Leaping lightly off the roof, Feiyan tapped down in the snow dusted grass below, and realized that she had landed in the middle of a large garden which connected to the East Palace of the Prince.
Dammit…this…how is there a side courtyard here? And I don’t have my mask…
Although she had spent most of her life traversing the halls of the great palace of Moutan, she was only really familiar with the main hall where Court was held and the Crown Prince’s East palace. The inner palace was normally forbidden to her, and she had been given strict instructions to avoid the Peony Palace of the Queen no matter what. Of course, as a Shadow she had seen the palace plans and knew its layout, but that didn’t mean she spent her spare time messing around.
Squaring her shoulders, she decided that there was no point in trying to retrieve her regular clothing from the Prince’s chambers, since he and Xia were no doubt very occupied. However, that meant she’d have to wear the silk dress until she could find something to steal and wear in its place. The thing she regretted the most was leaving behind her silver mask. Cursing herself and Xia, the only thing she could do now was to act normal in front of any inner palace servants she couldn’t avoid and to get back to the Chancellor’s residence as soon as she could.
Taking a quick breath, she calmed herself and changed the rhythm of her movements.
Right…I’m a woman right now, not the Crown Prince…
Shortening her strides, she moved slowly and gracefully, climbing the gentle rise of a stone bridge that had been built over a pond filled with boisterously splashing koi fish. As she came to the high centre of the bridge, she realized her mistake too late: at the bottom of the bridge, down the other side, was a tall man, who looked to be in his forties.
Dammit! I should have noticed the koi splashing! This time of year they are sluggish and they wouldn’t have normally been this lively. This person…his clothes are very fine but very subtly worn…the Shoban yoke truly has done nothing for the palace budget…
Concealed by the construction of the bridge, the man had been there this entire time, with the only clue to his presence being the splashing of the koi reacting to the feed he was throwing into the pond.
The man’s ear was very good. Even though her footfalls had been light, he turned to her immediately, and shifted his stance, a sure sign that he had been trained in martial arts.
A man with martial arts in fine clothes with access to the inner palace…she took in the thread of gold used to embroider the dragon patterns over the man’s outer robe, and Feiyan realized with shock that this man was…
“Which concubine is this who comes into the King’s presence but is slow to give her greeting?” asked the man with a gently teasing tone, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Have I startled you my dear?”
Feiyan flushed when she recalled what she was wearing. She was also relieved that she had automatically bent her head to hide her face, crossing her hands at her hip in a rigid curtsy.
“You may raise your eyes, little one. You must be new to the palace to have wandered here. Speak - what is your name?” asked the man. Although his voice was gentle, there was something hard about it as if he was warily assessing her.
Feiyan swallowed and slowly raised her face to his. As her eyes met his, she realized that he was staring at her, almost in horror.
“M-Mother?” the King blurted in shock, eyes huge. He gripped the railing of the bridge as if he was going to break it into two, and then he got a hold of himself. “No…you are not she.”
“No…your Majesty. Please forgive me. This lowly one is a Shadow of Lord Mu’s guard. I ask mercy for trespassing into the King’s presence…this lowly one stumbled into this place by accident.”
“Lord Mu…?” he asked, frowning slightly.
Although she didn’t show it, she was inwardly shocked to see a bunch of different emotions flit across the King’s face. They had passed so quickly that she wasn’t really sure she had actually seen them. She also felt uneasy: Having watched him at court many times, she knew that the King was normally a man of great composure…calm and restrained, not easy to read…To allow a mere Shadow to see his thoughts meant that he had truly been startled by her appearance. She flinched a little wondering how odd she must look in the silk brocade dress, eyes lined, with her lips rouged a rose-coloured hue.
“I see. You are Mu Feiyan, the Crown Prince’s Shadow,” stated the King in a more composed manner, eyeing her with new comprehension.
She nodded, relieved that he had finally recognized her.
“Yes, your Majesty. At first, I was at the Crown Prince’s side, but he has dismissed me to return to my quarters,” she said, blithely committing lèse majesté. There was no way she’d give away that the Crown Prince was probably tangled up with his new lover, even if it meant that she was lying to the King.
Unfortunately, it seemed that the two culprits were still outside in the garden, and Feiyan blushed crimson as one of them chose that particular moment to moan obviously and loudly.
Yet with a quickness that even her father might have praised, she stepped forward and boldly reached into the bowl that the king was holding to throw a huge handful of fish feed into the pond, causing a huge stirring and splashing of the koi below, covering the sounds that came from over the wall of the East Palace.
Stepping back just as quickly, she appeared not to have moved at all…the only hint of what had just happened being the faint remnants of red on her cheeks and the strangled expression on the King’s face.
If the King was surprised it was quickly smothered by another very different emotion.
There was no killing intent, but I did not sense her movement until it was already too late. She moved just to protect his privacy…and even though I raised the bowl to block her, she slid her wrist around and over. In those few seconds, how many times did our hands move around the bowl?…and yet not a single bit was spilled onto this bridge. How decisive! She has learned well.
Feiyan wasn’t sure what she was seeing on the King’s face. It was a mix of something she couldn’t understand at all, and very faintly, there might even have been moisture in his eyes.
“Mu Feiyan,” said the King in a commanding tone.
Feiyan’s neck prickled.
“Here!” she said, kneeling immediately, albeit a tad awkwardly in the heavy brocade dress.
“You have trespassed into my Queen Mother’s favourite garden. Do you know what the punishment is?” he asked softly.
“No, your Majesty.”
“The garden is forbidden to all except the King…You would do well to remember that. Since you have protected the Crown Prince well thus far, I will forgo the punishment tonight. Return to Lord Mu immediately.”
“This lowly one thanks the King for his grace and takes leave,” she said, feeling a slight zing down her spine. However, it became a thunderbolt as the King reached his hands down and raised her up, cupping her cheek.
“Y-Your Majesty!” she gasped.
“You’ve grown up, Mu Feiyan,” he said solemnly as his eyes travelled over her upturned face.
“Yes…” she mumbled, trying to avoid the searching stare.
“Go now,” he sighed, “Before I regret it even more…”
Not understanding his tone or his words, she hastily snatched up her skirts after he released her. Turning without another glance she fled out of the garden, running as fast as the heavy gown would allow.
The King sighed again, watching her until she exited the gate, and then he slowly walked up to the middle of the bridge.
Xiao Jing Feng noted that the pond had not yet frozen this year. He wondered if the coming winter would be milder than what it had been in the past. If so, it would mean less work for the servants, and no doubt they would be pleased that they did not have to move his Majesty’s koi to the inner pond. It also meant that he had had the pleasure of feeding them one last time. They had been sluggish with the increasing cold, and he had worried that it was already too late in the season to feed them. Tonight, thanks to a little swallow, they had glutted themselves on their last meal. He smiled in spite of himself and turned towards the sound of a door closing.
His trusted eunuch, Byul, came out of the small side residence where he had been inspecting the cleaning of the rooms and he draped a cloak over his King’s shoulders.
“You are getting too old to be out in the cold like this,” the King admonished the old eunuch, even though he had been the one standing in the autumn night. He sighed and put the cloak around the old man instead.
The eunuch laughed breathlessly and bowed.
“Your Majesty worries too much about this old servant. Reporting to your Majesty: the rooms are being well kept. Everything is as you remember it,” he said.
“That’s good,” said the King.
Peaking around him, the old eunuch’s eyes crinkled. He had just seen the flicker of a dark haired girl in a red dress.
“Did you take an interest in that little concubine? Shall I summon her to your chambers?” he asked.
“Ah…no need…” the King said absently, not bothering to correct the misunderstanding.
Byul was still sharp, but his eyesight was not what it used to be. It was clear that he had failed to recognize that the beautiful dark-haired girl who had just now fled from her sovereign was not a concubine, but something much more dangerous than that.
Byul sighed, trying to hide his worry. Thus, his tone was only mildly pleading:
“It would be in your Majesty’s interest to have a few more sons. Your Majesty is still young and there are many pleasing beauties in the harem…if the Crown Prince were to take ill again…”
“There is no need to remind me that there is only one Prince in this kingdom,” the King said, perhaps more sharply than he intended, but then he patted the old eunuch’s shoulder in apology. “Forgive me Byul…the Shoban envoy for the annual review of the Inspectorate will arrive soon and the day’s matters weigh heavily on me. It is time to return…”
I never thought I would repeat the days of my youth, building my strength in the shadows. We can only hide our secret preparations against Shobu for a short time…everything will come to light sooner or later…