Li Jianheng was having a nightmare.
In his dreams, he was back at the Nanling hunting grounds on that stormy night, and branches whipped viciously at his face as he dodged frantically, shielding his head with his arms.
His horse bolted onwards. Terrified, Li Jianheng tried to grab on to his reins, but Xiao Chi’ye suddenly turned about and threw him off his horse by his collar.
“Ce’an, save me!” Li Jianheng hit the ground hard, and he knelt there, begging, “Ce’an, Ce’an! Haven’t we always been brothers? Don’t leave me here!”
In the flash of lightning that cracked across the sky, Xiao Chi’ye’s face was grim. Looking down at him, he ordered coldly, “Knock him out and carry him!”
Tears and snot streaked across Li Jianheng’s face. As he watched Chen Yang approach, he shuffled backwards in fear, waving his hands in the air and shouting, “I… I’m the Emperor! How dare you treat me like this!”
As he writhed away, Li Jianheng backed into someone, and he turned around to see the hunched and shrunken figure of Emperor Xiande, who wrapped a hand around his wrist. He immediately cried, “Royal brother, royal brother, save me!”
Emperor Xiande’s grip tightened, his fingers gouging into Li Jianheng’s flesh. Blood sputtered from the Emperor’s mouth as he rasped, “He who has the power to save you today may equally kill you tomorrow! Do you understand?!”
Li Jianheng struggled against the painful grip, but whatever he did, he could not wrench his arm free. All at once, the rain that pattered down on him turned into something much more viscous. Li Jianheng wiped at it, and came away with a handful of blood. He looked up, and from the pitch dark sky, a human head plummeted, landing with a thump.
Heavens knew where Li Jianheng found the strength to push and kick his way free of Emperor Xiande’s grasp. Gasping, he crawled up from the mud, shakily shoved the head away with his foot, and wailed at the shadows around him, “I am the Emperor! We— we are the son of heaven! Who’s going to kill me? Who?!”
“Your Majesty,” someone was calling softly, “Your Majesty.”
Li Jianheng’s eyes snapped open. He stared blindly at the golden canopy above his bed, still murmuring, “Who’s trying to kill me… who’s trying to kill me…”
The Empress Dowager dabbed at Li Jianheng’s brow with a handkerchief, leaning over to say, “Jianheng, I am here! It’s your royal mother.”
Grief swelled in Li Jianheng. His mother had passed away early in his life, and Emperor Guangcheng had never given him the time of day. In all these years, he had had his pleasures, all the music and women, all the hounds and horses he could have wished for, but no one had ever called him “Jianheng” in his hearing.
“Royal mother…” Li Jianheng’s voice caught as he cried out, “Mother!”
The Empress Dowager turned aside slightly, as though brushing tears away. She said, “We were so afraid for you. You have been unconscious all this night. You must tell us if it still hurts anywhere at all.”
Li Jianheng looked at the Dowager, and saw that she was still dressed in the ceremonial robes from the night before. She must have kept vigil here all night. Li Jianheng sat up immediately, and could see now that there were threads of silver woven into the hair at her temples, and that her eyes were a little red-rimmed. She looked much more pallid and worn.
Warmth suffused him. He wiped at his eyes, and took the Dowager’s arm. “I’ve worried you, Mother. I’m alright.”
Hai Liangyi knelt outside, having kept the same vigil through the night. Hearing voices from inside, he gathered that Li Jianheng had awoken, and could not help but be relieved.
Some moments later, palace maidens swept in on soundless feet to assist Li Jianheng in his ablutions. The Dowager took his bowl of medicine in her hand and first tasted it herself, then fed it to Li Jianheng.
After taking his medicine, Li Jianheng still looked peaky, but much better than he did last night. When he put on his boots and walked out, he came upon Hai Liangyi, still on his knees, and was exceedingly touched. He went to Hai Liangyi and helped him up, saying, “Elder, we are unharmed!”
Hai Liangyi barely managed to get to his feet, and Li Jianheng refused to let him stay any longer. He gently discharged him, and all the other ministers outside along with him, keeping only Kong Qiu, Cen Yu, and Fu Linye, who had spent the night investigating his assassination.
“Have you found anything out?” Li Jianheng immediately asked of them, “Come on, tell me everything, Minister Kong.”
Kong Qiu kowtowed, and began, “The Ministry of Justice conducted examinations through the night, and have now determined that the assassin eunuch, who was known as Gui Sheng, was assigned to the role of poison-taster for the State Banquet by a palace maiden of the Imperial Food Service named Fu Ling.”
“A palace maiden?” Li Jianheng repeated in astonishment, “And why does this palace maiden wish to harm us?”
Kong Qiu replied, “That is unclear.”
Li Jianheng demanded, “But you’ve been at it the whole night! Haven’t you figured it out yet?”
Kong Qiu exchanged a glance with the other two men, and was briefly silent before he said, “Your Majesty, Fu Ling was well aware that she could not escape the law, and had drugged herself in such a way that destroyed her voice, submitting to all punishment.”
Something dawned upon Li Jianheng suddenly. “Why would a palace maiden do a thing like that? She must have been afraid of giving something up under torture, so she’s made herself mute first! Someone must have told her to do that!”
Kong Qiu answered, “Your Majesty is wise. My colleagues from the Censorate and I shared this belief, and therefore conducted a thorough investigation into this woman’s background last night. We discovered that she was not alone, but had an elderly mother, who lived in a corner alley adjacent to Donglong Avenue. Though her home was small, it was not of the size which a solitary palace maiden could afford. Upon further inquiry, we found indeed that she had not purchased this property, but that a broker-house had allowed her to have it on credit.”
There was no one more familiar with Donglong Avenue than Li Jianheng, and he immediately saw the problem here. “Since she has no one but herself and her widowed mother, I don’t imagine that they owned anything worth the collateral on a house.”
Kong Qiu said, “Precisely so, Your Majesty. I too found this story questionable in many ways, and so summoned the broker-house for questioning. It was revealed that the the broker-house only allowed her to have the property as a courtesy to the Imperial Guard.”
Something lurched in Li Jianheng’s chest. He sat as though on pins, and it was a few moments before he could ask, “What has this got to do with the Imperial Guard?”
Kong Qiu said, “The Imperial Guard’s residing Justice, Yuan Liu, an officer of the sixth grade, had made special arrangements with the broker-house. Though Yuan Liu and and Fu Ling are not affianced to each other, there have long been rumours that they were in a private liaison.”
Li Jianheng stood abruptly. “Did Governor Xiao know about this?”
Kong Qiu was aware that he and Xiao Chi’ye were on close terms, but could not quite guess if he meant to protect Xiao Chi’ye, or had other intentions. He could only answer honestly, “According to the Governor, he did not.”
Li Jianheng stood there, several expressions shifting across his face, then finally said, “…The Imperial Guard is a large organisation. It’s understandable that he didn’t know. Don’t spread this around for the moment. You may leave, but summon Han Chang and Shen Zechuan to us. We must reward them!”
Crunching through hard snow on the ground, Xiao Chi’ye kicked open the door to the prison. The turnkey within had received notice well in advance, and now quickly led Xiao Chi’ye inside.
Fu Ling was imprisoned here. She was only twenty-three. Post-torture, her hair fell loosely from its knot, and she sat now upon the untidy straw thatch, unmoving.
Xiao Chi’ye stepped into the jail cell, and Chen Yang took his greatcoat off his shoulders. He was so tall, and his bearing so imposing, that Fu Ling began to tremble fearfully the moment he entered.
Xiao Chi’ye was, truthfully, a rather good-looking man. A perplexing interpolation of carelessness and severity inhabited his person, so that he could be both profligate rich boy and grim angel of death in one. He alternated between his guises easily, and once the mask was on, even his mannerisms would change to suit it perfectly.
Right now, he was only some nobleman’s son, just passing by.
Xiao Chi’ye first swept his eyes over the jail cell, leaning down slightly to look out of the narrow window. When he saw that there were only the high prison walls outside, he withdrew his gaze disinterestedly, straightening up again. Then he put his head to one side, and looked down at Fu Ling on the ground.
Pressed against the walls, Fu Ling felt as though those eyes had been born with contempt in them.
“Palace maiden of the Imperial Food Service,” Xiao Chi’ye said.
Fu Ling did not raise her head, and only stared at his boots.
Chen Yang brought a chair over, and Xiao Chi’ye sat. He looked down at the parting in Fu Ling’s hair, one hand propped on a knee, and said, “Yuan Liu has several wives, but still risked getting fired to sort out a house for you. What kind of a beauty are you, that you could talk him into throwing his life away? C’mon, lift your face up and give us a look.”
Fu Ling huddled into herself and ignored him.
Xiao Chi’ye leaned back. “He’s old enough to be your dad, and you’re still game? A palace maiden isn’t like a serving girl. When you’re released from your bond, you’d still make a good match for some proper lad. Yuan Liu’s only a minor sixth grade officer, and a roughneck soldier to boot, with no money or status. Are you blind or besotted, that you’d throw your lot in with him?”
There was silence in the jail cell.
“Even putting Yuan Liu aside for now, how could you possibly have talked Gui Sheng into the assassination? You’ve got no money either. Someone else must have put him up to it. You’re mute now, so they must have decided you’d be the scapegoat from the start. Your master’s good at this, bumping your sort off as soon as he’s done with you. Well, whether you live or die has nothing to do with me. But you want an easy death now, after screwing with me and mine?” Xiao Chi’ye smiled. “That’s a little unrealistic, isn’t it, miss?”
Chen Yang turned around and nodded at the turnkey behind them. There was a harsh ratting of chains, and a filthy Yuan Liu was dragged from the darkness.
Yuan Liu scrabbled on his hands and knees towards Fu Ling and screeched, “You little bitch! How dare you do this to me!”
Fu Ling quivered, and began to sidle along the wall towards the other end. Yuan Liu grabbed her ankle and cried, “Who am I to you? I was so good to you, and you repay me like this!?”
Tears juddered free from Fu Ling’s eyes, and she kicked at Yuan Liu, making hoarse sounds in her throat.
Hanging off her, Yuan Liu continued, “When your old ma was in a bad way, I was the one who carried her to the physician! I gave you whatever you wanted, but you lied to me, and now you’re dragging my whole family to the gallows with you! You venomous little bitch!”
There was a clank of chains, and Chen Yang snagged the hysterical Yuan Liu. But his arms stretched futilely forward, and his face twisted as he snarled, “You’ll never get away with this! I’ll come after you when I’m dead!”
From his chair, looking out of the small window again, Xiao Chi’ye found that he could see a small square of blue after all. There was no snow today, and pale cumulus clouds formed mounds in the sky. He seemed to neither see nor hear the human theatrics before him.
Yuan Liu slumped on the ground, and broke down in wretched tears. He crawled towards Xiao Chi’ye and, striking his forehead on the ground, begged of him, “Governor, Governor! Have mercy on me, just this once! Please, I was out of my mind, I’ll work like a dog for you to make up for this!”
Xiao Chi’ye looked over at him. “I’m not the one who has your fate in their hands. Go make your case with her, maybe thump out a few loud kowtows for the sake of all those people depending on you at home. Consider it restitution for all the fun you’d been having on the sly.”
So Yuan Liu shuffled towards Fu Ling again, and as he kowtowed, pleaded, “Let me go! Will you please let me go? This has nothing to do with me! I’m begging you! I’m begging you! There’re eight people in my family, and I don’t want them all to die here!”
Fu Ling wept, but did not look at him.
Tears poured down Yuan Liu’s face. He was genuinely terrified, and his forehead streamed blood from striking the ground repeatedly. He said, “Fu Ling… One night as husband and wife grants a hundred days of blessings… We never got to be husband and wife, but all those years we had were real! I’m begging you, don’t put this on me! I’ll worship you in our next lives as your son, no, as your grandson! Spare me! I wanted to provide for your elderly mother with that house, how can you…” He could barely speak past his choked sobs, but forced his broken words out, “How could you use it to… to send my whole family to the grave! Don’t you have a heart?!”
Fu Ling was trying to say something with her broken, agonised voice. She was returning Yuan Liu’s kowtows, and her lips opened and closed, repeating a word that was clearly, “sorry”.
Yuan Liu shuffled up to her on his knees, and put his arms around Fu Ling’s body. As blood trickled from his brow, he moaned, “I don’t want you to kowtow at me! I need you to explain what happened! I don’t want to die… Fu Ling! Don’t do this to me…”
Xiao Chi’ye promptly added, “Those who plot regicide will never be given a quick beheading. It’s all very well if you want to die, but spare a thought for you poor old mother, having to go through torture at her age. Don’t you know what kind of a place the Imperial Prison is? If she winds up in the hands of the Brocade Guard, anything might happen to her, from flaying to dismemberment.”
Fu Ling threw her head back and wept helplessly.
Xiao Chi’ye said, “Didn’t your master tell you about that? I’m going to see to it that this trial doesn’t get wrapped up quickly. For every day it drags on, you’ll endure a day of torture. You, him, and your mother, all three of you, until such time as I’m satisfied. Then we’ll see about dying.”
Fu Ling choked at him hatefully.
Xiao Chi’ye only looked at her, motionless. He said, “Don’t they say you’ve got to watch out for the master before you hit a dog? If you’re going to put your teeth on me, then everyone can suffer together. I’ll whip you so your flesh splits like a flower coming into bloom, till you’re begging for death, and we’ll see who gives in first. Chen Yang, bring her mother up.”
Chen Yang agreed, and went away to the cell door.
Fu Ling began suddenly to shout, her tormented throat making sounds like the baying of a desperate beast. She rushed towards Xiao Chi’ye and fell upon the ground at his feet, then began to write rapidly with her finger.
Xiao Chi’ye bent down and watched her for a while, then said, “Give her a brush and some paper, I want this in black and white.”
Fu Ling was taken away by Chen Yang to sign off on her confession, leaving only Xiao Chi’ye and Yuan Liu alone in the cell. As Xiao Chi’ye was leaving, Yuan Liu grabbed his sleeve.
“G-Governor!” Yuan Liu stuttered, “It’s all done now… so will I…?”
Xiao Chi’ye shrugged on his greatcloak and looked back at him. “When did you begin serving as judge?”
Yuan Liu hastily counted on his fingers, and answered, “Three years after you took office, Governor!”
Xiao Chi’ye said, “So you joined in my time, then.”
Yuan Liu nodded frantically. “I’m your man, Governor!”
Xiao Chi’ye had been up the whole night, and was a little irritable at the moment. With the hand resting on his sword, he nudged Yuan Liu’s grasping fingers aside, and said, “My men haven’t got such clout that they can get a broker-house on Donglong Avenue to give them credit. Imperial Guards must disclose any property they acquire after enlistment. You did not do so. Along with that house, you also own land outside the city. You’ve done well for yourself as a sixth-grade judge. Don’t tell me you don’t know who’s really been lining your pockets.”
Both snot and tears gushed from Yuan Liu’s face as he began to bawl. He wailed, “I was led astray, I shouldn’t have coveted those things, Governor, Governor! But I never betrayed the Guard…”
Xiao Chi’ye tilted his head upwards, stretching his aching neck out a little, and did not look at him again as he said, “How old’s your son?”
“I’ll raise him for you,” Xiao Chi’ye said expressionlessly. “After the trial, you’ll put an end to yourself.”
The cell door closed, and Yuan Liu collapsed in a heap.
Xiao Chi’ye walked through the damp, dark corridors of the prison, listening to the wailing of the man behind him, and received the signed confessions from Chen Yang. He had barely left the prison when Gu Jin came hurrying up towards him.
“Gongzi,” Gu Jin said, “Fu Ling’s mother has died.”
Chen Yang frowned. “Thank heavens you didn’t go into the Palace with the rest of them, Master, or Fu Ling would have nothing left to lose, and we would never have got our hands on this set of confessions.”
“This stack of paper,” Xiao Chi’ye flipped through the confessions briefly in the sunlight. “Fu Ling didn’t even get a glimpse of the other party’s face. We’d never implicate anyone on this stuff alone.”
Chen Yang said, “At least we can prove the Imperial Guard innocent of this business now. Master, will we head to the Palace and present this to His Majesty?”
Xiao Chi’ye shot him a look and asked instead, “Why should we prove the Imperial Guard innocent?”
Both Chen Yang and Gu Jin stared.
Xiao Chi’ye sneered, “As their cornered beast, I’ve got to play the part and look trapped. They’re anxious to sling mud on me, but it’s not enough— not only am I going to allow myself to get muddy, but I’m also going to go have a roll in the ditch, and make myself as filthy as I can. I’ll be the only one tainted, and they can have their monopoly, they can make themselves the omnipotent top dog, they can even take down the Governor-General of the Imperial Guard without breaking a sweat. And when His Majesty wakes up to that, he’ll start getting suspicious, and he’ll start getting scared. The Hua Faction has only just kicked the bucket. Whoever’s lining up to be the next faction is queueing for the gallows.”
One thought on “Book One, Chapter 48: Springing the Trap”
Thanks for the translation ❤