“Princess Yu Zhu! Sit still, or else you will look like a beggar instead of a young master” Hua Er, her maid sighed as she grabbed the hank of loose hair and tied it up into the elegant nobleman’s knot. She glared as Yu Zhu bounced excitedly in her seat. “How can I?” Yu Zhu was breathless with giddy, “Father’s letting me go out of the palace to the festival with Hong Gege and I don’t even have to be a princess!”
Hua Er shook her head as she adjusted the black topknot cover, “You’re only 12, I don’t think you should be going out of the palace, even in a disguise. It’s not safe.”
Yu Zhu grinned impishly at her, “You’re going too. And you have to dress like a man as well. I can’t wait to see what we look like!” Hua Er grimaced and continued to attack the princess’s hair with the brush.
“Hong Gege! I want to go see the dragon puppets!” The princess yelled in the din of the noisy crowd. She laughed as firecrackers whizzed and cackled in the crisp night air. Yu Zhu, towing the much taller Hong Yan Su behind her, tried to get closer to the acrobats in red and gold, whose nibble jumps made them look as if they were flying across crowds of people.
As Yu Zhu continued to pull Hong Yan Su along, Hua Er grabbed her mistress’s arm. “Young Master,” She warned and came closer to hiss in Yu Zhu’s ear, “Princess, what is the point of dressing like men if you are going to act like a girl?” Yu Zhu blushed and let go of Hong Yan Su’s sleeve.
As the dragon dancers and acrobats passed them, Hua Er whispered to Hong Yan Su, “Are your guards aware of where we are?” Hong Yan Su’s eyes shuttled back and forth, looking for the hidden guards. He nodded silently, “My guards and yours are all in position, the princess will be safe as long as we are all by her side.”
Hua Er did not say anything. She had objected to this trip but the king had insisted that Yu Zhu see life outside the palace. The king had told her that he did not want his only child to be a useless flower.
“She needs to see the kingdom that she and her husband will one day rule. My daughter will be no weakling.” He had decreed. Though he had meant well, the King did not realize keeping a energetic and excitable Yu Zhu in line at all times on one of the busiest nights in the year was harder than balancing a drop of water on the tip of a needle.
As the crowd began to carry them down the street, Hong Yan Su grabbed Yu Zhu’s sleeve and pulled them into a nearby steamed bun stall. They sat and ate soft white buns filled with tender meat and vegetables while Yu Zhu jabbered on about the sights she saw today.
“…the market is so big, I’ve never seen so many people before. Can we come back when there is another festival? Maybe New Years?” Yu Zhu asked as she contentedly sank her teeth into a steamed bun, pausing momentary in her stream of chatter to chew.
Hong Yan Su hid a smile as he watched Yu Zhu try to eat and talk at the same time. Though he wore a simple cotton robe the color of red wood with a brown belt, there was an unmistakable air of nobility in every movement he made. Although he was only 16, fighting and war had made Hong Yan Su a man.
Hong Yan Su leaned in and wiped some crumbs off Yu Zhu’s sleeve with his handkerchief, “I’ve been order to go back and defend the borders in a few days, but I promise that once I’ve defeated the enemy, I’ll come back and we’ll come here to play again.”
Yu Zhu gulped and put down her steamed bun, having suddenly lost her appetite. She looked lost, “But you just came back!” Hong Yan Su raised his hand as if he wanted to hold hers, but he stopped.
His shinning black eyes held her large almond ones, “Zhu Er, Your father wants me to prove that I am strong enough to protect you and the kingdom. I too, want only to be worthy of that task.” Yu Zhu couldn’t look away from his compelling stare, though she couldn’t quite understand why. Slowly, she nodded. And Hong Yan Su, a man who everyone always called stone faced, broke into a gentle smile.
“Young Master,” Hua Er said in a warning tone to Yu Zhu, “It’s been three hours since the sun has set, we should go back to the palace.” Yu Zhu nodded, still a little dazed by Hong Yan Su’s smile.
“Hey! Hong Yan Su!” A voice boomed near them, they all turned around. A well- built young man was striding towards them confidently. Unlike Hong Yan Su, who moved with the litheness of a panther, the young man loped over with a fierce energy that reminded Yu Zhu of a tiger. Yu Zhu immediately recognized him as Shan Ying Lang, the handsome young man she had seen at the palace with her Hong Gege a few days ago.
“Ying Lang.” Hong Yan Su said as the young man came near them. Shan Ying Lang, clad in light grey cotton robes, clapped Hong Yan Su’s back and grinned, “Enjoying your last night before we go back to battle soon? All these days of bowing and scraping bore me. Especially to that old man you call King; I thought my back was going to break if I had to make one more kotow.”
Hong Yan Su shook his head slightly, “Ying Lang, you have a talent of saying the most inappropriate thing in the least appropriate situation.” Ying Lang ignored him and turned to his companions Yu Zhu and Hua Er.
“Are these your friends?” He nodded to them with polite disinterest before turning back to Hong Yan Su.
“Face it, old friend, you would rather be at the borders than grovel at the feet of the high and mighty. Remember when we met that silly little princess who was attempting that martial arts move? What’s her name? Lei Zhu? Yu Zhu? Something pointless like that”
He was smiling broadly without realizing that Hong Yan Su was shooting glares at him. Ying Lang continued, buoyed by the air of celebration, “I was holding in my laughter so hard when I watched the silly little thing practice kung fu that I thought I would fall into the pond.” Ying Lang chuckled at the thought, completely oblivious to the shocked expression on Hua Er and Yu Zhu’s face. “If we in the army fought like that we should’ve just become dancing girls instead.” He guffawed
Hong Yan Su gripped Ying Lang’s arm and said through gritted teeth, “Enough, the young princess is not someone you can make fun of.”
Ying Long shrugged, “Old friend, if I were you, I’d get away as fast as I can too. I don’t ever want to be married, especially to a princess, it would be so boring.” Hua Er reached for one of her hidden knives, murder on her heart.
Yu Zhu’s face turned beet red with embarrassment. She grabbed Hua Er’s arm and shook her head. Ying Lang noticed the movement and turned to look at Yu Zhu once again, still unable to recognize who she was, “Aren’t I right, little brother?”
Yu Zhu got up and walked to Ying Lang, she was near speechless with rage. Her face was hot and it felt as if her insides were full of vipers. “You have the manners of a pig!” She yelled and kicked him swiftly in the shins.
He yelped and doubled over in surprised and pain. Yu Zhu turned and ran into the crowd. Hua Er wanted to turn him into mince meat, instead she glared at him and ran after her mistress.
Ying Lang scowled as he massaged his leg, “What did I say that bothered him?
Hong Yan Su hit Ying Lang over the back of his head as he said, “You, old friend, may have the heart of a warrior but the mind of a village idiot.” With that he too raced into the crowd to look for Yu Zhu.
Ying Lang stood and followed after Hong Yan Su, “I’d still be a good looking village idiot.” He muttered as he ran after them.