Book One, Chapter 7: The Grand Tutor

Grand Tutor Qi’s voice died in his throat. He jerked his hands back, and turned his face so he didn’t have to look at Shen Zechuan. He had been shut away in this place for twenty long years, slowly going mad, hating every single soul outside. But tonight, he had to convince himself not to hate his enemy’s son.

“As things are now…” Grand Tutor Qi cried bitterly, “and as I am now, who else can I kill!”

Snow fell noiselessly. A crow in the yard flapped off its branch. In the hall, ragged drapes shifted in the breeze. Grand Tutor Qi picked himself up tremulously. As he stumbled forward inconsolably, his arms reached up as if to demand an answer from the heavens.

“The dust has settled! History belongs to the victor. His Highness’s noble name is smeared into the dirt, and you and I are reduced to treasonists and renegades! Who can I kill? I’ll kill the sightless and imbecile Almighty! Twenty years ago, His Highness’s blood was dashed five paces upon this ground, but what had he done? What had we done that His Majesty must persecute us to the very gates of hell!”

Tears poured down Grand Master Qi’s face. He fell to his knees at the doorway, shaking, beating his head repeatedly on the ground.

“Why don’t you kill me too!!”

His cry echoed within the barren ruin of a temple, into that bleak snowy night. No one answered him. Crouched like that, Grand Master Qi mirrored the wreck of a Buddha behind him, slowly buried by soft snow, silently sunken in this luminous Capital night.

An hour later, Ji Gang helped Grand Tutor Qi to his feet, and all three came to sit before the altar.

“Many things tonight began with me. Since I have a chance to explain, I’ll keep nothing back.” Ji Gang tucked his hands in his sleeves and began. “Grand Tutor, Chuan-er was born under the Shen name, as the eighth low-born son of Shen Wei. Eight years ago, in the house of the Lord of Jianxing, conflict between its true-born and low-born factions came to a boiling point. The scion of Jianxing, Shen Zhouji, earned his father’s favour, and dispatched all of his low-born brothers from the main house. Chuan-er was only seven, and could not be sent back to join the troops in Duan province. Therefore, he was placed in one of their houses in Duan, to be raised by one of his mother’s maidservants. That maidservant turned out to be a thief and a spendthrift, and often kept food from the child. It so happened that Pingting knew his late mother, and when she learnt of the matter, she asked me to take Chuan-er back with me, so that he can be looked after properly.”

Grand Tutor Qi sneered, “Shen Wei had been low-born himself. All the injustices he suffered as a boy, he’d passed on to his sons. How ludicrous that he favours his true-born, when his fondness for women has begotten him a veritable brood of low-born sons! God help him.”

“We wrote to his household many times, but Shen Wei never replied. Grand Tutor— neglect like this has never been heard of amongst the eight main houses of Qu Capital, even with low-born children.” Ji Gang’s brows were drawn tight. “And so, somehow or other, Chuan-er came with us. Mu-er was fifteen then, and he was over the moon about having a little brother. From that point on, our family of four settled in Duan province. We even went to quite some lengths to get onto the legal census.”

Grand Tutor Qi was silent for a moment, then said, “Having left the capital a criminal, it would naturally have been difficult for you to enter the legal census. When His Highness bore down on the enforcement of the census, it was precisely to deter vagrants and prevent civic upheaval.”

“I understood that, Grand Tutor. What happened after I left the capital? How did His Highness the Crown Prince wind up in those straits?”

Grand Tutor Qi dragged the old drape over and wrapped it around his own shoulders. He began unhappily, “…after your departure, Ji Wufan lost favour with the Emperor. On the other hand, Pan Rugui rose to great esteem in His late Majesty’s eyes as a servant to the Empress. He was raised to Master of the Brush in the Office of Ceremony. Thenceforth, the Brocade Guard began to decline, and its twelve divisions eventually existed only in name. After Ji Wufan’s death, Ji Lei took sole charge, and the East Service became Godfather to the Brocade Guard, cutting off contact with the East Palace. Later still, the late Emperor took ill unexpectedly, and became increasingly confined to his bed. He handed over administration of day-to-day court matters to his Cabinet and the East Palace.”

“However, the Hua family took advantage of the Empress’s sway over His Majesty to instill many an empty-headed puppet into court. Corruption in the six Ministries rose again from its ashes. Interference from Imperial in-laws became a true plague in court. His Highness submitted appeal after appeal on this matter, but Pan Rugui abused his role as His Majesty’s transcriber to take control of government with the Empress, and none of his submissions ever reached His Majesty. To add coal to fire, when His Majesty took ill, the Empress shut out all visitations from both the Ministries and the East Palace.”

“These cut men are a blight on the country!” Ji Gang sighed feelingly. “Had we known that Pan Rugui harboured such an appetite for power, I would not have asked Father to spare his life!”

“If you had killed Pan Rugui, there will be a Pan Ruxi after him, and a Pan Ruyi after that!” Grand Tutor Qi said woodenly. “Interference from the Inner Chambers, dominion of the matrilineal Imperial kinsmen… Ji Gang, you don’t understand, these are the malignant side effects of the eight houses’ deep roots in this government and this city. As long as the eight houses persist, what had happened then will happen again and again! How could an Empress, living deep within the Inner Chambers, manipulate the court? Why, by the virtue of the Hua family’s long-established power and prestige. Even if the Empress had not been a Hua, if she had belonged to any one of the eight main houses, things would have turned out in the same way.”

“But,” Shen Zechuan couldn’t help but ask, “Wasn’t His Highness the Crown Prince born of the Empress herself?”

“Not so,” Grand Tutor Qi bowed his head. “His Highness’s birth mother was a concubine. The Empress bore no child of her own. However, His Highness was indeed raised from a babe-in-arms by the Empress herself. They say that even the most vicious tigress will not eat her cubs… but in the house of the Emperor, there is no true family to speak of.”

The hall fell into silence again.

Ji Gang huffed out a cold breath, and said bitterly, “My father lost the Emperor’s trust and goodwill because of my drunken carelessness. If it had not been for that, His Highness would never have been driven into such a predicament.”

“I had assumed that Ji Lei would not turn against us on account of yourself and Ji Wufan,” Grand Tutor Qi clutched at his drape, aggrieved by the memory. “Who knew that he…”

“Grand Tutor did not know this— ” Ji Gang looked at Shen Zechuan, “And neither did Chuan-er. My father, Ji Wufan, was the late Emperor’s brother in arms, and Director of the Brocade Guard. His first wife had passed on prematurely, and having no plans to take another, he adopted three boys. Besides myself and Ji Lei, we had an elder brother. Our brother disdained the darker workings of the Imperial Prison and left Qu capital early on, joining the troops at Tianfei Gate. Ji Lei and I stayed to serve in the Brocade Guard, fulfilling our filial duties to our father. He taught us both the Ji Family Fist and the Ji Family Sword. Later on, for a multitude of reasons, our father believed that Ji Lei had lost his way, and was becoming a grasping sycophant. Subsequently, he only handed down the Ji Family Precepts to me. As you might imagine, that divided my brother and I, once and for all. When Father passed on, Ji Lei made a complete overhaul, dispersing most of his old servants and subjects. The Brocade Guard too… is no longer the Brocade Guard we knew.”

Grand Tutor Qi mumbled, “That’s how fate would have it. All the efforts of the East Palace’s allies could not preserve His Highness. The late Emperor suspected His Highness of plotting rebellion with the Eight Battalions, but the command of the Eight Battalions was held within each of the eight main houses, all of whom were in accord with the Empress. When the Brocade Guard found documents related to the planning of the rebellion, they insisted that they were drafted by the Crown Prince. Our men were taken into the Imperial Prison. Many died there, and those who could not withstand the torture caved in and made false confessions. In his illness, the late Emperor was enraged by the reports he was given, and followed where Pan Rugui lead with his slander and lies. His Highness was forced into a dead corner.”

Tears streaked his face, and he seemed to become delirious again.

“His Highness was here, right here, trapped, nowhere else to go! Why didn’t they kill me? Why leave me to linger on in this miserable world? I have lived in such torment that I might long for death, and still I linger on.”

He suddenly fixed his gaze on Shen Zechuan, speaking faster and wilder.

“— I can’t let go! So many years of planning, lost but for a final chip! Countless allies wounded or dead, His Highness’s honour yet to be restored, I can’t let that go!” He latched onto Shen Zechuan’s arm again. “You’re so young, you have a chance still!”

“Grand Tutor…” Ji Gang rose to stop him.

“You can protect him for now, but can you protect him forever!?”  Grand Tutor Qi had a death grip on Shen Zechuan. “I can respect your will as a father, I will not hate him, I will not blame him, but can you ask the rest of the world to do the same? As long as he bears the name of Shen, there will be no lack for people who want him dead! Will simply learning to fight truly keep him safe and sound? Ji Gang, what a master of combat your father was, but in the end he still died sick and alone! In Qu Capital, in these ever-changing tides of power, it is the invisible knife that is deadliest! How can you turn him out naked and defenseless amongst the wolves and lions in this city?”

Ji Gang clenched his fists and said nothing.

Grand Tutor Qi held on to Shen Zechuan, but went to his knees before him. Looking into Shen Zechuan’s eyes, he cried aloud in a quavering voice, “I am Qi Huilian of Yu! You don’t know me, so I will tell you of myself. I was, I was thrice over the topmost scholar in the Imperial Examination of the fifteenth year of Yongyi. There have been but five triple champions since the founding of Dazhou. I was an ally of the East Palace, Minister of Personnel, and Deputy Advisor of the Cabinet. I taught the Crown Prince, and now, and now I shall teach you! Everything that I know, all of my life’s work, I will teach it all to you— will you accept?”

Shen Zechuan stared back into Grand Tutor Qi’s eyes. He was remarkably calm. After a brief beat of silence, he fell to his knees with a thump, and kowtowed three times to Grand Tutor Qi.   

“If Sir will teach me word and verse, I will fell Sir’s former foes.” 


Ge Qingqing left his house at sunrise for the Temple of Penitence. It was a crisp, cold morning, and snow fell steadily still. He huffed into his chilly hands, looking for a baozi stall along the way.

A voice hailed him from a ways off, a crimson silk umbrella cutting through the snow. The man under the umbrella headed his way, steps gently weaving. Anyone who could carry an umbrella of crimson silk in Qu Capital was a noble of fifth rank or above.

Ge Qingqing stood aside on the road shoulder and gave his salute, hand on sword-hilt. As the man swayed by him, he caught a powerful whiff of alcohol. 

“A Red Rider,” the man came to a halt, reaching out to pluck off Ge Qingqing’s waist-badge. [1] He glanced at it, then said, “Where would Sergeant Ge be heading in this chilly weather?”

Keeping his eyes on the man’s black boots, Ge Qingqing replied, “Sir, I am on duty at the bureau today. I am headed for the palace.”

Xiao Chi’ye was a rather dishevelled sight, having been drinking through the night. Dangling the waist-badge from his fingers, he said, “This road doesn’t look like it heads to the palace.”

Ge Qingqing looked up and smiled bashfully. “Er-gongzi lives too finely to know how messy these commoner’s alleys run. You need only duck through a couple of these alleyways to find a short-cut to the Shenwu Avenue, which leads straight to the palace gates.”

Xiao Chi’ye laughed and tossed the waist-badge back at him. “You know me?”

Ge Qingqing caught his badge and replied solicitously, “Who in this city does not know the bold and battle-savvy Libei Cavalry, or the heroic defense of the throne by my lord the scion and Er-gongzi? Are you returning to the manor, sir? It will be slippery on these streets. May I be so bold as to escort you back?”

Xiao Chi’ye looked at him, then said, “Do I look like a drunk? Go on your way.”

Ge Qingqing saluted again, and left.

When Zhao Hui finally arrived, Xiao Chi’ye was bouncing his red silk umbrella on the ground, prompting the baozi stall to hurry up. Zhao Hui came up to him and asked, “There is breakfast made ready in the manor, why is gongzi standing around for it here?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I’m hungry, I can’t walk.”

Zhao Hui shook out the cloak he carried, saying, “Debauchery is a vice, gongzi. Let’s head back.”

Xiao Chi’ye shrugged on the cloak, but stayed where he was. He took two bites of the baozi, blithely heedless of the glances he was drawing. He asked Zhao Hui, “Can we reach Shenwu Avenue from here?”

“We could, but it’s not an easy path,” Zhao Hui said. “The people’s alleys are also the city’s gutters. The narrower the alleyway, the more sludge it traps. Qu capital has not maintained its waterways in recent years, and this area has fallen into serious decay. When the weather warms up, snow will melt, rain will fall, and wastewater will swell to saturate the streets. Would a path like that be easy to walk?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I just asked you a simple question, why did you have to tell me all that?”

Zhao Hui replied, “The underlying point was, gongzi should keep his feet on the proper path. There’s no hurry to get to your next drink, you’ll get where you’re going faster if you go around.”

Xiao Chi’ye wiped off his hands and motioned for Zhao Hui to pay for his baozi. “That’s very strange then. Go ask around to see if there is someone called Ge Qingqing on duty today in the Brocade Guards— Hey, old man, go do something else for a living before it’s too late, that baozi was really awful.”

[1] Alternative name for the Brocade Guard.

Author’s note:
A brief note on the Brocade Guard and the East Service. Due to the influence of film and television, people often mistakenly assume that the Brocade Guards are a subordinate organisation to the East Service, and that the Director of the Brocade Guard is under the command of the East Service’s Administrator. However, in reality, both the Brocade Guards and the East Service answer to the Emperor alone, and there is no affiliation between them. However, in times when eunuchs hold more power, the East Service (which is staffed by eunuchs) grows more powerful as a result, and the Brocade Guards are forced to oblige them. The opposite is also true: when the Director of the Brocade Guard has the Emperor’s ear, the East Service is forced to roll over and play nice.

East Service (东厂): The East Service was effectively the Emperor’s secret service, so named because their headquarters was to the east of the Forbidden City.

Master of the Brush (秉笔): The Master of the Brush copied submissions and reports from the ministers for the Emperor’s perusal, and sometimes had the task of copying the Emperor’s comments and decisions on to these documents to be returned to the ministers.

3 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 7: The Grand Tutor

  1. In the paragraph

    Grand Tutor did not know this— ” Ji Gang looked at Shen Zechuan, “And neither did Chuan-er. My father, Shen Wufan, was the late Emperor’s brother in arms, and Director of the Brocade Guard.

    Shouldn’t it be: My father, Ji Wufan?

    (feel free to delete these comments after – whether they need to be edited or not~)


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