Nightfall - Chapter 65

Published at 9th of April 2018 09:20:35 AM

Chapter 65

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Chang'an must be truly bustling tonight. After an entire night of fighting, Ning Que was exhausted, but the flashing blades and watery bloodshed in the spring rains had left him excited, and he was left imagining what must be happening in the various parts of the city, wondering what Chao Xiaoshu's trump card would be, speculating where he would need to go tomorrow. Tossing and turning, it was impossible for him to fall asleep.

He reached across the thin blanket to wake Sangsang. He had tried to explain these things to her before but had not been able to make himself understood. Sangsang could tell that Ning Que was not about to fall asleep. She cocked her head and thought for a moment before pulling a bottle of liquor from under the pocket of one of her tunics. The two of them sat at opposite ends of the bed and drank, as they had many times before. Most of the spirits made their way into Sangsang's slim stomach, and after Ning Que had a few swigs of strong drink, he began to feel drowsy and succumb to sleep.

The next morning, the spring rains that had been lingering for days suddenly stopped. Daily greetings that had been drowned out and rendered absent by the long rains unexpectedly returned as if they had come out just behind the clouds. However, later, when the trees and the open sky were filled with joyfully jumping birds, a carriage quietly stopped in front of the Old Brush Pen Shop. A young man appearing to be a servant stepped out of the coach, and without speaking a word of greetings, walked straight through the half-open wooden doors. He faced the freshly woken young master and handmaiden with the slightest shake of his chin, and coldly said, "Let's go."

This was probably the person that Chao Xiaoshu said was coming to pick him up, Ning Que thought. He looked at the young manservant, noticing that the furl of his brow seemed to reveal the slightest trace of arrogance. From the absence of his Adam's apple and the slight bit of difference in his posture, the fellow seemed to be some petty eunuch official from the palace.

He had just learned of Chao Xiaoshu's secret patrons in the palace last night, and now a young eunuch had come to visit him. Ning Que was not unusually shocked at this, but was simply thinking whether he should slip the man a bribe, and if so, what the going rate was.

In his mind, based on the novels and stories he had read, the phrase "The Emperor is calm but the eunuchs are vexed" had come up a lot, which he understood to mean that the emperor was not a big deal, but the eunuchs were not to be trifled with. Anytime the main character encountered a eunuch in those stories, whether they were a top official or a low minister, they would always find some opportunity to innocently slip some "smokeless fire," as they called it, perhaps a few thin bills or even a delicate piece of jade. The biggest thing he wondered when he read those stories was where the hell did the main characters come up with all that jade? (Note)

Ning Que raised a brow towards Sangsang, silently asking if he needed to do anything. Sangsang had always been extremely stingy, and gave the slightest of nods, pretending not to understand what he meant. "Young master has never been a very generous person either, and come to think of it, I should just play the fool instead. A silver saved is a silver earned, after all."

The young eunuch casually rested his hands on the counter, leaning against it. With a nod like that of an old man but a bright and clear voice, he said, "I've heard one can find some excellent calligraphy in this alley. I can see for myself that it lives up to its reputation. Some of the palace nobles would like to have a look at your work; you should quickly wash up a bit and follow me there."

Ning Que had decided that this fellow was not so bad after all. He gave the eunuch a look up and down, held his hands folded in front of his chest, and bowed. Smiling, he said, "These're just my daily street clothes; I'm only a poor, humble scholar. Even cleaned up, I wouldn't be much of a prize."

He had worried that the little fellow would have been upset at not getting his bribe and would take it out on himself, but he did not seem to care at all. Instead, they had made some pleasant conversation, and with a nod, the two headed out the door.

On the rather cramped carriage ride over, the eunuch closed his eyes in repose. Judging by his former behavior on Lin 47th Street, it seemed that he did not have much or a problem with Ning Que, and did not disdain to speak with him, but was simply showing a habitual caution in stepping out beyond the palace walls.

Ning Que thought no talking with the young eunuch on the carriage seemed quite good. He lifted a corner of the window curtains to peek out into the street, and saw nothing but the shining sun and the smiling citizens of Chang'an going about their business in it. Breakfast and snack shops were making a brisk trade, and every once in a while he heard a few friends shout their greetings to each other. Where was the slightest trace of the blood of last night's Jianghu battle?

As time seemed to drift by, two rows of willows began to darken his view. A comfortable shadow settled on the entire carriage and the entire lane. The shadow was not from the willows themselves, but from behind the willows, and behind the moat after that, from the massive palace beyond.

The great Tang Empire was the greatest country under heaven, Chang'an was its greatest city, and the Great Palace of the Tang was the most magnificent building in that city. Perhaps "magnificent" was the word for it, but the palace certainly expressed the great tolerance and diversity of the Tang's thousand-year rule. The golden canopies atop its vermilion walls shone as steadfast as swords; this was not simply a row of halls and mansions for the emperor's dozens of concubines to paint their faces and wash in rivers of opulent perfume, but rather the central axis around which the great Tang Empire turned.

Ning Que raised his head towards the stately and imposing palace. His gaze drifted over the tall sheets of crimson stone towards the soldiers of Yulin Royal Guards, which looked like black specks staring out towards the city. His expression was as calm as ever, but in his heart, he felt a swelling of awe.

Unfortunately, the carriage did not have the authority to pass through the main Vermilion Bird Gate, and instead had to circle halfway around the entire moat to squeeze through an inconspicuous servant's entrance instead. As the carriage entered the palace and twisted and turned through its untold number of narrow lanes, his entire view was reduced to the high wall and its elegant cornices, and fragments of the sky not blocked by the ramparts and eaves. He had absolutely no opportunity to take in the palace as a whole, only seeing the rising palace walls, one after another.

In the distance, he could see a small storehouse next to a clear blue lake. The young eunuch led Ning Que out of the carriage, and they followed the thick bamboo grove around the lake for several minutes, passing through rows of vermilion columns to enter a wide corridor. Only after walking to a row of small, ordinary palace quarters did they cease their amblings. Ning Que felt rather suspicious and somewhat alarmed at the length of their journey. He saw no guards, and not even a single eunuch or palace maid.

The eunuch turned to face him, and noting his grim expression, said, "This is the Imperial Study. I may only take you this far and no further; wait here, and after your meeting someone will take you out of the palace."

Rather than expressing interest, Ning Que folded his hands behind his back and strolled over to look at the curious flowers and exotic trees planted just before the building. Seeing a distant flower boat behind a row of willows, he strained to catch a glimpse of any palace maidens. When he suddenly heard the call of three words "The Imperial Study!" he could not help but freeze slightly, and turn in shock towards the unassuming building behind him.

The most private place a man had was not his bedroom, but his study.

On a winter morning, there he may read banned books. At dusk in summer, there he may peruse erotica in the nude. On a warm spring afternoon, there he may write sultry love letters. On a late autumn night, there he may take a maiden in his arms and caress her.

Here there was no nagging, sallow wife, and no noisy children at play. Here all manner of private pleasures may be procured from scrolls of paper and ink and be brought to life by the light of the written word, and no one would bother you.

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The emperor may be an emperor, but he was also a man, and the Imperial Study would naturally be his most private place. Who knew how many great deeds of history, and how many secret plots and schemes had been committed in the studies of kings and emperors. If a person was not among the emperor's most trusted men, or was a man being prepared to be given that trust, that man had no reason to be in the Imperial Study.

Wu Zetian had entered the Imperial Study, so did Zhang Juzheng, Wei Zhongxian, Wei Xiaobao, etc. Ning Que stared in stunned silence at the tightly locked door. How many great women, how many great (and castrated) worthies of the past had simply found themselves walking into that tiny room and suddenly shot like a meteor to the top of the world? Not in his wildest fantasies could he have imagined that this sort of opportunity would fall into his lap.

He had guessed last night that Chao Xiaoshu's backer had to be someone in the palace, and it seemed that person was likely His Majesty himself. However, idle speculation was one thing, whereas coming face to face with it was something else entirely. The struggling, drifting, destitute young man he had been for the last 16 years suddenly had found a chance to move up in the world. He could not help but be a little shocked.

"For the next one hour, no one comes here. If anyone asks, just answer according to what I told you, and say that it was Lu Ji who took you into the palace."

With a heart full of heated emotion, Ning Que never noticed that the young eunuch had already quietly slipped away. When he came to his senses, he realized that not a soul was in sight in any direction around the Imperial Study.

Standing in the heart of such a strange and severe palace, without a single familiar face, the cool and comfortable library before him seemed to darken suddenly. Even a man as bold as he could not help but feel some slight discomfort. Standing there in front of the hall, he waited a moment and thought, "Am I supposed to go in first?"

He and Sangsang had entered Chang'an like a couple of hicks, and had spent a long time staring up in wonder at the city. How much more so in this palace, where he had no idea of what rules to follow, and could only rely on common sense. Therefore, he coughed gently twice, gave a ceremonial bow with an enclosed fist to the door of the Imperial Study, then pushed the door and went in.

The idea that all water that flowed into the channel became reason was nonsense, of course; Ning Que simply wanted to go inside. For years now, the most important parts of his life had been dedicated to meditation and martial arts, particularly on the cultivation of calligraphy. An opportunity to enter something as precious as the Imperial Study did not come easily, and of course, he was eager to see this fabled room where countless priceless works by innumerable great masters were held. This desire was so strong that he completely forgot those so-called rules.

He pushed the door open and stepped inside. The first thing that caught his eye was the very tall row of bookshelves along the wall. The shelves were flat and perpendicular, and of a simple style, but the wood was clearly of the famously expensive Dongyu scented rosewood, reserved for the emperor's use. The books were packed tightly, almost overstuffed, and placed very unevenly, but each volume was a very expensive literary treasure.

On the reading table, there were a few sheets of blank paper, an ink brush that floated on top of the inkstone. Several other brush pens were making a mess on the pen holder; the paper was the finest budpaper made in Xuanzhou, while the pens were pure brushes from Hengdian, and the ink was Chenzhou pine ink. The inkstone was of Huangzhou mud; not a single one was less than the most precious of tributes.

If he were to take this fine calligraphy stationery to Lin 47th street, what riches could he sell them for? Ning Que stared at the four corners of the room. In the time when his brain had come up with this twisted scheme, his eye suddenly caught the calligraphy hanging from the three white walls of the room.

Seeing the vast range of works that had made it here to the heart of the palace, he was shocked, and began to slow down. His eyes would fall on this choice phrase or that one, or the smoothness and beauty of an authentic masterpiece, as well as the inscriptions and etchings. His right hand traced wildly in the air as he copied it, and his face was full of joy.

Circling before the desk, he looked down at the thick, inky letters on the paper, and could not help but frown. He murmured to himself, "His Majesty is truly a man of taste, but the writing is really pitiful."

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