Hua Er ushered the little princess into the rooms. She sighed and picked up a pearl encrusted brush, patiently untangling the unruly curls. Yu Zhu’s eyes began to close as the soft rythemns and inscense calmed her down, she yawned.
Hua Er softly spoke, her voice like a calming lullubye. “Your brother was only twelve and you two when Lord Lu and Lord Luo decided to rebel. They led an army of ten thousand men into the palace, leaving rivers of blood in their wake. You and and your brother escaped on horseback, taking me with him. We headed deep into the stone forests. No man ever went into it voluntarily, for the Stone Forest was the border between the demon and living world. Demons and evil spirits that lived there are said to hunt and enslave any souls that dare encroach their territory….” Her voice got fainter and fainter as I felt my eyes droop.
The hazy scent of the Mu Dan incense, mixed with the heady smell of the linden flowers was too much for the little girl who had spent her day escaping the maids.
Hua Er smiled and picked up the child, depositing her on the bed. Her lovely figure bent over and blew out the candle. Yu Zhu had fallen asleep so quickly that she didn’t even remeber when the older girl had left. She dreamt of the melody about the sad boy waiting for the little girl….
“Princess Yu Zhu! Wake up! You’re late to your martial arts lesson. Teacher Ma Yu will make you swim the length lake of Serenity!”
Yu Zhu sat up with a jolt, teacher Ma once made her stand on one foot on the roof of the Kun Ming Palace for hours because she had yawned in class. The teacher told her it was to build character, but Yu Zhu thought it was because she was angry at Yu Zhu for drawing faces on her favorite robes in ink.
Yu Zhu leapt from the bed in alarm and tried to throw on the pink and purple robes Hua Er had left.
Yu Zhu flew down the white stone corridor from her royal residence to the hanging flowers entrance of the Garden of Serenity. Maids and Eunuchs in blue and grey silks knelt along the bright red walls to murmur greetings. She skidded around the corner and struggle to put on her soft fur boots, the maids behind her dangling scarves and other clothing, calling out to the little princess.
When she finally arrive at the entrance of the garden, Teacher Ma watched her like a hungry hawk that knows it had a good meal ahead. Yu Zhu gulped.
“The thousand jade lotus strike is to be done with grace and deftness befitting of a noble lady defending herself without seeming to, not a drunk swimmer frantically trying to dog paddle to shore.” Teacher Ma Yu barked harshly.
Yu Zhu glared at the maids whose faces are turning red from hidden laughter. Her silk sleeves tangled with the dragons well tea bushes, the sound of delicate silk ripping makes everyone wince in horror.
“Your movements should be as delicate as a dragonfly resting on a flower.” The teacher’s fluid motions were graceful and deadly at the same time.
This time, loud, booming laughter erupts from behind. Yu Zhu turned around, furious, only to find her father clutching his sides. The two young men on either side of him both looked as if they were trying to hide their smiles.
My maids and teacher kneel to greet my father while Yu Zhu stared at the youth beside him. He was much taller than she remembered. Three years ago he still had the look of a pampered young lord.
Now he was a muscular, lithe young man with flashing eyes beneath elegantly arched brows. His face had been boyish and round, but now his face was sharper and more elegant. Around his belted waist hung the gold and black scabbard issued only the the commanders of the King’s armies. Even though he wore a simple black robe, he was radiating with power and authority.
Yu Zhu laughed gleefully and ran to embrace him. It’s been three years since Hong Yan Su, the seventeen year old son of General Hong Zhao appeared. He always played with her, no matter how busy he was.
“Hong! Hong! You’re back!” Yu Zhu ran towards him to jump into his arms when someone grabbed her by the waist.
“I beg your forgiveness, Your Majesty” Hua Er says to the Emperor calmly as Yu Zhu struggle against her iron hold, “The Princess should know better than to attack a young man in the palace.”
Someone chuckled, “I’ve heard that the princess was skilled in various fighting skills, today my eyes have been opened.”
The young man beside Hong Yan Su grinned wickedly. He was dressed in the grey and blue outfit of the fabled and deadly Qin Hu crack regiment. He was just as tall as Hong Yan Su, with broad shoulders and a handsome face. His hair was swept back and tied carelessly with a silver band.
Where Hong Yan Su had the agile grace of a panther, this man had the air of a haughty young tiger, all muscles and restless energy. His light brown eyes held the gleam of ambition and fire, but his stance was laid back and casual. There was an slight smile on his lips, as if he found something funny in everything he saw and couldn’t be bother to share it with anyone else.
While Hong Yan Su had the look of a refined courtier, this man looked as if he didn’t think much of wealth and opulence. How could he be so different from Hong Yan Su, who exudes elegance even when he walks, and yet just as handsome?
His eyes found Yu Zhu’s, there was something so familiar about him, about the heat of his eyes. Yu Zhu and the young man stared at each other until Hong Yan Su coughed and gave Ying Lang a gentle shove. Yu Zhu looked down and, and to everyone’s surprise, blushed.
“Ying Lang, show respect for the princess.” Hong Gege admonishes his companion and bows respectfully to the Emperor. “Please forgive my battle brother Ying Lang, he is only 16. And though he is a fearless warrior and the pride of your highness’s foot soldiers, he is still clumsy in the ways behaving in front of ladies”
The Emperor smiled delightedly, “I’ve heard of Shan Ying Lang’s many accomplishments, he and Xu Long Hui saved Ran Jian’s entire regiment from decimation by breaking the enemy’s Eagle formation. Where is the brave youth Long Hui? I wanted to meet him and reward him richly”
Shan Ying Lang gives the Emperor a bow and says, “Long Hui hasn’t been feeling too well lately and asked me to beg your majesty’s forgiveness. He says that when he is better, he will come pay his respects.”
Hong Yan Su smiled warmly at Yu Zhu, “My little Princess Yu Zhu, have you missed me?”
Yu Zhu’s father guffawed, “She’s been talking of your return since you left. She said that she was going to be a refined princess when you came back. But, as we’ve seen today, anything with a tinge of femininity, even in martial arts, and she’s clumsier than a bat in daylight.”
The emperor patted his daughter’s hair and said lovinginly, “How am I going to marry you off when you get older?”
Hong Gege bows, “The young princess is so beautiful and talented that anyone who marries her will have generations of luck and favor”
Forgetting that strange current that passed between her and the strange Ying Lang, Yu Zhu beamed at her Hong Yan Su. Hua Er makes the mistake of releasing her hold, Yu Zhu zoomed out and grabbed onto Hong’s sleeves happily, “I’ve been very good. Look I’m even wearing shoes now!”
She stuck out her slipper shod foot as Hua Er blanched at the lack of propriety. She hurriedly yanks Yu Zhu’s skirts back down again as the rest of the maids shake their head in shame. Yu Zhu blunder on unabashedly,”Father promised me that if I’d be good, you would marry me when I turn seventeen! Will you? You have to!”
Hua Er sighs in exasperation and bows, “Your highness, please kill this useless servant. I have failed to teach the princess proper manners befit a lady of her class.”
My Father laughs, “How can I punish you when it’s this little rascal that refuses to behave?” He flicked his daughter’s forehead in warning, Hong Yan Su has just gotten back from the battle field, you shouldn’t start laying siege just yet.” He turns to Hong Yan Su, “Come, we have much to discuss.” Yu Zhu watched Hong Yan Su leave, barely listening to Hua Er’s stern lecture.