After suppers and the dishes were washed and put away until the next meal, everyone gathered by the small communal fire to watch her play, sing and drink her weight in wine.
The future Empress of Ming prophesied to bring endless peace to the dynasty, dressed in the drab, neutral, colorless second-hand clothing worn well past its usefulness, strummed her guqin, a five-stringed musical instrument, with a drunken smile across her face.
Between each tune, she paused long enough to chug down fermented rice wine in hearty gulps, carelessly, allowing the drops to run down her chin, and merrily singing her songs, all the while looking utterly too captivating for her good.
Such a scene was unheard of, especially from a woman of her breeding. Qing Yuan nervously twitched, fiddling in his seated position as if he had a cricket crawl up his pants. Cupping his mouth, he turned to Ye Hua and, in a hushed voice, whispered, “Ye Hua, is this behavior proper? Or should we stop her?”
Qing Yuan’s uneasy gaze reflecting his concern, and apprehension, darted to his solemn-faced friend, Ye Hua, who shrugged his slender shoulders before replying in his soft voice, “Let her be free while she can. She’s a bird whose wings will get clipped before the harem robs her essence. She’s too soft and cares more than she should. She must conceive Mo Yuan’s child immediately, only then she might endure amongst those vipers.”
Ye Hua had called her a bird, but Qing Yuan was smitten with the future leader like those she had crossed paths with on their way home. To him, she and her playful mannerisms reminded him more of a joyfully fluttering butterfly that would become encaged in a luxurious golden enclosure; nevertheless, gold, as it may be, was still a cage.
It seemed a shame, almost a sin to the cell such a free spirit, and had he not seen the disconcerting way Ye Hua often stared at her, and he had to the point it was impossible to ignore the apparent truth everyone else could see.
As a bystander, it had been downright heartbreaking to sit by and watch his dear friend suffer in silence. He knew Ye Hua was wordlessly drowning in self-contempt, engaged in a fierce internal battle of his loyalties to his brother but unable to stop himself from falling in love with his future sister-in-law. Qing Yuan wondered, was the sweetness of first love enough for Ye Hua to throw away his honor, tarnish the royal family name, and lose his twin brother’s trust? Such taboo.
His disloyal thoughts were traitorous; Qing Yuan knew his views could end with his head being separated from his neck and put on a spike. Still, if Ye Hua wanted the throne and Bai Qian as his Empress, he would support and defend Ye Hua to the end, even if his actions brought doom to his entire family. Let his bloodline be damned, his greedy, power-hungry father had already sullied their name, and he had never seen someone stare at another with such profound longing and yearning as Ye Hua did Bai Qian.
I’m conflicted. I can honestly confess that my life is currently full of strife, and I question all that was once resolute and committed. I couldn’t tell you where things began to go astray, but there’s an ongoing battle inside my head, and the closer we get to the Forbidden City, discord, this dissonant within me intensifies.
Maybe the confusion started with the baby and the earnest unyielding way she refused to leave him behind? She knew the dangers of keeping Ali near, yet she wouldn’t budge even when one of the families offered to take him from her.
If I didn’t know better and hadn’t been there when she discovered him, I would have believed she birthed him from her womb. It baffles me because I’m not a woman and lack the understanding, but how can a person be that maternal and protective to such extremes to a stranger’s child of no blood relations?
Or perhaps it was when we came upon the ruined farmers who wanted to join our caravan? I warned her of the perils and time delay, but what she said left me standing there without a decent rebuttal.
It might have been that wise expression full of true compassion when she spoke to me that stole my heart and left me breathless as she stated with conviction and a maturity deep within that didn’t match her youthful girlish face.
She declared, “We are all the same regardless of our birthright. What makes us so very different? You and I were lucky to be born into fortune with prestigious families. However, this is only one of our lives, and in the next, we might be in their tattered shoes.”
“As one of noble birth, it’s our duty, our role in this lifetime, given our advantageous circumstances. Fourth Prince, if we don’t do anything, then who will be the one to step forward and make a difference? If those in power don’t help the needy, who will?
She’s a talkative one, a real noisy chatter-box, she had too much to say for my liking, but my head dizzied and spun like a twirling top that I played with in childhood when she looked at me and smiled. I had been at a loss for words and couldn’t argue because she was right. Bai Qian was born to lead. She is the queen that will bring change for the better.
A deeper understanding revealed itself to me and I had an epiphany. Fate had nothing to do with being a leader because she is the ‘throne’ and the epitome of a sage ruler. If she’s like this now at age fifteen, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around all she will accomplish ruling by Mo Yuan’s side.
I had accepted and considered my feelings for her to be pure of genuine respect and high regard, yet that doesn’t explain the shrinking into the depths of hell misery I felt the day we ran into Minister Shao and his men finally.
They came out of nowhere surrounding the wagons, and she pretended to be a blind shaman by covering her eyes with a white cotton strip. It was brazen when she went to the man whose sole goal was to kill her and asked to read his fortune because she sensed an intense ‘royal’ aura from him. What was she thinking when she had touched his bloated, chubby face with her fingertips whispering something about a phoenix, golden throne, and sun?
Her move was bold going to him instead of running away and hiding took courage or madness. Even with her eyes covered, old Minister Shao would surely remember the face of the blind girl who hopped around and chanted some nonsensical, ridiculous remarks about his powerful male qi.
It was a spectacle as she wildly shook a branch from a nearby oak tree in their path. At the same time, Sujin played her bamboo flute offkey, causing all the birds perched in the trees above to shriek out at once loudly. This performance went on until Minister Shao angrily yelled at her for touching his face with her unworthy peasant hands and for her to get out of his way when she wished them safe passage on their journey.
Qing Yuan and I had stayed out of sight for fear that his father or one of his men would recognize us. After the close call, everyone chuckled out of relief, but not me. I wasn’t laughing. I was furious as a man possessed and it had taken every ounce of willpower within me to stay out of sight leaving her vulnerable.
Maybe that’s the reason I rushed to her and roughly yanked the strip off her face? Too roughly, I grabbed her arms and shook her slender body until she flopped like a child’s cloth doll. I yelled in her face, “Don’t you ever do that again! Do you hear me?!” I screamed, coming apart at the seams and trembling as I tore the little cotton band into shreds with my bare hands.
It was completely uncalled for and outrageous on my part, my hostile reaction was unnecessary, and I scared her so badly that she cried until she could barely open her red, puffy, swollen eyes and had the hiccups.
And I might be losing my mind. Everything damn thing Bai Qian does upsets me and gets under my skin. I’ve not met anyone who infuriates me more than she. I’ve never met anyone who makes me feel. That’s the issue at hand. She makes me feel, and what I’m feeling for her isn’t appropriate, and it’s the root of my outbursts.
My calm mannerisms have become erratic, like that day she and Sujin were playing around in the river before she pretended to be drowning. Before my brain and body connected, I dove into the water fully clothed without hesitation, and when I reached her, I clung to her for dear life because I was afraid.
I was afraid that I had lost her, and I was scared…I’m still frightened and fearful that I won’t be able to let her go when the time comes, and as of now, time is the only factor I can control, so we’re taking the most prolonged, longest roundabout way home. After all, I haven’t any choice because my heart needs more time with her before delivering her to Mo Yuan, and then she won’t be able to do my hair anymore.
I’ve never been one to wear a topknot, but when she coyly asked, blushing and hiding behind her fan, if she could do something with me that she had never done with a man, combing and fixing my hair was the last thing on my mind.
These emotions are new to me. For the first time in my life, I covet and want someone that doesn’t belong to me. This indescribable feeling must be love? It’s not my role, but I want to shower her with affection and adoration. And when in her sleep, she calls my name, and my heart yearns for her.
Ye Hua is giving me advice and considering he’s the silent type. When the quietest man of few words warns me about my unknown future, I distinctly sense that I’m entering a warzone veiled in fancy silks and exquisite perfumes, also called the Imperial Harem.
“Qian Qian, you can’t trust anyone,” Adamantly, he warns, in that low whisper-soft voice I’ve grown to adore. Unbeknownst to him, I even enjoy his grumpiness and think his sudden temper tantrums are cute.
This conversation might be the most I’ve ever heard him speaking, “Those with nothing to lose are the most dangerous. Consider everyone your enemy. Are you listening? You’ll always serve Mo Yuan on full moons when both your yin and yangs are most in harmony and whenever he flips your name tag.”
I nod my head with quick tilts before leaning down to sniff Ali’s head and reply, “Mhm, yes, Ye Hua, I heard you. All enemies and every full moon.”
I think I’m saying all the right things, but then he sighs out his mouth, exhaling as if the ground beneath us is crumbling, “This fact you must engrain in your brain. You mustn’t eat or drink anything not prepared by your staff. Mo Yuan will hand-select your servants. You shouldn’t accept gifts, cosmetics, or other trinkets because women hide musk to prevent you from becoming pregnant.”
“Yes, Ye Hua, but I was wondering. Why couldn’t you and I run away, get married, and live in a cute little cottage like the healers with Ali? We could give Ali siblings! That is unless you find me too disagreeable. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
I ask, half kidding in my coaxing voice, and how he glares back at me makes me feel instant remorse, ashamed that I brought it up. “That was a joke,” I mumble under my breath.
Purposely giggling to lighten the suddenly somber mood, I lift Ali to his grimaced crabby face repeating after him to show I value his prudent guidance, “No food, drink, gifts, and cosmetics that can make me infertile.”
Staring off at his prominent nose, chiseled jawline, shapely lips, and perfectly manly profile, I utter without thought, ever so softly that it comes out sounding like a prayer, “I hope all my children look like their father. He has such a dashing profile.”
To be continued…