|Just your average guy who likes to write in his free time. Like discussing philosophy and politics. Other than that I can appreciate the work of others on the sight as opposed to the 'art' I sometimes see in the real world.|
Yun Lao Caorong, stretched his aching back and sighed as his felt the tightening and relaxing of muscles. Spending the whole day bent over documents, legislation and letters from the various branches of the government had never agreed with him. He would have preferred to lie down on a couch or cushions as he did his work. But that would highly inappropriate behavior in a Prime Minister.
A tentative cough sounded behind him. Lao turned to see his steward at the doorway to his study, looking extremely nervous.
“Lord Prime Minister, this unworthy servant has just received a message from the palace.”
“Oh? Who is it from?”
“The Lady Lao Lin, Master.”
Lao blinked in surprise, as far as he knew the overindulged favorite of the late emperor had never shown even the slightest interest in anyone other than the emperor and her son.
Lao held out his hand and the steward handed it to him. Lao dismissed the man and steward bowed and exited.
The paper was of good quality, you could that from the smooth texture, it was also scented, doubtless a perfume had been applied. The calligraphy was flawless, neat and demure, an expression of the person who wrote it. Lao could have believed that Lao Lin had written it herself; if he had not already known that the woman didn’t even know how to read. Her father had been a fisherman from a tiny coastal village. Her story was almost like something out of a cheap, romantic shadow puppet play, a story of a poor girl blessed with incredible beauty and purity of spirit who catches the eye of a cold and cruel emperor and by her gentle looks and manner, softens the monarch’s heart. Almost.
The message was a request for the esteemed Lord Prime Minister, the Honorable Yun Lao Caorong, to attend upon the lady and her royal son at the middle of the hour of the rooster in her personal apartments in the Palace of Eternal Summer.
Lao considered. He had an hour or so to prepare and the fact that Zu Song himself would be present was an even greater incentive than the invitation by late emperor’s favorite. All he knew about the third prince were rumors. It would interesting to see what he was really like. It probably would not change Lao’s decision to support his eldest brother but, well, one could never know enough under Heaven.
So it was that, at the precise time he was expected, Prime Minister Yun Lao Caorong strode through the halls of the Hougong, the building that housed the women of the Imperial Harem and entered the apartments that, during Emperor Weizong’s life, had garnered the name, The Chamber of Spring Torrents.
He was ushered in by a eunuch in maroon robes and as always Lao had to suppress a shudder of disgust as he walked past the man. Eunuchs had been a part of court life since the Chu Dynasty and in some periods they had been entrusted with great power. After all what reason could a man who could not sire children have to try and supplant the emperor? Even so, Lao knew the history of his people well and could easily recall the fact that the Huo Dynasty had fallen, in part, because men like this one had gradually turned the Huo emperors into indolent puppets feeding them glib fantasies of prosperity and peace while they wallowed in excess and civil unrest had swept the countryside.
“Prime Minster Yun Lao Caorong!” The eunuch announced as he entered the chamber. It was quite spacious, at least as large as four or five of the other concubine’s quarters combined. The walls were dripping with silk in warm pastel colors. A small marble table, with precious inlays and three cushioned chairs, two of them already occupied, were set up in the center. A small, discreet doorway in one corner led to the actual bedchamber. Another doorway led to the quarters of the servants, all women or eunuchs, whose sole duty was to attend upon the woman who lived here.
“Ahhhh! Prime Minister Caorong, welcome!” The woman in question now called cheerfully from the cushions that nearly swallowed her petite frame.
Lao bowed low, twice, hand in fist to both of them. As always his courtesy was impeccable.
“This humble one is honored beyond his worth that the Gracious Lady Lao Lin should be so welcoming.”
“Please be seated, Prime Minister.” Said the prince.
Lao sat, a eunuch placed a cup of aromatic tea before him and there were several small plates of delicacies within easy reach. He sipped from the cup and sighed appreciatively.
“From Yenling province, truly the finest in the empire. I have not had tea of such quality in months.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Lao Lin said, her painted face frowning prettily. “My servants prepare this for me every day.”
Lao stopped himself from sighing at her ignorance. “Yenling tea is rare and expensive Gracious Lady. It is difficult to acquire, even for those of us in the civil service who labor unworthily for the Son of Heaven. I am sure that the late emperor, may his spirit know everlasting joy, would have done all in his power to provide only the best for his favorites.”
“Yes.” Lao Lin said wistfully. “He used to tell me how he would move mountains for me if I asked him. I knew he was only being silly but it was still so sweet of him.”
Lao regarded her. Age was assailing her looks with some degree of success, despite her make up, her elaborately jeweled headdress, but even in her early forties, she was a striking woman. He could only imagine what she must have looked like in the full flower of her youth. It was no wonder the emperor had favored her above all the others of his harem.
Before he could reply Zu Song chuckled softly. “Please Dear Mother, you did not invite the Prime Minster here, simply to reminisce. I am sure he has important work to do.”
Ah. So that’s how it is. Lao thought. This meeting was the prince’s idea. I guess I should not be too surprised.
“It is no trouble at all, Lord Prince.” He protested calmly. “It is always a great honor to attend upon such esteemed personages as yourselves.”
Zu Song smiled. He had a charming smile, he had probably gotten that from both his parents, but try as he might, he could not make that smile reach his eyes.
“If I may Prime Minister Caorong, I would like to know if anything has been done concerning the investigation into my mishap a few weeks past.”
You mean concerning the baseless poisoning rumor you planted?
“It is shameful to admit,” Lao said, the very picture of contriteness. “but thus far our inquiries have been unable to find anything. With respect, might it be possible that your indisposition was merely a minor illness?”
“I am sure your men have been most thorough in their work.” The prince said smoothly. “But considering the present situation I am somewhat reluctant to discredit the idea of an attempt on my life entirely.”
Lao Lin’s features crinkled in an expression of petulance and worry. “It was no illness! My precious son was bedridden three whole days! It must have been a poisoning attempt. You must order your investigators to work harder Prime Minister!”
Lao bowed in his seat. “It shall be as you command, Gracious Lady.” He said humbly.
“That reminds me.” She continued. “Why has there been no word regarding the search for the sword? It had been over two weeks since you told us about the artifact.”
“I cannot say Gracious Lady. All that is known is that it was rumored to be in the possession of a monk in Zhenshan province. Perhaps the searchers are having difficulty acquiring it from him.
More probably they’re still fruitlessly searching for the thing like myth that it is.
“But why would be difficult? Who would dare oppose my son’s right to rule?” Lao Lin asked. She seemed genuinely bemused by the very idea.
This was risky ground, but Lao had come expecting something of the sort. He noticed that Zu Song seemed more interested in the conversation now.
“Who can say my Lady? Great men have always attracted their shares of obstacles, but many have overcome them in the end.”
Lao Lin looked unsatisfied with this answer. “It’s probably those hideous half-brothers of yours my dear.” She said, placing a comforting hand on Zu Song’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I am sure that you will be the one to receive the sword, but I do wish your father had named you his heir before going to his ancestors. I am sure he would have had he recovered.” She preened as she said this, obviously still confident in her powers of persuasion, despite her fading looks.
The prince smiled at her. “It’s all right Honored Mother. But recall, that my Illustrious Father was very ill when he died. Shi and Wei would seized any opportunity to discredit any proclamation he would have made, claiming that in his final moments he was no longer in his right mind.”
Lao Lin gasped softly at the very thought of such scandalous perfidy.
“But also recall that Father had begun the search for the sword before his death. I am sure that he intended this to show that it was only his will but that of Heaven that I succeed him.”
Ha! You weave a cloth of fiction Zu Song. I see in your eyes that you don’t even believe your own words. The Son of Heaven wanted the sword because he believed it would prove his worthiness to the gods so they would see fit to fulfill his desire for immortality when the alchemist’s potions failed him. He never had any intention of passing on his throne, least of all to you and your brothers. I wonder what expression you would make if I told you that in his dying moments the emperor compared the three of you to wolves fighting over a scrap of meat?
“Of course!” Lao Lin said happily. “What a clever man your father was Song! How clever you are to understand him so well! Once you take the throne I am sure you will be just like him.”
Once again Lao’s training and experience prevented his contempt for the woman’s stupidity from showing on his face. She was like a vase, as beautiful to look at and just as empty. She had entered the harem at fourteen; after her father had scraped what little money he had to secure her a position as a servant to the women there. It had taken less than a year for her beauty to elevate her beyond that lowly status. The favor and gifts that the late emperor had lavished upon her because of her looks had gone to her head and reduced her to a shallow, vapid, simple-minded excuse of a woman. It occurred to Lao, though it was too dangerous to speak out loud as it was critical of Weizong, that she might have been better off living out her days in that squalid little home of hers on the coast.
“Thank you, dearest Mother.” Zu Song said, but Lao caught the flicker of disgust in the young man’s eyes that, unlike the Prime Minister, he could not hide entirely.
What a pitiful woman, to be despised by her own son and not even realize it.
“Mother that reminds me. There was a trinket from the Wa Islands to the east that you showed me yesterday. I thought it was most intriguing. Perhaps the Prime Minister would like to see it as well.”
His eyes briefly held Lao’s gaze, then flicked back to his mother.
“Certainly.” Lao said equably. “I would be delighted.”
The woman whom the emperor had favored above all others, rose demurely, and entered through the small door into the bedchamber. Lao reached out a pudgy hand and took another sip of tea. This time he did not savor the taste.
Zu Song leaned forward, resting both his elbows on the table in a manner that reminded the Prime Minister of his father.
“You’ve been very careful haven’t you Caorong?”
“What do you mean, my Lord Prince?”
“Oh, simply the frequent meetings at your estate with your civil service cronies, the fact that you met with the Grandmaster of the Establishment Sect a few days ago and all the other little maneuvers you’ve been making in preparation to take sides when the time comes.”
Lao was surprised, and then impressed; he had thought he had concealed his movements well enough to avoid attracting attention while everyone else at Court was focused on the sword hunt. But it seemed the prince did not know everything. He remained unaware the Lao had already resolved to support his eldest brother. He made a small, self-deprecating laugh.
“I’ve been found out so easily. Either you have excellent spies under your command or I must be getting old at last.”
“Hmmmm.” Zu Song pursed his lips in mock concentration. “If I were to judge I’d say the latter. It truly is a shame for you to have such difficulties Caorong.”
Lao smiled thinly. “If you accept that you must also accept that youth can be as great a disadvantage as age, third prince.”
A flame of anger briefly showed in Zu Song’s eyes, but it was quickly snuffed out. “You know that I already have the Secretariat and the Ministry of Appointments on my side. Zu Shi only has a few of the military governors and Zu Wei is so mistrustful he barely has anyone in the court on his side. It should be obvious to you which of us is stronger.”
“Currently you are, but if you were really so confident in your own maneuvering you wouldn’t have invited one so old and inconsequential as myself to form an alliance with.”
“You seem to have done well enough, considering your father was a lowly merchant.”
“Indeed and like my late and lamented father I never had much patience for the formalities, so let us get to the heart of the matter. Since you are so well informed as my faction’s activities you know full well that at the moment I may have enough support to tip the balance any way I choose. I assume, correctly, that you invited me here to persuade me to take your side, in the event that the search for the San Chi Jian fails, or” He paused deliberately. “even if it succeeds, and someone else acquires it.”
Zu Song’s face remained impassive. “What is your point Caorong?”
“Nothing really.” The Prime Minister said casually. “I’m simply waiting to her you give your reasons for why I should support you over your brothers.”
“I’ve already given-“
“You just said that, without me, your support is currently the strongest. I’m going to need more than that before I decide to throw my weight behind you.”
Yun Lao watched as the young man’s face seemed to go blank for a moment. Then he seemed to recover and Lao could practically see his mind going through his available options. What could he offer to make the Prime Minister support him? Material bribes would not work, neither would offers of position, he was already the second most powerful man in the empire with easy access to wealth and privilege. It would be useless to appeal to an old and experienced politician with sentimentality, even more so to convince him through debate or reasoning. Lao, after all, had climbed his way to the top on a battlefield where every word was a sword thrust or parry.
Lao should not have done it. He would not have permitted such a slip in his youth. Perhaps he was getting old after all. He watched as it slowly dawned upon Zu Song, that he had nothing, neither tool, nor weapon of persuasion that he could use to bring the Prime Minister over to his side if the man did not want too. As they had established earlier, Lao had the influence and power to effectively decide who the next emperor of the Hong Dynasty. The odds were not all in Lao’s favor, but they were high enough. It was in that moment that the Prime Minister saw another realization flare in Zu Song’s eyes, the realization that he had absolutely no control in this at all. Whether he ascended to the throne or not, depended entirely on the decisions of another. In that moment the prince realized it and he hated it, and Yun Lao Caorong’s lip twitched for a brief moment, into a smile.
Zu Song saw it.
Quivering with rage, the third born son of Emperor Weizong stared at Lao as if trying to erase him from the earth by force of will.
“You dare to mock me?” His voice was soft, and under rigid control. “You will live to regret that insolence Caorong. There are other ways to the throne and when it is mine, I promise you, that you and every last member of your family will-“
Lao coughed loudly, causing Zu Song to stop. He was suddenly tired of this.
“You do realize that I’ve heard countless threats like this in my life? I have spent half of my mortal life in a world filled with men who would love nothing more than to kill me in slow, painful ways. Surely you know that I have crushed many enemies in my time. They were all great men of power and influence. Men, whose action or merest word could end the lives of hundreds, or even thousands. Your father faced enemies who were even greater, both in the Court and on the battlefield. As far as I know the only opponents you have overcome are hapless servants who had the misfortune of irritating you. Do you not think,” Lao leaned forward, hands clasped together. “that progressing from your usual victims directly to making an enemy of me is moving far too quickly for someone of your experience, my Lord Prince?”
The two men stared at one another for several long seconds, long enough for Lao to see terror shining in the prince’s eyes, no longer hidden by anger or arrogance. The Prime Minister had no way of knowing it, but to Zu Song, the short, plump, innocuous man sitting across from him, had suddenly seemed to loom over him like one if the Judges of the underworld.
I really shouldn’t have done that. Lao reproached himself as he was carried back to his estate.
The Lady Lao Lin never did find that artifact the prince had asked her retrieve and show the Prime Minister. Lao had engaged her in a few brief snatches of idle conversation when she returned from her fruitless search, before finally taking his leave of her and her uncharacteristically silent son.
Overall I’d say I’ve just succeeded in irreparably alienating the Secretariat and the Ministry of Appointment.
Was he really so childish, to actually engage Zu Song in his posturing? As if the two of them were a pair of fighting cocks in some squalid gamblers den?
I am the last dragon of this empire. It will be a time of wolves now.
Lao sighed and firmly thrust the words out of his mind.
This dynasty is nowhere near finished yet.