It was a rare sunny day in Qudu the day Shen Zechuan entered Zhao Zui Temple. White snow covered the palace tiles, with green plums mirrored on vermillion walls. Sunlight shone through the eaves, casting slanting lines of yin and yang1 before his feet.
He had just recovered from a bout of severe illness and was skinny to the point of being skeletal. At fifteen years of age, his past and old dreams were like ashes scattered clean by this biting cold north wind the moment he opened his eyes.
Ge Qingqing went down the stairs first. He turned his head to look back at him and said, “It’s getting late.”
Shen Zechuan supported himself against the pillar and slowly made his way down the stairs. He was neither accustomed nor terrified to be exposed under the sun. The childishness of youth seemed to have been pulverized amidst that pallor of his face. Other than the fragility of illness, they could discern nothing else from his expression.
Ji Lei was waiting at the entrance of Zhao Zui Temple with Xiaofuzi following beside him. Raising his head to look at this ancient temple, Xiaofuzi marveled, “What a magnificent and queer temple. It really doesn’t seem to be the place to imprison people.”
“You don’t know its past.” Ji Lei said, “Zhao Zui Temple was originally a place for the imperial clan to offer incense. Lord Guangcheng’s handwritten orders were even previously offered in worship inside. In its heyday, all the eminent monks in the world assembled here, and large-scale intellectual discourse was all the rage for a time.”
“Why haven’t I heard any mention of it in recent years?” Xiaofuzi sized up the temple gates. “It’s rather dilapidated. There haven’t been any repairs done on it for a long time, have it?”
Ji Lei spent a moment composing himself and said, “It’s been twenty years. The condemned Crown Prince instigated the Eight Great Training Divisions of Qudu to plot a rebellion. After his troops’ defeat, he retreated here and fought back like a cornered beast. In the end, blood splattered all over the Buddha statue as he slit his own throat to end his life. From then on, the former Emperor no longer set foot in his place. He stripped the temple of its name and renamed it Zhao Zui.”
“Oh man, twenty years.” Xiaofuzi clutched his throat as if this was a surprising thing to him. “I wasn’t even born yet! That was the time His Excellency Ji just joined the Imperial Bodyguards, wasn’t it?”
Ji Lei did not answer him. He turned to the rear and rebuked. “Why is he not here yet?”
Xiaofuzi was still circling around the “Zhao Zui” stone tablet. When he was done, he asked Ji Lei, “But I’ve never heard of anyone being locked up inside either?”
Ji Lei seemed annoyed and said, “Those imprisoned are all the secretariat ministers involved in the case of the condemned Crown Prince. The clans of the civil officials and military commanders involved were all executed. Those that remained are few and far between. It has been twenty years, who would still remember?!”
The prisoner wagon2 rolled up to them. Ge Qingqing paid his obeisances to Ji Lei and said, “Your Excellency, I’ve brought him here.”
“Send him in.” Ji Lei then said to Shen Zechuan, “After today’s farewell, we probably won’t have the chance to meet again. The Emperor’s magnanimity knows no bound. You must remember this with gratitude for the rest of your life. ”
Shen Zechuan turned a deaf ear as he entered the Zhao Zui Temple. That vermillion door with paint peeling off it moved with a loud rumble. He stood in the middle and looked at Ji Lei. Ji Lei was displeased by his gaze and was about to lose his temper when he saw Shen Zechuan unveiled a smile on his cleansed face.
He’s gone mad.
Ji Lei thought subconsciously. But then he heard Shen Zechuan say,
“Your Excellency Ji.” His voice was calm. “We will meet again.”
The vermillion door shut with a “bang” and stirred up a cloud of dust. Xiaofuzi covered his nose and coughed while stepping back repeatedly. But then, he saw Ji Lei standing motionlessly where he was.
Ji Lei only returned to his senses after being called a few times. He swiftly mounted the horse. With the sun shining on his back, he cussed, “… Bah. Just my rotten luck!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye was riding his horse across the street when he bumped into Ji Lei. Reining it in, he laughed and said, “Old Ji, aren’t you on duty before the Emperor?”
Ji Lei looked covetously at the battle steed under Xiao Chiye’s crotch and said, “I have to take that surviving criminal into custody at the temple today. I’m now hurrying over to the palace. Second Young Master, that’s an excellent steed! I heard you tamed it yourself?”
“I had free time. “Xiao Chiye lashed out the horsewhip with a crack, and the gyrfalcon in the sky swiftly swooped down onto his shoulder. He said, “Torturing falcons3 and playing with horses are all the talents I have.”
“Once you assume your duties after the new year,4 you’ll be busy.” Ji Lei said, “Qudu’s latest eminence! I’m not on duty tomorrow. How about a drink together?”
Xiao Chiye said, “If the wine isn’t good, I’m not going.”
Ji Lei laughed out loud and said, “Of course it’s good wine! Who dares to invite the Second Young Master if the wine isn’t good? I’ll call at your residence later to invite you. Would the Hereditary Prince have the time to have fun together with us?”
Xiao Chiye caressed his bone thumb ring5 and said, “My eldest brother, huh? He’s not a fan of such activities. Why? It’s not prestigious enough for you if I’m the only one going?”
Ji Lei hurriedly said, “That’s not what I said! Second Young Master, that settles it then.”
Xiao Chiye acknowledged him and kicked the horse to leave. But just before leaving, he seemed to recall something and asked, “How did that surviving criminal look? Can he walk?”
“Walk, he can.” Ji Lei responded. “But not nimbly enough from the way I see it. How many can actually survive floggings without post-injuries? He is lucky to be able to walk.”
Xiao Chiye did not say a word more as he spurred his horse on and left.
◈ ◈ ◈
A little later, the errand-runner delivered the meals to Zhao Zui Temple. Shen Zechuan lit the oil lamp but did not touch the food. Grabbing the oil lamp, he walked a round along the small corridor beside the main hall.
The dust had been accumulating here for a long time. Some side rooms in the wings had fallen into a state of dilapidation with the doors and windows already rotten. Shen Zechuan saw several skeletons that toppled over when the wind blew. Since he did not come across any living creature, he returned to the main hall.
The Buddha statue had collapsed, and the incense altar was old but still durable. The size below was just right. Shen Zechuan hung up a tattered curtain cloth and lay down underneath with his clothes on. The cold from the floor made his legs hurt. He endured the pain and closed his eyes to count the hours.
Fresh snow started to fall in the latter half of the night. Shen Zechuan listened as the night owl hooted twice. He sat up and lifted open the cloth just in time to see Ji Gang step through the door before him.
“After you’ve eaten,” Ji Gang opened the cloth bundle.6 “Train. This place can’t keep the wind out at night. It’s too cold. Shifu is afraid you will fall ill if you sleep.”
Shen Zechuan looked at the roasted chicken wrapped in oil paper and said, “One should abstain from meat when ill. Shifu, you can have it.”
Ji Gang tore up the roasted chicken for him and said, “Bullshit! This is the time where you should eat your fill. Shifu likes to eat the rear end of the chicken; even at home, it’s my favorite. Save it for me.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Since I’m following you, I will eat what you eat.”
Ji Gang glanced at him and laughed. He said,” Brat.”
Master and disciple split the roasted chicken among them. Ji Gang seemed to have grown a mouthful of iron teeth as he chewed even the chicken bones into pieces. He handed the bottle gourd to Shen Zechuan and said, “Drink some wine if you really can’t put up with the cold. But don’t drink too much. Just sip accordingly, just like your brother.”
They never mentioned Zhongbo, Duanzhou, or even the Chashi Sinkhole these days. Shiniang and Ji Mu were unspoken wounds both master and disciple shared. Both of them thought they had hidden it pretty well, but they never realized that the blood was already seeping out and that the pain was mutual.
Shen Zechuan took a sip and handed it over to Ji Gang.
Ji Gang did not take it. He said, “I’ve quit. Shifu doesn’t drink anymore.”
Silence descended in the hall. Without the shelter of the door, the snow fell before their very eyes, becoming the only scenery in this endless night.
Ji Gang asked, “Why are you in a daze?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Shifu.”
“Just say it if you have something to say.”
After a long silence, Ji Gang said, “It’s not your fault.”
Shen Zechuan clenched his fist. He stared at the snow as if the tears would fall if he blinked. His voice hitched as he said, “Did you go looking for us at Chashi?”
Ji Gang slowly leaned against the incense altar, burying his body within the shadows. It was as if he was looking for his own voice. After a long time, he said, “I went. I found him.”
He found him.
Ji Gang found his son – all covered in arrows – in the pit of snow. He had jumped into it and stepped across those thick piles of corpses to dig out Ji Mu’s body.
Ji Mu was only twenty-three of age. He had just been promoted to Squad Commander of the Duanzhou Garrison Army. His armor was new. The day he put it on, Hua Pingting hung a protective talisman for her son in the lock. When Ji Gang found him, he had been frozen purple along with his other comrades.
Shen Zechuan raised his head slightly and said, “Shifu, I’m sorry.”
Ji Gang was already old. He tousled his white hair and said, “He’s the elder brother, isn’t he? That’s what he should do. Everything that happened is not your fault. “
The snow fell for a moment.
Ji Gang huddled over and said, “Who would have known that those Biansha baldies would come? That he would become a soldier and charge to the very front of the battle is something that can’t be helped. I taught him martial arts, and with that temperament of his, you might as well kill him than to ask him to flee. He could hardly bear to see others suffer and dragged down. So how would he, how would he flee?”
“It’s not your fault or his. Shifu is the one to be blamed. I indulged in excessive drinking. Your shiniang scolded me for so long, but I never quit. When the cavalry came, I couldn’t even fight properly. At this age, I’m old and disabled. I’ve long gone useless.”
Water dripped onto the bottle gourd. Shen Zechuan gripped it and said nothing.
“Old and disabled.” A grinning head suddenly poked out from behind the Buddha statue and said, “Old and disabled!”
Ji Gang sprang up like a leopard and bellowed, “Who’s there?!”
The unkempt man gradually stretched his body out and imitated Ji Gang. “Who, who!”
When Ji Gang heard this voice clearly, he pressed Shen Zechuan down and involuntarily blurted out in astonishment, “… Grand Mentor7 Qi!”
The man speedily shrank his head back. Kicking the Buddha statue, he yelled, “I’m not! I’m not the Grand Mentor!”
Ji Gang ran a few steps behind the Buddha statue in pursuit. When he saw the man about to bore his way through a hole to flee, he could not help but pounce and grab him by the ankle. The man immediately let out a squeal like a pig being slaughtered and shouted, “Your Highness! Your Highness, flee quickly! “
Shen Zechuan covered his mouth and joined forces with Ji Gang to carry him back.
“Who is this?” Shen Zechuan asked.
“You are young, so you’ve never heard of him.” Ji Gang’s voice was unsteady as he pressed the man down and said, “Grand Mentor Qi, this is great! You are still alive! What about His Excellency Zhou? Is His Excellency Zhou here too?”
Grand Mentor Qi was thin and small. He could not kick them away, so he glared at them and whispered, “He’s dead, dead! I’m dead. His Highness is dead. Everyone is dead!”
Ji Gang said in a heavy voice, “Grand Mentor, I am Ji Gang! The Imperial Bodyguards Vice Commander, Ji Gang!”
Still badly shaken, Grand Mentor Qi hesitantly raised his neck to look at Ji Gang’s face. He said, “You’re not Ji Gang. You’re an evil spirit!”
Ji Gang said sorrowfully, “Grand Mentor! In the twenty-third year of Yongyi,8 I escorted you into the capital. This was where His Royal Highness the Crown Prince met and welcomed you. Have you forgotten this too?”
Grand Mentor Qi’s eyes glistened as he raved madly. “They killed the Crown Prince… Your Highness!” He sobbed and said, “Ji Gang, Your Excellency Ji! Take His Highness away! The Eastern Palace has become the target of public censure. What crime has His Highness committed?!”
Ji Gang dejectedly released his hands and said, “Grand Mentor… In the twenty-ninth year, Ji Lei sold himself to the enemy. I’ve already been kicked out of Qudu. In these twenty years, I’ve been reduced to a mere fugitive of the martial fraternity. I have also gone on to take a wife and fathered a child in Duanzhou of Zhongbo.”
Grand Mentor Qi stared at him blankly and said, “… His Highness is gone, but the Imperial Grandson is still around! Take him away. You, take him away!”
Ji Gang could not help but close his eyes and said, “In the thirtieth year of Yongyi, the Crown Prince slit his own throat and committed suicide in this place. No one from the Eastern Palace returned alive.”
Grand Mentor Qi leaned back and muttered. “That’s right, that’s right…” He sobbed like a child. “How did it come to this?”
This night had made Ji Gang mentally and physically exhausted. He said, “After the parting of drifting clouds, ten years have gone like flowing water.9 Who would expect that when we meet again in this life, it would be under such circumstances?”
Grand Mentor Qi turned his body to hide his face and said, “Did they lock you up too? Let them lock! Let them kill all the literati in this world.”
Ji Gang said, “My disciple is shouldering the blame for his father.”
Grand Mentor Qi said, “Shouldering the blame for his father… That’s great. Who’s his father? He couldn’t have angered His Majesty too, could he?”
Ji Gang sighed and said, “Last year, Shen Wei’s troops were defeated…”
He did not expect Grand Mentor Qi to turn his head suddenly upon hearing the words “Shen Wei” and crawled on all fours towards Shen Zechuan. He asked, “This, is Shen Wei’s son?”
Ji Gang had a sense of foreboding and was about to act when Grand Mentor Qi beat him to it and pounced. Making a grab for Shen Zechuan with his wizened fingers, he said savagely, “Shen Wei! Shen Wei killed His Highness!”
Sharp-eyed and agile, Shen Zechuan had already grasped Grand Mentor Qi by his wrists. Right after this, Ji Gang grabbed hold of Grand Mentor Qi and said, “Grand Mentor! Do you want my disciple to die today for the same reason the Imperial Grandson did? No matter what crimes Shen Wei committed, it has nothing to do with my disciple!”
Grand Mentor Qi gasped heavily and spoke in a trembling voice. “Since he’s Shen Wei’s son, Shen Wei’s son…”
“He was Shen Wei’s son when he was born.” Ji Gang held Grand Mentor Qi down and suddenly kowtowed. He continued, “But he later became Ji Gang’s son. If I utter a single word of falsehood tonight, then I’ll die a terrible death! Grand Mentor, are you going to kill my son?”
P/S: For those who missed it last chapter, the character glossary has been 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.
- The concept of Yin and Yang represents opposing forces such as life (yang) and death (yin), male (yang) and female (yin), light (yang) and darkness (yin), etc. Here, it simply refers to strips of alternating shadow and light on the ground.
囚车 literally a prison/prisoner wagon used to transport criminals over a long distance.
- 熬鹰 literally torturing falcons, it’s one of the ways to train them by not allowing it to sleep and torture it to exhaustion to wear down its wild nature.
- 年后 Refers to the lunar/Chinese new year
Ornamental thumb ring which is often made from jade, but in this case, it’s made of bone. It’s also typically worn by archers in ancient times to protect the right thumb when drawing a bowstring.
包袱, a cloth bundle. In the old days, people traveled around with their clothes and possessions bundled up with a piece of cloth. The bundle was then worn across the shoulders and carried around. It also works for carrying food around.
- 太傅 Grand Mentor, or Grand Tutor, was usually in charge of tutoring the Crown Prince.
- This is the name of an era during which a specific Emperor reigned.
- 浮云一别后，流水十年间 A line from the Tang poem, A Greeting on the Huai River to my Old Friends from Liangchuan 《淮上喜会梁州故人》 by Wei Yingwu (韦应物)