Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - A Long-Expected Party by caulkhead & A.J. Hall

Despite the lack of any reliable confirmation from the Northern borders, the scholars of Jinling mourned Su Zhe for weeks. Then, the suggestion that rumours of his death might have been greatly exaggerated began to percolate. Purchases of the more expensive varieties of tea soared, and three learned periodicals went so far as to print a joint statement expressing their joy on the occasion of Sir Su’s survival, even though their disputes over the reading of certain lines in the Analects went back several centurie 1.

The Jiangzuo Alliance had never expected their chilly and tender leader to return from the cold heights of Meiling. The (reliable, pigeon-borne) news he had done so provoked mass celebrations in those watery provinces. (The resulting fireworks also caused significant revisions to be made to the Langya List of Pyrotechnics Experts, and provoked a good deal of swearing on the part of the Young Master of Langya Hall.)2

The Crown Prince fell to his knees and wept 3, heedless of the fact he was in the presence of the cream of the Jin Guards (most of whom, to be fair, also seemed to be suffering from terrible allergies to plum blossom.)

“But,” Yuijin said to Jingrui, as the two of them rode, just demobbed, into Jinling, “that’s not enough, is it? I mean, if a man who’s previously been reported dead then turns up, you’re going to throw one hell of a celebration for him, aren’t you?”

Jingrui had learnt caution over the last three years.

“It would very much depend on the man. And in any case, I hate parties.”

As the only person who had whole-heartedly enjoyed the event at Ning Manor 4, it was natural that, within Su Manor, the initial suggestion came from Fei Liu. It was enthusiastically seconded by Mu Qing, who hadn’t been there at all, and had never ceased to regret it. His sister might perhaps have countered this view, but she was making her way back to the capital more slowly, encumbered with a heavy wagon train, and it probably wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.

In the end, it was Fei Liu’s enthusiasm that swung it. The head of the house of Su himself might have put his foot down, had he known about it at an earlier stage, but he spent much of the weeks after his return asleep. By the time he emerged, blinking, from a cocoon of furs, the plum blossoms were over, the cherries were in bloom, and it would have broken Fei Liu’s heart to go back on the plans he was doing his best to explain. That heart he had come so close to breaking, irrevocably, before…

“It will have to be a small party, Fei Liu. Your Su-gege’s nobody very important, he’s living very quietly 5. We could invite Nihuang-ji-jie and Meng da-ge, and ask Auntie Ji to make dumplings, would you like that?”

“Except,” the lord of Mu Manor added, “we’d better make sure it’s a bit livelier than the only other party I’ve been to here. That was the stiffest affair I’ve ever had to sit through. All highbrow party games and stilted small talk.”

Li Gang and Zhen Ping exchanged nervous glances. Although Prince Mu appeared to have forgotten it, three out of the nine guests at the housewarming party were now no more 6 and referring to the event seemed to them to be tempting fate.

The problem was, as Li Gang shamefacedly confessed to General Meng 7, that it had not occurred to anyone to coordinate the guest list - or rather, lists - until a late stage in the proceedings.

Mei Changsu, working on the original plan of a small family dinner, with dumplings, had sent personally calligraphed notes of invitation to Mu Nihuang and her brother, to General Meng, and to Xia Dong and General Nie.

Fei Liu had personally delivered his own invitation to Tingsheng, and finding Tingsheng entranced with his newly acquired pet, an enormous mastiff 8, hospitably extended the invitation to the dog as well. And, as an afterthought, while he was already half-way up the Eastern Palace wall: “Water buffalo, too.”

The Crown Prince, receiving this oral invitation, naturally assumed that Fei Liu had been entrusted with a formal written message but had either lost it or the dog had eaten it. Accordingly, he hand-calligraphed his own “Thank you, Tingsheng and I will certainly come” and dispatched it to the Su Residence.

Mu Qing, under his self-imposed task of livening up the party, extended an invitation to Jingrui and Yujin, with the expansive instruction to bring along “anyone else you think might be fun. Yujin, you know some musicians, right?” Somewhat to his dismay, Marquis Yan at this juncture declared his own intention to attend. Middle-aged (not to say elderly) scholars were, in Mu Qing’s opinion, the very last thing the party needed more of, but he was - just - too well brought up to say so. In a well-meaning, if possibly misguided, attempt to redress the balance, he attempted to engage a man with a trained ferret he saw in the marketplace, but his sister intercepted him.

Unfortunately, Fei Liu overheard this discussion, and no-one intercepted Fei Liu.

The Minister of Defence, getting wind of the party and mistakenly assuming that Prince Mu was organising it on his future brother-in-law’s behalf, enquired whether it would be possible to drop by to pay his respects to the man who had masterminded the defence of Da Liang. Court gossip being what it was, it took rather less than a day for similar requests to arrive from the other five Ministries. Various members of the Jiangzuo Alliance - who would not have been members without their own excellent intelligence networks - were somewhat surprised to hear their reclusive Chief was planning a reception 9, but quickly indicated their own desire to attend.

Prince Mu, good-naturedly intending to spare Li Gang additional work, wrote back with formal invitations to all of them, the response to go directly to Mu Manor. It was only some days later that it occurred to him to present Li Gang with the fait accompli 10, at which point Li Gang turned, with restrained urgency which was in no way panic, to the General.

General Meng, knowing that the secret to most battles is good staff work, promptly got his staff involved. And, since he had effectively lent them to Lin Shu for the length of the campaign, it would have been churlish not to invite them to join the celebration they were organising.

It became apparent that they were going to need a bigger dining hall. To say nothing of more food, more wine and more cooks. “But we have cooks,” offered General Meng. “Nobody’s that fond of rice porridge,” said Lie Zhanying, with some feeling. “With the General’s permission, I’ll ask if I can borrow some of the kitchen staff from the Palace.” The staff from the Palace fell, ultimately, under the authority of Gao Zhan, who professed himself delighted to help 11.

In the end, it was Princess Nihuang who solved the problem of the dining hall by asking if they could borrow the currently uninhabited Jing Manor for the event. All the preparations could be carried out, and the majority of the guests would arrive, by the front door, where they would be welcomed by Marquis Yan on Prince Jing’s behalf. The smaller party, and the guest of honour himself, would come over by the secret tunnel once everything was in place; his still precarious health serving as sufficient explanation for not greeting his well-wishers at the doorstep.

“And let’s see him wriggle his way out of that one,” said the Marquis, with satisfaction.

In the back streets and the less reputable of Jinling’s many taverns, the news of Mei Changsu’s survival was greeted with resignation, if not a certain degree of disgust.

“Stands to reason Da Yu couldn’t kill the bugger. Ancestors know we couldn’t do it, and we tried often enough. Not that I ever believed he was dead in the first place, that man’s got more lives than a cat.”

“You’d have a go, though, if somebody paid you enough,” said a newcomer, only recently arrived after a long stint on caravan guard. The others shifted imperceptibly away from him.

“We would not. And I’d recommend that you don’t either.”

“Though let us know if you do. We’ll watch. From a distance.”

In the shadows in the furthest corner, someone else was watching.

He was from out of town, that she could tell from the outset. Given the accent, the town out of which he had come wasn’t even in Da Liang. Southern Chu, at a guess, or possibly Donghai. And judging by the awed way he was looking around this run-of-the-mill, unfashionable end of Luoshi Road entertainment venue, she thought his town of origin might have stretched to a pair of goats or a donkey, at best. Certainly not a horse.

He was perfect.

Prince Jing sent word that Tingsheng should present himself in the front hall of the Eastern Palace some twenty minutes before they were due to depart for the party, to receive final instructions. The boy had already proved quick at grasping the intricacies of Palace etiquette, and the Su Residence was a familiar space for him. Still, it would be only natural for the boy to feel shy at this, his first venture into society, and he would no doubt appreciate a few words of paternal guidance on issues of hierarchy and protocol 12.

Prince Jing had not expected those words to be, “We do not take dogs to formal banquets.” 13

Tingsheng braced himself in a (largely unsuccessful) effort to retard the progress of the mastiff down the front hall and piped breathlessly, “Replying to Honoured Father, Fei Liu told me Panhu was invited too. Invited specifically.”

Prince Jing considered this. Tingsheng’s honesty was palpable; he certainly had no intention of deceiving him on this point.

Had the formal written invitation not gone astray, it would have cleared up in an instant the question as to whether including the animal in the Eastern Palace party had been Lin Shu’s suggestion, or whether it was a spur of the moment improvisation on Fei Liu’s part.

On the one hand, it was entirely possible that his cousin was also aware that it was Tingsheng’s first venture into elevated society, and wished to put him at ease by the presence of his beloved pet. 14

On the other hand, inviting a dog without explicit instructions to do so was exactly the sort of thing one might expect of Fei Liu. Which meant that if they showed up at the Su Residence minus the dog, Fei Liu would be disappointed. And while Prince Jing was, in general, a fearless man, weighing the potential for havoc caused by arriving with a gatecrashing mastiff against the havoc a disappointed Fei Liu might wreak tipped the balance decisively in favour of the dog.

And on the third hand (his mind flicked back to a finely balanced game of weiqi which never would be finished now) who was Lin Shu anyway to merit such heart searching? The head of a household was responsible for the conduct of every member of it, and if he couldn’t stop his bodyguard from improving on his instructions, then he could take the consequences and deal with them.

“Fine, then,” he said. “Get it into the carriage. But I warn you, you’re responsible for its behaving itself. Don’t let me see you let it put a paw out of place.”

Yes, Honoured Father.”

If they had had some trouble coaxing the mastiff into the carriage, there was no such difficulty at the other end. Prince Jing was still straightening his robes when a large, flurry blur went hurtling past and flung itself headlong at the master of Su Manor, who was waiting on the threshold to receive them. Lin Shu was more steady on his feet than he had been, but there was no way he was going to withstand several stone of excited mastiff that was suddenly convinced it was his best friend in all the world.

“It’ll be the aniseed in the salve, I expect,” said Lin Chen knowledgeably. “I made up a fresh batch this morning.” There was a split second of horrified realisation as he glanced at his own hands.

By the time Prince Jing made it up the steps, Lin Shu was still flat on his back, trying vainly to ward off an enthusiastic licking, and Lin Chen was perched in the rafters looking rather like one of his own pigeons.

It did not, for obvious reasons, need anything by way of excuse or explanation to permit Lin Shu to beat a hasty retreat to his private quarters, leaving Princess Nihuang to formally receive the Eastern Palace party on his behalf 15.Once in his bedroom, he sent at once for Li Gang.

“Can you tell me what on earth is going on?”

“I, er,” said Li Gang, who could, but very much didn’t want to.

In a rare tactical error, the Qilin Talent followed up his opening question with a second before waiting for the first to be answered, thus letting Li Gang off the hook 16.

“Why is the Crown Prince here?”

Li Gang looked at him in frank amazement.

“Chief, you invited him. And Tingsheng. He sent a formal reply.”

“Let’s see.”

Lin Shu scanned the hand-calligraphed response with considerable relief. The last time he’d been gatecrashed by a Prince had not been a precedent he wanted to follow, especially not with Jingyan.

“No mention of the dog, I notice.”

Li Gang nodded. “I expect that will have been one of Fei Liu’s.”

Since “One of Fei Liu’s” provided sufficient explanation for the entire Eastern Palace incursion, and since Prince Jing’s response meant that his household would have already handled all necessary questions of protocol, catering and security, Lin Shu relaxed 17.

“Well, I suggest you break the news to Aunt Ji that we’ve got a surplus hound on our hands, and think of somewhere to put it during the meal where it isn’t likely to cause too much trouble.”

Unexpectedly, Li Gang brightened. “How about we put it between General Meng and Tingsheng? The General’s got the strength and the reaction time to prevent it doing anything untoward if anyone can.”

“Next to General Meng? But suppose its fur starts him off sneezing again?”

“It might do that, Chief. But —” He tapped his nose, significantly. “If it does, well, it’ll be obvious to everyone whose fur’s to blame, won’t it?”

It occurred to Lin Shu that he might have made a tactical error in treating his household to a sustained masterclass in high-level deviousness 18 over the last few years.

“Well, there is that. You seem to have everything in hand. Carry on.”

Quite how much Li Gang had in hand only became apparent an hour or so later, by which time Lin Shu, thoroughly washed and in fresh robes, was presiding over very nearly the quiet family gathering that he had intended. The conversation was lively and informal, the dumplings were excellent, and the mastiff, which answered, more or less, to Panhu, was proving unexpectedly well-behaved, lying quietly at Tingsheng’s side. It was unfortunate that poor General Meng was suffering such a bad bout of sneezing, but there was little that could be done about that.

Princess Nihuang waited politely for his spluttering to subside before getting gracefully to her feet. “Lin Shu,” she said, raising her cup in a formal toast. “Commander of the Northern Army, we drink to your health and long life.” Lin Shu looked at her in sudden suspicion. It wasn’t supposed to be that sort of party, but it wasn’t a toast he could very well refuse, and by now everyone else was drinking it too. “And,” she continued, when she had lowered her cup, “we are far from the only people who wish to congratulate you. Permit us to invite you to join the others at Jing Manor.”

Suspicion crystallised to realisation. “You all knew.”

“We all knew,” said Meng Zhi, jumping in before either Prince Jing or Li Gang could take all the blame on themselves. “You did a damn fine job, Lin Shu, do you really want to sulk in your manor and pretend it was nothing to do with you?” Nie Feng nodded enthusiastically.

“I cannot be associated with this. Prince Jing knows this. I don’t know why the rest of you don’t.”

“I know nothing of the sort,” said Prince Jing. Lin Shu stared at him in betrayal 19.

“I have never understood why you feel the need to hide the very great service you have done me, and I will not allow you to hide the even greater service you have done Da Liang.”

“It would be ungrateful to refuse your people the opportunity to thank you,” said Xia Dong softly. Lin Shu looked wildly around the room, and received only smiles. “How many others?” he asked.

“It’s a party, Lin Shu, it won’t kill you,” said General Meng cheerfully. That might be a way out. Lin Shu looked desperately at the Young Master of Langya Hall.

Lin Chen, appealed to as a voice of reason, proved entirely unhelpful. “You’re fine, stop malingering. I’ve put up with you for thirteen years, Changsu, you can put up with one evening of people being glad to see you.” He snapped his fan open. “If nothing else, it will give everybody a chance to appreciate my own brilliance. Do you know how hard that was to pull off?”

Lin Shu snorted. “I knew I should have asked Dr Yan.”

“You’d give the poor man a heart attack if you started taking his advice now. Hey, little Fei Liu! Are you going to change into something pretty for your Su-gege’s party?”

“I’m not having a…”

Well, it appeared that he was now.

  1. The letters editor of a fourth took to his bed with ice on his temples, anticipating the resumption of a viciously polite correspondence he had declared closed three times, and thought finally dead and buried. 

  2. To say nothing of the fire brigades. 

  3. On opening the report from the capital, Langya Hall’s Mistress of the Pigeons rolled her eyes and said “Not again, does that man ever stop?” 

  4. In Fei Liu’s reckoning of high days and holidays, the One Where Su-gege Told Him To Break Into An Armoury And Destroy All The Things ranked even above the One Where He and Tingsheng Got To Ride Ponies And Then There Was a Battle. 

  5. Li Gang, who had been dealing with the constant stream of welcome back/get well soon gifts, letters of congratulation, invitations to consult on legal cases and review copies sent on spec, had a minor coughing fit and had to be banged on the back by Zhen Ping. 

  6. Largely as a consequence of highbrow party games, come to think of it. 

  7. True to his Army background, Li Gang’s first instinct on finding a heap of trouble rolling down the pass at him was to kick it up to the brass as fast as possible. Given the nature of this particular trouble, his own Chief was the last person in whose direction he could kick it. General Meng was the most senior brass he could find at short notice who would understand the nature of the problem. 

  8. One of Lie Zhanying’s men had acquired it in the course of the campaign against Northern Yan, and, having rapidly realised that there was no way he was going to be able to feed the thing on the pay of a subaltern, had presented it with his compliments to his commanding officer, as a possession too rare and great for a common soldier. Lie Zhanying, having spent the remainder of the campaign fighting (and mostly losing) a battle with it for even half of the sleeping mat, on his return immediately presented it, with his most elevated compliments, to the Crown Prince, who took one look at it, and hotfooted it to the Inner Palace to wail to the Empress, “What on earth am I supposed to do with it?” And the Empress, having given it all of five heartbeats consideration, said, “Do you remember how Prince Qi adored his mastiff? He had it from a puppy and I don’t think it ever worked out it was too big to be carried around tucked under his arm until the end of its days. Tingsheng’s lost so much from never having known his father. Give him the dog.” 

  9. Though not half as surprised as their Chief would have been. 

  10. T/N Literally: “City opening its gates to the enemy before the first siege engines have appeared on the horizon.” 

  11. Especially when he realised that the whole affair was being carried out under the oblivious nose of the person he privately considered the second most devious man in Da Liang. That made it a proper challenge. 

  12. So, at this precise moment, would Li Gang. He had just received word that General Meng seemed to have developed an unfortunate tendency to break into uncontrollable sneezing when in proximity to General Nie’s fur. Since each general would have died rather than embarrass the other, the only thing for it would be to ensure that they were seated as far apart as possible, although protocol demanded, given their respective ranks and closeness to the host, the precise opposite. Li Gang swore, and tore up yet another draft placement. 

  13. Which just shows how quickly some people forget their own childhood. “That time Lin Shu (i) laid a drag trail through the Empress Dowager’s apartments when all the Consorts (and their lapdogs) were due to wait on her” had gone down in Inner Palace legend, the sort of thing veteran palace eunuchs warned rookie palace eunuchs to be aware of, not just as the kind of thing which might happen, but the kind of thing that might happen to them.(i) After the Chiyan Army massacre, the perpetrator was usually described vaguely as ‘a young prince of the previous dynasty’. 

  14. Given the depths of duplicity his cousin had revealed in his Mei Changsu persona, it was of course equally if not more likely that the inclusion of a large mastiff in the party was the opening stratagem in a convoluted plan which would eventually end in the annexation of Northern Yan. 

  15. In practice this consisted of Nihuang (i) attempting to convince Tingsheng that even having managed to make the second most powerful man in Da Liang Very Cross Indeed was not going to result in the summary execution of either him or his dog; (ii) summoning her brother to take dog and child out into the garden to mop up the tears, work off some surplus energy and keep out of everyone’s way; and (iii) using the ensuing moment of privacy to threaten to make public That Incident With The Squirrel if Jingyan didn’t recover his sense of proportion at once and stop terrifying the poor kid. 

  16. Scholars have devoted a good deal of ink to the question as to whether, had he not made this elementary error, the subsequent catastrophes would have been averted, or simply happened a lot sooner. 

  17. Prematurely. 

  18. Lin Shu had gone by a number of different names over the years, but “Modesty” hadn’t formed an element of any of them.A 

  19. Another tactical error. Nobody outstared Prince Jing.