Li Jianheng was unconscious for a few days, delirious with nightmares and mumbling incoherent words no one could understand. Mu Ru stayed by his bedside, personally feeding him medicine and wiping down his body.
The Empress Dowager did not use her royal sedan today. Instead, she took advantage of the good weather to take a leisurely stroll with Third Missy Hua. She said, “Lady Mu is still staying by the Emperor’s side keeping watch over him?”
Supporting the Empress Dowager, Matron Liuxiang said, “She hasn’t left at all.”
“With everything she has done, the Emperor’s affections for her would increase from a six to a ten.” The Empress Dowager said to Hua Xiangyi, “This relationship would take on more weight now that they have shared weals and woes together.”
“Lady Mu may seem delicate and petite,” Hua Xiangyi followed after the Empress Dowager and said, with the Empress Dowager’s words in mind, “But she is also a gutsy one.”
“That’s very accurate.” The Empress Dowager said, “Yesterday, the imperial physician mentioned that His Majesty is fine now and should wake soon. When His Majesty wakes, it’ll be Lady Mu’s time to shine. I saw how badly she was lambasted by the imperial censors before, but today, even Hai Liangyi himself would have to sigh and commend her for the good woman she is. If she’s someone timid, would she dare risk herself like this?”
Hua Xiangyi smiled as she took over the blue and white porcelain bowl1 from Liuxiang’s hands and tossed fish baits into the newly converted lake. She said, “How can she be His Majesty’s favorite if she doesn’t have a little gut? She already knew how and when to advance and retreat from her time with Pan Rugui.”
The Empress Dowager looked at the brocade carps in the lake vying for the food and said, “The outbreak of this plague is fishy. We could have dealt with Lady Mu and have her sent away for bewitching and leading the Emperor astray with her words. But she’s smart. She knows that getting close to His Majesty is an amnesty from death.2 With her taking care of him to this extent, the only one to be in for a rough time in the aftermath is Xi Hongxuan. In the previous suppression of Xiao Chiye, the noble clans lost Wei Huaixing. Fu Linye has also been denounced and demoted. In the end, no one benefited from it. And now that the Imperial Army has carried out such an urgent task like the dredging up of public ditches, Xiao Chiye will surely be rewarded.”
“Xi Hongxuan deserves to be punished.” Hua Xiangyi said. “He who gives no thought to difficulties in the future is sure to be beset by worries much closer at hand. Aunt, I think he has gotten too carried away by his own success because of his transfer to the Bureau of Evaluations in the Ministry of Revenue. It’s no coincidence that this misfortune has befallen him. If he had been prudent enough, how could anyone get the chance to plot against him? Now that someone has given him to Xiao the Second as a stepping stone to trample on, it’s only fitting for him to be punished. Moreover, while I was making inquiries about the matters concerning Qidong, I heard that the Hereditary Prince of Libei had given Zhongbo’s Cizhou 40,000 taels as aid relief during heavy snow3 before the new year. It was also in part due to these 40,000 taels that Xiao the Second was able to persuade the Ministry of Revenue. Because of this, Cizhou and Libei have now become friends in times of adversity. In the future, when the imperial court dispatches the Provincial Administration Commissioner to administer the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo, they would have to show some consideration for Libei too.”
“The one who benefits the most this time is Xiao Chiye. It’s not far-fetched even if one were to claim that he was the one who released the plague.” With her fingertips, the Empress Dowager rubbed the baits into crumbs and sprinkled them into the lake. “Lady Mu is in such good health, so why is it there still no news of an imperial heir? If we can’t get rid of her, then we can only have her in our grasp. Once she has a child, I won’t have to worry about the future.”
In truth, the Li Clan had quite a number of descendants. But during Emperor Guangcheng’s reign, the crown prince committed suicide by slitting his own throat, and the princes who ranked below him either died or were deposed, leaving only Emperor Xiande and Li Jianheng. Emperor Xiande reigned for eight years. And because his health was poor, only Imperial Concubine Wei got pregnant with a baby. But on those few days of national mourning, someone drowned Imperial Concubine in a well without so much as a squeak. Subsequently, there was only Li Jianheng left. Even after Li Jianheng ascended to the throne, there was still no news of pregnancy from the imperial concubines in the palace.
The Empress Dowager despised Mu Ru, who had come from an eunuch’s compound. She had originally intended to pick a smart and astute girl from the remaining maidens of the Hua Clan in Dicheng and appointed her hand in marriage to Li Jianheng as an imperial consort. Li Jianheng was not a passionate man who was crazy about love, so once he had a new lover, he would surely give his old flame the cold shoulder. Who would have expected Mu Ru to be both clever and gutsy enough to sway the Emperor through pillow talk and speak up numerous times for the Empress Dowager? If the Empress Dowager wanted to raise the future Crown Prince in her own palace, then she had to keep an eye on Mu Ru’s belly now.
“Speaking of benefit, Lady Mu has also gained from this misfortune.” Hua Xiangyi wiped her hands. “She still has a younger brother. Does Aunt remember?”
“He’s called Fengquan.” Matron Liuxiang quietly reminded the Empress Dowager from behind.
“I vaguely remember such a person.” The Empress Dowager said, “Didn’t he acknowledge Pan Rugui as his grandfather? Pan Rugui has been executed. His Majesty secretly retained him for Lady Mu’s sake, didn’t he?”
“Fengquan has once received a recommendation from Aunt for a promotion. I’m sure he still remembers Aunt’s kindness.” Hua Xiangyi supported the Empress Dowager by the arm. “Aunt, this sister and brother pair now have no one to rely on. If you give them a little endorsement for a promotion, then to them, you’ll be like the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.”
The Empress Dowager took a few steps and said, “That Fengquan is a eunuch. Call him back. There’s so many vacancies in the Twenty-four Yamen. Liuxiang, arrange a good post for him. Consider it a fulfillment of the siblings’ wish.”
Liuxiang uttered an acknowledgment.
The Empress Dowager asked again, “Has Qidong replied? How can the wedding date be scheduled in the autumn? The autumn wind in the Cang Commandery of Qidong is strong. I can’t bear to let you marry over during that period.”
Hua Xiangyi merely smiled. Matron Liuxiang said, “The old commander has replied, saying that he’ll leave it all up to Your Majesty to make the decision, as long as it falls on an auspicious day and hour. The messenger even specially brought along a few chests of Hezhou’s silk and satin for the Third Missy. The head ornaments were also crafted with care and attention—he clearly has put his heart into this.”
“Shouldn’t he put his heart into it?” The Empress Dowager’s smile diminished. “He has received such a momentous imperial favor.”
Liuxiang immediately lowered herself in obeisance and said, “He should. In order not to make Third Missy feel slighted and aggrieved, the men Qidong chose for the bridal escort squad4 are all respectable generals, and the one leading the procession is none other than Commander-in-Chief Qi.”
The Empress Dowager’s expression underwent a subtle change. In the end, she did not fly into a rage and merely said, “I’ve specifically sent a letter to the Bianjun Commandery to get the Earl of Biansha, Lu Pingyan, to come and fetch the bride. But he kept coming up with all kinds of excuses to decline. Isn’t it on account of the Prince of Libei that he didn’t dare to accept? The people from the Lu Clan are a bunch of blockheads! I’ll have to see exactly what Libei can help them with in the future. As for Qi Zhuyin being the one to fetch the bride… As a girl and a daughter, her seniority is already a notch lower. The nerve of Qi Shiyu to think of it!”
The Empress Dowager’s anger had yet to subside when a eunuch swiftly trotted over and kneeled to say, “Greetings to Your Majesty. Someone from the bedchamber had come earlier to say that His Majesty has woken up!”
Liuxiang hurriedly said, “Prepare to set out!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Tantai Hu, with his clothes draped over him, was carving wood to sculpt a crudely-made giant cricket for Ding Tao and Xiaowu. The moment Chen Yang lifted the curtain, all of them got off the couch and paid their proper respects in order.
“You have only just woken up, so it’s fine to sit.” Xiao Chiye motioned for them to rise and took his seat on the chair. “How are you today?”
“To report back to the Viceroy.” Tantai Hu wiped away the wood shavings on his hands. “My fever is gone, and I have eaten too. I can return to duty today.”
“There’s no hurry.” Xiao Chiye’s old robe dropped down deftly. He sat on the chair for a moment. “You got ill so suddenly that day. Your health is usually pretty good, so what happened? What did the military medic say?”
“The medic can’t explain the cause of this illness either.” Tantai Hu said. “I’ve been wondering. Why me? I never caught a cold even when I trained bare-chested in the rain during all those times our Imperial Army trained on the military drill grounds. I’ve seen the name list of those who had fallen ill that the Viceroy had told Chen Yang to compile. Although there are also elderly and youngsters, it’s still mostly the young and strong.”
“This plague is bizarre.” Chen Yang piped up when he heard to this point. “His Excellency the Judge may be right. It’s not a natural disaster this time, but a man-made one.”
Xiao Chiye leaned back to ponder it over and said, “Regardless of which it is, so much time has passed since then. The clues are most likely already disposed of.”
“It’s still not too bad since I’m the one who fell ill.” Tantai Hu was still filled with trepidation. “If Viceroy were the one who fell sick instead, then the patrols in Qudu would be in chaos!”
Startled, Xiao Chiye’s hand, which had been stroking his thumb ring, stopped in place. He said nothing, and the others did not dare to interrupt his contemplation.
“This didn’t cross my mind before you said it.” After a long while, Xiao Chiye let out a fearless smile. “Never mind. It’s a bad debt, no? Thankfully we have a backup plan. It’s not all that worrisome. Take a good rest today. Who is taking care of those few children in your home these days?”
Tantai Hu did not expect Xiao Chiye to remember the children. His eyes felt hot as he said, “Before coming in, I entrusted them to Chen Yang. He kept them in the Imperial Army’s office compound. With the brothers there to take care of them, they should not have to worry about food. It’s all good.”
“Most of the original households in the Imperial Army are locals from Qudu. You guys are non-locals from beyond Qudu who were recruited to fill up the posts here. All of you have no houses and no wives, so it isn’t easy for you to raise a few children. This time, you fell ill while digging ditches in the face of a disaster. Consider it a meritorious service. Chen Yang will report it to the Ministry of War for you to get a promotion at the start of spring. In the future, in addition to your monthly salary, the internal division of the Imperial Army will also allocate you some child support funds from my personal account.”
Allocating the money from Xiao Chiye’s personal account meant that the money was designated and withdrawn from Xiao Chiye’s official salary—it could be said to be money that Xiao Chiye gave him.
Tantai Hu had already kneeled down on one knee when he heard this. He said, “How would that do? I’m already very content that the Viceroy didn’t boot me out and still kept me on duty!”
“Credit where credit is due; you deserve it. I’m giving it to you, so just take it.” Xiao Chiye rose and said to Chen Yang, “Keep a record of the soldiers who have dug the ditches this time and distribute money to them. The plague is no joke; everyone is risking their own lives here, so what is taking some money in the grand scheme of things? Let it be known that all promotions and assignments will be assessed according to one’s merits and demerits in the future if this happens again. For people like Laohu, I, Xiao Ce’an, will take care of the whole family.”
That bit of displeasure Tantai Hu had initially harbored had utterly vanished. It would not do for him to bring up the issue about Shen Zechuan again because of the kindness he had received. Xiao Chiye also took a look at those few from the Imperial Army who had fallen ill, and he did and said the same to them. Even the young ones like Ding Tao received a monetary reward.
Shen Zechuan drank his medicine as he watched the bustling scene outside the window.
Qian Tianya set up the fire basin and roasted a few potatoes. As he poked the fire, he said, “See how others have gotten a promotion and a windfall. Master, what about me?”
“I’ll keep it in mind for future reference.” Shen Zechuan set aside the bowl.
Qiao Tianya looked at the potatoes with undivided attention even as he said, “Xiao the Second is doing it right when it comes to managing his subordinates. He has really put in a lot of thought and effort to be able to consolidate the Imperial Army and turn it into his very own impenetrable defense in the span of just a few years.”
“It’s not surprising for him to put in a little thinking and effort into matters that concern his safety and security.” Shen Zechuan said. “The Imperial Army is his newly sharpened blade. Naturally, the more smoothly he can wield it, the better. Tantai Hu is a high-ranking military officer he recruited from the outside into the Imperial Army. If not properly managed, then this batch of people with Tantai Hu as the head will become the root of troubles.”
“Timing and people’s hearts are all essential and indispensable. He has just the perfect grasp on them all. He suppressed them and rewarded them, sorting them out until they are all submissive and obedient. Even the root of trouble has become a stabilizing force. 5 Given Tantai Hu’s disposition, even if someone were to bribe him with a thousand gold in the future, it’ll be hard to shake his loyalty.” Qiao Tianya peeled the potatoes and sighed. “Now that I’ve compared it this way… Master, you’re really way too cold-blooded.”
“The Imperial Bodyguards differ from the Imperial Army. All those in the Imperial Bodyguards are men from noble clans. Each of them is ambitious and arrogant. Being cold is just perfect. Without any life and death tribulations, there is no way true friendships can form. Everyone has a scale in their heart. Han Cheng has assumed the post of Commander-in-chief for quite a few days, and there have been quite a number of rewards he has made out as a bribe to those below him. But how many of them really think well of him in private?” Shen Zechuan paused for a moment, then continued, “Now that you have eaten the potatoes, don’t eat the meat later. You must have put on at least seven or eight jin6 ever since you followed me.”
Qiao Tianya said, “Does Master want to listen to a tune? I can play and even sing. I can skip the money, but you can at least reward me with two pieces of meat, right?”
Shen Zechuan said mercilessly, “Go out.”
At the same time Qiao Tianya went out, Xiao Chiye returned. Qiao Tianya moved to the side to make way, and Xiao Chiye strode through the door, hooked a chair over with his leg, and sat beside the bed.
“Did you have a good sleep?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “So-so.”
Xiao Chiye said, “That residence of yours has been torn down too. Where are you going to live after you get out two days later?”
Shen Zechuan sighed. “Live on the streets, I guess.”
Propping himself up, Xiao Chiye whistled at him and said, “I have a small courtyard behind the Plum Blossom Residence. Do you want it?”
“Too close together, and it’ll be easy to arouse the suspicions of the others.” Shen Zechuan gathered his clothes around him, offering a brief glimpse of the marks on his nape.
“Too far apart, and it’ll be hard for us to even meet once every few days.” Xiao Chiye reached out his hand to smooth down Shen Zechuan’s back collar. His eyes lingered on those teeth marks.
He was the one who left those marks, kissing that portion all over as if he was holding his prey in his mouth.
Shen Zechuan raised his eyes to look at him and said, “See you on the imperial court… hm?”
Xiao Chiye averted his gaze and said, “That sounds so distant.”
“Then what’s to be done?” Shen Zechuan looked at him. “Where’s my fan?”
Chen Yang just happened to be holding a tray as he lifted the curtain. Without even thinking about it, Xiao Chiye said, “Gone. Chen Yang lost it.”
Shen Zechuan looked towards Chen Yang who, despite his shock, nodded calmly and said to Shen Zechuan in a heavy voice, “Your Excellency, this humble subordinate…”
“It’s just a fan. This Second Young Master will compensate you on his behalf.” Xiao Chiye said leisurely. “That ivory fan is so crude. I’ll gift you one.”
“Even if it’s crude, it’s from Xi Hongxuan.” Shen Zechuan said. “How can I put on an act of a crude rascal if I go and meet him later without that fan?”
“I’ll give something even more crude.” Xiao Chiye said, “Inlaid with gold along with jade. This Second Young Master has lots of money.”
“The military drill ground on Mount Feng has to undergo renovations at the start of spring.” Shen Zechuan spread his palms open. “Second Master Xiao, have you tightened your belt? You’ll soon be so poor that you’ll have to go vegetarian. Where on earth would you have the money to inlay gold and jade?”
Chen Yang put the tray down and backed out of the room.
Xiao Chiye said, “What? Is this going to be a check of my $ecret $tash?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Yo, there’s even a $ecret $tash.”
Xiao Chiye said, “I’ve plenty of those.”
Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “Then that’s really…”
Chen Yang, who had just exited, turned back and said outside the curtain, “Master! An imperial edict has arrived from the palace.”
Both men reined in their expression. Xiao Chiye immediately rose and single-handedly brought Shen Zechuan up as well.
青花瓷(碗) blue and white porcelain (bowl)
- 免死金牌 Death-Exemption Golden Token; a tablet or token bestowed by Emperor which would allow a person to be exempt from the death penalty.
- 大雪 means both heavy snow and also Great Snow, which is the 21st of the 24 solar terms in the lunar calendar. (Winter).
- 迎亲队 a procession squad sent by the bridegroom along with a bridal sedan to meet the bride at the bride’s home and escort her to the bridegroom’s home for the wedding.
- 定海神针 literally “The Sea-Anchoring Divine Needle”. According to the novel Journey to the West 《西游记》, this was a divine ‘needle’ (or pole) that could shrink and grow according to its owner’s wish. At first, it was a treasure of the Eastern Sea Dragon King’s Dragon Palace, but Sun Wukong (孙悟空) later took it away to use as his weapon and changed the needle’s name to the Ruyi Golden Cudgel (如意金箍棒). It’s used to refer to a stabilizing force.
- 斤 jin, 1 catty = to 0.5kg, so 7-8 jin is approximately 3.5-4kg.