Book One, Chapter 28: Drunk in an Alley

The autumn rain in Qu Capital had not stopped falling since the new Emperor’s coronation. Standing atop the high boundary walls of the palace compound, all one could see was the coal-black of old slate roofs, and the bright white lanterns hanging high above the streets. A grey chill lay over the whole city.

In the aftermath of the Autumn Hunt affair, every Brocade Guard had been stripped of their waist-badge. Officers of fifth grade and above, such as Ji Lei and Qiao Tianya, were sent to join Hua Siqian and Pan Rugui in prison, where they would await trial before the three judicial offices.

Xue Xiuzhuo received a promotion to the position of Assistant at the Court of Judicial Review, leaving his old position at the Ministry of Revenue Oversight. Though the role of Assistant might seem to be a downgrade from Chief Steward, this transfer has now placed him firmly within the heart of Dazhou’s judicial offices. In other words, not only did he now have the authority to review any judicial case he chose, he was also able to participate in the assessment and negotiation of any proposals raised by the Ministry of Justice and the Censorate.

“Xue Xiuzhuo.”

Empress Dowager Hua reclined upon her arhat bed, and idly tapped a flawless black jade chess-piece in her hand.

“I had not heard of this young man before the incident at Nanlin Hunting Grounds. Where does he stand in the Xue family?”

Madam Liuxiang waved a gentle fan over the incense burner. “Your Majesty, he is the Xue family’s third lowborn son. It is true that we had not previously heard of him, so your servant has specifically made inquiries about this man.”

“The Xue family has a bright future in him,” the Dowager said. “In the past few years, Yao Wenyu has been the one to catch the eye. That old fox Hai Liangyi. He has passed on a lifetime’s worth of learning to Yao Wenyu, and I assumed that it would only be a matter of time before he would recommend him for office. But he has said not a word, and instead took on this nameless Xue Xiuzhuo.”

Madam Liuxiang said, “First, this Xue Xiuzhuo teamed up with Juexi’s commissioner, Jiang Qingshan, to gather evidence against us in secret, and now, he has hitched himself onto Elder Hai’s wagon. When he was the Chief Steward of Revenue Oversight, he could come and go freely amongst the six Ministries. Now that he has risen to Assistant of the Court of Judicial Review, it so happens that he will be hearing our Elder’s case in court. Like as not, he’s made up his mind to get to the very bottom of our affairs, and won’t be easily persuaded otherwise.”

“I cannot leave these grounds presently,” the Dowager said, her eyes deliberative. “If Xue Xiuzhuo wishes to investigate, then let him. The family has come to a critical time. Tell my brother: we must have the resolve to sever the arm that is bitten by a viper, if we are to rise again.”

Madam Liuxiang acknowledged this, and went away quietly.


Shen Zechuan shook the rain from his umbrella, and sat himself down along a corridor in the derelict courtyard. The better half of an hour passed before the mountainous form of Xi Hongxuan stepped through the moon gate. He walked over right away, holding his own umbrella.

“The streets are thick with informants just about now, I nearly couldn’t get away.” Xi Hongxuan wrapped his coat about himself, frowning. “What’s so urgent that you’ve had to call me over at a time like this?”

“Xi Gu’an is in prison,” Shen Zechuan said. “Your lifelong desire is right before your eyes. If you’re not going to strike while the iron’s hot, are you waiting for the cornered rat to bite back?”

“His death sentence is a forgone conclusion,” Xi Hongxuan said. “If I chose this moment to push for it, I’d really be overdoing it.”

“There is no such thing as a “forgone conclusion”.” There was no humour on Shen Zechuan’s pallid face. “The closer we come to a critical point, the less we can afford to be careless. What doesn’t kill him will give him a chance to resurrect.”

Xi Hongxuan watched him from the side. “The investigation into the Hua faction has been handed over to the three judicial offices. With so many eyes on the case, how do you mean to interfere?”

“I don’t intend to interfere,” Shen Zechuan turned his gaze onto him. “As the Hua family’s lackey, he has committed more crimes during his term in office than can be recorded with a whole forest’s worth of bamboo slips. We need only select one or two amongst them to hand over to the Court of Judicial Review, and he would truly be a dead man then.”

“He bore arms in the presence of his sovereign, and laid siege to the Crown Prince. How many lives does he have that those two charges aren’t enough to kill him?”

“As the Commissioner of the Eight Battalions, he already had special dispensation to carry arms before the Emperor. The siege on the Crown Prince had nothing to do with him, and he could easily insist that he had returned to the Capital to seek help after realising things were going badly. As things stand, the new Emperor has his reservations about the Imperial Guard. Though the Hua family has been taken down, he remains in need of full support from the Eight Battalions. A full review of the case by the three judicial offices will be time consuming, and the longer it drags on, the less likely Xi Gu’an is to die.” Shen Zechuan gave a faint, mirthless smile. “As long as Xi Gu’an lives, you remain Xi the Second, and your day in the sun will never come.”

Xi Hongxuan was silent for a moment. Then he said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Xi Gu’an began to take sole charge of the Eight Battalions from the fourth year of Xiande. In the four years since, the Eight Battalions have claimed a total of nine million taels in military pay, of which only seven million can be accounted for in expenses. Where are the remaining two million taels? The entire sum has somehow vanished through Xi Gu’an’s hands,” Shen Zechuan said. “The task of auditing their account books was Xue Xiuzhuo’s to begin with. If he digs a little deeper, it’s not difficult to imagine that he might find more imaginary expenses like these. With an amount of this magnitude, both Pan Rugui and Hua Siqian might get away with pocketing it, because they would only have done it out of greed, but Xi Gu’an will not. He is not permitted the liberty of greed. In his hands he holds the Eight Battalions, the force which carries the heavy responsibility of Qu Capital’s city patrol and defence. If he cannot explain where this sum of money has gone, it will be impossible not to speculate if he has been using money made out in the name of the Eight Battalions to buy off military officers, or to raise his own private army.”

Xi Hongxuan felt a chill run down his back. “…To raise his private army,” he said.

“As someone in such close proximity to his sovereign, what could he possibly want a private army for?” Shen Zechuan said.

“…No!” Xi Hongxuan shut him down at once, wiping the sheen of sweat from his face. “Have I lost my mind? He alone will die for the crime of allying with the Hua faction, but for plotting treason, they will execute my whole family! That crime carries the penalty of eradication!”

A soft laugh escaped Shen Zechuan’s lips. He lowered his voice. “With each new Emperor comes a new order in court. With the coronation of a new Emperor, this is the best time for you to distinguish yourself. Xi Gu’an is offering his life as a token of congratulation for your upcoming promotion.”

“You want me to…” Xi Hongxuan stared at Shen Zechuan for a few beats, then suddenly he was laughing too. “You’re a cold one,” he chuckled. “For better or for worse, the Dowager has saved your life twice over. But it’s certainly given you no reservations where she’s concerned.”

“Reservations?” Shen Zechuan took up his umbrella. “When the ones who need to die are dead, there’ll be time for that after. Besides, the war today is between the Xiaos and the Huas. What has it got to do with me at all?”

Then he opened his umbrella, gave Xi Hongxuan a slight nod, and stepped away into the rainy evening. Xi Hongxuan was left sitting alone in the corridor. When Shen Zechuan had gone, he swiped a hand across his own back, and felt a patch of cold sweat there.


A few days later, the Court of Judicial Review re-examined the Autumn Hunt case.

The Chief Minister of the Court of Judicial Review, Jiang Xie, served as principal examiner. Hai Liangyi took the position of overseer, and Xue Xiuzhuo sat in as assistant examiner. This was a major court case, and the Censorate had been responsible for its audit and oversight. The charges of “malicious cronyism”, “embezzlement and misgovernment”, and “menace to society” were agreed upon and presented to the Court of Judicial Review.

Amongst those, the charge of “malicious cronyism” had the six Ministries spooked. Every official who had been a guest at the Hua manor, or had been recommended by either Hua Siqian or Pan Rugui, feared for themselves. In the past few days, countless individuals had submitted reports denouncing those two men, each essay an impassioned declaration of loyalty to the court, for fear of becoming implicated as a “crony”.

Li Jianheng got headaches just looking at reports. He had never been one for sitting quietly, but as they were still within the period of national mourning, not even he had the guts to fool around. He had been witness to how Hai Liangyi had confronted Hua Siqian that night, and was secretly terrified of that old man.

And Hai Liangyi was such a stickler. His beard was always neatly trimmed, falling precisely at the second button on his front. His headpiece was always straight, his hair impeccably combed. In the dog days of summer he would never wear his robes loose even in his own house, and in the depths of winter he would not fold his hands within his sleeves for warmth while at court. When he stood, he stood like a verdant pine atop a mountain ridge, and when he walked, he breezed by like a draft in a still valley. He never dragged his feet on any task, and he could listen in on a trial for three days and three nights without showing the slightest hint of fatigue.

Li Jianheng was accustomed to doing the bare minimum, and these schoolmasterly senior ministers turned his legs to jelly.

Because of the case against the Hua faction, Hai Liangyi was constantly seeking him out to report on its particulars. Li Jianheng had found the seat of the throne in Mingli Hall too hard, and his buttocks ached if he sat upon it for too long, so he had ordered a few extra layers of padding to be placed upon it. But when Hai Liangyi noticed, he found something to say about that as well, and counselled Li Jianheng to have tenacity.

The thrill of holding power seemed to have come and gone in a fleeting moment, leaving only its heavy burdens behind. Day after day of ceaseless Morning Court sessions wore on Li Jianheng unforgivingly. Sometimes, sitting upon the throne, he could not even understand what the men below were arguing about.

There’s no money?

Then collect taxes? If we execute a batch of corrupt officials, then we’ll get it all back? What’s there to argue about?

Li Jianheng dared not speak his mind. He was afraid of Hai Liangyi, and even more afraid of these ministers. He did not know what they were fighting over, or why the Hua faction could not be executed immediately, and least of all what on earth the Empress Dowager meant by sending him dimsum every day.

He sat huddled into himself on the throne, as if he had only dreamt all of this.

“Is His Majesty ill?”

Xiao Chi’ye had entered the Palace upon summons, and on his way into Mingli Hall, he encountered an imperial physician exiting it.

The physician said, “It is an excess of worry, which has coincided with the autumn chill. When you go to him, Governor-General, you must counsel His Majesty to mind his health.”

Xiao Chi’ye shed Avarice, and stepped into Mingli Hall.

Li Jianheng had just taken his medicine, and was resting on his bed. Hearing that Xiao Chi’ye had arrived, he quickly slipped his shoes on and called for him to enter.

“Ce’an,” Li Jianheng said. “Good timing. The Confectionery will be bringing over some silk nest pastries and tiger’s eye candy in a moment, you should have a taste too. We had them a few years ago at a court feast, remember?”

Xiao Chi’ye kowtowed. “Thank you for the treat, Your Majesty.”

Li Jianheng was quiet for a moment, his robes draped loosely about his shoulders. The he said, “Ce’an, sit.”

Xiao Chi’ye sat, and the servants filed out of the room. Then Li Jianheng leapt abruptly to his feet, and began to pace where he stood in great agitation. He said, “Ce’an, why hasn’t Hua Siqian been executed? The Court of Judicial Review is talking about some sort of re-examination. What on earth is there to re-examine? Huh?!”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “The Court of Judicial Review examines every case thrice. That’s how it has to be, to prevent injustice, fraud, and oversight. The evidence against Hua Siqian is irrefutable. He will definitely be executed before the year is over.”

“The longer we wait, the more things could go wrong,” Li Jianheng said nervously. “The Dowager just doesn’t look like she’s fussed at all… D’you know she’s been sending her people over with dimsums every day? What is she trying to do? Does she want to poison me too?”

“The Hua family is at the centre of public criticism at the moment. The Dowager has to at least put up the appearance of being a benevolent parent.” Xiao Chi’ye took in the shadows under his eyes, and the panic on his face, and asked, “Doesn’t Your Majesty sleep well at night?”

“How am I supposed to sleep?” Li Jianheng said. “If they’re not dead… how am I supposed to sleep? Ce’an, go talk to Hai Liangyi for me, tell him, forget about the re-examination, cut his head off where he stands!”

How would that ever work.

Xiao Chi’ye was the Governor-General of the Imperial Guard. He had nothing to do with the three judicial offices, and could never interfere in their trials. Not to mention, after the Autumn Hunt debacle, the next person on their list of targets would be Xiao Chi’ye himself. Xiao Fangxu had caught wind in the past few days that the civil ministers, led by Hai Liangyi, were equally unwilling to let Xiao Chi’ye go.

No one was willing to take the chance on this one. Only with Xiao Chi’ye in Qu Capital would Libei be sure to give their all in everything asked of them. The vulnerability of Zhongbo’s six provinces was a constant point of unease for the Capital. Xiao Jiming could save Qu Capital once, and he could save Qu Capital twice, but could he unreservedly ride out to Qu Capital’s rescue every single time? And even if he could, who would believe it of him?

It was out of the question for Xiao Chi’ye to start a second quarrel with the civil ministers at this time.

Li Jianheng did understand, really, that it would never work, and knowing that, he grew even more despondent. When the pastries and candy were presented, he only took a few half-hearted bites, and hardly tasted them at all.

When Xiao Chi’ye had gone, he fell back on his bed again, and thought to himself what a dumb and pointless sort of Emperor he made.

Shuanglu, who served him closely since the beginning of all this, read his mood and came to kneel by his bed. He whispered, “Your Majesty… might your servant take a turn with you outside?”

Li Jianheng said, “No turning. Too tired.”

With a quick flicker of his eyes, Shuanglu offered again, “…How about inviting Miss Muru over to play the pipa for Your Majesty?”1

Li Jianheng flipped over, and darted a glance outside. As no one was there, he said, “…We can’t do that, can we? We’re still in mourning. Besides, she still lives in Pan Rugui’s manor. If we get her into the Palace now, won’t we be asking for a scolding?”

Shuanglu tittered affectedly, and said, “Your Majesty, you are the Emperor, and you decide what happens in your Palace. How would them ministers on the outside know what we eunuchs are doing? We’ll do it secretly…”

Li Jianheng perked up at once, and even abandoned his sweets. “Without letting Elder Hai know?”

“No one will know,” Shuanglu shuffled forwards on his knees. “You are our master, he is not. When we’re running errands for Your Majesty, if Your Majesty does not wish someone to hear of it, then they will certainly never know.”

“Great!” Li Jianheng clapped his hands together. “Great, I’ve been waiting for a chance like this! Go quickly, as soon as possible, get Muru in. Pan Rugui’s about to die anyway, it’s bad luck to stay in his house!”

When Xiao Chi’ye left the Palace, rain had begun to fall again. For no reason at all, he felt restless and irritable. The spirit that had driven him in the days before the Autumn Hunt seemed to have evaporated overnight. He could hardly even muster the will to draw his sword at the moment.

Chen Yang and Zhao Hui had come to collect him, and Xiao Chi’ye climbed into the awaiting carriage. They were halfway home when Xiao Chi’ye suddenly flipped his curtains up and said, “Give Dad and da-ge the head’s up for me, I won’t be back tonight.”

And then before either man could react, he leapt off the carriage empty-handed, and went off in the direction of Donglong Avenue.

“He’d be going off to drink again,” Zhao Hui dismounted after him. He said to Chen Yang, “You deliver the message to my lord and the scion, I’ll follow gongzi. We’re still in national mourning, it won’t be a good look if he gets drunk and makes a scene.”

Chen Yang said, “The time it took you to say that, see if you can find him again. If the governor doesn’t want to be followed, then… let’s leave him be.”

Zhao Hui was Xiao Jiming’s lieutenant, while Chen Yang was Xiao Chi’ye’s second. Both had been moulded into the men they were by their commanders, so though they were both men of the Xiao family, their concerns differed. Zhao Hui came across as more of an elder brother.

He turned about in the rain, and indeed Xiao Chi’ye was already nowhere to be found.

The Brocade Guard had been suspended, and its men were temporarily incorporated into the Imperial Guard as patrol forces.

Shen Zechuan was headed home, having just finished a shift tonight. On his way, he passed through the back alley behind Xianghui House of Donglong Avenue.

He did not use an umbrella, the rain was only light.

As he walked, there came unexpectedly the sound of retching up ahead. Then one of the girls, barefoot in wooden clogs, came clopping out after her guest, but was lightly fended off.

Xiao Chi’ye, one arm braced against the wall, pointed a finger at the back door in a gesture that asked the girl to stay away.

All the girls at Xianghui House were familiar with him, and knew that he did not allow himself to be touched when he was drunk. She placed a folded handkerchief to one side, and said gently, “Er-gongzi, come in when you’re feeling better, we’ll have a hot broth ready for you.”

Xiao Chi’ye did not reply.

The wooden clogs clopped away, and he hunched down into himself, his stomach cramping sharply.

This was the way: eat, drink, make merry, and forget about life. This was the only way out for him.

Out of nowhere, there was a light pressure on his back.

Xiao Chi’ye spun around, the cold light in his eyes unnerving. He saw who it was, thought for a while, and finally said, “…why’d you kick me.”

Shen Zechuan did not even blink. “I didn’t.”

Xiao Chi’ye reached about and felt around on his own back for a bit, then plucked at his robes and insisted, “This is proof!”

Shen Zechuan considered him for a moment, then said, “You’ve drunk yourself stupid, haven’t you?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Do I look stupid?”

Before Shen Zechuan could reply, he answered his own question.

“I’m not stupid.”

Shen Zechuan could smell the alcohol on him. “Don’t get in the way, I’m going home.”

Xiao Chi’ye turned his head back around, stared blankly for a bit, and told the wall, “Don’t get in the way, I’m going home too.”

Shen Zechuan nearly laughed, before he heard him say:

“If I can’t go home, then you can forget about going home too.”

[1] The pipa is a pear-shaped lute with delicate tones, which may be played with fingernails or plucked with fingers.

2 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 28: Drunk in an Alley

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