Zuo Qianqiu came just in time, leaving no chance for Qudu to send out a new general. “Thunder Sinking the Jade Stage” was known far and wide for his military achievements. He was the great general after “Silver Spear of Snow Pass”, Feng Yisheng, and he was also Xiao Jiming, Qi Zhuyin, and Lu Guangbai’s senior. It had been many years since he left Tianfei Watchtower. He had no private troops. Plus, he was also a child from a humble background that Ji Wufan, the Imperial Bodyguards Commander-in-Chief during the reign of Yongyi, adopted. He had no family background to get in the way. His willingness to come out of obscurity to lead the troops was something Hai Liangyi could not ask for more.
As Zuo Qianqiu waited for Li Jianheng to summon him, he stood with Xiao Chiye under the eaves to watch the rain.
“This entire journey has been a rush, so I didn’t bring any message for you.” Half of Zuo Qianqiu’s overcoat was wet, all because he had never stopped the entire journey to rest except to change horses. He slowed his tone and said, “Jiming has already returned to the camp, and a military medic has been arranged to take care of him… Don’t worry.”
But Zuo Qianqiu omitted the extent of Xiao Jiming’s injuries. Xiao Chiye partially lowered his head, then asked after a moment of silence, “What injuries?”
Zuo Qianqiu gazed out into the rainy night and said, “There are some words that you and I can only say while standing here. Jiming’s food had been tampered with. Even Zhao Hui fell for the trap. The squad of soldiers dragged their sick bodies to the battlefield and just happened to encounter Amu’er,1 who is the toughest of the lot to battle. Jiming received three slashes. It was Zhao Hui who tumbled off his horse and carried him on his back while leading the ten or more remaining soldiers to break out of the siege.”
Xiao Chiye clenched his fists.
There was darkness in Zuo Qianqiu’s eyes as he said with a cool head, “Jiming has fought battles in the past while bogged down with ill health. He fought for so many years. He may seem to be fine on the surface, but in truth, he’s already plagued by old ailments. This time, he could be said to have hurt his constitution. Using this opportunity to let him rest for half a year will permit him to recuperate and build up his strength again.”
That might be the case, but Zuo Qianqiu had taught the two brothers, and he could not be any clearer about their temperaments. Xiao Jiming was soft on the outside but tough inside. He did not inherit Xiao Fangxu’s extraordinarily strong and healthy physique, nor had he inherited Xiao Fangxu’s uncompromising hard-nosed approach. Whatever he lacked, Xiao Chiye had it all. Perhaps someone else might be jealous, but Xiao Jiming cherished his family. He had the Princess Consort of Libei’s compassion and benevolence ingrained in his nature, so he had never harbored the thought nor intent to trample upon his younger brother. He saw himself as a sanctuary for them and did all he could to self-heal his own wounds. All these years, he never uttered a cry of pain. Lu Guangbai repeatedly said before that he was human, but at the same time even as he retained his human desires, he forced himself to become the guardian of Libei.
Still, it was Xiao Jiming’s half-a-lifetime of honor and glory that the military defeat this time destroyed.
It was at this moment Xiao Chiye abhorred his cage to the max. His wounds, as he struggled against his shackles, hurt the more he ground against them. They had already turned bloody. His gaze followed the raindrops and landed upon the ground, where the water puddle bore the weight of his silent agony. He braced himself and calmly said, “The meals in the military are all prepared by our own in-house errand-runners. Dage consumes the same food as the common soldiers. Harming him means harming thousands of men in the camp. We cannot drop this matter. I want them to pay with their lives!”
“Those in charge of the meals have already been executed.” Zuo Qianqiu looked at Xiao Chiye. “It was Jiming’s idea.”
Libei had to bear such a grave grievance, yet they still reported it as “military provisions adulterated with mold” instead of “premeditated murder attempt”. Xiao Jiming broke out of the siege with sustained wounds. He hung on until the moment before he fell into a coma to give the order to execute those errand-runners, all to prevent others from investigating under the charge “conspiracy to murder”. A deliberate attempt to murder suggested a power struggle. Lifting the veil away would only muddy the situation. It was all too easy for Libei to be used by someone as a weapon. With Xiao Jiming’s retreat, the appointment for a general for Libei’s troops would fall into Qudu’s hands. Who could guarantee that the person who added in the poison was the real murderer? It was not unheard of to kill by proxy. Besides, assuming the moldy grains and poisoning were just the first steps, then if they reported the murder case and the imperial court could not find the perpetrator, the noble clans, in their denunciations, could distort the facts and falsely incriminate them for stooping to deception by using Xiao Jiming’s injuries and defeat to get Xiao Chiye back.
“You did well too. You didn’t tell them you want to return to Libei to rally the forces and attempt a comeback.” Zuo Qianqiu revealed a despondent expression. “If you had spoken frankly and fought for Libei’s military power before the emperor, then their guilt tonight would have become machinations. It would also put His Majesty on the alert and set the stage for future troubles.”
“I expect that the Grand Secretary will not set me free.” Xiao Chiye forced himself to pull himself together. “It’s as shifu says. Fighting for military power will only make His Majesty afraid, and I still have 20,000 men in the Imperial Army in my hands. This is a big taboo. What’s more, stirring up troubles and making unreasonable demands at this juncture will hold up Libei’s military affairs. Shifu coming here has helped me out of my predicament.”
“When I have my audience with His Majesty later, I’ll discuss the dispatch issue of the military provisions with the Ministry of Revenue and Grand Secretary in detail. I’ll have to get on my horse and head back at dawn tomorrow morning at the very latest. Your father has waged war with Amu’er at the eastern mountain range. He’s launching a frontal assault first. No matter what, we have to knock their momentum down.” This was not the place to talk after all, and Zuo Qianqiu stopped after discussing a little about the military situation. He merely said, “It has been a long time since I last led the troops. I’ll have to familiarize myself with the military affairs as soon as I can on my return to the camp. Libei is different from Tianfei Watchtower. Libei Armored Cavalry is skilled in storming the enemy, while I used to be on the defensive back at Tianfei Watchtower. I have to discuss this properly with your father. And one more thing. Zhao Hui is also seriously injured this time. He only has a younger sister who married into Qudu left in his family.2 Remember to get Chen Yang to go over the Ministry of Rites later to let them know that all is well.”
Xiao Chiye nodded his head in acknowledgment. Just then, Fuman came to invite Zuo Qianqiu inside. Zuo Qianqiu took one last look at Xiao Chiye and said, “You’re alone in Qudu. Take good care of yourself.”
Xiao Chiye performed the disciple’s bow to him, and Zuo Qianqiu strode forward and lifted the curtain to enter.
◈ ◈ ◈
Fei Sheng got his wish these days to handle matters at Jiang Qingshan’s side. Something had gone wrong with Juexi’s military provisions tonight, and Jiang Qingshan, who still held the post of Provincial Administration Commissioner of Juexi, had to make a trip to Mingli Hall to discuss the matter and would not be out for at least a couple hours. Fei Sheng’s old ailment acted up again. Wanting to rest for a moment in the office, he sent a junior eunuch to get him some food.
Fei Sheng was sitting on the chair with one leg propped over the other to wait when he suddenly heard a sound from the door. He took a look with help from the candlelight. Seeing that it was Han Cheng, he hurriedly got up to pay his respects.
Han Cheng, who had just arrived after braving the rain, motioned for him to rise. Fei Sheng went up to remove the overcoat from Han Cheng. Han Cheng asked, “Has His Majesty summoned them to ask about it?”
Fei Sheng knew he was asking about something else, so he replied in a deferential manner, “Commander Zuo is here.”
“Zuo Qianqiu?” Han Cheng was taken aback and blanked out for a moment. “He lives up to his name as the Prince of Libei, with reactions so swift that others are not given the opportunity to exploit any openings. With Commander Zuo’s appearance, there will be no other candidate in Qudu who can surpass him. This Libei Armored Cavalry is still the Armored Cavalry of Libei.”
Fei Sheng concurred but did not continue the topic. He knew that these were not matters he could involve himself in, so he would stay for as far away as he could. Han Cheng knew what he was thinking and held him in contempt for that.
Those shu sons born of concubines were all like this. They had no guts and no spunk. They eyed the bit of carrot dangling before them all day long, but made no attempt to forge ahead.
But while this was how Han Cheng thought, he still instructed Fei Sheng with an amiable countenance. “Although this matter is somehow linked to Jiang Qingshan, it is still not a job he handled after all. The higher-ups won’t blame him for this. Following him is indeed a good path that will open up opportunities for you. He is heading for Zhongbo next month. In the future, when the Imperial Bodyguards head there for fieldwork, they will all have to rely on you to pave the way for them. Xiaosheng, work hard and do your best.”
Fei Sheng hurriedly responded in the affirmative and saw Han Cheng out. As he lowered his head to lift the hem of Han Cheng’s robe for him, he suddenly saw the corner of the robe stained with some grayish-black dirt. He instantly patted it away quickly for Han Cheng and fawned on him, saying, “Did Your Excellency come over on foot? How…”
Han Cheng unexpectedly yanked over the corner of his robe. Fei Sheng’s voice promptly came to a halt.
Outside, the heavy rain poured, and the play of shadow and light from the candle sunk Fei Sheng’s face into the darkness. In that very instant, the office fell so silent that one could hear a pin drop. But in just a blink of an eye, Fei Sheng raised his head and squeezed out a smile as if nothing had happened. Obsequiously, he said. “The smudge of mud has already been wiped off. Your Excellency, please be careful on your way out.”
Han Cheng stared at him and slowly released his grip on the corner of his robe. He smiled along with him and said after a moment had passed, “You may go about your business.”
The moment Han Cheng had left, Fei Sheng’s face turned cold. He lifted his hand and looked carefully at the residue of dirty mud on his fingertips under the candlelight. There was wood ash mixed within, and the rainwater had turned it into such a sludge that the color was hard to make out, but the bit of red mud mixed up with it did not escape his eyes.
The Xi’s Residence had been burned down, and the dye the Xi Clan had used happened to be imported red clay. This stuff was valuable and hard to get. Even a prince’s residence was not as this capable as the Xi Clan. Other than the Xi Clan, there were no other clans in Qudu who could use it.
What was Han Cheng doing at the Xi’s Residence at this time?
Fei Sheng wiped away the mud on his fingertip. The cold sweat on his back had broken out earlier when his eyes had met Han Cheng’s. He stood under the light with his thoughts in disarray, but he was sure of one thing—Han Cheng’s intent to kill him had already been ignited in that one exchange of gaze.
◈ ◈ ◈
The next day, Zuo Qianqiu returned to Libei on horseback. Xiao Chiye accompanied Hai Liangyi to send him out of the city. He could not return home, but he could deploy Chen Yang and Gu Jin out to follow the grains distribution officials to Huaizhou and Cizhou to supervise the military provisions. Nothing must go wrong with the military provisions this time. Xiao Chiye could not trust the men from the Six Ministries. He had long planted Wang Xian in Cizhou. Then he had gotten Pan Lin to transfer Liang Cuishan to Huaizhou. This way, he would not miss a single detail of the overall planning for Libei’s military provisions.
“When Liang Cuishan returns,” Xiao Chiye, who had not slept for the entire night, wiped his face with a cold handkerchief and said, “I’ll have to convey to him my proper thanks.”
Shen Zechuan sat in the carriage. He had not slept last night either, having stood guard over the hall. On hearing him, he said, “I have already made arrangements to settle his family down in the residence. Someone will be on night patrol to watch over them, just so he can do his job with peace of mind. Huaizhou differs from Cizhou; it has no dealings with us, and now we are getting them to prepare the military provisions at such a brief notice. Huaizhou Prefectural Prefect must be feeling rather reluctant.”
“Huaizhou is exempted from handing over military provisions for eight years. The reason Hai Liangyi considered them is that they can afford to do so.” Covering himself with the handkerchief, Xiao Chiye leaned back against the carriage wall and continued after a moment’s pause, “We have to arrest Wei Huaigu today. We can’t let him land in the hands of the Ministry of Justice.”
They had friendly relations with the Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu, and they had a good time drinking wine together the last time too. But this bit of friendship could not be compared to Hai Liangyi. Xiao Chiye had already given up the idea of beating around the bush with them. He wanted to sever Wei Huaigu’s retreat route, so he could only make this case bypass the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices and have it end up in the hands of the Imperial Bodyguards—that is, Shen Zechuan.
“Wei Huaigu.” Shen Zechuan fiddled with the waist token that had been set aside on the small table. He thought for a moment with a solemn expression, then said, “Since he had already intercepted the express relay report, it means that he does not want it to make its way to the emperor. Yet, he changed his mind at the last minute. There must be a reason for it.”
Xiao Chiye recalled Wei Huaigu in Mingli Hall last night and said, “He was indeed acting abnormally last night. Going by his temperament, he should be trying every means possible to pass the buck or pick a scapegoat from the Ministry of Revenue to take the blame. But not only did he not try to wrangle his way out, he even answered when asked.”
Shen Zechuan’s fingertips stopped with a “thud”. He said, “It’s true that Baimazhou had a bumper harvest last year. Now that the military provisions have been adulterated with substandard grains, then where did such a big batch of grain go?”
Xiao Chiye pulled off the handkerchief. Clutching it in his hands, he said, “It’s having designs on wealth that causes loss of lives. If these grains were to set out from Baimazhou via Hezhou’s waterways, then it would be able to bypass Qudu to lead directly to Zhongbo, where they can brand it under a merchant’s label and sell it out at a high price as grains for the common folks.”
“There were already rumors before the new year that Jiang Qingshan was going to Zhongbo to assume the position of Provincial Administration Commissioner. If someone were to make much of this matter, then it’s clear what’s going on.” Shen Zechuan raised his eyes to exchange gazes with Xiao Chiye. “Someone in the Provincial Administration Commission of Juexi has been colluding with the wealthy merchants to resell the military grains at a profit. Because Jiang Qingshan was there in the past to oversee the entire operation and to strictly check the provisions, they carried it out on a small scale. But this year, Jiang Qingshan was going to be transferred out of Juexi, and he entered the capital after the new year to report for duty. He had to undergo the judicial process of vetting and waiting for a review trial, so he had no way to supervise Juexi’s preparation and coordination of the military provisions, and this gave the other party an opening to exploit. It’s just that no one expected them to be so bold as to dare to use moldy grains as substitutes.”
“Those who can take this much grains are few and far between.” The expression in Xiao Chiye’s eyes was deep and unfathomable. “Without their own caravan of traveling merchants to conduct the transaction, no one would dare to touch it.”
“Xi Hongxuan.” Shen Zechuan said slowly.
“Xi Hongxuan.” Xiao Chiye said with certainty. “He died not because of you and me, but because he had already become a sacrificial pawn who could implicate others. Wei Huaigu tried every means to make Xi Hongxuan take the blame in the collapse case. Was it because both of them were already dealing in private to resell military provisions for profit, and Wei Huaigu was worried that Xi Hongxuan would be subjected to rigorous checks, that was why he wanted him dead?”
Shen Zechuan contemplated it over for a moment, then said, “That’s right. Xi Hongxuan had indeed said before that Wei Huaigu did it for the money. The fact that he agreed back then to give Wei Huaigu money so quickly shows that he knew Wei Huaigu’s character very well and thought that Wei Huaigu would do this. If that was the case, Xi Hongxuan is already dead. Wei Huaigu had no need to take such a big risk to continue doing this. I suspect this wasn’t done by Wei Huaigu this time. Someone got a handle on him because of the earlier deals. That was why he knew he had already been treated as a tool when he saw the relay report. There was no escape for him now. Given how he did not argue back to vindicate himself, it’s very likely he knew who the other party is. He’s trying to imitate Hua Siqian at this moment—by using his life to prevent the Wei Clan from suffering further losses.”
Listening to the sound of rain in this interval of political intrigue against one another, Xiao Chiye felt a tinge of exhaustion washed over him. Xiao Jiming did right. Libei’s timely execution of the mess cooks was precisely to prevent themselves from being used as a pawn and becoming a stepping stone for the others to eradicate dissidents.
No. Maybe not just a stepping stone. They indeed wanted to use this military defeat to reduce Libei’s military power. They wanted to break up the Libei Armored Cavalry, which had always been in the hands of the Xiao Clan, and hand it over to Qudu to control and command. This way, even if they could not take down Libei immediately, they could still create the effect of supervision by an Army-inspecting Censor,3 thereby restraining and holding the Xiao Clan in check.
“If Commander Zuo had not arrived in time tonight…” Shen Zechuan held Xiao Chiye’s hand and looked at him in this cramped carriage. “Then the appointment of Qudu’s new general would have been issued this morning, and the Libei Armored Cavalry would no longer be the Libei Armored Cavalry.”
Xiao Chiye’s hand was icy cold. It took him a long while before he lifted his hand to stroke Shen Zechuan’s hair. He said in a hoarse voice, “Libei Armored Cavalry is the Armored Cavalry of Dazhou… Father personally established it with his own hands; it’s far more important than my eldest brother and me. For so many years, Qudu doesn’t understand that we serve as an impenetrable fortress in Libei. We are not treasonous traitors.”
- Again, for foreign names in this novel, we decided to go with 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 (same goes for titles). Until then, please bear with us.
- Recap, chapter 39. Zhao Hui’s younger sister is married to the Vice Director of the Ministry of Rites.
- 监军 Army(-inspecting) Censor or Army Supervisor or Military Inspector, designation of an Investigating Censor commissioned on an ad hoc basis to accompany an army on campaign, monitor its activities, and independently report to the throne.