Jing He stood in stunned silence, not knowing what to think at all. Could it be true? Had he really … Ah, he could not deny that his heart would flutter every now and then when faced with Longjun or even just thinking of him. And his mind was filled with thoughts of that man almost every day. That should be what it was like to be in love, shouldn’t it?
He looked at the robe in his arms, trying to make sense of these feelings. If he truly was in love with him …
“So what did he send you?”
Jing He flinched and turned around only to find his mother leaning over his shoulder, curiously looking at the mask and belt on the table and the robe in his hands. “Mo… Mother.”
Bai Fen smiled and took the robe from his hands. “Let your mother take a look. Ah, it seems your uncle was right. This really is for the Jiyi festival. Has he mentioned where to meet? Your father might have reduced the number of guards but it’ll still be difficult to get out unseen.”
Jing He lowered his head, feeling a sense of loss. He knew he shouldn’t feel this way but he had wanted to keep this all to himself. It was a present Longjun had made him. This should have been their special day without anybody else being involved. Now, things had already been taken out of his hands already.
Maybe … Maybe this was a sign that it should just not happen. Even if he had fallen in love with this man, even if he wanted to give in and accept his proposal, it would never be how he wanted it to be. He was doomed to always be in this situation, dependent on other’s decisions, unable to create his own fate.
He turned away, his heart feeling sour. “It does not matter. Father would not allow it. I … I should stay inside. I’ll … have this delivered back to Longjun.” He closed his eyes, trying to smother those feelings in his heart.
How could he have fallen in love? It would only make things more complicated. He was not like Xing who had been held in contempt by his immediate family. He was not free of ties to others so that he could follow the man he loved without restraint.
No, he had considerations and he could not disappoint his father like this. It was impossible. He wished it was different but this was the truth. Loving Longjun would only bring more pain. He might as well forget about it now that the feelings were only starting to blossom. That way, there would not be too much damage done.
Bai Fen glanced at her son and sighed. “How could that be? Longjun went to the trouble to bring it to your uncle personally. He’d be disappointed if you reclined his invitation. It’s just for one day. You should do him the favor.” She folded the robe up, put it back onto the cloth, and added the belt and mask on top before she wrapped everything back up. “Alright. You can’t put that on here and leave under the eyes of those guards or your father will really raise a fuss. Let’s go to my palace instead.” She didn’t wait for her son’s inevitable words of worry and denial and just walked to the door.
Jing He raised his head, his expression undecided. He wanted to do this but he knew he shouldn’t. In the end, he did not want to defy his mother’s orders and — if he was completely honest with himself — he did not want to lose Longjun’s present either.
He hurried after her and finally caught up to her quite a bit behind the door. None of the guards followed this time, either having learned from what happened the other day or not daring to disrespect the Heavenly Empress.
Jing He glanced at his mother and the package in her hands and finally couldn’t help but speak up. “Mother, how about letting me carry that?”
“Why? You can’t bear to separate with your admirer’s present?”
Jing He’s cheeks flushed and he lowered his head again, not daring to show any indication of what he felt. “It’s not like that. I feel bad letting you carry something while I am right next to you. I am not a filial child at all.”
Bai Fen sighed. If only her son would stop chastising himself … Well, there was still hope. She looked at the package herself and then handed it to Jing He. Anyway, Longjun had intended it for him. And if she ever wanted him to accept that man’s affection, she should use every opportunity when her son actually showed some interest. Whether it really was because he felt he wasn’t filial or because he wanted to hold that gift himself … Who cared? It was good enough he had accepted the present and would be wearing it for the rest of the day.
The two of them reached her palace and Bai Fen ushered him into one of the rooms, ushering out the servants. “You go and get changed. I’ll help you do your hair afterward.”
She stepped back outside, walking over to the garden and glancing up at the sky. Longjun … would likely come here to get her son, right?
Meanwhile, Jing He took off the outer robe he had originally worn and exchanged it for the one Longjun had sent. Thankfully, he had been wearing a white inner robe so it would fit together. He closed the robe with the belt and then hesitated for a moment before conjuring up another water mirror that showed his entire figure this time.
Looking at himself … Jing He turned slightly, not able to watch any longer. Was he conceited to think that … he looked beautiful in this? He risked another glance and then brushed his hair back, admiring the beautiful embroidery and the sparkling crystals that set off his slender frame.
“Longjun really knows me well.”
He picked up the mask, holding it in front of his face before lowering it immediately. This was a little too eyecatching, wasn’t it? He gulped and wondered if it would be impolite to only wear the robe but not the mask.
Right then, a knock sounded from the door. “Jing He, dear, have you finished?”
“Ye… Yes.” Jing He put down the mask and turned to the door.
Bai Fen entered and her eyes curved into small crescents when she saw her son like this. Ah, the dragon king really had good eyes. This fit Jing He perfectly. She came closer and grabbed his shoulder, gently making him turn around before she nodded with satisfaction. “Quite good. Alright, sit down then. I’ll make sure you’ll sweep that man right off his feet.”
Bai Fen chuckled and pushed her son to the chair in front of the dressing table, not bothering about his complaints. Anyway, she didn’t believe that her son was completely above any feelings. Even if he wasn’t in love yet, he should still want to impress that man, right? He was still young, after all. Shouldn’t he like to dress up every once in a while?
Whatever it was, she wouldn’t budge on this. The Jiyi festival was a prime opportunity to make the two of them get closer together. Even though it would be more important to make Jing He feel attracted to Longjun, this might also help with that. If Longjun couldn’t take his eyes off Jing He, he would also notice and maybe that attention would make him feel different. After all, who didn’t like to be admired?
In a good mood, she picked up a comb and brushed through Jing He’s hair, gently pulling it to the back. Jing He wanted to protest but Bai Fen already shook her head.
“What are you worrying for? You’ll be wearing a mask the whole day. You might as well take advantage of it and style your hair differently today.”
Jing He’s lips moved but he needed a moment to find the appropriate words. “I … I was thinking of maybe not wearing the mask. Don’t you think it’s a little … too much?”
“Whether it’s too much or not, it was a present and the one who gave it will be with you today. Don’t you think it’d be stepping on his good intentions if you wore the robe but not the mask? And anyway, you’re the crown prince. If you go out there, people would look anyway. Wearing the mask will help you keep a low profile.”
Jing He glanced at the mask, unsure about his mother’s conjecture. But, well, she was right that he couldn’t leave the mask away without making Longjun question it. After all, it had been tailor-made for him. Thus, in the end, Jing He just fell quiet and let his mother do what she wanted.
As for Bai Fen … she had a smile on her lips the whole time. Since she had managed to convince him, she did not intend to go lightly on him at all. She made sure that every last strand of hair was combed away from his face, even braiding a few of them so he wouldn’t be easily able to change the style later on.
She secured the strands on top of his head with the white crown he had originally worn and then glanced at the mask lying on the table. Her lips curved up in a mischievous smile and she rummaged around in her own jewelry until she found some crystals that looked similar to what Longjun had used for the mask. She unceremoniously braided them into the rest of Jing He’s hair, subtly influencing the way it fell down his back and adding some sparkling highlights to it.
When she finished, she gave the strands another few tugs to make sure everything was in place before she stepped back. Taking a good look at him now, she almost felt … “Jing He, later on, when you and Longjun have enjoyed the festival for a while and find a quiet place to take a break … promise me that you’ll take that mask off for a while.”
Jing He looked at her in confusion. “Why that?”
Bai Fen didn’t quite know what to say. “Oh, it’s nothing. Just that … speaking to a mask for the whole day also isn’t nice. When you’re alone, you should take it off.”
Jing He nodded at that. “Oh, I see. I will certainly do so.” He nodded, failing to see the short glimmer of something else in his mother’s eyes.
When Bai Fen wanted to speak up again, the voice of her personal maid sounded from the door. “Your Majesty, Longjun came to see you.”
Bai Fen sighed. This man really couldn’t have waited a moment longer, could he? She smiled wryly and then motioned for Jing He to out on the robe before she told the girl to send Longjun to the waiting room. Now, all she needed to do was get her son and the dragon king out of her palace without anybody noticing. Otherwise, who knew who would run their mouth in front of her husband? She couldn’t let that happen!