The day passed and then it was evening.
The Crown Prince of Moutan, Xiao Feiyu, sighed as he adjusted the collar of Feiyan’s robe until he was satisfied. Then he picked up a small brush from the makeup table, and carefully dipped it into a red pot containing rose petal rouge. With a practiced hand, he painted the slippery colour onto her lips so that it matched the shade of his.
“There! See how pretty you are when you are dressed like this? I feel sorry that you always have to dress like me during the court sessions. Do you think they ever wonder?” he asked, sitting back on his heels. He turned his dark eyes to look at her in the mirror.
Two women with almost identical faces gazed back, their matching dresses, makeup and hair pins making them look like twin dolls. Behind them the table held remnants of their meal and the half emptied jar of wine they’d been drinking.
This charade won’t last very much longer…Feiyan thought to herself. The height difference between herself and her Prince was becoming more apparent and very soon his slender frame would begin to fill out more than it already had. He grew so much over the summer. How long can I protect him by pretending to be him?
“What do you think Xiao Yan? Do you like it?” he asked about the makeup, blithely unaware of her uneasiness. Still teasing, he tilted his head coquettishly like a skilled courtesan.
One of the two beautiful young women in the mirror frowned and shifted uncomfortably.
“Your Highness, where did you find these? I didn’t think this silk brocade existed in the palace anymore. Anyway, it’s too heavy…and the paint makes me feel like I’m wearing someone else’s skin. That person in the mirror…I don’t know recognize her at all,” Feiyan said ruefully.
“Ah,” he nodded. “Yet you do not feel burdened when dressed in my formal court clothing with all the piercing eyes of the kingdom’s bastard officials on you?”
He let out a small puff of laughter, gazing at her sideways from under his thick dark lashes.
The young woman in the mirror shook her head.
“No…my purpose is to be your blind, your shield, your blade…I’m not afraid when I’m you.”
“Xiao Yan is wearing my identity like armour,” he observed, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
She lowered her eyes.
“Forgive me your Highness…I wouldn’t presume to such arrogance!”
“A’Yan…You’ve been my Shadow and best friend since I was six. I’ve never thought you presumptuous or arrogant. I have been grateful for the many years you’ve been by my side. Do you not see that?” he asked with a sad smile on his face.
“Thank you, your Highness,” she said, bowing her head, trying to understand his strange mood.
“Too formal! Between us is there need for thanks?” he asked, again with the gentle, yet strange smile.
There was a pause, and then the Prince rose, using her shoulder to push up from the floor. Startled, she stood as well, following him as he threw the doors of his chamber open and moved onto the covered deck without even putting his shoes on.
“Your Highness!” she called after him, catching up his cloak from a chair as she followed. “It’s chilly! Please mind your body…”
Catching up to him was more difficult than she thought as her legs were constricted by the heavy brocade folds enveloping her body. How the Crown Prince had learned to move so quickly in the elegant formal dress, she had no idea, but hearing the concern in her voice, he slowed, turning to her with a brilliant expression.
“The first snow is always beautiful, Xiao Yan,” he said. He tilted his head up, facing the flakes that gently alighted on his rouged cheeks and darkened eyelashes.
She nodded, waiting, knowing that he meant to say more.
“Your Highness…It’s alright…you can tell me…” she said softly, patiently.
He nodded, seeming to compose himself.
“Sometimes I don’t even recognize myself. I don’t know if I am me, or if you are me, or if I should be you…” he said in a low voice.
She stared at him, stared into the face that so resembled hers, and felt something cut through her.
“Your Highness…have…how much did you drink?” she asked, troubled. “You’ve never been like this before…”
He burst out laughing then, and it rang clear and pure into the silence of the snow covered courtyard.
“Just a little, my dear Xiao Yan, but I wish I could be very drunk.”
Mmnnn…he’s more than just a little drunk. That brat…I should have paid more attention.
She thought about it for a moment, seeing the sad expression on his face. Then she said in a voice strong with conviction:
“Your Highness…you are you, not anyone else. You are…”
“I am…? I am what?” he asked, bitterly. “I am Xiao Feiyu, Crown Prince of Moutan…but Xiao Yan, when I stand in Court, dressed in my formal robes, I feel like I am the one who is the Shadow, the one who is pretending. This skin that I hate, every angle of my body, this stupid flesh that betrays me over and over again…what am I?” he cried. Then he looked shocked at himself as if he hadn’t meant to say that much.
Without even recognizing it, Feiyan had moved towards him, reaching to him with her hand outstretched, but abruptly remembering herself and her position, she halted mid-air and then dropped her arm awkwardly to her side.
“Your Highness…!” she whispered, feeling a deep pang within.
“You know, Xiao Yan, I wear this dress like armor too…” giggled the Prince, his mouth quirking up even though his eyes looked glassy.
He’s very drunk… she thought, but then something occurred to her.
“Someone has attracted your interest!” Feiyan exclaimed, face changing. “Isn’t that why you’re feeling uneasy…? Do you desire someone? But this is a good thing, your Highness! Are you worried that this person won’t accept you? But why not?”
“He’s a man, Feiyan,” whispered the Prince.
“…And?” she asked, clearly confused.
“I’m a man,” he pointed out, eyes narrowing as if she were the stupidest person in the world.
“Yes, but you…?” she asked, trailing off.
He looked at her blankly, and then a burst of anger crossed his face.
“Do you want me to show you?” he asked, snorting.
“Your Highness, I’m sure nothing has changed since we were six. Nor do I think we need to check each other’s parts again…” she grinned, remembering back to their childhood together. “But that’s not what I’m talking about…”
She paused trying to find the words. Obviously she was the wrong person to be talking to in this instance as she’d been raised by two men, so naturally the Prince’s concern seemed absurd to her, but of course if this was the first time he’d contemplated something like this for himself, then of course it was difficult.
“Ah…” he said in surprise and then understanding. Eyes widening, he looked at her as if he was really seeing her for the first time.
She smiled encouragingly.
“Don’t you recall that Captain Moon and Father loved each other? I’m only asking how…how you want your beloved to see you, but you should also consider your own feelings…do you understand what I mean?” she asked, hoping she could convey her meaning properly.
“Like this…” he said, spinning slow in the dress, smiling with a look that changed his entire face. “I want to be just as you see…and I want him to accept me like this.”
Feiyan smiled back.
My Prince really is the most beautiful person in this world when he smiles.
“Of course, but who is it?” she asked, curious.
For a moment the Crown Prince looked shy, then he said:
“It’s the Captain of Lord Mu’s guard….” He started, but then his face became crestfallen when she groaned. “What? What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Your Highness…of all the men you could have chosen that one will not only accept you, he might suck you dry…” she said wryly, covering her eyes with one hand. “Please forgive me, your Highness, but Captain Xia is irredeemably promisc…”
But just as she was about to say “promiscuous” every single hair on the back of her neck stood up, and she turned towards the intruder, firing out three darts in one smooth motion.
The intruder dodged with the same finesse, catching the darts and tossing them back.
“Who says I’m promiscuous, Mu Feiyan? And why the hell are you bad mouthing me to the Crown Prince?” demanded the golden-eyed Captain of Lord Mu’s guard. Xia strolled into the pavilion with silent footfalls only another Shadow could have perceived.
He bowed jauntily to the dazed Crown Prince and then turned an icy glare on her.
Feiyan should have sighed in relief that it wasn’t an assassin, but seeing that she might get skinned by her Captain, she flitted backwards three steps.
I’d better leave them to sort it out themselves. That asshole…when in the hell did he seduce Xiao Feiyu?
“Well…Your Highness, I take my leave!” Feiyan shouted over her shoulder as she hastily made her escape. Since she was bent on a rapid retreat, she missed the Crown Prince’s fierce blush blooming like fire across his face.
Xia didn’t even bother with a second glance in her direction.
That brat…messing with my personal matters…! But this little cutie…Xia thought.
“Now, your Highness…” Xia purred. “Shall we have a nice chat?” he asked, as he slid closer.
“H-How much did you hear?” the Crown Prince demanded, his voice only faintly trembling. For once he could not maintain the calm composure that he was so famous for.
Who knew he was capable of faltering like this…
“I heard all of it…” grinned Xia with a hunter’s smile.
“Gods…” the younger man said, putting his face in his hands.
“Don’t!” Xia said, standing on his tip toes to snatch the Prince’s hands down. “You’ll ruin your paint, if you do that,” he said with a soft look on his face.
A tear threatened to trickle down the Prince’s face.
“I didn’t want you to see me like this…” he said. He held back a sob, trying to hide away, but Xia wouldn’t let him, putting his hands on either side of the Prince’s face.
“Shhh…don’t cry. Look at me…” Xia soothed as they gradually dropped to their knees together on the deck. “Please, your Highness…look at me.”
Raising the Prince’s chin, Xia looked into his wet eyes very seriously.
“Look at me and tell me what you see,” Xia told him.
The Prince looked confused, shaking his head slightly as if trying to shake off a fog.
“I…see you?” he stumbled.
“Yes, but my expression…? What do you see?”
The Prince tried to shake his head again, but Xia steadied him, moving the fingers of his left hand into the Prince’s hair.
“Disgust. Revulsion. Hatred. Do you see any of that?” Xia demanded, a little bit more fiercely.
“N-no…” the Prince admitted.
“Exactly,” said Xia. “None of that. You see only me…and I see only you…as you are.”
“As I am…?”
“Yes, my beautiful and lovely Prince. Exactly as you are. I’m looking at you. Just you…” Xia grinned, brushing his right thumb under the Prince’s eye, careful not to smudge the eye paint.
“How long…?” the Prince asked, sounding hoarse.
“How long have I known that you liked me or how long have I wanted to make love to you?” asked Xia, tilting his head back slyly.
The Prince’s mouth worked soundlessly.
“You like…me?” he asked, his tone coloured with three parts disbelief and one part joy.
Xia stared deeply into the Prince’s eyes, and then pulled the Prince’s face down to his, deciding that action was far better than words.
The Prince’s gasp was swallowed almost immediately by Xia’s very skillful mouth and a moment later the Prince jerked away, panting dizzily.
Wah! What an adorable look! thought Xia, feeling his loins heat up.
“Ah…wait!” the Prince blushed. “I…I don’t know how to…uhm…” he mumbled, trailing off.
“Oh…it’s just the same as you do with women, but you put yours here…” Xia said nonchalantly. Lying back and splaying his legs, Xia placed the fingers of one hand there and then dragged his fingers upward, holding the Prince’s eyes with his gaze as he showed him exactly what he meant.
The Prince looked like he was about to burst, then he looked away.
“Oh…” said Xia, realizing something from the self-conscious look on the younger man’s face. “You want me to…? I see…well that will require some preparation...”
The Prince’s ears burned.
“Shall I help you?” Xia asked silkily, somehow instantly moving from a prone position to brushing the Prince’s ear with his lips. “Next time, if you want, you can try holding me…I love it either way…”
The Prince’s head made an almost audible ‘poof’ sound, but then he desperately grabbed the front of Xia’s robe and pulled him down on top of his body with a half-lidded look that was so erotic it lit Xia’s brain on fire. Xia, though a sly creature, promptly forgot which one of them was supposed to be doing the seducing and which one was supposed to be seduced.
Despite the intimate scene going on in the garden, Feiyan had not actually departed, but had opted to hide on the roof edge until she was sure that things would work out between them. Nonetheless, being a considerate person, she slipped away with a satisfied smile as soon as saw the Prince take the initiative.
Although Feiyan absolutely hated the idea that Xia was seducing her beloved Prince, she was cheered that Xiao Feiyu had finally pulled someone else into his golden cage. As she already knew herself, the royal palace of Moutan could be a very lonely place.