Shen Zechuan’s heart was originally as still as deep waters, but at this moment, even he was shaken by that word. Xiao Chiye’s handkerchief, which lay in his sleeve pocket, was like a fire that had been stuffed within. It inexplicably obeyed Xiao Chiye’s commands and sent the flames burning all the way up to his ears. He knew that the slight redness flushed on the snowy paleness of his skin was particularly striking. Even if he denied it, it would convince no one.
He seemed to be caught by Xiao Chiye in a certain predicament where bright mirrors surrounded them on all sides. The way Xiao Chiye looked was as if he wanted his true colors to be revealed, and his protective shell to be cast aside.
Shen Zechuan licked his lips to get rid of the troubling dryness. He balled up his fists and ignored such a provocation from Xiao Chiye, refusing to give Xiao Chiye a chance to pry further.
“It’s time to sleep.” Shen Zechuan declared, “Let’s call for them.”
Xiao Chiye felt Shen Zechuan’s “I’m ignoring you” reaction to be like a scratch that tickled him so suggestively that it stirred up his desire to press home the attack after his victory. However, if he were to emerge victorious, he could not rush it; impulsiveness would only make it easy for him to fall into traps. So he let him off this time and said, “Both shifu have their own arrangements, so there’s no need to worry about them. If you want to sleep, the East Wing has been vacated.”
Shen Zechuan stood up right away.
Ji Gang and Zuo Qianqiu were so dead drunk that they were still not sober the next day. Shen Zechuan carried Ji Gang onto the carriage and took him back.
Xiao Chiye watched the carriage ride away and said to Chen Yang, “Keep your eyes closely on the Eight Great Clans these two days. See who’s on the move.”
Chen Yang nodded in acknowledgment of his order.
◈ ◈ ◈
Accompanied by the swaying of the carriage, Shen Zechuan closed his eyes and rested. The carriage made a detour, and midway through the journey, they swapped to an unremarkable horse-cart before arriving at Zhao Zui Temple.
Qiao Tianya carried Ji Gang on his back and followed Shen Zechuan into the courtyard. Ge Qingqing had been waiting for a long while. When he saw them, he hurriedly stepped forward to receive them.
“It’s alright.” Shen Zechuan assured. “Shifu is just drunk.”
Grand Mentor Qi, who was standing under the eaves, instructed, “Qingqing, help Ji Gang inside and let him sleep it off.”
Ge Qingqing took Ji Gang from Shen Zechuan and carried him into the house.
Qiao Tianya strode forward in a few steps, went on his knees in the snow, and asked, “Has Grand Mentor been doing well?”
“All is well upon seeing you.” Grand Mentor Qi lifted his hand and said, “Now that you have already changed your name to Qiao Tianya, that indenture1 is no longer of any use, yet you are willing to stay for that bit of sentiment. I should thank you.”
“To Grand Mentor Qi, what happened in the past was merely an effortless lift of your finger. But to me, it was a kindness that saved my life.” The merriment on Qiao Tianya’s face vanished. He added, “During the year of Yongyi,2 when Emperor Guangcheng had corrupt officials killed, my father and brother were both framed by others. If Grand Mentor had not been judicious and discerning enough to offer a helping hand, the twenty lives of the Qiao Clan would have died unjust deaths before the Meridian Gate.”3
“Your father and brother were both honest and upright subjects. It was just a brief moment of misjudgment that they were wrongly accused. Even without me, they would still be safe and sound.” Grand Mentor Qi replied.
Qiao Tianya paused for a long while before he professed, “The Qiao Clan cannot thank Grand Mentor enough for his kindness.”
During the years of Yongyi, when Qiao Tianya’s father still served as an official in the Ministry of War, Emperor Guangcheng was tough on corruption. Senior Qiao, having been reported by others, was found by the Chief Surveillance Bureau to be in the possession of properties and lands of unidentified origins. While he was helpless against accusations, Qi Huilian re-investigated the case and freed Senior Qiao and a few others from the Ministry of War. Consequently, Qi Huilian married off his daughter to the eldest son of the Qiaos. Yet, this was not the end of the matter; a few years later, the Eastern Palace was falsely accused, and Qi Huilian was demoted from the Grand Mentor to a commoner. The same time when he followed the Crown Prince into Zhao Zui Temple, Senior Qiao defected to the Empress Dowager.
The Eastern Palace fell. Empress Dowager Hua had its remnants thoroughly investigated using Pan Rugui’s authority of office in endorsing memorials4 and Emperor Guangcheng’s name. As a result, Senior Qiao was thrown into prison again. This time, without Grand Mentor Qi as his guarantor, both he and his eldest son were beheaded. The rest of the Qiao household were banished to Suotian Pass. Qi Huilian’s daughter died on the way. She was Qiao Tianya’s eldest sister-in-law.
“Let us not bring up the past,” Grand Mentor Qi tugged on his snow-white hair and spoke, “It was not easy for you to be freed of the underclass status.5 But you must think it through: once you become subjected to Lanzhou, it will be a lifelong commitment. You will no longer be in control of your life or death.”
Qiao Tianya’s hair fluttered in the wind; his smile was unruly and unrestrained. He said, “Grand Mentor, I already have no home to return to. In this lifetime, I’ve repeatedly received favors from both you and Eldest Sister-in-law. These were originally sinful debts that I had no way of repaying. Now that I can be of use, I shall dedicate my life to Master. Qiao Songyue died with Eldest Sister-in-law in the Cang Commandery. The Qiao Tianya of today is merely a blade. There is no life nor death, let alone freedom, in a blade. Since this is a dark time when evil powers hang over us like overcast clouds that make the road you walk difficult, then pull out this blade that is myself and use it as you please.”
Grand Mentor Qi slowly walked out. Holding the pillar for support, he looked towards Shen Zechuan and said, “Lanzhou, this year is about to end. Teacher has yet to give you a gift for your coming-of-age.”6
Shen Zechuan’s sleeves were blown apart by the breeze. He had a feeling of what was to come.
Grand Mentor Qi said, “You can face everything head-on by yourself now. But this road will be long: killing the sworn enemies, demolishing the Eight Great Clans, overturning the past trials, and bringing peace to Zhongbo. None of it is easy. Ji Gang will give you a blade, so will I. Receive it well.”
Flurries of snow drifted down in the inner court. Shen Zechuan lowered his head and let Grand Mentor Qi lay cold fingers on top of his hair.
Ji Gang woke up when it was time for dinner. He had some congee before he called Shen Zechuan into the house.
“Do you still remember the blade I mentioned to you the last time? It was delivered last night. It’s been on my mind since.” Ji Gang shifted aside the shelf inside the house to reveal a blade stand in the back.
The first time Shen Zechuan saw this blade, his heart stirred. He could no longer move his eyes away.
“Ji Lei cannot use it.” Ji Gang used a clean handkerchief to wipe at the blade’s edge slowly, “But this blade suits you very well. I had someone re-forge the sheath. Its past name cannot be used anymore; you should give it another name yourself.”
Still engrossed in the blade’s luster, Shen Zechuan studied it with fascination.
The straight blade of almost three and seven tenth chi7 meant that its unsheathing had to be sufficiently fast. Its width of two fingers would make swift attacks especially easy to maneuver. The hilt, made of sandalwood, was also newly forged. There was no decorative carving on it. Only the top was plated in gold with a white pearl embedded within.
This was an excellent blade that had been thoroughly tempered. Even after having been shelved and forgotten for so long, it still cut an imposing, grim presence when unsheathed. It was as if it were immersed in the clear waters of autumn; not only was it pristine and untainted, but it also carried with it an air of solitary haughtiness.
“Shifu has recently been pondering over a matter. It was only when I saw Xiao’Er last night that I realized I have been too inflexible in my teachings that you have become a little too overcautious and hesitant.” Ji Gang laid down the handkerchief and said, “Once you wield this blade, even Xiao’Er’s Langli Blade will not be able to match its speed. The sandalwood hilt is sufficiently light and will allow you to be more agile. Of all martial arts in this world, speed is the only thing that cannot be defeated. This is my father’s beloved blade. When it comes to the Ji Clan’s martial arts, we now say that one has to be firm and ferocious. But the Ji Clan’s mental technique was founded and created by my father. What worked for him will surely work for you. You can take a different approach and blaze out a new trail as well.”
Shen Zechuan held the hilt of the blade and lifted it.
“Give it a name.” Ji Gang retreated several steps aside.
Shen Zechuan held it lovingly, unwilling to let go, and asked, “Shifu would give me a blade of this caliber?”
Ji Gang laughed heartily and said, “Shifu wants to box. I don’t like using blades. This blade would be wasted if I didn’t give it to you.”
Shen Zechuan thought for a while, then said, “Then I shall change its name to ‘Yang Shan Xue’.”
◈ ◈ ◈
In the evening, Grand Mentor Qi sat on his heels across the table. He wrote down the surnames of all the Eight Great Clans on a piece of paper.
“It will soon be the Feast of A Hundred Officials. The Four Great Generals will soon be reunited, and the regional officials will be returning as well.” Letting the ink dry, Grand Mentor Qi spoke, “With the ascension of the new Emperor, there will surely be ‘surveillance’ next year. This matter is of utmost importance and is tied to the political stability during the year of Xianyang. Everyone will use the Feast of a Hundred Officials and the annual leave as an opportunity to reassess the situation in court. If Empress Dowager wants to stage a comeback and return to power, she will definitely not let this opportunity slip.”
“After the death of Hua Siqian, the Empress Dowager has been restrained inside the Palace and has not shown her face since. The younger generation of the Hua Clan has been demoted and banished. If she wants to make a move now, she could only use external help.” Shen Zechuan furrowed his brows. “But with the failing precedence of Xi Gu’an, who would still dare to act rashly and be the Empress Dowager’s accomplice?”
“Cowardly rats will not achieve greatness. All collaborations in this world are motivated by mutual benefits. As long as the Empress Dowager still holds the bargaining chips, why would she worry about finding a new ship to board?” Grand Mentor Qi drew a few strokes under “Hua” on the paper, and continued, “Moreover, the men in her clan cannot be depended on. You’ve forgotten: it is a woman that the Empress Dowager has been personally mentoring.”
“The Third Missy.” Shen Zechuan said, “Teacher is referring to Hua Xiangyi.”
“Given the height of her favors while Emperor Xiande was still alive, Hua the Third was going to be conferred the title of Princess of Dazhou.” Grand Mentor Qi said, “But she eventually did not become the Princess of Dazhou. It was not because Emperor Xiande was stingy, but because the Empress Dowager would not allow it.”
Shen Zechuan sipped a mouthful of tea and contemplated for a moment. Swallowing the tea, he said, “I understand now.”
“Then let us hear your thoughts on it.”
Shen Zechuan propped his arm on his knee and said, “If Hua Xiangyi had become the Princess of Dazhou, then her marriage would be out of the Empress Dowager’s hands. The marriage of a princess is a state affair, subject to the discretionary choice of the Emperor and the court officials. But if she remains as the Third Missy, then only the Empress Dowager has a say in whom she will be married off to. In that case, Teacher, does the Empress Dowager want to marry her off?”
“If the mountain does not come to me, then I will go to the mountain.” Grand Mentor Qi dipped his brush in ink. “The Empress Dowager has forsaken a chariot to save the general.8 Losing Xi Gu’an means that she has lost control of military power in Qudu; but if Hua Xiangyi marries Xiao Chiye, then this matter will be easily resolved.”
Shen Zechuan lightly tapped on his teacup. Holding the cup, he lowered his eyes and said, “This is harder than ascending the heavens. Xiao’Er will never hand over his power.”
“I have heard that Hua Xiangyi’s beauty could make an entire city swoon. There is no guarantee that Xiao’Er would not change his mind if lust overcomes him.” Grand Mentor Qi commented pointedly.
Shen Zechuan held a mouthful of tea in his mouth and did not say a word.
Grand Mentor Qi said, “But this is indeed not easy to do. Even if Xiao’Er had the heart to do so, Xiao Jiming would not sit idly and let him. The Hua Clan and the Xiao Clan are like fire and water who cannot mix; there is no reason to bury the hatchet and make peace when the advantage is on their side.”
Shen Zechuan gave it some thought and said, “Losing military power but having the central administration in his control is a good choice as well. But at this time, there are barely any exceptional up-and-coming officials. Hai Liangyi still heads the Grand Secretariat, and the Empress Dowager cannot lower Hua Xiangyi’s status and have her become a concubine. Then, there is no other fitting candidate for a groom in all of Qudu.”
“If there isn’t any in Qudu, she can look elsewhere,” Grand Mentor Qi wrote the word “Qidong” and said, “Libei won’t do, but there is still an opportunity in Qidong.”
“Commander Qi and Lu Guangbai have both yet to marry.” Shen Zechuan said, “Then it can only be Lu Guangbai. However, the Lu Clan are longtime close friends with the Xiao Clan. Theirs is by no means a relationship one can drive a wedge between overnight.”
“Why didn’t you put your guess on the Qi Clan?” Grand Mentor Qi said with dissatisfaction. “Other than Qi Zhuyin, the Qi Clan still has one more person.”
“It can’t be…” Shen Zechuan looked astonished.
A few days later, Xiao Chiye accompanied Li Jianheng outside the city to welcome the two Qidong Commanders-in-Chief. Lu Guangbai returned with him. On the way, he removed his helmet and said, “I heard some news during the journey. Do you know about it?”
Xiao Chiye spurred his horse forward and asked, “What?”
Before Lu Guangbai got his chance to speak, Qi Zhuyin spurred her horse towards them from behind and slapped him on the back.
“Commander!” Lu Guangbai yelled in pain.
Qi Zhuyin rarely looked unhappy. She grabbed her blade and leaned forward to ask Xiao Chiye, “When did these rumors spread in Qudu?”
Xiao Chiye was even more confused.
Qi Zhuyin clenched her teeth and fumed, “Someone is going to be my stepmother.”9
Stunned, Xiao Chiye said, “Old Commander Qi wants to take a new concubine?”
“Concubine.” Qi Zhuyin sneered derisively, “They’re already saying that he’s going to take a second wife! Third Missy Hua is going to be my stepmother. Is she even my age?”
- 卖身契 more specifically, it’s an indenture or a deed of sale of oneself or one’s family member to someone else (e.g., into slavery, etc.)
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor reigned.
- 午门 Meridian Gate, or Wumen, is the southern gate and the only entrance now to the Forbidden City. It is said that capital punishment was carried out outside the Meridian gate, but there are no accurate records to verify this. Nonetheless, punishment by flogging of officials who had offended the Emperor did take place in the courtyard in front of the gate.
- 批红 compilation of an endorsement on a memorial; chief eunuchs had the right to note down remarks in red color (pihong 批紅) on the incoming memorials, even before the Emperor had seen them.
- 贱籍 citizens of the lowest social class in ancient China who did not belong to the four classes of scholars, peasants, artisans, and merchants.
- 及冠 or 弱冠, a man’s 20th birthday, i.e., coming of age at 20 for a male.
- 尺 chi; a Chinese foot, i.e., one-third of a meter
- 弃车保帅 is literally to sacrifice the chariot (rook) to save the general (king) in Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, which is a strategy board game that represents a battle between two armies, with the aim of capturing the enemy’s general. It means to make minor sacrifices to safeguard major interests.
- 小娘, xiaoniang, the term refers more specifically to the concubine of one’s father.
唐刀 Tang Blade; a Tang dynasty officer’s saber, or “Tang Dao”. The blade would be either straight or curved and often only have a one-sided tip.
绣春刀 Xiuchun Blade is the blade of the Imperial Bodyguards during the Ming Dynasty.