“What.. what the hell…” At the sight of the smile on Shen Zechuan’s face, Ji Lei abruptly began to shuffle backwards along the rails. “What the hell do you want with me!”
“You’re asking me, are you?” Shen Zechuan said cheerfully. “Is that the question you’re asking me?”
His eyes darkened. Shen Zechuan beckoned loftily at Ji Lei. Ji Lei did not move. He pressed his back against the wall, unwilling to come an inch closer to Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan said, “Prisoners are but dumb beasts in a slaughter-yard, waiting for the butcher’s knife, Teacher-Uncle. Do you really dare ask me that question?”
Ji Lei said, “What’s the worst you can do, kill me?”
“It’s such a rare occasion that we manage to get together, you and I, uncle and nephew. There’s barely enough time to have any fun. How could I be in such a hurry to kill you?” Shen Zechuan’s thumb smoothed over a rail, and his voice softened. “You won’t speak, because you think you’ve found an opening to exploit. While you carry those secrets of yours, you’re too precious to touch. Life in the penitentiary suits you more. All your needs are provided for, and you’re safe here. There’s also Pan Rugui to keep you company, and spades of time to kill. It’s a merry and easy life.”
Ji Lei was dripped with cold sweat. He glued himself to the wall, no longer meeting Shen Zechuan’s eyes.
“But all happy times are fleeting, Uncle. As long as your tongue is intact, whether you lose a leg, or break an arm, or have your eyes carved out, none of that really matters. A few months ago, you treated me to a course of grilled donkey. I didn’t get a taste then, but there’s a long night ahead of us now, perfect for washing down a bit of wine with some company.” A thin blade slid from between Shen Zechuan’s fingers, and clinked lightly in the space between the rails. He said, “Ji Lei, it’s time for a toast.”
“You’ve— gone— mad!” Ji Lei stretched his neck forward, snarling out each syllable. “Shen Zechuan, you’ve lost it!”
“I’ve lost it,” Shen Zechuan agreed, his gaze fixed steadily on him.
“How dare you lay a finger on me?” Ji Lei snarled, “The Dowager owns that head on your neck. How dare you touch a single hair on my head!”
Shen Zechuan brightened up again, and said sunnily, “Teacher-Uncle, why do you insist on saying such laughable things tonight? Who did you think asked me to come?”
Ji Lei was outraged. “You’re ly—”
“Shen Wei died.” Shen Zechuan quenched Ji Lei’s voice at once. “On the day Shen Wei performed self-immolation, they say that the very skies were aflame over the Lord of Jianxing’s manor in Dun province. His unrecognisable body was dragged out of the wreckage by the Brocade Guard, and hung on Dun province’s city wall to be spat on and cursed. I didn’t get to see that with my own eyes, but over the past years, I’ve tried again and again to imagine it. And as I thought about it, over and over, I finally realised something.”
Ji Lei swallowed.
“His great collusion scheme had succeeded; wouldn’t it have been easier on him then to switch sides? Duan province had fallen by then; if he had led his troops forward, he could have joined up with the Wasteland Riders, and together they could have taken Qu Capital before the Libei Iron Cavalry could ford the River of Ice. But he was so afraid, so afraid that he did nothing but cower, and retreat.” Shen Zechuan stood. “He’d done it, his plan had worked, and he was only going to find his way out by moving forward. But he kept retreating. Even if he had been a worthless half-wit, he would have known that he could only be backing away into a dead end.”
Ji Lei’s breaths came heavily. He spat, disgusted, “He didn’t have the guts, that’s all. Which of the twelve desert clans would take him seriously? The moment he made contact with the enemy, he’d signed his own death sentence!”
Shen Zechuan tossed a pearl into the holding pen. The eastern pearl rolled along until it bumped off a ledge, then came to a stop by Ji Lei’s foot. Shen Zechuan watched the slow colour-change on Ji Lei’s face, and smiled.
Both of Ji Lei’s hands were trembling. His eyes were fixed on the pearl as he croaked hoarsely, “No… that’s not possible…”
“Emperor Xiande has died.” Shen Zechuan leaned forward. “And Shen Wei has died.”
Ji Lei kicked the pearl away from himself convulsively. “You sly little runt. I’m not falling for it!”
Shen Zechuan continued happily, “Hua Siqian has bitten his own tongue and died, too. Will the next one be you, or Pan Rugui? Shall we draw lots? Here, Uncle, you can go first.”
And he flicked two thin blades from between his fingers, holding them out between the bars towards Ji Lei.
“If you get the chipped one, we’ll kill Pan Rugui. If it isn’t chipped, we’ll feed your flesh and blood to the dogs. Don’t be afraid, go on, pick one.”
Ji Lei watched the cold light dance on those thin blades, his lips working. “What the devil are you saying…”
“The Dowager told me to do it quickly,” Shen Zechuan said, watching him. “But I’m giving you a chance to choose. Uncle, even one more day to live is a chance for a turnabout.”
Ji Lei, several days into his torture and interrogation, dazed and disoriented, was beginning to lose track of what was real and what was not, in the strange picture Shen Zechuan had painted about him. He stared fixedly at those two blades, and then, as if moved by something outside of himself, his arm lifted. Just as his trembling fingers were about to touch the blades, he saw the corner of Shen Zechuan’s lip tug slowly upward.
“Ah,” Shen Zechuan chuckled regretfully. “I forgot. I’ve only got new blades on me today, the chipped ones have all been thrown out.”
The humiliation of having been played with surged over Ji Lei, and he lunged wildly against the rails, screaming, “You want to kill me? You want to cut into me? Then do it! I won’t tell you a single word of what you want to know! Kill me! Just kill me!”
“You’re wrong.” Shen Zechuan held the ebb and flow of their conversation in tight control. “I’m not the one who wants to kill you.”
“You are!” Ji Lei dug his fingers into the bars. “You are!”
“Am I?” Shen Zechuan lightly nudged the pearl, which had rolled out of the pen, towards himself, and stopped it underfoot. He looked at him coldly, and asked again, “Am I really?”
Ji Lei held his head in his hands, clutching at his unkempt hair, and slid down the rails to fall on his knees. He repeated, over and over again, “It’s you… it’s definitely you…”
Suddenly, Shen Zechuan said, “Shen Wei killed the Crown Prince.”
Ji Lei felt himself plunge into ice. He looked up at him, terrified. “You…”
Shen Zechuan said, “You killed the Crown Prince with Shen Wei.”
“It wasn’t me!” Ji Lei pulled at his hair, “It wasn’t me! It was Shen Wei who killed the Crown Prince!”
“The two of you worked together to frame the Crown Prince for insurrection,” Shen Zechuan spoke rapidly. “You faked the documents, and the two of you forced the Crown Prince into the Temple of Penitence. He asked to see Emperor Guangcheng, but you drew your sword and killed him.”
“It wasn’t me!” Ji Lei had completely cracked open at the seams. In the face of this disjointed interrogation, it was all he could do to vehemently refute everything. “It wasn’t me who drew the sword! It was Shen Wei, it was Shen Wei who was hell bent on killing him!”
“And so Shen Wei died too.” Shen Zechuan circled them back, repeating, “Shen Wei lit himself on fire, and burnt until there was nothing recognisable left of him. And now you’re the only one left.”
The latest barrage of insidious hints left nothing but the word “death” ringing in Ji Lei’s head. He recalled, clear as day, the look on the Crown Prince’s face as he was put to the sword. He had been standing where Shen Zechuan stood now, looking downward, as if at swine. And now, by the cunning fingers of fate, his position had been switched around. It was easy, when behind bars, to be made to feel like a lesser beast, and he had now become an ant beneath Shen Zechuan’s feet, able to do nothing but put his neck out and wait for the blade to fall.
Ji Lei did not want to die.
His will to live had never burnt so intensely. Thumping his forehead against the bars, he said, “We were only following orders, we didn’t have a choice! You want revenge for Shen Wei? I can help you! Shen Wei killed the Crown Prince, he was named the Lord of Jianxing, he went to Zhongbo, but he was doing it all to get away!”
Ji Lei began to moan, humiliatingly. He did not know where his terror had come from, as if he had truly become a mute beast, open to anyone’s mercy, peering up at Shen Zechuan from beneath.
“I didn’t kill the Crown Prince, I wanted to save him! But dad died all of a sudden,” Ji Lei said helplessly. “Dad died, and they wanted to blame it on me! If I took the blame, then da-ge would’ve killed me, and Ji Gang would’ve killed me too! What was I supposed to do? I could only ask Pan Rugui for help! If Pan Rugui helped me, then I had to forge those documents! That was the corner I was forced into! I wanted to live too!”
“How did Ji Wufan die?” Shen Zechuan asked, out of the blue.
“I don’t know, I don’t know how dad died… Dad was sick, because Ji Gang had left too, both the sons he favoured had left him.” Ji Lei’s face twisted again as he spoke, with the intensity of his hate. “I was the one who saw to his last rites in the end! But he said that I was rotten down in my roots, while he treated Ji Gang and Zuo Qianqiu like his own sons, and passed his Precepts to them. But my name was Ji too, and I hadn’t done anything! How could he treat me like that!”
“Shen Wei killed the Crown Prince, and he couldn’t sleep after that, he was getting scared. We went drinking, and he said to me, he was starting to notice that he was being watched. In his house, he could hear people walking on his roof in the middle of the night. I said it wasn’t my Brocade Guards doing that. But in Qu Capital, who else could dodge a Brocade Guard? I guessed there had to be rats in the Brocade Guard too. The Eight Families were everywhere.”
“The Huas had come into power, we were being really careful. Shen Wei was sleeping less and less, he wanted to get away, so he threw a huge amount of money into buying off Pan Rugui, wanting to leave Qu Capital. Libei was rising then, and the Dowager had no military force outside of the Eight Battalions. As a precaution against the Xiaos, Shen Wei was named Lord of Jianxing, and sent to the major province of Zhongbo, which stood between Qidong and Libei, and between Libei and Qu Capital. The Dowager wanted him to be a guard dog, to keep watch on Libei and Qidong.”
Ji Lei spoke faster and faster.
“Who would’ve thought Shen Wei would collude with the enemy! He had a death wish! He had the letters he was exchanging with Qu Capital, and if those letters fell into the hands of the Libei Iron Cavalry, Xiao Jiming would never give up the chance to deal Qu Capital a blow! And that’s why Shen Wei had to light himself up! Do you understand now? Shen Wei did collude, he did it because he would not be controlled by anyone, any more. The Hua family had gained a lowborn son at the time. The way the Dowager would’ve have it, if the lowborn son came of age, then Zhongbo would no longer have had to be managed by someone outside the family. Shen Wei had done such terrible things for the Huas when he was in Qu Capital. If Zhongbo no longer needed him, he would then become one of the Dowager’s discard pieces.”
“Nobody expected him to throw everything to the winds, and let in the Wasteland Riders for a massacre… it was revenge! It was his revenge on Qu Capital, on the Dowager, on Dazhou!”
Ji Lei begged, clutching the rails, “That’s all I have… It was the Dowager who drove Shen Wei to his death, and it was the Dowager again who drove the Crown Prince to his death, and Emperor Guangcheng, Emperor Xiande, Hua Siqian, all of them were chess pieces that the Dowager used and threw away! You’re doing the Dowager’s bidding now, but look, I haven’t told her you’ve taken up with the Xiaos… it was you who saved Xiao Chi’ye that night, wasn’t it? But the Xiaos won’t help you. As long as Xiao Chi’ye is in the Capital, the Xiaos are paralysed. They can barely look out for themselves, why would they care about you!”
He wanted to prove that he would be useful, but that terror within him only grew deeper as he tried. His crumbling defences brought him utterly to his knees, and the more servile he felt, he more frightened he became.
From the other side of the bars, Shen Zechuan asked him one final question. “Five years ago, when Duan province fell, Teacher’s wife, my Madam, died there. Nobody knew about that, but why do you seem so familiar with the details?”
Ji Lei stared into Shen Zechuan’s eyes, and in the dead silence that followed, sweat beaded, and fell.
Xi Hongxuan had fallen asleep waiting, until a stack of paper landed on him. He woke with a start, caught the papers, and shook them out to look at them in the darkness. When he saw the scarlet thumb-print at the bottom of the page, he huffed a vague laugh. “You’re something, alright.”
There was a slightly salty, metallic scent about Shen Zechuan. He smiled briefly, and said, “Whether these confessions can be admitted, will depend entirely on Elder Hai’s discretion.”
“A huge favour like this,” Xi Hongxuan said, “Won’t be for nothing, would it?”
“There’s a man called Qiao Tianya in the Brocade Guard who’s very skilled with a knife. I want him.” Shen Zechuan said evenly.
“…Easily done,” Xi Hongxuan said, after a second of hesitation. “I’ll have a word with Yanqing.”
“Much obliged,” Shen Zechuan said. “It’s late. I should get going.”
And he went to the door, and left.
Rain was falling in the night outside. Xi Hongxuan would have asked Shen Zechuan to take the carriage back with him, but some other thought struck him, and he changed his mind. He skimmed through the whole set of confessions, and felt somewhat that it had all gone too easy.
While he mused that he should perhaps have Xue Xiuzhuo take a look at these confessions first, he instructed a servant standing by, “Go pull Ji Lei out, and send him back.”
The servant acknowledged this, and went to the door. He had only taken a single step into the room when, with a loud crash, he fell backwards onto the floor, and began to scream as if he had seen a ghost.
Through the open door, Xi Hongxuan caught a glimpse of Ji Lei. His stomach roiled, and he stumbled back, hand over his face. He knocked over tables and chairs in his haste to get outside, where he hurtled into the rain and began violently to throw up.
Shen Zechuan washed his hands. He scrubbed them until they were pinkish, before drying them with a handkerchief. His white robes were unstained, but the stench of blood hung about them nevertheless. He picked up his collar and sniffed it, frowning.
Shen Zechuan stayed crouched there, in the rain, by the water’s edge. The nighttime downpour quickly drenched him. He lifted his head slowly, looking into the dense, black sky, until his neck complained. Then he got up, and began walking back.
When Shen Zechuan walked into the alley that led to the Imperial Guard’s estate, he saw a man standing by the entrance.
Xiao Chi’ye was slouched against the doorway, his arms folded in the darkness, his gaze fixed upon him like a stalking cheetah.
At some point in the night, the rain had turned to sleet, colder and wetter than ever.
One thought on “Book One, Chapter 34: Interrogation”
Ugh, why is the translation quality so good! XD
You are beyond superlative. ❤
Thanks for the update! So glad to have stumbled across ya.