22: Old Friends
The charcoal from the dead fire covered Mingzhu’s features, disguising her true identity. It took a lot of coaxing to be able to enter the hunt, the guards at the gate unwilling to accept ‘the boy’. Without the material to hide her face, she would have to use the other exit she scouted earlier. Perched like a bird in a Katsura tree, she looked towards her escape. She needed to leave now to be home before curfew. But Joaolong needed protection. She couldn’t abandon him in a sickly state.
Twigs snapped below. Mingzhu scanned for threats and hid deeper into the leaf foliage. A lanky, young man struggled to carry a boar on his back. Blood covered its fur and a knife stuck out from its eye; it was the same one she killed. She smiled. Of course you still scavenge after me.
Years ago, when she followed Juan to the imperial city after the wedding announcement, she met Han Ying. Surviving in the imperial city alone proved challenging; people weren’t friendly and generous compared to the countryside. Many tried to steal from her or attempt an abduct. From this, she always caught in brawls. However, she didn’t have as much hassle as young children. Ying, who began transitioning from child to teen, often left the market poorer than before. He made money through story-telling. Mingzhu felt compelled to watch every day, as many other people did. It was remarkable watching him drum to create mood in his tales of gods and goddesses. However, scavengers and bandits always pestered him after the performances, noticing the popularity of his stall. This left him to scavenge the ground for dropped rings. Eventually, Mingzhu intervened.
The mere thirteen-year-old had ogled in awe when she stopped him being robbed again and again. Even her bruised and bloody face did not lessen his admiration. In return, he offered her a place to sleep and temporary family. He was the ideal brother; kind, protective and determined to provide. This straightforward and kind nature comforted Mingzhu, who struggled to trust anyone. Yet, the peace couldn't last. A few months later, Juan died and she ran away.
“Well, what do we have here?” Mingzhu clicked her tongue and quietly climbed down to a lower branch. The men jumped at her voice. “Hand over the boar!”
“Who are you?” Han Mengyao, the eldest brother, asked. He held a dagger in the air.
Mingzhu jumped off the branch and landed softly on the ground. The movement looked as graceful as a swan. One man squealed and another fell onto his backside, frightened by the surprise attack. It almost made Mingzhu laugh. Almost.
“Your worst nightmare.”
“Mingzhu!” Ying exclaimed with a wide grin. He looked just as she remembered; sweaty and thin. “You are too early. The sun is still in the east.”
“What happened to your nose?” Mingzhu asked. Dried blood coloured his top lip and nostrils. His nose bent slightly to one side. “You look like a misshapen root.”
“Ànshù looks worse.”
Mingzhu froze at the name.
“You fought with Liu Disung?” On closer inspection, all of the men were harmed. Either they were covered in dried blood, bruises or limped. Han Zhelan looked the worst; his arm hanged limp by his side and blood stained most of his tunic. A furious fire ignited in Mingzhu, her overprotective nature taking control. No one hurt Han Ying.
The next question came out in a growl. “Did Liu Disung attack all of you?”
“Of course not! Calm down. Bandits came after Master Wang Joaolong and we agreed to help fight,” explained Ying. “Mother always said to keep close ties with those in power.”
“So you fought alongside a stranger?”
“He needed our help so we assisted. Do not fret, he assured us we will be compensated for our efforts.”
Mingzhu sighed. No wonder she found Joaolong alone. “You can tell him to double that price for your injuries. Triple because you now have Wang Joaolong safe. He's in the cave near here."
“What can we do?” Ying asked, ignoring the protesting grunts from his brothers. They never liked Mingzhu, despite only meeting her once. Most of them were soldiers that rarely returned home. Mingzhu disliked the idea that they left their family for glory. Without Ying, their mother and sisters would’ve died or been sold as slaves.
“You can follow me.” Mingzhu hesitated and looked at Mengyao, who was the most unwilling to help her. “The rest of you can return to the main arena. A boar is worthy enough. Silver rings have been hidden under a loose tile on your roof. It is all I have. If we don’t win the hunt, you can at least have money and fresh meat for the next few days. We now stand on the ground as equals, without debts.”
Mingzhu directed Ying inside the cave, walking up to the narrow space between two boulders and slithering her way inside. Ying entered soon after, grumbling and groaning as he wedged himself between the rocks. He gasped at Joaolong’s blood-soaked bandages.
“Are the others following?” Mingzhu asked.
“No. I will carry Master Wang Joalong and Mengyao can carry the boar. My brothers are not enthused or energetic about exerting themselves further today.”
Mingzhu nodded as she moved Joaolong into an upright position. Ying watched her, like a scholar observing the scenery. It made Mingzhu self-conscious but she ignored the urge to scold him for staring. It had been over a year since they saw each other.
“You never told me you came back a while ago,” Ying whispered, woe in his voice. “Not one word.”
“I told no one,” Mingzhu replied softly.
“After a year of no contact, I thought you were dead. Everyone believed the lie and I almost did as well. It hurt, Mingzhu. I had no idea where you went or if I’d ever see you again. When you came back—” Ying choked and refused to continue speaking in fear of crying. He wanted to act strong, just like he did with his sisters. Mingzhu loved that about him.
Yet, she couldn’t explain why she left. Yinying Yueguang felt too cold and cruel after Juan died. Her whole world crumbled. How could she encourage Ying to push on when her own hope dwindled? And how did she explain that she only returned for closure and death? No matter how she tried to put these thoughts into words, it sounded pathetic.
Ying sighed. “Will you be here for a long time? Where are you living?”
“Is Han Minda still selectively mute?” Mingzhu asked instead, trying to redirect the conversation.
Ying nodded. For as long as Mingzhu could remember, the meekest brother never uttered a sound. He was a few years older than Ying but had the opposite personality. He acted like a ghost, never making himself known in a crowded room. Everyone was surprised he enlisted in the army as well.
“You lost your voice too. You sound like a man now,” Mingzhu said to fill the uncomfortable silence. Slowly, she stood and looked to the entrance. She could leave now. Joaolong would be safe with Ying and she could return back to the palace without arising suspicion. “I leave the nobleman in your care. I must depart.”
“Will I see you again?” Ying asked.
“If Wang Joaolong survives, you will.”
“Mingzhu, you are too cruel.” Ying snatched her wrist and impulsively pulled her into a hug. The embrace said what he couldn't: I missed you. “Why her? Why can’t it be you? You ask me to free a maid I have no attachment to. What makes her so special that you deem her worthy to be saved?”
"She is beautiful. You will live a happy life."
“What makes me so special then?” Mingzhu replied venomously, hating herself for the crack in her voice.
The plan was simple: win Meifan’s freedom by arranging marriage between her and a Ying family member, which would be paid for by the emperor. The Han family name would continue and the family could sell the wedding gifts. Most people would not complain – for Meifan was a famous beauty, often called the untouched pearl – except for Ying. He fought against it, suggesting different requests. All involved Mingzhu. She hated it; if she remained with him, he would be tainted. Just like everyone else before him.
“I am an orphan with no money or honour to my name. I am fortunate to be accepted as a maid, let alone anything else. Do not think I am special.”
“You are a maid…” Ying repeated and Mingzhu cursed at her accidental confession.
“I am of no worth. Let go and do as I ask. Please,” Mingzhu begged and walked out of his loosening grip.
Ying’s whisper echoed on the stone walls as she left the cave. “If only you could see your own worth. No one deserves to stand beside someone as selfless as you."
Mingzhu forced herself not to look back. Just like ten years ago.
Juan and Mingzhu ran through the forest. Screams echoed behind them. Mingzhu heard her heart beat madly in her ears. She wasn't sure if the fear or adrenaline made her shake. In the distance, she heard her father.
“This is all your fault!”
Mingzhu still believed him.