"Princess!" Xiaonu exclaimed from somewhere before Meiyue could see her. She sat on the vanity stool, waiting for her maid to undo the ornaments on her hair, but apparently the girl had disappeared few moments ago.
"Oh, princess!" Meiyue heard her called out again. Xiaonu entered the bedroom in a fluster. "He's here!" she said and caught her arm.
"Who?" Meiyue pulled her maid back before she could lead her somewhere.
"Yuzhe!" the girl said as if it was the most obvious thing. "He's asking to meet you outside."
Meiyue stared at her maid, dumbfounded for a moment. "How is he here?" she managed, her mind swirling. Xiaonu gave her an impatient look.
The princess moved in front of the vanity mirror and studied her form from left to right. It was a good thing that she hadn't prepared to retire yet or else it would be scandalous to be outside with just her night gown. Adjusting the blue coat over her shoulders, Meiyue turned to her maid and said, "You're coming with me." Xiaonu nodded and ushered her out the room.
As she stepped into the parlor and toward the entrance her heart started to pound. She wasn't sure why it did nor did she had the time to find out when Xiaonu pushed the doors open. They were greeted with the starry night sky. Two torches flickered on either side when Meiyue descended down the stone stairs leading to the ground. Even in the dark, she'd recognize that back everywhere.
Yuzhe stood at the bottom of the steps. Peach blossom trees towered over him, their flowering branches cuddling him in their shadows. He wore a pale ruqun that was stark as the color of the falling petals. Meiyue halted a few steps above him. Her footsteps were so light that he didn't turn until a minute later, leaving her to behold the glide of his hair in the flowing wind.
He stepped out of the shade and smiled at her. "Sorry for calling you out late."
"How did you get past the guards?" Meiyue joined him on ground level.
"It was Baotong's group's shift," he said. He acknowledged Xiaonu with a small nod. So he already had built a relation with some of the guards. As expected of Yuzhe's charisma, Meiyue thought.
"What brings you here at this time?" she asked. They were strolling from her quarters to the courtyard. Ginkgo trees lined the edges of the garden, still green in spring and ruffling in the mild breeze. Beyond were the labyrinth of passages leading deeper to the beauty of the Private Ward.
"Actually, I was just done speaking with the King," Yuzhe said beside her.
Meiyue stopped. "Father?" They'd reached a cluster of huge tree-like jasmine shrubs. White flowers dotted all over the greens, their fragrance strong and pleasing. But Meiyue wasn't looking at her favorite blossoms. "I don't understand," she said, clipped. She was feeling the gloom of what Ruixue told her the day before once again. "Dajie told me you declined."
Yuzhe paused a few steps before her. "I changed my mind," he said.
"Because of you." He looked at her. The race of her heartbeat that had just slowed was now picking up gradually. "You and father made me realize that this might be an opportunity to get a clearer view of our kingdom's current state," he said. "Instead of sitting back and resent the lack of change, I'll help you and those who share your heart."
Meiyue held his gaze, feeling her gloom all of the sudden vanished. She nodded, pleased. "What position?"
"His Majesty offered me a seat in the Ministry of Finance and Economy, but I think that's too bold," Yuzhe said. "So I suggested if I could first work maybe as a volunteer to see how things flow. Then he assigned me to be Junqian's assistant."
Junqian was currently working in that department after all. Though, the thought of the him with an older and bulkier assistant trailing behind him struck her as amusing. "Then what about the stable?" she asked.
"Father insisted that he'd take over. I can help during the day-offs too."
"Then that's great. I'm glad things work out well." Meiyue clasped her hands together, smiling.
"Just one thing," Yuzhe said, more quietly. Something about his expression made her paused. He came over to her until there was only a slight gap in between them. She could catch his refreshing lemon-like scent. "If I work here, does that mean we can see each other almost everyday?"
Her heart skipped two beats. She parted her lips to answer, but then Ruixue's voice echoed in her mind and rooted her in place.
Do you like him?
Heat rose to her face. She whipped her eyes to their feet, suddenly unable to look at him. It was a simple question, yet she couldn't find the casualness to answer it at the moment. She was aware that Xiaonu was a couple of paces behind her and Yuzhe was waiting. The tenderness of his voice simply wouldn't escape her mind. But he had always been speaking like that generally, with anyone. It was silly of her to be swept up by her own overthought.
"Princess!" Xiaonu's loud whisper broke through her reverie. Meiyue was about to turn, but then she froze at the sight of the figure at a distance from them.
The Queen looked at her daughter before her gaze skewered the man beside her. Her expression was blank, but the reflection of the nearby torches in her eyes seemed like the fire was burning from within.
Oh lord, Meiyue thought, her heart ringing with a different alarm. Another lecture was definitely awaiting. She turned to Yuzhe and saw that he was already on the ground. "I have to go," she muttered to him. "Come tomorrow."
Their eyes met in agreement for a brief second before Meiyue hurried away to join her mother.
"What was still he doing here?" Dongyu demanded once the servants poured out. She sat on her enormous bed, curtains from the canopy drawn aside. They were in her private chamber. For reasons unspoken, she did not share the same bed as the King anymore for the last three years, though they was still in the same compartment.
Meiyue sat on one of the chairs surrounding a table in the center of the room, her thumb fidgeting over the other. "Father had summoned Yuzhe over for a position in our court some days ago, mother. And he was here just now to give his consent," she said, not meeting her mother's eyes.
The candlelight flickered from its stone holder on the table. "Granting a position to a commoner without abiding by the civil examinations. Tianlan sure has some whims," the Queen remarked. Meiyue turned at her tone. Her mother looked thoughtful. "Were you apart of his decision?"
"I only learned of it lately," she lied.
Dongyu considered her daughter, her gaze watchful as a hawk's. "And what were you doing over there?"
"Yuzhe informed me that he would be working with Junqian," she said. "I was only congratulating him."
"You ought to know better than to be out alone talking with a man in the dark. It's an outrageous indecency coming from a maiden," her mother chided, exasperated. "What rumors would start if you were seen by anybody else?"
"I'm sorry, mother," Meiyue apologized, a little stung. It was all about appropriateness and appearance for the Queen. She didn't want to imagine what would her mother say if she hadn't brought Xiaonu with her.
"You should think more about your position, Meiyue," Dongyu said, coming over to her. "Anyhow, how is your music rehearsal progressing?"
She pushed away her sullen thought. "It is going well."
"I'm hoping to see you perform the best among others on the festival," her mother said and smiled from where she stood near her. Meiyue never found comfort through the rigid curves of her lips. If anything her words only left pressure. "You're turning nineteen right after the big day. Maybe we can use the celebration to set up someone suitable for you. What do you say?"
Her stomach instantly sank in dismay. "No," she blurted, too forcefully. "I mean, isn't it too early?"
"It's custom that girls your age are most fitting for suitors. You won't be alone. There will be plenty of your friends as I'm sure they are more waiting for your hand," she said. "It'll be a good opportunity to find the one you favor."
Meiyue wanted to point out that her friends mostly revolved around Junqian and Xiaonu and those she was prohibited to meet. She was slowly realizing the meaning behind the flow of the conversation. "I don't want to get married," she declared.
Dongyu seated herself beside her daughter. "That's one of the responsibilities that you will have to shoulder."
"How about the others?" Meiyue countered, feeling cornered like a rat. "Ruoqing and Ruoyu are older than me by a year, yet they're not promised to anyone. Neither is Dajie."
"It's their choice whether they choose to heed my advice," the Queen responded. "Ruixue will not have the luxury to choose as you do. Her marriage will be solely for the state. So if you do not choose, then I will."
"It's not fair!" Meiyue shot up from the chair, the impact nearly sending it tumbling to the floor. "Why do they have a choice and I don't?" She hated how her mother sounded as if she truly cared when she was only passing down her orders that didn't open for disobedience. She loathed the feeling of being forced into something against her will. Anger boiled in her blood.
Dongyu gave her daughter a hard look. "As you true mother, I have an obligation to ensure your future in the court," she claimed.
"So I've no choice in since beginning anyway."
"No, you don't," Dongyu agreed.
Meiyue fought to keep her composure as she wordlessly headed to the door. She grabbed the frame and opened it when her mother's warning cut through the silence, "Do refrain from straying from your duties and anything else that disgraces our family."
Outraged tears flooded her eyes. Meiyue clenched her jaws and stalked out.
Fauglin remained in the parlor after the Queen's dismissal. She did not light the candles. Darkness was like a tangible sheet, best to conceal her presence.
After the servants disappeared with a soft click of the doors and all was plunged into a state of stillness, she quietly slunk back to the corridor where the Queen's chamber directly faced the King's. His Majesty had not retired yet despite the lateness. His room was unlit.
Fauglin stood with her back to the wall, keeping to the shadows where the light from within the Dongyu's room wouldn't betray her silhouette. She listened to their conversation intently.
So Yuzhe was the man's name. Fauglin thought leaving matters down to the Queen would be enough to keep him away from the court for good. How had she mistaken. Now that he was to work there on the request of the King, it'd take some more effort to rid of him. She would have to deal with things by her own hands from now.
The world was small enough for uncanny coincidences and resemblance. It wasn't bad to be careful just in case after all.
The sound of footsteps nearing the door snapped her out of her thoughts. Fauglin hurried back to parlor and hid herself just in time as Meiyue exploded out of her mother's chamber and stormed away without a glance backward.
Liping flipped the newspaper to the next page. The bold text at the below corner caught his attention. The kindness of the renowned young advisor, Zhou Junqian. Dozens of wagons of provision for the unprivileged, the text said. Liping read the whole context below it and nodded to himself, impressed. It wasn't often that officials paid much attention to the poor, especially those in the south. Something about it told him that it had a connection to Meiyue. He determined to show it to his son later when he came back.
"I'm home," said Zhonghong as she came into the living room.
"Welcome back." Liping folded the newsprint and placed it on the table next to him.
Zhonghong shrugged off her coat. "Is Yuzhe at the back?" she asked.
"Oh, he's out for a bit."
"To the palace." He lifted his teacup and took a sip. "I hope he's able to meet the King at this hour."
Zhonghong turned after she hung the coat on the hanger. "Why is he meeting the King?" she asked again, uncertain.
"He made a better decision now," Liping said proudly. He was right to bring Meiyue into their conversation last night.
"So he's going to work there."
"Only during the weekdays I assume. Ah, it's going to get a little quiet." He smiled in spite of his light-hearted comment.
Zhonghong made her way to the corridor. "I'll prepare dinner," she said and vanished to the kitchen. Liping watched after her daughter, not really understanding if she had a sudden change of mood. He'd expected her to be more glad.
Yuzhe returned soon later. They united around the rectangular table in the kitchen which already had two dishes on top of it. Liping's remark on how Zhonghong was a quick cook only got acknowledged by a short glance from his daughter as she spread out the rest of supper.
Yuzhe reported them of his visit as they ate. By the time they finished Liping noticed that Zhonghong did not speak a word during their exchange, and that she went on with the chores without even looking at Yuzhe in the eye.