Book One, Chapter 26: Bitter Frost

Concubine Wei walked along with her heart in her throat. Looking about her, she found the palace walls unfamiliar here. She asked tremulously, “Gonggong, have we not arrived yet? Where is Her Majesty the Dowager?”

The eunuch walking ahead ignored her.

A chill ran down Concubine Wei’s spine in the eerie silence. She stopped walking and pretended to be having an ache in her stomach, making noises about going back.

She did not know the eunuch leading the way. His face was unfamiliar and somewhat boyish. He looked back at her and said gently, “We will be there very soon. Here, lend Mistress Concubine your arms, we mustn’t allow her to stumble.”

The eunuchs on either side caught Concubine Wei’s arms immediately. Concubine Wei began to struggle and made to cry out, but something was shoved into her mouth. The eunuchs lifted her onto their shoulders neatly, and quickly continued onward.

There was a well in this abandoned courtyard, with a little bit of water remaining at the bottom.

The eunuch took a look down the well and said, “This will do. Escort Mistress Concubine in.”

Concubine Wei struggled fiercely, her well-kept fingernails gouging skin from the leading eunuch’s forearms. Her hair had fallen into disarray, and she clung to the edge of the well, shaking her head and whimpering through her gag.

The eunuch stroked one of her finely-shaped hands, and ruefully told one of the other men to find a rock.

There was a dull splash. A bird took to the skies from the branches atop those crimson walls.


Emperor Xiande lay within his carriage. Li Jianheng knelt by his side, holding a bowl of medicine.

The Emperor’s breaths came as faint as gossamer. He could no longer even draw enough air to cough. He beckoned at Li Jianheng, and Li Jianheng immediately put down the bowl and shuffled forward on his knees. “Are you— are you feeling better, Imperial brother?”

The Emperor laid his hand over Li Jianheng’s, and rasped painfully, “Jianheng.”

“I’m here,” Li Jianheng began to cry again. He said, “I am here.”

“In his last years, our late Imperial father lost much of his autonomy. At that time, the Crown Prince had been our eldest Imperial brother. We…” The Emperor looked at him. “Like you, we were an idle prince. But the Heavens laugh upon the plans of men, and in the end, this nation and its people fell upon our shoulders. However, ever since we took the throne, we too have been held back at every turn. We have been a puppet on a stage, our every move orchestrated. If our Imperial mother would have us smile, we would smile. If she would have us die, then today, it would happen that we shall die as well.”

Li Jianheng was crying too hard for words.

The Emperor said, “From this day forth, you will become that lonely man atop this peerless peak.”

Li Jianheng burst into loud sobs. He clung onto the Emperor’s hand, begging, “Imperial brother! How could I possibly take that on? I have never been anything but a worm living in this land known by our family’s name. How could I possibly sit in that highest of places? Imperial brother, I’m afraid, I’m so afraid!”

“Do not be afraid!” The Emperor seized Li Jianheng’s hand, gripping it with strength he found from god knew where, his eyes wide and staring. “You are different from us… the kinsmen have lost! Hua Siqian faces certain death, and Pan Rugui too. You must kill them, kill them and the Dowager will have no one left to turn for help! From then on, the power will return to its rightful owner, and you… you will be the ruler of this Empire! What we could not do… you can… we…”

The Emperor began to cough violently, choking so hard that his whole body shook, but he would not let go of Li Jianheng. With blood now in his mouth, he continue to speak.

“Eliminate the kinsmen, and watch over the councillors. The Hua family has fallen, but there will… there will be others… you must remember, this cradle of power, you must never allow anyone else to sleep in it! He who… saves you today… may kill you… tomorrow! Military power… is a wild beast… Xiao…”

The Emperor retched up scarlet blood. Li Jianheng panicked.

“… You must never…” The Emperor panted, his fingers biting into Li Jianheng’s hand. “You must never let… let A-… A’ye…”

You must never let Xiao Chi’ye return to Libei!

It did not matter if he was a dilettante or a genius. Only with him here would Libei remain a hound at their heel. Now that the matrilineal kinsmen had fallen, you would be a fool to think that the borderlands would not grasp at power on the merits of their military strength. Without the Hua family, who was going to hold the Xiao family back? If Xiao Chi’ye had such mettle, if he could bite his tongue and lie low for five whole years, silently turning the Imperial Guard from driftwood into a marvel, then if he was given five more years, if he was allowed to return to Libei… would he not become their greatest threat?

Li Jianheng murmured, dazed, “Imperial brother… how can I do that… Imperial brother…”

“Diminish the vassal states, cut back their forces,” The Emperor whispered faintly. “… and when you have to… kill… kill…”

Kill him.

As Li Jianheng watched him close his eyes, he let out a howl of anguish. Even as he passed away, Emperor Xiande never let Li Jianheng’s hand go, and that furious resentment, that dark despondency etched between his brows never did disperse.

In the nine years of his reign, he had never once made a decision before the Empress Dowager did. Everything he wore, everything he ate, every utensil he used and every woman he bedded, all of that had been decided by the Dowager. The wildest thing he had ever done in his entire life was secretly getting in touch with Qidong and attempting to coerce Xi Gu’an, so that he could pave what seemed to him like a smooth path ahead for Li Jianheng at the hunting grounds.

The long homeward bound procession came to a halt. Then, a reverberant chorus of wailing rose to the skies. The ministers went to their knees en masse, and with Hai Liangyi at their lead, they spilt their tears in grieving and gave a single, final cry of “Your Majesty!”. And that was the last piece of honour accorded to Emperor Xiande.

In Qu Capital, the death knell tolled long and slow. The nation wept.


Empress Dowager Hua sat on her bed, feeding the Emperor’s parrot.

When it heard the tolling of the bell, the parrot screamed, “Jianyun! Jianyun! Jianyun’s coming home!”

The pearls swayed gently by the Dowager’s ears. She nodded, and agreed, “Jianyun has come home.”

Then the parrot screamed, “Imperial mother! Imperial mother!”

Empress Dowager Hua sat motionless, tapping her wooden spoon. Though her form was cast in half-shadow, the silver in her hair was by now unmistakable. The fine lines at the corners of her eyes could be traced like fissures in fine porcelain.

The parrot screamed a few more times, then tipped over in its cage and crumpled to the floor, motionless.

Empress Dowager Hua put down her wooden spoon. She sat quietly until the tolling faded away, then asked, “Where is Concubine Wei? Why is it taking so long for her to arrive?”


Upon returning to Qu Capital, Xiao Chi’ye was run off his feet on account of the late Emperor Xiande. Then he spent a few days on his knees in mourning with the rest of the ministers, and by the time he could finally catch a moment to lie down, he was utterly exhausted.

But even exhausted, he needed to bathe. As Xiao Chi’ye towelled himself off, he noticed that the graze on his upper arm had already scabbed over. He put on a new set of robes and came out, asking Chenyang, “Where’s that guy?”

This time Chenyang knew exactly who he meant. He reported, “The Brocade Guard is in the middle of a reform, and he’s being re-enlisted these few days, so he hasn’t had much of a chance to get home.”

“I meant…” Xiao Chi’ye said, “Where’s Ji Lei? Who are you talking about?”

Chenyang scratched his head sheepishly. “Ah, Ji Lei, he’s been locked up. His sentence of execution should be carried out after the coronation takes place. Governor, weren’t you the one who escorted him to his cell?”

Xiao Chi’ye draped his outer robe over his arm and said primly, “I forgot.”


Shen Zechuan was having noodles with Ge Qingqing and Xiao-Wu at a noodle stall. Halfway through their meal, Xiao-Wu’s eyes grew wide.

Shen Zechuan looked back and caught Xiao Chi’ye tossing silver at the shop owner. Then he flung his hem out of the way and sat himself next to Shen Zechuan, saying, “Two bowls.”

Xiao-Wu slurped his noodles up at light speed, took up his bowl, and shuffled over to another table, quail-like. Under Xiao Chi’ye’s stare, Ge Qingqing took his bowl and followed.

Shen Zechuan poked at his noodles with his chopsticks and said, “I’m full.”

“Finish that.” Xiao Chi’ye drew out a pair of chopsticks for himself and clicked them at Shen Zechuan like pincers. “Scared of me? So keen to run away.”

“Of course I’m scared,” Shen Zechuan took his last bite slowly. “Anyone who’s been… sat on like that would be.”

“You ran pretty quick that day when it came to saving the Crown Prince too.” Xiao Chi’ye’s noodles had arrived, and he poured some vinegar in. “Such a great opportunity to grab a promotion, why’d you run away?”

“I didn’t have anything to do with saving the Crown Prince,” Shen Zechuan blew on his soup and drank some. “Why would I stick my nose into that?”

Xiao Chi’ye dug into his noodles. Only when he was about done did he suddenly speak up again. “Thinking about it, you must’ve been lurking behind me for ages that night, weren’t you. Wasn’t sure who to pick, so you decided to play it by ear. If Xi Gu’an took the Capital, you’d knife me. If Xi Gu’an couldn’t take the Capital, you’d lend me a hand. You were waiting for the perfect opportunity. I had to take that tumble before you deigned to make a move.”

“Then you’ll have to thank your lucky stars,” Shen Zechuan tilted his head and smiled. “You lived.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Was it you who shot that bolt at me too? If I didn’t get into a tight spot, it wouldn’t have shown how valuable your favour was.”

“I’m not even looking for you to return my generous favour,” Shen Zechuan said, “How can you still be thinking about whether I’m manipulating you?”

“You not asking for anything in return is what makes it suspicious.” Xiao Chi’ye looked like he could still eat. He put his chopsticks down and said, “You didn’t dare show your face in front of Prince Chu that day. Were you afraid that Ji Lei, or Hua Siqian would blurt something out about you?”

Shen Zechuan put his own copper coins into a neat stack, then leant close to Xiao Chi’ye and whispered in his ear, “Neither, I was afraid of you.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Afraid of me?”

“You were really hard.”

The sounds of the street around them faded into the distance, and all that was left in Xiao Chi’ye’s ears was the word “hard” and the little huff of warm breath it came with. And he had only just noticed that Shen Zechuan was wearing a round, fastened collar today, so that that neck of his was half-hidden, no longer permitting him the liberty to look as he pleased.

His face went through several permutations. He looked at Shen Zechuan and grated out, “Don’t you worry.”

Er-gongzi is getting to that age,” Shen Zechuan straightened back up. “Perhaps it’s time to take a wife.”

Er-gongzi finds entertainment in more places than you can imagine,” Xiao Chi’ye saw that he was getting ready to leave, and caught his wrist in a flash, unapologetically keeping him from getting up. “You leave before we’re done talking every time, that’s poor manners.”

“And what kind of manners is it,” Shen Zechuan said, “When you grab people at the slightest pretext?”

Xiao Chi’ye let his hand go and said, “I’ll be returning that favour.”

“I’ll count it returned if you call me grandsire,” Shen Zechuan said.

“But you have to return what’s mine,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “I’m sure you don’t want me hounding you for my ring either.”

Without a second word, Shen Zechuan tossed the bone ring at him.

Xiao Chi’ye caught it, then asked suspiciously, “What’s the evil ploy here? That was too easy.”

“It’s just how us unpresuming folk do things,” Shen Zechuan said, “Easily.”

If he put it like that, there was nothing more he could say about it.

Xiao Chi’ye watched Shen Zechuan get up, his fingers playing with the ring. It still felt all too painless.

“Going home?” He asked from behind.

“I’m on shift tomorrow.”

“The Brocade Guard is getting overhauled, bullshit you’re on shift,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “This winter will be difficult. You should watch yourself.”

“Small fry like us just go where the current leads,” Shen Zechuan turned around. “I’m not the one who should be watching himself.”

Xiao Chi’ye rubbed a finger over one of his knuckles, and said, “Pass on my greetings to Master Ji Gang while you’re there.”

Already walking away, Shen Zechuan stopped short and turned to stare at him.

Xiao Chi’ye put on his thumb ring and said cheerfully, “Ah, Lanzhou. Wanna come play?”

2 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 26: Bitter Frost

  1. oh man, i almost forgot about concubine wei 😦 poor girl had a bad feeling about where she was being taken, and tried to get away but wasn’t strong enough. meanwhile, we have emperor xiande breathing his last breath and li jianheng mourning for him, along with more cezhou flirting going on during this.


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