Chapter 3 - A Long-Expected Party by caulkhead & A.J. Hall
It was an appallingly hard-fought battle.
Each of the attackers was profoundly skilled, hand-picked, hand-trained and dedicated to a single purpose. They fought for glory, reputation and an absolutely whomping fee (half in advance, half on delivery.)
The defenders fought — for mixed motives.
Generals Meng and Nie fought with economical, professional efficiency.
Xia Dong fought to prove that honour can still emerge from a stinking swamp, and in the teeth of her shifu.
Zhen Ping and Li Gang fought simply: for their Chief, and for the Jiangzuo Alliance.
Prince Jing and Princess Nihuang fought precisely, lethally and for love.
Lin Chen fought for Langya Hall, for whom reputation is everything.
Primarily, Gong Yu fought for Yujin; for hope out of a hopeless world and, more-or-less out of habit, for Mei Changsu.
Yujin and Mu Qing, despite all they had seen and known over the last five months, fought out of sheer joie de vivre, and Fei Liu, arriving via the roof some two minutes after the assassins, for pure delight.
Marquis Yan skulked on the edges of the battle, bringing down weakened enemies with cunning. When asked later, he said he’d fought so he would be able to stand before his ancestors and tell them he had not been a bystander. The spirit of Lin Yueyao knew different.
And Lin Shu fought with a fierce exultant joy, not because he needed to, but because, after thirteen years of letting others fight for him, he could. He might not have the skills he’d once had, to leap and to fly, but he was still perfectly competent with a blade, once he’d taken one from the attacker Fei Liu had conveniently dropped at his feet.
Well, reasonably competent.
He was somewhat ruefully wrapping a napkin round a minor nick on his hand and trying not to let Lin Chen notice when he saw Prince Jing kick the last of the attackers off his blade and glance over to make sure he was unharmed. He tried to hide his hand in his sleeve. Too late.
“Xiao Shu. I have failed you.”
Prince Jing’s bow was deeper than would ever have been fitting for a Prince, let alone a Crown Prince, to give a commoner. Lin Shu knew, without looking, his eyes would be swimming in unshed tears. He grasped the prince’s arms and tried rather helplessly to raise him, without hope that it would make a difference. It didn’t.
“You are a guest in my house, 1 and I have not guaranteed your safety. Without me — without my collusion in this affair, which you never wanted in the first place, you would not even have been here.”
“Your Highness,” he began.
No. Sir Su would have had no choice but to take at face value this ridiculous, performative, sentimental display 2. Lin Shu had other options.
“Jingyan, I know perfectly well it wasn’t your fault. And if you don’t stop that right this instant, I will tell Fei Liu to throw you in the fishpond.”
Prince Jing gaped at him.
“And yes, I know that is lèse majesté 3 and you will have to have me arrested, and Fei Liu as well, and at that point it will be your fault, because it is in your power to stop me from doing it by standing up, right now.”
“That is blackmail.”
He smiled Mei Changsu’s smile. “Yes.”
Prince Jing held his position a moment longer, but straightened up hurriedly when he saw Lin Shu open his mouth again.
“That’s better,” Lin Shu said. He smiled at Prince Jing, shook his sleeves out and turned away to take stock of the situation.
His triumph was short-lived. Lin Chen and Dr Yan were bearing down on him from opposite directions, Lin Chen’s hand already imperiously outstretched for his wrist. He gestured them both away. Dr Yan looked from him to Lin Chen, nodded judiciously, and turned aside to help elsewhere. Lin Shu rolled his eyes.
“Chen, I am absolutely fine. You’re like a mother hen with one chick. Go away and fuss over somebody who’ll appreciate it.”
“Nothing would give me more pleasure,” said Lin Chen, unwrapping the hand and subjecting it to a close inspection. “But if you think I’m going to see all my hard work go to waste because somebody couldn’t keep out of the way of the sort of bottom-of-the-barrel assassin who thinks it’s clever to use a poisoned blade, you can think again.”
“Poison?” Prince Jing felt himself go cold all over. Pit viper venom.
“Well, you never know,” said the Young Master of Langya Hall, without quite the seriousness Prince Jing thought the situation deserved. “And it needs attention anyway. When these jianghu types talk about ‘cleaning’ their blades, what they really mean is rubbing all sorts of unhygienic gunk on them to prevent rust or to smooth the draw.” 4
He worked the stopper out of the flask he was holding and poured a good dollop of the contents on Lin Shu’s hand. Then he took a closer look at the stamp on the clay. “Seems a pity to waste this vintage on you, though.” He took a good swig before pouring the rest on the napkin, ignoring Lin Shu’s squawk of protest.
With the blood wiped away, Prince Jing had to admit it did look like a pretty minor scratch.
“How did you let him get to you anyway? You should have been better than that.”
“I was trying to take him alive,” said Lin Shu, with some asperity. “As the Young Master pointed out, there is something distinctly odd going on here. As a general, I dislike not knowing what it is; as a strategist, it offends me.”
“So it’s not anything to do with you, then?” asked General Meng. Lin Shu gave him a long, hard stare. “What? I just thought, you know, after the last time, and the time before that…”
“No. It’s not anything to do with him. It was never anything to do with him at all,” said a voice.
The figure that emerged from the shadows of the entrance was masked and clothed in black, as all the attackers had been; the woman he held pressed against him, a dagger hard against her throat, was in the robes of the kitchen staff. Prince Jing started forward, then pulled up, hard, at a minuscule shake of Lin Shu’s head.
“This knife, by the way, is poisoned. The Princess will drop her sword, and anything else she happens to be carrying, and come over here. The rest of you will remain exactly where you are.”
There was a second of tense silence. Princess Nihuang broke it, standing forward from the crowd.
“It will be best for everyone if I do exactly as this man is asking.” She bent, laying down her sword, then stood up to take out the knife she had thrust through her sash. She held it demonstratively in the air before laying that, too, next to the sword, and spreading her hands to show she was unarmed. “I will come over to you, now, slowly. You will release the girl when I am within five paces of you. When she has passed me, I will join you. That way, we can be sure that we will both keep our word.”
“Yes.” The man gave a short, choppy nod. The knife in his hand visibly moved, and the maid flinched away from it. “Everybody else stays. Prince Jing cannot save you this time.”
Princess Nihuang moved across the breadth of the hall, deliberately and with purpose, eyes steady on the man with the dagger. His own, as far as she could tell behind the mask, roamed restlessly about the room, trying to keep a watch on everybody at once. No-one moved.
At five paces, the man pushed the girl hard, sending her stumbling away from him. He kept the dagger trained on Princess Nihuang, who kept coming. Three steps. Two. Her foot crunched on a wine cup.
She kicked the shards up into his face, and there was a blur of movement. Two blows, a spinning kick, and he was on his knees before her, one wrist pinioned in her hand, and the knife skittering away across the floor.
“As if I needed Jingyan to rescue me,” she said scornfully. “Or anyone else, for that matter. What possessed you to invite me to approach you?”
“It was all I could do not to laugh out loud, once he said that,” said Meng Zhi, approaching them. “Princess, shall we see what idiot thinks he is safe within ten paces of the Grand Marshall of the Yunnan Army?”
“You’d best be quick, if you want answers,” added Lin Chen, looking at the arch of the man’s back. “I think he scratched himself on his own dagger. Bottom of the barrel, I told you.”
The mask fell away from features contorted in agony — he had not, apparently, lied about the poison on his blade — but still perfectly recognisable.
“Sima Lei!” gasped Prince Mu.
The assassin had eyes only for the Princess. His foam-flecked lips worked, his throat contorted.
“If only you had loved me, I could have shone so very bright!”
She leant over him, so he could be sure of hearing her.
“Sima Lei, just to be clear, you were in the bottom five of my list of suitors before ever I entered Zhaoren Palace. Once there, I vowed that — whatever happened — if you and I were ever forced to be in the same room again, you would not leave that place alive.” She raised her head to survey the wreckage of the dining hall, with its tossed and broken corpses. “There is not one of those you duped and bribed into becoming part of your idiotic scheme whom I would not find a thousand times more worthy as a consort than you. I offer this as comfort to their ghosts.”
He writhed and spluttered, his hands going to his neck as if his breath was being choked out of him by invisible hands 5.
Princess Nihuang straightened and stepped back, turning away as she did so. “No, Sima Lei. I will not give you the merciful release of a swift blade to the throat. That I reserve for honourable enemies.”
General Lie stopped on the threshold halfway through a formal bow, visibly boggling. Li Gang and Zhen Ping were directing the waiting staff in the safe and effective removal of some two dozen black-clad bodies, a disgraced former Court luminary appeared to be choking to death in a disregarded corner, and Xia Dong was kneeling on the floor with her arms around a very upset kitchen maid, from what he could gather assuring her that the first time being taken hostage was always the most upsetting and that she just needed to get her breathing under control.
“Ah, General Lie. Splendid timing, as always,” said Prince Jing. The General got a grip on himself.
“Reporting to Your Highness. Having seen Tingsheng and Panhu safely installed back in the Eastern Palace, I ordered the duty officer there to double the night watch and carry out a full patrol of the palace purlieus. I then returned immediately with two companies of the Crown Prince’s personal guard, in order to forestall…” He stopped again.
“As the General can see, we have successfully maintained our defence in the meantime,” said Lin Shu smoothly, coming to stand beside Prince Jing. “I believe we have dealt with the current threat, but we should first ensure the safety of the staff. By the way, I should let you know, Gao Zhan has at least one of the Inner Palace security team in position down in the kitchens. Please give her any assistance she may require, and keep out of her way. And Li Gang and his men would doubtless appreciate any assistance you can offer.”
Lie Zhanying glanced to Prince Jing for confirmation, received a brief nod, and turned aside to give orders. Turning back, he saw Lin Shu had somehow managed to find an intact flask and a pair of cups.
“Your Highness. We should remain where we are until your men have finished sweeping the grounds. In the meantime, Lin Chen has managed to find some surprisingly excellent wine, and it would be a pity to waste it. I know the Crown Prince’s men are entirely competent to their tasks, there is no need for the General to supervise them. Will you join us, General Lie?”
He filled and held out one of the cups, and Lie Zhanying took it gratefully.
When, after half an hour or so, further assassins had failed to materialise, the evening began to take on a more familiar shape. Toasts were drunk, compliments were exchanged, and the conversation, if general, was polite. This was exactly what Mu Qing had been afraid of. The party so far had more than lived up to expectation, but if things went on this way, before much longer, people were going to start discussing poetry. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of them even fell asleep - if he didn’t do so himself. Fortunately, he had come prepared. Taking advantage of what sounded like a complicated exchange of wordplay at his sister’s end of the hall (Yup. Poetry. Any minute now, he was sure of it), he shook a small bag from his sleeve into the palm of his hand, and threw a generous handful of the resin it contained onto the nearest brazier.
As the resin began to combust, the noses of both Marquis Yan and Lin Chen went up like those of hunting dogs. Hardly surprising: if Langya Hall had ever published such a thing, in his youth Marquis Yan would have come close to topping the list of recreational alchemists, and if they ever changed their policy in future Lin Chen would be judging the contenders.
Their eyes met.
“Let’s,” the Marquis said, “see what happens.”
In fairness to Mu Qing, he would have been utterly horrified had he known how the apothecary had interpreted his request. While the recent war had given him some taste of command, he had been dealing entirely with staff trained and shaped by his sister, who knew their business and needed very little direction. Accordingly, he had not yet learnt the importance of defining his terms. And when he had asked for “Something to liven up a party when the evening starts getting on a bit. It’s mostly old folk, might be a bit slow, know what I mean,” the apothecary - who ran a thriving business off the Luoshi Road - had drawn his own conclusions.
Before too long, Li Gang, Zhen Ping, Dr Yan and Sir Shisan 6 were (with rapidly increasing volume and animation, and occasional suggestions from Lin Chen) engaged in compiling a list of The Fifty Most Annoying Habits of Mei Changsu 7.
General Meng and Lie Zhanying had their arms round each other’s shoulders and were singing (or attempting to sing) that famous Da Liang drinking ballad about whose lyrics there is absolutely no consensus 8 except that it begins “Yequin girls are pretty/And Yunnan girls are strong” 9.
Prince Mu would have liked to join in, but was undecided about which of the versions of the lyrics he knew were suitable for mixed company. He was just about to open his mouth when Xia Dong chimed in with a verse so spectacularly bawdy 10 that, as he put it to a drinking crony a few days later, “I’m not surprised her husband’s hair’s pure white. I’m only surprised mine isn’t.”
All this was pretty much what Mu Qing had had in mind, and he turned with some satisfaction to see what was going on elsewhere. Yujin and his musician were, frankly, snogging the faces off each other, and Xia Dong and her husband weren’t far off. Lin Chen and Marquis Yan were comparing notes about something which seemed to involve sweeping gestures and a lot of laughter. And at the top of the hall, his sister had been leaning closer and closer to Lin Shu, and was now nestled scandalously under his arm. Mu Qing nodded approvingly.
From his position halfway down the hall, he could not hear the conversation on the dais.
“Jingyan,” said Princess Nihuang, “will you please stop looking at us with those huge tragic eyes? If you want to come over and cuddle up to Lin Shu’s other side, I will make no objection.”
“The Princess is pleased to joke,” said Prince Jing, making a really heroic effort to hold back.
“The Princess is pleased to do nothing of the sort. I’ve known you both since I was five, and I’ve been on campaign since I was seventeen. I know what happens at night well enough. And don’t you start,” she added, jabbing Lin Shu scientifically in the side. “As long as I get to marry you, and stay married to you, I can share. It’s not like you’re going to be his concubine or anything.”
“He’d be a spectacularly bad concubine anyway,” said Lin Chen, who had the trick of following several conversations at once. “He’d never do anything you told him.”
“Excuse me, I would be spectacularly good at being an Imperial concubine,” said Lin Shu indignantly. “I’d be running the Inner Palace within weeks 11. And besides…”
He leant back against Princess Nihuang and shot a languishing glance at Prince Jing from under his lashes, opening the other arm wide. Without being conscious of moving at all, Prince Jing suddenly found himself lying with his head in Lin Shu’s lap, while Lin Shu’s free hand stroked his hair. Lin Shu flinched slightly as Prince Jing’s hair ornament dug into him, and Nihuang reached round to draw out the pin and lay it aside. Prince Jing caught her hand and turned his cheek into her palm.
It was at this point that Mu Qing decided to find out exactly how much wine it would take to blot out every memory of the evening.
At approximately the same time, Yujin disentangled himself from Gong Yu, raised her to her feet and dropped to his knees before her.
“Please, don’t let this wonderful evening end without making me the happiest man in Da Liang. Promise me you will be my wife.”
“Yujin!” She was so overwrought, she actually stamped her foot. “Listen to me. You are the son of a Marquis, the nephew of an Empress. Such a one does not marry an entertainer.” She dropped her eyes. “I will willingly become your concubine, if you wish. I cannot become your wife.”
The Empress slid open the doors and entered with every ounce of Imperial dignity she could muster. Without exchanging a word, Princess Nihuang, Prince Jing and Lin Shu rose, descended from the dais, and dropped into step behind her. A childhood spent in the Imperial family instills some habits which come pretty close to reflex.
She halted in front of Yujin and his beloved.
“Kindly stop this pointless and excessively dramatic self-sacrifice this very instant.” 12
Gong Yu rocked back on her heels and emitted a sound very close to “Ack?” 13
“Listen to me. Both my son and myself owe our current positions and, very probably, our lives in no small part to your efforts. My nephew’s ancestors (who are also, incidentally, mine) owe you for their restored reputations. My nephew, in addition to all the other considerations which apply as much to him as to the rest of us, owes you an enormous apology 14. If you don’t want to marry Yujin, then fine. Tell him that. But I’m not letting you stand here and allow some nonsensical notion of presumed unworthiness to stop this generation of the Yan family marrying the love of his life.”
“Well said, jie-jie.” Marquis Yan nodded. “Miss Gong, consider me to have seconded every word of that.”
“I haven’t finished. If the only thing stopping you from accepting his proposal is the gap in rank between you, well, the daughter of an Empress outranks the nephew of one.”
“But I’m not —”
“You are now. I’m adopting you.”
“You’re what?” Prince Jing’s mind had been wandering but that woke him back up, sharpish.
“You heard, dear. After all, you started this adoption trend, with Tingsheng.”
“Technically speaking,” Lin Shu said, “My father started it, when he adopted you as his sister.”
The Empress ignored her nephew and kept her entire attention on her son.
“And you always used to tell me you wanted a baby sister.”
“I was six.” Realising that this sounded, possibly, rather ungracious, he inclined his head in Gong Yu’s direction. “But if my mother wishes to present me with a sister at this stage in our respective lives, I cannot imagine any sister I would be more delighted to welcome into the family. Or any husband for any sister I might have whom I would prefer to Yujin, come to think of it.”
“Well, that’s settled, then,” the Empress said, with satisfaction. “Ah, Gao Zhan. How very opportune of you to turn up. Kindly proclaim it. You can drop by the Ministry of Rites and sort out the paperwork whenever you’ve got a minute.”
Gao Zhan drew a very deep breath 15.
“The Empress is graciously pleased to proclaim that for meritorious service to the Inner Palace, and from the abundant affection and regard in which she holds her, Gong Yu shall henceforward be considered as her own daughter in all conceivable respects. The Empress is further graciously pleased to proclaim that she allows the suit of the Young Master of Yan Manor to her daughter, Gong Yu.”
He dropped his voice. “And this unworthy person proclaims on his own account that his Imperial Highness the Son of Heaven is not two li away from the Palace at this very moment, having cut short his visit to his honourable brother’s hot springs, and gives as his earnest and most considered advice to her Imperial Highness the Empress that she might consider returning to the Inner Palace with the utmost celerity.”
They were, just, in time. When the eunuch came with the request that the Empress wait upon the Emperor forthwith, she was concealed beneath the bedcovers, still in her maid’s uniform. A surprisingly short time later, she swept into her husband’s apartments in her undress Court robes, with the air of a woman who has spent an uneventful day engaged in a little light baking, followed by an evening spent perusing undemanding literature.
It transpired that the reason for the Emperor’s sudden return was that he had been afflicted by portentous dreams during his time at the hot springs, which he wished to recount to her at once, in the greatest possible detail. She listened, made sympathetic noises, and poured tea.
“Of course, the first night I assumed the dreams were just the banquet lying a bit heavy,” the Emperor said. “That crispy water-snail thing Ji has his cooks serve as a snack with wine always tends to repeat on me.”
“I do hope Gao Zhan remembered to pack your digestive powders. Your brother can be almost too hospitable.” 16
He patted the Empress’s hand reassuringly. “When have you ever known Gao Zhan forget anything? Do you know, the dear old fellow insisted on going ahead of the party — on a horse, can you imagine it, at his age? — when we must have been over twenty li out from Jinling, so that he could personally assure himself that the Palace would have everything prepared to receive me properly?”
“That was indeed very properly done. I shall make a note to remind myself to send a suitable gift to reward his care and forethought in the morning 17. But do go on. You dreamed the same dream again the next night?”
“Almost. That is, it started from the same place —
“The three army supply junks running aground on a sandbank? That sounds terribly careless on the part of the helmsmen.”
The Emperor snorted. “I daresay that’s what they’d have liked everyone to believe. Even in the first dream, I thought the skipper of the first junk had a shifty look. But when I picked up the next night it all became clear. Bribery! Except, he’d bitten off more than he could chew. Plainly whoever he was using as ship’s astrologer could no more predict an oncoming storm than that idiotic dog of Tingsheng’s.”
“My dear, please: Panhu is a noble and devoted beast.”
The Emperor delivered himself of a prolonged and sceptical snort.
“Anyway, it rapidly became apparent that rather than having simply beached the fleet somewhere they could be towed off in the morning, Bribery Man had really mucked things up. Because the storm that blew up that night turned the sandbank into a lee shore, and I’m sure you can remember Admiral Nie 18
on that topic?”
The Empress shuddered. “I’m so glad you took a firm line about that poem, dear. By the fourth time the Court had heard it, ‘impervious horrors’ was certainly the mot juste 19. But are you telling me the junks sank?”
“Broken to bits. The third night (and this was the one which determined me I had to come home at once to consult the Imperial Astrologer and the Minister of Rites) we were in the same place but the storm had died away and it was broad daylight. I was sitting on a fisherman’s boat and there was a young man diving to bring up evidence from the wreckage.”
“A young man?”
“Swam like an otter. Bright as a button, too; worked out everything that was going on from a couple of sodden bits of wood. Had the family nose. And what’s more, there was a young woman in the boat. A doctor. I thought she was, from her robes at first, and then, when the young man came up after having dived for a very long time, she insisted on taking his pulse, and so then I was certain.”
He reached out his hand, and patted his consort’s. “You know, one thing I wondered, was if they might be us. You know; in our future lives.”
The Empress’ jaw did not — because she was who she was, and ever more would be so — drop. Nevertheless, she took a deep breath.
“You think so?”
“I shall ask the Minister of Rites that very question in the morning. But I have kept you up too long, my dear. Go to your rest.”
It had, indeed, been a very long day. Nevertheless, the Empress spent a long time burning incense before the memorial tablet of Noble Consort Chen, before she sought her bed at last. 20
The leading scholars of jurisprudence in Da Liang might have raised objections to this characterisation of Jing Manor. On entering the Eastern Palace, Prince Jing had, of course, made it clear that all his dealings as Crown Prince would be subject to the utmost standards of probity and moderation. Unfortunately, the official emoluments attending the title were on the ungenerous side to begin with (i) and had also been anticipated to the fullest extent possible by the previous incumbent of the Eastern Palace, while the unofficial revenues, even had Prince Jing borne to touch them (ii) had been mostly liquidated and dispersed (iii) some time before the previous incumbent’s departure to Xian. The Crown Prince had as a result found himself suffering an acute cash-flow crisis, bringing him to the point of selling Jing Manor, when Gao Zhan and his mother presented him with a solution. Jing Manor would be leased to the Crown, for a period of seven years with the possibility of extension, for use as temporary accommodation for high-status, low-flight risk diplomatic delegations. The Crown would assume the burden of upkeep, refurbishment, cleaning, maintenance and, as required, staffing. Even Prince Jing’s scrupulous notions of the differences between the private and public purse could find no ethical flaws in the proposal. Accordingly, Jing Manor was therefore Imperial territory at all material times. (i) Successive generations of Emperors having taken the understandable view that if the princes were going to expend their resources on building up private armies and faction fighting, they weren’t going to do so out of treasury funds.(ii) Which he absolutely wouldn’t, as he explained at length, with gestures, to anyone who would listen, which rapidly came down to (a) his mother, the Empress; and (b) the Eastern Palace pigeons, who were in coops and so couldn’t get away, except on official business (ii.i)(ii.i) The Mistress of the Pigeons subsequently observed that when the time came to return the Eastern Palace pigeons to their origin, the birds went off their feed and, visibly, sulked: she dispatched a ream of notes on ‘Care, Feeding, Harmony and Moderation’ with a new batch of eggs, and covertly released the original birds to take their chances in the jianghu.
(iii) (T/N literally: “gone up in smoke”). ↩
As a boy, Lin Shu had studied under the greatest of Da Liang’s scholars. Let us charitably assume he’d been absent with gastric flu on the day the concept of the double standard was explained to the class. ↩
T/N Literally: “An act of terminal idiocy committed against the Son of Heaven or his immediate family”. ↩
A pet task set the Langya Hall apprentices was known — to the Young Master, at least — as “Cross-Referencing For Unintended Consequences” in which apprentices who had been immersed for months in one section of study (eg botany) were thrown abruptly and at random into a completely different section (eg naval architecture and tactics) and told to apply their learned pre-conceptions to that. Over the years, this had produced not only such gems as the Lotus Root Theory of Disaster Prevention and the Unexpectedly Aerodynamic Sheep, but a thorough understanding of how to press the contents of the average cleaner’s cupboard into service for everything from defending outposts against surprise attack to what would later become known as molecular gastronomy. ↩
“Looks like not all of the venom stayed in the viper,” Lin Chen murmured. No-one paid him any attention. ↩
Who, as an intelligence chief not a wet-work man, had taken no part in the battle, but whose accurate and detailed observations on the assailants, subsequently filtered out through the Jiangzuo Alliance, caused ructions throughout the jianghu for months to come. ↩
A list in which That Thing He Does When Folding His Socks and Late Night Flute Practice That He Thinks None of Us Can Hear Even Though The Walls Are Literally Made Of Paper(i) featured surprisingly far above Looking Heartbreakingly Noble and Pathetic When We All Know The State He’s In Is Completely His Own Fault. Again.(ii) (- i) And He Keeps Missing That One B Flat. Zhen Ping was surprisingly musical.( - ii) Li Gang and Sir Shisan later drew upon this discussion to publish, under a pseudonym, the bestseller Difficult Bosses: How To Manage Upwards Without Letting Them Notice, which spawned a weekly advice column, several sequels and a host of (inferior) imitators. ↩
Though numerous variants are recorded in the annals at Langya Hall. It is probably just as well that Lin Chen’s attention was elsewhere, sparing the company the song about the hedgehog. Lin Chen was uncharacteristically reticent about where or from whom he had learnt this particular ditty, but this had not stopped the whole of Langya Hall repeatedly, jointly and severally wishing he’d left it where he’d found it. ↩
Although in this particular case, given the other guests at the party, and especially what had just transpired, General Meng prudently reversed these attributes. ↩
Even after its dissolution, the proverb ‘Xuanjing Bureau has all the best songs’ remained in use in Da Liang. ↩
“In your dreams, sunshine,” muttered the Empress, who was listening from behind the sliding doors, and being more entertained than she’d been in literally decades. ↩
Lin Chen rolled his eyes and murmured, “Why didn’t I recruit this woman thirteen years ago?” ↩
The last time Gong Yu had seen then Noble Consort Jing, the latter had been wielding a suturing needle and she still hadn’t felt this intimidated. ↩
“I do?” Lin Shu muttered to Princess Nihuang. “What for?” “She’s probably got a list. And if she hasn’t, I have.” ↩
Those members of the party with sufficient forethought made a rapid calculation of the size of the dining hall at Jing Manor compared to the size of Wuying Hall, and took steps to muffle their ears. ↩
Or, as the Inner Palace betting board currently had it, “Prince Ji: poisoned by: 500/1; intentionally poisoned by: 50000/1; died of surfeit following invitation to light mid-morning snacks by: 5/3 on.” ↩
While the jade teacups were exquisite and of almost inestimable rarity, it is possible that Gao Zhan appreciated the pot of buttock salve even more, and not just because it had been blended by the hands of his Empress, in person. ↩
The General’s younger brother, Nie Duo. Although he and Princess Nihuang had a friendly relationship, the Emperor had forbidden him to participate in the suitors’ tournament. Understandably, since if the principal purpose of marrying off a woman is to neutralise the 40,000-strong army she commands, giving her a navy by way of wedding present is likely to prove somewhat counter-productive.T/ ↩
T/N Literally: “An inscription engraved by the sublimest master.” ↩
In consequence of the prophetic dreams of the Emperor, a thorough set of procedures for investigating marine accidents was subsequently put in place and remained until, during the reign of the next but one Emperor, it was subsumed within the wider Ministry of Defence as part of a slate of cost cutting measures. ↩