“The agents cannot use their own intelligence organizations carelessly…”
“Even the head of the organization’s power to appoint has been taken away…”
“What should we do?”
The faces of the princesses, who were familiar with conspiracies and exile, turned pale, as they raised their voices in fear.
As for their opponents…their concept of work and its scale were different. It was really massive!
“Don’t kick up a big fuss!” bellowed Secretary General Gayu.
The room became quiet in an instant. She slowly made her way to the study. The look on her face hardened. However, an imposing energy was emanating from her. She was always the winner. If she did not equip herself with both armed forces and intelligence capabilities in the palace, which was full of intense feud and schemes, her position as the ‘secretary general’ would not be safe at all.
“You’re better than I expected. Rain…it’s just the beginning, huh? I am looking forward to it…”
A faint smile crept across her face. Gayu muttered, as she opened the book, “Let’s see what happens when your limbs get cut off.”
“I guess we’re done with the first phase?” asked Rain. Even though she looked very tired, her face was flushed.
“Pretty much so. Even though we had just thrown the fishing line, we still have to be on guard and observe their next move,” San casually replied, as he flipped through the pages of the book.
Just as Rain was thinking about how charming San looked when he was reading a book at the desk…she started shaking her head vigorously, as if she was caught by surprise. The book did not suit a man like him. She told herself not to get fooled by it.
Rain turned her gaze to Biyeon and asked, “When does phase 2 begin?”
“We’ll have to see what is hanging at the end of the fishing line,” replied Rain, as she carefully flipped through the pages of the thick old book, without even looking at Rain.
“Is the geography and history of the empire that interesting?” Rain pursed her lips and asked Biyeon in a disgruntled manner.
Just as she thought about how even though she was used to the landscape and scenery of the empire, she was still her immediate superior… Hence, she shook her head once again. Rain smiled.
“Who in this world can make me feel so comfortable and free…”
“There are some interesting things in here.” Biyeon lifted her head and looked at San.
“What is it?”
“There are only three things in the history of the empire named A-Pian, but they have nothing in common.”
“One of them is a mysterious tree named A-Pian, according to the legend of a Southern tribe that was conquered by the empire. If you layer the bark of the tree like an onion, making it thicker, the tree is said to grow up to 10km high in one night. It is also said that if you were to climb that tree, you would be able to ascend into the sky.”
“What about the rest?”
“The name of the legendary ‘crab’ that fishermen in the cold northern region sing about is A-Pian. It is said that it is difficult to distinguish the crab itself from the island because it falls into slumber for a very very long period of time, and its shell alone spans more than 10km. It is said that he woke up once during the ‘Battle Against the Dragons’ 2,500 years ago, but apparently, it had disappeared after devouring all the dragons it was fighting against. People said that perhaps it had fallen into slumber once again somewhere else.”
“I’m craving some king crabs… What’s the last one?”
“It’s a term used by astrologers. The other name of the smaller broken moon is called A-Pian. Originally, there was only one moon; A-Pian is said to be a meteorite summoned by an angry god to annihilate the corrupt humankind. In the end, the god managed to ease his wrath and hung it in the sky as a warning to human beings, forcing them to always remember that day.”
“How interesting. Apart from these, is there anything else?”
“No, I can’t find anything else.”
“At least it’s not the name of a place. Are there any images that come to mind?”
San chuckled. Their thoughts were probably the same. A place they had to look for once they were ready… Rain cocked her head to the side. Without a doubt, it was hard for her to understand the conversation between the both of them.
“You know that the third empress is hosting a banquet tonight, right? I want both of you to attend it. There are many people who want to meet you.”
It was an evening in late fall, a month after they had arrived.
Investigation - Chapter 5
The world was a diverse place. There were other places with a different ambiance, as compared to the imperial secretarial offices, which seemed to be going through stormy days. Presently, the late afternoon sun was giving earth its final moments of warmth, gradually moving towards the west. There were two long shadows in the quiet yard, moving through the stonewall walkway that was littered with fallen leaves.
“After a fulfilling day of work…” 
“For a song that was sung on the day of our high society debut…it’s very…”
“What… You mean Korean. If it’s classical, it would be Greek, and if it’s romantic, it would be Roman.
Biyeon almost burst out laughing.
“It got cold all of a sudden. I wonder why it became cold.”
They passed by a big and well-maintained garden, and small ornamental trees that were spread out harmoniously. The clean stone walkway ran from the deeper inner palace through the inner palace, and all the way to the outer palace. The area right outside the outer palace was fairly crowded with servants and carriages waiting for the officials and nobles.
“Where is the party being held today?”
“The second reception hall in the outer palace.”
“The structure of this place was complicated, right?”
“It was an interesting and thoroughly planned design.”
“That depends on the person using it.”
“Depending on who gets the upperhand, it will be advantageous when it comes to assassination and defending the territory. It’s the work of a professional.”
“Enjoy. You will be able to see the skills of the people here.”
“By the way, are you still not mentally prepared?” Those words subconsciously came out of the speaker’s mouth.
“Not yet… I still need more time to prepare.”
“Is that so…”
The man looked at the setting sun.
The reflection of the sun in his eyes was disappearing. His retinas were slightly watery, probably due to the piercing strong sunlight.
Biyeon’s hands paused for a moment when they reached San’s neck, before gently moving down.
“It’s pretty much done.”
Biyeon patted San’s chest and smiled.
San looked away, avoiding the stares. He frowned. Several eyes were on him, following his movements. It was a jaw-dropping sight. All they could see was an unfamiliar man, giving off an unfamiliar vibe.
“Do I really have to do this?” San grumbled.
“It’s the day of your high society debut. You need to have a clear concept.”
Biyeon completely ignored what San said and turned around. She already took the lead and started walking. Her steps were light, without any hesitation. San smiled bashfully. It was time for them to go. The servants stood there, with a blank look on their faces, and followed them out. They found it hard to comprehend San and Biyeon… Apart from their neat and simple attire, it was not easy for them to witness a woman of noble status, the commander of an imperial intelligence unit, help a man with his attire without the help of a servant.
It was already getting dark. The lights along the street leading to the reception hall lit up one by one, eradicating the darkness. They were smaller than Chinese lanterns, and were rather elegantly decorated.
From afar, the lights looked like flowers. There were so many carriages arriving in the spacious courtyard garden that they seemed endless. Distinguished officials, and good-looking men and women, wearing all kinds of fancy clothes, arrived one by one.
A carriage had arrived. All eyes were focused on it. A newly emerged powerful person. A woman of steel, who had passed through the Forbidden Grounds. The butler, who was receiving the guests, announced the arrival of the second deputy secretary general. Rain stepped out of the carriage. Thereafter, San and Biyeon stepped out of the carriage that arrived after Rain’s. Everyone’s eyes were fixated on those three people.
The banquets held in the palace were glamorous, especially the ones held twice a year by the empresses. They were the most overwhelming, compared to any other banquets, in terms of scale and splendor. This banquet that was hosted by the third empress would also be worth seeing. Several families would be present, and almost all the royal family members would show up as well. Additionally, young men and women who would be leading the next generation would be roaming around the banquet hall with excitement.
The emperors usually had five to six empresses. They were all of equal ranks - there was no difference at all. This was an important political system that made this unusually strong empire the way it was for 500 years. The balance of power amongst more than 50 huge families was significantly due to the system called ‘The Empress Selection’.
Having an empress in one’s family was not solely about strengthening their position. The family with an empress enjoyed an absolute advantage over the family that did not, in terms of power in the palace, as well as access to information. However, it was not in the emperor’s best interests to have only one family with the absolute advantage. Thus, from the time the emperor was a prince, up to five ladies had to be selected according to the strict selection criteria put in place by the royal family. Hence, checks and balances amongst outsiders could be achieved. If the emperor was smart enough to grasp Von Neumann’s ‘Game Theory’, which was known to the people on Earth, the families of the empresses would never be able to fight against him.
The emperor had always been clever enough - not that fools could become emperors in the first place. All the princes and princesses that were given birth by the empresses were treated equally. Any one of them could become the next emperor. The candidates for the next emperor would be determined solely by their skills and virtues, as well as physical strength and leadership qualities, by the age of 20. After that, they had to either participate in battles, or be in charge of a principality, in order to prove they were competent leaders to everyone. The person who was selected via this stringent and careful process could never be irresponsible or incompetent.
One pillar of support that ensured the emperor’s power was the majority of the empresses’ families - their economic power, and manpower to be more precise. The vast lands and business districts leased by the emperor were run by the empresses’ families. A huge portion of the imperial expenses, such as the large banquets held by the empresses; the supply of materials and manpower needed for necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter; huge events, public works, etc., were covered by the investments made by those families too.
This symbiotic relationship did not waste the empire’s wealth in vain; the emperor got to keep a huge surplus too. It also prevented the empresses’ families from becoming too wealthy. Up until now, there had been no major issues. The emperor’s power grew stronger and stronger due to the Han-Sung Clan’s military and police forces, the extended families’ economic power, as well as the secretary general’s control over tax and information capabilities. The empresses’ families were keeping each other in check, maintaining equal powers. However, perhaps the current emperor felt that there was a problem with the system.
Biyeon blinked. It was time to join the party.
People were glaring. The eyes of high-ranking officials were fixated somewhere. There were whispers everywhere. They were always staring at Rain. She was the person who received the most attention at the banquet today - in a bad way, of course. She was the source of all the problems, and she was becoming every family’s public enemy. Even though the likelihood was low, there was a political need to get to know her, as she was the most ‘powerful person’ next to the secretary general.
On the other hand, they showed little interest in the man and woman that were casually following behind her. They were simply regarded as the head escort and head butler of Rain’s. Every princess had a highly skilled head escort following them closely like a shadow. The head escort of a princess was given the title, ‘Chief’, and would receive the same treatment as a marquis. However, in a place that was filled with members of the royal family, they would have to be content with being treated like commoners.
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