Meiyue seated herself on a chair in the parlor of Yuzhe's house. The room was brightened by the gentle sun rays that streamed in from the door and windows throughout. A few canvases of painting and printed proverbs decorated the walls of the rectangular room, along with chairs and two tables lined on either side.
The bag of silvers and gold she managed to wring out of the pawnbroker in exchange for her personal jewelries sat on the table next to her. She refused to ask for anything of the King for her own self-indulged trip, and her head throbbed from having too many heavy accessories poking her hair.
Xiaonu, delighted to have finally set foot out of the palace and met the character of her dreams, went to assist Yuzhe with tea in the kitchen. The princess could hear the girl complimenting him about saving her and Yuzhe's humble statements about how he was able to save her was because he had the help of Hehua. Meiyue shortly wondered how the little girl was doing.
Soon both of them emerged from the corridor with a tray of cups and a kettle. The maid laid them out for the princess and Yuzhe, poured tea, and went to stand behind Meiyue.
Yuzhe seemed to note her manner with a question. "You may sit," he offered her politely.
"Oh, I'm alright," the girl said, then threw a knowing grin to the princess, who instead tried to appear innocent. The reason why Yuzhe didn't know about her occupation was because she thought it was not necessary. She believed befriending someone shouldn't concern one's status.
Meiyue lifted her cup and took a sip. The aroma of marigold filled her mouth with pleasing warmth. "Is Uncle Liping not here?" she asked Yuzhe.
"He's out for a walk," he said, then he looked to the canvas sack nearby. "What's this?"
"For our trip." Meiyue undid the drawstrings and showed him the content. It was lesser than what she had expected to get, but this amount would at least be able to feed more than a few families.
Yuzhe almost looked alarmed. "Where did you get all of these?"
"I sold a few things I didn't need," the princess said. "Would you keep them for me? It would seem awkward if I carry them back home."
He gave her a pointed look. "Why? Didn't you inform your parents of this?"
"I did inform my father," she answered. "In fact, I also informed him that you would be coming with me."
"And he agreed?"
"Actually, that is also why I'm here. We will have to find that out now," Meiyue said and got up. "Come with me."
They reached the Forbidden District gate by noon. The entrance was wide open during this time of the day, exposing the scenery of neat lines of buildings and gardens inside. Servants fluttered in and out from the city and noblewomen and their children strolled the expense of the gardens inside. Colorful was the flowers and their dresses, their jewelries sparkled with each movement. Paper fans fluttered like butterflies.
Seemingly to have forgotten about her entrance this earlier morning, the patrols walked from their station to question when Meiyue, Xiaonu and Yuzhe approached.
"Can I see your pass?" one of them inquires. The other one glanced at Yuzhe, probably noticing his commoner clothing.
Behind Meiyue, Xiaonu drew from her sleeves and held the imperial pass to the guard. He blanched upon seeing again the embroidered twin dragons, and both quickly dropped to a low bow.
"Your highness," they said to Meiyue, and cleared the way.
The princess nodded and proceeded into the First Division before she could catch Yuzhe for any particular reaction. He was more or less impressed with the First Division, sometimes glancing about for remembrance of the numerous times he had been in there for his stallion purchases to the nobles.
A deep resonating sound echoed throughout the divisions as the temple bell struck. It was exactly at noon. And it was the promised time Meiyue was supposed to meet the advisor's son, Junqian.
"We must hurry," Meiyue urged her companions and picked up her pace. Yuzhe glanced at her just as they passed another gate into the Second Division.
Administrators, agency workers, pages and candidates for the civil examination packed the porches connected to different departments. Gardens were dotted with other workers hurrying about. Meiyue almost didn't hear his question when they trotted upon a less occupied porch that led to where her friend was waiting.
"Where are we heading to? Isn't this part of the district already off-limit for us?" Yuzhe asked beside her, after receiving several gazes from those who passed. To them, it was only a noblewoman with two servants coming to where they didn't belong. Meiyue hardly made her presence known to people in this busy division.
Meiyue spoke above the rush of her anticipation. "We are going to meet my father." She felt his gaze lingering on her, and couldn't help a smile surfacing when they arrived at the end of the porch.
The throne room was located on a highly raised surface that took a set of stairs to reach. It was a painted red and gold structure with vermilion tiled roof that curved on four tips. The thick redwood doors were pushed closed, and troops stood stationed along the sides the veranda.
Meiyue slowed down, and climbed the stairs, keeping her posture well and her nerves in check. She did not look back but heard Yuzhe's footsteps just right below her as he ascended. It was too late for confession now. With a few more stairs the situation would explain everything for her.
Perspiration prickled her back as they approached the closed entrance. The guards remained like miniature sculptures staring blankly ahead. Meiyue had always admired that ability. With a gesture of her chin, two of the soldiers blinked to life and moved to push the doors open.
Meiyue saw Junqian first, assigned to his spot at the left side. For a flicker of moment he looked seemingly relieved by their arrival. The dark colors of his hanfu matching with the scabbard at his waist brought out a sternness as he beheld the person behind her. Meiyue tried to catch his eyes again but was forced to meet the King's as they entered the room. Her father sat on the mighty throne of golden intertwined dragons on the dais, draped in layers of likewise exquisite silk. The twelve strings of jades dangled from his crown, and his tiger-like eyes watched their advancement. Everything in the room from the dark red walls to the towering painted pillars seemed to have been built to embellish this majestic sight of the sovereign.
Meiyue practiced a low courtesy, silently thanking Junqian for what persuasion he used upon the King for setting up this meeting.
"I apologize to keep you waiting amidst your busy schedule, Father," she said. She hoped that her gesture would serve as the final confirmation for Yuzhe when she sensed he was as stiff as the soldiers guarding the throne room. Then he dropped to the floor with one knee and brought his interlaced hands to his forehead, signifying the cultural civility toward royalty. But he did not speak, and at that moment the first doubt crept into Meiyue's stomach about how she should had had at least mention something of what was to come.
"Rise," said the King. Meiyue wanted to apologize, as she rose gracefully to her feet, but this was not all yet. Her plan had yet unfolded. She stole a glance beside her and nearly faltered at the flat look on Yuzhe's face. Behind her, Xiaonu cleared her throat softly, so that only the princess could hear, urging her on.
Meiyue said to the King, "Father, this is the person whom I spoke of." She turned to Yuzhe. He stepped next to her, but his gaze was fixed to the King, puzzled.
"It is an honor to meet you, Your majesty," he said for the first time. Anyone else might not detect it, but Meiyue heard the confusion there. She would have kept it aside for later if not for the way her father was staring at Yuzhe.
The King demanded clipped question. "What is your name?"
"Li Yuzhe is my name, Your majesty," he answered, and it was as if her father had held no strange sentiment in the first place. The regal mask was back on.
The King continued on. "You will be my daughter's protection? In what way can you prove?"
"In anyway in which Your majesty desires," Yuzhe replied swiftly. It lifted Meiyue's spirit just a little that she knew Yuzhe was still willing to help her. And she only needed him to agree to one more thing.
"If I may, Bixia," Junqian joined from the left of the dais, and continued after the King gave consent. "I am willing to help this young man prove his stance, that is, if Bixia grants the permission."
The King considered between the two men. Meiyue thought it was good to see him considering about something else rather than the state's matters. "Very well."
The young advisor let a slight smile and shared a look with the princess. He withdrew from his position and descended the steps of the dais. "I would ask for a challenge of a duel," Junqian said, reaching the ground level. "If I lose, then Yuzhe would suit as a fine protector for her highness to accompany her journey."
The room fell silent for objection.
Then Yuzhe said, "A duel it is." When he turned to Meiyue now, it was only to tell her to move a distance away where she would not get affected. Her legs stepped mechanically out of the carpet and near a pillar, painted with images of a dragon holding a globe in its mouth.
Junqian moved to the center of the spacious room. Yuzhe braced his stance. Meiyue watched the scene with a held breath. Then the soldiers outside announced the arrival of the Queen just as the grand doors were again pushed open.
The Queen charged into the room. Her heavy garments did not slow her pace, her hair accessories glorious. Her servants walked in tow, one in particular was Fauglin, the head maid.
Her voice carried when she spoke. "Pardon my sudden intrusion, my King," she said, stopping where Junqian just now was. He, Yuzhe and Xiaonu remained bowed on the floor. "But I have an urgent matter in need of my daughter's immediate attendance."
Meiyue stopped breathing. What was her mother doing there? She wasn't supposed to learn of her journey until all of this was over. The princess glanced to her father, as if for some sort of assistance. But the King only nodded assent.
"Meiyue, come," the Queen ordered.
She clung her robe with a fist. "Yes, Your majesty."
The Queen spun for the exit. With a lethal glare to Yuzhe, she said, "Please see to the continuation of this parade." And Meiyue was swept out of the throne room as the doors shut behind them.
Meiyue followed the Queen to the lotus pavilion by the moat. They did not exchange words along the way. By the time they covered the distance, Meiyue was sticky with perspiration. Spring it may be, but the afternoon sun was nevertheless merciless.
Her mother dismissed all the servants until they were left alone standing on the polished wood of the pavilion. Black-green water slouched below the floor and Meiyue caught the deep smell of moss.
The Queen did not sit, neither did she.
"Who is he?" her mother demanded. She was facing the gate-wall on other side of the moat until she whirled around to her daughter. "The man you brought here. Who is he?"
Meiyue swallowed. "A friend, mother." She couldn't tell exactly what was the source of her mother's wrath. But she also wasn't sure if the look in her eyes spoke only of anger. Meiyue shared the same eyes as her mother; round shaped and a fair shade of chestnut brown.
"Of yours?" the Queen said. "You, a princess?"
"Yes. He works with horses," Meiyue told her, hoping to dismiss the unfavorable talk of class. "And some of the horses here are from his place."
Her mother did not seem impressed, but decided to let it go. She walked to the edge of the pavilion and rested her hand on the rail. "I've been informed that you want to travel to the south," she said later. "With that man?"
Here it was. It didn't matter from whom her mother knew.
Meiyue went closer to her and said, "Yes, he will be my protection. Miss Huian would accompany me as well. She and I proposed trip, mother, for my studies."
She indeed would have to propose her clueless history tutor of it. Meiyue only hoped she could get away with pretty much anything, as a princess.
"You are a princess," said the Queen, "which means you do not step out of the palace unless it is for your wedding."
Something heavy materialized in her stomach. "I have brought a qualified guard, mother. Please do not concern."
"Well, you have already convinced your father. My objection would not lead anywhere," her mother said, and Meiyue felt the weight lifted. "And you seem rather confident that he is qualified."
Meiyue spoke with a half grin. "Yuzhe will win."
"After the trip," the Queen nonetheless continued, "then that will be it. He goes back to where he belongs. And so will you, too."
Once again, a weight brought her lips to a straight line. Meiyue made effort to answer. "Yes, mother."
By the time Meiyue made her way back to the throne room, the duel was already over.
She promised herself to carry a parasol next time she set foot anywhere under the sun during daylight. Unfortunately, Xiaonu went off somewhere after being dismissed by the Queen and now there was no one around to help remind her of that promise later in time.
The princess saw the boys, Junqian and Yuzhe, both about to descend the stairs. She caught up them just in time.
"How did it go?" Meiyue asked, a little breathless and looked between them. She felt like she was sweating on their behalf.
Junqian made a noise. "You did not tell me that I was dealing with a skilled martial arts fighter," he said to her, then turned to Yuzhe. "Again, I'm sorry, mate. I didn't mean to sound cocky back there. I was just trying to make it convincing."
Yuzhe smiled the kind of smile between boys and patted his shoulder fondly. "You're a skilled fighter yourself."
"Was the King convinced, then?" Meiyue asked above her own smile at their easy friendship.
"Very," Junqian agreed, and tucked the scabbard back to the sash around his waist. As the King's advisor, carrying a blade during meetings meant a measure of protection. "Now I will excuse myself first. I've got things to take care of."
Meiyue nodded. "Thank you."
They watched as Junqian jogged down the stairs and vanished among the busy crowds beneath. Meiyue cleared her throat, (it wasn't something she was accustomed to doing), but that brought Yuzhe's attention back to her. She hadn't failed to notice how he deliberately avoided her gaze earlier. Now that he was looking at her, she didn't know what to say first.
So she started, "I'm glad that we can finally go together."
"You planned all of this," Yuzhe said. His dark eyes forced hers to hold his. "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell me who you really are?"
She wanted to lead them to a better place to talk, but didn't think Yuzhe would relent. There was another matter of a princess out under the open sun speaking with a man, unattended.
"I thought it didn't matter." She regretted it the moment the words left her mouth.
Yuzhe held an expression she barely seen. "Don't you trust me?"
"Of course, I do," she said. "Or else why would I choose to go with you?"
"If you trusted me, why do you need to hide things from me? I thought we know each other."
"We do." She stood, looking at him. This wasn't the turn of conversation she had expected. And she wasn't sure why the way he looked at her now hurt. "I'm sorry."
He sighed, and refused to meet her eyes again. "Your horses will be ready tomorrow," he said flatly. "Your highness."
Meiyue stared after him as Yuzhe galloped down the stairs. She no longer cared of the perspective of appropriateness if she could go after him and make him take back those two words. But he went further away until she could no longer distinct him from the rest of the civil folks.