10: Fox and Alpha
The Fox hadn’t reappeared for weeks. A fool likely left the token on the Divine Gate, not the actual assassin. The emperor convinced himself of this and diminished his worry. Seamlessly, he returned to his usual routines and even arranged a meal with his immediate family.
The feast occurred in the communal room; a buffet of meats, vegetables, grains and fruits stretched across the long table. Each plate looked like it floated on water because of the intricately weaved, blue cloth. On every side of the table, a member of the royal family sat. Weishan watched from the end, his eyes continuously returning to this son.
All the prince’s characteristics derived from his mother, the imperial concubine. Instead of burly and stoic features, his were sly and pleasant to the eye. No doubt his children would be as beautiful as he but hopefully, didn’t have the same mismatched brown eyes. They startled everyone. At least, since training the mountains, he had a reputation that people feared as well.
“The marriage,” Weishan thought aloud. “It shall be this year, after the hunt.”
“Pardon?” Qiaolian said.
“It is time. I will personally announce the wedding of Hong Huli and Ju Xiaoli,” Weishan elaborated. “We should not delay anymore.”
The empress, Wang Yenay, smiled politely before she spoke. “If I may be so bold to ask, why the sudden decision? The Crowned Prince and Miss Ju have been betrothed since they were ten and eighteen. It has been seven years since then.”
“Are you questioning my decision?” Weishan scolded and Yenay dropped her head in shame.
“May I ask why since it is my affair?” Huli interrupted.
“You are all nosy,” Weishan sighed. “Fine. I will explain, to you, my son. You are aware of my plans regarding Linlong. If I am to rule elsewhere, I will need a prime minister to monitor the people far away. If I die in battle, I need my son prepared for the throne and producing heirs.”
Huli nodded, unable to hide his pleased smile. He raised his goblet of wine. “Shall we cheers to this occasion, father?”
“To our wonderful future!” Weishan drank from his cup. During this, Qiaolian looked to her son, utterly satisfied and thankful for this turn of events.
The rest of the evening stayed merry and the royal women did not utter another word, especially the empress. She excused herself early, Jiang rushing over to help her to her feet. “Husband. Madam. Prince. I feel unwell and will retire to my chambers. Thank you for the wonderful meal.”
“Yes, yes. Best to leave then,” Weishan slurred, waving her away.
“It is a blessing you have such an attentive housemaid. I am sure she always takes extremely good care of you,” Qiaolian said, a wicked gleam in her eyes and fake smile plastered to her face. Only Jiang and Yenay understood the hidden meaning. "You are lucky the emperor has allowed her to visit so often."
Weishan ignored his wives’ petty bickering and continued drinking. It had been this way for years and although he loved them both, he did not care for the drama between them. The empress was a kind soul but the concubine gave him a healthy son. To involve himself meant favouring one over the other and it would cause more problems. Women were bothersome creatures and soon, he left both of them for the night. Neither accompanied him.
The moon rose high in the inky sky when Weishan returned to his personal chambers. Through the window, the stars winked at him and the crickets cheered about his clever plan involving Linlong. He revised the details over and over in sleeping robes, proud about the tactic. The recent meeting – held because of the Fox’s absence – lasted an entire afternoon. The council developed a strategy of attack, discussing army compositions and back-up plans to ensure success. Cheng kept quiet the whole time, as if something weighed on him, but Weishan didn’t care. It gave him more time to exploit Joaolong. The man lived up to his reputation as a great strategist and when war came, he would be a valuable asset. Weishan applauded himself on agreeing to let his wife save the weak, thin boy from the country all those years ago.
A whistled tune distracted the emperor. "Stop that! You disturb the emperor!"
The song continued and the Weishan’s mood soured. He walked up to the door and opened it to yell at the guards. To his shock, the figure seen through the paper lining of the door was just a plant’s shadow. The emperor looked down the hall and saw someone turn the corner, the whistling tune following them.
“You there! Cease this immediately! That is an order from the emperor!”
The mysterious whistler ignored him. Weishan pursued. Patrolling guards followed too, anxious about their emperor. Finally, the mysterious person stopped inside the main hall.
The room's beams were circular and made of marble, adorned with silver embellished leaves and vines. This pattern matched the cornice, gleaming in the firelight. A pale blue carpet led directly to the throne, illuminated by silver torch holdings that looked like lotus leaves. In the white throne sat the Fox. They whistled and lounged, stretching to reposition themselves more comfortably. The lack of respect for the furniture purposely symbolised a lack of respect for the ruler.
A bamboo pipe met the Fox’s lips. They blew and a dart hit a guard. He fell to the ground. The Fox did the same process again. The other soldier fell lifelessly. Then, a knife plummeted through the air towards Weishan. He gasped. The blade slammed into the main door, swinging it shut.
“Y-y-you! Assassin! Assassin in the palace!” Weishan yelled and tried to leave. The Fox was too quick. They threw two small daggers with precision to land either side Weishan’s head, forcing him to remain still. A wooden plank fell from the handle. It contained a message.
We need to talk.
Weishan shook in fear when he faced the Fox. The assassin beckoned him forward and cocked their head. They pointed to the ground, requesting the emperor to kneel.
“How dare you!” Weishan shouted.
The Fox withdrew a needle and threw it at the emperor, clipping his ear. Weishan’s heart skyrocketed. His ear tingled. He felt a warm wetness. When he checked it with his fingers, he saw bright red blood. In an instant, he fell to his knees, defeated. Then, another token landed near him.
You have misbehaved quite a lot, Hong Weishan. I am not pleased.
“I don’t know what you're talking about,” Weishan replied. The Fox exhaled audibly, disbelieving the lie. They dropped more planks on the ground.
You plan to break the promise to keep peace between Shanhe and Linlong.
Shall I tell the other Mountain Masters?
“You are rogue! You wouldn’t—” Weishan stopped himself. The Fox would definitely kill him if he argued. The humiliating situation caused the emperor’s face to turn red. Infuriated, he clenched his knuckles so tightly until they turned as white as the moon. “What do you want?”
The Fox smiled; they had complete control of the emperor of Shanhe.
The girl, Bai Juan. Wife of Zhao Cheng.
How did she die?
“She tried to taint the reputation and poison a member of my court. Zhao Cheng barely escaped her wrath, killing her to defend himself. My concubine confirmed it! Zhao Cheng killed her to defend himself!” The Fox shook their head and Weishan saw an opportunity to gain advantage. “Why are you so interested in this woman? Was she a lover?”
Suddenly, the Fox threw another message with excessive force. It almost splintered and injured Weishan. The emperor flinched.
Continue to rule peacefully. Break our promise and I will retaliate as severely as necessary.
By the time Weishan finished reading, the Fox had vanished into thin air. The emperor yelled out, running from the main hall. Guards and servants groggily greeted him, either drugged or asleep. Weishan vented his frustration out on a personal eunuch, punching him and kicking him to the ground.
The man cowered and huddled into the ball, trying his best to not cry. Blood trickled down his nose and his whole body shuddered. The emperor kicked him in the stomach one last time before redirecting his attention.
“I should have you all beheaded! I was with the Fox! Where were you?”
The guards remained silent, acknowledging their mistake.
Weishan savagely gave them orders, blinded by rage. “What are you doing? Find him! Find the Fox!”