The Crown Prince was reported to be ill with fever and had not attended the Court session for a few days causing the officials to squabble and worry. Already at their throats over the impending tribute envoy’s arrival from Shobu and the annual inspectorate review, they once again harassed the King with memorials insisting that he visit the concubines of his harem to produce more sons.
After the birth of the Crown Prince, the King’s women had only produced three more children, all daughters: Princess Yuna, daughter of Queen Cho Ahnjong of Keungang; Princess Meihua, daughter of Consort Liwen Yue; and Princess Sarnai, daughter of Princess Qara of Kazarus. One other son had been born to a lower ranking concubine, but he had died in infancy under mysterious circumstances…no doubt a victim of harem intrigue.
At the moment, Xia couldn’t care less about the King’s sex life, as he was being thoroughly dressed down about his own.
“My Lord, if I knew that a little bit of play would make him ill, I…” he began, looking sheepish.
Lord Mu glowered at Xia, who immediately shut his mouth.
“I don’t need to remind you that the Crown Prince is of a delicate constitution…and there were other factors contributing to his illness besides your lewdness and stupidity. Since he’s now recovered, it doesn’t concern me. However, I clearly instructed you to pick up Feiyan. It’s your fault that she ended up in her current state.”
Xia dropped his shoulders. Indeed, it was his fault…though not entirely.
“What’s her situation now?” Xia asked quietly, trying to look contrite.
“Not good,” Lord Mu said curtly.
Xia’s mouth set in a thin line, wanting to deny responsibility in his normal flippant manner, but he had noticed the strain on his Lord’s face. There was also a hollowing in the man’s cheeks not quite concealed by the silver mask. In truth, Lord Mu looked exhausted. For these cracks to be showing so obviously in the Lord’s demeanor meant that little Feiyan was truly in danger.
Of all the Shadows in the guard, only Feiyan hated water…an inexplicable aversion that she’d had since childhood.
Gen had said that when they had pulled her body from the water prison, there had been ice in the pool. Her body had been stiff and white with no breath rising or falling from her chest. From the looks of it, she had deliberately slowed all her functions. Similar to hibernation, it was a practice that only those with high cultivation could do, but it was exceedingly dangerous. The King’s guards who had come to retrieve her, had thought her dead.
Hajoon had been the one who brought her back to Lord Mu’s manor, refusing to speak to Xia after the Royal Physician had come and gone with a sombre look on his face. The physician had waved his hand and left without answering anyone’s questions while muttering furiously to himself. Then he had rushed off to the Royal infirmary to make tonics in the event the girl lived.
Lord Mu had attended Court as always, but he had spent every night since then watching over his unconscious daughter.
For now, all they could do was wait as Feiyan hung between life and death, caught up in a fevered dream world that only she could see.
“You are called Feiyan…?” asked a small high voice.
She opened her eyes and frowned.
Where am I…?
Feiyan looked up and realized that she was standing in the Crown Prince’s room which was drenched in sunlight so bright she couldn’t quite make out what was around her.
She squinted, but then smiled, shading her eyes with her hand.
That’s right…it’s here…here, we met for the first time…
“Grand Chancellor Mu says that you are to be my Shadow,” said the small voice which appeared to be attached to a nebulous cloud coming into the room. She turned and bowed down to the dark silhouette that began to take the shape of the Prince who nodded to her quite solemnly.
“You may rise, Shadow. What is your name?” he asked.
She frowned, tilting her head back and forth, trying to see his face.
This is when we first met as six-year-olds, she thought, but this is wrong…it’s not like how I remember…I can’t see him. Why can’t I see his face…?
“Mu Feiyan gives greetings to the Crown Prince,” she said, trying to push down her rising panic.
The boy-shaped shadow seemed to frown in surprise, hesitantly reaching his hand out to touch her face.
“We…are we very alike…?” he asked, not quite sure what to make of it.
“Yes, your Highness. We are very similar. That is why I was chosen as your body double,” she acknowledged.
“This Prince thanks you for taking on this burden…” he said gravely.
“It is my honour and glory to serve you, your Highness. I am yours to command,” she said.
“You…I want to see exactly how alike we are…will you take off your clothes?” asked the Prince.
In the next moment, she blinked in surprise. They were suddenly standing naked in front of each other, both adults. Realizing, Feiyan blushed furiously, trying to cover herself.
“Oh,” he said, looking in disappointment at her female parts. “You’re not like me at all…”
Feiyan felt like she’d been struck in the chest, and was suddenly filled with burning shame. Without her realizing it, tears leaked down her cheeks.
The shadowy prince appeared to smile, shifting closer.
“Nothing…nothing like me…you are nothing…” the shadow repeated, leaning forward to hiss in her ear.
Feiyan stumbled backwards as he was suddenly swallowed by a black wall of grasping arms and hands. The mess of limbs reached towards her, pulling and yanking at her, scraping at her skin.
“You are NOTHING!” the voices roared down at her, drowning out the Prince’s scream, and her own, as the world collapsed in on top of her.
“Bi’ah! Iseulbi*!” a woman called, laughing.
Feiyan shook herself in confusion.
Wait. Wasn’t I just being crushed...? Where am I now? Who is calling me…?
No…someone is calling the Crown Prince.
Feiyan turned back and looked up at the gorgeously dressed person chasing after her. It was a woman, face alight with a smile. Then, Feiyan realized that the perspective was wrong, and somehow the person running up to her was much taller than she should have been.
I’m seven again…and that person is…the Queen.
She saw the woman’s warm expression slowly falter. The arms that had been stretched out to catch Feiyan’s small body in an affectionate hug dropped to the sides as the beautifully dressed woman stuttered to a halt, her expression going from confused disappointment to rage.
They stared at each other.
The Queen suddenly surged towards Feiyan full of fury, grabbing her by the hair and shaking her small body so forcefully that her head shook back and forth like she was a ragdoll.
“You evil demon! Tricking me so that I cannot even recognize my own son! Goblin!” the Queen shrieked, shaking Feiyan so hard she thought her head might snap off. Then beringed hands circled her tiny throat and began squeezing, choking off her airway. The Queen’s eyes were filled with madness, her mouth twisting into a grimace as she squeezed.
Oh…this is exactly as I remember. The edges of my vision are beginning to look white…I must be dying, Feiyan thought, watching herself slow choking from the outside.
Feiyan felt the blood vessels in her eyes constricting as she struggled and wheezed, small feet kicking in the air.
Stop…no! Please stop! STOP!
“Stop it! Royal Mother! Mother!” cried Xiao Feiyu, racing into the garden from behind them to grab his mother by the arm. Attendants rushed forward, shouting to each other, doing their best to separate the frenzied Queen from the seven-year-old child who was now lying in the grass staring blindy up at the sky, drawing wet, gasping breaths.
“A’Yan! A’Yan!” cried the little Prince, his cherub face hovering anxiously over her.
I had forgotten how cute he was when he was younger, Feiyan thought to herself, looking up at him in a disconnected haze. He used to smile more. He was a lot braver back then…over the years he stopped showing his feelings…and now…now he’s not quite the same.
To her blurry, watering eyes, the Prince looked exactly as he had back then. He was the same adorable little boy in a blue silk robe and black cap…the exact same blue robe and cap that she was also wearing.
That’s right…he was called Iseulbi back then…
He helped her sit up, tears dripping down his cheeks. Throwing his arms around her, he sobbed:
“A’Yan! Does it hurt?”
Oh, my Prince…don’t cry…I can’t bear to see it.
“N-no…your Highness. I’m fine,” she whispered hoarsely.
“Your Highness!” murmured an old eunuch, bending to pry his young charge’s arms off the young Shadow.
It was obvious why the Queen had been confused: the two children were so similar that it was difficult to tell one from the other. There had been rumours of course, but these had been firmly quashed. Body doubles were nothing new in the palace, and it only spoke to Grand Chancellor Mu’s meticulous nature that the Shadow chosen was almost a mirror image of the young Prince.
“Crown Prince Iseulbi!” the eunuch whispered urgently, drawing the Prince away, noticing that the Queen had regained her normal demeanor. The Queen’s unstable temper was well known in the palace…he had hoped to remove the Prince from the situation, but it was already too late.
“My Royal son…Royal Mother went to see you and you were not in your study room,” the Queen said.
The Crown Prince dropped his gaze, quickly hiding something that had poked up out of his inner pocket.
“No, Royal Mother,” he said quietly, “I had just gone into the garden to refresh myself for further study,” he responded, sounding calm.
“Search him…empty his pockets!” the Queen said sharply.
Her maid moved forward and soon there was a small pile of trinkets, including a small enameled rouge box.
When it was pulled out, the Prince’s face looked awful.
“Prince Iseulbi…although your manner of speaking has improved in elegance, it has not improved in sincerity. You are far from convincing Royal Mother. I have told you before: as the only Prince of Moutan, you must be diligent and excel at all your studies. Royal Mother cannot tolerate idleness or useless pursuits. I see that you have to be reminded: You are not to leave your study room until all the military treatises of Moutan are copied once,” she said.
The Prince looked up, startled, and then his eyes filled with dismay.
“Yes, Royal Mother,” he said, holding in the sense of injustice he felt. He lowered his eyes and his thick lashes brushed his cheek, hiding his expression.
“Your Majesty…Prince Iseulbi is only seven. Given his ill health, it is good for the young Prince to rest in between…” began the Prince’s eunuch.
The Queen’s servants turned their icy eyes on him.
“The audacity!” one whispered in horror.
Ignoring him, the Queen turned to the side and said to her attendant:
“Throw this garbage away, and then whip that one,” she said, pointing to Feiyan, who had only just managed to catch her breath and had still been on the ground this entire time.
The Queen’s attendant stepped forward, snapped a branch from a shrub growing in the garden and cracked the newly made switch across Feiyan’s chest.
“Royal Mother!” the Prince shouted.
Feiyan gasped as the switched came down again. Flipping onto her stomach, she tried to crawl away.
“Your Majesty! This…” protested the Prince’s eunuch, but the look on the Queen’s face stopped him from saying anything further.
The Queen’s cold gaze seemed to envelop the eunuch and her son in a veil of ice.
“The Prince’s body is too precious to be injured. The Shadow will be punished in his stead to remind the Prince of his duties. Thirty strokes. Ensure that the Prince watches until it is done,” said the Queen sweeping away.
The Crown Prince’s hands curled into fists as the switch whistled. Once his mother’s back receded into the distance, he allowed himself to cry…not only for himself but for Feiyan who was silently taking the punishment.
“I should not have left my room,” he said in a low, bitter voice, cringing as the thin branch whistled through the air.
Feiyan bit her lip bloody and gasped out:
“I-It was only f-for—Ugh!—a moment…”
“Silence!” the maid said, slashing Feiyan in the face before turning back to her task. The maid’s expression was stony.
Too weak to crawl away, Feiyan gave up, and simply covered her face and head as the switch came down again and again.
The Prince’s eunuch grimaced, slipping his hands into his sleeves, looking anxious as a lifeless expression filled the Crown Prince’s eyes. Gradually, the tears slowed and then stopped. The Prince only stared, dull and unseeing, at Feiyan who was now criss-crossed with bloody stripes.
Don’t cry…be strong for me…she silently begged.
Feiyan lifted her head and smiled bravely up at him, willing him not to cry as her consciousness began to sink into the dark.
It’s just a dream…Only a little more and I won’t feel anything…she thought as she closed her eyes.
And then there was nothing and no more pain.
* Iseulbi – means ‘light rain’ or ‘drizzle’.