Chapter 128: Gaining at the cost of one’s conscience Original and most updated translations are from volare. If read elsewhere, this chapter has been stolen. Please stop supporting theft.
It had been ages since Old Madame’s quarters were filled with the sounds of her grandchildren and the womenfolk of the estate talking and laughing together. When Lady Wang entered the room, she saw Old Madame sitting by herself with a string of Buddhist prayer beads made from old wingceltis wood. She seemed depressed and melancholy.
Lady Wang forced a smile to her face and walked to her side with a bow. “Old Madame, daughter-in-law has arrived.”
Old Madame opened her eyes, her formerly clear pupils now cloudy and turbid. She peered at Lady Wang before she asked, “How is my grandson doing?”
Lady Wang said, “Old Madame needn’t worry, your grandson still looks well.”
“Don’t try to console an old grandmother like me,” Old Madame shook her head. “Anshi’s never suffered like this in his entire life. How could he be doing well?”
Lady Wang finally withdrew the smile on her face.
“What about young née Wang?” Old Madame asked next.
“Daughter-in-law felt that her body looked rather well,” Lady Wang replied.
“That’s all?” Old Madame asked.
Lady Wang’s hands clenched into fists inside her sleeves.
“That niece of yours still isn’t dead, so are we to leave her to harm more people?” Despite the Buddhist prayer beads in her hands, Old Madame’s words were completely devoid of mercy. “If you can’t bear to finish her off yourself, you should ask one of the prison guards to do it instead.”
Lady Wang’s voice grew small. “Daughter-in-law’s never done that sort of thing before.”
The Old Madame choked. “Then were my previous words to you in vain?” If not for the sake of killing née Wang, why would she have let this daughter-in-law visit the imperial prisons in the first place?
Lady Wang tried to defend herself. “Young née Wang is a pampered, tender type as well. Old Madame, she won’t last much longer in those prison cells.”
Old Madame slapped her armrest as she raged, “If she had killed herself, she might have shown herself to be an honorable woman. How could that be compared to simply dying away in a cell?”
Lady Wang lowered her head at Old Madame’s words. She understood the logic, but she couldn’t make herself do something so vicious. Old Madame only shook her head. Wang Clan. Why did I set my eyes on the Wang Clan back then?!
While Old Madame was losing her temper at Lady Wang, Grand Preceptor Xie was sitting in his study, staring at the old man that one of his stewards had brought in. The man was dressed in ragged clothes, with a sallow complexion and skinny frame. He had tied up his hair with grass and was an unmistakable refugee on first sight.
“Why aren’t you kneeling yet?” the steward interjected at the dumbfounded old man.
The old man quickly fell to his knees.
“Just rise,” Grand Preceptor Xie said before the man could start kowtowing. “You and I are about the same age, so let’s not stress such formalities.”
The old man shakily rose to his feet. Grand Preceptor Xie had said not to bother with formalities, but how could he dare? Here was none other than His Excellency Grand Preceptor, a man who stood under one authority and over tens of thousands of others. He was nothing but a refugee, whose life was as cheap as a dog’s. How could he consider himself equals of the same generation before this man?
Grand Preceptor Xie waved a hand at the steward, who quickly withdrew from the room. Then he told the old man, “Has my man already told you the particulars?”
The old man nodded. “H-he, he did.”
“Afraid?” Grand Preceptor Xie asked.
The old man raised his head to look at Grand Preceptor Xie, who simply smiled gently and said, “You can tell me the truth.”
The old man hesitated for a while before admitting, “Afraid.” He had brought his family down from the north, begging all the way until they reached the capital city. Now they were living in the southern part of the city on alms alone. Last night, one of the Grand Preceptor’s men had found him and settled him down in a real home while registering him in the city. His son had been assigned to manual work while his young grandchildren were enrolled in the academy to study the classics. None of these terms were things the old man could refuse. But now that he was looking at Grand Preceptor Xie himself, he couldn’t help but feel unease and fear mixing together with his remorse. Aren’t I throwing away my conscience if I say His Majesty poisoned the porridge to kill off the refugees in the capital city?
Grand Preceptor Xie said, “You’re not only afraid, but conscience-stricken for His Majesty’s sake. You’re feeling guilty for all the gods watching above as well.”
The old man stuttered, “Your, Your Excellency Grand Preceptor, His Majesty is a good man.”
Grand Preceptor Xie replied, “But you still came to my Grand Preceptor’s estate in the end.”
The old man hunched his back in shame. That’s right. I know His Majesty’s a good man, I know I’m going against my conscience, but I still came. He would probably never stand tall again in his lifetime.
“There’s no free gifts without toil in this world,” Grand Preceptor Xie said. “If you want to gain benefits, you have to pay a price, don’t you?”
The old man rubbed his already-washed hands before seeing the filth still stuck to his skin. Quietly, he murmured, “Your Excellency Grand Preceptor, there really, there really won’t be any deaths?”
Grand Preceptor Xie smiled. “There won’t.”
“Then that drug?”
“It’s only something to make people unconscious,” Grand Preceptor Xie promised the old man. “If I lied to you today, you can come back and take my life.”
“I, I don’t dare, this humble man doesn’t dare,” the old man hastily shook his head again.
“I, Xie Wenyuan, have no reason to lie to an old gentleman like you,” Grand Preceptor Xie grinned. “Now tell me, are you still afraid?”
When the old man thought of his family’s bright future prospects, he steeled his heart and said, “Not anymore.”
“The house that you’ll be gifted has already been decided upon,” Grand Preceptor Xie handed over a few papers on the desk to the old man. “This is the completed deed, along with your family’s registration forms for the city.”
The old man quickly accepted the papers. He’d never read books before, but he could recognize his own name on the paper. The sight of those characters covered with the seal of the local officials caused his originally fearful face to break out into a smile.
Grand Preceptor Xie murmured, “After everything’s done, all the things here will immediately go into effect. Let me offer you my congratulations in advance.” So speaking, he cupped his hands before his chest and smiled amiably without a trace of the airs of a senior official. The old man knelt on the ground and kowtowed to the Grand Preceptor.
“The people who take the drug will bleed from their seven orifices and scream painfully. You mustn’t be afraid, because they definitely won’t die.”
“Yes,” the old man agreed.
“Go on now,” Grand Preceptor Xie smiled.
The old man staggered out of the room. Grand Preceptor Xie’s smile vanished abruptly once he was gone. If there was no way to eliminate Ning Yu at the Grand Sacrificial Ceremony, he would incite the refugees to riot. That was his final move. Once the refugees invaded the palace, he could take advantage of the chaos to have Ning Yu murdered before getting him replaced. It didn’t even matter whether the empress dowager could protect him now, because he couldn’t fail again.
The little ant A’Mo hastily crawled out of Grand Preceptor Xie’s study in alarm. He had to tell Xiaoyao that the man was plotting to hurt him again!
One hour later, the steward brought another visitor to the study.
“How is it?” Grand Preceptor Xie asked the newcomer.
“To reply Grand Preceptor’s words, someone’s already gone to check the main hall of the ancestral temple. There is an underground chamber there, about five meters deep. The cover is about a thousand jin.1 Anyone who falls in has no way of getting back out.”
“Has His Majesty gone to the main hall?” Grand Preceptor Xie asked.
The person shook his head. “His Majesty has not, nor has he sent anyone there in his place.”
Grand Preceptor Xie handed over two white bottles to the visitor. “They’ll clean up the main hall before the ceremony itself. Tell the person at the ancestral hall to sprinkle the powders in these two bottles into that chamber. Be sure to remember that these powders can’t be mixed together before they’re sprinkled down there.”
“Yes,” the visitor accepted the bottles without answering any questions. As far as he knew, it had to be poison.
“Watch them do it with your own eyes,” Grand Preceptor Xie said. “They have to be very careful so that His Majesty and Lou Zigui don’t get suspicious.”
“If there’s any mistakes, I won’t let you off lightly,” Grand Preceptor Xie warned. This time, the visitor knelt down to show his assent.
“Withdraw,” Grand Preceptor Xie waved him away. Now that all the appropriate arrangements had been made, all he had to do was to wait for the Grand Sacrificial Ceremony in two days’ time. He walked to the window and peered at the tree outside with its magpie nest. The nest was silent, its occupants having flown off somewhere to hunt for food. Grand Preceptor Xie dug his fingers into the windowsill as he silently recited a mantra to himself. The affairs of men are determined by Heaven. He had done all he can, so now it was up to fate.
By the time Lou Zigui returned to the palace, Ning Xiaoyao was sitting in her bedroom gnawing on sticky rice balls. The snow wolf pup was sprawled against her chest, snoring as he slept.
“Supreme Commander, you’re back?” Ning Xiaoyao still had her face stuffed full of sticky rice ball when Lou Zigui entered the room. She smiled and waved at him. Lou Zigui walked in front of her and reached out a hand to pick up the snow wolf pup and place him on a nearby table.
“What kind of impression are you giving off? Putting a wolf pup whelp on top of your chest?”
The snow wolf pup opened its eyes to see who had picked him up. When he saw that it was Lou Zigui, he simply went back to sleep. Lou Zigui stared at the animal until his eye twitched. Is this a wolf or a dog?
Ning Xiaoyao waved a rice ball in her hands as she asked, “Supreme Commander, want to eat some?”
Lou Zigui shook his head. Ning Xiaoyao opened her mouth and devoured half of the rice ball with one bite. Lou Zigui sat by her side and poured her a cup of water. “Drink some water before you eat more. Are those things really that tasty?”
“Tasty,” Ning Xiaoyao nodded. It’s a hundred times tastier than hardtack!
Lou Zigui watched helplessly as the girl by her side buried her head in munching on a rice ball before putting the cup of water before her lips. “Drink some water.”
Ning Xiaoyao stared at Lou Zigui’s hand as she drank a mouthful of warm water and swallowed the riceball remnants in her throat. Then she asked, “Supreme Commander, I heard Second Thunder say that you went to the imperial prisons to see the show with Xie Anshi and young née Wang?”
What does ‘see the show’ mean? Lou Zigui raised a hand and rapped Ning Xiaoyao upside the head. “What kind of show could they put on?”
“When I have time, I’ll go see too,” Ning Xiaoyao touched the place where she’d been thwapped, still smiling. “I love seeing jerks and little white flowers being miserable, hahaha.”
Lou Zigui was at a loss. What kind of hobby is that?
“Supreme Commander, is that Xie jerk and the little white flower crying right now?” Ning Xiaoyao asked curiously.
“Young née Wang is crying,” Lou Zigui said. As for Xie Anshi, he hadn’t gone to see him at all.
“Serves her right!” Ning Xiaoyao spat at the ground.
“Xiaoyao,” Lou Zigui pulled Ning Xiaoyao to face him.
“Ah?” Ning Xiaoyao looked at him, her wide almond eyes blinking.
Lou Zigui stared at Ning Xiaoyao for awhile before suddenly reaching out to brush her eyes. Ning Xiaoyao sat there unmoving as she stuffed the remaining half of the rice ball into her mouth and muttered, “What’s wrong with my eyes? Is there eye poop?” That can’t be it, I’ve already finished self-cleaning myself. Right now she was clean from head to toe.
Lou Zigui’s hand shook before he rapped Ning Xiaoyao upside the head again. Was there ever a girl who carelessly mentioned eye poop in a conversation?!
Ning Xiaoyao didn’t take it lying down this time, but clutched her head and cried, “What are you doing, ah?” Is Supreme Commander Lou taking revenge for his older brother now?
Lou Zigui’s hand shook again. That’s right, what am I doing? Just then, I thought her eyes were pretty, so I went to touch them because I thought they were precious things…
- jin (斤) – Chinese unit of measurement. One jin is equal to 0.5kg or about 1lb. ↩