CH 8: Within Ten Steps

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“‘I want to eat meat’… What does this mean?” Prince Donghai was at quite a loss.
He looked at every person in the room ending with the Emperor.
He suddenly understood — Ruzi had changed the contents of the “secret edict”.
Fury instantly overtook his caution as he pounced forward shouting, “You dare make a fool of me!”

Despite Jing Yao’s old age, his limbs were still dexterous.
He hurriedly grabbed Prince Donghai by the waist and rebuked fiercely, “Prince Donghai, have some self-respect! This is the Imperial Palace!”

Prince suddenly felt frightened.
He knew he had committed a grave wrong, and he quickly softened his attitude.
“I’m sorry… In the moment… May Your Majesty forgive…”

Han Ruzi nodded lightly to communicate that he did not mind.

“That’s truly the original note?” Jing Yao still had his doubts.

“His Majesty left many pieces of writing yesterday.
We can confirm its authenticity just by looking at the handwriting.” Yang Feng carefully kept the note.
The Empress Dowager believed its authenticity; everyone else’s opinion was not important.

“How did you get it?”

“Lord Yuan gave it to me of his own accord.” Yang Feng said calmly.

It appeared that Minister Yuan was smarter than was previously expected.
Jing Yao was embarrassed but dared not be angry.
Red-faced, he said, “The vegetarian fast will end soon; Your Majesty has many days of eating meat ahead.
Why bother telling the officials about such a trivial matter?”

“I have no one to talk to in the palace.” Han Ruzi went back to his bedside.

Jing Yao and Zuo Ji exchanged a look.
They did not know how to respond to this so they muttered some platitudes and withdrew.
Prince Donghai kept staring at the Emperor until he was prompted by Jing Yao, then he stiffly took his leave.

Yang Feng stood where he was.
The three who were already on their way out stopped again, not wishing to leave the Emperor alone with this cunning Palace Attendant.

“In accordance with the Empress Dowager’s edict, I shall be attending to His Majesty from today onwards.” Yang Feng said.

The three did not stay any longer and left hurriedly.

Yang Feng moved to the bed.
“You are very smart not to have actually written some ‘secret edict’.
You are also very lucky that the Empress Dowager was magnanimous, believing this to be some childish mischief and not wishing to pursue the matter further.”

Han Ruzi raised his head and asked, “I nearly hurt a lot of people, didn’t I?”

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“Your Majesty is over thinking it.
Inside and outside the Imperial Palace, up and down the ranks of the Imperial Court, everyone has their means of self-preservation.
As for those who need protection from Your Majesty, they are people who are not worth Your Majesty’s protection.”

Han Ruzi thought of the two eunuchs who were beaten.
Their method of self-preservation was to cry out loudly and in pain.

As he finally got to see Yang Feng, there were things that Han Ruzi wished to asked.
“What are the benefits of being Emperor? Prince Donghai wishes to be Emperor so badly, yet you all refuse.
I have never even had such thoughts, yet you all are resolute on making me be one.
I’ve heard that when my grandfather, the Martial Emperor, was on the throne, his anger could cause rivers of blood to spill.
And yet when it comes to me, I don’t even dare acknowledge my birth mother.”

Yang Feng took a step forward.
There were some things which he should not say, but he was moved by some special qualities of the Emperor.
Yang Feng was willing to take a risk.
“Do you want to know what is the Emperor?”

Han Ruzi nodded hesitantly.

“When the Martial Emperor got angry, he could spill blood that flowed for a thousand li.[1] But beyond a thousand li, there is yet another thousand li.
The armies of Chu have never been able to reach the limits of the entire world.
Even the Martial Emperor had troubles by his side: three times, Crown Princes were appointed; seven times, he had senior officials killed; countless times, he pampered and discarded members of his harem.
The Martial Emperor personally met with danger five times: three times when he was travelling incognito, once in the Imperial Court, and once right here in the Imperial Palace.”

Han Ruzi’s eyes shone brightly.
“My mother never… I have never heard these stories before.”

“These are not bedtime stories.” Yang Feng’s tone grew stern.
“I am telling you an important truth.”

“That even the most powerful Emperors will encounter unsatisfactory situations?” Han Ruzi guessed.

Yang Feng said coldly, “I am telling you what the Emperor truly looks like.
What he truly is.
Not the standard drivel propounded by Confucian scholars.”

Han Ruzi thought for a while before muttering to himself, “Beyond a thousand li, the Emperor has no control.
Within ten steps, the Emperor is the same as any ordinary person.
So the Emperor’s authority lies beyond ten steps and within a thousand li… And I, am trapped within ten steps.”

This was a smart child.
If circumstances were better, Yang Feng had the confidence that he could raise a wise sovereign.
But the present situation only permitted him to speak theoretically only.

“How do I break free?” Han Ruzi raised his head and asked.

Yang Feng shook his head.
“There is no way.
One would need the right time and conditions.
From time immemorial, there have been countless great men who were buried in oblivion because they were born in the wrong time and place.
Your Majesty should just rest easy.”

Yang Feng took his leave.
He did not need to attend to the Emperor at night, nor did he need to teach the Emperor everything by hand.

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Han Ruzi lay on the bed.
Someone entered the room and blew out the lights before lying on the couch.

“Between ten steps and a thousand li.” Han Ruzi considered Yang Feng’s carefully, wondering whether he would ever have the right “time and conditions”, and if so when.
Suddenly, an idea came to mind.
There was something that Yang Feng did not say explicitly.
Since everyone was ordinary within ten steps, why can’t he try to do something within those ten steps?”

He turned to face to silhouette on the couch.
He realized that these past days he had been occupied with the Empress Dowager and powerful eunuchs, and had neglected to consider many details just by his side.
“Ahem… What is your name?”

There was silence in the dark.
The new attendant seemed to have learnt from the mistakes of the previous two eunuchs and was not willing to speak with the Emperor.
After a while, a female voice finally sounded, “I am Meng E.[2] Is something the matter?”

This voice was ice cold.
She did not call herself a servant, nor did she adopt the respectful term of address of “Your Majesty”.
Compared to Jing Yao and Zuo Ji who had interrogated Han Ruzi earlier, she seemed even more impolite.

Han Ruzi’s first foray into his “ten-step radius” was met with hard resistance.
He tried his best to recall this servant-girls appearance but it did not come to mind.
There had been too many people coming and going around him, all with the same expressions.
It was too hard to differentiate between them.

“What happened to those two?”

“Which two?”

“Those two who were beaten because of me?”

Meng E remained silent in the dark for a moment.
“Their punishment fit their crime.”

“If there was truly a crime, then my crime was greater.”

“There is a difference between the venerated and the base, between the noble and the lowly.
Since one is the master and one is the servant, then the crimes they commit would be different.”

Han Ruzi had wanted to earn this servant-girl’s goodwill, but he was rendered speechless by her.
Meng E remained stationary, as though she had fallen asleep.

The next morning, Han Ruzi finally got to see Meng E’s true appearance.
She looked like she was around twenty, her stature significantly taller than that of the thirteen year old Emperor.
She was not ugly, but would definitely not be called beautiful.
She had a dull expression, no different from any others in the palace.
Han Ruzi could not even remember when it was that she started attending to him.

The young Emperor was not discouraged by his initial lack of success.
Instead, he avowed to pay more attention to everyone within his “ten-step radius”.
But he had to avoid the mistakes he made when writing the “secret edict” and not incriminate anyone.

He soon discovered that the eunuchs and servant-girls around him were not all the same.
Behind the same dull expressions, everyone had their own hidden, private thoughts: The old eunuch in charge of his headwear occasionally spied at the servant-girl carrying his robes, who in turn was secretly paying attention to the one holding the case of accessories… Meng E seemed to be on the top of this “spying chain”: she kept an eye on all others but no one dared to look at her.

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Yang Feng never participated in these little games.
He waited outside, looking at no one, and when the time came he escorted the Emperor to pay his respects to the Empress Dowager, and then to participate in the rehearsal.
He never left the Emperor’s side.

At first, Han Ruzi thought that the people around him were hostile to one another.
It was only when he was on his way to meeting the Ministry officials that he suddenly realized that the eunuchs and servant-girls were answering to different people, and therefore were weary of each other.

The Minister of Rites and Decorum did not appear.
Instead, a Vice Minister took his place.
He maintained a distance from the Emperor and did his best to avoid speaking.

The afternoon’s fast proceeded normally, though.
Yang Feng did not kneel at the door but he guarded the door from the outside, not entering the quiet chamber and leaving the Emperor and Prince Donghai undisturbed.

Prince Donghai was surprised by this.
He waited for more than two hours before speaking.
“How strange that nobody is watching us.”

Han Ruzi did not make a sound, nor did he turn his head.

Prince Donghai coughed twice before saying what was on his mind.
“It was not me who revealed the secret.
You were not careful enough, so your tracks were revealed.
But you were quite cunning.
‘I want to eat meat’ — you were trying to test whether the Minister of Rites is worth trusting right? Mm, very cautious.
But overly so.”

Han Ruzi’s little bit of trust towards Prince Donghai had long disappeared.
But this person was within his ten-step radius so he did not want to engender conflict.
Thus, he said, “In any event, the matter cannot be done.”

“If you had been bolder, the Minister of Rites might have been able to take action yesterday.
But because you wrote ‘I want to eat meat’, the senior officials would not treat it seriously.
You must be willing to take risks to accomplish things.
You would never be able to stand out like this.”

“I never wanted to ‘stand out’.
My situation is no worse than it was before.”

“In your situation now, you may lose your head at anytime!” Prince Donghai found the Emperor’s steadiness unbelievable.
But thinking that his earlier threats had never had an effect on his brother, he let the matter go.
“I know what you mean.
You and your mother…  truly suffered in the past.
No Princely title, no Teacher, even worse off than an ordinary member of the Imperial Clan.
From what I can tell, the Empress Dowager must hate you and your mother.
She is not even willing to see you.”

“You have seen the Empress Dowager before?”

“In the past.
She is not a simple person…” Prince Donghai lowered his tone even further.
“As long as she was around, Lord Father’s gaze would never look at anyone else.
I’ve heard that she knows… voodoo.”

When mentioning “voodoo”, Prince Donghai managed to scare himself.
He quickly went to kneel properly and muttered, “For all we know, she may be able to hear everything we say here.
Or she might have hurt herself practicing voodoo so she is hiding and refusing to see anyone.”

Han Ruzi did not believe in voodoo.
He turned and looked at Prince Donghai.
He was quite puzzled.
“Why did the Empress Dowager order you to attend to me, and even let us interact alone?”

“To humiliate me and the Cui clan, I suppose.” Prince Donghai said in indignation, not bothering to hide his anger towards the Empress Dowager or his desire for the throne.

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Han Ruzi did not think so, and he even suspected that Prince Donghai was playing the fool.
At least if he were Prince Donghai, he would not be in a hurry at all.
Since the Cui clan was a powerful clan, they would not submit to the Empress Dowager easily.
Prince Donghai still had his chances.

“We must still think of a way to oppose the Empress Dowager.
This time, the message should be sent to the Cui clan.” Prince Donghai could not guess at the Emperor’s thoughts, and excitedly suggested a new plan.

“No,” Han Ruzi flatly refused.
“I don’t want to oppose anyone, least of all the Empress Dowager.
Even if I am not to have the throne for long, it is still my best chance for survival.”

Han Ruzi turned back around.
Prince Donghai looked at him in complete shock, and after awhile, displayed an expression of extreme fury.

Dinner for the day included an extra dish that when eaten felt like meat.
Han Ruzi was very surprised — the vegetarian fast was still on-going so he should not be eating meat.
Only after chewing for a while did he realize that it was mushrooms.
It seemed like his complaining had some use after all.

After the meal, Han Ruzi used every chance he had to strike a conversation with the eunuchs or servant-girls around him, to very little effect.
They were confused by the Emperor’s sudden change in personality, and soon became very suspicious and did their best not to answer.
When they had no choice but to speak, they would consider their words carefully, as though they were not speaking to the Emperor but passing along a message to someone who was not even present.

What they felt from the Emperor was not warmth, but pressure.

Yang Feng came and went.
He heard some of the conversations.
He did not object, nor did he make any suggestions.
He was like a distracted shepherd, occasionally checking whether the herd was still grazing in place, and then he went along with his own business.

The entire day went by and Han Ruzi was exhausted.
All he had gotten was a few words in response.
His ten-step radius still remained a desolate wasteland.

In the night, as he lay on his bed, Han Ruzi thought about what he had undergone during the day.
He realized that he had not gained nothing for his efforts.
At least he discovered one thing: the Empress Dowager’s faction was not the only one in the Imperial Palace.
By his side, there were other forces simmering below the surface.

But this was of no help to the current Emperor.
He could not even assert control over his ten-step radius, let alone find any “time or condition” that was beneficial to him.
But just before he fell asleep, a small event gave Han Ruzi some confidence.

When he was nearly asleep, Meng E’s voice suddenly sounded.
“I have asked.
Those two were sent for treatment.
They will not die.”

Han Ruzi’s drowsiness disappeared immediately.
He was concerned about the two eunuchs, but not to the extent of constant worry.
He was happy because someone was finally willing to answer his questions directly.
The desolation of his ten-step radius finally had a breath of life.

[1] One li is roughly equivalent to half a kilometer, or a third of a mile.

[2] The ‘E’ in Meng E is pronounced like “er” without the ‘r’ sound.

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