Imperial Consort Wan understood the reasons many called her the most stunning woman in the entire Dynasty. Full of vanity, she beamed to herself, studying her beautiful reflection and delicate features in the mirror while her eight assistants busily dressed and prepared her for the day.
Roughly slapping a hand away from her cheek, she directed, “Not too much color on my cheeks. Just a touch. Our Crown Prince prefers when I look more naturally flushed the way I do…after we make love.”
The serving attendants surrounding her giggled, blushed, staring up at her in awe of her beauty. “The Crown Prince sees nobody but our Mistress. He has eyes only for you.” Chun’er, one of the newer servant girls, gushed, fawning all over her new Mistress, and another followed suit. This time the lowest ranking maid Ling Ling’s sweet words poured from her pursed lips like honey, “Imperial Consort Wan is so stunning that even the flowers in springtime pale in comparison to her beauty. Crown Prince has spent nearly every bedtime with you this week.”
Consort Shao Wan had been grinning ear to ear, greedily gobbling up the candied compliments like little white sugar sponge cakes until the servant said ‘nearly.’ That particular word sorely grated on her nerves, instantly irritating her. She had nearly forgotten the emotional disturbance until the chambermaid brought up the unpleasant subject. The two nights Crown Prince Mo Yuan wasn’t with her, he had taken a fancy for a pretty-faced, busty servant and spent two evenings in a row with her. He promoted the lowly birth servant from the laundry department to a second-class attendant and granted her two maids of her own. The reminder made her blood boil with rage.
“You come here.” Shao Wan grinned sweetly at Ling Ling until she was close enough to slap, which she did with all her might stopping only to reel back and deliver another slap then another across the poor scared servant’s face.
Sneering, she hissed, “I know some of you with low births think you can become like that whore second attendant and will try to catch my Crown Prince’s eye. Just know this, if any of you even try anything sneaky to seduce Crown Prince, I’ll have you and your family skinned alive! Now everyone but Gugu Ju’er, get out! Scam! Take Ling Ling out and give her fifty strokes!” The poor girl wailed apologetically, but her cries fell on deaf ears.
Gugu Ju’er grew up in the Shao household raising Shao Wan and had accompanied her when she entered the harem. Her unwavering loyalty for her Lady ran deep, and she understood the Consort best. The well-trained domestic massaged Consort Wan’s pressure points on both sides of her temples in clockwise circles, speaking soothingly and talking her down from her temper tantrum.
Calmly she persuaded the angry girl, “You are the only daughter of Minister Shao and first wife. From youth, everyone said your status in life would be one of greatness. Look, you’ve had already received the Crown Prince’s grace and promoted to Imperial Consort which is one step below Empress. Only one insignificant little being stands in your way of becoming the head of the harem.”
“Our Lord Shao and his envoy are going to Joseon to escort the Bai girl home, isn’t that so?” Gugu Ju’er neared, raising a hand and whispered in Shao Wan’s ear, “Or perhaps it more appropriate to say he’ll be returning with her corpse.”
Imperial Consort Wan scolded her servant for speaking such nonsense but couldn’t keep from snickering with delight.
Absolute contempt saturated from his tone, “Hǎohǎo hǎo. What a fine example our fourth prince sets for our youth!” Dressed in fine silks, an affluent grey-bearded merchant stared appalled while criticizing loud enough for others to hear and agree when Ye Hua, and his two young companions, staggered through the busy marketplace reeking of wine.
Some found them amusing, adorable, and even funny, while others were less forgiving. Hostile scowls darted towards the young men who spoke too loudly, hanging on to each other unable to walk straight due to apparent intoxication. People cleared the path when the stumbling drunken trio of young men passed, and someone teased, “Aya! The sun has just hit high noon, and our young Prince must already be feeling amorous! He’s heading to the pleasure boat again. Last time I heard, he stayed there for a full week!”
Another male baritone voice answered in jest, “It’s best to go when the sun is out so one can see all the beautiful flower petals up close and truly appreciate their beauty. Many, primarily fellow men in the crowd, roared in laughter at the sexually suggestive comment. In contrast, others, such as the elderly and proper gentleman and ladies, shook their heads disapprovingly at the young men’s lewd behavior.
The three men titter tottered while entered the floating pleasure vessel, but once the doors closed behind them, all signs of intoxication faded. It had all been an act. Ye Hua straightened his posture and peeked out the side of the curtains, and as he had expected, Lord Shao’s men dressed in their house colors, royal blue, and pewter, had been watching the entire spectacle to report back.
“Why?! Why is my father such an evil man? He has everything. More than everything, yet he covets more! I’m ashamed to be related to him. I wish they would disown me.” Qing Yuan was Ye Hua’s best friend and the youngest legal son of the Shao Clan, but his name ‘clear spring’ indicated his core, his character, which was as clean as spring water from pure, untouched mountain snow caps.
Ye Hua placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder and said supportively, “Life is all about balance. Perhaps you’re the good egg in your family to counter the bad?”
Qing Yuan snorted and laughed, “HA! Aya! You’re familiar with my sister Wan’er. She’s a total bitch too! I hope when Bai Qian becomes Empress, she’ll school that rotten wench sibling of mine and send her to the cold palace.”
Prince Ye Hua, his personal guard Ru, and Qing Yuan all chuckled until they heard a wildly heated, noisy commotion outside in the marketplace. The loud racket was two street vendors arguing over customers. Ye Hua planned diversion to redirect Duke Shao’s men’s attention was a success, giving the three men ample time to sneak out the other side of the boat onto the opposite side of the canal where their horses were waiting.
For their task of bringing the princess home safely, Ye Hua and his party had a two-week head start over Duke Shao. They traveled light and were able to move quickly, powered by the vigor that comes with youth. They slept under the stars, hunting for small fowl or fish when hungry, bathed in the rivers, and arrived at the temple just in time to observe Bai Qian and her companion enter the carriage from the forest at a distance. As he watched her departure, he noticed something was very off. The carriage arrived with two drivers and four guards, yet three soldiers remained behind when the others left.
This picture was wrong. Everything about the situation triggered his internal alarm system. After all, Bai Qian was Ming’s future Princess Consort and the Crown Prince’s only legitimate wife. Even if all three escorting guards were the greatest swordsmen in Joseon and able to take down two dozen men alone, such meager protection for the future Empress was not only against protocol but highly suspicious. This carriage wasn’t a royal escort into Hanyang but a setup to kill her before entering the palace. Could it be possible? The rumor he had heard about Joseon’s King wanting to make his third son the Crown Prince was factual. Had Bai Qian’s aunt Imperial Consort Lingqin sold her own niece out and joined factions with Duke Shao to guarantee her son’s current position?
They were only rumors. Nevertheless, he trusted himself. His intuition had never led him astray. Ye Hua and his companions stealthily followed the carriage from a safe, undetectable distance. Just as he had foreseen, the coach halted once within the dense forest, and the soldiers unsheathing their weapons quietly crept off the carriage.
He heard her voice ask in Joseon’s language, “Why are we stopping? Is something the matter?” When nobody replied. Bai Qian switched to their mother tongue, sounding more nervous, and repeated the same question, “Why have we stopped? Is something wrong?”
Ye Hua had little hope in people. He had seen more evil than good but recalled hearing a fairy tale about a wicked Queen who demanded the death and heart of her stepdaughter. The Queen hired huntsmen to destroy her, but their target was just a child. Reflective charity, perhaps sympathetic humanity, intervened because they saved the girl and the huntsmen became hunted by the Queen.
Unfortunately for Bai Qian, she didn’t have any huntsmen to protect her. Still, as long as she was engaged to Mo Yuan, he was responsible for her safety as her future brother-in-law. Ye Hua accepted his role and moved soundlessly. Without an ounce of remorse, he slashed the guards’ throats from behind with his dagger. He had just killed the last one when Bai Qian abruptly opened the coach door from the inside, and their eyes met for the first time.
People usually didn’t surprise him, but she did. Most women would have fainted or screamed to witness such a scene; however, this wasn’t the case. Her big deep chestnut brown eyes lacked fear. There wasn’t any doubt. Bai warrior blood ran through her veins, that was for damn sure. She had her father’s calm composure too. With her meditation beads wrapped around her hands as if in prayer, she bowed and spoke most graciously in their mother tongue, “Fourth Prince Ye Hua, thank you for saving our lives. I, Bai Qian, will never forget this day and am greatly indebted to you.”
To be continued…