Xiao Jiming gathered his cloak around him as he stood under the lantern. Zhao Hui stood guard behind him and said, “Counting the hours, he should be back now. The man who went to pick him up said that the Young Master had left by himself on his horse. Why isn’t he here yet?”
Xiao Jiming let out a breath of cold air and looked at the sky in silence for a moment. He said, “Whenever he’s unhappy in the past, he would go galloping on horseback at the foot of Hongyan Mountains. This habit won’t change.”
Zhao Hui said, “At the very least, the Imperial Army is a post.”
Xiao Jiming shifted his gaze and asked, “Do you know what Father regrets the most in his life?”
Zhao Hui shook his head honestly.
Xiao Jiming said, “It’s that he has fathered Ah Ye too late. Three years ago, we were ambushed at the foot of Hongyan Mountains. Before Father’s reinforcements arrived, Ah Ye led the twenty members of the cavalry that had been originally assigned to guard him and rode his horse across the Hongjiang River at night. He groped around in the quagmire for half the night and burned Biansha’s grains. When I saw him, he was smelly and dirty all over as he soaked in the water until the wounds on his legs festered. That year, he was only fourteen of age. I asked if he was afraid, and he said that he had a blast of a time. Father often said that the Lu Clan are the eagles of the desert, while the Xiao Clan are the dogs of Libei. I don’t like this choice of phrasing, but we are like chained dogs every time we deploy troops from that time onwards. It’s no longer as satisfying as it was ten over years ago. Battling all these years has long drained the valor in me. The members of the Xiao Clan are not dogs, but the only one left today with the nature of the wolf is Ah Ye. What he yearns for in his dreams are the mountains of Libei. And yet, he now has to remain in Qudu and forget about the freedom of riding horses. Father and I have both let him down.”
After a moment’s silence, Zhao Hui looked at Xiao Jiming and said, “There’s no need for the Hereditary Prince to put yourself down. The Young Master is impetuous by nature and is not the best choice of person to lead and continue the legacy. It doesn’t matter if he’s born earlier or later; the reins of Libei must not be handed over to him. The Commander-in-Chief must have the tenacity of one shaped by experience, and a willpower as unwavering as a rock. The Young Master is not up to it.”
Xiao Jiming did not say a word more.
The strong wind that night sent the lanterns swinging ceaselessly. Master and slave waited for a little less than an hour before they saw someone urging the horse on towards them from a distance away.
“Hereditary Prince!” The man on the horse tumbled off and said, “Something happened to the Young Master!”
Zhao Hui immediately held up his blade and said, “Where is the Young Master?”
◈ ◈ ◈
An hour earlier.
The Squad Commander shoved a shackled Shen Zechuan down the stairs.
“Sing.” The Squad Commander egged him on from behind. “Quick, sing a few lines!”
Shen Zechuan did not utter a word as he looked at the man squatting under the shadows of the wall. His chest hurt the moment he saw the gyrfalcon. He could not help but purse his lips into a tight line as he stood where he was.
Xiao Chiye said, “Come over and stand here.”
Shen Zechuan exhaled a breath of hot air and slowly shuffled forward to stand a short distance away from Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye rose to his feet and asked, “Who is your mother?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “A dancer from Duanzhou.”.
“You know how to sing a tune, right?” Xiao Chiye’s gaze was so terrifying that it made one flustered. “Old Dog Shen didn’t teach you anything, but someone must have taught you something.”
Shen Zechuan lowered his head to evade his gaze as if he was afraid of him. He said, “… I don’t know how to.”
“Lift your head.” Xiao Chiye pushed aside the lantern with his foot. “Or are you afraid of me?”
Shen Zechuan could only raise his head. He caught a whiff of wine.
Xiao Chiye said, “It’s fine if you don’t want to sing. Find something for me.”
Shen Zechuan spread out his palms to show that he was still being chained.
Xiao Chiye frowned and said, “Just look for it like that.”
So Shen Zechuan squatted down and grabbed a few handfuls of snow.
Xiao Chiye stared coldly at the top of his head and said, “Stand up again.”
So Shen Zechuan propped himself up with his hands on his knees and stood up.
Xiao Chiye said, “You can squat down and up freely, and your legs are unaffected. Were the Imperial Bodyguards carrying out the floggings too considerate, or is a worthless life easier to sustain?”
“Naturally, it’s because a worthless life is easier to sustain.” Shen Zechuan said in a muffled voice. “How lucky for me.”
“That makes little sense.” Xiao Chiye pressed his whip against Shen Zechuan’s chest. “That kick was meant to end this life. Your martial art skills are pretty good.”
This whip gave Shen Zechuan the chills. He cowered from fear and said, “I’m just… hanging on to my last breath. Second Young Master is righteous. Why make life difficult for a nobody like me? This matter has already come to such a point, and I’ve gotten what I deserve. Please let me off.”
Xiao Chiye asked, “Do you truly mean that?”
Shen Zechuan had already been reduced to sobs. He nodded his head vigorously.
Xiao Chiye retracted the whip and said, “You can say anything, but who knows whether or not they are true. How about this? Bark a few times like a dog. Once I’m satisfied, I’ll let you off tonight.”
Shen Zechuan said nothing.
The Squad Commander was scared witless by Xiao Chiye’s eyes and shoved Shen Zechuan a few times.
The color drained from Shen Zechuan’s face as he said timidly, “… At least let me do it before you alone.”
“Scram.” Xiao Chiye kept it short and to the point.
The Squad Commander instantly felt relieved and said joyously to Shen Zechuan. “Scram! Let’s us scram now…”
Xiao Chiye’s cutting gaze fell upon the Squad Commander’s face. The Squad Commander went weak in the knees. He pointed to himself and said, “Me, me? Sure… Sure thing!”
Gritting his teeth, he curled up into a ball and rolled1 a few rounds in the snow before standing a short distance away.
Shen Zechuan coyly shifted a little closer and whispered into Xiao Chiye’s ear. “… Even if you let me off, will I let you off?”
Bits of snow suddenly flew up as Xiao Chiye gripped Shen Zechuan’s arm and pressed it down forcefully. With a sinister expression, he said, “Showing your true colors now, huh. I was wondering what’s with this helpless and pitiful act you are putting on!”
Both men suddenly toppled over onto the snow. With his hands dangling from the handcuffs, Shen Zechuan kicked Xiao Chiye in his lower abdomen and scrambled to prop himself up. “The imperial decree was for me to be confined. Yet the Xiao Clan dares to defy the imperial edict to take my life. After tonight—”
Xiao Chiye dragged Shen Zechuan towards him by his shackles.
Shen Zechuan knocked hard against the ground and yelled through clenched teeth. “—You are all the Xiao Clan’s accomplices in defying the imperial edict! My death is not to be regretted, but the Imperial Army will all die with me tonight!”2
Xiao Chiye clutched Shen Zechuan’s throat from behind and forced him to raise his head. He gave a few short laughs and said harshly, “Do you think of yourself as a golden child? Die with you? Are you even worthy?! Killing you is just like pulling weeds!”
Shen Zechuan’s breathing was strained. He suddenly looped his shackles around the nape of Xiao Chiye’s neck and summoned all his strength to wrench the latter to the ground. Xiao Chiye was caught unawares by this move. As he raised his arms, Shen Zechuan kicked him in the chest. Both men instantly tumbled upside down.
“Kill me like pulling weeds?” Shen Zechuan bent his head and stared into Xiao Chiye’s eyes, finally meeting him eye to eye amidst the chaos. He said in a hoarse voice, “You’ve missed the opportunity. It remains to be seen who will be the hound and who will be the
jade baby rabbit in time to come!”
“Whoever dares to help you in secret!” Xiao Chiye’s intent to kill had been ignited. “I’ll kill one for every one of them I dig out!”
The Squad Commander was scared to death by this sudden change and rushed over to stop them. “Your Excellency! Your Excellency mustn’t kill!”
“That’s right!” Shen Zechuan snapped. “The Second Young Master wants to kill me tonight!”
“Shut your trap!” Xiao Chiye made a sudden move to gag his mouth.
Who would have known that Shen Zechuan would open his mouth to clamp his teeth down hard on him? He pressed down on half of Xiao Chiye’s body, having already bitten through the skin and flesh of Xiao Chiye’s purlicue.3
Xiao Chiye said in a cold voice, “Do you think you can cover it up by making a scene and acting shamelessly? Your martial arts prowess is by no means average!”
The Squad Commander could not stop them, and so he hurriedly called for help. “Pull him off, quick!”
Blood was oozing out between Shen Zechuan’s teeth, but still, he refused to let go. Xiao Chiye had already sobered up by now. He grabbed and lifted Shen Zechuan by his back collar and flung him away. The pain in his purlicue was penetrating. Yet it was Shen Zechuan’s eyes that were vividly seared into Xiao Chiye’s memory.
“Young Master!” Zhao Hui shouted on horseback.
Xiao Chiye turned his head and saw his elder brother on horseback too. The latter had already dismounted and was hurrying towards him. Right at that very instant, he felt ashamed. It was as if someone had peeled him bare of his skin and battered him back into his worthless original self.
Xiao Jiming went down on one knee, and Shen Zechuan immediately let go. Xiao Chiye’s purlicue was badly mangled, and the teeth marks on it were deep.
“Why did you fight?” Zhao Hui followed closely behind and saw his wound.
“Lock him up.” Xiao Jiming said in a deep voice.
Zhao Hui picked Shen Zechuan up and headed inside.
“The Young Master is drunk.” Xiao Jiming looked at the Squad Commander and said, “Don’t let what happened tonight get out. I will personally make an apology to His Majesty.”
The Squad Commander kowtowed to him several times and repeated, “I’ll leave the arrangements to the Hereditary Prince!”
Xiao Jiming stood up. Zhao Hui had already thrown the man back into the temple. On seeing this, he said to the Squad Commander, “It has been hard on our Imperial Army brothers tonight in sending the Young Master back to the residence all safe and sound. It isn’t easy to stand guard on a winter night. I’d like to invite all of you for a drink of hot wine. I hope the various gentlemen will not turn this invitation down.”
Not daring to say no, the Squad Commander tactfully agreed.
Only then did Xiao Jiming look at Xiao Chiye, although it was in wordless silence.
Xiao Chiye did not even wipe away the blood on his hand. He wanted to say something, but then he saw that his elder brother had already turned around to mount the horse.
Xiao Chiye called out to him in a mutter.
Xiao Jiming heard him, but he spurred his horse on and left.
- 滚 it can both mean to scram/get lost and to roll.
- 陪葬 In some periods during the Ming Dynasty (and some other Dynasties), when the Emperor died, other people such as his concubines might be killed, forced to commit suicide, or were buried alive alongside the dead Emperor as a sign of their eternal fidelity to him by following him to his grave. It also refers to taking someone down with you.
^ Shen Zechuan
虎口 i.e the purlicue. the area between the thumb and forefinger.