Wei Huaigu, who was over 50 years old, was stripped of his official robes, thereby turning into a prisoner in white.1 He was shackled, with iron bars separating him and Xiao Chiye. No one had ever maltreated him these few days he had been put on trial. His hair, which had been tied up in a bun, was tidy, and his face was clean. It was just that he seemed to have aged by several years in a few short days. He looked very haggard.
“The trial ended last night.” Wei Huaigu sat on the chair and said to both of them. “My confession has already been submitted, and I’m now waiting to be sentenced. What else do you want to ask?”
“Embezzlement of state treasury funds, resale of military provisions for illegal gains, and the poisoning of the generals at the frontier—all three charges are capital crimes.” Xiao Chiye looked closely at Wei Huaigu. “Wei Huaixing has also been removed from his post and thrown into prison to await the impeachment order. The fall of your Wei Clan’s line of direct descendants took out two imperial court ministers along with it. How is it that you could bear to let it happen this time?”
“This matter concerns Libei. Who would dare to bend the law and play favorites? There’s no one to protect me.” Wei Huaigu adjusted his sitting posture as if he was still sitting in the main seat at the Ministry of Revenue’s office compound. He looked at Xiao Chiye, “Your father has now come out of obscurity to take up the mantle. His Majesty probably won’t even dare to sleep these few days. The Prince of Libei is still the same tough nut as he was back in those days. He knows what to do to give them a rap on the knuckles.”
“You should have known that those military provisions were to be delivered to Libei when you were filling the military provisions up with moldy grains. But you still did it all the same, didn’t you? At that time, you weren’t the slightest bit afraid that there’s no one protecting you.” Xiao Chiye shifted a little and continued, “To send these things into my eldest brother’s mouth, adulterating it was only the first step. When the grains arrived at Libei, you bribed the officials in charge of examining the granary so that they would close an eye and send the stuff to the camps. This was the second step. Then you bribed the mess cooks of the Libei Armored Cavalry and mixed this poisonous stuff into the dishes before they were sent to the soldiers at the frontier pass for consumption. This was the third step.”
Xiao Chiye stopped and looked out of the corner of his eyes at Wei Huaigu.
“These arrangements take time and effort. The moment an accident happens, you won’t be able to deny your involvement in it. Not only will you not get away with it, you’ll even be subjected to a probe by the Ministry of Justice, which will bring your crime of reselling military provisions for profits to light. You are not this kind of person.”
Wei Huaigu did not answer Xiao Chiye’s question immediately. Instead, he looked at Shen Zechuan, who had been sitting behind Xiao Chiye all this while. He laughed and pointed at Shen Zechuan, saying, “Second Young Master has made progress, having been in Qudu for six years. Back then, when you first entered the capital, you spent the whole day looking for fights and braying for blood. Vice Commander Shen knows this from experience, right? That’s why I said Xiao Fangxu is an iron fist to dare to put his son on the edge of the blade to polish. You really have your father to thank for being able to grow into the person you are now.”
Xiao Chiye looked at Wei Huaigu with indifference. It was unexpectedly Shen Zechuan who pushed aside the confession statement. With both hands slightly clasped together on the table, he said calmly to Wei Huaigu without so much a smile or wrath, “That’s right. You find it unfair to see such a Xiao Ce’an. Your son spent all day mixing with the brothel crowd during the years of Xiande. By the time the Grand Secretariat had a change of personnel in the reign of Tianchen, it would have been insurmountably hard for him to enter officialdom through the imperial examinations even if he wanted to.2 You are already at this age. Yet the Wei clan does not have a descendant of direct lineage who is capable of keeping the Wei clan going. You placed your hopes on a marriage alliance, but a pity the Fei clan knows that the Wei clan is on the decline, and Commandery Princess Zhaoyue eventually married into the Pan clan. In your post as the Minister of Revenue, you’ve repeatedly demoted and relegated newly appointed officials to remote areas. What you fear was being replaced by the up-and-coming talents. Today, the Wei clan seemed to be still at the height of its power, but in truth, it is already water that is about to spill over—With your death, the Wei clan is doomed to fall.”
Touching his shackles, Wei Huaigu said, “The power of a clan is like the tides, whose rise and fall is a fact of the world. It thrives one moment and declines the next. All of it are predestined. There’s nothing for me to regret when the time comes for the Wei clan. History has gone through several generation changes for as long as Dazhou has existed to this day. Everything is ever-changing; only the Eight Great Clans have not changed. Therefore, it’s only with my death that the Wei clan can survive.”
“Will the Eight Great Clans really remain unchanged?” Xiao Chiye said. “The internal strife between the Xi brothers led to the end of all their di and shu descendants. There is already no one left today to carry on the bloodline. In the future, the Xi clan will no longer be the Xi clan it used to be. It’s only a matter of time before they are squeezed out of the political game.”
But Wei Huaigu laughed it off and said, “As long as the Xi clan still exists, they won’t be booted out of the game. Today, you kill Xi Hongxuan, wanting to cut up the Xi clan’s family fortune, yet you can’t bear to give up the Xi clan’s businesses, so you still have to continue to rely on others to put things in order for you. So tell me, is the Xi clan still considered dead then? They merely lost a helmsman at the head. This is a temporary predicament. As long as that eldest madam of theirs still wants to control the business under Xi’s name, then when she finds a new flame in the future, the other party can only marry into the family3 and change his surname. The child they bear will still take on the surname Xi. And this, is a new direct line of descendants that will continue the Xi clan’s lineage.”
Candle wax dripped, like tears mottling the sides of it. Night was coming to an end. Silence reigned on the outside. Wei Huaigu stood up, like an elder guiding intellectual discussions.
“I have a question. I have always wanted to ask Xiao Fangxu, but there is no more chance for me to now, so I can only ask you. Xiao Chiye, your father came from a humble background. He experienced hardship at the frontier before he finally tided over the sea of suffering to possess his own turf and title. You call yourselves people who broke the shackles of the noble clans. But it has been thirty years now, and Libei and the Xiao clan have become a single inseparable entity. He came to have sons too. You and Xiao Jiming are both legitimate sons born of the principal wife. To avoid disputes between the di sons born of the principal wives and shu sons born of concubines, he even refused to remarry4 or get a concubine. He turned Xiao Jiming and you into the only choices to lead the Libei Armored Cavalry. Isn’t this precisely the impenetrable fortress built as a safeguard at the inception of a noble clan? You are now walking the same exact path as us.”
After a moment of silence, Xiao Chiye said, “You think this way because you don’t understand that there are people in this world willing to be tied down by love. My father doesn’t remarry or take a concubine simply because he is only willing to exchange lifetime vows of conjugal bliss with my mother in this life of his. Libei Armored Cavalry is a heavy cavalry5 he established. He understands this army better than anyone else. This is his third son, one that is far more important than my eldest brother and me. All along, the ones who have been seeing my eldest brother and me as the only choices for Libei Armored Cavalry are you people. My being in Qudu doesn’t tether the Libei Armored Cavalry at all, only Xiao Fangxu and Xiao Jiming. You still have not understood one thing. My father has indeed set up an impenetrable fortress around the position of the Libei Armored Cavalry’s commander-in-chief. But that is not a bastion of iron to safeguard the status of a noble clan. Rather, it is a weight – a test – of whether one can truly become the chief commander of an army to lead Libei Armored Cavalry into bearing the ravages of the elements against the fortress amidst those ceaseless confrontations with Biansha. Thirty years ago, Xiao Fangxu was the man who broke through this layer of fortress. Ten years ago, the one who did the same was Xiao Jiming. If someday, someone is similarly able to break through this layer of fortress, has no fear of hardships and suffering, and is willing to be forged and tempered in such a way, then, he shall be the new commander-in-chief of the Libei Armored Cavalry.”
“You made it out to be all so honorable and dignified for Xiao Fangxu, but in reality, the Xiao clan has been monopolizing the military power of Libei all these years.” The expression in Wei Huaigu’s eye was slightly mocking.
“That’s just because the two men who have borne such a weight one after another happen to be surnamed Xiao.” Xiao Chiye’s eyes suddenly revealed a brilliance that made it hard for one to look right at him in the eyes. In the dimness of this fading light, he was both Xiao Fangxu and Xiao Jiming, as well as the pride the three men of the Xiao clan had hidden deep under their armors. He said, “You people called my father an alpha wolf. There are no prejudices against one’s blood lineage in a pack of wolves. As long as you can defeat us., you can lead us. Everything the Libei Armored Cavalry has to show for today is what it deserves. Someday—”
Xiao Chiye’s voice came to a stop.
But Shen Zechuan knew what he was going to say next. He wanted to say that someday when he returned to Libei, he would also participate in such a fight amongst the wolves. As long as he could defeat the others, he would be the third alpha wolf. The source of their pride and willfulness was that they had never feared resistance. This was Xiao Fangxu’s soul, and he taught this kind of spirit to both of his sons, as well as the Libei Armored Cavalry.
“Do you know why the Qi clan, who similarly guards the frontier and who holds military power firmly in their hands, has never faced such animosity from the noble clans as the Xiao clan did?” Wei Huaigu and Xiao Chiye looked at each other. He said mildly, “Because you were all born with a rebellious bone. This pride is precisely the root cause of Qudu’s distrust of Libei. And do you know why the noble clans would not fall? Because we know to go with the flow and seize the opportunities presented to us. The Li clan is the root – the foundation – of Dazhou. We surround it, see it born, let it grow. We alternate with one another, and we give each other. We are the soil that sustains Dazhou. The land you step on under your feet, and the sky you look at when you raise your head—they are the stability that arises as a result of the noble clans holding together. All those who want to break such a stability are enemies. Twenty-six years ago, the Crown Prince of the Li clan led the eastern palace in an attempt to break the status quo. That was naïve. The Crown Prince didn’t understand that once the noble clans collapsed, the Li clan would rapidly wither too. That was why he was sure to die.”
“Hua Siqian may die, as may Xi Hongxuan. Same goes for me. But it’s just our bodies that perish. The noble clan is not a world that can be overthrown by human power alone. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can defeat us. All these years, the only scholar of a humble background in the imperial court who truly broke through the siege to endanger us all is Hai Liangyi. He used close to thirty years to lie low in patience. He has made his way up now, but does he dare to turn the world upside down without careful consideration? He rejuvenated the Imperial College and promoted scholars of humble backgrounds. Every step he takes is that careful and cautious, because he knows the outcome of using brute force to tussle will be the ruin of the empire. But how long can he still live? After his death, this phase will crumble and fall apart. It’s impossible for him to succeed.” Wei Huaigu suddenly burst out laughing. He held on to the bars and looked at Shen Zechuan. “Qi Huilian led the eastern palace to act with haste and resolve. He would never let us off easily. He thought he could do it, but he ended up causing the death of the Crown Prince. All the geniuses in this world should learn to reflect on their shortcomings. He is a cautionary tale of political radicalism.”
“Stop him!” Shen Zechuan suddenly rose.
Xiao Chiye immediately reached out, but it was already too late. Wei Huaigu started to cough violently. He bent over, cupping the blood in his hands, and lifted his eyes to look at both of them. Amidst his intense pain and with blood in his mouth, he said,
“You can’t win… You are doomed… doomed to fail!”
Xiao Chiye kicked the cell door open, hauled Wei Huaigu up, and pinched his mouth open. The filthy blood within trickled down. Wei Huaigu was just like the expiring candle in the wind. His limbs gradually stiffened amidst his convulsions, until he finally stopped moving, his eyes still open in a glare.
The flame of the candle went out. Only the whimpers of the wind could be heard inside the prison.
“The imperial heir!” Xiao Chiye let go of the corpse and strode out.
The sky was brightening up a little outside, although it was still shrouded with dense, dark clouds. The rainstorm that had stopped seemed as if it was about to stage a comeback. Oppressiveness pervaded the air along with the sounds of chaotic footsteps. Xiao Chiye pushed the door open and saw the panic-stricken girls in the prison. The stench of blood came assailing their nostrils. All the boys had been killed, their bodies lying haphazardly on the ground. Sweat formed on Xiao Chiye’s temples. He clutched Langli Blade as his eyes swept across each of these terrified faces.
He and Shen Zechuan had not made their moves yet. So who killed the imperial heir?
Cool wind blew against Xiao Chiye’s soaked back. He had yet to turn around when he heard the gallops of a horse.
Amidst the jolts and bumps, Fuman shouted in a fluster, “Your, Your Lordship! Please head into the palace quickly! His Majesty is in imminent danger!”
Xiao Chiye abruptly turned back, but Shen Zechuan pressed his hand down on Xiao Chiye’s arm. He was so calm that his gaze made Fuman’s limbs tremble. He asked, “What do you mean by imminent danger? Make yourself clear.”
With snot and tears running down his face, Fuman cried, “His Majesty is critically ill. He is urgently summoning His Lordship over for an audience with him. There is an important matter he wishes to entrust to His Lordship!”
Also a special thank you to Alex for burning brain cells!
Prisoner typically wore white (or their inner garment after their robes have been stripped)
- Unless his son was truly smart enough to pass the exam on his own merit, he was likely to bribe his way into passing. But with a reign change and Hai Liangyi now helming the Grand Secretariat instead of Hua Siqian, bribery would be out of the question.
- 入赘 marry into the bride’s family, in effect becoming a member of her family. Some rich clans do this when they need a ‘son’ or a man to continue on the family legacy. (Usually, the girl is the one marrying into the man’s family.)
- 续弦 specifically of a widow who remarry a second (principal) wife after his first principal wife’s death.
- Heavy Cavalry: heavily armed and armored men on horses. Their primary role was to engage in direct combat with enemy forces.