I'm still suffering from jet lag and traveler's brain haha! But, I wanted to keep up the momentum for the story so I've finished chapter three. I'm pretty excited with where the story is heading and I hope you will too.
Chapter 3: A Difficult Choice
When Hsiao lifted up his head, he recognised the amused glint in his teacher's eyes. Although at least thirty years have passed since they last met, besides a faint dash of white in his hair like a comet blitzing through the dark skies, his teacher did not appear to have aged.
His teacher gave a short whistle and in the blink of an eye, another tall figure landed cleanly next to them. He had an elegant tall figure, like a solitary willow tree. He wore a silver mask that obscured his face, except for his eyes, which Hsiao thought, were as cold as a blizzard storm.
Hsiao recalled his teacher always rueing what trouble it was to have a disciple, so Hsiao observed this tall figure with mild surprise.
"Greet your elder disciple brother," His teacher remarked lightly and the tall figure bowed down towards Hsiao.
"Shi xiong (elder disciple brother)," Hsiao observed that the tall figure had a polished way of speaking, very unlike a person who moved in the jiang hu (martial arts world).
"And, how shall I greet you?" Hsiao asked.
"You can call him Drifter," His teacher said with a light laughter in his voice. His teacher shook his head at Hsiao, "Is this the hospitality of an Emperor?"
Hsiao laughed and gave a light clap. A throng of servants suddenly appeared in the bamboo garden to set up a table, chairs, food and wine.
Hsiao knew his teacher could never be prodded to speak, and one could only patiently wait till his teacher was ready to discuss the intent of his visit. Knowing his teacher's free wandering spirit, Hsiao knew that his teacher was definitely not here to console him regarding his father's passing. Hsiao was quite sure that if not for a particular reason that only his teacher knew of, his teacher would gladly not ever meet any of his disciples again - connections, in his lone wolf teacher's view, were unnecessary.
After several rounds of alcohol, his teacher gave a nod towards Drifter and he disappeared. Hsiao did not know whether to laugh at how easily the security of his Palace has been breached - but Hsiao knew better than to expect anyone to be able to stop his teacher. He knew this best since he was his teacher's first disciple.
"Hsiao Er," His teacher begun, "You have changed." His teacher smiled, "Although I tried my best to impart you the skills of my lone wolf sect, ultimately, you are someone who is tightly knitted to your family."
"Don't hold on too tightly," His teacher said languidly as he looked towards the sky, "You think you are keeping them with you, protecting them, but that will only cause them to break away."
His teacher turned towards him, "When have you listened to the words of oracles? Do you believe it is their words that make you the greatest Yan Emperor or your own actions?"
Hsiao felt coldness prickling down his spine for he knew where his teacher was heading towards. No one had dared discuss this matter with him, but for his teacher.
"I have heard about what they say about your daughter," His teacher stated, looking straight into Hsiao's eyes, "You are very clever to hide the real prophecy with the half-truth - but, I know that Shen Suan had an additional part to his prophecy, Princess Yu An needs to travel beyond the Yan Kingdom in order to find her true half, but she may not live pass her nineteenth birthday if she did so, but if she stayed in the Yan Kingdom, she would live pass her nineteenth birthday but never marry."
"One should not tempt the fates," Hsiao said in a very soft but firm tone.
"Who are you to choose?" His teacher crinkled his eyes at Hsiao, "You, most of all, should know the tragedy of a caged bird."
"I came to repay a debt," His teacher declared, "Not to you, not to your mother, but to Jin, Qing's mother. I know where Qing is, and if you want him to return to pay his last respects to your father, there is only one way - Princess Yu An will bring him back in time for the grand ceremony."
His teacher lifted up a jar of alcohol and cleanly finished it up, "In three days, I will wait for Princess Yu An at the Lavendar Tea House in the Capital during the hour of the goat. If she does not find me within that hour, then it can only mean that we are not fated. She can bring one person to accompany her, though you don't have to worry, Drifter is practising the heartless sword and does not, I suspect, even have the capacity to love."
Before Hsiao could even make a slight rebuttal or bid goodbye, his teacher had vanished, leaving only a few drops of alcohol on the table to mark his once presence.
Yu An watched as Hu Zi expertly sorted through the equipment in the Royal Kitchens. She beamed at him, "More than three years, and you still know your way in the kitchens well. Ah, how I have longed for that steaming bowl of porridge you made me on a cold winter night before."
Years ago, Yu An had fallen very sick and had no appetite to eat anything, but when the young Hu Zi had approached her with a small bowl of porridge - simple and unpretentious, true to the cook's own character, Yu An had astonishingly finished the whole thing. Yu An did not know why but Hu Zi had refused to cook anything else for her since.
Hu Zi only gave a scowl in reply as he started to wash the rice in a bowl. Yu An closed her eyes and leaned her head onto her sleeve on the counter, ignoring Hu Zi's sharp comment that it was dirty. A soft smile played on her lips as she listened to the authoritative rustle of cooking Hu Zi made in the kitchen - Yu An loved all kinds of sound, she loved how these seemingly disparate bits and pieces could all be knitted together to form a rich tapestry of life.
Most of all, she loved what these sounds told her - that someone cared for her. In this cold night, someone would cook for her just because she felt empty inside. Not because she was a princess, but because she was Yu An.
When Hu Zi finally finished cooking a pot of porridge, he frowned slightly to see that Yu An had fallen asleep on the dirty counter. But then, the way the moonlight fell on her face, like the caressing embrace of a mother, tugged at the ends of his lips and he formed a reluctant smile. He saw a slight smudge on her face and almost instinctively, he felt his hand raising to wipe it off her cheek. He stopped himself just a fingertip away from touching her - he shook his hand away, shaking it intensely, as if to dissipate the heat of desire within it. He reminded himself again that he was unworthy.
He watched as her shoulders lightly edged upwards as if to protect herself from the cold. He swiftly took off his outer robes and covered her.
Quietly, he pulled up a chair next to Yu An and watched her sleep.
It was the break of dawn when Hsiao finally returned to his private bedchambers. He was surprised to find his Empress Yue sitting on a chair and waiting for him.
Hsiao was about to speak in startled surprise when Yue placed a finger on her lips. She whispered softly, "The twins just fell asleep."
Yue concernedly stroke the side of Hsiao's face, "Why, Hsiao, you looked like you aged ten years."
"I think I have," Hsiao remarked ruefully as he sat down next to Yue. He closed his eyes for a moment to enjoy the warm comfort of her touch.
"Yue," Hsiao called and begun to recount what had happened earlier at the bamboo gardens with his teacher.
When Hsiao opened his eyes, he saw Yue looking at him with deep affection. She smiled at him, "You know what my answer is."
Hsiao shook his head, "Easy for you to say! I was the one who had to wait ten years... the indeterminate painful ten years, not knowing if you will ever come back."
"But I'm here," Yue said, gripping Hsiao's hand, "I came back and I exist."
Princess Yu An would never know what torment she had placed upon her father, the Yan Emperor, in the three days that had fallen upon him after the Grand Yan Emperor's death. But, perhaps, it was for the best, for a child never knows what he or she puts their parents through until it is often far too late.
Therefore when Yu An was called to attend to her father, she was surprised to see how much weight her distinguished father had lost.
Hsiao stretched out his hands towards Yu An and she immediately flew towards his embrace. "Father," She cried, "Are you well?"
Hsiao shook his head, "I have often wondered, Yu An, how many difficult decisions a man must make in his life before heaven will let him off?"
Hsiao smiled lovingly towards Yu An, "Yu An, you are about to turn eighteen soon and I know for the longest time that your wish was to travel beyond the Yan Kingdom... I have always stopped you because of a prophecy... it was said that if you travelled beyond the Yan Kingdom, you are unlikely to live pass your nineteenth birthday."
Yu An looked at her father with astonishment as he stroke the top of her head, "But, even without the oracle's words, I know that your heart lives outside."
"Do you wish to go, Yu An?" Hsiao asked.
With all the conviction she could muster since her birth, Yu An nodded, "With all my soul."
"Even if it means death?" Hsiao asked sternly.
"Father, I am not scared of death," Yu An stated, her eyes as clear as the most beautiful crystal, "I am scared of never living."
Hsiao gave a very slow nod as if that nod took another ten years of his life and vitality, "I can't decide if you are like me or like your mother, or like the both of us."
"Choose someone to go with you," Hsiao announced, "Choose carefully. If that person failed the test, you will never be allowed to travel outside the Yan Kingdom again."
This, Yu An, was sure even more than herself, she smiled, "Hu Zi."
Hsiao narrowed his eyes at her, "Could you be more predictable?"
Yu An's eyes widened slightly, as Hsiao indicated for Yu An to follow him. Hsiao made Yu An enter a secret partition so she would be hidden from view in the hallway. Hsiao added in a commanding tone, "You can't speak a single word. If you made any sound, you will also not be allowed to go."
After Yu An was sequestered in the secret partition, Hsiao commanded his guard to allow Captain Hu Zi to come in. Yu An watched with an increasingly accelerated heart as she saw Hu Zi enter the hall. She started to worry because her father was so intelligent that he could device anything to stop her from leaving and yet make it seem like it was her own choice!
"Greetings to the Emperor," Hu Zi bowed towards Hsiao, "May you live ten thousand years."
"Rise," Hsiao declared.
Hsiao watched as Hu Zi rose - in these seventeen years, Hsiao had also watched Hu Zi grown into a tall fine man. Hsiao had great fondness for this stoic but principled youth, and he had even asked Yue once if Yu An's red thread would be Hu Zi. But, Yue had remained adamantly silent on this point.
"Hu Zi, you have displayed great achievements and progress in the military," Hsiao started, "It is said that you will soon be promoted to lieutenant-colonel."
Hu Zi's head remained bowed and humble.
"In this crucial time for you, it is best that you not leave the Yan Kingdom or you will lose your chance at a promotion," Hsiao continued, "Princess Yu An has been asked to travel beyond the Yan Kingdom - it's very dangerous and I prefer her not to go. If you choose not to go on this task, then she will also not be able to go."
Hu Zi's lifted his head at this point and Hsiao looked at him directly, "What would you choose?"
Hu Zi nodded respectfully towards Hsiao, "I have a question."
"Ask," Hsiao declared.
"What did Princess Yu An choose?" Hu Zi asked lightly.
"She chose for you to follow her," Hsiao stated.
"Then, I will follow her," Hu Zi stated simply and knelt down towards Hsiao.
"Are you sure?" Hsiao added in a displeased tone with all the repressed rage of an Emperor.
"Yes," Hu Zi stated and he bowed further towards the ground with his head on the floor.
Hsiao started laughing and Hu Zi raised his head, startled. Hsiao shook his head lightly - what was he to do? They did not even know the mission. They did not even know the risks. Was this the folly of youth?
Hsiao thought back on when he first took a chance on Yue, a strange, suspicious-looking youth in a remote forest. He smiled, perhaps, I am not too old to be foolish once more.
Comments: I had lots of fun writing this chapter! Undoubtably, the main character for this chapter is my absolute favourite Hsiao. It's great to have a chance to write about him again, especially since I'm much more comfortable in my narrative voice as compared to when I first wrote Little Moon's Matchmaking Mission.
I hope you also had fun learning more about Hsiao's teacher because as many readers guessed when they read Little Moon - there's a complicated background between Hsiao's teacher, Hsiao's mother and Qing's mother. I think we are finally coming full circle in many ways to be able to delve into that history and see how it affects our young ones in their adventure!