This is a clear intent to kill!

Wu Dingyuan’s eyes flashed, and he quickly swung his iron ruler back, blocking the attacking knife. Without hesitation, he turned his body and punched straight at the attacker’s face. The tall soldier didn’t expect the counterattack to be so swift, and his nose was instantly shattered, blood pouring out as he fell backward.

Wu Dingyuan landed his blow and used his right shoulder to push the prisoner towards the shorter soldier on the other side. With his arms bound, the prisoner stumbled forward and fell into the arms of the shorter soldier.

Taking advantage of the distraction caused by the two men grappling, Wu Dingyuan completed his turn and quickly stepped forward, drawing his dagger from the shorter soldier’s waist. With a plop, he plunged it into the side of the soldier’s chest and immediately pulled it out. The prisoner and the soldier fell to the ground at the same time, while the tall soldier came out of his stupor. He shouted loudly and brandished his knife. However, Wu Dingyuan had already drawn his knife and blocked the attack directly.

The two blades clashed, sending a shower of sparks flying. The tall soldier had initially thought that Wu Dingyuan was a waste of a man consumed by alcohol and lust, but now he was shocked to discover that he was a hidden martial arts expert.

This momentary lapse was enough for Wu Dingyuan. While using his goose feather dagger to block was a feint, his left hand, holding the iron ruler, silently approached the opponent’s vital point. The tall soldier cried out in pain as the iron ruler struck his waist, causing him to contort in agony. Then he let out a pitiful scream as the blade of the dagger cut a deep gash in his neck, spraying blood several feet away.

From the beginning to the end, this exchange of attack and defense lasted only a few breaths, flowing smoothly like water. Wu Dingyuan stuck the goose feather dagger into the riverbank and knelt on the ground, his chest heaving irregularly. Due to his long-term alcoholism and limited physical strength, he could only take advantage of his opponent’s contempt and launch a surprise attack. If he were to engage in a standoff, he would have no chance of winning against two opponents.

These two soldiers must be accomplices of the ship bombers. They were searching along the river to eliminate the surviving crew of the treasure ship. Now that the enemies are dead, there is no joy on Wu Dingyuan’s face, only deep regret.

The tall soldier recognized Wu Dingyuan, indicating that the ship bombers have bribed many locals in Nanjing. This means that from now on, anyone they meet along the way could be a henchman of the ship bombers; any acquaintance could turn against them. How many of these people are there? How can you tell them apart? Wu Dingyuan couldn’t answer any of these questions.

The madmen who dared to destroy the prince’s treasure ship would never allow the only eyewitness to be turned over to the authorities alive. They would surely want to eliminate him as soon as possible.

Wu Dingyuan looked at the towering city walls not far away, and behind the endless walls, he felt an infinite malevolence surging, quickly covering the entire sky of the capital. He realized that the person he had spared out of mercy had plunged him into a dangerous quagmire.

But it was too late for regrets. He had already killed two people, and even if he left this person and ran away, he would inevitably attract more assassins. Wu Dingyuan looked down at the prisoner with disgust. He was still lying on the corpse of the short soldier, his head covered, but the stench of blood couldn’t be blocked, and his body was still struggling in fear.

If only he had let him drown in the Qinhuai River, Wu Dingyuan thought with regret.

Unfortunately, there is no regret medicine in the world. Wu Dingyuan sighed and threw the bodies of the tall and short soldiers into the water before lifting the prisoner from the ground. At this point, the reward doesn’t matter. This guy will attract countless pursuers, so it’s best to get rid of this hot potato as soon as possible.

After all, he has to find his father first.

Wu Buping, as the chief constable of Ying Tian Prefecture, should be patrolling Chang’an Street at this time, which is the mandatory route to enter the imperial city. The shortest route from Fan Bone Terrace to Chang’an Street is to go north to Tongji Gate to enter the city. Tongji Gate is located next to Dongshui Pass and is one of the thirteen gates of the city. After entering the city, there is a wide Tongji Gate Street that runs north along the Qinhuai River. Turning right will take you to Chang’an Street.

But now the Dongshui Pass is blocked, and there is chaos in front of the Tongji Gate. Wu Dingyuan looked at the situation and saw countless people trying to run out and countless people trying to rush in, like a buzzing beehive. It’s not only dangerous to approach, even getting close is risky. If the enemies could set off explosives on the treasure ship, they might have made preparations at the pier as well.

After thinking for a moment, Wu Dingyuan decided to head east with the prisoner. Three miles to the east is another city gate called Zhengyang Gate, which leads to the south side of the imperial city and is not far from Chang’an Road. No matter how powerful the other party is, they shouldn’t be able to bribe every gatekeeper.

The prisoner, perhaps frightened by the bloody battle just now, stopped struggling and obediently followed Wu Dingyuan. The two of them walked east along the moat and soon arrived at the Zhengyang Gate.

Some time ago, there were frequent earthquakes, and part of the arch of the Zhengyang Gate collapsed. The gate was not safe, so it is currently being repaired. In front of the gray-black city gate are dense bamboo scaffolds, and under the porch are piles of mud buckets and blue bricks. The two large iron doors, their hinges just removed, lean against the side of the gate opening, revealing a large gap.

A large group of guards and craftsmen have gathered outside the city gate, whispering anxiously. Even the foreman and the city gate general were restless, constantly looking to the west. They must have heard the loud explosion, but they still didn’t know how serious the situation was.

Wu Dingyuan showed his tin plate and said that he wanted to escort the prisoner into the city. An old soldier in charge of verification reminded him, “Why don’t you take another gate? It’s not convenient here today.”

“No, this prisoner must be taken to Yamen1 immediately, no delays!” Wu Dingyuan instinctively grabbed his iron ruler, fearing that this might be a trap set by the enemy. The old soldier wanted to advise further, but Wu Dingyuan sternly said, “This person is involved in an assassination attempt on the Crown Prince. If we delay handing him over to the authorities, will you take the blame?” The old soldier trembled at the mention of such a serious matter, quickly returned the tin plate and made way for them, saying, “If you insist on going through, don’t blame us if anything happens.“

Amidst the strange looks of the guards and craftsmen, Wu Dingyuan escorted the prisoner and stepped into the dark passage of the city gate.

Before the capital was moved to Beijing, Zhengyang Gate served as the main entrance to the imperial city. It was built on a grand scale, with a wide archway that could accommodate two carriages side by side. The floor was paved with stone slabs, and the sides were decorated with green bricks. On top, fine blue bricks were used for the arch. However, at that time, the gate was being repaired, and various construction materials were piled up at the entrance, blocking out most of the light.

Wu Dingyuan walked about seven or eight steps inside, and the surroundings became dark, like a deep tunnel. Although it was May outside, it was pleasantly cool inside the gate, and threads of shadows seeped out from the gaps between the bricks and the ground, wrapping around his legs.

Halfway through, Wu Dingyuan suddenly felt something and looked up, finally understanding why the old soldier’s reaction was so strange.

Above his head was a huge stone slab, about three zhang2 in length and one zhang in width. The stone slab was not embedded in the arch, but was suspended in the air by a few hemp ropes. Beneath the arch was a pile of scaffolding debris. Obviously, the earlier explosion had caused the scaffolding to collapse, leaving the suspended stone slab hanging. Fearing another tremor, the craftsmen had fled outside the gate to avoid being crushed by the falling stone.

This massive gray-blue stone was taken from Mufu Mountain, with a thick and blunt edge. Such a colossal body, slowly swinging like a pendulum in the darkness, posed a constant threat of imminent death, truly sending shivers down one’s spine. For some reason, instead of quickly moving away, Wu Dingyuan revealed a bitter smile full of profound meaning.

In this dark and gloomy city gate passage, both the way they came from and the way they were going were obscured, yet their lives were hanging by a thread. This ominous omen, tinged with a certain irony, captivated Wu Dingyuan for a moment. It is said that when faced with the inevitable threat of death, people do not avert their gaze, but continue to stare. The thought of being crushed into a pile of minced meat at any moment actually gave him the shivers that could be described as neither fear nor excitement. For some unknown reason, Wu Dingyuan did not hastily dodge away. Instead, he showed a hint of a wry smile.

The prisoner next to him had been blindfolded the whole time, completely unaware of the danger they were in, and stood obediently in place. After an unknown amount of time, he finally made an uncomfortable noise, pulling Wu Dingyuan back from his thoughts of death. Wu Dingyuan took one last look at the stone slab above his head, shook his head, and then moved forward with the prisoner.

The two quickly passed through the gate and were greeted by a bright light indicating their entry into Nanjing City. On the north side of Zhengyang Gate was a wide east-west street called Chongli Street, which intersected with Chang’an Street at its western end.

Chongli Street was not peaceful at the moment because it housed many government offices. The aftermath of the ship explosion had caused chaos here. Waves of infantry and cavalry rushed out of the garrison and rushed toward Dongshui Pass, causing clouds of dust to rise from the street due to the countless horse hooves and boots. Many clerks and scribes poked their heads out of the office gates and stood in the swirling dust, confused.

Wu Dingyuan looked at the rescue teams and suddenly realized that he had made a mistake. After such a big incident, it was impossible for Wu Ping, as the chief constable, to still be on Chang’an Street. He must have rushed to the scene at Dongshui Pass as soon as possible.

However, approaching the Dongshui Pass pier was out of the question now. Wu Dingyuan thought for a moment. At first, he thought of simply taking the prisoner to the Ying Tian Prefecture, but he quickly dismissed the idea as impractical. Not to mention, the prefecture office was far to the west of the city, and there were too many variables along the way; even if they made it there, there would be no one to receive them. The high-ranking officials in Ying Tianfu had all gone to Dongshui Pass to curry favor with the Crown Prince, and their fate was currently unknown.

As for other government departments, they faced the same problem.

The security forces in Nanjing City were quite complex. The Five Garrison Command was under the Ministry of War, the Eighteen Imperial Guards were under the Five Army Command, the Ying Tian Prefecture controlled the shifts, the Garrison Gates held the keys to the city gates, and there was even a newly arrived Imperial Guards stationed in the capital.

Each of these defense forces had its own superior and usually did not cooperate with each other. With the explosion at Dongshui Pass pier, the high-ranking officials were in disarray, and many government offices were leaderless. The entire Nanjing city was completely paralyzed.

He now had a court-wanted criminal in his hands, but there was no place to hand him over.

Wu Dingyuan looked around and suddenly noticed a yamen with a red gate and white walls on the north side of Chongli Street, between the Astronomical Bureau and the Office of Runners. The yamen had no plaque, and the pillars on both sides were painted black, giving it a distinct and imposing aura unlike ordinary yamens. An idea came to his mind.

This was the Garrison Command of Nanjing’s Embroidered Uniform Guard3, which was not under the control of any yamen in Nanjing. It reported directly to the Commander of the Embroidered Uniform Guard in the capital, with no plaque or official sign. His position in Nanjing’s official circles was superior.

Wu Dingyuan clicked his tongue, feeling a little sorry for himself, but he decided to leave this delicate matter to the Embroidered Uniform Guard. They might not reward him much, but at least he could get rid of this big trouble. He was afraid of trouble and just wanted to finish this unexpected task quickly and go home to have his sister brew a pot of wine and enjoy a peaceful time.

Wu Dingyuan dragged the prisoner to the Garrison Command and knocked on the door, only to find that the door was slightly ajar and could be easily pushed open. As he took a few steps inside, he suddenly heard an angry shout coming from the courtyard:

“When the country is in trouble, how dare you all turn a blind eye?”

The voice was as powerful as a resounding bell, making even the roof tiles rattle. Wu Dingyuan led the prisoner around the screen wall and saw a large square courtyard. A young officer in a light green robe stood in front of the courtyard gate, his arms outstretched, blocking a row of embroidered-uniformed guards on the opposite side.

This young official appeared to be around twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, not particularly tall, but with a straight nose, raised eyebrows, and a particularly square chin. When he pursed his lips, his entire face seemed to be as unyielding as a stone.

An old Chiliarch with a white beard patted his blade and scolded, “We were on our way to the pier to rescue the lords. How could you turn a blind eye?” The young officer stepped forward with an intense gaze. “If Dongshui Pass is in trouble, the defense yamen will handle it. Your duty as the Embroidered Uniform Guard is not to rescue, but to quickly search for the traitors!”

A Deputy Chiliarch standing next to him couldn’t help but sneer, “You, a mere runner, are speaking as if you were a high-ranking official! Instead of staying next door, you come here to give orders!” He made a move as if to push him away.

The young official stood up with a flushed face and shouted, “If you all rush to the pier like a swarm, the thieves will take advantage of the chaos and escape. If we miss this opportunity, the Crown Prince and the capital will be in danger! You… don’t you understand?”

The Deputy Chiliarch hesitated when he saw his stubbornness. Although the runner was only an eighth rank official, he couldn’t use force against a civilian official as a military officer. Both sides were in a stalemate for a while.

Wu Dingyuan roughly understood what was going on. This official was supposed to be a runner from the Nanjing Office of Runners. After the ship exploded, he ran over to the Embroidered Uniform Guard next door and demanded that they not go to the pier for rescue, but instead start an investigation immediately.

From the Embroidered Uniform Guard’s point of view, this was indeed puzzling. The daily work of the Office of Runners was to issue decrees and conduct diplomatic missions, so why would they come here and give orders? However, the leader of the Embroidered Uniform Guard was currently trapped at the pier, while the rest of the Chiliarchs and Deputy Chiliarchs were blocked at the gate by this insignificant runner.

To be honest, Wu Dingyuan agreed with this little runner’s judgment. Instead of causing chaos at the pier, the Embroidered Uniform Guard should take the time to investigate the clues. But… what does this have to do with you?

The Office of Runners in Nanjing was just an idle office, destined to have no chance of promotion. It was nothing more than showing up for work and passing the time. With so many high-ranking officials in Nanjing, why would a small role be concerned with national affairs? That little runner was probably driven mad by eating stale rice.

Wu Dingyuan didn’t feel like listening to their argument, so he coughed loudly. The little runner and the guards turned their heads at the same time, their eyes filled with surprise. Wu Dingyuan pushed the prisoner forward and said, “I am an official from Ying Tian Prefecture, responsible for guarding Fan Bone Terrace. I have captured a suspect who jumped off the prince’s treasure ship and have come here to hand him over to your esteemed guard.”

Upon hearing this, the crowd immediately stirred. Wu Dingyuan removed the hood from the prisoner’s head and kicked him in the knee, forcing him to kneel on the ground. The embroidered-uniformed guards widened their eyes as they saw a dusty and exhausted face with wet, disheveled hair and pieces of rope hanging from it.

Wu Dingyuan briefly explained his encounter at Fan Bone Terrace, but to avoid trouble, he did not mention the two assassins. The guards, who were experienced in solving cases, immediately understood that this person’s actions were indeed suspicious. Just as the old Chiliarch was about to approach and ask more questions, the little runner rushed forward, frowned, observed for a moment, and then reached out to pull a betel nut from the prisoner’s mouth.

The prisoner’s pent-up rage suddenly erupted, “You damned murderers! Blind fools! I am the Crown Prince of the Great Ming! Release me immediately or your three generations will be executed! No, nine generations! Ten generations!”

The little runner’s eyes flickered as he hurriedly helped him up from the ground, untied the ropes binding his hands, and then knelt down, addressing him as “Your Highness.”

This sudden turn of events left the surrounding guards a bit stunned. The old Chiliarch asked suspiciously, “As a mere runner, how do you know what the Crown Prince looks like?” The young official lifted his chin and replied, “I passed the imperial examination in the nineteenth year of the Yongle era, and I personally saw Emperor Taizong during the palace examination. The person in front of us is indeed an exact match!”

They were still somewhat skeptical, so Zhu Zhanji took off a blue lotus-shaped jade pendant from around his neck and waved it angrily in the air, saying, “Look at this!”

This jade pendant was given to him by the Yongle Emperor when he accompanied his grandfather on a military expedition. It was engraved with the words “Only the Best and the One,” and he never took it off. Everyone in the world knew that it belonged to the Crown Prince. When the Embroidered Uniform Guards saw this token, they immediately had no doubts and hurriedly knelt down. Only Wu Dingyuan stood frozen in shock.

The suspect of this explosion turned out to be the Crown Prince of Ming?

This… this is too illogical. The treasure ship was already near the Dongshui Pass, and the prince should have disembarked with the help of the Eastern Palace staff. How could he run to the stern by himself?

It was only when his arms were suddenly grabbed by someone that Wu Dingyuan came out of his daze. It turned out to be several flagbearers that rushed up and forcefully pinned down Wu Dingyuan, the rebel holding the prince, rendering him immobile. He smiled self-deprecatingly and did not resist, slowly lowering his head.

The old Chiliarch knew that leaving this person at the scene would only embarrass the prince, so he ordered, “Throw this person into the inner prison for now, and we’ll interrogate him later!” As he watched Wu Dingyuan disappear, the old Chiliarch personally brought out a round chair from the courtyard and kindly invited the prince to rest for a while.

Zhu Zhanji sat down heavily, staring blankly at the wall, his chest rising and falling irregularly. His mind was still in a daze, everything had happened too suddenly – first a devastating explosion, then nearly drowning in the icy river, then being blindfolded, kicked, and punched, with the stench of blood filling his nostrils. If this was a nightmare, it should be over by now.

The young official picked up the jade pendant from the ground, inspected it, and found no damage, then respectfully handed it back to Zhu Zhanji. Zhu Zhanji raised his eyes and muttered, “What exactly… happened?”

Translator’s Notes:

1 Yamen was a governmental institution in ancient China, primarily responsible for the management and execution of local administrative and judicial affairs. )

2 One zhang is approximately 3.33 meters.)

3 Embroidered Uniform Guard was an intelligence-gathering organization in the Ming Dynasty that engaged in activities such as surveillance, arrest, and interrogation. Its leader was typically a trusted military general of the emperor, directly accountable to the emperor. They had the authority to arrest and interrogate anyone, including members of the imperial family.)