Imperial Bodyguards Commander-in-chief had to obey the Eastern Depot Seal-holding Director’s11 orders. In reality, this was not the case. The Imperial Bodyguards and Eastern Depot all served the Emperor himself. There is no superior-subordinate relationship between them. It’s just that sometimes when the eunuchs gained favor, the power and authority of the Eastern Depot would rise just as the boat rises with the tide, and the Imperial Bodyguards would have to greet them with smiles. But similarly, when the Imperial Bodyguards Commander-in-chief won the confidence of the Emperor, then the Eastern Depot would have to play the grandson with their tails between their legs.
- 黃冊 Huangce or yellow registers/yellow book served during the Ming Dynasty to provide basic data for taxation and recruitment based on the household’s classification according to their occupation. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian, military, and craftsman. The military register (or Yellow Register of Military Service (军户黄册) in this novel) was used to manage military households to inherit military posts, bolster the army numbers, and so on. These military households lived as peasants in peacetime and served as soldiers in times of war.
- 东厂 The Eastern Depot was a Ming dynasty spy and secret police agency run by eunuchs.
- 外戚 relatives of the Emperor on the side of his mother or wife.
- 批红 compilation of an endorsement on a memorial; chief eunuchs had the right to note down remarks in red color (pihong 批紅) on the incoming memorials, even before the Emperor had seen them.
- 三元 “Triple Yuan”. In the Ming Dynasty, the imperial examination system was split into three phases: the provincial exam (乡试); metropolitan exam (会试); and the palace exam (殿试). The titles for the top scholars in each exam were known as the Jieyuan (解元), Huiyuan (会元) and Zhuangyuan (状元). These three are known as the “Triple Yuan”. So a Triple Yuan Top Scholar is one who came first in all these examinations.
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor reigned.
- 卯时 Time in those days was divided into two hours blocks. The hour of Mao is around 5-7am.
- 五品 Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- 缇骑 tiqi; subordinates 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.
腰牌 literally authority token, it’s a small tablet hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity.
- The head of the Eastern Depot is called the Eastern Depot Seal-holding Director. Among the eunuchs, he is the second highest-ranking eunuch after the Seal-holding Director of the Directorate of Ceremonial.