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  1. & --------------- In the sanctuary of her private quarters, Empress Yuè gazed upon an old photograph of her and her sworn sister Lián Mei, taken many years ago. Back when they were still little fillies without their cutie marks. The royal qilin could still remember the time they spent together — the day they met even — like it was yesterday..... *FENGHUANG VILLAGE: SEVERAL YEARS AGO* Amidst the hustle and bustle of the village market, a little qilin filly with a coat of mutton fat jade looked about aimlessly. Unknown to merchants and shoppers alike was how this filly was no mere qilin, but rather a Princess of Long Guo. She had come to stay with her mother, who had once been wife of the Emperor until growing discomforted with Palace life. The filly in question, Yù Yuè, stayed with her mother on an estate on the northern outskirts of the village for the duration of her visit. Naturally, a royal filly like Yuè got bored when cooped up in a relatively modest house. Good thing her mother (and more importantly, the few servants in her employ) wasn't the over-protective sort. That meant freedom to explore Fenghuang Village as she pleased. Yuè's brother was off doing his own thing, so it was the pint-sized princess by herself..... --------------- Mom and Dad were working the fields, and most of her friends had gone on vacation to the royal city itself. Both of which meant she was very, very bored. And it wasn't even fair that Starshine and Sugarcane got to go to Huangjing, either! Their parents had planned the trip for ages, but when she'd asked her own parents, she'd been told no. No Mei, we don't have money to travel to Huangjing right now, no Mei, probably not tomorrow either. Maybe Mei, maybe in the future. Which meant she got left behind to wander around the village and be boooooored. Mei huffed to herself as she trot through the marketplace, eyeing the vendors she passed. Mother had asked her to separate the rice stalks from the grains, but she had finished that very early on...well. Mostly finished it. Which meant she was free to take the rest of the day off to go explore...as if there was anything left in this small town to explore. Although maybe the old grandpa had his shaved ice stall already opened for the day... Still, as the young Qilin aimlessly flounced her way through the marketplace, the sight of an unfamiliar filly drew her up cold. Because she knew every filly in the village, there weren't that many of them, after all! "Hey!" she called up, and flounced straight up to the pale colored filly, interest sparking in her eyes. "Who are you?" --------------- Yuè's ambling came to a halt when she heard the sound of a qilin filly her age calling out to her. The royal qilin was not shy by any stretch of the imagination, but her natural caution expressed itself as she reflexively took a step back from the newcomer to preserve her personal space. And yet, it struck Yuè just how... uniquely pleasing the blue filly's streaked mane looked to the eye. Like a stream of beautiful fire shooting out in the night. Even Yuè had to feel a ping of jealousy for the commoner girl. As a cautious princess however, Yuè had no desire to reveal her royal heritage to the stranger. "Oh, uhhh... my name is Yuè." Despite herself, the pale filly couldn't help flourish her introduction by nodding her head and joining her forehooves in a bow, having been endlessly drilled on that by her etiquette tutors back home in the Imperial Capital. "It's a pleasure to meet you....." --------------- Yuè? Like moon? Pretty name! Though Mei had to pause and gawk rather openly at the filly as she dipped into a formal bow, one that the vivid blue Qilin hesitantly returned in a less than graceful manner. "Um, hi," she said in return, still a bit confused. The filly had a funny way of talking, nothing like the charming drawl that was so common in these parts. And nobody introduced themselves like that around here, either. Further evidence that this Yuè was from elsewhere...possibly from one of the big cities! "I'm Mei!" the Qilin introduced brightly as she got over the awkward introduction, "Do you want to play together? Ooh, wait, let's go get some shaved ice first!" And just like that, Mei linked one hoof through the other filly's foreleg, bodily tugging her along the market road even as she glanced back over one shoulder. "All my friends are visiting Huangjing, they've been gone forever," she complained, because a week was forever. "It must be so wonderful there...are you from Huangjing?" Mei questioned, not letting up the insistent tugging for one instant. The stall was somewhere along this road... "You're not from around here, right? Are you a traveler?" --------------- Back in the Palace, nobody — not even the servants — would have dared laid a hoof on Princess Yuè. Which was why her eyes shot wide open as Mei grabbed her leg and tugged her along. And... just what was this shaved ice? Sounded like a strange concoction! Although shocked by Mei's boldness, Yuè offered no resistance to the other's decisive demeanor. "You are correct..." the Princess chose her words carefully; "I do live in the Imperial Capital. My brother and I are visiting here for a little while. I understand that you are one of the villagers, Mei?" The filly with the fire-streaked hair clearly had a rural drawl in her accent, after all. --------------- So she'd been right! A filly from the Imperial Capital...she was already green with envy! "That must be wonderful, living at the capital," Mei sighed wistfully, already dreaming of what life must be like in the city...before realizing Yuè had, in fact, asked her a question. "Yup! We don't get many visitors, though," she answered, craning her neck a bit to try and find her home. It was down the slope from the marketplace, and could sometimes be seen from the hillside - but in the thick of the market stalls, it may as well have not existed at all. Certainly not as interesting as a house in the Imperial city, that was for sure! "I live near the rice paddies - there's a nice little forest there," she said flippantly, not keen on talking about her boring home in her boring village - mostly because they were boring, but also because there was the stall! And it was open! "Oh, there it is!" Mei exclaimed brightly, only releasing her hold on Yuè in front of the stall, where the elder Qilin smiled down at the two of them. "Hello!" Mei cried out, rearing up slightly on her hooves to get a better stock on the available toppings. Sweet red bean was a must, of course, but the other toppings varied based on the season and available produce. "One shaved ice, please! With...rice cake and flakes, and...hmmm...." The young filly carefully pursued the select fruit toppings, running a critical eye over them, before turning her gaze onto Yuè. "What sort of toppings do you want, Yuè? We can share one!" --------------- Rice paddies? Did Mei come from a farming family? Princess Yuè may have never met a farmer before, but she had always been told by her father to respect them for their immense contributions to maintain Long Sun society. If Yuè played her mahjong tiles right, maybe she could get Mei to take her to the paddies sometime later. Now that she was away from Huangjing, this would be her best chance to actually see how farmers worked the land! Yuè respectfully stood back rather than join Mei im flexing her body to better see the topics. So... this was shaved ice. The princess never knew that ice could be any color other than clear. How fascinating, indeed! It was almost like the first time when Yuè was shown by the Wise and Noble Dragons that there was other colors to fire than just red. That had also been a most breathtaking experience! Onto the matter of toppings. "Hmmm..." Yuè's long hair majestically blew in the wind as she briefly pondered, although she really didn't think things through when she innocently asked; "Do you have any immortal peaches?" Still mostly naive to the ways of the world beyond Palace walls, Princess Yuè had not yet grasped that such a rare and heavenly variety of fruit like the Peaches of Immortality wouldn't be found anywhere outside Longri-La or the Imperial Palace..... --------------- An immortal peach? What sort of fruit was immortal? Mei didn't know, and neither did she understand the strange look the elder Qilin gave the filly, like he wasn't sure if Yuè was just joking around or not. She did know, however, that she had never heard of such a thing, and certainly not at this shaved ice stall! Nor of any sort of immortal fruit, either! "I don't think we have that sort of fruit here...or any other long-lived fruits," Mei said thoughtfully, face scrunching up as she tried remembering talk of any sort of immortal fruit. It still sounded strange to her, causing the young filly to shake her head and return to the most pressing matter at hoof. "How about some melon? And honeydew!" Mei licked her lips as the toppings were added, eyes taking in every spoonful of the added treats, before turning back to Yuè. "Maybe some blackberries too? They aren't immortal though," the filly half-warned, half-explained, "In fact, they'll probably go out of season in a few days." --------------- Princess Yuè looked at Mei with quizzical eyes. How could anyone not know what the Peaches of Immortality were? They were only the most sacred fruit grown and eaten by the Elder Serpents, valued for the mystical boons granted to any who ate them. Over the millennia , many crafty spirits and other dubious characters had tried and failed to acquire the famed immortal peaches of Longri-La. But the princess wasn't too disappointed thankfully, but a little flushed in the cheeks for sure. "Oh, I see..." When told what other fruit she could settle for, Yuè answered; "If blackberries are going out of season soon, it would be disgraceful to not eat them while we have the chance..." --------------- Mei beamed at the filly, pleased with her acquiescence, before nodding firmly at the vendor. "Blackberries, please!" she asserted, and with one last lingering look at Yuè, he slathered on the last of the fruit. Everything came together in a pleasing array of colors, and Mei couldn't help inhaling the fruity smell a bit. "Thanks!" It cost her the last of the dragons her parents had given her as allowance two days ago, but for Mei, it was worth it, as the plastic bowl was hoofed over to her, with two plastic spoons entrenched in the shaved ice. "Come on, let's go eat by the flowers," Mei demanded of her new friend, and, with the bowl held carefully between her hooves, she began leading the way. The place "by the flowers" was fairly near the marketplace, on a gently sloping hill that was dotted with wildflowers of every imaginable color. A long willow tree, grown over easy centuries, was around the middle of the slope, and Mei chose a shady spot that was almost directly underneath it, close enough for the delicate branches to brush against their backs with each breeze. That was all secondary information to Mei, however, well accustomed to this spot. Shaved ice was a much more uncommon treat, and one she was fully prepared to enjoy as the filly wasted no time shoveling herself a mouthful - to her immediate chagrin. "C-cold, cold!" the vivid blue Qilin yelped, having inserted a far larger spoonful into her mouth than was wise. That didn't stop her from taking a second scoop, one of a more acceptable size that had her eyes closing in bliss. "He always shaves the ice real thin," Mei explained, holding out the bowl for the other filly to take her spoon and partake in the cool treat. "Here, try!" https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/f1/57/ef/f157efd922b892d98c4b0b47d161e2fb.jpg --------------- With the way Princess Yuè's sparkled, one might have assumed she never saw flowers in her entire life. That assumption would be blatantly wrong obviously; what sort of royal Long Sun filly wouldn't have been exposed to expansive gardens of every flower imaginable imaginable? But it was the first time Yuè had been exposed to a vista created entirely by Nature. From here, the two girls had a vantage point overlooking the nearby river, and well... such things can be hard to describe. Yuè appeared confounded when Mei took a large bite too icy to handle, but was relieved when her companion recovered. Afterward, Mei encouraged Yuè to have a bite for herself. If Mei's scoop of the spoon had been too large, Yuè's scoop was the exact opposite. Accustomed to Palace dining etiquette, Yuè ate with the uttermost precision and delicateness, taking her time to chew on and savor the single ice-covered blackberry she gobbled up. The sweet taste of the treat couldn't be denied. "It's so wonderful!" Yuè immediately went for another scoop, no bigger than her first..... --------------- Mei beamed at the filly, pleased with her reaction to the shaved ice. Her town did not boast of much, sadly, but the food was rather wonderful, in her humble opinion. And the deserts? Ten times so! The smile on her face was quick to turn into a frown, however, as she observed Yuè taking her second bite of the frozen treat, that equated to nothing more than a single blackberry. "No, you're eating it wrong," she said, aggrieved, and before the other filly could argue, Mei had grabbed her spoon and scooped it into the shaved ice. "See? You've got to get a mix of everything all at once!" she instructed, her tongue poking out between her lips as she concentrated on generating the perfect scoop of shaved ice. Red bean, melon, some rice cake...there! With the spoon now rightfully ladened with a myriad of flavors, Mei held it back out for Yuè to retrieve, looking at her expectantly. "Go on go on, try it now!" --------------- Huh... apparently there were unique protocols for eating shaved ice. The end result of a proper scoop looked rather large though. Not to fear though; Yuè could eat it all up if she was careful enough! Ensuring she remained a proper lady worthy of her royal lineage, the princess took another small bite; this time, consuming a melon. No matter how big her scoops, Yuè would keep on eating with refinement..... --------------- Mei frowned again as Yuè took another small bite, but after a moment, simply shrugged, and returned to eating. Maybe Yuè just had really strict parents that had really strict table manners. Starshine used to complain about always being forced to wear a napkin on her lap during meals - maybe Yuè's parents simply didn't like her taking big bites. Which was a shame, because shaved ice was best enjoyed with the biggest bites conceivable. "Good, right?" she encouraged, tail flicking happily as she looked over the landscape. This was one of her favorite spots in the village, with the river flowing below, and it always looked the best at noon, when the sun shone brightly against its waters. She supposed it was as much an attraction as anything her town had to offer...which actually made her wonder something else. "Hey, what're you and your brother visiting here for, anyways?" Mei questioned, without thought for tact or privacy as she swung her head towards the other filly, spoon lolling in her mouth. "D'you have relatives living here? I don't know why else you guys would visit when you live in Huangjing!" --------------- Princess Yuè thought it over for a minute whether to answer Mei's latest question or not. If people around here knew who Yuè's mother had once been, then telling Mei who she was visiting might give her a clue to discern Yuè's true identity. On the other hoof, Yuè understood that small towns and villages were havens of gossip. Chances are that sooner or later, Mei would figure things out anyway. And so Yuè decided to speak the truth. "We're here to visit our mother for the next few weeks. She lives at the estate north of this village." Mei probably knew about it already; the enclosed compound with an expansive garden. In essence, it was basically a piece of Huangjing's Inner Ward transplanted to the countryside. After several more bites of shaved ice, she hesitantly offered; "Since you were generous enough to share this delicacy with me, I could perhaps show you around... if it won't be an inconvenience, that is." A bit spur of the moment, but like Father always taught, kindness should always be reciprocated with kindness..... --------------- The spoon came perilously close to slipping completely out of Mei's mouth, but her tongue caught it at the last second, leaving it to wobble precariously. Which was completely acceptable, because she had a bit more to pay attention to. "You're mother lives there?" Mei exclaimed, leaning forward right into Yuè's personal space and nearly upsetting the bowl of shaved ice. She couldn't not be blamed, however, honestly not, because that estate and its mysterious inhabitant had been the talk of the village for more than a little while now. The extravagance by itself was enough to turn heads, completely out of place in the rural surroundings, and Mei had been one of the curious to go sniffing around the perimeter from time to time, as if she might be granted entrance one day. And that day, was today. "I've always wanted to see inside, it looks so beautiful!" the young filly sighed, eyes going misty as she imagined what sort of beautiful lady must call the manor home. Some important, upper class lady from the Imperial City, maybe? Could Yuè be the daughter of some noble's family? But then why was her mother living all the way out here? All good questions that could be answered another time, because shewasgoingtoseetheinsideaaaah! "Let's go let's go!" the blue Qilin demanded, and shoveled spoonfuls of the shaved ice into her mouth in an attempt to make it disappear faster. She wasn't quick to ignore her companion however, thrusting the bowl at Yuè in an attempt to solicit help in finishing off the treat faster. "I'd love to see the inside, I want to see the foyer - ooh! And the dining room must be very lavish - and does it have a ballroom? And an inner garden? Oh, hurry, let's go see it right now!" She was beginning to get a brain freeze, but that was alright. Because in a few moments she would actually be looking around inside the manor. And that was worth a few minutes of chilled brain, thank you very much. *END PART ONE*
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