Book One, Chapter 38: Military Discipline

Snow fell ceaselessly for several days, and Xiao Chi’ye grew ever lazier in that time, even making fewer trips to the training grounds. He had befriended a few merchants from the Longyou trading group of late, and made arrangements for the purchase of some valuable goods: pearls from Yongquan harbour, jade from He province; small, intricate pieces like those.

Li Jianheng was the picture of diligence these days, presenting himself at Morning Court regardless of how cold the morning dawned, and asking to have Hai Liangyi tutor him every day. If he caught Xiao Chi’ye slacking off on his duties, he would have a few words of gentle admonishment for him. It was as if he had genuinely turned over a new leaf.

Pleased with this development, Xiao Chi’ye bagged two deer from Feng hill, and gifted them to the Palace. However, Li Jianheng, traumatised by the recent donkey grill, was giving all wild game a wide berth, and re-gifted the deer to Hai Liangyi.

The end of the year was now in sight, and both the ritual ceremony and the state banquet were major affairs to attend to. All six ministries and twenty-four Palatial Offices were run off their feet. As the Office of Ceremonies was now short-handed, it was often indecisive, and would end up needing to consult with Li Jianheng. Li Jianheng, for his part, was no more informed on these matters than they were, and each time would have to trouble Hai Liangyi and the Ministry of Rites to make a final decision.

As Qu Capital got busy, Li Jianheng caught Xiao Chi’ye idling, and bestowed upon him the major responsibility of re-evaluating each of the names on the Eight Battalions’ register for return to duty. As a direct consequence, every last part of Qu Capital’s security was now held in Xiao Chi’ye’s hands.

As he could not fob the job on to someone else, Xiao Chi’ye had no choice but to get to work, finally getting swept up in the whirlwind of activity.

Running around hither and thither in Xiao Chi’ye’s shadow, Shen Zechuan inevitably came into frequent contact with Imperial Guards.

On one such day, Tantai Hu returned from his shift, still armed, to spot Shen Zechuan standing by the doors of the Imperial Guard’s Notary office. He ran a rough hand over his scarred, freezing face, and stalked towards him.

Shen Zechuan put his head to the side, and watched as Tantai Hu bore down on him.

“Shen the eighth?” Tantai Hu came to a stop before Shen Zechuan, and demanded, “Shen Wei’s your old man, ain’t he?”

Shen Zechuan said, “Are you looking for my old man, or for me?”

“Shen Wei’s long since crisped himself, so naturally I’m after you,” Tantai Hu retorted. He began to pace in a circle around Shen Zechuan. “Life’s good in Qu Capital, eh? Look at that figure. Could give the girls on Donglong Avenue a run for their money. Shows you what comes of being pampered and well fed every day.”

From the moment he opened his mouth, Shen Zechuan knew that nothing good would come of this encounter. Off to one side, Chen Yang said nothing. All the Guards in the yard looked around to watch the show.

Tantai Hu continued, “A perky ass, a willowy waistline, peachy cheeks, foxy eyes. You’d be top-shelf goods even at Xianghui House. Why aren’t you inside living the good life, but out here running about in the wind and snow with our Gov’nor?”

Then Tantai Hu stopped short, his gaze knife-like as he continued, “Five years ago, Shen Wei licked the Libei Cavalry’s iron hooves to keep Zhongbo from getting buried in the Wasteland Riders’ horseshit. And now you’ll be taking after your old man, but where’re you looking to lick our Gov’nor? Every girl in the pleasure-house is a fine talent at something or other when she puts her curtains up. What’s your special something, that makes you think you’ve got the right to stand shoulder to shoulder with men who’ve been to war?”

“I haven’t the right,” Shen Zechuan smiled. “Will the deputy governor-general suspend my badge, and drive me out of this yard now?”

“Why would I go to the mighty effort of doing that?” Tantai Hu said. “You’re only a dog tied up outside of our Guardhouse’s gates. I’d be doing you a favour to aim a kick your way. Your granddaddy’s only having a few words with you today on account of the Gov’nor. If you’re gonna be somebody’s kept thing, then you should have the good sense not to try and act like a person.”

“When the Emperor charged me to wear the Brocade Guard’s waist-badge, I became a servant of the public office. How can I be someone’s “kept thing”?” Shen Zechuan said. “If I’m a dog at the Guardhouse’s gates, then you, sir, cannot be much different. We’re both paid an Imperial stipend to carry out duties about the Capital. If there’s any good sense for me to learn, we’re going to have to learn it together.”

Tantai Hu’s hands shifted to his double swords as his ferocious eyes grew round with rage. He bellowed, “You? The same as us? Insolent mutt! I was once Battalion Commander of Zhongbo’s Deng province garrison troops!” He lunged a step closer, and snarled hatefully, “When the line failed along Chashi River, my very own brothers were in that hole! Do you know what it was like in there? Men were speared alive ’til they looked like hedgehogs! Forty thousand men went to their graves in that sinkhole! Forty thousand men!”

Shen Zechuan’s expression did not change.

Tantai Hu continued, “My old man and ma were in Deng province too. When the Wasteland Riders came, the Shen scum ran away, and left all the old and vulnerable, and the womenfolk and children, people like my old man and ma, to the the Riders! They butchered city after city, and dragged my little sister behind them for two li, then raped her to death at the city gates! But look how free and easy you live, eh? Life’s a bed of roses, isn’t it? Put your arse up for a good fucking, and you can be let off on anything!”

A chill wind swept through the yard. By the time Chen Yang realised that they were heading off the rails, it was too late for him to stop them.

Tantai Hu dragged Shen Zechuan up by his collar, his eyes bloodshot. “How dare you mouth off at me today, when I’m giving you a piece of my mind? All of you well-fed, high-living, upper-crust kids have no idea how many people died in that battle, or that even right now, to this day, there’re tens of thousands of people starving to death in Zhongbo! Is life good in Qu Capital, huh? You’ve got a nice bed and a good life, and people absolving you at every turn, but what do the dead in Zhongbo count for? What do they count for!”

Shen Zechuan grabbed Tantai Hu’s arm, and in a sudden movement threw him hard to the ground. The earth-shattering crash made everyone around take an involuntary step back.

Shen Zechuan wiped his hands in a fistful of snow, and said, looking at Tantai Hu, “What do they count for? Settle it up with your own people. There was a whole month between the Riders’ invasion of the border and their arrival at Deng Province downstream. When Shen Wei shrank from battle all the way along the Chashi River, all of you staunch and worthy men should have snapped his neck, and risen up to defend yourselves.”

Shen Zechuan stood up.

“Whether you hate me or humiliate me, it’s no skin off my back. If blood for blood was how the world worked, then killing me would be an act of divine justice.” Shen Zechuan spat lightly at Tantai Hu, and sneered, “What absolute horseshit. It was the Wasteland Riders who butchered the cities, and it was the Wasteland Riders who trapped and killed those forty thousand soldiers. Before you have a go at me, set your own ass straight, and go rinse out the piss that the Wasteland Riders left on your head. I’ve only got one sad little life, and it’s no great loss if you took it. But when I’m dead, do the Wasteland Riders get a free pass on their debt?”

Tantai Hu said, “Don’t you go punting blame off yourself! Wasn’t it your dear old man who let the Riders through in the first place?!”

“Then kill me.” Shen Zechuan lifted a finger to graze along his own throat. “Please, I beg you, do it now. If you kill me, the wretched Shen line ends right here.”

Tantai Hu leapt up, drawing his twin blades then and there to lunge at Shen Zechuan.

Dingtao, fresh from his nap, was just stepping into the yard. Catching sight of them, he cried, very much alarmed, “Tiger, don’t hurt him! I’ve still got to keep an eye on the guy!”

But Tantai Hu was in no state to listen, his twin swords whooshing as they cleaved through the air. Dingtao leapt three feet in the air and made to charge in, but Gujin snagged his collar and stopped him.

“Tiger lost his whole family in Zhongbo,” Gujin said. “You can’t ask him to let Shen Zechuan go.”

Dingtao said, “But didn’t Shen Wei do all that? What’s it got to do with him!”

Gujin hesitated for a beat, but did not explain.

Tantai Hu’s blade went slicing across Shen Zechuan’s face, and Shen Zechuan spun aside to kick away the wrist which held the blade. Tantai Hu’s whole arm went numb, and his sword went flying out of his grip.

In that very moment, the Notary office’s door-curtains lifted, and the Assistant Minister of War, Yang Zongzhi, watched wide-eyed as a sword came flying at him.

Chen Yang reached out at once to catch the sword by its hilt, but Xiao Chi’ye was quicker. His scabbard whirled through the air, and struck the blade down into the snow.

The steel blade speared into the ground with such force that every Imperial Guard present in the yard went to their knees at once, calling in chorus, “We beg your pardon, Governor-General!”

Xiao Chi’ye ignored them, re-attached his sword, and put a hand up to lift the curtains aside for Yang Zongzhi, smiling apologetically. “I’ve neglected to keep my men in line, and caused you distress, Assistant Minister Yang.”

Yang Zongzhi did not linger. He said a few awkward pleasantries, sped out of the yard and back into his carriage, declined to be chaperoned, and was gone like a shot.

After seeing him off, Xiao Chi’ye turned back around to the yardful of kneeling men.

Chen Yang, conscious of his own fault, hurried to say, “Governor-General, this was my lapse in oversight, I didn’t—”

“You’ve had a good time in the peanut gallery.” As Xiao Chi’ye spoke, Meng landed on his shoulder. As he pulled out some white meat for the gyrfalcon, he only said, “You wouldn’t find Zhao Hui doing that.”

Chen Yang paled.

Xiao Chi’ye did not dress Chen Yang down in public. Chen Yang was the captain of his personal guard, and in his confidence. He could not berate Chen Yang in full view of the Guard, cause Chen Yang embarrassment before his brothers-in-arms, and allow him to lose his authority amongst them. But what he had said just then cut Chen Yang deeper than any reprimand.

Both Chen Yang and Zhao Hui had been promising young shoots picked out by Xiao Fangxu himself. Zhao Hui, the steady-going one, had gone with Xiao Jiming, earning many merits on the battlefield, becoming a Deputy General whom few would attempt to snub, even in the Capital. Chen Yang had remained behind at the Libei family manor, until he finally left with Xiao Chi’ye five years ago. He was a prudent, careful one, and feared most of all to be found wanting next to Zhao Hui. This was their private contest, between two brothers of the same house.

Xiao Chi’ye’s comment today not only raised the alarm for him, but also made him profoundly ashamed of himself.

“When I took over as Governor-General five years ago, they all said the Imperial Guard was a bunch of lousy hoodlums with no order or discipline, and no regard for their Governor-General.” Xiao Chi’ye said, running a hand down Meng, “Soldiers like that, I can’t lead. If you want to stay in the Guard, either pull yourselves together into respectable men, or pack your bedrolls and get out.”

Tantai Hu’s chest heaved, and he said bitterly, “You’re right, Gov’nor, and we’ve all set score by you before, but what is he? Do you call him a soldier too? As Deputy Gov’nor-General and his superior in rank, am I in the wrong to tell him a thing or two? I do earn my bacon here, but I ain’t kissing up to an arse-vendor!”

“He wears the Brocade Guard’s badge, and he’s been assigned to my personal guard. When you sit where I’m sitting, you can slag him off all you like: then you’d have earned it.” Xiao Chi’ye looked down at him. “You think you’re in the right?”

Tantai Hu, neck rigid, cried, “I do!”

“Then what are you doing taking shit from me,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Get going.”

Tantai Hu’s head jerked up incredulously. “You’re going to give me the sack because of this guy, Gov’nor?!”

“There are no personal grudges within the Imperial Guard. Don’t put words into my fucking mouth, I’m not doing this for either of you.” Xiao Chi’ye growled, “In the Imperial Guard, my word is law. If you can make up your own mind, why bother calling me Governor? Unlace your armour, shed your swords, and whatever blood feud you’ve got, go ahead and claim your dues. If you can take him down within three moves, I’ll go to my knees right here and kowtow for your forgiveness. But while you’re in that suit of armour, and while you wear the Imperial Guard’s badge, you have only one choice, and that is to listen to me. Everyone’s been a great audience today, stepped on my face and had a lively little frolic there. With such spirit, such moral courage, why even worry about military discipline? Why don’t you all fuck off, pick a mountain each, and crown yourselves king?”

The men were silent, their heads bowed. Meng finished his bit of flesh, and put his head up to stare down at them.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Don’t you all like to say I’m led by my dick? I’ll do exactly as you’ve said today. Pull Tantai Hu’s badge, and send him out the door!”

The Imperial Guard chorused, “Please have mercy, Governor-General!”

Tantai Hu would not back down, and with shaking hands pulled the waist-badge from himself. He said, “I’ve called myself the Gov’nor-General’s brother, and for the past five years I’ve been beholden to the Gov’nor for his kindness to me. I would give the Gov’nor my life if he asked for it! But what did I do wrong today? If the Gov’nor would break my heart, and strip me of my rank for the sake of a pretty face, so be it! Tantai Hu will sit and take it!”

Then he laid his waist-badge and his helmet together on the ground, thumped his head three times loudly on the ground in Xiao Chi’ye’s direction, and rose to strip himself of his armour. In nothing but his under-robes, he looked to Shen Zechuan.

“Keep sleeping your way up, we’ll see how long you live! My debt with the Wasteland skinheads, I’ll naturally go collecting in the days to come. But you won’t be getting away either!”

Tantai Hu swiped at his eyes, and clapped his palm over his fist to salute in all four directions.

“Until next time, brothers!”

He stepped out, and really left.

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