The sky prisons were not the most sinister, most horrible place on earth, but they were definitely the place on earth most able to convey a sense of disparity between what you once had and what you had now.
Before each person imprisoned here walked through those great, rusted copper gates, who among them had not been an outstanding and respected member of society? And so, to these people, who had fallen in dignity as far as it is possible for one person to fall, although this prison was truly no worse than any other, it was nonetheless the most frightening place on earth.
Old Huang was a guard of the sky prisons, and his son, Young Huang, was also a guard. Father and son alternated shifts, keeping guard over a separate area of the prison called Hanzihao¹. Although they had to make daily patrols, and could not leave their posts by day or by night, in reality, their work consisted of little more than sweeping the courtyard.
This was because there were no prisoners inside Hanzihao, not even one.
This place was a particularly special part of the sky prisons, and had always been reserved for those of the imperial family who had committed grave crimes. And although princes and royalty broke the law no less frequently than the common people, in reality, who would dare lightly accuse one of them of any crime, aloof and untouchable as they were on their lofty thrones? From Old Huang’s vague recollection, there had only been a single incident, ten or so years ago, when this prison had once held the most respected and honourable prince in the world. Ever since that time, the Hanzihao had remained empty, kept clean but cold by their daily sweepings.
To the other side of the courtyard outside Hanzihao was a long corridor called the Dark Path, the end of which led to a large, brick-lined jail cell. Court officials who had committed crimes were kept here.
Compared to the emptiness of Hanzihao, the Dark Path was much livelier. Now and then, officials in varying stages of emotion – some weeping, some dazed, some screaming, some numb with shock – would be seen being dragged into the cell in chains.
Old Huang often craned his neck and peered over at the commotion, and when his son came to take his shift, he would sigh, “It’s one of those great lords again….” This statement had been repeated many times over the years without the slightest variation.
Of course, some people walked out of the Dark Path as well. If they walked out still in chains, their faces rigid and dry, Old Huang would bid them farewell in his heart, murmuring quietly, “May your evil dissipate, and may you be reborn to a new life soon.” But if they walked out with a spring in their step, and with a guard for escort, Old Huang would bow and clasp his hands in greeting without saying word.
Amidst the tedium of guarding the prisons, watching drama unfold in the Dark Path, be it joy or grief, was not a bad way to pass the time.
Today, Old Huang had swept the courtyard of Hanzihao clean and locked the door, as he always did, and now he stood out in the open grounds, his hands tucked into his sleeves as he stared in the direction of the Dark Path. Once in awhile, one hand emerged from his sleeve pocket with a peanut, which he then put into his mouth.
He was chewing his fifth peanut when a rattling sound came from the door leading to the Dark Path, a sign that someone was turning the lock. Old Huang knew this meant some new criminal was being taken into that place, and he hurriedly retreated to the shadows at the side of the building.
The door opened, and two familiar faces emerged – the prison guards Ah Wei and Ah Niu. They stumbled to the side of the door and bowed hurriedly.
Old Huang shivered and pressed himself quickly against the wall again.
This was because the person who followed was the big boss of the entire sky prison, the judicial commissioner, An Rui, Officer An. He was not in his court uniform today, but in a plain robe, smiling broadly as he raised a hand and gestured towards the corridor, saying, “Please, Mister Su, this way.”
The person he had called ‘Mister Su’ was a thin but scholarly and handsome young man, and he did not look to be of any particularly high rank. But he seemed unmoved by the judicial commissioner’s courteous words, and only smiled at him indifferently as he continued to make his way slowly through the doorway.
They made their way along the Dark Path, clearly heading towards the jail cell for a visit. Old Huang raised an eyebrow, trying to guess the identity of the visitor, but suddenly, the young man halted, and his gaze swept over towards the other side of the courtyard. Old Huang jumped and stumbled, thinking that he had been discovered in his hiding place.
“That side…looks a little different….” The young man pointed in Old Huang’s direction.
“That way is Hanzihao,” An Rui replied cautiously. “Mister Su should know, it is the place where members of the imperial family are held.”
“Ah.” The young man nodded, his face expressionless, and continued forward. Behind them, a figure suddenly flitted by like the shadow of a demon, one second behind them, the next in front of them. The young man called out to him, and the figure obediently halted, whereupon it became obvious that it was in fact a handsome youth. Officer An and the other two jailers looked curious, but did not speak, and the row of people continued down the corridor and disappeared through another doorway.O
Old Huang hurriedly returned to the area he was meant to be guarding and let out a sigh of relief as he sat down and continued puzzling over the identity of this video. This was his entertainment, and no matter how close he came to being caught, he would not give it up, and he never minded the fact that he had no way of knowing whether any of his guesses were correct or not.
This young man that had given Old Huang something to do for another day was, of course, Mei Changsu.
Because Prince Yu had personally made the arrangements, An Rui had not dared to delay. Even though the visitor was only a position-less, rank-less scholar, he still personally came to escort him into the prison.
The prison cells in the sky prisons were single cells. And, like all other prisons, there was only a small window very high up, and a musty smell lingered int he air. Mei Changsu stopped when he entered the inner corridor, lifting a hand to his forehead as if he was not used to the dim light. Fei Liu came over and leaned up against him.
“Mister Su, please watch your step,” An Rui advised as they turned a corner. “Xie Yu’s cell is one floor down.”
Mei Changsu braced himself on Fei Liu’s arm and slowly descended the rough-cut stone steps to the floor below. He walked along the corridor, passing two or three cells before coming to one in the middle.
An Rui lifted a hand, gesturing for his subordinates to open the doors of the cell. The entire prison cell was only about six feet square. A little light streamed in from the small window near the top of the cell, illuminating the dust in the air, emphasizing the filthiness of the environment.
“Mister Su, please take your time, I will await you upstairs,” An Rui said quietly before turning and leading the other jailers away. Mei Changsu stood outside the door for a moment before slowly walking into the cell.
Xie Yu, who had probably heard the conversation outside, was standing up from the pile of hay in the corner of the cell, dragging with him the chains around his ankles as he turned to face his visitor.
“Marquis Xie, I trust you have been well?” Mei Changsu greeted him coldly.
Xie Yu looked at the young man looking back at him mildly, mixed emotions rising in his heart. Ever since he had known that this was Mister Mei of Jiangzuo, the qilin prodigy, he had made every effort to oppose him with every possible method, and had been many times more prudent and cautious than he normally was. But, in the end, he had been forced to the edge of the cliff nonetheless, and had fallen into this cold, wet jail cell all the same. If this had happened because fate had turned against him, then that was one thing, but if this was the result of the plans and plots of this Mister Mei of Jiangzuo, then he could not help the chill in his heart as he wondered just how exactly he had managed to bring this about.
“What is it? Has Marquis Xie forgotten me since we last met half a month ago?” Mei Changsu prodded.
Xie Yu forced down the fury in his chest and scoffed, “Of course I have not. When Mister Su first came to the capital, did you not stay at my home as a guest?”
“Correct,” Mei Changsu said plainly. “I still remember the first time I saw Marquis Xie, you were still the illustrious pillar of the court. One hardly dared to look upon you.”
“So Mister Su has come today to rub salt into my wounds. That…speaks rather low of your moral character.” Xie Yu turned his gaze to him. “I was wronged and have fallen into this misfortune because of ill fate, is Mister here today just to gloat over the hardships of a humble person like myself?”
Mei Changsu replied coldly, “So Marquis Xie still knows the word ‘humble’. Your hardship is undeniable, yet when were you wronged? You and I both know in our hearts that not one of the cases in Zhuo Dingfeng’s evidence is false. Your shameless denial is only a desperate attempt to save your own life. Unfortunately, the iron-clad evidence is piled high as a mountain, and the road to hell is near. All your struggling will not save your own life, at most, it might merely save Xia Jiang’s.
Xie Yu’s gaze flickered, and a thin smile appeared at the edges of his lips.
He had already brought up Xia Jiang, just as expected. And if it were not for Xia Jiang, this Mister Mei of Jiangzuo likely would not have come in person to this hell-hole.
In such a clear case with so much evidence, Xie Yu knew well that the reason he had been imprisoned for half a month already without a verdict was because Xia Jiang was keeping his promise, and was finding ways to save his life. These ways would of course infuriate Prince Yu, and so the prince was retaliating by sending Mei Changsu here to try to find from himself some means of countering Xia Jiang.
And so, Xie Yu was prepared, and no matter what he faced, he would grit his teeth and refuse to react.
“Marquis Xie,” Mei Changsu took a step closer, leaning over slightly. “I know……as soon as you saw me, you couldn’t help wondering just how it was that you ended up in my hands, am I right? And up until now, I fear you have not been able to arrive at a satisfactory answer, am I right? You simply cannot understand where it was you made a mistake, and do not know how things progressed to such a state that, all of a sudden, you were thrown into the depths of hell, descending in a single day from an extremely honoured official to a prisoner awaiting death, am I right?”
At these soul-piercing words, Xie Yu’s face tightened, and he visibly gritted his teeth, but he did not say a word.
“In fact, you do not need to waste your energy wondering. I have come today prepared to explain everything to you clearly. Marquis Xie, the reason you lost….” Mei Changsu’s gaze fell like ice onto the other’s face, as he slowly spat out the last few words, “is because you are stupid.”
Xie Yu’s eyebrow twitched.
“I am not saying you are more stupid than the average person, but you are simply more stupid than I.” Mei Changsu smiled. “It is because I am smarter than you, so I know how you will react, and how you will act. I see clearly what you plan, and what you seek. But as for what I am thinking, and what I am doing, and how I scheme, you haven’t even begun to crack the surface. So, if we look at it this way, how could you help but lose? What could you do but fail? And after you have lost, after you have failed, you cannot even understand why it is you lost, if this is not stupidity……then what is it?”
Xie Yu’s face was pale as he forcefully suppressed the emotion in his chest, his nostrils flaring.
Mei Changsu paced a few steps in the small cell, as if taking a brief tour of the tiny room. He turned and glanced around before stopping before Xie Yu and slowly kneeling to face him, as he smiled suddenly, “Do you know who, besides me, is smarter than you?”
Xie Yu turned his head away, determined to ignore him.
“Xia Jiang.” Mei Changsu did not seem to notice, and continued blandly. “Xia Jiang is so much smarter than you that you cannot help but repeat the failure you suffered at my hands, and continue to lose again and again.”
Mei Changsu stopped, looking at the bulging veins on Xie Yu’s neck, and then continued in his flat but almost bewitching tone, “Let me tell you how a smart person will defeat you. In fact, once you understand, it is really very simple. First, he will come to this place to look upon this fallen Marquis, and tell you that he will not stand by and watch, and so he will make you a deal. You will not betray his secrets, and he will save your life. This exchange is certainly not false. He will very seriously find a way to let you walk out of this sky prison alive. And once you have walked out of this sky prison without dying from a death penalty, his promise will be fulfilled. He has saved your life, and so naturally, you will not betray any of the secrets of his crimes. Then, you will be sentenced to exile, and banished to some distant cold land. Perhaps you believe that you can survive such suffering, but in fact, you will not even have the opportunity to taste it. Because, by this time, your case has ended, and no one will question you again, and no one will even listen to you seriously again, so no matter what secrets you hold for Xia Jiang, you simply won’t have the chance to reveal them. The road from the capital to your place of exile is long, and any one of the stops you make along the way may be your last. And when that time comes, your death will only be the death of an exiled convict, so no one will care, no one will even notice. And even if someone did, you will already be dead, and both you and your precious secrets will have been neatly disposed of and transported to the next world before anyone even has the chance to hear them. And Xia Jiang……smart person that he is, will live a good life, without ever needing to worry again. Isn’t that nice?”
Beads of sweat as large as beans were crowding on Xie Yu’s forehead and dripping onto his plain, colourless robes, making dark wet patches on the cloth.
“Marquis Xie,” Mei Changsu’s urgent whisper carried such cold cruelty that it may as well have come from the depths of hell itself. “You had best lift your head and look at me, so the two of us can have a good long talk, what do you think?”
¹sorry I just don’t know how to translate it. han means cold, but zihao just means…character/number? (help lol)
Okay, so I start intern year today, and I very likely won’t be able to keep up this pace of translation. I’m going to aim for one chapter every two weeks. Sorry 😦
(If I disappear for too long, you can come bother me on tumblr: )