Terrified, Li Jianheng kicked that human head away with his leg shaking. He no longer cared about keeping up appearances. Right this moment, he wanted so much to shrink into the Dragon Throne. There was a roaring in his ears as he watched the fresh blood soak through his robe. It felt as though someone was strangling him by the throat; for a long time, he could not utter a single word.
Shen Zechuan kneeled on one knee and said with a severe countenance, “Don’t be afraid, Your Majesty. The assassin has already been executed. This humble subject was late in coming to your protection. For this sin, I deserve death!”
Li Jianheng’s limbs seemed to be paralyzed as he struggled with the effort to grasp hold of the armrests of the throne and shift his gaze from the corpse to Shen Zechuan’s face. He almost choked with sobs as he grabbed Shen Zechuan’s sleeve and said, “Not late… not late at all! You… Lanzhou, you’ve done well! I, I almost…”
“Summon the Imperial Physician!” Ignoring the bloody corpse, the Empress Dowager hurried over. She held Li Jianheng’s hand and called out softly to him, “Your Majesty, Your Majesty?”
Li Jianheng was still in a panic from the fear. He swallowed his saliva with some difficulty and hastily pulled out his hand from the Empress Dowager’s palms to grasp Shen Zechuan’s sleeve tightly. He pleaded, “Stay here. Lead the Imperial Bodyguards and remain here to protect me!”
“The Imperial Bodyguards are His Majesty’s guards.” Shen Zechuan said without blinking an eye. “For His Majesty, the Imperial Bodyguards will willingly brave through fire and water. This humble subject will immediately escort Your Majesty back to Mingli Hall.”
Everyone at the banquet was still badly shaken. Xue Xiuzhuo took a few steps forward and said sharply, “Arrest and detain everyone from the Imperial Food Service, Court of Imperial Entertainments, Imperial Bakery, and Imperial Winery. To think there is an assassin hiding among the Son of Heaven’s personal attendants. All those involved in the arrangements of the inner palace eunuchs and guards’ defenses must be held accountable!”
“Who is in charge of patrols tonight?” The Empress Dowager asked.
The banquet hall fell silent. Xiao Chiye bowed and said, “To reply Your Majesty, it’s this subject.”
The Empress Dowager did not pursue further. Instead, she looked at Li Jianheng, as did the other officials.
For this eunuch to be someone from the Imperial Food Service, he first had to have a clean family background and a clean history. The time he entered the palace, the services and offices among the Twenty-four Yamens he had worked in, and even which inner palace eunuchs he had been on good terms with in the past, all had to be investigated. Not only that, even the people he came into contact with had to be checked and recorded in the official files. Xiao Chiye was responsible for the guards’ defenses. He was supposed to vet all these matters thoroughly before the Feast of A Hundred Officials. The assassin had walked in through his layers of defenses. There was no way he could escape responsibility.
With his lips pale as he dripped cold sweat, Li Jianheng said, “Take the eunuchs of the various services into custody first. I…”
Before he could finish his words, he fainted.
◈ ◈ ◈
Tonight was destined to be a sleepless one. Li Jianheng was lying unconscious in the inner room. The Imperial Physicians gathered in a group, while the Empress Dowager listened to their diagnosis behind the hanging curtain once more. Hai Liangyi waited on the side, as instructed explicitly by the Empress Dowager.
Han Cheng led the Imperial Bodyguards to stand guard with their swords under the eaves, while the court officials kneeled outside. The night of Yuanchun1 was incredibly cold. Many elderly officials were already shivering from the freezing cold, hanging on with their sheer will alone.
The whole palace, shrouded in a particularly chilling atmosphere, was dead silent.
Xiao Chiye was not among them. He needed to arrest the inner palace eunuchs with the relevant personnel from the Ministry of Justice and the Chief Surveillance Bureau. Furthermore, the Imperial Army also had to be detained. The Imperial Army’s Assistant Commander responsible for screening the manpower tonight had his waist tablet suspended. Together with the eunuchs, he was thrown into prison.
There was no fire brazier set up inside the hall. Only the lanterns were lit.
Xiao Chiye was sitting on the lower right of the Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu. On the left was the Chief Surveillance Bureau’s Left Censor-in-chief, Cen Yu, and Right Censor-in-chief, Fu Linye.
If this had proceeded like before, Xiao Chiye would have held the same authority as the Minister of Justice to conduct trials, which would have placed him on equal footing and seating as the latter. But this time, to avoid arousing suspicion, he could only make do with the lower right seating and hand the authority of supervision over to the two head officials from the Chief Surveillance Bureau.
This year was a period of troubled times, where a fresh wave of problems rose before the former had subsided. The Three Judicial Offices had never judged cases consecutively like this; what’s more, all the cases were major ones that concerned the Emperor’s life.
Kong Qiu finished the tea that had cooled and said nothing as they waited for the prisoner to be summoned. In fact, from the moment they had sat here, no one had dared to make small talk. Everyone knew that it was not the time to jest and joke around. All of them wore solemn expressions on their faces.
Xiao Chiye sat in his seat and rotated his thumb ring in silence as he lost himself in contemplation.
They had come prepared for this case, just like Xiaofuzi’s case back then. It became all the more convoluted in the instant it had occurred. If one could look beyond the facade the moment it happened, it would look like countless strings being pulled behind the scenes, concealing a deep-seated motive.
The inner eunuchs from the Imperial Food Service had to test the dishes for the Son of Heaven. As such, each one from top to bottom had been thoroughly vetted for all three generations. To use this kind of person and turn him into an assassin would be extremely difficult. Yet, it was also very easy.
First of all, it must be someone who could come into contact with the inner palace eunuchs, or a eunuch who was hiding in the palace but working for powers on the outside. Only these two kinds of people could coerce or entice the eunuch into assassinating the Emperor.
Xiao Chiye suddenly remembered something at this point and stopped turning his thumb ring. Right at this time, the summoned prisoner was brought over. It was the Imperial Army’s Assistant Commander.
Kong Qiu cut the crap and went straight to the point. “As the Imperial Army’s Assistant Commander, you are the one responsible for examining the armed staff of the Imperial Army who would stand before the Emperor tonight, as well as the eunuch the Imperial Food Service arranged to taste-test the dishes. How much do you know about this eunuch?”
The name of the Assistant Commander was Meng Rui, a man from a military household2 Xiao Chiye had promoted in the sixth year of Xiande.3 He was a very prudent man who originally served as the Office Manager4 in the Imperial Army. With a gaze that never wavered, he answered in a steady voice, “The eunuch assassin went by the name Guisheng. He was twenty-six and a native of the City of Chuncheng. His father, a resident of Baishui Street in Chuncheng, passed away from illness in the sixth year of Xiande. As the only child in the family, Guisheng entered the palace in the year of Yongyi and had been here for twelve years since. He joined the Imperial Food Service in the first year of Xiande and started to taste dishes for the former Emperor from the fourth year of Xiande onwards. He had no special hobbies, and there is hardly anyone he associated with.”
Kong Qiu thought for a moment and asked, “Who was the one who arranged for him to taste the dishes tonight?”
Meng Rui answered, “The Female Official of the Imperial Food Service, Fuling.”
Kong Qiu first looked at the men from the Chief Surveillance Bureau, then at Xiao Chiye before he nodded and said, “The weapon used for the assassination was the golden chopsticks used by the Emperor. The Imperial Army could do nothing about it even if they did a body search or a background check on him. How about this? Assistant Commander Meng, please wait for a moment. Summon Fuling of the Imperial Food Service.”
Meng Rui retreated to the side. From start to end, he never made eye contact with Xiao Chiye.
Xiao Chiye was actually not as nervous as the others expected him to be. He knew fully well that this assassination could not strip him of his military power. Perhaps he would be punished and have his salary reduced after this incident, but these would not have any significant impact on him. When the incident happened, he was too far away. There was no way he could beat Shen Zechuan to it and save the Emperor. Plus, the seating arrangement was planned according to the customs, so no one could criticize it either. And there was one more thing. That is, the speed at which Shen Zechuan had drawn his sword back then was simply too fast. In almost the blink of an eye, his blade had already returned to its sheath, and the assassin’s head had toppled to the ground. This differed completely from the speed he had exhibited last time on that rainy night. Even if Xiao Chiye had been standing beside him at the time of incident, he might not have necessarily been faster than him. But it was what was going to transpire after the assassination that bothered Xiao Chiye the most. He had to plan ahead and save for a rainy day. He needed to curb the possibility of this matter burning its way to him.
Xiao Chiye thought again of that final expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes.
The Imperial Bodyguards’ usual practice was to have a period of promotion once every eight years. The subordinates would first be assigned to one of the twelve offices according to their household register classification,5 then promoted according to their on-the-job performance. There were just too few opportunities for an exception to be made. Shen Zechuan’s family background was unusual. Although he was now absolved from sin and exempted from punishment, he still could not be considered to have military status. If he wanted to lead and command the Imperial Bodyguards, then he had to find a way to get promoted.
The reasons Xiao Chiye had been suppressing the Imperial Bodyguards these few months were to consolidate the Imperial Army’s influence and clout, and to guard against Shen Zechuan’s advancements through the ranks. The situation in Qudu was chaotic, yet it was also as distinct as the waters of the Jing and Wei Rivers.6 Everyone was already familiar with one another. All of them collaborated with one another for their own interests, then fought with each other for their own interests. Only Shen Zechuan was an unpredictable variable. Xiao Chiye had tried every possible way to sound and feel him out, but he never found out what Shen Zechuan’s actual intent was.
If he could not figure out his motive, then he could not cooperate with him with peace of mind.
Xiao Chiye had hoped that Shen Zechuan could stay quietly at the bottom rank. But the assassination case this time was Shen Zechuan’s answer.
He was his own blade. He would kill out a path for his own. He would not deign to be at the beck and call of others. He wanted to tear others apart, not to obey.
What could a night of bedroom pleasure change?
That was the howls of their resentment being vented in the pitch-dark night, a panting which stemmed from the entanglement of both men’s desires. It was amidst the collision of bodies and pounding of flesh that gave rise to the feeling of fellow sufferers commiserating with one another. But this was still not enough to hamper both men from making the choices they did.
Xiao Chiye would never give up the power in his hands. This was the blade on which his survival depended. If he could not return to Libei, then he must grasp tightly onto this blade. Likewise, Shen Zechuan would not tolerate himself being subservient to others. He would not let others decide the course of his fate. He needed to rise through the ranks. He had to.
Xiao Chiye suddenly clenched his fist.
Seeing that Shen Zechuan was involved in the plotting of this case, then who were his accomplices?
◈ ◈ ◈
Li Jianheng had yet to regain consciousness. Shen Zechuan was switched off duties so he could get a little rest. As he wiped his hands in the office, he heard the door behind him open, followed by someone entering.
“According to the plan you spoke of, Han Cheng should be the one stepping forward to save the Emperor.” Xue Xiuzhuo rolled up his sleeves a little and washed his hands in the cold water basin. He smiled and said, “The few of us brothers have been played for fools by Your Excellency Shen.”
“The situation was critical.” Shen Zechuan did not look back. “If Han Cheng has that ability, then it wouldn’t matter to have him do the saving. But he just had to be slow. What can I do?”
“This matter won’t take Xiao’Er down. At most, he will just be impeached for governance negligence. You, however, showed your true colors before him this time. Even if you move up the ladder, you will not have an easy time in the future.”
“I’m in the same boat with Your Excellency, the Assistant Minister of the Court of Judicial Review. If I’m having a hard time…” Shen Zechuan looked back and said with a smile, “… then do you think you can rest easy?”
“I heard that there is a kind of mad dog ruthless enough to bite one of its own.” Xue Xiuzhuo dried his palms in the air and looked at Shen Zechuan. “Being on the same boat with someone who uses others as stepping stones this unreservedly will, instead, strike fear in one’s heart.”
“How can you say that?” Shen Zechuan said, “The ones who gain the upper hand tonight are all my brothers. Am I not the scapegoat before Xiao’Er who takes the fall for everyone? I’ll be a thorn in Xiao’Er’s flesh in the future. He ought to hate me to death right now.”
“The friendship between His Majesty and Xiao’Er runs deep. His act of saving His Majesty’s life at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds is the hardest to forget. Even if you stand out this time, you might not necessarily be able to top and replace Xiao’Er.”
“The first step is always the hardest.” Shen Zechuan smiled. “If His Majesty truly is grateful to Xiao’Er for saving his life, then he wouldn’t continue to keep him trapped in Qudu. The so-called gratitude of man is only worth so much.”
Xue Xiuzhuo wiped his hands and laughed for a moment before he said, “Although there was a slight deviation in our plan tonight, it was, nevertheless, still a success. Your Honor the Judge,7 please be sure to look out for me in the future.”
The Judge of the Imperial Bodyguards was a fifth-grade8 official post. By this, Xue Xiuzhuo was telling Shen Zechuan how much he could get during the conferment of reward in the days to come.
Shen Zechuan was not surprised. He said, “The people from the Imperial Food Service are going to stand trial. The Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu, is an impartial and incorruptible official. All of you better not buckle under his interrogations.”
“Since we dared to do it, then we aren’t afraid of them investigating.” Xue Xiuzhuo tidied up his sleeves and said courteously, “I hope we can continue to work together in the new year. May we soon get what our hearts desire.”
“I’m indebted to Your Excellency the Assistant Minister for looking after me.” Shen Zechuan stared at him and said genially, “No doubt I will fulfill this long-cherished wish.”
- 元春 Yuanchun, also known as 元旦 Yuandan, i.e., the lunar new year’s day.
- 军户 One of the three households sorted according to their occupation: civilian (民户), military (军户), and craftsman.
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor (Emperor Xiande, in this case) reigned.
- 都事 The sources legit said “office manager” lmfao
- 户籍 Household registers. In the Ming Dynasty, the central register was also known as the Yellow Register, where households were classified according to their occupation to provide basic taxation and recruitment data. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian (民户), military (军户), and craftsman.
泾渭分明 as different as the waters of the Jing River (clear) and the Wei River (muddy), i.e., poles apart from one another
- 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there was a Southern and Northern Prison (镇抚司) subordinated to the Imperial Bodyguards. The Southern Prison was in charge of interpreting military laws and managing military craftsmen while the Northern Prison was responsible for cases entrusted by the Emperor.
- 品 Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.