Haha I have to confess that I am suffering from food coma due to copious consumption of mooncakes. I've fallen behind a bit on my wish to finish arc 1 by the weekend but we should get there in 1 or 2 chapters. And, oooh when we do, I have so much to say!
Chapter 7: The Heart's Answer
At Yu An's words, Hu Zi opened his eyes - they were bright but had traces of faint red lines. Yu An shook her head as she sat down next to him, "Wait till I tell your father about how much alcohol you drank!"
Hu Zi gave a tiny shrug in his shoulders as if he didn't care. Yu An's head turned slightly towards him, her eyes carefully, very carefully, observing his side profile. He inherited Uncle Hu Jun's handsomeness - but it was an austere handsomeness, all cold hard edges. The only softness were his eyes that resembled Auntie Hong Meng, or perhaps the only softness were when Hu Zi occasionally relaxed himself with Yu An.
"I'm sorry," Yu An said finally, "I feel like I pulled you selfishly into my adventures again." She paused, as if finding the right words, "I couldn't think of anyone else that I could trust...... but I forget that you have your own dreams and ambitions."
Yu An felt Hu Zi leaned back against the tent. She waited for him until the silence was no longer comfortable and she prodded him on his shoulder, "You are not going to say anything?"
It was then that Hu Zi's gaze connected with Yu An's own, and she felt like something was trapped in her mouth because he looked at her with an intensity she was not expecting.
"I was afraid," Hu Zi said, his voice so low that Yu An had to move forward to listen, "that if I was too honest, I would frighten you."
Hu Zi shook his head and laughed, "Last night, the Grand Tribe leader led you to Grand Prince Qing?"
Yu An nodded, "I have to give him an answer tomorrow night to convince him to return to the palace."
Hu Zi paused and then said, "When we return to the palace, we might not be able to see each other for a while... I've signed up for the naval expedition led by General Jiang... it will be a long journey into the Western Seas."
He hesitated for a moment and then took Yu An's hand into his, "But, I will come back before your nineteenth birthday and then I will tell you what I wanted to say."
If they had still been children, Yu An would have squeezed Hu Zi's hand and forced him to say what he wanted right now. But, there was something in Hu Zi's grip, something in the pressure in which he pressed into her palm, which made her think that the words he were saving were something heavier than any she had ever borne before.
In the night before the Grand Feast, many of the tribe maidens had gathered at Mo Hua's tent for one last maiden gathering. As Yu An declined to drink, she was ordered by Mo Hua to play song after song on her flute.
Deep in the night, almost before dawn, when the rest of the maidens had left, Mo Hua had turned to Yu An with tear-stained eyes as she said, "Grandmother Mo tells me that I have to marry next year. I'm too old already."
She sighed, as she looked at the moon, "No more time left to wait for Drifter to turn his eyes to me."
Mo Hua raised her hand at the moon and pointed at it sharply. Yu An was surprised because there was an old wives' tale that bad things will happen if you pointed your finger at the moon. Mo Hua cried in anger, "Moon God, if this fate was never meant to be, why did you tie my heart to him?"
Yu An gently moved Mo Hua's upraised hand down, "My mother said that the moon maidens don't purposely tie incomplete marital fates between people... but sometimes, it's an affinity from your past life that you owe."
Mo Hua fell silent, then raised another cup of alcohol into her mouth.
In an effort to stop Mo Hua from drinking, Yu An took the bottle away and asked, "Why do you like Drifter?"
Mo Hua shook her head with fervour before her shoulders sunk as if in defeat, "I wish I knew, Yu An, I wish I knew, then maybe I will know how to stop."
Yu An woke up rather late the next day. She had fallen asleep very late due to Mo Hua's emotional drunken outburst. But, she had also had a very strange dream - she dreamt that she was the daughter of the Royal Premier, destined to be betrothed to the Crown Prince. However, there were two princes, almost exactly alike, only sons from a pair of beautiful twin sisters - the older one, proud, arrogant, sharp and fierce like a weapon, the younger one, gentle, elegant, smooth like the strokes of his paintings. She thought that the three of them would play together forever, but when she turned eleven, everything changed. The older one told her that she had to choose, the younger one told her that the older one needed her. When she turned fifteen, the younger one left and she thought she would never see him again......
When she woke up, Yu An had the bleary realisation that she was Yu An and not An Chi. She shook her head to try and shake off the strange illusion that she was already back at the Royal Palace, at Grandmother Yu's palace. From outside, she heard the strains from a flute, of that song Grandmother Yu had danced to on the night of the Grand Yan Emperor's passing.
As if her heart was the flute, she felt like each note was pushing something internally within her, pushing her towards an awareness that would change the way she saw everything - she got up quickly and rushed towards the music. She saw a group of tribal men playing the various tribal instruments and - indeed - Master Lang, by the side, playing a flute.
Perhaps she had already suspected it, but it was too faint to be present in her mind, but now the realisation blew her mind wide open. She realised that the handsome wanderer her grandmother had fallen for must be Master Lang.
Yu An didn't know that she was just staring with her mouth slightly open until she felt an arm coming over her shoulders. A girly laughter, Yu An realised it was Mo Hua when she chuckled, "Mesmerised by our tribal music? They are playing the song of a gentleman serenading the maiden he loves and asking her to dance for him. The gentleman is singing that he will always love her even if she does not return his feelings. It's one of our customary songs for marriage."
Still dazed, Yu An nodded her head. Though all she could think then was, but who was Master Lang playing for? Grandmother Yu? Grand Aunt Jin? Just like An Chi, Yu An thought, who did they really love?
Later in the day, everyone was busy either helping the brides or grooms get ready, or with the music and feast. Yu An had little time to continue delving over what she realised were unsolvable questions of the heart.
It was only when it was very late, where everyone was huddled around the large central campfire and all the beautiful brides and grooms were dancing in joy and celebration, did the questions return to Yu An's mind. And, only because Master Lang had found her.
Master Lang was his usual leisured carefree self - like a wandering cloud that turns into nothing, unable to be pinned down, unable to be truly known. With a gourd of alcohol in his mouth, he asked lightly, "Have you finalised your answer for Qing?"
Yu An shook her head, then added, "I've been thinking all day about the song you played this morning."
Master Lang continued to drink casually as Yu An smiled, "It reminded me of my grandmother."
And then, Yu An didn't say anything more.
After a while, Master Lang crinkled his eyes at Yu An, she felt that it seemed like the first time she ever saw anything that resembled real emotions from Master Lang, his lips were raised in an almost smile, "I was disappointed at first when you didn't look a thing like Yu. But, for a moment, just a moment, when you obviously had tons of things to ask and say, but stubbornly remained silent - yes, you looked like Yu."
Before Yu An could answer, his emotions had slipped away as if it was only an inevitable wave returning to the sea after passing the shore. Master Lang inclined his head back, "Your ride is waiting for you."
The first time Qing had paid his respects to his mother in the tribal Mo cave. He was angry. His beautiful mother, the Grand Imperial Concubine, but her final resting place was a cold, dark and lonely cavern. So very lonely.
It was only later did Qing learnt that his mother had requested for her ashes to be buried here. She had written a letter to Grand Chief Mo and said that her life had burned with too much fury, and all she longed for was a quiet cold place to breathe in.
After years of traveling and meditation, Qing had also realised why his mother had been so obsessed with Auntie Yu, Hsiao's mother. It was only through such deep love can such twisted hatred be born.
So, he waited in silence, the only light from the flickering candles he lit, as he waited for Hsiao's daughter, his niece, Yu An.
A soft smile played on his lips. He remembered her. But did she? Probably not, he shook his head, for she was too young.
When he heard footsteps entering the cave, he reassembled his features into a cold austere mask.
He turned towards her. A young luminescent face. Her youthful glow alone seemed to warm the whole cave. She bowed down respectfully, "Uncle Qing."
He nodded, "Do you have the answer?"
He saw the centre between her brows furrowed slightly before she took a deep breath and answered, "Uncle Qing, I thought long and hard. I even dreamt of Aunt An Chi. And, I realised, that I do not know. How could I know? I wasn't Aunt An Chi, how would I know her heart?"
She bowed down her head low towards the ground, "But, I plead with you, Uncle Qing, to come home."
Qing reached out his hand and gently placed the loose strands of her hair behind her ears. She raised her head up in surprise.
Qing's mask finally broke and he smiled warmly, "There are four answers to this, Yu An. The first is Hsiao. The second is me. The third is both. The fourth is none. I never thought about the answer 'I do not know'. But, yes, why not? There was never a right answer since she had already passed, but therefore there is also never a wrong answer."
"I hope you can forgive me for giving you such a hard question," Qing gave an apologetic look, "But, I had given you the task to give myself some time to think of my own response to your request."
Yu An looked at Qing with hope and she shook with excitement, "Does that mean?"
Qing nodded and laughed, "Yes."
And, then Qing's eyes turned slightly more serious, "Both of us know after all that to return is not for my father, but for yours."
In Yu An's glee, she stood out and jumped a little in joy. "Uncle Qing, come follow me. There's a great feast at the Mo Tribe! Lots of food to eat before we return to the palace!"
Qing quietly followed Yu An's happy child-like back out towards the cave. For a moment, his mind travelled back to the years ago when he visited An Chi's house, and saw a very young girl playing in the very same garden like they had played when they were children.
He was going to leave when she pulled his robes and cried, "Father."
She was too young then to be able to differentiate her father and him.
"Yu An wants a hug," she had smiled with such innocent wonder.
His heart had stopped at the sound of "An". All the possibilities between An Chi and him had flown through him - what if he had agreed with An Chi that day to elope to a faraway place?
There was no answer to the pain in his heart. But, he bent down and picked the small girl up into his arms.
She laughed and hugged him tightly, "Dad, you are the best dad in the world."
Years of travelling had dulled the pain and vengeance in his heart. But, it was that day, that very day when he untwisted the saddest knot in his heart.
Author's Note: Ah, I finally wrote a bit about what happened to Qing after he left the place, after Chapter 16 in Little Moon. I'm sure readers of Little Moon could tell when they read it that there was a huge background story regarding Hsiao and Qing's mothers, etc. I have to admit that my imagination sometimes runs away with me - I never planned on writing these details and story out, but it's really the passion and interest of the readers in this fictional universe of mine that motivated me to flesh it out and to reveal a bit more of the motivations of even the side characters.
I do think that the first seven chapters are a bit unconventional for a story such as this, since Yu An is not so much the main character, she is a pivot, but what is happening is more of an emotional foundation for when her world starts to spiral away from her. From chapter 7, we will be returning to the palace, there will be some emotional closure on the Hsiao-Qing front, and finally, Yu An will have to make some decisions on her own and she gets really pushed towards her own journey of self-discovery.