Within an ill-lit cell in the Imperial Prison, Shen Zechuan slowly suffocated. His hands and feet were ice-cold. The hemp rope held his wrists like a vice. He chafed them against each other over and over, but nothing happened.
The sack of soil pressed unyieldingly on his chest. It felt as if he had been dropped into a bottomless lake. A ringing started in his ears, and his breaths came frenzied and shallow. He couldn’t breathe. He was drowning.
Shen Zechuan fixed his gaze on the firelight beyond his bars.
In the chamber outside, some Brocade Guards were engrossed in a loud drinking game, too intent upon their cups to spare Shen Zechuan a glance. Pinned to his rough straw mat, choking nausea overwhelmed him like floodwater.
Dark spots swam in his vision. Shen Zechuan pushed his head up, grit his teeth, and began to move his foot. After the beating, he could barely feel either of his legs, and his foot felt deadened even now as he lifted it. He set his foot on the left corner of his wooden bed. Worms had eaten the plank away. It had collapsed a little when he sat on it yesterday.
It was getting harder and harder to breathe.
Shen Zechuan stamped down on that corner as hard as he could, but his legs were so weak that it didn’t even make a sound. The bed board stayed where it was. Cold sweat poured from him, soaking the back of his shirt.
He wanted to live.
A desperate howl hissed in his throat. He bit through the tip of his tongue, and kicked down at the bed board again and again.
His last sight of Ji Mu’s body, barely human, was the lash that drove him to live. He could still hear his brother’s voice in his ear.
He wanted to live!
Shen Zechuan slammed viciously against the board. Finally, with a hard thump, half of the bed collapsed. His body pitched to one side, and the sack slid off onto the ground. He crashed to the floor, gasping for air.
The ground was ice-cold. Shen Zechuan’s battered legs were no longer co-operating. He propped himself up on his elbows, sweat dripping from his nose. His entire body was on fire, and his insides were roiling in flames. He finally let his head drop and retched onto the ground.
Shen Wei deserved to die.
There were one hundred and twenty thousand troops in Zhongbo, with each of its six provinces responsible for a portion of its border defense. The interrogator had spoken truly— when the wasteland riders overtook Chashi River and crossed Dun province’s line of defense, there had been a chance to overturn the field. Shen Wei had strength in troops and horses, ample supplies, and access to reinforcements from the reserve troops of Duan province’s three cities. Contrary to expectations, however, he had abandoned Duan province and gone to ground in his mansion in Dun.
That had been the beginning of the end for Zhongbo. The three cities of Duan were massacred by the wasteland riders. Its disheartened reserve troops fled southward. Everyone had imagined that Shen Wei would meet the twelve wasteland clans in a last-ditch battle in Dun province, but once again he had fled.
Zhongbo’s troops lost ground after ground. The wasteland riders pierced through its six provinces like a bright-edged blade. They came on their horses, clad in light armour, and fueling each victory almost completely off the plunder from their last, they had won through to within eight hundred Li of Da Zhou empire’s Qu capital.
If Shen Wei had so much as set fire to each city’s granary along his retreat, the wasteland riders could never have penetrated as far as they had. They had brought no supplies with them, and relied on the stores in their captured cities for rations. If the stores had been destroyed, even the strongest wasteland rider would have starved.
Starving troops would not fight. The Libei Iron Cavalry would have come from beyond the frozen river to block their retreat from the west. The reserve army from Qidong’s five counties would eliminate any further escape routes from Tianfei Gate. Those scimitar-wielding invaders would have been caught like crayfish in a pot. They never would have lasted the winter.
But Shen Wei had not.
Not only had he abandoned defense, he had left all of the cities’ granaries for the wasteland riders’ taking. Succoured by Da Liang’s grain, they had butchered Da Liang’s cities. Under Shen Wei’s auspices, their horses grew sleek and fat, easily running down civilians and captive soldiers alike at Chashi River, rounding them up neatly to be slaughtered in a single night at the sinkhole.
Shen Zechuan had escaped by the skin of his teeth.
As Qu capital began to settle its accounts, Shen Wei’s series of actions came across as irregular and suspect. It did seem as if he had been in collusion with the twelve wasteland clans. However, Shen Wei had committed self-immolation, turning both himself and all of his correspondences into a pile of ash. Even the formidable hand of the Brocade Guards had been tied by the lack of evidence.
If the Emperor wished to get to the bottom of the matter, their only recourse was to continue to interrogate Shen Zechuan, who might have been in the know. Unfortunately, Shen Zechuan’s mother had been a danseur in Duan— Shen Wei had had too many sons, and Shen Zechuan was both eighth in line and low-born. He had long ago been turned out by the Dun main house to fend for himself in Duan province. Even Shen Wei may not have remembered him.
Somebody was trying to kill him.
This was no secret. He had been brought into Qu capital to stand trial in his father’s stead. He was the sole remnant of Zhongbo’s Shen family, and the son must answer to his father’s debts. When he was wrung of all he was worth by the Imperial Prison, the emperor would unquestionably take his life as a tribute to the thirty thousand slaughtered soldiers at Chashi river.
But not like this. Not an assassination.
Shen Zechuan wiped the corner of his lips with his thumb and spat out the bloody froth in his mouth.
If Shen Wei had conspired with the enemy to plot a rebellion, Shen Zechuan would be executed sooner or later. Why would the Emperor take extra pains to assassinate a nameless, homeless low-born son? There were people in Qu capital who still waited on the results of the interrogation. A secret death would almost confirm that there had been another side of the story to Shen Wei’s defeat.
But Shen Zechuan knew nothing.
All he knew was his teacher in Duan. His teacher’s only son, Ji Mu, was his brother. Shen Wei was only Lord of Jianxing to him, and no more. He hadn’t a clue whether Shen Wei had colluded with the enemy or not.
But he must insist that he had not.
His bones ached from the cold floor. Sprawled like this, freezing, Shen Zechuan’s mind was clearer than it had been in the day. He was a major criminal taken under the custody of the Brocade Guard by Imperial decree. All of the warrants, permits, transfer papers, and passage authorisations had been issued from on high, taking him directly from the hands of Libei’s scion Xiao Jiming into the Imperial Prison, bypassing even a Tri-divisional hearing.
That was evidence of the Emperor’s unyielding resolve to come to the bottom of the matter. Who would be so bold as to take the risk, under those circumstances, to kill him before the Emperor could question him personally?
The winter winds still roared at the windows. Shen Zechuan stared at the walls around him in the dark, and did not dare close his eyes again.
At first light, Shen Zechuan was led to the main chamber again. Wind and snow whirled outside. His grim-faced interrogator was waiting attentively by the side of a grandmaster chair, all smiles, serving tea with both hands.
A clean-faced old eunuch sat in that chair. He wore an official smoke-mound hat of swan down, and illustrated robes in the palace style depicting fecund gourds. He had yet to remove his heavy coat, and held an exquisite gold-and-jade plum blossom hand warmer in his meditative lap. He opened his eyes only at the sound of their entry, and peered at Shen Zechuan.
“Godfather,” Ji Lei, Shen Zechuan’s court-appointed interrogator for these past few days, began. “This is the remnant scum of the Lord of Jianxing, Shen Wei.”
Pan Rugui peered at Shen Zechuan. “You’ve made a mess,” he said.
Ji Lei knew that Pan Rugui referred not to Shen Zechuan’s disheveled and malodorous appearance, but to his own inability to produce anything of substance from the interrogations.
Sweat crept from Ji Lei’s temples, but he dared not raise his sleeve to wipe them. Maintaining his crouched posture, he answered, “This boy is uneducated and ignorant, and has not recovered his senses since he was brought in from Zhongbo. Some person has been in his ear, and he refuses to confess.”
“This is a major criminal summoned by Imperial decree,” Pan Rugui did not accept the tea. “A child— fifteen? Sixteen? —who has entered the infamous Imperial Prison to be interrogated by Master Ji yourself. And yet you can hand me nothing today.”
Ji Lei held the tea, making a grimace of a smile. “It is precisely because he is an Imperial criminal that we dared not use torture without sanction. He was already ill when he arrived. If we killed him accidentally, Shen Wei’s case would grow cold.”
Pan Rugui contemplated Shen Zechuan for a moment.
“We’re all dogs under our masters’ chairs. If we lose our teeth, there’d be no point keeping us around. I know you were put in a difficult position, but all that was asked was for you to do your duty. His Majesty has summoned the criminal now— doesn’t that show his understanding for your position? How can you grumble still.”
Ji Lei bowed down deeply. “Godfather is right, I accept your teachings.”
Pan Rugui made a sound of approval through his nose. “Now clean him up. How can he approach the Emperor looking like this?”
Shen Zechuan was led away by servants to be washed. The wounds on his legs were bandaged, and he was dressed in clean cotton clothes. He went where he was led, though climbing into the carriage became somewhat of a to-do, as he could not walk well.
Pan Rugui finally accepted some tea from Ji Lei. “This is really the Shen family’s last remnant?”
“Indeed,” Ji Lei replied. “He was the only survivor from the Chashi sinkhole, personally captured by Libei’s scion, Master Xiao, and locked in the Libei Iron Cavalry’s prison car ever since. No one had been allowed to approach.”
Pan Rugui sipped his cold tea. After a moment, he smiled coldly. “Master Xiao is a careful man.”
Shen Zechuan left the carriage to be escorted down a long road by Brocade Guards. Heavy snow buffeted their faces like goose down. The ushering eunuchs kept a fast pace and made no idle chatter.
When Pan Rugui arrived at Mingli Hall, he was immediately met by the junior eunuchs waiting under its eaves for him. They took his coat, helped him into new over-robes, and accepted his hand warmer from him. Inside, he had already been announced. Pan Rugui made his obeisance by the door, saying, “Your Majesty, your servant has brought the boy.”
After a moment, a low, measured voice came from within. “Bring him in.”
In the time it took for Shen Zechuan’s breath to hitch, he had been marched in. The inside smelt of incense, but not stiflingly so. He could hear an uneven coughing, and saw from the corners of his eyes rows of feet on either side of the hall.
The Emperor Xiande wore mountain blue Taoist robes that draped over his thin frame. He was frail, and had been plagued by a variegation of minor and major illnesses in the three years since his succession. Seated in the throne in this moment, his moderate, pallid face gave a mild and elegant impression.
“Ji Lei has questioned the criminal for some days,” Emperor Xiande glanced at the man kneeling near the back of the hall. “Have you obtained an answer?”
Ji Lei kowtowed. “Your Majesty, this boy’s account is muddled and full of inconsistency. His confessions in these few days have been highly contradictory, and are not to be believed.”
“Bring it to me,” said Emperor Xiande.
Ji Lei produced the collated confessions from his robes and passed them to Pan Rugui with both hands. Pan Rugui hurried up to the Emperor and presented the papers with a bow.
Emperor Xiande began to read. As he came to the Chashi incident, he covered his mouth to cough harshly. Waving away Pan Rugui, he produced a cloth to daub away the tint of blood between his lips. He said grimly, “Thirty thousand of my men’s lives were lost at the sinkhole. If Shen Wei had kept his life, neither the gods nor mortal men would keep their peace.”
Shen Zechuan shut his eyes, his heart beginning to pound. Indeed, in the next moment, Emperor Xiande spoke again.
“Raise your head!”
Shen Zechuan’s breaths came quicker. His palms were icy where they pressed to the ground. He looked up slowly, resting his gaze cautiously on Emperor Xiande’s boots.
The Emperor Xiande asked, “Son of Shen Wei, the only living man in Chashi sinkhole— what have you to say?”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes grew red. He knelt, shaking, and only wept.
Emperor Xiande’s expression did not change. “Answer me!”
For just a second, Shen Zechuan raised his eyes to him, tears dripping from his cheeks. Then he thumped his forehead to the ground heavily. His shoulders trembled. His voice was tight and choked.
“Your Majesty… Your Majesty! My father gave his heart to his country. When he was defeated, he felt that he had failed his homeland and disgraced our elders in Zhongbo, and took his own life as penance!”
Emperor Xiande snapped, “Nonsense! If he meant to serve his country, why had he retreated time and time again?”
Shen Zechuan’s voice was hoarse. “My father sent all of his sons to the battlefield. My eldest brother, Shen Zhouji, was dragged behind the wastelanders’ horses until dead! Would he have done all of this if not for loyalty and love?”
“You dare speak of the Chashi battle?” Emperor Xiande thundered. “Shen Zhouji fled in the face of battle. His desertion is unforgivable.”
Shen Zechuan raised his face to look at the Emperor Xiande, tears streaming, and rasped, “Blood flowed in rivers at Chashi. Incompetent and unwise as my brother was, he held the battleground for three days, and in those three days he sent word to Qidong and Libei. If not for those three days…”
His sobs choked him.
The Emperor Xiande looked at the confessions in his hands. There was not another sound in that hall save Shen Zechuan’s weeping. In that endless silence, the tips of Shen Zechuan’s fingers cut into the flesh of his palm.
Emperor Xiande gave a long sigh. Finally, he simply asked, “Did Shen Wei conspire with the enemy?”
Shen Zechuan replied resolutely, “He did not.”
To his surprise, the Emperor flung down the papers, his voice turning abruptly frosty. “You are a conniving child who would lie to his sovereign. We will not suffer you to live! Pan Rugui, take him away. He is sentenced to death by the rod at Duancheng Gate!”
“At Your Majesty’s command!” Pan Rugui bowed and withdrew.
Shen Zechuan’s whole body turned to ice, as though a basin of snowmelt had been flung over his face. He twisted and fought against hands that came to grasp at him, but a hand clapped fast around his mouth, and he was quickly dragged out of Mingli Hall.
5 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 2: Death by the Rod”
What a cliffhanger
I can’t imagine how much the MC is in pain right now ;( he doesn’t seem to know what that Shen Wei did exactly and yet he is being tortured for saying what he knows and not what the torturers want to hear ;((
I hope he escape this situation quickly!
i will never get over how everyone was so quick to put all the responsibility on szc just because he’s the only living son left and someone has to answer for shen wei’s crimes. he’s even going to be sentenced to death for crimes he didn’t commit, his only sin was being shen wei’s son and everyone will continue to hold that over his head for as long as he’s alive which is so beyond f*cked.
Thanks for translation, seriously! Such quality!
I know Lianyin is updating but we have to offer proof of purchase and I rather buy it published instead of buying the chinese raws as I can’t read them as an English reader. Imo I think translators are overstepping in stipulating readers to buy chinese raws they can’t read repeatedly and enforcing regulations that don’t belong to them entirely.
Do I understand? Of course. Entirely? No.
Either way, I humbly thank you for letting the chapters be open. Much appreciated.
Thank you for following along, Ginny ❤ There is a smidgeon of guilt there I think, because we're revising an author's work without their knowledge or permission (though I did email t97's agent and have not received any reply), so I think we do try to alleviate that feeling a little by asking that people support the original author. However, I do also think everyone should be free to pay what they can, when they can – I'm guilty of reading a ton of 'free' books myself before having the income to support authors properly 😛
Shouldn’t it be Mingli Hall and not Liming hall? At the last line of this chapter.
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