Book One, Chapter 6: Confinement

On the day Shen Zechuan moved into the Temple of Penitence, Qu Capital welcomed its first cloudless day in some time. Clean white snow frosted the shingled, sloping palace rooftops, and crisp green plum flowers bloomed against its high, red walls. Sunlight cut across the eaves to sharply delineate light from shade on the ground before Shen Zechuan’s feet.

Freshly convalescent, he was but skin and bone. When he opened his eyes into the cutting north wind, every mote of his life before the age of fifteen blew clean away like so much ash.

Ge Qingqing went down the steps ahead of him. He turned to look back and prompted, “It’s getting late.”

Shen Zechuan slowly came down the steps, keeping a hand on the balusters. Coming into the stark sunlight, he was not entirely at ease, but neither did he shy away. Any child-like naïveté in his features had been ground away into a diaphanous pallor. Besides infirmity, his face gave nothing else away.

Ji Lei waited by the doorway of the Temple of Penitence, xiao-Fu’zi by his side. Xiao-Fu’zi was looking up at the towering relic before him, clearly impressed. “What a grand old temple. Doesn’t look like somewhere you’d lock people up at all.”

“You don’t know its history,” Ji Lei replied. “In the beginning, this was where the Imperial family went to pray. It used to house Emperor Guangcheng’s handwritten edicts. At the peak of its glory, this was a gathering ground for the most eminent monks in the land to make philosophical discourse.”

“Why haven’t I heard the masters mention it in the last few years?” Xiao-Fu’zi looked up and down at the temple doors. “It’s looking pretty run down. Must be some time since any repairs have been done?”

Ji Lei thought about it a moment, then said, “It’s been twenty years. Twenty years since the deposed Crown Prince incited the eight major battalions in Qu Capital to overthrow the crown. When they lost the battle, this was where he eventually fled to. He fought like a cornered rat in the temple, and finally cut his own throat, staining the statue of Buddha with blood. After that, the late Emperor never set foot in here again, and renamed it the Temple of Penitence.”

“Twenty years!” Xiao-Fu’zi shrilled, as if easily impressed. “I wasn’t even born then! Master Ji must have just joined the Brocade Guards at the time?”

Ji Lei did not answer, but turned to demand of the guards behind, “Why aren’t they here yet?”

Xiao-Fu’zi kept circling around the stone tablet engraved with the word “Penitence”. Finally, he asked Ji Lei, “But I haven’t heard of anyone being locked up here before?”

Ji Lei replied impatiently, “All the prisoners were ministers  associated with the deposed Crown Prince’s case. Whether they were scholars or officers, everyone in their family within nine degrees of relation was put to death. Scarcely anyone survived. It’s been twenty years, who would remember them!”

As they spoke, a prison wagon drew up. Ge Qingqing bowed to Ji Lei. “He’s here, sir.”

“Lead him in.”

Ji Lei turned to Shen Zechuan. “This may be the last time we see each other. You should spend the rest of your life reflecting on His Majesty’s boundless mercy.” 

Shen Zechuan did not appear to have heard him. As he stepped over the threshold of the Temple, its peeling crimson doors rumbled into movement. Shen Zechuan stood between the closing doors, looking at Ji Lei in a way that made the back of his neck prickle. Before he could do anything about it, however, he saw that Shen Zechuan was smiling.

He’s gone mad.

Ji Lei thought reflexively, but then he heard Shen Zechuan’s voice.

“Master Ji,” he said quietly, “See you later.”

The doors shut with a loud thud that threw up clouds of dust. Xiao-Fu’zi covered his nose and retreated, coughing, but Ji Lei stood motionless in the same place.

He called out a few times before Ji Lei recovered. He quickly mounted his horse, and only when the sun was warm upon his back again did he spit and mutter, “…what a blight.”


Xiao Chi’ye was riding on the streets when he ran right into Ji Lei. He reined in his horse and laughed, “Lao-Ji, aren’t you meant to be on duty in the palace?”

Ji Lei eyed the warhorse under Xiao Chi’ye’s saddle jealously. “I’m on my way back!”, he answered. “Had to escort that Shen remnant to the Temple today. Er-gongzi— what a great ride! I hear you break them in yourself?”

“Nothing better to do,” Xiao Chi’ye cracked his whip, and a gyrfalcon dropped from the skies onto his shoulder. “Falconry and training horses, that’s about all I’m good for.”

“You’ll have lots to do when you take your post after New Year’s,” Ji Lei said. “Say, nouveau riche of Qu capital— I’m off duty tomorrow, let’s go drinking?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I’m not going if the wine’s not good.”

Ji Lei laughed aloud, “The wine’s good, the wine’s definitely good! Who would dare ask Er-gongzi out without fine wine? I’ll come by later with a personal invitation. Would my lord the scion have time to join us?”

Xiao Chi’ye played with his bone-carved thumb ring. “My brother? Well, he doesn’t have a taste for these things. Why, won’t I make enough of an impression by myself?”

“I never said that!” replied Ji Lei quickly. “It’s settled then, Er-gongzi.” 

Xiao Chi’ye agreed, and spurred his horse to go. Then, just before he went, he seemed to remember and asked, “How did that remnant boy look, could he walk?”

“He could walk,” Ji Lei said, “but not too well as far as I could see. Not many come away from a court-ordered beating without some lasting damage. He’s lucky to be able to walk.”

Xiao Chi’ye said nothing else, and left on his horse.


Later in the day, servants in the Temple of Penitence brought Shen Zechuan his meal. He lit the oil lamp, but did not touch the food. Carrying the lamp with him, he made a round of the short corridor adjacent to the main hall.

Dust had had some years to accumulate there. Some of the side chambers were in ruins, their windows and doors hollowed by rot. Shen Zechuan came across some skeletal remains, but they collapsed when the wind stirred. As he did not find anything alive, he returned to the main hall.

The Buddha statue had fallen to pieces, but the incense altar, though ancient, was pretty sturdy. The space under it was just right. Shen Zechuan draped an old curtain over the altar and laid himself down in the space underneath, fully clothed. His legs throbbed in the cold. He closed his eyes and counted the hours, riding out the pain.

After midnight, it began to snow again, light and powdery. Shen Zechuan heard an owl hoot twice, and sat up. As he lifted his makeshift drapes, Ji Gang came in from the door. 

“Eat,” Ji Gang unpacked his bundle, “and then we’ll train. This place doesn’t keep the wind out at night. You’ll get sick if you go to sleep like this.”

Shen Zechuan looked at the roast chicken wrapped in wax paper. He said, “Convalescents should avoid eating meat. Teacher, you have it.”

“Rubbish!” Ji Gang said, pulling apart the roast chicken for him. “You’re precisely at the stage where you should eat your fill every day. Teacher prefers the tail meat, I liked it at home too. Leave that for me.”

Shen Zechuan said, “I’ll follow you. What you eat, I’ll eat.”

Ji Gang shot him a look and chuckled, “Little brat.”

They divided the roast chicken. Ji Gang’s teeth might have been made of iron, the way he crunched up even the bones. He handed his wine-gourd to Shen Zechuan, saying, “If it gets too cold to bear, drink some wine. But don’t drink too much, take measured sips like your brother did.”

In the days past, they had never brought up either Zhongbo or Duan province, and definitely never mentioned the Chashi sinkhole. Madam and Ji Mu were wounds they shared but never spoke of. Each of them imagined they hid it well. Unbeknownst to them, blood had seeped through their clumsy bindings, and grief pooled between them. 

Shen Zechuan took a sip and handed it back to Ji Gang.

Ji Gang did not take it back. He said, “I quit. Teacher’s not drinking anymore.”

The hall sank into silence. With the door open, the light snow drifted right before their eyes, the only view they had in this long night.

“What’re you brooding about?”, Ji Gang asked.

Shen Zechuan said, “Teacher.”

“Out with it.”

“I’m sorry.”

Ji Gang was quiet for a while. Then he said, “It’s not your fault.”

Shen Zechuan knitted his fingers together tightly. He stared out at the snow, as though tears would fall the instant he blinked. His voice was raw when he asked, “Did you look for us in Chashi?”

Ji Gang sank slowly back against the altar, burying his silhouette in the darkness. He seemed to be searching for his voice. After a very long time, he said, “I did. I found him.”

He found him.

In that deep snow-filled hole in the ground, beneath a thicket of arrows, Ji Gang had found his son. He had leapt down, stepped over that dense heap of corpses, and dug out Ji Mu’s body.

Ji Mu had only been twenty-three, had only just risen to the post of Flag Sergeant in the Duan province reserve troops. His armour had been brand new. The day he had put it on, Hua Pingting tied a protective charm to the the inside of his chain mail. When Ji Gang found him, his skin was purplish-blue, and he was frozen to his comrades. 

Shen Zechuan tilted his face slightly upward. “I’m sorry, Teacher,” he said again.

Ji Gang ran a rough hand through his aged white hair. “He’s your big brother. It’s what he should have done. None of that was your fault.”

Snow kept falling.

Ji Gang drew his arms and legs to himself. “No one could have expected the wasteland bastards to turn up. No one could have stopped him from joining up and rushing to the front lines. He was born the way he was, and I taught him to fight. He would have rather that you killed him than asked him to run away. He didn’t even like to see anyone overtax themselves at home. How could he… how could he run away from that?”

“It wasn’t your fault, either of you. It was mine. I drank too much, far too much, your Madam scolded me all the time for it, but I never quit. When the riders came, my fists were no good any more. I’ve become old and useless at my age. I’m no good to anyone.”

Shen Zechuan held on to the gourd in his hands. Something splashed onto it. He did not speak.

“Old and useless!” All of a sudden, a head popped up from behind the Buddha. “Old and useless!” it cackled.

Ji Gang was up in a thrice like a panther. “Who’s there!” 

The unwashed man slowly peeked out from his hiding place. “Who? Who?”, he parroted.

Ji Gang heard him well this time. He pressed Shen Zechuan back and cried aloud in astonishment, “…Grand Tutor Qi!”

The head shrank back immediately. “No! Not a Grand Tutor!”, it yelled, kicking at the statue. 

Ji Gang was behind the Buddha in a few quick steps, and caught the man just before he dove into some sort of bolt-hole. Ji Gang seized his ankle without thinking. The man screamed like a stuck pig. “Your Highness! Run, Your Highness!”

Shen Zechuan, following, clapped a hand over his mouth. Together, he and Ji Gang wrestled him back.

“Who is this?” Shen Zechuan asked.

“You’re too young to have heard of him,” Ji Gang answered unsteadily, still pinning the man down. “My god, Grand Tutor Qi! You’re still alive! What about Lord Zhou, is Lord Zhou here too?”

Grand Tutor Qi was a small, bird-boned man. Since he couldn’t kick Ji Gang away, he stared at him with wide eyes, whispering, “Dead, dead! I’m dead, His Highness is dead, everyone is dead!”

Ji Gang growled, “Grand Tutor, I am Ji Gang! Commander Ji Gang of the Brocade Guard!”

Still shaken, Grant Tutor Qi craned his neck to peer suspiciously at Ji Gang’s face. “You’re not Ji Gang, you’re a demon!”

“Grand Tutor!” Ji Gang pled, “In the twenty-third year of Yongyi, I escorted you into the capital. It was right here that His Highness the Crown Prince came to greet you. Have you forgotten that too?”

Grant Tutor Qi avoided his eyes, muttering wildly, “They killed the Crown Prince…His Highness the Crown Prince!” Then he sobbed, “Ji Gang, Master Ji! Take His Highness away! The East Palace has become a target of many enemies, but His Highness, what has His Highness ever done?”

Ji Gang released him, his arms dropping. “Grand Tutor… In the twenty-ninth year, Ji Lei sold himself to the other side, and I was thrown out of Qu capital. For the past twenty years I have been reduced to a Jianghu recluse. I raised my family in Zhongbo.”

Grand Tutor Qi stared blankly at him. “… His Highness is gone, but his son remains! Take him away, you, you take him and go!”  
Ji Gang shut his eyes. “In the thirty-first year, the Crown Prince took his own life here. They left no survivors in the East Palace.”

Grand Tutor Qi laid face-up on the ground now, murmuring, “That’s right, that’s right…” Then he began to weep like a child. “How did it all turn out like this?”

Utterly exhausted at this point, Ji Gang answered, ““We drifted lightly, cloud-like, apart/ Ten years passed like a rivulet, unmarked.” Who would have known that when we meet again, it would be under these circumstances.”1

Grand Tutor Qi turned away and covered his face. “Have they locked you up too? Come be locked up. Let them kill every scholar in the land.”

Ji Gang replied, “My pupil is answering for his father’s sins.”

Grand Tutor Qi said, “Answering for his father’s sins… very good, who is his father, did he offend the Emperor too?”

Ji Gang sighed, “Last year, Shen Wei…”

But all of a sudden, hearing the name “Shen Wei”, Grand Tutor Qi spun to look at Shen Zechuan, then crawled rapidly towards him on his hands and knees. “This is, Shen Wei’s son?”

Ji Gang sensed something amiss and reached out to stop him, but Grand Tutor Qi had already pounced. His twig-like fingers clawed at Shen Zechuan as he howled, “Shen Wei! Shen Wei killed His Highness!”

Shen Zechuan deftly caught Grand Tutor Qi’s wrists. Ji Gang seized him a moment later. “Grand Tutor!”, he cried. “Why did the Crown Prince’s son die? Will you have my pupil die of the same reason today? Whatever crimes Shen Wei had committed, what have they to do with my pupil?” 

Grand Tutor Qi was panting heavily. His voice trembled as he moaned, “But he’s Shen Wei’s son, Shen Wei’s son…”

“He was Shen Wei’s son when he was born,” Ji Lei still held Grand Tutor Qi’s arms, but kowtowed once, fiercely, to him before continuing, “but since then he has been my son, the son of Ji Gang. If I have said one false word to you tonight, let me never find peace in death. Grand Tutor, will you kill my son?”

[1] From 淮上喜会梁川故人 (A Pleasant Encounter with an Old Acquaintance from River Liang on River Huai) by 韦应物 Wei Yingwu. Translation mine with apologies.

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