Since it wasn’t likely for the regular palace guards to sense her presence, Feiyan didn’t do too much to conceal her breath as she tapped from roof to roof. Although she had always been light-footed and it had become second nature to move like a touch of wind, she did not work too hard as she made her way from Lord Mu’s residence in the outer precincts of the palace complex toward the East Palace.
As Grand Chancellor, Lord Mu was allowed to live within the palace, and in fact the Chancellor residence was connected by a small gate. It was unprecedented, but for whatever reason the King had bestowed the privilege, keeping his most trusted advisor close to him. It was also the cause of great suspicion and envy, and so for that reason very few knew about Feiyan’s existence outside of her function as the Crown Prince’s Shadow.
One day, I’d like to walk around the palace in broad daylight just as myself…not as the Crown Prince, but just the woman, Mu Feiyan.
Throwing a glance to the side, she slipped past the guard rotation and into the East Palace without betraying a hint of her presence, but she noted two of the King’s own hidden guards as she passed into the East Palace garden. Feeling a little naughty, she waved at the place where they had concealed themselves and tried not to laugh when she heard a faint, but dissatisfied grunt. If they had not wanted her to hear it, the disapproving sound would have been inaudible and for that reason she grinned to herself.
The King’s own hidden guard…it always sticks in their craw that the Shadows are allowed to move freely within the palace. How they must hate it…
Sighing softly, she was glad that she’d lost Hajoon on the way. He had insisted on following beside her for a time, but then split off, finally satisfied that she would get to her destination without issue.
A small part of her had wondered if she would have to change her working triad, but she had already decided against it. Even if the three of them had had this lapse, it was temporary. Hajoon’s good sense would eventually prevail, and he would settle down. Of her two work partners, Hajoon was the steadier one. There was no need to aggravate things further. If she treated him like a problem, then it would simply beget more problems. The only thing to do now was to act like nothing had happened.
But I hate it…pretending like my heart is buried under a lake somewhere. Smile…Smile…if his Highness sees you like this, he will be sad. Besides, I must ask him about Xia.
Feiyan made a face, hearing a raised voice as she dropped into the Prince’s courtyard.
“There’s no time for that, your Highness! You must dress for court!” a maid cried as Feiyan slipped into the Prince’s room. The maid was close to tears.
“I’m wearing this. What’s wrong?” Xiao Feiyu asked blithely, twirling in a cherry blossom patterned dress. He smirked naughtily at the maid, standing before a full-length mirror.
How vain. He’s different today. I haven’t seen him smile so confidently in a long time. I hate to admit it, but Xia is good for him.
“Ah! My dear sister*, you’ve come!” he said, turning a brilliant smile on her.
She bowed and grinned at the affectionate greeting.
“I see that you survived the water prison,” he said with lips pursed and eyes narrowed.
“I know you’re angry, but I see you survived your l—”
The Prince blushed crimson and clapped his hand over her mouth.
“Was it good?” she asked in a silky whisper, pulling his hand away. Her dark eyes sparked with mischief.
The blush became deeper.
“You have a horrible personality….” he said, trying to keep the corners of his mouth from lifting.
“That’s right…” she agreed, shamelessly tilting her head, mirroring him.
“Your Highness!” the maid all but shrieked her impatience, making Feiyan want to hit her.
How can the servant be so rude to the master? He is Crown Prince and yet they treat him so poorly!
“Oh…ah yes…A’Yan…come here…” he said absently, ignoring the maid.
“Are you not going to attend Court? I heard the tribute envoy is here…” Feiyan frowned.
“My ass hurts…” he mumbled.
It was Feiyan’s turn to blush.
“Oh…” she said, feeling her mouth go dry. Turning to the maid, she bowed again, and said in a lowered voice: “I will assist his Highness. You may go.”
The maid looked uncertainly at her masked face.
“I will take responsibility,” said Feiyan calmly, taking the clothes draped over the girl’s arm.
For a moment the maid looked like she would protest and opened her mouth.
“Begone*!” Feiyan growled, her eyes gleaming fiercely.
What impudence! Showing disrespect to a Shadow!
The girl froze. Offending the Shadow guards of Lord Mu was to court death*. To have one speak directly to her with such a piercing stare completely unnerved the girl, and with that the maid curtsied and fled.
The Crown Prince made a tutting noise.
“My, my, Xiao Yan…must you use such a murderous aura? You’ll frighten half the maids in the East Palace to death.”
Feiyan turned back to her Prince with disapproval on her face. She wished that he would discipline his servants, but he never seemed to care, letting them treat him with such disrespect.
“Carrying on with Xia might scare them anyway. I beg your Highness to be discreet. Regardless…did you achieve what you wanted?” she asked, going back behind the painted screen to throw off her clothes while he knelt on the floor next to his bed and removed a floorboard to retrieve the Shadow uniform he had concealed there. Flapping it out, he also began to change.
“Remind me not to fight you in a battle of strategy. I would lose miserably…though I wish you hadn’t cried on my shoulder. I don’t like being used,” she huffed lightly. If there was one thing that she had learned in her time with him, was that the quiet, mild-mannered Crown Prince actually took after his father, the Emperor.
Who would ever imagine that Feiyu planned it down to the last detail? Not that his vulnerabilities are fake. Hah! If Xia knew that you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing…
“Mu Feiyan, you were still able to figure it out?” the Prince snorted over the barrier of the screen. He should have known better than to think she’d be deceived for long.
“Three days and three nights is a long time to think, little brother,” she said with irony.
The Crown Prince twitched, fingers stilling on his sash.
Feiyan…how casually you say it…but if you really knew the truth, would you still consider me your brother?
Even if he hadn’t guessed on his own, there was no mistaking that the girl behind the screen was actually his sister Xiao Feiyan, a Princess of Moutan. Her identity had been confirmed when he’d inadvertently stumbled upon the King having a heated conversation with Grand Chancellor Mu almost seven years ago while he’d been trapped in a writing cabinet.
At that time, Shobu had just won the war against them. Though Xiao Jing Feng desperately wanted peace, the terms that Shobu offered were so humiliating it was difficult to swallow. Shobu demanded that either Moutan hand over their Crown Prince to be publicly beheaded or send human tribute on top of war reparations for a period of seventeen years to be administrated under a Shoban inspectorate.
The terms had thrown the Court into a frenzy.
“You know what they want you to do, your Majesty…?” asked Lord Mu softly. “Shobu is stirring up the conservative factions at court against you, pushing you into a corner. If you send Prince Iseulbi to die you will lose face and your overthrow will be inevitable. If you do not send your son to die, and agree to the farce being offered by Shobu, it will cause seventeen years of suffering to the populace. That might also lead to your overthrow.”
“What would you have me do?” Xiao Jing Feng had shouted. “You cannot ask me to sacrifice Bi! His life is so precious to me…and Ahnjong would die from heartbreak…If they had asked for him as a hostage, it would have been different…but to offer him up to be killed…No, I will not. I’m his father! I’d rather die instead.”
“But you cannot sacrifice yourself. If you die, then the kingdom will collapse. Prince Bi is eleven years old, and Cho Ahnjong is not strong enough to rule. She would not be able to prevent Royal Astrologer Zhu and the others from seizing the boy and cutting off his head. Besides Shobu, Keungang also looks on with a tiger’s eyes.* If you die, they would invade on the pretext of installing Cho Ahnjong as Queen regent. The kingdom will be torn into two and being severely weakened from the war with Shobu, it will be devoured. Even Kazarus would get involved.”
“There is a solution already, your Majesty,” said a soft voice as the door was opened and the Queen stepped inside.
Still concealed in his father’s writing cabinet, Bi stuffed a fist into his mouth to keep from screaming as his mother entered.
“My Queen!” the King exclaimed. “Ahnjong…!”
“I know it is forbidden for the women of the harem to interfere with court affairs, but there is a simple enough solution. Send the Crown Prince’s Shadow to Shobu,” she said calmly. “After all, they are twins. The Shobans won’t know until it’s too late.”
Lord Mu’s breath hissed sharply.
“Your Majesty, I would advise against that. Not only because she is now my daughter, but her existence is critical to the future of the kingdom. It is not yet time for her to be sacrificed. When the appointed time arrives, she will choose her fate accordingly.”
W-What does that mean?! Feiyu thought, rocked with horror.
Trapped inside the writing cabinet, Xiao Feiyu recalled freezing from the incredible words said by both his mother and Grand Chancellor Mu. Not only had he abruptly discovered that Feiyan was his sister, but that they were keeping her alive for some mysterious and terrible purpose that he didn’t know about.
“Indeed!” the Queen’s smile widened. “She is critical to the future of the kingdom. Shobu and the ministers of your own court have backed you into a corner, Grand Chancellor Mu…If not the Crown Prince’s Shadow, then who else should we sacrifice?”
Lord Mu closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose under his mask and tried not to feel the deep rage that was threatening to spill over. Though he had never told the King that Cho Ahnjong had tried to drown her own daughter, he deeply regretted it now.
“No,” the King shook his head. “She is a precious child of my blood. I gave my promise that day that she would be given over to Lord Mu to decide her fate. I will not go back on my word.”
Inside the cabinet, Feiyu had crushed his fist deeper into his teeth, reeling. He still remembered the bitter copper taste of his own blood as he bit down on his knuckles.
At that time, I discovered I had another sister…and yet I still don’t know why Father chose to give her up to Chancellor Mu… Obviously, both of us survived that year, but…was it worth it? I would have volunteered to die if I knew we’d agree to seventeen years of soul-crushing tribute…to the monster in the underground palace...
“Your Highness, I’m ready,” said Feiyan, waving her hand in front of his face and jerking him back to the present.
Neat…but a bit plain…he thought, lamenting that the clothing budgets of the palace had become so limited since the defeat. Hating the muted colours of her robes, he wanted desperately to dress Feiyan in the fine brocades and bright silks that had once been staples of palace life.
One day, I will throw off Shobu’s yoke…and Feiyan will be free to dress in anything she wants and go anywhere she wants…
“Alright, let’s go,” he said, as he followed her towards the door. She only briefly adjusted the silver hair crown on her head before turning back to wave at him. He hurried after her, thrusting away his shadowed thoughts.
“Your Highness…” she giggled and very carefully wiped her fingers over his lips, removing the last vestiges of red from his mouth before securing his mask. On a whim he suddenly pressed her palm to his cheek and bent his head into it.
My precious and beloved sister…he thought, feeling the edges of his heart crumple inward.
“Your Highness…?” she asked, startled. “You’re not in a lot of pain, are you?”
Sighing, he straightened and shook his head, putting a gentle smile into his eyes. Now was not a time to show what he was thinking.
“No, Xiao Yan. I’ll be fine,” he confirmed, patting her arm reassuringly.
One day…he thought to himself…One day I will change all this. I’ll set her free.
He must be uneasy about the envoy… Feiyan thought, wondering at the sudden affection. And I must punish Xia for being so hard on his body! Have they been doing it every night since then…? Gods! Xia should restrain himself…the Crown Prince has never been in good health…
“Mu Feiyan, I’m giving you an order: As we’ve come of age, this will be the first time we’ll be present for the inspectorate’s annual review and tribute selection. Do not say anything. Let Father take the lead on the proceedings. I know you’ve grown skilled in diplomacy, but even I dislike this year’s envoy,” cautioned Xiao Feiyu.
“I understand, your Highness,” Feiyan nodded.
The Crown Prince’s lips flattened into a grim line underneath the Shadow mask that concealed his features.
If Prince Seiren of Shobu had not died that year…would we have fallen to this state now?
Squaring his shoulders, he followed his twin sister.
* In Chinese, close friends sometimes refer to each other as brothers/sisters.
* 滚 – this also translates as “Get lost.” It’s quite rude.
* 找死 – this can also be translated as “asking/looking for death”. It’s a common wuxia expression.
* 虎视眈眈 – “Like a tiger watching its prey” is how it’s normally translated. It means to look on covetously.