Book One, Chapter 47: Contention

Li Jianheng shook his legs frantically, kicking the head away from himself. He was beyond caring about appearances now, and would have shrunk himself into the throne if he could have managed it. There was a thunderous ringing in his ears, and he watched as fresh blood soaked into his robes, feeling as though a fist had tightened around his throat. He could not produce a single word.

Shen Zechuan came to kneel on one knee, and said intently, “Do not be afraid, Your Majesty. The assassin has been executed. Your humble servant deserves a thousand deaths for coming too late to your rescue.”

Li Jianheng felt paralysed in every limb. His fingers dug hard into the armrests of his throne as his gaze shuffled from the corpse onto Shen Zechuan’s face. He grabbed hold of Shen Zechuan’s sleeve and said, almost whimpering, “No… you weren’t late! You… well done, Lanzhou! We… we almost…”

“Call for the physician!” The Dowager walked up quickly, paying no mind to the bloody corpse, and took Li Jianheng’s hands in her own. She called gently, “Your Majesty? Your Majesty?”

Still caught in horror and panic, Li Jianheng swallowed with great effort, and wrenched his hands from the Dowager’s grasp to seize Shen Zechuan’s sleeve again. He pleaded, “Stay, you must stay with your Brocade Guards and protect me!”

“The Brocade Guard has always been Your Majesty’s shield,” Shen Zechuan’s expression did not change. “For Your Majesty, we are willing and ready to meet hell or high water. I will escort you back to Mingli Hall immediately, Your Majesty.”

With the rest of the banquet hall still shaken, Xue Xiuzhuo stepped forward, and in a commanding voice instructed, “Arrest and detain all those working in the Imperial Food Service, the Imperial Kitchens, the Imperial Confectionary, and the Imperial Winery until further notice. An assassin was able to pass amongst His Majesty’s closest servants. Both the eunuch’s administration and His Majesty’s personal guards must answer for their role in this!”

“Who was responsible for security tonight?” The Dowager asked.

There was silence in the hall. Xiao Chi’ye bowed. “It was me, Your Majesty.”

The Dowager made no rebuke, but looked towards Li Jianheng. Everyone else looked towards Li Jianheng as well.

To have been allowed to work in the Imperial Food Service, this eunuch must have come from an honest family with traceable origins. On top of that, details such as when he had entered the Palace, which of the Services he had previously served in, and who his friends were amongst the eunuchs— all of that must be looked into. Additionally, every person he had been in contact with must be identified and recorded on file. As the man responsible for the Emperor’s personal safety, Xiao Chi’ye should have figured all of it out before the banquet began. Those layers of security the assassin had simply walked through had been of his devising, and so he must bear responsibility for this fiasco.

Awash in cold sweat, Li Jianheng murmured through pale lips, “Arrest those eunuchs first, and we…”

And before he could finish, he had fainted dead away.


There would be no sleep for anyone this night. Li Jianheng lay in his rooms, unconscious and surrounded by Imperial Physicians, while the Dowager once again listened in on their deliberations, keeping behind a veil for propriety’s sake. To one side, Hai Liangyi awaited— on the Dowager’s special orders.

In the corridors, the Brocade Guard kept an armed watch under Han Cheng’s lead. Further outside, ministers and officials kept vigil on their knees. The first night of a new year was always bitterly cold, and many of the older ministers, long past their prime, were already chilled and shivering, holding on by strength of will alone.

There was an empty silence throughout the palace grounds, and an unusually bleak quality to the air.

Xiao Chi’ye was not there. He was needed, along with members of the Ministry of Justice and the Censorate, for the capture and detainment of all those eunuchs. The Imperial Guard was also locked down, and the Assistant Commander responsible for personnel inspection tonight was stripped of his badge, and thrown into jail with the eunuchs.

There were no braziers set up in the hearing room, only a few lit lamps.

Xiao Chi’ye sat beneath and to the right of the Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu. To the left were the Left and Right Censors from the Censorate, Cen Yu and Fu Linye.

Ordinarily, Xiao Chi’ye would be entitled to sit beside the Minister of Justice in equal judgement. However, as he must be seen to steer clear of unfair influence in this case, he had to take a lesser position, leaving the two Chief Censors from the Censorate to oversee this trial.

It had been a turbulent year, with crisis following crisis without a moment’s standstill. The three judicial courts had never held hearings in succession like this, never mind that they all happened to be major cases concerning threats to the Emperor himself.

Kong Qiu drank a cup of stale, cold tea, and did not speak as they waited for their summoned detainee to arrive. In fact, from the moment they sat down, no one had made any small talk at all. They all recognised that this was no time for wisecracking, and every face was grim.

Xiao Chi’ye sat at his place in silence, turning his thumb-ring. He was deep in thought.

They had come prepared, just like they had in xiao-Fu’zi’s case. These cases were embroiled in shadows and spectres from the very first moment, and, as though pulled along by countless threads, would stretch beyond that first, split-second illusion at the crime scene, holding a much deeper truth out of sight.

The eunuchs working in the Imperial Food Service were poison-tasters for the Emperor. Every one of them, from the least to the highest, would have been inspected down to the previous three generations of their family. To turn someone like that into an assassin would be very difficult, but at the same time, could be very simple.

First, it had to be someone who could come into contact with palace eunuchs, or someone who was a eunuch himself, hidden within the Palace, but working for some outside force. Only those two kinds of people might be able to coerce or seduce the assassin eunuch.

And there, something suddenly came to Xiao Chi’ye from his memories. His fingers paused on his ring. In that same moment, their summoned prisoner was brought in. It was his Assistant Commander.

Kong Qiu cut straight to the chase. “You are the Assistant Commander of the Imperial Guard. Tonight, you were responsible for the inspection of all Imperial Guards carrying arms in the Imperial presence, as well as the poison-taster from the Imperial Food Service. What do you know about this eunuch?”

The Assistant Commander’s name was Meng Rui, a soldier of a family of soldiers whom Xiao Chi’ye had promoted to this position in the sixth year of Xiande. He had previously been the registry manager, and was a very prudent man. Holding even eye contact, he replied steadily, “The assassin eunuch’s name was Gui Sheng, aged twenty-and-six. He was born in Chun city, and his father was a resident of Baishui street in Chun city, but passed away of illness in the sixth year of Xiande. He was the only son, and entered Palace service in the year of Yongyi, twelve years ago. In the first year of Xiande, he was accepted into the Imperial Food Service, and began to serve as poison-taster for the late Emperor from the fourth year of Xiande. He had no particular passions, and had befriended very few people.”

Kong Qiu thought this over, then asked, “Who arranged for him to be on duty tonight?”

Meng Rui answered, “It was a serving lady from the Imperial Food Service, Fu Ling.”

Kong Qiu looked first towards the men from the Censorate, then at Xiao Chi’ye, and finally nodded and said, “The weapon used for the attempted assassination was a pair of golden chopsticks provided for Imperial use. The Imperial Guard could not have done anything about this even with body searches. Here— we will have Assistant Commander Meng wait aside for the moment. Summon Fu Ling of the Imperial Food Service.”

Meng Rui stepped away to one side. Throughout the proceedings, he had not exchanged a single glance with Xiao Chi’ye.

Really, Xiao Chi’ye was not as worried as some might have imagined. He knew very well that this attempted assassination would not affect his hold on the military. He might later receive a penalty, or have his wages decreased, but none of that would really touch him. He had been too far away when it all happened, and it would have been impossible for him to be first to the rescue— and the seating had been arranged by protocol, so no one could be faulted for that. Moreover, Shen Zechuan had been far too quick on the draw— between one blink and the next, his sword had been returned to its sheath, and the assassin’s head was on the ground. His speed was completely different to his previous performance, on that stormy night. Xiao Chi’ye might not have been quicker, even if he had been standing right there. It was not the assassination itself, but what could now happen in its aftermath, that Xiao Chi’ye was more concerned about. He had to plan ahead, and snuff out any flames from this debacle before they might catch on him.

And again, Xiao Chi’ye remembered that last look Shen Zechuan had given him.

The Brocade Guard’s policy was to promote once in every eight years. Men would first be allocated into one of the twelve divisions on the basis of their familial caste, then promoted based on their performance therein. Opportunities to advance beyond this schedule were few and far between. Shen Zechuan’s background was irregular, and though he had been pardoned of his crimes, he would never be considered of military lineage. If he wanted to command the Brocade Guard, then he had to find another way to move up the ladder.

For the past few months, Xiao Chi’ye had been browbeating the Brocade Guard, firstly to cement the Imperial Guard’s absolute right of way, but secondly also as a precaution against Shen Zechuan’s ascension. Qu Capital’s playing field was messy, but it was a legible mess. They all knew each other quite well. Profit drew factions together, and profit broke factions apart. Only Shen Zechuan remained an unpredictable variable in it all. For all of Xiao Chi’ye’s probing, he had yet to work out exactly what Shen Zechuan’s intentions were.

And if he did not know what he wanted, then they could not truly be allies.

Xiao Chi’ye had hoped that Shen Zechuan would stay quietly below, but this attempted assassination was Shen Zechuan’s answer.

Not a chance.

He was a keen blade belonging to no one but himself. He would carve his own path from his enemy’s flesh, and he would not willingly give himself up for anyone else’s wielding. He wanted to ravage, and not to obey.

What could sharing the bed for a single night change?

That had been a howl of rage vented into the darkest night, a gasp snatched from the breathless lust which had held the two of them captive. From the blunt impact of flesh and flesh was born a small commiserating sympathy, but that sympathy was not yet enough to turn either of them from their choices.

Xiao Chi’ye would not give up the power he had earned. It was the blade by which he was to live. If he could not return to Libei, then he had to hold fast to this blade. And Shen Zechuan would not allow himself to remain under another’s boot, and have his own fate decided by another person’s fancy. He would ascend. He must ascend.

Xiao Chi’ye’s fist clenched suddenly.

If Shen Zechuan was involved in the plotting of this mock assassination, then who were his accomplices?


Li Jianheng had not yet awoken. Shen Zechuan was relieved at his post to catch some rest. As he cleansed his hands in the Registry Office, he heard the door behind him open, and someone walked in.

“According to the plan you described, Han Cheng was the one who was to come to His Majesty’s rescue tonight.” Xue Xiuzhuo turned his sleeves up a little, and came to wash his hands at the cool water basin. He said lightly, “We’ve all been thrown for a loop by Master Shen.”

“It was a critical moment,” Shen Zechuan did not turn around. “If Han Cheng had been capable, he might well have done it, but as it happened, he was too slow. What could I have done?”

“This incident won’t get rid of Xiao Ce’an. At most, they’ll issue him a reprimand for negligent oversight. On the other hand, you’ve shown him your true colours this time. Even if you do move up the ladder, you won’t have an easy time hereafter.”

“Master Court Assistant and I are weathering this storm in the same boat,” Shen Zechuan said. “If I’m going to have a hard time,” he turned and smiled, “Will it be any easier for you?”

“They say there’s a particular kind of rabid dog, which would attack even its own pack in a frenzy,” Xue Xiuzhuo looked towards Shen Zechuan, letting his hands hang to dry. “It’s rather more frightening to be in the same boat with someone, if they would so briskly use another person for a stepping stone.”

“That’s hardly fair,” Shen Zechuan said, “Those are all my brothers in arms who’ve gained an advantage tonight. And am I not the one who has been laid down before Xiao Ce’an’s wrath? From now on, I’m going to be an absolute thorn in his flesh. Whether of sense or sensibility, he’d be well within reason to hate my guts.”

“His Majesty and Xiao Ce’an have quite the deep bond. That debt of life on the Nanling hunting grounds will be hard to forget. Even though you’ve stuck your neck out tonight, it may not get rid of Xiao Ce’an.”

“The first step is always the hardest,” Shen Zechuan smiled lightly. “If His Majesty had been truly grateful to Xiao Ce’an for saving his life, he would not have kept him caged in Qu Capital. The sentiment we call “gratitude” is such a paltry thing.”

Xue Xiuzhuo wiped his hands, laughing to himself for a little while. Then he said, “Despite the slight deviation from our plans tonight, it was a general success. Master Adjudicator, I’ll be placing myself in your care.”

Adjudicator of the Brocade Guard was an office of the fifth grade. Xue Xiuzhuo was telling Shen Zechuan what he would be getting from this incident, when the time came for rewards.

But Shen Zechuan did not seem too surprised to hear this. He said, “The Imperial Food Service will be undergoing trial. The Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu is a cast-iron, impartial bastion of justice. Take care not to trip on him.”

“If we’ve taken the plunge, we’re not afraid for them to come looking.” Xue Xiuzhuo straightened his sleeves, and said courteously, “I look forward to our continued collaboration in the new year, in the hopes of fulfilling our respective goals very soon.”

“Under your auspices,” Shen Zechuan said warmly, his eyes fixed on the other man, “I will definitely get what I’ve always wanted.”

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