The “storm” here also refers to a crisis or turmoil.
It was in the middle of the night that the Empress Dowager draped her clothes over herself and asked through the bed canopy, “What’s that din about?”
Hua Xiangyi nudged the canopy aside and helped the Empress Dowager out of the incense-scented-and-warmed bedding. She replied in a soft voice, “The students of the Imperial College want the Emperor to retract his appointment edict.”
The Empress Dowager got up, and the maidservants on both sides quietly lit the lamps and raised the curtains. Hua Xiangyi helped the Empress Dowager to the Arhat bed with a girdled waist, horses’ hooves legs, and plain boards at the sides.1 A soft cushion and heater were presented together to the Empress Dowager, while fermented milk2 was warmed up for her.
The Empress Dowager stirred the spoon with a light frown on her face, “How did that happen out of the blue?” She pondered it over for a moment. “The appointment order was only given yesterday, and they came to stir up a ruckus tonight. Isn’t that way too fast?”
“What’s more, the ones creating a commotion are those from the Imperial College.” Hua Xiangyi went along with the Empress Dowager and said, “Auntie,3 all the literary talents in the world look to the Imperial College. Even the Secretariat Elder himself would find it ill-advised to step in.”
The Empress Dowager scooped up the fermented milk. Although her makeup-less face showed signs of aging, it added character to her looks. She gradually put aside the bowl and leaned back against the cushion to stare at the glazed lampshade. After a short while, she said, “That’s right. Shen Wei is now notorious for his crime. By all sentiment and logic, the Secretariat Elder cannot come forward to rebuke the students. If the students force His Majesty to rescind his order, then I’ll have to swallow this bitter pill in silence this time.”
“Auntie.” Hua Xiangyi said, “It wasn’t His Majesty’s original intent to release Shen Zechuan. Now that he has earned himself the infamy of being ‘muddle-headed’ for no reason because of this order, I’m afraid it will create a distance between you both.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The Empress Dowager said, “Once Imperial Concubine Wei is with child Dazhou will have an heir. The imperial heir is the foundation of the empire. As long as I have the heir in my hands, I’m still the Empress Dowager of Dazhou. His Emperor has long been at odds with me ever since he fell ill. Even if he flies into a rage this time, it’s merely a tantrum thrown during a moment of illness. Let him vent.”
After his illness, Emperor Xiande gradually stopped going along with the Empress Dowager’s will. Although these were all trivial daily matters, it was already an indication of his dissension. The Empress Dowager had assumed command in the palace with Pan Rugui at her side and Secretariat Elder Hua in the imperial court. If she wanted to ensure the continuation of the burgeoning power and authority of the Hua Clan, then she needed a submissive and obedient Emperor.
If Emperor Xiande could no longer fit the role, then all she had to do was to replace him.
The sole reason the Empress Dowager did not like Prince Chu, Li Jianheng, was because he had already come of age.4 He was not a weak child, nor was he a child who had grown up under her. How could such a person, if he were to ascend to the throne, be as obedient as an imperial grandson raised by her?
“What’s more, the appeal today is a blow to His Majesty’s dignity.” The Empress Dowager said calmly, “The nine years His Majesty has been on the throne, his food and clothing, as well as all other matters, whether important or trivial, have to go through me. But now, he wants to be an independent and imperious Emperor. For this, he emboldened himself to show goodwill to the Xiao Clan. Not only did he refuse to release Shen Zechuan, he even wanted to protect the Prince Chu. But I understand him. He is outwardly strong and inwardly weak. He fears me. That’s why he always aimed to be on both parties’ good sides. Instead, he appears to be of two minds, and ends up thoroughly offending both parties.”
“Didn’t His Majesty imprison Shen Zechuan for so many years for the sake of the Xiao Clan?”
“What does imprisonment mean?” The Empress Dowager took Hua Xiangyi’s hand and said soberly. “Imprisonment is a reprieve from death. His Majesty thought he did a favor to the Xiao Clan, but he’s really just sowing the seed of disaster. Xiao Jiming lost his younger brother. What Libei wants is for Shen Zechuan to die. As long as Shen Zechuan remains alive, His Majesty will let down all those one hundred and twenty thousand Armored Cavalry who came to his rescue. Think about it. Xiao Jiming worked himself to the bone all to prove that he harbors no thoughts of disloyalty. He even dares to leave his younger brother behind in Qudu. He has conducted himself with frankness and sincerity towards His Majesty. Yet, in order not to offend me, His Majesty turned around and dismissed Shen Zechuan’s death penalty and locked him up instead. If Shen Zechuan doesn’t die, he will become the root of trouble. This is the period of the struggle between life and death, and yet His Majesty is still so naïve. And need I mention the incident this time? To protect Prince Chu, His Majesty was not willing to launch a full investigation into Xiaofuzi’s case and consequently cut off Pan Rugui’s subsequent move. At the same time, he’s afraid I’d harbor ill-feelings against him, so he reluctantly let Shen Zechuan off—He thought the Xiao Clan would understand his difficulties, but Xiao Jiming is far away in Libei. Once he learns about this matter, he will not be happy.”
“If that’s the case.” Hua Xiangyi said, “Could it have been someone from the Xiao Clan who incited the Imperial College students to stir up trouble? Forcing His Majesty to rescind his edict this time would not only drive a wedge between His Majesty and the Hua Clan, it would also prevent the Secretariat Elder and Auntie from stepping forward. At the same time, it can also eliminate Shen Zechuan through the hands of another.”
“If it’s so clear-cut.” The Empress Dowager brushed aside Hua Xiangyi’s stray hair and said dotingly, “Then what’s the need for Xiao Jiming to be one of the Four Generals of the world? That lad has always been prudent in his conduct. If he were the perpetrator, he would not be found out this easily. Besides, Libei has no dealings with the Imperial College.”
“I can’t guess.” Hua Xiangyi leaned against the Empress Dowager and said like a pampered child, “Tell me, Auntie.”
“Alright.” The Empress Dowager was childless this life, and she was not close to those on her maternal grandparents’ side. The only one she doted on was Hua Xiangyi. She said, “Auntie will teach you. Look at the surrounding Eight Cities established beyond Qudu. The Eight Cities are where the current Eight Great Clans5 originated. Our Hua Clan resides in the city of Dicheng at the south of the capital. It has always been the city of choice for imperial concubines. But it’s only during my time that the Hua Clan was considered to be at the height of its glory and came out tops among the Eight Great Clans. A few years earlier, when the former Emperor had only just ascended to the throne, it was the Yao Clan who was the most favored and honored. This was because the Yao Clan had been conferred as the Emperor’s tutor thrice. If it weren’t for Old Master Yao’s lack of literary talents during his time, that Qi Huilian from Yuzhou might not even get to be the Grand Mentor of Yongyi.6 Moreover, of the current Xi Clan, only Xi Gu’an has been promoted to the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Eight Great Training Divisions to manage the younger generations of the Eight Great Clans. Just think of him as a teacher of the military camps. The Xi Clan has always been men of inferior morals and virtues; they will not achieve great things. Meanwhile, the Xue Clan has already begun its decline after the glorious death of Grand Master Xue. Xue Xiuzhuo is the only one now who has an official post in the Central Administration. As for the remaining Wei, Pan, Fei, and Han Clans, I’ll tell you about them next time.”
“I’ve heard Father mention these before.” Hua Xiangyi said, “So Auntie is telling me these to suggest that the secret instigator of the Imperial College this time might be someone else from the Eight Great Clans.”
“That’s what I suspect.” The Empress Dowager said. “Glory is enjoyed in turn. It has been many years since the Hua Clan has enjoyed its rise following my ascend. It’s possible for someone to harbor some other intent on seeing how gravely ill His Majesty is now. Summon Pan Rugui over tomorrow morning and let him have the Imperial Bodyguards conduct a thorough investigation in secret. Qudu is such a big place. I don’t believe there is not a single loose lip within.”
Xiao Chiye wrung away the water on his clothes and entered Mingli Hall together with Ji Lei.
It was already late at night, and Emperor Xiande was still awake.
“You have been grounded to self-reflect on the errors of your ways.” Emperor Xiande held a memorial7 as he glanced at Xiao Chi Ye and asked in a hoarse voice, “So why are you running around with the Imperial Bodyguards?”
Xiao Chiye was really wronged. He said, “The Commander-in-Chief was the one who asked this humble subject to go. This humble subject thought that it was Your Majesty’s verbal orders.”
“After you went,” Emperor Xiande asked, “How did it go?”
Ji Lei immediately kowtowed and said, “To reply to Your Majesty, the students of the Imperial College acted upon someone else’s instigation and not only spoke presumptuously on state affairs and slandered Your Majesty, but also lay their hands on Pan-gonggong. The scene was a chaotic mess. This humble subject wanted to take them into custody, but Viceroy Xiao was unwilling to.”
And he wasn’t just unwilling. That Imperial Army was simply cast in the same mold as Xiao Chiye! They had acted shamelessly to obstruct the Imperial Bodyguards to prevent them from rounding up the students. All that was left of them was to lie on the floor and roll around! This bunch of idle military ruffians sure had skins as thick as the city wall.
Emperor Xiande asked Xiao Chiye, “You obstructed the Imperial Bodyguards from arresting the students?”
Xiao Chiye said, “They are just a group of students. If they are really taken to the Imperial Prison, most of them might not survive. We can disregard their lives, but what are we to do if it damages Your Majesty’s virtuous name?”
“They banded together for selfish purposes and colluded with malicious people. They clearly intended to throw the Imperial Court into chaos! If we do not take these kinds of people to trial, then what’s the use of the Imperial Bodyguards in the future?” Ji Lei said indignantly.
Emperor Xiande coughed for a long time before he said, “Ce’an has done well.”
“Your Majesty!” Ji Lei could not believe it. “This group of students rallied to stir up trouble. They even dared to shout the word ‘rebellion’. If we do not deal with them severely, it will endanger the empire and state!”
“I’ll be frank.” Emperor Xiande said in a lukewarm tone. “If they hadn’t been forced to this pivotal moment, why would they come to blows with the Imperial Bodyguards and yell such words instead of attending classes? That remaining descendant of the Shen Clan should have never been released! If it weren’t for… If it weren’t for!”
Emperor Xiande cast aside the memorial and started to cough. He was back to normal after his coughing eased up a little.
“… No matter what, they have to be punished. Reduce the Imperial College’s fund for provisions by half and change their meals from twice a day to once. Impose the punishment on them for half a year.”
Knowing that Emperor Xiande had already made up his mind, Ji Lei said nothing more. He kneeled in silence, but Emperor Xiande knew what he was thinking.
“The Imperial Bodyguards are dogs of mine.” Emperor Xiande stared at Ji Lei, “As the Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Bodyguards, why are you going around acknowledging others as your godfather, god-grandfather? I have never brought this up on account that you were still considered deferential! Tonight, I want you to appease the students of the Imperial College. Do you understand?”
Ji Lei kowtowed and said, “This humble servant obeys. The Imperial Bodyguards serve only Your Majesty!”
By the time they came out, the rain had already lightened. A little eunuch from the bailiff office came to hold up umbrellas for both of them.
Ji Lei did not look good as he raised his hand at Xiao Chiye and made to leave. But Xiao Chiye was unconcerned as he said, “Old Ji, I had no choice too. I was grounded yesterday. Even if I wanted to come out and play, I wouldn’t dare to lay a hand on the students without careful consideration.”
Looking at how much of a jerk Xiao Chiye was made Ji Lei furious, but there was nowhere for him to vent, so he merely nodded his head at random, hoping that Xiao Chiye would leave.
“But what do you think of my Imperial Army?” Xiao Chiye took the umbrella from the little eunuch’s hand and dismissed him. He continued to head out of the palace with Ji Lei.
Ji Lei thought, what else? Aren’t they all nothing more than a bunch of scoundrels?! They are even worse off now that they are following you!
But he said politely, “They seemed to be much more spirited than before.”
“Right?” Xiao Chiye said shamelessly, “I think the Imperial Army’s drill ground is too small to be put to good use. Can you ask the Commander-in-Chief on my behalf if he could allocate a place for the Imperial Army?”
Ji Lei had heard a long time ago that Xiao Chiye had led the Imperial Army to play polo at the drill ground. He never expected the latter to have the guts to ask for more land. But it wasn’t good for him to turn the latter down right in the face, so he said, “I’m afraid that would be tough. Prince Chu expanded his residence last month, and his forcible seizure of civilians’ residences had even been reported to the prefectural yamen. There are people everywhere in Qudu now, so where is Gu’an going to find the place for you to use as a military drill ground? Besides, even if there’s a spot in the city, it has to be granted to the Eight Training Divisions.”
“Oh.” Xiao Chiye said under the umbrella, “Even if it isn’t the turn of our Imperial Army to get a piece of land within the city, we can also make do with land outside of it. As long as the place is big enough to let us play to our hearts’ content.”
It was then Ji Lei grasped the intent of his words. He looked at Xiao Chiye and laughed. He said, “Alright, Second Young Master. You’ve long taken a fancy to a piece of land, haven’t you? So why still play dumb with me?!”
“I’m already here to ask you for a favor, am I not, Old Ji?” Xiao Chiye said, “You’re the one people give face to the most in Qudu. How would the Commander-in-Chief turn you down if you put in a request to him? We can negotiate if it’s a done deal.”
“There’s no need to talk about money with me.” Ji Lei finally softened his attitude. “I’ve acknowledged a godson, and I was just wondering where to find a good horse for him! When it comes to horses, there’s no one who is more knowledgeable than the Second Young Master, is there?”
“I’ll send him a few horses to play with.” Xiao Chiye said, “The horses bred from the Hongyan Mountains are no worse than mine. In a few days, I’ll send someone to deliver them directly to your residence.”
“I’ll speak to Gu’an.” Ji Lei said. “How big can the matter of a drill ground be? Just wait for my news!”
The rain had stopped by the time both men parted ways. Xiao Chiye got into the horse carriage. Chen Yang looked at Ji Lei’s sedan and said, “Is the Viceroy really going to give the residence’s horses to him? What a pity!”
“There’s no free lunch.”8 Xiao Chiye kicked off his boots. His feet had long been soaked. “We need to have a drill ground. It’s too conspicuous in the capital. If that old crook can’t deliver after accepting the horses.” He said coldly, “Then I’ll send his son to meet his ancestors.”
The carriage began to sway. Xiao Chiye wiped his face with a handkerchief and asked, “Where is that man?”
Chen Yang repeated, “That, that man?”
“He went back a long time ago.” Chen Yang poured tea for Xiao Chiye and said, “His steps seem weak and unstable to me… With that kind of health, how is he going to take up a post in the Imperial Bodyguards?”
“Rearing elephants.” Xiao Chiye took the tea and gulped it all down. “Invalids are only too anxious to dodge manual labor. He’s most definitely the kind of person who will want to loaf on the job.”
The man who wanted to loaf on the job sneezed. He sat in the dimness for a short while, wondering if he had caught a cold.
Suddenly, the door was pushed open, and a rotund figure strode in. Xi Hongxuan marveled in wonder the moment he entered. “This place sure is fine. Even the Imperial Bodyguards won’t be able to figure it out.”
Without turning his head back, Shen Zechuan said, “Just a dilapidated house with a courtyard that no one wants to rent. That’s the only good thing about it.”
“But this compound isn’t easy to get your hands on.” Xi Hongxuan rubbed his hands and sat down. He looked at Shen Zechuan. “This was the old courtyard that the former Emperor bestowed to the Crown Prince, who then awarded it to Qi Huilian. It was later sold away after Qi Huilian’s death. How did you get your hands on it?”
Shen Zechuan sipped his tea as he exchanged a meaningful look with Xi Hongxuan for a moment.
Xi Hongxuan raised his hand unhurriedly and said, “Look at this cheap mouth of mine, always trying to pry into others’ backgrounds. I heard on the way here earlier that Pan Rugui was hit too. This move of yours is truly delightful.”
“Eldest Master Xi is the Commander-in-Chief of the Eight Training Divisions.” Shen Zechuan said. “After this incident, he will rouse the Empress Dowager’s suspicions. His life in the days ahead will not be easy.”
“I’ll feel good if Xi Gu’an has a hard time.” Xi Hongxuan placed his fleshy palms on the table and said, “Instead of waiting for the major figures in the Imperial Court to say a word, we might as well get the students to do so first as a preemptive move. After this incident, you could be said to be truly released.”
Shen Zechuan took the chopsticks and picked up some vegetarian food, “Just a small trick. I’ve made a mockery out of myself before the Second Young Master.”9
Xi Hongxuan watched Shen Zechuan eat before he touched his own chopsticks. He said, “What are you going to do in the future?”
“Just trying to get by in the Imperial Bodyguards.” Shen Zechuan said, “Ji Lei is Pan Rugui’s godson and Xi Gu’an sworn brother. You want to kill Xi Gu’an, but how are you going to get past Ji Lei? Why not you and I split their lives each among us and let them be good buddies for life?”
Xi Hongxuan sniggered for a moment. He leaned over the table and asked Shen Zechuan sinisterly, “What’s your grudge with Ji Lei?”
Shen Zechuan picked away the Sichuan peppers.10 Without even lifting his eyelids, he said, “I don’t like those shoes he’s wearing.”
Credits: Many thanks to eggy (@peachiprint) for the correction! ♥
罗汉床 Luohan or Arhat bed is a kind of long and narrow wooden couch that also functions as a bed (榻). The arhat bed is distinguished by railings around the back and sides of the platform. 束腰马蹄素围板(罗汉床) is a type of Arhat bed with specific designs, something like the picture above. You can also put a small table (for tea, chess, etc) in the middle so that it can seat two people. (Example)
- 乳酪 is typically translated as cheese but in ancient times, it was a kind of fermented milk, kind of like yogurt in modern days.
- 姑母 Gu-mu, paternal aunt, i.e., father’s sister.
- 及冠 or 弱冠, a man’s 20th birthday, i.e., coming of age at 20 for a male.
- Eight Great Clans: Yao, Hua, Xi, Xue, Wei, Pan, Fei, Han
- Yongyi, i.e., the former Emperor.
折子 zhezi, also 奏折 zouzhe, is a memorial presented to the Emperor in folded, accordion form
- (吃人嘴软,) 拿人手短 Literally, “(The mouth that eats the meals of others is softened;) the hand that takes the gifts of others is shortened.” When someone gives another person something out of the blue (e.g. a gift or a meal), they usually have something to ask. And since the person has taken their gifts, it’d be harder to turn them down, so they (usually) end up doing them the favor. The closest modern adage to explain this is “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, that is, there is nothing people will let you take or eat (or drink) for free.
- This is referring to Xi Hongxuan here, not Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye is the second young master of the Xiao Clan, while Xi Hongxuan is the second young master of the Xi Clan.
花椒 Sichuan pepper is a spice from the Sichuan cuisine with a unique aroma and flavor. No relations to Zechuan.