Book One, Chapter 11: A New Year

Shen Zechuan’s manacles were removed. He stretched the cramp out of his wrists, listening to the ceaseless murmur of Xiao-Qi’s grousing. Ji Gang went around to the Guards with a wheelbarrow and deftly unloaded their wine, then shuffled back to them, his head hidden in rags.

Xiao-Qi instructed Ji Gang to clean up the courtyard before spring, then went outside again to remind the night-shift unit not to spread word around about tonight.

“Did he hurt you?” Ji Gang asked, taking Shen Zechuan’s arm.

“No,” Shen Zechuan said, rubbing at his neck a little. Xiao Chi’ye’s chokehold had left a mark there. But then he said, “Teacher.”

“Where does it hurt?” Ji Gang asked immediately.  
Shen Zechuan shook his head and thought for a moment, then continued, “He had a ferocious physical style. His moves were forceful and formidable…they felt familiar.”

Astonishment appeared on Ji Gang’s ruined face. “We have never passed the Ji Family Fist to outsiders.”

“I didn’t dare respond after I saw his first strike,” Shen Zechuan said. He thought he could still taste the tang of blood in his mouth, and slowly ran the tip of his tongue over the cusps of his teeth, still thinking. “I was afraid that he would notice something if we fought, so I didn’t really get serious with him. Except he didn’t buy my act when I tried to play dirty either. Teacher, why does he hate me so much? Sir has been talking over politics with me— shouldn’t it be the matrilineal Imperial kinsmen, with the Empress Dowager at their head, that he hates more?”

“That little bastard was wasted!” Ji Gang spat. “He was looking for low hanging fruit, and you were the only one he could reach!”

Shen Zechuan brought his left hand out. “He was looking for this. Teacher, do you recognise it?”

Lying quietly in his palm was an old, worn thumb ring carved from bone.

“In an army, those with great arm strength will often use a longbow. This is one of those thumb rings worn to draw the bow,” Ji Gang examined the ring closely. “With scuffing like this, more than likely its owner even drew the Heavenly Longbow used in the Libei Iron Cavalry. But it’s not as if this Xiao Er-gongzi rides to battle at all, so why was he wearing this thing?”


Xiao Chi’ye slept like the dead until Lu Guangbai woke him up.

“Well done last night,” Lu Guangbai did not mince words. He made himself comfortable in a chair. “Barely muddled your way into a job before you’re harassing the personnel already. I just saw Jiming leave on his way to the Palace.”

Xiao Chi’ye did not move, covers pulled over his head. His throat felt awful. “Drank too much,” he croaked.

“We’ll all be leaving the Capital in a few days,” Lu Guangbai said seriously. “You can’t keep drinking like this. What’ll you do if you wreck your health and lose all your kungfu?”

Xiao Chi’ye did not answer.

Lu Guangbai continued, “You saw how they were sticking knives into your brother at the banquet yesterday. Try to give him a break. He has his hands full with managing Libei’s military affairs, he’s always thinking of your da-sao, and now he has to leave you behind. He’s not having a good time. A’ye, everyone applauds him in public, but behind closed doors all of them hope for a day when he would ride out to battle and never come back. And yet year after year he must lead his troops into war for these people. He doesn’t say anything, but he’s only flesh and bone after all. How can it not hurt him?”

Xiao Chi’ye flung his covers off and sighed hugely. “Don’t I know all that already?” he groused.

“What do you know?” Lu Guangbai hurled his tangerine at Xiao Chi’ye. “If you know everything, why aren’t you out of bed apologising to your brother?”

Xiao Chi’ye caught the tangerine and sat up.

Lu Guangbai caught sight of the bandage on his hand and could not stifle a snigger. He sat back in his chair and fed himself oranges, saying, “What’d you go harass him for? Are you happy now you got yourself bit?”

“I asked him to sing,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “He told me I was trying to kill him. He’s a real pain in the ass.”

“You’re a real pain in the ass too, brawling in the streets with an imprisoned convict. You’re lucky that Jiming arrived in time, or there’d be another massive scandal today.” Lu Guangbai asked, “Did he get you bad?”

Xiao Chi’ye lifted his hand and looked at it. “He’s got teeth like a dog’s,” he grumbled. 


It was past noon before Xiao Jiming returned. A step behind him, Zhao Hui spotted Xiao Chi’ye standing under the eaves waiting for them.

Da-ge,” Xiao Chi’ye said.

Xiao Jiming handed his cloak off to Zhao Hui. A servant girl carried over a copper basin, and Xiao Jiming rinsed his hands, taking no notice of his brother.

Zhao Hui turned back to look at Xiao Chi’ye, and said, “Gongzi, aren’t you meant to inspect the Imperial Guard today? Go claim your Governor’s badge, and come back for dinner in the evening.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I’ll go if da-ge says I should go.”

Xiao Jiming finally looked toward him, wiping his hands. “No one said you should go last night, but didn’t you go anyway?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I got lost. I was gonna come home.”

Xiao Jiming placed the cloth back in the basin, and said, “Go get your badge and come back for dinner.”

Xiao Chi’ye finally left.


Ever since the Imperial Guard had been relieved of its role as city-warden, its administrative office had fallen into quiet disuse. Xiao Chi’ye rode up to the sight of half a dozen blokes in short tunics and pouched belts gathered around the yard sunbathing and chewing fat. There was no scrap of soldierly mettle in their slovenly and idle conduct.

Xiao Chi’ye dismounted neatly and stepped into the courtyard, riding whip in hand. A lone pine tree stood in the yard, its upper branches balding. Snow piled in careless heaps, icicles hung untroubled from the eaves, and even the tiles on the roof looked in need of a tidy-up.

Money makes the world go round.

Xiao Chi’ye kept looking around. Even the paint on the door plaque was chipping off. He went down a few steps, arriving at the main hall. Sweeping aside the curtain with his whip, he ducked slightly to enter.

Everyone huddled around the stove stopped cracking peanuts immediately and turned around to look at Xiao Chi’ye.

Xiao Chi’ye laid his whip down on the table, claimed a chair, and sat down. “You’re all here?” he said.

There was a great clattering as everyone around him jumped to their feet, peanut shells crunching messily underfoot. Most of them were old Guardsmen over the age of forty. Having muddled along in the Imperial Guards for years, they had no skills to speak of save a talent for shirking and swindling. As they clapped eyes on Xiao Chi’ye now, they first looked him up and down, then darted furtive glances back and forth amongst themselves. 

Er-gongzi!” One of them began, wiping his hands on his robes and smiling. “We were waiting for you to claim your badge today!”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “And here I am, as soon as I could get here. Where’s my badge?”

“Well, Sir,” he said cheerfully, “We couldn’t find you in the morning, and the Ministry of Works was putting the pressure on, so Administrator Cao left with the badge to fetch some men for them. He’ll be back later today. I’ll get the badge delivered to the manor for you when we get it back.” 

Xiao Chi’ye returned his cheerful smile. “And who am I speaking with?”

The man said, “Me? Just call me Lao-Chen! I used to be a sergeant in Di city. Thanks to Thirteenth Elder Hua’s recognition, I am now Secretary of the Imperial Guard.”

“Well, this is a strange arrangement,” Xiao Chi’ye looked at Lao-Chen sideways, leaning over an armrest. “The officer below the Governor-General should be the Deputy Governor-General, why is this Administrator bearing the badge?”

“Don’t you know, Sir,” encouraged by Xiao Chi’ye’s undivided attention, Lao-Chen’s back straightened up bit by bit, shedding decorum. “When Zhongbo lost the battle last year, Jin city’s watercourse got blocked off, and there was a food shortage in Qu Capital. The bigwigs in the Ministry of Personnel couldn’t pay our annual wages, so they cut half the staff from our Headquarters. Now we don’t have a Deputy Governor-General, so there’s just Administrator Cao as next-in-line. There’s only the few of us here left now.”

“In that case,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “Just about anyone can carry the Governor-General’s badge?”

“The way we usually do it, we just take the badge and go. Jobs from the Ministry of Works can’t wait, they’ve got us carrying construction material for the Palace. We’re only small fry and we can’t afford to upset anyone either. There’s nothing for it.” Lao-Chen was settling into the familiar swing of avoiding responsibility. “If you think it isn’t right, Sir, you’d have to set it straight with the Ministry first.”

“I’m a commissioned Governor-General,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Why do I have to explain myself to the Ministry of Works? The only person above the Imperial Guard is His Majesty. If the Six Ministries need our help, it was given in the past out of friendship, and I shan’t hold them to account for it. But from today onwards, should they require manpower, they are going to lay out clearly how many men they need and how long they’re needed for. If they can’t give me a clear accounting, or they can’t get their maths right, then don’t expect my men to budge.”

“Sir can say it however Sir likes,” Lao-Chen began to laugh with his fellows. “But we’re not Guardsmen now, we’re just errand-boys! If we can help the Six Ministries out, at least that’s something useful we can do. Besides, it’s been like this all these years, and His Majesty hasn’t said anything. Er-gongzi, it’s better to have friends in high places than to have silver in the carry-pouch. You used to live in Libei, but it’s different here in the Imperial Guard than it is in the Iron Cavalry. Some ways of doing things just won’t do here! What’s more, us Guards, we’re nothing compared to the Eight Battalions, they’re— “

Xiao Chi’ye stood up. “Who did you say recommended you to your post?”

Lao-Chen stood ram-rod straight, his face glowing, and looked like he could shout his answer from the rooftops: “Thirteenth Elder Hua! You would know him too, Sir? Her Majesty the Dowager Empress’s lowborn grandson, Third Lady Hua‘s—”

Xiao Chi’ye lifted his foot and drove his boot into him. Lao-Chen was pink-faced and chattering one moment, and in the next he was slammed into the furniture. The teapot smashed loudly, hot tea splattering the ground. Lao-Chen was scalded back into his senses. He scrambled back to where he was on his knees, trembling.

“Baseborn spawn of the Hua house,” Xiao Chi’ye swept peanut shells off the table. “He’s not even fit to shine my boot, and that’s the great tree you cling to? At his utmost he’s a dogtail weed. I ask for the Governor’s badge, and you lecture me about how things are done? Have you got pigshit over your eyes? Do you know who I am? From this day on, my word is law in the Imperial Guard!”

Lao-Chen propped himself up on his arms and kowtowed to Xiao Chi’ye again and again, crying, “Er-gongzi, Er-gongzi!” as if suddenly slapped awake from a dream. 

“Who the hell is your Er-gongzi,” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes cut like cold steel. “As Governor-General of the Imperial Guard, I own your life and livelihood. You’d make trouble in front of me and act like a street thug? The Ministry needs manpower but they come to the Imperial Guard for men. You’d have me believe the Guards eagerly offer themselves up for the job without silver having changed hands in this process? The underling work their knuckles to the bone, and meanwhile each of you grows fat from the profit. Why, did you think you’re untouchable because old Thirteen said he’d vouch for you!”

“I’d never, I’d never!” Lao-Chen crawled towards him on his knees. “Governor-General, Sir! I was out of my mind…”

“Fifteen minutes,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “My badge, the register, twenty thousand men, I’m going to check all of them. Don’t worry if one of them’s missing, all of you can substitute your own heads instead.”

Lao-Chen scrambled up and ran out.


A few days later, as the Generals took their leave of Qu Capital, the Emperor Xiande and his ministry gathered to send Xiao Jiming off. As snow fell thick and fast overhead, the Emperor held Xiao Jiming’s arms in his hands, coughing fitfully.

“Jiming,” The Emperor was startlingly thin under the greatcloak wrapped about him. “After today, it will be a new year before we meet again. There has been much unrest at the Libei border of late. Though the Wasteland Riders have fallen back this time, they continue to refuse to bow their heads to us. Their hubris and lust for power is evident. Jiming, you are our most invaluable and trusted minister, and one of Dazhou’s most fearless Generals. Going forward, above all else, tread carefully.”

“We were delayed in hastening to Your Majesty’s defense this time, but received love and honour from Your Majesty nonetheless. Both mine and my father’s hearts rest uneasily,” Xiao Jiming replied. “In future, Libei shall respond to any call from Your Majesty even at the cost of ten thousand lives.”

“After your father fell ill, we have not had occasion to see him again these many years.” The Emperor slowly looked back at the dense mass of the crowd behind the city gates, and then towards the ancient and imposing Imperial Palace of Qu Capital. He said softly, “In the matter of the Shen family’s remnant, we have indeed let down our faithful martyrs on the battlefield. We have long been confined to our sick-bed. In many matters, we act in resignation.”

Xiao Jiming followed his gaze. After a moment, he said, “It snows and storms often in Qu Capital. Your Majesty, please take care of yourself.”

The Emperor slowly released his grip on Xiao Jiming’s arms. “Good lad, go on now.”

As Lu Guangbai rode out of the Capital, he was not at all surprised to find Xiao Chi’ye waiting alone in a pavilion at the foot of a hill. He did not dismount, but whistled at Xiao Chi’ye from afar, and called, “Little rascal, your big brothers are leaving now!”

Xiao Chi’ye held his horse and called back, “‘Tempests blow on the lakes of our turbulent world, have a care with your oars in the depths.‘ Watch out for yourself!”1

“If you have something to say, just say it, don’t sing poesy at me,” Lu Guangbai laughed gaily. “Hang in there— there will be a day when you can go home!”

“We’ll see what fate brings,” Xiao Chi’ye smiled back.

Hoof-beats came upon them from behind. Lu Guangbai looked around and spotted the figure riding towards them through the snow, dark hair set in a high tail, dressed trimly in faded robes. He spun his horse around and hailed, “Commander! Let’s go together!”

Qi Zhuyin slowed for them. She wore a cloak over a longsword on her back, and was lightly attired in faded outer robes. From her clothing alone, one would have taken her for another itinerant swordswoman. However, when the wind passed, her exceptionally charming face came into view.

“That horse of yours is made of second-rate stuff.” As she raised an eyebrow, she smirked like someone who wears command like a second skin. “You won’t be able to keep up, will you?”

Lu Guangbai didn’t mind at all. “He’s not as full of fire as yours, Commander, but he’s a good lad tempered on the battlefield nonetheless. Let’s give them a race on the road, and we shall see if I can keep up or not.”

“I think that one’s harder to come by,” she nodded her chin at Xiao Chi’ye. “Trade you?”

Xiao Chi’ye stroked his horse’s mane and called back, “No thanks, whichever way I look at it, I’ll lose here.”

Qi Zhuyin lifted her arm and tossed something at Xiao Chi’ye. Xiao Chi’ye caught it with both arms, and saw that it was a  phenomenally heavy scythe sword, held quiescent in its sheath. 

“Libei raised a batch of fine warhorses for Qidong last year, no small credit to you,” Qi Zhuyin said. “I commissioned that from the best smithy under my banner, and spent quite a chunk of fine material on it. How about it? You’re not losing now, are you?”

Xiao Chi’ye hefted the sword in his hands, a grin breaking out on his face. “Commander, from now on I’ll claim you as my own dear sister! The sword I brought from home is a good blade, but it’s too light, and handles nowhere as nicely as this one.”

Qi Zhuyin said, “Your sister? When you draw that blade, you’ll address me as your grandsire, thank you!”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Does it have a name yet?”

“I did think of one,” Qi Zhuyin said. “‘He who speaks of the cruelty of a wolf, speaks of an avaricious cruelty.’ ‘Avarice’— doesn’t that suit you?”2

Lu Guangbai argued, “‘Avarice’ for a name is a little too feral, he’s only— “

“Feral!” Qi Zhuyin cracked her whip and leapt away on her stallion. Without looking back, she called, “He’s a son of Libei, feral is what we’re looking for!”

In the distance, the grand army was moving off. A sea of crimson spear-tassels crested and eddied close behind Qi Zhuyin. The Qidong Garrison was surging away towards their open Eastern plains. Lu Guangbai did not linger any longer. He waved to Xiao Chi’ye, and raced off to join them.

Only a moment later, the thunder of heavy cavalry stirred the land with earth-shaking resonance. From a distance, Xiao Chi’ye spotted his brother at the head of the formation. The familiar black tide of the Libei Iron Cavalry swept across the snowfields, racing northward.

The gyrfalcon streaked after them through the air and circled high above the Cavalry, giving his echoing call. Xiao Chi’ye stood, sword in hand, and watched until the army disappeared into the whirling snow.


Shen Zechuan was rapped back from his moment of inattention by Grand Tutor Qi. 

“Now that the Generals have returned to their places, Qu Capital will sink back into still waters,” Grand Tutor Qi craned his neck to peer at Shen Zechuan, his hair loose about his shoulders. “You don’t have much time to squander. Do not become content with settling like a crab into this trapping pot!”

“They hold the boning knife, and I am but a fish on their chopping block,” Shen Zechuan raised his eyes to his mentor. “Sir, will there really be a chance for me to get out of here?”

“Fortune follows calamity. Your imprisonment may not be such a bad thing.” Grand Tutor Qi uncorked his gourd and took a few gulps of wine. “It is easier to tuck yourself away in waiting when you cannot go outside. In the coming years, you will not want for opportunities!”

In the distance, the Palace bell tolled. A new year had begun.

[1] From 梦李白其二 (I Dreamt Of Li Bai, Part II), by 杜甫 Du Fu. Translation mine with apologies.

[2] From the interpretation of the phrase 狼戾不仁 (cruel and inhuman) by 颜师古 Yan Shigu. There is argument that his interpretation was technically erroneous. Qi Zhuyin named Chi’ye’s sword 狼戾 (Langli). Translation mine with apologies.

3 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 11: A New Year

  1. xiao chiye putting his foot down and getting right to business is exactly what these men need. they’re so used to just being errand boys that they dont want to offend anyone.


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