(Photo courtesy of QQ and Hidari94)
“Hello.” Zhu Zhan Ye poked his head in front of Yu Zhu’s store. His eyes seemed to twinkle as he
Yu Zhu raised her head, “You’re not allowed here.”
Zhu Zhan Ye smiled crookedly, “Didn’t you get my gifts? I sent some really expensive fruits you can only get in the southern part of the empire.
“She sold them.” Lu Xi smiled shyly, “Hello, Zhan Ye Ge Ge.”
“See, I am welcomed” Zhu Zhan Ye stood in the doorway as Yu Zhu wrote something in her records book, “You’re blocking the door”
“I’m vastly improving the view.” Was the casual reply, “People see a good looking young man at your door and they’ll naturally flock to your steps. I am unnaturally handsome after all.”
He smiled mischievously, “If they can get in with me blocking the way , that is.” He put his hands on the door frame, “I wonder how long it will take before people start whispering about you and me. Our relationship is very special after all” Bao Lu rolled his eyes, his master could be so shameless at times.
Yu Zhu smiled politely as she grabbed a broom, “Lu Xi,” She handed the broom to the girl, “there’s something nasty at our door, will you sweep it away?” Lu Xi blushed and shook her head, she didn’t dare touch the crisply dressed young man with a dirty broom.
“Fine.” Yu Zhu shook her head, “It might be difficult to get rid of anyway. I’ll do it”
She approached Zhu Zhan Ye and aimed the broom at his chest. He grabbed the broom and the stood, neither relinquishing the broom.
“Why is it that we’re always pulling each other closer?” He grinned, “Young students who admire you at the tea shop say you’re a rose without thorns. Clearly they’ve never seen you with a broom.” She glared at him as he held it tightly. She tugged hard.
Instead of releasing the handle, Zhu Zhan Ye came forward and stood nose to nose with Yu Zhu. She had to stop herself from dodging him too fast. Zhu Zhan Ye didn’t need anything else to make him more curious about her.
She stepped back, “You and I have nothing between us. Just air.” She scowled at his boyish grin, “You’re in my shop.”
“You pulled me in. Anyone will tell you that was an invitation.” He looked comically contrite, “You keep tugging me in and shoving me out. Are you playing with my heart?”
“I didn’t know you had one.”
He looked even sadder, “But I do. I imagine it’s even found a home. Maybe even in this shop” Even Bao Lu winced at the sappy words his master said.
Yu Zhu couldn’t help it and laughed. She smiled with real warm at his pitiful acting “You have an overactive imagination.”
Zhu Zhan Ye was dazzled by her laugh, it was as sudden and striking as a grace note on the Gu Qin.
Yu Zhu’s shook her head, “So, why are you here?”
“To apologize.” Zhu Zhan Ye turned serous, “You’re right about last time. I am sorry for not trusting you. After all you did, you didn’t deserve it. I want to make it up to you. Show you that I trust you absolutely.”
Yu ZHu frowned slightly, “How?”
“Do you mind closing a few minutes early today?” Zhu Zhan Ye requested, “I have a special visitor I want you to meet. I’ll make up the difference of money you would lose.”
Yu Zhu shrugged it had been a light day anyway, she would make Zhu ZHan Ye pay through the nose this way, she smiled crookedly and made shooing motions as if he was a chicken, “Fine, go and waste your time somewhere else. Give me the hour.”
The sun had turned blood red in the sky when Yu Zhu had bowed to the last customer heading out. She had sent Lu Xi home early with Lin Yu, with the strict instructions that Lin Yu was not allowed to cook anything. Yu Zhu didn’t want her accidentally poisoned by Lin Yu.
Zhu Zhan Ye knocked on Yu Zhu’s half closed door, “She’ll be here any minute. Is there anyone in here?” Yu Zhu shook her head, “I just closed shop. Who’s so important?”
Zhu Zhan Ye looked surprised at the question, “The owner of the scarf I bought last time, of course.”
“You mean the Ming Shi Princess?” Yu Zhu didn’t have to finish the sentence, her mouth fell open. She hadn’t expect that he could come with the princess in tow. In spite of herself, Yu Zhu was curious, there were only two or three 1st ranked princesses in Dian.
Zhu Zhan Ye nodded and came closer, he whispered in Yu Zhu’s ear. The heat of his breath raised goosebumps on her arm, “Exactly, Ming Shi Princess of Dian.”
Yu Zhu jerked back, “The one who’s marrying the Eldest Prince?”
He nodded, “The marriage announcement had been posted all of the empire. Surely you’ve heard all the gossip. Of course everyone knows her by her official title bestowed by the Dian Emperor, The Ming Shi Princess of Dian. A rumored beauty that no many people had seen before.” He grinned at her, ” And I’m bringing her to meet you. How’s that for an apology?”
Yu Zu smiled crookedly, “As apologies go. It’s not bad.” She looked at him curiously, “Do you know her real name?”
Zhu Zhan Ye shrugged, “It’s not common knowledge, since it’s taboo to call any of the royal family by their real name.”
A knocked sounded softly interrupting their conversation, Yu Zhu and Zhu Zhan Ye looked up. Yu Zhu’s hand shook and she tighten it into a fist behind her back, she knew the person who had knocked. It was the doctor. The same one that had saved Hua Er. Why would he be here?
“Are we early?” The doctor, whose youthful face seemed exactly the same to Yu Zhu. He grinned at Zhu Zhan Ye, “or did you want more time with the pretty lady?”
Zhan Ye’s cheeks became slightly red, “No.” Yu Zhu raised her eyebrows at him, and Zhan Ye backtracked, ” No! that’s not what no means. I mean no, you’re pretty. Very pretty.” Realizing what he said, he quickly said, “I mean, no, not what you think it meant. What I mean to say is…” He stopped talking and blushed.
Yu Zhu smiled at the astonished Doctor Li, “Welcome to my shop.” She said simply.
The doctor grinned, “In the past month I’ve know him, I’ve never seen him flustered! And there’s plenty of pretty serving women at the inn vying for his attention” He winked Yu Zhu as Zhu Zhan Ye tried to put a hand over the doctor’s mouth, “You must be someone important.” Yu Zhu hid a smile behind her hand.
Another figured entered, a tall willowy figure wearing a wide hat with a veil that hid her entire form. The two men straightened and Zhu Zhan Ye smiled crookedly at Yu Zhu.
“May I present Her Imperial Highness, Ming Shi Princess of Dian.” Zhu Zhan Ye bowed politely, every ounce the seasoned courtier.
Yu Zhu came out from behind her counter and knelt gracefully, “Your Imperial Highness. Had I known you were coming I would have cleaned my shop up.”
The woman held out a hand and gently grasped Yu Zhu’s arm, “Please. Any friend of Zhu Zhan Ye’s is a friend of mine.” Hua Er parted her veil gracefully, “I am not one for formalities. I am simply known as Hua Er” She looked at Yu Zhu’s downcast head, “and who do I have the good fortune to speak with ?”
When the woman spoke, Yu Zhu’s entire body filled with ice. It was the voice that haunted her dreams. It had taunted her for years. The same voice that lulled her to sleep since she was little.
Yu Zhu couldn’t look up, she didn’t want to see Hua Er’s face go from kindness to disgust. She didn’t want to see Hua Er’s hatred.
Yu Zhu wondered if Hua Er would touch her if she knew who the embroidery mistress really was. Hua Er would probably slap Yu Zhu and tell her guards to drag Yu Zhu away from her presence.
Inside, in a place that she had locked away firmly six years ago, she felt it rush back to her.
Am I so despicable that you had to cast me away? Was I so hateful that you and father didn’t want to see me anymore?
These were the things the 12 year old Yu Zhu had cried over and over again when she had first lived in the Demon’s Village. Every night, she had thought, over and over again. Please find me. Please, come get me. Please don’t leave me here. I can’t lose you all. I want to go home. I don’t hate you for hating me, I’ll do anything. Just let me be near. Please don’t hate me any more. Please….please…please
But Hua Er never came. Hua Er had pushed her away. Hua Er hated her.
Yu Zhu stood as a statue as the nightmares of her past pounded in her skull. She could not raise her head. Zhu Zhan Ye frowned and put an arm around her, “What’s wrong?”
Yu Zhu didn’t say anything. She couldn’t say anything. Inside her, the hurt and frightened child wailed over and over again. Begging Hua Er to never leave her. She wanted so much to hold onto Hua Er, to ask her if Hua Er still remembered her. But Yu Zhu didn’t dare look up. She couldn’t bear it if she saw Hua Er’s face turn from kindness to hatred again.
Hua Er put a hand on Yu Zhu’s shoulder, “Please. Don’t be frightened.” Yu Zhu flinched from the touch and Hua Er took the hand away, concerned that she had caused the girl more distress.
Yu Zhu swallowed and looked at Zhu Zhan Ye, he was startled to see the hint of tears in her eyes, “I… I must have eaten something bad. Forgive my impertinence. I…I have to go.” She turned, her face still hidden from Hua er and her knees buckled. Zhu Zhan Ye tightened his grip on the girl.
“I’m a doctor.” Doctor Li rushed forward, “Maybe I can help.”
“No. Doctor Li.” Yu Zhu shook her head, but did not raise her head, her voice was muffled “I think I just need rest.” With that she bowed. Zhu Zhan Ye walked her into the back room. He turned and smiled at Hua Er, “I’ll stay with her. Go ahead and go explore, my guards will be looking out for your safety.
Hua Er and Doctor Li looked at each other.
“She’s probably in awe of you. It must have been a shock to meet someone like you here.” The doctor shrugged.
Hua Er didn’t answer. There was something familiar about the girl. It didn’t feel like the first time they had met.
“How did she know your name?” Hua Er asked.
“Are you alright?” Zhu Zhan Ye held onto Yu Zhu’s shoulders as she sat there like stone. He could feel her shaking. They sat in the back room of the little shop, the room filled with fragrant bolts of cloth and silk threads.
Yu Zhu felt his warm hands chasing the chill away from her body. He held her shoulders with wonderful tightness, as if he was yanking her back to the present.
She looked up at him, and Zhan Ye was surprised, “You’re crying.”
She touched her face and felt the wetness. She shook her head, “I’m sorry. I was just remember someone who looked a lot like the princess. Every time I think of her, I become sad.”
Zhu Zhan Ye hesitated, but did not release her shoulders, and smiled sadly “I have someone like that too. A sister. Sometimes it’s the sound of a voice that sounds like her, or someones’s eyes that looked like hers, even the smell of lilac perfume. It takes you back and you remember the good…and the bad.”
Yu Zhu blinked, “What happened?”
Zhu Zhan Ye looked conflicted, “There was a war. And I wasn’t brave enough to save her. I wasn’t strong enough to protect her. She somewhere up there” He pointed to the sky, “Finally free.”
He then sighed “Because of me, my brother was banished.”
“You have a brother?” Yu Zhu asked, “What was he like?”
Zhu Zhan Ye grinned, he looked like a carefree young man, “The best brother I could ever ask for. Taught me how to use a sword. He took me out of the pala…house to play, and gave me my first horse. He always protected me whenever things got bad. Practically raised me when…well, never mind.” There was pride in his eye, something akin to idol worship, “He was the smartest, strongest, and nicest out of us. He was father’s favorite. I wanted to be like him when I grew up.”
Yu Zhu smiled, a little envious “Must be nice to have a brother who cares for you so much.”
“It was.” Zhu Zhan Ye agreed, “My family’s a pretty vicious bunch. There’s a lot of good people who turned bad because they mixed love and power. A lot died when I was little.”
Yu Zhu nodded, she understood only too well. She looked up at him understanding, “I’m sorry.”
Zhu Zhan Ye tighten his arms around her, “Don’t be. I’m suppose to be comforting you, remember?” She smiled, “Thank you. I don’t feel so alone anymore.”
“If you know where you friend is, the one that reminds you of the Princess. Perhaps I can find her for you.” He offered hesitantly. Yu Zhu’s eyes met his and he became away of their closeness in the tiny room. The way her eyes seemed to stare into his soul. The shape of her lovely lips. Blood pounded in his brain and he felt as if he drank too much wine. He blushed and took his arm away, trying to clear it, “Anything for a friend.” He stammered and blushed.
The normally suave and smooth Zhu Zhan Ye acted as if he never talked to a girl before. She smiled thinking, that’s the second time I’ve seen him flustered, and said “No, I would rather you pay for the time I took to close the shop for your visitor. He grinned at her, “You are a business woman to the core.”
He caught hold of her hand, “Don’t be sad on your own. Let me know if I can be any kind of small comfort or help” Yu Zhu looked down, his hand dwarfed hers. She wanted to let it remain there, but she and Zhu Zhan Ye could never be true friends. She didn’t have the heart to break his, if he knew the truth. Gently she let go and stood up.
“I am grateful for your offer to look for my friend” She took a long, deep breathe. When she let it out, she felt in control “But my friend is dead. And has been for a long, long, time.”