The atmosphere was forbidding; it was so quiet that one could hear a pin drop.
With his hands on the chair handles for support, Xi Hongxuan reacted quickly in this heart-stopping atmosphere and said, “Obscuring truths with falsehoods. You are throwing out misleading traps again! Shen Zechuan, do you really think I won’t dare to kill you?”
“The blade is already on my neck.” Shen Zechuan turned his head to look askance at the blade. “You can just give the command to take down my head.”
Xi Hongxuan did not dare to let up even the slightest. In this confrontation, he was not willing to miss any of the subtleties in Shen Zechuan’s expression. Although he was sitting tight in the chair, he was even more anxious than Shen Zechuan deep down. Yet, the more he warned himself not to be influenced by Shen Zechuan, the more he would be spurred on by the expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes and by his tone.
“For what it’s worth, we are brothers.” Xi Hongxuan said with a superficial, insincere smile. “Lanzhou, tell me the truth, and I’ll leave your corpse in one piece.”
“Much ado about nothing. Feel free to do it.” Shen Zechuan egged him on. “Come on.”
Xi Hongxuan’s fingers dug tightly into the chair handles as he exchanged stares with Shen Zechuan. But Shen Zechuan was too calm and composed. Thus, Xi Hongxuan said, “Aren’t you worried about Qi Huilian at all? Once you’re dead, I’ll skin that old dog and sell him out to the Empress Dowager to plead for leniency.”
Shen Zechuan said, “If you handed Qi Huilian to the Empress Dowager twenty years earlier, she might really pardon you for your negligence this time. But Qi Huilian is now worthless. He’s not worth alive, and he’s worth nothing dead. You are a veteran merchant; would you feel at ease to do such a losing deal? I think you’re lost your mind and gone silly from the illness.”
“Qi Huilian is merely feigning insanity.” Xi Hongxuan said. “Do you think I can’t tell? To survive, he tucks his tail between his legs and struggles on whilst at death’s door. That’s quite the convincing act he has put on!”
Shen Zechuan sneered, “Are you trying to sound me out at this point in time? He’s just a lunatic.”
“If he is a lunatic, then who are you studying under?” Xi Hongxuan stretched his neck out. “Zhao Zui Temple made you a new person. How did that last remaining survivor of the Shen Clan who was so much like a lapdog six years ago become so gutsy and resourceful, huh? Lanzhou, you tell me!”
“Man proposes, Heaven disposes.” Shen Zechuan’s expression was gloomy. “Don’t you know what it’s like to be a lapdog at others’ beck and call and have them kick you around? If I don’t shed my skin, how can I break out of the hardships and make it out there? It’s better to rely on oneself than on others. You and I are both fleeing for our lives from perilous circumstances, and yet we are now in internal strife. Xi Hongxuan, you sure are doing a good job getting rid of someone as soon as he outlives his usefulness, much like killing the donkey the moment it leaves the millstone.”
“If you hadn’t leaked the news, then how would Ouhua Pavilion collapsed for no reason? We call ourselves brothers on the inside, but the moment you step out, you backstab me in the back. I can’t be compared to you when it comes to being ruthless! But as fate would have it, I didn’t die!” Xi Hongxuan said in a chilling voice. “You want to ingratiate yourselves with both parties, but there’s no such thing as having your cake and eating it too, is there?”
“What can Xiao’er give me that is worthy enough of raising your suspicions to such an extent?” Shen Zechuan said sarcastically, “He’s not Xiao Jiming; he can’t be the Prince of Libei, nor can he command the Libei’s Armored Cavalry. He’s merely a trapped beast in this Qudu! What’s the difference between him and me? Whatever it is that he has, I have no lack of it either.”
“He has a good life that you don’t have.” Xi Hongxuan said. “He’s the second son of the Prince of Libei, a legitimate di son from the direct line of descendants, born of the same mother who birthed Xiao Jiming. Even if he can’t inherit the title and position of the Prince of Libei, he has tens of thousands of willing troops at his disposal. Aren’t soldiers precisely what you’re lacking?”
With an indifferent expression, Shen Zechuan said, “I hold a post in the Imperial Bodyguards; why would I need troops for? It’s only in Qudu that I have a way to survive. Leave Qudu, and there is nowhere else I can put my abilities to use. I’m the eighth shu son of Shen Wei, while you are the second di son of the Xi Clan. Have you and I ever had an easy time before? This shows that there’s no difference between the sons of di or shu ranks. When it comes to people, even heaven cannot reach a final verdict until the very end.”
“By speaking such treacherous words, you have already regarded the societal order of this world as nothing.” Xi Hongxuan raised his finger and pointed to his own toe. “But you got to admit that some people are born to be masters as the continual successions of the upper echelons of the noble clans keep it going. This is fate! If there is no difference between those of shu birth and di birth, then how can the bloodline maintain its legitimacy? He who is surnamed Li is just simply a cut above you with the surname Shen!”
Shen Zechuan stared at Xi Hongxuan and roared with laughter. Insanity stirred once again in those expressive eyes as he said, “That’s right, that’s right…”
When Qiao Tianya saw the upsurge of Shen Zechuan’s murderous intent in this split second, he almost thought that Shen Zechuan was going to draw his blade. He did not expect Shen Zechuan to say next in a genial tone, “If that’s the case, then what future can I have by following Xiao’er? If you believe the rumors and lay a trap to kill me today., then you will come to regret it someday in the future.”
Xi Hongxuan faltered, besieged by doubts and unable to come to a decision, but his expression betrayed nothing. He merely lowered his eyes and said, “Even when faced with imminent death, you’re still putting on an act! You came here as soon as you left Zhao Zui Temple. Isn’t that proof enough that this place is important to you?”
“Of course.” Shen Zechuan’s emotions seemed to have sunk into a deep pool of waters, where there was not even a trace of a ripple to be seen. He said, “That is Qi Huilian you’re talking about. Even though he has gone crazy, he is also the Qi Huilian who used to be the Triple Yuan Top Scholar,1 one which the crown prince of the eastern palace personally invited to take on a leading official post. Now that he’s in my hands, I’ll never hand him over to anyone else unless he’s dead.”
Shen Zechuan was right in his presumption that Xi Hongxuan was setting up a trap to deceive him. Xi Hongxuan had no idea at all if Qi Huilian was insane for real or just putting on an act. He merely wanted to pre-empt and catch Shen Zechuan off-guard. Although Xi Hongxuan did not have Xue Xiuzhuo’s capability, he had an ability one would find hard to surpass, and that was eloquence. The reason he was able to incite the Imperial College to rise in rebellion with just a single teahouse meeting was all because of his glib tongue. And this also happened to be his weak point.
If he was really certain that Shen Zechuan and Xiao Chiye were setting up a trap to screw him over, then he would not give Shen Zechuan the chance to open his mouth. He dragged his sickly body here, because he could not be sure if Shen Zechuan was collaborating with Xiao Chiye. That was why he had to bring out his own special skill and engaged in a battle of words to trick Shen Zechuan into telling the truth.
“What do you want Qi Huilian for?” Xi Hongxuan asked with dread and fear.
Shen Zechuan suddenly hit upon an idea. Going along with it, he bent over and said to Xi Hongxuan, “Qi Huilian was the Crown Prince’s teacher. There was the incident at the Eastern Palace back then, and I heard that there was an imperial grandson still in his infancy. Ji Lei did not reveal the imperial grandson’s whereabouts to me before his death. I was afraid Qi Huilian knew, so I had to keep a close watch on him.”
Xi Hongxuan’s countenance changed in spite of himself. He said, “The Empress Dowager will never leave any survivors behind. It’s common practice to stamp out trouble at its source! So what are you daydreaming about?!”
Shen Zechuan said, “If there is no imperial heir in hand, who would dare to conspire to murder His Majesty? There will be nobody else with the surname Li in Dazhou if he dies. You aren’t the one who did it, and it isn’t me either. Instead of falling out with me here, why not put down your blade and discuss a countermeasure with me?”
“How would I know that it’s not you?” Xi Hongxuan did not move. “No one but you know the structure of Ouhua Pavilion best. It’s simply too convenient for you to tamper with it. In addition, I keep encountering calamities one after another, yet you keep getting promoted again and again. Your meritorious deeds sure have grown!”
“I have only just gotten into His Majesty’s good graces. It’s just the time for me to build up my strength and climb my way up. So why would I kill him? What’s more, you and I have been conspiring together for quite some time, so why would Xiao’er believe me based on some empty promises?” Shen Zechuan gradually let out a smile at him. “Even if I kill you, it should be at a time when there’s much more in it for me.”
The way he said it was half in jest, but it made the blood of those listening run cold. Xi Hongxuan covered his lips and coughed, using this interval to evade Shen Zechuan’s gaze.
Although they had conspired together to kill off many people, Xi Hongxuan still could not confront Shen Zechuan head-on. This was not a momentary fear, but fear accumulated over their course of acquaintanceship. He could not forget the way Ji Lei looked with his skin flayed. That was why he wanted to act quickly now that his suspicions were aroused.
This man cannot live.
Xi Hongxuan thought.
Once the time was right, he had to kill him off no matter what! Such a man would certainly not let himself be used for Xi Hongxuan’s own purposes. His talk about there being no differences between those of di and shu birth had already revealed his lack of respect and reverence for the Eight Great Clans. Everyone was attempting the impossible that ran against the interests of their opponents, much like bargaining with a tiger for its hide. And what they were competing against was who would be faster in the days to come.
Xi Hongxuan secretly made up his mind. He smiled too and said, “I’m scaring you only because I myself was scared after being crushed in that pit. Lanzhou, you’ll surely understand if you were the one lying in there. What are you people standing around there for? Put away your blades. Don’t hurt His Excellency the Judge.”
The surrounding blades returned to their sheaths, one after another. But Xi Hongxuan did not tell his men to withdraw from the room. Pulling at his fox fur, he said, “Everything happened too suddenly these few days. With our communications cut off, it’s inevitable that we would come to be mutually suspicious of one another. It’s all good now that we’ve cleared the air. Come, Lanzhou. Take your seat, and we’ll talk.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Blades and swords have no eyes. Second Young Master, next time, give me a warning first so that I can prepare for it and won’t be as in such haste as I am today.”
“It’s remarkable how you remain composed in the face of danger.” Xi Hongxuan lifted the teapot to infuse tea. “As you know, what we are doing can cost us our heads. I was really forced into a corner this time; otherwise, how would I treat you in such a way? It’s all because I was forced to! I got anxious seeing how Xiao the Second is going to be as pleased as punch riding the crest of success soon. Come, come. Take a seat quickly. Still holding it against me?”
“I, with the surname Shen, am unworthy of being in high position.” Shen Zechuan sized up the room. “How would I dare to sit next to you?
Xi Hongxuan laughed out loud and said, “Those are all bullshit! They are merely words spoken to disparage others. How can be you the same as the others? Take a seat.”
Only then did Shen Zechuan take his seat.
Xi Hongxuan held out the tea to him and said with an apologetic smile, “If you ask me, the surname Shen is really holding you back. Don’t you think so? If you had been born in the Han Clan or the Fei Clan, there wouldn’t be this much animosity between us, right? Lanzhou, please be appeased! Now tell me seriously. What are you keeping this Qi Huilian for?”
Shen Zechuan touched his sleeve pocket before he remembered his ivory fan was lost. He said, “The old looney has been scared stiff by the Crown Prince’s suicide where he slit his own throat. I ran into him all the time when I was in Zhao Zui Temple and heard some of his intermittent ravings, so I thought of keeping him just in case there’s a future need.”
“You should have asked me about the matter regarding the imperial grandson.” Xi Hongxuan brushed aside the tea foam. “Don’t think about this matter anymore. It’s impossible.”
“Not even a chance of it happening?” Shen Zechuan turned the teacup around gently. He did not drink it.
Xi Hongxuan drank the tea, grunted twice, and said, “That task was carried out together by Ji Lei and Shen Wei, both of whom were ruthless. Even the fair and beautiful Crown Princess was strangled to death by them, and you want to pin your hopes on them showing the imperial grandson mercy? What’s more, they were the sworn enemies of the imperial grandson for killing his father. You think they had nothing better to do than to sow the seeds of future trouble for themselves?”
“Was that what Xue Xiuzhuo said too?”
Xi Hongxuan cast him a look and asked, “Why are you asking about Yanqing specifically?”
“You’re familiar with one another.” Shen Zechuan’s gaze did not falter. “You’re on good terms with him. Wasn’t your promotion to the Bureau of Evaluations this time precisely because you listened to his advice?”
“Both of you are Zhuge Liang.2 I’ll listen to whoever makes more sense.” Xi Hongxuan kicked the ball back and said, “They said scholars look down on one another. Why are you smart people also mutually belittling each other?”
“That’s really not it.” Shen Zechuan said. “You were transferred into the Bureau of Evaluations before the inspections, and subsequently, this red-hot assignment fell upon you. That would make others green with envy. It’s hard to say that this wasn’t the reason you were set up. Xue Xiuzhuo has been an official for quite some years, and he never thought of it? If he did, then why did he still persuade you to go?”
Xi Hongxuan was drinking tea when his movement paused. He said, “Who would have expected someone to really strike out at me? It’s not Yanqing’s fault.”
“He has rendered a meritorious service by protecting the Emperor at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds. Yet he knew to conceal his abilities and bide his time at that time and didn’t go all out. Instead, he went to the Court of Judicial Review for more experience.” Having said to this point, Shen Zechuan continued no further and merely smiled at Xi Hongxuan. “I just find it strange.”
As if he had not heard it, Xi Hongxuan smiled too, “Oh, my! This interruption almost made me forget about it. Lanzhou, now that I’ve recovered and His Majesty has woken up, the Chief Surveillance Bureau will start to impeach me. Help me think of a way. I can’t be transferred out of Qudu.”
“The fault lies with His Majesty this time. But no one is blaming him. And the Ministry of Works and Ministry of Revenue are both shirking responsibilities and shifting the blame around. You happened to land right in the middle. Everyone will naturally target you.” Shen Zechuan set aside the teacup. “This is a tough one to deal with.”
“Pan Xiangjie and Wei Huaigu,3 huh!” Xi Hongxuan said. “At the end of it all, they just want money. Getting rebuked is really no big deal. They are only latching on to me because they wanted to take advantage of the situation to raise the price and make me fish out money to pay for the shortfall with my own money. How many people died this time? As long as His Majesty is fine, everything else can be bought.”
“Without tens of thousands of taels this time, I’m afraid it’ll be hard to settle.” Shen Zechuan said with a smile.
“I have money.” Xi Hongxuan set aside the teacup too and said, “But I’m not willing to give it to them. I’m at fault for accompanying His Majesty to the brothel. But the public ditches have nothing to do with me. I’m not going to oblige if they want to slap unreasonable demands on me and use me as a scapegoat.”
“An official one grade higher can oppress an official one grade lower than him. Even if you are not in the wrong, it will still become your fault. Reasoning with them won’t work, and it’s pointless to leave the mess as it is.” Shen Zechuan maintained his composure and said, “Still a pain to deal with.”
Xi Hongxuan said, “It’s not hard. I’m telling you, the Emperor’s heart is with me. Even if they want to punish me severely, they still have to see what the Emperor thinks. We mustn’t lose our heads before Xiao the Second has been dealt with. I am confident that His Majesty will definitely not be the same as he used to be after waking up this time.”
- 三元 “Triple Yuan”. In the Ming Dynasty, the imperial examination system was split into three phases: the provincial exam (乡试); metropolitan exam (会试); and the palace exam (殿试). The titles for the top scholars in each exam were known as the Jieyuan (解元), Huiyuan (会元) and Zhuangyuan (状元). These three are known as the “Triple Yuan”. So a Triple Yuan Top Scholar is one who came first in all these examinations.
- Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) was a famous statesman, ideologist, and strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period; also the celebrated adviser to Liu Bei, founder of the Shu-Han dynasty. It’s also used to refer to a mastermind.
- To recap: Pan Xiangjie, Minister of Works from the Ministry of Works, and Wei Huaigu, Minister of Revenue from the Ministry of Revenue