I know how I always start out apologizing for taking too long to update, but this time is different. I really feel horrible for neglecting you guys for so long. The last time I updated was in JUNE! I will never let that happen again.
This is a vow I swear to you as a fellow author.
Chapter 7 - Interrogation
The weight of the world seemed to rest on Lan Fan's shoulders. It was no more than she was used to, but this time, the world felt so much heavier. As she waited for the party of five to arrive, her mind wandered to the night before. She kept replaying the image of the dead maid in her head over and over.
The sword had been purposely positioned to avoid the infant. Why? What was the purpose in killing a young woman just to let her unborn child live? How were they to know Lan Fan would've noticed?
Unless they had been watching Lan Fan all along.
And now we're inviting forty-three resentful siblings to share a room. It was a perfect opportunity to strike with tensions so high, and yet it was the biggest risk for even the most skilled sleuth. Forty-three princes and princesses meant at least eighty-five bodyguards. Word spread like wildfire when a royal was endangered, and now every imperial guard would be on high alert, ready to give his life for the one he served.
Lan Fan stood like a black barrier between the palace and the oncoming group of people. To anyone who didn't know her, she appeared as if death and destruction had molded together into the perfect solider. To those who did know her, they would agree.
"Halt there," she demanded, her voice carrying over as anything but feminine. Zhi burrowed her head into Lan Fan's back, reminding her new mother that she was still there.
"A word with the royals by the Emperor's decree," she spoke more softly, yet her voice still carried a tone of authority. They may showcase a crown in the public eye, but this was her castle. Her word was law—at least ninety-seven percent of the time.
Her eagle-eyed gaze slid over May and Alphonse. "With the exception of Princess Chang and her companion." Formality was a key element in issuing control over a situation. She cared for Al and, well, she got along with May. However, showing affection would place a target on their backs and would be perceived as weak to those who showed no mercy.
"Why let them pass?" Nuo Zhen, the only other princess in the group, sneered. Her long, shiny black hair was tightened into a series of perfect buns with a long braid extending down the middle to her slender hips. Her eyes were a piercing black and her lips as red as sin. She was the tallest and leanest of them all, and she was no doubt a deadly martial artist. Lan Fan already disliked her.
"The lord's orders are not to be questioned, Princess Zhen." Lan Fan said quietly, though her words did not go unheard. There was a promise in that single sentence. The woman glared viciously before composing herself into the image of a regal goddess.
Lan Fan's attention snapped back to Alphonse and May, giving them a barely noticeable nod. They strode forward with an expression of business on their faces. There would be no smiles at this meeting, and if there were, they would be noticeably strained.
She stepped away and let them pass as if she were the gate allowing them entrance. When one thought about it, that was exactly what she was.
Now then, onto more pressing concerns.
"You will follow me, and if you refuse, you will be locked away and interrogated for your reluctance. Call off your guards or you will be seen as a threat to the throne."
They seemed to know the protocol, for they lifted their hands and gave out common gestures any other person would have thought as ordinary, everyday uses of the hand. Lan Fan did not even raise an eyebrow as six guards, similarly dressed to her secret soldier uniform, appeared beside their masters.
They had been surrounding the tall buildings and hiding in the luscious trees. She'd been keeping tabs on all of them. They were not from the same training camp as she, and they had not been raised by a grandfather as ruthless as hers. They were amateurs, but even amateurs were a threat.
"Just so you know, if your bodyguard is so must as a meter away from your person, you will be imprisoned. If you are caught leaving without dismissal, you will be imprisoned. If you make any hand gestures—and I know of them all—or are seen tapping in any distorted fashion, you will be imprisoned. I see everything in this palace, and what I may allow to occasionally slip past me will be seen by the thousands of guards patrolling these very walls. They are at every window and every door. There is no escape; you will not leave until your imperial lord declares so."
She stood there, waiting for any objections. Of course, any reluctance would be seen as a threat and she would turn their world upside down so fast they'd never even see the blur of her movements. She appeared calm, but every muscle in her body was tensed and waiting. Not even Zhi broke the deathly silence where the Xingese woman stared down her royals.
There was no attempt at friendship. She despised them as much as they wanted to kill her. They would not take pity on her if they were to find out her gender. They would pick her apart until they destroyed her very essence They were cruel, merciless people pushed into their own reclusive roles of prestige.
They viewed themselves higher than anyone else. They followed her, not because she ordered them to, but because they were amusing her. In all truth they were not happy to be here at this meeting, and taking directions from a servant was damaging to their pride, but they were here because they, too, wanted to know who had attacked their new lord. Would it attack them as well?
"Prince Tai," Lan Fan spoke up when they reached a large, ornate building designed like the palace it stood next to. She directed her sharp gaze to a tan man with short, choppy black hair. He was the youngest of the three, but his chilling brown eyes spoke of power and experience that went far beyond his age. Prince Hui Tai was the last of the forty-three children to be born from the former king's blood. "Where were you yesterday, presumably around midnight?"
"Asleep, in my home." He said hotly, as if he were insulted by her necessary question. He, however, was lying, and Lan Fan was at his throat with a small dagger before his guards even had the chance to react.
"Answer me truthfully," she whispered quietly, menacingly, "or there will only be forty-two children of the crown." Hui Tai's guards could do nothing but watch helplessly, for if they intervened she would surely cut their prince's throat.
"Fine," Hui spat, fear evident in his gaze. "I was outside, riding my newest stallion." It was the truth, but Lan Fan didn't relinquish her hold just yet. "Why lie?"
"The horse was stolen." Hui gritted through clenched teeth.
"A farmer who had no need for him."
Lan Fan let him go, albeit a little too roughly, and he stumbled back in place. It was the truth, but he had said he was riding his new pony.
"Where were your guards?"
"Beside me," the boy crossed his arms with a bit of a 'duh' in his tone.
"All of them?"
"Of course not! What would I look like with ten elite guards at my back? A defenseless twit!"
"Then where were they? In bed? Stationed at their correct posts? Prince Tai, if you answer me saying you do not know, I'll have to tell my lord you are not taking your title seriously."
"Says the secret soldier with a baby on his back," he retorted.
"The baby does not hinder me from snapping one's neck. Answer my question."
"They were at their correct posts when I left as well as when I returned. They had not moved, and I found no one sleeping or anyone away from their designated areas."
He was telling the truth, and Lan Fan thoroughly believed his elite guards could not make their way to the castle, slip past Emperor Ling's ward, and stab a maid in her belly just at the perfect angle to let the infant within survive. What would be the point?
She then turned to the Zhen princess, who looked a bit speechless. Her eyes traveled from the small, almost forgotten bundle on Lan Fan's back to her interrogator's gaze. Her guards hovered over her like mountains towering over a valley below. "And you, Princess Zhen?"
"I," she paused and pursed her lips. Raising her chin, she looked down upon Lan Fan with nothing more than disdain.
"You what, milady?" She pressed, all with the respect the woman demanded.
"I was in bed all night." She crossed her arms, daring Lan Fan to disagree with her. Zhen would do nothing to her if she wanted to keep her pretty little head, but Lan Fan never underestimated anyone.
A quick glance at the men shadowing her back was proof-positive to the woman's statement. "What of your army, milady?"
"All stationed accordingly. I would know. I have them rotate around the clock." She didn't look away from Lan Fan's gaze, passing the exam that would grant her into the palace.
She moved on to Qiang Jian. He looked as if it were taking everything in him to compose himself. She remembered him being the hot-head of all the siblings. He was a real brat when things didn't go his way.
"Prince Jian?" She questioned, ready to bolt after him and take down his guards all in one move if he so chose.
"I was out," he said stiffly and his back straightened as he tried to appear bigger than he actually was. He didn't intimidate Lan Fan with his macho façade, and he seemed to realize that after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence.
"With some personal guests." He couldn't see her raised eyebrow, but he didn't extrapolate any further. It was clear he'd busied himself through the night, but what of his guards? Had he hired hitmen? Thankfully, she'd already looked into that area of concern.
"We've reviewed all major purchases within the last four months from all royal families. If you think your incognito shopping has gone undetected, you're wrong. You're all clean and your claims have been truthful. You're all permitted to enter the palace." Lan Fan dismissed them with a shallow bow. She would be here all day, interrogating as well as keeping up with all who showed up.
Those who didn't show up, with the exception of Edward Elric, who would need much more time to get here, would be considered a suspect. It was a good thing her memory was excellent.
"You will not speak of this to anyone," Jian whispered fiercely, before storming off with his siblings and bodyguards beside him. She sighed. She was not looking forward to any of this, but she would do it for Ling. He needed her protection, and she was his best interrogator. She would not fail him.
Evening arrived in slow degrees. Lan Fan meeted and greeted everyone coming into the castle's vicinity. Parties were few and far in between, and none liked the situation anymore than she did. Finally, after seven hours of repeated questions and heated stare-downs, she received notice from a guard summoning her to the throne room.
She was nothing more than a black blur.
The doors were still open, and all siblings permitted into the castle sat comfortably—as comfortably as these family members could get—next to each other as food was passed around. They only felt a small breeze pass them as Lan Fan whizzed by, and they never even saw her hide behind Ling's golden chair.
"Report," he whispered softly.
"Princess Mu, Prince Shui, and Prince Yong have yet to arrive. Edward Elric has also not been heard of from the train station."
Ling made a disappointed sound, but only she could hear him over the whispers the table created. Her mask hid the instant grin she tried to push back.
"How is Zhi Xiang?"
The grin was gone as shock through her for a loop. He really did care for the child, just as she secretly hoped he would. A genuine smile split her pale lips and her cheeks warmed.
"She's doing just fine. She's an excellent infant."
"It's because she has an excellent mother," were his last words to her before he stood to address his dysfunctional family.
Not exactly a Ling x Lan Fan chapter, more a filler than anything. The plot thickens in chapter eight! Please review!
Again, I love you fans who stick by me even when I neglect you for so long. Truly sorryღ