After coming from the commemoration prayers in the court, Meiyue changed into a white satin hanfu with a modest cross for the collar. Bluebell flowers embroidered in royal blue furled the length of the skirt up to the blouse behind a silk sash. The attire set had a matching long coat with blue cuffs that touched the floor. The fabrics felt cool and smooth on her skin, although they were a little weighty.
Meiyue studied her image in the silver mirror, wondering if she'd chosen something too extravagant. Her interest wasn't to capture eyes more than she often already did in her other plainer garments. And that wasn't an exaggeration.
"I feel like I'm dressing for my wedding day," the princess remarked, still getting used to the loose-sleeves that completely concealed her hands. "My lips look frightening."
"You mean charming, princess," Xiaonu corrected behind her. The girl had done a remarkable job of painting her lips crimson, something the princess didn't recommend doing on daily basis. "Now the whole court will have their eyes on you."
Meiyue carefully turned to her maid, not wanting to upset the delicate fashion done to her hair. "I told you that's the opposite of what should be happening. Our plan is to escape to the library as soon as we hand over Kenshin's letter to whoever the Madonna is."
"Peacock Madonna," Xiaonu stated, much to her mild chagrin. "You must still be presentable to make companies with the courtiers so that you can ask them about her. Men will tell you anything simply because you're attractive."
Meiyue considered the prospect, neither agreeing nor denying. She took the blue booklet and envelope from the vanity cabinet and secured them safely in the cross of her collar. Xiaonu possessed the library key.
A bell tolled in the distance.
"It's starting!" Xiaonu exclaimed excitedly.
Meiyue glanced at her reflection once more and let out a deep breath. "Let's go."
When they reached the Ministry of Trial and Jury, tranquility gave away to noises that bloomed to the colorful twilight sky. Ministries, department chiefs, high-ranked officials, lords, and ladies of the high and low courts flooded the front courtyard. Noblewomen dressed in lavishness flapped their fancy fans as they fluttered to the brilliant trial court like jeweled moths to flame. Most paused on their tracks to steal glances at the advancing princess. Others came to offer her curtsies.
Meiyue caught dizzying whispers of admiration and returned the courtiers with forced smiles as she proceeded down the lane, eager to be out of people's attention. The path was brightened solely by lamps that hung from stone posts. No torches were lit, in fear of accidental fire. The air smelled more of perfume than real floral fragrance from the gardens.
The trial court, now arena, from the outside appeared to be like any other structures with vaulted roofs and red giant pillars. It was built on a surface higher than ground level to provide the needed space for the auditorium. Red paper lanterns dangled from the edges of the building, illuminating the area in a sense befitting a celebration.
From what Meiyue remembered, there were four main entrances that could lead to the ring. Two at the west were most likely used to guide the commoners in. She ascended the stairs along with the others. The sky was soon replaced with a low ceiling as she stepped inside the lobby.
The hallway led to two entries on either side. It felt stifling because of the crowds. Chatters drifted from the left as the common people passed into the arena. Citizens of the court took the right corridor. The wall curved in a circle on one side as Meiyue moved toward the second entrance.
Guards flanking the main doors bowed to her. Meiyue didn't enter. Instead, she stepped slightly aside to not hinder the way and peeked into the ring. The auditorium spread out in a semi-circle with both ends stopping at the sides of a grand stage. People flocked the seats further away and on chairs laid on the floor below the platform while nobles occupied closer ones.
Her family and a group of top generals sat on the highest level with the best degree for viewing. Their seats were strictly separated from the others not only by the line of stairs that were built in between for convenience, but also by a heavily armed troop.
Meiyue didn't want to risk being seen by her mother sitting next to Ruixue. The twins were nowhere near the royal family. Her father was probably behind the scarlet curtains of the stage, about to give out the initiation speech. Following him would be another speech from the crown princess. Since none of that happened yet, plus the absence of her twin sisters, she wasn't going to join them.
The princess continued her way past the entrance and to another curved turn of the building. It became a little silent until a sudden roar broke out from the arena. Meiyue passed a fifth entrance, which she suspected was the door to the backstage, before she was outside again. It helped her breathe more freely.
Xiaonu followed behind without questions. There were patrols stationed all over the place beneath the roofed walkway she was walking on. The porch led to a small separate compartment with the entrance opened. A cloth fastened to the lintel instead acted as a door. Strangely, there was no one guarding it.
Meiyue approached the building and flapped the cloth aside. It was a makeshift weaponry room, meant for the forthcoming martial arts competition. Arms of all sorts were pinned to the walls and those that couldn't be hung stayed on wooden stands. A figure stood near a stack of chests filled with hay and arrows, examining a double-edged sword.
"Yuzhe," she said, surprised, and stepped in. Xiaonu came in after her.
He was clothed in a magnificent maroon hanfu with lavender collars. His topknot was pinned by a holder that gleamed silver in the lamplight.
"You're here," he said, seeming to be expecting her. "I didn't see you at the ring, so I thought you must be wondering nearby."
His eyes went along her frame then back to her face, and somehow it didn't make her want to recoil. Somewhere in the depth of her heart, it wanted him to see her in that dress.
"Ni jintan hao piaoliang," he said.
Meiyue tried to steel herself from the statement but ended up flushing anyway. She nodded, stiffly, thinking that Xiaonu was undoubtedly smirking at her back. "Would you be joining us for the feast?" she asked him.
"I'd love to," he said. "But I'm afraid we won't be able to meet after this. I'll be supervising the other section during that time."
The commoner's banquet was some distance away. Yet the one she'd be attending located just a short walk from the court. To mask her disappointment, Meiyue reached for her pocket and brought out the book. "Kenshin asked me to give you this," she said. "I'm glad we get to meet before the feast then."
Yuzhe took the booklet. "What's this for?"
"A gift he said." She thought of the mayor's other request. Asking Yuzhe might be a good start, he was familiar with almost everything going on in town. But then a new voice entered before she could.
"Excuse me," says a youth peering in through the cloth. "Is it alright for us to see the display?"
"Of course, welcome in," Yuzhe said politely.
The boy entered, followed by a small group of his friends. They moved around the room and gathered at a bow stand at the opposite end.
"I have to go," Yuzhe then said beside her. Now that there were strangers in the room, Meiyue let the question drop, disheartened. She nodded. "I know you don't like crowds," he added by the exit, "but try to have fun."
She already felt her fun leaving her with a bunch of boys. "You too," she replied.
Xiaonu took her left side after Yuzhe left. "He could've stayed a little longer. Honestly," the girl complained. She cast an accused look to the chattering group. "What are we going to do here, princess?"
Meiyue shrugged. "Look around," she said. Joining her mother definitely wouldn't enhance her mood.
She looked at the blade Yuzhe was previously studying. Seeing it made her miss the wooden practice sword back in his house. Now that he started working here she guessed their lessons were also at an end. A dadao glinted at a corner. Meiyue went closer for inspection. She didn't know how to judge weapons by quality, the thing mattered to her was their sharpness.
The big blade indeed had a bone-cutting edge. She put her fingers to the sharp face of the sword, curious if it could really cut through bone.
The conversation of the youths now had Xiaonu's voice in it as well. Meiyue heard someone entering the room but didn't turn, thinking it must be more of the guests. The voice that spoke turned out different.
"Fancy seeing you in this kind of place when you should really be elsewhere," Ruoqing scorned from behind. The room went silent.
Meiyue responded without a back glance. "I intend to be elsewhere when the time calls for me to."
"Then why are you still standing there like a retard?" the younger twin joined. "Dajie's performance is nearly at the end!"
"Oh, you're all here," says a newcomer.
Meiyue veered around, then she saw Ruoqing suddenly toppling forward. She collided with her. The impact sent Meiyue to the wall where blades were hung. The display came crashing down on top of her as the princesses fell to the floor. A shattering sound ensued right after.
"Princess!" Xiaonu called from somewhere.
Meiyue blinked in bewilderment. It happened so quickly she hadn't the time to realize what was going on. Her maid knelt beside her, rapidly removing away a few knives that fell dangerously near her head.
Ruoqing shot up from Meiyue's back and her younger sister whirled on the person who caused the accident. Meiyue stood with the help of her maid. Her mind still didn't believed the sudden near-death experience. The dadao would half severed her neck if it had fallen on her.
"Fauglin!" Ruoyu shouted in humiliation, dusting her intricate yellow dress. "What are you trying to do?"
The boys silently poured out the room at the sign of conflict. The Head Maid straightened. A broken porcelain cup splashed tea on the hem of her orange hanfu. "I'm terribly sorry," she said to her nieces, then to Meiyue."I'm sorr-goodness, your hand is bleeding!"
Meiyue raised her left hand. Xiaonu gasped from the right. Blood trickled from a cut on her palm, dripping to the floor. Surprised, she saw a little of red was caught on the length of her coat. She briskly pulled the sleeve back.
Fauglin rushed over and produced a handkerchief which she pressed gently on the princess's hand. "I'm so sorry," she said again. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Meiyue said. She could barely feel the pain.
Ruoyu groaned. "At this timing. It's our turn to perform at any moment now."
"What are you even here for, ayi?" Ruoqing asked her aunt.
"Her Majesty told me to remind Meiyue something about what her mother spoke with her," Fauglin said, then looked questioningly at the youngest princess.
Meiyue said nothing. "We should take you to the medical department," Xiaonu suggested over the twin's complaint. "The bleeding won't stop."
Meiyue shook her head. "Do you have another napkin?" she asked the girl. The one Fauglin used was beginning to soak.
Xiaonu yanked a new one out from her chest pocket. Meiyue took it and spread the cloth over her palm. Then she faced the others. "Let's go. We'll be late."
The group entered the ring.
Velvet curtains closed all three sides of the stage. Lush rugs covered the flooring. Hired staff hurried to arrange musical instruments to various spots on the platform. A giant bullhorn supported by a pole stood at a side for the host to announce the events. Smaller ones were scattered at the front edge of the stage to amplify the performance. A badge was hung on the solid wall inked with a jie character, meaning festival.
The twin princesses flustered about at the center, muttering about nervousness. Fauglin had excused herself to resume her post by the Queen. Meiyue remained at a corner where Xiaonu was helping her tape fake nails to her fingers. Her left hand was bleeding less now and the wound stung.
When her maid was finished, she took the tape and rolled it several laps around her palm with the bloodied cloth pressed to the cut in between. It would have to do for now. There was some distance between the auditorium and the stage, so it wouldn't catch anyone's attention. Same went with the tiny patch of blood near the hem of her jacket.
Xiaonu adjusted her hair, which was gladly undamaged, just when the host announced their performance. Meiyue took her position behind the zither. It was placed at the center of the stage behind two cushioned stools on which the twins sat.
A hush fell over the audience as the staff drew the curtains away. Her nerves started to kick in. She was met with an overwhelming size of spectators that rounded roughly around two thousand. The people seated on ground level peered up over to the platform. Children waved hysterically. Jewels and finery glittered from the aristocrats seated at a closer range. A massive lantern dangled from the high vaulted ceiling, washing the ring in bright light. Meiyue didn't look to where her family was, certain that her mother's gaze was on her. She wanted to get this over quick.
The performance began. Ruoqing initiated the piece with her lute. Hearing the music resonating throughout sent a shiver down her back as Meiyue sat with her hands folded, her thumbs fidgeting. Ruoyu joined the phrase next, touching the bow to the erhu resting on her lap. Melancholic notes escaped the strings.
Meiyue plucked the zither and endured a wince when her left hand pressed the vibrating strings. Background music added more sentiment to the sorrowful song. But for some reason she couldn't feel it this time, being under thousands of watching eyes. Sharp pain weakened her fingers.
The two sitting before her were performing exceptionally well together though, each keynote in sync with the next, creating a melody that was enchanting the audience in awed silence. Sparkling ornaments danced from Ruoyu's black hair, spreading over the gauze scarf hugging her shoulders. Ruoqing radiated elegance in her pink hanfu that pooled around her feet.
Meiyue cast a glance to her family. Her fingers moved on their on will.
The King and Queen sat next to Ruixue, their attire alone outmatching every other individual's splendors. Junqian was a level below, between his father and a man whom she remembered was the Grand Duke. The young man beside him must be his son. Meiyue took her eyes further away. Patrols in dark leather armor stood guard at the narrow walkway behind the highest seats, all the way to the entrances. There, she saw a familiar reddish-purple robe and her mind stopped.
She plucked a wrong string.
A high-pitched note abruptly disturbed the phrase of the piece. Ruoyu flinched, pausing for a split second before her rigid sister caught up and covered the mistake swiftly. Embarrassed, Meiyue glued her concentration on the guzheng until the song smoothly glided to the end.
Claps thundered from the spectators. The princesses rose to the front of the stage and curtsied. Meiyue felt her legs went numb as she stood behind the twins, offering a shallow bow. Her hands were cold and one thudded like a second heart.
When she straightened she noticed Ruoyu was clenching her hands in clear exasperation toward her for messing up their performance. Meiyue sighed quietly to herself as the curtains were once again drawn closed.
Yuzhe was helping to guide a group of children from the restroom back into the arena when he heard the audience clapped. His gaze instantly slid to the stage. Meiyue was standing behind the other princesses, exquisite in her white and blue dress, curtsying. Then she was shielded by the curtains.
He moved forward closer to the seats but didn't take one. There were several empty chairs on lower levels where the occupants were out momentarily. Where he stood already offered a clear view of the stage.
"Your Excellencies, lords, and ladies of the court, people of Anhui," broadcasted the host behind the curtains. "We are now presenting the final performance from the youngest daughter of our mighty sovereign, Son of the Heaven, Princess Long Meiyue."
Sudden applause exploded beforehand. A majority of it came from the nobles. Yuzhe found himself clapping along with them. He had been anticipating her turn ever since he left the weaponry room.
The screens flapped opened, revealing the princess once more seated behind her golden zither. Not only her clothes glowed in the light, but she herself seemed like a shimmer, a beauty unmatched. Yuzhe was beginning to realize why the aristocrats reacted solely to her performance. He heard her fame spread through the spectators like wildfire.
A swift glide of notes silenced the arena.
The princess eyed her audience, as if challenging them to interrupt her. Regality and elegance were in every set of her posture. She raised a hand, and after a calculated second passed, she brought it down and played.
Her music was like a spell. It hypnotized the crowd to her performance and lured Yuzhe to the graceful motion of her hands. He was too far away to clearly see her expression and had to hold himself down from walking to where the royals were seated. The piece crescendoed to the powerful main passage. The sentiment embedded in the melody filled him with a pair of conflicting emotions, of despair and defiance, altogether with a nearly hidden trace of longing.
As he watched, he thought if they were what Meiyue was feeling now. She'd played for him on the night before, but the piece then felt completely different. He was standing so still until the melody came to a smooth stop.
Another round of applause and cheers burst from the listeners. Meiyue curtsied and looked up to the people. For a moment, her eyes lingered in his direction and she smiled. Yuzhe voluntarily believed it was meant for him and returned it. Her gaze then shifted to where the royal family was, and then she wasn't smiling anymore.
The emcee spoke behind the loud-hailer. "Your Excellencies, esteemed lord and ladies, and respective folks. Now the first session of our event has come to an end. Following soon after a short break, we will enter a session of martial arts where honored artists will display their individual expertise and a competition will be held for volunteers. So stay tuned and please enjoy your banquet. Thank you."
The audience began to disperse. Yuzhe was swept from the arena by swarms of people as they poured out from the hallway and to the garden. Two porches were permitted for entry, but by the sheer numbers of the throng two certainly weren't enough.
Yuzhe and dozens of guards remained at different places throughout the footpath to smooth the traffic until most of them reached the banquet area. He caught drifts of conversations that obviously mentioned something about him. Yuzhe didn't mind them and made his way there as well.
He didn't know about the aristocrats' section, but the commoners' was an improvement compared to last year. The tents offered a measure of luxury. Paper lanterns attached to poles lightened up the night. They were hung facing the outer side of the tents so that insects wouldn't disturb the meals.
Tables were set in every tent, each held plenty of various cuisines, pastries, and fresh fruits. Inviting aromas of food wafted in the air. Yuzhe reached for a fried dough on a pastry table he passed between the guests. Servants moved about serving alcoholic drinks. Some people sat eating and drinking while most younger ones stood and mingled. Music streamed from a band of musicians playing on a raised surface.
Yuzhe remained by a pole where it gave a little space from the revelry buzzing all around. He bit down on the salty bread he'd taken. The prospect of watching others communicating was somewhat more preferable to him than to be among them unless he was familiar with the crowd. He leaned against the pole and crossed his arms over his chest, looking at the partygoers. It didn't take long for his thoughts to drift to Meiyue.
It was common sense that someone of her status was to choose suitors among the high-ranks. She might be obstinate about her decisions, but he wasn't sure how much it could go against the Queen's orders. As much as her he disliked the method of forced marriages, especially regarding the girl, though he wasn't sure why.
Actually, maybe he did know the reason, which was why he'd never felt more helpless now in such a long time about anything.
"Shuaige, how come you are standing here alone?" The feminine voice broke him out of his reverie.
Yuzhe turned and saw a band of ladies dressed in colorful ruquns gathered near him. The one who spoke stood ahead of them, her hand clasping a paper fan. "Come and join us," she cooed.
He stopped leaning and offered a polite smile. "Thank you," he said, gesturing to the others. "Please, enjoy yourselves."
The girl said, "We are. But it will be more fun to have you join us." She turned to her friends. "Right?"
"Yes, join us, join us," the others followed. They stepped up and took his arms and half dragged him into the party.
Yuzhe was pulled to the tent where the musicians were performing. Some drunkards were dancing to the cheerful tunes. The ladies finally released him and one handed him a cup of white liquor.
"Thank you," Yuzhe said gingerly. He didn't want to drink while being on an assignment, so he kept holding the cup.
"Do you work here?" one of the ladies asked him, looking immensely interested.
"Xiansheng," a new voice called.
Yuzhe looked to the person. It was a young woman dressed in a splendid hanfu, very much suiting a noblewoman. Pieces of jewelry adorned her braided hair and her rosy lips held a hint of a smile.
"What's the mayor's daughter doing here?" Yuzhe heard of the girls behind him whispered.
The woman approached and raised a hand in mid-air toward him. "Dance with me," she said, in a voice that caused others to turn to them.
"How dare she! We found him first," one the girls spoke quietly.
Yuzhe hesitated. The woman still had her hand extended at him. Her gaze didn't leave space for refusal. A mass of expectant faces surrounded them. It was the worst kind of humiliation for ladies to be rejected for such trivial requests. Yuzhe thought he at least could save her reputation.
He accepted her hand.
To his near-dismay, the crowd clapped. He set the cup he held on a table as they moved to the clearing in the center. The woman did not let go of his hand until she was sure he'd taken hers properly.
They moved to the rhythm of the music. Yuzhe felt his partner's gaze lingering on his face, but he was staring off into the distance toward where the other banquet held.
He'd told Meiyue to have fun, but he was afraid to find out if she really did.