Book One, Chapter 39: Beasts of Prey

A charcoal fire toasted in the main room.

Chen Yang had been kneeling for a little under an hour by this point. Xiao Chi’ye sat in the central chair, reading a book on military tactics. Beyond the room’s curtained doorway, every Imperial Guard officer remained in attendance on their knees. There was silence, inside and out.

It is written, “The commander whose authority is not yet established, must first compel soldiers with his might.”1 Five years ago, when Xiao Chi’ye took over the Imperial Guard, he had wasted no time in pulling the rug out from under them, precisely so that he would gain an absolute authority over these formidable men. In the five years since, he had been fair and frank with both penalty and praise, withholding not one cent of the silver that the Imperial Guard was due— in fact, supplementing it quite a bit. With his subordinates, he was ungrudgingly open-handed, but the great-cloak he used today remained the same one his da-sao had sent him three years ago.

The Autumn Hunt had given the Imperial Guard their moment in the sun at last, and for a time their celebrity outstripped that of the Eight Battalions’. These men, who had been stifled for years within the Capital, who used to feign meekness before Eight Battalion soldiers, were now finding the cheek to go about hollering orders at them.

This was not a good sign. Pride came before the fall.

Xiao Chi’ye needed a chance to take the Imperial Guard down a peg, and today, Tantai Hu had given it to him.

Chen Yang did not lift his head. When Xiao Chi’ye rapped a knuckle on his desk, he got up immediately to refill Xiao Chi’ye’s pot. When the pot was full again, he went back to kneeling.

Xiao Chi’ye did not speak a word that night, and so Chen Yang spent the whole night on his knees.

There were many words which, left unspoken, struck a deeper chord than when said aloud.

In the morning, Xiao Chi’ye got ready for Court. When he was dressed, he told Chen Yang, “You don’t have to come with me today. Have a break.”

Chen Yang’s legs were numb from kneeling. He placed his hands on the ground and kowtowed, his voice bleak as he pled, “Master…”

“Governor” was how he usually addressed Xiao Chi’ye. He spoke from deep within his heart now.

And Xiao Chi’ye did pause on his way out, but did not turn his head.

Chen Yang kowtowed again, and said, “Please grant me my punishment, Master.”

Xiao Chi’ye lifted a hand to gesture all the servants out. When no one else remained in the room, he turned slightly to look at Chen Yang. “Whence comes punishment, if no wrong has been done?”

“I recognise my wrongdoing, Master.” The sweat on his brow trickled by his eyes as he spoke.

Xiao Chi’ye was silent for a while, then said, “These past few years, Zhao Hui has been on the battlefront at the borders with da-ge. His rank rises higher by the day, and it won’t be another five years before he receives his title and land. Both of you were picked out by dad as promising young men. Why is it that while he, Zhao Hui, can win such glory, you have to piss away the best years of your life behind a loser?”

Chen Yang’s lips blanched. “How could I think such a thing, Master? My lord the scion naturally has his strengths, but you, Master, are the pillar that holds up my corner of the sky! Zhao Hui and I are brothers of the same household. His glory is my glory, and any setback would be ours to share as well.”

“You’d do well to wrap your head around that reasoning,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “If brothers fight amongst themselves, if comrades take up arms against each other, then there is rot deep within your roots. Nobody has to lift a finger against you, because you’re already dead. While you are in Qu Capital with me, Zhao Hui takes care of all the affairs back home. You’re the one who lends weight to his little sister, when she married the councillor to the Ministry of Rites. For the sake of ambition you may vie with him for achievements, but when it comes down to it, you have to admit that only valour and conviction can define a man. What have you to be afraid of, what have you to be anxious about, when you compare yourself to him? What you did yesterday, you would never find Zhao Hui doing, because he has to consider da-ge‘s reputation. You’ve made it all the way to Captain of the Imperial Guard’s household troops, but you still have to resort to those petty tricks to get respect? For that tiny bit of satisfaction, you’ll have your master’s face trod on? Tantai Hu came from Zhongbo. You knew this, and you changed his shift to yesterday anyway, just so he could blow off some steam. Why, Chen Yang, have you been driven so low in my service that you have to play these games to win loyalty? You’ll have that momentary thrill, even if you have to undermine your master’s authority for it.”

Wrecked with shame and remorse, Chen Yang said, his head hung low, “I’ve let you down, Master—”

“You’ve let yourself down.” Then Xiao Chi’ye said coolly, “Come back to your duties when you’ve sorted yourself out. Have Gu Jin follow me for the next few days.”

Chen Yang knelt there, lost, as he watched Xiao Chi’ye lift the curtains aside and go on his way.


Shen Zechuan finally got some sleep last night. He stood now by the carriage, his breath misting in the air, and watched the gyrfalcon spiral in the niveous skies.

Xiao Chi’ye walked out and went into the carriage. Gu Jin took his riding whip, then looked at Shen Zechuan.

Shen Zechuan did not look at him. The curtain was half-open, and Xiao Chi’ye was making eyes at him.

Shen Zechuan instantly felt scrutiny like pinpricks on his back. All the Imperial Guards in the yard, who had spent the night out there freezing, were looking at him. He gave Xiao Chi’ye a slight smile, then got in.

The carriage swayed as Gu Jin began to drive.

Xiao Chi’ye handed Shen Zechuan a handwarmer, and as Shen Zechuan took it, he pressed the back of his hand lightly against Shen Zechuan’s.

“So cold,” Xiao Chi’ye commented.

Shen Zechuan’s fingers flicked Xiao Chi’ye’s hand away. He leant against the wall of the carriage, holding the handwarmer in his lap.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Not looking too happy there.”

As he warmed his hands, Shen Zechuan said, “I’m happy.” He looked toward Xiao Chi’ye, and continued, smiling, “Er-gongzi stood up for me. I’m thrilled.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Er-gongzi didn’t do it for anyone.”

“Be that as it may,” Shen Zechuan said, “Now that the commander’s authority has been established, when will he “compel them with his benevolence”? I haven’t got many days left of being in your personal guard. If you want to use me, you’ll have to be quick.”

Xiao Chi’ye looked at him, and said nothing.

Shen Zechuan tilted his chin back a little, settling into a position that approximated ease. He breathed out a sigh, and said, “Where it comes to using men, I fall behind you. Shen Zechuan makes a good target board. Keep him around, and he’ll be both personal guard and tiger-queller, and maybe even warm your bed. It’s not easy to find a stone that’ll kill three birds at once, Xiao Ce’an. How impressive.”

Outside, the streets frothed with noise and activity, while the air within the carriage condensed with tension. There were bare inches between the two men, and yet a crevasse seemed to yawn between them. When the carriage reached its destination, Gu Jin cannily kept mum, and did not interrupt.

The warmth had returned to Shen Zechuan’s hands, and he returned the small brazier to the desk. “It’s just a pity, that’s all.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “What is?”

“They all think you’re having a great time, night after night,” Shen Zechuan said slowly, his tongue skimming past the cusps of his teeth, “Who would’ve thought that Xiao Ce’an would be a straight-laced, dutiful icon of abstinence? Quite apart from getting to fuck me, he hasn’t even tasted my spit.”

Then he made to lift the curtains to get off, but lightning-quick, Xiao Chi’ye had snared him by his sash.

“That’s true,” Xiao Chi’ye’s lips quirked in a trifling smile. “If you’re this eager to measure swords in bed, I’ll indulge you.”

Shen Zechuan shot back, “I’ll have no one with eyes that savage.”

And with a swing of the curtain, he was gone.

Left hanging, Xiao Chi’ye waggled his empty fingers a little.


After Tantai Hu’s incident, the Imperial Guard dropped its swagger, and went about its duties with its tail tucked humbly between its legs, returning to its pre-Autumn Hunt conduct. Chen Yang especially became ever more prudent, and never again feigned a blind eye to any mischief amongst the men. He had hurt his feet in Libei some years ago, and when a harsh frost descended on Qu Capital a few days later, his feet would ache on and off throughout his days on duty.

One day, Xiao Chi’ye tossed him a few vials of ointment after dinner. When Chen Yang opened them in his own time, they turned out to be a valuable type of unguent that Xiao Jiming had acquired from Grand Master Gui Yi some years ago. Another wave of self-reproach washed over him, and he paid ever more care to his duties.

On the other end of the stick, Tantai Hu had barely been home a couple of days before he found himself in a quagmire. All of his family had died out, but he had adopted three young children from Zhongbo, all of whom relied on his stipend for their daily bread. As he was unmarried, he had no wife to manage his household, and his coffers were unfailingly empty at the end of each month. Now, all of a sudden, his pantry was feeling the pinch, and on top of that, they would soon have to bring in the new year somehow. As a veteran of Deng province, he had brothers-in-arms in Qu Capital, but he had always been the one looking out for everyone else’s needs. Now that it was his turn, he could not quite bring himself to go about borrowing money, but cinching his own waistband so the kids could be fed would not last long, either.

It had got to the point where Tantai Hu was thinking about taking up with the loan sharks and working as a debt collector, when Chen Yang came to visit.

“The new year’s coming up,” Chen Yang said, putting the money down. “The Governor remembers you’ve got three kids at home.”

Tantai Hu turned his face aside as he sat down in his chair, and said, “Since I ain’t serving in the Guard no more, I ain’t got the right to take the Guard’s money, either.”

“Are you a real knucklehead?” Chen Yang’s expression became serious. “Are you still holding it against the Governor? Everyone was right there watching when you started that fight that day. Did you have any regard for the Governor at all? It’s anathema to have slack discipline within the ranks. You’ve been deputy for all this time, don’t you understand that?”

Tantai Hu cried, “What choice do I have? Every time I see that Shen boy, I remember my pa and ma!”

Chen Yang sighed. “Even so, you shouldn’t have gone and slagged him off like that, dragging the Governor into the mud as well. You’ve been with the Governor for years, you know the kind of man he is— why’d you still run your mouth like that?”

Tantai Hu scrubbed a hand through his hair.

Chen Yang said, “I had my part in this too. I knew you were a hothead, but I didn’t stop you. When we’re at fault, we own it, and if there’s punishment to be had we face up to it. Real men take the hard with the easy. D’you have to throw in the towel and give it all up to be a real hero?”

“What else can I do? I’ve given up my badge!” Tantai Hu cried, helpless and miserable. “I’ve been with the Gov’nor five years now, bust my chops during the Autumn Hunt, and now that the Guard’s finally coming out on top, I’m watching that fox wander in and wander out, day in, day out, and I’m scared, ain’t I! With a face like that, I’m sore afraid he’ll lead the Gov’nor astray! I’m at the end of my wits! I can’t stomach him! What Ding Tao said, it’s not his fault, or something such— that’s right, that’s how it is by fair reckoning, but who’d be able to bear it, if it was them? It was my ma and pa and my brothers who were killed, not a mongrel by the curb!”

Chen Yang said nothing either.

Tantai Hu stomped a heavy foot on the ground, and swiped at his face roughly. Those memories still drew tears from this battle-scarred man. He choked, “If you only scorned a guy, you’d get pretty fed up watching him hang around all the time, let alone one you hated like this! That year Zhongbo fell, Chen Yang, every man who survived crawled out of it by the skin o’ their teeth, their families dead or ripped apart! Who’ll take some pity on us? Look at these three kids of mine, they’d barely learnt their letters when they became orphans, grubbing about in the mud under the Wastelanders’ hooves for their lives. We’ve got cheap lives, all of us!”

Chen Yang patted him, and when he was a little calmer, said, “But now that you’ve joined the Imperial Guard, the Governor-General is all there is. Hu-zi, five years ago, when the Governor was cleaning out the Imperial Guard, and wanted to recruit regional soldiers like you, the Ministry of War was against the idea. D’you remember what the Governor said then?”

Tantai Hu’s shoulders shook finely.

Chen Yang said, “Isn’t the reason you still want to be a soldier today, because of what the Governor said that day? “Their families are not yet avenged, their country not yet vindicated”. One day, the Imperial Guard will ride out to battle too. Wouldn’t you much rather cut your enemies down with your own blade on that day, than give some guy a hard time now? Have you forgotten all of that over the years?”

Tantai Hu said, “How dare I forget? I haven’t, not for a single day. I’ve given my life up for the Gov’nor to command, if only for the sake of a day like that.”

“Then that’s all there is to it,” Chen Yang got up, and pushed the silver towards Tantai Hu. “There’s no such thing as an overnight grudge between brothers. The Governor sees us all as brothers, and this money came from his own pocket. After New Year’s, you’ll return to your original company as a squad leader. Go back to your duties, and do them well.”

Overcome by too many feelings to name, Tantai Hu saw Chen Yang out the door.

When Chen Yang returned, Shen Zechuan was there, and the two men bowed to each other in the walkway. When he lifted the curtains and went in, Shen Zechuan understood that it had all gone well.

Shen Zechuan watched the snow idly.

Beasts of prey like those could make up the truth to appear false, or equally construct a falsehood to look like the truth. You could never distinguish anger from joy on his face, or discern if his feelings were in earnest or contrived.

Before long, Chen Yang emerged again. Lifting the curtain, he nodded at Shen Zechuan, and said, “The Governor is waiting to take his meal with you inside.”

Shen Zechuan turned, and saw Xiao Chi’ye looking at him.

[1]: From 纪效新书 (New Treatise of Military Efficacy), by 戚继光 Qi Jiguang.

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