Book One, Chapter 3: Birds of Prey

Pan Rugui strode towards Duancheng Gate, where Brocade Guard lieutenants stood at attention on either side, quiet as winter cicadas. He took up position before them to read the Emperor’s verbal edict for all to hear. At the last word, the Guards jumped to action.

Shen Zechuan’s mouth was gagged. Practised hands wrapped him in a thick cotton under-robe, then pressed him to lie face-down on the ground.

Against a cold wind, Pan Rugui peered down to examine Shen Zechuan in his predicament. He coughed delicately behind his fingers and murmured, “Child, you have some nerve, making theatre in front of His Majesty. If you had made an honest confession of Shen Wei’s treason, you might have lived.”

Shen Zechuan shut his eyes. Cold sweat drenched his clothes.

Pan Rugui straightened up. “Positions.”

Either side, Brocade Guard lieutenants thundered, “Positions!” and then, “Strike!”

At once the barbed, iron-plated court staves whistled down to smash into Shen Zechuan’s back.

Three strokes later, he heard again, “Strike harder!”  
Shen Zechuan was ablaze with pain. He couldn’t move except to bite down on the gag in his mouth. Blood swelled in his throat faster than he could swallow, and his mouth was full of its salty, bitter tang. His breath came in small, ragged bursts. He kept his eyes open. They stung with sweat.

Clouds loomed overhead. Snow was falling as thick as cotton wadding.

It was no simple thing to be asked to wield a court staff. It is said that a penitent was “stunned by twenty and ruined at fifty”— there were many secrets to its execution, usually passed down from father to son. It was as much an art as any other trade. Moreover, the role required not just skill, but an equal amount of tact. For which person the rod should fall lightly and land heavy, and to which the rod should fall heavily and land like a feather, the experienced chastiser would know simply from a glance at the supervising eunuchs from the Office of Ceremony.

Today, the sentence from the Emperor was death. Neither did Pan Rugui give any sign of sympathy, which meant that the matter was beyond redemption. They had a dead man before them. The Brocade Guards put their backs into it— they would send him on his way before fifty strokes were up.

When Shen Zechuan’s head lolled to the side and his body fell limp, Pan Rugui raised his sleeves, still cocooning a hand warmer, as if about to say something. However, just in that moment, he caught sight of a parasol floating towards them from the footpath, a pretty court lady in its shadow.

The storm clouds over Pan Rugui’s countenance vanished immediately, and a pleasant smile took their place. Though he did not go to receive her himself, a junior eunuch by his side astutely ran forward to offer his arm.

“Our compliments to Lady Hua,” Pan Rugui said, taking two steps towards her. “It is much too cold to be out today— if Her Majesty the Empress Dowager requires anything, my lady should have sent word with a servant.”

Hua Xiangyi raised a hand lightly to indicate that the Brocade Guards need not move to greet her. She was an exquisite young lady. Having been raised at the Dowager’s knees, she sometimes carried in her eyes a remarkable likeness to Her Majesty in her youthful days. In Qu capital, though she is named only as the Hua family’s third daughter, everyone knew that she was the darling of the palace— even the Emperor cared for her like his own younger sister.

Hua Xiangyi asked mildly, “Gonggong, is that the son of Zhongbo’s Shen family, Shen Zechuan on the ground there?”

“That’s the one,” Pan Rugui replied, keeping with Hua Xiangyi’s languid pace. “His Majesty gave orders just moments ago that he is to be put to death by the rod.”

“His Majesty was quite vexed just moments ago,” Hua Xiangyi said. “If Shen Zechuan dies, there will always be uncertainty around Shen Wei’s case. Her Majesty the Dowager arrived at Mingli Hall some minutes ago— His Majesty has taken her counsel, and his mood has turned somewhat gentler.”

“Aiyo!” Pan Rugui exclaimed sympathetically, “Indeed His Majesty will only listen to our Matriarch’s counsel. Such a temper he was in just now, we would not have dared open our mouths to suggest mercy!”

Hua Xiangyi smiled at Pan Rugui. “His Majesty ordered ‘punishment by the rod’; hasn’t gonggong carried it out?”

Pan Rugui took a few more steps, then smiled back at her. “That’s it! In all our haste back there we only heard His Majesty say ‘the rod’, so we went ahead and gave him a fine beating. I wonder what we should do with the boy now?”

Hua Xiangyi swept a look at Shen Zechuan. “Put him back in the prison until His Majesty asks for him again. The life and death of this child is rather consequential, I hope gonggong will let Master Ji know to look after him attentively.”

“Of course,” Pan Rugui agreed. “Ji Lei would never dare disregard my lady’s instructions. It’s cold and slippery today, xiao-Fu’zi, mind you go steady with Lady Hua.”

When Hua Xiangyi had gone, Pan Rugui turned to the twin rows of Brocade Guards. “Since His Majesty ordered ‘punishment by the rod’, by my reckoning we’ve given him enough of a thrashing. Take him back to the cell. You’ve all heard Lady Hua’s words— those are Her Majesty’s words also. Go back and tell this to Ji Lei: there are all manners of precious saints involved in this case. If this boy comes to any grief under his care…” Pan Rugui cleared his throat deliberately, “…even the Heavenly King himself couldn’t save his head from the chopper.”

When xiao-Fu’zi returned to Pan Rugui’s side, he looked to see that the long path before them was clear before asking softly, “Grandfather, will His Majesty really not reproach us for letting him go just like that?”

“His Majesty knows how it is,” Pan Rugui said, treading snow. “The cards do not fall on our heads.”

Snowflakes pushed into his fur collar as they walked.   
“An Emperor must never appear to be fickle; his word must be worth its weight in gold. This invasion by the wasteland clans has caused another blow to His Majesty’s health— lately he has been making ready to bequeath the title of Princess to Lady Hua, simply to please the Dowager. Right now, if the Dowager asks it of him, His Majesty would accede to much more than just sparing the life of one boy.” 

Pan Rugui turned to look at xiao-Fu’zi.  
“And when have you known the Dowager to change her edict?”

Investigation or no, their true master the one who had the final word.


Shen Zechuan was burning up. He saw Ji Mu before him, sometimes as he had looked moments before his death, but sometimes as he had been while they still lived in Duan.

Flags are fluttering in Duan province. A hanging screen lifts, and Madam emerges with a white porcelain bowl in her other hand. Fat, thin-skinned dumplings fill the bowl.

“Call your brother back!” Madam calls. “Does that boy ever stop? Tell him to hurry back for lunch.”

Shen Zechuan vaults the balustrade and runs up the corridor to Madam, who feeds him a dumpling off her chopsticks before he’s gone again. Huffing from the hot dumpling, he runs into his teacher Ji Gang on the steps outside their door, and comes to perch beside him. 

Ji Gang is sanding down a boulder. He turns his head to harrumph at Shen Zechuan. “Is a dumpling worth getting this excited over, kid? Call your brother home, we’ll go have a proper feast at Yuanyang Loft, just us boys.”

Before Shen Zechuan can make an answer, Madam has Ji Gang by his ear. “Too good for dumplings, huh? If your pockets are that fat what’d you get a wife for? Take these two idiot boys and go live by yourselves then!”

Shen Zechuan laughs out loud and skipped down the steps, waving to his teacher and his wife before running off down the alley to find his big brother Ji Mu.

Snow was falling thickly in his path. Shen Zechuan couldn’t find his brother. He walked farther and farther, growing colder and colder.


Shen Zechuan called around him.

“Ji Mu! Come home for lunch!”

The sound of hooves came closer and closer, until it surrounded him. The heavy snow was blinding. Shen Zechuan was swamped by the clamour of galloping horses, but he couldn’t see anyone. A maelstrom of carnage exploded against his ears. Hot blood splashed on his face. A sudden agony in both his legs, and Shen Zechuan was forced to the ground by an unforgiving pressure.

He saw them again, dead men inches from his face. A storm of arrows howling in the wind. The person on his back, weighing him down, that sticky, warm liquid tracking down his face and neck.

He knew what it was this time.

Shen Zechuan woke shaking, drenched in sweat, shivering uncontrollably from the cold. He lay prone on the bed board, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.

There was someone in the cell still, a servant cleaning up waste, lighting the oil lamp.

Shen Zechuan was parched. The servant seemed to sense this, and placed a bowl of cool water on the bed board. Shen Zechuan nudged the bowl closer with his fingers, inch by inch, spilling half of it. His body flushed hot and cold by turns.

No one spoke. When the servant left, only Shen Zechuan remained. He drifted in and out of consciousness. The night seemed endless. When was day break?

When the servant came again to change Shen Zechuan’s dressings, he was much more awake. Ji Lei was there too, looking at him coldly through the bars of his cell. “Seems you got lucky this time. They do say that vermin live forever. The Empress Dowager has spared your life, and you probably don’t even know why.”

Shen Zechuan didn’t move.

Ji Lei said, “I know that Ji Gang was your teacher. Jianghu Recluse Ji Gang. Twenty years ago, he and I were brothers serving in the Brocade Guard together. You probably don’t know this, but he was a commander of the minor third rank. His Ji Clan Fist? I know it too.”

Shen Zechuan raised his head to look at him.

Ji Lei opened the cell door. When the last servant had left, he came to sit by Shen Zechuan’s bed.

“Later on he got into trouble, so much trouble that he would have been put to death for it. But the late Emperor was a compassionate man, and instead he was exiled beyond Guanma Way.” Ji Lei grinned at Shen Zechuan from the shadows. “Your teacher— he wasn’t good for much, but he had luck on his side. Guess how he survived— exactly as you have today! Because of his wife. Who is his wife? You probably don’t know that either. I’ll tell you— her name is Hua Pingting. Qu Capital contains the eight cities of Cennan, amongst which Di City is governed by the Hua family. The same Hua family to which our Empress Dowager belongs. So— why did Her Majesty spare your life? Because of your teacher’s wife.”

Ji Lei bent his head close to whisper.  
“But does anyone know that she was killed in all that chaos? Didn’t I say that Ji Gang was a good-for-nothing? Twenty years ago he lost his father, and twenty years later he’s lost his wife and son. Do you know who killed them? I think deep down you do, you know better than anyone. It was Shen Wei!”

Shen Zechuan’s breath caught.

“Shen Wei opened up the defences at Chashi River and allowed wasteland riders to run amok. Their scimitars cut open your Madam’s throat. But even before she took her last breath, enough had happened to make Ji Gang wish he was dead, hadn’t it?”

“When Duan province fell, you said your brother rescued you.” Ji Lei leaned back in his chair, idly examining its hand-rest. “Ji Mu, right? You were raised by Ji Gang, so Ji Mu was your brother. He was Ji Gang’s only son, his only legacy, and the Ji family’s last blood. But because of Shen Wei, because of you— he’s dead too. Pierced by a thousand arrows, left to be trampled by wasteland horses in the sinkhole. If Ji Gang is still alive, I wonder what he thought when he went to bury his son.”

Shen Zechuan made a sudden move to rise. Ji Lei shoved him back down easily.

“Shen Wei committed treason and conspiracy. That is a debt you must carry. Each day you live, the ghosts of tens of thousands of wronged souls in Zhongbo will cry out in fury. When you fall asleep at night, there will be plenty of time to figure out which of those voices is your teacher’s and which of them his wife’s! You live today, but aren’t you better off dead? Can you ever forgive Shen Wei? If you forgive Shen Wei, if you absolve him, then you insult your teacher’s family. Will you be disloyal and unfilial to the man who raised you?”

“Besides— even if you drag out your pathetic life— no one would have an ounce of sympathy for you. When you arrived in Qu Capital, you became Shen Wei. The people are furious. Countless people wish you dead. You will die, sooner or later. Rather than dying in ambiguity, you should tell His Majesty everything you know about Shen Wei’s crimes. Think of it as a consolation to your teacher’s heavenly spirit.”

Ji Lei stopped suddenly. He saw that Shen Zechuan, still pinned to the bed, was smiling. Then the expression on the boy’s ghastly pale face turned terribly cold.

“Shen Wei did not collude.”

Shen Zechuan bit out each word, one syllable at a time.

“Shen Wei did not collude!”

Ji Lei seized Shen Zechuan and slammed him against the wall with a dull thud. Dust fell. The impact knocked the breath out of Shen Zechuan, and he began to cough.

“There are so many ways to kill you,” Ji Lei snarled. “Ungrateful little mongrel. Did you really think you would live past today because you were lucky enough to snatch a second chance?” 

He jerked Shen Zechuan to himself, kicked open the cell door, and dragged him out.

“I must act impartially upon the Dowager’s edict. But there are many in Dazhou who are free to do as they please. If you are going to be inconceivably stupid about this, I will give you what you want. You want to die? Here’s your executioner!”

Qu Capital’s city gates were thrown wide open. An ink-black troop of heavy cavalry was thundering in at speed.

Shen Zechuan was dragged into the middle of the path. As the Brocade Guards scattered, the dense crowd also parted to clear the way for the contingent.

Libei’s birds of prey circled in the heavens. The resonant crash of armour hammered at his heart. The thunder of hooves grew louder. As the foremost armoured horse came charging directly at him, Shen Zechuan could only stand and watch.

Under heavy armour, the warhorse was a snarling beast, snorting hot clouds of steam. In the blink of an eye he was within a few strides of Shen Zechuan. Seconds before collision, he checked abruptly, front hooves rearing high. Before he could come to a full stop, his rider had already vaulted off.

Ji Lei came forward and called, “Xiao……”

Without sparing Ji Lei a glance, the man strode towards Shen Zechuan. He barely had the chance to shift his shackles before the man lashed out with a foot and kicked him directly in his chest!

There was such force behind the kick that Shen Zechuan had no time to swallow the blood that welled from his mouth. He flew backwards and retched up what was probably all of his organs.

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