45: Game of Weiqi
Weiqi was an art form. It required prediction, strategy and understanding of your opponent to win. Players took turns, one at a time, to put either black or white stones on a lined board. To win, there needed to be a strategic balance of expanding territory and capturing the opponent. One thing was always certain: black moved first.
Unfortunately for Joaolong, he always played as white. He fidgeted with the smooth pebble from the game, deciding his next move. Across from him, Shaiming waited in silence. His face was hard to read, looking youthful but in his eyes hid an old soul. Joaolong enjoyed his company, with or without the alliance and treachery shared between them.
“Are you afraid?” Shaiming asked, glancing up from the board.
Joaolong laid his Weiqi piece on the board, satisfied by his growing line which blocked his opponent’s advances. The game reminded him of the Lotus Palace, with every move carefully planned and prepared while someone plotted against him. The empress learnt of this risky life early and hid her son, heir to the throne, and didn’t confide in the boy’s father. The move saved her for a time and speaking this secret aloud only got her killed. Then, those that followed her, received injustice. Joaolong had to be smarter to succeed.
“Of losing in Weiqi?” He asked.
They kept their tone light to disguise the heavy codes buried in their nonchalant words. After their last secret meeting, which became jeopardised from inquisitive servants who worked for Qiaolian, they changed their arrangements and code words. Now, they played in the garden under an archway to be visible to everyone too. Sneaking around brought trouble and in public, their gatherings appeared unsuspicious and friendly rather than full of deceit.
“I cannot be afraid when I have placed my pieces to win,” Joaolong replied, referring to his actions in the palace.
Chaos showered down on the new emperor, soaking his spirits in anxiety. Watching Huli suffer pleased Joaolong, especially after the assassination at the funerals. The more difficulty he faced, the more Joalong smiled and the ache from his abdominal wounds and healing shoulder lay forgotten. So far, bandits grew in numbers across the land, poverty halted plans in war according to recent news from Su Rong, and the destruction of a new military training camp shattered the emperor’s dreams to attack Linlong in spring. The only piece left to play in this game was revealing the true heir of Shanhe; once he arose from the shadows, the people would support the change in power that might save their misery-stricken lives. The mission to find the real emperor rested on Disung’s shoulders.
“Arrogance leads to mistakes,” Shaiming reminded and placed his black stone down, trapping multiple white stones in a corner.
“So does naivety.” The letters Joaolong written, proving his treachery, remained in Shaiming’s keep instead of destroyed. He remained bitter about it.
The men continued on with their game, focusing on playing rather than talking. Shaiming showed talent in strategies and his expressionless face gave the impression of readiness for any predicament. Yet, Joaolong obtained victory. He smirked and defeated his opponent.
“I fear your maid may not be as enthused,” Shaiming said, glancing at Mingzhu.
The bags under her eyes looked as dark as the Weiqi stones. Throughout the match, she yawned every few turns and did not bother hide it. There had been no time for rest after her latest mission. Instead, Joaolong lectured her impulsivity and stupidity and made her read guides to strategy games until late at night.
He opened his mouth ready to scold her, but followed her line of sight. She watched Cheng from afar, who looked equally exhausted. He hobbled down the pathways like an old man, with a face to match it. Grey hairs sprouted on his chin, showing the immense stress he felt from the emperor, as well as another person. Good, Joaolong thought. She still has some sense to remain wary while tired.
Shaiming followed the stares to the advisor. “Is it true an assassin named the Fox roams your palace?”
“Third Prince, it is not my place to answer such accusations.”
“I heard rumours the Fox has secretly left Zhao Cheng many tokens. No one is supposed to speak of it. Had I not overheard some servants, I would be unaware too.”
“Oh dear,” Joaolong mumbled and risked looking at Mingzhu. Her eyebrows knitted in confusion, processing the news. The reaction he hoped for seemed unachievable; was she truly the Fox? He expected anger or an outburst but her small surprise made him worry about his initial suspicion. “The Fox has been quiet of late. I wondered if it is about the shift in power.”
“What are you planning to do?” Shaiming asked but corrected himself to code. “What plans do you have for Winter? I heard a great breeze travels across Shanhe which may be disastrous for your health. My kingdom has many trees to protect you from such wind.”
“May I correctly assume you are inviting me to explore your estate?”
“It is a request, by royalty of Linlong, to express our gratitude for saving myself against the assassin, Bai Juan.”
“Who speaks of a traitor?” A smooth voice asked, each word dripping with sweet sound.
On the path, Qiaolian, Xiaoli and a handful of servants, both maids and eunuchs, approached. The women looked stunning, their hair sharing similar knotting styles and filled with expensive jewels. The betrothal flower shone proudly in Xiaoli’s hair, matching the hue of Qiaolian’s lips. Both women wore dark robes, either violet or navy, with white embroidery covering the sleeves and waistband.
Shaiming bowed, smiling warmly to the newcomers. “Madam. Miss. I greet you on this pleasant day. I sincerely apologise if I have offended you for speaking of the name of a deceased enemy. With Wang Joaolong, I found myself recalling the fear of my last visit. Had I not been so naïve, I could have stopped the assassin’s wrath and deepened the relationship between Linlong and Shanhe.”
“Do not regret, Third Prince, for none of us had known.” Qiaolian’s attention turned to Mingzhu. “I must assume the conversation started because of this maid. She shares features so similar to the assassination, do you agree? I admit my brother had a fright when he saw her.”
“The resemblance is lost in my eyes, Madam. The breeding at the border creates features like the maid has. Many people have lighter eyes and hair. The uniqueness is not startling to me anymore.”
Appeased by this, Qiaolian turned to Xiaoli, whose interest peaked at the Weiqi match. Since both men remained standing after acknowledging the arrival of the women, it became difficult to tell who played which colour. The game looked interesting and both colours appeared to gain victories while suffering losses.
“Who won?” Xiaoli asked.
“Third Prince,” Joaolong lied before Shaiming could speak.
“I shall not be surprised. Wang Joaolong may look intelligent but this mainly comes from rumours. Why else be retired from his council position? You chose the wrong opponent to play, Third Prince. May I suggest Miss Ju next time you have an urge for games? I wish to offer the emperor’s time but he is too busy for such luxuries,” Qiaolian sighed.
“I must take your invitation on another day. Since the match is finished, along with the tea, I will return to my wife. The more days that pass, the more she worries over our baby. Madam. Miss. Wang Joaolong. Please excuse me,” Shaiming said and bowed. A mix of servants from the Shanhe palace followed, along with Tai who Joaolong arranged to serve the Linlong royal.
Once the remaining company rose from their bow, Qiaolian fixed her eyes on Mingzhu, who stared at her. “What are you doing, slave? Do not look into my eyes!”
The slap seemed to ring around them. Joaolong said nothing but raised his eyebrows, surprised. Qiaolian never acted this way; she always kept composed and cunning with her malice.
“Madam, I can punish my own servants,” Joaolong interjected. This was the most he could do. Even in the past, when they beat Tai for bowing inappropriately, he had to watch in fake disappointment for his servant.
“Madam is helping you,” Xiaoli said, watching the punishment with dark delight.
Helping me? Joaolong stared at the woman beside him, unable to recognise her despite growing up together. Did she also consider killing Yenay, the person who treated everyone with love and respect, as 'help'. All past thougths of denial Xiaoli could murder someone evaporated in an instant. This was not his friend but a new, younger Qiaolian. He loathed her. He wanted her gone. Greed got to you and may it destroy your life. You deserve every terrible thing, Ju Xiaoli.
“I fail to comprehend what possessed you to take an ugly, disobedient maid into your care,” Xiaoli commented as Qiaolian composed herself.
What possessed you to kill the empress? Joaolong swallowed his hatred for a moment and kept his face blank. “Many others ponder along with you. Alas, this is for my own amusement. I find taming a wild horse is far more satisfying than buying beast calmed by another."
“If I were you, Wang Joaolong, I would prepare to gather my belongings rather than reacquaint with a prince and fool with slaves,” Qiaolian interrupted. “Your title as ‘Master’ has been already striped and as we speak, the councilmen are discussing your removal from the palace. After all, the passed empress’s death has severed your welcome among officials and without a minister position, you are wasting space.”
“Much could be said about your position. You are just widow,” Mingzhu mumbled, failing to restrain her tongue like her master.
A strangled laugh erupted from Joaolong’s throat and he attempted to disguise it by faking a coughing fit. The courageous but stupid comment made his mood lighten slightly and it reminded him of Disung, who happily blurted whatever came to mind. However, unlike the ultimate warrior of Shanhe, Qiaolian could act against the maid without fear or consequence.
“What did you say?” She snarled, catching the barely audible insult. “Listen, wench. A sold slave is worthless so never act as if you are free. Remember, I could have your head sitting decoratively in my room if I wish it or I could hang your friend, Song Meifan, from the tree outside your chambers. That choice can be yours but everything else is beyond your control, filthy peasant.”
The only sign of effect of those words was a slight twitch in Mingzhu’s fingers. She kept her mouth closed and head low. The tense muscles radiated defiance. Joaolong had to intervene before Mingzhu acted stupid again; he feared the endless nights reading about control did nothing to steady her emotional actions.
“Ànshù will be displeased if you killed her. He has a fondness for this particular maid and I cannot imagine his reaction to her sudden disappearance.”
“May I suggest this maid be in charge of the noose for her friend then. She can pull it up high into the tree and watch Song Meifan dangle,” Xiaoli suggested, matching Qiaolian’s tone and calm demeanour. It made Joaolong sick to his stomach. Had they both been so keen for death before? Or was it the pressures of the crumbling kingdom's favour to the new emperor?
“Do not haste, Madam,” he warned. “I have yet to tame this slave. Death is her escape but a punishment reminds one of their place. By punishing her friend, the lesson learnt will not be about respect but how she is superior compared to other slaves. I request she remains bowing in the same position until night falls.”
All women, slaves included, looked at him in surprise, equally flabbergasted by his input and defence. Xiaoli’s expression read betrayal. In the past, he never ignored her advice and turned a blind eye to maids she beat.
Qiaolain smirked, pleased by the punishment. “Excellent. She can strain herself and you can collect your belongings independently. A fitting punishment.”
For us both, Joaolong suspected. The women continued their stroll after brief farwells and Joaolong dragged Mingzhu away, mustering up fake fury and distress in his public performance. Anyone who spotted him quaked in fear, having never seen the sickly man enraged. He continued this act until they reached his chambers, where he shoved Mingzhu to the ground.
“Was that truly worth it?” He barked. "Keep your mouth shut and stay alive for a few more days! That is how this palace works! I thought slaves learnt that quickly!
“Do you want the Lost Prince token?” Mingzhu suddenly asked, her voice rumbled in loathing. It seemed to echo in the following silence.
Finally, pushing past his shock, Joaolong replied. “The Fox took it.”
“No,” Mingzhu smirked. “I did. Remember, I helped you in the cave first."
"Why return it?" Joaolong didn't believe the lie. There was no proof another entered the cave after her. He went back to check and the only entrance was from the crack between rocks. The Fox couldn't have sneaked in while Ying guarded his unconscious body without arising some attention.
"You saw them. They beat me in fear. Their power is in danger. I think it is time to ruin them."
Joaolong smirked. “If you keep saying things like that, it will make me more regretful for punishing you.”