Heavy rain splashed on the water puddles. Xiao Chiye’s horse had already dashed its way to the palace entrance. Red silk umbrellas emerged one after the other from the small sedans, all of them sheltering important ministers of third-grade and above.
The Minister of War, Chen Zhen, made a special point of being a tad late to wait for Xiao Chiye at the foot of the vermilion steps leading up to the palace hall. When he saw Xiao Chiye coming forth in the rain, he said, “Ce’an, listen to me. There is no army in this world that is invincible. A defeat is a teacher that will guide one towards another victory. Jiming has been fighting with the Biansha’s Hanshe Tribe for years. He’s also human.”
Chen Zhen, who had some friendly relations with Xiao Fangxu, spoke abruptly without preamble. Yet, Xiao Chiye understood what he meant.
Xiao Chiye nodded at him with an expressionless face. He ascended the stairs together with Chen Zhen and proceeded to wait outside Mingli Hall to be summoned in. The rain soaked his shoulders, and it was in this way he stood there, shunning even the faintest of light from the lanterns.
The umbrella at the back suddenly shifted to shield Xiao Chiye. Shen Zechuan held up the umbrella and stood side by side with him. Standing next to each other with both of their red robes drenched by the rain made them look like demonic fiends of the rainy night.
About a moment later, Fuman lifted the curtain and paid his obeisances to the group of court officials outside and called out to summon them in. Hai Liangyi went in first, followed by the various ministers from the Grand Secretariat. Then it was Xiao Chiye’s turn. Even Shen Zechuan himself could not follow him in.
Xiao Chiye did not move. He remained fixed in position for a spell and looked at Shen Zechuan. There were too many subliminal emotions contained in this gaze. In this very instant, he turned from a valiant and vicious hound into a lone wolf that had strayed from the pack.
Shen Zechuan wanted to caress Xiao Chiye’s cheeks. But he could not do so at this moment. They stood still for a long time under the shadows of this forbidden palace’s walls, wearing shackles invisible to the eyes.
Xiao Jiming was severely wounded, and there were no other valiant generals within Libei’s borders. This was an indication that after tonight, Qudu must appoint a new general to Libei to take over the mantle from Xiao Jiming. But this person would not be Xiao Chiye.
Qi Zhuyin’s remarks a year earlier turned out to be prophetic. She warned Xiao Jiming that the Libei Armored Cavalry needed a new general. Owing to the excessive concentration of military power, the Libei Armored Cavalry could only take after the surname Xiao. Once the banner of the Xiao Clan fell, the constitution of the Libei Armored Cavalry would be greatly undermined, making it hard to sustain their glory.
The Grandson-heir, Xiao Xun, was only six years of age. If Xiao Jiming was out of the picture, then the Libei Armored Cavalry’s only successor was Xiao Chiye, who was in Qudu. However, Qudu would never release him, not unless the Princess Consort of the Hereditary Prince, Lu Yizhi, entered the capital with Grandson-heir, Xiao Xun, to replace him as hostages in this power struggle.
In acting willfully, Xiao Chiye had been merely counting on his powerful connections, much like a fox exploiting the tiger’s might. But at this moment, he once again plunged into a ravine where he could not act on his own volition. The thought of going home roared like mad in his heart. But all he could do was to gaze like this at Shen Zechuan. Other than Shen Zechuan, no one else would understand.
“Your Lordship?” Fuman urged him on in a whisper.
Xiao Chiye moved his feet and entered.
◈ ◈ ◈
“The Ministry of Revenue assigned officials over for a check before the military provisions were escorted via the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path. Since there was a problem, why didn’t the Ministry of Revenue report it?” Cen Yu was the first to take issue with it. He did not even have time to write the memorial and simply stepped forth to interrogate Wei Huaigu outright. “When the express relay report arrived at Qudu, it was delayed for an entire two hours! If we issue the recall order now, we have to brave the rain to speed all the way there on a route that isn’t easy to navigate. By the time it arrives at Libei, it would have already been four days later! Wei Huaigu, you’re going to get people killed!”
Wei Huaigu said nothing. He was just like a statue tonight as he kneeled on the ground in a daze without even disputing a word.
The moment Xiao Chiye entered, the hall fell silent. The veteran ministers either hung their heads low or held their foreheads. The sound of the rain outside was noisy, but the suffocating heat inside was even worse.
“Ce’an.” Li Jianheng made as if to speak when he saw him, but then he hesitated. Eventually, he merely said, “Take a seat.”
Xiao Chiye did not sit. He bowed and said, “This humble subject has only just dismounted and does not know the details. What happened in Libei?”
“What the hell? Such a major matter, and nobody told the Marquis!” Li Jianheng flung the memorial. “Wei Huaigu, you tell him yourself!”
Wei Huaigu lowered his head and said without looking at Xiao Chiye, “Something went wrong with the military provisions that were transported to Libei last month. According to the relay report of Yang Cheng, the Assistant Administration Commissioner of Juexi Provincial Administration Commission, these military provisions have been mixed with moldy substances. It was distributed after arriving at Libei, and subsequently, thousands of people fell ill the night before.”
Who would still dare to look at Xiao Chiye in the eye?
The Xiao Clan fought wars at the frontier. And they had performed a tremendous meritorious service five years ago in coming to the emperor’s rescue. The Biansha Hanshe Tribe was the toughest of the lot to battle against, and the entire northeast area was guarded and defended by Xiao Jiming alone. They imprisoned the Xiao Clan’s youngest son in Qudu, and yet they let his battle-scarred eldest brother, who fought hard with his sweat and blood, eat moldy and rotten grains! So how would they still dare to look Xiao Chiye in the eyes at this time?
Without turning a hair, Xiao Chiye said, “The military provisions were prepared by the Provincial Administration Commission of Juexi. Yang Cheng knew there was a problem. Why did he wait until the military provisions arrived at Libei before he dared to mention it? He’s the Assistant Administration Commissioner of the Southwest, and he has no grudge or enmity with Libei. Why would he risk his head to do something like this? The officials from the Ministry of Revenue triple-checked the military provisions, and the official reports that were sent back all stated that they were new grains from last year. But now, they have all become old and moldy grains. They are all minor officials of low grade. Why would they do that? The military provisions arrived at Libei via the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path, and the Libei Armored Cavalry steward supervising the granary also had to check before distributing them. The multiple layers of arrangements involved for such a large batch of moldy goods to make its way into the mouths of the officers and soldiers at the frontier pass this easily can only be described as methodical.”
The more he spoke, the more his words increased in gravity.
“The Libei Armored Cavalry has guarded the pass for thirty years, and the troops deserve punishment for their defeat. But I’ll only say one thing to everyone present here. A minor defeat of Libei is a loss for our Xiao Clan, but a major defeat of Libei is a crisis for Dazhou. For several years, the Hanshe Tribe has been pacing back and forth around the Hongyan eastern mountain range. What they are waiting for is an opportunity. When the troops of Zhongbo were defeated, the Hanshe Tribe deployed their horses to launch an assault. They brought the cavalry of the rest of the eleven tribes and fought their way right outside the gates of Qudu without any letup. It has just been a mere five years, and the page has already been turned on the tragic massacre of the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. We have yet to avenge our national humiliation, and we are going to allow our own people to add another strike to it?”
The moment Xiao Chiye said his piece, the color drained from the faces of everyone present. He was blunt in his words. He had come here tonight to raise hell and take someone to task for this matter. Someone played dirty tricks on the military provisions, and they want to dismiss him with that same old trick of bureaucratese? No way. He would go all out on a killing spree, and he would pursue this case relentlessly. Everything else be damn; he wasn’t going to play nice with any of them!
“The military provisions were adulterated, with new grains substituted with moldy ones. It’s no doubt inextricably connected to those at the bottom of the supply chain who resell the grains at a profit. A few years earlier, Zhongbo was in short supply of grains, and many merchants who stockpiled the grains made a killing from this. It’s just that I never expected there to be officials and merchants still in collusion with one another to do such unconscionable deeds in spite of strictly enforced laws in place nowadays.” The Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu, said. “If we can’t carry out a thorough investigation of this matter, there we will not be able to give the various generals of Libei an explanation. This humble subject requests a Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices with the Imperial Bodyguards to launch a search and investigation from Baimazhou to Qudu. We must get to the bottom of the matter!”
“Not only that. There’s another matter that needs to be urgently attended to.” The Minister of War, Chen Zhen, cast a glance at Xiao Chiye and said, “The military provisions for Qidong Five Commanderies similarly comes from Baimazhou. We must dispatch an urgent report immediately to Commander-in-chief Qi. This batch of grains should not be distributed further down the line!”
“How are we going to make up for the shortage?” Xiao Chiye’s tone was icy. “These two batches of military provisions are the entire hoard amassed last year from the three great granaries of Juexi. Now that you are recalling them and rendering them useless, how is the military provisions shortage going to be filled? And from where are you going to supplement them? If the shortage cannot be filled within five days, Libei and Qidong will have to fight wars on empty stomachs. It’s a question of feeding hundreds of thousands of people.”
“Borrow and transfer from Huaizhou, Hezhou, and Cizhou. The receipts for the loans shall be borne by the imperial court. This matter is critical. The state treasury can’t take out that much money at such short notice to buy. We can only promise to exempt these three prefectures from taxes for approximately two years.” Hai Liangyi said in a steady and unhurried voice.
“It’s only with all the grains from the thirteen cities that Baimazhou was able to afford these two batches of military provisions. The three prefectures the Grand Secretary mentioned cannot be compared to it. Besides, these three prefectures are separated and far away from one another.1 Preparing and coordinating the grains to be escorted and transported will also take up several days.”
“Tell Qi Zhuyin that Qidong’s military provision is reduced by half this year. They still have military fields to sustain them, so they still have extra resources. Hezhou leads straight to Qidong, while the grains from Cizhou and Huaizhou have to be transferred tonight.” Although Hai Liangyi was still sick, he was still clear-headed in his arrangements. “The Hereditary Prince is wounded. It’s inadvisable for him to remain for long at the frontline. And the Prince of Libei is ill and is similarly indisposed to head out for war. Chen Zhen, draw up a name list of commanding generals and hand it to me an hour later. Within three days, Qudu must send a capable officer to Libei to take over its military affairs.”
Hai Liangyi took charge of the situation and gave the final word. There was no doubt that Wei Huaigu would not get away this time. Xiao Chiye did not intend to let him off. He did not directly go straight for him at this juncture only because the redeployment of the commanding general was a far more important issue at present.
Wei Huaigu was behaving a little oddly tonight. He kneeled where he was, never once explaining to vindicate himself even after a long time had passed.
◈ ◈ ◈
Mingli Hall’s side room was brightly illuminated, and the officials who had withdrawn from the court all gathered here. Hai Liangyi could not bear cold winter nights, so Kong Qiu draped an overcoat over him. He gathered the coat around him and gestured with his hand to motion for everyone to take a seat.
“I will send the impeachment memorial to the Grand Secretariat tomorrow.” Cen Yu said. “Just how many incidents have the Wei Clan been caught up in? His Majesty is mindful of showing mercy, so Wei Huaixing’s incident the last time did not implicate Wei Huaigu, and he wouldn’t admit his fault for what happened with the public ditches back then. And what about the military provisions this time? He can’t escape blame for negligence and dereliction of duty!”
“Being an official in the imperial court has nothing to do with one’s familial background and standing. When it comes to attending to official duties for the sovereign, don’t keep using a person’s surname to find faults with others. If he makes a mistake, then impeach him if you must.” Hai Liangyi had yet to drink a drop of water tonight. He looked at Xiao Chiye and said, “The Hereditary Prince has been leading the troops for several years. Since he was able to kill his way out of the heavy siege and return to Libei, his life is not in any danger. There is no need for Your Lordship to be anxious. If there is anything in shortage in Libei, Qudu will work through the night to allocate and transfer it.”
Xiao Chiye had already understood what Hai Liangyi meant. To maintain the status quo, Hai Liangyi would not let Xiao Chiye return to Libei, no question about it. Xiao Jiming was defeated, but he was not dead—and even if Xiao Jiming died, Xiao Chiye still could not return home, because there was still Xiao Fangxu.
“There are countless decent generals in Qudu, but those who can adapt to Libei are few and far between. The Hongyan eastern mountain range is close to the desert, and we are about to head into the Great Heat2 period in the sixth month. The frontier is brutally hot. I’m afraid it’ll be unsuitable if we dispatch an officer who was born in the southwest.” Xiao Chiye sat on the chair, facing an entire room of veteran ministers, yet he was extremely calm. He reacted quickly, to the point he could be described as unassailable. He preemptively examined the case of the military provisions and told Hai Liangyi that it was fine to deploy a new general to Libei, but it had to be someone who came from Libei or Qidong; he did not want an armchair strategist who was all talk and no action.
Hai Liangyi nodded approvingly at Xiao Chiye. At this point in time, one should indeed not be swayed by personal feelings and act impulsively for private gains and power. It was an indisputable fact that Libei lacked a commander to lead the troops. A deputy general who was skilled in warfare like Zhao Hui was formidable too, but they were all men whom Xiao Fangxu personally taught. They were originally meant to take on the tasks to coordinate and assist. It was fine for them to lead a troop of soldiers to outflank the enemies, but it was not enough to convince the masses if they were to lead Libei.
But ever since the reign of Xiande, Dazhou had been faced with a dearth of able generals. Of the Four Great Generals, other than Zuo Qianqiu, the rest all had their own important duties to attend to. The abundance of talents further down were all high-ranking military officers from Qidong. They were all core members of the warfare squad whom Qi Zhuyin single-handedly trained from scratch. It was Qidong’s military affairs that they were familiar with. To lend out any of them to Libei was easier said than done. Besides, the Qi Clan was about to enter a marriage alliance with the Hua Clan. If a Qidong’s general were to manage Libei’s military affairs temporarily, then this would break the status quo again, resulting in one clan rising in dominance and making it hard to hold them in check.
Who to assign?
Even Hai Liangyi’s head hurt to think about it!
As they burned with anxiety inside, Fuman, who was outside, suddenly hurried in and said, “Your Excellencies, look who’s here?”
Xiao Chiye turned his head aside and suddenly rose to his feet. The entire hall of people followed suit and stood up too. Hai Liangyi stepped forward to greet and welcome the person personally.
The man who took off his overcoat revealed his white hair, greeted Hai Liangyi, and then looked at Xiao Chiye.
“This humble one raced through the night to hurry over to Qudu and to seek an audience with His Majesty for no other reason than the matter of Libei.”
There was a lump in Xiao Chiye’s throat as he said, “Shifu…”
However, Zuo Qianqiu did not make conversation with him. Instead, he said to Hai Liangyi with a smile, “It has been many years since I last saw the Grand Secretary. I hope you are still in good health?”
Hai Liangyi heavily gripped Zuo Qianqiu’s wrists and said, “As old as Commander Zuo may be, can you still serve the country?”3
Zuo Qianqiu let out a long sigh and answered, “Although I am not how I once was back in the prime of my life with this aged face and gray hair, I still have the strength to draw a bow and shoot. There’s no need for the Grand Secretary to worry. My purpose for coming here this time is to: firstly, temporarily stand in for Jiming to manage Libei’s military affairs; and secondly, deliver a message from Xiao Fangxu.”
The entire room of people listened with rapt attention.
Zuo Qianqiu looked at Xiao Chiye with a deep, profound gaze and said resolutely, “The might of the Prince of Libei has reverberated like a tiger’s roar through Hongyan Mountains for more than ten years. His son has been defeated, and as his old man, he wants to personally reclaim victory from Amu’er4 of the Hanshe Tribe.”
The rain thundered, and the gyrfalcon let out a long cry as it circled among the dark clouds of Qudu. Ten millions of li5 away, the military flag of Libei flapped in the wind. Among the thick and heavy ink-colored rain, Xiao Fangxu, who had not stepped into the battlefield for decades, put on his armor and hung up his blade to lead the troops out to battle.
The wind swept up Xiao Fangxu’s cape, and he took off his incongruous bamboo hat.
“Amu’er.” Xiao Fangxu’s voice was deep. He raised his arm in the rain to let out the raptors of Libei, and laughed aloud into the wind, “Libei has drawn a demarcation line in the east, so what are you people trespassing over for? I’ve told you decades ago that Hongyan Mountain is the turf of my Libei Armored Cavalry!”
His voice reverberated through the rain. The armored cavalry behind him cloaked under black armors drew out their blades in unison, their thick, oppressive might like a creeping behemoth opening its eyes in the rainy night.
- For map, you can refer to the glossary
- 大暑 12th of the 24 solar terms, from end July to the beginning of August, the period when the heat is greatest. Note: the months in the novel are based on the lunar calendar which is why it was translated as fourth, fifth, sixth month instead of just May, June, July, etc. For example, the Great Heat period in 2021 on July 22 is based on the Gregorian solar calendar, but it’s June 13 (sixth lunar month) on the lunar calendar. For more info, you can check this out.
- Adapted from 廉颇老矣，尚能饭否, from《永遇乐·京口北固亭怀古》 a poem by Xin Qiji, a poet and military leader during the Southern Song dynasty. Literally, “Lian Po is old, but can he still eat/make a living?” (in implication, he’s asking if he can still serve the country.) Lian Po is a famous general of the State of Zhao who repeatedly emerged victorious over the States of Qin and Qi.
- For foreign names in this novel, we decided to go with hanyu pinyin for the time being due to unfamiliarity with the language involved and to avoid mistranslations with the actual names in its original language. If we do get official subtitles someday, we will replace it in the translation (the same goes for titles). Until then, please bear with us. _(:3 」∠)_
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m