Chapter 4 - Shadow Puppet Play


This subject is willing to die for Your Majesty.

Translator(s): moon
Editor(s): namio

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In the twilight, the Hongluan star hung over Yanhe Hall like a large, burning ball of fire.

The tea resting by the Grand Secretariat’s hand had already cooled. He got up and asked, “Emperor?”

Li Xiao had sunk into a prolonged period of thought, and the Grand Secretariat said, “This old subject’s bones have not been well in recent years…”

Li Xiao spoke. “Servants, come and take Teacher back to rest. Tomorrow, when you have time, you may return to the hall so that you may tell this king about what happens after.”

The Grand Secretariat smiled and bowed, but just before he left he shot a look at the guard. He suddenly said, “Forgive this subject for being bold enough to inquire further, but what crimes have this child committed?”

Li Xiao was still thinking about the story that the Grand Secretariat had detailed to him, and he answered thoughtlessly, “It is nothing important. Originally he was to be hanged tonight, but now the correct shichen has already passed, so just lock him into the imperial prison ba.”

The Grand Secretariat nodded. “This subject will take his leave now.”

The Grand Secretariat left, and the Yingnu was escorted away, leaving the ruler of the country Li Xiao sitting on the dragon throne, staring into space.

Li Xiao called for a carriage and passed through the Royal Gardens. But just as he was about to return to his imperial bedchambers, he changed his mind, heading instead to Yangxin Hall to see the Empress Dowager.

The empress dowager sat on the low seat, desolately watching a shadow puppet play.  The lamplight shone down gracefully on the oxhide board, flaunting a riot of bright colors, as if it was the happy memories of her past.

The official announced that His Majesty had arrived. The empress dowager had never expected Li Xiao to come at this moment, so she hurried to have her servants clean up the shadow puppets and bring some hot tea.

Li Xiao said mildly, “No need, Mother Empress can keep watching, Huang’er had some free time and came over to sit for a while.”

The empress dowager said with a stony expression, “The Emperor also has free time?”

The imperial harem had the empress dowager as their leader. The empress dowager was also Li Xiao’s birth mother, so no one dared to slight Yangxin Hall. And with the way things were, with this sizable back palace filled with a single madam - the empress dowager - it seemed a little chillingly empty.

The empress dowager was getting old. Li Xiao studied her face. The wrinkles around the old madam’s lips stretched to the creases of her mouth, and her lips were painted an eye-catching dark red. She had an air of sternness so that others didn’t dare offend her; ever since Li Xiao could remember, she had always worn this expression, never letting it relax for even an instant.

No matter how the young Li Xiao tried to express his closeness with her, she always kept a stony face, showing no joy nor praise.

The previous emperor had passed early, and the crown prince’s body was weak, so during the political power struggles between the various eunuchs he too had passed away. She was the one who lifted Li Xiao up to the throne that originally didn’t belong to the mother and son, and since the Li family empire was to be her son’s to carry on, she had the duty to instruct him strictly.

“Shadow puppets,” Li Xiao thought for a long time, before pulling out these two words.

“Shadow puppets,” the empress dowager said placidly, sipping the tea that the eunuch handed over.

“Many years ago, your father emperor brought it back with him when he went down to Huaixi.”

Li Xiao watched from the side. The empress dowager faced the skin that had been set up in the front, and the emperor was just about to have the eunuchs turn the constantly moving small people towards him a little, when suddenly the empress said, “In another ten days, Huang’er is going to be married. Do you recognize this play in its entirety?”

Li Xiao shook his head, and the empress dowager said, “This play is about the things that happened in the Tongli era, when the Fang family usurped the throne, and the fourth son of the emperor, the one who people called the Fourth Royal Highness, Li Wei, married his daughter, Princess Tai’an, to the empress’ mother’s family member Fang Qingyu. In the imperial court records, Fang Qingyu was promoted to the Assistant Minister of the Army.”

Li Xiao nodded. “A good match between husband and wife.”

The empress continued, her expression not changing one bit, “A good match between husband and wife? Your Imperial Majesty has not read much history ever since your youth, and are therefore unfamiliar with the intricacies.”

Li Xiao, “This king has not read much history, this is true. And as for those sections, there are too many court historians who love it so, naturally this king was too lazy to read the details and therefore only skimmed it. Fang Qingyu was a traitor, this king knows that much.”

The empress dowager suddenly sighed. "When a woman marries, she must aim high; when a man seeks a wife, he must aim low. His Royal Highness Li Wei did well to protect his large family of people, and even then, three months after Fang Qingyu married the princess he rode out to suppress the Xiongnu, only to disappear in battle."

“Princess Tai’an had been trained in martial arts since she was young. After guarding their empty bedroom alone for many years, she resolutely managed to leave, disguising herself as a man to enter the army and heading to the frontlines to find out what happened to her husband. Finally, on the banks of the Xiaogu River, she managed to find Fang Qingyu’s bones, and she wept for three days and three nights. Her bloody tears stained the Xiaogu River red, before finally she threw herself into the river and ended her life.”

Li Xiao suddenly said, “With these words from Mother Empress, this king suddenly remembered that he watched this play once in his youth.”

The empress dowager said placidly, “The play ends when she throws herself into the river. Do you know what happens after?”

Li Xiao shook his head, and she gave a long sigh. “This Fang Qingyu, he didn’t die. Isn’t it strange?”

Li Xiao furrowed his brows. “It is indeed strange.”

The empress dowager changed the topic. “As for the reason he did so, no one knows. If the emperor has some free time, you can go read the script.”

Li Xiao answered shortly, “This king will comply with Mother Empress’s wishes.”

The empress dowager, “Huang’er, do not look down on emotions. You are to be married soon, and you have not even seen the woman from the Lin family yet, how is this marriage to be? From when you were young until now, Mother Empress has been most worried about this.”

Li Xiao said sharply, “This king has yet to like someone, so naturally he cannot understand.”

Slowly, the empress dowager said, “The citizens of our Da Yu, all of them respect you as their ruler, and you carry the respect of millions of people. What has the Grand Tutor taught you to do?”

Li Xiao, “Love the people as my own children.”

The empress dowager, “Exactly. Private love exists in the heart, and that love must be great. If you do not understand how to hold tender emotions for your wife and children, how will you love your people?”

Li Xiao nodded and rose. “Mother Empress’s lesson is justified.”

The empress originally wanted to continue, but seeing that the emperor was a little impatient, she could only stop with this topic. With her usual icy expression, she said, “The emperor should return and think on it some more.”

After Li Xiao took leave of the empress dowager, he returned to his palace and took dinner. The accounts book was still spread open on the table and the eunuchs came in to light the lamps, but the emperor had no heart to examine the papers. The word “execute” and the red circle were still there on the accounts from last night.

The petitioner, Lin Yi -- a family relation to the future empress, the Minister of Internal Affairs.

The contents were about reducing the various institutions of the imperial court; the position of the Yingnu could be entirely removed.

At the end, the name of the current Yingnu was brought up: Xu Lingyun.

Li Xiao had left that accounts book untouched for almost a month. Originally he wanted to go check how this Yingnu named Xu Lingyun had offended the Lin family of the current court, but yesterday he had coincidentally heard multiple guards discussing one thing -- the Yingnu gossiped about the emperor, and when he spoke his descriptions were very vivid, complete with eyes and a nose.

As Li Xiao listened on, he felt the anger rise up in him, and thus he was too lazy to check again. Instead, he commanded that those guards be dragged out and executed, before sending people to bring the Yingnu to the hall -- in contrast, the Yingnu maintained his silence, and Li Xiao seriously considered his death by lingchi.

Gossiping about the emperor was one thing, but their topic of discussion was actually about obscene things, which sent Li Xiao into a great rage.

“What did Xu Lingyun say?” Li Xiao said.

At one side the head of the guards trembled and shook, and Li Xiao said again, “Repeat it again from the beginning, and you will be spared.”

The head of the guards deliberated for a long time, before responding, “This Xu Lingyun has always been a little unwell in the head, and this subject believes that the words this person spoke… really can’t be taken at face value.”

Li Xiao said, “Leave it. Bring him in, I want to question him.”

Xu Lingyun was brought into the imperial study, his face covered with fresh blood. The feathered crown that he wore had been removed, and his entire body was covered with wounds. The guards had been exceptionally cruel; harsh strikes from the whip blanketed his body, and fresh blood seeped from where the skin had split to reveal the raw flesh underneath.

Li Xiao said coldly, “When did this king command you to torture him?”

The guards who held the prisoner up were not without fear, and with their voices trembling, they responded, “Answering Your Majesty, this person… was unwilling to change into a prison uniform.”

Li Xiao saw Xu Lingyun’s uniform sticking to his skin because of the blood. Though he had some muscle on his youthful frame, the color of his face was grey after a vicious beating. Clearly, he was not far from death.

Xu Lingyun was forced to kneel on the ground, his head drooping down.

Li Xiao said, “Which jailor caused this? Bring him here.”

The imperial study was filled with silence, and presently the jailor was brought to the outside of the room. 

Li Xiao didn’t even spare him a glance. “Take him out and execute him.”

The jailor pleaded loudly for forgiveness, but was dragged away by the guards by the door.

“Xu Lingyun,” Li Xiao said coldly.

“This subject… is here…” Xu Lingyun’s consciousness was blurry, and he spoke quietly.

Li Xiao, “Lift your head up and respond.”

The head of the guards forced his head up a little. Xu Lingyun’s gaze was slack, his pupils dull.

Li Xiao, “Repeat what you said before word for word, without concealing anything.”

Xu Lingyun mumbled, “This subject… is willing… to die… for Your Majesty…”

Li Xiao watched Xu Lingyun, and a swell of unspeakable disgust rose in his heart. Knowing that this person was a cutsleeve, a homosexual, he thought of how when the emperor went on a journey, Xu Lingyun often stared at him without turning his gaze away.

And this person had also brought up the matter of the emperor’s grand wedding in private with other people, not happy with how the monarch went around with that dignified air...

They were all some filthy, deplorable thoughts.

Li Xiao, “You even dared to gossip about this king’s marriage?!”

Xu Lingyun had already completely lost consciousness. He continuously repeated “this subject is willing to die for Your Majesty”, or otherwise it was “willing to follow Your Majesty”. Seeing that the floor of the study was now covered with a large patch of blood, Li Xiao could only say, “Take him away, make sure he heals, this king will question him again then.”

Accompanying a master was like accompanying a tiger; Li Xiao’s joy and anger were hard to read, but with a casual sentence from his mouth, he unintentionally saved Xu Lingyun’s life.

No one knew whether Li Xiao felt joy or rage in his heart, and they could only take Xu Lingyun to the side palace, where the head of the guards himself invited the royal physician to give his patient a diagnosis. The Yingnu must be healed properly.

Xu Lingyun was at death’s door when the royal physician came over, and the physician explained that he needed to receive enough nutrition, having also stopped the bleeding. The head eunuch then sent over two eunuchs to serve him.

The next day, the Grand Secretariat entered the palace.

Li Xiao had yet to finish reviewing his memorials to the throne when the Grand Secretariat entered the hall. Li Xiao watched this old man. Ever since he was young, he had liked this scholar because he never talked about meaningless general principles, and rarely chose his words scrupulously like the others, afraid of feeding the prince too much biased information.

The Grand Secretariat believed that the crown prince had his own ability to discern things. Li Xiao believed so as well, so the Grand Secretariat didn’t teach him much.

At least the old man had yet to try and steer the crown prince in a direction that the Grand Secretariat wished for.

“You are granted a seat.”

“Many thanks, Your Majesty.”

Li Xiao said, “Lin Yi and the Minister of Revenues jointly have their names on the accounts books, requesting the treasury to release thirty thousand liang of silver as disaster relief for the Jiangnan region. What thoughts does Teacher have on this?”

The Grand Secretariat was silent for a moment, before he stroked his beard. “Lin Yi’s mother’s uncle’s family is an influential family in Yangzhou.”

Li Xiao nodded. With this sentence of the Grand Secretariat’s, the emperor came to a decision. He put down the vermilion-stained brush, before asking, “Yesterday, Teacher recounted to the point where Chengzu came down with the heat illness, and then what happened?”

As if mulling something over, the Grand Secretariat returned that question with another. “Does Your Majesty know of the saying, ‘falling in love at first sight’?”

Li Xiao couldn’t help the slight uptick of the corner of his mouth, and he rebuked, “A groundless belief.”

The Grand Secretariat nodded slightly. “Some people believe it, some others don’t, but it is not up to this old subject to decide anyways. After Chengzu woke, he could not remember anything, and in his eyes was only one person: the bodyguard.”


After that fever, every rumor Li Qingcheng heard seemed to carry a sense of deja vu. Da Yu Country, the Crown Prince, the Empress, General Tang...

Waking that night in E’niang’s medicine hall, he had actually forgotten everything from before. By his side was only “Ying-ge” who didn’t speak. He dimly remembered some hazy things. He remembered the customs and practices of Yu Country, he remembered basic etiquette, he remembered Western Plains, he remembered Beiliang… but if he inspected it closely, everything turned into a mess of fog.

Li Qingcheng remembered that he himself had come here from the capital, and as for where the capital was, he couldn’t remember clearly. On top of that, he had also forgotten what this servant by his side was to him.

One at a time, Zhang Mu brought out the things he carried at his side to help him identify his own status. Li Qingcheng saw them all but couldn’t recall their origins.

Finally E’niang told him, someone had committed treason in the capital. The families of the Assistant Ministers of the Six Ministries and the great generals had been separated. He was the youngest master of the current court’s Great General, called Tang Hong. The Tang family was loyal to the throne, and they barely escaped the outcome of having their property confiscated and their nine familial ties exterminated because the Yingnu had protected him as they escaped. This name was not one that he could use outside, as the remnants of those who had committed treason were currently tracking them down.

Li Qingcheng accepted this explanation dubiously. As for how they should live in the future, E’niang and the Yingnu both didn’t have anything to say. This was something too far outside of the scope of what they could plan for, and originally that duty fell upon Li Qingcheng himself.

I’m called Tang Hong, what should I do?

After a short while of puzzlement, the first plan Li Qingcheng came up with was to take down the rebels and take back everything that was rightfully his.

By his side was only a single mute bodyguard who couldn’t come up with any ideas. Li Qingcheng turned the matter over repeatedly in his head for a long time, but still didn’t have a clue, so he could only count a step when he took it.

If it were a normal person, they would logically choose the best option: to avoid taking the gusts of wind head-on, flee far into the mountains and forests, and eventually greet the end of his life with this mute servant.

But Li Qingcheng dimly felt that things weren’t this simple. In the depths of his heart, a voice said, you can’t give up. He and the Yingnu called each other like good brothers would, and outside he would call him “Ying-ge”. They got a little bit of capital from E’niang, and hearing that the Xiongnu had invaded and brought the havoc of war with them, he decided that they should first head to the north to take a look.

How they were to invest this little bit of capital in the defense for the front lines, thereby completing the first step for the accumulation of troops needed to recover their lands, Li Qingcheng was still a little hesitant about. After all, no matter how hard he tried to recall, he had no experience doing any sort of business. But now that things were the way they were, if they didn’t go now, then they wouldn’t need to for the rest of their lives.

So he packed up some baggage, and when the second batch of news came about Western Plains falling into enemy hands, he brought his Yingnu with him towards Mt. Feng.

He was lucky that his mute servant was very skilled in fighting. And he wasn’t mute, he simply rarely opened his mouth. Outside of being too quiet, from big things to small, he had never gone against Li Qingcheng’s decisions.

Translator's Comment:

moon: and here’s ch 4 of my favorite knifey book so far, ahahaha

This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.



Translator, writer, avid reader. 吃刀群众. Jiejie enthusiast.

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gege simp

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11 months ago

If it’s not spoilery may i ask what exactly did Xu Linyun said that made Li Xiao so upset ? Has it ever been explained in later chapter maybe?

1 year ago

I was dumbfounded at the beginning of this chapter but then I remembered that’s the present…
As for the past, Li Qingcheng is gonna do to the best of his abilities to regain what’s rightfully his, but he doesn’t even remember his own identity, that’d be hard.

Thanks for the chapter!