" Don't you even dare touching my horses, if you want to live," said an extremely threatening voice behind me.

I panicked and instinctively tried to run, but was shocked when I found that I couldn't move my legs. As a matter of fact, I couldn't even feel anything from waist down, except a sharp object in my back.

I stumbled forward, when a pair of powerful hands grabbed me and turned me around.

Then I was face-to-face with Adara Sibe.

Towering over me, Adara Sibe of Banner Red Melange was a sight to behold.

She was statuesque, a head taller than me, with flaming red hair flowing down her chiseled shoulders and well-toned arms. Her skin was bronzed by desert sun and her eyes were black as coal. She donned a red riding cape, a pair of leather boots with spurs, and was standing in an imposing stance with feet shoulders apart, like a Valkyrie in the days of old.

And she looked furious.

"Lady Sibe! Why did you attack me? I am an Imperial Consort!" said I.

"I don't give a horse's tail about who you are, Ulanara, " said Adara with an exotic accent, "no one gets away with harming my horses."

" I have no idea what non-sense you are talking about, " I protested, "I have no ill-intent for you nor your horses!"

"Liar!", Adara's eyes widened with rage, "my father has warned me that the Sinese are not trustworthy, turned out he is right all along. I know it was you who poisoned Red Mane!"

"You are mad!" said I.

"What are you waiting for? Call your guards. Call all of them at once. I am not afraid, I can handle all of them."

"What guards?" said I, " I didn't bring any?"

"You lie again, Ulanara!" said Adara Sibe, "do you take me for a fool? Am I to believe that you, an Imperial Consort, would come to the Palace of Red Mustang all by yourself?"

Then, her hand flashed and I felt another sharp object in the back of my neck. To my horror, I realized I could no longer breathe.

What sorcery had she cast on me? I wanted to scream, but no voice came out of my mouth.

"Listen! All you henchmen of House Ulanara, come out wherever you are, or witness your mistress suffocate!" Adara Sibe announced loudly.

Of course, nobody came to my rescue, as I did not bring anyone.

My chest was on fire. I was starved for air yet I could not take a single breath, as if an invisible hand gagged me.

Aiyi Yehenara was right, I shouldn't have come to the Banner of Red Mustang by myself. As I felt consciousness leaving, my greatest regret was not living to see my son sitting on the Dragon Throne.

Then suddenly the sharp objects in me were gone. Instructively I took a few deep breaths. Even more miraculously, I could feel my legs again.

"Hmm, it seems you really came here by yourself l," Adara Sibe mused.

It took a while before I could catch my breaths:

"Why did you spare me?"

"Because you are alone with no guard, and you are not trained in martial art. The Sibes never fight an unfair fight, 'tis dishonourable " said Adara. The Sibes were indeed as eccentric as the rumours said, I thought.

"Now, I have some questions for you, " said Adara , "did you or did you not poison my horse Red Mane?"

"That is the most absurd accusation I have ever heard, " I exclaimed, "I swear on the honour of my deceased father and that of House Ulanara that I have never seen any of your horses until today. "

Adara stared right into my eyes, carefully studying my face. Then she nodded, "very well, I believe you this time. Then tell me, what is your purpose here? You never cared to stop by the Palace of the Red Mustang before."

I thought for an instant before I spoke: "I came because wanted to ask you something in private."

"About what?"

"Last week my baby was poisoned, by contaminated honey," said I warily while watching her reaction.

"And you think I have something to do with it?" she laughed bitterly: "of course it has to be me right? Only the Westerness, a barbaric and cruel people could commit such heinous act?"

"I was not convinced that it was you. If I were, I wouldn't have come here to ask you. I would have just told the Emperor, which would be a safer measure for me. By the way, you just accused me of a horse murderer even though you hardly know me. As a matter of fact, you almost killed me for it. "

" Fair ", said Adara Sibe, "we have a lot to discuss, but we should find a more discrete location. Lately people have been eave-drooping here a lot."

True. In the harem, everyone spied on everyone else.

"Before we go, how are your legs? I can carry you if you can't walk."

" I am fine, " said I. My legs are nearly at full strength now, albeit there is still the lingering odd sensation akin to ants crawling over my legs.

"What did you do to me, some sort of sorcery?" said I.

"It's not sorcery-In the name of the One True God I am not a witch!" Adara Sibe bristled. I immediately regretted what I said. Adara was an adherent of the Religion of The Prophet, who saw any kind of sorcery as demonic.

"It's just martial art, nothing more," said Adara Sibe as she flicked her wrist, and in a flash she pulled out a silver needle from her sleeves.

"Those needles paralyzed you by blocking pressure points along the spinal cord, thus disrupting the flow of chi. Once I pulled the needles out your body returned to normal."

Although I was almost killed, I could not help but become intrigued by this unique form of martial art.

Hoto once told me that all vital functions are mediated by the flow of chi along the energy meridians in the human body.

" When someone's spinal cord is injured, such as a cavalry officer falling off his horse, the flow of chi is disrupted, rendering him paralyzed from waist down," Hoto used to tell me. He also told me that some chirurgeons uses needles to block the sensation of pain in a patient before performing a chirugie. Yet even Hoto did not know how to do it-unlike herbs and potions, acupuncture was never his forte.

"A rather unique form of martial arts you got, using needles to target pressure points, I have never seen it before," said I. Zudako used to tell me about different forms of martial arts. He told me there was one form called "Dim Mak" that hit pressure points with fists and finger strikes, but never about using needles.

"Yes it is unique, because I invented it," said Adara Sibe proudly, "since I was a little girl my half-Sinese mother, may she rest in peace, asked me to learn sewing. She thought that was the proper hobby for a girl. I found sewing excruciatingly tedious. In summer, when the desert got hot, there were swarms of flies flying around. I would pass my time strike them down by tossing my sewing needles at them. After years of practice I became so accurate that I could hit a fly at ten feet with a needle. After I learnt about pressure points I found an excellent application of my needle-tossing technique."

I was flabbergasted. I always thought Zudako was the best martial artist I had known. It appeared that I have just met his equal, if not superior. The oddest part was that I encounter this great warrior in the Imperial Harem, of all places.

What a waste of talent, I thought to myself. Adara Sibe did not belong here, this gilded cage. Instead she belonged to the battlefield, where she could achieve greatness like all male members of her clan. It was no wonder she was so miserable and irritable.

We walked inside the Palace of the Red Mustang. The palace was just as spartan from the inside as from the outside. It was made of alabaster and sandstone, with a large rounded dome on top in the Arabyan fashion. There was no decoration, or painting or murals on the wall because the Religion of the Prophet forbade it, but instead inscription of calligraphy written in Westerness.

My father taught me some Westerness, which had a very different writing system from Sinese-instead of the Sinese hieroglyphics, Westerness used an alphabetic system that resembled Arabyan. I could only make out a few words: "no...God...prophet."

"Very good!" Adara Sibe was impressed, "very few Sinese could read Westerness. It says :' there is no god but the One True God and the Prophet is his messenger.' It's a quote from The Scripture."

The Scripture referred to The Holy Scripture documenting the story of the Prophet and other commandment of the One True God, which was of great importance to the Followers of the Prophet. The wall was full of inscription of excerpts from holly book.

Other ornament that embellished the hall was tapestry woven with camel hair, with intricate patterns of the dunes,camels, sheep and oases. And patterns of horses of course, lots of patterns of horses. At the center of the ceiling there was the a star and a crescent-the insignia of the Religion of the Prophet.

Another unusual decoration caught my eyes..

There was a huge weapon rack in the main hall. On it was all kinds of weapons: : spears, swords, bow.

"Ugh...Lady Sibe, are they allowed?" I asked cautiously. I was pretty certain weapons were banned in the Imperial Harem.

"Those are not real, of course, " said Adara Sibe, "if you look closely you can see the blades were blunt. But they weighed about the same as real weapons, which make them excellent tools to practice martial art."

Some of the weapons were exotic: I saw a saber with blade curved like the crescent.

"It's a scimitar," said Adara Sibe, "invented by the nomadic people in the Arabyan deserts. Excellent cavalry weapons, we found them very effective when wielded from horseback. "

"But I saw you wielding a Sinese straight sword during the sword dance."

"The straight sword jian was a better infantry weapon. Straight sword is better for thrusting just like scimitar is better for slashing. I was trained to be proficient in both. As far as martial art is concerned, we Sibes have no prejudice, be it Westerness, Sinese, or even Morghul," said Adara with delight:

"but the most bizarre martial art I have ever seen is from Yamato. I had one mentor who used to be a rogue shinobi from Yamato. He could manipulate chi in other people's head to make them hallucinate. Shinobi called it gen-jitsu, or illusory art. As a matter of fact, ever since I came to the Harem I noticed gen-jitsu users prowling around, hiding in illusions, spying on people."

"The Eyes of Phoenix!" I exclaimed.

Adara Sibe was surprised: "how did you know about them? "

"The Empress told me. The Eyes of Phoenix was composed of former rogue shinobi. They shroud themselves in the shadows, watch and protect the Imperial Harem."

"I don't trust them," Adara Sibe sneered, "warriors with honour need naught to hide in the shadows. They serve as spies and secret police for the Yehenara clan, nothing more."

I was not so naive as to think the Eyes of Phoenix were serving the greater good. I always knew that the Eyes only existed to do their mistress's bidding, serving the Empress's interest. However, that did not concern me since the Empress's interests had been aligned with mine.

But now I am not so sure.

We reached a private chamber and sat down on the carpet.

"Now we can talk," said Adara Sibe.

"Are you sure no one can hear us?"

"I am sure, " said Adara Sibe, " I can detect anyone in the vicinity, even shinobi. Right now I can assure you that we are alone."

"In that case, Lady Sibe, tell me why were you so upset to see me at first?"

"Because my horse Red Mane was poisoned two days ago. I was furious and brought it up to the Empress. She told me you did it, to avenge your father who died in the Gulbi desert."

"Preposterous!" said I, "even though I was grievous over his passing, I knew it had nothing to do with House Sibe. Before he died he often wrote in the letters who courteously the Sibes were treating him. But alas, Gulbi is Gulbi, and he was too frail for its climate."

"I know it's not you now," said Adara Sibe, "but why did you think I poisoned your son?"

"Because The Eyes of the Phoenix told me so?"

Adara Sibe's eyes narrowed : "the Eyes again! Those sneaky bastards." She paused for a moment, then asked me," why didn't you report to the Emperor instead of risking your life coming here?"

"Because I didn't really believe it was you," said Yue, "it does not serve your interest to poison my son-you have no child with the emperor, so the imperial succession does not concern you. Also, the Eyes saw the culprit wearing the Red Mustang Insignia. Only an idiot would send a murderer wearing their house's insignia, and you, Adara Sibe, is no idiot."

Adara Sibe nodded: "exceptional deduction, Ulanara. My father told me many years ago that the Ulanaras are renowned for the swiftness of their mind. Even though the Gulbi is far away from Kongfu, the reputation of your house precedes you."

"I knew you were framed due to the choice of the poison. Contaminated honey is not lethal, but enough to cause sickness. The intention of the poison-user was not to kill, but to drive a wedge between us." It sounded like an intricate plot that Fooyoung Hoifa would conceive, except that Fooyoung was dead.

"But poison is unpredictable, there is always a chance that it can kill, " said Adara Sibe. The Sibes must had some experience with poison, since it was often used in war, "the perpetrator was willing to risk potentially killing the crowned prince. Whose interest does it serve if the heir apparent was dead?"

"What do you mean ?" asked I.

"I don't understand how imperial succession works in Sina, " said Adara Sibe, "who is next in the line of succession after your son?"

"Tulisen Yehenara," said I, after a long pause.

Tulisen Yehenara, nephew and the Adopted son of Aiyi Yehenara.

It was well known that Tulisen Yehenara was the protege of Empress Aiy Yehenara. Since Tulisen was orphaned at two years old, his aunt, Aiyi Yehenara raised him a her own. It was quite touching: a childless woman and an orphan relied on each other for warmth in this cold, ruthless harem.

But did Aiyi love Tulisen enough to want to give him the Dragon Throne? More importantly, is Aiyi willing to kill in order to achieve it.

The thought of that chilled me to the bone.

How could a love so altruistic turn into something so malicious?

After Di-Long was exposed as a bastard conceived out of incest, the Empress immediately proposed to name Tulisen as the heir of the throne. It was as if she anticipated it all along.

I found it hard to believe Aiyi Yehenara to be capable of doing this. She had always been gentle and motherly. If there was any flaw in her, it was that she was too gentle. Mudan Hoifa thought she was weak, so did Takara Neyen. The harem women mocked her behind her back, calling her the "golden hen".

Was it all part of her facade?

"Ulanara," Adara Sibe interrupted my thoughts, "are those your guards here looking for you?"

I strained my ears, but all I could her was utter silence. "What guards? " I was perplexed, "there are only two of us here".

"Wrong!" Adara Sibe's body tensed," there are men in my house right now. Not my men, and not yours. Who are they then?"

Then, with a fluid motion Adara lept towards the weapons rack. When she landed, she held a drawn sword in front of her.

"We got intruders."