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Above the towering Imperial Palace, the sun was setting as thin wisp of clouds drifted leisurely across the sky. With the retreat of daylight, lanterns were lit, illuminating the entire palace in a lucid radiance. Tonight was not like any other typical night because it was New Year’s Eve, the night of family reunion.
That morning, Huangfu Wu Shuang had led hundreds of officials outside the Imperial City to hold a sacrificial ceremony to the gods in celebration of the first New Years since his ascension and to pray for Southern Kingdom’s prosperity, in addition to good weather and abundant harvest.
That night he also held a banquet in Kang Ning Hall for all of his officials.
The dancers twirled their extended muslin sleeves in the air gracefully as they softly sang an enchanting song.
In Kang Ning Hall, the sound of instruments resonated as fine wine was poured and beauties danced.
Outside, countless fireworks lit the night skies. Accompanying the music and dance, it was truly a scene of festive harmony and extravagance.
Standing beside Huangfu Wu Shuang, Hua Zhu Yu watched the young monarch dressed in his dragon robes toast a drink. She watched as the hundreds of officials rose and raised their glasses in concert. The scene before her was truly a sight of luxury and opulence.
Standing there, her eyes involuntarily drifted to a particular location but presently an elderly official was seated there. In this grand hall, his shadow was no longer found.
The voices of the singers encircled her ears, pleasant and calming and she slowly became immersed in her own faraway thoughts.
“Xiao Bao Er, what’s with you?” Huangfu Wu Shuang asked. He was holding an empty porcelain cup in his hand, twirling it within his grip as his eyes silently assessed her.
She realized she was lost in a momentary daze and quickly forced a smile and went over to fill his wine cup.
As the cup filled with wine, a fragrant scent pervaded the air.
Huangfu Wu Shuang lifted the cup of wine up to Hua Zhu Yu and said with a smile, “Xiao Bao Er, this wine cup zhen shall bestow to you.”
translations at peachblossomgrove . com
Hua Zhu Yu was slightly taken aback and wrinkled her brow. To have the emperor bestow wine was a great honor but due to her present situation it was not appropriate to drink wine. After that altercation with Tang Yu that day, her fetus was unstable so she absolutely must not consume alcohol.
“Your Majesty, these days this servant cannot drink wine. Please pardon this servant Your Majesty!” Hua Zhu Yu beseeched with her head bowed.
Huangfu Wu Shuang’s eyes flashed with surprise but he smiled and said, “Then I shall drink!” With that said, he threw his head back and finished the wine in one go.
Sitting a distance not too far away, Right Chancellor Nie Yuan Qiao saw this scene and his calm expression altered unsightly.
The Emperor bestowing wine, even if the wine was laced with poison, one must still drink it with a smile. How could someone dare to refuse. This little eunuch was truly audacious and Huangfu Wu Shuang indeed favored him excessively, thought Nie Yuan Qiao.
“Your Majesty, the misdeeds of the criminal surnamed Ji has been concluded. Don’t know how Your Majesty plans to deal with him?” Nie Yuan Qiao suddenly stood and asked in a loud voice.
Upon hearing this, Hua Zhu Yu focused her attention and quietly listened.
The originally lively atmosphere became stagnant and the hall fell into a dead silence. A complicated look flashed in the eyes of the officials as they turnt to look at Huangfu Wu Shuang.
Huangfu Wu Shuang leaned back against his seat and leisurely twirled the wine cup in his hand. His sharp gaze swept across the officials and he calmly asked the Ministry of Justice Lu Ding Zhi, “ Treason is a great crime. How should it be handled?”
Ministry of Justice Lu Ding Zhi quickly got up from his seat, went forward and slowly answered, “Treason, according to the law, is a crime that is punishable with death and execution of the entire family up to the third generation!”
Huangfu Wu Shuang furrowed his brows and asked, “Execution of the entire family? Left Chancellor doesn’t appear to have any relatives. He doesn’t have any concubines either. That can be forgone. Left Chancellor daren was the only one who committed such a great crime, according to the law, how should he be put to death?”
Official Lu remained silent for a long time as cold sweat beaded his forehead.
“Lu Ding Zhi!” Huangfu Wu Shuang called as his eyes narrowed.
Lu Ding Zhi lowered his head and replied, “According to the law, the criminal must be put to death by a thousand cuts, though this punishment is a bit cruel…..”
Everyone in the hall took in a sharp breath.
Death by a thousand cuts!
Death by a thousand cuts was a punishment that subjected the criminal to endure 999 cuts before death. The criminal must undergo endless torture and it was the most brutal form of punishment. It hasn’t been used for many years but Southern Kingdom’s laws dictated that a criminal who committed treason must be put to death by a thousand cuts.
Upon hearing those words, Hua Zhu Yu became dizzy. It was like that time when she was still a kid and had stabbed a hornet’s nest. Thousands of bees had surrounded her, buzzing around her head. Although she tried to remain calm, the hand holding the wine bottle shook uncontrollably.
The lid of the wine bottle collided with the body of the bottle, giving off a ‘ding ding’ sound. As the bottle tilted over, the wine trickled out and onto her clothes.
Tonight’s banquet was like a dream to her. Her memory of tonight was vague and hazy. She could not remember how it came to an end, nor does she remember what Huangfu Wu Shuang had said afterwards. Those words, “death by a thousand cuts’ were the only thing ingrained in her mind.
Those words were like a knife, piercing her heart, subjecting her to a boundless pain.
When the banquet came to an end and the officials all retired, Hua Zhu Yu accompanied Huangfu Wu Shuang as he left the hall.
The northern wind was exceedingly chilly tonight. In the far off distance, fireworks exploded, painting the dark skies in vivacious colors, a brilliant sight to behold.
“Xiao Bao Er, zhen knows you despise Ji Feng Li. On that day, zhen will let you carry out the punishment. Are you willing?” Huangfu Wu Shuang asked as he stood on the veranda beneath the luminous lights of the lanterns. This handsome young monarch was dressed in his brilliant dragon robes and his hair was fixed in place by a crown inlaid with resplendent gems. His eyes shone with a pure innocence and his lips were lifted in a gentle smile. Moreover, his words were brimming with indulgence. But he was talking about killing and his eyes remained completely unfazed in the least.
Looking at him, Hua Zhu Yu felt an icy chill deep within her heart.
Lowering her head, she replied, “Your Majesty, this servant is willing! But this servant fears that the officials in court would not agree to it. To be able to witness the enemy’s death beneath one’s blade has been this servant’s long-standing wish. But this servant is merely a eunuch.”
Huangfu Wu Shuang pouted his lips and knitted his brows. He was somewhat vexed but then he said, “ How about this, tomorrow I elevate your position to a first ranked eunuch. It’s the highest rank, your rank would be above all the officials, how about that?”
“Really?” Hua Zhu Yu’s eyes brightened. With a smile she said, “Your Majesty, you know this servant is not concerned with ranking but to be able to suppress those obstinate officials, this servant is willing.”
“Great, it’s settled then!” Huangfu Wu Shuang said with a smile.
With the arrival of New Years, while every household was still immersed in festivities, a piece of news was gradually spreading along the streets of Yu City.
The powerful Left Chancellor daren, known as the number one gongzi in Southern Kingdom for his handsome, gentle, and graceful demeanor, the talented Ji Feng Li known for his otherworldly appearance, had actually joined hands with Northern Kingdom in private and was planning to rebel. It was said that his unmarried wife was actually Northern Kingdom’s princess Zhou Ya.
This piece of new, as if it had sprouted wings, spread like wild-fire throughout the imperial capital and all across Southern Kingdom. Everyone was talking about it.
This case was even more earth-shattering than last year’s case regarding the Marquis Ping Xi, Hua Mu.
Everyone found it hard to believe that the Chancellor who personally led troops to fight against Northern Kingdom was actually a hypocrite.
Left Chancellor Ji Feng Li was not only admired by the young ladies of Southern Kingdom but he was considered a hero by the populace. He rectified politics, he resolved the flood issue, he fended off foreign enemies….
Since he became the Left Chancellor, he had done quite a number of things for Southern Kingdom’s people.
Yet over night, he was branded a traitor for treason? But it didn’t matter if people believed it or not.
Outside, posted on the vermillion door was an imperial order, clearly and succinctly written: Scheduled on the 6th day of the 1st month, execution by a thousand cuts to take place on the eastern military grounds.
There was also a vermillion seal at the end of the post, scarlet red like blood.
The 6th day of the 1st month.
Every year on this day people would travel to their relatives and friends house to wish them happy new years. Every year on this day, Yu City would be in celebration with performances, jugglers, shadow plays….in short, Yu City would be in a lively atmosphere. Music would be playing the whole day.
But this year it was completely different.
There was no music nor laughter. Everyone’s expression was stern and heavy.
At the military grounds, the execution stage was set on a high platform. The people of Yu City had flocked to this place, there were even some people who had come from distant places in order to send off the Left Chancellor.
The military ground was filled with people.
The guards brandished their swords to block the way but the people persisted in rushing forward. The vast majority of the people were holding a bottle of wine, intending to use it to send Ji Feng Li off on his last journey.
Hua Zhu Yu sat in the horse carriage that proceeded straight to the military grounds from the palace.
As she got off the carriage, a chilling breeze welcomed her. She looked up and saw white flakes of snow were beginning to fall.
The weather in this region was mild and warm, it rarely snowed. She looked up in amazement as countless snowflakes fell onto her body. Snow filled the skies, continuing to descend, ethereal and beautiful. She loved the snow, the pure whiteness was a beautiful sight that one could not bare to ruin.
Looking up at the sky, only a white canvas could be seen. As the snow fell, a flake alighted at the corner of her eye. Due to the warmth of her face, it melted into a drop of water and quietly glided down her face.
The cold breeze swept by, stirring the the corners of her yellow first-ranked eunuch robes.
She swept her gaze across the crowd surrounding the execution platform before slowly making her way up the stage. Following behind her were several small eunuchs and officials of the Ministry of Justice. A small eunuch by the name of Xiao Shun Zu brought an umbrella and was shielding her from the descending snow.
Her eyes slowly circulated the military grounds and saw that there was no place in sight to hide. The Yulin Army commander Nie Ning had led thousands of troops to surround the area.
Suddenly there was a commotion down below in the crowd. The guards were forcing their way through the crowd when a woman’s cry erupted. As if contagious, the cry spread across the crowd.
“What’s going on?” Hua Zhu Yu questioned with narrowed eyes.
“Reporting to Chief Bao, the prison cart carrying the criminal surnamed Ji has arrived so the ladies of Yu City are crying,” Xiao Shun Zi whispered.
Hua Zhu Yu frowned. The young ladies of Yu City truly admired Ji Feng Li. He had been pinned with such a serious crime yet their love for him remained unchanged. Hua Zhu Yu turned around and slowly sat down in her seat. Her face was calm without a wave of emotion as she casually looked down at the crowd.
The prison cart passed through the crowd and stopped in front of the platform. Hua Zhu Yu narrowed her eyes and saw Ji Feng Li, in his prison uniform, being escorted by the Yulin guards. The chains on his hands and feet were removed but the one bearing into his shoulder blades remain, rendering him useless.
His long ink black hair was scattered behind him, blowing in the wind, making his face appear all the more pale. His eyes swept through the crowd and then stopped above the execution stage.
It seems he was not expecting the person overseeing the execution to be Hua Zhu Yu. He was momentarily shocked but in the blink of an eye he calmly smiled and slowly walked up to the stage.
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