Qing Yuan and I had set up a makeshift camp outside the healer’s cottage, and I prepared myself for Bai Qian’s death. How interesting, she’s managed to escape the Grim Reaper’s clasp and is currently in my face with a baby in her arms.
She’s so close inside my personal space. Glowing, looking as if she’s never been sick a day in her life. She’s stunning. I’m not referring to her outer appearance, but something from deep within her shines through.
Her ballooned Joseon hanbok silk skirt puffed out on my bedding. The absence of distance between us has me breathless. My heart begins to palpitate when the delicate scent, the smell of her natural perfume, drifts in the air from her glossy braided hair, clouding my already dizzy head.
“Here, touch his little face, Ye Hua.” Bai Qian smiles as she reaches for my hand and carefully reveals the sleeping babe’s face, faintly humming in that motherly way women do around babies and little animals.
“Go on, hold his little hand.” Her soft girlish voice sounds jovial airy, oddly euphoric when she proclaims the most outrageous thing anyone has ever said to me, “It’s destiny.” She clamors, pushing the baby nearer. “Ye Hua, fate has delivered this child to us. Look, he resembled you.”
“What the f…” I’m almost cursed aloud.
What nonsense is Bai Qian babbling, and when did we become close enough to call each other by name? Maybe her near-death experience has short-term effects of confusion. Still, that doesn’t explain the impact she’s having on me?
This strange girl, her stirring wording, this place, even this baby, has me coming unhinged by the most bizarre feeling of deja vu- this is creepy. And it only gets more perplexing because a private part of me wants to let her hold my hand, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I want to feel the plump rosy cheek of this baby that seemingly popped out of thin air.
Her fingertips graze mine, causing my body to violently flinch away from her like an angrily, prodded cobra. I throw myself back far with such force my loosely tied garment opens, both sides separate, exposing my trunk, from the waist up, and bloody hell, but she doesn’t blush or cast her gaze downwards to avoid my nudity.
Half-dressed, with my long hair falling in my face, nonsense spews from my lips, “What are you doing alive?!” I’m questioning, but the anxiety in my vexed voice makes it come off sounding more like disappointment than a general inquiry.
Next, what I utter isn’t much better than my previously boorish comment, “You looked terrible. Why aren’t you dead?” It’s far from being a polite thing to ask.
Still, in my defense, I’m feeling a bit vulnerable because of the way she’s blatantly gawking at my bare body with that curious little look in her big brown unblinking eyes that shifts from my chest and down to my lower abdomen. Her intense gaze is such that I can practically feel slight tingling sensations lingering where she was staring.
I’m rendered speechless. What kind of unwed girl stares at a man with such interest? Without a hint of blush to her cheeks? My future sister-in-law shouldn’t be looking at me with wanton curiosity. Then realization dawns on me that she’s probably never seen an undressed man living her entire life in a religious temple, and it’s me. I’m the pervert offending her virginal eyes.
Covering myself, I quickly gathered my lost composure. A few audible presses to my esophagus to clear my dry throat before rephrasing my question with more etiquette, “Lady Bai,” I begin to speak, how odd, that name gets stuck on my tongue, feeling utterly foreign. Since she used my name, matching her informality. “Bai Qian, I’m stunned by your miraculous recovery.” My adam’s apple nervously bobs when I take a very deliberate swallow to bring more deepness to my quiet voice before speaking. “How aren’t you dead. Who recovers overnight?”
Engrossed with the bundle in her arms, she doesn’t respond to me. But from the cabin’s front steps, Bai Qian’s travel companion Sujin spits out the blade of grass from her mouth.
“What’s wrong with this prince?” She yelled out, waving her index, middle and fourth fingers, “That was three days ago. Our Qing Yuan has been everything like a real man should while your royal highness slept like a hibernating bear for three days straight.”
The wooded plank creaks underfoot when she pops up, index finger aimed at me accusingly, and complains, “Your snoring kept us all awake!”
Have I been sleeping three days? How is that even possible? I’ve never slept longer than five hours a day in my life. I look towards Qing Yuan for confirmation, and he’s nodding before saying, “Ye Hua, I think we’re on some auspicious ground guarded by an earth deity.”
“Inhale the flow of reinvigorating air from the mountains to our west, and there’s a fresh brook that comes directly from the tops nourishing the forest, edible foods, greenery surrounding the entire cottage. Look around us, everywhere there’s blossoming and life. This balance and open space is good feng shui.”
“The horses, you and me were all losing weight and travel-weary.” Qing Yuan rubbed his slight potbelly and smiled, “I’ve never felt better in my entire life. This land and that healer were magical.”
There’s too much to process. What’s with this Qian Qian? ‘Our’ Qing Yuan business? When the hell did everyone get so cozy and friendly? If I had been bewildered before, that confusion has multiplied because my friend is correct.
The horses’ coats look glossy, slick, and immaculate as if recently groomed after weeks of grazing out in the royal pasture. For myself, I’ve never felt better. There isn’t a single ache or discomfort in my body.
Let’s say Qing Yuan’s explanation is valid. I’ve traveled and lived a life that I understand anything is possible, including the unexplainable, because Bai Qian standing here in front of me is a miracle. I thought we had lost her.
She had woken up afraid of herself or what she might do. Losing Queen Mother Cho and her aunt’s deception had left a void where her heart should be. Her naive heart had lost its innocence. She couldn’t find the words to voice her pain to Sujin, so she went for a walk in the forest to clear her head.
No, that’s the lie she told everyone. She wandered alone into the woods until she encountered a high cliff and stared down into the deep ravine. She knew it was cowardly wanting to end her misery. Still, she proceeded to take steps for the edge until the wailing sounds of a crying baby reached her ears.
Behind her, just a few paces away, someone had left the infant under a ginkgo tree. Judging by his clothing and quilt material, this child was of Yangbans, Joseon’s high-born society. He was alone, and inside his swaddle, a handwritten note was from his mother along with a silver circular baby’s rattle. The mother explained the baby was the first son. She had been the first wife in one of the great houses, but her love-matched husband had passed away weeks after the wedding ceremony.
While in mourning, her in-laws had turned a blind eye, allowing her brother-in-law to molest the grieving widow sexually. The soon-to-be new mother had endured the near-nightly invasions in silent torment but now, after giving birth safely, would follow her dead husband rather than bear the disgrace of becoming her brother-in-law’s third concubine. She feared that her deceased husband wouldn’t accept her in the afterlife if she had become pregnant by his older brother.
Such sad fate. Shame washed over Bai Qian for allowing herself to wallow in self-pity and consider taking her life. Both her parents and many others were waiting for her. She had everything, unlike this child who appeared only days old at the most had lost everything. He was an orphan yet cried to be heard and saved by anyone because he wanted to survive. He was only an infant, yet he had more will to want to live than her.
She couldn’t leave him behind because it felt like divine intervention as she had rescued him, he had saved her, and she loved him instantly. She took the child back to the cottage with the mindset of taking him back to the Forbidden City, and if she couldn’t keep him by her side, there were her family members who could adopt him. After all, if she couldn’t tend for one needy child, she was unworthy of becoming the Empress, the mother of the entire dynasty.
“This baby comes with us, or I’m not taking a step from this place.” She declared. Possessively holding the baby closer, she moved away from her future brother-in-law Ye Hua, who gave her every logical reason to leave this poor orphan behind, but it didn’t matter.
“Return to the Forbidden City alone. Tell them I died. It’s not that far from the truth.” She started holding her chin up high.
Ye Hua rudely stared her down and spoke down to her as if she was a simpleton. “Leave the baby for the healer. If you haven’t figured it out, we’re on a covert, secret task from my brother to bring you home safely. Qing Yuan’s father is on route to Joseon. His vanguard men are all over the less-traveled paths to stop you.”
Using his height to intimate Bai Qian, he stepped towards her but stopped midstep when she boldly rushed forward, closing the space, so the baby was resting on his chest and her, “Minster Shao is searching for a single girl and her traveling party. He nor his men would never suspect couples with a baby in tow. Haven’t you ever heard that sometimes hiding out in the plain open is the best place to be overlooked?”
“Fourth Prince, Ye Hua as your future sister-in-law, soon to be the first and legal wife to Crown Prince Mo Yuan, I Princess Consort Bai Qian, command you to prepare for departure. We ride in one hour with my son, Bai Ali Jiang.” Reaching inside her dress, Bai Qian removed, shoved the jade marker from the Emperor in Ye Hua’s grumpy face, and regally strolled back into the house befitting of an Empress.
She didn’t see it with her back turn when Ye Hua smiled a little despite himself and their situation. Compassion was a trait most failed to possess. He was starting to respect her. Angel-faced, sheltered by temple life, Lady Bai Qian was a tigress. His concerns of the harem women ripping her up were in vain, and her plan to blend into the crowds hiding in plain sight was genius.
The four dressed down as commoners. Their story is this; they are ruined farmers traveling north for greener pastures. The baby whom everyone calls Ali carefully secured on Bai Qian’s bosom like a baby monkey peacefully slept as they continued their journey home.
To be continued…