Pan Rugui strode towards the Gate of Duancheng. The Imperial Bodyguards Commandants split into two rows flanking each side and stayed as silent as winter cicadas. Once Pan Rugui came to a halt and announced Emperor Xiande’s verbal edict, the Imperial Bodyguards began their work.
The Imperial Bodyguards gagged Shen Zechuan and swiftly wrapped him up in a thick cotton-padded garment before they made him lie face down on the ground.
Pan Rugui leaned over in the cold wind to observe Shen Zechuan’s state. He raised his fingers to cover his lips feebly and coughed a few times before he said softly, “You are so young, and yet you are so gutsy that you dare to put on such a melodramatic display before His Majesty. If you had just truthfully confessed Shen Wei’s crime of treason, you might still have a slim shot at survival.”
Shen Zechuan shut his eyes tightly. Cold sweat had already soaked through his clothes.
Pan Rugui rose to his feet and said, “Start flogging.”
The Imperial Bodyguards Commandants on both sides immediately shouted in unison, “Let the rod fall!” A thunderous roar followed right after. “Hit!”
Before the words were fully out of their mouths, the rod wrapped in an iron sheet with barbs came whistling down on Shen Zechuan and dealt him a heavy blow.
After three strikes, he heard another voice. “Hit him hard!”
The pain of his flesh was like a searing fire blazing through his body. They hit Shen Zechuan until he could no longer move. All he could do was to clamp his teeth down tightly on the gag in his mouth. He was unable to swallow his blood in time, and its coppery and salty taste saturated his mouth. Shen Zechuan was still hanging on to his last breath as the dripping sweat stung his wide-open eyes.
The sky was overcast, and the heavy snow fell like willow catkins.
Flogging was not a job anyone could do. As the saying “faint at twenty strokes, lame at fifty” suggested, there were many ways to flog a man. It was generally a family craft handed down through the generations and was no less easier to train than learning a trade elsewhere. Moreover, this job did not just require one to have good martial arts skills, but also a discerning eye. These floggers had been doing this for so long that all they had to do is to look at the expressions of these Great Eunuchs from the Ceremonial Directorate1 to know who should receive superficial wounds but serious internal injuries, and vice versa.
Emperor Xiande’s decree today was death by flogging, and Pan Rugui did not seem to value him either. That meant there was no way an about-turn would happen; he was a man who had to die. So these Imperial Bodyguards brought out their special skills; within fifty strokes, Shen Zechuan must die.
Pan Rugui kept an eye on the timing and noticed that Shen Zechuan had already gone motionless with his head drooping. He raised his hand over the hand warmer and was about to give his instructions when he saw an umbrella floating towards them on the path. A beauty in royal garb stood underneath.
The dark clouds on Pan Rugui’s face dispersed in a flash and transformed into a smile. Although he did not personally step forward in a greeting, the quick-witted eunuch beside him had already gone over to offer her his arm in support.
“My sincere respects to Third Missy. It’s such a cold day. If Her Majesty the Empress Dowager has any instructions, you can just send someone to pass the message.” Pan Rugui spoke as he took two steps closer.
Hua Xiangyi raised her hand lightly to motion to the Imperial Bodyguards not to move. She was delicate and beautiful. All these years, the Empress Dowager had kept her by her side to nurture her. Her facial features resembled those of the Empress Dowager when the latter was young. Although she went by the address of the Third Missy of the Dicheng Hua Clan in Qudu, everyone knew she was a distinguished lady of the palace. Even the Emperor doted on her like his own dear little sister.
Hua Xiangyi said in a slow and soft voice. “Gonggong, is the one sprawled on the ground the son of Zhongbo Shen Clan, Shen Zechuan?”
Pan Rugui moved in tandem with Hua Xiangyi’s steps and replied, “That’s the one. His Majesty has just issued the decree to flog him to death.”
Hua Xiangyi said, “His Majesty was in a fit of anger earlier. If Shen Zechuan were to die, then we’ll never get to the bottom of Shen Wei’s treason. Her Majesty the Empress Dowager had arrived at Mingli Hall half a quarter2 ago. His Majesty heeded her advice and has since calmed down some.”
Pan Rugui let out an “oh, my” and said, “His Majesty always listens to Her Majesty the Empress Dowager’s counsel. He was in such a terrible rage earlier that I did not dare to say a word even if I had a mind to.”
Hua Xiangyi smiled at Pan Rugui and said, “His Majesty said to ‘flog’ him. Isn’t that what you did?”
Pan Rugui took a few more steps and smiled too. “That’s right. I was in such a hurry earlier when I heard the word ‘flog’ and gave this lad a good beating. May I know how we should deal with him now? “
Hua Xiangyi swept a glance at Shen Zechuan and said, “Before His Majesty’s retrial, drag him back to the Imperial Prison first. The child’s life is of utmost importance. I’m counting on Gonggong to inform His Excellency Ji to take good care of him by all means.”
“That goes without saying.” Pan Rugui said, “How would Ji Lei dare to turn a deaf ear to Third Missy’s exhortations? The weather is cold, and the roads are slippery. Xiaofuzi, hold Third Missy steady.”
As soon as Hua Xiangyi left, Pan Rugui turned back and said to the two rows of Imperial Bodyguards, “His Majesty said to flog. We are about done hitting this person. Drag him back. You’ve heard Third Missy’s words earlier. That’s Her Majesty the Empress Dowager’s wish. Return and inform Ji Lei that all the people involved in this case are immortals.3 If something were to happen to the lad under his watch…”
Pan Rugui coughed slowly.
“Even the Jade Emperor4 himself wouldn’t be able to protect that head of his.”
Xiaofuzi returned to help support Pan Rugui by the arm. The long and wide stretch of road was empty. He whispered, “Forefather,5 we let him go just like this. Will His Majesty the Emperor really not blame us later?”
Pan Rugui stepped on the snow and said, “His Majesty knows deep down that we can’t be faulted for this.”
He walked a few steps. Snowflakes squeezed their way into his fur collar.
“A promise is worth a thousand ounces of gold. A sovereign fears backpedaling on his words the most. His Majesty suffered another bout of serious illness due to the invasion of the Biansha Twelve Tribes. These days, he has been considering conferring a princess title on Third Missy to please Her Majesty the Empress Dowager. At this point in time, His Majesty will have to acquiesce even if Her Majesty the Empress Dowager were to make other demands of him, let alone to spare a man’s life.”
As he spoke, Pan Rugui inclined his head to look at Xiaofuzi.
“When have you ever seen Her Majesty the Empress Dowager change her orders?”
Regardless of which case it was, the real master was the one who stood by his or her own words.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan was delirious with fever. One moment, he saw Ji Mu dying before him. The next moment, he saw himself while he was still living in Duanzhou.
The wind of Duanzhou caressed its way past the banner. Shiniang raised the curtain to step out with a white porcelain bowl in her hand. It was filled with dumplings that had thin skins and a large portion of fillings.
“Tell your bro to come home!” Shiniang called out to him, “He can’t even sit still for a moment. Get him to hurry back for his meal!”
Shen Zechuan climbed over the corridor’s railing, took a few steps over to his shiniang, and bit the dumpling off the chopsticks before running off. The dumpling was so scalding that he kept huffing through his mouth. As he went out of the door, he saw his shifu, Ji Gang, sitting on the stairs. Thus, he squatted beside him.
Ji Gang was grinding a rock with his hands. He turned his head to harrumph at Shen Zechuan and said, “Silly lad, how much is a dumpling worth? Look at how much of a rarity you treat it as! Go call your bro back. The three of us father and sons will go to Yuanyang Tavern for a big meal. “
Shen Zechuan did not continue the conversation, because shiniang was already pulling at Ji Gang’s ear. She said, “Turning your nose up at dumplings, huh? How capable of you. Do you really have the money to get yourself another wife? Going over yourself with these two silly lads in tow, hm?!”
Shen Zechuan laughed out loud. He leaped down the stairs and waved to his shifu and shiniang before he ran out to the alley to look for his brother, Ji Mu.
It was snowing heavily along the way. Shen Zechuan could not find him. The more he walked, the further he went, and the colder he became.
Shen Zechuan dashed all over the place, shouting.
“Ji Mu! Let’s go home for our meal!”
Gradually, the sound of horse hooves surrounded him. The heavy snow obstructed his view. Shen Zechuan was deeply entrenched in the sound of horse hooves, yet he could see no one around. The sound of fighting erupted in his ears, and warm blood splattered over his face. There were stabs of pain in both of Shen Zechuan’s legs as an overwhelming force pinned him down onto the ground.
He saw the dead man close before him again. The rain of arrows whistled in the wind. The man on his back was heavy, and that sticky and warm liquid trickled down along his neck, along his cheeks.
This time, he knew what it was.
Shen Zechuan woke up trembling. He was drenched in sweat, and it was so freezing that he shivered uncontrollably. He sprawled over the bed plank as his eyes adjusted with some difficulty to the darkness.
There were still people in the prison room. The errand-runner cleared away the filthy items and lit the oil lamp.
Shen Zechuan felt parched. The errand-runner seemed aware of his thirst and poured a bowl of cold water for him before setting it on the bed plank. Waves of hot and cold washed over Shen Zechuan. Very slowly, he nudged the bowl over to himself, spilling half of the water in it.
No one spoke in the prison. Shen Zechuan was the only one left after the errand-runner withdrew. He slipped in and out of consciousness. This night seemed to drag on endlessly. No matter how he waited, dawn never came.
The errand-runner came again to change Shen Zechuan’s medicine. He was already a lot more sober. Ji Lei looked at him beyond the bars and said in a cold voice, “You are one lucky bastard. A scourge truly never dies. Her Majesty the Empress Dowager spared your life. I suppose you don’t know why.”
Shen Zechuan lowered his head and said nothing.
Ji Lei said, “I know your shifu is Ji Gang, the fugitive Ji Gang of the martial fraternity. I was fellow disciples with him twenty years ago. Together, we served as the Imperial Bodyguards in Qudu. I’m afraid you don’t know this, but he was once a Third Grade6 Imperial Bodyguards Vice Commander. I’m trained in that set of Ji Clan’s Boxing Style too.”
Shen Zechuan raised his head and looked at him.
Ji Lei opened the door and waited for the errand-runner to leave. Once there was no one around, he sat down beside Shen Zechuan’s bed.
“Later, he committed a crime. His offense was one where he would have to be beheaded for it. But the earlier Emperor was benevolent. In the end, he did not put him to death and simply exiled him beyond the Pass.” Ji Lei propped up his knee and grinned at Shen Zechuan with his back to the light. “Your shifu—has no capability to speak of. He’s just a lucky loser. Guess how he survived? Through the glory of your shiniang, Just like you today. You probably don’t even know who your shiniang is. Let me tell you then, your shiniang is Hua Pingting.7 There are the eight cities of Cen’nan in Qudu. The Dicheng Hua Clan among them is the clan of the current Empress Dowager. So, it’s all because of your shiniang that the Empress Dowager spared your life today.”
Ji Lei lowered his head and whispered.
“But who would have known that your shiniang had already died during the military upheaval? I’m telling you. Ji Gang is a worthless wretch. His father died twenty years ago, and twenty years later, his wife and son died too. Are you aware of who the main culprit is? You know it deep down. The perpetrator is Shen Wei!”
Shen Zechuan’s breathing hitched.
“Shen Wei opened up the line of defense at Chashi River. The Biansha Cavalry invaded and ran rampant all over. The machete severed your shiniang’s throat. Everything that happened before she breathed her last could make Ji Gang’s life a living hell.”
“Duanzhou fell into the enemies’ hands. You said it was your brother who saved you.” Ji Lei leaned back, sized up the back of his hand, and said, “Ji Mu, huh? Ji Gang raised you and watched you grow up, so Ji Mu was your brother. He was Ji Gang’s only son—Ji Gang’s only offspring, and the Ji Clan’s only descendant. But because of Shen Wei and you, he died too. Pierced through the heart with ten of thousands of arrows. His remains were even left behind in the sinkhole, subjected to the humiliation of being trampled by the horses of the Biansha Cavalry. I wonder how Ji Gang would have felt if he was still alive and had to collect his son’s body.”
Shen Zechuan suddenly lifted his body. Ji Lei easily pushed him back down.
“Shen Wei betrayed his country and colluded with the enemies. This is a debt you have to shoulder. You seek to live today, and countless ghosts of Zhongbo who have died unjust deaths wails. You fell asleep at night, slowly distinguishing who among the others in your dreams are your shiniang, your shifu! You are still alive, but living is already more of an agony than dying. Can you forgive Shen Wei? If you forgive Shen Wei and help to exonerate him, then you will let your shifu and his entire family down. No matter what, Ji Gang is the benefactor who has raised and nurtured you. How can you do unto him such a disloyal and unfilial act?”
“Besides, even if you drag out your own feeble existence, there is no longer anyone else in this world who will empathize with you. Once you are in Qudu, you are Shen Wei. The people are enraged now. Those who hate you to the core are more than one could count. You still have to die, anyway. Rather than dying a dubious death, why not speak frankly to His Majesty and come clean about Shen Wei’s crimes? It would also comfort your shifu’s soul in Heaven.”
Ji Lei suddenly stopped talking when he saw Shen Zechuan, who was pinned on the bed plank, smiling. The young man’s deathly pale face took on a sinister, frosty turn.
“Shen Wei did not collude with the enemies.”
Shen Zechuan enunciated each word through clenched teeth.
“Shen Wei never colluded with the enemies!”
Ji Lei lifted Shen Zechuan and slammed him into the wall. A “BANG” rang out, and bits of earth and dust rained down from the friction. The impact caused Shen Zechuan to cough incessantly.
“There are too many ways I can use to kill you.” Ji Lei said, “Unappreciative little bastard. You got lucky this time and managed to escape death by the skin of your teeth. And now you really think you can survive beyond today?”
Turning around, he dragged Shen Zechuan to the door of the cell and kicked it open before heading out.
“I’m impartial in my duties and will obey the will of the Empress Dowager. But there are plenty of people in Dazhou who can do as they please with no regard for authority. Since you are so hopelessly foolish, then I’ll accede to your wishes. You want someone to kill you—that person is already here!”
The city gates of Qudu suddenly opened wide, and a row of pitch-black heavy armored cavalry swiftly galloped in from beyond the gates, sounding like peals of thunder.
Shen Zechuan was dragged along the path. The Imperial Bodyguards scattered, and the packed crowd split into two to clear the way for the heavy armored cavalry.
A Libei raptor hovered in the sky as the sounds of clanking armor drummed against his chest. The rumble of hooves drew nearer. Shen Zechuan opened his eyes and saw the leader of the heavy armored cavalry charging straight over.
The steed under the heavy armor was like a ferocious beast, huffing out hot clouds of air as it galloped a few steps before them. It was reined in just as it was about to crash into them. Hooves rose high in the air. By the time it came to a stop, the man on the back of the steed had already turned around and dismounted.
Ji Lei stepped forward and said aloud, “Xiao…”
The man did not even look at Ji Lei and headed right for Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan had only just moved his shackles when the man kicked Shen Zechuan right on the chest with lightning speed!
The force of this kick was so powerful that Shen Zechuan did not even get the chance to steel himself for it. Blood splattered the moment he opened his mouth. His entire person went tumbling on the ground. For a moment there, he almost puked his guts out.
Will be using “Imperial Bodyguards” in place of “Embroidered Brocade Guards” for 锦衣卫. For consistency purposes, most of the terms in this novel will be from Xie, B., & Mirong, C. (2013). A brief history of the official system in China. and Zhang, Y., Xue, S., Xue, Z., & Ni, L. (2017). Chinese-English Dictionary of Ming Government Official Titles. (other sources in synopsis).
Credits: Thanks to lam (@shizunwontons) for the correction!
- 司礼监 Directorate of Ceremonial, one of the Twelve Directorates stuffed by eunuchs during the Ming Dynasty that’s in charge of palace entertainment, ceremonies, punishments and such. The Seal-holding Director of the Ceremonial Directorate (司礼监掌印太监) – the most powerful eunuch position among all the twelve directorates – and the Imperial Bodyguards Commander-in-chief would typically oversee the flogging.
- one ke (一刻) is about 15 minutes. So half a ke is about 7-8 minutes.
- literally immortals from 神仙打架, or immortals fighting, i.e., when people at the top fight or compete with each other
- 天王老子 generally refers to someone who holds the highest status and most power. That’d be the Jade Emperor in Heaven and the Emperor on Earth. He’s also insinuating here that the Empress Dowager’s words hold more sway over the Emperor’s.
- 老祖宗 literally old ancestor or forefather; sometimes the top eunuch in the Ming Dynasty is privately addressed as such
- 三品 Officials were classified in nine hierarchic grades, with grade one being the highest rank. Their salaries ranged according to their rank.
- 娉婷 also means a graceful, beautiful woman