As the hour of yin1 approached, it suddenly rained. Chen Yang washed up in the resting hall. After wiping his face, he looked outside to see a drizzle of misty rain adorned with tiny flakes of snow.
“Have the kitchen heat up the stove.” Chen Yang instructed to his left and right. “Serve up the medicine for colds while it’s hot, then prepare the ginger soup. Has Master and the Judge’s official robes been steamed? Send them over quickly. It’s raining and snowing today, and the ground is slippery. Be careful when you go in and out to serve; don’t fall, lest you make a disgrace of yourself.”
Before the day broke, those who served in the courtyard were already moving. Chen Yang held up an umbrella and made his way to the kitchen to check on the day’s breakfast. When the cook saw him, he hurriedly got the attendant to get the lunchboxes.
“I heard last night that the Judge had fallen ill. So I made fish soup this morning, along with some light side dishes. I’ve also prepared rice porridge and steamed twisted rolls.”2 The cook personally handed the lunchboxes to Chen Yang. “These are breakfast for you gentlemen. All of you have been on guard the entire night last night. Drink something hot to dispel the chill.”
Chen Yang laughed when he touched the lunchboxes and said, “Alright. You even prepare shaojiu wine3 for Gu Jin. I shall thank you on his behalf! Get someone to serve up Master’s breakfast without delay. I’ll hurry over to wait on him first.”
The cook sent him out, and the attendant wanted to continue sending him on his way. Chen Yang turned the latter down and hurried back to the courtyard with his umbrella up.
The three meals of guards like them cannot be touched by anyone else. They could only take turns to get it themselves. This was a hard and fast rule that had been laid down back in Libei.
Chen Yang arrived at the courtyard and called down the other three men. They opened the lunchboxes and stood together to have their meals.
Biting on the steamed bun, Ding Tao looked at the house and said, “Master is up.”
Gu Jin said, “Is the horse carriage ready? He’s running a little late today.”
Chen Yang nodded and said, “I didn’t expect it to rain today. Master still has to soak in the rain later when he arrives at the palace and waits to sign his name. His Excellency the Judge’s cold won’t go away for quite a while. Does he not plan to take a leave of absence?”
Who’s he asking?
Gu Jin and Ding Tao looked at each other, then simultaneously looked at Qiao Tianya, who had come along for the free meal.
Qiao Tianya drank the porridge in one mouthful and held up a finger. Before he could speak, the other three said in unison, “Swallow!”
He swallowed and said, “He won’t dare to take even a day off. My master is still considered a newly appointed official. How would he dare to be the first to take leave when the senior above him is still fine? He can’t be busier than the Commander-in-chief, can he?”
Ding Tao said, “You Imperial Bodyguards are really no-good. Even when it comes to falling sick, you have to talk about seniority!”
Qiao Tianya said, “It can’t be helped. Everyone at the top and bottom is watching.”
As the four of them ate and chatted, the door on the other side opened. The maidservants entered and exited with serving trays in hands.
Shen Zechuan was drenched in sweat after being embraced by Xiao Chiye for the entire night. The rashes on his neck had not gone away.
Xiao Chiye had already put on his clothes. Seeing that Shen Zechuan still did not look too good, he set his fingers against Shen Zechuan’s forehead and said, “The medicine is on the table. Drink it while it’s hot.”
Shen Zechuan put on his boots and got off to drink the medicine before he draped his clothes around him to put it on. Both men stood back to back before the mirror amid the rustling sound of clothes scraping across skins and fabrics.
Shen Zechuan fastened his waist belt and pushed the window open to look at the sky. He said, “This rain really comes at a bad time.”
“There’s no movement last night. It’s still not too late to unclog the ditches today.”
Xiao Chiye came closer. The maidservant behind him who was trying to put on his crown for him could not reach him, so Shen Zechuan reached out to take it. Xiao Chiye propped himself against the window, and Shen Zechuan put it on for him. Both men locked gazes with one another.
“Smells bitter.” Xiao Chiye said.
“If you come any closer,” Shen Zechuan said, “the smell will be even stronger.”
The maidservants at the sides lowered themselves, not daring to make a sound.
Qiao Tianya was already holding up the umbrella just before they stepped out. Shen Zechuan descended the stairs. He had yet to walk out of the courtyard when he saw Tantai Hu hurrying over. Tantai Hu still did not look too good when he saw Shen Zechuan, but he still bowed to him in greeting before striding up the stairs in a hurry.
“Laohu!” Chen Yang greeted him. “What’s the matter?”
Xiao Chiye had already come out. Gu Jin put on his cloak for him while Xiao Chiye looked at Tantai Hu and said nothing.
Tantai Hu kneeled on one knee and reported in an urgent tone. “Viceroy! The Donglong Street patrol squad sent back word earlier that Ouhua Pavilion has collapsed!”
Shen Zechuan halted in his tracks and waited for Tantai Hu to continue.
Tantai Hu wiped away the rainwater on his face and said, “It’s one thing for it to collapse on the Second Young Master of the Xi Clan. But who knew His Majesty was inside too!”
Xiao Chiye’s gaze was cutting cold. As he raised his head, the rain and snow fell even harder.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan took large strides out of the office. Ge Qingqing was already waiting at the bottom of the stairs. As Shen Zechuan hung up his waist token, he said, “Tell me the details.”
The Imperial Bodyguards swiftly followed him out of the courtyard. With a hand on his blade, Ge Qingqing whispered, “His Majesty sneaked out on the sly. No one knew about this when the building collapsed this morning. When those courtesans were dug out, men from the Eight Great Training Divisions were still urgently looking for Xi Hongxuan. Who would have expected His Majesty to be missing when the eunuch lifted the curtain for a look once the time came for the palace’s morning court session to start? They couldn’t find him. At first, they went to Caiwei Palace to check with Imperial Concubine Mu, but Imperial Concubine Mu had no idea either. That was when chaos erupted. It was only when the presences of Empress Dowager and Third Missy Hua were requested and the palace maids serving him were interrogated that we learned that His Majesty had disguised as an eunuch last night and insisted on going with Xi Hongxuan to Ouhua Pavilion for some fun.”
Shen Zechuan did not look pleased as he said, “There are patrol checks at all levels in the inner palace. He must have had help; otherwise, he won’t even be able to stride out of Mingli Hall.”
“That’s the odd thing.” Ge Qingqing lowered his voice even more. “During my questioning, I heard the guards say that no one came in or out at all last night.”
Shen Zechuan’s expression remained unchanged as he detachedly watched the Eight Great Training Divisions march past in formation. He walked the entire way in a hurry, braving the rain; no one dared to hold up their umbrellas at this moment. Dark clouds hung over each of the official’s faces, their gloomy expressions so somber it was as if their parents died.
◈ ◈ ◈
Hai Liangyi and Xiao Chiye stood before the collapsed building. The collapse of Ouhua Pavilion had consequently brought down half the street of closely clustered buildings with it. The swill in the gutter had long overflowed, causing the entire Donglong Street to reek to high heaven in this downpour. Everyone had to wade through the water to make their way through.
The Minister of Works, Pan Xiangjie, was the head of the Pan Clan—one of the eight great clans. Although he shared the same surname as Pan Rugui from the reign of Xiande, Pan Rugui was really not in the same league as them. Pan Xiangjie was of the same age as Hai Liangyi, and had never dared to commit any major blunder while he held this position. Knowing that he would never make it into the Grand Secretariat, he had always been careful and prudent with the hope of retiring in peace after a few more days, especially since his son was already the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Revenue. He had never expected to get himself some sleep, only for the sky to collapse when he woke up!
Pan Xiangjie could not even stand steady on his feet, and he was so anxious his hands trembled. He kept saying, “Quick. Dig quickly. His Majesty is still inside!”
The rainwater had doused Hai Liangyi to the point he was expressionless. He had never thought that Li Jianheng would be so muddle-headed to such an extent just to play! Several times, he wiped away the rainwater, looking as though he was also wiping away his tears. He said to Xiao Chiye, “Dig… Rescue His Majesty first!”
Xiao Chiye took off his cloak and waded his way down through the water to take a look at the situation. The current stand-in for the Eight Great Training Divisions was Han Cheng’s younger brother, Han Jin. Han Jin rolled up the legs of his trousers and lifted the hem of his robe to follow Xiao Chiye down.
“Viceroy.” Han Jin shouted in the rain. “The bottom is already hollowed out. We dare not dig!”
Not only was the lower area hollowed out, but it was also all set with vats and jars. But no one dared to voice it out. These vats and jars had been smashed when the building collapsed. If Li Jianheng were to be squashed underneath, then he was really a goner! The first emperor in the history of Dazhou who was crushed to death when he sneaked out for a rendezvous—Which historian would dare to write it? No one had ever seen anything so depressing.
“His Majesty rested in the upper area last night.” Shen Zechuan removed his blade and got into the water. He said, “The place isn’t deep.”
“I fear it will collapse further.” Xiao Chiye raised his body. “Call the men from the Ministry of Works over.”
Cen Yu had just rushed his way over. The moment Shen Zechuan saw him, he immediately said to Hai Liangyi, “Secretariat Elder, the public ditch must be dredged today. If this rain doesn’t stop, we won’t be able to drain the water.”
“And it’s near the Kailing River at the back too.” Cen Yu said. “I went to take a look earlier. The buildings along the banks have already all collapsed. The foundation at the bottom has long been soaked rotten! How long has it been since the stone bricks on the dam have been repaired? If the water rises later, half of Qudu will be flooded! What has the Ministry of Works been doing all these years?! Pan Xiangjie, you muddle-headed fool! How many times have I told you about this, huh?!”
Pan Xiangjie fell to his knees with a “thud”. His old mob of hair was already half-white. He burst out wailing, “What can I do?! Can you blame me for this? Those from the Ministry of Revenue are all influential bureaucrats. I’ve already mentioned this to them eight hundred years ago. What can I do if they don’t allocate the funds and transfer manpower?! Cen Xunyi, what can I do?!” He scooped up this swill water, unable to speak as he choked with sobs. Kowtowing on the ground with his head, he cried out, “We are going to have to pay for this with our lives!”
“You are a senior of the present imperial court. Stop disgracing yourself!” Hai Liangyi suddenly cut him off and bellowed. “His Majesty’s fate hangs in the balance; we don’t know if he’s dead or alive. It’s an emergency now. Even if you want to shirk responsibility and shift the blame, at least wait for him to be rescued first! Assign 800 men from the Imperial Army’s current defense and follow the Ministry of Works to unclog the public ditch immediately. Tear down all the houses that have violated the regulations and occupied land illegally. As for the Ministry of Revenue, total up the state treasury money without delay and assemble the victims of those whose houses have collapsed at Zhao Zui Temple to centralize the distribution of aid reliefs. The Eight Great Training Divisions shall patrol the major city gates. All entries and exits must be accompanied by diplomatic notes and official documents. We are at the critical juncture now. I expect everyone to work as one to stabilize the situation. Don’t lose your composure!”
With that, Hai Liangyi suddenly looked at Shen Zechuan.
“Have the Imperial Bodyguards guard the inner palace. You mustn’t let any other people take advantage of this situation to stir up trouble. If there’s anyone who rebels, then act in accordance with my orders and execute them on the spot!”
Those starting to get restless in this heavy downpour instantly calmed down under this succession of commands teeming with murderous intent. Hai Liangyi walked a few steps and removed his wusha hat4 in the rain.
“His Majesty is the Son of Heaven.” With rainwater sliding down and dripping off his face, Hai Liangyi said with finality, “Our Dazhou has been in power for a century. It’s still not the time for its demise.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Li Jianheng was stuck underneath broken wood, facing down. The icy cold water pouring on his neck jolted him awake. He found it hard to breathe. His chest was too tightly wedged, and his ribs were hurting terribly.
Li Jianheng coughed and shouted in a raspy voice, “S-save me—”
These sounds were hoarse and powerless, too quiet to be heard in the downpour.
Li Jianheng shifted his gaze to see that the courtesan beside him had already gone cold. Her ghastly white flesh lay squashed between broken walls, and several strands of her hair had been stained red from the dripping blood. Li Jianheng began to tremble; he could no longer recognize this to be the beauty he had been clapping hands and dancing with last night.
Li Jianheng hung down his head and said with all his effort.
The coughs of someone choking on water rang out below him. Half of Xi Hongxuan’s body was soaked in the water. He was half on his back, having crashed down right on top of the jars, and his bloodied back was badly mangled. He gasped for air and said, “Your Majesty, stop calling for them. No one can hear you.”
Li Jianheng was beside himself as he pushed at the broken pieces of wood with his elbows, but it was all in vain. One of his shoes had fallen off, and he was so freezing cold that his face had gone pale. He said, “Someone will definitely come to save me…”
“Of course.” Xi Hongxuan began laughing in a muffled voice. “You are the Son of Heaven.”
Li Jianheng said, “What are you laughing at?”
Xi Hongxuan smacked his lips and spat out some sandy mud. He said, “I’m laughing at this thing called fate… Don’t you find it strange how people seem to be repeating the cycle of life on the wheel of reincarnation?”
Li Jianheng lifted his eyelids but could see nothing. He said darkly, “No… There’s no cycle…”
“Your Majesty’s birth mother of the Yue Clan…” Xi Hongxuan shifted his body with some difficulty. “… was drowned in the same way.”
The dirty, foul water moved away from his neck and splashed somewhere else. In this minute trickle flow, Li Jianheng swallowed.
With difficulty, Li Jianheng recalled those fleeting and ephemeral childhood memories. He looked at that morbidly white flesh once again, yet it seemed to be his mother he was seeing.
The woman was pressed into the swill bucket, her fingernails raking at the ground until they were bloodied pulps of flesh. As water splashed on her face, Li Jianheng saw her ghastly white neck and arms.
Li Jianheng’s tears welled up. He frantically covered his eyes with his hands and yelled resentfully, “Shut up! You shut up!”
Xi Hongxuan fell silent.
But Li Jianheng no longer wanted to stay close to this body any longer. He started to cry and shoot his mouth off, hurling abuses and profanities as he said, “Don’t mention her! I am the supreme ruler on the imperial throne! My—”
Li Jianheng rasped for air, his face looking sinister through the gaps of his ten fingers.
“My mother is the current Empress Dowager!”
- 寅时 hour of yin, i.e., 3-5 am, based on the system of two-hour subdivisions used in former times.
- 金银花卷; Chinese steamed twisted bread roll, typically yellow and white.
- 烧酒 shaojiu, also known as baijiu (白酒), is a spirit that is usually distilled from sorghum or maize. Also, the name of a famous Tang dynasty wine.
- 乌纱帽 wusha hat, or black gauze hat, is the headwear of Ming dynasty officials, comprising a black hat with two wing-like flaps of thin, oval-shaped boards on each side.