I'm not exactly sure what I feel about this chapter yet, since I've taken to translating on my phone now that I've got a lot less time. As a result, I've haven't properly re-read this chapter. Thoughts will be posted after I'm done. It definitely is another sad chapter though ): When Liu Fu Ling died, he seemed to have taken all the light and fluff away as well.
Update: CHAPTER COMPLETE
On the 26th day after Liu Fu Ling's death, the Grand Marshal Huo Guang presented Empress Dowager Shang Guan's edict, placing Liu He under house arrest and ordering Fan Ming You to lead the imperial guards in arresting every official that accompanied Liu He from Chang Yi.
The command Huo Guang gave Fan Ming You the night before was : make it look like an arrest, but kill them all. Due to the unexpected occurrence in their plans, the subjects of Chang Yi would never take this lying down and would have protested so Fan Ming You could just take this opportunity to kill them in the name of 'defying orders'. However, the news seemed to have been somehow leaked. When Fan Ming You arrived with his troops, it was as if Liu He had warned them ahead of time - no matter how his men provoked them, everyone kept mum, and their heads down. With no fault to be found, Fan Ming You had no choice but to first arrest those men.
On the 27th day of Liu Fu Ling's death, Empress Dowager Shang Guan issued an edict, disposing Liu He, and crowning Liu Xun.
Liu Xun entered the palace to pay his respects to Liu Fu Ling, acknowledging him as his grandfather, and addressing himself as Liu Fi Ling's grandson. Then he went to visit Empress Dowager Shang Guan to perform his bows, acknowledging her as his grandmother.
After the grand bow, Empress Dowager Shang Guan ordered for tea to be served to Liu Xun. Liu Shun made use of this chance to ask softly "My lord marquis, would you like a change of clothes?"
Liu He froze for a moment, accepting the tea without showing any reaction, then bent to express his thanks to the Empress Dowager. After a few sips, Liu Xun asked to be excused, hinting at an urgent need to change his clothes. The moment he stepped out for the hall, a pretty palace maid with an egg-shaped face smiled and bobbed a bow. "Your servant Cheng'er will assist my lord in the Shang Yi pavilion."
Liu Xun nodded, silently trailing behind Cheng'er. They really did end up in Shang Yi pavilion for him to change. Cheng'er gestured for Liu Xun to sit "Please sit for a moment while your servant prepares the fragrances."
Liu Xun sat on the perfumed couch, his mind whirling with questions, what was Shang Guan Xiao Mei really trying to do? Suddenly a line from the "Record of a Grand Historian" flashed through his mind "When the Emperor rose for a change of clothes, Zi Fu waited in the Shang Yi pavilion and gained favour!" He only thought that the scene in front of him seemed uncannily familiar and couldn't help but laugh drily. Princess Shang Ping used Wei Zi Fu to gain favour, enticing Liu Che, bringing forth the phrase "The balladeers enter as the Emperor only entertains Zi Fu." If Shang Guan Xiao Mei intended to use Princess Yang Ping's ploy to curry favour then she would be totally underestimating him. However....could he afford to offend Empress Dowager Shang Guan at this point? Could he not accept her favour?
In that instant, he somewhat understood the "urgent lust" Liu Che must have faced then. Lust wasn't just lust, favour wasn't favour. Liu Che might have slept with Wei Zi Fu but the true message he was sending was that he was accepting Princess Yang Ping's loyalty. This was a wordless alliance, showing that from that point on, besides the Empress' Chen clan, he was also acknowledging Princess Yang Ping's power. If he had refused Princess Yang Ping then, and not bestowed his favour on Wei Zi Fu, what would the power shift at court have looked like? Before having a clear understanding of Liu Che's intentions, Princess Yang Ping would definitely not have gone against the Chen clan, then the rest wouldn't have happened.
Cheng'er entered with the fragrance, and instruments to cleanse his hands. Liu Xun looked at her with a ghost of a smile.
She bent her head low and raised the wooden tray, bringing the handkerchief to Liu Xun, then softly said "My lord marquis, please cleanse your hands."
Liu Xun didn't move, and Cheng'er felt a little awkward, since she now had to lift a corner of the handkerchief herself.
The moment Liu Xun caught a glimpse of the national seal, his eyes grew round as he looked at Cheng'er in shock. Cheng'er felt herself calm down in the face of his shock "Your servant is giving them to my lord marquis on the Empress Dowager's orders."
Liu Xun opened his mouth to speak, but his throat seemed to have dried up, and nothing came out.
Cheng'er placed the tray by his side and retreated with a bow "Please make yourself at home, my lord marquis. Your servant will wait outside."
Liu Xun gripped the national seal tightly, the last of his worries fading. He should have been happy, but he felt strangely uncomfortable, as Liu Fu Ling's peaceful face flashed across his mind.
He had entered his shabby hut, changing his life forever; he gave him an official position, and the title of Marquis; he personally taught him the format of imperial edicts, the types of edicts, what seal should be used for each, giving him the education a prince of his blood should have received, how to manage the officials at court; speaking slowly as he stood in front of a sprawling map of the Han empire.....
When Liu Xun returned, Shang Guan Xiao Mei's face showed signs of tiredness as she commanded him to follow the officials back.
Liu Xun knelt in front of Shang Guan Xiao Mei, and kowtowed three times. He said with sincerity "Your majesty, I will do my best to be filial to you as your grandson."
Xiao Mei have him a small smile and said very graciously "I have long since been accustomed to being alone in my hall, and do not like disturbing others, nor do I like being disturbed. After I move to Chang Le palace, you do not need to come pay your respects every day. The best way to show your filial piety would be to govern wisely. "
Naturally, Liu Xun agreed without hesitation.
After leaving Jiao Fang Hall, Liu Xun said he wanted to walk alone and all the other officials immediately chose to wisely take their leave.
It wasn't long before Liu Xun was left alone in the grand hall.
In the clear blue sky, the round sun hang proudly from it, casting it's light across the land. The sunlight was strong, so strong others had to squint but Liu Xun didn't avoid it. On the contrary, he welcomed it, walking towards it as he took in the surrounding palace walls. From this day on, everything here belonged to him!
He started towards Xuan Shi Hall, commanding Qi Xi who was headed towards him "Summon Meng Jue to the palace."
Meng Jue came, bearing the edict. The moment he stepped foot into Xuan Shi Hall, he saw Liu Xun sitting on the dragon couch. He remembered how there was someone else sitting on that couch just the last time he was here and smiled, proceeding to kneel and give a grand bow to Liu Xun. Liu Xun only spoke after his kowtows were over "You were my old friend when I was poor, why fore the formalities?"
Meng Jue replied respectfully "Your majesty is high above all else, your subject would never scrimp on formalities."
"I still have to thank you for being able to sit here right now. Without your people helping to mobilise the Prince of Guang Ling into heading for the capital, I'm afraid Huo Guang would never have come to a decision so quickly. I must also thank you for being cooped up at home gardening during the past twenty odd days."
"Your majesty is where you are today purely because of your bravery and wit, this has nothing to do with your humble subject."
Liu Xun laughed "Henceforth, my every move will be under scrutiny; if the people find out that my wife has been missing for twenty odd days, there will be enquiries. What is my beloved subject Meng Jue esteemed opinion?"
Meng Jue only smiled coolly "If Yun Ge is safe, then naturally Xu Ping Jun and Liu Shi will be too."
Liu Xun remained silent for a moment "You actually have no need to threaten me. I will not harm Yun Ge. I was only forced to do it to keep you at home, ensuring that you wouldn't interfere in my plans. I will release her very soon."
"Many thanks for your majesty's graciousness." Meng Jue kowtowed. "Your subject wishes to make one more request, please allow your subject to meet with the disgraced subject - Liu He"
"He is in Huo Guang's hands."
"Which is way your subject has come
to beg your majesty, to grant this one favour."
Liu Xun looked torn "I'll do my best!"
Meng Jue left Xuan Shi Hall after kowtowing again.
Liu Xun remained for a while longer, then got up and left.
Qi Xi and two junior eunuchs hurried to catch up with him.
Liu Xun walked silently, heading further and further. As he wasn't wearing the imperial robes, no one recognised him other than the palace maids and eunuchs serving in the bigger halls like Xuan Shi Hall or Jiao Fang Hall. When their entourage passed them, they all quickly paid Qi Xi their respects, conversely ignoring Liu Xun. Qi Xi wanted to rebuke them a few times but was stopped with a look from Liu Xun. He could only follow uneasily.
The tiled path was rather bumpy, with weeds peeping through the cracks, the tallest of them falling just short of knee-length. The original colour of the pillars lining the corridors can no longer be seen; only random smudges of black and red remained, emphasising the place's dilapidated state. Only the tall walls tightly wrapping the area served as a reminder that this land was imperial ground.
Standing outside, one could already feel the cold draft. Not even the bright sunlight could penetrate through the gloominess of this place.
A few guards blocked the door, coldly admonishing "This is the Cold Palace, the quarters for concubines found guilty of crimes. You can't just enter as you wish."
Qi Xi quickly went up to the guard and flashed his seal hanging from his waist. When the guard saw that he served the Emperor, he became a lot more polite "Since you are from Xuan Shi Hall, you would naturally know the rules. The people imprisoned here are not just the concubines and palace maids of Emperor Xiao Wu, but also the relatives of guilty officials. Since they are all women, not even we can enter."
Qi Xi tried persuading him but the guard would not budge, telling him that he either needed the Supervisor of the palace's token, or an imperial edict."
This angered Qi Xi, but Liu Xun only smiled "What is your name?"
The guard answered steadily "Gong Sun Zhi."
Liu Xun unfurled his fingers, and there was a seal nestled in his palm.
"Now may we enter?"
Gong Sun Zhi saw that it was the Supervisor of the Palace's token and was struck dumb. He moved aside. "Please enter."
As Liu Xun walked, he nonchalantly passed the token to Qi Xi. Qi Xi hesitated before accepting the token, hurriedly getting on his knees and kowtowing to Liu Xun's back "Thank you for your favour, your majesty. Thank you for your favour, your majesty."
Liu Xun never paused, heading straight ahead. A few old palace maids yawned while leaning against the wall. When they saw him, they opened their mouths to admonish him when two men in black ran out, bowed, and started to lead the way. The old palace maids quickly shut their mouths.
Liu Xun told Qi Xi "Wait here for me."
The men in black led Liu Xun for a whole before stopping and pointing to the house on the left, saying softly "That's where she's kept."
A dilapidated house, the weeds had grown well over the threshold. The tattered curtains hanging by the windows howled when the wind blew, like a woman sobbing.
Liu Xun asked "Has she been well?"
The man in black replied "She hasn't spoken. To our surprise, she has been very obedient, never fussing or making too much noise. Miss Huo visited once and used a whip to whip her."
Liu Xun's brows knitted together almost imperceptibly as he asked coldly "Was she very badly whipped?"
"In any case, she is still alive. We found a old palace maid imprisoned here and asked her to take care of her."
With a wave of his hand, the men in black were dismissed. He walked towards the window and looked inside.
A person lay sleeping on the pallet, unmoving, her black hair spilling across the pillow, and her face covered.
Liu Xun stood there for a while before he sensed something was wrong and walked into the room in a few strides, grabbing the person on the pallet. To his surprise it was a woman of about forty. Angered, he shouted "Men!"
A man in black rushed in and knelt immediately when he saw the woman on the pallet. "Your servant...your servant..." But he just couldn't figure how to explain the situation.
Liu Xun was an exceptional man. He calmed himself down immediately, knowing that his servant wasn't the cause of the problem. He dismissed him with a wave and looked at the woman on the pallet. "Do you wish to live, or die?"
The woman smiled, a cynical coldness in her eyes. "Someone had already asked me those exact same words earlier this morning. So I lay here and changed the girl out."
People who didn't care about anything were the hardest to deal with - Liu Xun started to think of what he should do to make this woman talk.
As the woman stared hard at Liu Xun, the coldness in her eyes slowly ebbed away, to be replaced with shock "Your family name is Liu? Your eyes really resemble the emperor, but your chin, your nose look somewhat like the crown prince....you....you..."
Liu Xun replied "My family name is Liu, and my name is Xun."
Suddenly, she started to tremble uncontrollably. She raised a shaky hand to caress his face, tears falling swiftly from her eyes "You...you..."
Liu Xun wasn't alarmed at all, allowing her to caress his face "I'm alive."
She grabbed him in an embrace, crying and laughing all at the same time like she was a mad woman "You're so big now. The last time I saw you, you were still cradled in the Crown Prince's arms. His highness would have been happy, so very happy...."
Liu Xun already understood what was going on, and only stood there, allowing her to hug him.
After her crying and laughing subsided, she looked anxiously outside. "What are you doing here? You have to leave! You can't be discovered!"
She had been imprisoned in this palace for so long that she was completely unaware of the changes outside. Liu Xun felt his heart tighten, and he gently told her everything. It was only then that she found out that Liu Xun was the new emperor; although she was long used to the huge changes blowing through the palace, and the changes of people's fortune, she was still shocked beyond belief. She started to cry and laugh again, unable to comport herself.
Through her choppy narration, Liu Xun was able to find out this woman's identity. Her family name was Xia, and she was the late emperor's palace maid, serving in his palace. He was certain that wasn't all to it from her expression, but he let it slide. Let her say whatever she wished to! His body and bones had long grew cold, but the living must still continue living. Everything that has been buried in the past shall remain buried.
After she had calmed down somewhat, Liu Xun asked "Granny, where did the person imprisoned here go?"
"I didn't know she was your majesty's
woman and I owed the Huo family a favour, so....so I let them take her away."
"In this court, who else may freely enter and leave the palace besides his men?"
Liu Xun said "I'll have to ask Granny to condescend to staying here for a few more days. Once everything has settled down, I will send someone to receive you."
She had spent close to twenty years under house arrest, and had always thought that this bleak part of the palace would be her home forever. To see that she had a day to leave this place didn't bring her the joy he thought it would, only a vacant blankness in her eyes as she nodded slightly.
He just reached the door when she said "Your majesty, please wait! I just remembered..."
He turned back.
She chose her words carefully "When I was younger, I had read a few medical books and thus have some medical knowledge. I saw that woman seemed to be with child, please try to bring her back to the palace as soon as possible, your majesty!"
Liu Xun's face changed as a flash of coldness crossed his face "What did you say?"
Granny Xia said apologetically "I'm not sure myself either since I only cared for her for twenty days, but I think she is. I know I shouldn't voice my conjecture, but if she is really bearing an Emperor's child, this matter would be of utmost importance....so I didn't dare to hide it."
Liu Xun walked out with his head heavy but still with light steps.
Liu Fu Ling has a child!
Liu Fu Ling has a child!
Granny Xia's words kept repeating in his head.
If Liu Fu Ling has a child, then what would become of everything he had done this past month? Does Huo Guang know that Yun Ge is pregnant? If Huo Guang knows that there is an impressionable child that he can control, would he still need a pawn like him? If Zhao Guo Cong and the rest ever finds out that Liu Fu Ling has a child, would they still be loyal to him? If...If..
All infinite possibilities, all making his heart race and his steps unsteady.
The moment he had the national deal
in his hands, he thought everything had been settled - this palace, and everything under it, was now his! He would have never imagined that the Heavens would secretly arrange for another tiny master, what was he then?
No! This could never happen! This palace and everything under it is his! He is the master of them all!
He had already lost it once, there can never be a second time. The last time, he was helpless, his fate decided solely by the Heavens. This time, he would fight, he will never bend his head and accept this fate.
His unsteady steps slowly became more measured, his flustered gaze returned to calm and cold as he started to think and strategise.
Counting back, even if Yun Ge was pregnant, she'd only be one or two months along. He only found out through pure coincidence; Huo Guang wouldn't know so early.
He relaxed a bit when he thought of that part and started to walk faster towards Xuan Shi Hall. "Qi Xi, summon Zhao Guo Cong, Zhang An Shi, Juan Bu Yi to the palace."
He must be crowned as soon as possible!
The waning moon was like a hook, the chilly sky like snow.
There were several Chinese parasol trees in the yard, their grey twigs shivering in the chilly wind. A layer of frost coated the concrete steps, giving the illusion that it just snowed when the moonlight shined upon it. There was no blemish on the frost, showing that no one had stepped out or entered in some time.
Si Yue stood at the entrance to the yard, softly saying "His highness had kept himself locked up inside, none of us dare to...since Hong Yi's death, his highness seemed to have become a different person..."
Meng Jue's eyes were like ice shards, silencing Si Yue with one look. Si Yue didn't dare to continue, and retreated silently after a bow. Meng Jue stepped over the cold frost, and slowly climbed up the stairs. The door wasn't closed tightly and opened with just the slightest touch.
The house inside was littered with wine jars, and a sour smell wafted through the air amidst the strong smell of wine. Liu He lay on the pallet, his hair dishevelled and his purple robes in disarray.
Meng Jue stood on the edge of the pallet, coldly observing Liu He.
Liu He seemed to have sobered up slightly with the entrance of the chilly wind. He turned over, murmuring "Wine, wine..."
Meng Jue picked up a barrel and casually poured it at Liu He. Liu He slurped a few mouthfuls before his eyes suddenly flew open. Meng Jue continued to pour the wine, a smile playing on his lips. Liu He stared dumbly at Meng Jue as the wine continued to flow down his face, swiftly drenching his blanket, his clothes. As the cold wind passed by, he shivered, fully awakened from his stupor.
When Meng Jue was done with one jug, he picked up another and continued to pour wine over Liu He.
"Are you done playing? No matter how low I've fallen, I'm still a prince. What are you to me? Get out of here!"
Liu He raised his hand to hit Meng Jue, they both didn't move, exchanging a few blows with their palms. Liu He was slightly better and quickly gained the upper hand, sending Meng Jue's wine jug flying. It crashed against the wall, shattering into pieces.
The house started to smell of wine; the smell was so strong that one could get drunk on just the smell alone.
Meng Jue retreated and stood with his hands behind him, smiling "Well, it looks like you're sober now. Mind if I speak?"
"Since I entered the capital, I haven't seen or heard from you, why do you suddenly speak again? I haven't got anything to say to you." Liu He moved to the table besides the pallet, casually scooping up a jug of wine. After gulping down a few mouthfuls "My dear lord Meng, I suggest you better rush to tend to the new emperor. Once he is enthroned, you will definitely rise in ranks."
Meng Jue couldn't be bothered to explain, neither was he angered. He merely smiled "Thanks for your auspicious words! First I've got a question for you, how did a bunch of men in black suddenly appear by Liu Xun's side? They are highly skilled and disciplined; these people can't be of gallants of Jianghu. Liu He can't be short to men to aid him, but where did he get the money to train these people?"
Liu He was stunned into silence for a while, and then he understood, saying "Do you still remember the King of Qiangs Ke'er Da Da? Back then, his majesty told Liu Xun that he would give him money and resources, and requested that he figure a way to secretly infiltrate the Qiang tribe. Now that I think about it, Liu Xun must have had used this money to secretly train his army."
There was still suspicion in Meng Jue's eyes as his brows knit tightly. Liu He sighed softly "His majesty must have had known all these moves Liu Xun made."
A cold smile curled on Meng Jue's lips "If Liu FunL Ling had known what Liu Xun made them do, I wonder what his thoughts might have been."
Liu He asked, surprised "What did Liu Xun make them do? Although this army is made imitating the structure of the imperial guards, they are two, maybe three thousand strong at best. That isn't worth much."
Meng Jue didn't answer his question. He turned one around, taking in the house and it's contents, then started to open all the boxes and pack it's things.
Liu He jumped up, moving to block Meng Jue "What are you doing? These are Hong Yi's things!"
"I want to take her things away, and her coffin."
"To hell with you! Hong Yi was my residence's person in life and she will haunt it in death. And what right do you have?"
Meng Jue laughed coldly "You couldn't even protect a mere girl, what right do you have to shout?"
Meng Jue's words prodded at Liu He's sore wound, and Liu He was struck dumb. He still stood there protecting the case, but his face was stark with sadness and loneliness.
"You didn't fight when you were supposed to, nor retreat when you were supposed to, always being so ambiguous. The only thing that remains constant is your suspicion of me. At such a crucial time you actually went back to Chang Yi, looking like you weren't interested in the throne. Since you weren't interested, why couldn't you stay uninterested? So that everyone could have been safe!"
"His majesty had no intention of passing the throne to me! He asked that I leave Chang An, I..." Liu He wanted to say, he didn't want to turn his back on Liu Fu Ling's final request, but there were some things he just couldn't explain to Meng Jue, and Meng Jue would never understand the respect and gratitude he had for Liu Fu Ling.
"Who cares whether Liu Fu Ling intended for you to succeed the throne or not! If you want it, fight for it! If you manage to rein in Huo Guang and use him, then you gain the upper hand! What is so scary about Zhao Cong Guo, Zhang He and the rest? As long as you get rid of Liu Xun swiftly, if they don't get behind you, who else can they support? Everyone trained by Second Brother was waiting for word from you in Chang An, I was afraid you needed men so I didn't dare to use the few that were the most skilled; but who have you used? The power play in Chang An is shaped by who is the fastest and the most ruthless, what were you doing for days on end? You wanted it, but you were hemmed and hawed more than a maiden in a bridal sedan. It's okay for you to hem and haw but..." Meng Jue's face turned white at the thought of Hong Yi.
Liu He opened his mouth to speak, looked at Meng Jue, then closed it again. Power to him was just a tool, it wasn't his aim. If for a tool, he turn his back on his aim, then he would rather choose to give up. He had enough of the ugliness of fighting for power! Whether it be the past, the present or the future, he would never allow himself to sink to the ugliness he once hated just for power. He respected and was thankful to Liu Fu Ling, not just because he had once saved him, or saved Yue Sheng, not because Liu Fu Ling trusted him unreservedly, giving him a platform to shine, but because through Liu Fu Ling he saw that there was another way of interpreting power - there was goodness, chivalry, generosity, understanding and poise. Liu Fu Ling was thoroughly trained by Liu Che, whether it be how to govern a kingdom or the plots to gain power, who would know more than him? He had yet to ascend the throne before his mother died, when he was newly established on the throne, the princes of the border eyed his throne hungrily, shortly after, the three powerful ministers forced him into a corner every time, whether it be facing a complicated struggle for power or dangerous situations, who could compare to him? He had more reason than anyone to wield the ruthless sword of an Emperor to pave his way, using his unlimited power to rid himself of anyone and anything against him. As long as the end was good, it didn't matter how bad the means were, for some things just had to be sacrificed for the greater good, this had been the principle countless emperors had lived by, people would even praise the intelligence of such emperors but Liu Fu Ling wasn't like any of them! As long as he steeled his heart, everything would have been much easier, simpler, safer, but he chose to tread down a different path.
Since young, everything, from his imperial grandfather's teachings, his mother's lessons, to everything he had seen, heard and experienced showed him that power represented ruthlessness and everything ugly. In his heart, he hated it, but his blood craved for it. Under the layers of his frivolous activities and smiles, hid his pain and confusion. It was that which drove him to lead a life of decadence. However, through his own actions, Liu Fu Ling had absolved his pain and confusion, leading him to understand that power in its purest form wasn't ruthless, it was man that was ruthless. Neither was power in itself ugly, humans were the ugly ones.
Liu He wanted to explain himself, but how easy could it have been for him to explain his growth philosophically from young till now? In the end, he just heaved a long sigh "Xiao Jue, you and I are different. The principles I abide by are the ones you'd never understand. Even if you did, you would look down on them. To me, although the end is important, but the means are equally important. Now, I neither care whether I live or die, but I wish to ask you a favour. Please grant it on behalf of Hong Yi and Second Brother."
Meng Jue's face turned even whiter, showing his anger. Liu He ignored the signs, continuing with his speech "When Yue Sheng first entered my residence, he became fast friends with Wang Ji and the rest. I beg you to save them on his behalf."
Although Meng Jue was equally sad and angry, he didn't have any cold retort in hand; as in the letter Yue Sheng wrote him, he truly did mention Wang Ji's name. He talked of Wang Jue's kindness towards him; Yue Sheng also managed to find favour in Liu He's eyes also because of Wang Ji's recommendation.
Liu He saw that Meng Jue didn't raise any objection and gave Meng Jue a grand bow. "Many thanks! Wang Ji is an honest man and would never wish to see his fellow men walk to their deaths while he escapes cleanly. Tell him that I only intended to use Huo Guang to get rid of these people. Please tell him to take care of himself and that I'm leaving him to care for my estate. As for the rest, save them if you can! I...I've let them down!"
Meng Jue laughed mockingly "Such a 'clever' prince of Chang Yi you are! Since you are so intelligent and kind, how could you have forgotten about Hong Yi's life? How could you bring her to this dangerous land?" Now that things have come to this, he was going to cut off all ties to Liu He, there was nothing more to say. He tried to push Liu He away to get to Hong Yi's things.
Liu He blocked Meng Jue's hand "Xiao Jue, I know you've always treated Hong Yi as your sister. It's my fault that I couldn't care for her, but I can't let you have her things. Whether I live or die this time, in the end she will be buried with me. Everything I've wronged her for in this life, I will make it up to her in the afterlife."
Liu He's tone was very calm, he looked calm, but his calmness and acceptance was of those who had already lost their heart to despair.
Meng Jue looked at him, then burst out laughing. With a shake of his head, and his tone mocking, he said "Liu He, Liu He! Have you not thought this through before?"
Liu He only said calmly "I thought I was extremely clever but in actual fact I've been dumb. I thought my frivolous and ridiculous activities were
for show, but when the show has gone on for too long, I really became dumb. I couldn't tell what was what I really wanted, and couldn't differentiate the real from the fake."
What is real? And what isn't? When the whole world has taken you for a ridiculous and dumb man, can you truly say that you were clear headed? When everyone around you also thought you were lecherous and playful, could she ever wish that you would treat her sincerely?
When fake becomes real, then real can become fake too.
Meng Jue burst out laughing "Great! I shall leave Hong Yi's coffin and things with you! A few days ago when I first received news of her death, my first reaction was regret - I regretted not killing you when I could. Was it not enough that you caused the death of Second Brother, that you had to cause Hong Yi's death too? Just a moment ago, I was still debating whether I should use Huo Guang or Liu Xun's hand to off you, letting you rest eternally in Chang An; but now I've decided to wash my hands off this matter, for your fate no longer matters to me. If you really want Hong Yi's things and coffin, I shall leave them with you!"
Meng Jue waved his thanks away "No need to thank me. The pain of death only lasts an instant, but I only wish to see you living in the pain of regret for the rest of your life!"
Liu He's eyes clouded with hurt, his eyes having lost their sparkle and light.
Meng Jue asked "Do you still remember what Second Brother said before he died?"
Liu He was silent for a long while before slowly starting to narrate "Back then, the Emperor summoned the princes of the border to hunt at Gan Quan Mountain and Yue Sheng accompanied me. We were still young and unafraid, and I was extremely rash and insulted the Prince of Yan in my words. He tried to set a trap to kill me, Yue Sheng saw the signs early on and tried to warn me to keep my guard up and stick close by his majesty’s side, but I thought that I was highly skilled and intelligent, and didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I was surrounded by five black bears that I realised the limits of human strength. In my moment of danger, Yue Sheng rushed to the scene. Then….by the time his majesty rushed over with troops, Yue Sheng had already gone, they only managed to save the heavily injured me.” It was as if the scene was replaying before him once again, two brothers standing side by side in battle, facing down five black bears, but without fear, attacking and retreating while talking and laughing.
Ever since young, all Liu He had witnessed were calculating wives, husbands who hated their wives, sons plotting against their fathers, fathers massacring their sons, sons fighting to stand out, sisters fighting for favour. Before he met Yue Sheng, he never believed the words ‘bosom friends’ truly existed. In his whole life, that day was the day he relished most, and that very day was when he experienced the greatest pain!
“….Yue Sheng was torn into half by a bear. He died quickly, before he died, he reminded to me to repay his favour on his behalf, and told me to take good care of you, but when have you ever needed me to care for you?”
Meng Jue calmly said “If I remember correct, what you told me was ‘Big Brother, help me take care….take care…’ He didn’t manage to finish his words before he was gone, together with his hate and regrets.”
Liu He nodded woodenly “Yes.”
Meng Jue laughed “My dear brother, the person he wanted you to take care of wasn’t me.”
Liu He was taken aback “You were Yue Sheng’s only relative; he was only talking about you the whole day. If he wasn’t referring to you, then who could it have been?”
Meng Jue only smiled at him, his eyes glinting like cold shards of ice.
Liu He felt his whole body growing cold; he really wanted to reject the answer that lay ahead, because he knew the answer might just be even worse than death, but he had to continue listening.
“It was Hong Yi.” Meng Jue seemed to be relishing the expression on Liu He’s face, slowly enunciating each syllable. “Second Brother was a noble and heroic man; why else would he have been willing to lower himself to work in your residence? Because Hong Yi was his biological sister! When she was young, her parents sold her to slave traders, who then sold her to your residence.” Liu He started to shake uncontrollably. “Yue Sheng…he…why didn’t tell me?’
“If he had told you, would you have been able to prevent your mother from poisoning her, causing her to go mute? If he had told you, would you have been able to lessen her grievances? If he had told you, what could you have done?” Liu He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His body started to shake even more.
“Second Brother wanted to take Hong Yi away, but she refused.”
“Then, when I found your residence, I was going to tell you that Hong Yi was his sister but Hong Yi refused to let me say it. She wanted to tell you in her own time.” “Why?” Liu He’s voice was like a taut string about to break, he was like a drowning man, able to see the crashing waves, his eyes full of fear, but on his face, complete helplessness. “Because she only wanted to be with you in this life, so she didn’t want to life. If you found out she was Yue Sheng’s sister, you have treated her extremely well, trying to make up for your guilt towards him. Maybe you would have flouted all imperial regulations and installed a mute as your imperial concubine, but she didn’t want all these, because she wanted you to be nice to her just the way she was.” Meng Jue smiled. “What a pity! Hong Yi didn’t have the opportunity to tell you. With women coming and going around your highness, what is Hong Yi to you? Only a mute! Merely a lowly slave that your family bought….”
Liu He’s normally commanding figure seemed to have shrunk a lot, he took a few weak steps backward and collapsed against Hong Yi’s chest of things.
Hong Yi’s lovely smile flashed across his eyes, slowly getting clearer.
Her tender smile when she cocked her head;
Her shy smile when she lowered her head;
Her cheerful smile when she lifted her face;
And her emotional smile when she silently looked at him….
My god! He had never truly understood it! Or maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t understand it, but was too used to it!
Hong Yi was like his shadow, there wherever he was. He didn’t need to think of ways to get her, or try to waste time figuring out her thoughts or worry about losing her, she was always there, forever. He just needed to gently say “Hong Yi”, and she would appear with a lovely smile. But she will never appear again, never again.
As he slid down the chest onto the floor, a small wooden box fell off the chest, landing on the floor.
With a loud noise, the box split into half, spilling its contents all over the floor. A whole bunch of neatly plaited knots spilled all over the floor. They were of exactly the same design, all made with bright red string. Under the moonlight, they were exceptionally blinding.
He felt for one, wondering where he had seen it before but unable to place it. After thinking for some time, he finally remembered that that was the exact knot Hong Yi tried to shove into his hand before she died.
Meng Jue stared at floor, now covered in bright red knots, unable to speak.
If it was just a simple knot, Hong Yi had no need to make so many and keep them so preciously hidden in a box. However, they did look like they were made of normal strings, and he couldn’t see any purpose to them. He stared at them for a long while before suddenly remembering that once when he went to Xuan Shall Hall, Yun Ge was sitting alone at the corridor tying a similar knot.
“Men, men!!” Liu He shouted.
Si Yue rushed in, and when he saw what Liu He had become, he was shocked. Was this the smiling, flirtatious prince he knew?
Liu He held up the knot in his hand. “What is this?”
Si Yue scrutinized it, then said “A love knot. Its design is extremely complex, but only made of one length of string. It takes a lot of effort to make one of these. Women use a red silk ribbon, meticulously tie a love knot, then hang it on a man’s waist, signifying their love. It meant ‘Hearts as one together forever.” Hmmm… there was still some other phrase to it.” Si Yue tried to bring that phrase to mind as he slowly spoke “It was something like ‘The strings tied the dragon and phoenix together, embellishing the brilliant skies; a lock of entwined hair, binds them together forever.” Liu He made a sound that sounded like a cross between a cry and a laugh, as he lifted the love knot to his face, his eyes combing over it, as if through the complicated knots, he saw Hong Yi carefully knotting the silk ribbon in that way alone in the palace with her head bowed, her eyes tender and a hopeful smile on her lips, looking forward to a day when she could tie it on his waist herself. Yet until the very end, she wasn’t able to give her love knot away. The tear that fell from the corner of her eyes, did she blame him for not understanding?
He thought he was extremely intelligent, but he couldn’t even understand a dying girl’s wish.
“A lock of entwined hair, binds them together forever. A lock of entwined hair, binds them together forever….”
He crawled on the floor gathering all the love knots to him, smoothing each one and putting each one against his chest. His purple robe dragged against the chilled, wine soaked floor, but he didn’t notice. His hair was full of dust, but he didn’t notice. He only carefully picked up each love knot, as if by doing this he would have been able to stop that last strand of tears from falling just before she died. A lock of entwined hair, binds them together forever?
Meng Jue’s emotions were complicated, he couldn’t speak. He silently stared at the love knots on the floor, suddenly feeling like the bright redness of it all was stifling and constricting, quickly rushing out of the house.
The waning moon was like a hook, hanging by on top of the grey Chinese parasol trees.
The chilly frost on the steps was slick and white.
The wind blew, and the door opened and shut according to the breeze, making a creaking noise.
In the silent night, it only felt bleak and long.