Translated with: Jia<3
At the third quarter of the hour of yin, Qiao Tianya lifted the curtain open.
Yao Wenyu was talking in his sleep. The pain in his legs had made him sweat even in his sleep. The bedding was not that thickly padded, and as it was not yet the rainy season in Cizhou, the windows were open, with the bamboo blinds swaying in the wind. Yao Wenyu lay in the embrace of the wind, as if pillowing upon the rain of spring.
Several months ago, the storm of the Imperial College struck the imperial court officials of humble origins right in the face. Kong Qiu and Cen Yu were the first to bear the brunt of it. Even Yao Wenyu was not spared either. After the storm blew over, Yao Wenyu received shelter and protection from Kong Qiu and hardly appeared publicly in Qudu; instead, he accompanied Hai Liangyi on Mount Bodhi every day, until the day his horse carriage was ambushed.
That day, Yao Wenyu met Xue Xiuzhuo.
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Xue Xiuzhuo and Yao Wenyu were fellow students. Long before Hai Liangyi, they had both studied alongside one another in Mister Changzong’s school. Hai Liangyi had been partial to Yao Wenyu initially because of Old Master Yao. At that time, Xue Xiuzhuo had already sent three visiting cards to Hai Liangyi in the hope of being accepted as the latter’s student, but all his attempts were rebuffed by Hai Liangyi.
Yao Wenyu often heard Xi Hongxuan talk about Xue Xiuzhuo, because Xue Xiuzhuo lived in straitened circumstances during his early years in the Xue’s Residence. After the death of his father, the respective cliques within the Xue clan fought tooth and nail with one another over their inheritance of fields and mansions, stirring up such a ruckus that everyone in Qudu came to know about it, and it was for this that the noble clans held them in contempt. The lawful son, Xue Xiuyi, was a pretentious man feigning to be a man of letters; he knew nothing about antiques, yet he was constantly hoodwinked into spending tremendous amounts of silver for them all day long. In just a few years, the Xue clan’s wealth had been squandered away clean. The collateral branches of the Xue clan gradually drifted away from the main branch, hardly bothering to continue sponging off them. Xue Xiuyi spent all day fooling around. He wanted to join the Hanlin Academy, so he had a great number of gifts sent to Hua Siqian, who was then concurrently holding the posts of Hanlin Chancellor and Grand Secretariat’s Grand Secretary; it was all a desperate attempt at sucking up that only resulted in him getting snubbed. Even Marquis Helian and the Fei clan viewed him with disdain.
Everyone had thought that it was the end of the Xue clan, yet it was at this moment that Xue Xiuzhuo made his breakthrough. His initiation into the Hanlin Academy was legitimate, done through proper channels by passing the examinations. Hai Liangyi was the one who critically reviewed the works back then, and Xue Xiuzhuo’s essays on contemporary politics were outstanding. It was not by chance that his name appeared on the list of those who passed. Yao Wenyu had read all of Xue Xiuzhuo’s essays on contemporary politics. The Xue Xiuzhuo who had been freshly minted into the Hanlin Academy was brimming with drive and energy. One could even see Qi Huilian’s shadow in him. He repeatedly submitted memorials to the emperor to speak on the re-surveyance of fields in the local areas, which was what Qi Huilian had left unfinished back then. Take the eight cities of Qudu as an example: the noble clans gobbled up the commoners’ farms and fields without reporting it to the authorities, thereby canceling out the land tax of ten thousand hectares of fields. This was something that could not be discerned from audits when the Ministry of Revenue was under the control of Wei Huaigu and the rest.
However, Xue Xiuzhuo did not meet someone like the crown prince of the eastern palace who could protect him. His memorials offended not only Hua Siqian, but also the various imperial court officials from the noble clans of that time. He even offended Pan Rugui. All these people were later inextricably tied to the case of the Zhongbo troops’ defeat. They had long formed an alliance between themselves during the end of the reign of Yongyi. Even the seemingly marginalized Maquis Helian and the Fei clan had made moves to encroach on the commoners’ fields in Dancheng. Xue Xiuzhuo was like a baby rabbit caught in a siege, stirring up a storm on the imperial court. The denunciation came hard and fast. Hua Siqian used Xue Xiuzhuo as an excuse to strike against Hai Liangyi – who had promoted Xue Xiuzhuo – as well as the officials from humble backgrounds that Hai Liangyi represented.
Those days were difficult. Even Yao Wenyu, who was out there roaming the country, could hear snippets of rumors. Officials who were demoted back then included Kong Qiu, and minor, low-grade officials like Liang Cuishan also inadvertently got caught up in the crossfire. Hai Liangyi managed to dodge Hua Siqian’s blows and withdrew from his position as the last of the Deputy Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat, thereafter minimizing his participation in the imperial court discussions. Those from humble origins once again entered a stage of hibernation. Xue Xiuzhuo’s future was limited, and he was publicly censured by Hua Siqian. He had only just joined the imperial court, and his seat in the Hanlin Academy had not even been fully secured before he was demoted to the position of a mere writer for the revision of state history.
However, it was not fear behind Hai Liangyi’s retreat and concession back then. Rather, it was the beginning of the humble officials’ preparations to fight back. Hai Liangyi had long been concerned about the predicament of the state treasury. Instead of raising difficult questions from within Qudu, they began to investigate from the local areas’ account books. The person Hai Liangyi chose at that time was Xue Xiuzhuo, and it was all at the behest of Hai Liangyi that Xue Xiuzhuo would go on to be the Chief Supervising Secretary at the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue. Xue Xiuzhuo did not let Hai Liangyi down either. After going through that round of denouncements, he had become a lot more prudent and seasoned.
Xue Xiuzhuo remained as the Chief Supervising Secretary at the Office of Scrutiny for Revenue for an entire eight years. He ought to have been promoted a long time ago, according to his appraisals during this period. However, Hai Liangyi held him back and had him placed at the bottom to temper and hone himself. Yao Wenyu felt that this man was truly born to be an official, because he understood Hai Liangyi’s intent all too well. Not only was there not a word of complaint from him, he even did a pretty good job. He knew the local political situation in Juexi and the Eight Great Cities of Qudu by heart. The fact that Juexi was able to restore its granaries to abundance had the most to do with Jiang Qingshan, but similarly, Xue Xiuzhuo’s contribution could not be dismissed either.
Jiang Qingshan did not hold Yao Wenyu in high esteem, or even read Yao Wenyu’s essays, because they were the practical doers rather than the idealistic talkers. To officials like them, Yao Wenyu was not as important as Xue Xiuzhuo was, even if Yao Wenyu was truly a genius.
Xiao Chiye once said that Xue Xiuzhuo was more like Hai Liangyi’s student than Yao Wenyu. This was because Xue Xiuzhuo fulfilled the wishes of Hai Liangyi and the officials of humble backgrounds. His shocking memorial at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds forced Hua Siqian into rebelling, saving years of painstaking work and effort by the officials of humble origins from going to waste. Emperor Xiande passed away from illness, the Empress Dowager was forced into a retreat, and the Hua and Pan factions subsequently fell apart. They welcomed a new, young and healthy emperor.
But alas, it was not meant to be. Li Jianheng was not cut out to be an emperor.
Yao Wenyu bore no ill feelings towards Xue Xiuzhuo before Hai Liangyi’s death. In Yao Wenyu’s eyes, he was a person in a delicate position. He seemed to have abandoned the noble clans, and yet he could still garner the full support of Xi Hongxuan and the others. It was like he was standing on a certain line, where the forces on both sides were all pawns, including himself.
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It was raining when Yao Wenyu met Xue Xiuzhuo on Mount Bodhi. They went to a thatched pavilion and settled down to play a game of chess. There was not a single conversation between them during the game, not even an exchange of glances. The game lasted for several hours, eventually ending in a draw.
Xue Xiuzhuo opened up his umbrella before departure. He looked back and asked Yao Wenyu, “Are you going for the imperial examinations in spring next year?”
Yao Wenyu kept away the chess pieces one at a time and said, “Since there’s you, Xue Yanqing, on the imperial court, what need is there for me, Yao Yuanzhuo?”
Both of them – one standing and one sitting – listened as the rain and wind outside the pavilion intensified. The wind sent Yao Wenyu’s sleeved robe fluttering. He held the chess box with one hand, looking like an immortal sitting at leisure as he dropped the jade pieces into their box; it was as if he would ride the wind and depart the very next instant. As Yao Wenyu spoke, a speck of mud splattered onto his green clothes along with the wind and rain, wetting that fluttering sleeved robe, consequently reducing him to a mere mortal.
Xue Xiuzhuo looked at that speck of mud and said, “When Teacher was seriously ill, Kong Qiu once paid him a visit. You gave him counsel in the main hall, but the one being plotted against was Han Cheng.” He shifted his gaze away from the mud to Yao Wenyu’s face, as if looking at him in the eyes anew. “It was at that moment I realized: that’s all there is to Yao Wenyu.”
The chess piece between Yao Wenyu’s fingers slid into the chess box. He said, “You’re right. That’s all there is to Yao Wenyu.”
“A year ago, Teacher thought that opportunity had come knocking. With Emperor Tianchen’s trust, those from humble origins could show what they were made of, but that was all wishful thinking on his part in the end.” Xue Xiuzhuo said calmly. “The fight between both factions has been going on for several years, yet the issues that have been resolved are few and far between. Twenty years ago, Qi Huilian proposed surveying the local farm fields to inhibit the noble clans from seizing it for themselves, as well as to restore the regular intake of the local taxes. To date, this has still yet to be implemented. What has Teacher’s Dazhou held up by the moderates even amounted to?”
Yao Wenyu said, “In the third year of Xiande, Juexi was hit with a natural disaster. The state treasury was severely lacking in money, and Hua Siqian was unwilling to provide aid relief to the thirteen cities of Juexi, which left tens of thousands of commoners destitute and homeless. Jiang Qingshan alone opened up the granaries and risked his head to take on a huge debt. If not for the full assistance of the moderates led by Teacher in Qudu to audit the accounts to coerce Hua Siqian, the grains in Zhongbo would have all fallen into the pockets of the noble clans. Saving one person is not considered an achievement, and neither is saving ten of thousands of people. In your opinion then, what has to be saved for it to be considered an accomplishment?”
“If it was the moderates who saved tens of thousands of people in Juexi, then similarly, it’s those same moderates who created the tragedy of Zhongbo. In this world, a physician saves one man, but it’s the imperial court official who saves the masses.” Xue Xiuzhuo clenched his fists and turned around. “How many years has it been? Yet Teacher still treated the conflict between the two factions as if it was his own duty. Look at Kong Qiu, and look at the current students of the Imperial College. Are the noble clans the only ones who are drawing a line between those of different family statuses? It had been so easy to incite and stir up the storm in the imperial college, and yet Kong Qiu still has not realized that those of humble origins under his leadership hold the same prejudices against the officials from the noble clans. The moderates’ gradual monopoly of the imperial college has long run counter to your grandfather’s original intention to revive the Imperial College.”
“You devised a plan to murder Emperor Tianchen and intensified the conflict between factions to put the Grand Secretariat in a perilous situation. You instigated Han Cheng to encircle Xiao Chiye to kill him and forced Libei into rebelling, allowing the Empress Dowager to consolidate Qidong’s military power. You urged the Empress Dowager to exercise the power of the Son of Heaven, then aided the emperor’s daughter up the throne. You plan every single step meticulously, taking everyone into account in your plan.” Yao Wenyu rose to his feet slowly, and the black and white chess pieces tumbled to the ground as he moved. “You forced Teacher to his death.”
The sound of rain intensified, melding together with the shattering sound of the chess pieces, so jarring it could cut one into a bloody pulp of flesh.
The heavy rain pelted against half of Xue Xiuzhuo’s arm, wetting it. He looked face to face with Yao Wenyu without the slightest flicker of wavering in his eyes. They were fellow students from the same school and of the same teacher. They were educated by the same tutor, guided by the same mentor. They addressed the same topics in the imperial examinations. Yet, they had both become polar opposites.
“One day, I will die.” Xue Xiuzhuo said in a raspy voice. “Regardless of whether I will be forsaken and deserted by all, or bring ruin and infamy upon myself, I will walk along this path to the very end.”
“You stop at nothing to kill others and yourself.” Yao Wenyu released his grip on the chess piece. “You won’t be able to save all of the so-called masses in the world.”
“The restoration of Dazhou is nigh, this very moment.” Xue Xiuzhuo pressed in a step closer. “The old-school noble clans have been purged; the leaders of those from humble backgrounds have all suffered a setback; and the calamity that is the eunuch clique no longer exists. With the Grand Secretariat, Empress Dowager, and Heir Apparent to the throne held in check, the rising talents in the imperial court will surge forth in great numbers. Dazhou is about to have fresh blood coursing through its veins. Yao Wenyu, I die without fear, and I will not begrudge it even if I were to go down in history in infamy and end up condemned by posterity. I’ve long merged into one with the fire ignited by Teacher. I do it for myself.”
Having said that, Xue Xiuzhuo opened up his umbrella once again and turned around to step into the rain.
“You win for a time.”
Yao Wenyu remained where he was standing and raised his voice.
“You win one game. But this isn’t a victory at all. Variables are endless with the world in chaos; you can’t take everyone into account. Xue Xiuzhuo—!”
The rain fell in torrents, venting it all in the world. The green bamboo at Hai Liangyi’s burial mound broke off in response, and muddy water flowed down the slope, like a face covering itself as it wailed bitterly.
“It’s a draw today. The victor has yet to be determined.” Xue Xiuzhuo stopped in his tracks. He did not look back. “But since there’s Xue Yanqing in the world, what need is there to keep a Yao Yuanzhuo around? You and I do not share the same path. After tonight, there is no need for us to see each other again.”
“This game isn’t finished yet.” Yao Wenyu said. “There is no such thing as a draw by my hand.”
Xue Xiuzhuo seemed to have smiled. He looked back for the last time and gazed fixedly at Yao Wenyu for a long time. A curtain of rain separated them. They seemed to have been separated by a deep chasm from birth, like the shadows cast of Heaven and Earth—they would never ever become fellow travelers. The words “Xue Yanqing” had always been obscured by Yao Yuanzhuo. From the legitimacy of their lineage to Hai Liangyi’s choice, Xue Xiuzhuo had never once won. Yet, at this very moment, he was the picture of condescending pity.
The horse carriage raced along the mountain road, surrounded by the barking of dogs everywhere. The pursuers spurred their horses on in hot pursuit of the carriage. Yao Wenyu’s coachman was dead. Unable to control the direction of the horse carriage, Yao Wenyu could only let the carriage flee hastily and haphazardly through the mountains. Stray arrows came whizzing from behind and stabbed into the carriage. Several of them nailed to the ground beside the horse. Startled, the horse completely broke free from its reins.
Someone had already leaped onto the back of the carriage. He aggressively pierced through the carriage’s wall with a broadsword and ripped open the curtain to stab inside. There was no one else on Mount Bodhi; Yao Wenyu’s death sentence was already set in stone. Xue Xiuzhuo had never thought of letting him walk out of there alive from the moment he went up the mountain.
The horse carriage overturned and fell into a ditch, damaging its walls in the process, and Yao Wenyu felt like his internal organs had gone tumbling with it. The horse fell so hard it was in pain. Yao Wenyu released the reins, and it got back up with difficulty. The growls of the dogs at the back were too vicious, and the horse continued to flee with one leg limping. Yao Wenyu did not have a saddle, and among the jolts and bumps, he was nearly swiped off the horse by the branches. However, this horse had only galloped for a mere moment where an arrow shot it in another leg.
The pursuit of the killers had already reached the foot of Mount Bodhi. The person taking the lead was worried that they would miss the perfect timing and delay matters should Yao Wenyu’s escape attempt continue. Hence, he used a rope to restrain Yao Wenyu’s ankles and dragged him along the mountain path towards their own horse carriage. The rain had subsided some while this had been happening, and the sky had still yet to darken. They had to do a clean job without leaving any traces, so they first used the scabbards of their blades to break both of Yao Wenyu’s legs, then dragged him over to stuff him into their horse carriage.
It was at this moment that there suddenly came the sound of galloping horses’ hooves from the mountain road. Realizing that this did not bode well, the leader of the pursuing troops yanked the carriage curtains down and shouted with urgency, “Put your blades away!”
The party that had arrived was an ostentatious display of extravagance; the escorts on both sides of the horse carriage were all men from the Eight Great Training Divisions who filled up the already very narrow bridle path. The leader of the pursuing troops signaled for the carriage driver to pull aside the horse carriage, and all of them stood subserviently in a row to make way for the other party.
Yao Wenyu’s mouth was gagged. His entire body spasmed as it throbbed with excruciating pain, but his mind was still clear. As he dripped with sweat, he knocked his forehead against the wooden plank of the carriage.
When the leader of the pursuing troops heard sounds coming from the carriage, he signaled his subordinates with his eyes. One of them promptly whipped the horse several times and bellowed at it to cover up the sounds made by Yao Wenyu.
But the company did not leave. The curtains from the carriage crammed in the middle lifted to reveal the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue dressed in the fashion of a married woman.1 She furrowed her brows slightly and said, “Don’t make a racket; there’s a young child in the carriage.”
Yao Wenyu recognized the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue’s voice. A vague sound escaped from his throat, and he slammed his forehead hard until it was bloody red.
Commandery Princess Zhaoyue suddenly spoke up. “Is there someone in the carriage? Tell your master to see me.”
Having recognized her, the leader paid his obeisance to her and gave an excuse, “It’s my master’s mistress. She’s making a huge racket and threatening suicide, so it isn’t advisable to let her out lest she offend the Commandery Princess. Commandery Princess, please go on ahead.”
Commandery Princess Zhaoyue arched her willow-like brows. “This is where the Secretariat Elder was laid to rest. What nonsense are you spouting?! Men, lift the curtains of the carriage!”
The leader immediately whipped out his authority token, which bore the copper seal of the garrison troops. He said, “We’re on official business with official warrants in hand, acting under the orders of the Ministry of Justice. Commandery Princess, how can you, a person without official authority, meddle in affairs of the court as you please? Even if the Marquis Helian is here in person today, he wouldn’t be allowed to lift the curtain by force!”
Ever since marrying into the Pan clan, the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue had been living in Dancheng. After Hai Liangyi’s death, she followed her husband to the capital. She had originally arranged to visit the Yao clan today, but who knew that the married couple would arrive only to learn that Yao Wenyu had yet to return from his trip into the mountains. She was familiar with Yao Wenyu’s character—he would definitely not miss an appointment without reason, and so she had her carriage driven over to take a look. She was already of the firm belief that this group of people before her was up to no good.
The leader of the group figured that there was nothing the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue could do. No one from the Fei clan of today was an influential minister serving in the imperial court, so the Marquis Helian would not go around offending people rashly. With this thought in mind, he sneered, “If the Commandery Princess isn’t moving, then we’ll be taking our leave first.”
However, before he could move, he saw the guards from the Eight Great Training Divisions hold down the hilts of their blades in unison.
An exquisite, slender finger from within the carriage gently lifted the curtain to partially reveal a temple with a flower on it. The narrow-sleeved palace-wear of a court lady trailed down to the floor of the carriage, exposing the tips of satin shoes of exquisite quality, while eastern pearls2 hung down at the edge of her collar. Her voice was soft and gentle. “If the Commandery Princess doesn’t have the right, how about me?”
The leader of the group was still frozen in place when he heard a guard bellow, “Third Missy Hua is onboard. Get on your knees now!!”
In Qudu, besides the apple of the Empress Dowager’s eye, who else would still dare to take on the address of Third Missy Hua?
Cold sweat dripped profusely from the man as he immediately kneeled and kowtowed. “I deserve a thousand deaths for obstructing the Third Missy!”
This chapter was initially meant to be written from the POV of Qudu. I won’t be looking at the comments for the time being; I decided to just go along with my original rhythm. There’s no need to worry; the plot is all within the scope of my control, all the plot holes that ought to be filled won’t be forgotten, and those characters who have so far appeared as a silhouette will also take the stage in turn. There are some areas where I cannot leap out of the story to provide an explanation; that would be the failure of the narrative and my failure as an author. Whatever should be present in the story will be there. I won’t be repeating it again.
Thank you for reading.
- A married woman was typically dressed differently from a single maiden. For example, married women in ancient China wore their hair in an updo instead of letting it down.
- 东珠 literally eastern pearl; the rulers of the Qing Dynasty regarded the eastern pearls as treasures and used them to inlay their crown and clothing with it to represent authority and honor.