Book One, Chapter 21: Autumn Hunt

In October, Qu Capital was visited by a few showers, and the leaves all over Sweet Gum Hill turned flaming crimson in their wake. Light frost could be seen in the early mornings as Shen Zechuan herded elephants towards Morning Court. As the weather turned, Emperor Xiande’s health happened to pick up. According to sources, he had resumed his daily meals, and there was less of his coughing to be heard during Morning Court.

Customarily, the Emperor may only leave for the Nanlin hunting grounds in November. But perhaps Emperor Xiande feared that the colder weather would impede travel, for it was only early October when he began to have preparations for the Autumn Hunt made.

“It’ll still be the Eight Battalions and the Brocade Guard in charge of main patrols and security,” Chenyang observed, hugging Xiao Chi’ye’s sword to himself. “Governor, wasn’t His Majesty furious at them last time?”

“That was last time,” Xiao Chi’ye said, wiping at the light sweat he had worked up on the training grounds. “Last time, His Majesty lost his temper because he felt that his safety was compromised both internally and externally. But this time, Xi Gu’an has been left out in the cold for two whole months by the Dowager. He’s practically frothing to impress.”

“Would minor rewards tempt Xi Gu’an?” Chenyang looked around to make sure the coast was clear before continuing, “The Dowager has held power for a very long time, and His Majesty is not well. Even if he would like to make Xi Gu’an a peace offering now, Xi Gu’an may not dare to accept.”

“Like you said, ‘minor’ rewards won’t do.” Xiao Chi’ye grabbed his tunic and put it on. “But what if His Majesty holds out the very sceptre of power? Just a few days ago he was asking after the Xi daughter’s age. Prince Chu hasn’t got a primary consort yet. If His Majesty decides on their marriage, even if Xi Gu’an never asked for it, he’ll have some trouble explaining himself to the Dowager.”

Chenyang said, “Pity we haven’t got a young miss at home.”

“Thank heavens for that,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “If I did have a sister, she would have to be a woman like Commander Qi, or her life would never be her own. She’d probably have to marry a man she’d never seen.”

He slowed his pace then.

“The Hua daughters have always been top choice for palace consorts. But Hua Xiangyi’s been raised by the Dowager herself, and to this day she’s yet to be married off. Even His Majesty dares not overstep, and only calls her ‘sister’. It’ll be the Dowager’s word again on who she’s appointed to in future.”

Chenyang replied, “Thank heavens our Young Master the Scion has already married… But who on earth can Third Lady Hua be appointed to? Governor, I can’t even begin to guess.”

“The Qi family is the best choice,” Xiao Chi’ye smiled to himself. “If Qi Zhuying had been born a man, the Dowager would have married Hua Xiangyi off already. Pity that Qi Zhuying’s a woman, and the Hua family haven’t got a man in their main bloodline this generation. They’re all beside themselves about this juicy piece of meat hanging right out of their reach.”

His horse was led over. Xiao Chi’ye petted him.

“Come on, we’re going to the East Market on Donglong Avenue.”

Shen Zechuan had just stepped foot in Donglong Avenue.

As he had been released from confinement, he could not of course carry on living in the Temple of Penitence. But because no one had paid any mind to the matter of his relocation at first, neither did he. In August, however, Qiao Tianya took a sudden interest, and paid a visit to the Temple with him. After his encounter with the muddy and insane Grand Tutor, he allowed Shen Zechuan to receive an advance from the Brocade Guard, so that he could find a proper place to live. By the end of September, he had moved into an old alley, where the rent was cheap and appropriate to his current station.

“So who is this person that Teacher wants me to find?” Shen Zechuan held a person’s indenture papers in his hand, reading again the single name “Songyue”. There was no birthplace either.

Ge Qingqing scanned the crowd. “Uncle never mentioned. He only said that Sir had agreed as well, that this person will attend to your daily needs from now on.”

When Shen Zechuan moved out of the Temple, it had become difficult for him to correspond with the Grand Tutor. He would not keep homing pigeons, firstly because they were indiscreet, and secondly because Xiao Chi’ye’s bloodthirsty gyrfalcon had left a lasting impression on him. At present, they could only meet on Ji Gang’s excursions into the market as a servant. It was inconvenient, but for the moment there was no better option.

“He’d probably be in the East Market,” Shen Zechuan said to Ge Qingqing. “Let’s take a look there.”

Donglong Avenue ran along Kailing River, and was the place to go for pleasure-seekers. Its east side opened into a marketplace which mostly dealt in ‘human goods’. This was also where those looking to sell themselves for a parent’s funeral money usually came to solicit, because common households came to pick their servants and serving-girls here.

Xiao Chi’ye had a copy of Prince Chu’s household register in his hands. He was here to trace up a few of them.

He was not quite some steps out of a broker’s premises when he sighted the back of a familiar neck.

“Isn’t that…,” Chenyang started.

Xiao Chi’ye raised a palm. Chenyang silenced himself.

As Shen Zechuan tucked away the papers, he sensed a chill at the back of his neck. He looked around, and Xiao Chi’ye was already there.

“Ah, it’s the nobleman,” Shen Zechuan said. “Why is he standing behind me?”

“All the better to look at you,” Xiao Chi’ye shoved the register away casually, and sauntered up to Shen Zechuan. “Here to buy some servants?”

Shen Zechuan said lightly, “Just trying to see if anyone will have me. How could I afford a servant?”

“Has it got this bad,” Xiao Chi’ye looked him up and down. “Didn’t I hear that there’ve been slews of people offering huge sums for you?”

“It’s about the emotional connection,” Shen Zechuan kept walking. “There’s got to be chemistry before I can look at whether to take them on.”

Xiao Chi’ye knew very well the kind of people those were. “Must be tough pickings amongst the flotsam.”

“I haven’t got Er-gongzi‘s experience,” Shen Zechuan shot a look at him. “You partake in no small amount of indulgence with Prince Chu.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Jealous? Come find me then.”

Shen Zechuan smiled back. “It hasn’t got that bad yet.”

They had come almost to the end of the market square. Shen Zechuan turned to say, “I shan’t trouble Er-gongzi for his company any longer. Until next time.”

“Hold your horses,” Xiao Chi’ye stood where he was. “Don’t forget, we’re gonna be looking out for each other in the Autumn Hunt.”

“The Brocade Guard and the Imperial Guard move in different circles,” Shen Zechuan looked askance at him. “How would I look out for you?”

“How cold,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “If I make a habit of wandering into your neck of the woods more often, we’ll fit in the same circle then.”

Shen Zechuan did not make a reply to that. When he walked off, Xiao Chi’ye stayed.

“Who is he looking for here,” Xiao Chi’ye ran his thumb lightly over his pommel. “Ge Qingqing… It was Ge Qingqing after all. Chenyang.”


“Go look him up,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Go look up Ge Qingqing’s entire ancestry.”

After his search had been interrupted by Xiao Chi’ye, Shen Zechuan was caught up in several continuous shifts, and for some time could not spare another look. On the eve of the Autumn Hunt, he was finally called up for an assignment. Unsurprisingly, he was to be in the Imperial entourage travelling to the Nanlin hunting grounds.

Shen Zechuan had been going home one day after a shift, when he came short of opening his door. There was someone already inside.

Feng Quan was wrapped in a cloak, drinking tea with his fingers crooked delicately. He asked through the closed door, “Aren’t you coming in?”

Shen Zechuan opened his door. Within, the room was unlit. Feng Quan’s starkly pale face, steeped in gloom, made him look like a wayward ghoul.

He put his tea down. “We’re here to pass on a message from Her Majesty.”

Shen Zechuan tossed the soiled robes in his hands onto a small upturned coat stand. “Much obliged.”

“Indeed,” Feng Quan fixed Shen Zechuan with a malevolent stare. He threw something at him. “If this was not an important matter, would I have come in person? You’ve received many favours from Her Majesty, and it’s time now to repay them one by one. At the Autumn Hunt, if this job falls through, then so will you.”

Shen Zechuan caught the object. It was a freshwater pearl wrapped in a strip of cloth. He grazed it with the tip of a finger, and one half of a character emerged from the cloth: “林”.

The word was “楚”, Chu.

Shen Zechuan’s gaze slid back onto Feng Quan’s face.

Feng Quan got up and walked towards Shen Zechuan. “If you succeed, you may remain Her Majesty’s dog, and she will spare your life. But if you fail, there won’t be any point keeping you around, will there?”

“Though I will be a novice amongst a thicket of elites,” Shen Zechuan said, “I will do my best.”

Feng Quan’s barbed gaze prickled at him a moment more. Then he scoffed, and went out the door, throwing up the hood of his cloak, and melted into the night.

Shen Zechuan lit a lamp. He stood by the table, and set fire to the strip of cloth.

Under the lapping flames, “林” vanished amongst the ashes.

The Nanlin hunting grounds were situated to the southeast of Qu Capital, and occupied a vast expanse of land. One half of the Imperial Kitchen’s daily ingredients were sourced here. Half of the Eight Battalions had been mobilised today, and they made a grand sight in the Emperor’s procession.

As Shen Zechuan drove the elephants along, a thunderous rush of hooves came upon him. He did not need to turn his head to identify the horse. And indeed, in the next second, a gyrfalcon swept over his head, plucked a rat from the tussocks, and shot back into the skies.

Xiao Chi’ye, Li Jianheng, and their crowd of rich Capital boys galloped by, racing raucously onwards. His stallion, jet black with a splash of snow on its breast, stood out distinctly amongst them.

Xiao-Wu cried enviously, face upturned, “Governor Xiao’s falcon and horse are both superb creatures!”

Shen Zechuan said, “They’re ferals.”

Xiao-Wu was but a boy, and wanted company. He kept making conversation with Shen Zechuan. Munching on dried sweet potatoes, he asked in his Huai provincial accent, “Chuan-ge, do you know what that falcon and that horse are called?”

Shen Zechuan smiled, saying, “Well, being ferals… I wouldn’t expect anything fancy.”

Xiao-Wu leaned out towards Shen Zechuan, his face animated, and told him, “That falcon, his name is Meng! Isn’t that fierce? That horse isn’t as fierce, he’s called Snowbreaker!” 1

The way he spoke, enunciating each syllable in earnest, made him sound very child-like, and caused much amusement amongst the adults around him.

Li Jianheng, panting, caught sight of them as he turned around, and said to Xiao Chi’ye, “God, every time I see him, I think, why couldn’t he have been born a girl?”

Xiao Chi’ye looked around his horse at Li Jianheng.

Li Jiangheng hurried to say, “I know, I know, I haven’t lost my mind, alright?”

“After we arrive,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “You must let me know whenever you leave camp. Don’t let yourself be found without guards at nighttime. None of the women you’ve brought are allowed into your tent.”

“I didn’t bring any women,” Li Jianheng argued bravely.

Xiao Chi’ye smiled at him, some kind of evil in his eyes.

Chenyang caught up from behind them on his horse. He said, “Governor, I’ve had all those women sent back.”

Li Jianheng bit the tip of his tongue sullenly. After a moment, he said, “Ce’an, I’m gonna be honest with you, if you won’t even let me have women, then what’s the point in the Autumn Hunt?”

“There’s heaps to do,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Even lying in the sun is a better use of time than hiding in a tent like you’ve been doing.”

Li Jianheng sighed dramatically. The spark that had been in him all along the way vanished. He went on in dejection.

When they arrived, it was nearly dark.

Shen Zechuan was not on the first shift, so he stayed behind to help with the odd jobs. Qiao Tianya came along as well, calling to the Brocade Guards to come have some meat.

He looked at the bowl in Shen Zechuan’s hand and said suddenly, “You can hold your wine pretty well.”

Shen Zechuan said, “Just a bowlful and no more.”

Qiao Tianya did not blow his cover. Sometimes, this man did not act like a person trying to earn a living with the Brocade Guard, but rather more like a worldly wayfarer. He skewered his meat with a dagger, calling out, “Since we’ve come to the hunting grounds, all of you are going to eat like your lives depend on it! This is the only chance in a year you’ll get to eat what they do in the Palace. It’s now or never.”

Then he said, chewing, “You’ll need to wear a sword when on shift. When you’re on tomorrow night, you can use Qingqing’s. Why didn’t you bring one? Haven’t they taught you a few moves in the Elephant Handler’s Division?”

“Swords are too heavy,” Shen Zechuan answered, trying to look frail again. “If I have to carry one all the time, it’ll wear me out.”

“The state of you,” Qiao Tianya sympathised. “It wouldn’t have been Young Master Xiao who ruined your health when he booted you, would it? Pity that’s a top-notch bastard, you can’t even blackmail him. Otherwise, just for that one kick alone, I could milk him for all he’s got.”

The Brocade Guards around them began to laugh.

Shen Zechuan’s lips quirked. As he brought his wine up to sip, he skimmed a quick look all around over the rim of his bowl.

Every one of them was armed.

Himself aside, who else was here to kill Prince Chu? Apart from those seated here, in the unseen shadows, how many more cold-eyed assassins awaited? Even if Xiao Chi’ye was “an exceptional gift from god”, under such heavy siege, what were his chances of keeping Prince Chu alive?

A few tents away, Xiao Chi’ye and Li Jianheng drank and played dice with their men.

[1] Xiao Chi’ye’s gyrfalcon is named Meng, 猛: literally fierce, strong, charged.
His stallion’s name is Langtao Xuejin, 浪淘雪襟: A splash of snow on the shirtfront, washed by waves. For the sake of my future sanity, he is Snowbreaker.

3 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 21: Autumn Hunt

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