The Imperial Army was waiting to rotate shifts. It was so freezing cold that they were all huddled into themselves.
The Imperial Army of Qudu was originally the Imperial Guards1 of the Eight Cities. They were the impregnable fortress of the Imperial Palace in Qudu. Going by the rules, trivialities such as taking a person into custody would not have been tasked to them. But then the Eight Great Training Divisions of Qudu rose to power, and the duties and responsibilities of both parties were switched around. The Imperial Army was reduced to being the burden of Qudu. It not only abolished the military drills, but even literally became the errand-runner of Qudu. Today, they were all hereditary military households who had never seen real weaponry and were just idling around waiting to die.
Ge Qingqing was the Company Commander of the Imperial Bodyguards. He was not really considered an official in Qudu, but he was just perfect for the Imperial Army in charge of detention. This was because they had to mutually look out for each other as they patrolled Qudu every day. If it had been an official of a slightly higher rank, they would not have dared to bribe as they wished. Besides, Ge Qingqing was extremely generous in his treatment of them. So the Imperial Army turned a blind eye and let Ji Gang take on the chores of the original errand-runner.
Ge Qingqing greeted the Imperial Army and distributed the hot steamed buns he had brought with him. Ji Gang had yet to come out. The Squad Commander saw him looking pensive, so he said, “If Brother Qing is in a hurry, please go ahead and check it out on our behalf.”
Ge Qingqing said, “Wouldn’t that be against the rules?”
Biting the steamed bun, the Squad Commander waved his hand to motion to the Imperial Army guarding the back door to make way. He said, “Brother Qing isn’t an outsider. Besides, we have surrounded this Zhao Zui Temple until not even a drop of water can trickle through. The man within can’t escape for sure.”
Thus, Ge Qingqing did not decline his offer further. He turned around to enter Zhao Zui Temple.
Ji Gang was sitting under the eaves. When he saw Ge Qingqing coming, he stood up and asked, “Is it time already?”
“It doesn’t matter since it’s still dark. Uncle Ji can stay a little longer.” Ge Qingqing surveyed the temple courtyard as he spoke. “This place is not fit for human living. And it happens to be in the dead of winter right now. I’ll send some quilts over later.”
Noting that he seemed to have something on his mind, Ji Gang asked, “What’s the matter?”
Ge Qingqing hesitated and said, “It’s not a big deal. It’s just that I met Second Young Master Xiao on the way earlier.”
Shen Zechuan raised his head and said, “That Xiao…”
“Xiao Chiye.” Ge Qingqing said, “He’s the youngest son of the Prince of Libei. He’s also… that same man from the other time. His gait is unsteady, and he reeks of wine. He must have gone drinking last night.”
“As long as it isn’t Xiao Jiming.” Ji Gang turned his head back to say to Grand Mentor Qi, “Grand Mentor has not left this place for twenty years. You probably don’t know the current Four Great Generals of Dazhou. The Prince of Libei has begotten himself a good son. That Xiao Jiming is truly remarkable!”
But Shen Zechuan asked Ge Qingqing, “Brother Qing, did he ask you something?”
Ge Qingqing thought carefully and said, “He asked me where I was going, and I said I was taking a shortcut to get to the command office. Then he said that this road did not seem to lead to Shenwu Street. So I gave him a perfunctory response. I suppose the descendant of a princely noble like him will not personally probe into it.”
“But this matter involves the Xiao Clan. It pays to be careful. Later on, you should still head for the palace and put a mark on the duty roster. “Ji Gang rubbed his hands in the snow. “Chuan-er, let’s train.”
“Hold it.” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were dark and deep. “Since it is a miscellaneous alley in a civilian district, then what is a noble descendant like him doing on this street so early in the morning?”
Ge Qingqing was stupefied. He said, “That’s right… The entertainment spots are all in Donglong Street, which is some distance away from the residential area. He’s nursing a hangover, and it’s such a cold day. Why did he come here?”
“He’s keeping watch at a tree to await a rabbit.”2 Grand Mentor Qi wrapped himself in the tattered curtain and turned around, pointing his posterior out. He said, “The matter of Shen Wei concerns the Xiao Clan. I heard that that kick of his was clearly aiming for this lad’s life. But the lad’s still alive and well now. How could he not get suspicious?”
“He shouldn’t have said another word if he didn’t mean it.” Shen Zechuan was still full of trepidation as he recalled that kick.
“Oh, no.” Ge Qingqing turned pale and said, “It’s my fault for being negligent. What should we do? I’m afraid he’s already on the way!”
Shen Zechuan turned towards Grand Mentor Qi. “It doesn’t matter. Since Teacher has already guessed it, he must have a countermeasure.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Zhao Hui arrived at the Imperial Bodyguards Command Office. Although the Assistant Commander walking with him was of the same rank as him, he did not dare to put on airs. He led Zhao Hui to the records room and said, “What does General Zhao want to check? These are all Twelves Offices’ duty rosters for today.”
Zhao Hui solemnly picked up a book to flip through for a look and said, “It has been hard on our Imperial Bodyguards brothers patrolling the restricted grounds. A few days ago, I received the assistance of a Company Commander named Ge Qingqing. I’ve come today bearing a gift to give my thanks. Is he on duty today?”
“The Company Commanders from the Twelves Office are a motley crew. They are all inside.” As the Assistant Commander spoke, he shifted over to the wall where the duty registers of the Twelve Offices were hanging on the upper side, all clearly categorized.
But Zhao Hui could not touch them; this was taboo in the palace.
The Assistant Commander asked, “Does the General know which office does he belong to?”
Zhao Hui said, “I heard that only those from the Imperial Carriage Office, Parasol Office, and the Domesticated Elephants Office could be on duty on the morning shift.”
The Assistant Commander carefully checked through the registers by name. After a while, he turned and said to Zhao Hui, “General, there’s no such person on duty today. Let me try looking elsewhere for you?”
Zhao Hui gently closed the book in his hands and said, “There’s no need. I’ll find him on my own.”
When Zhao Hui left the records room, the sky had just brightened. He went back along the road and strode out of the palace.
The accumulated snow had been freshly swept off Shenwu Street, but the road was slippery. The sedan bearers who came and went as they transported the bigwigs did not dare to be rash. They walked on the road cautiously and made every effort to stay steady on their feet.
As Zhao Hui passed by a sedan, he caught a glimpse of the sedan bearers bearing broadswords. Who would have known that this one look would make him furrow his eyebrows?
“Hold it.” Zhao Hui stopped the sedan chair and asked, “Is this the chair used by the Commander-in-Chief?”
Sure enough, the sedan bearers were the Imperial Bodyguards. The one in the lead nodded and said, “You know who we are transporting, and you still have the audacity to block our way? Move out of the way quickly!”
Zhao Hui raised his hand to reveal his own Libei waist tablet.3
The Imperial Bodyguard nodded and said, “General, please excuse me for the offense!”
The sedan curtain moved as a slender hand lifted it. A delicate face glanced lazily at Zhao Hui and pouted coquettishly to the person within. “Your Excellency, he’s looking for you!”
Ji Lei had just returned with a hangover. Sitting unreservedly in the sedan, he said to Zhao Hui, “General Zhao! What’s the matter?”
Zhao Hui merely stared at the Imperial Bodyguard in the lead and said, “It’s nothing. I heard Young Master went drinking with Your Excellency last night. Are you only just returning?”
Ji Lei smiled and said, “So you’re worried about the Second Young Master! The Young Master returned home the moment I opened my eyes this morning. Is the Hereditary Prince looking for him?”
“I just can’t help worrying.” Zhao Hui bowed. “I’m sorry to have alarmed Your Excellency.”
“It’s fine! I just came from there myself.” Ji Lei gestured with his hand. “Who was it that butt heads with the General earlier? Hurry and apologize to the General.”
The Imperial Bodyguard in the lead kneeled on one knee and said to Zhao Hui, “This humble servant, Ge Qingqing, was blind not to recognize the General, thus offending you. I’m willing to accept my punishment.”
Zhao Hui had not misread.
Ge Qingqing’s name was indeed written on the waist tablet hanging at the side of his blade.
◈ ◈ ◈
Even after listening to Zhao Hui complete his report, Xiao Chiye was still looking at the storytelling script 4 with one of his legs propped up.
Zhao Hui said, “From how it looks, he didn’t lie. He was assigned to pick up Ji Lei before he could enter the palace.”
“Yeah.” Xiao Chiye said absent-mindedly. “Qingjun Pavilion is just nearly. Of course he can make it in time.”
“But something feels off to me.” Zhao Hui’s thumb caressed the hilt of his blade.
Xiao Chiye turned the page and asked, “You can’t figure it out?”
“Then I’ll tell you.” He suddenly sat up, crossed his legs, and propped up a hand on one knee. “You entered the Capital with my eldest brother. His Majesty the Emperor personally met and welcomed him. The Twelve Offices of the Imperial Bodyguards followed closely behind in a ceremonial procession. How could he not recognize you now?”
“That’s hard to say.” Zhao Hui said, “Perhaps he didn’t remember me.”
“You haven’t even changed your robe, and you carry a blade on you. Even if he doesn’t recognize you, all he has to do is to use his brain a little, and he wouldn’t dare to reproach you in such a condescending manner right there on the street.” Xiao Chiye said, “Besides, he doesn’t seem like he has a bad memory to me. He could even recognize me clearly.”
“I only find it too much of a coincidence.” Zhao Hui pondered over it. “I just happened to run into him.”
“A coincidence is exactly what they want.” Xiao Chiye cast aside the storytelling script. “This Shen…”
“Shen Zechuan.” Zhao Hui said.
“Letting him enter Zhao Zui Temple now looks like a losing move.” Xiao Chiye said with a thoughtful gaze.
◈ ◈ ◈
Ge Qingqing removed the fur collar and wiped his sweat.
Wu Caiquan, who was outside, came running in pressing his legs together. He repeatedly said, “Thank you, thank you! Brother Qing, thank goodness for you!”
Ge Qingqing said, “It’s nothing. We are all comrades.”
Wu Caiquan grinned and turned his head to yell at the person in the records room, “Old Xu! Put Brother Qing on the record for today, he stood in for me to carry the sedan. I caught a cold last night and felt dizzy this morning. Fortunately, Brother Qing was there to help.”
Ge Qingqing lowered his head to wipe his sweat. He said, “You caught a cold. Let’s go to the Xu household’s shop for mutton soup together later.”
Wu Caiquan hastened to say, “Sure, it’s Brother Qing’s treat! Old Xu, did you hear that? Let’s go together later! “
“Don’t sweat it.” Ge Qingqing patted Wu Caiquan on the back. “Rest well. If you don’t feel well the next time, don’t hold it in like you did this time. Just tell me.”
Wu Caiquan nodded his head like a puppy. He was craving mutton soup so much that he could hardly care about anything else.
◈ ◈ ◈
Grand Mentor Qi was finally bundled up in a quilt at night. He sat opposite Shen Zechuan and said, “In another half a month, it’ll be the Zhengdan Festival.5 Qudu will host the ‘Banquet of Ten Thousand Officials’. When the time comes, all the Provincial Administration Commissioners and Prefectural Surveillance Commissioners of the various lands will enter the Capital to offer their greetings. I’m still not clear about the current state of affairs, so tell me now.”
Shen Zechuan was in the snow dressed only in flimsy clothes as he struck up the starting stance of the Ji Clan Fist. Despite it, sweat was dripping off his forehead. He said, “The Prince of Libei has been in poor health for many years, and all military affairs have been handed over to the Hereditary Prince, Xiao Jiming, to handle on his behalf. In all likelihood, he won’t attend this time. The Qidong Five Commanderies have rendered meritorious service in coming to the Emperor’s rescue. The first one who came to receive his bestowed title was one of the four generals, Lu Guangbai. Commander-in-chief Qi should be arriving these few days. With this, two major military powers of Dazhou will be temporarily residing—”
“Hold it.” Grand Mentor Qi fished out a ruler6 from his quilt and asked, “Which four generals are the four generals?”
“Glacier of the Armored Cavalry, Xiao Jiming; Fire Beacon Amidst Blowing Sand, Lu Guangbai; Wind Guiding the Scorching Plains, Qi Zhuyin; Thunder Sinking the Jade Stage, Zuo Qianqiu!”7
“I have only heard about Zuo Qianqiu. But I know that Lu Guangbai is most likely the son of the Earl of Biansha, Lu Pingyan. Although Lu Pingyan later came to guard the deserts of the Bianjun Commandery, he was from Libei in his early years. He’s sworn brothers with the Prince of Libei, Xiao Fangxu. If this Lu Guangbai has a sister, she would definitely be the Xiao Clan’s daughter-in-law, am I right? “
“Yes.” Shen Zechuan said as he dripped with sweat. “Lu Guangbai’s younger sister is the Consort of Libei’s Hereditary Prince.”
“So, where did the two major military powers come from?” Grand Mentor Qi said, “With this connection, the Lu Clan is the mole Libei planted in the Qidong Five Commanderies to lurk within. Furthermore, there’s still the Eight Great Training Divisions in Qudu, and the Imperial Army under the Eight Great Training Divisions. The Eight Great Training Divisions don’t have as many people as those from Libei and Qidong, and its reputation is not as valiant as theirs either. But you must remember that Qudu is the heart of Dazhou. What they are holding in their hands is the Emperor’s life.”
Grand Mentor Qi weighed the ruler in his hand, then grabbed the gourd and warmed himself with a few sips of wine.
“You also must remember this. Although the Imperial Bodyguards cannot be called ‘soldiers’, their advantage is far greater than that of ‘soldiers’. When the Emperor commands the troops, he must be assisted by influential officials and valiant generals. A general should exercise good discretion on the battlefield and not be bound by orders of his sovereign.8 Keep a tight rein, and it’d be hard for them to make something of themselves. Maintain a loose grip, and you’ll soon suspect them of becoming too much of a tiger.9 This yardstick is difficult to grasp. You need to act in accordance with the situation and understand how to adapt to changes. However, the Imperial Bodyguards is a different matter altogether. They are the vicious hounds under the Emperor’s command, and that chain is held by the Emperor alone. Whether to tighten or loosen his grip, or to pamper or discard them, wholly depends on the Emperor’s moods. Such a blade, such a dog—If it were you, would you like them, or would you not?”
Shen Zechuan pushed himself to hang on for a moment, then said, “Like them—and they will go wayward! Favor and trust them too much, and they will become the source of calamity.”
“Your brother sure has taught you plenty.” Grand Mentor Qi said, “That’s right. Remember it. Commit it to memory! Favor and trust them too much, and they will become the source of calamity. Keeping the virtuous close and the flatterers far is a good virtue to cultivate. But when you are personally involved, black and white will intersect. How will you be forever able to distinguish who are the virtuous talents and who are the crafty sycophants? Besides, there are many matters that even a virtuous gentleman cannot do, while the crafty and the despicable ones can. The Emperor resides long-term in the Imperial Palace. He must understand the principle of checks and balances as well as listen to the voices of the various officials and ministers. As you can see, with the Imperial Bodyguards comes the Eastern Depot, and with Libei comes along Qidong.”
After a pause, Grand Mentor Qi continued.
“Water brims only to overflow, the moon waxes only to wane.10 Do you know why the Xiao Clan hates Shen Wei so much this time? Not only is there nothing else to bestow or confer them with after this battle, but even if the Xiao Clan fights another battle, their defeat is a defeat, while their victory is also fundamentally a defeat. They have already reached their end.”
Shen Zechuan asked, “Their victory is also a defeat?”
“Their victory is also a defeat! Didn’t Xiao Jiming instantly offer up his younger brother after winning the battle? For every battle he wins in the future, he will be in even more of a peril. This time he paid for it with his younger brother. Next time, it might be his wife, his father, or even his own self.”
- The Imperial Guards (禁卫) is not the same as the Imperial Bodyguards (锦衣卫).
- From 守株待兔, keeping watch at a tree to await a rabbit or a hare, is a fable about a farmer waiting every day by a tree stump in the hope that a hare would kill itself by crashing into it. It refers to someone who sits back and does nothing except to wait for good things to drop into his lap.
腰牌 literally waist tablet, it’s a small tablet hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity.
- A book that’s a script for storytelling; Song and Yuan literary form based on vernacular folk stories
- 正旦节 Zhengdan Festival is also known as Spring Festival which celebrates the start of the new year from the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
戒尺 a teacher’s ruler in the old days for punishing errant pupils (typically by hitting them on the palms).
- Will revise these when I think of more poetic ones ._.
- 将在外，君命有所不受。A general in the field has to be resourceful and sometimes, even decide against the Emperor’s orders.
- 疑将成虎 as opposed to tame kitties and loyal doggos a sovereign usually prefers. Too much of a ‘tiger’ with military power, and the sovereign might come to suspect the person of harboring treacherous motives.
- 水满则溢，月盈则亏。Water brims only to overflow, the moon waxes only to wane. i.e., things/situations reverse when they reach their extreme or limit.