His first impression surprised him. She wasn’t what he expected to see. Bai Qian had been a mystery to all, never seen been by anyone other than her immediate family. The stories and rumors were rampant fueled by her father’s false representation of her, making Ye Hua wonder why Lord Bai had painted such a contradictory picture of his remarkably stunning daughter?
Duke Bai was not one to speak falsehoods, but his description of his daughter was pure fabrication. She was far from being homely or un-aesthetically pleasing. He tried not to stare brazenly, considering the little princess was engaged to Mo Yuan, and after seeing her, he felt sorry for her a bit. He knew her looks alone would create upheaval and major future arguments with Consort Wan because Bai Qian was too beautiful, which would work against her.
Growing up along Qing Yuan, he’d had enough interactions with his best friend’s sibling, Imperial Consort Wan, and watched her become spoiled, knew of her flawed and conceited character. Ye Hua never understood what Mo Yuan saw in her. Now finally seeing Bai Qian, he knew her path to Empress would be arduous, full of thorns and emotional ordeals because Wan’er would be profoundly unsettled if not enraged by her rival’s beauty.
Bai Qian was a beautiful young girl. Terms such as stunning and striking were suitable to describe her. Her dense black eyelashes were incredibly long, curling upwards, so they brushed against the highest position of her arched eyebrows when she blinked. Her intelligence-filled, big round brown eyes glimmered with the innocent curiosity, mischief of a child, but also the irresistible look of a young woman in her first bloom. Also, her poised behavior and her gestures exhibited and revealed glimpses of a hidden one full of insightful wisdom beyond her years.
“How would you know who I am?” Ye Hua asked. He spoke louder than usual because of the intense racket coming from a perched bird nearby while wiping the fresh blood off his dragger against the dark uniform of one of the men he had just slain.
Not even a shudder or tremble in her hands. She was unfazed by the violent bloodshed before her, one-handed, the little princess bunched and raised her fluffy skirt just enough not to trip on the hem of her dress without exposing her ankles. Bai Qian calmly stepped out of the carriage, indifferent to the freshly deceased men lying at her feet. Behind her, another girl of typical features, proximity the same age, lacking Bai Qian’s poise, leaped out of the sedan all rough and tumbled like a man.
Ye Hua stood up, not taking his gaze off her, and replaced his sheathed dagger inside his outer garment. Enunciating with a tab more impatience, he demanded again, “I asked how did you know who I was?”
“Our little friend told me.” She said, poker-faced, glancing up towards the pale brownish-colored woodpecker with the cream underbelly perched nearby that had been making a racket. She put both hands, curling them around her mouth, then vocalized a series of brief high-pitched notes, warbles, rattles, and twittering bird noises, sounding astonishingly like a real woodpecker.
“I replied that she was correct about your identity Fouth Prince but mistaken about your appearance. She finds you very unattractive since your featherless.” She coyly smiled a little, and Ye Hua inwardly wondered was this it? Was this the very reason why Lord Bai called her mentally slow and dim-witted?
Now they studied each other, and after seeing Ye Hua’s blank expression stiffen with annoyance, she continued, “I’m only teasing. My mother sent me a recent portrait of Crown Prince Mo Yuan, your twin.”
Now that was a logically feasible explanation, but the strange way she slyly giggled behind her hand the way one does when they have a secret irritated him further. Nevertheless, he couldn’t pull his eyes off her for numerous reasons. The foremost being he didn’t like her, and it was nothing he could pinpoint or put his finger on, but she brushed him the wrong way or confused him. He despised puzzles, and everything about her seemed like a riddle of contradictions.
Her speech was girlish and child-like, drastically contrasting to her cultured mannerisms when she spoke to Ye Hua without looking at him while casually circling and visually inspecting the bleeding body closest to her with profound interest. “I had expected someone to come for me. Regal, yes, but your party of self plus two others does not a royal envoy make.”
“Your company seems a bit modestly dressed to be prominent Ming emissaries. You, M’Lord Fourth Prince Ye Hua, are here on an undercover mission, and we all know your loyalty is to only one. Therefore it’s logical to assume it was your brother, the Crown Prince, who sent you, and since I’m still breathing air, killing me wasn’t his order. I’m fully aware because of his position, he can’t say it, but I think he does not trust his sweetheart Consort Wan.”
“You shouldn’t speak so candidly, Princess, especially in the Forbidden City,” Ye Hua warned her. She ignored him, continued with her visual inspection, and systemically moved to the second form, gave the bloody body the same investigative treatment. This time she used the pointed tip of her low heeled red shoe to prop open the dead man’s mouth, stating somberly. “His tongue has been cut off. He was a professional assassin, so it appears the rumors are true, and my aunt is planning to kill the third Prince and his lovely mother concubine Yun.”
Bai Qian shook her head disapprovingly, “My royal aunt’s audacious determination may hit the sky. She brings disgrace to her maiden house, joining hands with Consort Wan’s father, Lord Shao. It was convenient for her since an envoy from Ming is coming to Joseon to collect tributes and escort me home. She hoped to kill two birds with one stone.”
Her emotionless monologue trailed off softly when she examined the last assassin’s head. Bai Qian paused, deliberately knelt on one knee, deftly whirled and looped her meditation beads around the neck of the dead man, and tugged until his partially severed head tilled back. The other girl, her traveling companion, Su Jia, leaned without bending her knees, picked up, and handed Bai Qian a spear that had belonged to one of the fallen soldiers. “Thank you,” she pleasantly murmured as if given a cup of tea instead of a weapon. Then proceeded to shove the wooden smooth, dulled end into the lifeless man’s gaped mouth.
“Su Jia, stand on his chest, please.” Bai Qian directed with the same courtesy. Su Jia nodded, descending on the torso hard enough to break bones. Crackling and snapping sounds much like brittle branches breaking underfoot echoed from the force of her harsh landing. Bai Qian stood straight, held the spear with both hands, sheer determination displayed in her furrowed brows when with all her body weight, she impaled the skull until the metal spear pierced through the head, stabbing it into the rain-dampened ground underneath.
“Ewwwww!” Qing Yuan gagged. Ye Hua heard him rushing off to vomit in the woods behind him. Bai Qian didn’t even wince at the disgusting noise of tissue, membrane tearing, or the sickening mixture of brain matter that gushed out of the other orifices when she violently cracked the head apart by splitting his jaw with both hands. Now on bended knees, she inclined closer, her right hand down to the middle of her forearm, digging and reaching into the gelatinous mixture of flesh, bone, and fragments of the dead man’s face. Coagulated blood and body fluids covered her arm, but she smiled at the most unfitting moment extracting an amber pellet of arsenic. A familiar object stocked by most hired killers, which most carry and hide between their teeth in case of capture.
Su Jia jeered, shaking her head in contempt, “Dead men tell no tales.” She bounced off the body, scornfully spat on the corpse, then delivered anger-filled bone-cracking kicks to his torso. “This sorry excuse for a man and the others aren’t any all your aunt’s soldiers.”
“I know. Royal Aunt must have hired them for the sole purpose of killing me.” Bai Qian responded, sounding unemotional even though her mother’s youngest sister, her aunt, had tried to murder her. It was odd. How could this young cherub-faced girl who grew up in a temple be so mentally and emotionally intense? She lacked any trace of sentiments until the distinct howling of a wolf wailing in the distance caught her attention.
Abruptly, she spun towards the animal’s sounds. Her body plummeted to her knees. Her big eyes became misty, watering as she turned her face up towards the heavens and screamed, “WHY?!”
Tears poured down the sides of her face when she dropped her head forward and alone sobbed in a slow, mournful cry. Clear saliva and mucus dripped from her trembling lips, from her congested nose, and her moans turned to screams that triggered the entire forest to come alive, crowded. All around them, the birds screeched chaotically. The wolf packs howled eerily, and the tigers from all directions roared ferocity. Other unseen beasts joined, sounding their sorrow, grief, and anguish with her.
Her right hand fisted, pounded above her breaking heart mud and blood transferred onto her colorful top. Unable to catch or steady her irregular breathing, she toppled forward until her forehead rested on the ground. Her small hands angrily grabbed fistfuls of the damp soil with such force her neatly cut nails broke and bled, “They’ve killed Queen Mother.” She sobbed with unfathomable anguish.
Ye Hua had never known his biological mother nor ever experienced losing someone close to him as she. Still, as a fellow human being, it was disturbing to behold such distress. Bai Qian’s profound loss was tangible, palpable, and highly provoking. It wasn’t only animals and him who felt her sadness. It was infectious since Qing Yuan was sniffing and weeping like a girl behind him.
If time had been on their side, he would have allowed her to cry herself into exhaustion and taken her away. However, three soldiers that had remained at the temple were reason enough to leave instantly. He hated to do so, considering her grief. It was safer for all, even if he had to drag her away kicking and screaming, although before he could take a step towards her, the little princess inflamed by her Bai battle-born warrior’s blood within her did a complete 360 emotional transformation,
She had been a sobbing, broken heap on the ground moments prior that wasn’t the case anymore. Uncontrollable rage had taken the place of her misery. In a flash, Bai Qian shot up from the ground. She raced back to one of the corpses and began stripping it and herself simultaneously in a fury.
From all accounts, Bai Qian grew up practicing the same behaviors one applies to become a nun. Yet here she was in front of himself and two other unwed men, the future Empress, a girl barely fifteen-year-old, an unwed virgin undressing in daylight, out in public, exchanging her fine silk clothes with a deceased guard.
It was more reflex when Ye Hua and the other men turned their backs and dropped their gazes when she started to strip. But the more he thought about it. This indecency couldn’t happen, not while he was present to protect her.
With his eyes closed, he removed his outer garment and held it out and up. Feeling both disgruntled and nervous, Ye Hua carefully moved toward Bai Qian until a high-pitched whistle forced his tightly shut eyes to pop apart out of confusion.
What he saw was with her thumb and middle fingers pressed upon her puckered lips, Bai Qian summoned, clicking her tongue to the roof of her mouth twice, and urgently neighed. The horse whinny she replicated was so perfect that Ye Hua’s black stallion, a wildly tempered black pony he had broken personally and would only allow him to mount, proceeded to rush towards her, and she ran to him.
If time could rush and stop all at once, this was it. What Ye Hua saw was both dreamlike or surrealistic. He witnessed Bai Qian run, leap, riding the giant horse as if she had handled him all her life. Dressed in all black, the petite girl and the massive onyx-colored animal combined like two dark shadows. A single fading blur was the outcome as they became one and vanishing into the dense Joseon mountainside.
“What the fuck! What just happened?! Where is Bai Qian going?!” Spittle flew from his mouth when Ye Hua stormed and screamed straight in Su Jia’s face as the girl leisurely leaned against an oak tree as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
“Calm down, Prince, whatever your name is. She’ll be fine. Qiana will be back in a few hours. You see, dead men tell no tales, but neither do dead aunts. According to Qiana, life is all about balance. Her royal aunt killed Queen Mother, so she’s has gone to return the favor. Take a load off and sit a spell. This stolen moment may be one of the only times we have nothing to do because Bai Qian is a busy body.”
Ye Hua kicked the tree and demanded, “Shouldn’t you follow your mistress?! How the hell is she going to sneak into the palace alone?!”
“She’s not my owner and she’s never alone. The wolves or other animals will help her. She speaks their language. That’s how we knew you were coming. A falcon hawk spotted your party two days ago in the flatlands.” Su Jia rattled off, closed her eyes, and took a nap while Ye Hua paced the wooded area in a fury, silently seething, waiting for Bai Qian to return. Once she did, as the lead man in the group, some ground rules would need to be established after firmly scolding his traitorous horse.
He missed the old days. Grand Duke Lian Song had once believed Nine Heavens was a boundless and endless realm, but that thought had been before Ye Hua and Bai Qian’s mortal trial. Now Nine Heavens wasn’t large enough when it came to avoiding the children. He wished there were ten thousand realms instead of only nine and wasn’t embarrassed to admit he feared them.
The nosy and dominating children had been everywhere asking for their parents or any information regarding their whereabouts. Lian Song had successfully dodged them for two weeks. Most unfortunately for him today, all the parents seeking pack were idling in his palace courtyard, waiting for him to awake. Today, the sweet-looking children resembled a gang of scary street thugs or a rebellious demon mob more than Imperial Princes and Princesses.
To be continued…