The Imperial Guards were waiting for shift-change, every man huddled into himself against the freezing cold.
The Imperial Guard of Qu Capital was once an impenetrable shield that stood guard over all eight of its constituent cities. Technically, they would not have been called upon for a minor assignment like prison sentry duty. However, when the Eight Battalions later came into power, the roles of the two forces were exchanged. The Imperial Guard became Qu Capital’s deadweight. Not only were practice drills removed from its military curriculum, they had also become Qu Capital’s de facto errand runners. To this day, it remained an army staffed by slackers and the unambitious sons of military families, untried by combat.
As a sergeant in the Brocade Guard, Ge Qingqing didn’t count for much in Qu Capital, but was just important enough for the Imperial Guards on sentry duty. They all went about their duties in the same Capital from day to day, and there was no lack for opportunities to have each other’s back. They would have been less willing to risk paying their ‘respects’ to someone a little higher up on the ladder than he was. Besides, Ge Qingqing had quite a generous way about him, so the Imperial Guards happily shut an eye when Ji Gang took over from the original servant posted to the Temple.
Ge Qingqing greeted the Imperial Guards, and handed over the hot baozi he had brought to be passed around. Ji Gang was not out yet. Xiao-Qi saw that he was wondering about it and offered, “If Qing-ge is in a hurry, go in ahead and check in on them on our behalf.”
“Wouldn’t that be against the rules?” Ge Qingqing asked.
Xiao-Qi waved a hand, baozi in his mouth. He signaled for the Guard at the back door to let Ge Qingqing through, saying, “Qing-ge isn’t a stranger. Besides, we’ve sealed off the Temple so tightly it’s nearly waterproof. He’s not getting away.”
Ge Qingqing didn’t demur further, and turned to enter the Temple.
Ji Gang was sitting under the eaves. He stood up when he saw Ge Qingqing come in. “Is it time already?”
“Not to worry, the sun isn’t up yet, Uncle Ji can stay a little while longer.” Ge Qingqing replied, looking about him at the courtyard. “This place isn’t fit to be lived in, especially right now in the middle of winter. I’ll send some quilts in later.”
Ji Gang saw that he had something on his mind, and asked, “What happened?”
Ge Qingqing answered hesitantly, “Nothing major. I just met Xiao Er-gongzi on my way here.”
Shen Zechuan looked up at that. “That Xiao…”
“Xiao Chi’ye,” Ge Qingqing supplied. “The Lord of Libei’s younger son. He’s the one who… that time. He was wobbly on his feet and smelled quite strongly of alcohol. Probably went out drinking last night.”
“As long as it wasn’t Xiao Jiming,” Ji Gang turned to explain to Grand Tutor Qi, “Grand Tutor hasn’t been outside in twenty years, you probably don’t know of Dazhou’s four greatest contemporary Generals. The Lord of Libei has begot himself a good son. That Xiao Jiming is quite something!”
But Shen Zechuan pressed Ge Qingqing, “Qing-ge, did he ask you anything?”
Ge Qingqing carefully recollected, “He asked me where I was going, and I said I was taking a short-cut to my station to start my shift. Then he said that the street we were on didn’t look like it would lead to Shenwu Avenue, so I just made something up. I imagine a noble princeling like him wouldn’t personally check up on my words.”
“Be that as it may, it’s best to be careful where the Xiao’s are involved. You should go to the palace later, and make sure to check yourself off on the register.” Ji Gang rubbed some snow between his hands. “Chuan-er, let’s train.”
“One moment,” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were deep and dark with thought. “If this was a small alleyway through a commoner’s district, what was a noble princeling like him doing there at this time in the morning?”
Ge Qingqing blinked. “Now that you mention it… all the entertainment venues are on Donglong Avenue, some distance from the housing district. Why was he doing wandering over here drunk and hungover on such a cold morning?”
“He’s on a stakeout,” Grand Tutor Qi rolled over in his drape-cocoon, giving them his behind. “The Xiao’s have an interest in Shen Wei’s case. I hear that the lad clearly meant to take this kid’s life with his kick. How could he not be suspicious that he’s ended up alive and well?”
“If he had only asked the first question off-hand, he would not have followed it with the second,” Shen Zechuan said. The memory of that kick to his chest still made his heart pound.
“Oh no,” Ge Qingqing paled. “That was careless of me. What should we do now? He’s probably already on the move!”
Shen Zechuan turned to Grand Tutor Qi. “It’s alright. Since Sir has guessed his intentions, he must have thought of a counter-play.”
Zhao Hui entered the Bureau of the Brocade Guards. The administrator who accompanied him was his equal in rank, but did not try to put on airs to impress him. He led Zhao Hui to the registry and asked, “What does General Zhao wish to check? Here are all twelve divisions’ registers for today.”
Zhao Hui picked up the file and flicked through it, his face giving nothing away. “We owe our brothers in the Brocade Guard our thanks for keeping security on palace grounds. A few days ago I received some aid from a sergeant by the name of Ge Qingqing, and came today to thank him in person. Is he on duty?”
“There are scores of sergeants in our twelve divisions, but they’re all recorded here,” the administrator moved to a wall which held the roster books in clearly marked sections.
Those, however, Zhao Hui could not touch. Palace etiquette forbade it.
The administrator asked, “Does Sir know which division he works in?”
Zhao Hui replied, “I hear he works early morning shifts, so it can only be the Imperial Carriage, the Imperial Canopy, or the Elephant Handler’s division.”
The administrator carefully went over each of these sections. Some time later, he turned to say, “General, there is no man by this name on duty today. Shall I have a look in other places for you?”
Zhao Hui closed the file in his hand lightly. He said, “No need, I will search for him myself.”
When Zhao Hui left the registry, the sky had just begun to lighten. He strode purposefully back along the road he came by, exiting palace grounds.
Shenwu Avenue had been freshly swept of the new snow, but the ground remained slippery, and the palanquin bearers escorting noblemen to and fro took no risks. They walked with care, asking for no more than a steady journey.
Passing such a palanquin, Zhao Hui saw that one of its bearers wore a sword on his belt. The next moment, that brief glimpse made him frown.
“One moment,” Zhao Hui stopped the party. “Would you be escorting the Director?”
The palanquin bearers were indeed Brocade Guards. The leading man dipped his head and said, “How dare you hold us up knowing who we bear? Give way!”
Zhao Hui shifted his hand aside to expose his Libei waist-badge.
The Brocade Guard dipped his head again in apology. “Our apologies, General!”
A curtain shifted on the palanquin. A delicate hand lifted the curtain, and a pretty face swept a lazy glance over Zhao Hui. She turned to the man inside and pouted, “He’s looking for you, my Lord!”
Ji Lei, too, was returning with a hangover. He sat easily within the palanquin and greeted Zhao Hui. “General Zhao! Something wrong?”
Zhao Hui kept his eyes on the leading Brocade Guard and answered, “Not at all. I hear that gongzi went out drinking with my Lord last night. Is my Lord just returning now?”
Ji Lei laughed, “Ah, worried about Er-gongzi? He’d already left for home when I woke up this morning. Is my Lord the scion looking for him?”
“Just me,” Zhao Hui bowed to him. “Pardon my intrusion, my Lord.”
“No matter! I’ve only just come back out too.” Ji Lei waved a hand. “Who was it that gave the General lip just now? Hurry up and apologise properly.”
The leading Brocade Guard went down on one knee and said to Zhao Hui, “I am Ge Qingqing, Sir. The Heavens gave me eyes but I didn’t know how to use them. I humbly accept any penalty for offending you, General!”
Zhao Hui had not misread.
Hanging by the sword on his belt, the waist-badge did indeed carry the name ‘Ge Qingqing’.
Xiao Chi’ye listened to all this from Zhao Hui, reading his novel with one leg propped on the other.
Zhao Hui concluded, “So it seems he wasn’t lying. He was just sent to escort Ji Lei before he could make it into the palace.”
“Yeah,” Xiao Chi’ye murmured distractedly, “Qingjun Lodge is closer. Of course he would’ve got there in time.”
“But I still think there’s something not quite right,” Zhao Hui mused, rubbing his thumb over his pommel.
Xiao Chi’ye flipped a page. “You can’t figure it out?”
“Then I’ll tell you.” He flipped upright and crossed his legs, propping one hand on a knee. “You entered the Capital right beside da-ge. His Majesty personally welcomed the company, and the twelve divisions of the Brocade Guard were right behind you in the procession. So why can’t he recognise you now?”
“That’s hard to say,” Zhao Hui argued. “What if he just forgot?”
“You haven’t even changed your robes, and you’re still wearing your sword. Even if he didn’t know your face, if he’d just given it a moment’s thought, he wouldn’t have dared holler at you like that in the middle of the street,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Besides, I don’t think he’s got a bad memory. He remembered even me quite well.”
“I just think it’s too much of a coincidence,” Zhao Hui mused. “That I just happened to bump into him.”
“He made it a coincidence.” Xiao Chi’ye tossed his novel aside. “This Shen…”
“Shen Zechuan,” Zhao Hui supplied.
“It feels like I’ve lost a round, letting him get locked up in the Temple of Penitence,” Xiao Chi’ye said, his eyes contemplative.
Ge Qingqing took off his neckwarmer and wiped his face.
Wu Caiquan ran in from outside, legs clenched together. “Thank you, thank you!” he said again and again. “Qing-ge, thank heavens for you!”
“No worries, we’re all brothers here.”
Wu Caiquan grinned, turning to call to the man in the registry, “Lao-Xu! Put Qing-ge down today, he took over carrying the palanquin from me. I caught a chill last night and my head was swimming this morning. Thank heavens for Qing-ge‘s help.”
Ge Qingqing was still drying off, head bowed. “If you’ve caught a chill, let’s head to Xu’s family stall and have some mutton soup later.”
Wu Caiquan gladly said, “Sure thing! Qing-ge‘s treating! Lao-Xu, did you hear that? Let’s leave together later!”
“Don’t let today weigh on you,” Ge Qingqing gave Wu Caiquan’s back a thump. “Rest up. Next time you’re not feeling well, don’t keep it in like today, just let me know.”
Wu Caiquan nodded like a good puppy. There was already nothing on his mind but mutton soup.
Grand Tutor Qi finally had a cotton quilt to wrap around himself at night. He sat himself opposite Shen Zechuan, saying, “It will be New Year’s in half a month. Qu Capital will hold its Thousand Officer Banquet, and all provincial commissioners and prefecture superintendents will come to the Capital to celebrate. I am unclear about the present state of affairs. Tell me how things are now.”
Shen Zechuan stood in the snow in thin clothing, holding the Ji Family Fist’s starting position. Sweat dripped from his brow. He said, “The Lord of Libei has been ill for many years, and his scion, Xiao Jiming, handles all military affairs in his stead. He will probably not attend this time either. The five counties of Qidong share credit for defending the throne this time as well. First to arrive for recognition was one of the Four Great Generals, Lu Guangbai. Commander-in-Chief Qi should also arrive within these few days. When that happens, the two greatest military authorities in Dazhou will temporarily— “
“One second,” Grand Tutor Qi fished out a ruler from his nest of blankets. “Which are the Four Great Generals?”
“The Iron Destrier of Coursing Ice, Xiao Jiming; the Flaming Beacon in a Sandstorm, Lu Guangbai; the Calling Gale of the Wild Plains, Qi Zhuying, the Sleeping Thunder of the Jade Tower, Zuo Qianqiu!”
“I have only heard of Zuo Qianqiu. But I also know that this Lu Guangbai is likely the son of the Lord of the Borderlands, Lu Pingyan. Though Lu Pingyan later went to hold watch over the great desert, in earlier years he grew up in Libei. He is the sworn brother of the Lord of Libei, Xiao Fangxu. If this Lu Guangbai has a sister, she will be married into the Xiao family, am I right?”
“Yes,” Shen Zechuan confirmed, wiping sweat away. “Lu Guangbai’s younger sister is the wife of Libei’s scion.”
“Then where comes the talk of these ‘two greatest military authorities’?” Grand Tutor Qi said. “With this connection between then, the Lu family is a nail embedded into the five counties of Qidong by Libei. The waters are very muddy there. Not to mention, there are the Eight Battalions in Qu Capital, and under them, the Imperial Guard. Though the Eight Battalions are outnumbered by Libei and Qidong and less renowned, you have to remember: Qu capital is the heart of Dazhou. They hold the beating heart of the Emperor in their palms.”
Grand Tutor Qi hefted the ruler in his hand. He snagged the wine-gourd and sucked a few mouthfuls of wine to warm himself up.
“Remember this too: although the Brocade Guards are not an ‘army’, they are much more convenient to use. If an Emperor wishes to mobilise an army, he must send great ministers and mighty generals with it. A general in the field must have the right to refuse even his sovereign’s commands. If you hold him too tightly in your hand, he may never amount to anything. If you let him too loose, you will fear that he will turn his teeth on you. The subtlety in this is difficult to grasp. One must be perceptive and adaptable, and match the medicine to the malady. But the Brocade Guard is different. They are raised to be the bulldog beneath the Emperor’s throne, and their chain is held by the Emperor alone. His whim decides whether he holds it tightly or loosely, whether he loves it or spurns it. A blade like that, a hound like that, would you like it, if it was yours?”
Shen Zechuan held back for a moment, then blurted, “I would— but in favouring it, I risk spoiling it! Blind faith and overindulgence make the seed of ruin.”
“Your brother has taught you quite a lot,” Grand Tutor Qi said. “You’re right. Remember that, and remember it well! Blind faith and overindulgence make the seed of ruin. Though it is the way of a virtuous ruler to embrace honest men and spurn the flatterer, in the midst of it all, when everything is a shade of grey, how can you always distinguish the honest from the false? Further, even an honest gentleman has things he cannot do, that a liar or a lesser man can. An Emperor lives his life deep within the palace. He must understand and utilise checks and balances, and he must give an ear to every one of his mob of ministers. Look: when the Brocade Guard rose, the East Service followed. When Libei rose, Qidong followed.”
Grand Tutor Qi paused a moment, then continued.
“When a cup is full it overflows, and when a moon is fullest, it wanes. Do you know why the Xiao family bears so much hatred towards Shen Wei today? It isn’t only because Libei can rise no further after this battle. The truth of the matter is, if the Xiao family goes to battle again, they will lose if they lose the battle, and they will lose if they win it. They’ve reached the end of their road.”
Shen Zechuan asked, “They will lose if they win?”
“They will lose even if they win! Xiao Jiming won this time. Didn’t he lose his brother immediately? In future, each battle he wins will bring him further into peril. He’s lost his brother this time, and the next time it may be his wife, his father, or even himself.”
2 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 8: Suspicion”
it will never fail to impress me how quickly xiao chiye is able to catch on when something seems /off/. he barely interaction with ge qingqing but he still was able to tell something was strange. meanwhile lanzhou in turn was able to tell that he was suspicious of their movements and acted accordingly as a countermeasure.
these two boys play such good chess against each other than when they join forces literally no one can stand against them