Chang-Er stepped out of the carriage with grace, forcing herself to hold her head up high.
Like a princess , she reminded herself.
The mythical white pegasuses flew away after finishing their job, along with the carriages. She found herself amidst a field of golden crops. A river separated the golden field and an ocean of flowers. There was a winding path between the flurries of poppies, begonias, azaleas and many flowers Chang-Er couldn't name on the other end. A bridge joined the two ends of the river.
The maidens led her towards where the winding path led - a replica of the palace she used to live in. She wasn’t sure what this gesture was supposed to mean. She slowly stepped onto the path, her face remaining devoid of emotion yet inside, her heart was sinking with every step.
Today was the start of her personal hell. She was getting married to the most wicked villain to ever exist, a supernatural brat who loved making life miserable for everyone.
The two wooden doors swung open as if they could sense her arrival, revealing a young man inside. A broad, mischievous grin was etched upon his face, but his sharp gaze sent a shiver up Chang-Er's spine. “You're here!” He said as he stepped forward, giving her a small bow. “I’ve been expecting you. Nice to meet you.” The hand he stuck out lingered mid-air.
If any of you gods are listening, please save me from this, she silently muttered, before stepping in the palace.
The creaking the doors made as they slammed shut sounded awfully like a prisoner’s sentence.
Days were repetitive. And her sense of time blurred into none. Decades may have passed, but everything felt unchanged. Despite being in the immortal realm, she still aged, just significantly slower. Mornings were relatively peaceful, as Hou-Yi, her husband, was off to wreak havoc in other places.
On good days, she spent her mornings enjoying (well, as much as she could anyway) the scenery. On bad days, there was nothing she wanted to do except sleep or sulk the mornings away. The palace had no form of entertainment, neither was there good company.
Then Hou-Yi would be back, bringing in beautiful and rare gifts for her with an expectant look. She didn’t want to accept any of it. She couldn’t . Yet bit of the every lack of interest from her resulted in his disappointment. It made her feel guilty. Well almost, anyway.
Chang-Er still couldn’t couldn't shake the thought that this was none other than Hou-Yi, the being who brought so much misery and terror to mankind, constantly up to no good.
They shared meals, most of the time with Hou-Yi doing the talking, and Chang-Er silent, with an occasional retaliation if what he was saying angered her so much that her emotions and all rational thoughts went out of control. Every outburst surprised him because of how rare it happened, but he would hold on to his easy-going mannerisms, unruffled regardless of what malicious things Chang-Er may say.
But then again, who was Chang-Er to even dream of winning against one of the most sinister being to ever exist in a competition of spite, hatred and malice?
She had never witnessed the actual scenes of destruction he caused, but he was known to disguise himself as humans for fun, happily sparking feuds that raged on into a full on declaration of war between clans. People died, villages were torched down to the ground. On bigger scales, he would taunt the rulers, then manipulate them into destroying their empire with their own bare hands. Entire nations were completely wiped out, and he would get the last laugh out of it, humans and their predictability amusing him to no end.
Where she lived wasn't making her anymore comfortable about her new life either.
The palace was modeled after her old home to make her feel more at ease. She wished she could say the same for the interior design though.
Instead of porcelain vases, the hallways were filled with rustic cabinets, with skulls of different sizes peering out of them. The peonies her mother loved was absent too, and in their places were dark vines that intertwined at every door frame, yet miraculously parting when Chang-Er tried to pass. At this rate, she would soon be insane, a combined effort of Hou-Yi and his terrible, terrible sense in deco.
So insane that she was starting to develop feelings for the maniac who she was trying to save people from.
In his own way, he had his air of charm that left people spellbound. He may have been widely known for doing many despicable things, but sometimes she wasn't sure if she could picture Hou-Yi doing all the things he had been accused of doing. When he was with her, “charming” would be an understatement. Hou-Yi was a complete gentleman, never asking her of anything against her wishes, capable of making his snide remarks sound like a hilarious inside joke between the two of them. He never touched her, seemingly knowing how uncomfortable it would make her.
Chang-Er strolled in the palace grounds, passing through the white stone arcs that separated the palace grounds into many sections. Her feelings clashed with her sense of self-righteousness, with everything she had grown up to believe.
Why have I fallen for someone like this?
she asked herself. If Chang-Er didn't have an answer for herself, who would have one?
Lady Queen Mother did, apparently.
“My dear child, why is there so much sorrow and angst written on your face?” a gentle voice came from behind.
Chang-Er spun around, and saw a very beautiful lady standing in front of her dressed in white robes, laced with gold. She wore a headdress with pears suspended off it. Chang-Er took a few hurried steps backwards, asking defensively, “Who are you? What do you want from me?”
“I am Lady Queen Mother, bringing prosperity, longevity and eternal bliss to all those who seek blessing from me. You may know me by my other names, Divine Mother or Wang-Mu-Niang-Niang. You may call me Queen Mother,” she said, a regal smile on her lips.
Chang-Er gasped, immediately taking a courtesy bow. "Queen Mother."
"Rise, my child," she held out a hand to Chang-Er and led her to a stone seat in the grounds. "Now tell me," she asked gravely. "How do you feel about Hou-Yi?"
Shocked, Chang-Er’s mouth opened and closed again like a fish that was out of air. The conflict between her brain and her heart began to flare up. Seeing her troubled expression, Queen Mother continued to speak. "Hou-Yi was only a small annoyance among us before this, but recently, his powers have been getting stronger. The chaos he caused is getting out of hand. Do you know of his most recent wrongdoings?" Chang-Er shook her head.
"Out of the 10 suns in the sky, he shot 9 of them down. This is a huge offense to the court of Paradise, or Tian Ting as you may know it. He mockingly calls himself a hero, freeing the humans from the torment of the heat, but who is he to so easily disregard what the universe has bestowed upon us? Even the Jade Emperor himself would not even dream of carrying out an act so scandalous. I am here as representative of the court to seek your help, if you are willing to. Your endeavors shall be largely appreciated."
Her gaze never once wavered, making Chang-Er feel like she was being seen through and analysed. Queen Mother continued, bringing back memories Chang-Er had almost succeeded in repressing.
“You remember why you were married off here in the first place don’t you? Imagine what good you could do and how many more young girls you might save if you helped us.”
Chang-Er was startled, but the reminder was enough for her to make a decision. She took a deep breath, then asked, “What do I have to do?”
On her 18th birthday, Chang-Er woke up to news that horrified her.
Her maidens bustled around, packing her things into boxes and chests. Chang-Er couldn't even recognize her room. It may have still been filled with many beautiful treasures only a few hours ago, but now it was almost bare. In their places were rows of chests, carved with beautiful phoenixes, the symbol of her kingdom.
“Hey! What are all of you doing?” she cried out in dismay.
The maidens exchanged a troubled look. It was obvious none of them wanted to answer her, but in the end they quivered under her fierce gaze.
“Your highness, the emperor … your father has given you up as an offering to the Hou-Yi, to protect the country.”
Chang-Er felt her blood run cold. Hou-Yi, the villainous immortal that had terrorized her kingdom for aeons? No, it couldn't be. Surely father wouldn't do that? She asked herself, but deep down she knew her father loved his kingdom and people deeply. His love would push him to do anything, as long as he could rid them of Hou-Yi.
Her knees gave way, and she almost collapsed to the floor, had the maiden who stood the nearest not grabbed her in time. Weakly, she asked, “when do I leave?” Although judging from how bare her room was, she already had the answer for herself.
Mother Queen had told Chang-Er there would be a banquet laid out for Hou-Yi, and there, they would present Hou-Yi with a single pill made of the peaches from the Mother Queen’s garden. He may be sly, but he was also egoistic.
“His pride will ensure the success of our plan,” Mother Queen had assured her. Chang-Er asked if they would kill him. Mother Queen appeared to be shock at the possibility of Chang-Er even considering this a possibility. “No, of course not, my dear child. We’re going to banish him to somewhere far away, where he’s deprived of his powers. We don’t do such barbaric things to the immortals,” she explained.
Chang-Er was relieved, although it was mingled with bitterness.
How ironic it was that Hou-Yi was doing these “barbaric” things to the humans anyway
, she thought.
As predicted, Hou-Yi came home with a victorious smile one day, a bag weaved from the finest golden silk in his hands. “Look what I have been presented with, my darling!”
His eyes were practically sparkling, and Chang-Er found her hating herself for finding them alluring when they had been the very same pair of eyes that watched empires be reduced to ashes without even slight remorse. She shook herself.
, she told herself.
I have two jobs; to make sure the pill is eaten, and don't let him become suscpicious.
She stayed indifferent as Hou-Yi narrated the events of the banquet to her, her eyes never leaving the golden pouch.
“What does the pill do?” she asked.
“Not sure, they didn’t tell me,” he shrugged. “I’ve been around forever. We’re basically family. They wouldn’t dare to cross my path.” A laugh followed. “If anything, I would assume immortality, but with better benefits. Like unable to get hurt in water, or you know, very specific situations like that.”
As he eyed Chang-Er, his expression changed. “You’re not immortal. Someday you’re going to die and there’s nothing you could do to avoid it. You would want this, wouldn’t you?” He gave Chang-Er a wistful smile.
What on earth did that mean?
There was a beetle on the window sill. It was on its back, struggling and miserably failing to get back on its feet again. Fascinated, Chang-Er studied it, since beetles were a rare sight in the palace.
Its legs flailed feebly in the air, not to much use. But with a gentle push from her, the beetle was upright. It scurried along the uneven window sill, but it sooned half tripped, half fell and went back into its original position.
The beetle was trapped by its clumsiness, in a cycle of imprisonment. Just like someone else, she thought. He and the beetle were both trapped, one by its clumsiness, one by his sadism. And Chang-Er wanted to help.
Secretly, she wanted to believe she could change him, change his twisted view of the world and everything around him. If they banished him, he wasn't going to change. He would still remain trapped, only this time restricted by other forces.
She didn’t want to let them take him, but what choice did she have? She couldn’t stay here any longer, or she would soon give in his charm. Then, there would be no talk of changing him or anything. There wouldn’t be enough of her old self left to want to change him, and she would much rather die than face such a day. This would mean she had to leave, didn’t she?
Chang-Er approached the hall where she left Hou-Yi, the gold pouch on the table, untouched despite how long it had been. Inside was the pill.
What if she ate the pill? Was she really going to leave everything behind? Was eternal banishment better than losing herself and every principal she believed in?
With one last glance at the palace, and the ghost of her old home, the identical yet so different palace, she swallowed the pill. It made her float, much to her surprise.
Unable to navigate, she caused such a ruckus that Hou-Yi came out of his room as she floated further and further from him. The expression on his face … what exactly was it? Shock? Betrayal? Disbelief? She was drifting too far to see too clearly now.
Her heart ached, and she believe it was going ton continue to do so for quite some time, but couldn't say she regretted it. May you find happiness within yourself, and no longer in the misery of all those we lived. All of that was over, and she didn't want to ever look back.
She wanted to look forward, though. Looking up into the direction she was heading in, confusion rose in her.
Was that the moon?
Apparently so. She drifted nearer and soon she got close enough to see the surface of the moon, that had a patch of a familiar colour scheme of gold, white and black.
Whatever consequences there may be I deserve it. I’m ready to accept it.
With this, her two feet landed on ground.
“Good to see you here again, Chang-Er,” greeted Mother Queen with a grim expression. “I’m afraid the Jade Emperor isn’t very pleased with you right now.”
“News travel fast, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t interrupt me, or I may decide you’re in more trouble right now than you’re already in,” snapped the Queen Mother, her attitude snarky unlike the first encounter. Chang-Er shut up, and she continued. “You are to stay here for a century as punishment, and after that you may do as you please.”
“A century?” Chang-Er’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re not going to incinerate me here and now?”
Queen Mother sighed. “I would very much love to, but the pill made you immortal, so as insufferable as you are beginning to be, I guess that makes you one of us now. Don’t go getting yourself into trouble,” she warned.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe we have a certain overbearing immortal to tend to, thanks to you.”
In the blink of an eye, she was gone, and Chang-Er all alone, with nothing but her thoughts for company in the vast, unfamiliar ground. As if a weight was lifted off her, she began to walk around aimlessly, exploring the place that had become her new home.
The moon was less lonely than she had anticipated. There was a rabbit that had apparently been inhabiting the moon. Good. At least there was company.
It was very refreshing, to finally be free of everything.
Centuries later, she found herself selling mooncakes.
Apparently, she had a knack for baking, a talent that was discovered out of boredom on the moon. She set up a shop and began her days of business and busyness. Her schedule began to involve running all over the solar system and sometimes beyond, baking, delivering, getting ingredients. Occasionally, she would have the time to sit down in her yard, have a cup of herbal tea and a chat with any god or goddess that wasn't too busy.
Hou-Yi was captured, who later on died of grief at Chang-Er’s betrayal. She was told that he refused to eat the pill because he wanted Chang-Er to have the same shot at immortality. He had loved her, but their paths were destined to only cross that much.
The news was told by Queen Mother, who had become a fan of her mooncakes. “You wouldn't have recognised him if you saw him.”
Sometimes, her customers asked about her and what she used to do before she became one of them, one of these immortal beings. She would smile, her mug in hand. "Oh, it's a long story,” was all she would say, her lips sealed with a smile. It didn’t feel right to tell this story to simply anyone. It was kind of an inside joke, a secret between Chang-Er and Hou-Yi.