Hong Shen couldn’t move. His own memory of the shadowed face of a man entered his mind, grinning sadistically. He held a knife in his hands, caressing it as he walked closer. Hong Shen could smell the musty odor on his suit and felt the man glide the knife across his cheek.
“Wo de gou, how should I punish you today?”
Hong Shen jerked out of the memory, releasing a little puff of breath. No, he was not going to remember that man right now, not ever. Just because they both called him their dog didn’t mean they were the same.
He attempted to break out of the creep’s grip behind him, but realized he was frozen, almost like someone had used a spell on him. But that couldn’t be right. Why would there be magic in ancient china?
The person stopped nibbling, his dark red sleeved arm wrapping tighter around his neck. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten me?” Very sharp nails caressed his cheek, and he didn’t dare look down.
“Who the hell are you?! Get off of me!” Why were so many damn people getting in his way?! He just wanted to find a woman, was that so difficult to do?
Hong Shen felt the nails pause, and had a sudden thought that this man might not actually be a human right before his airway was brutally cut off by his arm.
“You would dare speak to me like that? After I so kindly formed a contract with you?”
The air grew unbearably hot, and he could feel sweat bead up on his forehead. He grabbed the man’s arm and attempted to pry it away, but it was immovable, continuing to prevent Hong Shen from breathing.
“Looks like you have forgotten your place. Maybe this will remind you!”
The person behind him muttered some incoherent phrases, and suddenly Hong Shen’s back arched in agony as lines of fire erupted along his skin, tracing a sort of symbol on his back that seemed familiar, but wasn’t. His teeth clenched, and he refused to make a sound to let his attacker know how much pain he was in.
Ha, did the man think something like this would cripple the great Hong Shen? He had been in far worse pain before!
But even as he thought this, the pain increased, and his legs gave out, only propped up by the choke hold he was still in. The edges of his vision started turning black from lack of oxygen.
A woman’s voice cut through his torture, and the creature behind him loosened his grip, his back returning to normal.
“Tch. I suppose you’ll have to be spared for now. But I’ll be back in time for your birthday, of course.”
The nails pressed menacingly into his neck, before he felt the presence behind him fade away. He collapsed to his knees, panting heavily and feeling his neck.
In all his years of carrying out murders and running from the police, he had never felt fear like this before. Not since he had been an early teen, at most.
And yet, this man, this creature, had made him lose composure in a matter of seconds, controlling him without even lifting a finger. Was this the power of magic?
He rubbed his neck, frowning. What exactly was the contract Hongye made? What kind of mess was he in now?
And what was this about his birthday?!
“So it’s true,” the woman’s voice spoke from behind him. Hong Shen quickly masked his anger and confusion, standing and turning towards the lady on shaky legs, taking a moment to stand firmly. Dealing with his current problem had to come first.
The woman wore a pale blue chang pao hanfu that darkened as it reached the bottom, creating an effect like that of falling water. It was decorated with white lotus flowers outlined throughout the skirt, and her pale blue sleeves were moderately wide, swaying gently with each step she took. A white sash rested on her folded elbows, draping elegantly in a dip behind her back. Three shining diamond water drops rested on her forehead from the intricate headpiece she wore braided into her hair, which was formed into a complex diamond band with a pearl lotus portrayed in the center, pulling back her luscious black hair into a sort of bun. Dangling glass earrings clinked delicately with the slightest movement, and her beautiful almond shaped eyes were a clear, radiant blue, instantly captivating.
But not to Hong Shen, who only saw her as an overdressed doll. Ancient people were so over the top in their clothing styles, all that jewelry had to be tiring to wear, and that hanfu didn’t even look the least bit comfortable.
“What’s true?” He asked sharply. He had found a woman, but if a doll like her decided to come down beneath the palace to find a despised prince, she couldn’t be simple.
The lady stopped walking a few feet from him, looking him over. For having such clear eyes, Hong Shen couldn’t read anything she was thinking or feeling.
“Is that how you greet your eldest sister, si di?” Her eyes narrowed the slightest bit.
Eldest sister? It made sense that she was a princess, that attitude and appearance certainly matched it.
Great, ten minutes in and he had already met two siblings of this hated Hongye. At this rate, he would meet the whole family before the hour ends!
“Was there a specific greeting you had in mind?” Hong Shen could taste the sarcasm dripping off his words. If he had to deal with these bullshitters before completing his trial, he would damn well do it his way, not theirs.
But instead of getting mad like he wanted, she simply gave a small smile. “So it is true,” she repeated. “They are gone. Your memory… and your red hair.”
Her melodic voice paused briefly, hitching on the last part of the sentence. Her eyes darted to Hong Shen’s hair, and for the slightest second he saw those clear eyes darken, but in the next second it was like nothing ever happened.
“I am the third and eldest princess of the Guan Dynasty’s Ninth Emperor, Guan Shuilian. But you can call me Jie Jie.”
Jie Jie my ass, you damn troublesome woman! What a *snow white lotus you are indeed!
“And what do you want?” To torture him some more with her presence? Hong Shen clenched his fists in irritation.
Shuilian’s smile twitched, finally showing some of the anger he wanted to see. He didn’t care that he was being rude at all. It didn’t matter if she was a man or a woman, if she was irritating, then he was ready to dish it out.
Who cares about that creepy nail guy? He wouldn’t come when Hong Shen was with other people, so he didn’t need to fear for him.
“Am I not allowed to see my si di?”
Hong Shen inwardly gagged, glaring at her. Seriously? How more fake could she get? At least when he had problems with people he took care of it up front with a quick bullet to the head, instead of dragging it out with honeyed words veiling the malice beneath.
Shuilian smirked a little at his look, turning on her heel. “Come, Fourth Brother, it’s time for dinner. They are waiting for you.”
She looked over her shoulder, winking at Hong Shen. “And I know you are dying to see them. Teeheehee!”
She chuckled as she turned and began walking forwards throughout the dimly lit halls, her jewelry clinking softly.
Hong Shen was seething with rage, and wanted nothing more than to reach out and strangle her pretty little neck. But then he would most assuredly be executed without a second thought for killing the eldest princess of the empire. Trial over.
Taking a deep breath, he released his clenched hands, relaxing his shoulders. Sure, he would play this game for a little while.
And when his trial was guaranteed a victory, he would kill her in the slowest way possible.
With this lovely thought in mind, he followed Shuilian, who was completely oblivious to her impending death sentence.
The way up to the palace wasn’t much better looking than under the palace, the stairs consisting of stones placed in a straight line leading up to an iron door.
As they walked, Shuilian explained the general layout of the palace, since Hong Shen seemed to have forgotten even how to reach the stairs.
The hallway they had just exited was where the servants quarters were located, where Hongye had been moved to thanks to the Head Mother, First Concubine Ri Chang. All servants lived under their respective palaces, to be at the call of their owners at any time. Hongye’s quarters were underneath the South Palace, which was dedicated to the Emperor’s royal harem and family. It was occupied by very few compared to the other palaces, but it was by far the nicest and most decorated, protected by Zhuque, god of the south and rebirth.
Then there was the West Palace, the center of all military and warfare meetings and officials. However, it hasn’t been used for its purpose in over two decades, becoming the least occupied palace of all. Baihu, god of the west, had not been offered to in as much time, and there is an underlying fear that he may retaliate at any time.
The North Palace is home to all the imperial scholars and officials, and is the oldest palace standing in the entire country. Legends say that the Great Divine Saints once resided in it, needing a place to meditate and gain knowledge. It is believed that they blessed the palace with their divine knowledge, and that any who live inside may also be blessed with longevity, thanks to the god of the north, Xuanwu.
And last but not least is the East Palace, the holy palace of the Emperor. There, all the ceremonies and foreign affairs take place. It’s also where all the nobles closest to the Emperor reside and meet, full of more people everyday than double of the North Palace. The presence of the eastern god Qinglong is very present in that palace, due to all the offerings he is offered consistently.
There was a myth that a fifth palace had once stood, known as the Central Palace. In the time of the Great Divine Saints, only two palaces were said to have existed - the North and Central Palaces. In the Central Palace of the Yellow Dragon King, his nine sons lived in it, to protect their saints, who supposedly formed contracts with the dragons to be guarded while performing their exorcism duties.
But a horrific disaster befell the land and in order to protect the world from annihilation, the Dragon King returned to the heavens, and the Nine Dragons and their Saints sacrificed themselves to make sure it didn’t happen. The Central Palace was destroyed in the process, and not even ruins could be found from its destruction. In turn, the Four Auspicious Beasts, otherwise known as the Four Beast Gods, descended to protect the world in their place, as recognition of their valiant efforts.
At last, Shuilian stopped walking, and a moment of silence descended. Who knew that she could be such a chatterbox when it came to explaining things! Hong Shen hadn’t even been paying attention to their surroundings, too engrossed in the history lesson. He wasn’t big on history, but if it helped him learn more about his current time period and could help him complete the trial, hell, he would listen to a hundred more!
The above ground South Palace was like a paradise compared to the halls beneath. The walls shone a pleasing cream color and beautiful oriental designs were painted painstakingly onto them. Elaborate silver sconces in the frame of a phoenix were mounted at even intervals on the walls, holding torches with dancing flames. The occasional servant passed by them with a short bow to Shuilian, but they didn’t even glance at Hong Shen.
For a prince, it would have been beyond humiliating. But for a low class criminal, it was completely normal. No one wanted to make eye contact with him, simply because they didn’t like the way his eyes glinted. The eyes of a murderer were hard to hide.
Shuilian had stopped in front of a pair of tall white doors that had the characters for water and lotus on them in silver paint. Hong Shen raised an eyebrow; one couldn’t get any more obvious than that.
She held up her hand to wait, then disappeared inside her room, appearing a few moments later with a black robe over her arm. Why she had a man’s robe in her room, much less one of Hongye’s, was a mystery, but he didn’t dwell on it.
“Put this on and come inside, you must be presentable for dinner. And your hair is almost worse than the ancient disaster!”
She shoved the robe into Hong Shen’s arms and practically dragged him inside, where two of her personal maids shut the doors behind him.
Hong Shen wanted to refuse, narrowing his eyes and about to spit a retort when Shuilian fixed him with a death glare of her own. Surprised, he forgot what he was about to say, and she took the chance to seat him before her small table, where her maids had already set out some facial make-up, hair gels and small hats to mark his position as royalty.
“I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing this for everyone else’s sake.” Shuilian slipped off her sash and rolled up her wide sleeves, wasting no time in taking out the hair ribbon and doing up his hair.
Hong Shen sat like a stone, eyes wide. No one had done his hair for him since he had been a little boy, and his mother did it. Granted, he hadn’t had long hair since he was a boy either.
Shuilian’s hands were neither rough nor soft, applying just the right amount of tension as she pulled his white hair back and brushed it with a boar's hair brush, making it soft and silky before tying it into a ponytail at the base of his neck.
For the second time in as many minutes, Hong Shen was surprised. Wasn’t she a princess? She sure had good skills for being raised with a silver spoon in her mouth.
And she sure seemed rather motherly for someone who hated Hongye’s guts and could be a murder suspect.
She ignored the hats and instead went to her own jewelry stand, rummaging around until she pulled out a hairpin with small, dangling ruby leaves extending the length of her forearm.
After putting it above the ribbon in Hong Shen’s hair, she sighed, putting her sleeves back down and slipping on her sash. “Consider it an early birthday present. Though, it doesn’t really match your name anymore, Fourth Brother Hongye.”
At this point, Hong Shen was thoroughly bewildered. Hongye was a prince despised by the entire country, even more so by his siblings. Was this just a trap to make him show weakness?
He shook his head and stood. Whatever, this strange older sister wouldn’t get any secrets out of him. He had kept secrets from far more threatening opponents; it was almost a blessing for him that ancient china had no such thing as the internet.
Slipping on the robe, he noticed that a red dragon was embroidered on the back. It twisted vertically, it’s snarling snout opened towards his right shoulder as it’s spiked tail lashed down towards his left hip. A brilliant fireball was clutched in all of it’s four claws, and long, wicked horns curved before the flared, scaly ruff around its head, almost like a lion’s mane. Golden smoke curved away from the fireballs all around the dragon, stretching onto the front of the robe and curling down the sleeves.
As he looked at the mesmerizing design, a name flew to the tip of his tongue. Suan Mi.
So the name of the dragon was Suan Mi, but why did he know that? Must be another one of Hongye’s memories.
Hong Shen finished slipping on the robe and followed Shuilian out of her room, too busy drowning in unanswered questions to admire its beauty. Her personal maids silently followed a respectful distance behind, all the way to the dining room, where he sensed they stopped at the end of the hall, watching probably for their mistress to enter before leaving.
Shuilian paused before the massive doors of the South Palace dining room, where a larger than life painting of a brilliant red and multicolored phoenix flew stationarily across the white paint. Hong Shen didn’t need to be told that this was Zhuque, the southern beast god, in all his glory.
“Try not to be as much of an eyesore as you usually are, especially since I’ve heard father - the Emperor, for you - isn’t in the best mood.”
Hong Shen rolled his eyes at her back, itching to get out of the uncomfortably warm robe and pissed that he was being kept from finding a woman.
“Whatever you say, Jie Jie.”
“Don’t be arrogant.” With a deep breath, Shuilian squared her shoulders and -
- the doors swung open by themselves, revealing a tall young man with hardly any clothing covering his body, save for a thin pair of deep purple ku. The silhouettes of golden feathers were sewn randomly throughout the royal purple, like feathers of a bird floating in the wind. A large pendant of a white jade tiger curled into a sphere rested on his otherwise bare chest, and his long black hair fell loosely to his waist, giving him a sort of unkempt, seductive charm. A black sash tied over his ku dipped down slightly on one side, holding an unsheathed sword in its grasp as the ends swayed by his knee. His head was bare without any ornaments, but the black shadow under his eyes made his amber irises stand out enough.
“I was wondering when you two were going to show up,” he said with a teasing grin, stepping aside to let them pass.
And Hong Shen stood, feet frozen to the ground, as he stared into the dead ringer face of his murderer from present times.