Rain that had been falling for several days in a row subsided, leaving the public roads utterly muddy.
Qudu fell into a state of mourning. With the sudden death of the young Emperor Tianchen, rumors that the Marquis of Dingdu, Xiao Chiye, had colluded with the Vice Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard-cum-Northern Judge, Shen Zechuan, to assassinate the emperor with the intent to rebel spread like wildfire as whispers behind closed doors in Qudu.
As Emperor Tianchen did not have any imperial heir, the ministers presented a memorial to request the Empress Dowager to preside over the overall situation in place of the Emperor. The Empress Dowager repeatedly excused herself on the grounds that the harem must not interfere with state affairs. It was only after the Commander-in-chief of the Imperial Bodyguards, Han Cheng, kowtowed thrice in remonstration that the Empress Dowager was convinced to step in.
The Eight Great Training Divisions were back in charge of Qudu’s patrols and defenses, and the streets these days were crawling with patrol squads around the clock. Common folks did not dare to venture outdoors, and all the wine taverns and brothels kept their doors shut. It was as if the bustling scene of Qudu was a thing of the past. Even the color of the vermilion walls and glazed tiles in Qudu looked washed out by the misty drizzle.
Hai Liangyi fainted several times when he wept before the coffin. He was now lying on the bed, unable to drink even a drop of medicine. His hair seemed to have turned entirely white overnight, and those spirited eyes of his that once gleamed with brilliance became dim and gloomy. They even looked particularly turbid and cloudy, after all those tears he had shed.
“Teacher.” Kong Qiu sat at the bottom with his head lowered and said, “You have to eat the medicine. Now that the world is in turmoil, everyone is waiting for you to take the helm and steer the state towards stability once more… You must take care of your health!”
The tear streaks at the corners of Hai Liangyi’s eyes had not been fully wiped. His gaze drifted, and it was only after a long time that he said, “Take the helm and steer the state towards stability once more? Boran, there is nothing I can do anymore to save the situation.”
The bamboo tube in the courtyard tapped gently against the rock in the stream, exposing the cracked lines. Rain fell soundlessly. Yet there was no way those scars could be covered up. Hai Liangyi was too advanced in age. His vital energy had been worn out by the ups and downs of officialdom, and now, there were signs that he might never recover from his illness.
Sorrow overwhelmed Kong Qiu. He sat where he was, weeping with his face covered. “How… how did it come to this?!”
“Han Cheng is a hypocrite who speaks honeyed words but has the malicious heart of a viper. He is petty and narrow-minded. Now that he has gained power, the entire imperial court of civil and military officials will be on tenterhooks. He forced Xiao Chiye out, and so Libei is now without a shackle. From now on…” Hai Liangyi suddenly started coughing. He propped himself up and vomited out blood. For a moment, he could not hold back his emotions, and he cried in a hoarse voice as he held onto the edge of the bed, “From now on, our territory will be torn asunder, and turbulent times will rise once again. The century-old empire of the Li clan will fall into ruins here! I’ve sinned. I’m a sinner! I, Hai Renshi, have spent my entire life shamelessly advancing my own agenda and navigating official circles. Yet it was all to toil in vain for the benefit of these people! I… Oh, I…”
With a headful of ash white hair, Hai Liangyi hunched over and wailed in a voice so hoarse and so full of despair that it was a tragic sight to behold.
“Teacher, Teacher!” Kong Qiu hastily came over to help him up, then looked back and shouted, “Men!”
The door curtain was lifted, but it was Yao Wenyu who entered. On seeing what was happening, he immediately kneeled on the footrest and disregarded the filth as he wiped the tears and blood for Hai Liangyi. At the same time, he directed the attendant to draw water and rinsed the handkerchief. Finally, he helped Hai Liangyi lie down. After soothing him for a moment, he said to Kong Qiu in a soft voice, “Your Excellency, may I ask of you to wait outside, please.”
Kong Qiu did not dare to disturb them any further and hurriedly retreated to wait outside.
After a long time, the sound of Hai Liangyi’s cries receded. Yao Wenyu held the bowl in his hand and personally fed his teacher medicine. It was only after Hai Liangyi fell into a drowsy sleep that he lifted the curtain and stepped out.
Kong Qiu wanted to say something, but Yao Wenyu motioned for him to follow the attendant to the main hall first, while he himself made his way through the veranda to the back for a change of clean clothes.
“Apologies for keeping you waiting, Your Excellency.” Yao Wenyu got the attendant to serve tea and sat down below Kong Qiu.
Kong Qiu held the teacup and was silent for a moment before he said, “Teacher has no son. I feel reassured with you here to take care of him. I shouldn’t have brought up these matters earlier… and ended up making him sad.”
“Although Teacher has returned home ill, he is still concerned about state affairs. Even if Your Excellency doesn’t bring it up, he would still find it hard to dismiss it from his mind. It’d have been better to cry it out than to bottle it all up in his heart.” Yao Wenyu held up the teacup and stirred it a few times before saying, “The current situation is unstable and volatile. Teacher won’t be able to rest for long anyway,”
Kong Qiu knew that Hai Liangyi treated him like his own son. So he did not hold back and said with a sigh, “His Majesty’s passing is so sudden. We are now already in a disadvantageous position. In addition, the Han clan has control of military power in Qudu, and we are presently in an irreversible situation in which Her Majesty is in power and in control of the government. After this incident… what is to be of Libei in the future?”
Yao Wenyu was fair by nature, and he looked no different from porcelain as he held that teacup. He said, “The way things stand now, it’s vital to discuss countermeasures to deal with the situation. Han Cheng’s original position was that of the Imperial Bodyguards’ Commander-in-chief. If he wants to overstep his authority and enter the Grand Secretariat to take charge, his only option would be to ask the Empress Dowager to issue an imperial edict, so he isn’t exactly without leverage. Wei Huaigu consumed poison and committed suicide because of the military provisions case. The temporary vacancy in the Grand Secretariat will thus have to be filled in by Your Excellency. With this, all the important affairs of the imperial court will still have to be deliberated over and endorsed by the various excellencies under Teacher.”
On hearing this, Kong Qiu set down the teacup and humbly asked, “But the Empress Dowager is in charge of state affairs, and any changes in the Grand Secretariat is subjected to her whims and fancies. If she issued a change of people using Han Cheng as a pretext, then what should we do?”
Yao Wenyu smiled and said, “The Empress Dowager being in charge of state affairs is a desperate measure to begin with. Her surname isn’t Li, so the authority of acting on behalf of the Son of Heaven can’t convince the public. The others don’t matter; what’s crucial is the Qi clan. Although Qi Zhuyin may be indolent by nature and doesn’t care about government affairs, she has the Qi clan’s reputation for loyalty resting on her shoulder. She will never allow the Empress Dowager and Han Cheng to commit all kinds of outrages in Qudu. Since the Empress Dowager wants to win her over to her side, she won’t go too far at this point in time. Rather than worry about the Empress Dowager’s substitution attempt, Your Excellency might as well worry about Han Cheng’s subsequent plans.”
Kong Qiu said, “Han Cheng went all out to ingratiate himself with the Empress Dowager. He has succeeded.”
“In my humble opinion, it’s just the opposite.” Yao Wenyu lifted his eyes to look at the misty rain at the entrance, “At this time, it indeed seems like Han Cheng has gained the favor of the Empress Dowager. But looking at the bigger picture in the long run, it’s instead the Empress Dowager who is seeking connection with Han Cheng. The Empress Dowager is able to rise to power because the Emperor had no heir. The imperial court cannot be without a master, and it was out of a lack of options that everyone compromised and made concessions. But Dazhou will definitely have a new Son of Heaven. The military power Han Cheng holds in his hands is the real thing. His daringness to lay an encirclement trap for Xiao Chiye to force him out and make his move in Mingli Hall is a clear indicator that he has backing and, therefore, has nothing to fear.”
“You mean…” Kong Qiu was shocked. “Han Cheng still has the imperial heir in his hands?”
Yao Wenyu drank the tea and said, “Emperor Guangcheng often ventured out of the palace to stay overnight. It’s hard to say whether there is an imperial heir. It’s just the situation is already now at this stage. Even if Han Cheng doesn’t have the imperial heir in his hands, he will think of every means possible to push someone out.”
Kong Qiu’s heart went cold. He said, “Han Cheng has soldiers and horses, and the Imperial Bodyguards to boot. The officials in the capital are all tied down by their own families and might not necessarily be willing to conflict with him should a power struggle really break out. If he forcibly elects someone to sit on the dragon throne and rule the imperial court, we…”
Yao Wenyu, however, changed the topic and asked, “Has the Imperial Army already passed through Dancheng?”
◈ ◈ ◈
The Imperial Army had already passed through Dancheng, but they had yet to reach the territory of Zhongbo. Xiao Chiye made haste all the way. The soldiers and horses all needed to rest, so they made a stop midway.
Shen Zechuan was severely ill, with his old ailment and heartbreak acting up together. He seemed to be conscious, but yet he was not. It was as if he was lying in a puddle of dreams, engulfed once again by the rainwater and filthy blood.
Ever since the plague the last time, Xiao Chiye suspected that Shen Zechuan had never attempted to recuperate and nurse himself back to health. Instead, the medicines he had consumed in his early years had now turned into a form of latent poison lurking in his body. Xiao Chiye did not dare to be negligent, so he made a stop and immediately went looking for a physician.
Shen Zechuan’s head was in a muddle, and the roaring in his ears persisted. He heard Xiao Chiye’s voice, yet he also seemed to hear Teacher’s shouts. He lay on the pillow. The few times he woke up, he thought that he was still in Duanzhou. He smelled the aroma of dishes, as if the one standing outside the door was his shiniang, Hua Pingting.
But he did not dare to move or look.
He seemed to possess it all, but he still had nothing to his name. He thought he had killed off himself, and that this mortal flesh would not shed any more tears. But he had been too young, too full of youthful arrogance and ignorance—that was only because he had yet to experience immeasurable pain. He came this far, feeling as if he was just being executed by dismemberment.
Xiao Chiye hugged Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan’s nape, which had once radiated seduction, had turned deathly pale. The man himself looked like a cloud lying across the night. Xiao Chiye stayed close to him, hugging him so tightly that he hurt.
“Cold?” Xiao Chiye asked in a whisper.
Shen Zechuan was a little slow to react as he nodded his head. He tilted his head, pressing his cheek against Xiao Chiye’s cheek. That heat warmed him up, making him seem a little more human. He reached out his hand in the darkness to stroke Xiao Chiye’s arm, feebly and slowly.
Xiao Chiye turned his hand around to hold Shen Zechuan’s hand, interlocking his fingers tightly with Shen Zechuan’s. He gave all his warmth to Shen Zechuan. His chest, being the most scalding, pressed against Shen Zechuan’s back, as if he could dissolve Shen Zechuan away with the heat. He seemed to be harboring Shen Zechuan in his arms, no longer permitting anyone to get close. He clumsily licked Shen Zechuan’s wound. This was his way of healing. He did not want this person to be in pain ever again.
“Qiao Tianya has gone to look for shifu.” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were dark and gloomy. “When will he be back?”
“Soon.” Xiao Chiye squeezed Shen Zechuan’s hand and repeated, “Soon.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I can’t wipe the blood clean.”
Xiao Chiye said, “We have both embarked on the way of the asura1—the bloody path of carnage. We have no more need to be clean, as long as we’re together.”
Shen Zechuan pursed his thin lips slightly and said, “I—”
He paused, dazed, as if he had forgotten what he wanted to say. Listening to the sound of the rain, he closed his mouth again. Xiao Chiye pinched his tightly clenched mouth open and asked, “What do you want to say to me?”
Shen Zechuan turned his head hastily, refusing to let Xiao Chiye look at him squarely in the face. But Xiao Chiye grasped him by his jaws to prevent him from dodging and asked once again in a lowered voice, “What do you want to say to me?”
Shen Zechuan’s face was pale under that gaze. He opened his mouth several times, but could not bring himself to speak. Xiao Chiye gazed at him, until a long time later when he finally heard Shen Zechuan say with a sob, “It hurts.”
Xiao Chiye cupped Shen Zechuan’s cheeks and raised his face. Shen Zechuan looked as if he had returned to the time when he was a child. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he repeated “it hurts” over and over again with his lips trembling.
Xiao Chiye stroked Shen Zechuan’s hair and wiped his tears with his thumbs. He said, “Where does it hurt? Tell me all about it.”
Shen Zechuan broke out into sobs. Even his shoulders were trembling. He was so grief-stricken as he cried, as though he was venting all these years of anguish in this one night. But he was dumb; he did not know where he was hurting. He clearly could no longer endure this kind of pain anymore. He disconsolately let Xiao Chiye wipe his cheeks. Tears brimmed in his eyes. There was nothing left of all those machinations that spoke of a maturity far beyond his age, only naked pain.
Xiao Chiye rolled over and embraced Shen Zechuan. He took all of Shen Zechuan into his arms, providing a haven where Shen Zechuan could remove his mask. They hugged each other tightly. Xiao Chiye listened as Shen Zechuan cried himself hoarse, like a small animal that had been abandoned, and at the same time, like a battered child who was broken and bleeding. Gradually, Xiao Chiye’s chest was soaked through. He caressed Shen Zechuan’s hair, answering again and again,
“It won’t hurt anymore. I promise. Lanzhou will never hurt again.”