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Chapter 3: Strangers
"Focus, Mei Li!"
Mei Li stopped moving and bent over, her hands resting on her knees. Her breath was ragged and sweat trickled down her face. She wiped it away and let out a groan of frustration. She was so worked up! Nothing went the way it was supposed to go today! Even her basics were sloppy! You gotta get your act together! She told herself.
She met Master Jin Huo's gaze as he stared down at her, a frown present on his face. His posture, as always, was rigid and stern and his hands were folded behind his back. After a few moments of silence, he nodded.
Mei Li straightened and got back in the appropriate battle stance. After she drew out a deep breath, she performed the fire bending form again. She tried to push everything else from her mind and said each part of the form 'aloud' in her head as she moved along. Right foot forward. Punch. Roundhouse kick and duck. Focus on your energy, she told herself while executing the form, feel it move through your body, to your limbs, out your hands. Low sweep. Step. Stretch arms. High-kick and step. Whoa! Mei Li's feet landed in a weird position and she was barely able to keep herself from falling over. She restored her balance just in time and scolded herself. How could that have happened? That wasn't even a difficult move! She sighed and collected herself. She needed to focus. Flip. Butterfly kick and crouch. The end.
She sighed. Although she wasn't proud of her performance, she hoped that Jin Huo would find her form adequate and move on with the lesson. She was not doing well at all today and wanted nothing more than to wash up and be left alone. She was determined to do better next time though. She couldn't let all these worries over marriage and stuff get in the way of her fire bending. She would have to-
A swoosh behind her made her turn her head; just in time to come face to face with a fire ball. She flung herself aside and jumped to deflect the flames with her own fire bending. She landed and faced her master with wide eyes. Her breathing was shallow and sweat was trickling down her face from the heat of the fire.
What was he doing? Why had he done that in the first place? What was wrong with him? Who did he think he was, just going around and attacking his pupil without warning! Mei frowned at him. The older man, however, just looked at her with a stern look on his face.
"Never ever keep your back to your opponent for longer than necessary." He said coldly. Mei's frown disappeared and was replaced by a look of shame. She shook her head at her stupidity and sat down on the ground. She grumbled under her breath. Why hadn't she thought of that?! In any other situation she probably would have stayed angry at her teacher for attacking her, but Jin Huo was right... It had been stupid of her to turn her back to him for that long. In real combat, she would have been killed.
"You performed better than last time, though." Despite her foolish actions, at least he gave her some credit! Mei Li chuckled bitterly.
"However, I can tell that something is occupying your mind, Mei Li, and it's throwing you out of balance. You're much better than you're showing me today. We both know that. You have more than once bested me whilst sparring. What is it that troubles you this much?" Jin Huo spoke as he walked over to Mei Li. He stopped before her and met her eye, a genuinely worried expression on his face. The stern façade that he wore as a teacher was gone and was replaced with something that she recognized as 'the worried mentor'.
Mei Li sighed and shook her head.
"It's just... things..." She waved it away, but Jin Huo wasn't one to give up. He had always been able to see right through her
"Tell me about it. It might help you." Mei Li sighed and stood up. She walked away from him while shaking her head vigorously.
"I don't want to talk about it, Sir." She said. All you'll probably say is "I told you so". She added in mind. She and Jin Huo had had an argument about this not too long ago.
Just like Anaaya, he had been talking about the bachelors in town. Mei Li had made it clear that she was not interested. At which Jin Huo had seemed quite surprised and he had asked her to reconsider. A girl her age and class should already have been seeking a husband and, surely, her father would soon come with his own propositions. Mei Li had argued him at that: she was sure that her father would allow her to marry whom and when she saw fit! How wrong she had been!
And how foolish she would look if he knew what her father had written to her!
Jin Huo put a hand on her shoulder and stopped her.
"It's not always what we want that is best for us and those around us." He said knowingly. Mei turned to him, but kept her eyes cast to the ground. She played with the hem of her sparring tunic.
"You know, don't you?" She mumbled, her voice small like that of a child.
"I had my presumptions." He admitted. "Few girls your age and class are not going through the same right now." Mei Li dared to meet his gaze and he smiled at her sadly. A few moments of silence passed.
"What should I do? I really don't want to become someone's wife yet..." She mumbled. Jin Huo shook his head in response.
"I understand, but I can't tell you what to do." He shot her a gleeful smile, in an attempt to cheer her up.
"Just wait it out. One of those bachelors might actually turn out to be your prince charming!" Mei Li huffed and crossed her arms. Not a chance! Jin Huo sensed her scepticism and chuckled.
"Weirder things have happened, Mei Li! You've got to give it a chance." Mei Li sighed. He was right... again...
Anaaya hummed as she moved through the chamber, broom in hand. As a lady's maid, it was her job to clean the Lady's room and make it presentable. Every day, when Mei Li left for lessons early in the morning, Ana took advantage of her absence and cleaned her rooms.
She had just cleared all the laundry and had put the clean clothes back in the wardrobe. She was now dusting every piece of furniture and every knick-knack that she saw. She was always extra careful with Mei Li's souvenirs. Mei's father and some of her other family members would often send her gifts from all over the world. All of those gifts, from the small painted vase to the Ember Island fans and from the ivory komodo rhino to the hand-carved puppets, meant a lot to Mei, knew Anaaya.
She picked up the komodo rhino and brushed the smooth, white surface with her thumb. It was cool to the touch. Ana inspected the details on the little sculpture. The sharp horns, the menacing eyes, the rhino even had a decorated saddle and if Ana looked very closely, she could make out the flower pattern on it. What exquisite craftsmanship! Anaaya gently placed the rhino back, afraid that she might drop it and moved on.
Suddenly, Mei Li barged into the room. Anaaya was startled and accidentally dropped the duster. Good thing that she had just put the rhino back in its place!
"Lady Mei Li!" She exclaimed. "I wasn't expecting you to be back so soon." She curtsied, picked up her things and scurried towards the door.
"Oh, I'll be gone in a second, Anaaya. No need to leave." Mei Li sent a small smile at her lady's maid. "Just... Stay." She bit her bottom lip. "Please?..."
Ana nodded and stood at the side of the bed awkwardly as Mei Li moved over to the water basin to freshen up. Anaaya rocked back and forth on her feet. She felt incredibly uncomfortable in this situation. Normally, she would have left the room. It was uncommon for a maid to be in the same room as her mistress if there was no direct purpose for it.
"Do you know where we left my robe yesterday, Anaaya?" Mei Li asked. She moved a few objects in order to find it, but was unsuccessful.
"I left your clothes on the stool behind the folding screen, my lady." Anaaya answered. Mei Li looked up and nodded.
"Aah yeah, I remember now." She moved behind the screen and Ana walked over to help her.
"Oh it's okay, Anaaya, I can manage to dress myself on my own." Mei declined her help, though, and Ana walked back to her previous spot, feeling even more awkward than before. Mei pulled her top over her head and flung it over the screen.
"Soooo.... How was training, my lady? You returned early." Anaaya asked, in an attempt to fill the silence. Mei Li froze and a moment of silence passed before she answered.
"Actually... I-it was disaster." She said bitterly. "I couldn't do a single thing right." Ana frowned. Mei Li was a fire bending prodigy to her judgment. Not that she was an expert at fire bending, but from what she had seen, Mei Li was more than decent. Hearing that her lesson was a failure was... surprising.
"Oh... I'm so sorry to hear that. Is that... Is that why you came back earlier than usual?"
"Yeah... I figured that it would be fruitless to keep on trying and that it would be better to try again later... After I've cleared my head." Mei Li bent over to take off her shoes and flung them to the side.
Anaaya nodded in response, although Mei Li couldn't quite see her. "I think, if I may say so, that that was a smart thing to do, my lady." Anaaya said. Mei groaned and shimmied out of her pants.
"It's just so frustrating, though." She flung her pants over the screen too. "This whole situation, I mean."
"Your fire bending?" asked Anaaya. Mei Li shook her head.
"No, no... Or... Yeah well, that too, but I actually meant the whole situation with my father. It's so frustrating, you know, because I just can't see a way out of it yet and I'm sure that it's affecting my fire bending." She answered. Anaaya frowned. Mei Li was either jabbering or she had some important news Ana knew nothing about yet.
"I beg your pardon, my lady, but I don't think that I was informed of said situation."
"Oh... H-haven't I told you? My father wants me to marry." Mei Li spat the words out with disgust, like they were poison to her.
"Oh..." Ana looked at the floor in a loss of words. She had not forgotten Mei Li's abhorrence to marriage.
"Well.... That is actually wonderful news... I mean... Your parents must be happy a-and I'm sure that your future in-laws will be blessed with a daughter like you. A-and...." Ana sighed. "Well, look at it this way, my lady... At least now you know what is expected of you. Many girls would gladly switch places with you! It's really a shame that you are..." Ana hesitated to finish her sentence.
"Unwilling to marry?" Mei Li finished for her, a bitter tone present in her voice.
"Erhm..." Anaaya hesitated. She searched for other words, but couldn't find any. "Uhm... Yes... To be honest, my lady, I think that you are quite lucky... And I understand were you are coming from, I really do, but... It could've been worse, right? Maybe it won't even be so bad?" Ana continued in an attempt to cheer her mistress up.
The door cracked open. Anaaya turned towards the sound to see a head appear in the door opening. Radu. He opened his mouth to speak.
Anaaya's eyes widened and she gestured at him to go away. She pointed towards Mei Li's shadow behind the screen.
"Is someone there, Anaaya?" Mei Li asked from behind the screen. Radu's eyes widened in realization and he quickly disappeared.
"Uhm... N-no... It...erhm... It was just the wind." Ana said and moved over to the door to close it. "There. Now it's closed again." She answered awkwardly."Ooh... Okay, I swear I heard footsteps, though." Mei slid into the robe and stepped into her slippers.
"Must have been some servant in the hallway." Anaaya lied. Mei stepped out from behind the screen and ran her fingers through her hair.
"I'm going downstairs now." She said. "Mrs. Ming should be here around noon for my etiquette lessons. Hopefully that'll keep my mind off of... things."
Ana nodded curtly. After a few moments of silence, she looked Mei Li in the eye and smiled sympathetically.
"It'll turn out fine, my lady. Most of the generals have sons that are quite appealing to the eye." She said and smiled girlishly. Mei Li gaped at her lady's maid's boldness and blushed.
"Ana! That's just... I'm not going to marry someone just because he looks good!" She yelled.
"You can't deny it, my lady." Ana replied. "Though it shouldn't be all about looks, looks do matter... And concerning looks, you certainly could have done worse... Much worse." She knew that she was taking huge liberties by talking to her mistress like this, but Mei Li seemed too shocked to mind right now.
"That may be,..." Mei Li admitted. "but I just want to marry whom I want to marry. I know that I've probably told you that before and I realize that it could've been much worse, but I don't want my choices narrowed down beforehand! It just feels like I'm not getting a fair chance..." Mei Li sighed and bit her bottom lip, pondering over what she just said.
"I see what you mean, my lady, but few have that liberty." Anaaya said. Her girlish demeanour was replaced by a grim seriousness and she stared at the ground.
"Even I, whom you seem to think of as free, can't choose whomever I want to marry. I can't just marry anyone. Imagine me, a servant, marrying a nobleman or even a captain." Ana huffed at the ridiculousness.
"Even the Fire Nation's own princess does not have that liberty. Few in the Fire Nation will approve of Princess Azula marrying a hobo, whether she loves him or not. And, I imagine, her father, our great Fire Lord, certainly wouldn't." She paused and took a deep breath.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is: no matter who you are and where you come from, love is never easy."
She glanced up for a moment, but cast her eyes back down when she noticed that Mei Li was looking at her. She felt Mei Li put a hand on her arm.
"Thank you." She said softly and squeezed her arm lightly. With that she exited the room and Anaaya was left standing there, mulling over her own words.
Ana carried the basket across the small patio to the washing lines. This was the last chore she had to do today. Hua had arranged it so that she had the rest of the day off and Ana had decided to work on a little project of hers. Hua's birthday was coming up and Ana had decided to gift her an embroidered shawl. She had been working on it in secret for a few weeks now and she was finally getting somewhere. A yellow dragon and small yellow flames would decorate the shawl once she was finished. Or at least... That was her intention... She wasn't a star at embroidering, so she wasn't sure if she would be able to pull it off.
Ana dropped the basket once she got to the lines and pinned garment after garment to the line. She hummed a Water Tribe lullaby her mother used to sing to her and worked on idly.
"Hiya!" A figure burst out from behind the clothes on the line and Ana jumped in terror.
Radu broke into a fit of laughter at her reaction. Ana pouted and crossed her arms angrily.
"THAT WASN'T FUNNY, RADU!" She scolded. Radu grinned at her widely.
"But Annie, you should've seen your face!" He exclaimed and nearly burst into another fit of laughter. Ana just shook her head and carried the basket to the other end of the washing lines.
Radu followed her to the next clothing line. Ana ignored him and carried on with her job.
Radu disappeared behind the line of clothes and occasionally popped his head out while talking to her.
"Hehe that situation this morning with Lady Mei Li was quite awkward... Sorry 'bout that."
"It turned out fine, but you shouldn't enter the private quarters anyway, Radu. You know that all too well."
"But they're never there that time of the day anyway!"
"Well, Mei Li was now, wasn't she?"
Radu rolled his eyes.
"Yeah yeah... you're right... Are you sure she didn't notice anything?"
Anaaya shook her head.
"Positive. I told her the wind blew the door open."
Radu smiled. "Neat."
A few moments of silence passed as Anaaya worked on and Radu slipped between the pieces of clothing, probably pretending to be navigating through a jungle.
"You know, I didn't just come here to annoy you." He said suddenly. Ana rolled her eyes in response.
"Oh really?" She said sarcastically. Radu poked his head out.
"Nope, girlie. I came her to tell you something very important."
Ana chuckled. "And what might that be?"
"Well... Remember how you were mending all those clothes last week and I came in? And then we went to the stables to see Rajesh and then Ping came along and then we sat down beneath that tree. Do you remember? The big one near the stables, with the great climbing branches, the one we used to play beneath when we were... Oh wait, of course, you didn't live here then... Well... Never mind, anyway-" Anaaya interrupted Radu's rambles.
"Just get to the point already, Radu."
"Okay, okay." He released a deep breath. "Remember how you told me that you had never ridden an animal before?" He said, now calm.
"Well... Guess what?" Radu said, a wide grin on his face. Anaaya frowned at him. She knew that look on his face all too well and didn't like it one bit...
"I'm going to teach you how to ride an ostrich-horse!" Radu exclaimed. An ecstatic grin adorned his face. Ana looked at him with a frown.
"Isn't that exciting?" He continued. When he noticed the look on her face, his smile faltered and his enthusiasm faded. "Oh... You're not excited..." He said gloomily.
Anaaya shook her head. "No way that I'm getting on one of those things!"
"Aah come on!" Radu begged. "It'll be fun and you'll learn something new! I thought you liked to learn new stuff!"
"Well, then that's just something I don't wish to learn." Anaaya replied stubbornly and crossed her arms over her chest.
"I feel no desire to sit on some animals back and torture it into doing as I will. Besides there's no need for me to learn how to ride, anyway." Radu grinned. He knew how to play his friend.
"Tsk..." He huffed and crossed his arms. "You're just afraid! Afraid of a stupid animal!"
"I am not!" Anaaya retorted. "I just don't think it's appropriate for me-"
"Oh yes you are!" Radu got behind her and ruffled her hair. "Afraid you'll fall of its back?"
Ana scowled and smoothened down her hair.
"Of course not! It's just that I'm not interested in learning how to ride and besides... I've got loads of work to do." The latter was a lie... but Radu didn't need to know that.
Radu just smirked.
"I get it. A girlie girl like you... I don't know why I was expecting anything else."
"I am not a girlie girl!" Ana replied through gritted teeth.
"Then prove it to me! Prove it; by riding that ostrich-horse!" He paused and looked her in the eye. "Make it a race. Race me on an ostrich-horse. Or are you afraid to lose too, girlie girl?" Radu asked tauntingly, a smug smirk on his face. Ana narrowed her eyes at him.
"Will you shut up and let me do my job if I give it a try?" She replied and extended her hand to him.
He grabbed her hand and shook it.
"Then it's a deal!"
"It is customary for the hostess to serve tea at certain occasions. As you know, there is a tea ceremony that a woman like you should be able to perform." Ming picked up the small tea pot and poured tea into the two cups before her. Despite her age, her old hands moved gracefully and accurately.
"One should always serve everyone present in the room in order of status, age and gender. The oldest highest ranking man in the room receives the tea first, lastly the youngest lowest ranking woman in the room receives her tea." Ming handed Mei Li the cup, who took it with both hands and stared into the dark swirling liquid.
"If two people with the same rank are present, the eldest of the two should receive the tea first. When you're not sure of someone's status, just serve them in order of age."
Mei Li frowned. "Soooo... What if I don't know their status nor their age?"
Ming smiled at her. The smile enhanced the crow's feet in the corners of her eyes. "Well my young Mei Li, spirits forbid you ever find yourself in that position." Ming wagged her finger at the girl in front of her. "As a wife and daughter it is your duty to know your guests or at least know about them."
"But... that's... that's ridiculous! I can't know those things about everyone!" Mei retorted.
"Of course not! Don't worry my dear," Ming took her hand and patted on it. "surely you'll never have the whole town over for tea!... Though maybe you will..." Ming wondered out loud. Mei shot her a startled look and waited for her to explain herself further...but she didn't.
"Trust me, you'll be fine if you just remember the status, function and age of nobility and all military officials." Ming smiled widely at Mei, who just stared at her teacher, dumbfounded.
"Just?! Ming, the Fire Nation has thousands of military officials and noblemen! How can anyone expect from someone to know them all?" Mei exclaimed incredulously.
"Don't worry dear, we'll take it step by step." Ming reassured her. "Even I don't know absolutely everyone I'm supposed to know and I have over 50 years of experience!" She winked at her.
Mei Li sighed. "Now that's a relief!" She said sarcastically. Ming ignored her comment and continued with her lesson.
"Let's give it a try. This one shouldn't be too difficult: you're serving tea to the Royal Family. The Fire Lord, his two children and General Iroh, the Dragon of the West, are sitting in front of you-"
Mei Li giggled and Ming raised an eyebrow at her.
"I just find it hard to imagine those four even being in the same room together, let alone having tea! I mean, I don't know if you've noticed, but Ozai and Zuko are not exactly on good terms right now."
Ming sighed in aggravation and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Must you get political, Mei Li?" she said. "You should learn not to mention any political issues when in company of guests! I've told you this before. It is simply uncalled for. A lady must entertain her guests and should make small talk, not debate political or military matters. On top of that, it is preferable to call them Fire Lord Ozai and Prince Zuko !"
Mei Li frowned. "I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure that the Fire Lord deprived his son of the right to the throne... So he isn't really a prince any-"
"I'm just trying to teach you something, Mei Li!" Ming interrupted. "You must be respectful to those above you and you must never drop someone's title unless you are asked to do so. If you don't do so, you might get in big trouble later! Whether Prince Zuko is factually still a prince or not doesn't matter."
Mei Li nodded silently.
"I'm sorry, miss. You are right."
She had to agree with that. Not everyone was happy with the actions Ozai took against his own son. Therefore many still considered Zuko a prince, though officially, he wasn't anymore. And she was well aware that she should never call the Fire Lord by just his first name out of respect. He had lost her respect a long time ago, though. Even though Mei did admire him for some things, like his ability to keep the war going and keep his subjects loyal(or at least loyal enough to avoid any major problems), she loathed him for his cruelty. In contrast to most Fire Nation citizens, Mei knew the harshness and reality of the war through her father's military reports. He had forbidden her to read them, but that hadn't stopped her from secretly taking a peek anyway.
A knock on the door made Ming get to her feet. She slowly, but dutifully, made her way to the door and opened it.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, Ming, but Mrs. Jeung wishes to speak with Mei Li for a moment." Yu said apologetically and shifted his gaze to Mei.
"Your mother is waiting for you in the sitting room and has asked for you to join her, Mei Li."
Mei was surprised.
"Mother is home already? I thought she would stay away till at least Friday?"
"She returned early." He responded, not elaborating on the subject. "Now, come, you don't want to keep her waiting. She has a long tiring trip behind her, but wanted to speak to you before she took a rest."
"Oh... It must be important then..."
"I suppose it is."
Mei Li stood up and excused herself to Ming. She followed Yu into the hall.
"Do you know what she wants to talk about?" Mei Li asked nervously. She and her mother weren't exactly close, so it was quite alarming for her mother to summon her like this.
"I have no idea, my lady, but she was incredibly delighted when she came home, so it must be good news." Yu reassured her.
Mei hoped that he was right. She could use some good news, though lately 'good news' seemed to mean something else to her than it did to those around her.
After knocking on the door, she was let in by one of the maids and stood in front of the couch her mother was sitting on.
"Oh Mei Li, my dear! There you are!" her mother squealed. "Come, take a seat." She patted on the cushions next to her. Mei Li, however, didn't budge. Her mother was acting weird.
"What is it that you needed to speak me about, mother?" Mei asked harshly. Her mother's smile faltered for only a brief moment.
"Why are you home anyway? I thought you were going to stay with Uncle for a couple of days?" she continued.
"Yes, that was my intention, but your aunt didn't feel well yesterday, so I ordered for my luggage to be packed again and left. She needs lots of rest, something she won't get when I'm there." her mother giggled, inspected her long fingernails, then shifted her gaze to Mei. "Besides I absolutely couldn't wait to share the wonderful news with you!"
Mei frowned. "What wonderful news?"
"Well, while I was there, I met the most wonderful young man, Mei Li! Such a charming, not to mention handsome, young man! I'm sure you'll like him too once you meet him!" she said and smiled at Mei widely. Mei's heart skipped a beat in terror, she had a vague idea where this was going.
"Once I meet him?" Mei raised an eyebrow.
"Yes! Of course! I invited him and his parents over for dinner!" her mother responded gleefully. "Oh, I told him so much about you, Mei Li! He's been looking for a wife and really liked what I told him about you! He said that he simply couldn't wait to get to know you better."
"Well, I can wait!" Mei spat and crossed her arms. Her mother glared at her.
"Mei! Show some respect! I didn't go through all this trouble for you to be yelled at! You'd better appreciate it!"
"Well, there isn't much to be appreciated, is there? I don't want to marry yet, mother!"
"Too bad for you, Mei Li, but you're not going to have much of a choice! I never said that you have to marry this man, but you've got to hurry; at least start searching! For spirits sake, you're sixteen already!"
"So?! I had you at seventeen! Your father and I had married the year before and we had been betrothed since my 14th birthday. I didn't get to endlessly wait for Prince Charming either!"
"Oh so that's what this is about?" Mei retorted. "You never had a choice, so you're not letting me have a choice either?" Was it just her or was the room getting hotter?
Her mother sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Of course not. I can't help it that women in this society marry young, Mei Li. It's just one of those things that is the way it is." She sounded tired, like she was explaining Mei how to open the door for the 1000th time and she still didn't get it. "Your father and I have agreed that we can wait no longer. So start acting mature and stop avoiding your responsibilities."
"I'm not avoiding my responsibilities!" Mei argued. "I'm avoiding living the rest of my life unhappy."
"Being in an arranged marriage has nothing to do with happiness. My marriage was an arranged one and aren't I happy?" her mother shot back.
"Are you really, mom?" Mei Li sneered. "Are you really?"
She turned around and walked out the door.
"I can't believe I really thought that you were going to let me design my own life."
"Okay, do you feel like you're steady in the saddle?"
Ana looked at her hands in which she held the reins awkwardly. Radu had helped her up and was now on his own ostrich horse next to her.
"Uhm... I-uh... guess so... As steady as I'll ever be."
"Okay then. Now, you wanna adjust the stirrups, otherwise your feet aren't in the right position and you can't give the ostrich horse any orders." Radu said. Ana sent him a blank look.
Radu moved his ostrich horse closer to hers and reached for the straps with the triangles on the end-which apparently were the stirrups. He shortened the straps, then went over to the other side and did the same.
"Here, put your feet in them." He observed as she did exactly what he said. He looked her in the eye. "Are you ready?"
Ana took a deep breath and nodded.
"Okay. Squeeze its sides slightly with both of your legs." Radu said. "Like this." He squeezed his legs and the ostrich horse started walking. Ana copied his movements, but the animal didn't move. She tried again, but the animal still didn't comply.
"Come on! Walk, you stupid animal!"
"Come on, Ana, it's not that difficult. Just squeeze a bit harder."
Ana dug her heels into the ostrich horse's sides, harder than before this time. To her amazement, the ostrich horse started walking.
"Spirits, Radu! I did it!"
Radu smiled at her. "There you go! I told you it wasn't difficult!" As the ostrich horses paced along, Radu explained Anaaya how to halt the animal again. They tried it a few times and to Ana's surprise it actually worked. Maybe I'm not as bad at this as I thought!All of the sudden a pygmy puma jumped out of the bushes and crossed the path. The ostrich horse screeched loudly and, without warning, sped off.
"Oh spirits! Whaaaaa, Radu! Heeelp!" Ana screamed as she clung onto the animal for her dear life. She moved to and fro on the animal's back, barely able to stay on its back, as it ran along the path.
Radu quickly got into action. He urged his ostrich horse to go faster and manoeuvred it next to her.
"Just stay calm, okay?"
"I'm trying!" Ana gripped onto the reins tightly, making sure not to pull on them. She didn't know much about riding an ostrich horse, but was afraid of what the animal might do if she pulled at the reins.
"Try to maintain your balance." Radu advised her. Anaaya gritted her teeth. Yeah, easy for you to say! she thought. Ana still felt incredibly uncomfortable on the animal. To her it felt like she was balancing on a rope, instead of sitting on an animal's back. Not that she was doing much sitting right now anyway... It was more bouncing actually... She tried with all her might not to fall off the devilish creature, but it was to no avail.
Before she knew what happened, she plummeted to the ground and, with a loud thud, hit the sand. She put a hand to her forehead and, since she was feeling quite dizzy, sat up slowly. Her body was sore where it hit the ground.
"Ouch, are you okay?" Radu asked. He dismounted and sat down next to her, worry etched on his face. Anaaya nodded.
"I'm okay. Just some bruises." She felt his eyes on her as he examined her closely to make sure that she had no injuries. When he had assured himself that she was fine, he got up and offered her his hand. She accepted it gladly and got back to her feet. With the burden of its rider gone, the ostrich horse seemed to have come to its senses. Anaaya could see it standing some distance away. She looked at it for a moment and wondered why she had ever climbed on it in the first place.
"You weren't even half that bad, you know?" Radu said. "Wanna try it again sometime?"
"Nah... I've had enough. For now, at least." She shot him a grin and held her arms out. "I've got bruises to spare."
Radu grinned back at her and shrugged. "Fair enough."
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