News of Han Jin’s rash advance made its way back to Qudu, causing quite the stir. Because the only surviving Imperial Bodyguard brought back a sack of human heads, making it clear to all that Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye had completely split from Qudu. There was no longer a glimmer of possibility that both sides could sit down for negotiation. Han Jin’s capture threw Han Cheng into a rage. When Shen Zechuan left Qudu, the Imperial Bodyguards were already falling apart. The Imperial Bodyguards led by Ge Qingqing were still in Juexi looking after the Xi clan, and Fei Sheng had gone into hiding with his own trusted men. Han Cheng did not have much manpower left on hand.
The Imperial Bodyguards were at the height of power and the peak of glory under Ji Wufan’s command. By the time the command fell to Ji Lei, it was already on the decline. And now, in Han Cheng’s hands, it had thoroughly turned into an utterly fractured squad of ceremonial guards. The batch of men under Fei Sheng’s command were all capable men, but Han Cheng’s premature exposure of his intent to kill Fei Sheng had consequently caused him to miss the chance to win Fei Sheng over to his side.
“Once the overall situation has stabilized, the Twelve Offices of the Imperial Bodyguards will have to be reorganized. Our lack of current manpower is really a disgrace, and we can’t get anything done with this few people.” Han Cheng sat at the right-handed seat below the Empress Dowager and said in a steady voice, “I noticed that the noble clans’ descendants are mostly in positions with practically no obligations lately. Giving them a place to go would also prevent them from recklessly stirring up trouble at this crucial juncture.”
The Empress Dowager wore a crown of jade, with her hair tidily worn in a bun and her sideburns, trimmed. Pendant earrings inlaid with gold and gems dangled at the sides of her ears. She was really suited to dressing in such an elegant and poised manner, just like how a peony ought to be grown in the main halls of the nobles. Only gold and jade in its glorious splendor was worthy enough for a divine beauty of this caliber. She was already beyond her prime, yet her graceful demeanor was far from diminished. At present, she was holding a wooden spoon, teasing the parrot. Without even looking at Han Cheng, she said, “The Imperial Bodyguards is a place where serious work is done. It’s already providing for many hereditary descendants of the noble clans. Keep stuffing more people inside, and it will be rendered useless sooner or later. The Eight Great Training Divisions suffered a defeat in the battle outside Dancheng. If you ask me, it not only needs an infusion of new blood, but also a dismissal of some old-timers.”
It was precisely at the behest of someone else that Han Cheng was thinking of finding decent posts for the young masters of the noble clans. On hearing this, he said, “I have the same intent. I’ll discuss it over with the Ministry of War tomorrow and write a memorial to submit to the Grand Secretariat. Your Majesty, that Hai Liangyi is so sick that he can’t even straighten his back. He has been toiling hard his entire lifetime for state affairs. At the very least, we mustn’t let him exhaust himself to death while on the job. We need to come up with an arrangement for him.”
By this, he meant for Hai Liangyi to be relieved of his post and sent back to his hometown. With a smile on her face, the Empress Dowager tapped the wooden spoon and handed it over to Matron Liuxiang, who was serving at the side. She said to Han Cheng with an amicable countenance, “What he has is an affliction of the heart for which he has yet to regain his footing. He’s still the one who understands many of the Six Ministries’ affairs best. How can we rashly dismiss him back to his hometown at such a crucial time? Let’s wait for a few more days.”
Han Cheng, having been tactfully rebuffed, gnashed his teeth inwardly, although he kept his expression unchanged on his face and said, “Your Majesty is the one leading the administration now, so naturally, Your Majesty is the one who decides. Since the Eight Great Training Divisions have been defeated before the City of Dancheng, and Xiao Chiye has already fled to Zhongbo, then it’d be better for the Ministry of War to mobilize the Qidong Garrison Troops to stop them as soon as possible. Otherwise, the Libei Armored Cavalry would have a 20,000-men strong reinforcement by the time he returns to Libei!”
The Empress Dowager cleaned her hands and said, “If you had been able to stop him in Qudu, we would not have all these subsequent worries now. That Prefectural Prefect, Zhou Gui, knows how to do his job, and he is also caught in a tight spot. He still has to come into contact with Libei in the future, so he will definitely not offend Libei. Xiao Chiye’s return to Libei is already a foregone conclusion. Even if we get Qi Zhuyin to go, she’ll be just fighting the Libei Armored Cavalry in a head-on attack. It’s easy for us to talk about deploying troops here. But where are the military provisions to sustain the army as they head north? Hezhou can’t bear this extra burden.”
“Then are we just going to let Xiao Chiye return to Libei just like this?” Han Cheng stood up in astonishment. “This will make Libei even more powerful, like a tiger that has been given wings!”
The Empress Dowager let Matron Liuxiang hold her for support as she stood at the entrance of the front yard to look at the beautiful flowers in a multitude of vivid colors. She asked, “Han Cheng, do you think that Xiao Chiye will definitely be of assistance when he returns to Libei?”
Han Cheng put on a look as if he was listening attentively and said deferentially, “I do not understand. Please enlighten me.”
“From the time Xiao Jiming took over military power of the Libei Armored Cavalry from Xiao Fangxu, he used ten years to get to where he is today. He is the heart of the Libei’s military forces, one the soldiers look up to.” The Empress Dowager watched as Hua Xiangyi pounced on butterflies in the garden with the maidservants and could not help but reveal a smile. She watched for a while longer before she continued, “Xiao Chiye has left Libei for six years. His return now makes him look like a wolf pup intruding into someone else’s territory. He said Qudu is not the hometown in his dreams, but he is too young to understand the implied meaning of the phrase ‘circumstances change with the passage of time’. Leading that 20,000-strong Imperial Army of his, he will gradually come to realize how out of element he is in Libei. Xiao Fangxu has always taken the hard line in setting up the Libei Armored Cavalry under one command. This is the reason why he is still standing, but it’s also going to be the reason why it will be hard for Xiao Chiye to fit in. In a pack of wolves feeding on meat, Xiao Chiye, in order to kill his way out of the encirclement to become the alpha wolf, must first have the determination to bite the former king of wolf to death.”
The Empress Dowager looked back and smiled at Han Cheng.
“The Xiao clan can’t bear the sight of internal strife among the other clans. But sometimes, there is no other choice. The Xiao clan has always been a paragon of brotherly love and respect, but how long can this brotherhood last in the face of military power? The battlefield is a cruel place. It is where the blood of millions of battered soldiers is shed. But the combat zone for power is even more brutal. A change of hands often means infighting and fratricide.”
Han Cheng indistinctly shrank under the Empress Dowager’s gaze. He hurriedly lowered his head in agreement and said, “Your Majesty is wise. But Xiao Jiming is already seriously injured. It’s entirely justifiable for Xiao Chiye to stand in for him.”
The Empress Dowager asked, “Did Xiao Jiming die?”
Han Cheng shook his head.
The Empress Dowager said, “Xiao Jiming didn’t die. He can still assist and coordinate military affairs from the back, while Xiao Fangxu, with his re-emergence, can command the soldiers from the front. This pair of father and son controls the Libei Armored Cavalry. There are many matters in which they have to show mutual understanding in order to keep it up. But Xiao Chiye has both the ability to unify and coordinate military affairs and the ability to charge into battle and kill the enemies. If he barges into this equilibrium – among that extremely unified military leadership – then he will be the unforeseen event that hinders the Libei Armored Cavalry from having only one commander-in-chief. Maybe he doesn’t have the intent to take his father and elder brother’s place. But very soon, he will understand that Libei isn’t as indivisible as we see it. His return is the hidden danger that will bring about Libei’s split.”
The trajectory of such a situation was not something anyone can deliberately direct. It was something that took shape in passing based on the opportunities present. The seed had been sown the day Xiao Fangxu led the Libei Armored Cavalry in an attempt to take a stand against Qudu. But as for what fruit it would reap, no one knew.1
“In this world, the common man has the worries of the common men to bear, while a talented one has the agony of the talented to endure.” The Empress Dowager said calmly. “Since there is already a Xiao Jiming, then why beget another Xiao Chiye? Six years is not a long time, nor is it a short time, yet it’s enough to change many things. The source of Xiao Chiye’s agony in Qudu comes from the fact that he is not a man of mediocre ability. But after he returns to Libei, he will still continue to be tormented by this kind of suffering. Once this pair of role models for brotherhood realizes that killing each other is the only way out, the anguish will intensify. Whether it is Xiao Jiming who gives up his position to Xiao Chiye, or if it is Xiao Chiye who excuses himself to avoid suspicion, even brothers who were once loyal and devoted to each other will grow estranged.”
Under the warmth of this fifth month, Han Cheng felt a chill, followed by a tingle of thrill.
“The former emperor has already been buried. There ought to be some signs of progress for the preparation of the new ruler.” The Empress Dowager said, “You said you’ve found the imperial heir. When are you going to bring the imperial heir out for me to have a look?”
Han Cheng said with a slight bow, “I’ve already sent men to bring the imperial heir to Qudu at top speed. Your Majesty will be able to see the imperial heir in five days at the latest.”
The Empress Dowager looked at him and said, “Since you’re so sure he is the imperial heir, you must have credible proof that will convince the others. The civil officials led by Hai Liangyi aren’t that easy to dismiss. Han Cheng, you should go and make preparations.”
Han Cheng kept her company for a while longer, then said his farewell and left. The moment he left, Hua Xiangyi approached the Empress Dowager with a flower branch in her arms.
“Han Cheng has never climbed this high before. Just let him in on it a little, and he lost all sense of propriety.” The Empress Dowager looked in the direction in which Han Cheng had left and pulled Hua Xiangyi along to stroll a few steps. “What a fool that Han Jin is to be defeated in Dancheng. He has the timing, location, and manpower all in his favor, and he still ended up being taken captive. How can such a person take on heavy responsibilities? Han Cheng’s words in the palace today are all hints for me to dispatch men to save him. Little would he imagine that they only kept Han Jin alive to threaten him with.”
“I noticed that the commander-in-chief has been looking good lately. He doesn’t even address himself as ‘this subject’ when he enters the palace to pay his respects.” Hua Xiangyi leaned on the Empress Dowager. “Auntie, he’s up to no good. Going by how early his preparation of the so-called imperial heir is, I fear he’s already no longer satisfied with being the Imperial Bodyguards’ Commander-in-chief.”
“He wants to be the prince regent.” The Empress Dowager took away the flowers in Hua Xiangyi’s arms. “I’ve already made inquiries into the child he has chosen. How is that an orphan of the late emperor? It’s merely a child he found from a distant relative in his native hometown. It’s a tad delusional for such a lowly thing to dream of occupying the Li clan’s empire, isn’t it?”
The Empress Dowager thought for a moment.
“But there’s really no one else at present.”
While both of them were conversing, they suddenly saw Fuman hurrying over. He paid his obeisance and said in an obsequious manner, “His Excellency the Assistant Minister Xue requests an audience.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Tantai Hu distributed the food that night. Just as Shen Zechuan expected, Han Jin had traveled light when he led the troops in pursuit of them and did not bring that much food. The Imperial Army, however, had gone hungry for several days. At least they could eat their fill tonight.
Shen Zechuan had grown terribly thin after his teacher’s passing, but this forest had been long cleared out, and there was not even a rabbit around. Xiao Chiye took out the steamed bun and meat jerky he had hoarded and gave it all to Shen Zechuan, while he himself ate dry biscuits and rice water just like everyone else.
“I’ve done as per Master’s arrangement and sent someone to notify Zhou Gui so that he can get prepared.” Tantai Hu crouched down next to the fire and said, “Master will be able to go home once we make our way past Cizhou the day after tomorrow!”
Xiao Chiye threw firewood into the bonfire and said, “Informing Zhou Gui is just to get him to play along with us. With Han Jin in our hands, he will have no other choice but to give way.”
“This Han Jin really came at the most opportune time.” Tantai Hu grinned. “ Just the day before, we were still thinking about how to get past Cizhou, and he delivered himself right to our doorstep!”
Shen Zechuan warmed his hands by the fire and said nothing as he looked at the fire.
Tantai Hu soaked the biscuit and said, “I’ve eaten this kind of provision when I was a part of Dengzhou’s garrison troop a few years back. Zhongbo, looking at it again now, is different from the Zhongbo of the past… I almost can’t recognize it.”
Ding Tao poured out a bit of rice in his bowl to feed to the sparrow in his sleeve. When he heard this, he said, “It’s still not too bad here. Go further east, and that’s what it truly means to be totally a different sight.”
Ding Tao had a photographic memory. He still remembered the tragic scenes he had seen in Duanzhou and Dunzhou six years ago when he followed Xiao Chiye and the army to clean up the mess. That year, he was only ten years old. He had just gotten a little notebook and was just starting to take notes just like his father did. And consequently, he had nightmares the entire journey.
“You were merely passing by after the battle. You’ve never seen how Zhongbo used to look like.” Tantai Hu lowered his eyes to look at the soup in the bowl. “I followed my parents to Dunzhou when I was a child. It was really big, and almost as bustling as Qudu. The display of fireworks and lanterns during the new year2 was very beautiful, as was the turtle mountain lantern display.3 People crowding and jostling with one another… so many people.”
Shen Wei was the Prince of Jianxing, and the Prince of Jianxing’s Manor was in Dunzhou. For a moment, all of them lowered their heads. No one dared to glance at Shen Zechuan, not to mention that they were also afraid of offending Xiao Chiye too. These few days on the road, the Imperial Army had gradually come to discover the subtle and delicate relationship between Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye. It was a completely different feeling to come face-to-face with it compared to when it had been merely rumors to them before.
How should they see Shen Zechuan? Do they regard him as their madam—the wife of their commander-in-chief? But which household’s lady could command the Imperial Bodyguards to raid others thrice? When he hacked off the heads of all those old subordinates who were protecting Han Jin, not one of the Imperial Army’s military officials could bring themselves to watch.
Shen Zechuan was too different from Xiao Chiye. He did not look and behave like the Commander-in-chief the Imperial Army was familiar with. He seemed to be gentle and modest, yet he rarely changed his mind during official discussions. He would even overrule Tantai Hu outright. Compared to Xiao Chiye, he was a lot more cold-blooded. In the past, they all privately saw Shen Zechuan as a mere beauty—a delicate fragility that clung on to the stronghold of power. But after Shen Zechuan put on the scarlet python robe,4 everything that he had once concealed was exposed to the public. He became someone different from that last remnant of the Shen clan they knew of in the past. His beauty was no longer a vision anyone could wantonly admire at will—that was an unrivaled allure that bespoke a ruthless strength.
There were very few people in the Imperial Army who were willing to look at Shen Zechuan in the eye, other than the totally clueless Ding Tao. Even Tantai Hu could sense a certain kind of pressure. They took their orders from Xiao Chiye, and they did not mind if Xiao Chiye liked men, but they had to figure out what Shen Zechuan’s position was soonest possible—Shen Zechuan had the might that put him on par to vie with Xiao Chiye for power and authority. This was what they were most unaccustomed to these few days: the subtle fear.
Xiao Chiye rubbed his thumb ring gently. He was just about to speak when Shen Zechuan turned his palms over and said, “The wild herbs and vegetables in Duanzhou are delicious.”
The tension in the atmosphere eased a little. Sure enough, Ding Tao raised his head and said, “I heard from others back in Libei that a handful of wild vegetables in Duanzhou during the winter are as expensive as gold. I want to try them! Young master, do you eat them often?”
“When the ice and snow melt in spring, my shiniang would choose the most tender wild vegetables to make dumplings.” Shen Zechuan replied in his usual tone. His fingertips were clean and free of dust, as if they had never been tainted with those blood stains before. He said with a smile, “I rarely eat them. That’s why I remember it so clearly.”
Ding Tao gulped down his saliva and wrote carefully in his notebook with that bit of ink he had. “I want to eat it. We will definitely get the chance to in the future. If I note it down, I won’t forget it.”
Tantai Hu rubbed the back of Ding Tao’s head and chided him with a smile, “Grow up! What delicacy is there that you have never tasted before? To think you are still thinking about wild vegetables!”
Everyone laughed, and the topic of Zhongbo was thus diverted. Shen Zechuan warmed up his hands and said nothing more.
At night, Xiao Chiye rested his head on a stone. He had yet to fall asleep when a slightly hot oil paper stuck to his cheek. He sat up and took a sniff at it from Shen Zechuan’s hands. He smiled and said, “Where did you get this bun from?”
“Ding Tao brought it back from the town. He said to keep it for eating.” Shen Zechuan sat beside Xiao Chiye.
Both men sat side to side, with the already asleep forest belt at their backs, and the boundless starry sky before them. Xiao Chiye opened the oil paper and pushed it towards Shen Zechuan. He said, “Then eat it. It’s going to get cold if you keep it any longer.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I’m full. You can have it.”
Knowing that Shen Zechuan was keeping it specially for him, Xiao Chiye took it and broke it into two, with one half in one hand for himself, and the other half in the other hand for Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan took a few symbolic bites and let Xiao Chiye finish the rest of it.
“You also have to decide whether the betrothal gift of two million should be taken to Libei or left in Cizhou.” Xiao Chiye drank the water from the water bag. “ Ge Qingqing will surely keep an eye on the Xi clan’s business for you when he receives the message. Once we reach Libei, Qiao Tianya and Chen Yang should have also hurried back too. When the time comes, we’ll set up a new compound…”
Xiao Chiye stopped, acutely sensing something off in this unusual silence. He fell silent for a moment.
“Is there something you want to tell me?”
Grasping the little bamboo fan that never left his side in his hands, Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye out of the corners of his eyes and said, “Ce’an, I can’t go with you to Libei.”
The way he spoke was so gentle. Just like that time at the top of the city gate when he had said to Xiao Chiye with the same tenderness, “Ce’an, go home.”
- 因果 karma, also known as cause (the seed sown) and effect (the fruit reaped). 果 also means fruit, or the result or consequences of something.
- 正旦 Zhengdan, the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
鳌山 Aoshan, turtle-shaped mountain, made up of a pile of colored lanterns (in the shape of a giant turtle) for the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunisolar month.
- 蟒衣 (or 蟒袍) “python (or mang) robes” were embroidered robes bestowed by the Emperor to officials with merits during the Ming Dynasty. It was a sign of honor and favor for officials who were granted the privilege of wearing a “python robe”.