Book One, Chapter 29: Fate

Shen Zechuan said, “Right.”

Not having received the response he was waiting for, Xiao Chi’ye turned around to look at him again. “Why aren’t you arguing?”

Shen Zechuan opened up his umbrella. “I have neither father, nor brother, nor anyone I know at home. Why would I go back there?”

Xiao Chi’ye picked up the girl’s handkerchief and wiped the rain from the back of his neck, then straightened back up. “That’s right, the Lord of Jianxing’s manor in Dun province has been cleared out. With your reputation, even if you went back now, there’d only be millions waiting to spit on you.”

“That’s fate for you,” Shen Zechuan looked quietly at Xiao Chi’ye. He paused for several moments before continuing, “If you’re born into the wrong circumstances, it’s all just suffering.”

Xiao Chi’ye did not look back at him. He raised an arm to brush droplets of rain from his forehead. “Then why are you still clinging to life?”

Shen Zechuan smiled. “Millions want me dead, but if I give everyone else what they want, I’d feel pretty discontent myself, wouldn’t I?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “If you wanted to stay alive, you should have remained in the Temple.”

Shen Zechuan took two steps forward, skirting the puddle on the ground. He said, “If I had stayed in the Temple, then you’d be saying that the executioner’s platform is where I belong. Xiao Chi’ye, though you’re doing everything to hide it, you have already become comfortable with riding on your high horse. You are no different from the men looking down their noses at you right now. Today, these layers upon layers of scrutiny torment you as much as they do me.”

Soft laughter slipped from him, and he lightly clapped a hand on Xiao Chi’ye’s back, right over his heart.

“I scrabble for the means to survive, and you seek a good death in vain. Just as the Xiao family had once imprisoned me, the Li clan imprisons you today. Isn’t the world a strange place? The cageling pines for its old forests, and the pond fish misses the depths. From the very beginning, your vulnerability has been exposed for the world to see. As long as you remain stranded from home, you will always be a piece of deadwood with impossible ambitions. The saddest thing this world has seen was the taming of the wolf into a dog. Here in Qu Capital, how much longer will your fangs remain sharp?”1

“Did you follow me at the Autumn Hunt,” Xiao Chi’ye turned his head to look at him, “And go to the trouble of saving my life, just to get a kick out of mocking me this one time?”

“A little ant like me?” Shen Zechuan said softly, “Even if I hadn’t appeared, you would have lived anyway.”

“What,” Xiao Chi’ye said, stone cold sober by now, “The actual hell do you want?”

“To repay your kindness.” Shen Zechuan had come so close that his umbrella was edging over Xiao Chi’ye’s head. “To repay your family’s kindness in not having me killed.”

In a flash, Xiao Chi’ye had seized Shen Zechuan’s collar. “I thought you were going to repent of your sins and become a better person.”

“What am I repenting of.” The cold blaze in Shen Zechuan’s eyes bit sharper than the autumn rain, and he pressed closer, until they were almost chest to chest, to ask Xiao Chi’ye, “What did I do wrong?”

“When you crawled out of the Chashi sinkhole, didn’t you take a look around at the cities of Duan province?” Xiao Chi’ye’s grip tightened. “Eight cities were completely annihilated. When you rode through their city gates, human blood would splatter from your horse’s feet.”

“Shen Wei lost the war.” At last, Shen Zechuan had ripped the mask of pretence from his face, and a searing hatred burnt through. “Forty thousand of Zhongbo’s people lost their lives in that sinkhole! Both my brother and my Teacher’s wife were taken from me on that day. Tell me what I did wrong!”

“Shen Wei deserved his death!” Something in Xiao Chi’ye, too, had snapped, and he shoved Shen Zechuan hard into the wall. “His entire family deserved to be executed, and you are one of them! How dare you say that you have done nothing wrong?!”

The oilpaper umbrella tumbled to the ground. Shen Zechuan hit the wall hard. Xiao Chi’ye had lifted him so far off the ground that he could barely scuff the earth with his toes. He brought a leg up and slammed his foot down on Xiao Chi’ye’s chest. Xiao Chi’ye stumbled a few steps back from the blow, but did not lose his grip, and he wrenched down hard and threw Shen Zechuan to the ground by his collar.

All of a sudden, the soft susurrus of rain above them swelled into a torrential downpour, pelting down with a noisy pitter-patter. There was a loud crash and clatter of falling objects in the dim alley, and the crunch of several upturned items crushed underfoot.

Startled by the racket, the girls waiting in the wings of Xianghui House all came to peer around the back door, wooden clogs dangling from their hands.

“My goodness, why are they fighting?” Xianghui shrugged her coat on quickly and hurried over, shuffling in her own clogs. “Gentlemen! Please let’s be civil, what could possibly be worth fighting over?”

Sitting on Xiao Chi’ye, Shen Zechuan struck a blow across his face that knocked his head to the side. Xiao Chi’ye seized Shen Zechuan’s wrist and yanked him viciously down onto himself. He touched the tip of his tongue to the blood between his teeth, and snarled, “Neither of us is getting away easy on this!”

Xianghui had summoned her hired men by now, and they joined forces to pull the two of them apart. With a jerk of his arms, Xiao Chi’ye shook himself loose, and the brawny men felt their hands go numb. But Xiao Chi’ye did not launch himself at Shen Zechuan again. He scraped the bruise on his face with his knuckles, and said, “Get lost.”

Things were not looking good, and Xianghui quietly asked one of the hired men to run to Xiao manor for help.

But before he could move, Xiao Chi’ye snarled, “If anyone gets my father involved in this, I’ll break his legs!”

Xianghui saw her opening then and cut in, her voice softening, “What’s all this now? Er-gongzi has always taken such good care of our girls here, but he’s giving everyone a fright tonight. It’s hardly unusual for gentlemen to get into a little bit of roughhousing after a drink, but when it’s over, it’s over. We don’t hold it against each other, right?”

Xiao Chi’ye got up, took off his muddied outer robe, and tossed it to Xianghui. “Get back inside.”

Robes bundled in her arms, Xianghui tried again, “Er-gongzi, it’s so cold out here…”

But then her voice petered out, and she quietly waved a hand at the girls, bringing them all back inside. This time, however, they did not shut the door, and a flock of girls peered out at them from the doors and windows.

Shen Zechuan picked up his umbrella, his clothes properly ruined. His dark hair, drenched in the rain, clung wetly to his face, which seemed paler than ever.

“Next time,” Shen Zechuan said, “Just go straight to my door if you want me. I might only pass through this alleyway once in several hundred years.”

“If I’d known you were coming through here,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “I would’ve rather thrown up inside.”

Shen Zechuan’s lip quirked sardonically. “Then it seems we do live in a very small world.”

Xiao Chi’ye stalked towards him. “I’ll be watching you closely from now on.”

“You can barely look after yourself, and yet go to such trouble for me.” Shen Zechuan raised his umbrella to keep some distance between them. “The millipede still crawls when he’s been cut in two. What wishful thinking to imagine that you’ve dealt the Hua family a mortal blow in a single Autumn Hunt.”

“Spend that energy thinking about how you’re going to save your own neck,” Xiao Chi’ye looked down at him, the tip of the umbrella pressed against his chest. “Without the Dowager as your guarantor, how much longer will you live?”

“Even the throne has changed hands,” Shen Zechuan said. “Isn’t it about time you thought about changing your assumptions?”

“There is no one you can lay hands on,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “The only people you can claim dues from are the Wasteland Riders and Shen Wei.”

“If you say so.” Shen Zechuan had drawn his mantle of meekness back over himself. He withdrew the umbrella, and said gently, “I’ll listen to whatever you say, shall I?”

Abruptly, that nameless fire in Xiao Chi’ye surged to a new height. “Very good,” he said. “In that case, you can stay here with me tonight.”

“There are soft, sweet things under your canopy tonight,” Shen Zechuan said. “Are you in the habit of sharing them with company? Apologies, but I am not.”

Whichever way he looked at Shen Zechuan these days, the man seemed to be up to no good. Xiao Chi’ye pushed, “Why so shy? I thought we were doing whatever I say tonight?”

“Did you,” Shen Zechuan tapped his own head, “Knock a screw loose in there?”

“Every spare man in the Brocade Guard has been absorbed into the Imperial Guard,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Who’s the one with a screw loose?”

Shen Zechuan paused for a few beats. Then he asked, “What would the Governor-General like me to do?”

The red mark on Xiao Chi’ye’s cheek had yet to fade, but the hostility between his brows dissipated, and he assumed the languid attitude of a layabout. He turned to sit in the walkway under the eaves, and pointed a finger at his boots.

Shen Zechuan slowly curled a corner of his lips up at him, and said, “Alright.”

Early the next morning, Chen Yang came to pick his master up, and instead encountered Shen Zechuan at the entrance of Xianghui House, standing around with Avarice in his arms. He stared.

Shen Zechuan straightened up from the door frame and saluted Chen Yang.

At once, Chen Yang sensed trouble afoot. He asked, “Why is… Guardsman Shen here?”

“Ji Lei is in jail and yet to receive his sentence,” Shen Zechuan said. “The Brocade Guard is temporarily incorporated into the Imperial Guard, under the supervision of the Governor-General.”

His placid expression made Chen Yang’s scalp prickle. He nodded at him briefly, and hurried upstairs.

Shen Zechuan watched him go. Xianghui came down the steps just then, her skirts lifted daintily, and asked in a tender voice, “You mustn’t have had anything to eat yet, have you? Or a change of clothes either. Lingting— “

A girl upstairs called drowsily over the balustrade, “Why does Madam still ask for Lingting? You always forget that the little wench has already been paid for!”

Xianghui recollected herself then, and called back, “I got used to it! Why don’t you bring some breakfast down for Master Guardsman here?”

When Chen Yang stepped into the room, Xiao Chi’ye was still asleep face-down in bed, and no one was around to wait on him, so he went up to him and called softly, “Governor? Governor?”

Xiao Chi’ye burrowed his face drowsily into the sheets. For a few more seconds he went back to sleep, but then sat up suddenly. “Why are you here? Where is Shen Lanzhou!”

“He’s waiting downstairs, Governor… what happened to your face?!” Chen Yang exclaimed.

“Knocked it while hunting.” Xiao Chi’ye got out of bed, stretching his shoulders out. “Da-ge made you come get me?”

“It was your father,” Chen Yang said. “A letter came first thing in the morning to say that the trade market at the Dunes was raided by Wasteland Riders last night. They’ll be heading into the Palace to discuss the specifics later. Elder Hai has called the Ministries of War and Revenue to court. Libei’s troops will be moving out again.”

Xiao Chi’ye splashed his face with some water, and in the next moment was out the door. As he went down the stairs, he spotted Shen Zechuan by one of the girls, and in a few long strides he reached them and swiped their plate from behind, tossing the cakes into his own mouth.

Shen Zechuan turned to look at him. “Slow down,” he said. “If you choke I won’t get to you in time.”

Xiao Chi’ye swallowed, then smiled at him, and threw an arm right around his shoulders, scooping him out the door. He said, “Ah, Lanzhou…”

Shen Zechuan looked at him.

He drawled, “Why do you hold grudges from last night? I’ve slept it all away. Come on, Er-gongzi will show you where the fun is at.”

Shen Zechuan slapped his hand away with the scabbard. “Er-gongzi, please don’t make up excuses to touch my neck.”


There were many people gathered in Mingli Hall.

Li Jianheng sat immobile on the throne, his eyes first searching over Hai Liangyi’s face, trying to read his expressions, and then roving over every other person, trying his utmost to appear grave and stately.

“As the position of Imperial Transcriber is currently unfilled, when the accounts from each Ministry reach the Cabinet, they are first submitted to His Majesty for review by myself, before they can be signed off.” Hai Liangyi asked Li Jianheng, “Your Majesty, what did you think of last night’s accounts?”

Li Jianheng had spent all of night listening to his beauty play the pipa in his arms. When Hai Liangyi kowtowed to him, he shuffled his bottom guiltily and said, “It’s good! It’s all good!”

Xue Xiuzhuo had been kneeling expressionlessly to the back, but upon hearing this, a crease appeared slowly between his brows.

Hai Liangyi waited a while, but as Li Jianheng showed no inclination to open his mouth again, he began to speak again. “We are in late Autumn now, and there is heavy frost on the grounds. If Libei must mobilise its army, it must apply for an advancement on its provisions from the Capital. Lord Xiao, how much will you require this time?”

Xiao Fangxu smiled. “I have been indisposed for quite some time. The handling of our key military affairs has been entrusted to Jiming. Jiming, it’s up to you to let Elder Hai know how much we need.”

Xiao Jiming kowtowed. “The Twelve Wasteland Clans have chosen this moment to raid the markets because the winter snow is coming, and the food stores in each clan are running on empty. Their only recourse is to raid the trade markets. In any other year, Libei’s military crops would be enough for us to provide for ourselves, and we would not require the aid of a supply train. However, this year, with the passing of His Majesty the late Emperor, it is more than likely that the Clans will attempt to strike while they perceive a weakness. If we move out, not only must we drive them out of our borders, but we must also establish garrisons to guard them afterwards. I have submitted the estimate for our needs to the Ministry of Revenue.”

The new Minister of Revenue retrieved the report, and Shuanglu conveyed it to Li Jianheng.

Li Jianheng perused it for a moment, and said, “One million and two hundred thousand taels? That should be a piece of cake. Our soldiers mustn’t freeze or go hungry.”

Qian Jin, Minister of Revenue, looked slightly awkward. He said, “Your Majesty may be unaware… but our deficit from last year has yet to be filled. On such short notice, the Treasury cannot afford such a sum.”

Li Jianheng said, “Then at least one million taels should be manageable, shouldn’t it?”

Qian Jin kowtowed. “The deployment of the Eight Battalions in the Autumn Hunt cost two hundred and thirty thousand taels. The late Emperor… that was five hundred and forty thousand taels. The money remaining in the Treasury today must be used to pay the overdue wages of every official in Qu Capital. The end of the year is approaching, and the civil officials must have enough to observe New Year’s traditions too. Your Majesty, one million is beyond question. We only have six hundred thousand available for the Libei Iron Cavalry.”

Li Jianheng had genuinely never imagined that the day would come when even an Emperor could feel poor. He had intended to sell Libei a favour, and make matters up with Xiao Chi’ye in the same breath. But now, apparently, he had no money, and all of a sudden he desperately needed to duck under the table to avoid dealing with this. He mumbled something vaguely.

Mingli Hall was silent for a few moments.

Xue Xiuzhuo suddenly spoke up. “Your Majesty, I have an idea.”

Li Jianheng leapt at the straw he was offered. “Do tell, do tell.”

Xue Xiuzhuo said, “When the Hua faction was still dominant, they put out frank prices on various sinecures, and turned no one down who could pay. The “appreciation gifts” they collected were also sizeable sums. Additionally, there is Pan Rugui, who used acquisition trips to collect brazen amounts of bribery. Since these two men have gone to prison, why not raid the Hua and Pan residences to supplement military expenses? Just yesterday, the Xi family’s second young master, Xi Hongxuan, came forward to beg punishment for their wrongdoing, confessing to the Court of Judicial Review that Xi Gu’an had been building a private army. They have even placed their family manor in Qu Capital on lease, all to make up for the deficits in the Eight Battalions’ expenses created when Xi Gu’an was Commissioner.”

Li Jianheng’s interest was instantly piqued upon hearing that house raiding was on the table. He said eagerly, “That’s great! I… We have wanted to do this from the beginning!”

Hai Liangyi was quiet for a moment, deep in thought, then said, “That would not be appropriate. The Court has not completed its re-examination. We must not announce a sentence without going through due process.”

Xue Xiuzhuo said, “These are extraordinary times, and we don’t have a better option. Qu Capital may wait for the re-examination, but the Wasteland Riders will not. We cannot let Libei’s Iron Cavalry go to war on empty stomachs.”

While Hai Liangyi still hesitated, Li Jianheng gave his desk a decisive slap, and the motion had passed.

When they emerged, Xiao Jiming enquired of Qi Zhuyin, who had made not a peep throughout the session, “All’s well in the Borderlands?”

Qi Zhuyin looked up at the rain falling beyond the swooping eaves. She said, “While Lu Guangbai remains at the border, the Twelve Clans will naturally leave it alone. On the other hand, with its General away, Libei may be in a prickly situation.”

Xiao Jiming stood silently for some time, then sighed, “True generalship is a rare gift. They’re hard to find.”

Qi Zhuyin said, “No matter how the clouds shift in Qu Capital, the duty of a general is to protect and defend. Jiming, a gifted general is hard to find, and tedious to foster. Libei is one of Dazhou’s major frontiers of defence. If you continue to delay the choosing of your successor, it will only be to Libei’s detriment.”

Every one of them had set out initially to become a formidable commander in their own right, seeking to serve as one of Dazhou’s impenetrable wards. But age catches up with every mortal soul. If each of the lives in a great army must be bound to a single person, they may manage for a handful of years, but if it goes on for a dozen years, or even several decades, the Libei Iron Cavalry will become irretrievably dependent on Xiao Jiming.

If the Cavalry should one day lose Xiao Jiming, then what would happen to this indomitable force upon the battlefields, that had maintained its enduring renown for several decades prior?

“I know you have high hopes for A’ye,” Qi Zhuyin went down the steps ahead of him, and turned slowly to look back. “But the fates have decreed that he will never be able to fly out of Qu Capital. When you set that hopeful gaze upon him, year after year, even though you’ve kept silent, do you imagine that he hasn’t noticed? Every increment of your expectation is an increment of agony for him. Libei will not be the wings upon his back, but the cage that traps him on the ground. Jiming, we have been friends for many years now, so let me give you a word of advice: please choose someone else.”

The palace roofs in the distance were shrouded entirely in fog. A lone crow cried a few harsh croaks, and then silence fell again.

[1] From “Returning to My Fields (I)”《归园田居·其一》, by Tao Yuanming (陶渊明).

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