The Autumn rain in Qudu never stopped falling after the new Emperor ascended to the throne. White lanterns hung high beneath old, black tiles. If one were to stand atop the city wall overlooking the place, they would see a bleak chill shrouding every single spot.
Because of the Autumn Hunt incident, all the Imperial Bodyguards had their waist tokens1 revoked. Imperial Bodyguards of fifth grade2 and above, such as Ji Lei and Qiao Tianya, were all imprisoned. Together with Hua Siqian and Pan Rugui, they were handed over to be tried in a joint trial by the Three Judicial Offices.3
Xue Xiuzhuo was transferred from the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue and promoted to the position of Assistant Minister in the Court of Judicial Review. This position did not seem to have as much authority and power as the Chief Supervising Secretary of the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue, but in truth, it gave him an in to the central administration of Three Judicial Offices. In other words, he not only had the authority to examine any case reviews, but also had the power to participate in the deliberations and rebuttals of proposals from the Ministry of Justice and the Chief Surveillance Bureau.
“I have never heard of this child before the Nanlin Hunting Grounds incident. Who is he to the Xue Clan?”
Aunt Liuxiang gently fanned the incense censer and said, “To reply Your Majesty, he is the third shu son of the Xue Clan. This slave has never heard of this person before, and so this slave specifically went to make some inquiries about him.”
“The Xue Clan has no lack of successors.” Empress Dowager Hua said. “All these years, Yao Wenyu is the one in the limelight. I thought that old fox, Hai Liangyi, would sooner or later recommend Yao Wenyu into the Grand Secretariat after having imparted all his knowledge to him. Who would have expected him to remain silent on it and use the unremarkable Xue Xiuzhuo instead?”
Aunt Lixiang said, “Xue Xiuzhuo first joined forces with the Provincial Administration Commissioner of Juexi, Jiang Qingshan, to gather evidence on the sly, then joined up with Secretariat Elder Hai to act as a go-between. He had access to the Six Ministries when he held office as the Chief Supervising Secretary of the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue. Now he has been promoted to Assistant Minister of the Court of Judicial Review, he will be hearing the case of our Secretariat Elder. I fear that he has made up his mind to get to the bottom of the matter and will not let it go at that.”
“I can’t go out now.” Empress Dowager Hua looked contemplative. “If Xue Xiuzhuo wants to investigate, then let him investigate. The Hua Clan is already at such a critical juncture. Go and tell Eldest Brother that he needs to have the determination to act decisively and cut his loss. Only then will we be able to stage a comeback.”
Aunt Liuxiang uttered an acknowledgement and quietly withdrew.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan shook the rainwater off his umbrella and sat in the run-down veranda of the deserted courtyard. Less than an hour later, Xi Hongxuan’s mountain-like figure strode through the moon gate6 and walked over to him while holding up an umbrella.
“This is the time when spies abound all around. I almost couldn’t get away.” Xi Hongxuan gathered up his clothes and frowned as he asked. “Is there some urgent matter for you to call me here at this time?”
“Xi Gu’an is in prison.” Shen Zechuan said. “Your long-time wish is right before you. Yet you aren’t pressing home the attack now following the victory. Are you waiting for him to take desperate action instead?”
“His guilt of committing a capital offense is already but certain.” Xi Hongxuan said. “Making any more moves now would be like drawing legs on a snake—redundant.”
“Nothing in this world is ‘certain’.” There was no trace of a smile on Shen Zechuan’s fair face. He said, “The more critical the situation is, the more you cannot afford to be negligent. As long as he remains alive in this dangerous situation, there’s a chance he will survive through it.”
Xi Hongxuan looked at his side profile and said, “The Hua faction case has already been handed over to the Three Judicial Offices. With so many pairs of eyes staring, how are you planning to make your move?”
“I’m not making any moves.” Shen Zechuan turned his eyes. “As the Hua Clan’s lackey, his crimes during his term of office are too numerous to record. As long as one or two document proofs is handed over to the Three Judicial Offices, then his death will be all but certain.”
“Bearing a weapon before the Emperor and trapping the Crown Prince in to hunt him down. These two matters aren’t enough to put him to death?”
“As the Commander-in-chief of the Eight Great Training Divisions, he has the prerogative to bear a blade before the Emperor. The hunt of the Crown Prince has nothing to do with him. He could simply assert that he headed back to the capital to seek and deploy reinforcements on seeing the situation go wrong. The new Emperor now fears the Imperial Army. Although he has taken down the Hua Clan, it is at the time where he needs the help and cooperation of the Eight Great Clans. It takes time for the Three Judicial Offices to review the case. The longer this drags on, the harder it will be for Xi Gu’an to die.” Shen Zechuan sneered a little. “As long as Xi Gu’an doesn’t die, you will remain Xi the Second, never to step into the limelight.”
After a lengthy silence, Xi Hongxuan said, “What are you planning to do?”
“Xi Gu’an has been assigned special duty in the Eight Great Training Divisions since the fourth year of Xiande.7 In the four years so far, the Eight Great Training Divisions have received a total of 9 million taels of military funds and provisions. Only 7 million of the disbursement were accounted for. Where did the remaining 2 million taels go? They all disappeared after they passed through Xi Gu’an’s hands.” Shen Zechuan said, “The audits of the account books are originally handled by Xue Xiuzhuo. In all likelihood, he will still be able to dig out more void expenses once he checks. Pan Rugui and Hua Siqian can take such a large sum, because if they do, they are just greedy and corrupt. But Xi Gu’an can’t. He cannot afford to be greedy or corrupt. Control of the Eight Great Training Divisions, whose key task is to patrol and defend Qudu, lies in his hands. If he can’t explain the whereabouts of all that money, then one could only suspect if he has been embezzling money to bribe the soldiers and to raise his own private army under the name of the Eight Great Training Divisions.”
A chill suddenly ran down Xi Hongxuan’s back. He said, “… Raise his own private army.”
“He stands beside the Son of Heaven’s8 couch. What other reason can there be for him to raise his own private army?” Shen Zechuan said.
“… No way!” Xi Hongxuan vetoed it. He raised his hand to wipe away his sweat and said, “You think I’m out of my mind? If it’s just associating with the Hua Clan, then he’s the only one who dies. But if it’s harboring the intent to rebel, then my whole family will die! It’s a crime punishable by extermination of the entire clan!”
Shen Zechuan laughed aloud and lowered his voice. “A change of sovereign brings a change of ministers.9 It’s a wonderful opportunity for you to distinguish yourself now that a new Emperor has ascended to the throne. This is just Xi Gu’an giving you his life as a congratulatory gift for your promotion.”
“You want me to…” Xi Hongxuan stared at Shen Zechuan for a while and suddenly burst out laughing. He said, “You are really vicious. At the very least, the Empress Dowager has saved you twice. You really show no regard for the kindness shown to you.”
“Kindness, huh?” Shen Zechuan picked up the umbrella. “It’s not too late to repay it after killing them. What’s more, the power struggle today is all a game of chess between Xiao and Hua. What does it have to do with me?”
With that, he opened his umbrella, nodded slightly at Xi Hongxuan, then stepped into the night rain. Xi Hongxuan sat alone in the veranda. After Shen Zechuan disappeared, he touched his own back, finding it all drenched in cold sweat.
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later, the Court of Judicial Review re-processed the Autumn Hunt case.
Jiang Xie, the Chief Minister of the Court of Judicial Review, served as the presiding judge, while Hai Liangyi served as the supervisor, and Xue Xiuzhuo, the jury. This was a major case examined and prosecuted by the Chief Surveillance Bureau, with the criminal charges of “unconstitutional formation of an insurgent faction”, “embezzlement of taxes to corrupt governance”, and “endangerment of the state” submitted to the Court of Judicial Review.
Of these, “unconstitutional formation of an insurgent faction” made the Six Ministries jittery. Those who have been to the Hua Residence, or have received recommendations from Hua Siqian and Pan Rugui in the past all found themselves in a precarious position. Countless officials submitted memorials to impeach and report Hua Siqian and Pan Rugui these few days, with each one making an impassioned statement of loyalty for fear of getting implicated.
Seeing those memorials10 gave Li Jianheng a headache. He was not a person who could sit still to begin with. Even so, he did not dare to fool around during a time where the entire nation was in national mourning. He had seen the way Hai Liangyi confronted Hua Siqian that night; thus, he was very much afraid of Hai Liangyi.
Hai Liangyi was rigid and inflexible. His appropriately trimmed beard was always hanging before the second clasp on the front of his robe, while his crown was properly worn, and his hair, meticulously combed. He never left his clothes open during the three hottest periods of summer,11 and he never folded his arms during the severe winter months. He was like the pine tree on the mountain ridge when he stood, and the swift wind in the quiet valley when he walked. When it came to handling matters, he was never sloppy. He could even listen attentively to the details of the case for three days and three nights without showing any traces of weariness.
Li Jianheng was used to fooling around. So he always went weak in the knees on seeing this kind of elder, scholar teacher-like12 minister.
Because of the Hua faction case, Hai Liangyi was constantly looking for him to report the details. Li Jianheng found the Dragon Throne13 in Mingli Hall so hard that his butt was always hurting from sitting too long, so he got his men to pad it up with several layers of cotton-padded mattress. But Hai Liangyi saw it and remonstrated with him, advising him to be steadfast in his conduct.
The thrill of having power and authority in his grasp seemed fleeting. What followed right after was an avalanche of heavy responsibilities. The never-ending morning court sessions14 made it difficult for Li Jianheng to persevere. He sat on the Dragon Throne, sometimes not even understanding what those people at the foot of his throne were arguing about.
Then, collect taxes! Kill a bunch of corrupt officials, and the money could be recovered, no? What’s there to argue about?
Li Jianheng did not dare to reveal his innermost thoughts. He was afraid of Hai Liangyi, and even more afraid of these civil servants and military commanders. He did not know what they were fighting about, or why the Hua faction could not be executed immediately by decapitation, let alone what the Empress Dowager’s intention in sending him snacks every day was.
He huddled up on the Dragon Throne, as if he were merely having a dream.
“Is His Majesty ill?”
Having been summoned, Xiao Chiye entered the palace and met the Imperial Physician from the Imperial Academy of Medicine outside Mingli Hall.
The Imperial Physician said, “He worried too much, and the Autumn chill has gotten to him. When the Viceroy enters later, please persuade His Majesty. “
Xiao Chiye took off Langli Blade and strode into Mingli Hall.
Li Jianheng had just taken his medicine and was zoning out on the couch at the moment. On hearing that Xiao Chiye had come, he hurriedly wore his shoes like slippers and called Xiao Chiye in.
“Ce’an.” Li Jianheng said. “You’re just in time. The Imperial Bakery15 will send the silk-nested tiger’s eye candy later. Come and try it too. We had it at the official banquet a few years ago.”
Xiao Chiye kowtowed and said, “Thank you Your Majesty for the bestowment.”
With his clothes draped around him, Li Jianheng went silent for a moment, then said, “Ce’an, take a seat.”
Xiao Chiye sat down, and those serving at the sides withdrew. Li Jianheng suddenly stood up and restlessly turned around in circles where he was. He said, “Ce’an, why aren’t they beheading Hua Siqian? What retrial is the Court of Judicial Review talking about? What else is there for them to go over? Argh!”
Xiao Chiye said, “The Court of Judicial Review has to triple check the case. This is the rule to prevent miscarriages of justice. The evidence against Hua Siqian is conclusive. He will definitely be executed by decapitation before the new year.”
“A long night is fraught with dreams.”16 Li Jianheng said nervously. “The Empress Dowager doesn’t look like she’s in a panic… You know, she keeps sending people to deliver snacks to me every day. What is she thinking of doing? Does she want to poison me to death too?”
“The Hua Clan now is the target of public criticism. So the Empress Dowager somehow has to put on a show of affection.” Seeing Li Jianheng’s flustered expression with dark circles under his eyes, Xiao Chiye said, “Is Your Majesty not sleeping well at night?”
“How can I sleep?” Li Jianheng said, “They aren’t dead yet… So how would I be able to sleep? Ce’an, go tell Hai Liangyi on my behalf to skip the retrial and carry out the execution on the spot.”
How would that do?
Xiao Chiye was the Viceroy of the Imperial Army. He had nothing to do with the Three Judicial Offices, so how could he interfere in the joint trial by the Three Judicial Offices? Moreover, after what happened at the Autumn Hunt, the next person they would take down would be his own self, Xiao Chiye. The civil officials, with Hai Liangyi at the head, were unwilling to let Xiao Chiye go. Xiao Fangxu himself had gotten wind of it these few days as well.
No one was willing to take a gamble when it came to this matter. It was only with Xiao Chiye in Qudu that Libei would prove to be diligent in all they did. The crisis in the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo was a sore point. Xiao Jiming could save Qudu once or twice, but could he save Qudu countless times without reservation? Even if he could, who would believe it?
Xiao Chiye would definitely not get entangled in any disputes with the civil servants at this point in time.
Li Jianheng himself knew that it would not work, so he became more and more dispirited. When the silk-nested tiger’s eye candy was sent over, he took a few cursory bites of it, but could taste nothing.
As soon as Xiao Chiye left, he lay on the couch, feeling that this Emperor was really boring to be.
Shuanglu, who had always been following him to serve him, kneeled beside the couch and whispered, “Your Majesty…17 How about this slave accompanies you out for a stroll?”
Li Jianheng replied, “Not going. I’m tired.”
Shuanglu hit upon an idea and continued,” … Then how about inviting Lady Mu Ru to play the pipa18 for you?”
Li Jianheng turned over and took another glance outside. Seeing no one, he said, “… I don’t think I can. The nation is in mourning. Besides, she’s still at Pan Rugui’s Residence. If I bring her to the palace now, wouldn’t I get a scolding?”
Shuanglu let out an “oh, my” and smiled, then said, “Your Majesty, you are the Emperor. You have the final say within this palace. How would those officials on the outside know what eunuchs in the inner palace does? We’ll do it on the sly…”
Li Jianheng instantly felt his spirits soar. Not even eating the candy anymore, he said, “Secretariat Elder Hai won’t know?”
“No one will know.” Shuanglu shuffled forward on his knees. “You are our master. He isn’t. Us slaves run errands for Your Majesty. If Your Majesty doesn’t want to let anyone know, then no one will know.”
“Great!” Li Jianheng clapped his hands. “Great, I finally found an opportunity. Go quickly, the sooner the better. Bring Mu Ru in. Pan Rugui is going to die. Remaining in that compound will only be inviting bad luck!”
It rained again when Xiao Chiye left the palace. He felt vexed for no reason. The zeal and drive he had before the Autumn Hunt seemed to have dissipated overnight. He did not even want to draw his blade at this moment.
Chen Yang and Zhao Hui came to pick him up, and Xiao Chiye got into the horse carriage. Halfway through their journey back, Xiao Chiye suddenly lifted the curtain and said, “Tell Father and dage that I won’t be going back tonight.”
Without waiting for both men to respond, he jumped off the carriage and headed towards Donglong Street without taking anything with him.
“He’s gone drinking again.” Zhao Hui got off the carriage as well and said to Chen Yang, “You head back and inform the Prince and the Hereditary Prince. I’ll follow the Young Master. It wouldn’t look good for him to get drunk and make a scene during a time when the nation is in mourning.”
Chen Yang said, “In just the time it takes for you to say all these, you would have already lost sight of him. Since the Viceroy doesn’t want anyone to follow, then… let him be.”
Zhao Hui was Xiao Jiming’s deputy general, while Chen Yang was Xiao Chiye’s deputy general. Although both of them were members of the Xiao Clan, the subject of their consideration were ultimately different. Zhao Hui was more like the older brother.
He turned his head in the rain. Sure enough, he could no longer see Xiao Chiye’s figure.
With the waist tokens of the Imperial Bodyguards revoked, its subordinates were all temporarily assigned to the Imperial Army to serve as patrols.
Shen Zechuan just finished his rounds tonight. As he returned home, he passed by the back alley of Xiangyun Villa19 on Donglong Street.
Because it was just a drizzle, he did not hold up an umbrella.
As he was walking along the road, he suddenly heard a bout of puking sounds before him. Then, a courtesan wearing wooden clogs and no socks trotted out in pursuit of the person who had been puking. The latter gently fended her off.
Xiao Chiye propped himself up against the wall and pointed at the back door to motion to the woman to stay away from him.
The courtesans of Xiangyun Villa were all well-acquainted with him. They knew that he would not let others touch him while he was drunk, so this courtesan folded a handkerchief and lay it at the side and said in a gentle voice, “Second Young Master, please go in again once you feel better. I’ve prepared hot soup for you.”
Xiao Chiye did not respond.
The sound of wooden clogs receded into the distance, and he squatted down. His stomach was churning so badly it was hard to bear.
This was the way a man should live—eat, drink and make merry as if in a drunken stupor. He had only this one way out.
He felt a sudden weight on his back.
Xiao Chiye suddenly looked back with a stare so cold it would make one flustered. On seeing the man, he thought for a moment before saying, “… Why did you kick me?”
Shen Zechuan said without blinking, “I didn’t.”
Xiao Chiye backhandedly touched his own back for a moment. He pulled at his clothes and said stubbornly, “This is evidence of your guilt!”
Shen Zechuan scrutinized him for a moment and said, “Have you drunk yourself foolish, Xiao the Second?”
Xiao Chiye said, “Do I look like a fool?”
Without waiting for Shen Zechuan to reply, he answered himself.
“I’m not a fool.”
Smelling him reeking of wine, Shen Zechuan said, “Don’t block my way. I want to go home.”
Xiao Chiye turned his head back and stared blankly for a moment before saying to the wall, “Don’t block my way. I want to go home too.”
Shen Zechuan was about to laugh when he heard him continue.
“If I can’t go home, then you can forget about going home as well.”
腰牌 literally waist tablet or token, it’s a small tablet or token hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity. I’ll also be calling this an authority tablet or tablet of authority.
- 品 Grades; Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- In the Ming Dynasty, the supreme court was known as the “Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices” (三(法)司会审), whose verdicts had to be submitted to the Emperor for approval. Three Judicial Offices are namely the Ministry of Justice (刑部), the Court of Judicial Review (大理寺), and the Chief Surveillance Bureau (都察院).
- Xumi couch (须弥榻), also known as the Mile couch (弥勒榻) or short couch (短榻), is basically a couch that’s shorter.
Chess in those days typically refers to Weiqi, or Go in Japanese and Baduk in Korean.
洞门 An opening in a wall separating different courtyards within a residence or palace. It’s also known as a moon gate (月亮门).
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor (Emperor Xiande, in this case) reigned.
- 天子 Son of Heaven, refers to the Emperor.
- 一朝天子一朝臣 A change of sovereign brings a change of ministers, i.e. when a new Emperor is crowned, he brings to the court his own favorites and expels those of his predecessor.
奏折 zouzhe, also 折子 zhezi, is a memorial presented to the Emperor
- 三伏天 three periods forming the hottest periods of summer, from mid-July to mid-August, namely: 初伏 (mid-July), 中伏 (late July to early August), 末伏 (mid-August)
- 夫子 fuzi, an ancient and respectful form of address for a Confucian scholar or for one’s teacher (particularly in the classics and/or Confucian teachings.)
龙椅 Dragon throne, the imperial throne of the emperor.
- 早朝 Court sessions held in the morning for the Emperor to discuss state affairs with his ministers. It was typically held daily, but occasionally varied from emperor to emperor.
- 甜食房 Imperial Bakery or Confectionery, name of an office manned by eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty. They were in charge of palace desserts and sweets for the Emperor’s own consumption or to reward officials, etc. The production method was kept secret, and all the instruments used were made by the eunuchs themselves. It was especially famous for silk-nested tiger’s eye candy (丝窝虎眼糖; literally translated) and etc.
- 夜长梦多 literally a long night is fraught with dreams. i.e. undue delay may bring unforeseen trouble, and the longer the delay, the more the troubles or the higher the chance of one happening.
- The ‘Your Majesty’ here Shuanglu used is specifically 万岁爷 Wansui-ye, or literally Master of Long (10,000) Life, instead of the usual 皇上. 万岁爷 is an honorific address for the Emperor mostly used by servants such as eunuchs and palace maids, typically seen in Qing Dynasty dramas. It refers to the Emperor when used in general.
琵琶 Pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments.
- This Xiangyunfang is kind of like an entertainment or pleasure house.