Translated with: Jia<3
It was dark in Qudu. Lanterns had been raised on both sides of the streets. Hua Xiangyi’s horse carriage returned to the city and made a beeline for the Pan’s residence. Giving instructions to those in attendance at the sides, she simply said she wanted to have a girl-to-girl late-night chat with Zhaoyue, and so sent someone to the palace to convey the message that she would be back later.
Commandery Princess Zhaoyue’s path to marriage had been fraught with difficulties. Marquis Helian initially had his heart set on Yao Wenyu, and later Xiao Chiye when the Empress Dowager had taken matters into her own hands. But in the end, neither of them worked out. Marquis Helian found it rather humiliating. He felt that Commandery Princess Zhaoyue was no longer young. What’s more, she was the lawful daughter of the Fei clan born of the principal wife. It was inadvisable to drag the matter any further, and it just so happened that Han Cheng came calling on them at that time, so he had the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue betrothed to a lad from the Han clan. But this marriage did not come to fruition, because the Marquis Junior, Fei Shi, was a loafer, and he was very well aware that the lad from the Han clan was one too; in fact, that lad was even worse than that Han Jin. Fei Shi held him in contempt, finding him unworthy and undeserving of his elder sister, so he brought some men over to create a big ruckus, forcibly ripping this marriage plan to shreds.
Marquis Helian could not control his son. Left without a choice, he pondered over several options, oscillating between them before deciding on Pan Yi, the second son of a concubine from the Pan clan. He was Pan Lin’s younger brother. Both clans knew each other inside out, and they were both similarly part of the Eight Great Clans. Fei Shi carefully observed this potential elder brother-in-law for a period, and only then did Commandery Princess Zhaoyue finally marry.
Pan Yi was a scholarly and refined man who originally held the post of Director of the Bureau of Waterways and Irrigation under the Ministry of Works. Later, Pan Xiangjie safely made it through the public ditches case, and Pan Lin took over Wei Huaigu’s post in the Ministry of Revenue. Subsequently, Pan Yi was promoted too. He was transferred back to the Pan clan’s hometown of Dancheng to serve as the Commandant of Dancheng. This person was fond of reading, and he had a deep respect for Yao Wenyu’s talents and learning. That was why he had accompanied his wife when the latter went to pay Yao Wenyu a visit.
Pan Yi was originally waiting at home when Pan Lin just so happened to get off court session. Both brothers were talking in the front hall when they heard someone come calling from behind.
Pan Lin was now in charge of the Ministry of Revenue. As plenty had happened in Qudu after spring, the appointment document from the imperial court had yet to be issued, so he still carried the title of Vice Minister. He was taken aback after hearing the servant’s report and questioned, “The Third Missy wants to see me?”
Hua Xiangyi had yet to be married, and she was the apple of the Empress Dowager’s eye. The guards accompanying her in and out of the palace could not be underestimated. It was tough for males who were outsiders to get a glimpse of her appearance. Even if Pan Xiangjie wanted to see her, he had to be summoned. Pan Lin did not know what was going on, and he did not dare to dally either, so he hastily got up with Pan Yi and hurried over.
The moment Pan Yi entered the courtyard, he saw his wife standing under the eaves weeping. There was also a physician inside the room. Pan Lin was shocked, thinking that Hua Xiangyi had been injured, so he hurried over to ask, “Younger sister-in-law, what’s happened?”
Commandery Princess Zhaoyue cried so hard both of her eyes were red. She clutched her handkerchief, but before she could say a word, she was racking with sobs once again. She covered her face and turned away, and Pan Yi rushed over to protect her, asking as he pulled her along, “My dear, what’s going on?!”
Hua Xiangyi said from within the room, “The Vice Minister and the Commandant are both elder brothers1 of mine, so there’s no need to observe the formalities so scrupulously. Please come in to talk.”
Pan Lin felt relieved when he heard Hua Xiangyi’s gentle voice, which did not sound like she was injured. He exchanged glances with Pan Yi and hesitated for a moment, then went ahead to lift the curtain and enter. There was a screen set up in the room, and Hua Xiangyi was sitting in the seat of honor. Both men kneeled and greeted in unison, “These humble subjects pay their respects to the Third Missy.”
Hua Xiangyi said, “Brothers, please rise.”
Through the beaded curtain at his side, Pan Lin saw a physician inside, so he asked, “Who is injured?”
After a moment of silence, Hua Xiangyi answered, “Truth be told, the man lying inside is none other than the Grand Secretary’s beloved pupil, Yao Wenyu.”
Pan Yi promptly exclaimed in delight, “It’s Yuanzhuo!” But his expression changed abruptly the moment the words left his mouth. Anxious, he asked, “Oh, no! Did he get hurt on Mount Bodhi? I heard the bridle path on Mouth Bodhi has been in a state of disrepair for many years and is accident-prone on rainy days.”
Commandery Princess stood at the side and wiped her tears. “How is Elder Cousin Brother injured because of the bridle path? He was hijacked and robbed!” Sorrow overwhelmed her at this point. “Those legs… What is he going to do in the future?”
Many thoughts flashed through Pan Lin’s mind in an instant. He was presently at the critical juncture of a promotion. Once the appointment document to promote him to Minister of Revenue had been issued, he would only have to wait a few years for the inspections’ appraisals to catch up and cancel out the impeachments he had received during the public ditches case, and his future would be a bright one paved with unlimited possibilities. Yao Wenyu’s identity was special, and there was a political undercurrent surging through the imperial court at present. Pan Lin initially had no wish to be a part of it, lest he was deemed to be a member or supporter of one of the factions. However, he respected Hai Liangyi.
Pan Lin paused for only a moment before he said, “Mount Bodhi is on the outskirts of the city, and there are patrol squads inside and outside of Qudu. Yuanzhuo’s meeting with a mishap is by no means a trivial matter. Third Missy, please tell me the details first.”
He did not evade the issue nor begged off the matter, so Hua Xiangyi knew she had been right to find him. Pan Lin had a bad temper, and the only friend he had to have fun with together was Fei Shi. The one he could not deign to deal with the most was Xue Xiuyi. Back then, after the public ditches case, Xiao Chiye had hosted a banquet after being conferred a noble title, and Pan Lin had gone at his invitation. Humiliated in every way possible by Xue Xiuyi during the feast, Pan Lin had made a vow that even if he were “to starve to death in the future, he would never sit at the same table as the Xue clan”. From then on, he did not interact or socialize any further with the Xue clan. Xue Xiuzhuo was now at the height of power in Qudu because of his support to the Heir Apparent to the throne, and even so, Pan Lin had never paid him a visit. Xiao Chiye helped the Pan clan out of their predicament back then, saving Pan Xiangjie from being put to death by Wei Huaigu during the public ditches case, and the Qudu public ditches blueprint that Pan Lin had repaid him with later went on to become the key that helped Qiao Tianya and the rest escape from Qudu.
Later, Xiao Chiye was trapped in an encirclement by Han Cheng, who meant to kill him. He bore the charge of plotting to murder Emperor Tianchen, and despite that, Pan Lin did not hurry over himself to draw a clear line between them. His father, Pan Xiangjie, was a fence-sitter who swayed wherever the wind blew, but he, Pan Lin, could stand up to being called “upright”.
Hua Xiangyi gave him an account of their encounter with Yao Wenyu in a hushed tone. Eventually, she said, “Would the Vice Minister be willing to hear a few words from me?”
Pan Lin answered, “This humble subject is all ears.”
Hua Xiangyi looked slightly out of the corner of her eye at that beaded curtain. A moment later, she said, “The storm brewing in Qudu is currently unstoppable. The trouble Yuanzhuo came face to face with today is by no means a coincidence. The Vice Minister knows better than me about the affairs of the imperial court. The Grand Secretary’s remonstration by death will be a matter of regret for Dazhou through the ages. Yuanzhuo is not only the Grand Secretary’s beloved pupil but also the Yao clan’s beloved son. His reputation is now in tatters because of the imperial college incident, but his talents and learning still remain, and his moral integrity still exists. His resolution and ambition will be all the stronger after going through this tribulation, and there is no reason he can’t make a comeback in the future and lead the literati of the world to recreate the glory of the Imperial College.”
Pan Lin said nothing.
After a long silence, Hua Xiangyi continued, “Yuanzhuo must leave Qudu as soon as possible after tonight. I’m about to marry far away to Qidong, and it’d be inconvenient for me to come and go freely. Although I have an imperial palace rank, I can’t openly send him out of the capital with great fanfare.”
At this point, Hua Xiangyi rose to her feet and slowly kneeled to bow to Pan Lin across the screen.
Pan Lin’s face turned pale. He strode a step forward and said, “This won’t do! Third Missy, please rise quickly!”
Hua Xiangyi kowtowed and said, “Yuanzhuo is blessed to have been successively taught by wise teachers in this life. I’ve read all of his essays. The Heir Apparent to the throne has just been established, and the Hanlin Academy is now an empty shell. The tripartite balance of power with Auntie at the lead cannot last for long, and Kong Qiu can barely fend for himself. I may be a girl, but I know that outstanding men of talents are hard to find.” She paused for a moment, then solemnly continued, “Chengzhi, please.”
She addressed Pan Lin by his courtesy name, saying it from the bottom of her heart.
Pan Lin could not help but look ashamed to see the extent that Hua Xiangyi was willing to go to save Yao Wenyu. He hurriedly said, “Third Missy, please get up! I value Yuanzhuo’s talents. This is what we ought to do, to begin with. Tomorrow morning, Yuanzhuo will follow my younger sister-in-law out of Qudu and rest up in Dancheng first. After he recovers from his injuries, he can decide what to do on his own.” Hai Liangyi came to his mind at this point. He continued, “Although the Grand Secretary and some of us do not see eye to eye in politics, I still hold him in esteem. How gallant is it for a civil minister to remonstrate with his death! I ought to lend a helping hand, even if for the Grand Secretary.”
Hua Xiangyi continued, “The other party must already know about Yuanzhuo’s escape from death today. To be on the safe side, I’d like to ask the Vice Minister to think of a way to pull the wool over their eyes.”
Pan Lin answered, “I already have an idea in mind.”
“It’s already getting late now; I can’t stay any longer.” Hua Xiangyi stood up and let the maidservant support her as she went over to the side of the beaded curtains. She looked at Yao Wenyu inside, his face white as a sheet. In the end, she said nothing and took her leave.
Two hours after Hua Xiangyi’s departure, a corpse wrapped in a straw mat was sent out through the backdoors of the Pan’s Residence. Those in the outer courtyard inquiring about it did not know the details. All they heard was that it was a beggar the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue brought back from outside who had died of sickness in the middle of the night. The pursuing troops who had been crouching in wait for many hours followed all the way to the burial grounds to examine the corpse. The leader found out that the body fit Yao Wenyu’s physique to a tee; even the wounds from his broken legs were identical. The only thing was that the face of the corpse was disfigured; however, the bite marks on his lips were similar.
Not daring to dally, the man withdrew with his men back to the residence to make his report.
◈ ◈ ◈
The next day, Commandery Princess Zhaoyue and Pan Yi departed for Dancheng. She had just given birth to a child, and there were so many nannies and maidservants accompanying her that just the carriage alone numbered in the dozens. Pan Lin went to attend morning court. As he stood at the foot of the stairs to wait, he saw Kong Qiu and Cen Yu standing in front. Worried that there were people in the imperial court watching, he did not go forward.
Nowadays, the Heir Apparent to the throne rose at the hour of yin and attended classes at the hour of mao. The participants in the classics colloquium put together by the Grand Secretariat were all carefully hand-picked scholars and academicians from the Hanlin Academy, and the morning classes could not be finished before midday. Meanwhile, the Empress Dowager was still the one holding court behind the screen.2 Li Jianting merely switched from attending classes in the Xue’s residence to attending classes in the palace. As long as the Grand Secretariat did not pass the vote, she would have to continue to be a student. The Ministry of Rites had long been making preparations for the enthronement, but the grand ceremony now seemed light-years away with Kong Qiu and the rest suppressing it.
Xue Xiuzhuo was still teaching Li Jianting. Li Jianting did not have the authority to participate in government and political affairs, although she had the right to attend court and listen in. She slept very little every day. After morning classes, she would take a short nap, then it would be the Grand Secretariat council led by Kong Qiu and Xue Xiuzhuo in the afternoon. All matters of the Six Ministries, regardless of significance, had to be reported by the Grand Secretariat. Li Jianting rarely spoke up as they stood and deliberated over those matters, but her attitude was respectful and prudent. Whether it was morning classes or the councils, she would always arrive before the ministers and stand deferentially under the eaves of Mingli Hall to await them.
Kong Qiu and Cen Yu initially disliked Li Jianting, but even they had to concede that Li Jianting’s attitude was sincere enough. Her desire to learn was far more evident than Li Jianheng’s.
Pan Lin prepared to board the carriage after he left the court. Just as he was about to lower the curtains, he saw Xue Xiuzhuo walking out of the palace gates with another person. Both men’s eyes met for an instant. Pan Lin nodded calmly and managed with some effort to bow partially to him. Only then did he let down the curtain of the carriage.
◈ ◈ ◈
Qiao Tianya shut the window, making a slight noise.
Yao Wenyu woke up. It was as if he had just stepped out from the shaking carriage; the stifling heat was everywhere. He turned his eyes and saw Qiao Tianya.
Qiao Tianya said, “It’s now the third quarter of the hour of yin; you can sleep for a little longer.”
Yao Wenyu said expressionlessly, “Having awoken from a dream, I’m none too keen to return to it.”
Qiao Tianya poured tea and took a sip, then raised his cup at Yao Wenyu. “Want a drink?”
After a moment of silence, Yao Wenyu said, “Tea is tasteless. Change it to wine.”
“You have yet to recover from your injuries. It’s inadvisable for you to drink wine.” As Qiao Tianya spoke, he took down the wine at the side of his waist, shook it a few times, and twisted it open to drink it himself. “I’ll drink it for you. You can watch.”
After Qiao Tianya was done drinking, Yao Wenyu said, “Excellent wine.”
The bangs on Qiao Tianya’s forehead slipped down and covered his eyes. His stubble, which had grown out recently, had yet to be shaved clean. On hearing Yao Wenyu, he stroked it a couple of times and said, “Wine that costs a few strings of copper coins can’t really be considered excellent. If you get better, I’m willing to spend tens of taels of silver to let you taste real, excellent wine.”
The corner of Yao Wenyu’s lips shifted slightly.
Qiao Tianya leaned against the table and looked at him. “The military craftsman from Libei will arrive in a few days. I can go out with you to appreciate the autumn scenery of Cizhou.”
Yao Wenyu’s smile faded. He looked out of the window; there was the tinkling sound of the wind chimes under the eaves again. He was quiet for a very long time before he said, “May I trouble you to ask the Vice Commander to prepare a generous gift on my behalf for the grand wedding between Hua and Qi tomorrow. Third Missy Hua saved my life. Please thank her on my behalf too. Don’t tell her anything else. Just say I’m fine.”
Qiao Tianya answered in the affirmative.
Yao Wenyu’s gaze relaxed. He said, “Let’s play the zither.”
When Shen Zechuan got up, he heard the faint sound of the seven-stringed zither3 from the courtyard.
Fei Sheng teased, “This Qiao Tianya is truly a deep one with hidden talents.”
Shen Zechuan tilted his head and said, “The Qiao clan fell into decline, and all the delicate sensibilities he possessed as a young master vanished along with it. The most difficult time was during his exile, when he had to fight for food with stray dogs and take care of his elder sister-in-law at the same time. All that he has left today is that seven-stringed zither of his. He cleans and caresses it every day, and he cherishes it very much, so much that he never plays it for others—this is his pride.”
Fei Sheng had seen that seven-stringed zither before. Not even Ding Tao dared to touch it. He did not understand this bit of pride, but he did not speak up to vilify it. He had worked together with Qiao Tianya for many years. Although he had been wanting to take Qiao Tianya’s place all this while from Qudu to Cizhou, he was still nevertheless willing to acknowledge Qiao Tianya’s capabilities.
So what’s up with that poison?
You’ll find out in a couple of chapters.
Thank you for reading.
- Specifically 兄长 xiongzhang, a respectful form of address for an elder brother or a male friend
- 垂帘听政 literally to hold court behind a screen or curtain. A practice in ancient China, where the Empress or Empress dowager was allowed to preside over the imperial court without actually being seen by her subjects since women were prohibited from politics. This would usually be done by a child emperor’s mother, who would serve as regent and rule in place of the emperor
Specifically 古琴 Guqin is a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family.