Book One, Chapter 49: Cold Light

As Xiao Chi’ye made his way towards the Palace, Shen Zechuan was already at Mingli Hall, having been presented to Li Jianheng and appointed Adjudicator of the Brocade Guard, a fifth grade office. His waist-badge, correspondingly, was changed to a gilded bronze token, engraved with the motif of a Xiezhi beast frolicking amongst clouds. One side read “Guard”, and the other read “Imperial Escort”.

Han Cheng only received a few material rewards, and was bitter about it, aware that Shen Zechuan had used him as a stepping stone. However, he was equally aware that Shen Zechuan was very much an Imperial favourite at the moment, and that it would never do to allow their relationship to sour.

Returning to their operations building, many of his fellows came up to congratulate him, and Shen Zechuan thanked each one in turn. Han Cheng waited for most of the crowd to have dissipated before he said, “This would be your first time wearing the gold badge, so you must have some questions, huh?”

Shen Zechuan said politely, “I was hoping you would have some answers, Director.”

Gratified, Han Cheng explained, “This badge must be worn at the waist while you are on duty, but must not be seen off duty. While acting as an Imperial escort guard, you still serve within the Twelve Divisions, only you may not go about as before, and must watch what you say ever more closely. I know you’ve been on missions in the past, but it’ll be different now. From now on, when you get a mission, if it’s an Order for Arrest, don’t rush off, because you’ll first have to head to the Office of Justice Oversight, and have the Chief Steward sign off on your order. If it’s an Order for Regional Operations, that means you’ll be leaving the Capital to conduct investigations in a regional area. Before you go, you’ll have to drop into the Office of Justice Oversight and the Censorate to sign yourself off.”

Shen Zechuan listened humbly.

His attitude was respectful, no different from before his promotion. Despite himself, Han Cheng began to feel a little more kindly towards this talented subordinate. He continued, “Back in the day, the East Office stood over our heads, and we had to bow and scrape to any East Office eunuch we come across. But now the Twenty-four Services are short-handed, and the East Office has been kicked off its throne, so it’s their turn to defer to us. Don’t feel obligated to do the eunuchs any favours. But there’s one thing you have to remember: although the Brocade Guard only answers to His Majesty, we still have to work alongside the Three Judicial Offices, and when we do field work in the regions, it’s often with the Censors. It may look like our duties and jurisdictions are separate and distinct, but in reality, we remain co-dependent. When you’re out and about, you must remember to build a good rapport with those from the Three Offices. Never hold grievances against them. If you’re do something to sour the relationship, then you’ll have a hard time carrying out your duties later.”

Shen Zechuan already knew these things back to front, but he listened attentively, as though hearing them for the first time.

At last, Han Cheng gave him an out, and said, “You’ll need to assemble your own staff. Head to the records room then, and take your pick from the books.”

Shen Zechuan thanked him and left the room, heading out along the corridors. He was in no hurry to start picking names from the record room, however. When he stepped out of the Palace gates, Xiao Chi’ye was waiting for him in a carriage.

Shen Zechuan’s footsteps faltered. Then he tried to to turn around.

Through the half-raised carriage curtains, Xiao Chi’ye drawled, “You’ve had a promotion and a raise… surely you can afford to buy me a few drinks?”

Ding Tao and Gu Jin were standing to either side, watching him like hawks, and so Shen Zechuan let out a breath of cold air and calmly replied, “Of course. As it happens, I’ve been looking for you.”

They wound up at the same garden where Xiao Chi’ye had hosted their teachers. The room had been cleared of tables and chairs, and small, embossed screen panels had been used to section off a square area of floor seating. A small table, its top curved upwards at either end, carved with dragon’s fang motifs, was set in the centre of that space. It was a simple but thoughtful arrangement, and a good place for a chat over drinks.

It was warm in the room, and both of them shed their greatcoats.

Xiao Chi’ye sat, cross-legged and careless, but when he looked over at Shen Zechuan, he saw him as dignified as ever, sitting properly on his heels. He laughed and said, “Judging by our manners, you’d look more like the highborn. Does Teacher Ji Gang teach etiquette too?”

Grand Tutor Qi did, with his ferule. Shen Zechuan did not answer, and asked instead, “You were waiting for me at the gates. What did you want to discuss?”

Xiao Chi’ye watched the servant girl bring in the side dishes, and waited until she had shut the door behind herself before saying, “Didn’t you say you were looking for me anyway? You go first.”

“You didn’t go to the Palace to make your report this morning, and you had worked all night, so you the prison must have kept you.” Shen Zechuan took a few sips of hot tea to warm up, and said, “Fu Ling’s easy one, isn’t she?”

“She is,” Xiao Chi’ye poured some wine for himself, “So easy that she doesn’t feel like someone you would use.”

“She has an elderly mother and a soft heart. She’s full of vulnerabilities, which makes her very easy to manipulate, but also very likely to recant.” Shen Zechuan said, smiling, “You’re not wrong. I would never have used someone like her.”

“But Shen Lanzhou,” Xiao Chi’ye looked at him and sipped his wine, taking a moment to wet his whistle before he said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if you used anyone at all.”

“I’m human too,” Shen Zechuan took the flagon Xiao Chi’ye was offering, and said, “There’re still a few feelings left in there.”

“But not a single one to spare for me,” Xiao Chi’ye lamented.

Shen Zechuan poured slowly and said, “Yours neither.”

“I’ve reached out several times,” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes were amiable as he said, “But you ignored them all. You’ve got your heart set on working against me?”

“If giving out a few trivial pieces of information counts as reaching out,” Shen Zechuan put the flagon down and looked at him, “Then this is an awfully cheap alliance.”

“So you turn around and hook up with Xi Hongxuan,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “What sort of riff-raff is that? Is he better than Er-gongzi?”

Er-gongzi was much more impressive back when he was terrorising me,” Shen Zechuan said. “To the victor go the spoils, don’t be resentful.”

“I could never resent you,” Xiao Chi’ye said, across the steam rising from the stock pot. “You must be terribly disappointed that you didn’t actually get to step on me last night, aren’t you?”

“Not at all,” Shen Zechuan smiled gently.

“Those eyes of yours can really be remarkably cruel at times.” And before Shen Zechuan could reply to that, Xiao Chi’ye continued, “Of course, a little cruelty gives it some bite.”

Shen Zechuan bit his tongue for a moment, then said, “Congratulations on your unique proclivities.”

“You’re not too shabby yourself,” Xiao Chi’ye said equivocally. “I’ve never met anyone else who enjoys getting bitten.”

“Returning to the initial point,” Shen Zechuan said, “Why were you looking for me?”

“Why, for a drink,” Xiao Chi’ye drained his cup, “And a chat. The broker-house on Donglong Avenue has a sponsor, but they’ve always minded their own business and kept away from mine, so we’ve co-existed peacefully up to this point. Now that they’ve implicated me, the least you’d expect me to do is to look into who their sponsor might be.”

Shen Zechuan sifted for vegetables in the pot.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “And when I do, all I find is Xi Hongxuan. How odd. The last time we were here, you made an effort to tell me the Eight Families were coming for me, but the next moment, you’ve trod on me right along with them. I thought about it this way and that, and couldn’t quite figure out what you meant but it all. But I flipped the order of events around, and then I finally realised what you were after.”

Shen Zechuan ate fish like a cat would, working neatly and gracefully. He did not look up, only making a noncommittal sound to indicate that he was listening.

Xiao Chi’ye spun his wine cup about on the tabletop. “If I put the “plan to tread on me” ahead of the “unification of the Eight Families”, then it all makes sense. Your target was never me. You persuaded Xi Hongxuan to act, encouraged him to seek alliances with the other Families, but at the same time, you came and tipped me off about it. You wanted me to make a response, and lure the other Families away from Xi Hongxuan by offering them positions of real power in the Eight Battalions. What’d you call this, the art of reshuffling the decks? Thwarting the unification of the Eight Families with whispers and provocation alone, that’s the side show. The mistrust it will leave between them is where your real work can begin.”

Shen Zechuan shot a look at him and said, “You thought of all that, just from finding out that Xi Hongxuan was one of the sponsors behind the broker-house?”

“Gossamer trails,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “You can’t wipe them all away. It must also have been your idea for Xi Hongxuan to trade his brother’s life for a position, back when Xi Gu’an was in prison. Otherwise Xi Hongxuan wouldn’t be so obliging.”

Shen Zechuan wiped his hands on a handkerchief. He thought for a moment, then said, “I’m not the one who has the power to make him oblige.”

“I thought at first that you were only impatient to move up because it’d be easier to look into the Zhongbo defeat.” Xiao Chi’ye poured himself more wine, and said, “But I underestimated your appetite. How does fractioning the Eight Families benefit you? The Eight cities form Qu Capital’s outer ring. They’re a far older presence than even the Li family. Look at how the Dowager has come through unscathed in the trial against Hua Siqian, or the insurrection at the Hunting Grounds. How can you dream of dissolving them by your will alone? Pull up the cloud of smoke over this city and have a good look for yourself: their roots have wound deeply into the foundations of the Capital, and they’ve held strong there for centuries.”

Shen Zechuan had put down his chopsticks entirely. When he sat poised, he had the air of someone who might begin a philosophical dialogue in the next moment. He did not look frustrated. In fact, he was exceptionally calm as he said, “I only have a single question for you.”

Xiao Chi’ye paused. He said, “Go ahead.”

Shen Zechuan said, “The Hua family and yours have always held each other in balance. After Nanling, the Hua family appeared to go into decline, and the Xiao family apparently gained the upper hand… But did you win?”

Xiao Chi’ye’s hand tightened around his cup.

The sky outside the windows was losing light, but the lamps in the room were not yet lit. Shen Zechuan’s silhouette, as he sat against the window, was very thin. He said, “Very soon, you will realise that it isn’t just the Hua family you’re up against. Perhaps initially you might say to yourself, all they want is the Eight Battalions. But if you think about the six provinces of Zhongbo, then you’ll understand that these are the least of their desires.”

“The case of Zhongbo’s defeat is not yet closed,” Recessed in the darkness, Xiao Chi’ye said nothing for a moment. “You’re so sure that they did it?”

“The accounts are a mess,” Shen Zechuan said. “We can turn Zhongbo’s defeat over and over in our hands, trying to find whose fault it was, but it was never an event a single person could have contrived. Besides, there is one point in the question of Zhongbo’s defeat which no one has been able to answer to date.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Why.”

“Exactly. Why.” Shen Zechuan said, “When the desert clans invaded, everyone took a serious hit. The tens of thousands dead in Zhongbo was only the immediate problem. Fast on its heels would come the crisis of the tax that Zhongbo would now be unable to come up with for years to come. The restoration of its population, the re-apportioning of its fields, the reparation of its annihilated towns and cities— our national treasury could never afford it, and thus Zhongbo became a bottomless pit in the landscape of this nation. Most difficult of all was the rebuilding of its garrison troops. Without an adequate fighting force, Zhongbo would be breached again. How long could the reinforcements from Libei and Qidong hold out? This directly affected Qu Capital’s security. Hadn’t anyone thought of these problems before Zhongbo fell, or did they do it because they knew? The Eight Families may not have been the instigator, but a thing like that could not have been done without their influence, either.”

“They have been inextricable from every one of Dazhou’s upheavals. Twenty-five years ago, the reign of the late Emperor Guangcheng was the pivoting point of the Hua family’s ascendance, and to solidify her power, the Empress Dowager killed the virtuous Crown Prince. Eighty years ago, under the late Emperor Yong’an, the Yao family held court. It produced three successive great thinkers, and the Cabinet was referred to as “the Court of Yao”. One hundred years ago, Juexi opened up Port Yongyi, and the Xi family became the key to Dazhou’s granaries. On the strength of that, they also acquired the Lagoon Saltworks on the west coast of the Sea of Xu, and became the wealthiest family in the land. Even the noble kin of the Li family had to borrow from them to get married. No personal quarrel instigated any of these events. As one reign succeeded another, they simply took their turns at the helm, and none of them had ever truly fallen into obsolescence.”

“”Common families bear no great sons”. Few of Dazhou’s renowned and influential ministers have hailed from common families. How many years does it take before a Qi Huilian emerges, how many years before someone like Hai Liangyi arrives? They are but a quick dash of ink on history’s page. Even if one of them scrapes through, they are a fleeting presence, passed over in a hurry.”

“If I had to name someone who has managed to keep his feet within the iron net of the aristocracy, then you know him better than anyone.”

Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chi’ye, and spoke very clearly.

“The Lord of Libei, Xiao Fangxu came from nothing, born to common folk at the foot of the Swan Goose Ranges. At fifteen, he enlisted at Luoxia Pass, and at twenty advanced into the Luoxia Garrison troops. At twenty-three, he suffered defeat at the Swan Goose Ranges. At twenty-six, he established the Luoxia horse ranch, at twenty-eight founded the Luoxia cavalry, and at thirty, he settled his old score with the Hanshe clan. At thirty-two, he led his men over the Swan Goose Ranges, and by thirty-five, he had ridden across all of the eastern range. Thenceforth, the Luoxia cavalry was dissolved, and became known as the Libei Iron Cavalry. He, too, was no longer a member of the Luoxia Garrison, but was ennobled and thrice rewarded, becoming Dazhou’s vassal-king of Libei. From that time on, the shape of the great county of Libei was set in stone, and Dazhou has controlled the entirety of the Swan Goose Ranges.”

“The battle between your family and the Eight Families represents not only a struggle for power, but the war between classes. The man who broke through their door and stepped through to the apex goes by the name of Xiao Fangxu. You and the Eight Families have been standing on diametric points from the very beginning.”

Shen Zechuan lowered his gaze a little, straightening the bowls and chopsticks on the table before him. He said, “To forge an alliance, you’ll have to offer up at least this much sincerity, and not simply some titbit about the Imperial Guard’s ledgers. Those aren’t worth much to me.”

The small screen panels cocooned them from the sounds of the wind. In the darkness, two men sat opposite each other, their silhouettes a cast of their natures. Faint light came through the windows. Reflected snow limned their profiles dimly, the hue of the biting cold in a pitch-black night. Avarice and Rising Snow lay on the floor, point to point, and though neither had left its scabbard, the cold light of steel danced in the room.

3 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 49: Cold Light

  1. Thank you for releasing your translations consistently! I’m literally never disappointed, you always manage to do better somehow.


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