As it was with haste that Zhao Zui Temple received the imperial edict, Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan were both not wearing their official robes. Everyone gathered in the courtyard and kneeled. The eunuch who had come to deliver the edict looked unfamiliar. Not daring to put on airs, he quickly started to read out the imperial edict when he saw the person it was intended for emerge.
The eunuch finished reading the imperial edict and bowed slightly, saying to Xiao Chiye, “Viceroy, please rise quickly!”
Xiao Chiye received the imperial edict, and Chen Yang immediately called for someone to brew and serve tea.
“Zhao Zui Temple is pervaded with the stench of illness all over,” Xiao Chiye said, “so I won’t invite gonggong inside for a seat today.”
“The Viceroy has been hard at work attending to official duties and has gone without rest for days. It’s the Viceroy who should be the one invited to take a seat first.” The eunuch merrily took a few sips of the tea, then furrowed his brows and sighed, “How is this tea fit for distinguished men? Viceroy, now that His Majesty is awake, then according to the Secretariat Elder, His Excellency the Judge and you may take a rest.”
“There are still people under the awning who are still down with the disease. I’m on official duty, no? I wouldn’t dare to be careless.” Xiao Chiye put on a relaxed expression as he acquainted himself with eunuch over a few exchanges of pleasantries. Both of them stood in the courtyard, drinking tea as they chatted and laughed. Xiao Chiye asked, “Did His Majesty regain consciousness today?”
The eunuch, named Fuman, replied, “That’s right. He just woke up this morning. All the niangniang in the palace are weeping tears of joy. Her Majesty personally instructed the Imperial Academy of Medicine to take good care of him.”
Everything mentioned in this imperial edict was merely formalities. They simply commended the Imperial Army, Imperial Bodyguards, and the Ministry of Revenue Secretary for their quick actions and timely defenses this time round. But details of their rewards were only briefly mentioned in passing.
Fuman had only just assumed office, and he usually served in the Grand Secretariat compound. The Grand Secretariat officials held eunuchs in contempt, and Hai Liangyi, in particular, loathed eunuchs. So whenever Fuman was on duty before, he could not look at Hai Liangyi right in the face; he had to retreat to the side and kneel down to reply. Whatever Hai Liangyi asked him, he would answer the same. He did not dare to jest and clown around, much less grin or beam. Now, he had not only received a cup of hot tea here; he also saw how Viceroy Xiao was a man who was naturally carefree and not bothered about trifles. Thus, he gradually relaxed as they conversed, intending to do Xiao Chiye a favor and use this chance to cotton up to the latter.
“This humble slave has been going around the Grand Secretariat these days to serve the Secretariat Elder tea, and so this humble slave has more or less come to hear some rumors about the Viceroy.” Fuman shifted two steps over and said in a hushed tone.
Without a change in expression, Xiao Chiye lifted his hand to motion for the others to back off. With his arm around Fuman’s shoulders, he said, “Then you’re the new favorite close to the Secretariat Elder. I myself have to watch the sky for the weather before I act and make wild guesses as to which impending storm is brewing. Perhaps gonggong can give me a pointer or two?”
Fuman hurriedly said, “I would not presume to be worthy of giving pointers. For the sake of the sovereign and people, the Viceroy carries out his official duties with conscience; the Secretariat Elder knows this too. The Grand Secretariat has also deliberated for a few days over the conferment of award this time. It’s nothing bad. All the Viceroy has to do is to wait for it!”
Xiao Chiye merely smiled, “I wouldn’t dare to hanker after the credits this time. The situation isn’t something I alone can get back to normal. I’d feel uneasy if the reward is too much.”
“Oh, my. Viceroy!” Fuman slapped his leg. “You’re too humble. Is Shen Zechuan the one from the Imperial Bodyguards who is in charge of the mission?”
“That’s right.” Xiao Chiye said. “He’s a frosty one.”
Having heard that they were on bad terms, Fuman promptly laughed and said, “Who would have known that the Viceroy would get together with him this time? Since the matter has been handled, then he is bound to receive a reward too. But he serves in the Imperial Bodyguards, so how is he going to be rewarded? The Grand Secretariat can’t overstep their authority.1 It all depends on His Majesty’s intent.”
“An exception was made for him when he was promoted to the position of Southern Judge before the new year. It’s too fast for him to be conferred another reward again now.” Xiao Chiye said. “The Grand Secretariat didn’t object?”
Fuman carefully set the teacup aside and said, “The Viceroy is sick and tired of him, so naturally you take note of him. But now, the various Excellencies in the Grand Secretariat are all busy with other matters. If he were to be promoted for real, no one would dare to contradict and rebuff His Majesty over such a small matter like this. His Majesty has met with misfortune one after another. Even Secretariat Elder Hai would acquiesce to him at this point in time. But let this humble servant tell the Viceroy something in strict confidence. This man, if promoted too quickly, will be a latent danger. The current officials of fifth-grade and above in the Imperial Bodyguards are all lads that come from families with a long history and deep roots. That Shen Zechuan… who would think well of that family background of his? Head to the streets now and yell out Shen Wei’s name at the top of your voice, and all you will get is countless spittle of saliva. His promotion to the top will only make these people humiliate him in public and in private. Someone who has many merits to his name and has received rewards for them will only cause the others to be jealous of him. The Imperial Bodyguards are, to begin with, a behemoth that is as ferocious as beasts of prey like the wolves and tigers. If he wants to hold on to his prize, it will still have to depend on his capabilities!”
Xiao Chiye chatted a little more with Fuman before getting Chen Yang to see him out. When Chen Yang saw him out, he gave Fuman a hand and helped him up. It was only when Fuman got onto the horse and was midway through his journey that he felt a heaviness in his sleeve. He fished it out for a look and instantly beamed with delight.
“The Viceroy is generous.” Fuman stuffed the money back into his sleeve. “A man worthy of being a friend.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan met Liang Cuishan and listened to him give a clear tally of the accounts. He asked him a few questions, and the latter could answer them all readily and methodically. It was really a shame for this person to be a minor, unranked2 official.
Shen Zechuan said, “These few days have been chaotic. There are countless small and big medicinal shops in Qudu, and the coming and going of the medicinal herbs is a complicated mess. You have certainly gone to great trouble to have recorded it all this clearly.”
“This is what this humble subordinate does in his official capacity. This is my duty. It’s what I should do.” Liang Cuishan said with concern, “Your Excellency looks better today.”
“The illness is eradicated once the medicine takes effect. I’m fine now.” Shen Zechuan said. “Make copies of this account and leave one for the Ministry of Revenue; you have to report back to the higher-ups. Then give the Imperial Army a copy so that they know what to expect.”
Everyone was on tenterhooks with the plague spreading a few days ago, so they could set aside all old grudges and hatred. But now that the rain has stopped, it was time to decide on the awards on the basis of each man’s merit. With three parties all involved in this matter, it was hard to guarantee that there would be no mutual denunciation and backstabbing among them.
As a minor official at the lower ranks, Liang Cuishan had seen a lot. He initially thought that Shen Zechuan did not get along with the Imperial Army, so at present, Shen Zechuan should be strangling the Imperial Army until he went red in the face. But unexpectedly enough, Shen Zechuan did not step forward, nor did he speak up on the matter. Even with the job done, he did not hog all the credit for himself.
Liang Cuishan hesitated for a moment before he decided to say, “It was Your Excellency who instructed this humble subordinate to record these accounts. For me to hand it over like this…”
“I was in a muddle while I was ill. You did many of the stuff on your own.” Shen Zechuan closed the book. “I can see that you’re methodical when it comes to your work, and you’ve served in the Ministry of Revenue for so many years. So why are you still just a desk clerk?”
Liang Cuishan seemed to have a hunch and said in a pained voice, “This humble subordinate has served in the Ministry of Revenue, starting from the second year of Xiande. At that time, the one in authority up there is a member of the Hua Clan. This humble subordinate is embarrassingly short on money, and I only know how to run errands. I don’t have the money to grease the higher-up’s palm. The higher-up let me attend to official duties in my original post, and my evaluations all these years have been in the lower-middle range, with neither merits nor demerits.”
After a moment of silence, Shen Zechuan said, “His Majesty is now opening up opportunities to air one’s views, and the Six Ministries are lacking in talents. There’s no need for you to feel disheartened. The opportunity will present itself when it is due.”
Knowing from this that Shen Zechuan meant to recommend him for a promotion, Liang Cuishan hurriedly bowed to him and said, “Your Excellency’s recognition and appreciation of this humble subordinate is a kindness this humble subordinate will never forget!”
Shen Zechuan got up and said nothing further as he lifted the curtain and stepped out. Liang Cuishan looked at the floor blankly, only realizing after a while that the tears were already streaming down his cheeks.
What he did not tell Shen Zechuan was that he was from Juexi, and his first few decades were spent on a prolonged period of studying; as such, he passed the imperial examinations a few years late. At first, he was supposed to assume duty at the Ministry of Personnel, but someone spent bribe money to take his place. He was then transferred to the Ministry of Works, where he received outstanding evaluations for the few years he worked there. As he was good in calculation, he was once again transferred to the Ministry of Revenue. He initially thought he could show and put his skills to good use at the Ministry of Revenue. But in the end, he was oppressed from above by a distantly related descendant of the Hua Clan—an utter disgrace who simply muddled his way through. He was the one who did the job, but it was this higher-up’s name on the reports that were submitted to the top. He tried to seek help from his connections to get a transfer elsewhere, but those at the top did not agree, wanting to exploit him as a manual laborer for free. He was suppressed and oppressed again and again until he eventually became a clerk in an official post so minor that he could not even be considered a legit official.
He initially thought that he had to give up his dreams of glory in this life, disillusioned as he was with worldly affairs.3 Who would have expected that misfortune could turn out to be a blessing in disguise? Every cloud indeed has a silver lining.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was only two days later that the order forbidding access in and out of the palace was lifted. The operations of the Six Ministries reverted back to normal, and Zhao Zui Temple withdrew the men. Those who had yet to recover were all left under the continued care of the Imperial Academy of Medicine.
Shen Zechuan was all clean as he stood before the door, once again all decked out in his embroidered python robe4 and phoenix-tail belt5 with his waist token hanging on his waist and sword by his side. Xiao Chiye had also tidied himself up, dressed in a scarlet court robe with an embroidered lion rank badge,6 looking tall and leggy.
Both men put on a hypocritical show of bidding each other farewell.
“I’m heading this way.” Xiao Chiye whistled to summon over Lang Tao Xue Jin. He patted his horse on the back. “Is Your Excellency the Judge entering the palace with me?”
“Please go ahead first, Viceroy.” Shen Zechuan said politely. “This humble subordinate has to go to the commander-in-chief to make a report.”
“It sucks to be a subordinate.” Xiao Chiye flipped atop his horse. “When are you coming up to play?”
“I’m afraid of heights.” Shen Zechuan looked up at him. “You’d do best to sit tight.”
“It’s too complicated and cumbersome to deal with the aftermath. Whether I can sit tight depends on whether you are willing to show mercy.” Xiao Chiye pointed and tapped at his own chest with the horsewhip. “Be gentle.”
Both of them parted before Zhao Zui Temple. Instead of going to look for Han Cheng immediately, Shen Zechuan drove the carriage to the place where he had Ji Gang and Qi Huilian settled down.
This little building was surrounded by a courtyard, with a half-dead pear tree jutting out from the top of the wall. Shen Zechuan entered, passed through the courtyard, and headed up the stairs, only to see the main hall doors tightly shut. There were no signs of Ji Gang or Qi Huilian.
Qiao Tianya sensed the oddness in the atmosphere. He could see from the messy footprints on the ground that there were people here. Grasping the hilt of his blade with his palm, he strode a step forward and said with a smile, “Is there no one here? If there isn’t, this humble servant is going to draw his blade—”
A sudden gust of wind sent the withered branches of the pear tree swaying, and weeds in the courtyard assaulted the hem of his robe. Qiao Tianya surveyed the place with sharp eyes; he had already discovered that the place was teeming with people both inside and outside the courtyard.
“What blade are you going to draw? We are all acquaintances here.” A rather weak and feeble voice rang out from inside the house. “Lanzhou, why aren’t you saying a word?”
The ruthlessness in Shen Zechuan’s eyes was dimly visible, yet he forced a laugh and said, “Second Young Master, have you recovered?”
Xi Hongxuan was all wrapped up in fox fur inside the house. He had lost quite some weight, and he did not look too good. Holding up the teacup, he stared askance at the door and said gloomily, “Would I dare to see you if I haven’t recovered? My good brother, why didn’t you tell me that you’re hiding such a bigwig here?!”
Shen Zechuan laughed out loud and raised his head to motion for Qiao Tianya to retreat. He abruptly pushed the door open, startling up the dust inside the room. An entire room of guards turned to look at him, each of their blades already drawn with glints of snowy-white light.
Xi Hongxuan sat in the very middle, grasping the teacup.
Showing no signs of fear, Shen Zechuan strode in and said, “One is a fool and the other, a looney. What kind of bigwig can they be? If you want them, then why don’t you just tell me?”
Xi Hongxuan could not bring himself to laugh. He said, “If Qi Huilian is no bigwig, then Hai Liangyi is no rarity either! Lanzhou. Oh, Lanzhou, you are truly a deep one to hide it all this while! To think the Grand Mentor of Yongyi taught and guided you personally. Haha! Is he banking on you to be the Emperor?”
“He’s already crazy.” Shen Zechuan pulled out his handkerchief to wipe the dust at his own pace. He cast a glance at Xi Hongxuan. “You’re afraid of a madman?”
“I am!” Xi Hongxuan suddenly flung the teacup down. “A madman taught a mad dog, whose bites caught me off guard and turned me into a bloody pulp!”
The surrounding blades pressed in swiftly.
Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “That makes no sense. If you want to kill me, at least let me die knowing why.”
“Did you…” Xi Hongxuan said in a malevolent voice, “… teamed up with Xiao the Second to screw me over?”
The atmosphere in the room suddenly froze. Shadows fell upon the sides of Shen Zechuan’s face. After a moment of silence, he suddenly smiled and braced himself against the edge of the table.
Shen Zechuan scrutinized Xi Hongxuan with darkness in his eyes as he said both contemptuously and wickedly,
“Even if I dare to say so, do you dare to believe the same?”
- As a reminder, the Imperial Bodyguards were elite bodyguards and secret police that directly served the Ming Emperors. The only one above them is the Emperor.
- (不)入流 (not) within the nine grades of feudal officialdom; i.e., a hierarchy of government officials in feudal times where officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades (品 ), with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- 生平傲杀繁华梦，已悟真空 from Tune: Joy before Palace, Lazy Clouds Nest《殿前欢·懒云窝》by Wu Xiyi (吴西逸)
- 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 the phoenix.
- 补子 补子 rank badge, or mandarin square, was a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official to indicate the rank of the official wearing it. (i.e., the square image on the robe in the previous footnote). 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.