The Imperial Bodyguards swarmed into the Xue’s Residence and swiftly passed through the veranda to enter within. All the people in the various courtyards were startled awake. The women huddled together in fear as they were herded out of their houses towards an open space in the residence to assemble. The Imperial Bodyguards had a reputation out there, and in these people’s eyes, Shen Zechuan was a man-eating predator.1
Xue Xiuyi hurriedly put on his clothes and stepped out. Seeing Xue Xiuzhuo standing under the eaves too, he could not help but lunge forward and hauled Xue Xiuzhuo as he said resentfully, “What did you do to bring the Imperial Bodyguards to us?! If you implicate us and get us into trouble, I’ll boot you out and have you disowned from the clan!”
Xue Xiuzhuo turned his head to look at this savage-looking eldest brother of his and let him hauled as he liked. With pity and indifference in his eyes, he said, “The whole family gets a share in fame and fortune, but when misfortune befalls, one person alone bears it all. Eldest brother, have no fear. It’s still far from your turn to be the head of this clan.”
Having said that, he pushed Xue Xiuyi away and walked along the steps towards Shen Zechuan.
This was the second time Shen Zechuan and Xue Xiuzhuo met head-on. Xue Xiuzhuo had not gone to bed yet. He had been in the study handling affairs pertaining to the cases and had promptly walked out with an azure wide-sleeved robe draped over him. This man had a calm and unhurried aura to him, and his scholarly elegance was not something that could be feigned overnight. He had real capabilities, and this was something Shen Zechuan never denied.
“To what I owe the Vice-Commander’s presence in my humble abode at this late hour?” Xue Xiuzhuo, who was about the same height as Shen Zechuan, stood firm and said to Shen Zechuan, “I should have prepared a simple meal with wine as a show of hospitality and welcomed you much earlier.”
“I’ve just received the imperial edict. His Majesty orders me to take overall charge of the military provisions case. This is such a major issue, and the Imperial Bodyguards, not daring to be sloppy, have promptly arrested Wei Huaigu.” Shen Zechuan scrutinized the couplets in the main hall and did not look at Xue Xiuzhou as he said with nonchalance, “Wei Huaigu has always been on good terms with Assistant Minister Xue. In order for you to avoid suspicions, your residence will have to be searched tonight.”
“I am fully aware that the Court of Judicial Review is assisting the Imperial Bodyguards with the case. But I am an appointed official of the imperial court. If the Imperial Bodyguards want to search my residence, you’ll need the warrant issued by the Ministry of Justice.” Xue Xiuzhuo looked around the courtyard and saw panic and confusion all around. He said, “However, this case is urgent, and the Vice Commander has the prerogative to act first and report later. Uncle Xue, hand the keys to the inner courtyard to the Imperial Bodyguards as well. Lead the way to whichever area they wish to search.”
Shen Zechuan inclined his head and said, “You are really something to be on guard even against an impromptu imperial edict issued by His Majesty.”
Xue Xiuzhuo smiled. “It’s only right that I act with caution when encountering a character like the Vice Commander. It’s late and chilly out there. If the Vice Commander doesn’t find it beneath you, would you like to have a cup of tea with me inside? This residence isn’t small. By the time the search is done, it would be time for morning court.”
“I’ll skip the tea.” Shen Zechuan slowly turned around. “I can’t afford to ask for tea from prominent clans. So does it mean I’m going to have to return empty-handed again today?”
Xue Xiuzhuo said, “That will have to depend on what the Vice Commander is here for. If it is to investigate the case, then it’s indeed going to be regrettable. I’m just acquaintances with Wei Huaigu; we aren’t connected in any way.”
Shen Zechuan fell silent. As he stared at Xue Xiuzhuo, that feeling of being played for a fool indistinctly resurfaced again. After a long while, Qiao Tianya returned to the open ground and shook his head at Shen Zechuan from afar. Shen Zechuan then knew that he had come up empty-handed once again—Shifu and Teacher were both not here.
“A wily hare has three burrows.”2 Shen Zechuan said softly.
“Just a fish swimming at the bottom of the cauldron3 taking a momentary breather.” Xue Xiuzhuo said in a deferential manner.
“You only have this one chance with me.” Shen Zechuan moved his feet and approached Xue Xiuzhuo. “Where are they?”
It was a moonless night, with the after-rain dampness and chill pervasive all around. The men and women in the courtyard were all covering their faces and weeping. Xue Xiuyi did not know the details, but fearing Xue Xiuzhuo would infuriate Shen Zechuan, he hurriedly stepped forth and bowed to Shen Zechuan with his hands clasped before him. With trepidation, he said, “Who is Your Excellency looking for? We are not harboring any fugitives from the military provisions case! All the people in the compound are here. Your Excellency, please feel free to interrogate them. We will definitely tell you all we know without holding anything back!”
Xue Xiuzhuo said nothing, Seeing that he was not willing to reveal his shifu’s whereabouts, he said, “I’m looking for wanted criminals of the imperial court. I’ve heard that there is a batch of prostitutes being kept in Assistant Minister Xue’s residence. Is that right?”
Xue Xiuzhuo’s gaze flickered. Xue Xiuyi immediately butted in and said, “Yes, yes, there is! But matters like soliciting and consorting with prostitutes are all impeachable by the Chief Surveillance Bureau. He has been pretty careful in hiding them, so the imperial censors have no awareness of it. Your Excellency, Your Excellency, please take a look. These are the children. They are just some little playthings. How could they be wanted criminals of the imperial court?”
Shen Zechuan noticed the slight change in Xue Xiuzhuo’s expression at Xue Xiuyi’s words. He turned his eyes to look at those boys and girls and said, “What place is Xiangyun Villa? Everyone in there are all wanted criminals implicated in the assassination case. Assistant Minister Xue bought them from Xiangyun Villa without so much a word. Why wasn’t the Ministry of Justice notified?”
Xue Xiuzhuo pushed Xue Xiuyi aside and said, “These people all have proof of household registration. Although they are from the brothel, they are all innocent. The Vice Commander is currently on the military provisions case tonight. It has nothing to do with them, so why keep harping on it?”
“Whether they are innocent or not, we will only find out after they make a trip to the imperial prison.” Shen Zechuan looked back and said, “Take all these people away.”
The group of people hugged themselves and cried out loud. Qiao Tianya took the lead and dragged them away. Under Xie Xiuzhuo’s tutelage, those boys had been taught to carry themselves like the younger generation of distinguished clans, so how could they compare to the Imperial Bodyguards? In no time, their wails worsened. Xue Xiuyi was so frightened that his legs were trembling. Still wanting to mediate and say a few words of appeasement to ease the tension, he even brought out Xiao Chiye.
“Your, Your Excellency!” Bracing himself, Xue Xiuyi said with difficulty, “Since this matter concerns Libei, then why not ask, ask what His Lordship thinks… If there’s really something wrong, then go ahead and take Xue Xiuzhuo away!”
Xue Xiuzhuo suddenly took a few steps forward to obstruct Qiao Tianya. He bellowed, “The Imperial Bodyguards still have to follow procedures even if you are officially on the case! Vice Commander Shen, you can take my people away, but I want to see the arrest warrant from the Ministry of Justice!”
“Take them away!” Shen Zechuan held up his blade to push back against him, forcing Xue Xiuzhuo to take a step back. He said, “Since you want the arrest warrant, then I will give you as many as you want tomorrow morning!”
“Shen Zechuan!” Xue Xiuzhuo abruptly flung his sleeves. “I’m going to impeach you for abusing the power of public office to avenge personal grudges!”
“Then go ahead and submit the memorial for impeachment tonight!” Shen Zechuan’s tone turned frosty. “This batch of people is now in my hands. For each day I don’t see Teacher, I will kill one! Guess how long will it take for me to kill my way to your precious student?”
“Don’t you dare!” Xue Xiuzhuo suddenly flew into a rage. Seeing that Qiao Tianya had already dragged them away to the other end where the wails were increasing in intensity, he grabbed Qiao Tianya’s arm and said, “You people are accessories to crime by willfully arresting innocent commoners. So why investigate? Stop it!”
“If you dare to get in the way again, I’ll kill them now!” Shen Zechuan partially pressed his blade out of its sheath with his thumb, revealing a glint.
Seeing Shen Zechuan made to draw his blade out amidst their dispute, Xue Xiuyi could not help but be so seized with terror that he actually fainted from the fright. The surrounding servants all yelled out “Eldest Master” and hurried over to help him up. Xue Xiuzhuo, who was being dragged backward by the Imperial Bodyguards, watched helplessly as the Imperial Bodyguards rounded all the students up onto the wagon.
“Shen Zechuan!” Xue Xiuzhuo held on to the arm blocking his way, his composure all but gone. With his eyes reddened, he spat resentfully, “You dare to kill them. You dare to kill them?! You tyrant! You aren’t worthy of being Mister’s student!”
Shen Zechuan flipped atop his horse and left Xue Xiuzhuo’s shouts of abuse all behind.
◈ ◈ ◈
The wars in Libei were concentrated in numbers and intensity. Likewise, it was not all quiet and still over at the Bianjun Commandery.
Lu Guangbai returned to his camp for a rest. He had not even dismounted when he saw his deputy general hurrying over towards him. He asked, “What’s the matter?”
The deputy general did not look too good as he whispered, “General, Qudu has dispatched an Army-inspecting eunuch over. He brought this year’s military provisions too.”
After a moment of silence, Lu Guangbai dismounted, removed his helmet, and lifted the screen to enter the tent. An eunuch was sitting on the raised seat that had been set up inside; he was dressed in a python-patterned robe and wore a yandun hat4 on his head. Even when he saw Lu Guangbai stepping in, he did not get up to pay his obeisances.
Lu Guangbai set aside his long spear and said, “Gonggong has been rushing the entire journey. Why are you not taking a rest? I’ll order the men to tidy up the tent.”
Yingxi was a recently promoted eunuch. He had backings in the palace, and he knew that his masters had never looked kindly upon the Lu clan of the Bianjun Commandery, so he looked down upon Lu Guangbai too. On hearing him, he smiled and said, “It’s desolate and barren here, and all the people here are clumsy fools, so how would they know how to serve others? There’s no need for the general to go to such trouble. I have already taken a look around. That tent is so dark and filthy it’s not inhabitable. I’ve gotten men to hurry over to Cangjun to buy some timber with the plan to build a separate compound here—I still have to stay here for half a year!”
Lu Guangbai was not good with words. He knew that the Army-inspecting eunuchs were always this pretentious, and he could not be bothered to make conversation either. He undid the arm guard, and with the removal of that iron skin, filthy blood dripped onto the ground. On seeing this, Yingxi covered his nose in horror and exclaimed, “How did it fester to such an extent?!”
The deputy general dragged the chest over with the intent to bandage it for Lu Guangbai. When he saw the wound, he said, “General, it’s scraped so badly! We have to get the military medic over to take a look.”
Lu Guangbai motioned for him to shut up and felt around the side of his thigh for a dagger. As he poured wine around his wound, he heated up the dagger in the candle flame until it was searing hot. The deputy general hurriedly held up his sleeve for him. Yingxi had never seen such a ruthless person before, and his limbs went cold as he listened to the sound of rotten flesh being gouged out. Lu Guangbai sprinkled the medicine over the wound and got the deputy general to bandage it for him.
“The cavalry is hard to deal with. Without the deployment order, we can’t pursue our way out of the delimited range, and we are naturally too occupied to bother with this when we are going back and forth engaged in attrition battles.” Having cleaned up his wound, Lu Guangbai propped up his knee and looked at Yingxi to ask, “Did gonggong come with the military provisions?”
Yingxi forced back his disgust and nausea and nodded his head.
Lu Guangbai rose and said, “I’ll go take a look.”
With that, he stepped out of the tent with his deputy general and headed towards the military provisions. Those who had escorted and transported the military provisions had already withdrawn. Lu Guangbai made his way into the granary and opened up a burlap sack. Yet when he saw the provisions within, he frowned. He reached out to grab a handful—it was all damp rice and moldy flour.
“General.” The deputy general said. “It’s not just damp rice and moldy flour that were sent this time. The quantity is pathetic too. Our Bianjun Commandery has 20,000 men, and troops are dispatched every day to engage in guerrilla warfare. There’s a lot of running around involved, and naturally the amount of food consumed is high too—it can’t be compared to the garrison troops of the other four commanderies. This bit of provision can’t even last us until autumn!”
Lu Guangbai’s scarred palm released these grains and said, “The Secretariat Elder Hai has always looked out for us. Last year’s military provisions were also allocated pretty quickly. Is there a reason for the reduction in quantity this time?”
The deputy general’s chest heaved. Several times, he wanted to say something, but then he held it back.
Lu Guangbai said, “Just say it if you have something to say. What is this for? Someone gag your mouth?”
“General!” The deputy general was indignant. He stepped forth to grab those grains, and his emotions surged. He said in a tearful voice, “They gave us less! Why? Isn’t it all because they were in a hurry to transfer it to Libei Armored Cavalry?! What the heck! Libei Armored Cavalry are all good men and soldiers, while the garrison troops of our Bianjun Commandery are all lowly bastards! They have always loved fawning on those at the top and bullying those at the bottom; they trampled on you every opportunity they can! But these are wars we are waging! We are all risking our own lives here, so on what grounds can they play favorites?! What issue do they have with our Bianjun Commandery?! We are already this poor, and they still want to skimp here and there! I asked those escorts who transported the food what are we to do in autumn, and they said the imperial court told us to play it by ear and take care of it ourselves! Do as we deem fit. Fuck them to hell and back!”
The deputy general clenched his fists.
“Qidong’s military provisions were reduced by half to supply to Libei. But don’t the other commanderies need to fight too?! They still have military fields to provide them with food to eat, but we can only eat empty air! Once autumn arrives, the horses of the Biansha Twelve Tribes will all be fattened up, and when that time comes, the battles will be even harder to fight! With just this bit of grains, we—”
“Not a word more!” Lu Guangbai bellowed at the deputy general, stopping him in his tracks. He stood for a long time in the darkness. Eventually, he looked at the starry sky outside and said in a hoarse voice, “… I’ll think of a way.”
The fire beacon towers of the Bianjun Commandery sat in silence between the rolling terrains, while the night, like the reversed flow of filthy waters, sealed this opening and obstructed them from seeing the light. Lu Guangbai did not have the prestigious reputation of the other three generals. He was just like the stubborn rock stationed at the edge of the desert, enduring the weight of oppressive pressure from three directions until it gradually eroded his originally round and smooth body into one with sharpened edges.5 Many people from their Lu clan had died, leaving only him to inherit Lu Pingyan’s spear.
He was this slow-witted. And he was this unlikable. He made a name for himself pretty late in his years, having none of the natural talents Xiao Jiming and Qi Zhuyin possessed. He was Lu Pingyan’s youngest and stupidest son. Yet, it was also such a “him” who held up the Bianjun Commandery after Lu Pingyan’s retirement. He choked off the strategic passage in which the Biansha Cavalry wanted to penetrate and advance through. He did not have a master; he was a general who learned his craft by following Lu Pingyan into the desert and tumbling his way out from the yellow sands. He treated others with sincerity. He… was riddled with scars all over.
This very night, Lu Guangbai did not sleep. He sat hugging his spear on the earthen slope before the camp, unable to think of a way to resolve the shortage of military provisions. Qi Zhuyin had jurisdiction over the Five Commanderies. All these years, she had emptied her own private savings to give them financial aid; he could not keep asking Qi Zhuyin for help every single time. His old man at home was still ill too, so he could not ask Lu Pingyan to drag his sick body around to borrow money either.
The deputy general saw Lu Guangbai’s lonely back when he got up in the middle of the night to relieve himself. He wanted to go over and tell him to rest, but before he could approach, he saw Lu Guangbai bending over and reached out to touch the soil at his feet. For a long time, Lu Guangbai never raised his head.
- 狼虎 literally wolves and tigers. i.e., evildoers, oppressors
- 狡兔三窟 literally a wily hare has three burrows; a craft person has more than one hideout, or a sly individual has more than one plan to fall back on.
- 釜底游鱼 literally a fish swimming at the bottom of the cauldron/pot; a person whose fate is sealed, or a person who is in dire danger.
- 烟墩帽 a hat worn by eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty.
- 棱角 may also refers to a person’s abilities. Effect here could be taken to mean honing his abilities as well.