“Your Majesty, the princess’s maid is here.” Eunuch Dan Yi swept into a bow as he faced the Emperor who sat alone in the Winter Pavilion of the Jade garden and Lily Ponds. It was the highest and coldest point of the Jade gardens, hidden by giant maple trees, built on massive boulders dredged from the Northern Sea. The Emperor looked up, the steaming cup of fragrant chrysanthemum tea in his cold fingers. “Let her up. Keep all the servants back from the Winter Pagoda.” He said as he gazed into the garden below.
Hua Er slowly climbed the stone steps to the Winter Pavilion the wind blowing her long hair and tugging at her silk gown, her legs feeling heavier and heavier with each step. She jerked forward in an angry bow to the emperor, “Your majesty. I’ve just left Yu Zhu with Xu Long Hui.”
The Emperor looked at her sadly, “Come and sit, Hua Er.”
“I would not.” Hua Er said, her head still lowered, anger was radiating off of her in waves.
“Why?” The Emperor asked, even though he knew the answer. He turned and looked at the wondrous beauty of the vast garden before him as he patiently waited for her answer.
“I do not want to sit with a father that will allow his daughter to think the entire palace hates her, just to force her to leave.” Beneath the anger, Hua Er felt a wave of despair. “I do not want to sit with a father who will order me to lie to Yu Zhu and make her think I hate her.”
“You forget that I am also an Emperor.” His voice though soft, could be heard above the murmurings of the red gold maple trees, “You forget that I have to protect the last heir of this house.”
Hua Er finally straightened, tears glistening in her doe brown eyes. She clenched her flingers and felt her nails bite into flesh, “Is there truly no other way?”
“If Yu Zhu stays within the palace, she will become a chess piece in the game between the Crown Prince and the Hong family. She will die, just like the Empress did. The Crown Prince’s plan…we have to rely on it.”
“But to use magic to transport her, to rely on the powers of a Demon that lives in his heart. And then to fake her death.” Hua Er felt a chill up her spine that had nothing to do with the cold autumn day. “Can we trust Long Hui, what if this was his plan to take over the palace, all along?”
She too looked at the pond that the Emperor gazed at. The month she and Long Hui had returned to the palace after her wounds healed , Long Hui had asked her and the Emperor hide in the Jade Garden. They looked down at him from this very pagoda. In the dead of the night, they saw the Demoness crawl out of his chest. The Emperor nearly died of shock there and then.
“I never wanted to be a Crown Prince.” Long Hui said calmly as he too climbed the stone steps. “I never wanted to come back here, even when the Demoness tortured me night and day.”
Hua Er avoided his gaze. After he revealed what had happened to him in the forest after the siege, she could barely be near him. It was all her fault that it ended like this. It was all her fault.
Long Hui bowed to his father, “I came back because I made a promise to the late Empress Xi Yang Yue to always look after my sister.”
“You came into the palace with a demon in your heart. How do you propose to keep her safe when you bring danger to her.” The Emperor looked as son with sorrow, he blamed himself for Long Hui’s curse as well.
“Three years ago, when I went into the army under Hong Yan Su, it was a way to keep the bloodthirsty demon in my satisfied. She fed on the flesh of the dead, she was happy and left me alone. But in the army I realized Hong Yan Su’s true intentions. He wants to be emperor with absolute power. That’s why the he sent assassins to kidnap Yu Zhu the night of the festival.”
“I know.” The emperor said as he gripped his tea cup, “My spies told me that Hong Yan Su was the culprit. I just don’t have the proof.” The delicate cup, unable to withstand the emperor’s grip. Shattered into a million pieces. The Emperor looked surprised at the blood mixed with the thousand lily white shards.
Hua Er hurried forward with her handkerchief. He continued as he gripped the delicate cloth to stop the bleeding, “10 years ago, when I came back to reclaim the palace, I met a dying palace maid hidden in the Empress’s Pavilion. She told me that she saw General Hong, Hong Yan Su’s father cut my wife down.” There was ancient grief that made his eyes darker than the deepest cave, “but I didn’t have enough power to punish him. Now his spawn tries to take my child by force.”
“He wanted to kidnap Yu Zhu to force your hand in the marriage.” Long Hui spoke plainly, “If I hadn’t come forward, I would guess he would’ve poisoned you and declared himself Emperor as Yu Zhu’s husband.”
“But you’re here now. You’re the Crown prince, surely he wouldn’t try anything.” Hua Er tried to think things through, “You can protect her.”
But it was the Emperor who interjected, “For how long will Long Hui be able to deflect Hong Yan Su and his father? They have most of the military power and the backing of most of the court. Next to Long Hui, the only legitimate way to the throne is through Yu Zhu. Hua Er, 10 years ago the Hong family used others to storm this palace. General Hong pretended to be on our side, so he could appear blameless if the siege failed.” The emperor sighed, “When I die and if Long Hui falls, Yu Zhu will be alone with the monsters that killed her family, how long do you think they’ll let her live?”
“The danger in this palace is immense. We have to make sure she never wants to come back because she will certainly die if she does. We have to make sure that there is not an ounce of longing for this place in her” Long Hui was the only one out of the three who did not appear bothered by their plan. “It’s better that we fake her death and keep her safe. But it has to be by sunset today.”
The Emperor leaned toward Hua Er, his commanding presence was tempered by his beseeching look, “What I’m about to ask of you is very difficult. Hua Er, please. I need you to play the next part perfectly. Convince Yu Zhu to hate this place, lie if you have to. To keep her alive.”
Hua Er gazed down at the pond covered with verdant lily pads and pink blossoming flowers bending perilously close to the water with the wind. The pond was known as the drowning pond. So many hadn’t realized that beneath the vibrant colors was immeasurable depth and danger.
She had been Yu Zhu’s sister and companion for ten years. She had been like a mother to the lost little girl. Never seeing the smile on that bright face with incinerate her heart and leave her more broken than the shattered cup on the granite table.
But to keep Yu Zhu alive, healthy, happy and most important of all, safe. Hua Er would walk on coals.
Hua Er didn’t speak a word, as burning tears left trails of ice on her numb skin. She only nodded and silently walked away from the windswept pavilion .