Still brooding from the encounter with the girl who had stolen her son’s face, the Queen of Moutan, Cho Ahnjong, rolled fitfully in her bed, clenching her first as she remembered Mu Feiyan’s defiant look before she was taken away to the water prison.
Demon! Goblin! That girl must die. She must die or she’ll kill the Crown Prince. Die! Die! Die!
Throwing the tangle of blankets off to the side, the Queen sat up with a hand covering her mouth, muffling the jagged sound of her cries. It had been nineteen years now, since she had had the fateful dream that told her that she had conceived.
Passed over in favour of a prettier and higher ranked Princess for the alliance marriage between Keungang and Shobu, Cho Ahnjong had been quietly married into the Moutan Kingdom at the age of seventeen. Painfully aware of her status and prospects as the daughter of a low ranked concubine, she had never imagined that Xiao Jing Feng, an unremarkable third Prince, would not only survive the succession process of Moutan, but become its King, and that she would become his Queen.
Many, including herself, had mistaken his quiet personality as lacking, but unlike his more outwardly confident and outstanding brothers, Xiao Jing Feng’s patience was a deep pool that few could see into.* When he ascended the dragon throne of Moutan with the support of Grand Chancellor Mu, he proceeded to solidify a stability that his warmongering Father had failed to secure, bringing peace and prosperity to his people.
And to her great surprise, Cho Ahnjong, not only found herself a powerful woman, but a very much cherished wife. She didn’t know when she realized her love for her husband, but it was no secret that there was affection between them. Certainly, their relationship was not marked by any whirlwind romance or grand gestures, but his quiet devotion had moved her heart, and they were quite happy until it became apparent that she would not be able to produce an heir.
After four years of marriage, the Queen had not conceived once, though they often shared a bed. Under mounting pressure from Court, the King reluctantly allowed daughters from high-ranking families and foreign princesses to be sent into the harem in the hopes that one of them would conceive and birth a son.
Although Xiao Jing Feng’s attitude towards Cho Ahnjong did not change, the King’s visits became less frequent as he made the rounds with the harem. As she saw less and less of her husband, the world around the Queen slowly closed in and lost its colour.
Ashamed and haunted by the whisperings about her barren body, believing that she had lost her husband’s favour, Cho Ahnjong gradually withdrew into the Peony palace, until one day she did not leave her chambers at all.
Yet, two months after she had shut the doors of the Peony palace, on a full moon night, she dreamt that she met Grand Chancellor Mu and a tall silver haired man in her private garden.
Barefoot and wearing nothing but her night clothes, she drew her cloak around her and frowned as she walked down the familiar white gravel path. Like her, the garden was barren, covered in two months’ worth of winter snow. Despite this, she did not feel the icy cold in her feet, but only in the vise that gripped her heart.
What is this?
“Ah…Your Majesty, forgive our intrusion, but we have been waiting for you,” said Lord Mu smoothly, as if it wasn’t absurd for him to be casually conversing with his under dressed Queen.
“Indeed, Grand Chancellor? And your companion is…?” she asked. She tried to hide her wariness under a pleasant manner, but in truth Lord Mu had always frightened her.
Curiously, Lord Mu’s face was not concealed. She had never seen his unmasked face before, but his expression was unexpectedly serene…perhaps even warm…?
Was he always capable of smiling so kindly? And have I ever seen such a stunningly beautiful face before? I didn’t know he was so handsome…it’s almost god-like.
Cho Ahnjong shuddered, vaguely feeling like she should be running away, but she scolded herself a bit.
This is just a dream…should I think such unpleasant things if it’s only a dream?
“Ah, forgive me. Your Majesty, this person is an old friend,” Lord Mu gestured to his companion.
“Your Majesty, this one is called Bai. I am honoured to meet you,” the tall, silver haired man said with an elegant bow, his deep baritone voice seeming to resonate throughout the empty garden.
The Queen acknowledged the man with a slight nod. With sudden curiosity, she realized that his eyes were the same stormy blue colour as Lord Mu’s, and that he was just as stunningly handsome. Yet where Lord Mu could even be described as pretty, this man was indescribably masculine.
“There’s no need for formality,” she said graciously, turning slightly. “I’m afraid that there is not much hospitality I can offer you…”
She smiled regretfully, glancing around the frozen garden.
“Do not fear, your Majesty. The garden that sleeps in winter blooms again in spring,” said the silver-haired man, seeing her expression.
“Not all gardens are meant to bloom,” responded the Queen. Her heart weighed her down with sadness and longing.
“This garden will bloom,” confirmed Bai with deep certainty. “The ground has slept here for some time, but it has received a gift.”
He waved his hand gently and the world around her was instantly transformed. As he swept his sleeve through the air, the ice melted, the grass became green, and the entire garden burst into the full, rich colours of a magnificent spring, filling her nose with the heady fragrance of life. As if in welcome, the breeze was lifting her hair, enveloping her in a dazzling rush of cherry blossom petals.
The silver haired man smiled kindly at her.
“In encountering me, your Majesty has attained riches*…” he said, his eyes twinkling.
The Queen was so enraptured by the abrupt change in the landscape that she did not notice Lord Mu’s lips flattening into a straight line. His eyes narrowed at his companion, but this expression was only returned with a warm chuckle by the one called Bai.
‘Always so dramatic…’ Mu said in a sour voice that only Bai could hear.
‘So boring!’ laughed Bai. ‘You are frowning too sternly, my beloved Mu…it will wrinkle your beautiful face.’
‘Hmph! Shameless ghost.’
‘But you like this shameless ghost…especially in bed…’
‘Bai…You…! How many times do I have to say that it’s over?’
‘Alright…alright, stop growling. This Lord* will stop teasing you. There, see? I’m being very serious…’
Reaching upward with one hand, Bai leapt high into the air and seemed to cup his fingers around the sun. As he floated back down, he brought a small orb of white light with him. It hovered above his palm, bouncing up and down as he floated towards the Queen who was still awash in awe, revelling in the brilliant bloom of the world around her.
“Tch!” Lord Mu muttered, disgusted by Bai’s antics, but he also leapt up to cup his hand. Instead of the sun, his fingers caressed the light of the moon.
Though she had been rooted to the spot in fascination, the Queen frowned when she realized that both the sun and moon were in the sky at the same time…and that the garden had been divided into two halves, one side light and one side dark, with her at its centre. For an eerie moment, both men hung in the air above her, and the little orbs in their hands crackled and danced, seeming to react to each other.
As Lord Mu descended, the cool silvery light in his hand darkened until it was a rich shiny black. Moving of their own accord, the two orbs surged towards each other, circled in the air, blurring and shifting into something more liquid until they took on an entirely new shape. The creatures that broke forth from this melding were shaped like two fish…
“Carp!” the Queen whispered as the shiny fish, one bright gold and one ebony black, swam back and forth in the air, chasing each other with great vigor. They swam the length of the garden, leaping and twisting, swimming more furiously, until they rushed towards her. Cho Ahnjong had no time to even react as they dived towards her flat belly. Cringing in fear, she instinctively raised her hands, but the two carp slipped into her body with a splashing sound that caused no pain. For a moment, there was only a warm sensation, a feeling of immense well-being, and then it was gone.
“What is the meaning of this?” she whispered, clutching her abdomen.
Lord Mu’s lips tipped up slightly.
“Is it not exactly as you wish, your Majesty? Your husband embraced you not so long ago and you have conceived his child.”
“I can’t believe it,” she said, dropping to her knees in the garden.
Bai snorted, not caring what the human creature believed. Now that his task was complete, staying in the illusion realm would only become tiresome.
“Your Majesty…the gift has been given. We must take our leave…” Bai bowed elegantly, and as he walked away his body simply fading into nothingness.
Lord Mu hesitated for a moment, seeming to consider something, but then he too followed after Bai and left the Queen’s dream.
“Wait!” she cried, but they were already gone.
When she awoke, the first thing that happened was that she felt nauseous, and a few days later the Royal physician confirmed that she had finally conceived. Her husband was beside himself with joy, and the Queen and her household were greatly relieved. As the news spread, the Peony palace once again filled with happiness and laughter and the insidious murmuring of the harem slowly died down.
Yet as Cho Ahnjong’s belly grew larger and larger, she could not help feeling that there was something unnatural about the child growing inside her. In her dream, one fish had come from the sun, the source of yang energy, but the other had been made of moonlight, and the darkness of yin. A golden carp normally signified a male child…but then what was the dark one? A silver of fear and suspicion grew under her heart, silently gnawing at her, until it consumed her.
The Queen became so fearful that when her time came, she sent everyone out of her chamber, even the mid-wife. Thus, she was alone when her first child, a girl, entered the world. Frenzied in her desire for a male heir to carry on her husband’s line, she had tried to drown the girl in a basin of bloody water when Lord Mu had burst in and snatched the infant away from her, shouting for the mid-wife as the infant Crown Prince hung precariously between the Queen’s legs, still in the process of exiting his mother’s womb.
* 静水深不可测 – literally ‘the depth of still water is unfathomable’. This can be translated as ‘still waters run deep’.
* 一見發財 - literally “Become Rich Upon Encountering Me."
* 本座 – literally ‘this seat’. Unless you are familiar with wuxia/xianxia novels, the literal translation would have been a little confusing. It’s a rather fancy, arrogant way for a person of status to refer to themselves. Here, Bai is teasing Mu. As their statuses aren’t different, and they are close friends, the use of the formal address is a bit of a jab.