Book One, Chapter 4: Remnant

Combat boots crunched through snow and came to a rest beside Shen Zechuan. The man nudged his face upright with the toe of his boot. It came away with blood. Under the helmet, his voice was low and oppressive. “Shen Wei’s your dad?”

Shen Zechuan couldn’t bite back the blood rising up his throat. Even as he clapped a hand to his mouth, blood seeped through his fingers. He didn’t answer.

The man looked him over from above for a moment, then said, “I’m asked you a question.”

Head down, Shen Zechuan grunted an affirmative through the bloody foam in his mouth. 

On the side, Ji Lei supplemented, “This is the eighth son of Shen Wei, by the name of Shen……”

The man lifted his helmet to reveal a young face. A gyrfalcon made one last circle of the skies and landed upon his shoulder in a flurry of ice and snow. He was looking at Shen Zechuan as if at an old boot someone had discarded. Whether it was disgust or contempt in that razor-cold gaze, Shen Zechuan could not say.

Shen Zechuan did not know him, but he recognised the Libei Iron Cavalry.

On Shen Wei’s flight westward, Ci province had been Zhongbo’s final line of defense. Led by Libei’s scion Xiao Jiming, the Iron Cavalry descended from the north to trek three days and three nights without rest, making directly for Ci province across the frozen river and through heavy snow. But no one had expected that Shen Wei would lose even Ci province. The Iron Cavalry had been beseiged. Had Xiao Jiming not laid out reinforcements beforehand, it would have been another harrowing battle.

After that, Zhongbo’s Shen family became Libei’s bitter foe.

This person before him was not Xiao Jiming, but if he rode on horseback in Qu capital and carried a falcon on his shoulder, then he could only be the young son of Libei’s king and Xiao Jiming’s little brother, Xiao Chi’ye.

Ji Lei had had a mind to fan the flames of enmity, but subsided when he met the eyes of Deputy General Zhao Hui, one step behind Xiao Chi’ye.

Xiao Chi’ye tossed his helmet to Zhao Hui carelessly. Then he smiled, and that knife’s-edge of a gaze melted like ice. It gave him such an air of irreverent wickedness that the suit of armour he wore like a second skin became abruptly dissonant with him.

“Master Ji,” he slung an arm over Ji Lei’s shoulders. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

Ji Lei and Xiao Chi’ye looked each other in the eyes and broke into laughter. “Er-gongzi, it’s only been two years and you’re getting polite with me already?”

Xiao Chi’ye gestured to his side. “I’m still wearing a sword, counts as kinda on-duty right now.”

Ji Lei seemed to notice for the first time and laughed, “Nice piece of steel! Er-gongzi must have had a hard journey riding to save the crown. When you’ve paid your respects to His Majesty, we’ll go drinking in the evening!”

Xiao Chi’ye ruefully gestured at Deputy General Zhao Hui, still standing behind him. “Big brother’s sent someone to watch over me, I can’t let loose tonight. When I’ve had a chance to breathe in a few days, I’ll invite you out instead.”

Zhao Hui saluted Ji Lei expressionlessly.

Ji Lei acquiesced gladly, saying to Xiao Chi’ye, “Then let’s head to the palace, the honour guards will be waiting.”

Making easy conversation between the two of them, they moved towards the palace on foot. Before leaving, Zhao Hui, trailing behind, glanced briefly at Shen Zechuan. The Brocade Guards standing by took his meaning, and dragged Shen Zechuan to the prison.

Ji Lei sent Xiao Chi’ye off at the palace gates. He waited till there were only his men about, then spat bitterly on the ground. His smile evaporated, leaving behind only a bellyful of grudge.

It would have been entirely within reason for that reckless and foolhardy bastard to off someone today. Who would have though that the wretched rascal would be all bark and no bite. A single kick, and he’d let Shen Zechuan off. Just like that.


Xiao Chi’ye entered the palace. Zhao Hui held out a handkerchief for him, which he used to wipe his hands as they walked.

Zhao Hui said lowly, “That was a risky move, gongzi. If that pup of the Shen mongrel had died on the spot, the Dowager would not be pleased.”

Xiao Chi’ye’s smile faded. A dark look sank over his brows. Fresh from the battlefield, the deadly bloodthirst that had cloaked him had not had time to fade. Now, it frightened their eavesdropping usher eunuch into drawing his ear back to himself.

He said coldly, “I meant to kill him. Zhongbo is a sea of blood because of that Shen mongrel. Half a month later today, we still haven’t put all of the men in the sinkhole to rest. The Hua family want to spare his spawn for sentimental reasons? What a pleasant daydream for them. Besides, after da-ge‘s thousand-li campaign this time, he’s hit the ceiling on titles to earn. Libei has reached the pinnacle of its prestige, and we’ve long since become a thorn in the Dowager’s eye.”

Zhao Hui said, “My lord the scion often says that when the moon is fullest, it will soon wane. This award ceremony in Qu capital is likely a trap. Gongzi, our grand army is camped one hundred li from the capital, and this city is riddled with the eyes and ears of noble families. This would never be the time to be impulsive.”

Xiao Chi’ye flung the handkerchief back at Zhao Hui. “I know.”

“A’ye is here?”

The Xiande Emperor was feeding his parrot.

This was a feathered creature raised cunning and quick in the Imperial palace. “A’ye is here! A’ye is here!” he agreed, “A’ye is here to pay his respects! Your Majesty! Your Majesty! Long live Your Majesty! Long live! Long live!”

Xiao Jiming, holding its seeds in his hands, answered, “It’s about time he got here.”

“Two years, right?” the Emperor asked, teasing the parrot. “We have not seen him in two years. He’s taking after your father and growing like a weed. When he’s grown, we’re afraid he will be even taller than you are.”

Xiao Jiming said, “He may be tall, but he’s still very much a child. He makes a nuisance of himself at home.”

The Emperor began to say something, but started to cough. Pan Rugui served him tea, which he took to soothe his throat. Before he could speak again, Xiao Chi’ye was announced from without.

“Come in,” the Emperor announced, returning to his throne, an arm draped casually over its rest. “Let us have a look at you.”

A eunuch folded a corner of the drapes back carefully, and Xiao Chi’ye crossed the threshold, carrying the outside chill with him. He went to his knees below the dais and made his obeisance to the Emperor.  
The Emperor said, smiling, “Good lad. You look very impressive in armour. We hear that when the twelve wasteland clans came to raid our way stations and supply lines a year ago, you distinguished yourself by capturing a few men alive, is that so?”

Xiao Chi’ye smiled, “Your Majesty is too kind to me. I did catch a few men, but they were only foot soldiers.”

One year ago, when the twelve clans raided Libei’s supply lines, Xiao Chi’ye had ridden out on his first battle in command only to be soundly thrashed by the sandy bastards. It was Xiao Jiming who had to wipe his behind for him. The story of that incident had spread far and wide, and courtesy of it, Xiao Chi’ye had become known as a good-for-nothing by all and sundry.

Witnessing his humility, the Emperor became ever more kindly. “At your age, it is already an achievement to be able to ride and wield a spear.  But your brother is one of Dazhou’s four greatest generals, and we imagine he has been tutoring you on the art of war. Jiming, we see that A’ye is a diligent and motivated child. You must not be too hard on him.”

Xiao Jiming nodded.

The Emperor continued, “The Libei Iron Cavalry has rendered great service to the crown this time. We have given great rewards to Libei yesterday, but today we will give a small reward to A’ye also.”

Xiao Jiming rose to make a bow. “It is his good fortune to receive Your Majesty’s good favour, but he will be uneasy to receive a reward so tremendous without having achieved any great deed.”

The Emperor paused a moment, then said, “You have flown across a thousand li and forded the frozen river by night in our service. Your merit is beyond measure. This time, not to mention A’ye, we will reward even your wife Lu Yizhi. A’ye, a young man like you will inevitably grow bored in a remote borderland like Libei. If we wish that you would come to the capital city to serve as a carefree commander of ceremonies, will you accept?”

Xiao Chi’ye had been kneeling motionless, head down. Hearing this, he lifted his head and said, “If Your Majesty will reward me this role, I definitely accept. Everyone at home is either an officer or a soldier, it’s hard to even find a place to enjoy a good tune. If I come to live in Qu capital, I’m only afraid I’ll enjoy myself too much to return home.”

The Emperor laughed aloud. “Little rascal, we ask you to join our Guardsmen, but you truly only think about making merry! If your father hears of this, you won’t get out of another thrashing.” 

In the lighthearted aftermath, the Emperor kept the two brothers for lunch. Before they were dismissed from the hall, the Emperor asked, “We hear Qidong has sent someone too, who is it?”

Xiao Jiming replied, “It is Lu Guangbai from the border district.”

The Emperor leaned back in his throne and waved a hand, as if weary. “Let him come back tomorrow.”

Xiao Chi’ye withdrew with Xiao Jiming. The brothers did not have to go far before they encountered the man kneeling in the corridor. Pan Rugui went up to him and bent forward, cheerfully calling, “General Lu, General Lu!”

Lu Guangbai opened his eyes and wearily answered, “Pan gonggong.”

Pan Rugui said, “Please rise, General Lu. His Majesty has retired for today, he’ll only be able to see you tomorrow!”

A man of few words, Lu Guangbai nodded mutely and got up to walk out with the Xiao brothers. Only when they had mounted their horses outside the palace gates did Xiao Jiming ask, “Why were you kneeling all that time?”

Lu Guangbai said, “His Majesty doesn’t want to see me.”

They fell silent for a time, the unspoken reason clear between them. However, Lu Guangbai did not dwell on it for long, and turned to ask Xiao Chi’ye, “He rewarded you?”

Xiao Chi’ye gathered his reins. “He penned me up.”

Lu Guangbai reached over to pat him on the shoulders. “He isn’t penning you up, he’s penning your big brother and your dad up.”

Xiao Chi’ye let their hoofbeats echo for a while, then said, “When His Majesty brought up da-sao, I nearly broke out in a cold sweat right there.”

Both Lu Guangbai and Xiao Jiming began to laugh. “My lord and Yizhi are well?”

Xiao Jiming nodded. In court attire under his cloak, shed of his armour, he did not have Xiao Chi’ye’s youthful ferocity, but nevertheless drew the eye. “They’re well. Father still remembers the old General’s leg injury, and specially asked me to bring the salve he uses often. Yizhi is well too, but she has been missing you ever since she got with child. She’s written many letters, which I’ve brought as well. You can have them when we get back to our place.”

Lu Guangbai shuffled his reins uneasily. “It’s all men at home, there isn’t even an aunt or an in-law who can travel to spend some time with her. Libei’s winters are so cold. I heard the news while leading my troops from the border district, and I’ve been fretting the whole way.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Chi’ye agreed, “It was touch-and-go for a while in Ci province, brother was besieged on all fronts but he didn’t let me write home in case it distressed da-sao. We practically flew to battle this time, and they’d only just found out about the child before we left.”

Xiao Jiming, ever the reserved brother, only said, “Dad stayed home this time specifically so he can watch over Yizhi. Don’t worry, when I return after the New Year, I’m going nowhere else.”

Lu Guangbai sighed, “Libei has been in the forefront of border conflict these past few years, and you’ve had to think twice about every deployment. It’s damnable this time that the coward Shen Wei fled from battle and left his mess for us. When we passed by the Chashi sinkhole, the blood in the ground steeped our horses to their pasterns. Shen Wei couldn’t have escaped the death penalty one way or another, and did light himself on fire, but there’s genuinely something funny about the whole affair. Jiming, you brought his son to the capital, did you pick up on anything?”

Xiao Jiming pulled his cloak about him in the wind. “Shen Wei had always put much weight in the difference between true-born and low-born sons. This boy was low-born, eighth in line, and had no maternal family to note. He was left out to be brought up in Duan province. It would be within reason that he knew nothing. But His Majesty’s insistence may not be entirely without reason.”

Xiao Chi’ye put his helmet back on. “It’s hard to quench the people’s fury. His Majesty personally handed Shen Wei the command of all of Zhongbo’s six provincial reserve troops. Now  that something like this has happened, he’s going to have to execute someone as a show of justice.”

And yet, Da Zhou’s supreme commander was not he, but the Empress Dowager who sat listening behind her veil. At present, the situation had come to an impasse— all eyes were on Shen Zechuan. If he confessed and went to his death, it would be a happy ending for all concerned. However, if he lived, he would inevitably live as the splinter in someone’s eye. Libei’s Xiao family had come to the apex of its glory, so that even Qidong’s Qi family, which held the province’s command, must give way to them. Xiao Jiming was one of Dazhou’s four greatest generals— the “Iron Destrier of Coursing Ice”, and at the same time was brother-in-law to Lu Guangbai of Qidong’s border district. Strictly speaking, he had the capacity to mobilise both Libei’s Iron Cavalry and, through his wife, Qidong’s border reserve. Qu capital regarded him with wary eyes. 

“The Dowager insisted on sparing him,” Lu Guangbai said through thinned lips, “just so she can rear a jackal who will rightfully reclaim Zhongbo, but remain at her beck and call. When that happens, he will both strengthen the Inner Palace’s hold in court and act as a check on Libei. What a thorn in the side! Jiming, this boy must not live!”

On the streets, snow whirled furiously in the gale, lashing against their faces like cold blades. None of the three men spoke. In that long silence, Zhao Hui, who had been trailing them in silence, rode forward. 

Gongzi struck him in the chest just before— nearly full-force, right over his heart. I could see that his breaths came shallow, and when he hit the ground, he bled from his old wounds again.” Zhao Hui said thoughtfully, “Though he did not die right then.”

Xiao Chi’ye replied, playing with his whip, “He’d already be barely alive after days of interrogation and getting the rod on top of it. I just gave him a helping foot in the direction of hell. If he lives past tonight, I’ll give in to his guardian gods.”

But Zhao Hui frowned. “He is a frail boy who couldn’t even shake a chill the whole way here. He should already be dead. And yet he breathes on. Something’s strange here. My lord…”

Xiao Jiming swept a look at both of them from the corner of his eye. They shut their mouths. He turned back to peer into the strong wind at the path ahead of them. After a moment, he said finally, “Fate will decide if he lives or dies.”

The wind rose. Wind-chimes clamoured wildly under the eaves on either side. In an instant, the scent of death faded into the snow. Xiao Jiming sat erect in his saddle and calmly urged his horse onward.  
Zhao Hui bowed to him from his seat and spurred his horse to follow.

Xiao Chi’ye’s expression could not be made out under his helmet. Lu Guangbai clapped him on his shoulder. “And that’s why he’s your big brother.”

Xiao Chi’ye might have smiled a little. He murmured, “…and that’s fate too.”

4 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 4: Remnant

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