“I’m so wronged.” Shen Zechuan said, “If anything were to happen now, it’s definitely all Shen Lanzhou’s fault.”
“There has been trouble after trouble ever since your release.” Xiao Chiye said, “Xiaofuzi, the Imperial College, Pan Rugui… How is it that every incident has something to do with you?”
Shen Zechuan said wryly, “That’s right. Why is it that they all have something to do with me? Don’t you know the reason for this? Back then, the Hereditary Prince found me in the Chashi Sinkhole. If he had used his blade to end me, then these incidents today would never have happened. “
Xiao Chiye took down the branch of leaves and said, “Back then, you fought to survive and drag out an ignoble existence. Did you only come to realize what it feels like to live today?”
The calmness in Shen Zechuan’s eyes was so placid that Xiao Chiye found it surreal.
This man was extremely odd.
It was the same that day during the feast. His every move carried with it an undercurrent of “having left behind the past.” But Xiao Chiye could still clearly remember the look in Shen Zechuan’s eyes when the latter had bitten him five years ago on that snowy night.
Such disconnect from reality seemed to be like a bottomless abyss he could not get a grasp of. Those spurts of hatred seemed to have been worn away until others had no way of telling where his limit lay. Everyone at the feast humiliated him, and yet he merely lowered his head and smiled. When Xiao Chiye had said that he was seeing him in a different light, he had truly meant it.
If a man could grin and bear it to this extent, then that darkness under that calm was, on the contrary, all the more disturbing to Xiao Chiye.
“What it feels like to be alive.” Shen Zechuan smiled again. “I can feel it every single day and night while I was in Zhao Zui Temple. Now that I’ve been released, all the more I find that living isn’t easy. I treasure my life. And I’m afraid. But they want me to shoulder this sin and pay for all those human lives with my own. I, Shen Lanzhou, has only this one life. How is that even enough to pay for them all? I ingratiate myself with everyone in so many ways all in the hope that Second Young Master and the various nobles will be magnanimous and won’t be too hard on me. Today, you want me to give you an account. Second Young Master, at least give me a reason.”
By the time Xiao Chiye listened to this point, he had already changed his mind. He has a keen nose and he always vaguely felt uneasy every time Shen Zechuan cooperated in such a compliant and docile manner. But Shen Zechuan yielded to neither cajolery nor coercion. No matter how hard Xiao Chiye tried to pry it out of him, he could not tell the truth from his lies.
He did not believe a word of what Shen Zechuan said. Just as Shen Zechuan had said that night, everyone was just playing along for fun. Since that was the case, so why take it seriously?
But although people could lie, the traces left behind could not. He just had to mingle among the Nine Schools of Thoughts1 in Qudu, and ten to one he would be able to pry something loose. Shen Zechuan wanted to plant a man by Li Jianheng’s side, and it was certain that this person would not be an expert. Based on Shen Zechuan’s current circumstances, he could only bribe an errand-runner or an attendant.
This Li Jianheng’s matter was questionable both on the inside and on the outside. If he could not investigate this thoroughly, then there will be no end to troubles in the future. Ever since Xiao Chiye cast his lot with Prince Chu, he found himself sleeping less.
“I came looking for you to play. How did it become an interrogation?” Xiao Chiye changed the topic. He blew the leaves on the branch and lamented, “I heard that someone is making enquiries about you recently. This involves Prince Chu’s dignity, so naturally, I have to come and ask you.”
“Each time you come finding me to play.” Shen Zechuan said, “I’ll lose sleep for a night.”
“You can’t put it that way.” Xiao Chiye said, “You aren’t having an easy time, and I’m not having a good time either. We can turn the page on the old grudges between us and let bygones be bygones.”
Shen Zechuan laughed and said, “Tens of thousands of lives in the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo were lost. And the Second Young wants to bury the hatchet with me.”
“Times are different now.” Xiao Chiye finally threw away the branch. He rose to his feet and said, “You have now received the favor of the Hua Clan, and you’re the man in the Empress Dowager’s good graces. How would I still dare to offend you? Calling me Second Young Master sounds so distant. We could be said to be nodding acquaintances now. Right? Lanzhou.”
Shen Zechuan merely smiled and said, “Second Young Master, goodbye.”
Xiao Chiye got on his horse and looked at him from above. He said, “When are you going to return the thumb ring to me, Lanzhou? A worn-out thumb ring isn’t worth a cent and keeping it will just revolt you. But why is it that instead of returning it to me, you seem like you have come to treat it as a treasure?”
“I wear it on me.” Shen Zechuan said to Xiao Chiye, “Just to rely on Second Young Master’s ferocious aura to ward off evil. So how would I bear to return it to you this easily?”
Xiao Chiye lashed his horsewhip with a “crack” and said, “Don’t you know? It’s exactly evil aura that Your Second Young Master has.”
Shen Zechuan stood where he was and watched him gallop away into the distance. His smile faded away, leaving only an unfathomable stillness. The setting sun dipped, and the orange light reflected under his feet extended into the shadow of Xiao Chiye’s gradually disappearing back.
Stars adorned the night sky. Grand Mentor Qi opened the newly drawn map and showed it to Shen Zechuan.
“The former Eastern Palace did not have the authority to deploy troops at the frontier. But it came to receive intimate knowledge from the Ministry of War on the setups of the various lands’ garrison troops. This is of the Libei Great Commandery’s.”
“It’s backed by Hongyan Mountains, and its west leads to Luoxia Pass, while the east overlooks the Biansha Twelve Tribes.” Shen Zechuan pointed at the Hongyan Mountains on the east side. “Autumn is around the corner. There is an under-supply of pasture for the Biansha Cavalry, so they are bound to rob the mutual trade market at the boundary. Xiao Jiming wants to deploy his troops. So why isn’t there a memorial2 seeking instructions being sent to Qudu these days?”
“Because His Majesty is severely ill.” Grand Mentor Qi pondered over it. “This year Spring, Xiao Jiming had only submitted one memorial. He surely has an informant in Qudu. Since he still has yet to submit a memorial for the deployment as of today, then it could only mean one thing.”
Shen Zechuan said under his breath, “His Majesty doesn’t have long to live.”
“So, exactly who is it that can secure the imperial court is Xiao Jiming’s reason for biding his time now.” Grand Mentor Qi took out a brush, dipped it in ink, and drew a circle around Li Bei. “Prince Chu’s accession to the throne will only benefit the Xiao Clan. They have been at odds with the Hua Clan for too long. Because of the Zhongbo incident, they have fallen to the disadvantageous position of being under the control of others, and the opportunity to turn the tide in their favor is now right before them. Xiao Jiming will definitely not pass up this opportunity.”
“But Teacher has also said that day.” Shen Zechuan pointed to Qudu. “As long as the gates of Qudu remain closed, Xiao Chiye remains the hostage from Libei. With him in the Empress Dowager’s hand, how is Xiao Jiming able to act?”
“Since you mentioned this matter.” Grand Mentor Qi cast aside his brush. “Then, I will tell you of another matter.”
“Teacher, please speak.”
“In your view, what kind of man is this Xiao Chiye?”
Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes to look at the map and replied, “Sharp. Smart. Doesn’t like to follow the steps.”
“I think he is.” Grand Mentor Qi scratched his head as if he could not think of a suitable word. After a moment of frustration, he sprawled over the table and said mysteriously to Shen Zechuan, “I think he is the opportunity Heaven sent to Libei to turn things around. He’s a natural-born talent.”
Shen Zechuan swung his brush and asked, “Why does Teacher say so?”
Grand Mentor Qi immediately got under the table and pulled out the book he had written with his own hands. Over the years, he sensed himself becoming old and forgetful, and so he had recorded down many matters on paper. With swishing sounds, he flipped through several pages, then leaned over the table again and pushed the book to Shen Zechuan.
“These are the details Ge Qingqing managed to pry from the Ministry of War. In the first year of Yongyi,3 that is, eight years ago, Xiao Chiye was fourteen years of age when he followed Xiao Jiming into battle at Biansha. In the middle of the summer, Xiao Jiming was besieged by three Biansha Tribes at the eastern side of the Hongyan Mountain Ranges. His retreat route was cut off, and he was trapped before the Hongjiang River. The Prince of Libei’s reinforcements did not arrive for three days, and Xiao Jiming pressed on with his desperate battle for survival. But the cavalries of the three Biansha Tribes were nimble. As you know, Libei has a legion of Armored Cavalry. They can deal a powerful blow head-on like a wall of iron, but they can’t respond agilely enough to a battle that entails back-and-forth pursuits. Drag it on for too long, and the one exhausted will be Xiao Jiming’s troops.”
Grand Mentor Qi downed a few mouthfuls of wine.
“But on the third night, Biansha retreated like the ebbing of tide. Because their heavily guarded army provisions were set on fire. The fire spread from the center and threw their rear formation into disarray. Xiao Jiming seized the opportunity to fight a decisive battle and broke through the siege in one night. However, the statement from Libei was cut off at this point. The following details were all information that your Shifu took a lot of effort to find out. Can you guess how the heavily guarded army provisions were sent up into flames? Allegedly, the three Biansha Tribes constructed and dug a trench for lavatory purposes near the river. Xiao Chiye silently felt his way from the Hongjiang River to the trench and crawled in that filthy and stinky ditch for half a night.”
At this point, Grand Mentor Qi stroked his chin.
“Yet, Libei suppressed such a meritorious service and did not report it. Not only that. Xiao Chiye came to Qudu and became an idle hoodlum—but how could a loafer have such endurance? Just imagine. Under that kind of circumstances, if he fails, then his eldest brother would be the one to die. Yet, he could lay dormant for two days until the Biansha troops let their guards down before he set the fire. Did he know that his eldest brother’s life was at stake during those two days? And what if he had not set the fire correctly, or if he failed.to grasp the timing accurately? One minute earlier, and Biansha would strengthen. One minute later, and Libei would weaken! Yet, he struck right at that exact timing. How could he have done it if he didn’t have extraordinary insight?”
Shen Zechuan seemed to be moved.
At last, Grand Mentor Qi said, “Moreover, this lad is insanely wild. When he did this, he only brought with him this many people.”
Grand Mentor Qi extended two fingers and paused for a moment.
“Lanzhou, I thought Pan Rugui transferred him to the Imperial Army to avoid trouble, but it turned out to be a blunder. They thought the Imperial Army was already written off, but what was the Imperial Army’s background? They were all from military households who followed the Emperor back then to get into the Eight Cities. The Eight Great Clans did not think much of them, so they relied on the backing of the Emperor alone. But now, the Emperor doesn’t want them anymore, and so these twenty thousand men became weapons without a master. It’s fine if they really fall into the hands of a hedonistic young master. But if they fall into Xiao Chiye’s hand… then what else is there to deter Xiao Jiming from deploying troops to protect Prince Chu?!”
So that’s it!
The part where Shen Zechuan had been puzzling over previously suddenly cleared up.
He had thought that since Xiao Jiming left Xiao Chiye in the Qudu, then he should understand that this was a pawn under the control of others. Either he abandoned it, or acted with prudence. If he was being prudent, then he should not and must not let Xiao Chiye get so close to Prince Chu. Otherwise, he would be asking for trouble. No matter what he did, he would always be on tenterhooks and cleaning up messes.
“This bout of autumn chill in Qudu is about to break out in full fury. We lack influence and power, so it’d be best to steer clear of it.” Grand Mentor Qi’s mouth was parched. He continued, “Because of the Imperial College incident, a distance has already formed between the Empress Dowager and Xi Gu’an, as well as with His Majesty. In order to ensure that her authority does not decline, the matter of the imperial heir would be of emergency. If anything were to happen to Prince Chu these days, then the Xiao Clan’s efforts would have been in vain, much like drawing water with a sieve. So it would seem that Xiao Chiye’s urgency to meet you today must have been because he was already on the alert. However, the Empress Dowager herself is more wary and sensitive. Back then, to let Prince Ning ascend to the throne, she did not hesitate to exterminate everyone from the Eastern Palace. So, today, to guard against the unexpected, she will also wipe out Prince Chu. Xiao Chiye wants to ensure Prince Chu’s safety, but I’m afraid that it won’t be an easy feat to achieve.”
“Since the Empress Dowager will not use Xi Gu’an, then the only one left is Ji Lei.” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were calm. “The experts in the Imperial Bodyguards are as plentiful as clouds. And they are clean and efficient in their jobs.”
“The fight between those in power is one thing.” Grand Mentor Qi said. “It’s time for you to decide whether to pursue Prince Chu or follow the Empress Dowager.”
Shen Zechuan extended his hand and covered the map.
To make it easier to distinguish between the Princes, I have made some small changes to the naming:
– Imperial Princes (i.e. legit princes with the surname Li): Prince Chu, Prince Ning
– Conferred Prince (i.e. princes of other surnames; as mentioned in chapter 1 footnotes, these are titled and salaried officials of the imperial bureaucracy during the Ming Dynasty with nominal lordship over various fiefs throughout the empire, typically conferred by the Emperor and can be inherited by their descendants (traditionally, the eldest son of legitimate birth, i.e. the first di son)): Prince of Libei, Prince of Jianxing
- 九流 Nine Schools of Thoughts, i.e., Confucians, Daoists, Yin-Yang, Legalists, Logicians, Mohists, Political Strategists, Eclectics, Agriculturists.
- 折子 zhezi, also 奏折 zouzhe, is a memorial presented to the Emperor in a folded, accordion form
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor (in this case, Emperor Yongyi) reigned. 元年 is the first year of the era/reign of an Emperor.