Xi Hongxuan spoke with such certainty that Shen Zechuan just had to look askance at him. But Xi Hongxuan was not willing to continue discussing further and merely said, “You don’t have a proper place to stay now, so it’s not convenient to keep Qi Huilian around. Why not leave him with me?”
“It isn’t appropriate to leave a raving looney at your place either.” Shen Zechuan said calmly. “What do you want him for?”
“In my opinion.” Xi Hongxuan held out his hand flat, like a hand blade. “The best option would be to finish him off. It’s inadvisable to get yourself involved with all those old affairs. The more you know, the worse it’ll be for you.” Xi Hongxuan brandished his hand and looked at Shen Zechuan. “Or are you unwilling to?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Of course I’m unwilling to. He’s an old minister during the reign of Yongyi. He knows Shen Wei well. I have a use for keeping him alive.”
If Shen Zechuan had agreed readily, Xi Hongxuan would not have believed him easily. So he said it with seventy percent truth and thirty percent falsehood to throw Xi Hongxuan off.
As expected, Xi Hongxuan made no further mention of killing him. He said, “Are you still thinking of investigating Shen Wei’s case? You should have said so earlier. Lanzhou, do you have to go so far as to hide this bit of matter from me?”
“When have I ever hidden it from you?” Shen Zechuan smiled as he lifted the teapot and poured tea for Xi Hongxuan. “Isn’t this matter obvious? As long as Shen Wei remains guilty, I’ll never be able to live honorably.”
“The evidence against him is conclusive, and his infamy has already been deeply impressed on everyone’s mind. Even if the charge against him is dropped, it will not be enough to convince the masses.” Xi Hongxuan said, “A felony like selling his country to seek personal glory is something that can never be scrubbed clean, even over several lifetimes. Plus, it’s pointless to just rely on the imperial court’s pardon alone. There are many kinds of rumors in this world. He, Shen Wei, has already been crucified to death under the spray of spittle. Poor you. I can only advise you to forget about this matter. It’s not something you’ll be able to clear up!”
Shen Zechuan silently set down the teapot.
Seeing the atmosphere growing heavier, Xi Hongxuan continued, “You are already now an Imperial Bodyguard of fifth grade, and you still take those rumors and slanders to heart? Please don’t. Look ahead. You’ve done a good job on this mission, so you should be getting a promotion, yes?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Nothing is confirmed yet. I haven’t even settled down in my post of Southern Judge. Charging all the way up to the top isn’t necessarily a good thing.”
“This time, you and I have to act carefully. We are really gambling with our lives here.” Xi Hongxuan tucked his fox fur properly and said, “We have to investigate and get to the bottom of this matter. The other party is hiding in the dark, while we are out there exposed in the open. If we can’t get to the bottom of the matter, then it would be hard to guard against the enemy. I’m the one who got crushed this time. But what about the next time? You should watch out too. It’s inconvenient for me to stay for long here today. Lanzhou, I’ll see you at the residence in a few days.”
Saying so, Xi Hongxuan rose to his feet and surveyed the surroundings again.
“This courtyard seems decent to me. If you don’t have enough money, just let me know. Just don’t take what happened today to heart, alright?”
With that, Xi Hongxuan smiled. Shen Zechuan smiled too. Both of them reconciled, as if there was no ill-feeling between them, as if what happened earlier was merely just them horsing around with one another.
Qiao Tianya sent Xi Hongxuan off. As soon as he returned to the courtyard, he saw Shen Zechuan standing with his back to him and with his face facing the main hall. He was wiping his hands with a handkerchief.
The setting sun outside the courtyard crossed over, casting a scarlet red hue over Shen Zechuan’s embroidered python robe. His slightly lowered neck was as fair as jade. He wiped those slender, flawless fingers, which were clearly clean, yet he seemed to detest them to bits.
“Is he gone?” Shen Zechuan turned his head aside to ask.
“I saw him get on the horse carriage.” Qiao Tianya stopped a short distance away from Shen Zechuan. He did not move forward, but bent over to pick up a fallen leaf on the ground that had been trampled and scrutinized it for a moment. “The men he hired are all masters from the martial fraternity, yet a fight didn’t break out. Most likely, Ji Gang-shifu was on his guard, and the Grand Mentor did not resist.”
“Shifu burned his face with fire to ruin his looks, all to conceal his identity and live incognito. Not starting a fight hastily is a wise move.” Shen Zechuan neatly folded that blue handkerchief. “Teacher mustn’t remain in Xi Hongxuan’s hands for too long. We need to think of a way.”
Qiao Tianya crushed the leaf without disrupting Shen Zechuan’s contemplation. Shen Zechuan suddenly turned around and was dazzled by the sunset glow. But he did not flinch or hide from it as he looked towards that towering and majestic palace.
“Legitimate bloodline…” Shen Zechuan murmured and asked Qiao Tianya. “Who’s living there?”
Qiao Tianya followed his gaze and looked over as well. He replied, “The Li Clan.”
“No.” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were cold and indifferent as he said with a mocking smile, “It’s a deer—If Zhou lost its deer, the heroes of the world may all pursue it.1 Today, you say it’s the Li Clan. Tomorrow, I can also say it’s some random person on the street. Whoever can step onto that dragon throne at the peak will be the legitimate, rightful one.”
Qiao Tianya prided himself on being a nonconformist with an unconventional, rebellious streak, but even he did not expect Shen Zechuan to have the audacity to say such words. In his astonishment, he took a few steps back and looked out into the distance at the palace. He said, “Such rebellious words are tantamount to having no respect for the law.”
“You know there are countless gentlemen in this world, all of them good men with unyielding steadfastness and unfailing loyalty.” Shen Zechuan kept the handkerchief back into his sleeve and said, “The Earl of Biansha, Lu Pingyan, is known as the ‘Wolf and Tiger of the Border Town’. To protect and hold on to Bianjun Commandery, he has given away all his family fortunes. Although he has received a noble title conferred by the emperor, all he eats every day are pickled vegetables and sweet potatoes. Subsequently, Lu Guangbai becomes hard-pressed for military funds whenever there is a war. And because Lu Guangbai is not on good terms with the Eight Great Clans, he has never been conferred a noble title despite all his outstanding and illustrious military achievements. So tell me, is it that satisfying to be such a gentleman and loyal official?”
“Ask your conscience first before we talk about satisfaction. To be an outspoken and candid minister, you have to sacrifice the self and give up your selfish desires.2 Suotian Pass’s Feng Yisheng’s entire family of loyal heroes died martyrs in battles. This is what we call the epitome of righteousness.”
Shen Zechuan’s insanity, which he had suppressed earlier, swept over him again. He stood up and burst out laughing, saying, “Qiao Tianya, you are not a nonconformist who has deviated from the norms at all. You are a prisoner of the norms. You are one who can be a gentleman.”
Qiao Tianya said, “Master—”
The sunset glow on the horizon faded into night, and darkness came shrouding all over. The pear tree bared its withered branches and brandished them threateningly, casting shadows over Shen Zechuan’s raised face.
“But, in this world, someone has to be the traitor and the rebel. I don’t believe that fate is decided by the Heavens. If there’s a blade held against my neck someday in the future, I will not show mercy even if it’s Li Jianheng, let alone Xi Hongxuan. The bloodline legitimacy Xi Hongxuan speaks of is no different from the nonsensical ravings of a fool. Anyone will die when a blade slices across their necks; there’s no exception regardless of whether one is a di born of the legitimate wife or a shu born of a concubine.”
In the cold, dreary night, the crow of dusk let out a few mournful caws. Shen Zechuan looked back at Qiao Tianya.
“My ambition is not to be a gentleman, nor is it to be a good person. Since vindictiveness has become the tenet I live by, then a kindness given is kindness given, a wrong done is a wrong done. I want Xi Hongxuan to pay with his life for what happened today.”
The wind assailed the scattered clouds and scraped the remaining leaf off the tip of the branch.
◈ ◈ ◈
The impeachments from the Chief Surveillance Bureau came bearing down upon them in torrents. Xi Hongxuan, Pan Xiangjie, Wei Huaixing, and even Hai Liangyi were all censured one after another. Cen Yu took charge as the chief commentator as the few parties attacked one another on the imperial court.
Having just woke up, Li Jianheng hardly said much these days and simply let them argue among themselves as he held court in Mingli Hall.
Hai Liangyi was already in ill health before the epidemic happened, and lately he looked even more emaciated. Not once had he had the moment to rest, and now, listening to the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Revenue starting an argument again, he could not help but let out a few violent coughs.
Li Jianheng hurriedly said, “Secretariat Elder, there’s no need to rise. If you have something to say, you may voice it out while seated.”
Hai Liangyi bowed his thanks and covered his mouth with a handkerchief. After his coughing eased up a little, he said, “The Grand Secretariat has already submitted the clauses for rewards and punishments this time to His Majesty’s table yesterday. If Your Majesty finds any part inappropriate after looking through it, you may reject it and let the Grand Secretariat discuss it again.”
Li Jianheng had been absent-minded, and Hai Liangyi originally thought that he would hem and haw. He did not expect him to say after a moment’s pause, “I’ve seen it. And there are indeed some parts I don’t understand and would like to ask of the Secretariat Elder to clear my doubts.”
The entire hall of officials was dumbfounded the moment the words left his mouth.
Li Jianheng opened the memorial and said, “The Imperial Army has done a meritorious service by dredging up the public ditches. Xiao Chiye is already a second-grade Viceroy of the Imperial Army. Just the reward of some gold and jades is simply too meager.”
Hai Liangyi answered, “The military drill ground on Mount Feng is undergoing an expansion this year, and the money will be arranged for by the Ministry of Revenue. This could be said to be a waiver of his biggest expenditure this year. This humble subject feels that the reward cannot be too excessive; this is sufficient enough.”
Li Jianheng said, “But the deployment of medicinal herbs, quarantine of the patients, and dredging of the public ditches are no small matter. He has done a great job with them all.”
Hai Liangyi pondered it over and said, “It’s true that he has rendered meritorious service. But these matters are not something the Imperial Army can achieve on its own. If he’s shown too much special favor—”
“I want to advance his noble rank.” Li Jianheng closed the memorial and looked at Hai Liangyi. “He’s the second son of lawful birth of the Prince of Libei. If he had gone into battle and slain the enemies, then he should have a noble rank and title by now.”
Hai Liangyi did not answer immediately.
Li Jianheng said, “I’ve been thinking about these issues the few days I was confined to my sickbed. I wish to confer the title of ‘Marquis of Dingdu’ upon Xiao Chiye. What does the Secretariat Elder think?”
Hai Liangyi said, “You mustn’t, Your Majesty. Unless it’s military achievements, one cannot be conferred a noble title. Although Xiao Chiye has made great contributions this time, it’s far from the point where he can be made a marquis. The Lu Clan of Qidong’s Bianjun Commandery has numerous military achievements to their name. Yet, only the old General Lu Pingyan is currently conferred with the title of the Earl of Biansha. Firstly, Xiao Chiye has not stabilized the borders, and secondly, he has not driven out the enemies. I fear it will only be hard to convince the public if you make him a marquis out of the blue.”
“To begin with, he has done a meritorious service by protecting me at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds, and he has, yet again, shown no fear in the face of danger this time. It’s a good thing the epidemic did not spread. This matter concerns the peace and stability of Qudu; is this still not considered a merit? The Earl of Biansha, Lu Pingyan, has transferred the garrison troops of Bianjun Commandery in private numerous times. The reason his noble rank has not advanced is merely because his merits are offset by his demerits and vice versa.” As Li Jianheng spoke, his eyes reddened. He covered his face and choked with sobs. “Don’t tell me my life is nothing worth mentioning either? The purpose of bestowing the title of marquis upon him is to commend and honor him. There will be no increment of the numbers of soldiers in the Imperial Army, and no establishments of private rights. It’s just a title in name only. Is this not even acceptable, either?”
Wei Huaigu initially meant to impeach Xiao Chiye for privately deploying the medicinal herbs without authorization, but seeing that the situation was not favorable for his cause, he changed his mind and said, “What Your Majesty thinks is reasonable. Xiao Chiye’s decisiveness and fearlessness in times of danger should be commended and rewarded. But what the Secretariat Elder says is true, too. In this humble subject’s opinion, why not honor Xiao Chiye with the title ‘Earl of Dingdu’ first?”
“No.” Hai Liangyi would not budge. “There’s absolutely no logic in doing so. Your Majesty, if you grant Xiao Chiye a title today, then you will greatly disappoint the Old General at the frontier. It’s an established rule of the imperial court that a noble title cannot be conferred on one without military achievements to his name.”
Li Jianheng said, “How about we first promote Lu Pingyan to a marquis, then confer the title of Earl upon Xiao Chiye? Does the Secretariat still not agree to this?”
He spoke of conferment as if it was child’s play.
Hai Liangyi’s coughing intensified. He wanted to say something further, but Pan Xiangjie beat him to it. He said in a fluster, “This humble subject thinks it’s a good thing. This would be Your Majesty’s first conferment since Your Majesty’s ascension to the throne. It’s a special honor. Secretariat Elder, one mustn’t be a stickler for conventions on every single matter. Now that he has indeed made a contribution, what’s the issue with making an exception?”
Seeing the noble clans unanimously urging Li Jianheng, Kong Qiu could not help but kowtow and said, “This humble subject thinks the Secretariat Elder is right. Your Majesty, Lu Pingyan has spared no effort to defend the Bianjun Commandery. Even if he’s to be conferred a title, it shouldn’t be done in such a hasty and sloppy—”
“Hasty? I’ve been repeatedly asking the opinions of all of you here, and yet you still say I’m hasty!” With a fling of his sleeves, Li Jianheng rose to his feet and pointed at Kong Qiu, saying, “I can see that you are always going along with the Secretariat Elder’s words on the imperial court. The sovereign and his ministers. Exactly who is your sovereign, and whose minister are you?!”
The various ministers all kneeled and said in unison, “Your Majesty, please be appeased!”
Kong Qiu immediately said, “Your Majesty is the sovereign of this humble subject, and this humble subject does his Majesty’s bidding! But it’s indeed inappropriate to bypass the regulations and go ahead with the conferment!”
“I am going to confer the title upon him!” Li Jianheng wept as he said, “Each time I met with calamity one after the other, it was only with Ce’an’s help that I could avert disaster and escape unscathed. Even when I want to bestow a title upon him, you people have to turn me down and throw obstructions in my way! The Secretariat Elder has the final say over all the matters in this imperial court, so why not let the Secretariat Elder sit on this throne instead?!”
These words truly struck Hai Liangyi where it hurts! Unstable on his knees, Hai Liangyi covered his lips and coughed violently. He never met with officials outside the court and the capital, and he had never held any private feasts. In order not to get involved in a faction or clique, he worked hard day and night. And he taught and guided Li Jianheng with utmost care, all because he feared getting slandered and stabbed in the back. He was the most trustworthy minister, a right-handed man of the emperor, not a tyrannical official in power!
Seeing Hai Liangyi coughing until he was all hunched over, Li Jianheng did not dare to create a scene further and got someone to help Hai Liangyi up. Nevertheless, he still said, “No matter what, Xiao Chiye shall be conferred a title!”
With the commotion in Mingli Hall, the imperial edict was issued a few days later. Like a bolt of thunder out of the blue, it caused a startled wave of memorials flooding in from all over.
Lu Guangbai brought his father to receive the imperial edict at the Bianjun Commandery. Lu Pingyan was promoted to the rank of marquis. Even he himself was at a loss how to react in the very moment he held the edict in his hands.
The Lu Clan had buried generation after generation of its people in this yellow sand. In his heyday, Lu Pingyan was also known as the ‘Wolf and Tiger of the Border Town’. He was renowned for his military exploits, along with Xiao Fangxu and Qi Shiyu. And now, injured and sick all over – and before he retired from active duty to take up an advisory post – he finally received his reward. Yet, it was all to pave the way for a junior of the younger generation.
Xiao Chiye was originally sleeping in his residence when he heard of the arrival of the imperial edict; thus he put on his clothes and came out to receive it.
After reading the imperial edict, Fuman beamed and moved to help him up, only to see a pale-looking Xiao Chiye who looked as if he had no intention of receiving the edict.
—This title mustn’t be accepted!
What Hai Liangyi had said was true. Although he, Xiao Chiye, had rendered meritorious service by protecting the emperor at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds, and had played a critical role in the latest incidents, his contributions were still poles apart from the hard-won military merits gained from battling with real weapons at the frontiers.
Who was Lu Pingyan?
That was the man who was on brotherly terms with his old man, Xiao Fangxu!
Now that they had humiliated and trampled over Lu Pingyan to confer on him, Xiao Chiye, a title, how would Xiao Chiye be able to take office in the various garrison troops at the frontiers? How would he be able to convince the masses? And the most crucial thing was, what would the Lu Clan think? Could Xiao and Lu still be brothers?
Dingdu, Dingdu. This was simply to nail him dead in Qudu.3 Had Li Jianheng’s bout with his illness fucking short-circuited his brain?!
Rage bubbled up in Xiao Chiye. What’s more, he had not gotten a good sleep. He tugged at the official robe he had not worn properly and suppressed his fury to say expressionlessly, “Go and report back to His Majesty that Xiao Ce’an is not worthy of the title and does not dare to accept this overwhelming favor from His Majesty, nor does he dare to accept this heaven-sent noble rank.”
- 周若失其鹿，天下群雄皆可逐之 The original quote is “Qin lost his deer, and all under heaven chased after it” 「秦失其鹿，天下共逐之」 from Records of the Grand Historian • Biography of Marquis Huaiyin 《史记·淮阴侯列传》. Deer is a metaphor for the throne. It’s an illustration of the rise of numerous rivaling warlords contesting for supremacy to capture the prize, the empire lost by the Qin Dynasty. So Shen Zechuan is saying that if Dazhou lost its legitimacy on the throne/the empire, then all the heroes in the world are free to make a grab for it.
- 舍小我 From 牺牲小我，完成大我 sacrifice the self for the greater good (e.g. the team or the state, etc).
- 定都 Basically, the title was to honor him for helping to restore calm/stability (ding) to the capital (du). But (ding) also means to fix in place.