Overcast clouds shrouded the moon, giving rise to flickers of ghostly apparitions. The scraping sound of blades being unsheathed was just like the sound of silk being ripped apart in the wind, the tearing of which spelled the pressing sense of danger of an imminent peril. There were three taps of the bamboo fan in the hall. Shen Zechuan remained calm and composed as he held the pot to pour himself another cup of wine.
“You’re right.” Shen Zechuan picked up the wine cup. “We indeed have scores to settle tonight.”
Xi Hongxuan lowered his arms and watched with cool detachment as the crowd swarmed towards the hall. He said, “Clever as you are, if you had been willing to comply obediently with the arrangements, you wouldn’t have needed to suffer as much.”
“The moment you enter Qudu, you’re just like a caged bird in a pavilion, unmindful of the spreading blaze and danger ahead. You’re really an unfortunate and a fortunate one. Back then, you fought the waves for a fighting chance at life, and for that, I toast you.” As Shen Zechuan spoke, he slowly poured the wine over the ground.1 “You and I both understand the principle that those trapped in prior predicaments are also the ones most unlikely to be obedient—because people who obey, nine out of ten, will not hold out until Heaven opens its eyes and lends them a hand.”
“I fought against the battering of waves, and you are also fighting against the same. The lives of everyone in the world are worthless. Shen Zechuan, I toast you too! You survived in spite of all the torture and torment back then, but tonight, you are going to fail miserably, like a boat capsizing in a drain, haha!” Xi Hongxuan laughed derisively, then abruptly turned indifferent, “Between you and me, only one may live.”
“You’ve taken your bath and drank your wine.” Shen Zechuan tossed away the wine cup gently and rose to face the doors. He lifted his hand and grasped the hilt of Yang Shan Xue, his thumb pressing down against that white pearl as he laughed softly, “Do you really not intend to tell me Qi Huilian’s whereabouts before you go on your way?”
The flame in the courtyard abruptly intensified. Xi Hongxuan turned his head for a look; the residence was already up in flames. He bellowed, “Don’t bother contending with him! Whoever can take down his head, I’ll reward said person with two hundred taels of gold and silver!”
The doors and windows instantly broke apart as numerous shadows pounced like wolves. Shen Zechuan’s blade had already left its sheath. He took two steps forward, and blood went splattering along with the movement of his blade. The long blade that was Yang Shan Xue seemed to be forged from ice and cast of snow as its blade slit open men’s throats. It was so fast that there was not a stain of blood on the edge of the blade even as the blood droplets spattered over the windows’ paper.
Yang Shan Xue was the same as Langli Blade. They lay low in this Qudu collecting dust, restrained by their sheaths to become the waist ornaments of refined young masters. But give them the chance to be drawn out of their sheaths, and one would be able to catch a glimpse of the bloodthirsty savagery of the blades and their masters from those cold glints.
The tongue of flames came licking in a fury, and in a blink of an eye, half of the Xi’s Residence was engulfed in a sea of fire. Qiao Tianya leaped up the rooftop and dashed along the ridge to kick over the incoming killers with swift flying kicks before he hooked himself upside down and flipped atop the central hall. He stood on the roof and flashed Shen Zechuan’s gold lacquered waist token.
“The Imperial Bodyguards are investigating a case on imperial orders. The Xi Clan assembled more than a hundred gallant men from the martial fraternity for a private gathering right under the Son of Heaven’s nose. Our investigations have unearthed the presence of criminal fugitives and outlaws still at large among them. Xi Hongxuan’s intention is no small matter. For this, he ought to be executed!” Qiao Tianya said in a clear and loud voice. “This case pertains to the incident in which the Son of Heaven was placed in harm’s way. Anyone caught involved will be taken into custody at the imperial prison. The Red Cavalry2 has already surrounded Xi’s Residence. You people’d best surrender without a fight!”
“Don’t listen to his nonsense!” Xi Hongxuan shouted. “I’m the Son of Heaven’s friend, one who has been through life and death with him. The Imperial Bodyguards harbor the intent to murder loyal ministers to cover up their crimes. Those who aid me tonight are all upright heroes! You will all follow me to the palace gates tomorrow morning to receive your rewards!”
That burning loft collapsed with a thunderous crash. Xi Hongxuan did not retreat a single step amid the waves of heat as he stared closely at the figure in the hall.
“That eunuch faction has only just been eradicated. His Majesty advocates freedom of speech, and what he hates the most are treacherous officials like Shen Zechuan who want to abuse his power to deceive the masses and lord it over all! Gentlemen, the one who kills him will be a famous hero with his meritorious deeds recorded in history for ages to come!”
Qiao Tianya secretly spat. This Fatty Xi’s eloquence was truly outstanding. If they could not gag that mouth of his, then he could even make black out to be white! Qiao Tianya promptly kept away the token and leaped down, where he drew his blade to face the enemies head-on.
The sheen of blood stood out against the blaze in the courtyard. Up ahead, the scene was already in chaos, with shouts and cries everywhere as shopkeepers, bookkeepers, and servants ran haphazardly all around. The formation of Red Cavalry outside moved swiftly, having already blocked off all the gates.
A strapping figure suddenly stood out from the hall. Xi Hongxuan looked on indifferently. That body leaned back, as straight as a ramrod, and toppled over onto the stairs, the blood on its neck gushing forth incessantly. Shen Zechuan withdrew his blade and returned it to his sheath, then strode over the corpse’s arm and walked down one step at a time.
Xi Hongxuan suddenly burst out laughing. He laughed until he shook all over. He said, “I still can’t compare to you. By using this reason to kill me, even His Majesty won’t dare to blame or censure you.”
Shen Zechuan inclined his head to survey that raging fire and said, “You aren’t originally meant to die this early.”
Xi Hongxuan looked up at the sky and let out a long sigh. He was extraordinarily calm; those merry laughters and furious curses had all become a thing of the past. He said, “Whether I die early or later, I’m still being played for the fool in your hands. It’s too fucking much of an aggrievement! But it’s of no loss to me to lose to you. Shen Zechuan, I concede defeat. At the same time, I can’t take it lying down. A hundred forges to temper steel3—do you think you have already reached that stage? The reason I meet my end tonight is because I underestimated my enemy. However, there are plenty of people in this world who see you as the thorn in their side. They are all lined up in a queue waiting for you. You may kill one, then another one, but you will never be able to kill them all. How lamentable…”
He gazed silently at the night sky.
“You and I were not born to be favoured. Things that are readily available to the others are yet things you and I have to fight for with our lives. The prejudice between children born of the principal wives and concubines is deeply rooted.4 How absurd is it for me to be clearly born of the principal wife, yet live a life worse than the sons from the other clans born of concubines? My life is worthless, and yours, even more so. You want to charge ahead, to fight, to seize. But who exactly will succeed or fail in the days to come?” Xi Hongxuan spread his arms open, as if he was asking Heaven. At the same time, it was also as if he was asking Shen Zechuan, “There is no end to strife. Who exactly will fail or succeed in the days to come? Will you be able to secure your victory once I’m gone? You kill the others, and the others kill you. Haha!”
The sounds of Xi Hongxuan’s laughter were wild and unbridled. He suddenly crouched down to pull out the blade from the corpse on the ground and stumbled his way closer towards Shen Zechuan.
“I’m a man of the Xi Clan. In this life, I’ve triumphed thrice over Xi Gu’an; I’m no less inferior to him! It’s my parents who were blind! I placed my love in the wrong person, and exhausted all my love and hatred. I—” Xi Hongxuan brandished the blade to slit his own throat. Hot blood spurted over Shen Zechuan’s body. The blade tumbled to the ground, and he pulled at Shen Zechuan’s sleeve as he slid down to his knees along with the blade, slurring his words as he completed the last of his words with a forced smile, “… shall wait, wait for you… on the path to the underworld…”
Shen Zechuan watched Xi Hongxuan fall at his feet. Warm blood trickled down his fingers. He stood in silence for a very long time against a backdrop of roaring fire, then lifted his hand to shake off the droplets of blood.
◈ ◈ ◈
The Xi residence was burned to ashes, and the Imperial Bodyguards brought the remaining survivors in the Xi’s Residence into the Imperial Prison. Shen Zechuan had Xi Hongxuan’s deeds – in which he amassed hired hands and resisted arrest – all recorded in a memorial which he submitted to Li Jianheng to make his report when he met with the latter personally.
Li Jianheng was greatly shocked, but there was irrefutable evidence of Xi Hongxuan gathering men in his estate, and the Imperial Bodyguards had thoroughly checked the backgrounds of these people through the Ministry of Justice. This matter was handled so impeccably with no loose ends that even the imperial censors could find no fault with it.
Wei Huaigu was the most slick and sly. On seeing this, he promptly hinted to his pupils to first denounce Xi Hongxuan as a treacherous villain who had poisoned the Son of Heaven’s mind and led him astray, before decrying Xi Hongxuan for putting His Majesty in harm’s way; the collapse of the Ouhua Pavilion was actually entirely staged by himself. The Wei Clan really went all out to absolve themselves of blame. Such was the state of affairs when the tea had cooled after the company had left.5
Yet, even when Ge Qingqing brought men to search up and down the streets and alleys of Qudu and examine all entry and exit documents, they still never managed to find Qi Huilian and Ji Gang.
“They are definitely still in Qudu.” Shen Zechuan closed the work documents on the desk. “He has the intention to use Teacher to threaten me. Sending them out of Qudu – if he did – would only make it harder for him to control and manipulate them.”
“Teacher is a scholar, but shifu is a worthy opponent with few equals.” Qiao Tianya said, “I’ve already sent men to secretly search for them these days. The search would surely throw up something.”
Shen Zechuan said nothing.
Seeing Shen Zechuan deep in his own thoughts, Qiao Tianya was about to take his leave when Shen Zechuan called out to him, “Since there is no other business tonight, I’ll make a trip to the Plum Blossom Residence. There are many matters to be discussed. You should leave first and wait for me there. Ask Gu Jin who are those in the batch of people Xiangyun Villa sold to Xue Xiuzhuo.”
Qiao Tianya uttered an acknowledgment and took his leave. When he stepped out the door, he saw a few people resting in the courtyard. There were all seniors in the Imperial Bodyguards of fourth grade and above. Among them, there were even a few whose ancestors had been bestowed with titles and properties, and who could don python robes6 and carry Xiuchun blades.7 Ge Qingqing had led his men to rest on the other side. Although everyone was an Imperial Bodyguard, Qiao Tianya could make out the subtle split into cliques among them.
Shen Zechuan had advanced through the ranks too quickly within the last six months, which inevitably made others green with envy. Furthermore, with his close proximity to men in power on all sides, he had taken over the mantle of the Northern Judge,8 which could be considered to have established him as the top dog in the upper echelon of the Imperial Bodyguards for real. The web of connections between the men was as convoluted as a labyrinth; everyone, even if picked at random, was of privileged background and title. When the new replaced the old, it was customary for them to swap pointers with one another. It was only because Shen Zechuan had been too busy with his official duties that he had yet to draw close to them. But once the busy spring farming season had passed, everyone was bound to see each other one way or another during their subsequent missions.
Qiao Tianya’s heart sank slightly. He let down the curtain and left ahead of Shen Zechuan.
Xiao Chiye had yet to return from the military drill grounds at Mount Feng, and only Gu Jin was still at the Plum Blossom Residence. Qiao Tianya drank half a cup of wine with him and made some inquiries into the matter of Xiangyun Villa.
“A total of sixteen people of similar ages. All of them were young boys and girls below the age of twenty.” Gu Jin and Qiao Tianya sat on the railing at the bottom of the veranda. The weather was fine today, with the sight of green buds and sprouts filling their visions. He said, “As for their specific backgrounds and origins, I have already told Tao-zi to write them out and hand them over to the young master. Your master will be able to see it a little later. However, this is not an easy matter to investigate. These people are a motley crew, like a jumbled cluster of grass. There are no other similarities between them other than their ages.”
“Doesn’t this already illustrate the problem?” Qiao Tianya picked up that little porcelain cup that was half the size of a typical cup and drank up the wine. He frowned as he savored the taste of it. “The harder this batch of people is to investigate, the more important they are. This wine is pretty good, but why use it with such a cup? It’s not even the size of my finger.”
“Drinking holds you up from your work. If you reek of wine when the masters return later, you’re bound to get scolded.” Gu Jin did not dare to drink as liberally as he always did these few days after having received a dressing down from Xiao Chiye the last time. He simply sat for a moment. The patrols in the Plum Blossom Residence were under his charge, so he left just a short while later and let Qiao Tianya have fun by himself.
Qiao Tianya sat alone on the veranda and drank his wine as he appreciated the sight of spring. There was no one around, and he enjoyed himself nonetheless. He remembered that his zither was still here; thus he thought of taking it out to play. He rose to his feet and made a detour carrying the tray in hand, passing through branches that looked like green mist when he suddenly heard the zither. Qiao Tianya followed the sound in search of it. He did not charge out hastily, but instead brushed aside the green mist and took a peek out of the corner of his eyes.
The long walkway was facing the natural sunlight, and sitting underneath was a brightly illuminated man who was sitting cross-legged. This man’s entire head of black hair was adorned with an aged wooden hairpin. He was not wearing a crown, and he was wearing a sky-blue wide-sleeved robe with a zhaowen bag9 hanging from his waist.
Qiao Tianya could not get a clear look at his face; all he could see was him idly plucking away at the strings. He would play a tune, then stop. A music score was laid out beside him. He was pondering it over when an gray-white kitten suddenly sprang onto his back and threaded its way around the sides of his neck to fish up locks of his hair with its paw to play with.
This man carried the cat down and tucked it in his sleeve, his mind still on the zither. Qiao Tianya recognized the zither as his own. He stepped forward slowly and gradually came to see this man’s face as his angle shifted.
The willow catkins of the fourth lunar month in spring drifted, while the green velvet buds all hung out to dry under the resplendent sunlight This man was fair. Unlike Shen Zechuan’s icy fairness, which looked as though he was immersed in frost, this man seemed more like a smooth white jade placed under the sunlight of spring. He did not have Shen Zechuan’s cutting-edge sharpness, nor did he have Shen Zechuan’s breathtaking allure. But he was in a class of his own—ethereal, and unforgettable.
Qiao Tianya used to be a young master of a family of officials. In this moment, he recalled a poem his eldest sister-in-law had previously recited.
Such is the mountain of rocks like jade; as is the forest of pines like jadeite.
His unrivaled beauty, one of a kind; second to none, a man divine.10
Both of them had not even conversed with one another, and Qiao Tianya already knew who he was.
“Truly the epitome of a man of leisure.” Qiao Tianya strode up the railings and set the tray down on the ground. “No need to keep looking at the score for this tune. If you’re keen to learn, I can teach you.”
This man lifted his eyes to look at him. He laughed and said, “I think of wine, and the wine comes. I seek the tune, and the tune appears. Buddy, you’re truly my lucky star.”
“The springtime landscape in this residence is excellent. A pity no one appreciates it. It’s fate that I get to encounter you while enjoying the sights of spring. And it’s still fate that I get to listen to this melody. Bosom guests are hard to come by in this world. I’m no good at anything except playing the zither well. If you miss the opportunity that is me, then there will be no one else who is up to teaching you.” Qiao Tianya poured wine for himself while standing. After drinking a cup, he tilted his chin at the man. “So, are you learning or not?”
“Serving one’s teacher is akin to serving one’s father.”11 This man put down the zither and dangled his jade pendant to tease the cat. He said in a composed and unhurried manner, “I can acknowledge you as my teacher, but to be someone’s teacher, you must first convince the person.”
Qiao Tianya stroked his slightly stubbled chin and said, “I, Qiao Tianya, never lie. Acknowledge me if you’re willing to believe me. Else, forget it.”
This man loosened his grip on the jade pendant and looked at Qiao Tianya again. After a while, he smiled and said, “I believe you.”
◈ ◈ ◈
By the time Xiao Chiye returned to the Plum Blossom Residence, it was already dark. It was only when he dismounted that Chen Yang remembered and said as he led the horse, “Master, they said a few days ago that Young Master Yao has returned. Although he avoided the banquet, he will call on us to pay us a visit.”
“He’s a hard one to track down. Who knows when his interest for a visit will come calling?” Xiao Chiye took off his dusty and sweat-soaked outer robe and strode through the door to enter. “If he comes, tell the kitchen to prepare some light dishes for him. He has been with Secretariat Elder Hai long enough that he has grown accustomed to it and hardly consumes meat.”
Gu Jin came out to them, then followed Xiao Chiye inside. Xiao Chiye stroked Meng, who was on his shoulder, and said, “Bring in some white meat and fresh water. It’s tired out today too—is my man here?”
Gu Jin nodded and said, “He arrived a little less than an hour ago. He’s currently handling official affairs in the study.”
Xiao Chiye asked, “Has he taken his meal?”
Gu Jin replied, “No. His Excellency specially told the kitchen that he’d wait for the Young Master to return before having dinner together.”
Xiao Chiye looked at him as he turned his thumb ring around. Gu Jin got the hint and averted his gaze, not daring to stare at Xiao Chiye further. But Xiao Chiye’s mood did indeed take a turn for the better. Before he entered the room, he took off Langli Blade and tossed it to Gu Jin.
“Give the sheath a wipe.” Xiao Chiye pulled up the front of his clothes to take a sniff of the scent on his own body. “Send it in in a while. When it comes to sharpening the blade, I still ought to do it myself. Have someone keep an eye on the serving of dishes. There will be a lot going on tonight, but the water must be heated up enough. Where is Qiao Tianya? Have him take his Master’s python robe to the laundry room and scent it with incense before the morning court. That’s all for now. You may go.”
Gu Jin acknowledged his command and withdrew, and Xiao Chiye pushed the door open.
Shen Zechuan had been inside listening for quite a while. He dipped the brush in ink without lifting his head and merely said, “How virtuous. The Second Young Master is truly a man after my own heart.”
- In Chinese customs, rice wine or tea is poured onto the ground (usually in front of an altar or tombstone) as an offering to the deities or in honor of the deceased.
- 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.
- 百炼成钢 to be tempered into steel; i.e., to toughen up by going through many hardships or setbacks
- Children in those days were classified according to whether they were a lawful or common child. A son of lawful birth (嫡子) was born by the legal first wife (this was the wife who has been officially married into the family, also known as a zhengshi (正室)). They also had higher social status and often received better treatment compared to the son of common births (庶子) born by concubines.
- 人走茶凉 literally “the tea gets cold when the people leave”—feelings are gone when the people have left, i.e., people no longer fawn upon those who have fallen out of power.
- 蟒衣 (or 蟒袍) “python (or mang) robes” were embroidered robes bestowed by the Emperor to officials with merits during the Ming Dynasty. It was a sign of honor and favor for officials who were granted the privilege of wearing a “python robe”.
绣春刀 Xiuchun Blade is the blade of the Imperial Bodyguards during the Ming Dynasty.
- 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.
- 招文袋 a small bag hung at the waist for keeping documents or money.
From the Tune of Master Whitestone《白石郎曲》by Guo Maoqian (郭茂倩), a Song dynasty poetry anthologist. (T97 use 有 which is has* jade but original is supposedly 如 which is like* jade)
These lines describe a man whose beautiful appearance is difficult to describe in words. Jade and pine are often associated with a beautiful man, and they are used here to compare to the beauty of a male Adonis. No one else in the world can compare to his supreme beauty. The keywords here are his unique and unparalleled beauty.
- 事师之犹事父也 from “Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals on Learning” 《吕氏春秋·劝学》, a compendium of the philosophies of the Hundred Schools of Thoughts, compiled around 239 BC under the patronage of Qin Dynasty Chancellor Lü Buwei.