Thank you everyone for your kind and sincere feedback. *Does tiny head bows* Hope you will enjoy chapter 4!
Chapter 4: A Test
Yu An clutched the painting her father, Hsiao, had bestowed upon her closely to her chest as she sat on Hu Zi's horse that rode towards her palace. She was a thousand emotions at once - excited for the journey that was to come, anxious for the lack of time to prepare properly and fearful for the unknown.
"Pack light," Hu Zi said curtly when they reached. He looked up upon the mid-day sun and frowned.
Yu An looked thoughtfully at Hu Zi, "Do you think I should travel as a girl or a boy?"
Hu Zi's eyes widened slightly at Yu An's question. Yu An could imagine Hu Zi's thoughts as Hu Zi's brows creased into deeper furrows - Yu An's appearance as a girl may attract attention but Yu An's appearance as an ambiguous boy may attract even more attention.
After what seemed like a lengthy moment of silence, Hu Zi gave a sigh and said, "Dress as a boy."
"Quick," Hu Zi added as he instructed a servant to prepare Yu An's horse, Midnight Star.
Yu An hid a smile as she hastily left to prepare for the journey ahead. She could tell Hu Zi seemed to dislike the idea of the journey ahead more than her father, Hsiao.
Just as she was about to turn the corner and walk out of sight, she called out to Hu Zi.
Hu Zi turned and saw Yu An beaming at him, with a glow of happiness that recalled the golden moment in his youth when he first saw the princess.
"We are going on an adventure!" Yu An cried, her eyes glistening with excitement, even though she did not know what laid ahead.
The Lavender Tea House was a popular tea house in the Capital - but it was known more for the particular tastes of its owner than any of its tea or dishes. The owner of the Lavender Tea House was Mister Hua (画 - chinese word for drawing), an eccentric successful businessman who opened the tea house to support his artistic passions of calligraphy and drawing.
At the Lavender Tea House, one could drink and dine entirely for free if one could produce a beautiful painting or calligraphy to be displayed in the tea house. Thus, it would be fairly accurate to say that the Lavender Tea House often gathered the talented artists in the Capital.
Yu An frowned slightly when Hu Zi and Yu An arrived outside the Lavender Tea House. It was already the hour of the goat (1 to 3 pm) and it was, as usual, packed with people. Yu An had absolutely no idea how Hsiao's teacher looked liked and Hsiao was only willing to describe his teacher as "extraordinary and unpredictable".
Unfortunately, while Hsiao was known throughout the lands as being an emperor skilled in the arts of music and calligraphy, Yu An had inherited Hsiao's talent for music but it was Hsiao Yang, Yu An's younger brother, that had inherited Hsiao's talent for calligraphy. The fact that Hsiao's teacher had chosen the Lavender Tea House as the gathering place led Yu An to conclude that Hsiao's teacher was intentionally making it difficult for her.
For her calligraphy teacher had often lamented that Yu An's words were so ugly that he could hardly believe Yu An was capable of producing beautiful music with those same fingers.
After settling both their horses, Yu An entered the Lavender Tea House determinedly with Hu Zi. Yu An had wanted to travel beyond the Yan Kingdom for ages and she won't let something like a lack of skill become an obstacle.
Yu An asked the shop assistant to sit Yu An and Hu Zi at the central portion of the first floor of the tea house before the performing stage. This place was the most popular part of the Lavender Tea House because it gave a good view of the artists on the stage and was also an excellent vantage point to observe the entire tea house.
The shop assistant frowned for a moment at Yu An's request since this young gentleman did not have any prior reservation but at the sight of Hu Zi, whom he recognised as an extraordinary captain of the Emperor's military, the shop assistant gave a ready nod and led the two inwards.
Yu An gave a smile of recognition at the parchment with the words "Lavender Tea House" placed at the front counter. It was Yu An's second time at the Lavender Tea House. She was brought here years ago when she was younger by her mother, Yue, with her younger brother, Hsiao Yang. She remembered how her mother had gleefully ate dishes upon dishes as she encouraged Yu An and Hsiao Yang to paint something. Yu An's painting was absolutely dismal but Hsiao Yang had copied down the name of the Lavender Tea House onto a parchment of paper and the owner had liked it so much that it still took pride of place at the front counter of the Lavender Tea House.
After being seated, Yu An scanned her eyes fervently throughout the Lavender Tea House. She had instructed Hu Zi to also look out for anyone with an extraordinary disposition or appeared to be a practitioner of martial arts from his knowledge and experience. Yu An saw that on the third floor there was a group of richly-dressed foreign travelers - the head of the group was a handsome man with sharp eyes and a powerful nose. But, there was something almost coarse and haughty about his demeanour that led Yu An to think that it could not be Hsiao's teacher.
Hu Zi pointed out two men sitting at the side of the first floor by the windows facing the river. Yu An turned to observe them, their looks were plain and almost indistinguishable. Their clothes were simple and unrefined. But, Hu Zi whispered to Yu An that there was something about the way they breathed that suggested that they were top martial arts exponents, perhaps even more powerful than himself.
Yu An closed her eyes to concentrate on the sounds in the tea house. But, it was too noisy and crowded for her to discern the pattern of breathing from the two ordinary men at the corner.
In fact, what she heard most clearly was her own increasingly anxious heartbeat. She could not lose this chance!
Yu An took a deep breath and started to walk towards the stage to Hu Zi's surprise. She went to an empty table on the stage and started to paint boldly on the parchment. Yu An's strokes were so rough and unrefined that even Hu Zi winced.
Finally, Yu An held the parchment boldly on the stage. She had painted three characters, 我来了 (I have come). Yu An saw that not all were paying attention to the stage, so she gave the table a sharp slap and in that moment, all eyes were on this young gentleman in simple light silverish-grey robes.
Yu An could hear the crowd started to twitter about how thick-skinned this gentleman was to showcase his 'unique' uncouth handwriting.
Yu An smiled confidently and pulled out a flute from her robes, "To commemorate my meeting with a special gentleman, not only have I wrote these words for him, I am going to play his special song..."
As Yu An began to blow the flute, she was surprised that it made no sound. She lowered the flute and realised that someone had thrown a chopstick directly into one of the flute's holes. It was an action so swift and delicate that it had blocked the flute's hole without actually breaking it.
Yu An lifted her head towards the two men at the corner and smiled to see that one of the men was only holding one chopstick. He nodded at her and Yu An gleefully went down the stage towards Hsiao's teacher.
Yu An was quite sure as she walked towards the two men that they were under a disguise, for their bearing was completely at odds with the blank expressions on their face.
"That was completely shameless," The older of the two men with a deep baritone voice remarked, "I completely approve of it!"
Yu An bowed her head towards the older of the two men, "Greetings, I am Hsiao's daughter, Yu An." Yu An gestured towards Hu Zi who had came behind her, "This is my friend, Hu Zi."
The older of the two men nodded, "You can call me Master Lang (狼- wolf)," He pointed to the man beside him, "He is my second disciple, Drifter."
Yu An watched as Master Lang placed several taels on the table and started to walk away, "You arrived just in time, we were just about to leave."
After they left the Lavender Tea House, the four of them rode their horses out of the Capital and towards the right border of the Yan Kingdom. They had ridden continuously for hours until night arrived. Yu An was grateful because she could tell that Master Lang had set the pace of the horses slightly slower than his usual routine in consideration of her.
When night fell, they were in the middle of the forest. Fortunately, they had found a convenient clearing and had decided to settle here for the night. Master Lang had instructed Drifter to get the firewood while Hu Zi was responsible for dinner.
Yu An was left to settle the horses and clean up the clearing. Master Lang's duty it seemed was to enjoy himself.
When Yu An turned away from the horses, she stood in silent surprise for a moment when she saw that Master Lang had removed his disguise and was leaning against a tree meditatively.
She confessed to having always wondered how Hsiao's teacher looked like and to finally see Master Lang's face was not a disappointment. He was neither handsome nor beautiful, his face could not be said to be elegant or distinguished either. But, there was something about his face, with extremely clear eyes, a strong nose and a defined jaw that radiated power. He was a man that went as his pleased, that lived as free as a wandering cloud.
"Come here," Master Lang said, "I won't bite. Young girls aren't my type."
Yu An sat down near Master Lang with a smile.
"What do you know about your Uncle Qing?" Master Lang asked.
"I only know that he is my father's older brother," Yu An said honestly, "My father said that Uncle Qing's story is not for him to tell."
Master Lang chuckled to himself, "Well, that's not very helpful."
"If there is one thing that has not changed is that both of them are very stubborn," Master Lang murmured to himself.
Master Lang observed Yu An from head to toe and said with a tinge of disappointment, "You don't look anything like Hsiao."
"I look like my mother," Yu An agreed, "Although some people have remarked that my eyes resembled my father."
Master Lang looked at Yu An for another intense moment before he turned away. Yu An instinctively sensed that Master Lang was trying to look for someone else through her.
"What do you think of Drifter?" Master Lang suddenly asked.
"Drifter?" One of Yu An's brows arched up slightly, "I don't have any impression of him."
Master Lang laughed heartily, "Good, good."
"You have been given a difficult task in finding your Uncle Qing and bringing him back but the real nature of the task is to solve a lock in his heart," Master Lang said, "You can practise by resolving Drifter's own lock in his heart. That boy has followed me for almost twenty years now, although he has achieved much, he is stuck at the final level of his heartless sword. I think he often forgets that to be heartless, one has to remember what it was like to have a heart. Perhaps, you can try and find out why he wears a mask."
Before Yu An could ask about what mask Master Lang was talking about, Master Lang nodded towards a figure coming from afar and that was when Yu An saw a tall man wearing a mask that obscured his whole face except his cold dispassionate eyes
Yu An gulped silently, so that was what Master Lang meant by a mask.
An hour after they had finished the wild boar dinner that Hu Zi and Yu An had prepared, Master Lang nodded towards Hu Zi and instructed, "Come and let me test your skill."
Hu Zi looked warily at Master Lang as Master Lang laughed, "Aren't you a doubting one? You are Hu Jun's son, are you not? Hu Jun's own teacher, Master Zhi (志- chinese world for will) is one of my sworn brothers. If we want to calculate, I can probably be considered your great grand senior?"
Hu Zi looked over worriedly at Yu An and Master Lang laughed even more deeply, "Don't worry, Drifter is more than sufficient to watch over the clearing. Let's go."
Yu An watched as Hu Zi nodded at Drifter and respectfully followed Master Lang deep into the forest. Thereafter, Yu An turned her gaze back to Drifter - maybe it was because of his otherworldly air that Yu An tended to think that Drifter was a statue.
Yu An gave a friendly smile towards Drifter, "I have heard of stories about Master Lang before from my father, but I had never heard about you before."
Drifter remained silent and his gaze remained on the camp fire.
It was a nervous habit of Yu An to pull her fingers over her ears as if pulling back invisible strands of her hair back and she could not help doing these a few times as she tried once more.
"I heard from Master Lang that you are practising the heartless sword," Yu An commented in a light admiring tone, "That is very impressive."
Yu An pulled out a flute from her robe, "I don't know martial arts but I guess you can say that I'm an exponent of music and the flute and my guzheng are my weapons instead. Quite coincidentally, the most powerful piece of guzheng music is called the Heartbreak Song played most famously by the Royal Princess of Wu... it is my dream to hear and master it."
There was no indication from Drifter that he had even heard Yu An's words.
Yu An shrugged, closed her eyes and started to play the flute. It wasn't a song she had played before - she was singing about the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, the flickering of the campfire flames, how she imagined the sword fight between Master Lang and Hu Zi sounded, and finally, just their breathing, and the cold strange silence of the man that sat near her but felt like an entire universe away.
Yu An stopped and opened her eyes when she heard the arrival of footsteps. She smiled to see Hu Zi, beads of sweat over his forehead and neck, as he leaned exhaustedly next to her.
She turned towards Master Lang, who looked like he had just gone for a moonlight tea and had nary a hair out of place.
"Not bad for your age," Master Lang remarked then smiled almost maliciously, "But still too young."
They had continued their journey in almost the same pattern for the next few days when finally Master Lang gave a smile towards Yu An, "We will cross over the border of the Yan Kingdom towards the Sand Kingdom tomorrow."
"We will in fact be passing through the central trade route of the desert tribes tomorrow," Master Lang remarked as he looked at Yu An, "You might want to change into female clothes for tomorrow."
"Why?" Yu An asked curiously, her heart raced excitedly for she realised that they will be reaching the homeland of her grandmother's tribe tomorrow.
Master Lang chuckled devilishly as he gazed at Drifter and Hu Zi, "The desert tribes are matriarchal societies where the women reign dominant. We are just in time for their annual tribes gathering where the young women of marriageable age go out to claim their husbands."
"Claim?" Yu An enquired uncertainly.
Master Lang nodded, "Basically, whoever they can drag home."
At this, Yu An started to laugh so hard that Hu Zi stuffed a bun into Yu An's mouth to stop her from laughing.