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CHAPTER 1
THE IMPERIAL TASTER

 

He wanted no story of simple ascension, wanted nothing of the truth of how He had won that slippery throne. For the youth knew Himself to be Exceptional, and Exceptional Men (such as He) had Exceptional Stories. They came to be Emperors through cunning, ruthless strategy and force of will. They certainly did not do it by gawping as their purple-faced fathers clawed and sputtered on what would later be determined to be an awkwardly lodged chicken bone. Exceptional Men did not watch, frozen, unable or unwilling to help. Exceptional Men did not wait, in lacklustre fealty, for that final breathless minute to expire.

Word travelled fast. By the time of His coronation, rumour was already circulating the courts that young Lu Huang Du had conspired to usurp His father’s throne. Well, He certainly had not planned it this way, but He was nothing if not an opportunist. When whispers of patricide and regicide spread through the Imperial Court, He uttered no denials. Let them think Him ruthless. Why not?

His first act as Emperor was to order the executions of all who repeated the rumours. His second act was to order the deaths of the chickens – all of them, every last one throughout the land – for it was clear to Him that their traitorous bones were conspiring against His Imperial bloodline.

Even as the axes swung upon their necks, the rumour-mongers and slanderers issued tearful defences, or else blamed political enemies or brothers and sisters and fathers, cursed the Emperor’s tyranny and oppression, and cried out with their dying breaths.

 

The chickens – faced with their own impending slaughter, and inscrutable to the very end – made much less of a fuss.

An Imperial Edict was thus issued, forbidding the breeding, eating and harbouring of poultry.

 

Pork filled the culinary void. The effect of such sudden demand was disastrous for those who could not afford it. The breeding of pigs required double the land, triple the resources, and at the markets, pork cost five times the flesh of the humble hen. Farmers lost their livelihoods, leaving their families hungry and destitute. The sons of a hundred fallen agrarians swore revenge against the Emperor.

All traitors born in the Year of the Rooster were driven from their homes. But their younger brothers, born in the auspicious Year of the Pig, were destined for good fortune and health.

 

*

 

The Imperial Taster, whose negligence was widely believed to have caused the death of the previous Emperor – the most heinous of offences under heaven – was mysteriously spared. Wracked with guilt, he grieved and prostrated himself to the brink of despair, but was awarded by the new Emperor a larger quarters and a distasteful amount of gold, all against his will.

He had expected death, begged for it even, but instead received untold riches! His friends and neighbours grew to hate him for his lack of scruples. To all, it seemed that he had brazenly accepted payment for failing in his duties. And so, when he sobbed in great distress and confusion upon receiving the piles of gold, the others interpreted his tears as tears of joy. When he carted the gold back to the treasury to be rid of that sum once and for all, witnesses saw only that the Imperial Taster was a prideful man of the worst sort, parading his riches in public for all to see. And when he was beaten for daring to return the money, then sent away by the gleeful Emperor with an inexplicably larger amount of gold – how it shimmered in the moonlight along that quiet stretch of road – passers-by saw not his wounded body bent double, nor his limping form. They saw only the obscene stacks of gold in the opulent cart that the loathsome man seemed so eager now to tow.

 

*

 

Dear citizens of the Imperial City,

 

It is with mixed emotions that we proclaim that Huang Zi Feng has vacated the post of Imperial Taster on account of: family reasons/exile/death.

 

Investigations have revealed the official cause of death to be: a slow-acting poison, doubtlessly bound for the throat of our resplendent Emperor.

 

We are hereby bound by law to note the dissent of the Shadow Historian, Sima Qing, whose pitifully worded records indicate that the Imperial Taster was, rather, bludgeoned to death by an angry mob, the body showing no apparent trace of poison. The Shadow Historian’s fictional and disruptive accounts have, for too long, brought our scholarship into disrepute. Moreover, it must be asked: can a person – one such as Sima Qing – be trusted if he has shown himself to be physically incapable of growing a beard? Even the most rudimentary one? No. So states the official record.

 

In any event, we are pleased to announce that the duties of the Imperial Taster are hereby passed to the deceased’s firstborn son, Huang Zi Yan, aged three months.

 

Huang Zi Yan brings 00 years of experience to this role.

 

This parting of ways is a joint decision and comes after much heartfelt deliberation. May the heavens smile on Huang Zi Yan. Please join us in wishing him a prosperous life and death in service of our Immortal Emperor.

 

All the best to Huang Zi Feng in his future endeavours. He will be greatly missed. We recall fondly the time he                                                                                                             .

 

By Imperial decree,

 

The Order of the Eunuchs

 

*

 

The Imperial Advisers had cautioned their new Emperor against appointing an infant as an Imperial Taster, for the infant’s mouth was yet even to produce teeth, and with such a limited vocabulary how could it sufficiently remark on the quality of the meal, or judge the food fit for the Emperor’s palate, much less guard the Emperor from poisons, or anticipate the presence of serums, of rogue and suspect ingredients? But the naysayers had failed to grasp that under the Emperor’s rule everything was permitted, that nothing was beyond Him, and that He would surely destroy those who had the temerity to defy His divine will. He, the definer of life, the defiler, the defier Himself.

So He threw these advisers into the Imperial Prison on the outskirts of the city – so named the Six Levels of Hell – and ordered the infant to be installed as the new Imperial Taster.

 

Mealtimes were complex fiascos. When the Emperor decided He wished to eat – His appetite was unpredictable, announcing itself at odd hours of the day – the infant would be rudely awakened and fed liquefied versions of the Emperor’s meals, stray bits of fatty pork floating within the bottle that the baby was given to suckle.

But the richness of the pork and sweet meats and abalone that the infant imbibed played havoc on his developing body, and he became sickly and so often prone to infection that nobody could tell whether the food was laced with terrible poisons or, in fact, safe for adult consumption. In this respect, the new Imperial Taster had failed utterly in his task.

It was noted that the baby seemed to thrive on breastmilk, but this was of limited interest to the Emperor, whose craving for such a thing was only slight and very occasional. With the baby’s fussiness and incessant crying, and the intolerable delays had while it was awoken and the bottle prepared, soon even the Emperor came to regret His decision.

But the infant could not be removed from its post, for the role of Imperial Taster was a lifelong appointment severed only by death, and the Emperor, though cruel, was reluctant to take the life of one so young (though such heartlessness would come later in His reign).

 

So there was a vacancy to be filled, for the role of Taster to the Taster.

There were those in the Imperial Court who came forth to express interest in the role. But one by one the Emperor found fault with each applicant. This one’s palate was subpar, unable to differentiate even oolong from jasmine tea. This rotund one seemed interested only in filling his belly and was much too flippant about the life-or-death nature of the role. This one the Emperor could not take seriously for he had a drooping eye.

Day after day, the Emperor was presented with nothing but unimpressive specimens.

Then, heeding the words of His newest adviser, Tong Li Mo the Daoist, the Emperor invited all the beggars from the streets of the Imperial City to partake in a feast at the palace. Tong Li Mo had reckoned that the beggars, unlike the wealthy or spoilt inhabitants of the Imperial Court, might savour more greatly the richness of the food. That if called upon to comment on the flavour of a dish, their remarks might be plain-spoken and honest, a far cry from the florid and sycophantic words of the courtiers. Moreover, that among this great number of street urchins and bums who defiled the pristine palace halls with their muddied feet, there might be a handful with the inherent talent required of a taster.

At what came to be known as the Poisoned Banquet, the Emperor ordered a random portion of each dish to be laced with slow-acting toxins. By midnight, only one beggar remained unharmed. He had carved out only the safest portions of each delicious plate, while his neighbours had greedily taken the remainder of his untouched food and been among the first to die.

The next morning, the beggar was brought before the Emperor to explain how he had survived.

 

This beggar spoke of his ravenous and now-dead compatriots, how quick they had been to believe that the Emperor was kind of heart, when all tales told of the opposite. How could the food then, prepared for the poor, that lowest and most hated caste, have been anything but poisoned? Only he had understood that this had been a test.

If the beggar truly held such suspicions, interrogated the Emperor, why had he then risked his very life by eating at all? One wrong guess and he too would have joined the ranks of the dead. Would it not have been wiser to refuse the food entirely?

The beggar replied that he had been very, very hungry. Famished, essentially.

And so it was that this lone survivor, who through some miracle of intuition had managed to avoid every fatal spoonful, was bestowed the grand title of Taster to the Taster.

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