Yibo received Xiao Zhan formally when he returned from his trip south, in the hall of audience with its endless pillars and high ceilings and massive throne. From his perch he could see at a glance every single twitch and shift in expression from each of his ministers and generals during court sessions.
There were no such signs of nerves or impatience from Xiao Zhan. He knelt and did his three bows, very deep and proper, and wished the Emperor eternal life in a clear, ringing voice. On the last bow he turned his face up to the throne and stayed kneeling, so upright and still he could've been a temple statue, an easy smile curving his red lips.
"I trust Bixia has been well?"
Yibo sprung out of his throne, took the remaining steps that separated them at a run, and pulled Xiao Zhan up and against him. He tucked his face into the crook of Xiao Zhan's neck and took a deep breath. The first steady breath he'd taken in what felt like months.
Xiao Zhan tried to pull away, laughing. "Don't - I haven't bathed yet."
Yibo tightened his hold. "I don't care."
"How am I meant to report on my findings like this?"
"What's wrong?" Yibo said innocently. He pulled away only far enough to tug Xiao Zhan up the dais to stand in front of the throne, still refusing to let go of him. "Let's have your report. What news from the south?"
His realm was won and secured first by arms, and second by good order and its public enforcement, and finally by those who did their work in the shadows.
The expansion of Chen had made keeping a proper eye on the further reaches ever more difficult, and bred opportunities for corruption and malfeasance. Yibo went on royal progress as often as he could get away with it - not least because he preferred it to being stuck in Luoyang - but he couldn't be everywhere at once. Hence those charged with going where he couldn't and reporting back.
Few would imagine someone like Xiao Zhan as being among that number, the attention he attracted a perfect misdirection for the true purpose of his trips south.
The drought last season had been so severe that it seemed heaven-sent - a punishment, or a message. In some quarters it was said to be an expression of the rage of the heavens at who the Emperor kept by his side. It was further said that if that person was offered to the Great River, the rains would come.
I hear I am to be tossed in the Great River, Xiao Zhan had said to Yibo, after one such court session.
Don't be ridiculous, had been Yibo's rather rude response. The next person who suggests it, I'll toss him in first.
Not that the people of Shu would ever agree to it. They still remembered Xiao Zhan as the local son who'd come and liberated them from years of harsh rule first at the hands of various governors in the name of Liao and then the dissolute Prince Wei of Chen, Yibo's incompetent uncle.
Yibo had shouted down all talk of sacrifices and the rage of heaven and instead directed funds and grain from the Treasury to alleviate the famine. Somehow, though, what arrived in Shu bore no resemblance to what had been sent from Luoyang. The investigators Yibo sent hadn't turned up anything but wild suppositions - not surprising, they didn't know the lay of the local land, and all the officials in Shu would've been cowed into silence if the culprit was someone prominent at court. Someone like the Imperial Secretary Meng Du, the second most senior minister, only a few steps below the Emperor himself.
So he had reluctantly agreed to send Xiao Zhan, who always seemed restored when he saw Shu thrive with his own eyes and came back glowing, as if distance from the intrigues and malice of court had returned him to his youthful days as a minister's son without a care in the world.
Occasionally Yibo marvelled at his own selfishness in prying Xiao Zhan away from living out his days in carefree leisure and miring him in the dirt and dust of life at an emperor's side. Of course Xiao Zhan would dismiss any attempt at an apology and insist that he'd made his choice freely, with no force or coercion involved. But Xiao Zhan tended to say a lot of things and not all of them held up under the light.
So Yibo had Lanyue Pavilion built, to remind him of home, and filled it with his favourite things, and did his best to keep him safe and content, and hoped it was sufficient compensation.
"So not a wasted trip - Bixia should have Li-daren investigate the allegation about the Steward - but there's still no proof of Meng Du's misdeeds," Xiao Zhan concluded. "Even the assassin he sent to kill me was too well trained to leave himself alive for questioning."
His eyes shone. Yibo couldn't look away. It had been too long; his heart was out of practice guarding against what Xiao Zhan did to it just by existing.
"I should have Meng Du executed anyway."
Xiao Zhan still had on a heavy black cloak for travelling in the height of Autumn, embroidered in gold with a peacock in flight. Yibo undid the clasp, letting it fall carelessly to the ground and kicking it aside, revealing white robes in heavy silk brocade with only a splash of plum blossoms around the waistline, the needlework so fine it looked like a painting.
Those were new. Shu brocade, no doubt. Yibo would have to track down the supplier and order a few more.
"I didn't realise there were limits to what I could do," he said, mostly just for Xiao Zhan's reaction, the borderline dismissive flicker of his eyes that could rouse Yibo like little else.
"There would be an uproar in court if one of its most prominent members was demoted for no reason, let alone executed." Xiao Zhan spoke in the same officious tone he would use in a morning court session, even as Yibo began undoing the sash holding his robes closed. "Bixia is well aware of this."
Grand Chancellor Cheng had spent an incredibly tedious audience impressing just that upon Yibo, in between reassurances that of course he understood why, but the Meng family were distinguished servants of the realm going back many generations, not to mention the position of the man himself, and so on, and so forth. The two men had no love for each other, or so his spies kept telling him, so perhaps it was genuinely a matter of principle. After all, if Yibo could kill Meng Du with a wave of his hand, he could just as easily do the same to someone like the Grand Chancellor.
In the course of ascending to the throne, Yibo had had to kill plenty of men like Meng Du who had backed one of his brothers instead, and acquired quite the reputation as a result. He knew better than anyone that the remainder of the grandees had to be handled carefully. And yet -
"He gave me plenty of reason when he tried to kill you."
His grip on Xiao Zhan's waist had tightened uncomfortably without his realising it.
"What evidence is there? No one will be convinced by my word alone. I will not have Bixia bear the name of a wicked ruler for my sake."
The Emperor did not have the luxury of acting on his feelings alone. Yibo didn't need to be told that.
"I'm not overly concerned about my reputation or posterity."
Xiao Zhan turned his head and pressed his lips against Yibo's cheek.
"You may not care, but I do. We can find another way. Bixia must only promise me one thing."
"Do you trust me?"
For Xiao Zhan, he'd long ago decided there were no rules, no laws of heaven or earth he wouldn't break.
Xiao Zhan's smile turned wicked with a flutter of those long lashes.
"Bixia must not inquire as to my methods lest they dirty his ears," he said in the undertone of a lover's confession, and then he kissed Yibo so sweetly and thoroughly that Yibo would've gifted him half the realm if he'd only asked.
* * *
Meng Yinxing inhaled deeply, tasting the light incense favoured by the master of Lanyue Pavilion, and a faint hint of the scent that clung to him, agarwood and jasmine. She fancied she could discern a hint of coppery, metallic blood underneath. Perhaps that was what those more pleasant scents were there to hide.
Most inhabitants of the rear palace, from the Empress on down, would likely make far more of a visit from the Emperor. Certainly the incense lit would be the sort that inflamed, not the soothing kind for peaceful rest.
Perhaps the man who lived in this pavilion didn't see the need for such tricks. After all, the Emperor attended often upon this small but lavish pavilion just beside the Emperor's own hall, with its bamboo grove and lake of lotuses and garden full of flowers from the south.
That yaojing is certain that he has the Emperor in the palm of his hand. You can see it from how he strides about, like a peacock flaunting favour, had been her father's frequent, bitter complaint. And the Emperor indulges it!
What she could hear from the large bedchamber within was proof enough of that.
"I hear Bixia's been presented with yet more memorials against malign influence from one's bedfellows?"
He had a deceptively pleasant voice, this monster. She had yet to hear it raised save in cries of pleasure that would've shamed a courtesan, and which made her insides squirm in a way she could only attribute to embarrassment and contempt.
"The threat of my displeasure doesn't seem to discourage them. Maybe they think I've gone soft," the Emperor said, so cooly that Yinxing shivered.
His anger was said to be enough to make venerable men tremble. Yinxing couldn't imagine facing up to it, but Xiao Zhan only laughed.
"Don't be silly, no one under heaven thinks that. Only that no matter how valiant and capable, the son of heaven is still a man, with a man's appetites."
"Hypocrites," said the Emperor. "The emperor-my-father had male favourites by the dozen and I don't recall one memorial against them."
"Of course not. The Emperor's personal affairs should not be the subject of commentary by his inferiors."
The Emperor's only personal affair of note would say that, Yinxing thought. In the ordinary course of things it was even true.
"As I've frequently reminded them. But I'm told that is only so when my personal affairs aren't attending the morning court session."
Certainly that had been one of her father's main complaints, to be forced to share the audience hall and even occasionally listen to a man who had earned his place not by birth or accomplishment but on his back.
"Perhaps I should stop attending," Xiao Zhan said evenly.
The Emperor spoke over him before he'd even finished. "No."
"Then Bixia will have to continue tolerating expressions of earnest concern about his bedroom affairs."
The Emperor sighed. "I can't punish them, not just for speaking," he said, with a pleading note she'd never imagined hearing from him.
"Why would you? A good proper Confucian should speak his mind at the risk of censure. If you punished them for it, you'd be a wicked and unfit ruler."
"But the things they say about you - "
"They're not wrong. I did things they hesitate to even speak of." Xiao Zhan's voice lost the ringing tone of a speech and dropped into something more intimate. "I exert influence by means that any man should be shamed to use. I'm as far from a good Confucian vassal as it is possible to be."
The last was said in such a low voice that she was tempted to move from her station to hear him better. Her straining ears caught the sound of rustling silk and a sigh, followed by a giggle that made her face heat.
"Is there anything you're afraid of?" The Emperor said with something close to wonder.
"Of course. What if Bixia tires of the sight of me? Suddenly, or slowly…after all, it's in the nature of men to prefer novelty to routine."
Some might have tried to seem pitiable with such a statement. In Xiao Zhan's voice it somehow transformed into flirtation, a tease.
He had little to worry about while those enormous portraits of him still hung in the Emperor's study (and, it was said, the royal bedchamber), Yinxing thought.
It was known far and wide that the Emperor of the South was enthralled with a man with a beautiful face and the heart of a snake, a man who had similarly bewitched Liao's final emperor as a youth, whose cunning and treachery was the subject of song and legend.
The Emperor had a reputation too - for ruthlessness, not for lechery. But he had been so ensnared at first sight that he had offered the calamity anything within his power if only he would come back to Luoyang and submit to being his companion.
That was when the Emperor commissioned those portraits. Rumour had it that sometimes he'd stand and stare long enough for an incense stick to burn down. He'd also built Lanyue Pavilion, a hall fit to house his favourite, at great expense, and only then had Xiao Zhan returned to the capital.
All this Yinxing heard as a girl, first in children's rhymes and then the gossip of servants and snatches of conversation when she was allowed to attend upon her father and brothers, when they would mutter about the yaojing that resides in Lanyue Pavillion.
The first glimpse she had of her enemy was of a beautifully dressed man sitting in one of the pagodas at the back of her family's estate, his elegant hands plucking the strings of a guqin like the flutter of a dragonfly's wings. With her second glimpse she caught her oldest brother staring at him with a look she'd never seen in his eyes before, dripping in contempt and something else she couldn't name.
"It must be said, he does play well."
Her father had come up behind her while she was lost in thought. She jumped and drew herself into the deepest, most graceful curtsy she could manage.
"See that man?"
"The pretty gege?"
"Do an impression of him for me."
It was the first time she could ever recall her father speaking to her. Her mother was a servant girl who he'd lain with in a drunken fit of passion; she'd grown up being treated barely better than one herself.
She took another, closer look at the man in the pagoda. At the same moment, he raised his head and seemed to stare straight at her, and she had to cover her mouth to suppress an unseeming sound.
"Who is he?"
"The man beneath one and above all others," her father muttered darkly.
"Oh - that's - "
A face like jade, soul-stealing eyes, and the heart of a demon, that was how the stories described him. The former she saw with her own eyes; the latter she heard in his music, the pleasant melody with its dark undercurrent.
Yinxing pulled herself up to her full height, to match his perfectly upright posture, thought of all the indignities her father, her siblings, her father's wife and various concubines, and even some upstart servants had ever visited upon her, and put on a faint smile. That ought to be enough malice, surely.
Her father smiled, too, although on him it looked more like a mask. "Yes, how I did not see the resemblance before - good. That's good. Very good. Child, that man is our family's making - or its ruin."
Yinxing was a smart girl. She began doing her eyes to look more like his, with the little tail at the end and a slight hint of rouge.
It had taken years before her father deemed her ready. In that time she never saw Xiao Zhan again, but she heard of him often.
His preferences set the fashion within the rear palace, even though he hardly set foot in it, whether it be fabrics, cuts, jewellery, the hair that he liked to wear loose with only a single hairpin for decoration, or the beauty mark beneath his mouth that seemed as though it had been deliberately drawn there. And of course everything possible with ink and rouge to achieve those eyes.
The Empress did not stoop to such things, but she was one of the few. Others had tried more underhanded measures, like Noble Consort Zhou who'd arranged to have the Emperor's wine drugged, and suffered greatly once they were discovered.
Yinxing thought herself more subtle than most. She'd heard that when Xiao Zhan first came to Chen he mostly wore plain white robes with no adornments, not even any jade, and so she entered the palace as plainly as possible even as every other new attendant draped themselves in their finest, competing outdo each other in garishness.
Her father had moved mountains securing her the appointment to serve in Lanyue Pavilion, or so he told her. The position was very highly sought after for its likely proximity to the Emperor, and attracting the Emperor's notice was the goal of every girl and even some of the prettier eunuchs who entered the palace.
She had indeed seen the Emperor, a handsome, upright figure who moved like the wind, just as rumour said, but he hadn't seen her. That would require him to move his gaze away from Xiao Zhan, which he seemed most reluctant to do.
Xiao Zhan hadn't noticed her yet either, which she counted as a blessing.
She'd overheard Head Eunuch Shen Hai scolding one of the other new attendants that no, Xiao-daren was most definitely not going to eat him and he better not be heard saying that again.
My knees really went weak when he looked at me, the boy said.
Well, you better fix that up quickly, had been Shen Hai's rather unsympathetic response.
"Wan'er? The brazier's gone out, come get it going again."
She'd clearly been lost in thought too long; when Xiao Zhan's clear voice rang out, it was from the antechamber, mere steps away. Somehow she hadn't heard him move.
"Wan'er isn't here, Xiao-daren," Yinxing said quickly, shuffling into the antechamber and dropping into a low curtsy.
Her gaze rested on the trailing hems of his fine red robe with its intricate gold embroidery. No woman in the rear palace was allowed to wear red save for the Empress. But of course he was no woman.
The notorious Xiao Zhan, Lord Anchuan, Grand Master to the Crown Prince (太子太师), had the confident bearing of one who was used to being looked at, whether with admiration or scorn. And why not? It was impossible to look away from him.
In youth he'd been beautiful in a way that seemed better suited to a woman, and a woman of questionable virtue at that. With the passage of time he now looked much more like a stern, proper scholar, but for the frankly scandalous robe and his loose hair.
When he smiled, tiny lines appeared around the tails of his eyes that made them look even longer and more fox-like. The thin scar across the pale column of his throat stood out like a tear in a sheet of silk, highlighted by the wide open collar. In his elegant hands, a paper fan seemed as though it could be a deadly blade.
You do look a little like Xiao-daren. Just a little, Shen Hai had said, when Yinxing was presented to him. It hadn't seemed like a compliment even then.
"You're Secretary Meng's daughter?"
He was very tall up close. Unaccountably, the smile she'd practised so many times in the mirror suddenly became more difficult to pull on under his gaze.
"How did Xiao-daren know?"
Her tone was perfectly deferential, innocently curious.
"Shen Hai said there was a pretty new girl," Xiao Zhan said. "He undersold you."
There was no hint of anything other than sincerity and admiration in his voice, and yet she was seized by the conviction that there was another layer of meaning behind it all.
Yinxing made sure her curtsy was the most proper one she'd ever done.
"This servant cannot bear praise from Xiao-daren."
Xiao Zhan's smile widened. "Clever, too."
His eyes put her in mind of a deadly predator lazily sizing up some new creature that had stumbled into its domain. They pinned her in place as surely as a curse.
She stood frozen as he reached out and gently brushed his fingertips over the corner of her eye, smudging the rouge she'd carefully drawn on while thinking of the single glimpse she'd had of him all those years ago.
He wiped his hand on a silk handkerchief and handed it to her casually, and only then did the spell break. Her first impulse was to throw the handkerchief on the ground, and she might have if it wasn't imperial yellow.
The rumours were not that far off the mark, after all. She wouldn't be surprised if he was a yaojing. The Emperor had to be truly fearless to be drawn to someone like this.
Yinxing drew in a deep breath. Her heart was thumping as if she'd run halfway across the palace grounds. She kept her gaze down, lest she be enraptured too.
"If this servant has caused offence - "
"Nothing like that," Xiao Zhan said easily. "Only my own people are allowed to serve in this pavilion, I'm afraid. Where would you like to go instead?"
That was just as well. Rumour said that some of the attendants who went into Lanyue Pavilion never came out again.
How much blood did a person have to bathe in before it seeped into their eyes?
She took another deep, steadying breath and looked up. "This servant would like to serve the Emperor."
"Of course. Wouldn't we all," Xiao Zhan said, so evenly that she couldn't read anything in it, or in his face.
"Outside the palace it is said that Xiao-daren is not afflicted with jealousy and unafraid of the Emperor's eye wandering to another. Is that not true?"
Gossip said no such thing, but she wasn't above a little false flattery. It earned her a smile that she might've termed sweet on another person.
"Those who do not bear any ill-intent, this one will even go so far as to seek the Emperor's favour for them. Those who do…however many walk into the palace, this one will make sure they are carried out."
His tone could not have been more pleasant, and yet Yinxing felt a chill down to her bone marrow. She couldn't tell whether she'd meant to go to her knees; by the time she realised, she was already on the ground.
"T-this servant swears before heaven and earth that she bears Xiao-daren no ill-intent."
"Not me. The Emperor."
"Surely that goes without saying," Yinxing replied before she could help herself.
Xiao Zhan closed his fan with a sudden, decisive snap. "Clever. I like that in a girl."
It was difficult not to be warmed by the approval in his honey-sweet voice. Even with all she knew, her skin tingled pleasantly under his steady regard. Those remarkable eyes seemed to see right down to her most private, illicit thoughts, through all her scheming.
He was, she reluctantly admitted, a creature worthy of the storm of hatred and intrigue he had inspired, and every bit the formidable opponent her father had taught her about. It would be quite a challenge to vanquish him, even with all their preparation.
The announcement that the Imperial Secretary's (御史大夫) daughter had been appointed Noble Consort was met with great excitement in certain quarters.
Speculation ran wild inside and outside the rear palace. A new consort, at last. And a young, pretty girl from a powerful family, too. Perhaps the long reign of the foreign calamity was finally coming to an end. Even with good breeding and excellent care, he had to be past the prime of his beauty, unless he was an actual yaojing. Surely the Emperor would prefer someone youthful and spirited. Someone soft and yielding, who wanted nothing more than to please him.
Rumour said that the new consort even bore a faint resemblance to the yaojing of Lanyue Pavillion.
The rear palace was forever a place of stifling intrigue, hundreds of flowers sealed off in a walled garden all clamouring for the attention of a single person. Yinxing had entered it knowing full well that she would likely only ever leave in a coffin, or, if she managed to survive the Emperor, packed off to a monastery.
There was nothing more difficult to glimpse or hold than the heart of an emperor. Nothing less trustworthy. There was also no greater prize. With it would come authority, enough to place herself above all those who had ever harmed or belittled her. Enough to give her a little power of her own.
She'd been preparing for this a long time and fancied herself more than willing to do whatever it took. But the particulars still caused her no end of anxiety. The ungentle ministrations of the old maids whose job it was to prepare new consorts to serve the Emperor only deepened it. Their blunt, terrifying advice was enough to make her entire face burn.
Her time in Lanyue Pavillion should've been an advantage. After all she'd seen and heard, she was better placed than those maids to know what the Emperor wanted from his companion. But how could a girl who'd barely interacted with any men outside her family compare with a man who'd spent half his life holding the attention of emperors, for whom seduction was as common as his daily meals?
Yinxing's first night in the palace as Noble Consort proved she'd been right to worry.
The young eunuch she'd paid off to keep her informed of the Emperor's whereabouts repeatedly reassured her that he was merely busy in the imperial study, while she shivered in her gauzy inner robe, having been scrubbed and perfumed to readiness since before the setting of the sun.
The Emperor did come to her rooms, as was customary for newly appointed Noble Consorts, but not until late in the evening.
She had rehearsed this part in her mind countless times. She would curtsy; he would bid her rise; their eyes would meet -
His penetrating gaze swept over her like a cold gust, and she shivered again, though the room was now more than adequately heated. His attention had the weight of a mountain.
"Have you met Lord Anchuan?"
That was the last name she wanted to hear on this night of all nights.
Yinxing nodded stiffly. "This concubine served in Lanyue Pavillion."
The Emperor made a thoughtful noise.
"Curious. He was most insistent on your appointment."
She'd suspected as much, but to have it confirmed -
"Our entire family owes Xiao-daren a great debt of gratitude."
The Emperor's dark eyes narrowed, and she felt a chill as if she had taken an ill-advised step over a precipice.
"Is that right."
He reached for her arm, lightning fast, and she couldn't quite suppress an instinctive flinch.
The Emperor's mouth quirked before she could apologise. He dropped his hand and took a step back.
There was something distinctly mocking about that half-smile, although she got the sense that she was not the one being mocked.
If her time serving Xiao Zhan had taught her anything, it was that he preferred confidence to timidity, and she'd just made the worst possible first impression.
None of this was going the way she'd planned. Yinxing let her hands creep up to the lapel of his yellow robes. "Bixia must be exhausted after such a long day. Let me have a bath drawn."
For the first time, his face stirred out of its impression of a handsome jade sculpture; not into eagerness or desire as she might have hoped, but something close to embarrassment.
"Ah, no need. I just came to see how you were settling in. I won't disturb you any further."
The Emperor then departed so quickly it was as though she was offering to push him into a pit of snakes rather than hoping for intimacy.
Maybe he truly had no taste for women - those rumours were popular too. But the Crown Prince was proof enough that he was at least capable, if he put his mind to it.
Yinxing fumed. Was she too pale an imitation after all, while the real thing still resided in the palace?
Well. That could be changed.
The next morning, Yinxing went to pay her respects to the Empress, as was proper, and was delighted to accept an invitation to tea in the imperial garden and be led to a large pagoda in a grove of willow trees.
"This concubine greets the Empress."
She raised her head from her deep curtsy and saw for the first time the mother of the realm, clad in refined elegance, her hair piled on top of her head and adorned with a phoenix headdress, peach blossom eyes fixed on Yinxing's face.
Empress Cheng shook her head with an elegant, unamused laugh.
"I had wondered why Secretary Meng would send his daughter into the palace as a mere servant girl. There certainly is - a resemblance."
It still didn't sound like a compliment.
"This concubine is unsure what the Empress means," Yinxing said carefully.
Another bell-like laugh. "Of course. Secretary Meng is wily. Brave, too, to be trying to replace Xiao Zhan when the Emperor himself hasn't dared. I would venture to say he hasn't even thought of it."
Yinxing had been told countless times in tones of great excitement that she was the first real addition to the rear palace since the initial crop chosen at the Emperor's ascension. At first the lack had fueled rumours that the cold-blooded young Emperor spent all his vigour in war and killing and had no interest in wasting it on bedroom affairs. Then he returned from Liao with that infamous calamity as a prize of war, and it became clear that he was very interested so long as it was Xiao Zhan's bed.
Opportunists had of course tried to supply the Emperor with comely boys once it became clear his tastes lay in that direction. They stopped after the Emperor reacted as coldly and angrily as if they were trying to feed him poison. It was said that Xiao Zhan would not permit any rival, and the Emperor bowed beneath the witch's skirts in this as he did in all things.
Even Yinxing had only come by her position by his grace. This she had not forgotten even as servant girls fluttered around her on the day of her appointment, exclaiming at her good fortune, and she certainly recalled it after the Emperor left her rooms and went straight to Lanyue Pavilion.
Perhaps the very exalted woman in front of her had similar misgivings. Yes, she was a well-bred beauty whose family was the foremost in the nation, thanks to her father, the Grand Chancellor; yes, her son was Crown Prince, which effectively rendered her position secure beyond challenge. But she, too, lived under a cloud.
A light laugh floated through the air toward them from the direction of the gardens, and the Empress' face froze when it was followed by a low voice.
"Finally. You've been avoiding me."
"A false and malicious accusation. Has Bixia not had a brand new consort to occupy him? I hear Noble Consort Meng is the picture of beauty and feminine virtue. And youth, of course. Yet it is said Bixia has not graced her with favour. There will be rumours about Bixia's, ah, capability if that continues."
Xiao Zhan had spoken to her with the air of a scholar and a high-born one at that. If she hadn't heard it with her own ears she would find it hard to believe that the same man could sound like this - enticing, provocative in a way that hooked beneath the skin. She felt herself flush, and not just from the words themselves.
"You know very well whether I'm capable."
The sternness of the Emperor's words was somewhat ruined by how breathless he sounded, the words muffled as if spoken against skin rather than air.
"Bixia - Bixia should take some time to visit the Empress and the Noble Consorts - ow! That hurt, you beast! If - if Bixia favoured them more often, they might spend less time praying for and plotting my death."
"I don't want to hear about them right now," the Emperor said, so low she had to strain to make it out.
Xiao Zhan started to retort, only to give an undignified yelp. There was a thump, and then a high, rising gasp that made Yinxing's face heat even more, and more low, murmured words, too quiet to hear. Another giggle, and then the sound of tearing cloth.
Yinxing could not believe what she was hearing. In broad daylight! In public! It was of course the Emperor's right to do what he wished in his rear palace but the other party was meant to at least put up a front of modesty and resist such attentions. Any woman would've.
The Empress coughed out a dry laugh. "I've rather lost my appetite. Let us have our tea in Renming Hall instead."
Yinxing waited until the entire procession was safely in the Empress' hall to have her outburst.
"How embarrassing for great Chen, for the entire rear palace to be thrown over for an old man!"
Empress Cheng's brows furrowed, and she knew she'd struck gold.
"How dare you!" Her head attendant exclaimed, as if Yinxing needed further confirmation.
"May the Empress forgive my ignorance. It's only - this concubine is new and does not understand why the Empress puts up with such indignities."
Even if it was witchcraft, there were those who could be employed to counter it.
Empress Cheng stared at her with still dark eyes that were almost a match for her imperial husband in their hauteur. "You're not the first to say so."
"This concubine is only repeating what she's heard on the outside. There's far worse."
She kept back the things they said about Xiao Zhan and the Crown Prince. No need to press on that pressure point just yet.
The Empress sighed. "So all under heaven knows. Still, there's nothing to be done about it. If he was a woman he'd be the one in this chair, he would have no rival, and his son would be Crown Prince. I know that as well as anyone."
"Begging Dianxia's pardon, but is that not already the case?"
The upstart attendant stirred angrily again, only to subside at a glance from the Empress.
"What would you do, if you were in my position?"
The question seemed to be in earnest - or as much as anyone in the rear palace ever seemed earnest. Yinxing imagined herself in this woman's shoes, the silent indignities she must have had to endure. She decided to gamble.
"The Empress is the mother of the nation, the head of the rear palace. She can judge offence and dispense any punishment."
Lanyue Pavilion was technically part of the rear palace. Empress Cheng could easily make up an offence and have Xiao Zhan caned to death for it. Surely few would protest. The Emperor would, of course, be furious. But it would solve the problem.
The Empress shook her head immediately. "I wouldn't get far. Haven't you noticed how well guarded he is? If the Emperor had his way, no one would ever touch a hair on that man's head, and anyone who tried would lose their hand."
At least she didn't bother feigning shock or offence at the mere idea. Promising. Worth pursuing, perhaps.
"When Taizi Dianxia is grown, surely he will stand up for you."
"Unlikely. Mingjie adores that man. He'd sooner cut off his own arm."
"You're his mother," Yinxing said carefully.
Empress Cheng laughed. It was not the laugh of a delicate lady, too loud and full of scorn. "Am I? Even Mingjie I only have by Xiao Zhan's grace, with his assurance that the child would always be mine first, since I birthed him, and no one could take that away."
There. That was the loose thread Yinxing could tug to unravel her, this woman who had everything and yet lived in the shadow of another.
"There's more than one way to take a son away from his mother."
Empress Cheng regarded her steadily over her teacup for so long that Yinxing began to sweat under her new robes. Then she reached out and pushed the plate of delicate sweets on the table toward Yinxing.
"Have some cake."
* * *
"Yes, Bixia?" Yibo's longtime servant responded immediately, coming up to stand by the luohan bed.
There was no one who had been by his side so long and Xiao Zhan aside, few who understood him as well as Shen Hai. As Head Eunuch, he likely knew everything already and Yibo would not have to go through the embarrassment of explaining. Still, he found the topic a difficult one to broach.
"Why do you suppose he's pushing this girl at me?"
It couldn't just be about Meng Du. Yibo didn't need to bed his daughter for that.
Shen Hai being Shen Hai, he managed to glean meaning from Yibo's abrupt, ambiguous query, and it didn't take him long to come up with a response, even to such a potentially dangerous question.
"This servant has heard it said that even the most confident of companions may feel some, ah, insecurity when it comes to the affections of their beloved."
Yibo shook his head. "I can't see it. Not him."
The very notion seemed laughable when applied to someone like Xiao Zhan.
"Age is often a factor, or so I am told."
If Shen Hai's tone had been carefully neutral before, it was now so bland he could've been remarking on the state of the gardens. Some concubines might have a servant paddled for saying such a thing. Xiao Zhan wouldn't, of course. He and Shen Hai got along well and often played weiqi together. That was why Yibo had convinced himself to ask Shen Hai this question in the first place. But his suggestion -
"Xiao Zhan's not old," Yibo said indignantly.
What an absurd idea.
In his mind Xiao Zhan looked the same as the day they met. Even those without that image in their heads were inclined to whisper about how little he'd changed, although in their case it was a further excuse to cast dark insinuations on how such a thing was possible.
Shen Hai gave a deep, apologetic bow. "Of course, of course. This servant was speaking nonsense. Bixia should not dwell on it."
Yibo set down the final memorial in the pile with a decisive thunk.
"Shen Hai, I'm going to the East Palace (东宫). Let's see how the Crown Prince's lessons are going."
His personal attendants all roused themselves with tolerable speed and followed him out of the imperial study.
Yibo preferred walking to palanquins within the confines of the palace. And after so many years of his reign, everyone was more or less inured to the sight of him striding purposefully down one of the paths with a flurry of attendants running to keep up behind him.
The route from the imperial study to the East Palace was a familiar one - he made a point of visiting to see how Crown Prince Mingjie's lessons were going whenever time permitted. Yibo's own father had thought him beneath notice and in the end paid dearly for it. He wasn't going to make the same mistake with his son.
It was also no less true that the sight of Mingjie and his handful of carefully selected reading companions learning under Xiao Zhan's watchful eye soothed Yibo, whose own childhood had been defined by loneliness.
He can't resent me. I've already gifted him that which is most precious to me, Yibo liked to say.
Or as Xiao Zhan put it, much more prettily: Mingjie is very observant. He knows that you must care deeply to offer him something you guard as jealously as my attention.
There were no reading companions visible through the half-open doors of the East Palace study today. Just Xiao Zhan perched in front of the teacher's bench with Mingjie kneeling at his side, watching him write with rapt attention.
"There are rumours that Shifu (师父) might leave the palace," Mingjie said abruptly, just as Yibo reached the doorstep.
He stopped walking and gestured for his attendants to do the same. Shen Hai smartly held his announcement of the Emperor's presence.
Xiao Zhan let Mingjie's rash comment hang in the still air so long that even Yibo began to feel discomforted. To his credit, Mingjie managed to return Xiao Zhan's examining gaze with a stubborn tilt to his jaw that was, Yibo thought, much too familiar.
And just as effective as when he tried to out-stubborn Xiao Zhan, it turned out.
"Your calligraphy is much improved. Better than your father's," Xiao Zhan said blandly, gesturing down at the sheet of rattan paper spread out on the bench.
Mingjie bowed his head in acceptance of the implied rebuke, and Yibo was already internally upbraiding him for giving up so easily when he shuffled over to the far end of the bench, where a tea set had been set out. He poured with tolerable competence and handed the cup to Xiao Zhan with great ceremony.
Those big sad mutt eyes he definitely didn't get from Yibo, even if they were surprisingly effective.
Xiao Zhan smiled. "So those rumours have reached even Ming-er?"
"Is it true?"
"Does Ming-er want his teacher to leave?"
"You may think differently when you're older."
Mingjie shook his head. "I won't. I - Shifu, I've heard what they say about you. It doesn't matter to me."
He was fairly reticent and mild by nature, especially with Xiao Zhan, but his tone right then reminded Yibo, yet again, of himself.
Xiao Zhan ruffled his hair like he was petting an oversized puppy. "What if your father wants me to leave?"
Mingjie went bright red. "Then - then - I'll - "
When Xiao Zhan had been appointed Grand Master to the Crown Prince, Yibo had made Mingjie swear to always venerate his shifu. Clearly that hadn't been necessary, Yibo thought wryly.
"No. Hush. You'll do nothing. Especially not in your father's hearing."
Xiao Zhan looked up and directly at Yibo and his entourage with one of his secret little smiles, bright and sharp. Shen Hai jumped; Yibo almost did too.
* * *
Yinxing saw neither hide nor hair of the Emperor in the month since her appointment, and she began to understand why she'd sensed such an air of desolation in the rear palace, even from the other Noble Consorts.
Her father came to visit at the end of the month.
"I've barely seen him," Yinxing admitted.
She tensed up in anticipation of being hit. His face darkened but he made no move toward her, and she remembered that they were in the rear palace, she was a Noble Consort and even her father, one of the most powerful men in the realm, was no longer permitted to lay hands on her.
She went to her knees, still, but with a little less haste. "Please forgive this daughter's ineptitude!"
The old tricks still worked. He let out a long sigh and sat down heavily on the chair opposite hers.
"It's not entirely your fault. Who knows what tricks that yaojing uses to keep the Emperor in his power?
"Not just that. I've tried to talk the Empress into turning on him."
"How is the Empress?"
"Lonely," Yinxing said in a rare moment of candour.
"No surprise there. I heard it said that the Emperor has barely graced her bed since the Crown Prince was born. Is she biddable?"
Yinxing shook her head. "Not yet. And even if she had the will, she does not have the means. He's too well protected inside the palace."
She wasn't aware of having said anything remarkable, and yet he gazed at her as if seeing her for the first time. At length, he nodded, seemingly satisfied.
"We simply have to lure him out. That's easy enough to do. Then you lay in front of the Emperor evidence of his treachery, to finish it off."
To accuse one of the most powerful men in the realm - some said only second to the Emperor - of a crime that would have him pulled apart by horse cart seemed unimaginable. For the first time, Yinxing felt a faint stirring of unease about their scheme.
"Come on, girl, keep up," her father snapped.
"How am I to do this if Father does not furnish me with what I need?" Yinxing countered. Then, seeing his face darken, she hastily added, "this daughter apologies for her slowness and seeks guidance."
As always, humbling herself made him puff up again, and he leaned closer with the air of one imparting a great secret.
"It is said the Crown Prince is overly fond of him, and yet the Empress will not act to remove him. Neither will the Grand Chancellor. Perhaps they are all in league together, plotting to overthrow the Emperor and put the Crown Prince on the throne so they can rule in his stead."
"That's - " Ridiculous, on its face. But if true, enough to clear all their obstacles in one move. "I see. What evidence is there of the plot?"
Her father favoured her with a supercilious little smile, as if she'd said something very stupid.
"Anything can be true with the application of a little force and will. Don't forget, he's an old hand at treason. All you will be doing is carrying out the will of heaven, to cleanse the Emperor's side of evil influence. I'll lure the tiger off its mountain lair (调虎离山). The rest is up to you."
* * *
Xiao Zhan woke upon being doused with cold water. Thoroughly unpleasant, especially in the height of winter, but not entirely unexpected.
At least the Imperial Secretary heated his estate well in winter. The large braziers that stood at either end of the room were just as fancy as those in the palace. There was a good chance he'd be dry before this audience concluded. Heaven knew if Xiao Zhan somehow caught a chill Yibo would be insufferable, as any hint of him being unwell seemed to turn the much feared Emperor into an old maid.
He had been unceremoniously deposited in a large lacquered wood armchair. The carvings digging into his back were very fine, as was everything else he could see. The room was far too small to belong to the master or mistress of the estate, and Meng Du would no doubt want this dirty business conducted away from his main hall. A concubine's rooms, then.
Meng Du kept his own concubines in as fine a state as the Emperor did his. One had to wonder where he got the funds to keep so many, even on a first grade minister's earnings.
The servant who woke him had retreated behind his master, invisible once again. Only one other guard, standing by the door with his hand on his sword. His hands were shackled, but not very tightly. Meng Du clearly didn't rate him as much of a threat.
Xiao Zhan pulled himself up as much as he was able.
"Meng-daren. To what do I owe the honour?"
If Meng Du had been hoping to shake him, he hid his disappointment well.
"You don't seem surprised."
"I would have to be a fool, after you tried so hard to kill me."
"There's no need to throw around such wild accusations," Meng Du said, wearing a wide smile.
His smugness was well-earned. No one would credit it if Xiao Zhan were to accuse Meng Du of trying to hurt him. Some might even say his only fault was failing to finish the job.
"The Emperor is likely to come looking for me, you realise," Xiao Zhan tried instead. He didn't need to give voice to the actual threat; Meng Du had borne witness to Yibo's retribution upon those who dared to try and harm Xiao Zhan enough times to know.
"Not after he sees what you tried to do."
That could refer to any number of things. Even after all these years, he still had his secrets. But none of it would be enough to keep Yibo from him. Nothing that he'd actually done, anyway. For Meng Du to sound so certain, though, meant that he had laid the groundwork and was convinced all would proceed as planned.
"Ah. What am I meant to have done, tried to overthrow him and put the Crown Prince on the throne?"
"That seems unlike me."
"Does it? Cheng-daren told me the story of Liao's Prince Zhongshan himself. Does the Emperor know the depth of your immorality?"
Xiao Zhan allowed himself a laugh at that. "I'm afraid you will have to be much more specific."
"Don't pretend you don't know. You sowed discord, turned father against son, incited rebellion."
That was indeed much more specific.
"You know what I was, Meng-daren. Just a bird in a cage. How could I do any of that?"
Truthfully, he'd hardly had to sow discord in Liao. The palace he'd entered was a festering pit of resentment and intrigue, and all he had to do was add fuel to the pyre.
It started with a chance meeting. Or a meeting that would've seemed like chance to the man who had stumbled into Xiao Zhan's pavilion while wandering around the palace.
The man's name was Liu Tong, known as Prince Zhongshan. An accomplished general, although a little too ambitious for his father Liu Yilong's liking, which had gotten him sent away to the border provinces while still a boy. He'd left the palace just before Xiao Zhan arrived in Liao, which was very convenient.
He was a tall, broad man, just like his father, with a much lighter, booming voice.
Xiao Zhan dropped to his knees unhurriedly. "Answering my lord (王爷), this one is a mere servant of the Emperor."
"Really? Is that why you live in Yong'an Hall, with all these treasures?" Liu Tong grinned down at him with frank appreciation. "Looking like this?"
"Like what?" Xiao Zhan asked with an innocent tilt of his head, expecting - humiliation, perhaps. Something subtly degrading. Certainly Liu Tong's father, the Emperor, was fond of such barbed compliments.
"Ah, I just meant - these robes are very beautiful."
"The robes are?" Xiao Zhan said softly, looking up through his lashes. In his mind he could picture the effect - a smile hidden in the corners of his eyes, the tantalising promise of more in the set of his mouth. The thick gold band that followed the contours of his neck, ending in the intricate pendant that sat in the hollow of his throat, framed perfectly by those nice white robes.
Liu Tong shook his head, laughing. "No, the person in them. Too beautiful to kneel. Please get up."
A pity that such a gracious man was spawned by Xiao Zhan's mortal enemy.
"My lord is too kind. This one is not worthy."
"The Emperor-my-father (父皇) has good taste," Liu Tong said. A hint of mockery there this time, but it didn't seem to be directed at him.
Xiao Zhan retreated back a step, looking up at Liu Tong. He was of a height or taller than most other men and it had taken practice to learn how to do this part convincingly, making himself seem smaller and weaker.
"My lord is too kind. This one is not worthy," he repeated quietly, ducking his head.
Just as he'd hoped, strong fingers gripped his chin, forcing his head back up with gentle, inexorable force.
"What's the matter? I hear you've hardly been without his favour all these years. Imagine my surprise when I get called back from the border and I hear the reigning favourite is a boy."
"This one cannot complain," Xiao Zhan said quietly.
Liu Tong gave a sharp laugh. "No, I suppose you can't."
Another step back. He was now pressed into a corner, or at least that was what it would look like to anybody watching.
Liu Tong's gaze lingered on his face, tracking from his wide eyes to his mouth for a long, still moment, before he shook himself like a wet dog and let out another laugh.
"Are you allowed to have a drink with me?"
For his scheme to work, Xiao Zhan needed the princeling to take a few liberties. If he didn't have the courage, Xiao Zhan would've provided more encouragement, but that didn't seem to be required after all. Liu Tong's own contrary nature was enough.
"Begging my lord's pardon, this one cannot."
He began to fold down to his knees, slow enough that Liu Tong had plenty of time to stop him by clutching at his arms.
Xiao Zhan cast his eyes down to the floor. "This one is not to leave the pavilion."
The long sleeves of Xiao Zhan's robes had slid up when Liu Tong grabbed his arm, exposing a neat ring of bruising around each of his thin wrists. Liu Tong's gaze darkened as he spotted them.
"What - "
Liu Yilong's penchant for little games both in and out of the bedchamber had become dull after all these years, but it was still occasionally useful.
"This one - this one apologies," Xiao Zhan said, very low, just a hint of well-hidden nerves.
Liu Tong rubbed his heavily calloused fingertips along the red marks, frowning. "Why are you sorry?"
His hands were very warm. Xiao Zhan didn't have to fake his shiver.
"I - it's unsightly. I shouldn't - "
"He should at least give you some nice jade bracelets to cover them. And for your trouble."
As if Xiao Zhan were the top courtesan at some well established teahouse, being plied with expensive gifts in return for favour. What a notion.
He shrank back against the columns and bit his lip against a smile.
"Would my lord get me a pair?"
He could hear the faint echo of familiar footsteps approaching, signalling the move that would let him encircle the enemy's territory -
"What's going on here?"
- and the click of a stone being placed on the weiqi board at Liu Yilong's shrill, angry demand.
The events of the following days proceeded exactly as he imagined. The most difficult part was getting any reliable information, confined as he was to the innermost chamber of his pavilion. Fortunately, Liu Tong had apparently learned nothing from the debacle and snuck back in to see him.
"In here, my lord."
Not many would be foolish enough to come back after suffering such a stern rebuke from his father for being overly familiar with Xiao Zhan. Even fewer would linger in Xiao Zhan's bedchamber, seemingly oblivious to the impropriety and the danger.
Perhaps his concern was genuine, for whatever it was worth.
"Did Father punish you too?"
Xiao Zhan shifted so that the delicate gold chain on his ankle clinked. "Oh, yes. I've been confined for a month. Chained to the bed."
Liu Yilong was, as always, deeply predictable in his vices.
Liu Tong drew in a shocked breath and looked away, his face reddening. "I have brought you trouble."
"Please don't feel sorry for me. It's not a real punishment. The Emperor likes to play these games with me. What about you, my lord?"
"I thought the Emperor-my-father might take my head," Liu Tong said easily. "Only a demotion in the end. Don't worry, I don't blame you."
How could a prince in such a poisonous court be so stunningly naive? That wouldn't do at all.
Xiao Zhan sat up further and fully parted the drapes around the bed. He felt like an over-full cup of the bitterest medicinal brew, helpless to keep it from spilling out.
"Then you are a fool. Do you know, when you were still a boy, your mother gifted me poisoned incense? I almost died."
"I'm sure it would've been an accident - " Liu Tong started to say, eyes wide.
Xiao Zhan cut him off impatiently.
"Consider this, then. Why do you think the Emperor found us? Someone told him where you were."
Liu Tong's weathered face went very pale.
"No - mother would never - "
"Of course not. It was a trap meant for me. But she does have two sons, and you are the less favoured one."
It was a pity he'd been born royal, Xiao Zhan thought, watching anger chase denial across Liu Tong's face.
Perhaps it was unwise to have provoked a general so grievously. The hands that closed around Xiao Zhan's throat this time were anything but gentle.
"What - do you think will happen - if I call for help?" Xiao Zhan managed.
The grip on his throat tightened until he began to choke and splutter, and then slackened abruptly, and Xiao Zhan was left to take heaving gasps of air while Liu Tong frowned at his own hand.
"You're just a plaything."
He was really too soft-hearted by far. Even that didn't sound quite as insulting as it should.
"Yes. I am." Xiao Zhan's voice came out hoarse, far from its usual pleasant tone. All the better, really. "You're the Emperor's son. You're a threat and he's always been paranoid. Do you think I'm the real reason you were demoted?"
It was so simple. He couldn't see how Liu Tong could fail to understand it, or retain any delusions about familial feeling. As if there was such a thing in the imperial line.
Liu Tong took a slow step back from the bed, staring at Xiao Zhan as if he was a demon who'd suddenly revealed their monstrous true form right in front of his eyes. "How could you know - who are you?"
Xiao Zhan shuffled forward until they were once again close enough for Liu Tong to kill him with one blow, and leaned in as if he was imparting an intimate secret.
"No one, when compared to you. Except when I was a child, a wolf came into my home, killed my family and ate my heart."
Liu Tong met his eyes for no longer than a fleeting moment, blanched at what he found there, and fled so quickly he might have been in fear of enchantment.
The next day, his mother Noble Consort Yu came to see Xiao Zhan in such a rage that she struck him and left him bleeding.
As much as he'd been counting on her losing control and injuring him, maybe ordering him beaten, Xiao Zhan felt a genuine moment of panic when he saw the blood. He couldn't afford to have his face ruined just yet.
As a well-raised young man who was taught to take care with one's appearance but not to take improper pride in it, he'd never dwelt much on his appearance. It was only after the fall of Qi, when he was found and brought up to Mount Wudang and told what the Sleeping Dragon Sect meant for him to do - only then had he learned to see his features anew, as the tools they were.
Fortunately the cut on his chin was deep but small, and the rage it inspired in Liu Yilong was even better than Xiao Zhan could've hoped for.
Noble Consort Yu's jade bracelets were still warm from her body when he slid them onto Xiao Zhan's wrists.
The rebellion Liu Tong raised in his mother's name was brief but violent, and he was dead before it burned itself out. At the same time, the Little Conqueror seized his chance and invaded Liao himself, as Xiao Zhan had hoped he might, the final stone on the board that would finally grant him victory.
His finest hour, and the height of his moral decrepitude.
Meng Du's disgust was probably genuine. Xiao Zhan had given up every scrap of honour in return for the tools he needed to fulfil his vows. Any proper Confucian would feel the same.
If he had been born in peacetime, Xiao Zhan might've been one of them. Like his father, and his father's father. And those proper Confucians would die waiting when all that they held dear was snatched away, rather than adapt their rigid morals to the changing times.
Even in times of peace, it was entirely possible to die of passivity.
In Xiao Zhan's first few years as part of Wang Yibo's rear palace, there had been no shortage of incidents. Poison in his food, nightmare-inducing herbs in his incense burner, tree branches just happening to fall as he walked past. He let them have their fun, long enough for him to pinpoint which members of his retinue were in the pay of high-ranking consorts or ministers.
The hardest part was convincing Yibo to wait when his immediate reaction to any attempts on Xiao Zhan's life or wellbeing was to set his guards on the perpetrator; or better yet, do the honours himself.
Those who wished to harm him had to resort to more subtle measures after that.
It had been years since the last assassination attempt, until he went to Shu at the bidding of the Emperor to investigate what had happened to the funds and grain earmarked for drought relief. The assassin might even have succeeded, if Xiao Zhan hadn't had his own unasked-for protector.
He'd been more surprised at the identity of his rescuer than when he had a sword in his face.
Heavens knew how long his old shixiong Wu Jiacheng had been shadowing Xiao Zhan. Clearly his own instincts for physical danger had deteriorated in these quieter years, coddled within Yibo's protective sphere.
Not this time, though. This time, he'd stepped into the trap himself.
"So this is why you lured me out of the palace, Meng-daren."
All so he'd have a clear board for his wild accusations, backed up, no doubt, by fabricated evidence. Sloppy and hasty - how unlike Meng Du.
"I do wonder what's happening inside those halls now," Meng Du said, which just about confirmed it.
"Do you really think I have the Emperor's heart by some kind of enchantment that might lapse if I strayed from his side?"
"Why else would he have brought you back to Chen and spent so long in thrall to you?"
Xiao Zhan laughed. "You flatter me. I only wish I had some means of enchantment."
Which member of the imperial harem wouldn't kill for certainty about one's place in the heart of one's Emperor, and some means to ensure that it continued?
Xiao Zhan knew how to use his face and voice and body; he could play his mark like an instrument, but that only made him more keenly aware of the artifice.
"Even you know that Emperors are fickle," Meng Du said, with the air of the worst kind of self-important scholar, puffed up with a stomach full of Confucian morality. "Favour gained through carnal desire cannot last (以色待人, 不会长久)."
"The thought has occurred to me," Xiao Zhan admitted. "But I'm sure you didn't bring me here to provide advice."
"I'm only pointing out that he may not miss you as much as you think."
Xiao Zhan shook his head. "Others may be capricious and changeable - certainly I have known such men - but the Emperor is not like them."
"Isn't he? Even Grand Chancellor Cheng is constantly in fear for his position and his life, let alone those of us who don't have a royal nephew."
"Only those who have done wrong need worry. This scramble for advantage, these sloppy moves, going so far as to raise your poor child as a tool against me. It's unlike you, Meng-daren. Unless there is something eating away at you. The grain and funds meant to alleviate the famine down South. What happened to them?"
Xiao Zhan had only seen the aftermath of the drought, and that was bad enough. He owed the people of Shu an answer to what had happened to the goods and funds meant to relieve their suffering. But by the time he got there to investigate, the trail - and the bodies - were cold and he hadn't turned up more than hints and shadows.
Hence the need for a more involved plot. As the saying went, there was no hope of capturing the cub without entering the tiger's lair (不探虎穴，安得虎子).
"Surely you can't be expecting a confession," Meng Du said.
"Why not? Wu Yang confessed. He even has proof of your involvement, as I'm sure you have evidence of his."
Meng Du's eyes darted irresistibly toward a cabinet of lacquered wood in the adjoining room, displaying a tasteful selection of vases and jade sculptures, before focusing back on him, and then on the two other men in the room with them.
"You two, leave us."
The moment the latch slid into place on the door, Meng Du took up a ceremonial dagger from its display shelf, unsheathed it and strode toward Xiao Zhan.
Xiao Zhan blinked at him innocuously as he stepped closer, mentally willing him closer still, until they were less than an arm's length apart and Meng Du loomed over him in his elaborate robes, blocking out the light.
He swiped the dagger down Xiao Zhan's front, almost casually. The blade was sharp; it cut through the thick layers of fabric easily and left a line of stinging pain down his chest. He bit his lip rather than make a sound.
"You lie," Meng Du said.
He was, of course, correct, but it didn't matter. Not when he'd given himself away with that glance. Xiao Zhan would just have to keep pushing.
"What were you thinking? Five generations of faithful service, only for the family name to be dragged down into the dirt by one man's greed." Meng Du snarled; the point of the dagger dug in further, until more blood welled up. Xiao Zhan took a deep, rattling breath to keep from gasping in pain and kept going. "What do you imagine posterity will say about you?"
"No worse than what it will say about you."
Xiao Zhan pretended to think hard for a moment. "About me? Nothing, I imagine. My actions aren't fit for the history books. You, on the other hand - when your crimes are discovered, you will be famous."
Meng Du drew the dagger back and waved it in Xiao Zhan's face, his own twisting into contemptuous rage.
"The yaojing who slept his way into power has no room to lecture anyone about morality."
The cutting edge was so sharp it gleamed. Xiao Zhan willed himself not to look so he wouldn't think about what Meng Du could do with it, or the throb of pain where he'd dug it in. What might happen if his hand slipped.
"It's hard work, Meng-daren. Not for everyone. Especially not for little girls."
"A servant's daughter. I have plenty," Meng Du said dismissively.
Xiao Zhan felt a pang of pity for the girl, who had no idea what she'd gotten herself into, and clearly had no hope of rescue from this quarter.
"But still - to play procurer, with your own flesh and blood. Is the madam of a teahouse really less of a disgrace than those she presses into the arms of her customers?"
"You - "
This time, Meng Du let him see the path of the dagger descending slowly toward him, and he drew the tip down from just below Xiao Zhan's eye with agonising slowness. The cut burned all the way down the left side of his face. When Xiao Zhan touched it, his hand came away wet. The blood welling up must have stained his smile red, too. Like he really was a monster who devoured men's hearts for sustenance.
"If you keep looking at me like that, I'll take those eyes out. Let's see how much he likes you then," Meng Du panted.
Xiao Zhan managed to hide his instinctive flinch, though it was a near thing. The idea of Yibo seeing him as he was now, robes torn and face bloody, was bad enough, let alone -
"Surely Meng-daren knows better than to leave me alive to take revenge on him."
Meng Du's face untwisted into something almost amiable. "Of course. I didn't take you to be naive. Did you think you'd be setting foot outside again?"
"Of course not," Xiao Zhan said. He smiled with such dreamy pleasure and anticipation that Meng Du began to look unnerved. "If I died now I would be first forever in the Emperor's heart. He will always remember me as I am now. I'll never age, never sicken. Never disappoint him. There's no greater victory possible. Don't you think?"
Meng Du stared as if Xiao Zhan had sprouted feathers and claws. Then he grabbed Xiao Zhan's throat in a vice grip.
Once Xiao Zhan had been a person made entirely of poison and manipulation and deceit, and he'd been ready to die once his revenge was complete. But then he'd met Yibo, a force of nature more akin to the harsh winds that battered Mount Wudang than a man, whose intense, suffocating devotion had been enough to crack open Xiao Zhan's chest and make him offer up all he had, in the hopes that such a meagre prize would prove adequate.
He made the strife of living seem worthwhile.
Xiao Zhan slanted a glance at the windows. "I think the play's gone on long enough, don't you?"
Meng Du's men hadn't chained him up very well, perhaps thinking him unlikely to be a physical threat. He certainly didn't look or act like one, and had never carried a weapon his entire life.
It had been, all things considered, pitifully easy to rile Meng Du up and lure him close.
His hand went to his hair and emerged with a sharp hairpin. Before Meng Du could blink it was lodged in his neck. Xiao Zhan clamped a hand over his mouth to muffle the scream and spoke his next words in a whisper, directly into the man's ear.
"Don't worry, all the guards will just assume you're still having your fun with me. Now, where is the key to that cabinet?"
* * *
She would've come in person to deliver such important news, said the Empress' note, if to do so would not alert the very miscreants who were at the centre of what she had to report. Yibo noted her sensible decision-making with approval, and then he read the next line, and the note slipped out of his suddenly nerveless grip.
Shen Hai picked it up and offered it back to him immediately. "Bixia?"
Yibo shook himself out of his stupor, snatched it out of Shen Hai's hand and took off from the imperial study at a run.
"Bixia should put on a cloak first - Bixia, wait - "
"Lanyue Pavillion! Bring Li Wenhan!" Yibo called out, not bothering to look back.
It had snowed just that morning. The paths in the palace complex were still being cleared, and Yibo had to slow down to a brisk walk as he approached Lanyue Pavillion.
When he'd finally coaxed Xiao Zhan back to Luoyang, the Pavilion had just been finished, with half the planting still to be done. He still vividly recalled the anxiety he'd felt leading Xiao Zhan here, toweringly desperate for him to approve of his new home, and the way his heart had lifted at Xiao Zhan's delight, his eyes brighter than a night sky full of stars.
The plum trees that Xiao Zhan had liked so much were in bloom, the red blossoms dusted in white. A beautiful sight, but not one Yibo was in the mood to appreciate. Beyond them, the pavilion was in chaos, the main audience chamber ransacked beyond recognition.
A familiar figure stood unmoving in the centre of the chaos, her face a mask of polite puzzlement.
"What happened here?" Yibo demanded.
Yinxing dropped into an unhurried curtsy. "I came to pay my respects to Xiao-daren, but he's nowhere to be found. I've directed my servants to look for anything that might tell us where he went."
Yibo nodded sharply at her and raised his voice to be heard over the din. "Wan'er? Are you here?"
Xiao Zhan's young head attendant melted out of the shadows as if by magic and went to her knees. "What does Bixia require?"
"When was the last time you saw your Xiao-daren?"
Wan'er visibly hesitated before answering. "Last night. Xiao-daren waited up until Zhao-gonggong came to tell us that Bixia had fallen asleep in the imperial study and been put to bed. I extinguished the lamps when I left."
"Perhaps he ran away," Yinxing said suddenly.
"Why would he do that, guifei-niangniang (贵妃娘娘)?" Wan'er replied, so naturally that Xiao Zhan himself couldn't have done better.
"Guilt, I imagine. One of the servants just found this."
Yinxing really was quite the performer. If Yibo hadn't read the Empress' note, he might have believed she meant every bit of her shock and disgust.
The stack of correspondence her servants had supposedly uncovered was in a credible imitation of the Grand Chancellor's hand. That part did surprise Yibo - he hadn't thought the composer of this opera quite that ambitious, to aim for two birds with one stone.
"So Xiao Zhan was plotting with the Grand Chancellor to kill me, put Mingjie on the throne and govern in his stead. What a wicked plot," Yibo said blandly.
Yinxing stepped closer and lowered her voice. "This concubine has heard that he did the same when he was serving his previous master, turning father against son."
Wan'er stifled an outraged squawk behind her sleeves.
In truth, it was far from inconceivable. Yibo himself had gained his throne by force, and killed his own flesh and blood to do it. His father had only made him Crown Prince at the point of Yibo's sword. Mingjie did not have competition to worry about, but one day he might grow weary of waiting for Yibo to die. The history of Chen was littered with such incidents.
The throne is yours by right. That right cannot be gained, but it can be lost. If you don't deserve it, the heavens will take it away, as he'd heard Xiao Zhan say to a wide-eyed Mingjie, hanging on his every word.
No, he did not doubt that Xiao Zhan could, if he wanted to.
Yibo, too, took a step toward Yinxing until they were closer than they'd been on her first night in the palace. He bent down and whispered right into her ear.
"I know full well what he's done and what he's capable of. Sometimes when he looks at me, I wonder if he will one day decide that it is just and right to do the same to me."
Yinxing pulled back as if she'd been scalded. She could not have looked more shocked if he'd run her through with his sword.
"Then how can Bixia keep such a snake by his side?"
"Because if he does try to kill me, then I would have done something to earn it, and it will be the right thing to do. But I'd like to think he'd try and talk me out of whatever wrong I'd committed first."
Yibo's cold smile had been known to set grown men back a few paces, and he was impressed when she merely blanched.
A grim-looking Wenhan arrived on the scene then with his men, followed closely by Shen Hai, panting and out of breath.
"Lord Anchuan's gone missing," Wenhan snapped out, even as he sketched a perfunctory bow.
"So I've been told," Yibo said. He turned to Yinxing, who had gone so pale she could've been a ghost. "I'll grant you one chance. Where is he?"
Yinxing swayed as if she was about to faint and fell to her knees. "This concubine is wronged!"
"Really? I have it on good authority here that you attempted to conspire with the Empress to harm Xiao Zhan."
Yibo flung the Empress' note to the ground. Yinxing picked it up with a trembling hand and flicked it open.
"Everything you and your father inflict on him, I will return tenfold," Yibo said, his voice shaking with the effort of suppressing all the anger and anxiety he'd felt since he saw the note. "I swear it before heaven and earth. Think on that before you answer, but don't think too long. My patience is very short."
The guards at Meng Du's estate surrendered as soon as they saw the Forbidden Army and the Emperor's placard.
Yibo waved away their obeisance impatiently.
"Stay out of the way." He turned to Yinxing, her hands bound and escorted by two of Wenhan's men. To her credit, she'd regained much of her composure on the carriage ride over and no longer seemed to be constantly picturing her own beheading. "Where."
For such a large estate, it was suspiciously short of people.
"I - I don't know. Maybe one of the side rooms? The ones directly behind the main hall should be empty."
Wenhan was already heading in the direction she indicated. Yibo followed right on his heels, his head full of recriminations and poorly suppressed fear.
If only he had realised what Xiao Zhan meant to do, he might have stopped him. That was probably why Xiao Zhan had made him promise not to interfere. He knew that Yibo would keep his word to him no matter what, and he was too used to using himself as a piece in his schemes, heedless of the danger.
And now - Meng Du would not be so rash as to hurt Xiao Zhan, Yibo told himself. He was a greedy, duplicitous man but not a vicious one, and surely he knew that his own life, not to mention that of his entire family, would be forfeit if anything happened to Xiao Zhan.
Let posterity call him a vile tyrant. He'd rather that than fail the one he wanted to protect above all others.
"Bixia, the entrance to these rooms is locked."
The first thing Yibo noticed was the smell of blood, familiar from battlefields and prisons. His heart suddenly grew loud in his chest.
Surely Xiao Zhan was fine. He dared not imagine anything else, or what he might do if his hopes proved false.
His soldiers forced the door open and Yibo strode in at the forefront, tugging Yinxing with him by the arm. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Yinxing let out a scream.
Meng Du lay on a massive luohan bed, seemingly dead to the world, his robes splattered with blood from the neck down, a glint of metal sticking out of his neck.
Xiao Zhan sat at the other end, leafing through a sheath of papers, his hair entirely loose, a mess he'd tucked behind his ear and over one shoulder. His robes were covered in dark stains - the fine, translucent top layer with its billowing sleeves and embroidered birds in flight was ruined beyond repair, and the rest seemed to have been torn open, showing a slice of pale chest that was marred by a nasty-looking wound that had barely crusted over. A narrow cut ran down his left cheek, leading to a vivid trail of dried blood down his throat. He'd bitten through his lip and the cut had bled so much it looked like he'd smeared it with rouge, or tried to tear someone's throat out with his teeth.
He looked up with a smile that froze at the sight of Yibo.
"Bixia - I wasn't expecting - "
Something wild passed over Xiao Zhan's face before he shrank back into the bed, the closest thing Yibo had ever seen to fear on him. He hadn't even thought Xiao Zhan capable of such a thing.
Yibo had to cough before he could move or speak. All the air had left his chest. "Of course I did. Sorry for making you wait."
He started forward, bent down and began wiping at the blood on Xiao Zhan's face with the sleeve of his robes as lightly as he could, staining the yellow silk crimson.
Xiao Zhan ducked away when Yibo tried to cup his cheek so he could get a look at the wound.
"Don't look at me."
"I don't care what you look like."
Yibo went to put his arms around him, only for Xiao Zhan to scramble back even further until he had nowhere to go.
"Don't. I'm filthy, the smell - "
"I don't care," Yibo said again, following him onto the bed and tugging at his sleeve until Xiao Zhan reluctantly turned back to face him. "Just let me take care of you. If only you knew - why do you always - "
He sounded half-frantic, nothing like his usual cool. He felt frantic, too, desperate to touch. His chest ached.
Yibo leaned forward and caught Xiao Zhan's mouth, licking at the cut until he parted his lips and kissed Yibo back, deep hungry copper-tinged kisses that felt more vital than breath.
"You know why," Xiao Zhan said breathlessly when he drew back, twin spots of colour high on his pale cheeks. He glanced around the room and straightened his shoulders, gathering composure and authority around him like another layer of robes. "Bixia."
Only the faintest chiding note in his intonation of Yibo's title, and that was all it needed.
Yibo forced himself to turn away with an effort. "Meng-guifei may stay to tend to her father. Everyone else out."
The room cleared with commendable speed. Once the door swung shut, leaving the room in half-darkness, Xiao Zhan shuffled forward and held out his arms expectantly.
Yibo drew Xinhua and sliced through the shackles in one whistling blow. Before they even hit the ground he'd shrugged off his own formal dragon cloak and was wrapping it around Xiao Zhan, over his ruined robes.
The blood and his wounds transformed Xiao Zhan's sweet smile into something more lurid, the kind of expression a sculptor or painter might give an alluring demon.
"I found proof, Bixia. Just like I promised. The grain theft - the South - we have him."
He was so lovely all lit up with fierce, vicious satisfaction, impossible to resist. Yibo had to force his grip to remain gentle instead of crushing Xiao Zhan to him like he could meld their bodies together.
"It's my fault. You shouldn't have had to dirty your hands with the likes of him."
Xiao Zhan was the purest person he'd ever met. To anyone else that might sound absurd, but Yibo saw it every time he looked into those eyes, clear all the way to the bottom, untouchable by dirt or dust. He would never forgive himself if that ever changed.
"My hands aren't so precious," Xiao Zhan said dismissively. "But I'm not so sure about the hairpin Bixia gave me. Pull it out, let's see."
His gaze slid to Yinxing, shivering in a dark corner, and then quickly away; just long enough for her to notice and spring to life.
"Please, Bixia - my father needs a physician - "
"At least you still have the proper familial sentiments," Xiao Zhan said. "Or enough to make the pretence. Your father certainly didn't when I asked him how he could feed you into the tiger's den." He shifted into a cruel but accurate impression of Meng Du's high-handed tones. "A servant's daughter. I have plenty."
Yinxing flinched like she'd been struck and sank down heavily onto the cold ground.
"Answer me one question, Xiao Zhan," she said suddenly. "When did you know?"
"The moment I saw you. It was as if the heavens had delivered me the entire stratagem, when you told me who you were."
"What if I hadn't gone along with my father's plot?"
"I told you the day we met. You would have been left in peace. But peace wasn't what you sought, or so I've been told."
Yinxing's eyes narrowed.
"So you knew it all. Even the Empress - I wondered."
"She was never a potential ally for you. Your first mistake was trying to turn her against me. We would never betray each other."
Occasionally the power of the Chengs still made Yibo uneasy. But he trusted Xiao Zhan's ability to read people and Xiao Zhan said the Empress was too sensible to take risks with her position and her child. And she'd proven it.
"A prudent general doesn't fight a losing battle. I shouldn't have wasted my pity on her," Yinxing muttered. She drew herself up into a straight-backed kneel and turned to Yibo. If not for her pallor and the thin beads of sweat on her forehead, he would have thought her perfectly composed. "If I may, Bixia - the truth is that Xiao-daren is right. There's never been a hint of familial feeling between my father and me."
That, at least, was honest. Yibo sensed an opportunity.
"You may still die for him," he said coldly. "Beheadings don't leave a very pretty corpse."
Punishment for treason extended to at least six degrees of the family, after all.
Yinxing didn't even flinch, this time.
"What if - what if I could give you evidence against my father? I've been watching him for years, I know all his secrets. Far more than you could have got out of him just now."
Xiao Zhan looked as pleased as a child who'd just been offered their favourite toy.
"I told you she was smart."
By decree of the Emperor:
Imperial Secretary Meng Du, being of honourable stock and good education, and having had the Emperor's trust and favour for many years, betrayed his family, learning and his Emperor by engaging in conspiracy and corruption for his own benefit. The evidence against which has been revealed to all under heaven being ironclad and mountainous (铁证如山), he is hereby ordered to be beheaded.
All members of his family are to be stripped of rank to the sixth degree save for Noble Consort Meng, who is to be exempt in recognition of her virtue in turning in her own kin (大义灭亲).
Outside the Taiping Hall bathhouse, the snow had resumed, covering the rooftops of the palace in white, while inside the steam from the pool and the lit braziers in the four corners created the illusion of a hot and humid midsummer day.
Xiao Zhan sat on one of the bamboo stools while Yibo ran a dry cloth over him, careful of the wrappings over his upper torso. Droplets of water from the pool slid like pearls over his pale stomach, and in shining trails down his hips and thighs.
Yibo, who had always prided himself on his grace and dexterity, felt his clumsiest when he tried to take care of Xiao Zhan, especially compared to how practised Xiao Zhan was at the same tasks. Even after all these years, it still sent an illicit thrill through him simply to be allowed to touch, like he was placing his hands on a finely carved jade sculpture of some minor heavenly official with each pass of the cloth, and just barely managing to suppress the urge to follow it with his mouth.
He leaned forward and pressed his lips against Xiao Zhan's cheek instead, right over the cut, and then over the scar on his throat.
"If only you really were as wicked (奸臣) as they all say."
If so, he might have been content to stay by Yibo's side and devote all his efforts to sycophancy and keeping his favour. Instead he'd set himself an impossible task and put himself through danger for Yibo's sake, again and again.
"You don't mean that," Xiao Zhan said.
He accepted the robe Yibo handed him and draped it around himself. The yellow of the Emperor's attire seemed all the more vibrant against his skin, still faintly pink from the steam.
"Don't endanger yourself like this again."
"Is that a decree from the Emperor?"
Yibo ignored the tease in his tone, the invitation to make light of it all.
"If you think you owe a debt then repay it by staying by my side. That's all I want."
"I appreciate the sentiment," Xiao Zhan said.
"Gege - "
"I do! But…a long time ago, I decided you were the rightful ruler of this realm. I won't have that threatened by anyone."
You. Not Bixia.
As a child, Yibo had dreamed of the throne, of uniting the South under his rule. But he'd never dreamed of having someone who cared for him so well, because he never thought it possible.
What kind of consort does Jie-er want when he's older? His mother had asked him once.
Someone beautiful, of course, he'd said immediately. And then, with a glance at his mother's increasingly frail face, and - and someone who cares about me most of all.
He'd earned a rare smile for that. She leaned close and whispered into his ear, if Jie-er is fortunate enough to sit on the throne, then there will be plenty of pretty girls who will care about you first and only.
Yibo had been a bright kid; it didn't take him long to realise that wasn't quite right. The Emperor had a harem full of women devoted to the title and the throne. That had nothing to do with the person under those yellow robes.
Yibo shuffled forward on his knees until he could rest his head on Xiao Zhan's bare thigh. "If I ever betray your sentiments, promise me you'll do me the honour of killing me yourself. Hold the knife to my throat and I'll do the rest."
He pulled Xiao Zhan's hand to his mouth and kissed the center of his palm, and then the inside of his wrist where he was very sensitive. Xiao Zhan made a soft sweet sound in the back of his throat and shuddered. His other hand came to rest in Yibo's loose hair.
"Stop talking about death, it's inauspicious."
"You alone have that right," Yibo continued, as if Xiao Zhan hadn't spoken. "Gege, do you know, I wouldn't even dare to die without your permission."
He felt as much as heard Xiao Zhan's laugh. "If you did, I'd go into the Underworld and make the King give you back to me."
His tone was light. It compelled Yibo to look up as surely as if he was being pulled on strings.
"If anyone could - "
"Do you not believe me?"
The curve of those eyes once brought a realm to ruin.
He'd captured Yibo with that first glance, too, with no hope of escape, or any desire to do anything but linger as long as possible in his encircling warmth.
When faced with Xiao Zhan, he couldn't summon the much feared Emperor of the South; he was forever the young man who looked upon the one he wanted with admiration and hunger and wonder and no little trepidation about whether it was too much, and how anyone else could feel anything remotely like it.
No one else, perhaps, save for one other.
"I believe it," Yibo said softly, helplessly. More words flowed out of him, like a dam breaking. "Gege, when Ming-er is grown I'll leave the throne to him and we can go live in your homeland like you always wanted. Would you like that?"
Xiao Zhan's eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open. He always seemed so young in the rare moments when Yibo managed to take him by surprise, younger and rawer even than the Xiao Zhan he'd first met in the ruins of a dying nation.
Yibo cursed his own impulsiveness. He'd wanted to propose it with more care and ceremony than this. It was only that he'd been fantasising about it for so long: to one day leave his realm in good hands and wander without a care in the world, bathed in the glow of his white moonlight. The idea had set down such firm roots in him; it seemed impossible that the master of his heart had no inkling.
He opened his mouth to explain, to say that Xiao Zhan didn't need to answer now, only for Xiao Zhan to place a finger over his lips.
"Shh. I understand." Xiao Zhan shook his head ruefully. Then he smiled; not a smile designed to please, not a hint of artifice to it. He cupped Yibo's face in his hands and tapped his cheek. "What would we do, hmm?"
"Whatever you want. Wander. Try all the teahouses in Shu. Play endless games of weiqi until I start winning. You could try and improve my calligraphy instead of Ming-er's."
"You'd tire of such a conflict-free life."
Xiao Zhan was tempted despite himself, Yibo could tell. Even if he wasn't in favour yet, Yibo would wear him down. He was good at that.
Some might say that it was madness to give up an entire realm for one person. But it was a feather to a mountain compared to what Xiao Zhan had done for him.
"Never, not if I was with you."
No need to speak of power and riches
No fear of strictures and rules
As long as the sky and as enduring as the earth
All I wish for is to follow my intended
- Bixia (陛下) is an honorific title used to refer to an emperor.
- The Great River is what the Yangtze River was called back then. It wasn't until the Six Dynasties period that it got its current name (长江, or the long river).
- Shu is the old name for the Sichuan region that Xiao Zhan is from.
- Lanyue Pavilion/揽月殿 - Lanyue means to pluck up the moon, and more metaphorically to do a great act. So it's essentially Yibo bragging about Xiao Zhan.
- Daren (大人) is a title for high ranked officials.
- The Grand Chancellor, the Imperial Secretary (御史大夫) and the Grand Commandant, collectively referred to as the Three Lords, were the three most powerful officials in the imperial government.
- A yaojing (妖精) is something - an animal or plant or inanimate object - which through years of absorbing spiritual energy can attain human or semi-human form and acquire powers. The word is sometimes translated as demon or monster, although they are not necessarily evil. However, the word is also popularly used as a pejorative term for a person (usually a woman) who sets out to seduce men, or a seductive person, similar in effect to calling someone a slut or a whore. It's also occasionally used with an admiring tone these days, which can make things a little confusing. (For example, both Xiao Zhan's fans and antis call him Xiao-yaojing but they do it in very different tones.)
- Rear palace (后宫) is the Chinese term for the imperial harem. It refers both figuratively to the Emperor's harem and literally to the palaces where the Emperor's family live (as opposed to the palaces where official business is conducted).
- A memorial (奏章) was an official communication to the emperor - basically how you submit your issue to be decided by him. These were usually written in classical, poetic Chinese. Picture a heavy sheet of paper, folded up in half-A4 increments.
- A Noble Consort (贵妃) is ranked just below the Empress in the rear palace hierarchy and is usually a person of noble birth.
- Some dynasties really did have restrictions on what each rank of concubine could wear. Only the Empress was allowed to wear bright red.
- Xiao Zhan's title Lord Anchuan (安川侯) means "pacifier of the Chuan region". Chuan being of course a reference to Sichuan/Shu.
- Grand Master to the Crown Prince (太子太师) was one of three very high ranking positions at court associated with being the Crown Prince's teacher. Most of the time these men weren't actually teaching the Crown Prince as Xiao Zhan is here.
- Upon the death of the emperor, those of his concubines who were childless would usually be packed off to a (Buddhist) monastery and forced to become nuns. The concubines who had borne children were allowed to stay in the palace.
- Peach blossom eyes (桃花眼) are considered to be the height of feminine beauty. The shape of the eye is said to be like a single petal from a peach flower.
- Dianxia (殿下) is the honourific title for the empress and princes. Taizi Dianxia (太子殿下) is the equivalent of His Highness the Crown Prince.
- Mingjie/明杰 - 明/ming which means bright and is made up of the characters for sun and moon is a reference to Xiao Zhan's style name Qingyue (clear moon), 杰/jie is a reference to Yibo's childhood nickname Wang Jie, which is why Yibo's mother calls him Jie-er later.
- A luohan bed is the kind of daybed you see in shows like CQL which can be used during the day as a sofa/couch and also doubles as a bed.
- Weiqi (围棋) is a very very old board game invented in China about 2,500 years ago, the mastery of which was seen as a necessity for a proper scholar. You may also know it by its Japanese name go.
- The East Palace (东宫) was the traditional residence of the Crown Prince.
- The usual form of Shifu used to refer to the Crown Prince's teacher is 师傅 but here Mingjie is using a slightly different form in which the second character is the one for "father". As the saying goes "he who teaches one for a single day should be venerated as a father for a lifetime".
- Xiao Zhan calls Wu Jiacheng shixiong/师兄 even though he's younger because Wu Jiacheng is more senior than him in the discipine ranking.
- "Favour gained through carnal desire cannot last (以色待人, 不会长久)" is a quote from and a tribute to one of my favourite TV shows, the 1995 Wu Zetian series, in which the young Wu Zetian, a newly favoured concubine of the then emperor, receives this wise counsel from one of the older consorts, and very much takes it to heart.
- Gonggong (公公) is a specific title for addressing eunuchs.
- 贵妃娘娘/guifei-niangniang: guifei is Noble Consort, and niangniang is a form of address for ranked consorts.
- Forbidden Army (禁军) is the Chinese term for royal guard, for the army whose specific purpose is to protect the imperial palace.
- The term 奸臣, literally wicked official/vassal, was a well-established insult for ministers and officials who behaved in ways contrary to Confucian morality - by being disloyal, or wicked, or corrupt, seeking personal gain. Basically the opposite of a good Confucian minister who places loyalty to their emperor and country above all else, only gives good and moral counsel even when it might invite censure and does not seek personal benefit.
- Xiao Zhan saying he'd go into the underworld and make its king give Yibo back is inspired by the play Peony Pavillion in which the female protagonist persuades the king of the underworld that she should be revived so she could be with her true love.
- 天长地久 (as long as the sky and as enduring as the earth) is an idiomatic phrase usually used to express the wish that a love affair be everlasting.