Book One, Chapter 27: Autumn Chill

Shen Zechuan quickly turned his surprise into a smile and said, “Well, it wasn’t an earth-shattering secret anyway… I’ll see you around.”

“Wait till I’m finished,” Xiao Chi’ye was in a pretty good mood today, having got his lost ring back. “Since Ji Gang is your teacher, that makes us brothers under the same sect. I’m older than you, so it wouldn’t be unfair on you to call me “Shixiong“.”

“The Ji family has nothing to do with Libei.” But in an instant Shen Zechuan recalled that fight with Xiao Chi’ye in the snow five years ago. Even back then, there had been an uncanny sense of familiarity.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Who can say anything about how fate brings us together?”

Shen Zechuan waved to Ge Qingqing and Xiao-Wu, then sat back down beside Xiao Chi’ye. “You looked up Ge Qingqing.”

“Couldn’t forget him, could I?” Xiao Chi’ye looked at him. “He was so quick to run away five years ago, and five years later he’s so close to you. How could I not become suspicious of such an eye-catching person? If I take this chance to look him up, I can dig up all of his little secrets.”

“What are you trying to do?” Shen Zechuan asked, smiling.

“I’m not trying to do anything,” Xiao Chi’ye said. He tapped a finger at Shen Zechuan’s eyes. “And there’s no need to force that smile at me. We’ve been through life and death together after all, there’s no point putting up a false front like that. You’re rattled. Scared now?”

Shen Zechuan said, “Not quite yet.”

Xiao Chi’ye flipped his chopsticks around and tapped the table aimlessly with the ends. He said, “Since Ji Gang is your teacher, then it makes perfect sense for that group of Brocade Guards led by Ge Qingqing to spare your life back then.”

“You have a very suspicious disposition.” Shen Zechuan examined the buildup of brown, oily stains on the table. “That kick of yours didn’t kill me, so you got suspicious, and never stopped probing. How very persistent of you.”

“I’ve only got a handful of merits to my name,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “And I’ve used them all on you.”

“Since we’re from the same sect,” Shen Zechuan said, “It’d be poor manners not to say who your teacher is, wouldn’t it?”

Xiao Chi’ye tossed his chopsticks back into the holder, bored with his game. “Let’s hear you call me “Shixiong” first.”

Shen Zechuan said nothing.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Gotta say, Ji Gang is quite a tough old bugger. I sent my men to ask around Duan province, and everyone thought he’d died in the fire— was he the one who killed Xiao-Fu’zi?”

“No.” Shen Zechuan righted the chopsticks holder. “My teacher is getting on in years. How could he take a life?”

A wind rose then. Neither of them moved.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “You seem to have done nothing at all, but somehow it feels to me like you did all of it.”

“Whether or not I did anything, none of you will let me go.” Shen Zechuan propped himself up on the stool and turned to Xiao Chi’ye, slowly beginning to smile. He said gently, “So why don’t I do every dreadful thing possible, and that way you can at least have a good reason to hate me.”

The next day.

It was only when Xiao Chi’ye entered the Palace that he found out about Concubine Wei’s death.

Li Jianheng had changed his attire. Seated on high, wan-faced from the past few days of crying, he explained, “They say she slipped and fell into a well. They only found the body last night.”

That was some coincidental slip of the foot.

Li Jianheng checked that there was no one else around before whispering, “Ce’an, was it you…?”

Xiao Chi’ye shook his head.

That seemed to reassure Li Jianheng. He shifted restlessly in his chair, and confided, “Now that I’m living in the Palace, when I open my eyes at night, the first thing I see is a eunuch. It’s pretty spooky. They all used to call Pan Rugui ‘Grandfather’, but now their ‘Grandfather’ is locked away in prison still! Ce’an, d’you think they all hate me…”

He whined on for some time, in essence about how afraid he was. In the end, he made Xiao Chi’ye divert some of the Imperial Guard to take over Palace security for the present.

Naturally, Xiao Chi’ye did not refuse him. He stayed a while more, then heard Li Jianheng say, “Libei has written to say that the Lord of Libei and your brother are on their way. Ce’an, you’ll be able to see them in a few days!”

There was a note of appeasement in Li Jianheng’s voice. Even as he was about to become the ruler of this land, he seemed, if anything, to have become even more timid than before. All that braggadocio seemed to have been scoured away in the Autumn Hunt. He understood now where and with whom the power lay.

Xiao Chi’ye had no plans to ask for his reward. Li Jianheng knew better than anyone what his heart’s desire was. But to this very day, no mention of releasing him back to Libei had passed Li Jianheng’s lips.

Xiao Chi’ye showed no hint of it on his face, but his heart sank a little.

Five days later, the Lord of Libei entered Qu Capital.

It was a day softened by a steady autumnal drizzle. Xiao Chi’ye galloped out of the city early in the morning, and came to wait under the same pavilion where he had seen them off, all those years ago. Four hours later, he finally sighted falcons on the horizon.

Meng, on his shoulder, was instantly aflame with delight. He shot into the rain to join his brothers and sisters, catching up in lazy spirals amongst the clouds.

The Iron Cavalry charged through the rain like a dense streak of ink in water, swirling towards Xiao Chi’ye. He did not wait for the Cavalry to draw near, but vaulted out of the pavilion first, to race up to them in the rain.


Xiao Jiming laughed aloud on his horse, and called ahead to his father, “He looks like a tall strapping lad now, but the moment he sees his father, his true colours emerge.”

Xiao Fangxu took his wide rain hat off his own head and, leaning over, clapped it onto Xiao Chi’ye’s head. He stopped for a few moments, taking him in, then said, “You’ve grown taller.”

Xiao Chi’ye grinned. “You bet. Even da-ge is half a head shorter than I am now!”

“Look at him go,” Xiao Jiming said. “Ever since he overgrew me, he’s brought it up every year we’ve met.”

Xiao Fangxu let Zhao Hui take his horse, and leapt off himself to give his younger son a fierce hug, then thumped him hard on his back. “Dumb lad!”, he said.

Xiao Chi’ye was thumped so hard he was laughing. He said, “I’ve been waiting forever. Did something happen on the road?”

Zhao Hui said, “Young master caught a chill at home. My lord took a detour to Deng province, to ask if Grandmaster Yigui would make a visit and have a look at him.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “A’xun’s sick? When did that happen? Why didn’t da-ge mention in the letter?”

Xiao Jiming answered, “It’s just a minor complaint. He has Yizhi looking after him at home, you needn’t worry.”

Xiao Chi’ye’s spirits dipped a little.

When he left Libei five years ago, da-sao had only just fallen pregnant. Today, little A’xun was already four years old, and he had yet to meet him, able only to read funny anecdotes about his little nephew in letters from his father and brother.

He wanted to go home.

But Xiao Chi’ye’s low mood came and went in the blink of an eye, and he smiled, saying, “I’ve had his birthday present ready for ages. When da-ge heads back this time, you can give it to him on my behalf again.”

Xiao Fangxu gave the brim of his rain hat a brush and said, “Before we left, Xun-er drew a picture specially for you. Get Zhao Hui to find it for you later. This isn’t the place for catching up. Let’s head to the Palace first. There’ll be plenty of time for us to talk when we return to the manor tonight.”

So they got back on their horses, and the procession rode into Qu Capital.


It had been many years since the Lord of Libei had made an appearance. In recent times, the illustrious names of the Four Generals had become well established, and very few still remembered Xiao Fangxu, the Lord of Libei.

Grand Tutor Qi had plumped up as autumn arrived, and was at this moment washing his feet in the rain. Rubbing his toes over each other, he said, “If you want to talk about the Four Greats, then we had them twenty years ago as well. Back then, Xiao Fangxu of Libei, Qi Shiyu of Qidong, Lu Pingyan of the Borderlands, and Feng Yisheng of the Suotian Gate, those were the Four Generals of the land. Later, when Feng Yisheng died in battle, the Feng family lost its last heirs. Probably no one remembers that surname today, but once, they were a family of valiant commanders who rode at our frontiers and devastated the Wastelands.”

“Feng Yisheng, right?” Ji Gang called out from inside, where he was frying up a dish. “What’d you mean no one remembers? Chuan-er! Both of General Feng’s sons died on the battlefield, but the son he adopted later on, that was your Teacher’s big brother!”

Shen Zechuan was filling their rice bowls, and asked, “Your big brother?”

Ji Gang slapped himself on the head and said, “I forgot to tell you about him!”

Grand Tutor Qi yelled out, “Is the food ready yet? Oh for heaven’s sake, his brother is Zuo Qianqiu! What’s there to talk about? If you just took a guess you’d get it!”

Shen Zechuan brought the dishes to the table, and laid out the Grand Tutor’s chopsticks for him. He said respectfully, “Please help yourself, Sir.”

The Grand Tutor sipped some wine. “It does feel good to have someone take care of you, at the end of the day.”

Ji Gang sat at the other end of the little table, wiping sweat away. “You were saying just before that Xiao Ce’an said he came from our sect. Most likely, his teacher would indeed be Zuo Qianqiu!”

Shen Zechuan shoved rice into his mouth.

Ji Gang sighed, “It’s been quite some years since he and I have seen each other. Did you fight Xiao Ce’an this time? How did it go? Was his sword-style as brutal as his martial arts?”

The Grand Tutor said, “Let Lanzhou eat. He can talk after he’s eaten. It was terribly dangerous this time, and we’re in no great hurry. He can take a few days to rest.”

“I should’ve known,” Ji Gang said. “Xiao Ce’an wears a bone thumb-ring, and the one person most skilled at drawing a great-bow would be Zuo Qianqiu.”

“Now that Xiao Fangxu has come to the Capital, perhaps you’ll even get to meet your brother,” Grand Tutor Qi picked at the dishes. “When Zuo Qianqiu made his last stand at Tianfei Gate, he managed to stop the Wasteland Riders, but also lost his wife. He received the epithet “Sleeping Thunder of the Jade Tower” after that battle, but fell into a slump because of that same battle. There’re rumours that he became a monk, but it could be that he was taken under Xiao Fangxu’s wing, and has been teaching Xiao Fangxu’s sons for him, hidden away from the public.”

Ji Gang lamented, “When a general triumphs, it’s because tens of thousands of men have given their lives. So what if your name is known throughout the land? At the end of it all, you’re still just a handful of ashes. The true and honourable are laid to rest wrapped in a shroud of their warhorse’s hide, and those who survive them are in no better straits. Zuo Qianqiu is in seclusion, Xiao Fangxu is ill and retired, and Lu Pingyan is elderly. In another twenty years, where will the Four Generals of today be? It’s all just waves upon a beach, one generation breaking upon another.”

Grand Tutor Qi, mildly drunk, watched Shen Zechuan eat. A long time later he said, “It’s too much of a shame, to live your whole life, and suffer all of it for nothing. We’ll all die in the end, so die fulfilling your wildest ambitions! Lanzhou, come, have another bowl of rice!”

When they had finally eaten and drunk their fill, night had fallen.

Grand Tutor Qi lay sprawled upon a mat, and Shen Zechuan sat under the eaves drying his mentor’s feet with a cloth. Ji Gang retrieved two coats, laid one over each of them, and sat himself in a corner, sucking on his pipe.

The Grand Tutor put his head back on a papaya and said, “Lanzhou, tell me again how it was at the hunting grounds.”

So Shen Zechuan described it to him again, in meticulous detail.

The Grand Tutor listened with his eyes closed. When Shen Zechuan finished, he remained silent.

In the courtyard, a light rain fell upon the vines in their garden. The leaves dipped in a rhythmic drip-drip. Countless drips later, the Grand Tutor finally spoke. “In the aftermath of this battle, Xiao Ce’an may look like the champion of the day, but he has only stepped into the same quandary his father and brother have been in all along. The new emperor has called him a friend and a brother for five long years. How can he not tremble to think how deeply Xiao Ce’an has buried himself all that time? For now, the emperor remembers the debt he owes his saviour, but how long until that sentiment is worn away to nothing? I had thought, given his restraint, that he might have held on a little longer. There were hundreds of thousands of ways he might have allowed Qi Zhuyin to take the credit, but he took it himself in the end.”

In his dim corner, Ji Gang tapped ashes from his pipe. “The wolf pup wants to go home. He must ache for the open plains of Libei even in his sleep. He’s only, what, how old? You’re not a young man if you haven’t got some fire in you.”

“Great schemes are ruined by little gripes,” the Grand Tutor said. “If he had swallowed his pride this time, would he not be heading home now as an ordinary dandy?”

Xiao Chi’ye stood outside the Palace gates, looking up at the dark, continuous line that the Imperial Palace made against the sky. To his eyes, those crimson walls and swooping eaves were an ordeal sent by the heavens to try him. Beneath his flip, insouciant façade, a savage beast raged in silence.

In that moment, sitting poised in the Temple, Shen Zechuan understood, in a strange way, the true impetus behind Xiao Chi’ye’s actions.

He wanted to go home.

He wanted to go, but with dignity, and as a human being, back to his long-awaited home.

One thought on “Book One, Chapter 27: Autumn Chill

  1. i love how lanzhou tells ce’an that he might as well do every dreadful thing possible, so that everyone has a reason to hate him. all because he knows that no matter what he does or doesn’t do, no one will let him go or let him forget his father’s sin.


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