The door panel fell to the ground with a loud “thud”, strewing accumulated dust all over. Fei Sheng covered his nose and mouth and strode in to check all the corners, not missing a single one.
This was the former residence of Prince Qin. Although it had fallen into a state of disrepair for years, one could still get a glimpse of its former opulence and grandeur. Fei Sheng lit the candle he carried on him, extinguished the lighter,1 and headed into the inner chamber.
“The bed-curtain and beddings are all new.” Ge Qingqing lifted the drape and looked at the bed.
“There were still people staying here a few days ago.” Fei Sheng stopped beside the table and pushed aside the teapot cover to reveal the residual tea stains within. “They drank spring tea from the Baimazhou Prefecture of Juexi. Looks like Xi Hongxuan did not treat them shabbily.”
Ge Qingqing saw the bloodstains when he inspected the bed, and his heart began to pound. He lifted the entire quilt, then took a sudden step back.
Hidden under the quilt on the bed was a putrid-smelling corpse with obvious signs of livor mortis. This person had obviously been dead for a few days. Fei Sheng held up the light to inspect the corpse.
“This person was strangled to death.” Fei Sheng pointed to the corpse’s throat. “It was crushed outright.”
“There are bloodstains.” Ge Qingqing said. “He had wounds inflicted with a blade before he died.”
“Not only that. Look at his neck. There are two sets of strangulation marks, which means that the first time did not kill him. How could those men Xi Hongxuan hired from the martial fraternity alone be capable of forcing the shifu into such a corner?” As Fei Sheng spoke, he used his blade to prop up the corpse and slowly turned the body over. “There’s no anomaly with the livor mortis; so he shouldn’t have been poisoned. The gashes on his back are in such a mess. Obviously, a layman who knows nothing of swordsmanship had haphazardly hacked away at him. The blade missed the vital points; that’s why he chose to choke him to death. They should have joined forces to kill this man. I suspect the shifu was injured. It’s likely he was too physically weak, and the Teacher had no choice but to take up the blade himself as a last resort.”
The more Ge Qingqing heard, the more alarmed he was. He said, “Since the corpse could be laid out in such a neat and orderly manner, does it mean that Teacher and Shifu have not reached the point of panic yet? As long as…”
“It’s possible that the corpse was laid out by others.” Fei Sheng surveyed the place again. “There are no traces of a fight here either… I think Shifu was injured and did not have the means to display his prowess with ease, that’s why he needs Teacher’s help. But their second transfer was definitely not arranged by Xi Hongxuan, because none of those martial artists he hired from the martial fraternity would dare to set themselves against the Imperial Bodyguards for just a bit of money. Whether or not this corpse is one of the martial artists remains to be seen. If it isn’t—”
Fei Sheng’s words came to an abrupt halt. He was willing to work for Shen Zechuan because he was eyeing the lucrative post. If this matter was not a personal grudge, then it was going to involve court strife. He did not want to put himself right in the middle of it, so he did not finish the second half of his words—If it wasn’t a martial artist, then this kind of highly skilled expert could only come from the imperial palace, and this corpse was possibly from the Imperial Bodyguards themselves.
Ge Qingqing understood his concerns. Both men fell into a silent stalemate. This house was creepy and eerie, so continuing to stand here like this was not an option.
Fei Sheng retracted his blade and said, “They are most certainly in Qudu. Each of the officials’ residences and princes’ manors has specialized bodyguards to stand guard. Their doors are tightly shut, and there are secret passages built inside. It’s simply too easy if they want to hide a few people. Sorry, this humble one is unlearned and of little talent. I can only search this far for His Excellency Shen!”
With that, he cupped his hands to Ge Qingqing and stepped out the way he came in. He mounted his horse and headed back to turn in his report.
From where he was in his spot, Ge Qingqing saw that trail of blood drag all the way to the ground. So he followed the blood trail and kneeled while propping himself up on the ground to look under the bed. It was even darker beneath the bed, and there seemed to be something there. Ge Qingqing reached out to fish it out, but it turned out to be a handful of ashes. Ge Qingqing blew away the ashes, leaving only a fingernail-sized piece of paper in his palm.
It was the remnants of handwritten notes that Qi Huilian had not thoroughly burned away.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan closed his eyes. Sandwiched between his fingers was the piece of paper that had been burned yellow. There were only a few words remaining on it, yet these were words he was the most intimately acquainted with.
Qi Huilian’s handwritten notes touched upon quite a number of matters. They were all treatises on contemporary politics they discussed back then in Zhao Zui Temple. Every little thing he had taught Shen Zechuan, and every inside story about the eunuchs he knew when he served as Grand Mentor, were all in the notes. During the plague, Qiao Tianya had transferred them all to store in the loft for Qi Huilian to safekeep personally.
To prevent the information in them from leaking, Qi Huilian had his own way of reading them. What treatise it was and how to read it were all something he had thought over himself during his spare time at the temple. If one were to read them in the usual order, quite the number of matters would appear to be just a jumble of words, much like the ravings of a lunatic—totally incoherent and incomprehensible.
But, he burned it. Was it because he was forced by circumstances, or because he was worried that the one detaining him would be able to read it?
Qiao Tianya, who had been leaning against the wall, involuntarily straightened up when he saw Shen Zechuan stepping out. Shen Zechuan swiftly walked down the steps and said, “Prepare the carriage.”
Noting that it was already getting late, Qiao Tianya knew where he wanted to go. The inconspicuous and common horse carriage set off and circled twice on Shenwu Street before reaching the Plum Blossom Residence.
“Where is His Lordship?” Shen Zechuan got off the carriage and asked.
On seeing his solemn expression, Ding Tao did not dare to play around and replied honestly, “His Lordship has just gone out to invite that Eldest Master Xue for a drink. He will return later. Your Excellency, do you need me to go and call His Lordship back? It’s just a few streets away.”
For Xiao Chiye to invite Xue Xiuyi for a drink at this moment, he must also be trying to probe deeper into Xue Xiuzhuo. The Xue Residence was not an easy one to investigate. It was far more convenient to have an insider like Xue Xiuyi around than to send someone to grope around in the dark for clues.
Shen Zechuan walked into the courtyard and said, “You just need to tell him that I’ll be resting here tonight. Tell him to come back after he’s done drinking. Don’t stay out all night. But also tell him there’s no hurry; there’s no need for him to rush back immediately. Xue Xiuyi is not an easy one to dismiss at will.”
Ding Tao uttered an acknowledgment and left. Qiao Tianya followed Shen Zechuan and asked, “Why the sudden hurry?”
“Xi Hongxuan didn’t trust anyone, but he trusted Xue Xiuzhuo.” Shen Zechuan headed up the stairs under the dim light from the lantern. “That last time Xi Dan defrauded him, he rather suspected Xi Dan than to suspect Xue Xiuzhuo. He always had to ask about everything. Having gotten hold of Teacher this time, he no doubt wouldn’t dare to act on his own.”
Before his death, Xi Hongxuan was so sure that Shen Zechuan would lose. Why? He must have known something that Shen Zechuan still did not know as yet. Xi Hongxuan’s promotion to the Bureau of Evaluations was on Xue Xiuzhuo’s suggestion. He heeded Xue Xiuzhuo’s advice that much—Why would he?
Shen Zechuan suddenly paused in his steps and stood where he was.
The Xue Clan had already been on the decline for a long time. Xi Hongxuan would never comply and put himself at the disposal of a down-and-out person. He would also never be that easily won over by anyone. They came to associate with each other through the solidarity between fellow students. Because both clans were related by marriage in the previous generations, they had ties of kinship and friendship between them. But, what did Xue Xiuzhuo use to maintain his hold over Xi Hongxuan? Xi Hongxuan put profit before anything else. He could even kill his dear blood brother on a whim. It was impossible for Xue Xiuzhuo to gain his trust of such proportion with just that flimsy bit of blood relationship alone.
Shen Zechuan started to grow apprehensive for no reason. He looked at the eaves. The shadow was like a threatening beast, baring its fangs and brandishing its claws. It had already bitten half of his body between its sharp fangs. Clues that he could not pry apart clearly were just like the dense clusters of water weeds that, along with the colors of the night, entangled and tied down his hands and legs, giving him an inkling of the danger.
◈ ◈ ◈
When Xiao Chiye saw Ding Tao come in midway through his drinking session with Xue Xiuyi that he had invited the latter to, he knew that Shen Zechuan had returned to the residence. As he socialized with the other man, he gave Ding Tao a slight nod to indicate his awareness of it.
Xue Xiuyi was half-drunk again. He wanted to call a few prostitutes down for company. But Xiao Chiye said nothing of this, so he did not dare to call for them rashly. Still grabbing the wine cup, he said to Xiao Chiye even as his wine-induced hiccups persisted, “He… Xue Yanqing! That batch of fledglings he is raising in the residence, he specifically put them in a big courtyard, and even habitually hire… hire, hire a teacher to set up some kind of private school… If you ask me, he doesn’t seem like he’s raising prostitutes.”
“Is that so?” Xiao Chiye downed several cups of wine, showing no sign of being drunk. Beside him, Chen Yang filled Xue Xiuyi’s cup to the brim again. Xiao Chiye casually clinked cups with him and said, “Then why did he buy those batch of people? There has to be a reason.”
“There’s something odd about Xue Xiuzhuo!” Xue Xiuyi drank several mouthfuls of wine and continued, “If not for Your Lordship’s reminder, I would not have noticed… The people he bought are similar in age, but they are all good-looking, with boys and girls both pleasing to the eye. I know there are quite a number of people in the imperial court who are into males. Each of those male prostitutes on Donglong Street is all delicate and supple. They are no less inferior to real, real women! Is he thinking that the ones sold outside are unclean, and that would easily open himself up to gossip and ridicules, so he had to raise a batch on the sly for future connection building?”
Xiao Chiye did not listen to him prattle on. He toasted him and said, “Then he’s going to have to put in a lot of time and effort. Those popular and known male courtesans on Donglong Street only got to where they are today because of patrons spending cold, hard cash on them. He bought both boys and girls. Is the teacher he hired only teaching the boys?”
“That’s the odd thing!” Xue Xiuyi’s drunken state was an ungentlemanly sight to behold. He lowered his head for a moment and finally stopped the hiccups before he said to Xiao Chiye, “Your Lordship, he let those girls learn music, chess, calligraphy, and painting.2 I know why; which man wouldn’t like a pretty lady as a study companion? Yet he let those boys study essays on current affairs.”
Xiao Chiye’s eyes swiftly turned to look at Xue Xiuyi. He repeated, “He let those boys study essays on current affairs? Just that alone?”
Xue Xiuyi shook his head hard. He extended his finger and said, “He set up a small school in that courtyard. Occasionally, he would go there to teach them himself. Your Lordship, do you know what he taught? They were all proper classics. Just the previous day, he was teaching these boys… contemporary politics!”
* * *
Xiao Chiye returned home very late. He saw that the room was still lit, and so he knew Shen Zechuan was still waiting for him. Chen Yang dismissed the attendants serving them, leaving only a few of them guards to stand watch over the courtyard.
As usual, Xiao Chiye stepped inside. There was only a glazed lamp lit inside. Shen Zechuan was before the small table, looking at the cases. He had already removed his crown, and was draped with Xiao Chiye’s large robe, looking as he always did before he retired for the night.
Xiao Chiye leaned over to press down on Shen Zechuan’s back and tilted his head to kiss his earlobe. He said, “Leave a note if something’s the matter. It’s the same discussing it tomorrow morning upon waking up.”
Shen Zechuan uttered an acknowledgment and turned his head to look at him.
Xiao Chiye got up, removed his blade, took out his outer garment, and sat cross-legged beside Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan’s fingertips pinched the page of the book, but he did not turn it over. He said, “Some things have to be discussed in person; it can’t be clearly explained in just a word or two.”
Xiao Chiye finally relaxed and undid his clasps. He said, “Let’s take turns. You first or me first?”
Shen Zechuan looked at him for a moment, but Xiao Chiye did not pull him closer, so he raised his fingers to help him undo the clasps. After thinking for a moment, he said, “There are many things I have yet to wrap my head around. You go first.”
Propping up his elbow on the small table, Xiao Chiye flipped out another book from the cabinet at the side and handed it to Shen Zechuan. As the latter read it, he said, “Of the batch of people Xue Xiuzhuo bought, the eldest is eighteen years old, and the youngest is fourteen. Boys and girls, both mixing in one courtyard. The only thing they could be said to have in common is that they are all good-looking.”
“Eight Great Cities. Zhongbo. Juexi.” Shen Zechuan’s fingertip followed the names. “He didn’t look at their place of origin when he bought them.”
“This might be to obscure the truth so that others would have nowhere to start checking even if they wanted to.” Seeing Shen Zechuan come to a sudden stop at a certain spot, Xiao Chiye moved in closer for a look. “You’ve seen this name before?”
Shen Zechuan looked at that name and said, “Ling Ting… I’ve heard this name before at Xiangyun Villa.”
“They are all Xiangyun’s people.” Xiao Chiye said. “She likes smart and sharp children; that’s why she used ‘Ling’ as a surname and changed all the names of these fledglings.”
“You had a drink with Xue Xiuyi earlier tonight. Did he say anything?”
“He said something strange.” Xiao Chiye paused for a moment. “He said Xue Xiuzhuo bought this batch of people back to the residence, where the girls learn all those stuff the brothels teach, while the boys attended proper school. Xue Xiuzhuo hired a teacher for these boys. There’s not only essays on current affairs from the Imperial College but also discourse on contemporary politics.”
Shen Zechuan pondered it over and said nothing.
Xiao Chiye said, “If he wants students, he could have picked them from decent households. There are plenty of people from the Imperial College who want to formally acknowledge him as their teacher. Yet, it is in such a way to teach the boys he bought back from the brothel. Even if these people really accomplish something in their studies, they still can’t join the ranks of officials due to their lowly status. So what’s in it for him? Unless he intends to raise a bunch of in-residence hangers-on.”3
“Xue Xiuzhuo…” Shen Zechuan seemed to be drifting away, lost in his thought. He listened to Xiao Chiye’s words and swiftly organized his thoughts. “If he wants to keep hangers-on, there are better candidates. You and I missed out a point earlier. Xue Xiuzhuo and Xi Hongxuan are on good terms. It’s not like Ouhua Pavilion can’t afford to give him the batch of brothel fledglings he wants, isn’t it? Yet, he specifically used money to buy them from Xiangyun Villa. This shows that he had his sights all along on a certain someone among that batch.”
The images in Shen Zechuan’s mind flashed past. Although he did not have Ding Tao’s photographic memory, he kept every single matter and every single word from his past interactions with the others in his mind to mull over. He remembered them all; he would not forget any details.
“As long as the blood of the Li Clan runs in him, he’s the imperial heir.”
Grand Mentor’s Qi words were like a thunderbolt that cleaved apart the current muddle in Shen Zechuan’s mind. Once he thought of this phrase, he thought of many more. He abruptly straightened up in his kneeling pose, and his sleeves flipped over and messed up several pages of papers on the small table.
“The former emperor…” Shen Zechuan grabbed hold of Xiao Chiye’s arm. His voice gradually calmed as he said, “The former emperor reigned for a little more than eight years. His chronic illness went uncured, and he had no imperial heirs; the only one who got pregnant was Imperial Concubine Wei. During the Nanlin Hunting Grounds incident, the Hua Clan rebelled. Hua Siqian had the guts to make his move that night precisely because of the child in Imperial Concubine Wei’s belly. But after that night, when we returned to the capital, Imperial Concubine Wei was already thrown into a well to drown. At first, I suspected you, but then later on, I suspected it to be a long-time minister from Hai Liangyi’s side. They did it to completely sever the noble clans’ wishful thinking and let Li Jianheng ascend to the throne smoothly. That’s why they struck first to gain the upper hand and killed off Imperial Concubine Wei. But now that I think about it, there’s something wrong with this assumption. Even if Imperial Concubine Wei was with child, there was still no knowing if it was a boy or a girl,4 so there was no way they could pit the child against Li Jianheng, who already had the support of Libei. To Hai Liangyi, killing Imperial Concubine Wei is an unnecessary move.”
“Going further back, Emperor Guangcheng was on the throne before Emperor Xiande. The Crown Prince of the Eastern Palace slit his own throat in Zhao Zui Temple because of the rebellion case. At that time, the Imperial Grandson was still an infant. If he didn’t die, he should be twenty-six years of age this year. However, this case was jointly handled by Ji Lei and Shen Wei. Ji Lei, in order to defect to Pan Rugui back then and show his loyalty, would surely not dare to be too sloppy and careless. So it’s even more unlikely for him to leave such a big source of disaster behind. In that case, then the one in this world who can still claim to be an imperial heir could only be—”
Xiao Chiye grasped back Shen Zechuan’s icy cold hand and continued in a deep, lowered voice, “The eldest is eighteen, and the youngest is fourteen. If it’s truly the imperial heir, then the only one who can match the timeline is Emperor Guangcheng. The Eastern Palace was massacred in the era of Yongyi. For nearly a decade after that, no imperial concubine was able to give birth to an imperial heir right under the Empress Dowager’s watchful eyes. Although Emperor Guangcheng was suffering from an illness at that time, he wasn’t ill to the extent he was weak and frail. Unable to break free from the Hua Clan’s hold over him, he could only think of a way outside the palace.”
“Other than me, the only one who knew that Ouhua Pavilion had been hollowed out beneath to be filled with jars was Xue Xiuzhuo. The collapse case was an attempt to kill Li Jianheng, and this is the part I haven’t been able to figure out. Assuming now that he really has an imperial heir in hand, then everything else makes sense. He killed Imperial Concubine Wei, then tried to kill Li Jianheng.” That hidden unease of Shen Zechuan was becoming more and more distinct.
Xiao Chiye was also daunted by this out-of-the-blue conjecture. He said, “If that is truly the case, then the imperial heir is among that batch of people.”
Both men faced each other. Shen Zechuan kept his voice down and said, “This imperial heir—”
“Must not live.” Xiao Chiye pinched Shen Zechuan’s chin and closed the distance between them. His gaze was deep and grave. “Lanzhou, we cannot let a single one of these people live.”
He spoke slowly. His intent to kill was like a raging wave buried in these depths. Both of them thought plenty in this very instant. What was the implication of the imperial heir? It implied that everything in the present will all turn passive. Would the noble clan who had the imperial heir in their grasp be easily defeated? Think about the Empress Dowager, who had ruled behind a screen5 for as long as twenty years. The Li Clan she had in her control could only become her puppet. The power and influence of political factions formed of the aristocratic clans would surely rise again, and Hai Liangyi would once again be beaten back into a disadvantageous position!
All of a sudden, the sound of knocking rang out from the other side of the door, breaking the heavy atmosphere between both men.
Xiao Chiye said, “Speak.”
Qiao Tianya said with slight urgency, “Master, the man who has been hurrying all night to catch up with Xi Dan is back.”
Shen Zechuan stood up at once, gathered his clothes together, and opened the door. Qiao Tianya quickly stepped aside to create a path for him. Shen Zechuan looked at Ge Qingqing, who was kneeling on one knee in the courtyard, and went down the steps. He said, “What’s wrong?”
“Your Excellency.” Ge Qingqing looked up. His voice was hoarse and shaky. “Xi Dan opened the Xi Clan’s money vault, but it has already been emptied out.”
The leaves on the branches in the courtyard rustled in the wind as the trees abruptly inclined their heads to look askance at Ge Qingqing. Moonlight smeared the ground white, as if paving it with a thick blanket of frost. In the dead silence, Shen Zechuan turned his head back a little and said to Xiao Chiye, “Er-lang, we’ve been played for fools by him.”
His tone was soft and gentle, but it made the entire courtyard of guards all lower their heads.
火折子 a kind of lighter used in the old times. It’s small and portable, and to use it, you can just blow at it until it lights up.
- 琴棋书画 Also known as the Four Arts (四艺), which are the accomplishments of a well-educated scholar of the old school
- 清客 hanger-on, or literary retainers, of the rich and powerful (said of writers, artists, etc. who are patronized as status symbols by rich and powerful people)
- It was typically the males who had the rights to the throne. A girl typically would not pose that much of a threat than a boy would.
- 垂帘听政 literally to hold court behind a screen or curtain. A practice in ancient China, where the Empress or Empress dowager was allowed to preside over the imperial court without actually being seen by her subjects since women were prohibited from politics. This would usually be done by a child emperor’s mother, who would serve as regent and rule in place of the emperor.