Yuzhe pulled out a set of gray ruqun from his closet and quickly dressed. He gathered his hair into a high topknot and pinned it in place with a holder that he reserved exclusively for special cases.
Dressing like an official for the sake of appearance wasn't his interest, as opposed to those who desired to boast their wealth. For him, it always depended on the occasion. Meeting someone of authority in poorly-refined garments was instead immoral.
Yuzhe stepped out of his room and found Zhonghong in the parlor. "I'm off to work," he said.
His sister turned to him, and then looked away before shrugging on her coat. "Hmm."
"Be careful outside," he told her by the threshold. Zhonghong gave him a nod. He had the feeling that she was avoiding him since the night before, but hadn't questioned what was wrong. Now that he was certain he decided he would after work.
Being late on the first day wouldn't serve as a good impression after all.
Sunlight poured down the vast granite pavement of the Second Division as Yuzhe entered through the grand gate. The guards merely saluted him and permitted entry before he could show them the pass. He shortly wondered if the light security resulted from the daily commute from the same packed crowds, not to mention most of them ranked far above the troops.
Officials and administrators dotted throughout the division, each heading to their individual department. Yuzhe supposed he was going to have to explore his, judging by the palpable hurriedness of the people going about. Roofed porches stretched on either sides, a maze-like pathway leading to various destinations. It wouldn't be wise to use them. And there was still sometime left before the work hour started.
Yuzhe strode further out in the open footway and skimmed over the huge banners of each busy building he came across. Ministry of Property Regulation. Trade and Foreign Relations Department. Bureau of Education and Research-
"You must be Li-xiansheng."
Yuzhe turned to the voice. A young man was approaching him from behind. Seeing how he was dressed he must be a page. "Yes, I am," Yuzhe confirmed.
The young man bowed courtly. "I am Lord Junqian's attendant. His Grace is expecting you, sir. Please follow me."
Thinking he was saved from rummaging the area, Yuzhe followed the attendant to a nearby porch. They traveled under shade and a luxury of a rug was given on the floor. Yuzhe tried to memorize the dizzying turns before his thoughts broke to an announcement of the Queen's arrival.
There was a collective shuffle as everyone on the path gathered to a side and dropped down to one knee. Yuzhe half knelt behind the young page. He attempted to see where exactly the Queen was and regretted it almost instantly when his gaze landed squarely upon a pair of hard eyes glaring right at him from ahead.
He quickly cast his face to the floor. For some reason her features didn't display the gentleness as Meiyue's did at all. What they had in common was the brown of their eyes.
The Queen neared where he was. Her look above him burned with intensity. He thought not for the time how had he ever done anything to offend her in the past. She'd practically smothered him with her gaze alone back then in the throne room. Maybe it had something to do with last night. Yuzhe saw the upturned toes of her shoes paused at a close distance from him, along with several of her maids. He waited for some sort of reproach but then the Queen merely continued her way down the porch without a word.
The others all got to their feet when she was gone and resumed their journey. Yuzhe left his thoughts aside when the young man led him to a two-story structure with the sign that read Ministry of Finance and Economy.
They entered into the carpeted hallway. The compartment was divided into smaller identical offices that extended to the back. They stopped in front of the first one with different folding lattice doors. The page knocked on the wood before prying open the middle door and gestured for Yuzhe to enter.
The office was packed with about a dozen shelves filled with books and papers. A window to the left lent in some light. There was another one across when he followed the man to the left section of the room.
Junqian sat behind a spacious desk, scribbling down something. Stacks of papers awaited him at a corner. The sun shone right at his back behind him. The advisor looked up at the arrival.
"Oh Yuzhe, welcome welcome," he said keenly and set the brush down. He came in front of the desk, draped in heavy-looking silk, and dismissed his attendant.
Yuzhe clasped his hands to his forehead, a portray of etiquette toward authority, but Junqian caught it. "No formalities between us, brother," the advisor said. "I'm so glad you agreed to work."
Yuzhe nodded, fond of the young lad.
"So this is where you'll be working at," Junqian said, indicating to a new desk positioned near the right wall. A chair sat behind it. Already the surface held some documents and record books scattered atop of it, as well as a set of writing equipment.
"As for your official attire," Junqian continued, "I've contacted a tailor downtown, so all you have to do is have your measurement checked and you'd probably get them by tomorrow." He went over to his desk and swooped up a paper which he handed to him. "This is the address. And don't worry about the payment. It's one of the privileges of working here."
Yuzhe took the address. "All right," he said, impressed at the speed of all the preparation. "Thank you."
"As you can see I like to get things done quickly," the advisor said. "But that's not happening with all of the work pushed to my desk because of the Chief's absence. I'm looking froward to work with you."
"I'll do my best," Yuzhe said. He kept the address in his chest pocket and turned to his desk. "Let's get started then."
"Fantastic. Sit down and I'll show you what you need to do."
Junqian swiftly went over the record books and documentary papers regarding of the state's daily income and expenses. He instructed what Yuzhe was to highlight within a report. The cost of the upcoming festival was a big factor of his work. Yuzhe was to also study the transactions from other branches of the ministry while maintaining a consistent record of their progress and so on.
Later that night, Meiyue was patiently waiting for Yuzhe in the parlor of her chambers. She idly tuned the white zither while she waited. She had requested her instrument to be brought to her own private living room this morning. The solitude granted her better concentration, especially when the twins were paying her instructor frequent visit. Their duet was more or less progressing, Meiyue didn't care anymore at this point.
"Is he here yet?" she asked Xiaonu, who was now stepping through the door. The girl nodded.
The princess got up from the cushion bench and went out. Her maid knew not to follow her. When she peeked over the staircase she saw Yuzhe standing by the usual spot beneath the gnarled peach branches.
"Yuzhe," she called in a hushed tone. He veered around, the torchlight flickering on his face. Meiyue scanned the area before gesturing him up the stairs. She realized he was wearing the same gray outfit he had on the first day of their trip as he swept up the steps. She inwardly favored it.
"Come in," Meiyue said after she moved into the parlor.
Yuzhe paused right behind the threshold as if the place beyond was too perilous to cross. "Are you sure?" he said, skeptical, glancing between the princess and her maid.
Meiyue figured he must be meaning the custom. Stifling a groan, she bluntly reached for his arm and pulled him inside. Xiaonu shut the with a conspiratorial click and grinned. Then she disappeared away for a preparation of tea, leaving the two alone.
Meiyue released his arm. This was the first time a man ever set foot in her quarters, but bragging about it might be unnerving. So she said, "We won't be interrupted this way. And if we would, then there's the matter of escaping through the other doors or windows."
Yuzhe looked down to her shorter height, caught between being impressed and abashed. He took a seat close to the instrument Meiyue sprawled at the width of the room. She retook hers on the bench behind it.
"How was work?" she asked him.
"I think I'm getting the hang of it," he said, studying the guzheng interestedly.
Xiaonu emerged from the other adjoining room with a tray. She set the cups down on the table between them both.
"Working with Junqian is maybe one of the best thing about working here," Meiyue asserted. She then glanced at her maid teasingly. "Right?"
Xiaonu immediately blushed pink. She went behind the princess without replying. Yuzhe had a slight bewildered expression seeing the smirk on Meiyue's lips. "Why so?" he questioned.
"He doesn't slave-drive his assistants with unreasonable load of work that are not theirs to take care of. I heard it all the time from those who used to work with him before." Meiyue took a sip of the marigold tea. "I hope you're working for the sake of helping him and not for the ministry."
Yuzhe considered something before commenting, "He did say something about me taking his place this morning. After the Chief returns."
"Then your bliss will only last until then," the princess said. "Embrace it while you still can."
"You're scaring me," he said. Meiyue smiled and placed the cup back on the table. "How about you?"
"The festival is within two days, so I've been practicing lately," she told him.
Interest piqued in his charcoal eyes. "You'll perform?"
Meiyue nodded. "Would you hear it?" she asked. His expression spoke the answer.
Xiaonu assisted her on taping the finger picks to her nails of both her right and left hands. She didn't actually like the feeling of playing with fake nails attached to her fingers, but what she learned was an advanced melody. If she wanted her fingers to remain in one piece after she finished it, then sacrificing a minor discomfort was nothing. Well, almost.
Meiyue positioned her fingers on the strings. The music sheets spread over on a panel extended from the zither. She had memorized pretty much the entire piece. Her eyes skimmed over the first page, then she plucked the first string.
The melody resonated throughout the chamber. Rhythms of the same notes repeated like a spiraling ballerina, sharp and precise and capturing. Moving past the introduction was the smooth bridge of the music which she came to like. When her hands moved by their own accord over the familiarity of the strings her mind started to escape the movement.
Many things came, brought by the glide of each note. Usually they were the same images, of a forlorn cliff that offered a view of an endless crashing ocean under the despairing leaden sky. She saw herself playing her zither there, alone with her emotions. Then she saw Yuzhe, then not everything was not so despairing anymore. But soon the Queen's words cut through the vision, a thunder that shattered the picture of them together.
Meiyue cast her eyes to him sitting just across from her. She saw the way he watched her fingers moved over the strings and tore her gaze away to the blurry sight of the musical notes. Her hands forgot the continuation of the piece. Her mind became a nest of turmoil. The room plunged into an abrupt silence.
Meiyue brought her hands to her face. Something thick rose up to her throat and prevented her anymore speech than just an unsteady "I'm sorry."
She didn't know what she was apologizing for. Maybe for her poor performance, but her heart wasn't convinced. "Is something wrong?" she heard Yuzhe asked, worried. Her palm touched moisture. She couldn't reply.
Xiaonu came to her and stroked her back. "It's the Queen," the girl said, doubtless. "Her Majesty forced princess to choose a suitor to betroth her on the festival."
Yuzhe was quiet for a minute. "Is it because of last night?" he uttered.
Meiyue felt the question was meant for her. She shook her head, getting a hold of herself, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. "She planned it since the start," she said.
"But you don't want it." There was a furrow between his brows when he said it. His intent gaze alone was like a solid support.
Meiyue took a deep breath. "To her, I only have the choice to listen to what she has to say. What I want never matters." She dabbed her eyes with her sleeve. "Well, I should have expected it either way."
Yuzhe stared at his feet, his face rendered grim. "I'm sorry if this happened also because she saw us together," he said. "But I don't want to be sorry for staying with you."
She regarded his troubled gaze, a warm feeling permeated her chest. She was surprised at how powerful it was soon. "Neither do I," she declared. "Xiaonu, remove all of my hair pieces. I'm tired of appearances."
Her maid did as told. The princess's raven hair tumbled down her shoulders to her waist like satin curtain. It was heavy and light at the same time. She felt Yuzhe's eyes fixed on her face even after Xiaonu removed all the ornaments from her head.
Meiyue demolished every thought of her mother until there was only one image left in her head. It was the face that was staring at her now, with a strange new expression she'd never quite gotten from him before. She combined his look with her own peculiar longing.
Spreading her fingers on the instrument, Meiyue began to play.
The sky turned to a velvet black-blue as the night extended. A waxing oval moon stared down the sleeping populace, its light a warm glow compared to the sheer darkness overhead. Torches and lanterns quivered throughout the palace gardens, followed by the scrapes of footsteps when the guards retook their shifts.
The Queen rose from the stone bench in the lotus pavilion. Moths fluttered about the oil lamp hanging from the vaulted ceiling, casting a swarm of tiny swirling shadows. "Shall we retire for tonight?" she asked the King.
He was standing at the edge of the shelter, watching fully bloomed lotuses down from the moat. The flowers were well bigger than a person's head with a color gradient between pink and white. "You can go first," he spoke. "I want to remain a little longer."
"You're always fond of moonlit nights," Dongyu said disapprovingly. "What is so wonderful about it when even the air brings chill?" She never favored the shivers each gust passed to her.
The King lifted his face to the firmament. "Memories," he said. "It was on a night like this when I encountered Yingyuan." Dongyu's eyes shot to him at the mention of the late Queen. He sounded plainly wistful. "Sometimes I can't believe that it's been fifteen years. Now the children are grown up while I've gotten old. If my boy was still here I wonder what sort of man he'd become."
Dongyu stared at his back, silent. So the reason behind his recent late retirement had been more from indulging in the illusions of what he still longed for. Of what used to be. Of course, a part of him that was alive and present, one which she'd loved, had long dissipated from the moment the only love of his heart was shut away beneath the earth. He even went all the way to make her memorial day as the nation's annual festival.
Dongyu stepped beside him. Now that they were on the topic, she said, "I hear that you've allowed that commoner boy into our court without a proper qualification." She didn't turn to him, but her eyes gouged his expression.
"I can see his potential," the King said simply. A glaze was in his eyes, as if he was seeing something only visible to his mind. His beard, peppered in white, grew over his chin. The man she fell for long ago had been withdrawn to just an old man with wrinkles. And power.
"I will believe that's the case," Dongyu said. Her voice couldn't wholly hide the small trace of venom from dripping down her remark next. "Never forget. Whims will only lead to disputes, and still the past will never be the present."
She knew he would understand her statement, because she wasn't only meaning the dead woman. Dongyu made her way to the short set of stairs reaching to ground level and paused on the first step.
"It's very ill-fated of him to be lost at such a young age. Your boy," she added, her lips curling at the corners.
The Queen descended the steps, satisfied with the weight of the King's gaze she felt on her back as she went away. It had been sometime since she last smiled.