Table of Contents

Chapter 2 - A Long-Expected Party by caulkhead & A.J. Hall

It was, Lin Shu had to admit, profoundly pleasing to hear his family name spoken again with the respect it deserved. One or two of the bolder guests even compared his accomplishment as a general to that of his father, Lin Xie. Although the guest list was large, there was almost nobody that he was not glad to see, and only one absence that he regretted.

“Jingrui sent his regrets, but he asked me to apologise to you in person, too,” said Yujin, bowing deeply. “He’s terribly embarrassed,” he added, straightening up. “Who would have thought he’d come through five months campaigning without a scratch, and then trip over his own bootlace while training and sprain his ankle?”

Lin Shu, who had spent several months of the previous year unable to move from his bed to his desk without the support of Li Gang’s arm, accepted the apology with a polite bow and a pang of familiar guilt.

Most of the guests took their leave after a couple of hours, leaving a smaller party to move into the dining hall 1. By this time, Lin Shu was more than happy to sit down at his place of honour on the dais at the head of the hall and pour tea from the waiting pot. Prince Jing was in the host’s seat, at his right, Tingsheng (and Panhu) on the prince’s further side, Mu Qing beside them, and Princess Nihuang on his own left. The other guests filled the places along the two long sides of the hall and, with the ineffable tact that arises from impregnable self-esteem, the Young Master of Langya Hall took the position at the hall’s foot.

The waiting staff filed in, followed by a man with what appeared to be a living version of one of Lin Shu’s own fur collars round his neck. Most of the guests looked at him with bemusement, Fei Liu with proprietary approval, and Mu Qing with open delight. “You came!” he cried, leaping to his feet in welcome. “Did Nihuang ji-jie change her mind? Now we can…”

They never found out what they could have done. The ferret, catching sight - and smell - of Panhu, bolted, vanishing across the floor and out of the door in a streak of pale fur, with the dog in excited pursuit. Princess Nihuang immediately set herself to soothing the ruffled sensibilities 2 of the ferret owner, while Lin Shu fought back peals of laughter. Tingsheng got to his feet, almost tripping over them in his haste. “Honoured Father. My apologies. I shall go and find Panhu at once.”

“No, I’ll go,” Prince Jing said grimly. Had the mastiff gone missing in the confined quarters of the Su Residence, he would unhesitatingly have held to his resolve to make Tingsheng responsible for the creature’s behaviour, but the former Jing Manor was huge, rambling, uninhabited 3 and it was now fully dark. Tingsheng could not help but get lost, and then they would have to send out a search party for him, too. And since Fei Liu would undoubtedly insist on being one of the searchers, the chances of this all ending in an impromptu game of hide-and-seek were far higher than, as a military strategist, he cared to contemplate 4.

Lin Shu raised an eyebrow. “Quite right. After all, as I recall Prince Qi mentioning, frequently, the head of a household is responsible for the conduct of every member of it 5. I’d start with the kitchens, if I were you.”

Repressing the impulse to call his guest something quite unfit for Tingsheng’s tender ears, Prince Jing rose to his feet in a swirl of silk brocade and left the room.

“Good staff instincts,” General Meng said approvingly to Tingsheng, once the Prince had gone. “Don’t waste time bowing and regretting: take responsibility and offer your superior officer a solution to the immediate difficulty, whether or not he opts to take it.”

Tingsheng’s face was the very picture of “woebegone.”

“Replying to the honourable General, you are very courteous. But it is the second time this evening. How can my Honoured Father ever forgive me?”

Lin Shu leaned across the space where Prince Jing and Panhu had been. “Tingsheng, let me tell you something, if I may. My own honoured and most beloved father was twice the martinet Jingyan will ever be, and if he could forgive me for tying Yujin to a tree, I think Jingyan will forgive you for letting a dog be a dog in his presence.”

“Twice,” Mu Qing muttered, and gasped as a spring onion pancake flicked by his sister hit him in a particularly sensitive region.

Because Prince Jing’s recurring desire to chuck the Qilin Talent into the nearest fishpond had never 6 prevented him from taking his excellent advice, he made a beeline to the kitchens.

By this stage in proceedings, the main kitchen staff were sufficiently engaged in the complicated juggling act of getting the meal out that they didn’t even register the Crown Prince passing through, following his nose (as he surmised any sensible dog would do) to the confectionery kitchen, which was filling the air with a warm, spicy sweetness that made him feel comprehensively at home.

As he turned the last corner, he almost tripped over the missing mastiff, who was lying in the submissive pose of a dog which is very well aware that it has let its owner down, it has let its ancestors down, it has let its manor down, but most of all it has let itself down.

He looked across the confectionery kitchen to see who had worked this miracle. She wore the gown of a palace kitchen maid, the lower half of her face covered with one of those cloth masks which the palace physicians recommended as a precaution for Inner Palace staff during the cold and ‘flu season.

Briefly, Prince Jing considered offering her the job of head mastiff wrangler on the spot.

The first words out of her mouth dispelled any idea of securing her services for the Eastern Palace and, indeed, the impossibility of its being in his or anyone else’s power to offer her any promotion.

“Oh, there you are, dear. I was almost getting round to sending someone to fetch you, but then Tingsheng’s dog arrived, so I knew someone would be along to collect him shortly.”

“Mother!” Prince Jing gasped. “What on earth are you doing here?”

The Empress clicked her tongue against her teeth.

“Well, what I was supposed to be doing here was comparing notes with that nice young doctor of Lin Shu’s about his treatment of the Poison of the Bitter Flame while your father’s away visiting Prince Ji’s hot springs. It was the young man’s suggestion. Gao Zhan thought of smuggling me in with the catering staff 7. And then it seemed a waste, given you have such a wonderful set of ovens here, for me not to actually make some desserts while I was at it. But then the assassin turned up.”

“The — assassin?”

The Empress pointed at a bundled heap in the corner of the kitchen. It seemed to have been efficiently trussed up with scarves and bandages from the kitchen first aid cupboard.

Prince Jing gestured, somewhat feebly, towards the bundle. “And how did you —?”

There was a touch of acerbity in his mother’s voice. “Dear, how many battlefields have you been on? Surely you’ve seen a field surgeon do the Amputator’s Pinch 8 Really, though, it just shows how incompetent she was. Not only should she never have let me get close enough to try, she tried to use cinnabar. Cinnabar! How could she have thought she could get away with that one? Marquis Yan would recognise it at once; he’s an alchemist. So would his son: he’s been very sensibly telling his father to stop using it for years. The Young Master of Langya Hall would probably be able to tell you which seam that particular batch was mined from. And to cap it all, it’s bright red. Anyone seeing that on their dessert is going to think twice before putting it in their mouth.”

The way Prince Jing’s mouth was currently hanging open, it would have been possible to put a large rat into it, without difficulty 9.

“Anyway, as I said, I was going to send someone to collect her — I think you should probably use her as taster for the rest of the banquet, in case it’s the fake poisoner/real poisoner double-punch strategy Consort Yue once tried on the last Empress 10. And, Jingyan, I forbid you - formally - from telling anybody else I’m here. The people who need to know already do, and the rest would only worry.

“But I’m keeping you from your friends. And it’s really a bit too hot in here for poor Panhu. Please tell Tingsheng he needs to be given a large bowl of water, at once. And somewhere cool to lie down. Yes, that’s what you need, isn’t it? Now, just go with Jingyan, and remember to be a very good boy.”

The dog trotted willingly enough at his heels as he returned. Perhaps it just didn’t like sitting still for long - he could feel a certain sympathy for that. Maybe it could accompany Tingsheng when they went riding, if they could train the horses to cope… He shook his head to clear it. An assassin. Maybe more than one. Would it be a show of weakness to cancel the whole thing, right now? Mei Changsu - no, Lin Shu - would doubtless have an opinion. Both of them would doubtless have an opinion.

They entered the hall, where servants were just distributing another round of dishes, and the dog lunged forward, growling. Prince Jing grabbed for its collar, missed, and it hurled itself against one of the guards by the wall.

“More aniseed?” asked Lin Shu mildly. Unlike earlier, though, Panhu’s tail was not wagging; indeed, it was ominously flat to the ground, and his teeth were bared.

“Tingsheng, I’m not sure your friend is really suited for company yet,” said Princess Nihuang. “Maybe you and Mu Qing should take him out into the garden again.”

“If you can stop him eating the staff long enough to do so,” muttered the General, perhaps not quite as far under his breath as he had intended. As if to prove his point, the dog shifted its weight on the guard’s chest and snarled at Xia Dong as she approached, warning her back.

“It’s all right, Panhu, come on, she won’t hurt you…” Tingsheng jumped up, took a few swift steps forward and ran reassuring hands through Panhu’s fur. The growl subsided, although the dog still did not move. Xia Dong’s brows pinched together, and she leant over the supine guard.

“General, are you sure this is one of your men? The uniform looks off…”

“You’re right!” said Meng, crouching beside her. “And these” - he thrust a hand into the man’s tunic and extracted a handful of throwing stars - “are definitely not standard issue.”

“You can put him with the other one,” said Prince Jing.

“Other one?” Lin Shu asked sharply.

“Two!” said a voice from the rafters, and a black-clad body plummeted from the ceiling, knocking a tray from someone’s hands. Fei Liu sprang down lightly beside it, regarding the mess without regret. “Don’t like soup.”

Mei Changsu — no doubt who he was at this moment — rose, and, ignoring the clearing up operation in the middle of the dining hall and the air of tension around Prince Jing’s party, made a small but unmistakable gesture with his hand. Wei Zheng, Zhen Ping and a handful of other guests — all those who had ridden in from the jianghu — congregated around him. His voice was pitched too low for any ears but theirs.

“You will, of course, recall the tactics we used when the Eleven Willows Sect 11 put themselves in opposition to the Jiangzuo Alliance?”

Comprehension dawned across their faces, albeit across some faces more quickly than others.

“You mean,” Wei Zheng said, “someone may be trying the old ‘feint for the head, grab them by the goolies’ manoeuvre?” 12

“Can we afford to believe someone is not? Put the word out. A challenge seems to have been issued. Ensure whoever has done so regrets it. Briefly.”

Further down the hall, Prince Jing placed his hands on either side of his son’s shoulders.

“Tingsheng; listen. I’m afraid this is the end of the party for you. You and Panhu must go very quickly and quietly down the tunnel with General Lie, and go home. Now. No-one should notice a carriage leaving from the Su Residence, and if they do —”

“Follow.” Fei Liu had left the group around Mei Changsu, and materialised at the Prince’s elbow. He thumped his fist emphatically into his chest. “Follow. Guard. Fun.” He looked down at the dog, ruffled the fur behind its ears, and smiled. “More fun.”

Prince Jing repressed the urge to say that the very last thing he wanted to happen to the carriage between the Su Residence and the Eastern Palace was anything Fei Liu might consider “fun”. He gave a curt nod.

“I know your primary duty is to your Chief. Feel free to return as soon as Tingsheng is safely inside the Eastern Palace.”

General Lie appeared beside them at that moment, wearing full armour.

“Li Gang and Zhen Ping tell me it’s all clear at the other end of the tunnel. We’ll be going now. Sir.”

Despite Tingsheng’s fears, the mastiff hopped into the carriage without a second’s hesitation. Once inside, though, it made it abundantly clear that where it expected Tingsheng to sit was ‘on the carriage floor’ and where it expected to sit was ‘on top of Tingsheng.’ Meekly, he acquiesced.

“Yes. He does that.” General Lie’s voice sounded muffled, and, oddly, regretful. “But looking on the bright side, provided he doesn’t end up smothering you, he’s not going to let anything else kill you. Think of him as your personal attack blanket. Driver! The Eastern Palace.”

The jolting interlude which followed felt endless, but at length the carriage came to a stop, and Panhu rolled off him.

Tingsheng looked up to see the upside-down face of Fei Liu, grinning through the carriage window.

“Safe. Home.” 13

Lin Chen rejected (with a curl of the lip which indicated how insulting he found the very suggestion) all proposals to accompany him to the kitchens. The assassins who had manifested so far in Jing Manor were not of a calibre which would trouble any of the Su household, including Aunt Ji or, had the household possessed such an animal, the cat 14. Let alone someone who, in his own unprejudiced opinion, would have been near the top of the Langya List of fighters, had he not been the one compiling the list 15 .

Nevertheless, to avoid inconvenience to any assassin who might be hanging around the darkened corridors, he took the precaution of whistling the tune known, in refined circles, as The Young Master’s Come Down From the Mountain and, in those less refined, as Come On and Have a Go If You Think You’re Hard Enough 16 as he made his way to the kitchen regions.

Here, he discovered the kind of organised chaos with an undercurrent of pure terror that he had only previously experienced in —

Well. That was interesting.

He bowed very low before the master of the kitchens 17.

“Honoured sir. I presume from these exertions that you are aware of the immediate threat to the life and safety of our host and his noble and exalted guests?”

The master of the kitchen jerked his thumb in the direction of one of the pantries. “You’ll find everything you’re looking for in there. But tell me, if you’ve been sent down from the Hall, do you think they’re ready for the next course yet, or would it be better to send up more wine?”

“Wine,” Lin Chen said decisively. “Lots of it. And don’t decant it. Original sealed flasks only. They’ll keep their own cups.”

Once within the pantry he noted immediately no less than three trussed bundles, and a tall woman sitting behind a bench, her head bent over an assortment of flasks, vials, pouches and twists of paper which he presumed had been retrieved from those bundles. Without looking up, she held out to him a scroll bearing what was unquestionably the authentic seal of the Chief Eunuch of the Imperial Bedchamber. It read:

The bearer of this document is entrusted by the Inner Palace with the safety and security of the Crown Prince and his family and in the event of any incident threatening the same you are required to offer her any and all assistance she requires, without cavil, delay or question.

“I don’t think that’s quite fair,” Lin Chen said. “I’m positively bursting with questions. The first of which is, who shells out on Vermilion Butterfly Mine Fourth Level cinnabar, and then entrusts it to an assassin careless enough to be taken out with the Amputator’s Pinch by someone who — at a conservative estimate — probably last used it over twenty years ago?”

The woman’s head snapped up. “Well, if it comes to that, I’ve questions of my own. When carrying out the bone marrow replacement, which technique do you use to prevent the patient’s qi from dissipating past the point of non-replenishment?”

Lin Chen tapped against the side of the porcelain wine cup with one chopstick. It made a surprisingly arresting sound.

“One inept assassin at an evening party might be seen as a diversion, two might look to be enthusiasm yoked to inexperience. But a positive swarm of them? My dear friends, don’t you think there’s something a little odd going on tonight?”

“Only one swarm? I’d call that downright tranquil,” said General Meng. “Did I ever tell you about the last party I went to with Mei Changsu, as he was at the time? l lost count before we even got to the dessert.”

Zhen Ping nodded. “We got quite used to it, back at Su Manor. Time was, it didn’t really feel like the day had got started if somebody wasn’t having a go at Chief.”

“Mind you, it was positively restful to get our own space, after Snow Cottage,” Li Gang chimed in. “That was a security nightmare and a half. And of course, while one didn’t want to cause problems for Master Jingrui with his family, poor lad, it was getting almost more than any of us could do to keep things under control there. Night after night after night! Quality, too. No-one sneezes at Tianquan Manor.”

“That reminds me, I always meant to ask,” said the General. “What did you do with all the…”

He broke off in concern as Lin Shu doubled over in a coughing fit of the kind they’d all hoped he’d recovered from.

“Sorry. Orange pip,” he explained, eyes watering. “You were observing, Chen?”

“To continue,” said Lin Chen superbly. “The main thrust of my earlier remark was not ‘swarm’ but ‘inept’. The three poisoners so far intercepted in the kitchens —”

Three?” Prince Jing gasped.

The Young Master of Langya Hall gestured airily with his fan.

“As you know, the Palace household is under the direct control of Gao Zhan, who was hardly likely to let the Crown Prince and his son attend this event without taking obvious precautions. I have now spoken to the high-ranking covert agent of the Inner Palace embedded among the kitchen staff and am confident her ability to detect subtle poisons falls little short of my own.”

The orange pip appeared to be contagious. Both Lin Shu and Princess Nihuang banged enthusiastically on the Crown Prince’s back until he cried for mercy.

Lin Chen waited politely until the Crown Prince had stopped spluttering and going purple. “However, given this particular crop of assassins, our talents in that direction were not required. We’ve retrieved more than a dozen different lethal substances they were carrying about with them, and, to use terms you soldiers might comprehend, those poisons weren’t so much blades as bludgeons. Cinnabar, arsenic, muriatic acid, ruby-eyed pit viper venom —”

“That one’s actually quite clever,” Marquis Yan interjected. “Swift, virtually tasteless, easily confused with other poisons making it hard to find and apply the correct antidote —”

Lin Chen bowed, “The Marquis is entirely correct with respect to its properties. However, it becomes a great deal less clever if the person proposing to deploy it is still carrying it around in the original pit viper.”

There was a stunned silence. Lin Chen took full advantage.

“The General here tops the Langya list, of warriors at least, and the Princess is a good way up it in her own right. Prince Jing has considerable ability, and Fei Liu is sui generis 18.

“Then there’s Xia Dong and General Nie. Even Yujin and Gong Yu would make short work of most assassins. So, you’d have to be an idiot, or exceedingly badly informed, to attack this party. And yet. These ostentatiously, one might even say extravagantly, incompetent assassins have somehow managed to make their way into what should have been the tightest security operation outside the Ministry of Revenue on the eve of the Budget.”

That was, of course, the moment when twenty-five 19 top-flight martial artists, the cream of the jianghu, precipitated their way in through the skylights.

  1. To the end of his days, the Minister of Justice never forgave himself for allowing his good friend the Minister of Revenue to tempt him away at this point with promises of sixty-year old wine and elevated conversation. 

  2. Financial and otherwise. She had considerable experience bargaining for warhorses and grain in occupied territory, but the rapacity of an aggrieved Jinling ferret proprietor came as a surprise even to her. 

  3. Prince Jing was not at this point in the evening aware of just how far from uninhabited the darker parts of Jing Manor were, and how even more inhabited they were in the process of becoming. 

  4. Given the intelligence of which Prince Jing was currently unaware, an impromptu pitched battle would, in fact, have been a great deal more likely. 

  5. Including the ones with four legs and a tendency to slobber. Prince Qi’s mastiff had not been his only dog. Historians believe that an incident involving Prince Yu’s best These Aren’t Dragons Honestly, They’re Just Very Fierce Serpents brocade robes and one of Prince Qi’s dogs looking for a quiet place to birth her latest litter contributed to the coolness which subsisted between the First and Fourth Princes during the last year of the former’s life. 

  6. Well, hardly ever. 

  7. Gao Zhan had, naturally, had to accompany the Emperor, which prevented his being able to supervise the Jing Manor event in person. This inability to be in two places at once had caused him considerable heart-searching, though not nearly as much as events subsequently showed it deserved. 

  8. This nerve-pinching technique, which renders a patient immobile for emergency surgery, is apparently unknown outside civilised lands. The barbarians are rumoured simply to hold the patient down by brute force, though Empress-Doctor Jing preferred not to credit that, even of barbarians. 

  9. Initial difficulty, at any rate. The person making the experiment might well find themselves in considerable hot water immediately after performing it. 

  10. The only person(s) who had actually succeeded in poisoning the previous Empress were, respectively, her own brother and, ultimately, herself. But Noble Consort Yue had been for many years tipped as “Consort most likely to” by those in the know. 

  11. The Eleven Willows Sect were a small pugilist sect reputed to have origins far outside the borders of Da Liang, who were famed for staging intricate tactical battles which went on for days, and for characteristic martial arts moves known within the jianghu as ‘the late cut’ ‘the reverse sweep’ and ‘the wrong’un.’ They were also reputed to be very nearly as fond of tea as Mei Changsu and, incredible as it may seem, even more fond of cake than Fei Liu. 

  12. T/N Literally: “Dazzle the dragon with lanterns, and steal its horde from under its tail” but the gesture with which Wei Zheng accompanied his comment was rather less open to interpretation. 

  13. Two separate households next day complained to the capital guards of having found an unexplained, masked, black-clad corpse in their respective gardens. The capital guards duly reported the oddity to their commander, General Lie. General Lie mentioned it to the Crown Prince and, in due course, several lacquered boxes of jewel-bright pastries made their way to the Su Residence, marked for Fei Liu’s personal attention. 

  14. “What do you mean, ‘If they had a cat’? What else explains the state my pigeons are sent back in?” Langya Hall’s Mistress of the Pigeons expostulated when, some time later, Lin Chen recounted these events to her. 

  15. Langya Hall’s unofficial motto was, “Conflicts of interest cannot in practice be avoided. But they can be managed. And they must never be seen to exist.” 

  16. The composer himself had titled it If You Knew How Long It Takes To Get Hair This Fabulous, You Wouldn’t Be The One Volunteering To Mess It Up but this title was not commonly known and never used. Aloud. 

  17. Lin Chen was renowned throughout Da Liang and its neighbouring countries for the unfailing courtesy with which he treated kitchen and serving staff. Quite apart from any other consideration, where do you suppose Langya Hall got most of its gen? 

  18. T/N Literally “A dragon wearing a unicorn’s horn and having the crown of a phoenix.” 

  19. The twenty-sixth said “Fucking hell, they didn’t tell me Mei Changsu was involved”, changed direction in mid-air, and spent the rest of the night composing a letter to his contracting agency in which the phrase ‘material non-disclosure’ and its cognates featured heavily.