Hua Xiangyi was not, in fact, Qi Zhuyin’s age, but two years her junior. In recent months, tucked away in the depths of the Palace, she had grown a little gaunt. When she saw Qi Shiyu’s portrait laid out on the Dowager’s desk, it all became clear to her.
The Dowager took her hands, and held it a while before saying, “A young wife to an older husband. Qi Shiyu will know how to take good care of you.”
Hua Xiangyi sat at the Dowager’s feet in a lilac palace dress, her head buried in the Dowager’s lap. The Dowager stroked her long hair, and said, “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. This is the way every daughter of the Hua family has gone. When you are wed to him, in but a few years, Qidong’s five counties will be rightfully yours.”
Incense burned within the hall. Madam Liuxiang gestured soundlessly, and all the serving girls and eunuchs removed themselves from the room.
Hua Xiangyi smiled, and said, “I just don’t want to leave you, Auntie. Cang county is so far away. I’d have to wait a whole year if I wanted to see you again.”
“I can’t bear to see you go, either.” The Empress Dowager put her arms lightly around Hua Xiangyi, and she nestled into the Dowager’s side, just as she had done as a child, and listened as the Dowager said, “When I wed Emperor Guangcheng, I was only fifteen. When I left Di City that year, the thing I missed most dearly was a swing in our garden at home. I used to love to sit in that swing, and as it swayed gently with the wind, I would be able to hear the noise and bustle from beyond those high garden walls. My mother soothed me, and told me that when I came to this grand Palace in the Capital city, if I only wished for it, the Emperor would build me a swing that was just like mine at home.”
Hua Xiangyi listened quietly, and did not speak.
The Empress Dowager had been greatly beloved during the reign of Emperor Guangcheng, but what the Emperor could give was never what the Dowager had wanted. When she stepped into Qu Capital, she found that her husband’s affection was but a snatch of cloud in the cold, high sky. She would have to constantly scrabble with the countless women in the Palace for those small moments of happiness.
Love was the least valuable commodity in Qu Capital.
The Dowager patted Hua Xiangyi on her head, and said, “Thirty-seven years have gone by in the blink of an eye since I came to the Capital. And now, even my little poppet is ready to be wed. I have truly grown old. This city has shown me that it is men who have power in this world. They can sit entry exam and take office, or leap on a horse and wield a spear, while girls are tucked away in their rooms and taught the virtues and discipline of a woman. Even a girl as quick and clever as you are, as hungry for knowledge as you are, still encounters the inevitable, and must in the end become a wife.”
The Dowager’s eyes were calm and still.
“My father said to me that as long as I lived in this world, he and the Emperor were to be my lord and master. Isn’t that absurd? When I became Empress, the Emperor and I held equal dominion over the land. Who could claim to be my lord and master? Not a living soul! Every one of my brothers amounted to nothing, so the family could only maintain its prestige by marry its daughters off, generation after generation, without ever a whisper of protest. Its own flesh and blood! If the world must measure success by strength and power held, then I, too, can win this game.”
The Dowager brushed her hand over Hua Xiangyi’s temple.
“You have to remember what this is: he, Qi Shiyu, did not choose you; you were the one who chose him. I may suffer defeat in time, but that time is not now. My poppet goes to Qidong, but not in resignation. She goes to await her chance for victory. No matter what happens in the days to come, you may sigh, but you must never feel sorry for yourself. There are no take-backs on the chessboard of the world. If there are wolves all about us, and there is nowhere to flee, then we have no option but to fight them to the death.”
In the silent palace hall, hollow bamboo tubes bumped gently into each other. Hua Xiangyi slowly curled her fingers around the Dowager’s hand, and gave their clasped hands a squeeze.
“I will never forget everything Auntie has taught me.”
The State Banquet would be held on the first day of the new year, and in the days preceding, provincial officials streamed into the Capital. There were many fewer family feasts and banquets being held this year. Everyone knew that Hai Liangyi was keeping a close eye on these things, and meetings in private might be taken as evidence for collusion. Many were eager to lay eyes on Li Jianheng at the State Banquet, so they could size their newly coronated lord and master up.
It was unclear yet which way the wind would blow in Qu Capital, and meanwhile everyone watched what they did or said. Only the gossip about Third Lady Hua seemed to spread like wildfire, so that even as Qi Zhuyin fumed, she had nowhere to vent her spleen.
Xiao Chi’ye was in the middle of his secret investigation into the Eight Families, but this gossip caught his interest as well. As by this time Xiao Jiming had also arrived at the Capital, the subject came up as the two brothers caught up in their family home.
“The Hua family wants to make a comeback. No matter how much old Commander Qi loves the ladies, he can’t possibly agree to this marriage.” Xiao Chi’ye pulled out a ledger on the Libei Iron Cavalry’s expenses for the year to read, commenting idly as he did.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Xiao Jiming sat at the desk, perusing military reports.
Xiao Chi’ye looked up. “What could possibly be in it for Qidong?”
As Xiao Jiming signed reports off, he replied, “You’ve taken over the Eight Battalions here. Haven’t you ever looked over their ledgers?”
Xiao Chi’ye said, “The Court of Judicial Review showed them to me when they were cleaning house there. All of the surplus silver and provisions from the Eight Battalions have been reimbursed to the Imperial Guard this year. Why’d you ask?”
Xiao Jiming looked down at his paperwork and organised his thoughts for a moment before he said, “When Hua Siqian was around, the Eight Battalions would have yearly wages several times that of the Borderlands’. All those accounts that even Xi Gu’an couldn’t explain— where could the money have gone? If Hua Siqian could keep two separate books for their spendings, couldn’t the Dowager have kept a third? They say that silver may flow quickly from hand to hand, but audits are iron-wrought. However, if you replace the auditing officer with your own man and put him under the Eight Battalions’ watch, then you can write whatever the hell you like in your books every year. They may have raided the Hua family, but who would’ve laid a single finger on the Dowager’s private cache? All that money has now gone into Hua Xiangyi’s dowry. Whether for himself or for his counties, Qi Shiyu would be well tempted.”
Xiao Chi’ye’s expression darkened. “But Qi Zhuyin commands Qidong’s armies now. Qi Zhuyin would never agree.”
“She may not agree,” Xiao Jiming finally looked up at Xiao Chi’ye, “But she won’t be able to stop him.”
Xiao Chi’ye lay down on his back and thought about it for a moment, then said, “We’ve had a close friendship with the Qi family these past years. If Qi Shiyu really marries Hua Xiangyi, then Libei will no longer be Qidong’s brother.”
“That doesn’t matter. When the desert clans attack, we’ll still be fighting shoulder to shoulder.” Xiao Jiming said, “But with Hua Xiangyi in their pocket, Qidong’s garrison troops will finally have some money.”
“They can buy Libei’s cavalry horses from now on.” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes were flinty. “How long can the Dowager’s purse last? Feeding two hundred thousand soldiers isn’t the same as feeding twenty of her pet dogs. Military expenditure happens at an outrageous scale. One person could never keep up with it.”
“If the Dowager has the Qi family for support, then she will be able to break the stalemate in Qu Capital.” Xiao Jiming said, “When the sceptre of power returns to her hands, her money will regenerate.”
Xiao Chi’ye sat up again. “This marriage must never happen.”
Xiao Jiming said, “Solutions do exist.”
Xiao Chi’ye looked at him. “It’ll be easiest to just kill Hua Xiangyi.”
Xiao Jiming considered him with no small amount of surprise. “You’re no less a thorn in many an eye. The Eight Families would love for you to overextend your hand.”
Xiao Chi’ye replied, “Rumours are flying all over the place right now. After New Year’s, it’ll be too late to stop them.”
Xiao Jiming sat in silent deliberation. In a while, he said, “If the Dowager wants to make this match, she will have to show her face, and the State Banquet will be her only chance to do so. There is a lot at stake in this marriage, and Hai Liangyi may not be so keen for it to happen. A fierce debate will be almost unavoidable then.”
“A daughter of the Hua family has wed into Qidong sometime in the past three generations. If you dig into it, Hua Xiangyi might even be Qi Shiyu’s distant relative.” Then Xiao Chi’ye put his ledger down, and broke into a grin. “No… I will make sure that Hua Xiangyi is related to Qi Shiyu by blood. This marriage will never happen.”
Xiao Chi’ye got up, opened the door, and called for Zhao Hui.
“It’s the holidays,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “You haven’t seen your little sister yet, have you?”
Zhao Hui looked towards Xiao Jiming, who gave him a faint smile.
Comprehending, Zhao Hui said, “I’ll make a visit first thing in the morning.”
Han Cheng, the Brocade Guard’s new Director, was the third son in the direct line of the Han family, one of the Eight Families. Previously, he had served as Assistant Commander in the Eight Battalions. When the Nanling incident went down, he happened to be off duty, and neither followed Xi Gu’an, nor responded to the Dowager’s call to arms. Rumour had it that when the Imperial Guard came knocking at his door that morning, he had been fast asleep, thereby escaping the autumnal gale which descended on the members of the Hua faction.
But Shen Zechuan knew that this man was one of Xue Xiuzhuo’s plants.
On the eve of the State Banquet, the Brocade Guard handed out duty assignments for the next day. According to the plan, Shen Zechuan was to remain in close proximity to the Emperor, so he was not at all surprised when he received his waist-badge.
Han Cheng handed the badge to Shen Zechuan himself. The two of them were alone in the interior room of the Brocade Guard’s Registry Office when he said, “Everything is in place but the final piece. When it’s time, I will be close by as well. We must never injure His Majesty, no matter what happens.”
“Of course not,” Shen Zechuan tied on his waist-badge, and smiled. “I’ll be placing myself in your hands, Director.”
Han Cheng felt uneasy, but could not show that he did. All he could do was reiterate, “If this plan is exposed, both of us will be put to death. But if we succeed, then the Brocade Guard will be able to take a piece of the Imperial Guard’s pie. Then we’ll be in the money, and the good days will be upon us.”
“Don’t worry, Director,” Shen Zechuan said solemnly. “There is solidarity amongst our brothers. Nothing will go wrong.”
His confidence let Han Cheng breathe a little easier.
Outside, the snow fell steadily heavier, and did not stop even at daybreak.
The Ceremony of Rituals was to be observed prior to the start of the State Banquet, and the Imperial Guard stood on full vigilance for the ceremony from early morning. Xiao Chi’ye, well turned out in his court robes today, ran right into Han Cheng as he stepped through the Palace gates. As they exchanged pleasantries, his eyes fell upon Shen Zechuan.
“The Left Guard is responsible for His Majesty’s immediate protection,” Xiao Chi’ye said to Han Cheng, looking at Shen Zechuan and pretending not to know him. “Why have Brocade Guards beneath the rank of sergeant been allocated there?”
“Since the Brocade Guard was overhauled, many positions amongst our ranks still stand empty,” Han Cheng said, turning to look. “All of those chosen for today are top-notch fighters. For most of them, this simply wasn’t the year they were scheduled to be promoted, so they all look like low-ranking small fry.”
Xiao Chi’ye’s guard came up as soon as he saw Shen Zechuan, but though he could walk all over the Brocade Guard’s business, he did not actually have the authority to order their men around. No matter how much the Brocade Guard was shunted aside, they, and the East Service, both take their orders directly from the Emperor. If Li Jianheng did not speak, then anyone else trying to call the shots would be overstepping their station.
As though Shen Zechuan could hear his thoughts, their eyes met for a second. There was something undecipherable in his gaze.
Ahead, the Elephant Handlers’ Division ushered their charges forward. Li Jianheng would be emerging from his palace before long. Xiao Chi’ye did not have time to linger, and went on his way.
This was the first time Li Jianheng had held the ritual sword in his hands, and it was so heavy that he almost could not lift it. Even before he stepped out of his palace, he could feel his neck aching beneath the weight of the crown. His ceremonial robes placed the gravity of the sun and the moon across each of his shoulders, and laid a mantle of stars across his back, finally lifting an august and noble image from his usual air of foolish levity.
Li Jianheng’s palms were sweating. He balanced the greatsword in his hands again, before stepping out through the doors.
The Imperial elephants, saddled in gold and red velvet, stood in two rows either side. Hundreds of ministers and officials kowtowed as one, and the cry of “Long live His Majesty!” thundered around him. Li Jianheng stood above the steps, and from that clear vantage point saw roiling clouds in the east, and all heaven and earth seemed cloaked in snow as far as the eye could see. He stood in a very high place, so high that he might have climbed above the clouds. By his ears, the cries for his longevity was deafening, and Li Jianheng’s heartbeat quickened. Slowly, a look of pleasure and surprise drifted over his face, and his gaze roved from Hai Liangyi, to Xiao Jiming, and then on downwards, to see that all the world knelt at his feet, and he alone stood supreme.
This was what it felt like to be Emperor.
Li Jianheng tightened his grip around the greatsword compulsively, feeling as though he had received from the kowtowing masses the strength and courage to contend even with heaven. This was not at all like sitting behind a desk presiding over his court. This was the same exhilaration he had felt on the Nanling hunting grounds, the very first time he had received homage from his people.
Li Jianheng proceeded forward, following the long flight of steps to the ritual platform. He walked very slowly, deeply savouring the glory and veneration along the way.
Amongst the bowing thousands, only Shen Zechuan slowly raised his head. Past Li Jianheng’s figure, in the whirling snow, on those same high steps, he, too, looked upon the grim and overcast sky.
When the banquet finally began, the Imperial Kitchens kicked off the process of serving up dishes, and the Imperial Winery followed with an unceasing flow of wine. Li Jianheng had a sweet tooth, so the Imperial Confectionery had made a great amount of silk nest pastries and tiger’s eye candy.
Li Jianheng sat in his throne, with the Dowager and Hua Xiangyi one step down, then the newly titled concubine Mu Ru a step lower. Shen Zechuan and Han Cheng stood to one side under the steps, with Imperial Guards on the opposing side. A eunuch from the Imperial Food Service knelt to the left behind Shen Zechuan. Before any dish was presented to Li Jianheng’s table, the eunuch must taste it first.
Li Jianheng was in high spirits tonight. Having made a series of toasts, he was becoming slightly tipsy. From up above, he called down, “We are fortunate to have had the counsel and guidance of wise men since our inauguration. With such fair mirrors as Elder Hai by our side, we dare not forget to examine our behaviour and reflect upon our deeds, even for a single day.”
When inebriated, he tended to let his mouth run away from him.
“We are exceedingly grateful to Elder Hai, and wish to make him our godfather at court. This is an honour that no Elder of the Cabinet has previously held, but today, we will have Elder Hai…”
How could he say that! Even Hai Liangyi baulked at his words. He was on his feet, aghast, and was getting down on his knees to stop him, but Li Jianheng hiccuped in that moment, waving him off.
“Don’t be alarmed, Elder, it’s well deserved…”
“We feel this may not be appropriate.” The Empress Dowager looked towards Hai Liangyi and paused for a second. Seeming to read Hai Liangyi’s tremendous shock in that moment, she turned and said gently to Li Jianheng, “Elder Hai is the leading light of scholars throughout the land, and his character is as unimpeachable as the high cliffs by the sea. From the very first day in office, he has kept his hands clean and his actions impartial, and is known for his decisive courage in speaking his mind. If Your Majesty should choose to call such an invaluable member of your court “godfather”, though your regard for him will be unmistakeable, you take away his liberty to be a nonpartisan critic of the times.”
As the Dowager had said this gently, Li Jianheng replied cheerfully, “The greathearted King Xiang honoured Fan Zeng by naming him godfather. Today, out of gratitude for the Elder’s mentorship, we too would like to call him “godfather”. It shows his dearness to us, and reminds us to reflect on ourself at the same time, doesn’t it? Elder, Elder, what say you?”
Hai Liangyi was already on the ground. “You must not do this, Your Majesty!”
His words hit Li Jianheng like a bucketful of cold water to the face. Where Li Jianheng had been brimming with enthusiasm, that severe denial soured it into displeasure. His face went through several expressions, until with a strained smile, he finally said, “You are dear to us, Elder, and it’s only an affectionate name after all. What does it matter?”
Hai Liangyi said, “Your Majesty is Heaven’s ordained sovereign, and not at all comparable to a Hegemon-King of meagre territory. Your humble servant grew up in the mountains of He province, and am truly a crude commoner. How could I possibly share the name of “father” with the sagely late Emperor Guangcheng?”
Li Jianheng’s intention had been to get himself in the good books with both Hai Liangyi and the scholars of the world, using this as an opportunity to show that he was not a dimwit with no appreciation for scholarship. But how was he, with the little learning he had, to know that a simple moniker would so offend Hai Liangyi? Astride a tiger now with no avenue for dismount, he was in such a pickle that it even sobered him up a little.
Li Jianheng could not find it in himself to lay his dignity down tonight, and so decided to gloss over this incident and move on. He started, “Well, if the Elder isn’t keen, we’ll forget about it…”
“In your humble servant’s opinion,” Hai Liangyi spoke up again, “Where superiors lead, the rest will follow! Where tonight Your Majesty has laid the first stone, men in the coming days will be certain to follow suit. In time, the formation of colluding factions will fetter the operations of the court, and become a threat to the welfare of this nation. It has barely been a month since the dust settled on the affair of the Hua faction. Those who cannot remember history will be condemned to repeat it. It was truly inadvisable for Your Majesty to have overindulged in wine tonight!”
Li Jianheng’s grip tightened on his wine cup. He looked around below him, and only when he saw that everyone was keeping their heads low, afraid to meet his gaze, did his anger somewhat abate. He could not raise his voice at Hai Liangyi, but he did not feel like apologising today, either. He had sat upon this throne like a bed of thorns for so long, and had finally just gotten a taste of the sweetness of universal submission. How could he now willingly sit here and be reprimanded?
But he was the Emperor!
Li Jianheng’s eyes were growing red-rimmed with the injustice of it all. He downed his last drop of wine, and said, “…We’ll put this matter behind us. Please help the Elder back to his seat.”
Hai Liangyi was aware that this was not the night for lectures, but old leopards did not change their spots, and he was a straight-shooting man. “There is something else your humble servant must say,” he began again.
Li Jianheng’s lips drew into a taut line. He did not speak.
The sound of a pin drop could have been heard across the banquet hall. As Hai Liangyi did not receive a reply, he remained on his knees, unmoving. Now they were at an impasse. No one touched their chopsticks at all. Even the music had stopped.
Suddenly, there was a loud crack.
At his seat amongst the tables, Xiao Chi’ye had slapped his chopsticks down, and now laughed aloud. “It’s such a joy to see how Your Majesty and Elder Hai get on. This must be what the books mean when they talk about “sagely lieges and virtuous vassals”. All throughout history, we have seen the good that comes of lively, open debate between rulers and their advisors. When we have such a wise leader, and such a loyal and honest man to advise him, then it will not be long at all before a golden age is brought to Dazhou.”
“It is a blessing to all of us that Your Majesty grants us the freedom to speak, and graciously welcomes our honest advice.” Xue Xiuzhuo lifted his cup. “On this, the first night of a New Year, let us drink to this noble tableau.”
Everyone raised their cups, and sang out their praises in one voice.
In the sea of praises, Li Jianheng’s attitude eased somewhat. Seeing that Hai Liangyi was still on his knees, he could not help but sigh, “Please rise, Elder.”
And so an imminent crisis was diffused into nothingness, and for a few moments, the Dowager surveyed Xiao Chi’ye. Then she spoke. “They say that all men aspire to build a home and a career. Does Ce’an have an intended in mind at all?”
Shen Zechuan’s eyes flickered, and he turned his gaze towards Xiao Chi’ye as well.
Xiao Chi’ye gave an easy, careless smile, and replied, “Your Majesty, which young lady in the Capital would care to marry down to someone like me? Besides, my aspirations run neither towards starting a family nor towards my career.”
The Dowager said, “You’re being too humble, Governor-General. There are few others within Qu Capital today who may call themselves a rising star. For someone like the Governor-General, there must be admiring young damsels around every corner. Master Xiao, if you don’t give your brother a push, he’ll miss his time.”
Xiao Jiming laughed too. He replied, “Our father feels that his temperament has yet to settle, and we wouldn’t like him to disappoint someone’s daughter.”
The Dowager turned about again, and said amusedly to Li Jianheng, “None of them are in any hurry at all, are they? When the Lord of Libei was his age, he’d already been married for three or four years.”
Li Jianheng had yet to recover entirely from the episode just prior, and lacked enthusiasm for the topic. However, he dared not leave the Dowager hanging, so he shot Xiao Chi’ye a look and said, “Imperial Mother, you don’t know him— Ce’an has a quick temper, and he’s really too much to handle for your average highborn lady here.”
“You mustn’t be so quick to pass his sentence— we don’t want him to miss a good match for nothing,” the Dowager said. “But we needn’t constrain ourselves to the Capital city either. We know that Lady Zhaoyue, daughter to the Marquis of Helian, is close to Ce’an’s age. They would be a good match.”
The Marquis of Helian governed Chuan city, and was born to the Fei family, one of the Eight Families. The Dowager had actually nominated a suitable candidate.
Fei Kun, Marquis of Helian, hurriedly raised his cup, and even looked over at Xiao Jiming.
Xiao Chi’ye had expected the Empress Dowager to bring up Hua Xiangyi’s betrothal at the banquet, and never could have imagined she would be coming for him instead. He could not refuse her outright, but he could not exactly get himself accidentally married, either.
Li Jianheng was also caught off guard, and sat confused for a moment before he looked towards Xiao Chi’ye and stuttered, “We… Lady Zhaoyue…,” then in a moment of inspiration, said, “We’re still in a time of national mourning. It might not be appropriate to make arrange a marriage at this time.”
“It’s one thing to make a match, and another to hold a wedding. There are no good dates lately, anyway. We think it would be quite appropriate to make the match now, and when summer comes, we’ll set an auspicious date for the wedding.” The Dowager’s voice was grandmotherly as she said, “Zhaoyue and Xiangyi are girlhood friends too, and it would be perfectly lovely for them to be married at the same time.”
She did not mention at all to whom Hua Xiangyi would be wed, only pushing Lady Zhaoyue onto Xiao Chi’ye, in a clear signal that Xiao Chi’ye’s marriage would be regarded as a matter of state, while Hua Xiangyi’s marriage was to be a private affair.
Qi Zhuyin looked grim, but unexpectedly did not speak.
Lu Guangbai noticed this, and his heart sank, guessing that Qi Shiyu must have already assented, and had instructed Qi Zhuyin not to speak. But it would never do to be wed to Lady Zhaoyue. Should this match be made, when the Dowager then made the Lady a Princess in coming days, Xiao Chi’ye would become Princess-Consort. Princess-Consorts held no tangible power in Dazhou, and had but an empty title. Eventually, they would come for the very power Xiao Chi’ye had only just secured— control over the military forces of Dazhou.
The wine turned to fire in Xiao Chi’ye’s throat. He had risen to his feet, but the Dowager was smiling again.
“Master Xiao, you took a daughter of Lord Lu of the Borderlands to wife, didn’t you? Your little one must be four or five now?”
Xiao Jiming replied, “He is four years old, Your Majesty.”
“Your nephew is four years old, but you have yet to find a wife either, General Lu.” The Dowager looked towards Lu Guangbai. “The Borderlands are a barren place of dust and sand, and makes treacherous work to defend. You will sooner put a piece of your Lord father’s mind at rest if you married and settled down. We see that General Lu and Master Xiao are of a similar age. Why, do your aspirations run crosswise to starting a family too, General?”
Lu Guangbai was tongue-tied for a moment. He said, “Your Majesty—”
The Dowager continued, “Zhaoyue has a lively and mischievous nature. If truth be told, Ce’an may indeed be too spirited, and the General seems a more even-tempered match. But Ce’an, what do you think?”
If Xiao Chi’ye would not wed Lady Zhaoyue, then Lu Guangbai must. This conundrum was laid out upon the banquet hall to put him in a difficult position.
Xiao Chi’ye had been all ready for her, having had Zhao Hui make arrangements with his familial contacts in the Ministry of Ceremony. The Dowager had but to raise the subject tonight, and they would make sure that Hua Xiangyi would be found incontrovertibly to be Qi Shiyu’s distant relative. Propriety would then prevent this incestuous, cross-generational marriage. But the Dowager had left no opening for him to introduce a counter-move at all. Who would have thought that the hand to be given away tonight would be Xiao Chi’ye’s own!
But in the crux of that moment, Xiao Chi’ye unexpectedly caught sight of the look in Shen Zechuan’s eyes. Across the watchful hall and the imminent crisis, their eyes met for a fleeting second.
Xiao Chi’ye stepped out and said, “Your Majesty.”
The eunuch from the Imperial Food Service was laying out dishes from the Confectionery. From each plate, he dutifully set aside the portion he was to taste, then picked up his chopsticks, and looked towards Li Jianheng, little more than an arm’s length away.
Li Jianheng was trying to make up his mind, his brows locked tight, listening to the battle of wits below. When the eunuch in front of him had not moved, he glanced over and said, “What’re you—”
Before another word could leave his mouth, the eunuch’s grip tightened around those gilded chopsticks, and they came plunging in towards Li Jianheng’s throat.
It all happened so quickly that Li Jianheng had no time to react, and could only watch as the pointed tips flew towards him. His whole body was frozen solid, terror spilling from his eyes, unable to lift a single finger.
As everyone’s expressions turned to horror, Shen Zechuan had already unsheathed Rising Snow, and the cold light from that straight blade was there and gone in a blink.
Li Jianheng’s throat constricted, and he gathered all the strength in his body into a piercing scream. The sound had no sooner left his mouth before hot blood came spattering across the front and trim of his robes. Li Jianheng shrieked, “Protect me— “
The eunuch’s head rolled forward and fell into Li Jianheng’s lap. Li Jianheng clutched the two sides of his throne in a vice-like grip, the smell of blood intense in the air, and watched as the headless body tipping towards himself was caught mid-fall.
Shen Zechuan threw the body aside, then turned to the room and called out coldly, “Protect the Emperor!”
Ge Qingqing drew his sword instantly, and there was a synchronous whoosh as pale light flared across the room, the Brocade Guard forming an impregnable barricade in front of the Imperial Guard, becoming Li Jianheng’s first line of defence.
Across the line of Brocade Guards, Xiao Chi’ye had to look upwards to catch sight of Shen Zechuan’s face.
Their longstanding status quo was finally broken in that moment. From on high, Shen Zechuan gave him a small, meaningful smile, and the expression in his eyes set its foot down upon Xiao Chi’ye’s chest like a palpable force.