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Chapter 2: Of Grief and Rituals.
Captain Zhang gritted his teeth as he put on the Xue Nong clothes on. He didn’t mind disguising, but this is just a step too much: dressing up in an enemy’s clothes.
“Prince Ren Yu, do you think this is worth it?” he asked the man beside him, who was regally putting on the Commoner’s Turban.
It was a little disorienting to behold the Prince without his Golden Armour on.
“To know the enemy,” the man replied, calmly. “We need to know get into their homes, where they are unguarded not only with weapons but also with their emotions.”
Captain Zhang sighed. The Prince had always been one whose feathers were difficult to ruffle. And everything that he ever does is calculative. He’s a man born to lead men.
“These people, I thought they weren’t our enemies anymore,” murmured Zhang, to himself. “I thought they surrendered to us.”
But the Prince heard everything. “Their king is with us. Not their loyalty.”
Captain Zhang didn’t utter another word, chastened. He’d been the Prince’s companion since a young age, when they’d both begun mastering warcraft.
Holding the burning lamps in their hands, they stepped out of their tents and started walking towards the closed gates of the Xue Nong.
The fires burning inside the closed city of the Xue Nong were emitting a yellow glow that lit the night sky also.
“Remind me why we’re doing this again?” he muttered.
The Prince quietly replied, “Today the Xue Nong are burying the ashes of their dead and the Royal Family is going to lead the Procession. This is the best chance we can get to know their weaknesses: when they are drowned in their grief.”
The cool night breeze was not the reason why Captain Zhang shivered. There was something in the voice of the young Prince beside him, a burning desire. And that was when he knew that the Prince has still not forgotten.
“Prince Ren Yu…” Captain Zhang cautiously began.
But one decisive shake of head from the Prince silenced him.
The Captain has not followed the Prince since long without knowing who’s soon going to perish in his hands. The Snake Princess and her loyal dog are going to suffer.
The desert sand shifted under their feet as they got closer to the gates. Since the Captain was a child, he’d heard many elders speak of the legends of the Kingdom of Xue Nong.
They said that the gates were guarded by an ancient spirit that would stike down lightning upon any man who wished the Kingdom harm. They said that there were two snakes that protected the Ancient Jade Buddha in this kingdom and to seek to touch the Jade would be to invite death upon oneself.
He didn’t know about the Snakes guarding the Buddha, but he is nervous about the lightning bolt part.
Because if the Prince would have had his way, the entire city of the Xue Nong would have burned to ashes by now, with Chen He Shan and that Princess being the foremost.
He guessed Chen He Shan is lucky to have deserted the surrendered King, because if he’d been loyal, he would have died a death that would be remembered for generations for its gruesomeness.
As for the Princess, he didn’t know what the Prince had planned for her.
He had heard a lot of the Princess, too. The only girl in the several offspring of King Xue Xi Hong, Princess Xi Shi is the Royal Priestess of the Kingdom. She’s been trained by the reclusive Sha Tribe, the home of her mother.
A Master in the art of poison and immune to every other form of it, and a habitual tamer of Serpents, she was the deadliest weapon that the Xue Nong had possessed. A weapon the Prince had expected for the King to use. But surprisingly, the King hadn’t.
It would be a lie to say that he wasn’t excited to behold the Princess, who was said to be the second coming of the Ancient Xi Shi herself. She’s coveted by many kingdoms that were hungry to build an alliance with the ancient house of the Xue Nong.
After all, the Kingdom is a strategic checkpoint: The hub of art and culture. To possess the Xue Nong is to possess the entire world.
But still, he was nervous when they stood in front of the imposing Ivory Gates which had two huge snakes carved into it. The emerald stones encrusted in the place of the snakes’ eyes glittered sinisterly as the moonlight fell on it.
He couldn’t help but remember all the tales he’d ever heard and took a deep breath and the gates cracked open for their entry.
The Xue Nong could revolt if news reached them that the enemy had entered their city while their ritual was going on. So, they were entering secretly.
As they stepped on the surprisingly fertile soil of the Xue Nong, the Ivory Gates shut close behind them firmly, separating them from the desert sand. For the first time he realized why the Xue Nong was so coveted: It was life cocooned in the middle of an arid landscape, a rare blessing from the Gods.
He turned to look at the Prince’s cold and impassive face.
Zhang Fu Ling couldn’t help but sigh in relief, as not a single lightning bolt had hit them: the people who wished for the worst harm to the Xue Nong.
Xi Shi stood on the parapet of the Palace Walls, reliving the memory of the white flag being raised upon it.
Her white robes fluttered in the cool night breeze, and she closed her eyes. She could hear Mother Musa’s voice echoing inside her head: White for Death; white for purity.
White for the purity that comes after death.
For a moment, she imagined that she was back in the dark and cold caves of the Sha Tribe, with the constant and eerie hiss of the thousands of snakes around her.
But the sensation of something slithering down her arms brought her back from the reverie. She opened her eyes to see a Cobra coming to rest on her finger: Feiying.
She raised her arm so that the snake’s head and her eyes were of the same level. Feiying was upset. The female cobra could sense her Mistress’s sublime rage.
Even through the veil, the cobra could feel her Mistress’s eyes staring into her own’s.
“Feiying-ah!” murmured Xi Shi, softly, as she cocked her head to the side.
The Serpent was hypnotized by that voice, by those veiled eyes. It imitated it’s Mistress’s move. But it slowly began to slither back into her Mistress’s robes.
It had heard the promise of death in her Mistress’s soft voice.
Feiying was Xi Shi’s favorite. It always immediately understood Xi Shi’s moods and moved accordingly. Also, Feiying was Xi Shi’s most potent source of Poison. The Cobra’s fangs were the lips of death.
“Princess,” a nervous voice floated towards her. Xi Shi turned to see that it’s her maid, Xiao Gu’s.
Xiao Gu is a young girl not much older than her. They’d been playmates since they were children. And as she grew up, she became her maid. A quick and sensible girl, she was one of Xi Shi’s few trusted people in the palace.
But Xiao Gu had always been scared of her snakes.
These snakes and their knowledge was her mother’s only gift to Xi Shi.
“Priestess!” said Consort Mu, in a solemn tone, as she entered the terrace followed by other members of the Royal Family and the Priests from the Temple of the Jade Buddha. Xiao Gu shrinked back as she realized her error.
As long as the Ritual of the Dead proceeds, she’s now the Priestess.
“We have received the approval of the Ming Army to proceed with the ritual,” said Consort Mu, reluctantly.
Xi Shi turned away from them and looked up at the night sky that was as dark as ink otherwise the light from the lamps, and the Moon.
Every house in the city had a lamp burning in front of its doors, symbolizing their dead. For the first time in many years was there going to be a mass burial in the Xue Nong.
Many had already forgotten the rules of the Ritual. And even she had to consult the High Priest of the Temple of the Jade Buddha to master the rules of the Ritual.
At Consort Mu’s words, Feiying hissed in anger from the folds of her robes.
Xi Shi’s lips tugged upwards as she heard Consort Mu and her entourage step back in fright.
She stroked the scaly skin of the Serpent, as Feiyang emerged out again and curled itself around her neck. The snake around her neck, and the pearl white veil covering her face made her look like a spirit. And she felt like one too, as some unknown force took over her.
Under the clear moonlight, standing on the parapet, her cold voice drifted out, “The Dead need nobody’s approval, Consort Mu.”
Consort Mu’s breath hitched in shock. Never had she seen Xi Shi emit so much of power. The position of the Priestess usually belonged to the Eldest Daughter of the Royal Family. And with none being around for hundreds of years, there’d been no Priestess.
With Xi Shi stepping into those shoes, for the first time Consort Mu realized what beholding the power of the spirits meant.
The surrounding people knelt down and bowed for forgiveness.
“Arise!” the cold voice drifted out.
As they slowly stood up, they saw that the entire populace of the city had gathered under the parapet, gazing at their Princess and Priestess.
Xi Shi was stroking the Serpent, which was hissing in pleasure. All the people were holding an urn in their hands which contained the ashes of their dead.
Xi Shi could feel the power slowly receding as she remembered her dead brothers. Their urns were either carried by their mothers, or their servants. Many of their mothers had committed suicide. And those mothers would never be laid to rest ritually: suicide is a crime under the covenant.
Xi Shi closed her eyes, as she raised her hands towards the heavens. Feiyang slithered around her neck, rising upwards.
The people of the Xue Nong beheld this scene with utter silence, and reverence in their eyes, as Xi Shi’s voice reverberated across the city. Such was the silence.
“Let the Ritual Begin.”
Okay, here you go! All of us just found a little bit of breather in our schedule so we managed to put this up. But the next chapter will definitely take a LOT of time. So you’re warned!
Xi Shi is definitely the heroine of this chapter. It’s slightly disorienting to see her metamorphosize from the brave girl to femme fatale who loves snakes. But that’s what grief does to people, it reveals sides of them that they would rather not show under normal circumstances.
The Prince is a bit of an enigma, with hidden reasons for his all-consuming hatred for both Chen He Shan and Xi Shi. There’s definitely a huge reason for what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.
I would love to know what you guys think of the small glimpse we’ve been given of the Prince. And also, what do you guys think is the reason for the Prince’s hatred.
Do let us know your thoughts!
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