On a clear and cold morning over a thousand years ago in the great Cai Empire, the capital city of Cai greeted the early sun with a yawn and a stretch. City guards, dressed in hard rhinoceros hide and turtle shells, began opening the main gate to let in the long caravan of goods and royals. This caravan was ten times the normal amount, for today was Emperor Cai Rong’s birthday.
The road from the gate leading to the castle was wide enough to fit four large carriages and their envoys. Peasants and merchants lined the road and cheered for the royals who were shrouded in curtains made of silk. At the head of the caravan was General Ren Xiuying, the brother of the Emperor. Xiuying was on his large white horse that was dressed impressively from head to hoof. But not as impressive as his rider who don a full ornate copper armour with a sword at his hip.
Xiuying led the caravan to the steps of the castle which stood as tall as the smallest mountain and was covered in red, white, and gold. Since today was a special day, flags and streamers made of silk were hung everywhere. Xiuying was met with the 10 eunuch advisors at the base of the steps. “Welcome home, General Ren Xiuying,” they said in unison as they bowed to him.
“Fu Zan!” Xiuying called. “Where are you?”
One of the eunuchs stepped forward and bowed to Xiuying. “I am here, General. How may I serve you?”
Xiuying slapped Fu Zan’s shoulder and beamed his famous smile which was well-known to all women. “You eunuchs look so much like each other!” Xiuying laughed at his own jibe while the others chuckled along. “Tell my lazy brother that I have come home to see another white strand grow on his head!”
Xiuying laughed some more as he climbed the castle steps. Peasants and slaves unloaded the caravans, and the other royals started to climb the stairs as well.
The air of the grand banquet was filled with food and wine. The tables were stacked with roasted pig, cow, and at least five kinds of bird species. Each one of the guests was announced into the hall and was seated in their respective long tables.
The Empress, Ding Wuhan, and her son, Cai Shuren aged 13, sat at the main table on an elevated platform. One of the Emperor’s concubine, Gao Hong, was also seated at the main table. She was special since she too had the Emperor’s son, Gao Guo 13 as well, who was seated beside her. The Emperor’s five generals were seated beside the main table. Each one was accompanied by courtesans.
Courtesans danced around as everyone else settled in. After a while, they hushed as the Emperor was introduced in the hall. The Emperor was dressed in an ornate silk gown of pure red with a golden sun weaved into its centre.
“All hail the great Emperor!” The hall rumbled as the guests bowed and proclaimed in unison. “May he live for a thousand years!”
“Please.” The Emperor raised his hand ordering the guests to stand up. He picked up a goblet of wine, which was filled by one of the other concubines, with both his hands; his guests followed him as well.
“I have invited you here,” said the Emperor “to partake in this empire’s spoils. We have lived in harmony for 15 years not because of my rule but because of the people. I drink this for more bounty. Long live the Cai Dynasty! May we live for a thousand years!”
The guests responded in kind. “Long live the Cai Dynasty! May we live for a thousand years!”
They all drank their wines in one silent gulp and sighed contented. The Emperor raised his hands and proclaimed, “The night is young, and the barrels are full of wine! Drink and be merry!”
The entire hall laughed then suddenly went still when the sound of a goblet rattled across the floor. The Emperor clutched his chest and coughed up blood. He fell down face first as more blood spilt out of all his orifices.
The hall screamed into a frenzy. People were darting everywhere and trampling over each other. Xiuying, with all the experience of a war general, quickly ordered the guards to barricade the exits.
“No one leaves this hall!” He shouted. “The killer is still here, and until we find out who did it, no one will leave!”
“Oh! My Emperor!” Fu Zan cried as he collapsed near the corpse. “Who could have done this?! YOU!”
Fu Zan pointed at the concubine who poured the wine into the Emperor’s goblet. Xiuying’s drew his sword and pointed it at her neck.
“What did you do to my brother?” Xiuying’s eyes burned like a fireplace in winter.
“Please, General!” She wept and collapsed to the floor. “I would never do this to my beloved Emperor!”
“Hold your tongue, wench!” The Empress spat from her seat. “You have no right to call him beloved!”
Xiuying kneeled beside his brother. He could smell poison in the wine. “Why would they do this to you?”
He stood up and stripped the concubine till she was bare skinned. As her robes fell, he heard a soft thump hit the cobbled floor. He searched through the robes and found a small corked white vial.
“What is this?” Xiuying towered over the naked and trembling concubine.
“I have never seen that thing my entire life!” She sobbed even more.
Xiuying uncorked the vial and sniffed its contents. It was definitely poison. He grabbed his sword and swiftly dispatched her head off without a second thought.
“General!” Fu Zan exclaimed. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“She had the vial of poison in her robe. She must have poured it in while we weren’t looking. However, I do not think that this is the end.” He inspected the vial and saw the insignia of the royal chef. “Bring out the chef!”
The chef pleaded as well, saying that he’s never seen that vial nor the concubine in his life. His pleas fell on deaf ears as Xiuying sliced his head off as well.
“I highly doubt that these two were the masterminds,” Xiuying said. “We must protect the heirs of the throne! Guards! Escort the princes and their mothers to a room nearby, and do not let anyone near them.”
The guards did as they were ordered to and led the four away.
Fu Zan looked in disbelief at the general’s decision. “General. You sound so sure that one of the Emperor’s closest friends and allies would dare kill him!”
“And you, Fu Zan, sound so suspicious! Do you not fear for the lives of the heirs, or are you wishing for their death as well?”
Fu Zan bit his tongue and steered the conversation back to the Emperor. “The next in line would be Prince Cai Shuren. He’s young and still very inexperienced to rule. The logical idea would be to control Prince Cai Shuren from the shadows, so whoever is closest to him would be suspect.”
“Wait,” Xiuying thought. “The Empress and Concubine Gao Hong are with the heirs! Guards with me!”
The generals, the eunuchs, and a handful of guards ran to the room where the four were held. They were met with two dead guards by the door. Both of them looked like they had ingested the poison as well. Xiuying kicked the paper door down and saw the Empress and Concubine Hong poisoned on the floor. Their dresses were drenched in so much blood, and it looked like they were poisoned as soon as they settled in the room. What was worse was that the princes were nowhere to be found.
“The Emperor and the Empress are dead. The heirs have disappeared. We have a killer in the castle. Heavens help us.”
Part 2 coming next Wednesday