Book One, Chapter 16: Rainstorm

Later in the evening, a wind rose, and rain followed after.

In the storm, Xiao Chi’ye galloped towards the Imperial Academy. He arrived just in time to hear Gao Zhongxiong holler out, “Listen to the people! Death to the traitor!”

The scholars behind him bent their heads to the ground, echoing in unison, “Listen to the people! Death to the traitor!”

Dust turned to mud under the torrential rain and spattered against their robes and hair.

Xiao Chi’ye checked his horse, its hooves treading in place on the muddy ground before settling. He took them in for a few moments, then called, “Where were all of you earlier? If you had petitioned like this back when the guy first arrived at the Capital, the Emperor would never have kept him alive.”

Gao Zhongxiong’s chest heaved with emotion. “Governor-General, they say it’s not too late to mend a pen after the wolf has been. The remnant scum has yet to establish himself. As long as His Majesty retracts his edict and punishes him harshly, we may still do right by the martyrs of Zhongbo!”

“Imperial edicts are not given at dawn and withdrawn at dusk,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “What you’re doing is not asking His Majesty to retract his edict, you’re strong-arming him into going back on his word. Each of you were taught the virtues of obedience and respect, loyalty and integrity— there are a hundred ways to petition His Majesty, why do you have to choose the worst one?”

“Governor-General,” Gao Zhongxiong lifted his chin, “A warrior gives his life in defence of his country, and a scholar gives his life in defence of his counsel! Rather than ask us to sit by and watch as His Majesty is deceived into making foolish decisions, we would rather dash ourselves upon the Censorate ‘s dais tonight, and let our deaths be evidence of our conviction!”

Xiao Chi’ye replied, “Is that all you civil servants are capable of? Threatening to commit suicide at the drop of a hat?”

Rain was coming down harder. The scholars did not move.

Xiao Chi’ye dismounted to crouch before Gao Zhongxiong. In the relentless downpour, he leaned close to ask, “Tell me, who stirred this up really?”

Gao Zhongxiong’s face was a picture of unflinching resolve. “It was our loyalty to the Emperor!” he cried.  

Xiao Chi’ye quirked an acerbic eyebrow and said, “I think not. If you want to protect an outsider, that’s fine with me. But what you have done tonight will implicate those three thousand fellow students behind you. If His Majesty loses his temper, blood may run in rivers here tonight, and you will bear that sin forever, just like the Shen remnant has. But that’s not the worst that can happen. The worst that can happen is that after your head hits the gutters, His Majesty still won’t retract his edict. Did you burn the midnight oil for twelve years just to become a cudgel in someone else’s hand?”

Gao Zhongxiong swiped at the rainwater streaming down his face. He said, “I am carrying out my duty to the Emperor, not selling out my country like the Shen family! Even if three thousand of us leave our lives here tonight, and the steps of the Censorate are awash in our blood, we will have done it for His Majesty!”

Xiao Chi’ye argued, “As things are right now, the Palace has neither changed Shen Zechuan’s assignment, nor sent out any word from the Emperor to ease your concerns. Can’t you guess where His Majesty stands?”

“Each day His Majesty does not retract his edict,” Gao Zhongxiong cried, “Is a day we won’t eat, won’t rise, and won’t give way!”

Thunder rolled above them. Xiao Chi’ye straightened up. Chenyang made to hold an umbrella over him, but he stopped him with a gesture. Rain soaked through his robes and dripped from the waist-badge hanging at his belt.

“Governor-General,” Chenyang suddenly said in a low voice, “The Brocade Guard is here!”

Xiao Chi’ye looked around through the rain and caught sight of Qiao Tianya, who had just dismounted to salute him from afar.

The students had noticed the Red Riders too, and broke into a flurry of agitation.

“It wouldn’t be right for us to burden the Governor-General with this thorny situation,” Qiao Tianya approached smiling easily, hand resting on his sword. “Since this business has somewhat to do with the Brocade Guard, naturally we should deal with it ourselves.”

“‘Deal with it’.”, Xiao Chi’ye placed an arm casually around Qiao Tianya’s shoulder. “How are you planning to ‘deal with’ this, Adjudicator? Surely a flock of unarmed students doesn’t warrant intervention by the Brocade Guard.”

“In Qu Capital, no one outweighs the Emperor,” Qiao Tianya said, slanting a look at him. “Whosoever dares to defy the will of the Emperor becomes the enemy of the Brocade Guard.” 

He and Xiao Chi’ye exchanged a look. Seconds later, both men burst into laughter. 

“Good man,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “You’ve got some nerve.”

“It’s chilly out here in the rain,” Qiao Tianya’s fingers tightened on his sword-hilt. “I’ll arrange for someone to send the Governor-General home.”

“I’ve only just arrived,” Xiao Chi’ye did not shift his arm from Qiao Tianya’s shoulders, keeping his sword-arm pinned. He smiled, “I can stay a while longer.”

Qiao Tianya said, “It’s a sticky mess of a job, Governor-General. Why wade into these muddy waters?”

“Of course it’s a sticky mess,” Xiao Chi’ye replied, “But that’s precisely why you can’t just mow them down. These students are the pillars of our nation. No one can afford to be responsible for losing even one of them.”

A man dismounted behind them. Unarmed, dressed in light, loose robes, he stood out like a sore thumb amongst the body of Brocade Guards.

Qiao Tianya released his grip on his sword and called, “Lanzhou, come over here for a minute.”

Shen Zechuan turned. He and Xiao Chi’ye exchanged a look.

Qiao Tianya nudged Xiao Chi’ye’s arm off himself easily. He said, “Your concerns are valid, Governor-General, but the Brocade Guard knows other ways of doing things besides going on a rampage. I’ve got a few arrangements in place, and word from His Majesty will be arriving shortly… ah, you’re old friends, aren’t you? Lanzhou, stay here with the Governor-General for a while, he’s getting rather nervous about all this.”

In the silence Qiao Tianya left behind, Shen Zechuan watched the students in the rain, hands in his sleeves.

Xiao Chi’ye shot a few glances at him. “Got your badge pretty quick,” he said.

“Er-gongzi’s own badge has returned pretty quickly too,” Shen Zechuan replied.

Xiao Chi’ye quirked his lip humourlessly at him. “This spectacle may appear to be aimed at you, it’s really a shot at the Palace. What, barely out of your cage and already stirring the pot? Didn’t you make enough of a profit yesterday?”

Shen Zechuan tipped his head slightly to the side and looked at him with the eyes of an ingénue. “Er-gongzi thinks too highly of me. Where would I have found the means to choreograph this? If their target is the Palace, doesn’t Er-gongzi know better than I who itches for the Emperor to turn against the Hua family?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I don’t know. I know nothing about these twisty things.”

Shen Zechuan smiled at him. “There’s no need to be so modest, we’re old friends, after all.”

Xiao Chi’ye did not respond to that. He lifted a finger to tap immodestly at Shen Zechuan’s waist-badge and said, “Elephant handling is a great career. Having fun now?”

“I am,” Shen Zechuan said. “As it happens, I’ve got quite some insight on handling wild beasts.”

“I wouldn’t call it insight,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “That’s just like communing with like.”

“Communing is too dangerous for me,” Shen Zechuan coughed softly. “If we get into an argument and I cop another foot to the chest, all my hard work will be undone.”

“Use your teeth then,” Xiao Chi’ye took the umbrella from Chenyang and held it at an angle which incidentally covered Shen Zechuan. He said, “What’re you afraid of? Don’t you love using those sharp fangs of yours?”

“I’m afraid of dying, aren’t I,” Shen Zechuan sighed feelingly. “They say the kindness of a single drop should be repaid with a surging stream. I’ve got so much more to give back to Er-gongzi.”

“You’ve got the wrong guy,” Xiao Chi’ye snorted.

“Impossible,” Shen Zechuan’s looked at him out of the corner of his eyes. He said placidly, “I never forget a face.”

“Very well,” Xiao Chi’ye returned the sideways look. “I’ll have a good think then. About how many things I’m supposed to have owed you.”

All the commotion around them was shut out by the rain. The two of them stood side by side under the umbrella, making an inadvertent display of their height difference.

“Actually, you can’t pluck yourself free of this mess either,” Xiao Chi’ye swept his eyes over the scholars in the rain. “If even one of them dies tonight, someone is going to put it on your head.”

“Forty thousand tormented souls, no less, but probably more,” Shen Zechuan reminded him blandly. “If they fear death, why do they make themselves someone else’s weapon? Even if someone wants to put their lives on me, do I have to accept them?”

They subsided into silence again.

Qiao Tianya sat under shelter, straddling a bench, cracking melon seeds. When the time was about right, he shook off his clothes and got up. Indeed, a palanquin was just approaching in the night.

The curtains lifted. Pan Rugui had come himself.

A young eunuch supported Pan Rugui by the arm, while Ji Lei held an umbrella for him by his side. He still wore his dark swan down smoke-mound hat, and his illustrated robes today depicted tigers gamboling amongst mugwort, and the poisonous creatures of summer.1 Qiao Tianya led him towards the students.

“We were not expecting you to come personally in this heavy rain, Administrator,” Qiao Tianya said, stowing his playful manner.

Pan Rugui looked down his nose at the man identified to him as Gao Zhongxiong and asked Qiao Tianya, “He won’t leave?”

Qiao Tianya said, “Academics. They’re all stubborn as a bull and won’t take either the carrot or the stick.”

“Then perhaps the stick isn’t quite stiff enough.” Having just lost his right hand man the day before, Pan Rugui’s bellyful of suppressed rage was finally finding its outlet. He walked forward, steadied by his servant, and stopped directly before Gao Zhongxiong. “As well-read as all of you are, why do you fail to understand the meaning of the word “overstepping”? Matters of court are discussed at court. They are not for unweaned schoolboys like you to dictate!”

With this legendary ‘Hua faction’ co-conspirator before him, Gao Zhongxiong found his back straightening involuntarily. He cried, “Every man is responsible for the prosperity of his country. Since we Academy scholars are fed by the hand of the Emperor, we must champion his causes in return! His Majesty is surrounded today by liars and snakes, if we— “

“‘Liars and snakes’!” Pan Rugui laughed coldly. “Well put, ‘liars and snakes’! Under whose biddings do you dare cast aspersions on the Imperial Court and spread slander about the Emperor?” 

“I am bid only by my loyalty— “

“Enough nonsense,” Pan Rugui snapped. “Under some malignant influence, you have openly defied an Imperial edict, committed sedition, and spread lies and malicious gossip. If this man is not punished, what do we have laws for? Men, take him down!”

Gao Zhongxiong never expected him to start seizing people at the drop of a hat. In the pouring rain, he braced his arms and screamed hoarsely, “How dare you! I am an Imperially appointed scholar of the Academy! You are a shameless, sexless traitor to the country! The Empress Dowager holds dominion over the government, and refuses to return its reins to its rightful ruler! You traitors and usurpers are the ones who should be taken down!”

“Drag him away!” Ji Lei ordered immediately, perceiving Pan Rugui’s fury.

The Brocade Guard came forward to seize him. Gao Zhongxiong tried to scramble to his feet, but was shoved back down. He raised his arms in the direction of the Palace and called, “When I die today, I die in defence of my counsel! If the prickless pig wants to kill me, let him kill me! Your Majesty— “

Qiao Tianya locked his arm around Gao Zhongxiong’s neck. He gasped for air, struggling, choking out: 

“Your Majesty— when corruption seizes power, where do the good men go?!”

Xiao Chi’ye thought, damn it.

Predictably, in the next moment, three thousand scholars seemed to swell with collective fury. In a split-second, notions of life and death were swept aside by a fervid anguish. The students scrambled to their feet in the torrential rain and charged towards the Brocade Guards.

“Prickless traitor!” Someone’s book pouch was torn off and came flying towards Pan Rugui. “Corruption in power!” they screamed.

Ji Lei scrambled to cover Pan Rugui, shielding him as they retreated. He bellowed, “What is this, a mutiny?!”

“There’s the real traitor!” The students slammed into the Brocade Guards’ barricade, their accusatory fingers jabbing inches from Ji Lei’s face, their spit flying, “Traitor! Traitor!”

Xiao Chi’ye tossed the umbrella to Shen Zechuan, and hurried down the steps.

Shen Zechuan stood alone in that high place and watched the madding crowd with a cold eye. Pan Rugui was being shoved back into his palanquin. Ji Lei had lost a shoe.

“‘Tempests blow on the lakes of our turbulent world,'”2 Shen Zechuan recited at Ji Lei from afar. “Master Ji, what a fine sight you are.”

Soft laughter rose under the umbrella. He twirled its shaft idly, then turned to look at the distant figure of Xiao Chi’ye. 

Grand Tutor Qi and Ji Gang were drinking wine and brewing tea under their dripping roof.

Swallowing his tea, Ji Gang asked, “Killing Xiao-Fu’zi, was the purpose of that to get Chuan-er out?”

Grand Tutor Qi sipped at his wine in tiny mouthfuls, like a miser. He replied cradling his wine-gourd, “Who knows. Why don’t you take a guess?”

Ji Gang turned to look at him. He said, “No matter what, his safety comes first.”

Grand Tutor Qi swished his gourd around, saying, “Only by making bold moves can we take the enemy by surprise. You have taught him to fight so that in the thick of it all, he will have the skills to keep his composure. Sometimes we have to cast safety aside. Sometimes we have to drive ourselves into a desperate corner to find the only way out.”

Ji Gang’s brows remained furrowed with concern. As the rain fell heavier, he said, “Arrangements are all in order for that thing you asked me to do.”

“We’re fishing on a long line,” Grand Tutor said, scratching his foot. “If we don’t sit tight for a few years before bringing in the nets, all we’ll catch is old fish and rotting shrimp. Come the day, should you and I perish midway, the arrangement we’ve made today will be the final move that saves his life.”

[1] The poisonous creatures of summer are: the toad, the centipede, the scorpion, the lizard, and the viper. Pan Rugui’s illustrated robes are Dragon Boat Festival-themed. As the height of summer is when these dangerous creatures emerge, much of the Dragon Boat Festival is about warding them (and the evil they represent) away from folks. Wearing their image, eating cakes stamped with their pictures, hanging mugwort, drinking realgar wine, etcetera.

[2] Zechuan inadvertently echoes the fragment of poem that Chi’ye recited at Lu Guangbai in Chapter 11, as they parted.
From 梦李白其二 (I Dreamt Of Li Bai, Part II), by 杜甫 Du Fu. Translation mine with apologies.

One thought on “Book One, Chapter 16: Rainstorm

  1. cezhou flirting is still my favorite part of their relationship. even though right now they’re just pretending to be nice lmao


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