Book One, Chapter 17: Turmoil

Late at night, the Empress Dowager sat up in her bed and wrapped an outer robe about herself. “What is all that noise?” she asked through the drawn bed curtains.

Hua Xiangyi gathered the curtains up lightly and helped the Dowager out of her warm, sweet-scented bed, murmuring, “It is the students from the Imperial Academy. They are asking for His Majesty to retract his edict.”

The Dowager got to her feet. On either side, light-footed maid-servants moved about lighting lamps and raising drapes. Hua Xiangyi led the Dowager to a girdled, bow-legged arhat bed, and had both a hand-warmer and back cushions ready for her, as well as a bowl of warm fermented milk.

The Dowager stirred her dessert idly, her brow faintly creased. “Why has it come so quickly?”, she murmured, mulling it over. “The edict was delivered only yesterday, and the fuss has already begun tonight. It’s a little too soon, don’t you think?”

“And it’s the Academy making the noise,” Hua Xiangyi noted, coming to sit closely against the Dowager. “Auntie, the most contemporary authors and critics in all the land are gathered at the Imperial Academy. It will be difficult for even the Elder to come forward against them.”

The Dowager ate her yoghurt in slow spoonfuls. Her face, washed of its paints and pigments, bore faint brush-strokes left by passing years. They underscored, rather than diminished, her exceptional poise. She put the bowl down slowly and leaned back against the cushions, her pensive gaze resting on one of the glass lampshades. A few moments later, she said, “That’s right. Shen Wei’s crimes are known far and wide. There are no reasonable grounds on which the Elder may openly rebuke these students. If they succeed at pressuring His Majesty into taking his word back, we will have no choice but to swallow this loss in silence.”

“Auntie,” Hua Xiangyi said, “It was never His Majesty’s wish to release Shen Zechuan, and now he is called a fool for it. His Majesty may not feel too kindly towards Auntie after this.”

“That is of little concern,” The Dowager said. “When Concubine Wei conceives, Dazhou will have an heir. An heir to the throne is the bedrock of a nation. As long as we have the child, I may still be Dazhou’s Grand-Empress Dowager. His Majesty has been at variance with me ever since he took ill. If he makes a scene this time, it will only be the temper-tantrum of a man in his sickbed. Let him have his fits.”

From the time Emperor Xiande took ill in the spring, he had slowly become less deferential towards the Dowager’s wishes. Though each of those instances had been about inconsequential, day-to-day matters, they were the first visible cracks of the growing schism between them. The Dowager held the Palace with Pan Rugui at his side, and they had Elder Hua in court. But if the Hua family’s reign was to endure, they still needed a docile and obedient Emperor.

If Emperor Xiande no longer fit the bill, they would simply have to replace him.

The Dowager disliked Prince Chu for no other reason than that he was an adult, and not a vulnerable child. Neither had he been raised by her. He would never be as biddable as the grandson she would personally raise.

“Not to mention, the petition tonight will be a slap in the Emperor’s own face,” The Dowager continued coolly. “In the nine years His Majesty has sat in the throne, every decision made by or about him has been run past me. Now that he is trying to become an independent ruler, he has been going out on a limb to make gestures of goodwill towards the Xiao’s. He would not release Shen Zechuan. He would protect Prince Chu. But I know him. That man is all bark and no bite. In his heart he still fears me, so he casts about every time for a way to please both sides. Instead, all he has done is look timid and indecisive, while thoroughly offending both sides at the same time.”

“Hasn’t His Majesty imprisoned Shen Zechuan for all these years on the Xiao family’s account?”

“What is imprisonment?” The Dowager took Hua Xiangyi’s hand in her own, and said gravely, “Imprisonment is a chance at life. His Majesty thought he was looking after the Xiao family’s ego in spite of me, but instead he had buried a seed of disaster for them. If Xiao Jiming had to leave his brother behind, what Libei wanted in return was Shen Zechuan’s death. As long as Shen Zechuan lives, His Majesty is in debt to the one hundred and twenty thousand Iron Cavalrymen who raced to his rescue last winter. “

“Think about this: Xiao Jiming has tied himself in knots to prove his unwavering loyalty. He would even leave his own brother in Qu Capital. But in response to that open sincerity, His Majesty instead rescinded Shen Zechuan’s death sentence and locked him away, simply to appease me. As long as he lives, Shen Zechuan is a latent threat. It is a matter of life and death to which His Majesty remains naïve, even today. This time too, His Majesty closed Xiao-Fu’zi’s case prematurely and thwarted Pan Rugui’s plans to protect Prince Chu, but in case I held that against him, he still reluctantly released Shen Zechuan. He thinks that the Xiao’s will understand his predicament, but all the way across the land in Libei, Xiao Jiming will certainly not be amused.”

“In that case,” Hua Xiangyi mused, “Could it be the Xiao’s who are behind the riot at the Academy? If His Majesty is forced to go back on his word, he will antagonise the family. Neither the Elder nor Auntie will be able to stop them, and Shen Zechuan will be eliminated at the same time.”

“If it was as simple as that,” The Dowager said tenderly, brushing a lock of hair from Hua Xiangyi’s forehead, “Xiao Jiming would not be one of the Four Generals. That boy has always been cautious in his ways. If he had done this, he would not have allowed himself to be pinned down so easily. In any case, Libei is not in communication with the Imperial Academy.”

“Well, I give up,” Hua Xiangyi folded against her, sweetly pleading, “Tell me, Auntie.”

“Very well.” The Dowager had been childless all her life, and was never very close to the family, but only doted on Hua Xiangyi. She said, “Auntie will walk you through it. Consider how our Qu Capital is ringed by eight cities. These eight cities were the birthplaces of the Eight Families today. Our family, the Hua’s, abide in Di City, south of the Capital, where the top picks for palace concubines have historically come. “

“However, it was only during my time that the Hua family rose to its eminent prosperity, and came to take the lead amongst the Eight Families. Earlier on, when the late Emperor had first risen to power, it had still been the Yao family which held most of the Emperor’s favour. Three successive generations of Imperial counsellors had come from that family. Had Patriarch Yao not been a letdown when it came to him, that Qi Huilian from Yu Province might not have made it as Grand Tutor.”

“Then there is the Xi family today, which has only Xi Gu’an as Commissioner of the Eight Battalions, babysitting the sons of the Eight Families. Just think of him as a military schoolteacher. The Xi’s have always been inferior stock. They will never amount to much. As for the Xue family, they have been derelict since Great-grandfather Xue passed on. Only Xue Xiuzhuo serves in central government now. As for the rest, the Wei’s, the Pans, the Fei’s, and the Hans, I will tell you about them another day.”

“I have heard Daddy speak of these things too,” Hua Xiangyi said. “If Auntie is telling me about the families, does that mean the person who has stirred up the Academy this time may be someone within the Eight Families?”

“I only have my suspicions,” the Dowager replied. “The wheel of fortune is ever turning. Many years have passed since the family followed me onto the throne as Empress. Now that the Emperor is gravely ill, is someone seeking to make a change? It is a possibility. Call for Pan Rugui in the morning, and have the Brocade Guard look into it quietly. There are only so many places you can hide in Qu Capital. I do not believe in whisper-proof walls.”

Xiao Chi’ye followed Ji Lei into Mingli Hall, squeezing rainwater from his robes.

It was very late at night by then, but the Emperor had not yet gone to bed.

“You’re supposed to be confined to your house in reflection,” Emperor Xiande looked up from his reports to glance at Xiao Chi’ye. His voice was hoarse when he asked, “Why were you galloping about with the Brocade Guard?”

Xiao Chi’ye felt genuinely wronged. He said, “The Commissioner called for me. I thought he was passing on Your Majesty’s orders.”

“And after you went,” the Emperor asked, “Did you do your job?”

Ji Lei immediately kowtowed and said, “Your Majesty, under an unknown person’s instruction, students at the Imperial Academy were speculating on matters of court, casting aspersions on Your Majesty, and even tried to assault Pan gonggong. It was absolute mayhem. I attempted to make arrests, but Governor-General Xiao would not co-operate.”

Not only had he not co-operated, those Imperial Guards were just as absurd as Xiao Chi’ye! They were utterly shameless about getting in the way of the Brocade Guards, and did everything short of rolling on the ground to prevent the arrest of those students! They were a bunch of layabout military delinquents whose capacity for shame was unfathomable.

The Emperor asked Xiao Chi’ye, “You prevented the Brocade Guard from making arrests?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “They were just a bunch of students. If they’re taken into the Imperial prison, who knows if they’ll make it back out again? Putting their lives aside, what if it puts a stain on Your Majesty’s honourable reputation?”

“They were forming a criminal coalition and conspiring with miscreants, obviously with the purpose of subverting the conventions that govern our Imperial Court! If these people are not to be interrogated, then what is the purpose of the Brocade Guard?” Ji Lei seethed.

The Emperor began to cough. Some time later, he finally said, “Ce’an did well.”

“Your Majesty!” Ji Lei cried incredulously. “These students started a riot, and even bandied about words like “treason”! If they are not severely punished, they will become a threat to the nation!”

“Just some hot-headed youths,” the Emperor said blandly. “If they hadn’t been forced into a desperate corner, why would they put down their books to quarrel and clash with the Brocade Guard? That Shen wretch should never have been released! If not…if not for…”

The Emperor threw his reports aside and descended into a fit of coughing. By the time it subsided, he had once again retrieved his composure.

“…Regardless, they must be punished for their misdemeanours. Cut the budget for the Imperial Academy by half. For the next six months, instead of two meals a day, they shall have only one.”

Ji Lei recognised that the Emperor’s mind was made up, and said no more. But though he knelt in silence, the Emperor read his mind.

“The Brocade Guard heels to me,” the Emperor said, staring at Ji Lei. “Who has given you, its Director, leave to claim this one a godfather and that one a great-grandfather? On most days I ignore this, as you seem to know your duty well enough! I am telling you tonight to reassure the students at the Academy, do you understand me?”

Ji Lei kowtowed. “Yes, Your Majesty. The Brocade Guard answers only to Your Majesty!”

By the time they emerged, the rain had eased. A junior eunuch from the errand house came with umbrellas for them.

Looking displeased, Ji Lei raised a perfunctory hand at Xiao Chi’ye and tried to take off. However, Xiao Chi’ye seemed not to mind his foul mood at all. He said, “Lao-Ji, I didn’t have a choice there either. I was just grounded yesterday. I couldn’t have laid hands on those students, if only for the sake of being allowed to come out to play.”

Ji Lei could not even properly vent his frustrations at the asshat. He simply nodded distractedly, hoping he would go away soon.

“But what do you think of my Imperial Guard?” Xiao Chi’ye took the umbrella from the eunuch and sent him back, making his way out of the Palace with Ji Lei.

What do I think of it? Ji Lei thought. They were no more than a pack of ne’er-do-wells, and they’ve only sunk to greater depths under your leadership!

But he said politely, “They look more spirited than before.”

“Right?” Xiao Chi’ye agreed shamelessly. “I think our training fields are getting too small for them to stretch their legs. Will you ask the Commissioner on my behalf, and see if he can spare some land for the Imperial Guard?”

Ji Lei had heard for some time that Xiao Chi’ye had been playing polo with the Imperial Guards on their training fields, but he never expected him to have the nerve to ask for more space. However, it would not do to refuse him outright, so he said, “That may be difficult. When Prince Chu expanded his manor last month, he was even taken to the judicial court for ‘forcibly appropriating civilian housing’. Nowadays, you can barely swing a cat in Qu Capital for all the people, where is Gu’an supposed to find space for a training field for you? Besides, even if there was space in the city, it has to go to the Eight Battalions first, doesn’t it?”

“Eh,” Xiao Chi’ye shrugged under the umbrella, “If there isn’t space for us in the city, I’ll settle for land outside. As long the space is big enough for us to get a good game going.”

Only then did Ji Lei finally figure out what he had been driving at. He looked towards Xiao Chi’ye and started to laugh. “Well now Er-gongzi, you’ve already got a piece of land in your sights, haven’t you? Do you have to lead me on a roundabout first?”

“I’ve got to lean on you for this, haven’t I, Lao-Ji?”, Xiao Chi’ye said. “Who’s got more clout than you in this Capital city? If the request comes through you, how can the Commissioner refuse? Afterwards, everything else can be easily arranged.”

“Don’t talk money with me,” Ji Lei’s attitude was finally thawing. “I’ve claimed a god-son lately, and was just thinking where I could get a good horse for him! Who knows horses better than Er-gongzi, am I right?”

“Easy, I’ll send him a few to play with,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “They’re colts bred beneath the Swan Goose Ranges, no worse than my own stallion. Give me a few days and I’ll send someone along with them to you.”

“Sit tight while I give Gu’an a nudge,” Ji Lei said. “A training field is too easy. Wait for my good news!”

When they parted ways, the rain had stopped too. Xiao Chi’ye ducked into his carriage. Chenyang said, looking in the direction of Ji Lei’s palanquin, “Governor, are you really going to give him our horses? What a waste!”

“I needed something from him,” Xiao Chi’ye said, kicking off his soaked boots. “We have to get that training field, we’re way too conspicuous here in the city. If that old scumbag takes the horses but doesn’t do his job,” His voice turned cold, “I’ll give him a hand introducing his godson to his ancestors.”

The carriage lurched off. Xiao Chi’ye wiped his face with a handkerchief and asked, “Where’s that guy?”

Chenyang said, “Th-that guy?”

“Shen Zechuan!”

“Long gone,” Chenyang poured Xiao Chi’ye some tea, adding, “He looked like a strong wind would carry him off… How is he supposed to work in the Brocade Guard like that?”

“He’ll be training elephants,” Xiao Chi’ye took the cup and downed it. “Breezy jobs like that’d be right up an invalid’s alley. He’s definitely one of those people who’re going to slack off.”

The slacker sneezed. He sat in the dim light for a few moments, wondering if he had caught a cold.

The door opened suddenly, and a portly figure stepped in. Xi Hongxuan clucked his tongue in admiration as he came in. “What a place. Not even the Brocade Guard could dig this up.”

Shen Zechuan did not turn to look at him. “It’s a rundown old property that no one will rent. This is just about the only thing it’s good for.”

“But this isn’t an easy get,” Xi Hongxuan sat himself down, rubbing his hands together, looking at Shen Zechuan. “The late Emperor gave it to the Crown Prince, and the Crown Prince gave it to Qi Huilian, and then this old house was sold off after Qi Huilian died. How did you get your hands on it?”

Shen Zechuan held a sip of tea in his mouth to let the fragrance linger, keeping eye contact with Xi Hongxuan.

Xi Hongxuan lifted a hand unhurriedly. “Look at me and my jabbering mouth, why do I keep nosing about in other people’s private affairs? I heard on the way that Pan Rugui was clobbered too, you’ve played a pretty gratifying hand here.”

“Master Xi is the Commissioner of the Eight Battalions,” Shen Zechuan said. “After getting caught up in this, he’ll be drawing suspicion from the Empress Dowager. Life may not be as easy for him going forward.”

“If life gets harder for Xi Gu’an, it gets easier for Xi Hongxuan.” He laid his plump hands palm-down on the table, and said, “Rather than waiting for the major voices in Court to speak, let the students speak first and catch them flat-footed. After this kerfuffle, you will well and truly be out out your cage.”

Shen Zechuan picked up his chopsticks and nibbled on a little vegetarian fare. “Just a few small gimmicks of mine, Er-shao. Pardon the theatrics.”

Xi Hongxuan watched Shen Zechuan swallow before he touched his chopsticks. He asked, “What will you do now?”

“Eke out a living at the Brocade Guard,” Shen Zechuan replied. “Ji Lei is Pan Rugui’s god-son, and Xi Gu’an’s sworn brother. If you want to kill Xi Gu’an, how can you avoid Ji Lei? Better to split the two between us, and we can have them stay brothers for eternity.”

Xi Hongxuan chuckled soundlessly for a few minutes, bent over the table. Then, he asked Shen Zechuan in a ghoulish voice, “What’s your quarrel with Ji Lei?”

Shen Zechuan carefully picked out the peppercorns from his food and did not even look up as he said, “I don’t like his shoes.”

2 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 17: Turmoil

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