2 Chapter One

Yuzhe sent her weapon skidding across the training hall. "Did you really expect me to hit you?" he asked, then moved away to retrieve the practice sword.

Meiyue brought her arms down from her face. "Yes," she said, although she reacted more out of impulse.

Yuzhe may be a somewhat strict trainer, but she knew that he was gentle at times when it came to demonstrating and exchanging actual blows with her. Perhaps she only wanted to spite him for disarming her too many times to count.

She watched as he placed the wooden swords back on the stand at a corner. His black hair was stark against the paleness of his clothes, tied up in a half ponytail that reached his back. It never failed to amazed her how his hair never really seemed to get in the way of their training. Hers might as well be the reason behind her slow progress.

        "Did something happen at home?" he asked. "You seem distracted." He went to sit on the veranda just outside the threshold. His expression was questioning.

        "Nothing happened," she said, going to join him. She wouldn't deny if she was absent-minded though.

He was good at catching her she thought. During their session, her mind was filled with how would it be like to be able to do what she wanted, behave how she would, for an unlimited amount of time. It felt nearly surreal.

They sat side by side in a comfortable silence. The sun was just rising over the line of buildings. Golden light shone upon curved tile roofs, chasing away the last trace of early morning.

Near the training hall, the stable came alive when the horses neighed in the stalls. Across the hall was a residence, a one-story mahogany structure with carvings for the doors and a simple pattern for the windows. A stone dragon swam over the edges of the roof. The three compartments, including the training hall and the surrounding yard, made up Yuzhe's household, which was usually well known for his stable. There weren't many others who could rival his horses.

        "Do you have errands to run today?" she asked him.

        "A bit later on," he said, sounding not so eager. She figured it must be related to the lord who had once accused him of bearing some affairs with his wife. Just the suggestion of Yuzhe committing such act was preposterous. She couldn't understand why he tolerated it. He had a long list of other clients. But then again, like his roles, he was many things that she had yet come to fully understand.

Meiyue wrung her hands on her lap. That usually happened when she was bracing for a talk she'd been preparing for. There might not be a better chance to ask him later as well.

        "There is something I want to discuss with you," she said. His gaze fell on her. "How long does it take to get to the south?"

        "About a day travel," he said without having to consider. Then at her face, he added, "Don't tell me you want to go there."

        "Why not?" she asked. She didn't understand the change in his tone.

        "Why do you want to go there?"

        "To see how it's like," she said simply. "Is something wrong?"

He didn't answer and refused to look at her as if she had spoken something to offend him. She nudged him with her elbow.

        "It's not somewhere you should be at," was all he allowed.

        "Why?" She knew she was annoying then, but she couldn't help it. He was the only one she could think of to go to who was familiar with the southern lands.

Anhui was once prosperous in both the north and south. Nobles and high-ranked officials used to own most of the properties where they were turned into agricultural fields or left as pastures for livestock. Merchants used to run wild throughout the kingdom during the harvest season.

But not long after the bloom, a deadly plague wrecked a third of the southern population. The wealthy ran north at the first sign of the disease and only the needy were left to fall victim. After the plague died down, a great fire smothered the restore of the cities, killing thousands more. It took sometime before the King could summon enough resources to reshape the south to one main city now called The Black Square. But it couldn't the same as before.

Now there was a distinction between the two parts. The south was more of a place where goods were made and the north was where they were served. Some primary sources did speak of long lists of crimes that mostly originated from the south as well. But none of that deterred Meiyue's ambition.

Yuzhe abruptly shot up, bewildering her. "Go home," he said, and started to walk toward the house. "Your family must be worrying."

She couldn't believe he was acting like this. From all the time she'd snuck there to see him, he never tried to shun her home once.

     "Fine," she said, exasperated. "If you won't talk, then I'll find someone else who will." She stood up.

        "Then what? What are you trying to do?" he demanded from behind. Nobody had used that cold manner to speak to her before.

No one dared.

        "Then I wish to assist those in need." She faced the hard look in his eyes. "You told me life in the south is much more of a struggle. I hope to help and maybe make some reforms for those people."

        "How?"

She hesitated. "In any way I'm capable of," she said, knowing it wasn't what he wanted to know, but hoping it was enough. "And I need your help."

He was staring at her, and the hope bloomed again. He'd agreed to most of the things she requested before, including the dismiss of questions regarding her family and why she had to sneak out to be able to meet him. As far as she told him, it was only until the part where lies were woven to make a half-truth.

        "I get can the protection we need and no harm can come, I promise," she prodded.

He looked away. "No."

Disbelief rendered her speechless.

        "Go home," he urged again, softer this time. "And forget about this."

This time it was her turn to avoid his gaze. Then she marched out another word.

~~~

The sun was beginning to beat down the pavement of the Ethereal City, Anhui kingdom's capital. Activities bustled on the market road lined with shops, stalls, inns, and restaurants. Vendors called out for a try at their products. Different smells of smoked fish, meat, pastries wafted through the air.

Meiyue strode among the gathering crowd, pleased with the almost nonexistent attention she attracted from passersby. A greater part of her face was concealed beneath a thin veil. The commoners outside the Forbidden District would never imagine that a princess would be strolling among them. Well, not that the people inside would.

Of to the right, she saw the restaurant where Yuzhe's sister, Zhonghong, was currently working at. She glanced into the building, trying to see the girl buzzing along with others, but only found unfamiliar faces and a man whom she believed was the owner.

Folks were swelling at the market as more businesses started. The thought of being squeezed among the mass of eager bodies wasn't entertaining, especially concerning her size. She wove quickly ahead and searched for an escape route that would lead her home. A rickshaw-puller emerged some an alley at a corner of her eye. She headed for it.

After a few guessing turns, Meiyue was on the other side of the main street and was surprised to find the peace there. Air blew more freely. A huge inn was in prep for business behind her. And that was about it. Rows of identical bronze buildings on either side belonged to private residents, some of their porch lanterns competing with the sunlight. Barely anyone was walking by and the ones that were all had the same destination as they crossed to the other side.

Meiyue, however was glad to be rid of the stifling atmosphere, still found it peculiar. Most of her visits to Yuzhe's house and back were commuted through the main road. She was looking around the place and trying to guess the way that led to the Forbidden District gate when someone yanked her arm backward.

Startled, she whirled around. Two men dressed in dirty clothes stared back at her. The bald one still had his hand on her arm. Meiyue tried to jerk away. "What do you want?" she accosted.

The man eyed her from head to toe. He exchanged a look with the other leaner guy, who stepped up and tore the veil away from her face. "Hey!" she exclaimed, still struggling with her arm. Her captors smirked at her bare face. She'd never received such insolent regard before. "Unhand me!"

She stumbled as they dragged her to an undisturbed section of the road. It was an alley with a dead-end facing her back. They both barricaded the narrow path. Then the bald man finally released her arm.

        "Care to tell me where you're going? You seem to be in a rush," he said to her. Meiyue recoiled from his breath.

        "Mind your own business," she bit, though her chest was starting to race. In that moment, she really wished she heeded Yuzhe's advice more seriously. Their argument seemed so far away. "What do you want?" she asked again, refusing to show her anxiety. "Is it money?"

Her captor's lips curved. "You got some? A no won't do, young lady. I can tell by how you dress." His gaze went along the length of her dotted peach ruqun.

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She had gone all the way to scheme for the servant robe she was wearing now, hoping to be easily dismissed. Anyone in the city could guess that much about her outfit. Clearly, these two men weren't from this place. She had an idea where.

        "Fine," she said to them. She needed to be back home, anything would do.

She stepped back a little before reaching into her chest pocket. Her fingers only touched the fabric. She searched her sleeves. Both were empty. The pouch must have been left inside her own clothes when she was in a hurry to change earlier.

The bald guy tutted. "Have you got it?"

        "Yes," Meiyue replied right away, pretending as though her pouch had fallen too deep in the sleeve. Her mind scrambled for an escape. "It's right here."

She withdrew her hand a fraction and caught his interest. He leaned forward eagerly. Then she riveted her eyes abruptly to the road beyond them.

        "Don't do it!" she shouted. Both men whipped to the empty space behind them. Meiyue seized the chance to slam her leg between the bald man's thighs.

He cried out, doubling over. His companion startled. She shoved against them and slid past, already running for her life.

The guys behind her roared. Footsteps stormed after her. She sprung as fast as she could, hating her long robe and her unpracticed legs. There was absolutely no one around. She shouted for help, but fear clutched her throat. Profanities were hurled to her back. The inn was just ahea-

Meiyue toppled over when her hair was wrenched by a monstrous force. She cried out. But before she hit the ground an impact struck the back of her neck and everything fell into oblivion.

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