Chapter 24

Hall of Longevous Tranquility, Forbidden Precinct, Tianjing

Several days had passed since Fung's last report. It was not unusual for him to be out of contact for days at a time, but matters should have been settled by now. The little bell had succeeded in escaping the flier from Mileyuan after it was shot down, but there was a tracker planted on her. No signal would get out while she wore the stealth cloak in the emergency supplies, but anytime she took it off, Fung would have her position and could estimate her heading. Even an Infernal bounty hunter could handle that and Fung was one of Lord Huangjin's best men.
Every Celestial and every registered Infernal on the surface had a tracker implanted in their bodies, but access to that information was tightly restricted. It took increasingly larger bribes to get the location data on the little bell, but due to the need for extreme security to conceal the leak and Fung's own intermittent contact, all that expense only served to keep him two or three steps behind in the chase.
At the exorbitant cost of ten thousand dan, Lord Huangjin bribed the supervisor of the telemetry division for the little bell's location and biometric data. He expected to see her en route back to Bantian or dead. For as much as he was paying, he demanded the results soon.
The court advisors had been summoned to a special session at the Hall of Longevous Tranquility. It was most irregular, but when the call came, there was naught to do but answer. As the courtiers were filing into the hall, it was not unusual for clerks to deliver last-minute dispatches and the like, so there was nothing suspicious about one of the Count's agents delivering an innocuous slip of paper as he went by.
When the courtiers had taken their places, there were nine peals of the gong to herald the entry of the Nine Ministers. For them you bowed 60 degrees and remained bowing as they took their places in the balcony overlooking the hall. The Minister of Ceremonies was announced by a junior minister and after that, it was the Minister of Ceremonies himself who announced the arrival of his fellow ministers.
"His Most Noble Lordship the Minister of the Household."
And so on and so forth down to the Minister Steward. The gong sounded for them to rise once the Nine Ministers had taken their places, only to sound thrice more for the Three Excellencies. For them you bowed 90 degrees or as near to it as you were able.
"His Supreme Excellency the Lord High Chancellor."
The Lord High Chancellor stood before the throne with the Imperial Counselor and the Grand Commandant on the right and the left. Even the Grand Tutor, the unofficial 'fourth' Excellency was called into attendance and stood behind the throne. He was rarely seen except at the most important ceremonies. This was indeed a most unusual session.
The gong called them to rise again and after a brief silence, there was the deep, ominous ringing of the Rising Heaven Gong, used only to announce the arrival of the Emperor. This was the call to prostrate yourself on hands and knees before the divine presence of the Son of Heaven.
"His Imperial Majesty, the Son of Heaven, Ruler of All Beneath the Heavens, Lord of Ten Thousand Worlds, Queller of the Barbarians, and the Father of All Mankind, the Emperor Wuzong."
When the Emperor was seated upon the Phoenix Throne, he sounded a little gong to his right, its harsh, shrill ringing the cue for all to rise. As usual, it was the Lord High Chancellor who acted as the mouth of the Emperor.
"Threescore and ten days past, an outrage was committed in this holy city. Lord Kunihiko, Count of Lingmu, was cruelly assassinated along with his wife, the Princess Feifang, and all their household slaughtered."
Lord Huangjin sighed, though not audibly, of course. All this had been said before and only became more tiresome each time it was repeated. It was a miscalculation to have killed Lady Suzuki along with the rest of them. Lord Huangjin thought her relation to the Emperor was distant enough to be of little concern, but for the sake of the sanctity of the Imperial bloodline--whenever it was convenient, of course--, much was made of the death of any who shared blood with the Emperor.
As the Lord High Chancellor droned on, Lord Huangjin took the note he was given and checked it with his Little Companion. Now, the Little Companion was a wrist-mounted communications device that not only was used for voice and video calls but could also connect to the main network. You were of course expected to deactivate your Little Companion before you entered the Forbidden Precinct, but security tended to be lax. You were not required to check your Little Companion at the entrance, nor did they regularly perform signal sweeps.
It was the custom of the courtiers to fold their hands within the voluminous sleeves of their robes and by keeping his head bowed, Lord Huangjin appeared admirably humble in excess. While he was inputting the numerical code from the note, the Lord High Chancellor did something unexpected.
"And now His Imperial Majesty would speak to you in his own words."
It was not the Emperor's habit to speak in public. He would make the occasional comment during the monthly councils, but never a speech to the assembly.
"My lords," he began, "we are a world at war. It is good and right to love peace, but it is neither god nor right to hate war. War is the crucible in which Man and his works are tested. If Man is iron, if his works are iron, they will emerge from the fires of war tempered and stronger. All that is unworthy is burned up in fire. This is good. This is the will of Heaven.
"I do not seek to end war. That is why the nations of the barbarians still stand. They exist for testing us and all that we have built. This is good. This is the will of Heaven.
"I do not seek to end strife among you. I permit your plots and your intrigues. They exist for testing you. This is good. This is the will of Heaven."
He paused.
"When you turn your plots and your intrigues against me, it is not good. You defy the will of Heaven, which has appointed me and my house as sovereign over you. This cannot be allowed. This cannot be forgiven."
Before, the Emperor expressed nothing more than pro forma expressions of displeasure over the assassination of Lord Kunihiko, but if it had been decided to regard the attack as treason against the Emperor, Lord Huangjin found himself in a dangerous position. Though his feud with Lord Kunihiko was well known, he was not the only rival of House Suzuki. There should not have been any usable evidence of his involvement and he had co-conspirators enough with as much to lose who would do everything in their power to bury the investigation. He would have to be on his guard more than ever for years to come, but he would be safe. There was nothing to fear.
"Whenever you stretch out your hand against any who share my blood, you stretch out your hand against me," the Emperor continued. "This is treason and it is deserving of eternal torment in the fiery hell. When you dishonor any who share my blood, you dishonor me. This is treason and it is deserving of eternal torment in the fiery hell."
He paused again.
"There are traitors amongst us here this day, polluting this hall, defiling it with their presence."
Lord Huangjin's Little Companion beeped. He hastily silenced it, though not quickly enough to avoid drawing a glance or two. He had the little bell's location.
"I have a witness here who will testify against the traitors before you all."
The location appeared on the map. Impossible. She was in Tiandao.
"A witness who was a victim of this heinous crime just as I am."
No. He forgot to account for the elevation. Over 35,000 kilometers. The Capital.
Lord Huangjin's heart sank to the pit of his stomach.
"Lady Masako of House Suzuki."
In she walked dressed in white funerary robes with her skin painted white like a ghost. She approached the throne among the Three Excellencies and did obeisance to the Emperor. The the Emperor went so far as to get up from the throne and extend his hand to her. Such a thing was not done.
"Rise, my daughter," he said.
The girl let the Emperor take her hand into his own and stood up. Except on the day of their marriage, the Emperor was not seen standing hand-in-hand even with the Empress.
"Now, show us the traitor," he said. "that his head might be displayed in the Hall of Dishonor and his soul damned to the burning hells."
And like a vengeful spirit, the girl stretched out her hand and pointed to Lord Huangjin. It was as if the other courtiers knew, for they withdrew from all around him, leaving him alone and exposed. He tried to recede into the crowd, but the others kept their distance, not allowing him nearer than three meters from them. He looked to the exit, where the Imperial Guards stood at the ready. Even if he could run, he could not get far.
The Lord High Chancellor declared, "Feng Huangjin, you are hereby placed under arrest on suspicion of high treason, lèse majesté, conspiracy, murder, bribery, and other crimes. Guards, take him away!"
If he truly realized his peril when he undertook his plot against House Suzuki, he would have taken the precaution of carrying a suicide pill on his person for such an occasion as this. It would have been a better choice than the horrors that awaited him. Because there was no hope of escape, he would at least hold on to his dignity, all he had left. Tempting as it might have been to throw some final curse on the Suzuki girl or utter blasphemies that would ring in the ears of the court for years to come, the best thing he could do was quietly exit the hall with all the proper bearing of a man of his rank and breeding.
Only as the guards drew close, his resolve wavered and his courage melted within him. Fear took hold of him, terror unlike anything he had ever known, and his dignity suddenly mattered very little to him.
"No!" he cried in a loud voice, dashing to the center of the hall and throwing himself on the floor. "Your Majesty, have mercy on your servant, I beg you! It was Suzuki who was the traitor! Yes, he and all these wretched Wo dogs! They were plotting against Your Majesty and I took action for zeal for you and this Empire! Please, Your Majesty!"
"You shame yourself, Feng Huangjin," the Lord High Chancellor said. "You heap disgrace upon disgrace. Trouble His Imperial Majesty no more with your ravings. Guards, silence this man and remove him from our presence at once."
Lord Huangjin never knew what hit him. The stun batons carried by the Imperial Guards would disrupt nerve signals to produce immediate unconsciousness no matter how big or strong you might be, not that he was either. And in that single stroke, the ambitions of House Feng were brought crashing down.