Shen Zechuan immediately smiled and said, “This is no big secret anyway… Goodbye.”
“Why don’t hear me out first?” Xiao Chiye was in a good mood after recovering his lost thumb ring. “Since Ji Gang is your master, then we are fellow disciples. I’m older than you, so it wouldn’t put you at a disadvantage to call me shixiong.”
“The Ji Clan has nothing to do with Libei.” Shen Zechuan’s mind quickly recalled his fight with Xiao Chiye in the snow five years ago. Back then, he had felt a sense of familiarity that kept bugging him.
“Not necessarily so.” Xiao Chiye said, “It’s hard to say for sure when it comes to stuff like affinity.”
Shen Zechuan gestured to Ge Qingqing and Xiaowu and sat back down beside Xiao Chiye. He said, “You checked Ge Qingqing out.”
“I can’t forget it.” Xiao Chiye looked at him, “Five years ago, he fled so fast. Five years later, he’s close to you. How could I not get suspicious of something so glaring? So I took the opportunity to check him out and managed to dig out all about him.”
“What do you want to do?” Shen Zechuan asked with a smile.
“Nothing.” Xiao Chiye raised a finger to point and tap at Shen Zechuan’s eyes. “There’s no need for you to force a smile. We could be considered sworn friends in life and death. So there’s no point in putting on an act of bravado. Your mind is already troubled. Afraid now, huh.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Not quite there yet.”
Xiao Chiye reversed his chopsticks and tapped the table intermittently. He said, “Since Ji Gang is your shifu, then it makes sense for the Imperial Bodyguards led by Ge Qingqing to spare your life back then.”
“You are oversuspicious.” Shen Zechuan looked at the brown oil stain accumulated on the tabletop. “Just because that kick didn’t kill me, your suspicions were roused, and you kept probing into it. You are really dogged.”
“That’s all the virtues I have.” Xiao Chiye said, “And I use them all on you.”
“Since we are from the same school of martial arts,” Shen Zechuan said, “It wouldn’t do for you not to report your shifu’s name, right?”
Bored stiff, Xiao Chiye tossed the chopsticks back into the bamboo holder and said, “Let’s hear you call me shixiong first.”
Shen Zechuan said nothing.
Xiao Chiye said, “Ji Gang could be considered a real man. I sent someone to Duanzhou to make enquiries. Everyone thought he was burned to death—Was he the one who killed Xiaofuzi?”
“Nope.” Shen Zechuan righted the chopstick holder. “My shifu is already advanced in age. How could he have killed him?”
A slight wind rose right then. Neither man moved.
Xiao Chiye said, “You looked like you have done nothing. Yet I feel as if you have done everything.”
“Whether I did it or not, all of you will not let me go.” Propping himself on his stool, Shen Zechuan turned to Xiao Chiye and smiled slowly. He said softly, “Then why don’t I do all the bad things so that you are justified in hating me?”
The next day.
It was only when Xiao Chiye entered the palace that he learned Imperial Concubine Wei was dead.
Li Jianheng had already changed his attire. These days, he had cried until he looked wan and sallow. Seated in a high position, he said, “They said she slipped and fell into the well. They didn’t find her body until last night.”
This slip was really too coincidental.
Seeing no one around, Li Jianheng asked in a whisper, “Ce’an, don’t tell me it’s you…”
Xiao Chiye shook his head.
Li Jianheng seemed relieved. He fidgeted in his seat and said, “Now that I live in the palace, I can see the eunuchs the moment I open my eyes at night. It’s rather scary. They used to call Pan Rugui Lao Zuzong,1 and now this Lao Zuzong is still locked up in prison! Ce’an, do you think they will hate me…”
He let loose a stream of grumbles, and they were all about how afraid he was. In the end, he got Xiao Chiye to transfer the Imperial Army over first to take over the key duty of the palace patrol.
Xiao Chiye naturally would not refuse. He stayed for a moment and listened as Li Jianheng said, “Libei has sent a message saying that the Prince of Libei and your eldest brother are on the way here. Ce’an, you’ll be able to see them in a few more days.”
Li Jianheng was somewhat playing up to him. To think he had to be even more timid than he was in the past, right before he was about to become the master of the lands under heaven. That insufferable arrogance of his seemed to have been worn away during the Autumn Hunt. He had already understood who was in power.
Xiao Chiye did not intend to accept the reward bestowed upon him. His wish was something Li Jianheng could not be any more clearer about. But to date, Li Jianheng had said nothing about letting him back to Libei.
Xiao Chiye’s expression remained impassive, but his heart sank.
Five days later, the Prince of Libei entered Qudu.
That day, the autumn rain continued uninterrupted. Xiao Chiye rode his horse out of the city early in the morning and stood in the pavilion where he had seen them off back then. After waiting for four hours, he finally saw several flying eagles materializing out of the sky.
The “Meng” on his shoulder instantly grew excited and charged into the rain to hover and catch up with its brothers and sisters.
The Armored Cavalry galloped over in the rain, looking much like a stroke of thick ink in the water sweeping towards Xiao Chiye. Without waiting for the Armored Cavalry to come nearer, he flipped out of the pavilion and dashed up in the rain to greet them.
Sitting on his horse, Xiao Jiming laughed aloud and said to his father before him, “He looks so tall and strong now. But the moment he sees Father, he shows his real self.”
Xiao Fangxu took off his bamboo hat and leaned over to rap on Xiao Chiye’s head. He scrutinized him for a moment and said, “You’ve grown taller.”
Xiao Chiye grinned and said, “That’s right, dage is almost going to be half a head shorter than me!”
“What a smug lad.” Xiao Jiming said, “Ever since he outgrew me, he has to mention it every year we meet.”
Xiao Fangxu let Zhao Hui lead his horse away as he dismounted and raised his arms to give his youngest son a sudden hug. Patting him heavily on the back, he said, “Silly lad!”
The pats made Xiao Chiye smile. He said, “I have been waiting for a long time. Did something happen on the way?”
Zhao Hui said, “The little Young Master caught a chill at home. So the Prince made a detour to Dengzhou to invite the Venerable2 Yigui back home for a look.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Ah Xun is sick? When did it happen? Why didn’t dage mention it in the letter?!”
Xiao Jiming said, “It’s just something minor. There’s Yizhi at home to look after him. Don’t worry about it.”
Xiao Chiye felt a little disappointed.
Five years ago when he left Libei, his eldest sister-in-law had been pregnant. Now, little Ah Xun was four years old, and he had not even seen him yet. He could only learn of some interesting tidbits of his little nephew from his father’s and brother’s letters.
He wanted to go home.
Xiao Chiye’s disappointment was fleeting. He smiled and said, “I have already prepared a birthday present. When dage returns home this time, please bring it back on my behalf.”
Xiao Fangxu dusted off the brim of his bamboo hat and said, “Before we set off, Xun-er specially painted a picture for you. I’ll get Zhao Hui to bring it to you later. This is not the place to chat. I’ll head for the palace first. It’s not too late for us father and son to talk when I return to the residence at night.”
The party of men mounted their horses and rode their way into Qudu.
◈ ◈ ◈
It had already been many years since the Prince of Libei had shown himself in public. Now that the name of the Four Generals had spread far and wide, very few people would still remember the Prince of Libei, Xiao Fangxu.
As Autumn came, Grand Mentor Qi ate so well that he put on weight. At present, he was washing his feet in the rain, wiggling and rubbing his toes against each other. He said, “Speaking of the Four Generals of the world, they actually existed twenty years ago. Back then, Xiao Fangxu of Libei, Qi Shiyu of Qidong, Liu Pingyan of Bianjun Commandery, and Feng Yisheng of the Suotian Pass, were the Commanders-in-chief of the military forces on all sides. Feng Yisheng later died in battle, and the Feng Clan’s bloodline was severed. No one probably remembers this name today. But back then, they were all valiant warriors who stepped onto the frontier pass with their horses and wiped out the Biansha troops.”
“Feng Yisheng?” Ji Gang responded in a loud voice as he did the cooking inside. “What do you mean no one remembers? Chuan-er! Both of General Feng’s sons died on the battlefield. He later adopted a son, who is your shifu’s eldest brother.”
Shen Zechuan scooped rice into the bowls and repeated, “Shifu’s eldest brother?”
Ji Gang smacked his own head and said, “I forgot to tell you!”
Grand Mentor Qi yelled, “Is the food ready? Aye, isn’t his eldest brother Zuo Qianqiu?! What’s there to tell? Anyone could guess!”
Shen Zechuan served the dishes, laid out chopsticks for Grand Mentor Qi, and said respectfully, “Teacher, please have your meal.”
Grand Mentor Qi gulped down a mouthful of wine and said, “Having someone wait on you is still the most comfortable feeling ever.”
Ji Gang wiped away his sweat and sat on the other side of the table and said, “You said earlier that Xiao the Second told you he’s from the same school of martial arts with us. Then, I’m afraid his shifu is Zuo Qianqiu!”
Shen Zechuan took two mouthfuls of rice.
Ji Gang lamented, “I haven’t seen him in years. Did you exchange blows with Xiao the Second this time? How was it? Were the strokes of his blade strong and forceful?”
Grand Mentor Qi said, “Let Lanzhou eat first. We’ll talk again when we have eaten our fill. It’s dangerous this time, and there’s no hurry. We can rest for a few days.”
“I should have thought of it.” Ji Gang said, “Xiao the Second wore a bone thumb ring. The one in this world who knows best how to wield a powerful bow is Zuo Qianqiu.”
“Perhaps you will be able to meet your eldest brother now that Xiao Fangxu has entered Qudu.” Grand Mentor Qi picked out the dishes. “Zuo Qianqiu fought to the death at Tianfei Watchtower. Although he warded off the Biansha cavalry, his wife died. It was because of that battle that he obtained the name of ‘Thunder Sinking the Jade Stage’, but it was also because of it that he never recovered from the setback. Rumor has it that he has left home to become a monk, but it’s also possible that he has been living incognito to teach Xiao Fangxu’s son after receiving refuge from the latter.”
Ji Gang said with sorrow, “A general’s success is built upon the sacrifices of tens of thousands of people. So what if he’s renowned for his impressive military exploits? In the end, he’ll still turn into a handful of loess. Those who died on the battlefield are loyal to the end, while those who survived aren’t having a wonderful time either. Zuo Qianqiu lives incognito, Xiao Fangxu is ill, and Lu Pingyan is old. Twenty more years later, where would the current Four Generals be at? It’s all but the slapping of waves on sand, with one generation after generation superseding the former.”
Grand Mentor Qi was slightly tipsy as he watched Shen Zechuan eat his meal. After a long while, he said, “It’s too much of a loss to suffer through an entire lifetime for nothing. All of us will eventually die. So why not reach for the sky and fulfill your aspirations before you die?! Lanzhou, here! Have another bowl!”
By the time they had eaten and drank to their heart’s content, the sky was already dark.
Grand Mentor Qi lay across the mat while Shen Zechuan sat under the eaves to wipe his teacher’s feet. Ji Gang took out two outer garments and draped it over both of them. Then he squatted in the corner to smoke his pipe.
Resting his head on a papaya, Grand Mentor Qi said, “Lanzhou, tell me the situation at the hunting ground again.”
Shen Zechuan gave a detailed account of it again.
Grand Mentor Qi listened with his eyes closed. When Shen Zechuan was done speaking, he remained silent.
The vines in the courtyard soaked in rain, with each drop pitter-pattering on the leaves. After the rain drummed on the leaves for an unspecified amount of time, Grand Mentor Qi said, “Xiao the Second seemed to be in the limelight this battle, but he is trapped in the same situation as his father and elder brother. The new Emperor has called him his brother for as long as five years, but he has lain low and concealed himself so deeply, so how could the former not be afraid? Today, the new Emperor can let it slide on account of him saving his life, but how long can this friendship withstand until it’s all worn away into nothing? I thought he could still tolerate it for a little longer given his endurance. There are countless ways he could have let Qi Zhuyin take the limelight, but he just had to do it on his own.”
Ji Gang knocked off the ash under the dim light and said, “The wolf cub wants to go home too. All he dreams of are the grassland of Libei. How old is he? Having this bit of spirit is what being young is about.”
“A little lack of forbearance upsets great plans.” Grand Mentor Qi said. “If he had endured it this one time, then wouldn’t he have been able to return home as a dandy young master?”
Right at this time, Xiao Chiye was standing outside the palace gates looking up at the shadowy palace. The overhanging eaves of these vermillion walls seemed to be a trial Heaven had given him. Under this frivolous appearance of his, a ferocious beast howled in silence.
Shen Zechuan sat upright. It was at this moment that he oddly understood the meaning behind this move of Xiao Chiye.
He wanted to go home.
He wanted to go home, openly and above-board, as his own person.