It was exactly at dawn when Meiyue woke. She didn't think she was able to sleep regarding of what happened to her and it must had been sheer exhaustion that had knocked her down on Zhonghong's bed the minute she shut her eyes.
With few moments spent on readying herself and a few more to thank Uncle Liping and Zhonghong, Meiyue made out of the stable with Yuzhe, who was quite resolved with himself in walking her home this time. Meiyue didn't protest, half for her own good, yet another half of her was mass of dread that pushed her steps on with a little more haste.
She didn't want to think what home would bring her, but it was hard not to when the tall Forbidden District stone gate appeared nearer. She suddenly wished her home was Zhonghong's warm comfy bed.
They reached near the entrance and saw two guards armed with long spears stationed on either side of the grand redwood doors of the gate, in which could encompass about twelve times Meiyue's height. The soldiers wore stiff metal plates armor and helmets with red threads attached at the top. They looked at her up and down when she approached alone. Yuzhe now headed back for his errands.
The look on the guards' faces suggested the disdain of the thought that she must had crept out to spend a night outside and now scurrying back in to work before getting caught. Indecent, their look said.
Meiyue didn't need to show them the district pass as they waved her in with a dismissal flick. On any other day, she would never have forgiven their insolence.
She wove through divisions of the Forbidden District with ease. The region, as the name suggested, was forbidden by commoners to enter unless they were asked by the nobles or alike, or an approved petition.
The district consisted of three individual divisions; the First was home to high ranked officials, nobles and those who worked within the headquarters, while the Second was the largest heart of the kingdom where departments holding different responsibilities were located at, and thus, the palace itself. Department heads and chief ministers occupied the Second Division.
Then lastly, the most private and second largest region barricaded by the First and Second Division, was the Private Ward. Nobody was to be permitted for entry except for the royal family and their line of advisors.
It may seemed that the districts were as impenetrable as the unforgiving towering walls of its gate, but Meiyue's successful attempts to sneak out proved pretty much otherwise. It was all about timing and knowing the shifts of the guards.
Meiyue came into the Second Division without interruption. No one would recognize her. Since it was still early, there were mostly pages and servants going about the vast expense between each department, carrying out preparations.
Meiyue carefully made her way to the Private Ward gate, her mind trying to prepare excuses for her disappearance yesterday. But then her excuse would have to depend on the person she would be lying to, and she didn't like to think of being cornered by her mother. And not to mention her tutors...
Her home towered over her behind the red and gold entrance. Dozen of soldiers heavily armed stood on both sides.
Meiyue eyed the brightening sky, and decided that she didn't have the energy to walk to the back entrance where somewhere around there was a ladder attached to the wall.
She made her way to the statue-like guards, nevertheless impressed by their stillness. One of them frowned when she came closer to the gate and stepped up to stop her.
"Business?" he questioned, brow raised. It wasn't usual for a private-ward maid to be meddling with the outer divisions. Provision and supplies in there could go up to excess.
Meiyue tried to seem as dismissive as any servant could be. "I am Her Highness's maid, sir."
"Her Grace, Princess Meiyue." She was thankful that only people at some status were allowed to make eye contact with the royalty. Whenever she went out to the Second Division she mostly could see only their bowed heads. Meaning, they wouldn't have a clear picture of her face too.
Meiyue wasn't sure if the guard seemed convinced, so she produced a red tassel with two twin dragons embroidered in bright gold color and showed him. It was the imperial pass, owned by the highest of officials and the royal family.
"Would you let me in now?" Meiyue asked with a hint of impatience. If a maid processed that, then it would mean that the princess had entrusted her with something important. She didn't need to think of what before the guards pushed the heavy doors opened.
The entrance creaked shut again after she entered and Meiyue didn't waste anymore time to hurry back to her quarters. Taking the shortcut, she moved quickly through empty roofed porch. Lanterns illuminated her way on either side and made it difficult to hide her presence. And the voice that spoke nearly took the heart out of her chest.
"Where have you been?" said a male ahead of her.
Meiyue had to calm her heart before she could speak. "Junqian," she said, with relief.
The advisor's son approached her. She saw that he was already fully dressed for the day. His dark brown hanfu blew when he moved, his hair neatly pierced with a silver headwear into a topknot.
"You have no idea how I had to lie to your tutors to cover for you yesterday," he said. "And the Queen was almost looking for you and I had to beg Miss Huian to agree to lie to your mother that she was having you for extra class."
Miss Huian was her history tutor, and Meiyue was determined to thank her later in time.
"It's...a long story," she told him. "Please walk with me to my rooms first."
Her previous sneak-out missions wasn't a secret to Junqian, whom she considered as a close friend of hers since childhood. Having the advisor's son cover for her would grant way more credibility than her own maid.
Pacing beside each other, Meiyue slowly told him of the event yesterday on the rest of their journey. If anyone were to see them, then it was just an early walk with the advisor's son, if never mind her clothing.
Meiyue was glad that they reached her chambers when she finished and Junqian didn't have the time to speak his thoughts when her maid saw them.
Xiaonu practically flew into the princess with a question similar to the one she was earlier addressed. Junqian left when Meiyue promised a proper conversation with him later then let her maid ushered her into her rooms.
Meiyue sought her bed first while Xiaonu went to prepare a bath. Now home, her body felt weary all over and the sleep she managed to slip into wasn't enough to wash away the exhaustion that had built up.
She pulled up her sleeves and saw the red marks the ropes did to her wrists. She also remembered Yuzhe's touch on her skin along the memory.
Meiyue quickly pulled the sleeves back down, trying to dismiss the skip of her chest. It would have to take some effort of powdering to be able to hide her bruises. When Xiaonu emerged from the bathroom she helped Meiyue out of Zhonghong's ruqun and took out the hair ornament Xinlei found from her bun. The weight of her hair burdened her sore head.
Meiyue sank into the bath and was ravished by the comfort the warm water brought. Xiaonu scrubbed her arms and body, washing away the dirt of the day before and was patient enough to not question about the bruises. Meiyue's scalp hurt when her maid washed her hair.
When she was clean, she got dressed into a fresh ivory cross-collared hanfu with an additional embroidered coat that reached her ankles. Xiaonu did her hair less elaborately on the princess's request, with few tiny braids tied and suspended with jewel hairpins. Then she applied a thin layer of powder on her face and reddened her lips.
When she was readied Meiyue saw herself from the mirror that some color had returned to her cheeks, though she still felt a bone-deep fatigue. Her schedule was free today so she had plenty of time to rest. But her mind would not settle before few more things she needed to do.
Meiyue glanced to the window. The sun was rising over the horizon and illuminated her chamber with golden light.
"Now would you tell me what had happened yesterday?" Xiaonu said behind her and came to take her hand. "I was very worried about you. And your hands..."
Meiyue told her, somehow finding her own experience as if it was someone else's now that she was reciting it out loud again with a clearer mind. The abandoned encampment seemed like a place far away in a tale rather than somewhere not far from the palace. And she didn't voice her thought about how many victims before her had the house held in the past.
"Oh, Princess," Xiaonu cooed with worried eyes, "you must never go out alone again. It must had been so terrible."
Xiaonu was more of a friend than servant for the princess and their bond grew fonder each day as the she would relate to her tales of her advantage outside the Forbidden District and her maid would keep it as their little secret.
Meiyue assured her, "Now I have Yuzhe to walk me, so it will be fine." Yuzhe was the most favored character in Xiaonu's imagination. Before her maid could tease her about him again, she added, "And perhaps I'll never have to walk alone again."
Xiaonu looked up to her questioningly when she stood. "What do you mean, princess?"
Meiyue gave her sly smile. "Let's first powder up my bruises. Then we will meet my father."
They later found out that the King had already gone out from his private quarters to resume his mountain-pile of works in the headquarters. Guards and pages bowed when Meiyue passed, and she was not to give them any kind of acknowledgment such as a nod or a glance their way. Xiaonu and a couple of other maids trailed after her in tow, heads bowed.
Two guards stood watch outside the king's enormous workroom. They bowed and greeted as she approached. "Dianxia."
Meiyue looked to the shut lattice door. "Is His Majesty inside?" she asked one of them.
"Yes, Your Highness," he said without meeting her eyes and proceeded to open the door. Meiyue instructed her maids to wait outside and entered alone.
The room was well-lit by sunlight streaming through the rectangular windows. Scents of ink and old books painted the air, reminding her strongly of the royal library she spent most of her free time in. Shelves lined the walls and more shelves stood rows after rows, heavily burdened with books, documents, records and essential used papers.
Meiyue walked through the maze of the shelves to where her father was at by his desk. He was bent on the table, writing some paper with quick brushstrokes. The golden silk of his hanfu gave extra contrast and he did not wear the jaded crown. The wall behind him was carved with his sigil of the twins dragons.
The King looked up when Meiyue stepped before him.
"Father, do you have a moment?" she asked, then cast the stack of papers on his desk another glance.
"Meiyue," he said, then set the brush down on the holder.
She wasn't used to ask anything much of him and was beginning to falter at how should she speak her wish. "I have something to tell you."
The king watched his daughter with a patient gaze. "What is it?"
"I have been thinking of going out," Meiyue said carefully, recalling the arrangement of words she had been rehearsing for this day. "My studies have mostly covered the south and I really wish to observe its wonders firsthand. I'm sure it would be much of help to boarded my view in relations to my studies and grant me a better understanding of our own kingdom."
He considered. "You can obtain that information through your tutor," he said, mildly. "She would be able to tell you all you want to know and there are endless paintings that depict the south in every generation possible. You needn't the trouble to go."
Meiyue drew out a breath. "No, Father. I want to see it. I want to feel how it is like."
At that, the king frowned a little. "The south is no place for a princess like you," he told her. "The Ethereal City has all the beauty for you to capture and it is safer, while the south lacked both."
Why not make it safe then? The question was almost out from her mouth but she kept them back. She also had to hold back on how was she supposed to capture the beauty of the north when there was like an invisible lash around her throat, pinning her to the circles of the palace in and out.
Since she was able to sneak out unattended, spend time on her leisure in Yuzhe's house, she decided not to pry into that.
"I'll go with enough protection, Father," she said. "There is someone I would like you to meet, too, who will be accompanying my journey."
Meiyue was glad he didn't mind the change of topic and her implication both. "Who?"
"You will see," she said instead. "But I can assure you that person would be a fine protection for me."
Judging by his expression, this negotiation didn't seem to go as Meiyue intended. The king said, "Anyway that person, going out is against the custom-"
"No, Father," she cut him off, then was surprised at herself after she saw the same thing reflected on her father's face. She tried to fight back her testiness and lied more softly, " My trip is essential - or so Miss Huian said."
A page, to Meiyue's gratefulness, came in before her father could reject. He paled when he realized what he had interrupted and apologized before handing over some documents to the King. Then he excused himself and was gone as quickly as he came in.
Sensing the good opportunity, Meiyue said, "Tomorrow I will bring that person and you shall judge, Father. If you judge them inadequate as my guard then I will not have a word further in this."
With that, she too pardoned herself and left the King to stare after her. She felt a sense of triumph when she exited his workroom, and couldn't help a smile surfacing at Xiaonu when the girl stole a glimpse at her.
Putting aside that she half argued with the King, his silence would somewhat serve as an approval potent enough for her to convey the matter to her mother.
Now there were some people she would like to meet before she was free to her own leisure.
It turned out that Miss Huian was nowhere to be found. Meiyue searched in the Department of Education, surprising the civil administrators with her unannounced presence, and was told that her history tutor was on a short mission task. The princess thanked them with an inner smile.
Now she was in the library with Xiaonu, having dismissed the other servants for supper preparation. It was until late afternoon that Junqian came to them after having finished his attendance in meetings with the department ministers and the King.
Meiyue knew he sometimes envied the many opportunities of spare time that was granted to the princesses, apart from the crown princess.
Xiaonu quickly scrambled up from the chair and hovered behind Meiyue when Junqian walked to them.
"You may sit," the advisor's son said to the girl-servant with a smile.
Meiyue turned to her and teased with a questioning look. She tried not to chuckle at the girl's pink cheeks.
The princess bookmarked her page as Junqian pulled out a chair from the long desk and sat to her right. "You ought to tell me now how exactly you managed to get yourself kidnapped," he said later.
That wasn't exactly the tone used with a princess, but Meiyue didn't point that out, even for fun's sake.
She said almost nonchalantly, "It just happened." The event didn't bother her that much anymore now that things had been going in her favor.
Junqian's face was enough to scold her. "You're the daughter of a king. Nobody should dare to lay their hands on you," he stated. Meiyue somehow felt Xiaonu agreeing behind her.
"Well, I am one of the daughters of the King, and the one whom my mother most forbids any trip outside the palace walls." She sighed. "If that was the price of my disobedience, still I wouldn't have done otherwise."
He massaged his temple as if her stubbornness was wearing him out. "It could have been much worse. There could be other means to get what you wanted."
"Apparently, I did." The princess grinned. "And I need a little bit of your help."
Junqian looked at her. "I don't think I'll like it."
The smile didn't leave her face as excitement rolled in. "You will find that out tomorrow."
The candles had burned low by the time the King finally settled into his royal chambers. The Queen, his late consort, had been waiting for his retirement.
She waved the servants away from the room.
"Have you much work left to do? You mustn't overexert yourself," said the Queen when they were alone. She moved to take his golden embroidered coat down his shoulders.
The King spoke nothing as she suspended his jacket over a hanger in a corner of the dim room. The night fell deep through the window and silent was the occasional breeze.
"Your bath is ready," the Queen told him. Such trivial accommodations could be fulfilled by the servants, but she had been the one to enhance for his comfort.
The King instead went to sit by a mahogany chair opposite to the Queen's vanity. He seemed worn yet firm at the same time.
"Dongyu," he said.
She pulled out a set of his night shift hanfu from the wardrobe and proceeded to sit by him. "Something is troubling you?"
"No, it's just Meiyue," he said, leaning against the back of the chair. The lantern and wavering candlelight threw shadows over his face and drew out the white of his beard. "She came to me this morning asking for a trip to the south."
"The south?" The Queen frowned. "Did you agree?"
The King didn't answer and instead said, "I didn't think she was serious until she said there would be someone joining her." At the her silence, the King added, "Did you tell her to do so?"
"Of course not," the Queen declared, a little vexed at his suggestion. She believed the reason of his question was tied back to the day she had requested him to make Meiyue the kingdom's future queen instead of the eldest sibling who was the rightful successor to the throne. Meiyue, her only true daughter from her flesh and blood.
It satisfied her to know that her words held some power for him to remember it.
"I see," the King said. He got up and undid the sash around his waist.
She waited until he disappeared into the bathhouse and was entirely out of earshot. Then the Queen sent for her personal lady-in-waiting.
She appeared soon afterwards, dressed properly in the uniform as the Head Maid, and curtsied. "Your Majesty."
"Fanglin," the Queen said by the threshold. Moonlight shone down and her face held a certain hardness. "Do find out what my little girl is scheming."