Epilogue - A Long-Expected Party by caulkhead & A.J. Hall
The Crown Prince appointed Xia Dong to carry out an investigation into Sima Lei’s conspiracy. Lin Chen appointed himself to carry out the same job on behalf of Langya Hall. Because neither of them was too stupid or too proud to cooperate, they met to compare notes and assess their conclusions at Marquis Yan’s house 1.
Xia Dong arrived a little late to their first meeting, straight from the Imperial Prison, where the body of Chen Bo Chu had been found lifeless in her cell, she having apparently hanged herself with a sheet.
Since she possessed a sceptical mind, an in-depth knowledge of prison suicides (including the two she’d narrowly avoided having someone carry out on her own person) and a settled conviction that, even faced with the threat of lingchi, Chen Bo Chu would not willingly surrender the privilege of the last word, Xia Dong ordered the usual review of visitors to the prison during the relevant window of opportunity, and presented Marquis Yan with the list on her arrival.
He drew down his brows. “Hang herself, Chen Bo Chu? Impossible. No-one outside their intimates was permitted to know it, but she had a goitre as a child. The Chen family was always cash-strapped, and knew their best hopes of future fortune to be the flawless blossoms which were their daughters, and so her parents sought and obtained for her the best treatment. It corrected the problem without even leaving a scar, but it left her with a horror of anything touching her neck; not even fur collars in winter.”
Xia Dong bowed, and owned herself greatly obliged to the Marquis. Lin Chen dispatched a pigeon ordering Langya Hall’s records checked forthwith, for goitre operations known to have been carried out some fifty or so years ago at the behest of noble families in Jinling, and any subsequent follow-up observations on the patients in question. A second pigeon bore a couple of pertinent questions for Langya Hall’s credit control department.
Armed with the resulting intelligence, Xia Dong visited the Minister of Justice. The Minister of Justice subsequently visited the Imperial Prison, looked at the official in charge, and with the kind of ferocious courtesy that does, in truth, often lead to resignations via bedsheet, required him to surrender all records of everyone who had been within a quarter of a li of the Imperial Prison during the relevant time window, and the twenty-four hours on either side of it for good measure, however casual, unofficial or well-connected such visitors might have been. That inquiry led, via a number of ingenious diversions, which, to an investigator of her experience, were still not quite ingenious enough, to the eunuch in charge of palace security. At that point, she petitioned the Empress to be allowed to ask the eunuch in question (second only in seniority to Gao Zhan himself) a number of particularly searching questions. The Empress readily granted her a seal which allowed her access to the Inner Palace. Unfortunately, on her sending a messenger to have Zhao He brought to the chamber set aside for her purposes, he was found unavailable for questioning. Permanently.
“Overwork.” Gao Zhan sighed, and shook his head. “At least, so the Palace physicians say. What a pity. One with such potential. Though that may have proved his downfall in the end. He always did try to take so much upon himself; I suppose his heart… ”
“You give him credit, I suspect, for an organ which in his case I believe entirely lacking,” Xie Dong observed.
Gao Zhan bowed: deeply and reproachfully. “One strives to compensate for what one lacks. Though — sometimes, not entirely constructively. I do not like to speak ill of a promising subordinate: more than promising. I had thought of him succeeding to my place, in due course, but then a crack no thicker than a hairsbreadth can shatter the finest jade vessel.”
“And in Zhao He’s case?”
Gao Zhan bowed. “His effects seem extraordinarily depleted, for one of his standing. I cannot reconcile the Palace ledgers which show gifts of this and that value, going back twenty years, with what we recovered from his chambers. Perhaps he fell victim to external pressures, and liquidated his assets in some futile attempt to appease his predators? How can I attempt to consider motives with one who was once the favoured darling of Xia Jiang?” He took his departure, in a swirl of perfume and dignity.
Xia Dong took possession of the ledgers Gao Zhan had left behind on a nearby table
In this way, the investigation committee finally managed to find out who had paid whom, and for what. Though that in itself had raised very nearly as many questions as it answered.
“Honoured Marquis, has it ever occurred to you how difficult it is to intentionally hire a truly mediocre subordinate?” Lin Chen began.
Marquis Yan’s sculpted brows went up. “But, surely everyone — once or twice at least —”
Xia Dong nodded. “Not only does a person of mediocre talents from time to time slip through even the most rigorous of recruitment procedures, the more deceptive and dissembling those persons are, and the longer they remain in post, the more the person who recruited them in the first place is inclined to off-lay their faults to some other cause - or person.” 2
The Marquis refilled her tea-cup.
“So? The first wave of assassins were not, on any assessment, mediocre. They were abominable.”
“Quite so.” She raised her cup to her lips. “That, it seems, is what you get when you try to hire average people.”
He looked at her with full attention. “Explain.”
It appeared the root cause of the problem was that Sima Lei was, himself, a very indifferent martial artist, and, like many of below average ability, inclined to rate himself among the elite. His mother, while considerably more talented in general than her son 3, had neither the experience nor the contacts in this domain to compensate for his deficiencies. So, when they devised a plan which ran, roughly, “Hit them with a wave of mediocre assassins to wear them out a bit while lulling them into a false sense of security; then hit them once they’ve been softened up with a second wave of top flight assassins; blow up any survivors” the rock on which it (initially) foundered was “First catch your mediocre assassins.” 4
“It seems very poor planning on the part of Zhao He, though,” complained Lin Chen. “Didn’t he exercise any sort of quality control? What do we write the Langya List for, after all?”
“No, that was the beauty of it,” said the Marquis slowly. “It should have worked either way. Chen Bo Chu and her son were set up to fail. They, of course, thought they were carrying out an internal coup, and setting themselves up to reap the benefit when it succeeded. But if, as was infinitely more likely, their plan failed, the mere existence of the plot should still have caused enough damage to shake the Eastern Palace, and weaken Gao Zhan’s position beyond recovery. Zhao He could have identified the conspirators to the Emperor, come out smelling of roses, and be perfectly positioned to make a serious bid for power later. Even assuming the Crown Prince survived that mess in Jing Hall — and from where I was watching, he had a couple of very close calls — the ripples from that incident could certainly have been used to destablise him, and be exploited by Zhao He at some later date to replace him with a candidate more easily - managed. But what he failed to realise is that his own plot was identified in its earliest stages and used to draw him out of cover by a mind far more subtle than his own.”
“Gao Zhan, that wily old fox,” said Xia Dong, who was still smarting somewhat from his parting shot.
“The Qilin Talent?” asked Lin Chen. “But he didn’t even know we were having a party. I don’t see how…”
“Not at all.” The Marquis raised his cup in salute. “The Mistress of the Inner Palace; the Empress herself.”
Marquis Yan hadn’t been appointed by anybody. He was just nosy. The other two went along with it, because he knew everyone and no investigator can afford to ignore someone like that. ↩
Fiddling the tea fund? Mei Changsu never guessed the half of it. ↩
It was a family trait. ↩
To be fair to the conspirators, both the quality and the quantity of blades for hire in the capital had been declining steadily over the last two or three years. War on the borders had drawn off the more patriotic or opportunistic, the increased vigilance of the capital patrols under their new commanding officer had made life for the professional trouble makers of Jinling a great deal less profitable, and there was, of course, the elephant in the room(i) Mei Changsu and his Jiangzuo Alliance, who had Views on what they were prepared to put up with, and weren’t shy about making them felt. (i)T/N Literally: “the yeti in the snow-cave.” ↩