Chapter 71: Lost at Crossroads
Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
After three strikes of a drum, bells rang, as if coming from the vast dome of the sky, reverberating in circles around Tian Street. It was still early, and the sky was slightly blue. A setting moon hung in the east, thin and transparent, the only white. The main gate of the imperial palace opened wide in the rings, and two lines of officials walked out slowly from behind the two gates next to the main gate, going along the palace steps and entering Taihe Hall 1.
The Embroidered Uniform guards inside the hall stood silently, with colorfully embroidered ferocious flying fish clothes and golden embroidered spring sabers inlaid with gems, and the officials divided into two teams in their gazes. The young emperor hadn’t come yet, though this was a common occurrence. The emperor was too young and often couldn’t get out of bed. The officials remembered once when the young emperor had been too lazy to get out of bed, and they had waited in the hall for an hour before a servant had hastily ran over to announce that business would be suspended at the imperial court today. Another time, they had finally waited for the young emperor to arrive, yet he had entered the court on the back of the seal-holder of the Directorate of Rites, Shen Jue, and when he sat on the throne, he hadn’t seemed to be fully awake.
The sky slowly became clear and bright, and the pale light of dawn shone into the main hall. The red flower door at the side of the hall finally opened, and amid a crowd of servants, a man with his waist bent held a child’s hand as he walked to the throne. The child was wearing a black gauze winged crown with two dragons playing with a pearl on it and yellow imperial robes embroidered with coiled dragons with a disc-shaped collar. His jade belt was too wide, and it hung emptily on his waist. Under the apricot yellow hem of his skirt, his black imperial boots were revealed.
The young emperor was supported by hand as he stepped onto the throne, as his foot couldn’t reach the footrest and could only hang midair. The man beside him tucked in his robes for him and straightened up calmly. His face couldn’t be seen clearly in the morning light, and only his slow speaking could be heard, his voice as clear and bright as the striking of jade ring pendants.
All of the officials lowered their heads and knelt down, shouting, “Long live our emperor, long live, long live!”
Their voices were like a tide, surging toward the entire Forbidden City from Taihe Hall. The officials stood up again and finally clearly saw the man by the young emperor’s side. His face under his black gauze hat had no sorrow and no joy, and the golden embroidered pythons set off his elegant and beautiful appearance. He was the most prominent eunuch in Great Qi, and he was in charge of the middle palace and had power over all officials.
After the officials finished the ceremony, Shen Jue said loudly, “If you have something, present a memorial to the emperor. If you do not, leave the court.”
A voice was raised in the last row. “Your Majesty, I have a memorial to present to you!”
The young emperor said, “Permitted.”
The secretariat drafter walked from the last row to before the emperor and enunciated each sound clearly to the bone. “The seal-holder of the Directorate of Rites, Shen Jue, murdered people in a street. The corpses of Mrs. Yao and her son from a herbal medicine shop in Mentougou District laid at the gate of Shen Manor. The young child was only eight years old, yet Shen Jue became frenzied and lost all judgment. The people are horrified and are seething with resentment. Please decide, Your Majesty!”
The officials were surprised, and there were many discussions. Shen Jue kept the depot guards under control and had great power, so few people opposed him. It had only been two common people without power who had died, so normally, him stuffing some silver to seal the mouths of their family and then going to the Ministry of Justice to bribe around would make this matter over. Unexpectedly, there was actually someone without eyes who had poked it up to the main hall.
The young emperor subconsciously glanced at Shen Jue. Shen Jue didn’t have any reaction and still had the appearance of lowered eyelashes, as if it wasn’t him who was being impeached by the person below. The young emperor clenched his fists and coughed, saying, “I have already known about this matter. Chief Officer Shen has already handed in a memorial to the throne earlier and told me about it in detail. Mrs. Yao and her son provoked this matter first, and the underlings acted to stop them. The two people were unfortunately killed in the pushing, so it actually had nothing to do with the chief officer.”
The secretariat drafter persevered. “These are the words of Shen Jue. Your Majesty is so arbitrary, I’m afraid there’s suspicion of partiality!”
Shen Jue wasn’t without supporters. The people in the eunuch faction looked at Shen Jue’s expression and exchanged meaningful glances with each other. The commander of the Embroidered Uniform Guard stepped out haughtily and said, “Sir Lu, your words are wrong. Once this case happened, the Embroidered Uniform Guard had already investigated. We performed an autopsy and discovered that there were no signs of a struggle on the two people’s bodies. There was only a fatal crack on Mrs. Yao’s head, and the cause of the boy’s death was even stranger, he was poisoned with aconitum brachypodum diels. Could it be that the chief officer already knew that these two people would cause trouble at Shen Manor and poison the boy first?”
The young emperor nodded in agreement. The chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review stepped out with a ritual baton 2. “Your Majesty, according to the laws of Great Qi, this case should have been immediately investigated and dealt with by the Ministry of Justice, and then reviewed by the Court of Judicial Review. Although the Embroidered Uniform Guard also has the responsibility of investigating, they are too closely associated with the chief officer. These days, I have often heard that the Embroidered Uniform Guard is biased in helping and protecting each other, and the people are dissatisfied. In my opinion, why not transfer this case to the Ministry of Justice and hold another trial, as it is also good to return the innocence of the chief officer.”
The expressions of the eunuch faction changed. The chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review said that he was thinking about Shen Jue, but once this case left the control of the depot guards, who knew what would happen? It seemed that the secretariat drafter had only been the vanguard taking the lead and opening fire, but the powerful one was still at the back. This was an old trick of the officialdom: the one with a low official rank would be the first to act, but the real instigator assumed command at the back. However, they didn’t know exactly who was behind it.
Everyone in the eunuch faction looked at the Senior Grand Secretary. He was an old man, holding a ritual baton with drooping eyelids, an appearance of obediently looking down. The eunuch faction exchanged meaningful glances; it didn’t seem to be him?
The young emperor couldn’t make up his mind and repeatedly looked at Shen Jue. It was as if Shen Jue had swallowed mute medicine, and there weren’t even any signs of him moving his lips. The young emperor pondered and said, “Then…”
“Your Majesty,” the commander of the Embroidered Uniform Guard said, “All of the inquiry files are stored in the Embroidered Uniform Guard’s yamen, why go through the trouble of reviewing all of it again? Why don’t you ask the Court of Judicial Review to send someone over to inspect the files and documents. If it’s absolutely necessary, the imperial prison can bring it to trial before all of the ministers of the Court of Judicial Review again. Isn’t this convenient?” As he said this, he looked sideways at the chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review. “Could it be that the Court of Judicial Review suspects that the Embroidered Uniform Guard is ineffective?”
“You worry too much, sir.” The chief minister smiled slightly. “I am also thinking about Chief Officer Shen. If the chief officer is innocent, why should he be afraid of the Ministry of Justice trying him again?”
The two of them went back and forth, seeming not to intend on backing down. The young emperor sat on the throne for a long time and was already impatient, his behind moving left and right. The two sides below had already started arguing. The civil officials of Great Qi were quite courageous and upright; they couldn’t do manual labor, but their mouths could crush people to death. The young emperor’s ears hurt from listening, and he slapped the gold-lacquered folding screen as he said loudly, “Enough! Shut up!”
The Embroidered Uniform Guard general shouted loudly, and the ministers and officials resentfully stopped talking. The young emperor looked at Shen Jue and said, “Chief Officer, this is your matter after all. Say something, how should it be dealt with?”
The chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review still wanted to speak. Shen Jue slowly lifted his eyes, and the wind and thunder in his eyes appeared, forcing him to firmly shut his mouth. Shen Jue lifted his robes and went down step by step from the white marble steps. He took off his black gauze hat and kowtowed toward the young emperor, saying, “I take salary from you and have loyalty to you, and as the seal-holder of the Directorate of Rites, worrying for Your Majesty originally should be a matter within my duties. Unexpectedly, I instead caused trouble for Your Majesty and brought this matter into the hall, and even made Your Majesty worry. I really am to blame, deserving of ten thousand deaths. The unprovoked deaths of these two people really had nothing to do with me, but my words are empty, and I really can’t say it clearly. Since the Ministry of Justice can return my innocence, I hope that Your Majesty will transfer this case to the Three Divisions. I will take off my black gauze hat and repent behind closed doors to allow it to be decided.”
The young emperor said in a panic, “How can this work? Chief Officer, if you’re removed from your post, what will happen inside the palace? In a few days, I’m still going to go to Guangling Temple to offer incense, and this matter should be handled by the chief officer. How can you just leave after saying so?”
The commander of the Embroidered Uniform Guard stepped forward and said, “Why don’t you ask the chief officer to lead everything temporarily, and if the Ministry of Justice wants to try him, they can send people whenever to summon him. It’s the same, so as to not worry Your Majesty.”
“Makes sense, makes sense, it’s settled!” the young emperor said happily.
After court was dismissed, Shen Jue helped the young emperor back to his bedroom. The eunuch faction had gathered at the palace gate, their hands in their sleeves as they waited for Shen Jue while discussing countermeasures. They had come with malicious intentions and had even come menacingly, so everyone had been caught off guard. Just as they were sighing, they distantly saw that man windingly walking over from Tian Street. The resplendent rays of the morning sun embraced him, as if he was greatly favored by the heavens.
Shen Jue approached, yet he lifted a hand lightly. Everyone fell silent and saluted with clasped hands as they lowered their heads and backed away to the left and right. He got onto the carriage, and everyone watched him leave the palace. They looked at each other, not knowing what to do next.
The day of offering incense arrived in the blink of an eye. The imperial road had been cleared, and screen barriers had been put up on both sides. People poked their heads out from upstairs to look at the long cluster of vast black below. Because the previous emperor had passed away in the summer, the incense offering this year was extremely simple. However, in the common people’s eyes, it still had the same luxury. There were phoenix and dragon carriages, retinue yelling to clear the way, imperial guards escorting, depot guards accompanying, with exquisite brocades piling up in the style of the emperor.
The young emperor sat at the very front of the ranks. He had finally left the palace and was very happy, holding the window as he looked at the scenery outside. Behind the dragon carriage was the empress dowager’s phoenix carriage. The empress dowager was sitting upright inside, slowly counting Buddha beads in her hands. She still had a beautiful face, and she had a wig bun with pearls and jade pressing on top of her head, the soft hair at her temples looking more and more like clouds and the color of her skin like snow. Rouge had been applied on her lips, oily and exquisite like a finely carved gem. Zhu Xia was waiting upon her at the side, and when the carriage passed by Shen Jue, her eyes lit up as she saluted toward him through the window.
“Have you been well recently, Chief Officer?” the empress dowager glimpsed Shen Jue and said indifferently.
“Thank you for your concern, Empress Dowager, I am still the same.”
“But I heard that you recently provoked a lawsuit and got pinned to two lives. I heard that their family is very insolent and often squats at the gate of the Eastern Depot these days, crying and shouting for justice. Is this true?”
Shen Jue answered with a light smile, “It is indeed true. His Majesty has already transferred it to the Ministry of Justice to investigate and handle, so I believe that there will be results in a few days.”
The empress dowager saw that he looked unperturbed, and she imperceptibly frowned. However, her tone was still indifferent, seemingly calm. “Chief Officer, you have calculated plans, I presume you won’t be dragged down by such rogues.”
“Thank you for your blessing.” Shen Jue squinted as he looked at the sunlight on the imperial road. “Whether they are rogues or not still depends on the outcome.”
“Oh? Your words seem to have other secrets?”
“Empress Dowager, you worry too much, I don’t have other meanings. It’s the Three Divisions’ duty anyway, so I’ll let them take care of it. I expect that all of them have high talents and good virtues, so there definitely is no reason to wrong me.” Shen Jue lowered himself slightly to salute with clasped hands before spurring his horse forward.
The empress dowager looked at his back and snorted coldly. If he let them take care of it, was he still Shen Jue? The empress dowager collected herself and asked Zhu Xia in a low voice, “Has the information been passed on properly to Wan Bohai?”
Zhu Xia nodded. “It’s all set.”
“Good.” The empress dowager slowly hooked her lips up. “This person is powerful, so I expect even Mrs. Yao and her son can’t take him down. But he definitely won’t expect that I still have a fallback, Guangling Temple, just wait and see!”
Zhu Xia’s heart was suspended, and she bit her lip slightly. “Empress Dowager, are you going to kill him?”
The empress dowager held Zhu Xia’s hands and smiled. “Foolish child, why would I kill him? I’m merely teaching him a lesson and letting him suffer. Don’t worry, I’ll keep his life. In any case, I can’t let you be a widow.”
Zhu Xia nodded hesitantly.
Shen Jue moved slowly, and Situ Jin spurred his horse to catch up. He said in a low voice, “Governor.”
Shen Jue pressed his temples. The weather had become cold, so he wasn’t feeling too well. He turned his head and asked, “Xiahou Lian didn’t come, right.”
“No, I already informed him of the wrong time. He should think that today is a holiday, and that the day after tomorrow is the day of offering incense.”
Shen Jue nodded. “That’s good.” He didn’t want Xiahou Lian getting involved in the filthy matters of the imperial court. Xiahou Lian finally had smooth and steady days, so he couldn’t be encumbered by him.
“Governor…” Situ Jin looked at Shen Jue’s pale face and said solemnly, “be careful.”
Xiahou Lian was peeling garlic at home.
The Eastern Depot was very unpeaceful these days, as the Embroidered Uniform Guard was still investigating. The Yao family had gathered a group of neighbors and carried the corpse to the Eastern Depot yamen to cry and scream. All of the young and old in the Yao family slept at the gate, making a racket nonstop day and night. It was unknown where their boldness came from, daring to challenge the Eastern Depot. The hardest part was that this matter had already been presented as a memorial to the emperor, so the Eastern Depot couldn’t deal with them at will and could only let them cause a disturbance.
Xiahou Lian had an intuition that the matter wasn’t simple, but his position was low and he couldn’t help Shen Jue much. The Yao family was so noisy the Eastern Depot yamen had no way of working, so Xiahou Lian had taken a group of brothers to move beds of nails from the prison outside, laying them at the gate. The Yao family had no place to lie down and no place to stay at, so they shouted curses through the wall before leaving in resentment.
They had at least gotten them away, so everyone sighed in relief.
After peeling a small basket, Xiahou Lian stood up and went to the kitchen, and the front door was suddenly knocked on loudly. Xiahou Lian wiped his hands and opened the door. Zhu Shunzi was panting as he held the wall and stood in the doorway.
Before Xiahou Lian could even finish, Zhu Shunzi tugged his arm and walked outside. “You person! The emperor is going to Guangling Temple today to offer incense, yet you actually skipped work! If you’re going to skip then skip, but you were even discovered by your division leader! Thanks to your division leader’s kind heart, he didn’t report it and sent me to find you and get you to report for duty! Hurry, hurry, let’s hurry to Guangling Temple, I reckon we can still catch up right now.”
“What the hell?” Xiahou Lian knitted his brows and still went back to change into his yesa robes and bring his goose quill saber. “Didn’t they say that the incense offering is the day after tomorrow?”
“You were dozing off when the superiors spoke, right! It’s today!” shouted Zhu Shunzi.
Zhu Shunzi didn’t have time to chatter away with him, and the two of them rushed on galloping horses to Guangling Temple. They went along the ancient road, arrived at the foot of the mountain, and directly stepped up the stone steps of the mountain. The mountain breeze was slight and bone-chilling, and the leaves of the old pagoda trees rustled. The stone steps of Guangling Temple were too long, and the two of them were like two ants on them, climbing up with setbacks.
As they climbed, Xiahou Lian felt that something was very wrong. The emperor was offering incense, so there should be Embroidered Uniform guards and imperial guards guarding, but how come there wasn’t even a single person.
He turned his head to ask Zhu Shunzi, but Zhu Shunzi’s face had also stagnated.
Voices came from the forest. Zhu Shunzi wanted to go there, but Xiahou Lian grabbed him and made a gesture to seal him off. Xiahou Lian bent his waist as he made his way over. The horseweed was very tall, reaching his thighs, and Xiahou Lian slowly moved over like a noiseless snake. He neared a pagoda tree and put a bit of his body out, spying on the situation over there.
There were five soldiers from the Imperial Guard, and one of them had walked out a bit, only five steps away from Xiahou Lian. He tore off his sweat towel and peed in the grass.
The other four were sitting on the ground and resting. One with triangular eyes took out a string of tourmaline beads with a pair of pendants hanging from it, as well as a lazurite Buddha tower from inside his armor, and they glinted under the sun. Tiny dots of blood stained the beads, and Triangle Eyes used his sleeve to wipe them carefully as he asked, “Ah, boss, how much do you say this thing can sell for?”
“How would I know? Send it to Liuli Factory, and it’ll definitely sell for a good price!” The one called the boss picked his teeth as he said, “It’s too bad we only cut his hand and didn’t catch him, otherwise the bounty would’ve been enough for us to use for the rest of our lives!”
Someone chuckled. “Fuck, did you see his appearance, now that’s called beautiful! I heard that the people who come out of the palace are radiant and pretty, but I didn’t expect that a eunuch would also look fairy-like.”
The peeing person over there joined in loudly. “He’s missing two ounces of flesh anyway, so just regard him as a woman! If he can pleasure me, then this life really is worthwhile!”
As he was saying this, a bit of an icy iron light suddenly flashed past their gazes, as if a saber had cut their eyelids, horrifying everyone.
Ten steps ahead of them, pagoda leaves swirled. Their companion that had been going to the lavatory screamed as he backed away, one hand pulling on his trousers that hadn’t been put on properly yet and the other hand covering the side of his face. He stepped on the pagoda leaves with crunches, and everyone saw that every time he stepped past a leaf, dripping blood would flow down from his mouth and stick to the leaf, a glaring red.
And what was forcing him back was a goose quill saber. The saber had been reached into his mouth the entire time, and blood flowed along the corners of his mouth into the golden blood grooves. He backed away, step by step, and the person hiding behind the pagoda leaves finally appeared. He was a man wearing black yesa robes and holding the saber in one hand. Under the mottled sunlight, his eyes were frighteningly black.
Everyone stood up and drew their sabers, facing the man.
“If you don’t want to die, tell me where the governor is? Or else,” the man forcibly shook his hand that was holding the saber, and the goose quill saber fractured their companion’s oral cavity, causing his entire mouth to split, with his chin falling down obliquely, “you’ll be like him.”