Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Directorate of Rites, inner duty room.
With a “smack,” a palm fiercely slapped his cheek, and a red print was instantly added to his face like residual makeup that hadn’t been removed. It was as if Shen Jue couldn’t feel the pain. He didn’t say anything and only said “Godfather, please calm down,” hastily kneeling on the ground. His forehead was against the ground, and a cool chill came from the floor tiles patterned by cracked ice, spreading all the way to his limbs and bones.
“Shen Jue, you’ve got some nerve!” Wei De paced back and forth, so angry his entire face was flushed. “Your wings are hardened, and I can’t control you anymore! You didn’t even send a communication and privately left the capital, brought underlings, and killed Liu Guizang! Although that person whose surname is Liu is a rebel of the martial arts world, I receive a lot of gifts from him every year, so I promised him that the Eastern Depot wouldn’t interfere in the affairs of the martial arts world. But look at you, as soon as I turn around, you hit me in the face!”
“Godfather, listen to my explanation!” Shen Jue moved a few steps forward on his knees and kowtowed as he replied, “A month ago, the Eastern Depot received a secret report from Liuzhou that said that Liu Guizang was going to summon all of the martial arts circles and intended to rebel! Only then did I not dare to delay even a moment and raced on an urgent trip in the night to go to arrest Liu Guizang!”
Wei De repeatedly laughed coldly, and his withered face wrinkled, layer upon layer like shriveled tree bark. “What, am I supposed to thank you? Am I also supposed to help you ask for merit and rewards from His Majesty! Shen Jue, you bastard!” The more Wei De spoke, the angrier he became. He stepped forward and used all of his strength to kick Shen Jue. Shen Jue was kicked to the ground, and the gold-traced black gauze hat on his head tumbled down. He picked up the hat and wore it, then knelt back at his original spot in a well-behaved manner.
“What rebellion, what hand cannons, don’t think that I don’t know those meddlesome things you did!” Wei De drank several cups of tea in a row and pointed at Shen Jue, scolding, “A few days ago, was the matter of Liu Guizang’s first wife committing adultery spread out by you? Exactly what personal grudge do you have against him? This would’ve been all right, venting out your anger isn’t considered a big deal. I thought that you were scheming and would never make a mess for a bit of a personal grudge. Great, it’s just great now, the dignified governor of the Eastern Depot inexplicably ran to Liuzhou without a single shit and killed Liu Guizang! If this matter is disclosed to the front court and is known by those pedantic literati, what do you want me to do!”
“Godfather, Liu Guizang offers tribute every year, and if a person who sets their mind on it wants to look into it, they’ll surely know! It really is inappropriate for you to protect a rebel of the martial arts world. Last month, the Eastern Depot’s spies reported that they discovered Left Censorate-in-Chief Meng Jian’s servants in Liuzhou, and I’m afraid they were investigating this matter. Although I did take revenge for a personal grudge, I also put your safety first!
“Just think, Liu Guizang invited martial arts circles from all over the world to the beheading assembly, so what kind of subliminal criticisms would those grandmasters of remonstrances have written. Even if Liu Guizang didn’t have thoughts of rebellion, if it reached His Majesty’s ears, he definitely wouldn’t be able to escape the name of treason against the martial arts world. Besides, I was worried that the news would be wrong, so I purposely disguised myself as a Garan assassin, and no one knows that it was done by the Eastern Depot. I acted recklessly and indeed should be punished. Please calm down, Godfather!” Shen Jue kowtowed again, and the side of his forehead under his hairnet became bruised, soon revealing a bit of red and imprinting a bloodstain the size of the tip of a needle on the floor tiles.
“I don’t think you have the slightest bit of repentance at all!” Wei De was still unmoved. He sat on a jet-black and gold-traced throne, lowering his eyes to look at Shen Jue on the ground. Although Shen Jue was kneeling, his back was still perfectly straight, like a solitary bamboo in the soughing wind. Wei De frowned imperceptibly and said lazily, “You child, you’ve always had big ideas, and I can’t control you anymore. Forget it, I’m old, so I don’t have that much time to argue with you monkeys. Shen Jue, pack your things and go back to the cold palace.”
Shen Jue didn’t move, as if he had been fixed where he was. Only after a long while did he get up and salute Wei De properly.
“I am incompetent. Although I have been by your side these past few years, I have failed to share your worries and burdens. In the future, I will not be able to attend to you, Godfather, so I hope you take care of yourself and that your health will not be dragged down by the affairs of the imperial courts. Meng Jian is overly ambitious, so I hope you can be careful. May you be safe and healthy, Godfather. I… excuse myself!”
Wei De’s hand that held a cup of tea shook, and a bit of tea foam splashed out, wetting the embroidered pythons on the knee of his robes. He sat there and didn’t move. When he saw Shen Jue lower his head slightly, his face sorrowful, and move backward on his knees, about to get up and leave, he unconsciously reached his hand out and shouted, “Hold on!”
Shen Jue was shocked and paused his movements.
At this time, a flurry of footsteps sounded from under the window lattices, and a little eunuch said from outside, “Eunuch Wei, His Majesty asks you to come over.”
Wei De was stunned. He hastily got up and went to the window, asking, “Do you know why His Majesty is summoning me?”
“I do not know.” The little eunuch hesitated for a while and said, “But, His Majesty’s expression doesn’t look very good.”
Wei De looked at Shen Jue and said doubtfully, “Is he going to ask about the matter of you killing Liu Guizang?”
Shen Jue shook his head. “Currently, no one knows that I did it. However…” Shen Jue took out a memorial to the throne from his sleeve and gave it to Wei De. “On the way, read this memorial to the throne carefully. Perhaps it can turn the danger into safety.”
Wei De took the memorial to the throne suspiciously and uncertainly. He looked at Shen Jue for a long while before flicking his sleeves and going out the door.
He didn’t see that in the shadows, the sadness on Shen Jue’s face had peeled off, bit by bit, like the mottled gold paint on a copper incense burner. In the end, his face returned to an indifference without sorrow and without joy.
Wei De bowed as he stepped into Zhaoren Hall 1. Zhaoren Hall was the place where the emperor read books and wrote instructions on memorials to the throne. Along the wall, there was a row of bookshelves as tall as a person, and they were densely packed with books with blue and black covers. The emperor wasn’t a good reader, so several eroticas were inside the books here, which outsiders didn’t know about. There was a flat rosewood desk with some memorials to the throne and documents piled on it. When the emperor threw one casually, someone would readily tidy it.
The emperor was sitting on a chair with a back, and his expression was quite displeased. The little eunuch standing next to him winked to signal at Wei De, and Wei De felt a little uneasy as he trembled and bowed. Usually, the emperor would help him up, but today, he unprecedentedly didn’t make a sound and let him finish the set of protocols for worship before throwing a memorial to the throne at Wei De’s feet.
“Read it yourself.”
Wei De picked up the memorial to the throne. The more he read, the more frightened he became, and dripping cold sweat flowed down along his back. Before finishing reading the memorial, Wei De had already wailed and knelt onto the ground. He crawled to the emperor’s feet and said, “Your Majesty, judge it clearly! I have nothing to do with that nuisance Liu Guizang, this Meng Jian is making unfounded attacks on me! What annual tributes, what wedding gifts, they’re all fabricated things! I’ve served Your Majesty for my entire life, so don’t you know what kind of person I am? I have courage as small as the tip of a needle, so how could I dare to get entangled with those people of the martial arts world who fight and kill!”
“Meng Aiqing’s family has been loyal for generations, so why would they frame you for the crime of colluding with a rebel faction of the martial arts world for no reason? His servants personally saw your subordinate Qian Zhengde and that person whose name is Liu… Liu Something eating, drinking, and merrymaking together!” The emperor was so angry he practically couldn’t speak. “Old Companion 2, you’re confused!” The emperor pointed at the memorials on the desk and said, “Look, these are all memorials reporting and exposing you! Vice Minister of the Court of Judicial Review Zuo Lanjiang, Chancellor of the Hanlin Academy He Siming, Minister of Justice Ye Zhi, and even Dai Shengyan, Mr. Dai, who retired due to old age and returned home! Dai Shengyan has been honest and upright his entire life, and he said that you’re related to the extermination of the Xie clan nine years ago… Of course I know that you wouldn’t commit such a terrible disaster, but I still have to give an explanation!”
Wei De shuddered and shivered as he pulled out a memorial from his sleeve. “Your Majesty, Your Majesty, please read this memorial before you make a judgment!”
The emperor took the memorial and read it rapidly.
Wei De was at the side, wiping the sweat on the side of his forehead as he said, “I have absolutely nothing to do with this Liu Guizang! If it is related, then it’s the Eastern Depot’s spies who reported that they discovered Liu Guizang’s frequent contact with the southern barbarians since last month and seemed to have devious thoughts. I didn’t want to treat a good person unjustly, so I could only carefully investigate it first. But a month ago, the Eastern Depot suddenly received a secret report that Liu Guizang issued an order in the martial arts world, gathering people from all corners of the martial arts world to Liuzhou. More spies said that southern barbarians also disguised themselves as people in martial arts circles to rush to the assembly. I feared that they were gathering a crowd for rebellion, so I sent that unfilial son Shen Jue to make an urgent trip at night to Liuzhou and execute Liu Guizang on the spot!”
Hearing this, the emperor was furious. “This villain of the martial arts world, he actually dared to collude with the southern barbarians!”
“Your Majesty doesn’t know that this Liu Guizang’s mother is a southern barbarian.” Wei De wiped away his old tears and continued, “This matter of the rebellion is of great concern, so I would rather kill ten thousand by mistake than let a thousand go! Although there was no conclusive evidence at the time, I could only order Shen Jue to take decisive measures to solve the messy problem. That Liu Guizang gathered the martial arts circles under the borrowed name of executing the Garan assassin Nameless Ghost, so I secretly ordered Shen Jue to disguise himself as a Garan assassin. On the surface, he saved the Nameless Ghost, but in reality, he was secretly executing Liu Guizang. Fortunately, Shen Jue lived up to expectations and killed that scoundrel on his horse. Later, sure enough, the Eastern Depot found more than three hundred hand cannons in the Liu clan’s mountain village! Your Majesty, our Great Qi’s Divine Machine Battalion doesn’t have more than five hundred hand cannons!”
The emperor was so angry his hands and feet shook, and he tossed and turned the memorial to the throne, reading it a few times. He turned his head and saw that Wei De was still kneeling by his side and wiping tears. He hastily held him up and said, “Old Companion, I blamed you wrongly! It looks like that Qian Zhengde was living on you while secretly helping others. He implicated you, Old Companion!”
Wei De nodded repeatedly. “Your Majesty, don’t worry, I will go back and definitely deal with this scum properly!”
“There are punishments, and there should also be rewards.” The emperor knocked on the table. “Shen Jue did a meritorious deed this time, so he should be rewarded well. It just so happens that my Consort Li has someone named Zhu Xia beside her. Her appearance looks okay, and my consort has told me several times that I should match her with a desirable person. This child Shen Jue has grown up, and although he’s been cut, he should still have someone by him to tenderly love and take care of him. I’ll match them together as a couple! I’ll give her to Shen Jue, and like this, Zhu Xia will also be able to serve by my consort’s side, satisfying both sides.”
The sun’s shadow slanted westward, and the golden sunlight shone on, pulling the shadow that Shen Jue cast on the ground into a lone line that was long and thin. When Wei De had gone out, he had forgotten to close the door, so little eunuchs and little palace maids carrying trays passed by the doorway of the duty room from time to time. When they glimpsed Shen Jue kneeling on the ground, there were many discussions.
Shen Jue’s head was lowered and his hands were placed on his knees, unmoving like a stone carving. He understood the chattering of the eunuchs and palace maids, but his heart had already become numb, so no matter how cruel the gossip was, it couldn’t poke out fresh blood. He only felt a little cold. It was clearly already the sixth month, so the main palaces in the Forbidden City had prepared ice cubes, and the emperor would eat some iced fruit every day to relieve the summer heat. He was the governor of the Eastern Depot, so there were corresponding distributions. But he still felt cold, and the chilly wind burrowed directly toward his heart.
He recalled many years ago when he had still been Xie Jinglan. He had just worshipped his master and had just known that it turned out that his so-called father didn’t even know what he looked like. In order to console him, Xiahou Lian had hugged him in the garden and told him, When you’re sad, hugs will make you feel better.
He closed his eyes and worked very hard to think back to that hug and to think back to Xiahou Lian’s voice. Slowly, he seemed to really feel Xiahou Lian hugging him forcibly. His hands were pressed behind his shoulders, and a warmth that was like a charcoal fire in winter came from his palms.
It was worth it, it was all worth it; as long as Xiahou Lian was well, it was worth it. He slightly curved the corners of his mouth upward and a teardrop streaked across his cheek, landing on the floor tile and shattering into thousands of drops.
Rapid footsteps sounded, and Shen Jue recognized that they were Wei De’s. He wiped the tear stains clean from his face and made a sad expression in his eyes again.
The hem of a skirt of python-embroidered robes brushed past Shen Jue’s arm. When Wei De saw that Shen Jue was still kneeling there, he made an “ah” and helped him up.
“You child, why are you so honest and serious-minded? I didn’t call you up, but don’t you know to get up and rest?” Wei De looked at him in rebuke and pulled him into the outer room to sit down.
“I made a mistake, so I should kneel to learn,” said Shen Jue, his head lowered.
“What mistake!” Wei De shook his head and sighed. “It was all because I was miserly and lost my conscience, and actually thought of such small profits and even blamed you unjustly! It’s fortunate that you killed that scoundrel, otherwise I’d also have been dragged under the water!”
“It was me who overstepped and acted without authorization. I won’t dare to do it ever again in the future. Please forgive me, Godfather,” said Shen Jue, about to kneel down again. Wei De held his arms and pressed him back into the chair.
“Jue’er, do you know why I settled on you at first glance at the time and got you out of the cold palace?” Wei De stood up. The sky gradually darkened, and the lights were on again. Wei De looked through the soft smoky window screen that was like cicada wings and light smoke at the hazy lights outside, as if looking at unreal past events.
“Is it because I saved you under the horse’s hooves that day?” answered Shen Jue.
“It’s not because you saved my life, it’s because I saw myself in you.” Wei De stroked the tourmaline beads in his hands and said, “Before His Majesty ascended the throne, he was only a prince who was disliked by people and hated by dogs, let alone me, an insignificant little eunuch. I was like grass on the roadside, and whoever saw it could step on it. But I was defiant. I did my best to serve His Majesty, looking forward to that day I could make it out of the hardships. Look, the heavens have mercy, His Majesty ascended the throne, and I also became an indisputable person in the Forbidden City. Jue’er, that day in the hunting grounds, what I saw in your eyes was my defiance at the time!”
“Even if I have lofty ambitions, without your cultivation, how could there be a Shen Jue today?” Shen Jue carried a cup of tea to Wei De.
Wei De took the cup of tea, patted Shen Jue’s shoulder, and said in a low voice, “Work hard, child. You’re not like Qian Zhengde and the other piles of mud that can’t stick to a wall. They firmly believe at the bottom of their hearts that they’re only servants. If they believe this themselves, how can they be promising? We’re of the same kind. I’m old and tired, so I’ll let go and leave sooner or later. In the future, all of this,” Wei De looked around the Directorate of Rites and smiled at Shen Jue, “will be yours.”
Yes, it will all be mine. Under his brocade sleeve plackets, Shen Jue’s fingers were pale from being tensed.
Shen Jue’s head was lowered, so Wei De couldn’t see the sneer at his lips and the surging haze in his eyes. He only heard his voice that was soft and quiet as usual say, “Godfather, may you live a hundred years. As long as I can be by your side and be a little messenger eunuch, I’ll be satisfied.”
Before the palace doors were locked, Shen Jue left the palace. Fang Cunzhen had already been waiting for Shen Jue for a long time, and when he saw Shen Jue rush back, travel-weary, he curved his eyebrows and greeted him. His eyesight was too good, and he accidentally glimpsed the red mark on Shen Jue’s cheek. His heart jumped fiercely and he hastily lowered his head, his body bowing even lower as he pretended not to have seen it.
Shen Wenxing brought a towel and comb, his expression sad as he dipped it in warm water and gently pressed it on the red mark on Shen Jue’s face. He didn’t know how many times he scolded that old bastard Wei De in his heart.
“How is the medicine?” Shen Jue washed his hands as he asked.
Fang Cunzhen beamed happily and presented a small red sandalwood box.
Shen Jue took the box and opened it. A small pill laid inside, and there was even a rice paper with the prescription transcribed on it.
“Governor, this is a sample and prescription of the antidote for Mid-July.” Fang Cunzhen nodded and bowed. “I’ve already tested it on the test subjects. They’re all vigorous and lively now, and they can eat four bowls of rice at a time!”
“Are you sure?” asked Shen Jue.
“Of course! How can I dare to lie to you!” Fang Cunzhen swore by the heavens and earth, and at the end, he smiled happily again and said, “This medicine still doesn’t have a resounding name yet, so please give it a name, Governor.”
Shen Jue looked at the pill in the box and was silent for a long time. The black pill that was the size of a thumb segment shimmered like a jade, like an obsidian washed clean of dust. In the end, Shen Jue said in a low voice, “It’ll be called ‘Bliss.’”
“Good name! Good name!” Fang Cunzhen praised repeatedly.
“But,” Shen Jue closed the wooden box and said with a bit of a headache, “the existence of Bliss must not be known by Wei De. You have so many people in your village, so how can this be good?”
Fang Cunzhen’s eyes turned, and he took a few steps closer, saying, “The mouths of dead people are the most reliable. Governor, why not go through with the entire thing and burn all of them?”
“Good idea,” Shen Jue said indifferently.
Fang Cunzhen felt that he had provided a good plan to Shen Jue, and he nodded repeatedly.
“Then what about you?” Shen Jue’s fluid gaze turned and landed on Fang Cunzhen’s body, icy and ruthless.
Fang Cunzhen was stunned, and frost hairs grew densely on his back. He was dumbfounded and stammered, “Gov… Governor, what do you mean?”
“Fang Cunzhen, do you think I’m a fool?” Shen Jue chuckled in ridicule. “You’ve already contacted buyers and are prepared to deliver tomorrow. Unfortunately, they’re all dead now.”
Billowing black smoke suddenly rose from the west, and someone outside the courtyard shouted, “There’s a fire in the west of the city.” That was where the test subject’s villa was. Shen Jue shaded his eyes with his hand and gazed at the horizon, saying, “Your idea is very good, and I already acted upon it. You’re very right, the mouths of dead people are the most reliable. So, you can die, too.”
An underling appeared behind Fang Cunzhen without him knowing and covered his mouth. A cold light flashed on his neck, and Fang Cunzhen’s body swiftly went limp. Shen Jue looked down, his gaze landing on the small box. He reached out and carefully outlined the pattern on it, lingering with deep affection on every inch.
“Pass on my orders. From now on, hunt down the Nameless Ghost of Garan of Seven Leaves. Remember, don’t hurt him whatsoever.”
Shen Wenxing said hesitantly, “Then Eunuch Wei…”
“Hide it from him firmly.” Shen Jue said somberly, “Let our trusted aides catch Xiahou Lian, the rest of the Eastern Depot can’t interfere. As for the other assassins in Garan, kill or catch them and don’t leave a single one. Only in this way can we confuse the public and not let Wei De be suspicious.”
“I’m afraid Childe Xiahou will misunderstand your intentions.”
“He won’t.” Shen Jue stroked the square sandalwood box. “His mother will tell him that he has one chance of survival, and it is here with me.”