Li Jianheng had a nightmare.
He dreamed of that rainy night at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds, where the branches slapped at his face harshly as he covered his head and dodged frantically.
The horse he rode galloped wildly onward. Li Jianheng wanted to clutch the reins in fear, but Xiao Chiye suddenly turned around and grabbed him by the collar to toss him off the horse.
“Ce’an, save me!” Li Jianheng pleaded on his knees after falling to the ground. “Ce’an, Ce’an! We are brothers! Don’t leave me here!”
Xiao Chiye’s expression was grave amidst the flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. He faced him and said callously, “Knock him out and hoist him away!”
Li Jianheng watched with his snot and tears flowing as Chen Yang approached him. He could not help but feel so frightened that he moved backward and brandished his arms as he bellowed, “I … I’m the Emperor! How can you treat me this way?”
Li Jianheng’s back bumped into someone. He turned his head and looked back to see Emperor Xiande stooping over to grab hold of his wrist. He immediately called out, “Imperial Brother, Imperial Brother, save me!”
Emperor Xiande tightened his grip, his fingers digging into Li Jianheng’s flesh. He coughed blood and said in a frosty voice, “He who saves you today can kill you tomorrow! Do you understand?”
Li Jianheng struggled painfully, but he could not free his arm no matter what he did. The rain from the above suddenly turned into drops of something sticky. Li Jianheng touched it. His palm came away full of blood. He looked up, and a head tumbled down from the darkness with a “thud”.
With an inscrutable burst of strength, Li Jianheng pushed and kicked himself free from Emperor Xiande’s hand. Gasping, he crawled up from the mud and trembled as he kicked the human head aside before crying and shouting at the black shadows around him, “I’m the Emperor. I—I’m the Son of Heaven! Who wants to kill me? Who?!”
“Your Majesty.” Someone called him softly. “Your Majesty.”
Li Jianheng abruptly opened his eyes. He stared at the golden roof absent-mindedly and murmured, “Who wants to kill me… Who wants to kill me…”
The Empress Dowager wiped away the sweat for Li Jianheng with a handkerchief and bent over to say, “Jianheng, Imperial Mother is here!”
Sorrow overcame Li Jianheng. His mother had died early, and Emperor Guangcheng had never once looked at him in the eyes. In all the years he had indulged in carnal pleasures, no one had ever called him Jianheng.
“Imperial Mother…” Li Jianheng choked with sobs and cried out, “Mother!”
The Empress Dowager turned her head slightly, as though she was wiping away her tears, and said, “You’ve been out for the entire night. I was truly afraid. If you’re still in pain somewhere, you must tell me.”
Li Jianheng looked at the Empress Dowager and noticed that she was still wearing the ceremonial robe from last night. She must have been here watching over him the entire night. Li Jianheng immediately propped himself up and saw the gray hair on the Empress Dowager’s temples. Both her eyes were slightly red, and she looked so much more haggard.
Li Jianheng felt warm inside. He wiped his eyes, held the Empress Dowager’s arms, and said, “I’m sorry to have worried Mother. I’m fine.”
Hai Liangyi was kneeling outside, where he had also been keeping watch for the entire night. He knew that Li Jianheng had already woken up when he heard sounds of speaking inside and could not help but feel relieved.
A moment later, the palace maids entered with light movements to wait on Li Jianheng and help him wash up. The Empress Dowager personally held the medicine bowl and tasted it herself before feeding it to Li Jianheng.
Li Jianheng finished up the medicine. He still did not look too good, but his complexion was much better than last night. He put on his boots and walked out, where he saw a still kneeling Hai Liangyi. Greatly touched, he stepped forward to help Hai Liangyi up and said, “Secretariat Elder, I’m fine!”
Hai Liangyi almost could not stand up. Li Jianheng did not want him to continue keeping watch and consequently dismissed him along with all the major officials kneeling outside, leaving only Kong Qiu, Cen Yu, and Fu Linye, who had been investigating all night.
“What have you found out?” Li Jianheng asked impatiently, “Minister Kong, tell me quickly.”
Kong Qiu kowtowed and said, “The Ministry of Justice has been investigating through the night. Our investigations show that the eunuch assassin was named Guisheng. He was assigned by Fuling, a female official of the Imperial Food Service, to assume the duty of tasting the dishes at the Feast of A Hundred Officials.”
“Female official?” Li Jianheng wondered in astonishment. “Why is this female official trying to harm me?”
Kong Qiu replied, “The reason is unknown.”
Li Jianheng said anxiously, “You didn’t find out after investigating for the whole night?”
Kong Qiu exchanged glances with the other two men. After a moment of silence, he said, “Your Majesty is unaware, but Fuling, knowing that she can’t escape the long arm of the law, has already consumed poison to mute herself. She’s now awaiting her punishment.”
Understanding suddenly dawned on Li Jianheng. He said, “She’s a female official in the palace. Why would she do such a thing? She must be afraid of letting something slip under heavy torture, so she consumed poison first to make herself a mute! There must be an instigator behind this!”
Kong Qiu said again, “Your Majesty is wise. My two colleagues from the Chief Surveillance Bureau and I think so too. Hence, we dug deep into this woman and discovered that she still has an aged mother who resides in a remote corner alley on Donglong Street. Although her dwelling is small, it’s not something a mere female official of the Imperial Palace can afford. This humble subject continued investigating and discovered that she was indeed not the one who bought the house herself. Instead, it was a human broker of Donglong Street who let her stay there on credit.”
Li Jianheng was intimately acquainted with Donglong Street, and Kong Qiu’s words immediately roused his doubts. He said, “Since it’s only her and her widowed mother in the family, then, in all likelihood, there’ll be nothing of value she can put up as collateral for a house.”
Kong Qiu said, “Exactly. I find there to be many questionable doubts in this case, so I summoned the human broker over to question him and learned that it was on account of the Imperial Army that the human broker let her have the house on credit.”
Li Jianheng’s heart skipped a beat. He was on tenterhooks as he paused for a moment before asking, “What does this have to do with the Imperial Army?”
Kong Qiu said, “This was what Yuan Liu, a sixth-grade Judge1 of the Imperial Army’s Judicial Office, specifically told the human broker. Although Yuan Liu and Fuling aren’t betrothed, there’re long-standing rumors of an illicit affair between them.”
Li Jianheng suddenly rose and asked, “Does Viceroy Xiao know?”
Kong Qiu knew that he was on good terms with Xiao Chiye. For a moment, he could not tell if he intended to protect Xiao Chiye or was planning something else, so he could only answer truthfully, “The Viceroy pleaded to be unaware of this matter.”
Li Jianheng remained rooted in place. His expression underwent a few changes before he eventually said, “… There are many people in the Imperial Army. It stands to reason that he’s not in the know about this. Don’t disclose or make this matter known first. You may withdraw for now. Summon Han Cheng and Shen Zechuan in. I want to reward them!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Standing on the hardened snow, Xiao Chiye kicked the door to the torture prison open. The prison guard within had already gotten news of his arrival, so he hurriedly led Xiao Chiye inside.
Fuling, only twenty-three years of age, was locked up within. Because of the torture she received, she was now sitting motionlessly on the hay with her bun all disheveled.
Xiao Chiye stepped through the cell door. Chen Yang took off his cloak for him. He was so tall and imposing that the sight of him caused Fuling to tremble out of fear the moment he strode through the door.
Xiao Chiye was actually very dashing. He gave off a complicated vibe that was a blend of frivolousness and ferocity. As a result, he could be either a frivolous young master or a glacial lord of the Asura.2 He changed his mask freely, and once swapped, even his bearing would change to befit the occasion.
Right now, he was a noble young master who was just passing by this place.
Xiao Chiye first sized up the cell. He bent over slightly to look through that narrow window and saw that it was still the prison’s high walls outside. He could not help but lose interest. Retracting his gaze, he straightened up again, then turned his head and lowered his eyes to look at Fuling, who was on the ground.
Fuling clung to the wall, feeling as if those eyes were filled with innate contempt.
“Female official of the Imperial Food Service.” Xiao Chiye said.
Fuling did not raise her head and merely stared at his boots.
Chen Yang carried over a chair for Xiao Chiye to sit. He propped a knee and looked at the top of Fuling’s head. “Yuan Liu has a wife and concubines, yet he still risked the suspension of his waist tablet to arrange a residence for you. How gorgeous are you that he could even be coaxed into abandoning his own life? Raise your head. Let me see.”
Fuling shrank into herself and did not respond.
Xiao Chiye leaned back and said, “He’s old enough to be your father, and you’re still willing? Becoming a female official is different from becoming a palace maid. When you are released, you could at least be married to a descendant from a proper background. Yuan Liu is a sixth-grade official of insignificance, and a military ruffian to boot. He has neither affluence nor influence. Are you too blind or too infatuated to be choosing him?”
The prison cell was quiet.
“Let’s not talk about Yuan Liu for now. What could you possibly have used to coerce Guisheng into assassination? You don’t have money either, so the instigator must have been someone else. You’re now a mute, a scapegoat whose fate has been decided early on. Your master is a brilliant manipulator to use the likes of you all he can and kick you aside after. Whether you live or die has nothing to do with me. But since you implicated me, Xiao Ce’an, in this mess, then do you think you can just die easily like this?” Xiao Chiye chuckled. “I don’t think so, lady.”
Chen Yang turned around and nodded to the prison guard behind him. The clanking sounds of chains and shackles rang out as Yuan Liu, who was filthy all over, was dragged out.
Yuan Liu stumbled towards Fuling and snapped, “You bitch! To think you’d bring me down this way!”
Fuling trembled and crawled along the wall towards the other side. Yuan Liu grabbed hold of her ankle and said dismally, “What am I to you? I treated you so well, and this is how you repay me!”
Fuling’s tears would not stop as she was pulled back. She kicked Yuan Liu and let out a raspy, glottal scream.
Yuan Liu tugged at her and said, “When your elderly mother was critically sick, I carried her on my back to see the physician! I gave you whatever you wanted. You not only deceived me; you even want to drag my whole family to die with you! You despicable woman!”
The shackles made a sound as Yuan Liu, who had lost control of himself, was pulled back by Chen Yang. His arms were still outstretched as he said with a ferocious expression, “I will not let you off! I will never let you off, even when I become a ghost!”
Xiao Chiye looked again through the small window where he sat and saw a piece of the sky the size of a square cun3 outside. There was no snow today, only pale clouds piling up in the sky. He was indifferent to the drama of grudges being played out before him.
Yuan Liu sat on his heels on the ground as he bawled inconsolably. He then crawled towards Xiao Chiye and kowtowed to him while begging, “Viceroy, Viceroy! Forgive me this once! I’m begging you. I was bewitched and blinded by lust! I’m willing to slave it out for you like an ox or a horse as repayment for this favor!”
Xiao Chiye looked at him, “I’m not the one who holds your life in my hands. Spare me your begging and go beg her instead. Kowtow to her for the sake of all the young and old in your family. Consider it a repayment of the debt you owe your wives and sons for seeking the momentary pleasure of an affair behind their backs.”
Yuan Liu then turned to Fuling, begging and kowtowing, “Let me off! Can’t you just let me off? I have nothing to do with this matter! I’m begging you! I’m begging you! My whole family of eight—I don’t want them all to die here!”
Fuling shed tears but did not look at him.
Yuan Liu’s tears poured in torrents. Genuinely afraid now, he kowtowed until his forehead bled. He said, “Fuling… One night of husband and wife is worth a hundred days of gratitude… Even though we have yet to be married, the sentiments of these past years are still here! I’m begging you, please don’t pin this on me! I’ll be your son, your grandson in my next life! Please let me off! I wanted to give that residence to your elderly mother as a show of filial respect. How could you…” He was sobbing so hard that he almost choked as he struggled to continue, “How could you take it and… threaten my entire family’s lives with it? Do you not have a heart?”
Fuling hoarsely uttered something with a pained expression as she kowtowed to Yuan Liu too. Her mouth opened and shut as she mouthed words that were clearly “sorry”.
Yuan Liu moved forward on his knees and held Fuling by the arms. The blood streamed down his forehead as he cried sorrowfully, “I don’t want your kowtows! I want you to explain this clearly! I don’t want to die… Fuling! Don’t ruin me…”
On seeing this, Xiao Chiye commented, “Plotting an assassination will not land you a sentence of execution by decapitation. It’s fine if you want to die. But it’s such a pity for your mother to be this old and still have to endure the tortures. Do you not know the kind of place the Imperial Prison is? Being skinned and flayed are all possible outcomes if she were to fall into the Imperial Bodyguards’ hands.”
Fuling looked up and wept.
Xiao Chiye said, “Did your master not communicate this to you? I’ll make sure this case doesn’t end quickly. Another day of delay is another day of punishment, for you, for him, and for your mother. You can keep taking the tortures until I’m satisfied, then we can say our goodbyes.”
Fuling sobbed hatefully at him.
Xiao Chiye remained still and merely looked at her as he said, “Isn’t it said that you should look who the owner is before you beat up a dog? Now that you’ve bitten me, Xiao Ce’ an, then we shall all suffer together. I’ll whip you until your skin flays and your flesh is torn, until you’d rather die than live. Let’s see who will succumb first. Chen Yang, drag her elderly mother over.”
Chen Yang answered and exited the prison door.
Fuling suddenly screamed, but her throat was already damaged, and the scream sounded like the cry of a beast at the brink of desperation. She charged towards Xiao Chiye and pounced onto the ground, using her fingers to scrawl out characters.
Xiao Chiye leaned over and watched for a while before saying, “Give her paper and a brush. I want this to be written down in black and white.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Fuling was taken away by Chen Yang to sign her confession, leaving only Xiao Chiye and Yuan Liu in the prison cell. Seeing that Xiao Chiye was about to leave, Yuan Liu immediately grabbed hold of the corner of Xiao Chiye’s robe.
“V-Viceroy!” said Yuan Liu, “It’s all good now… Does that mean I can…”
Putting on his cloak, Xiao Chiye turned his head back and said, “When did you take up the post as a Judge at the Judicial Office?”
Yuan Liu hurriedly gestured with his fingers and answered, “The third year after the Viceroy was appointed.”
Xiao Chiye said, “If so, then you’re with me.”
Yuan Liu nodded his head in a panic and said, “I’m Viceroy’s man!”
Xiao Chiye was now feeling somewhat vexed after having stayed up all night. He held onto his blade and used the sheath to push away Yuan Liu’s hand. He said, “My men don’t have this much clout to get Donglong Street’s human brokers to sell to them on credit. All the newly bought estates by the Imperial Army need to be reported, but you didn’t. Apart from this residence, you also have farmlands outside the city. You’re faring pretty well for a sixth-grade Judge. Do you really not know who’s feeding you?”
Tears and snot flowed as Yuan Liu burst into tears. “I’ve been deceived. I shouldn’t have coveted those bits of things! Viceroy, Viceroy! But I didn’t betray the Imperial Army….”
Xiao Chiye slightly stretched his neck that was becoming sore. Without sparing him another look, he said, “How old is your son?”
“Four… four years old.”
“I’ll take care of him for you.” Xiao Chiye said expressionlessly, “End yourself after this case concludes.”
The moment the prison cell door slammed shut, Yuan Liu collapsed limply to the ground.
Xiao Chiye stepped into the dark and damp prison hallway. As he listened to the wails behind him, he received the confession statement from Chen Yang. He had only just strode out of the prison’s main gate when he saw Gu Jin rushing over.
“Young Master.” Gu Jin said, “Fuling’s mother is dead.”
Chen Yang furrowed his brows. “Fortunately, Master didn’t enter the palace this morning. Otherwise, Fuling would be left without misgivings, and we wouldn’t have gotten our hands on this confession.”
“A stack of papers.” Xiao Chiye flipped through the confession statement under the light. “Fuling didn’t even see the other person’s face. We can’t snare anyone with this alone.”
Chen Yang said, “At least the Imperial Army is in the clear. Master, will you go into the palace and present this to his Majesty?”
Xiao Chiye looked at him and asked, “Why must the Imperial Army be in the clear?”
Chen Yang and Gu Jin were both dumbfounded.
Xiao Chiye sneered, “If I’m to be the caged beast, I should act the part of being besieged by others. They’re in such a hurry to splash dirty water4 on me. It’s not enough. I’ll not only take this dirty water right to the face, I’ll even roll in the mud. The filthier, the better. Let them vilify me so that they can pull off their unified front and be the accomplished ones pulling the wool over the public. If they can even trample upon the Imperial Army Viceroy this easily, then His Majesty ought to be suspicious and afraid once he returns to his senses. It’s only recently that the Hua Clan is done for. Whoever wants to be the new faction will be just asking for death.”
I always thought that Lanzhou’s goal was very clear orz.
It’s in the dialogue. Maybe it’ll be clearer once more chapters are released.
This novel will be divided into two books. It should be about the same length as Nan Chan, or maybe a little longer.
Muacks, thank you for reading!
- This is a different Judge (断事) from the Imperial Bodyguards’ Judge (镇抚). i.e., Judge of the Imperial Army’s Judicial Office vs. Judge of the Imperial Bodyguards’ (Military) Prison.
- 修罗 Asura are powerful but often amoral beings (or demigods) in Buddhism, since they are primarily driven by envy and greed for power.
- 方寸 square cun (Chinese unit of area: 1cun × 1cun, or 3⅓cm × 3⅓cm)
- 泼脏水 literally splash dirty water; to sling mud or defame and slander someone.