The Emperor's New Fur Coat
by L. Shannon

Chenzai will do anything to set her brothers
free before the next full moon, but will offering
her charms to the emperor be enough or will
Shidibala betray her when she needs him most?

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chapter one
~ 1 ~

Once upon a time there was a young emperor, who
tried to lead his people during difficult and troubled
times. Emperor Ying Zong did his best to provide
the leadership that his people needed but often he
was forced to walk a delicate balance between appearances and what was the truth.

Emperor Ying Zong turned to his advisor. “Ping, who is next to be seen?”

Ping began his usual excessive verbal drivel. “Most Holy of Leaders, Most Gracious, Most Revered, Most Elegant…”

“Ping, who else is waiting?” he asked again. Ping had a habit of blathering on for hours in what the older man thought was appealing. Usually Shidibala which was the emperor’s given name, was amused by Ping’s antics, but today he had more bothersome things on his mind.

“Oh my Holy Wonder of Glorious Justice…”

“Ping… Oh, never mind. Guard, send in whoever is next.”

The ornate doors closed behind the guard, and then immediately swung open again with a crash. Four of his royal guard escorted two men between them, each cuffed with the silver shackles marked with the imperial seal. The prisoners appeared strong and young, but they were filthy, covered in no more than tattered rags.

“What is this about? Who are these men?”

Ping stepped to his elbow with a ridiculous bow that dropped low over the carpeted dais. “These men, Chen and Cho, brothers of the Rho household, are charged with stealing.”

Shidibala sighed. This was the forth incident of theft this month. During such impoverished times, stealing even a crumb was taken very seriously. “What is the proof that they committed such crimes?”

“The brothers Rho were caught shortly after they stole chickens from a neighboring family.” Ping swished his hand out with a flourish to present a brown feather. “This evidence was found with them at the time they were captured.”

So these men were guilty. “What do the men have to say about the matter?”

“They have no defense, Most Honorable One.”

And of that the Emperor had no doubt since both men were gagged and could not speak at all.

Ping dropped to one knee before the emperor. “Waste not your precious time on such lowly matters as these petty, honorless thieves. Think instead of the celebration this evening and the new garments that have just been completed for your finery. Use your keen mind to worry over imperial concerns. Khayishan’s sons, your cousins, shall both be there as well as many young women for your consideration.”

That indeed was a worthy concern. His cousins felt they deserved the throne and his inheritance and perhaps they were right, but regardless, it could not happen yet. The unrest that they spread harmed their entire province. The only way to put down their effort was to present an impeccable image of wealth and success.

“Oh my Most Holy Emperor, let me take these tiniest of matters away from your mind.” Ping motioned the guards out. “Take them to join the work crew. There they can earn off their crimes.”

“Wait! Emperor, sire! Please wait!” A young woman ran forward toward the emperor’s dais. She was almost at his throne when one of his personal guards knocked her to the floor at his feet. “Please, Emperor Ying Zong. Please hear me out. My brothers meant no harm and committed no crimes.”

The young woman was dressed as poorly as her brothers. She was splattered with mud as if she had rolled in the rice fields and her hair was a snarled mess that straggled over her face and fell in long wet tangles fanning out around her body. Where she was pinned to the floor was quickly growing as foul and soiled as she was. “Lift the girl from the carpet.”

His guard immediately did as he commanded. The girl was lifted to her feet and placed once more on the lower stone floor.

“What is your name, girl child of Rho?”

Ping stepped in front of the girl. “Oh Master of the Empire, she is nothing and of no importance to your greatness.”

He stared down at Ping, letting one brow rise slowly to show Ping he meant to deal with this issue himself. And for once, Ping showed the keen intelligence that had earned him the position of advisor to three different rulers. He bowed low and backed out of the way, allowing the girl once more into the emperor’s sight.

“Well? What is your name, girl?”

She pulled free of the guard’s hands and wiped her filthy hair back from her face. Even that did little to help since she was still so smeared in mud and the wayward hair fell forward again almost at once. “I am called Rho Chenzai.”

“And why is it that you have come to the summer palace to defend the innocence of these men?”

“Emperor Ying Zong, they did not commit the crimes they are accused of. I beg of you to release them so that they may return with me to our home.”

“Such who would steal from their neighbor can not be trusted within the welcoming walls of a home.” He looked over the men in question. They appeared no better than beggars. Surely any family home would be wealthier without such as them to steal all value and honor from a family name. “Your home will be better without these to dishonor your family.”

“No, please, our family needs the fine cloths that they produce to survive. That is our trade. Their skilled hands are our wealth and bound to our honor.”

Ping stepped to his elbow once more and said in a whispered voice, “Most Revered One, the sons of Khayishan have arrived and have asked for your hospitality. If you wish to see to them personally, I will discharge this.”

He acknowledged Ping’s news with a nod and turned back to the girl. “Mistress Rho, I see no evidence that these men did not commit the crimes in question. They were caught almost within the act of their thievery. And neither they nor you show any likelihood of being producers of fine cloth when what you wear is little more than tattered rags. Your brothers will be added to the workers of the imperial gardens until suitably taught the meaning of worth.” Before she could offer any more than a single cry of objection, he motioned the guards to proceed and swept from the room to deal with his treacherous cousins who were already plotting his removal from the throne.

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