The surrounding chiliarchs and deputy chiliarchs gasped in shock. This brat is so bold, the situation is still unclear, yet he dares to make such a firm statement, will he take responsibility for his words?
Zhu Zhanji glanced at the low-ranking official. He had covered his head just now, but he had heard someone shout, “The Eastern Palace is in danger,” and he had a good impression of it. “What is your name?” he asked.
The official hurriedly replied, “I am Yu Qian, a runner from the Nanjing Office of Runners.” As he spoke, his voice was loud and his eyes sparkled. The old chiliarch secretly sneered, “You’re not even thirty years old, and you’re working in an idle yamen meant for retirees, what’s there to be proud of?”
Zhu Zhanji nodded and said, “You’re good.” After that, he fell silent. Yu Qian took the opportunity to say, “Since the situation in the city is not yet settled, I ask Your Highness to stay here temporarily. It won’t be too late to move when Earl Xiangcheng and Eunuch Sanbao have an answer.”
Zhu Zhanji frowned slightly, “Where are they now?” Yu Qian replied, “They are both waiting for Your Highness at Dongshui Pass, but the current situation… um, is still unclear. Your Highness is precious, blessed by the heavens, it would be appropriate to send someone to inquire first and wait for them to come and assist.”
Yu Qian has a dignified appearance and speaks with a direct gaze, which is quite convincing. Zhu Zhanji decided to listen to him and stay at the Embroidered Uniform Guard to observe the situation. The old Chiliarch was not happy with Yu Qian stealing the limelight, so he hurriedly volunteered to go to the pier himself to check on the situation before hastily leaving.
After the old Chiliarch left, someone in the courtyard brought the Crown Prince a basin of well water and asked him to wash his face and hair. The Embroidered Uniform Guards were used to dealing with prisoners, and they were clumsy when it came to serving nobles. Zhu Zhanji reluctantly rubbed his face a few times and then curled up in a chair, his hands weakly resting on the armrests.
Normally, servants would take care of such things, but now all those people, including his cricket, were dead, leaving him alone. The thought of this brought endless grief and sorrow to Zhu Zhanji’s heart. Along with the grief came a wave of intense fear, like a whip lashing his nerves, constantly bringing back the horrifying images of the explosion.
Yu Qian didn’t dare to disturb the Crown Prince who was suddenly faced with such a drastic change. He needed some time to digest everything in silence. So Yu Qian went over to a deputy Chiliarch and asked him to bring the Crown Prince a cup of hot tea, preferably with some sour jujubes or pine nuts to calm his nerves. The Deputy Chiliarch widened his eyes, wondering who this little runner thought he was, barking orders at the Embroidered Uniform Guard. But then he remembered that the Crown Prince had just praised this guy by saying, “You’re good,” so he reluctantly turned around and ordered someone to prepare it.
Yu Qian then asked about the location of the prison, saying that he wanted to see the person who had kidnapped the Crown Prince. The Deputy Chiliarch wanted to refuse, but he couldn’t stand Yu Qian’s piercing gaze, so he reluctantly answered. He called a flagbearer to lead the way and keep an eye on Yu Qian to make sure he didn’t do anything unnecessary.
Following the flagbearer, Yu Qian entered the second courtyard of the backyard. Behind the hanging flower gate was a cloister with a carved pattern in the shape of the Chinese character “hui(回)”. Surrounding it were various buildings, with the Yinyin Hall to the north, followed by the Signature Room, the Record Room, the Duty Office, and the Storeroom. The prison was located at the end of the corridor to the south, right along the central axis.
This place was only used temporarily to hold prisoners, and most of the cells were empty. Although it was a bit dirty, the atmosphere of resentment was not particularly strong. The flagbearer kindly reminded Yu Qian as they approached, “If you ask questions, stay further away to avoid being tainted by the stench of this ‘bamboo pole’.”
“Oh? Do you know him?” Yu Qian asked.
Gossiping and spreading rumors seemed to be a common human trait. The flagbearer was quite familiar with the situation in Ying Tian Prefecture, and briefly explained the origin of the nickname “bamboo pole”. After listening, Yu Qian remained silent and went to the last cell, where he saw the infamous prodigal son through the wooden bars.
Wu Dingyuan was currently tied to a wooden cross, his body pressed tightly against the vertical bar, his hands spread apart and parallel to the horizontal bar. He couldn’t move at all, as this was a measure taken only for important prisoners. The stone wall behind him was particularly thick, with only a small, palm-sized opening at the top. Two iron bars on the window split the sunlight into three rays, like three long golden knives pointing at the prisoner’s back. Wu Dingyuan kept his head down, motionless, in a posture of waiting for execution.
However, due to the sudden situation, the Embroidered Uniform Guard had only tied him up without taking off his clothes or putting a gag in his mouth. After all, who was going to save him, even if he cried out to the Embroidered Uniform Guard’s prison?
Yu Qian ordered the cell door to be opened and walked over to Wu Dingyuan. He wasn’t tall, so he had to tilt his head up to see Wu Dingyuan’s face.
“I know that you saved the prince’s life, but due to the urgent situation, I had to take a temporary measure. As soon as the situation stabilizes, I will speak to the Crown Prince on your behalf,” Yu Qian said gently.
“I pulled him out of the river and made him suffer for no reason. I deserve the punishment, there is no injustice,” Wu Dingyuan replied hoarsely, still bowing his head. This callous reply made Yu Qian’s brow furrow. He took a step closer and said, “the Crown Prince went through a sudden change and lost his sanity. He didn’t intentionally set you up. Quickly tell me in detail everything that happened before and after the prince fell into the water, leaving nothing out.”
Wu Dingyuan lazily raised his head and said, “Shouldn’t the Embroidered Uniform Guard be the ones to interrogate? You little almond shouldn’t interfere in matters that don’t concern you.” He deliberately called Yu Qian “little almond” instead of “little runner.”1 A vein burst on Yu Qian’s forehead, and he couldn’t help but shout angrily, “The situation is critical now, and the capital is in turmoil. Anyone who receives a salary from His Majesty has a responsibility to face danger and help in times of crisis. What do you mean by meddling in matters that don’t concern me?”
Wu Dingyuan laughed and said, “Fine, fine. The emperor and the Crown Prince like to hear these words the most. If you take advantage of this opportunity, you’ll rise to the top in no time. You won’t be a little almond anymore.” Feeling insulted, Yu Qian grabbed his collar and shouted, “Do not think that everyone is as despicable as you! Even though I, Yu Qian, have a low position, I am not a sycophant!”
Yu Qian, from the Yu family in Qiantang2, couldn’t stand being called a sycophant. His voice was naturally loud, and combined with his turbulent emotions, it shook the dust from the ceiling, causing a few strands to fall. Wu Dingyuan scoffed, looked at him sideways, and didn’t say anything.
Yu Qian realized that he had lost his cool a bit. He let go of the man’s collar and sneered, “Don’t pretend to be clueless. A constable from Ying Tian Prefecture catches a suspect involved in the boat explosion, but instead of taking credit and handing him over to our jurisdiction, you take him straight to the Embroidered Uniform Guard. Obviously, you’re worried about your own life and want to distance yourself from this matter. You must have discovered something, but you didn’t mention it earlier, am I right or not?”
Wu Dingyuan’s mouth twitched. This “little almond” was indeed sharp, hitting the nail on the head with just one sentence.
Yu Qian glared at him angrily, “I have never seen someone as stupid as you. When the prince fell into the water and you didn’t know his identity, you went to great lengths to save him. But now that you know that he is the prince, you hesitate and resist. You are nothing but a stubborn fool!”
He was too emotionally charged and spoke in the official language before bursting out with a phrase in the Qiantang dialect. Wu Dingyuan was able to understand a little, knowing that it described someone who was ignorant and stubborn.
This kind of scolding reminded Wu Dingyuan of his own father. Every time they, father and son, solved a big case together, Wu Dingyuan would firmly refuse to show up and take credit, only taking money to drink and go to brothels. When his old man, Wu Buping, gave him money, he cursed him with the word “fujimi silk”. It was a northern term similar to “stubborn fool.
Thinking of his father, Wu Dingyuan suddenly realized that if such a big mess happened at Dongshui Pass, his father, as the chief constable of Ying Tian Prefecture, would definitely be involved. If this case remained unsolved, knowing the nature of the authorities, they might even push him to take the blame. After all, he was responsible for maintaining security in Nanjing.
With this in mind, Wu Dingyuan sighed, “Alright, alright, can I speak now?”
Next, Wu Dingyuan told Yu Qian about his experience in detail: how he guarded Fan Bone Terrace, how he saw the figure on the treasure ship, how he saved the Crown Prince, how he encountered the two murderous guards, and how he changed his mind and took the prisoner to the Embroidered Uniform Guard.
After listening to Wu Dingyuan’s account, Yu Qian was truly impressed by this so-called lazy constable. Although his speech was vulgar, his analysis of the incident was concise, accurate, and insightful, something even seasoned officials might not have. The “bamboo pole” turned out to be a cunning person who hid his intelligence.
Yu Qian despised Wu Dingyuan’s habit of shirking responsibility in the face of danger, but he agreed with his judgment-the mastermind behind this plot clearly intended to annihilate both the Crown Prince and the Nanjing officialdom. The ambition, meticulous planning, and ruthless methods were truly astounding.
In a stroke of luck, the Crown Prince miraculously escaped, and Wu Dingyuan spontaneously decided to take him to the Embroidered Uniform Guard. This series of unexpected events was beyond the foresight of anyone, let alone the rebels who blew up the ship.
In other words, the Crown Prince was at least safe for now.
When Wu Dingyuan saw Yu Qian’s tense expression relax, he guessed his thoughts and couldn’t help but smile, “Do you think they went through all this trouble just to create a big explosion?”
“What?” Yuan Qian asked.
“Today is not over yet,” Wu Dingyuan added casually, raising his eyelids.
Yuan Qian’s eyelids suddenly twitched.
Oh no, the old Chiliarch went to the Dongshui Pass to gather information. If he starts bragging about how they’ve sheltered the Crown Prince, it’s likely that the rebel spies will find out. As soon as he thought of this, Yu Qian lost no time in explaining it to Wu Dingyuan. He quickly left the prison and walked briskly towards the front courtyard. No matter how likely this scenario was, the Embroidered Uniform Guard had to take precautions in advance.
When Yu Qian returned to the courtyard, he found that the chair was empty and the Crown Prince was missing. The various deputy Chiliarchs nearby were also nowhere to be found. Shocked, Yu Qian grabbed a nearby guard and asked him what had happened.
The guard explained everything honestly. It turned out that shortly after Yu Qian left, the old Chiliarch at the dock sent back some news, both good and bad: The bad news was that Earl Xiangcheng was seriously injured. He was at the front of the dock and suffered the most. The good news was that Eunuch Sanbao was fortunately unharmed. In the moment before the explosion, half of his robe fell off, and several attendants hurriedly blocked in front of him, using their bodies to shield him from most of the impact.
The eunuch Sanbao, Zheng He, who was used to crises, remained calm and commanded the situation at the dock. Under his coordination, Dongshui Pass and the various government offices in Nanjing gradually restored order, and the rescue efforts were carried out in an orderly manner. Just as the Old Chiliarch ran over to report the whereabouts of the Crown Prince, Zheng He personally rushed over to meet him and take him away.
The old Chiliarch played a trick and deliberately did not inform Yu Qian, who was in the prison, that the Crown Prince had been taken away.
When Yu Qian heard that Zheng He had taken the Crown Prince away, he couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. Zheng He was an old loyal minister of the Yongle Emperor, known for his integrity and strategic skills. His successful travels to the West had earned him great prestige. As long as he was there, Nanjing would not fall into chaos.
However, it was not the time to relax. Yu Qian felt that it was important to inform the higher-ups about Wu Dingyuan’s encounter with the two guards as soon as possible. He asked for a writing brush and paper.
With his fluent calligraphy, Yu Qian quickly filled a neat page with his official handwriting. In the letter, he warned the Crown Prince and the eunuch Sanbao that there were still enemies in Nanjing, and that they should investigate thoroughly and not take it easy. At the end of the letter, he also mentioned Wu Dingyuan’s injustice, fearing that it would be forgotten amidst other important matters.
After finishing writing, Yu Qian blew on the ink, folded the letter neatly, and put it in his pocket before hastily leaving.
At that time, the scene on Chongli Street was still chaotic, with people standing everywhere, their faces filled with fear. Earlier, they had only heard a loud noise without understanding its cause, but now the news of the treasure ship’s explosion had spread from Dongshui Pass, causing panic among the residents. Some people had even started to pack up and prepare to evacuate the city with their families.
Yu Qian didn’t know where the Crown Prince and the eunuch Sanbao were at this moment, but based on the situation, he predicted that they would first return to the Nanjing Guard Yamen, the safest place in the entire capital.
The Nanjing Guard Yamen was located in the southwest corner of the Imperial City, and no matter which route the team took, they would have to pass through the Xian Gate on the west side of the Imperial City. All Yu Qian had to do was turn from Chongli Street to Datong Street, head north through the South Street in the western corner of the Imperial City, and hurry to the Xuanjin Bridge in front of the Xi’an Gate to intercept the team.
Yu Qian adjusted his hat slightly, tightened the belt around his waist, and quickly walked through the anxious crowd to enter a small alley. He had been in Nanjing for several years and was familiar with the city’s landscape and knew where shortcuts could be taken. In less than an hour, Yu Qian had already reached the middle section of South Street in the western corner of Imperial City.
As soon as he stepped onto the street, he craned his neck and looked north, only to see billowing smoke and a moving procession about a hundred paces away.
The procession was quite mixed, with guards from the Guard Yamen wearing helmets and armor, and servants from noble families wearing short shirts. Some carried bows and arrows, while others held golden gourds, a chaotic mix with no order. There was no need to ask, this must be the team escorting the Crown Prince. The explosion at Dongshui Pass had affected too many people, so they had to temporarily assemble this chaotic group of people.
The most eye-catching part of the procession was a dark red horse, whose rider wore a Goryeo crown and a crimson cloak. No matter how the horse moved, its shoulders remained steady. Next to it was a yellow silk sedan chair, carried not by bearers but by several flagbearers wearing colorful shoulder pads.
The tall figure on the horse must be the eunuch Zheng He, and the sedan chair beside him could only be carrying the current Crown Prince, Zhu Zhanji.
The procession moved quickly, and now the front of the team had already crossed the bridgehead and was about to step onto the Xuanjin Bridge. Yu Qian took a deep breath, quickened his pace, and caught up with them.
Xuanjin Bridge is a three-arched white stone bridge with slopes at both ends and a high arch in the middle, resembling a mountain. It spans the Qinhuai River in Nanjing, with Xi’an Gate on the opposite side. When Nanjing was still the capital, officials had to cross Xuanjin Bridge from Xi’an Gate to enter the imperial city, making it the busiest intersection in Nanjing.
The most distinctive feature of Xuanjin Bridge is the two stone lions guarding each end of the bridge. They were said to ward off evil spirits, but in reality they were meant to facilitate the flow of traffic. They divided the entrance of the bridge into three narrow lanes to prevent too many vehicles from crowding onto the bridge at once.
Therefore, when the procession reached the bridge, they had to adjust their formation. The guards in front stepped aside, allowing the eunuch Sanbao and the wide sedan chair to pass through the narrow lane between the two stone lions, followed by the rest of the team through the side lanes.
However, this hastily assembled team lacked coordination, and chaos ensued as they merged and separated. They collided and bumped into each other, creating a considerable gap between them and the two important figures at the front. Yuan Qian took the opportunity to catch up to the end of the procession. With his relatively short stature, he could only see the Goryeo crown and the yellow silk canopy of the sedan chair gradually rise in his field of vision as they climbed to the highest point of the Xuanjin Bridge.
Suddenly, a feeling of extreme foreboding gripped him like the fangs of a poisonous snake piercing his heart. Wu Dingyuan’s faint voice echoed in Yu Qian’s ears, “Today is not over yet.”
Yu Qian gritted his teeth, lifted his robe, and suddenly accelerated, overtaking three or four guards behind him. He shouted, “Retreat! Retreat!” The nearest soldier, seeing someone charging through, immediately grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground.
Yu Qian was immobilized, but his booming voice could not be silenced. The words, “Retreat! Retreat!” echoed from the side of the stone lions to the top of Xuanjin Bridge. The eunuch Sanbao heard the sound and just glanced back before continuing forward. However, the curtain of the yellow silk limousine beside him was suddenly lifted by a hand.
Zhu Zhanji stuck his head out and looked back in surprise. He recognized the voice; it belonged to the young official from the Embroidered Uniform Guard. How did he manage to catch up here?
Seeing the crown prince lift the curtain, the sedan chair bearers quickly stopped. This momentary pause created a distance of about half a horse’s length between the sedan chair and Zheng He. Zheng He pulled on the reins and was about to urge the sedan chair bearers to move faster when his nose suddenly caught a strange odor in the air.
This smell was something he had encountered many times during his long voyages at sea. It was always closely associated with the battlefield, and he had smelled it at the Dongshui Pass just now.
Eunuch Sanbao reacted quickly, pulling on the reins and causing his horse to recoil and kick toward the sedan chair. The horse, a strong and fierce Qinghai breed with iron-shod hooves, acted like a battering ram and crashed heavily into the bat-shaped copper corner of the canopy. The bearers were thrown in all directions, and the tremendous impact propelled the carriage, which panicked and tumbled down the sloping stone surface.
At the same time, a muffled explosion came from under the bridge. The entire stone bridge shook, and a large crack appeared in the middle. The crack quickly widened into a crevice, and the crevice turned into a deep chasm. Soon, the whole bridge collapsed and fell apart. The scattered stones turned into countless gaping mouths, carrying Eunuch Sanbao and his horse as they plunged into the Qinhuai River, creating a huge splash.
1 In Chinese, the words “almond” and “runner” have similar pronunciations. “Almond” is pronounced as “xìngrén” (杏仁) and “runner” is pronounced as “xíng rén” (行人).
2 Qiantang, today’s Hangzhou.)