T/N: Due to lack of chapters spacing and for the sake of readability, have an entire chapter! Requesting coffees above, I’m still trying to raise funds to buy the book! – LLS
Three days later, Xie Manor.
Shan Chao opened his eyes from his meditation, staring at the snow-white prison wall.
Ever since Xie Yun fainted at the entrance of Ci'en Temple three days ago, he had had all the major acupoints on his body tapped by the Imperial Guards, and forcibly 'invited' to the Xie Manor and imprisoned till now, with sound completely cut off outside and inside, and the only person that he saw everyday was the girl who delivered meals.
Besides this no one came to check on him, or to interrogate him, as if everyone had suddenly forgotten him, even Xie Yun did not show his face.
Shan Chao had once guessed that Xie Yun was at death's door after getting poisoned, hence the appearance of this brief calm before the storm; yet when he enquired with the meal-serving girl, he realised that the reason why she appeared completely ignorant, was because she was mute.
The only thing that he could observe was ― the extravagance of the Xie manor, was definitely a rare sight.
Leaving aside the wandering corridor with drooping flowers over the arched doors that he saw when he was half-dragged half-'invited' into the Xie manor, there was still the underground where he was imprisoned. Spacious and tidy, so much that a thick red blanket had been spread on the stone floor. Besides the fact that a thick wooden fence closed tightly was placed where the door should be, this prison cell was much better than even his room in Ci'en Temple.
As for his food and drink nobody mistreated him, every meal having three dishes and one soup, only that there was no way to avoid meat and fish. Although Shan Chao was currently a monk, his did not feel instinctively averse to meat, and to accumulate energy to struggle free of the locking of his acupoints, he had not spoken for these three days, eating whatever was given to him.
There had been people still monitoring the doorways on the first day that he was locked up, yet Shan Chao seemed to remain very calm no matter which environment he was placed in. Everyday this black-clothed monk apart from meals, and sleep, would be meditating, in the eyes of outsiders no different from a taciturn stone statue, so much that he did not seem to move even an inch for several successive hours.
The guards also knew that eight of his major acupoints had been sealed, and was utterly incapable of moving qi
or using martial arts, and so they took it easy.
Nobody appeared on the second and third day, and besides the maid coming punctually to deliver meals, the underground room and its surroundings were silent, without even a single breath to be heard.
On the evening of the third day, the sound of the opening metal lock came from the doors, and Shan Chao opened his eyes. The maid carried the box of food in, giving him a guarded look, and seeing that this young and heroic monk was still in silent meditation as usual, she moved towards the desk softly and quietly, with her back to Shan Chao as she put the box down.
Right at this moment, Shan Chao suddenly got up ― nobody could have thought that he had already unsealed about half of his acupoints, yet he quickly advanced without a sound, the first step down from the couch, the second step on the ground, arriving behind the maid like a ghost, and then the blade of his hand came down on the nape of her neck!
The maid's large round eyes widened, falling down unconscious without even making a sound.
Shan Chao quickly checked, confirming that she had only fainted, and thereupon he was at ease to carry her to the couch and cover her with the blanket, disguised as his own sleeping form.
The metal lock on the wooden fence was already open, and Shan Chao walked out to see, only that the path of several metres as far as he could see was completely empty, and at the end there was a flight of stairs leading directly up. Shan Chao rose to the top of the stairs, and above his head was a moving hidden door. Opening it a small crack brought a line of candle-light in through.I've escaped
?Just like that
Shan Chao froze on the wooden steps, frozen in an instant in this dilemma, hesitating to open the door and leave, when he heard a male voice drift in from outside:
"Commander Xie is indeed a former assassin of the Secret School, unaffected by most poisons. The Crown Prince remains in danger right now in the Eastern Palace, and yet you have almost completely recovered."
― Yuwen Hu!
In an instant Shan Chao's mind had changed: why did the outside have Xie Yun and Yuwen Hu meeting, could the underground room be directly connected to Xie Yun's study?
And what was this assassin of the Secret School, Yuwen Hu came to the Xie manor, to say something?
Shan Chao gently closed the secret door, not only to ensure that the crack would not be easily discovered, but also to ensure that the sound from outside would come in. Indeed a moment later Xie Yun opened his mouth, and for some reason his voice was hoarse:
"This Xie just caught a cold, if General Yuwen has something to say then say it directly, do not waste my time… if you came to visit a patient, the relationship between you and I have not reached that level, you can leave now."
― this attitude of refusal, could be described as ice-cold.
Yet, unexpectedly Yuwen Hu was not infuriated, and not even the least bit indignant: "Commander Xie, has not need to misunderstand me, if it were only to visit a patient, I would definitely leave after taking a glance, and would not shamelessly stay here." He stopped, and continued: "The reason for my house-call today, is that the poison which the Empress incited you, Commander Xie, to place in the sour fruit soup at Ci'en Temple, has been discovered."
Within the underground passage, Shan Chao's hand laid on the secret door tightened, the veins on the back of his hand exploding out!
Only to see the candle-light outside sway, and after a moment of silence: Xie Yun lazily said: "I don't understand these words of yours even further. The Crown Prince was poisoned due to being fed Hedinghong by Liu Xujie, the evidence and testimony are present, what does this have to do with the sour fruit soup?"
Within the sumptuous study of the Xie manor, Yuwen Hu stood in the middle with both hands crossed behind his back, his shining eyes fixated on Xie Yun ― the latter of which was leaning on one side by a luxurious gold-silk cedarwood1
writing desk, complete with silver mask, loose-fitting wide-sleeved robes, and loose hair falling down the side of his neck down to his chest.
From Yuwen Hu's perspective, he could only see one half of a gentle jaw, the other half covered by hair.
"The sour fruit soup originally had no poison, and Liu Xujie and the other members of the Crown Prince faction did intend to use the characteristics of the kiwi fruit to plan a poisoning case, their original goal being to shift the blame upon the Empress; and in the original plan the poison to which the Crown Prince would have fallen victim to, should have been that extremely diluted Hedinghong, which had been drunk by the Crown Prince before entering Ci'en Temple."
Yuwen Hu shifted aside the gaze which had been fixed on Xie Yun, switching to the candle-flame dancing upon the desk, and said: "If the plan had gone smoothly, the Crown Prince's poison would have acted up after drinking the sour fruit soup, the silver needle would have tested positive for poison, Liu Xujie used the Snow Lotus to save the Crown Prince, and the search would find the Empress' effects within the monks' quarters… the Emperor originally had some inclination to depose of the Empress, added with this flawless 'poisoning to shift the blame' case, they could thoroughly overturn partisans of the Empress, and from then on they would not be able to recover."
"Yet, Liu Xujie had prepared for many eventualities, but miscalculated one thing."
"News of the planned poisoning had leaked before it was to be carried out, so the Empress and you played along, and put fierce poison into the sour fruit soup, intending to make the act a reality, and put the Crown Prince to death."
Xie Yun sneered, putting his teacup audibly back onto the table in passing: "You're talking rubbish, where is the evidence?"
Yuwen Hu said: "The evidence is, although you broke the jade bowl, dried vestiges of the sour fruit soup remained on the gold bricks of the worship hall. After you departed in a hurry, I got someone to lead along a dog to lick the traces and the shards, and after a moment the dog died after showing quick symptoms of poisoning…"
"Yet that monk was alright, and I came out unscathed too, how would this be explained?"
Yuwen Hu stepped forward, and asked back: "I don't know how is the monk, but are you truly unscathed?"
Xie Yun instantly looked up, but it was too late ― Yuwen Hu had dashed forward, advancing like lightning, Xie Yun raised his hand to block, but was a beat slow.
Both exchanged several moves in a flash, Xie Yun's strength could not be sustained, and his entire person was forcibly dragged up by the lapels by Yuwen Hu, and then―Bang
The strike was both heavy and resonant, and Xie Yun's entire body was pressed onto the wall!
The distance between their faces was only a few inches, and Yuwen Hu did not seem to expect that it would be so easy, one hand pressing on the lapel of Xie Yun's gown, and in an instant he froze.
The face behind Xie Yun's mask was wooden, and without trouble he grabbed a pot of cold tea which had been on the table next to him, pouring the contents all over Yuwen Hu's face!
This entire movement had happened one after another, and Yuwen Hu was caught off guard and splashed with cold water in the face, his entire body shivering, letting go on a conditioned reflex, and then immediately after he was kicked back half a measure away by Xie Yun's leg.
Yuwen Hu staggered back, panting several breaths, before he slowly got up and said: "Xie Yun, you…"
Xie Yun tidied his lapels, leisurely tying up his belt, his movements and voice all undisturbed: "Well?"
"…your true qi is exhausted, your internal force is emptied, the poison has obviously reached into your dantian2
, right now you―"
"Even so," Xie Yun impatiently said: "Even if there was poison in the sour fruit soup it was placed by a monk in Ci'en Temple, what does this have to do with me? If you have the ability you can bring this in a petition to the throne, and get all the monks in Ci'en Temple killed to pay for the Crown Prince's life, who would hold you back!"
He walked directly behind the desk, the sleeves of his gown flicking out to sweep all the cups, plates, papers and brushes down to the floor. A crashing sound rang out, and some of the fragments even splashed against Yuwen Hu's clothes.
This appearance left Yuwen Hu at his wits' end, the Great Cavalry General gritting his teeth, and stabilising his mindset only after a long time: "I too have no other way, Commander Xie!"
He sucked in a long breath: "Right now the Crown Prince is on the edge of death in the Eastern Palace, and the situation is unstable all around the court, Empress Wu even taking advantage of the situation to suggest that after the Mid-Autumn Festival she would follow the imperial carriage to Mt Tai, and carry out the second sacrifices with her identity as a married woman, and be bestowed the title of the 'Two Holy Ones' with the current Emperor… a woman usurping authority, bad news since the dawn of time! If the Crown Prince truly had any accidents at this critical juncture, I can only make a clean breast of all the events, and when that time comes both the Empress and the Crown Prince's sides would suffer, even you
Xie Yun coldly said: "Then go."
Within the underground passage, Shan Chao was slightly astonished.
This was not due to Xie Yun not being able to match Yuwen Hu, since Xie Yun's poison had yet to be cleared, and his internal force was weak, so a momentary win or loss would not count towards the result ― it was because Yuwen Hu's three words 'even you
would' had a different tone, being muffled at first glance, but on intent listening, it was especially… affectionate.
Perhaps it was a misconception.
Yet for some reason, from Shan Chao's instinct there instantly arose a trace of enmity.
He did not have time to differentiate why he had such an instinct, and immediately after realised that Xie Yun was behaving oddly. Although he had only seen Xie Yun twice, yet the way that such a person executed things was skilful and with ease, with an extremely nefarious style, no matter what he did not seem the type to get in a huff and tell his opponent 'then go' ― this was simply as if he was conceding a disadvantageous position and at the ends of his tether, and could only act shamelessly.
"I did not intend… intend to do this." In the study Yuwen Hu was speaking, his voice apparently hoarse: "For so many years I worked, was to maintain a stable situation in Court. Surviving nobles of the previous dynasty like us, only when the Empress and the Crown Prince are balanced in the scales of power can we get a breather, and not when one side is fallen, and the other side is free to do anything…"
"Compared to fighting in the end, why not avert the crisis."
"Xie Yun," Yuwen Hu said, "I know that you stole the Snow Lotus in the Liu manor, if you hand it out to save the Crown Prince, I guarantee that this matter will end without resolution, and there will not be a third person in this world who knows everything that happened in Ci'en Temple that day."
The study fell into a long silence.
After a long time only did Xie Yun's indistinct voice rise, saying: "Too late, I was afraid that the poison in the sour fruit soup was too strong and would be unable to tolerate it, so I ate it in advance…"
Yuwen Hu was taken aback, choking on the spot.
"There shouldn't be only one Snow Lotus in the world?" Immediately he reacted, questioning promptly without hesitation: "I heard a rumour in the Jianghu about the Snow Lotus Valley, and the Sword-Forging Manor, that a hundred years ago they pulled the water of the Snow Lotus from the Tianshan3
mountains, in order to forge the two swords Longyuan and Tai-E… since there is such a saying, there could not only be one Snow Lotus!"
― the Longyuan sword!
Shan Chao's eyes instantly widened.
Two years ago the two swords Longyuan and Tai-E that appeared in his dreamscape, mysteriously and inexorably, had a connection with this Crown Prince poisoning case!
"That's right, there is this legend," Xie Yun seemed to consider for a long time, before he unhurriedly opened his mouth: "Yet the Snow Lotus Valley has vanished without a trace, as for the Sword-Forging Manor…"
Shan Chao concentrated his attention, intending to listen further, when Xie Yun's voice was interrupted by a violent cough.
That cough came strongly, and suddenly he could not even continue speaking, shocking Yuwen Hu, immediately advancing to ask: "What happened? Was it just now―"
Yet Xie Yun simply waved his hand while coughing indicating for him to shut up, only yelling: "Men!"
Footsteps immediately came from outside the study, attendants and man-servants immediately rushing in.
There were about to be more eyes in the area, so opening the secret door further would make discovery easier, hence Shan Chao promptly closed the secret door again. He turned around to look again, but the underground path was still devoid of human presence, with not even a guard in sight. Apparently due to the reason of Xie Yun's study being directly above, the security here was not tight at all.
True, he had had eight major acupoints sealed, by common reason he should find it hard to move at all, who would spare the thought to look after a handicapped person?
Shan Chao leapt down from the top of the steps, his figure nimble as a monkey, falling to the ground as light as a feather, even the dust beneath his feet not moving the least bit ― it could be seen that his internal force and lightness skill4
had reached a significant degree of profundity. Otherwise an ordinary man with his physique, should have broken through the steps just by jumping down.
Shan Chao stood there, his thick and sharp brows wrinkling. This underground maze should have other exits, otherwise if the security guards and meal-serving maids wanted to come in and out, could they do it from Xie Yun's study? Yet the problem was, in which direction should he search?
While he was quietly pondering over this, suddenly from within the depths of the underground passage there was a soft movement. Shan Chao subconsciously thought that someone was approaching, and his first reaction was to hide, but that sound appeared again, obviously not footsteps―but moans.
Intermittent, sometimes audible and sometimes not, groans as if someone was resisting great pain.
Shan Chao narrowed his eyes in suspicion, and then deliberately lightened his footsteps, following the direction of the sound into the depths of the underground passage.
Although the moans were light, but Shan Chao's heading was extremely sharp, and after he turned a few corners in the underground passage which extended to all sides, suddenly before his eyes everything became clear, only to see before him, was quite shockingly another prison cell!
What left him even more amazed, was that this time the person in the cell was a bit beyond his imagination.
― that was a beauty.
After the shock on her looks reached a certain degree, there was left only a very concise and succinct impression ― beautiful.
That person's profile faced the doorway, huddled with legs crossed in a corner of the cell, the entire head of long hair soaked in cold sweat tied up messily with a hair-ribbon. Although she cut a sorry figure, she was still astonishingly gentle and beautiful in appearance, to the point that even the hair-ribbon seemed to emit light, causing people not to dare look directly.
And that person's whole body was wrapped only in a white gown of raw silk, the material wide, supple and thin, only enough to cover a naked body. From Shan Chao's point of view he could make out half a thin and graceful shoulder, and the fingers turned white from holding the robe closed in a tight grip.
The thing that shocked Shan Chao the most was not this.
But that the beauty's other hand, had been stabbed through the palm with a short dagger, and forcibly pinned to the floor in dried bloodstains!
"…Miss?" Shan Chao narrowed his eyes, patting the wooden bars in a testing manner: "You… what happened to you?"
That woman did not react at first, and Shan Chao carefully patted a few more times, that she finally seemed to have been startled awake from the pain, and slowly turned her face to look over.
― that was only a half-profile, the vigour from which had been half-stolen by acute pain and haggardness, yet the beauty of the brows and eyes were deeply elegant, with no mistake to point to, causing people to feel as if theirs hearts had been suddenly struck.
Shan Chao could not help but slow his voice: "This… miss, what happened to you?"
Actually in this dim dungeon, being imprisoned and obviously abused, and as a beauty only wearing messy clothes loosely wrapped around the body, would only give people a sort of very bad and even evil mental association. Thus after asking Shan Chao did not find it too appropriate either, and immediately changed his question: "―do you want to come out?"
That woman stared at him, and for some reason there flashed across her face a strange, fairly subtle, expression of having met something beyond expectations.
"…why are you here?"
Probably due to dehydration, the voice was extremely hoarse, leaving people unable to differentiate if it was a man or a woman. Yet Shan Chao did not notice this detail, because the feeling that this bloody scene in the cell gave him was too terrible, so much that he vaguely had a very uncomfortable conjecture: "It's a long story, but I was also imprisoned here. Miss―"
"…don't call anyone here."
The beauty interrupted him, turning his head to wrap the clothes tighter, closing his eyes, and as the delicate eyelashes folded over the corner of his eyes it formed a sharp arc: "Since you got out already, you should leave quickly… no need to stop for me."Author's note: I already wrote it so obviously, and you're still asking who's the beauty, be careful that Commander Xie would beat you up at night QAQTranslator: The change in pronouns probably hinted it now ORZ.1
ZH: 金丝楠木 - 'gold-silk cedar', referring to a type of Chinese cedarwood, extremely valuable.2
ZH: 丹田 - 'cinnabar field', the term itself usually referring to a spot about three fingers' width below the navel, considered to be the foundation of rooted standing, breathing, and body awareness in qigong, Chinese martial arts, and other martial arts.3
ZH: 天山 - probably referring to the Tian Shan mountain range
; unable to confirm.4
ZH: 轻功-'lightness skill', refers to skills meant for agility improvement. In movies and television dramas, such skills are often exaggerated to endow users with superhuman leaps and temporary flight.
Translator's Notes Chapter 3: On Dating the Novel's Events in an Alternate History, Part 1
The novel proper covers events from the end of the Zhenguan era (626 to 649) to the nominal end of Wu Zetian's reign, yet because this is alternate history, some dates got screwed up. Everything leading up to 675 when Li Hong dies more or less follows history though.
From this chapter we first see a mention of the Feng and Shan sacrifices - dated to happen in winter 666. By backdating, and with the mention of the Zhongyuan festival, it therefore implies that the Crown Prince poisoning (fictional) should take place around August 665. Therefore, Shan Chao entered Ci'en Temple around 663 to 664.