Chapter 70: Home Invasion
She softly approached the bed and, with deft lightness he could barely detect, pulled the covers up over his exposed shoulders. He could clearly see she wore an angelic smile and faintly caught her natural scent. He was so touched he wanted to cry, but he couldn't. She tucked in the quilt and shook her head lightly, her earrings glittering. She mumbled to herself, "He sleeps so sweetly! He would freeze to death if not for the stove in here."
Her tone was just like a young mother! He wanted to leap up, but he couldn't move. His eyes started to sting and he had to will himself not to let any tears leak out.
She sat on an embroidered stool by the bed and took out a dark blue outfit she was making for Wenchang. His silver-purple one was not only ripped at the shoulder and midsection, the front on both sides of the chest had been ripped open by the Seal Palm with enough force to smash a stone tablet. She had to make him new clothes. She had worked on it hastily day and night for several days and was nearly finished.
The light played off her otherworldly, radiantly beautiful face, a tranquil, holy smile on her face as she sewed, so focused, so serene.
Wenchang's eyes moved from her face to a portrait of Guanyin hanging on the opposite wall. They seemed to radiate a strange brilliance in his mind. After a moment he suddenly sat up and grabbed the back of her hand and lowered his face into the palm of her hand. She was startled and gasped lightly, "Sir Cai, you…" She felt her palm heat up and was unable to finish speaking.
"Miss Shi, I… I don't know what I should say, but please know that for as long as I, Cai Wenchang, live, I will never forget the short time I've spent here." His voice quavered.
She hastily grabbed a fox-fur robe at the head of the bed and draped it over him and said softly, "Sir Cai, think nothing of it. It's still early, lay down a bit longer. The water for washing up is heated; it won't cool off so fast. Listen to me, don't indulge in fantasies. It's my fault, I was too loud and woke you up."
She pressed his shoulder lightly and made him lie down. She tucked him in, then asked in a gentle voice, "Does it still hurt?"
"No, thank you for your concern."
"Today I'll get Mama Zhou to stew you a whole chicken. She muttered over and over that I've been eating too much, and that it's not a good sign and insisted in leaving behind only some soup and a chicken leg. It took a lot of coaxing to turn her around! Oh! I'm really a disobedient daughter, telling lies like this!" She laughed bashfully, but she was secretly proud as well, and through her pride shown a trace of mischief.
"Oh? Miss Shi, can you tell me a bit about the situation here?"
She lifted the corners of her brilliant red lips. "If you won't tell me yours, I won't tell you mine."
"I'm an orphan, all alone in the world. I don't know where to start, and there's nothing much to say anyway."
She shook her head lightly and sighed and said quietly, "You're incredibly gifted, tall and handsome. You ought to settle down and live a good life…"
"Please stop, I beg you," he said painfully.
She reached out and lightly pressed his shoulder. "Oh! Pardon me, I shouldn't talk like that while you're in a bad frame of mind. Actually, there's not much for me to say either. My father passed the provincial examinations when he was seventeen, and in the fifteenth year of the Zhengde reign he placed second in the exams as the capital and was sent to Jade Mountain County in Guangxin prefecture in Jiangxi to serve as county magistrate. He went through various political ups and downs for four years and rose from seventh-rank to third-rank. He worked selflessly and kept his hands clean, and married my mother when he was thirty-three…" She stopped short, choking back a sob as tears streaked down her face.
Wenchang sat up and handed her s silk handkerchief and said softly, "I'm sorry. Miss, if you don't want to…"
She accepted the handkerchief and wiped her tears and smiled wryly. "It's okay. I just feel sorry for my parents. Last year and imperial edict was sent down in the capital saying Father shouldn't have colluded with the surveillance commissioner and falsely accuse the eunuchs of the Prince of Qin's residence of perverting the law to satisfy their greed, and so he was discharged and put under investigation. In fact, it was the result of influence from the current Vice Commissioner of the Right, Li Chunshui, stirring things up at the Prince of Qin's residence, as well as the Prince of Qin blaming my father for disciplining his servants. Finally, the administrative commissioner did all he could to appeal on behalf of my father, resulting in my father being allowed to return to his hometown. But what a pity! My mother was so anxious while waiting for the imperial investigation to finish, she left me and my little brother, who was not even a month old, and returned to Heaven." Choking back her sobs, she reached up and pulled back her hair, revealing a white mourning flower on her shoulder.
Her story made Wenchang recall his own grief at losing his parents at a young age. He suddenly embraced her and joined her in weeping in silence, tears staining the lapel of his robe.
After a while she calmed down and said, "Dad is already resigned to how things are. He decided a few days ago to return home to Chengdu and spend the rest of his days in retirement. We have a little land back home, enough to live in peace. Dad isn't sorry about having to leave office, but with those rotten eunuchs at the Prince of Qin residence, he is uneasy. A few days ago the Li household sent men over to offer a hundred taels of gold to buy our house, but Dad was unwilling, but one day a few groups of official troops and powerful servants came to harass us, claiming they would use violence to retaliate. So Dad is forced to move out since there's nowhere else we can seek help from, and he wants to keep us all safe. He offered the house to Li as a gift. We'll be able to set out for home in a few days, but the gallery roads in Shu are not easy to traverse in early spring. But Dad can't linger here long. It's hard to say if our trip will be easy or difficult. Ah! Life and death really are a matter of Fate. Man cannot reverse the course of the heavens!"
Wenchang lay down again quietly, an odd mental image forming in his mind. First was the portrait of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, a holy, woeful smile on her face, a dazzling halo appearing around her head. The image gradually transformed to that of Miss Shi, her pure and innocent smile gazing at him. Suddenly the image was gone and demonic figure, looking much like the sharp-tongued, vicious Young Master Li, appeared in its place.
He opened his eyes and it all vanished. He sat up and clenched his teeth and said, "You're dead!"
His outburst was sudden, startling the girl and making her drop her needlework. She put her hand on him and asked with great concern, "What's wrong? Settle down, you're clearly vexed. Don't think too much. Oh! Eat some ginseng soup." She took the soup and brought it to his lips, her black eyebrows deeply knit, a worried look on her face.
Wenchang drank some and said calmly, "Miss Shi, Heaven helps the worthy. I sincerely wish you well."
"And I wish you well also, that you recover quickly." She was relieved to hear him speak so clearly, without his earlier grogginess. Her angelic smile appeared again.
Night came on, another day sinking below the western mountains, the wind piercing cold, but the sky was glittering with stars, a rare cold, clear night.
The drums marking the begin of the third watch sounded. There was a light knock at the door, two girls come to check on their patient for the last time this night.
No response. Wenchang must have went to sleep early tonight.
Three more raps and the door opened quietly and light footsteps entered the room.
The silver lamp's flame was high but Wenchang was nowhere to be seen. He wasn't in bed, and his sword that had been hanging up was gone as well. His clothes and boots were gone. A spotless sheet of Xue Tao paper1 with writing on it lay on the dresser. The writing materials were neatly arranged. Traces of ink water on the slab were not yet dry, but the ink marks had been wiped off. The person who had written these words had been careful and meticulous.
The girl cried out and ran to the dresser and picked up the paper and scanned it under the lamplight. It was written in a neat, running script. "To the esteemed, kindhearted Miss… Heavens! He… He's left."
Chrysanthemum came closer. "What did he write?" she asked anxiously.
The girl calmed herself and continued reading. "Wenchang has received your bountiful kindness. I won't forget it as long as I live. One day I will repay your kindness. Bless you."
She burned the paper with the lamp, then devoutly knelt before the portrait of Guanyin.
Vice Commissioner of the Right Li was satisfied to have obtained the Shi residence. Two days ago he had moved his wife and children to the new house from Fenchuan. The armed escort, Jade-faced Tiger, came as well.
The lights were extinguished upstairs. The only lights were those coming from the study near flower garden. His Excellency Li, with his pointy mouth, bulging eyes, and gaunt cheeks, was inspecting the area along with two of his retainers. He kept stroking his wispy gray goatee, proudly looking around at all the treasures and curios he'd acquired over many years of official service. The study had already been redecorated. Few books, but much jewelry and antiques. It had become a treasure house.
He had his personnel and many servants he'd spent a lot of money to buy, and highly-skilled guards he employed with good pay. But they lived in a side room on either side; only two night watchmen patrolled the area.
The guards walked in step and carried no lanterns. Their blades were concealed behind their backs. They walked fifty feet apart and made their way around from the right to the rear of the flower garden.
Wenchang was hiding on a tree branch, waiting for the guards to pass. Then he dropped down and brought the edge of his hand down at the base of the second guard's ear and the man crumpled.
The first guard heard a noise behind him and turned suddenly, his sabre pointing with him. Just in time. The gleaming tip of a sword was already pointing at his chest, a tall dark figure looming before him. He heard a clear, low and deep voice.
"Brother, don't yell and you'll live. Yell and I'll take your life."
"You… You…" Cold sweat poured down the night watchman's face. Terrified, he didn't have a sure grip on his sabre. It was only half-raised now and he didn't dare move it further.
"Brother, where is His Excellency Li?"
The guard pointed to a building in the distance. "In the study on the second floor. He hasn't gone to bed yet. It's the room with the lights on. He'll be going back soon."
"Relax, I'm not gonna kill you."
The guard was shaking as he turned around, terrified. A muffled grunt and he slumped to the ground from the blow to his left temple.
Wenchang dragged the men underneath a tree and removed their belts and tied them up. He hid their sabres and hid himself behind a large tree. He looked around and made sure there were no surprises, then he leapt up lighted on the outer railing and darted in through a long window along the corridor.
His Excellency Li and two servants want to a cabinet and stroked the exquisite gold tripod cauldrons engraved with Kui and dragon and cloud and thunder patterns. These gold cauldrons were shaped like a suanni2 and only used for burning incense in the parlor. He examined his fingers under the lamplight and seeing them dusty, said darkly, "Summon Zhang Fu. That lazy dog, these gold tripods have not been cleaned."
"Yes, sir! Master, I will summon Zhang Fu at once." The servant bowed and took a silver lamp and hurried to the door.
Before he could pull open the door it opened quietly and in came three masked men, flickering swords in their hands. The servant turned pale from fright. "Master… Ah…" A sword pierced his throat and he could cry out no more. His cry could only stay lodged in his throat.
"No one make a sound or you're dead," the lead man said in a low voice, his big eyes glittering coldly. In a flash the tip of his sword was pointed between Li's eyes, the cold light off the tip of the sword scaring Li so much his bulging eyes nearly popped out of his head. A chill ran down his spine.
"Who… Who are…"
"Shut up! You'll know soon enough." He motioned to his other two companions
One of them stepped up and stuffed as soiled rag in His Excellency Li's mouth. Then he bound Li's hands and said in a low voice, "Come with me quietly. I hope you don't want me to drag you out like a dead dog."
The other masked man went up behind the stunned servant and dropped him to the floor with a single spearhand chop. Then another and the other fell and the servants were stuffed into a large trunk, then went to the cabinet to grab the valuables. The lead man put his sword away. "Wait! We'll get that later. Master Yan has to look it over first. Brother Li, go tell Brother Ruicheng to have the carriage ready by the start of the fifth watch. We'll leave at the third point of the fifth watch through the southern gates. We have enough time so they can please themselves for now, but remember, they can play but can't take. After they're done playing, do away with the witnesses."
There were four large rooms on the second floor so there were many support columns along the corridors. The interior hall was in the back and this was wear the two men took His Excellency Li. There were masked men moving about in every room they passed. Muffled women's voices were heard. They must have been gagged and couldn't call out.
The inner hall was brightly lit. Eight men stood tall, holding blades, surrounding seven women who were seated in the middle of the room. Their clothes were in disarray, their soft, white breasts half-exposed, jade legs visible here and there, their faces pale as they trembled on the floor.
"Hang him up first." The lead masked man pointed to His Excellency Li.
TL NOTE: I’ve begun a wuxia section on my . It’s very much under construction. I just started it so not much there right now, but I will be adding to it here and there. I plan to focus most of my effort at first on a rundown of Gu Long’s publication history, taking a look at each of his novels in chronological order.
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Artisan paper made either the same way or similar to the paper famed woman Tang dynasty poet Xue Tao made. ↩ Hybrid of a lion and dragon, one of the nine sons of the dragon. ↩