The Rise of Phoenixes (天盛长歌) - Chapter 14 (Fanfiction)

Chapter 14 - Poison might be sweet, but medicine is always bitter

written by kakashi
edited by Bunny

Just like one of the expensive royal hunting dogs his Father held, Ziyan had immediately gotten wind of Ning Yi’s elevated state of confusion. Not that he hadn’t teased him about “his pawn” before, only now it had ceased to be mere teasing, it had advanced into sniffing up his legs with bared teeth, ready to sink his teeth into Ning Yi’s flesh at the first sign of weakness.

Ziyan was at Prince of Chu’s residence to play Go and discuss some plans. The visit had started with an interrogation about Ning Yi’s favorite wool sachet that he had seen in Feng Zhiwei’s possession. The sachet had belonged to his mother and Ziyan knew what it meant to him. Zhiwei, who did not, had carelessly waved it about in court like a trophy when she had proposed a solution to their acute border market problem the other day. Get the wild and restless men from Dayue to marry the docile women from the central plains to tie them down. On top of that, give them a type of sheep that was difficult to breed, but gave plenty of wool, with the Emperor guaranteeing to be the buyer. She was exceedingly smart, this woman, and all the much smarter because her friend Yan Huaishi’s family in Minghai were the only current owners of this sheep.

“It was an accident,” was all that Ning Yi could come up with, the worst excuse he had ever used in his life, even though “accident” described the occurrence at the Wei Residence rather well.

“You are not keeping things from me, are you?” the Headmaster said suspiciously.

Of course he was. He could not stop thinking of that woman and her sweet lips but he would rather die than to admit this to Ziyan. He knew himself. He could not let himself be distracted, not with the situation shifting around them all the time, not with them moving into the next phase of their plan, in which success was going to be so much harder.

Maybe he should blame her for the urgency he felt to move on, to dry up the next festering sore, to be done with everything. He was more impatient than ever. He would readily admit it, but he also did not want to turn old and grey until the Changs and all the other bad weeds were plucked out and burnt to ash.

“Qiu Mingying is back in Feng Zhiwei’s life,” Xin Ziyan told Prince of Chu over their game of Go. “Apparently, her daughter’s near brush with death during the Crown Prince’s rebellion rattled her badly. Zhiwei went to the Qiu residence as herself yesterday.”

“I worry that somebody could realize how much Zhiwei and Wei Zhi resemble each other,” the Prince of Chu mumbled.

“On the way to her Uncle’s residence, she met Prince Helian of Jingshi,” Ziyan continued his chatter.

Ning Yi nodded. He had heard of it, which included hearing about boorish Prince Helian’s immediate and very verbal admiration for the one Tiangsheng woman who had stood up for herself when he had tried to bully her.

“His Father is an ally of Tiangsheng,” Ziyan said, watching his face closely, “and he sent his son here to learn from us. You have to be polite.”

“Why would I not be polite, I’m always polite,” Ning Yi said sullenly. “Unless I have reason not to be.”

“You also know who came with him, don’t you,” Ziyan ventured on.

Zhanbi. A Jingshi ambassador. But also his mother’s fabled lover from many years ago, the reason why she had lost her reputation and been cast away by the Emperor like she meant nothing to him. Ning Yi needed to see this man and speak to him about what people said had transpired back then. Speak civilly even though he hated him with all his might for what he had done to his mother.

“Be careful,” Ziyan said quietly. “Be very careful. You are much too exposed after your brother’s death. And your other brother, Prince of Yan, has been very quiet. I would bet my right hand he is plotting against you at this very moment.”

Ning Yi shook his head. “I have told Father about what Chang Yuan did. Father has asked for Chang Yuan to report to the palace. They say it's to report, but it's actually to investigate. Things are moving in our favor, Ziyan. No need to worry.”

Recently, an opportunity had arisen to go straight for the root of all evil: there was proof being delivered into his outstretched hands about his uncle Chang Yuan’s grave misconduct, which included murder, extortion, corruption, and more. This uncle in Minghai was as powerful as he was evil. He had also been his father’s trusted brother in arms during the founding of the Empire, explaining at least some of this reluctance the Emperor exhibited when it came to his removal.

It was why Ning Yi had grasped the opportunity to become the Head of the Censorate against Ziyan’s explicit counsel. He did not care that this removed him from being eligible to become the next Crown Prince. He did not care it meant he was no longer going to be present at court. The only thing he cared about what that it gave him the power and freedom to investigate his uncle.

Ning Yi had no desire for power, but he needed it to fulfill his dreams. All he wanted was for Tiansheng to be peaceful and prosperous.

Because you have a pure heart that ‘puts citizens first, the state second, and the ruler last’,” Ziyan had told him just the other day.

Ah, but what use was a pure heart. They had worked nonstop, but they had not been successful. To Ning Yi, it felt like they had crawled forward one inch only, when the full distance was over a thousand miles. There was a Dacheng's territory map he had found and put in his study. 600 years ago, when Dacheng was established, Tiansheng, Jinshi and Dayue were mere parts of it. So grand. So prosperous. This, this was the bright and vast Empire in his heart.

“You still don't believe Chang Yuan can be defeated,” Ning Yi observed, setting his next stone. “You're so pessimistic.”

“Do you really think he can be defeated with the meager proof you’ve got? You’re too optimistic,” Ziyan countered.

“Do you want to bet?” Ning Yi challenged him. He knew that even if Ziyan might not agree with him, he would always support him with all his might.

“Sure!” Ziyan immediately replied. “The wager is Feng Zhiwei. If I win, I can do whatever I want with her. If you win, you can marry her.”

Ah, Ziyan was too sly and cunning. His heart missing a beat, Ning Yi blinked and swallowed, making what he believed could pass as an unbothered face.

“Do you think that Feng Zhiwei is a woman I can control? What good will it be if I win.”

“So you think you'll win for sure? You heard me, if I win, Feng Zhiwei will be mine to control. I bet… I bet you're afraid of that.”

“I'm not betting,” Ning Yi said.

“You're afraid.”

“I do not agree with this wager,” Ning Yi sulked.

Hunting dog Ziyan had cornered him quite successfully. Of course Ning Yi was confident he would win this bet. But betting on Zhiwei… no, he could not do it. Marriage? Not a woman he could control, not one he wanted to control. She should be free and traveling the world like it was her dream.

“Your Highness,” Ziyan replied, sounding serious all of a sudden, “take care. I say it again, take care. You should not go to see her.”

Ah, but he had had to go.

“I put Zhiwei in danger once again and she got wounded, it was only proper,” Ning Yi defended himself.

“Yes,” Ziyan said, “maybe it was proper and maybe she was able to give you valuable information about the arrow used to shoot that false informant certain people expected would rat out Chang Yuan, but you still should not go to see her in person. Send your bodyguard next time. She was not that badly wounded.”

Ning Yi scowled at his friend.

“A mere scratch from what I hear,” Ziyan insisted. “You know you are putting her in danger if people believe she is your person.”

Ning Yi sighed.

“There are some things and some words that can only exist in the dark. Do you understand?”

I told her that, Ziyan!
Ning Yi wanted to defend himself. I am not that reckless!

But he had also said other things. Like… “come closer”, several times. Until she had been right in front of him and he could breathe the air she had exhaled, could see a slight blush spread on her cheeks and could see her pupils dilate as he gazed at her. Was she as affected as he was about what had happened? Ah, the power of the mind. He had kept his hands on his knees and his breathing steady, when those hands had wanted to touch her and the breathing had wanted to convey his excitement.

And he had also let his guard down completely and told her about his dreams of an Empire in which there was only justice and no suffering.

“Why did I only see this today?” she had teased him. “Turns out there's a sliver of light in Your Highness' heart.”

That had rendered him quiet. But before he could feel hurt or get angry, he had realized she was not belittling him. It was a true surprise to her to hear him speak about such things. She did not know him. He did not know her. And it had made him realize that he had been out of line. That this woman was not his. That she had her own mind and was not his to control. Why burden her with his visions?

“And now you’re thinking of her again,” Ziyan sighed dramatically, throwing his hands into the air. “We are doomed.”


One prince was bad enough, but three princes descending upon her residence with hardly any notice? Ning Sheng was a shrewd tactician, sitting out his first brother’s calamity entirely unscathed with the patience of a scorpion. Ning Qi, come to the capital only recently, was like one of these dogs that were mistreated since young, always keeping their heads low and their tail between their legs, but ready to bite at any moment.

And Ning Yi was … whom Feng Zhiwei thought about very frequently ever since that night. Also someone she did not see that often anymore since he had taken up a new position at the Censorate and no longer came to court regularly.

What this visit was about, she did not know, but it made her very anxious. Ning Yi did not even try to hide his wariness, asking his younger brother very pointed questions having to do with his involvement in the recent killing of a potential informant from Minghai. Things had changed since the Crown Prince’s death. The knives were still out and in plain sight. The battle for the throne had moved into the next round and at this very moment, Zhiwei wished she was not still sitting in the middle of it all.

Ning Qi had claimed they had come because they had been greedy to taste the Qiangu wine the Emperor had given her. In truth, however, Zhiwei felt like a net was being pulled close around them, very slowly and carefully. But who was the one doing the pulling? And who was the target?

To ease the mounting tension, Zhiwei suggested a drinking game involving poems as hints and the guessing of phrases. The princes readily agreed. The neighbor on her right that she had to pass her cup to while a maid was beating the drums was Ning Yi. When Ning Yi smiled at her, and he smiled every single time their eyes met, her heart would start beating faster and because he most certainly knew what effect his smiles had on silly women, he also made sure to touch her hands as often as he could whenever they exchanged the cup

Though barely touching, his fingers made her skin tingle and spread a warmth inside of her that threatened to set her cheeks on fire.

“There are some things and some words that can only exist in the dark. Do you understand?”
That’s what he had said not too long ago at her residence. Her servants had all left the room at that point and being alone with him had made her flustered and a bit shy, almost as if the silly her expected more kisses on such an occasion. But of course, kissing princes was just going to get a commoner like her killed. He was warning her not to tattle about their mistake, but whom should she even tell? Her mother? Zhiwei would rather bite off her tongue than mention the Prince of Chu to her. And there were no other women around her since Zhuyin’s death, only men. She valued both Yan Huaishi and Gu Nanyi greatly, but ask them about what a kiss like the one she and Ning Yi had shared meant for a man? She would die of embarrassment first.

The drinking game went on and on for many rounds until her head was spinning and at one point, Ning Yi tried to get up staggering and collapsed back with a muffled moan.

Deciding their brother was much too drunk to continue, Ning Sheng ordered Wei Zhi to help him to one of the rooms to sober him up.

Ning Yi leaned on her heavily all the way, one hand around her shoulders, the other one on her collarbone to steady himself. He pressed his forehead against her temple and breathed against the side of her neck, making goosebumps spring up all over her body.

Wretched man, always enjoying her discomfort more than anything.

He spoke not a word even as she deposited him roughly on the floor at the edge of her bed. Sinking down, he smiled a content half-smile and sighed as he let his head drop on his outstretched arms.

“Your Highness, are you done with your act?” Feng Zhiwei asked amicably, rolling her shoulders. This prince wasn’t all that much taller than her, but he sure was heavy.

“You can act, but I can't?” he asked, lifting his head and his hand to support it. “Qiangu is a good wine. I really am tipsy, you know.”

Why did he have to look at her like this with these soulful eyes of his as if he wanted to hear praise for his shrewdness?

“It's so rare for me to get drunk,” a small smile adorned his lips, “and in your residence too.”

Feng Zhiwei’s heart started racing again when she realized they were once again alone - though it was bright day outside and the door was wide open. The storage room where they had kissed was not far from here, only a few doors down on the other side. Did he know?

“I just don't know until when I can stay drunk,” he continued, almost as if speaking to himself. “Zhanbi is still waiting for me… in prison.”

With another sigh, he lowered his head on his arm on her bed and closed his eyes.

Feng Zhiwei had no clue who this Zhanbi person was and why he was in prison, but asking the Prince of Chu about it seemed a bad idea. The less she knew about the princes’ fights, the better. Knowing her luck, she would only get into trouble again.

She waited for the Prince of Chu to say something more, but he did not move. His breath came slowly and regularly as if he had really fallen asleep on the spot, even though he was sitting in an uncomfortable position. He must have been very tired, she thought, feeling sorry she had not put him on the bed to rest.

Very quietly, she got up and left the room, wishing the Prince of Chu a good sleep. In thought, she walked over to her study, when her eyes beheld somebody waiting in one of the guest rooms.

“Mother!” she exclaimed and rushed in to kneel in front of the two guests, her heart hamming in her throat thinking about who was sleeping in her bedroom and what the knowledge about it would have her mother do. “Why are you here? I didn't know you were coming. I wasn't able to welcome you and my brother. I'm such an unfilial child.”

“Zhi’er,” her mother said with a sideway glance, speaking strangely slow and with emphasis. “There's no need for courtesy. I didn't know I was coming here either.”

What was going on? Zhiwei frowned, but the situation became much clearer when Princess
Shaoning stepped out from the shadows.

“Scholar Wei, I saw you entertaining my brothers, so I entertained your mother and brother on your behalf. You won't be mad at me, right?”

Shaoning. Vengeful Shaoning who had most certainly not come out of courtesy but had sworn to avenge her brother’s death and threatened Zhiwei if she happened to oppose her. Her presence here revealed the one with the net to Zhiwei and also the target. And this time, she was the bait and they had thought to use her family to pressure her. Stupidly, Zhiwei had ordered Yan Huaishi to keep Gu Nanyi away. She was on her own.

Assuring her mother and her brother all would be well, Feng Zhiwei followed Shaoning out of the room and a distance away.

“Your Highness, what is your intention?” Zhiwei asked reluctantly. Why did trouble follow the Prince of Chu everywhere he went? Why could he never just rest?

“It's simple,” the Princess said, pulling out a white jar from her sleeve. “Just let Ning Yi have this.”

Zhiwei’s breath wanted to stop. “Have you lost your mind, Your Highness? Forgive me. I cannot do that.”

“Don't worry,” Ning Yi’s half sister said, “I'm not trying to kill him. I'm just trying to play a trick on him.”

Zhiwei felt outrage starting to suffocate her. To be a pawn again! She was so done with this family!

“I can't do that either!” she expressed sharply. “If you keep forcing me, Your Highness, I'll have to resign from the palace and go back to my hometown.”

Why had she even gotten involved in the first place! Wretched Mr. Tailor, it was all his fault.

“Wei Zhi,” Shaoning said angrily. “You would still be in Tiansheng even if you resign. And if I can force your mother to come and drink here, I can have her go and eat somewhere else too… You'd better think about that.”

She had been too stupid, Zhiwei understood, believing in the good in this Princess, when Ning Yi had warned her repeatedly.

“Don't worry about it then,” she said bitterly, ripping the jar out of Shaoning’s hand, “I'll die right here in front of you.”

She lifted the jar to her mouth to drink the content, but Shaoning caught her arm and took the jar back. There were small, purple pellets in there. Shaoning put one into her mouth and swallowed before the shocked Zhiwei could intervene.

“Stupid Wei Zhi. Look! Do you trust me now?”

Trust? Zhiwei wanted to laugh, but she was too annoyed to do so. So it was not a harmful poison. What was it then?

“Your Highness,” she said with a bow and very resolutely. “I'll only do this once. If you cause my family trouble again, I will make you pay for it, even if I am cut a thousand times.”

Damned be the royal family. Damned be they all.


The Prince of Chu recognized Zhiwei’s footsteps, even when she tiptoed around like this. The cautious sound of her entrance had been enough to wake him from what had been a brief, but deep slumber.

Stupid, Ziyan would scold him, careless. To sleep like this when his enemies were gathering around him to deal him the next blow! But then again, he liked to get them to act so that he could advance his own plans. It was risky, but this strategy had always served Ning Yi well. Unless the Prince of Yan, who was extremely careful, exposed his intentions, Ning Yi had no way to know and exploit his weaknesses.

Feng Zhiwei’s footsteps stopped next to him. He could hear her quiet breathing as she stood there and waited for him to acknowledge her presence.

But maybe he did not want to open his eyes. Maybe he would just stay here until she bent down to check on him. Yes, he wanted her closer. He wanted to feel her warmth again, the only thing in the world that made him happy, that reached his very core and chased away his nightmares.

But this woman was stubborn and not obedient at all. She only stood there, watching, not coming closer.

“The way you're looking at me is making me embarrassed,” Ning Yi sighed, opened his eyes and turned around to lean his back against the bed. “It's just like last time when I got wounded. But you took good care of me then.”

“You're probably still drunk,” Zhiwei said and knelt down. “That's why you're saying this.”

“Not at all,” he replied, but he realized with a twinge of apprehension she was in no mood for banter or memories of time spent at his residence, so he let it pass. “I slept well, which is rare. It's also rare that we're finally getting along,” he added and smiled at her.

“As long as you're willing, we'll have many opportunities to get along,” she gave back.

Oh, really? She would blame him one-sidedly like this?

“Whom did you just meet with?” he challenged her.

Feng Zhiwei said nothing. But her eyes were larger than usual and now that he looked at her more closely, he saw that she was frightened. His guess had been right - this gathering here had been convened to harm him and once again, she was in the middle of his troubles. What an ill-fated relationship indeed.

“Is there anything interesting that you want to share with me?” he followed up.

“Yes,” she admitted immediately, not even blinking.

“All right,” he smiled and bent forward. You silly girl, he thought, you want to be loyal now? Don’t be. Throw me to the wolves, woman. Protect yourself.

She held his gaze for a considerable amount of time, but in the end, she turned her eyes away and said evasively: “Prince of Yan's poem was very impressive.”

“Make me some soup to ease my drunkenness,” he sighed, sinking back against the bed. “I want you to make it.”

“All right. I'll go now,” she said quietly and left.

So she would do it. Just like that and without much hesitation. Feeling miserable, he did not move until she came back and put a tray, a bowl and a spoon on the table, looking in his direction. Would it be painful? Prince of Chu got up and staggered over. Better get it over with quickly. But when he reached for the bowl, Feng Zhiwei caught his arm and prevented him from taking it.

“You drank much too much. Let me take your pulse,” she offered, grasping his arm firmly.

“Huh,” he snorted, “Are you a doctor now? Fine, I do feel kind of dizzy.”

He bared his arm for her and her fingers searched and found his pulse easily. She was close, but not close enough. There only was a little warmth from the contact and it did not suffice.

“So?” he asked, watching her face.

“You're quite healthy, Your Highness,” she eagerly said. “It wasn't that much wine. Let me throw this out.”

“Wait,” he commanded and caught her hand when she wanted to whisk away the tray. “My health has nothing to do with me drinking this soup, right?”

Her fingers moved to grasp his and press them instead of an answer. But it was futile to try and stop him now, he would walk into this trap with his eyes open. What did they threaten you with? He wondered as he saw the moisture gather in her eyes. Ah, but there must be so many things worth more than my life to you.

“Poison might be sweet, but medicine is always bitter,” he said as he lifted the bowl to his lips. “If I don't drink it, how will I know its taste?”

She refused to look at him again and it was this he regretted the most when he put the bowl back, wiped the corner of his mouth with his sleeve and swallowed down the last of the sweet brew Zhiwei had served him.

“All right,” he said and stood up. “I have other things to tend to. See you.”

He was no longer feeling dizzy, he realized, as he stepped outside into the sunshine and made his way back to his own residence. But his heart, it hurt.

Chapter 15