36: For the Crowned

The enthronement of a new emperor proceeded soon after the funeral of the past rulers. The ceremony began by Huli praying for fortune at the ancient shrine in the imperial city and the monk blessing him. Traditionally, a large festive parade would escort the prince back and ignite the kingdom into celebration. The prince would sit on a throne – carried by slaves – and all relatives would walk beside him to show unity. For Huli’s enthronement, this did not happen.

Instead of a shimmery throne that was carved like a Lotus flower, the new emperor rode on a horse accompanied by fifty Shanhe soldiers. The villagers were both intimidated but mesmerised by the power display. Modified banners – the blue lotus flower remained but the white background changed to black – waved in the wind, held by re-positioned councilmen. Everyone felt the shift in the air; a new era was beginning.

The soldiers rode into the Lotus Palace and divided to create a path to the imperial building. The new emperor dismounted his horse and walked towards his crown and throne. The slow march frightened Xiaoli, who waited near the stairs. Her heart beat fast. Breathing became difficult. The emperor appeared deadly and dangerous. To survive a marriage to him, she needed to be as cruel as Qiaolian.

The imperial concubine was known to be malicious and calculating. She set small tasks to test servants and friends’ loyalty, their actions either bringing allegiance or death. After five years in the palace, Xiaoli’s test came without warning; kill the empress and keep silent. So far, she succeeded. This need to be accepted by the Zhao family was the only reason she kept sane after the act. However, Qiaolian wasn’t convinced she could serve Huli well; another task was set. 

The mission sounded simple; help Huli gain a fierce reputation in Shanhe. Gossip and rumours of his greatness were easy to start. Yet, Qiaolian wanted more. Xiaoli had to find ‘the Fox’. Of course, this task was impossible but Qiaolian, cunning as ever, had a plan.

“I announce you, Hong Huli, son of Hong Weishan and Zhao Qiaolian, keeper of the mountainous land, the fifth emperor of Shanhe! May you protect the mountains and rivers!”

“May you protect us all!” The crowd, full of noblemen, councillors and soldiers, roared.

The monk placed the emperor’s crown, made from silver and multi-coloured gems, around Huli’s bun, then added the official headpiece, slotting it into the metal. This stood tall, with a curved rectangle of silver on top that had rows of threaded beads and pearls on either end. The slope on the front allowed these decorative adornments to cover the emperor’s face. Only on formal occasions, such as full council meetings, city announcements or coronations, would this be worn.

When Huli stood and turned, the people bowed low. Despite the beads hiding Huli’s smile, Xiaoli could sense it. She felt the wickedness of it and the venomous insults he shouted last night for her mourning over the empress and emperor still rang in her ears. Shanhe wasn’t safe.

“Remember my wish. Succeed and you will be empress,” Qiaolian whispered through clenched teeth, keeping her perfect smile. “Fail and I will make you return to the life of a poor, filthy peasant like your mother.”

Xiaoli gulped audibly. A cold shiver went up her spine. She couldn’t determine who she was more afraid of; a cruel emperor or his cunning mother.