Book One, Chapter 51: The General

In the darkness, Xiao Chi’ye swiped a thumb across the corner of his lips, where a trace of wine remained. He said, “If we take one each, neither of us misses out.”

Shen Zechuan looked around at him.

Xiao Chi’ye flashed a smile at him. “Every score in its own time. Aren’t you going to keep stepping on me out there anyway? Tread on, Lanzhou, I’m going to claim it all back, with interest.”

Shen Zechuan touched the tip of his tongue to the spot where he had been bitten. “You won’t find a chance like this every time.”

Xiao Chi’ye pressed a step closer, shrouding Shen Zechuan entirely in his shadow. He said, “And you won’t get away like this every time.”

Then he reached out beside Shen Zechuan and picked one of the red plum blossoms there. He crushed its petals between his fingers, and brought that smudge of scarlet to his mouth. Caught in his gaze, a strange sensation arose within Shen Zechuan, almost as though he was that small red blossom itself. Alongside “keen-nosed”, he silently added “takes a mile for every inch” to his evaluation of Xiao Chi’ye.

Shen Zechuan once assumed that desire would strike down Xiao Chi’ye, would bruise him and beat him back, but his response had defied expectations. That hubris in his nature showed him no option but to forge fearlessly ahead, and if he retreated, it would only be in preparation for the next and better assault.

He was a force of nature.

“Lights,” Xiao Chi’ye turned to call out.

In moments, the doors slid open and serving girls entered, carrying away the small screen panels and clearing the remnants of their meal. They spread matting over the woollen carpet, and swapped the small table for a large, square one, with a girdled apron and inward-curved legs. Chen Yang changed his shoes and entered. He placed Imperial Guard paperwork and personnel registers on the table, then took the teapot from the serving girls and knelt to one side to pour for them.

With another person present, both of them were perfect gentlemen again when they settled back in their seats.

Shen Zechuan’s head was almost clear. The fresh air had lifted him from that tipsy, febrile state, except that a touch of flush lingered on his face and, subsumed in the soft, hazy lamplight, even Chen Yang dared not look up at him directly, for fear that his gaze would be an intrusion, and offend both him and Xiao Chi’ye.

As Chen Yang went through the motions of steeping tea, he thought: little wonder that Tantai Hu had been worried. Shen Lanzhou was practically made in the image of ruinous allure, and worse was his temperament. Anyone was even a little familiar with Master would get nervous.

What did Xiao Chi’ye like best?

Why, to tame wild horses and master falcons! When he manned a falcon, if the bird did not sleep, then neither did Xiao Chi’ye. The more feral the horse, the more he attention he paid to it, and the longer a falcon took to yield, the more he favoured it. Back when they were up against the desert riders, Xiao Chi’ye had only been able to lie in wait for as long as he did because of how much he inherently enjoyed the process of mastery and endurance. Succeeding Xiao Fangxu, he too had been born with an extraordinary thirst for conquest. This was the greatest difference between he and Xiao Jiming.

Chen Yang served both of them tea and made a slight bow. He said, “Call out if you need me, Master,” then rose and exited. He put himself back in his boots, and went outside to stand guard.

On the roof, Gu Jin looked down and tossed his wineskin to Chen Yang, his eyes enquiring as to the situation inside.

Chen Yang let out a slow breath and said, “…It’s alright. Master knows what he’s doing.”

Aside, arms still over his head, Ding Tao was mumbling to himself, “Am I going to die die die die die die di—”

“Looks that way to me.” Qiao Tianya scuffed snow off himself and pulled out his pipe, laughing cheerfully. “This time next year, I’ll remember to burn some paper offerings for you.”

Ding Tao was almost in tears. He scrubbed his hands in his hair and glared over at them, accusing, “It’s all your fault! If you two hadn’t started a fight, then I wouldn’t have tried to stop you, and if I hadn’t had to stop you, then I wouldn’t have fell off, and if I hadn’t fell off, then I wouldn’t be dead. I hate the two of you!”

Qiao Tianya had eyes for no one but his tinderbox. Gu Jin dozed, arms wrapped about himself.

Furious, Ding Tao dug out his notebook and began to scribble rapidly, venting all of his spleen onto the pages, imprecating the both of them as first class, number one scum of the earth. When he was done he brushed a tear from the corner of his eye, flipped a page, and continued to pen his thesis, fresh inspiration coming to him as water bubbling from a spring.

Inside, over plain tea now, the two men continued their conversation.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Coming back to the subject before, you mentioned the existence of a secret puppeteer in the Capital, someone who could manipulate the Eight Families. Mulling it over, I think that’s a little unlikely.”

The medicinal wine had smouldered all the way down Shen Zechuan’s throat, and he took the time now to down several cups of tea before he said, “You think it’s unlikely because a feat like that is almost impossible to pull off.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Precisely. Casting everyone else aside, the Dowager herself would never take orders from anyone.”

“But if she was doing it unawares?” Shen Zechuan said. “Sometimes, manipulating a scene doesn’t require giving orders. With a single finger, one might shift the winds, and change many things thereafter.”

“But you first have to prove such a person exists.” Xiao Chi’ye said, watching him. “…You look very warm.”

Shen Zechuan’s fingers worked at the fastenings on his collar, and as those small clasps sprang lightly free, the smoothness of his neck revealed itself from between his fingers, coming to a stop just above his collarbones. Fine beads of perspiration slid down the curve and into that hollow there, where it dampened his fingertips.

“Xi Hongxuan may be an explicit piece in the game, but he is nevertheless very important. The hypothesis of a hidden puppeteer must be verified through Xi Hongxuan, so you can’t get rid of him this time.” Then Shen Zechuan paused. “And neither will you be able to. He has never shown his face in the case surrounding this assassination attempt. Fu Ling’s confessions will only be able to prove that she had been coerced into the plot. To date, you are the likeliest suspect in this case.”

“It was your idea to shift suspicion onto me.” Xiao Chi’ye watched as the bead of moisture disappeared.

“You’re one of His Majesty’s closest advisors today, and deeply favoured. If this incident leads to your suspension, Xi Hongxuan will seize the chance to manoeuvre for power over the Eight Battalions. And only by luring the snake out of its hole will we see where it must be struck. Besides, His Majesty trusts you. Even if he demotes you, he won’t be shifting that trust in a hurry. When he gets over this episode, and notices how the Eight Families have begun to rekindle, he’ll come to realise that he, too, had been played for a fool. Then he’ll feel guilty about the way you have been blamelessly implicated, and start looking for all the ways he might make it up to you.” The knot at Shen Zechuan’s throat bobbed as he drank. He said, “I would guess that you’d already thought of your countermeasures before you found me today.”

“Go on, don’t mind me,” Xiao Chi’ye poured more tea for him. “I was only going to play along, and have myself trampled to your heart’s content.”

“That would be wiser than retaliating right away,” Shen Zechuan said. “The more anxious you are to distance yourself at this point, the more suspicious His Majesty will be.”

“I know His Majesty,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “He’s easily moved, which makes him defenceless against influence, but at the same time intolerant to any sort of bullying or humiliation. I am a brother to him, and the first amongst those he pulled to himself upon taking the throne. I am, in a way, a token of his standing at court. Trapped from either end, I have become captive livestock given up to his keeping. In his eyes, I am friendless and alone, and have only been able to hold on to my position by his grace. If I was to be set up and kicked down the ladder, then he must sense that they might be coming for him next. The Hua party is a phobia of his. He is only able to allow Hai Liangyi to make decisions for him because he knows that Hai Liangyi will never cultivate a party of his own.”

“This is a critical opportunity,” Silent over his teacup for a moment, Shen Zechuan said, “We must provoke Xi Hongxuan to act.”

“I have a word of caution for you.” Xiao Chi’ye tipped forward on his elbows and beckoned at Shen Zechuan.

Shen Zechuan put down his cup and leant forward.

Xiao Chi’ye whispered, “If you can’t hold your liquor, don’t go out drinking with people. Not every asshole has your Er-gongzi‘s strength of character, to sit across from you and behave like a true gentleman.”

Shen Zechuan cast him a look sideways, and said pointedly, “I’d say even the true gentleman has had quite the session in his head.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, watching him, “When we step out of these doors tomorrow morning, you and I will be deadly nemeses, and nemeses know each other like no one else. Isn’t it only natural for me to have you on my mind?”

Shen Zechuan said, “You’re not on mine.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Every plan you make these days revolves around me. I dare say it isn’t that I’m not on your mind. Rather, you must be thinking of me not only in the day, but also every hour of the night.”

“Why didn’t I just step on you at the banquet?” Shen Zechuan put a hand up against the puff of Xiao Chi’ye’s breath and said, “It might have sobered Er-gongzi up a little.”

The tip of Xiao Chi’ye’s nose touched lightly up against the centre of Shen Zechuan’s palm. His eyes fixed upon Shen Zechuan, he said wickedly, “That’s cruel, Lanzhou. You were such a tease before you got me in your bed, but now that you’ve had me, you’re all kinds of evasive, you faithless, heartless man.”

Shen Zechuan had to avert his eyes a little under that gaze. He said, “…Xiao Ce’an, you’re off your face tonight.”

Xiao Chi’ye pulled back suddenly and said, “Someone will almost certainly launch an attack against me at Morning Court tomorrow, and Kong Qiu will present Fu Ling’s testimony as given. When that happens, the Censorate will be obliged to have me answer for my lapse in oversight.”

A void now in Shen Zechuan’s palm, he said, “You’ll have to give ground, but not too obviously.”

“And when I’m besieged by condemnation from all fronts, it’ll be up to His Majesty to mete out my punishment,” Xiao Chi’ye said.

“On the lighter end, you might have a few months’ wages withheld, and on the heavier, it might be suspension. Your brother the scion is still here in the Capital. In deference to him, they won’t come down too hard on you.”

Da-ge‘s days remaining in the Capital are numbered,” Xiao Chi’ye stopped. “Once I’ve been castigated, there will be none remaining to stand against Hua Xiangyi and Qi Shiyu’s marriage.”

“It will take time for the Hua and Qi families to accept each other,” Shen Zechuan considered. “The great army of Qidong’s five counties is led by Qi Zhuyin today. Perhaps she might be our opening.”

Xiao Chi’ye recalled something. “I have an idea there.”

Shen Zechuan said, “What?”

“The Ministry of Ceremonies holds the Hua family’s marriage records. If I get someone to do a little finessing, and have our copy of the records delivered to Qi Zhuyin, she won’t be accepting Hua Xiangyi in a hurry.”

“It’s not taboo to marry distant family, or even cousins, in Dazhou,” Shen Zechuan said. “General Qi takes exception to these things?”

“She does,” Xiao Chi’ye explained. “Everyone knows that Qi Shiyu is an old goat. He’s taken quite a few of Qidong’s beauties into his house, and one of them happened to be his very own niece. A few years ago, this lady produced a child with defects from the womb. It was unusually small and weak, and they buried it a few days later. After that, Qi Zhuyin became exceptionally careful about who Qi Shiyu marries. If they were a blood relation at all, even distantly, she would not allow them into the family.”

“But Hua Xiangyi was appointed by the Dowager herself,” Shen Zechuan said. “The General couldn’t stop them if she wanted to, could she?”

“If it’s a foregone conclusion, then she’ll have to back down a little and allow the union,” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes held a coolness. “But Hua Xiangyi must not be allowed to bear children. When she marries Qi Shiyu, it’ll be as his new primary wife, which makes her Qidong’s rightful Lady. If she has a child, it will be a trueborn, with the same direct claim to the family as Qi Zhuyin. It hasn’t been easy at all for Qi Zhuyin, as a woman, to bring the great army of Qidong’s five counties to heel these past few years. She’s a proven General, blooded on the battleground. But who can promise that no one will have other ideas about the succession? If Hua Xiangyi produces a son, then Qi Zhuyin will be pulled into a power struggle within the family. A reason to keep Hua Xiangyi down would suit her very well right now.”

“From what I hear, there are already sons in the Qi family, but Qi Shiyu was determined to pass the generalship on to Qi Zhuyin,” Shen Zechuan said. “Was it not because he valued her gift for command?”

“Yes,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “Qi Zhuyin was his first wife’s issue, and his own protégé in the art of command. When he didn’t have sons, he raised Qi Zhuyin like one, and when he later had them, none of them could compare to Qi Zhuyin. At the time, Qidong was in the thick of war with the desert clans. Qi Shiyu became badly wounded and unable to lead, stranding his army to the east of the allied desert camps. Not one of the Qi family’s sons dared step out to take his mantle. It was Qi Zhuyin who strapped on her sword and rode through the night to call upon the garrison troops at Chi county, then the Borderlands, then Suotian Pass. They rode to battle with her, and with the wind in their favour, the army set fire to the allied camps. That was the same battle which brought her name to the world’s attention. She is named “the Calling Gale of the Wild Plains” today because of the way she had ridden at the vanguard in that battle, sword in hand, plunging through the flames to carry Qi Shiyu out on her own back. Qi Shiyu had been undecided before that, but afterwards, he handed over his general’s seal immediately, giving the troops from all five counties into Qi Zhuyin’s hands.”

“The appointment of a general must be endorsed by the Capital,” Shen Zechuan said. “That couldn’t have been easy.”

Xiao Chi’ye smiled. Fingering the ring on this thumb, he said, “You would never have guessed: it was not Emperor Guangcheng who made her general.”

Shen Zechuan tipped his head a little to the side.

“When the news arrived at the Capital, there was furore from all sides. Because Qi Zhuyin was a woman, the Ministry of War suspected that her accomplishments had been falsely reported, and petitioned the Cabinet to send Censors and the Brocade Guard to Qidong to investigate. As emotions were running high, the Emperor Guangcheng held back Qidong’s request, and did not issue his endorsement. Afterwards, even when it became clear that Qi Zhuyin’s accomplishments had been genuine, the Ministry of Ceremony contended that she could be given the title, but not on Yulong dais which military officers used. She was only to accept the honour before the steps of Mingli Hall.”

Xiao Chi’ye paused a moment.

“It was the Empress Dowager who overruled her many detractors and made it possible for her to step onto Yulong dais, so that she received the title of General with all due ceremony.”

10 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 51: The General

  1. Such a pleasure to read! The language feels so natural and atmospheric – I wouldn’t know it was a translation. Thank you for your work!


  2. Thanks for the update! Much love and well wishes to you.

    ps. completely adore that you are a vet! have a family member who is that profession and I volunteered at my nearby vet clinic in my younger years.

    Anyway, I really do appreciate the effort everytime you translate and update. ❤ Hope to see you soon.


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