Some declared the Gods created them in their Celestial likeness. Pure excellence radiated from them more than any of the other royal offspring. Ming’s legitimate identical imperial twins bore the regal poise from generations of royal blue blood breeding. And along with their Empress mother’s unequaled graceful beauty, the young men were devastatingly handsome. From nobility to palace maids, women of all ages couldn’t help but swoon and blush rosy like schoolgirls at the very sight of the dashing but aloofly reserved brothers.
Standing high, tall for being in their mid-teens, the strikingly handsome Princes side by side were mirror images of each other. Broadly shouldered yet slender and muscularly developed from years of training. Equally excelled in archery, martial arts, hunting, and horseback riding, styles, of course, were alike. Not only were they gifted with physical attributes but also artistic abilities. Mo Yuan mastered the zither without a single lesson, and Ye Hua’s beautiful portraits were highly coveted works. Their intelligence was inherent genius. Prodigies.
Their facial features were strong, masculine, still somehow delicately pretty. Never smiling in public, their infamously enigmatic lack of expressions were the same, poised and rigid mannerisms identical. The twins shared a mental connection as if being one-minded, could read each other’s thoughts, and often finished each other’s sentences when alone.
There wasn’t a single difference in their outer appearance to tell them apart, except the little star-shaped mole both had but on different sides behind their ears. Mo Yuan’s was on his left and Ye Hua’s on the right.
When they were younger, there was much confusion since the servants couldn’t openly touch the imperial children to confirm Mo Yuan and Ye Hua via mole placement. For simplicity’s sake, after the hassle of others confusing them for one another, the two wore completely different attire and hairstyles. Though barely a toddler himself, Crown Prince Mo Yuan wore a traditional topknot under his crown as the noble gentlemen of the times did and had done so since he took over the dynasty’s official matters since age five when the Emperor first fell ill. His royal garments were always in brilliant shades of yellow and gold befitting the one chosen by the Gods.
Fourth, Prince Ye Hua could afford to be more informal. He wore his silky waist-long straight jet hair down with a simple, centered fishtail braid to keep his hair out of his eyes. A luminous pearl hair ornament that had once belonged to their deceased mother was the only hair decor he ever wore—always dressed in black, greys, deep shades of blues, or other subdued hues if trying to blend, disappear into the background. His demeanor came off like an eagle-eyed, silent shadow. This is exactly what he was, the soundless one, the watcher who catches, noting every little detail down to the tiniest, and nothing went unnoticed by him.
Ye Hua was the epitome of silent ones being the most dangerous, but he knew how to play the game. To throw others off, he acted more nonchalantly more often than naught. And his understated style matched his indifferently aloof personality. Prince Ye Hua had never fancied or desired the spotlight. He felt blessed, relieved not to be the firstborn. Young but wise enough to know, the one on top is alone. Ruling a thriving nation was the chair of ultimate sacrifices, not an easy role for anyone, let alone his older brother, Mo Yuan, whom he looked up to in reverence. If something occurred to his brother, it befell on him as well.
Ye Hua did what he could to lessen his sibling’s pressure by taking on some of the Crown Prince’s official tasks. They shared everything. Between them, secrets didn’t exist. Their closeness was the only way they had survived as long as they did and Minister Bai’s constant diligence over them. Growing up without their biological mother and her maiden family backing along with their frail royal father had forced the teenagers to mature far faster than those their age.
Crown Prince Mo Yuan rose from his seated position, moving from his informal dining area to the spacious receiving room where he conversed with his guests. Beside him, flanked by his younger twin Prince Ye Hua who said, “That man is like clockwork. Not a single day has he missed since Father became ill. He tests father’s medicines and foods personally for poison, then reads and rereads father’s favorite books out loud even when royal father is having one of his spells.”
“Ye Hua, how old were we when royal father had his first stroke?” The Crown Prince was a straightforward young man. He didn’t mince words calling a spade a spade, frank on matters as he knew them to be true. His sibling, as everyone else called their father’s condition, ‘spells’ temporary moods or times of forgetfulness, but the inner circle knew it had been years since royal father had use of the left side of his body.
Ye Hua sat to his brother’s left in his usual spot, without looking up, motioned the excitedly trembling attendant serving him away with a sway of his hand as if she were an annoying gnat. His fluid movements were smooth, even elegant, when his left hand held back the long grey sleeve of his garment as he poured his after breakfast tea, “It was the same night of the coup attempt. We were five.” He replied.
Holding the cloisonnéd ivory cup in his right hand and the left gracefully pushed back any floating tea leaves with the white lotus patterned lid. He thought back to the rainy night when his eldest brother, first Prince Yongnian, and his mother, Consort Hé, tried to kill him and Mo Yuan.
Both he and Mo Yuan were helpless children. They would have perished that night, considering the serving personnel was loyal to the Consort and first Prince. Imminent doom should have been their fate had it not been for Lord Bai.
As the mysterious man, he was, without alerting any of the many eunuchs and attendants, right outside their bedrooms. Minister Bai Zhi soundlessly appeared accompanied by his sons General Bai Xuan and Second Captain Bai Zhen. Directly beside their beds, the Bai males had arrived like ghosts to sneak them out of the palace before their eldest brother could commit the heinous act of fratricide for the throne.
Even now, Ye Hua could recall with incredibly vivid memory when he glanced over his shoulder and witnessed the Bai brothers standing strong while slaying the onslaught of assassins without breaking a sweat. That was the night he finally understood his precarious position in the palace. The blatant evilness of his half-sibling’s selfish actions infuriated him. Ye Hua had wanted to stay behind to destroy the enemies that would dare to try to kill him and his twin.
Enraged, he threw a temper tantrum when being snuck out of the palace underground because it felt cowardly and unfitting of a royal Prince, creeping out like a scared mouse. He had gone stiff on the ground, refusing to budge when the refined Minister with an honest gaze looked him square in the eyes, calming his rage, and said, “Fourth Prince, Ye Hua. I’m saving them face by taking you and Crown Prince away. Because your bravery and courage are no match for your brother’s men, it’s not fair to beat them so quickly, for their treasonous act has brought shame to the nation and the Emperor. Their deaths need to be delayed and painful, for this is their karmic bite back.”
The renowned veteran war general then had gingerly, tenderly taken Ye Hua’s tiny, angrily fisted hands in his, flipped, and unfolded them to reveal the pink, plump, fleshy palms of a child, “Aya! Such good fortune, such longevity. Fourth Prince, do you see your long lifeline that continues onto the other hand?” Minister Bai squinted his eyes, pointing to the horizontal crease that started on one hand and did indeed seem to connect to the line on the other.
There was a war happening above them, bloodshed, yet he went on speaking in his soothing voice, “Fourth Prince, your hands are innocent and clean like your gaze. Taking part in or retaliating in First Prince Yongnian’s evil undoing isn’t something a pure-hearted person like you should do. Hurting or destroy their blood is a sin.”
That life-altering night had been ten years prior and brought death to Prince Yongnian, and his mother, Consort Hé’s clan, and up to three generations of the extended family were all put to death. Ten long years had passed, but he remembered it as if it were yesterday.
“Crown Prince, Minister Bai is waiting to greet you.” Mo Yuan’s main guard announced from the outside the Hall of Mindful Cultivation. “Send Lord Bai inside.” Monotoned, Mo Yuan replied, subconsciously adjusting his golden garment and smoothing over the sparse patch of peach fuzz-like hair, the beginning of a mustache that Ye Hua teasing called dirt under his nose.
“Your humble servant greets the Crown Prince and fourth Prince.” Kneeling on one knee as he always did, Lord Bai bowed. Time had passed, but Minister Bai didn’t look much different. Perhaps a bit more grey in his beard and sideburns, but his gaze was as bright and ageless as ever. “I’d like to report the Emperor is having a good day. Perhaps, you’ll engage him for a game of chess? Your humble servant would suggest sooner than later. The Emperor’s energy seems to wane shortly after his noontime meal.”
Mo Yuan nodded and replied, “So loyal and consistent. Thank you for your service. I’ll make my way to see Royal Father shortly.”
Minister Bai smiled more than usual, showing his dimples, bowed again, “Hǎo, hǎo, hǎo. That would be excellent, and the Emperor will be delighted. I will return home. My wife is excited to have Bai Qian home, so… we’re having a new addition built for her.” Now the gushing father blushed, “We haven’t any experience with a daughter, so this will be trial and error. Aya! Now, this foolish old man is rambling to our busy Princes. Forgive me and goodbye.”
After his departure bow, Lord Bai began to retreat when Mo Yuan asked in his unintrusive way, “Lord Bai, will you be sending one of your sons along with the Envoy to Joseon?
Lord Bai seemed earnestly surprised, shook his head side to side no, and replied, “Heaven sakes, no. Has Crown Prince forgotten, Lord Shao is leading the Envoy? She will be in safe hands. Thank you for worrying, but she will be fine. Lord Shao, our Minister of Revenue, is the father to your imperial consort and taking 300 of his elite personal army along.”
Just for seconds, Mo Yuan and Ye Hua met eyes momentarily, joined minds thinking the same, but it was the elder Mo Yuan who said, “So many? Three hundred of his vanguard is why I’m perplexed. Is he planning to take over Joseon and become their King, or does your daughter pose as a threat to him? Is there something I don’t know?”
“Crown Prince, you mustn’t overthink things. Aya, the month-long journey back is treacherous, and bandits gangs are lurking everywhere. Lord Shao is merely cautious since he’s returning with valuable tributes, such as gold, silks, and expensive foods for the Emperor, therefore taking many men is understandable.”
Bai Zhi bowed again to show his gratitude, “Our Bai Qian isn’t worthy of such escort. She isn’t worth looking at or unique. Now this conversation has come up. Crown Prince, you are an adult and running the nation. I know the Emperor had his ideas, but Imperial Consort Shao Wan, who has received your grace and might give you a healthy chubby son anytime soon, would make a more fitting Empress than my Xiao Wu, little five.”
Pretending to look down at a spot on his sleeve, Ye Hua tilted his head forward to hide his smirk of disbelief. What kind of father didn’t want his daughter to be Empress? Was he playing a reverse psychology game to entice Mo Yuan since everyone near and far knew of his affections towards his Consort Wan? That would be interesting, he reckoned, but Ye Hua nearly snickered out loud when Mo Yuan ask next, sounding vaguely interested, “Is Bai Qian that common and unattractive? An ugly duckling amongst the Bai Swans?”
Shaking his head to show utter disappointment and slapping his knee to emphasize his frustration, Lord Bai replied, “If only! If only her homeliness were the only issue!? That girl! She knows nothing of the world. Her entire life has been to study Buddha and enlightenment. Religion aside, she is a simple-minded girl, and nothing about her is eye-catching, unlike Consort Wan, who is the most stunning, like a royal yellow butterfly. Heaven did right when our family was not blessed with girls because Bai Qian came out a bit dim and lacking her wits.” Minister Bai’s facial expression didn’t show any deceptions or falseness, yet something was…suspicious.
Mo Yuan casually sipped his tea, looking at the Minister with just his eyes, and his voice came out softly, “I’ll keep your advice under consideration. But before I forget, please give my regards to Gugu, the Duchess, and thank her for the honey cakes she sent earlier this week. You may go, Lord Bai.”
Ye Hua, who hadn’t spoken a word the entire conversation, politely nodded to the leaving Minister before asking his twin, “What the hell was all that? What kind of sane man doesn’t want his daughter to be the Empress? The Bai family is known for their good looks and brilliant minds. Duchess Meixie, at her age, still makes me tingle in places. She’s a knockout! And he didn’t even flinch about Lord Shao taking his elite army, who are more like ruthless mercenaries and rapists. I don’t know, but something is very off, or Lord Bai doesn’t care if his daughter returns to the capital dead or alive.”
“Ye Hua, you’re speaking of our Gugu. Distant, yes but our father’s cousin nevertheless. I find it odd also. Deflection is not Bai Zhi’s usual style. He’s a military man, born into a military household. If anyone knows about Lord Shao’s men, it’s him.” Mo Yuan mumbled, tapping his fingertips and faintly repeating her name, “Bai Qian, Bai Qian, Bai Qian… the first Bai female born in hundreds of years. Maybe our Minister Bai is secretly a superstitious man and thinks she might be an omen?”
The Crown Prince tilted his head back and stared at the speckles of sparkle from light reflecting off the jewels in his crown that flooded overhead, “Ye Hua, I have a project for you. You’ve had a case of wanderlust, no? I think a trip south would be charming this time of year. Leave the city after dusk tonight before the Lord Shao’s Envoy and take only one or two men with you. As usual confidentially.” Handing his twin the royal jade seal, Mo Yuan commanded, “Bring the Bai girl home safely. She deserves to come home and step on the soil of her ancestors. I favor my innocent Consort Wan, but her father is a greedy and ambitious man. I’m afraid too ambitious for his own good.”
Ye Hua tucked the royal jade tag inside his garment’s hidden pocket, nodded to his older brother. A little giddy, liking the idea of riding in open plains and fields, he had an energetic hop to his step when he walked away to carry out Mo Yuan’s private request but overheard his twin lecture in his schooling way, “Take care not to offend the little Princess. Remember, she’s practically a nun. Safe travels, little brother.”
“Yes, Crown Prince, and you go wash your face before I return. That dirt smudge under your nose is ridiculous, Mo Yuan.” Ye Hua nonchalantly yelled back as he strolled away, excited to travel again.
To be continued…