Hai Liangyi did not want to be supported by anyone after the court session was dismissed. Kong Qiu and the rest knew that the Secretariat Elder was a strong-minded one who did not like to look weak, and so they only dared to follow behind him and watch as he hobbled along alone and made his way slowly down.
That official robe of his soaked in the last of the evening rays like a scar blending into its brilliance. At this time last year, he had led hundreds of officials in attending court. What an imposing, spirited sight he had cut back then. But now, there was no trace of this will and spirit to be found on him.
Hai Liangyi reached the end and stopped. He slowly turned back to look at the officials on the stairs, then at the last remaining sunset glow above the upturned eaves of Mingli Hall.
“It’s getting dark.” Hai Liangyi said gently. “Be careful on your way back.”
For some reason, Kong Qiu felt a tinge of fear at this moment. He strode a step out with the intent to support Hai Liangyi by the arms. Choking a little with emotion, he called out, “Teacher!”
Hai Liangyi waved a hand at him and turned around to walk towards the palace gates.
The descendant of Prince Yan’s grandson born to a concubine was Hai Liangyi’s last line of battle. He watched as that setting sun was covered up by the buildings. A sense of powerlessness washed over him. He knew what it signified for a child of the Han clan to ascend to the throne. He had fought this battle for thirty years, and his steady pursuit to sue for peace had never once scored a victory.
He could only try his best to set himself aflame and throw these old bones of his into the intense fire, hoping that the spatter of sparks would be able to light up the night sky that had been deadly still for so long. An endless night had descended upon Dazhou, and he seemed to be the only remaining torch left. But to date, he still could not bring himself to admit that Qi Huilian and the rest who had once shared the same goal in spite of their differing paths had all failed.
He watched as those geniuses fall like shooting stars, one after another, leaving himself as insignificant as ever.
Thirty years ago, Hai Liangyi was not concerned with success or failure. Thirty years later, Hai Liangyi was all burned out and spent. Steadily but surely, he walked on his own path and attempted to hold back Qi Huilian, who was taking extreme, radical measures as he charged ahead. But he failed to do so. No one knew that the night when the entire Eastern Palace was wiped out was the most pained moment in Hai Liangyi’s life.
It was already dark. By the time Hai Liangyi made his way to the palace gates, he was already panting. He lifted his sleeves to wipe his sweat and saw Yao Wenyu standing beside the sedan waiting for him. Yao Wenyu came over to help him up. Hai Liangyi took his seat, and just as Yao Wenyu was about to lower the curtain, Hai Liangyi said to him, “Yuanzhuo, there is a load on my mind that has yet to be resolved. Make a trip to Wucheng tomorrow on my behalf. Pack your bags tonight.”
◈ ◈ ◈
During the court session a few days later, the empress dowager exempted Hai Liangyi from standing. But the more she treated him with such courtesy and respect, the more it meant that her dissatisfaction with Hai Liangyi was intensifying. This was because the imperial censors from the Chief Surveillance Bureau had been working as one these few days to launch a series of scathing rebukes at Han Cheng. Cries of demand for an official verification of the child from the Han clan rose to an all-time high, and this tidal wave surging around Hai Liangyi was forcing the empress dowager to make a concession.
The empress dowager had a hard time sleeping in the day and at night, and her hesitation put Han Cheng in a desperate situation. Gradually, it dawned on Han Cheng that the empress dowager was trying to take advantage of the conflict to destroy him. As long as he could not bear the weight of the burden and perish under the voices of castigation, the empress dowager would be able to support the Han clan’s child into ascending to the throne immediately and eliminate the possibility of Han Cheng making a power grab. When that time comes, she would be able to focus on confronting those of humble backgrounds. Whether she would be giving Hai Liangyi the cold shoulder or have the Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat replaced, she would be able to do it with more ease than she could at present.
Han Cheng was unwilling to let the matter drop and surrender the power in his hands on a silver platter to others. Even if he had to put up with it, he had to make Hai Liangyi suffer!
“The situation is unstable at present. Libei in the northeast is eyeing us like a tiger watching its prey, while Zhongbo to the east is beginning to show signs of stirring. Is the world going to take the lead of the Grand Secretary if we don’t have a new emperor because the Grand Secretariat keeps delaying the matter of the crown prince?” Han Cheng’s mouth was already blistered from the verbal battle that had gone on for several days running. He suddenly flung his sleeves and said, “If you ask me, the Grand Secretary is rallying his own clique to obstruct the imperial court from designating a crown prince. His intention is condemnable!”
“That’s a slanderous accusation!” Cen Yu rebuked sternly in his capacity as the head of the imperial censors. “We have been discussing the matter of the crown prince appointment for several days in a row, and yet the commander has been unwilling to verify the real identity of the imperial heir officially. So who is the one here trying to hamstring efforts to designate a crown prince? The imperial court had the support of the public previously. If it weren’t for the commander’s insistence on surrounding the Marquis of Dingdu, Xiao Chiye, to capture him, how would Qudu find itself caught in such a predicament?! If we were to hold someone accountable for this, you’d be the one to bear the bulk of the responsibility!”
“Well, then!” Han Cheng sneered and pointed at Cen Yu. “Xiao Chiye assassinated the late emperor. As the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Bodyguard and Viceroy of the Eight Great Training Divisions, I’m perfectly justified in taking this person down! You said I did wrong, and that means you’re saying that he did right in assassinating the last emperor! You are on good terms with Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan. Cen Xunyi, the Ministry of Justice didn’t trace their investigation to you, did they? Kong Boran, both of you are truly close friends from the same school. I, Han Cheng, am truly envious!”
Fury washed over Kong Qiu’s face. He said, “What nonsense are you spouting? We are still investigating whether Xiao Chiye really did assassinate the late emperor. If we just take your words as it is without evidence, then we might just as well do away with the Ministry of Justice. Besides, you were also present during our private gathering, were you not? You drank quite the amount of wine too!”
Han Cheng said, “I’m an Imperial Bodyguard. Keeping my ears to the ground at all times and taking records is my duty. If I don’t show up when you senior officials have a private gathering, then how can I know precisely what has been said? I have already told someone to transcribe everything that has been discussed in detail that night for Her Majesty. I’m in the clear! Do you people dare to though?”
Pan Xiangjie, having received help from Xiao Chiye before, was fearful of being implicated, and so he had been keeping a low profile on the imperial court lately. Han Cheng was presently in power, and Pan Xiangjie went along with whatever he said. Seeing them argue again, his lips opened and closed, and he took several small steps back, not daring to cut into the conversation. He made up his mind to be a coward like a turtle hiding in its shell.
Gradually, several parties got carried away with their verbal assaults on each other. Cen Yu was the most eloquent of all. He cursed Han Cheng so savagely that even if Han Cheng wanted to put up with his words, he was boiling with so much rage that the hand he was pointing at Cen Yu with was trembling hard. But still, he kept a clear head as he slid down to his knees on the ground and burst out wailing as though he was going to go for broke.
“Your Majesty!” Han Cheng lay prostrate on the ground and wept bitterly. “Your Majesty! This subject’s heart is as pure and bright as the moon! It’s my fault for surrounding Xiao Chiye to capture him. It’s also my fault that the late emperor was assassinated. And now it’s even my fault that we have no one to be the crown prince! As an official, I’m willing to die for my sovereign and be punished by my sovereign! If there is a crime, then it’s all on me! Whether I’m to be killed alone or along with my family, I will accept whatever sentence my master dishes out!”
Kong Qiu found this man truly shameless. He promptly raised his hands to remove his wusha hat1 and said, “I am ashamed to be of the same rank as a vile person of this kind! If the real identity of the imperial heir cannot be officially verified, then I, Kong Boran, might as well forfeit this official post!”
The empress dowager abruptly rose to her feet and lifted the beaded curtain to sweep a cold glance over them one at a time before her eyes came to a stop on Han Cheng. She said, “We are discussing official matters on the imperial court, so what are you crying for? Get up!” Then she looked at Kong Qiu. “You are a member of the Grand Secretariat and could be said to be the Deputy Grand Secretary. You are someone who presides over the affairs of the state. You keep using your resignation at every turn as a pressure tactic. Are you trying to threaten me into giving in, or are you thinking of fishing for praises—You know it best yourself! Ever since I stood in to act on behalf of the Son of Heaven, I have to ask the Grand Secretariat about all the matters in detail, regardless of its significance, so what is there that can’t be explained clearly that you have to keep pushing every step of the way?!”
All the ministers kneeled.
“Our forefathers laid down the rule that the harem cannot interfere in politics. I’ve been overstepping my boundary time and again that I’m already too ashamed to face my ancestors. Jianheng passed away so suddenly this time. If not for your repeated pleas, how would I have been willing to step out into this court once again to take charge of governmental affairs? We lack an emperor now, and I’m merely a widow who is without a child…” Hot tears brimmed in her eyes when she spoke to this point. “When has Emperor Guangcheng ever let me suffer such grievance when he was still around?!”
Han Cheng seemed to be so moved by the emperor and empress’s deep love that he covered his face as he lay prostrate on the ground and wailed, “This subject never had to put up with such a treatment either when Emperor Guangcheng was around. I’m deeply aware that I’m an ignorant and shallow person. I’m merely a soldier. I dare not compare myself with the various major officials from the Grand Secretariat, what’s more vie with the Grand Secretary? It’s all because of my staunch loyalty and deep love for the Li clan that I dared to return the imperial heir to the imperial court. Grand Secretary, why go to such an extent?!”
Han Cheng has repeatedly been fanning the flames towards Hai Liangyi. Kong Qiu was burning with pent-up anger deep down. It was with difficulty that he said, “Your Majesty… Heaven can attest to the Grand Secretary’s heart and intentions. Designating a crown prince is by no means a small issue. We are beset with difficulties all around at present. Dazhou is already at the most critical moment of survival. If we cannot proceed with prudence and caution, then I fear there will be no end of trouble for the future…”
“I understand this as well. That’s why I have called the various excellencies here for days on end to discuss it in detail.” The empress dowager regained her composure and said, “The imperial heirs after Emperor Guangcheng have all passed away, and now, we can’t even find ourselves a crown prince. The harder the crisis is, the more we should work together as one. Han Cheng, hand over Emperor Guangcheng’s private letter for the various excellencies present to verify it officially!”
Where on earth would Han Cheng have a private letter entrusting the child to him? The reason he had been holding out and refusing to hand it over was that he was competing with Hai Liangyi and the empress dowager to see who was more capable of stalling. The moment Hai Liangyi relented and the wave of officials from humble backgrounds dispersed, the empress dowager’s desire to head the country would be unstoppable. When the time came, she would have no choice but to let the child from the Han clan ascend to the throne. By then, he would truly become the minister the child had been entrusted to. The golden age of the Han clan was just right before his eyes. He understood that the empress dowager currently wanted to push him into the corner to his death, so he cried even louder.
Han Cheng beat his chest and said, “The various excellencies doubt my loyalty, so you may as well let me die! My dear younger brother, my dear younger brother of direct descent! He ended up being held hostage in Cizhou to this date, all just to hunt down that Xiao Chiye. I had an eye injured for the late emperor, and I took three slashes of the blade for Emperor Guangcheng. So how can I be a shallow, narrow-minded person who deceives the entire world for my own selfish desire?!”
All they had been going back and forth about was “selfish desire”. Cries and curses flooded the imperial court. No one else mentioned Prince Yan’s descendant again. Kong Qiu remained kneeling, but his heart had already gone cold.
Hai Liangyi had not spoken a word today. Supporting himself on the handles of the chair, he suddenly stood up. Countless gazes converged together on him. Officials from humble backgrounds looked on expectantly for the Grand Secretary to turn the table and regain control of the situation again, while officials from the noble clans remained silent and waited for a good opportunity. They all focused their attention on Hai Liangyi, just like they did in the past.
Hai Liangyi started coughing. His emaciated, wizened hand trembled as he covered the blood with a handkerchief. He swallowed some saliva and slowly looked around the great hall, then at all these faces. Finally, he looked at the empress dowager.
“Back then, the Li clan reigned supreme, and it took several years of conquest before the empire was finally united as one. Over the past hundred years, generations after generations of Dazhou’s officials have, without exception, devoted all their themselves to the court and spared no effort in their duties. Although the city walls of Qudu during the reign of Yongyi are old, its integrity still remains, and its spirit still exists. At the start of the reign of Yongyi, Qi Huilian of Yuzhou successively came in first in all three imperial examinations,2 and from then, the imperial college flourished. Although the three preceptors of the Yao clan were born of a noble clan, they advocated freedom of speech and recruited all kinds of outstanding talents. Most of the scholars of humble origins still serving in this imperial court today joined the imperial court during that period of time.”
Kong Qiu lowered his head. As he recalled the past, he could not help but choke with sobs softly.
“But then, the period of resurgence during the reign of Yongyi was merely a flash in the pan. It had only been ten years, and Emperor Guangcheng fell ill. Then the noble clans thrived once again, and prejudices over family status divided the imperial college. From the reign of Yongyi to Xiande, no other scholars of humble origins entered the imperial court; this is the imperial court of the noble clans.”
Pan Xiangjie looked embarrassed and kept his head bowed in a kowtow without saying a word.
Han Cheng wanted to say something, but Hai Liangyi suddenly raised his voice. “During the reign of Xiande, the state treasury was empty. This subject made a request to Hua Siqian to hand over the accounts. He worked in hand with the various noble clan officials who were then serving as the ministers of the various ministries to avoid the issue and dismissed me in a perfunctory manner time and again! In that same year, Juexi was hit by a disaster, and it was a scene of desolation and despair everywhere. Once again, this subject forced Hua Siqian to hand over the accounts, only to have him skirted around the issue. Not long later, the troops of Zhongbo suffered a defeat, and the granaries of the six prefectures turned up emptied overnight after the battle! To this date, Hua Siqian had never given a clear explanation of this account! Is this his fault, or is it the fault of everyone here for exacerbating the issue?!”
Alarmed, Pan Xiangjie hurriedly said, “About this matter, the Court of Judicial Review has already—”
“Ever since this subject, Hai Renshi, has returned to the imperial court, I have been repeatedly remonstrating and requesting to officially verify the real identity of the imperial heir from the Han clan. Han Cheng keeps hesitating, and to date, he is still unwilling to hand over the private letter entrusting the child to him. Left without a choice, I took charge and directed the Grand Secretariat to search through the imperial registry before I eventually presented a memorial to ask Her Majesty to choose and designate the descendant of Prince Yan of Huaizhou as the crown prince. It was a futile attempt.”
The empress dowager was stunned into taking half a step back by this impassioned tone. The beaded curtain fell noisily over her body as she looked at Hai Liangyi in shock and uncertainty.
Hai Liangyi was on fire. The fury in his heart had been suppressed for a full thirty years, and it was now burning so intensely that his spirit blazed once more into existence and left the entire hall shocked. He said, “The decline of the state is all my fault as the Grand Secretary! I have been remonstrating with the ruler all my life; I already have no more to fear! Since my remonstration is futile while I’m alive, then I shall remonstrate with Dazhou today with my death! A crown prince can be appointed, but the child from the Han clan must never be appointed as the crown prince! A crown prince can be appointed—”
Before anyone could bat an eyelash, Hai Liangyi’s sleeves rose with the wind, like falling leaves set on fire right before everyone’s eyes. An earthshaking thud followed. Blood splattered.
Dead silence descended upon the entire hall. The empress dowager’s limbs went icy cold, and she almost slid to the ground. Her eyes traced along that splattered blood with difficulty and landed upon Hai Liangyi. A moment later, the entire court of officials rose to their feet with exclamations of shock. Kong Qiu practically crawled over on his knees and propped Hai Liangyi up.
“Renshi…” The empress dowager’s voice trembled, “Why… why go to such an extent…”
This one head smash completely severed Han Cheng’s retreat route. Hai Liangyi used death to attain the wrath of all the scholars in the world. The lad of the Han clan would never be able to become emperor. Whoever dared to risk universal condemnation to seek infamy would be the thorn in the flesh of the world’s literati in the future. But even Han Cheng himself was stunned on the ground. Never in his wildest dream could he have imagined that Hai Liangyi would go to such extremes.
With his face drenched in blood, Hai Liangyi looked up at the high, unreachable roof.
He had been seeking stability his entire life. Yet, at this last moment, he took such drastic measures for once. He became the blazing sun that had burst out of Dazhou, flaming with countless rays of light in that pitch-black night. The crane on his chest,3 which had already been stained red, rose and fell with the last remaining heaves of his chest. He gripped Kong Qiu’s hand tightly.
“Boran…” Hai Liangyi said softly. “… I… have done all I can.”
SPECIAL THANKS TO : Eggy<3
- 乌纱帽 wusha hat, or black gauze hat, is the headwear of Ming dynasty officials, comprising a black hat with two wing-like flaps of thin, oval-shaped boards on each side.
- 三元 “Triple Yuan”. In the Ming Dynasty, the imperial examination system was split into three phases: the provincial exam (乡试); metropolitan exam (会试); and the palace exam (殿试). The titles for the top scholars in each exam were known as the Jieyuan (解元), Huiyuan (会元) and Zhuangyuan (状元). These three are known as the “Triple Yuan”. i.e., a Triple Yuan Top Scholar is one who came first in all these examinations.
Refers to his rank badge, or mandarin square, a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official to indicate the rank of the official wearing it. Squares depicting birds were used for civil officials, while animals were used for military officials. So for a first-grade civil official like Hai Liangyi, this bird would be a crane.