Kingdom of Moutan
1st Year of Yongming: Early Autumn, 1452.
“Your Majesty, you must come quickly,” said the King’s personal eunuch. “Her Majesty is delivered of a son!”
The King of Moutan, Xiao Jing Feng, rose immediately, gathering his black and scarlet robes, taking the steps two at a time down the dais in his haste. It was rare for him to break out of his normal composure, but today he rushed towards the door of his palace, tried to hide his smile, and failed miserably.
“Byul? Are you sure?” he asked, voice trembling with undisguised joy. “Are the Queen and the child alright?”
The eunuch nodded, lips quirking up.
“Then, I must greet my son!” the King grinned, and followed by Byul, he hastened towards the inner palace.
When the King arrived, he sensed something odd about the atmosphere of the Queen’s Peony Palace. All the servants, who should have been bustling about with joy, were nowhere to be found. The Peony Palace was ominously empty.
“What’s this?” he asked, as he stepped over the threshold of the empty palace, heading towards his wife’s private chambers.
The eunuch Byul frowned.
As the King walked, his strides increased, and his heart quickened with fear.
“Has something happened to the Crown Prince?” he wondered out loud, chest tight, as he finally rounded the corridor and came up to the doors of the Queen’s room. In front of them, blocking his way, were two of the Grand Chancellor’s Shadow guards.
“Your Majesty!” they greeted solemnly, kneeling quickly, and from what he could see of their masked faces, their expressions were carefully blank.
“Why are there no other guards or servants in the Queen’s palace at a time like this?! The Queen could be assassinated…what of the Crown Prince?” he growled, a vein throbbing in his forehead as he struggled to restrain his temper.
The eunuch, Byul, who did not have legs as long as the King, finally caught up to him. He wore a frown wondering what could have had happened between the joyous news of the Crown Prince’s safe birth and now. It couldn’t have been more than a half count of the hour.
At that moment, there was the jagged wail of an infant, startling everyone who stood outside in the corridor.
From within the chamber, a voice called out.
“Is it his Majesty?” asked a softly silken, but masculine voice.
The guards straightened uneasily.
“Grand Chancellor Mu, his Majesty has arrived,” reported one guard, ignoring the seething look his sovereign gave him.
“Then why are you blocking the way?” the voice asked with cold impatience.
The guards, realizing their mistake, hastily stood and opened the doors to the chamber, bowing at the waist as their King rushed in. They shut the door with a sharp ‘clack’ once he and Byul had entered.
“What’s happened? Why have you sent the servants away?” demanded the King of Moutan, eyeing the extremely handsome, but partially masked man, who knelt calmly next to the bed of his Queen. This was the Grand Chancellor, Lord Mu Shan, and in his arms was a newborn.
The King was quite startled and confused by the fussing infant held protectively in the Grand Chancellor’s arms. Lord Mu’s calm was contrasted by the ugly look of anger on the Royal astrologer’s face who sat opposite, and the terrified look on the face of the Queen, who sat huddled in her bed. Seeing her, the King realized immediately that she was cradling a second child to her chest.
“Twins!” hissed the Royal astrologer, trembling with rage, pointing an accusing finger at the flinching Queen, and then at the child in the Chancellor’s arms. “The birth is ill-omened. I have read the stars: That thing’s fate is tied to a greater demon. If its life is not extinguished now, it will drag the Crown Prince to his death. We must prevent this great disaster, your Majesty!”
The King’s expression became grave as he noted that the silver dagger that the astrologer normally used for ceremonial purposes had been unsheathed and was lying on the floor. His heart sank. Obviously, he meant to kill the child, but had been prevented by Lord Mu.
“My Lord, my husband…!” the Queen appealed to him, eyes wet with tears. “I have done nothing wrong! Nothing!”
She looked disarrayed, eyes almost wild with her panic. Seeing her expression, the King hesitated, but then he drew a deep breath.
He understood the Astrologer’s concerns as he himself had grown up with the superstitions surrounding the birth of twins. However, he was an enlightened man, and at the outset of his reign had strived to educate against it, abolishing cruel practices such as drowning or sacrificing the second born child. However, that didn’t mean that the superstition had gone away. As long as fear remained in people’s hearts, they would find something to use as a scapegoat, but he had never imagined that he would face such a situation himself.
He could understand the fear on the face of his Queen: The mother of twins was reviled as having had some unmentionable congress with a demon to have birthed two children at the same time. Lewd congress with a demon was punishable by whipping, branding, and then hanging.
Though he was suspicious of the words of the Royal Astrologer, that person was supported by many conservative factions within the court, and it would not do to openly oppose his declaration given the current state of things.
“Grand Chancellor Mu…?” the King prompted quietly, forcing himself to turn his gaze from his wife’s stricken expression.
It was certainly an oddity to see the normally aloof Grand Chancellor with his stormy grey blue eyes and dark hair, cradling an infant in his arms with such gentleness. In fact, the elegant man was patting the little thing as if he was quite used to soothing infant children. As if sensing that Lord Mu meant no harm, the child was now quiet in his arms, making only the occasional smacking noise with its tiny pink lips.
“Actually, the child is a girl. She’s hungry, your Majesty,” the Chancellor said to the Queen. “Will you not feed her? Perhaps while his Majesty holds his Highness, the Crown Prince?”
The King turned once again to face his wife.
“No,” the Queen said, her tone suddenly cold. “If it must live, let that child be fed by a nursemaid.”
Although the Royal astrologer was still not appeased, his eyes took on a less hostile light.
Why has this happened…? the King wondered, heart sinking. Why has she rejected the girl so easily?
The King of Moutan felt his heart crack at the edges. He closed his eyes for a moment, thoughts and feelings warring with each other, and then he calmly went to his wife’s side.
“Let me hold my son,” he said reassuringly, holding out his arms.
His gaze held no condemnation, no censure, and the breath that his wife had been holding rushed out in relief.
Although the Grand Chancellor’s face had no expression, perhaps at that moment, he was disappointed in his King. Although he had only sought to comfort his wife, the King’s action had clearly said that he would do what he could to appease the Royal Astrologer.
Yet, I cannot blame him. His father ruled by fear…and his opponents will take advantage if they perceive his kindness as weakness…and yet…this pitiful little Princess…
The Royal astrologer only looked smugly at him, believing that he had won.
However, the Grand Chancellor, who had not yet given his counsel, now turned to his King with a graceful incline of his head:
“As you know, your Majesty, I also have the gift of foresight. While, the birth of a dragon phoenix pair is not evil, Astrologer Zhu is right…” he said, ignoring the sharp intake of breath from his King and Queen. “It’s true that their fate is tied to that of a greater demon. However, the girl child should not be killed. In fact, she was born to bear this burden for her brother, the Crown Prince. If she is to take on this evil to return it for good, then she must absolutely be allowed to live, and you must give her to me for this purpose.”
The King, seeing something in the deep grey blue eyes, nodded.
“Then, let this be my oral decree. From today on, she will be the Crown Prince’s Shadow…but Grand Chancellor, she is still a Princess of my blood. Whatever is required to raise her as befits that status will be bestowed without question. I leave it to your judgement. Let no one speak of what happened here today,” he said, passing the Crown Prince back to the Queen. His tone held a ring of finality, and he did not look back as he swept out with the eunuch, shutting the door firmly behind him.
For a breath there was only awkward silence, but the Royal Astrologer’s expression was something else to behold.
The Grand Chancellor smiled then, his face lighting with silent laughter, as he tightened his grip on the mewling little creature in his arms. However, his grey blue gaze pierced eerily into the Astrologer.
The other man fumed, realizing that he’d been thwarted. Maintaining the shreds of his dignity by sheer force of will, the Astrologer rose and stomped out without a word. With a last indignant huff and the flinging of his sleeves, he made it known that he would not accept things so easily.
Take heed of his Majesty’s warning for you, my slippery friend. Although she will never be called so publicly, the King has just acknowledged this girl child as a princess of royal blood. To raise your hand against her is to incur the King’s wrath. As much as you’d like to snuff her out, you cannot…nor will I permit it while she is in my care.
The Grand Chancellor lowered his eyes, so that they did not show his satisfaction.
“His Majesty left without bestowing the Crown Prince a name…” the Queen said in a detached voice that showed that she was still in a state of shock. She was pale and sweaty from the birth, and she looked exhausted. With no one to attend to her, she did not resemble her usual self.
Lord Mu had little sympathy for her, but again did not show it.
Even a vicious tiger doesn’t eat its own cubs*, yet you abandoned your daughter to ensure your own safety and status. Shameless. You are not worthy of the gift given to you.
“His Majesty did discuss it with me before. The Crown Prince shall be given the name Xiao Feiyu when he has come of age. For now, you may call him whatever you like, your Majesty,” he said, trying to keep his inflection neutral. Though if his lover were present, he would probably say that the Grand Chancellor had not succeeded in keeping his disdain at bay.
“Flying Moon?” asked the Queen, brows coming together, too dazed to pick up on the censure.
“Yu as in rain, your Majesty,” he corrected, gracefully rising to his feet.
“Was what the King chose. It is a good name for the son of a king, your Majesty,” the Grand Chancellor finished smoothly. “If there is nothing else, then I’ll take my leave.”
There was only the briefest pause as he moved gracefully towards the door, his long hair trailing after him.
“Chancellor…what name will you give…the girl?” the Queen asked from behind him, stumbling over the last two words.
“That need not concern your Majesty,” said the Grand Chancellor as he stood at the threshold of the Queen’s chamber, his face turned only slightly over his shoulder.
There was the softest sigh.
“No, Lord Mu is right,” she agreed, lowering her eyes. “It does not concern me.”
Ignoring her, the Grand Chancellor stepped over the threshold and didn’t look back. At the motion, the girl child in his arms made a gurgle, and on a whim, he stuck his finger out for her, waving it in front of the baby’s face. Seizing it, the little girl’s unfocused eyes seemed to stare up into his face, gripping the finger with surprising tenacity. She burbled, forming a spit bubble on her tiny lips.
Lord Mu, chuckled softly at his newly adopted daughter, humming as he left the Queen’s palace. A spring returned to his step as he turned purposefully towards his own residence.
“Mu Feiyan, I have given you a name and a home. Therefore you are my daughter. Since you have been demoted from a phoenix so early in your life, you will become my little swallow. It is not a bad thing to be my daughter or to live in your brother’s shadow for now.”
A moment later, one of his Shadow guards came into step alongside him.
“Your orders, Lord Mu…?” he asked.
“Gather the others in my study. They have a new young mistress to greet…”
The Shadow bowed and left as swiftly as he had come.
“See, my little swallow, they are already running here and there for you. Do not despair…a grand destiny now awaits you,” he laughed, as the morning sunlight finally broke over the rooftops, bathing the royal palace in the cool, crisp light of a newly dawned day.
* 虎毒不食子 – a literal translation and speaks to the level of viciousness required for a mother to abandon her love for her children. In this case, it shows the Chancellor’s deep disapproval for the Queen’s actions.