Chapter 4 - A Long-Expected Party by caulkhead & A.J. Hall
With the departure of the Empress and Gao Zhan, any semblance of formality disappeared. The crowd around Gong Yu and Yujin became more raucously celebratory by the minute.
Bored, Fei Liu wandered back up the hall towards the place where he had last seen the ferret. It might, of course, have gone to ground anywhere in Jing Manor, but it had evidently been attracted to the poison on Sima Lei’s blade. Although one of General Lie’s men had carefully removed the discarded weapon, along with Sima Lei’s body, no-one had yet scrubbed the blood from the floor before the dais. It might retain enough of the right scent to tempt the animal back.
Fei Liu’s own nose was exceptionally keen, and he did think there was something acrid — out of place — in the vicinity of the dais. It reminded him of something — something from a long time ago.
It had been cold, yes: Su-gege had shivered badly even though the brazier had been lit, even though he had been wearing his warmest robes.
There had been fruit — oranges? Kumquats? Tangerines?
Yujin had brought the fruit as a present for Su-gege, but it had tasted wrong.
Bitter. Smoky. Salty.
The fruit had tasted like this part of the hall smelt. But the smell was fainter near Sima Lei’s bloodstain, more intense as one approached the dais.
Had the ferret been following the smell of poison? Or another smell?
Very, very stealthily, Fei Liu wriggled his way alongside, and then under, the dais.
“I can’t. I mean, I can’t. I can’t have heard that. I want to have heard it. But I can’t. I can’t believe something so lovely would happen to someone so unworthy as me.”
Gong Yu was having a moment. It had gone on for some considerable time. Yujin was patting her shoulders ineffectually, Mu Qing was proffering more wine, Lin Chen was looking on with the air of a man who was just waiting for precisely the worst moment to offer terrible advice and Lin Shu appeared — well, “conflicted” would be an understatement.
Marquis Yan flashed a signal of pure desperation to Princess Nihuang. She shouldered her way ruthlessly through the over-excited mob and knelt down on the floor beside Gong Yu, extending her hands.
“Miss Gong — my apologies for the impropriety, I don’t quite know what your future title will be, as an adopted daughter of the Empress. But anyway, my brother and I were just leaving.”
“We were?” Mu Qing enquired incautiously. His sister ignored him.
“We would be delighted if you could return with us to Mu Manor. Should Her Imperial Majesty not have other preferences, it would be our greatest pleasure if you could remain as our guest until your wedding, and to host your wedding banquet there.”
“Another party!” Mu Qing exclaimed. “Now you’re talking.”
His sister continued to ignore him, putting her arm around Gong Yu. “Come on. Come with us. And then Yujin can come round to visit in the morning, to assure himself you haven’t caught cold tonight.”
“It would be my absolute pleasure.”
“I shall attend on you, Princess, an hour and a half after my son,” Marquis Yan said. “Yan Manor has been without a mistress for many years, and I look forward to receiving your guidance as to what is appropriate for the accommodation of our new Young Madam.”
The Mu Manor party departed in style.
He’d been right. The smell was much thicker under the dais. It seemed to be coming from a number of bales which had been thrust haphazardly against the screen forming the rear wall to the dais. And — he just restrained a hiss of triumph — there was the ferret, pawing at the bales.
Unfortunately, the ferret saw Fei Liu at exactly the same moment he saw it. It bolted; his lunge missed by half an inch, and then it was out from under the dais.
The chase was short. The ferret simply whipped round the back of the screen and dived under the ample skirts of a woman in the blue robes and matching mask of senior Inner Palace household staff who had been crouched down there, holding a candle lantern. She shrieked and dropped the lantern, which landed on a bit of tarred rope which started at her feet and disappeared under the dais through a hole bored in the screen. The rope started to smoulder.
The ferret emerged from the neck of her dress and streaked back down the hall. Fei Liu slung the woman across his back and ran after it.
Half way down the hall, he remembered exactly where he’d smelt that salty, bitter, smoky smell before.
“Su-gege, Su-gege!” The volume would even have impressed Gao Zhao. “Su-gege! Fire! Black fire! Leave. Now!”
He threw his prisoner down, headed straight for Lin Shu, picked him up and ran.
General Nie caught up Fei Liu’s prisoner in white-furred arms like bands of steel, and the whole party stampeded for the doors.
The dais exploded.
The remains of the party, complete with their prisoner 1, emerged from the end of the tunnel into the Su Residence. Aunt Ji took one look at them and brought out the really good tea.
General Nie dropped the blue-clad woman between the low tables. Her mask, despite everything that had happened, had remained in place. Nonetheless, on seeing what was visible of her face, a high forehead and a pair of restless dark eyes, Marquis Yan visibly stiffened.
Prince Jing had been stepping forward to commence the interrogation. Lin Shu’s hand on his arm stopped him.
The Marquis looked down at the woman on the floor.
“How little you have changed, Chen Bo Chu. Were you four years old or five when you broke all your big sister’s hair ornaments and threw them into the water fountain because you resented that she was allowed to put her hair up, and you were still too young?”
“You know this woman?” General Meng asked.
Marquis Yan bowed gravely. “Da Liang is broad but Jinling City is narrow. My sister and hers were once the closest of friends, but when they each entered the Inner Palace, my sister as Empress, hers as Noble Consort, they became, in consequence, the bitterest of rivals.”
Prince Jing stepped forward and twitched the mask off the prisoner’s face, revealing a face artfully made-up and yet subtly wrong, like a well-known masterpiece copied by a lesser artist.
He exhaled, a man for whom a puzzle piece has finally dropped into place.
“So that’s why Consort Yue backed Sima Lei’s plot. He was her nephew.” 2
Chen Bo Chu curled her lip.
“It was the least she could do for me — for us. I should have been Consort in her place. Had it been my son in the faction fights —”
“Broken hair ornaments, Chen Bo Chu.” The Marquis sounded ineffably weary. “From before you learnt to walk you have defined yourself by what your sister had, that you had not. And where has it brought you and your son in the end?”
“My son is filial! He gave his own life - his own life - so that I could escape.”
“Without notable success,” observed the Marquis dryly.
“It should have worked! If that woman hadn’t ruined everything by behaving like some tough out of the jianghu instead of the princess she was supposed to be, we would have had everything. And if I couldn’t have that, I should at least have had my revenge.”
“All your life, you have seen things as you thought they ought to be, and not as they are,” he said. “You cannot remake the world as you would have it.”
She snarled at him. “What about your family? What, for that matter, about the Emperor’s family? Have none of you any sense of dignity? It look me half the evening to get myself into position — and then just when I was on the point of lighting the match that idiot son of yours decided to propose to his little Luoshi Road dancing girl and everyone on the dais stampeded off to actually encourage that encroaching little gold-digger —”
“Careful,” Prince Jing said. “Don’t forget that’s my sister you’re taking about.”
Half a beat later, his brain managed to catch up and he exchanged a We really were that close to dying in each other’s arms glance with Lin Shu. The ensuing silence left the field clear for the Marquis.
“Chen Bo Chu, a little over three years ago your uncle was a Minister of the Crown, your sister a Noble Consort, your nephew Crown Prince, your son acknowledged by the Emperor as a candidate for the hand of the Princess. Had any of your family shown the tenth part of the courage and integrity of the woman whom I welcomed this evening to my family, you would not so comprehensively have lost the favour of the heavens.”
“Nevertheless. None of the first families of Da Liang will forget that she used to be an entertainer.”
The Marquis inclined his head. “Perhaps not. But, with the favour of fortune, her children and Yujin’s will burn incense before my memorial tablet. Who will attend to your rites, Chen Bo Chu?”
“Now,” Lin Shu said rather later, when Li Gang had finally closed the doors against the last of the visitors, “I propose to crawl under that large pile of furs, fall asleep and not emerge until everyone has forgotten all about tonight. No, it’s fine. All fine. I’m not ill. Go to bed, Fei Liu.”
Fei Liu watched until he was sure Su-gege was really asleep. Then he put a hand inside his robes and pulled out the small pieces of meat he had concealed there at some point in the evening’s proceedings and laid them on the floor close by his feet. “Food. Good. Eat.”
Presently, a sharp nose and some alert whiskers poked out from beneath one of the bookcases. Fei Liu made himself statue-still. Reassured, the ferret removed itself from concealment and hopped up onto the dais next to the bed. It gulped down the furthest morsel of meat and rose up with its forepaws in the air, sniffing the air, wondering if it might dare go for the rest.
Fei Liu remained in his attitude of absolute stillness. He could grab it, of course, but that would upset it and he didn’t want it upset.
Seeing Tingsheng with the mastiff earlier had made him want to have a dog, and probably if he asked Su-ge-ge (especially after tonight) he might get one.
But ferrets were so much cooler.
Fei Liu bet ferrets hated pigeons, too. Or at least, he bet they could be trained to.
The story was, inevitably, all over Jinling before the sun was well risen. One of the very first to hear it was Jingrui, on whom Yujin called for breakfast before heading home to bed.
“…And that’s when the roof fell in,” he ended triumphantly. He cocked his head on one side. “You don’t look very surprised.”
“I’m not.” Jingrui smiled and sipped tea. “I told you. I hate parties.”
Minus General Lie, who was now directing fire-fighting operations at Jing Manor. ↩
Prince Jing attended on his mother a day or so later to give her a full account of the events once she had left the party. When he got to this point the Empress rose and produced from a secret drawer in her bureau a thick memorandum titled “A full and accurate tabulation of the connections of the principal, significant and aspiring families of Da Liang, calculated through the female line” and instructed him to get it by heart by the time he was next called upon to assess the rival candidates for a promotion. ↩