It was that time of day when he visited his royal father, and this evening, Mo Yuan excerpted his Emperor father’s favorite, Zhuangzi’s The Butterfly Dream. The Crown Prince’s manner of linguistic eloquence and verbal expression was refined, smooth, and soothing for a young man his age. Much like a still calm pond or lake, fluid.
He recited, “Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly, there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.”
“Again, Mo Yuan. Again.” Today, the Emperor’s deeply timbered voice sounded delicate, fluttery like the banner hanging high above the Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿 when there was a steady breeze, fluctuating, shaking, a trifle thin, and a smidge frail when he exhaled and exclaimed. “Your beautiful mother used to enjoy that part the most. Mo Yuan again.”
Crown Prince Mo Yuan knew the well-known piece by heart, repeated fulfilled his elderly royal father’s request while tenderly brushing his salt and pepper long unfixed hair. Noting the dominant snow-white strands were taking over. There were fewer black hairs than before, and the hairs looked different and differed to the touch. The darker parts felt silkier than the washed-out grey and white strands thicker, courser, crisp and kinky, feeling like thinly bent wires between his fingertips.
“My Mo’er, do you think it was the man, or was it the butterfly? Who was the one dreaming?” Royal father’s knarled semi-clawed from age and sickness, arthritic hands quiveringly shook as he reached for his teacup. Mo Yuan rushed around from behind and, with both hands, supported his father’s shaky, uneven grasp. Lightly he blew on the smooth flat liquid surface of the chai before aiding him by raising it to the Emperor’s pale parched lips.
“Royal father, I believe it was neither the man nor butterfly. My guess is the air around them was the one dreaming of both.” Mo Yuan replied in jest, and his answer made his father chucklingly reply. “Shǎ háizi! Silly child. You’re as ridiculous as your twin sibling. That wasn’t even an option. Mo’er, you’re cheating.”
The Emperor’s cloudy lensed eyes appeared bluish-grey from cataracts when he cast his eyesight heavenward, “Aya! Da Chun-A, these naughty sons you birthed and left me with are something else. Do you see how they tease me? I’m the one chosen by heavens, the Emperor but to these boys, I’m nothing but their old father!”
His hazy, opaque gaze turned back to Mo Yuan, “I asked the same of your brother, and do you know what that boy told me? Hua’er said it was neither. He said it was the dream of a dark storm cloud loitering above both the man and butterfly. When I asked why the cloud was lingering, that audacious shǎ háizi replied, it planned to shower on them, like a deity pissing from above because they were both idiots. Ha, ha… haha.” The Emperor’s black fox-fur-trimmed ivory-colored robe coasted, dropping off his curved, bent, slender shoulders when he let out a deep, hearty chuckle followed by a spastic series of deep harsh wheezing coughs that brought forth fresh blood to his lips.
The golden sleeve of his robe widened as Mo Yuan swiftly lowered the cup and meticulously wiped the blood from his father’s strained mouth with the silk handkerchief beside the teapot. His breathing was raspy and labored. The Emperor struggled to breathe, but between jagged pants, he spoke of more serious matters on his mind, “Whispers have reached these old ears. Is it so, has Hua’er’s guard Bai Ru returned to the Forbidden City alone? Tell me, háizi, what news did he bring from Joseon?”
“Royal father, it’s late. Please lie down. It’s time to rest, and I’ll tell you what I know”, coaxed Mo Yuan and supported his father’s weight which was as light as a feather, when he lowered him onto the bed. While neatly arranging the blankets and quilts around his father, the Crown Prince reported what he had heard.
He said, “Ye Hua and his party encountered Lady Bai Qian and her handmaiden. However, it appears there was an unforeseen incident, and some foul play occurred, all the details of which I’m still unsure. Sadly Joseon’s deposed Queen Cho, Lady Bai’s foster mother, has passed away. Shock and grief have taken their toll on Bai Qian, who has fallen ill during their travels. Ye Hua sent Ru ahead of the party to report his concerns and believed Bai Qian’s chances of returning alive weren’t favorable at that moment. They were seeking a physician to help her.”
The Emperor seemed to wither and shrink deeper into his massive bed as he prayed to the heavens. He implored aloud, “May the mighty God of War on Mount Kunlun protect that precious girl as he does the male members of her family that worship him.”
“Royal father, I hoped to save you from unwarranted stress and wanted to wait until confirmation from Ye Hua before telling you this information. However, I feel the need for your opinion because there is an element that has me perplexed. Before Ye Hua’s guard returned, Joseon’s King sent an urgent message of condolences stating Lady Bai Qian was already dead.”
Mo Yuan’s diligent motions paused only after being satisfied with the blanket arrangement around his father. Promptly he sat on the Emperor’s bed and held his father’s cold, wrinkled hands before tucking them into the bedding. “Their King states, her attack was determined to be purely for her assassination when they set ablaze the sedan with Lady Bai and her servant locked within. The royal inspectors found valuable personal items that belonged to Lady Bai Qian within the ashes, such as family heirlooms and priceless jewelry sent by Minister Bai over the years on her birthdays. Thieves wouldn’t have left such items behind.”
The swiftly fading to sleep Emperor closed his heavy eyes. His beard and mustache, the follicles around his mouth and nose rose then fell with heavy breathing. It was visible how his energy waned. Still, he was lucid enough to converse. “Mo’er, was there an imperial jade tag within her belongings? It’s the counterpart to the one you wear around your waist. Was there any mention of it all at?”
Crown Prince Mo Yuan answered, “No royal father. There wasn’t any specifying of such a notable item.”
With his eyes closed, the Emperor spoke in a calm but resolute tonality, “Tis a smokescreen. The words from Joseon’s monarch are false. We shall take and hold Ye Hua’s report as truth since he is family. Make sure our Minister Bai is informed of Ye Hua’s accounts and advise him to ignore the misleading news from Joseon.”
“Their King does not know what has taken place within his very kingdom. The swift speed of his letter reveals to me there might have been some insidious entanglements stemming and maybe devised from within his household.”
Deeply inhaling through his nose, the weary Emperor continued speaking. “Joseon’s Crown Prince’s mother little Princess Lingin, Bai Qian’s maternal aunt,” He paused to smile from the remembrance, a portrait from the past that appeared to be crossing his mind.
“She was such a sweet innocent child until that scoundrel Shao somehow got his dirty hooks into her and left his seed in her womb. All this happened after everyone knew she was to go to Joseon and marry their king.”
“Mo’er, do you understand why you mustn’t allow your Imperial Consort to birth any children?”
His breathing became even more labored, so it sounded like royal father was mumbling in his sleep. “Separated by rivers, Yalu and Tumen, our two nations are at this moment harmonious. However, their young Crown Prince Yi Won is not who he believes. He is of Shao blood, and if another Shao takes a seat in our Dragon Throne, I fear the greed that drives their corrupt family will ruthlessly devour everything and everyone in their desires to possess all.”
“Only she, only she has the gift to keep things balanced and our nation prosperous. Lady Bai Qian’s son must take the Golden Dragon seat as the prophecies state, or we shall fall into ruin, and our Ming dynasty will come to an end.”
“Queen Cho’s second daughter, your consort, will need emotional support for her time of mourning. Properly comfort Joseon’s Princess Consort Xiang for the tragic loss of her birth mother. Supply paper money, incense for her to burn, and allow her to grieve until Queen Cho’s 49th day as they do in their land. That poor dethroned queen, I’d never met the woman, but she did raise our future Empress as her own. May her reincarnation be speedy into her next life.” Royal father’s faltering voice was barely a whisper when he instructed, “Go now. I’ve stayed up too long and require rest. You see, your mother meets me in my dreams.”
Very carefully as not to disturb his sleepy father, Mo Yuan removed his pearl jewels adorn crown and set it aside with such a fluent movement that not a single pearl chain swayed. He lightly touched, pressing his forehead against his beloved father’s most lovingly as he had done since infancy.
In his most intimate tongue, he spoke, “Rest well, royal father, enjoy your visit with royal mother. But remember Emperor, you must return and not follow her over the bridge yet. You’ve been waiting for Lady Bai Qian to take her place, and she’s in our Hua’er care. Who is Ye Hua? He is your other dragon. He’ll bring her home safely because we know what he’s capable of doing.” Mo Yuan said to soothe his father, but it also gave him a sense of peace of mind.
Mo Yuan reached for his crown, as he had thousands of times before, and placed the heavy, cumbersome headpiece on his head. He was wishing he knew more of Ye Hua’s situation when his chief assistant, Head Eunuch Bo, came rushing toward him in absolute rapture, “Crown Prince, congratulations. Great, great congratulations. While you were busy with the Emperor, Palaces of Eternal Spring and the Palace of Eternal Happiness sent messengers. We have double blessings. Imperial Consort Shao and Consort Xiang have been blessed from the Heavens above and are carrying your imperial children.”
‘Fuck my complicated fucking life!’
Mo Yuan thought to himself upon learning he was to become a father at the age of fifteen and after hearing why he shouldn’t impregnate Shao Wan. The Emperor’s warning had hit a cord of judgment, and he wasn’t ready to become a father, considering how he had been feeling unsettled without his twin by his side.
Lest not to be forgotten, these were not the women Mo Yuan wanted to give birth to his first children. Where was Ye Hua when he needed him most? But more importantly, how was Lady Bai Qian going to feel when she heard the news?
‘Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your heart and soul to it.’ Said the Buddha, and Mo Yuan attempted to quiet his restless mind, finding solace in the words of the wise one.
He reminded himself, it was his role as Crown Prince of the Dynasty. Mo Yuan’s primary purpose in life was to rule, spread his seed and populate the harem with as many imperial children as possible. He was only doing fulling his mission and responsibilities. He told himself this yet found little comfort in deeming Bai Qian would agree with his philosophy.
To be continued…