"Your Highness, I have brought some refreshments," said Ruixue's personal maid, Yawen. She carried a tray heavy with food to the table in the parlor.
The crown princess appeared from the adjacent room, dressed in an embroidered white blouse that exposed her clavicle and tied to an orange skirt by a sash around her waist. A long coat adorned her shoulders, shimmering in the light as she came over to sit.
Ruixue looked down at the tray, barely having an appetite. Several baked pastry with sesame seeds sprinkle sat on a plate while another held grapes and sliced apples. A cup of tea rested at a side. On the account of being the heir to the throne, her schedules usually took on until afternoon without many breaks. And now that the festival was impending she supposed she wasn't to take suppertime too lightly.
The sun shone onto the courtyard when Ruixue headed out to the Second Division. Rows of hyacinth and lilacs embellished the winding pathway, ranging from pink to a richer shade of violet. Camellias and peonies bloomed from carefully nurtured bushes, the large flowers like unblinking eyes of a thousand watchers. Ruixue inhaled the various fragrance as she passed her favorite spot of the garden. She had always been the one among the siblings who enjoyed strolls in the sun. The warmth made her feel alive.
Several servants stood about the Ward's gate when she neared. They dispersed at the sight of her, dropping brisk curtsies before scurrying to their tasks. After they departed Ruixue saw another group of guards gathered around someone near the entrance outside. She approached.
The soldiers seemed to be engaging in a fond conversation. One of them then parted from the circle, nodding something in agreement. It was then she saw the person in the middle.
Ruixue stopped short. She stared as the figure stepped into the Ward's property, not believing her eyes. The man glanced around the vast area of the courtyard as if in search for something. He wore commoners clothing, yet that face was unmistakable.
"Ge." She didn't realize she was running until she heard her maids startled behind. All she saw that moment was the image of her younger self, hiding between shrubs in the gardens knowing that the older boy would come finding for her in their games. But the memory cracked apart when the figure's eyes landed on hers.
Ruixue halted a short distance from him, breathing fast. The drumming of her heart slowly ceased. Her gaze held his unfamiliar brown, feeling all her hope shattering down to her feet among too many times to count.
The stranger approached her. His eyes flicked to the servants rushing to the princess's side before finding hers again. Ruixue's mind was in a daze when he went down on one knee before her.
"Good day to you, Your Grace," he greeted. His voice snapped her out of her distraction. Ruixue quickly recovered her composure, impassiveness donned on her face.
"Rise," she ordered. When he did she ascertained herself that this man merely shared a similar resemblance to that she saw in her dreams. He was not that person at all, no matter how badly she wished him to be.
The color of his eyes was the surest confirmation.
"Who are you?" she demanded. She noted the royal pass he was clutching. Menservants did not roam the palace free with a pass, nor were they to leave their master's side.
"I am Li Yuzhe, Your Grace," the man said. "And I'm here to return these." He withdrew a parchment and handed it to her along with the tassel.
Puzzled, Ruixue granted Yawen consent to accept the items, which she took the scroll and unrolled the content.
"I cannot express how much I am grateful for the opportunity, but I'm afraid I cannot accept," Yuzhe said later.
Ruixue handed the scroll to the maid. She accessed the man with new eyes. "You must be the one who accompanied Meiyue to the south," she said to him. "I've heard about you." Yuzhe acknowledged it with a bow. "Might I ask the reason for your refusal?"
"I have a family and a business in my care, Your Grace," he said simply.
It was unusual for the King to be interested in the matters of lower affairs, such as employment in this case, as opposed to his offer. Ruixue could, though, get a slight grasp of the reason why he did. Emotions and regrets were strong fundamental factors behind some decisions we did not know why we made.
As she studied the man before her Ruixue too decided. "That's unfortunate, but you have my blessings," she said. She reached for the tassel in Yawen's hands and held it back to him. "You may hold on to this, if you ever change your mind."
"Remember that not many are requested by the King himself," Ruixue added. "Consider it an honor and perhaps give it another thought."
After a moment of consideration, he stepped forward and accepted with both hands. She caught a slight change in his expression, but it was shielded when he offered her another bow. "Thank you, Your Grace."
Ruixue spared him another glance, letting his features bemuse a final time. Then she moved out through the gate, her maids trailing behind in a silent swish of skirts.
Ruixue remained on the training ground until late afternoon. It was located in a department of the Second Division that overlooked the practice of martial arts and physical skill. The department consisted of many compartments that housed weapon storage and training grounds that were instituted for individual types of each sport.
The archery compartment was a moderate structure offering a storeroom at one wing while the rest was openly exposed as a grand hall beholding a vast practice field. Ruixue stood at the head, her hand sustaining a firm grip on the taunt bowstring, and fired. The arrow pierced the air and hit the target slightly off the centre.
She lowered the bow, and wiped away perspiration with the back of her hand. The sun, half way down it's descent, radiated on her face, nearly blinding her. Her misjudged aim might had resulted from that. Yet as she glanced to the rest of the targets, each impaled with dozens of arrows, her misses seemed rather from the lack of her usual sharp concentration.
Footsteps echoed through the hall behind her. Ruixue turned to it just as a woman materialized into view. She recognized her at first glance.
Fauglin peered over from the railing, her auburn hanfu melting with the painting of the compartment. Once she sighted the princess she proceeded for the stairs that led down to the ground.
Ruixue discarded the bow aside when Fauglin approached, a tray of tea set in her hands.
"I hear that you've been here training all day. Let's have a break," Fauglin said. She inclined to the pavilion situation at a corner of the field.
Ruixue followed her there and sat on the warm stone bench across from her aunt. Fauglin set her holding down on the stone table then started pouring from the ceramic teapot. Ruixue noticed there was a small paper-wrapped package with some prescription also on the tray.
"How come you are here today?" she asked, dabbing her jaws with a handkerchief she withdrew from her pocket.
Fauglin handed her the tea. "I was summoning Ms. Minger for the Queen earlier, and she entrusted me to bring this to you," she said, indicating to the medicine package. Minger was the royal physician.
"Is the Queen ill?" Ruixue asked.
"Her Majesty proposed a persisting head pain and is now resting," Fauglin said. "I'm sure her condition will improve by tomorrow." She wrung her hands on the table and watched Ruixue with a searching gaze. "Though, I'm worry about you. Ms. Minger said you have some digestion problem."
Ruixue uncovered the cup lid and took a long sip of the aromatic tea. Sweetness bloomed on her tongue. Licorice roots, she suspected. "I'm well, Auntie," she reassured. "A few late suppers caused it is all."
A wistful expression took up Fauglin's face. "You used to grow up with a such a healthy body back then," her aunt said. "It'd be saddening if it's damaged."
Ruixue attempted to smile at the reminder, yet she wasn't sure if her smile turned out more as a grimace as she placed the cup down. "My hands are full each day with a huge responsibility awaiting me," she said, almost dismissive. "Father must have had at least suffered a health problem or two while he was my age, too."
"The King may had it tough, but you shouldn't have to carry this burden at all. If only things aren't as they are now," Fauglin said, too wishful for her niece's liking, and reached for her hand. "If only Taiyuan was still here-"
"Things change, Auntie," Ruixue coldly cut off and pulled her hand away. She turned to the setting sun, watching as the sky blazed up in orange flames. Her face was a mask of regal placidity that barely anyone could see through. "The past cannot be altered," she added more quietly.
She felt Fauglin's gaze lingering on the side of her face, and she did not meet it. No amount of compassion could fulfill her lost, and neither would receiving make any difference.
"I suppose that's true," Fauglin relented. Something in her tone made Ruixue turned. She waited for her aunt to speak further, soon regretting her own lack of warmth.
"I always see you with that ring," Ruixue subconsciously said when her eyes laid on the jade ring on Fauglin's finger. The thickness implied that it was most likely meant to match a male's.
Fauglin looked at it with a certain fondness. "It belongs to my late husband actually," she said. "I was afraid if I'd lose it so I decided to always wear it on me. It's the only thing left of his. And there hasn't been a day when I don't think of him."
Ruixue softened at her words. Her aunt had also endured a great lost when she was still a toddler. Her husband had died of heart failure while Fauglin was coping with a stillbirth. The pain was written on her face now, and Ruixue wondered when had her elegant aunt developed such wrinkles. She was only in her early fifties.
"He's watching over you as much as you think of him each day," Ruixue said tenderly.
Fauglin traced the ring. "Yes," she breathed and smiled at her. "And I'm certain Yingyuan is as well, watching over her beloved children."
Ruixue stiffened at the mention of her mother's name. She offered a tight nod.
"They must be missing us as much as we wish to see them again," Fauglin went on, turning to face the darkening twilight. "It'd be priceless if they could join us for tea once again. Just us family."
Ruixue followed her aunt's gaze. She allowed a memory to let loose. The one that included all her siblings gathering around in the garden, listening to tales that the late Queen spun from her wild imagination and graceful gestures, in evenings such as this.
"Yes," Ruixue muttered with a thickness in her throat. "Yes, indeed."