Chapter 16 – Battle Brothers
The Princess’s Pavilion
By the time the news had gotten out of the princess’s death, the palace was covered in millions of white paper ghost money. If anyone saw it, they would think a snowstorm had only engulfed the palace in the middle of october. The plaintive wailing could be heard even in the city. The bone aching sounds piercing even the most hardened hearts. People wept for the bright little princess who had been the jewel of their beloved Emperor’s eyes.
Inside the palace. The Emperor and Long Hui knelt on the cold wood floor in the crown princess pavilion, the body of Yu Zhu lay in repose, shrouded by silk curtains and heavy incense smoke. Around them, Yu Zhu’s attendants silently wept for their young princess who had gotten sick for a month and now lay dead. Hua Er sat beside the bed, the Emperor had given her the honor to dress Yu Zhu for the funeral.
There was a shout outside. The Emperor and Long Hui turned around as the clash of metal on metal drowned out the maid’s sobs. Long Hui quickly walked outside and closed the door.”
In the setting sun, Hong Yan Su alone fought twenty guards, a shimmering sword in his hand. His normal tidy hair had loosened and flowed like black silk strands down his grey robes. His handsome face, normally as calm as a lake now had a look of savage despair. There was fiery waves of denial in his eyes. Long Hui flew at him, a silver sword in his pale hands. The two warriors circled each other. They often sparred together, fought side by side in battle, neither of them took the first attack.
The Emperor did not want blood shed on the day of his daughter’s funeral, he walked to the doors and yanked so hard that the delicate doors came off the hinges. He roared,”Who dares disturbs my time with my daughter? I will slice you into a thousand pieces and scatter you to the wind!” Since Yu Zhu’s death, the Emperor felt he had aged twenty years. Though in his heart he knew Yu Zhu wasn’t dead, there was nothing fake about the wild rage in his eyes or the grief in the lines of his face.
Hong Yan Su, seeing the Emperor, threw down his sword and sank woodenly to the stone cold ground, “I heard that the princess is…” He couldn’t bring himself to say the words, and tried again, “I have come to see the princess.”
The Emperor glared at the son of the man who had killed his empress. But there was nothing he could do. The world knew that Hong Yan Su was Yu Zhu’s future husband, even if there had been no betrothal. It was why Long Hui could not attack him just now. Hong Yan Su was the grieving husband to be, he couldn’t be touched.
“Yu Zhu has left us. You’ve accomplished nothing by coming here.” Hong Yan Su raised his head, “Your Imperial majesty, I wish to only say my goodbyes.” and looked at the Emperor’s haggard face. The Emperor’s eyes glinted, his hand twitched to his sword.Hong Yan Su’s eyes dared the emperor to make a wrong move, one wrong step and war would break out. The Emperor sighed and chuckled bitterly. There was nothing to do but laugh into the cruel winds of fortune.
“Let him in, father.” Long Hui had silently approached the emperor, “Let him see that there is nothing left to be done.” The Emperor said nothing, he waved a hand and strode out of the pavilion. “Do not overstay your welcome.” And with heavy steps, he walked to the garden of serenity where he could remember Yu Zhu in peace.
The two young men stood in Yu Zhu’s garden. Paper money said to smooth the way for the dead swirled like falling pedals around them. Hong Yan Su’s lips curled into a smile that was not a smile, “Battle brother, was it only a few weeks ago that we drank to celebrate our victories?”
Long Hui said nothing, but gazed at Hong Yuan Su. Death came and went in the army as a part of life. Today’s drunken wine could turn to tomorrow’s blood splattered on the battlefield, and the only thing a soldier knew was that even if the world forgot him, his battle brothers would mourn his passing. Every soldier felt closer to battle brothers than their own kin. Long Hui, Hong Yan Su, and Shan Ying Lang had been the closest of battle brothers.
Hong Yan Su stood up and walked the steps. His hands shook and he clenched his fists. Inside the room he gazed the tiny figure enshrouded by the warm fire glow of the candles. Hua Er stood and move aside. She was shaking slightly and looked at Long Hui. He nodded in assurance.
To make Yu Zhu’s death look natural. He had used magic to transform a peach branch into Yu Zhu’s likeness and had copied Yu Zhu’s form perfectly. Upon breaking off from the tree, the peach branch Yu Zhu slowly died, and so they had a body that looked at Yu Zhu.
Hua Er moved to Long Hui’s side. In the silence, Long Hui gently brushed his hand against hers. Hua Er looked up, stunned. Long Hui said nothing. Ever since the demoness took over his heart he had been unable to feel other people’s warmth. Hua Er was different. For just a brief eternity, Long Hui felt like a man who had been given a drop of water after years in the desert.
“Yu Zhu” Hong Yan Su silently whispered, “I came to see you.” He gazed at her with indescribable emotions. He wanted to take the delicate hand and hold it in his battle worn ones, but even now he dared not. Yu Zhu was the only person in the world who had never expected anything, wanted anything from him. She had shined on him like a strand of sunlight in the midst of a thunderstorm.
He stood suddenly, unable to bear the scent of gardenias in the room any longer. It was her flower, she wore it often in her hair. He half walked, half ran through the door. Long Hui followed him out.
Hong Yan Su turned around and curtly nodded, “Thank you. Your imperial highness.” But his eyes spoke the truth. Before his path to the throne had been fueled by ambition. Now there were other feelings that raged inside him. He would make them all pay.
Long Hui looked after Hong Yan Su’s retreating shadow, and knew that they would never call each other battle brothers again.