The Rise of Phoenixes (天盛长歌) - Chapter 12 (Fanfiction)

Chapter 12 - A Moonlit Night on the Spring River

written by kakashi
edited by Bunny

Feng Zhiwei could hear her voice carry, and it gave her more confidence to speak up so that it carried even more. It went into every corner, it touched every golden ornament in this magnificent hall, every kneeling officials’ bowed head.

But there was only one person in the room she wanted her voice to give comfort to. He was next to her, his face hidden between his hands on the floor, overwhelmed with emotions, now that his dead brother Ning Qiao was no longer considered a traitor.

“Since there were emperors to shepherd the commoners, they all chose their first legitimate son as the Crown Prince. To consolidate their rule, they had to be impartial. The succession of the crown must be done justly. The choosing and deposing of a Crown Prince determines a country's fate. The Crown Prince, Ning Chuan, as my first legitimate son and the Crown Prince, was taught knowledge as well as manners. But he went astray and ruined his reputation. He kept men of integrity away, but degenerates close.

He never did any good, but every evil he could. The first year of Changxi, the first prince Ning Chuan was awarded the position of the Crown Prince for killing the remnant of Dacheng Empire. But now, according to the testimony of Chief of Royal Guards, Gu Yan, it was Prince of Chu, Ning Yi, who actually accomplished that. Ning Chuan lied to the Emperor to receive the title of Crown Prince. That's his first crime.

After Ning Chuan became the Crown Prince, he secretly kept Bloody Pagoda and had them assassinate his dissidents in the palace. Over ten years, he had 36 high-ranking officials murdered. Ning Chuan kept killers and murdered high-ranking officials. That's his second crime.

The tenth year of Tiansheng, Ning Qiao found out about what he did. To cover his tracks, he instructed Prince of Zhao, Ning Yan, to concoct the Wugu Incident to frame Ning Qiao for treason. Thousands of officials and their families were embroiled. Ning Chuan disregarded ties of brotherhood and brought harm to thousands of innocent people. That's his third crime.

The Crown Prince, Ning Chuan took the Emperor's trust for granted. He framed his brother and murdered his people. He defied his Emperor and brought chaos to the palace. He will be deposed from the position of Crown Prince as of today. He will be confined in Zongzheng Temple until the end of his days. That is all."

And with the last word of the imperial edict read, there was something between a moan and a sigh from the gathered officials. It signified the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The marking of a point in time that would be recorded in Tiansheng Kingdom’s chronicles as the day they lost their Crown Prince and the search for a new one would begin.

Will your heart come to rest now? Zhiwei wondered. Ning Yi, can you be happy? Your beloved brother is exonerated. He is posthumously made Crown Prince. You can stop now, Ning Yi. You can make your beautiful clothes and be at peace.

Feng Zhiwei wished it to be so, with all her heart. But a voice in the back of her head whispered: Don’t you see it, Zhiwei? Don’t you see? This man is someone who will never stop. This… this is only the beginning.


Ning Yi took a deep breath. Then another. His father’s spacious tent here in the suburban Imperial Camp smelled pungently of leather and horses - a scent so martial it elevated the tension he felt instead of easing it. “Make the former Crown Prince execute himself? Did I hear you correctly, Father?”

“You heard right,” his Father said coldly. “Ning Chuan has betrayed me. We can't tolerate what he did. I'll grant him a self-execution to show mercy.”

Yes, his stupid hothead of a brother had started a rebellion, at his Uncle Chang Hai’s initiative. They said they were going to kill all the evil ministers and restore order to the regime. It wasn’t unexpected - well, knowing something like this would happen was the main reason Ning Yi had taken his father to the army camp outside the city under the pretense of inspecting a new crossbow.

But… self-execution was mercy? Mercy? Ning Yi could not help himself, he had to laugh at this audacity.

“Ning Yi! Watch your attitude!” his father bellowed. “On your knees!”

Ning Yi clamped his mouth shut and did what he was told, barely keeping his head from shaking in disbelief too.

“Why did you laugh?” The Emperor challenged him.

Oh, but it was too obvious, wasn't it? “Of all the military officials in the palace, you chose me to have this conversation with. Me!”

A son he had humiliated and discarded, a son he denied the right to investigate his mother's death. A son… he only wanted to use as his tool. Why was he even surprised? If he resisted, Ning Yi knew he would soon find himself in a place worse than Zongzheng Temple.

“Father, don't you want to at least hear from the former Crown Prince himself why he's doing this?”

The Crown Prince wanted his Father's love and appreciation like all of the royal children, that was the answer, even at the very end. He wanted his father to come to the Capital and reason with him. He wants to cry at your feet, father, to beg for your forgiveness. You are not merciful - you are utterly cruel to deny him this.

“Why are all my sons trying to betray me, one after another?” The Emperor said bitterly. “Is it all for that throne in Chengming Palace?”

Ning Yi felt despair. What underhanded reasoning. Betrayal? Was he not kneeling obediently to be used and abused once more?

“You may rise. If you don't want to go, I will,” the Emperor added sullenly. “I'm curious to find out what Ning Chuan has to say to me.”

“Father,” Ning Yi sighed, getting up. “I'll go as you asked. It's my duty as a son after all.”

But why make it too easy on the old tyrant. Too many fearful people cowered in front of him every day, agreeing with every cruel command like all morals and reason were caught and imprisoned at the doors of the Palace.

“Of course, I should be the one to end this rebellion, so that you can have breathing room when facing the Changs, and so that you won't be ashamed of the way you go down in history.”

An aging man who above everything cared about what would be said about him in future generations. Ning YI really didn’t know how to keep up this fight against such odds.

“Of course, you want me, the good-for-nothing Prince of Chu, to do your dirty work for you. It's for the best.”

He could be thrown to the wolves. The Changs were out for his blood already, so why even think about protecting the son with no ties to that family. Dispensable! It was what he was.

“Of course, Father, your honor is more important.”

“Yi’er! That's not my intention at all!”

Ning Yi sometimes wondered whether the Emperor actually believed his own words. Ah, but why bother? Better to go don his armor and get ready for fratricide.

“Your Majesty,” he said formally, careful to suppress the tremor in his voice, “the former Crown Prince, Ning Chuan, has gone rogue and started a rebellion. I, Ning Yi, volunteer to lead an army and put an end to this.”

Be the executioner? He could do it. He hoped he could do it.


The stench of blood hung thick over the grounds, but this deep into the inner palace, there were no bodies. The sky was overcast, an ominous, gloomy grey fitting the occasion. It was eerily quiet after the battle, only two people from the enemy side remained, standing on the great square before Chengming Palace, trapped and doomed.

“Show yourself!” Ning Chuan shouted, his voice echoing through the vast expanse, “Come out right now, Ning Yi!”

At his silent command, Ning Yi’s army rushed forward, surrounding the former Crown Prince and his sister within mere seconds. Ning Yi was usually not one to care for grand entries, but admittedly, he enjoyed walking through the ranks of the soldiers at a leisurely pace until he came to a stop a few steps away from his elder brother.

“How have you been, Your Royal Highness?” Ning Yi smirked.

His brother looked grim, like a warrior who knew it was his last battle. What a stupid move to kill good men loyal to Tiansheng kingdom in such a pointless undertaking. And of course, the former Crown Prince had to know what it meant that he was here, the brother who had exposed his wrongdoings in the first place.

Shaoning in her colorful clothes on the other hand… she just looked scared and completely out of place. She was a complication Ning Yi would gladly have done without. Had nobody been smart enough to stop her from rushing to her brother’s side?

“You backstabber!” Ning Chuan growled.

“All thanks to you,” Ning Yi replied smoothly. He was relieved he found himself entirely without pity, now that he faced his brother. He knew his heart was much too soft at the least opportune moments and if he had begged him…

“I'm still Father's legitimate firstborn, not a bastard like you!” Ning Chuan insulted him. “Fight me one-on-one if you dare!”

Ning Yi had to laugh. “Firstborn, you say? Do you really still think you're still the Crown Prince whose life is more valuable than the people's? Should I tell you what Father's order is?”

Mercy? Mercy was to end this delusion quickly.

“Ready!” Ning Yi commanded sharply and hundreds of soldiers around them lifted their bows with arrows nocked.

“Ning Yi!” the tearful Shaoning shouted. “Father sent you to stop the rebellion! I was right outside his tent when he gave you the order! How dare you threaten my brother’s life!”

So the silly woman had eavesdropped, had heard part of their conversation and had ridden to the Capital without any protection, into the thick of fighting, all to persuade her dearest brother to surrender? It was a fine show of loyalty and love, almost touching considering the kind of relationship the royal children usually had, but Ning Yi could not be considerate of such folly. He could only accept her choice to be with her brother until the end.

She said something to her brother in a low voice, pulling at his arm in desperation.

“Surrender?” the former Crown Prince erupted, “Shaoning, you should know better. Ask Ning Yi if he'll let me live if I surrender!”

“Oh! I will!” Ning Yi snarked. “If… if you beg on your knees. Kneel! Repent to all the innocent lives lost, and ask them if they forgive you for what you have done to them!”

The former Crown Prince’s face changed into a mask of the deepest hatred. “You wish! They all deserved what they got. I'm of royal descent and I will not kneel to those peasants! Or to you, you traitor! And if I die today, I will die in Chengming Palace!”

Like a madman who couldn't help himself, he threw a look over his shoulder. And just like he could not help himself either, Ning Yi’s eyes travelled upwards too. Chengming Palace. Towering above them. Their light, their darkness, their salvation, their doom.

Ning Yi had no name for the disdain he felt for this man whose blood he partially shared. To the very end, despicable, warped, a disgrace to the royal family. To the end, clinging on to the promise of ultimate power, when it had never been anyone’s to claim for themselves.

“Ning Chuan, you still do not understand that it is the people you have to serve? That it is them that can either support or overthrow you? That the throne is not yours to just… take? There's nothing I can do for you anymore,” Ning Yi said.

Mercy… if he waited any longer and let this brother of his speak any more of his despicable thoughts, he would deny him even this. Ning Yi lifted his arm again. “Archers! At the ready!”

But before he could give the command to let loose, rapid hoofbeat approached, a clear, high voice that was quivering with tension shouted from afar: “Imperial edict for Prince of Chu! Imperial edict for Prince of Chu!”

He should have given the sign nonetheless. The arrows would have been shot without hesitation on the part of the soldiers and would have ended what had to end today in any case.

But his Father had sent his pet to humiliate him once more. A pet that Ning Yi still considered his, even though she was of a different mind. And so, he was the one to hesitate. He was the one who waited for her to arrive in front of him. He was the one who did not move a muscle even though he saw that his brother, the former Crown Prince, was using the moment to escape up the stairs and into Chengming Palace. Where he had no right to be.

He hesitated because he knew: this woman was reckless enough to ride right into a hail of arrows to do what she thought was right.

He would never be able to forgive himself if anything bad happened to her.


“Imperial edict for Prince of Chu!”

Dismounting hastily with the hand that was clutching the scroll high up in the air, Feng Zhiwei’s heart was hammering in her throat. Around her, a whole army lowered their weapons as Ning Yi let his arm go slack. The unspent tension was palpable in the air, sending shivers upon shivers down her back.

She had come not a second too late.

Prince of Chu was unhurt, she noticed with relief, but he also looked ready to unleash a storm and now that she had stepped in his path, she braced herself for what would hit her. The moment she had heard the Crown Prince had started a rebellion, her only thought had been about Ning Yi. Now she realized that she had been worried for the wrong reasons.

His teeth clenched, Ning Yi lowered one knee as was expected of him to receive his father’s words. He did not look at her, but fixed his burning eyes onto the stones at her feet.

She unrolled the edict and began to read with a shaking voice she could not get under control however hard she tried. "To my people, I hereby order Ning Yi, Prince of Chu, to stop the rebellion. In case of the unexpected, I'm also sending Hall of Zhaohua's Scholar, Wei Zhi, to supervise the army and protect Princess Shaoning. Execute my orders, that is all."

Ning Yi’s gauntlet hit the ground with force. Zhiwei flinched. Part of her understood his frustration, part of her condemned it. He snatched the edict from her hand, unfurling it anew to verify the content.

“Ning Yi,” she implored him. “Your brother has already failed. You don't have to kill him! Why don't you take him to His Majesty, and let His Majesty do the right thing?”

Ning Yi turned to face her and her heart dropped. Had she thought she had experienced him angry before? There was no comparison, no comparison at all to what ire spoke from his every feature.

“The right thing?” he repeated. “When they hunted down Ning Qiao, why didn't Father send someone like you to be the supervisor and save him.”

He turned around to face his soldiers. “Surround Chengming Palace!” he shouted.
“Ning Yi… wait!” Zhiwei grabbed his arm, but he shook her hand off like it was poisonous.

“Do you remember how Zhuyin died? Do you?” he hissed at her.

Of course she did. In her arms she had held her cooling body, feeling guilty and hopeless. He was not the only one who grieved, he was not the only one who had a right to think about revenge. Tears started filling her eyes.

“Ning Chuan has killed so many innocent people. If you protect him, those people cannot rest in peace,” he said bitterly.

“And if you kill Ning Chuan today, His Majesty won't forget it.”

“Have I ever cared? I never have! I…,” It was like he wanted to say more but swallowed down whatever scathing comment he had wanted to make. “But don’t worry,” he added, turning his face away. “Once I kill him, I will turn myself in and accept whatever criminal charge Father accuses me of. Then you can have your ‘right thing’. You will have saved him.”

Oh, Ning Yi… “I'm not trying to save him, I'm trying to save you! I know you hate the former Crown Prince, but if you kill him, it will be no different from how they killed Ning Qiao!”

Do you hear me, Ning Yi? But no. When he turned to face her again, his expression was devoid of anything that resembled compassion or understanding.

“When Old Stableman died, you said you saw who I really was. Let me tell you: I'm someone who is trapped. And who do you think you are? You're trying to save me? Pathetic!”

Taking a step away from her, he lifted the scroll and pointed it at her heart… like a sword. “If you try to stop me, I'll kill you too.”

Zhiwei swallowed. She was very scared. More scared than ever before, but… I will stand my ground. If you want to kill me, kill me. I will stand my ground.

“I'm a nobody,” she replied, taking a half-step towards him in defiance, “but His Majesty sent me to supervise you, so I won't let you kill innocent people.”

He took a deep breath, his eyes boring into hers. “Evil must be eliminated. I told you many times, but you never listen. Do you know what kind of person Shaoning is? I do! If I let her go, she will cause trouble in the future. People will die because of her!”

“You can't predict the future. I will not watch her die!”

His chest heaving, Prince of Chu walked back and forth in front of her. Had she gotten through to him? Would he see reason?

“Go in,” he finally conceded, and it sounded like it cost him ten years of his life to say this much, “and tell her to leave Chengming Palace. Tell her to leave Ning Chuan. I may let her go.”

Zhiwei did not need to be told twice. Flying up the stairs like she had grown wings, she entered the heavy doors with hope in her heart… but what Zhiwei found inside the Palace was a death sentence. The former Crown Prince had climbed on his father’s throne. He must have gone mad, utterly mad. Not even her could save him now.

Shaoning’s face was swollen from crying, but she put a knife at Zhiwei’s throat almost without hesitation.

“Brother,” she sniffled, “come down from there. Father sent Wei Zhi here, which means he still cares about you. When this is over, you will eventually get the throne!”

“Shaoning,” Ning Chuan replied with a crazy chuckle, “if he cared, he wouldn't have sent Ning Yi! Shaoning, whoever sits on this throne is a heartless man.”

“That's not true. Father is not like that!” Shaoning sobbed. “He raised us. I can feel his love. He will forgive you. Even if you end up in Zongzheng Temple, I'll still be with you, Ning Chuan!”

“Shaoning! I was born to sit on this throne,” the former Crown Prince said, his face taking on a dreamy expression. “If I fail to do that, what is the point of my existence? My dear sister. Even if I die, at least I have sat on this very throne!”

When they finally exited the Palace, night had fallen. Where had the time gone? It was all like a dream, a nightmare. The space in front of Chengming Palace was illuminated by lanterns, making the armor and weapons of the waiting soldiers sparkle. Ning Yi looked up to them with a grim expression on his face. Grim… and determined.

“If anyone tries anything, I'll kill him!” Ning Chuan shouted.

“Put down your weapons! You heard his Highness!” Shaoning piped up.

Zhiwei wasn’t quite sure who was more afraid, herself or the Princess. The Crown Prince had forfeited his life when he had entered Chengming Palace without his Father’s consent. He had forfeited it again by seating himself on the Imperial Throne. And he had forfeited it once again by taking her, the Imperial Supervisor, hostage.

That he would be killed was certain. Who else had to die with him was not. But if she had to die, she would prefer to die by the Prince of Chu’s hand and not by the former Crown Prince’s. Ah, Ning Yi looked so fierce and powerful in his armor, nothing would be able to stop him anymore. Least her.

“Can't you see? I'm not letting him go,” he said. Was he speaking to her? Zhiwei looked into his eyes, but he gave her no clues.

“Ning Yi! Wei Zhi may die!”

“Do you think I care about that?” Ning Yi said coldly and stepped forward, with a crossbow put into his hand by one of the soldiers. Was it the one Bloody Pagoda had used?

“Stop right there!” Shaoning shouted.

“Don't get any closer, or I'll kill him!” the former Crown Prince added and put his sword more firmly at Zhiwei’s throat.

“Ning Chuan. Shaoning. You took the supervisor hostage and refuse to surrender. It is over.”

It happened very fast.

Without warning, Ning Yi fired the crossbow and Zhiwei went down even before the awful pain in her leg registered.

Kill!” Ning Yi shouted.

The deadly lifting of bows was almost beautiful to behold. In horror, Zhiwei saw the situation unfold. The arrows were loosened, they came flying… at the last moment, she managed to throw herself against Shaoning’s legs, making her fall down with her.

Arrow after arrow pierced the former Crown Prince.

One died silently and without glory. Two did not.

Having saved Shaoning was a cause for celebration. Was it not?


"In July, the weather is hot. In September, women start making clothes. Without any clothes, how do we spend the winter?" Zhiwei recited, as she was feeding yellow paper to the flames in the charcoal basin she had put on the high point of her favorite bridge.

The nights were getting longer. On this first day of October, winter was in the air.

Keep warm, Zhuyin JieJie, she thought. Have you already seen how big this world is? We have avenged your death. You can now rest in peace.

“In our next lifetime… ,” she whispered. “Zhuyin, it would be great if you were my sister again.”

Like Meng Jiangnu who cried for seven days after discovering her husband’s skeleton, Feng Zhiwei felt like there was an endless supply of tears inside of her. But there was no skeleton to keep her company. The ashes from her fire flew upward with the wind, but she was utterly alone.

… Was not.

From the corner of her eye, she saw that somebody had joined her on the bridge. Him.

When she turned her head, he smiled at her amiably… and when there was no reaction from her, just a blank stare, he lifted his eyebrows as if he wanted to ask what? Am I not allowed to be here on this bridge too?

A royal prince always had the right to be wherever he wanted, whereas she had no right to be anywhere. Pulling herself up by the the rails, she started hobbling away, dragging her hurt leg after herself.

But this wretched prince… laughed at her. She was so surprised, her steps faltered. In front of her, one of his guards appeared, smiling charmingly while baring her way. Ah, but why even try to shun him. It was pointless, just like it was pointless to reason with him.

She wiped her tears away and turned around. “Does it make you happy to laugh at a cripple?” she challenged Prince of Chu.

“Yes,” he said and came a little closer. “I'm very happy.”

She saw he was carrying a wooden basket under his arm. He was wearing very fine clothes today, but since she had seen him in armor, she knew he wore that even better.

“Does it make you happy to humiliate me?” she frowned.

“Absolutely,” he agreed pleasantly. “It makes me very happy.”

And after a short pause, as if he were truly surprised: “I wonder why it is that nothing in this entire world aside from you makes me happy.”

“Ning Yi!” she complained, at which he made the most adorable, innocent face. She wanted to be angry with him, but it wasn’t possible. Not tonight. Maybe never.

“You lousy tailor,” she murmured. “Don't forget why my leg is hurt. One day, I'll make you pay me back double! Let's see if you can laugh then.”

But he only seemed to have smiles for her tonight. “I am relieved,” he said, actually sounding like it. “Looks like we're still enemies. It's better than being strangers.”

Enemies? Was that what they were? Was it normal to be a little glad to see your enemy because you had wondered how he fared, after all that had happened on that day? How had he felt at his brother's funeral? Had his father given him a hard time? Had he found time to grieve?

“Today is Winter Clothing Festival,” he said and sat down on the bridge without further ado. “I'll have a drink with them. Come on. Sit down with me.”

From his basket, he took a beautiful cup and an equally beautiful bottle of wine and poured himself a drink.

“Third Brother,” he cheered and spilled the liquid in a half-circle on the bridge, lifting the empty cup in a silent salute afterwards. Zhiwei watched him from the side, her head on her knees. He may be smiling at her, but those smiles were only a fleeting expression on a face that tended towards natural somberness.

“Now that you've had your revenge and your wish fulfilled, are you happy?” Feng Zhiwei ventured to ask him.

A half-smile started playing on his lips again when he said: “Yes. I'm very happy.”

But the tears in his eyes belied his words.

"’People differ from generation to generation, but the moon above the river remains the same’”, Ning Yi quoted Ruoxu Zhang’s poem ‘A Moonlit Night on the Spring River.’ A lament of the ephemerality of life, as well as the sorrow of travellers and the loved ones they left behind. A yearning… a yearning for a life without sorrows and partings.

“No matter how hard I try or what I do, it won't change anything. Ning Qiao. Zhuyin. Huo Laosan. They won't come back.”

Zhiwei felt an urge to reach over and take his hand to give comfort, but how could she dare.

“That's why I hope you will let Shaoning live,” she whispered.

“I was saving you,” Ning Yi sighed. ”Forget Shaoning.”

“I understand that Your Highness hurt me to save me, but…”

“You still don't understand anything,” he disagreed and poured another cup. But apparently, he wasn't angry with her anymore for complicating things.

“You have to eliminate the weed by its roots,” Feng Zhiwei said. “But this weed's roots are already entangled. You can't eliminate all of it. Your Highness, do you understand?”

Stop, Ning Yi, just stop, she wanted to beg him. How many more people will die? I do not want to be afraid that every time I see you might be the last.

“Enough,” he said and pressed the cup into her hand, “Don't argue with me today.”

Taking out a second cup, he filled that too and lifted it. “One day, you'll understand what I mean.” Leaning a little closer, he looked deep into her eyes and added: “If you can continue to keep your heart pure as it is now, maybe… maybe I can be happy.”

Chapter 13