Book One, Chapter 20: Choice

“Pity me,” Shen Zechuan said. “When anything happens these days, I, Shen Lanzhou, must have done it.”

“Things haven’t stopped happening since you got out,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Xiao-Fu’zi, the Academy, Pan Rugui, why does every one of those incidents have something to do with you?”

“Indeed, why am I tied up in all of it?” Shen Zechuan echoed in self-mockery. “Don’t you know why? Back when your brother plucked me from the Chashi sinkhole, if he had cut me down then, there would never have been any of this today.”

Xiao Chi’ye took the twig out of his mouth. “You were the one who wanted to cheat death. Have you just figured out what it is to live after that?”

Shen Zechuan’s eyes were still, so still that they fell beyond Xiao Chi’ye’s grasp.

What a strange person.

It had been the same that day at the dinner. Every word and gesture of his seemed to say “let bygones be bygones”. But in that snow-blinded night five years ago, Xiao Chi’ye clearly remembered how those eyes had looked as he sank his teeth in.

Those elusive eyes felt like a bottomless void. That surging, shattering hatred seemed almost to have been eroded down, so that no one could see where his boundaries lay. When an entire dinner-party made him the butt of their jokes, he sat with a quiet smile. When Xiao Chi’ye said that he was seeing him for the first time in a new light, he had meant it.

If a person could take the art of forbearance to such extremes, the fathomless shadows beneath their stillness would shake Xiao Chi’ye more deeply than any outburst.

“What it’s like to live?” Shen Zechuan was smiling again. “In the Temple, I spent every day and every night getting to know how that feels. Now that I’m out, it’s becoming even clearer that living isn’t easy. I like being alive, so it’s very frightening. I’m supposed to bear these sins, and atone for those lives— I’ve only got this one life to spare, how thinly can it be spread? I make every effort to please, only in the hopes that Er-gongzi and his fellow lords and gentlemen would have mercy on me. So Er-gongzi, if you want an accounting from me today, at least tell me why.”

Having listened up to this point, Xiao Chi’ye changed his mind. He had a sharp nose, and had always smelt something unsettling in Shen Zechuan’s docile, accommodating compliance. But Shen Zechuan took neither the carrot nor the stick, and no matter how he probed, he could not get a straight answer.

He did not believe a single thing that came out of Shen Zechuan’s mouth. Just as Shen Zechuan had put it that night, he too played by the stage he was set. Everyone’s play-acting, and nothing needed be taken seriously.

However, though people lied, the trails they left behind could not. If you dove into the gutters of Qu Capital, nine times out of ten you would come out with something useful. If Shen Zechuan had placed someone by Li Jianheng’s side, there was no way this person was any kind of a master of subterfuge. As he was today, all he could do was bribe a footman or a servant.

Everything about this affair of Li Jianheng’s was fraught with contention, and would likely come back to bite him if left unresolved. Ever since Xiao Chi’ye hitched himself onto Prince Chu’s boat, he’d been getting less sleep than usual.

Xiao Chi’ye changed tack in the blink of an eye. “I came to hang out with you, why’d you make it sound like an interrogation?” He blew at the leaf on his twig, and confessed, “I hear people have been asking around about you recently. Since it’s got a thing or two to do with the prince’s reputation, naturally I’ve got to come and suss things out.”

“Every time you ‘hang out’ with me,” Shen Zechuan said, “I’ll miss a whole night’s sleep.”

“That’s no way to look at things,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “You’ve had it hard, and it hasn’t been all peaches for me either. If we turn the page on ancient history, who’s to say the two of us can’t start with a clean slate?”

Shen Zechuan laughed out loud. “Tens of thousands of lives lost in the Six Provinces of Zhongbo, and Er-gongzi wants to wipe the slate clean with me.”

“Times have changed.” Xiao Chi’ye threw his twig away at last, and got up. “You’ve been hand-picked by the Dowager, and taken under the Hua family’s wing, I’ve got to tip-toe around you now. Come on, it’s too polite when you call me Er-gongzi. We’re at least acquaintances now, aren’t we, Lanzhou?”

Shen Zechuan only smiled, and said, “Have a safe ride, Er-gongzi.”

Xiao Chi’ye got on his horse and looked back down at him. “So when are you planning to return that ring to me, Lanzhou? It’s just an old ring, not worth much, and a drag to keep around. If you keep holding on to it, I’ll start to think you’re hoarding my things.”

“I keep it on me all the time,” Shen Zechuan said to Xiao Chi’ye. “I’m relying on it to ward off evil with Er-gongzi‘s ferocious energy. It’s too valuable to return.”

Xiao Chi’ye cracked his whip. “Don’t you know that your Er-gongzi is evil itself?”

Shen Zechuan watched as he galloped off into the distance. As dust settled, the smile on his face vanished, leaving behind only an inscrutable emptiness. The setting sun’s slanting orange-crimson rays flooded the ground before his feet, and stretched out into the semi-darkness where Xiao Chi’ye had disappeared.

At night, under a canopy of constellations, Grand Tutor Qi spread out his newly drawn map for Shen Zechuan.

“The old East Palace did not have the authority to command border troops, but we had intimate knowledge of the layout of their garrisons, courtesy of the Ministry of War. Here is Libei’s.”

“They have the Swan Goose Ranges at their back, and are bordered by Luoxia Pass in the West, and the Twelve Wasteland Clans in the East.” Shen Zechuan tapped a finger on the eastern region of the Swan Goose Ranges. “Come autumn, when the Wasteland pastures dry up, their Riders will begin to raid the border markets. If Xiao Jiming intends to send his men out, why hasn’t he notified Qu Capital yet?”

“Because His Majesty has been very ill,” the Grand Tutor mused. “Xiao Jiming had only sent a single missive this spring as well. He must have eyes and ears in Qu Capital. If, to this day, he has yet to send word, it can only mean one thing.”

“His Majesty doesn’t have long to live,” Shen Zechuan finished quietly.

“It follows that the reason for Xiao Jiming’s current inaction is the uncertainty surrounding the successor to the throne.” Grand Tutor Qi whipped out his brush and lapped up some ink to draw a circle around Libei. “The Xiao family have everything to gain and nothing to lose if Prince Chu comes into power. They have been too long at an impasse with the Hua family. They lost ground to them after Zhongbo. Xiao Jiming will never allow this chance to turn the tides to slip by before their eyes.”

“But you have also said, Sir,” Shen Zechuan placed his finger on Qu Capital, “that as long as Qu Capital keeps its city gates shut, then Xiao Chi’ye remains a hostage. How will Libei move, if the Dowager has him in her grasp?”

“Since you bring that up,” the Grand Tutor dropped his brush aside. “I have another matter to talk to you about.”

“Please go ahead, Sir.”

“As you see it, what kind of a person is this Xiao Chi’ye?”

Shen Zechuan looked down over the map as he said, “He’s sharp, intelligent, and isn’t one to do things by the book.”

“I think he’s…” The Grand Tutor scrubbed at his hair, as if he was having trouble coming up with a suitable description. After much head-scratching, he leant forward onto the desk between them and said cryptically, “I think he’s Libei’s god-given chance of a lifetime. I think he’s an exceptional genius.”

Shen Zechuan rolled his brush between his fingers. “Why do you say that, Sir?”

Grand Tutor Qi immediately ducked under the desk and dragged out his handwritten notes. He reckoned that he had been getting forgetful with age in recent years, and wrote many things down on paper. He riffled through several pages noisily, then sprawled forward onto the desk again, pushing the notebook to Shen Zechuan.

“This is intelligence that Ge Qingqing has extracted from the Ministry of War. In the first year of Yongyi, which is to say, eight years ago, Xiao Chi’ye, aged fourteen, followed Xiao Jiming into warfare at the border. It was the height of summer. Xiao Jiming had been attacked by three Wasteland clans in the eastern Swan Goose Ranges. He was trapped before Hong River, his retreat cut off. It would be three days before the Lord of Libei’s reinforcements arrived. With his back to the water, Xiao Jiming’s situation was critical. But the Wasteland Riders are an agile force. As you know, Libei has mostly armoured cavalry. Like a wall of steel, they can inflict a devastating direct strike, but are not nimble enough to adapt to back-and-forth attacks. If the battle dragged, Xiao Jiming would only exhaust his troops.”

The Grand Tutor took a few gulps of wine.

“But on the third night, the Wastelanders fell back like the tide. Their heavily guarded food stores had been burnt down, and the fire had spread from the centre of their camp to throw their rear formations into disarray. Xiao Jiming seized on the chance to mount a decisive battle, and broke through the blockade in a single night. But Libei’s account ended there. The tale of what had happened next is pieced together from clues that your Teacher had spent quite some effort to gather. How did provisions under such heavy guard manage to catch on fire? Apparently, the Wasteland clans had dug a sewer from their latrines to the water, and Xiao Chi’ye had quietly snuck his way from Hong River up into the sewer. He had spent half a night crawling up that putrid ditch.”

Here, Grand Tutor Qi rubbed his chin.

“An accomplishment like that, and Libei kept it quiet from the court. Not only that, but Xiao Chi’ye then came to Qu Capital to become an idle layabout. But do real layabouts have such mental fortitude? Put yourself in his shoes. In that situation, if he had failed, the one to pay for it with his life would have been his own big brother. And yet he laid low for two whole days, and only when the Wasteland troops had lowered their guard, did he finally light the fire. In those two days, did he know that his brother could lose his life at any moment? What’s more, if he had bungled the fire, or if he hadn’t figured out the perfect timing— one minute earlier, and the Wasteland would have prevailed. One minute later, and Libei would have suffered a debilitating loss. But he had timed it delicately for that precise moment. He would never have managed that without some extraordinary acuity.”

Shen Zechuan was listening.

The Grand Tutor Qi finished, “This boy is a wild one too. When he did all that, he only brought this many men with him.”

He held out two fingers, and paused a while.

“Lanzhou, I think that Pan Rugui made a blunder when he had the boy sent to the Imperial Guard. They thought that the Guard had fallen, but where did these men come from? They were the military families who had first plunged into the heart of the Eight Cities with their Emperor. The Eight families looked down on them, so they looked to the Emperor alone. But now that the Emperor has cast them aside, those twenty thousand men are a sword with no wielder. If they had actually fallen into the hands of an affluent layabout, it would be another matter. But in Xiao Chi’ye’s hands… What reason would Xiao Jiming have not to rise to Prince Chu’s defence?”

So that was it!

Those pieces which Shen Zechuan had puzzled over became suddenly and strikingly clear.

He had thought that since Xiao Jiming had left Xiao Chi’ye in Qu Capital, he should have understood that he would become a trapped chess-piece. A piece under siege would be either abandoned, or moved with caution. But if he was exercising caution, then he should not, and must not allow Xiao Chi’ye to maintain such close terms with Prince Chu. To do so would be to invite trouble. He would have to be on constant standby to clean up after his little brother!

“Qu Capital’s autumn chill this year will come upon it like a storm. Fragile as our forces are, we would do well to take cover.” The Grand Tutor licked his dry lips, and continued, “Because of the incident at the Academy, the Empress Dowager has distanced herself from Xi Gu’an and the Emperor both. To ensure that her reign endures, the matter of the Imperial heir has become urgent. If an accident should happen to Prince Chu in these days, the Xiao family would have nothing for all their effort. With that in mind, Xiao Chi’ye must have come looking for you today because he has smelt something on the wind. But where caution is concerned, the Dowager will be a suspicious person by nature. Years ago, she had no qualms about exterminating the East Palace to push Prince Ning onto the throne, and today, for her peace of mind, she will run Prince Chu into the ground just the same. It will be no easy task for Xiao Chi’ye to keep Prince Chu from harm.”

“Since the Dowager won’t use Xi Gu’an, she only has Ji Lei left to her.” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were cool. “The Brocade Guard has no lack for talent. It’ll be quick and clean.”

“Let the great beasts war amongst each other,” Grand Tutor Qi said. “Now, for you, it is to decide if you will follow Prince Chu or the Empress Dowager.”

Shen Zechuan reached out his hand, and laid his palm over the map.

One thought on “Book One, Chapter 20: Choice

  1. i love just how similar cezhou are in this chapter, lanzhou who plays at being docile and obedient, while he plans out his revenge. ce’an who at 14, waited patiently for 2 days in sewage before he destroyed the provisions, giving his brother the edge he needed to push back the wastelanders.

    Liked by 1 person

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