The overcoat was too big, and it slid down along his shoulders. Shen Zechuan scooped it up. That warmth enveloped him as his entire being soaked in Xiao Chiye’s scent.
Shen Zechuan fished out the handkerchief again to wipe the cheeks that Xiao Chiye had made wet with his rubs. On this noisy, rainy night, he could not help but sniff at that handkerchief again.
It was all Xiao Chiye’s scent.
Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes for a moment and nuzzled the handkerchief with the tip of his nose as the gloom at the corners of his eyes and tips of his eyebrows dissipated.
The upper tier of that lunchbox was filled with steamed twisted rolls, while the bottom contained hot medicinal decoction. Hot steam rose the instant the lid was lifted. It was not easy to make a hot meal on this night. Even Xiao Chiye would have to run like mad to rush his way here before hurrying back.
Ge Qingqing initially wanted to pour a cup of tea for Shen Zechuan. When he climbed his way up to see the latter drinking the medicine, he could not help but feel stunned before he said in delight, “So you have it all arranged. That’s great. I was just thinking of sending someone to buy a bowl of medicine.”
Shen Zechuan downed the medicine and wiped the corners of his lips with his fingers. He asked, “To what end has this street been torn down?”
“Just past Ouhua Pavilion. It’s hard to tear down areas where the collapse is severe.” Ge Qingqing rolled up his sleeves and said, “There’s something fishy about this matter.”
“Another unexplainable account.” Shen Zechuan sat up and composed himself for a moment before continuing, “Only His Majesty himself knows who the one who sent him out of the palace is. If he refuses to say, then this case is a dead end.”
“As I see it, this collapse is not a coincidence. Donglong Street gets submerged every year, yet Ouhua Pavilion just had to collapse last night.” Ge Qingqing watched the rainy night, then looked at Shen Zechuan. “Do you have any inkling?”
Shen Zechuan had been thinking about this matter since this morning. The collapse had wiped out all traces in Ouhua Pavilion, and this was, by no means, a coincidence. Xi Hongxuan was a man who treasured his life. He had only just renovated Ouhua Pavilion some time back, and those who knew about the hollowed-out bottom were few and far between.
Shen Zechuan’s widened eyes looked out into the rainy night. As if saying to himself, he said, “There’s no need to fret. There’s bound to be a follow-up move. We still don’t know who the target is this time.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The imperial physician retreated from the bedchamber and paid his obeisances to the Empress Dowager and the others. From where she was behind the hanging curtain separating them, the Empress Dowager leaned forward to inquire about Li Jianheng’s condition. The imperial physician gave his report in detail. It was only when she heard that the bleeding had stopped that she felt relieved.
“This matter is bizarre.” The Empress Dowager straightened up in her seat and said, “To think not a single person knew when the Son of Heaven had left the palace and headed out. How can anyone rest reassured given the state of patrols within and outside the palace now?”
None of the old ministers below uttered a word. All of them hung their heads in silence, like clay sculptures.
The Empress Dowager said, “I’m a member of the imperial harem. I’m not supposed to interfere in governmental affairs. But this, once again, concerns His Majesty’s safety. As his mother, I’m truly worriedly watching with my hair all gray and tears all ran dry.1 How can I take another scare like this? Excellencies, you ought to give me an explanation this time!”
On hearing this, Pan Xiangjie’s heart clenched.
After a moment of silence, Kong Qiu said, “The patrols in the inner palace might not necessarily be able to stop His Majesty even if they want to. In this subject’s opinion, Xi Hongxuan should be severely punished this time! If he had not used those temptresses from foreign lands to lure His Majesty, then why would His Majesty leave the palace?”
“That’s right.” The Minister of Revenue, Wei Huaigu, was the elder di brother2 of Wei Huaixing, who had denounced Xiao Chiye before. Wei Huaigu was the current head of the Wei Clan. He usually did not have the habit of speaking out, but this time, he said, “Xi Hongxuan deserves to be punished, but his crime does not merit the punishment of death. This subject feels that it’s the Ministry of Works the blame should fall on this time. They are the ones in charge of the repairs in Qudu. Your Excellency Pan, how could you let the public ditches get clogged to such an extent?”
Knowing that Wei Huaigu was about to shift the blame, Pan Xiangjie immediately fell to his knees and said to the Empress Dowager, “I ask of Your Majesties to discern the truth and render fair judgment! Our Ministry of Works has already notified the Ministry of Revenue regarding the blockage of the public ditches during Emperor Xiande’s reign, hoping that they can allocate some money for us to carry out repair works. But the Ministry of Revenue kept delaying the approval of funds. What can the Ministry of Works do? This is not a minor construction work!”
Wei Huaigu was in no hurry. He was even more of a tough nut to deal with than Wei Huaixing. He merely said, “Our Ministry of Revenue has to discuss it with the Grand Secretariat in order for the funds to be moved. At that time, approval has yet to go through Secretariat Elder Hua, so who would dare to allocate the funds indiscriminately? Qudu has to clean up the mess in the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo during those few years. The treasury is almost emptied out. Even if we have the intention to help, we do not have the means.”
“Everyone has their difficulties.” Pang Xiangjie said, “So why are you only holding our Ministry of Works responsible? Left Censor-in-chief, Cen Xunyi, wants to impeach the Ministry of Works for negligence in irrigation works, saying that we failed to secure the embankment of the Kailing River. But did it collapse today? No! This shows that the Ministry of Works has never cut corners; we are dependable and diligent when it comes to our work! If we had the money, we would have long cleared out the public ditches!”
The Ministry of Revenue would not acknowledge this debt, and the Ministry of Works would not shoulder this blame. Both parties were elders of the Eight Great Clans. Neither of them was willing to take a step back, and so they both simply stood here and passed the buck around.
Kong Qiu almost wanted to sneer. He was from a humble background, and an official that Hai Liangyi himself had lifted to this position. He could work together with the ministers from the noble clans, but he could not be of the same mind with them. Now that he was hearing them kicking the ball around, he felt vexed and fed up.
It was true that the Ministry of Works had made a report before. But who was the one who reported it? It was a subordinate, a minor official, who had never set foot into the court. Did Pan Xiangjie take it seriously? If he did, he would have taken it up with the Ministry of Revenue himself, but he did not. Did the Ministry of Revenue know? They did. What was the relationship between Wei Huaigu and Hua Siqian? Both clans could be considered in-laws. Although they did not seem to be on close terms in recent years, the ties still existed. Wei Huaigu was far more resourceful than Wei Huaixing, and he was the one who could discuss political affairs with Hua Siqian. But he had never really talked to Hua Siqian about this matter. This was a matter they simply muddled their way through—If you drowned, then you deserved it; you could only blame your own bad luck!
Sitting behind the curtain, the Empress Dowager saw through these people clearly. Hua Xiangyi stood behind her, listening with rapt attention.
Hai Liangyi finally coughed a few times. Covering his mouth with a handkerchief, he said, “There was indeed this one account in the Grand Secretariat’s past reported accounts. But it was only once, and no one bothered to ask about it afterward. Now that the place has collapsed, everyone remembers it, but is this year the first time the water level rose? Let’s not bring up what happened way back, but did the water level rise during spring last year and the year before last? Did the Ministry of Works report those rises?”
Pan Xiangjie turned his head away and said remorsefully, “When the Grand Secretary puts it that way… it’s indeed an oversight on our Ministry of Works’ part. But it really can’t be helped. What’s of essence now is to dredge up the ditches without delay.”
“The Ministry of Revenue has also allocated the money to the disaster victims.” Wei Huaigu said. “The situation is critical at present. The appropriation of blame can wait until the public ditches have been dredged. Is the Eight Great Training Divisions the ones digging right now?”
The Minister of War, Chen Zhenyan, replied succinctly, “It’s the Imperial Army. Viceroy Xiao is still soaking in the water.”
The Empress Dowager was about to speak up when the palace maid inside hurriedly rushed out and fell to her knees on the ground. She said, “To report to Your Majesty, His Majesty has suddenly developed a fever. His back is covered all over in rashes!”
The Empress Dowager suddenly rose to her feet and exclaimed in shock, “What?”
Hai Liangyi bent over and started to cough violently. Hua Xiangyi held the Empress Dowager to support her and promptly made a decision. “Summon the imperial physician! And support the Secretariat Elder, quick!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xi Hongxuan had broken out into rashes too. The one who discovered it first was the military medic of the Eight Great Training Divisions. He promptly lifted the hem of his robe and hurried out to report to Han Jin.
Han Jin wiped his face, still feeling a little dumbfounded as he said, “Is it eczema? Just dispel the cold and it’ll be fine?”
“It’s not eczema.” The medic was so anxious that he stomped his foot. “How is that eczema? It’s a plague!”
Now, it was not just Han Jin whose expression changed; the surrounding Eight Great Training Divisions’ soldiers who were still in the water had all gone pale. Han Jin turned his head back and saw the Imperial Army still busying around a short distance away. He waded through the water to them and grasped hold of Chen Yang to yell, “Where is the Viceroy? Call the Viceroy over quickly. It’s a matter of urgency!”
Xiao Chiye pushed away the broken plank and walked over, asking, “What is it?”
Han Jin’s hands trembled as he smeared the dirty water on his clothes and said, “We can’t pull them down anymore or soak in this water either! Viceroy, a plague has broken out!”
There was a cold glint in Xiao Chiye’s eyes as he asked, “Who got it first?”
“Xi Hongxuan.” Han Jin’s breathing was hurried. “Is His, His Majesty…”
“Gu Jin!” Xiao Chiye immediately commanded. “Rush to the palace and report this matter to Secretariat Elder Hai!”
Gu Jin climbed up the bank and sped off. In a few steps, he somersaulted to the rooftop and stepped across the ridge of the roof to leap his way to the palace gates.
“Take me to see Xi Hongxuan.” Xiao Chiye said in a steady voice. “Now!”
Xi Hongxuan was feverish and hot all over. Medicine had only just been applied to his crushed legs, and now his legs were already drenched in sweat. He lay on the bed, delirious and incoherent.
The medic wiped his sweat and said, “Four hours earlier, he still looked as if he had caught a little cold. I fed him medicine, and his fever subsided. But who knew that when I touched him earlier, his fever was back with even more of a vengeance! When I changed the medicine for his legs and pulled down his pants for a look, it was all covered in rashes!”
Xiao Chiye looked at those rashes and questioned, “Are you sure it’s a plague?”
The medic said, “During the reign of Yongyi, a plague like this had broken out in the City of Dancheng. It was reported to the Imperial Academy of Medicine; they have past records of it on file. Viceroy, once this rash spreads all over the body, the high fever will not subside. In another four hours, the infected will fall unconscious and keep vomiting. I’m afraid there are still sick people among the disaster victims. Without losing any time, Zhao Zui Temple must arrange for the decoction of the relevant herbs as a precaution!”
Afraid now, Han Jin hastily asked, “What caused this? There has to be a reason. Otherwise, how are we going to continue digging this ditch?”
The medic said, “We’re now at the point when winter transits into spring. It’s damp and cold. The low-lying area gathers sewage and filth throughout the year. Their houses are closely clustered together; it’s so cramped that there’s not even a window. The lack of sunlight will make the people prone to illnesses.”
“If that’s the case, then how did he get infected?” Xiao Chiye furrowed his eyebrows. “Ouhua Pavilion is far from the low-lying area, and there are people cleaning the connected alleys at the back, so there’s no contact with contaminated objects. Is the reason just because he soaked in the swill water those few hours during the collapse?”
The medic hesitated. He wiped his sweat again and mustered out the courage to say, “I’ll be honest with the Viceroy. I’m afraid he did not contract this illness during the collapse, but when he was fooling around in the brothel before the collapse. Second Young Master Xi is already burning up to such an extent, then His Majesty—”
“Viceroy!” Meng Rui lifted the curtain and entered with a solemn expression. “Over ten people have suddenly collapsed at Zhao Zui Temple. Two men from the Ministry of Revenue who are here on duty have collapsed too!”
Xiao Chiye was about to give his command when Chen Yang, all drenched in rainwater, barged in and said, “Master! Laohu is also down with a fever!”
The sound of the rain outside suddenly grew urgent. Like battle drums sounding on all sides, they came pounding down for all they were worth, as if they wanted to shatter this pitch-black night.
Xiao Chiye abruptly lifted the curtain and stepped out. He said, “It’ll be too late to wait for the approval. Head over to the various major medicinal stores on Shenwu Street to get the medicine. Help anyone who caught a cold, has a fever, is vomiting, or is physically weak to Zhao Zui Temple. Withdraw the rest of the men. Get the men on duty from the Ministry of Revenue to start decocting the herbal medicine! Ding Tao!”
Ding Tao said, “Young Master!”
Xiao Chiye tugged Ding Tao over, breathing heavily in the rain as he whispered, “Tell Shen Lanzhou to leave immediately!”