The world darkened before Shen Zechuan; he was now much closer to Xiao Chiye. He heard Xiao Chiye say, “So it’s really the smell on me. This is way too pungent.”
Shen Zechuan switched the topic and asked, “Did you just add the blunderbuss1 to the Imperial Army’s arsenal?”
“Bronze blunderbuss.” Xiao Chiye moved his finger closed to the tip of Shen Zechuan’s nose to let him take a sniff. “It was mixed together with the scent on you, so I couldn’t tell it apart for a moment.”
“There’s no scent on me.” The tip of Shen Zechuan’s nose twitched slightly. He said, “Did you raid the Eighth Great Training Divisions’ military armory?”
The blunderbuss was restricted by the imperial court. After it was improved from the original bamboo tube design into the bronze version, it became the equipment of the Eight Great Training Divisions’ Chunquan Battalion. This weapon was lethal, but it was not easy to control. The projectiles had limited range, and it took time to load. However, the Eight Great Training Divisions’ job was to guard Qudu, and it was mostly street fights when they came to blows with others. Not only was it hard to bring out the firearm’s full potential to do what it was meant to do, but it also became a burden. That was why the Eight Great Training Divisions did not popularize the use of it and chose to set it aside instead. It was only during the yearly drills at the military drill grounds that they would take it out to use.
It might not suit the Eight Great Training Divisions, but it was very suitable for Libei’s Armored Cavalry. The Armored Cavalry of Libei were heavy cavalry, with a very small number of infantry and light cavalry.2 They favored straight-on assault that hit like a surge of monstrous wave. In the early years, Dazhou set up a cavalry garrison at Luoxia Pass. In order to deal with the fast speed of the Biansha Cavalry, they spared no expense to purchase horses and attempted to build Dazhou’s very own cavalry’s horse ranch. However, all the horses sent by the Biansha Tribes were often inferior steeds in their own tribes, while their own horses were true brave horses who had fought against packs of wild wolves at the foot of the Hongyan mountains. Paired up with machetes and sturdy warriors, they were invincible everywhere they went.
It was because of this that Xiao Fangxu established the Libei Armored Cavalry with heavily armored men and horses. They formed a living metal wall in the northwest so that there was no way the Biansha Cavalry’s storm-like assaults could pass through this steel wall.
The northwest was a vast, boundless expanse of grassland. If the Libei Armored Cavalry could be equipped with blunderbusses, then the long-ranged attacks of the Biansha Cavalry would turn into Libei’s Armored Cavalry’s advantage. Long-ranged attacks could leave enough time for the blunderbusses to be charged. By the time the cavalry arrived before them, they would be within the shooting range of the blunderbusses.
To Libei, this simply served to boost their power and strength, much like a tiger that had been given wings.
“Even with Xi Gu’an removed, the Eight Great Training Divisions are still the Eight Great Training Divisions.” Xiao Chiye took a step closer and pushed Shen Zechuan forward with his chest. “There’s no raiding to talk of for a military armory. It’s just a change of master. Don’t worry about it. I’m only just taking it to play with.”
Shen Zechuan walked a few steps as if he really did not care and said, “Can you just lift the blanket away and walk?”
“The days are short, and the nights are long. Why not hold a candle for a leisure walk?”3 Xiao Chiye smiled. “Want to play with me too?”
“Since it was not obtained in an open and above-board manner, then it’d be safer to hide it.” Shen Zechuan lifted the blanket and made his way out. “Making your way through Qudu while reeking of gunpowder all over. You’re lucky it’s the middle of the night.”
“It doesn’t matter even if it’s during the day.” Xiao Chiye clamped the pillow under his arm and raised one arm high to prop up the blanket as he walked. He swept his eyes across the veranda’s eaves. “Who doesn’t know that I, Xiao Ce’an, love to play? Even if I hold a blunderbuss, it’s also to shoot birds.”
He emphasized the word “birds”, causing Ding Tao and Gu Jin, who were sprawled above, to shudder in unison.
After entering the room, Xiao Chiye threw the blanket and pillow onto his bed, kicked off his boots in two or three tries, and stepped across the woolen rug with the intent to take a bath. He had already taken off half of his clothes when he extended his upper body out from behind the curtain.
“Have you taken your bath?”
Shen Zechuan rinsed his mouth and said, “Yeah.”
So Xiao Chiye took a bath himself, moving fast. When he stepped out while wiping the water on his nape, he saw that Shen Zechuan had already lain down with his back towards him. Xiao Chiye looked at the nape Shen Zechuan had covered up tightly, then wiped his hair hastily and blew out the lamp.
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Shen Zechuan listened as Xiao Chiye sat on the couch and opened a box to look for something.
“Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye closed the box and asked, “Are you asleep?”
Shen Zechuan answered without feelings. “Yeah.”
“The Court of Judicial Review summoned many physicians today. Yet they did not dare to alert the Imperial Academy of Medicine.” Xiao Chiye said, “What did you do to Ji Lei?”
Shen Zechuan asked, “Do you want to listen to ghost stories late at night?”
“They are going to interrogate the Imperial Prison guards tomorrow morning.” Xiao Chiye said.
Just going through the motions.
Shen Zechuan did not know whether Hai Liangyi could tolerate such a thing, but he knew Xue Xiuzhuo could. Xue Xiuzhuo had already gotten the confession he wanted, so Ji Lei was now useless. This mess was created by Shen Zechuan, but never once had he thought to clean up the mess, because Xue Xiuzhuo and Xi Hongxuan had to clean it up.
When Shen Zechuan thought to this point, he said, “I’ve been toeing the line. Even if they investigate…”
Xiao Chiye lay down, then suddenly sat up and said, “Wipe my hair.”
Shen Zechuan closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
Xiao Chiye said, “Stop pretending to sleep. Hurry up.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Lanzhou.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Shen Lanzhou.”
The bed suddenly sank. Shen Zechuan opened his eyes in shock. His blanket had already been lifted away. Xiao Chiye squeezed in behind him and nuzzled his dripping wet head on Shen Zechuan’s back, instantly soaking it.
Pulling his blanket, Shen Zechuan said, “Xiao’Er, you a three years old?!”
“More or less.” Xiao Chiye replied lazily, “Didn’t you already fall asleep? Please continue.”
The more Shen Zechuan slept, the wetter he became. That cold mop of hair stuck to him. And following in its wake was Xiao Chiye, who smelled the same as the scent on the handkerchief last night.
Shen Zechuan opened his eyes and said, “My clothes are wet.”
No one replied.
Shen Zechuan said, “Stop pretending to sleep.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Xiao’Er.”
Shen Zechuan propped himself up with his arms and said in the darkness, “Xiao Ce’ an, you’re a jerk.”
The jerk handed him a dry handkerchief out of consideration, then turned his back to him and waited.
◈ ◈ ◈
On the rooftop, Ding Tao pulled back his hands and said, “It’s so cold even on snowy days. I’m afraid we won’t be having an easy time this winter.”
Gu Jin handed him the wine bag4 and rubbed his hands and said, “We have kept watch for two nights. There should be a shift change tomorrow morning.”
Ding Tao took a sip of the wine, which warmed him up a little. Folding his arms up into his sleeves, he lay down too and said as he looked at the night sky, “Nothing’s happening tonight either.”
“The task is arduous, and the road is long.” Gu Jin covered the wine bag. His ears suddenly twitched, and he turned over to lie on his stomach. His eyes moved back and forth in the boundless darkness like a falcon.
A subtle sound of snow being trodden on rang out in the wind. Gu Jin acted decisively and flipped over his hand to toss out a flying blade. He whispered, “The northwest corner!”
Ding Tao suddenly leaped up, flew across the rooftop, and hacked at the darkness with a lightning move of his hand.
The jet-black robe in the night dodged his blow smoothly. Like a ghost, the man concealed himself into the shadows and attempted to flee. A lithe Ding Tao fell over to hang upside down from the eaves. He did not expect steel needles to come for him right in the face. Using the shaft of the brush in his hand, he struck away the needles with a “thwack”. When he took a look again, the person had already made his escape.
Ding Tao landed soundlessly on the ground. His qinggong was so outstanding that he did not leave any footprints when he landed on this thin snow.
Gu Jin surveyed the area from the rooftop and said, “Excellent martial arts. To think he could escape my eyes. Tao-zi,5 could you tell who it was?”
Ding Tao picked the steel needles from the veranda and pinched them between his fingertips to scrutinize. In just a short instant, he had already learned a lot. He said, “It’s thin as hair and dipped in snake venom. It’s not a product of Qudu, but a foreign gimmick imported by the Yongquan Harbor in the Thirteen Cities of Juexi. His qinggong is good, and his ability to mask his breathing is exceptional. Although he did not carry a broadsword with him, he’s likely from the Imperial Bodyguards.”
He carefully put the steel needles into his own bamboo tube and somersaulted back on to the rooftop.
“The Imperial Bodyguards have removed a bunch of officials from office. Skilled men of fourth grade6 and below are few and far between.” Gu Jin said, “Who would come to our Prince’s Manor at this moment to scout around?”
“It’s hard to say.” Ding Tao touched his chest with trepidation. “He almost stabbed my book.”
Gu Jin drank his wine, lost in thoughts.
Ding Tao sat cross-legged and began to say in a hushed tone, “This book has been with me for many years. What’s more, it was a reward from the Hereditary Prince’s Consort. Even when I went to fight those Biansha baldies, it had never been stabbed before. What a close call. It’s really too close of a call. There are still many things written in it. Do you know? My father’s own book was stolen when someone slit his throat. Oh my god. Recorded in it are all major stuff. Back then, I chased after the book until I almost died. Jin-ge, I’m telling you. A man should always keep a journal because they will become forgetful when they grow old. Like you. You drink so much wine all day that before the age of forty, you will probably forget how much money you have been squirreling away. Why not you tell me, and I’ll write it down and remember it for you…”
Gu Jin stuffed cotton into his ears and began to meditate.
The next day, Shen Zechuan was the first to wake up.
He did not sleep. With Xiao Chiye crowding behind him, both of them had been up to their neck pulling the blanket back and forth in the night. Besides, Shen Zechuan could not sleep with such a hulk of a person beside him.
Xiao Chiye was lying still in a pretty sound sleep while hugging the pillow.
Shen Zechuan waited for him to wake. But he ended up waiting for something else instead.
That erected portion pressed against his buttocks. Brimming with vigor. Hot and obvious. The temperature on the bed rose. He did not know if Xiao Chiye was awoken by the heat or by the hardness. In any case, he cussed in a hoarse voice and sat up in one smooth movement.
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Xiao Chiye tossed the pillow aside. He cast Shen Zechuan a look and saw that Shen Zechuan was also looking at him. He grabbed at his own hair and reached out a hand to cover Shen Zechuan with the blanket to forbid the latter to look. Then he got out of bed and headed straight into the pool without even wearing his shoes.
Chen Yang was waiting outside listening to signs of activities when he saw Shen Zechuan stepped out. He did not know what to say as both men faced each other. But Shen Zechuan simply pointed naturally in the direction of the bath hall and walked away.
By the time Xiao Chiye emerged, he was already clear-headed. He ate a little of his breakfast and listened as Chen Yang told him about the intruder last night.
“Imperial Bodyguards?” Xiao Chiye thought for a moment and said, “He didn’t come for me. He should be someone here to keep an eye on Shen Lanzhou.”
“Then, he’s the Empress Dowager’s man.” Chen Yang said, “But manpower is scarce now. How would there still be such skilled men in the Imperial Bodyguards?”
“The waters of the Imperial Bodyguards run deep..” Xiao Chiye stood up. “I’ll head out for morning court.7 We’ll talk again when I return.”
◈ ◈ ◈
At the end of the court session, Li Jianheng, holding the hand warmer,8 sat in Mingli Hall and watched as the various officials split up into both sides. He asked apprehensively, “… So the verdict has been passed?”
Xue Xiuzhuo kneeled and said, “To reply Your Majesty, Ji Lei had made a full confession regarding his intent to rebel at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds. The evidence against him is now conclusive. The Court of Judicial Review worked through the night last night to straighten out the confession, and it has been submitted to Your Majesty by Secretariat Elder Hai. In the half-months before and after the Hua Faction case, the Three Judicial Offices have repeatedly conducted joint trials. The two vice Commanders and four Assistant Commanders of the Imperial Bodyguards headed by Ji Lei are all sentenced to immediate execution by decapitation,9 while the Judge10 and accompanying Battalion Commanders at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds are all sentenced to prison to await execution.”11
“As long as the sentence has been passed, it’s all good.” Li Jianheng said. “You have worked hard, Secretariat Elder. It’s inadvisable to stand for long. Men, bring him a seat.”
After Hai Liangyi sat down, Li Jianheng continued, “It’s truly abhorrent of the Hua Clan to collude with the eunuchs and Imperial Bodyguards to plot a rebellion! Pan Rugui, as the Brush-holding Director of the Directorate of Ceremonial, is greedy for power and wealth. He’s wicked beyond redemption. This person must not be held in custody to await execution; he should be beheaded right away! The words Secretariat Elder has previously said to me gave me sleepless nights. After thinking about it for a long time, I’ve decided to work hard for the prosperity of the state from now on.”
Hai Liangyi immediately rose to bow again.
Li Jianheng quickly raised his hands and said, “Sit, Secretariat Elder, please sit. There are now many matters that I’ll need the Secretariat Elder’s advice on. In the future, I hope that everyone will work as one to assist me. If you have something to say, you can boldly speak your mind here.”
Xue Xiuzhuo looked up in surprise, but his expression remained neutral. He kneeled in unison with the various officials on his left and right and commended the decision.
Li Jianheng excitedly motioned for everyone to get up. After saying a little more, he dismissed them and invited only Secretariat Elder Hai to stay and have a meal with him.
Xiao Chiye happened to be with Xue Xiuzhuo when he came out.
Xue Xiuzhuo said, “I wonder what the Viceroy said to His Majesty. To think His Majesty would be willing to show such respect to the wise.”
“His Majesty is young and strong. This is just the time for him to show his might. Even if I said nothing, he would still do this on his own accord.” Xiao Chiye said, “The Court of Judicial Review has been busy these days. It has been hard on Your Excellency Yanqing.”
“One would naturally concern himself with all matters pertaining to his post; it’s my duty.” As Xue Xiuzhuo spoke, he looked at Xiao Chiye and said with a smile, “I heard that the Viceroy has been diligently heading to Mount Feng these two days. Is there anything fun there?”
Xiao Chiye smiled too and replied, “The first snow on Mount Feng is unparalleled in the world, and several deers have been sighted recently. I’m thinking of hunting a few rounds for fun. If you are free, would you like to go and have a look together?”
Xue Xiuzhuo gave a light wave of his hand and said, “I am just a weak scholar. What would I know about hunting? I wouldn’t want to dampen the Viceroy’s spirits.”
Both men parted ways at the entrance of the palace. As Xiao Chiye watched him recede into the distance, his earlier smile waned.
Chen Yang was waiting by the horse carriage. He waited until Xiao Chiye arrived before he lifted the curtain for him and said at the same time, “Viceroy, the venerable shifu has already left for Qudu.”
Xiao Chiye nodded.
Chen Yang hesitated for a moment, then continued, “Our tail in the Court of Judicial Review has brought back word that Ji Lei’s dead.”
Xiao Chiye asked, “How did he die?”
Chen Yang raised his hands to gesture as he kept his voice down to say, “He was skinned until he looked neither human nor ghost. He was on the verge of dying last night, but Xue Xiuzhuo kept him hanging onto his last breath until the confession was presented to His Majesty. Only then did he let him breathe his last.”
Xiao Chiye sat down in silence.
Chen Yang said, “Ji Lei interrogated Shen Zechuan in the Imperial Prison five years ago, and got Fengquan to humiliate him in public with ‘donkey roast’. Now, Shen Zechuan has returned tit for tat and also turned Ji Lei into… This person’s vindictive nature is evident. Viceroy, there’s animosity between him and us too. It’s too dangerous to let him stay with us now.”
Xiao Chiye twirled the thumb ring on his thumb and did not reply.
Credits: Many thanks to saed (@saedee_)♥ for the help with grammar because I cannot English anymore.
火铳 Huochong, or blunderbuss (according to baidu), or sometimes known as a hand cannon, is a tube-like projection firearm. The Huochong gun was an important invention as the Ming Dynasty was creating weapons to defend themselves from attackers.
- Heavy Cavalry: heavily armed and armored men on horses. Their primary role was to engage in direct combat with enemy forces.
Light Cavalry: lightly armed and lightly armored men on horses. Their missions were primarily reconnaissance, skirmishing, and communications.
- 昼短苦夜长，何不秉烛游 A line from 《生年不满百》
The days are short, and the nights are long. Why not hold a candle for a leisure walk? (i.e., make merry while you can).
酒囊 wine bag or pouch, a portable water bag typically made out of animals’ hide.
- ~子 the -zi is a suffix that means child, or sonny. 桃子 Taozi, as a word itself, means ‘peach’.
- (四)品 (Fourth) Grade; Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- 上(早)朝 Attend court sessions. 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.
暖手 a small portable hand warmer that looks like a little pot. Also known as tangpozi (汤婆子).
- 斩立决 Immediate execution by decapitation. Executions that could be immediately carried out in the Ming and Qing Dynasties without waiting for the Autumn Trial (judicial hearing of capital cases during Ming and Qing) and Imperial Trial.
- 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there was 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.
- 斩监候 Delayed execution of convicts on death row. Convicts of serious crimes were temporarily imprisoned, with their cases reviewed after the Autumn Trial (judicial hearing of capital cases during Ming and Qing) and Imperial Trial.