Sorry about those who saw the post get published before it was ready! I had "scheduled" it for Sunday posting but hadn't finished getting it in order.
This week has been overwhelmingly busy and exhausting in the physical and emotional sense. But, I do get a surge of positive feelings whenever I see a supportive comment. It reminds me that this journey I want to go on has fellow travelers!
Unfortunately, my mental state is not as well-rested and happy as I wish I could be in whenever I am writing or translating (I do believe that a writer's own inner state does have some kind of effect on the product). But, I think life is also not always perfect and sometimes you can't wait for everything to be in order, to pursue something. Sometimes, you have to pursue it and hope that things fall in place.
So, I have been working really hard to reach the end of the first arc. And, it really took me effort to reach this point. I think every new project I embark on, I try to find something that is a little bit further out of my comfort zone - hoping that with each project, I will learn something new. Sometimes, I wonder if I have been too ambitious with this story, but I suppose I can only try and find out?
I hope you enjoy the first arc! The last chapter is especially long as I combined chapter 9 and 10 for what I hope is an exciting end to the first arc!
Chapter 9: Change
With a few quick brush strokes, a beautiful figure had came alive on the parchment. It was a maiden with a heart shaped face with startling clear eyes. But, when Drifter's eyes fell upon the figure, he immediately thought, it did not look like her. A silent figure did not look like her.
Drifter recalled Princess Yu An with a mixture of amusement and irritation. From the start, he knew that she was the first daughter of Empress Yue, the sworn sister of his mother, and originally meant to be betrothed to him... and when he had first seen this poorly disguised maiden in gentleman's clothing, her eyes that could not stop drinking in the world and a mouth that could not stop talking, he was relieved that he had long abandoned his identity as the First Prince.
When Master Lang rather gleefully informed him at the tea house that he was waiting for Princess Yu An to join their journey, his defenses had immediately heightened. He knew his Master too well. He was more cunning than anyone he has ever met in the jianghu (pugilist world). Master Lang had extremely reluctantly taken him in as a disciple due to a debt Master Lang owe his father, General Tie, but Drifter only knew too carefully that Master Lang loved making things difficult for his disciples. One need only look at the conundrum Master Lang had put even the great Yan Emperor, his first disciple, in.
So for all intents and purposes, Drifter had seen Princess Yu An as a trap.
Every time she tried to come nearer, he would move back.
The silence was what he liked best.
There was once he wanted to tell her, Don't get entangled with me. But, even that, he thought, might be too much of an entanglement.
Let's keep this distance, he thought, let's be two points that pass each other, too swift to leave any traces.
Still, as if to resolve any residual guilt he might have in his past, he sent out an order to men under his command in the jianghu to get a copy of the scroll of the Heartbreak Song for her. The one thing he hated the most was a debt.
Drifter moved away from the table and indicated for Bai Yan to follow him, "Come. Let's see how much your skills have increased."
Bai Yan groaned, "All you think about is martial arts!"
When Hsiao entered the back garden of the Premier's residence, his older brother, Qing, was already there. He sat there under the moonlight, aglow, at peace.
Has it already been twenty eight years? Hsiao thought to himself.
Tonight, Hsiao was not wearing any robes that indicated that he was the Emperor. In fact, he wore a simple clean white robe, his favourite style in his youth. Tonight, he was only a man meeting his long lost brother.
"Elder brother," Hsiao greeted respectfully as he bowed his head.
Hsiao raised his head after a moment when there was no response. When he met Qing's eyes which were lit with a smile, his anxious heart became at ease.
Qing nodded to a side and there was a guzheng at the side as if in preparation for Hsiao to play. Qing raised up his jade flute and said in a soft voice, "You left the palace with only one jade flute and became famous for your skills in playing the flute. But, how many know that you were really skilled in playing the guzheng in your youth? It was I who played the flute. I resented you, thinking that you were again trying to outdo me in another one of my preferences. Only... only many years later, I remembered that I was the one who gave you the jade flute for your birthday."
"How many years since us brothers have played together?" Qing asked, his eyes tinged with light wistfulness.
"Too many years," Hsiao replied as he sat down before the guzheng.
Wordlessly, they played. In the music, all those years of distrust, suspicion, vengeance and loss quietly disappeared.
Tomorrow, Hsiao will remain the Yan Emperor and Qing, the Grand Prince who left and took a monastic vow. But tonight, they were only brothers.
After Yu An had returned to the palace, she slowly realised something with increasing dread which was once you tasted freedom, you could never be happy being locked again. She had once flown free in that wide sky - how could she be satisfied being a caged bird?
She had always longed to travel but was forbidden by her father. Yu An vowed in her heart to get her father to allow her to travel again, perhaps as her present for her eighteenth birthday. She resolved to speak to her father after the grand funeral for the Grand Yan Emperor was completed.
As Yu An practised for the final day of ceremony where she would be performing before the whole Capital, sometimes her thoughts would become distracted - she would think of the Mo Tribe in the desert, she would think of where Master Lang and Drifter were roaming, she would think of Hu Zi's preparations for his naval expedition. Sometimes, she would also think about her mother, the most excitable person she knew, and how much she loved traveling - and what her mother must have sacrificed in order to be with her father.
The place she wanted to visit most of all was the Wu Kingdom. Often, she would ruminate over the scroll for the Heartbreak Song night after night - she could understand the notes, but there were scribblings and notations that were completely foreign to her. She could not understand the scroll, but she felt like her life would completely change if she did - and without even knowing why, her heart thirsted for that change.
So, it was with those thoughts and convictions that Yu An passed the days till it was the final day of the Grand Yan Emperor's funeral.
On that day, Yu An was transformed into the Royal Princess Yu An. She was dressed in pure white silk robes with a light shimmer of lavendar. A veil across her face to shield the princess' appearance from the citizens.
There was a platform outside the Grand Capital's temple. Thousands of citizens and travelers have paid their respects to the Grand Yan Emperor, whose body laid peacefully in the temple, as the prayer rites were undertaken to ensure a smooth restful journey into the afterlife.
Although her face was never seen, all the citizens still talked about that day when their beautiful Royal Princess rose on that stage and played a guzheng piece for her grandfather. She first played a song of victory that echoed all the great achievements of the Grand Yan Emperor... but it was the second piece that pierced into everyone's hearts.
It was a simple song but it was that sudden soft chord that pierced through the melody, like the light that burst through a small crack of darkness, that reminded everyone of the pain that accompanies the bittersweet remembrance of a loved one. Of the irremovable, uncuttable, shadow of one that has left you.
Royal Princess Yu An's performance became famous that day. But, it truly became legendary years later, for no one knew then that it would be the Royal Princess' only public performance.
After the performance, there was a final private ceremony in the temple where the close royal relatives, the most senior officials and the foreign royal visitors, paid their last respects to the Grand Yan Emperor.
Yu An kept her head low and downcast as important person after important person bade their prayers to her grandfather. She did raise her head a little when she saw the sixth Prince from the Wu Kingdom walked by - Yu An was slightly surprised to see that he had a frail pretty face and was astonishingly slim.
But, the one that stole her attention was a royal announced as the First Prince of the Xue Mountain Tribe, Bai Wu (雾 - fog). His arrival caused ripples even among the other royals, and especially the females, Yu An noted. Yu An knew that the First Prince was infamously reclusive and known to be... extremely ill, but this man that strode with great ease down the centre of the hall towards the shrine, displayed no symptoms of physical weakness.
He was, Yu An admitted, extremely handsome. Yu An remembered seeing Queen Bai Ying once, and he closely resembled his mother. His face appeared as if it was sculptured to precise and perfect angles, high cheekbones, a tall aquiline nose... but it was his eyes. Those eyes, cold, aloof, like a blizzard storm, that pulled at Yu An's heart - those eyes, those eyes, Yu An thought, but it couldn't be?
There was no denying his imposing bearing. He held himself apart from the rest, even slightly cold to his younger brother. Bai Wu, Yu An thought with a light smile on her lips, like a thick fog, impossible to discern clearly.
After the ceremony ended, Yu An went to a quiet courtyard at the back of the temple. Hu Zi had arranged to meet her here. Since her return to the Royal Palace, she had not seen Hu Zi. Yu An had only heard Aunt Hong Meng's cries to her mother, Empress Yue, for she was worried about Hu Zi embarking on such a dangerous journey into the Western Seas. Aunt Hong Meng had lamented, but you cannot stop your son from growing up.
When Yu An reached the courtyard, Hu Zi was already there. Those two words, already there, weighed in her heart, reminding her how she had always taken for granted that Hu Zi would always be there for her.
Before she said anything, she felt Hu Zi placed something cold in her hands. The object was cold, but the touch of Hu Zi's hands were extremely warm. Hot even. She looked down and realised that Hu Zi had placed a jade piece in her palms. She recognised it immediately, it was the jade piece he had worn since they were young. His family heirloom!
"Safekeep this for me as I go on my journey," Hu Zi said as he looked at Yu An with a steadfast and intense glance, "I promise to return home to take it from you."
Yu An thought that Hu Zi was quite sly, quickly giving her a reason which she found impossible to reject. She shook her head at Hu Zi in mock annoyance, "I can't promise this jade will still be in one piece when you return!"
Hu Zi smiled, "Then promise me you will wait for me."
Yu An arched her head up to look at Hu Zi more clearly. Her brows furrowed lightly as if not fully comprehending Hu Zi's request, "Where else would I go?"
Hu Zi said in a firm tone, "Wait for me to return home before you get married. I promise to return before your nineteenth birthday."
Yu An wanted to break into laughter. She wanted to tease Hu Zi. But, something in the way he held her hands, the slight nervous edge in his voice, stopped her. So, she closed her fingers around the cool, extremely cool, jade piece and nodded her head.
Yu An wanted to say something more but with a pull of her hands, Hu Zi had pulled her into his embrace. She heard his words in her ear, "You can hit me for being rude when I come back. I'm leaving on the first military ship before the sun falls --- I will be gone, Yu An. Don't forget me, because I will always remember you."
And with that, Hu Zi had used his martial arts and swiftly went away. It was then that the tears fell down on Yu An's cheek, for her grandfather, for Hu Zi, she did not know - only that Hu Zi had left, and there was now no one whose heart would ache so much when she cried that she would have to hold back her tears.
After the sun fell, Yu An knew that in this Yan Kingdom, there was now no Hu Zi. At first, she was slightly depressed but she soon broke out of it. This sadness, this stillness, is not like her, Yu An chided herself. As Hu Zi fulfils his ambition, shouldn't she too?
So, Yu An quickly changed into her favourite set of grey male robes and decided to finish what she had set out so long ago to do. She instructed Xiao Qing to tell anyone who came to find her that she was very tired and did not wish to be disturbed. With that, Yu An snuck out of the palace to visit the Golden Peony Mansion. Previously, she wanted to exchange music knowledge with the great courtesan Yin Hua from the Wu Kingdom, and even more so now with the gift of the Heartbreak Song scroll!
However, when Yu An reached the Golden Peony Mansion, she was disappointed to hear that Yin Hua was not receiving any customers that night. Perhaps it was the fullness of the moon that night but a particular streak of adventure seemed to bloom in Yu An's heart so she decided to sneak to Yin Hua's bedchambers.
Even before Yin Hua had came to the Golden Peony Mansion, Yu An had came a few times incognito since she enjoyed the musical performances here. So, she relatively knew the layout of the mansion and bribed a maid along the way to confirm where Yin Hua resided.
After taking a deep breath, Yu An knocked on the door of the bedchambers. An annoyed voice cried out as the door opened. She saw a pretty maiden and although Yu An had only seen Yin Hua with her face veiled, she had a feeling that this maiden was not Yin Hua. The maiden scowled at Yu An, "How many times have I said? The mistress is not well and won't be receiving customers tonight."
Yu An bowed apologetically, "I don't know if your mistress Yin Hua remembers me. I played a guzheng duet with her in the great hall on the day of her arrival. I could not forget the beauty of her playing and had came to ask about her techniques in guzheng..."
The maiden seemed to give a disgusted "tsk" and skeptical look to Yu An but an elegant voice called out from the room, "Let him in."
Xiao Hua looked worriedly at Yin Hua as she led the grey robed gentleman in, but Yin Hua nodded assuredly back at Xiao Hua. Yin Hua remembered the guzheng gentleman, no, she corrected herself, guzheng gentle lady, she smiled as she indicated for the guest to take a seat.
At first, Yin Hua had been surprised by the excellent playing of the gentleman across the hall from her, but she could tell immediately from her instincts that the gentleman was actually a maiden in disguise.
The gentleman smiled brightly at Yin Hua as Yin Hua poured a cup of tea for the gentleman, "Please drink."
Without hesitation, the gentleman gulped down the cup of tea. Yin Hua smiled at the gentleman as she got "him" to share "his" purpose of visit, but before the gentleman could say more than a few words, "his" head fell down on the table.
Xiao Hua cried in surprise, "Mistress!"
Yin Hua placed a finger on Xiao Hua's lips, "Quiet. I drugged the tea before you brought her in."
"What bad timing!" Xiao Hua shook her head at the gentleman, "Who asked him to come and find you on the night of our escape."
Yin Hua smiled at Xiao Hua, "Can't you tell that this gentleman is a girl?"
"We must as well make use of her sudden arrival," Yin Hua said calmly, "Dress her up as me and place her asleep in my bed. This would delay the discovery of our disappearance."
Xiao Hua nodded and they quickly took action. In less than the burning of a incense stick, Yin Hua and Xiao Hua had placed the maiden carefully on her bed.
Yin Hua stroke the maiden's forehead and said apologetically, "I'm sorry to use you, but you appear to be from a rich background, so you shouldn't have any trouble even after I am gone."
Yin Hua took one last look at the bedchambers. She had taken great pains to leave the Wu Kingdom to the Yan Kingdom to move on from her broken heart and start a new life here. She didn't set out with much hope, but heavens was kind and she had met a traveling merchant who offered his heart to her and asked her to roam the lands with him. She didn't know if she could trust a man at her age, but a big part of her felt like escaping herself and becoming someone new.
The merchant had great respect for the Grand Yan Emperor so they had made arrangements to leave on the night of the last day of his funeral. She placed a few gold ingots on the table which should be enough to pay off her debt to the Grand Peony Mansion. She knew it was never about money, but her fame and identity made it difficult for the bosses to allow her to leave - so she decided to take off in the cover of the night.
Yu An was shaken awake. Her head felt extremely heavy and her mind was in a state of confusion. She saw a heavily made up middle age woman pulling her out of a bed, "Yin Hua, where is Xiao Hong? Ah, it doesn't matter. There is a very important guest! Very important guest that demanded to see you."
The middle aged woman directed another young maiden to dress her up. Yu An groggily touched her face and felt a white veil. Her mind got confused - was it for Grandfather's performance?
Yu An couldn't think clearly so the maiden placed a grand cloak around her and then led her to another room.
The room was ornately decorated. But, it was dimly lit with only a few candles surrounding a grand guzheng in the middle of the room. There were all sorts of questions burning in her head as she was sat down before the guzheng.
However, when Yu An's fingers touched the guzheng. She felt a sense of peace, like she was coming home.
There was a sharp command, "Play."
The sharpness of the person's tone stabbed into her mind and cause her great pain. To prevent the person from speaking any further, Yu An played. It was no particular song - merely the strains that resounded in her heart.
After she finished, there was a moment of silence. She suddenly smelt a very strong scent - thick, musty... and she blacked out once again.
She could only hear crying sobs. She wanted to sleep for a longer period, but the wails were too heartbroken, and thus her eyes blearily opened.
It was a foreign room with foreign sounds. Where was she? Yu An thought, her heart beating in panicked, Who was she?
Yu An couldn't remember anything except a throbbing pain on her head as if she had been clobbered. A kind voice greeted her, "You finally awoke? I was so scared that you would sleep forever."
Yu An realised that she was in a room with three other maidens. Three other extraordinarily beautiful maidens.
The kind voice belonged to a maiden who didn't look like she belonged in this world. Her skin glowed as if she was translucent. She had a pair of long lashed gentle eyes and a perfectly proportioned face. She looked like how Yu An imagined a goddess or higher being would look like.
"I am Ling Xing," She smiled as she touched Yu An's head, "Yin Hua, I'm afraid the people who brought you here might have drugged you too heavily so you are not feeling yourself."
Yu An frowned, Yin Hua? My name is Yin Hua?
Ling Xing gave a half sad smile, "You are now in the Dark Realms - believe it or not, a realm of dark immortals and demons. You and the two other girls are famous courtesans from the mortal world and kidnapped from the mortal world as gifts for Prince Xie's birthday."
"I am one of Prince Xie's concubines. He is the head of the Crocodile Tribe," Ling Xing narrated calmly as if she was speaking for a third party.
"Prince Xie is..." Ling Xing paused for a moment, "He can be cruel. With a vicious love for beauty and destroying beauty. So, I come here to help all of you dress up for the performance tonight. Make him happy and you can live."
At Ling Xing's words, the two other maidens started to cry even harder. But, Yu An was too dumbstruck to react. Courtesan? Dark Realms? Why were these words familiar and strange at the same time?
Maybe it was because Yu An had no recollection of her past identity that she was the calmest out of the three maidens. Yu An learnt later that the other two maidens were Courtesan Mei Xia famed for her dancing and Courtesan Ge Yao beloved for her singing. Yu An thought then that it would be perfect for all three of then to perform together, but Ling Xing had instructed them to perform alone.
Yu An had shrugged at this - she didn't think she had much chances of survival. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she saw someone with a sweet enough face, but definitely no beauty to change a tyrant's heart. She doubt that she would be able to survive Prince Xie's clutches. Thus, she even volunteered to go first because the other two maidens were so terrified, but Prince Xie had ordered for it to be dancing, singing then playing of the musical instruments.
Of course, no one dared to defy his orders. So, Yu An waited in silence in the room after one by one the petrified maidens had left.
She looked at a scroll for a guzheng musical piece and a jade pendant before her. That was the entire of her personal possessions. She touched the jade pendant and felt a twinge in her heart. She decided that she would try her best to stay alive - she did not know who, but she felt that someone out there must be waiting for her.
Yin Hua, she heard someone called her and she stood up. She was ready.
She was dressed in white robes layered with red silk sashes and red silk roses adorning her hair. She hugged the guzheng given to her as she walked up to the stage. Her eyes were always looking towards the sky, she never once looked at the audience. She was scared she would lose her nerve if she did - dark immortals and demons? She didn't even dare think what the audience looked like.
She started to play - a fierce song of battle, of war cries, of horses running wildly - and then at the peak of the crescendo, the horses ran towards an oasis, an utopia, there was no more massacre, no more blood, only beauty.
At first, when she had walked onto the stage, there were lascivious cries and even booing. But as she played, the jeering softened and when she ended, there was silence.
The silence was broken by a laughter. A laughter that belonged to one person. Unknowingly, Yu An raised her head because the laughter was deep and enchanting. Her gaze met a pair of powerful almond-shaped eyes.
She felt her breath being taken away from her. He was beautiful. Beyond this world. Beyond this light. Aquiline nose, elegant lips. But, there was such strength and authority in his gaze that made one wanted to bow down in subservience.
He stood up and her eyes watched the tip of his lips raised, "Xie, this girl - I will take her."
She was so transfixed that she didn't hear or see the rest of the crowd fall down onto their knees as they cried, "Your Highness."
She was only cognisant of the chant in her heart - this man, she had definitely seen before.
Author's note: Whew! This chapter was really long and really took a lot out of me. I'm really satisfied to finally finish the first arc though! Heehee, in this chapter, we have the presence of all three male leads - Drifter, Hu Zi and An Hun. YES, An Hun fans, An Hun has finally arrived.
I know some readers may have tons of doubts and questions! Feel free to leave your questions and I will answer them if they are not too spoilery.