The Rise of Phoenixes (天盛长歌) - Chapter 10 (Fanfiction)

Chapter 10 - Taste Royal Wine and go see the God of Death 

written by kakashi
edited by Bunny

When Feng Zhiwei stepped into Prince of Chu’s hall with her entourage of servants carrying the Emperor’s food presents behind her, she found the owner of the residence sitting on the floor like a commoner, bent over some fabric, discussing with a plain but friendly looking man how to cut and sew it.

“Wei Zhi pays his respect to His Highness”, she bowed, a bit reluctant to interrupt this lively conversation.

But the Prince of Chu looked up with a smile and sparkling eyes. “Ah, Scholar Wei! Come here, see if you like this pattern!” he signalled to her to sit down next to him in between the many pieces of cloth around him.

He looked and sounded happy. She had never before seen him so relaxed. She remembered their first meeting at House of Lanxiang… poor Zhuyin, now in the afterlife, had claimed back then that he only truly cared about clothes. Though she knew this to be untrue now, this Prince had never lied about his passion for weaving and tailoring.

“I'm still an adolescent. What do I know about these extravagant things?” she said a bit shy, unsure how to deal with him when he was like this.

“Ai,” Prince of Chu sighed with a rueful smile. “It seems you take me for someone who does irrelevant work. It must be hard for the Ultimate Scholar to bring food to me.”

Zhiwei rolled her eyes. So they were back to teasing? That she knew how to deal with. Walking over to the table to supervise the unpacking of the gifts, she kept listening to the conversation behind her.

“I never thought the Yugao flower I'm so used to seeing in the fields as a kid would be so precious once stitched by Your Highness,” the man kneeling on the floor with the Prince said reverently.

“Ah, but this pattern is actually very easy to stitch,” the Prince of Chu said modestly, though she heard the suppressed pride in his voice nonetheless. “You can ask the seamstresses to start working on it tomorrow.”

“I thank you on their behalf!” the man said overjoyed. “Now we have a skill to make a living.”

Ning Yi waved this comment aside with a smile. “Make stitches here, too. So that there would be a contrast in color.”

The fabric… it was incredibly beautiful. Now that she allowed herself to look, she found it hard to divert her eyes from it all. And from him, so busy doing things no prince was ever meant to do.

"’O Swallows, in the great halls of the lords you used to nest, into the commoners' homes you've all flown’", Zhi Wei recited the last lines of a well known poem by Liu Yuxi, stepping closer. Her hand couldn’t help it, it went forward to feel the light blue fabric with the flowers on it, “I hope the seamstress' daughters can use this silk brocade as their wedding gowns one day.”

Ning Yi looked at her with an expression she couldn’t quite read.

Those lines she had said were from a poem called “Lane of Black-Gown Mansions” that lamented the shifting fortunes of families and dynasties. The poet had visited a famous street in Jinling, which had once been lined with the impressive and rich homes of the ruling families that had always worn black. But when Liu had arrived, the bridge was covered with weeds, the graceful mansions of the rich were gone, and in their place he had found rough shacks of common folks. The swallows which had become used to find shelter in fine mansions, now had to do with the leaky shanties.

“That day will come,” Ning Yi said softly, still looking at her. She wanted to ask him what day he was speaking about, the day of the seamstress’ daughters wearing his fabric on their weddings or the downfall of the powerful families? It was an impertinent question, she realized, since one of those was his own, just as Ning Cheng sighed: “Your Highness! If you don't eat this food now, we'll have to feed it to the horses. Scholar Wei. Are you not here to deliver the food? You're not doing what you're here for!”

“It seems my residence is cursed,” the Prince of Chu smiled, looking away and at the fabric in front of him again. “Whoever comes here does irrelevant work. Ah, but then again, we’re done!” he got up lithely. “Let's eat.”

He stretched and walked over to the table where the food was merrily steaming and waiting to be eaten.

“By the way, share some of the food with Huo Laosan,” he told Ning Cheng in passing. “The wine too.”

Huo Laosan… so this was the man Ning Yi had begged be released from prison with him? Everybody had talked about this back then. He must mean a lot to the Prince of Chu.

“I must be blessed that I can taste the imperial food and wine in this lifetime!” Huo Laosan said happily, “Thank you, Your Highness.”

“You can't just drink this wine though!” Ning Yi laughed, now lounging in his chair. “You have seen the plays by the street performers. The wine might have been poisoned.”

Feng Zhiwei rolled her eyes with a snort when he looked over to see her reaction. That joke was getting old fast.

“I know,” Huo Laosan said earnestly. “But the wine here is precious. This is royal wine. If I can taste it, I'd die happily even if I have to go and see the God of Death tomorrow.”

“You can drink the wine”, Ning Yi smiled at him fondly, “But return the jar to Scholar Wei. Or else, he might get fined for losing the royal jar. What a laughingstock he would be then.”

“Your Highness is so considerate,” Zhiwei said drily. The fabric she was standing in front of right now with its grey and green tones was almost magical. “Next time I receive my salary, I'll pick some silk brocade and make a dress for my mother.”

“Really?” Ning Yi smiled broadly. He was so boyish today, Zhiwei thought for the first time that he was actually not that much older than her. “Come closer. Will your mother like this pattern? If so, I'll make a beautiful dress for her. I'll also give one to your brother, would that please you?”

“Your Highness is very generous,” she bowed, her heart beating a bit faster when she looked into his eyes.

“Are you sucking up to me?” Ning Yi’s eyes narrowed as his voice dropped lower. Teasing. Dangerous. He is dangerous, Zhiwei had to remind herself as a shiver raced down her spine, but I like to banter with him like this.

A sound as if somebody had dropped something made her look around. Huo Laosan? He seemed to have fallen. Ning Cheng shook his head and went over to help him up. But his amused face turned to alarm instantly when he looked at the man’s face.

“Your Highness!” he shouted.

Ning Yi got up and rushed over, Zhiwei following closely be. When she saw the wine jar next to him and the black blood flowing from Huo Laosan’s nose, she knew what had happened. She knew and couldn’t believe it.

“Get the doctor! Hurry!” Ning Yi ordered with a shaking voice that sounded increasingly panicked as he continued to call his friend’s name.

Zhiwei stood there like her body had turned to stone.

It dawned on her then that she had been very, very stupid.

That new servant she had saved from Chang Hai’s men in the streets just the day before. He had clumsily dropped the wine jar after they had come out of the kitchen, getting a massive scolding. To help him rectify his mistake, Zhiwei had allowed him to get a new wine. By himself.

“I wasn't able to examine it carefully,” she said meekly, watching the doctor trying to help the lifeless Huo Laosan.

“Be quiet,” the Prince of Chu said in a voice so cold it chilled her like a winter storm.

“Your Highness, I don't think he'll make it,” the doctor said timidly.

Prince of Chu’s anger flared like a deadly blaze. Within the time it took her to take a shuddering breath, he had grabbed a needle from the doctor’s kit and was pointing it at her eye.

Zhiwei looked at the grief-stricken, hardened face that had been so joyful mere moments ago and waited for the inevitable. The arm that had grabbed her around the neck was like iron shackles, holding her in place. In that moment, all she saw was a man’s seething wrath, knew she had brought it on, knew she had no right to protest. No: she deserved it.

She held his eyes and felt only one thing… regret. That it would end like this between them. That she had brought so much pain to somebody who already had enough of it in his life.

Whatever it was that made Prince of Chu lower his pointed weapon with an angry exhale, she did not know. He stood there, looking at her with terrible eyes and then exclaimed: “Let's go to the palace!”

He was out the door with Ning Cheng behind him before she could find her bearing.

But no. No! She couldn’t cry like a frightened girl. She couldn’t! She had to stop him.

“Your Highness. Your Highness!” she was running after him as fast as she could. He seemed in no state of mind to listen, but she managed to overtake him and he slowed down.

Zhiwei fell on her knees in front of him. They were on that bridge in his garden. She had knelt here before and she would kneel again or forever, if it took that to make him see reason. “Please forgive my impetuousness. Your Highness is under orders to reflect at home. You can't go to the palace without permission. Please reconsider. Please!”

She was ready to grab his leg should he not listen. He could not go there. He would be punished severely.

“Huo Laosan was very close to me,” he pressed out, his voice shaking, “He died unjustly. Should I suppress myself and just stay here?”

“That's not what I meant!” Zhiwei said, cursing the tears that made her voice brittle, “I'm also to blame for what happened today. Please let me investigate it. Otherwise, I won't be at peace!”

He looked terrible. Who would be able to comfort him?

“Investigate?” he said the word like it was dirty. “Scholar Wei. Someone used you to poison me. It was done by the people around you. They should all be bound and tortured!”

His anger hit her again like a wave. A memory flashed in her head, a conversation she had had with his father, after she had told him about the strange game of Go she had played with Ning Yi. The Emperor had given the order to remove the guards around his son’s mansion then and she had wondered.

“If someone really wants to kill Prince of Chu, shouldn't we tighten security?”

“But I want to know who wants to kill Prince of Chu.”

A deadly game and a father who did not hesitate to use his own son as bait. How her heart ached for him right now.

“Your Highness, even though I don't really know Huo Laosan, we were both involuntarily involved in the royal battle. I assume Huo Laosan wouldn't want to harm innocent people either. If someone really did it…”

“Your Highness!” Ning Cheng’s voice interrupted her.

He came running. “Your Highness, I have checked,” he reported, the wine jar in his hand. “This wine was delivered here directly from the royal kitchen. Only the staff there and Scholar Wei's men touched it.”

“Was there anything suspicious?” Prince of Chu demanded to know.

“Among Scholar Wei's servants, someone named Chang Ji looked quite familiar. I think I have seen him with Princess Shaoning before.”

Shaoning? Oh no. The spoilt princess, the Crown Prince’s baby sister. Zhiwei had met her at Qingming and it had actually been Shaoning bullying Stableman that had led to Zhiwei finding out about Bloody Pagoda in the first place. But she wouldn’t…? Zhiwei felt very cold all of a sudden. Oh no.

The news seemed to completely break Ning Yi. He staggered to support himself on one of the bridge poles.

“Wei Zhi. You knew who did it. You still want to take your chances. You want to protect that person, right?” His finger pointed at her accusingly as if this was far worse than his own sister being involved in an attempt to murder him.

I did not know Shaoning was involved, Zhiwei wanted the shout, how could I have, but I was stupid, so stupid, forgive me.

“Please investigate thoroughly, Your Highness,” she said desperately. “I just don't want innocent people to be harmed. I don't want his death to be on Huo Laosan!”

Prince of Chu turned away from her and she saw from how his shoulders shook that he must be crying.

“I swear on my mother's name that once I find the mastermind, I'll make sure he is punished by the law!” she promised. Please. Please, Ning Yi, believe me, I never wanted this. I didn’t think… I didn’t know that this battle for the throne could get even more vicious. I will make it right, if you let me.

“All right,” the Prince of Chu said with heaving chest. “Within one day. If you can't fulfill your promise to me, don't blame me for being ruthless.”

“Thank you, your Highness!” she exclaimed and rushed to get up. One day? That was not a lot of time.

“Feng Zhiwei”, his harsh words made her stall her steps. “Eliminate all evil. Don't harm any more innocent lives. Do you remember?”

But how could she forget? His words, her words. But was it enough to speak them? Sadly, not.


Two days later, everything was back to normal, at least on the surface. Zhiwei had done what she could to investigate the murder and as a result, she was certain the Prince of Chu would soon get what he had worked for. Maybe he would smile again. Maybe he would speak to her again like before. Maybe he would be able to forgive her.

On her way from the Palace, Feng Zhiwei was running down the stairs with a mountain of scrolls on a tray in front of her when they started to shift and - dammit! - all fell on the ground with an ugly sound. Hastily, she started to collect them. She had to deliver them to the Minister or Rites, she couldn’t be late!

A boot was placed on one of the scrolls.

“Step aside,” she said to the annoying person who thought this was appropriate. “They are confidential documents.”

But the foot did not budge, quite the opposite, it only pressed down harder - and now she looked up to see who would dare do such a thing.

Only one person, of course.

“Your Highness,” she stammered upon recognizing the Prince of Chu. He looked haggard and in a very bad mood.

“You are used to your authority now,” he scoffed at her sharp words.

“Forgive me, Your Highness,” she hastily said and bowed.

To her mounting shock, Ning Yi picked up the scroll from the ground and unrolled it. She made a grab for it, but too late.

“‘The Crown Prince concocted the Wugu Incident to frame Prince Ning Qiao’”, he read out loud.

“Give it to me!” she hissed, grabbing one end, “I told you that's confidential. We'll both be severely punished if someone sees us like this.”

“I forgot,” he said coldly, studying her face. “You are my father's favorite pet right now. Sorry for being disrespectful.”

She had never heard anybody sound less sincere.

“Everything is going your way!” she said in a low voice. “What else do you want?”

The Emperor was that close to publicly admitting that Ning Qiao had been put to death unjustly, that he had never committed treason. This was what Ning Yi had wanted, wasn’t it?

His anger took her unprepared. “How about justice for Huo Laosan?” he hissed, releasing the scroll she had started to roll back up on her end violently, almost making her stumble backwards.

“Chang Hai did it!” she quickly said, “I have reported it to His Majesty!”

She had, within the one day Ning Yi had given her.

“You might have found out who gave the command, but he wasn't punished. And you covered up for someone. You broke your promise to me!” his voice was scary.

“Your Highness, are you threatening me?” she asked stubbornly. “I told you. You'll get what you wished for. The people who deserve to be punished won't get away, and those who shouldn't be punished should be able to live safe and sound. Isn't that the best for everyone?”

He said nothing, just looked at her with cold eyes.

“The princess didn't know anything about it,” she hurriedly added, “Why do you have to get her involved?”

“Do you think this is about the princess?” he interrupted her. He shook his head at her, slowly. “This is about the Changs. It always has been. About Chang Hai daring to use the princess to poison me.”

These words hung between them, witnesses of her stupidity. Not about the Princess? Feng Zhiwei had thought all night about how to convince Ning Yi of his half-sister’s innocence.

Prince of Chu took several steps back from her. “Wei Zhi, oh Wei Zhi,” he sighed. “I’m warning you. The Chang family in Minhai is the biggest threat to the throne.”

He sighed again and turned to leave. “I'm worried about you,” he said unexpectedly. “You might get killed one day by the hands of the Chang family. It would be such a useless death.”

It sounded like the parting words of someone who was getting ready for the final battle. Someone who was ready to be the most ruthless of them all. He was worried about her? She was certain she was much more worried about him.

Chapter 11