The sky was already dark when the rain stopped, with a few thin rays of fading light leaking out amongst the thick clouds. Black boots that came and went trampled on the water on the ground, sending them splashing, with the puddles reflecting the fractured dome of heaven. It was clearly the beginning of summer at this moment, but Qudu still seemed to be soaking in the rainy season; it had already been days since the capital last saw clear skies.
Having only gotten some free time now, Hai Liangyi sat on the taishi chair1 and drank strong tea. He was old, and it was hard for his spirit to keep up. He was already feeling fatigued. But there were officials moving all around him attending to their duties, and the document exchanging hands also needed his perusal and approval. He was not at liberty to rest.
“Secretariat Elder.” Kong Qiu took a temporary rest from the cases on his desk and said respectfully to Hai Liangyi from where he was seated below the latter, “The Ministry of Revenue must be held responsible for the incident with the military provisions this time. This pupil has already submitted the request for the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices to His Majesty yesterday. This matter can’t be delayed. What do you think if this pupil gets started on the arrest tonight?”
Hai Liangyi was slow to answer as he stirred aside the tea foam. He looked at the window and only said after a long time had passed, “I’ve been sitting for so long it makes me tired. His Majesty is still having his meal at present. Come with me for a walk outside.”
Kong Qiu personally took Hai Liangyi’s overcoat from the junior eunuch and put it on for him. Both men walked out of the office. It was already dark outside. Kong Qiu carried a lantern and followed Hai Liangyi along the small garden of the office compound.
“You want to arrest Wei Huaigu, and there is nothing wrong with it.” Contrary to expectation, Hai Liangyi felt a little more comfortable bathing in the night wind. He took a few more slow steps and said, “This incident concerns the stability of the frontier. You mustn’t be too lenient with Wei Huaigu. Just handle it in accordance with the law.”
Kong Qiu guessed that Hai Liangyi still had something to say to him, so he lit the way for Hai Liangyi. Already changing his form of address, he said, “I shall do as Teacher says. This pupil thinks the same too. He’s so audacious this time that it won’t work even if the Empress Dowager wants to shield him. This pupil can see that he’s been increasingly acting out of line this year. Someone should have given him a warning a long time ago. Military affairs are not like other governmental affairs. This matter must never be tolerated and condoned.”
“That the Prince of Libei put on his armor once again to head into the battlefield is an admonition to Qudu.” Hai Liangyi stopped. He could no longer see the light between Heaven and Earth. He stood still in silence for a long while before he said, “Xiao Fangxu is the alpha wolf. In the power struggle between Libei and the Hua Clan all these years, he has never once stepped out of Libei due to ill health. He watches Xiao Jiming exhaust himself mentally and physically, and watches Xiao Chiye trapped in the imperial city. He places both of his sons in dangerous circumstances. Why do you think he did that?”
Affected by Hai Liangyi’s tone, Kong Qiu subconsciously grew more heavy-hearted. He said, “Concession. The Prince of Libei is making concessions with his sons. The longstanding noble clans have established themselves into a fortress in Qudu, and he broke the ‘rule’ from the frontier. Perhaps he once had the opportunity to advance, but he retreated.”
“He retreated. Yet the Empress Dowager didn’t understand.” Feeling physically and mentally exhausted, Hai Liangyi said, “The Empress Dowager didn’t understand, neither did Wei Huaigu or the noble clans. Xiao Fangxu broke the rule, and he backed off not because of fear, but because he was willing to accede to the sovereign-subject relationship between Dazhou and Libei. But as they say, things will reverse in the opposite direction when they hit their limits.2 Chasing after the Xiao Clan this urgently to beat them down is like urging Xiao Fangxu to turn back. Since time immemorial, power struggles have always been unavoidable. But when it comes to wars, it’s often an ominous sign that the situation is hopeless. The Zhongbo troops suffered a defeat in the era of Xiande. Back then, the entire imperial court was full of corrupt officials who trampled upon the governmental affairs and made a mess of it! We have now regained the mess, and we are in trouble both internally and externally.”
Hai Liangyi coughed in the wind and refused Kong Qiu’s attempt to support him.
“It’s only this year that the state treasury has the spare resources to bear the expenses for the local aid reliefs. Juexi did good and lived up to expectations by settling the military provisions issue for the two great armies. With Libei and Bianjun Commandery stable, and with capable minister Jiang Qingshan about to be transferred to Zhongbo, there’s hope for Zhongbo’s revival. The Imperial College is on the rise, and scholars from humble backgrounds are gradually increasing. The Chief Surveillance Bureau has Cen Yu to lead it, and of the up-and-coming talents, there’s Yu Xiaozai. His Majesty also no longer indulges in having fun.” Sorrow gradually washed over Hai Liangyi. “I initially thought that a new dawn was about to begin in Dazhou, yet I now increasingly find myself in a situation where my spirit is willing but my flesh is weak.”
Alarmed, Kong Qiu forcibly held Hai Liangyi to support him. His eyes reddened, and he said, “Why does Teacher speak of such demoralizing words? The Prince of Libei is absolutely not that kind of person. This pupil will preside over the trial this time. I will definitely not let Libei suffer this injustice. There is still a chance to turn things around!”
However, Hai Liangyi did not pull himself together. How far can this emaciated body still walk while holding up Dazhou? He was just one man who could not save the situation on his own, much like one log alone could not prop up an entire building. He differed from the others; he could not act as recklessly and unscrupulously like the noble clans, nor could he turn completely to Libei. He was the Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat, and the one he supported was Li Jianheng. He had to make a decision that would maintain the balance in the given situation. Even if this decision might lead him to complete annihilation, he still must do it.
“Libei’s fury has already been ignited. Xiao Fangxu is now urging his troops on to Hongyan eastern mountain range, but once the war subsides, he will no doubt turn back to settle this score with Qudu.” Hai Liangyi calmed down amidst the sound of coughing. “When the time comes, no matter how he rages, we mustn’t release Xiao Chiye, even if Libei is willing to use Princess Consort of the Hereditary Prince, Lu Yizhi, and Grandson-heir, Xiao Xun, in exchange for him. He placed both sons in dangerous situations with the intent to toughen them up all precisely for this day. Xiao Jiming is severely wounded, and this is just the time for him to lie low. Xiao Chiye made a name for himself in his youth, and Xiao Fangxu put him in Qudu to temper him for six years. Now that this blade is forged and his glory is known, letting him go back will be sowing the seeds of future disaster, much like releasing the tiger back into the mountain. I’m already at this age. Boran, I can’t hold out for much longer! We have to treat Libei well, but we still can’t let go of the rope we tether them with. I know that there will be many people lambasting me for being decrepit and muddle-headed after my death. But Boran, who dares to tell it to my face that Libei will really not rebel? That Qidong will really not rebel? Even if the Xiao Fangxu of today can endure it, can a Xiao Chiye who takes over the Commander-in-Chief seat someday tolerate it? Dazhou cannot afford to stake it all on this! I will take responsibility for deciding what should be given to Libei; not a single item will be lacking. This time, Wei Huaigu had the audacity to resell the military provisions for profit. You go ahead and behead him in accordance with the law! Whoever pleads for mercy, I will remonstrate and impeach him!”
Kong Qiu voiced his acknowledgment.
Hai Liangyi paused for a moment to brace himself before he continued, “I’m going to send a letter to the Prince of Libei to do away with the need for the Army-inspecting Censor.3 This time, the imperial court will not assign an inspection eunuch to stir up trouble. All major and minor military affairs of Libei will still be managed by the Prince of Libei himself.”
Kong Qiu hesitated for a moment before saying, “I am afraid the Empress Dowager will not agree to do away with the Army-inspecting Censor.”
“Is there no emperor in Dazhou? It is a century-old rule that the harem should not interfere with government affairs. It’s not up to her to decide this time. Besides, fighting a war is no joke. What’s the use of sending a few castrated eunuchs who only know how to fawn on others? They are just a waste of food.” Hai Liangyi took a few more steps and continued, “The eunuchs are all personal attendants of the Son of Heaven. The Twenty-Four Yamen could be called the ‘inner court’. Having resided for long deep in the palace, they know not of the sufferings of the people, nor do they understand the ways of the sages. Pan Rugui was an eunuch who had attended the Eunuch School, but all he did was to frame loyal, upright men and bring harm upon the state. A wise man foresees and mitigates risks. The eunuch faction has only just been eliminated, we mustn’t give them any more opportunities. I’ll get Chen Zhen to draft the memorial now. Submit it to His Majesty tonight.”
Fuman came looking for them with a lantern in hand from the other side. He did not dare to approach them and merely paid his obeisances from afar and said in a solemn voice, “Secretariat Elder and Your Excellency the Minister, this way, please. You have been summoned to the hall.”
Hai Liangyi answered in a muted voice. He did not look kindly upon Fuman either. Kong Qiu supported him by the arm and walked back with him. Only when he was this close to Hai Liangyi’s body did he realize just how skinny the Grand Secretary had become. He felt a stab of sorrow and grief in his heart, although his expression gave nothing away under the darkness.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye re-tidied his robes and crown and entered the hall once again. This time, Xue Xiuzhuo was also present, with a spot at the end.
“The case of the military provisions is of grave importance, and it involves the collusion between officials and merchants for illegal profits. It’s a bad influence on the local officials. If it can’t be dealt with promptly and severely, then those scums will only take it for granted and have no regard for the law.” Having smoked his pipe outside, Cen Yu curbed his impatience and said, “Your Majesty, I request to start the investigation and prosecution tonight. First, apprehend Wei Huaigu into the penal prison and have someone keep an eye on the Wei Clan’s account books and manors. We can’t let them take advantage of the disorder to transfer away the ill-gotten gains.”
Li Jianheng had also been hanging on for a day and a night, and he was now so tired he could barely open his eyes. He managed with some difficulty to nod his head and said, “The military provision is a major issue. He made a mess of matters. Whether he should be executed or have his properties sealed, the Grand Secretariat may just deal with him at its own discretion and as it deems fit.”
“The reach of this case stretches so far and wide that even Jiang Qingshan has to remain in his post pending the trial. Plus, the Wei Clan is a large clan with an extensive business empire. I’m afraid it can’t be done within half a month with the Ministry of Justice acting alone on its own.” Xiao Chiye’s thumb rubbed the space between his thumb and index finger gently, and the thumb ring slowly rotated. He said, “Likewise, the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices’ plague case is still pending. To strictly guard against the emergence of similar official-merchant collusion cases elsewhere, the Chief Surveillance Bureau still has to free up personnel to head down and check the accounts of the various areas. Seems to me that everyone has their own difficulties and are similarly short on manpower.”
“Your Lordship has a point.” Xue Xiuzhuo continued in a soft voice. “But everything has its own importance and urgency. Libei is fighting a war at present, so the matter of the military provision is of top priority. The Ministry of Justice and the Chief Surveillance Bureau naturally have to put this matter first. It’s not an issue at all.”
Blockhead Li Jianheng could tell that Xiao Chiye was hinting at something to him. But with Xue Xiuzhuo’s interruption, he did not know how to continue. Scratching his cheeks, he looked at Hai Liangyi and asked, “What does the Secretariat Elder think?”
Hai Liangyi did not look at any of them. After a moment’s pause, he said, “Is Your Lordship worried that the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices will drag the case on for too long?”
Xiao Chiye said, “The workflow of the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices is too complex. Wei Huaigu has been in the top position for so long that his thinking and methods are all different from the common man. I’m worried that it will cause further complications if we keep him around for too long.”
Li Jianheng hurriedly cut in, “That’s right. The Wei Clan has always shown filial respect to the Empress Dowager. If this case drags on for too long, I’m worried that the Empress Dowager will be overwhelmed with worries and end up causing her health to deteriorate.”
“But without the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices, we can’t thoroughly investigate the various profiteering loose ends down there.” Disagreeing, Kong Qiu said, “These people are only this audacious before they have Wei Huaigu to shield them. It’ll be a disaster to let all of them run free.”
“I’m merely worried about the time. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t investigate.” Xiao Chiye looked at Li Jianheng. “Don’t tell me this is the only course for Qudu to take?”
Something clicked in Li Jianheng’s mind, and he slapped his thigh and picked up the thread, “For a speedy investigation, we should let the Imperial Bodyguards handle it! That Shen Zechuan was pretty fast in his handling of the previous matter in which Xi Hongxuan assembled notorious bandits. Why not let him take charge of this case?”
Xue Xiuzhuo said, “This is such a major case. I’m afraid it won’t do to hand it over to the Vice Commander of the Imperial Bodyguards. Shen Zechuan will be limited by his rank. It’d be more appropriate to hand it to the Commander-in-chief, Han Cheng.”
Xiao Chiye shifted his gaze to Xue Xiuzhuo’s face and pulled his lips into a smile. He said, “That’s right. Shen Zechuan is indeed not suitable to take charge of this case. He’s young and lacking in experience, and he has a longstanding grudge against me. I can’t rest reassured if we hand it over to him.”
On the contrary, his retreat in order to advance4 convinced Hai Liangyi. Hai Liangyi knew Han Cheng had some friendly relations with Xiao Chiye too. He was worried that Xiao Chiye might use this and go too far with his handling of this case, so he might as well hand it over to Shen Zechuan, who had always been at odds with Xiao Chiye, to handle. With both men standing in diametrical opposition to each other and mutually monitoring one another, no one would be able to play dirty tricks and tamper with the case.
“Your Lordship, this is just your prejudice. Shen Zechuan is indeed young and lacking in experience, but it was by imperial decree he was first promoted up the ranks where he dealt with one tough case after another. Letting him gain more experience is a good thing too.” Hai Liangyi turned to Li Jianheng and said, “Having the Imperial Bodyguards as the chief investigators of this case means that it’ll be handled by the Imperial Prison, and it just so happened that Shen Zechuan is the Northern Judge.5 Given his official duties and job responsibilities, his handling of the case is justified and reasonable. It’s just that it’s inadvisable to persist in aiming for speed. Although we are bypassing the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices, there is still a need for the Three Judicial Offices to supervise. What does Your Majesty think?”
Li Jianheng knew that Hai Liangyi was making concessions by this. He did not dare to be too overly partial towards Xiao Chiye, so he instantly agreed and said, “I’ll issue the edict to him right at once to start the investigation tonight.”
Two consecutive days of official discussions in Mingli Hall finally came to a momentary halt. Everyone had to return and rest for a night. As they stepped out of the hall, Li Jianheng specifically let the eunuchs carry the sedan and send Hai Liangyi to the palace gates to get on his horse carriage. Kong Qiu and the rest walked out together. Xiao Chiye nodded farewell to them and left alone.
Kong Qiu looked at Xiao Chiye’s back and sighed, “The way I see it, he’s too broken-hearted to trust the Ministry of Justice to preside over the case and wants to investigate it together with Han Cheng.”
Cen Yu descended the stairs and said, “And look at just who Han Cheng is? The Secretariat Elder was right to choose Shen Zechuan. Is Yanqing heading straight back to your residence?”
Xue Xiuzhuo followed behind them with a smile on his face and said, “Yes. I’ve been resting in the office compound these few days. I should go back tonight and get the preparations ready. There are still cases to handle a few days later.”
Cen Yu was very caring and nurturing of his juniors, and promoted them very often. He had personally guided Yu Xiaozai of the Chief Surveillance Bureau, whose career had blossomed under his mentorship, and he occasionally gave Shen Zechuan advice too, all of which was out of concern. He also valued Xue Xiuzhuo’s talents, so when he heard these words of his, he simply had to encourage him some.
The three men got into their respective horse carriages at the palace entrance.
It was deep in the night when the servant of the Xue’s Residence heard a knock at the door, so he threw on his clothes and came out for a look. Standing outside the door were all solemn-looking Imperial Bodyguards with their blades. He was startled. Before he had time to ask questions, Qiao Tianya, who was at the lead, leisurely squeezed his way through the door and pushed the man aside.
“Have you eaten? It’s still early at present, so you probably haven’t taken your meal yet. Then go inform the kitchen to prepare meals for us Imperial Bodyguards too. And while you are at it, call everyone up. We’re going to search the residence.”
The steward lifted his lantern to stop him in his tracks and yelled, “Your Excellency, how can you do this? You haven’t produce the search warrant—”
“Take all those who obstruct official duties and hold up the search and arrest into the Imperial Prison.” Shen Zechuan stood at the entrance, his gaze sinister and ruthless. “Tell Xue Xiuzhuo that I’m looking for him.”
First volume is ending soon.
太师椅 Taishi Chair or Grand Preceptor Chair, is a classical style of a wooden armchair in ancient China.
- 物极必反, i.e., things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme or hit their limit.
- 监军 Army-inspecting Censor or Army Supervisor or Military Inspector, designation of an Investigating Censor commissioned on an ad hoc basis to accompany an army on campaign, monitor its activities, and independently report to the throne.
- 以退为进 i.e. make concessions in order to gain advantages
- 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there was a Southern and Northern Prison (镇抚司) subordinated to the Imperial Bodyguards. The Southern Prison was in charge of interpreting military laws and managing military craftsmen while the Northern Prison was responsible for cases entrusted by the Emperor.