Raindrops bounced all over, while splotches of mud spattered.
People hurried in and out of Zhao Zui Temple. The awning to provide shelter from the rain had already been erected, and the strong, bitter aroma of the herbal decoction pervaded the air everywhere. Even the Imperial Bodyguards keeping an eye on the stoves were covering their noses and mouths with handkerchiefs.
With a cloth wrapped around his head, Qi Huilian distributed the medicinal decoction together with Ji Gang. Seeing the feverish man who had fallen unconscious vaguely mumbling some words, he scrutinized him for a moment.
Ji Gang was clearing the bowls with nimble movements, but when he saw an unmoving Grand Mentor, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“This is the Dancheng plague.” Qi Huilian pushed apart the patient’s collars. “The rashes will spread over his body. We cannot get close to him. It’s contagious.”
Ji Gang asked, “Can it be treated?”
Qi Huilian’s scalp itched. He scratched it a few times and said, “Yes, but it’s troublesome. The public ditches must continue to be dug, but who knows if any of the infected have spat or pissed in the water? If the diggers were to get infected without realizing it and come into contact with the others, then wouldn’t another bunch of them topple over ill?”
“Such a sin.” Ji Gang looked beneath the rain shelter awning. “What should be done then?”
“What should be done…” Qi Huilian suddenly pulled up the cloth to cover his face as he looked at Zhao Zui Temple’s entrance where some people had come. He whispered, “It all depends on fate. First of all, the public has to be reassured; there’s no room for unrest. Then, assemble all the big and small medicinal stores in Qudu. The infected have to be quarantined and isolated.”
“We can’t stay for long too.” Ji Gang put the bowl down. “There’ll be someone handling this matter. I’ll ask Chuan-er to leave.”
“Lanzhou can’t leave.” Qi Huilian said. “He’s the one handling this matter. At such a juncture, can you count on Han Cheng to step forward and handle this? All of them can hardly wait to hide and dodge this bullet.”
“No!” Ji Gang turned pale. “He’s only just a fifth-grade Judge now. He doesn’t even have the qualifications of a fourth-grade to attend court. So how can they let him do it? This is a major issue. There are plenty of higher-ranking people with more authority and power than him!”
“Who are you reasoning with?” Qi Huilian put down the bowls. “There’s nothing you can do if Han Cheng keeps him here in the name of gaining experience! Once the disease starts spreading, which high-ranking official would be willing to come down here? Even Hai Liangyi won’t be able to come! Besides, Lanzhou can’t leave. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. If he succeeds, he can get promoted again! A promo—”
Ji Gang shoved him away abruptly and said, “What nonsense are you spouting?!”
Qi Huilian fell to the ground and climbed back to his feet. He said, “What are you still waiting for if you don’t seize the opportunity to act now?!” His temper flared too. “This is the time when people trample over one another for personal gain. He has to do it no matter what! Do you understand?”
“I don’t care to understand.” Ji Gang flushed with rage. “I’m telling him to leave. I have to take him away!”
After saying that, Ji Gang moved to head inside. Qiao Tianya walked out towards him and blocked his path.
“Those in Zhao Zui Temple will be evacuated out. Only infected patients can remain inside. Shifu, don’t go in again.” Qiao Tianya said with a smile. “Teacher’s journals and notes have already been shifted to the old residence. Master told me to rent a small building on Shenwu Street for both of you. It’s close to the palace gates, so there’s no way it can get flooded.”
“Move aside!” Ji Gang said. “It’s all the infected inside, so how can Chuan-er stay for long? I have to talk to him!”
Qiao Tianya reined in his smile and said with a stern countenance, “Shifu, why put me in a spot? Since Master has already given the instructions, then there’s absolutely no reason to change it. It’s all the infected here. Master will worry if you remain here. Please come with me on account of his filial piety.”
Hearing the sound of intense coughing all around, Ji Gang grew even more anxious. He grabbed Qiao Tianya’s arms and pushed it back. Qiao Tianya had already anticipated that he would make a move, so he promptly took the blow. Half of his arm had gone numb, but his legs were faster as he moved to block Ji Gang with his entire body.
“Shifu!” Qiao Tianya said in hushed tones, “Calm down! For Master to make such an arrangement, he would naturally already have a countermeasure in mind. I still have to return here later. Let us leave earlier, and Master can go back earlier too, alright? There are so many pairs of eyes watching. Do you think you can really take him away? Where can you go?”
This “where can you go” calmed Ji Gang down. He looked at the interior for a long time, then flicked his sleeves and trembled as he pointed at Qi Huilian. But in the end, he said not another word more.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan sat on the bench and closed his eyes to rest. His ears had been buzzing, and he was presently feeling dizzy. Yet his face betrayed none of his discomfort. It was only after a while when he heard someone calling him that he opened his eyes. There was not a single trace of weariness the instant he opened his eyes.
The official from the Ministry of Revenue said, “Your Excellency the Judge, the supply of herbs isn’t sufficient. What are we going to do tomorrow?”
“It’s a matter of grave importance. There won’t be a break in the supply of herbs.” Shen Zechuan gathered the overcoat around him. “The imperial physician from the Imperial Academy of Medicine ought to be here already. When the time comes, he will bring news of the prepared herbs over as well. Tell them to continue decocting the medicine. Don’t scrimp on the herbs.”
That official uttered an acknowledgment in response.
Seeing his panic-stricken expression, Shen Zechuan said, “Which section of the Ministry of Revenue are you an official of?”
The official hurriedly said, “This humble subordinate is not really an official per se, but merely a minor official in charge of the records of official documents.”
“We are all working for the people. It’s all the same whether you are a major or minor official.” As Shen Zechuan spoke, he extended his hand and pinched the center of his eyebrows. He composed himself for a moment before he continued with a question, “What’s your name?”
“This humble subordinate’s name is Liang Cuishan.”
“You will take over the supervision of the herbs tomorrow morning. No matter how big or small, make a detailed record of them.” Shen Zechuan said, “My guess is that the Imperial Army has already gone to transfer the herbs. Time is tight. We most certainly can’t wait for the palace’s memo, so the herbs these few days must all be clearly recorded.”
He suddenly stopped and paused for a moment.
“Go and rest for now. Pay attention to your health these few days. Report it immediately if you feel any discomfort.”
Liang Cuishan took his leave. The moment the curtain fell back down, Shen Zechuan felt his forehead, which was scalding hot.
Ge Qingqing came in right after. Shocked at the sight, he stepped forward and whispered, “Judge…”
Shen Zechuan asked with calm, “When did Xi Hongxuan get the rashes?”
“Four hours after the medicine was applied.” Ge Qingqing said. “The rashes started spreading up from his legs.”
“For me, I got the rashes first before the fever.” Shen Zechuan said with a clear head. “The symptoms don’t match, so it’s probably not the plague. But as a precaution, I’ll drink that medicine too.”
Ge Qingqing felt a little more relieved. He said, “Fortunately, you did not take leave this morning!”
The Emperor had been infected with the plague. Which imperial physician would dare to say he got it while he was out fooling around? They could only find an excuse to fob everyone else off, saying that he got infected out of carelessness. But who could infect the Emperor with the disease? If not his personal eunuchs, then it was the guards who often moved around the Emperor. Shen Zechuan was, at present, officially tasked to act in the Emperor’s presence. Supposed he had taken leave this morning, and someone got a handle against him after the fact and made his eczema out to be rashes from the plague, then he would lose the right to remain before the Emperor. Shen Zechuan still carried the burden of Shen Wei’s crime on his back. Once he went down, it would really be hard for him to rise again.
Even Shen Zechuan himself would find it hard to breathe at this moment. Compared to schemes and intrigues, this kind of unpredictable providence was hard to guard against. If he had not been so cautious, he would have already fallen into someone else’s grasp right now. His life and death would then be at the mercy of just one utterance.
Seeing Shen Zechuan close his eyes, Ge Qingqing withdrew.
Shen Zechuan listened to the sound of the rain, but his thoughts had already drifted far away. Those murky old memories followed right on the heels of the sound of rain. He furrowed his brows amid his vexation and weariness.
He did not like snowy days, nor did he like rainy days. The cold and wetness would remind him of the Chashi sinkhole, of Ji Mu, of all the days he had been on his knees at the mercy of another. In addition, the cold and wetness would make him uneasy, and make him gloomy. It would make him into nothing more than a fleshy vessel that was all chilling forbearance and irritability within.
Just like this, Shen Zechuan leaned against the wall and dozed off for a moment. But the more he dozed, the more drowsy he became, until he fell asleep for real in this corner.
It was already late when Xiao Chiye arrived at Zhao Zui Temple. He entered Zhao Zui Temple together with the imperial physician who had hurried over. Behind him, Ding Tao looked miserable, because he did not manage to find Shen Zechuan and missed the time.
Xiao Chiye asked the Imperial Bodyguard who was decocting the medicine, “Where’s the Judge? I’m looking for him!”
The Imperial Bodyguard, with half of his face covered, handed him a bowl of medicine and said, “No matter who you are looking for, you have to drink the medicine first. Viceroy, you Imperial Army still has to enter the water. Please be careful and take care!”
Xiao Chiye choked down the medicine without a word.
The Imperial Bodyguard rose and yelled under the rain shelter awning, “Qing-ge! Is Qing-ge there? Where’s our Judge? Please notify him and tell him that Viceroy Xiao is looking for him.”
Ge Qingqing was lying on the bench, sleeping. On hearing this, he swiftly sat up and draped his clothes around him before walking over. When he saw that it was Xiao Chiye, he said, “The Judge is resting inside… He hasn’t slept all night. Please take a rest too, Viceroy. The Eight Great Training Divisions said they are going to guard the city gates, so there will be only us digging up the rest of this unfinished ditch tomorrow.”
“Physical work naturally has to be done by someone strong and sturdy.” Xiao Chiye said as he walked. “Watch the door. Don’t let anyone in.”
Xiao Chiye lifted the curtain and entered. There was no light lit inside. He swept a glance around but did not find the man he was looking for. It was only when he took a few more steps that he saw Shen Zechuan, who was leaning against the wall.
Xiao Chiye was dirty, so he removed his outer garment and sat beside Shen Zechuan to pour out the water in his boots. It was cold inside the room. He put on his boots and went out again to borrow a fire from the stove, then re-entered to find a copper basin to start a fire.
Shen Zechuan opened his eyes and said, “Are you done digging Donglong Street?”
“Yeah.” Xiao Chiye stoked the fire. “Why aren’t you sleeping on the bed?”
“Just taking a short nap.” Shen Zechuan said. “If I lie down, I won’t be able to get up.”
Xiao Chiye shifted the basin before the bed and said, “Come sleep on the bed. I’ll call you up later.”
Shen Zechuan did not stand on ceremony. He lay down, and Xiao Chiye embraced him from behind and pressed his face against his cheek. Shen Zechuan could still hear Xiao Chiye whispering at first, but it grew progressively vague towards the back.
It was only when Xiao Chiye heard Shen Zechuan’s breathing deepened a little that he reached out to undo his collars and take a closer look at those red rashes.
Not the same as Xi Hongxuan.
Xiao Chiye closed up Shen Zechuan’s clothes again and hugged Shen Zechuan until he himself fell asleep.
Xiao Chiye slept for an unspecified amount of time until he felt a scalding heat in his arms. He was still dazed when he half-opened his eyes, but once he got a clear look at the man in his embrace, his mind instantly cleared.
Shen Zechuan seemed to be on fire. Sweat had already drenched his temples. Xiao Chiye felt him; Shen Zechuan was burning up everywhere.
Xiao Chiye abruptly sat up and called out to him, “Lanzhou, Lanzhou?”
Shen Zechuan was dripping with sweat. His brows were tightly furrowed, and his breathing was slightly urgent. Roused half-awake by Xiao Chiye, he said, “Qua… Quarantine… You can get infected with this disease even if you aren’t near the water.”
Xiao Chiye wrapped him up in the overcoat and shouted, “Chen Yang, summon the imperial physician!”
Chen Yang, who was leaning against the wall outside taking a nap, jerked awake instantly. He rose and leaped off the steps, then made his way under the rain shelter awning and pulled the imperial physician into the interior.
The imperial physician lifted the overcoat open, looked for a moment, then said in an urgent tone, “Viceroy, the Judge is infected with the plague! Seems to me that he caught a cold first…”
Xiao Chiye grasped the imperial physician’s arm. Staring at the imperial physician, he said in a frosty voice, “The Judge is what?”
Panicking, the imperial physician corrected himself, “He’s… overworked and overstressed… that’s why he fell ill…”
“That’s right. The Judge fell ill here today.” Xiao Chiye tightened his grip. “He wasn’t ill prior to this.”
The imperial physician repeatedly said, “Right, right, right…”
“All the medicine in Qudu is here. I know Your Excellency has the miraculous hands of a healer in the medical field.” Xiao Chiye suddenly softened his tone. “You can cure him, right?”
On seeing Xiao Chiye’s eyes, the imperial physician went weak in the knees. He held on to the edge of the bed for support and nodded in a panic as he said, “I can, I can…”