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Akiko poked her head through the door, her long, black hair falling perfectly straight. “Lanh Xu, can I come in?” She said, in her perfectly pitched voice that even birds stopped singing to listen to. Lanh Xu could not refuse her sister, so she put down her book and beckoned her dear sister to come forward.
“Why do you want to see me dear child?” Lanh Xu asked in her deeper voice. She had the deepest voice amongst the girls in the village, but it was no deeper than a boy’s when fully grown. “Wouldn’t you rather be with your love?” Saying love was a bit of a stretch for her younger sister. She was too young in Lanh Xu’s eyes to be in love.
“I can’t when my sister is in bed still ill. Especially when it’s my fault.” Akiko sat on the edge of her older sister’s bed and grabbed her hand tenderly in her perfectly soft hands. “I didn’t mean to take him from you. I can’t help it. If only I was born ordinary, then I wouldn’t have so many problems.”
“Hush now, child. It isn’t your fault men are naturally attracted to beauty and tenderness.” Lanh Xu began running her fingers through Akiko’s hair and began braiding it. “Besides, someone of my looks is nothing but a hindrance on the family and people tend to not want to look at me. I wouldn’t want you to face that.”
Lanh Xu didn’t know that beyond the borders of their village, she was a beauty unbeheld by anyone. Their mother had drilled in their heads for years that Lanh Xu was the most ugly person alive. She was even made to wear a face covering when leaving their abode. At the moment, their mother’s voice could be heard through the house.
“I don’t care that she’s sick! If she is to be ugly, she needs to work. There is no place in the house for an ugly child. She needs to pay her way to stay here!” Miss Zhang ran into the room and shooed away her younger daughter. “Go with your man! I don’t want you to lose him like your hinderance of a sister did.” Akiko bowed respectfully and left.
“Mother, I am very unwell, but I should be fine in a day. If you will kindly wait.” Lanh Xu said to her mother pleading for understanding, but knowing she won’t get any. She too was shooed from her room and she had to follow out of the respect she had for her mother. The one thing Lanh Xu had that no other girl in the village had was the respect she showed.
The village had around ten abodes in it with the same families that had been settled there for centuries. Lanh Xu thought it to be a waste to stay in the same spot for the rest of her life. She wanted to explore, but didn’t have the means or courage to do so. She hoped one day something would change to let her travel as far as where she watches the sun set.
Going to her favorite spot to read, she did not expect to find a peculiar boy she had never seen before just outside the border of the village. “Where is this?” He asked her as she hid behind a tree to cover her face with the cloth she was forced to wear. “I am afraid I don’t know where I am anymore.”
“Why don’t you know that?” She walked up to him, but didn’t go past the border. “Every traveller who comes by here knows where this place is. It is infamous for the beautiful people who live here. As you can see, we had to create a clear border to stop people from crossing in.” She was puzzled he was the first traveller she had actually seen with her two eyes.
“I am a free-roaming traveller. I go where the winds direct me. They directed me here.” Lanh Xu’s heart raced, he was a true traveller like the ones she read about in her books. “Now, why are you covering your face? Are you embarrassed?” She touched the cloth to make sure it was still tight.
“I must cover my face. I am too ugly. People can’t stand to look at me.” She looked down and thought he would leave, but to her surprise, he didn’t. Instead, he asked something of her no one had ever asked her. “Can I see your face?” She drew back, but stopped herself before she took a full step.
“I have seen many faces and would be a good judge of whether your face is ugly or not. I don’t like others making that decision for me.” He smirked and stepped forward one step to regain the distance between them. “That is, if you will let me see. After all you just met me. Why would you grant a stranger’s request?”
“Why indeed.” Lanh Xu said, gripping the cloth between her forefinger and her thumb. But, as she was, she could not refuse a request from anyone. Even if she didn’t really know them well. She took it off in one smooth motion and let it drop to the ground. Expecting his smirk to go away, her cheeks turned rosy.
“I have never beheld such beauty in all my adventures.” He leaned forward. “Please, tell me fair maiden, what is your name? That I may tell of the story of the most beauty I have ever seen and tell them of the name of the lady?” Before she could tell him her mother’s call could be heard. She picked up her cloth and ran off.
Back in the village, Akiko was with the man who loved her more than the stars loved the night sky. He looked at her as if she was the only star he ever saw. He got on one knee and proposed with the prettiest ring Lanh Xu had ever seen. Lanh Xu ignored the aching in her heart and focused on the strange traveller she had seen.
“Lanh Xu!” Miss Zhang sang. “We need some music. Go fetch your sisters instrument so she can play a song for us! This is a truly joyous day!” No longer hurt by her mother’s cruel words towards her, she went and fetched her sisters instruments. Lanh Xu’s were more worn than her sister’s. She played more beautifully than anyone in the village.
But that didn’t matter. No one would listen. She was too ugly for anyone to want to be in her company longer than they had to. Akiko had some troubles getting the right tune for a few minutes, but after a quiet assistance from her sister, she began playing a song as beautiful as herself. The birds leaned in and even sat next to her to listen.
Lanh Xu went inside their home and read a book on travelling. While Akiko sang and danced with the village, her sister read to her heart’s content about foreign places and how to travel right. Their father broke from the crowd to check on his oldest daughter. He was the only one kind enough to pay attention to her.
“Sweet Lanh Xu, how are you doing?” Mister Zhang asked his beloved daughter. He never told anyone, but he preferred the company of his eldest than his other daughter. He loved her sensibleness. He never admitted it, but to him, she was more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. But he didn’t dare tell even Lanh Xu.
“Fine, thank you.” She responded respectfully. He wanted to tell her how he loved her the way she was and that she would one day find a guy who thought the same as he did about her. But, unfortunately, he couldn’t form the words fast enough. Her mother came into the room and pulled him back out.
Even when the night came, they partied. They never quieted in their festivities. Lanh Xu went to bed much earlier than the others. What she didn’t know was that while she lay asleep, the traveller awaited her return to the border. He laid there listening to the festivities going on and fell asleep under the stars, recalling the names of different constellations.
Lanh Xu was the first up the next day and she washed up in their tub, scrubbing off dirt that had been on her for a week. Due to the high elevation, there was a scarcity of water, so they could only bathe once a week. The whole family would share the water in the tub, so it was always the best to get to it first.
She tied up her long, black, wet hair into a ponytail to keep it out of her face while she cooked breakfast for her family. Akiko was the second awake and washed up as well. Lanh Xu hoped her mother got into the bath last, as the dirty water fitted her dirty personality. Her thoughts shocked her, she had never even thought poorly about anyone.
She focused on the breakfast and had Akiko set the table when she had finished cleaning herself. Lanh Xu couldn’t help but feel sad that her sister would soon be taken away from her, and by the very man who had once promised to marry Lanh Xu. Akiko hugged her and went on and on about the festivities of the previous night.
Lanh Xu thought them to be trivial and nothing else, so she only half listened. “Oh, and you must make my wedding dress, I insist!” Akiko said. Lanh Xu just smiled because she knew her mother wouldn’t allow her to touch anything having to do with her sister’s wedding. She wasn’t a bad seamstress, it was just that she was ugly, so she wasn’t allowed to do anything.
“I would be honored, but I simply can’t take you up on that offer. I have too much work to do. I need to make up for the time that I was gone.” Lanh Xu saw their Father get up to wash and mentally cheered that her mother would be the last. Mystified by her sudden hatred for her mother, she grabbed her book, announced she wasn’t hungry and left.
Going to her usual spot, she focused on other things except Miss Zhang. She stopped short when she noticed a strange man outside the town border again. Upon hearing her come, he turned around, his face showing nothing but the ease of a man with no worries. She blinked and it disappeared. She instantly recognized him as the traveller from the previous day.
“I never got your name, Fair Lady.” He said, almost as if that fact was disturbing to him. “I also never told you my name. Why don’t I first tell you my name, if that will make you more comfortable. I am Ling Jiang. I am a lonely traveller in search of a companion. Do you know of anyone who would be interested?”
Lanh Xu wanted to say that she was interested, but her cowardice held her back, and instead she said, “I am Lanh Xu Zhang.” Silently cursing her cowardice, she sat at the base of a tree. He did the same, but on the other side. He was handsome for a traveller, with his black, long hair that just barely kissed his shoulders, and his mysterious almost white eyes.
Ling was laid back and had a light air about him, but he also had a certain amount of wisdom in his eyes that showed from decades of experience. It made Lanh Xu doubt herself even more. After all, how could he have decades of experience when he only appeared to be as old as she was? She felt his gaze on her even when she wasn’t looking at him.
“What do you want?” Lanh Xu asked in an even tone, hiding her self-conscious side as well as she could. He smiled and leaned forward. “Come with me.” He said. “I do get quite lonely by myself, and I can see in your eyes that you crave the adventure.” He held out a hand and waited for her to take it.
“Lanh Xu!” Her mother yelled. “Lanh Xu! That dim-witted girl. Where could she have gone now.” By the time she reached Lanh Xu’s regular reading spot, Lanh Xu was gone. She had found her courage and started the adventure she had always craved. She never returned to the village and everyone forgot about her, even her beloved sister.