30: A Mournful Drink

A few days after the Shanhe rulers’ death, Joaolong spent the day in the study, hoping to find solace in knowledge. The stuffiness in his room only dampened his spirits, reminding him of the happiness drained from the world. The empress was gone. The sweetest person that lived had been taken. It felt unfair. The gods already took his parents. Why her too? At this rate, Joaolong would be all alone. Maybe he was cursed. After all, apparently it was an ally who killed the empress. Joaolong still couldn’t imagine Jiang doing such a thing. It felt impossible to believe.

“Nothing in this one,” Disung announced and chucked the scroll on the table where Joaolong sat. The sudden movement made the candlelight flicker.

“Try another,” Joaolong snapped. The anger was misguided but Disung forgave him, attempting a half-smile before picking up another scroll. At least he isn’t still attempting dirty jokes about red, puffy eyes, Joaolong reminded himself. It could be worse.

Yet, it felt like they hit rock-bottom; innocent died, enemies thrived from their absence and they were no closer to discovering the Fox’s intentions. Since the hunt, Joaolong invested his time into Cheng’s history, trying to source some secrets or intent to harm. Nothing came from it. Anyone Disung investigated which were involved with Cheng’s past had either died or knew him as another face in the crowd. It seemed suspicious not a single person acknowledged him from before role in the palace, apart from Qiaolian who was just as secretive. Then, the Zhao family history lacked information. How did a man with little history or commendable family name gain such a worthy position in Shanhe? He never won the hunt or aced studies. It seemed impossible. Is this why the Fox warned me? No one answered the question.

This left Joaolong to be reminded of Jiang. In the morning, he heard the cheers for her beheading from the palace. He refused to attend. The image of her head rolling on the ground made him want to cry. She was family. Despite everything, he found himself still caring.

“Let’s wander around and maybe steal some wine,” Disung suggested, noticing Joaolong’s darkenening expression. “Drink our sorrows away just like in the old days.”

Joaolong nodded and left without a word. The cool night breeze felt soothing. The faint scent of rich, earthy incense drifted in the air, carrying the message another generation of rulers had fallen. For awhile, the men wandered aimlessly around the palace, lost in thoughts they wished to escape. The constant ache in Joaolong’s chest was almost unbareable but if he lost control, a sea of mournful tears would fall from his eyes. The enemies could never see this weakened state and he needed to keep his emotions hidden. Just like he had done for the past few days.

“Stay still. Pretend to admire the scenery,” Disung whispered suddenly, slicing the silence between them. Immediately, his body turned rigid and stoic. It was ridiculous how quickly he adapted to his role. Joaolong remembered the first time this change happened.

Disung ushered Joaolong inside his room, continuing to appear oblivious and carefree in the night as he did guard duty. Joaolong hid against the wall, behind pots and plants. Outside, grunts, clashes of swords and thuds filled the air. Then, the world fell silent. Joaolong heard his heartbeat loudly in his chest. Someone approached. He tensed.

“Miss me?” Disung grinned.

Outside, they inspected the bloody mess of assassins. Apparently five had attacked. Joaolong looked at Disung, who stood under the full moon, red and viscious as a deity of doom.

The beast had returned. He crept towards the kitchen area of the palace just as a dark figure swung themselves into the building. There was a slight gasp from an unsuspecting servant but apart from that, Joaolong heard nothing else. The person was well-trained for this.

 

Disung and Joaolong stared at each other in the darkness. They both waited, holding their breath while their minds synchronised to the same possibility; the Fox had returned. It almost seemed too easy to capture him. It wasn’t rational the assassin was lurking this early in the night around the kitchen area but still, Joaolong felt his heartbeat race. Suddenly, Disung acted.

Smash!

Shards of dark, glazed clay scattered across the ground and dark liquid joined the path. A short yelp accompanied this and a woman narrowly avoided the mess, landing inches away. Her cream dress swayed in the slight breeze and she stumbled like a drunkard. She caught Joaolong’s eyes and he saw her flushed cheeks, indicating at her intoxication. It explained the unnecessary teal fabric tied around her neck.

Disung failed to muffle his laughter, signaling it was safe. “Fa Huian. We meet under odd circumstances yet again. Instead of already being punished, I believe it is my turn to initiate the punishment.”

“What happened?” Joaolong asked as he approached cautiously.

“Thievery. This maid, Fa Huian, is trying to steal a pot of wine from the cellars and almost succeeded. Such a waste.” The pot was completely ruined, wine already sinking into the ground.

“She does not wear the proper servant attire,” Joaolong noticed. “How do you know this is a maid from the palace?”

“Trust me. There is no mistaking a woman so eager to rebel with a fire in her eyes.”

Disung sighed and reached to grab the woman before she dived back into the window to steal more wine. “This punishment will be severe: she does not wear the maid uniform, disregards servant curfew, fails to address nobleman properly and has stolen nobleman property. It is worthy of beheading.”

“We do not need any more death,” Joaolong sighed.

“Ah but for this one, we could make an exception,” Disung teased.  

The maid retaliated because of the suggested consequence. She curled her hand around Disung’s outstretched arm and moved it behind him, pinning him using her body weight. Disung, out of habit, scooped the woman’s feet from under her using his own ankle and the grip on his arm loosened enough to be free. As a precaution, he blocked his face and body while turning around, prepared to block Huian’s attack at his throat. The maid relentlessly clawed and when this didn’t work, she did something incredible; she flung herself forward into a handstand and tried to kick Disung on the way. This technique would have been incredible if hit Disung and landed properly. In her drunk state, Huian fell to the side as soon as shaky hands touched the ground.

The tactic caught Joaolong’s interest. He had never seen someone try to use such a risky move to fight. And especially at Disung. It showed either pure courage and professional training or undeniable stupidity. Joaolong hoped it was the first option. Either way, he found a new distraction from mourning. “Disung, meet me at my chambers in ten minutes. Bring this maid alive. I will bring wine. We have much to discuss.”

The fighting continued, despite the maid’s drunkenness, as Joaolong veered from the kitchen entrance to the Harmony. The magnificent arching structure, made from light-coloured wood and golden wire to imitate overgrown vines, stood in the middle of the palace. In the beams were hidden compartments containing precious items. Only the royal family and their trusted relatives knew about this. Joaolong twisted a metal leaf to face downwards and used it as a handle for a secret door. Inside was the empress’s favourite wine stash and Joaolong took one pot, his pleasant mood buckling under sadness.

Years ago, Yenay showed him this secret storage to prevent any more mischief with the youthful Disung. He had a bad – or good depending who was asked – influence on Joalong. Each time, Yenay disciplined them through humility, making them wash clothes with maids or take notes for eunuchs. Never again would she set ridiculous tasks or hide a smile as she heard of their stunts. The realisation made Joaolong indescribably lonely.   

A foul smell slowly filled the air and burned Joaolong’s nostrils. Confused, he searched the shelf further for the source. The smell was stronger lower in the beams, where the concubine’s shelf sat underneath the empress’s belongings. Ironically, since the women shared a husband, they shared everything else as well. In her section, there were a few wooden planks and a hair comb. The comb was a traditional Shanhe wedding gift from the mother of the bride to always be remembered of their roots. Qiaolian’s gold comb looked faded and imitation jewels fell from their phoenix shape. The Zhao family must’ve been poor, Joaolong deduced. How did they ever become so powerful? And why did the Fox see them as a threat? Was it the sudden rise in status that scared him? Joaolong searched for more clues.

The source of the unpleasant aroma came from the back of the shelf. A small vile with tinted glass had a crack in it. Liquid oozed out, staining the wood and glass an unnatural dark brown. Something toxic was inside.

No one inside the palace died of poisoning in the last year. Yet, based on the film of dirt on all other items except this, it was new. Joaolong immediately thought of the hunt but dismissed the idea; Huli preferred poisons in powder form to mix it into food and drinks. This smelled too sweet to go undetected. There was only one way to discover the contents.

Joaolong took a risk. He grabbed the wooden messages and vile. The hairs on his neck stood and his blood roared. The moment he touched the leaking liquid from the glass, he felt his fingertips burn. To him, it was a sign that he was on the right path to discovering the truth.