Battle boots trampled over the accumulated snow and circled around Shen Zechuan before stopping at his side. The man used his toe to correct the position of Shen Zechuan’s face, causing his boots to be smeared with bloodstains. The voice under his helmet was muffled as he asked, “Shen Wei’s your old man?”
Shen Zechuan could not stop the blood from gushing out through his clenched teeth. Even as he hastily used his hands, he could not cover it up either. He did not answer.
The man looked down at him for a moment and said, “I’m asking you.”
With blood in his mouth, Shen Zechuan lowered his head and uttered a “yeah”.
Ji Lei availed himself to the opportunity and said from the side. “He’s the eight son of Shen Wei. His name is Shen…”
The man lifted his arms and took off his helmet to reveal a young face. The gyrfalcon circling in the sky rode on the cold wind and landed on his shoulder, sending up a puff of scattered snow. He looked at Shen Zechuan as if he were looking at a pair of worn-out shoes. It was hard to tell if his gaze was one of disdain or loathing; it was as frigid as a blade.
Shen Zechuan did not know him, but he recognized the Libei Armored Cavalry.
Back then, Shen Wei had cut a sorry figure as he retreated to the West. When he arrived at Cizhou, it was already Zhongbo’s last line of defense. The Libei Armored Cavalry headed down from north to south. The Hereditary Prince, Xiao Jiming, braved the snow to spur his troops on for three days without rest, crossing the icy river straight to Cizhou. Who would have known that Shen Wei did not even manage to defend Cizhou, causing the Libei Armored Cavalry to end up besieged by the enemies? If it were not for Xiao Jiming having reinforcements in place, it would have turned out to be another brutal battle.
After this battle, Libei came to hate the Zhongbo Shen Clan the most.
This man was not Xiao Jiming. But since he could spur a horse on to Qudu with a raptor on his shoulder, then he must have been the Prince of Libei’s youngest son and Xiao Jiming’s younger brother—Xiao Chiye.
Ji Lei initially harbored the intention to instigate him, but he lost the courage to fan the flames when he saw the Deputy General, Zhao Hui, behind Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye threw his helmet to Zhao Hui in passing. The sides of his lips curled into a smile, and the earlier penetrating stare dissolved away like melting ice. His frivolous temperament instantly materialized. Even the armor on him looked out of place now.
“Your Excellency Ji.” He put his arm around Ji Lei’s shoulders.” I’ve kept you waiting.”
Ji Lei exchanged glances with Xiao Chiye and laughed. He said, “Second Young Master, it has been two years since we last met, and you have become so distant!”
Xiao Chiye pointed to the blade at the side of his waist and said, “I’m carrying a blade, so I’m considered half a soldier.”
It was only then Ji Lei seemed to notice it. He laughed and said, “Excellent blade! Second Young Master came to His Majesty’s rescue this time. It has been hard for you along the way. Let’s have a drink tonight after you have sought an audience with the Emperor!”
Xiao Chiye regretfully motioned Ji Lei to look at the Deputy General, Zhao Hui, behind him. He said, “My eldest brother has sent someone to watch me. How can we drink to our hearts’ content like this? Once I’ve taken a breather in a few days, I’ll treat you.”
Zhao Hui expressionlessly paid his obeisances to Ji Lei.
Ji Lei smiled in response and said to Xiao Chiye. “Then, go on first to the palace. The Guard of Honor is still waiting for you.”
Both men chatted and laughed freely as they walked all the way to the palace. Zhao Hui followed behind them and cast a look at Shen Zechuan as he was leaving. The Imperial Bodyguards at the side caught the hint and dragged Shen Zechuan back.
Ji Lei watched as Xiao Chiye entered the palace. Once the men flanking him were his own men, he spat out a mouthful of saliva like a man down on his luck. The smile on his face disappeared, leaving only discontent behind.
What he had been initially thinking was that since this hoodlum was usually impudent and audacious, it was only to be expected if he ended up killing a man. Who would expect this numbskull to be so crafty that he had actually handled this issue with such care? One kick, and he had let Shen Zechuan off just like that.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye entered the palace, and Zhao Hui handed him a handkerchief. He wiped his hands as he walked.
Zhao Hui whispered. “Young Master’s kick earlier was too risky. If the last survivor of that Shen dog died on the spot, the Empress Dowager would surely be displeased.”
Xiao Chiye’s smile vanished, and gloominess shadowed his face. He had just withdrawn from the desert battlefield, and the murderous intent and malevolent aura pouring off him were so compelling that the eunuch leading the way before them did not dare to eavesdrop again.
Xiao Chiye said coldly, “My intent was to kick him to death. Old Dog Shen allowed a bloodbath to happen in Zhongbo. We have been burying those soldiers in the Chashi Sinkhole for half a month, and we are still not done burying them. And now the Hua Clan wants to protect that old dog’s remaining descendant for the sake of their personal relationship. How in the world could something go so perfectly according to wishes? Besides, my eldest brother has been carrying out raids for thousands of li.1 After this battle, there is nothing else to bestow or confer him with. Our Libei is at the peak of its glory. It has long become a thorn in the Empress Dowager’s side.”
Zhao Hui said, “The Hereditary Prince often says that the moon waxes only to wane.2 The reward from Qudu this time is most likely a Hongmen Banquet.3 Young Master, the main forces are stationed hundreds of li away from the capital, and the aristocratic clans’ eyes and ears are everywhere in the city. At this point in time, we must not act impulsively.”
Xiao Chiye threw the handkerchief back to Zhao Hui and said, “Got it.”
“Is Ah4 Ye here?”
Emperor Xiande fed the parrot.
The feathered animal had been raised until it was impeccably wily. Imitating Emperor Xiande’s words, it opened its beak and said, “Ah Ye is here! Ah Ye is here! Ah Ye pays his obeisances to Your Majesty! Your Majesty! Your Majesty! Long live! Long live! Long live Your Majesty!”
With the feed in his hands, Xiao Jiming answered, “He should be here now.”
“Two years, huh.” Emperor Xiande teased the parrot. “I haven’t seen him for two years. This lad takes after your father. He grows so fast. I’m afraid he will be even taller than you when he’s all grown.”
Xiao Jiming said, “He has grown taller, but he’s still a child at heart. All he does is to stir up trouble at home.”
Emperor Xiande was about to say something when his coughs started up again. Pan Rugui held out a cup of tea to him from the side. Emperor Xiande moistened his throat for a moment. Before he could continue his words, he heard the announcement of Xiao Chiye’s arrival outside.
“Come in.” Emperor Xiande sat back on the chair and put up an arm. “Come in and let me take a look at you.”
The eunuch carefully lifted the curtain, and Xiao Chiye strode across the door and entered. With an air of coldness around him, he kneeled at the bottom and kowtowed to Emperor Xiande to pay his obeisances.
With a smile. Emperor Xiande said, “What a fine lad, looking all mighty in your armor. I heard that when the Biansha Twelve Tribes raided the food supplies route and relay station at the frontier the year before last, you showed your prowess and captured several people alive. Is that right?”
Xiao Chiye laughed and said, “Your Majesty thinks too highly of me. I’ve indeed caught a few men, but they are all small fry.”
The year before last, the Biansha Twelve Tribes carried out a raid on Guanbei’s food supplies route. Leading the troops, Xiao Chiye made his debut in battle. In the end, he was thrashed up pretty badly by those Biansha baldies. It was Xiao Jiming who cleaned up the mess for him. This incident turned into a joke after news of it spread that year. Consequently, Xiao Chiye was reduced to an imbecile known to all.
Seeing him thus, Emperor Xiande’s voice softened, “You are young, and to be able to spur a horse on while brandishing a spear is already a skill in itself. However, your eldest brother is one of my Dazhou’s Four Great Generals. I’m sure he usually gives you some pointers on military tactics. Oh, Jiming. I can see that Ah Ye is aware of the need to keep forging ahead. You mustn’t be too stern on him.”
Xiao Jiming voiced his compliance.
Emperor Xiande added, “This time, Libei Armored Cavalry has performed meritorious service in coming to my rescue. Other than yesterday’s major reward, I want to give Ah Ye a small reward today as well.”
Xiao Jiming rose to his feet to bow and say, “It’s his blessing to receive His Majesty’s favor. However, he has no merit and no contribution to speak of. How could he receive such a lofty reward?”
Emperor Xiande paused for a moment before saying, “You have launched a long-range raid over thousands of li and crossed the icy river overnight. Your merits are immeasurable. I’ll even bestow a reward upon your wife, Lu Yizhi, this time, let alone Ah Ye. Ah Ye, Libei is a frontier of strategic importance. You are still young, so it’s inevitable for you to find it dreary and boring if you remain there for long. Now, I’m intending for you to come to Qudu to be a merry Commander-in-chief of the Imperial Regalia.5 Are you willing to?”
Xiao Chiye had been remaining motionless with his head lowered. On hearing this, he raised his head and said, “I’m naturally willing if it is a reward bestowed by Your Majesty. All those in my family are warriors and generals. I can’t even find a place to enjoy a song. If I remain in Qudu, I’d enjoy myself too much to even think of home or work.”
Emperor Xiande laughed aloud and said, “What a lad. I’m asking you to be a guard, but you just want to have fun! If your father were to hear of this, I’m afraid you will not be able to escape another beating.”
The atmosphere in the hall relaxed. Emperor Xiande retained both brothers to have a meal together with him. When it was time for them to withdraw, Emperor Xiande asked, “I heard that Qidong had sent someone over too. Who is it?”
Xiao Jiming replied, “It’s Lu Guangbai from the Bianjun Commandery.”
Emperor Xiande seemed to be a little tired. Leaning against his chair, he waved his hand and said, “Tell him to come tomorrow.”
Xiao Chiye followed Xiao Jiming out. The brothers had not walked far when they saw a man kneeling on the verandah. Pan Rugui approached and leaned forward to say with a beam on his face, “General Lu, General Lu!”
Lu Guangbai opened his eyes and said wearily, “Pan Gonggong.”
Pan Rugui said, “You can stop kneeling. His Majesty the Emperor is tired today. He can only see you tomorrow.”
The reticent Lu Guangbai nodded his head and rose to his feet to head out with the Xiao Clan brothers. It was only after they stepped out of the palace gates and mounted their horses that Xiao Jiming asked, “Why do you keep kneeling?”
Lu Guangbai said, “His Majesty does not want to see me.”
Both men went silent for a moment, knowing full well the reason for this. But Lu Guangbai did not feel bitter about it. He looked sideways at Xiao Chiye and asked, “Did His Majesty reward you?”
Xiao Chiye held the reins and answered, “He’s keeping me on a leash.”
Lu Guangbai reached out to pat the back of Xiao Chiye’s shoulders and said, “How is this putting a leash on you? The ones he’s keeping a leash on are your eldest brother and your father.”
Xiao Chiye listened to the sound of the horse’s hooves for a while before he said, “His Majesty mentioned my eldest sister-in-law. I almost broke out in a cold sweat then.”
Lu Guangbai and Xiao Jiming burst out laughing together. Lu Guangbai asked, “Are His Highness and Yizhi well?”
Xiao Jiming nodded. With his cloak wrapped around his court attire, and with his armor removed, he was not as young and valiant like Xiao Chiye. Yet, he had a presence that inexplicably commanded attention. He said, “They are both well. My father is still concerned about the Old General’s leg injury. This time, he specially instructed me to bring the medicinal plaster6 he usually uses. Yizhi is fine too. It’s just that she has been missing all of you very much ever since she’s with child. She wrote many letters; I’ve brought them too. You can read them when you come over to the residence later.”
Lu Guangbai pulled the reins uneasily and said, “Everyone in the family is a warrior; there’s no mother or sister-in-law who could go over to accompany her. It’s freezing cold during winter in Libei. I’ve been worrying ever since I heard of the news when I led the troops out of the Bianjun Commandery.”
“Yeah.” Xiao Chiye turned his head as well and said, “It’s so dangerous in Cizhou. Brother is now a caged man and told me not to write home so as not to worry sister-in-law. The battle broke out too suddenly. It was only when he left home that brother and sister-in-law found out about the pregnancy.”
Xiao Jiming has always been able to show restraint. He merely said, “Father is keeping watch at home this time to protect Yizhi. Don’t worry. I’ll not go anywhere else once I return home after the new year.”7
Lu Guangbai sighed and said, “In recent years, Libei has been caught in the heart of the storm. Every time we dispatch troops, we have to think twice. This time, we can only hate Shen Wei for shrinking back without putting up a fight and leaving us with such a rotten mess. When my troops passed the Chashi Sinkhole, the blood was all over the horses’ hooves. He could not escape the death penalty, so he immolated himself first. But there’s indeed something odd about this matter. Jiming, you captured his son and had him sent to the capital. Did you notice anything?”
Xiao Jiming gathered his cloak in the wind and said, “Shen Wei has been one to attach great importance to the distinction between those of di and shu birth. This son of his is his eight son of shu birth. There’s no one in his mother’s family to back him, and so he was abandoned in Duanzhou to be raised there. It stands to reason that he has no access to inside information. There must be a reason His Majesty is so insistent.”
Xiao Chiye put on his helmet and said, “It’s hard to quell the public wrath. His Majesty personally handed the military power for the Garrisons of the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo over to Shen Wei. Now that such a thing has happened, he has to kill someone as proof of his impartiality.”
However, the one with imperial sovereignty over Dazhou was not the Emperor, but the Empress Dowager, who held court in place of the Emperor behind a screen.8 Now that the situation was at a stalemate, everyone all had their eyes on this life of Shen Zechuan. If he pleaded guilty and died, then that would be all’s well that ends well; if he did not die, then he would be doomed to be a thorn in the flesh. The Libei Xiao Clan was now at their peak of glory and splendor. Even Qidong Commander-in-chief of the Qi Clan had to give way to them. Xiao Jiming was the “Glacier of the Armored Cavalry” among the Four Great Generals, and he was also the brother-in-law9 of Lu Guangbai of the Qidong Bianjun Commandery. To put it more explicitly, this was a man who could mobilize the Libei Armored Cavalry and rely on his wife’s family to deploy the Bianjun Commandery Garrison troops. Qudu had no choice but to guard against him.
“Her Majesty is bent on preserving his life.” Lu Guangbai pursed his thin lips. “She’s gunning to raise a jackal in the future who can rightfully and legitimately recover Zhongbo and, at the same time, submissive enough to be at her beck and call. When the time comes, she can consolidate power from within, while reining in Libei from without. She will be a thorn in our side. Jiming, we must not let this lad live!”
The gale on the street outside brought snow that felt like slicing knives as it scraped across their cheeks. The three men spoke no further. In this endless silence, Zhao Hui, who had been silent behind them, urged his horse on forward.
“Young Master previously kicked him with eighty percent force right at his heart. His breathing was already weak, and his old wounds bled again when he fell to the ground.” Zhao Hui pondered it over. “Yet, he did not die immediately.”
Xiao Chiye lifted the horsewhip and said, “He has been on trial for so many days and was even flogged. He was already hanging on by his last breath. That kick of mine was to send him on his way to the Underworld. If he doesn’t die after tonight, then I’ll acknowledge that he’s a tenacious one.”
However, Zhao Hui frowned and said, “He’s skinny and frail, and he has yet to recover from his cold all this time. By all logic, he should have died a long time ago. Yet, he is still hanging on. There is undoubtedly something odd about it. The Hereditary Prince…”
Xiao Jiming swept a glance at them out of the corners of his eyes, and both men shut their mouths. He gazed out at the road before them in the intense wind. After a moment’s silence, he said, “Whether he lives or not is all fated.”
The wind howled, and the metal chimes under the eaves on both sides clanked against one another. The murderous aura among the snow dispersed. Sitting level atop the horse, Xiao Jiming calmly and unhurriedly hit the horse to spur it forward.
Zhao Hui lowered his head and stooped over as he urged his horse on to catch up.
The expression under Xiao Chiye’s helmet was vague. Lu Guangbai punched him on the shoulder and said, “He’s your eldest brother, after all.”
Xiao Chiye seemed to smile as he murmured, “… Fate, huh?”
Credits: Thanks to eggy @peachiprint for the idiom suggestion!
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 月盈则缺, (花盛而谢) a variant of 月满则亏, 水满则溢 The moon waxes only to wane, (and flowers bloom only to fall/ water brims only to overflow ). i.e. things/situations reverse or decline when they reach their extreme or limit.
- 鸿门宴 Hongmen Banquet; a banquet set up with the aim of murdering or dooming a guest. Refers to a famous episode in 206 BC when future Han emperor Liu Bang (刘邦) escaped attempted murder by his rival Xiangyu (项羽).
- “Ah” is a prefix used before monosyllabic names to indicate kinship and/or familiarity.
- The Imperial Bodyguards or Brocade Guards (锦衣卫) were originally known as the Yiluan Si (仪鸾司/仪銮司), or Imperial Regalia Service. It was only changed by Emperor Hongwu (historically) during the Ming Dynasty in 1382 to the Imperial Bodyguards Command (锦衣卫亲军指挥使司).
膏药 medicinal/herbal paste on a plaster, used in TCM for treating contusions, rheumatism etc.
- 年后 Refers to the lunar/Chinese new year
- 垂帘听政 literally to hold court behind a screen or curtain. A practice in ancient China, where the Empress or Empress dowager was allowed to preside over the imperial court without actually being seen by her subjects since women were prohibited from politics. This would usually be done by a child emperor’s mother who would serve as regent and rule in place of the Emperor.
- 妹婿 He’s married to the younger sister of Lu Guangbai.