The troupe rolled into town with all the usual fanfare; drums pounded, flutes cried, the pretty girls sang and the strongmen flexed. "Come see the show! Tonight, tonight, one night only," the girls trilled, a lie, as usual, but no one would mind. They put on enough of a show to not get chased from town.
Towards the end of the line, Fang stood atop her horse and waved at the passerby. She leaned forward, secured her foot into place, and lifted her other foot, pointing the toe as she lifted it up, up, body parallel to the earth as her legs became a perfectly straight line to the heavens.
The children clapped and cheered, always more easily taken by the spectacle than the adults. She smiled for them and kept tipping backwards, further and further. Her center of balance shifted, and for a second, she was falling.
One of the children gasped in horror. For a beat, Fang appeared horrified as well. Her weight hurtled down.
At the last second, she snapped her arms out and caught the edge of the saddle. Her weight spun instead of falling, second leg spinning to join the first as she executed a handstand on the back of the saddle.
The children cheered, and she grinned to herself, pleased with the reaction. [i It's not so bad to put on a show every now and again,] she thought, though the statement was pointed at a man she hadn't seen in years. [i You don't have to live your whole life in the shadows.]
Her simple red gown settled around her legs once more as she tipped back over, stepping nimbly into place on the saddle. "More, more!" the children chanted.
"Then come tonight, come tonight!" she called back to them, waving merrily. She'd show her talents on the stage with all the rest. They'd have to pay, of course, but she had to eat somehow.
As fate would have it, there was to be no show that night. A sudden thundercloud rolled down from the mountain, darkening the town, then drenching it. The strongmen fled for cover as the heavens let loose on their half-finished stage, and Feng found herself shivering under the narrow ledge of a shopkeeper's sign while the troupe leader bargained with the elders.
The leader jogged over to where Feng and the others had gathered in what small corners of dry there were, waving his hands. "They say there's an abandoned village just outside of town!" he called, cupping his hands to be heard.
"No muddy tents tonight!" one of the dancers near Feng whispered to her friend, who nodded firmly in agreement.
Feng breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Usually, they'd stay in inns when it got too wet, but this town was too small for a proper inn, and they'd flood whoever's house stood in for an inn if they tried to make it work. If they'd already made it to the city, they'd be fine, but... she sighed out. Troupe leader had taken this diversion out of fear of bandits, but now she feared they'd go bankrupt before they made it to the city, or worse, miss the spring festival.
"This way!" the troupe leader shouted, and ran off. She found her horse, trusty Meimei, and rode after him.
She pulled ahead of him in the end. The abandoned village was a ways from the town, down a dark path through a long stretch of woods. When she saw it at last, she turned back. "This way, keep going!"
Meimei's ears twitched. The horse turned toward the village, dark eyes inscrutable. "Did you hear something?" Fang asked her. Meimei snorted in return.
"Hello?" she called, kicking Meimei to a walk. "Is someone here? Sorry--we're trying to find shelter, and we found your village," she explained.
"...is anyone here?" echoed back to her, and this time, Fang heard it as well. "Hello!" she called again, louder, and pushed Meimei to trot a little faster.
She nearly ran over the girl before she saw her. She was dressed in gorgeous gowns, but completely coated in muck all over. The gowns had seen better days, as well. Even from here, Fang could see rents where thorns had bit the fabric. "Are you alright?" she asked, hopping off Meimei. Fang glanced back at the forest, but there was nothing there. No sign for where this noble-looking, bedraggled girl had materialized from. [i It's as if she appeared out of thin air,] she thought, and a shiver ran down her spine. She regarded the girl suspiciously. She wasn't an apparition, was she?
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It had been a long journey from the Kingdom of Shan, and already the princess was tired of sitting atop the horse that jostled her to and fro. The poor girl had already been tired from dealing with a man who had wished for her hand, and whom she had had to entertain for three evenings before she told him that she could not accept his proposal. She felt no connection or draw to his soul. There was nothing in him that her soul longed for, and at the dismay of her parents as well as her people, she refused him like all of the others. Surely, some day, she would find the other soul that hers longed for like so many other times in their past lives; they always found each other in the end.
If all of that hadn't been enough, she felt nauseous from the movement, and hoped to rest, but the men chosen to be the royal guard that was escorting her back to their home were impatient to get there before sundown. They knew the risks of traveling through the forest after dark- they all did- even Huan. The forest was said to be home to all manners of creatures who wished harm upon the humans that dared to go through it, and normally, her escort party would find a way around it, but it was much faster than going through the mountains.
A wild crack of thunder startled not only the horses, but Huan as well. Previously engaged with her own restlessness, she was suddenly alert, and attempting to calm the startled mare that she rode. The storm came quickly, and unexpectedly early in the day. The party quickly made for the dark canopy of trees that was the forest. Huan’s nerves were still frayed from the long journey, and the beginning of the trek through the forest did nothing to repair those nerves.
Compared to just a few moments ago when the sky had been bright, it was now dark, and Huan couldn’t shake the feeling they were being watched by something that wasn’t friendly. It had gotten foggy, and she could barely make out the shapes of her escort around her. Her golden eyes squinted, and another loud crack of thunder caused the horse to throw her from her saddle. Huan hit the ground hard- the breath knocked out of her as she fell into the mud. The expensive Hanfu that had been carefully tailored for her was no coated in a heavy layer of mud and gods knew what else. She hissed as she attempted to get up. She’d never felt the pain of any injury before thanks to overattentive parents and doctors that always cared for each bruise and scratch before they could have affected her, and so she’d never felt the pain of having bruised ribs before now. It left her breathless, but she was able to move to her feet slowly.
“Lady Huan,” a voice called in the distance for her.
“I’m over here,” she called weakly- hoping against the odds that they had heard her. Each time they called out for her, they sounded further and further away, and she knew that they wouldn’t hear her.
For the first time in her life, Huan felt truly alone. She was always surrounded by servants or her family or even other royals, but now as she stumbled through the forest without shoes, she knew that she was alone. Or at least, alone in the sense of familiarity.
The rocks underneath her feet were sharp, but she was wet from the rain, tired, and her ribs hurt more than her feet, so that pain barely registered in her mind. Bushes rustled nearby, and she paused- frozen there as she was fearful of what was about to come out of the forest. It took a moment, but she didn't want to stand there and wait on whatever monster was going to rear its ugly head from the tangle of thorns and thistles. She ran despite her lungs burning in protest of anymore excitement.
The girl let out a quiet curse as thorns caught on the trousers of her Hanfu before she entered a clearing that contained a small, quaint cottage. Juan had to wonder who lived all the way out here in these woods by themselves. They had to be crazy, but anywhere was better than in the rain waiting to catch her death with strange animals chasing after her wanting to make her their dinner. She raised a fist and knocked on the door before she tried the knob- finding it oddly unlocked. Huan all but tumbled in through the door- shutting it behind her just as quickly.
“Hello, is anyone here?” she asked- not sure if she wanted an answer or not, but she was sure whoever lived there was aware of her presence by now. She hadn't exactly been that quiet in attempting to get into the house.