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When the Plum Blossoms Bloom

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The play was to start mid-morning, so preparations began before dawn. Not all the rebels would be easily recognisable but Shun, Ming-song and Xue-li needed to be disguised.

Shun had his face painted red with black whorls across his cheeks as befitted the benevolent nature of his character. Xue-li’s face was painted a matching blue but Prince Ming-song was given a purple mask: much easier to remove when the time came. Qinhui had eventually allowed Shun’s long-sleeved robe to be modified to a practical green jacket: the sort that any soldier would wear.  

In the darkness of the early morning, the area around the stage was still empty. This was the time to make sure all their real weapons were already safely hidden behind the painted screens on stage before any soldiers arrived. Then, when it was time to do a proper inspection, all the soldiers would see would be flimsy and blunt stage weapons.

The sun was just starting to peek over the rooftops as Shun walked into the square with a bundle of spears in his arms. The rays of the dawn painted the walls and stone floor of the square around him in an orange glow. Shun’s eyes caught the sight of three posters pasted against one of the walls  — and froze. All three posters announced the same thing in bold, black calligraphy. An execution would be held after midday in the Main Square to rid the kingdom of a traitor to the throne.

On the bottom was written the prisoner’s name: Cheng Lan.

Shun dropped the spears he was holding.

“General Wei.” From behind him, Xue-li’s hand closed around Shun’s wrist.

Shun tore his eyes from the poster. “Did you know?” he asked. “Did you know that Lan’s execution date had been set?”

“General Wei ,” Xue-li glanced around them. Shun swallowed. He had forgotten for a moment where he was, out in the open. The square was thankfully still empty.

“When were you going to tell me?” he hissed.

“One of the younger courtesans from Hibiscus House only saw the posters two days ago,” Xue-li said. “We...even if we had told you, there wasn’t enough time to divide our forces and find Lan.”

What ?” Shun jerked his hand out of Xue-li’s grasp. “You are going to let him die then? After what  — ” He swallowed again, throat suddenly tight. “After what he has done for you all? For the Fifth Prince?” Shun bent down. He picked up one of the spears with the point directed at Xue-li. “You can continue with this little play of yours. I will find Lan.”

Xue-li held up her hands. Shun scowled and turned on his heel.

“General Wei.” Ah Chung walked into Shun’s line of vision.

“Don’t try to stop me,” Shun said.

“What are you going to do, General Wei?” Xue-li said from behind him. Shun refused to turn around. “You can go to the central square now, sword in hand, face painted like an actor. The execution is set for midday. In all likelihood, there will be no one there. Are you just going to station yourself there, alone, waiting for midday? Then what will you do? Are you going to fight a whole company of armed guards by yourself?”

Shun gritted his teeth. “I will fight them,” he said, “I am going to rescue Lan.”

“You are going to  — Wei Shun ,” Xue-li said, “I know you are just one man, but your role in this play of ours is central. It is too late to have someone else replace you. If you go now, our chance of winning is gone.”

This time Shun whirled around. “What do I care,” he said, teeth bared, “about this little rebellion if Lan dies? Lan didn’t want any part of this. He just wanted to go back to Yangnan. The only reason he was here was because of me  — I needed to save my mother. Now I need to save Lan.”

Xue-li met Shun’s glare evenly. “And so you rescue Lan,” she said, “What then? If we do not defeat the Grand Duke today, in all likelihood the city gates will remain sealed. Even if they are not, there will be wanted posters with both your faces on them across the city tomorrow! How will you escape then, how will you find peace? The two of you will be hunted across the city, General Wei. How long will it be before you die?”

If Xue-li had stepped forward and punched Shun in the stomach, he would not have felt any more winded that he did now. He stood, facing Xue-li, hands clenched on the shaft of his spear. “What is the point of winning this battle if we let Lan die?”

“No, General Wei.” This time it was Ah Chung’s voice who came from behind Shun. “The execution is set for midday. The play will end well before then. If we win, we will have time to find Lan.”

“Will we?” Shun shook his head. “The timing  — it is too tight. What if the battle takes longer than we expect?”

“That is why,” Xue-li said, “Ah Chung will lead a group of ten to scout mid-morning. Perhaps we can glean some idea of when the execution party will arrive and see if there are any soldiers who are already stationed there. To rescue Lan we need to know how well he is guarded, where exactly he will be and what type of execution the Grand Duke has planned.”

“It is likely that the Grand Duke will bring most of the royal guard here,” Ah Chung said. “There might only be a few token guards around Lan  — especially if he is bound. It would then be easy to rescue him with a small group.”

“But we need to find out,” Xue-li said. “We risk everything by plunging headlong into a unplanned rescue.”

Shun’s shoulders sagged. They were right. Of course they were right. If he just left now with a sword in his hand and no plan he could very well be sentencing both himself and Lan to death.

“Ah Chung.” Shun reached forward and grasped Ah Chung’s hand. “You will come back and tell me any information you find?”

“Of course.” Ah Chung clasped his hands in front of himself and bowed. “If the group of guards around Cheng Lan is small enough, we can attack by ourselves.” He offered Shun a smile. “Perhaps, by the time you have won your skirmish, I will also have Lan safe and sound.”

Shun tried to return the smile but his face refused to obey. He bent down instead and picked up the spears. “I hope so too,” he said. He turned his gaze heavenward. Every time they had succeeded so far the skies had been heavy with cloud or the air full of mist. It was as if the dragons, kings of the clouds and water, were on their side.

The sky above them today, though, was bright and clear. There was not one single cloud.

****

The dawn sky faded from burnt orange into pale blue. Slowly, the empty square in front of them started to fill: first with commoners in their light cotton hanfu and then the city guard marched in, taking their places as expected around the perimeter.

Shun glanced up at the rooftops surrounding the square. If he didn’t know where to look, their archers would be impossible to spot. As it was, they were the barest of black spots against the black sloping eaves. The soldiers, where they stood, made perfect targets.

The tradition of having a play during the Duan Wu festival had started in order to give the dragon boat racers time to set up before the race. Behind the stage, there was a flurry of activity as men and women readied the large rowing boats along the river banks. It was a very good thing that the boats always remained on the river banks until the just before the race was to be started. If the boats were to be pushed onto the water now, they would surely sink. The long dragon boats were perfect hiding spots for the remainder of their weapons.

Shun caught the eye of one of the rebels who gave him a slight nod. Shun inclined his head and turned his attention back to the crowds.

A number of court officials had already taken their places in front of the stage, but very first row,  where low carved ebony seats had been laid out for the for the Grand Duke and his party, was empty. Shun glanced up at the sun that was now well above the rooftops. Where was the Grand Duke? Lan’s time was ticking away.

Xue-li fingers brushed against Shun’s wrist. Shun turned towards her as she came up to stand beside him. “Ah Chung says that the Main Square is empty. They’re most likely going arrive just before the execution.”

Shun swallowed and nodded. He looked up at the sky again. Midday, then. All of this needed to end before midday.

The faint thump of drum beats made everyone on stage stand suddenly still. The sound filled the air, getting steadily louder. Then, a sedan chair covered in panels of dark blue silk appeared at the corner of the square. Shun’s eyes narrowed. The sedan chair was flanked by two rows of palace eunuchs and two rows of soldiers. They all wore the gilded helmets that signified the palace guard with General Pan Guo heading the procession. The crowd parted the party entered the square.

The sedan chair stopped at the very front of the stage and was lowered to the ground. The Grand Duke stepped out. A large silver dragon was embroidered across the front of his black silk outer robe and his topknot was held by a silver guan hairpiece that shone bright in the shone. Shun counted five dragon claws: a dragon that could only be worn by a King.

The Grand Duke lifted a hand to wave to the crowd before he walked to his seating area. Pan Guo left the front of the retinue with a second soldier to stand by the Grand Duke’s side.

The head eunuch held up his hand and all the eunuchs said in unison, “All hail the Grand Duke.”

From the first tier officials to the tattered commoners pushing against the back of the crowd, all went down on their knees. On stage, the actors filed into one line and also knelt.

“We greet the Grand Duke.”

“Ah  — please, please rise.” The Grand Duke’s teeth shone in the sunlight. He waved a hand. “This is a time for all of us to celebrate. We remember the loyalty of our ancestors and the blessings of the year so far. Let us start the celebrations!”

Shun stood. His fingers curled into fists at his side until Xue-li nudged his shoulder. She fixed him with a pointed look as she walked past.

“Your Grace,” Xue-li said with a low bow. “We humbly introduce ourselves as players of the Hibiscus House. I hope you enjoy the play we have put together for you today.”

“Players from Hibiscus House? I have heard great things about your talent.” The Grand Duke leaned forward.  “You may begin.”

As a row, all of the actors bowed again. Shun glanced at the Grand Duke’s seat from the stage. It was within range of a thrown knife or even a sword. But with General Pan Guo standing on one side and another of the palace guards on the other it would be just as easy as an attempt like that to be deflected. He was going to have to wait for another opportunity.

The actors shuffled to their respective places on the stage. Xue-li stepped up first, waving her long sleeves with a grace that Shun could never hope to imitate.

“There was once an empire,” Xue-li said, “that stretches as far as eye can see. It was ruled by a wise emperor and defended by two Generals... ”

The play itself was not difficult, although Shun had raised his eyebrows when he first heard the story. Two generals, joining forces to stop a Regent on the cusp of usurping the throne? Was such a plot too obvious?

Qinhui had shrugged. “It is based on history  — on the life of Emperor Bai of the last dynasty,” she said. “Besides, such a story allows for you to carry weapons, and it will give cues for you to even jump off stage, and then  —  attack before any of the guards realise it.”

That was a point Shun could not argue with. “Is it a well-known play?”

Qinhui’s smile had turned sharp at that question. “Oh no, this play was written especially for this year’s Duan Wu festivities. Don’t you think our House’s writers are talented, General?”

On the stage, Xue-lie bowed and motioned to where Shun and Ming-song stood with a fluttering of her sleeves. Shun and Ming-song took a step forward each and twirled around before bowing to each other and stepping back. It was time for the next set of actors to come forward.

“The emperor had a beloved wife and, importantly, a bright young heir. He was still a child, but full of potential.” One of the rebels came out onto stage, a doll held in her arms to represent the child prince. “But one day, disaster struck.”

There was a clash of cymbals behind them and a rumbling of drums. Actors, faces painted a simple black, filled the stage. They stretched out three pieces of wide blue cloth across the back of it, waving them to imitating waves.

“The emperor was on his ship, sailing with his empress across the great Long River, when he was struck by a storm and his ship was lost  — ”

One of the actors holding the blue cloth walked past Shun. He felt a tug at his side as his blunt stage-sword was tugged away. The hilts of two other swords were pressed into each of his hands. Across the stage, Xue-li gave Shun an barely-discernible nod. She had received her weapon too.

“  — it left his heir under the care of his older brother who had been passed over for the throne many years before.”

A high pitched singing note, almost akin to wailing, filled the air. Shun watched the Grand Duke lean forward. His expression was unreadable. It was well known that King Ming-song’s father had died in a carriage accident with his Queen, leaving the then-four year old Ming-wang in the care of the Grand Duke.

“A mere untested child as King? The old King’s brother thought that now would be his chance. A child could easily take ill, or have an accident, and then the throne would be his . But his plan reached the ears of two loyal generals to the throne.”

Shun bowed and turned as he had rehearsed and threw one of his weapons across to Ming-song. This was the cue for Ru Zheng to come up the steps announcing the news of the Regent’s betrayal.

The girl who came up the steps also wore the bright blue face paint of Ru Zheng's character, but she was shorter and more slight than Shun remembered. He shook his head. It must have been the costume and face paint.

“Generals,” the girl said as she sank to her knees, holding a bundle of paper in her outstretched hands. “My name is Chun Hua and I was a maid serving in the royal palace. These are letters that were found in High Eunuch Tao’s quarters before he died. The letters are penned by the Grand Duke’s hands and stamped with the Grand Duke’s seal: ordering the deaths of King Ming-wang’s sons and the forgery of the letter that condemned the Second Prince, Ming-an”

Those were not Ru Zheng’s next lines. Shun froze and his eyes met Ming-song’s. High Eunuch Tao was not a fictional character in a play. High Eunuch Tao had been the principal eunuch serving King Ming-wang. In Chun Hua’s outstretched hands was not the empty envelope Ru Zheng had used in their rehearsals. It was a thick bundle of letters. Even from where he stood, Shun could recognise the red characters of the Grand Duke’s own seal.

Shun’s stepped forward, but Ming-song was faster, plucking the letters from Chun Hua’s hands. Below them, the crowd and even the Grand Duke remained motionless, as if they had not truly heard Chun Hua’s words. It took a mere moment for Ming-song to scan the first letter and then he opened his mouth:

To the esteemed High Eunuch Tao,

Ming-wang continues to be a fool who is as easily distractible from his plans as a child. If the dynasty continues in his line, surely we will be doomed. As we have rid ourselves of the Second Prince, we need to rid the kingdom of him but — while he is still listening to our advice, it would be easier to first ensure the death of his firstborn son.

Signed by the seal of the Grand Duke.

The crowd was silent.

Ming-song pulled off his mask. “My brother King Ming-wang had many sons by his consorts, but none of them survived beyond their infancy,” Ming-song pointed to the Grand Duke. He held up the letter so that the red seal was for all to see. “This is clear evidence of my uncle’s crimes and his guilt before the throne.”

“Nephew.” The Grand Duke was sitting in his chair hands folded across his lap. “I thought that would would have made a more impressive attempt at your second rebellion. A play? With some actors?” He laughed. “The rebels have infiltrated the ranks of Hibiscus House and this letter is nothing but a forgery. My nephew, on the other hand, has already ordered his men to attack the throne of Jin once and killed his very own brother.” The Grand Duke pointed towards the stage. “Arrest them!”

“No .”

The word rang loud and clear across the square. None of the soldiers moved. Shun heard the tap-tap of a wooden staff on flagstones before the crowd parted. Official Wu walked forward into a space cleared in the midst of the scholar officials.

“That account is not quite true, your Grace,” Official Wu said.  “I remember that the Fifth Prince was under house arrest within the royal palace at the time of King Ming-wang’s death. Therefore, even if you claim the rebels are connected to the Fifth Prince, how could he order such a rebellion while under heavy guard?”

The Grand Duke’s laughed again. “Lies,” he said, “These are all lies.” He pointed to Ming-song again. “These accusations are preposterous and will be discarded. Arrest them!”

No one in the square moved.

Official Wu tapped his staff on the flagstones three times. “You are mistaken again. These accusations are about your actions, your Grace. According to the laws of the kingdom, if such accusations were be made about the King, then the judge should be the Queen Dowager. As the old Queen is dead, the judgment rests on the court  — not you.”

“Judge me?” The Grand Duke pushed himself to his feet, face red. “ I steered this kingdom through times of war! I have the official blessing of the Heavens!”

“Truly?” It was Chun Hua’s turn to stand and face the crowd. “Your Grace, if you truly have the support of the Heavens, why is it that the dragons still visit us to show their displeasure?”

“If you truly have Heaven’s blessing,” Official Wu said, “why is that within the Great Hall of Prosperity, all the mirrors have cracked?”

A murmur spread throughout the crowd. The Grand Duke’s face had turned a shade of purple. He pointed a shaking finger at Official Wu. “ Kill them all!”

None one moved. The Grand Duke’s order hung in the air like an evaporated promise as the both palace and city guards, and the rebels stared at each other like ice carved figures in the winter snow. Then, General Pan peeled away from the Grand Duke’s side. He took one, two steps towards the stage, sword drawn and ready.

As if on signal, the palace guard rushed forward, some towards Official Wu and some towards the stage. Xue-li raised her sword. “Attack!” The rebels hiding as dragon boat racers rushed to intercept the soldiers before any could get close to Official Wu. Arrows rained down from the sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed. The civilians and officials in the crowds shifted and swirled together as one as they moved to the narrow laneways leading out of the square. In the middle of the square, Official Wu lifted his chin. Shun met his eyes. Official Wu nodded, briefly and stepped back before blending into the rest of the crowd.

Shun tore his eyes away to what was in front of him. There were no more soldiers near the Grand Duke. This was his chance. With a flick of his wrist, Shun’s sword was in his hand. He jumped off the stage and ran towards the Grand Duke.