Without looking at Li Jianheng, Xiao Chiye righted the lid of the teacup slowly with his fingers. He said, “Don’t fret.”
Li Jianheng sat back in his chair, scared out of his wits. He heard the Empress Dowager ask, “His Majesty the Emperor is here, and the patrol is strict. How could a person drown for no reason?”
Ji Lei said, “To reply Your Majesty, this humble subject has already sent someone to take the corpse to await the coroner’s examination. We will know the details soon.”
“What do you mean?” Being chronically sick had laden Emperor Xiande’s brows with an aura of gloom. He said, “Don’t tell me there is something fishy about his death?”
Ji Lei said, “Your Majesty, he was bruised all over when we fished him out of the water. It’s clear that he had received a beating. Although Xiaofuzi was a court eunuch of the palace, he didn’t hold any important post in the twenty-four yamen;1 he was merely His Majesty’s personal eunuch. If he was tortured before he died, then I’m afraid the murderer might be plotting something major.”
Supporting himself on the table, Emperor Xiande stood up and said coldly, “I have only just stepped out of the palace, and already there are people who can’t wait.”
“Your Majesty.” Hai Liangyi stepped out and kneeled to say, “The Imperial Guards and the Eight Great Training Divisions are on rotation duty with one another today to conduct patrols. If the murderer was really plotting something, how would he have dared to do such a sloppy work of it? Xiaofuzi usually took on the job of leaving the palace to make purchases. It’s not impossible for him to make personal enemies out of others elsewhere.”
Secretariat Elder Hua, Hua Siqian, who had been sitting upright without moving, said, “Renshi,2 you can’t put it that way. A man who dares to strike before His Majesty clearly has no regard for His Majesty and all the officials present. Who among the ordinary commoners outside the palace would have this kind of guts?”
Xiao Chiye sat still as the gears turned in his mind.
At the third quarter of the hour of Wu,3 Chen Yang had dragged Xiaofuzi into the woods. In just an hour,4 the eunuchs serving the dishes at the start of the banquet and the Eight Great Training Divisions taking over the patrol would pass by. All those present today were bigwigs. No one would remember everyone who left their seats to change attire, drink tea, or make a trip to the latrine. What’s more, the accompanying soldiers and eunuchs all had the right to move around the garden too. Someone only needed to give Xiaofuzi a light kick in that timespan of an hour, and he would have drowned in the pond.
Looking at the situation now, the thorny issue was not explaining how the bruises on Xiaofuzi’s body came about. Instead, it was that Ji Lei had changed the course of investigation and turned this murder case into a suspect case for rebellion.
Xiao Chiye tapped his fingertips on the lid.
This fire must never burn its way to Prince Chu.
The Emperor was gravely ill now, and the Imperial Physician was at his wits’ end. No one could even predict the day of his demise. However, Emperor Xiande had no heirs. Once the unexpected happens, Li Jianheng would be the next one in line to the throne.
What happened today was all because he did not think things through. It was too brazen for Li Jianheng to leave his seat. This was something he could not simply dismiss with a perfunctory excuse.
The Xiao Clan was treading on thin ice. If they were to be suspected of being implicated in the tussle for the imperial throne again, then the one hundred and twenty thousand military forces of Libei would be the executioner blade on Xiao Jiming’s neck.
This matter had come bearing down on him too fast; it was already staring at him right in the face. He could not let it continue burning.
Xiao Chiye suddenly flung down the teacup, shattering it. The clear, crisp sound of “clatter” rang out, attracting the sidelong glances of everyone at the banquet.
Li Jianheng looked at him in apprehension and said, “Ce, Ce’an…”
Xiao Chiye stood up and strode swiftly towards the Emperor. He kneeled and said in a clear voice, “Your Majesty! This humble subject dare not hide this from you. I was the one who ordered my men to hit him.”
Emperor Xiande stared at him and asked, “He was a court eunuch. What grudge did he have with you that you would be so ruthless to him?”
Ji Lei also looked askance at him and said, “Your Excellency Xiao, this matter is one of grave importance. You mustn’t take the blame for someone else because of some personal relationship.”
“It’s no big deal, actually.” Xiao Chiye said frivolously. “Besides, this humble subject doesn’t think it’s a crime. So what if I beat an insignificant and lowly eunuch to death? I’m a second-grade Viceroy of the Imperial Army. Don’t tell me I still have to put up with this condescending dog of a slave?”
“For the Second Young Master to be this furious,” Hua Siqian said, “I’m afraid it’s not just any typical grudge. It’s just that Xiaofuzi normally had no dealings with you. So why are you this furious?”
“Secretariat Elder doesn’t know it, but…” Xiao Chiye said, “when I rode my horse to the military drill ground a few months ago, this dog’s sedan blocked my way. He looked like a big shot. If he had not lifted the curtain, I’d have thought him to be Pan-gonggong. I rebuked him a few words, and he mouthed off at me. I’m a real man, and yet I was humiliated by a wretched castrated eunuch right there on the street. If it had been someone else, I doubt they would have been able to swallow this humiliation either.”
Pan Rugui was still waiting on the Emperor at the outer side. The entire banquet of attendees all wiped their sweat for Xiao Chiye when they heard him say “castrated”.
As Emperor Xiande turned it over in his mind, the Empress Dowager said, “Even so, killing at the slightest provocation is not what a gentleman should do.”
Their words seemed to hit Pan Rugui’s sore point. The gray-haired man kneeled with tears in his eyes and said, “Slaves like us are all lowly creatures. How could we be compared to the Second Young Master? Her Majesty is already showing us favor with her compassion. Xiaofuzi had been spoiled so rotten that he didn’t know to observe the etiquette when encountering military officials of the court. Even with the Second Young Master’s advice, he remained unrepentant… This is all this slave’s fault for being tardy in my teaching of the child!”5
He spoke in such a conciliatory and accommodating way. Yet, the law stipulated that eunuchs had to dismount and step back to kneel and kowtow in a greeting whenever they saw a minister or major court official.
The Empress Dowager was a staunch Buddhist, so she was displeased with the killing of lives. As such, she said to Emperor Xiande, “There has been a saying since time immemorial that all men are equal in the eyes of the law. Xiao Chiye is so violent and wild. By all sentiment and reason, we can’t let him off too lightly. Besides, the Xiao Clan are all loyal and upright men. The Prince of Libei sent his son into Qudu to be raised close to Your Majesty. If we indulge him to the extent that he thinks so highly of himself, then I’m afraid that we would have let down the Prince of Libei who has entrusted him to us.”
Ji Lei was indignant. He was unwilling to let the matter go this easily, so he said, “The Second Young Master has always been on friendly terms with Prince Chu. Now that he has done such a thing, His Highness—”
“This humble subject still has something to say. I might be the one who beat him up, but I didn’t kill him. Your Majesty, this humble subject originally had the intent to kill him to vent my fury. But when His Highness Prince Chu knew of this matter, he persuaded me against it. This humble subject was the one who ordered the guards today to drag him over and give him a thrashing on the quiet. Who would expect His Highness Prince Chu to get an inkling of what was happening midway and leave his seat to save Xiaofuzi’s life? With His Highness giving counsel at the side, this humble subject would not dare to make His Highness lose face no matter how bold this humble subject may be. So, this humble subject let Xiaofuzi off. As for how he drowned, this humble servant finds it strange too. Who would want to vent my hatred on my behalf and do such an ill-advised thing? Your Excellency Ji.” Xiao Chiye turned to Ji Lei, his eyes faintly gleaming with delight. “The Imperial Guards are usually meticulous and impeccable in their work. Today, he was lying by the side of the road. Yet he could still dodge the patrol squads and fall into the pond…. Perhaps he was the one himself who could not tell the direction with his head covered and rolled down.”
Hai Liangyi said, “That’s true. Such a big man fell into the pond, and the Imperial Guards never realized it even though they were coming and going on patrol. If assassins were to infiltrate Xiyuan today, the Imperial Guards probably wouldn’t even notice it either!”
How would Ji Lei dare to muddy the water further? He kowtowed in a panic several times and said, “Your Majesty! The Imperial Guards can’t do anything about it either. The Imperial Guards rotate with the Eight Great Training Division today to conduct patrols, so we have to organize the manpower carefully when relieving each squad. We wouldn’t dare to neglect even the tiniest detail!”
The Seal-holding Commander-in-Chief of the Eight Great Training Divisions, Xi Gu’an, kneeled as well and said, “That’s indeed the rule. The Eight Great Training Divisions do not dare to make light of it either. The rotation of the patrol follows a fixed schedule. It’s not impossible for someone to memorize it and seize the chance to kill Xiaofuzi. This is a personal feud between a court official and eunuch. It should be handed over to someone to investigate exactly how many people have a grudge against this Xiaofuzi.”
“Investigate.” Emperor Xiande laughed scornfully and suddenly threw the teacup at Gu Xi’an. He said in a towering rage, “Someone died right under your noses. Instead of self-reflecting, you just want to shirk responsibility! To think I actually put my, my safety in all your hands… You…”
Emperor Xiande’s voice went hoarse as he covered his mouth and started coughing again. He was so enraged that he had to support himself with the table before he toppled over backward.
The imperial concubines around him let out shrill cries of alarm. The banquet was thrown into complete chaos.
“Summon the Imperial Physician, quick!” The Empress Dowager held on to someone for support and said in reproach.
◈ ◈ ◈
Li Jianheng looked as if he had seen his own mother when he saw Xiao Chiye again. He said, “My dear brother! You scared me just now!”
Xiao Chiye said, “I have been kneeling for so long that I’m starving now. Bring me some snacks.”
Li Jianheng waved his hand to motion for someone to hurry and get the snacks. He stood with Xiao Chiye at the base of the long veranda in Xiyuan and looked at those bright lights in the palace hall.
“If His Majesty regains consciousness, he will summon you.” Li Jianheng said, “How did that Xiaofuzi die? I’m really down on my luck! “
Xiao Chiye ate his snacks with herbal tea.
It was hard to say with this matter.
Pan Rugui has always favored Xiaofuzi. If someone had deliberately wanted to take Xiaofuzi’s life, how could his timing coincide so perfectly with Li Jianheng’s beating? If it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to kill Xiaofuzi, then it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Yet, it would have been far more advantageous to untie him than to kill him.
The thing was that Pan Rugui and Ji Lei reacted way too swiftly. Since the man was already dead, they might as well make full use of him. If they could frame it on Prince Chu, they would be killing two birds with one stone.
“Has His Majesty summoned anyone to his chamber recently to spend the night?”6 Xiao Chiye asked off-handedly.
“Yeah.” Li Jianheng answered. “The one he favors the most lately is the lady of the Wei Clan. The Empress Dowager likes her too.”
Xiao Chiye looked thoughtful.
It was already dark by now, but no one dared to leave. All of them stood in small groups on the veranda and waited for Emperor Xiande to regain consciousness.
Xi Gu’an left the garden midway. When he returned, he received the Empress Dowager’s orders and headed into the room to wait. After another hour, Xiao Chiye suddenly saw the Eight Great Training Division guards leading an errand-runner, who was dressed in clean cotton clothing, in from the side gate.
“Who is that?” Xiao Chiye asked.
Li Jianheng craned his neck and said, “An errand-runner. There aren’t many errand-runners in Xiyuan. But what are they bringing an errand-runner here for?”
With the help of the dim light from the lantern, a sharp-eyed Xiao Chiye saw that the errand-runner had an ugly appearance with burn scars. He did not know why, but his heart suddenly leaped as an ominous speculation took hold in his mind and lingered.
“An errand-runner of Xiyuan.” Xiao Chiye said. “Xiyuan is a noble ground used to receive the Emperor. It is a requirement for all those who wait upon him to look refined. Where would such a person come from?”
After a while, Pan Rugui strode out of the door and shouted, “Summon the eighth son of the Shen Clan! Hurry over for an audience with the Emperor!”
An uproar broke out amidst the throng of officials. The sound of discussion rose multifold.
There had not been a final judgment on whether Shen Wei had been guilty of treason after his death, but the name of Shen Wei had already spread across the country. The wounds of Zhongbo had yet to heal, and the blame for the defeat of the troops still existed. The fact that the remaining member of the Shen Clan had undeservingly got to keep his life had already roused resentment at the frontiers. So why was he still permitted to come out now?
“What’s going on?” A stunned Li Jianheng said. “Don’t tell me they discovered something? Ce’an, there’s enmity between you and him. Both of you see red whenever you meet. For the sake of the Xiao Clan’s face, they shouldn’t have let him out!”
Xiao Chiye said nothing. He merely shifted his gaze to the entrance and stared at it closely.
In less than half an hour, the guard at the lead strode in. A man followed not far behind him.
After five years, this man’s hair has grown long. It hung behind him, secured with a crude wooden hairpin. He did not wear a crown. His old wide-sleeved robe sheltered his wrists from view, while the rest that extended out of those sleeves were as fair and lustrous as that of white porcelain. The lantern obstructed Xiao Chiye’s sight. When the man walked out, the teacup in Li Jianheng’s hand tumbled off.
Li Jianheng muttered aloud distractedly. “You never told me this is how he looks like…”
Xiao Chiye’s thumb crooked slightly.
Shen Zechuan passed through the front of the veranda. At the very instant both of them crossed paths, Xiao Chiye looked at this man with coldness and detachment. Right that split second, he locked gazes with a pair of eyes that held deep memories.
These eyes were narrow and long, with the ends raised and curved into thin arches. Divine light shone in them. Even under the dim light of the lantern, those eyes still looked as if they were hiding the remnant of stars within.
In this rush of a moment, Shen Zechuan seemed to let out a hint of a smile at Xiao Chiye. But it was so faint that there were no traces of it left behind after Shen Zechuan brushed past him, much like the wind of the night—thin and cold.
- 二十四衙门 Twenty-four yamen was an institution of eunuchs serving the Emperor and his household in the Ming Dynasty. It consisted of the Twelve Directorates, Four Offices, and Eight Services—these are collectively referred to as the Twenty-four Yamen.
- Hai Liangyi’s courtesy name
- 午时 Hour of Wu, i.e., 11 am-1 pm in the system of two-hour subdivisions used in former times.
- 一炷香 the time an incense stick takes to burn. Some sources suggest that one stick takes 30 minutes or one hour, but it really depends on a variety of factors (the environment, wind, length of the stick, etc). One hour is the generally agreed time though.
- There is this line in the Three Character Classic (三字经, San Zi Jing) 养不教, 父之过; the father is to blame for his son’s faults (because he did not teach him well). It’s also applicable to a teacher or a superior who mentors, since a teacher or a mentor is said to be just like a father. (一日为师，终身为父; a teacher for a day, a father for a lifetime) .
- 侍寝 basically to summon his concubines, palace maids, etc, for sexual purposes and to make babies.