New wind chimes hung up around the palace at every building corner. The stained glass tops gleamed in the sun and caused patches of blues, greens, pinks and yellows to appear on walls around. By the end of the day, every frail decoration would be destroyed. This was tradition to commemorate an imperial concubine during the funeral.
By the next day, Joaolong let out a peaceful sigh as the air remained natural-sounding, without pollution of tiny, sweet clangs or shattering of glass. The death of Qiaolian relieved him. No, the feeling he had was far darker; he felt glad. After being part of Yenay’s murder and framing Jiang – based on the hidden vial and reputation of cutting tongues – she deserved a humiliating death on a merry occasion. Yet, he hadn’t had a chance to question the assassin. Mingzhu kept busy completing chores and somehow, avoided Joaolong at every turn. From this, his curiosity grew. What did she, the Fox, gain from killing a concubine? The Masked Masters were not known for revenge in their legends. Had something changed? Or was the murder a rogue action? The questions continued to grow.
In the late morning on the day after Qiaolian’s commemoration, a meeting was called requiring all male residence of the palace, as well as the entirety of councilmen. Joaolong wore plain navy robes and followed the other men inside the imperial hall. It looked the same, which suprised him with the change of emperors because Huli loved emphasising his new rein in leadership. As soon as Joaolong stood on the blue carpet, leading to the throne, he veered off and took his place at the back of the room. Since he had no role in council and faced eviction from the palace, he stood far away from the emperor to symbolise his lack of status. It made his lip twitch as anger blanketed him, especially watching Disung forcibly stay near the emperor’s side instead.
Huli sat on his throne, on raised floorboards, to look down on everyone else. His outfit looked intimidating; the dark rouge material poured over the first few steps like a stream of venom. The armour on his chest sat oddly but meant to warn his readiness for battle. The string of beads on the emperor’s headpiece swayed as he watched the room fill.
Beside him, Cheng, who kept his position as imperial advisor, raised his hand to demand attention. The crowd stilled. Worry made the air stuffy. Everyone shared a united and nervous thought: what did the emperor want? Dread filled Joaolong’s stomach.
“Those that serve his majesty, I welcome you to an important event today. We have departed with our past rulers and recently, the loved mother of the new emperor. However, Zhao Qiaolian will not find peace until we find justice! The Fox must be punished for killing her!”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Within minutes of the assassination, rumours spun about the Fox killing the concubine. When no soldiers could find the perpetrator, these whispers spread from the palace and into the town like wildfire.
“The mighty emperor has done as needed, searching for the destroyer of our kingdom! No more shall the Fox strike terror into our hearts! For the first time in history, they have been caught!” Cheng announced and ignored the shocked responses. “Bring her in!”
Step by step, Mingzhu sunk into the blue carpet of the main hall, as if she were too heavy to cross the fabric river. The councilmen watched her slow movements, unable to comprehend the prisoner. Guards pushed Mingzhu roughly to her knees and she kept her head low.
What happened? Joaolong reviewed every detail in his mind. She killed the concubine but they hid her well enough. They had witnesses who saw her with Disung on the night of the assassination. Also, he ensured Tai burnt the dance clothes and hid any other evidence. How was she caught? It doesn’t make sense.
“Fa Huian. You have been summoned for questioning by the emperor and those representing Shanhe. You are accused of hiding your identity as the notorious assassin, the Fox. If deemed true, this also means you were an accomplice in the old ruler’s death, manipulating servants like Lin Jiang, to obey you, and assassinating the emperor’s mother, Zhao Qioalian. Do you admit to your crimes?” Cheng asked in a steady voice.
Mingzhu looked like a gasping fish; her jaw dropped and eyes bulged. Apparently, she had no idea of her summoning. “Pardon?”
“Do you admit to these crimes?” Cheng repeated, more sternly.
“I am innocent,” Mingzhu replied but her voice cracked. After clearing her throat, she tried again. “I am innocent! I am but a weak servant, dedicated to serving the rulers of Shanhe. I cannot kill them, nor the emperor’s mother. Many maids can verify my whereabouts on the past emperor and empress’s death and my new master, Wang Joaolong can explain the Moon—”
Joaolong cringed. A removed minister and ex-relative of a past empress brought no advantage, especially when the emperor displayed clear loathing towards him. Using his name was foolish but what else could she do? He did not blame her desperate cling to help; they had been ambushed.
“Bring forth the evidence and witnesses!” Huli called.
A tiny woman entered the grand room. The blue robes, held together by a bronze waistband, indicated her status as a kitchen-maid. Joaolong recognised the distinct rat-like face; this was Xiaoli’s friend.. They spent many seasons together as noblewomen before she volunteered to start her serving year early.
This woman had evidence? Joaolong puzzled. Housemaids and kitchen-maids only spoke during meals as slaves. It seemed unlikely, especially for Mingzhu who guarded her secrets like an animal in birthing season, to talk to others. This left a feeling of dread in Joaolong's gut.
"Kneel before the emperor."
With each small step she took, a greater realisation dawned on Joaolong. This deception was too extravagant for Huli’s personality; he would just order a beheading without care. The staged plot smelled like Qioalian or much rather, her successor, Xiaoli. Joaolong cursed internally and his hands shook as rage swirled inside him. She already took away Yenay and Jiang from him. Why touch his new ally? Hadn't she ruined his life enough? I curse you, he growled in his mind, looking away. I curse you to a life of pain, old friend.
“State your name, position and case,” Cheng instructed.
The kitchen-maid knelt beside Mingzhu but remained wary of the distance between them. “My name is Sum Yiu, daughter of a resigned councilman and recent merchant. I am a temporary kitchen-maid, finishing my time next week. I wish to relay information about Fa Huian.
“On multiple occasions during servant meals, I overheard Fa Huian and Lin Jiang scheming and complaining about their life. Fa Huian gave Lin Jiang instructions to kill the Shanhe emperor and empress. Other maids can confirm Fa Huian went missing that very night.”
Mingzhu looked outraged, her face morphing into a vengeful monster. “That is a lie! You dare—”
“Silence! Fa Huian, you will not speak unless called upon!” Cheng shouted, his strong reaction surprising himself. The guards shoved Mingzhu to the ground in warning. “Sum Yiu, if what you claim is the truth, why did you withhold this information?”
“I was threatened and feared for my safety. It was only when the Madam was killed, I gathered my courage before Fa Huian continued her murderous spree. I hope to be excused for this silence through my confession today,” Yiu replied.
“Thank you for your words.”
“You are dismissed,” Huli said and the maid walked away, failing to hide her smug smile.
A few other maids and even a eunuch spoke after Yiu. Each described ideas of treachery and escape coming from Mingzhu, and created an image of a greedy, heartless woman. Likely, most had heavy ring purses in their pockets in exchange for their lies. The worst part was the lack of defence against the claims; Mingzhu was repetitively denied to speak, as if her tongue were cut like Jiang.
“May the last witness enter!” Cheng ordered.
Two eunuchs opened the doors and Xiaoli stepped out, graceful as ever. It appeared her appetite returned after Huli’s coronation and the sunken cheeks were plump once more. Even a shine returned to her oak hair. She looked nothing like the scared girl at the empress’s funeral. Joaolong wanted to shake the truth from her. Did you kill Yenay? Did you kill Yenay? Did you kill Yenay? No. Why did you kill Yenay?
Unable to bare watching her, he focused his attention on the maid following from behind. She was beautiful and pale, her hair extending low on her back. The reputation she gained in the palace as the untouched pearl was based on truth and not over-dramatic, smitten descriptions. Innocence and naivety floated in her eyes and somehow, Joaolong knew they already lost this battle; the softness in nature would be mistaken for truthfulness.
Meifan fell into a deep bow before the emperor. Her eyes remained low and she flinched at any sudden movement. Beside her, Mingzhu's aghast mask broke into heartbreak and sorrow. The raw emotions flooded her eyes, brightening their colour. From afar, Joaolong emphasised; a close friend’s betrayal was like having your own hand strangle you.
“Your majesty, members of the royal family and council,” Meifan greeted. “My name is Song Meifan. I am a housemaid of two years, sold to the Lotus Palace, and have worked beside both Lin Jiang and Fa Huain for a long period of time. I wish to confess Fa Huian’s crimes.”
“Speak,” Cheng encouraged.
Meifan shook with every word. “Fa Huian first arrived in spring. Over the months she has been here, nothing but chaos has occurred. I have been abused by her and offered to join her treacherous cause. When I refused, she threatened me and I feared for my life. I helplessly watched her lie about her whereabouts and sneak away night after night. Only later did I realise these were the same nights the Fox appeared.”
An uproar proceeded. Most councilmen shouted abuse at the accused, their final verdict already decided. This was nothing but white noise to Joaolong, who felt the ground crumble under him. The emperor stole Disung from him, Tai could be beat to death at any moment and if this tiny connection to Masked Masters, through Mingzhu as the Fox, got ruined, Joaolong would never fulfil the empress’s wish. He needed allies to crown the true heir of Shanhe. He needed allies to fight the injustices. He needed allies to live.
Through the curses and his own despair, Joaolong heard Mingzhu’s voice. It was a barely audible whisper but had a well of emotion. He looked up and saw the strong, aggressive maid show her vulnerable side.
“Please, Meifan. Don’t do this. Please don’t do this.”
Meifan’s eyes watered but after a deep breath, she raised her head without regret. The crowd shut their mouths to listen. “That is not all! I wanted more proof for Shanhe! So I searched Fa Huain’s valuables while she disappeared one day and found this!”
A deafening silence consumed the hall at the evidence. Cheng held up an item wrapped in fine silk, and showed the emperor, then the royal court. “Fa Huian, how do you explain this?”
The mask was carved from golden wood and had rough edges from tools chipping away sharp features. The polished exterior shined in the light but the inside remained coarse, likely giving the wearer splinters. The attempt at carving a fox face was poor, the sides asymmetrical and the grooves too shallow for any define characteristics to be seen at a distance. The imitation was in insult to the Masked Master. Yet, based on the grumbles and gasps, the council believed the lies.
Suddenly, Mingzhu burst into laughter, the noise sounding so crazy that it scared half of the people in the room.
“You are a monster!” A councilman shouted dramatically.
Another man joined in with the claim. “You laugh because you are guilty and do not regret the crimes you committed! Emperor, punish the accused!”
“Punish the Fox!” A chorus of voices shouted.
Nothing would save her now. Joaolong raised his head and met Disung’s pleading eyes. He looked as desperate as Joaolong felt. But what could they do? The council had been swayed by the clever plan of the enemy and unless another Fox appeared, it was hopeless. Unable to find a solution, Joaolong shook his head to Disung. The guard knitted his eyebrows and mouthed a curse before stepping forward.
“May I speak?” Disung requested, pushing through the crowd to kneel before the emperor. The other councilmen sneered at the rude and unpermitted action. “I wish to attest the statements presented today against Fa Huian.”
What are you doing? Joaolong wanted to shout. Do not be a fool!
“Please step back to your guard post and do not involve yourself in a court matter,” Huli ordered, ticked by the interruption.
“I can account for the absent nights!" Disung continued. "The reason Fa Huian was missing for many nights is because she was with me!"
In the back of the hall, Joaolong was stunned, as was everyone else. No one had defied an emperor in public. More incredible was the guards wouldn't act against Anshu, whose name striked fear into the hearts of many. They were trapped in a stalemate; no one could obey either the emperor or Anshu without severe consequence. Disung latched on to this advantage to quickly convince everyone of Mingzhu's innoncence.
“To prove our affair, Fa Huian is now carrying my child!”
“Can anyone confirm this nonsense?” Xiaoli barked, standing forward and glancing around the room, breaking the overwhelming shock.
“Master Wang Joaolong can personally confirm this, keeping my secret affair private. It was his repayment of gratitude which changed Fa Huian’s role to his personal handmaiden for my benefit. Yet, I believe others have suspected my affair for a while. You may recall, it was Fa Huian that tended to me during my short imprisonment and on the night of the Moon Festival, Fa Huian was caught in my chambers by soldiers. As time progressed, we became careless. If this proof does not satisfy you suspicion, I demand a physical examination of Fa Huian to be done.”
The bluff was too risky. Any admiration he held for Disung evaporated. If the examination were done, they needed time to actually impregnate the girl. Maybe they could fake a miscarriage but again, they needed a day to prepare the scene. However, this quick delve into analysing ploys proved to be a waste of energy; the emperor did not care.
“You do not make demands from me!” Huli laughed and stood, pacing to the front of the platform. “I, Hong Huli, new emperor of Shanhe, declare that Fa Huian is guilty of her crimes. She is the Fox! Many can confirm her scheming nature and a mask was found in her possession! A child does not change the fact she is an assassin! I order that she is sentenced to death!”
“Emperor, there are traditions and regulations we must follow,” Cheng began to say but Huli stopped him.
“Trial dismissed! Guards, take her away to the palace prison cell! We shall proceed with the death penalty tomorrow at dawn. Let all the Shanhe people be invited! Spread word the Fox’s blood will be spilled!” Huli exclaimed and then, a dark smile spread across his face. "Let all know that the Fox's bloodline will end."