It was a peaceful and clear night—there was not a cloud in sight and the tiny glittering stars way up in the sky were free to shine away as much as they pleased. Together, they formed pictures of many fascinating things that had been there since the beginning of time and Yen remembered the legends about them, told to her on sleepless nights by Ping.
Despite the slight throbbing of her feet, Yen was quite enjoying her journey. To avoid being seen, she had taken a narrow back lane, which passed through a small wood. Although it was dark, she was not afraid—many a time she had crept out into the graveyard in the night. The beauty of the wood enraptured her—never in her life had she seen something quite as beautiful as a woodsy grove in moonlight.
Emerging from amongst the trees, Yen found that the small narrow path she had followed suddenly came to an end and instead, joined up with the main road. She could see numerous fresh cart tracks left there that very evening by the many guest on their way towards the palace. After a moment of consideration, she concluded that her only sensible option would be to pursue the main road, despite the great risk of being seen. She cursed herself for wearing a red dress, as this made it a lot easier to be noticed.
Three times Yen had to duck behind bushes that lined the path to avoid the prying eyes of the ladies inside the carriages and once she was forced to conceal herself within the branches of a nearby tree as an unusually large assembly passed.
The palace, looked like a fairy's beacon light glimmering in the distance. As she got closer, she saw that the place was illuminated by hundreds of golden lanterns. She could hear festive music being played within the palace walls.
Yen was led into a large courtyard enclosed by four high walls, lined with a few trees. On her left sat around half a dozen musicians and to her right were several tables lined with fancy dishes—there was almost every kind of food she had ever heard of, from roast duck to taro jelly.
Yen suddenly realized that she was hungry—ravenous! With all her chores to be done, she had not eaten since noon. The long walk had left her quite exhausted and she felt her mouth beginning to water upon smelling the delicious victuals.
Quite forgetting herself, Yen went quickly over to the tables where several ladies were serving themselves and started eating hungrily. When the first pangs of hunger had been satisfied, she slowed and noticed quite a few guests staring at her in amazement. Blushing, she realized what she had done and stopped eating abruptly.
It was this that caused Prince Wang to take notice of her. Any other prince, after seeing her table manners, would have thought Yen most horrifying, but Prince Wang, being a little mischievous in nature, just chuckled. He was thinking that she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen.
Although she lacked the jewels and elaborate attire that the other ladies at the feast wore, she was easily the prettiest girl in the courtyard. Prince Wang felt that he desperately had to get to know her. However, as Yen tried to avoid being recognized, especially by her stepsister and her Niang, she restrained herself from staying near the prince.
Yen found herself, like most of the other ladies, admiring Prince Wang. However, while most of the other guests were discussing his wealth with awe, Yen was thinking about his good looks. He wasn't handsome, exactly, but there was something distinguished about him that made you think he was. Yen felt at first glance that he was a kindred spirit. She stopped herself then, pinching her arm hardly.
'Why are you even thinking these things about him?' she asked herself, 'It's not as if you're ever going to marry the prince."
Yen spent the remainder of the evening listening to the musicians and conversing with a few of the other noble ladies. However, she found a majority of the guests dull, for their main interests were based around money and jewels. Also, many ladies were not eager to associate with Yen after seeing her stuffing herself like a pig.
There was one girl, however, who approached Yen and introduced herself as Prince Wang's youngest sister, Princess Yu. Being the youngest of the seven children in the royal family, she was often overlooked and forgotten, as her parents were extremely busy. This left her to amuse herself for hours on end in the palace grounds.
Like Yen, Princess Yu loved gardens. She loved hearing the birds sing in the treetops and watching the buds slowly unfold themselves to reveal the beauty hidden within.
The two carried out an animating conversation and after the first ten minutes they were sworn friends. Almost two hours later, there was a sudden hush among the guests in the courtyard. Yen and Princess Yu both glanced up and saw Prince Wang being escorted up onto a platform at the northern end of the quadrangle—he was to announce his choice! That was when Yen realised that she had meant to leave half an hour before in order to make it back home before her Niang and Mei.
Announcing that she had to visit the bathroom, Yen rose and left. She was barely noticed by anyone, as the other guests were all had their eyes fixed on the Prince, waiting for his decision. Prince Wang himself, however, having not made up his mind yet, was busy scanning the crowd in front of him and just happened to catch a glimpse of red disappearing into the corridor. It took him only a fraction of a second to realise who it was and in a flash, he was gone too.
Yen ran along the main road leading away from the palace. Her feet throbbed terribly and she had lost one of her shoes when she had tripped over the step at the doorway. Her hair had come loose from the pin that had held it up all evening and she was almost out of breath. Yet Yen did not stop, she could not for she had to get home quickly.
To be continued…
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