Since the end of the year, many of the pedestrians on the streets of Qudu wore “nao’e”1 made of black gold paper.2 As Zhengdan Festival3 approached, the common folks strove to prepare pastries and cooked meat at home. The palace had started procuring the ingredients for the ‘Banquet of Ten Thousand Officials’ half a month in advance. Everyone from the Court of Imperial Entertainments was busy running all over, yet the eunuchs still got to line their pockets.
Xiao Chiye rustled his way through the book and said, “When those officials on the outside enter the Capital, it is inevitable for them to have to pay ‘ice respect’4 to the officials in the Capital. But Pan Rugui is so impressive that he drew up such a well-organized list: only when they shell out the money according to his list will they be left in peace.”
“And these are only just the ‘small changes’ at the beginning of the year.” Lu Guangbai brushed aside the foam in his tea. “Let me give you an account. The money the little eunuch under Pan Rugui receives in a year far exceeds the two-year salary of a Battalion Commander Guard at the frontier. Da Zhou uses the military troops every year, and each time the Ministry of Revenue asks us to deploy the troops, they have to plead with us and coax us to do so. But after the battle is over, we become the bastards who demand our payments.”
“It’s the ones with the money who are the masters.” Xiao Chiye smiled and said.
“When we came to the Emperor’s rescue before the new year, our Libei troops braved the snow to march forward. The men and horses are tired, and the repairs for the Armored Cavalry’s equipment need to be completed before the start of Spring. We have owed the workshop money for too many days. Everything requires money.” Zhao Hui carefully made the calculations in his mind and said, “Before we entered Qudu, the Libei troops engaged in farming duties5 converted the annual grain harvest into money. Every day, we have to count every cent and make every cent count. Our Hereditary Prince’s Consort does not even dare to purchase expensive attire for the Residence during the new year and other festivals. The money a palace eunuch like Pan Rugui has collected has already exceeded Duanzhou’s total tax amount. The Investigating Censors throw their weight around when they are delegated to local governments. But so what? In Qudu, they don’t even dare to let out a fart!”
“What to do, we are poor.” Lu Guangbai lamented, “Every year, we have to worry about money. Jiming made a trip to the Capital this time, so the Ministry of Revenue did not dare to delay it on his account and had long submitted the request to the Grand Secretariat. Pan Rugui has also behaved himself and endorsed his approval. The funds should be handed over before he leaves the Capital.”
“We have Eldest Brother.” Xiao Chiye set aside the book and looked towards Lu Guangbai. “But what are you going to do?”
“His Majesty wouldn’t see me.” Lu Guangbai said, “The Lu Clan is unpopular in Qudu. The Eight Great Clans have always regarded us as savages from the desert, and the Hua Clan wouldn’t even look us right in the eyes. But even if you tell me to show my ‘respects’6 to Pan Rugui, I don’t have the money to. We are so poor at home we could barely put food on the table. Other places could cultivate lands for their troops to farm, and that is at least an emergency measure to meet needs. But our Bianjun Commandery has just yellow sand for miles around. Even if we want to farm, we don’t have the fields. This time, we dispatched the troops out on a swift expedition, and all the food for the men and horses during the journey were paid for with Commander-in-Chief Qi’s personal savings. To put it bluntly, it was all thanks to Commander-in-Chief Qi’s understanding and sympathy. Otherwise, my troops would have never made it past Tianfei Watchtower. But how much money would Commander-in-Chief Qi have? She’s using the remnants of her own dowry that the Old Imperial Consort has left for her! Her own private troops are almost on the verge of selling their own pants! The Ministry of Revenue keeps playing Taiji7 with me every day. Dereliction of duty, huh? They keep pushing my account aside and refuse to allocate the funds to me, figuring that a country bumpkin like me could do nothing about them.”
Lu Guangbai lost his temper in a rare display of anger. He could not help it. The Bianjun Commandery was defending along the borders of the desert, and they were the Garrison Troops that had the most dealings with the Biansha Cavalry other than Libei. They worked themselves to death all year round, running all over the place just to eke out a living under the blades of the machetes. They barely had sufficient sleep, and would never get to eat their fill. Qudu was oppressing him, and the Earl of Biansha had long become a well-known pauper among the Princes. His clan had never even kept any of the rewards bestowed to them; all of it had been converted into money and used to supplement military supplies.
Once Xiao Jiming was neatly dressed, the maidservants left in a single file, leaving only the four of them in the room. Xiao Jiming held up the teacup and took a sip of his tea. He said unhurriedly, “The timing is good this year—Zhengdan’ Banquet of Ten Thousand Officials’. Qi Zhuyin should be here already, right?”
Lu Guangbai said, “That’s right. I was originally worried, but on second thought, let them do as they please and drag this matter on. If they delay it until the Commander-in-Chief enters the Capital, well then, good luck to them.”
Xiao Jiming said, “She is now the most popular in Qudu. Even those local ruffians and hooligans that are the ‘loansharks’ in Qudu have to give her face. The previous debt can be repaid, but you can’t always rely on her alone. The Bianjun Commandery is important. From what I’ve heard of the situation yesterday, the Ministry of Revenue will be asking you to recruit soldiers again this year.”
Lu Guangbai caressed the rim of the teacup and said, “Recruit? Don’t even think about it. They are all afraid of death now that something happened to the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. They are concerned about the Bianjun Commandery getting stabbed by the Biansha Twelve Tribes, and they even feel that my twenty thousand troops and horses aren’t enough. The thing is that we can recruit the soldiers, but do we have the money to pay them? I can’t afford to feed and train them. I will not do it even if they hold up a blade to my neck this year.”
Xiao Chiye suddenly sat upright and said, “That’s right. In the past, the Ministry of Revenue was the quickest when it comes to assigning military funds and rations to the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. The men died this time, so we can leave aside the issue of the money. But where are the grains? The Biansha Cavalry can’t carry away that much grain with them when they flee.”
The remaining three men looked at him.
Lu Guangbai said, “Silly lad, you can stop wondering about that. The grain was recovered and used to make up for the salary arrears owed to the Thirteen Cities of Juexi last year. Can’t you guess the reason the Ministry of Revenue dodged the issue? In recent years, the Eight Great Clans have become the Eight Great Training Divisions, and their equipment and budgets are the best in Da Zhou. All this money is taken right from the tax funds. Think about it, the sum of two million. Any human would know how insane this account is. But both the Empress Dowager and Secretariat Elder Hua did not pursue this matter. So who in the Ministry of Revenue who would dare to bring it up? The State Treasury is emptied of this portion of the money. Last year, the Thirteen Cities of Juexi were hit by a plague of locusts, and there was truly not a single grain harvested that year. So, where would they get the money for disaster relief? It was all thanks to the Provincial Administration Commissioner, Jiang Qingshan, who issued a peremptory order for all the officials of various ranks within the prefecture to release their private stock of grains to help the disaster victims. Because of this, Jiang Qingshan saved hundreds of thousands of commoners, but he ended up being hated by the various officials in Juexi. Before the new year, I heard that the debt collectors were even blocking the entrance to his house. He is a high-ranking provincial official of the second-grade, and yet his eighty years old mother still has to weave to pay off their debt! It would be forcing them to their death if Qudu still did not release the money. In the end, Secretariat Elder Hai submitted a memorial and contended with the Grand Secretariat and Pan Rugui for half a month before they barely made up for the shortfall.”
Zhao Hui could not help but say, “Those people say they are poor, but the amounts of bribe money are all large sums. On the other hand, those doing the real work are all walking on eggshells while tightening their belts. We might as well not come to Qudu this time. It really makes one disheartened.”
It was snowing outside the house, but there was no festive atmosphere within. The mess kept piling up one after another, and all the new sights in Qudu were like mist skimming the surface. Its wound had yet to heal, and yet they still had to cover it up even as pus dirtied its entire grounds. The snow came at just the right time to conceal it all so beautifully that they could pretend not to notice. Everyone could all live like a drunk in this fool’s paradise together.
◈ ◈ ◈
In the middle of the night, Pan Rugui sat on the couch with his eyes closed. The naturally-colored paper flower was placed by his hand so that he could wipe his hands after meditation. Xiaofuzi did not even dare to breathe heavily as he held a brush case in his hands and waited carefully on the footrest.
After an hour, Pan Rugui exhaled and opened his eyes. Xiaofuzi immediately presented the brush to him. With a frown of concentration, Pan Rugui wrote a few words in his palm.
Xiaofuzi buttered up to him and said, “Our Forefather is becoming more and more sagely after having recently received His Majesty’s teachings. Earlier, this grandson even saw a faint wisp of purple cloud8 rising!”
Pang Rugui wiped his hands and asked, “Do you know why you have never been able to join the Directorate of Ceremonial?”
Xiaofuzi replied, “Forefather dotes on me.”
“It’s one thing to dote on you.” Pan Rugui threw the paper flower into Xiaofuzi’s bosom. “Not being able to read the situation is another. His Majesty has been enlightened for two years, and he still doesn’t give off purple aura. I’m merely a slave. How can I ascend first? Isn’t that overstepping my boundaries?”
Xiaofuzi handed the hot tea over to Pan Rugui. He smiled ingratiatingly and said, “Forefather is my master, and so Forefather is my Heaven. Seeing Forefather meditating is just like seeing the Grand Supreme Elderly Lord9 descending to the mortal world! How on earth would I give it that much thought?”
“Mmm.” Pan Rugui rinsed his mouth. “This filial piety of yours could be called a skill in itself.”
Xiaofuzi let out a “hehe” as he moved close to Pan Rugui’s leg and said, “I have to show my filial respect to Forefather since it’s the Zhengdan Festival. While I was procuring for the Festival before the new year, I saw a stunning beauty in Prince Chu’s Manor! I made some inquiries around. His Majesty can’t use her anyway, so it’s of utmost importance for me to give her to you as a show of my filial piety instead.”
Pan Rugui said, “How stunning is she? Can she compare to Third Missy? Furthermore, isn’t that Prince Chu’s woman? Given that overbearing and domineering temper of his, I’m afraid he won’t let her go that easily.”
Xiaofuzi said, “No matter how noble Prince Chu is, he can’t be even nobler than his Majesty, can he? His Majesty didn’t even say anything, so isn’t it only right for me to present her to Forefather? Besides, you don’t have to worry about this matter. I assure you that all the proper arrangements will be made before the beginning of Spring. It’ll be her good fortune when the time comes for you to lay your eyes on her regardless of whether or not you accept her.”
Pan Rugui set aside the teacup and said, “There’s no hurry. I’m not an avaricious or a lecherous man. Since you brought up Prince Chu, then how is the one who has the same temper as him, Mister-Muddling-Along Second Young Master Xiao, doing lately?”
Xiaofuzi pounded Pan Rugui’s thigh in a massage and said, “Heh! Forefather, this Second Young Master Xiao is really a legend. From the first night since he came to the Capital, he has been out drinking with the others! He has never done any serious work except to drink and make merry. Prince Chu and that clique of his all like to have fun with him. Birds of a feather truly flock together!”
“That’s fine… but he is still a member of the Xiao Clan after all. His Majesty placed him in the Imperial Regalia Service, which is too close for comfort. It makes me uneasy.” Pan Rugui thought about it for a moment, then suddenly smiled and said, “I have thought of just the perfect place to send him away to. Put on my shoes. I’m going to Mingli Hall to serve His Majesty!”
It was the Zhengdan Festival’s ‘Banquet of Ten Thousand Officials’ the next day. There was nothing much going on during the feast, and just as the banquet was about to break up, they all heard Emperor Xiande say.
“A-Ye, has it been comfortable for you in Qudu these days?”
Xiao Chiye stopped peeling the tangerine and answered, “To reply Your Majesty, it’s comfortable.”
Emperor Xiande turned towards Xiao Jiming and said, “I’ve been thinking about it. Putting A-Ye in the Imperial Regalia Service is a waste of talent. He’s a good child who has been on the battlefield. Keeping him before me is too much of an aggrievement for him. How about this? Let A-Ye go to the Imperial Army. The Imperial Army Viceroy10 used to be Xi Gu’an, but he now has the Eight Great Training Divisions to manage. He is really up to his ears in work. Let A-Ye take his place.”
Right at once, Lu Guangbai frowned.
At the very least, the Imperial Regalia Service would be on duty before the Emperor. If anything were to happen, His Majesty could not turn a blind eye to it. But what good was the Imperial Army? The Imperial Army was now the errand-runners of Qudu. Was this a reward? How could this even be considered a reward?!
Lu Guangbai was about to rise to his feet when he saw that Xiao Chiye had already bowed his thanks.
“A Viceroy sounds imposing, just like a Commander-in-Chief.” Xiao Chiye smiled frivolously and said, “Thank you, Your Majesty!”
Secretariat Elder Hua laughed out loud and said, “His Majesty is wise! Hereditary Prince, here’s a young hero in the making.”
The sounds of congratulations rose and fell like the tide during the banquet. Xiao Jiming smiled and said nothing as he looked at Xiao Chiye.
Lu Guangbai drank the wine and lowered his head to say to Zhao Hui at the side. “… Such an arrangement is clearly a death sentence aimed at Jiming’s heart.”
After the banquet broke up, Xiao Chiye disappeared without a trace.
His rowdy bunch of friends wanted to congratulate him on his promotion. So he took them drinking. When they reemerged at midnight after drinking, they were all staggering on their feet.
Prince Chu, Li Jianheng, was a few years older than Xiao Chiye. He was a true scoundrel. Before getting into the sedan chair, he even tugged at Xiao Chiye’s sleeve and said in a drunken stupor, “How capable of you! The Imperial Army, huh. You need not bother about patrols or defenses. It’s a very idle job, and yet you still get to collect a salary. You get the money, and you don’t have to put your life on the line. All the best things in the world have fallen into your lap! You must be secretly smug!”
Xiao Chiye smiled too; it was even a wicked smile. He said, “That’s right. That’s why I lose no time in inviting you for a drink. Together in the future, we’ll run amok in Qudu!”
“Right, right!” Li Jianheng patted Xiao Chiye vigorously on his shoulder. “That’s the spirit! Come to my residence a few days later. I’ll get them to… celebrate for you again…”
Xiao Chiye watched the sedan move away into the distance and flipped atop his horse. He had personally trained and tamed his horse – the offspring of wild horses – at the foot of the Hongyan Mountain Ranges. It was a swift and brave divine steed that was black all over except for a patch of white on its chest.
Xiao Chiye clapped his horse forward. The stores on both sides of the street were about to light the lanterns to send him off. He raised his hand and said, “Put them out. Don’t illuminate them.”
The stores’ attendants looked at each other, but they did not dare to disobey him. The lanterns went out one by one until there was only the dim glow of the frosty moon and icy snow on the road.
Xiao Chiye whistled, and the gyrfalcon swooped down from the darkness of the night amid the whistling of the wind. He then hit the horse to spur it on. The steed under his saddle snorted out a puff of hot air and broke into a sudden dash.
The strong wind launched a frenzied assault against Xiao Chiye, dissipating the hot flushes he had from drinking. In the darkness, he looked like a cornered beast on a rampage. The sounds of hooves became the massive crashes of collisions. He galloped through the deserted streets. The darkness ripped his smiling face away until all that remained was a cold and lonely silence.
The steed had been running for an unknown period of time when Xiao Chiye suddenly tumbled off it. He crashed heavily into the pile of snow and remained there with his head lowered for a moment.
The horse raised its hooves and trotted around him before it lowered its head to nudge him. The gyrfalcon remained perched on the back of the horse and tilted its head to look askance at him.
Xiao Chiye endured it for a moment, then propped himself up with his arms and vomited. After a long time, he stood up and leaned against the wall. The bone thumb ring on his thumb was a little large and had fallen off somewhere. He searched for it in the snow, but then he heard someone whispering a question a short distance away. “Who’s there?”
Xiao Chiye ignored him.
The Imperial Army Squad Commander felt for his lantern to shine at him and said, “How dare you… Your Excellency?”
Xiao Chiye turned his head and asked, “Know me?”
The Imperial Army Squad Commander shook his head honestly. “I don’t know which of the Lords you are…”
“I’m your big brother.” Xiao Chiye cast away the dirtied cloak and lowered his eyes to continue looking for the thumb ring. He cussed in irritation under his breath and said, “Give me the lantern. You can scram.”
The Imperial Army Squad Commander cautiously came nearer and said, “You are Second Young Master, right? We have just received the order. It’s still dark, and it’s too early for an investigation. There’s still time if you come again tomorrow…”
Xiao Chiye held out his hand, and the Imperial Army Squad Commander handed the lantern over to him. Xiao Chiye asked, “What is this place?”
The Imperial Army Squad Commander respectfully replied, “The perimeter of Qudu. Zhao Zui Temple.”
Xiao Chiye said, “You may leave.”
The Squad Commander retreated and was about to leave when he heard Xiao Chiye speak. “Shen Zechuan is here? Beyond this wall?”
“That’s right.” The Squad Commander was getting more and more apprehensive. “He’s detained in…”
“Get him to come out.”
The stunned Squad Commander hastened to say, “How would that do?! Even if you are the Viceroy, you can’t do that! His Majesty the Emperor strictly commanded…”
Xiao Chiye lifted the lantern and said, “I have the final say in the Imperial Army.”
The Squad Commander said tentatively. “Don’t kill, kill…”
“I’m fucking telling him to come out and sing me a tune!” Xiao Chiye flung the lantern aside suddenly. The light swiftly went out. He stood in the darkness, his eyes malicious.
P/s: As a reminder for those who are confused about characters’ names and titles, there’s a character glossary which will be updated as the translation progresses to prevent spoilers.
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闹蛾 Nao’e. A head accessories in ancient times cut out of silk or ‘black gold’ paper into the shape of flowers or insects.
乌金纸 coal or ‘black gold’ paper.
- 正旦节 Zhengdan Festival is also known as Spring Festival, which celebrates the start of the new year from the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
- 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 summertime.
- 軍屯 military troops (mostly in border regions) who carry out garrison duties as well as farm corps to supply the border garrisons with grains.
- 孝敬 literally showing respect and filial piety to one’s parents and elders, but it also refers to showering gifts on one’s superiors. In this context, it refers to bribes and currying favors with gifts and money.
- 打太极 Taiji is an ancient Chinese exercise or form of martial art that involves slow, circular movements. To play Taiji with someone is to keep passing the buck around.
- Purple cloud is thought to be an auspicious omen in the old days.
- 太上老君 Tai Shang Lao Jun or The Grand Supreme Elderly Lord is a deity in Taoism. It’s believed that Laozi, who authored the classic Tao Te Ching, is the incarnation of Tai Shang Lao Jun.
- Viceroy, also known as Governor-General.