Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
At dusk, the setting sun drowned at the end of the palace buildings, and the glazed tiles were tinted with a thin layer of gold. When looking at them from a distance, they were like pieces of gold everywhere.
Shen Jue personally held a bowl of ginseng soup as he went toward Chengqian Palace. Now, Chengqian Palace had a new master, Noble Consort Li, who had just given birth to the second prince. Three years ago, the consort who had died in Chengqian Palace had already faded from people’s memories. It was just like this in the palace; someone dying was like a light going out, and even the people in the best of graces would disappear like smoke and clouds. People still lived as usual in the palace courtyard of dead people, as if as long as it had the emperor’s favor and glory, ghosts wouldn’t dare to intrude.
In the deep palace of layers upon layers, which palace courtyard hadn’t had people die in?
Shen Jue’s head was lowered as he stepped across the threshold and entered a round door, where Mrs. Li was sitting on the throne. She was a woman with a light appearance, and she was still wearing an azure apron 1 from when she had been a lady of talents. The emperor had seen that she was tender and gentle, and with a night’s visit from the emperor, there was a second prince. Even though she had once been gentle and docile, her body was covered in beautiful jades and jewelry, and she was piled up with a domineering appearance.
“Where is the emperor?” Mrs. Li looked at her painted fingernails and spoke in a chilling tone.
“His Majesty deals with countless problems everyday, working hard day and night, so he hasn’t had time to see you. However, don’t worry, there isn’t a time when His Majesty isn’t concerned about you. See, he has just finished discussing with officials in the front court, and he urged me to send you ginseng soup.” Shen Jue had an appropriate smile on his face, not a bit too much and not a bit too less. It was like an embroidered decoration on clothes and a carved pattern on beams, indispensable and just right. “His Majesty also exhorted that I must watch you drink all of it before I can leave.”
Mrs. Li raised her hand, and a palace maid next to her walked up to Shen Jue and held the ginseng soup up before Mrs. Li.
Mrs. Li lowered her head and used a spoon to stir the spots of oil on the surface of the soup. “There’s ginseng soup every day, but His Majesty has never personally been here even once! What, he dislikes that I gave birth to a child and became fat and ugly?” She lifted her eyes and glanced at Shen Jue, and her voice suddenly sank. “Or is it because you bastards bring seducers before His Majesty all day long to flatter him and win his favor?! Do you think I don’t know that the Yangzhou harlots that Eunuch Wei presented a few days ago are very glamorous. When His Majesty goes to the Leopard House, he always takes them with him. Beauties and beasts, they really do complement each other!”
Shen Jue became even more docile. “You jest, that is only His Majesty searching for freshness, and they’re his temporary little toys. How can they compare with you? Why pay attention to singers who have never even gained a title.”
“If I don’t pay attention to them, I’m afraid that in a few days, you all won’t pay attention to me!” Mrs. Li gritted her teeth in anger and threw the tray along with the soup bowl at Shen Jue. The people on the side cried out in alarm, but Shen Jue didn’t move. The soup bowl didn’t hit Shen Jue, and it fell to the ground forcibly, breaking into pieces with a crisp sound that was like breaking ice. However, the wooden tray hit the side of Shen Jue’s forehead, and bright red blood droplets dripped down along the laces of his black gauze hat.
After all, Shen Jue was the brush-holder of the Directorate of Rites and Eunuch Wei’s favorite. Even the emperor relied on him a lot, so in the front and back court, who wouldn’t help Shen Jue? Yet Mrs. Li had dared to act so brazenly toward him, making everyone on the side frightened.
However, the smiling arc at the side of Shen Jue’s lips hadn’t reduced at all, as if this wound wasn’t on his forehead. He merely bowed and said, “You speak too strongly. You’re the master and we’re the servants, so how in the world would it make sense if we don’t pay attention to our master? You’ve just given birth, so your body is weak, and you didn’t hold the soup bowl steadily and accidentally spilled it. I’ll go to the imperial kitchen now and bring another bowl here.”
Mrs. Li still wanted to have an outburst, but the maid on the side quietly tugged her sleeve. Only then did she recall that Shen Jue was someone who walked in front of the emperor, and now that his face was hurt, the emperor would definitely ask about it. If the emperor thought that she was arrogant and domineering, she was afraid that the favor she had gained from giving birth to the second prince would be cut off.
Mrs. Li brushed her sleeve, coughed, and said, “The wound on your face…”
“I accidentally wounded myself when I fell, you don’t need to worry.”
“Mn, be careful on your way.” Mrs. Li cleared her throat and still had an overwhelmingly arrogant appearance. “I’m a noble consort, and I’ve also given birth to the second prince. Eunuch Shen, you’re a smart person, so you should know that if you’re willing to be loyal to me, there will inevitably be benefits for you in the future.”
“You jest. I hold office in the Directorate of Rites, so I should share His Majesty’s worries and burdens.” Shen Jue was very stubborn, and he still had the appearance of being as immobile as a mountain.
“Hmph, thing who doesn’t appreciate what’s good for you!” Mrs. Li glanced sideways at Shen Jue. “Leave!”
Only when Shen Jue left did Mrs. Li slump on the throne and exhaled deeply.
The maid on the side knitted her brows. “Noble Consort, what are you doing? If it weren’t for Eunuch Shen secretly reminding you that the ginseng soup isn’t clean, I’m afraid you would’ve been bedridden day after day with a lingering disease. How could you still be in such good health?”
“Aren’t I putting on a show? Who would’ve thought that I’ve eaten too well in recent days and that my strength has gone up a lot, and I actually hit him. Say, he doesn’t even know to dodge. Can you blame me for this?” Mrs. Li wrung the handkerchief in her hands and muttered.
“Ah, what should we do? That old scoundrel Wei De wants to kill you and seize your son. He sends this ginseng soup day after day, and we willfully dropped it two or three times and secretly poured it out two or three times. The bush lily on the windowsill has already died.”
Ever since Mrs. Li had given birth, this ginseng soup hadn’t stopped. At the beginning, Mrs. Li had been very grateful, thinking that the emperor was showing pity and that she had finally flown to the branches and became a phoenix 2. However, Mrs. Li had slowly felt that her body was tired and lazy, and her head dizzy. She would either be sitting or lying down all day, and the imperial physicians couldn’t find anything wrong. This went on until last month, when the person sending the soup had changed to Shen Jue. Before Shen Jue had left, he had dropped a handkerchief. On it had been written, “The ginseng soup is poisonous.” Only then had she and her personal maid come to the realization, and they had been shocked and scared.
The eldest prince was crippled, so if a healthy baby was born, no matter how young he was, he would be a powerful competitor. Wei De was close to the eldest prince, and he was also someone that was at the emperor’s side. All matters, big and small, were passed by him, so messing with the ginseng soup wasn’t difficult.
Mrs. Li wasn’t an ambitious person, but luck had landed on top of her head. The emperor only had two sons in total, so the future emperor was one or the other of them. Even if she didn’t fight, she still had to fight.
Mrs. Li muttered to herself for a long time before standing up and slapping the table. “That old scoundrel Wei De definitely won’t stop until he sees me so sick that I’m about to die. Then, I’ll do as he wishes. Say I’m sick and close the palace door!”
Meanwhile, Shen Jue pulled out an embroidered handkerchief and covered the side of his forehead only after coming out of Chengqian Palace. When he looked down, an area of his protective collar 3 had already been stained red. The little eunuch Shen Wenxing was waiting on Tian Street, and when he saw Shen Jue like this, he was greatly startled and asked hastily, “Godfather, what happened to you?”
This was the godson Shen Jue had recognized in early spring this year. Eunuchs didn’t have any way to father children, so recognizing relatives was a common matter. They were all on their own, so recognizing a godson could make things lively. Affectionately calling each other godfather and godson sounded festive, and when they were old and died, the godson would give them a proper burial.
However, what Shen Jue wanted wasn’t liveliness or festivity; instead, he wanted an assistant to cultivate him. Taking in a godson meant guiding and assisting them, and vice versa, he naturally became Shen Jue’s most loyal confidant.
Shen Wenxing was twelve years old this year, and he had entered the palace at the age of eight. Before he had entered the palace, he had been a little beggar who wandered the streets, swindling, deceiving, and committing all kinds of crimes. When he rolled his eyes as he thought about an idea, his secretly crooked appearance was a bit like Xiahou Lian’s. Perhaps it was also because of this reason that Shen Jue recognized him as his godson.
“No matter, it’s just a small wound.”
Shen Wenxing’s heart ached when he saw this. His godfather had a fairy-like appearance, so how was it good if his face was disfigured. “I have some skin-congealing medicine there. I’ll bring it over to you in a while so it won’t leave a scar.”
Shen Jue shook his head and said that there was no need, and asked, “How is the thing I instructed you to do?”
“There are some good signs. Word came from the South that they found some local elders in the Miao area. They said that fifty years ago, a group of people in black robes and masks bought all of the azalea flowers 4 and seeds, and that they even took some apothecaries away. The apothecaries who were taken away never returned again. This matter is very strange. I think that these black-robed people are Garan assassins, and those apothecaries were most likely killed to keep their mouths shut,” Shen Wenxing said in a small voice. Then, he pulled out a piece of paper from the fold of his clothes and handed it to Shen Jue. “This is the azalea flower that the elders drew. I’ve already instructed people to look for it according to this. The Miao area has lush flowers and plants, so there must still be some wild azaleas.”
“Not bad,” said Shen Jue, nodding. “Divide them into two groups. One team will continue to search for azalea flowers, and one team will look into exactly what was going on with those black-robed people. If there’s news, tell me immediately.”
Shen Wenxing nodded and bowed, not forgetting to flatter him. “It’s fortunate that you have a wide learning and a good memory. If you didn’t discover in Yunnan’s local chronicles that the toxicity of azalea flowers is similar to Mid-July’s, we’d still be going in circles.”
However, Shen Jue still felt that it wasn’t fast enough. He could investigate slowly, but could Xiahou Lian wait that long? These few years, he had been looking into news about Xiahou Lian the entire time, but there was no such person at all in the underground martial arts world. He didn’t know if it was because that brat hadn’t made a name for himself at all, or because he had already died.
The corners of Shen Jue’s mouth pressed down, and he didn’t speak. Shen Wenxing gazed at his expression. When he wasn’t smiling, there was a chilly aura in his appearance, like the white snow on top of crooked plum blossom branches in winter and the moonlight in a hazy, empty mountain.
After parting from Shen Wenxing, Shen Jue returned to his room and changed into clean clothes, then directly went to Wei De to answer.
The sky had darkened, and brilliant lights lit up one after another, connecting in the distance into one expanse, like daylight. Shen Jue entered the Document Secretariat. When the eunuchs saw Shen Jue, they all stood up to greet him and said respectfully, “Eunuch Shen.”
Shen Jue nodded slightly, which counted as having greeted them, and turned around past the floor folding screen. Behind the curtain, Wei De was using a silver hook to tease the sparrow in a bird cage. He said casually, “You’re back?”
“Rest assured, Godfather.”
Wei De turned and saw the wound on the side of Shen Jue’s forehead and scoffed, “She’s a good-for-nothing. She’s been sent ginseng soup ten times and spilled it nine times. She’s spoiled and arrogant, and even if she has the second prince beside her, there’s no way she can prosper forever.”
Wei De put the silver hook in Shen Jue’s hands. Shen Jue took it respectfully and followed behind Wei De, walking slowly.
Wei De lifted his robes and sat on the throne of the floor folding screen and twisted the Bodhi seed beads on his wrist that had been played so much with that they had become smooth and bright. He said meaningfully, “When women have the emperor’s favor and a son, they think they have everything. That’s how it is in theory, but things haven’t gone to the end, so who knows who will win in the end? Not to mention it’s still a child in swaddling clothes, so it’s not even certain whether it’ll grow up or not.”
Upon hearing such treacherous words, Shen Jue didn’t even react in the slightest. His expression was still calm, as if what Wei De had said was just trivial household affairs.
Wei De looked at Shen Jue carefully. Only when he saw that his expression was as calm as still water did he smile in satisfaction. “Shen’er, your best opportunity has arrived. That good-for-nothing Xiao Yan forcibly occupied someone else’s estate and was exposed in a memorial to the throne by those pedantic literati in the Censorate 5, so the emperor is going to remove him. The position of governor of the Eastern Depot 6 can’t be empty, so I’ve already asked the emperor for a favor. Go to the Eastern Depot tomorrow.”
Shen Jue’s eyelashes quivered lightly. He bowed his head and knelt, his voice like the striking of jade ring pendants.
“Thank you, Godfather. I won’t hesitate to go into boiling water and walk on fire for you!”
- Specifically mamianqun, lit. horse-face skirt.
- A line from an old poem that represents rising from a humble background to a prominent position.
- A detachable protective collar that is sewn to the collar to keep it clean.
- Specifically rhododendron molle, also known as the Chinese azalea, so I’ll refer to them as azaleas. It is very toxic.
- A high-level supervisory agency in Imperial China.
- The position of governor is the leader of the Eastern Depot, also known as the Eastern Depot’s chief officer or superintendent. It is the second highest position of a eunuch after the seal-holding eunuch of the Directorate of Rites (which is Wei De’s position).