Book One, Chapter 14: The Praying Mantis

Shen Zechuan followed his usher into the room. He was brought to kneel just beyond a set of screens.

Emperor Xiande was reclining against the headboard, the Dowager sitting poised by his side. Pan Rugui stepped back slightly, taking a bowl of medicine with him, to reveal Shen Zechuan’s indistinct silhouette.

The Emperor collected himself with an effort before he spoke. “A patrol officer from the Eight Battalions reported that he saw your servant by the lakeside today. We would know this from you: what was he doing there?”

Shen Zechuan replied, “Your Majesty, Uncle Ge was waiting for Fu gongong from the Inner Palace.”

“Upon whose orders?”

Shen Zechuan hesitated, then touched his forehead to the ground. “Upon mine, Your Majesty.”

The Emperor coughed a little, then asked, “You are confined to the Temple of Penitence, and your necessities are provided monthly by the Palace administration. How did you come to have dealings with Xiao-Fu’zi?”

“By Your Majesty’s mercy, I have been permitted to reflect upon myself in the Temple, and by Your Majesty’s grace, I am fed and clothed as well. It is only that I had lately been plagued by a chill, which, on top of my old ailment from earlier years, was making it more difficult to rise each day.” A sorrowful note crept into Shen Zechuan’s voice. “Though the Palace provides sustenance, it does not supply medicine. Uncle Ge has served at the Temple for many years, and took pity on me. On my behalf, he asked Fu gonggong, who was on an errand outside the Palace, for some medication. Since we had made that connection, I then asked Uncle Ge if he could beg Fu gonggong to buy some prayer lamps for me.”

“You have no family remaining,” the Dowager asked, “What use would you have for prayer lamps?”

“I am conscious of the monstrous sin I bear, Your Majesty, and have always kept lamps lit day and night in the Temple to pray for Your Majesties, and read sutras for the loyal martyrs of the Battle of Chashi in Zhongbo.” Shen Zechuan explained earnestly. “I have grown some vegetables in the Temple, and Uncle Ge has sold them at the morning markets for some coin. With my condition the way it is, I would rather exchange those coins for prayer lamps, than waste them on medicine.”

“You do bear sin,” the Dowager sighed deeply, “But it is not an unforgivable sin.”

The Emperor cast his eyes down wearily. “Xiao-Fu’zi has died. Do you know of anyone he may have had conflict with?”

Shen Zechuan shook his head, and said quietly, “Though I ventured to ask Fu gonggong to buy lamps for me, I have neither seen nor corresponded with him.”

“What about you?” The Emperor indicated Ji Gang. “Have you ever heard him mention anything relevant?”

Ji Gang avoided the Emperor’s gaze, and replied coweringly like a common servant, “Your Majesty, Fu gonggong is always on errands when he leaves the Palace, with many things to do. He usually assigns one of his own servants to treat with me.”

Hearing this, the Emperor flicked a dry glance at Pan Rugui, who was doing his best to becoming one with the furniture.

Ji Gang continued, “There was only one time, when I was approaching Fu gonggong‘s palanquin, I overheard Fu gonggong say something about His Highness being furious and humiliated, and looking to find trouble with him. I was anxious to pass the money for the lamps to Fu gonggong, and I went much closer than I would otherwise. But Fu gonggong was very busy that day too, and instead asked me to wait for him at the West Garden today, which is why these officers saw me hanging about the lake.”

Pan Rugui asked, “Did you clearly hear him say “His Highness”, and not someone else?”

Ji Gang kowtowed repeatedly, saying, “I would never lie to Your Majesty. Lots of people saw me at the market that day. You would only need ask any of them to know that I have told the truth.”

The Emperor was silent for a long time. The bitter scent of medicine hung heavily in the air. The Dowager pressed her handkerchief to her nose, and leaned forward to say to the Emperor, “Your Majesty, it would not do to rely solely on Xiao Chi’ye’s testimony about Xiao-Fu’zi’s death. This crime was committed mere steps away from Your Majesty’s presence. If it is truly as this man says, and it was Prince Chu who wished to kill Xiao-Fu’zi, then we must ask ourselves why Xiao Chi’ye went to such lengths to prevaricate.”

“Your Majesty,” Pan Rugui added in a low voice, “Xiao-Fu’zi’s life is of little consequence. If Prince Chu had him killed to settle a private score, nothing more needs to be said, but matters may not be as simple as they appear. Xiao-Fu’zi leaves the Palace often, but Your Majesty seldom does. Why did Prince Chu pick this day of all days?”

Another fit of violent coughing overtook the Emperor. He brushed aside Pan Rugui’s hand, and dabbed away specks of blood with his own handkerchief. He said, looking at no one, “Jianheng is our own brother. We are most familiar with his character. Since we have come thus far in the investigation, let Ji Lei wrap it up. Xiao-Fu’zi had incurred resentment against himself by overstepping his station and becoming bloated with self-importance, as a dog does in the wake of his master. Let A’ye be confined to his manor for half a month, and let Ji Lei and Xi Gu’an be stripped of three months’ pay! Pan Rugui, make this known, and then let all of them outside be dismissed.”

“That’s…” Pan Rugui looked towards the Dowager.

The Dowager said nothing.

The Emperor then looked at her as well, saying keenly, “Our Imperial Mother, we are in the midst of troubled times. Autumn approaches, and there is unrest at the borders. With every passing day, there are more reports of friction in the trade markets. Military morale must be bolstered in Libei, Qidong, and the Borderlands. If we pursue this investigation to its bitter end, should too many become ensnared in its tangled webs, we may unintentionally cause distress to our borderlands. In the end, it will be the common folk who suffer the consequences. Though the ache of Zhongbo has faded, the disgrace of Zhongbo has yet to be redressed. Imperial Mother, this investigation should not be allowed to drag on, lest we cause more sorrow.”

The Dowager reached forward to tuck the Emperor’s covers in a little, nothing but concern on her face. “It is a blessing to our land and people that Your Majesty worries about matters of state even while indisposed. Pan Rugui, you may go.”

Pan Rugui acknowledged this, and slowly backed out of the door.

The Dowager continued, “As I see it, this eighth son of the Shen family is devoted to making amends for his sins, very unlike that man Shen Wei. He is a child who may be of service.”

The Emperor said, “He is not in good health, and may not be able to take on many duties. Let him rest quietly in the temple.”

But the Dowager gently withdrew her hands, and countered, “Your Majesty speaks wisely. However, since he has been summoned from the Temple, it may draw suspicion to the case if he is to be sent back again with no explanation at all. Wouldn’t that be contrary to Your Majesty’s intentions?”

The Emperor smiled wanly at that, and turned to say to Shen Zechuan, “You must remember Her Majesty’s benevolence in future, and never follow in the footsteps of your disloyal and unfilial father. Here— go to the Brocade Guard. There are twelve divisions, each with major or minor roles. You will find something you can do there.”

Shen Zechuan bowed low and kowtowed, thanking His Majesty for his kindness.

When everyone had gone, Emperor Xiande slumped over the side of his bed and threw up all of the medicine he had just taken. His fists had been clenched so tightly under his covers that the sheets were deeply creased. In the dim candlelight, the Emperor’s face was the ashen grey of a gravely ill man.

The Empress Dowager walked on Pan Rugui’s arm along the water gallery. Hua Xiangyi, carrying an armful of freshly-cut hibiscus, followed at a distance with her flock of girls-in-waiting.

“His Majesty has been growing more and more headstrong since his last illness,” the Dowager observed, taking slow steps. “How can a person so desperately ill still attend to affairs of state?”

“They say do say that when illness comes, it comes like an avalanche,” Pan Rugui replied. “His Majesty is becoming anxious.”

“When I chose Jianyun all those years ago, I favoured him for his mildness and piety. Over the years, though he has always been ill, it must be said that he has devoted himself to the work.” The Dowager glanced at Pan Rugui. “But who would have thought that he has such a fear of the Xiao family. Each time he encounters a choice, he tries to avoid causing any offence at all. But how can there be such a perfect option in reality?”

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to look to Your Majesty about matters in Qu Capital after all,” Pan Rugui said. “By and by, when Lady Concubine Wei begets a son, Your Majesty will have nothing more to worry about.”

The Dowager patted Pan Rugui’s arm lightly. She added meaningfully, “And before Concubine Wei has her son, I’ll be placing His Majesty’s health in your attentive hands.”

“As Your Majesty has instructed,” Pan Rugui replied, “This servant has been paying very close attention indeed.”


By the time Shen Zechuan re-emerged, most of the crowd outside had dispersed themselves. As he came down the steps with Ji Gang, they caught sight of Xiao Chi’ye riding away.

“Hasn’t the Imperial Guard been scrapped?” Shen Zechuan asked, noticing the form of his waist and thighs. “He doesn’t seem to have let his kungfu fall by the wayside though.”

“Specialises in mounted archery,” Ji Gang squinted at his retreating figure for a while. “I just wonder how much strength he’s got in him, since we’ve never traded blows. If he’d been able to draw the Heavenly Longbow five years ago, he can only be stronger now. Chuan-er, do not go hand to hand with him except as a last resort.”

Shen Zechuan said nothing, but they were startled when the subject of their gossip, almost past a street corner by then, abruptly checked his horse and spun around to come riding directly at them.

Shen Zechuan simply watched Xiao Chi’ye, neither dodging nor giving ground, as his horse galloped up close and sheared sharply past. Shen Zechuan’s sleeves billowed in their wake, and settled again.

“What’s this case to do with you,” Xiao Chi’ye’s horse circled Shen Zechuan.

“Nothing to do with me,” Shen Zechuan was smiling at him again, “But lots to do with Er-gongzi, I think.”

“Pan Rugui lost his dog, I landed face-first, somehow you’re the only one who picked up the spoils from today,” Xiao Chi’ye leaned down to peer at him. “Why, are you lucky as well as indestructible?”

“It’s just Er-gongzi‘s noble aura rubbing off on me,” Shen Zechuan replied humbly, raising his eyes to meet Xiao Chi’ye’s. “If Er-gongzi hadn’t made his move, how could I have found my way out?”

Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes were steeped in frost. “You’re pretty well-informed,” he said.

“Just a little trick up my sleeve,” Shen Zechuan replied.

Xiao Chi’ye looked up at the time of day. His gyrfalcon had caught a sparrow somewhere, and was circling above, calling for a reward.

“No matter if you’re out,” Xiao Chi’ye whistled, and the gyrfalcon swooped down onto the tiled roof. It ripped at the sparrow with its feet, neatly tearing it to shreds. He looked back at Shen Zechuan, “Qu Capital’s a big place, I’ve got to find some amusement for myself.”

“As expected of noblemen,” Shen Zechuan admired, “Even the amusements you seek are unconventional. None of the carnal delights of food or wine, women or gambling, you have to seek out a person to play with. But pleasure shared is pleasure doubled. Surely it’ll be no fun if I’m the only one playing with Er-gongzi.”

“I’m pretty amused just looking at you,” Xiao Chi’ye’s lips quirked as he fingered his riding whip. “Why would I need anyone else to stick their foot in?”

“That’s too kind of Er-gongzi,” Shen Zechuan said. “But I’ve found so many new friends for you.”

“Rather than worrying about me, how about thinking about yourself?” Xiao Chi’ye looked away. “You’ve got a good career ahead of you in the Brocade Guard. Ji Lei is ever so fond of you. He’ll be preparing a very warm welcome.”

Shen Zechuan chuckled softly. He regarded Xiao Chi’ye, eyes shining softly with mirth. He said gently, “Look at the bird in a cage calling to the fish in a pool. I’ve got a good career ahead of me, but aren’t you living in your own garden of delights? I’m a free agent with nothing to lose. Er-gongzi, can you say the same for yourself?”

To either side of him, lanterns swung high, their muted light drawing the eye to Shen Zechuan’s fine, translucent features. The gyrfalcon had devoured the last of its bloody meal, and swooped back onto Xiao Chi’ye’s shoulder.

“Since we’re both kept creatures,” Xiao Chi’ye flicked dust from his bird’s feathers, “Why even pretend to be free?”


At night, when Shen Zechuan returned to the temple, he took his medicine and came to sit at a small table in the yard with Grand Tutor Qi.

Ji Gang had put together a small courtyard on the Temple grounds. There was a little patch of bamboo by the Grand Tutor’s request, and an area sectioned off as a vegetable garden. It was a pleasantly cool place to sit on a summer night.

“His Majesty had no wish to dig deeper,” Shen Zechuan reported, “And he allowed me to get out just to protect Prince Chu from speculation. Everything went exactly as you anticipated, sir.”

“Whether everything has gone exactly as I thought, that remains to be seen.” Grand Tutor Qi tapped a Go stone on the table, and smacked his lips. “We talked a while ago about how His Majesty has been bedridden since the start of the year. He’s in the prime of his life and under the care of Imperial Physicians, and yet frailer than he was while still in his Prince’s manor. I think we can say Pan Rugui deserves much of the credit for that.”

Ji Gang spoke up from where he was crouched by the doorway, grinding stone. “Eight-tenths of his fury was directed at them. He even punished Ji Lei this time. That hatred must have been simmering for some time.”

“A man will grow bolder when he senses that he doesn’t have many days left to him,” Grand Tutor Qi said. “An Emperor like the one he has become will have spent his entire life making concession after concession.”

“The Dowager doesn’t like Prince Chu, only Prince Chu can take the throne at present. If those bites Ji Lei took at Prince Chu today were by instruction from Pan Rugui—” Shen Zechuan knit his browns briefly at the lingering taste of bitter medicine on his tongue, “— Then I’d believe it: Since Pan Rugui has resolved to drive Prince Chu off a cliff, he must have no further reservations. There must be another Imperial heir in the Palace who is far more easily manipulated than Prince Chu.”

“Surely not,” Ji Gang blew some dust off his work. “The Late Emperor was a disciplined man. Besides, if there really is another heir, how could they have kept him hidden all these years?”

“As long as they carry the Li bloodline, they are an Imperial heir,” the Grand Tutor put his stone down. “The Late Emperor may not have had any, but can’t the present one sire another? As soon as the Inner Palace births an heir and the current one perishes, the Dowager can sit in the throne at court with a babe in her arms, without even the pretense of her beaded veil. Then, once Hua Siqian is appointed Regent, all of Dazhou will truly belong to the Huas.”

“But Xiao Chi’ye is thick as thieves with Prince Chu. The Xiao family have everything to gain and nothing to lose by his coronation.” Shen Zechuan smoothed his fingers over the Go pieces. “Libei will not sit by and watch all that happen. As long as Prince Chu lives, Xiao Jiming can join forces with Lu Guangbai of the Borderlands to bear down on Qu Capital. The Eight Battalions cannot afford to fight that war with them.”

Grand Tutor Qi propped his elbows on the tabletop and scrabbled at his messy hair. “Lanzhou, think again! Hasn’t the Dowager thought of that? What did they want Xiao Chi’ye for five years ago? With Xiao Chi’ye in their grasp, Xiao Jiming would never make a single careless move. If the Capital’s Eight Battalions can’t win against the Libei Iron Cavalry, what about the Qidong Garrison? Surely the Qi family have no reason to get involved in Libei’s venture. Even for the simple sake of ‘honour and duty’, Qi Zhuying would send her troops against Xiao Jiming.”

As Shen Zechuan sank back into thought, Ji Gang interrupted, “Our current Emperor’s still alive for now, isn’t he! What’re you all fretting about? Our more urgent problem is tomorrow! Chuan-er will be walking into the Brocade Guard tomorrow, right into Ji Lei’s grasp. I’m extremely stressed out about that!”

“And that’s why I said not everything has gone as I thought!” Grand Tutor Qi cried irritably. “By putting Lanzhou in the Brocade Guard, the Emperor fulfilled his own agenda and gave the Dowager what she wanted at the same time. But does he really not remember who had been in charge of Lanzhou’s interrogation in the Imperial Prison? Having these two adversaries meet on a narrow path, what do you suppose he’s hoping will happen? And I’ve got a question for you too, Ji Gang! When you found Xiao-Fu’zi today, was he really still alive?”

Ji Gang smoothed powdered stone off the piece in his hand. He was quiet for a moment, then said, “It’s hard to say for sure. There wasn’t much time to get a good look.”

“That’s it,” Grand Tutor Qi looked to Shen Zechuan, “Have a good think about that. If Xiao-Fu’zi was already dead before we got to him… then who was the real killer?”

3 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 14: The Praying Mantis

  1. cezhou flirting by being passive aggressive to each other is one of my favorite moments of their pre-relationship. they really were just talking shit at every chance they could lmao.


  2. His Majesty had no wish to dig deeper,” Shen Zechuan reported, “And he allowed me to get out just to protect Prince Qi from speculation.

    Is Prince Qi here supposed to be Prince Chu, Li Jianheng?

    I really like SZC in this chapter!
    A good cezhou moment ~


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