Book One, Chapter 37: Hand Cannons

The world darkened before Shen Zechuan’s eyes, and suddenly he was a lot closer to Xiao Chi’ye. He heard Xiao Chi’ye say, “What d’you know, it really is the smell on me. God it’s strong.”

Shen Zechuan pivoted on that point. “You brought in hand cannons for the Guard?”

“Copper cast.” Xiao Chi’ye lifted his fingers to Shen Zechuan’s nose so he could sniff them. “Mixed up with the scent on you, I almost couldn’t make it out.”

“I don’t have a scent.” Shen Zechuan’s nose twitched slightly. “Did you raid the Eight Battalions’ armoury?”

Hand cannons were court-regulated weapons. After the evolution from bamboo shafts to copper barrels, they became designated to the Chunquan Battalion of the Eight Battalions. These weapons were powerful, but they were not easily controlled, had a limited range, and required time to reload. Because the Eight Battalions functioned to stand guard over Qu Capital, they mostly engaged in urban warfare; not only was it difficult to find a place for the hand cannon there, they in fact became a hindrance. As a result, they were not brought into common use, and the Eight Battalions chose instead to put them aside, and only brought them out for annual parade drills.

They were an ill fit for the Eight Battalions, but would suit the Libei Iron Cavalry very well indeed. The Libei troops were heavy cavalry, with infantry and light cavalry in the small minority, and largely preferred direct, shattering, wave-like charges. In earlier years, in a bid to counter the fleet-footed Wasteland Riders, Dazhou had set up a cavalry outpost at Luoxia Pass, and laid down huge sums to purchase horses in an attempt to set up its own cavalry stud farm. However, the horses obtained from exchanges with the Wasteland clans were usually seconds from the clans’ own pickings, whereas Dazhou’s own horses had been bred true and fierce from the wild herds under the Swan Goose ranges, having fought for their lives against packs of roaming wolves. Armed with scimitars and strong warriors, they were an indomitable force wherever they went.

It was precisely for this reason that Xiao Fangxu had created the iron-clad and steel-shod Libei Iron Cavalry, forming in the north-west a living wall of steel that the tempestuous onslaughts of the Wasteland Riders could not surmount.

The north-west was a vast and boundless grassland. If the Libei Iron Cavalry could outfit itself with hand cannons, then the Wasteland Riders’ long-distance strikes would turn to Libei’s advantage. The distance would allow sufficient time for the hand cannons to be reloaded, and when the Riders drew close, they would be in firing range.

They were the gift of wings to Libei’s tiger of an army.

“The Eight Battalions, stripped of Xi Gu’an, still remains the Eight Battalions.” Xiao Chi’ye took a step closer, pushing Shen Zechuan forward with his chest. “You don’t raid an armoury, you only put another master at its head, that’s all. Don’t lose sleep over it, they’re just new toys.”

Shen Zechuan took a couple of steps forward, as though he genuinely thought no more of the cannons, and only said, “Can you walk with the blanket off your head?”

“”If day fades too quickly into tiresome night, why not venture by candlelight?” Xiao Chi’ye laughed.1 “D’you wanna come have a look?”

“Since they’re ill-gotten gains, best keep them hidden to be safe.” Shen Zechuan shoved the blanket off himself and ducked out. “Walking through the Capital smelling of gunpowder from head to foot— you’re lucky it’s the middle of the night.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered if it was daytime.” Xiao Chi’ye put the pillow under one arm, and hoisted the other arm up, carrying the blanket along like a tent. His eyes skimmed briefly along the corridor’s roof edges. “Everyone knows that Xiao Ce’an likes his sport. If he got himself a hand cannon it’d be to shoot at birds.”

He gave emphasis to the word “birds”, so that Dingtao and Gujin, sprawled above, shivered in unison.

When they were back in his rooms, Xiao Chi’ye threw the pillow and blanket onto his bed, deftly kicked off his boots, and went off to go bathe, barefoot on the carpet. Halfway through shedding his clothes, he poked his bare torso out from behind the curtains.

“Have you washed?”

Shen Zechuan, rinsing his mouth, spat, and said, “I have.”

So Xiao Chi’ye took his bath alone. He was quick about it, and when he emerged, wiping water from his neck, he saw that Shen Zechuan was already in bed, lying with his back to the room. Xiao Chi’ye glanced at Shen Zechuan’s firmly covered nape, gave his own hair a perfunctory towel-off, and blew the lights.

Shen Zechuan listened as he sat down on his couch-bed and pulled out a drawer, looking for something.

“Lanzhou,” Xiao Chi’ye closed the drawer, “Are you asleep?”

“I am,” Shen Zechuan replied emotionlessly.

“The Court of Judicial Review summoned a whole lot of physicians today, but didn’t dare rouse the Imperial physicians,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “What did you do to Ji Lei?”

Shen Zechuan said, “Do you want to hear a ghost story in the dead of night?”

“They’re questioning the prison guards tomorrow morning,” Xiao Chi’ye said.

They were only going through the motions.

Whether Hai Liangyi would tolerate something like this, Shen Zechuan did not know, but he knew that Xue Xiuzhuo absolutely would. Now that Xue Xiuzhuo had gotten his hands on the confessions he was after, Ji Lei was useless. Shen Zechuan had left a huge mess behind, but he never had any intentions of cleaning up after himself, because Xue Xiuzhuo and Hai Liangyi were obliged to do it for him.

Shen Zechuan left the thought at that, and said, “As unobtrusive as I’ve been, minding my own business, even if they do investigate…”

Xiao Chi’ye laid himself down, then abruptly sat up again, and said, “Hey, dry my hair for me.”

Shen Zechuan shut his eyes and feigned sleep.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Stop faking it, hurry up.”

Then he said, “Lanzhou.”

Then, “Shen Lanzhou.”

The bed sagged all of a sudden, and as Shen Zechuan’s eyes flew open in outrage, his blanket was thrown back, and Xiao Chi’ye squashed himself in against him, thrusting his sopping wet head up against his back, instantly creating a damp patch there.

Shen Zechuan pulled his blanket back. “Xiao Ce’an, you’re three years old!”

“Just about,” Xiao Chi’ye said lazily. “Weren’t you asleep? Keep sleeping then.”

The longer he lay there, the wetter Shen Zechuan got. The hair clung wetly against him, and attached to the hair, smelling exactly like the handkerchief from the night before, was one Xiao Chi’ye.

Eyes open, Shen Zechuan said, “My clothes are wet.”

No one answered.

Shen Zechuan said, “Stop pretending to be asleep.”

Then he said, “Xiao Ce’an.”

Shen Zechuan propped himself up on his arms, and said into the darkness, “Xiao Ce’an, you’re an asshat.”

The asshat thoughtfully handed him a dry towel, and turned around expectantly.


On the roof, Dingtao tucked his hands deeply into his sleeves, saying, “It’s so cold even on a snow day. This winter won’t be easy on us.”

Gujin handed him the wine sack, and rubbed his own hands together. “We’ve been on for two nights. Someone else will be here in the morning.”

Dingtao took a swig of liquor, which burnt some warmth into him. Hands in sleeves, he lay down too, looking into the night sky. “It’s pretty quiet tonight too.”

“The road is long and the going’s tough.” As Gujin capped his wine sack, his ear twitched, and he suddenly flung himself into a flat crouch, his eyes scanning the impenetrable darkness like a falcon’s.

Carried on the wind, the faint sounds of footsteps on snow. Gujin instantly let fly with a throwing knife, and called in a low voice, “North-west corner!”

Dingtao leapt into the air, skipped lightly across the rooftops, and struck out with a palm into the darkness.

The coal-black robes rippled aside like a parting wave in the night. Spectre-like, the intruder slipped into the shadows, trying to escape. Dingtao flipped bonelessly off a roof’s edge to hang upside down, only to have three steel needles come flying directly at his face. With quick snaps, the brush in his hand deflected the needles, but by the time he looked again, the person was gone.

Dingtao dropped down soundlessly. His qinggong was such that even as he landed on the light covering of snow, he left no footprints.

Gujin peered out from the rooftop. He said, “Nice kungfu, to have escaped my eyes. Tao-zi, could you tell who it was?”

Dingtao retrieved the needles from the corridor, pinching them between his fingertips for examination. In a brief second, he had learnt quite a bit. He said, “Thin as a hair, and steeped in snake venom. Not something of Qu Capital. This is external style stuff, from the Yongquan Harbour of the thirteen cities of Juexi. His qinggong wasn’t bad, and his ability to hide his presence was impressive. Even though he didn’t wear a sword, eight or nine out of ten says he’s Brocade Guard.”

He tucked the needles away carefully into his own bamboo canister, and vaulted onto the roof.

“The Brocade Guard just sacked a bunch of officers, and there aren’t many pros amongst those below fourth grade,” Gujin said. “Who would be snooping around our estate in these times?”

“Hard to say,” Dingtao patted his chest nervously. “They nearly poked a hole in my little book.”

Gujin took a sip of his liquor pensively.

Dingtao sat down, crossed his legs, and began to mumble, “My book’s been with me for many years, you know, my Lady the Scion’s Consort gave it to me. Nobody’s ever put a hole in it, even when we were off fighting the Wasteland baldies back then. Gosh that was a close one, too close, there’re a lot of things written down in there, you know. My dad’s book, did you know, his was stolen when they cut his throat, dear lord, all the important things were written in there, I thought I’d drop dead trying to chase that book down. Jin-ge, I gotta say, everyone needs a book to write in, because you’ll start forgetting when you get old. Say for you, with all the wine you drink, you’ll be forgetting how much money you’ve got hidden away before you turn forty. You won’t forget if you write it down. Or you can tell me, and I’ll write it down for you…”

Gujin wadded some cotton into his ears, and began to meditate.

The next day, Shen Zechuan woke first.

Or rather, he had not slept at all, with Xiao Chi’ye squashed up behind him. They had fought for the blanket all night. The sudden intrusion of a living, breathing, hardly-petite human at his side was difficult to ignore. Shen Zechuan could not have slept anyway.

Xiao Chi’ye, on the other hand, slept quite soundly with an arm around his pillow, unmoving.

Shen Zechuan waited for him to stir, but something else stirred instead.

The erection pressed up behind him, sprightly, hot, and unmistakable. The temperature began to rise under the blankets. It was not clear if Xiao Chi’ye finally woke from the heat, or from the ache, but in either case, he uttered a low, hoarse curse, and rolled upright in a hurry.

Xiao Chi’ye tossed his pillow aside, and shot a glance at Shen Zechuan, to see that Shen Zechuan was also looking at him. He ran a hand roughly through his hair, then reached out and flung the blanket over Shen Zechuan, so that he could no longer look at him. Then he got out of bed, ignored his shoes, and went straight into the bathing pool.

Chenyang, who was waiting outside, heard the sounds of their stirring, then saw Shen Zechuan emerge from the rooms. Their eyes met, and Chenyang floundered momentarily for words. Shen Zechuan, on the other hand, rather unaffectedly gestured towards the common bath house, and went on his way.

By the time Xiao Chi’ye came out, he was fully awake. He had some breakfast, and listened as Chenyang reported on their visitor in the night.

“Brocade Guard?” Xiao Chi’ye thought for a second, then said, “He didn’t come for me. It’d be someone keeping watch on Shen Lanzhou.”

“The Dowager’s men, then,” Chenyang said. “But they’re short on numbers at the moment, where would they find a man of such skill in the Brocade Guard?”

“The Brocade Guard has deep waters.” Xiao Chi’ye stood up. “I’m going to court, we’ll talk when I get back.”


When Morning Court was over, Li Jianheng sat in Mingli Hall, folded around his handwarmer, and looked at his ministers, arranged in two rows before him. He asked tentatively, “…then the sentence’s passed?”

Xue Xiuzhuo knelt, and said, “Your Majesty, Ji Lei has made a full confession of his plot to commit treason at the Nanlin hunting grounds. As the evidence against him is now complete, the Court of Judicial Review went to work all of last night to sort through his confessions, and the Elder has presented them to Your Majesty today. The case of the Hua party has spanned half a month, during which time the three judicial offices have heard this case repeatedly in numerous joint trials. They have sentenced the two commanders and four assistant commanders of the Brocade Guard, with Ji Lei at their lead, to immediate execution. Next in rank, all adjudicators, and those battalion commanders in attendance at the Nanlin hunting grounds, have been sentenced to execution pending.”

“As long as it’s passed, as long as it’s passed,” Li Jianheng said. “You have been working very hard, Elder Hai, we must not keep you standing. Bring a chair for the Elder.”

When Hai Liangyi had sat, Li Jianheng continued, “The Hua party’s collusion with palace eunuchs, and the Brocade Guard’s treasonous conspiracies, are abhorrent crimes indeed! As Imperial Scribe, Pan Rugui’s greed for power and gold is an unforgivable sin. This man must not be sentenced to execution pending. He should be sentenced to immediate execution! What Elder Hai said to us before has had us tossing and turning in the night. We have thought for a long time, and have resolved to devote ourselves henceforth to hard work and improvement.”

Hai Liangyi immediately got up, and made to give obeisance.

Li Jianheng lifted a hand hurriedly, and said, “Please sit, please sit, Elder Hai. There are many subjects on which we still require your counsel, and we ought really to address you as “Teacher”. Henceforth, we will be depending on each of you here to assist and advise us in our governance, as a united body. Anything you wish to say, may be said here candidly and without fear.”

Xue Xiuzhuo looked up in surprise, but did not allow his expression to change. He knelt as one with the ministers beside him, and gave praise.

Li Jianheng indicated for everyone to rise, delighted, and spoke with everyone for a little while more. Then he dismissed them, and invited Elder Hai alone to stay and dine with him.

As Xiao Chi’ye emerged, he found himself walking alongside Xue Xiuzhuo.

Xue Xiuzhuo said, “I wonder what you said to His Majesty, Governor-General, that persuaded His Majesty to show such courtesy towards his counsellors.”

“His Majesty is young and hale. This is the perfect time for him to stretch out and make his presence felt. Had I not spoken, he would have done the same of his own accord,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “The Court of Judicial Review has had its hands full these past few days. Thank you for your hard work, Lord Yanqing.”

“The work comes with the job, it’s only my duty,” Xue Xiuzhuo said. He looked to Xiao Chi’ye and laughed, “I hear that the Governor-General has been visiting Feng hill frequently these days. What’s the latest amusement there?”

Xiao Chi’ye smiled with him, and said, “The first snow of the year on Feng hill is a sight you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Then a few deer showed up around the place, and I’ve been thinking about bringing a few down for some sport. Would you like to come along for a look, when you get some time?”

Xue Xiuzhuo waved a hand lightly. “A feeble scholar like me would not know what to do on a hunt. Better not to spoil your fun, Governor-General.”

The two men parted at the palace gates. Xiao Chi’ye watched as he walked away, the smile fading from his face.

Chenyang waited by the carriage. When Xiao Chi’ye approached, he lifted the curtain for him, reporting as did, “Governor, Teacher has set off for Qu Capital.”

Xiao Chi’ye nodded.

Chenyang hesitated briefly, then continued, “Our lookout at the Court of Judicial Review has reported back to say: Ji Lei is dead.”

Xiao Chi’ye asked, “How did he die?”

Chenyang made a gesture with his hand, and said grimly, “He was flayed until he resembled nothing on this earth. He wasn’t going to make it past last night, but Xue Xiuzhuo had them keep the last gasps of life in him until the confessions were presented to the throne, before letting him snuff it.”

Xiao Chi’ye sat down in silence.

Chenyang said, “Ji Lei once interrogated Shen Zechuan in the Imperial prison, five years ago, and had Fengquan humiliate him in public with the “donkey grill”. And now, he’s returned an eye for an eye, and made Ji Lei into a… This guy’s compulsion for vengeance is clear as day. Governor, we’ve had bad blood with him too. It’s way too dangerous to keep him around at this point.”

Xiao Chi’ye turned the bone-hewn ring on his thumb, and did not reply.

[1] From 生年不满百 (We will not live a hundred years), by Anonymous. Translation, again, mine with apologies.

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