It was gloomy inside the Imperial Prison. Shen Zechuan’s hands and legs felt cold. He was beginning to find it hard to breathe. He kept twisting his wrists, but the hemp rope was so tightly secured around him that his attempts were futile.
The sack of earth was squashing down on his chest, making him feel as if he had been thrown into a deep pool. His ears were humming, and his breathing, disordered. It was so hard for him to continue breathing that it felt like he was drowning.
Shen Zechuan turned his eyes to stare at the candlelight beyond the bars.
Several Imperial Bodyguards in the hall were drinking and shouting as they played the finger-guessing game. They were simply too occupied to look back at Shen Zechuan. The sack of soil nailed Shen Zechuan down onto a crudely made straw mat. Nausea, stemming from the suffocation, engulfed him like a surge of floodwater.
His vision swam. Shen Zechuan raised his head high and gritted his teeth to move his legs. Both his legs had been flogged until they were near numb; he felt nothing when he raised them. He stepped on the left corner of the bed made up of wooden planks. It was already rotting from bug infestation; in fact, he had even damaged it a little by sitting down on it on his very first day here.
His breathing grew labored.
Shen Zechuan stepped on that corner and stomped down on it with all his strength. But his legs were so weak that his kick did not even make a sound. The bed plank did not budge even the slightest. Cold sweat streamed down in torrents until the clothes on his back were soaked through.
He yearns to live.
Frantic whimpers escaped from Shen Zechuan’s throat. He bit down on his tongue until it bled and stomped down again on the bed plank.
Ji Mu’s brutalized and barely recognizable corpse was the horsewhip igniting his desire to live. Ji Mu’s voice seemed to be still reverberating in his ears.
He must live!
Shen Zechuan struck that wooden plank furiously until he finally heard a “thud”. Half of the bed board collapsed, and his body fell over on his side. The sack of soil tumbled down after him. He threw himself onto the ground as if he had just broken through the water surface and sucked in big mouthfuls of air.
The ground was icy cold. Shen Zechuan’s injured legs would not heed his commands, so he propped himself up with his elbows. Sweat trickled down the bridge of his nose. It was cold in prison, but he felt as if his whole body was burning. It was so searing that his insides were boiling. Eventually, he could not help but lower his head to dry-heave.
Shen Wei deserves to die.
There were one hundred and twenty thousand military forces in Zhongbo, divided among the Six Prefectures to establish a defensive perimeter. After the defeat at Chashi River, the Biansha Cavalry invaded Dunzhou. Just as the interrogator had said, there was still a chance to redeem the situation. Shen Wei not only had a well-trained and powerful army; he also had ample army provision. There were also the garrison troops in the Three Cities of Duanzhou available for his deployment. Yet, he unexpectedly abandoned Duanzhou and shrank back like a coward to hide out in the Dunzhou Prince’s Residence.
His retreat was the prelude to the fall of Zhongbo. The Biansha Cavalry massacred the three cities of Duanzhou, and the morale of the garrison troops took a nosedive. They fled south in a panic. Everyone thought that Shen Wei would battle to the death with the Twelve Tribes of Biansha in Dunzhou. But he took to his heels yet again when he caught wind of the news of their arrival.
The Zhongbo army retreated in defeat one battle after another, while the Biansha Cavalry was like a steel blade in its full glory perforating through the Six Prefectures’ territories. They came spurring their horses on and traveled light into battle, relying solely on their spoils of war to pursue their way within eight hundred li1 of Qudu, the Imperial Capital City of Da Zhou.
If Shen Wei had implemented the scorched earth policy during his retreat and burned down the granaries in the city so that nothing was left behind for the enemies, then there would have been no way the Biansha Cavalry would advance this far. This was because they carried no army supplies with them and had to rely solely on the grains from the cities they had invaded to replenish their provisions. Once the grains in the city had been wiped out with fire, even the toughest Biansha Cavalry would have to go hungry.
A starving soldier would have been unable to continue fighting. When the time comes, the Libei Armored Cavalry would have crossed the Glacial River to intercept the Biansha Twelve Tribes’ retreat, while the Qidong Five Commandery Garrisons would, from the Tianfei Watchtower, seal off all their possible escape routes. Those machetes would then be trapped like turtles in a jar. They would never survive the winter.
But Shen Wei did not do so.
He did not just give up resisting; he also left all the granaries in the city to the Biansha Cavalry. The Biansha Cavalry relied on the Da Zhou’s provisions to carry out a massacre of Da Zhou’s cities. Thanks to Shen Wei, their horses were well-fed enough to herd the common folks and captured soldiers to the Chashi River, where they were all slaughtered by the Biansha Cavalry in one night.
Shen Zechuan had a very close call with death.
And now, Qudu wanted to settle accounts. It was obvious that Shen Wei’s deployment orders, while he was still alive, were all sloppily made. It did indeed seem like he was colluding with the Biansha Twelve Tribes to launch an attack from within and without. Yet, Shen Wei set himself on fire due to fear of punishment and burned himself to death, destroying all the documents along with him. Even the Imperial Bodyguards, who were effective and efficient in their duties, were now at their wits’ end.
The Emperor wanted to get to the bottom of the matter, so all they could do was to keep on interrogating the only remaining person who might be in the know, Shen Zechuan. But Shen Zechuan’s biological mother was a dancer in Duanzhou. Shen Wei had too many sons, and Shen Zechuan was his eighth son born to a concubine.2 There was really no place for him in the clan going by his age or rank. So he had long been driven out by the Dunzhou Prince’s Residence to Duanzhou to be raised without parental guidance. Shen Wei himself probably did not even remember he still had this son.
Someone wants to kill him.
That was not exactly a secret. He had been sent here to be a scapegoat for his father. He was the last remaining member of the Shen Clan in Zhongbo, and the son was obliged to pay his father’s debts. So once the interrogation in the Imperial Prison was concluded, the Emperor would surely use his life to offer as a sacrifice during the memorial for the thirty thousand soldiers who were killed at the Chashi River in Zhongbo’s Dunzhou prefecture.
Even so, it should not be through an assassination like this.
Shen Zechuan wiped the corner of his lips with his thumb and turned his head to spit out the spittle of blood in his mouth.
If Shen Wei had indeed conspired with their foreign enemies with the intention to commit treason, then Shen Zechuan would have to die sooner or later. Why make an unnecessary move to assassinate an insignificant bastard born of a concubine like him? There was still someone in the capital worried about the interrogation. If that was the case, then there must have been something shady about the defeat of Shen Wei’s troops.
Shen Zechuan knew nothing.
He had a shifu in Duanzhou, and his brother, Ji Mu, was his shifu’s only son. To him, Shen Wei was merely the Prince of Jianxing, who had nothing to do with him. He had absolutely no idea if Shen Wei had conspired with the enemies.
But he must deny it.
The ground that Shen Zechuan was sprawled on was so bone-chillingly cold that he was even more awake than he had been during the day. He was a felon the Imperial Bodyguards arrested on the orders of the imperial edict. All arrest warrants, writs of summons, and official rulings came directly from the top. It brought him directly from the hands of Xiao Jiming, the Hereditary Prince3 of Libei, right to the Imperial Prison, bypassing even the Joint Trial of the Three Judicial Offices.4
This was clearly an indication of the Emperor’s unrelenting determination to never condone this and to get to the bottom of the matter. But, under this kind of situation, who would have the guts to make such a reckless move to silence him before the Emperor could personally interrogate him?
The cold wind was still howling at the window. Shen Zechuan turned his eyes and stared at the wall in the dark. He did not dare to close them again.
The weather was slightly cool the next day. Shen Zechuan was brought back to the hall again. A snowstorm raged outside. The interrogator who had been cold towards him the other day was now smiling as he served tea with both hands and waited with deference at the side of the classical-styled, wooden chair.
There was an old, fair-faced, and beardless eunuch sitting on the seat. He was wearing the official hat of the eunuchs made of velvet for the wintry season, with in a gourd-patterned5 mandarin square6 on his robe. His cloak was still draped over him, and he was holding a precious, exquisite plum blossom hand warmer as he rested his mind. He listened to the movements, then opened his eyes to look at Shen Zechuan.
“Godfather.” Ji Lei, who was acting on the imperial edict to interrogate Shen Zechuan, stooped over to say, “This is the surviving descendant of the Prince of Jianxing, Shen Wei.”
Pan Rugui looked at Shen Zechuan and asked, “How did it come to this?”
Ji Lei was aware that Pan Rugui was not asking him why Shen Zechuan had ended up all filthy and stinky, but why he had yet to pry the whys and wherefores out of Shen Zechuan.
Ji Lei’s forehead was drenched in sweat, but he did not dare to wipe it away. He maintained his bow and responded, “This lad is ignorant. He has been delirious ever since we brought him back from Zhongbo. We don’t know who put him up to it, but he has been refusing to confess.”
“A wanted felon His Majesty ordered to arrest.” Pan Rugui did not accept the tea offered. “A child of fifteen or sixteen of age who was sent to the famous Imperial Prison to be personally interrogated by you, His Excellency Ji. And yet you still can’t even hand over a confession statement.”
Cupping the teacup in his hands, Ji Lei said with a bitter smile, “It’s precisely because of that I do not dare to employ the tortures without authorization. He was already suffering from a cold when he arrived. If he dies because we did not hold back on the torture, then this case of Shen Wei would end up as a cold case.”
Pan Rugui scrutinized Shen Zechuan for a moment and said, “We are all our Master’s dogs. There’s no point in keeping a dog if its fangs are no longer sharp. I know you have your own difficulties, but this is all part of your duties. His Majesty wants to see him now. This is his way of showing understanding and consideration for the Imperial Bodyguards. How could you still gripe about it?”
Ji Lei hurriedly prostrated himself in obeisance and said, “Godfather is right. This son has been duly castigated.”
Pan Rugui gave a snort of acknowledgment and said, “Clean him up. He can’t seek an audience with His Majesty with how filthy he looks.”
Shen Zechuan was taken by the errand-runner to wash up and have the injuries on his thigh simply bandaged before he was given a set of clean cotton attire to put on. He was at their mercy as they ordered him about. He was too indisposed to walk; it even took him some effort to climb onto the horse carriage.
Pan Rugui finally accepted Ji Lei’s tea. He stared at Shen Zechuan’s back and said, “He’s really the last surviving member of the Shen Clan?”
Ji Lei answered, “That’s right. He is the only survivor from the Chashi Sinkhole. The Hereditary Prince Xiao of Libei personally took him under arrest. All this while, he has been detained in the prisoner wagon of the Libei Armored Cavalry. No one has ever touched him on the way here. “
Pan Rugui sipped his cold tea. After a long time, he gave a skin-deep smile and said, “Hereditary Prince Xiao is a prudent man.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan got off the carriage and let the Imperial Bodyguards carry him along a long path. The heavy snow blew onto his face. The internal eunuch leading the way hurried along without uttering a word of nonsense.
The junior eunuch waiting respectfully under the eaves came forth to receive Pan Rugui when the latter arrived before Mingli Hall. He removed the cloak for Pan Rugui, helped him change the outer layer of his robe, and then took over the hand warmer in Pan Rugui’s hands. They had already announced his arrival inside. Pan Rugui kowtowed by the door and said, “Your Majesty, this slave7 has brought the man.”
A short while later, a low and unhurried voice rang out, “Bring him in.”
Shen Zechuan’s breathing hitched. They had already supported him in. There was incense burning inside, but it was not stifling hot. He listened to the sounds of intermittent coughs as he swept his gaze out of the corner of his eye and caught a glimpse of two feet inside the hall.
Emperor Xiande was dressed in a dark navy blue common robe.8 He was skinny to the point of being bony, and his body was frail. Major and minor illnesses had never stopped plaguing him in the three years he had ascended to the throne. He sat on the throne, his rectangular face looking particularly gentle and delicate due to his anemic-looking complexion.
“Ji Lei has been trying him for several days.” Emperor Xiande glanced at Ji lei, who was kneeling at the back. “Has a conclusion been reached?”
Ji Lei kowtowed and said, “To reply His Majesty, this lad’s words are incoherent and full of loopholes. Everything he has confessed these few days is contradictory and cannot be believed.”
Emperor Xiande said, “Present all those he has confessed to me.”
Ji Lei took out the tidied-up confession statement from his bosom and handed it with both hands to Pan Rugui. Pan Rugui hurried forward again and respectfully presented it to Emperor Xiande.
Emperor Xiande looked through it once. When he reached the part about Chashi Sinkhole, he covered his mouth and started coughing. He refused to let Pan Rugui wipe it for him; instead he wiped off the blood between his lips himself with a handkerchief. He said in a heavy voice, “Thirty thousand soldiers lost their lives at the sinkhole but not Shen Wei. This truly makes one’s blood boils!”
Shen Zechuan closed his eyes, and his chest began to pound. Sure enough, the next moment, he heard Emperor Xiande’s orders.
“Raise your head!”
Shen Zechuan’s breathing quickened. His palms on the ground that were propping himself up felt icy cold. He raised his head slowly, his eyes carefully landing on Emperor Xiande’s boots.
Emperor Xiande looked at him and asked, “You are Shen Wei’s son and the only survivor of the Chashi Sinkhole. What do you have to say?”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes reddened. His body trembled ever so slightly as he sobbed and said nothing.
Without a change in expression, Emperor Xiande demanded, “Answer me!”
Shen Zechuan suddenly raised his eyes. The tears trickled down along his cheeks. He raised his eyes for a fleeting moment, then kowtowed hard onto the ground. His shoulders trembled, and spasmodic sobs in his throat rose along with the trembling.
“Your Majesty… Your Majesty! My father is loyal to the country. He was too ashamed to face the country and the Elders of Zhongbo after the defeat of his troops. That’s why he set himself on fire to atone for it!”
Emperor Xiande rebuked, “What nonsense are you spouting?! If he was that devoted to the country, why would he keep retreating?”
Shen Zechuan’s voice was hoarse from his sobbing. “My father sent all his sons onto the battlefield. My eldest brother, Shen Zhouji, was tortured to death by those Biansha people who dragged him behind a horse along the Chashi public route! If it were not for his loyalty, how would he have been able to go to such an extent?”
Emperor Xiande said, “How dare you bring up the Chashi battle? Shen Zhouji fled before the battle. His crime is unpardonable!”
Shen Zechuan looked up at Emperor Xiande with tears streaming from his eyes. He said in a raspy voice, “The battle at Chashi was a bloodbath. My eldest brother may be muddleheaded and incompetent, but he defended Chashi for three days. It was within these three days that the military intelligence of the war situation was delivered to Qidong and Libei. If it weren’t for these three days…”
He was so choked with emotions that he could not continue.
Emperor Xiande looked at the confession in his hand. The entire hall was silent except for the sounds of Shen Zechuan’s sobs. Amidst this excruciatingly long silence, Shen Zechuan dug his fingernails into his flesh.
Emperor Xiande suddenly gave a long sigh and asked, “Has Shen Wei ever colluded with the enemies?”
Shen Zechuan’s answer was resolute and decisive. “Never.”
Unexpectedly, Emperor Xiande set down the confession and said in a voice that had abruptly turned cold, “This boy is cunning and harbors the intent to deceive the ruler. I must not allow you to live! Pan Rugui, drag him away and flog him to death at the Gates of Duancheng!”
“This slave obeys!” Pan Rugui immediately received his orders and bowed to retreat.
Shen Zechuan felt cold all over as if he had been doused with a basin of icy water. He suddenly put up a struggle, but the Imperial Bodyguards covered his mouth and swiftly dragged him out of Mingli Hall.
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- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, one li = approx. 500m
- Children in those days were classified according to whether they were a child born to the principal wife or concubines. A legitimate son of direct descent 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 sons born by concubines. It’s recommended to keep this in mind, as this will be a recurring theme in the novel.
- Hereditary Prince, or ‘Princely Heir’, (世子, shizi) Not to be confused with the Emperor’s Crown Prince (太子, taizi). This is a title given to the eldest son born to the principal wife – also the legitimate heir – of a first-ranked prince. To recap, princes (王), or lords, during the Ming dynasty were titled and salaried members of the imperial bureaucracy with nominal lordship over various fiefs throughout China
- In the Ming Dynasty, the supreme court was known as the “Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices” (三司会审), whose verdicts had to be submitted to the Emperor for approval. Three Judicial Offices are namely the Ministry of Justice (刑部), the Court of Judicial Review (大理寺), and the Chief Surveillance Bureau (都察院).
- 葫芦景 is a calabash or bottle gourd pattern used on mandarin squares, or rank badges, of the official garbs (see next footnote). From the 23rd/24th day of the 12th lunar month to the lunar new year (also known as the Spring Festival), internal ministers of the Ming dynasty had to wear calabash or bottle gourd patterns on their clothes to welcome spring.
补子 rank badges or mandarin squares, was a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official to indicate the rank of the official wearing it. E.g., the use of squares depicting birds for civil officials and animals for military officials; there were even “seasonal” squares like the gourd (see previous footnote).
- 奴婢, or ‘slave’ is typically a term female slaves or maidservants used to address themselves when speaking to the Emperor or his imperial concubines. During the Ming Dynasty, eunuchs (those serving at the sides of the Emperor) also used this term to refer to themselves when speaking to the Emperor.
道袍 Daopao; not to be confused with a Daoist priest robe. This was a common robe typically worn by men in the Ming Dynasty.