The refreshing breeze came blowing gently, and the chilly night made one cold with fear.
Xiao Chiye’s earlier intent to kill was largely dispelled by this “Er-lang”. He stayed silent for a long while, bathed in this pleasant coolness as he calmed himself.
Shen Zechuan looked back again at Ge Qingqing. Without looking the least bit flustered, he said, “Transporting this many silvers is not something that can be achieved in a short time. No matter how thorough he is, he can’t deceive the entire world. Gather some men tonight to head out of the city. First, head to Qinzhou and make detailed inquiries along the way. Record down all the business transactions of the major goods in the past two years from Juexi to the Northeast, then send someone to give me a detailed account.”
Ge Qingqing had been heavyhearted with worries after receiving the news. But when he saw how unperturbed Shen Zechuan was, he could not help but feel a little relieved and composed himself too.
“Chen Yang.” With his robe hanging off his shoulders, Xiao Chiye motioned, “Take them to the Interpreters Institute1 in Qudu first. Get a batch of medium-grade horses and affix their tags to the official writ of arrest for the notorious bandit leader. Say that the bandit is on the run in Juexi. It’s not convenient for the Imperial Army to head out of the city to pursue and apprehend him; thus this task is entrusted to the Imperial Bodyguards. I’ll personally make a trip to the Ministry of War and the Ministry of Justice tomorrow morning to submit a report.”
The city gates were already closed, and they could not leave the city arbitrarily. The Imperial Bodyguards were also involved in the important tasks of conducting raids and arrests of criminals, and they usually had to report to the Ministry of Justice and Chief Surveillance Bureau whenever they had to leave the city for fieldwork, then waited for the official approval in reply. By doing this, Xiao Chiye was giving Ge Qingqing a reason to take the men out of the capital and to excuse him from being subsequently called to account by the Ministry of Justice.
Ge Qingqing immediately left upon getting his order. Chen Yang threw on his robe and led the way, and both men left the residence ahead of the others.
Xiao Chiye led the flimsily-dressed Shen Zechuan back by the hand. When he stepped through the door into the room and saw that Shen Zechuan was still deep in thought, he said, “What happened to Teacher is no doubt connected to Xue Xiuzhuo. But since he’s willing to transfer him away, that means Teacher is still of use to him. He won’t act rashly and kill Teacher. There are too many secrets hidden in the Xue’s Residence. I have to think of a reason to get a special search-and-arrest warrant from His Majesty.”
“To deploy the Imperial Army, it has to be a major case where the evidence is irrefutable. So we still have to rely on the Imperial Bodyguards for the probe today.” Shen Zechuan did not sit back in his original seat. He knew that resting would prove to be hard tonight, seeing as it was already late, so he poured himself a cup of strong tea. However, he only took a sip and gave the rest to Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye drank it all and said, “Xue Xiuzhuo is cautious in everything he does. He would not even accept the ‘ice respect’2 those officials outside the city offered him upon their return to the capital. In all the time during his tenure as the Chief Supervising Secretary, the imperial censors from the Chief Surveillance Bureau all regarded him as the most uncorrupted official. He rarely gets impeached. So I’m afraid it’ll be hard for even the Imperial Bodyguards to find a reason to investigate him.”
“Investigating him openly with great fanfare will inadvertently alert the enemy.” Shen Zechuan fiddled with the teacup and deliberated it over the bitter aftertaste of the tea. “He’s out in the open, while we are hidden in the dark. As long as we keep the pawn Xue Xiuyi concealed, we are still the party on the offensive. Matters outside the palace is not an issue, but we have to be even more careful when it comes to affairs within the palace. His intent to kill His Majesty has already been ignited, and he has the help of Mu Ru and Fengquan. He knows every one of His Majesty’s moves and actions like the back of his hand. Under the circumstances, we have no option but to guard against him.”
Xiao Chiye thought for a moment, then said, “Didn’t Fengquan just become the Seal-holding Director of the Directorate of Ceremonial? Given his service record, he will surely incur censure from both inner and outer courts. Fuman, whose rank is beneath him, is itching for a fight, while Hai Liangyi detests eunuchs. Fengquan’s power and authority now that he has assumed the post of the Seal-holding Director cannot be compared to Pan Rugui’s during the latter’s time in power. Get him trapped both on the inside and outside where he is unable to fend for himself, and he won’t have the spare capacity to deal with anything else for Xue Xiuzhuo.”
“It’s also of pivotal importance to secure His Majesty’s position.” Shen Zechuan said. “No word regarding the imperial heir must get out.”
Ever since Li Jianheng’s ascension, he had been castigated much by the imperial censors. What’s more, he had met with mishaps and dangers one after another. He did not have an outstanding track record of political achievements, and his reputation among the commoners was not comparable to that of the former emperor. If the matter of the imperial heir were to leak, it would no doubt unsettle public sentiment. No matter which way one were to look at it, it would not be conducive to maintaining stability.
“Regardless of whether it’s a real dragon or a fake dragon3 in Xue Xiuzhuo’s hands.” Xiao Chiye pressed against his thumb ring and stared at the glazed lamp. “The emperor of Dazhou can only be Li Jianheng. Even if a crown prince is to be designated in the future, it can only be Li Jianheng’s son.”
The Xiao Clan was now a notch above the Hua Clan, and they had managed to preserve their power. Xiao Chiye, secured in his position, was steadily making his moves, while Xiao Jiming, over in Libei, was solid in his defenses too. They pitted against the noble clans in Zhongbo and Qidong on the sly. The fight was not that intense, because there were the outspoken ministers Hai Liangyi and his people to act as an intermediary and mediate between them, managing with some difficulty to prevent the infighting between the two tigers4 from deteriorating further. But then, Hai Liangyi’s greatest protection was Li Jianheng. Li Jianheng was willing to trust him and respect him; he knew of his unyielding loyalty. That’s why he had not immediately turned to the Empress Dowager for support in this tug-of-war. Furthermore, Li Jianheng was willing to lay out all the major and minor affairs of the imperial court on the table to discuss with Hai Liangyi. This was the fundamental reason why Hai Liangyi could secure his position in the Grand Secretariat as the Grand Secretary after the move into the new reign.
The person Li Jianheng was not important. But after he ascended to the throne, “Li Jianheng” became crucial. He was in the center of all the covert and overt attacks. And he was the cage the three sides jointly used to restrain the other. He was also the dagger the three sides jointly used to attack the other.
Now that Xue Xiuzhuo had already surfaced, Shen Zechuan could not help but wonder – even as he looked for a breakthrough – if there was another person behind Xue Xiuzhuo.
◈ ◈ ◈
There was a drizzle a few days later, when Xue Xiuzhuo had the day off.
He was wearing a sky blue fine-woven silk robe as he paid a formal call on Qi Huilian at the small building he was jn. Qi Huilian took large bites of his meal and did not even cast a glance at him.
Xue Xiuzhuo did not sit at the table, and the bow he made was a protocol observed by pupils. He saw Ji Gang sitting before the window polishing a stone, and so he said to those in attendance, “Elder Ji has yet to recover from his injuries and should avoid spicy food. Go and get the chef from Duanzhou to cook up the dishes again.”
“No need for the trouble.” Ji Gang blew away the dust and said in a quiet voice, “I’m not eating.”
Xue Xiuzhuo did not say a word, and the attendant withdrew to give the chef his instructions. The Xue Clan was a prominent clan of the City of Jincheng, and they were not used to the local tastes of Zhongbo. This chef from Duanzhou was someone he had hired specifically for Ji Gang.
The drizzle outside the building came pitter-pattering amongst the apricot blooms in spring, and the pink and white in the courtyard were all beaten to mud by the rain. Having eaten and drunk to his fill, Qi Huilian wiped his mouth and rose to look at the bleak scene in the courtyard. He said, “No need to waste that effort. Ji Gang is extremely obstinate. If he says he’s not eating, then it means exactly that. Just get them to prepare some steamed buns and pickled vegetables for him to allay his hunger.”
Xue Xiuzhuo smiled, “I can’t be so irreverent with both elders in my house as guests.”
“Then open the doors.” Ji Gang carved a nose and eyes for the stone. “We can go back ourselves.”
Without a change in his expression, Xue Xiuzhuo said, “There’s a chill in the spring air lately. Seeing as Vice Commander Shen still has nowhere to settle down, how would he be able to provide proper accommodation for both elders?”
“Drop the pretense. Just say that you’re keeping us in captivity.” Qi Huilian walked a few steps, and the iron chain on his ankles clanked along with his movements. He said, “I’ve been taken prisoner my entire life, and I’m almost reaching my end. I’m old, and he’s disabled. What are you trying to do by holding the two of us old, weak, sick, and disabled men captive in your hands?”
Xue Xiuzhuo personally bent over to pick up the chopsticks Qi Huilian had pushed aside to the ground. Wiping it with a handkerchief, he said, “Mister is a brilliant man of great stature in the past. You originally would have enjoyed the posthumous honor and glory of being enshrined and worshiped by the Imperial Ancestral Temple after death. A pity you threw in your lot with the wrong person, and ended up feigning insanity in Zhao Zui Temple for twenty years. Today, I would like to ask of Mister to be the Imperial Preceptor once again. Firstly, it can make up for Mister’s regret for not being able to witness the Crown Prince’s enthronement ceremony back then. Secondly, it can redress the injustice and grievance Mister has suffered and allow Mister to begin afresh in the imperial court; you can return before the eyes of the masses in a dignified and aboveboard manner. Aren’t these two reasons sufficient enough? I am a person who respects and admires Mister.”
“Be the Imperial Preceptor again.” Qi Huilian took a step backward, dragging the iron chain along with him. A laugh escaped his throat. “You want me to be the Imperial Preceptor again? Such arrogance! The world is now at peace, and the current emperor is rightfully legitimate. He has that Hai Renshi to watch over him and assist him, so why do you still need me, Qi Huilian? I’m crazy and silly. There’s no way I can assume an important post!”
Xue Xiuzhuo set down the chopsticks and said, “Mister ended in such a situation only because Mister was slandered. During the reign of Yongyi, the Empress Dowager took control over the state affairs, which turned the law and discipline of Dazhou’s imperial court upside down and caused corrupt officials to run amok. It was the same during the reign of Xiande. Hua and Pan colluded with one another and stirred up troubles in Qudu, the Eight Cities, the entire Dazhou, bringing untold suffering to the common folk of the various lands. Then, the troops of Zhongbo suffered a defeat, and it was a scene of desolation and despair in the Six Prefectures as victims and refugees swarmed all over, and bodies of the starved littered the roads. Mister spent an idle twenty years in Zhao Zui Temple, yet you have lost your drive and heroic spirit now that you have come out. Have you even lost the will to compete and emerge victorious against Hai Liangyi?”
Qi Huilian turned around and held on to the window to look at the rain pelting the apricot blossoms. After a moment of silence, he said, “It’s true that I wanted to compete with Hai Liangyi twenty-five years ago to determine who was the better one. We both took the same imperial examinations. He was so unremarkable, while I ranked first in the imperial civil examinations at the provincial, metropolitan, and palace level.5 I was complacent in my youth and did not know how to navigate the official circles. I ended up framed and demoted out of the capital. Too ashamed to face my elders in Yuzhou, I fell depressed for several years. Later on, Hai Liangyi was promoted, and he rose in ranks. Yet, the Crown Prince did not take him as his teacher, but welcomed me back to Qudu from Yuzhou. And so, I became the Grand Mentor of the Eastern Palace. At the same time, I assumed the post of Minister of Personnel. Hai Liangyi lost to the name Qi Huilian his entire life. But he is a gentleman. When the Crown Prince slit his own throat, he was condemned by all. Only Hai Liangyi believed that there was still hope in him—that he was not beyond redemption. Just for this alone, I cannot be compared to him. Between us, there is no superiority or inferiority, only mutual appreciation. But alas, Heaven is blind. Even though we share the same path, we still cannot work together. I’ve been trapped for twenty-five years. You’re right. At present, I no longer have the will nor desire to compete with him.”
Xue Xiuzhuo fell silent too, leaving only the sound of rain and of Ji Gang carving and polishing in the room. The rain intensified, and the apricot blossoms fell in an even more chaotic manner to form a blanket of fragmentary pink among the muddy water.
“In this lifetime, I’ve only taught two people, and both times, I imparted all the knowledge I have learned over the course of my life to them. I thought too highly of my talents and was unwilling to make do, and it was precisely of this conceitedness that I caused such great harm to my first student.” Qi Huilian gazed at that dirty water with pieces of petals, as if he was looking at his own down-and-out half of his life. He said, “I, Qi Huilian, am not an immortal after all. Two students are enough. As for the others, I’m not up to teaching them.”
Ji Gang burst out coughing violently. He covered his mouth with a handkerchief and grumbled, “Close the windows!”
Qi Huilian shut all those scenes outside and looked back at Xue Xiuzhuo. He said, “That’s all I have to say. Don’t pester me! Leave. Don’t stay and get in the way.”
Xue Xiuzhuo did not move. His appearance did not resemble Xue Xiuyi; he did not even look to be a noble clan’s descendant. He lacked the same kind of haughtiness Pan Li and Fei Shi had. His identity as a son born of a concubine had given him a lot of grief the past decades, and it subsequently polished him into a person of unobtrusive but sophisticated elegance.
“I admire Mister’s talents and learning, and I look up even more to Mister’s philosophy on the world. I have come thrice to this small building to beseech Mister to come out of obscurity to return to officialdom all because I understand Mister’s aspirations. Mister, Hai Liangyi is indeed a lofty gentleman, but a gentleman has never been able to co-exist for long with a man with petty interests. The current emperor is not given to accepting guidance from the classics, and he doesn’t have the benevolence to treat worthy men and men of virtue with due respect. He is merely a straw everyone grasps on to as Dazhou teethers on the brink of collapse. There is no way he can be a wise and virtuous ruler. How much strength and energy does Hai Liangyi still have left in him? To entrust the safety of the state entirely on him alone is a complete reversal of hierarchy and an overlook of the more important issues at hand.”
Qi Huilian said, “To begin with, it’s the ministers’ duty to assist the sovereign in governing the state. Hai Liangyi is doing his best to save the situation from declining and to mediate between the various parties. He’s a loyal subject. Don’t tell me you still want him to be a traitor, one who replaces the Li Clan and brings about a regime change?”
“The conflict between those from the noble clans and those of humble backgrounds has been going on for hundreds of years. To get rid of this age-old societal ill, one must have the determination to commit oneself irrevocably and fight to the very end.” Xue Xiuzhuo rose to his feet and said, “If Li Jianheng can’t do it, there are still others. Dazhou is the empire of the Li Clan. As long as the Li bloodline still exists, then it’s only reasonable to have a change in person in order to tide over this crisis.”
Qi Huilian’s point of view was at odds with him. So he merely treated him as a noble clan descendant abusing his power for personal gains and refused to engage further in a conversation with him.
Xue Xiuzhuo stood in silence for a moment before he said, “Mister and I are also both kindred spirits on the same path. It’s a pity Mister doesn’t believe me. But I still have to tell you that Shen Zechuan is a vestige of evil who drags out his feeble existence nursing his hatred. There is nothing else in his heart; he merely exists for revenge. He acts with viciousness, and he is narrow-minded. He is poles apart from the Crown Prince. Mister teaches him with the heart and mind of tutoring a sovereign, and this is no different from helping a villain commit evil. Even if he makes great achievements in the future, he still won’t be a good master.”
Ji Gang slammed down his carving knife without warning and glared furiously at Xue Xiuzhuo. He said, “How much do you understand Chuan-er? You people keep calling him a vestige of evil, but the way I see it, all of you are the insatiably greedy vestiges of evil! Shut your trap and leave!”
Xue Xiuzhuo bowed and said, “I’ll be waiting, should Mister have second thoughts.”
He exited and left after letting down the curtain.
Xue Xiuyi was wandering outside the courtyard when he saw Xue Xiuzhuo walking back from afar. He cradled the umbrella close and made his way to the veranda, only to bump into the students who had been dismissed from school.
These students, who came from the brothel, paid their respects to him. Xue Xiuyi tossed the umbrella to the maidservant behind him and looked at them one at a time. The maidservant said, “Is this the path for you people to walk on? How impertinent of you all to get in the way of the Eldest Master!”
The students hung their heads down and retreated. A girl of seventeen or eighteen stood behind them. Xiu Xiuyi noted that she was extraordinarily good-looking, so he tugged her sleeve frivolously and said, “Are you one of the chicks Yanqing bought back? What’s your name?”
This girl cast a glance at Xue Xiuyi without answering. Xue Xiuzhuo just happened to approach from the other end to block Xue Xiuyi. He said with a smile, “Did Eldest Brother just come back? Let’s return to the courtyard. The rain is heavy. Careful not to get drenched.”
Xue Xiuyi slapped his hand away and said impatiently, “I know!”
Xue Xiuyi took a few steps and heard the students behind him pay their respects in unison and addressed Xue Xiuzhuo “Teacher”. He turned his head back again for another look, only to see that girl earlier looking right back at him with her head inclined to the side.
Her gaze showed no fear or trepidation. Even after Xiu Xiuyi discovered her looking at him, she did not avert her gaze. Instead, she looked at him until Xue Xiuyi could not help but turn his head around first.
The wind and the rain pelted his face. Xue Xiuyi shivered and hurried away with his arms wrapped around himself.
- 会同馆 Interpreters Institute, which was devoted to oral communication and the hosting of foreign envoys.
- 冰敬 Literally, ‘Ice Respect’ (or paying respect with ‘ice’ during summer) is one of the objectionable practices of ‘Three Respects’ during the Qing Dynasty, along with ‘Coal Respect’ and ‘Departure Respect’. ‘Ice Respect’ refers to the bribe money officials outside the capital used to bribe the officials in the capital during summer.
- The dragon is the symbol of the emperor. Here it refers to the supposed imperial heir, who would be next in line to the throne if (a childless) Li Jianheng goes kaput.
- From 一山不容(藏)二虎, literally no two tigers can exist in the same mountain. i.e., two rivals cannot co-exist in the same place.
- 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.