41: Arrival of Linlong
It had been close to a month since Huli’s coronation as emperor when the third prince, his wife and the first princess of Linlong visited Shanhe. They travelled across the land on horseback, and only the prince’s wife, Kuang Yanyan, was authorised a carriage. The princess, Xun Caihong, refused to ride in one and throughout the whole trip, proved to be a nuisance by jumping on other men’s horses and taking them for herself. Each guard groaned and rolled their eyes at her mischief, expecting it to occur; Caihong developed a reputation to be extremely reckless and naïve. In the end, the prince felt pressured to allow her to ride with him to end the stupid behaviour.
Once in the heart of Shanhe, in Yinying Yueguang, the troupe divided; the soldiers celebrated a long journey with royal wine, delivered by eunuchs from the palace, and set up camp in the forest. Although they eagerly looked towards the taverns and brothels, the Shanhe villagers’ glares and insults kept them away. The welcoming into the kingdom had been cold as Xun Shaiming, the third prince, expected. The Shanhe royals were equally unsociable, waiting at the palace entrance near the Divine Gate with glum faces.
Approaching them, Shaiming studied the contrasts in appearance of Shanhe and Linlong. The clothing looked similar but Shanhe prioritised aesthetic appeal over practicality; Linlong people preferred mobility rather than constricted by heavy layers of clothing and so, wore shorter tunics with thick pants. He also saw no braids in their hair, unlike his family. Braids identified status in the bloodlines and as a prince, he had three braids on his left side that met in a ponytail. Meanwhile, his sister and wife wore two braids that followed the rest of their hair into two low buns.
“Husband, you must speak.” Yanyan nudged him. In Linlong, he had become accustomed to remaining silent during exchanges because of his lower status and age.
Cheng took initiative instead. “Welcome, Xun family, to Shanhe. The emperor hopes you had a safe and pleasant travel. It is an honour to meet again.”
The family guard, Dong Mencius, covered in large muscles and hair, cracked his neck. A single breath caused his chest to puff out and shoulders to roll back, displaying natural dominance. All Linlong soldiers feared to fight him.
“The hospitality of your kingdom was thrilling. A few bandits attacked us on the way, your majesty. Your kingdom is looking wild as ours.”
“Dong Mencius.” Shaiming used his name to serve as a warning.
“We will dispose of them immediately,” Huli snapped, irked by the man speaking out of turn.
“We are grateful, your majesty, but do not haste. They were only poor citizens that had little food and money. Concern yourself not for our well-being but for your people,” Shaiming replied, full of wisdom despite being on the cusp of finishing his teenage years.
In Linlong, both councilmen and his family overlooked his intelligence due to youth. The small facial features did not help age him, but instead made him look pretty rather than masculine. No one believed him to speak like a scholar nor present great wisdom, except his wife. It was one of many reasons why he sought to marry her in haste and fought his family over the commoner.
“I am certain you have more wild bandits in your lands,” Huli remarked.
The insult forced Qiaolian to intervene to keep peace. “Excuse the emperor. He is resolving this problem and has spent many nights awake until the moon was high in the sky.
“We face misfortune to receive your letter late and could not organise a grander celebration in time for your arrival, Third Prince. I am inclined to assume that our previous festivities enticed your return.”
“You are indeed correct although, I hope my return does not bring as many calamities as that over a year ago,” Shaiming politely replied..
“You must not blame yourself. It was a blessing you weren’t injured in the chaos. How far along is this woman?” Qiaolian asked, eyes crinkling happily at the site of Yanyan’s swollen stomach. No amount of loose dresses could hide her pregnancy.
“Forgive my rudeness. Emperor Hong Huli. Zhao Qiaolian. Zhao Cheng. May I introduce my wife, Kuang Yanyan. We married shortly after my last visit in Shanhe. I wish she be treated with great care since she is due in a few months. The woman beside her is my younger sister, Princess Xun Caihong.”
“It is wonderfully refreshing to meet such beautiful women from across the lands,” Cheng said, following Qiaolian’s example of grace and kind words. The compliment primarily referred to the princess, as Yenay kept her face hidden by draping material attached to a headdress.
“We are grateful for the warm welcome,” Yenay said softly. “We have brought gifts to express—”
“Why have you come in the place of Linlong’s emperor or eldest son?” Huli asked tersely, sick of the false niceties and etiquette.
“The emperor is solving our water crisis, along with my second eldest brother. Our rivers are drying up at a rapid rate and we fear for Winter. My eldest brother is currently going through his trials. It is a tradition in our kingdom that you must prove your worth before gaining the throne by a series of challenges,” Shaiming answered. Throughout speaking, his voice remained even and polite but there was an underlying terseness. Rumours already reached Linlong about the new emperor’s uncaring and harsh reputation. “To ask my family’s whereabouts must mean I have offended you. I apologise if my company is displeasing.”
“Of course not!” Qiaolian interrupted with haste, filling her role as a royal perfectly. “Shall we tour the palace? I imagine after a long travel, you wish to rest your weary souls and our gardens’ beauty will revitalise you.”
Indeed, she was right. Shaiming felt like the Lotus Palace never ceased to amaze him. Every season, different flowers bloomed and a new colour theme speckled the grounds. The structure lived up to its reputation in beauty, the sun hitting the building walls in such a way that gold sparkled flirtatiously while the border shimmered in pink to compliment the tones around. Shaiming smiled a few times, recalling his last visit and the company on Bai Juan. She took his breath away at every corner and the way she had talked added more life to the palace.
The Xun family’s chambers resided to the west, nestled away in the guest housing. They passed a great waterfall of plants that spread out across the path. The leaves and flowers swirled down in shades of orange, red and pinks, creating an enchanting entrance to the hidden chambers. Behind this, soft yellows and creams washed the walls of the buildings, while deep brown beams and crossed wooden panels provided decoration and support. Bronze tiled roofs stood at different heights that curved outwards, each corner morphed into a water bird. The smaller dwelling to the right would be Caihong’s residence during their stay, while the larger building provided more comfort for the prince and his wife.
At the residence, Shaiming politely interrupted Qiaolian’s pleasant flow of Shanhe’s history. “I do appreciate your earlier offer for tea but I am afraid my wife has grown weary from travel, as have I. Please excuse us while we adjust ourselves.”
“As you wish,” Qiaolian said softly. “Can I expect we arrange for tea tomorrow?”
“It would be my honour.”
The families divided and when the Shanhe rulers disappeared behind the flower curtain, Shaiming entered the prepared chambers. Although grand on the outside, inside lacked the fine detailing. A large bed floated in the joined room to the left, whereas a table for tea sat in the bare, main room. The array of embroiled materials, such as rugs and cushions, added enough elegance but did not compare to the attention to detail outside. It felt like a tavern rather than royal guest chamber. The only hint at their location came from a painting of the current emperor, Hong Huli, which hung from the wall.
The artwork looked freshly completed, likely at Huli’s coronation. In the past visits, Shaiming recalled a mystical picture of a mountain in the exact same spot. Bai Juan wistfully told him Shanhe’s version of the Mountain Master legends during their reoccurring afternoon teas.
“Is it too late to run away?” Caihong groaned and collapsed on the bed. She had yet to bother investigating her own chambers.
“Sister. Do not slouch. Keep your guard up at all times for there are eyes everywhere in this palace,” Shaiming scolded but his voice lacked conviction.
Their mother fussed more over her etiquette than him. From an early age, Caihong proved unruly and wild. She suited a life in wild areas of the forest than the palace where rules confined her. The journey to Shanhe proved she was not ready for the duties of royalty nor their father’s decision for marriage.
“When you are ordered to have a concubine like I am ordered to wed, then you may criticise me,” Caihong sneered. “This trip is horrible. If sister-in-law was not here to keep me company, I fear boredom would overcome me! I still do not understand why she is here at all.”
“A baby needs his father,” Yanyan replied and rubbed her stomach. Her voice, so soft and gentle, covered Shaiming like a warm blanket. The sound always soothed him.
Caihong snorted. “That father is disappearing as we speak. Look! How can you call me rude when he is sneaking away!”
Shaiming ignored his sister and continued scanning the courtyard through an opened door. Their arrival should have been announced so that meant the flickering beam should appear. There! Shaiming suppressed a smile and the directed light that blinded his eyes. He turned back to the women, giving Caihong a lie to sate her complaints of abandonment.
“I want to ensure Mencius is familiar with the area to properly complete his duty. Stay here and rest after a long day.”
“Who can rest when it smells like a swamp here,” Caihong groaned and rolled her eyes. “I want to go home.”
“I will ensure everything is ready for your return,” Yanyan said politely and Shaiming left.
The real destination was, thankfully, close by. Although he stayed in the same building before, the plants and design had been altered so it took a great amount of concentration to find his way. The old pathway had vanished and Shaiming wandered on grass and dirt instead, estimating where to turn and the direction. This hid his secret meetings better; taking an unknown track meant less people would see him greet someone apart from the royal family.
Joaolong sat in his room, the doors wide open to greet the prince. He gestured to the teapot and matching black cups, full of an unusual musky tea. Light snacks whispered their tastes from the plate and Shaiming followed their call.
“It has been awhile, my friend.”
“We have lots to discuss, Third Prince.”