Book One, Chapter 33: Uncle and Nephew

When Li Jianheng had finished smashing his things, he subsided into sobs, face in his hands.

Xiao Chi’ye picked a clear spot amongst the debris and knelt, waiting. A while later, when Li Jianheng had got a hold of himself a little, he finally said, “Oh, get up! You don’t have to kneel there like that. It puts a wall between us as brothers.”

Xiao Chi’ye got up. “The Elder is simply a forthright man.”

Li Jianheng held face in his hands for a long time, disconsolate. He said, “…They come asking for money almost every day, and each time I’ve let them have it. We’re practically haemorrhaging silver, but I’ve never said a word about it. I’m living my life on a tightrope these days, I’ve got no appetite, and everything sucks. Now that Hua Siqian is dead, and Ji Lei is going to the gallows, can’t I even ask for a few days of breathing space? Ce’an, you don’t know this, but they’re all enormously disgruntled about the fact that I’m sitting on this throne. If there had been any other choice in the world, they would never have had me.”

He was getting upset again.

“But did I ever want to be Emperor? They were the ones who shoved me up here, and now they’re the ones who criticise me! The Censors have their eyes glued to me day and night. I just went out to look at some flowers the other day, and they wrote me essays to chew me out about it with big words! If it was just the matter of a eunuch, then kill him and be done with it, but why can’t he, Hai Renshi, leave me with some dignity? I’m the Emperor of Dazhou, for fuck’s sake!”

Li Jianheng grew angrier as he spoke, but there was nothing left on the table for him to throw, so he thumped a fist into his own leg furiously.

“He made it out as if Muru was some kind of unsavoury low-life, but are any of them saints either? Back when we were drinking on Donglong Avenue together, every one of them was a proper gentleman on the outside, until their pants came off and they all turned out as scummy as each other! I’d handpicked Muru from a good family to begin with. If it hadn’t been for that cur Xiao-Fu’zi getting in my way, how could she have ever ended up in that Pan-bastard’s hands? My heart could’ve shattered for her!”

Li Jianheng poured all of his grievances out as Xiao Chi’ye listened, making no comments. When he finally stopped, most of his anger had blown away.

“If they really treated me like an Emperor, and paid me a little respect, I’d have been happy to apply myself and learn to rule. My Imperial brother gave this vast nation into my care, and I want it to prosper as much as anyone does.” Li Jianheng whined, “…but Hai Renshi doesn’t think I’m worth it.”

Xiao Chi’ye spoke up now for the first time, “On the contrary, it is precisely because the Elder has great expectations of Your Majesty, that he speaks so bluntly and sternly. Your Majesty must not begrudge him for it. You must know that Elder Hai is equally severe and demanding towards Yao Wenyu, that “refined jade cut of nascent stone”, as well.”

Li Jianheng did not know whether to believe him. “Really?”, he asked.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Why else would the Elder have ordered Shuanglu to his death today?”

Li Jianheng mulled this over to himself for a while. “…You have a point.”

If Hai Liangyi did not value him, why would he consult with him on every little thing?

Li Jianheng recalled the days just after his coronation, when the Dowager was sending him dimsums every day. When Hai Liangyi learnt of it, he had made an effort to warn Li Jianheng privately to swap out all of his spoons and chopsticks for silver ones.

Hai Liangyi was an uncompromising man, scarce of words and even scarcer of smiles. But unlike Hua Siqian, he claimed no disciples, and had only a single student in Yao Wenyu. And even a man of such scholarship and talent as Yao Wenyu had yet, to this day, to take up a role in government, ostensibly to avoid any suggestion of partiality on Hai Liangyi’s part. He had never joined anyone’s party within the cabinet, and on the Nanling hunting grounds, he had been the only person to put it all on the line and break from the crowd to save his Emperor.

He was the solitary minister that the books wrote about, that isolated peak, that upright pine which rises a thousand ren without division.

As Li Jianheng reminisced, Xiao Chi’ye had his own thoughts to chew over.

Li Jianheng had said one lucid thing amongst all that: had there been any other option in the world, Li Jianheng would not have been the man to ascend to the throne that day. But not even Emperor Xiande had found a way out of it. Li Jianheng might well be the only fit candidate to be found, whether in heaven or on earth.

And since they had sat him on the throne, they must guide him in his seat. At present, Dazhou’s future appeared fraught. Qu Capital may seem to have quelled its latest wave of unrest, but the tide had long since begun to swell anew.

Every true and loyal minister, with Hai Liangyi at their lead, had their eyes on Li Jianheng. He may be nothing but a piece of driftwood to them, but Hai Liangyi had lifted both of his wizened hands, and set his ancient spine behind Li Jianheng, demanding that he stuck it out, that he set himself back on track, that he became a sovereign whose name history would remember.

Xiao Chi’ye had never got along with civil ministers, because Qu Capital’s inner circles were wary of the military power held by the border lands. These men were the invisible cage which held him captive here, but were also the tough old bones which still held Dazhou upright enough to totter along for now.

Military commanders did not fear death, because they must not.

Civil ministers did not fear death, because they did not condescend to do so.

Li Jianheng was well-accustomed to sycophants, and was in urgent need of a mentor like Hai Liangyi, who would put in a harsh word where it was needed.

“When it comes down to it, Lady Mu has no status to call her own. If Your Majesty has the inclination, why not find some time to have a heart-to-heart with the Elder? This is a time when Dazhou is hurting for successors to the Imperial line. If Your Majesty is willing to speak candidly about this, the Elder would not brush your sincerity aside.” Xiao Chi’ye said. “As for Ji Lei and Pan Rugui, I hear that the Court of Judicial Review has yet to pass their sentence?”

Li Jianheng’s head was, for the moment, filled with thoughts of Hai Liangyi’s goodness, and he nodded distractedly and said, “The accounts don’t match up, they have to go over them again…”


The eastern pearl was hollow on the inside. When Shen Zechuan worked the narrow strip of cloth out from within, the words on it had been soaked into unintelligibility. He burnt it.

Every move Xiao Chi’ye had made last night, he had made right in front of him. He might have fumbled upon the pearl, but he never could have read what it had said on the inside. Nevertheless, it would have raised Xiao Chi’ye’s suspicions. Shen Zechuan had given the wrong answer to his question on Feng hill. Xiao Chi’ye had gone out on a limb to divulge the source of the Imperial Guard’s income to him, hoping to get an honest word out of Shen Zechuan, but he had given such a categorical denial instead.

Shen Zechuan brewed his medication, and drank it in one. Its bitterness suffused his mouth, and he savoured it like a reminder of his loss and pain, reviewed each day and each night. At the end of it, he smiled a little in scorn, wiped his mouth, and went to sleep.

Once again, he dreamt.

A bleak wind still howled over the Chashi sinkhole of his dreams. This time, he was not lying at the bottom, but standing all alone at the mouth of the pit, looking down upon the forty thousand soldiers who struggled like insects for their lives.

The Wasteland Riders circled the sinkhole like a black tide in the night, utterly blotting out all hope for the Zhongbo garrison soldiers, transforming the terrain into a slaughteryard.

From the roiling sea of bones, a hand stretched upwards. Like a puppet on strings, Ji Mu’s arrow-ridden torso rose out of the mass, crying brokenly at Shen Zechuan, “It hurts…”

Shen Zechuan stood as if carved from wood, neither able to move nor to cry out. His breaths came in short, sharp bursts, and he was drenched in cold sweat, his teeth clenched tightly together.

The figure at the head of the Wasteland Riders wore a helmet. His hair, which tumbled loose in the wind, had turned into a dark red in Shen Zechuan’s recurring nightmares. He raised an arm, pointed easily at the sinkhole, and arrows swarmed like locusts from behind him, sinking densely into bodies, piercing skin and flesh, bringing up sprays of blood.

The snow, too, was turning red, as far as the eye could see. Shen Zechuan watched Ji Mu sink into the morass of blood, where he was swallowed whole by the viscous, scarlet wave.

His hands were cold. His blood, too, was cold.

Shen Zechuan woke up.

As if nothing had happened, he sat up against the bright light coming through his window, and took a moment to collect himself, his head bent. Then he went to put his clothes on.

The undercover guards at the house watched Shen Zechuan walk out the door, break his fast, then head towards the bath house.

An hour later, the ever-vigilant guard frowned, and asked his partner, “Why hasn’t he come out yet?”

The two men exchanged a look, both of them getting a bad feeling. When the guards rushed into the bath house, there was only a neatly folded stack of clothes waiting for them, and Shen Zechuan was long gone.

Xi Hongxuan had booked out Bu’er House for a tea party. Nature eventually called, and he got up to use the facilities. He had just left the room, and was not a long way down the corridor, when he received a light tap.

Xi Hongxuan turned, and nearly retreated a few steps backward. Then he said, “Why… why do you always come out of nowhere!”

“It’s been busy.” Shen Zechuan tipped out his cold tea. “The Court of Judicial Review has gone over the case thrice, but Ji Lei and Pan Rugui remain unsentenced. It’s because neither Hai Liangyi nor Xue Xiuzhuo have been able to pry what they’re after from either of their mouths, isn’t it.”

Xi Hongxuan looked all about him, then said in a low voice, “I know you want to kill Ji Lei, but what can you do when all eyes are on him? The Hua case had a wide circle of impact, and there are far too many people living in fear of getting dragged down by those two. Hai Liangyi had them placed under heavy guard specifically to prevent any sudden and mysterious deaths. You won’t be able to make your move.”

“I’m not going to make my move,” Shen Zechuan smiled disdainfully at Xi Hongxuan, “But I do have a way to make Ji Lei talk.”

Xi Hongxuan stared at him for a while, then lifted Shen Zechuan’s teapot and personally poured him a cup of tea. “…What way is that?”

Shen Zechuan sipped his tea, and said, “Let me see Ji Lei.”


Ji Lei lay prone in his cell, shackled, barefoot, and unkempt after days of torture. He listened as someone approached, and then his cell door opened. A bag was put over his head, and he was dragged out

Ji Lei was shoved onto a carriage, and then after some time, pulled out of it, and thrown onto a floor. It was quiet all around, save for a dripping in a corner of the room.

Ji Lei struggled upright, and through the black cloth sack called, “Who is it?”

A drop of water fell with a loud plash, dashing itself away. No one answered.

A chill began to form along Ji Lei’s spine. Propped up on his arms, he tried, “…Elder Hai?”

And still no one answered him.

Ji Lei’s throat bobbed, and he shuffled forward on his knees, until he bumped into an iron rail. He fumbled to steady himself, and shouted, “If it isn’t Elder Hai, then it must be Xue Xiuzhuo! What will you torment me with today? Bring it on!”

“…Speak! Why won’t you speak?!”

“Who is it, who are you? What do you want… did you think I’d be spooked if you won’t talk to me? I’m not afraid… I’m not afraid of you!”

Ji Lei bent over and tore the bag off between his arms. His eyes roved until he saw, directly in front of him, Shen Zechuan sitting in a chair.

Shen Zechuan was dressed in a set of moon-blue robes, one hand laid on an armrest, and the other propped under his chin. He was watching Ji Lei expressionlessly.

A laugh gurgled from Ji Lei’s throat. He clutched at the rails, pressing his face between them, and said in darkly, “Ah, it’s you… the cur from Zhongbo. What do you want me for, creature? To seek revenge for your Teacher, or revenge for yourself?”

Shen Zechuan said nothing. His soulful eyes were emptied of mirth, and all that remained within them was a leaden, pitch-black consideration.

Ji Lei could not even find any hatred there, as if what sat before him was not a person of flesh and blood, but a ravening stray dog who was beginning to learn the taste of human meat.

Ji Lei’s eyes darkened, and he snarled, “If the Ji family has no successors, you were the one who severed Ji Gang’s line. What are you looking at me for? Shen Zechuan, it was your family, the Shens, who killed Ji Mu, and it was your family, the Shens, who ravaged Hua Pingting. How have you been able to look at yourself, all these years you’ve been alive? You are the ghoul indebted to tens of thousands of wronged souls, you are the offshoots of Shen Wei’s miserable, scrabbling existence, you should be flayed by a thousand cuts…”

Ji Lei chuckled softly, appearing slightly unhinged.

“Did you think I would be afraid of you? A mongrel that no-one will take, did you think you’d make it big if you took off your pants and tagged after that Xiao boy? Haha!”

But Shen Zechuan was chuckling too.

Ji Lei’s laughter faded, and he sneered, “Funny, is it? Where I am today, is where you will be tomorrow.”

Shen Zechuan put his leg down and leant back in his chair, as if musing something over. Then he said, “I’m so frightened.”

From his first word, his voice carried a feather-light mockery.

“Ghoul, mongrel, cur, creature.” Shen Zechuan got up, and came to crouch before the iron grate. As he looked at Ji Lei, laughter rose out of him, and he said, madly but repressively, “You’re right, I am all of those. I am the ghoul which has clawed its way out of the Chashi sinkhole, the mongrel left behind when Shen Wei burnt himself to ashes, the homeless cur, and the creature for every man to spit on and curse. You know me so well, Teacher-Uncle, I’m so happy.”

Ji Lei began to shake. He could not stop himself.

Shen Zechuan watched him, his eyes far more malevolent than they had been years ago. It was almost as if, underneath that exquisite skin-suit, the human within had died, and what had survived was only a beast without a name.

“Five years ago,” Shen Zechuan leant closer to the rails to study Ji Lei’s fearful expression. He said softly, “I was the one kneeling in this place, wasn’t I? On the day you sent me into the Temple of Penitence, what was it that you said to me?”

Ji Lei’s throat constricted. He wanted to answer, but he could not make words.

“I did spend a good amount of time reflecting on the boundless mercy from each of you,” Shen Zechuan said earnestly. “I thought about it every day, and every night.”

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