Translated with: Jia<3
The two fingers on Shen Zechuan’s right hands trembled violently, the blazing pain jolting him awake in a split second. He wearily raised his right arm and spread his palm open, only to realize that he could not move his two fingers freely. The window paper glowed indistinctly with light—to think he had slept until this hour.
Shen Zechuan set down his arm and let the sweat trickle down along his temples. After a moment, he rolled over and got up, his two fingers slightly curled as he put on his clothes.
On hearing the sound of movements, Fei Sheng turned back and beckoned to the subordinate bearing the medicine to come over and attend to Shen Zechuan. The door opened, and Fei Sheng lifted the hem of his robe and strode in. Shen Zechuan was standing and washing up by the copper basin.
“Master.” Fei Sheng went around to the side and said softly, “We called for a physician early in the morning. He’s waiting out there. Shall we summon him in to take a look?”
Shen Zechuan placed the handkerchief back into the basin and, in a rare moment in which he did not refute him, said, “Call him in.”
Delighted, Fei Sheng immediately shouted for the physician. In the interim, he said to Shen Zechuan, “We released the men last night. With Liu’er’s connections with his old acquaintances, the news came in pretty fast. Master, Lei Jingzhe is right here in the city!”
Shen Zechuan stood by the door and looked back pensively at Fei Sheng.
The fact that Lei Jingzhe reacted so quickly illustrated that they had committed the transportation route of the military supply firmly to mind, with even the possibility of a delay taken into account. Thus, Lei Jingzhe immediately headed down to Dunzhou when the squad did not arrive these couple of days. It was likely that he wanted to get to the bottom of who had robbed the Scorpions.
“The military supply wagons to Cizhou have the Libei Armored Cavalry keeping watch over them along the way. The news can’t have spread that fast. They should have entered Cizhou by now. Whether or not Lei Jingzhe can get to the bottom of the matter, the stuff and men are ours now.” Fei Sheng stepped aside and watched as Shen Zechuan drank his medicine. “But it’s too tough to catch Lei Jingzhe alive in the city. Master. There are still four hundred Scorpions watching over the bandits they took captive, and these men could also be considered as Lei Jingzhe’s soldiers. Our numbers are far too low.”
The medicine was so bitter it put a slight frown on Shen Zechuan’s face. “To date, Lei Jingzhe still has yet to put Mount Luo and Duanzhou in order. This indicates that he doesn’t have enough soldiers under his command to deploy. He likely smuggled the armaments to ingratiate himself with Biansha. So, the four hundred Scorpions in the city of Dunzhou might not necessarily be willing to listen to his orders. Besides, we came to Dunzhou to make money on amicable terms, not to seize what’s others by force. We can take our time.” He handed the empty bowl to Fei Sheng. “Cizhou has nothing of importance to attend to lately. I have all the time in the world to have my fun with him.”
When Fei Sheng took the bowl, he saw Shen Zechuan’s hand dangling from the opening of his sleeve. The color drained from his face, and he lifted the hem of his robe and kneeled. “That hand’s broken, isn’t it, Master?! We were in such a rush during our journey… I’m really blind. To think I never—”
“Time was of the essence then, and it’s not like we could find a decent physician midway into our journey.” Seeing how panicked Fei Sheng was, Shen Zechuan said, “It’s just two fingers that are broken, not severed. Let the physician set them with steel needles and have them bandaged later. They’ll be fine after half a year of healing.”
Shen Zechuan downplayed his injuries and responded in such a nonchalant manner, but listening to him filled Fei Sheng with fear and trepidation. In an act of either genuine sentiment or feigned sincerity, Fei Sheng’s eyes reddened as he braced himself against the ground with his hands and said in a trembling voice, “When the master is wounded, his subject deserves death for letting it happen. It doesn’t stand to reason for a guard to be right by his master’s side and still let his master get injured.” As he spoke, he raised a hand and slapped himself several times on the cheeks. “It’s all because we are so useless that Master even has to come personally to our rescue! Master, I beseech Master to bestow our deserved punishments on us!”
Fei Sheng was now leading the Imperial Bodyguards, and by kneeling here to slap himself without the slightest trace of hesitation, he was also effectively slapping the faces of those men outside. He was lowering himself to let everyone in here and out there understand that this incident was a wake-up call. Such an oversight could not be made ever again; Shen Zechuan must never get hurt. From the moment they arrived in Zhongbo after being forsaken by Han Cheng and were rejected by Xiao Chiye, Shen Zechuan was the only candidate left to be their master.
Qiao Tianya had a knack for managing his subordinates too. In fact, he was even more well-liked by the subordinates than Fei Sheng was, but he was much too uninhibited. At times, he seemed to treat Shen Zechuan more like a friend than a master. Fei Sheng had already garnered much from Shen Zechuan’s act of deploying Qiao Tianya over to Yao Wenyu’s side.
Could Yao Wenyu’s body heal soon? If not, then Qiao Tianya would stay by Yao Wenyu’s side for as long as several years. The vacated position beside Shen Zechuan was given to Fei Sheng, which in Fei Sheng’s view was a hint that he had to accomplish what Qiao Tianya would not do while in the same position. He had to make it clear to the current Imperial Bodyguards that it was out of respect for Ji Gang that Shen Zechuan did not pursue their dereliction of duty. But they must never, ever repeat the same mistake again.
As long as Shen Zechuan had not given the nod, Fei Sheng would never take action. Likewise, as long as Shen Zechuan gave the command – good or bad – Fei Sheng would execute it and see it through to the very end. He was far more aware of his own place than Qiao Tianya was—he was Shen Zechuan’s guard, not Shen Zechuan’s friend. As such, he would not privately report Shen Zechuan’s injury to Xiao Chiye.
The Imperial Bodyguards followed suit and kneeled too, their faces burning with pain as they listened to the sounds of Fei Sheng’s slaps. Fei Sheng smacked himself until his cheeks turned red, and even so, he was still lifting his hand for another slap when a folding fan suddenly intercepted his hand.
“There can be no progress without pain. As long as you don’t repeat the same mistake, it’s alright.” Shen Zechuan shifted the fan in his left hand away. “All the people in the courtyard are good men. Punishments will come to those who have done wrong. I naturally have my own arrangements for when we return to Cizhou. You may rise now.”
The fact that Shen Zechuan did not let Fei Sheng continue to slap himself meant that he had no intention to humiliate them. He gave scholars their due respects, but he did not treat the Imperial Bodyguards shabbily either. Their monthly salaries were issued in a timely manner and converted to ready silver based on Qudu’s standard, and the Imperial Bodyguards’ residences were all spacious, well-lit rooms. What’s more, there was Ji Gang to give them martial arts pointers at all times. At first, they all thought Shen Zechuan to be a capricious man who was a tough one to serve, but over time, they realized that Shen Zechuan was pretty much set in his preferences. He duly meted out rewards and punishments as needed, and his commands were all decisive and straightforward; there had never been an incident in which he took out his anger on his subordinates.
Fei Sheng wiped his tears and kowtowed a few more times to Shen Zechuan before rising to his feet and taking his position at the side. Ding Tao stared blankly at the scene unfolding before him and felt a great wave of guilt wash over him. The physician outside happened to arrive just then, so Fei Sheng lifted the curtains and invited the physician in.
Both of Shen Zechuan’s fingers had indeed been broken, but they were fortunately not severed. As he expected, the physician had them set and secured with steel needles. With half a year of recuperation, they should be more or less healed.
“My lord should not wield a blade or draw a bow these days.” The physician was an old man. As the fee they paid him was generous, he made a special point of giving further instructions when he got up. “You’ve been putting off having this injury treated for quite a few days. Fortunately, you didn’t delay it past today. Otherwise, it couldn’t be set back into place even with the steel needles. My lord seems to me to be in poor health, and it’s now coincidentally the eighth month where sudden fluctuations in weather temperature are a common occurrence. Pay more attention to your meals and attire. Don’t fall ill again.”
The physician lifted his sleeves to pack his medical case when he remembered something else.
“Is my lord always having trouble sleeping?” He said. “Business has to be conducted, but it’s taxing on the mind and body. No human will be able to take it if they keep getting haunted by nightmares over a long period of time. I’ll get you a brocade pouch later and fill it with some incense to help you sleep. You can put it under your pillow at night and see if it works.”
Fei Sheng bent over to help the physician carry his medical case and saw him out.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan sat on the chair and sized up his right hand in the momentary silence that followed. Two of his fingers were bound together so securely that it proved inconvenient for him to stretch them. He could forget about grasping his blade now. It was really by a stroke of good fortune that they were not severed.
But why would he dream of the Prince of Jianxing’s residence?
Last night’s dream played out on what seemed to be a yellowish worn-out rag, where only the back of the aunty was visible because Shen Zechuan no longer remembered how she looked. He cried so sadly for that cup of water—but had it been really for that cup of water?
Shen Zechuan rested his elbow on the chair handle and leaned back slowly. His gaze shifted along the half-lowered bamboo blinds to the eaves shrouded under the shadow of a tree. He slowed the dream in his mind in an attempt to lay every scene out for deeper scrutiny.
The deaf and mute aunty sat under the eaves.
The courtyard was tiny, and the direction in which the house was facing was terrible; once dusk fell, the interior would get dim rather quickly. Shen Zechuan was still short, so short that he did not have to bend over to look into the inner chamber. He wanted so much to drink that cup of water; his entire throat seemed to be on fire. But he could not reach it. Thus, he stood on tiptoe.
Shen Zechuan tilted his head up slightly.
He stood on tiptoe—this was not the first time this had happened. He knew it was possible that the teacup might fall onto the ground. So at the same time he stood on tiptoe, he looked inside. The inner chamber was too dark. The windows were all unopened, and that half-lowered beaded curtain was bereft of life. It remained still and unmoving, a tint of white in the darkness.
Shen Zechuan frowned and continued to pry further as if in a trance.
Why did he have to look in?
The young Shen Zechuan stood on tiptoe and leaned over the edge of the table to look at that mass of darkness. He blinked several times and did not withdraw his gaze, but he could not help but reach his fingers out to touch the rim of the teacup. Someone stirred in the darkness, and at the moment his attention was diverted, Shen Zechuan accidentally brushed the teacup aside and dropped it. The sound of the teacup shattering was so crystal clear it was as if it had been smashed right beside his ear. It startled the person in the inner chamber into turning around. The strange shadow of the aunty who kept lifting her arm soundlessly grabbed Shen Zechuan by the foot, and it was at this very moment Shen Zechuan saw a terror-stricken face.
Shen Zechuan suddenly sucked in a breath as he snapped back to his senses and found that he had subconsciously clenched his right hand into a fist. Intense pain throbbed in those two fingers. The weather was hot today, but Shen Zechuan’s back was all drenched in a cold sweat.
He had seen Shen Wei.
Shen Wei’s face that was all contorted with terror was so jarring on the eyes that it jolted Shen Zechuan to his feet. He irritably relaxed his right hand and faced the shadow of the tree under the eaves, but he could not recall exactly what Shen Wei had been doing.
Why was Shen Wei so panic-stricken?
The inner chamber was too dark; Shen Zechuan could not see a thing at all. Even Shen Wei’s face seemed to be lodged in a thick black mass of shadows. He kept thinking back to it, but still made no progress. His memory seemed to have been stuck in time, frozen upon the frame of Shen Wei’s face.
Shen Zechuan knew how to restrain his irascibility firmly under an icy demeanor, but not this time. The abhorrence his expression exposed was a clear indicator that he was already standing on the brink of the precipice. He was just like a trapped beast as he shut his eyes in the sunlight, the sweat oozing from his temples.
Blood oozed out from his cut finger, staining his robe. Once again, pale white juxtaposed with vivid red. The beaded curtain was clearly dead, but it swung violently as it came back to life again in the scenes that flashed by. The strange shadow grabbed hold of Shen Zechuan, whose finger was still bleeding. Meanwhile, the aunty kept up with her never-ending embroidery as her arms stretched longer and longer until the expanding shadow mutated into a scorpion swinging its tail.
Shen Zechuan abruptly shifted his gaze over.
Ding Tao’s legs gave way, and he fell onto his butt on the ground, looking as though he was looking at a stranger. All the hair on his body was standing on end. His candy tumbled out and rolled on the ground, where it bumped into Shen Zechuan’s snapped fan.
Shen Zechuan leaned over to pick up the candy off the ground and handed it to Ding Tao, but Ding Tao did not reach out for it. Instead, he shifted back a little in fear and trepidation to flee from Shen Zechuan’s shadow.
Shen Zechuan’s throat bobbed. It was as if he was a demonic creature stripped of its skin to be thoroughly exposed under the stinging sunlight. The pale sides of his neck revealed his vulnerability, and as the wind huffed at his sleeves, he let loose a laugh into the long, endless stillness and gently tossed the candy away.
Special thanks to Tea for proofreading! <3