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Tale of the Winter Orchid
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  1. #1
    Junior Member flamingmidnight's Avatar
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    Sep 2008
    Dullsville, USA

    Post Tale of the Winter Orchid

    Tale of the Winter Orchid

    Summary: He was a royal prince, and everything that term implied. Powerful, arrogant, and devastatingly handsome, he had not expected to fall in love as he did. Yet the innocent, half-witted woman-child he encountered during a pretense set ablaze tender emotions in his icy heart. But in an age where dynasties crumble as swiftly as they rise, where brutal kings struggle for power, the hope for a bright future might be more than he could give.

    Chapter 1

    The scent of peonies in their early bloom drifted across the gold-trimmed pavilion, followed by echoes of hasty footsteps. Haggard servants hastened to sweep away the last of the fallen leaves from the earlier storm. A dozen young maids, clad in fine silk and dainty shoes, scurried across the courtyard with trays of delectable sweetmeats and imported wine.

    A lone note from a zither hovered in the air, and then died away, followed by a harmonious ensemble of tuned instruments. Soon after, the well-known, melodious voice of Jiangnan’s most beloved entertainer rose in a song. The throaty, feminine voice carried across the main hall and into the corner of a desolate garden.

    In the midst of shaded trees and butterflies, a teenage girl stood enthralled by the music.

    “Who is she?” She turned to her nurse, pointing in the direction of the song.

    The older woman wrinkled her nose. “That’s He Yuanyu. She’s quite famous along the Qinhuai River for her music. Your father must have invited her for his birthday.”

    The girl nodded gravely. It never occurred to her that she wasn’t present for her father’s birthday feast. She had never once been invited to attend such formal events.

    “Can’t Ruoli attend this once?” Her mother had once pleaded with the old master. “It’s her half-sister’s wedding after all, and the child wants to witness the ceremony.”

    Lan, the master’s first wife, had frowned with disapproval—it was her daughter who was to be married.

    “Ruoli? It would take one sentence from her for people to notice she’s a dim-wit. We can’t jeopardize Ah Sha’s whole future. What if her fiancé’s family discovered she has a fool for a sister? They might think it’s hereditary!”

    Ruoli’s mother bit her quivering lip. “It was the fever. Had old master not given the medicine to Ah Sha in time, she might also be—”

    “That’s enough,” Lan interrupted, as though she could not bear hearing more. “I won’t have Ruoli at the ceremony and that’s final.”

    “Old Master!”

    The women’s husband turned with a dazed expression. “What is it?”

    Lan said, “Ah Jiao is being purposely difficult.”

    Old master sighed with impatience—he was eager to reengage himself in his account book—and eyed his fourth wife with a pointed stare. “Ah Jiao. Lan is your elder sister. You should learn to respect and honor her, not be a hindrance.”

    Lan made little attempt to disguise her satisfied smirk.

    Defeated, Ruoli’s mother had taken her leave. Later, she enfolded a ten-year-old Ruoli in her arms and held her against her bosom, weeping.

    “My poor, unfortunate child. Heaven destined you for a rough life.”

    Ruoli obediently glanced up at the overhead skies.

    Ah Jiao wept harder and stroked her daughter’s face. “You had such a bright future, Li’er, and the fever robbed you of your wits.”

    “Mother, don’t cry.” Ruoli tugged her sleeve insistently. “It’s very bright here already. Li’er doesn’t like it too bright anyway. Li’er likes the dark better.”

    Her mother continued to sob, shaking her head.

    “I’m such a turtle. Stupid, stupid Li’er,” Ruoli thought sadly. It seemed that she always said the wrong things and her mother always cried because of them.

    Dim-witted Li’er—it was what everyone in the Shangguan manor whispered in private. She heard them say so when they didn’t know she was hiding under tables. It pleased her that she had a unique nickname while no other miss in the household did, but she knew it upset her mother. She wondered why.

    “Li’er,” her nurse was calling her name.

    Ruoli smiled sunnily, a dimple dancing in her right cheek. “Do you think I can peek at the woman singer?”

    “Don’t be absurd, miss,” her nurse chided. “She works in a Nanjing brothel. Hardly a respectable place.”

    “A brothel?”

    “Aye. She’s a prostitute.”

    “I want to be a prostitute!” Ruoli announced excitedly. “Nurse, will you tell me how to be a prostitute?”

    Every trace of blood drained away from her companion’s face. “Hush, hush, miss. ‘Tis not a seemly thing to say.”

    “Why not?”

    “Miss.” A soft voice interrupted them.

    Ruoli whipped around and found herself staring into a stranger’s face. She shrank back. “Who are you? I—I don’t know you.”

    “Who are you?” The nurse demanded. She stood in front of Ruoli like a protective mother hen. Then she noticed the stranger was dressed in a servant’s attire.

    She relaxed and inquired, “Why are you not at the feast? And why don’t I know you? I could have sworn I knew every servant in this household.”

    “I’m new, m’am. The old master sent me here especially to take care of Miss Ruoli’s needs.”

    The nurse studied the newcomer speculatively. After a few moments, she was tempted to request that he be replaced.

    The man—or boy, rather—was roughly in his early twenties and well-built. From what she could gather from his bowed countenance, the boy was extraordinarily handsome for a servant of no class or breeding. A set of aristocratic cheekbones, complimented by an upright nose that dropped down to a firm mouth and stubborn chin. From his lean muscles and rate of breathing, he was either used to hard work or practiced martial arts.

    When he raised his eyes, she was startled by the deep, penetrating gaze. She was in her late thirties—an age well past infatuation, but Miss Ruoli was barely sixteen. Given her weakness of mind, she was certainly susceptible to any improper advances made by this youth.

    “Your name?”

    “Ah Qi, m’am.” He spoke with neither infliction nor a base-born accent.

    “Qi, as in seven?”

    “Yes, m’am,” he said. “I’m the seventh in my family.”

    She squinted. “Did your family sell you out of destitution?”

    He seemed to realize the reason behind her inquiry. “Yes m’am. My father entered an unwise business decision a few months ago and my family was bankrupt as a result.”

    “That explains the accent.” She frowned. Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to the boy if she sent him away without reason. She would try him for some time, she decided, and observe his behavior towards Miss Ruoli.

    “Miss,” she said to Ruoli, who was eying him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. “This is Ah Qi. Your father sent him to take care of your needs.”

    At that, Ruoli’s wariness slipped away. She approached him and clasped his hand. “I’m Ruoli. My mother calls me Li’er. My sisters call me Dim-wit. You can call me anything you want. Is your name truly Ah Qi?”

    If Ah Qi was taken aback, he didn’t display it on his marble features. “Yes m’am. You can also call me whatever you want in the future.”

    “Ah Qi.” She giggled. “That’s queer. I think I named an earthworm that once, but only because the first six earthworms I had all died.”

    “I’m honored to be a namesake for your earthworm, miss.”

    The nurse couldn’t decipher whether he was being sarcastic or not.

    “That’s wonderful,” Ruoli exclaimed happily. “You see, my Ah Qi—the earthworm—was devoured by a bird last month. So having you here will be like Ah Qi being alive again!”

    “I’ll try to rise to your Ah Qi’s standards, miss.”

    “Ah Qi always kissed my hand when I held him,” she said wistfully.

    The nurse shot him a warning look.

    “I’m afraid that’s a service I can’t replace, miss,” he told her smoothly.

    She sighed, “It’s alright. No one can really replace something else you know. It’s not possible. And besides, silly, you’re a human. You can’t be an earthworm no matter how hard you try.”

    “It’s true, miss. No one will ever be able to replace Ah Qi.”

    “No,” Ruoli agreed readily, then brightened as she remembered. “Ah Qi, will you teach me to be a prostitute?”

    “Miss!” Her nurse cried, alarmed. “I already told you it’s improper to say such things.”

    “Ah Qi? Do you know how?” She insisted.

    “You will attempt to forget what miss had just said, Ah Qi.”

    He nodded subserviently. “I have a very flexible memory m’am.”

    “Come along, miss. It’s not good for you to spend so much time out of doors. You’ll catch a chill.”

    “Will I see you again?”

    “Of course, miss. I’m here to serve you.”

    Ruoli rewarded him with a dimpled smile. “Nurse, now I’m very happy,” she declared cheerily. “I like Ah Qi very much.”

    “That’s good. Come along, miss. As for you, you should go to the accountant to make sure your family receives their due.”

    “Goodbye,” she called out to him. “Remember to come find me later.”

    A few moments after Ruoli was led away, a wiry man, attired entirely in black, leapt down from the stone wall hidden behind the leaves of a poplar tree.

    “Seventh highness,” he acknowledged respectfully.

    Duan Junhan, seventh prince of the royal court, turned to his vassal. “Any news?”

    “Shangguan Fu has a secret vault in his bedroom, Mi’lord, but I couldn’t find any mechanisms to activate it.”

    “Then keep looking.”

    “Yes, sire. But I don’t understand…” He trailed off.

    “The Ancients once said mere mortals are not meant to understand all things.”

    “But sire, I simply don’t understand why you have to be here yourself. In the past—in the past you would have sent someone to be adopt the guise of a servant, but this time, mi’lord, you choose to do it yourself. Is there a reason for this?”

    “Yes, as you so astutely pointed out, there is a reason for this.”

    His vassal waited for an explanation, but none came. He tried again.

    “But—but sire…you’re a servant…to a dim-witted girl. It doesn’t sit well with your position.”

    “I wasn’t planning on advertising this little exploit by posting narratives of it all across the capital.”

    “The girl, sire, she’s a dim-wit. Her wits are scrambled.”

    “Is that what a dim-wit is? I do feel enlightened.” Having reached the end of his patience, Han said icily, “I brought you with me because of your expertise with hidden mechanisms, not for you to hover about me like a nursemaid.”

    “Yes s-sire.”

    “Now be gone.”

    The man bowed, and then disappeared.

    Ah Qi straightened the collar of his servant robes and headed for the servants’ living quarters.

    “Ah Qi!” Ruoli cried joyfully the next day. “Ah Qi!”

    “Morning miss.” He extended a hand to help her into the carriage. Her hand was frigidly cold. He frowned. “Shall I fetch a cloak, miss?”

    She met his inquiry with a blank look. “Why?”

    “Are you cold?”

    She nodded rapidly. “Yes. Very very cold,” she emphasized with a shiver.

    He looked around. “Where’s your nurse?”

    “She’s sick,” Ruoli explained quite tragically. “And they won’t let me see her.”

    That explained why she was without warm clothing. “I’ll bring a cloak, miss.”

    As he said so, he felt a wave of impatience. Because of the old woman’s illness, he was trapped in the role of nursemaid for this foolish woman-child. And he was in no mood to be such.

    Hua’er, Ruoli’s personal maid, perked up her ears. “A cloak? I’ll go fetch one for miss.” She ran off, eager to be of service.

    “Ah Qi…”

    “Yes miss?”

    “You don’t think—nurse—nurse is going to become a bird, do you?”

    He arched his brow in confusion. “A bird?”

    Her eyes watered. “My mother became a bird two years ago, you see. T-they told me she w-w-was ill, and the next day, they said she became a bird and flew far away.” She choked suddenly, and then burst into tears. “I s-s-still don’t know why—why she became a b-b-bird…d-didn’t she w-want me a-a-anymore?”

    Han watched her as she wailed at the entrance of the manor, attracting the attention of half the household.

    “The nurse won’t become a bird,” he assured her. It was the first time he tried to assuage a girl, and he found the fact mildly amusing.

    “Are you s-sure?”

    “I’m sure. It’s most likely a cold, nothing serious.”

    “Ah Qi.”


    “W-where is your mother?”

    He tensed at the question.

    His birth mother, Concubine Wen, had been fatally poisoned by her own sister in the rivalry for the emperor’s attention. Her body was shipped out of the palace overnight and hauled overboard on a cargo ship. The nearby sharks had nearly ripped apart her remains before they were found by nearby fishermen.

    “She’s dead,” he told her.

    He had not anticipated her reaction. Her lower lip quivered. He was startled when her small hand slipped into his.

    “I’m sorry,” she said, sounding like she was fighting against a fresh bout of tears. “Stupid, stupid Li’er,” she chided herself aloud. To him: “My mother’s a bird, but that’s not as bad as being dead. I’m sorry, Ah Qi.” The grip on his hand tightened.

    Had he not been in the pretense of a servant, he would most likely have stated coldly that her mother was dead, not a bird, just like his. But servitude elicited from him a saintly good-nature he would not have credited himself with otherwise.

    “It’s alright.” He changed the topic. “Where are we going?”

    She frowned. “Lan—my oldest mother—told me to go to Xiantian Teahouse in the city.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “She said there’s a young gentleman there who would not mind my dim-wittedness, as long as I behave prettily. She said perhaps if I hover around the teahouse long enough, he would recognize my beauty and want to marry me.”

    Being raised in the palace with three thousand concubines—each of them famed beauties from their own provinces—and having had his fair share of lovely, desirable bedmates, Han knew that Ruoli’s childlike, dark-eyed beauty rather faded by comparison. Observing her hopeful expression, he had to chuckle inwardly at her naïve innocence.

    Hua’er sprinted back with a heavy winter cloak and draped it around Ruoli’s shoulders.

    “Shall we go?” Han asked.

    Ruoli nodded, and they set off.
    Last edited by flamingmidnight; 11-28-08 at 08:21 PM.

  2. #2
    Junior Member flamingmidnight's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    Dullsville, USA

    Post Chapter 2

    Three months later…

    A powerfully built, middle-aged man reclined in a carved armchair adorned with intertwining dragons, twirling the remnants of his wine in a golden goblet. Once in a while his finger traced around the rim as he studied the barest stirring of ripples within. Though relaxed, the aura radiated a dark, brooding strength of a malevolence disguised behind a façade of civility. At the sound of hurriedly approaching footsteps, deeply set eyes swept carelessly to the approaching presence.

    “Your majesty.” Clad in a set of dark official robes, his prime minister, Zhaoxiang, knelt before him.

    “Rise.” Duan Yuchu commanded. The emperor of the Renwei dynasty studied his servant with narrowed eyes. “What news?”

    The aging man rose with care, and then reported, “The seventh highness is nowhere to be found.”

    A line of displeasure formed on his lips. “When did he disappear?”

    “The prince’s personal servants reported of seeing him three months ago.”

    The eyes beneath the heavy lids darkened slightly. “Three months…and I wasn’t aware of this until today?”

    “B-begging your majesty’s pardon. Given your nephew’s age, it’s highly probable that he departed in naïve search for adventure.”

    “Yes, highly probable,” he said vaguely. “How old is he now?”

    “Why, I believe he turned twenty-three as of last month, majesty.”

    “Hardly a boy anymore, is he? Yes,” he mused, “young boys are rather harmless, and perhaps I would not have paid attention to his disappearance in his youth. But when boys grow up to be men, shall we say they hold a certain…threat to my peace of mind?”

    “But your majesty,” stammered the conflicted advisor, “seventh highness had never shown the slightest sign of rebellion. He respects majesty as he would his own father.”

    “One can never be too careful. He reminds me too much of his father—both of them too shrewd and scheming.”

    The prime minister pursed his lips, frowning as the image of the prince came to mind.

    “But his seventh highness despises politics, majesty. All he does to occupy his time is entertain himself with women and the arts. He’d never shown the slightest interest in power.”

    “Have you not noticed his eyes, prime minister Zhao? They’re bright with hidden thoughts.”

    “May I be frank, majesty?”

    Duan Yuchu gestured with his free hand. “By all means.”

    “If majesty wants to safeguard his throne, then I would suggest keeping an eye out for fourth highness. After all, he is the crown prince, and he’d been much older than seventh highness when his majesty died.” He peered discreetly to confirm that the hall was barren except the two of them before continuing, “He has reason to be more suspicions. Furthermore, fourth prince has been far more diligent in his military and martial arts studies.”

    “Juncheng?” He sneered. “He’s nothing but a soft-hearted weakling. He does well in his studies, but that does not make up for his inborn limitations.” He dismissed the suggestion with a wave of his hand. “No, Juncheng will never pose much threat.”

    “Your majesty,” a voice announced. “Seventh highness requests an audience.”

    “Send him in.”

    “Yes sire.”

    A moment later, Duan Junhan knelt before the emperor. “Han’er pays his respects to uncle.”

    “Han’er!” The emperor said heartily. “I heard you’re nowhere to be found these days. Surely you know that I’ve worried about you quite excessively since I learnt of it.”

    “I’ve been in the southern provinces, uncle. As you know, the flowers there are quite splendid at this time of year.”

    “Surely you know better than to idle your time at such trivial pursuits,” the emperor chided disapprovingly. “You’re a man now. It’s time to think about the country.”

    Han shrugged—a perfect epitome of youthful impetuousness—and said nonchalantly, “Oh, my uncle, politics are a bore to me. I couldn’t care less about acquiring use of military tactics. Why trouble myself with these things, when there is beautiful women and sweet wine to hold my attention?”

    His uncle chuckled and gave a half shake of his head. “Then continue if it pleases you, my boy. Life is truly too short to spend fretting like an old man like myself. But remember, if you ever desire to have a position in court, I always have need for such a resourceful young man. Your late father would’ve desired the name.”

    Unseen by the other man, Han’s fists curled slightly, and then relaxed as he gained control of himself.

    “Fourth brother worries enough for the both of us.” His lips twisted in a grin. “But enough talk of this, uncle, for I have brought you a gift.”

    He signaled to his servant, who bowed. Moments later, he reappeared at the threshold of the throne room with a woman by his side.

    Duan Yuchu’s eyes widened slightly, absorbing the woman’s rare splendor. She was strikingly lovely, even to an emperor who had seen much beauty in women. Her alabaster skin caught the reflection of the gold on the pillars, accentuating its delicate refinement as she glided slowly towards him. Large, doe-like eyes were downcast beneath midnight lashes. Then, lithely, with a grace that spoke of gentle breeding, the roseate vision dipped down in a curtsy.

    “Your majesty.” Her voice was mellifluous and quiet.

    “This is Xuning, uncle. She is a celebrated performer in famed brothel in the south. But she only sells her arts, never her body.”

    “She’s quite splendid.” His majesty nodded his approval, his eyes still fixated on the young woman. Had the woman been less appealing, he would have entertained the possibility of her being a spy, but at the moment, masculine attraction was difficult to resist.

    Han gave a crooked grin. “Only the best for you, uncle.” He nodded. “I shall leave her in your care then.”

    “Go see your fourth brother,” his uncle advised. “I’m sure he misses your company.”

    Han bowed his respects and departed from the throne room. As he slid past Xuning, he recognized her with the faintest of nods. Even the most vigilant observer would have missed the brief spark of warm acknowledgement in her eyes, but Han realized the hidden meaning behind it.

    Moments later he found himself admitted by a flustered eunuch to the fourth prince’s parlor. Soon after, the familiar countenance of his only brother, Duan Juncheng, greeted him with an affectionate smile.

    “Brother,” Cheng expostulated, clasping his arm. “You have returned.”

    This time, Han’s smile was sincere as he returned the tight grasp on his arm. “How have you been, brother?”

    “Well. So have was the South? I recently heard that you have been amusing yourself down there.”

    Han faltered for an instant, observing the profile so akin to his own, yet the man lying behind them so different. “Did you…truly believe I was there for the simple sake of amusement?”

    “You weren’t?” Cheng frowned slightly.

    Han sent the attendants away with a flick of his wrist. “I must converse with you in private.”

    Cheng nodded gravely. “Then what were your motives for your venture? Does it—” he glanced around once more to verify the emptiness of the room before continuing, “—does it have anything to do with father?”

    “I’ve discovered the location of Zhao Qing. He now disguises himself under the name of Shangguan Fu and adopted a guise as a merchant in Nanjing.”

    “Zhao Qing? He’s still alive?”

    “Yes, but I have yet to find father’s royal decree.”

    Cheng said carefully, “I don’t mean to doubt what you think you have heard, brother, but is it possible that you…perhaps…made a mistake? Uncle does not strike me as the villainous type. Ever since father died, well, he has raised us as his own children.”

    Han comprehended the mélange of emotions involved with the inquiry. His brother had raised the possibility of an error with his hearing more out of hope than actual suspicions. Han once again reflected on his kindred, mulling silently.

    In his hearts of hearts he knew that Duan Juncheng, his only brother with the same mother as he, would not be the best candidate for the throne. He was steadfast, to be sure, as well as loyal. He performed exceedingly well in his studies and other learned subjects required of a prince. What he lacked, however, was the ironclad determination that characterized countless rulers through the ages. The shrewd mind of a politician that is able to manipulate politics to his own gain. No, Cheng was far too good-natured and kindhearted, willing to believe the best of people.

    “I know what I have heard.” As soon as he said those words, Han felt a rush of blood at his temples. Painful, suppressed memories once again flooded his mind. He let out a slow breath, feeling the day replay in his mind over and over and over again…

    He was seven years old, fleeing from the elderly scholar after he had committed yet another act of mischief. He, along with other children of nobility, was expected to memorize and be able to recite four hundred pages of history flawlessly. Unfortunately for the young prince, he had spent the previous afternoon wrestling with the young eunuchs instead of focusing on his studies.

    To prevent another staid homily from his fourth brother, Han had devised a perfectly ingenious plan to survive the required recitations the next day. The scholar tested their memorizations from the previous day by flipping to a randomly selected page, expecting them to recite it fluidly. Han had folded a small crease at the only page he had committed to heart, so that the scholar would turn to that very page during his inspection.

    Unfortunately, Chen Jin, son of the South Sea Marquis, had squealed on him and revealed Han’s ruse to the scholar beforehand.

    The result of which involved a rough, violent fistfight between the two boys, two equally blackened left eyes, and an exasperated lecture from the incensed scholar.

    “Seventh highness, this is the sixth time this month you have failed to learn your lessons. You must think of the country, and put personal desire to rest. The best way to serve this country when you’re grown is to be wise and knowledgeable…”

    Han turned a head towards Chen Jin as the drivel faded into the background of his mind. Eying the other boy with an apparent enmity, Han began to devise various ways to make his life a living hell.

    “Seventh highness!”

    “Yes?” Han forced his thoughts away from drawing and quartering Chen Jin.

    “For your punishment, I expect a composition consisting of no less than a thousand words depicting the battle in which you neglected to study. I will lock this room. An eunuch will release you when you’ve completed the assignment.”

    For the time being, Han knew it was better to be subservient and thus replied with a meekness that belied his usual impertinence. “Yes sir.”

    As the afternoon sun basked the grounds with its golden rays, the weather warm and inviting, Han twirled his brush in one hand, mulling over the injustice of it all. He was just about to begin writing when a soft tap caught his attention.

    “Seventh highness!” Came a low whisper.

    “Xiezi.” Han made a hole in the papered window, taking in the countenance of the young eunuch.

    Xiezi—scorpion, as dubbed by Han when he witnessed with a certain awe the young eunuch’s formidable wrestling style—stood with a smug grin on his face. “Seventh highness, hurry. I set loose a group of centipedes on the scholar. But he’ll be back any minute.”

    Without a second’s hesitation, Han slid out of the schoolroom through a lifted window, laughing. The two boys subtly made their way back to Han’s private quarters.

    Before they could fully make their valiant escape however, a group of eunuchs blocked their escape route.

    “Seventh highness,” the head eunuch lowered his head in a gesture of respect, “Your teacher requests your royal presence in the schoolroom once more.”

    Han caught the silent message in Xiezi’s eyes as both boys nodded in mutual agreement.

    “Ahhhh…” Xiezi clenched his stomach in pain. “My stomach…it…it burns!”

    Han played out his part with equal feeling. “Xiezi! My friend…no…you can’t die like this…you can’t leave the world like this…Xiezi! You cannot leave me!”

    He briefly considered weeping, but decided that would be taking it too far.

    “It—burns! Ahhh…your royal highness…I—I—can’t serve you any longer. I beg y-you to think of me on this day every year…and b-bring me my favorite peach custard and leave it on my gravesite…it’s been”—he groaned once more—“an h-honor serving you.”

    “No…” He cast an anxious gaze to the panic-stricken eunuchs. “Hurry! Summon the royal physician!” He gripped Xiezi’s hand. “You cannot die like this my friend. You still haven’t—haven’t put a scorpion in the head eunuch’s robes like you wanted to!”

    Xiezi shook his head and gazed at the horizon before stating in a faraway voice, “Your highness…it’s—it’s futile. Just remember t-t-the peach custard.”

    “I-I can’t.”

    “You cannot, your highness? Even after all these years of friendship?”

    Nearby, the eunuchs watched this terrible scene unfold, rooted to the ground. One had long been ordered to send for the royal physician.

    “No.” Han shook his head in apparent anguish. “I-I cannot because there are no peaches to be had at this time of year. It’s—it’s the wrong season.”

    Xiezi let out a stream of helpless laughter that he tried to convert into a groan of pain.

    “It’s alright then. I-I forgive you, y-your highness…Ah…I see the death god!” He yelled and pointed to the distant skies. “There he is!”

    The eunuchs instinctively turned their heads. When there was no god to be seen, they turned their heads back.

    Of course, by then, the boys had disappeared.

    “Quick.” Han motioned to his friend. “Into the cupboard. I’m sure my father will be displeased, so we’ll hide here for a while. He’ll be looking everywhere for me, but he won’t expect that we’re in his private quarters.”

    Xiezi’s eyes gleamed, and he said with true admiration. “You’re always so omniscient, my prince.”

    “I try.”

    They laughed and doubled up to fit inside the narrow cupboard, hatching plans to cause more mischief in the palace.

    “What is the meaning of this brother?” It was his father’s voice.

    Through the fine crack between the cupboard doors, Han saw his father narrow his eyes into wary slits.

    Then his uncle’s words drifted into his ears. “I’m taking back what should have been mine.”

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