Edited by: Suika<3
“Prince1 of Jianxing, Shen Wei’s regiment suffered a crushing defeat at the Chashi River in the Northeast. The Prefecture of Dunzhou’s frontline fell into the enemy’s hands, and thirty thousand soldiers were buried alive in the Chashi sinkhole. You were among them, but why were you the only one to escape unscathed?”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes were glazed and unfocused. He did not answer.
The interrogator pounded on the table and leaned forward to question him with a malicious glare. “Because Shen Wei was in covert communication with the Twelve Tribes of Biansha2 and had the intention to present the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo over to our external foes. You people want to collude with the enemies to breach the defenses of Qudu from within and without. That’s why the Biansha Cavalry did not kill you. Am I right?”
Shen Zechuan moved his dry, chapped lips. He struggled with some effort to listen to the interrogator’s question, his Adam’s apple throbbed as he answered haltingly. “No… no.”
The interrogator snapped in a harsh voice, “Shen Wei immolated himself for fear of punishment. The Imperial Bodyguards3 have already presented correspondence documents of their secret liaisons to the emperor. And yet, lad, you still dare to deny it. How truly pigheaded of you!”
Shen Zechuan felt as if he was in a daze. He had no idea how long it had been since he had gotten some shuteye. It was as if he was being suspended by a single thread high up in the air, and if he so much let go from a moment of negligence, he would fall and smash himself into smithereens.
The interrogator spread open the confession statement and took a few glances at it, “You said last night that you were able to emerge unscathed from the Chashi Sinkhole alive because your elder brother saved you. Is that right? “
The scene that day vaguely materialized before Shen Zechuan’s eyes. They had been trapped so deep in the sinkhole that no matter what they did, they were unable to climb out, even with countless soldiers all crammed within. The pile of corpses under their feet grew thicker and thicker, but it was still not enough for them to reach the edge of the opening. The Biansha Cavalry surrounded the sinkhole, and the sound of flying arrows slicing through the frigid wind pierced through the night. Blood overflowed his calf as anguished wails and the gasps of those on their deathbed clung to his ears.
Shen Zechuan began to hyperventilate and tremble in his seat. He lost control of himself and clutched his hair, unable to stop a strangled sob from escaping his throat.
“You are lying.”
The interrogator raised the confession statement and flicked it at Shen Zechuan.
“Your elder brother is Shen Zhouji, the eldest lawful son4 of the Prince of Jianxing. He abandoned thirty thousand soldiers before the Chashi Sinkhole and fled on the sly with his own private soldiers, but the Biansha Cavalry lassoed him with a rope and dragged him along the road by the Chashi River to his death. He was already dead by the time the Twelve Tribes of Biansha slaughtered those soldiers. There was no way he could save you. “
Shen Zechuan’s mind was in a whirl. The interrogator’s voice sounded so far away, and all he could hear was the neverending wails.
Where is the way out? Where are the reinforcements? The dead pushed against the dead, those putrid, decaying flesh was pressing down on his hands. Mu-ge was shielding him above his head while he laid sprawled over the bloodied carcasses. He listened to Mu-ge’s rapid breathing, yet the cries that emerged from his throat were those of despair.
“Your bro is superhuman.” Ji Mu struggled to smile, but tears were already streaming down his face. He continued in a sobbing voice, “I’m an impregnable fortress! I’m hanging in there, it’ll be fine. We hang in there, and the reinforcements will arrive soon. When that time comes, I’ll return home with you to join Father and Mother. I still have to look for your sister-in-law…”
The interrogator banged the table and bellowed, “Come clean with it!”
Shen Zechuan began to struggle. He looked as if he wanted to break free from some invisible shackles, but the Imperial Bodyguards swarmed over and pinned him down against the table.
“You are in our imperial prison.5 I have not employed extreme torture on you on account of your young age. But since you don’t know what’s good for you, don’t blame us for being ruthless. Men, apply the torture!”
Shen Zechuan’s arms were tied with ropes before he was dragged to the open space in the room. Someone set a bench down with a “clatter” and bound his legs to it. A burly man beside him lifted his flogging rod, weighed it in his hands, and swung it down.
“I’ll ask you one more time.” The interrogator brushed aside the foam on the tea with the teacup’s lid. It was only after he took a few languid sips that he asked, “Did Shen Wei collude with the enemy to commit treason?”
Shen Zechuan refused to relent. He shouted intermittently between the flogging. “No, no!”
The interrogator set aside the teacup, “The Shen Clan would not be here today if you had used this fortitude on the battlefield. Continue to flog him!”
Shen Zechuan was gradually crumbling. He hung his head and said in a hoarse voice, “Shen Wei never colluded with the enemies…”
“We suffered a crushing defeat at the battle at the Chashi River all because Shen Wei recklessly fought the enemy head-on. After the defeat at the Chashi River, there was still a chance to redeem the situation at the Dunzhou frontline. Yet he withdrew his troops for no reason despite the great disparity of power between our troops and theirs. Because of this, the three cities of the Prefecture of Duanzhou fell into the enemy’s hands. Ten of thousands of commoners in those cities lost their lives to the Biansha machetes.” At this point, the interrogator let out a long sigh and continued hatefully. “It was a bloodbath in the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. Shen Wei led his troops and withdrew south. The battle in the Prefecture of Dengzhou was the fishiest of all! The Qidong Chijun Commandery Garrison had already crossed Tianfei Watchtower to provide assistance, but he forsook the strategy of a pincer attack and instead mobilized thousands of cavalry to escort his own family to the City of Dancheng. This resulted in the entire line of defense in the Prefecture of Dengzhou to collapse— Wasn’t this all done intentionally? If it weren’t for the Libei Armored Cavalry6 galloping for three straight nights across the River of Ice7, the Biansha Cavalry would have already arrived at the gates of Qudu!”
Shen Zechuan felt dizzy and he was drenched in cold sweat. The interrogator flung the confession at him in contempt, and it smashed into the back of his head.
“You’d rather be a dog than a man of Zhongbo. And this time, Shen Wei is a sinner of Dazhou.8 You still want to deny it? You have no choice but to plead guilty!”
Shen Zechuan was in so much pain that half of his body was numbed. He sprawled on the bench, looking at that confession before his eyes. The ink writings on it were clear. Every character was like a humiliating lash of the whip on his face as it announced to everyone in the world:
Shen Wei betrayed his country. He’s not even worthy to be a dog.
He had left the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo to overrun with bodies. No one had even gone to collect those corpses buried in the Chashi Sinkhole yet, because everyone in the cities of Dunzhou had been massacred.
Shen Wei burned himself to his death, but this bloodstained debt had to be borne by someone alive. Shen Wei had a harem of wives and concubines along with numerous sons. But they all perished when the Biansha Cavalry invaded the Prefecture of Dunzhou. It was only because Shen Zechuan was of lowly birth and had been raised on the outside that he could escape unscathed.
Shen Zechuan was dragged back to his cell, and his heels left behind trails of blood in its path. He faced the wall and gazed at that small, narrow window. The frigid wind howled, and the snow came pelting down. The pitch-black night stretched on without end.
It was primal chaos in his head. Amidst the sound of the winds, his mind wandered back to the sinkhole.
Ji Mu was dying. His breathing had grown labored. Blood dripped down his armor onto the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck and quickly turned icy. The wails around him had vanished, leaving behind only the unendurable groans of pain and the bellows of the frigid, biting wind.
Shen Zechuan was face-to-face with a dead man who was no longer recognizable. His legs were pinned under heavy human bodies while a shield was pressing painfully against his abdomen. All he could smell as he breathed was the thick stench of blood. He gritted his teeth as the tears trickled down his face, but he had to stop himself from crying out loud. Despairing, he stared down at this face that was trampled beyond recognition, but he could not make out if this was a soldier he had seen before.
“Bro.” Shen Zechuan sobbed softly. “I, I’m scared…”
Ji Mu’s throat bobbed. He gently patted Shen Zechuan’s head, “It’s alright… we’ll be fine.”
Shen Zechuan heard the singing of the soldiers at death’s door. The gale tore apart the sound of the song and sent tattered pieces of it fluttering away into this frigid night.
“Battle in the city south… Death at the north of the city wall… Left out in the open, unburied… Free for all the crows to feed.”9
“Bro.” Shen Zechuan whispered beneath him. “I’ll carry you on my back… bro.”
Ji Mu’s body was like a distorted shield. He smiled and said in a hoarse voice, “I can walk on my own.”
“Were you struck by an arrow?”
“No.” Ji Mu’s tears had dried up. He said breezily, “… Those Biansha baldies can’t shoot for nuts.”
Shen Zechuan’s fingers were soaking in flesh and blood. With some difficulty, he wiped his face, “Shiniang made dumplings. Once we return home, we’ll eat many bowls of it.”
Ji Mu sighed, “… Bro is a slow-eater. Don’t… snatch.”
Shen Zechuan gave a firm nod beneath him.
The snow gradually blanketed Ji Mu’s body. He seemed tired and sleepy; his voice was so, so small, and he did not even have the energy to move his fingers. The song was sung very slowly, and when it reached the line “the valiant cavalry perished in battle”, Ji Mu closed his eyes.
Shen Zechuan said, “I… I’ll also give bro my money, to marry sister-in-law…”
Ji Mu remained silent. It was as if he was tired of listening to his words and could not help but fall asleep.
Shen Zechuan began to tremble all over. He forgot when the Biansha Cavalry left and how he climbed his way out. When he propped himself up and lifted himself out, there was only a dead silence amidst the heavy snow. The stacked corpses cushioned under his knees all looked like discarded burlap sacks.
Shen Zechuan looked back and began to choke with sobs.
Ji Mu’s back had been pierced with such a dense cluster of arrows that his entire person had turned into a twisted hedgehog. So much of his blood had trickled down onto Shen Zechuan’s back, but Shen Zechuan had never realized it.
The sound of horse hooves came swiftly in pursuit like the looming thunder. Shen Zechuan suddenly gave a start as he jolted awake.
He felt like retching, but then he realized that both of his wrists had been firmly bound, and there was a burlap sack filled with soil on his body.
The sack became heavier and heavier as it weighed down on his chest. He could not even utter a sound. This was the technique of inflicting “death by crushing with an earth-filled sack” habitually used in prisons on prisoners whom they did not want to survive the murder attempt or leave a trace of an injury behind. If Shen Zechuan had not woken up earlier, he would have been but a mere corpse gone cold by daybreak.
Someone wants to kill him!
- 王 Princes, or lords, during the Ming dynasty were titled and salaried members of the imperial bureaucracy with nominal lordship over various fiefs throughout China
- The enemy’s tribes at the desert at the frontier/borders.
锦衣卫 Jin Yi Wei, or literally Embroidered Brocade(-robed) Guards, were elite bodyguards and secret police that directly served the Ming Emperors. They were authorized to overrule judicial proceedings in prosecutions, with full autonomy granted in arresting, interrogating and punishing anyone, including nobles and the Emperor’s relatives.
- Children in those days were classified according to whether they were a child born to the principal wife or concubines. A lawful son was born by the legal wife (this was the wife who has been officially married into the family, also known as the principal wife). Being the eldest of the legal wife made him the legitimate heir. They also had higher social status and often received better treatment compared to the other common sons born by concubines. It’s recommended to keep this in mind, as this will be a recurring theme in the novel.
- 诏狱 Imperial prison, a top-level prison in ancient China where most of the criminals were senior or top-ranking officials involved in cases that required the Emperor to issue an imperial edict to convict them.
- Armored cavalry (铁骑) was a kind of cavalry that bore heavy arms while fighting on armored horses. They were one of the powerful forces in ancient wars. Meanwhile, the general cavalry ( 骑兵) or horsemen were simply soldiers who fought on horseback.
- 冰河 River of Ice, i.e. also glacier.
- 大周 Dazhou or Great Zhou. The Dazhou here refers to the name of the empire in this novel.
- 《铙歌十八曲·战城南》The Eighteen Cymbal Songs – Battle in the City South, is a folk song written for those who perished in the battlefield. It described the cruelty of war and expressed the poet’s opposition to it, stating that the common folks were only the sacrifice of war.