The footsteps echoed in the sparse and cold room. Sunlight barely filtered through the black curtained windows. Hong Yan Su walked slowly and bowed in front a slumped figure sitting in an onyx chair carved with rolling black clouds. The man in heavy black silk glared at Hong Yan Su while wheezing heavily. Hong Yan Su only bowed elegantly, “Father. I hope you are well.”
The man said nothing but gasped for air as he gathered the strength to talk. Though the old General Hong was still a powerfully built man, the dead Empress Xi Yan Yue had left a hole in his lungs and crippled him before he killed her. Now he sat all day in the magnificent Ducal house the Emperor had gifted him for defending the palace during the siege, directing his anger and bitterness at his oldest son.
“you..fool.” He gasped. “You were the one who stopped me from kidnapping…the little chit. Because of you…we have to deal with a Crown Prince.”
Hong Yan Su straightened and looked at his father’s eyes without flinching. Most men would have cowered at the thunderous rage, “I did not want to make the same mistakes as you.” The elegant Hong Yan Su barely raised his straight black brows as looked down at the once great man.
General Hong’s face went pale with anger, there was derision in his eyes as he spat out, “you…dare….”
Hong Yan Su’s lip curled into a cruel smile, the derisiveness matching that of his fathers.” 10 years ago you tried to take the throne and failed. I let your little plan go as far as to get to the Princess. But I wasn’t going to let you ruin my plans”
“You trusted…. the wrong person.” The rough voice was getting weaker as General Hong grasped the chair for support.
Hong Yan Su shrugged carelessly, “I miscalculated. I leaked the news to Long Hui because I knew he would defeat your men.” Hong Yan Su did not looked bothered by the new complication, his eyes were alight with the challenge. Every thing has become more interesting.
“What…were you planning?” The older man gasped, “If you had followed my plan, you would’ve been Emperor in a year.”
Hong Yan Su said nothing, his mouth a thin line with a hint of a mocking smile. The silent message hung over father and son, both of them knew why he stopped his father from kidnapping Yu Zhu. If Hong Yan Su became Yu Zhu’s fiance now and soon the Emperor, General Hong would be the true power. Hong Yan Su was waiting for his father to die.
Suddenly the old man began to laugh, it was more hoarse than the cawing of black crows and more feral than the screams of dying wildebeests. Hong Yan Su waited patiently as the horrible sound died down, there was nothing but boredom on his graceful features.
Finally the man asked him, “Perhaps…you…care for that little idiot. Don’t forget…when you become Emperor… that’s when she dies too. I… I won’t let the daughter of the Empress Bitch Xi Yang Yue live long.”
For the first time, there was something other than condescension in Hong Yan Su’s eyes, his clenched hands hidden in the wide sleeves of his grey robes. “She is of no consequence. Just a pawn, we need not pay attention to her.” Hong Yan Su bowed, “I have to attend to the army, since you are not fit for duty. At least one man in this family should be honorable.” There was ice in his eyes as he bowed and strode out of the room. It was only after he had walked out did he unclench his fist. Drops of blood spattered on the cold stone path after his tall figure.
The Emperor sat, his head held in his hand as he read reports from the borders, for now at . He stopped and coughed. Once it started it was impossible to stop. He covered his mouth with his hand, trying to stifle the relentless sound. Wetness trickled down his fingers. He stared at the blood inching down his numb fingers and smiled bitterly.
A silk blue handkerchief floated in front of him. He turned and saw his son looking at him, there was no emotion on his face. “You asked to see me.”
The Emperor wiped his hands, “I’ve fought decades on the battlefield. How sad it is that I would not die with my troops but in this golden cage.” He looked at the smudges of red that remained on his fingers, “The doctors say I have a year left.”
Long Hui nodded, he had thought the Emperor had agreed too quickly to send Yu Zhu away. Now it became clear. The Emperor grabbed his hand, “When you defeat the Hong family, will you bring her back. And tell her that I always have cared for her?”
Long Hui felt nothing, but knelt. “Yes. Your Majesty.”
“No matter how long it takes. Bring her back. Ask her to forgive her useless father.” The Emperor’s eyes seemed to betray the depth of feeling, even though his voice was calm.
Long Hui nodded, he avoided at his father’s eyes. He didn’t know how love felt since the Demoness lived in his heart, but he understood what it looked like.
The Emperor let go and patted his son’s shoulder. “Has Hua Er gone to…”
The Emperor sighed, “Hua Er has gone through a lot for our family. Now we ask to complete a task akin to cutting into her own heart.”
Yu Zhu slowly returned to her pavilion as the sun began its descent. She had cried her eyes out by the Serenity lake, but now she wanted to talk to Hua Er. Her heart was in turmoil, a million tiny doubts like worms were crawling in her stomach. She shuffled into the courtyard and heard peels of laughter. She didn’t know why, but she ran behind the giant peach tree, her fingers dug into the ancient bark, her slim figure hidden behind the giant trunk.
Hua er walked into the yard with a few new maids who had just entered the palace a few weeks ago. They were new and were eager to please the Head Maid who was also the Princess’ closest friend and caretaker. Hua Er smiled indulgently as she instructed them, “Whatever you do, don’t anger the little Princess. She’s a spoiled little thing, it happens when there is no one to compete for the Emperor’s love.”
One of the little maids nodded eagerly, “Of course, Big Sister. We’ll listen to you.”
Another one, more ambitious than the others, seeing her chance, “It must be so tiring, running after the little brat.”
Hua Er laughed maliciously, “I’ve been so tired of her, there were so many times I wanted to abandon her the night we went out of the palace.”
The little maids eyes went huge as they nodded, one of them said in a hushed whisper, “That’s the night where you met the Crown Prince?”
“He’s so dreamy,” Another one grinned conspiratorially, “Those eyes, those cheekbones that seemed to be made of jade. His tall yet graceful figure.” The silly little maid asked Hua Er, “Big Sister is so pretty, you are sure to attract his attentions”
Hua Er sighed wistfully and shrugged , “I would, but I’m always running after the little brat. I wish she would disappear. The Emperor and I would both be happier if the little Princess just went away.” She leaned closer to the maids and said in a half whisper, ” He only wanted a son, and I just want to be free. But what can I do? I need the money” The little maids giggled. One of them dared to ask, “Does that handsome Hong Yan Su really like the little princess?” She pranced around, “I thought his taste would run a little more mature.”
Hua Er’s eyes were mocking, “Of course not! Hong Yan Su’s like everyone else who is nice to Yu Zhu. They just want to court favor and power. No one really likes her.”
Yu Zhu’s heart broke into a million pieces as her blood froze. Never in her life had she experienced such pain. Every doubt she had since Long Hui had returned to the palace, everything he had told her roared in her mind. It was as if her emotions were stretched into taunt strings and Hua Er’s words were like knives that hacked away at her, one by one.
Hua Er, Hua Er. Yu Zhu wailed silently in the empty space that once was her heart. You promised to take care of me. You made me pretty things and held my hand when I had to drink medicine. You brought me toys from outside the palace and gave me pretty things. You said you would always love me. Was it all a lie? Yu Zhu felt a heavy stone drop from the sky and into her stomach. She doubled over in pain as she gasped silently, there’s no one who wants me here. Not Hua Er. Not Papa. Not anyone.
She felt a surge of anger. If no one wants me then I don’t want them either! She thought. No. I don’t want to feel these things any more. I can’t. I….
Hua Er and the girls moved away. Yu Zhu stood by the peach tree, every muscle of her body quivering. Hua Er’s words rang in her mind rang like temple bells in her head, cruelly, without ceasing.
Slowly she let go of the rough peach tree bark, turned and walked towards the Crown Prince’s pavilion.
The sun was just dipping into the horizon as Yu Zhu arrived. She turned and looked at the majestic beauty of the palace before hardening her heart. She didn’t want to be here anymore. She didn’t want to feel hurt anymore.
When Long Hui saw his sister enter his pavilion, he briefly remembered the men he led into battle. Afterwards, they had the same empty look in their eyes. As if someone had gone and scooped out their insides until nothing was left.
He stood and beckoned her. “Have you decided?”
Yu Zhu stood mutely, gazing into space as if the only thing she saw was darkness. She nodded once.
From the Prince’s hands rose blue ball of wind, it was hard to look at it for too long and left an inky shadow wherever it moved.
“This will send you to a village. Once there, you are to give an old man named Gan Bei this. He will take care of you.” Long Hui took off a jade pendant with dragons encircling a midnight pearl. Long Hui gazed into Yu Zhu’s eyes, “Remember. You are to never return.”
Yu Zhu nodded. She took the pendant with shaking hands and fastened it around her neck.
“Goodbye.” The word was spoken coldly and without feeling, Long Hui barely looked at her. Yu Zhu opened her mouth, as if about to say something but closed it as she closed her heart. Her eyes were dry. There were no more tears. She would never let any more people hurt her like this again.
Long Hui lobbed the ball at her. It turned into a little whirlwind no bigger than Yu Zhu. It swallowed her whole and disappeared. Long Hui turned and heard a muffled russle. He gently lifted a silk curtain and found Hua Er. One of her hands were gripping the column for support while the other was stuffed into her mouth. Tears ran down her face like two rivers. Her knees buckled and she toppled forward. She still made no sound, as if even the slightest cry would bring Yu Zhu back and catch her in the act.
Long Hui caught her slender figure before she could fall. She gripped his cloud white robe and sobbed uncontrollably into his chest. For a few moments, Long Hui remembered the when he last held a crying Hua Er. 10 years ago when they were just children.
She was shaking. Long Hui did not know what to do. But all he had felt these years was the Demonesss’s only anger and bitterness, the Demoness had swallowed all his feelings and only allowed him to feel hers terrible ones. He didn’t know, didn’t remember what it was to feel sadness, love, or the warmth of human touch.
After a few moments. Hua Er gently left his embrace. But she gripped his hand, “Thank you. For letting me see her this one last time.” She let go of his hand and stumbled away.
Long Hui frowned. Just like he did all those years ago, when he was a little boy and the little servant girl had left a smudge on his hand. Just like back then, Long Hui looked down at his hand. Hua Er’s warmth had lingered on his skin. It was impossible. His hand…felt.