There are some chapters that turn out exactly like one's idea, for example Chapter 4 which I knew I wanted to write just like that when I created the Great Marriage Competition. Chapter 9 was an interesting one, where a character actually deviated slightly from his original conception when I started to flesh him out and became better (I hope) than I expected. This is a particularly long one and I hope you will enjoy it :)
Chapter 9: To Move A Heart of Iron
I heard a knock on the door and cried, “Come in.”
A young girl, not more than sixteen, entered holding a tray with a white and blue porcelain bowl. She had large oval eyes and a big smile, “Greetings to Gentleman Yue, I’m Xiao Shuang (小霜 - Little Frost) and have been assigned to be your maidservant during your stay.”
“Princess Bai Ying had ordered the kitchen to prepare a special nourishing soup for Gentleman Yue, please drink this while it’s warm,” Xiao Shuang said as she placed it on the silk table cloth, she added, “This soup was made using very high grade ginsengs!”
I kept the red thread back in the silk sachet and sat on a bamboo stool next to the table. I started to sip the soup, although the taste was slightly bitter, there was also the sweet taste of chicken and I felt my entire body warm up pleasantly.
I smiled at Xiao Shuang, “The soup is indeed very good. Where is Princess Bai Ying at the moment?”
Xiao Shuang beamed, “Princess Bai Ying is at the training grounds now. She is drilling the soldiers in the afternoon exercise.”
In any other palace, I may be taken aback that a princess, much less the Crown Princess, was at a training ground – but at Xue Mountain, that seemed like the most natural place.
I asked sincerely, “I would like to watch Princess Bai Ying train the soldiers, is it possible? But not to go directly to the training ground… just to admire from afar.”
Xiao Shuang nodded her head eagerly, “I can bring you to the viewing tower. From there, you can have a good view of the whole palace grounds.”
I put on my thick fur coat and followed Xiao Shuang who waltzed along in her thin palace garbs – the citizens of the Xue Mountain Tribe were indeed amazing, they were used to the wintry temperatures and did not wear any thick clothing.
The viewing tower was basically the highest point of the Xue Mountain Palace Fortress, and from here, one could see what laid behind the Fortress. The Xue Mountain Palace was built onto the first peak of Xue Mountain, and behind this peak was actually three taller peaks that centered around a flat depression. Funnily enough, this strange mountain formation looked like the Chinese word for mountain 山, where the left and the right mountain were of equal height and were shorter than the tall grand mountain in between.
The three tall peaks behind the Xue Mountain Palace Fortress were the sacred Mountains of Xue. The flat depression, which was piled up with snow, was the training grounds of the Xue Mountain Tribe.
When we arrived on the viewing tower, Princess Bai Ying was in the middle of a sword battle with eight soldiers. She wore thin red military garbs, and though her frame was small and slim, there was no other more eye-catching point in the midst of all the whiteness. I watched as she flitted through these larger bulky men like a red butterfly. She held a wooden sword and with a slight lift of her wrist, she managed to cut off the cloth that was tied around each soldier’s neck. This indicated that their throats would have been sliced if she had used a real sword.
Princess Bai Ying then started to re-enact each of her strokes against each soldier, to instruct them on how they should have defended.
I clapped my hands in glee, she was truly a warrior all females could admire.
Xiao Shuang watched me with a smile playing at her lips and I realized I might have given her the wrong impression.
Xiao Shuang cried, “Isn’t our Princess beautiful? She truly takes after our great King with her military prowess.”
“She is amazing indeed,” I replied, “She must be considered a goddess in the hearts of the Xue men?”
Xiao Shuang sighed, “She is the heroine of all our people, a Warrior Goddess, a Goddess of Victory… but…” Xiao Shuang caught herself before she could finish and laughed, “She is truly the goddess in the hearts of all the Xue men.”
Although Xiao Shuang did not finish, I could guess that while the Xue men respected Princess Bai Ying, few would dare think of marrying home a woman stronger than themselves. The Xue Mountain Tribe was after all a prideful lot.
I pointed to the left mountain of the three peaks and asked if anyone stayed there. Xiao Shuang nodded, “The villagers stay at the left mountain peak, the right mountain peak is for the soldiers. Both the left and right mountain peak is where most of the lower grade ginsengs grow. The mountain peak is our Holy Xue Mountain, no one stays there because it is too dangerous. Lots of wild beasts stay there and some even say that it causes hallucinations for anyone who stays too long in the mountain. However, the Holy Xue Mountain is part of our initiation process… when a Xue male turns eighteen, he will spend one night on the Holy Xue Mountain to prove he is capable of being an adult.”
Xiao Shuang added eagerly, “Many years ago, our great Xue King to prove his heart to our beloved departed Xue Queen, who was the most beautiful girl in the Xue Mountain Tribe, he spent seven nights on the Holy Xue Mountain in hopes that the Xue Holy Ginseng will appear. According to our ancestry traditions, the tribe started because our great ancestor was blessed with the appearance of a Holy Ginseng sprite, who instructed him on building the fortress and growing the tribe. The Holy Ginseng is said to appear before a person of true heart on the Holy Xue Mountain. However, the mountain is too dangerous for anyone to stay too long, even the great Xue King… he did manage to spent seven nights and was blessed with the presence of the Xue Holy Ginseng... but no one has dared to attempt such a thing again after the great Xue King.”
I arched my eyebrow lightly as I surveyed the cold magnificent aloofness of the Holy Xue Mountain. I watched as Princess Bai Ying danced through the soldiers that tried to block her sword strokes again, there were points where she laughed as if she could not believe the naivety of these soldiers that dared to challenge her with such sword strokes. Maybe after another hundred years!
I could not spy a single red or pink thread flowing from the soldiers to Princess Bai Ying. Perhaps, she had been placed far too above everyone’s heads – placed on a pedestal that one could worship but not love.
I thought back to Princess Bai Ying and Hsiao’s past fate. There weren’t much details recorded… but on hindsight, perhaps it was a partnership of Monarchs. Princess Bai Ying had saved Hsiao’s life when his horse ran amok on the snowy mountains and in return, Hsiao married Princess Bai Ying. However, Princess Bai Ying did not want to be just a princess or royal concubine in Hsiao’s palace, so it was agreed that for one month every year, Hsiao would stay at the Xue Mountain Tribe. No one in the Yan Kingdom ever saw Princess Bai Ying because she never left the Xue Mountain Tribe --- the citizens’ view was that their great King had entered into a political marriage with the Ice Queen.
Princess Bai Ying, a girl who grew up without a mother, just like me. When she blushed at me this morning, was it because I had looked at her as if she was just a girl and she had responded just the same?
Even if one grew used to the cold, wouldn’t one still long for the heat?
The viewing gallery grew too cold, and I followed Xiao Shuang back into my chambers deep in thought.
I was more than surprised to find a broad and sturdily built man sitting on my table and sipping tea. I could tell he was not ordinary, for there was a strange calmness around him, as if he was in the eye of a hurricane, and everything around him was mere blur vortex. It appeared as if he was wearing an armour plate, but it was only that the shoulders of his silk robes were beset with metal badges.
Xiao Shuang bowed, “Greetings to General Tie Shi (铁石 Iron Rock).”
General Tie Shi waved Xiao Shuang away and she nodded and left the room.
“Greetings to General Tie Shi,” I respectfully greeted this man as he beckoned me to sit down. Was this the fabled meeting where the rich and powerful kicks out the poor humble lover who was not good enough for their dear princess? I waited eagerly for such a thing to happen.
“Gentleman Yue, now that I see you, I can tell why Princess Bai Ying has such a good impression of you,” General Tie Shi smiled and poured tea for me.
I was slightly taken aback as General Tie Shi gave me a heavy pat on my shoulder. Too heavy, I winced slightly as I picked up the cup of tea. Was General Tie Shi an ox in his past life?
“I am but a poor humble fortune teller,” I said, stressing greatly on the poor and humble.
“Here at the Xue Mountain, we don’t care for riches. We have more wealth than we could ever spend,” General Tie Shi waved his hand as if to indicate that those stuff were meaningless. He smiled at me, “We only look upon inner character.”
General Tie Shi moved closer and seemed to beseech me with his eyes earnestly, “I am like Princess Bai Ying’s father, teacher and brother. I remember first meeting Princess Bai Ying when I was fifteen and she was five, Princess Bai Ying had lost her mother… she was so young and helpless. The Great King Xue placed her in my care, and I taught her swordfighting… by eighteen, we were about equals. Now, at twenty, I’m not sure if Princess Bai Ying is better or I am.”
He chuckled, “Now, I wanted to tell you that Princess Bai Ying may appear strong on the outside, but inside she is more vulnerable than anything. Don’t be fooled by her regal demeanour, she’s actually more soft-hearted than anyone I know, she’s always concerned about the soldier’s welfare, the health of the villagers…”
Appearances could be deceiving. General Tie Shi appeared like a man of few words, but he could go on like the naggiest of matchmakers. I had to admit that my skills paled in comparison.
I pretended to listen as I carefully observed the maroon coloured thread from General Tie Shi’s heart. Unlike my Uncle, who could tell everyone’s connection immediately, us moon maidens have to spent years of cultivation observing and understanding the threads. I had never seen a maroon coloured thread before in real life, but Uncle had once told me that this was the colour of unrequited love.
I was not yet strong enough to be able to tell who General Tie Shi loved just by looking at his thread, I could only be able to tell for certain if the person he loved was also in his presence. But, even so, even without any further solid proof, I could tell that there could only be one person he loved, so fervently, so quietly.
As General Tie Shi went on and on about the hidden merits of Princess Bai Ying, I looked at him with a kind of quiet wonder in my eyes. What must it be like to matchmake away the person you love? I felt a dull ache in my heart.
Maybe, in those long wintry years when Princess Bai Ying had stayed alone in the Xue Mountain while Hsiao remained in his palace, perhaps Princess Bai Ying had not been so lonely after all. Because, she had a General protecting her quietly by her side.
Perhaps it was also not that General Tie Shi was a man of many words, but he had held in all these emotions for so long, that it was a sweet release to finally say out these words.
“General Tie Shi, I mean no offence, but you love Princess Bai Ying, don’t you?” I asked.
General Tie Shi froze. The tea cup in his hand cracked.
“I love her as a soldier does,” General Tie Shi said stiffly as he awkwardly placed the broken shards on the table. I saw bits of blood from the abrasions in his palm, but he wiped it off like blood and pain were nothing.
“I am a fortune teller,” I said, “My only worth is knowing my fate. I cannot bring any girl happiness. I cannot have children with a woman and I can never marry a woman.”
General Tie Shi looked at me in shock. But, he shook his head and laughed, “Do not think you can trick me with such words.”
His heart was too stiff and set in his ways. He had his own way of loving Princess Bai Ying.
I laughed back, “It’s up to you whether you want to believe me, General Tie Shi. Well, I guess being a prince consort sounds good too. After all, if she can’t have children with me, she could always marry another one right?”
General Tie Shi’s eyes raged and he looked like he was about to punch me, when luckily (thank you lady luck!) we could hear footsteps entering at this moment.
I turned my head and beamed at Hsiao who had arrived. Hsiao arched his head slightly at General Tie Shi’s presence then smiled, “Greetings to General Tie Shi, I have come to collect Gentleman Yue for dinner. The Banquet is about to start. Shall we all head to the Grand Hall?”
General Tie Shi stiffly nodded and stormed off.
Hsiao raised his brows at me, “Did you just anger the strongest warrior in the Xue Mountain Tribe?”
I waved away Hsiao’s concern, then paused and added seriously, “Later at the Banquet, please do not say anything. Because I trusted you, now you must trust me too.”
Hsiao stayed silent. I asked Hsiao curiously, “How did you know he was General Tie Shi?”
Hsiao smiled, “My dear knowledgeable Fortune Teller, couldn’t you see his badges?”
True to the wealth of the Xue Mountain Tribe, the Grand Hall was ornately decorated with gold gilding and small black marble tables were set out for each guest above a fur carpet seat. Hsiao and I were given distinguished positions and were seated next to Princess Bai Ying. General Tie Shi sat across from us and glared at me.
Thankfully, no words could be exchanged, because the trumpets were sounded and the attendants announced the arrival of the Great Xue King.
I had never seen a bigger mortal. He looked about a tree tall, but his movements were smooth like a panther and he seemed to flow towards the top of the raised platform to his throne seat. The Great Xue King could be considered conventionally handsome, with sharp bright eyes, a firm nose, and blood red lips which Princess Bai Ying had inherited. He looked nary a day above forty, and what was most astonishing was that he only had one arm.
We all bowed to the Great Xue King and I followed as everyone chanted, “Long Live the Great Xue King!”. The Great Xue King nodded and waved his hand to indicate the beginning of the banquet. The servants started to pour the wine and bring in the food, while the musicians at the side started to play their instruments.
The Great Xue King’s eyes fell upon Hsiao first before he turned to me. He smiled at his daughter, “Bai Ying, are these the men you rescued this morning?”
Princess Bai Ying nodded at her father, “I saved Gentleman Yue this morning.”
At this cue, I rose up with a cup of wine and respectfully greeted the Great Xue King, “Humble me was saved this morning by the beautiful Princess Bai Ying. I pay my respects with this cup of wine.”
The Great Xue King laughed, nodded and sipped his wine.
I continued, to Hsiao’s surprise, “I know about the Xue Mountain Tribe’s tradition of 以身相许 and I am only too willing to give my life in servitude or love to the Princess Bai Ying who I greatly admire.”
I saw that Princess Bai Ying blushed, and I turned to General Tie Shi in defiance.
The Great Xue King laughed even greater and cried, “Good, good. I admire your guts and…”
“I object!” General Tie Shi said and stood up.
Everyone fell in silence, including the musicians.
The Great Xue King turned to General Tie Shi with mild surprise, but with perhaps even greater curiosity, he asked General Tie Shi, “Why do you object?”
“He is a foreigner of unknown origins! We cannot so easily accept…” General Tie Shi started to protest, as Princess Bai Ying stood up, “According to our rules, it is all decided by the saviour, so nobody else can...”
I clapped my hands loudly once and everyone turned to look at me, “I apologise, but my voice isn’t that strong. I wanted to say that I not only admire Princess Bai Ying, but I also admire the traditions of the Xue Mountain Tribe. What General Tie Shi said was correct for I am only a foreigner. So, to prove my heart for Princess Bai Ying, I would like to stay at the Holy Xue Mountain for seven nights.”
I turned to General Tie Shi, “Do you accept my challenge?”
General Tie Shi stared at me with lead cold eyes, “Of course.”
Princess Bai Ying looked at me in surprise, and then gave an even longer look of confusion to General Tie Shi.
The Great King Xue patted the armrest of his throne with his sole arm and gave a deep hearty laugh, “Brilliant! Thirty years ago, I did the challenge to prove my love for Princess Bai Ying’s mother, my sweet wife, and lost my arm. It is truly fated that Princess Bai Ying’s match will go through this challenge again. I allow this! We will rejoice and be merry tonight, and start the challenge tomorrow. Everyone, let’s celebrate the courage of these two men!”
I nodded gratefully to the Great Xue King and sat down. When I met Hsiao’s eyes, which was deathly cold, I gave a sheepish smile and pulled the sleeves of his robe, “Trust me.”
I very earnestly poured a cup of wine for Hsiao and smiled at him. Hsiao shook his head before taking my peace offering of wine, “Before I met you, I didn't even think my heart could feel anymore. Now, I think Heavens sent you down to teach me fear."
Little Moon's Matchmaking Mission!