Hua Xiangyi was indeed not as old as Qi Zhuyin. She was younger than Qi Zhuyin by two years. Having been kept deep in the inner palace these days, she had thinned down a lot. Realization dawned on her when she saw Qi Shiyu’s portrait on the table in front of the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager held her hand and grasped it for a long time before saying, “It’s a May-December marriage, but Qi Shiyu will still dote on you.”
Hua Xiangyi touched the purple palace robe and laid her head on the Empress Dowager’s knee. The Empress Dowager stroked her long hair and said, “There’s no need to feel aggrieved. All of Hua Clan’s daughters are married away like this. A few years after you marry him, you will become the bonafide mistress of the Qidong Five Commanderies.”
After lighting the incense in the palace hall, Matron Liuxiang wordlessly motioned for all the maids and eunuchs to leave.
Hua Xiangyi smiled and said, “I just can’t bear to leave you, aunt. Cangjun Commandery is so far away; I’ll have to wait a year if I wish to see you again.”
“Aunt can’t bear to leave you either.” The Empress Dowager hugged her gently. Hua Xiangyi snuggled against her like she did when she was little, listening as the Empress Dowager said, “When I married Emperor Guangcheng, I was only fifteen. That year I left Dicheng, the one thing I couldn’t bear parting with the most was my family’s swing. I liked sitting on it. With each swing in the wind, I could hear the clamor beyond those high walls. My mother coaxed me and told me that after I came to the Imperial Palace of Qudu, the Emperor would build me an identical swing as long as I wanted it.”
Hua Xiangyi stayed still and silent.
The Empress Dowager was the person most favored by Emperor Guangcheng, yet what Emperor Guangcheng gave was not what the Empress Dowager wanted. The moment she set foot into Qudu, she discovered that all the doting her husband showered on her was merely fleeting, like the clouds in the sky. She had to vie endlessly with countless women in the harem just for that one moment of joy.
In Qudu, the most worthless thing of all was love.
The Empress Dowager patted Hua Xiangyi’s head and said, “Since I came to Qudu, thirty-seven years have already passed by in a blink. Now my little baby niece is also to be wedded. I’ve really grown old. In Qudu, I realized that men are powerful in this world because they can take the imperial exams and serve as officials to rise in rank; they can also ride horses into battles whilst wielding spears. Us women are taken into lady’s chambers and taught virtue and precepts. No matter how talented and intelligent you are with a thirst for knowledge, there will come a time when you have to eventually marry.”
The Empress Dowager’s eyes were calm.
“When Father taught me, he said that in this world, he and the Emperor would be the sky above my head. How ridiculously funny. Becoming the Empress means that I share the empire equally with the Emperor. Who could be the sky above my head? No one! My brothers at home are all useless and muddleheaded. Generation after generation, the Hua Clan can only rely on marrying off daughters to keep up the appearance of an affluent clan; yet we aren’t allowed to make a single complaint. What kind of kinship is this? Since the world wants to differentiate between the strong and weak to determine success and failure, then I, too, can emerge victor.”
The Empress Dowager stroked Hua Xiangyi’s temples.
“Remember this: this time, it is not Qi Shiyu who chose you but you who chose him. I may be defeated in the days to come, but it certainly won’t be now. My baby niece is going to Qidong not because there is no other option, but to bide your time and ready yourself for action. No matter what happens in the future, you may sigh, but you must never wallow in self-resentment and self-pity. In this game of chess with the world at stake, one can only make a move with no regrets. Since we are surrounded and eyed by a pack of wolves with no way of escape, then we shall fight them to the bitter end.”
The bamboo tube in the palace hall swung lightly. Hua Xiangyi slowly grasped the Empress Dowager’s hand back.
“I will not forget Aunt’s teachings.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The Feast of A Hundred Officials was on Yuanchun1 night. Local officials entered the capital one after another. There were a lot fewer family feasts and banquets this year, as they all knew that Hai Liangyi was keeping a close watch on them. Even coming together in great numbers could turn into evidence of clique forming. It had not been long since Li Jianheng’s ascension to the throne. Everyone all wanted to use the Feast of A Hundred Officials as an opportunity to observe this new master of theirs.
They still did not know which way the wind was blowing in Qudu, so everyone spoke and acted with prudence. Only the matter of Hua the Third spread like wildfire, leaving Qi Zhuyin with nowhere else to vent her unhappiness.
Xiao Chiye was still secretly investigating the Eight Great Clans in recent days, but this matter had also piqued his interest. It just happened that Xiao Jiming had entered the capital, so both brothers had a chat in the residence.
“The Hua Clan wants to rise again from the ashes. No matter how much of a lecher Old Commander Qi is, he must not agree to this marriage.” Xiao Chiye said off-handedly as he took out Libei Armored Cavalry’s current year expenditure accounts for a look.
“That’s really hard to say.” Xiao Jiming sat at the table and flipped through the military affairs.
Xiao Chiye raised his eyes and asked, “How would this benefit his Qidong?”
Xiao Jiming endorsed the document with his name and said, “You’re in Qudu, and you have taken over the Eight Great Training Divisions. Haven’t you checked the Eight Great Training Divisions’ accounts?”
Xiao Chiye responded, “I took a look at the account when the Court of Judicial Review was purged. The surplus money and military provisions from the Eight Great Training Divisions were all supplied to the Imperial Army this year to make up for the shortfall. What’s wrong?”
Xiao Jiming pondered over the document for a moment and said, “When Hua Siqian was still alive, the annual salary and provisions for the Eight Great Training Division was several times higher than that of the Bianjun Commandery. The money that Xi Gu’an couldn’t account for—Where could it have gone? Since Hua Siqian could have two accounts for one payment, then couldn’t the Empress Dowager have kept another account book? Money comes and goes like flowing water, but the audit remains a constant. As long as he could swap the auditing official to his own and place the said official right under the Eight Great Training Divisions’ noses, they could write the account book in any way they so desire every year. The Hua Clan’s properties have been searched and their possessions, confiscated. But who would dare to touch the Empress Dowager’s private coffers? This money is now Hua Xiangyi’s dowry. Whether it’s for official or personal reasons, Qi Shiyu ought to be tempted.”
Looking displeased, Xiao Chiye said, “The current commander-in-chief of Qidong Five Commanderies’ military forces is Qi Zhuyin. Qi Zhuyin will not agree to it.”
“Even so.” Xiao Jiming finally looked at Xiao Chiye. “She can’t stop it.”
Xiao Chiye lay down and thought for a while before saying, “All these years, the Qi Clan has had a pretty good relationship with us. If Qi Shiyu really marries Hua the Third, Libei will no longer be Qidong’s buddy.”
“That’s of little importance. Once the Biansha Twelve Tribes come attacking, everyone still has to fight side by side.” Xiao Jiming said, “With Hua the Third, the Qidong Five Commanderies’ Garrison Troops will have money.”
“Then tell them to buy Libei’s horses in the future.” There was a cold, tough glint in Xiao Chiye’s eyes. “How long can the Empress Dowager’s private coffer last? Providing for 200,000 soldiers is not as simple as raising 20 dogs. The consumption of military expenditure is alarming. It’s definitely not something a single person can sustain.”
“If the Empress Dowager has the Qi Clan to assist her, then the impasse in Qudu can be broken.” Xiao Jiming said, “Once power returns to her hand, she will be able to recoup the money.”
Xiao Chiye sat up again and said, “This marriage must not come to pass.”
Xiao Jiming said, “There’s still a way.”
Xiao Chiye looked towards him and said, “The easiest is to kill Hua the Third.”
Xiao Jiming looked at him in surprise and said, “You are also a thorn in others’ flesh now. The Eight Great Clan will only be too anxious for you to make a move.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Rumors are rife now. If we try to stop it after the new year, it’d be too late.”
Xiao Jiming pondered it over in silence. After a while, he said, “If the Empress Dowager wants to put this marriage together, then she must show herself, and the Feast of A Hundred Officials is her only opportunity. This matter is of great importance. Hai Liangyi might not necessarily be willing to let it happen. When the time comes, there will be a war of words.”
“The Hua clan has three generations of daughters who were married away to Qidong. If we were to delve into it seriously, then Hua the Third might really turn out to be Qi Shiyu’s distant blood relative.” Xiao Chiye set aside the book and suddenly burst out laughing. “No… I want Hua the Third to become a distant blood relative of Qi Shiyu. This marriage must not come to pass.”
Xiao Chiye got up and pushed the door open to call for Zhao Hui.
“It’s the Spring Festival.” Xiao Chiye said. “You still have yet to see your younger sister.”
Zhao Hui looked at Xiao Jiming, who smiled faintly.
Zhao Hui understood and said, “I’ll pay her a visit tomorrow morning.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Han Cheng, the new Commander-in-chief of the Imperial Bodyguards, was the third son of di birth from the Han Clan, one of the Eight Great Clans. He used to be the Assistant Commander of the Eight Great Training Divisions. During the Nanlin Hunt, he happened to be on a break. He did not follow Xi Gu’an, nor did he heed the Empress Dowager’s instructions. Rumor had it that he was still asleep when the Imperial Army knocked on his door. As such, he escaped the autumn wind2 that had purged the Hua Faction.
But Shen Zechuan knew that this man was someone Xue Xiuzhuo had planted there.
On the eve of the Feast of A Hundred Officials, the Imperial Bodyguards sorted out their duty arrangements. According to the plan, Shen Zechuan had to remain before the Emperor, so it came as no surprise when he got the waist tablet.
Han Cheng personally delivered the waist tablet to Shen Zechuan. Both men were inside the Imperial Bodyguards’ office. He said, “Everything is in order, except the easterly wind.3 When the time comes, I’ll be at the side too. No matter what, His Majesty mustn’t be hurt.”
“Of course.” Shen Zechuan hung up the waist tablet and said with a smile, “This time, we will be depending on His Excellency the Commander-in-chief.”
Han Cheng felt apprehensive, but it would not do for him to reveal it. So he could only repeat, “If this matter fails and gets exposed, you and I will be sentenced to death for this crime. But if it succeeds, then the Imperial Bodyguards will be able to swipe a slice of the pie from the hands of the Imperial Army. Everyone will live well from then on, and good days will be upon us.”
“Please rest assured, Your Excellency.” Shen Zechuan said with a serious expression. “We brothers are of one mind. Nothing will go wrong.”
Seeing how composed and confident he was, Han Cheng breathed a sigh of relief.
Outside, the snow fell increasingly harder. Even by the time it was dawn, it never stopped.
◈ ◈ ◈
Before the Feast of A Hundred Officials, there was a sacrificial ceremony.4 The Imperial Army was already on the alert and ready for battle early in the morning. Xiao Chiye was neatly dressed in his court attire today. When he strode through the palace gates, he came face to face with Han Cheng. Just as he was exchanging conventional greetings with the latter, he saw Shen Zechuan.
“The Left Guard stands guard before the Emperor.” Xiao Chiye asked Han Cheng, as he looked at Shen Zechuan and pretended not to be acquainted with the latter, “So why is it assigned to Imperial Bodyguards of the Company Commander rank and below?”
“The Imperial Bodyguards have now been reorganized, and many positions have been left vacant.” Han Cheng said and looked back. “The ones who were picked are all first-rate experts. Many of them are disadvantaged by the fact that the year for promotion is not upon them yet, so they all seem to be of junior positions.”
Xiao Chiye was on guard when he saw Shen Zechuan. But even if he could suppress the Imperial Bodyguards a notch, he did not have the authority to command the other party to swap the men. Because no matter how much the Imperial Bodyguards was inhibited, both it and the Eastern Depot took commands directly from the Emperor. As long as Li Jianheng said nothing, anyone else who gave orders summarily would be overstepping their authority.
As if knowing what he was thinking, Shen Zechuan exchanged glances with him with eyes that spoke of a meaning Xiao Chiye could not read.
Ahead of them, the Domesticated Elephants Office had already herded the elephants out. Li Jianheng was about to step out of the hall soon. Unable to stay for long, Xiao Chiye strode forward and left.
This was the first time Li Jianheng held the ceremonial greatsword in his hands. It was so heavy he almost could not lift it. Even before he stepped out of the palace doors, he already felt his neck aching with that royal crown atop his head. This coronation attire,5 which had him shouldering the sun and the moon and bearing the stars on his back,6 finally revealed in him a trace of sober, imposing bearing from his typical gleeful and playful attitude.
Li Jianheng’s palms were sweating. He held up the greatsword before striding out of the door.
The court elephants, draped with red velvet and gold saddles, stood at both sides. The various officials kowtowed and shouted out wishes of longevity upon the Emperor. Li Jianheng stood atop the stairs, his broadened field of vision taking in the panorama of thick clouds in the east, with skies and lands cloaked in a blanket of boundless snow. He stood up high above, so high it was almost as if he was up there in the clouds. The deafening sounds of “long live, Your Majesty” reverberated in his ears. Li Jianheng’s heartbeat quickened. Pleasant surprise gradually washed over his face as his eyes successively moved down from Hai Liangyi to Xiao Jiming to all living beings in the world kneeling before him. He was the one and only supreme ruler!
This is how it feels like to be the Emperor.
Li Jianheng could not help but grasp the greatsword tightly. In this grand show of obeisances made to him, he felt as if he had obtained the strength and courage to contend with Heaven. This feeling was poles apart from the feeling of sitting in the Imperial Court. It was the thrill of being kowtowed to for the first time ever since the hunting grounds.
Li Jianheng advanced along the long stairs and walked towards the ceremonial terrace. He walked very, very slowly, reveling in this entire journey of honor and glory.
Of the tens of thousands of people, only Shen Zechuan slowly raised his head. He looked along the tall stairs past Li Jianheng’s figure, where he, too, saw the dark and gloomy sky amidst the dancing snow.
◈ ◈ ◈
As the feast began, the Court of Imperial Entertainments began to dish out meals, while the Imperial Winery followed on their heels to serve wine without pause. Li Jianheng was fond of sweets, so the Imperial Bakery made quite a number of silk-nested tiger’s eye candies.
Li Jianheng sat on the Dragon Throne, with the Empress Dowager and Hua Xiangyi below him, followed by Muru, who had just been conferred the title of Imperial Concubine. Shen Zechuan and Han Cheng stood at the bottom of the steps, opposite the Imperial Army. A eunuch from the Imperial Food Service kneeled behind Shen Zechuan to the right. Every dish on Li Jianheng’s table had to be first tasted by the Imperial Food Service eunuch.
Li Jianheng was in high spirits tonight. He repeatedly urged all those present to drink up, while he himself was somewhat intoxicated. Sitting on top, he said, “Ever since I’ve ascended to the throne, I’ve been fortunate to be assisted by wise talents. With a clear mirror7 like Secretariat Elder Hai by my side, there isn’t a day I dare to forget to self-reflect.”
He began to shoot his mouth off as soon as he drank too much.
“I’m very grateful to Secretariat Elder Hai, and I wish to regard Secretariat Elder Hai as the Second Father8 of the Court. Such honor and glory have never been accorded to past Secretariat Elders before. Now, I shall give Secretariat Elder…”
How could he speak of such words? The way he put it drained the color from Hai Liangyi’s face. Hai Liangyi had already got up in astonishment, wanting to kneel in protest. At the same time, Li Jianheng belched from the wine, still waving his hand.
“No need for Secretariat Elder to panic. It’s what I should do…”
“I think this is improper.” The Empress Dowager looked at Hai Liangyi and paused for a moment. It was as if she saw through Hai Liangyi’s shock at that very moment. Turning to Li Jianheng, she said softly, “Secretariat Elder Hai is the leader revered by all scholars in the world. His character is solemn and dignified. Since entering the court to serve as an official, he has had clean hands. He speaks bluntly and resolutely. If His Majesty were to equate this kind of trusted aide to a Second Father, then even if this would demonstrate Your Majesty’s favor, the Secretariat Elder’s intent to criticize social evils of the times for public interests would be lost.”
Seeing the Empress Dowager’s mild demeanor, Li Jianheng laughed and said, “In the past, King Xiang9 valued relationships and respected Fan Zeng10 as his Second Father. Today, I want to express my gratitude for Secretariat Elder’s assistance too, and address him as Second Father. It sounds intimate, and the title itself would give me pause for self-reflection! Secretariat Elder, Secretariat Elder, so how about it?”
Hai Liangyi, already kowtowing, said, “This absolutely mustn’t be done!”
It was as if Li Jianheng was splashed in the face with cold water. That sternly uttered phrase of “mustn’t be done” put a damper on his enthusiasm, making him displeased. His expression underwent a few changes before he eventually forced a smile and said, “It’s just a form of address for me to be on more intimate terms with the Secretariat Elder. So what does it matter?”
Hai Liangyi said, “Your Majesty is the sovereign, poles apart from an overlord11 confined to a narrow corner. This old subject was born in the mountain ridges of Hezhou. I’m truly nothing but an uncouth, lowly person. How can I share the same address of ‘father’ as the sagely Emperor Guangcheng?!”
Li Jianheng’s original intention was to win over the hearts of Hai Liangyi as well as all the scholars in the world. He wanted to use this to affirm that he was not an idiot who disrespected learning. But that was all the few books he had read. How could he have known that a mere address could evoke such vehement rejection from Hai Liangyi? He had no way to back down this very moment, like a man who found it difficult to dismount a tiger he had ridden.12 He even sobered up a few degrees.
Li Jianheng could not bring himself to insist on it and embarrass himself further, so he thought of playing dumb and glossing it over. Thus, he said, “If the Secretariat Elder is unwilling, then forget it…”
“My thinking is that,” Hai Liangyi said, “Those at the bottom will imitate the propensity of those at the top! Now that His Majesty has created this precedent tonight, then there will be people who will attempt to follow suit in the future. When that happens, they will collude to form cliques and factions that impede the imperial court, thereby jeopardizing the entire state. It has only been a month since the dust from the Hua Faction case settled. Past experiences, if not forgotten, will serve as a guide for the future. It’s truly improper for Your Majesty to drink until dead drunk tonight!”
Li Jianheng clenched the wine cup tightly in his hands and surveyed the crowd below. It was only when he saw the officials hanging their heads low and not daring to look directly at him that his fury eased off some. He could not flare up at Hai Liangyi, but he did not want to admit the errors of his way today either. He sat restlessly on this Dragon throne. Having tasted the sweetness of submission from all living beings, how could he willingly open himself up to censure?
He was the Emperor.
Li Jianheng’s eyes were already bloodshot from enduring it. He drank the last mouthful of wine and said, “… Let’s drop this matter. Help Secretariat Elder back to his seat.”
Hai Liangyi was aware that tonight was not the time to admonish him, but it was hard to change his frank and outspoken nature. “I still have something to say.”
Li Jianheng pursed his lips into a tight line and said nothing.
Silence reigned in the banquet hall. Without getting a response, Hai Liangyi continued to kneel in place. They were now at a deadlock. No one else touched their chopsticks. Even the music from the reed instruments had ceased.
Suddenly, a “clack” rang out.
Xiao Chiye laid down his chopsticks at his own seat and laughed out loud, “It delights me to see the relationship between Li Jianheng and Secretariat Elder. The so-called sagely ruler and virtuous subject is nothing more than precisely this, with the Emperor and his subjects in harmonious council on state affairs, so the ancient saying goes. The presence of such a sagely ruler and upstanding official in Dazhou means that the age of prosperity is sure to fall upon us soon.”
“It’s the blessing of the officials that His Majesty advocates freedom of speech and is receptive to criticisms.” Xue Xiuzhuo raised his cup for a toast, “It’s the new year tonight. Why not offer a toast to this sacred scene?”
The group of officials lifted their cups and said their greetings in unison.
Li Jianheng felt a little appeased amidst the sounds of greetings and wishes. On seeing a still kneeling Hai Liangyi, he could not refrain from letting loose a sigh. “Secretariat Elder, please rise.”
With the crisis averted, the Empress Dowager looked at Xiao Chiye for a moment before she prompted, “It’s said that a man’s lifelong wish to start a family and establish one’s career. Does Ce’ an have a betrothal candidate in mind?”
There was a flash in Shen Zechuan’s eyes as he looked towards Xiao Chiye too.
Xiao Chiye smiled without the slightest scruple and answered, “To reply Your Majesty, which of the noble ladies in Qudu would be willing to marry down to me the way I am now? Besides, it’s not my aspiration to settle down.”
The Empress Dowager said, “The Viceroy is too humble. Up-and-coming upstarts in the capital are few and far between nowadays. With your appearance, there will be beauties beckoning to you even when you cross the bridge on the eastern street. Hereditary Prince, if you don’t urge him, it may then be too late.”
Xiao Jiming smiled too and replied, “My dear Father at home thinks his temperament is still volatile. He’s afraid he would hold up the marriage and life of a maiden from some family.”
The Empress Dowager turned her head aside once again and looked at Li Jianheng with a smile. “Look at how not a single one of them is in a hurry. When the Prince of Libei was at this age, he was already married for three to four years.”
Li Jianheng had not come around from the previous situation, and he was feeling a little lackadaisical at the moment. Not daring to leave the Empress Dowager hanging, he glanced at Xiao Chiye and replied, “Mother may not be aware, Ce’ an is reckless in nature. The common noble lady from Qudu will not be able to hold their own against him.”
“You can’t put it this way and delay his marriage for no good reason.” The Empress Dowager continued, “It doesn’t have to be a noble lady from Qudu. I’m aware that Marquis Helian’s daughter, Commandery Princess13 Zhaoyue, is of similar age with Ce’ an. It’s a good match.”
Marquis Helian was the Marquis of Chuancheng. He was a member of the Fei Clan, which was one of the Eight Great Clans. The Empress Dowager had indeed appointed a marriage14 well-matched in status.
Marquis Helian, Fei Kun, promptly gave a toast and looked in Xiao Jiming’s direction.
Xiao Chiye thought that the Empress Dowager would talk about Hua Xiangyi’s marriage at the banquet. He did not expect the discussion this time to come directly for him instead. Outright rejection was not an option, but neither could he marry straight off in a muddle.
Li Jianheng was caught off guard too. Dazed for a moment, he looked at Xiao Chiye and stuttered, “I… Commandery Princess Zhaoyue…” Struck by a brainwave, he said, “The nation is still in mourning. I’m afraid it’s not appropriate to appoint marriage at this time.”
“It’s one thing to pledge marriage and another to complete the marriage. We have not been having any good times lately. We could fix the betrothal first and wait for summertime to seek an auspicious day to hold the rites for the union.” The Empress Dowager added affectionately, “Zhaoyue and Xiangyi are bosom friends. It’d be perfect for them to get married at the same time.”
She remained tight-lipped about who Hua Xiangyi was going to marry and merely pushed Commandery Princess Zhaoyue to Xiao Chiye. This made it clear that she regarded Xiao Chiye’s marriage as a state affair and Hua Xiangyi’s marriage as a private matter.
Qi Zhuyin’s expression was solemn, but unexpectedly enough, she said nothing.
Seeing this, Lu Guangbai knew that it did not bode well and guessed that Qi Shiyu had already given his approval and told Qi Zhuyin not to say anything. However, getting married to Commandery Princess Zhaoyue was absolutely out of the question. If this marriage was decided and the Empress Dowager lifted Zhaoyue’s status to Princess, Xiao Chiye would be marrying a princess. The Consort of Dazhou had no power, with only a title in name. It would strip Xiao Chiye of his military power in Qudu, which he had only just grabbed on to.
The wine in Xiao Chiye’s throat burned like a raging fire. He had already risen to his feet, but then he saw the Empress Dowager smiling again.
“The Hereditary Prince is married to the daughter of the Lu Clan’s Earl of Biansha from the Bianjun Commandery. Your little son is now around four to five years old, right?”
Xiao Jiming replied, “He is now four years old.”
“The Grandson-Heir is already four years old, yet General Lu still does not have a wife.” The Empress Dowager looked towards Lu Guangbai and added, “Bianjun is a desert land. It’s not easy for the General to guard and defend it. Starting a family early will reduce one of the Earl of Biansha’s concerns. General Lu seems to me to be of similar age to the Hereditary Prince. Why? Is it also not the General’s aspiration to start a family?”
Lu Guangbai was momentarily at a loss for words. “To reply Your Majesty——”
The Empress Dowager continued, “Zhaoyue’s disposition is lively and playful. Frankly speaking, Ce’ an is indeed quite reckless. The General seems a lot more reliable instead. Ce’ an, what do you think about it?”
If Xiao Chiye did not marry Commandery Princess Zhaoyue, it would fall upon Lu Guangbai to marry her. This headache laid out in the banquet was precisely meant to put him in a dilemma.
Xiao Chiye had already sent Zhao Hui to bribe someone from the Ministry of Rites. Once Her Majesty opened her mouth tonight, he would testify to the fact that Hua Xiangyi was Qi Shiyu’s distant relative related by blood. With the law of propriety in the way and a wide gap in seniority, this marriage would fall apart. But the Empress Dowager would not give him the chance to counter at all. Who would have guessed that it would be his marriage that would be handed over tonight?
It was at this moment Xiao Chiye saw the look in Shen Zechuan’s eyes. As both men stood under the watchful gaze of everyone present with this thorny issue pressing down upon them, their eyes met for the briefest flicker of an instant.
Xiao Chiye strode a step forward and said, “To reply Your Majesty.”
The Imperial Food Service eunuch was transferring dishes on behalf of the Imperial Bakery. He submissively divided out the portion he was to sample and picked up the chopsticks before looking at Li Jianheng who was about an arm away from him.
Li Jianheng was still undecided as he listened to their confrontation with a frown. Sensing the lack of movement from the eunuch near him, he cast a sidelong glance over and asked, “Why are you standing—”
In the twinkling of an eye, the eunuch clenched the gold-clad chopsticks and, with a lightning move of his hand, stabbed it right towards Li Jianheng’s neck!
It happened so abruptly that Li Jianheng did not even have the time to react. All he could do was to watch helplessly as the tip of that chopstick came stabbing towards him. His entire body stiffened as his eyes betrayed the fear in them. He could not even move his fingers.
In the split second the color drained from everyone’s faces, Shen Zechuan had already drawn out Yang Shan Xue. The cold glint of the straight blade flashed past.
Li Jianheng’s throat tightened as he yelled as loud as he could. As soon as he did so, hot, fresh blood splattered onto the front and hem of his robe. Li Jianheng shouted at the top of his voice, “PROTECT ME—”
The eunuch’s head rolled forward and fell onto Li Jianheng’s body. Li Jianheng held on tightly to both sides of the dragon throne for support. Under this heavy stench of blood, he watched as someone caught hold of that headless body which was toppling over towards him.
Shen Zechuan cast aside the body and turned around indifferently to command, “Protect His Majesty!”
Ge Qingqing immediately drew his sword. Snow-white glint cut through the air with a “swish” as the Imperial Bodyguards stood before the Imperial Army like a fortified, impregnable city, becoming Li Jianheng’s primary shield.
With the Imperial Bodyguards between them, Xiao Chiye had to look up before he could see Shen Zechuan’s face.
The balanced status quo they had always maintained was finally shattered right this very moment. Shen Zechuan looked down at him from high above and threw him a meaningful smile. That expression in his eyes was as concrete as it could be as it trampled down upon Xiao Chiye’s chest.
- 元春 Yuanchun, also known as 元旦 Yuandan, i.e., the lunar new year’s day.
- 秋风 literally autumn wind, but it also refers to a powerful force that quickly and easily sweeps away all things rotten or on the decline. (秋风扫落叶)
- 万事妥当，只欠东风, i.e., everything all is ready except what is crucial
- 祭祀 offering of sacrifices to the gods or ancestors
Putting this image because he’s handsome (See example of coronation attire historical portrait)
冕服 Mianfu, literally means coronation attire, is the highest level of formal dress worn by Emperors and the royal family in special ceremonial events such as coronation, morning audience, ancestral rites, worship, new year’s audience, and other ceremonial activities.
- “肩戴(挑)日月，背负星辰” Literally “wearing the sun and moon on the shoulders and carrying the stars on the back.” The sun, moon, and constellations are part of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty on the Emperor’s ceremonial robe, with sun and moon on each shoulder, and stars on the back or around the neck, which later came to be the established style of the Emperors’ coronation robe.
- Also refers to someone impartial and insightful
- 亚父 term of respect for a man that’s second only to father, i.e., like a father.
- 项王 Xiang Wang, or King Xiang, refers to Xiang Yu, one of the rebels causing the downfall of the Qin dynasty who became the most powerful warlord, but was finally defeated by Liu Bang.
- 范增 Fan Zeng, originally an advisor to Xiang Yu’s uncle, Xiang Liang, and later became Xiang Yu’s advisor. Xiang Yu respectfully addressed Fan Zeng as his “Second Father”, or Yafu.
- Refers to Xiang Yu
- 骑虎难下, lit. he who rides a tiger finds it difficult to dismount, i.e., to have no way to back down (or find it hard to stop what one is doing).
- 郡主 Commandery Princess; daughter of a crown prince or a first-rank prince.
- 指婚 A marriage (typically of a royal descendant) which is decided by the Emperor. (i.e., when the Emperor plays matchmaker).