With such a great misfortune befalling the Xi Clan, and with Xi Hongxuan having no children to take over the mantle, the shops in the various localities all temporarily suspended operations. The shopkeepers sent letters to Qudu, ready to set up a mourning hall in their old home and to discuss plans for the future.
Sitting on the chair, Shen Zechuan instructed, “This journey is a far one to make, and you’re also bringing along womenfolk. I don’t feel reassured. Xiaowu, lead a few of our men to escort this Elder Brother Xi there.”
Xi Dan understood the meaning in Shen Zechuan’s words. Afraid to doubt him, he hurriedly kowtowed to show his gratitude.
“There’s only the Eldest Mistress who can head the Xi Clan now.” Shen Zechuan glanced at the account books before him and said, “Pay some attention when you go back. Other matters are of no rush; stabilize the current situation first. Don’t lose your head. The deal we had discussed a few days back can be temporarily set aside as well. Once you obtain the keys, keep a low profile, and check the money vault’s entryways. A man’s wealth is his own ruin by rousing greed in others. Now that you have to look after such a big business and also manage the money vault, you’re bound to encounter some trouble.”
Xi Dan naturally understood that he could only bank on Shen Zechuan for protection now. He was a smart man who, having followed Xi Hongxuan, knew best to assess the situation. Going all out to work for Shen Zechuan was precisely to prevent himself from being regarded as a sacrificial chess piece to be discarded by the latter.
“With such guidance from Master, this lowly one dare not be sloppy. I’ll do my best to stabilize the business for Master when I return to my hometown.”
“Xi Hongxuan trusted you that much all because you have the capabilities to speak of. He was overbearing and domineering in the past, and was only willing to get you to work on the accounts. But it’s different now, and I’m giving you the chance to show your mettle.” Shen Zechuan set the account book aside without looking at him. “Be honest in your work and play by the rules, and there will be plenty of chances for you to be in charge in the future. But if you deceive me, even by just one word, then I will claim this tongue of yours.”
He said it lightly and breezily, but Xi Dan felt chilled to the marrow on hearing it. He hurriedly kowtowed again, not daring to look at Shen Zechuan further.
It was noon after Shen Zechuan dismissed Xi Dan and when Ge Qingqing returned. Ge Qingqing entered and removed his blade, and the errand-runner at the side came over to serve him tea, which he downed in one gulp.
“No one.” Ge Qingqing pulled out a chair and sat down. He said, “All the Xi Clan’s residences in Qudu have been thoroughly searched. There’s no sign of Teacher and shifu whatsoever.”
Shen Zechuan said nothing as he leaned against the chair in silence with a displeased expression.
“Could they be in a manor outside the city?” Ge Qingqing wiped his sweat. “The Xi Clan has many manors out there too. Who knows, he might really have hidden them outside.”
“Shifu isn’t Teacher. It has been so long. He would surely think of a way to come back and see me. But he didn’t.” Shen Zechuan’s heart sank. “This shows that he’s trapped somewhere; he can’t come back.”
Ji Gang was not Qi Huilian, who was too weak to truss even a chicken. There was almost no one who was his match in Qudu. Perhaps there was a highly skilled expert among the men from the martial fraternity whom Xi Hongxuan had hired with a large sum of money. But now that Xi Hongxuan was dead, this group of martial artists should have already scattered and fled, busily dodging the pursuit of the imperial court. So, where in the world would they care about the detainees?
“Call Fei Sheng over.” Shen Zechuan said, “I have a mission for him.”
Ge Qingqing was momentarily stunned, after which he said, “These people… Will he be willing to take it on?”
“Since he is registered to serve in the imperial prison,” Shen Zechuan raised his eyes, his gaze cold, “then there is no ‘unwilling’ for him to speak of. If these people cannot be useful to me, then leaving them around will only lead to disastrous consequences in the future.”
The Imperial Bodyguards had no lack of talents, but those like Gu Jin, who could scout everywhere and anywhere with just a pair of eyes and ears, were few and far between. This Fei Sheng was a shu son born of a concubine. He was an assistant commander, one who inherited his father’s original post in recognition of his meritorious services. This person was the most outstanding in conducting searches, but he was previously one-upped and overshadowed by Qiao Tianya. He hung on until it was finally the eighth year in which he could be considered for promotion, and made many trips to Marquis Helian’s place of the same clan. He initially thought himself to be the one to assume the position of Northern Judge. Who would expect Shen Zechuan to appear out of nowhere? The latter completely severed his future prospects, keeping him stagnant in his original post to await orders.
Fei Sheng was different from Ge Qingqing. He knew more about the circuitous official circles than Ge Qingqing, who came from an impoverished family background. He could even strike up a conversation with Han Cheng, who was his superior, and he could be considered half a disciple of Han Cheng. So, he was not like Ge Qingqing and the likes who had a former friendship with Ji Gang—he totally did not give a damn about Ji Gang. At present, he was a heavyweight in the Imperial Bodyguards, one on mutually antagonistic terms with Shen Zechuan. When Shen Zechuan was at the height of his glory a few months earlier, he had lain low and did not face Shen Zechuan head-on. But friction had been gradually building up in recent days.
Shen Zechuan had wasted too much time examining old cases, and half of that time was wasted on these people. They heeded only half of the instructions he handed down to them, and they were sloppy in their search and gathering of the case files. On his end, Shen Zechuan had been unable to match the records to the reign and had to personally make a trip to the Ministry of Justice before he could put it all in order.
The atmosphere between both sides was already beginning to get explosively belligerent. Ge Qingqing knew they were capable, but he still choked with resentment to be compared to them in such a manner. Yet, he also understood he was inferior to them. Finding the men was now the top priority, so he did not object and rose to go call Fei Sheng.
Ge Qingqing lifted the curtain and walked out to see Fei Sheng in another room drinking wine and playing the finger-guessing game with others. He stood beside the door and said, “Assistant Commander Fei, please make your way to the central room. His Excellency is calling for you.”
It was as if Fei Sheng did not hear him as he stepped on the chair and shouted as he played with the others. For the entire room of people to be creating such a ruckus in broad daylight was truly a display of impropriety and disrespect.
Ge Qingqing had never flared up or lost his temper at the others. He had been tagging along on missions with his old man ever since he was young, and he had seen all sorts of people. He knew how to take care of others, and he had a sense of propriety. He could make the acquaintances of even the squad commanders standing guard and errand-runners below him in rank. No matter how uncomfortable he was at present, he would never at this time pull a long face and show his displeasure at the other party. As such, he strode through the door and grabbed the wine jar on the table to personally pour a cup for Fei Sheng. He said courteously, “It’s nothing major, and it’s not a mission on His Majesty’s order either. It won’t take up that much time.”
Tossing the peanuts, Fei Sheng said, “If it’s not His Majesty’s order, then just get one of the subordinates to go. What does it say of him to be singling out someone like me with rank and authority? That doesn’t make sense, does it?”
“His Excellency naturally has his own arrangements. Whether you take it up or not can be negotiated.” Ge Qingqing poured a cup for himself and clinked cups with him. “It has been hard on the various comrades to be checking the old cases these few days. Assistant Commander Fei has worked hard and achieved much. Here’s a toast to you. Men of capabilities are always overworked. Please go.”
Fei Sheng did not care to work for Shen Zechuan. He also boasted of being Shen Zechuan’s senior, so Shen Zechuan was not qualified enough to order him around. But when all was said and done, they had to work together. He had no reason to create a scene without good cause; it would not sound good either, if news of it were to make its way to Han Cheng.
Fei Sheng drank this cup of wine and smiled insincerely at Ge Qingqing. Without even answering him, he took his own waist token from the table and turned around to leave.
Left behind and given the cold shoulder, Ge Qingqing set down the wine cup and cupped his hands to the surrounding Imperial Bodyguards – each of whom wearing various expressions on their faces – and left too. The moment he retreated out, his own men also stood up.
Ge Qingqing wiped his mouth and said, “Why are you all standing up? There’s no need for formalities between us brothers. Sit.”
Xiaowu, who was of similar age to Ding Tao, could not refrain from wearing his heart on his sleeve. He said in anger and resentment, “Look at his eyes growing on top of his head. He walks like a tyrant, all so overbearing and puffed up with his own importance that he has no fear karma might hit him hard in the face someday.1 What kind of an honorable man is he, acting all like a snob? Bah! Qing-ge, why do we even put up with him? Remove his token and drag him out, then cover him with a sack and bash him up. See if he still doesn’t learn to behave himself!”
Ge Qingqing rebuked, “What insolent remarks are you spouting? If news that we beat up our own people gets out, we will be making a mockery of ourselves!” He looked at every one of them and continued, “We are all attending to official duties together. We mustn’t leave any misunderstandings or unhappiness festering. Otherwise, how can we all look out for each other when we are on a mission? Since they look down on us, then we’ll work harder to prove ourselves.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Fei Sheng lifted the curtain to enter and sloppily paid his respects before the table. He still reeked of wine, the smell strong enough for Shen Zechuan to catch a whiff of it from where he was across the table.
Without lifting his head, Shen Zechuan said, “Drinking on duty is punishable by a deduction from your salary, yes?”
Seeing that Shen Zechuan did not get up, Fei Sheng pulled the chair over. But before his ass could touch the chair, Shen Zechuan looked at him.
Shen Zechuan unhurriedly let out a smile. “Sit.”
Fei Sheng could not tell what he was up to. He sat down and asked, “What can I do for your Excellency, since you are looking for me?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “There’s an assignment that no one else can do except you.”
Seeing as he had something to ask of him, Fei Sheng could not help but relax. He touched the pipe in his sleeve pocket and started to put on airs, first saying, “Is it a prison assignment? If it’s an order from the Commander-in-chief, then pass me the official paperwork and I’ll be able to work on it.”
Shen Zechuan tapped away the excess ink on the brush tip and said, “It’s not a prison assignment, and it’s not an order from the Commander-in-chief.”
Fei Sheng struck the flint and bit down on his pipe as he laughed and said, “Then it’s Your Excellency’s order? I can do it, but I still have a mission to keep track and record of late. Isn’t this just in time for the fourth month? I have to keep an eye on the price fluctuations of Qudu’s daily necessities of firewood, rice, oil, and salt.”
The so-called “keep track and record” was to have the Imperial Bodyguards record all minor and major matters in a book, including the prices of grains, rice, noodles, and tea; these were to be reported to Li Jianheng and Hai Liangyi whenever necessary. But this assignment did not have to be personally carried out by Fei Sheng. He was a fourth-grade assistant commander, and the only assignments in which he could be dispatched out were for arrests and fieldwork. By putting it this way, he was, in truth, not planning to take on the assignment.
“Why use an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken?2 Having you do that is simply a waste of talent.” Shen Zechuan said.
“I am a person of mediocre ability to begin with. I cannot be compared to such a naturally talented hero like Your Excellency. You are already a third-grade Vice Commander at such a young age, and His Majesty looks upon you favorably. What’s more, you are a man of elegance and poise.” Fei Sheng blew out puffs of smoke. “Men like us can only do some lowly work to muddle our way through. We don’t dare to dream of anything else, and we don’t dare to be one either. Wait for a few days. I’ll have free time only after a few days.”
Shen Zechuan said, “This assignment cannot wait.”
Fei Sheng moistened his dry throat and half-leaned over to look at Shen Zechuan to say, “Then what can I do? Each matter has its own priorities. I have to finish the task at hand before I can take on your assignment. This is the rule set by Ji Wufan back then, and I can’t break it. So, you’ll have to wait.”
Shen Zechuan, having received that smoke right in his face, looked at how fearless his expression was and knocked the ashes away to the edge of the table. Capitalizing on his status, and thinking that Shen Zechuan could not keep him under control, Fei Sheng slid the chair away and prepared to bid him farewell.
Shen Zechuan suddenly extended his fingers to tack a slip of paper before Fei Sheng and said, “I can wait. But can the Assistant Commander wait? This year is your promotion year. But coincidentally, the Provincial Administration Commissioner of Juexi, Jiang Qingshan, is about to enter the capital to report for work. Surely you understand the Grand Secretariat’s intent by having Jiang Qingshan enter the capital at this point in time. He will be going to Zhongbo to be the person-in-charge, and this person lacks an Imperial Bodyguards Inspector-General by his side… So, is Assistant Commander Fei still busy?”
Jiang Qingshan was a Provincial Governor who was outstanding in his governance of the area within his jurisdiction, having forged ahead and turned Juexi into Dazhou’s granary. Libei’s and Qidong’s army provisions all came from him. This person was someone whom even Xiao Jiming and Qi Zhuyin could not afford to offend. Working for him meant that there would be nothing to worry about one’s future prospects. Fei Sheng could not advance any further in ranks. He had to find external help. But because he was a shu son born of a concubine, he could not get to play together with all the bona fide direct descendants born of the principal wives like Han Jin, Fei Shi, and Pan Lin. Without that layer of connection, he could not make his way up through the ranks. Being stuck in this position made him feel shitty all over. Otherwise, he would not greet Shen Zechuan with such biting sarcasm and mockery.
Fei Sheng hurriedly extinguished the pipe and rubbed his palms at the sides of his legs. He bent over slightly and said to Shen Zechuan with a smile, “Look at me, not knowing what’s good for me! What assignment? Tell me.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I want you to turn over the entire Qudu to search for two men.”
“Search openly, or…” Fei Sheng looked at Shen Zechuan and gradually cottoned on. He said, “That’s easily done. I’m good at this. Give me their descriptions, Your Excellency. Five days. I’ll definitely find them for you!”
Shen Zechuan lowered his voice and said, “I’m only giving you two days.”
Fei Sheng looked at the slip of paper, clenched his teeth, and accepted!
- He literally said, “he walks like a crab, so very sideways (横), unafraid that he’ll hit the door on his way out someday!’ Walking sideways (like a crab) refers to someone being domineering and tyrannical or riding roughshod over others.
- i.e., 杀鸡焉用牛刀 a small job does not require a big operation or a great talent