Li Jianheng never spoke of his birth mother to anyone else, because the topic was his sore spot. His birth mother of the Yue Clan did not have an imperial concubine title and was just a lowly palace maid. Official records had her surname shoddily listed as “Yue”, and that was all the information provided on her.
When Li Jianheng was still in swaddles, Emperor Xiande’s birth mother, Lady Lu, brought him back into her palace, but she merely fed and clothed him. His lack of education and skills today was all because no one remembered him when he was supposed to begin schooling. Subsequently, he spent all his time playing with the eunuchs.
He did not have an imperial concubine mother, only a nanny.
His nanny was the lover of the personal eunuch serving Emperor Xiande. She was a snob, and she treated Li Jianheng cruelly. Every day, she dressed him up until he looked all fine and presentable, yet he often woke up hungry in the night. Li Jianheng did tell his older brother about this once, and Emperor Xiande threw a fit at his personal eunuch. The eunuch then went back to cuss and hit the nanny. The next day onwards, the nanny gave Li Jianheng the cold shoulder and served him cold meals. She never hit him, but she had a tongue so sharp and cutting that Li Jianheng never dared to mention it to anyone again. Before he learned how to speak properly, he already knew a whole plethora of vulgar words.
His nanny told him that his birth mother was a cheap whore from the palace. Because of her secret pregnancy that was the result of an illicit relationship, she was kept indoors by the former Lady of the palace to recuperate. Although the word was “recuperate”, she never left the compound for years and was deathly ill. She even kept harboring the wishful thinking of getting the chance to meet her son and speak to him.
When Li Jianheng was five, Emperor Guangcheng came to Lady Lu’s palace to check on Emperor Xiande’s, Li Jianyun, progress with schoolwork. As they were speaking, Li Jianheng, who was playing cricket with others, was seen by Emperor Guangcheng, who called him over. That was his first time meeting his father.
The Guangcheng Emperor asked him about some writings.
Li Jianheng held the cricket tightly in his hands and did not dare to look at Emperor Guangcheng. He was unable to speak eloquently either, often stuttering and ignorant of what was asked of him.
Emperor Guangcheng found him stupid. Li Jianheng was already five, yet he was still unable to articulate himself well, had not an ounce of decorum, and seemed timid. He did not have the aura of a royal scion at all.
Li Jianheng really wanted to talk to Emperor Guangcheng, but he was afraid. He did not think that this person was his father, and he even started crying during the lengthy questioning. This made Emperor Guangcheng disdain him utterly. And this first time was also the last time he saw Emperor Guangcheng. It was only when Emperor Guangcheng left that Li Jianheng realized that he had unknowingly squashed the cricket in his hand to death.
Li Jianyun thought that this younger brother of his was useless. His health was still fine then, and he was the prince after the Crown Prince, who was the most in favor. He pitied Li Jianheng, so he pleaded with Emperor Guangcheng and started to bring Li Jianheng along to classes with him.
Li Jianheng got to know his brothers, but they were all living in the lap of luxury. He slowly came to the realization that they were not his brothers. They ridiculed him; they spoke of protocols and propriety; they made him bow to them. Li Jianheng did not understand. He did not have to kneel and kowtow to his brothers on seeing them, but this was what they taught him. When he did so, not one eunuch or palace maid went forward to help him up.
It was only when the Crown Prince and Li Jianyun were around that everyone acted with brotherly affection like kin brothers. Li Jianheng would not say a word about it, and he had no one to tell either. Gradually, he stopped going to school on time. He started to play the fox with Li Jianyun, feigning illness and sleeping in—he would not go if he could help it. Li Jianyun felt that Li Jianheng was a lost cause who could not be taught and set straight. Subsequently, he came to give up too.
There was a time when Li Jianheng followed a eunuch through a doghole. He squeezed his way through, and the eunuchs covered their mouths to snicker at him. They gave him candies from the Imperial Bakery. He was like a puppy seeking food, one that had been coaxed into wagging his tail by those few melted candies. It was in that doghole he obtained a lot of food he had never sampled before, and it was also from that doghole he saw his mother.
Li Jianheng did not recognize Lady Yue.
The eunuch egged Li Jianheng on, calling Yue a “feeble invalid”, so Li Jianheng spat at her and called her the same. Lady Yue leaned against the wall, crying as she looked at him. Li Jianheng found this woman eccentric. The way she looked at him gave him the heebie-jeebies, so much that even he himself wanted to cry.
After getting back, his nanny scolded Li Jianheng again. When Li Jianheng wanted to pee in the middle of the night, he heard the nanny having a secret rendezvous with the eunuch who had egged him into cussing. He was caught red-handed by both of them when he accidentally kicked the chamber pot after he was done peeing.
The nanny was afraid that Li Jianheng would tell on them, so after that night, she gave him lots of candies and never scolded him again, instead treating him as though she yearned to hold him in her arms and coax him all day long. There were many kinds of candies, and one of them was called the silk-nested tiger’s eye candy. There was only a little of it every day, which Li Jianheng could not bear to eat; instead, he followed behind Li Jianyun every day and gave it to him to eat. But, from that year onwards, Li Jianyun’s health started to deteriorate to the point he was so sick he could not even attend classes.
Lady Lu checked the food and beverages in the palace, but her investigation threw up nothing. Every night, she wept before Li Jianyun. The imperial physicians came and went, but Li Jianyun never got better.
The nanny stopped giving Li Jianheng candies. Li Jianheng created a din, demanding his candies, so the nanny told him that the feeble invalid in the Eastern Courtyard who had been cussed by Li Jianheng wanted to tell on him to forbid him from eating candies again. Li Jianheng had been thinking of the silk-nested tiger’s eye candy, and thus, he hated that sickly woman. The nanny also said that if Li Jianheng wanted to eat candies again, he had to complain to Lady Lu and tell her that those earlier candies had been given by the sickly woman.
Li Jianheng did not dare to tell Lady Lu, so he secretly told Li Jianyun. Li Jianyun looked at him from where he lay on the couch, and it was in that instant Li Jianheng felt that his elder brother resembled his father.
Li Jianheng was roused awake in the night. The nanny led him out, where he heard sploshing sounds from the main hall. From where he was behind the hanging curtain, he saw a blur of human figures. Li Jianyun, who was lying on the couch with an overcoat around him, beckoned to him.
Li Jianheng ran over.
That sickly woman was half-naked, with her head pressed into the bucket of swill. Again and again, her head was forced into it. She choked and coughed out water, and water poured back into her nose and mouth. Her fingernails had been reduced to bloodied pulps from all that clawing.
Li Jianyun held Li Jianheng and said nothing. The sight frightened Li Jianheng, and he looked back many times at Li Jianyun. But there was no smile on Li Jianyun’s face, and so Li Jianheng did not dare to smile too.
When the woman was pressed into the bucket, a gurgling sound rang out. She raked her nails on the bucket in agony, her skinny fingers digging into the wood shavings, making the slits in her nails a dirty mess.
Li Jianheng looked at her, but he could not remember her face clearly. But the sloshing sound stayed in his memory. The nanny was a tall and healthy woman. Li Jianheng did not like her. All the women he came to choose in the future were petite or sickly.
Li Jianheng did not like water either; he found it filthy.
After that night, the nanny treated him well. Li Jianyun treated him well, too. It was just that no one mentioned his study anymore, and Li Jianyun no longer kept him to practice calligraphy. Li Jianyun even assigned eunuchs to play with him. Li Jianheng was thoroughly free. He played the whole day until he fell asleep. When he grew to be a teenager and had to move to a separate residence, Li Jianyun sent quite a number of pretty women to his residence. Once Li Jianheng got a taste of them and understood the pleasure of indulging in beautiful women, he spiraled out of control.
Until many years later.
Li Jianheng found out that that sickly woman was Lady Yue.
“My mother is the current Empress Dowager!”
Li Jianheng’s fingers trembled. He seemed to be saying it to Xi Hongxuan and, at the same time, directing it at himself as he muttered these words over and over like a man gone mad.
Xi Hongxuan sniffled and listened as Li Jianheng harped on. He could not help but grin and say, “Your Majesty, to let everyone think this, the honor accorded to the Empress Dowager has to be sufficient. And now, the Empress Dowager… hisssss.” He sucked in a breath from the pain and continued, “… happens to lack a son!”
Li Jianheng felt a stabbing pain in his chest as he gasped for breath. He haphazardly wiped away his tears with his fingers and said, “I… I1 know!”
“I don’t think you know.” Xi Hongxuan said.
Li Jianheng said, “Who gave you the audacity to… speak to me in such a manner here?”
“The words of a man on his deathbed always come from the heart.” Blood oozed from Xi Hongxuan’s mouth. He spat a few more times before saying, “If you and I can’t get out today, then there will be no ruler and his minister; we will be merely rats in a pit waiting to drown in the water! What kind of Emperor are you? When Xiao the Second lifted you onto the dragon throne earlier, you ingratiate yourself with him like you would an ancestor! Have you forgotten? You are his master to begin with. Risking his life to save you is what he should do! What logic is there for parents to be grateful to their sons and grandsons? It’s with the Libei Armored Cavalry that each of the men of the Xiao Clan now enjoy such prestige and power. Such a ridiculous thing would be totally unheard of a few decades back with Emperor Guangcheng at the head! I get truly worried when I look at you! How does it feel to be an Emperor to such an extent? You aren’t even as carefree and happy as I was during the times I was mixing around the salterns being an imperial merchant. If you’re going to remain in this position and suffer such trifle indignities, you might as well drown here with me today.”
Hurting from having spoken such a big chunk, he grimaced in pain and spent a moment to take a breather. As he listened to Li Jianheng’s sobs, he suddenly began to choke with sobs too.
“Your Majesty…” Xi Hongxuan laid bare his feelings and said, “My mother was a woman from Qinzhou. She was of lowly birth. She could win my father’s favor because her mother’s old man earned some money by relying on the pointers given by the preceding Old Madam Yao. Look at me. I am the second son of lawful birth, but instead of living like a man, I lead a dog’s life back at home. Why do you think I dared to head down to the Xu Sea when I was eighteen to beg for a living among the wind and waves there? It’s all because my parents were biased and handed this massive family fortune to my eldest brother! Later, I met with a disaster at sea. With my constitution wrecked, I had to recuperate in Qinzhou for more than half a year. See how horrifyingly obese I am. It’s all from the nourishments I downed back then to preserve my life. Ugly, right? Haha! But before I was injured, I was also a handsome man in Qinzhou. Before I left, I met a woman whom I loved very much. We were engaged to get married before I set out to sea. But when I returned, she had already married someone else—she became my dear sister-in-law. What a great elder brother Xi Gu’an is. He even had to take care of my woman for me when he heard that I had met with difficulty. Where else can I find such a wonderful elder brother? I’ll thank him all my life!”
Xi Hongxuan cried and laughed as he spoke in this dimmed, damp, and narrow place.
“I’ll freaking thank him all my life! Your Majesty, who in this world isn’t pitiful? Are you willing to let me be the Grand Secretary who holds sway over the imperial court and commoners because you pity me? You pity Xiao the Second! And let him become the tremendously popular Viceroy in Qudu for a time. But who will pity you? If Xiao the Second is truly sincere towards you, then would he have let Xiao Jiming say that kind of words before you? Isn’t that just abusing his power to bully people around?! Then look again at that Shen the Eighth who has landed himself Shen Wei as his old man. Is the imperial prison such a fun place to be in? He fell into Ji Lei’s hand at fifteen years of age and was whipped and flayed so badly it was as if he had taken a tumble in hell itself. He may be out of there now, but look at him, he has clearly grown into a specter. Everyone in the world is pitiful. If you pity each and everyone of them, then how are you going to be an emperor? As the saying goes, every man for himself, and the devil takes the hindmost—one has to look out for their own interests first. Your Majesty, don’t listen to all those garrulous people who speak of the lowly origins of their mothers and the likes. Your surname is Li, and mine is Xi. For us, that’s enough! Men are born to be distinguished between the superior and the inferior, the lowly and the nobles! All those rhetorical questions insinuating no one is born to be ruling classes2 are just to goad and egg on fools. If no one goes by the rules, then where would countries and states come from? Your name is Li Jianheng, and therefore you are born superior to him, Xiao Chiye! What are you afraid of even if his Xiao Clan dares to harbor wicked intentions? You’re the one who has the hearts and minds of all the commoners in the world. No matter what their maneuver is, they are all traitors and rebels! Who in the world would dare to disobey if you raise your arms and make the call? This is what the Son of Heaven is!”
This is what the Son of Heaven is!
Li Jianheng found these words so rousing and enlightening that it snapped him to his senses. For the first time in this wet and filthy caved-in pit, he came to understand who he was. At some point, the tears were already streaming down his face. He thought back on everything that had transpired in the past, feeling as if he had lived in vain.
Unwilling to let this opportunity slip, Xi Hongxuan braced himself and continued in a strained voice, “Are they laughing at you for being uneducated and cowardly? Who in this world doesn’t fear death?! They can say anything they want when the blade is not held against their necks. But when it is, nine out of ten will pee in their pants! You are the emperor, not an artisan! When it comes to matters involving learning, the students from the Imperial College will naturally provide the answers. As for governmental affairs, isn’t that what the Grand Secretariat is for? Isn’t it there to deliberate over matters for you and advise you? You are the Emperor. You are an emperor!”
“I’m the Emperor…” Li Jianheng was feeling both hot and cold as he trembled and repeated, “You’re right. I’m the Emperor.”
Xi Hongxuan grabbed the moment with finesse. Seeing that he was almost there, he heaved a sigh of relief.
The fucking nerve of whoever it was to tamper with Ouhua Pavilion! With the building collapsed and flooded, all evidence would have been washed away. With no lead in the investigation, the blame would fall squarely on Xi Hongxuan’s head. If he could not hold Li Jianheng in his grasp, then just the impeachment from the Chief Surveillance Bureau alone after he had gotten out of here was enough to skin him. He could kiss goodbye to his newly appointed Secretary for the Bureau of Evaluations of the Ministry of Revenue position. It was even possible that Hai Liangyi would execute him because of this incident.
In this filthy water, Xi Hongxuan carefully ran his hands through his interpersonal network of connections. He did not want to die, nor did he want to be exiled. It had not been easy for him to kick off Xi Gu’an and climb his way to this position, as well as meet such a rare “good master” like Li Jianheng. He had to live.
With his lips turning pale from the loss of blood, Xi Hongxuan silently said to himself.
Xue Xiuzhuo, Hai Liangyi, Shen Zechuan, and even Xiao Chiye. Whoever it was, hurry up and take him out of here. Li Jianheng must not die here. If he were to die here, all he had done in the past would go down the drain.
Just as Xi Hongxuan was about to close his eyes, a loud rumble suddenly rang out above them. Following right after, the broken wall debris tumbled down noisily. The stinky water also came pouring in as various voices mingled in the heavy rain.
Xi Hongxuan almost wept with joy. He heard Li Jianheng being hoisted up. Then, under the simultaneous shouts of the Imperial Army, the heavy weights pinning him down were lifted off him.
The stinky water was already up to Xi Hongxuan’s waist. He shifted his arms and shouted, “Save, Save—”
Xiao Chiye looked down at Xi Hongxuan from above. The heavy rain washed down on him, and Xi Hongxuan suddenly felt a chill rose within him. Even when the water swelled to Xi Hongxuan’s chest, Xiao Chiye still did not look as if he had the intention to pull him out.
“Xiao’Er…” Xi Hongxuan enunciated his words with hatred. The water swiftly brimmed over his head. He struggled all he could as he choked on foul water and flailed about for survival.
By the time Xi Hongxuan was dragged up, he had already been submerged until his entire mouth reeked of sewage. As Xiao Chiye lifted him, he dug his fingers hard into Xiao Chiye’s arms, cutting a sorry sight as he craned his neck and gasped under his breath, “Screw. Your. Mother!”
Xiao Chiye flipped his hand over to press him down, and Xi Hongxuan clawed at the mud as the sludge filled his mouth and nose. This sense of suffocation made him rake and pull with all his might, but he could not make Xiao Chiye’s iron arms budge even the slightest.
Xiao Chiye had the intent to kill, but he could not hold him down to his death for real. The people at the back had yet to withdraw completely, and Li Jianheng had been awake and sober when he was taken out.
Xiao Chiye lifted him by the back of his collar and lowered his head to say sinisterly, “Say that to me again.”
- The first I Li Jianheng uses to refer to himself here is the more common “我”, before he corrected it to “朕”, which is an imperial term for “I” exclusively used by the Emperor.
- 王侯将相，宁有种乎 a rhetorical question; Is there anyone who is born to be a king, a duke, a general, or a minister? Are kings and nobles given their high status by birth? (= Every human, regardless of birth, can become something great if she or he applies himself.)