Joyful Reunion - Chapter 115
Book 3, Chapter 25 (Part 3)
Duan Ling is inside the house putting away their things. Fortunately most of the medicinal ingredients were never kept in drawers near the floor in the first place in order to keep them from getting damp. Outside, Wu Du tells him he’s heading to the palace, saying he should stay with Chang Liujun in the meantime.
“There’s no need for that, is there?” Duan Ling says.
“Go on. You can put away stuff later.”
Duan Ling replies, sure, sure, telling Wu Du to hurry up already and not to worry about him, but Wu Du insists on staying until Duan Ling is inside the Mu estate.
The moment he steps through the gates of the chancellor’s estate, Duan Ling suddenly gets this vague inkling that something isn’t quite right, and he’s compelled to turn around and go back into their courtyard. He checks over the courtyard in the rain before he steps inside the house to carefully look around every single corner. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a hunch, but he just keeps having this feeling that somebody’s been in their house.
Duan Ling bends over to look inside those drawers that haven’t been opened yet, then he immediately turns around to check the position of the pillow as well as the corner of the sheets held down beneath the mattress; all at once, he feels a chill running down his spine.
Someone had moved the stuff in their house!
Duan Ling turns abruptly, realising that a lot of stuff inside the house had been moved!
At that exact moment, he has a sharp impression of being stared at, and he leaves the medicine drawers at once to quickly walk out the door. Like a bird frightened by the twang of a bow, he subconsciously starts looking for a safe place.
Someone has been in their house, and it seems like they were there more than once. Where’s Wu Du?
He runs out of the courtyard, into the alleyway, kicking up puddles as he speeds towards the main estate.
“Where’s Chang Liujun?!” Duan Ling asks a servant.
Like a shadow at his back, those eyes seem to follow him until he spots Chang Liujun.
“Chang Liujun!” Duan Ling calls out.
“What is it?” Lying on a daybed, Chang Liujun waves the back scratcher he’s holding at Duan Ling, his eyes considering him through the gap in his mask.
Duan Ling has gone pale in the face, but soon enough he calms down and he knows he’s just scaring himself. He ponders for a moment before he answers, “Where’s the young master?”
“Went to the palace with the Lord Chancellor.” Chang Liujun sits up. “Why? Something wrong?”
Duan Ling shakes his head. Chang Liujun scoots closer to the wall, leaving some room on the daybed.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking an afternoon nap,” Chang Liujun replies and ignores him, closing his eyes. Duan Ling wonders how strong this guy really is, but since he’s one of the great assassins, he’s probably not afraid of Lang Junxia.
Duan Ling sits down next to Chang Liujun then, staring into space. Chang Liujun asks, “Where’d you guys go anyway?”
Since they’d come to rummage through his room, Duan Ling presumes that it must have been because of the exam papers they found last time, and only two people know about these papers — one is Lang Junxia, while the other is Chang Liujun. And if it really is Chang Liujun … then it means Mu Kuangda is the one who told him to do it.
“Did you help me clean up the house?” Duan Ling asks.
“Oh, alright then.” Duan Ling feels that Mu Kuangda probably won’t do such a thing, for after all if he’s going to trust Chang Liujun, that’s that. It’ll only work against his purposes if he tries to trick the truth out of him, and destroy the trust they’ve established between them.
Chang Liujun sits up and says to him, “I really haven’t.”
“Go to sleep, come on,” Duan Ling says, frowning, pushing Chang Liujun back into a lying position, and giving him a couple of token pats to make it look like he’s trying to put him to sleep.
It must have been Lang Junxia. He’d come by, and he hasn’t given up. Duan Ling stares at the unceasing rain outside, falling silent.
Outside the palace, Wu Du hops off his horse, takes off his raincoat, and drapes it over Benxiao’s back. Water splashes against his ankles through his walk into the palace until he leaps softly onto the gallery leading to the imperial study.
“Disarm.” Once again, the Black Armours guards are blocking Wu Du’s way.
Wu Du beckons at the two soldiers, his tone full of sincerity. “Come over here. Let me show you something.”
The soldiers aren’t sure what it’s all about, but they step up, and Wu Du flicks a finger in their direction. Immediately, the two cry out loudly, but Wu Du doesn’t even bother looking at them before dodging quickly into the gallery, leaving at a brisk pace.
Behind him, the soldiers are letting out a torrent of curses, but there’s nothing they can do as they fall to the floor squirming. One soldier asks the other to help him take off his armour, and the two remove their armour in a flurry.
When Wu Du arrives at the imperial study, Zheng Yan is watching the door, and he signals for Wu Du to wait, so they both stand outside the study. They can hear Mu Kuangda’s voice from behind the door; clearly, arrangements for disaster relief that they were discussing in morning assembly have not yet been resolved, and the battlefield has moved to the study. Once everyone has had lunch, they’d come back before Li Yanqiu to continue their battle of words.
Zheng Yan doesn’t say anything. Wu Du doesn’t say anything either. They look up to watch the curtain of rain dripping down from the eaves.
Some day, Wu Du thinks, Duan Ling will perhaps become the emperor just like Li Yanqiu, but it’s anyone’s guess whether he’d mock Su Fa and his ilk or if he’d be courteous to them in the face but turn around and cuss the old man out behind his back. Finding the thought hilarious, the corner of his mouth takes on an upward curl.
Zheng Yan studies Wu Du curiously, and when Wu Du notices the look on Zheng Yan’s face, he throws Zheng Yan a couple of glances.
Where’d you go? Zheng Yan mouths the words softly without making a sound.
Wu Du raises an eyebrow, and with his mind seemingly elsewhere, he makes a little person with his left hand, then pointing his right thumb at himself he shapes that hand into a little person also. The right hand little person gets close to the left hand little person, going like this like this … like that like that …
Zheng Yan, feeling rather speechless, gives Wu Du the middle finger.
Wu Du points at Zheng Yan then points at the floor, as in there’s something I want to see you about later. The corner of Zheng Yan’s mouth twitches — he can already guess what Wu Du’s something is about.
With a clang of iron plates, Xie You approaches in head-to-toe armour, his cape fluttering behind him. Zheng Yan and Wu Du stretch out a hand each at the same time to block him from entering the imperial study.
“His Majesty is in a meeting,” Zheng Yan says. “General Xie, please wait a moment.”
“Hmph.” Xie You looks Wu Du up and down before he says in a low tone, “Junior Guardian Wu, how impressive of you.”
Wu Du smiles a smidgen. “Not nearly as impressive as you, General Xie. Coming and going from the palace dressed in a set of black armour like you do — you’ve got it polished awfully clean though.”
It has always been the case for the literati of Great Chen to hold its militaristic warriors in contempt, while the warriors hold the ruinous assassins in contempt, and assassins don’t have anyone left to hold in contempt actually, so their only option is to hold each other in contempt. And yet in the face of a common enemy they’re usually united; they’d often deride Xie You for not having a war to fight but dress up in full armour all day long anyway, walking all over the place letting everyone know just how impressive he is.
“The Black Armours have been given permission by each successive emperor.” Xie You says, sounding chilly, “aside from the commander-in-chief of the Black Amours, only the first rank proper Senior Guardian of the Heir-apparent and the second rank proper Junior Guardian of the Heir-apparent may move about in the palace wearing their weapons; everyone else must disarm. Wu Du, have you accepted your official position yet?”
Wu Du sizes up Xie You, and Xie You reaches behind him for the black iron Dragon Flail. “Today, if I simply let you be, I cannot possibly justify my decision to all the souls of those emperors who came before. Why don’t you and I have a match right here, and if you manage to poison me to death, then there’ll be no one left in the world who can part you from your sword.”
Wu Du smiles. “Interesting. General Xie, did you know that the White Tiger Hall has always had a traditional rule, and before this rule only one person could force me to hand over my weapon.
“Even the late emperor only ever ordered me to sheathe my sword, and would never dare to take the ‘Ardent Light’ out of my hand. Just as your Black Armours only recognise the Jade Arc of succession and ignores anyone without, my White Tiger Hall also only recognises a weapon, and not any person. Produce the Zhenshanhe and naturally I’ll present you the Lieguangjian with both hands. Otherwise, even the founding emperor of Great Chen himself would not make the descendents of White Tiger Hall disarm.”
“… Is that Wu Du outside?” It’s Li Yanqiu’s voice coming from behind the doors.
Xie You stops talking then, and all goes quiet in the imperial study.
“I’m sitting right here, though without the Zhenshanhe I’m still the leader of this empire. Zheng Yan, remove Wu Du’s Lieguangjian and bring it into the imperial study.”
What he said is no less than giving Xie You and Wu Du each a way out of their impasse.
Wu Du falls silent for a beat, but he can only remove the Lieguangjian and hand it to Zheng Yan. Zheng Yan carries it inside with two hands.
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Xie You salutes at the door, fist in hand, bowing. “Your Majesty, Wu Du poisoned my subordinates. The Black Armours is ever devoted and loyal, and now my men are covered in blisters and at death’s door.”
“General Xie, you’re exaggerating.” Wu Du says consolingly, “It’s just a touch of itching powder. Wait three years and they’ll get better all on their own.”
“Give him the antidote.” Li Yanqiu hands out yet another order from behind the door, “Quit hurting each other now. It’s annoying.”
And so Wu Du digs the antidote out of a pocket and tosses it to Xie You. Xie You catches it, and leaves without another word.
Inside, the discussion continues; Wu Du looks grim. Soon, Su Fa comes out of the room, and spotting Wu Du, his expression turns even more sour — he’s clearly been one-upped by Mu Kuangda, and the one who found out he took bribes from the Mongolian envoy was Wu Du as well, so now he’s bearing a grudge against Wu Du.
“When the cunning hare dies, the hunting dogs are cooked.” Su Fa maliciously steps closer to Wu Du and whispers, “When the birds are all shot, the bow is put away.”2
Wu Du beckons at Su Fa. “Lord Su, please wait. Let me show you something.”
Su Fa, nearly fifty and aware of what the mandate of heaven has in store for him, is hale and hearty in spite of his years and scampers away in the blink of an eye, vanishing around the corridor.
“Come in,” Li Yanqiu’s voice says.
Wu Du only goes inside then, and he’s surprised to find Mu Kuangda, Cai Yan, Lang Junxia and Zheng Yan all within the room. The Lieguangjian has been placed on a weapons rack behind Lang Junxia.
“You can have the sword back,” Cai Yan says solemnly. “I do not doubt your loyalty.”
Cai Yan gestures at Lang Junxia. Lang Junxia takes the Lieguangjian down from the rack and hands it to Cai Yan; Cai Yan then holds it aloft in both hands and gives it to Wu Du.
Wu Du takes it and straps it back at his waist. He doesn’t look happy, but that’s only natural.
Chang Liujun, Zheng Yan, and Lang Junxia are all allowed to wear their swords into the palace. Lang Junxia has an official position as an imperial guardsman before the throne, and as does Zheng Yan. So fine, those two have been given special dispensation by the crown prince as well as the emperor, but for Chang Liujun to swagger in here while Wu Du is made the only exception — well that’s just pure humiliation.
“Give him a place to sit,” Li Yanqiu orders.
Zheng Yan carries over a low table for Wu Du to sit behind cross-legged. The base Li Yanqiu’s desk and seat mat placed upon is somewhat higher than everyone else’s in the study, so he’s taller than everyone else here. He looks down at Wu Du for a moment and heaves a sigh.
“Chancellor Mu is also here today.” Li Yanqiu flips through the pages of a memorial before him with an idle hand. “So I thought it’d be a good chance to see what you think of this. However, seeing how you enjoy your freedom, rising at will with the clouds and flying like the wild cranes as you do, it seems we already know your answer.”
Mu Kuangda smiles. “When it comes down to it, the estate has taken in quite a number of retainers, but Wu Du is the one who never listens to me. He always just leaves whenever the job is done, and never takes anything more than he’s due, neither given to avarice nor salacity.”
“I heard from Chancellor Mu.” Cai Yan actually seems rather relaxed and casual. "Is the reason you’re unwilling to come work in the palace because of your adoptive son?”
Wu Du answers this with a stretch of silence at first, and finally he breaks it with nothing more than a single word, “Yes.”
Cai Yan continues to speak with a smile, “It was me who repeatedly begged His Majesty to recruit you into the Eastern Palace, and that’s why His Majesty repeatedly came to bother you. Since you happen to be here today, I’m just going to ask for an answer. If you say you really don’t want to, of course we’re not about to force you.”
Before Wu Du even begins to speak, Li Yanqiu seems to think of something and asks, “What’s your adoptive son’s name?”
“Wang Shan. We’re not adoptive father and son, but brothers. His father was older than me by a generation, and just before he died he entrusted his son to me, and bid me treat him well — that as long as I shall live I must not leave his side.”
Cai Yan takes a deep breath, staring at Wu Du, his eyebrows gradually drawing together. But Wu Du hasn’t spared a glance for Cai Yan at all and simply focuses his attention on Li Yanqiu.
Li Yanqiu has been thinking about something since he asked the last question, and at last he asks another, “When I saw him the other day, it looks like he’s maybe fifteen or sixteen already. Did he attend the civil exams this year?”
“Send someone to bring his exam papers, I’d like to see it,” Li Yanqiu orders.
Instantly, Cai Yan’s face turns ashen, and he looks down at the table.
Li Yanqiu waves dismissively. “That’s it for today, all of you may go — it must have been an exhausting day. Wu Du, you stay behind.”
“I’ll stay here to keep you company, uncle.”
Since his return to the palace, Cai Yan often refer to himself as your subject, imperial son; “uncle” is written shufu, shu as in uncle and fu as in father, and thus he’s treating Li Yanqiu as he would his own father.
Li Yanqiu is showing some signs of exhaustion. After all he’s been fighting with each of his functionaries in turn for an entire day and he really is worn out. He says to Cai Yan, “Go get some rest for now. Come keep me company in the evening.”
“Uncle …” Cai Yan still would like to insist, but Li Yanqiu is waving him away again, leaning against the resting bar on his desk. He closes his eyes and says no more.
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From the Records of the Grand Historian; before Fan Li escaped, he wrote these words into a letter for the chancellor to warn him that once he stops being useful, he’ll be gotten rid of. ↩︎