This is the Second Chapter, set in the ancient Kingdom of Dian in the Warring States Era. You can read the first chapter here.
In Chinese GeGe is a way to say Elder Brother, it’s a sign of familiarity not an indication of family relations. The Princess meets two very important men who would shape the course of her life.’
Hua Er ushered the little princess into the rooms. She picked up a pearl encrusted brush, patiently untangling the unruly curls.
Hua Er softly spoke, her voice had a dreamlike quality to it. “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 Yu Zhu’s eyes drooped.
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 maids and palace guards.
Hua Er smiled and picked up the child, gently 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 remember when the older girl had left. She dreamed 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 2 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 her for drawing faces on the teacher’s favorite robes in ink.
Yu Zhu flew down the white stone corridor of 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 and to say a silent prayer for themselves. She skidded around the corner and struggled to put on her soft fur boots, the maids behind her dangling scarves and other articles of clothing, desperately chasing after their little mistress.
As an old eunuch once described, while rubbing his sore bottom, running into the princess was like being assaulted by a tornado of flying silk and flying maids. The chance of injury was dangerously high.
When she finally arrive at the entrance of the garden, Teacher Ma raised an eye, “Princess, it seems you forgot something.” Yu Zhu looked down, in her haste, she had only succeeded in putting on one boot. Teacher Ma shook her head and said softly repeated to herself “The pay is good. The pay is good…” She gestured to the little girl, who had just caught the other boot from a palace maid, “Let’s start.”
“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 drunken swimmer frantically trying to dog paddle to shore.” Teacher Ma Yu admonished as she corrected Yu Zhu’s stance.
Yu Zhu glared at the maids whose faces are turning red from laughter. Her silk sleeves tangled with the dragons well tea bushes, the sound of delicate silk ripping made a vein pop out on Teacher Ma Yu’s forehead.
“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 as she showed her pupil the move again.
Yu Zhu made the same move, only this time she looked like she was trying to swat a fly, and desperately failing.
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 had different expressions on their faces. One’s smile was as warm as the sun, and the other seemed to be holding in his laughter.
The maids and teacher knelt as 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 as tall as her father, with flashing eyes beneath elegantly arched brows. His once boyish face was sharper and more defined. Around his belted waist hung the gold and black scabbard issued only the the generals of the King’s armies.
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. As tall as Hong Yan Su, his arms were crossed in front of his broad shoulders. He winked at Hua er. “She’s certainly got style.”
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. There was an slight smile on his lips, as if he found something funny in everything he saw and couldn’t be bothered to share it with anyone else.
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 admonished his companion and bowed 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 royalty.”
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 your right hand man, Long Hui? I’ve wanted to meet him since I heard the stories.”
Shan Ying Lang gave the Emperor a bow, “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 nodded, then he 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 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.” Even though it sounded like a complaint, anyone with ears could hear the adoration he had for his only child.
The emperor patted his daughter’s hair, “How am I going to marry you off when you get older?”
Hong Yan Su bowed “The young princess is so beautiful and talented that anyone who marries her will have generations of luck and favor.” Behind him, Shan Ying Lang rolled his eyes.
Forgetting that strange current that passed between her and the strange Shan Ying Lang, Yu Zhu beamed at her Hong Yan Su and then quickly stuck her tongue out at Shan Ying Lang. Shan Ying Lang blinked, surprised.
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 yanked Yu Zhu’s skirts back down again as the rest of the maids shook their heads in shame.
A second vein popped out on Teacher Ma Yu’s head, “The pay is good…I’ll retire soon…” She repeated to her self, the two thoughts that often crossed the minds of people who served the princess.
Yu Zhu blunder on unabashedly,”Father promised me that if I’m good, you would marry me when I turn seventeen! Will you? You have to!”
Hua Er sighed in exasperation and bowed, “Your highness, please kill me. I have failed to teach the princess proper manners befit a lady of her class.”
She put her hand on Yu Zhu’s head, and forced her to bow slightly as well, “The princess is late to her archery lesson, we must leave.”
The emperor laughed, “How can I punish you when it’s this little rascal that refuses to behave?”
He mock glared at Yu Zhu, whose large eyes was silently protesting the lesson, “Listen to Hua Er. And stop trying to set your arrow on fire, I’m not rebuilding the archery fields again because of you.” The maids shuddered at the memory, silently begging the emperor to stop talking, as it might give the princess ideas.
Yu Zhu straightened and pouted, “But I want to spend more time with Hong gege.” Hong Yan Su coughed, no one noticed that his ears had gone slightly pink.
The emperor flicked her forehead, “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 with a wide grin, barely listening to Hua Er’s stern lecture as she was dragged away.