9 Chapter Eight

Meiyue woke early to compose a letter to Miss Huian. Apparently, her tutor had not returned from her assigned mission which Meiyue afterwards learned that she too was in the south. Meiyue hoped they somehow would encounter, and her letter was for the lesser chance that they would not.

Later, the princess stepped out of her warm bath with a heavy heart. She tried not to let her previous discussion with Yuzhe cloud the excitement of the forthcoming journey, but it had been stuck in her chest for the whole night. How was she going to face him later on when the thought of apologizing, if anything, only made it worse?

Meiyue sighed.

Xiaonu seemed to note that as a bad omen. "Princess! You ought to look more enthusiastic or else our long-awaited journey will be as gloomy!"

Xiaonu was combing her dark locks while Meiyue sat beholding her reflection in the vanity silver mirror. There were faint shadows below her eyes and her lips ridden of their usual color.

The princess sighed again. This wasn't a mood she expected to carry on a day like this. It should be filled with exhilaration and nervousness rolling in her stomach. Meiyue decided then, that she would make up with Yuzhe and have a pleasant trip.

"Xiaonu, would you fix my face to make it presentable too?" It was the nearest thing to say that she wanted make-up. She usually did not favor to have her entire features thickened with powders and fake colors unless the occasion called for it.

"It's about time you start dressing up your part, princess," Xiaonu commented. Meiyue saw through the mirror her deft hands arranging and pinning her hair fashionably in place. As a result, it was secured into a chignon by some hairsticks and a few locks were deliberately left loose.

When they completed their preparation, Meiyue smiled to the image of herself in her mirror. She had chosen a midnight blue cross-collar hanfu with a long matching coat of flowerless ferns embroidered in gold. An ornamental scarf of white gauze hugged her slender shoulders and dangled down her arms. She wore no jewelries.

Meiyue advanced out of her quarters. Having being rejected by her maid for wanting to assist her in holding the luggage, she wrestled some from Xiaonu anyway.

A couple of soldiers were standing by the garden, most likely waiting for her. A handsome black stallion stood nearby, flapping his tail and munching on the grass. And near them, Meiyue saw, was her most dreadful nightmare.

A palanquin.

The guards saw the princess descending the stairs and quickly rushed to take her holding which were a bundle of clothes. Xiaonu unburdened more luggage on them next.

"Why is this here?" Meiyue asked them, indicating to the red and gold two-wheel litter. The curtains were drawn and her head spun at the perception of being inside a hot stuffed doll cage.

One of the soldiers, tall and thin shaped, answered with a bowed head. "Lord Junqian proposed we escort Your Highness from here, Your Grace."

Meiyue looked from him to the tilted palanquin. Then she turned to whisper to her maid. "I think he's trying to pay me back for what I made him do yesterday. Karma they say."

Xiaonu snorted and quickly covered her mouth. "Princess!"

"Meiyue, I hear that you are going somewhere." The princess turned to the voice, and heard the clang of metal armors as the guards bowed low to the ground.

Approaching them was the eldest daughter of the royal family, the crown princess. "Dajie," Meiyue greeted in surprise and curtsied. It wasn't usual to see her strolling the gardens in the morning.

Ruixue stopped before them and regarded the possessions. She was dressed in a pale blue hanfu with many additional layers of coats adorning her tall form. Two attendants stood at her back. Her hair accessories swung when she turned to us, a smile hinted at the corner of her lips.

"I'm very surprised that you are the first to speak against the customs and even manage to convince father to let you go," she said, and Meiyue smiled too. True that they did not share the same mother, but Ruixue was the only sibling who did not treat her like an outsider. The other two Meiyue could not stand.

"It is my wish that we will be able to go together one day," Meiyue said.

"That would be lovely," Ruixue agreed. She looked into the distance and for a second Meiyue almost believed she was longing for something. "I do hope you would relate to me some of the things you learn there after your trip."

Meiyue replied, "Of course. I won't miss a thing."

The crown princess smiled again, and gestured to the palanquin. "Well, get on. It will be a long journey."

Meiyue nodded and turned to Xiaonu, her look speaking her misery. Her maid stifled a chuckle and led her to the palanquin which had been put to balance by the guards while they were conversing. The tall soldier she spoke with was now securing the litter to the horse.

Meiyue climbed into the box and immediately wished for air. Xiaonu came in next, her face a mirror image of excitement, and sat across from her on the cushion.

The princess drew the curtain and spoke a temporally farewell to her sister. "Be careful," Ruixue advised.

Then the palanquin began to roll out of the palace.

~~~~~~~~

"Xiaonu, how can you be so at peace in this thing?" Meiyue said awhile later. Her hands we're constantly massaging her temple and the sides of her forehead. It was suffocating being in the enclosed space that smelled of cloth and faint perfume.

Her maid moved to draw the screen up and gazed outside. "We're exiting the Second Division, princess. Just hold on a little bit more."

Meiyue scooted to the small window and inhaled the air outside. She saw the Department of Education and Research where her history tutor worked in. It was also where the civil examination took place. Meiyue knocked on the board of the litter.

Soon one of guards walking on foot came to the window. "When we reach the market, stop this thing at once," she ordered. The guard, upon realizing he's staring at her, quickly dropped his gaze and complied. Meiyue sat back on the seat.

Xiaonu leaned forward and touched her arm. "Are you alright, princess?"

"I will be all right if I'm out of this thing." A wave of nausea turned in her stomach, causing her to sweat.

"Goodness, you're the strangest princess of all, to be sick when being carried to wherever you like," Xiaonu said and rubbed the princess's temple.

Meiyue claimed, "For the rest of this trip, I am not a princess."

Her maid remarked with a threat of a laugh. "You might be called worse if you keep rubbing at your make-up." At that Meiyue released her own face slightly. Despite her sickness, despite casting away her identity, she did not want to look like a half powdered creature with shadows under her eyes. She gave the girl a dark look.

After some moments, thankfully, the palanquin pulled to a stop. Meiyue heard a guard outside speaking. "We're here, Your Highness."

The princess wasted no time to throw the door open, startling the soldiers at the rear, and hopped down the palanquin. She felt some eyes on her but did not care at the moment. With the solid ground under her feet again, her senses gradually cleared the sickness away. Xiaonu climbed down the vehicle with more grace than she did and came to her.

When Meiyue was certain she could speak without leaking her insides out, she straightened. The soldiers were watching her from where they parked the vehicle at an opening near the Forbidden District gate, looking very much like baffled yet armed children.

"From here we will walk," she told them.

The tall soldier exchanged looks with his companions. "Walk, Your Grace?"

Meiyue nodded. "Yes, we walk." She regarded the awful palanquin. "You can unload the luggage in there. And don't look at me like that. We're walking to a stable not far from the market, then we set off from there." At that they relaxed and did as they were told.

Meiyue turned and strolled ahead with her maid beside her. She chose a route that did not involve the market fair for the soldiers to easily navigate through. It was late morning. The sun now gave out less intensive heat but Meiyue believed it was a matter of time before it scorched the land. Walking and breathing free air had healed her headache a great deal by the time they reached Yuzhe's house.

The tall soldier drew rein and swept down the horse. The red and gold palanquin looked out of place within the mostly mahogany structures all around.

"Wait here," Meiyue told them, and rounded on the tall man. "What is your name?"

"My name is Baotong, Your Grace," he replied.

Meiyue mentally noted it down. "I will leave you in charge of your group. Anything needed, I will call upon you." Then she went to where Xiaonu was standing by the gate. Suddenly her chest pounded right after her head stopped.

"Should I knock instead, princess?" Xiaonu looked up at her with mirth. Meiyue wasn't certain why her maid was finding this interesting.

"Yes, knock."

Not long after Xiaonu did, the oak doors creaked open. Meiyue was about to blurt a greet to Yuzhe until she saw his sister instead. Zhonghong smiled at her, probably approving her looks, and ushered the princess inside.

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"I shall wait for you here," Xiaonu said after she stepped in. Meiyue wanted to chastise her when she waved playfully and disappeared beside the gate.

She turned to Yuzhe's sister. They were walking to the stable at the back of the house. "You are not working today?"

"The landlady offered me to rest today." Zhonghong again surveyed her. "You look magnificent, Meiyue."

The princess offered a modest chuckle. "Thank you, but you are constantly gorgeous too." Zhonghong had an oval face and a pair of gentle black eyes, same shade as Yuzhe though they were not connected by blood. They shared the same tall frame too. Her cheeks dipped to show dimples when she smiled.

"Yuzhe told me about you," she said. Meiyue expected to see the same reaction on his sister but Zhonghong merely smiled when she caught her looking.

"I only thought my identity didn't matter. I never knew he would be so upset." She thought of how he stormed away yesterday.

Zhonghong said, "He doesn't like to be kept things from, especially by those he really cared. And ever since yesterday, it's as if a ghost has possessed him." She sighed. "I called him for dinner last night and he ate as if he had lost a war."

Meiyue considered image. Yuzhe sulking, his face twice more as serious as usual about supper. She turned away but Zhonghong caught her sniggering anyway.

"Well, there he is." Zhonghong gestured to the stable. Her brother was feeding a beautiful gray horse in one of the stalls. The other horses nearby neighed. "Go talk to him. He can't be upset at you for long. I will prepare something for you all to eat along your journey," Zhonghong said and retreated into the house through the back door.

She walked toward Yuzhe, smoothing her dress and scarf along the process. He didn't seem to notice her approaching because the horse he was tending at was munching down whatever he was giving it. He wore something different today. An ivory ruqun of a long-sleeved blouse tied with a gray skirt by a sash. An embroidered coat hung down his body.

"This horse is beautiful," Meiyue spoke, but wasn't looking at the horse.

Yuzhe turned around. He blinked few times at her, wordless, before taking his eyes away. "The horses are ready," he told her and was buzzing with action. "How many soldiers?"

"Five but one is accounted for." She stepped aside when he led the gray stallion out of the stall. The warhorse towered over her and bent to nibble at her gauze scarf. Meiyue nervously pulled it back and stroked its long silver mane. "How long should it take to reach the south?" she asked Yuzhe, and found out that he was staring at her.

He quickly looked away and said after a pause, "A full day, excluding stops." She watched as he led five more horses out, all of them saddled. Xiaonu would be riding with her. As a princess, Meiyue was prevented from learning things that her mother deemed as unnecessary, but she convinced her that horsemanship was a basic knowledge.

"You will be riding her," Yuzhe informed, leading out the last horse.

Meiyue stared in awe. She wondered how she did not notice it before. The mare was practically golden, with pale yellow hair that shimmered under the sun. Its mane was a deeper color of warm gold. "Are you sure?" Meiyue went closer to behold the creature.

Yuzhe passed the reins to her. "Of course. The finest horse for a princess. She's very calm, unlike him." He gestured to the silver stallion. Meiyue was beaming when she turned to him. When he called her a princess now, it was not like a sharp object poking in her heart. He was not smiling, but she guessed it was a good start.

"Let's go," she said with excitement.

Together with Yuzhe, they took the horses out from the stable to the men outside, who were caught off guard at the sudden turn of event. Xiaonu looked at the golden mare with similar interest as the princess. After Zhonghong handed them a big string bag of food and water, which they kept safe within the palanquin, the group set off into the noon.

~~~~~~

They rode hard and stopped occasionally for the horses to rest. By dusk Meiyue guessed they had covered at least a third of the distance. The golden mare was easy to drive and surprisingly fast despite her smaller shape compared to Yuzhe's gray stallion. Meiyue was racing slightly behind him while the rest of the party galloped behind. The dirt road was smooth and well maintained and thus did not slow down their procedure.

On either side of the road stood rows of pine trees that seemed to be reaching for the sky, passing in a blur as they went by. Beyond were the endless stretch of irrigated rice fields and crops, the water reflecting the gathering clouds overhead. Meiyue barely saw any potential establishment as the ones she did were mostly huts or alike that a great distance was put between each. The horizon was a dim jagged line of trees. The sun had vanished over the clouds.

"Princess, aren't we going a little too fast?" Xiaonu asked for the fourth time since they headed out. She was practically squeezing Meiyue's organs with her iron grasp and Meiyue was sweating where their body had been pressed together for too long.

The princess again assured, "You won't fall, Xiaonu. You're keeping a rather strong hold on me." Her maid wasn't convinced.

Yuzhe was riding ahead now, glorious on the silver warhorse. The gust blew his hair in all direction and his clothes bellowed. Meiyue thought he was like the dazzling depiction of the prince in a novel she really favored back in the palace. He hadn't glanced backward or spoken much with her throughout their session. Meiyue was drowned in her thoughts until she realized Yuzhe had slowed down.

Meiyue drew the rein and the mare dropped some speed into a trot. Xiaonu's grip relaxed almost instantly. The rest of the group came to a stop soon after.

"We will have to find shelter first," Yuzhe said, leading his horse around. "There's going to be a storm."

Meiyue looked up again and saw the clouds were getting darker by the moment, seeming to encompass the world. To make matters worse, there wasn't a trace of shelter in sight. Well, there was a few but it would take some more miles of riding on the narrow dikes between the wet fields that were clearly not meant for horse passing.

They rode on for a bit more, searching for passable refuge. Before they did the sky cracked and rain suddenly came pouring down. Meiyue was half wet by the time they managed to seek a shelter located somewhere in a pasture.

It was a basic structure with four thin poles of timber suspending a palm leaf roof. Yuzhe had told them to keep the horses where they were on the dirt road and the eight of them now took cover under the shelter. Meiyue was trying her best not to shiver, but the chilly gusts swept in the storm.

"Princess, should I get you an additional coat?" asked Xiaonu by her side, who was also hugging herself.

"No, I'm fine." The palanquin was still attached to the black stallion under the rain. Thanks to it, their luggage were safe and sound. Yuzhe had strongly insisted that she and Xiaonu took shelter inside the litter even before the outbreak, and Meiyue's stubbornness seemed to add to their argument. Now he stood among the soldiers, speaking with them.

She heard Xiaonu blowing into her hands in attempts to keep them warm. Meiyue rubbed her own and gazed to the horses. The gray courser was trudging on his hoofs while the rest of the chestnut horses stood nearby. They seemed to be withstanding the rain fine. But her mare wasn't around. Meiyue searched for the horse and found it pacing restlessly in the meadow alone. She had mud on her tail and knees, her golden hair now slick. She whinnied over the rain, probably unused to the exposure.

Meiyue couldn't bear to watch.

"Don't follow me," Meiyue said to her maid. Before Xiaonu could question, the princess barged into the downpour. Heavy raindrops tapped her head and messed up her carefully arranged chignon. The ground was slippery with mud as she trotted on the grass. Meiyue nearly tripped several times before she could get to her horse. She pulled the reins and tried to calm the creature before leading her toward the shelter.

The mare nuzzled her fondly once they were shielded from the rain. Bringing in the horse had forced the others to back away to the edge, but the soldiers did not mind. They merely stood watching her and Xiaonu stroking the horse's mane as Yuzhe approached.

"You could have just told one of us to bring her in." He sighed when he looked at her muddied form, vexed.

Meiyue said, "But I could do it myself," and watched as Yuzhe shrugged off his coat and draped it over her shoulders before taking away the wet gauze off her. The coat was warm and helped to keep the chill away.

"You'll need it more than I do," he said before she can protest. She didn't intend to. Meiyue pretended she didn't see Xiaonu grinning into the mare's mane.

After the storm, they decided to camp there that night. Pushing on would not do the horses much good and they were worn out themselves. Meiyue was excited to be sleeping at an open field rather than her same old chambers.

Baotong and his group went to the palanquin to retrieve the food Zhonghong prepared and some cushions for the princess and her maid. While they did that, Meiyue tried to wash away mud from her feet in a flooded area. Xiaonu and Yuzhe started a fire.

They huddled under the shelter, a fire crackling in the middle of the circle, and ate. It was a strange experience for the princess to eat cold food and sleep without bathing, but she wouldn't wish for anything better that moment. The mare did not leave Meiyue's side ever since, and was now laying on the ground, nestled right next to her.

The guards had taken out their helmet and swords, now conversing with Yuzhe about horses and martial arts. It seemed that the tall shoulder, Baotong, had somehow witnessed his duel with Junqian back in the throne room.

"It would be great if you can teach us," Baotong said one time. "That is, if Her Highness permits it." He looked to Meiyue, who was lying on the mare's flank, half dozing in the comfortable warmth of the horse and the fire.

She said through her sleepiness, "Forget that I'm your princess. This trip is a vacation for you as much it is for me."

"Then it goes for me too!" Xiaonu threw an arm over the princess's waist. Giggles erupted from the ladies as the boys went further out to demonstrate some fighting moves. Before they went, Meiyue thought Yuzhe spoke something to her and smiled before sleep overtook her.

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