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Lady Helan snorted softly, raising a hand to brush aside the black hair lying by her white jade-like neck, and raised her skirts to walk up the pavilion.
"You claim to be working on shift, yet here you roam the lake in the late of night, Commander Xie is truly idle and carefree." Lady Helan glanced at the water surface, and looked askance at Xie Yun again: "Yi—since you are already injured, why don't you return early to be waited upon by pretty maids, why do you sigh alone by the lakeside here?"
As she has walked too close, Xie Yun backed up half a step: "Many thanks for the Madame's concern, your subject was about to return."
As he spoke he turned to walk out of the pavilion, yet right after a frail shout sounded behind him: "—wait!"
Xie Yun's footsteps paused, as he heard Lady Helan coldly say: "Are you this condescending before the Empress too?"
Xie Yun said: "No."
"Then why do you have cold words and severe expressions only before others?"
"……" Xie Yun slowly said: "Because…you are not the Empress."
Only Lady Helan herself knew in her heart the destructive power behind this simple truth, and her face paled immediately, her breath stopped, and only after a while did she burst out in uncontrollable anger: "Don't look down on others, Xie Yun! Are you aware, for a long time now the Exalted One has promised to help me up to ascend to the Empress position, how long more do you think you can bl.u.s.ter about by relying on that good second aunt of mine?!"
Xie Yun could not help but break out in laughter.
"Why are you laughing?"
"…..it's nothing, only an old affair." Xie Yun turned around, looking with a smile at Lady Helan: "The late Emperor entrusted his orphaned children, and on Lady w.a.n.g1 said, 'a good child and wife', the Exalted One thus promised to establish Lady w.a.n.g as Empress for a lifetime; when the Prince of Liang2 was first established as Crown Prince, the Exalted One could not hold back his elation, and promised to hand over his vast territory of ten thousand miles of rivers and mountains to the Prince of Liang after his lifetime; Graceful Consort Xiao3 enjoyed the highest favour in the Inner Palace, and no one could hold back her edge, and the Exalted One promised to keep her family in high position and great wealth for generations…"
"Yet nowadays, the Prince of Liang has been ordered to commit suicide in Qian Province, the deposed Empress and Consort Xiao's bones are buried in unknown whereabouts, and the gra.s.s on their families' walls are higher than burial mounds already." Xie Yun ridiculed: "Thus with regards to our Exalted One's promises, the Madame would do well to only listen."
The Madame of Wei's face turned white, and stood frozen there.
"It is late, Madame should return soon." Xie Yun made a greeting with clasped hands, and spoke with a smile: "Your subject takes his leave."
He turned around, yet he had yet to walk out of the pavilion, when unexpectedly Lady Helan indistinctly said behind him: "So this is the reason for your undying loyalty to the Empress? You think that the Empress's promises are useful?"
Xie Yun turned a deaf ear, and Lady Helan gave a cold laugh: "I shall tell you, if a vicious tyrant gets the chance to kill you, they would not relent and let you live merely on past acquaintance! How did my mother and the Empress exist as sisters in their maiden home back then? When my mother gave birth to Ah-Ren, the Empress had promised to raise him properly, and how is the situation now?! Ah-Ren in the Palace—"
Xie Yun interrupted her, "The sixth royal son is the Crown Prince's brother, born when the Empress was on her way to pay her respects at Zhaoling, I do not know what you wish to say."
"Is that so?" Lady Helan coldly said, "Then why, when after the Empress poisoned my mother to death, and gave birth to the seventh and eighth royal sons and her position became stable, did she strike treacherously at Ah-Ren many times?"
Within a nearby flowering shrub, Shan Chao's footsteps abruptly froze.
Behind him sounded the cracking of a dried branch pressed until it broke, and he looked back, to see the Crown Prince Lo Hong sprawled on the ground, his complexion deathly white in astonishment under the moonlight.
Xie Yun's gaze glanced towards the serene and hidden thicket outside the pavilion, and then withdrew without batting an eyelid.
"The men of the Wu family are weak and worthless, yet the woman surnamed Wu, would resort to fair means or foul for the things she wants." Lady Helan lightly moved forward, practically stuck to Xie Yun's back, and whispered: "I do not know the reason why you swear loyalty and devotion to the Empress for, yet for all those things, whatever the Empress can give you, I can also give you in the future…"
Xie Yun raised a foot to step forward, yet Lady Helan suddenly raised a hand to press on his shoulder.
"—Watching red turn to green, my thoughts entangled and scattered, I am dishevelled and torn from my longing for you, my lord.4" Lady Helan slowly spoke next to Xie Yun's ear, a thread of charm mixed with ice-cold ruthlessness floating in her eyes.
"Back then the Empress was anxious to escape Ganye Temple, and thus gave the Exalted One this love poem, reportedly written with poignant calligraphy, the strokes gentle and beautifully moving, with one look the Exalted One's emotions were stirred, and thus summoned her back to the Palace. Later I saw a copy of the poem in Qingning Palace, yet the writing was as austere and harsh as a knife, with one look it was clear that it could not have come from a woman's hand."
Lady Helan's lips curled, her silken gaze spreading with enticement: "Who had copied this love poem, why would it appear in Qingning Palace, and also why would the Empress h.o.a.rd it— Commander, Xie?"
Within the bushes in the shadows, Shan Chao's expression changed slightly, and his gaze fixed upon Xie Yun's profile within the pavilion.
Xie Yun did not move for a long time, and only a while later did he turn around to look at Lady Helan, and spoke with a very moderate tone only four words: "A bunch of nonsense."
Lady Helan raised her voice in a long laugh.
"Whether or not I am speaking nonsense only Commander Xie would know, but speaking of what is on one's mind, I merely do not understand, as since Commander Xie you are young, and so…"
Lady Helan paused, her gaze sweeping past Xie Yun's ice-cold yet handsome face under the moonlight, falling on his slender build and the three-foot blade in his hand, and for some reason her tone abruptly carried a gentle charm that even she herself did not discover: "…so talented, why would you hang yourself on an old tree? I have just spoken, whatever the Empress can give you I can also give you in the future, as for what the Empress cannot give, I can give…"
She advanced to cover a gentle touch over Xie Yun's sword-bearing hand, and her moist red lips curved slightly.
Yet Xie Yun remained expressionless, and after a while said: "Madame."
"What is it?"
"You just mentioned that there are many pretty maids in my manor, especially since a beauty from Mobei just came in, who could be said to be the most stunning in the world."
Xie Yun used a barely concealed pickiness to study Lady Helan up and down, and then slowly showed an expression with a thread of regret: "Thus I suddenly feel, at such a nice moonlit night, it would be better for me to return home to accompany them… what do you think?"
Lady Helan's expression froze in an instant, and then her cheeks reddened.
"…Xie Yun! Don't be too condescending!" She staggered back, and sternly said: "Do you think you can do whatever you please with the Empress protecting you? One day, Empress Wu, Empress Wu—"
Xie Yun said with a smile: "Madame should speak softer, if anyone overheard you, I fear that the position of Empress would not happen."
"Even if thousands of people overheard, the Exalted One's heart towards me does not change, and the phoenix throne beneath the Empress Wu's body shall change hands sooner or later! At that time you, you…"
Lady Helan gnashed her silver teeth, staring helplessly at Xie Yun's handsome face filled with ridicule, and the resentment boiling in her heart seemed to be suppressed by an even more intense feeling bit by bit, until her entire person seemed to give off some kind of ferocity to cut off one's means of retreat: "Look now, Commander Xie. Even if today I have yet to become Empress, you would still lose out by my hand—do you think by teasing me like this, you can get away without paying a price?"
Xie Yun crossed his arms and raised his eyebrow, to see Lady Helan retreat two steps to the side of the pavilion, clutch the railing, and coldly say: "The interval between the Imperial Guards' patrols are not long, at this moment they should not be too far away. You say if at this moment when we are alone together I fall struggling into the water, and then cry out at being hara.s.sed, and cause people to run over to rescue… tonight would the Exalted One believe you, or believe me?"
Xie Yun: "……"
Shan Chao in the nearby thicket: "……"
The corners of Xie Yun's mouth twitched slightly, and vaguely felt that this scene was rather familiar, as if it had been performed not too long ago in Hangzhou on the sh.o.r.es by the West Lake.
—good and evil has its payback, what goes around comes around.
Lady Helan raised her skirts and placed a jade-white leg to cross over the vermilion railings, her lotus face finally showing a thread of contentment: "Well, Commander Xie—?"
The breeze stopped, and the sound of insects ceased, as if the air was freezing in the intense atmosphere.
Xie Yun's gaze fixed upon Lady Helan's leg which hung suspended in mid-air, opening his mouth, yet in his distraction did not say a word, repeating it several times before he finally took a deep breath: "Shan Chao!"
That shout could be said as earth-shattering, not only Lady Helan, even Shan Chao himself hidden in the shadows of trees started, and the Crown Prince seated on the ground and unable to crawl up opened his mouth wide.
Xie Yun's voice was extremely cordial: "Your Miss Long didn't trick you, I really can't swim!"
As he spoke with one step he had already crossed over to the side of the pavilion, not even looking at Lady Helan, to leap and forestall her in plunging into the Taiye Lake!
The splashes sprayed everywhere, and Lady Helan was flabbergasted, taking her leg back in a swish of her skirts on conditioned reflex.
Nearby the Crown Prince's jaw had nearly crashed into the ground: "Xie… Commander Xie is attempting suicide by drowning?!"
Shan Chao could no longer care about hiding in the shadows or anything, he directly crossed over the shrubs and strode forward, dashing to the lakeside like lightning to see. Yet Xie Yun's silhouette had already sunk, without even leaving a struggle, the pitch-black lake surface only had a stream of small bubbles breaking out.
"Who are you?" Lady Helan shrieked: "You you you where did you come out of?! Guards, guards!"
Shan Chao bellowed: "Commander Xie? Xie Yun? Xie Yun?! Xie Yun where are you?!"
The lake surface had no response, and Shan Chao's heart set itself on this, not even bothering to take off his robe, before he ferociously crashed into the lake!
The lake waters in the deep autumn night were simply ice-cold and bone-chilling, and Shan Chao shivered as he entered the water. Fortunately his body was young and had strong heat, and after several fierce strokes, he saw in the depths where long hair seemed to float, and immediately dived to catch Xie Yun's outstretched hand, and then coiled to grab his lower back, holding him tightly in his arms.
In the chaos he could not care about other things, so Shan Chao quickly floated up to the water surface, carrying Xie Yun with one hand to the sh.o.r.e, and caught the carved stone steps of the Taiye Lake, flipping up to land with one stroke.
"Xie Yun?!" Shan Chao flipped Xie Yun over, to see that his eyes were closed and his face deathly pale, and his heart immediately gave a heavy thump, reaching out to pinch his lower jaw, and simultaneously leaning over towards his lips—
Actually at the moment Shan Chao did not think too much, reacting mostly by subconscious, yet at the instant he touched Xie Yun's lips, that ice-cold softness made his heart stop for a moment.
And then, three fingers pressed against his throat, forcibly pushing him away.
"Cough-cough-cough-cough, cough-cough-cough, cough-cough…" Xie Yun wetly turned over, coughing out a few mouthfuls of water in a rather embarra.s.sing fashion. It was with difficulty that he stopped himself from coughing, and then he turned towards a stupefied Shan Chao and hoa.r.s.ely said: "No, I still… don't quite want to kiss men."
Shan Chao: "……"
After Lady Helan retreated back with her entire body trembling, afterwards with a stumble she fell to sit on the long bench by the pavilion railings, and incredulously said: "Xie, Xie Yun you actually…"
Xie Yun twisted a large amount of water from his hair with a splash, and wearily said: "Jump then, why aren't you jumping now? Later when this racket reaches the throne and His Majesty rules on it, let's see how would I hara.s.s you, how about that?"
Lady Helan was unable to speak even a word, even so much that she seemed to have lost all ability to respond. She pointed with a trembling finger at Xie Yun, and then at Shan Chao, going back and forth several times before she flared out with difficulty, and shrieked in anger: "Xie, Yun! You, don't you take this too far!"
"—you think that this matter would end today? Impossible! I tell you, as long as Empress Wu is still in place for one day, as long as that unspeakable regard you have for her still exists one day, this matter would not end well!"
Shan Chao wanted to get up, and the hand propped on the ground suddenly tightened, the veins and skeleton standing out prominently.
"Don't think you can escape this so easily!" Lady Helan quickly got up, and sternly said: "You've humiliated me now, wait and see!"
A night breeze blew past, cold seeping into bone. Xie Yun tucked his drenched hair behind his ears, getting up to speak in exhaustion: "Don't babble nonsense."
In the shadows by the lakeside Shan Chao silently gazed at him, young men truly were vigorous and had lots of energy, that in such a gloomy night, his eyes were so deep that they seemed to bear an edge. Xie Yun impatiently said: "What are you looking at? What matter of yours is this?"
At this moment there distantly came the movements of patrol guards approaching, and fire-light approached, quickly turning past the stone bridge, and Ma Xin's voice filled with suspicion rang out: "Who goes there, hold it! …Commander? Commander?!"
Ma Xin brought his subordinates to madly rush over, and with astonishment saw the Madame of Wei angrily standing at the pavilion, and Xie Yun and Shan Chao both drenched standing at the sh.o.r.e, their appearance clearly having just crawled out of the water, that the crowd of guards started in shock. Yet Ma Xin reacted quickly, not daring to ask what had happened at all, but immediately ordering people to get a towel and clothes, and sent people to escort the Madame of Wei back to the banquet at Qingning Palace.
Lady Helan gave a deathly stare to Xie Yun, gritting her teeth, and turning round to leave, her complicated palace skirts beating on the red railings of the pavilion, giving a clear slap.
"……" Ma Xin was inwardly fearful at this sight, yet he looked back and spotted Shan Chao, and a burst of anger immediately rose from the bottom of his heart, one hand reaching out to press on his sabre while whispering to Xie Yun: "How did Commander drop into the water? Don't tell me this monk… do you want your subordinate to…"
Xie Yun raised a hand to stop him.
"How is the situation at Qingning Palace?"
Ma Xin started: "Still in the Palace banquet."
"The Exalted One and the Empress?"
"Both at the banquet."
Xie Yun nodded, and said: "Let us leave."
"Does Commander want to change into dry and clean clothes… ah!"
Xie Yun brushed his sleeves to leave in the direction that he had come, yet he had barely taken two steps when he suddenly stopped, and said: "Shan Chao."
Shan Chao stood in the waning fire-light, his entire body seeming stretched taut—that state of being as taut as a drawn bowstring, left viewers with the impression that he was prepare to launch a flagrant attack at any time, like a wild beast ready to attack at any time.
Xie Yun turned back: "Come over!"
Shan Chao finally moved, but he did not move forward, rather he reached out a hand, reaching towards Xie Yun's wrist lying limply by his side.
—right at this moment an Imperial guard ran over from the direction of the distant Qingning Palace, his pace extremely fast, quickly pa.s.sing by the stone bridge to come, stooping to whisper into Ma Xin's ear to whisper.
Ma Xin nodded, patting the guard's shoulder to indicate for him to leave, and then stepped forth to bow: "Commander, Qingning Palace has sent out news, the Exalted One has approved it."
Xie Yun glanced over, and Ma Xin lowered his head and said: "Not long after you left the banquet, the Madame of Wei then hurriedly left. Right after the Empress once again brought up her willingness to a.s.sume the ident.i.ty of conducting the second sacrifice to conduct the Fengshan sacrifices together with the Exalted One at Mt Tai, such that after returning to the capital the Empress can formally attend Court and listen to politics—the Exalted One said 'this matter is settled', so the Empress took out the chancellors' pet.i.tion, and the Exalted One under the influence of wine approved it!"
"The imperial brush has personally pa.s.sed it, the commands have been issued, the Exalted One has decided to set out to Mt Tai at the month's end, to announce tomorrow to the entire world!"
The author has something to say:
Ah-Ren, said to be Gaozong's sixth son, Empress Wu's second son Li Xián's milk name.
Translator's Notes Chapter 23: Wu Zetian's Literary Skill
As part of the empire-building project, most Chinese monarchs would usually sponsor great literary works or other research matters. The Tang dynasty would see the establishment of the Hanlin Academy under Emperor Xuanzong, for example.
Wu Zetian would not be slacking behind in literary output - Wikipedia has a section on her page about her contributions. She would not be the first or last monarch to contribute either; therefore it would not be a strange thing.
The poem 'Ruyiniang' written here is one example - in the story the poem's authorship is attributed to Xie Yun, but in history her poems were collected in the Complete Tang Poems.
1 See here for Gaozong's first wife Empress w.a.n.g.
2 See here for Gaozong's oldest son Li Zhong.
3 See here for Gaozong's Consort Xiao.
4 ZH: 看朱成碧思纷纷，憔悴支离为忆君. From the poem Ruyiniang by Wu Zetian, translation .