Chapter 4
Whisper in the Ear

Hall of Longevous Tranquility, Forbidden Precinct, Tianjing

The Forbidden Precinct was the living, beating heart not only of the Capital but also of the whole Empire. It was holy ground, the abode of the Emperor and the Empress as well as the great Imperial treasures and the most sacred relics. Even to be a servant in the Forbidden Precinct required a measure of noble blood. Nothing common or base was permitted to enter.
The Inner Court was particularly sacrosanct. Typically, none save the servants ministering to the Emperor and Empress and the Imperial Guard safeguarding their lives were permitted to enter. In the Outer Court, however, the major ceremonies and business of state were conducted and this was where the assorted ministers and advisors allowed into the Emperor's divine presence were gathered.
In the Hall of Longevous Tranquility was one of three replicas of the Phoenix Throne. Here the Emperor held court with the Three Excellencies, the Nine Ministers, and one hundred and eight court advisors. One hundred and seven at the moment, with the recent and untimely demise of Lord Kunihiko of House Suzuki. The current imperfection of their number was an ill omen, but it would take time to decide on a successor.
Except in cases of emergency, councils like this one were convened once a month. Anything more was considered unduly burdensome to the Emperor. Trivial affairs were well beneath his honored personage and even councils such as this were more for the sake of appearances, a demonstration of the Emperor's guiding hand, invisible though it may be.
In court, none would speak unless specifically addressed save for the Lord High Chancellor. Oftentimes, these sessions amounted to little more than a summary report delivered by the Lord High Chancellor while everyone else held their silence. An outsider could be forgiven for seeing the assembly as little more than decoration.
The Lord High Chancellor had been droning on for four hours. The report always began with the Capital and then followed down below. The final segment covered the frontier. Nearly a third of the planet's surface was divided among seven nations that continued to resist Imperial dominion. While it was within the Empire's power to pursue a faster course of conquest, it would be needlessly costly to do so. Also, war was a useful preoccupation for Celestial and Infernal alike. So long as energy and attention were directed outward, the less potential for internal discord. Time was abundant, but the balance of power was precarious.
Regarding the Western Front, the Lord High Chancellor announced, "The ceasefire in Xiyue has been ratified. We have moved the line forward so that we are now less than 900 kilometers from the Yue's capital. Our captured territory has been estimated at eleven million hectares. Lord Liang requests that this new territory be created as a barony for his cousin while Lord Siu wishes it to be created a barony for his third brother."
These frontier lords were all the same. They bore the risks of holding territory on the border in the hope of gaining ground as the campaign advanced. They would increase their families' influence and if they were fortunate, these new baronies could be consolidated into new counties. During the reign of the current Emperor alone, some fifty-three counties were created this way, including those of House Liang and House Siu.
Such a matter could be left in the hands of the provincial governor and ratified by the Lord High Chancellor without any need for the Emperor to trouble himself over the matter. More often than not, the Emperor did not involve himself and would commonly go the entire length of these councils without uttering a word. This time, however, he did choose to speak and all were silent as he did so.
"I shall be as the ancient king Suo Luomen and cleave the territory in twain," he said, swiping downward with his fan. "Both Siu and Liang will have their baronies if they can hold them. They will not be formally recognized until the new year, but they will be granted provisional rank until then."
The Lord High Chancellor bowed low in acknowledgment of the Imperial decree, then turned to the assembly and declared, "As the Son of Heaven has spoken, so let it be written, so let it be done."
The Emperor waved with his fan and said, "Continue with the report."
The Lord High Chancellor bowed once more, then continued as ordered.
"Fifty percent of the conscripts have been demobilized and the remainder will follow in a phased reduction over the course of the next six months in preparation for next year's resumption of the campaign."
Some whose tongues were loose and good sense lacking would say that war was treated as little more than a game with predictable seasons and matches as any sport. These people were enjoying the hospitality of the dungeon for their sedition, but they were not entirely wrong. Ceasefires such as the one secured with Xiyue tended to be annual events. For four to six months of the year, the Celestials would fight, then spend the rest of the time drawing down the old forces and calling up the new. Not quite so regular as clockwork, but close.
The Lord High Chancellor continued southward to the situation with Xiaoliao, Nokoulu and Yidunga. The Zhuqian and Yihong Commanderies were not conducting their part as well as Zhengzong. Some removals could well be in order, but on this the Emperor made no comment.
When the Lord High Chancellor was finished with the frontier, there should have been nothing further to discuss, but on occasion there were matters that warranted special attention and were saved until the very end.
"We shall reconvene here in three days to observe the state funeral of Lord Kunihiko, Count of Lingmu. His Majesty the Emperor is greatly saddened by his loss and distressed by the the brazen murder of a kinsman. While we mourn Lord Kunihiko's death, we are called to seek justice for him and all the slain of House Suzuki. May those responsible be made to pay for their crimes."
Although the Lord High Chancellor claimed that the Emperor was saddened and distressed, there was no trace of such emotion on his face. Among the assembly, Lord Kunihiko had his share of allies and enemies, but it was not seemly to make ay display of emotion in court save for a sympathetic reflection of the Emperor's own mood. So long as he was stone-faced, so too were the courtiers.
The Lord High Chancellor continued, "Filled with this call to great justice, you are hereby dismissed. All kneel for His Imperial Majesty."
Everyone fell upon their hands and knees. The older members of the assembly had young men attending them to assist in the display of obeisance that was unkind to arthritic joints. When the Emperor departed, twenty-seven peals of the gong signaled the cue for the assembly's departure.
Outside the Hall was a courtyard where people could mingle before and after ceremonies. A favorite pastime of the courtiers was to carry on secret conversations in code known only to those party to the conversation. Some only did a few simple word substitutions while others invented entire languages for the purpose. Ears were everywhere, of course, but the courtyard was as good a place as any to conduct such business.
Whether exchanging banal pleasantries or conducting secret matters with the appearance of such an exchange, there was scarcely a man who lingered in the courtyard unaccompanied. This marked one particular man as a notable exception. He stood as if he were observing a bird make a nest in the bough of a tree and as there were many nature lovers among the courtiers, it was nothing out of the ordinary. However, this particular man cared nothing for birds or trees or anything else in Nature, but he did care about appearances. The attention he paid to appearances made him the person people wished him to be and it granted him many things, be it shares of his peers' holdings in faraway provinces or even the hand of the second daughter of his liege lord. Lord Huangjin of House Feng had gained much in his time by minding appearances and he was poised to claim even more right under the noses of men with ambition to match his own.
"My lord," a voice said.
It was one of his spies disguised as a clerk. Lord Huangjin only paid him a quick glance out of the corner of his eye and started to walk, looking straight ahead. It would not do to draw any attention to himself.
"What is it?" he demanded in a quiet but forceful tone, barely moving his lips.
"The little bell was sold off as planned, my lord," the spy replied in a low voice, "but it would seem that someone has run off with it."
Many of the courtiers had an addiction to complexity and thought themselves very clever for it. In truth, the Emperor had people who could decrypt practically any code conceivable by man or machine. As a result, it was the simpler codes that made for more innocuous conversations that were less likely to to be processed by the decrypters.
The 'little bell' was none other than the daughter of the recently departed Lord Kunihiko. It was so obvious that no one would suspect. In other words, it was the perfect code.
Still, what was this talk of losing the little bell?
"What do you mean?" Lord Huangjin asked.
"In Bantian of Shannanxi, there is a border town called Xiaosong," the spy said. "A brothel-keeper there paid for the little bell, only to lose her."
The spy slipped into referring to the little bell as 'her' rather than 'it', but it was of little consequence. No one would imagine what he had done. If anyone dared to take a highborn captive, they were held for ransom. Even with House Suzuki decimated, the vassals of Lord Kunihiko were loyal enough to pay handsomely for his daughter's safe return, but money, lands and other valuables could be acquired easily enough elsewhere. It was not enough to kill Lord Kunihiko and all his house. Lord Huangjin wanted to see House Suzuki's future dragged into the mud and filth, forgotten under the most horrible of circumstances. Who would think that the noble daughter of the great Lord Kunihiko would live out what miserable years she had left as a common whore in some backwater border town? It was perfect, until Lord Huangjin heard this latest news, that is. He wanted answers.
"How?" he demanded, harshly enough that it caught an idle look or two from the chattering courtiers nearby. He coughed into his silk handkerchief to play it off as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The ruse was successful as none continued to pay him any heed.
"I cannot say, my lord," the spy said. "There is a bounty for a man called Rodrigues and an unnamed girl who can be none other than the little bell."
Rodrigues was an Infernal name. Could he be working for House Suzuki? Lord Huangjin could not afford to leave anything to chance.
"We cannot trust the Infernals with this," he said. "I want the little bell to live and suffer. Send Fung to deal with the matter. Whatever he requires, he shall have."
"Yes, my lord," the spy replied with a bow.
The spy walked with Lord Huangjin a little while longer, then left to go about his own way. Fung was very capable. He led the attack on the Suzuki estate and he would pursue the little bell all over Erdi if needs be. Lord Huangjin looked forward to the day when he would hear the report that the little bell was once more suffering as she deserved.