“Your highness, I'm growing a beard.”
The crown prince's rich white robes rustled as he turned. Even this little movement could be admired, his back and neck straight as a dancer's.
His highness pressed his mouth into a thin line. “ Shifu .” The two behind him seemed to cough, covering their mouths and slightly shaking. “Why?”
Just two phrases were enough to make him explode.
“Have you heard the nobles speak!” he cried. “They say, without a beard one is incapable. That this shifu has such a young face, it's not possible that he could he have the experience or skills to teach his highness. Among the other three, he’s just a chick whose wings aren’t even close to lifting his body out of the nest. Infuriating, completely infuriating!” He fumed and tugged at the thin braids at each side of his head.
“If I had a sword, I'd throw it down in fury. Your highness, let me see your sword.”
His highness furrowed his brows. In one swift move, he unfastened the sword from his waist—and held it above his shifu 's head.
“How should I say this . . . ”
He turned to face his shifu fully, the corner of his mouth twitching.
“ Shifu , even if you grew a beard, you would still look like a boy of twelve or thirteen years who pasted some hair on his face to imitate the grown men in his village.”
The young shifu let out a loud wail, and his highness nearly choked on laughter.
“Disrespect!” he cried above his highness’s coughs. “You dare say such disrespectful words to your teacher! This, this master will have to teach you a lesson!”
Their deputy guoshi , kneeling and shuffling his mahjong tiles, raised his head. “Be good, children, don’t get too excited . . . ” But his gentle voice was lost in their shouts.
“Teach me, shifu , this disciple is ignorant!” His highness tossed his sword to the side, earning a huff from the guoshi . Laughing openly now, he began to lightly jog around the hall, his shifu in a desperate scramble after him. Although he exerted not even a third of his strength, his shifu could just barely catch up, and he nearly jumped to tackle his highness and send them both crashing to the floor.
Both instantly placed a hand behind the other’s head, but once safely landed they tussled mercilessly, pulling and pushing at shoulders and sleeves, each trying to pin the other down. They rolled over and over, a chaotic mess of robes and hair such that one couldn't tell where one ended and where the other started.
If only he hadn't tied his highness's sleeves down so carefully, he complained inwardly, then he'd have more purchase!
But hearing his highness’s unrestrained and undignified booming laughs filled his chest to bursting with contentment, and when he pushed the prince’s arm out from under him, causing him to crash down on his small body, the young shifu had the urge to embrace him and rub the top of his head to mess up his hair. After all, he had long felt—perhaps out of fondness for his only disciple—that the prince’s toothy, eager expression made one want to wrap one’s arms around him and press his face tightly against the bosom. And the more he struggled against his highness’s hands, the more he thought to himself, dear gods above, let these times never end .
His highness laughed the entire time, his cheeks rounded and nearly squinting his eyes shut, yet by sheer strength alone he escaped being held down for more than a second. His shifu , trying his best, was rolled onto the floor countless times, no match at all for his junior. Unfair! Unfair! He could only kick and grab wildly, jostling the body on top of him. Through the tangle of hair and clothes, he couldn't even see—
He could barely react—when the hand on his chest slipped—when the fingers brushed at his neck and pushed—
His highness instantly pulled his hands off of him.
Tears sprang to his eyes as he raised his head from where his highness slammed it into the tiles.
A hand—the prince's?—weaved through his hair and caressed the back.
His head was ringing.
Hurts, he thought. It really hurts . . .
When he focused his eyes, he saw his highness sitting still as rock, his whole forehead creased with worry. Not good, not good, was he even breathing?
“Are you hurt?” Their guoshi leaned forward and gestured at the prince to get off of him. “You careless child, stop fooling around, what's happened?”
“ Guoshi —”
Ignoring the throb in his head, he clutched at the prince's robes and pulled himself up. “ Guoshi , your disciple is so childish and won't defer to his shifu , aren’t you ashamed!”
The guoshi frowned.
“Indeed, very,” Their guoshi crossed his arms. “My two disciples are exceptionally immature today, what a disgrace."
He took this chance to flip his dazed prince around and sat on top of his hips, holding his highness’s arms down with his feet. Bending forward, he slapped his hands on his highness’s face, squishing all of his features, and he scolded, “Your guoshi called you a disgrace, don’t you have even a little bit of shame in your heart! Acting so brazenly towards your elders, you want to copy the Ethics Sutra a hundred more times, ah!”
Thank the gods, it didn’t take long for his highness to brighten up again, otherwise he really wouldn’t know what to do with himself. His highness grinned up at him and said, “ Shifu , although I’ve been shameless, isn’t shifu also at fault, since he’s been fighting and rolling around with me all this time? Didn’t this disciple hear guoshi call him a disgrace as well, does shifu really have the right to lecture me?”
Gazing at the pure glee in his eyes, he was hardly aware of his highness’s rebuke. What few words he did register made him whine in his heart, how could he stay angry, even pretend-angry, with his bold and clever prince? Truly, his highness was too much, too precious!
He could only squish and pull at his highness’s cheeks in response, drawing out little shouts of exaggerated pain. “You’ve lost all sense of decorum,” he cried, “you’re really beyond saving, your highness!” He tugged again, even harder this time, and added, “Tell me, does this hurt? Does it hurt, does it hurt, does it hurt?”
“It hurts, ahaha, let me go, it hurts!” His highness, shaking with laughter, shut his eyes, a blush dusting the tips of his ears, no doubt he was embarrassed by the rough treatment he received from his shifu . His legs twitched and shifted about, but with his shifu sitting on top, it seemed he didn’t dare lift his legs and kick him away, and he could only lie there and bear this torture.
His shifu slapped him lightly a few times, cupped his cheeks, then bent even further down and said, “Then, let me ask you, will you apologize for what you said to this elder?”
With a wide smile, his highness declared, “I won’t!”
“I won’t change!”
“Why should I mind those who mock my shifu ’s abilities?” he demanded. “Why should shifu ? To make such remarks, they are clearly ill at heart and should be disregarded. And to insult the vassal I personally recommended, is that not an insult to my judgement?”
He lifted his chin and continued. “Whether the people think they are more worthy of such a position, or if they are truly concerned about myself—I refuse to understand. It does not change my feelings towards shifu , and it does not change what you have accomplished and done for me, or that you are worthy of the highest honors I could offer you. What I want you to know is—
“What I believe is, even if thousands condemn me, I won’t change, I won’t think differently. I know my own worth, and I don’t dare place it in the hands of others!”
His fingers went slack. He could only stare at his prince’s animated face, mesmerized.
He sputtered, “You . . . you . . . ”
That deputy guoshi couldn’t bear it anymore. He shook out his sleeves and implored, “My little friend, dear crown prince is still immature. Just let him go this time, he will understand one day, stop tormenting him and let him go, won’t you?”
Hearing his tone, he straightened his back, and his highness slowly propped himself up on his elbows. That deputy guoshi added, “When shidi returns and sees the two of you tumbling about, he’ll no doubt disapprove. Your highness, he’s taught you far too well for you to wrestle so roughly with your shifu . Come come come, you don’t want to disappoint him. And where is that rascal, anyways, so late?”
Still not moving from on top of the prince, the shifu raised a fist to his mouth to suppress a chuckle. “Locked up in the armory again, I’ll bet.”
The deputy guoshi stood and ran his fingers through his robes, straightening them. He sniffed, and said, “Then I’ll go and let him out, the silly man, his head is too full of swords to even answer to a servant checking if anyone’s still inside.”
Their guoshi laughed at that, and the deputy guoshi turned to leave, his robes fluttering as he walked briskly off. Feeling drained, the young shifu closed his eyes for a moment before rolling off of the prince, nearly slipping on his robes as he did so. He placed a palm on the ground, about to push himself up, when he felt the weight of a hand on his shoulder and—the cold stream of spiritual energy.
He turned his head. His highness, kneeling beside him, close enough that his highness’s hair brushed against his arm, stared back at him.
His face was very close.
With pursed lips and lowered eyebrows, his highness whispered, “Does it hurt?”
“Your highness ah . . . ” He breathed in, slowly. “ . . . there's no need to worry about me, really.”
His highness hummed. “I really do think your skills are the greatest of any cultivator I’ve met.” He caught his shifu glancing at their guoshi and shook his shoulder. “Truly. There’s no need to listen to that shameless gossip.”
The young shifu shook his head and sighed, the corners of his mouth curling up. “Your highness praises me too strongly, could it be he’s finally learned to appreciate his elders?”
His proud disciple, his stubborn prince, his most steadfast friend. Even among a thousand disciples he would stand out like the sun; even among a thousand disciples this shifu would choose only him.
His highness smiled. “Actually, I think you’d look terrible with a beard.”
His shifu drew back, stricken.
But before he could move, he stiffened at the sound of footsteps echoing on the tiles. Their guoshi shot up, nearly tipping his chair over, and threw a mahjong tile right at the side of his head. “What are you doing, still lying on the floor! Get up!”
The two of them scrambled as he berated them. “The prince and his shifu , rolling around like toddlers playing in mud. What a disgrace, what a disgrace! Get up! Quickly, get up, get up!”