The Rise of Phoenixes (天盛长歌) - Chapter 4 (Fanfiction)

Chapter 4. All Roads lead to Prince of Chu’s Residence

written by kakashi
edited by Bunny

Avoiding Feng Zhiwei and her cumbersome questions quickly turned into a game Ning Yi enjoyed immensely. He had other things to worry about, but Feng Zhiwei was so delightfully naive. But not only that, she was also persistent and a very fast learner, forcing him to change his strategies several times a day. Soon, he found himself waking up in the morning with his mind immediately turning to situations she could use to ambush him. That led to him designing counter strategies to throw her off successfully should such situations really arise. Excellent training, exactly what he needed to learn how to plot faster than anybody else in town.

Ning Cheng seemed to draw considerable amusement from Feng Zhiwei’s presence at the mansion too, but for a different reason than his master. Based on the constant smirk seen on his bodyguard’s face, Ning Yi suspected he was assuming something nonsensical about the nature of their relationship. He felt no need to correct it. A bit of amusement was good, happy servants were much more loyal than unhappy ones and hence the best protection anybody could have.

“Your Highness,” Ning Cheng remarked on a fine morning when they were leisurely walking on the covered bridge in the garden, just before starting another tension filled day, “you cannot keep hiding from that impostor.”

“I’m not hiding,” Ning Yi grumbled, “in fact, I’m going to see her now. There she comes.”

With determined strides, Feng Zhiwei was charging in their direction. Apparently, she had been waiting for him and what was worse, second guessed what he would do today quite efficiently. All he could think of in his defense was using an old, overused trick: playing the ailing man by leaning heavily on Ning Cheng, an act which came as easy to him as playing a docile idiot in front of his brothers.

“There is no place for you to hide!” she challenged him.

The anger colored her cheeks most lusciously and made her eyes shine like the finest brocade. She refused to wear any of his clothes, which quite irked him, other women were ready to kill for them, but instead kept wearing that same dull purple garment she had worn the first time they had met. It did her a great disservice but of course, she didn't care about that.

“I saved your life, after all,” he said with a hint of suffering and a hint of hurt pride in his voice, “I don't expect you to repay my kindness, but you shouldn't be so rude to your savior.”

Too whiny? Well, she didn’t care in the least about his act anyway, the hard-hearted woman.

“If you answer my question, I will repay you, of course,” she said stiffly. “But unless you give me a good answer, I have to reconsider whether you are actually a savior or a villain who puts my family at risk.”

Alright then. It was time. Heaving a small sigh, signalling to Ning Cheng to give them some privacy, pulling a face so she knew his wound still hurt and she should be gentle, he sat down on one of the wooden slats, his back against one of the beams. Comfortable enough.

“You are always chasing after me. How could a girl be so shameless?” he quipped.

“Are you saying that I have no shame?”

She sounded insulted, though he had simply spoken the truth. Smiling at her, he added: “But I am fond of girls like you. That's why I rescued you.”

Yes, that rendered her quiet, like he had thought it would. She was a feisty woman, but like most virgins, she did not know how to deal with a man’s advances. It pleased him a great deal to have found this weakness of hers and he made a mental note to exploit it ruthlessly in the future. Or now.

“What's wrong? What is it?” Delivered with the sweetest, most innocent of smiles.

“You like…,” she looked so very adorable when she was flustered like this. How deceiving. Her sharp tongue was just temporarily shocked, he knew it.

"That's right. That's why I saved you.”

“You shouldn't joke about that!” she expressed angrily.

“I wasn't joking,” he chuckled. “Why else would I have saved you?” But it sounded like a lie now, even to his own ears, which was a shame.

“It doesn't matter if you were joking or not,” she brushed it aside. “I thought about it, and the more I think about it, the more I find it strange. How were the guards already at the door right after Madam Yuhua died? And how did Your Highness find out? If it was only about the death of a concubine, why couldn't you show your face when you rescued me? Why did you disguise yourself and help me in secret?”

She turned to him, eager for answers, but he saw no need to give her any just yet. Studying two courting ducks and the lazily drifting fish in his pond seemed like a great pastime to irk her some more. Besides, he was quite curious to learn what other thoughts were in that pretty head.

“You are a prince. And I owe you a debt of gratitude. I can't force you to answer me, but I don't know whether my family is dead or alive. So I beg you to tell me the truth.“

He had turned to her at the word “debt” because that word gave anybody leverage, but now, the woman had taken to kneeling, worse, kowtowing in front of him! This didn’t suit her at all.

“Get up!” He ordered her. Did she think to flatter him with her behavior? Or was she trying to find out whether he could resist demure, crying women. He couldn’t. But she couldn’t know that.

“I won't get up.”

“I won't tell you if you don't get up.”

Up she came and quickly at that. There was no resistance, she was much too easily manipulated today. But when he looked more closely, her eyes showed a range of conflicting emotions and he realized that bowing down to him and begging had not come easy to her. Well… maybe it was time to tell her the truth. She had worked quite hard for it. He dropped all pretense.

“A girl like you also happens to be very smart. Is it a blessing or a misfortune?” - that was to be seen, he thought - “I had no idea what happened to the three of you. But Colonel Qiu divulged after he got drunk that you wouldn't survive the night. Therefore, I went to rescue you.”

“As expected, my uncle was involved,” she exclaimed. Yes, Ning Yi understood her anger. Nobody got to choose one’s relatives, he knew only too well. That Fox of an uncle of hers had no loyalty but to himself.

Zhiwei turned to him again. “If I am still alive after I get my mother and brother out, I will repay my debt of gratitude to Your Highness with my life.”

Now that he liked to hear.

“With your life?” he echoed as he got up. He would most certainly collect that debt. But to able to do that, he needed to make sure she still had a life after today. “I will do something for your mother and brother,” he told her, pleased at seeing the defiance leaving her face. “Stay at my residence for a few more days.”

And… the defiance and a sullen kind of look was back. She hated it that much here?

“Shouldn't you thank me?” he complained.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” she said dutifully and curtsied.

“You may leave now,” he added and waved his hand in a dismissive manner.

She did leave, but not without looking back at him as if she had more questions, which he ignored skillfully. Once she was away, Ning Yi pulled a face at her back. Won again! Gloating happily, he turned around and… became aware of a familiar figure beaming at him from a distance.

“Ziyan, when did you arrive?”

He must have been quite preoccupied not to realize they had been watched.

Ziyan mockingly pointed a finger to where Zhiwei had disappeared to. “I got here even before she ambushed you,” he said.

“Ah,” Ning Yi smiled. Quite preoccupied, it seemed.

“Three heads are better than two,” the Headmaster of Qingming Academy observed. “I wanted to step in to discuss these interesting matters, but the two of you seemed very fond of each other. Very fond. I didn't want to interrupt while you were making eyes at her, so I could only stand here and look at the fish.”

Ning Yi laughed and wiggled his finger. What nonsense was this again? He had been making eyes at her? Wasn’t it clearly the other way round? He couldn't wait to spring at Ziyan what he had found out.

“Unfortunately, this is a heartless world,” Ziyan sighed. “Humans are fortunes' fool. Do you know who she is?”

“You must know something?” Ning Yi invited his friend to continue. Naturally, Ziyan was quite capable of gathering intelligence himself.

“Of course,” Zhiyan boasted. “The ones you fought that night were Chang Hai's men.”

“Hm,” Ning Yi said and started walking, “so the Crown Prince made the arrest.”

“Her mother and brother are currently being held in the Crown Prince’s secret chamber,” Ziyan added in a conspiratory tone, just as they entered the little room on stilts they sometimes had their secret conversations in.

“In this case, the two of them must be really important people?” Ning Yi asked innocently.

“They are not just important people. There are some things that I cannot bear to tell you. I am afraid it will break your heart.”

Ziyan made a dramatic pause. Ning Yi signalled him to continue; he would make sure to meme a big enough surprise once his friend finally got to his big reveal.

“This love that has just budded is destined to be doomed. Because… Your Highness are her sworn enemy who killed her father. Her mother, Qiu Mingying, is the widow of Gu Heng, the leader of Bloody Pagoda. And Feng Zhiwei is his child.”

Ning Yi made the “I am so shocked!”-face, but he must have overdone it, because Ziyan’s excitement gave way to his “What now?”-expression.

“We can't be certain that she is the child of Gu Heng,” Ning Yi put his cards on the table and nonchalantly handed Zhiyan a slip of paper he had found lying around on the street where Zhiwei’s family had been attacked and apprehended. It read:

The identities of Colonel Qiu’s sister’s children are suspicious, Yuhua

This note clearly was the reason why that concubine was dead. And since she was, what this note said was probably true or at least not completely ridiculous.

“What!” Ziyan exclaimed, “One of Qiu Mingying's children is the remnant of Dacheng Empire?”

“A concubine. A spiteful woman's words. This is not reliable,” Ning Yi replied slowly. Of course he wondered. Of course he had thought about what it would mean. But lives were on the line here.

“This is great!” Zhiyan chuckled happily, “Whether you believe it or not, we will be able to arouse the Emperor's suspicion with this letter. The Crown Prince is holding them captive. We should beat him at his own game. Expose the fact that he didn't kill the remnant, but made a false claim that he did! When he found out that the remnant was still alive, he didn't report it, but tried to murder him instead!”

It was such a hand that had been dealt to them, such fortune! And of course, Ziyan had just expressed a most sensible strategy. But… “No. Absolutely not,” was what Ning Yi said.

“You don't want to hurt Feng Zhiwei,” Ziyan snorted.

“I also don't want to hurt Gu Heng's widow and Feng Hao, whom I have never met,” Ning Yi sighed. “If we kill innocent people, we are no different from Ning Chuan. If one day, I enter Chengming Palace as an emperor, I wouldn't want my throne to be tainted with innocent blood. Do you understand?”

“Alright,” Ziyan smiled after a moment of reflection, “but what about Qiu Mingying's arrest? What are you going to do?”

“The Crown Prince went through a lot of trouble to arrest them. He is not going to kill them right away. So we have enough time to plan something,” Ning Yi said. Unless his brother snapped. That danger was always there.

“So the person who is in critical danger is Feng Zhiwei who is still at large,” Ziyan surmised.

“That's right.”

“That's why you are hiding her in your residence.”

“I am the only one who can protect her.”

“I see.”

Sometimes when Ziyan agreed too easily to what he said, Ning Yi got suspicious he was being mocked.

“I am the only one who can protect her,” he repeated, just to test the words again. Was it not true? Zhiyan didn’t answer him this time, but looked at him with raised eyebrows and something that could be pity or just amusement in his eyes. Not another one jumping to the wrong conclusions! Ning Yi was just about to explain to Ziyan what his plans were for Zhiwei, when Ning Cheng’s agitated voice reached them.

“Your Highness! Your Highness!” He came running, in his hands a note:

We may not meet again - Feng Zhiwei

Red hot anger rushed through Ning Yi. What a reckless and audacious woman! He had been foolish to think victory was that easily secured with someone like her. Once again, he needed to change his strategy because of her.


That evening, it was raining hard. While staring at the torrents gushing down outside, Ning Yi had to admit to himself that he was worried. His visit to the Qiu residence had only made matters worse for her. Like he had suspected, it was where Feng Zhiwei had turned to after leaving the safety of his residence, but instead of being able to talk sense into her, she had ran away again right after she had seen him. If only that insufferable daughter of the Qiu household had not assaulted and confused him. Ning Cheng, feeling sufficiently sorry for his failure, had not been able to catch Feng Zhiwei on the streets outside, the only consolation being that Colonel Qiu’s men had not been successful either.

Only… where was she?

Feeling a need to be alone as the familiar heaviness of melancholy came over him, Ning Yi wandered around his house for a while before turning to his chambers, unsure if he would find sleep tonight.

There! On the bed, she was… sleeping peacefully, like it was hers, only the slightest frown on her face. His lips curved upwards into a smile as relief flooded him. She had come back?

Only a foolish man would believe such a thing. Somebody must have brought her here unconscious.

“Your Highness,” a voice rumbled from the shadows that pooled by the window, instantly setting Ning Yi on high alert. It was Gu Yan, Head of the Royal Guards, Qiu Mingying’s brother in law - a traitor to the people loyal to the bloodline of Dacheng, a turncoat, the Crown Prince’s trusted man… or so people thought. Ning Yi had known him for many years and if he was certain about one thing, it was that this man was a natural enemy, ready to avenge the wrongs done to his brother and his family. But that… that also made him a potential ally to his cause.

The danger of having this soldier in his house was real - people had been assassinated for far less than he was guilty of. But Ning Yi had shown Gu Yan his sincerity before, so he had no issue to show it to him again, he had proven to him that he had looked for his missing wife and child, in contrast to his brother the Crown Prince. That he wasn’t dead yet though Gu Yan had had ample opportunity to skewer him made him mildly hopeful.

And indeed. Even though Gu Yan knew what role Ning Yi had played in his brother’s death, he seemed to have a heart bigger than the empire. For his sister and her children, he was ready to forget the past and beg this Prince that had brought so much pain into his life on his knees to keep them safe.

“My brother died because of you,” he pressed out, “but his wife and child are still alive. If you, your Highness, could protect them and keep them safe, I am willing to put that hatred behind us.”

“I promise you,” Ning Yi replied, his voice trembling.

“Then, I am willing to follow you and even die for you.”

There it was … the man’s loyalty. Deadly.

“What are you ready to do?” Ning Yi demanded to know, “What will you do to prove your loyalty?”

“I will take down the Crown Prince with you,” came the emotional answer.

Emotionality had always been Ning Yi’s weakness, tears came to his eyes too easily, ready to gush out in the most inopportune moments. But sometimes, they were an asset, especially when he needed to convey his sincerity. Drawing Gu Yan to his side had been a part of the plan, but the outcome of his attempts to win this stoical man’s trust had never been certain.

But in the end, it was not his tears, it was Feng Zhiwei, the audacious, reckless woman, who had given Gu Yan the final push. Feng Zhiwei needed protection. The only one who could give it to her in the current situation was the Prince of Chu, Ning Yi.

Gu Yan swearing allegiance to him made a new plan blossom in his mind. With the help of General Qiu, the brother-in-law would be able to bring a message to the imprisoned Qiu Mingying. And that woman would be sensible enough to know what was best for Feng Zhiwei. Even if it meant ramming a figurative knife in her daughter’s heart.

Again, she had proven useful to him in unexpected ways, Ning Yi thought after returning to his chambers to gaze at Zhiwei’s sleeping form again. But there was little joy in his heart tonight. No wonder… being reminded of the past did that to him. And knowing that one day, she would find out what he had done to who might or might not be her father…

May you never find out, he wished fervently, even though he knew he was a foolish man for believing such happy endings were possible for somebody like him. On the path he had chosen, having people that liked you was a luxury he would not have.

Chapter 5