It was midsummer of the eighth year of Xiande.
Secretary Wang Xian of the Ministry of Revenue was sweating through his round-collared tunic. He shifted uneasily in his seat, and kept lifting his black muslin hat to mop his brow.
“Master Xiao,” Wang Xian stammered, “It- it isn’t that the Ministry won’t pay you, but we have yet to finalise the Treasury’s total expenses, and Pan gonggong won’t sign off on new withdrawals, so we really can’t shift any funds at the moment!”
“You need time to do the maths, I understand,” Xiao Chi’ye took a few sips of his tea. “So I’m happy to wait here. There’s no hurry.”
Wang Xian swallowed. He looked at Xiao Chi’ye’s unruffled demeanour, then at the motionless Imperial Guards lining the corridor outside.
“Sir,” Wang Xian was this close to begging. “It’s so hot today, I can’t in good conscience let our soldiers stand outside, let me bring out some cool drinks for everyone, we have some ice in storage— “
“We don’t take if we haven’t given,” Xiao Chi’ye’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Us Guards are hardy men. We do grunt work for a living, a few hours of standing in the sun is nothing to us. Please don’t let it distract you from the calculations, Sir.”
Wang Xian clutched the accounting book in his hand. Minutes passed. His brush hovered in the air, unused.
The Emperor had become gravely ill at the start of spring. As a result, the Dowager Empress called for a great amount of construction work to begin in the Palace, wishing to build a temple where sutras may be chanted on the Emperor’s behalf to increase his auspices. Tasked with this assignment, the Ministry of Works found themselves in need of lumber from Duan province. They called upon the Imperial Guard to make the delivery for cheap. But when the Imperial Guard finally delivered the lumber into Qu Capital, the Dowager withdrew her construction plans due to objection from Elder Hai. This meant that the Ministry of Revenue no longer had silver at hand to pay the Guards for their work. They had been putting them off for two months and counting.
They did not owe a great amount. If the Treasury had been full, no one would have given a second thought to it. After all, who would get on Xiao Er-gongzi‘s bad side over such a small sum? But the Ministry of Revenue was in a bad place this year. The Dowager Empress’s grand birthday celebration last year had cost nearly a million yuan in the feasting and gold favours alone.
Wang Xian put his brush down. He braced himself with the air of a martyr. “Sir, it is just not possible to settle these accounts at the moment. Let me be honest here, the way the accounts are looking so far, if the year-end expenses don’t match up with the budget, they may not even be able to pay us our yearly wages. There just really isn’t any money. Even if you put a knife to my throat today, there’s nothing more that I, Wang Shoucheng, can do about it!”
“The Eight Battalions get their pay just the same, but when it’s the Guards’ turn, you’ll cry broke. We all labour in service of His Majesty, but apparently I, Xiao Ce’an, am less of a person, and it serves me right to have to hang on to my books and wait on you gentlemen to sort yourselves out.” Xiao Chi’ye flung his teacup to the table with a clatter. “Your Ministry moans about money every year, but what’s that got to do with me? It’s put in black and white right there on the contract, labour for payment. We’ve done the labour, so payment has to be made. Don’t talk to me about anything else, it’s not in my job description to feel sorry for your Ministry. If we’ve got to make concessions for every problem the Ministry runs into, what’s the point of any of you? Step aside for someone more competent.”
Wang Xian’s face darkened with every word. He got to his feet. “Sir, since we are all His Majesty’s servants, why must you press us so bitterly? Why would we not settle your account if we had the means to do it? If the Guards are all that, why don’t you become the Ninth Battalion? No one would dare withhold your pay then!”
Tension crackled. Just when the two of them might have come to blows, a man stepped over the threshold with a lift of his hem.
“Pray do not take offense, Master Wang. Er-gongzi is simply a sharp man with an equally sharp tongue.” He took off his sunhat, and wiped his hands with a handkerchief.1 “I am Xue Xiuzhuo, Chief Steward of Revenue Oversight. It is precisely for the matter of this debt that I have come today.”
The Chief Steward of Revenue Oversight was only a Seventh-grade office, which ordinarily would have counted for almost nothing in Qu Capital. However, Oversight was a unique office which reported on the progress of every other Ministry and department in their operations. In addition, it participated in the six-yearly census of every Qu Capital official’s character and performance, and was even able to bypass the Six Ministries to petition the Emperor directly.
Wang Xian could not offend him. He swallowed his tongue and took the easy exit he was shown. “How can I take offense? The Imperial Guards have put in a great amount of work, and I really did not want Master Xiao to have worked for nothing. But Yanqing, come look at these books, the Ministry simply cannot shift those funds.”
Xue Xiuzhuo, courtesy name Yanqing, was a man of an exceptionally refined and scholarly appearance.2 He did not look at the books, but said to the two men, “I know of the Ministry of Revenue’s difficulties. Er-gongzi, how about this: Quan city supplied a batch of silk to the Capital a few days ago. We will trade that for silver to settle this debt. Will that do?”
Once Xiao Chi’ye was gone, Wang Xian’s expression turned chilly. He complained to Xue Xiuzhuo, “Do you think he was actually chasing up debt for the Guards? More likely he’ll take the silver for himself! Ever since taking over as Governor-General, this Er-gongzi has done nothing but blow money on wine and women. He drives us to a corner every single time, and never thinks of our difficulties!”
Xue Xiuzhuo only smiled, and did not reply.
From the secretary’s office, Xiao Chi’ye rode directly for Donglong Avenue. He looked taller again than he had been five years ago, and that streak of brashness had faded somewhat from his face.
Prince Chu, Li Jianheng, had been waiting for him the whole morning. “What were you off doing?” he asked, the moment Xiao Chi’ye turned up. “You’re killing me!”
“Larking,” Xiao Chi’ye sat down and downed a cup of cool drink. Basins of ice had been laid about the room to chill the air, so he sprawled back bonelessly on the arhat bed. “This is comfy. It’s so hot outside it was making my head spin. I’m taking a nap.”
“No you’re not!” Li Jianheng flapped his moso bamboo fan vigorously at himself, his shirt open. “At least wait until I’m finished talking!”
Heavens knew what Xiao Chi’ye had been up to last night, but he was almost painfully drowsy today. He gave a non-committal hum.
Li Jianheng first took a sip of iced wine off his pet’s hands, then began, “Do you remember that girl I was talking to you about the other time? The one I kept in my villa five years ago, putting her away for myself, until that son of a whore Xiao-Fu’zi took her for that gelded wretch Pan Rugui!”
Xiao Chi’ye made a vague sound of recollection.
Li Jianheng grew more vehement. “I left to get away from the heat a few days ago, and I saw her again at the villa! The little nymph’s grown up fine and dainty and even more gorgeous than she was five years ago. The more I looked at her the more she stoked my fire, and the more I hated those gelded swine! Those thieving bastards robbed me of a treasure and denied me a lovely wife. Am I just going to let that go? No way!”
Xiao Chi’ye yawned widely.
Li Jianheng complained, “Are you a brother or not? You have to help me think of a way to get him! If Pan Rugui can’t be touched, then Xiao-Fu’zi needs to get messed up!”
Xiao Chi’ye was not faking his weariness. He slurred, “How do you want to get him? Shall I drag him out of the palace?”
Li Jianheng pushed away his attending pet, and folded his fan. “It’ll be the Dragon Boat Festival soon, and His Majesty will watch the boat race at the West Garden. There’s no question that Pan Rugui will go with him, and if he goes, Xiao-Fu’zi will go too. When the Imperial Stables hold their horse-race, let’s lure him out and beat him to death!”
Xiao Chi’ye seemed to have fallen asleep. Li Jianheng got no response, so he prodded, “Ce’an, are you listening?”
“You can’t beat him to death,” Xiao Chi’ye said with his eyes closed. “If you get on Pan Rugui’s black books about this, it’s gonna get messy later.”
Li Jianheng subsided. “Then can we at least beat him up a little? I’ve even lost my appetite knowing I haven’t evened this score with him. On a different note, what’s wrong with you these days? You’re always looking listless. What have you been doing at night? You even sent away that maiden girl I picked for you the other time!”
Xiao Chi’ye gave up on talking entirely, and waved a hand to indicate that he had heard and understood. He did not wear a bone ring on his thumb now, but the web of his hand still bore teeth-marks. Li Jianheng said some other things after that, but he did not hear any of it.
A few days later came the Dragon Boat Festival. Emperor Xiande, who had not made an appearance in court for quite some time, dragged his ailing body to the West Garden. Women of the palace followed in light gauzy dresses. Ji Lei and Xi Gu’an, Commander-in-Chief of the Eight Battalions, led his security entourage. Since this was downtime for the Imperial Guards, Xiao Chi’ye was invited along as well.
By the time Xiao Chi’ye arrived, the place was packed. The Emperor had ceremonially set mugwort in the doorway, and everyone was waiting for the Imperial Stables to begin their race.3 Rice dumplings and other cakes were being served from table to table by the Imperial Kitchen delegation. From the princes’ seats, Li Jianheng waved at Xiao Chi’ye.
Xiao Chi’ye tossed his riding whip backward at Chenyang. He took his seat, working at the bindings of his arm guards.
Li Jianheng was bouncing that same moso bamboo fan in his hand today. He said, “Why are you so late? You’re killing me!”
Xiao Chi’ye replied, “Are you doing okay? I seem to be killing you every other day.”
Li Jianheng fanned himself. “I’m only getting used to saying it, aren’t I? There, d’you see him? Xiao-Fu’zi’s serving over there.”
Xiao Chi’ye glanced over. Xiao-Fu’zi was whispering something delightedly by Pan Rugui’s ear. He said, “Don’t go running up later. Just tell someone to beat him up and be done with it.”
An hour later, Xiao-Fu’zi was squatting over the latrines about to take a piss when his world turned black. A hemp sack had been thrown over him.
“Hey!” Xiao-Fu’zi began shrilly, but then he was knocked out cold.
The moment the hemp sack was presented to Li Jianheng, he lifted his robes without a word and began to stomp on the covered figure. Inside the sack, Xiao-Fu’zi’s mouth had been stuffed so he could only roll about on the ground, grunting in pain.
Ahead of them, the horse race was reaching a climax. No one heard anything else.
Xiao-Fu’zi was kicked around for the better part of an hour. Li Jianheng had not quite had enough when Chenyang stopped him. Chenyang gave the prince’s guards a meaningful look behind his back, and they picked up the sack and ran.
“Your Highness,” Chenyang said. “He will be dead if you keep going. Let’s save it for next time.”
Li Jianheng tugged his robes back into order and shot a look at him. “Where’re you dumping him?”
“The Governor-General has instructed us to throw him into the woods next to the lake. When the feast begins in a while, all the servant eunuchs will go through that area, so he will be freed then.”
Li Jianheng spat one last time at the dirt where Xiao-Fu’zi had been rolling, and returned to his seat.
By the time the feast had started, Li Jianheng had already forgotten about the man. Xiao Chi’ye kept an eye out around Pan Rugui, but did not see anyone he could make out as Xiao-Fu’zi.
Li Jianheng was sifting through dishes with his chopsticks. He said, “Probably too embarrassed to show his face and ran back for a change of clothes. These eunuchs serving His Majesty are terrified of looking less than spotless and putting their masters off. Will you come over to my villa in a few days? I’ll show you the little nymph.”
Xiao Chi’ye sipped his cold tea. “I’ll be busy.”
Li Jianheng gave a short, derisive laugh. “Are you keeping that up around me too? You’re busy? The Imperial Guard is this close to getting dissolved altogether. What’s there to be busy about at your desk job?”
“I’ll be busy drinking,” Xiao Chi’ye began to smile too. He fixed his eyes on the cup of tea in his hands. In profile, his face looked a little irreverent. “It’ll be the Capital census once autumn comes. I’ve got to take people out for drinks to keep my desk job.”
“In this life,” Li Jianheng tapped his chopsticks at him, “You’ve got to look after yourself. Eat the finest food, wear the finest clothes, and become an expert in doing nothing in particular until death comes knocking at your door. All that talk about ‘Pan’s faction’ or ‘matrilineal kinsmen’, all that tearing at each other’s throats, isn’t that exhausting? Where’s the fun in all that?”
“Yeah,” Xiao Chi’ye’s smile curved wickedly. “It’s all digging holes for yourself to fall in. There’s nothing better than just doing nothing.”
Li Jianheng watched the gleam in his eyes and laughed too, saying, “So what’s going on with the Capital census? Who’d dare knock my brother off his chair? Your seat was given to you by the Emperor himself. We’re taking it easy on Imperial orders. How’s this: I’ll hold a flower viewing party at my manor before autumn comes. You can invite all those people along.”
“There’s no hurry,” Xiao Chi’ye said, looking over the West Garden. By an edge of the assembly of undulating rooftops, he caught sight of the structure of a shrine. He frowned. “We’re pretty close to the Temple of Penitence here,” he said.
“You’re still thinking about that?” Li Jianheng asked. “It’s been so long since you lost that ring.”
Xiao Chi’ye rubbed unconsciously at his thumb.
“That remnant of the Shen house has been shut away for five years too, and we’ve never heard a whisper about it since. Whether he’s gone mad or died, His Majesty’s never asked either,” Li Jianheng continued. “If that was me shut up in there, forget five years, I’d go crazy after half a month.”
Xiao Chi’ye’s hand twinged. He didn’t want to talk about that person.
Just in time, drumbeats rolled from the river’s edge. Li Jianheng threw his chopsticks down and got to his feet, prompting, “Come on come on! The dragon boat race is starting. They’ll be taking bets!”
Just as Xiao Chi’ye was about to rise, he saw Ji Lei dart through the crowd to lean down and say something at Pan Rugui’s ear. Pan Rugui’s head whipped around, and a second later he slammed a hand hard into his table.
Xiao Chi’ye immediately looked back towards Chenyang.
Chenyang startled. He said, “Gov-“
“Your Majesty!” Ji Lei was already on his knees before the Emperor, his voice ringing out. “I’m afraid there will be no boat race today. When your humble subject was leading the Brocade Guard on patrol, we pulled the Imperial servant Xiao-Fu’zi from the waters!”
The Emperor dissolved into a violent coughing fit. Pan Rugui came forward to rub his back. Only when he had subsided somewhat did he manage to ask, “What was he doing in the water?”
Ji Lei raised his head to look at the Emperor, or perhaps the Empress Dowager behind him. He said darkly, “He had drowned.”
All around, a flurry of excitement rose from the concubines, who all covered their mouths with their gauze handkerchiefs.
Li Jianheng knocked over the teacup on his table. He set it back upright in a panic, looking toward Xiao Chi’ye. “I was only running my mouth…”
 Sunhats were frequently worn by literati and officials.
 Throughout this novel, you will see people referred to by two names. At coming-of-age (usually twenty for men and fifteen for women), society no longer addresses an individual by their first name. Instead, they are given a courtesy name by their parents or a teacher. The courtesy name is usually related in some way to the first name, and commonly denotes a person’s character, or holds some kind of aspiration.
Xiao Chi’ye, first name 驰野: 驰, to gallop, to fly towards. 野, wild and unbridled, or the open plains. Xiao Chi’ye is the wolf that lives and longs for Libei’s open fields.
Here we learn he was given the courtesy name Ce’an, 策安: 策, lit. a bamboo riding crop, spurring him on. But 策 also in the sense of planning, or strategy. 安, peace, safety, and security. What a quiet name, almost diametrical to his first name. Ce’an, Ce’an, far away in the Capital, sheath your claws and keep yourself safe. Libei will look to him in future to wrest peace from the jaws of a world in turmoil.
 Tang Jiuqing wrote “willow” in place of “mugwort” here, but while setting mugwort in the doorway to repel evil spirits is a well-known practice during the Dragon Boat Festival, I cannot find any record or reference that gives meaning to using willow here. Willow is set down at Qingming (Tomb-Sweeping Day), or used to welcome spring, or to send off friends. I can only assume it was a typo.