Joyful Reunion - Chapter 116
Book 3, Chapter 25 (Part 4)
As soon as Cai Yan excuses himself and takes Lang Junxia with him, Mu Kuangda also retires from the room. All’s quiet in the study, leaving Wu Du, Li Yanqiu, and Zheng Yan to themselves.
Li Yanqiu breaks this silence, speaking in a low voice, “You don’t want to join the Eastern Palace, and if it’s not for someone else’s sake, I presume it must be because of my son.”
Just as Cai Yan refers to himself as Li Yanqiu’s subject, imperial son, Li Yanqiu also refers to Cai Yan as his imperial son, an uncle is like a father; Li Yanqiu has no children of his own, so he pours all of his fatherly love into Cai Yan. The court officials naturally consider this improper and have called attention to it multiple times, but Li Yanqiu has turned a deaf ear to them. They treat each other as though they’re father and son, and have always called each other thus.
The words are on the tip of his tongue, but Wu Du quickly decides to keep them to himself.
Based upon his and Duan Ling’s analysis, they could have enemies anywhere at court — Li Yanqiu included. Duan Ling doesn’t really believe that, but even if it must be said, it would be something for Duan Ling to say, and not Wu Du.
“Your Majesty, it’s hardly so serious. I’ve never held an official position before, and I fear offending His Highness. Some in the world prefer life at court, others prefer to remain in the world beyond. Each to his own.”
“It’s probably not because you’d offend His Highness, but that His Highness has already offended you, am I right?” Li Yanqiu lightly raises an eyebrow. “He’d mentioned more than once that he’d only locked you away that day to pacify the anger the court officials and the military felt at the time, and once the general amnesty was declared, he’d simply let you out to give you a chance to make up for your previous transgression. As a disciple of the White Tiger Hall, your relationship to this empire is one of coexistence — its glory is yours, as is its shame. Why must you hold a petty grudge against the future ruler of the state?”
Wu Du remains silent. Li Yanqiu had sounded reproachful, but it seems he’s not angry at all. He merely lets out the lightest of sighs.
“Ever since the year you came out of White Tiger Hall, you’ve thought nothing of the government. I do wonder if it’s because you’re just the kind of person who’d never grow up or if that’s how the White Tiger Hall brought you up.”
Through all this, Wu Du remains silent.
There’s a long, long pause before Li Yanqiu speaks again. “I do recall that according to legend, there’s someone from two hundred odd years ago whose temperament resembled yours quite a lot.”
Wu Du looks as cold and indifferent as ever, but meanwhile Zheng Yan has understood what Li Yanqiu said, and breaks into a smile.
“This empire and I coexist; its glory is mine, as is its shame,” Wu Du replies.
“Exactly.” Li Yanqiu says, “You understand now?”
There are things that do not need to be elaborated upon, and those involved should have a thorough understanding of them regardless. Li Yanqiu knows that this is as far as he can go, for if he continues it will undoubtedly diminish his might as an emperor. Wu Du is not like the other three assassins — he’s the chief commander of all assassins in the land, and his allegiance represents the loyalty of all those underground societies operating in the world beyond their government.
Li Yanqiu is very aware of the fact that whether it’s the former emperor — his and his brother’s father — or the late Wulie Emperor2 who sacrificed himself, Li Jianhong, or even himself and his nephew, none of them have given Wu Du the respect he’s due. Centuries past, with nothing more than the Zhenshanhe in his hand, Wanlifu had helped Great Chen’s founding emperor bring peace to a warring world, expelling their foreign invaders, recovering their native land. If Wanlifu were still alive he should be on equal footing with the emperor.
On the surface it’s a vow of loyalty; in reality it’s coexistence.
But he cannot give Wu Du this equal footing — Wu Du is still too young, and Li Yanqiu has been keeping his negative thoughts to himself since Wu Du came out of White Tiger Hall and refused to attend to his proper duties, choosing to work for Zhao Kui. And it is precisely because of this that a deadlock has formed between the White Tiger Hall and the imperial clan.
Wu Du doesn’t have any influence or power. What’s left after a century of peace and prosperity of the nongovernmental societies and alliances is nothing more than a name. Even if every vigilante in the world gathers in the same spot, they won’t manage to do much.
But come what may, his status will alway remain right here.
His responsibility is to safeguard the Great Chen imperial court, but this is merely a responsibility, and not an obligation. If they want him to commit to his duty they must treat him with respect. Li Yanqiu often feels frustrated over this, because if his brother was still around, Wu Du would be compelled to swear his allegiance. And now he won’t give his allegiance; he neither gives it to Li Yanqiu nor the crown prince, nor does he give it to anyone else — he only swears it to one bravely departed man. It’ll be an embarrassment for Li Yanqiu to let Wu Du go, and if he’s unwilling there’s no point trying to win him over either. Li Yanqiu really is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Outside, an administrator of the secretariat begins to speak, “Your Majesty, we’ve found the exam paper, however …”
“Let him in,” Li Yanqiu says.
Zhen Yan opens the door, and one of the grading officials brings in a case of exam papers personally, filled with thin sheets of paper so soaked through with water that all the characters written on them have turned to a blurry mess, and the ink has already seeped from one layer to the next, sticking all the pages together.
Li Yanqiu and Wu Du both stare wordlessly at the mess.
Laughing, Zheng Yan reaches in and tries to pick some up several times before dropping them back in.
The official places the waterlogged wooden case on the floor, then drops to his knees to kowtow, saying in a trembling voice, “Days of excessive rain have drenched the scrolls depository, and the forty-one papers in total that were kept in this one case were mostly ruined by the flooding. We couldn’t find Wang Shan’s exam paper, so it was likely among these … I am so very sorry.”
Wu Du seems at a loss, and he turns to Li Yanqiu.
All of a sudden, Li Yanqiu isn’t really sure what he can do either. One cannot help a natural disaster, so he’s not going to worry about it, and neither will he lay blame on the scholars — after all, it’s someone else’s job to chase down those accountable for a thing like this.
“Send for Xie You,” Li Yanqiu says. “Get someone to summon to the palace all of the examinees whose exam papers were ruined by water. Get it done tonight.”
Outside, it’s still raining; Duan Ling is sitting on the daybed ruminating. Mu Kuangda is back before Wu Du though, and as soon as he gets back, he sends for Duan Ling.
“I thought you would have advised Wu Du to join the Eastern Palace.” Mu Kuangda takes a cup of tea from the maid, and without even sparing a glance at Duan Ling, he takes off the lid and drinks several sips. “Not just anyone can become the Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent, you know.”
“I … I had no idea.” Duan Ling replies, “Was he really offered the position?”
Mu Kuangda’s eyes show just slightly above the lip of the teacup as he peers at Duan Ling from behind it.
“For now, let’s not talk about whether you knew about it or not. Now that His Majesty has asked to see him personally, and he wants to read your exam papers today, he’s most likely going to offer Wu Du an exchange. If he summons you to the palace later, do you know what you should say?”
Duan Ling feels unsettled, and doesn’t answer.
Mu Kuangda then says, “Everyone other than Wang Shan may go.”
Once Mu Kuangda has cleared the room of the others, they’re left to themselves. Duan Ling is keeping mum, but his mind is moving a mile a minute. Duan Ling is one of the people who knows about the fake crown prince. Since that night, Mu Kuangda has never mentioned it, so he probably already has a plan, but Duan Ling has no idea how he’s going to overthrow Cai Yan, nor whose hands he’ll be using to overthrow Cai Yan.
Sending Wu Du to take up residency in the Eastern Palace would be an extremely advantageous move for their side; Wu Du will be able to get closer to the crown prince, where he can gather evidence to feed to Mu Kuangda.
And as Duan Ling expected he would, Mu Kuangda says, “My apprentice, this will kill two birds with one stone, so why are you still trying to make excuses?”
Duan Ling knows he’s not going to get away without making any promises this time. If he refuses again Mu Kuangda will definitely suspect something. “Yes, when Wu Du comes back I’ll make sure to persuade him.”
It is only then that Mu Kuangda nods, satisfied, studying the look on Duan Ling’s face; Duan Ling feels a little uneasy.
“I have only ever taken two apprentices. Shan’er, destiny brought you to me.”
Duan Ling gets down on the floor and kowtows.
“And rarer still, you know what I want. Somebody else would never have acted first and asked later the way you did in Tongguan.”
“It was all because of your teachings, master.”
Mu Kuangda’s tone takes a sudden turn. “Since you know what I want, I’m sure I won’t need to say more.”
Duan Ling’s blood turns cold — he knows Mu Kuangda is always putting words between the lines, and if that’s what he’s saying, then he must want Duan Ling to make Wu Du move to the palace to gather evidence so that Mu Kuangda can put his plans into motion.
“Certainly,” Duan Ling says.
Somehow, he’s unwittingly ended up on the same boat as Mu Kuangda; he wonders what Mu Kuangda’s going to think once he finds out that Duan Ling is actually the real crown prince.
Outside, Chang Liujun coughs to get their attention. “Lord Chancellor, Zheng Yan’s here.”
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“Once you drink this cup of tea, get yourself in order, and be prepared for what you ought to do. You’ve had your vacation, and what should be given to you has already been given to you. How far you manage to go will depend entirely on yourself.”
Duan Ling takes the tea from Mu Kuangda, drinks it, turns the cup over on the table, and kowtows to him again. When he goes outside, he finds Zheng Yan standing in the veranda.
“His Majesty would like to see you.” Zheng Yan says to Duan Ling. “Let’s go.”
Duan Ling already knows why, but he pretends he has no idea. “What is it?”
“He’s going to give you something to eat,” Zheng Yan says with a smile.3
Duan Ling regards Zheng Yan, unsure for the moment whether he’s telling the truth. When they get to the palace, he can hear a clamorous crowd not too far away. Though night has already fallen and the skies are heavy with rain clouds, with water dripping like a thick curtain down the eaves, the palace is rather lively this evening.
“Over this way,” Zheng Yan says.
Duan Ling stares at the distant crowd and finds it made up mostly of young people. “What are they doing here?”
“It’s none of your concern. Don’t ask too many questions, and keep your eyes to yourself.”
Zheng Yan leads Duan Ling into an empty palace hall with nothing in it save for a single desk and seating mat.
“Sit,” Zheng Yan tells him.
Duan Ling sits down then. Zheng Yan rises to leave the room, and Duan Ling, instinctively finding it dangerous to be alone, says, “Hey! Where’re you going?”
“I’ll be right back,” Zheng Yan’s voice says.
Duan Ling is about to get up and leave, but then he hears Zheng Yan asking a question in the corridor. “Is everything ready?”
“Everything is ready,” says the guard outside.
Zheng Yan comes back in, this time with a food box in his hand that he opens in front of Duan Ling. It has four beautifully arranged square compartments, and a bowl sits at the side, holding a white soup with several leaves of tender green artemesia shoots floating on the top.4 The only thing Duan Ling recognises is white rice in one of the boxes, and even the rice is decorated with a single pear flower.
Duan Ling stares at it in a daze.
“Eat first.” Zheng Yan carries over a chair, and sitting outside the door he pulls a bottle of wine out of his robe.
“What … What is this?” Duan Ling says with astonishment and tries a bite. He can’t tell what exactly he’s eating. All he knows is that it’s unbelievably delicious.
“Qiantang style shredded pork, cabbage heart, lotus root stuffed nine-ways.“ Zheng Yan drones, “take your time, don’t choke now.”5
Duan Ling nearly dies choking and takes a sip of the soup. Zheng Yan adds, “The soup is made of simmered blowfish. And now that you’ve had my food, you belong to me. Let’s go have our wedding night at the end of the evening — at any rate, Wu Du’s already given you to me.”
Duan Ling nearly spits out the soup; the only thought in his head isn’t actually “this bastard” but “good thing I didn’t spit it out, ‘cause what a waste that would have been”.
It’s the first time in his life that Duan Ling has ever had food this good. A lotus pod has nine holes, and the ingredients stuffed into each is different, though he only recognises pork, chicken, fish, preserved pork belly, and ham. And somehow Zheng Yan has managed to slice the stuffed lotus so thin they’re like sheets of paper without the stuffing falling apart. He’s not sure how the cabbage hearts were cooked, but they sit half open like blooming flowers. The tastiest dish of them all though is the shredded pork — soft to the bite and not at all greasy, with only a touch of vinegar, and the taste is balanced perfectly between savoury and sweet.
It doesn’t even take Duan Ling a half hour before he polishes off everything in the food box, barely resisting the urge to lick it.
Having eaten this meal Zheng Yan prepared, Duan Ling feels like he’s lived the past sixteen years in vain.
It would be so nice if Wu Du can cook like this too.
I do not monetise my hobby translations, but if you’d like to support my work generally or support my light novel habit, you can either buy me a coffee or commission me. This is also to note that if you see this message anywhere else than on tumblr, do come to my tumblr. It’s ad-free. ↩︎
Wulie is Li Jianhong’s posthumous title, but don’t worry about it, it’s only mentioned once. Wulie is also Sun Jian’s posthumous title. ↩︎
This can be read literally as “he’s going to reward you with rice/a meal” or “he’s going to give you a job”. The term “rice bowl” can also mean a job in Chinese. ↩︎
Supposedly, by simmering young shoots of artemesia, Chinese cabbage, and blowfish together, it can neutralise blowfish poison. ↩︎
Qiantang is a place in Hanzhou. ↩︎