A deep male voice rang out on the dock of Dongshui Pass. In an instant, dozens of large umbrellas with silk edges were quickly turned and closed, letting the scorching sunlight splash among a dazzling array of vermillion and purple colors.
Only two people stood at the front of the dock. One was Xiangcheng Earl Li Long, dressed in a blue and red embroidered robe with a seven-beam crown on his head. He had just given the order to close the umbrellas. Standing next to him was the famous eunuch Zheng He, dressed similarly but with a crimson cloak. Both were old ministers of the Yongle reign. One was the Nanjing Guard and the other was the Nanjing Eunuch Guard. They were the two pillars of the city.
Behind them were several rows of high-ranking officials from various departments in Nanjing. Looking around, there were many precious colors such as yellow, green, red, and purple, making the view dazzling. At the outer periphery, there was a grand procession of banners, flags, yellow fans, and golden melons, as well as guards, music bands, dance groups, charioteers, and so on, densely packed inside and outside. There was no place to stand in such a huge Dongshui Pass dock.
Most of Nanjing’s elite officials had gathered here. These high-ranking officials, who usually had their own streets to pass through, were now crowded together, their robes thick and hot. Amidst the magnificent sound of elegant music, they all stood solemnly and watched eagerly as the sailing ship gradually approached from afar.
Under the huge sail, the treasure ship was rapidly approaching the dock.
Through the large window, the crown prince could see the flat embankments on both sides of the river, with rows of willow trees standing tall on top. These wild willow forests were not as neat and uniform as the roadside willows, but they were thicker and more lush, with almost no gaps. They stretched along both sides of the riverbank up to the city wall in the distance, like two green ribbons embroidered on the Qinhuai River.
This was only the outer Qinhuai near the river mouth, just an irregular wild charm. It was said that the inner Qinhuai on both sides of the city was even more beautiful, with ten miles of song towers and dance pavilions, and the sound of paddles and light shadows all night long. Compared to the cold and monotonous capital, this place was like a fairyland.
Unfortunately, Zhu Zhanji was in no mood to appreciate it at that moment. He had just learned that there had been another earthquake in Nanjing last night.
The capital was supposed to be earthquake-free, but since his father ascended the throne, especially after the proposal to relocate the capital, there had been thirty earthquakes in a row. The teachers in the East Palace always talked about the interaction between heaven and man, and how fortunes and calamities were related to human affairs. According to this theory, these abnormal and continuous earthquakes were like thirty slaps in his father’s face.
Especially last night’s earthquake, which happened on the eve of the crown prince’s arrival in Nanjing, what was it? Did god think that he and his father were incompatible?
Originally, Zhu Zhanji had convinced himself that these were just coincidences and didn’t need to be considered in detail. But as the big boat sailed deeper into the Qinhuai River, there were scattered houses near the willow bank, a third of which had collapsed and lay in ruins, like a good painting splashed with a few drops of ink. Those drops of ink fell on Zhu Zhanji’s eyes like firewood on his heart.
He was naturally carefree and was always criticized by others, both overtly and covertly, for not being like a monarch. This invisible pressure had accumulated, making Zhu Zhanji always feel uneasy, so he could only relieve it by playing with fighting crickets. Unexpectedly, when he arrived in Nanjing, there was another earthquake, as if even God was blaming him, making the crown prince’s pressure even heavier.
“Your Highness, we are almost there. Let me help you change into your robes and crown.” The old eunuch smiled, followed by two maids, one holding a dragon-patterned silk robe, the other holding a winged crown. But Zhu Zhanji ignored him, still holding the cricket jar and absent-mindedly staring out of the window.
The old eunuch gently nudged him again. Unexpectedly, Zhu Zhanji suddenly became angry and smashed the cricket jar on the ground, smashing it to pieces. The maids couldn’t help but scream, and the clothes and crown in their hands almost fell to the ground.
The freed cricket wiggled its whiskers on the ground, seeming not to understand the situation. The old eunuch quickly knelt down and tried to catch it with his chubby hands. Startled, the cricket suddenly jumped up and flew out of the window along the edge of the building.
Zhu Zhanji was stunned for a moment, and then he walked out with a clouded face. The old eunuch hastily grabbed his thin sleeve, “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to find my fighting cricket!” Zhu Zhanji replied.
“We will soon arrive at Dongshui Pass,” the old eunuch said.
“We must find it immediately! As soon as the ship touches land, it will run away!”
“Let me call some smart boys,” the old eunuch tried to stop him. Zhu Zhanji stomped his foot angrily, “I don’t trust those clumsy and careless servants!”
“But all the officials are waiting for us at the dock. You can’t just…”
An unnamed anger surged in Zhu Zhanji’s heart, and his eyes suddenly became fierce, “What’s wrong with letting them wait a while? Does that mean my words won’t work until we arrive in Nanjing?” The old eunuch trembled with fear and dared not stop him. The crown prince snorted coldly, waved his sleeve, and walked out of the room.
At that moment, the teachers from the East Palace were busy inspecting the ceremonial guards and didn’t know what had happened on the roof. Angrily, the Crown Prince descended the side stairs and walked through the busy boatmen to the deck at the back of the colorful building.
This was the most likely place for the cricket to have landed. Zhu Zhanji took a deep breath, barely suppressing his anger, and patiently searched as if finding the cricket was the only way to find inner peace. He scanned the area for a moment and suddenly realized that crickets liked dryness. The deck was damp, so it should have run towards the high stern, just like its last escape.
The distant sound of music grew louder, and Zhu Zhanji stood up straight, vaguely seeing the five-colored flags and the umbrella-shaped canopies arranged like scales floating above the dock.
The treasure ship slowly retracted its sails, relying only on the eighty pairs of oars on either side of the hull to move at a controlled low speed, slowly passing the last watchtower. The lookout on the tower quickly waved the flying dragon flag, announcing that the treasure ship would soon arrive at Dongshui Pass.
Zhu Zhanji knew that he didn’t have much time left, so he gritted his teeth and ran towards the stern of the ship without hesitation.
Meanwhile, a barefoot person with rolled-up pants stepped onto the wooden ladder inside the treasure ship’s hull. Thick calluses pressed against the rung, making almost no sound. The other foot immediately stepped down to the next rung, but only the toes were used for support, leaving most of the sole bare. This was the climbing technique used by sailors in emergencies, and it was much faster than usual.
The two feet took turns silently descending the wooden ladder. Soon, the boatman, with a cloth wrapped around his head, was back in front of the bottom compartment, deep in the belly of the treasure ship.
The bottom compartment was still dark and cramped, but the noise outside could be heard faintly through the cabin wall, indicating that the large ship was approaching Dongshui Pass. The boatman crouched down on the floor, took a match from his pocket, took off the top cover, blew on it, and a small flame immediately appeared. A circle of faint yellow light spread in the damp air of the lower compartment, and the boatman’s shadow was reflected on the cabin wall, flickering and ghostly, as if a fierce ghost had emerged from a grave crevice.
Where the light touched, piles of cargo could be seen, neatly packed in the compartment. They were huge, filling almost the entire space of the partition, and they were covered tightly with rotten straw.
The noise outside grew louder, and the boatman with the match slowly walked over. He stretched out his arm and lifted one of the pieces of straw…
Wu Dingyuan opened a wine gourd and took a sip, the spicy liquid going straight into his stomach, making him shiver.
The sun was scorching now, and the moisture rose from the water surface, spreading from the river beach to the top of Fanbone Terrace. The entire slope had become one big steamer, and the people inside felt as if countless hot and sticky cowhide needles were piercing their clothes and penetrating their skin. Without freshly brewed liquor, it would be hard to bear.
Actually, alcohol couldn’t solve problems, but at least it could make people dull and numb to problems, this was Wu Dingyuan’s experience.
The alternating sounds of Zhong and Qin music came faintly over the river. Wu Dingyuan suddenly sensed something and put down the gourd to look ahead. He saw a black and red giant ship solemnly passing through the river channel in front of Fan Bone Terrace.
What a huge treasure ship it was. Its massive body took up half of the river’s surface, with its hull towering high and its masts standing tall like the majestic mountains carried by a deity.
For a moment, Wu Dingyuan had the illusion that this mountain would collapse and crush him to pieces. Unconsciously, he stepped back, looked up, and saw a figure suddenly appear at the stern, as if looking for something on the rail.
The two of them briefly made eye contact. For some reason, Wu Dingyuan’s scalp tingled slightly, as if a fine needle had pierced his temple.
Before he could understand what had happened, the other person had turned around and run away, as if looking for something. The large ship gradually left the Fan Bone Terrace and headed for the Dongshui Pass dock. Wu Dingyuan scratched his scalp, opened the gourd, and took another sip of wine.
Before the spicy liquor had spread to his throat, he suddenly saw a seductive and magnificent sight.
If we divide this brief moment by the Buddhist concept of “kshana,” the image that Wu Dingyuan saw is as follows:
In the first kshana the hull planks in the middle of the treasure ship’s waterline began to bend outward. All of the ship’s ribs bulged as if they were inflated, and they bent outward with a creaking and mournful sound, like a bow being gradually pulled tight.
By the second kshana, the planks were bent to their limit, and numerous small cracks appeared on them, quickly spreading across the entire outer wall, like the cracks in porcelain. The nails, shovel nails, and leech nails used to hold the structure together could not withstand the pressure and flew out one by one.
In the third kshana, the unleashed power quickly rushed out of the hut, revealing a deep red power full of grandeur. It was the essence of Zhu Rong, the treasure of Divine Master Suiren, and the most majestic fury of Yi, an extremely hot flame. This power erupted from the oar ports. Forty pairs of oars on the starboard side lost their steady rhythm. Some oars suddenly went forward, some oars jumped high, and some oars still drifted backward due to inertia.
By the fourth kshana, the hull was completely shattered, but it was still not enough to appease the fury of the flames. The violent ball of fire rose from the lower compartment and smashed the keel axis, the wing beams, and the midship in turn, causing the mast to tilt and the central part of the treasure ship to rise to its limit, while the bow and stern sank down simultaneously, as if a giant scarlet hand had grabbed the entire ship and forcibly split it in two.
In the fifth kshana, the treasure ship was completely split in two. The beautiful and colorful building suddenly lost its foundation and was pulled backward, but it was suddenly pulled backward by the sinking front half of the hull. As it swayed, the flames rose, turning the entire wooden building into a dazzling torch, and countless burning figures fell.
It wasn’t until after the fifth kshana that Wu Dingyuan, standing on the shore, felt a gust of wind touch his nose. His pupils suddenly contracted, and an extreme sense of crisis instantly blew away his despondent appearance.
For a moment, he fell into an empty and stagnant state, as if the whole world had frozen, with only the enchanting and cruel firelight dancing in front of him. The huge fire was like a sharp spear piercing Wu Dingyuan’s skull, causing his trigeminal neuralgia to erupt violently at an inopportune time.
Wu Dingyuan convulsed and fell backward, and an unbelievably strong shockwave came and knocked him down hard. The wine gourd at his waist burst with a bang, and half of the liquor spilled onto the sandy surface and was quickly absorbed.
It was an indescribably eerie scene: a person lying on the yellow-brown river beach, his limbs writhing, his eyes rolling back in helplessness, as if possessed by evil spirits. In the river beside him, a huge black and red ship was burning fiercely, slowly being swallowed by the deep blue water.
The convulsions lasted for quite a while before gradually subsiding. Wu Dingyuan lay on his back on the muddy ground, saliva dripping from the corner of his mouth, and his entire body drenched in sweat. As the madness subsided, the horrifying scene he had just witnessed reappeared in his mind.
The prince’s treasure ship exploded?
At this thought, Wu Dingyuan didn’t care to wipe the drool from his mouth as he struggled to stand up. His sight and hearing hadn’t fully recovered yet, but for the first time, he smelled the pungent smell of gunpowder, so pungent that he could jump to a conclusion right away:
The means to destroy a treasure ship in five kshanas could only be caused by a large amount of gunpowder stored in the cabin, except for earthquakes. The gunpowder depot in front of the Baichuan Bridge in Nanjing had an accidental explosion that knocked down houses for miles around, and the smell at the scene was exactly the same as it is now.
But this was the prince’s treasure ship. Who would store so much gunpowder there?
At this point, Wu Dingyuan’s vision slowly returned to normal, and the scenery in front of him became clear again. On the Qinhuai River, there was still half of the bow and stern of the treasure ship, both of which were raised high and gradually became more perpendicular to the water surface, and would soon disappear completely. Part of the ship and the colored pavilion had sunk first. A large amount of clothing, canvas, broken wood, and broken masts floated on the surface of the water, covering almost the entire river.
No one saw it.
With such a large explosion, it should be impossible for anyone to survive.
As the tinnitus slowly subsided, Wu Dingyuan could hear that the elegant music on the distant pier had stopped, replaced by faint screams. It seemed that the explosion had also affected Dongshui Pass, which was closer to the treasure ship and densely populated with people. The scene there would probably be ten times more tragic than Fan Bone Terrace.
Facing such an inhuman disaster, even the usually lazy and indifferent Wu Dingyuan was shocked and at a loss. He stared blankly at the surface of the river, but suddenly his eyes narrowed and he saw a black dot struggling in the distance.
Wu Dingyuan hesitated for a moment before jumping into the river. He was very good at swimming, so he quickly swam to the side of the black spot. A drowning person cannot be rescued directly from the front. Wu Dingyuan pulled up a nearby half board and taught him to grab it firmly with both hands. Then he pulled the other end and swam to the shore.
After the two of them reached the riverbank, Wu Dingyuan turned around and carefully examined the lucky guy.
He was a young man with a blackened face, more than half of his hair was burnt off, and his clothes were all burnt and tattered. It was hard to tell that he was wearing a short robe. As soon as he landed on the shore, he vomited in desperation, spitting out a large puddle of sour and smelly paste.
After catching his breath for a moment, Wu Dingyuan asked for his identity. However, when the young man opened his mouth, he could only make a “heh heh” sound in his throat, presumably his vocal cords were paralyzed by the shock of the explosion. Wu Dingyuan had to take out his handkerchief and wipe his face with river water. Just as he was wiping it clean, Wu Dingyuan suddenly felt a sharp pain in his temple, fleeting but intense.
This was close. He almost triggered a recurrence of his migraine.
Wu Dingyuan frowned and studied the young man’s face once again. He had a square face, a straight nose, and a pair of round eyes full of fear. Another wave of pain hit him – what was going on? He couldn’t remember seeing this face before.
No, wait, he had seen it!
The strange pain reminded Wu Dingyuan that when the treasure ship passed by Fan Bone Terrace earlier, he had looked up at the ship, and this face had appeared at the edge of the deck. They even made eye contact for a moment, and then the person immediately ran toward the stern. When the treasure ship exploded, the stern was the last area to be affected, so he must have been thrown into the water and luckily survived.
As Wu Dingyuan’s mind gradually cleared, he noticed more details.
This guy’s short robe was made of silk, not the kind of material worn by ship workers or laborers. He was probably not a servant or a guard either, and had a relatively high status on the ship. When the treasure ship was about to reach the pier, everyone should have been serving the lord at the front of the ship, so why did this guy run to the quietest stern? And just before the explosion?
Could it be… because he wanted to escape before the explosion?
Wu Dingyuan suddenly noticed that when the man grabbed the plank just now, he used his left hand and right arm, but his right fist remained tightly clenched. Even now, his right fist had not relaxed. Wu Dingyuan pulled his right hand over, and the young man screamed something in his throat, refusing to let him see. Wu Dingyuan took out an iron ruler and struck the young man’s elbow. The man screamed in pain, and his right fist opened, revealing a cricket that jumped out of his palm and landed on the sand.
Stunned for a moment, Wu Dingyuan accidentally stepped back, and the sole of his shoe made a “snap” sound, crushing the cricket and spilling its juice. The man roared and rushed towards him with unknown strength. Wu Dingyuan launched a vicious kick, hitting the man’s chest and knocking him down. Then he took out a cow tendon rope from his waist and neatly tied his arms behind his back.
The man struggled desperately on the ground, his expression extremely angry. Presumably annoyed by his fierce struggle, Wu Dingyuan nonchalantly stuffed a hemp core into his mouth, and soon only muffled grunts could be heard. He examined the man’s face again, and as expected, he felt another sharp pain in his scalp. Wu Dingyuan untied the cloth bag containing the wine gourd from his waist, tore the seams on both sides, and quickly covered the man’s head with it.
Now he couldn’t see anything, and of course, his head didn’t hurt anymore.
After solving the problem, Wu Dingyuan looked across the Qinhuai River from the other side. There were shadows and screams on the pier, the flags were crooked and chaotic, completely out of order. Most of Nanjing’s officials had just gathered at the pier, along with the ceremonial guards, drummers, escorts, and onlookers. So many people were affected by the explosion of the treasure ship at close range, and the casualties were bound to be shocking.
As for the dock, it was only a small part of the disaster. The crown prince and the Eastern Palace staff on the ship had probably been reduced to ashes long ago.
Wu Dingyuan’s face became stern. Such a tragic incident had never happened since the Ming Dynasty. One could imagine that Nanjing, South Zhili, and even the entire imperial court would be shaken to the core. Wu Dingyuan lowered his head and looked at the man again. He was the only survivor of the treasure ship and might be the only clue to solve this top priority case.
The urgent task is to quickly send the prisoner to his father, Wu Buping. Wu Buping is the chief catcher, and this case will eventually be investigated by him. The sooner the prisoner is sent, the sooner the case can be solved. The sooner the case is solved, the more reward they will get.
So he pulled the man up and pushed and shoved him forward. The man tried to resist, but he couldn’t withstand Wu Dingyuan’s kicks to his shins. He could only stagger forward.
After the two of them left the Fan Bone Terrace, they walked directly north along the river beach, pushing and shoving. They had only gone about half a mile when Wu Dingyuan suddenly pulled the rope and stopped. Two soldiers, one tall and one short, came toward them. They were dressed in blue-trimmed jackets with soft armor inside, and a white ribbon tied around their waists to hold a goose feather knife. Judging by their clothing, they must be the Left Guard garrison.
The various offices were responsible for overlapping areas of duty during the Crown Prince’s entry into the city, so it was not surprising that there were guards here. However, Wu Dingyuan was suspicious: with such a loud explosion on the river just now, these two not only did not panic, but also looked around as if they were searching for something.
The two soldiers also noticed them and ordered them to stop in a stern voice. Wu Dingyuan showed his silver plaque and said, “I am from Yingtian Prefecture’s4 arrest team. The tall soldier was taken aback at first, then smiled and bowed, “Isn’t that the son of Iron Lion on the other side?” The short soldier looked at him with a hint of contempt in his eyes. It seemed that he had also heard of the nickname ” Bamboo Pole”.
Wu Dingyuan calmly replied, “I still have to escort the prisoner back to the office, so I cannot accompany you. He didn’t want to say more, but the two soldiers slowly approached. The tall one asked, “There was an explosion on the Qinhuai River just now. Since Master Wu came from that side, can we take a look at this prisoner?”
As he spoke, he moved closer to Wu Dingyuan’s left side, while his short companion rudely reached out to pull the cloth bag off the prisoner’s head. Wu Dingyuan’s eyes flashed with a sharp light and he moved quickly, swinging his iron ruler violently at the short soldier’s wrist.
This was both a warning and a test.
If they were only driven by greed to steal credit, they would retreat when they saw the iron ruler. If not… Wu Dingyuan did not speculate further as a shining knife stabbed at his ribs from the left.
Translator’s Note: 4 Yingtian Prefecture refers to an administrative division of China during the Ming Dynasty, which was the largest prefecture south of the Yangtze River. Its jurisdiction included the present-day provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu and Shanghai. The government is located in Nanjing.