Xiao Jing Feng was about to exit the small garden, but then stopped in his tracks when he saw the procession of guards in the avenue, surrounding a large palanquin, and noted the same girl now kneeling in the snow with her brocade robes blossoming around her like a flower bud that had newly bloomed.
The King silently raised his hand to Byul, indicating that he would quietly observe before announcing his presence. His brow creased slightly as it was obvious that the owner of the Peony Palace was making things hard for Mu Feiyan.
What bad luck! thought Feiyan, as she tried to keep herself from feeling the cold dampness seeping up through her dress where her knees pressed into the snow covered ground. It seemed that she had traded snow for frost,* in running into the person that she wanted to avoid the most…
As she had exited the moon gate, escaping into the broad avenue, she had run straight into a procession of servants and guards who appeared to be escorting a large palanquin. Of the two palanquins in the Royal palace this one belonged to the Queen of Moutan, Cho Ahnjong.
“Which woman has so brazenly approached the King?” demanded the Queen from behind the curtain. “Who is it?”
The eunuch standing next to the curtain smirked down at the kneeling girl.
“Your Majesty, I do not recognize this one…she must be a new concubine…”
“And?” the voice was waspish.
“She is rather well dressed for a concubine without rank…” the eunuch said, smile widening. “The garments must be stolen. Perhaps, we should remove it from her person?”
Do you think it’s that easy to humiliate a Shadow of Lord Mu?
Feiyan raised her eyes, causing the eunuch to recoil from their clear coldness. When he stumbled back, her lips curved into a feral smile.
“You can try it*…” she said softly.
“Impudence! How dare you raise your face to your betters!” the eunuch said shrilly, raising his hand.
What happened next was the sound of a sharp crack, followed by an outraged cry of pain, and then the schwing of swords being drawn as the guards surrounded her.
Feiyan remained kneeling, but she was now twisting the broken wrist of the eunuch that had tried to slap her. The guards thrust their glaives menacingly close to her face, but her expression held no fear.
“I belong to Lord Mu,” she said, calmly. “Even if a crime has been committed, it is not up to a eunuch to decide how I am to be punished.”
With that, she flung the offender to the ground where he writhed and wailed in pain, holding his broken hand.
The guards shifted uneasily. Lord Mu’s Shadows were elite guards and thus the girl was not someone easily discounted.
I must look really different as a girl…How have they not recognized this face…? wondered Feiyan.
The head of the Queen’s guard looked uncomfortable.
“Your Majesty, if what the girl says is true, then it must be reported at once…we cannot easily act on one of Grand Chancellor Mu’s people,” he said, from the other side of the palanquin.
There was a stiff silence and then a hiss of breath as the curtain was yanked open and a head heavy with jewellery was poked out as the Queen exited the palanquin. There was a general murmur of dismay as the Queen walked forward and yanked Mu Feiyan’s face up so that she could properly see who causing the problem.
“You!” the Queen whispered, her voice thick with rage. “Why is it you again?”
There was another sharp crack, but this time it was the sound of Queen’s fan smacking against Feiyan’s cheek, cutting her.
Feiyan lowered her eyes, but she couldn’t help the resentment that bubbled within her…not just for herself, but also for the Crown Prince who feared and hated his mother more than any other person in the whole kingdom.
“The Crown Prince’s Shadow gives greeting to her Majesty,” Feiyan whispered so that only the Queen could hear it, but she could not help purposely adding: “For his sake, I would suggest you refrain from hitting my face any further…unless your Majesty wishes to explain the injuries to the Court yourself…?”
“You wretched animal, are you threatening me?” the Queen shrieked.
Incensed, the Queen struck Feiyan’s mouth, splitting her lower lip. She was about to strike her again, but there was a clatter. The guards backed out of the way as a figure exited out of the moon gate and swiftly grabbed the Queen’s raised hand.
“My Queen…” interrupted the King very gently. He regarded the queen with a look that was full of pity and sadness. “My Queen…you are not well…”
The wild light faded from the Queen’s eyes as she blinked, realizing just who was holding her wrist.
“Your Majesty!” she whispered, as the entire retinue knelt in obeisance around her.
“Listen to my order: the Shadow Mu Feiyan has trespassed into a forbidden area of the palace,” the King intoned, his gaze still holding that of his Queen. “She is to be locked in Lord Mu’s water prison for three days and three nights as punishment.”
The King had spoken, and no one contradicted him.
There was a collective sigh as the King’s guards seemed to appear from nowhere, jerking Feiyan to her feet. She stumbled over the long hem of her dress, wisps of hair falling out around her face. She might have looked dishevelled, but her eyes smouldered with defiance.
Since things had been decided just like that, the King leaned his face close to that of his Queen and murmured something to her. Eliciting a slow nod, the Queen stepped back with a curtsy and then re-entered the palanquin. The King gave the leader of her guard a meaningful glance, and those carrying the palanquin left quickly, leaving only the King, Byul, and the King’s guards who were still holding Feiyan by the arms.
The wind rushed down the avenue, hitting Feiyan in the face.
“Your Majesty, thank you for saving me. I will remember this grace and return it,” she said quietly.
“Such arrogance! Return it? Mu Feiyan, have you seen the Lord Mu’s water prison?” he asked, his tone sharp.
“Learn restraint. You have not grown up as much as I had thought,” he said, and turned to walk away.
For no particular reason, the words hurt, but Feiyan couldn’t say that he was wrong. It had been childish to provoke the Queen like that, and she bit her lip as the guards dragged her, none too gently, to the water prison. Nonetheless, the King had indeed given her grace. By punishing her himself, he had prevented the Queen from venting her anger in a much more insidious or prolonged manner, and no one could say anything against it as it was an order from the King.
What she didn’t see was Byul’s worried look as he scurried after his master, and the almost imperceptible quiver as the King walked away with a heavy heart.
Uncut jade has no use.* Yet it makes me a liar and a coward if I say I do this for her sake…he thought as he walked away.
Although he felt regret, the King accepted that there was no going back to change the past. He had cut that bond, and the child’s fate was no longer his to decide. What little he did now, would likely make no difference.
Although there were multiple opportunities for Feiyan to escape the King’s guards, she decided that she would cooperate for now. Her father’s opponents at Court were not few. If she escaped, she would be causing unnecessary trouble for him, and the last thing she wanted was to throw the Shadows into uproar. She would just have to consider the water prison as training.
Unfazed by her sullen silence, the King’s guards took her down a familiar subterranean passage, where they chained her wrists to a metal ring attached to side of the pool, kicking her down into the stone water cage before throwing the grate over her head with a resounding clang. They didn’t even bother to lock it, so sure that the chains would be enough to hold her.
The square pool was at least fifteen feet deep, and on the walls just above her, demon faces with slithering tongues in their mouths covered the pipes that would pour water into her cage. Once these sluices were opened, the water prison would fill to overflowing twice a day – once in the morning and once at night.
Feiyan yanked the chain experimentally, glancing up over her head at the grate. Already shivering in the chest deep ice-cold water, she clenched her teeth remembering the frenzied rage in the Queen’s eyes and the disappointment in the King’s voice. From what she had seen Cho Ahnjong’s fits were getting worse. She wondered if her father had noticed, but these thoughts were interrupted by the clank of the sluice as the guards opened a valve next to the pool.
“Well, stinky girl…just obediently stay here. We won’t be accompanying you,” the guards laughed. As they turned to leave, one of them twisted the valve next to the door, and the demon faces clanked open their gaping mouths.
Three days of freezing water in the late autumn…if you drown here, Mu Feiyan, it’s your own fault…she thought to herself.
Balling her fists, Feiyan waited for the rush of water that would herald the first round.
Gods…of all things…why did it have to be water…?
Biting her lip, she shuddered.
*Feiyan is referencing ‘雪上加霜’ (Xuě shàng jiā shuāng). The literal translation is ‘Adding frost to snow,’ meaning “going from one disaster to another” or “going from bad to worse”
* 你可以试试 – my translation is literal, but it sounds so much cooler (and deadlier) in Chinese…!
* 玉不琢,不成器 (Yù bù zuó, bù chéng qì) - A more literal translation would be ‘uncut jade cannot be made into anything’. It’s interesting to note that the word ‘器’ (device/implement) is the same character used for weapon (武器 – wu qi). In this case, the King doesn’t just think of her as raw materials to be made in something, but he is specifically thinking of honing her into a weapon.