Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Midway, Shen Jue abandoned the carriage and mounted his horse again, returning to the capital at top speed. Xiahou Lian saw that his complexion had gotten a lot better, so he hadn’t insisted on making him continue to stay in the carriage. When they returned to the capital, they left Xiahou Lian and Zhu Shunzi behind, and they didn’t know where they went. Of course, they weren’t clear as to whether they had secretly sent people to monitor them. Before they left, Situ Jin told Xiahou Lian to watch the doors and windows and close the door and not go out.
Xiahou Lian knew that something would definitely happen in the capital, but he didn’t have time to carefully ponder Situ Jin’s words, as he fell ill when he got back to Yunxian Building. The wound on his back had been handled too late and too crudely, so it became inflamed and purulent. When A-Chu cut open the clothes stuck to his back and the hideous scars covering his back, she was so frightened that the scissors fell and nearly stabbed her thigh. She rushed nonstop to send Zhu Shunzi to invite a doctor for him and get medicine, and only after tossing around for seven or eight days did he slowly get better.
When A-Chu’s little maid came back from buying medicine outside, she tutted and said that there were a lot more Embroidered Uniform guards and soldiers outside, fierce-looking and noisy, and scaring her to death. A few days later, a ban on iron was issued, and they even started a curfew. Yunxian Building’s business slumped a lot, as no clients came to the door. The workers at the door had been relieved, and the head of the brothel servants and the girls were huddled in the yard and playing madiao 1.
Xiahou Lian had been recuperating the entire time, so he could only rely on A-Chu and the little maids to tell him news from outside. After all was said and done, it was all Eastern Depot underlings, the Embroidered Uniform Guard, and the Five City Warden Department 2 scurrying around the streets, or it was that the checks to pass the city gates had gotten a lot stricter, and not only did they want travel permits, they also wanted to do body searches. He didn’t hear even a bit of news about Shen Jue, and it was as if the thirty or forty living people had evaporated in the world.
The first day after the autumn equinox when the curtain of the night had just descended, a series of men’s shouts sounded from outside. There were also sounds of iron boots stepping on the ground and of the sound of the iron of their armors’ rings striking together. Fires had started everywhere in the capital, and black smoke filled the sky. Girls huddled under corridors, standing on tiptoe in terror as they looked around at the dome of the sky that was reddened by the flames. The bawd ordered the workers and musclemen to watch the gate closely, and someone courageously looked outside through the gap of the door. They came back saying that soldiers had arrested many men and women, and there were even bloodstains on the streets.
“Something must have happened in the palace.” The bawd shook a beauty fan and criticized, “There’s going to be a change of regime, those who are on the wrong side are going to be doomed!”
“Are all of the ones being arrested the ones on the wrong side? Is it the eldest prince’s people or the second prince’s people?” a girl covered her heart and asked. “I wonder how my damned lover is doing. Last month, he got drunk and told me some things, he said King Fu is the most promising and can surely overcome all difficulties and take over the throne.”
The bawd’s words had quite the meaning of an outstanding woman. “Who cares! Even if the surname of the emperor changes, it won’t stop me from opening my doors to do business. Anyway, this will be a matter of a few days. When the time comes, see if your lover still comes to the bed, and then won’t we know?”
Xiahou Lian avoided the chattering girls and sat under the grape framework, stroking Shen Jue’s seven-leafed Bodhi beads in his hands.
Heaven help me, hope that Shen Jue is safe and peaceful, and that he will fulfill his heart’s desires.
The darkness pressed down heavily. There was a row of kraft paper lanterns on the red walls, the lights the size of a fist connecting into a gushing expanse and spilling onto the ground, like thousands of shattered gold pieces on the bluish black bricks. Today’s night scenery seemed to be exceptionally dense, as the palace lights could only illuminate areas the size of a square inch, so even more places were still sunk in darkness. The little eunuch guarding the palace gates was standing with his head lowered. Half of his body was covered by shadows, so he couldn’t be seen if one didn’t look closely.
There was only the chirping of bugs in the silent palace court. Suddenly, rapid footsteps sounded, and the sounds of armor clanging became closer and closer. The little eunuch seemed to be awakened, and he raised his head to look at the imperial road. A short black arrow whistled as it came, instantly piercing his fragile head. The little eunuch fell to the ground, and blood suffused the blue-gray bricks. Wei De and King Fu were reflected in his lifeless jet-black pupils, as well as the scurrying figures of palace guards.
Qianqing Palace 3 was brightly lit. The emperor liked brightness, so a lantern still had to be lit even when he was sleeping. The old emperor was leaning on the dragon and phoenix bedpost. The bed curtains were yellow silk satin, and the quilt covers were also apricot yellow brocade. There were bright colors everywhere, but the person had already darkened, beyond cure. His face was ashen, and he couldn’t catch his breath for a long time, like a candle flame in the cold wind, flickering as if it would extinguish soon.
Empress Zhang was sitting on the throne. A string of Canaan Buddha beads hung on her wrist, and she was counting them one by one, looking with cold eyes at Noble Consort Li serving decocted medicine. The ten-year-old second prince was sitting on a footrest, reciting poems loudly. His immature voice reverberated, one sound after another, the only thing with a bit of liveliness in the palace that was filled with the smell of decocted medicine and the air of death.
Empress Zhang exhaled. Those people were overflowing with joy, like a family, yet she was like an outsider, not fitting in.
The estrangement between the emperor and empress wasn’t a matter of one or two days, it had to have been ten years or so since the emperor had set foot in the empress’s sleeping chambers. The empress had fallen out of favor, so there was naturally the noble consort to receive grace. The former noble consort had died, but the subsequent noble consort had followed closely in replacing her. All in all, she, the empress, wouldn’t have a turn. Forget it, forget it. The empress straightened the bun and phoenix hairpin on top of her head and stood up. For people who lived in the world, how could one only count on love? She didn’t cherish illusory things.
The doctor finished taking his pulse and moved backward on his knees, kowtowing once on the ground. He thought over his words as he said, “Your Majesty has red tongue coating, cold hands and feet, and a weak pulse. It seems that your condition has sunk another layer compared to yesterday.” He spoke in a roundabout manner, and everyone understood upon hearing it. This was incurable, so he could only wait for death.
The doctor frightenedly waited for the emperor to speak. The emperor only waved his hand and said, “Leave. My time is up, life is a matter of the heavens, we mortals cannot manage this much. The heavens want to take me to see my ancestors, so I’ll simply go and see them.”
“Your Majesty!” Noble Consort Li called out tearfully.
The second prince also stopped reciting poems and lifted his head to muddledly look at the emperor.
“Muheng,” the emperor put the little prince’s hand in his palm, “you have to listen to your mother and your teacher. In the future, it’ll all depend on you.”
The old emperor still hadn’t issued a final edict to date. Hearing this voice, it seemed that he was going to pass the throne down to this child who was hardly dry behind the ears. Empress Zhang’s heart thumped, and she looked up, forcibly pulling out a smile as she said, “Your Majesty, where did these words come from? The second prince is still young, so he should only worry about studying hard and recuperating his health. It’ll be okay once he grows to be sturdy and sensible. There will naturally be us adults to carry the burden, so what time and energy would he spend?”
The old emperor glanced at her. His chilly gaze made Empress Zhang shudder, unconsciously letting the palace maid support her as she stood a little further away. The old emperor’s droopy face trembled as he said hoarsely, “Then according to you, who should carry this burden?”
Empress Zhang straightened up slightly and raised her voice to say, “Your Majesty, it’s clearly an obvious matter, yet you just have to pretend you can’t see it. The second prince is only ten years old, what can a ten-years-old child do? He can’t even recognize all of the characters! My son Muchen has integrity, intelligence, and handsome grace. Since he was sent to guard the vassal state, the territory has been safe and stable, and the common people have lived and worked in peace. He has never made a mistake. Yet just because he is a little crippled, you abandoned him like an old shoe!”
It would’ve been done if she hadn’t spoken, but once she spoke, the emperor’s expression changed. He gritted his teeth and said angrily, “So what if he’s ten years old? Four years later, he’ll be fourteen, I was fourteen when I ascended the throne! Muchen, you say Muchen! I’ve given him a chance, and when he was crippled, I was also distressed! But this child eats, drinks, and has fun, where in the Eight Great Alleys hasn’t he been to! Yunxian Building, those extremely audacious things! They’ve come to my palace gates to demand repayment for a debt! My face has been completely lost by your son!”
Empress Zhang let out a short, cold laugh. “As if you haven’t gone before. Guarded by the Embroidered Uniform Guard and concealed by the Eastern Depot, you sneakily disguised yourself as an ordinary playboy and hooked up with a group of shameless lovers. When you came back to the palace, the smell of cosmetics was still there, yet you thought I wouldn’t know! Take a look and see who Muchen takes after!”
When she said this, the heads of everyone in Qianqing Palace became even lower, and they pretended that they were wooden figures, unable to see or hear anything.
“You! You! Shut up!” The emperor was extremely angry, and he spat out a mouthful of blood.
Noble Consort Li was startled, and she hurriedly stroked the emperor’s chest, crying, “Empress, hurry and stop talking! His Majesty cannot afford to be angered!”
In people’s lives, who hadn’t been absurd before? In later generations, the emperor’s absurdity would only be seen as an affair, an unofficial history of leisure, but it absolutely couldn’t be said openly now. Empress Zhang was already speaking without thinking, and she said things to expose him, not caring anymore.
“My Chen’er is the side all civil and military officials are on and is the hope of the people of Great Qi. Even if you don’t appoint him, he’ll still be appointed!” Empress Zhang said loftily, “Chen’er, come out!”
King Fu turned and came out from behind the dragon and phoenix floor-to-ceiling door. He saluted with clasped hands to the emperor and smiled. “May Father be safe and healthy.” He still had an unparalleled plump body. When he walked out, Qianqing Palace seemed to instantly become a lot smaller, and his huge figure was cast onto the walls and ceiling by the candlelight, pressing down heavily. The doctors, maids, and eunuchs felt that it had suddenly darkened inside the hall, and they couldn’t breathe.
Wei De carried a tray as he stepped up, on which paper and a brush were placed. He respectfully held it before the emperor and said, “Your Majesty, appoint King Fu as your heir. The elder statesmen of the Grand Secretariat and of the ministers of the Six Ministries are kneeling in front of the hall, crying and pleading. The appointment of heirs is fundamental to this dynasty and the safety of this country. May I be so bold as to kneel and plead Your Majesty to make a decision earlier!”
King Fu clasped his hands behind his back and said, “Yeah, Father. While you can still move, hurry! All the officials are waiting, why bother being so stubborn? Could it be that you’re worried about my brother and his mother? Rest very well assured, I will naturally take good care of them.”
Qianqing Palace was silent, and everyone was hushed. The doctors lowered their heads and silently backed away, hiding themselves under the curtains, the less conspicuous the better. The old emperor looked at the tray in Wei De’s hands. The old eunuch’s head was bowed meekly, his gold-traced black gauze hat covering his face with a layer of shadow.
The emperor looked fixedly at Wei De and sighed deeply. “Old Companion, when the teacher hit my palms in my childhood and you held my hands, crying as you blew on them, I never would have thought of this day!”
A smile arose on Wei De’s face, his usual likable appearance of which no faults could be picked out. The old emperor had looked at it for decades, yet only today did he discover that this smile had never reached the bottom of Wei De’s eyes.
“Your Majesty, all people change. I’m like duckweed, unable to compare to your nobleness. You’re an ancient and tall tree with dense branches and luxuriant leaves that towers in the sky, and I am only a vine that climbs on your body. You’re going to wither, but I still want to live. It’s inevitable that I find the next tree, I also have no choice.”
Between the two old friends, one was sitting and one was kneeling, and the air seemed to stagnate between them. The old emperor’s originally aged face instantly seemed to become even older, and it was filled with a gloomy and deathly aura both inside and out.
King Fu was already impatient and said, “Father, if you don’t start writing, don’t blame me if I can’t protect the lives of my brother and his mother!”
The emperor glanced at King Fu coldly, grabbed his pillow, and threw it at his face, roaring, “Brute, shut up for me! I’m not dead yet! You won’t get my imperial edict, you’ll forever be an unjust monarch! A villain who usurped the throne!”
However, King Fu wasn’t angry. He unhurriedly put down the pillow and sat down on the throne before the floor folding screen, saying, “All right, suit yourself. The entire imperial palace is already in the bag for me anyway, just put your head out and take a look!”
Only after he said this did the old emperor and Noble Consort Li realize that the dark and heavy night outside had brightened by a lot without their knowing. It wasn’t daylight; instead, it was torches in soldiers’ hands. Qianqing Palace had already been surrounded, and there was no way out.
The old emperor’s face was ashen, and he slumped on the bed, his fingers trembling.
Suddenly, a scream sliced through the silent night, resounding through the Forbidden City. It was suddenly messy outside, and Wei De hurriedly looked back, asking, “What’s happening?!”
“Report! Report!” The commander of the palace guards rushed in and shouted loudly, “Shen Jue entered the palace with the troops of the Three Great Battalions from outside the city! They’ve already… already entered Xuanwu Gate!”