A charcoal fire burned in the hall, making the room hot.
Chen Yang had already been kneeling for a little less than an hour. Xiao Chiye sat at the head seat reading military books. Imperial Army generals of all ranks were also kneeling beyond the curtain. It was silent, both on the inside and outside.
As the saying goes, “if the general has yet to have the prestige to speak of, then he should first awe and intimidate to boost his prestige.”1 When Xiao Chiye took over the Imperial Army five years ago, he had put on an initial show of strength and power upon assuming office. What he wanted was the absolute authority to command this pack of heroes. In these five years, he had been fair in meting out rewards and punishments. He never skimped on the money that was meant to be paid out to the Imperial Army. Not only did he not give less, he even spent much more to make up for any deficiency. He was very generous to his subordinates. Yet, that cloak of his was still the same one his eldest sister-in-law had sent over three years ago.
The Autumn Hunt enabled the Imperial Army to hold their heads high. It put them in the limelight, overshadowing the Eight Great Training Divisions. For a moment, they had the world at their feet. These soldiers, who have been oppressed for a long time in Qudu, used to put on a submissive front before the Eight Great Training Divisions. Now, they even dared to boss the Eight Great Training Divisions around.
This was not a good sign. Complacency would lead one to get too carried away by success.
Xiao Chiye needed an opportunity to knock some senses into the Imperial Army. And the Tantai Hu today was it.
Chen Yang did not dare to raise his head. Xiao Chiye rapped on the table, and Chen Yang immediately got up to refill the tea for Xiao Chiye. Once the cup was filled, he kneeled back down again.
Xiao Chiye never said a word the entire night, so Chen Yang kneeled on the ground all night.
Many words, left unsaid, could make one feel more ashamed than if it had been said.
Xiao Chiye had to attend morning court the next day. After dressing and tidying himself up, he said to Chen Yang, “There’s no need to follow me today. Take a break.”
Chen Yang had kneeled until both his legs were numbed. With his hands on the ground, he kowtowed and said in a hoarse voice, “Master…”
He had always addressed Xiao Chiye as Viceroy. This call came right from the heart.
Sure enough, Xiao Chiye stopped in his tracks. But still, he did not look back.
Chen Yang kowtowed again and said, “I implore Master to punish me.”
Xiao Chiye raised his hand to signal to those waiting upon him to leave. It was only when there was no one else in the hall that he turned aside to look at Chen Yang. “If a man has done nothing wrong, then what punishment is there to speak of?”
The sweat on Chen Yang’s forehead dripped past his eyes. “This subordinate has realized the errors of his ways.” He said.
After a long silence, Xiao Chiye said, “These years, Zhao Hui has followed dage on war expeditions to the frontier. He has been climbing the ranks. Within five years, he should receive his own residence and a conferred title. You are both good men Father himself picked out. Why is it that he, Zhao Hui, could have that kind of honor and glory while you, Chen Yang, have to follow and rot away with a hoodlum?”
Chen Yang’s lips paled. He said, “How would this subordinate dare to think so? The Hereditary Prince has his own strengths. But it’s Master who is my pillar! Zhao Hui and I are both brothers of the same clan. We share weal and woe together.”
“It’d be best if you truly understand this principle.” Xiao Chiye said, “Brothers who fight among themselves and family who draw swords at each other2 are all rotten to the core. Outsiders don’t even have to make their moves for you to meet your end before them. You followed me and remained in Qudu, leaving all the matters back at home to Zhao Hui to look after. His younger sister married the Vice Director of the Ministry of Rites, and you are the one who filled in the role of family from her maternal home and backed her during Spring Festival3 and other festivities. You can contend with will and spirit if you want to make great contributions and accomplish great tasks, but not so when it comes to moral principles. It’s having righteous ardor and heroic spirit that makes a good man. What’s your fear and hurry to compete with him? Zhao Hui wouldn’t do what happened yesterday, because he has dage’s dignity to consider. You are now the chief of the Imperial Army’s guards, yet you still need to rely on that bit of trick to inspire confidence in others. For that bit for gratification, you would even let others trample over your Master’s dignity. Tantai Hu came from Zhongbo. You know that. But you still swapped him to yesterday’s roster so that he could vent his anger and resentment. So, what is it, Chen Yang? Have you been following me to fool around to the point that you now have to play games like this to win others over? For this moment of satisfaction, you would not even hesitate to dent your Master’s dignity.”
Stung by remorse and self-reproach, Chen Yang lowered his head and said, “I’ve let Master down—”
“You’ve let yourself down.” Xiao Chiye suddenly said in an indifferent voice, “Come back on rotational duty once you’ve figured it out. Let Gu Jin follow me these few days.”
Dazed, Chen Yang kneeled on the ground and raised his head to watch as Xiao Chiye lifted the curtain and stepped out.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan finally had a night of sleep last night. At present, he was standing beside the horse carriage, puffing out warm air as he watched the gyrfalcon hover in the snowy sky.
Xiao Chiye stepped out of the door and got up the horse carriage. Gu Jin took the horsewhip and looked at Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan did not look at him. The curtain partially opened, and Xiao Chiye signaled to him with his eyes.
Shen Zechuan immediately felt the stares on his back as the Imperial Army who had been freezing in the courtyard the entire night all looked at him. He smiled at Xiao Chiye, then made his way up.
Gu Jin drove, and the carriage started to sway.
Xiao Chiye handed a hand warmer4 to Shen Zechuan. When Shen Zechuan accepted it, Xiao Chiye stuck the back of his hand to the back of Shen Zechuan’s hand.
“So cold.” Xiao Chiye said.
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Shen Zechuan raised his finger to push away Xiao Chiye’s hand. He leaned against the wall and held the hand warmer.
Xiao Chiye said, “You don’t look too happy.”
Shen Zechuan warmed up his hands and said, “I’m happy.” He looked at Xiao Chiye and said with a smile, “It makes me happy that the Second Young Master spoke up for me and helped me out of a predicament.”
Xiao Chiye said, “This Second Young Master did not do it for anyone.”
“That may be so.” Shen Zechuan said, “Now that the prestige has been established, then when are you going to bestow them favors?5 There aren’t many days left for me to be a guard. If you want to use me, you must hurry.”
Xiao Chiye looked at him and said nothing.
Shen Zechuan lifted his chin slightly in a pose similar to a relaxing posture. He exhaled and said after a pause, “I’m not your match when it comes to governing others. Shen Lanzhou is a good target. Put him before you, and you can defend yourself and put on a deliberate show of strength to intimidate the tiger.6 Maybe he can even warm your bed. This kind of killing three birds with one stone is truly hard to find. Xiao’Er, you sure are impressive.”
There was a cacophony of human voices outside the carriage, while the atmosphere within the carriage grew increasingly heavy. Both men were just a few inches apart, but they seemed to be separated by a natural chasm. When the carriage arrived at its destination, Gu Jin tactfully did not say a word to disturb them.
Having warmed his hands, Shen Zechuan put the hand warmer back on the small table and said, “What a pity.”
Xiao Chiye said, “What?”
“Everyone thinks you enjoy yourself to your heart’s content every night,” Shen Zechuan licked the tip of his teeth and said unhurriedly to him. “Who would have known you, Xiao’Er, to be a diligent and conscientious Liuxia Hui?7 I haven’t even touched your saliva before, let alone talk about being fucked by you.”
With that, he made to lift the curtain and get off the carriage. He did not expect Xiao Chiye to hook his waist belt.
“That’s right.” Xiao Chiye smiled playfully. “Look at how eager you are to cross swords on the bed. I shall comply with your wish.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I don’t want anyone with such fierce eyes.”
The curtain swayed. He had already gotten off the carriage.
Xiao Chiye’s fingertips turned up empty. He waved them, as if wanting for more.
◈ ◈ ◈
After Tantai Hui’s incident, the Imperial Army became less ostentatious. All of them tucked their tails between their legs and behaved themselves, thus reverting to the way they were before the Autumn Hunt. Chen Yang, even more prudent now, no longer dared to close an eye when others stirred up trouble. He had previously hurt his foot in Libei, and the cold was harsh in Qudu a few days later, so his foot would hurt for each day he was on duty.
One day, after dinner, Xiao Chiye threw Chen Yang several bottles of medicinal paste. When Chen Yang went back and opened them, they turned out to be the valuable paste that Xiao Jiming had gotten from the Venerable Yigui a few years back. He could not help but reproach himself again. From then on, he was even more diligent in his work.
On the other side, Tantai Hu went home and found himself in dire straits just a few days later. Everyone in his family was dead, yet he had adopted three children from Zhongbo, all of whom lived on his salary. He was not married either, so he had no wife to manage affairs at home. All the money he received every month was spent until nothing was left. At present, he was in a short supply of rice and noodles, and he also had to prepare for the new year too. He was a veteran of Dengzhou, and he had buddies in Qudu. But all along, he had always been the one to take care of others. Now that it was his turn, he could not bring himself to borrow money from others, so he tightened his belt to feed the children. But this was, after all, not a long-term solution.
Tantai Hu was even thinking of being a loan shark and tagging along with others to collect debts when Chen Yang appeared on his doorsteps for a visit.
“The new year is right around the corner,” Chen Yang put down the money and said. “The Viceroy still remembers that there are three children in your family.”
Tantai Hu turned his face away as he sat on the chair and said, “Since I’m no longer a soldier of the Imperial Army, then there’s no reason for me to accept money from the Imperial Army.”
“You are truly a bonafide tiger.”8 Chen Yang said with a severe countenance. “Why are you still pissed with the Viceroy? You struck out at Shen Zechuan with many people watching that day. Where is your respect for the Viceroy? Being too lax in military discipline is a major taboo. You have been a Vice Commander for so long. Don’t tell me you don’t understand that.”
Tantai Hu said, “What can I do? Whenever I see Shen the Eighth, I’ll remember my parents!”
Chen Yang sighed and said, “Even so, you shouldn’t have humiliated him and, consequently, the Viceroy too. You know the Viceroy’s temperament after following him for a few years, so why did you still shoot your mouth off?”
Tantai Hu rubbed his head.
Chen Yang continued, “I was at fault too. I knew you were rash, but I didn’t stop you. Admit your mistakes if you make one, and accept your punishment if you receive one. A real man can take temporary setbacks and adapt to circumstances. Must you go to the extent of quitting before you think yourself a real hero?”
“Then what can I do? I have already handed in the waist tablet!” When Tantai Hu spoke to this point, he felt aggrieved and sad, “I’ve followed the Viceroy for five years and worked myself to the bone during the Autumn Hunt. It wasn’t easy for the Imperial Army to finally make a name for itself. I get afraid when I see that fox going in and out the whole day! The way he looks… I was really afraid that the Viceroy’s future would be ruined! I was getting anxious, and I hate him to death! Ding Tao said something about how it’s not his fault. That’s right, who doesn’t know that? But who could stand it if they were in my shoes? It was my parents and siblings who died, not a dog by the roadside!”
Chen Yang was silent too.
Tantai Hu stamped heavily on the ground and wiped his face haphazardly. The scar-faced man still shed tears when he recalled the past. He choked with sobs and said, “Anyone would not be happy to see a person they hate right in front of them, let alone someone with such enmity. That year when Zhongbo troops were defeated… Chen Yang, all of us who survived had our families broken up and ruined, while we ourselves barely escaped by the skin of their teeth! Who’s going to take pity on us? Look at those three children in my house. They haven’t even begun to recognize a few words before they were turned into orphans who have to dig mud under the hooves of the Biansha Cavalry’s horses in order to live. We are all lowly creatures.”
Chen Yang patted him and waited for him to calm down a little before saying, “But now that you have joined the Imperial Army, the Viceroy is king. Hu-zi,9 five years ago, when the Viceroy cleaned up the Imperial Army, he had wanted to take in non-native military households10 like you guys, but the Ministry of War did not agree. Do you still remember what the Viceroy said?”
Taitai Hu’s shoulders shook slightly.
Chen Yang continued, “Isn’t the reason you still want to be a soldier today because of what the Viceroy said that day—‘The feuds of our families has yet to be avenged, and the humiliation of our nation has yet to be redressed’? The Imperial Army will one day ride the horses out of the mountain pass. Isn’t killing the enemies with your own hands then much more gratifying than blaming another man today? How is it that you’ve forgotten this all with the passage of time?!”
Tantai Hu said, “How would I dare to forget? I’ve never forgotten it for even a day. I gave this life to the Viceroy to use as he wished, all for that one day to come.”
“Then it’s all good, isn’t it?” Chen Yang got up and pushed the money to Tantai Hu. “Brothers don’t bear each other overnight grudges. The Viceroy treats us as brothers. This money is from the Viceroy himself. After you’ve celebrated the Spring Festival, return to your original squad, hang up the Squad Commander waist tablet, and do your duties well.”
With mixed feelings, Tantai Hu saw Chen Yang out of the door.
When Chen Yang returned, he saw Shen Zechuan. Both men greeted each other on the veranda. As he lifted the curtain and went in, Shen Zechuan knew that the matter was done.
Shen Zechuan was bored to death as he watched the falling snow.
A vicious man11 like this could be disguised as fake even if he was real, and be made real even if he was fake. Others simply would not be able to tell whether the expression he put on was happiness or anger, nor would they be able to tell if he was being sincere or hypocritical.
It did not take long before Chen Yang came out again. He lifted the curtain, nodded at Shen Zechuan, and said, “The Viceroy is waiting inside for you to have a meal together.”
Shen Zechuan turned around and saw Xiao Chiye looking at him.
- 将威未行, 则先振之以威 “If the general has yet to have the prestige to speak of, he should first use forceful means to build up his prestige.” From Jixiao Xinshu; New Treatise on Effective Military Discipline 《纪效新书》 by Qi Jiguang (戚继光). It is a military treatise or manual written in 1560 by Qi Jiguang, a Ming Dynasty General famous for defending China from the Japanese pirates’ invasion.
- 兄弟阋墙，同室操戈 both practically mean internal strife.
- Spring Festival, which celebrates the start of the new year from the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
暖手 a small portable hand warmer that looks like a little pot. Also known as tangpozi (汤婆子).
- Refer to footnote #1, about the military strategy “if the general has yet to have the prestige to speak of, then he should first awe and intimidate to boost his prestige.” The next steps following this would be to use kindness to win them over and make friends with them in good faith. Only then will the soldiers work hard for you. From Jixiao Xinshu; New Treatise on Effective Military Discipline 《纪效新书》 by Qi Jiguang (戚继光).
- 震虎 from 敲山震虎 put on a deliberate show of strength as a warning. The tiger here refers to Tantai Hu (and also the rest of the Imperial Army by extension).
- 柳下惠 Liuxia Hui, also Zhan Huo, was a man of eminent virtue, and was said on one occasion to have held a lady in his lap without the slightest imputation on his moral character (mentioned in Chapter 31)
- 虎 is literally tiger (also the Hu in Tantai Hu), but it’s also a northeast dialect (虎了吧唧) to describe people who are particularly dumb and would do things without thinking, speak without thinking, etc. So Chen Yang is also saying he’s a fool.
- ~子 the -zi is a suffix that means child, or sonny.
- 军户 One of the three households sorted according to their occupation: civilian (民户), military (军户), and craftsman.
- 狼虎 literally wolf and tiger (or predators), also refers to a vicious and ruthless person