Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
“All of the court’s civilian and military officials, no one is not guilty, no one is innocent…” Dai Shengyan smiled sadly. “Well said! How could this world, this court, fall to such a state? The founding emperor’s spirit must be heartbroken!”
“Sir Dai!” The expressions of all of the ministers in the seats were perturbed.
Dai Shengyan waved, motioning for everyone not to talk. He continued, “However, the country has set laws, and the court has set rules. Today’s joint trial is for Shen Jue alone. If you want to put them on trial, the Court of Judicial Review has to request the emperor to issue an imperial edict again, and then conduct the trial.”
“If the Court of Judicial Review doesn’t make the request, wouldn’t there be no trial!” pressed Xiahou Lian.
“No.” Dai Shengyan’s expression was solemn. “Every day the Court of Judicial Review doesn’t make the request, I will not leave the capital. I will impeach all guilty officials the same way I impeached Wei De in the past. So, I must also put Chief Officer Shen on trial!”
After Dai Shengyan said this, the entire seats were panicked, and everyone’s complexions were pale, unable to speak. Even the face of the chief minister of the Court of Judicial Review was white, and he asked Dai Shengyan, “Sir, are you going to fight the entire imperial court as one person?”
Dai Shengyan smiled indifferently. “I am old. For a person about to die, how can this body be cherished!”
The entire court was so silent, not even a crow or sparrow could be heard.
No one had expected that inviting Dai Shengyan to put Shen Jue on trial would actually drag themselves into it. All of the ministers and officials looked blankly at the thin and haggard old man. He was sitting solemnly on the court, like a wild and unyielding old pine tree, standing proudly in the world and fearing nothing.
Xiahou Lian stared fixedly at the patterned bricks that were close before his eyes. He clenched his fists and grinded his teeth so that they rattled. Is there no way out? Is he really going to have the trial? How can this be? How can this be?
In the silence, Shen Jue’s voice came from behind him, so soft it was like a feather. “A-Lian, leave.”
Leave? How could he leave?
Xiahou Lian suddenly straightened up and looked at Dai Shengyan on the court, saying, “Sir Dai!”
“Shut up!” Shen Jue shouted sternly, “Leave!”
Xiahou Lian laughed bitterly. “Young Master, some things have to be faced sooner or later, do they not?”
Shen Jue was stunned, and he closed his eyes forcibly, not saying anything else.
Xiahou Lian continued, “Sir Dai, what you said just now was wrong. The twenty-fourth crime has something to do with my governor.”
Dai Shengyan frowned slightly. “What do you mean?”
Someone below said in a low voice, “Is this person crazy? How can Shen Jue be implicated in the massacre of the Xie clan? Twelve years ago, Shen Jue was only twelve years old!”
“Yeah, he had just entered the palace at that time, Wei De didn’t even know him yet!” Someone replied, “Is this brat helping or harming?’
The three words “twelve years old” broke through from the chatter, stabbing into Dai Shengyan’s ears. He was shocked and asked in a panic, “What? Shen Jue was twelve years old at the time?”
“Sir,” Xiahou Lian’s voice was slow and clear, “the governor is the third son of the Xie clan, Xie Jinglan.”
As if a thunderclap landed on his head, Dai Shengyan’s entire body was shocked, and he slowly looked at Shen Jue, who was standing beside Xiahou Lian.
In the rustling autumn wind, the young man was standing below the court. He had a fastened broad belt and pythons embroidered on his shoulder, and he was covered in colorful brocade. However, it couldn’t conceal the frost and snow between his brows, the sorrow and coldness at the bottom of his eyes. Yes, how could there be two people so similar in the world? That stubborn and weak youth in his memory coincided with the young man. It turned out that his gifted and intelligent little disciple hadn’t died, he had escaped from the death and become Great Qi’s seal-holder of the Directorate of Rites who held great power, the governor of the Eastern Depot——Shen Jue.
He trembled as he propped himself to stand up, gasping for breath. “You… You…”
The entire court was shocked, and after a moment, they were all in an uproar.
“How is this possible! How is this possible!” Everyone was dumbfounded, with expressions of disbelief.
Shen Jue saw the old man move down step by step from the court and walk in front of him. He saw the criss-crossing wrinkles on the old man’s face that were like ravines, and his white hair that was tucked under his hairnet. A few strands hung down, practically transparent under the daylight. The old man stood before him and examined his face inch by inch, as if he wanted to find shadows from the past in it. That desolate gaze was like a shapeless arrow, directly stabbing into his heart.
He had hid for so many years, but in the end, he still hadn’t been able to escape. He felt that he was a ghost who had entered the underworld, afraid of light and afraid of people, but someday, he still had to return to the world and evaporate in the sunlight and the gazes of his old friends, disappearing without a trace.
Now, this moment had finally come, as if it was destined.
Shen Jue lowered his eyes, his voice hoarse as if countless grains of sand had been kneaded into it. “There is no Xie Jinglan. Sir Dai, your disciple is already dead. I am Shen Jue, the guilty official you want to put on trial.”
“Young Master!” Xiahou Lian shouted.
Dai Shengyan looked down at Xiahou Lian, who was kneeling on the ground, and said with a trembling voice, “What about you, who are you?”
“Xiahou Lian, sir, I’m Xiahou Lian!” He turned around and kowtowed at Dai Shengyan’s feet. “Twelve years ago, Wei De bought Garan assassins and exterminated the entire Xie clan. The governor escaped from death, alone and without any relatives to turn to. On the way north from Nanjing, he nearly starved to death on the streets. In the past, Wei De was in power, able to cover the sky with a hand. Even you, a great scholar with countless disciples, stating the twenty-four crimes, knocking on the palace gate, and beating the heavenly drum still couldn’t kill him! Besides regarding his enemy as kin, how could he have claimed this monstrous blood debt?”
Dai Shengyan’s entire body trembled, and tears fell from his eyes. He held Shen Jue’s arms and said regretfully, “Why didn’t you come and find me! At least, I could have given you a place to stay, Jinglan!”
“Garan assassins watch their prey like tigers. If the governor sought refuge with you, it would’ve brought a fatal disaster to you! Sir, you’re just a scholar who doesn’t even have the strength to tie up a chicken, how could you have withstood the pursuit of assassins for thousands of miles!” Xiahou Lian enunciated, each word weeping silent tears. “Sir, going forward was death and drawing back was death. Falling into the abyss was the only way to survive. If it were you, what would you have chosen! If I, Xiahou Lian, may be so bold as to ask you, in the vast world, where is there pure goodness without evil, where is there extreme righteousness without wickedness?! Does not doing good, not doing right, mean you deserve to die!”
Everyone present was silent.
No one would’ve expected that the insidious and cunning governor of the Eastern Depot had actually come from a clan of the righteous class. Much less would anyone have expected that he carried a hatred as deep as a sea of blood. Among all of the seated officials, many had been officials in the same court as Xie Bingfeng, eaten at banquets together, been improper with entertainers together, dined and wined, and even called each other brothers. In terms of seniority, Shen Jue should call them uncle.
In the silence, Shen Jue lifted his robes and slowly knelt down. He undid the ribbon under his chin that tied his hat, took off his black gauze curved hat, put it on the ground, and kowtowed deeply. He didn’t say anything, he only knelt quietly. The shadows of his elbows covered his face, so no one could see his expression. However, for no reason, everyone felt the sorrow as heavy as iron on his shoulders, like frost flowers that had fallen all over his head and body, cold and pitiful.
Dai Shengyan was extremely mournful. He lowered his eyelashes and shed tears. “I evaluate myself as never having made any grave mistakes in my life, yet I am only ashamed to face one person. I once promised him peace and promised to keep him safe, yet I still let him face the horrible disaster of the extermination of his clan alone. Taking one wrong step will make every step wrong. Wandering in the streets, entering the palace as a eunuch, regarding one’s enemy as kin… He fell into the wrong path, is it not my fault?! How am I qualified to put him on trial?”
Dai Shengyan looked down at the two young men’s backs. They were lying deeply in the dirt, motionless. Dai Shengyan laughed bitterly, turned around, and walked a few steps. He held the edge of the desk with curved ends, and he seemed to age by several decades in an instant. He had originally already been old enough, but now, everyone suddenly didn’t just feel that he was old, he was also about to die. That emaciated back was deeply stooped, and it lowered more and more, finally sliding down along the leg of the desk.
“Sir Dai!” everyone exclaimed.
Embroidered Uniform guards rushed up to hold the old man, and the imperial physicians that had been prepared for Xu Ruoyu and the empress dowager from just then stepped inside, checking the old man’s pulse. It was instantly chaotic in front of the main gate of the imperial palace. Shen Jue wanted to go up and look at Dai Shengyan, but the crowd separated him from that dying old man. The heavy crowd was like the mountains and waters he had walked out of these past years, and in the end, they made him and the old man be far apart from each other, and it was even harder to get close.
Embroidered Uniform guards sent Dai Shengyan onto a carriage and to a small house that was leased in the capital. It was a desolate alley, with one door and one window. There was a “Fu” paper whose colors had faded pasted on the door, and there were also two tattered spring couplets 1 on the pillars on the two sides. Officials who had followed them over stood inside and outside the courtyard, waiting for the news from the imperial physician inside who was making a diagnosis and giving treatment.
Shen Jue was standing in the corridor, waiting silently. No one came over to talk to him, and an empty area was automatically cleared out around him. Everyone stayed far away from him, pretending that they couldn’t see him. Actually, there wasn’t much difference to them, but it seemed that as long as they didn’t stand together with Shen Jue, they were still gentlemen of the righteous class and still held their heads high and threw their chests out, able to stand under the daylight.
“Young Master…” Xiahou Lian called in a low voice from behind him.
He didn’t respond. He felt very tired, so tired he couldn’t speak. He was actually a little thirsty, and his legs also hurt a little, but he didn’t want to care about it. He just stood there, as if his body being abused could make his heart feel a little better.
The physician came out and brought good news, saying that Mr. Dai was fine, just tired, and needed rest. The people gradually dispersed, and the courtyard soon became desolate. Only Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian still remained under the corridor, their bodies hidden in the shadows, like two silent wild ghosts.
There was a grape framework in the clearing, and the grape vines were withered, leaving a few withered ones sparsely entangled on top of the shed. There were many flower pots against the wall, and they were all wildflowers, their names unknown, tall and short ones placed in a row. Some were still in bloom and some were already withered, appearing listless under the dim daylight.
They didn’t know how long they had been standing for when a boy came out from inside. He looked to be fourteen or fifteen years old, and when he saw Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian under the corridor, he was slightly stunned and asked, “You haven’t left yet?”
He didn’t know Shen Jue’s identity, and he looked at Shen Jue fixedly before suddenly widening his eyes. “This childe, you look a little familiar.”
Shen Jue looked up at him.
The boy went back into the room, and when he came out again, he was holding a drawing. Shen Jue took it and looked. The paper was already yellowed, and a youth had been drawn on it with a fine brush. He had delicate features and was wearing coarse cotton clothes and reading under a light.
It was Xie Jinglan.
“See, doesn’t it look like you?” The boy took the drawing back. “Don’t tell Mr. Dai that I secretly showed it to you. This is a portrait used to worship Jinglan-shige. Mr. Dai carries it everywhere, it’s very treasured.”
Shen Jue’s throat was astringent, and he asked, “Is Mr. Dai better?”
“He’s better all right, but he’s still lying down.” The boy scratched his head and sighed. “His health has always not been too good, it’s not the first time he’s fainted. It’s all those people’s fault, they just had to call him over from his hometown! Mr. Dai is so old, and he was fatigued by the journey the entire way, how could he stand it!”
“Can I go in and see Mr. Dai?” Shen Jue asked in a low voice
“But he’s still sleeping…” The boy stared at Shen Jue for a while, suddenly understood something, and was taken aback. Without saying anything, he turned around and ran back inside, only coming out a while later. He stood by the door and shouted to Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian from a distance, “Mr. Dai calls you two inside!”
Shen Jue took a deep breath, walked over step by step, and stepped across the threshold. Xiahou Lian followed behind him silently, keeping close to him.
This was the central room, and the doors on the two sides were open, leading to wing rooms. It was empty inside the room, and there was nothing besides a table and chairs, so it could be called nothing but bare walls. A hook was nailed into the front wooden partition, and there was an incense burner and a plate of watermelon placed on the yellow wood table below it. The portrait of Xie Jinglan from just then had probably been taken down from there.
Dai Shengyan was already dressed, and he was sitting on the head seat.
Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian kneeled down and kowtowed on the ground.
“Okay, everyone has left, it’s just we three teacher and disciples left.” Dai Shengyan sighed and said slowly, “Xiao Lian, do not speak in a bit.”
Xiahou Lian clenched his fists and said in a low voice, “Okay.”
“Xie Jinglan!” Dai Shengyan suddenly shouted, each word containing severity. “You keep saying that Xie Jinglan is already dead, then who is the person kneeling here now? Could it be that you are not you after changing your name!”
Shen Jue’s entire body was shocked, and he closed his eyes.
“Let me ask you,” Dai Shengyan said sternly, “in the twenty-ninth year of the Qianyuan era, Wei De framed the Minister of Rites Jiang Da, Sir Jiang. He was exiled two thousand miles away. On the way, his hands and feet were cut off by bandits, and he died because he did not get treatment. At the time, you were already the governor of the Eastern Depot. Did Wei De order you to send the Eastern Depot to do this?”
Shen Jue gritted his teeth. “Yes!”
“In the thirtieth year of the Qianyuan era, Supervising Secretary Zhou Cun, Sir Zhou, was slandered and imprisoned, his shoulder blade was completely cut through. When he came out of prison, he was no longer human-shaped. Was it you who handled this?!”
“In the sixth month of the same year, in order to vent his personal anger, Wei De falsified an edict and killed the former emperor’s loyal servant, Wang Quan, in the south garden. Was it you who did it?”
“For everyone aforementioned, when Wei De ordered you to kill them, have you ever pleaded for them? Have you ever said a word?”
Shen Jue’s fingertips were pale from pressing against the ground. He took a deep breath and answered, “Never!”
Dai Shengyan gazed at Shen Jue on the ground and slowly asked his last question. “That day when I was walking in Mentougou District, Wei De gathered bandits to beat me. Suddenly, a group of righteous people from the martial arts world came to my rescue. I asked for their names, yet they all kept silent and snuck away. Were they sent by you?”
The room was silent, and the boy outside looked blankly at the three people inside the room. In the quietness, he heard the young man on the ground say,
Dai Shengyan closed his eyes, and a turbid tear flowed down from his droopy eyelids. It reflected a chilly light, shining strikingly.
He sighed deeply and said, “In the past in Wangqing Pavilion, when I took you in as my disciple, I told you that no matter how difficult the world is, the heart must remain noble and kind. I saw that your life was lonely and bitter, and you were also trampled on, so I was worried you would mistakenly go on the wrong path, going and never returning. Your father was confused and your aunt was domineering. You were struggling in Xie Manor, and I pitied you for being helpless and wanted to take you away. Unfortunately, it never happened. Fate plays tricks on people. That day, I said that your will is strong, your heart hard, and that you wouldn’t be good, you would be wicked! I didn’t expect that this would unfortunately come true!” He lowered his head, looking at Shen Jue on the ground, and said solemnly, “Xie Jinglan, just then at the main gate of the palace, it was all Xiao Lian helping you speak. Now, I want to hear you say it yourself, why did you do this?”
“In order to take hold of my own fate!” Shen Jue’s words and sentences seemed to be carved into his bone marrow. “Mrs. Xiao was only a mistress of a family of officials, yet she could kill my servant and force me into a dead end. Wei De was just a servant of the emperor, yet he could exterminate the entire Xie clan, and no one could contend with him! Sir, benevolence and righteousness cannot save me, loyalty and filial piety cannot protect me. Only by having a saber in my hand and having great power in my grasp can I take revenge, can I take hold of my own fate!”
“Xiao Lian, do you also think this way?” Dai Shengyan asked.
“Yes,” Xiahou Lian said, “I also think this way.”
“So you helped the wicked do evil, colluding with Jinglan in doing evil! I know that you’re loyal and will protect your master, but this is blind devotion!” Dai Shengyan sighed heavily. “Children, you say that you want to take hold of your own fates, but have you really taken hold of them? Associating with what you detested in the past and doing what you were ashamed of in the past, is this taking hold of your own fates? Jinglan, if this is the fate you want, then I hope that you might as well have died in that clan extermination twelve years ago and have never escaped!”
Shen Jue’s heart seemed to be knocked sharply, hurting severely.
He didn’t speak. The wind outside passed through the hall and blew inside, making him cold. There seemed to be a mass of ice and snow lying inside his heart, cold from the inside to out. He didn’t have anything to say, this was the path he had chosen himself, the fate he had picked himself. All criticism and all retribution should be undertaken by him.
Dai Shengyan slowly stood up and moved with difficulty in front of Shen Jue. Suddenly, with a thump, he kneeled down. The emaciated and weak shadow enveloped Shen Jue, and he looked up, stunned, and saw the old man’s desolate gaze.
Shen Jue said in surprise, “Sir!”
“My few lessons are not brilliant heavenly words and they are not golden rules, none of them able to be changed. Before, Xiao Lian asked me whether there is pure goodness and whether there is extreme righteousness in this world. I cannot answer, I cannot answer! You child, your life is so bitter, how can I blame you for going on this path!” Dai Shengyan held Shen Jue’s shoulders, and the young man’s thin shoulders trembled slightly under his palms. He shed tears as he said, “But if you do not die, I would be letting down the innocent people who wrongfully died in yours and Wei De’s hands!” Dai Shengyan took a breath and said solemnly, “Now, there is only one way! With a thick face, I earnestly request you, Chief Officer, to promise me one thing!”
Shen Jue said in an astringent voice, “Sir, please speak.”
Dai Shengyan took a deep breath, his skinny cheeks solemn and eerie, and he enunciated, “As long as you, Chief Officer, are in office, do you best to assist the young emperor, clean up the laws of the imperial court, restore order to Great Qi and peace to the world! Do not stop at a thousand difficulties, go on even with ten thousand deaths!”
He gritted his teeth with every word, every word entering his bones. At that moment, it seemed that between the entire heavens and earth, only his old voice reverberated in circles. Shen Jue lifted his eyes and looked at him with difficulty; his face was as cold and solemn as green pines and old stones on a cliff.
Shen Jue held Dai Shengyan’s arms, lowered his eyes, and smiled sadly as he said, “Okay.”
“Do you know, as a eunuch in the middle palace and servant of the emperor, if you are not of one mind with the emperor and are of the same virtues as the officials, what the consequences are?”
“Do you know, if there is one day when the emperor is tired of your urging and there is another traitorous official who hinders you and the emperor detests and banishes you, what would happen to you?”
“Do you know, no matter how hard you try, perhaps you will never be able to get rid of the name of a traitorous eunuch in your entire life, spit on by the people and abandoned by the world?”
Xiahou Lian heard Shen Jue’s chilly voice, and he suddenly felt very sad, but he couldn’t do anything, no one could.
“Good, good.” Dai Shengyan smiled sorrowfully and reached out his palm, saying, “Three palm strikes as an oath.”
Shen Jue pursed his lips and knocked on Dai Shengyan’s haggard palm. Again and again, the crisp clapping echoed in the narrow room. Every sound was steadfast and resolute, spreading far away, spreading all the way to the end of his life.
After the three strikes, Dai Shengyan looked at the two young men before him and showed a sad smile. Deep exhaustion spread up from the depths of his body, and the daylight suddenly became bright and dazzling. At that moment, Dai Shengyan suddenly had a premonition that his fate was nearing.
He reached out and stroked Shen Jue’s pale cheeks. This child had suffered too much; he understood, he had always understood. Thus, he had hidden his selfishness and made the biggest mistake of his life. He originally should have enforced the law impartially and sentenced him to death, but in the end, he was coerced by their personal relationship and obeyed his selfishness.
How could he send him to die? This child had such aggrieved eyes! From young to old, he always had. Even when he had been buried in dust and mud, he still had to do his utmost to lift his head. His heart was so proud; others could trample his body, yet they couldn’t trample his proud heart. Tears flowed down from Dai Shengyan’s eyes, and he braced himself on Shen Jue’s arms as he stood up, pushing him outside the door. “Go, go, child, go and do what you should do.”
Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian kowtowed again and left the small courtyard. Turning around and looking, the old man was standing in the deep courtyard, and he slowly became a dark figure.
Shen Jue turned his head back and held the wall, walking step by step toward the carriage. Xiahou Lian looked at this back silently and suddenly felt that this narrow alley was endlessly long, spreading continuously without bound, and Shen Jue was walking there alone, all by himself with only his shadow. Xiahou Lian really wanted to catch up and say, Young Master, don’t go alone, there is me to accompany you.
“Xiahou,” Situ Jin, who had originally been waiting outside the door, suddenly came over and said in a low voice, “the Imperial Clan Court said that the empress dowager was promiscuous in the back palace, so according to regulations, she should be given poisoned wine. I came to report it to the governor. The governor is like this… Is it convenient to talk right now?”
Xiahou Lian stopped in his steps, yet he still gazed at Shen Jue.
He knitted his brows, and his forehead suddenly became grim. “No need to tell him, give it directly.”
Situ Jin was silent for a while before asking, “There is also the empress dowager’s personal maid, Zhu Xia, how should she be dealt with?”
Xiahou Lian recalled that woman. At Guangling Temple, she had sat at the Hall of Guanyin, probably because she had been sad for Shen Jue.
“Where is she?” asked Xiahou Lian.
“The Imperial Clan Court.”