"This huge thing had shrunk to such an insignificant size after a good sleep."
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
That night, Hongjun had a nightmare.
In the dream, Du Hanqing’s entire body was on fire as it burned merrily. His skin charred and split as fresh blood seeped out, revealing the bloody flesh hidden under that now blurred fox fur. That anguished fox was trying to peel itself out of its human skin, dragging out fresh blood and sizzling fat along as it let out tortured howls.
“Ah--!” Hongjun sat up suddenly in bed.
“Hongjun?” Mo Rigen’s voice came from the outside before he hurried to enter, placing one hand on the exhausted Hongjun’s forehead.
Hongjun breathed lightly. This was already the second time he had a bad dream, and he struggled to sit up, panting incessantly, before he calmed himself a little and watched Mo Rigen quietly.
“In the nights that the White Deer has left behind,” Mo Rigen said, voice quiet, “The night horrors of the grasslands howl and run wild.”
He poured a cup of water for Hongjun, before muttering a spell over the cup. When Hongjun took it and gulped it down, his heart seemed to calm a little.
“What does that mean?” Hongjun asked.
“The Grey Wolf watches over the bright day, while the White Deer watches over the long night,” Mo Rigen said. “In my homeland there’s a legend; when the White Deer vanishes into the darkness, children who have left their homes will have nightmares… Are you homesick?”
“A little,” Hongjun nodded his head.
Mo Rigen patted Hongjun’s shoulder and smiled slightly. “When people grow up, it’s inevitable that they leave their home behind.”
“That’s true,” Hongjun said quietly. He nodded at Mo Rigen in gratitude. After drinking that cup of water, his mood had greatly improved, and when he laid down again, this time he quickly fell asleep.
The next day, in the early morning, Hongjun was the one who woke up the earliest. As he squatted by the side of the well and brushed his teeth, the carp yao, having learned of the events of the last night, was busy advising him, “Why are you so concerned about that yaoguai? He’s not your relative or even from the same hometown as you, and you already have your hands full taking care of yourself.”
Hongjun wiped his mouth dry, searching his thoughts for a moment, before responding, “Technically, I am also a yao, am I not? There will inevitably be a day when Zhangshi knows.”
“Your situation is different from the foxes’,” the carp yao said. “Zhangshi doesn’t seem to mind me. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s the fox yao who didn’t pledge allegiance to your father back in the day, so they’re just reaping what they sowed. Plus, you usually eat anything and everything, and when you eat meat I don’t see you saying all lives are equal.”
“That’s not the same,” Hongjun said, “Not eating meat would be out of the compassion I hold in my heart; eating meat is to help them escape the bitterness and troubles of life, Qing Xiong said so.”
“Morning, Zhangshi.” From behind them came the sound of Qiu Yongsi greeting Li Jinglong, and Hongjun and the carp yao immediately stopped talking. At the same time, Mo Rigen coincidentally was coming back from outside, and Li Jinglong asked him, “It’s done?”
Mo Rigen nodded his head. Hongjun asked, “This early in the morning, what did you go to do?”
Mo Rigen smiled mysteriously and made a “shh” motion, indicating that he would know in just a bit.
Li Jinglong said, “This time I only heard the sentence about “the compassion I hold in my heart”. Eat breakfast first, and go change clothes after you’re done eating.”
This huge thing had shrunk to such an insignificant size after a good sleep. The misgivings in Hongjun’s heart from last night had disappeared, and when he faced Li Jinglong now, he felt a little awkward for his previous actions, but Li Jinglong only gave him a look before commanding them to change into their uniforms.
The uniforms of the Exorcism Department were made with the fabric that the emperor and Yang-guifei had gifted them. It was a high quality deep blue fabric, and the loose-sleeved outer martial robes paired with the snow-white inner robes showed off the breadth of their shoulders and the narrowness of their waists. It was different from the long robes of the literary officials; the bottom hem only covered 90% of the length of the leg, showing off their pitch black military boots. These robes were better suited for fighting in, and their martial prowess shone through in their strides.
They stood in front of the mirror, admiring themselves in turn, and evidently clothes made the man, as all of them appeared very tall and handsome. Even Qiu Yongsi, who was used to wearing the robes of a scholar now looked like someone who was brave and daring when he put on this official uniform. And yet, of the five of them, the one who looked the best was still Hongjun. After Hongjun had arrived in Chang’an, he had gotten used to wearing rough robes with drawstring sleeves, his upper body clad in pale white and his lower half in a faded azure, like a youth from a farming family. Despite this, he was already very attractive with his usual outfits because he had been gifted with good looks, and he had still managed to give off the air of a young lord. But now that he wore a set of expensive robes, no person could look at him directly, and he had the air of a scion of the Wangxie clan.
“The neck is kinda tight…”
As soon as Hongjun opened his mouth, that illusion was destroyed.
Li Jinglong could only go up and help him tug it a little wider, saying, “Of course I forgot about the collar.”
Before, Li Jinglong had specially asked the tailor to come around once and to work overtime to make these outfits. Hongjun hadn’t been there then, but his robes still fit him very well, and Hongjun felt that this was a little strange. He pointed out, “No one took my measurements.”
Li Jinglong grew a little awkward at that, and he coughed lightly, before saying to the rest of them, “See, I told you they would fit.”
“Zhangshi’s vision is indeed very good,” Mo Rigen lifted his thumb.
Hongjun looked at Li Jinglong suspiciously and asked, “How did you know my measurements?”
“Alright stop asking…” Li Jinglong handed over an extremely shrunken, bathrobe-like piece of clothing to Hongjun, before pointing towards the outside, saying, “You’re pretty thin, so with the extra material, I made another robe.”
“Zhao Zilong--!” Hongjun held that little bathrobe as he shouted wildly.
“What, what?” Zhao Zilong immediately rushed on over. It had lived for so many years, and yet this was the first time it had worn clothes. Seeing that Li Jinglong actually hadn’t forgotten about itself, it began to cheer, before taking over the bathrobe. It laid down on the ground as it shoved its hairy legs in. After putting on the bathrobe, it tied the sash at its waist, and the back train just managed to cover its tail. Li Jinglong handed it a small shoulder bag, helping it put it on; the bag was for holding Lihun Pollen.
Everyone couldn’t resist laughing loudly, and the carp yao said, “Let me see…” before hopping up and down in front of the full length mirror.
Li Jinglong said, “Today let’s all move out together. This is a life-and-death day, so make sure that you don’t use the Lihun Pollen unnecessarily.”
Everyone voiced their agreement and, carrying their weapons, they prepared to head out. Hongjun’s heart began to pound as he remembered Li Jinglong’s words about “if the Exorcism Department survives unharmed”, and he had a revelation. When he looked at Li Jinglong, the glance Li Jinglong shot him in return seemed to have a hidden smile, as if he was comforting him: don’t worry, everything will be alright.
In the early morning, Mt. Li was covered in billowing clouds that dampened the clothes of anyone climbing the mountain. A horse cart stopped by the roadside, and the Shenwu troops frantically said, “General! Please get in the carriage!”
Feng Changqing grasped his walking stick, and with great effort he hobbled step by step up Mt. Li towards the vacation palace of the emperor. At the same time, he waved his hand and said, “It’s not a problem. Do you all look down on this general?”
The guards could only stop asking and stay quiet as Feng Changqing limped along the paved path. His parents had died when he was very young, and when his maternal grandfather was exiled to Anxi after being framed by Li Linfu, he had spent his life drifting about in the service of the army. With his disabled body, he had managed to display his stunning talent under Gao Xianzhi’s command, and after conquering Lesser Bolor and the country of Greater Bolor. In thirteen years, he had moved upwards in leaps and bounds to become a fierce general who could stand shoulder to shoulder with seasoned generals such as Geshu Han.
Feng Changqing had multiple battles and victories under his belt, and he had employed countless stratagems in his campaigns in the Western Regions. Everyone mocked Li Jinglong, but no one dared to mock this weak and small Feng Changqing. As the commander of a troop of ten thousand men, his voice naturally carried not anger, but the power of prestige in the words he spoke.
Although Feng Changqing was currently on leave in the capital, the day he returned victorious to the court, he had turned in an almost ten thousand word long memorial to the throne to Li Longji, requesting reform of the way the frontier lands were governed, so that they could be ruled over peacefully and the soldiers stationed far away could return home. Because of this, he had a good reputation amongst the military officials and the troops themselves.
An eunuch, beset with an air of confusion, hurried into Huaqing Palace. At this time, Li Longji was hugging Yang Yuhuan and sleeping peacefully, and the eunuch didn’t dare to disturb their rest. However, he was also afraid that Feng Changqing would rush into this scene waving his cane, and the guards outside wouldn’t dare to stop him.
The eunuch opened his mouth but didn’t dare to let out any sound; he was anxious beyond belief.
“If you have anything then say it, don’t swallow it and not spit it out.”
From inside the tent came Li Longji’s voice. He had woken.
“What shichen is it?” Yang Yuhuan lazily asked.
“General Feng Changqing is waiting outside, he says there’s an extremely important matter that he wanted to report post-haste to his Majesty…”
When he heard these words, Li Longji instantly sat up straight, and he mumbled, “Something happened again? It shouldn’t be, a messenger hasn’t been sent out to Changqing yet right? Unless the Ministry of War sent him here?”
“Is it a military situation?” Li Longji thought about it, before he asked, “Where’s Guocheng? Why didn’t he go to Guocheng first?”
The eunuch said, “He said, the fate of the country… is intimately intertwined with this matter.”
“What is he up to?” Li Longji waved his hand impatiently and said, “Tell him that Zhen knows. When did he get here?”
“Last night, at the second gen, he arrived at the foot of the mountain, and one step at a time, he walked up,” the eunuch said.
Yang Yuhuan said, “General Feng’s legs aren’t in the best shape, how did he manage to make it up here? Your Majesty.”
Li Longji had no other choice, so he pulled on his dragon robe, and, with his hair loose and uncombed, he walked out of the bedroom.
In the side hall, Feng Changqing leaned on his cane, breathing heavily, watching Li Longji, who wore a dignified expression on his face.
“Don’t rush,” Li Longji calmed him. “You are granted a seat. Someone get General Feng a cup of water and speak slowly.”
Feng Changqing couldn’t stop trembling even as he lifted his head to look at Li Longji.
Li Longji was getting old, and though he usually paid attention to his looks, he was over sixty, and he could not avoid showing his age. Feng Changqing had yet to reach the age where he could tell a person’s truths and lies apart by ear, but he looked like he was somewhat older than Li Longji.
“When this subject was climbing Mt. Li…” Feng Changqing took the handkerchief that the eunuch offered him, wiped his sweat, and panted, “I don’t know why, but I thought of Your Majesty’s past… past heroic silhouette.”
“The heroic silhouette from which year?” Li Longji began to smile.
Feng Changqing looked at Li Longji as he said, “The first year of the Tanglong era, the year when the troops gathered in front of the Lingyan Pavilion.”
Li Longji had been woken up this early in the morning, but upon hearing Feng Changqing actually bringing up the past with him, he began to laugh. However his long-honed instinct during his time as a ruler told him that things that began with such a reminiscing of the past would definitely not be simple.
“If you didn’t bring it up, Zhen would almost have forgotten it,” Li Longji smiled, and he took the ginger soup that the eunuch handed over, and after taking a sip, said, “Wu, give a bowl to Changqing as well.”
That year Li Xianfu and Ge Fushun led the Yulin Army and started a coup to punish Empress Wei, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wu Zhao and ascend as the empress regent. Li Longji and Princess Taiping gathered their forces at Lingyan Pavilion and swore on their lives to defend the reign of the Li clan, before charging into the palace, killing Princess Anle, Wu Yanxiu, Shangguan Wan’er, and everyone else involved in the plot, taking back the Li clan’s territory and right to rule.
The past was a world away, but listening to Feng Changqing bringing up those days, Li Longji couldn’t help but remember the way blood boiled over with passion in his chest all those years ago.
“The Kaiyuan Yuan year, as well” Feng Changqing added.
If he hadn’t remembered wrong, that was the year Li Longji had once again started a coup, one where he caused Princess Taiping’s death. From then on, the Great Tang had blossomed into the prosperous splendour it had today.
“Changqing, you should know, the world is at peace today,” Li Longji said. “As long as the common people are happy, then not needing to use this knife of Zhen’s is a good thing.”
Li Longji had heard a hint of something in Feng Changqing’s words, and he was also thinking back to that something -- no matter what happened, he always hoped that it would not cause large upheavals within the imperial court.
“Your Majesty is all-knowing,” Feng Changqing immediately answered. “Changqing thought of Your Majesty, and couldn’t help but think of himself.”
Li Jinglong’s brows began to furrow slightly.
Feng Changqing asked, “Changqing doesn’t know, but since the year he entered General Gao Xianzhi’s military tent, in these years, have there been any troop situations that have been hidden from the imperial court?”
“None,” Li Longji answered. “Exposing other people’s lies, however, there were many of those.”
“In these years, has Changqing ever lied to Your Majesty?” Feng Changqing asked again.
“Under this wide sky, only you have spoken the truth regardless of the situation you found yourself in.” Li Longji’s words carried a hint of unquestionable majesty. “Though it may have been unpleasant to hear, you never lied to me. What exactly is happening in Chang’an?”
When Li Longji was young, he also had a ruthless character, and though he had indulged in tenderness these years, when it came to such matters of principle, his brain was still clear and sharp.
Feng Changqing lifted a hand, which trembled a little as he pointed to his neck, and he answered, “Today, if Changqing speaks even half a sentence of lies, then he asks that Your Majesty removes this head from the shoulders, and Changqing will not utter a single word of complaint.”
Li Longji’s brows furrowed; he didn’t know what medicine Feng Changqing was selling in his hulu. Finally, he said, “Speak.”
When the sun had risen to the height of three bamboo poles, the examination building to the north of the city resounded with the dang -- dang -- dang -- of a bell sounding again and again as nearly 2500 students underwent the customary body search, before they filed single-file like a school of fish into the building. As far as the eye could see, the building was filled with single-occupancy private rooms, and the rooms were connected by rows of hallways. Every door was marked with one of the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches.
The examinees were searched outside and subsequently given plaques. According to each plaque, they waited outside the doorways to the private rooms they had been assigned, and the test proctors passed by, verifying their identities and their plaques before the examinees hung the plaques outside the door and entered. After they shut the door, the test proctor stuck a paper seal onto it. Ten rows of private rooms, with every row having a hundred rooms. After they were sealed inside, the huge examination center fell into an echoing silence.
Every room of the wing was completely sealed except for a sliver of a window that let in the light, so that the servants could deliver food and water, and the scholars could go leave to relieve themselves. Otherwise, the examinees were to stay in these rooms for a whole three days.
Inside the storehouse, everyone pitched in to drag the heavily sleeping servants to the corner of the wall, before pulling the servant uniforms over their own official robes. Li Jinglong said quietly, “Let’s begin.”
The carp yao hid itself behind a water jar and began to divide up the medicine, and the rest of them split up to go their separate ways.
Hongjun lowered his head, walking along the corridor with fast steps. As he passed by a room, he tilted his head to take a look, searching for the mark that Qiu Yongsi had made beforehand -- on the hem of the sleeve, the lapel of the robe, or other similar places, and every time he found one, he would use a throwing knife to make a light mark on the doorframe.
A-Tai did the same, lowering his head, and every time he passed by a door, he pretended to peek in without looking like he was doing so.
When A-Tai passed through the hallway, he was discovered by the test proctor.
The test proctor waved his hand. “You, come over here for a moment.”
A-Tai went over, and just as the proctor was about to ask what this servant was doing, staring wildly about outside a testing room, a hand reached out from behind, tugging at the hem of his robe.
The test proctor: “?”
Just as the proctor was about to turn his head back to look, the carp yao suddenly lifted its hand and opened it, shaking a little Lihun Pollen out.
“One look brings fortune --”
The proctor sneezed, and A-Tai immediately turned around, vanishing like a gust of wind. The carp yao dove towards a corner, also running away.
The test proctor: “??”
“Stop! Why have I never seen you before…” Another guard confronted Qiu Yongsi.
“Meeting again brings joy!” The carp yao once again scattered some pollen and the guard sneezed, his face filled with confusion, as Qiu Yongsi and the carp yao each went their own ways.
Hongjun passed by a room, and when he looked in, he suddenly saw Du Hanqing.
Du Hanqing was sitting behind the table. After watching suspiciously for a moment, Hongjun passed by the room.
Without making any sound, Li Jinglong turned the corner to that hallway, his brow furrowed deeply, watching Hongjun’s figure from behind. He didn’t expect Hongjun to turn back around though, and Li Jinglong immediately ducked again behind the corner.
Only to see Hongjun, throwing knife in hand, hesitate for a second, before finally coming to a decision and carving a line into the wood. His eyes were red, and he turned and left resolutely.
After a few moments, Mo Rigen hurried over and lowered his head to inspect the mark outside the door, before peeking into the room again and letting out a sigh. He felt that mark with his hand and carved it a little deeper before he too turned and left.
Li Jinglong: “...”
Just as Li Jinglong was about to leave, A-Tai came, and like Mo Rigen, he had taken a special trip over to inspect Du Hanqing’s door, and right behind him was Qiu Yongsi.
Just as Qiu Yongsi turned the corner of the hallway, he almost slammed into Li Jinglong, and in an instant he grew extremely nervous.
“Yo, Zhangshi?” Qiu Yongsi smiled.
“Seems like I was worrying for nothing,” Li Jinglong said flatly. “You all are very protective of Hongjun huh.”
Qiu Yongsi smiled and said, “We were only afraid that our efforts would fall just short, Zhangshi. When important times arise, we’re all on your side.” And saying this, he patted Li Jinglong’s shoulder.
All of the signs on the doors had been complete, and everyone gathered outside the storehouse to confirm their counts.
“266 rooms,” Li Jinglong said. “That’s all of them, let’s wait for the bell.”
Hongjun was quiet, and everyone else didn’t speak as well, so the atmosphere turned a little strange. Li Jinglong went over, and with one hand he pressed down on Hongjun’s shoulder and said, “This time, after properly wrapping up the case, let’s go out and have some fun. What do you guys say, where do you want to go?”
“Really?!” Hongjun asked in surprise, perking up.
The corner of Li Jinglong’s mouth twitched, and he thought, where is the compassion you hold in your heart now...
“Pingkang Li!” Qiu Yongsi immediately said.
Li Jinglong: “...”
“Pingkang Li,” A-Tai smiled.
Hongjun asked, “Is Pingkang Li alright? I haven’t actually gone there yet… but if Zhangshi you don’t like it then…”
Mo Rigen said, “Then Pingkang Li; if we don’t stay the night, and just watch the dancing and listen to the songs, that’s alright, right? Pingkang Li isn’t all… well, those kinds of places.”
“Even you want to go?” Li Jinglong had no way to comprehend what ran through his subordinates’ minds.
Mo Rigen said, “I, en, my first time, I need to save it for the White… whatever, we’ll talk about that later, but drinking wine and listening to songs, that’s fine.”
The carp yao asked, “Can we go to Pingkang Li? I want to go see that painting.”
“Then let’s go to Pingkang Li!” Qiu Yongsi made the decision.
“Good --!” everyone joyfully shouted. The opinions of the many crushed the one, and Li Jinglong placed one hand on his forehead. At that moment, the bell began to ring, dang -- dang dang--, and everyone immediately rose to make their preparations.
When the second round of chimes rang out, the proctors carried scrolls in their arms and hurried towards the private rooms. Every time they passed a room, they stuffed the test scroll in from the window, and as soon as it left their hand, they hurried to the next room, and in this fashion, they made it around to all of the rooms.
The glaring sun shone down from above, and Hongjun’s palm sweated as someone shouted from outside, “Water delivery’s here!”
Everyone mixed into the crowd of servants and carried a basket of pitchers out before lowering their heads. The guards searched the baskets and the pitchers, and everyone went on their own to deliver the water. Li Jinglong held the Dinghun powder in his left hand, and with his right he lifted a pitcher. When he got to a door with a mark, he added the powder into the pitcher before taking the water that the guard poured out, and after filling the pitcher, he passed it into the window, and the examinee took it.
Five rows and five more, the ten rows of private rooms had almost a hundred in each row, and after this round, everyone was so tired that their foreheads were covered with sweat. When they returned to the storehouse, Li Jinglong saw that the time was about right, and he said, “Disperse!”
Everyone flipped over the wall again, arriving at the street across from the testing center. They all peered in the direction of the test center, all of them still uneasy. After going to all this trouble, a large part of the day had already passed, and the autumn afternoon was a little chilly. Hongjun was afraid that they wouldn’t drink the water, or that the amount of medicine wasn’t enough, and thinking of it, when Li Jinglong had him put even more medicine in, that was a move made with a great amount of foresight.
Li Jinglong then patiently waited a little longer before taking a deep breath, as if he was also a little nervous. Not long after, horse-drawn carts resounded on the street, and numerous carts arrived. It was precisely Gao Lishi and the various officials of the Ministry of Rites who were here to oversee the testing.
Li Jinglong was waiting for this exact moment, and he immediately said, “Let’s move out.”
Hongjun said, “Wait, I’m still a little afraid, they wouldn’t leave this early, right? Let’s wait a little longer.”
Li Jinglong answered, “I tested your medicine on the water the servants drank, and the dosage is definitely enough.”
Hongjun: “I’m just afraid that they won’t drink it.”
Li Jinglong: “In the morning I had Mo Rigen come to the Imperial Academy and add in four times the usual amount of salt for all of the breakfasts at the academy, just to prevent any mishaps.”
Aside from Mo Rigen, everyone else instantly gaped in amazement. Qiu Yongsi immediately said, “Zhangshi, from today on, this one will definitely be following you!”
A-Tai said in disbelief, “What kind of person is this!”
Li Jinglong humbly said, “Stop joking around. In a bit you all need to be a little more proper, go!”
And saying this Li Jinglong pulled off his outer robe, revealing his body clad in the dark blue official uniform, the Sword of Wisdom fastened to his waist. He wore the uniform that the Son of Heaven had gifted, and his posture was straight as the body of a brush. Everyone followed suit, revealing their official uniforms, and they followed behind Li Jinglong, heading for the plaza.
moon: where to even start… SO MANY GOOD THINGS WERE GIVEN TO US IN THIS CHAPTER! mrg’s gege-ness coming through, ljl and his little robe for the mascot too, feng changqing Up to Something
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.