As New Year’s drew closer, many people on the streets of Qu Capital began to wear ‘Dancing Moths’ cut from glazed black paper in their hair. Ordinary families threw themselves into preparing cakes and meat dishes ahead of time. In the Palace, acquisitions for the great State Banquet had begun half a month ago. The Imperial Kitchen was run off its feet, but the eunuchs did very well for themselves skimming cream off the milk.
Xiao Chi’ye flipped noisily through his booklet, marvelling, “Provincial officers have always had to offer up ‘appreciation gifts’ to their Capital counterparts when they come in, but only the mighty Pan Rugui has the gall to put his commission in a systemised list. Obviously things will only go well for you if you pay his bill.”
“And that’s just ‘small change’ for the start of the year,” Lu Guangbai said, skimming froth from his tea. “Reckon with this: one of Pan Rugui’s little minion eunuchs will take in way more silver in a year than could feed a thousand Borderland soldiers for two years. Dazhou deploys its troops every year, and each time the Ministry of Revenue comes grovelling to get us to mobilise, stopping just short of calling us granddaddy. But when the war is over, we become the sons of bitches chasing them for money.”
“You’re only granddaddy if you’re rich,” Xiao Chi’ye laughed.
“When Libei rode to the Emperor’s aid this past year, many of our men and horses were worn out from travelling in heavy snow. Repairs on the Iron Cavalry’s equipment and furnishings are going to have to be completed before the start of Spring too. We’ve owed the forges and workshops their pay for quite some days now. We need money everywhere.” Zhao Hui did some accounting in his head, and continued, “Before we came to Qu Capital, Libei’s troops were raising crops to exchange for silver, living each day on a strict budget. Our Lady didn’t even feel right buying some finer clothing for the household on special occasions. But Pan Rugui, a mere eunuch, is putting more silver in his pocket than the total tax revenue from Duan province is worth. The tax inspectors swagger about with the might of the Empire behind them when they go down into the provinces, but what happens in the Capital itself? They haven’t even the guts to break wind here!”
“We’re so broke,” Lu Guangbai sighed. “Money gives me anxiety every year. At least this time Jiming’s come to the Capital himself, and the Ministry of Revenue don’t dare procrastinate right in front of him. They’ve been prompt about submitting the paperwork to the Cabinet, and Pan Rugui has dutifully signed them off. The funds will probably be handed down before you leave the Capital.”
“We’ve got da-ge,” Xiao Chi’ye said, putting down his booklet and looking at Lu Guangbai. “What will you do?”
“His Majesty won’t see me,” Lu Guangbai said. “Our family has no clout in the Capital. The Eight Houses have always viewed us as barbarians from the great desert. The Hua’s won’t even look us in the face. But if I have to go through Pan Rugui, I haven’t the money for that either, we can barely feed ourselves at home. Troops in other places can sow crops as a contingency, but at the border we’ve only got miles and miles of sand that we couldn’t till if we tried. When we had to deploy in a hurry this time, our twenty thousand men and horses were fed from Commander Qi’s personal purse. To put it bluntly, if not for Commander Qi’s generosity, my troops would not have passed Tianfei Gate. But how much money does Commander Qi have? All she’s got is her dowry that the late grand-consort had put aside for her years ago! Her own private troops are on the verge of pawning their pants! The Ministry leads me round and round in circles, not for any particular reason, just leaves my ledger hanging and doesn’t allocate my funds. They’re banking on the fact that I, Lu Guangbai, am a powerless country woodlouse who can’t do anything to them!”
Lu Guangbai rarely lost his temper. He was truly at the end of his wits. Because the Borderlands sat on the very edge of the great desert, the amount of skirmishes his garrison had with the Wasteland Riders was second only to Libei. All through the year they would run hither and thither, eking out a living under the curved scimitars of the Riders, rarely going to bed with a full belly or catching a good night’s sleep. With Qu Capital riding on his back, the Lord of the Borderlands had long been known as the pauper of amongst the Lords. Their family never kept any of their Imperial accolades— all of them were traded for silver to fund their troops.
When Xiao Jiming was finished dressing, his serving girls streamed out of the room, leaving just the four men. Xiao Jiming took a cup of tea and sipped from it, saying steadily, “This year, you’ve got good timing on your side— the State Banquet on New Year’s. Qi Zhuyin should be here anytime?”
Lu Guangbai replied, “Exactly right. I was worried initially, but then I thought, hey, whatever, let them dawdle. Let them dawdle until the Commander-in-Chief arrives in Qu Capital, then may the gods help them.”
Xiao Jiming said, “Right now, she’s got great pull in Qu Capital. Even the loanshark thugs here will show some respect for her. It’s true that you may be able to pay off your debts this time, but you cannot possibly pin all your hopes on her forever. The Borderlands are strategically important, and by the way the winds were blowing yesterday, the Ministry of Revenue will be asking you to start up recruitment again this year.”
Lu Guangbai ran his finger over the rim of his teacup. “Recruitment? Don’t even think about it. They’ve gotten spooked by what happened to Zhongbo’s Six Provinces, and they’re starting to worry that the Borderlands might get skewered by the Twelve Clans next. Now they’re wondering if my twenty thousand troops are good enough. I can enlist more men, but do I have the money for it? I can’t feed those mouths. I’m not doing it, even if they put a sword to my neck this year.”
Xiao Chi’ye sat up suddenly. “That’s it— the Ministry’s always been falling over itself to shell out for the troops in Zhongbo’s Six Provinces. But this time they’re all dead, so they won’t pull wages, but what about their rations? The Wasteland Riders wouldn’t have been able to carry all that grain with them when they fled.”
The other three stared at him.
Lu Guangbai said, “You can stop waiting for it, dumbass. After they recovered the grain, they gave it all to Juexi county as recompense for the wages they owed its thirteen cities last year. Can’t you guess the excuse the Ministry gave? Since the Eight Houses became the Eight Battalions, they’ve had the best provisions and equipment that can be had in Dazhou, and all the money for that is taken from tax revenue. Two million yuan, just think about it. Anybody would see that their budget’s gone stark raving mad. But the Dowager doesn’t question it, Elder Hua doesn’t question it, so who in the Ministry would dare bring it up? And so that chunk’s gone from the Treasury. When the locust plague hit Juexi county last year and there wasn’t a single grain left to harvest, where were they supposed to find the money for famine relief? In the end it fell on Juexi’s commissioner Jiang Qingshan to force open every provincial official’s private stores for the people. Jiang Qingshan saved several hundred thousand lives that way, but officials up and down of Juexi County hate him so much they could bite him. I hear the debt collectors have blocked off his front door now. He’s a High Governor of the minor second rank, but his eighty-year-old mother at home has to weave fabric to help pay off his debts! If Qu Capital didn’t compensate him eventually, they’d really be forcing him into his grave. In the end, it was Elder Hai who petitioned the Emperor and tussled with the Cabinet and Pan Rugui for half a month before they only just barely filled this hole.”
Zhao Hui blurted, “We say we’re poor, but the money spent on bribery is counted in stacks, while people who do solid work have to tighten their belts and keep their eyes peeled. Having come to the Capital, I wish we hadn’t bothered. It’s making me depressed.”
Snow fell outside, but no one inside was in the mood for New Year’s. All the mess from the previous year was still piled about in mouldering heaps. The air of rejuvenation in Qu Capital was just that— air and smoke blown over its surface. The mortal wound Qu Capital had suffered had not yet begun to heal, but they kept it smothered under wrappings till it putrefied. Purulent waters soaked its streets. It was good timing for snow. All of this could be neatly covered, and you can pretend not to see any of it. Drink, make merry, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
In the depth of night, Pan Rugui sat on his bed, eyes closed. A sheaf of loose paper was laid within reach, so he could wipe his hands when he came out of meditation. Xiao-Fu’zi tried to breathe as quietly as he could, waiting anxiously on the footrest by the bed, a rolled-up brush bag in his hands.
An hour later, Pan Rugui breathed out long and slow, then opened his eyes. Xiao-Fu’zi presented the brushes immediately, and Pan Rugui, brows intense, put down a few words in the palm of Xiao-Fu’zi’s hand.
Xiao-Fu’zi praised, “These days, Grandfather is becoming more and more like His Majesty, and looking more sage-like by the day. Just now, I could almost see a faint purple cloud rising about you!”
Pan Rugui said, wiping his hands, “Do you know why you just can’t seem to get into the Office of Ceremony?”
Xiao-Fu’zi replied, “Because Grandfather is too fond of me?”
“It’s one thing that I’m fond of you,” Pan Rugui tossed his used tissue into Xiao-Fu’zi’s lap. “And quite another that you haven’t got a discerning eye on you. His Majesty has been walking the Path of Enlightenment for two years now, and even he hasn’t seen the Purple Cloud Ascending. How can I, a mere servant, rise first? Isn’t that overstepping my station?”
Xiao-Fu’zi handed some hot tea to Pan Rugui, grinning playfully, “Grandfather is the master I serve and the sky over my head. When I watch Grandfather meditating, I feel like I’m watching Taishang Laojun come down from the heavens! Where would I find the wits to think deeper?”
“Hm,” Pan Rugui rinsed his mouth out. “You do have some skill where filial piety is concerned.”
Xiao-Fu’zi tittered, and drew up against Pan Rugui’s feet, saying, “Seeing as New Year’s is just ’round the corner, I’ve got to take proper care of Grandfather. When we were running errands earlier, I caught a glimpse of the lushest little beauty in Prince Chu’s mansion! I’ll ask around a little. Seeing as His Majesty won’t be needing her, I’m making it a priority to gift her to Grandfather.”
Pan Rugui said, “How pretty can she be? Would she be prettier than the Third Lady? Besides, doesn’t she belong to Prince Chu? With that rude and domineering temper of his, it’ll not be easy getting him to say yes.”
Xiao-Fu’zi said, “As highborn as Prince Chu is, can he be higher than His Majesty? If His Majesty hasn’t even said anything, isn’t it proper that she’s given to Grandfather? Don’t you worry about this, Grandfather. I guarantee that everything will be sorted out before the start of Spring. You’ll only have to look at her, and whether or not you accept her will be up to her own fortunes.”
Pan Rugui put his teacup down. “Well, it’s no hurry. I am not someone who covets women or wealth. But since you’ve brought up Prince Chu, what has that like-tempered, insolent Xiao Er-gongzi been doing lately?”
Xiao-Fu’zi was massaging Pan Rugui’s legs. “Hee! Grandfather, that Xiao Er-gongzi is something else. From the first night he came to Qu Capital right up until today, he hasn’t stopped partying! Hasn’t done a single bit of actual work, just parties and drinks all day. Prince Chu’s crowd love him. Birds of a feather really do flock together.”
“Well, that’s fine… but he is a Xiao after all. If His Majesty places him in the Department of Ceremonies, he’ll still be too close for comfort.” Pan Rugui deliberated for a moment, then smiled. “We’ve thought of a great place to pack him off to. Bring my shoes, I’m going to Mingli Hall to serve His Majesty!”
It was New Year’s the next day, and the great State Banquet. Nothing of consequence interrupted the feast. Nearing its end, the Emperor spoke up.
“A’ye, have you been comfortable these few days living in the Capital?”
Xiao Chi’ye stopped peeling his tangerine and replied, “Yes, your Majesty, I have.”
The Emperor then turned to Xiao Jiming and said, “We have been thinking this over— it would really be a waste of A’ye’s talents to put him in the Department of Ceremonies. He’s a good lad who has been on the battlefields, and we would stifle him by keeping him in Court. How about this— let A’ye join the Imperial Guards. Its Governor-General was Xi Gu’an, but he also has to manage the Eight Battalions these days. It’s hard for him to be everywhere at once. Let A’ye take over from him.”
Lu Guangbai immediately frowned.
At least the Department of Ceremonies was part of the Imperial Court, and it would be difficult for the Emperor to look the other way if something was to happen to him. But what was the Imperial Guard? They were the outright errand-boys of Qu Capital. Was this still a ‘reward’? Could this still be called a ‘reward’?!
Lu Guangbai made to rise, but Xiao Chi’ye had already stepped forward to bow to the Emperor.
“‘Governor-General’ sounds pretty grand, like a commander-in-chief,” Xiao Chi’ye grinned carelessly. “Thank you, your Majesty!”
Elder Hua chuckled, saying, “Your Majesty is wise indeed! Master Xiao, they do say our greatest heroes are forged from youth. Your brother is making a good start!”
Congratulations rippled from the banquet hall like a tidal wave. Xiao Jiming smiled and said nothing, his eyes fixed on Xiao Chi’ye.
Lu Guangbai bowed his head to drink, saying to Zhao Hui out of the corner of his mouth, “…pulling this on us…they really mean to cut Jiming to the quick.”
The moment the banquet was over, Xiao Chi’ye was gone.
His pack of friends clamoured to celebrate his promotion, so he brought them out drinking with him. It was past midnight when they finally emerged, swaying on their feet.
Prince Chu, Li Jianheng, was just a few years older than Xiao Chi’ye, and a genuine asshat. Even as he was mounting his palanquin, he had Xiao Chi’ye by the sleeve, babbling drunkenly, “Good on you! Imperial Guards don’t have to patrol! You’ll have plenty of free time, but you get your wages just the same! You don’t even have to make an effort to get paid! How did you walk into the best deal in the world, you bastard? You’ll be laughing into your pillow!”
Xiao Chi’ye was laughing, and wickedly too. He said, “That’s right, and aren’t you the first one I asked out for drinks tonight? Starting tomorrow, we’ll terrorise Qu Capital together!”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Li Jianheng pounded on Xiao Chi’ye’s shoulders. “That’s the spirit! Come to my place in a few days, we’ll keep… celebrating…”
Xiao Chi’ye watched the palanquin go, then leapt onto his horse. This had been a foal he had personally bred from wild horses he had tamed beneath the Swan Goose Ranges. He was a fierce, handsome stallion, black as a raven everywhere except for a splash of pure white at his breast.
Xiao Chi’ye urged him forward. Stallholders by either side lit their lamps to send him off, but he lifted a hand and said, “Put it out, no lights.”
The shop hands looked at each other and dared not disobey. The lamps went out one by one. Only the hazy glow of a cold moon upon frozen snow was left on the road.
Xiao Chi’ye whistled, and his gyrfalcon plunged from the night sky, giving its piercing call. He spurred his steed into a swift gallop, and the warhorse under his seat snorted hot steam as they tore into the darkness.
The hot, drunken glow in him scattered in the fierce gale. Under the cover of night, he was a trapped beast, ramming his head this way and that, and the pounding of hooves were the crash of his collisions. He flew along empty streets, the darkness clawing apart his rictus of a smile, until all that remained was a cold, lonely silence.
No one knew how long the stallion had been running when Xiao Chi’ye suddenly pitched himself off. He fell hard into the snowdrift and stayed like that for a while, his head down.
The horse reared, settled, then came to snuffle around his head. The gyrfalcon perched on the saddle, surveying him with its head to the side.
Xiao Chi’ye suppressed a retch, then raised himself onto his elbows and began to vomit. A long time later, he propped himself up against the wall. His thumb ring, a little too big for him, had fallen somewhere. He started searching in the snow, but then heard someone not far away call out softly, “Who is it?”
Xiao Chi’ye ignored him.
Imperial Guard Xiao-Qi felt for his lantern and shone around with it, saying, “How dare… Sir?”
Xiao Chi’ye tilted his head. “Know me?”
Xiao-Qi shook his head truthfully. “I don’t know which Sir you are…”
“I’m your big brother.” Xiao Chi’ye threw away his soiled cloak, and kept his eyes on the ground, still looking for his thumb ring. He swore quietly in frustration and said, “Give me your lantern. You can fuck off.”
Xiao-Qi sidled over cautiously. “It’s Er-gongzi, isn’t it? We just got the news. The sun hasn’t even come up yet, it’s too early for an inspection. Why not come back tomorrow…”
Xiao Chi’ye held out his hand. Xiao-Qi handed over his lantern. He asked, “Where’s this?”
Xiao-Qi replied obligingly, “You’ve come to the perimeter wall of Qu Capital, Sir. We’re at the Temple of Penitence.”
Xiao Chi’ye said, “Go away now.”
Xiao-Qi started to back away, but then Xiao Chi’ye said, “Shen Zechuan is here? Inside the wall?”
“Yeah,” Xiao-Qi was getting nervous. “He’s locked up in…”
“Call him out.”
Xiao-Qi blanked, then said hurriedly, “That won’t do! Even if you’re Governor-General! His Majesty gave strict orders…”
Xiao Chi’ye raised the lantern. “My word is law in the Imperial Guard now.”
Xiao-Qi ventured, “But still, don’t k-kill…”
“I want him to come out and sing me a fucking song!” Xiao Chi’ye hurled his lantern aside. The light went out instantly. He stood there in the darkness, violence in his eyes.
One thought on “Book One, Chapter 9: Promotion”
a drunk xiao chiye demanding that lanzhou come out just so he could humiliate him. along with how angry and suffocated he must feel about his situation isnt a good sign.