Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The evening drum sounded six times, and the distant mountains melted into the twilight. Dark clouds pressed darkly on the imperial palace, and daylight occasionally fell down from the gaps of piles of dark clouds. Eunuchs used long poles to hang lanterns onto iron hooks under the eaves, and the lanterns in the palace lit up one after another, swaying as they scattered a soft halo. Lanterns were hung up everywhere in the imperial palace, connecting into a brilliant expanse. Fourth Qianxi Premises 1 alone was sunk in darkness, and only iron horse bells 2 swung lonesomely under the bare eaves. This was the most desolate corner in the Forbidden City.
“Emperor… Emperor… I miss you so much, why don’t you come to see me?” A woman dressed in red was sitting on top of a wall, waving a handkerchief. Her eyes were dark, like an empty old well.
“Ah, Consort Gao, why did you go up there again? If the supervisor sees, Xiao Juezi 3 and I are going to be punished again!” Si Xi 4 turned in circles anxiously, tucked the ends of his skirt into his belt, and cautiously clambered up the ladder next to Consort Gao. His body was a little fat, so when he climbed up the ladder, from a distance he looked like a meatball skewered on a thin stick.
Consort Gao had entered Fourth Qianxi Premises at the beginning of the year, and it was rumored that it had been because she would sprinkle red beans on the garden paths that Noble Consort Ma often took strolls on, to try to make her fall and have a miscarriage. After things were exposed, not only was she imprisoned in the Imperial Clan Court and tortured for a long time, she also had a screw loose. Originally, there had been three crazy noble consorts living in Fourth Qianxi Premises, and then came another one. Si Xi was forced back and forth so much that he was exhausted, and the top of his head that was already a little bald lost a few more strands of hair.
Just when he was at a loss, a little eunuch who looked to be fourteen and who was wearing black clothes walked in and put a food box on the table.
“Come down and eat!”
When Consort Gao heard this, she hastily urged Si Xi down and lifted her own skirt as she climbed down the ladder. She kept her head down meekly as she sat before the table, waiting for the little eunuch to serve the food to her.
Si Xi sighed in relief and said, “Shen Jue, you’re still the capable one.”
Shen Jue placed the bowls and chopsticks onto the table, his lowered eyes and brows as tranquil as a painting, all of them like the green-black landscape in a painting. He was fourteen years old now, and his stature had grown rapidly, like sprouting willow branches. However, he wasn’t able to eat well all year round, so there wasn’t much color in his face, adding a bit of a frail air of sickliness.
Si Xi’s gaze shifted downward, and he caught sight of his slender fingers. Their nails were neatly trimmed, without a single hangnail. Si Xi’s heart stirred, and his right hand stroked the back of Shen Jue’s hand. He said in a low voice, “Xiao Juezi, about the thing I told you the other day, how have you considered it?”
Shen Jue smiled in ridicule, and he calmly took his hand back. “I’ve only heard of eunuchs and palace maids getting together, but I haven’t heard that two eunuchs can do it before.”
“Ah, this is where you don’t understand.” Si Xi squinted his eyes that were the size of green beans, a lustful light flowing out of the black slits of his eyes. “We eunuchs have been castrated, so how are we different from women? Eunuchs and palace maids can get together, and they inevitably have to use the help of some things to do it. Eunuch and eunuch is naturally also the same…”
Shen Jue’s appearance was very good-looking, and he had had this thought a long time ago. Fortunately, Shen Jue was in the cold palace 5, and it was deserted here, so only crows flew by all day. If Shen Jue was working in front of the nobles, he was afraid he, Si Xi, wouldn’t have any share of this goody.
However, this Shen Jue was extremely stubborn, and no matter how he tried to flirt with him, he was unmoved. If he hadn’t revealed his thoughts to use force last time, making Shen Jue a little afraid and become slightly softer, he wouldn’t have been able to even get close to Shen Jue.
Shen Jue’s expression was disgusted as he sneered, “What, does it have to be me?”
“Naturally.” Si Xi was used to Shen Jue’s cutting remarks, so he didn’t think anything of it. He smiled placatingly and said, “My feelings for you are expressed by the heavens and earth and witnessed by the sun and moon, look, when have I ever been cold toward you? Aren’t I already pressing my warm face up against your cold behind? Don’t worry, be with me, and someday when my godfather 6 moves me from this nuisance cold palace to the Directorate of Imperial Horses 7, I’ll also bring you along so we don’t have to wait in this lonely garden everyday.”
The day before yesterday, Si Xi had spent a few taels of silver and bribed the supervisor eunuch of the Directorate of Imperial Horses, becoming his godson. He was still very far from leaving the cold palace, but he was already confident that he could rapidly rise to a high position. These days, he had been showing off like he was something, his tail sticking high in the air.
Shen Jue mixed his food a few times and said calmly, “Okay.”
Hearing this, Si Xi was overjoyed. The hint of a mirthless smile appeared at the corner of Shen Jue’s mouth. “Tonight, I’ll go to your room to find you.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll be waiting, I’ll be waiting.” Si Xi was delighted beyond measure, and he reached his hands out, wanting to hold Shen Jue’s hands.
Shen Jue backed away, just happening to avoid Si Xi’s claws. With a wave of his hand, he threw his chopsticks onto the table and said, “I have no appetite, you eat by yourselves.”
Si Xi wanted to chase after him, but Consort Gao suddenly grabbed Si Xi and yelled, “I’m starving! I’m starving! I’m not full yet!”
Si Xi said in frustration, “Eat, eat, just burst already!”
Shen Jue closed the door. His room was desolate, and he had forgotten to close the grill window, so several flower petals had fallen onto his desk, finely garnishing the open pages of his books. He closed the window, walked to the washbasin, and soaked his right hand that had been touched just then in the water, wiping it again and again, stopping only when his skin was red. When he recalled Si Xi’s face, he was so disgusted he felt uncomfortable. Shen Jue raised his hand and overturned the washbasin, then kicked over a bench. Only then did his anger dissipate slightly.
He had been busy outside for the entire day, and his entire body was sticky and uncomfortable. Shen Jue fetched some water and carried it back to his room to bathe. The slightly hot water poured on his body, driving away his fatigue. Shen Jue washed his face, and water slid down from his eyelashes like water droplets on a flower petal.
Just as he was wiping his body, a crash sounded from outside the window. Shen Jue abruptly turned, threw on some clothes, and pushed open the window. He saw fragments of flowerpots scattered all over the ground.
Si Xi returned to his room with a thumping heart. Just then, he had gotten an indecent idea and secretly squatted under Shen Jue’s window. He had wet his finger with saliva and poked out a hole to peek at Shen Jue taking a bath, but he hadn’t expected to see his big secret. This secret was enough to put Shen Jue to death. There was a crazed expression on his face. Now, even if Shen Jue wanted to resist him, he wouldn’t be able to.
After drinking a few sips of tea, Si Xi calmed down and sat at his desk, wholeheartedly looking forward to when it would be dark. Suddenly, Shen Jue opened his door, his expression somber as he stood outside.
Si Xi knew very well why he had come, but he still smiled hypocritically. “It’s not time yet, I didn’t expect that you would be this impatient.”
Shen Jue slowly walked in. The room had an indistinct smell, and he covered his nose in disgust as he looked around at the objects in the room. Shen Jue was only wearing undergarments, and a thin coat was draped over his shoulders. He had just finished showering, so his hair was wet, and water droplets flowed meanderingly along the tips of his hair to inside his collar, wetting an area. His pale skin was as smooth and bright as a jade moistened by water.
Si Xi stared fixedly at Shen Jue’s pure white neck as if he had lost his wits, his saliva practically dripping down.
Eunuchs were very strange creatures. Clearly, that part of them had been cut off, yet the desire in their hearts wasn’t reduced at all. On the contrary, it became even more unbridled than before, and they played with both women and men, much less did they refuse those who were neither male nor female.
In the palace, there was no lack of rumors about eunuchs killing the maids they had gotten together with. It was said that corpses were piled in mud, too horrible to look at. However, the imperial palace had never been a fair place, and the punishment by the higher-ups was at most only a few hits by the stick. This practice became more and more intense, and if it weren’t for the fact that the ones who lived in Fourth Qianxi Premises were all lunatics, these people would actually have the monstrous audacity to reach their hands onto a noble consort.
Shen Jue looked at him coldly and said, “You saw it?”
An insidious light shot out from Si Xi’s eyes, and he asked back, “Saw what?”
“Don’t play tricks with me. If you want something, then say it.” Shen Jue casually and randomly searched through the small boxes on Si Xi’s desk, turning out strings of jewelry that he had stolen from some palace courtyard.
“Do you know what I want?” Si Xi brazenly put his face in front of Shen Jue, sneakily stroking his hair. “Isn’t it you that I want? I think about you day and night, and I toss and turn, unable to sleep every night.” His hair was icy and scratched his palm lightly, as if scratching the depths of Si Xi’s heart. In his mind, he had already thought of a hundred ways to love Shen Jue, and he couldn’t wait to see Shen Jue begging for mercy.
“But what if I don’t want to?” Shen Jue’s gaze slowly darkened.
“You have no choice,” Si Xi said in Shen Jue’s ear, “I know your secret. If you want to stay in the palace like a good person, then you have to listen to me obediently. Otherwise, I’ll shout this out loudly, and the little head on this neck of yours won’t be safe.”
“Is that so?” Shen Jue laughed mirthlessly again and calmly took out a pair of scissors in a drawer. He embraced Si Xi, pointing the point of the scissors at Si Xi’s back.
“Of course, I’ll love you well.” Si Xi thought that Shen Jue had yielded, and he was delighted beyond measure as he hugged Shen Jue back. He greedily sniffed at the fragrance of honey locust on his body. Suddenly, the center of his back hurt severely, and his face spasmed. He looked at Shen Jue in disbelief. Shen Jue was looking at him coldly; the look in his eyes wasn’t as if he was looking at a person, it was as if he was looking at a dead body.
Si Xi put his hands to his back and felt his hands become wet and sticky. More and more blood flowed out, and he cried out in pain like a slaughtered pig. Shen Jue picked up a garment from the back of a chair and stuffed it into Si Xi’s mouth. Si Xi gripped Shen Jue’s hands tightly, so angry his eyes seemed to be about to pop out. His hands gradually lost their strength, and he weakly clung to Shen Jue’s hands. Finally, he slumped to the ground, and only a pair of eyes that were like copper bells were still open, as if he wanted to engrave Shen Jue’s face into his mind so he could come back to claim his life when his soul returned at midnight.
He had completely stopped breathing. Shen Jue took off his coat and wrapped it around Si Xi’s wound, not letting the blood continue to gush out. Then, he carried Si Xi on his back and threw him into the dry well. No one knew that Fourth Qianxi Premises’s dry well led to a desolate forest outside the palace. When Shen Jue had been working——when he had been cleaning the library, he had discovered this on a dusty map of the palace from the previous dynasty.
Shen Jue returned to his room and got dressed, since his body was weak and couldn’t endure the wind. Then, he got a bundle of rope, lowered it into the well, climbed down the rope, and put Si Xi’s corpse into the depths of the well. Si Xi was very heavy, and Shen Jue exerted all of his strength to pull Si Xi to a suitable place. He was too far away from the palace, and Shen Jue had to go back first to take care of the blood in the room.
When he climbed back to the mouth of the well, the sky was already dark. When he looked, he saw a black-clothed youth lying next to the well. The youth was wearing a half mask and holding a long saber. There was a damp area on his shoulder, and it seemed to be blood.
Is he an assassin? thought Shen Jue.
He had just killed a person, this assassin really hadn’t come at the right time. He definitely couldn’t be discovered by the Golden Dragon Guard 8.
Shen Jue returned to his room and got the scissors. He held them with both hands and fiercely plunged them down toward the youth. The instant the scissors approached flesh, the youth abruptly opened his eyes, and the killing intent in his eyes flashed away. He swiftly rolled over and sat up, his right hand gripping Shen Jue’s wrist. The youth’s strength was very big, and Shen Jue felt that it was as if he had been clamped by iron pliers. Immediately afterward, the youth’s left hand pulled out the dagger at his waist. He leaned forward and laid the dagger across Shen Jue’s neck, pressing Shen Jue to the ground.
In the dimness, the two of them looked at each other. The youth was stunned and said, “Young Master?”
Shen Jue was also stunned. He raised his hand and lifted the mask of the person in front of him. Sure enough, it revealed a familiar face. He had grown a lot, and the lines on his face revealed resolution and steadfastness. On his cheeks, there were a few drops of fresh blood that added a bit of murderous aura to his face.
Xiahou Lian leaned on the well and climbed up, saying, “Just pretend you didn’t see me, I’m leaving, perhaps we’ll meet again.”
With this, he walked three steps in the direction of the palace wall, and then fell to the ground with a “thump.”
Shen Jue: “…”
Xiahou Lian was injured very seriously. He could almost see bone from the wound in his shoulder, so he had to deal with it immediately. Shen Jue moved Xiahou Lian to Si Xi’s room, stripped off his bloody clothes, and threw them into the charcoal basin, burning them completely. Fortunately, Shen Jue’s room had some herbal medicine, so he brought over the herbal medicine, picked out some that stopped bleeding, and applied them to Xiahou Lian’s wound.
Xiahou Lian was unconscious, and his forehead was full of sweat. His brows were tightly knitted, and he was very unstable. Shen Jue touched his forehead, and sure enough, he had a fever. Shen Jue fetched some cold water, wet his own face cloth, and laid it on Xiahou Lian’s forehead.
A flurry of noise came from outside. Someone shouted, “Searching for assassins, everyone, come out!”
Shen Jue was inwardly shocked. He opened a slit in the window lattice and saw that a line of Golden Dragon guards had come outside, all of them fierce-looking, and their chainmail and goose quill sabers 9 flowed with a cold radiance.
If they were to discover Xiahou Lian, he and Xiahou Lian would both be doomed to die. Just then when he had seen Xiahou Lian’s wound, he had been too anxious and had only focused on helping him bandage it. He should have settled Xiahou Lian in the well first.
It was too late for regret. Shen Jue’s mind whirled quickly as he thought about how to bluff through this. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the cosmetics on Si Xi’s desk. Shen Jue took out a piece of rouge and covered Xiahou Lian’s face with red dots. He covered his body with a blanket, carefully checked to make sure there was no more blood on his own body, and went out of the door.
“Where’s the emperor? Why didn’t the emperor come? Did the emperor send you all here to take me back? Wonderful, I’m going back, I’m a noble consort, a noble consort!” Consort Gao shouted excitedly, and two Golden Dragon guards tied her to a pillar. The other three consorts weren’t as crazy as Consort Gao, and they all shrank under the corridor, revealing their eyes as they looked up and down at the group of cold and grim men.
“A noble consort was assassinated at the evening banquet, and the assassin fled here. We received orders to come and track him. Hurry up and order everyone in Fourth Qianxi Premises to come here to be checked,” said a guard.
In succession, little eunuchs fastened their buttons as they ran over with small, quick steps, standing under the corridor with their heads and eyes lowered.
The guard walked in a circle, patting everyone on the right shoulder. He didn’t discover anything wrong, so he turned and asked Shen Jue, “Is everyone here?”
A Golden Dragon guard came to report, “Sir, there’s still someone lying in a room.”
“That’s Eunuch Si Xi. He’s sick, and he can’t get up,” Shen Jue replied calmly.
“He has to be checked even if he’s sick.” The guard called a subordinate and said, “Go in and take a look.”
Shen Jue said, “There are red spots all over Eunuch Si Xi’s body, I’m afraid it’s smallpox, so it’s best you don’t go in.”
When everyone heard this, they took a few steps back in fear.
The guard’s face was as cold as frozen water. “There are orders from above that everyone needs to be checked. If an assassin happens to be hiding here, how will we explain it? Whoever has gotten smallpox before, come inside with me to search.”
Two of them stepped out and said, “I’ve caught smallpox in my childhood.”
Shen Jue said to himself that this wasn’t good and said, “Why take this risk, smallpox is no joking matter. I came out of there just now, and I swear on my life that there definitely is no assassin inside. Besides, Eunuch Si Xi is the godson of Supervisor Liu of the Directorate of Imperial Horses, so you still need to be careful.”
At present, Wei De was in power, so eunuchs in the palace had a high status. Although they were Golden Dragon guards with official ranks, they still had to yield a little when encountering a supervisor eunuch. For example, although Shen Jue worked in the cold palace, in any case he was a small supervisor, the Golden Dragon guard also didn’t dare to arrogantly order him about. The few people looked at each other, and the leading one said unyieldingly, “It’s my responsibility, please don’t blame me. Guards, come in with me.”
A Golden Dragon guard urged, “There are things you don’t know, assassins come and go like shadows, and they’re especially good at hiding. Sometimes, they’ll be standing right behind you and you won’t even know. Our search is also for everyone’s safety.” With this, the three of them stepped forward, opened the door, and walked in.
Shen Jue closed his eyes and followed them in.
Xiahou Lian had already woken up at some point, and when he saw them come over, he struggled to sit up. “Greetings, sirs.” When they saw the red spots on his face, they all imperceptibly took a few steps back.
Two Golden Dragon guards searched around the room and shook their heads at the lead guard. The guard looked at Xiahou Lian on the bed, his pupils moving slightly, and said, “I stabbed the assassin’s shoulder, so I wonder if you can put the blanket down and let me see your shoulder.”
Cold sweat kept appearing on Shen Jue’s forehead, practically blurring his eyes. The only reason the guard never noticed was because he kept his head lowered.
What should he do?
If the blankets were lifted and they saw Xiahou Lian’s wound, the two of them were certain to die today.
- The fourth out of the Five Qianxi Premises.
- The curve of eaves look like horse necks and heads, so the bells that hang from them look like they’re worn by horses, which is why the bells are referred to as iron horses.
- Casual way of referring to Shen Jue, especially as a eunuch.
- Lit. Four Joys.
- The place where the wives or concubines of the emperor reside when they’ve committed crimes or the emperor doesn’t like them anymore.
- It was common for eunuchs to take godfathers or godsons, since they couldn’t have any children of their own.
- One of the Twelve Directorates of the Twenty-Four Yamens.
- Imperial guards who protected the emperor.
- The name for a type of saber used in the Ming Dynasty. Its blade is mostly straight and is slightly curved near the tip, which resembles the tip of a bird’s wing.