Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
In the dead of winter, heavy snow fell. It was as if the Forbidden City was frozen in ice, and the cold wind was like a saber, directly stabbing into people’s collars.
Mrs. Li sat in front of a diamond-patterned bronze mirror, examining her own appearance. When women gave birth to a child, they seemed to age faster. It had only been a few years, but the corners of her eyes seemed to be wrinkled, like folds on silk fabrics that couldn’t be smoothed, and they were annoying to see.
Her personal palace maid, Zhu Xia, ran over with small steps and said in a low voice in her ear, “Chief Officer Shen is here.”
With a glance out of the corner of her eye, the heavy door was opened in her peripheral version, filtering out a ray of daylight. A tall man covered in wind and snow walked in, and a line of little eunuchs holding wooden trays followed him inside.
He was the most powerful man in the Forbidden City besides Wei De. Three years ago, he had taken the position as governor of the Eastern Depot. He walked through the palace courts accompanied by a retinue, and the spectacle was like the mountains and seas. He was also an extremely beautiful man. His cheeks were like fine porcelain, and his brows and eyes seemed to have been sketched by a brush. The corners of his eyes and the tips of his brows always had bits of a smile, though it didn’t reach the bottoms of his eyes.
“Go, bring the second prince here,” instructed Mrs. Li.
“Noble Consort,” Shen Jue walked over and familiarly put Mrs. Li’s hand on his forearm, leading her forward to the carved floor-to-ceiling door, “this is the newly offered tribute of fur, and the empress has already chosen. Choose one that’s to your liking, and I’ll give instructions to make a scarf. The weather is cold and the ground is frozen, so be careful about your body.”
He always spoke as pleasantly and warmly as a spring breeze, and hearing him made one feel warm from the bottom of their heart.
Mrs. Li swept her eyes over them slightly. There were black fox fur and snow weasel fur, no different from last year. The best silver needle seadragon skin must have been chosen by the empress, so what could she choose? She randomly pointed at one and said, “This small matter even has to trouble the chief officer to specially make a trip, what are the servants doing?” She sat on her throne and lifted her head to look at Shen Jue. On top of his vermillion pearl and jade necklace was his fair lower jaw that was like a flawless white jade.
Ah, it really was terrible. He was clearly a man, so what did he have to be this good-looking for?
“You jest. It’s my blessing to run errands for you, and others ask for it but can’t get it, so how can I be tired?” He lifted his eyes and looked at the fur Mrs. Li had chosen just now up and down, and smiled slightly. “You chose the snow weasel fur, but the color is a bit too light. In my view, this black cloud mink looks to have a steady atmosphere, which matches with your identity.”
What he said was always extremely reasonable. These few years, intentionally or unintentionally, he had brought up points about what she wore, how she spoke, and how she behaved from the side. At some point, she had actually gotten the reputation of being gentle, courteous, upright, and virtuous. She had even heard that the scholar-officials who were the most picky and critical were full of praise for her.
According to her usual style, this black cloud mink was indeed the most suitable. However, a bit of doubt arose in her today. She glanced at Shen Jue plaintively, thinking, This guy doesn’t think that I’m aging and doesn’t match this bright fur, right?
Mrs. Li nodded. Shen Jue gave the instructions, and a line of little eunuchs carrying trays withdrew out of the door.
Only when the door was tightly closed did she dare to relax, her entire body slumping on the throne like mud. It was as if Shen Jue didn’t see this, and his brows never even moved.
No one else knew that she was only a paper tiger, and that the names that were something like “virtuous consort” and “refined and quiet” had been made by Shen Jue. Her gentleness, modesty, courtesy, and obedience were actually timidness, and her mildness and amiableness were actually her only knowing how to giggle.
“Chief Officer, you’ve finally arrived like I’ve been hoping for. Ah, you’re busy, and I’m afraid that the old scoundrel Wei De would see, so I didn’t dare to send people over to find you. I could only hold it back and wait for you to come when you were free.”
“No need to worry. If there’s something troubling you, just say it.”
“Did you know that the emperor came to me the day before yesterday?”
Shen Jue’s brows curved in a smile. “This is a good thing, but you don’t seem happy and instead are worried. What is the reason for this?”
“What’s good about it!” Mrs. Li threw her handkerchief onto a table and said in annoyance, “The emperor’s front foot had just left when the emperor’s back foot came to find me to drink tea. She derisively said some things I didn’t know, and my placating smile almost made my face turn stiff. I also don’t know what wrong medicine the emperor took, he just had to sleep here. The empress even thought that I used some means to regain the emperor’s favor, and maybe she’s scolding me somewhere at this moment.”
Shen Jue pressed the corners of his mouth and lowered his head, smiling. “Since the emperor came, you just have to serve him at ease. Accompanying the emperor is originally a duty within your responsibilities, so even the empress can’t find fault with this. You have to remember that hiding one’s capacities is for building up energy and using roundabout tactics, and not being forbearing everywhere, since that makes others think that we’re weak and easy to bully. You just have to care about being prudent and courteous so there’s nothing the empress can pick a quarrel about. The emperor coming is a good thing. This way, the empress knows that the emperor still keeps you in his heart, so she can’t touch you easily.”
“Is that so?” Mrs. Li sighed in relief and said in dejection, “Being a noble consort really isn’t a job for a person. I’m afraid the empress will bear a grudge against me again, so I’ve been filled with fear these few days. I don’t dare to eat anything, and I don’t dare to drink anything. I even have to have Zhu Xia inspect the room’s incense several times.”
“You really are once bitten, twice shy.” Shen Jue laughed in spite of himself. “I’m around everywhere, so those unclean things can’t enter Chengqian Palace. These matters even made you worry, so I should punish myself and offer an apology.”
“Then I’ll have to rely on you, Chief Officer.” Mrs. Li beamed happily. The haze that had been in her heart for many days dispersed, and she instantly relaxed a lot.
Right after she said this, Zhu Xia led the second prince as they walked inside.
He was a child decorated with powder and carved from jade. He was three years old, and he still stumbled when he walked. It was cold in the winter, so he was completely wrapped into a snowball. He walked inside and glanced around. When he saw Mrs. Li and Shen Jue, he didn’t first call out to his mother. Instead, he happily shouted “Chief Officer Shen” and rushed into Shen Jue’s arms like a firecracker.
Mrs. Li scolded the second prince for not understanding the rules and reached out to pull him. He stayed in Shen Jue’s arms and refused to move, so Mrs. Li could only give up and say to Shen Jue, “Chief Officer, look at this child. Although he was born like me so his mind isn’t enlightened, he still knows who sincerely treats him well. He treats you with such intimacy, your relationship with him is like that of a second father’s to him. We mother and son are lonely and helpless. In this deep palace, the only one we can rely on is you, Chief Officer, so I hope you can give a lot of care.”
The dim lamp shadows reflected Shen Jue’s lowered eyes. Mrs. Li saw the hint of a light smile appear at the corners of his mouth, but it was just that that smile was too shallow and was an indifferent arc. Shen Jue cautiously embraced the second prince and held his warm and soft small hands in his own, and it was like holding a ball of cotton. “The prince is noble and handsome, and his future is naturally boundless. I am merely a humble servant, so how can I dare to consider myself the prince’s second father. Please don’t mention this again.”
Mrs. Li repeatedly said yes, and Shen Jue took his cloak from a little eunuch’s hands and put it on, fastening the gilded buttons. He humbly saluted with clasped hands toward Mrs. Li, then turned and stepped into the wind and snow that filled the sky. Mrs. Li gazed from a distance as he stepped out of the palace gate and let out a low sigh.
“Noble Consort, exactly what did he mean?” Zhu Xia pouted as she asked, “Is our second prince not good enough for him? Really.”
“Men’s hearts are needles at the bottom of the sea!” Mrs. Li said faintly, “Especially beautiful men.”
Zhu Xia tsked. “Indeed, there’s really nothing to say about Chief Officer Shen’s beautiful looks.”
“Damned girl, you haven’t taken a fancy to him, have you!” Mrs. Li looked sideways at her.
Zhu Xia’s cheeks became bright red, and she hastily said, “What nonsense are you talking about! You have no sense of shame, but I do!”
Mrs. Li laughed as she scratched her underarm. “If I match you with him, we’ll form a family, so we won’t be afraid of him not helping us anymore!”
The wind and snow were vast, and Shen Jue held a hand warmer and sat in a carriage, closing his eyes to rest. Nowadays, it was like he didn’t even stop for a moment, like a spinning top. After he dealt with Mrs. Li, he had to deal with Wei De, and after he dealt with Wei De, he had to deal with the emperor. Underneath, there was still a group of big and small bureaucrats lining up and wanting to speak with him, and he couldn’t reject all of them.
Shen Jue knitted his brows as he opened the curtains, looking at the falling snow that was like goose feathers. The snow covered the ground, thick and solid, and the far and near mountains had become white-haired. Shen Jue leaned against the curtains surrounding the carriage and recalled before when he had been in Xie Manor. He and Xiahou Lian had been punished by kneeling, and Xiahou Lian had carried him on his back, returning to Qiuwu Courtyard. That day, heavy snow had also filled the sky, drifting everywhere.
He had been invited by the chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review 1 to go to his house and eat. On the dining table, spittle flew from the mouth of the full and fat man, and he talked for a long time about the principle of right and wrong for the country and great harmony in the world. He also boasted that Shen Jue was an essential official and a pillar of the country. The meal tasted like candle wax, and Shen Jue’s face was straight, his words going in one ear and out the other.
The feast finally ended, and Shen Jue rejected his invitation for dinner and the next meeting. He waved at Shen Wenxing who had been standing at the side, and walked outside. The chief minister followed behind him, bowing, and snatched the umbrella in Shen Wenxing’s hands to hold it for Shen Jue. Shen Jue imperceptibly took a few steps to the side, half of his shoulder exposed outside, snow falling on half of his body.
Walking into the yard, Shen Jue was just about to politely say that he didn’t need to see him off any further when a girl with disheveled hair suddenly burst into the side door that led to the side courtyard, rushing straight to the front gate. Everyone was startled, and a few servants standing at the gate were just about to stop her. The girl glimpsed Shen Jue who was in the yard, stopped, and then threw herself by Shen Jue’s feet.
“Eunuch, help me! Eunuch, help me!”
“Who is this? Hurry and pull her away! Nothing can disturb the chief officer’s elegant interest!” Seeing this unforeseen event, the chief minister’s face was as cold as frozen water, and he shouted left and right.
A few servants were going to go up and arrest her, but the girl hastily hugged Shen Jue’s feet tightly and cried, “I’m Zhu Mingyue, the fiancé of Captain Situ Jin of the Five Barracks Battalion! At noon, I was forced here by the eldest son of the chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review! My fiancé is in the barracks in the capital suburbs. Please help me, Chief Officer, please help me!”
Shen Wenxing was greatly frightened. Shen Jue had always been obsessed with cleanliness, and he never let others be near him. The little eunuchs who attended him even had to take three baths a day, and if they sweated even a little, they didn’t dare to get close to Shen Jue. This girl had held Shen Jue’s feet at the beginning, so it would be strange if Shen Jue didn’t chop her up.
The eldest son rushed over from behind them. When he saw Mingyue holding Shen Jue, he was instantly shocked and hastily said, “Chief Officer, don’t listen to this girl’s nonsense. She’s the daughter of my family servant and a crazy woman. I didn’t watch over her today, and she disturbed you for no reason. I’ll take her away right now. Servants, drag this crazy woman away!”
Mingyue panicked, and she shook her head. “He’s talking nonsense! He’s talking nonsense! He bullied my father into dying of an illness, and my fiancé lives in the barracks, so he captured me into the manor! Chief Officer, you’re a good person, please help me! I’m begging you!”
This was her only chance. She had finally run out of the woodshed, and the manor was heavily guarded. She saw that she was very close to the front gate, so as long as Shen Jue was willing to help her, she would be able to escape alive.
Full of hope, she lifted her head, yet she only saw the chilly gaze of that somber man. He said coldly, “You dirtied my boots.”
As if a basin of cold water had been poured over her head, all the way from her head to her feet, Mingyue blankly let go. Shen Jue knitted his brows deeply and stepped up into the carriage at the gate. The eldest son’s expression lit up in joy, and he gave the servants a meaningful glance. Two servants grabbed Mingyue’s feet and dragged her toward the backyard.
Mingyue cried loudly as she struggled, her hands scratching on the ground. Her fingernails completely broke, yet she only scratched out ten black-red lines of blood that winded like snakes.
Situ Jin was walking on the street. Today was Mingyue’s birthday, so last month, he had already prepared a document to the throne to ask for leave so he could be free today. He had saved three months’ salary to buy a gilded silk hair clasp at Liuli Factory as a betrothal gift. The matchmaker was already ready, and he planned to propose a marriage today.
Three years ago when the second prince was born, the emperor had proclaimed a general amnesty. After being pardoned, he had returned to the court and had been reinstated to his former position. But that year had been a nightmare for Mingyue. That year, Doctor Zhu had died from an illness, so Mingyue had been left alone and lived in the capital alone. She lived by relying on going out of the city, gathering herbal medicines, and selling them to medical clinics she was acquainted with, as well as doing some coarse needlework.
She was good-looking, so she was known in that area for being a herbal medicine beauty, and there would frequently be hooligans and ruffians knocking on her door in the middle of the night. Mingyue was frightened, so every night, she would use tables, chairs, ladles, and basins to block the front door. She also didn’t dare to be careless with the door of her room, so she would use trunks to block it firmly. The matchmaker would often visit and urge her to get married. She always used mourning for a parent to decline, but everyone knew that she was waiting for a man who wouldn’t come back until goodness knew when.
Situ Jin still remembered that on the day he had returned, Mingyue had been carrying a medicine basket on her back, leaning on the threshold and looking at him from a distance. He walked over, and she couldn’t hold it back, crying so that tears covered her face. She had gotten a lot skinnier, and her small face that had originally been the size of a palm had become so skinny that her chin was pointy, as if it could poke someone.
“Captain Situ, my father is gone.” Mingyue cried as she looked at him. “I don’t have a father anymore, so I’ll be alone in the future.”
Situ Jin was clumsy at speaking, so he hesitated for a long time before cautiously consoling, “It’s okay, I’m also alone, so if we’re added together, we’re two people.”
She used her fingers to wipe her tears. As she cried, she let out a short laugh.
Actually, he really wanted to say that if she was willing, in the future there would be three people, four people, or five people.
At the beginning of this year, Mingyue had finally left the period of filial piety 2. Situ Jin had prepared for a very long time. He didn’t have relatives, so he could only arrange the marriage, invite the matchmaker, calculate the eight characters, and calculate the date, having to do everything himself. The most important thing was the betrothal gift. Mingyue was the best girl he had ever met, so he had to give her the best he could give.
The winter sunlight was warm, the snow on the ground had a cold light, and a pear blossom tree had blossomed at the entrance of the alley. The pure white petals flew down, tossing about and flying out a few meters away. When they landed on the snow, one couldn’t distinguish whether it was flowers or snow. Situ Jin was very happy, and his face that usually didn’t have any expressions unprecedentedly overflowed with a bit of happiness. Several people who passed by him couldn’t help but turn their heads back and look again.
After he turned past the entrance of the alley, he saw the matchmaker spinning around at the door, appearing anxious.
“Ah, Captain Situ, you’re finally here!” The matchmaker lifted her eyes and saw Situ Jin, and hastily came up to him and said with a grimace, “Miss Mingyue has been captured by the eldest son of the chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review. Hurry and think of something!”
As if a clap of thunder had struck the top of his head, his scalp instantly tingled, and it was as if his eyes were full of rustling golden flowers falling. Situ Jin held the wall to steady himself and asked, “When did this happen?”
“Today at noon, it’s been almost two hours now!”
Situ Jin didn’t say anything else. He pursed his lips and went back to his house, taking a saber from the altar.
That was the saber he had exchanged from being the blacksmith’s apprentice in the North. Northern sabers specifically had a slender blade that was slightly curved, like the arc of a new moon. The matchmaker followed closely behind him, and when she saw him pull out the saber, she turned pale from fright. “What are you going to do? Are you going to risk your life and fight him?! No! They have strength in numbers, and you’ll also be arrested by government officials!”
“There is no other way. If I don’t go now, it’ll be too late.”
He didn’t dare to say that perhaps it was already too late.
His face was calm and he carried the saber, filled with killing intent as he went toward the residence of the chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review. The matchmaker sighed in despair and stomped her foot anxiously, gazing at Situ Jin’s resolute back. In the end, she didn’t follow him.
Shen Wenxing helped Shen Jue into the carriage and waved a horsetail whisk as he rushed back, shouting in a shrill voice, “Hold on, hold on!”
The chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review hastily stepped forward and said, “I wonder what else I can do for the chief officer?”
“The governor said that this woman dirtied his boots and is very detestable, so she must be brought back to the Eastern Depot. If she can’t wash his boots to be clean, she’s not allowed to come out.”
“This…” The eldest son smiled placatingly. “Why don’t I send the chief officer a pair. They’re goods from Xingyun Pavilion 3, so they’re the most comfortable!”
Shen Wenxing looked sideways at him and exhaled through his nose, sneering, “Does the governor lack a pair of shoes from you? What, this woman offended the governor, but you still want to keep her illegally?”
“I dare not, I dare not!” The chief minister glared at his eldest son and pointed at the servants scolding, “Hurry up and let go of her!”
The servants looked at each other and let go, panicked. Mingyue kicked them away and scrambled behind Shen Wenxing. Mingyue’s hands that were as white as scallions were covered in blood, and her apricot-shaped eyes had tears, about to drip out.
Sure enough, she had a good appearance. No wonder his godfather wanted to save her.
These years when Shen Jue had gained power, the people below had offered many concubines and prostitutes. There were other styles, so there were also people who sent male prostitutes. But Shen Jue hadn’t taken a liking to a single one of them, and he had rejected all of them back. Later, everyone understood. In the end, he was a eunuch who was missing a piece of his crotch, so wasn’t placing these types of things before him poking his heart? Thus, they had ceased in doing so.
Shen Wenxing originally thought that Shen Jue didn’t like these things, but today, it looked like it was only because he hadn’t met the right person. He smiled placatingly toward her and led her to the carriage. Mingyue wiped her face as she said, “Chief Officer, thank you for saving me.”
There was no movement inside the carriage, and only a cloak was thrown out.
Shen Wenxing picked the cloak up, muttering in his heart that the governor was too awkward. He had saved a girl, but it was as if someone else had forced him to do it. He handed the cloak to Mingyue and said, “There’s no women’s clothes in the carriage, so I wrong you to use a cloak for now.”
Mingyue was tearful. “Thank you, Chief Officer. Thank you, you really are a good person!”
Shen Wenxing smiled. “Just remember it in your heart and serve the governor well back in the manor.”
Mingyue was stunned at once. “What… What do you mean?”
“What else can I mean, how can our governor save someone for nothing?”
Right after he said this, a shoe was thrown out of the carriage, hitting Shen Wenxing in the head. Shen Wenxing frightfully looked up and met Shen Jue’s somber eyes.
“There’s an extra mouth in your name, I should take it out.”
“Godfather, spare my life!” Shen Wenxing covered his mouth.
Mingyue and Shen Wenxing walked next to the carriage. On Andingmen Street 4, carriages, horses, and streams of people came and went. Mingyue wrapped the cloak tightly, covering herself firmly. The hair on her temple was messy and her clothes were still dirty, so she was really too ashamed to face people. When they got to Haizi Bridge 5, a man seething with killing intent was walking toward them. Mingyue’s heart jumped fiercely, and she called, “Captain Situ!”
Situ Jin was stunned, and he looked up. The girl he was constantly thinking about was wrapped in a cloak and running toward him. Behind her, there was an unremarkable carriage with white curtains, and next to it was a person who looked like a eunuch and whose face was smooth and hair was glossy, with a natural smiling appearance.
“The governor of the Eastern Depot is inside the carriage. He’s the one who saved me,” whispered Mingyue.
Situ Jin went up and saluted with clasped hands. “Chief Officer, thank you very much for saving her. I am Situ Jin. If there is something you need, you just have to instruct me. I won’t refuse even if I die ten thousand deaths.”
Before his eyes, the curtain was pulled open, and Situ Jin heard an indifferent voice.
“Situ Jin, Xuanhe’s eighteenth top martial scholar. I’ve heard that you can draw the bow with either hand, that you can pierce a willow leaf with an arrow from a hundred steps away, and that you can fire a hundred times and hit your target a hundred times. You received the emperor’s golden carved bow and served in the right defense of the Feathered Forest Guard. Unfortunately, three years later, because Garan of Seven Leaves assassinated the former noble consort, you deserted your post, was demoted due to malfeasance, and went to the Five Barracks Battalion in the capital suburbs. But because you shot the eldest prince’s horse and caused the prince to fall from his horse and become crippled, you were punished by a hundred floggings and exiled three thousand miles away. You have bad luck, yet your luck is also indeed not bad. You were exiled for three years, returned to the court after the amnesty, and were reinstated. However, in total, you’ve been an official for six years, yet you’re still an unknown and small captain.”
Situ Jin lowered his head, silent.
Situ Jin lifted his head. On the plain carriage and white horse, a familiar face came into view. A few years ago, he had still been a little eunuch between early youth and youth. Now, he sat upright on the carriage, and he was already a promising young man.
“I owe you a life.” Shen Jue said, “The Eastern Depot’s company commanders are still missing one person. If you want, come to the Eastern Depot tomorrow morning for roll call.”
- A central government agency in ancient China, generally in charge of reviewing judicial proceedings. It was one of the Nine Courts and worked closely with the Ministry of Justice and the Censorate.
- The period of time after a parent’s death in which one couldn’t participate in ceremonies and would offer sacrifices.
- Lit. Flowing Clouds Pavilion.
- Lit. Stable Gate Street.
- Lit. Lake Bridge.