Shen Zechuan followed the man inside and kneeled outside the hanging screen.
Emperor Xiande leaned back partially against the head of the bed, while the Empress Dowager sat by the side of the bed. With both hands holding the bowl of medicinal decoction, Pan Rugui retreated a little to reveal Shen Zechuan’s figure.
Emperor Xiande made an effort to gather himself and said, “The patrol squad of the Eight Great Training Divisions said that they saw your errand-runner appear at the side of the pond. I’m asking you, what is he doing there?”
Shen Zechuan said, “To reply His Majesty, Uncle Ge was waiting for Fu-gonggong from the palace.”
“On whose orders?”
Shen Zechuan paused, then kowtowed. He said, “It was this sinful subject’s.”
Emperor Xiande let out a few coughs and said, “You are being imprisoned in Zhao Zui Temple. Every month, the palace will allocate and deliver food and clothing to you. How would you come to have connections with Xiaofuzi?”
“His Majesty showed concern and allowed this sinful subject to self-reflect at Zhao Zui Temple. Not only did His Majesty bestow kindness upon me, but even grant me food. This sinful subject recently came down with a cold. Coupled with my old ailment, it became increasingly harder for me to get up every day.” Shen Zechuan looked sorrowful at this point. “Although the palace deliver my meals, they don’t send medicine. Uncle Ge has been on duty in Zhao Zui Temple for a long time. Taking pity on this sinful subject, he asked Fu-gonggong, who left the palace to procure goods, for some medicine from the palace on behalf of this sinful subject. And that’s how this sinful subject came to entrust Uncle Ge again this time to beseech Fu-gonggong to buy some blessing oil lamps1 for me.”
“You have no family.” The Empress Dowager asked. “Why do you need oil lamps to pray for blessings?”
“This sinful subject is aware of my heinous sins, so I’ve been praying by the lamp in the temple day and night for His Majesty and Her Majesty. At the same time, I’ve also been chanting sutras all day for the loyal martyrs who lost their lives at the battle of Zhongbo’s Chashi.” Shen Zechuan said devoutly. He continued, “Having planted some vegetables on the temple’s grounds, this sinful subject entrusted Uncle Ge to sell them for some money at the morning market. The illness of this sinful subject is already in such a state. Instead of using the money to buy medicine, I might as well get some blessing oil lamps.”
The Empress Dowager gave a long sigh. “Although you are guilty of sin, it is not unpardonable.”
Emperor Xiande wearily closed his eyes and said, “Xiaofuzi is now dead. Do you know anyone who has a dispute with him?”
Shen Zechuan shook his head and said softly, “Although this sinful subject might be bold enough to beseech Fu-gonggong to buy lamps, I have never seen Fu-gonggong before or exchange letters with him.”
“What about you?” Emperor Xiande motioned to Ji Gang. “Tell me. Has he mentioned anything to you?”
Ji Gang did not dare to look at the Emperor directly in the face. Like any other ordinary errand-runner, he answered with fright and fear. “To reply Your Majesty, whenever Fu-gonggong left the palace, it was all for purchasing purposes. With such a busy schedule, he would usually send those serving him to meet this humble one.”
On hearing this, Emperor Xiande cast a self-mocking glance at Pan Rugui, who stood as still as a wooden statue.
Ji Gang went on to say, “But there was a time when this humble servant greeted Fu-gonggong before his sedan and heard him mention something to his attendants about His Highness flying into a rage out of humiliation and wanting to create trouble for him. At that time, this humble servant was anxious to give Fu-gonggong the money to buy the oil lamps, and so I moved closer to him. But Fu-gonggong was busy that day too, so he told this humble one to come to Xiyuan today to wait for him. That was how the military gentlemen came to see this humble servant pacing up and down by the pond.”
Pan Rugui said, “Did you hear it correctly? That it was ‘Your Highness’ and not someone else?”
Ji Gang kowtowed repeatedly and said, “I dare not deceive His Majesty. Many people saw this humble servant in the market that day. All you have to do is to ask around to know that this humble one isn’t lying.”
Emperor Xiande said nothing for a long time. The smell of medicine in the room was heavy. The Empress Dowager covered her nose and mouth with her handkerchief and leaned over to say to Emperor Xiande, “Your Majesty, whether or not Xiaofuzi’s death was premeditated, you can’t just listen to Xiao Chiye’s side of the story. The case happened just a few steps away from Your Majesty. If it was Prince Chu who wanted Xiaofuzi’s life like this person said, then why would Xiao Chiye prevaricate to such an extent?”
“Your Majesty.” Pan Rugui said softly as well, “Xiaofuzi’s life is insignificant. Never mind if Prince Chu killed him because of personal grudges. But I’m afraid things are not that simple. His Majesty hardly steps out of the palace, while Xiaofuzi frequently did so. Why didn’t Prince Chu choose some other day? Why did it have to be today?”
Emperor Xiande suddenly broke out in a violent coughing fit again. He pushed aside Pan Rugui’s hand and used his own handkerchief to wipe away the bloodstains. Without looking at anyone, he said, “Jianheng is my own brother. I understand his temperament best. Since this case is already at this stage, then let Ji Lei settle it. This all happened because Xiaofuzi used his own position to lord it over others and overstepped his boundaries when it came to the rules of propriety, thereby causing resentment and envy among others. Punish Xiao Chiye by grounding him in his residence for half a month, and punish Ji Lei and Xi Gu’an by docking their salaries for three months! Pan Rugui, go relay the message. Once you are done, dismiss them.”
“This…” Pan Rugui looked at the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager said nothing.
Thus, Emperor Xiande looked at the Empress Dowager and said earnestly, “Imperial Mother, we are currently in troubled times. Autumn is approaching, and the frontier is in a precarious position. Trade conflicts at the frontier are increasing day after day. Libei, Qidong, and the Bianjun Commandery all need to stabilize and maintain the soldiers’ morale. If we pursue this matter, and it ends up implicating too many people and causing casualties at the frontier, then the ones to suffer will be the common folks. Although the pain of Zhongbo has passed, its humiliation has yet to be avenged. Imperial Mother, it’s not advisable to drag this matter on for too long, lest we lose the faith of the commoners.”
Expressing concern, the Empress Dowager tucked in the quilt for Emperor Xiande and said, “It’s truly a blessing for the empire that His Majesty is still worrying about state affairs when His Majesty has yet to recover. Pan Rugui, go.”
Pan Rugui acknowledged her orders and gingerly retreated out of the door.
The Empress Dowager continued. “The way I see it, this eighth son of the Shen Clan truly wants to repent and mend his ways. He is completely different from Shen Wei. He is a child you can use.”
Emperor Xiande said, “His health isn’t good. I’m afraid he’s unable to take on any duties. Maybe it’d be better for him to remain in the temple for recuperation.”
However, the Empress Dowager slowly put her hand down and said, “What His Majesty has said is logical. But he is already out. If we send him back again for no reason, it will inevitably arouse suspicions about the case. Isn’t that contrary to what His Majesty wants?”
Emperor Xiande smiled and turned to Shen Zechuan. He said, “The Empress Dowager likes and thinks highly of you. You must keep this in mind in the future. Don’t go down the same path that disloyal and unfilial father of yours did. Let’s send you to the Imperial Guards then. The Twelve Offices have varying degrees of duties. There will naturally be something you can do.”
Shen Zechuan prostrated himself and kowtowed to thank the Emperor for his benevolence.
After all the others had left, Emperor Xiande leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited out all the medicine he had drunk earlier. The quilt covering his hand had been wrung until it was all creased. Under the dim light of the candles in the room, Emperor Xiande’s face was ashen. His illness was evidently already at the critical stage.
With Pan Rugui supporting her, the Empress Dowager walked along the water veranda.2 Hua Xiangyi held the newly picked lotus in her hands and followed behind them at a distance together with the other maidservants in attendance.
“Since his last bout of illness, His Majesty has been acting more and more arbitrarily.” The Empress Dowager strolled and said, “How can a critically ill person work so hard for the state?”
“As they say, illness comes like an avalanche.”3 Pan Rugui said, “His Majesty is getting anxious.”
“Back then, when I chose Jianyun, it was because I valued his gentle and refined ways, as well as his deference and submissiveness. Although he has been ill over the years, he could be said to have done his best.” The Empress Dowager looked at Pan Rugui and said, “But who would anticipate that he would be so fearful of the Xiao Clan? Every time he has to make a choice, he would always prefer not to offend anyone. But how in the world would things always go the way he wishes it to be?”
“When all is said and done, your orders are the ones we obey when it comes to the matters in Qudu.” Pan Rugui said, “Wait for a few more days for the Imperial Concubine, Wei-niangniang,4 to get pregnant with a son, then Your Majesty will no longer need to worry.”
The Empress Dowager turned her hand over and patted Pan Rugui on the arm. She said meaningfully, “Before Imperial Concubine Wei is with child, we’ll still need you to keep watching over His Majesty’s health.”
“Ever since receiving Your Majesty’s order,” Pan Rugui responded, “This slave has been paying attention.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The people outside had already more or less dispersed by the time Shen Zechuan came out. He walked with Ji Gang in a single file down the stairs and saw Xiao Chiye leaving on his horse.
“Wasn’t the Imperial Army written off?” Looking at Xiao Chiye’s waist and legs, Shen Zechuan said, “But from all appearances, he clearly has not fallen behind on his martial arts.”
“An expert in horseback archery.” Ji Gang squinted his eyes and sized him up for a moment. “But without exchanging blows with him, I won’t know the extent of the lad’s strength. If he could already draw the Great Bow of Heaven five years ago, then I’m afraid he’s even stronger now. Chuan-er, don’t engage in a fight with him unless absolutely necessary.”
Shen Zechuan did not answer. But he was taken by surprise when the man who was about to turn the corner suddenly reined in his horse and turned back to charge straight at him.
Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye without dodging or giving way. When Xiao Chiye’s horse was right before him, it suddenly brushed past him. Shen Zechuan’s sleeves and robe went fluttering from the gush of wind, falling back down after a moment.
“What does this case have to do with you?” Xiao Chiye’s horse circled around Shen Zechuan.
“It has nothing to do with me.” Shen Zechuan smiled at him again. “But it has a great deal to do with the Second Young Master.”
”Pan Rugui lost his lapdog, and I took a tumble. No one benefits from it today, and yet you get to reap from it.” Xiao Chiye leaned over from his horse and looked at him. “How does someone who is a tough cookie still get to be so lucky?”
“It’s all by virtue of the Second Young Master’s noble aura.” Shen Zechuan also looked at him and said with humility, “If it weren’t for the move the Second Young Master made, then how would I have made it out?”
Xiao Chiye’s eyes were cold. He said, “You are well-informed.”
“Just a cheap little trick.” Shen Zechuan said.
Xiao Chiye looked at the sky. The gyrfalcon had caught a sparrow back and was hovering in the air to seek its reward.
“There’s no harm in letting you out.” Xiao Chiye whistled, and the gyrfalcon immediately landed on the tile. It stepped on the sparrow and tore it apart. He looked at Shen Zechuan again. “Qudu is so big. One has to find entertainment somehow.”
“A noble is truly a noble.” Shen Zechuan said. “Even the entertainment you seek differs from others. Dining, wining, whoring, and gambling are all beneath your notice. You just had to have your fun with people. However, having fun alone isn’t as good as having fun together. How boring would it be if I’m the only one accompanying you?”
“Look at you.” Xiao Chiye grasped the horsewhip and lifted the corners of his mouth. “You are such a delight. Why would I want others to butt in between us?”
Shen Zechuan said, “That would be too much for me to bear. I have even found so many friends for the Second Young Master.”
“Better worry about yourself than worry about me.” Xiao Chiye retracted his gaze. “There are good career prospects in the Imperial Guards, and Ji Lei thinks so highly of you. I’m sure he will be looking forward to your presence.”
Shen Zechuan chuckled aloud. He looked at Xiao Chiye with smiling eyes and said in a gentle tone, “You and I are but birds in a cage. I may have good future prospects, but aren’t you having it easy too? I have no worries and concerns, and being all alone, I’m free from constraints. But Second Young Master, can you do the same?”
Against the backdrop of hanging lanterns on both sides, Shen Zechuan looked increasingly pretty, like that of jade. The gyrfalcon finished feeding on flesh and blood and landed back onto Xiao Chiye’s shoulder.
“Since we are all caged birds,” Xiao Chiye flicked away the dust on the gyrfalcon’s feathers. “Then why pretend to be carefree?”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan returned to the temple at night. Once he took his medicine, he sat across Grand Mentor Qi in the courtyard with a small table between them.
Ji Gang had built a small courtyard in Zhao Zui Temple and acceded to Grand Mentor Qi’s request to plant some bamboo and set up a vegetable garden. It was truly a refreshing experience to be sitting outside on a summer night.
“His Majesty has no wish to pursue the matter.” She Zechuan said, “Just so he could protect Prince Chu. That was why he allowed me out. Teacher truly has incredible foresight.”
“Incredible or not, it’s still too early to come to a verdict yet.” Grand Mentor Qi tapped the chess piece on the table and clicked his tongue. He said, “Last time, they said that His Majesty had been so sick since the beginning of the year that he could not get up. He is now in the prime of his life, and there is the Imperial Academy of Medicine to take care of him. And yet he is even weaker now than he was in his former residence.5 It may well be said that Pan Rugui deserves the credit for this.”
Ji Gang squatted at the entrance grinding a stone. He said, “His fury was most likely directed at them. Even Ji Lei was punished with them. Obviously, he has been harboring hatred against them for a long time.”
“If one feels that time is running out for him, then he will grow bolder.” Grand Mentor Qi said, “All along, he has been an Emperor who spends his entire life making concessions for the sake of overall interest.”
“The Empress Dowager doesn’t like Prince Chu, but there is only Prince Chu left to ascend to the throne. Today, Ji Lei kept incriminating Prince Chu. If this was because Pan Rugui put him up to it,” The bitterness of the medicine lingered in Shen Zechuan’s mouth. He scrunched up his forehead and said, “Then, I’d believe it. Since Pan Rugui has the intent to send Prince Chu to his doom, it must be because he no longer has any concerns about future consequences. There is another heir in the palace. One who is far easier to manipulate than Prince Chu.”
“The former Emperor exercising self-restraint?” Ji Gang blew away the dust and said, “I seriously doubt that. Furthermore, if there is really an heir, how would they have been able to hide him all these years? “
“As long as the Li blood runs in him, he’s the imperial heir.” Grand Mentor Qi knocked the chess piece and said, “The former Emperor might not have one, but can’t the current one beget another? Once his harem gives birth to an heir, and he breathes his last, then the Empress Dowager will be able to carry the baby in her arms to hold court and administer affairs of the state without even hanging up the bead curtain.6 When the time comes, they can appoint Hua Siqian as the minister in custody of the infant. By then, Dazhou will truly take on the surname Hua.”7
“But Xiao Chiye is on good terms with Prince Chu, and the Xiao Clan has everything to gain and nothing to lose if Prince Chu ascends to the throne.” Shen Zechuan stroked his chess piece. “Libei will not simply sit idle and do nothing. As long as Prince Chu is still alive, Xiao Jiming and Liu Guangbai from the Bianjun Commandery can command their troops to storm Qudu. How could the Eight Great Training Divisions afford to fight this battle?”
Grand Mentor Qi pressed down on the small table with his elbows and scratched his messy hair. He said, “Lanzhou,8 how muddle-headed are you?! You think the Empress Dowager wouldn’t have thought of that? Then what would they want Xiao Chiye five years ago for? With Xiao Chiye in their hands, Xiao Jiming would not dare to make a rash move. Qudu’s Eight Training Divisions can’t win if they come up against Libei’s Armored Cavalry, but what about Qidong’s Garrison Troops? There is no reason for the Qi Clan to get involved in this fight. Just for the sake of the words “loyalty to the sovereign”, Qi Zhuyin would still have to deploy the troops to stop Xiao Jiming.”
Seeing Shen Zechuan contemplating it in silence, Ji Gang said, “Isn’t the current Emperor still alive? So why worry about it?! What’s more crucial is tomorrow. Tomorrow, Chuan-er will join the Imperial Guards, right under Ji Lei’s command. I’m worried.”
“That’s why I said I didn’t have incredible foresight!” Grand Mentor Qi said irritably. “His Majesty assigned Lanzhou to the Imperial Guards to achieve his own purpose and to acquiesce to Her Majesty’s wish. But does he really not remember who was the one who interrogated Lanzhou in the Imperial Prison? What do you think he’s planning by having adversaries come face to face with one another? There’s still something I want to ask you, Ji Gang! When you found Xiaofuzi today, was he really still breathing?”
Ji Gang wiped the stone with his fingertip. After a moment of silence, he said, “It’s hard to say. The timing was too tight for me to take a careful look.”
“That’s right.” Grand Mentor Qi looked at Shen Zechuan. “Think about it carefully. If Xiaofuzi was already dead before we could lay our hands on him—then who did it?”
福油灯 Oil lamps used to ask for blessings.
- 病来如山倒. The full line is 病来如山倒，病去如抽丝 sickness comes like an avalanche, but goes like spinning silk; i.e. illness hits fast but heals slow.
- 娘娘 Niang-niang is a term used when addressing an empress or an imperial consort
- 潜邸 the place the Emperor resided in before he ascended to the throne.
- 垂帘听政 literally to hold court behind a screen or curtain. A practice in ancient China, where the Empress or Empress Dowager was allowed to preside over the imperial court without actually being seen by her subjects since women were prohibited from politics. This would usually be done by a child emperor’s mother, who would serve as regent and rule in place of the Emperor.
- At this point in time, it’s the Li who rules the country. The Empress Dowager is from the Hua Clan, so it’s saying here that the entire empire will fall into the hands of the Hua once that happens.
- Shen Zechuan’s courtesy name.