The Rise of Phoenixes (天盛长歌) - Chapter 9 (Fanfiction)

Chapter 9 - Trapped in a Huge Web, Unable to see the Way Out

written by kakashi
edited by Bunny

Becoming the Ultimate Scholar and being able to interact with the Emperor of Tiansheng Kingdom directly was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. Being a Hall of Zhaohua's Sixth Level Scholar! Having imperial privilege! Getting her own residence!

Feng Zhiwei was still finding herself in a daze after all that had transpired. Her current situation seemed too unreal, not least because she had been certain she would die that night the Old Stableman had taken her back to Qingming to where his dead son lay.

What recklessness, what arrogance to participate in the competition to become the Ultimate Scholar! Her, a woman with no background to speak of, winning the most prestigious title any scholar could hope to get! But also the only option she had found herself with if she didn’t want to flee from the Crown Prince’s wrath like a craven dog with its tail between its legs.

Yes, it was reckless to stand her ground like this… but it seemed they had believed she could do it.

Why else would Xin Ziyan have mentioned the competition to her. Why else would his eyes have sparkled in amusement when she had immediately and a bit desperately suggested she would try to answer the conundrum like the others.

“You wouldn’t!” the Headmaster had exclaimed, feigning shock. “You are a woman!”

But it had been him suggesting quickly after she better hide her face so that the Crown Prince could not intervene before the very end, as if he had already prepared this plan in advance, well knowing that she would take this bait eagerly.

She had seen the look on Prince of Chu’s face when her father had asked her the last question - which was different from the one on the scroll. Ning Yi had been alarmed, maybe even afraid. Of what exactly? Of her failing the test like all the others? Of her telling his father in a last desperate move that Ning Yi was plotting his brother’s downfall and was using her to get what he wanted? Yes, she had realized that her attempt to become the Ultimate Scholar was very opportune for the Prince of Chu. To save herself, she would of course have to tell the Emperor why she knelt before him in disguise and that it was the Crown Prince who had tried to kill her when she had discovered the remnants of Bloody Pagoda he had hidden at Qingming Academy.

She did not mind to do this. Even though Ning Yi had once again manipulated the situation in that sneaky way of his, it served her as well as him.

Too strange that when she had answered the last question, and much to the Emperor’s pleasing, Ning Yi had looked… proud.

It was such a puzzling thing, this face of his.

This man seemed to have a thousand different sides to him. Even his appearance and disposition seemed to change every time she saw him. Sometimes elegant and ethereal. Then arrogant and haughty. Very seldom, heartbroken and vulnerable. And when he had a smile on his face, he was dazzling and seductive and made her knees go soft.

Someone like this…could only be described as dangerous.

What value did she suspect her life had to him? Out of sheer luck, she had been useful, several times. Only a silly person like her would think about why he had saved her repeatedly when everything he did only ever served his own purpose.

The rage she felt, the rage and sadness, the bitter disappointment at being lied to again… but why was she hurt? Had he not lied to her from the very beginning, posing as a tailor when he was a prince? Had he not promised things to her again and again that he had not kept? But not because of circumstances she could forgive - but because he had not wanted to keep his promise?

He took her for being so gullible that she would still trust him. And he had been right! She had been stupid repeatedly, like she couldn’t help it.

It had to be that face of his, that wretchedly handsome, expressive face with those eyes that had felt no shame to show her remorse and sadness, helplessness even. But he did it to everybody, she had observed it. He played them all expertly, including his father - though he was at least as shrewd as his 6th son.

Thinking back to her first proper conversation with the Emperor just now, Feng Zhiwei walked through the hall of the palace slowly, marvelling at her fate.

How afraid she had been when she had entered the Palace an hour ago. They do not know I’m a woman, she had told herself repeatedly, nobody can see it.

Only, that was not true and she knew it. Her friend Huaishi, from the Yan family in Minhai, who had followed her from Qingming Academy, had immediately seen she was a woman. Granted, he had experience as he claimed, because many of the merchant families dressed up their daughters as men so that they could have them engage in business too.

And Ning Yi… he too had no issue at all to see through her disguises. Equally her Uncle… he knew she was here and it was like a sword hanging over her head. Aren't you afraid I'll expose you? he had threatened her. Yes, she was afraid. She had bluffed and threatened him back, knowing how cowardly he was. You're not reluctant to expose me. But aren't you reluctant to lose your wealth and your family's peace? But that wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t be. They would find out and they would execute her the very next day.

“Why are you so tense?” had been the Emperor’s first question upon her entering the throne room. When she had told him that she had been prepared to die back at Qingming Academy and those prepared to die were fearless, and now she was no longer fearless because she expected to live, he had asked why she had gone to study at Qingming and had answered his Conundrum?

“I did it to pay a debt of gratitude,” she had answered. Which wasn’t entirely true, but not false either, since she had ultimately entered Qingming because the Prince of Chu had saved her life.

“So everything that happened at Qingming Academy was arranged by Ning Yi?” the Emperor asked when she told him about her connection to his son.

It was a moment of much precariousness. She knew about the strained relationship between father and son. She knew about the reason why the Emperor had released him from prison. His son, a fierce weapon in his hand. She suspected that this most powerful man in front of her trusted nobody, least of all his sons… and that in this very moment, she could have destroyed Prince of Chu’s plans and jeopardized his life by agreeing. By saying Yes. He arranged everything and it’s all because he wants your throne.

“Your Majesty. I believe Prince of Chu didn't arrange anything,” she carefully said instead. “I've already paid my debt to Prince of Chu. Please don't misunderstand. If possible, I want nothing to do with him in the future.”

It wasn’t that Prince of Chu had put Bloody Pagoda at that school. But he knew how to use situations and people in ways that served him well. He had not possibly known what she would find there, but when she had, it had all fallen into place.

Zhiwei hoped her statement was enough. Enough to win and keep the Emperor’s trust, because that was her biggest asset. If she had that, she would live. If she lost it, she would die.

It was an impertinent thought, but Feng Zhiwei felt the Emperor had… liked her. Just as she believed that Official Zhao, who had given her silent clues on how to behave properly, liked her. And, silly girl that she was, she had really liked the conversations with the Emperor over a game of Go. Just like a teacher, he spoke to her in ways that seemed geared towards enhancing her knowledge and understanding of the world. Like when he had told her that the higher one’s position and authority, the harder it got to live by your own rules.

Impertinently, she had blurted out: “Even if you're the Emperor?” Waving aside her misstep, he had answered: “I'm the person who can live the least by my own accord.”

That was something to ponder. Next time she met him, she would venture to ask what rules an Emperor had to live by. But maybe that was too presumptuous? Maybe she…

Her head perked up when two figures appeared in the long corridor before her. One one of them stalled his steps when he became aware of her while the other stepped forward to greet her.

It was one thing to say she wanted nothing to do with him in the future, but another to run into him at every chance she got.

“Ultimate Scholar. Let me pay my respect to you,” Xin Ziyan said, lifting his hands to bow to her.

Why did the Prince of Chu hang back like he had nothing to say to her? He was cradling his arm, a gloomy expression on his face, looking anywhere but in her direction. Yes, he had gotten himself hurt again, by going up against Old Stableman unarmed, like the biggest fool. Of course his wound would hurt, it had been deep. And it served him right.

“I was your student at Qingming Academy. I will always regard you as my teacher. I can't receive the respect you are paying me,” she addressed the Headmaster stiffly.

“Good,” Ziyan smiled. “Then let me ask you. Are you our enemy or our friend?”

So they were no longer pretending to be at odds with each other, at least not in front of her. Not the Crown Prince’s dog, but the Prince of Chu’s. To her, the difference was minimal.

“Neither your enemy nor your friend,” she replied coldly. And with the necessary gesture of courtesy. “We're all His Majesty's officials.”

“‘His Majesty's officials’,” Ziyan repeated, like she had just said an amusing thing. “That's right. So you don't want to help Prince of Chu anymore?”

Zhiwei’s eyes sought Ning Yi’s, but he was studying the walls like they were of much interest. Help him? He helped himself enough, what did he need her help for.

“I'm not that bright. I don't even know who he is. If I help him, will I cause someone to die again?” It sounded bitter. Yes, she was, so why even hide it.

Ziyan’s voice lost all amusement. “It seems this Ultimate Scholar really is not that bright. Do you know why Prince of Chu had to kill Old Stableman?”

“No, why?”

So they knew what they had done wrong at least. From the corner of her eyes, she saw that Prince of Chu did react now, as if he wanted to intervene and stop Ziyan from talking, though he remained mute.

“All right,” Ziyan continued undeterred and sounding quite worked up. “Once a teacher, always a teacher. Let me teach you one thing again. What your eyes see might not be real. Regarding what type of a person he is, ask yourself carefully.”

And just like that, he stomped away.

What rotten teaching was that supposed to be? Her eyes saw a man with a beautiful face and found herself wondering whether the people of this world would only notice the beauty of that face and not notice the utter coldness in those eyes.

Stepping up to where Prince of Chu stood, Feng Zhiwei was ready for the confrontation that was needed to be had. Ning Yi turned to her, a false smile plastered to his face.

“You never intended to let Stableman live, did you?” she challenged him.

“I did not,” he readily agreed.

“Why not?” she demanded to know.

“Everyone who led to Zhuyin's death must die.” There was a lot of pain and bitterness in his voice. Should she believe him? It was true, he had known Zhuyin much longer than her. They had seemed close. He had lost her too, not only her. But still...

“Then why did you promise me?” she asked.

It came down to that, in the end. If she was truthful, she understood that Old Stableman could not have survived. Under him, Bloody Pagoda had done horrible things. And he had tried to assassinate the Emperor, like a raging madman, even though he had to have known it was futile with so many guards and trained warriors in the room.

But why Ning Yi’s promise? Why… hurt her deliberately?

“Did I promise you?” the Prince of Chu asked, feigning surprise. And then, as if he just remembered: “Ah, yes! I did. However, don't you know that I usually make promises that I cannot fulfill?”

She did, didn’t she.

“It's all my fault,” she told him, watching the false smile disappear completely. “I was stupid. But now, I understand. And I finally know you.”

Why did stupid tears decide to wet her lashes as she said this? And why… why did he look hurt? As if… as if it mattered to him what she thought of him.

A trap. A dangerous man and a trap for stupid women.


Ning Yi wasn’t quite sure what the bigger insult was: Being confined to his Residence on house arrest as if he had done anything wrong or having to put up with his father’s “good wishes” in the form of food and drink from the royal kitchens. Sent to him by no other than the Ultimate Scholar, his father’s latest pet.

What a cold woman she was, standing there with no compassion even though his wound quite obviously pained him. Would she not stop begrudging him what had happened at Qingming?

Of course Old Stableman had had to die, only a stupid person would not see it. That he had been the one to fatally stab him, it was all the better. Why that fool had attacked the Emperor instead of playing along with Ning Chuan’s charade, Ning Yi did not understand. But he had come to know through Gu Yan that Bloody Pagoda was still very loyal to their old leaders and that they considered protecting Gu Heng’s wife and children as their duty.

That was why Old Stableman had let Feng Zhiwei live that night.

His suicidal attempt to kill the Emperor had to have been an order by some hidden mastermind, Ning Yi had concluded. He did not need to know who that was, since they were no threat to his plans for the moment, quite the opposite.

“The newly-appointed Ultimate Scholar is serving me food and tea,” he addressed Zhiwei softly though he was fuming ins, “I don't deserve this.”

“This is His Majesty's order,” she replied with a glance at him, “He's afraid others won't take good care of you.”

Well, well, well, Prince of Chu thought, of course, he just wants to rub in that you have become his trusted person. And you want to rub it in too, you sly racoon.

“Then you have to thank him for me,” he said, lifting his arms, wincing from the pain.

“Your Highness, I'll taste the food for you first,” Ning Cheng said.

“Be careful. You might be poisoned,” Ning Yi whispered.

“Who would be so bold as to poison Your Highness?” the bodyguard complained loudly.

“That's not impossible,” Ning Yi scoffed. “No one dares to, but someone might still do it.”

“You're being too careful, Your Highness,” Feng Zhiwei spoke up arrogantly, “How can someone poison the food His Majesty sent?”

“‘Careful’?” Ning Yi echoed and got up with a grunt of pain. “Of course, I should be careful. If I wasn't, I would have died hundreds and thousands of times.”

Do you hear me, silly woman? I’m warning you to be careful. You may gloat all you want in your new position, feeling safe at the Emperor’s side, but please understand it just makes you a target. And if he hears as much as a whisper about who you could be, you’re dead.

“Ning Cheng, it's all yours,” he said with a backwards glance.

“This is the food given by His Majesty,” Zhiwei scowled. “You're just giving it to someone else? You should treat it with consideration.”

“I'm being considerate. That's why I gave it to Ning Cheng. To my father,” he explained to her, “I have never been an obedient son. If I become obedient now, my father will wonder why.”

He was already standing quite close to her, so he extended his hand and firmly took her arm. “Since you're here, play Go with me. Come.”

“I still have other things to do. How about--”

Did she really think she could get away that easily? He held on strongly against her struggles. “You have something more important to do than guarding me?”

No. He didn’t think so.

The world always stopped when he played Go. The clicking sound of the stones being set. The concentration of the players stilling the air around them.

Playing for a purpose.

Playing to play the other.

“Your Highness, you let me win,” Feng Zhiwei remarked drily after placing her last stone.

“I didn't,” he sighed dramatically.

“In today's game, you have been compromising your moves,” she insisted. “That makes every move more difficult, so it amounts to the asme. Even though there are black chips on my side, I was still able to attack successfully. It's different from your usual style. I wonder why.”

His little racoon was so smart.

“I don't have soldiers and generals, or power and authority. I'm surrounded on all sides. How could I retaliate?” he asked her. That tiny little smile on her face. He liked it a lot.

“You're using this game as a metaphor,” she observed. “You were trapped in a spider web, so you acted out of your own accord.”

Do you know me now, little racoon? If you do not want to believe what I say, will you believe my actions?

“I should be on the clouds, yet I fell into a deep abyss. I'm trapped in a huge web, unable to see the way out.”

“I understand now,” she nodded. And with a parting bow, “I'll take my leave. Goodbye.”

Prince of Chu heaved a sigh. She could have stayed a little longer to have a drink with him, but of course, she had to hurry back to report to his Father. Him, he wanted to have doubts. So he could make his next move.

Now that the situation was unclear, and both him and the Crown Prince were confined to their houses, his father could not call for him to play Go in the palace. So he had been quite worried about how to send a signal to his Father.

Then she had come.

He knew his Father liked to play Go when he was confused. And she would know exactly how to convey his message to him, his smart little racoon. The guards around his residence… they needed to go. The Crown Prince needed to make his next rash move to finally, finally get their father to see what kind of man his eldest son was.

Feng Zhiwei was as slick as the Go stones.

She didn’t make enemies, take sides, or get involved if she wasn’t forced to. But she wouldn't ignore something if it concerned someone's life.

Even if she thinks of this person as her enemy.

Chapter 10