15: Death Devised

“What are you doing in here?” Cheng asked the ghost haunting him in daylight.

The name of his wife burned his throat. He watched the maid from afar over the weeks. That unique hair and light eyes reminded him of Juan. It broke his heart. A year passed and he still couldn’t forget her.

 “Master Zhao,” Huian greeted but her tone changed octaves when she noticed the other guests. “Imperial Madam. Crowned Prince.”

Huli wandered around the room, dressed in fine blue robes, and appeared more interested in the odd possessions than the maid. Cheng collected items from his travels, from wooden statues to fine silks, and decorated the space with his findings. Every trinket came from a different village in Shanhe with an unusual story. Years ago, the emperor had Cheng monitor the kingdom and border wall, collecting information to form an attack.

“I do not tolerate thievery from maids,” Qiaolian said, assuming the likely reason for trespassing. Her charcoal eyes glared at the girl.

Huian kept her head low. “I dare not. I have been tasked to clean the courtyards of the palace and saw a water rat enter this building. I feared how it will affect the master so I sought to capture it.”

“A rodent?!” Cheng said skittishly, tempted to dash outside. Huli looked at his uncle in disgust. “Did you get it?”

“I have failed you. I cannot find the water rat,” Huian replied.

“How do I know you aren’t lying?” Qiaolian asked.

“You can verify with other maids working nearby.”

This appeased Qiaolian for now, who did not want to remain near a servant any longer. “What are you still doing here? Leave! Go finish your duties! You are excused!”

Huian ran off and Cheng’s eyes followed her. Juan acted just as submissive. Could it be...? No. Mingzhu was defiant and rude. The maid seemed opposite.

Meanwhile, Qiaolian sat down at the small tea table, her pink and gold robes ballooning around her. A long decorative nail – plated bronze that covered her entire finger– scratched the wood, creating a horrid noise. Cheng immediately went to his sister’s side.

“She looks familiar,” Qiaolian mused. “They have the same hair.”

“Ah. I suppose so. I feared my own imagination—”

“Who are you referring to?” Huli asked and joined the discussion at the table.

“Your uncle’s wife,” Qiaolian replied. “You met her a few times. She was like a mouse; small, insignificant and shy… What ever happened to Bai Juan’s sister? Did you sell her to a dance house? Or auction her off as a slave?”

Cheng had to think for a moment, surprised by the question. It had been years since he thought of that aggressive girl. “No. Bai Mingzhu died.”

“Good. I hope by your own hand. Just be careful and stay away from that maid. Although you are a fool, it would be vexing if the whole kingdom believed it. A rumour about you and a maid could ruin many things.”

 “What is the true reason you wish to speak to me today?” Cheng asked, wanting to be relieved of his sister’s company. “Especially with the Crowned Prince.”

“The empress’s child. I heard he’s alive,” Qiaolian said matter-of-factly.

Cheng almost fell over at the words, along with Huli. “H-h-how can that be? It isn't possible.”

“It is. My handmaid overheard the empress confessing it to Wang Joaolong but only that wench knows the real identity of her son. Wang Joaolong has something to prove the bloodline. The emperor must never find this out if Huli is to be throned.”

“What do you expect me to do?” Cheng asked fearfully.

“Think. It may be difficult for an egg like you. The empress begged Wang Joaolong to enter the hunt. This is because the emperor respects his words. What can we do?” Qiaolian replied. “You are a master in murder.”

“I didn't kill my wife!”

“Interesting... I was referring to the last emperor's advisor or do you need me to refresh your memory?”

“T-t-that...” Cheng stammered but couldn't finish his sentence. He still recalled the frail old man in the woods, begging for life.

“But if you were a real master, the True Prince of Shanhe would be dead in that crib. I should not give you credit at all.”

Cheng sighed, indescribably tired. The powerlessness against his sister felt overwhelming and the hatred he had for her reared its ugly head. She had always been the most conniving of the children. Any acts for power by Cheng were weak in comparison. Their mother made that clear. Soon it wouldn’t matter. If the emperor attacked Linlong, Cheng’s life would change for the better.  

“The answer is simple,” Huli spoke, to everyone’s surprise. “If I have the token, nobody can deny my claim to the throne. Wang Joaolong won’t give the token over willingly and knows too much about the royal scandal. We kill him in the hunt. Then, we target the empress.”

“Ànshù will protect him,” Cheng replied. “It is too risky. If our men attack and many die while he lives, it will be obvious that we are assassinating him. Then, the token will be found with the wrong person.”

“I will only kill Wang Joaolong,” Huli emphasised and played with a rim of a cup. "And this time, I won't fail."