Woohoo, so we have reached the palace! I plan to write a few more chapters while my writing mojo is intact before I continue to translate Heavy Sweetness (though translation fans will get a treat this weekend :)). So, will Wang Huan finally learn what almost every single reader knows already? Haha.
I hope this chapter is satisfying because it's probably the longest so far as well :).
Chapter 6: The First Meeting
In Wang Huan's notebook, her mother had written about the Royal Palace of the Yan Kingdom. She had called it the Forbidden City - so-called because people were forbidden to enter or exit the Royal Palace without the Emperor's permission. It was a sacred place of power that ordinary mortals could only dream of. In the shadow of the night, the Dark Lord and her mother had snuck into the royal kitchens and did some secret feasting of the ingredients in the kitchen. Her mother had declined the Dark Lord's request to pay an "official" visit to the Emperor - for she knew that there were lines that could not be crossed between realms and it would cause more trouble than it was worth.
However, Wang Huan was following Xi Yang now into the Royal Palace in broad daylight, with an ease and formality that boggled her mind. Xi Yang had shown a pass at the Royal Palace gates and they were now taking a small royal carriage towards the Inner Palace. The inner palace!
"If you frown any deeper, you are going to have permanent lines on your forehead," Xi Yang remarked mildly as he calmly watched the carriage ride pass the rows of guards.
"I'm related to the Empress," Xi Yang decided to say as Wang Huan watched the carriage move deeper into the Royal Palace with increasing alarm. Xi Yang had sent a letter to Yue beforehand to inform her of his arrival with Wang Huan and warned her not to call him by his real name and to warn the children of this too. He was not too concerned about Yu An, though he did not put too much faith in Hsiao Yang's ability to keep anything a secret.
Wang Huan seemed to relax at this information and started to enjoy the beautiful blossoms on the trees as the carriage strolled towards the Inner Palace.
Xi Yang watched as the carriage stopped before the familiar entrance of the Empress' Residence. And yet this familiarity had its own sense of strangeness, as he helped Wang Huan down the carriage and realised that this was the first time he had brought someone to Yue's residence.
Xi Yang did not travel by travelling cloud to the Inner Palace because while Yu An and Hsiao Yang were aware on some level that the Moon God and Xi Yang were not ordinary mortals, they did not actually know that they were gods. They did not shy away from using some forms of magic before Yue's children, but the Moon God and Xi Yang always avoided arriving in the palace by travelling cloud.
Before Xi Yang could even introduce the palace to Wang Huan, he felt a small figure grab the end of his robes.
"Uncle! Uncle!" The chubby face of Hsiao Yang looked adoringly towards Xi Yang as he pulled at Xi Yang's robes, as if asking to be carried.
Xi Yang rolled his eyes and popped a sweet from the bag of sweets he bought from Ying Town into Hsiao Yang's mouth. The less he said, the better.
"Uncle," beamed Yu An who stood at Hsiao Yang's side with Hu Zi behind her, "Mother had left the palace for a moment to spy on an official's daughter, because she had heard in morning court that the official wanted to give his daughter to Father."
Xi Yang did not know whether to laugh or cry. Although Yue was recognised as the Yan Kingdom's Empress and Hsiao's rightful match, there had been no end to the officials' matchmaking attempts to make their daughters concubines of the Emperor. Every time this happened, Yue would happily take on the task of matchmaking the daughter away. Hence, when Yue was called the Royal Matchmaker, this was sometimes said in a slightly terrified whisper for Yue's matchmaking was truly formidable. She would match the daughters with partners from all classes - some so poor that the rich officials wanted to weep that this was revenge but they could do nothing when this was a "gift" from the Empress. Yue had actually done these matches in the name of love, but of course, the officials who could not see the red threads Yue bound would disagree.
Since Yue was the Empress, she could easily command people to visit her in the Royal Palace - but like a butterfly that could not be trapped in a jar, she much rather spy on people than have them visit her. Since Xi Yang did not expect Yue to be waiting for him in the Royal Palace, the news did not surprise him.
At this moment, Wang Huan was standing at the side trying to take in the situation. The small chubby boy that was sucking a sweet and grabbing Ri's robes presented a truly incongruous image, but she gathered that this should be a young prince. Then, there was a beautiful young maiden that looked about twelve years old in light pink silk robes that matched the flowers on the trees. Wang Huan guessed that she should be a princess. Behind her, was a young boy around the princess' height who looked younger than the girl, he had a boyishly handsome face with strong features.
Xi Yang interrupted Wang Huan's thoughts and indicated quickly, "Prince Hsiao Yang" at the chubby boy, "Princess Yu An" at the young maiden and "Hu Zi" (护子 - a name playing on how he is the son of Hu Jun (护俊)) to the young handsome boy. He pointed at Hu Zi, "He is the son of the chef you wanted to meet so badly."
As if on cue, Hong Meng came rushing out of the main courtyard door, "Master, you came earlier than expected. The dish is not completed yet."
Xi Yang said, "It is fine. We have time."
And that was when all eyes turned towards Wang Huan.
Xi Yang and Wang Huan pointed to each other at the same time and said -- "My servant!" "My bodyguard!"
Wang Huan turned towards Xi Yang, "What did you call me?"
Xi Yang gave Wang Huan a look, do you want to eat your pork dish or not? He turned towards the amused eyes of Yu An, this girl always matures too fast, and said, "This is Wang Huan, my disciple - as a treat for being such a diligent student, I am fulfilling her wish to eat Hong Meng's red spicy pork dish."
Since she wanted to swallow the red spicy pork dish, Wang Huan could also only swallow her pride and reluctantly called Xi Yang, "Shi Fu (teacher)".
As they waited in the hall of the Empress' residence for the red spicy pork dish, Xi Yang gave a delicate doll he had bought from Ying Town to Yu An. She stroke the silky wisps of hair on the doll and smiled appreciatively at Xi Yang.
Yu An then plopped herself right next to Wang Huan. She looked curiously at Wang Huan, "How did you meet Uncle?"
Xi Yang was pulled away by Hsiao Yang to play with the magic papers Xi Yang had given him previously. Xi Yang could not help thinking that Hsiao Yang was truly the duplicate of how annoyingly perky Yue was when she was a young child.
Wang Huan felt a little embarrassed at how she was slightly unnerved by the sincere but penetrating gaze of the twelve year old Yu An. "We happened to be on the same journey together," Wang Huan replied.
Yu An smiled, "I have never seen Uncle travel with anyone. You are the first person he has ever brought to the Palace."
Wang Huan felt a tiny prickling of joy in her heart, but she hid any surprise on her face and replied, "Well, Ri is so antagonistic, it is hard to imagine anyone being able to get along with him."
Yu An raised her brow slightly but before Wang Huan could ask more about Ri from Yu An, she heard Hsiao Yang running to the exit.
"Mother!" He cried and Wang Huan turned her head to see a grandly robed woman.
Wang Huan felt her mouth fell open slightly - for the woman was beautiful, beautiful in a way that could never be found in the Dark Realms. If Yu An's beauty was like the young pink buds that just started to blossom in spring, the woman was like a pink peony in full bloom. She glowed with a kind of peace and joy that was innate, her skin seemed to shimmer as if she was the full moon itself. Wang Huan could certainly see how this beautiful woman and Ri would be related - for both of them seemed to possess a shining kind of beauty, a kind of purity, that she could only dream about.
The beautiful woman turned immediately to Wang Huan with her glistening eyes and smiled, "Oh, you must be Wang Huan. I've been so excited to see you!"
Wang Huan could only awkwardly nod her head, "Greetings to the Empress."
The woman waved away her title as if she was swatting a fly, "Call me Yue."
"Yes, call her Yue, because she doesn't act like an Empress," Xi Yang said drily from the side.
Yue turned to glare at Xi Yang, but her attention was caught by the doll in Yu An's hands. Yue whacked Xi Yang on the arm, "Did you get me any gifts?"
Yu An laughed as she watched her mother fume at Xi Yang when Xi Yang ignored Yue and gestured to Hsiao Yang to return to playing the magic paper. "You are so stingy," Yue sighed, "To think I gave you two clay dolls I made personally for you on your birthday!"
Xi Yang acted like he didn't hear Yue while Yue turned to Hu Zi, "Quick, go tell your mother to stop cooking the red spicy pork dish."
"It's not me that wants to eat the dish, it's your Wang Huan," Xi Yang pointed to Wang Huan.
And that is when Xi Yang noticed that Wang Huan was standing rather stiffly at the side. Xi Yang arched his brows and was about to ask if Wang Huan was ok, when Yu An pulled Wang Huan and said, "Wang Huan Jie Jie (elder sister) said she wanted to hear me play my guzheng (musical instrument), so I am going to bring her to the inner courtyard. We will come back quickly thereafter!"
Yu An turned to Hu Zi who hovered beside her, "Don't follow me! Stop copying your father. I don't actually need a bodyguard in my own home!"
Yu An turned to Hu Zi who hovered beside her, "Don't follow me! Stop copying your father. I don't actually need a bodyguard in my own home!"
Yu An then quickly pulled the stiff Wang Huan out of the hall to Wang Huan's eternal relief.
I watched as Princess Yu An pulled me to a garden courtyard in the middle of the Empress' residence, where there was indeed a guzheng. She sat down at the stone table next to the guzheng and I followed her.
Princess Yu An smiled at me, "Are you feeling better now?"
I gave an awkward smile, it was certainly strange to be having a twelve year old girl asking if I was feeling better. I admitted that I was stunned when I realised that the Empress, Yue, was the person who had given Ri the two clay dolls... immediately, I realised that Yue was the person Ri had been thinking about whenever he gazed at the moon... that longing... it overwhelmed me into silence.
I gazed at this young girl before me, who looked so much like a mini Yue, with her small, almost heart-shaped face and luminescent skin. But, her eyes sparkled with a kind of clarity and intelligence as if she could see right through me.
"I know you like Uncle," Princess Yu An gave me a coquettish grin, "Because, I like him too. Uncle is the best man I have ever seen... well, equal at least to Father."
"I was just surprised," I tried to explain, "I didn't know your mother and Ri were related before I came..."
Princess Yu An laughed, "Adults are so strange. They can never be honest."
"I am in debt to Ri," I continued, "It's not what you think."
"It's a pity," Princess Yu An shook her head, "For, I like you, Wang Huan Jie Jie. If I had to give Uncle to anyone, I would have been happy if it was you."
I looked thoughtfully at this strange young girl before me. She smiled, "My mother is a special existence to Uncle, but I always thought one day, if I grew up fast enough, I could become more than that special existence."
Princess Yu An gazed into my eyes, "But, Dad told me that what I feel is just idolation and not real love. Or, maybe even just empathy for loneliness."
"Maybe I think too much," Princess Yu An laughed, "Dad says we are alike and we tend to do that."
Princess Yu An patted my hand, "Anyway, since you are here, let me show you what Uncle got me for my birthday. It's a special shell that plays a mermaid's song, it will make you feel immediately better."
Before I could say anything, the young girl trotted off happily. In some ways, Princess Yu An was beyond her years, and in some ways, she was still a young pure little girl. I could not help liking her. I could not help feeling the painful prickling of truth from her words --- that special existence, the truth was I did not even dare to dream of becoming anyone's special existence. Silly, to think of it even... after all, I was engaged to someone else already, wasn't I?
I thought back to the easy intimacy between Yue and Ri, and knew then, that dark feeling of greed that I have been trying to run away from my whole life was slowly engulfing me.
An Hun looked curiously at the large shimmering silver lilac trumpet triton shell placed on display on a black marble table. When he came to the Royal Palace following his tracer on Wang Huan, he had been momentarily distracted by this shell --- he could sense it within his blood, this shell was linked to his mermaid soul.
He lifted up the shell and placed it to his ears. A song he had not heard since the passing of his mother.
But An Hun's appreciation of the song was broken by a slight gasp at the door. An Hun's gaze met the gaze of a young girl. But, what struck him was that the girl did not appear shock or distressed, but merely amused.
It was often said that Yu An was a child that never got surprised. She would smile, laugh and giggle but she seemed unfazed by everything life threw at her - and life was certainly strange when you had a mother like Yue. The Moon God had just smiled and observed that Yu An was a child that had experienced much inside of Yue.
Hsiao often thought Yu An was like a miniature version of him, except she had completely inherited and exceeded Hsiao's love for music. Music was all Yu An thought about, was her barometer of life. Therefore, although most girls would have been alarmed by a strange man in the middle of their room, what Yu An immediately thought was - ah, someone who appreciated the beauty of the shell. To Yu An, anyone who appreciated music could not be a bad person.
She was first amused to find someone listening to her precious item, but then appreciated how beautiful the man was. In her life, she thought her father was the most elegant and distinguished man, that Uncle Xi Yang was the most handsome man and Uncle Moon was the most beautiful man - for Uncle Moon's hair would turn silverish under the moon light and his graceful features seemed to transcend time itself under the glow of the moon. But, this young man before her was a whole different kind of beauty - he looked younger than Uncle, perhaps in his early twenties, with almond-shaped eyes, an aquiline nose and rosebud lips. Yu An thought that if he looked at a pond, the fishes would come out to play just to see him, and when he looked at the flowers, they would hide inside their petals for shame that a man could have such beauty. But, there was something fierce, sharp and ferocious in his eyes that lent a strength to his face and never allowed it to become feminine.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Yu An said as she stepped forward towards the man, "It's a mermaid's song." Yu An's face fell slightly, "I have tried many times to capture it on my guzheng but somehow I fail to capture its essence."
The man laughed, "Of course it will be difficult to do so alone."
"What do you mean?" Yu An asked curious as the man placed the shell at her ear.
"Because it is a duet," The man said, "Can you hear the two different voices?"
Yu An's eyes widened slightly because she had always prided herself for in her musical talents... she had heard this song many times but she could not tell that it captured two different voices.
"The mermaid's duet captures two voices so perfectly that you cannot differentiate them from each other," The man said simply, "There are two rhythms in perfect unison... until you can hear that, you cannot play it."
Yu An looked up curiously at the man, "How can you tell the two different voices?"
The man smiled and placed the shell back down. He looked thoughtfully at Yu An, "Are you Princess Yu An?"
Yu An nodded, "Yes."
When An Hun realised the young girl before him was Princess Yu An, he decided to test if she had a dark side. Now the dark immortals of the dark realms often liked to maximise their powers by preying on the darker side of the royals in the mortal realm - that was one of the reasons why the Wu Kingdom's politics were often so complicated.
"So, you are the princess who is going to become queen?"
Yu An frowned, "Who said that?"
"That's what the people say since you are supposed to be intelligent beyond your years while your younger brother is too... flighty."
Yu An laughed, "Yes, Hsiao Yang could never be an Emperor. But, I have no interest in becoming queen either. I told Father to have more children instead."
An Hun's eyes looked disappointed at the brightness of Yu An's soul. Yu An laughed further at that small flash of disappointment, "I'm afraid you will have to prey on someone else's ambition instead."
Both An Hun and Yu An could hear the sound of nearing footsteps. Yu An lifted up her head high and looked directly at An Hun, "You better leave because my Father is said to radiate a glow that would hurt most demons."
An Hun's lips edged upwards, "Do you think I am a demon?"
Yu An thought that this man was so beautiful, he could not be mortal. But, he was so beautiful, she found it hard to believe he was a demon either --- she looked at the shell and smiled, "I think you have mermaid blood in you."
In a flash, Yu An's eyes could see nothing but she heard a disappearing voice, "Di Dum Di Dum... that is the beat of one voice, you can try and decipher the rest, Little Princess."
When Yu An could see clearly again, she quickly looked around her room. He was gone.
Many years later, people would wonder how Yu An knew An Hun --- but no one would ever know that this was how they first met.
Comments: For people who have not read Little Moon, Yue the Empress and Hsiao the Emperor are the main leads. Yu An is their daughter and Hsiao Yang is their son. The children first appeared in Xi Yang's epilogue for Little Moon here.
Hong Meng, the chef mentioned in Chapter 5, first appeared in Yue and Hsiao's epilogue here. Hu Zi is Hong Meng and Hu Jun's son.