Feiyan did not flinch as three throwing knives embedded themselves into the wood next to her head, one of them cutting a few strands of her hair. She only watched dispassionately as the strands floated to the ground.
The sun had not yet risen, and they were standing in the practice ground in a darkness only broken by the still hanging moon and a single torch.
“Xia…they’ll never learn anything from a standing target,” she drawled. Although she sounded confident, the knife released by her seven-year-old junior, had made her bite the edge of her tongue.
“Shijie*…! Sorry!” the boy squeaked in horror, balling his small hands into fists at his sides. He trembled at his mistake.
“Steady…Maki…you must steady your feelings,” encouraged Gen.
The boy’s two fighting partners stood off to the side, their lower faces covered with the black fabric that formed part of the Shadow uniform. Not yet old enough for the silver masks, their eyes were wide even as they tried not to show their anxiety. A Shadow was not allowed to show their feelings. Even though they were not throwing the knives themselves, enduring their feelings of worry was also part of training. No one wanted to injure senior sister Feiyan, and yet here they were…throwing knives at her…
Standing beside the boy, Gen looked ashen, which only made the bruising and oozing cut on his face more apparent. It would appear that Xia had forbidden Gen from tending to the injuries. One eye was now completely swollen closed, and he squinted with the other as he showed the boy how to adjust his grip on the throwing knife.
“It’s alright. Shidi* did well!” Feiyan smiled encouragingly at the child. “Shijie isn’t afraid, so you don’t have to be afraid either.”
“Again,” snapped Xia, mercilessly. “As close to her head as you can without cutting her hair this time. Go on…”
“Xia…this is taking it too far…what if Maki gets her eyes or face? How will you explain it to Lord Mu?” asked Hajoon, arms folded over his large chest. He loomed menacingly over his much smaller Captain.
“What did you call me?” Xia sneered. His eyes were adamant.
“Captain…please,” said Hajoon, lowering his head.
“Next time think with your head and not your dick. You can’t call yourself a Shadow if get caught so easily...”
Both Gen and Hajoon had spoken simultaneously, clenching their jaws and fists at their Captain, but he was unmoved.
“Fine,” Xia rolled his eyes. “Gen, you show Maki how it’s done,” he said, jerking his chin towards Feiyan.
Hajoon paled slightly, tensing.
“Xia, Gen’s only got one good eye right now, and even so, I’m not sure…” he began.
“Even if you don’t speak, no one would consider you mute*!” Xia rounded on him impatiently. “Gen, hurry it up.”
Gen held the small, leaf like blades between the fingers of one hand and then threw them.
“Wait…Shixiong*!” cried the boy, flinching as the knives were released.
There was a loud gasp from the young ones as the knives whistled through the air.
At the last minute, Feiyan calmly slit her right hand out of the ropes using a hidden blade in her wrist sheath and slid out of the way as a flying knife buried itself right where her cheek had been the second before. The second knife landed where her shoulder had been, and the last didn’t even make it onto the board.
She could have moved her head and shoulder slightly, but then she would have lost some hair, but even that she could ill afford if she were to take her place as the Crown Prince’s Shadow for the morning court session.
“Enough,” Feiyan said quietly, addressing Xia. “I understand now. The lesson is over.”
Looking coldly at her Captain, she stalked away and headed towards her father’s study.
Gen looked crestfallen, his hands still shaking from the shock of his failure. Even wounded he should have been able to make the mark. However, what had trembled had not been his hand, but his heart.
As Feiyan passed him, she deliberately brushed too close, adeptly passing him the medicated wound salve that she normally kept in her room…the one made by the royal infirmary that the Crown Prince had specifically gifted to her.
Hajoon stood rigid as a statue, face unreadable.
“Alright. All of you are dismissed,” said Xia, watching her leave. His lips twitched as if he wanted to say something, but his golden eyes were hooded.
Only the children looked visible relieved.
Feiyan was not angry as she passed out of the practice ground. She only felt terribly alone.
Although Xia was very strict with training, he was not a bad person and the punishment for the three of them was well deserved. Training for seduction was only done at specific times and only for specific reasons. Unauthorized training was forbidden…To the outsider it must have looked like Xia was being unnecessarily cruel in forcing the younger Shadows and Gen to throw knives at her, but the object of the exercise was not to injure her. It had been a psychological attack on all three of them.
Feiyan had already realized what was happening when Xia specifically asked Hajoon to tie her to the large wooden target board. Hajoon had endured it with silent uneasiness, while Gen, whom everyone knew to be injured and thus not as his best, was asked to tutor the children. At every turn, Xia had applied emotional screws, breaking the three of them down with a mental hammer, splitting their bonds into slivers.
In the end, Feiyan knew that Gen would blame himself for almost hurting her, and Hajoon would never forgive him or let him forget it. They had always quietly competed for her and this would only widen the gap between them. Both of men would now also distance themselves to protect her, and thus there would be no more attempts at deeper emotional attachment even if there had been nothing much in the first place.
Problem solved, Feiyan thought bitterly.
Feiyan had to admire Xia’s efficiency, as well as his insight, but she also felt her Father’s hand in the lesson. It was a very sharp reminder that the limits of her world were marked out by the dark narrow spaces left by someone else.
I alone share a face with the Crown Prince. I am his personal Shadow and nothing can jeopardize that…not love, not friendship, not even myself…Mu Feiyan doesn’t exist.
As she moved into the corridor where her father’s study was located, she made no attempts to hide the sound of her footfalls, but she fought to keep her pace the same as always so he would not be able to anticipate what she might be feeling. With a final mental check, she opened the door.
“Father,” she said, greeting him as she entered his study.
He didn’t immediately acknowledge her, appearing to be writing a letter at a desk piled with reports. There were also quite a few loose sheets covered in mechanical designs and sketches.
Ah…he’s working on weapons and traps again…
The familiar smell of ink and paper nearly made her smile.
“Come, grind the ink,” he murmured to her.
She went to stand at his shoulder, carefully taking the stick of ink that had been pressed into the form of a rectangle framing two beautifully detailed cranes and began to grind the bar in a slow circular motion.
How old was I the first time Father asked me to make ink?
She sniffed lightly.
“It is not the one you normally use,” she said softly.
He harumphed and looked up at her with a brief smile. His normally icy blue eyes looked warm.
“That’s right. So what?” he asked, teasing her.
Testing me again…
“Can I see the letter?” she asked. By seeing how the ink spread it would give her a clue to its composition as some of the odours were currently being masked by the fragrance that had been used to scent it.
“No, you may not.”
After a moment, she dipped her finger into it and put a tiny bit on her tongue.
He stopped, settling back against the chair, carefully setting the brush down on the distinctly banded inkstone. He looked at her expectantly, a smile hovering on his lips.
“Well, how is it?” he asked, chin propped on his knuckles.
Feiyan made a face.
“The action of the ink is fairly smooth…indicating that the soot used is very fine. The stick is very hard, and there is a purplish-blue sheen to it, and from the scent of it…Father is writing to an old friend*.”
Perhaps an old lover? Someone who’s identity is not so simple…she thought. He rarely uses this ink stick.
Since he didn’t not seem willing to reveal the identity of the recipient, Feiyan picked up the ink and continued to grind. They went on in comfortable silence for a few more moments and were only interrupted by the servant announcing their meal.
“Come. Eat something,” he said, gesturing to the dishes on the table as he stood.
“Court will begin soon and I’m already late. His Highness is expecting me.”
She didn’t want to say that the lesson at the practice ground had also left an ashy taste in her mouth, affecting her appetite.
Lord Mu sat at the table unruffled by his daughter’s attitude, but his next words made her spine tingle.
“Do you blame Father?” he asked, calmly selecting a piece of pork out of his rice porridge and putting it in her bowl.
Oh. He’s making no attempt to hide his involvement…I guess I won’t be able to avoid this…
Reluctantly, she moved to the table and sat down.
Even though her father’s eyes were mild, the air between them was taut with the tension. With the imaginary Go board in her head stretching between them, she put down the white stone, carefully placing it.
“Should I? You’ll only say that it was for my own good,” she responded casually, going for the oblivious route.
“It’s true. I only do things for your sake,” he nodded, beaming.
Feiyan was shocked into laughter at his utter shamelessness, but with that, the uneasiness had once again been broken. Father and daughter smiled at each other across the table.
Actually this is a draw…
“Well then…I should eat something…” she murmured softly and picked up her chopsticks.
Her father’s lips twitched. It seemed that his daughter also understood that strategic retreats could be graceful…
* 刀山火海 – literally translated this is “A mountain of knives, a sea of fire” and means extreme danger or adversity.
* 师姐 – Elder martial sister.
* 师弟- Younger martial brother.
*你不说话没人把你当哑巴 – a literal translation that basically means “You talk too much”
* 师兄 - Senior martial brother
* 故人 – the translation is complicated. This is usually used to denote someone with whom you have had complicated relations in the past.