Imperial Uncle - Chapter 14
Qitan’s eyes fixate on the spot where I hid the jade, his gaze as sharp as hooks.
I pretend not to see it. Picking up the wine jug, I pour myself a drink, and begin lecturing him earnestly, “You’re not so little anymore. Some things, you must consider more before voicing aloud; if an outsider had heard what you said earlier, I would end up taking the blame, too. Your mother would either come settle this with me, or she’d go complain to the empress dowager, telling her how you spend all your time with me and have been led astray.”
The two hooks in Qitan’s eyes are as dazzlingly bright as snow. “Uncle, you really do care about me. It’s only because it was in front of you and know that Chief Yun is not an outsider that I spoke plainly. Under your guidance, I feel suddenly enlightened. However, even though I thought it was similar, I still think there’s some discrepancy between how I felt there and how I felt looking at Chancellor Liu. Why don’t you give me some more pointers, uncle?”
Unmoved, I tell him, “I can only point you so far. The rest should be up to you to comprehend for yourself.” Gloomily, Qitan lowers his head to pick at his food with his chopsticks. I start again, “Most important of all, when Chancellor Liu returns later, don’t speak in his presence in a way that could lead to a misunderstanding. Chancellor Liu is a man of noble character, a key subject of his majesty, a pillar of the imperial court. You musn’t transgress too much.”
Yun Yu smiles. “Prince Huai, Prince Dai, you two truly share a closely knit uncle-nephew relationship.”
Qitan picks at his food resentfully. “Uncle, surely Liu Tongyi has seen a lot, being someone who could maneuver himself to a chancellor post. Everyone who has any dealings with him says that he’s not like the other Lius — he’s easy-going, open-minded, and thorough in his understanding of the ways of the world. How could you think of him as such a stick-in-the-mud? And besides,” Qitan smiles lopsided and suggestively, “Chancellor Liu is older than Chief Yun by two years, and still hasn’t taken a wife. It’s anyone’s guess what the cause for that is …”
I don’t know why, but as I’m listening to this last line, it’s like a paw is giving my heart a scratch, then a pinch after that. I cough. “Don’t randomly talk about him behind his back like this, if Chancellor Liu hears this when he returns —”
A touch of light jade appears beside the door then, and I hastily bite my tongue. Liu Tongyi steps through the door and returns to his seat.
“Chancellor Liu, you’ve finally returned. Uncle and I were just talking about you behind your back. He was full of praises about your unsullied moral character, and your role as a pillar of the imperial court. It’s the first time he’s ever praised other people in front of me; in light of that alone, I dare say you must help him figure out whether the treasure he’s carrying on him today is genuine or not.”
Qitan’s pilfering heart hasn’t died, and apparently would stoop to anything now. At the end of his remarks Liu Tongyi turns to me as a matter of course, and says with a smile, “Thank you for your compliments, your highness. I do not deserve as much. I wonder what this treasure of your highness’s is?”
Being in the path of his gaze is like being caressed by a warm spring breeze. “Oh, it’s merely a foreign trinket. You shouldn’t go to the trouble of —”
Qitan interrupts me mid-sentence, “Uncle, there’s no need to put on a show of good manners; Chancellor Liu has already agreed. And I also want to take this opportunity to learn the knack of identifying antiques.”
So I have no choice then but to reach for the jade. The two hooks of Qitan’s stare make another appearance, frosty sharp points glittering.
I hand the jade to an attendant, who in turn passes it on to Liu Tongyi. Holding it in one hand, he gives it a once over. “I don’t know how to identify foreign objects, but according to its vein and colouring it’s probably quite old. Moreover, I’ve seen the pattern carved on this jade before, in a book — it’s an extremely rare pattern since the Sui1 dynasty. It’s likely from the Han2 dynasty. I can’t make out much more than that.”
I exclaim with sincere admiration, “Chancellor Liu is indeed a connoisseur of antiques.”
Qitan also seems quite impressed. “I have benefited greatly from your knowledge. As for these patterns you speak of …” He leans forward, takes the jade out of Liu Tongyi’s hand, and brings it before his nose. “Is this it? Let me examine it at length.”
Once he begins this examination, this jade of mine is as good as a meatbun tossed into the streets — it’s never coming back.
I stare at Qitan and that jade, my heart aching with a dull pain.
Liu Tongyi glances over at Qitan’s palm with a minute frown. “But this notch here seems cut with a blade — it doesn’t look old.” He takes the jade out of Qitan’s hands again, scruitising it.
“The notch was left behind in a fight between my late father and the enemy chief. That would have happened twenty-odd years ago.”
Liu Tongyi beams. “So that’s it.” He hands the jade to an attendant next to him. “I can almost hear the chaos of the battlefield.”
Under the full force of Qitan’s yearning gaze I collect the jade from the attendant, putting it away again. “For it to meet you today is akin to a qin player meeting someone who understands his song3.
I raise my cup to toast Liu Tongyi in a show of gratitude; he returns the gesture, favouring me with a faint smile.
Hanging his head and despondent once more, Qitan is stuffing food into this mouth, but at this he interrupts half incomprehensibly while chewing, “The one who should be ashamed is me; normally uncle talks about Chief Yun all the time. Earlier when I said uncle’s never praised ‘other people’, that’s because Chief Yun can’t really be considered just ‘other people’ to uncle.”
For an instant, I feel an ineffable despair towards this Prince Dai nephew of mine.
Sternly, I tell him, “Qitan, what you just said could easily be misconstrued. Good thing Chancellor Liu is the only one here today, no one else. Otherwise, if someone mistakenly thinks that Chief Yun is the same kind of person as I am, wouldn’t it be a great sin?”
Qitan looks stunned. “Uncle, what is with you lately? You’re so timid and serious about everything. As if Chief Yun can’t take a joke, or he can’t endure a little teasing? Even if you like men, saying that someone isn’t considered ‘other people’ with you doesn’t necessarily imply that sort of relationship, who wouldn’t know that? And besides, if the feelings happen to be mutual between the two of you, he would mind even less — isn’t that so, Chief Yun?” He picks up his wine cup, and gulps down a mouthful. “But seriously, Chief Yun, I’m just making an analogy, please don’t take it to heart. I think that uncle must be searching for someone exceptional — someone like you. He’s only fickle right now because he hasn’t fallen in love, and his heart is unattached.”
Yun Yu is still half leaning on the back of his chair as before. He raises a brow.
For lack of other options, I force myself to laugh quite stiffly. “You should at least know what you’re doing when you’re joking around. I’m hardly Chief Yun’s type.”
These words of mine contain multitudes.
First of all, Yun Yu’s sleeve is indeed intact.
Secondly, Yun Yu has the disposition of your typical aristocratic heir — he’ll do anything as long as it’s fun, and has no aversion to raw or cold foods; that is to say he would have a male or a female courtesan, as long as he’s fond. Though it’s also well known that Chief Yun has a bit of an obsession with purity, and he’ll only amuse himself with those virgins who’ve never taken a client. If they’ve already done anything, then even if it’s a beauty that’s being praised skyhigh, he wouldn’t spare them a single glance.
Thirdly, even though Yun Yu has a pretty face, having been friends with him for several years and being well-acquainted with his character, I cannot imagine that he would ever willingly lie beneath anyone. He’s haughty; these words of Qitan’s that are painting him as my lover have probably already displeased him.
I’m just about to give Yun Yu an apology on Qitan’s behalf when Yun Yu is all smiles again. “No harm done, your highness was merely joking around with me, nothing more. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Prince Huai’s flavour of playing around; as a matter of fact, Prince Huai’s preference poses no hindrance to what I’ve always preferred.”
After it rears its head, Qitan’s comprehension will often spread its wings to inexplicable heights. He glances at me, then glances at Yun Yu, his expression taking on both dumbfounded shock and a sudden dawning of the light. “Could — could it be —” he stares at me again, and the gaze he turns on Yun Yu afterwards is surprisingly filled with admiration, “I had no idea that’s how things are … Chief Yun’s tastes are … truly unconventional …”
I stare blankly for a moment before I realise what he’s saying, and only just narrowly avoid smashing a wine cup over my knee.
Treating the matter rather lightly, Yun Yu says, “I’ve always preferred heavier flavours. When your tastes differ from others, you’re less likely to have to fight over a dish at banquet.”
I look on helplessly as a glimmer of a smile appears at Liu Tongyi’s lips. “Well said indeed.”
Much later, the meal is finished and Yun Yu takes the lead in rising and taking his leave, saying he has matters to attend to, and swiftly exits.
Liu Tongyi says his goodbyes soon after; I rise to go as well.
Once we’re outside, I say to Liu Tongyi before we each board our respective carriage and palanquin, “Prince Dai was rather tactless today and displeased Chief Yun. Even I ended up making a fool of myself. How embarrassing.”
“They were merely jests shared in a banquet, forgotten as soon as the words were said; I don’t even remember what they were anymore. If I was rude in any way, please don’t take it to heart, your highness.”
We exchange a few more conventional civilities, and I watch him duck inside his palanquin before turning back for my carriage.
Back in the estate, the mood is still oppressive over what happened with Princess Huai.
I call a servant to bring me a jug of wine, and begin drinking alone in the garden of the sleeping quarters.
Usually, I don’t think anything of this, but tonight, beneath a solitary moon in the shadow of these trees, sitting here like this suddenly feels a bit lonely.
It’s all lies, coming and going. So fake I can’t even tell what’s real anymore.
For instance, with Liu Tongyi — hoping that he would ever share a single genuine conversation with me that isn’t made entirely of civilities is probably hoping for too much.
Earlier, in Prince Dai’s estate, Yun Yu spoke to me quietly — simply to remind me not to forget our appointment at the Moonlight Pavilion.
At the Moonlight Pavilion, Yun Tang and his cohorts want to discuss when we should act.
Having planned and conspired for years, we’re finally going to rise up and decide on the fate of the empire.
I remember that several years ago, on a moonlit night just like this one, Yun Tang and Wang Qin said to me, an unvirtuous child occupies the throne without merit; an ignorant woman usurps power and meddles in the affairs of state. For the sake of the world and the empire, we cast ourselves at the feet of the rightful ruler — we hope your highness will secure the throne.
It’s all nonsense.
Qizhe’s talent as a ruler far suppasses the former emperor; he will certainly be remembered as a wise ruler of this generation. The empress dowager is indeed a foolish woman, but thankfully she’s quite genuinely foolish — once Qizhe gets a little older, she’ll simply not be competent enough to control the government. It’s only because I’m a mediocre and talentless cut-sleeve, yet legend has it that the Prince Huai estate harbours a secret influence strong enough to topple the state, that Yun Tang and Wang Qin would join forces to seek me out for the time being. Once the throne’s been seized, they’ll first get rid of me — a mere ladder to climb this wall with — then fight each other. In the end, the ultimate winner will take the empire.
It’s a fact that even an idiot could make out, so simple one could discern it at a mere glance.
And so I accepted.
I have conspired with Yun Tang and Wang Qin up until now.
My mother once told me, your dad’s contributions to the state were too great; because of him, you and your descendents will all be viewed with suspicion. This is what imperial politics is all about — only by withdrawing from it as early as you can and retiring to the country can you be guaranteed a good ending.
She has always been so unequivocally clear on what must be done, and yet I never did as she asked.
Maybe when it comes down to it, the same passionate blood that ran in my dad’s veins also runs in me. I’m just a bit indignant — plagued with discontent.
When I was a child, my dad would return from his military campaigns, and whenever he spoke of the battlefield, his features would take on this radiant glow. In his heart there was only the country, only devotion, only this world that belongs to the Jing clan.
But in the end he was left with naught but suspicion and jealousy, naught but this cancerous reputation that I, his child, have to bear.
All I want is … to do something that could shake the heavens after this mediocre life I’ve led thus far. I want those who are so-called morally pure — I want everyone in the world — to know that the Prince Huai estate isn’t a cancer nest. The words ‘Prince Huai’ need to be entered into the register of devoted officials and not into the book of traitors.
My dad fought his whole life through, and all he wanted was a stable empire for the Jing clan, all he wanted was peace for all the commoners of the world.
At the very least, I can be like him. For once, I can guard this empire he’s spent his entire life protecting.
Not for anything else; merely so that I can call him dad.
Perhaps it’d also mean Qizhe won’t have called me uncle for all these years in vain, whether he’s sincere in calling me such, or if it’s perfunctory since it’s required of him.
But as for what will happen to me after this, what may come of this whole thing — that is something I may not be able to predict.
Perhaps the best ending I can ever have is merely having Liu Tongyi call me your highness and for Qizhe to call me uncle without artifice.
A thought strikes me as I drink cold wine with the moon — I’m actually dumber than my dad in choosing to take this path. What in the blazes do the country and state have to do with me anyway? Whether or not I involve myself, the result would be the same. If I don’t go undercover in Yun Tang and Wang Qin’s schemes, their revolt may still fail. At worst, it may mean the forces lying in wait through the empire won’t be removed quite as neatly, so there may be minor insurgencies every once in a while. But as long as we rid ourselves of its leader, it would be difficult for a revolt to gain any traction.
So then why should I play this spy?
Even if I don’t, I’ll still be this middling, ordinary Prince Huai — the morally pure will still see me as a cancer, and my cousin-nephew-emperor and his mother will still suspect me for the rest of my life.
And so perhaps the entire pile of justifications I’ve come up with that could bring the heavens to tears are all just pretext. Perhaps my objective is nothing more than to win myself a good reputation by this gamble.
Whether a good reputation is something one can gamble for is yet to be seen.
This is what letting your mind wander is like: the longer I wander the deeper I go, and the longer I wander the more winding the paths become. In the end I get myself terribly drunk; in bewilderment and confusion I realise that my eyes are closed, and in bewilderment and confusion I open my eyes again to find myself sleeping on the bed, the sky already bright.
Steward Cao is standing at the head of my bed. “You’re finally awake, your highness. You got drunk last night, and I found you in the garden, asleep. So I helped you back to your bedroom with some other servants.”
My head faintly throbs with bouts of stabbing pain. Forcing my swollen eyes open, I ask, “What time is it?”
“It’s just about an hour before noon.”
And as I throw the covers off, steward Cao informs me, “Chief Yun is here. He’s in the front hall.”