Book One, Chapter 45: New Blade

Red tide.

Even if Shen Zechuan’s heart had held itself still to this point, those two words would have set it aquiver. Xiao Chi’ye’s handkerchief laid quietly in his sleeve pocket, like a fistful of fire. And as if it could somehow obey its owner’s command, the fire had traced an ascending path to the base of his ears. Shen Zechuan was only too aware of how eye-catching that spot of crimson would be against the snow-white of his skin. Even if he spoke up to deny it, he would have no credibility at all.

It was as if Xiao Chi’ye had caught him in some sort of a snare, with bright mirrors set all about him. Those eyes would have him stripped down to his truest form. Further, they demanded his surrender.

Shen Zechuan wet his lips, dispelling the sensation of being parched. He curled his fingers into themselves, denying Xiao Chi’ye a second chance to pry into him, and declining to respond to the provocation.

“It’s time for bed,” Shen Zechuan said. “We should go see to the teachers.”

To Xiao Chi’ye, Shen Zechuan’s deliberate, “not paying any attention to you” response landed like a coy prickling on his skin, and he itched to push his advantage. But haste was no friend of victory, and an impatient hunter could easily fall into his quarry’s traps. So he let this one slip by, and said, “Don’t worry about them, they have their own arrangements. If you want to go to bed, the east wing has been cleared for you.”

Without a second word, Shen Zechuan got to his feet.

Ji Gang and Zuo Qianqiu had gotten themselves thoroughly drunk, and could not be roused even the next morning. Shen Zechuan hauled Ji Gang onto a carriage and headed home.

As Xiao Chi’ye watched the carriage pass out of sight, he turned to Chen Yang. “Keep a close eye on all movement within the Eight Families these couple of days. We’ll see which of them is getting restless.”

Chen Yang nodded.


Shen Zechuan shut his eyes in the sway of the carriage and caught some rest. They took a circular route, switching to a smaller and less conspicuous carriage midway, before finally arriving at the Temple of Penitence.

Qiao Tianya had Ji Gang on his back, and followed Shen Zechuan into the courtyard. Ge Qingqing had been waiting for hours by this point. When he came out, he hurried towards them to help.

“It’s alright,” Shen Zechuan reassured him. “Teacher’s just drunk.”

Grand Tutor Qi, standing under the eaves, said, “Qingqing, help Ji Gang in. Let him sleep it off properly.”

So Ge Qingqing took Ji Gang over, and carried him into the house.

Qiao Tianya took a few steps forward and went to his knees in the snow. He said, “Have you been well, Grand Tutor?”

“Better than ever, now that you’ve turned up.” The Grand Tutor said, tucking his hands into his sleeves, “You’ve changed your name to Qiao Tianya, so the indenture has become meaningless. Despite that, for that small friendship between us, you chose to stay. I should thank you for that.”

“What happened long ago might have been a small kindness for you, Grand Tutor, but I owe my life to it.” Any trace of levity was gone from Qiao Tianya’s face. He said, “In the year of Yongyi, when the Grand Emperor Guangcheng expunged corruption from his court, both my father and my brother fell victim to false charges. Had it not been for the Grand Tutor’s keen eye and his intercession, all twenty members of the Qiao family would have been sent to their wrongful deaths before the Meridian Gate.”

The Grand Tutor said, “Your father and brother were both honest, loyal civil servants whose names had been temporarily tarnished. Even without my aid, they would have emerged unharmed.”

Qiao Tianya was silent for a long time, then said, “The Qiao family doesn’t deserve your benevolence, Grand Tutor.”

In the year of Yongyi, Qiao Tianya’s father had been employed in the Ministry of War. When the Grand Emperor Guangcheng cracked down on corruption, someone had made a report against the Qiao patriarch, and in the subsequent investigation, the Censorate found a country property under their name which could not be accounted for. They were at a loss to explain themselves. It was Qi Huilian who had reviewed the investigation, and had managed to untangle the Qiao patriarch and several other Ministry members from the imbroglio. This first encounter between the two men later led Qi Huilian to wed his own daughter to the firstborn son of the Qiao family. But the story did not end there. A few years after that, the East Palace succumbed to false accusations of sedition, and Qi Huilian was deposed from Grand Tutor to the status of a commoner. As Qi Huilian fled to the Temple of Penitence with the Crown Prince, the Qiao patriarch had defected towards the Empress Dowager.

After the collapse of the East Palace, the Empress Dowager Hua had borrowed Pan Rugui’s secretarial hand to hunt down the rest of the East Palace’s adherents “on behalf of the Emperor”. Thus, the Qiao patriarch found himself once again behind bars, and this time, without the Grand Tutor’s protection, both he and his firstborn son lost their heads to the executioner, and the remainder of the Qiao family was exiled to Suotian Pass. Qi Huilian’s daughter passed away on that journey. She was Qiao Tianya’s sister-in-law.

“What’s past is past,” the Grand Tutor gave his hoary mop of hair a loose tug. “It wasn’t easy for you to break free of your base caste, and you have to think this through carefully now. Once you decide to follow Lanzhou, you will be bound to him for the rest of your life. You will no longer have a say in your own life or death.”

Qiao Tianya’s hair caught the wind, and his smile was careless and unapologetic as he replied, “Grand Tutor, I am all alone in this world now. Throughout my life, I have received kindness from both you and my sister-in-law again and again, without means to repay any of it. I thought this would be an impossible debt. But now, since you have a use for me, I’ll gift this life of mine to my master. Qiao Songyue died of sickness beside his sister-in-law in Cang county, and the Qiao Tianya of today is nothing but a sword. A sword does not live or die, nor know of freedom. The clouds are darkening, and the path ahead is treacherous, so draw me from my scabbard, and use me as you will.”

Grand Tutor Qi walked out slowly, and put his hand on a pillar. He looked towards Shen Zechuan. “Lanzhou, this year, like every other year, is coming to an end, but you have yet to receive a coming-of-age gift from your mentor.”

Shen Zechuan’s sleeves billowed in the wind. He could sense something in the air.

The Grand Tutor said, “Though you can hold your own against the world now, the road ahead is long. Killing your enemies, dispersing the Eight Families, reopening old cases, restoring Zhongbo— not one of those tasks will be easy. Ji Gang wants to give you a sword, and I shall give you one too. Keep him.”

Fine snow drifted into the courtyard. Shen Zechuan bowed his head, and allowed Grand Tutor Qi’s ice-cold hand to come to rest on top of his hair.

It was dinnertime before Ji Gang finally woke up. He had some congee, then called Shen Zechuan into his room.

“Do you remember the sword I mentioned last time? It came last night, I’ve been thinking about it the whole day.” Ji Gang shifted aside a chest of drawers in his room, revealing the sword stand behind.

From the very first moment Shen Zechuan laid eyes on that sword, he fell in love, and could never look away again.

“Ji Lei couldn’t use it,” Ji Gang took a clean cloth, and drew it slowly along the edge of the blade. “But this sword suits you perfectly. I’ve had the scabbard reforged, and its old name doesn’t suit anymore. You’re gonna have to give it a new one.”

But Shen Zechuan was still entirely immersed in the light from that blade, as he looked over every part of it, enthralled.

Its straight edge, almost three feet and seven inches in length, demanded a rapid draw. Two fingers in width, its blade was made for fleet, piercing assault. The hilt too had been newly cut of sandalwood, and bore no embellishments except a cap of gold at the very end, within which a single white pearl was set.

This was a fine blade, forged and tempered a million times over, so that despite its long dormancy, when it saw the light again, its forbidding presence emerged unchanged. You might have caught sight of it in the depths of an autumnal lake, untouched, immaculate, and haughty.

“I’ve been mulling something over in my head lately, and it only finally hit me when I saw Xiao Ce’an yesterday— I’ve been too rigid with the way I taught you, and it’s more or less kept you back.” Ji Gang put down the cloth and said, “With this sword, not even Xiao Ce’an’s Avarice could keep up with the speed of your draw. The sandalwood hilt is light enough to allow you greater deftness. Of all the forms of martial arts in the world, only speed is indomitable. Even though we all say today that the Ji Family Style requires strength and ferocity, my father was the creator of its Precepts, and this was after all my father’s beloved blade.What suited him will unquestionably suit you too. There is room for you to find your own way here.”

Shen Zechuan wrapped his hand around the hilt, and picked the sword up.

“Give it a name,” Ji Gang said, stepping back.

Shen Zechuan was smitten. He had to ask, “A sword like this… are you really going to just give it to me, Teacher?”

Ji Gang roared with laughter. “Your Teacher prefers to throw punches. This sword would be wasted if it didn’t go to you.”

Shen Zechuan thought for a few moments, and said, “Its name is Rising Snow.”1


In the evening, the Grand Tutor knelt across a desk from Shen Zechuan, and wrote down the names of the Eight Families on a sheet of paper.

“The state banquet is drawing near, and the Four Great Generals will once again be gathered in one place. Every provincial official will be returning to the Capital as well,” the Grand Tutor narrated as he let the ink dry. “A new Emperor sits on the throne now, which means that there will certainly be an “audit” next year. The political stability of this coming year of Xianyang will depend on this vital process. The state banquet and the end-of-year recess provide an ideal time to re-evaluate the current political scene. If the Empress Dowager is making her comeback, she will not miss the opportunity this provides.”

“Since the death of Hua Siqian, the Dowager has been confined to the Palace, and has not appeared at all. All of her family’s menfolk have been stripped of office and exiled. If she wants to make a move now, she will have to rely on outside help.” Shen Zechuan frowned. “But with Xi Gu’an’s example to go by, who’s going to conspire with the Dowager now?”

“Those who dare nothing will achieve nothing. Every alliance is driven by self interest, and as long as the Dowager has chips in her hand to bargain with, she need not worry about finding a new ship to sail on.” The Grand Tutor underlined the Hua family a few times and said, “Besides, the men in their family have never been of much use. You forget— the one person whom the Dowager has taken under her wing is a woman.”

“Third Lady Hua,” Shen Zechuan said. “Sir speaks of Hua Xiangyi.”

“Going by how dear she was to the late Emperor Xiande, the Third Lady should have been made Princess,” The Grand Tutor said. “But in the end, she did not become Princess of Dazhou. Not because Emperor Xiande stinted her— but because the Dowager did not allow it.”

Shen Zechuan held a sip of clear tea in his mouth, thought for a few moments, then swallowed and said, “I understand now.”

“Then let’s hear why you think she did it.”

Hands propped on his knees, Shen Zechuan explained, “If Hua Xiangyi was to become Princess of Dazhou, the Dowager would no longer have the final word on who she weds. The marriage of a princess is an affair of the state, and it is the Emperor and his courtiers who will deliberate on her match. But if she is only Third Lady Hua, then her betrothal can only be decided by the Empress Dowager. In that case, Sir, do you mean the Dowager will be giving her away?”

“If the mountain does not come to me, than I shall go to the mountain,” The Grand Tutor said, dipping his brush in ink. “The Dowager gave up her chariot piece to save her General. She lost Xi Gu’an, and lost her hold over Qu Capital’s military. But if Hua Xiangyi marries Xiao Chi’ye, then her problem solves itself.”

Shen Zechuan’s tea saucer clinked lightly as he lifted his cup, his eyes kept low. “She might have better luck learning to fly. Xiao Ce’an would never willingly hand over his power to anyone else.”

“Rumour is that Hua Xiangyi is exceedingly beautiful. If Xiao Ce’an falls to his baser instincts, anything might happen.” The Grand Tutor said, somewhat meaningfully.

Shen Zechuan sipped his tea and made no sound.

The Grand Tutor continued, “But you’re right, it won’t be easy. Even if Xiao Ce’an falls for her, Xiao Jiming would never just sit by and let it happen. Their family has never seen eye to eye with the Hua family, and they would never offer to bury the hatchet while the advantage is with them.”

Shen Zechuan thought for a while, then said, “If she can’t have the military, it would be an equally good option to gain control of key positions in the central government. But scarcely anyone stands out amongst the younger generation, the Cabinet still follows where Hai Liangyi leads, and the Dowager would hardly debase Hua Xiangyi by making her someone’s mistress or concubine. It’s looking like there isn’t a single suitable candidate in all of Qu Capital.”

“If there isn’t one within the Capital, then look outside of it.” The Grand Tutor wrote down the word “Qidong” and said, “If Libei doesn’t work, there’s still a chance in Qidong.”

“Neither Commander Qi nor Lu Guangbai have married,” Shen Zechuan said. “Then it can only be Lu Guangbai. But the Lu family and the Xiao family are old family friends. Theirs isn’t a relationship which can be soured overnight.”

“Why could it not be the Qi family?” Grand Tutor Qi argued, dissatisfied. “There are many more people in her family besides Qi Zhuyin.”

“You don’t mean…” Shen Zechuan began, taken aback.

Some days later, Xiao Chi’ye went with Li Jianheng to welcome the twin generals of Qidong into the city. As they returned, Lu Guangbai rode next to him, and halfway he took his helmet off to say, “I caught wind of a bit of news on the road. Did you know?”

As Xiao Chi’ye spurred his horse forward, he asked, “About what?”

Before Lu Guangbai could say, Qi Zhuyin, who had been riding up behind them, walloped him on the back.

“Commander!” Lu Guangbai cried out, in pain.

Qi Zhuyin looked grumpy, as she scarcely ever did. Bracing her hand on her pommel, she leaned over and asked Xiao Chi’ye, “When did the rumour start in Qu Capital?”

Xiao Chi’ye’s confusion increased.

Qi Zhuyin snarled, “Someone’s trying to become my stepmother.”

Xiao Chi’ye stared. “The old Commander Qi is taking another concubine?”

“Concubine,” Qi Zhuyin said sardonically, “They’re saying he’s replacing my late mother his primary wife! Hua Xiangyi wants to be my stepmother? Is she even my age?”

Author’s note: Rising Snow is based on Tang swords, which were quite different from Xiuchun swords. The straight blade is really beautiful, and I quite like it.

[1] Lanzhou’s sword is named 仰山雪, taken from the third line of Li Bai’s poem, Gufeng #33, “仰喷三山雪”.
Translated, the poem approximately reads,

In the northern wilderness lives a gigantic fish,
Whose body measures several thousand li.

When it rises, it spouts three mountains’ worth of snow,
And when it levels, it may swallow a hundred rivers.

It rides the crests of ocean currents,
And rises on mighty wings.

I have seen it soar into the heavens,
And it did not falter, even at ninety thousand li.

3 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 45: New Blade

  1. thank you for providing additional context surrounding lanzhou’s sword! loved this chapter so much, you’re indestructible ❤


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s