Dear readers, apologies for the break in The Princess Who Cannot Marry updates. Writing my own fiction takes at least twice (or even thrice) as long as translating a chapter! Although I've already sketched out the whole storyline, it's still a pretty tough endeavour fleshing out each event into a chapter!
But, the emails from all you readers in support of Yu An's story really touched me so much! Honestly! I'm going to try my best to update as fast as I can. My writing is quite rusty but hopefully it will smoothen as the story progresses.
I came across the picture above and I was like "oh gosh, that is so adorable" and seriously this story had nothing to do with alpacas... but since this is a fictional kingdom in a fictional timeline... I'm going to imagine that the people in the Sand Kingdom travel on camels and alpacas (haha).
Chapter 5: Memories from Childhood
Yu An had brought a simple green maiden robe in case she needed to change her attire. Although Yu An had never travelled beyond the Capital, she had often joined Empress Yue in her "incognito" matchmaking adventures in the Capital and thus there were no lack of more ordinary "peasant" clothes in her wardrobe.
However, this was the first time Yu An had dressed up as an ordinary maiden outside the palace since she usually dressed as a male. Yu An realised that without Xiao Qing's assistance and no mirror, she had absolutely no idea how she was supposed to tie up her hair.
"Yes," Yu An answered slightly glumly.
Thus, when Hu Zi had came to check on Yu An who had changed behind the cover of several thick trees, Yu An saw that his expression was slightly frozen upon his sight of her. Yu An sighed, she must really look a sight with her hair!
But, Yu An did not know that Hu Zi had never seen Yu An in ordinary maiden clothes - and the sight of her, unadorned, pure and simple - as if she was just a maiden walking down the street, someone on his level, someone he could touch - his heart had lurched and his mind had completely blanked out.
Yu An flushed and gave several loud coughs and she glared at Hu Zi. Hu Zi seemed to regain his composure and the edges of his mouth tipped upwards when he noticed how Yu An's hair was in disarray.
"Did you bring a comb?" Hu Zi asked as he got Yu An to sit down on a clear spot and knelt down behind her.
Before she could answer him, Hu Zi was already carefully and gently untangling some of her hair that got entangled. She had never noticed it before when Xiao Qing did her hair but the touch of someone's fingers through her hair was somewhat... intimate. She was glad that Hu Zi could not see her face as she felt her face heat up and the fine hairs on her neck started to prickle.
She hurriedly passed him a small jade comb.
"Don't fidget," Hu Zi said calmly as he threaded the comb through her hair.
"I'm not fidgeting!" Yu An replied in annoyance as she willed herself to stay still. She reminded herself that this was just Hu Zi. Yes, just Hu Zi, who I watched grow up.
Just as Yu An had cooled down, Hu Zi bent forward to look at her. Yu An tried to avoid his gaze but the edge of her eyes saw that he was scrutinising carefully if the hairstyle looked fine from the front as well.
Hu Zi was concentrating on Yu An's hair so intently that he did not notice that his face was just a breath away from Yu An's face.
After what seemed like an eternity for Yu An, Hu Zi moved away and smiled, "It's done."
There was no mirror so Yu An could only gingerly touch her hair with her fingertips. It seemed proper. Yu An looked curiously at Hu Zi, "How did you know how to comb a girl's hair?"
"Because I'm not stupid," Hu Zi said with a hint of mocking. He smiled at Yu An and walked off, "The rest are waiting."
What Yu An did not know was that Hu Zi had often watched his father combed his mother's hair when he was young, and already at that young age, he thought, one day, I would do it for my wife.
Yu An realised that the Sand Kingdom truly lived up to its name - the gate that marked the end of the Yan Kingdom and the start of the Sand Kingdom was merely a large fortress wall and beyond the large doors of the wall was only endless sand. Master Lang nodded and all of them wore a cloth mask over the lower half of their faces as early instructed by Master Lang.
Just as Yu An wondered where was the city, Master Lang cried, "Follow carefully!"
The pace of Master Lang and Drifter's horses sped up and Hu Zi and Yu An followed closely. At first, Yu An thought that they were only meandering aimlessly into an abyss of sand, when she realised that the sand dunes in front of her were actually stone walls covered with sand.
As they followed Master Lang and dashed into the wall of sand, Yu An realised that they were already at the city but it was merely camouflaged by sand!
Master Lang paid a toll fee for the four of them and led them to a side stable where the travelers placed their horses. Yu An looked curiously as she saw creatures she had never seen before - there was a tall four-legged creature with a long curved neck and a large hump. She laughed as another smaller hairy woolly creature with a tall neck poked his tiny snout towards her. Hu Zi informed Yu An that these were desert animals - the one with the hump was a camel and the one without a hump was an alpaca.
After their horses were settled, Yu An was excited to observe the heart of the Sand Kingdom, the main gathering point for trade and commerce for the sand tribes. It was set up like a bazaar - full of make-shifts shops and rugs with various interesting knick knacks on the floor. Most interestingly, there were stretches of pink peach blossom flowers with red and purple desert flowers decorating the arches and pillars along the main bazaar stretch. Yu An guessed that these were specially set up for the marriage snatching ceremony!
Master Lang nodded at Yu An, "I have matters to settle and will find all of you before the sun sets." He turned to Hu Zi and Drifter with an almost malicious smile, "Enjoy the city."
With that, Master Lang was gone faster than Yu An could ask where they will gather.
Drifter pointed at Hu Zi's wrist, "If the maidens tie a flower bracelet around your wrist successfully, according to their custom, you will have to marry them if you are of age and still single. Anything can be used - including weapons and poisons. The time limit is till the sun sets. If you can't take it, go and find a hiding place."
Yu An thought that Drifter almost looked resigned when he turned his head to the side, "It would be safer if both of you avoid me."
Yu An and Hu Zi were slightly surprised as Drifter then also disappeared into the crowd.
Yu An gave a thoughtful look to Hu Zi, "Actually, you are already of age, if there's a maiden that catches your eye who also fancies you, you must as well marry her home!"
Seeing Hu Zi's darkened look, Yu An mustered up a teasing smile and continued, "And if a guy catches my eye, who knows maybe I can also marry him home!"
After that Hu Zi's face was so black that Yu An also did not dare to speak anymore. She concentrated her attention on the interesting treats and wares on sale.
Just as she was about to bargain for a bag of goat milk candy for Hsiao Yang, she felt herself being pushed away.
When she looked up to check who had pushed her, she saw that a few attractive young tribal maidens were fighting with each other to touch Hu Zi.
Hu Zi irritatedly immobilised the three maidens quickly by touching their vital meridians and pulled Yu An up. However, Yu An quickly pushed Hu Zi away as she saw a maiden's hand reaching for Hu Zi's hand as he pulled her up.
"Don't bother about me!" Yu An cried as she jumped away from the crowd.
The candy merchant chuckled towards Yu An and asked, "Is that your male partner? Such a fair good looking male youth is rare in these parts, I think he will be defending himself from attacks the whole day."
The candy merchant looked closer at Yu An more curiously, "You don't seem to know any martial arts and you brought him here? Are you not scared that you will lose him?"
But the candy merchant had already lost Yu An's attention because she was already worriedly looking at Hu Zi fighting between two tribal maidens who were both using whips.
"Handsome Yan man," cooed one of the maidens, "we are daughters of the Chief of the Yin Sha tribe. If you marry one of us, you will be the future Chief!"
Hu Zi did not answer. With his bare hand, he grabbed one of the whips and used it to entwine the other whip. With one pull, the other whip was thrown aside and in a split second, he had used the one whip to tie up the hands of both maidens.
It was only then he answered, "I will never marry a girl for a position."
After Hu Zi fought off several groups of maidens, Yu An looked concernedly at Hu Zi as he appeared to be getting fatigued.
"Should we find a hiding place?" Yu An asked tentatively.
"I'm fine," Hu Zi replied as he shook his head.
Yu An looked unconvinced and felt herself being thrown back by Hu Zi as he pushed out his palm to accept a fierce blow from afar.
Yu An felt a part of herself cracked inside when she saw that Hu Zi's face was starting to turn an almost ghoulish green. That palm was poisoned!
She quickly took out a pill from a bottle her mother had given her, it was said to be able to cure any existing poison, and popped it into Hu Zi's mouth.
Yu An angrily looked up to see who was the perpetrator and her gaze matched a pair of coquettish long-lashed eyes. She was an extremely beautiful tribal maiden and had a kind of almost deadly sultry beauty with plump red lips.
"Is this how you treat someone you want to marry?" Yu An scoffed at the maiden.
The maiden gave a deep throated laugh, "Marry? I'm using him as bait."
She appeared thoughtful, "Perhaps hurting one is not enough."
The maiden arched her palm into a claw-like motion and was about to stab at Yu An's throat. But, before her sharp nails could pierce into Yu An's flesh, Yu An felt a metal blade at her throat instead.
The metal blade did not hurt Yu An at all but cleanly pushed back the maiden's palm.
The maiden gave a deep satisfied sigh and smiled sweetly at the holder of the sword, Drifter, "My servants informed me that these two Yan people entered the city at the same time as you."
"I will fight with you if you promise to leave these two alone," Drifter answered in his usual cold emotionless voice.
The maiden gave a thrilled shrill and with a nod of her head, one of her servants came to carry Yu An and Hu Zi aside.
"Drifter, I have trained hard to bring you home today," The maiden batted her eyelids flirtatiously as she unravelled her whip which was full of sharp metal thorns, including a spiked ball at the end.
The street was completely cleared - the merchants, despite their love for the fights, seemed to know the damage potential of these two fighters very well.
Yu An heard one of the merchants mutter, "Mo Hua （漠花）, the Flower of the Desert, oldest daughter of the Chief of the biggest Sand Tribe, Mo Tribe, in the Sand Kingdom - but year after year, she cannot give up going for this Yan warrior."
"From what I can see, the whole Sand Capital will be destroyed by them before Mo Hua can get married!"
Indeed, Yu An was stunned and could hardly keep track of how fast and deadly the strokes thrusted by Drifter and Mo Hua to each other were. She saw that Mo Hua also tried to throw some white powder which had a flowery scent towards Drifter, but he easily swiped the powder aside with his robes. She turned to Hu Zi who appeared better after he had meditated by the side to re-compose his internal essence.
"Do you think Drifter will be ok?" Yu An asked Hu Zi nervously as she heard Mo Hua's spiked ball crashed through a pillar.
"Drifter's skills are two-thirds higher than Mo Hua," Hu Zi answered with a glance at the fight. His gaze held a tint of reluctance and regret - regret that he could not protect Yu An properly in that moment. He conceded that there were still much he had to learn in this world, and people with better skills than him.
Suddenly, with a quick slash, Mo Hua's whip laid broken on the floor.
Drifter looked blankly at Mo Hua as if waiting for her to admit defeat.
Yu An saw a tiny tear fell from Mo Hua's eye, "Are you so unwilling to marry me?"
Drifter nodded as if he did not even want to give her a verbal response.
The whole crowd waited with bated breath, appearing to be frightened that Mo Hua would burn down the whole city in her rejected anger.
But, the crowd was disappointed because before Mo Hua could react, the servants behind her all knelt down.
Yu An lifted her head and saw that Master Lang had arrived. However, the servants were not bowing towards Master Lang, but an old woman beside him. The old woman had a hair of pure white, like untainted snow, her face was kind and lined like the gentle veins of a leaf.
When the old woman smiled at Yu An, Yu An thought she glimpsed a bit of what must have been her youthful beauty.
"Grandmother," Mo Hua turned around, surprised, "What brings you here?"
"I was having tea at the teahouse when I met Lang," The old woman nodded at Mo Hua, "But, it's good that I arrived before you cause the Sand Capital to collapse."
Mo Hua was not affected at all by her Grandmother's words, and leaned affectionately to her, "Grandmother, why don't you help me rein Drifter in?"
The Grandmother burst out peals of laughter, "Even if I can help you now, can I help you your whole life?"
Drifter kept his sword back in his scabbard and walked to Master Lang's side, as if signaling that there was nothing more to be discussed.
Then the Grandmother pointed at Yu An, "Mo Hua, go apologise to your god sister."
Mo Hua and Yu An turned to looked at each other in shock, god sister?
Yu An learnt on the journey towards the Mo Tribe's camp headquarters that Mo Hua's Grandmother was the Grand Chief of the Mo Tribe and god-sister to her grandmother, the Grand Yan Empress. That was why she had called Yu An and Mo Hua godsisters as well.
Master Lang had already told the Grand Chief about their mission in the Sand Kingdom. Master Lang informed Yu An when they reached the headquarters that if she wanted to find her Uncle Qing - the only way was through old Grandmother Mo. If not, Yu An could spend her whole life traveling the Sand Kingdom without any hope.
Actually, Master Lang did not tell Yu An that he knew Qing would be at the Sand Kingdom around this time because today was also the death anniversary of Jin, Qing's mother. Even after he became a monk, he would travel to the Sand Kingdom to pay respects to Jin. It was one of her last wishes to bury her ashes not in the Yan Capital or Royal Palace, but back with her tribe. However, only the Grand Chief knew where Jin was buried.
Thus, Yu An was brought alone to Grandmother Mo's residence. Although Grandmother Mo looked kindly, Yu An felt like she was facing a smiling tigress.
Grandmother Mo spoke first as she warmly welcomed Yu An to sit down with her, "Yu An, I know that you want to know where Qing is, and I would help you if you satisfy me that you are Yu's granddaughter. I have no interest in the Princess of the Yan Kingdom."
"I don't mean to be difficult," Grandmother Mo smiled, "But if you don't satisfy me, how would you even satisfy Qing?"
Yu An thought to herself, did she mean for me to prove that I was Yu's granddaughter? Yu An never felt as disheartened as she did now that she looked like Yue instead of Hsiao, since that meant that she looked nothing like her grandmother Yu.
She thought of the dance that her grandmother did a few nights ago but then despaired as she could not dance. She thought harder...
Finally, Yu An nervously took out her flute from her robes.
She gave a respectful nod to Grandmother Mo, closed her eyes and started to play. She remembered when she was about twelve, she had cried heartbrokenly because her father did not allow her to travel outside of the Capital with her mother. She had dreamt of music from distant lands, mermaid songs in far away oceans and all the sounds and sights she had yet to see.
Her grandmother had held her in her arms and sang to her about her hometown far away - hidden away in the desert, full of sand, hills and hidden mirages. Of cold desert nights where the land was completely dark, but the sky was lit with stars. She sang of friendship, of a young maiden's heart and of a sister......
Yu An did not understand it then, and even now she found it hard to express - but she played this song with her flute as if these notes were her grandmother's words, each light sound the beginning of her grandmother's unfulfilled yearnings.
Halfway in the song, Yu An opened her eyes in surprise because she heard the accompanying strains of a zither. Grandmother Mo smiled at her, a complicated expression in her eyes, as she ran her fingers over the zither.
Yu An finally understood why her grandmother's song was incomplete - just like years ago when a beautiful almost mythical gentleman told her that the mermaid's song in her shell was actually a duet - she realised that her grandmother's voice had to be met with another.
A silent tear fell down from Yu An's cheek as she continued to blow the flute. For what, she wasn't sure, perhaps it was because there seemed to be a separation lying in wait for every meeting... or should she wonder instead about the reunions that laid beyond the separations?
"The alpaca will lead you to Qing," Grandmother Mo said as she brought Yu An to the stables and instructed one of the stable hands to saddle up an especially good-looking alpaca.
"There's no time to wait as today is Jin's death anniversary and Qing might have left by tomorrow," Grandmother Mo kindly instructed Yu An as she pressed Yu An's palm warmly, "Good luck."
Yu An did not even have a chance to speak to Hu Zi, Master Lang or Drifter. But, she hugged the extra outer robes given by Grandmother Mo tightly around her and nodded.
She was ready.
For most of the journey, Yu An could not see the route at all as the winds carried tons of sand and Yu An could only hold on tight to the alpaca.
Finally, the alpaca stopped before what seemed like a hidden cave. Yu An was nervous and suddenly remembered that her mother had passed her a sun bead from god father, Xi Yang. So, Yu An took the sun bead from her robes and it lit a small path into the deep cave.
Slowly, Yu An became less nervous because she saw that there were some candles lit inside the cave for light. Her heart rate started to race, he had to be here!
She saw a figure in saffron yellow and brown robes from afar. He was bent before a tombstone. She saw his side profile and immediately she was struck.
She had seen him before!
Flashes of her childhood ran in her mind - but didn't her father say that he had never returned to the palace before?
Before she could place when she had seen him before, the figure raised his head towards her.
A gentle elegant face, a familiar handsome face, exactly like her father except for his eyes - both translucent and clouded at the same time.