Imperial Concubine Wei was on tenterhooks as she walked. Seeing the unfamiliar palace walls around her, she could not help but ask in fear, “Gonggong, why aren’t we there yet? Where is the Empress Dowager?”
The eunuch walking ahead ignored her.
Imperial Concubine Wei’s hair stood on end in this quiet and secluded place. She stopped in her tracks, then feigned a stomachache and stirred up a ruckus about wanting to head back.
She had never seen this eunuch leading the way before. He looked unfamiliar and young. The eunuch turned his head back to look at her and said in a gentle voice, “We will be there soon. Support Imperial Concubine Wei as she walks. We mustn’t let Niangniang fall.”
The eunuchs on both sides immediately held on to Imperial Concubine Wei to support her. Imperial Concubine Wei started to struggle. She raised her voice to yell, but was gagged. The eunuchs nimbly hoisted her up and speedily walked on ahead.
There was a well in the deserted courtyard, with some water remaining at the bottom of the well.
The eunuch craned his head to look and said, “Right here. Send Niangniang in.”
Imperial Concubine Wei struggled with all her might, and her well-maintained fingernails scratched the arm of the leading eunuch. Her bun was disheveled as she shook her head and sobbed while clinging to the edge of the well.
The eunuch stroked her pretty hand and told the men in a pitying voice to lift the stone.
Then, a “plop” startled away the birds on the branch over the vermilion wall.
◈ ◈ ◈
Emperor Xiande lay inside the horse carriage, while Li Jianheng kneeled by his side holding a medicine bowl in his hands.
Emperor Xiande’s breathing was so weak that he could not even cough. He beckoned to Li Jianheng. The latter quickly put aside the medicine bowl and moved over on his knees. He said, “Imperial Elder Brother, are you feeling better?”
Emperor Xiande placed his hand on the back of Li Jianheng’s hand and said laboriously, “Jianheng.”
“Your younger brother1 is here.” Li Jianheng started crying again. He said, “Your younger brother is right here.”
“The former emperor, in his later years, was impeded by others. At that time, the Crown Prince of the Eastern Palace was my eldest brother, while I…” Emperor Xiande looked at him, “I was like you, an idle Prince. The ways of the world are unpredictable. In the end, this empire fell into my hands. But ever since I ascended to the throne, I have been under control. Every move I make is just like a puppet before a screen. If Imperial Mother wants me to laugh, then I have to laugh. If she wants me to die, then, I must now die.”
Li Jianheng choked with tears.
Emperor Xiande said, “In the future, you will become that lonely man.”2
All at once, Li Jianheng burst into tears. He held Emperor Xiande’s hand and pleaded, “Imperial Elder Brother! How could I be him? I’m just a worm in this Li Clan’s empire. How am I up to sitting at the peak? Imperial Elder Brother, I’m scared, I’m so scared.”
“Don’t be.” With a sudden burst of energy, Emperor Xiande held Li Jianheng’s hand tightly and opened his eyes wide. “You are different from me… the Empress Dowager’s kin3 have lost! There’s only death left for Hua Siqian. Likewise for Pan Rugui. If you kill them, then the Empress Dowager will have no one left to aid her! From then on, power will fall back to you, and you will be… the ruler of all lands under Heaven! What I couldn’t do… You can… I…”
Emperor Xiande started coughing so violently that he trembled all over. Unwilling to release Li Jianheng, he continued with blood in his mouth.
“Eliminate the Empress Dowager’s kin and supervise the court officials. The Hua Clan has lost. And… and something else… you must bear in mind. Allow no one to sleep too soundly in the bed of imperial power!4 Those… who save you today… can kill you… tomorrow! Military power is like a fierce tiger… Xiao…”
Emperor Xiande vomited fresh blood, throwing Li Jianheng into a panic.
“… Never…” Emperor Xiande gasped for breath and gripped Li Jianheng so hard that the latter hurt. “Never ever… release… Ah Ye…”
Never ever release Ah Ye back to Libei!
It did not matter if he was a rich young master or an extraordinary talent. As long as he was here, the Xiao Clan was just a dog. Even though the Empress Dowager’s kin have been defeated, it did not mean that the frontier would not assemble their own personal army and consolidate their power to challenge the central administration. Without the Hua Clan, who else could hold the Xiao Clan in check?! Since Xiao Chiye had the disposition to be able to endure it in silence for five whole years to transform the Imperial Army from a degenerate bunch into remarkable soldiers, then imagine if they gave him another five more years before letting him return to Libei… Would he not become a menace then?!
Li Jianheng said blankly, “Imperial Elder Brother… How can we do that… Imperial Elder Brother…”
“Strip him of his power5 and reduce his troops.” Emperor Xiande said weakly, “… When necessary… kill… kill…”
Li Jianheng saw him close his eyes and instantly wailed. Even before his death, Emperor Xiande never released his hand. The resentment and gloom in his expression never once dissipated.
He ascended to the throne for nine years, and he had never made a decision even once before the Empress Dowager. It was the Empress Dowager who had the final say over his meals, clothing, expenses, and even the choice of woman to spend the night in his chamber.6 The craziest move he had ever made in this life was to communicate secretly with Qidong and draw Xi Gu’an over to his side to pave, at the hunting grounds, what seemed like a smooth way to the throne for Li Jianheng.
The long procession on their way back stopped, and tremendous cries of grief and sorrow rang out. Dense mass of ministers kneeled. Hai Liangyi took the lead in shedding tears and choking with sobs. He cried out, “Your Majesty”, and this, was the last of Emperor Xiande’s honor.
The funeral bell in Qudu tolled for a very long time, and the entire country wept bitter tears.
◈ ◈ ◈
Empress Dowager Hua sat on the couch and fed Emperor Xiande’s parrot.
Listening to the sound of the bell, the parrot shouted, “Jianyun! Jianyun! Jianyun is back!”
The eastern pearls7 beside Empress Dowager Hua’s ears swayed slightly as she nodded and said, “Jianyun is back.”
The parrot then shouted, “Imperial Mother! Imperial Mother!”
Empress Dowager Hua remained motionless as she tapped her wooden spoon. The white hair in the slanting shadow could no longer be covered up, and the fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes looked like the cracks on valuable porcelain.
The parrot shouted a few more times before it suddenly fell headlong into the cage and went permanently still.
Empress Dowager Hua set aside the wooden spoon and sat quietly until the sound of the bell stopped. Only then she said, “Where’s Imperial Concubine Wei? Why is she taking so long to come?”
◈ ◈ ◈
Because of Emperor Xiande, Xiao Chiye was so busy after returning to the capital that he could hardly get a breather. For several days, he kneeled together with the other officials. By the time he could really get to lie down, he was already exhausted.
But even though he was dead beat, he still had to bathe. As Xiao Chiye wiped his body, he saw that the scrapes and grazes on his shoulders had already scabbed over. He put on a new robe and came out to ask Chen Yang, “Where is that man?”
This time, Chen Yang knew who he meant. He replied, “The Imperial Bodyguards are being reorganized, so he has to re-enlist these few days. He didn’t even go home much.”
“I’m asking…” Xiao Chiye said, “Where is Ji Lei? Who are you talking about?”
Chen Yang scratched his head a little abashedly and said, “Oh, Ji Lei. He’s been detained. He should be executed by beheading after the new Emperor ascends to the throne. Viceroy, weren’t you the one who locked that man up?”
Xiao Chiye put on his outer garment and said in all seriousness, “I forgot.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan, Ge Qingqing and Xiaowu were eating their noodles at the noodle stall. When they were halfway through the meal, Xiaowu suddenly stared fixedly ahead.
Shen Zechuan turned his head back and saw Xiao Chiye tossing some silver to the proprietor. He then lifted his robe to sit beside him and said, “Two bowls of noodles.”
Xiaowu slurped his noodles down. Holding the bowl, he shuffled on his butt away to another table like a timid quail. Under Xiao Chiye’s gaze, Ge Qingqing took his bowl and moved away too.
Shen Zechuan picked at his noodles and said, “I’m full.”
“Finish it.” Xiao Chiye pulled out a pair of chopsticks and clamped them at Shen Zechuan, “Afraid to see me? Look at how anxious you are to flee.”
“Of course.” Shen Zechuan slowly took the last bite. “Anyone who gets… pinned down once should be afraid.”
“You made your escape pretty fast that other day we were protecting the Emperor.” Xiao Chiye’s noodles came, and he poured vinegar into it. “It was such a good opportunity for you to get a promotion. Why did you run?”
“I did nothing of the sort.” Shen Zechuan blew at the soup and drank it. “So why join in the fun?”
Xiao Chiye started eating his noodles. When he was almost finished, he suddenly piped up, “Come to think of it, you squatted behind me that night for a long time, didn’t you? Who to choose? Why not play it by ear? If Xi Gu’an took down Qudu, you will give me a stab. If Xi Gu’an didn’t, you will give me a hand. Keeping an eye on the perfect opportunity was just to wait for me to fall that one time before you would make your move.”
“Then you’re lucky.” Shen Zechuan inclined his head and smiled, “You’re still alive.”
Xiao Chiye said, “You couldn’t be the one who shot that arrow at me, could you? If I weren’t in a perilous situation, then how could your favor have appeared all the more significant?”
“I didn’t even ask for anything in return for the great favor I did.” Shen Zechuan said. “Why are you still thinking that I’m plotting against you?”
“It’s not asking for anything in return that’s the problem.” Xiao Chiye did not seem to have eaten his fill. He set aside his chopsticks and said, “That day you dare not appear before Prince Chu, was it because you were afraid of Ji Lei, or because you were afraid Hua Siqian would blurt out something?”
Shen Zechuan stacked his copper coins neatly, then leaned close to Xiao Chiye to whisper, “Wrong. I was afraid of you.”
Xiao Chiye parroted, “Afraid of me?”
“That hardness, man.”
The human voices around him seemed far away. All that remained in Xiao Chiye’s ears was this warm puff of “hard”. Because of this word, he realized that Shen Zechuan was wearing a fastened collar today which half-surrounded that neck, denying him of the chance to eye it wantonly again.
His expression underwent a few changes, then he looked at Shen Zechuan and squeezed out two words through clenched teeth, “Don’t worry.”
“The Second Young Master has come of age now too.” Shen Zechuan sat back upright. “Time to get a wife.”
“Your Second Young Master has more tricks to play than you.” Seeing that he was about to leave, Xiao Chiye grasped his wrist to forbid him from standing up. He said, “You are always wanting to leave before I’m done talking. That’s against the rules.”
“And you’re always laying your hand on me at every turn.” Shen Zechuan said, “Tell me again about the rules.”
Xiao Chiye released his hand and said, “I’ll repay you for the friendly sentiment.”
“Call me Master and I’ll consider it repaid.” Shen Zechuan said.
“But you have to return me the thing.” Xiao Chiye said. “Surely you don’t want me to keep chasing after you for the thumb ring, right?”
Shen Zechuan tossed the bone thumb ring to him without demur.
Xiao Chiye caught it and said suspiciously, “What kind of conspiracy is this? To think you would return it the moment I said it.”
“The way honest people handle matters,” Shen Zechuan said, “is just that straightforward.”
At this point, there was nothing more to say.
Xiao Chiye watched Shen Zechuan rise to his feet as he turned the thumb ring around with his fingertips. Somehow, he found it too easy.
“Going home?” He asked behind him.
“It’s my turn to be on duty tomorrow.”
“The Imperial Bodyguards have been reshuffled. So what duty are you talking about?” Xiao Chiye said, “Winter is a difficult time. Take care.”
“Small fry like me drift with the current and go with the flow.” Shen Zechuan turned around. “The one who should take care isn’t me.”
Xiao Chiye touched his knuckles and said, “And while you are at it, send my regards to Ji Gang-shifu.”
Shen Zechuan’s leg that had already taken a step forward paused in mid-action as he swiftly stared towards him.
Xiao Chiye wore his thumb ring properly and jested, “Lanzhou, want to go and play together?”
Lianyin’s Note #2:
As mentioned, chapter 25 onwards are all VIP chapters on JJWXC! If you have enjoyed the novel so far, please support the author Tang Jiuqing by buying the chapters and the novel on JJWXC!
→ Qiang Jin Jiu Novel on JJWXC
→ Guide to buy on JJWXC by 書庫
- 臣弟 chen-di is an address the Emperor’s younger brother used to refer to himself when talking to the Emperor.
- 孤家寡人 – 孤 and 寡人 being used by feudal kings and princes to refer to themselves. So lonely man here refers to an Emperor who is on his own.
- 外戚 relatives of the Emperor on the side of his mother or wife
- 帝王权榻，绝不允许他人酣睡 literally allow no one to sleep too soundly in the bed of imperial power. i.e. never allow anyone to revel in the sweet taste of imperial power, or give them too much power and authority. I’m keeping the original bed quote for the imagery︎ _(:3 」∠)
- 削藩 a historical policy by the Emperor or central government to strip powers (especially military powers) from vassal states or conferred princes, dukes, and lords by withdrawing their conferred lands in order to re-consolidate their own power and authority and/or to weaken the other party’s power and authority, e.g. to prevent an uprising.
- 侍寝 basically to summon his concubines, palace maids, etc, for sexual purposes and to make babies.
- 东珠 literally eastern pearl, a rare treasure also known as the northern pearl (北珠) or tana in Mongolian. During the Qing Dynasty, pearls produced in northeast China were called the eastern pearl to distinguish them from the southern pearl produced in the south. The rulers of the Qing Dynasty regarded the eastern pearls as treasures and used them to inlay their crown and clothing with it to represent authority and honor.