The above picture is how I imagined Dark Prince An Hun's palace to look like!
I hope the perspectives are not too confusing but when we are in An Hun's head, Yu An will be written as Yin Hua as that is how he sees her. When we return to Yu An's perspective, I write her as Yu An.
Chapter 11: Secrets
"Dark Lord," An Hun knelt and greeted his father who had comfortably settled himself in the main seat in his main hall.
As An Hun rose, a light smile played on his lips, "Father's visit is unexpected. What wind has blown Father here?"
"Curiosity," The Dark Lord replied as he ordered the servants to bring out more wine, "Curiousity to meet the maiden in the eye of the storm."
"Storm?" An Hun echoed in a tone of jest, "Only a gift from the Crocodile Prince Xie."
One of the servants bowed low towards the Dark Lord and Dark Prince An Hun, and announced the arrival of Lady Yin Hua. With a brief nod from the Dark Prince, two other servants entered first and set up a guzheng in the middle of the hall.
When she entered, in robes of pure white and a translucent silk veil over the bottom half of her face, An Hun noted again her poise. An Hun had participated in Crocodile Prince Xie's birthday banquet with an agenda - although An Hun was said to be in close contest with Prince Liehun, his victory over Liehun was largely inevitable after several strategic and costly mistakes made by Liehun. Crocodile Prince Xie, previously an ally of Liehun, had thus been making advances towards An Hun in order to avoid a full fall-out in the event An Hun gained entire control of the Wrath Tribe.
An Hun appreciated Crocodile Prince Xie's flexibility to maintain his tribe's strategic interest in the Dark Realms, but also disdained such blatant disloyalty. He was waiting throughout the banquet for the opportune moment to cut Crocodile Prince Xie down - not completely such as to sever ties, but enough to display that he would not be a a kind merciful lord.
He toyed with the idea of usurping the specially prepared courtesans at Crocodile Prince Xie's banquet by bestowing them to his men instead. However, when the earlier two courtesans performed, he disdained them as being too inferior for even him to look at. He decided that leaving halfway through the banquet would be insult enough, when she arrived.
As a dark prince born in one of the seven royal tribes in the Dark Realms, he was destined to fight with his blood brothers for the throne. Weaker men may fall apart, but An Hun thrived - he would tell you that he ate fear for breakfast. Still, her fear - was completely different.
She was no beauty, An Hun had judged her harshly based on his own standard of perfection. He could tell, with slight amusement, that she was scared. However, she held it all within her and walked elegantly onto the stage as if the guzheng was both her shield and weapon. He thought then, yes, maybe I will pick her. Give her to Hei Xing.
He was troubled by her song. The way her fingers flew over the musical instrument as if the battle in her song were her very own thrusts of the sword. The abrupt staccatos that didn't seem possible from the guzheng as they slowly dissolved into a landscape of peace and beauty - why? Why at this moment did he remember the ocean? The sound of his mother's voice? The music that abandoned - no he abandoned?
And yet, when the last note was struck, An Hun stood up and said, "Xie, this girl - I will take her." Even he had forgotten, till much later, his original goal of giving her away.
Just like that night in Prince Xie's birthday banquet, when she faced possible death, Yin Hua in his hall was not flustered. There was no sign of the previous weakened maiden in her chambers who had to be force-fed poison to survive. No sign of the maiden who was so angry that she fell down from her bed.
She calmly bowed down towards the Dark Lord, "Humble maiden pays her greetings to the Dark Lord."
"You are Yin Hua from the Wu Kingdom?" The Dark Lord asked with a suave smile, his whole bearing at once inviting.
Yin Hua nodded.
"I have travelled to Wu Kingdom often in my youths," The Dark Lord spoke in a tone of fond remembrance, "Play me songs from your homeland."
An Hun thought that there was a momentary question in Yin Hua's face but she gave a respectful bow towards the Dark Lord and sat at the guzheng.
She played a song - a beautiful song - though it invoked images of a far away desert. A foreign land instead of home? At that moment, An Hun admitted to himself - just for that split second - to use her or let her go, he did not know.
He didn't understand the slight, very slight, hesitation. After all, he was never a kind and merciful lord?
The truth was Yu An's fingers were trembling. Either through fear or side effects from the poison she drank or the fumes she breathed in she could not discern. Maybe there was no difference.
To play songs from her homeland? She almost laughed - where was her homeland? She wanted to cry out loud.
But, she sat at the guzheng, calmed her heart and delved deep inside her. So many notes, so many melodies strummed inside her - but one in particular pricked at her heart. It felt recent. It felt familiar. She thought that the notes resembled a beautiful maiden dancing around a campfire towards the gentleman of her heart - and that gentleman, wild and free like a wolf, was returning her gaze, playing his flute in reply. There was sand all around them, the desert was silent, under the dark starry night.
When she finished, she opened her eyes and the Dark Lord, the great ruler of the Dark Realms, was smiling warmly at her. It was a smile that even met his eyes but Yu An wasn't too sure if it was real warmth she detected - this was An Hun's father after all, and anyone who could be linked to that cold dark prince could not be simple.....
The Dark Lord gave some praises to Yu An which she accepted though her mind was blanking out. Xiao Li carried her to the side.
After a few more exchanges between the Dark Lord and Dark Prince An Hun, the Dark Lord exited.
Yu An's shoulders immediately relaxed in relief when the Dark Lord was gone. She thought she could return to her chambers, when to her surprise, the servants started to bring out black lacquer tables and placed one in front of the Dark Prince and her. They then brought out food - tons and tons of dishes - beautiful and delicately sculptured food.
"Reward," An Hun said as the servants served the dishes.
"Can I ask for a reward?" Yu An asked hopefully.
"You can't leave the Dark Realms," An Hun stated simply.
"Besides that?" Yu An asked.
An Hun didn't reply as he sent back some dishes that were not to his liking. Yu An took his silence as consent and quickly added, "I heard from Xiao Li that the Dark Prince has a library full of musical texts and rare books."
Yu An thought she saw a smile on An Hun's lips for a moment, but it disappeared so fast that it must have been a trick of the light.
"I will instruct the guards to allow you access to the music library," An Hun said, then his eyes darkened, "But you are not allowed to travel to the other parts."
Yu An replied before he could regret it, "Yes!"
After the Dark Lord left Prince An Hun's palace, he turned to his most trusted ward and ordered him to investigate Yin Hua's background. The Dark Lord then fell back into his carriage in deep thought - the slight golden flicker in Yin Hua's soul, he was sure An Hun had seen it too - she was no ordinary mortal. His son had even put a cloaking spell on her. She played well but that song she played, belonged to the Sand Kingdom, and not the Wu Kingdom. Still, why would she intentionally make such a mistake?
This Yin Hua was a figure full of questions. However, her own self was clear - even pure. The way she looked at him - slightly fearful, but completely prideful. No, she was definitely not ordinary.
The Dark Lord shook his head. When he heard that most astonishingly his son, the Dark Prince An Hun, had taken a maiden to his palace - his son who was infamous for his disdain of women - and more amazingly, had usurped this maiden from Crocodile Prince Xie's birthday banquet. He was intrigued, and even for a moment, happy. Out of all his sons, he felt he ruined An Hun perhaps the most - his mother, the most beautiful mermaid princess, Yao Lan, had followed him from the seas to the Dark Realms, at the cost of her life. She was a woman who died for love and yet for love forsook her son.
It was no wonder An Hun bore him a mix of hatred, affection and respect. But, what worried the Dark Lord the most was An Hun's resentment of love.
Yao Lan, the Dark Lord reflected, this debt we owe him, when will it be repaid?
When Empress Yue received a message from Princess Yu An's palace that she was ill and could not visit the Empress in reply to Yue's invitation to Yu An this morning, Yue would ordinarily not think further about it - but for some reason, a terrible feeling struck her heart. Yue decided to visit Yu An herself to shake off the uneasiness she felt.
When Yue arrived at Yu An's palace, she was thus not fully surprised to find Xiao Qing bowing down on the floor, her face in tears.
"Empress Yue, your humble servant pays her respect. How your humble servant has sinned! I deserve a thousand deaths!"
Yue indicated for her maidservant to help Xiao Qing up before Xiao Qing lost all self control. "Calm down," Yue said, "What has happened?"
"Princess Yu An," Xiao Qing sobbed, "Since last night, she has not returned!"
A weaker woman might have fainted at this, but that was not Yue. Yue tightened the grip of her palms, took a deep breath and instructed Xiao Qing to recount everything she knew of what happened.
After Yue heard the whole story from Xiao Qing, she was decisive. She quickly wrote a message to Hsiao on a parchment and instructed for it to be delivered to Hsiao urgently.
Yue then turned to Xiao Qing and her servants, "Quick! Dress me in one of Yu An's male disguises."
Xiao Qing was thunderstruck and looked at the Empress in confusion, "Empress?"
"Stop dawdling! We need to go to the Golden Peony Mansion!"
Thus, Yue travelled to the Golden Peony Mansion with great speed. She had a royal crest from Hsiao that gave her minor official status - enough for her to carry out her usual matchmaking and sleuthing, but not bring too much attention to her. The disappearance of a royal princess was a sensitive issue and Yue decided that she had to be low-key about the first stages of investigations.
The Grand Madam of the Golden Peony Mansion was cooperative and politely informed Yue in her male official disguise that there were no visitors to Courtesan Yin Hua last night. In fact, Courtesan Yin Hua had been redeemed last night and had already left the Yan Kingdom.
Yue was silent as she watched the Grand Madam - she had lost her previous divine powers when she was a Moon Maiden, but she could sense with all her soul that there had been magic last night. There was the scent of the extraordinary.
For the courtesan that Yu An was meeting last night to disappear with her disappearance? It was too coincidental.
Yue asked to be brought to Courtesan Yin Hua's previous chambers and the Grand Madam willingly acceded to Yue's request.
Yue made sure that she was left alone in Courtesan Yin Hua's chambers and when she was certain that there was no one around listening - she immediately broke the sun bead that her sworn brother, the Crown Prince of the Heavenly Realms, Xi Yang, had given her before. He had once said that no matter where he is, just as long as she broke the sun bead, he would come.
Truth to his words, in a moment, Xi Yang had magically appeared in the chambers. Xi Yang was about to ask Yue why she had called him. But, when Xi Yang saw Yue's face - pale and stricken with worry - he instead asked, "Yue, what do you need me to do?"
Yue hurriedly told Xi Yang what had happened to Yu An.
"Yu An... Yu An is missing," Yue choked, "I'm afraid that she had been kidnapped. Xi Yang Ge Ge (older brother), something feels wrong in this mansion but I cannot tell - it's as if black magic has been involved. Please find Yu An."
Xi Yang immediately surveyed his surroundings, "Someone had intentionally wiped his magical presence in the mansion. I will go back to the Heavenly Realms to see if I can identify Yu An's location and will personally task my best men to look into this."
Xi Yang gave Yue's hand a comforting grip, "Don't worry. Yu An is blessed."
Xi Yang gave a pat on Yue's head, "I hear Hsiao arriving already. I will bring back information by the end of the day."
With that, Xi Yang left just as an elegant figure in light green robes entered the room. Yue didn't even need to open her eyes as she rushed into the figure's embrace.
"Hsiao," Yue sobbed, "Yu An is missing. What should we do?"
"I have sent an elite security force to look into this and contacted my shi fu (teacher)," Hsiao stroke Yue's back in comfort as he spoke in that gentle tone that always eased Yue's heart of her anxieties, "Didn't you once said that our children will live to a ripe old age with us?"
However, this time Hsiao's words only caused Yue to sobbed louder, "Because I never told you..." She sobbed, "Yu An's heart has an ill-fated thread."
Yu An wasn't sure if time flowed the same way in the Dark Realms as the Mortal Realms. But, the time that felt long and painful at the start quickly flowed by despite the bitter black liquid she had to drink.
The Dark Prince's library was amazing - Yu An in her passion to discover the secrets of the scroll for the Heartbreak Song, completely forgot about her original intention to figure out how to escape from the palace. Sometimes, she was honestly confused about An Hun - when he listened to music, she thought she detected a trace of disdain for music, but how could someone who had such a wondrous library of music dislike music?
There were several annotations in the scroll that Yu An could not understand but with the help of several music texts from the Wu Kingdom, including a helpful ancient Wu language scroll - she started to translate some of the handwriting in the scroll and she realised that the text to the music was written in a female voice. There were descriptions of a male coming from a foreign kingdom, extraordinary, elegant and gentle - of watching him drink under the moonlight, of listening to the playing of his jade green flute, and wanting to calm the crease between his brows. At times, Yu An felt almost sheepish as if she was opening a small window into the deepest most private safe in someone's heart.
Yu An couldn't explain it but she felt herself being drawn to a door linked to the farthest ends of the library. She always remembered An Hun's warning - you are not allowed to travel to the other parts. But, as if she was heeding a siren's call, she felt like something inside that door was calling out to her.
Finally, she could not resist it - Yu An threw away all rational constraints and opened that door. It was surprisingly unlocked. She stood there, for a moment, in wonder.
The room was aglow - glistening with triton sea shells of all shapes and sizes. She thought she had fallen deep within the ocean.
Her hand started to move towards one of the shells. But before she could touch them, her hand was caught in a fierce grip.