Book One, Chapter 1: Bitter Winds

[Book One: I was an outcast liege]

Chapter One: Bitter Winds  

“When Shen Wei, Lord of Jianxing, was defeated in the north-east at Chashi River, the whole line of defense fell to pieces at Dun province. Thirty thousand soldiers were buried alive at the Chashi sinkhole, and you were amongst their number. Why are you the only one left alive?”  
Shen Zechuan sat silently, his gaze unfocused.  

The interrogator slammed a fist on his table and bore forwards, malice in his eyes.   
“It’s because Shen Wei was in collusion with the twelve wasteland clans! He would have made a gift of the six Zhongbo provinces to the wastelands. He was plotting to take down Qu Capital by striking from both sides of the wall. That’s why the wasteland riders spared your life, isn’t it?”  
Shen Zechuan’s cracked lips moved slightly with the effort of understanding the questions. His throat moved slowly up and down in a dry swallow.  
“N… no.”  
“Shen Wei has committed self-immolation from fear of prosecution, and his letters of collusion have already been delivered to His Majesty by the Brocade Guard. How dare you, his son, continue to deny his crimes!”  
Shen Zechuan’s head weighed heavy with lack of sleep. He felt as though he was hanging by a thin thread, miles and miles above the ground. One slip, and he would shatter to pieces.  
The interrogator smoothed out the record of his confessions and passed his eye across it.   
“You said last night that you survived the Chashi sinkhole because your elder brother saved you, is that right?”  
Scenes from that day returned to waver before Shen Zechuan’s eyes. The ground had sunk so deep. Countless men piled one on top of another, not one struggling to the surface. Corpses packed deeper and deeper underfoot. Desert riders circling the sinkhole, the cutting whistle of stray arrows in the howl of a bitter wind. Darkness. Blood lapping at his calves. Screams of anguish and the gasping rattle of dying men inches from his ear.  
Shen Zechuan’s breaths came quicker and shallower. He was shaking in his chair. He seized handfuls of his hair to control himself, his throat making uncontained choking sounds.  
“You were lying.”  The interrogator raised the confession record and flicked it at Shen Zechuan.  
“Your elder brother is the firstborn son of the Lord of Jianxing, Shen Zhouji. Before the battle at the Chashi sinkhole, he deserted thirty thousand men to run away with his personal guard. He was caught by the wasteland riders and dragged to his death on the main road by Chashi river. When the twelve wasteland clans descended upon the soldiers in the sinkhole, he was long dead. He could not have saved you.”

Cacophony in Shen Zechuan’s head. The interrogator’s voice seemed so far away. There was an endless, terrified howling in his ears.  
Which way was out? Where were the reinforcements? There were bodies pushing up on other bodies, and he could feel putrefying flesh on his hands. He was lying on a bloodstained corpse. Mu-ge was above him, shielding his head. He laid there listening to Mu-ge‘s rapid panting, his throat stopped up with desperate sobs.  

“Your big brother’s got three heads and six arms,” Ji Mu winched out a smile, but his face was already soaked with tears, his voice breaking. “I’m a fortress made of steel! If I just hold up a little longer, it’ll all be over, you’ll see! If we hold on a little longer, the reinforcements will arrive. Then we’ll go home, and we’ll find mum and dad, and your sister-in-law too…”

The interrogator slapped the table. “Tell me the truth!”  
Shen Zechuan writhed in his chair, as if struggling against invisible restraints. A swarm of Brocade Guards pinned him to the table.

“Here in our Imperial Prison, we don’t like to use the heavy stuff on kids. But if you’re going to be ungrateful, then you can’t blame us for getting serious. Guards! Bring the rod!” 

They bound Shen Zechuan’s arms with rope and dragged him to the clear space at the centre of the chamber. They flung down a long bench and secured his feet to it. A broad-shouldered man raised his prison-rod, hefted it once in his hands, and brought it down with a crack.

“I’m going to ask you one more time,” the interrogator said slowly, skimming the froth from his tea. He took a few leisurely sips before continuing. “Did Shen Wei collude to commit treason?”

Shen Zechuan bit down hard, grating out between heavy blows, “No! He did not!”

The interrogator laid his teacup back on the table. “See, if you lot had shown this kind of grit on the battlefield, we wouldn’t have you in here today. Keep hitting him!”  

The blows were beginning to overwhelm Shen Zechuan. He pressed his face against the bench and could only rasp out again, “Shen Wei didn’t collude…” 

“The defeat at Chashi River was wholly the result of Shen Wei’s careless command. Even so, there was a chance to recover Dun province after Chashi River, but he then ordered a retreat despite significant advantage in numbers. As a result of his actions, all three cities in Duan province fell to the wasteland clans, and tens of thousands of citizens lost their lives under their scimitars!”  

The interrogator stopped to breathe out harshly. He continued hatefully, “Blood was running in rivers in the six Zhongbo provinces. In Shen Wei’s southward retreat, his battle at Deng province was most suspicious of all! The reserve army of Qidong’s Chi county had already passed Tianfei Gate on their way to join his forces, but he threw away the chance to execute a pincer attack, diverted thousands of soldiers to escort his household to Dan city, and caused the complete collapse of Deng city’s defense— could that be anything but a deliberate move? If the Libei Iron Cavalry had not charged across the frozen River in just three days and three nights, the desert riders should be at the gates of Qu Capital now!”

Shen Zechuan was barely conscious now. He was drenched in cold sweat. The interrogator flung his confessions at him in disgust, and the parchment landed on the back of his head.  

“‘Rather a mangy cur than a lord of Zhongbo birth!’ Shen Wei has made himself the enemy of all of Zhou. You would deny everything? You may not!!”

The pain was paralytic. Shen Zechuan lay prone on the bench, his confessions rustling before his eyes. Each distinct, ink-black word was a whiplash of humiliation on his face, a declaration to all the world—  
Shen Wei was a traitor to his country, lower than a cur.

He had choked the streets of the Six Provinces with corpses. Even now, no one had yet begun to recover any of the bodies in the Chashi sinkhole. Dun province had been annihilated.

Shen Wei had burnt himself to ashes, but his ghastly debt had to be borne by a living soul. Shen Wei’s flock of wives and collection of sons were wiped out when the wasteland clans overtook Dun province. Only Shen Zechuan, lowest-born, had been spared— he had been raised outside the family.

When they dragged Shen Zechuan back to his cell, the heels of his feet left bloody streaks along the ground. He was left to gaze at his bare cell wall and its small, narrow window. Without, there was the howl of a bitter wind, the furious patter of snow, and the endless depth of ink-dark night.

In his delirium, the hollow windsong swept him back into the sinkhole.

Ji Mu’s strength was failing. Each breath was a heaving effort. Blood trickled down his helmet onto Shen Zechuan’s nape, rapidly freezing in the air. The screaming had gone quiet. Only tortured moans and the winter gale remained.

Shen Zechuan was nose to nose with the mangled face of a dead soldier. His legs were trapped under sagging carcasses. The corner of someone’s shield dug into his stomach. Every pant was blood-scented. He was crying soundlessly, teeth clenched against sobs. Absently, he studied that trampled face. He didn’t know if it was a soldier he’d recognise. 

“Brother,” Shen Zechuan whimpered, “I- I’m so scared…”

Ji Mu swallowed. He petted Shen Zechuan’s head lightly, saying, “It’s okay… it’s okay.”

Shen Zechuan caught a shred of song on the fierce wind. Dying soldiers were singing into the wintry night.

We fought south of the walls,
And died north of the forts
Dead in the wilderness and unburied, the crows may eat us.” 1

“Brother”, Shen Zechuan whispered beneath him, “I’ll carry you on my back…”  

Ji Mu’s body was a buckling shield. He smiled and said hoarsely, “Your brother can walk.”

“Have you been shot?”

“No.” Ji Mu’s face was dry now. He said lightly, “…them sandy bastards can’t shoot straight.”

Even Shen Zechuan’s fingers were soaked in gore. He wiped his face gingerly. “Madam made dumplings today. When we get home, we’ll eat so many.”

Ji Mu sighed. “…I’m a slow eater… don’t… don’t steal my share.”

Shen Zechuan nodded hard.  

Snow slowly blanketed Ji Mu’s body. He was so drowsy, his voice so faint. He hadn’t the strength to lift even one of his fingers. The song they sang was a slow song. When they came to “Brave horsemen fought here and died,” Ji Mu closed his eyes.1  
Shen Zechuan said, “I’ll… I’ll give you my savings… for your wedding.”  

Ji Mu was silent. As if he had grown bored of talking to him, and had accidentally gone to sleep.

Shen Zechuan’s whole body shook. He couldn’t remember when the desert riders had finally left, or how he had crawled out. When he heaved himself onto his arms, there was only a dead silence in heavy snow. Piles of bodies cushioned his knees like discarded sandbags.

Shen Zechuan turned to look back, and lost his voice in a flood of tears.

The back of Ji Mu’s torso was a forest made of arrow shafts. He lay curled like a woodland porcupine. So much blood had spilt onto Shen Zechuan’s back, but he hadn’t sensed a thing.

The dull thunder of galloping hooves. Shen Zechuan woke with a start.

He would have retched, but was immediately distracted. His wrists were bound tightly again, and a muddy hemp sack lay on his chest.  
The sack was growing heavier and heavier, pressing the air from his lungs. He couldn’t make a sound. This was the popular “Dirt Burial”, reserved by the prison for those criminals who no longer needed to be alive. It would leave no mark on him. If he hadn’t woken up just then, Shen Zechuan would have been stone cold by daybreak.

Someone was trying to kill him!

[1] From 铙歌十八曲·战城南 (Eighteen Songs for the Short Panpipe and Nao Bell: We Fought South of the Walls). With heavy reference from Jui-Lung Su’s translation, found in C4.4 of How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology, edited by Zong-Qi Cai.

7 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 1: Bitter Winds

  1. Hello,
    I thought I would leave a comment on the first chapter to not disturb the newer ones and because as I’m super excited to read your translation as this is one of my favorite novels.

    I was wondering if it is okay to ask some questions! I’m genuine asking and by no means any harm, I’m sorry if it comes off a little blunt as English is not my first langauge.
    Regardless of whether you will reply or not I am looking forward to read your work!

    1. Would you consider your translation a localization or fan translation?
    2. I have read the other translation by Lianyi and their translation seems to have a lot more text (?) compared to yours and I was wondering if it comes from them editing in more words to make it flow better in English or if you decided to only include the directly what is written in chinese?

    Thank you for your hard work om translating and sharing your work! Really looking forward to future chapters !!


    1. Hi! Thank you for your questions!

      1. Absolutely both, but if i had to choose between them I’d be striving more towards localisation. Or more precisely, the intent is to allow the English reader to have the same experience of the text, as (I judge) the author intended, as the Chinese reader. If I am able to make a semi-literal translation that serves this purpose, then I am over the moon to be able to use it. But readability and vibes come first 🙂 We read QJJ for the cezhou vibes, after all ;D

      2. I have deliberately steered clear of reading Lianyin’s translation, so I’m afraid I can’t quite answer this question! However, I can say that I do try to condense portions of the text that do not necessarily need to be translated verbatim (provided that I can do so without omitting relevant information), because I have noticed that if I attempt a very precise translation (as I did the first few chapters), the word count climbs and the text flow suffers. Basically, if I can get the same idea across in fewer words, I will.

      I am in no way a professional translator – I had to google localisation vs translation to make sure I’m answering your question properly! This project began because I wanted my friends to experience QJJ and cezhou as I did. The translation style will continue to evolve (hopefully for the better), and I am still looking for Ce’an and Lanzhou’s distinct voices in English. I will always remain extremely open to critique and suggestions on my translation choices, so please reach out if you have them!!

      Thank you for following along!


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