After Li Jianheng was done flinging stuff around, he covered his face and sobbed.
Xiao Chiye avoided the shattered fragments and kneeled. When Li Jianheng’s mood calmed a little after a while, he said. “Get up! There’s no need for you to kneel like this. You and I are buddies. Doing this will only make us feel estranged.”
Xiao Chiye rose to his feet and said, “The Secretariat Elder is merely upright and frank by nature.”
Li Jianheng was in low spirits as he covered his face for a long time. He said, “… They come here every two or three days to settle accounts, all of which I’ve permitted. Even when money flows out like water, I’ve never said a word. I’ve been on tenterhooks all day long these days to the point I’ve lost appetite. It hasn’t been a good time for me. Can’t I even ask for a few days to take a breather now that Hua Siqian is dead and Ji Lei is about to be executed? Ce’an, you have no idea how dissatisfied they are with me sitting here. As long as there’s another choice in this world, they would never want me.”
At this point, he felt sad again.
“But when have I ever thought of being the Emperor? They were the ones who pushed me into becoming one. And now they are also the ones to admonish me! The Censor of the Chief Surveillance Bureau keeps watching me every day. Even when I venture outdoors to appreciate flowers, they still had to submit memorials to reproach me in those erudite ways of theirs! Never mind if he killed a mere eunuch, but why can’t he, Hai Renshi, show me due respect and give me some face? At the very least, I’m also the Emperor of Dazhou!”
The more Li Jianheng spoke, the angrier he became. But there was nothing else on the table that he could smash, thus he pounded his own thigh in indignation.
“He made Mu Ru out to be a contemptible person, but it’s not like they are noble and virtuous themselves! In the past when we were drinking in Donglong Street, which of them did not look dignified only for them to turn out to be scoundrels when they took off their pants?! Mu Ru was originally picked out by me from a clan with a clean background. If it weren’t for that dog Xiaofuzi who got in the way, would she have fallen into that traitor Pan’s hands? My heart aches so much it’s going to break!”
Xiao Chiye merely listened and said nothing as Li Jianheng gave vent to all his grievances. By the time Li Jianheng stopped his tirade, his anger had already mostly subsided.
“If they truly treat me as the Emperor and respect me, then I’d be willing to be diligent in my study. My Imperial Elder Brother entrusted this vast empire to me. I want to be a sovereign of a flourishing era too.” Li Jianheng said with aggrievement. “… Hai Renshi just doesn’t think much of me.”
It was only then Xiao Chiye said, “On the contrary. It was precisely because the Secretariat Elder has high hopes for Your Majesty that he dared to admonish Your Majesty so severely. Your Majesty must not bear a grudge against him. Your Majesty has to know that Secretariat Elder Hai is equally stern and exacting with that ‘Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo’, Yao Wenyu.”
Skeptical, Li Jianheng asked, “Really?”
Xiao Chiye said, “If this wasn’t the case, then why would the Secretariat Elder kill Shuanglu today?”
Li Jianheng pondered it over for a moment, then said, “… True that.”
If Hai Liangyi did not think much of him, why would he keep asking his opinions on every matter?
Li Jianheng recalled back to the day when he had just ascended to the throne. After Hai Liangyi learned that the Empress Dowager had sent him snacks, he had specifically instructed him in private to change all his spoons and chopsticks into silver.1
Hai Liangyi was an inflexible man who conducted himself seriously in both speech and manner. But he was different from Hua Siqian. He has no disciples, only a student—Yao Wenyu. As Hai Liangyi wanted to avoid rousing suspicion, Yao Wenyu had still yet to enter the government to become an official despite being so talented. Hai Liangyi had never joined any clique in the Grand Secretariat, and he was also the only one who staked all he had and charged out to save Emperor Xiande at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds.
He was the lone minister2 mentioned in the books—difficult ike a steep precipice, and upright like a lofty branchless tree.
While Li Jianheng was thinking back on it, Xiao Chiye was thinking about it too.
One thing Li Jianheng said was clear, and that was, as long there was another choice in this world, the one to ascend to the dragon throne today would not be him, Li Jianheng. But even Emperor Xiande could not do anything about it, because Li Jianheng was perhaps the one and only candidate they had in this world.
Since they had given him his support, then they had to teach and guide him. Dazhou was a nation currently beset by difficulties. It might seem as if a wave of troubles had just calmed in Qudu, but in truth, the storm had already begun to stir again.
All the exceedingly loyal ministers with Hai Liangyi at the head were now all looking at Li Jianheng. In their eyes, he was perhaps a hopeless case, but Hai Liangyi had raised both of his hands to support and prop Li Jianheng up with that old back of his, wanting him to hang on, to turn over a new leaf, and to be an Emperor who would be able to leave his good name in history.
Xiao Chiye and the civil officials had never gotten along with one another, because the Central Administration in Qudu feared the military power at the frontiers. These people were not only the reason for the invisible cage in which he was trapped, but they were also men of indomitable will and integrity in Dazhou who could still hobble on forward.
Military commanders were not afraid of death, because they couldn’t.
Civil officials were not afraid of death, because they were conscientious.
Li Jianheng was used to being fawned upon. He needed a teacher like Hai Liangyi who could castigate the contemporary failings of the times.
“When all is said and done, Lady Mu3 doesn’t have a status. If Your Majesty’s mind is truly set, then why not have a long heart-to-heart talk with the Secretariat Elder. This is the time when Dazhou needs a continuous line of imperial heirs. As long as Your Majesty can speak to him with honesty and sincerity, the Secretariat Elder will definitely not fob Your Majesty off.” Finally, Xiao Chiye said, “As for Ji Lei and Pan Rugui, I heard that the Court of Judicial Review has yet to sentence them?”
At the moment, Li Jianheng was occupied with thoughts of all that was good with Hai Liangyi. So he nodded absent-mindedly and replied, “The accounts don’t tally. They still need another retrial…”
◈ ◈ ◈
The eastern pearl was hollow. When Shen Zechuan hooked the thin fabric strip out of it, the writing on it was already smudged from the soaking. He burned away the fabric strip.
Every one of Xiao Chiye’s actions last night was on full display right before his eyes. Perhaps that man had touched the eastern pearl, but it was impossible for him to see what was written inside. Nevertheless, Xiao Chiye’s suspicions must have been roused. Shen Zechuan had answered that question on Mount Feng wrong. Xiao Chiye had even told him the source of the Imperial Army accounts, all because he was waiting for him to tell him the truth frankly. Yet, he had denied it with absolute certainty.
Shen Zechuan decocted the medicine and drank it in one gulp. The bitter taste pervaded his mouth. He endured the bitterness, just like the anguish he revisited every day and night. At last, he let out a mocking smile, wiped his mouth, and lay down to sleep.
He dreamed again.
In the dream, the cold wind was still howling at the Chashi sinkhole. He was no longer lying at the bottom, but standing alone at the edge of the pit, overlooking those 40,000 soldiers who were struggling like ants to survive.
The Biansha Cavalry surrounded the sinkhole like the black tide in the pitch-dark night. They blotted out the sky and the earth, engulfing all the Zhongbo Garrisons Troops’ chances of survival, and turned this place into a slaughterhouse.
A hand reached out among the churning waves of withered bones. Ji Mu stretched out his arrow-covered upper body like a puppet and sobbed as he called out to Shen Zechuan, “Ge hurts so much…”
It was as if Shen Zechuan was a statue carved in clay or wood; he could not move, nor could he shout. His breathing quickened, and he was drenched in cold sweat as he clenched his teeth tightly.
The leader of the Biansha Cavalry was wearing a helmet. That hair fluttering in the wind had already turned a shade of a deep red in Shen Zechuan’s recurring nightmare. He lifted his arm and pointed lightly at the sinkhole, and the arrows behind him all started falling one after another like a swarm of locusts. They stabbed into the men’s bodies in dense clusters, piercing through flesh, spattering warm blood all over.
The heavy snow all over the sky turned red too. Shen Zechuan watched Ji Mu fall into the bloody mud before he was swallowed up by a sticky red wave.
His hands were cold. The blood on it was also cold.
Shen Zechuan woke up.
He sat up with his back to the light by the window as though nothing had happened. He lowered his head and went silent for a moment, then he got out of bed to get dressed.
The guards lurking in the courtyard watched Shen Zechuan step out of his room to eat his meal before heading to the bathhouse.
After an hour, the guard who had never taken his eyes off the bathhouse frowned and asked the man beside him. “Why isn’t he out yet?”
Two men exchanged glances and smelled a rat at the same time. When the guards rushed into the bathhouse, all they saw was the neatly stacked clothes. Shen Zechuan was long gone.
Xi Hongxuan had booked Bu’er Tavern to invite others to tea. He sat until he needed to answer the call of nature, so he got up to head to the latrine. He had only just stepped out of the door and had not walked a few steps in the corridor when someone patted him from behind.
Xi Hongxuan looked back and almost took a few steps back. Then he said, “How did you… Why are you always coming and going like a shadow?!”
“A lot has been going on lately.” Shen Zechuan poured cold tea in passing. “The reason Ji Lei and Pan Rugui have yet to be sentenced in the third trial by the Court of Judicial Review is because Hai Liangyi and Xue Xiuzhuo have yet to pry out whatever they wanted from those two men’s mouths, am I right?”
Xi Hongxuan glanced around, then whispered, “You want to kill Ji Lei, but what can you do with everyone’s eyes on this case? The reach of Hua faction case is too widespread, and there are too many people who are afraid of being implicated by those two. It’s precisely to prevent them from dying a sudden and inexplicable death that Hai Liangyi told the men to take strict precautions when standing guard. You won’t be able to strike.”
“I’m not going to.” Shen Zechuan smiled derisively at Xi Hongxuan. “But I have a way to get Ji Lei to talk.”
Xi Hongxuan looked at him for a long time. Then, he personally lifted the teapot to pour tea for him and asked, “… What way?”
Shen Zechuan sipped his tea and said, “Let me see Ji Lei.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Ji Lei had been tortured for days, and at present, he was in shackles as he lay in the prison with disheveled hair and bare feet. He heard someone walking over to open the prison door, then cover his head before dragging him out.
Ji Lei was shoved up a horse carriage. After a while, he was dragged down and thrown to the ground. It was quiet all around, with only the sound of water dripping off the corners of the walls.
Ji Lei crawled up from the ground and asked with a black fabric bag covering his head, “Who’s there?”
A water droplet splashed with a “plop”. No one responded.
Ji Lei felt a chill on his back. Bracing himself with his arms, he probed tentatively, “… Secretariat Elder Hai?”
But still, no one answered.
Ji Lei’s Adam’s apple throbbed. He shuffled forward on his knees and bumped into the bars. He fumbled around, steadied himself, and shouted, “If you aren’t Secretariat Elder Hai, then you are Xue Xiuzhuo! How are you planning to torture me today? Bring it on!”
“… Say something. Why aren’t you saying something?!”
“Who are you? Who exactly are you? What do you want to do… Do you think I’d be afraid if you don’t talk? I’m not afraid… I’m not afraid!”
Ji Lei bent his head down between his arms to scrape the bag off. He moved his eyes and saw Shen Zechuan sitting in a chair right in front of him.
Shen Zechuan was all dressed in bluish-white, with one hand on the chair’s armrest as he propped his head up to stare expressionlessly at Ji Lei.
Laughter escaped from Ji Lei’s throat. He grabbed the bars and squeezed his face in between the bars, then said in a low and deep voice, “Oh, it’s you… the stray dog of Zhongbo. What does the vile beast want from your shishu? Revenge for Ji Gang, or revenge for yourself?”
Shen Zechuan said nothing. The smile vanished from those tender, expressive eyes of his, leaving only a heavy and dark gaze behind.
Ji Lei could not even find hatred in them. He felt as if that was not a man with flesh and blood sitting there, but a famished stray cur that had already started to feed on human flesh.
Ji Lei lowered his eyes and said with hatred, “The Ji Clan has no descendants, and the one who severed Ji Gang’s bloodline is you. So what are you looking at me for? Shen Zechuan, it was your Shen Clan who killed Ji Mu, and it was also your Shen Clan who violated Hua Pingting. How do you face yourself having lived for so long? You are the devil beneath the tens of thousands of ghosts who died unjustly. You are the continuation of Shen Wei’s ignoble existence. You deserve to be hacked to pieces…”
Ji Lei began to laugh softly. He looked demented.
“Do you think I’ll be afraid of you? The bastard whom nobody wants. You think taking off your pants to follow Xiao the Second will give you better days ahead? Haha!”
Shen Zechuan laughed too.
Ji Lei’s laughter gradually came to a stop. He said coldly, “Is that funny? My plight today will also be your predicament in the future. “
Shen Zechuan put down his leg and leaned against the chair like he was pondering it over. He said, “Oh, I’m so scared.”
His words were breezy with sarcasm the moment he opened his mouth.
“Devil, bastard, stray dog, vile beast.” Shen Zechuan rose to his feet and crouched outside the bars. He began to laugh at Ji Lei, and said in an insane yet restrained tone, “You’re right, I’m all of them. I’m the devil who climbed my way out of the Chashi sinkhole, the bastard Shen Wei left behind after he burned himself to death, the stray dog without a home to return to, and the vile beast reviled by thousands. Shishu, I’m so delighted you know me so well.”
Ji Lei began to tremble uncontrollably.
Shen Zechuan looked askance at him. His gaze was far more sinister and malicious than how it was back then. It was as if a man had already died under this layer of gorgeous skin, and all that survived was an unnamed beast.
“Five years ago,” Shen Zechuan drew closer to the bars and scrutinized Ji Lei’s fearful expression. He said softly, “The one kneeling here was me. What was that you said to me the day you sent me into Zhao Zui Temple?”
Ji Lei’s throat and eyes tensed. He wanted to answer, but he could not voice it out.
“I have been remembering everyone’s kindness with gratitude.” Shen Zechuan said piously. “Every day. Every night.”
- Using silver to test for poison. As often seen in dramas, people in those days would test for poison by sticking a silver needle into food or drinks; if the needle turned black, then it would mean it was poisoned.
- 孤臣 a lone/solitary minister, i.e., a minister without support at court or a minister who has fallen out of power and/or favor
- Mu-niangzi; Niangzi (娘子) is a form of address for one’s wife, or a polite form of address for a young woman.