“The troops of the Prince1 of Jianxing, Shen Wei, have suffered a crushing defeat at the Chashi River in the Northeast. The Dunzhou’s frontline has fallen into the enemy’s hands. Thirty thousand soldiers have been buried alive in the Chashi sinkhole. You were among them, but why are you the only one to escape unscathed?”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes were glazed and unfocused. He did not answer.
The interrogator pounded on the table and leaned forward to question him with a malicious glare. “Because Shen Wei was in covert communication with the Biansha Twelve Tribes2 and had the intention to present the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo over to our external foes. You want to collude with the enemies to breach the defenses of Qudu from within and without. That’s why the Biansha Cavalry did not kill you. Am I right?”
Shen Zechuan moved his dry, chapped lips. He struggled with some effort to listen to the interrogator’s question. His Adam’s apple throbbed as he answered haltingly. “No… no.”
The interrogator snapped in a harsh voice. “Shen Wei immolated himself for fear of punishment. The Imperial Bodyguards3 have already presented documents of their secret liaisons to the Emperor. And yet, lad, you still dare to deny it. How truly pigheaded of you!”
Shen Zechuan felt as if he was in a daze. He had no idea how long it had been since he had gotten some shuteye. It was as if he was being suspended by a single thread tens of thousands of zhang4 high up in the air. If he so much released his hands from a moment of negligence, he would fall and smash himself into smithereens.
The interrogator spread open the confession statement and took a few glances at it before saying, “You said last night that you were able to emerge unscathed from the Chashi Sinkhole alive because your elder brother saved you. Is that right? “
The scene that day vaguely materialized before Shen Zechuan’s eyes. They had been trapped so deep in the sinkhole that no matter what they did, they were unable to climb out of it even with countless soldiers all crammed within. The pile of corpses under their feet grew thicker and thicker, but it was still not enough for them to reach the edge of the hole. The Biansha Cavalry surrounded the sinkhole, and the sound of flying arrows slicing through the cold wind pierced through the night. Blood overflowed his calf as anguished wails and the gasps of those on their deathbed clung to his ears.
Shen Zechuan began to hyperventilate and tremble as he sat on the chair. He lost control of himself and clutched his hair, unable to stop a strangled sob from escaping his throat.
“You are lying.”
The interrogator raised the confession statement and brushed it as he faced Shen Zechuan.
“Your elder brother is Shen Zhouji, the first di son5 of Prince Jianxing. He abandoned thirty thousand soldiers before the Chashi Sinkhole and fled on the sly with his own private soldiers. But the Biansha Cavalry secured him with a rope and dragged him along the road by the Chashi River to his death. He was already dead by the time the Biansha Twelve Tribes slaughtered6 those soldiers. There was no way he could save you. “
Shen Zechuan’s mind was in a whirl. The interrogator’s voice sounded so far away. All he could hear was the neverending wails.
Where is the way out? Where are the reinforcements? Dead men squeezed against the dead. Those putrid, decaying flesh was pressing down on his hands. Mu-ge7 was shielding him above his head, while he lay sprawled over the bloodied carcasses. He listened to Mu-ge’s rapid breathing. Yet the cries that emerged from his throat were those of despair.
“I’m8 a man of great ability.” Ji Mu struggled to smile, but tears were already streaming down his face. He continued in a sobbing voice, “I’m an impregnable fortress! I’ll be fine after hanging in there. By then, the reinforcements would have arrived. When the time comes, I’ll return home with you to join Father and Mother. I still have to look for your sister-in-law…”
The interrogator banged the table with a “bang” and bellowed, “Come clean with it!”
Shen Zechuan began to struggle. He looked as if he wanted to break free from some invisible shackles, but the Imperial Bodyguards swarmed over and pinned him down against the table.
“You are in our imperial prison.9 I have not employed extreme torture on you on account of your young age. But since you don’t know what’s good for you, then don’t blame us for being ruthless. Men, apply the torture!”
Shen Zechuan’s arms were tied with ropes before he was dragged to the open space in the room. Someone set a bench down with a “clatter” and bound his legs to it. A burly man beside him lifted his prison stick,10 weighed it in his hands, and swung it down.
“I’ll ask you one more time.” The interrogator brushed aside the foam on the tea with its lid. It was only after he took a few sips that he asked, “Did Shen Wei collude with the enemy to commit treason?”
Shen Zechuan refused to relent. He shouted intermittently between the flogging.11 “No, no!”
The interrogator set aside the teacup and said, “The Shen Clan would not be here today if you had used this fortitude on the battlefield. Continue to flog him!”
Shen Zechuan gradually could not take it. He lowered his head and said in a hoarse voice, “Shen Wei never colluded with the enemies…”
“We suffered a crushing defeat at the battle at the Chashi River all because Shen Wei recklessly fought the enemy head-on. After the defeat at the Chashi River, there was still a chance to redeem the situation at the Dunzhou frontline. Yet he withdrew his troops for no reason despite the great disparity between our troops and theirs. Because of this, Three Cities of Duanzhou fell into the enemy’s hands. Ten of thousands of commoners in those cities lost their lives to the Biansha machetes.”12 At this point, the interrogator let out a long sigh and continued bitterly. “It was a bloodbath in the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo. Shen Wei led his troops and withdrew south. The battle in Dengzhou was the most fishy of all! The Qidong Red Commandery Garrison had already crossed Tianfei Watchtower to provide assistance. But he forsook the strategy of a pincer attack and instead mobilized thousands of cavalry to escort his own family to Dancheng. This resulted in the entire line of defense in Dengzhou to collapse— Wasn’t this all done on intention? If it weren’t for the Libei Armored Cavalry13 galloping across the icy river for three nights, the Biansha Cavalry would have already arrived at the gates of Qudu!”
Shen Zechuan felt dizzy and dazed. He was drenched in a cold sweat. The interrogator flung the confession at him in contempt. It smashed into the back of his head.
“You’d rather be a dog than a man of Zhongbo. And this time, Shen Wei is a sinner of Dazhou.14 You still want to deny it? You have no choice but to plead guilty!”
Shen Zechuan was in so much pain that half of his body was numbed. He sprawled on the bench, looking at that confession before his eyes. The ink writings on it were clear. Every character was like a humiliating lash of the whip on his face as it announced to everyone in the world:
Shen Wei betrayed his country. He’s not even worthy to be a dog.
He had left the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo to overrun with bodies. No one had even gone to collect those corpses buried in the Chashi Sinkhole yet, because everyone in the cities of Dunzhou had been massacred.
Shen Wei burned himself to his death. But this bloodstained debt had to be borne by someone alive. Shen Wei had a harem of wives and concubines, along with numerous sons. But they all perished when the Biansha Cavalry invaded Dunzhou. It was only because Shen Zechuan was of lowly birth and had been raised on the outside that he could escape unscathed.
Shen Zechuan was dragged back, and his heels left behind trails of blood in its path. He faced the wall and gazed at that small, narrow window. The cold wind howled, and the snow came pelting down. The pitch-black night stretched on infinitely.
It was primal chaos in his head. Amidst the sound of the winds, his mind wandered back to the sinkhole.
Ji Mu was dying. His breathing had grown labored. Blood dripped down his armor onto the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck and quickly turned icy. The wails around him had vanished. All that remained were the unendurable groans of pain and the bellows of the biting cold wind.
Shen Zechuan was face-to-face with a dead man who was no longer recognizable. His legs were pinned under heavy human bodies, while a shield was pressing painfully against his abdomen. All he could smell as he breathed was the thick stench of blood. He gritted his teeth as the tears trickled down his face, but he had to stop himself from crying out loud. Dispirited, he stared down at this trampled-beyond-recognition face, but he could not make out if this was a soldier he had seen before.
“Bro.” Shen Zechuan sobbed softly. “I, I’m scared…”
Ji Mu’s throat bobbed. He gently patted Shen Zechuan’s head with his palm and said, “It’s alright… we’ll be fine.”
Shen Zechuan heard the singing of the soldiers at death’s door. The gale tore apart the sound of the song and sent tattered pieces of it fluttering away into this frigid night.
“Battle in the city south… Death at the north of the city wall… Left out in the open, unburied… Free for all the crows to feed.”15
“Bro.” Shen Zechuan whispered beneath him. “I’ll carry you on my back… bro.”
Ji Mu’s body was like a distorted shield. He smiled and said in a hoarse voice, “I can walk on my own.”
“Were you struck by an arrow?”
“No.” Ji Mu’s tears had dried up. He said breezily, “… Those Biansha baldies can’t shoot for nuts.”
Ji Mu sighed and said, “… Bro is a slow-eater. Don’t… snatch.”
Shen Zechuan gave a firm nod beneath him.
The snow gradually blanketed Ji Mu’s body. He seemed tired and sleepy. His voice was so, so small. He did not even have the energy to move his fingers. The song was sung very slowly. When it reached the line “the valiant cavalry perished in battle”, Ji Mu closed his eyes.
Shen Zechuan said, “I… I’ll also give bro my money, to marry sister-in-law…”
Ji Mu remained silent. It was as if he was tired of listening to his words and could not help but fall asleep.
Shen Zechuan began to tremble all over. He forgot when the Biansha Cavalry left and how he climbed his way out. When he propped himself up with his arms to lift his body, there was only a dead silence amidst the heavy snow. The stacked corpses cushioned under his knees all looked like discarded burlap sacks.
Shen Zechuan looked back. And began to choke with sobs.
Ji Mu’s back had been pierced with such a dense cluster of arrows that his entire person had turned into a twisted hedgehog. So much of his blood had trickled down onto Shen Zechuan’s back, but Shen Zechuan had never realized it.
The sound of horse hooves came swiftly in pursuit like the looming thunder. Shen Zechuan suddenly gave a start as he jolted awake.
He felt like retching, but then he realized that both of his wrists had been firmly bound, and there was a burlap sack filled with soil on his body.
The sack became heavier and heavier as it weighed down on his chest. He could not even utter a sound. This was the technique of inflicting “death by crushing with an earth-filled sack” habitually used in prisons on prisoners whom they did not want to survive the murder attempt or leave a trace of an injury behind. If Shen Zechuan had not woken up earlier, he would have been but a mere corpse gone cold by daybreak.
Someone wants to kill him!
- 王 Princes, or lords, during the Ming dynasty were titled and salaried members of the imperial bureaucracy with nominal lordship over various fiefs throughout China
- The enemy’s tribes at the desert at the frontier/borders.
锦衣卫 Jin Yi Wei, or literally Brocade(-robed) Guards, were elite bodyguards and secret police that directly served the Ming Emperors. They were authorized to overrule judicial proceedings in prosecutions, with full autonomy granted in arresting, interrogating and punishing anyone, including nobles and the Emperor’s relatives.
- zhang; a Chinese measure of length, ten Chinese feet (1 zhang=3.3m)
- Children in those days were classified according to whether they were a di or shu child. A di son (嫡子) was born by the legal first wife (this was the wife who has been officially married into the family, also known as a zhengshi (正室)). Being the eldest of the legal wife made him the legitimate heir. They also had a higher social status and often received better treatment compared to the shu sons (庶子) born by concubines. It’s recommended to keep this in mind, as this will be a recurring theme in the novel.
- 坑杀 more specifically, kill the enemies then pile their bodies up into a tower, etc, to flaunt their prowess and victory.
- 暮哥, brother Mu
- He refers to himself as 哥 ge or elder bro. This is Shen Zechuan’s address for him as well.
- 诏狱 Imperial prison, a top-level prison in ancient China where most of the criminals were senior or top-ranking officials involved in cases that required the Emperor to issue an imperial edict to convict them.
狱杖 a long stick or paddle that’s used to flog someone.
- 杖刑 Corporal punishment or torture by flogging on the back, butt, or legs with a long stick or paddle as above. See above picture.
- Weapons of the Biansha Cavalry.
- Armored cavalry (铁骑) was a kind of cavalry that bore heavy arms while fighting on armored horses. They were one of the powerful forces in ancient wars. Meanwhile, the general cavalry ( 骑兵) or horsemen were simply soldiers who fought on horseback.
- 大周 Dazhou or Great Zhou. The Dazhou here refers to the name of the empire in this novel.
- 《铙歌十八曲·战城南》 literally The Eighteen Cymbal Songs – Battle in the City South, is a folk song written for those who perished in the battlefield. It described the cruelty of war and expressed the poet’s opposition to it, stating that the common folks were only the sacrifice of war.
- A term and form of address for one’s shifu’s wife