Chapter 53: Worth of a human life Original and most updated translations are from volare. If read elsewhere, this chapter has been stolen. Please stop supporting theft.
The bodies of the Grand Preceptor’s guards lay scattered all around the floor of the underground chambers. Shadowrain and his men carefully undid the bonds of the five men tied to the torture racks and helped them down. Old Huo was like the rest of his comrades, his body plastered in blood. His left eye was swollen completely shut, so he could only look at Lou Zigui with his right eye.
“You’ve suffered,” Lou Zigui took off his outer robes and draped them over Old Huo. “I’ll take you all out right now.”
Old Huo was too weak to speak right now, but stared at Lou Zigui with his right eye before striving his hardest to look up. Lou Zigui followed his line of vision to look behind Old Huo and saw a blood spattered stone wall behind him. There was so much blood coating it that it had congealed into a sticky, black stain. Lou Zigui could tell at first glance that there was something wrong about this wall, because its color was lighter than the color of the wall to the right. Moreover, the stains on both the right and left edges didn’t match up with the wall itself. Most likely, it was some sort of secret door that opened from the right.
“Ah, ahh,” Old Huo made a few noises at Lou Zigui, who patted his hand comfortingly as he stood up with his sword in hand.
He was about to open the secret door and kill whoever was behind it when a Dragon Guard suddenly cried out, “Supreme Commander, the Grand Preceptor’s coming over with the capital city’s archers!”
Lou Zigui turned to look at the Dragon Guard.
“General Song and General Fang have already left with their men via the back door.”
“Let’s go,” Lou Zigui ordered Shadowrain, who gave a loud affirmative before preparing to leave with a man in his arms. But as soon as he took a step, the man spat up a large mouthful of blood. Shadowrain was too scared to move any further. Lou Zigui hurried to his side while the man spat out more blood.
Finally, he shook his head and managed to say with effort, “Supreme Commander, this…this one w-won’t, won’t make it.”
Shadowrain half knelt on the ground again, the youth still cradled in his arms. It was at this time that Shadowgale ran in with Imperial Physician Gao in tow.
“Hurry, over here!” Shadowrain called towards the doctor, his entire face lighting up.
Imperial Physician Gao ran over and glanced at the injured man. He didn’t even need to take a pulse before shaking his head at Lou Zigui. “It’s not good, his internal injuries are too severe.”
Lou Zigui looked at Imperial Physician Gao, who hastened to add, “This official doesn’t dare speak nonsense.”
Lou Zigui’s face seemed expressionless, but he reached out to take the youth from Shadowrain’s arms and ordered, “All of you leave first, use the back door.”
“What about him?” Shadowrain asked.
Imperial Physician Gao shook his head at Lou Zigui. This man was beyond saving. Weren’t my words just then clear enough?
“Go on,” Lou Zigui said.
Shadowrain stood up. He looked at the youth on the verge of death one last time before furiously stamping his feet. Then he took his men with him and ran off with Old Huo and the other prisoners. As their footsteps faded away, Lou Zigui asked the man, “What’s your name? Do you still have any family?”
Now that things had come to this, the injured man was even wearing a calm smile. “This one’s called Zheng A’niu1. As for my family affairs, O-Old Brother Huo knows a…all.”
“All right,” Lou Zigui said. “I’ll ask Old Huo and take care of your family.”
Zheng A’Niu looked at the sword in Lou Zigui’s hands before suddenly using all his strength to raise his body and impale himself upon the blade. The few guards still hiding behind the secret door only saw the bright gleam of metal pierce through Zheng A’Niu’s back through a peephole. They trembled in fear at the sight. Hidden behind the door, they were unable to hear any of the conversation outside, but assumed that Lou Zigui had been cruel enough to kill his own man if he couldn’t take him away. He didn’t even spare his own subordinates, they thought.
Shadowrain stood outside the back door of the Grand Preceptor’s estate until he saw Lou Zigui walking out by himself. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before swallowing his unspoken questions. The youth must have died.
Meanwhile, a man named Sun Lu ran into the courtyard containing the underground chambers until he reached Grand Preceptor Xie. Quietly he said, “Grand Preceptor, Lou Zigui took his men and escaped through the back door.”
Grand Preceptor Xie looked coldly at Sun Lu. There had been no sounds of fighting coming from the back door. If this man really wanted to catch the intruders, could they had left so soundlessly? Sun Lu felt nervous beneath Grand Preceptor Xie’s gaze and hastened to explain. “This official sent men to guard the back door, but they, they were all tied up and thrown to the streets. Grand Preceptor, these men are too….”
“Forget it,” the Grand Preceptor raised his hand.
Sun Lu immediately shut up. The Grand Preceptor patted his hand with the sword as his expression relaxed. “Not raising arms against them is good as well. This old man doesn’t blame you.” When Sun Lu heard Grand Preceptor Xie’s words, he was this close from kneeling on the ground to give his thanks right then and there.
Grand Preceptor Xie took measured steps to the underground chambers. He had no mercy for traitors, but he couldn’t be severe to his own people, either. Though Sun Lu hadn’t fought to the death against Lou Zigui tonight, it didn’t count as a betrayal in Grand Preceptor Xie’s eyes. Aside from the fact that Lou Zigui had a fearsome reputation as a star of death, he also had the reigning emperor standing behind him. The fact that Sun Lu had been able to fight a few rounds with his men was proof enough of his loyalty.
Inside the underground chambers, the guards who had hidden behind the secret door were now standing around Zheng A’Niu’s corpse at a loss. As soon as Grand Preceptor Xie entered and saw the body, his face sank. “You ended up killing the prisoner after all?”
The guards hastened to kneel before Grand Preceptor Xie, and one them made to report, “Grand Preceptor, this prisoner was personally killed by Lou Zigui himself.”
An aide behind the Grand Preceptor stepped forward them to carefully examine Zheng A’Niu’s body. When finished, he declared, “This person’s injuries reached his internal organs. It would’ve been impossible to move him. Even with medical treatment, it’s unlikely that he would’ve survived.”
So he was killed?
Grand Preceptor Xie smiled coldly. Leaving no survivors behind. After Lou Zigui’s last stumble cost him, he was certainly doing things more and more carefully now.
When Lou Zigui brought the imperial guards and Dragon Guards back to the Imperial Palace, Ning Xiaoyao had finished tormenting the empress dowager as well. She was standing at the gates to Supreme Splendor Hall to wait for their return. When she spotted Lou Zigui, Shadowgale and rest at the foot of the steps, she was about to run out when Lou Zigui called out, “The rain’s too heavy; this subject asks that Your Majesty still your steps.”
Ning Xiaoyao waited until Lou Zigui climbed the stairs and was under the door arch before she asked, “Did you rescue them?”
“Yes,” Lou Zigui said, “This subject ordered them to be arranged suitably and treated outside of the palace.”
Now free from her worries, Ning Xiaoyao happily cried out, “That’s great!”
Lou Zigui took an umbrella from a eunuch and shared it with Ning Xiaoyao as they walked back to the main hall together. The rains had sent flower petals scattering all over the grounds. It was unclear how many flowers would be left by the time the storm ended. Still, neither Ning Xiaoyao nor Lou Zigui were the types to get sentimental about the seasons. Once they reached the covered walkway, Ning Xiaoyao watched Lou Zigui close the umbrella before asking curiously, “Supreme Commander, how many houses did you burn down at the Grand Preceptor’s estate?”
Lou Zigui smiled. “Not too many. A few buildings and one of the front doors.”
Ning Xiaoyao puffed out her cheeks. She really should’ve come along, she was an expert at setting fires to houses. (Author: Since when did you gain another skill out of the blue?) Lou Zigui didn’t want to tell Ning Xiaoyao about the death of one comrade, but when he recalled her seemingly endless network of spies, he coughed lightly and said, “One of the men passed on.”
“Ah?” Ning Xiaoyao didn’t get it just yet.
“One died,” Lou Zigui said.
Ning Xiaoyao immediately narrowed her eyes in anger and demanded, “Who did it? The Grand Preceptor?”
“His injuries were too serious,” Lou Zigui said. “There was no way to move him, so we could only…”
“Only have him take care of it himself?” Ning Xiaoyao got to the heart of the matter before Lou Zigui had even figured out how to explain Zheng A’Niu’s suicide. He nodded instead.
“Mother,” Ning Xiaoyao swore to herself. She’d helped her fellow comrades-in-arms end their lives plenty of times. In the apocalypse, if you didn’t want to turn into a zombie after being bitten, the best way to go was either kill yourself or have someone do it for you. Ning Xiaoyao walked a few steps before she paused to kick at the walkway pillar, causing the entire winding walkway to shudder twice.
“Your Majesty,” Lou Zigui rested a hand on Ning Xiaoyao’s shoulder. Ning Xiaoyao felt both regret and a guilty conscience. Is there something wrong with my brain? She knew that those men had suffered through torture, but why did she forget that they’d need medical treatment, too? It seemed that she’d turned stupid after eating a few full meals. While she was talking nonsense with Empress Dowager Xie, a perfectly good man had died.
“Your Majesty!” Lou Zigui used his hands to pry open Ning Xiaoyao’s clenched jaw before she drew blood with her teeth. Ning Xiaoyao simply bit Lou Zigui instead.
He allowed her to bite him before murmuring, “This is my fault.” He had been certain that Xie Wenyuan wouldn’t kill his men, but why did he forget that serious torture could kill them just the same? How could I have forgotten…?
“I’m a seriously competent doctor,” Ning Xiaoyao said, “But I didn’t go.”
Lou Zigui held Ning Xiaoyao’s hand as they walked forward. Her fingers were a bit cold, so Lou Zigui tightened his grip to warm them better.
“It’s my fault,” Lou Zigui said after they’d walked awhile in silence and stopped.
Right now, Ning Xiaoyao was in a horrible mood.
“I said, it’s my fault,” Lou Zigui cupped Ning Xiaoyao’s face in his hands.
“The man’s already gone, so what does it matter whose fault it is?” Ning Xiaoyao said dejectedly.
Lou Zigui’s finger brushed across Ning Xiaoyao’s lips before he asked, “He was just a conscript.2 Is a conscript’s life worth that much in your eyes?”
“Whaa?” Ning Xiaoyao grew incensed at the question. She didn’t know what a conscript was, but how could a human life be worthless? “Enough already. Say anymore and I’ll get hostile.” Ning Xiaoyao swatted away Lou Zigui’s hand. Song Jin and the rest were standing at the entrance to the covered walkway as they listened to Ning Xiaoyao and Lou Zigui talk.
“Zheng A’Niu was only a conscript,” Lou Zigui stressed to Ning Xiaoyao again.
Yongning’s military men inherited their positions. When the father of a military family died, a son took his place. When that son died, the grandson stepped in. Generations of sons and grandsons existed like so. Even if all the males of a family died out, someone would be found from the relatives to stand in for the missing spot. In an age that only esteemed those who read books and were literate, what worth was the life of a poor man in the military? Compared to the four classes of ancient China–scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants–conscripts were even more wretched than traders. Their lives were as cheap as dogs.
“If human lives aren’t worth anything, then what is? So what if he’s a conscript? Aren’t conscripts people too?” Ning Xiaoyao gesticulated wildly with her hands like a small animal with its fur standing on end. “Who said conscripts weren’t people? Get that guy for me and I promise I won’t beat him to death, but bite him to death!”
Although Lou Zigui was unable to warm up His Majesty Ning’s hands, His Majesty Ning’s words ended up warming many people’s hearts.
- Zheng A’niu (郑阿牛) – Zheng is a surname, A’Niu can mean ‘Ol’ Cow, a nickname. ↩
- conscript (军户) – junhu, historically speaking, men were forcibly conscripted into military service around the Ming and Yuan Dynasties. These conscripts had rights similar to slaves (that is to say, hardly any) and universally looked down upon, even by the peasants. ↩