Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
A rooster crowed three times. It was daybreak, and the sky still had a bit of a thin blue. Mingyue had already gotten up, and she packed her father’s medicine chest and back basket, going out of the door as she counted the time.
In front of the opposite door, leaves had fallen all over the ground, practically covering the steps that were already a little low.
Captain Situ still hadn’t come home.
Mingyue sighed and walked toward the entrance to an alley with her head lowered. A peddler selling steamed buns greeted her, and she showed a smile, but didn’t say anything.
Just when she was about to turn the corner, the squeaking sound of opening a door sounded behind her, immediately followed by the clanging sounds of chains. Mingyue inadvertently turned her head back to look and saw Situ Jin walking out of his doorway. He wasn’t wearing the majestic official uniform like he had in the past. Today, he was only wearing clothes of coarse linen, and he was carrying a cloth bundle on his back. There were fetters and chains shackled on his ankles, clanking when he walked.
Two soldiers followed out behind him. His expression was unchangingly indifferent, as if it wasn’t him who was the prisoner being escorted.
Mingyue turned pale from fright.
“Captain Situ!” Mingyue lifted her skirt and hurriedly ran over. “You…”
“Miss, he’s no longer some captain now,” said a soldier.
The voice that was like the twittering of an oriole sounded from behind his ears. Situ Jin’s body stiffened, and he subconsciously looked at his present appearance. The fetters on his feet poked into his eyes strikingly, making a few hints of chagrin arise in his heart that had always had little sorrow and little anger.
Forcing himself to turn around, Situ Jin called politely, “Miss Zhu.”
“Can you sirs do me a favor? Let me and Cap… Childe Situ talk a little, just for a bit!” Mingyue took out silver from her pouch. “This is money for you two to buy liquor.”
“Ah, no need, no need, just talk.” The two soldiers hastily waved their hands. “Originally, exiled prisoners can say goodbye to relatives and friends before leaving the capital, but this guy said that he didn’t have relatives or friends, so we just let him come back to pack his luggage.”
Mingyue thanked them and hastily asked Situ Jin, “Hurry and tell me, exactly what is going on here? What can I do to help? Do you have anyone dependable in the palace, how… how can I contact them?” Tears were already spinning in her eyes, and it took her a lot of effort to speak fluently.
Situ Jin was stunned, and he said a little clumsily, “Don’t bother, this matter was originally my fault, so there’s no room for leeway.” They were almost about to part, and only then did Situ Jin dare to look squarely at her face. The corners of her eyes were already red, a thin area that was like rouge on the face of a young woman onstage.
“Is… Is there really none? Don’t lose heart, and I also won’t lose heart. I still have some savings… …I can give it a try!”
She was intelligent yet also naive. How was her bit of money enough to fill the gaps in those nobles’ teeth? Besides, how could he bear for her to run around everywhere and beg people for help for him? Situ Jin shook his head and didn’t say anything else.
Mingyue’s heart cooled down, bit by bit.
Situ Jin, this kind of man, always meant what he said. If he said there was no leeway, then there was no leeway.
Her tears finally burst out. Mingyue stood in front of Situ Jin, crying so that her face was covered in tears.
Situ Jin was at a loss, as he had never had the experience of coaxing a girl. He wanted to help her wipe her tears, but he was stopped by the courtesy that men and women shouldn’t directly touch. He wanted to say “don’t cry,” but that seemed to be useless.
At his elbow, a handkerchief was handed over. Situ Jin glanced at the soldier gratefully and took it, handing it to Mingyue.
“Captain Situ,” Mingyue suddenly said.
“My name is Zhu Mingyue, and my father is Zhu Qinglan. I can do needlework and I can also distinguish medicinal herbs. My family’s medical skills are passed down to men but not women, but I secretly learned a bit. Since childhood, I’ve visited patients with my father, and I’m used to appearing in public and being noisy, so a lot of people say that I’m improper. Aunt Zheng from next door said that there would definitely be no one who would dare to marry a girl like me and that in the future, I’ll be an unmarried youngest daughter for the rest of my life. But…”
But she just liked him a lot. Every day, she would get up very, very early to dress up and put on makeup. She would lie on the door crack and see when he was coming out, and the moment he opened his door, she would carry her medicine basket on her back and step out of the threshold, pretending to encounter him by chance. As long as they made eye contact for an instant, her heartbeat would pound for the entire day, as if hiding a bunny that couldn’t be controlled.
Later, he had been transferred to the barracks in Shili Hillside, and he ate and lived there, so he rarely came home. It was as if her heart had been empty, and her mind was clouded and distracted. A few days ago when she had been filling a prescription of medicine for a patient, she had even put the wrong one and had been taught a lesson by her father. Sometimes, she would go out of the city to gather medicine, so she would specially take a detour to Shili Hillside. Standing at the highest point on the hill, she could distantly see the barracks’ martial arts field. Every time, she would guess whether that man holding a saber or sword was Situ Jin.
Now, he was going to leave, and he was going to a place very far away from her. Perhaps he would take a wife and have children there, and they would never see each other for the rest of their lives.
She cried very sadly, and her long eyelashes fluttered, a big teardrop flowing out with each flutter.
“She’s lying,” said Situ Jin.
Mingyue looked up uncertainly.
“That Aunt Zheng, she’s lying.” Situ Jin looked at her, and his eyes were like the evening wind sweeping away broken ice, containing rippling waves. “You’re very nice, really, you’re the best girl I’ve ever seen.”
Joy gradually tinged her heart, and Mingyue’s eyes lit up. Did him saying this mean that there was a place for her in his heart?
“Captain Situ, where are you going, will you come back?”
“I’m going to a city on the north border. You don’t need to worry, the North is my hometown and my saber techniques are passable, so the Tatars can’t beat me. As for whether I can come back, it depends on luck.”
Mingyue wiped off the teardrops on her cheeks and said, “Captain Situ, I’m sixteen years old this year, and I’ll wait five years for you.”
Situ Jin was stunned, and his two cheeks slowly turned red.
What did “waiting for him” mean? Was it what he thought it meant?
He suddenly wanted to flee, and if it weren’t for the two yamen workers behind him and the chains that were still wrapped around his feet, he really wanted to run away immediately.
He mumbled and hesitated for a while before saying, “Five years is too long, Miss Mingyue, you…”
“Y-y-y-you what?” Mingyue sniffed and lifted her neck up. “You have ‘a gentleman’s words are hard to catch with a team of four horses 1.’ What I, Mingyue, say can’t be pulled back by even ten horses.”
Mingyue was a soft and weak girl, and her shoulders seemed to be able to be grabbed by a single grasp, as frail as a weeping willow on a bank. However, when she spoke, she didn’t give in at all. The stubborn expression on her face was as if even the skies falling and the earth opening up wouldn’t be able to change her. Situ Jin sighed and said hoarsely, “Forget it, after five years, if I still haven’t come back, Miss Mingyue should find another husband and stop missing me.”
Mingyue shook her head and said, “No, if you still haven’t come back after five years, I’ll go to the North to find you. So, I’ll wait for you, and you also have to wait for me.”
“This is the bracelet my mother gave me, here you go.” Mingyue took off a bracelet from her wrist. “It’s very important, so when the time comes, you must return it to me.”
Mingyue held back tears. “I just want you to owe me. If you owe me, then you’ll remember me.”
Situ Jin hesitated.
A soldier next to them came up and said, “A big man being foolishly sentimental, a wife fell from the sky and you don’t even want her, I really don’t know what you’re thinking. We’re still in a hurry, so hurry up and take it already.” Saying this, he took Mingyue’s bracelet and stuffed it into Situ Jin’s hands.
The jade bracelet was warm, Mingyue’s body temperature still left over in it. Situ Jin felt that it burned his hands a little, and an area of his face instantly reddened.
Mingyue took a deep breath and put a smile on her face again. “Captain Situ, see you again.”
The girl’s back faded away, her tan-colored clothes imprinting on the early morning light, like a faint ink mark.
Situ Jin said silently in his heart, See you again.
The wood in the palace was mostly from the nanmu tree 2. It was good, but using too much made it appear gloomy. The sun had just set behind the mountains, so an area of the duty room of the Directorate of Rites was already dim. The heavy shadows of the beams and columns pressed down, making it feel as if one was suffocating. A candle flame faintly illuminated Wei De’s face that was covered in wrinkles, as ferocious as a withered ghost from hell.
Shen Jue was standing at his right-hand side, his head bowed and eyes lowered as usual. His jade-white hands were holding a memorial to the throne, and he was reading slowly:
“Emperor Gao decreed that inner court officials are not allowed to intervene in foreign affairs. They are only for sweeping the concubines’ residences, and that there is no amnesty for violators of the law. The emperor is wise, yet there is unscrupulous behavior, chaotic and corrupt, such as Eastern Depot Eunuch Wei De. I dare to list his crimes for Your Majesty. Wei De is a lowly rogue from the city, completely illiterate, castrated in his middle age, and entered deeply into the palace. At the beginning, he seemed to have a little loyalty and faith, obtaining the emperor’s favor. Later, he dared to be treacherous and evil, making political affairs chaotic… 3”
His voice was very pleasant, slow and ceaseless, and clear like a spring.
However, everyone was already as silent as cicadas in cold weather. The pounding of the low-ranking eunuch’s fists on Wei De’s shoulders to massage them became lighter and lighter, and in the end, it was practically like a mosquito bite. Fortunately, Wei De’s mind wasn’t on this, since if this was in the past, he would have already been dismissed.
“I earnestly request Your Majesty to put Eunuch Wei to death, terminate the Eastern Depot, and then put the political affairs and country back in order. Respectfully, Wan Xian, putting my life on the line.” Shen Jue closed the memorial to the throne and looked down, standing still.
All around, it was so silent, not even a crow or sparrow could be heard. Only the clattering of Wei De moving his string of beads sounded, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Everyone had listened to it for a long time, and they felt as if their breathing was consistent with it.
The string of beads suddenly broke, and the Canaan Buddha beads pattered as they rolled all over the ground, diving everywhere without rhyme or reason. Everyone was horrified, and they hastily knelt and kowtowed.
“That damned ‘treacherous and evil,’ that damned ‘the concubines only know Eunuch Wei and don’t know His Majesty’! This is someone who wants to accuse me of deceiving the emperor and the crime of intending to rebel!”
“Please calm down.” Qian Zhengde had always been bold, and he moved next to Wei De on his knees, adding tea for him. “The emperor hasn’t cared about political affairs for a long time, and in any case, this memorial to the throne is with us. We’ll just cut it off and find a reason to demote that Wan Xian to somewhere far away. If you can’t tolerate it, you can go through with the entire thing and kill him in one go to punish him as a warning to others, and let all of the civil and military officials see that our Eastern Depot’s Directorate of Rites isn’t easy to provoke.”
Wei De lifted his eyelids and glanced at Qian Zhengde, yet he said to Shen Jue, “Shen Jue, you always have a calculated plan, what do you think?”
The quiet youth mumbled for a moment and said slowly, “This Wan Xian person has been an official for more than twenty years. This year at the winter solstice, he’s going to retire and return home. He has never had any achievements or mistakes, and he can be said to be cautious… no, timid. This time, he suddenly impeached you, so I think that he might just want to make a name for himself.”
“Mn,” said Wei De, “continue.”
Qian Zhengde angrily knelt back and quietly glanced at Shen Jue. The side of that person’s face didn’t have the slightest expression, and his eyes were looking at the carpet, never moving even half an inch. He was clearly just a little eunuch of the Document Secretariat, yet he was able to follow and serve around Wei De, and he who had just been promoted to brush-holder hadn’t won much favor. Qian Zhengde secretly grinded his molars.
Shen Jue continued to answer, “In my opinion, why don’t you ignore this and let things run their own course? As the saying goes, great things can happen if you hold back. If you demote or remove him, I’m afraid it’s precisely what he’s hoping for, to become known for being upright and outspoken, and even more so for pushing the righteous class into speech and writing in order to protect his fellow officials, Then, even if the memorial to the throne isn’t seen by the emperor, I’m afraid the news would still reach His Majesty’s ears, so the losses outweigh the gains.”
“Makes sense. Shen Jue, you haven’t reached the coming of age at twenty years old, yet you have the ability of foresight and careful planning, very good.”
“You overflatter me, Godfather.”
“The prince fell off his horse and injured his leg, so the emperor is still upset. A fine son in one piece has turned into a lame chicken, so the emperor’s thoughts are unpredictable. Even though I’ve been close to the emperor for many years, I can’t guarantee that the emperor won’t use me as an outlet for his anger. These people without eyes, they rushed after another to tell on me, they really are detestable!” Wei De was so angry he coughed nonstop, and he calmed down with difficulty, speaking again. “However, I have to teach this old donkey a lesson. Doesn’t he want to make a name for himself? I’ll help him do so! Hmph, if I don’t properly stretch his bones and muscles, he’ll think the Eastern Depot is a yamen that only eats and doesn’t work! Xiao Yan, send people to go to the outer courts and marketplaces and spread the word.”
A eunuch hastily said, “Please instruct.”
“He commits incest with his daughter-in-law and his daughter-in-law is having an affair. This drama definitely won’t disappoint. When people chat about this after meals, it’s enough to make him a laughingstock for some time.”
With just a few words, not only had he turned Wan Xian into an incestuous person and his son into a cuckold, he had even more so drove a wedge between the father and son. One had to say that it was very ruthless. However, this was the style of eunuchs; they couldn’t win out in the open, but they could secretly take people’s lives. Things like a gentleman’s style and things like tact were nonsense to them. As long as they could achieve their goal, they could use even dirtier methods.
“Good strategy, now let’s see if that old geezer Wan Xian still dares to say nonsense,” Qian Zhengde said brazenly.
Wei De smashed a teacup on his head and scolded, “Old geezer? Who are you scolding!”
This year, Wei De was already over sixty, and it was already the age for ordinary officials to resign, but eunuchs were different from court officials. When they died, they still had to be a ghost in the palace, mud under the city walls. Wei De himself could scold other people as old donkeys, but he couldn’t listen to other people say the word “old.”
Qian Zhengde’s head was covered in blood and tea, and he wept and wailed as he kowtowed and begged for mercy.
Wei De’s anger still hadn’t been smoothed, and he paced to the window, looking outside through the rectangle-latticed ornamental engravings. The Forbidden City was dark and heavy, and the bucket-arched eaves were exquisite, casting shadows on the ground that were like a war. He took a deep breath and said, “Do what I’ve instructed first. You don’t do anything serious all day except for shamelessly flattering me, all of you are useless!”
Qian Zhengde repeatedly said yes, and this time, he didn’t even dare to look up.
“I’m going to leave the palace. Xiao Yan and Shen Jue, come with me. Everyone else, do what you should be doing.” Wei De put on his black gauze hat, and Shen Jue and Xiao Yan followed behind him. Xiao Yan was from the Eastern Depot, so he followed Wei De out of the palace. He carried a palace lantern in his hand and was slightly behind Wei De so that the palace lantern happened to illuminate the spot under Wei De’s feet.
They passed through winding corridors the entire way, one after another, and with the distant lights, they twisted like long snakes.
“Is the recently promoted Lady of Talents Li 4 still healthy?” Wei De suddenly asked after walking three times the distance of the shot of an arrow.
The emperor had few descendants, and the eldest prince that had originally been successful and content had fallen off his horse and become a cripple in one day. After all, the king of a country was someone who had tens of thousands of pairs of eyes staring at him, not asking for unparalleled talent and virtue, but asking for good health. If he had another son, the eldest prince presumably wouldn’t be able to ascend the throne.
Shen Jue understood very well why Wei De was asking this. “The palace maids reported the lady of talents never menstruated last month. However, the lady of talents has always had ill health, and there has been a past example of rejoicing too soon. A pulse can only be detected after the fiftieth day, so I have already instructed the imperial physicians to check the pulse again twenty days later.”
Wei De’s originally overcast face relaxed a little and he said with a smile, “Jue’er, you’re the most useful out of my godchildren and grand godchildren, yet you’re also the least smart.”
“Godfather, what do you mean? I do not understand.”
“This guy Qian Zhengde only knows to shamelessly flatter me, and he doesn’t have the least bit of ability. Do you know why I promoted him?”
Even if he did know, he still had to say he didn’t. Shen Jue responded, “I do not know.”
“Greeting people with a smiling face and knowing how to talk are the reasons why I promoted him. Look at you, wearing an expressionless face all day. Although we have some authority, in the end, we’re the dogs of masters, servants to serve people. Wear a smiling face and say some nice words, the masters will be happy, and you’ll naturally be able to rapidly rise to a high position.”
Shen Jue clenched his fists and said in a low voice, “I understand.”
“Go back and practice in front of a mirror. If I don’t see results in a few days, you don’t need to stay in the Document Secretariat anymore. What’s the use of having a dog that isn’t likable?”
- A saying that basically means being a man of one’s word.
- The Phoebe zhennan, a large species of tree native to China that is threatened by habitat loss. In the past, its wood was extremely valuable, so only royal families could afford to use it.
- This is an excerpt from Yang Lian’s memorial to the throne to impeach a eunuch, Wei Zhongxian, from the late Ming Dynasty, where he condemned him of 24 crimes, some of them fabricated. The author changed the names.
- Lady of Talents is a rank in the imperial harem system.