Book One, Chapter 58: Heavy Snow

Snow fell for days on end. The assassination inquest was hastily wrapped up, and all its strife and tumult vanished beneath a flurry of wind and snow, turning into a vast, glittering whiteness that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was at this time that Li Jianheng heard the news: Xiao Chi’ye had taken ill.

They say it was because he had continued to face the walls in penitence despite having caught a cold, until he was eventually overcome and became so ill he was unable to rise from bed. Braving the snow, Li Jianheng set out on an excursion to call upon the Lord of Libei’s manor with his ministers, and became good brothers again with Xiao Chi’ye.

When all the others had cleared the room, Xiao Chi’ye, pale-faced, was helped up by Chen Yang to sit across from Li Jianheng.

Li Jianheng said, “Because we were deceived by slander, we spoke harshly to you that day. For that, we feel most ashamed.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “An Emperor and his subjects are co-dependent, and therefore must be sincere and forthright with each other. It was nothing that I did not deserve. You need not be troubled, Your Majesty.”

Li Jianheng said nothing. Xiao Chi’ye also held his silence. At last, even the two of them had come to the point where they must be Emperor and subject, even in private.

Li Jianheng put on a strained smile and said, “We used to think that you were made of steel and couldn’t get sick. It seems strange that when you do fall ill, you go down just like everyone else.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I am only an ordinary human after all, Your Majesty, made of flesh and blood. When I’m cut, I bleed just like anyone else.”

And Li Jianheng was reminded of that night at the hunting grounds, when Xiao Chi’ye rode alone into an ambush of Brocade Guards, and in that desperate, deadly moment raised him to the throne by the skin of his teeth.

People were such strange creatures. When you despised someone, all you remembered of them were their faults, but when resentment turned to remorse, all you could think of were their virtues. And it was as though every cruel thing you had said to them had turned around and struck you in the heart instead, and the regret and shame only grew stronger.

Li Jianheng had many questions for Xiao Chi’ye, but in this moment, he no longer felt like asking any of them. Xiao Chi’ye had said that a body of flesh and blood would bleed when it was cut. What then might happen to a lacerated friendship?

And so Li Jianheng said, “……Getting to this position, it wasn’t our… it wasn’t my willing choice. Ce’an, you haven’t sat where I am, you don’t know how it feels to live every day on a cliff edge. Everyone thinks you get to do whatever the merry hell you like when you get up here. I once thought the same myself, but it’s not like that at all.”

Xiao Chi’ye said nothing.

All of a sudden, Li Jianheng’s eyes stung with tears. He could not have told you what he was upset about, but could only say, “I was never going to be good for anything. Let me tell you, I’m well aware that if my brothers hadn’t all kicked the bucket, the throne would never have come to me. But what have I done to deserve any of this? I’ve only ever wanted to be an idle prince. You’ve all shoved me up here, and never once asked… I’ve done my very best, Ce’an, I really have. How can I possibly wield this sceptre of absolute power? I’ll only ever be at its mercy instead!”

Li Jianheng covered his face in anguish and began to sob.

“Ce’an, it’s too high, up here where I’m sitting. I can’t see anything at all!”

Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes were red-rimmed too. He said, “We’ve always called each other brother. How could I ever hold it against you?”

Li Jianheng swiped hard at his tears, and said, “But I’ve made a mess of things between us, after all.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Don’t go blaming yourself for something you couldn’t help. I was the one who attracted too much attention, and it serves me right to have my ass handed to me.”

Li Jianheng said, “That’s always just been your nature, you’re not to blame for it. They only had their own interests in mind when they egged me on the way they did. I’ve done you wrong, Ce’an.”

And so the two of them found their way back to the time when they were each other’s most trusted confidantes, as though all had been forgiven and forgotten. Except that playful, bantering sort of ease between them could no longer be found again, curdling instead into an awkwardness that could not be called deferential, and yet did not fully approach familiarity.

Li Jianheng could not stay long, and had to go right after he had spoken with Xiao Chi’ye. Before he left he bestowed many more things upon him, and urged him to get plenty of rest.

The moment they had all cleared out, Xiao Chi’ye flung off the pillow at his back, stood up, got dressed, put on his shoes, and went off to Xiao Jiming’s study.

Inside the study, Xiao Jiming was listening to Zhao Hui report on military affairs. When he saw Xiao Chi’ye come in, he waved a hand at him, beckoning him to come sit close.

Zhao Hui did not pause for him, but kept going. “The Ministry of Revenue has already gone over our wage expenses for last year. This year’s quota is still under discussion with the Cabinet. The heavy snowfall this year has the folks from Juexi stoked, because it heralds a prosperous year, and they can look forward to a good harvest. But in Zhongbo, people are already starting to die from the cold.”

“Zhongbo’s provincial governments were already understaffed, so when there’s heavy snow, there’s scarcely anyone around to fix up the houses that cave in.” Xiao Jiming considered this over his cup of hot tea. “Tell the Ministry of Revenue to divert forty thousand liang from Libei’s military wage budget for the start of the year, to be put into relief for infrastructure in Zhongbo’s Ci province.”

Ci province sat right by the northeastern supply route. Xiao Jiming’s gesture of goodwill would be welcome aid in a desperate time.

Zhao Hui understood, and noted it down in his book.

“Zhongbo needs people for its provincial governments, but hardly anyone from the capital offices will go. All the same, they can’t go on swinging in the wind like this forever.” Xiao Chi’ye refilled Xiao Jiming’s cup.

“In the past with Hua Siqian, it was wilful neglect. Like a hot yam in the hand, if you take it on, you’ll have to fork out for it.” Xiao Jiming’s finger flicked against the rim of his teacup as he said, “But now that Elder Hai has taken the helm, he’ll likely be looking out for suitable candidates for Zhongbo at the Spring Examinations this year.”1

“Most newcomers won’t have either the experience or the clout. They’ll do for the minor offices, but there’s no way they’ll hold down a high provincial office,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Whoever is to take charge in Zhongbo must still be chosen from the central government.”

“And such an independent and capable candidate is precisely what we lack today,” Xiao Jiming said. “Zhongbo used to be a feudal state. With its ties to the Shen clan, its power structure is convoluted and nebulous. An established status quo existed in Shen Wei’s time, but that was abruptly tipped on its head five years ago. It’s basically ungoverned land now. Back then, all the good and common folk fled from the massacres perpetrated by the desert riders, and afterwards, the court never came up with a restitution policy. Most of the people in Zhongbo today are the remnants of military families from its garrison troops, as well as vagrant outlaws from everywhere else. The saying goes that harsh terrains breed malevolent folk, and that’s true enough for how Zhongbo is today. If your average official comes on the scene and fails to make an impression, they’ll wipe the floors with him instead.”

“If the Court was willing to send an officer with troops, they might be able to tidy the place up a little under the banner of bandit-hunting.” Zhao Hui folded his booklet away neatly. “But as things stand today, they likely won’t be able to pluck up the courage to do that.”

Of course they wouldn’t. Qu Capital sat now with the Libei Iron Cavalry on its northeast, and Qidong’s garrison army at its southeast— both heavily armed border territories, and it was already having a hard time holding those two in check. If they risked sending another one out, they would have an even larger pickle on their hands when that one became a fiefdom too. But it was not an option to leave Zhongbo to the wolves like this either. There had to be a solution in the middle ground.

“That’s something the Cabinet can worry about,” Xiao Jiming pushed his military papers aside, and turned to Xiao Chi’ye. “How’d it go?”

Xiao Chi’ye had an elbow on the armrest and wanted to put his legs up somewhere, but as he looked all around and found nowhere, he said, “You’ve frightened the living daylights out of His Majesty. I think he’s scared out of his wits now, and wants to go back to being brothers, no matter how uncomfortable it might make him.”

“The two of you were drinking buddies to begin with,” Xiao Jiming smiled. “On balance, it is better to have him afraid than unafraid.”

“Fu Linye did a lot of work there,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “I’ll have to look for a chance to thank him thoroughly.”

“Why don’t you thank your friend behind the scenes instead,” Xiao Jiming said. “For this investigation to have blown over so easily, someone on the inside will have put in quite a bit of effort. A man of Fu Linye’s experience would not have taken the bait so well otherwise.”

“Hm…” Xiao Chi’ye only smiled at that, and changed the subject. “Where’s Gu Jin? Get him in, I’ve got something for him to do.”

“Might as well call them all in. I have some instructions too,” Xiao Jiming turned to signal Zhao Hui.

As Zhao Hui went out to summon everyone, Meng swooped in behind him. He settled on the clothes rack, and drenched the hanging garments as he shook snow off his feathers. Ding Tao bounced in, barely taking his shoes off, and made a beeline for Xiao Jiming, coming to ramrod attention before him. Behind, Chen Yang and Gu Jin filtered in.

“My lord!” Xiao Jiming was the person Ding Tao most admired in the whole world. He flashed his snow-white teeth. “Ask anything of me, my lord! Ding Tao will throw himself into it, come hell or high water!”

“Wow,” Xiao Chi’ye said, lifting his teacup, “Why have I never heard you say ‘ask anything of me, Er-gongzi‘?”

Ding Tao said, “Well because you keep throwing me out, Er-gongzi!”

“What did you do,” Xiao Jiming asked mildly, “That Er-gongzi had to throw you out?”

Ding Tao said at once, “I didn’t do anything, it was just that Er-gongzi kept making me go spy on that—”

Xiao Chi’ye nearly spat his tea out. He dropped the lid down on his teacup with a clatter and shot Chen Yang a pointed look. Chen Yang immediately smacked Ding Tao, and Ding Tao, who still didn’t know what was going on, clapped his hands over his head and shut his mouth fearfully.

Xiao Chi’ye’s scalded tongue throbbed. He said, “Drag him out and bury him in the yard! What a gasbag. Gu Jin, you explain!”

Ding Tao whimpered, “I didn’t—”

Chen Yang covered his mouth and dragged him away. He opened the door, then really did bury him in the snow outside.

Gu Jin was left thinking to himself, what am I explaining? What the fuck am I explaining here?

He stood before Xiao Jiming, and as Xiao Jiming went to put his teacup down, Gu Jin immediately dropped to one knee and took the cup from him obsequiously. Then he put it down on the table for him, stammering, “My lord, it’s hot!”

Xiao Jiming took all this in. In no hurry to ask any questions, he simply looked at all of them one by one, until Xiao Chi’ye was sure his seat had turned into a pincushion.

Xiao Jiming said, “Why, is Er-gongzi hiding someone in his rooms?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “How could I possibly? Da-ge, I haven’t been match-made yet, it’d be unfair for me to ruin some girl’s reputation like that.”

Xiao Jiming looked at him for a bit. Giving no sign as to whether he believed him or not, he allowed the subject to pass without further comment, and permitted Xiao Chi’ye to go on.

Xiao Chi’ye settled back into a comfortable position, then said, “I wanted to have Gu Jin look into Xianghui House.”

Zhao Hui mused, “Xianghui House sits on Donglong Avenue, where there’s all manner of folk around. It’s not an easy place to look into, even in secret. Does Er-gongzi suspect something of Xianghui?”

“There’s definitely something up with her,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Wei Huaixing had testimony from her. Why would she want to get on my bad side for no good reason?”

Zhao Hui told Xiao Jiming, “My lord, I’ve heard them say— it’s because of unrequited love.”

Xiao Jiming turned to Xiao Chi’ye and said evenly, “Since she’s become a thing of the past, you must have a new favourite these days. But I’ve been in the capital for some days now, how come you’ve never mentioned them?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I just got tired of messing around, that’s all. There’s nothing more to it.”

“You could have said that without fluttering your eyelids,” Xiao Jiming said. “If you’re blinking, you’re fibbing. Who’s the girl? Both Dad and your da-sao worry about you all the time. If there’s the ghost of a possibility this time, tell da-ge what the problem is, and we’ll sort it out for you right away.”

“There’s no one,” Xiao Chi’ye was twitching in his seat. He would’ve run away if he’d dared, but he didn’t, so he could only say, “There isn’t, there really isn’t. What would I want to get married for? I’d just be tripping someone up.”

“When you’re married, you’ll grow up a little.” Xiao Jiming wanted to pet him on the head, but could not tarnish his reputation before their subordinates, and so only lowered his voice to say, “How long can da-ge and da-sao be around for you? There’ll have to be someone you can talk to here in Qu Capital, who’ll light the lamps for you at night. If someone’s caught your eye, no matter who it is, Dad and I will pull out all the stops for you. Even if it’s a girl from a noble family, as long as you like her, we’ll make it happen.”

Xiao Chi’ye was ready to fend him off with a joke, but at that last bit, something flashed across his mind, and he said, “Even… even if it’s someone like General Qi?”

Xiao Jiming’s expression wavered slightly, startled by the revelation that his brother went for the General’s type. He hesitated for a moment, but maintained with somewhat complex feelings, “……If she doesn’t chop you to pieces, I’d have no objections on my part.”

That night, as Xiao Chi’ye was about to go to bed, he trod on something underfoot. Bending to pick it up from the carpet, he found a pearl which had once been a button.

From the pearl, Xiao Chi’ye’s gaze slid to the space under his bed.

“Chen Yang,” Xiao Chi’ye flung his window open and yelled.

Chen Yang came up the stairs. Xiao Chi’ye looked at him for a moment, thinking, before he said, “Call into the jeweller’s on Shenwu Avenue tomorrow morning.”

Before Chen Yang could reply, Xiao Chi’ye tossed a small box at him.

“Have them made into earrings. Just a single one of each kind.” Then Xiao Chi’ye thought some more, for a good long while, and finally said, “Simple styles. Don’t make them too fancy.”

Chen Yang looked at the box. “…All of them?”

“All of them.” Xiao Chi’ye shut his window. He took a moment to himself, then opened it again.

Chen Yang hadn’t moved. He stood there with the box, and said uncertainly, “Master?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Write it in the ledgers!”

[1] The Spring Examinations (春闱) were one part of a series of Imperial Examinations which determined a person’s eligibility to work within the government. Candidates will already have passed regional examinations. Depending on the candidacy and time period, one to several hundred candidates will pass this exam to earn… the right to take the final exam!

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