History had set the foundation. The imperial traditions established long before their births still dictated their daily lives and practices. Being a part of the royal line wasn’t always fanfare and grandeur. Existing within the red walls of the forbidden city was a life of constantly being watched, studied, judged by everyone, from the lowest ranking servants to the highest born of noble Ministers. These parties observed with biased eyes, then self-imposed themselves as experts, the leading authorities, and the closest allies to the imperial member they supported.
Each imperial offspring, especially those born of noble birth mothers, and more so for Princes, each had factions based on their bloodline’s backing and family loyalty. However, the term ‘loyalty’ importance was debatable when a person’s dedication and servitude were nothing when it could shift at any given fickle moment. What significance did it genuinely hold when it could be bought, traded, and bartered? Ye Hua and Mo Yuan often joked the courtesans and harlots on the pleasure boats were more discriminating with their integrity than most officials who attended court.
It was factual to state within each corner of the palace; there were watchful eyes. Inside every opulently decorated corridor, listening ears lead to wagging tongues—talks, gossip, some real and others pure fiction, manufactured stories about the imperial family flowed like the Yellow River. One rumor all knew to be authentic was Lord Shao had been the one to inspire the deceased first Prince Yongnian, and his mother, Consort Hé, in a coup he promised to support yet did not. Lord Shao knew they would fail since he alerted the Emperor and Lord Bai of the assassination plot personally.
The motivation to encourage such a dirty-handed scheme was simple. Lord Shao, then the Minister of Rites, coveted Minister Hé’s position, the Minister of Revenue, and Wan’er, his spoiled daughter, told him that she wanted to be the next Empress. Like most everything, greed was the crux of wiping out three generations of the Hé family. That was probably why Mo Yuan took Shao Wan as his Imperial Consort. As the old saying goes, his brother knew to keep friends near but to keep enemies closer.
It all felt like a game at times. Life was like a chess game—kings, rooks, bishops, queens, knights, and so many pawns. Ye Hua disliked chess.
Such examples of contemptible politics made him feel fortunate that a title unbound him could slip away at times, even traveling far west and seeing how others lived without such set customs. His life had never been under scrutiny as much as Mo Yuan’s, but he, too, as an imperial offspring, had lived his entire life under watchful eyes. He, himself, would confess his mental conditioning had been such that he never spoke without complete consideration or deliberations his statement could make. Nor was he a reckless person who walked into a situation without profoundly weighing all the ramifications of his actions.
If Ye Hua detested anything, it was mystery and impulsivity. Bai Qian, that mysterious girl, was the epitome of impulsive and the very opposite of himself, an overthinker, completed planner, and a highly controlled man. Inwardly, he cursed her for being everything he despised most. She was unquestionably careless, too recklessly moving without sensible forethought and proper communication.
His resentful thoughts migrated to his tongue. “Damn you, Bai Qian. Damn you, little brat. If you weren’t my future sister-in-law, I’d thrash your bare calves with one of these thick branches.” He bitterly grumbled under his breath repeatedly while circling the same tree as he’d been doing since she vanished. His agitated footsteps were leaving a perfectly round indentation around the base of the flourishing giant oak from his steady pacing.
He felt tension coursing through his veins as Ye Hua’s hands nervously fisted and unclenched with every step. He forced himself to stand still. He paused and settled his open palms on both sides of his hips as he inhaled through his nose to center himself. Only after recovering his mental stability, he studied the sun’s positioning and surmised four perhaps close to five hours had passed, yet it felt like an eternity to him.
A terrible habit indeed, but sadly history had proved him right on too many occasions as he assumed the worst-case scenario. Bai Qian could have gotten caught by her aunt while sneaking the palace and was currently undergoing interrogation or, worse, torture. Would the little princess tell her aunt everything and confess about his presence under extreme torture? To what limits should he go to save his brother’s future main wife without exposing himself and Mo Yuan’s secret intentions?
In all frankness, she was but another woman. Easily replaceable. Women like Bai Qian were like little fish in the sea, endless and bountiful. If only she weren’t Lord Bai’s daughter. Ye Hua believed he and Mo Yuan owned the Bai household. Their family’s merits were too many to count or list.
He told himself mentally, but it was as if Mo Yuan was reminding him, ‘Leas not to be forgotten, she, Bai Qian, is the future Empress and Mo Yuan’s legal wife by royal decree of our father.’
“Hey girl,” Ye Hua haphazardly kicked the snoozing girl’s boot. She didn’t budge, so he kicked it again with more force until she peered just one eye open to glare at him. He asked. “How confident are you that Bai Qian will return?”
“Humph..” She huffed through her wrinkled nose. Her twisted lips and glare expressed her emotions to be awakened in such a rude manner. She gasped, exhaling defiantly, crossed her arms over her chest with more force, and reversely crisscrossed her extended legs at her ankles.
“My name is Su Jia. Not, Hey girl. I thought you royals were supposed to be a well-mannered lot. To think my poor parents served and died thinking the Ming dynasty was so great…what a damn shame.” She grumbled. “Fourth Prince, Ye Hua, if you and your ragtag group of misfits are scared of being caught in Joseon, leave now and go ahead of us. We’ll find our way to Ming. Qiana will return. She always does.”
The nerve! Scared?! How dare this lowly girl to accuse him of being afraid? Ye Hua hadn’t noticed yet alone examined Bai Qian’s companion until then, but now he did with subtle interest. Ordinary in appearance, yes. Not unattractive, but nothing head-turning either. She lacked the typical features of a Joseon native and mentioned she and her family had served Ming. “How did you end up here in Joseon? What’s your real family name?” He asked in his normal monotoned voice.
The intense resentment in her tone was noticeable when she replied briskly, “Not that it’s any of your business, my parents and most of our village died from the Great illness. Those who were left waited and hoped the army would appear to save us. That didn’t happen. However, a group of Ming bandits came to our village, raped, pillaged, took the children, and sold us in Joseon. That’s where Bai Qian saw the other children and me.”
“She bought all of you and saved the group? Then what happened?” Ye Hua questioned, growing remotely curious about the young girl who would one day rule their kingdom.
SuJin chucked, then laughed aloud to the point the nesting birds nearby flew away, frightened by the sudden outburst. Contempt saturated her youthful voice making her sound much older, “Bought our freedom? I guess that’s all a matter of opinion and what you consider currency. She appeared that night dressed like a gorgeous gisaeng. You know a courtesan or entertainer. She drugged the bastards’ rice wine, danced like a hussy until they passed out, killed them all, and released us. Her beasts and animals took their corpses into the woods, and we cleared any trace of them. It was as if the slavers’ caravan never existed or vanished into thin air. Poof…”
She paused as if to gather her thoughts or maybe clear her mind altogether of the awful happening. It was hard to tell by her humdrum voice, “Their dirty blood money and other assets, she split and returned to the ones she freed. I stayed behind with her. I didn’t have anywhere to go anyways, and it felt like fate. I’d never felt so connected with another, not even my family members. It was like we’ve known each other before in our past lives. Maybe sisters? Maybe spous… Anyways that’s my life story.”
Sarcastic mockery displayed from her every disrespectful movement when she apathetically looped her arms. She nodded and bowing with a minor tilting of her head in Ye Hua’s general direction, still lazily lounging under the tree. “Presented, I am SuJin, fourth child, the third daughter of the Su family greets the great Ming Dynasty’s imperial fourth, Prince Ye Hua.”
With such a lack of decency and decorum, this girl was rude. The way SuJin brazenly gave Ye Hua a visual look over, an exam from head to toe, her almond-shaped eyes swept over him once then twice, making him feel like cattle or a horse she was considering on buying.
After her assessment, she snorted through her nose, sleepily closed her eyes again, and muttered like a disgruntled patron, “The way Duchess Meixie carried on about your older twin Crown Prince Mo Yuan. Poor Qiana will be disappointed. How very anticlimactic after seeing you. Since you and your twin are identical, he’s mediocre at best. That’s the issue with high borns. Your weak-stomached mate over there is obviously of noble birth by his appearance and a pansy. Hell, your handsome bodyguard over there is much better looking than you and a better match for her.”
It was obscene the way SuJin, not stealthily at all, openly ogled Ye Hua’s guard Ru, smirking deviously and gigglingly, remarked, “I bet that big one would be one hell of a ride.”
The obnoxious female continued leering over Ru until a large grey wolf appeared in the clearing of the woods. It stood at a distance until SuJin made eye contact and silently vanishing from where it came. “Bai Qian is on her way back. I told you so.” SuJin bragged with snark to her arrogant tone, stretched her arms overhead while bringing herself to her feet, and strolled in the same direction that the wolf had withdrawn to greet Bai Qian until Ye Hua shouted out, “SuJin, you’re in love with her.”
The gravity of his keen observation and comment caused SuJin to stop midstep. She lingered, standing still for a few moments, then peered back at him over her right shoulder enough, so he saw her feminine profile when she responded full of clarity, “So what if I am?”
She spun around, leaned into her right leg, cocked her head a bit as if to challenge him, and spoke with pride, “Are you going to tell me it’s a sin because we’re both females? What does gender have to do with love? I didn’t choose this. I was born like this. If feeling romantic affection for one of your same sex is a crime, I’m guilty as charged and proud to be madly in love with Bai Qian because love is love.”
Since the beginning of time, the White Nine-Tailed Fox tribe preferred to keep to themselves, maintaining order and harmony within their peaceful realm in their quiet, secluded way. So the sudden appearance of his grandmother, the Fox Empress, without prior knowledge, in Nine Heavens was reason enough for deities of all ages to start gathering outside A-Li’s palace to get a glimpse of the elegant Empress.
“Crown Prince A-Li, the Fox Empress is entering your chamber now.” A-Li recognized that deep voice even though he rarely spoke. It belonged none other than to the last Dire Wolf in existence, Ming. He hadn’t seen his mother’s bodyguard Ming since his parent left for their impromptu ‘honeymoon.’
A much-needed and long-delayed, Lover’s seclusion sounded so delightful, and that was what Lord Donghua announced to the children and other realms. A-Li had enjoyed a good chuckle when he heard the unusual news. It was like Star-Lord Si Ming coming up with something so off the wall and ludicrous.
His parents going on a honeymoon mysteriously when Uncle Mo Yuan’s seclusion ended and was also missing? What were the chances of that? Zero. His prudent parents wouldn’t have left of their own accord. No, not a chance in hell would they have left him and his siblings alone at a time like this.
His parents and Uncle Mo Yuan were sent away on a human trial by the decision of the Council of Elders, and that decision still made his cheeks burn with rage. A-Li wasn’t sure what offended him most? Was it the blatant lying or not including him in the counsel in his father’s place? They never asked or questioned the ones who would be most affected by the results of sending everyone on a mortal trial? If anyone was most affected by the outcome, it was he and his siblings.
Gone was her relaxed demeanor. She flew into A-Li’s chamber in a rage lacking her natural refinement and calmness. Her rich turquoise and jade green goddess gown, bold in color, yes, but it paled compared to her usually flawless porcelain complexion, which currently resembled a fully ripened tomato.
“Where is she? Where is SuJin?!” His maternal grandmother, who never raised her voice, demanded while sharply slapping A-Li’s rounded arms apart when he stood on ceremony for her. “Ming search A-Li’s entire palace. Look everywhere for anything suspicious.” She commanded then marched up until she stood mere centimeters away A-Li but had to look up since he was much taller than she. “What have you done now? Did you turn her into a frog, reptile, or something weird? A-Li, what did you do with her?”
He flashed that blinding smile he had inherited from his mother, plopped to the floor, and playfully tugged at the hem of his grandmother’s dress as he’d seen Yingpei do with her. But his size worked against him, and to his act of cuteness, she was unswayed.
Instead, his playful reaction seemed to alarm her more as she asked in a hushed whisper with round shocked filled eyes, “A-Li…Did you kill SuJin?”
“Noooo. Geez, grammy. What do you take me for, a cold, heartless monstrosity?” He whined like a child, but his eyes betrayed him. His vivid green eyes gleamed brilliantly like perfectly cut emeralds as A-Li spoke in a tone that more than bordered on vindictive, “I understand Lord Donghua believed everyone needed to walk in each other’s shoes.”
With an elegant movement, A-Li gracefully placed his slender hand over his heart to show his good intentions but sounded cold without emotion, “It was darn inspiring. Such profound wisdom from Lord Donghua. I, too, felt inspired, followed suit of our great elder and sent SuJin for a walk…”
Sharply she gulped, sucking in a short burst of air like a harsh hiccup from fright. His beloved grandmother went ashen then sheet white like a ghost. Her delicate hands trembled then violently shook when she held them out to her sides as if to steady herself from sinking or possibly collapsing.
After a delayed pause, her soft voice quivered when she murmured in disbelief, “That’s impossible, A-Li. You haven’t the capability to perform such magic. Only Si Ming and High Gods with the highest cultivation can turn immortals into humans.”
A-Li’s gaze slowly swept up, starting at the pearls embellished hem of her deep turquoise blue, green silk dress until they made eye contact and, for the first time in his life, saw the unfathomable. He recognized pure horror in his grandmother’s anxious gaze when he stated with certainty, “A-Li can. Grandmother, your grandson, can do anything he puts his mind to and more.”
To be continued…