Jinshi could hear the ear-piercing sounds of a flute.
He felt his thread of tension loosen slightly. They had agreed to sound the flute when the target is found. If there is an abnormality, it would be in a series of short tones, and if there are no issues, a long unbroken tone.
Seeing how it had ended with a single long tone, there had been no issues whatsoever. Or at least, that must be how it was handled.
Jinshi came out of a long corridor. He recalled the rough sketch he had looked at beforehand – there was the banquet hall and the office ahead, then the living quarters.
Basen was behind Jinshi. Gaoshun should originally be in this position, but that man had his own job. Basen always had the habit of raising his right shoulder when he took over his father’s job as a substitute.
“Don’t be too on guard.”
Jinshi said, in a voice only Basen can hear.
There were another two military officers behind Basen.
“Then, please allow me to go ahead.”
Jinshi understood what Basen wanted to say. Position-wise, he must want to fortify Jinshi’s guard front and back.
He snickered, going to push open the heavy door, but then, all of a sudden, he had an unpleasant premonition.
He told everyone to keep away from the front of the door.
He then opened the door, and in that instant, hid his body behind a wall.
That moment, a bullet passed through Jinshi’s side with an ear-popping sound.
Basen’s face contorted.
“It is within range as hypothesised.”
You would have to prepare hand cannon at least if you were to prepare gunpowder. The weather outside was bad, and besides, there were limited places where you can use hand cannons that took time to load. It can only be used in the fortress in a place that was spacious enough for it.
And it was as Jinshi had expected. There were men in the hall who were reloading bullets in a fluster.
With Jinshi’s yell, the men bearing the hand cannons panicked and drew their swords, but it was already too late. Hand cannons are originally weapons that are used in alternations. If the first shot failed, there was no time to reload bullets.
There were about five people in the hall, all of them were wearing first-class clothes. He could recognise some of the faces among them. The large room with cold stone flooring was teeming with the characteristic smell of gunpowder.
“Where did Shishou go?”
All the people here must be members of the Shi Clan. Their subordinates who remained from the lost battle were not around, he could see that their engagement with hand cannons was a last resort.
“You have no plans of speaking?”
“W-We don’t know! We didn’t have that intention.”
One of the men spoke. As his spit flew, he looked at Jinshi with desperation, but since he seemed as though he was going to spring on him, he was immediately pinned down by Basen.
“We were just lied to.”
He continued to speak as his face was pressed down on the floor.
His face was forced further down by the irritated Basen.
“You bastards embezzled the money of this country. The proof that you’re using this fortress is what is left! And besides, with you setting up weapons like that, what do you think we can get from just that?”
Basen held the edge of the sword against the man’s neck. The man, who had spit on the side of his lips, stiffened his face.
“W-we don’t know! We were told that this was for the country. We were just, for the country….”
The sword slashed the floor. Sparks flew as blade and stone collided. The man’s eyes rolled back; he could say nothing more. A wet spot spread out across the floor.
The other men were silent as if they didn’t want to expose such an unsightly appearance. Only fear surfaced in their eyes.
Don’t look at me with such eyes – Jinshi couldn’t tell them.
No matter how much compassion they sought from him, he was handing down a decision he couldn’t undermine.
What Jinshi could do at most, was only to react to those gazes as the target of their emotions.
“How kindly. Since they’re heading up the gallows anyways, you should just resolutely bring them down.”
A voice closed in with the sound of shuffling footsteps.
Basen and the retainers put themselves on guard.
Shishou, the fat, slow-moving man, had turned up. There was a hand cannon in his hands.
Jinshi looked at the man who was known as the Old Raccoon.
“What a very easy-going manner of speaking, Shishou.”
Jinshi took out a document from his breast pocket. The gist of what was written in the note that bore the emperor’s seal was the capture of the Shi Clan.
Shishou moved slowly as he set up the hand cannon.
“Has he gone senile?”
One of the retainers whispered.
Shishou wasn’t carrying flint. It seems he had deduced that there was no way he could use it.
Jinshi quickly tugged Basen and the other retainer’s hands. They were then crawling on the floor.
There was the sound of firing. The bullet rebounded off the wall and, unluckily, hit the leg of a clan member who had fallen over. His scream reverberated in the hall.
“How miserable. Haven’t you tried shooting at a beast before as well?”
Shishou said to the one who was screaming.
“Even though you were so tempted to try it on people as soon as possible. How disappointing.”
What an emotionless voice, Jinshi thought. Was it his imagination that he sounded like he was chanting his lines in monotone?
“Hm, is that all? If only I have a bit more time mm.”
Shishou said, and threw away the hand cannon he had brought over. Then he looked at Jinshi, and for an instant, his face eased.
What does he want to say?
He couldn’t press him.
Even if he did, this man wouldn’t speak.
Basen laid down the order from the ground.
Three swords ran through the plump Shishou’s torso in quick succession.
Shishou didn’t scream. He only looked up. Red foam leaked from his mouth, his eyes became bloodshot. However, he didn’t fall and only spread out his large hands as he faced up.
Laughter, or was it a curse?
There was nothing in the ceiling, or was he looking further up?
Jinshi didn’t know.
Without leaving behind an answer, Shishou let out his dying breath.
If you say it was too quick, it was too quick. His final moments were just like that.
There were lightly-dressed women and gaudy men in the corridor past the hall.
The women ran their mouths saying who was inside and begged for their lives. The men insisted that the women were members of the Shi Clan and they were not.
He knew the feeling of wanting to help them, but Jinshi turned his face away from the unsightly appearance of those who sold themselves to other people and left their arrest to his retainers.
He was told the former high-ranked consort Rouran and her mother Shenmei was in the innermost room.
“Isn’t there no one here?”
Basen entered the room before Jinshi did.
There was a single large bed and several couches lined up inside. Clothes tossed about, the wafting scent of incense, the overturned wine, and pipes. What kind of act was done here, he didn’t need to see it to guess.
Jinshi, who was dizzy from the incense, found himself throwing away the incense burner.
Things that looked like dried herbs spilled out of the incense burner. If the pharmacist girl was here, she would be telling him what kind of use they had.
“Where did they go?”
There was no one in the connecting room or balcony either.
“Could they have jumped off outside?”
As everyone was going to the balcony, Jinshi turned his head.
The room he went into and the room next door, structure-wise, should be the same size, but he strangely felt it was out of sorts.
He sensed that the inner room was smaller. Jinshi walked through both rooms. The inner room only had one entrance, the opposite side facing the balcony was a wall.
He could feel the space in proportion to the small number of furniture, but the distance from the wall to the balcony was somewhat, short.
Jinshi returned to the room he first entered and looked at the dresser that was placed against the wall. The width of the dresser was just the right size to the size difference to the room next door.
Jinshi opened the dresser. He reached through the rows of gaudy outfits. The dresser looked solid but the board at the back was strangely thin. He tried pressing it lightly, and noticed the backboard had shifted up.
Jinshi stepped into the dresser, crawling in on all fours and emerged his face inside. There was a space spread out where there should originally be a wall.
There was a hidden passageway.
And then, he could see a faint light.
He heard a playful voice.
There was a muzzle pointed right at his direction. Rouran was deeper inside the hidden passageway. The shape of the hand cannon was complex compared to the ones Jinshi knew. It resembled the hand cannon Shishou had fired some time ago, but this was a lot smaller than that – it could even be carried into a cramped space. Not just gunpowder, they even went as far as to produce new models. That was surprising.
“For convenience sake, I shall call you Jinshi-sama.”
Rouran said as she faced the muzzle at Jinshi.
The woman was covered in soot and her hair was singed. The candle flame in her hand wavered every time she spoke.
“Shall I have you follow me?”
“What if I refuse?”
“That’s why I’m threatening you.”
Jinshi felt it was even more refreshing with her dignified manner of speaking.
Jinshi looked at the new hand cannon model. He affirmed the parts were different structural-wise to the traditional models, so he raised both his hands.
Saying only just that, he decided to follow Rouran.
The hidden passageway wasn’t drawn in the sketch Jinshi had looked at. There wouldn’t be a meaning for hidden if it was drawn in the sketch. Or perhaps, it could have been something Shishou had newly constructed.
The passageway was narrow so Rouran was walking backwards with the muzzle pointed at Jinshi. It would be easier if Jinshi walked in front, but were he to pass over, she would have to be cautious about him taking the hand cannon off her.
“You truly are coming along obediently.”
“It was you who told me to come along though.”
Jinshi replied curtly, and Rouran giggled. Mysteriously, he thought that her expressions were more human compared to her time in the inner palace.
“Wouldn’t it be easy for you to steal this from me?”
Not saying for certain, I can probably render her powerless, Jinshi thought.
He didn’t say that, and only just replied her with silence.
The candle flame started to go out as if the air in the narrow passageway was thin. And just as it was going to vanish, they reached the hidden room.
As if there was surely an air vent inside, the candle flame that he thought had disappeared flickered back to life.
Illuminated by the flickering flame, were two women aside from Rouran. One was a girl who greatly resembled Rouran. There was a black bruise on her face. Would this be Shishou’s other daughter, Shisui? Jinshi inferred.
Then he looked at the other middle-aged woman. Gaudy outfit and gaudy make-up, Jinshi thought. Her appearance, that was unbecoming of her age, reminded him of Rouran’s appearance when she was in the inner palace.
There were only two chairs and one table in the room.
“Rouran, this man is…”
“Yes, Mother. I had him come along to grant your wish.”
Rouran’s mother, Shenmei, raised the corner of her eyes forcefully and glared at Jinshi.
“You always hated his appearance, haven’t you? Was it because he looked like someone, or were you always jealous that he is more beautiful than you?”
Shenmei shouted at her daughter. However, Rouran wasn’t fazed. Instead, Shisui trembled.
“That joke went too far. Well then, shall we have one entertainment before Mother achieves her long-cherished ambition?”
Rouran set the candle on the table and slipped the hand cannon into the sash of her clothes.
And then, she began to tell the story in a clear voice.
T/N: RIP Shishou.