The wind rose a while later, followed by the fall of rain.
Xiao Chiye braved the rain and galloped his horse through it. He arrived at the Imperial College just in time to hear Gao Zhongxiong shouting with his head raised. “As long as the traitor is not executed, the wrath of the public will not be appeased!”
The students at the back kowtowed and echoed in unison. “As long as the traitor is not executed, the wrath of the public will not be appeased!”
The rain spattered upon the earth, soaking the students’ robes and hair.
Xiao Chiye reined in his horse, and the horse trod its hooves on the same spot. He looked at them for a moment, then said in a loud voice, “What have you been doing earlier? If all of you gentlemen here had kneeled to make your case back then when that surviving descendant entered the capital, then he would never have lived to this day.”
Gao Zhongxiong’s chest heaved. He said, “Viceroy, as they say, it’s better late than never. This surviving descendant is still wet behind the ears, and he has yet to spread his wings. As long as His Majesty is willing to retract his order and deal with him severely, it will still be a consolation to all the loyal souls of Zhongbo!”
“There is absolutely no reason to rescind an imperial edict of the Son of Heaven.”1 Xiao Chiye said, “By kneeling, you are not beseeching His Majesty to revoke his decree, but forcing him into it. The various gentlemen here are all loyal and filial men of the world. There are a hundred ways you can use to make your appeal, so why insist on making such an unwise move?”
“Your Excellency.” Gao Zhongxiong looked up. “Men who wield brushes die in remonstrations, while men who wield swords die in battles! If we have to watch helplessly as His Majesty is deceived into handling affairs in such a muddleheaded way, then we might as well spill our blood on the imperial terrace tonight to die for our beliefs!”
Xiao Chiye said, “Using the threat of death at every turn. Is that all civil servants since ancient times are capable of?”
The rain intensified. The students did not budge.
Xiao Chiye dismounted and squatted before Gao Zhongxiong. The heavy rain poured like a waterfall. He leaned in and asked, “Who is the instigator?”
With a look of great resolve, Gao Zhongxiong said, “My loyalty to my sovereign is what drives me!”
Giving off the air of a ruffian, Xiao Chiye said, “I don’t think so. Of course, if you want to protect an outsider, you can. It’s just that your action tonight has implicated all those three thousand fellow students behind you. If the Emperor flies into a rage and turns tonight into a bloodbath, then you will be no different from that last descendant of the Shen Clan—all of you will be sinners condemned through the ages. And this isn’t even the scariest thing. What’s worse is that His Majesty would still be unwilling to rescind his edict even if your head rolls. You persevered in your studies despite the hardships for twelve years, all just to do the dirty work for another?”
Gao Zhongxiong lifted his arm and wiped away the rainwater on his face. He said, “What I’m doing is a matter of loyalty and righteousness. It’s completely different from the Shen Clan’s traitorous act! Even if all three thousands of us were to die here tonight, even if our blood were to overflow the imperial terrace, we are doing it all for His Majesty!”
Xiao Chiye said, “The situation now is that the palace has neither withdrawn its order for Shen Zechuan to take up post, nor have they sent out an imperial edict to appease the students. Do you still not understand His Majesty’s intention from this?”
“For each day His Majesty does not retract his decree.” Gao Zhongxiong persisted, “We will neither eat, rise, nor retreat!”
The thunderstorm rumbled. Xiao Chiye rose to his feet. Chen Yang wanted to hold up an umbrella for him, but he raised his hand to stop him. Rain seeped into his robe. Even the tablet hanging on his waist was dripping water.
“Viceroy.” Chen Yang suddenly spoke in a soft voice. “The Imperial Bodyguards are here!”
Xiao Chiye turned his head back in the rain and saw Qiao Tianya arriving on his horse. The latter dismounted and cupped his fists together from afar to pay his obeisances.
A sudden commotion rose among the students when they saw the Orange-Red Cavalry.2
“This is a knotty issue. It wouldn’t do to trouble the Viceroy over it.” Qiao Tianya held on to his blade and smiled. “One of the Imperial Bodyguards is the target here. So naturally, the Imperial Bodyguards should be the one to resolve this ourselves.”
“Resolve.” Xiao Chiye raised his arm almost thoughtlessly and placed it on Qiao Tianya’s shoulder. He said, “How does the Judge3 want to resolve this matter? They are just a bunch of unarmed students; there’s no need to trouble the Imperial Bodyguards over them.”
“The Emperor is the highest authority in Qudu.” Qiao Tianya looked askance at him. “Whoever has the gall to defy His Majesty’s orders are the enemies of the Imperial Bodyguard.”
Xiao Chiye looked at him right in the eyes. After a moment, both men burst into laughter.
“My man.” Xiao Chiye said. “You are gutsy.”
“It’s raining hard and cold.” Qiao Tianya tightened his grip on his blade and said, “I’ll send someone to escort you back to your residence.”
“I just arrived a moment ago.” Xiao Chiye’s hand remained on Qian Tianya’s shoulder to hold his arm, which was grasping the hilt of his blade, in place. He was still smiling as he said, “There’s no harm in staying a little longer.”
Qiao Tianya said, “This matter is a difficult one. Why muddy the waters?”
Xiao Chiye said, “It’s precisely because it’s tough to handle that we can’t get rid of them all at once. These students are all great minds of the state. None of us can take responsibility for it if there’s one of them less.”
The man dismounting his horse at the back was dressed in a thin, wide-sleeved garment. He did not carry a blade with him. Sandwiched between the pack of Imperial Bodyguards, he stood out conspicuously like a sore thumb.
Qiao Tianya loosened his grip on his blade and shouted, “Lanzhou, come here.”
Shen Zechuan turned around and exchanged glances with Xiao Chiye.
Qiao Tianya leisurely shifted Xiao Chiye’s arm away and said, “The Viceroy’s worry is valid. However, the Imperial Bodyguards don’t merely know how to bulldoze our way through our jobs. I still have some other arrangements on my end. In a while, the Emperor’s order will arrive… Oh. Both of you are old friends, aren’t you? Lanzhou, stay here with the Viceroy for a moment. He’s scared.”
Shen Zechuan gathered his sleeves and looked at the students in the rain.
Xiao Chiye took a few glances at him and commented, “Your waist tablet has been hung up pretty fast.”
Shen Zechuan said, “The Second Young Master’s tablet has been returned pretty fast too.”
Xiao Chiye’s expression was cold, but he smiled and said, “You may seem to be the target of this matter, but the truth is that the real target is the palace. So how’s it? Because your gains were too little yesterday, you have to stir up trouble the moment you get out of your cage?”
Shen Zechuan tilted his head slightly and looked at him with pure, kind eyes. He said, “The Second Young Master thinks too highly of me. Where on earth would I have the capability to stir things up? Since the target is the palace, then wouldn’t the Second Young Master know better than I who currently harbor the most desire to see His Majesty fall out with the Hua Clan?”
Xiao Chiye said, “I don’t get what you mean. Circuitous stuff is all beyond my understanding.”
Shen Zechuan smiled at him and said, “We are old acquaintances; you don’t have to stand on ceremony with me.”
Xiao Chiye did not answer him. Instead, he offhandedly lifted a finger to flick Shen Zechuan’s waist tablet. He said, “The Domesticated Elephants Office is a good place. You must be happy, huh?”
“I am.” Shen Zechuan said, “It just happens that I have some experience in taming ferocious beasts.”
“Not really an experience.” Xiao Chiye said. “That was a deep conversation between the same kind.”
“How would I dare to call it such?” Shen Zechuan coughed softly and said, “If the talks break down and I receive yet another kick, then wouldn’t all my previous efforts go to waste?”
“Use your teeth then.” Xiao Chiye took the umbrella from Chen Yang’s hand and held it up above his head. At the same time, he blocked Shen Zechuan and said, “You have a sharp tongue and a smart mouth, don’t you? So what are you afraid of?”
“I value my life.” Shen Zechuan sighed as if with emotion. “As they said, the kindness of a drop of water given in times of need should be repaid multifold with a gushing spring.4 There is so much more I wish to repay the Second Young Master with.”
“Have you gotten the wrong person?” Xiao Chiye scoffed.
“That can’t be.” Shen Zechuan cast a sidelong glance at Xiao Chiye and said calmly to him, “I recognize you.”
“Fine, then.” Xiao Chiye looked askance at him as well and said, “I want to see how much I owe you too.”
The voices outside the umbrella were cut off. Both men stood shoulder to shoulder, accentuating the height difference between them.
“Actually, there is no way you can stay out of this matter.” Xiao Chiye gazed at the students in the rain. “If one dies tonight, there will naturally be someone who will lay the blame on you.”
“There will only be more and not less of the forty thousand souls who have died unjust deaths.” Shen Zechuan played it down. “Since they are afraid of death, then why be someone else’s weapon? Even if someone wants to pin this on me, it doesn’t mean I have to plead guilty, do I?”
Both men fell silent again.
Qiao Tianya sat astride under the shed and cracked melon seeds. Seeing as it was almost time, he shook the seeds off his robe and rose to his feet. Sure enough, he saw a sedan chair coming towards them amid the color of the night.
The curtain lifted. Unexpectedly, it was Pan Rugui who came.
The little eunuch supported Pan Rugui with a hand, while Ji Lei followed at the side holding up an umbrella for him. Wearing a robe with a tiger, mugwort, and five poisons5 mandarin square6 and a yandun hat7 on his head, Pan Rugui let Qiao Tianya lead him to the students.
“Such a heavy downpour.” Qiao Tianya reined in his smile and said, “To think they actually sent the Seal-holding Director to grace us with your presence.”
Pan Rugui looked askance at Gao Zhongxiong and asked Qiao Tianya, “He won’t retreat?”
Qiao Tianya replied, “Scholars are all bull-headed. They are neither enticed by the carrot nor brow-beaten by the stick.”
“Then, I’m afraid the stick isn’t hard enough.” Pan Rugui had lost his right-handed man yesterday, and he had nowhere to vent all his pent-up anger. With the little eunuch supporting him, he came to stand before Gao Zhongxiong. “You are all men who are well-read in the classics and literature. How is it that you can’t understand the words ‘overstepping your authority’? The affairs of the imperial court are to be discussed in the imperial court itself. It is not something brats like you who are still wet behind the ears can influence!”
On seeing this well-known lackey of the ‘Hua Faction’, Gao Zhongxiong could not help but straighten his back and say, “Every man has a duty to his country. Since the Imperial College students receive a stipend from the sovereign, then they must serve him loyally! Treacherous toadies abound all around His Majesty now. If we still don’t…”
“Treacherous toadies!” Pan Rugui laughed coldly. “What a fine way to put it! Who instigated you to slander the imperial court and malign His Majesty?”
“Cut the crap.” Pan Rugui suddenly commanded, “You act upon the instigation of those with sinister motives and publicly defy the imperial decree. You incite your clique to slander the imperial court and the people. If this man goes unpunished, then what’s the use of the law? Men, take him down!”
Gao Zhongxiong had never expected Pan Rugui to be so daring that he would indiscriminately take others down. He immediately braced himself in the rain and shouted himself hoarse, “Who dares to? I was chosen by His Majesty himself to study at the Imperial College! The villain stands before us, and eunuchs endanger the state! The Empress Dowager wields control over the state affairs and refuses to return governance to its rightful master. The ones who should be taken down are treacherous ministers and traitors like you!”
“Drag him away!” Ji Lei immediately said in reproach when he saw Pan Rugui enraged.
The Imperial Bodyguards stepped forward to drag him away. Gao Zhongxiong’s attempt to climb to his feet was thwarted. He raised his arms in the direction of the palace and shouted, “My death today is truly a remonstration to the death! Since the eunuch wants to kill me, then let him kill! Your Majesty…”
Qiao Tianya gripped Gao Zhongxiong by the neck. Unable to breathe, the latter struggled and shouted intermittently.
“Your Majesty— The treacherous ministers are in power. Then, what’s the point of loyalty and righteousness?!”
Xiao Chiye said inwardly to himself, oh shit.
What happened next was just as he expected. Sorrow and indignation ran high among the three thousand students. Life and death had no place here right this instant as it was forced out by this vehement elegy. Rising to their feet in the rainstorm, the students charged at the Imperial Bodyguards.
“Eunuchs endanger the state!” They pulled their zhaowen bags8 off their waists and flung them at Pan Rugui. Bitter cries rang out. “Treacherous ministers are in power!”
Ji Lei hurriedly shielded Pan Rugui and guarded him as he ushered the latter back in a retreat. He chided them furiously, “What are you doing? Staging a rebellion?!”
“This is the real traitor to the nation!” The students threw themselves against the Imperial Bodyguards as the Imperial Bodyguards held them back. Their fingers almost jabbed Ji Lei’s face, while specks of saliva sprayed towards them. “Traitor! Traitor!”
Xiao Chiye swiftly tossed the umbrella to Shen Zechuan and hurried down the stairs.
Shen Zechuan stood alone on high ground and watched the chaos with cool detachment. Pan Rugui had been shoved back into his sedan, and Ji Lei even lost his shoe in the melee.
“Storms are rife in the martial fraternity.” From a distance away, Shen Zechuan said softly to Ji Lei, “Your Excellency Ji, what a truly wonderful sight.”
A chuckle rose from under the umbrella. He leisurely turned the umbrella and looked at Xiao Chiye’s back.
Grand Mentor Qi and Ji Gang were drinking wine and tea under the eaves.
Ji Gang drank his tea and said, “Was killing Xiaofuzi a ploy to let Chuan-er out?”
Grand Mentor Qi took small sips of the wine as though he could not bear to drink it. He hugged the gourd and said, “Who knows? Make a guess yourself.”
Ji Gang turned around and said, “No matter what, his safety is the most important.”
Grand Mentor Qi shook the gourd and said, “It is only by making a risky move that a soldier can take his foe by surprise. You taught him martial arts so that he could stay calm in hours of peril. Sometimes, we have to put safety aside. It is only when you leave no room for maneuver or escape that one will put up a desperate fight for survival and emerge victorious.”
Ji Gang watched the rain intensify with a worried frown and said, “I have already made proper arrangement for the task you entrusted me with.”
“This is called casting a long line.”9 Grand Mentor Qi scratched his foot. “If you don’t let it brave the water for a few years before you haul in the net, then all you will catch are lousy fishes and prawns.10 Should there come a day you and I both lose our lives in the midst of this, the arrangement today will be the killer move that will preserve his life.”
- 天子 Son of Heaven, refers to the Emperor. An Emperor was as good as his word, so they would very rarely retract their orders or go back on their words.
- 缇骑 tiqi; a subordinate of the Imperial Bodyguards. They are mounted cavalry of the Imperial Bodyguards that wear red/orange-red uniforms and are commonly guarded escorts of an official’s retinue or entourage.
- 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there were a Southern and Northern Prison (镇抚司) subordinated to the Imperial Bodyguards. The Southern Prison was in charge of interpreting military laws and managing military craftsmen while the Northern Prison was responsible for cases entrusted by the Emperor.
- 滴水之恩当涌泉相报 i.e. to repay a favor one has received multifold.
- 五毒艾虎 a festive pattern of tiger, mugwort, and five poisons (the centipede, scorpion, toad, lizard, and snake) used on mandarin squares, or rank badges, of the official garbs (see next footnote). Courtiers in the Ming Dynasty wore robes with this badge from the first to the thirteenth day of the fifth lunar month in celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Festival) and the Summer Solstice.
补子 rank badges or mandarin squares, was a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official to indicate the rank of the official wearing it. E.g., the use of squares depicting birds for civil officials and animals for military officials; there were even “seasonal” squares like the gourd (mentioned in chapter 2) and the tiger, mugwort, and five poisons (see the previous footnote).
- 烟墩帽 a hat worn by eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty. It was made of velvet or crape in winter.
- 招文袋 a small bag hung at the waist for keeping documents or money.
- 放长线 (钓大鱼) literally casting a long line (to catch a big fish); i.e., to set in motion a long-term plan for major returns in the future.
- 臭鱼烂虾 literally smelly fishes and rotten prawns. It’s also used to refer to a good-for-nothing who is so worthless and useless that he can only be cast away like rotten meat.