This writing brush holder was exquisite. He Shijing had illegally pocketed it because its special fragrance and delicate sculpted reliefs had caught his fancy; on top of that, his son’s wedding had been nearing, and if he replaced one of the articles of tribute with a counterfeit, he would be in possession of something he could secretly boast about for a long time, though it was not a reward from the emperor that he rightfully deserved. After swapping the writing brush holder, he had kept it in a storeroom for a very long time, not daring use it for fear of someone finding out about it. When the imperial wedding anniversary celebration had ended and no inquiry had been ordered into tribute-related affairs, he had taken it out and placed it in his son’s study.
It had never occurred to him that what he had given his son was something that would hasten his son’s death.
The looks on Ling Zhang’s and Yuwen Tong’s faces became even uglier after they heard Xie Shi’s account of events.
In other words, if He Shijing had not taken possession of the writing brush holder, it would have been delivered into the palace and placed in either one of the palace chambers or one of the marquesses’ houses as a reward. Either way, there would have been severe consequences.
On top of that, Ling Zhang recalled one particular thing. “At the palace banquet last year, several courtiers sent you writing brush holders as gifts. Because of the specialness and rarity of the material that they were made of, you paid them a compliment. Do you still remember that?”
Yuwen Tong, who had an eidetic memory, naturally remembered it, but what with this, his face turned even sulkier.
“Afterward, rumor started circulating in the whole court about your love of collecting writing brush holders. There was even a craze. A lot of people sent you writing brush holders in those days, all of which are now covered in dust in storerooms,” added Ling Zhang.
In fact Yuwen Tong never had a hobby of collecting writing brush holders. At that time Ling Zhang had taken a liking to carving, and Jiahe Chamber of Commerce had gifted him with a couple of sculptures made with exceptionally fine workmanship, and Ling Zhang, fascinated by them, had studied them for quite a while, spending less time with Yuwen Tong. Though Yuwen Tong had not been happy about it, he had still delightedly accepted the presents from the courtiers at the palace banquet and then put them on Ling Zhang’s desk immediately after his return.
The couple of people who had gifted Yuwen Tong with writing brush holders were all high-ranking courtiers and every one of them had a contact or two in the palace. They had come to know that Ling Zhang had taken to carving lately, so all their gifts had borne exquisite sculpted reliefs. For fear that Yuwen Tong might find out about their intentions, they had not dared send anything fancy, which was why they had presented him with writing brush holders, currying favor with Ling Zhang indirectly, and with Yuwen Tong directly.
Ling Zhang had liked the gifts pretty much, and Yuwen Tong, pleased, had naturally been amiable to the couple of courtiers for some time.
But because of that matter, Ling Zhang had received too many writing brush holders for his liking. Those courtiers, seeing that the method no longer worked, had stopped doing it.
As things stood, it was very likely that the rumor had spread and someone had specially carved a writing brush holder out of a piece of Soul-Devouring wood, and the carving was of uncommon delicacy. It was only too obvious whose attention that person had intended to attract.
Now what they needed to find out was whether the writing brush holder was from the Nanya governor or someone else.
Soon the men assigned to go to Nanya to look into the matter left the capital city, along with some secret bodyguards and some staff members of Jiahe Chamber of Commerce.
Someone had made an attempt on Ling Zhang and Yuwen Tong, which was something neither the Ling family nor the imperial family could tolerate.
“Does this strike you as fishy? I mean, a writing brush holder might not necessarily take our fancy. Using something as rare as Soul-Devouring wood to make a writing brush holder as a present was too ... ”
Ling Zhang felt it inappropriate to use the word “extravagant”, for after all, this thing was evil, but it was indeed something of a rarity. For those knowing what it could do, it was priceless, at least far too valuable to be carved into a writing brush holder. Even if the targets were him and Yuwen Tong, there were much better choices than sending them a writing brush holder made of that kind of wood.
“Indeed,” Yuwen Tong agreed. “It was rather reckless. Now the only thing we could do is wait for the results of the investigation in Nanya.”
Before the results of the inquiry being conducted in Nanya came out, security was tightened in the capital city as well as in the imperial palace.
Meanwhile, He Shijing was punished for illegally taking possession of an article of tribute. And then there was the matter of He You. Though he had not been in his right mind when committing the crime, it did not change the fact that he had killed and wounded a lot of people, so naturally his actions would not go unpunished. Before long, the He family broke apart.
The incident had been traumatic for citizens in the capital city, who were forcibly reminded of it every time they heard the word “bridegroom”.
For a very long time no wedding was held in the city.
Half a month later, the results of the investigation in Nanya were delivered back to the capital city.
After reading the report, Ling Zhang and Yuwen Tong did not speak for a long moment.
The whole thing was a huge misunderstanding.
It had been the Nanya governor who had sent the writing brush holder to the capital city, but it had been his brother-in-law, a merchant engaged in maritime trade, who had found the material.
The piece of wood had been purchased from a band of pirates in a statelet near the South Ocean.
It was said that the band of pirates selling the wood, for some reason, had been subjected to brutal infighting after they made a fortune somewhere. Such had been the internecine strife that hardly any of them had survived. And then another gang of pirates had double-crossed them, taken away all their treasures and sold them all except for those made of gold. When selling the piece of wood, the pirates had thought that it was no different from common wood.
The merchant, what with the special fragrance of the wood, had mistakenly believed that it was some kind of precious eaglewood and happily brought it back to the Great Wen. Rumor had it that on his way back, several of the seamen guarding the storeroom on the ship had suddenly gone crazy and fought each other. One of them had got killed during the fighting. The merchant had just thought that they had eaten something they were not supposed to eat or come into contact with something evil in the South Ocean. He had not given the incident much thought and, after his return, had sold all the goods from the South Ocean. The piece of wood, due to its inconspicuousness, had been forgotten and carelessly left in a storeroom.
In that year, the merchant’s whole family had been stirred into a tempest. All his concubines had quarreled fiercely on such a frequent basis as though they were under the influence of some kind of medication. The merchant had been away from home most of the time and thus unaffected.
Afterward, the Nanya governor had requested him to help him find proper material and a competent wood carver to make an elaborate writing brush holder for him.
The merchant had found the piece of Soul-Devouring wood when rummaging around in the storeroom and given it to a wood carver.
The wood carver had indeed made a most exquisite writing brush holder out of it, but the secret bodyguards, when making inquiries about the matter, had heard some locals say that the wood carver lost his mind after finishing the writing brush holder and killed himself when trying to carve his own body into something. The matter had been a popular topic of conversation among natives of the prefecture for a very long time. The merchant probably had perceived something, but the writing brush holder had already been sent to the capital city as tribute by the governor, so he had not dared utter a word about it.
The Nanya governor, having had his brother-in-law get him a writing brush holder at a high price, had originally planned to have it beautifully wrapped and then delivered to the imperial couple as special tribute, but unexpectedly, he had afterward got a message from the capital city which said that the emperor had lost interest in writing brush holders. Quite disappointed, he had had his writing brush holder delivered to the capital city as common tribute.
What had occurred next was the incident involving the He family.
This matter had given rise to a lot of unnecessary worries and incriminated many people. It was all because the pirates had not recognized the Soul-Devouring wood, and neither had the merchant, who had even mistaken it for eaglewood, which had eventually led to such a tragedy.
“We didn’t know what it was either when we first saw it. It was after Ji Yanlai told us it was Soul-Devouring wood that we came to know about its specialness. Come to think of it, it’s indeed very ... hard for ordinary people to find out what it could do,” said Ling Zhang, not without difficulty.
They had overthought the situations.
None of them had realized that Soul-Devouring wood was so rare that not many people could recognize it.
No wonder it had been made into a writing brush holder.
That He You guy had been unlucky, and so had been his victims. Alas. It was such a shame that a wedding had ended up like that.
Ling Zhang and Yuwen Tong had felt as though confronted by a formidable enemy, worrying that someone harboring evil intentions had attempted to wreak havoc on this country with Soul-Devouring wood ...
“Let’s just burn it.”
The writing brush holder was burnt. The former clan leader, after being informed of it, felt that it was a pity.
“It’d be very difficult to find a chunk of it as big as that.”
“There’s no necessity for such things to exist.”
The former clan leader lapsed into silence, but the regretfulness on his face was undisguised.
“You haven’t visited the phoenix egg for days. It’s been there alone all this time. Imagine how lonely it’d have felt had I not gone there to keep it company from time to time.” The old man complained to Ling Zhang.
Ling Zhang said apologetically, “I was too busy in the past few days. I’ll find some time to keep it company on a daily basis in the next few days.”
The phoenix egg had been placed in the imperial palace and heavily guarded. Except for the guards, secret bodyguards, Ling Zhang, Yuwen Tong, the former clan leader and a couple of others, nobody knew inside the chamber was a real phoenix egg.
The phoenix egg bounced up and down excitedly throughout Ling Zhang’s visit. The floor was carpeted with soft fluff, so he did not have to worry about the egg cracking its own shell.
Having undertaken to spend more time with it, Ling Zhang went to visit the egg whenever he had the time.
What with this, he did not even have much time to spend with Yuwen Tong any longer.
Yuwen Tong was very displeased with the phoenix egg because of this. Were it not for Ling Zhang’s request, he would not have sent anybody to guard the egg. In fact, he would be very happy if it was stolen.
“It’s a mythical beast. Who could possibly stop it from hatching out?”
Yuwen Tong’s argument was almost indisputable.
Ling Zhang, however, did not regard the phoenix as an unborn mythical beast. He just saw it as a naughty child. After all, mythical beasts existed only in legends. Nobody knew what kind of creature a phoenix really was. But it was undeniable that phoenixes were powerful, because if they were not, members of the Ji family, with only thin phoenix blood in them, would not have been so badass.
Therefore, Ling Zhang wanted very much to see what the baby phoenix would look like after hatching out.
The former clan leader said that the phoenix egg was quite struck on the air Ling Zhang emanated, that it could speed up the incubation, so Ling Zhang came to visit it every day.
He hoped that some day he would witness the egg hatching.
It was a pity that he could not share this kind of delight with the others. His three children did not know what was in this chamber. He and the former clan leader were the only ones coming here regularly. On occasions Ji Xiaocong visited the palace to keep the egg company as well.
Days slowly passed by. Spring came and went and came again. Two years later, in a palace of the Great Wen, an unusual sound suddenly issued from an egg.
At that time, Ling Zhang was somewhere else. Having faintly sensed something, he hastened to the palace where the phoenix egg reposed, accompanied by Yuwen Tong.
The former clan leader and Ji Xiaocong who had just disembarked from a ship and come to the capital city, along with Ji Yin, Ling Zhaowu and Ling Maomao, arrived a short while later.
The palace and nearby areas were evacuated. Not only the guards but also the secret bodyguards were commanded to leave.
“It’s hatching out?”
They still did not quite dare believe that the phoenix egg was really about to hatch.
Ling Zhang and the others stared at the egg in the middle of the palace with bated breath, hardly daring blink.
All of a sudden, with a cracking sound, a crack appeared in the eggshell.
A clear, melodious, long-drawn-out squawk was heard both in and outside the palace. Without warning, large numbers of birds flew over, circling around above the palace. In the distance, more were heading in this direction, making a sight far more spectacular than the one made by the birds attracted to the palace when Ling Zhang had played the tune at the tenth wedding anniversary celebration.
The guards were standing guard in the distance, not allowing anybody to approach. However, watching those flying birds, the guards, the eunuchs and the citizens were all astounded.
Those in the palace were still gazing with bated breath. After the clarion, drawn-out squawk, the baby phoenix in there lapsed into silence and there was no movement for a long moment.
Ling Zhang and the others were beginning to get anxious when they saw the first shard of eggshell detach, and with that what was inside the egg gradually revealed itself ...
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