Meiyue was summoned to her music class right after breakfast. Normally, this day was to be for her leisure but she wasn't surprised to be called out for another rehearsal. Her music tutor had been really insistent as the festival neared, mostly because Meiyue was catching up with the difficult piece at a pace much to her liking.
Xiaonu escorted the princess down the finely lit corridor where they finally stopped before a set of intricate folding doors. Then she excused herself away with a sincere cheer that sounded rather sarcastic.
Meiyue pushed the doors open.
At the other end of the room stood Huangli, her music tutor, dressed in another eccentric composition of skirts and inner blouse. She appeared to be talking with someone and turned as Meiyue entered. Two figures in refined hanfu robes gathered around the white guzheng on the raised platform where Huangli used to teach the other pupils. Meiyue didn't need to see the visitors' faces to recognize them. She shut the door with an immediate displeasure.
"You've come at a good time, Meiyue," her tutor said energetically. Whenever she sounded eager Meiyue knew it wasn't going to be something she would like. She looked to the women standing next to her.
The twin daughters of the former Queen peered down at her from the dais as if she were some servant. Ever since at a young age, Meiyue shared a mutual opinion with them on the point of not wanting to breathe in the same room as the other. She wasn't sure why they, specialized in the instrument of lutes, were doing here touching her zither.
"What's the occasion?" Meiyue directed the question to her tutor. She tried to ignore a roll of eyes from Ruoyu, the younger of the twin while the elder one, Ruoqing, outright refused to acknowledge her.
Huangli, obviously failing to notice the tension, waved toward Meiyue to come forth. "I have an exciting news for you," she said, and nudged the princess toward the twins. "You will participate in a duet with your sisters."
Meiyue whirled on her tutor. "Why?" she said, frowning. "I'm barely keeping up for my own performance."
Ruoyu scoffed. "As expected." Her sister gave her a supportive glance. They had a striking resemblance when it came down to contempt, something that wouldn't even cross your mind if you judged them by their appearance; round pale face with black innocent eyes.
"Don't worry," Huangli reassured. "It'll be something you already know. Here." She handed a piece of paper toward Meiyue.
The page spread out with musical notation. Meiyue took the sheet, her eyes skimming over the notes. It wasn't a complex piece she concluded, until her gaze landed on the head of the page. Leng Yue Guang, the title read, meaning 'cold moonlight.'
Meiyue turned to her tutor in disbelief. "You wouldn't let me play this, but you let them?" she said. It was her most favorite piece. She'd practically begged her to let her perform that piece instead.
"Your skill requires pieces of higher level. And that piece is more challenging to play with a pipa and an erhu than on a guzheng," her tutor explained. "Ruoyu and Ruoqing will be playing most of the part on their instruments while you accompany them. It'll be a spectacle."
Meiyue felt another fuel of frustration when she realized the sheet she was holding wasn't the actual notes but the background music. She gave it back to her tutor. "I'm busy," she said.
"I told you it'll be a waste of time trying to ask for her help, Huangli," joined in Ruoqing beside Meiyue's guzheng. She was still touching the instrument as if secretly admiring it. Meiyue instead admired her courage to be wearing the inner blouse of her hanfu so low that it exposed her cleavage. The coats and scarf around her shoulders were excessive ornaments.
Ruoyu continued from her elder sister, "Let miss busy be away, and let's find someone else."
Meiyue gave them a gritted-teeth smile. She turned from the dais, intending to leave, but then her tutor caught her arm gently.
"Please," Huangli whispered to her. "I would've called one of my students to it instead if it weren't for the festival. There's too little time to teach anyone now. You're the only one familiar with the piece."
"How am I supposed to play a duet with someone who can't wait to ridicule me at every given chance?" Meiyue said back. "And there are two of them."
Her tutor threw a quick look to the twins. "I'll be there during each rehearsal," she compromised. "Come now. If you don't agree, I wouldn't know how to face their tutor. I promised to collaborate."
After a few silent prod, Meiyue sighed. "Fine."
Huangli smiled and released her arm. "Come girls, we have a rehearsal to do," she announced to the twins who were muttering about something.
Meiyue took the music sheet from her instructor and moved to her instrument. Ruoyu stood in her way, eyeing her defyingly. They both were at the same height, but Meiyue could see her effort to look dominant.
"Well, didn't you hear her?" Meiyue remarked with an edge. "Move."
It was soon night, daylight a dull glow behind the lines of arched roof buildings. Lanterns glowed on several lampposts throughout the garden and the porches glimmered from within. Meiyue had been strolling about the courtyard with Xiaonu when they came across the crown princess.
"We haven't had the time to talk since your return," Ruixue commented. They took refuge under a pavilion positioned amidst a cluster of hydrangeas. The air carried a slight fragrance.
"I hear that you will be participating in the sport session this year on the festival," Meiyue said across from her sister.
"Father insisted that I display the result of my training," said Ruixue, seeming not entirely enthusiastic about it.
"You're going to look amazing, Dajie," Meiyue cheered. "I wish I can have some training like you. Mother won't even allow me near the ground." Swordsmanship had always been her source of admiration. It had been sometime since she practiced with Yuzhe and her muscles felt slacked.
Ruixue smiled slightly at her expression. "And I wish I had your time instead." Her tone bore a certain wistfulness that Meiyue couldn't help but felt unfortunate for.
Unlike the rest of the princesses, Ruixue was the only one who was to subject to endless rounds of classes and trainings. If the siblings had their own free-time Ruixue had to attend to some of the weekly meetings on hers. The King was not so lenient toward his eldest daughter anymore compared to when she was young. Because around that time he still had his true heir after all.
"I've been wanting to tell you," Ruixue spoke later. "Yuzhe came by the other day."
Meiyue's thoughts cleared away at the mention. "He did? Did he say anything?" She had been waiting for him to come ever since after the morning she delivered the message to his house.
"It seemed that he couldn't leave his duty behind and only came to express his thanks," Ruixue said.
"Oh." Meiyue looked down at her clasped hands. She tried not to let her disappointment plaster on her face. Honestly she hadn't expected either way of his answer. Now that he refused the offer without as much as coming to see her, it was hard not to think about the conversation they shared with Kenshin on their first night in the south.
Ruixue's gaze searched her face. "I've been curious," she said. "How did you two know each other?"
Meiyue tried to brush past her gloom and faced her sister. The light hanging from the pavilion ceiling painted Ruixue's face to a shade darker than hers. "We met during the festival last year," Meiyue answered. When her sister remained silent she gladly took the chance to reminisce a fond memory.
"It was after our family retired and there was only the commoners left celebrating until late night. I couldn't sleep because of the noises so I went and took a horse from the stable and rode out into the city for the first time," she said. "Because it was dark and I wasn't familiar with any of the streets, I was frightened when my horse suddenly began to gallop further away from home."
Meiyue smiled at the image of herself back then. "My attempt to slow down the horse only made it frightened too. I didn't know what to do. I sat panicking with it until Yuzhe appeared and calmed the creature down in seconds. It would had had turn out as some dreadful experience if he weren't nearby that night. And after that I started seeing him more."
She thought of the look on his face when Yuzhe realized that was her first time riding a horse unsupervised. He had laughed at her courage. He'd already taken Zhonghong home that time after the girl overjoyed herself with all the feasts. Meiyue had a short tour with him around the market square and stayed to watch the fireworks that was scheduled past midnight. Those moments were engraved to the back of her mind, always beautiful.
Returning her mind to the present, Meiyue almost chuckled when she spotted the confusion written on her sister's features. "I snuck out whenever possible," she answered the unspoken question.
"Snuck out?" Ruixue echoed, somehow perplexed.
Meiyue shrugged. "I had to since everyone is too focused on the customs."
The crown princess sat staring at her for a moment. Then she burst into a fit of laughter that startled Meiyue and the attendants below the pavilion.
Meiyue rarely saw her sister laugh. Ruixue always had been like a warrior in her head, with a hardness nothing could crack and a regality that was nearly unforgiving. Now that she did smile truly she appeared to be more of the woman any other ought to be. Her beauty was like a sculpture carved from ice.
"You would really do anything to get what you want, wouldn't you?" Ruixue said after she recovered.
Meiyue got that impression a lot from her surrounding. "Well, more or less," she said, deciding to take it as a good thing.
Ruixue leaned her head on her elbow, mirth still at the corner of her rosy lips. Her hair ornaments swings at her movement. "So you've been sneaking out to see him a lot," she said.
Meiyue let herself smile along her sister. "Yes," she said, then the look on Ruixue's face made somehow her rethink. "I mean, I do pay him and his family frequent visits. His sister is such a sweet girl."
Ruixue's smile deepened. "How about Yuzhe?"
Meiyue pondered shortly. "Yuzhe is...caring."
"Do you like him?"
Her eyes snapped to her sister's. She blinked. Heat rose to her cheeks when Ruixue hummed in a teasing manner. "Hmm. I understand."
"A-anyway, I'll tell you about my trip!" Meiyue exclaimed in false excitement, hoping to change the topic.
She was thankful for the falling night to help obscure her face as she spoke of her journey, leaving out the awful events. The breeze became chilly when it turned late, but for some reason she couldn't get enough of it to cool the heat she felt from the question.
Yuzhe choked on his tea.
It took a couple of seconds of coughing into his hand to regain himself back. When he did he looked to the cup on the table beside him, half accusing it. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Yuzhe cleared his throat softly. The parlor was a spacious room and every little sound echoed louder especially in the silence of the night. He hoped he hadn't woken the others.
It happened really often now, his persisting state of sleeplessness. Try as he might to sleep thoughts would creep into his head the minute he shut his eyes, eventually creating a chain of images that chased away his drowsiness. Tonight was one of them.
He slumped on one of the chairs at the length of the room. They were meant for clients who came for the horses, and Yuzhe was getting many of them recently. It had been four days since he paid the palace visit and five since he last saw Meiyue. Everything that happened in between passed in a daze of his hope to see her drop by. He didn't want to admit that the thought of her angry enough to not come had kept him from his bed for most of the nights. He was obstinate about his decision as well.
Yuzhe reached into the loose sleeve of his shirt and drew out the royal pass Meiyue's sister handed to him. The lamp hanging at a side of the wall cast yellowish light on the imperial insignia. It was ironic that something as negligible as that could pass as any other ornamental tassels, yet on the other hand held so much power. By bearing it he could roam the palace as he pleased. He could see Meiyue. But why hadn't he done so?
"Ah, you're still here." Yuzhe looked up and saw Liping emerging from the corridor. He tucked the tassel away. "Is something wrong?" his father asked.
"No," Yuzhe said. "I just can't sleep."
"Me too," Liping said, stretching his neck. "Thought of grabbing some coffee."
"I can make it for you," Yuzhe offered and was about to get up when Liping waved him back down and disappeared to the kitchen.
Soon later, his father came over to sit across from him. A welcoming aroma rose from the mug he held. "Zhonghong told me that you were summoned by the King for a position in the court," Liping said, not much surprised. "I guess you didn't accept it?"
"I'm already satisfied with what we have now," Yuzhe simply said.
"Is that the only reason?"
He didn't respond. Soon he heard a click as his father set the mug down.
"I can look after Zhonghong and the stable if that's what you're worried about," Liping said. "But that's not really the problem, isn't it? I've raised you long enough to know."
Yuzhe stared at the rug that laid between them. "I never want to be a part of them or their corruption," he said later, a hard edge in his tone.
"Does that include Meiyue?"
His gaze shot up. Despite being in his sixties, his father did not lose the sharpness in the set of his eyes or the keenness of his observance. Yuzhe felt like when he was a boy again, nothing he spoke could conceal what truly was in front of Liping. "No," he said.
"And she is still a part of the government you resented," his father said, leaning back on the chair. "Times changes, Yuzhe, and old grudges shouldn't hold. There might be more like Meiyue who shares true compassion for the people. If only you give it a chance you'll find out that as well."
Yuzhe replied bitterly. "As long as the heads remain as they are nothing will change."
"Which is why you young ones must rise with each of your ideals," Liping countered. "If you do not take over and reform, then who will?"
Yuzhe's gaze stayed glued to the floor. The lantern flickered twice before he heard his father stood and came over to him. Liping laid a hand on his shoulder. "Meiyue is doing what she can. She'll be sad if you refuse without giving her a proper reason," he said softly. "If you think she's different from her surrounding, give her a reason to believe it."
Yuzhe looked up to his father. The look on his face now spoke that whichever his decision might be, he'd always be there to support his son. Liping gave his shoulder another pat before he retreated to his room.
Yuzhe took out the tassel again. He thought of their trip to the south, his brief conversations with Meiyue. He leaned on one elbow and stared at the pass, and stared longer until he didn't know what he was looking for.