“You… What exactly are you…” Ji Lei pressed himself against the bars, looked at Shen Zechuan’s smile, and swiftly moved back. “What exactly are you up to?!”
“You’re asking me?” Shen Zechuan said cheerfully. “You’re asking me, huh?”
Shen Zechuan’s gaze turned malicious as he beckoned haughtily to Ji Lei. Ji Lei did not move. He leaned back against the wall and refused to budge even a fraction closer to Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan said, “Prisoners are all livestock waiting to be slaughtered. Shishu, how dare you ask me?”
Ji Lei countered, “What else can you do? Kill me?”
“It’s not often us uncle and nephew get the chance to meet. There’s not even enough time for us to play, so how could I kill you so quickly?” Shen Zechuan slid his thumb across the bars and softened his tone. “You aren’t saying a word because you feel that it’s something you can exploit. With those secrets in your hands, no one would bear to lay their hands on you. Your days in prison become more comfortable, and you don’t have to worry about food and clothing, nor fear for your life. There’s Pan Rugui to accompany you, and you have plenty of leisure time. How carefree and happy.”
Ji Lei broke out in cold sweat. He stuck to the wall, no longer looking into Shen Zechuan’s eyes.
“But happy days are all fleeting. As long as the tongue is still there, it’s not a big deal if a leg is missing, an arm is broken, or both eyes are gouged out. A few months ago, shishu treated me to donkey roast. I didn’t get to taste it at that time. But now that the night is long, it’s a good time to dine with wine.” Shen Zechuan slipped the thin blade out between his fingers and tapped it between the bars. He said, “Ji Lei, time to serve you up to go with my wine.”
“You. Are. Insane!” Ji Lei stretched his neck out and enunciated each word, “Shen Zechuan, you’re insane!”
“I’m insane.” Shen Zechuan stared at him and answered in the affirmative.
“How would you dare to lay a hand on me?’ Ji Lei said furiously, “Your life is in the Empress Dowager’s hands. How would you dare to even touch a strand of my hair?!”
Shen Zechuan cheered up again and said with a smile, “Shishu, why do you always have to keep saying such hilarious words tonight? Who else do you think sent me here?”
Enraged, Ji Lei said, “Don’t even think of hoodwinking—”
“Shen Wei is dead.” Shen Zechuan quickly cut off Ji Lei’s words. “The day Shen Wei set himself on fire, I heard that the Prince of Jianxing Manor in Dunzhou was ablaze in raging flames. He was burned beyond recognition when the Imperial Bodyguards dragged him out of the ruins and hung him atop Dunzhou city walls to be reviled by all. I didn’t see that scene with my own eyes, but I kept attempting to imagine it over the years. After turning it over in my mind, I finally realized something.”
Ji Lei swallowed his saliva.
“His grand plan to collude with the enemy has succeeded. Isn’t defecting right before the battle much better for him? Duanzhou had already fallen into the enemy’s hands. If he led his troops forth to receive and welcome them, he could join the Biansha Cavalry and hurry to take down Qudu before the Libei Armored Cavalry crossed the River of Ice. However, he was so scared that he recoiled from advancing and only dared to retreat.” Shen Zechuan stood up. “He had already succeeded. It’s only by advancing that he would have a chance to survive. But he kept withdrawing. Even if he was a good-for-nothing, he should have known that retreating would only lead him to his doom.”
Ji Lei’s breathing intensified as he said in loathing, “Because he didn’t dare. Who in the Biansha Twelve Tribes would give him a damn? He was already a dead man the moment he colluded with the enemy!”
Shen Zechuan threw an eastern pearl into the cage, and the tumbling pearl knocked into the edge of the cage and rolled its way to Ji Lei’s feet. Shen Zechuan scrutinized Ji Lei’s face as the color gradually drained from it. He smiled.
Ji Lei’s hands trembled. He stared at that eastern pearl and said with difficulty, “No… Impossible…”
“Emperor Xiande is dead.” Shen Zechuan leaned over and said, “So is Shen Wei.”
Ji Lei suddenly kicked away the eastern pearl and said, “Cunning lad, don’t even think of tricking me!”
Shen Zechuan said happily, “Hua Siqian has committed suicide by biting off his tongue. Who will be the next one? You, or Pan Rugui? Shall we draw lots? Shishu, you first.”
With that, he spun out two more thin blades between his fingers and presented them before Ji Lei through the gap.
“If it’s chipped, we’ll kill Pan Rugui. If it isn’t, then we’ll feed all of your flesh and blood to the dogs. Don’t be afraid. Draw one.”
Ji Lei looked at the cold glint of the thin blade. His lips opened and closed. He said, “What nonsense are you spouting…”
“The Empress Dowager instructed me to be quick.” Shen Zechuan stared at him. “Yet I gave you the opportunity to choose. Shishu, there’s a chance for things to turn for the better for each day you live.”
Ji Lei was already in a daze having been tortured for days. And now, under this bizarre atmosphere, Shen Zechuan’s words confused him until he could not tell the truth from lies. He fixed his eyes on those two thin blades. Finally, and curiously enough, he raised his hand. When his trembling fingers touched the thin blade, he saw Shen Zechuan slowly lifting the corners of his lips.
“Oh.” Shen Zechuan smiled regrettably. “I forgot that the blades I’ve brought along today are all new blades. The chipped ones have already been disposed of.”
The shame of being played instantly overwhelmed Ji Lei. Losing control of himself, he threw himself forward and shouted hysterically as he yanked at the bars, “Do it if you want to kill me or cut me to pieces! I’ll not say a word of what you want to know! Kill me, kill me!”
“Wrong.” Shen Zechuan remained in firm control of the atmosphere. “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 gently nudged over the eastern pearl that had rolled out and stepped on it. He looked at him coldly and asked again, “Am I?”
Ji Lei held his head and tore at his unkempt hair. He slid down the bars to his knees and repeated over and over again. “You are… You are the one…”
Shen Zechuan suddenly said, “Shen Wei killed the Crown Prince.”
Ji Lei raised his head to look at him in terror, as if he had plunged into an ice cave. He said, “You…”
Shen Zechuan said, “You and Shen Wei killed the Crown Prince.”
“It wasn’t me!” Ji Lei clutched at his hair. “It wasn’t me! The one who killed the Crown Prince was Shen Wei!”
“You conspired with him to frame the Crown Prince for plotting a rebellion.” Shen Zechuan said quickly, “You were the one who forged the document. You forced the Crown Prince into Zhao Zui Temple. He wanted to see Emperor Guangcheng, but you drew your blade and killed him.”
“It wasn’t me!” Ji Lei had already gone crazy. He refuted vehemently in the face of Shen Zechuan’s chaotic interrogation. “I wasn’t the one who drew the blade! It was Shen Wei. It was Shen Wei who insisted on killing him!”
“That’s why Shen Wei is dead.” Shen Zechuan circled back and repeated, “Shen Wei set himself on fire and was burned beyond recognition. You are the only one left now.”
This succession of insinuations pushed Ji Lei into such a corner that all he could think of was the word “death”. He thought back clearly to the former Crown Prince’s face when he was killed. At that time, he had stood in the spot where Shen Zechuan was now standing and looked down at the Crown Prince from above as if he was looking at swine. Now, by some act of ingenuity, his position had been reversed. The cage gave him the misconception that he was akin to a beast. He had become the ant1 under Shen Zechuan’s foot. All he could do was to crane his neck out and wait to be slaughtered.2
Ji Lei did not want to die.
His desire to survive had never been so strong. He banged his forehead against the bars and said, “We are all just following orders. We had no choice! You want to avenge Shen Wei? I can help you! Shen Wei killed the Crown Prince and was conferred the title of Prince of Jianxing. He subsequently went to Zhongbo. He fled!”
Ji Lei cut a sorry figure as he started to choke with sobs. He had no idea where this fear came from either. It was as if he had really turned into a livestock at the mercy of others. All he could do was to raise his head and look at Shen Zechuan.
“I didn’t kill the Crown Prince; I wanted to save him! But Father suddenly died.” Ji Lei said helplessly, “Father died, and they want to frame me for it! If I took the rap for it, Eldest Brother would kill me, and so would Ji Gang! What could I do? I could only beg Pan Rugui for help! If Pan Rugui were to protect me, then I had to forge the documents! I was forced into that situation. 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 Father died… Father fell ill, because Ji Gang left. The sons he favored had all left.” At this point, Ji Lei turned malevolent again. He hated them so much. “I was the one who was with him in his last moments and the one who conducted funeral rites for him! Yet he said my core was rotten. He regarded Ji Gang and Zuo Qianqiu as his own sons and passed the mental cultivation techniques to both of them. But my surname is Ji too, and I didn’t even do anything. So how could he treat me in such a way?!”
“Shen Wei couldn’t sleep at night after killing the Crown Prince. He was afraid. When we were drinking, he told me that he had gradually come to sense someone watching him. In his residence, he could even hear someone moving on the roof in the middle of the night. I told him it wasn’t the Imperial Bodyguards. But in this Qudu, is there anything that could hide from the eyes of the Imperial Bodyguards? I presumed there were traitors in the Imperial Bodyguards; Men from the Eight Great Clans were everywhere.”
“The Hua Clan was already in power, so we were careful. But Shen Wei’s insomnia worsened. He wanted to flee. Thus, he bribed Pan Rugui with a lot of money, hoping to leave Qudu. At that time, Libei was a rising force to be reckoned with. The Empress Dowager had no other military forces other than the Eight Great Training Divisions. In order to guard against the Xiao Clan, Shen Wei was conferred the title of the Prince of Jianxing. He went to Zhongbo, a large prefecture where the only routes between Qidong and Libei, and Libei and Qudu, would pass through. The Empress Dowager wanted him to be her watchdog with his eyes on Libei and Qidong.”
Ji Lei spoke more and more urgently.
“Who would have expected Shen Wei to collude with the enemy? He was asking for death! He had the documents with his correspondences with Qudu. Once the documents fell into Libei Armored Cavalry’s hands, Xiao Jiming would not miss the opportunity to deal Qudu a heavy blow! So Shen Wei had to burn himself to death! Do you understand now? Shen Wei colluded with the enemy. He was no longer willing to be under the control of others. Back then, the Hua Clan had a son of shu birth. Going by the Empress Dowager’s intent, once this child of shu birth grew up, outsiders would no longer be needed to keep an eye on Zhongbo. Shen Wei had committed so many evil deeds in Qudu for the Hua Clan. If Zhongbo no longer needed him, then he would be but a useless chess piece3 of the Empress Dowager.”
“No one anticipated him to take desperate measures after being driven into a corner and let the Biansha Cavalry in to massacre the cities… This was vengeance! This was his revenge on Qudu, on the Empress Dowager, and on Dazhou! “
Ji Lei grasped the bars and pleaded. “I’ve said all I have to say… The Empress Dowager was the one who forced Shen Wei to his death. She was also the one who forced the Crown Prince to his death. And Emperor Guangcheng, Emperor Xiande, Hua Siqian… they were all the Empress Dowager’s sacrificial chess pieces!4 And now you are carrying out jobs for the Empress Dowager. Look at me. I didn’t tell her that you have already thrown in your lot with the Xiao Clan… You saved Xiao Chiye that night, didn’t you? But the Xiao Clan will not help you. As long as Xiao Chiye is in Qudu, the Xiao Clan cannot make their move. They can hardly look after themselves, so how would they care about you?!”
He wanted to prove his usefulness, but his fear kept intensifying. His crumbling line of defense left him utterly defeated. The more inferior he felt, the more scared he became.
Shen Zechuan asked him his last question through the bars. “Five years ago, my shiniang died when Duanzhou fell into the enemy’s hands. No one knows about this matter, so how are you so clear about it?”
Ji Lei looked at the expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes. In that dead silence, a drop of sweat slowly trickled down.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xi Hongxuan waited until he fell asleep. It was not until a stack of paper was thrown onto his body that he jolted awake. He took the papers and shook it open for a look in the dark and saw the vividly red fingerprints at the bottom. He let out an obscure laugh and said, “You sure are good.”
There was a slight saltish stench on Shen Zechuan’s body. He smiled for a moment, then said, “Whether or not this confession can be submitted to the top depends on how Secretariat Elder Hai views it.”
“That’s some great favor you did.” Xi Hongxuan said, “Surely you didn’t help for nothing?”
“There’s a man named Qiao Tianya in the Imperial Bodyguards. He’s good with the broadsword. I want him.” Shen Zechuan said calmly.
“… Not a problem.” Xi Hongxuan hesitated for a while. “I’ll talk to Yanqing.”
“Thank you for the trouble.” Shen Zechuan said, “It’s late now. I should go.”
With that, he opened the door and took his leave.
It was raining in the night outside. Xi Hongxuan wanted to call out to Shen Zechuan to get onto the horse carriage so that they could leave together. But then he had a thought and changed his mind. He flipped through the confession to look through it once, feeling that it had all gone too smoothly.
As Xi Hongxuan was thinking that he had to show Xue Xiuzhuo this confession first, he said to the attendant at the side, “Go. Drag Ji Lei out and send him back.”
The attendant acknowledged his order and went to open the door. He had only just strode in when he fell to the ground on his butt with a loud clatter and screamed as though he had seen a ghost.
Xi Hongxuan followed the opened door and saw Ji Lei. His stomach churned, and he covered his face to retreat, desperately knocking aside the table and chairs as he dashed into the rain to throw up violently.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan washed his hands until they reddened before he wiped them with a handkerchief. There were no bloodstains on his white outfit, but there was the lingering stench of blood. He picked up the front of his clothes and frowned as he sniffed it.
What a stink.
Shen Zechuan squatted under the rain by the edge of the water. Very quickly, the night rain drenched him. He slowly raised his head and gazed at the pitch-black sky until his neck was sore. Then, he rose to his feet and walked back.
When Shen Zechuan reached the alley of the Imperial Army’s residence, he saw a man standing at the entrance.
Xiao Chiye was leaning against the door in the dark with folded arms, staring at him like a cheetah.
At some point, snow had begun to fall with the rain, making one feel damp and cold to the bone.