Access in and out of the imperial palace was strictly forbidden, so the Empress Dowager arranged for Hai Liangyi and the other heavyweight ministers to rest in the Grand Secretariat’s council compound. Everyone inside and outside the palace was in a state of anxiety.
The daily cleaning of Li Jianheng’s bedchamber was carried out with extra caution, with those serving eunuchs and palace maids all appointed by the Empress Dowager herself. Every time they entered and exited, they had to wash up and change their clothes. They were not even allowed to go out without permission during their breaks. Mu Ru kept watch by Li Jianheng’s side, not once relying on the servants. She personally taste-tested the decoction and fed it to Li Jianheng herself. Even when she ate or slept, she never left Li Jianheng’s bedchamber.
Li Jianheng drifted in and out of consciousness, and subsequently, the Imperial Academy of Medicine was on tenterhooks too. Even when they prescribed and decocted medicine, they were careful. Everyone was already walking on eggshells, ready to lose their lives at any time. An air of dread and gloom hung over them all around. Each of them looked utterly wretched and grieved, as if bereft of their parents.
The Imperial Academy of Medicine’s men outside the palace made all the arrangements for the medicinal ingredients in Qudu. Other than those already infected, all the disaster victims shifted out from the low-lying area had to take the medicine too. The Ministry of Revenue and Imperial Bodyguards assisted with the distribution of aid reliefs. They set up a porridge and medicine shack outside Zhao Zui Temple, where they gave out medicinal decoction and rice porridge every day according to schedule.
Han Jin had already pulled out of Donglong Street on the night Xi Hongxuan fell ill. On the pretext of patrolling the various city gates, the Eight Great Training Divisions completely threw the matter of dredging up the public ditches to the Imperial Army. But half of the Imperial Army men had been on standby on Mount Feng awaiting orders, and now, they could not get in at all. Xiao Chiye did not have that many elite soldiers. Fortunately, there were still some people from the Ministry of Works who had yet to be withdrawn. Together with the dozens of Imperial Bodyguards, everyone pooled manpower and braved the rain to dig through the four main streets.
By the fourth day, everyone was exhausted and weak. Chen Yang, Ge Qingqing, Qiao Tianya, and Gu Jin gathered together when they returned and leaned against the wall for a nap. Ding Tao and Xiaowu were young. The various gege took care of them and took turns to stretch and straighten out their legs for them to use as pillows when they slept. Ding Tao could not lick ink out from his brush, so the note-taking in his little notebook came to a halt. It had only been a few days, and every one of them had taken on the look of a disheveled and unkempt beggar.
Xiao Chiye did not sleep much these days. He had to lead men to dig ditches before dawn, and there was no time for rest throughout the day. At night, when he returned to Zhao Zui Temple, he still had to watch over Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan was still able to remain awake and clear-headed a few days before, but later on, his fever would not recede, and he had a severe case of vomiting. But without food in his stomach, he could only regurgitate bile. When he was fed medicine, he would puke it all out in the middle of the night. So, when Xiao Chiye returned, he would hug Shen Zechuan. He would lean against the wall and let Shen Zechuan sprawl face-to-face on his chest or shoulder. Each time Shen Zechuan felt like vomiting, he would rub his back.
In the dead of night, when all was quiet, Zhao Zui Temple was as lonely as a deserted island beyond the realm of the mundane world. The rain had ceased, and there was nary a sound from the birds as the thick, ink-like night shrouded everything in sight.
Shen Zechuan’s breathing was heavy. He suddenly started to cough, his chest heaving violently. Xiao Chiye was jerked awake from his light sleep. He covered Shen Zechuan’s back and tiredly jolted his legs to shake him gently.
“Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye coaxed him. “Where is Lanzhou?”
Shen Zechuan looked sickly and wan. The nauseating feeling of wanting to vomit was stuck in his throat. He half-opened his eyes and replied in a hoarse voice, “Here…”
“Give it a shake, and the illness will dissipate.” Xiao Chiye said, “When you’ve recovered, this Second Young Master will take you horseback riding.”
Shen Zechuan rested his head on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder and let out a hoarse “hm” in acknowledgment.
“This is actually a position of hugging a child.” Xiao Chiye ran his palm down Shen Zechuan’s back soothingly and, in this moment of intimacy, whispered, “When I had a rash before, my mother held me like this. What are you going to call me now that I’m holding you like this today?”
Shen Zechuan nuzzled his cheeks against Xiao Chiye and buried his face. After a long while, he said in a muffled voice, “Call you daddy.”
Xiao Chiye’s chest shook as he chuckled and asked, “Touched?”
Shen Zechuan coughed. He did not answer.
Xiao Chiye said, “When I tamed horses in the past, I ate and slept with them. While Lang Tao Xue Jin was still a foal, we were stranded in the heavy rain. We also snuggled up like this to keep warm then. It has probably already forgotten about this.”
Shen Zechuan listened in his drowsy state.
Xiao Chiye said, “Don’t forget this. If you’re touched, you have to remember this and repay me in the future.”
Shen Zechuan wanted to say something. He opened his mouth but did not utter a sound. Xiao Chiye reached a finger out to brush away Shen Zechuan’s damp hair and lowered his eyes to look at Shen Zechuan’s pale side profile.
Xiao Chiye murmured in hushed tones, and it was under these murmurs that Shen Zechuan fell asleep. He lay immersed on the verge of a certain kind of agony and delight, wallowing in torment. And from the bitter depth of his misery, he tasted sweetness.
Xiao Chiye was like the blazing sun. He was also like the wind from the grassland. He stood out from the masses. To Shen Zechuan, hiding that handkerchief on that day with the gloomy and damp rain and snow was like hiding a rousing and passionate dream. In this dream, there was the unrestrained galloping of horses over a thousand li1 of grasslands, and the spreading of wings soaring through ten thousand li of clear sky. These eventually turned into an indescribable glimpse—one he would be hard-pressed to recount in detail.
Xiao Chiye was the one who was a kind of temptation. Every word of “oh, Lanzhou” he uttered was spoken with deep feeling. Those frivolous cynicism and firm steadfastness of his blended together contradictorily. He was frivolous as he whispered to Shen Zechuan, yet he was also incomparably dependable as he opened his arms to Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan was too powerless to resist. Those deep and frivolous kisses deceived him into dropping his guard, until he became a baddie on intimate terms with Xiao Chiye, until he was muddleheaded enough to come to rely on Xiao Chiye amidst this affliction.
Shen Zechuan’s vomiting subsided a little later. Xiao Chiye fed him the medicinal decoction little by little. Every time Shen Zechuan showed signs of not waking up from his lethargic sleep, Xiao Chiye would say that phrase “where is Lanzhou?”, which seemed to have the inexplicable power to call Shen Zechuan back time and time again.
Xiao Chiye originally would still hug Shen Zechuan as he took a nap. But several people died successively one after another in the days after, and he no longer dared to sleep again at night as he listened to Shen Zechuan’s gasps for breath whenever the occasion demanded.
On the ninth day, two more people died under the rain shelter awning. They could not just leave the bodies lying around, nor bury them, so Xiao Chiye left them to Ge Qingqing to dispose of.
At the time Ge Qingqing led the men to sort out the corpses and carry them out, Qiao Tianya was squatting by the stove fanning the fire. As he watched the medicine, he went through some matters in his mind.
“The Viceroy is waiting to feed the medicine.” Xiaowu came over and asked. “Is it ready?”
“The public ditches have already been dug through, so there’s no hurry today. Tell the Viceroy to wait.” Qiao Tianya added two pieces of firewood and shifted aside the handkerchief covering his mouth and nose to say, “Keep an eye on the Viceroy. He’s with my Master every day. If he gets infected, we won’t have any surplus medicine for him.”
“There was a plague at Luoxia Pass during the reign of Yongyi. His Lordship led his men to handle it then, and he never got infected.” Xiaowu squatted down to wait. He said, “I heard the various gege from Libei say that the Xiao Clan has the mandate of Heaven. That physique is not one a common man would have.”
“Tantai Hu is strong and sturdy too. Didn’t he still fall ill just like that?” Qiao Tianya said. “It doesn’t hurt to be careful and pay more attention. Have you drunk this morning’s medicine?”
“Yeah, I did.” Xiaowu honestly answered.
“How’s Tantai Hu today?” Qiao Tianya moved his slightly numbed legs.
“He hasn’t vomited since yesterday.” Xiaowu said. “Chen-ge said that it’s because he’s strong, and we found out about the infection in time. He’s being fed enough medicine too. Plus, the imperial physician is constantly at his side looking after him. He’ll be fine!”
“We can’t let our guards down before he’s awake.” There seemed to be something constantly on Qiao Tianye’s mind as he tossed the fan to Xiaowu. “Watch the fire for me. There’s some serious business I need to discuss with them.”
With that, he rose to his feet and headed for the rain shelter.
The curtain of the rain shelter was lifted partially as Qiao Tianya made his way inside. It was dim inside, but not damp. The beddings were also dry. An errand-runner from the Imperial Academy of Medicine washed and changed them daily. He saw Xiao Chiye in the midst of speaking to Tantai Hu, so he waited for a while.
Xiao Chiye turned his head aside and asked, “What’s the matter?”
Qiao Tianya lifted the hem of his robe and took a seat at the bench by the side.
Xiao Chiye caressed his thumb ring as he looked at Qiao Tianya with calm and composure.
Qiao Tianya said, “The Imperial Academy of Medicine and Imperial Bodyguards have records of this disease on file. Have you looked at it?”
Xiao Chiye nodded his head.
“Do you know the cause of the outbreak in the City of Dancheng? Xiao… Viceroy.” Qiao Tianya almost called out Xiao the Second again and promptly corrected himself. “Before my Master fell ill, he checked through the Imperial Bodyguards records here and specifically told me to make a note of certain matters. I’ve been thinking about this disease these few days, but since Master is not yet awake, I can only discuss this with you.”
“What did Lanzhou say?”
“He said that there’s something unusual about the origin of this disease.” Qiao Tianya propped his elbows on his knees and whistled at Ding Tao. “Recite the details of Dancheng’s plague to the Viceroy. You have a photographic memory; you still remember, right?”
Ding Tao thought for a moment, then said, “There was an outbreak in the City of Dancheng during the year of Yongyi. It was summer. The Imperial Academy of Medicine dispatched a delegate to go with the Imperial Bodyguards to check on it, and they discovered something strange about this plague. After some investigation, they learned that there was a burial mound behind the outbreak site. It was dirty and messy, with no one having cleaned it up before. The corpses thrown there before the start of spring had soaked at the rear until it reeked. There was even a cooked food stall in service at the front. The weather was hot at that time, and flies were buzzing all around. The shopkeeper was the first one who fell ill. At first, no one paid it any attention; even he himself suspected it to be a cold. He grabbed some medicine and carried on with his business at the shop. Oh, my! A whole bunch of people subsequently fell ill after those cooked foods were sold. And that was when the prefectural yamen of Dancheng realized something wrong.”
“A burial mound, huh? There are all kinds of people thrown there. Perhaps it just happened that one of them had some diseases or was bitten by some wild animals. Coincidentally, it had already been soaked rotten, thus becoming a feast for the flies to dine on. People are naturally susceptible to infection if they get too close.” The imperial physician packed his case and said, “It wasn’t easy for everyone at that time. Dancheng was sealed off for half a year, and quite many people died. We are lucky this time to have discovered it earlier, and we have the experience now. That’s why we managed to take precautions in time.”
“True that. But how did the outbreak happen in Qudu?” Qiao Tianya said, “The low-lying area of Donglong Street had indeed been submerged in sewage. It’s only to be expected for someone to fall ill. But there are no homicide cases on Donglong Street. I’ll be honest. Viceroy, please don’t take offense, but being infected with venereal diseases is to be expected on Donglong Street. Why is it so strange this time that we would get an outbreak of the Dancheng plague instead?”
The imperial physician tactfully found an excuse to head out.
“There’s no definitive explanation for the outbreak of Dancheng plague.” Chen Yang thought for a moment, then continued, “There’s a collapse and heavy rain this time, and everyone is in the water, so perhaps…”
“There are too many plague diseases.” Qiao Tianya said. “For example, the outbreak in Luoxia Pass at that time was a rat plague; so no way Hezhou would have an outbreak of the same plague. The situations in the various lands are different, so we can’t lump them together. This humble servant is a deeply suspicious man, and an honest person does not resort to insinuations. I think this disease did not start in Donglong Street, but—”
Qiao Tianya lifted his thumb and pointed it at the roof.
It fell silent under the awning. The bystanders had more or less turned pale.
Qiao Tianya let out a chuckle and said, “Isn’t it a coincidence? The celestial being met with misfortune upon descent to the mortal world. It’s virtually impossible to guard against dodging a pit only to fall into a well.2 These few days, the palace has not sent any word out to us. Viceroy, the public ditch has been unclogged, and the water level has gone down. But why does this matter seem to me like it’s only the beginning?”
“Everyone living in the heavenly palace is an immortal.” Xiao Chiye said slowly. “These immortals value their lives. They won’t dare to play it this way. A possibility like the one you speak of is only something a desperate person at the end of his rope staking everything he has on this one throw would dare to do.”
“I don’t know about that.” Qiao Tianya said. “The Directorate of Ceremonial now lacks a major-league eunuch who can take charge and control the twenty-four yamen. Many matters exist among the chaos where things are left unsupervised. If there’s really someone who brings a certain something in, then he would be able to pass it through just by hoodwinking his way through. Our Imperial Army and Imperial Bodyguards are all soldiers from the outside. There’s nothing we can do about what’s happening on the inside. But I feel that we have to take precautions and be on guard when it comes to this matter.”
Why did Li Jianheng leave the palace? Was it only just to have fun? He had just been through an assassination attempt not too long ago. He was not a gutsy man, so how would he dare to sneak out on the sly? Not unless someone was putting him up to it.
Xi Hongxuan would discuss everything with Shen Zechuan nowadays. Meeting with mishap this time was something he himself had never expected. And now, he was still lying on the bed with his life hanging in the balance. So who was the one who instigated Li Jianheng and brought about the collapse of Ouhua Pavilion at exactly the right moment?
Xiao Chiye contemplated it in silence.
His intuition told him it was not the Empress Dowager. Because Li Jianheng was already showing signs of showing filial respect to her. This, to her, was precisely the moment she could stage a comeback. She definitely would not bear to let Li Jianheng die now.
Then who else is there?
This time, the intent was not to intimidate Li Jianheng, but for Li Jianheng to die for real. But who would benefit if Li Jianheng died?
The curtain was lifted once again. The imperial physician poked his head in and said joyfully, “Viceroy, His Excellency the Judge is awake!”
Xiao Chiye quickly rose to his feet and strode a few steps out under the awning and entered the house. Shen Zechuan, who had been in a lethargic sleep for days, had his eyes half-opened. Xiao Chiye crouched softly beside the bed and gazed at him.
Shen Zechuan lifted his finger and weakly caressed Xiao Chiye’s brows and eyes. Xiao Chiye grabbed his hand and pressed it against his cheek.
“Go ahead and touch.” Xiao Chiye leaned in closer to him and laughed in a husky voice, “I’ll let you touch.”