White snow fell in a flurry. The night was coming to an end.
Shen Zechuan could not stay any longer. Just as he was leaving, Xiao Chiye rose to his feet, took down the overcoat from the rack, and handed it to him.
“This blade of yours looks unfamiliar.” Xiao Chiye bent over to pick up Yang Shan Xue. It felt light and handy in his hands. “New?”
Shen Zechuan nodded and faced the door as he put on the overcoat.
Xiao Chiye pressed the sword slightly out of its sheath with his thumb to reveal a cold glint. He said, “Excellent blade. What’s its name?”
Shen Zechuan answered, “Yang Shan Xue.”
“A lift of its head, and three mountains worth of snow it spouts; a spread of its mouth, and a hundred rivers it devours.”1 Xiao Chiye returned the blade to its sheath and took a step forward and stuck to Shen Zechuan from behind. With practiced fingers, he put back Yang Shan Xue to the side of Shen Zechuan’s waist. He lowered his head slightly and said, “It’s not only pretty; even the name is pretty.”
Shen Zechuan abruptly looked back, but Xiao Chiye beat him to it and grasped him by the waist to take him into his arms.
“How are you going to look at me after leaving here today?”
“However I ought to be looking at you.” Shen Zechuan hurriedly turned his head back. It looked as if he was intimately rubbing their faces together.
“If you can’t handle it, you can always ask your Second Young Master for help.” Xiao Chiye’s fingers roughly obtained a measurement as he smiled and said.
“The Second Young Master can barely fend for himself.” Shen Zechuan said. “Seems more likely for you to ask me for help.”
Xiao Chiye released him and said, “You are much thinner than the last time. If my guess is right, you are still taking medicine that can conceal your figure.”
Shen Zechuan fastened his overcoat and said nothing.
“Let me offer you a word of advice,” Xiao Chiye said, “That medicine hurts the body the more you take it. In a few years, it’ll be your own body that will be wrecked.”
Shen Zechuan sighed softly as he stopped by the door. “Your shifu has sharp eyes. He met me only once, and he could tell just by looking.”
Xiao Chiye said, “You’re willing to go to such an extent just for these matters?”
“My life and death hang in the balance at the mere whim of another, so naturally, I’d have to exercise caution in everything I do and pay due diligence everywhere I go.” Shen Zechuan’s hands were ice cold. He said, “I’ve practiced the Ji Clan boxing style for a long time. I wouldn’t be able to deceive Ji Lei unless I resort to this.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Ji Lei is already dead.”
Shen Zechuan still smelled a little of wine. He said, “I’ve stopped taking the medicine.”
After Shen Zechuan had left, Xiao Chiye stood in the blizzard as he recalled Zuo Qianqiu’s words.
“This medicine comes from the East. Once taken, a person can fake illness to pull the wool over the eyes of others. It’s not a problem if it’s taken once or twice, but it could cause serious consequences if consumed for a long time. The damage is negligible if the toxin remains in the body for a short while, but it’ll eventually act up in the future.”
Zuo Qianqiu fixed his gaze on the teacup in his hand and said, “Toxin accumulates to become a malady that harms. If he doesn’t take good care of it, he might be rendered invalid when the time comes.”
Xiao Chiye raised his hand and let the windstorm blow away the lingering warmth on his palm. He reminisced back to that night when he thought he had almost melted Shen Zechuan with his caresses, but it seemed that the warmth he gave Shen Zechuan was merely fleeting.
A beauty always gives off the illusion of fragility.
◈ ◈ ◈
With a bamboo hat on his head, Qiao Tianya drove the horse carriage and rushed towards Shen Zechuan’s old house on Donglong Street. Shen Zechuan leaned against the interior wall of the carriage and closed his eyes to take a nap.
Upon reaching the entrance, Qiao Tianya commanded the horses to stop and lifted the curtain open for Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan bent over to get off the carriage and returned to his room to take a bath and have a change of clothes.
According to the memorial, Shen Zechuan had enjoyed a meteoric rise this time to become a fifth-grade Judge of the Imperial Bodyguards in just one leap. But this position was split into two—the south and north. The Southern Judge was in charge of the affairs of the Imperial Bodyguards’ military craftsmen, while the Northern Judge was in charge of the Imperial Bodyguards’ Imperial Prison. Li Jianheng put him in an important position with the intent to use him. But the civil officials of the Grand Secretariat all had their own misgivings and considerations. Because of Shen Zechuan’s background, they were not willing to let him take charge of the Imperial Prison. Therefore, after everyone deliberated over it, they rejected Shen Zechuan’s appointment as the Northern Judge and had it changed to the Southern Judge.
For this reason, the Grand Secretariat raised Shen Zechuan’s military appointment to one of a fifth-grade Imperial Bodyguards’ Battalion Commander. This was already a great honor, especially when coupled with the additional embroidered python robe2 and phoenix-tail belt3 that Li Jianheng had bestowed upon him.
Shen Zechuan had long anticipated the Grand Secretariat’s rebuttal.
This time, he had made his way up by using Han Cheng as a stepping stone. As per their agreement, Xue Xiuzhuo let him have his promotion, yet he gave him a kick at the most crucial part. This was to make him understand that even if he had the merit that came with going to the Emperor’s rescue, he was still far from being able to cross swords with them.
When Shen Zechuan emerged all neatly dressed, Qiao Tianya was holding up an umbrella. The latter said, “With Master’s promotion, this house is already considered simple and shabby. It would not be able to accommodate all the coming and going visitors in the future.”
“There’s no hurry.” Shen Zechuan lifted his robe to get on the carriage. As he dropped the curtain, he said, “It’s still not too late to change it after I’m promoted to Commander-in-Chief.”
With that, the curtain drooped, and he continued to rest.
The weather was bad today. The officials waiting outside the palace all had snow on their shoulders. They could not walk around as they please, nor could they move at will. They could not make a racket either, or even cough.
Shen Zechuan followed Han Cheng to stand at attention while bearing his blade. His skin was like icy snow set against the contrast of his crimson python robe. He was shockingly gorgeous whenever there was a smile in the corners of his eyes. Yet, amidst that affability, he gave off an air of malice that spoke of danger.
Xiao Chiye was donning a red robe too. The second-grade lion on his body4 made him stand out even more from the crowd, like a crane among a flock of fowls. He looked to be in low spirits and merely glanced askance at Shen Zechuan.
Both men were standing apart from one another, yet they gave others the sense that they were facing off each other in a confrontation. Even Hai Liangyi turned his head aside to take a few looks.
The civil officials made eye contact with one another, each coming to a mutual, tacit understanding.
A little while later, Han Cheng said in a hushed tone, “Let’s go.”
When those palace doors opened, the eunuchs from the Directorate of Ceremonial and major ministers of the Grand Secretariat would be the first to enter. But now that the Directorate of Ceremonial had been vacated, only the important ministers of the Grand Secretariat with Hai Liangyi at the head went on ahead. Han Cheng followed behind them, leading Shen Zechuan up the stairs to take up position at the lower left side of the dragon throne.
Li Jianheng sat on the dragon throne with both hands on his knees and said, “It has been two nights since the assassination case. Has there been any new progress from the Ministry of Justice?”
The Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu, stepped out and said after paying his obeisances, “To reply Your Majesty, the evidence against Fuling, the female official of the Imperial Food Service, in instigating Guisheng to carry out the assassination is conclusive. This subject will hand her over to the Court of Judicial Review for a retrial today.”
For some reason, Li Jianheng cast a glance at Xiao Chiye and turned back to continue asking, “Have you gotten to the bottom of why she did this?”
Kong Qiu said, “Our checks show that Fuling once broke the imperial plate of the Court of Imperial Entertainments in the palace. Consequently, this left a record in her file, and, to work it off, the day she could leave the palace was put off to the indefinite future. She often told the others that her mother was already advanced in age, and she wanted to leave the palace to wait upon the latter, but owing to the palace rules, she was unable to do so. She repeatedly bribed the former Brush-holding Director of the Directorate of Ceremonial, but it was a wasted effort, and she was cheated out of her entire life savings. And so she lost it and began to harbor the intent to exact revenge.”
“This subject has a memorial to present.” The Vice Minister of the Court of Judicial Review, Wei Huaixing, was the second di son of the Eight Great Clans’ Wei Clan. He was also the elder brother of Imperial Concubine Wei during Emperor Xiande’s time. He stepped out and paid his obeisances.
Li Jianheng said, “Your Excellency Wei, please speak.”
“This subject has ascertained that the female official of the Imperial Food Service, Fuling, had a power-for-sex transaction with Yuan Liu from the Imperial Army’s Judicial Office. It was Yuan Liu who personally stepped forward to negotiate credit for the house where her mother lived.” Without looking at anyone, Wei Huaixing continued, “This case is presided over by the Ministry of Justice, and this matter concerns Your Majesty’s safety; It cannot be said to be unimportant. Yet, Minister Kong mentioned only half of the confession before Your Majesty. Is there something that cannot be said, or someone who cannot be incriminated?”
Kong Qiu turned his head to the side and said, “… This matter is mentioned all in my memorial, so what deception is there to speak of?”
“The morning court is an important venue for the discussion of governmental affairs. His Majesty asked if you have gotten to the bottom of it. Yet you were evasive before all the officials, focusing on what’s favorable while skipping the damning statements.” Wei Huaixing raised his head. “Officials, on entering service, should diligently and earnestly serve with utmost loyalty.5 The imperial court hall is by no means a place to condone corruption and abet corrupted officials. What are you afraid of? If you don’t dare to voice it in the person’s presence, then I’ll say it. Your Majesty, this matter concerns not only the various twenty-four yamen in the Imperial Palace, but also the Imperial Army!”
Xiao Chiye looked displeased, as if he were sneering.
Li Jianheng had initially meant to keep it under wraps. But now, it would not do for him to continue fooling the others. After hesitating for a long time, he said, “… Ce’ an, what do you have to say to this?”
Xiao Chiye said, “The Imperial Army has 20,000 men on its payroll. This subject can check their household registers one at a time, but not all of their personal affairs one by one. This time, I’m at fault for being negligent in my supervision of my men. Your Majesty may punish me as you deem fit.”
Li Jianheng wanted to open his mouth to say a word.
Wei Huaixing kowtowed first and said, “Viceroy Xiao, why aren’t you telling the truth before His Majesty either? It’s indeed true that it’s not easy to probe into the personal affairs of the 20,000 men in the Imperial Army. But that Yuan Liu doesn’t have a common relationship with you at all. So how can you feign ignorance too?!”
Shen Zechuan looked over.
“There are too many people who have special relationships with me.” Xiao Chiye swept a glance at Shen Zechuan and smiled without a care. “But with a beauty in my arms, I’d be blind to bed an old fellow. That Yuan Liu is old enough to be your father. Your Excellency Wei, never mind if you don’t have any proof or evidence, but why go to this extent to bring such a false charge against me, Xiao Ce’ an?”
Hai Liangyi gave a slight cough and said, “Please watch your language on the Imperial Court, Viceroy.”
“His Majesty is fully aware of the kind of jerk I am. I have never needed to put on false pretenses here.” Xiao Chiye was a tyrant when he played the scoundrel. He did not even show any respect to Hai Liangyi. “You want to investigate the Imperial Army, sure thing. To steer clear of suspicion, I’ll hand over my waist tablet and let the various Excellencies investigate. But if you want to pin that groundless, trumped-up charge on me, then sorry, I won’t plead guilty.”
“Such vulgar language. Acting all rebellious before His Majesty. The Xiao Clan sure has produced a good son!” Wei Huaixing took out a memorial from his sleeve. “The Viceroy says I’ve no evidence or proof. But as an official of the Court of Judicial Review, how would I dare to say so if that’s the case?”
Xiao Jiming, who had been listening without moving all this while, slightly raised his head to look at Wei Huaixing, wanting to see what evidence the latter could have.
Wei Huaixing said, “Yuan Liu was originally a Squad Commander of the Imperial Army. It was the Viceroy who personally promoted him to be a Vice Judge. Not two years later, the Viceroy promoted him again into the position of a Judge. I’d like to ask the Viceroy. These few years, the Imperial Army had no important duties. So on what grounds does he get to be promoted again and again?”
Xiao Chiye sneered and said, “He’s already at that age. Although he has no merits to speak of, he has committed no grave errors. The Imperial Army has been mass recruiting rookies in recent years. Yuan Liu isn’t the only old-timer I’ve promoted on account of old ties. Why doesn’t Your Excellency Wei list them all out clearly and count them all among my personal affairs?”
“Isn’t the Viceroy’s words the law in the Imperial Army in recent years?!” Wei Huaixing said unhurriedly. “The one each of them pledged loyalty to is the Xiao Clan, not His Majesty, isn’t it?”
His words were laced with double layers of meaning—In itself, it referred to Xiao Chiye, but it also implicated Xiao Jiming.
As expected, Xiao Chiye flipped. He said, “Keep the discussion to the topic at hand. Stop fucking bringing in the Xiao Clan at every mention! I, Xiao Ce’an, followed His Majesty to the position I am at now. I’m not like Your Excellency Wei who is born with a silver spoon in his mouth and with his path to officialdom all smoothly paved out for him.”
It was only when Wei Huaixing saw Xiao Chiye losing his temper that he opened the memorial and said, “The Viceroy went drinking with others before the new year. During the feast, Yuan Liu gifted you a large sum of money. Does the Viceroy admit to this?”
Even Li Jianheng was stunned the moment this word was spoken. He clenched his fist and said nothing further.
Xiao Chiye said, “I have never gone drinking with Yuan Liu before.”
“The courtesans of Xiangyun Villa on Donglong Street can attest to it. That night, Yuan Liu spent a large sum of money to entertain the Viceroy. The Viceroy got drunk during the feast, and Yuan Liu gifted you a basket of golden peaches.” Wei Huaixing said, “Does the Viceroy still not admit it?”
Xiao Chiye said, “I’ll just ask you. Yuan Liu is a minor sixth-grade official. Where on earth would he get the golden peaches to gift?”
“That’s something we will have to ask the Viceroy.” Wei Huaixing finally took out his killing move. He said, “The same time Yuan Liu got the house on credit for Fuling, he also got three street-facing houses on Donglong Street on credit. I have ascertained that he acted upon the Viceroy’s written instructions at that time! In recent years, the Imperial Army first carried out repairs on its barracks, then expanded the military drill grounds on Mount Feng. Where did all the money for these come from? Wasn’t it the Viceroy who used his position in the Imperial Army to obtain it illegally from the broker? Yuan Liu was the one who handled and completed this matter for you. And now that Yuan Liu has instigated Fuling to assassinate His Majesty, do you dare to say that it has nothing to do with you?”
Xiao Chiye did not answer.
Fu Linye, the Right Censor-in-chief Chief Surveillance Bureau, stepped out and said, “This subject also has a memorial to submit.”
For some reason, Li Jianheng’s fingertips were trembling violently. He commanded, “Speak!”
Fu Linye said, “This subject wants to bring charges against the Viceroy of the Imperial Army too today. According to the law, before the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices concludes, no irrelevant person is allowed to enter the torture prison to visit major criminals unless he has His Majesty’s imperial edict. Yet, the Viceroy acted on his own initiative and went to the torture prison yesterday without an imperial edict and made no report of it afterward.”
Xiao Chiye’s expression grew more and more somber.
“The moment the Viceroy left the torture prison, Fuling’s mother died.” Fu Linye kowtowed. “As for what happened in between, I’d like to ask the Viceroy to give a clear account of it in His Majesty’s presence.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Both of you are really taking action at the same time, huh. Such coincidence!”
“Don’t dodge the topic, Viceroy.” Wei Huaixing said coldly, “I’d advise you to explain yourself at the earliest opportunity!”
“He who wants to incriminate a man will always trump up a charge against him.” As if surrounded in a trap, Xiao Chiye fell silent for a moment, then said to Li Jianheng, “I’ve never done any of the stuff they said. I’ll let His Majesty make the judgment tonight.”
Under such a tense, anxious atmosphere, Li Jianheng clenched his knees until they were soaked with sweat. He looked at Xiao Chiye too, then suddenly asked, “How do you explain those written instructions?”
Xiao Chiye lowered his gaze and said with a spurious smile, “This subject has never written such a thing.”
Li Jianheng stood up in an instant. He took a few steps forward impatiently and demanded, “Let me see!”
Wei Huaixing handed over the item. Li Jianheng flipped through it for a moment and suddenly began to tremble. His lips quivered. “Isn’t this your handwriting… Ce… Ce’ an!”
Xiao Chiye said resolutely, “This subject has never written such a thing!”
Li Jianheng was terrified. He set the document in his hands, then quickly threw it away like a hot potato. Nearly losing control, he asked, “Then, that Yuan Liu—is he your man or not?!”
Xiao Chiye raised his eyes.
Upon seeing this, Li Jianheng clutched onto the armrests. Fear began to rise within him. In this fleeting moment of dread, he recalled the coldness and indifference with which Xiao Chiye had abandoned him in the past. An endless disgust also rose within him. As if he was swatting away something terrifying, he said with all of his might, “Strip him of his waist tablet first!”
Xiao Chiye said, “This subject–––”
Wei Huaixing straightened up and bellowed, “If he dares to disobey, we can detain him right here according to the laws!”
Xiao Chiye stared at Wei Huaixing before he looked at Li Jianheng. He said in an aloof voice, “It is fine to detain me, Xiao Ce’ an, but there must be an acceptable allegation.”
Li Jianheng felt that he had misplaced his trust. Caught in the crossfire taking place in the imperial court, he was already inclined to believe the others. And now, seeing the way Xiao Chiye was acting caused his fury to momentarily get the better of him. He reprimanded in a stern voice, “Kneel! I will take away your waist tablet today without fail!”
Xiao Chiye had yet to move.
But Li Jianheng could no longer contain his rage and barked, “I command you to kneel!”
- 仰喷三山雪，横吞百川水 It’s part of a poem from 《古风其三十三》by Li Bai that refers to the mythological creature, kun peng (鹍鹏). Shen Zechuan’s blade name, Yang Shan Xue (仰山雪) makes up part of the line “仰(喷三)山雪”.
(There exists a massive fish in the northern sea; its body, as long as several thousand li. The water spray it spouts with a lift of its head falls like three mountains worth of snow; while its mouth, spread wide open, engulfs the waters of a hundred rivers.)
- 蟒衣 (or 蟒袍) “python (or mang) robes” were embroidered robes bestowed by the Emperor to officials with merits during the Ming Dynasty. It was a sign of honor and favor for officials who were granted the privilege of wearing a “python robe”.
- 鸾带 a wide phoenix tail (or luan) belt. Luan is a mythical bird related to phoenix.
- This refers to the animal on his rank badge (补子), or mandarin square, which is a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official to indicate the rank of the official wearing it. Squares depicting birds were used for civil officials, while animals were used for military officials. So for a second-grade military official like Xiao Chiye, this animal would be a lion.
- 入则恳恳以尽忠 a line from “Loyal Proclamations on Governance” 《为政忠告》 by a famous Yuan Dynasty poet, Zhang Yanghao (张养浩).