Xiao Chiye did not accept the imperial edict. Fuman did not dare to persuade him further and hurried his way back to the palace to make his report.
After hearing the whole story, Li Jianheng leapt to his feet and said, “Is the Son of Heaven’s orders something he can reject as he pleases? When I reward him, he should kneel and accept it! Go again!”
Griping to himself, Fuman climbed onto the horse again and returned to Xiao Chiye’s residence. Seeing Xiao Chiye still kneeling, he hurriedly held the imperial edict and bowed to persuade him, “Viceroy, Viceroy! Why do this? Didn’t we roll and crawl down there in the ditches all for this?”
With a hint of displeasure on his face, Xiao Chiye said, “I don’t want this noble rank. Don’t bother wasting your breath on me.”
Fuman was so anxious and desperate that he stomped his foot where he stood. But he could not accept the edict on behalf of Xiao Chiye. All he could do was to play for time.
“Then let him kneel!” Back at the palace, Li Jianheng promptly flew into a rage when he heard the reply. “In order to grant him the reward, I even rebuffed the Secretariat Elder, and he still dares to put on airs? Let him kneel!”
So the sovereign and his minister – one within the palace and the other, beyond – remained stuck in a deadlock.
At present, it was the third lunar month in Spring, and the ground was icy cold all over. Xiao Chiye kneeled with a straightened back, determined to get Li Jianheng to revoke his order. Perhaps he could have accepted the edict, then used various means to handle this matter in a better way. But he was not willing to.
The Lu Clan in Qidong was held in check by the Qi Clan at the top and invaded by Biansha at the bottom. Li Jianheng had been gunning for the easier target when he trampled upon Lu Pingyan, because the Lu Clan was not on par with the Qi and Xiao Clans. The food and clothing expenditures of those 20,000 troops of the Biansha Commandery were all in the imperial court’s control. They did not even have military fields. Otherwise, the Lu Clan would not have to stoop so low as to demand payment every year, or be so poor that they had to sell their family properties and belongings. In the past, when Lu Guangbai entered the capital to make his report, he was never taken seriously. Which typical official in the capital would have such audacity? They were all merely taking their cues from the higher-ups. When Emperor Xiande was around, it was rare for Lu Guangbai to be able to seek an audience with the Emperor. This was not simply a matter of him being liked or detested, but because it concerned the balance of Qidong’s military power.
The Xiao and Qi were both great generals stationed at the frontiers. Why did the Hua Clan have to guard against the Prince of Libei alone and go to so much trouble to trap Xiao Chiye in Qudu? Because the Xiao Clan was the only dominant force in Libei Great Commandery. There was no other leash in the entire territory that could rein in the Xiao Clan, so they could only tie up Xiao Chiye and turn him into a cage to restrain the Libei Armored Cavalry. Qidong had two generals, Qi Shiyu and Lu Pingyan, who were on par with one another back in those days. But why was Qi Shiyu eventually the one who was conferred with the title of the Five Commanderies’ Commander-in-Chief? This was all because Lu Pingyan and Xiao Fangxu were on close terms with one another, and they were in-laws to boot.1
The Lu Clan was the chess piece that provided checks and balances to the power between the three parties.
The Lu Clan’s position in the Bianjun Commandery was crucial; it was a heavy responsibility entrusted to them by the imperial court. But even so, the imperial court did not generously bestow titles and ranks upon them. This was meant to hold the Lu in their control and let the Lu be held in check by both the Qi Clan and the imperial court. The Lu could only be a weapon used to fight the foreign enemies; there was no way they could be high-ranking provincial officials with military authority at the borders, and consequently, there would be no way they could be the second Prince of Libei.
At present, Lu Guangbai had to consult Qi Zhuyin for the use of troops and consult the Ministry of War and Ministry of Revenue in Qudu for the use of money. Lu Guangbai was the commanding general in charge of the Bianjun Commandery’s defenses. If Qi Zhuyin had not been generous in delegating authority and gave him the prerogative to self-deploy troops in times of peril, then he would be even more of a predicament than he was at present.
This time, Li Jianheng advanced Lu Pingyan’s noble rank, yet there was no actual promotion taking place. Thus, the Lu Clan could only remain perpetually hungry cattle and continue to work to their deaths at the Bianjun Commandery. Their reputation had gone up a notch on the surface, but it was actually an insult deep down. Half of the Lu Clan’s current difficulties had to do with the Xiao Clan; therefore, Xiao Chiye could not—must not accept the edict without so much a gesture.
The fact that the imperial edict could be issued made it clear that the Grand Secretariat had given the nod. In that case, it was certain that this order would not be revoked; there was no reason for the Son of Heaven to change his order. But Xiao Chiye definitely must not accept it with great delight. Even if he had to kowtow and act unreasonably, or even throw a tantrum, he had to show the Lu Clan his stance.
It was by virtue of power and might that Li Jianheng could trample all over the Lu Clan, because the imperial court had the Lu in their grasp. In contrast, it was by virtue of friendship that the Xiao Clan did not dare to do the same, because both families had always considered the other brother. If this friendship were to break up, then the Xiao Clan would lose their assistive force in the southeast.
Xiao Chiye kneeled until it was dark. Fuman did not dare to sit down arbitrarily and stood at the side with the imperial edict in his hands. After an unspecified amount of time, they heard the sound of hurried footsteps from the entrance. An eunuch arrived and conveyed the orders in an urgent tone, “Viceroy, you may stop kneeling! Please get up! His Majesty summons you for an audience!”
Without demur, Xiao Chiye lifted the hem of his robe to get up and got onto his horse to leave. Fuman hurriedly got onto his horse as well, not daring to grouse when he saw Xiao Chiye not showing any signs of exhaustion.
Mingli Hall was brightly illuminated. Li Jianheng sat on the dragon throne and listened as someone announced Xiao Chiye’s arrival. But he did not summon the latter in and remained seated to trace characters.
Without being summoned, Xiao Chiye could not enter, so he could only kneel outside Mingli Hall. It was already late, and the leftover cold water on the freshly scrubbed floor dampened his robe. The entire courtyard of eunuchs moved quietly, not daring to make a sound.
Li Jianheng stared blankly at the glazed lamp. He had been thinking a lot this silent night. By the time he returned to his senses, it was already the hour of chou.2 He sat for a moment, then suddenly rose to his feet and walked out.
The palace maids withdrew, and the eunuchs kneeled on the ground. The shadows on the ground were trodden upon. Xiao Chiye did not lift his head.
Li Jianheng looked down at Xiao Chiye. In the past, he was always looking up at Xiao Chiye. When they were hanging out on the streets together, Xiao Chiye could be said to be his big brother. They called each other brothers, and they played the fool a lot too. Li Jianheng thought he treated Xiao Chiye with his utmost sincerity.
How did they get to where they were today?
Li Jianheng was dressed in a bright yellow, round-necked robe with narrow sleeves. With his hands on the amber belt on his waist, he moved over to Xiao Chiye’s side and looked at the luminous moon above the majestic palace eaves. He mulled it over for a moment, then said, “There’s no one else here at the moment. Let’s talk.”
The cold moonlight cast a blanket over them, effusing a chill along with the wind.
Li Jianheng said, “Aren’t you usually a bold one? To think giving you a noble rank this time can also scare you to such an extent.”
Xiao Chiye said, “It’s incompatible with reason and intolerable under the law.”
Li Jianheng paced and said, “Don’t give me that. You have never been one to talk about reason. Before the Nanlin Hunting Grounds incident, we were still good brothers who would risk our lives for the other. After the Nanlin Hunting Grounds incident, we truly became the monarch and his minister, separated by a huge rift. Ce’an, isn’t it good for me to be the emperor and for you to be the viceroy? Why do you have to put on a front with me like this? Just accept the rewards you are awarded with. Cowering like this is really unlike you, Xiao Ce’an.”
Xiao Chiye could tell what he meant and said, “If Your Majesty wants to reward me with gold and treasures, I’ll promptly kowtow and say my thanks. But not for a noble rank. I’ve served as an official for six years, and I do not have any notable achievements or mentionable merits in Qudu to show for or to speak of. I feel uneasy now that I have received Your Majesty’s kindness and become a marquis at a sudden snap of a finger.”
“What’s there to be uneasy about?” Li Jianheng scoffed. “With our relationship, you should have been conferred a title a long time ago. The Grand Secretariat interferes with my every move, picking on anything and everything I do. I never had a chance to do this, no? This time, you’ve earned it. Earlier, when Lu Pingyan was conferred a title, it was also because he had effectively resisted and repelled the Biansha Calvary at the border. You protected the Emperor in Qudu, and in that, ensured the safety of our empire and society; I see no difference between both.”
“There’s no rush since the Grand Secretariat has qualms about this.” Xiao Chiye said, “We can’t hurt the old officials’ feelings.”
“The older ones are always thickheaded and obstinate.” Li Jianheng said, “How can they be so inflexible? Even those in the flesh trade know when to be flexible and read the situation. But these major ministers are still holding on to broken pieces. How very meaningless. After this scare, I thought about a lot of things during my recuperation. Since I’ve become the Emperor, it’s not productive if I just keep crying and whining. We have to find some way to live on, right? I’m not an unreasonable man. Just voice it out if there is good reason to; it’s not like I’ll execute them? Like this time, I want to confer a title upon you, but the Secretariat Elder didn’t agree and led the others to make a scene before me, saying that I was hasty and sloppy in my decisions. I was so troubled over this matter that I spent nights tossing and turning, and they still say I’m hasty!”
Li Jianheng turned back as he was speaking, and the gold dragon on his crown flashed in the moonlight, giving him an imposing air of elegance and nobility. He did not tell Xiao Chiye to rise. After a long pause, he continued.
“I’m the Emperor, I can’t renege on my word. Since the edict has been made, you just have to accept it. You’ve already rebuffed me once today, but we are brothers, so I won’t hold it against you. But if you continue to be so stubborn with me again, then it won’t be something that can be settled between brothers, and neither of us will look good for it. Deal?”
Xiao Chiye was silent for a moment before he said, “Your Majesty, that won’t do. The inspection is around the corner. It’s a good thing to advance Old General Lu’s noble rank; he deserves it. But not for me. It’s for Your Majesty’s reputation that I’m not accepting it. I’m someone Your Majesty single-handedly promoted. If I can’t convince the masses in everything I do, then how can I still attend to official duties for Your Majesty in the future? Those who are in charge of military troops are all concerned about their reputation and dignity. If you give this dignity to Old General Lu by showing him due respect, then I will subsequently come to benefit by association too.”
“Are you making up all kinds of excuses to decline for my sake or for the Xiao Clan? Do you really think I don’t understand just because you didn’t say it?” Li Jianheng stared at him. “We are brothers who should treat each other with candor and sincerity. Yet you keep treating me like a fool. It’s for the sake of our friendship that I’m rewarding you, but you turned it down for your own selfish desire! I told you to be honest with me, and you are still beating around the bush with me! Xiao Chiye, don’t you have a conscience?!”
This question Li Jianheng bellowed was so forceful that it faintly reverberated through the cold, dreary night.
“You’re afraid of offending Lu Pingyan. Why is that?!” Li Jianheng suddenly flung his sleeves. “And you still dare to say you’re loyal to me? You are doing it all for yourself! You don’t dare to say it, so I’ll say it for you. You’re afraid of offending Lu Pingyan and ruining the friendship between both your clans, which would make it hard for you to mutually look out for each other. But let me ask you, Xiao and Lu both have their own respective military forces to defend the borders, so what is there that you need to look out for each other for?”
Xiao Chiye tightened his fists, with his thumb ring jammed in the area between his thumb and forefinger.
“All of you are wolves and tigers.” Li Jianheng pointed at Xiao Chiye. “You people have your mind set on Qudu! I was merely sounding you out, and you showed your true colors! Military powers gang up with one another, and the Xiao Clan wants to be in the same faction as the Lu Clan, and then what’s next? Tell me, what are you going to do?!”
Xiao Chiye abruptly half-propped himself up. He had a well-built physique, and kneeling on one knee like this made him seem as if he was a panther ready to spring into an attack. Li Jianheng immediately took a few steps back and looked at him, badly shaken.
“—Of course it’s to do those Biansha baldies in!” Xiao Chiye’s expression was fierce as he looked at Li Jianheng. “Six years ago, when the Zhongbo troops were defeated, my eldest brother rode non-stop through the night to come to the emperor’s rescue. How dangerous that battle at Cizhou was! Meanwhile, Lu Guangbai held his spear in hand and a dagger in his mouth and fought for three nights before he could break through the siege. He immediately hurried over to Qudu without even stopping to rest to help Qudu out of their predicament. Everything Your Majesty had said today is an affront to the Xiao and Lu Clans’ loyalty. That’s right, the reason I’m not accepting the noble rank today is because of Lu Pingyan, but even more because of the unwavering loyalty of the various generals at the frontiers. It’s all because of Your Majesty’s kindness that I, Xiao Ce’an, a good-for-nothing, could live in this Qudu without having to worry about my own life and death, nor stress about heading out to war. If I could even become a high and mighty marquis with this, then what would Commander Qi and General Lu, both of whom are still enduring hardships at the frontiers, think?”
“After saying so much, you are just doing it for your own untainted reputation!”
Xiao Chiye’s words were firm and resounding. “My life is worthless, but Your Majesty is the ruler of our prosperous lands. If you were to reward me for this small bit of contribution and it ends up diminishing the generals’ loyalty to Your Majesty, who would lose out more? Your Majesty, or I?”
Li Jianheng looked hesitant and doubtful.
Xiao Chiye refused to let this go and continued. “If this is merely a show I put on to collude with the Lu Clan, why did Secretariat Elder Hai try so hard to convince Your Majesty? Your Majesty, you don’t trust me, but don’t you trust the Hai Liangyi whom the late Emperor appointed and who has come to the emperor’s rescue thrice? Your Majesty has repeatedly met with danger and misfortune, and immediately right after, you are disproportionately dishing out rewards. Whoever it is that’s instigating and abetting Your Majesty ought to be executed!”
It was as if Li Jianheng was suddenly jolted to his senses. He retreated under the eaves, held on to the vermilion pillar for support, and said, “But the imperial edict has already been issued…”
“Your Majesty is the sovereign of a new reign and imperial court. It was inappropriate to bestow rewards during the state mourning period earlier. But now that the two great imperial affairs of spring plowing and inspection are in full swing, why not seize the chance to proclaim a general amnesty to the world and reward the various generals at the frontiers according to the merit evaluation from the Ministry of War? It’s not just permissible to advance Lu Pingyan to the rank of Marquis of Biansha. On the basis of the Lu Clan’s most number of enemy kills at the Bianjun Commandery, they should be rewarded again with an increase of military provisions—Juexi had a bumper harvest last year, and their granaries are filled to the brim. This would not only write off the state treasury’s additional expenditure on dishing out monetary rewards, but also relieve the Bianjun Commandery of their pressing needs. The wedding of Old Commander Qi is fast approaching. Your Majesty, if you also reward and confer Third Missy Hua with the title of Commandery Princess, then you’d be raising Qidong’s prestige.” Xiao Chiye’s words were earnest, and his gaze, frank. “You are the sovereign of a great empire, the common ruler of all under the world. Who would still harbor any discontent when you bestowed such grace and favor all around?”
When Emperor Xiande ascended to the throne, the Empress Dowager was the one making the decisions for him, and consequently, he missed his opportunity to make such a big splash during his reign. The most pressing issue to Li Jianheng now was to prove himself as an emperor. He was suspicious and reacted to another’s instigation only because he was afraid of being declared unworthy of his position. Xiao Chiye’s words simply pushed all his right buttons!
“Alright…” With delight on his face, Li Jianheng came down again to move towards Xiao Chiye. “Fine! Ce’an, get up quickly. It’s cold on the ground!”
Fuman, who was kneeling at the bottom, listened with marvel. Who would have thought that in just a few hours, Xiao Chiye would be able to seize the opportunity to deal a counterattack and avert the crisis? If not for having a firm grasp on Li Jianheng’s temperament and mindset, he would never have been able to hit right on the target in just one blow.
The more he thought, the more elated he was.
There’s hope for him if he throw in his lot with the Second Young Master!