Chapter 12 (Zhang)

New Reader? Begin here. Refer to Character guide and Glossary for help.
* The story is read via alternating perspectives between Zhang and Li.

Continuing Readers: Rumble in the capital. In case you missed it, the results of the character popularity have been revealed here.


I stirred in response to a light, insistent prodding on my shoulder. As my awareness gradually returned, I knew that I was lying on something soft. I shifted position, only to have the prodding resume again. My eyes flew open and found myself face to face with Fuxin, who had a sheepish grin on his face and holding up a stick in mock surrender. “I thought you would never awaken, Zhang-jie. You must have been in a deep sleep for there was drool coming—” He snapped his mouth shut when he saw my expression. I sat up, feeling a bit disorientated. Closing my eyes, I took deep breaths until I felt better. “Where are the others?” I asked, realizing that it was just me and Fuxin. I slowly rose to my feet, dusting off the grass that clung to my robes. I surveyed my surroundings. As far as the eye could see, we were in a field surrounded by a few clusters of trees, providing some shelter at least. The last thing I remembered was being surrounded by marsh and then being suffused in a deep slumber. Then, how did we arrive here?

Fuxin idly twirled the stick in his hands as he babbled, “Don’t worry. Everyone is alright. Yijian-shixiong and Ganzorig-ge are gathering the horses. An-jie and Wei-jie are scouting the main road with Gerel. As for Shen-shaoye, he is nearby practicing some sword forms.” Fuxin sighed. “It got so boring that I had to wake you up. Wei-jie did not want to leave you by yourself but I vowed that I would guard you with my life. I am not a child anymore.” He brandished his stick in mock battle pose. I could not help, but laugh upon seeing his enthusiasm. He grinned in response.

“Hui-jie! You are awake!” I looked in the direction of the voice to see Wei burst through the bushes and embraced me tightly. An came into view then with Gerel perched on her gloved arm, looking worn but alert.

“How was the patrol?” Fuxin asked them, as he helped An settle Gerel onto her usual perch.

“There is nothing out of the ordinary as far as we noticed. It appears that we are a short distance from the capital, Weian. There is a long queue of people outside the capital’s main gate,” An answered as she removed her gear and weapons. “It appears security is a bit tighter than usual; they are checking people and their goods rather closely. We can’t afford to let our guard down.”

At this commentary, I felt Wei’s arms tighten around me as she whispered, “Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you, Hui-jie!”

There was one thing that bothered me. “Wait, An, how did we–?”

I was about to finish my question when Shen-shaoye made his timely appearance. “I thought I heard some familiar voices.” We all turned to take in his lackadaisical appearance with his face flushed with exertion and sweat-stained robes. I blushed and hid my face against Wei’s shoulder. I could hear An lecturing Shen-shaoye about being unfit to be seen by ladies and how he should have gone to help Ganzorig and Yijian-fashi. The next moment I heard Shen-shaoye begging for mercy from An and Fuxin both of whom ganged up on him. Wei patted my back sympathetically. I just sighed.

By the time Ganzorig and Yijian-fashi returned with our mounts, we more or less settled down. I could tell Ganzorig was not pleased, judging by his glower. Even Shen’s jests annoyed him. I watched his back as he silently checked the horses for injuries. I had an inkling that he knew what happened after the marsh had surrounded us. The others had all said that they had no memory of what happened. Apparently, Ganzorig had been the first to awaken. Yet when questioned, he simply said that we had been sent to this spot. He had been silent on the matter thereafter, although occasionally brooding over a elegant-looking ceremonial arrow that he took out of his quiver when he thought that no one was looking.

That left Yijian-fashi to report what they discovered. “Searching for the horses was not difficult, and the trail was easy to follow. However, we came across a gruesome sight: There were a few yaoguai that were devouring their… prey.”

The monk’s expression turned grim. “It’s no surprise that those monsters would show up here, but to show themselves to the populace… and attack them in daylight?” He shook his head as if in disbelief. “Naturally, we dispatched them. We were fortunate that we had only lost one mount but for the travelers, they were not so lucky. Few would encounter such monsters in their lives and even fewer would know how to defend themselves.”

“That’s why we need to hurry and root out the source of the evil,” Ganzorig finally spoke. His eyes were fierce but determined, as he pounded his fist into his other hand in a gesture of absolution. “There’s no room for error this time!” Everyone’s spirits seem to rally. With Ganzorig, I could not help but feel that some things would work out.

***

As we made our snail-like progress to the gates, I felt my senses prickle with unease. The travelers around us appeared normal enough, ranging from visitors to merchants. Still I had a feeling that our group attracted attention, despite our efforts at keeping a low profile. Our story was simple. Shen-shaoye and I happened to be traveling to the capital at the same time. He was conducting business on his father’s request, while I was visiting Uncle Liang’s family with my maid, Wei. An and Ganzorig were hired to be bodyguards. Yijian-fashi was traveling with Fuxin from Eagle Peak Monastery on a sabbatical to visit the capital’s famed library to read ancient scriptures and happened to join us on our journey.

We more or less looked the roles that we had agreed upon. I donned the spare robes that I had and fixed my hair to fit my role of a naïve noble. Shen-shaoye, I noted, had changed into more respectable clothing as well, completing our picture.

The city wall rose before us. I counted at least thirty stone bricks before it reached up to the structure at the top that served as a lookout for the soldiers on patrol duty. It would be difficult to scale that, I thought.

“What’s going on? Can’t they hurry it up!” a disheveled man in line grumbled, gesturing towards the city gate. The people around us, began murmuring as they shuffled around to get a better view. I felt myself jostled around and pushed from behind as our group struggled to stay together. The horses whinnied and pawed the ground nervously at the sudden flurry of action. Fuxin had to wrap his arms around his steed’s neck to avoid falling off. At the gate, there were shouts of discontent between the soldiers and two merchants. Goods were spilled onto the ground. There was a mother and daughter, who clung together as they watched in fear. I could barely make out a few words over the crowd, such as “unpaid taxes,” “confiscation,” and “court trial.” One of the merchants was arguing and gesturing with his hands as he moved toward the soldiers. In the span of a few heartbeats, the merchant fell heavily to the ground. The crowd hushed, deathly silent as they watched. The woman ran towards the fallen figure and tried to shake the figure awake but he did not move. The other merchant sunk to his knees, stunned at what occurred. The soldier who had performed the deed blankly looked at the figure. One of the other soldiers saw that the crowd was watching them and immediately barked out orders to throw the merchants to jail and for the others to keep the queue moving.

The sky seemed to darken with the mood. The remaining merchant was arrested, and the woman had to be forcibly removed from the fallen body by a soldier. All the while, tears stained her cheeks as she struggled to free herself from the soldier’s grip. I was haunted by the horrified gaze of the daughter, as she was hauled away with the confiscated goods and her companions.

It was our turn. The soldiers had changed shifts, which did little to ease the tension. A mustached officer peered at our unusual party. With little ceremony, he brusquely asked for my identification. Calmly, I gave him my name and presented my jade familial pendant, which he examined minutely.

“Purpose of visit? Where are you traveling from?” He asked as he scribbled a note in the thick book.

I felt irritated by his manner, but I stated the reason for my travel and that I was traveling from Dong Ying with my maid. At the mention of Dong Ying, his eyes narrowed in suspicion, focusing on me and then Shen-shaoye. Regarding him coolly, the officer asked, “What about you, young man?”

Shen-shaoye gave his name. He drew out his own jade pendant and presented it to the officer. The officer’s gaze never left Shen-shaoye’s as he took the pendant. As he examined the finely carved jade, he posed his next question, “And what might be the purpose of your visit?”

Shen-shaoye answered steadily that he was on business for his father. Again, the officer probed, “And who is your father?”

Shen-shaoye paused before answering. I instinctively reached behind me for my weapons, but then I remembered I had stored them in my pack. Wei gently rested her hand on my arm as if to dissuade me. The officer eyed Shen-shaoye expectantly like a cat waiting to pounce on its prey.

Then it was as if the floodgates were opened as Shen-shaoye spoke the words: “My father is Shen Xiaobo, official of civil affairs in Dong Ying.”

The officer smirked as he looked from Shen-shaoye to me. “And you, girl, must be the daughter of Official Zhang Chanming. What a pretty pair I have caught!” He signaled behind him and four other guards came forward and surrounded Shen-shaoye, Wei, and I. The remaining members of our group were forced to step back despite their protests.

Rising from his chair, the officer announced, “You two are under arrest under the orders of the Chengxiang!” The soldier reached for us. Wei was forcibly pushed aside as a soldier drew my arms behind my back. I glared defiantly at my captor. “Unhand me! I will not be treated like a criminal!” I declared, but the soldier said nothing and bound my hands with cloth.

Shen-shaoye did not move. He made no attempt to resist as the other soldier bounded his hands. Instead he locked steely gazes with the officer. Clearly, I heard him enunciate, “I will not let you tarnish my father’s honor. And I will clear his name.”

The officer sneered as he twirled his mustache. He stepped closer, almost a few paces from Shen-shaoye. “Then let’s see you try!” he spat at him. Shen-shaoye, to his credit, did not flinch.

At his signal, we were taken away. I heard the officer bark out orders to detain the rest of our party and to question them. I tried to look back at the others, but the soldiers kept me and Shen-shaoye moving forward and onto the horse-drawn prisoner’s cart. I could hear Wei calling after me in the background amidst the clattering of the horse’s hooves and murmuring of the populace. I only hoped that they would be safe.

***

After what seemed to be an eternity, the interrogation was over. The prison guards escorted me to a cell halfway down the hall. I stared at the murky interior and nearly blanched at the stench from the sweat-drenched hay and excrement. “Get in already!” the guard grumbled and pushed me in. I stumbled and nearly fell over a huddled form that lay closest to the entrance. The door slammed shut and was locked behind me. I sighed and went over to the  unoccupied left side of the cell. The other occupants shied away as I approached. Ignoring them, I leaned heavily against the side and sat down, exhausted. My possessions had been stripped from me, except for the clothes I wore.

When I had arrived, I was separated from Shen-shaoye and taken before a minor court official, who questioned me from my purpose for traveling to my family background. When I demanded to know the charges on which I was being arrested, the official merely dismissed my comments as “nonsense” and that nothing I said could change the fact that my father was “an instigator of corruption in the kingdom” and that I was subject to his fate. I was dumbfounded. Was there clear evidence to uphold those charges? The official seeing that I would not back down ordered me to not cause trouble as I was in the imperial domain and subject to its rules. I reluctantly relented after a moment and allowed myself to be escorted to the prison.

On the way to the prison, I looked up to the graying sky, hoping to see Gerel scouting for us. Nothing. Not even a bird flew over this despairing place. “Stop daydreaming, girl! Let’s get a move on!” The guard grumbled and nudged me in the direction of the prison. I had no choice but to follow.

***

I must have been dozing, for I did not notice that someone was trying to get my attention. “Excuse me, xiaojie?” A soft voice asked. I raised my head to see a young girl before me. Her long dark hair hid part of her face. She seemed familiar somehow. I squinted in the dying light to get a better look at her, but she shied away.

“I am sorry. I thought you were someone I knew,” I murmured, turning my gaze away. There was an awkward silence. Then she shifted closer.

“Umm… I wanted to ask you if have any news from outside!” she blurted out suddenly. I met her familiar gaze then and noticed that she seemed desperate. “Anything will do! There is too much despair in here!” She grabbed my hands holding them tightly as she bowed her head.

I studied her for a moment, before agreeing. Sifting through my experiences, I started with my journey to Eagle Peak, leaving out the death of Huiliang and real names of course. As I spoke, it became easier for me to express what I had been thinking and feeling all this time. Soon I had her laughing at Ganzorig’s pranks and awed at the battles we fought. When I was describing Shen-shaoye, I saw that her interest was piqued. She had a question forming on her lips, but she changed her mind and insisted that I continue my narrative. At the mention of yaoguai, her face darkened and her hands let go of mine. I heard her murmur, “Just like what happened to my hometown.”

Was this a coincidence? Not everyone knows about the yaoguai, I thought.

“Now that I shared my tale, perhaps you can tell me what happened to your hometown? I can see that… something happened.” She looked down at her hands in her lap.

“Talking may help relieve the pain instead of keeping it bottled inside, if you wish,” I said gently. I peered closer at her and then it struck me why she seemed so familiar. “Shen Yang?”

She nodded and then, softly and hesitantly, told me what had transpired.

I looked down at the girl who lay asleep in my lap. Tears stained her cheeks. It must have been frightful to be held hostage and worse yet… to lose her father. I closed my eyes in prayer. I was grateful that my parents and Shen-furen still lived, but how would Shen-shaoye take this news? Was he ready for the responsibilities that would be thrust upon him? His face came to mind. Somehow I knew that he could manage it. Funny, how my opinion of him changed after all that we have been through on this journey, I thought bemusedly.

I gently pushed back a stray hair that fell on the sleeping girl’s face. According to Shen Yang, not only were our parents taken but also Yu-xianzhang and quite a few other women from the city. They were being held in different cells somewhere in this building; she did not know their exact locations. They had been here for three days, if I estimated roughly. Now that her brother and I had been jailed and interrogated, it would be only a matter of time for the sentencing and whatever the Chengxiang planned next.

I sighed wearily. A sliver of moonlight peered through the cracks of the wall– a reminder of the dwindling hope in this tragedy. How could we get out of this? I had no answers.

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