Chapter 46: Moon Festival

The Moon Festival celebrated the last full moon of the season. It blessed harvests, gathered families and shared marvellous foods from Shanhe, including the famous mooncakes. Wheat flour and a sweet stuffing formed these traditional pastries. The cakes were eaten in the glow of the full moon, among burning incense enrich a deeper part of their soul.

However, among the loud music and happy families, anxiety crept in the shadows. Many heirlooms or symbolic gifts were sacrificed in autumn to show the strong yearning for a kinder winter. Since the change of emperors, many Shanhe people turned more reluctant about the offering. The spike in tax demands spread more poverty and many relied on their valuables to survive a few more months. They feared giving up expensive items but in the same breath, if they did not offer a sacrifice, winter would be cruel to them. In contrast, Xiaoli’s worries differed greatly for the festival reminded her of the past.

Many years ago, her father, an old councilman and unsuccessful farmer, passed away from illness on this celebratory day. The children distanced themselves from Xiaoli’s mother – a hopeless gambler and pushover who gave away money to ‘help’ desperate relatives – since they saw her unfit to provide them safety. Eventually, their mother left first, running away from debt collectors into the mountains carrying the seventh sibling due soon. This forced the children to survive alone.

They lived on the streets for years. Xiaoli hated every moment she slept under itchy blankets, shared her personal belongings or got scolded for cussing her real family name ‘Yu’. It was a blessing to leave the family behind through adoption.

A couple picked Xiaoli from the streets based on her beauty. Throughout generations, their wealth and power remained strong, leaving a great impression on the emperor. Alas, this would be for nothing if their family remained at two. Watching the children on the streets for months, they took Xiaoli and revealed to everyone they miraculously had a daughter, who they ‘hid’ from everyone. She never looked back and left her siblings behind, enjoying her new life as a noblewoman wearing the surname ‘Ju’. It was a fairy tale, especially when the emperor betrothed her to his son.

The delusional vanished within months at the palace. To keep her dream alive, she did unspeakable deeds. To remain at the top of the hierarchy, she deceived and lied. Friends lessened and the foes grew in numbers. She did everything to keep a strong relationship with Qiaolian and secure her position. Yet, killing the empress ate away at her soul. Yenay always said kind words to her and in return, Xiaoli took her life. That was not my fault, she reminded herself. Qiaolian tricked me. She made me do it! It is not my fault! These thoughts did not stop the nightmares or Joaolong looking at her in disgust at her acts.

The autumn changed them both. Xiaoli battled waves of fear and depression, while Joaolong closed himself from the world. Through his trials, like the hunt, he appeared stronger than before. The death of Yenay and Jiang, who he cared for unconditionally, did not affect him like everyone predicted. Instead of crumbling, he turned into fierce statue, glaring coldly at those who opposed him. This included Xiaoli. The hate from him broke her heart. He avoided her, spoke against her and with each glance, showed he saw a demon and not a friend. Did he know the truth? Xiaoli feared it more than the emperor. The empress died because of Qiaolian, not me. It is not my fault. How dare Joaolong act like that towards me!

The expanse celebration inside the palace, from circus performances to delicious food, kept Xiaoli’s mind away from her troubles. She clasped onto the distractions for dear life, investing in conversations and marvelling at the decorations. The compliments about her outfit stroked her ego, making her feel worthy of empress. She wore maroon robes with striking gold trimming and embroidery of flames. Instead of wrapping around her body in layers, the material fit snug on her chest, abdomen and legs. Black, sheer silk covered her arms and matched the large waistband. The attention from the unique style elevated her spirits well into the night.

When darkness flooded the sky, the celebrations began inside the palace. Circular, white lanterns dangled high in the air, shining brightly to imitate the glorious full moon while flaming torches stood tall on the outskirts of the entertainment area. Embroiled blue rugs, mimicking the lake the palace sat on, covered the paved ground and a mixture of orange and yellow material decorated the tables to represent the swimming fish. Three long, rectangular tables, positioned together to form an incomplete square, waited on a higher platform for the royal families of both kingdoms to rest. Smaller tables littered the perimeter for noblemen, their families and other guests to sit.

The Shanhe citizens’ clothes matched the setting. The men wore dark blues and greys, while the women happily chose the brighter yellows and oranges to draw attention on themselves. Qiaolian, as expected, dressed the most extravagantly. Jewels were sewn into her dress of yellow and white, these matching the gems in her styled hair. As soon as her eyes met Xiaoli, she beckoned her over to sit with them. Xiaoli released a breath she didn’t realise she held; Qiaolian still accepted her. Tension rose as Huli’s reputation plummeted in Shanhe and Xiaoli feared the blame. 

After everyone seated or stilled, musicians sped their tempo to excite the crowd. Dressed in bright blue, they blended into the colour scheme of the festival to be unnoticed during the performances. They played at the far end imperial courtyard and Xiaoli recognised the instruments. She saw a Pipa, Guzheng, Erhu, Sihu, Dizi and drums. Joaolong told her stories of music with these instruments and the gods they connected with. Thinking of this, she searched for him in the crowd. His removal as minister and upcoming exile as councilman showed in his grouping; he stood alone with servants, Disung nowhere to be seen. Xiaoli’s heart sank, just as it had when Qiaolian threatened him days before. She wished he could stay in the palace. Without him, she would not have found happiness years earlier. Better him than you, a voice snickered in her mind.

 “Ladies and gentlemen. The Third Prince of Linlong wishes to speak,” a eunuch announced.

Shaiming stood up from his seat, his elegant green robes catching the fire light, and everyone went silent. A mist came over him, transforming him from a timid teenager to a wise old, man. “I speak in the place of my father, Xun Jinsong, emperor of Linlong. A new emperor of Shanhe has risen and we wish to make our respect known to the people. The kingdoms of Shanhe and Linlong have remained peaceful for centuries and to continue this treaty, the emperor of Linlong offers his eldest daughter, Xun Caihong, as a wife to the new emperor, Hong Huli. May the unity help our lands flourish!”

The crowd roared but Xiaoli only heard white noise. No! She wanted to scream but her throat closed up. No! This is not happening! I am the future empress! Me! Huli had to decline the offer! She put too much effort into this life for it to be ruined by a country bumpkin. This couldn’t happen. In her mind, Qiaolian’s old threat echoed: fail and I will make you return to the life of a poor, filthy peasant like your mother.

“It is wonderfully generous of Linlong! Express your appreciation, your majesty!” Qiaolain exclaimed while she tried to encourage her son to put on a smile. The acceptance made Xiaoli shake in fury.

“Let us unite through marriage,” Huli announced monotonously.

“May we enjoy the festivities with renewed happiness over the prosperity of the kingdoms!” Shaiming declared and returned to sit down.

Exotic dancers entered the performance area, interrupting the conflicted reactions of the kingdoms’ marriage, and delicately stepped into their positions. They were beautiful, most of their hair spiralling down while any tied into braids shone with glass hairpins and flowers. The makeup looked exquisite as well, everything soft in colour and blended except for the glitter leaves on the sides of their faces. The lotus flower costumes split into two parts, the divide displaying the women’s abdomen and lower back to everyone. The top, dyed yellow, covered the chest firmly and sheer, blue material draped down the women’s arms before clasping onto their wrists. The bottom skirt sat on their hips and freely flowed down in waves of differing pink shades. The crowd became lost in admiration.

Their music began, the beat slow in the beginning and the dancers gracefully followed the rhythm. They swayed like water in a stream and spun around until their skirts rose to look like blooming flowers. The main dancer enraptured everyone but Xiaoli noticed Joaolong staring at another. The moves this minor dancer made were precise and perfect, not even a finger out of place. There was something indescribable which set her apart from the other women.

In the flicker of flames, the dancer’s hair looked like it caught alight. Xiaoli gasped but this sound of astonishment got lost in the awes and appreciative remarks about the lead dancer. Only two people had this odd auburn hair colouring: Bai Juan and Fa Huian. Since Juan was dead, the dancer had to be the maid Fa Huian.

The music raised into a crescendo and the dance quickened until all the women’s toes barely touched the floor. Xiaoli kept her eyes on the imposter, unwilling to be tricked by the upbeat and carefree atmosphere. The more she stared, the more she noticed – or convinced herself about – the familiar facial features of the maid and those burning eyes that never left Cheng. Xiaoli couldn’t understand it and searched find an answer.

Was she Cheng’s lover? Did she want to be his concubine? On the day they met, she acted strangely around him. It was plausible that she was a shallow whore who worked her way up in status through her body. The idea made Xiaoli feel dignified and better about herself. She continued to watch the dance with a smug smirk. The slut can dance. Zhao Cheng will like that especially sharing a face similar of Bai Juan. Will he help me if I give her to him? Maybe he could get rid of the marriage between Linlong…

Huian stepped and turned in time with the music, reaching into her hair, matching the others around her. No one saw the weapon – a fine blade hidden in a hairpin – until too late. She faced Huli, then Cheng and finally threw the weapon.

Blood spurted out of the target’s neck. Those nearby screamed, igniting hysteria. Xiaoli joined the mess of fleeing bodies, running around to hide. She heard people shout about the Fox while others thought bandits broke into the palace. Soldiers shoved their way into the courtyard to save the emperor.

Among the terror, madness and panic, a separate emotion burst inside Xiaoli while she hid under the table. It was relief; she saw who threw the weapon and the opportunity attached. She could seal her fate as empress of Shanhe. Huli would have a legacy because of his true wife. He would be the emperor that unveiled a Masked Master and no one could threaten Xiaoli again.