Book One, Chapter 5: By a Thread

Medicine soaked the front of Shen Zechuan’s robes and spilt from the corners of his lips. The physician mopped at his own sweaty forehead anxiously. 

“Nothing’s going in,” he said, “He’s never going to last like this!”

Ge Qingqing stood by leaning on his sword. He looked at the boy for a moment, then asked, “You’re out of ideas then?”

The bowl trembled in the physician’s hand, its spoon rattling. He kowtowed fervidly at Ge Qingqing, saying, “It’s hopeless, hopeless! Better to make ready the straw mat to cover him, sir.”  

Ge Qingqing looked slightly vexed. “Keep feeding him,” he said to the physician, and left the room. Ji Lei stood waiting just outside the door. Ge Qingqing bowed and reported, “Sir, the physician says it’s no good.”

Ji Lei cracked a peanut shell and blew away some crumbs. “Is he dead?”

“Just hanging on by a thread,” Ge Qingqing replied. 

Ji Lei clasped his hands behind his back and looked at Shen Qingqing. “Then watch him well, and make sure he signs those confessions before he croaks.”

Ge Qingqing nodded acknowledgement and watched as Ji Lei left. He stood a moment in the yard, then turned to a subordinate beside him. “Call in the servant.”

Before long, a hunched figure swaddled in coarse hemp rags arrived with a cart. Night had fallen by this time, and security in the Imperial Prison had stepped up. Ge Qingqing lifted his lantern to see him better, then allowed the servant to follow him in.

The physician was gone, leaving just an oil lamp in the room. Shen Zechuan lay on the pallet, his face bloodless and his extremities cold as death.

Ge Qingqing stepped aside and said to the servant, “Uncle Ji… that’s him.”

The servant slowly unwrapped himself from the rags, revealing a face ruined by fire. Staring fixedly at Shen Zechuan, he took two steps forward and reached out a trembling hand to brush over the boy’s hair. Looking over Shen Zechuan’s stick-thin and bloodied form, tears streaked his weathered face.

“Chuan-er,” Ji Gang called hoarsely, “Teacher is here!”

Ge Qingqing blew out his lantern. “Don’t worry, Uncle Ji. Ever since we found out he was your pupil, the prison has kept an eye out for him. The interrogation procedures were made out to look harsh but didn’t cause serious injury. Out of respect for you, our brothers more or less held back with the court staff too, so he wouldn’t be crippled after twenty strokes. It’s only that those supervisor eunuchs are all sharp as a tack, so we didn’t dare let up too much. It’s fortunate that Lady Hua came when she did, or I daresay Pan gonggong would have become suspicious.”

Tears dripped from Ji Gang’s haggard face, his hair gone half-silver before his time. He swore, “I shall remember and repay this kindness!”

“Uncle Ji!” Ge Qingqing hastened to quell him, “How can you think like that! Our brothers owe you our lives and livelihood.” Then he sighed. “But the best laid plans of mice and men, huh. That kick by Young Master Xiao was truly grievous. Uncle Ji, can you still save him?”

Ji Gang studied Shen Zechuan’s pulses, and finally gave a painful smile. “Good boy, he’s done very well with the techniques A-mu taught him. All is not lost yet. Fear not, my child, Teacher is here!”

From the age of seven, Shen Zechuan had tagged along with Ji Mu to study martial arts under Ji Gang. The Ji Family Fist was a ferocious style that must be studied in complement with the Ji Family Precepts, such that only those with strong mental fortitude may master it. At home, Ji Gang had been a heavy drinker, and often plain forgot about the little one after teaching the older boy. Ji Mu took on the role of big brother and taught Shen Zechuan each form as he learnt it. They had gone on like that for years, and Shen Zechuan had unexpectedly picked it up very well. 

Ge Qingqing bent to look too, and said, “But he’s a child after all. This ordeal is going to wreck him. Uncle Ji, I’ve sent for someone to re-brew the physician’s prescription. See if you can get it into him.”

Fever parched Shen Zechuan.

He hurt everywhere. It felt as if he was lying in the middle of Qu capital’s main street, crushed under the trundling wheels of carriages coming and going.

Pain was an eternal fire that seared his body. In the darkness he dreamt of a white snowstorm, Ji Mu’s scarlet blood, the freezing sinkhole, and the raw force of that kick from Xiao Chi’ye.

Ji Lei was right. He might be better off dead. He had received his flesh and blood from Shen Wei, so now he must receive these punishments too. He had become a vessel of Shen Wei’s evil. He was the sinner at whom the ghosts of loyal soldiers will howl their grievances. He wore these chains and shackles now, and he would carry their weight forever.

But why should he die!

His teeth were abruptly pried open. Hot liquid rushed unforgivingly to the back of his throat, its acrid bitterness wetting his lashes. He heard a familiar voice calling, and fought to open his eyes.

Ji Gang held the medicine to his lips. With his other hand, he wiped at Shen Zechuan’s tears with coarse fingertips, saying softly, “Chuan-er, it’s Teacher!”

A desperate sound rose in Shen Zechuan’s throat, choking up tears and medicine at once. He reached out to hook his fingers in Ji Gang’s sleeves, cheeks tight against the fear that he was only a fever-dream.

Ji Gang turned his head imperceptibly, hiding his scarred face from the light of the oil lamp. “Chuan-er, don’t you think of dying!” he said. “You are the only one Teacher has left in this miserable life.”

Shen Zechuan’s tears broke their dam then. He turned his eyes away to stare up at the pitch black ceiling. In a voice like a wisp, he said, “Teacher…”

As the wind howled outside, his wavering gaze focused. Something furious condensed out of it. 

“I’m not dying,” he rasped. “Teacher, I’m not dying.”


The next day, the Emperor Xiande feasted his three armies. Besides the revelry arranged for the Libei Iron Cavalry and Qidong Reserve Troops outside the city limits, a banquet was held within the palace to fête their generals. 

Xiao Chi’ye had changed into his court attire today. As he took his place amongst the civil ministers, his presence unapologetically overwhelmed their mild-mannered refinement. On his robes, lions and wild beasts leapt from rolling clouds, creating an almost palpable turbulence about him. And yet, as he sat down to chat, all of his dissipated manners came to surface.

All around, ministers snuck glances at him as they buried their faces in their cups. They say that a tiger would never sire a pup, but how come only Xiao Jiming seems to have bred true?

In silent unison, they picked apart Xiao Chi’ye’s every move, coming to the conclusion that his cocky, flippant manner was heaven and earth to Xiao Jiming’s poised gravitas in his seat of honour up front.

“Don’t drift too far away,” Lu Guangbai sat beside Xiao Chi’ye. “Since His Majesty rewarded you, he’s sure to call on you later.”

Xiao Chi’ye rolled a walnut about his palm, looking slightly listless.

Lu Guangbai slanted a look at him. “You went out drinking last night, didn’t you.”

“Gotta seize the day,” Xiao Chi’ye replied, lounging in his seat. “Besides, if someone tries an assassination later, I can ride my buzz and play Fan Kuai to his Xiang Zhuang. Wouldn’t that be perfect?” 1

“Suits you,” Lu Guangbai poured some wine for himself. “But you’ll ruin your health with drink. If you still want to be a good commander one day, get rid of the habit.”

“Too bad I was born in the wrong time,” Xiao Chi’ye tossed Lu Guangbai one of his walnuts. “All four positions for General are filled now. I’ve missed my chance to play hero. If you feel like you’re not gonna make it one of these days, remember to give me a holler first, I’ll quit then.”

“Keep waiting,” Lu Guangbai said.

They snickered to themselves for a while. Midway through their cups, the conversation around them turned to Zhongbo and the Shen family.

Lu Guangbai held his walnut in his hand and turned an ear to the discussion for a while. Then he wondered aloud, “Weren’t we saying last night that the boy wasn’t going to make it?”

Zhao Hui’s voice came lowly from behind, “That’s right, didn’t gongzi say he sent him straight to hell?”

“Did I say that?” Xiao Chi’ye tried. The two of them looked at him in silence. He said, “What?”

Lu Guangbai: “He’s not dead.”

Zhao Hui: “He’s not dead.”

Xiao Chi’ye looked at both of them. “The hell’s it to do with me if he’s like a cockroach. The devil isn’t my dad.”

Lu Guangbai looked to the end of the hall. “Let’s wait to see what His Majesty does with him. He’s really got nine lives.”

Behind them, Zhao Hui bent his attention back to his food, saying offhand, “Someone must be helping him in secret.”

“He’s crippled, even if he’s not dead,” Xiao Chi’ye cast a cold eye towards the Hua family’s seats not far away. “Her Majesty is getting on in years. All she can do today is scrabble to get herself a homeless mutt.”

“Heaven help her.” Zhao Hui said tonelessly, stuffing a rib into his mouth. 

After several rounds of drinks, the Emperor supposed that the atmosphere had been suitably agreeable, and finally said, “Jiming.”

Xiao Jiming rose and bowed.

The Emperor slouched in his throne as if unsteadied by wine. “In the matter of Shen Wei’s defeat, there has been no hard evidence of his conspiracy in the end. So, that Shen…”

Pan Rugui leant forward to whisper, “Your Majesty, Shen Zechuan.”

The Emperor paused for a fraction, but did not continue his original thought. Instead, he turned to the Empress Dowager and asked, “What does my Imperial mother think?”

All chatter had stopped in the hall. The entire court bent to listen to the verdict.

The Empress Dowager wore a dark silk headdress gilded with gold clouds and trimmed with droplets of pearls. Earrings of gold filigree and azure kingfisher feathers ended in one magnificent pearl each. She sat in languid elegance upon the high dais. Her neatly oiled hair was frosted with touches of grey. No one in the hall lifted their head to look at her.

She said, “Shen Wei has caused great dismay to our men with his panicked and cowardly actions during Zhongbo’s battles. However, he has committed self-immolation to escape responsibility for his crimes. All of his sons have been lost in battle save this one low-born child. It is unvirtuous to eradicate a whole family. It would not be wrong to spare the child his life and teach him gratitude.”

The hall was quiet. Suddenly, Lu Guangbai spoke up. “Your subject thinks that is inadvisable.” He took three steps out of line and came to kneel in the middle of the hall. “Your Majesty is kind of heart, but the situation in Zhongbo is exceptional. Though there has been no evidence of Shen Wei’s collusion, there is significant suspicion of it. This child is a remnant of a family of criminals. If he is allowed to live, I fear that he will become a scorpion in our robes.”

The Dowager considered Lu Guangbai. Then she said, “The Lord of the Borderlands has kept watch over the great desert for many decades, and yet even he has not won every battle.”

Lu Guangbai replied, “My Lord Father is not undefeated, but in all those decades, neither has he allowed any enemy to push so deeply into our territories.”

The large pearls swayed gently by the Dowager’s ears. “And that is precisely why the child should be taught graces and virtues, so that he understands the lasting damage of this tragedy. How easy it is to kill one person. The wasteland riders have already trampled upon Zhongbo and slaughtered tens of thousands. The insult to our nation has yet to be redressed, but the children are innocent.”

“This subject also thinks it is inadvisable.”

Hai Liangyi, Deputy Advisor of the Cabinet, finally broke his silence. He braced himself against his table to rise, and went to his knees as well.

“Your Majesty is compassionate, but this is no trivial matter. Even if Shen Wei was not in collusion with the enemy, he should have been executed after the battle. Besides, this child has been thrice interrogated, and each time his statements have been inconsistent and confused. He is a low-born son sent to be raised elsewhere, but he insists that Shen Wei had not conspired with the enemy. Unless he knows that Shen Wei had in fact colluded, how can he be so certain that he had not? Evidently he is a cunning and deceitful child. Just as General Lu has said, if we keep this remnant of a wretched family, I fear he will grow into a scorpion!”

Instead of losing her temper, the Dowager only said, “Please rise, Elder Hai.”

Only after Pan Rugui had helped Hai Liangyi up did she continue, “Our esteemed ministers speak truly. I have been partial in my opinion. Let us allow His Majesty to make the final decision in this matter.”

Under a multitude of expectant gazes, the Emperor broke into  a violent, feeble coughing fit. He took the handkerchief that Pan Rugui offered and pressed it to his mouth, sinking into a lengthy silence. At last, he spoke.

“Our Imperial mother speaks not without merit. The children are innocent. But Shen Wei did after all lose his troops and abandon his cities to the enemy. These are not trivial crimes. However, considering that this child is his only bloodline within nine degrees of kinship, we will give the child a chance to reflect and repent. Ji Lei.”

“Your Majesty.”

“Convey this child to the Temple of Penitence and put him under strict watch. He may not leave without my word!”

Xiao Chi’ye tossed the crushed walnut into a dish.

“You’re not going to eat that?” Zhao Hui asked.

“It’s damaged and ruined. Who would want it,” Xiao Chi’ye answered.

Zhao Hui’s eyes tracked the rolling walnut in the dish. He said darkly, “Well, isn’t this a happy ending for everyone. We didn’t get what we wanted, and neither did they.”

“Better penned up than let out and about,” Lu Guangbai said, returning to his seat.

“Not necessarily better,” Xiao Chi’ye pointed to himself. “Haven’t I been penned up too?”
“Definitely better,” they said in unison.

[1] In Chapter Three, when warning Xiao Chi’ye that the Emperor may be laying a trap for them, Zhao Hui made reference to the Banquet of Hongmen (鸿门宴), similar to a modern English-speaking reference to the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones.
Here, Xiao Chi’ye calls back to that reference. Fan Kuai probably wasn’t already drunk when he stopped Xiang Zhuang from assassinating his General during the banquet, but he was rewarded approximately 2 litres of alcohol and one leg of pork, which he downed in one.

One thought on “Book One, Chapter 5: By a Thread

  1. i just love how lanzhou doesnt plan on dying just for the satisfaction of everyone who wants to make him suffer the crimes and sins of his good for nothing father. yes, sweetie, keep living out spite!! meanwhile no one is thrilled that lanzhou isnt going to be executed but kept under strict supervision so he can be humbled and repent.

    Liked by 1 person

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