Chapter 33: Variables
The bright moon hung in the skies, but Fang Hua’s residence was dark. There was a faint light shining from indoors when I snuck inside and closed the door behind me. Turning around, I only saw a few young eunuchs waiting in the courtyard with their heads drooping, not daring to make a sound. In fact, their bodies seemed to be trembling.
“What’s wrong, did something happen?” I only just spoke when a storm of footsteps drifted through the darkness. Before I could recover from the shock, I was blinded by the glare reflecting off a group of swords. About a dozen or so guards stood before us in full battle array, their swords drawn.
I trembled and didn’t even have time to back away. The leader of the imperial guards gave us all a frigid look and said, “Seize everyone here.”
Why were they seizing Fang Hua’s people? Not to mention, I’d only just entered this residence…why seize me as well?
My shoulders hurt from someone gripping me, but I didn’t dare use my internal energy. Before anything serious happened, I resolved to endure it. Lack of forbearance in small matters could upset bigger plans.
We were brought before the halls of the old man emperor, where we discovered the eunuchs and court ladies of other masters were kneeling there shaking in fear. It was a chilly night, but the gates to the main hall were wide open, and the scent of medicine drifted out from its depths.
No incense was lit indoors, but all of the lanterns were gleaming. Though the scene was very bright, it also felt particularly empty and desolate. A brilliant yellow robe was spread on the ground where a person knelt by the bed, hands clutching the emperor’s own. His eyes were red and his voice choked with sobs as he said over and over again, “Father…your son has been unfilial.”
But the figure on the bed remained motionless.
The crown prince bent over and tightly embraced that person, body trembling as he slowly slid off the bed, his expression extremely sorrowful. He was the splitting image of a dutiful child and the sight was very moving.
What was this?
What had happened? I stared dazedly from my position kneeling on the ground, blinking furiously. An old eunuch wiped his eye with a sleeve, and announced in a shrill, drawn-out voice, “The emperor has passed away.”
Across the empty halls and quiet spaces of the palace rang the low, mournful peal of bells. Their depressing notes reverberated endlessly in the skies, and the sound was enough to make one’s heart tremble.
The noise shook me until my mind was completely blank. I looked stupidly at the courtyard full of grieving, sobbing people. Some had their faces ashen-white, shivering as they knelt on the ground.
“How audacious, who is this?”
“Move aside, move aside…”
A figure appeared by the entrance to the palace, raising his robes to hurry inside before bowing with two hands raised in the air, a small box nestled within them. “Your servant came too late, and deserves to die ten thousand deaths.”
Someone else trailed slowly in after him but stilled his steps to look astonished upon the scene. Amidst the chaos, he was the only one who still had a calm and tranquil expression. No matter how tense the surrounding atmosphere was, he was always quiet and elegant.
“Fang Hua, you came too.” Han Zichuan nodded lightly with a gentle smile. He finally turned around and slowly sat down, hands knocking lightly against the surface of a table. Gradually, the smile in his eyes faded as he focused on one person.
“Imperial Physician Nong?”
“Your guilty servant is here.”
“These few days, father’s illness had been improving, but why did he pass away so silently today?” his gentle tone seemed calm, but carried hints of an approaching storm. “I really want to hear the reasons behind this.”
“The emperor’s prescription was Lord Hua’s formulas all along, and your servant was in charge of overseeing its decoction. Your servant left this afternoon to search for medicinal ingredients outside, and only hurried back now.” His head hung as he bowed, though he shot Fang Hua a glance on the side.
What did Nongyu mean by these words?
He couldn’t be trying to place the whole blame on…
I raised my head. The Fang Hua standing behind him now wore an aloof, indifferent expression. No, not indifferent, but more like he hadn’t taken the matter to heart at all. His gaze swept over the assembled court ladies and eunuchs to settle on me. I gave a start, and my heart grew anxious.
This, he wasn’t even aware of someone framing him! What was he doing, looking at me? Hurry up and say something, Nongyu’s obviously trying to place the blame on you! My heart was restless with worry, and I grew agitated enough to stand up, only to have someone press me down by the shoulders.
Behave, behave. I’ll behave myself.
Fang Hua’s expression stilled as he looked at me, as if wanting to speak. Han Zichuan beckoned with his hand, not deigning to reply to Nongyu as he muttered to himself. His cold gaze pierced through the court eunuchs as he spoke in a stern voice. “Who was the imperial physician in charge of decocting the medicine today? Bring out the boiling water.”
The people in the court really did things quick.
Before my knees had grown sore from kneeling, an honest and tolerant looking imperial physician, along with two or three eunuchs, were captured and brought before the imperial hall. They tested the boiling water with silver needles and dabbled a bit.
The elderly imperial physician held the needle between shaking fingers as he gave an experimental whiff before his face widened in astonishment. He spoke hoarsely, the voice filled with sorrow. “Your humble servant is incompetent, please allow Your Highness to dole out punishment…the decoction from this afternoon was personally brewed by your servant, but due to my negligence, someone managed to slip in some Broiled Spirit Incense.”
“Broiled Spirit Incense?” Han Zichuan’s eyes swept over him.
The elderly imperial physician was too frightened to utter another word.
Nongyu sucked in a breath, pushing the man aside to block him from view as he respectfully paid obeisance to the crown prince. “To answer Your Highness, this incense is made from the fresh juices secreted by the tender stalks of three unique plants. Using it increases the potency of a drug while causing hallucinations. An ordinary person can take it without trouble, but those with serious illnesses wouldn’t be able to bear it.”
I’ve heard of this thing before…
You had to add the stalks to the decoction a few seconds after plucking the stems, and ingest the results within 16 hours. The earlier the drug was taken, the more effective it would be.
“But for the imperial palace to hide a secret store of such incense, moreover one with such strength, suggests that a master of the medical arts had the fortunate timing to pluck a few plants from outside to create the item before throwing it within the decoction. Your Highness, please investigate thoroughly.” Nongyu frowned, sniffing the hand that had dipped into the drug as he continued, “Of course, we can’t leave out the eunuchs or court ladies, either.”
Han Zichuan propped his head on his hands as he sat in his chair, pointing at the shaking forms of the honest-looking physician and his eunuchs. “Take them away and cut off their heads.”
He seemed to be smiling, speaking such things concerning life and death as if it was nothing special. It didn’t seem like he was ordering their heads cut off, but telling them to pull up some weeds instead.
“Your Highness, what should we do with the rest of these servants?” The court eunuch asked quietly from his position on the side, hands in his sleeves.
“Take them away for investigation, and check to see if any of them are hiding pills or medicines. Anyone who wasn’t serving their masters, or left the palace halls, should be turned over to the Ministry of Justice for questioning via torture.”
Your granny! You’re too cruel, Han Zichuan.
My body felt at a loss as I watched the guards move in to drag people away. Heart pounding, I blanked out, wondering whether I should rise against them…and rebel. Then a figure blocked my view and a voice spoke mildly, “I want to keep this young court lady.”
I could dimly see the side of Fang Hua’s face as he pressed his hands against my shoulders, hauling me off the ground. He softly but surely faced Han Zichuan and spoke, “She’s always served at my side and never left me.”
Nongyu was flabbergasted.
“Naturally, I won’t touch any of your people,” Han Zichuan smiled, his tone exceptionally easy.
I could clearly sense Fang Hua’s grip lessen on my shoulders, and my body relaxed slightly. My eyes gazed at his face, which could dazzle and stun all lookers, and experienced a moment of distraction.
Why did he have to lie? If he was exposed, wouldn’t it…?
Meanwhile, Nongyu had spent the entire time standing behind Han Zichuan. I couldn’t see his expression, but recalling what he said to me…I seemed on the verge of realizing something. But I dared not think it. I didn’t want to look into it, either.
The imperial palace really was a laughable place. My head hung as I occasionally cast glances at the shadows on the ground, before suddenly seizing up. I raised my head, astonished. The shadows on the splendid golden wall, the warm comfort of the colored glass lamps, and the silvery, reflected points of the bed-curtains, were all moving gently despite a lack of wind.
Shocked, I could even hear someone’s extremely feeble breaths, struggling and weak, as if it was ready to stop mid-gasp at any time. The foundation of my internal energy wasn’t weak, so my hearing was much keener than normal humans.
Was it possible that…the emperor hadn’t died?
It wasn’t impossible. Although the old man emperor’s sickness was severe, he had a chance of staving off the effects of Broil Spirit Incense. Perhaps his heart only stopped briefly, but if they treated him now, they could even save his life.
Suddenly, Fang Hua took a few steps forward as if intending to lift the bed-curtains. Han Zichuan’s hand rested on his shoulder with a very easy smile, up until that weak breathing faded away…
Only then did he say softly, “Don’t disturb the dead, or else it’ll be seen as a sign of great disrespect.”
I felt like I’d never seen him properly before.
The prince who had once been quick to modesty and tender gentleness…was still gentle now, and still smiled as he had in the past. But hidden beneath the warmth of his smile was something that made my hairs stand on end.
The court eunuch’s respectful, solemn voice rang across the great hall, though his words still weren’t enough to disguise his shrill, sharp tones. “The emperor has passed away and fifteen days on, the crown prince will ascend the throne. The childless concubines of the late emperor shall be buried with the deceased.”
This was the ‘vast and mighty’ ‘benevolence from the emperor.’
Un…it really was vast and mighty. All the things the old man emperor had enjoyed in his life was being taken with him after death. In the midst of the crowds hailing for the new emperor’s longevity, Fang Hua gave the dead man a glance and turned to leave.
“Lord Hua, what’s wrong?” I hastily followed. He had a mild smile that was exceptionally chilly. I raised my eyebrows, spotting Han Zichuan standing by the door to the great hall, attentively watching the two of us depart with a tender smile.
Though his words were gentle and far away, they were still enough to make me tremble. “Strictly investigate the imperial physicians. Increase the guards looking after Lord Hua, and prohibit anyone from leaving the palace.”
-o- [Original & most up to date translations for this series can be found on volaretranslations.]
 your granny (???) ?nainaide, used as an exclamation of surprise/shock/disbelief, or as a curse.
 emperor’s longevity (???????) ?wansui wansui wanwansui, the ever popular call from an emperor’s subjects, for him to live for 10,000 years, 10,000 years, 10,000 of 10,000 years…