Book One, Chapter 13: A Little Cicada

Xiao Chi’ye did not look at Li Jianheng, but carefully straightened the lid of his teacup with a finger. “Keep it together.”

Li Jianheng sat back in his chair unsteadily. They heard the Empress Dowager ask, “As His Majesty is visiting the Garden, security has been tightened. How could a drowning happen out of nowhere?”

Ji Lei replied, “Your Majesty, we have arranged for the body to be examined by the coroners. We will know more in moments.”

“And why is that?” The Emperor spoke up, his eyes overcast from unremitting illness. “Was his death suspicious?”

Ji Lei replied, “Your Majesty, when we retrieved his body, it was extensively bruised. There were clear signs he had been beaten. Though Xiao-Fu’zi was a palace eunuch, he had not taken on a position in any of the twenty-four Offices, and only served close to Your Majesty. If he had been abused before his death, it is probable that the killer has more sinister intentions.”

The Emperor braced himself on the table and got to his feet. “We have only just left the Palace, and they’re already getting restless,” he said coldly. 

“Your Majesty,” Hai Liangyi emerged from the ranks and knelt. “Both the Brocade Guard and the Eight Battalions are on rotating patrols today. If the killer was truly plotting something, they would hardly have finished so carelessly. Xiao-Fu’zi was frequently assigned to make acquisitions outside of the palace. It would not be inconceivable for him to have provoked private grievances.”

Elder Hua, Hua Siqian, did not stir from his seat, but called out, “Renshi, I think not. As this man has dared to strike in proximity of His Majesty, it is evident that he thinks little of the throne or any of us seated here. Which of the common folk outside the Palace would have such audacity?”

Through this, Xiao Chi’ye sat tight, his mind whirling.

Chenyang had dragged Xiao-Fu’zi into the woods at three-quarters past noon. Within the next half-hour, either the servant eunuchs on their way to the banquet, or the Eight Battalion patrol heading for change of duty, would have passed by. There was no lack for lords and ladies here today, and it would be impossible to keep track of the number of people leaving their seats to change attire, take tea, or visit the conveniences. Moreover, all accompanying guards and servant eunuchs were permitted to walk freely within the Garden. If, in the space of that half-hour, any one of these people had given Xiao-Fu’zi a light shove, he would have easily drowned.

As things stood now, the challenge was not in how he should explain the bruises on Xiao-Fu’zi’s body, but in the fact that this murder mystery had already been spun into a conspiracy to commit treason by Ji Lei..

Xiao Chi’ye tapped his fingertip on the lid of the teacup.

The flames of this wildfire must not touch Prince Chu.

With the Emperor gravely ill, and the Imperial Physicians at their wits’ end, no one knew when His Majesty would proverbially soar off on the celestial dragon. Emperor Xiande had no progeny. If the expected should happen unexpectedly, Li Jianheng would naturally succeed.

He had been careless today. Li Jianheng had been too obvious about leaving his seat. He could not hope to simply brush it off.

The Xiao family were on thin ice as it was. If they came to be suspected of sticking their fingers in matters of succession, their one hundred and twenty thousand troops in Libei were as good as an executioner’s sword on Xiao Jiming’s neck.

Things were moving quickly. The flames were inches way. They must not burn on any longer.

Xiao Chi’ye dropped his teacup. The sharp splintering sound drew eyes from all around.

Li Jianheng looked at him anxiously, muttering, “Ce- Ce’an…”

Xiao Chi’ye got up and strode towards the Emperor, going to his knees. He called, “Your Majesty! I dare not withhold the truth on this matter. It was I who had the eunuch beaten.”

The Emperor stared hard at him. “What grievance would you have with a palace eunuch, that you would take to such extremes?”

Ji Lei, too, slanted a look at him. “Master Xiao, this is a serious matter. You must not take on another person’s blame for the sake of some personal friendship.”

“What this is, is a lot of fuss about nothing,” Xiao Chi’ye scoffed. “Besides, I don’t reckon I’ve done anything wrong here. What does it matter if a worthless gelding is killed? Don’t tell me that I, Governor-General of the Imperial Guard, should have let an insolent serving-dog walk all over me?”

“It must not be an ordinary grudge,” Hua Siqian dropped in, “to have Er-gongzi riled up like this. But Xiao-Fu’zi would not have crossed paths with you very often, so whence comes this vitriol?”

“Elder, you will not have heard of this,” Xiao Chi’ye replied. “A few months ago I was riding to the training grounds when that creature cut into my way in his palanquin. With the show he was putting on, I would have thought it was Pan gonggong in there, had he not raised his curtains. When I spoke sharply to him, he replied with wild and insolent remarks. As a man, to be humiliated in the street by a gelded ass— would anyone else have taken it lying down?”

Pan Rugui waited on His Majesty close by. With Xiao Chi’ye dropping ‘gelding’ into every other sentence, everyone present broke out in a sweat on his behalf.

As the Emperor mulled this over, the Empress Dowager spoke. “Be that as it may, it is not the way of a gentleman to take a life on a whim.”

Pan Rugui went to his knees then, tears shining in his crinkled eyes, as if her words had touched a tender spot. “Us servants, our lives are cheap, and we don’t hold a candle to Er-gongzi. If Her Majesty has compassion for us, it is more than we deserve. I have spoilt Xiao-Fu’zi, and allowed him to forget his manners. To be discourteous to a military officer, and to be unrepentant when Er-gongzi showed him his errors… I have been remiss in bringing up that child!”

Despite Pan Rugui’s tone of concession, it was indisputable law that all eunuchs must dismount, give way, and kowtow to greet any member of the Imperial Court.

The Empress Dowager was a devout Buddhist, and greatly disliked the taking of a life. She said to the Emperor, “It has long been said that an Emperor who breaks the law must receive the same sentence as a peasant. Xiao Chi’ye has displayed such wilful behaviour that it would be neither just nor sensible to pardon him lightly. Besides, the Xiao family have always been noble and loyal subjects. Since the Lord of Libei has entrusted Your Majesty with the upbringing of his son here in the Capital, it would be remiss of us to allow him to become wild and lawless through our leniency.”

Ji Lei was equally reluctant to allow the matter to blow over easily. He said, “Er-gongzi has always been close to His Highness Prince Chu. For him to have done such a thing, Your Majesty— “

“I have more to say,” Xiao Chi’ye interrupted. “I did have the creature beaten, but I did not have him killed. Your Majesty, I did plan to have him killed as retribution, but when His Highness Prince Chu learnt of my intentions, he urged me not to take his life. Even today’s beating was arranged in secret, but Prince Chu saw through my plans midway, and personally left the feast to save Xiao-Fu’zi’s life. As rash as I am, in His Highness’s presence, I would not have presumed to act in contempt of his counsel, so I let Xiao-Fu’zi go. As for how the creature managed to drown himself, I am as bewildered as everyone else. Did someone act recklessly on my behalf, to grant me vindication? Master Ji,” Xiao Chi’ye turned to Ji Lei, delight shining through in his eyes, “The Brocade Guards have always been thorough and unerring, but this creature was just lying by the roadside today, and yet somehow evaded the patrols and ended up in the lake… perhaps with his head covered, he got confused and rolled himself into the water?”

Hai Liangyi called, “That is a pertinent point. An adult man falls into the lake, and not one Brocade Guard notices on their many rounds? If an assassin had sneaked into the West Garden today, I’m afraid the Brocade Guard would not have noticed either!”

Ji Lei gave up on muddying the waters at once. He hastily kowtowed a few times at the Emperor, arguing, “Your Majesty! The Brocade Guards’ hands are tied on this matter. We share patrols with the Eight Battalions today, and have to pay closer attention at each change of guard, in case any irregularities slip by.”

On his end, Xi Gu’an, the Commissioner of the Eight Battalions knelt too, saying, “This is all according to regulation, and the Eight Battalions dare not neglect our duties either. The intervals between changes of guard are fixed. It is a possibility that someone has made note of the schedule, and seized this opportunity to kill Xiao-Fu’zi. It would be private grievances amongst the eunuchs at the bottom of this. We should order an investigation into how many people this Xiao-Fu’zi has accumulated grudges against.”

“Investigate,” the Emperor sneered softly, and abruptly flung his teacup at Xi Gu’an, livid. “Someone has died under your watch, and instead of reflecting on yourselves, you only think to deflect responsibility! We cannot believe that we have entrusted our s-safety to people like- like- “

The Emperor’s voice ground to a stuttering halt, and he held a hand to his mouth and dissolved again into a paroxysm of coughing. Then, as if overcome by anger, he toppled backwards from the table.

“Your Majesty!”

Concubines cried shrilly all around. There was instant chaos.

“Call for the physician!” ordered the Dowager Empress.


When Li Jiangheng saw Xiao Chi’ye again, one might have thought he had seen his own dear mother. “Dearest brother! You scared the hell out of me!”

“I’m starving from all the kneeling,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Get me a bite to eat.”

Li Jianheng gestured for his men to bring some food quickly, then went to stand with Xiao Chi’ye in one of West Garden’s many long corridors, watching the fully-lit palace windows together.

“If His Majesty wakes, he’ll summon you again,” Li Jianheng said. “Just how did that creature manage to end up dead? I’ve got such bad luck.”

Xiao Chi’ye ate his dim-sums, helped down with cold tea.

How it all ended up like that was hard to say.

Xiao-Fu’zi had always been one of Pan Rugui’s favourites. If someone had gone for Xiao-Fu’zi’s life on purpose, how did that just happen to coincide with Li Jianheng’s ambush? But if they had not planned his murder, and merely took a chance when they saw one, they would have been far better rewarded by freeing him rather than killing him.

A pity that Pan Rugui and Ji Lei had been too quick on the uptake. Since he was already dead, they had used his death to the utmost— if they could have cast the blame on Prince Chu, they would have killed two birds with one stone.

“Does His Majesty still call for bed service these days?” Xiao Chi’ye asked, off-hand.

“Yeah,” Li Jianheng answered. “Lately it’s the Wei’s daughter he favours. The Dowager approves of her too.”

Xiao Chi’ye sank into thought.

Night had fallen by this time, but no one ventured to leave. They stood in threes and fours along the corridors, waiting for Emperor Xiande to regain consciousness.

In the time they waited, Xi Gu’an made a brief trip out of the Garden. Upon his return, he received word from the Dowager to enter and wait within the palace itself. An hour after that, Xiao Chi’ye caught sight of some select Eight Battalion soldiers at a side gate, escorting a servant dressed in clean cotton.

“Who is that?” Xiao Chi’ye asked.  

Li Jianheng stuck his head out. “Just a servant? Aren’t there lots in the West Garden? But why are they bringing in a servant?”

 By the dim lantern light, Xiao Chi’ye’s sharp eyes caught a glimpse of the servant’s scarred face. They looked like burns. For some reason, Xiao Chi’ye’s heart began to pound. A grim suspicion began to haunt his mind.

“A servant from the West Garden?” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Since it hosts the Emperor, the West Garden requires all of its servants to be pleasing to the eye. Where would a man like him have come from?”

Another few moments passed, then Pan Rugui stepped out. He called in a high voice, “Summon the eighth son of the Shen family for an audience with the Emperor at once!”

At once, the crowd rose into a hubbub of debate.

Though Shen Wei’s crime of treason had never been established beyond doubt, his name and infamy had spread far and wide across the land. To this day, the wound of Zhongbo had not yet scarred over, and his responsibility in its defeat was never answered for. That the remnant of his house had kept his sorry life was already a point of contention for the borderlands, and now he was to be allowed back out?

“What’s happening?” Li Jianheng asked in a panic. “Did they find something else out? Ce’an, there’s bad blood between you two, it’ll be ugly if you meet. Even for the sake of your family’s position, they should not let him out!”

Xiao Chi’ye said nothing. He simply shifted his gaze to the side gate and watched, unblinking.

Barely a quarter of an hour later, a soldier stepped over the threshold, leading the way. Behind him, at a moderate distance, a person followed.

Five years on, his hair had grown out, and he kept it pinned up with a plain wooden stick. He wore no headpiece. The voluminous sleeves of his old, worn robes hid his wrists, but hands the hue of pale porcelain reached from its depths. Then a lantern obscured him from Xiao Chi’ye’s gaze. When he re-emerged on the other side, Li Jianheng’s teacup tumbled from his hands.

“You never told me… that he looked like that…,” Li Jianheng murmured in a daze.

Xiao Chi’ye’s thumb flexed.

Shen Zechuan was taken past the long corridors. As he walked by, in that fraction of a second, Xiao Chi’ye’s cold gaze cut into a pair of well-remembered eyes.

Those were slender eyes, uplifting as they swept outwards. They were luminous even under the murky lantern-light, as if lost stars hid in their depths.

In that fleeting second, Shen Zechuan might have curved a smile at Xiao Chi’ye— but it was a smile so faint that even as he slipped by, it barely stirred the night, whispering by like a thin, cold draft.

One thought on “Book One, Chapter 13: A Little Cicada

  1. I just love how stunned xiao chiye and li jianheng are about lanzhou’s beauty. they’re absolutely valid to act that way because if I saw beauty incarnate, I would also be dumbfounded.


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