The gangway was about fifteen feet long, a monstrous object to the cricket, but it was only the right side of the stern of a huge ship. The entire ship was thirty zhang (about 100 meters) long, painted in black and red, with a pointed bottom and a wide mast and sails, resembling the treasure ships used by eunuchs on their westward journeys.
However, unlike real treasure ships, which had only a flat layer between two masts, this ship had a four-story carved colorful grid at the same position. With a raised ridge roof, flying corners and eaves, the glazed tiles shone brightly in the sunlight, making it much more grandiose than a treasure ship. But once it was out at sea, the waves would easily capsize it.
Fortunately, the ship was now floating on the Yangtze River from west to east, impervious to the river waves. So the little cricket could lie safely on the protruding part of the gangway railing, chirping happily at the vast surface of the river.
Suddenly, a small golden net fell from the sky and caught the cricket. Then the net lifted a corner and the frightened cricket jumped vigorously into a waiting purple sand pot.
“Haha, got it!”
Zhu Zhanji quickly closed the lid and brushed the dust off the money-shaped air holes on top. He climbed up from the ground with a smile on his face.
This cricket, named “Outdo ZiLong”1, was his beloved companion that he had carefully trained along the way. Unexpectedly, this “Outdo ZiLong” had just escaped from the pot. Zhu Zhanji wandered around on the big ship for half a day before he finally caught it and brought it back to his camp. Holding the drum in his left hand and pointing with his right finger, he muttered, “Pass the message to the armies, I want to keep Zhao Yun alive, and don’t let my cricket die.”
Before the last sound of the line was finished, a eunuch in a cloud-shouldered robe stumbled over and shouted anxiously, “Your Royal Highness… don’t lean on the edge of the boat. The wind is strong on the river, and if you fall over, I will not be able to save myself even if I die ten thousand times.”
Zhu Zhanji laughed heartily, “Big Companion, you are ignorant. This is a two thousand material treasure ship. How can it rock with only river water?” He lifted the pot and exclaimed, “Look! My general has returned to the camp.”
“Good, good, it’s good that you caught it.” The old eunuch walked over with a flattering smile, “Let’s hurry back to the building. The masters of the Eastern Palace2 have asked several times, urging Your Highness to prepare.”
Zhu Zhanji frowned when he heard this, “Why are they in such a hurry?” The old eunuch advised, “We will arrive in Nanjing soon. All the officials will be waiting at the dock. We must prepare early.” Seeing the crown prince’s face gradually darkening, he quickly comforted him, “Your Highness, just bear with it. When we arrive in Nanjing, you can play as you wish.”
Zhu Zhanji looked at the rippling river waves and the smile on his face gradually faded, “When we get to Nanjing, I’m afraid we won’t have time to be carefree. We still have a few hours left, let me enjoy myself one last time.”
He sounded pitiful, and the old eunuch’s heart softened at first, but then he immediately kneeled down with a “thud”, “This time we come to Nanjing, it concerns the prosperity of the Ming Dynasty, Your Highness, you have imperial orders in your hand, you cannot be so reckless!”
Zhu Zhanji shook his head with a bitter smile and said nothing further. He knew that the old eunuch was half right, but that made him feel even more depressed.
This imperial edict could be traced back to Zhu Zhanji’s grandfather, Emperor Yongle.
In the 19th year of Yongle’s reign, the Emperor moved the capital of the Ming Dynasty from Jinling to Beijing, and since then there have been two capitals in the Ming Dynasty – the main capital Beijing and the secondary capital Nanjing. Three years later, Emperor Yongle passed away and was posthumously named Taizong. His son Zhu Gaochi ascended the throne and changed the reigning title to “Hongxi”.
Emperor Hongxi had always wanted to move the capital back to Nanjing, but due to the importance of the matter, there was never a final decision. On the 10th day of the fourth month of the first year of Hongxi’s reign, the Emperor suddenly issued an edict ordering the crown prince, Zhu Zhanji, to go south to Nanjing, act as regent, and take care of both the military and the people. This caused a great stir in the court and among the people. Everyone felt that this was a very clear signal: His Majesty the Emperor had finally decided to move the capital.
This time, the crown prince’s trip to the south was probably to prepare for the capital relocation, which was no easy task. When Emperor Yongle moved the capital to Beiping, he left behind a complete government structure in Nanjing, including the six ministries, the censorate, the Grand Secretariat, and the five military governorates, which were no different from those in the capital. In addition, most of the country’s taxes came from south of the Yangtze River, and there were many local nobles and prominent families with complex relationships. A small change could cause a chain reaction that would shake the entire country.
This was the first time that the 27-year-old crown prince had handled political affairs independently. To put it simply, the emperor was testing the crown prince’s abilities; to put it more broadly, this was a turning point that would determine the rise and fall of the Ming dynasty for the next hundred years. The whole country was watching to see if he could handle the situation in the secondary capital. The old eunuch had no choice but to take a firm stance and give stern advice.
Although Zhu Zhanji had a playful personality, he still knew how to prioritize and ease the situation. He picked up the cricket jar and said quietly, “Zilong, Zilong, you always complain about being cramped in such a small space, but what about me? Anyway, we’ve been through a lot together, so at least one of us should be carefree…”
As he was about to open the lid, he looked around at the vast expanse of the river and realized that even if he released the cricket, there was nowhere for it to go. He sighed, “You see, even if you leave the jar, what can you do? You’re still trapped, unable to really escape…” Just then, three crisp explosions rang out from the north bank of the Yangtze River, “Pop! Pop! Pop!”
Zhu Zhanji’s hand shook, almost knocking the cricket jar onto the deck. He turned his head angrily to see three clusters of yellowish-brown fireworks explode in the air, spewing smoke and disappearing in an instant. Below the fireworks, white reeds swayed, and the person setting off the fireworks could not be seen. Perhaps someone was getting married along the riverbank?
The sound was still several miles away from the ship and was not worth paying much attention to. Zhu Zhanji hesitated for a while, but in the end, he couldn’t bear to let the cricket go. He carried the drum with a grumpy expression and followed the old eunuch back to the building.
Unbeknownst to the two of them, a ship’s worker wearing a turban and a blue robe was also watching the three fireworks above their heads.
This person had dark skin and a face that was no different from an ordinary shipworker. At that moment, he held onto the crossbar with one hand and raised the awning with the other, looking at the sky with no expression. After the smoke cleared, he skillfully tied the ropes and slid down the mast.
There were a hundred or so like him on the ship, scattered around the various decks, running the ship. Unless they were too close to the building, the guards wouldn’t pay much attention to them. This shipworker mingled with the busy crowd, carefully avoiding the view of the building, and went straight to the deck near the starboard bow.
There was a small iron handle on the deck. He leaned down and grabbed it lightly, revealing a square hatch on the floor. A double-tiered wooden ladder extended downward. Holding on to the ladder with both hands, the shipworker slowly descended into the hull below the deck.
Although the ship looked like a treasure ship, it was built for entertainment purposes, so the hull was quite large. There were four levels from the deck to the bottom of the ship. The first level below deck was the galley and the internal storage area for banquet ships; the second level below deck was the sailors’ rest cabin and the sterncastle; the third level below deck was the large storage area for materials and food; and the bottom level was piled with hundreds of stones used for ballast.
As he descended to the lower levels of the ship, the space became more confined and the light dimmer. The shipwright followed the wooden ladder down to the lower deck, where it was already pitch black. The air was filled with a mixture of damp mold, rotting wood, and pungent lime. There was no one around. Unless the ship was undergoing major repairs, no one would want to be in such a spooky place.
This level was divided into more than a dozen closed compartments, each resembling a sinister beast’s lair, and one could vaguely see many huge stone bodies cowering inside. The shipworker roughly determined the direction and went straight into the third compartment on the right. In the darkness, there were occasional strange cracking sounds and low, indistinct murmurs, as if some kind of prayer were being said.
After about the time it took to burn an incense stick, the ship’s worker emerged from the compartment, his footsteps much lighter. He climbed back up to the deck, blending in with the other busy sailors, and no one noticed his brief absence.
Just then, a lookout observed a gust of wind blowing across the river and immediately signaled. The ship’s crew quickly adjusted the sails to catch the oncoming wind. The boatmen felt the speed increase a few notches and rhythmically shouted, “Yo-heave-ho!” as they accelerated their paddles. The big ship was racing toward Jinling.
At that moment, the same cry could be heard in Jinling City.
A dozen arms tensed simultaneously, lifting a thick wooden beam off the ground with a combined effort. Broken tiles and pieces of furniture were scattered everywhere under the beam, and in the middle was a bloodied adult male corpse. His head and half of his body were flattened, and blood and brain matter had coagulated into a shocking and filthy puddle on the floor.
Clucking sounds of remorse could be heard from the surrounding area. Last night’s sudden earthquake had caused buildings to collapse, and the dislodged beam had fallen directly on this unfortunate person sleeping in his bed.
Wu Buping stared at the tragic scene in front of him, frowning and remaining silent.
This mansion was located in the Imperial Corridor within Nanjing’s Taiping Gate. This area was originally built as the official residence of the Court of Censors during Hongwu’s reign. The deceased man before him was wearing a blue robe with a round collar and a vaguely visible purple duck emblem on his chest, indicating that he was an imperial censor.
Last night’s earthquake had caused many buildings in the city to collapse. The craftsmen from the Ministry of Works were overwhelmed, and the Yingtian Prefecture had to urgently deploy three shifts of patrol officers to provide disaster relief. As the chief constable, Wu Buping was responsible for patrolling various areas to prevent looting. When he heard that an imperial censor had died here, he immediately rushed over.
Wu Buping was sixty-two years old and always wore a black official uniform. He wore a flat hat, carried a measuring ruler and a tin plate at his waist, and exuded a sense of strong power as he walked. He was the chief officer in charge of the three patrols and had solved many extraordinary cases. Although he was from the north, everyone in Jinling City knew him. Officials called him “Head Wu”, while people in the martial world called him “Iron Lion”. Most ordinary people simply called him by his real name-wherever there was injustice, there was Wu Buping.3
He had asked neighbors on both sides and found out that the deceased censor was named Guo Zhimin, originally from Taizhou in Yangzhou Prefecture. He was an imperial censor of the Guangdong Circuit stationed in Nanjing, and he had come alone without any family members to accompany him. Poor Censor Guo had only recently moved here and died like this.
This was clearly an accident, and it did not take much effort to solve it. The body in the courtyard could not be moved for the time being, so Wu Buping ordered his officers to retreat to the outer courtyard to continue clearing the debris.
It was already the fifth month, and the air was slightly sultry. A young officer wiped his sweat with his white undershirt and complained in a low voice, “Chief Wu, do you think this Heavenly God will ever stop? How many times has Jinling been shaken by earthquakes?”
Ever since Yongle moved the capital to Beijing, there had been a subtle resentment in the hearts of the people of Nanjing. They never referred to it as “Nanjing,” but rather used “Jinling. Wu Buping didn’t say anything when he heard this question, but his colleagues around him started discussing it.
Last night’s earthquake was not the first time. Since the beginning of the year, Nanjing had been cursed with earthquakes every few days, and each time, many buildings in the city had collapsed. This had kept the officials busy and made the whole city anxious.
Some officers said it had happened thirteen or fourteen times, while others claimed it had happened seventeen or eighteen times. Finally, an old official shook his head and bragged, “I have a brother who works as a clerk in the Ministry of Works, where they keep records. Guess how many times Jinling and its surroundings have been shaken since last month? Five times! And in March? Nineteen times! And the month before that, five times! Including last night’s earthquake, Jinling City has been shaken thirty times since the beginning of spring!”
This unbelievable number scared everyone, and the debris fell silent. Someone muttered softly, “When did Jinling ever shake so much? Could it really be the real dragon turning over?”
The people around them all showed a deep sense of taboo. It was the first year of Hongxi’s reign. There were frequent earthquakes in Nanjing, and rumors spread among the people that the Emperor was not a legitimate heir to the throne, which angered the True Dragon. When the True Dragon gets angry, he turns over and causes earthquakes.
No one knew who started the rumor. However, the common people liked to blame gods and spirits for inexplicable things. So the rumor spread like wildfire, even among those officers who were now openly discussing it.
“Oh, I think this true dragon is not very smart. Instead of shaking Beijing, why bother Jinling?”
“If only the capital had stayed here, there wouldn’t be so much chaos!”
“You can’t say that. I don’t think it’s because of the location, but… “
“Hey, you little brats, are you looking for trouble? Get back to work!”
Wu Buping scolded them sternly, afraid that they would say something even more absurd. The officers quickly stopped chatting and continued to work diligently.
Wu Buping looked around and was about to think deeply when he suddenly smelled a strong smell of alcohol. He looked towards the door and saw a person swaying into the courtyard from outside. The man was tall and thin, with thin eyebrows and a straight nose, as fair-skinned as a scholar. However, his steps were unsteady, his eyes were particularly hazy, and his face was full of exhaustion.
“‘Dad, I’m here,” the man yawned. The strong smell of alcohol came from a large patch of wine stains on his robe, indicating that he had drunk too much and had not yet sobered up. Wu Buping’s eyebrows raised, and he replied in a muffled voice, “Hmm.”
“My sister said you didn’t have breakfast this morning, so she asked me to bring you some freshly baked cakes,” the young man patted his pocket and then patted his head, “Oh, it seems like I forgot to bring them.”
“It doesn’t matter, I’m not hungry,” Wu Buping said. The officers around him were concentrating on clearing up the debris, but their faces showed undisguised contempt.
Speaking of which, this was also a big topic in Jinling. Wu Buping was a fierce man who was feared by both the city’s frivolous young masters and violent bandits. Unfortunately, this man, whom even the governor politely treated as a guest, raised a useless son.
Wu Buping was a widower with one son and one daughter. His daughter, Wu Yulu, was sixteen years old, and his son, Wu Dingyuan, was twenty-nine years old. This Wu Dingyuan was naturally ill-tempered and lazy, and was said to suffer from erysipelas. He often fell ill and remained unmarried to this day. He spent his days asking his father for money to drink in brothels. People called him “bamboo pole” behind his back – bamboo strips too thin and soft to be made into a boat pole, and therefore useless. A tiger father had indeed produced a dog son, which was pitiful.
Out of respect for Wu Buping, the local government allowed Wu Dingyuan to serve as an honorary officer in the arrest team. However, that lazy guy never showed up and ate free food from the government. If it weren’t for the governor’s order to mobilize all personnel today, he would probably still be sleeping at home.
Wu Buping also knew what kind of person his son was. He made a gesture and let him stay in the courtyard where there was only an unburied corpse and no one else. Perhaps Wu Buping thought that it was better for his son to be associated with the unlucky dead than to embarrass himself in front of the living.
Wu Dingyuan didn’t care either, and swayed toward the courtyard. Shortly after, a sound of vomiting came from inside, followed by a sour smell in the air. The officers outside looked at each other, thinking that if that bastard vomited on the Imperial Censor’s body, it would cause big trouble.
Not long after, a runner rushed out of the street: “Chief Wu, there’s news from the government that the crown prince has entered the Outer Qinhuai region.”
Wu Buping replied with a muffled “Hmm” and immediately called everyone together. He didn’t forget to call out loudly to the courtyard, “Dingyuan, come out for the roll call!” After a while, Wu Dingyuan finally walked out slowly, lazily leaning on a broken pillar and keeping his distance from most of the people.
Wu Buping looked around and said in a deep voice, “You guys are a bunch of troublemakers. When you go on duty later, show off your skills. This time, when the crown prince comes to Nanjing, the guards have strict orders. Everyone whose name is on the list and who is still alive must stand guard along the roads. From Dongshui Pass to the palace, not even a mosquito will be allowed to enter.
When the officers heard that they had to go on duty, they all sighed in unison. Wu Buping sneered, “If you want to be lazy, go ahead, but you’ll be exiled three thousand miles later, so take your time walking!”
Seeing that his subordinates didn’t say anything, Wu Buping opened a piece of hemp paper and began to assign everyone’s duties. The first person he called was his own son: “Wu Dingyuan, you will guard the Fan Bone Terrace in front of Dongshui Pass.
Upon hearing this order, the officers all heaved a sigh.
Dongshui Pass was located southeast of Nanjing City and was the only wharf in the city. It was a prosperous place where merchants from the north and south gathered. After the crown prince’s ship turned from the Yangtze River into the Outer Qinhuai River, it would dock at the Dongshui Pass, where Nanjing officials would greet him and escort him into the city.
This Fan Bone Terrace was located on the east bank of the Qinhuai River, facing Dongshui Pass across the river. The name sounded elegant, but it was actually just a bare hill. It was only named after a few nearby families who made fans. There was no shade from the grass or trees, and it was unbearable in the hot and humid noon. It was really a bad sign.
Wu Buping first assigned his own son to the worst post, and then no one could say anything about how he assigned the others. Wu Dingyuan burped behind the crowd, looking indifferent.
After finishing their duties, the officers hurried back to their posts. Wu Buping looked at his son with a kinder expression, “Dingyuan, it’s all because of the earthquake. So no one can escape this task. Just bear with it for now.”
“If you’re afraid of earthquakes, go worship the City God. What’s the point of having more people? It’s not like we’ll be buried with the crown prince as his dead soldiers.” Wu Dingyuan shrugged his shoulders and said sarcastically. Wu Buping was about to reprimand him when Wu Dingyuan leaned over to his father and whispered, “This Imperial Censor Guo didn’t die in the earthquake.
Wu Buping was startled by his words. Wu Dingyuan continued, “The earthquake happened at midnight. Who would wear official robes to bed?”
Upon hearing this reminder, Wu Buping immediately realized. The dead man’s blue robe with patched collars was a common outfit for officials at work, and he should have taken it off when he went home. He could not have worn it to bed. Wu Dingyuan continued, “I just checked. If a living person was killed, there would be congestion around the wound where the blood was still flowing. But there was no blood congestion around the edges of the cracked head, so…”
Wu Buping interrupted, “…he was put on the bed after he died!?”
“Next, it’s up to you how to handle it. I’ll go to my post now.” Wu Dingyuan smiled and turned around, taking a few steps before suddenly turning back, “We have to pass by the Apricot Tower on our way to Fan Bone Terrace. They recently brought in several jars of soju from Wuxi.”
Before he could finish, Wu Buping took out a stack of banknotes, probably worth ten taels, from his waist pouch and handed it to his son with a complicated expression. Wu Dingyuan didn’t take it, “They only accept silver.”
Wu Buping had to take some broken silver coins out of his pocket, and Wu Dingyuan put them in his pocket without hesitation. He walked away swaying, and Wu Buping called after him, “Drink less. Alcohol can harm your health.”
Wu Dingyuan didn’t turn his head back, but raised his right fist and clenched it tightly, as if to say, “Don’t worry.” The Iron Lion watched his figure disappear around the corner, shook his head, and sighed deeply, but no one knew what he was worried about.
Translator’s Notes: 1 Zhao Yun (courtesy name “Zilong”) was a prominent military general who lived during the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China.
2 The Eastern Palace is the crown prince’s residence, often used to refer to the crown prince.
3 “Buping” means “not fair” or “unfair” literally. As “Wu” sounds the same as “无” (wú) in Chinese, “Wu Buping” together means “nothing is not unfair”.