Chapter 180: The empress is a pawn Original and most updated translations are from volare. If read elsewhere, this chapter has been stolen. Please stop supporting theft.
While Ning Xiaoyao and Lou Zigui were leaning against the Wutong tree as they sat and talked, Shadowgale and the rest had already safely escorted Empress Zhou to the Iron Buddha Temple situated in the mountains north of the capital. It was currently nighttime, so no one was burning incense or praying to Buddha. The temple was currently devoid of worshippers, so when Shadowgale’s team of Dragon Guards entered through the gates, they startled all the monks inside.
The head monk Grandmaster Kumu[1. Grandmaster Kumu (枯木大师) - Kumu dashi, in which Kumu means “dead tree.”] exited from the living quarters at the rear of the temple with the steward monk while nine others moved to Shadowgale’s side. The empress had told Shadowgale before they arrived to not reveal her identity, and that she hadn’t been expelled from the palace. Head Commander Shadowgale took her words as a royal decree and asked, “Where is Zhou Junqi?”
Grandmaster Kumu gave a start at Shadowgale’s question. “This excellency, Zhuo Xing[2. Zhuo Xing (拙行) - “clumsy/awkward behavior/conduct,” the Dharma name of Zhou Junqi.] has already withdrawn from worldly affairs. He is a criminal as well, but your excellency still wishes to see him?”
After the previous emperor had ordered Zhou Junqi to become a monk, he took on the Dharma name of Zhuo Xing. Shadowgale only feigned ignorance and retorted coldly, “I came upon imperial decree. Don’t waste words with me, Grandmaster, where is Zhou Junqi? Don’t blame us for His Majesty’s wrath if you hinder our work.”
Shadowgale’s rude, unreasonable attitude forced Grandmaster Kumu to back down and keep quiet. No matter how high his status was amongst his fellow monks, how could it compare to imperial might?
“Your Excellency, please come this way,” Grandmaster Kumu led the way. Standing behind them, Empress Zhou trembled at the prospect of seeing her long estranged brother.
Zhou mama supported her and murmured, “Empress, you must keep calm. Wouldn’t eldest young master feel miserable otherwise?”
The empress raised a hand to rub at her eyes before she nodded. Shadowgale glanced at the monks trailing behind them and ordered Grandmaster Kumu, “There’s no need for all these people to follow us.”
Grandmaster Kumu waved a hand to dismiss his monks. The remaining line of people followed Grandmaster Kumu for about the length of time it took to burn a stick of incense before they arrived at a long and narrow path. At the end of the path was a solitary courtyard where a monk dressed in ash-gray robes was standing by the door. He had no left hand and it looked like he’d been waiting for quite a while.
“Grandmaster may withdraw,” Shadowgale had never seen Zhou Junqi before, but the missing hand was proof of the monk’s identity as Empress Zhou’s brother. Grandmaster Kumu pressed his palms together in a namaste as he murmured a Buddha’s name, then turned to leave. Empress Zhou made a move to step forward but Zhao mama tightly held her back.
Zhou Junqi looked at the row of people before him. Aside from a few monks, he hadn’t seen any other outsiders during his years here. Now he was unused to the sight of strangers and their unshaved heads. Shadowgale glanced at Zhou Junqi and noted that he resembled the empress somewhat, but his skin was very white from extended periods without sunlight. He was also an extremely tall man, but thin, with his robes hanging loosely off his body.
“Head Commander,” a Dragon Guard by Shadowgale’s side murmured. “That Grandmaster Kumu hasn’t left yet.”
Shadowgale turned to peer into the darkness, but he couldn’t see anyone.
“His footsteps stopped as soon as he walked out of the entrance,” the Dragon Guard added. Of all the men Shadowgale brought with him today, this one had the best hearing. Shadowgale trusted his words and patted his shoulders, before clearing his throat. Then he told Zhou Junqi. “Zhou Junqi, accept this decree.”
Zhou Junqi fell to his knees.
Neither the empress nor Zhou mama knew what Ning Xiaoyao had decreed, so they held their breaths to listen closely. Shadowgale simply repeated Lou Zigui’s words as the imperial decree for Zhou Junqi to hear. When Zhou Junqi realized that the current sovereign wanted to conduct a retrial for his losses against the bandits in the past, his mind went blank and blocked out the rest of Shadowgale’s words.
“Zhou Junqi,” Shadowgale said, “You’re still not accepting the decree and thanking His Majesty for his grace?”
Jolted back to his senses, Zhou Junqi kowtowed and did just that. Meanwhile, Grandmaster Kumu headed silently back to the main temple. The late emperor had been a believer of Buddhism who’d never shirked in his donations to Iron Buddha Temple. However, the support from the imperial family had stopped after the current emperor took to the throne. One could well tell his attitude towards them. (Author: Grandmaster, do you believe me when I say His Majesty will bite you to death if you ask for donations now? o(╯□╰)o)
Moreover, Grandmaster Kumu thought, Because of one word from me, the current emperor had never stepped into the palace before he took the throne. Will he seek retribution for that slight? He was the very one who said that Empress Dowager Xie and Ning Xiaoyao weren’t compatible at birth and should be kept apart. Now Grandmaster Kumu simply shook his head. What’s inevitable can’t be avoided. I’ll listen to Heaven’s will.
“Fellow Brother,” the steward monk of the temple, Grandmaster Kumu’s younger monk brother, walked out from a small path in the woods. He was known as Grandmaster Chen Mu.[3. Chen Mu (忱木) - Chen is “sincere feeling, true sentiment,” Mu is “wood.”]
“His Majesty wants to reverse the verdict for Zhuo Xing,” Grandmaster Kumu replied.
Grandmaster Chen Mu said, “His Majesty doesn’t get along with the Grand Preceptor, so it’s logical that he’ll reverse the verdict for his brother-in-law’s sake.”
“Monastics like us shouldn’t involve themselves in these affairs,” Grandmaster Kumu replied as he kept walking.
“I saw two women in that group,” Grandmaster Chen Mu continued as he followed him. “Why would His Majesty send women to see Zhou Xing? Unless they’re…”
“Don’t say any more,” Grandmaster Kumu cut him off before lowering his voice. “This humble monk once committed a grave blunder, but now you wish me to make another?”
Grandmaster Chen Mu fell silent at his words.
Shadowgale didn’t stay long, but took his leave after watching Empress Zhou and Zhou mama enter the courtyard. The Zhou siblings hadn’t seen each other for years. They looked at each other, wanting to cry but unable to, as they thought of their now distant past. Zhou mama stood outside the house as the two siblings reunited. After a long time, she finally heard the empress break out into bitter sobs and shed some tears of her own. Their family was broken up, its members dead or scattered. Anyone who hadn’t experienced the pain themselves would never be able to understand such blood-soaked agony and hatred.
While Shadowgale and the rest rode off on their horses, an old and unremarkable monk quickly finished penning a letter in his quarters, sealed it up, and ordered one of his young disciples to take it. “The city gates are already shut at this hour, but if you call out the name of Iron Buddha Temple, a soldier will let down a basket for you. Place this letter in that basket.”
The little monk accepted the letter with a word of assent before turning to run out.
In the meanwhile, Mute Nanny was brought by a Dragon Guard into Lou Zigui’s quarters at Supreme Splendor Hall. A little nervous, she greeted the man in his chair with a bow.
“Take a trip over to the empress dowager’s palace,” Lou Zigui said when she was done. “And tell her that Esteemed Empress has been sent to Iron Buddha Temple.”
Mute Nanny opened her mouth in a silent ‘ah,’ before waving her hands at Lou Zigui.
Lou Zigui said, “I’m well aware of your situation. But since His Majesty is willing to use you, I won’t go against his wishes, either.”
Mute Nanny dropped her hands to her sides.
“Remember to tell the empress dowager everything exactly as I’ve said,” Lou Zigui added. Mute Nanny quickly moved her hands to reply, signing with her fingers very quickly. Lou Zigui’s lips quirked upwards before he added, “I can’t understand your sign language. I’ve brought this up to His Majesty, but he still wouldn’t let you go. Even if you say nothing about Esteemed Empress, the empress dowager will find out eventually. However, I still think it’s better if you make a trip to showcase your loyalty while saving the empress dowager some time.”
Mute Nanny thought Lou ZIgui’s words over briefly before nodding in agreement. She was quite clear on the relationship between His Majesty and Supreme Commander Lou; at this point in time, the man had no reason to harm His Majesty.
“And also,” Lou Zigui went on, “Tell the empress dowager that you faintly heard His Majesty losing his temper, saying that the empress betrayed him.”
After Chen mama and the rest were rescued from the rubble of the empress’s buildings, they were locked up in the torture chambers. Empress Dowager Xie had already found out and was losing her temper at her own mama when a servant reported that Mute Nanny had requested an audience.
Empress Dowager Xie told all her servants to withdraw before summoning the old woman into her palace. Mute Nanny knelt on the ground and made hand signs to the empress dowager to report how the empress had gone to Iron Buddha Temple. Empress Dowager Xie lifted a hand to signal her to rise.
“Why did His Majesty send the empress out of the palace?”
Mute Nanny signed back, ‘His Majesty said the empress dowager wants to harm the empress.’
“Utterly ludicrous,” Empress Dowager Xie muttered under her breath.
Mute Nanny’s hands fell as she waited for Empress Dowager Xie’s next signal. Meanwhile, the woman was pondering over two questions in her head. One, was the empress really pregnant? And two, did Ning Yu know about the potential pregnancy?
At that moment, Mute Nanny seemed to suddenly remember something and signaled Empress Dowager Xie again, ‘His Majesty lost his temper in Supreme Splendor Hall after coming back from the empress’s palace. This servant heard from a distance that His Majesty said the empress had betrayed her.’
Empress Dowager Xie raised her eyes to look at Mute Nanny. “Is that really what His Majesty said?”
Mute Nanny first nodded, then shook her head and signed, ‘This servant only heard it from a distance. But His Majesty was definitely mad because of Esteemed Empress.’
Why would Ning Yu be angry because of the empress? The empress betrayed her? Empress Dowager Xie mulled over Mute Nanny’s words.
“Esteemed Empress Dowager,” a eunuch called from outside the doors.
“What is it?” Empress Dowager Xie asked.
“Chen mama and the rest have died in the the torture chambers,” the eunuch replied. “It was His Majesty who decreed their deaths.”
Empress Dowager Xie fell silent for a while, then replied, “I know now, withdraw.”
“Yes,” the eunuch left.
Empress Dowager Xie next looked at Mute Nanny. “Is His Majesty still angry right now?”
Mute Nanny signed back, ‘His Majesty summoned Supreme Commander Lou to talk, they seemed to be discussing something.’
Empress Dowager Xie nodded before waving to dismiss her. Mute Nanny knelt down to kowtow once and withdrew. On the ceiling rafters, Oil Jar quietly asked Grandpa Ash, “What is Supreme Commander planning?”
Grandpa Ash only shook his head.
Oil Jar looked disappointed. “You don’t know either, Ancestral Grandfather?”
Grandpa Ash replied, “Supreme Commander has his eyes set on the Zhou Clan troops. The empress is nothing more than a pawn in their games.”
“Oil Jar doesn’t understand,” Oil Jar said, confused.
“Then that’s good,” Grandpa Ash replied. “It’s better off not understanding human affairs like these.”
Oil Jar still didn’t understand, but before he could ask any more questions, Empress Dowager Xie chuckled and called out, “Someone, come.”
Oil Jar crept across the rafters and stuck his head out to peer below. Empress Dowager Xie was now talking to a mama who had quickly walked inside. “Find a way to send a message to the Grand Preceptor’s estate. Tell the Grand Preceptor that the empress is pregnant.”
The mama gave a start, but didn’t dare ask any more. She accepted the orders and left. Soon afterwards, another mama walked in with Prince Cheng, Ning Xin, in her arms. Empress Dowager Xie accepted her little son from the servant and kissed him on the face with a murmur.
“For your sake, imperial mother is willing to do anything.”
The mama by her side didn’t dare to make a peep. Oil Jar was scrambling around in frantic circles from the rafters. “Just what is the empress dowager planning?!” he asked Grandpa Ash.
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