12: Empress's Secret
Inside the main hall, the councillors and royal family prepared for a meeting. The emperor sat on his centred throne, in front of a painted mural of mountains, rivers, flowers and a hidden water dragon. An untidy beard sprouted from his face, looking like pepper was cracked on his face. At every unexpected noise, he flinched; the Fox’s visit deeply disturbed him, despite the days that had passed.
Meanwhile, on his right, the empress remained calm and waited elegantly on a cushion, placed on a higher podium. She looked like a doll in a blue dress and had stunning features that, like wine, got better with age. A huge smile lit up her face upon seeing Joaolong in the crowd but quickly faded under the imperial concubine's scrutiny.
The imperial concubine sat on the far left of the emperor, her posture stiff and tense. A sensual atmosphere constantly floated around her, still captivating men. Dark rouge robes emphasised her petite figure. Her hairstyle, similar to the empress, showed her noble rank by being completely tied up and adorned with silver hairpins. This jewellery matched the prince’s crown.
The prince lounged on his cushion, appearing more comfortable with power like his mother than the emperor. Arrogance oozed from his judgmental gaze towards the council. His startling eyes unnerved everyone; the left iris was a warm honey colour, while his right was a cold russet. They constantly flickered over the men in the room during the meeting.
The first part of the meeting explained a bias truth about the Fox’s visit. Many councillors expressed their shock and cooed their concern over the emperor. Joaolong sensed added details and overdramatisation in the retelling. Still, he continued to listen intently, deciphering the important facts.
“Master Wang Joaolong!” Weishan beckoned. Joaolong walked passed all the standing council and kneeled before the emperor at the end of the narrow, navy carpet. “I seek your guidance on this matter.”
“Your majesty. Please specify your needs,” Joaolong replied.
“News of the Fox may reach Linlong royalty. If they learn about the Fox’s visit, false assumptions may be made about a war and they could attack.”
Linlong already knew of this visit. Since he had so many enemies in Shanhe, Joaolong created allies in Linlong. Only those closest to him were aware of this dangerous ploy. He risked his life by keeping this alliance.
“We must give them a reason to put trust in Shanhe. I suggest we solve this with marriage between heirs.”
Noise erupted from the councillors. Yenay interfered in a soothing tone. “Let him speak. It is best to have a shield and a sword rather than two daggers.”
Joaolong elaborated his suggestion, despite the councillors shouts of anger. “I have been considering this for a while. Instead of a war to merge kingdoms, we unit them through a wedding and slowly take over through peaceful strategies. I suggest that a marriage be arranged between the eldest Princess of Linlong and only Prince of Shanhe. We can contact Linlong to suggest this before someone else takes the lady as their wife.”
A chorus of gasps followed the last sentence and the concubine's eyes bulged, barely held in their sockets. At a rapid pace, her face turned an unflattering shade of violet. “What treachery do you speak of? You are throwing the Crowned Prince to the enemy!”
“It would be an offering from both kingdoms to form a treaty,” Joaolong explained steadily.
“That is preposterous,” Huli argued. “Nothing good will come of it. Linlong won't increase the supply of produce over a wedding. Father!”
Joaolong inwardly sighed. “Please consider it, your majesty.”
As expected, the emperor did not. “We will not wed the Crowned Prince to outsiders. His marriage has been predetermined.”
“Permission to be dismissed,” Joaolong said.
“Permission granted,” Weishan said. “Does anyone else wish to speak about Linlong attacking?”
Many councillors all fought to provide their opinion, most not part of the war meetings. These exclamations only fueled Weishan’s desire for war and the more attacks suggested, the more the emperor grinned. Joaolong felt the meeting only brought destructive thoughts, unlike his talk with empress later on.
Late at night, Jiang escorted him through Lady Gaze to a secret room to meet the empress; although family visits weren’t unusual, Qiaolian loved turning innocent exchanges into plots to overthrow the emperor. In the past, the empress had nine different trials about treachery because of Qiaolian’s lies. Hence, she learnt to remain careful with her actions.
“Rise. There is no need for formalities,” Yenay said when Joaolong bowed.
In the dimly lit room, a tea set covered the table. The empress poured tea for both of them and added nectar – her favourite – to sweeten the taste. She offered a range of desserts too, fussing over Joaolong like a grandparent doting over their grandchild. This behaviour made her live up to her name; ‘she who loves’.
Joaolong returned this love unconditionally. Their distant and likely falsified bloodline did not matter to her. She treated Joaolong like a son and so, he returned her affections with a warm smile. Without her, he would already be dead in a failing rice field.
“How is Liu Disung?” She asked.
“Same as always. Reckless. Stubborn. Determined.”
“As long as he is well,” she replied. “How is your health? I got notice that you were ill.”
“Summer is better than winter but spring is the silent killer. There is too much pollen in the air and I was fortunate to only have symptoms for a few days,” Joaolong lied. “I am more concerned over your welfare. I heard the Fox used you to escape.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Of course. Just before, Jiang and I were laughing about how the Fox sacrificed his dignity to dress in female clothes. He is quite resourceful.”
“The Fox threatening you isn’t something to joke about,” Joaolong replied, worry evident in his tone.
“Things are always not as they appear.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are aware of the hunt commencing shortly,” Yenay said instead, avoiding the topic.
The hunt occurred for generations, turning into an annual tradition in Shanhe. The grandest kill won a request from the emperor. All men, from any status, participated in hopes of changing their life by this favour. Yet, the game was dangerous. Deadly animals were herded into the hunting area and men killed other participants without consequence. To enter meant risking your life.
“I am begging you to participate.”
Joaolong remained still except for his brows, which knitted in confusion. “Why would you request this of me, knowing my constant poor health? Choose Liu Disung. He could easily win. Then your wish has a higher chance of being granted.”
“It has to be you,” Yenay replied firmly. “The emperor will stop at nothing to conquer Linlong. If the Linlong royal family is wiped out, he can rule it while the Crowned Prince becomes a minister for Shanhe until it is his time to rule. In my heart, I believe Hong Huli will not be a great ruler. I also have doubts about the emperor’s real intention and words. I love him but I can’t love what he does. I need your help.”
The empress passed a bundle of cloths to Joaolong who unfolded them cautiously. Inside was a long, jade token of a lotus flower, combined with the description of ‘True Prince’. “This is—”
“The token of the lost prince,” Yenay stated.
“I thought it was buried with your son. I don’t understand.”
Every person in Shanhe knew about the tragedy of the true prince. The empress, after many miscarriages, finally gave birth to a tiny baby boy. It brought great joy to the kingdom, for the true heir – born from the empress and emperor – of Shanhe arrived. No one cared about Huli's presence. A few months later, the prince died. A snake sneaked into his crib and bit him, causing the infant to be forever lost in slumber. The whole kingdom shared Yenay’s grief and supported her sudden interest in helping orphans. No one was surprised when she adopted a child from the countryside.
“You are all I have left and the person I trust most with this secret. There is something inside the jade.”
Joaolong turned the long pendant over and found a long crack at the bottom. Inside, a thin stone slid out. This looked like the exact same rock as the emperor’s secret scroll about the Masked Masters. On it, Yenay’s handwriting carved out a message.
The Fox has taken my son, the true heir of Shanhe, to safely reach manhood. On his return, the truth shall be revealed.
“This is a monumental secret,” Joaolong muttered in shock. It felt impossible to wrap his head around everything. The true heir lived. How could it be? So many people attended the burial ceremony. No one suspected anything.
“After two and a half decades, the day has come for my son to be revealed and bring peace to Shanhe. I need you, my last relative, to win the hunt and request the true heir's identity to be revealed. Only then, I will say his name aloud and confess his location. This token will be enough proof to the emperor and maybe, my son will rule before the war begins. I beg you to do this for me.”
“Is this why the Fox returned?”
Yenay smiled; her face looked full of knowledge and wisdom. “The Fox is as complicated as a stream in winter. It wants to flow freely but the weather freezes it.”
“Does that mean the Fox and Masked Masters have different intentions?” Joaolong asked. Yenay never acted mysterious or unwilling to share. It baffled him.
“Keep it safe,” Yenay said and gestured to the token.
Joaolong clasped Yenay’s ageing hand, tenderly stroking her with his thumb. “Focus on your safety before anything else. I will focus on this wish and do my best to fulfil it.”
After Joaolong hid the pedant in his robes, they continued to have tea. The conversation remained light, discussing palace life or Joaolong’s childhood. However, they couldn’t bask in each other’s company for too long. After an hour, Yenay retired to rest.
“How is empress?” Disung asked curiously when Joaolong emerged from the room.
“Weak,” Joaolong replied simply. “I do not know which I fear more: the emperor’s intentions or empress’s plan.”
“Did the empress suggest I marry a fair maiden? You must be jealous that I will belong to someone else,” Disung boasted, attempting to ease Joaolong’s stress.
“No one would want to marry a savage like you,” Joaolong replied half-heartedly.
“I am popular among the ladies. One whisper that my name is Wang Joaolong and they flock at my feet. Be careful in public from now on. I broke a few hearts with that alias and some maidens will claw your eyes before kissing you again.”
Joaolong welcomed the jest. Dark clouds were forming overhead and he had to prepare. The alive, true heir would bring great, irreversible change to the Lotus Palace. Yet, since it was the empress’s wish, Joaolong intended to sacrifice everything for it to happen. He would protect the lost prince.