The medicinal decoction leaked through the corners of Shen Zechuan’s lips and soaked through the front of his clothes. The physician was so anxious that he sweated profusely and kept wiping his temples and forehead.
“He wouldn’t swallow the medicine.” The physician said, “He definitely can’t make it through this!”
Ge Qingqing held his blade and stood to look at Shen Zechuan for a moment before he asked, “Is there nothing else you can do?”
The physician’s hands that were holding up the medicine bowl trembled, causing the spoon in it to clatter against the bowl. He kowtowed to Ge Qingqing with all his might and said, “It can’t be done! He won’t make it! Please prepare the straw mat1 as soon as possible.”
Ge Qingqing looked to be in a predicament. He said, “Feed him first.”, then turned around to step out of the door. Ji Lei was standing just outside. Ge Qingqing paid his obeisances and said, “Your Excellency, the physician said he won’t make it.”
Ji Lei crushed the peanut shell and blew away the powder. He asked, “Has he breathed his last?”
Ge Qingqing replied, “He’s still hanging on to his last breath.”
With his hands at his back, Ji Lei turned his head back to look at Ge Qingqing. “Keep an eye on him. Before he dies, get him to sign the written confession.”
Ge Qingqing nodded and watched Ji Lei leave. He stood in the courtyard for a moment, then said to the subordinate beside him, “Go and call the errand-runner over.”
A little while later, a hunched errand-runner all wrapped in coarse linen came pushing a cart. The sky was dark by now, and the Imperial Prison was under tight security. Ge Qingqing raised a lantern to illuminate the way and motioned for the man to follow him in.
The physician had already left. There was only an oil lamp lit in the room. Shen Zechuan lay on the bed with his face totally devoid of color. His hands and legs were as icy as those of a corpse.
Ge Qingqing stepped aside and said to the errand-runner, “Uncle Ji… Here he is.”
The errand runner slowly stripped away the bundle of coarse cloth to reveal a face destroyed by fire. He stared at Shen Zechuan, took two steps over, and stretched out a trembling hand to caress Shen Zechuan’s hair. When he saw how skinny and bloodied all over Shen Zechuan was, he could not stop his tears from coursing down his old cheeks.
“Chuan-er.”2 Ji Gang’s voice was hoarse as he called out, “Shifu is here!”
Ge Qingqing blew out the lantern and said, “Uncle Ji, don’t be afraid. Ever since those from the prison knew that he was your disciple, they have been treating him with meticulous care. The previous interrogation looked like heavy torture, but it did not hurt his foundation. During the flogging, the brothers more or less went easy on him on your account. He won’t be maimed even with twenty strikes. However, the eunuch from the palace overseeing the punishment has sharp, discerning eyes, so we didn’t dare to be too slack. Fortunately, Third Missy Hua came in time. Otherwise, Pan Gonggong would have gotten suspicious.”
Ji Gang’s hair was already half-white. With his world-weary face shedding tears, he said, “I, Ji Gang, will surely repay this kindness in the future!”
Ge Qingqing hurriedly said, “Uncle Ji! How can you think this way?! What our brothers have repaid are the kindness and affection you have showered on us when you guided us and saved our lives in the past.” With that, he sighed again. “Who would have expected a Cheng Yaojin3 to come charging out of nowhere this suddenly? The Second Young Master of the Xiao Clan was really trying to kill him with that kick. Uncle Ji, can he still be saved?”
Ji Gang felt Shen Zechuan’s pulse and said with a forced smile, “Good lad. He did well with the technique Ah-Mu4 taught him. It’s still not at the point of no return yet. Don’t be afraid, my son. Shifu is here!”
Shen Zechuan had started following Ji Gang at the age of seven and trained martial arts under him together with Ji Mu. Each strike from Ji Clan’s Boxing Style was tough and fierce at the outset. It had to be complemented by the Ji Clan’s mental cultivation techniques. Those without a steadfast will could not practice it. Ji Gang was a heavy drinker when he was back at home. He taught the older one and forgot about the younger one. As the older brother, Ji Mu had to teach his younger brother a stance every time he learned one. No one would have expected Shen Zechuan to have mastered it pretty well over the years.
Ge Qingqing bent over for a look and said, “But he’s still young after all. I’m afraid his body will be in bad shape after going through this. Uncle Ji, I’ve sent someone to decoct the medicine the physician prescribed again. Please see if you can feed it to him.”
Shen Zechuan was burning up so much his mouth felt parched.
His whole body was hurting all over. It was as if he was lying on the main street of Qudu, getting crushed by the horse carriages coming and going.
The pain was like an endless inferno consuming Shen Zechuan’s body. In the darkness, he dreamed of the heavy dancing snow, Ji Mu’s blood, the cold of the sinkhole, and the kick he received before Xiao Chiye.
Ji Lei was right. To remain alive now was to suffer. He received the flesh and blood Shen Wei gave him, and so he had to endure such punishments. He took over Shen Wei’s sins and became the sinner the loyal souls of those who had died unjust deaths howled him out to be. By putting on these shackles, he would always have to shoulder this burden as he moved on.
But he couldn’t take it lying down!
Someone suddenly pried his teeth apart, and a warm current flooded into his throat. The bitter taste of the medicine made Shen Zechuan’s eyes watered. Hearing a familiar call, he forced his eyes open.
Ji Gang fed him medicine and wiped away Shen Zechuan’s tears with his rough fingers. He whispered, “Chuan-er, it’s shifu!”
A sob formed in Shen Zechuan’s throat, causing him to choke out the medicine along with his tears. He stretched out his fingers to hook the corner of Ji Gang’s clothes and clenched his teeth, fearing this to be merely a dream he had made in the stupor of illness.
Ji Gang’s face was ugly. He turned his head slightly to avoid the light from the oil lamp and said, “Chuan-er, stop harboring the will to die! You’re the only one shifu has left in this ignoble existence of his.”
Shen Zechuan could not stop his tears from streaming down his cheeks right there and then. He averted his gaze to stare at the pitch-black roof and whispered, “Shifu…”
His eyes gradually focused amidst the whir of the wind and took on a hint of malevolence.
“I won’t die.” He said in a hoarse voice, “Shifu, I won’t die.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The next day, Emperor Xiande rewarded the Three Armies with a feast. Apart from Libei Armored Cavalry and Qidong Garrison Troops outside the city, the palace also hosted a banquet and led all the various ministers and officials to entertain the Commander-in-chief of the army.
Having changed into his court attire, Xiao Chiye overshadowed the delicateness of the scholars around him as he took his seat. The embroidered lion beast set against a pattern of clouds5 on him radiated an air of intensity and awe. But his frivolousness reared its head when he sat down for a conversation.
The civil officials engrossed in drinking kept stealing glances at him. As they said, a tiger father will not beget a dog for a son.6 But how was it that it was only the Hereditary Prince Xiao who took after his father?
It was with tacit understanding they nitpicked at Xiao Chiye’s every move and action. They could feel that sense of willfulness and frivolousness hitting them right in the face. He was a world of difference from Xiao Jiming, who was sitting upright in the seat of honor.
“Don’t detach yourself from this all.” Lu Guangbai sat beside him to urge him, “Since His Majesty has rewarded you, he will surely call you up later.”
Xiao Chiye caressed the walnut in his palm, looking a little out of it.
Lu Guangbai turned his head to the side to look at him and said, “You went out drinking with others last night, huh.”
“Make merry while you can.” Xiao Chiye slacked in his seat. “If anyone dares to do a Xiang Zhuang’s Sword Dance7 later, I’ll do a Fan Kuai8 while in a state of inebriation. That would be the best of both worlds, wouldn’t it?”
“That’s fine too.” Lu Guangbai poured wine. “But drinking is bad for your health. If you want to be a good commander-in-chief, then change this bad habit of yours.”
“I was born at the wrong time.” Xiao Chiye threw Lu Guangbai a walnut. “I won’t have the chance to play the hero now that the Four Generals seats are full. If you can no longer make it someday, remember to let me know in advance. It won’t be too late for me to kick the habit then.”
Lu Guangbai said, “Then I’m afraid you have to wait.”
Both men laughed for a moment and drank up half of the wine. They listened as the topic of discussion at the banquet changed to the Zhongbo Shen Clan.
Grasping the walnut in his hand, Lu Guangbai listened attentively for a moment and asked, “Didn’t they say last night that this person won’t make it?”
Behind him, Zhao Hui responded in a hushed tone, “That’s right. Didn’t Young Master say that the kick was to send him on his way to the Underworld?”
Xiao Chiye denied it. “Did I say that?” The other two looked at him in silence, prompting him to ask, “What?”
Lu Guangbai said, “He didn’t die.”
Zhao Hui said, “He didn’t die.”
Xiao Chiye exchanged glances with the other two for a moment and said, “It’s none of my business he’s a tough one. The King of Hell isn’t my old man.”
Lu Guangbai looked up and said, “Let’s see what His Majesty has in store for him. He’s really one tough cookie.”
Kneeling behind then, Zhao Hui lowered his head to stuff himself with food. He said offhandedly, “Someone must be helping him in secret.”
“Even if he doesn’t die, he’ll be maimed.” Xiao Chiye glanced coldly at the Hua Clan seat a short distance away. “The Empress Dowager is already advanced in age. All she can do now is to rack her brains trying to groom a stray dog.”
“What a sin.” Zhao Hui emotionlessly stuffed a spare rib into his mouth.
Seeing that the atmosphere was satisfactory enough after three rounds of drinking, Emperor Xiande spoke, “Jiming.”
Xiao Jiming paid his obeisances and stood by to take his orders.
Looking as if he could not hold his wine, Emperor Xiande leaned against the Dragon Throne9 and said, “When all is said and done, there is no conclusive evidence for Shen Wei’s troops’ defeat and whether he had colluded with the enemy. That Shen…”
Pan Rugui bent over and whispered, “Your Majesty, it’s Shen Zechuan.”
Emperor Xiande paused for a moment, but instead of continuing, he turned to the Empress Dowager and asked, “What does Imperial Mother10 think?”
A solemn silence descended upon the banquet as the entire court of civil and military officials lowered their heads to listen.
The Empress Dowager wore a zaoluo11 headband with a depiction of a dragon dropping a pearl among golden clouds. A row of golden emerald leaf beads circled around the headdress with a dazzling array of big pearls hanging from it. She sat – poised and dignified – high up on her seat. Her neatly combed glossy hair was the color of frost. No one in the entire banquet hall dared to raise their head to look directly at her.
The Empress Dowager said, “Our morale suffered a blow in the battle of Zhongbo all because Shen Wei panicked and lost his presence of mind. But now that he had immolated himself due to fear of punishment, and his descendants have all died in battle, there’s only this son of common birth left behind. It goes against benevolence and righteousness to eliminate his whole clan. There is no reason we can’t let him live so that he will feel gratitude towards us.”
The banquet hall was silent. Lu Guangbai suddenly spoke up. “This subject12 doesn’t think it’s appropriate.” He took three steps out of the file of officials to kneel in the hall and continued, “Her Majesty is benevolent. But the battle of Zhongdu is different from past battles. Although there is no evidence that Shen Wei colluded with the enemy, he is, nevertheless, still suspected of it. This lad is his remaining descendant. If we let him live, I fear he will become a danger in our own backyard in the future.”
The Empress Dowager looked at Lu Guangbai for a moment and said, “The Earl13 of Biansha has been stationed in the desert to defend it for decades, and he doesn’t exactly emerge victorious every battle.”
Lu Guangbai replied, “Although my father is not invincible, no external enemies have ever been able to push deep into the territories of the Bianjun Commandery for decades.”
The big pearls beside the Empress Dowager’s ears swayed gently. She said, “It’s precisely because of this that it’s even more pertinent to teach him protocol and virtue so that he can understand the disastrous consequences of this war. It’s easy to kill a man. The horses of the Biansha Cavalry stepped into Zhongbo and killed tens of thousands of Da Zhou commoners. We have yet to seek redress for the humiliation of our Empire. What crime is there for a child to be guilty of?”
“This subject finds it inappropriate as well.”
The Deputy Senior Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat,14 Hai Liangyi, who had remained quiet all this while, supported himself up from the table and kneeled down as well.
“Her Majesty is benevolent, but this is no trivial matter. Even if Shen Wei did not collude with the enemy, he still deserves to be beheaded after this battle. Moreover, this child has been tried and interrogated thrice, and his confession statement is all over the place. He insisted that Shen Wei did not collude with the enemy. But he’s a son of common birth Shen Wei had raised elsewhere. If he had no idea that Shen Wei had colluded with the enemies, then how would he know for sure that he didn’t? It can be seen that he is cunning by nature; he lacks credibility. Just as General Lu has said, if we keep the last descendant of the Shen Clan alive, he will one day become the scourge of trouble in our own backyard!”
Instead of being furious, the Empress Dowager said, “Secretariat Elder15 Hai, please rise quickly.”
After Pan Rugui helped Hai Liangyi up, the Empress Dowager said, “It’s as my dear ministers said. I’ve16 been biased in my thinking. I’ll leave the decision-making on this matter to the Emperor.”
Under the watchful eyes of his ministers, Emperor Xiande coughed feebly. He accepted the handkerchief Pan Rugui handed him and covered his mouth. After a long silence, he finally spoke.
“What Imperial Mother has said is not without reason. The child is innocent. However, when all is said and done, Shen Wei’s troops were still defeated, and he had indeed abandoned the city. On account that there is only this bloodline left in all nine generations of his clan, I’ll give this child a chance to reflect on his sin and redeem himself. Ji Lei.”
“This subject is at your command.”
“Take this child into custody at Zhao Zui Temple.17 Without my order, he cannot venture out!”
Xiao Chiye threw the broken pieces of walnut onto the plate.
Zhao Hui asked, “Young Master, aren’t you eating?”
Xiao Chiye said, “Maimed and useless. Who wants?”
Zhao Hui’s eyeballs followed the plate as it turned. He said in a lowered voice, “Isn’t this to the satisfaction of all? We didn’t get what we wanted, neither did the others.”
“Caging him in is still better than letting him out.” Lu Guangbai returned to his seat and said.
“Not necessarily.” Xiao Chiye pointed to himself. “Am I not a caged man too?”
Lu Guangbai and Zhao Hui said in unison. “Good for you.”
P/S: Character glossary added! To avoid spoilers, the list will be updated as the translation of the story progresses, e.g. when new characters are revealed or when the characters’ titles and ranks change.
- One of the simplest forms of burial. For the poor who can’t afford a coffin or unworthy/unidentified people, their corpses are usually simply wrapped in a straw mat before being buried or thrown into a mass grave.
- “~er” (which also means ‘son’) is a suffix normally used as a term of endearment.
- 半路杀出个程咬金 Cheng Yaojin ambushes the enemy. Cheng Yaojin (589-665) was a general in the period between Sui and Tang Dynasties, who often ambushed his enemies on the roads. This proverb is used to describe a situation where someone shows up unexpectedly and disrupts a plan. It is also used to describe an unwelcome busybody who shows up where they are not wanted.
- “Ah” is a prefix used before monosyllabic names to indicate kinship and/or familiarity.
Refers to the rank badge on his court attire. Animals were used on rank badges or mandarin squares (a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official to indicate the rank of the official wearing it) for military officials, while birds were used for civil officials. The lion is a symbol used for Grade 1 and 2 military officials. (Grades 1 and 2 are top-rank officials).
- 虎父无犬子 literally, a tiger father will not beget a dog for a son. i.e., like father like son, a valiant father would have a valiant son and so on.
- 项庄舞剑 (意在沛公) lit. Xiang Zhuang (项庄) performs the sword dance, (but his mind is set on Liu Bang); refers to 206 BC plot to murder Liu Bang (刘邦), Duke of Pei and future Han emperor, during a sword dance at Feast at Hongmen; i.e., an elaborate deception to hide malicious intent or to act with a hidden motive.
- Fan Kuai (樊哙) was a military general of the early Western Han dynasty, also known for defending Liu Bang at the Feast at Hongmen, which was actually a trap set to kill Liu Bang.
Dragon throne (龙椅); the imperial throne or seat of the Emperor.
- Royal/Imperial Mother or Mother Empress, or muhou (母后); Term of address for ‘mother’ the Emperor and his siblings used for the Empress Dowager.
- 皂罗 zaoluo, a thin black silk fabric. It also refers to the headdress made of zaoluo.
- 臣 chen, an official, minister, or subject of the Emperor. It’s also used to refer to oneself while conversing with the Emperor, it has the same connotation as “I, your servant/subject”
- Earl (伯) is one of the noble titles in the Ming Dynasty, below Duke (公) and Marquis (侯).
- 内阁 Grand Secretariat, or also known as the Cabinet, is a central government institution during the Ming dynasty.
- During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat (内阁大学士) was addressed as gelao (阁老)
- 哀家 ai-jia. An imperial term for “I” that a widowed Empress/Empress Dowager used to refer to herself. I’ll just be using “I”, “me”, “my”, etc, in the text for easier reading, but the Empress Dowager in this novel always uses “ai-jia” when referring to herself.
- 寺 generally refers to a monastery or temple but in ancient China, it also refers to a government bureau, otherwise also translated as Court. This temple here is more like a secluded building that serves as a detention area to reflect on one’s sin.