Farewell to the Imperial Court
Chapter 1. Tian Chuang
[Warning: mild gore.]
Plum blossoms flourished in the courtyard, falling everywhere on the ground, on the snow that was yet to melt, blending together at first glance. The petals were blown around the yard leisurely by the wind.
Dusk fell like a curtain, and on the eaves the moon was as cold as water.
At the far back of the small courtyard, half hidden by the plum blossom tree was a corner gate, looking like it had been there for a long time. Guarded by two well-built men steeled in armors and weapons, inside the door was a distinctly large space. The veranda was narrow and cramped, towering over a stone-paved path which led into a pitch-black prison. The atmosphere was somber and heavy with the stench of death.
The faint smell of the blossoms was seemingly cut off by the door, unable to reach this place at all.
More guards inside with various weapons stood stock still; the bars of the cells they were protecting as thick as a grown man's arm.
Following the dark, narrow path further inside the prison would be met with three large stone doors with mechanisms inside, each carefully guarded. Behind those doors was completely devoid of mortal life, as if the long path leading here had been the road to the underworld full of wronged souls, lit up by flickering lights that looked like will-o’-wisps.
In the cell at the end of the prison, there was a low male voice saying something, followed by a short silence and ostensibly a tired sigh.
Suddenly, a piercing scream cut through the pitch darkness in the prison, dimming the light for a split second. The scream was terribly ear-splitting, like that of a dying animal, giving any human soul the chills.
One of the two guards outside with their back towards the cell seemed to be fresh blood with his young, inexperienced expressions. He could not help but shiver after hearing the scream, but a glance at his companion showed the other playing deaf, standing as straight as a mountain; so he too recomposed and looked down.
But that scream just got shriller and went on longer, the person kept screaming until their voice gave out and their breath became short, and eventually the scream became moans and sobs, further evidence of their misery.
The newcomer felt continuous goosebumps on his body.
After about an hour1, the sound finally died down. A short time passed by until a middle-aged man was dragged out by two people, looking half dead. His arms were bare, head lolled to one side, hair sweat-soaked, lips bitten raw, blood foaming at the corner of his mouth, no visible injuries save for the seven major acupuncture points on his stomach and chest, which were stabbed into by deep crimson nails. It looked like a horrifying map.
The young guard couldn't help but follow the man with his eyes until he disappeared behind a stone door.
At that moment, someone behind him said, "Do you have regrets now, having seen that?"
He visibly shook with fear, turning back to see a man in turquoise robes silently appearing behind him for heavens knew how long. The other guard had already knelt, so he quickly followed suit, "My lord."
The man in robes seemed to be in his late twenties, carrying himself with a scholarly grace, but there were traces of sickness on his complexion. His face was sharp, eyes bright, thick eyelashes seemingly hiding half of his face when he looked down, which was a common habit. The rare times the man looked up, a chilling cold in his eyes could be seen. The addition of an elegance slope of nose and a contemptuous curl of lips was a treacherous touch to his handsome look.
The man looked at the younger after noticing the honorifics, smiling gently, "You must be new?"
The young man nodded. "Yes, my lord."
He was then patted twice on the shoulder, "Then you must remember never to call me that from now on, the title is no longer mine. Simply call me Sir Zhou next time."
The young man looked up quickly then down again with respect. "Yes, Sir Zhou."
He nodded, waving his arms, "You two can leave, I want some space for myself."
The two guards obeyed and walked out side by side. The younger one sill could not help but look back for a second to see the robed man leaning on the doorframe, his eyes gazing at something in the air but also nothing at the same time. Somehow he thought the man looked like he wanted to leave for somewhere really far away.
After the first iron door was let down, the old guard beside him suddenly spoke in a low voice, "Having seen Sir all amiable and gracious and scholarly, will you believe that he's the one who put the 'Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns' into Old Bi?"
The younger looked at him in shock, and the white-haired old man sighed: "There're still a lot you don't understand. If you enter 'Tian Chuang' there's no way out, escape will only result in either death or being completely disabled."
By Year 4 under the Rong Jia reign of Da Qing, just by hearing the name 'Tian Chuang' could make the whole court quiver in fear.
An organization of intelligence gatherers and assassins loyal only to the Emperor, there was no information of their numbers or whereabouts - no doubt their power could extend to the end of the earth. Tian Chuang was formed by Emperor He Lianyi of House Rong back when he was the Crown Prince, and by now it was already fully structured and strictly regulated.
And the first ever leader of Tian Chuang was the man in the turquoise robes, former Lord of Siji Holdings: "Sir Zhou" Zhou Zishu.
There were no secrets in Tian Chuang whether it was about court business or peasant problems; therefore one of its rules was that if a person could still talk, they could not leave the organization unless they were dead or asked for the Nails themselves.
The "Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns" punishment meant that the person would be stabbed by poisonous nails into the seven most important acupuncture points on their upper body by internal force2, blocking their Eight Meridians3, crippling their martial art skills and their ability to speak or move; after three years, the poison would fully spread into their viscera and they would kick the bucket.
They would live their lives without purpose in those three years, and the experience made it worse than death itself.
But even then, there were still some voluntarily wanting to be put in near coma just to leave Tian Chuang.
Those three years for them were the greatest favor.
After dismissing everyone, Zhou Zishu returned to the small cell, closing the door, hands behind his back, pacing around in deep thoughts for a while. Then he stopped at a corner of the room, taking out a small box with the Nails inside. Those terrifying tiny things carried a grim aroma not unlike plum blossoms. Zhou Zishu inhaled deeply, then undid his robes.
He looked relatively well-built, but once the robes were removed, a shriveled body came into view, like something had drained life completely out of it. On his haggard frame were six Nails already being put in for apparently a long time ago, having almost become one with the flesh.
He looked down at his body, smiling at himself mockingly and picking up a knife nearby. Slightly gritting his teeth, he made quick work of cutting away the flesh that clung to the nails as if it's not flesh of his own. His chest was quickly soaked in blood, but the nails looked new again.
Like something was let loose, he cried out in pain, weakly leaning onto the wall in the corner and slowly sliding down, body trembling uncontrollably. His lips were deathly pale, teeth still gritted; then he suddenly convulsed, eyes wide open then slowly closed right after, head twisted to one side.
Blanched and covered in blood, he looked like a corpse.
Only until dawn broke did the man coiled in the corner of the cell twitch. His eyes then opened slowly and he tried to get up, but his weak legs gave out and he fell. He somewhat managed to stand after the second attempt, pulling out a cloth and dipping it in water to wipe away most of the blood on his chest with care. He redressed, picking up a nail to hide in his robes.
Breathing in deeply, he opened the cell door and walked outside.
Leaving the prison to go towards the courtyard with the blossoms and snow, Zhou Zishu felt a relaxing aroma soaking deep into him, cleansing the stench of blood. He stood under the plum blossom tree for a good while, smelling the flowers, unconsciously smiling.
Then he went back to sighing, and spoke lowly, "Anyone here?"
A person clad in black emerged from nowhere, body bent down in waiting for their orders. Zhou Zishu handed them a dull-colored command token and said, "Tell Head Butler Duan to accompany me in meeting His Majesty."
They took the token, then vanished the way they appeared, as if they never existed.
Head Butler Duan Pengju was promoted by Zhou Zishu himself after the latter took over Tian Chuang and operated under his orders only; he was both capable and unabashedly ambitious.
Sometimes, Zhou Zishu saw the younger version of himself in this man.
Quickly enough, he was greeted by Duan Pengju with the token. The latter was confused; since people in the organization rarely revealed themselves, with the exception of their leader they didn't get many chances to see His Majesty.
Zhou Zishu didn't say much, but let him stay for breakfast. "Let's go," he said afterwards, reckoning that the Emperor would hold an early court meeting.
On the way to the palace, though Duan Pengju didn't know exactly what his master's intention was, he followed silently.
The two finally reached the Emperor's study, and as His Majesty He Lianyi was already waiting, he sent them in immediately. After the greetings, Zhou Zishu took out a bamboo tube from his sleeve and presented it to He Lianyi. "Your Majesty, here is the result of the last mission."
He Lianyi tooked it but was in no hurry to look through, instead he sized up Zhou Zishu, frowning, "You are looking increasingly unwell lately; it is important that you call for the royal physician after this. Do not just rely on your youthful strength and overlook any internal injuries."
Zhou Zishu smiled but didn't nod, only replying, "I am undeserved of Your Majesty's worry."
He Lianyi glanced at Duan Pengju and asked after minutes of surprise, "Why is Pengju here too? It has been a while since I last saw you, still in high spirit I see."
Duan Pengju smiled, eyes narrowed, "It is my great honor that I am still in Your Majesty's thoughts."
He Lianyi sensed that Zhou Zishu had something else to report to him, so he entertained the business with the bamboo tube first, extracting a small note from inside. Skimming through quickly with a smile on his face, he raised his head at Zhou Zishu. "It was perfectly executed. With what do you want to be rewarded this time, Zishu?"
——This was it.
Zhou Zishu suddenly knelt, Duan Pengju in tow since the latter didn't know what else to do.
He Lianyi frowned, "What are you doing?"
Zhou Zishu was almost out of breath, replying softly, "I only dare ask one favor from Your Majesty."
He Lianyi laughed, "No need to kneel. After having risked your life and limb for me; with the exception of this nation, do you really think I wouldn't give you anything of your desire? Just stand up and speak."
Zhou Zishu straightened his back, still kneeling. Then he quietly removed the front layers of thick robes, and the smell of blood was instantly in everyone's face. His recently scabbed wounds were bleeding again, possibly from the rocky horse ride.
"Zishu!" He Lianyi sprung up from his seat.
Duan Pengju was terrified into silence.
Zhou Zishu opened his slender palm, on which a single nail rested. "Your Majesty, I have put in six of them myself. The seventh one will render me unable to take care of royal matters; I hereby come to say farewell, and only ask that Your Majesty lets Pengju carry out my request."
He Lianyi was dumbfounded, words unable to come out. After a long while, he sat back dejectedly, craning up to stare at the beams on the study's ceiling, muttering, "Yun was faraway at the northwest, Beiyuan… Beiyuan is here no more, now even you are leaving me?"
Zhou Zishu stayed silent.
After moments of contemplation, He Lianyi sighed, seemingly said, "I am really alone, aren't I."
Zhou Zishu continued: "Your Majesty needs not to worry about Tian Chuang. Pengju has been assisting me for years, I believe in his capability…"
Duan Pengju interrupted: "My lord! You must not say that, never have I had such intentions… You… You cannot…"
Zhou Zishu whispered, "They are the Nails of Seven Apertures for Three Autumns, I will eventually die after three years. The bow has already been drawn, it won't be stopped——"
He bowed to He Lianyi, refusing to look up even after he's done, "Please take all the years I have been in Your Majesty’s servitude into consideration, and have my wish fulfilled."
He Lianyi rigidly stared at the blood-soaked man, and in that moment no one knew what this fair emperor was thinking — the cautiousness, the crafted calculations, the old flames of war, the bitter struggles, all those years… He eventually claimed the throne, but everyone had all passed away, leaving him alone.
No one could escape all the inevitability of this world, or the abandonment of time.
After a long while, he closed his eyes, waving his arm.
The corner of Zhou Zishu's lips raised into a smile, "Thank you, Your Majesty."
He looked like he had come across the funniest tale, sickly pale complexion flushing faintly. With great delight, he turned to Duan Pengju, putting the nails into the latter's palms, "Do it."
Duan Pengju hesitated for a while, then bit his lips, raising the vaguely crimson object and nailing it into his lord's body. After years of witnessing, he knew this process would bring great pain, to the point that even the strongest man would cower and scream; but Zhou Zishu only trembled a little, his body still stiff straight. There was no screaming, only occasional inaudible groans.
And even those groans seemed to contain joy.
Duan Pengju thought his lord must have gone mad.
Zhou Zishu stayed still for a long time, then turned to He Lianyi with his head down, his face as white as paper.
The strength in his body was slowly diminishing, the numbness creeping in. His last words were, "Your Majesty must take care."
Without waiting for an answer from He Lianyi, he walked out of the study, all the baggage over the years now light as feather. His silhouette seemed to flash for a moment, and he vanished without a trace.
1 The original text is a burned out incense, a common time measurement in ancient China.
2 内力 (nèilì) The cultivated energy inside a martial artist's body.
3 Eight Extraordinary Meridians: read here.