Book One, Chapter 22: A Peal of Thunder

The next morning, Emperor Xiande attended the main field of the Autumn Hunt. As his health would not allow him to ride out on the hunt, he had some prizes arranged to encourage good-humoured competition amongst the men of his court.

Li Jianheng had some trouble with his horse, and had to take a few hops before he could hoist himself into the saddle. As the Emperor looked upon him, he called out, “Jianheng shall lead by example. We will look forward to the taste of your game!”

Li Jianheng took up his reins. He had made sure that his guardsmen were well prepared— even if he caught nothing today, he would not be returning empty-handed. Therefore, he set off now in high spirits, followed closely by his retinue of guards, with Xiao Chi’ye riding at his side.

Where the wide open plains of the Nanlin hunting ground ended, the trees began. The forest unfurled as far as the eye could see, its yellowing treetops heavy with morning dew. Startled by the thunder of hooves and the hooting and hollering of men, creatures great and small, released for quarry, bolted in every direction amongst the tall grass.

Astride his horse, Li Jianheng took a firm grip of his bow, and drew it with considerable effort. He loosed an arrow at a darting hare. The arrow ploughed weakly into the ground, some distance away from his target. The company burst into a blind storm of cheers, and the guardsman who went forward to inspect the outcome returned with a dead hare, prepared earlier.

Well pleased, Li Jianheng turned to Xiao Chi’ye. “Not too bad, eh? I was taught by my Imperial grandfather back in the day!”

Xiao Chi’ye replied, deadly sincere, “I have never seen skills like that even in Libei.”

Li Jianheng began to laugh. “You’ve been in Qu Capital for so long, do you still remember how to draw a bow?”

Xiao Chi’ye had only brought an ordinary bow today, with a draw weight lighter even than the Brocade Guard’s standard issue. He answered, “My turn to give you a show then.”

With that, Xiao Chi’ye drew his bow, and let an arrow off into the clearing before them. His arrow sketched an even more flaccid course than Prince Chu’s, and failed to even strike the ground true. The company burst into cheers and applause again, and Xiao Chi’ye basked in the adulation.

Catching sight of this from behind them, Qiao Tianya cheered up immediately and forgot his initial impatience. “See that? If you don’t train properly, you’ll be pandered to like a moron!”

Looking at the contour of Xiao Chi’ye’s shoulders, Shen Zechuan thought of that bone-hewn thumb ring, and could not help but smile to himself.

Prince Chu had not ridden long before he was sore and aching, and refused to continue deeper into the forest. This was the result of his drinking the night before. Not one part of his body felt right today. He rode around aimlessly for a while, sticking it out until it was about time, and then made everyone head back.

The guards in the back of his retinue had not even had a chance to spend all their arrows before they were all flocking back with Prince Chu again. The east side of the forest was left entirely unexplored.

On return, Li Jianheng dismounted to kneel before the throne. To the side, Pan Rugui tallied their harvest for the Emperor. Li Jianheng’s enthusiasm rose as the tally grew, and he called out, “Imperial Brother, there’s a red fox amongst them too, with a top-notch pelt. It’d be perfect as a fur collar around your neck.”

The Emperor was equally pleased. “You seem to be even more spirited than you had been in the Capital! Pan Rugui, give Prince Chu his prize.”

Li Jianheng flung off the silk coverings eagerly, only to find a great bow underneath, far heavier than an average man could draw. He lost interest immediately, but still had to say, “Thank you for the reward, Your Majesty!”

The Emperor chuckled, coughed a little, and said, “You don’t like it? We never intended for you to use it anyway. This bow was passed down to us from the first Emperor of our nation, years and years ago, forged from black iron and the sinew of dragons. It weighs a hundred and twenty jin, and even our Four Generals cannot hope to bring it to full draw. We gift it to you as a reminder to be constantly diligent. When you look upon this bow, remember the pain and toil that went into our Imperial Great-great-grandfather’s mighty enterprise.”

Li Jianheng acknowledged this, and had the bow carried away.

At dinnertime, the Emperor called upon Li Jianheng to sit up the front, right next to himself. The implication was clear as day, but though every minister understood, they made no mention of it, for Elder Hua, Hua Siqian, still sat level with Prince Chu.

When all had been fed and watered, the bonfire was lit.

Emperor Xiande had not yet left the table, so everyone else had had to stay. Li Jianheng was getting tired in his seat, but the Emperor seemed to have no intention of retiring.

What’s going on.

Li Jianheng tried to catch Xiao Chi’ye’s eye.

Xiao Chi’ye pretended not to notice him.

The singing and dancing had ended by then, and the fire was blazing. Emperor Xiande wrapped his cloak about himself and called, “Minister Hai.”

Hai Liangyi straightened his robes and came to kneel humbly before the throne. “Yes, Your Majesty!”, he answered.

The Emperor asked, “Why are you here today?”

Hai Liangyi placed his forehead to the ground and said, “Your Majesty, I am here today to uphold the right of Xue Xiuzhuo, Chief Steward of Revenue Oversight, to report to Your Majesty!”

Hua Siqian seemed to sense something on the wind. He stroked his beard and asked, “Why is that necessary, Renshi? The Chief Steward has always had the freedom to report directly to His Majesty.”

“That is as it may be,” Hai Lianyi said, “But Xue Xiuzhuo’s reports have repeatedly failed to make it to His Majesty’s desk, so he might as well be invited to a direct audience.”

“Why would any report fail to make it to His Majesty?” Hua Siqian asked.

The Emperor said, “We are curious about this too. Minister Hai, let him come up here.”

Thus commanded, Pan Rugui exchanged a look with Hua Siqian, then took two steps forward and called, “Let the Chief Steward of Revenue Oversight, Xue Xiuzhuo, come forward.”

Xue Xiuzhuo was not in his robes of office, and was in fact a little windswept, as if he had just ridden in. Stepping up, he looked neither left nor right, but went directly to his knees and made his obeisance to the Emperor.

“What do you wish to say?” The Emperor asked into the wind.

Xue Xiuzhuo said, “Your Majesty, I serve as the Chief Steward within the Ministry of Revenue Oversight, and my main responsibility is the surveillance of the financial activities of the Ministry of Revenue. In March of the fifth year of Xiande, I was auditing the total expenses in the fourth year of Xiande, and found a subsidy payment of two million taels. To be prudent, I followed up the Ministry of Revenue’s explanation of “subsidising the Thirteen Cities of Juexi”, and made a personal trip to Juexi. For several days, the commissioner of Juexi, Jiang Qingshan and I, compared our accounts, and found that of the subsidy paid out in the fourth year of Xiande, only one million, five hundred and thirty thousand taels reached the Thirteen Cities, while the other four hundred and seventy thousand taels had vanished without a trace. Following that, in August of the same year, the Ministry of Revenue paid out two million, eight hundred thousand taels for borderland military provisions. Of that, one million, eight hundred thousand taels was for the garrison troops of Qidong’s five counties, and one million for the major prefecture of Libei. But by the time I chased the trail of this expenditure to Luoxia Pass, only eight hundred and thirty thousand taels remained! These are far from isolated incidents, and when all of them are put together, they amount to a tremendous loss from the Treasury. Where has the money gone? If Elder Hua says he does not know, then I have their names here in my report!”

“Absolute nonsense!” Hua Siqian barked. “The Ministry of Revenue verifies its accounts before the Imperial Court at the start of every year! The Minister of Revenue has found no deficit, the Cabinet has found no deficit, His Majesty’s transcriber has found no deficit, but you happen to be the only one to know of one?!”

Hai Liangyi raised his head and called levelly, “I know of it too! Since the second year of Xiande, the Ministry of Revenue has had two sets of books, the real one, and a false one. The Minister of Revenue does not have a say in what is presented to the court each year, but you, Hua Siqian, do!”

The bonfire snapped like a bolt from the blue, smiting all in attendance into dead silence. No one had expected the Emperor to lay an ambush like this.

“Very good!” Hua Siqian laughed shortly and struck his table, rising to his feet. “We’re making wild accusations now? What is this “Hua party” everyone speaks of these days? Is not every piece of earth under these heavens king’s country? I, Hua Siqian, am transparent in my actions, and always have placed His Majesty’s interests foremost! If there are any points of contention in the accounts, then let us have them out now. Zheng Guoshi, do the maths with him!”

Zheng Guoshi, Minister of Revenue, dropped to his knees hastily. He said, “Your Majesty, I have a question for Chief Steward Xue. If the dispute lies within the accounts of the fourth year of Xiande, why has he only raised the issue today? If there had truly been an error, there could have been serious repercussions!”

Xue Xiuzhuo shot back, “These days, when provincial officials take their first step into the Capital, they neither report to their superiors, nor pay tribute to His Majesty, but instead send their calling-cards to the Hua manor and Pan gonggong’s villa, to wait their turn to pay their respects. As dominant as the Hua party is, would anyone hesitate to do whatever Elder Hua says?”

“Every year, I tell the Imperial inspectors travelling down to the provinces: if there is an issue, speak out! What is there to be afraid of? Even my own accounts are presented to His Majesty. There is nothing to hide!” Hua Siqian kept his eyes locked on Xue Xiuzhuo. “Xue Yanqing, when you were admitted into the Capital to take office in the Year of Yong, whose recommendation allowed you entry? I was half a mentor to you, and you would make false accusations against me now?”

Xue Xiuzhuo lifted his head, and met Hua Siqian’s gaze for a moment. He answered, “In the Imperial Court, we are neither mentor nor pupil, but only His Majesty’s subjects.”

Hua Siqian spun around to the Emperor. “Do you believe this, Your Majesty?”

The Emperor’s eyes were veiled. He said, “We believe the account books.”

Hua Siqian reared his head back and laughed loudly. He clapped his hands. “Very good! Your Majesty, when the winds rose in Qu Capital those years ago, the late Emperor chose you on his deathbed. Do you still remember who had stood behind you then and ever since, who had been your steward and your keeper? And tonight, just on the word of a few disloyal ingrates, you will believe that of me?!”

The Emperor took a sip of his tea, and finally looked directly at Hua Siqian. His gaze was full of loathing. He said, “Whether you have been my steward and my keeper, or whether you have been a tyrant and a puppeteer, I think you know very well.”

Hua Siqian shoved his table aside. “Ji Lei!”, he cried.

And there was the rasp of steel as the Brocade Guards amongst the party drew their blades.

“How dare you rise against His Majesty!” Hai Liangyi cried.

“I dare not,” Hua Siqian replied. “But since you have put a knife to my neck, do you expect me to simply sit and wait to die?”

“What else do you think you’ll do?” The Emperor said coldly. “Xi Gu’an!”

The Eight Battalions took a sharp step forward, forming a barricade before the throne.

“Arrest Hua Siqian!” The Emperor ordered.

“Dare it!” Hua Siqian roared. “Xi Gu’an, at this very moment your wife is taking tea with the Empress Dowager. If you take one more step forward, the Xi family will never have another son! Her Majesty has treated you fairly all these years, but time and time again you have let yourself be coerced. It is not yet too late to turn back now!”

Xi Gu’an had been pressed into a corner to begin with, and now took an involuntary half-step back. He was rattled.

The Emperor called ominously, “Not too late? Xi Gu’an, was it too late for the late Crown Prince? Was it too late for Shen Wei? Are you more loyal than either of them? They stepped back, but did the Dowager forgive them? We have had an edict drafted. The moment Prince Chu inherits the throne, a daughter of the Xi family will sit beside him as the mother of this nation!”

“You would be very brave or very foolish indulge in such a fantasy, when His Majesty has made a habit of changing his mind!” Hua Siqian flung out his sleeve in a dramatic gesture. “His Majesty’s mind has been addled by illness! Concubine Wei has been with child for half a month. How could Prince Chu ever inherit the throne?”

Xi Gu’an clutched the hilt of his sword, a faint sheen of sweat at his brow.

Storm clouds had at some point gathered densely in the night sky. Even the air had gone still in the prelude to the rain. Banners flapped limply about their poles on the field. No one moved.

Xi Gu’an clenched his jaw and drew his blade, turning towards the Emperor. He grated out, “His Majesty… is mortally ill.”

“We have given you your chance,” Emperor Xiande said to Xi Gu’an. As he looked at him he began to laugh, and his laughter grew louder, and the louder it grew, the more his coughs racked him. He held himself up over the table, and rasped, “This is the Autumn Hunt after all. Without absolute surety, how can we run you treasonists to ground! Qi Zhuyin has mobilised her troops in service to the throne, and will be here within four hours! Who will you kill? Huh? Who’s going to do it?!”

Ji Lei spoke up suddenly. “Commander Qi is faraway in the remote Cang county of Qidong. All correspondences to and fro have been the responsibility of the Brocade Guard. Your Majesty, it’s time to wake up!”

The Emperor’s eyes grew wide with rage. “Qi-“

Pan Rugui abruptly clapped a hand over the Emperor’s mouth, and dragged him down into his seat. He looked about him at his audience and smiled placidly. “His Majesty has taken ill.”

The civilian ministers were shaking like leaves. Hua Siqian turned to Li Jianheng, a sinister smile on his face. “Prince Chu has attempted insurrection while at the hunting grounds. Look, he has even brought his bow. The evidence is undeniable. What are you waiting for? Kill him!”

At once, save for his small circle of guardsmen, cold steel flashed from all around.

Li Jianheng dropped his chopsticks in horror, stumbling back and crashing to the ground with his stool. He cried, “E-Elder! I have no wish to rule!”

“Your Highness,” Hua Siqian said. “Sometimes, it simply isn’t up to you.”

Thunder crashed from the sky.

As the pounding of boots swarmed him from every direction, Li Jianheng cowered amongst his bodyguards, unable to support his own weight. He wailed, “I have never been more than an idle prince! Why are you doing this!”

A sword flashed before his face, and Li Jianheng screamed, covering his head. But there was an enormous clash, and the table before him flipped over with a thud. The back of his collar tightened around his neck, and he was lifted bodily.

“If His Majesty gave the Conqueror’s Bow to you, then you are the Crown Prince of Dazhou!” Xiao Chi’ye’s lips curved menacingly. “As Governor-General of the Imperial Guard today, I’d love to find out which of you will come meet Xiao Ce’an’s blade! Chenyang, help the Crown Prince onto a horse!”

“Young Master Xiao,” Ji Lei drew his sword slowly. “We’re no strangers to each other. Why come stick your neck out tonight?”

“Been muddling along for too long,” Xiao Chi’ye loosed his grip on Li Jianheng. “Got an itchy hide.”

“Capture him,” Ji Lei ordered. “As long as Er-gongzi keeps his life, you may break all his limbs to do it.”

Xiao Chi’ye shrugged off his elaborate outer robe, and they saw that he had been wearing trim under-armour beneath. He swept a look around and said, “If any man breaks my limbs, not only will I award him a hundred taels of gold, he’ll also hear me call him grandsire.”

The sword Avarice, which had almost never left its sheath in Qu Capital, slid smoothly free, every inch of its cold, bright blade gleaming with icy malice.

“If he can’t break them, I’ll have his life instead.”

3 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 22: A Peal of Thunder

  1. I enjoy your translation so much!!!! Thank you for your work! Will post this comment a couple more times 🙂
    I sometimes got lost in the other translation, and then I discovered that some parts here made more sense to me!

    I love them so much, QJJ is by far the best novel I ever read


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s