Outside, in the bright sunlight, Xia Ying leaned against a wall marked with grime and unidentifiable stains, shivering.
She could no longer stand a minute longer in that sorrowful atmosphere. The sudden, strange grief that tore at her heart was unfathomable. The only thing she could was to flee the scene, putting as much distance possible between her and those consuming feelings- eating her alive from the inside out.
Looking back, she was not sure exactly what had triggered that flurry of emotion, only that it had already been sown deep within her, forgotten and neglected.
Eager to leave the odd happenings and emotions far behind her, Xia Ying started on her way to reunite with her handmaid with a burdened heart.
A peculiar sense of disappointment clutched Yong Qi firmly in its grasp. He had been keen to match a face to the voice that managed to wash ashore the stubborn ghosts of his past. It had seemed so soothingly familiar, so much like the voice that haunted his every waking moment.
Suddenly, he found his appetite, both for the food before him and the human company that surrounded him, lost to him. He could no longer sit there and stomach all this without his beloved by his side.
He pushed away from the table, rejecting it all, as he said quietly, "对不起，皇阿玛，老佛爷，恕永琪不能和你们共度这餐. 请你们慢慢享受吧. /I'm sorry Huang Ah Ma, Lao Fou Ye, I don't think I can join you for this meal. Please enjoy the food without me."
As if chased by demons, Yong Qi fled the room, not even pausing to hear their replies.
Having been occupied by Qian Long's worrying interest in the songstress, both Zi Wei and Er Kang had both forgotten about Yong Qi's presence at the table. Zi Wei's gaze followed his rapidly vanishing form apprehensively, shrouded heavily as it was in the shadows of despair and felt a pang of sympathetic grief echoing in her own heart. She understood better than anyone else how the songstress's mournful song could have picked at so many a raw and festering wounds. Xiao Yan Zi had always loved hearing her play the zither, fluttering around her excitedly and joining in with her strong, melodious voice.
For a brief moment, a faint grin tugged at her lips at that image, before surrendering to the gravity of her sinking heart as she was dragged back to the present by a light pressure on her hand. Er Kang's concerned gaze sought her own as he grasped her hand in his, an unspoken question hanging between them. Zi Wei summoned a shaky smile then nodded in the direction Yong Qi had disappeared, encouraging him to give in to his obvious desire to check up on his desolate friend. Throwing one last troubled glance at his wife, Er Kang stood and excused himself from the table, quickly vanishing from sight with his even, broad strides. Turning her attention back to the table, Zi Wei could clearly see the dismay and apprehension clinging to the crevices of both Qian Long and Lao Fu Ye's aged countenances.
"That… That Yong Qi! What am I supposed to do with him?/ 这! 这… 永琪啊.. 咳… 真不知道该拿他怎么办呀!" Qian Long sputtered, both disappointment and anger floating in the undercurrent of worry in his wavering voice.
The fine lines carved into his weary mask suddenly seemed tenfold as a cloud washed over his bright twinkling eyes. A heavy sigh came forth, unbidden, from thickset lips that had seen more frowns than smiles in the recent years.
Zi Wei's heart sank. Her father seemed so much older all at once, having endured the toll of constant worry over his son, granddaughter and the entire country. Even after five excruciatingly long years, the shadow of Xiao Yan Zi's death still clung heavily to them all.
"Let's just dig in,/ 大家吃吧," Qian Long beckoned when he finally lifted his head, leaden with troubles, gaze flitting from face to face that sat around the table.
Abruptly, his thick brows tangled into a knot as his wandering eyes paused at a puzzlingly empty spot.
"Where's Qiu Xin?/ 秋心在那儿呢?"
A cherubic face poked out from behind the alley wall. Carefully, its adorning large, curious chestnut orbs scrutinized his surroundings, looking this way and that for some unknown trap. When he finally deemed it safe, a soft sigh of relief escaped his tiny pink lips, which was chased by a peal of light, tinkling giggles. The rest of his small frame that joined his equally diminutive countenance was quickly set to work, pattering down the alleyway to the bustling streets of the marketplace.
"Now that will show Jie Jie not to leave me behind while she goes out to have fun! I bet she's in for a big surprise when she catches sight of me!／姐姐想把我扔在家里，一个人出去玩? 哈！没那么容易! 她一会儿见着我可不大吃一惊! " he gleefully exclaimed to himself as he excitedly pushed his way through the crowd, sticking his head here and there.
The multitude of colors, voices and people here never failed to amaze him. His huge, round eyes greedily feasted on the sights surrounding him, shining with excitement.
"Ahh, I wonder if I'll have the luck to witness an acrobat or two performing today… /啊，不知道我今天可有运气碰上杂技团在表演呢?" the young boy mused to himself as he leisurely took in the rowdy scene.
An abrupt flash of brown caught his eye, sending his little heart thrumming with anticipation.
He reached out a chubby hand and latched onto an equally small but considerably frailer hand with surprisingly strength, eyes alit.
"Xiao Hei! Where are you rushing to? Is there a new acrobats troupe in town? /小黑! 你赶着去哪儿呢? 是不是杂技团又来了啊?" he pressed the little beggar zealously, words flying off his tongue.
"Oh! It's you, Xiao Jie! Haven't you heard? There's a new group of rich merchants in town and everyone's gathering to see if they're generous enough to spare us some food or money!/ 哦! 原来是你呀，小洁! 你没听说吗? 最近来了好几个富商，所以大家都想去碰碰运气，希望他们会施舍点食物或钱啊!" Xiao Hei exclaimed, clearly eager to join the crowd too.
A hint of a shadow soured his jubilant little visage at the harsh awakening to reality. That's right, harvest has been sparse in the recent years. Many have been reduced homeless as a result of these hard times.
"Are Li Jing, Rui Er and the rest there as well?/ 李靖，瑞儿他们也都去了吗?"
His grime smeared face bobbed up and down impatiently as he added, "Of course! I would've been there earlier too if Mum hadn't needed me to take care of the little ones. / 那还用说! 要不是娘叫我留着照顾弟妹，我也早就跟过去了!"
"Then what are we dwindling here for? Let's go!/ 那我们还在这里罗嗦什么？快走吧!"
"Hee hee hee…/嘻嘻嘻…"
A mischievous giggle bubbled forth from an equally impish young girl as she cast a last few furtive looks left and right. Triumph, however, was already greatly upon her for having evaded her keepers successfully.
Convinced that she had made her grand escape unnoticed, she at once started sauntering down the near forsaken corridor. She did not know exactly what was so special or entrancing about that lady's singing that had everyone captivated but if there was one thing she did know was a chance of getaway if she ever saw one. And she pounce on it she had.
Another exultant laugh burst from her as she recalled her victory. Now, she had the afternoon to herself for a bout of exploring. After all, the chances of her seeing the world beyond the forbidding palace were few and far between and see her fill she was now determined to do.
Now, to find someone to show her the way out to bustling streets waiting for her discover…
She caught a glimpse of a male boot disappearing around the corner and immediately jumped into the chase. Qiu Xin found herself having to pump her short, chubby legs faster and faster to match the lanky man's long strides.
Panting hard, she could not help but whine, "My god, why is he in such a hurry? /天啊，他这是赶着去投胎吗?"
Finally, he stopped before a room and Qiu Xin perked up at her chance to catch the elusive man at last, putting forth a final burst of speed. She refused to give up when the end was finally in sight!
Just when her hand was inches away from her goal, the man suddenly slipped into the room. Qiu Xin's first instinct was to rush head along into the room as well, but something stopped her just short of barging in. Peeking in through the gap between the doors instead, she caught sight of her father, sitting at the table in absolute silence, with a heavy cloud hanging over his head. The man stood just in front of Yong Qi, his back towards the peeping Qiu Xin. She gasped with both shock and relief.
Thank god she had not approached the man yet, whom she now recognized as her uncle, the princess consort, Er Kang. She would've been in for a big lecture! Qiu Xin was about to make a move to quietly slip away before awareness descended upon the two men, but she felt herself being drawn to the conversation as Er Kang spoke.
"永琪，都五年了… 你也不应该再责怪自己了, 那并不是你能阻止得了的… /Yong Qi… It's been five years now. You should stop punishing yourself for something you could not control. Xiao Yan Zi wouldn't have wanted you to become like this, you know that," Er Kang softly said, voice soothing as if speaking to a frightened child.
Yong Qi's heart throbbed with a searing mix of regret, pain and guilt. His knuckles bleached a pasty white as he tightened his grip on the table before him, like it was his last thread of sanity.
"你什么也不懂, /You don't know that," he whispered hauntingly, eyes glazed over as he slowly shook his head, "你根本就不明白! /YOU DON'T KNOW THAT!"
The teacup shattered with a spectacular crash, punctuating his emotional upheaval as he leapt to his feet. Yong Qi glared viciously at Er Kang, chest rising and falling rapidly with emotion.
Jabbing a finger at his own heart, Yong Qi growled, "是我！是我不肯相信她，是我背弃了她，是我伤透了她的心，把她逼出皇宫，是我害死了她！I was the one who refused to trust her words, I was the one who abandoned her in favor of Zhi Hua, I was the one who broke her heart and drove her to run out of the palace and to her death!"
By this time, wet trails already lined Yong Qi's haggard and tired countenance.
Qiu Xin was frozen, utterly shocked. She had never seen such a great display of emotion from her father. Ever. He had been a living puppet as far as she knew- no feelings, no change of expression, nothing except him and that stupid room. Which according to the maids and eunuchs, belonged to the famous (or infamous, depending on who you asked) Princess Huan Zhu. Coming to think about it, there wasn't much she knew about said princess except that her grandfather had adopted her from the streets of Beijing and she was her father's first wife. Everyone seemed to be so tight-lipped when it came to this mysterious princess!
Curiosity overwhelmed her, washing away her caution as she eagerly pushed her ear closer. In her haste, she overestimated the distance between herself and the door, hence hitting the door frame and falling head first into the room.
"Ow! My poor head!/ 哎呀! 我这可怜的脑袋瓜啊!" she groaned from her close encounter with the floor.
Qiu Xin suddenly registered an ominous silence in the wake of her pain and snapped her gaze up. She gulped. Two pairs of angry eyes met her panicked ones and she quickly mustered a weak smile.
Needlessly to say, Qiu Xin had been thrown out after being thoroughly chewed out by her uncle about what constituted as good manners and eavesdropping most certainly did not. She had quietly endured, head bowed, the perfect picture of a contrite youth as swore to herself to be more careful the next time. No way was she going to stop listening in! They kept way too much from her just because they thought she was only a child. Just before a massive pout was about to ruin her awarding-winning repentant, docile child act, her uncle finally let her off the hook and she rapidly scurried off. She would find out about the elusive Huan Zhu Ge Ge another time. Now, it was more important that she fled before uncle realized she should not be wandering off on her own!
Back inside the room, Yong Qi could only stare at the swiftly disappearing back of his daughter. God, she was so much like the love of his life, he thought with a painful twist of his heart. His knuckles were bleached a pasty white as he unconsciously clenched a fistful the tablecloth.
Er Kang seemed to be having similar thoughts, a bittersweet smile gracing his features.
Shaking his head, Er Kang chuckled tiredly and declared, "I better go chase down that little troublemaker, make sure she doesn't stir up another mess again!/ 我去看看那个闯祸精，别让她又搞出什么烂摊子给我们收拾!"
Yong Qi's only answer was silence, which drew yet another sigh from Er Kang's lips. Resigned, the lanky man removed himself from the room to pursue his other charge, only to stop dead in his tracks after a few steps with a groan.
"Now, where did she disappear to again?/ 那小精灵又消失到哪儿去了?"
"Wow! It's so lively out here!/哇! 这里还真热闹啊!" Qiu Xin muttered to herself, wonderment shining brightly in large onyx orbs that flitted from one point of interest to another restlessly.
Her short eager legs devoured the length of the street greedily, regardless of the hoards of towering adults that swarmed around her in their morning shopping. No one paid more than a fleeting glance to the child weaving among their feet despite her tellingly exquisite clothes, for she was just as soon another tiny figure lost in the crowd.
This was all to her great fortune, for when Er Kang had slipped through the back exit soon after Qiu Xin, he found himself futilely peering through the throng for a shadow of the little imp. His anxiety swelled with each passing minute as he tried to desperately slice a path through the mob in an attempt to trace her path.
However, the girl in question remained blissfully oblivious as he hungrily drank in the scents and sounds she was so rarely exposed to in her sheltered home. In fact, she was so caught up in her sight seeing that she failed to realized she had circled back to the front entrance of the inn, only noticing the growing mob before her with swelling curiosity and delight.
"这么多人，肯定是有好玩的东西！也来让本小姐见识见识一下！/ I never seen such a crowd! They must be watching something exciting! Let me have a look too…" the little girl exclaimed before proceeding to attempt to squeeze her way through the throng.
Sticking her bottom lip out in petulant pout, the tiny princess stamped her feet before stubbornly renewing her efforts to push apart the surging masses without success. All of a sudden, the man before her swayed backwards and threw Qiu Xin off balance. Caught unaware, the little girl landed on her butt with a squeal of surprise.
"Hey! Are you alright? /你没事吧？" A voice rang out, before a small, tanned hand appeared in Qiu Xin's line of sight.
She felt a rush of blood flooding her little cheeks as a flare of embarrassment-induced irritation erupted within her. Ignoring the offered hand, she picked herself up and remaining pieces of her pride as she replied curtly without looking up, "我没事/I'm fine."
Unbothered by her attitude, the young boy before her grinned brightly as he chirped, "我没见过你，你应该是商人家的孩子吧！要和我们一起玩吗？/I've never seen you around before. You must be from a family of travelling businessmen! Do you want to play with us?"
Piqued by the offer of playmates, Qiu Xin glanced up and saw a boy around her age dressed in worn but clean clothes with a friendly, open smile adorning his round face. Taking her silence as acceptance, the boy latched onto her hand and started pulling her along enthusiastically. A slightly shocked Qiu Xin could only along herself to be helplessly led around by the boy who turned back with a grin.
"走我带你去找我朋友！我叫洁儿，你呢？/Come, let's go meet my friends! I'm Jie Er; what's your name?"
I'm so sorry it took me two years to update this... I honestly didn't realise it's been that long cause life has gotten kinda crazy. Plus, I had quite a few kinks in the plot to figure out and that took me a while too. But I felt so guilty that I immediately uploaded this once I had almost everything figured out so be prepared to wait a while for the next update. If anyone's still reading this that is.
Rest assured though, I will complete this story no matter how long it takes. I'm now finding my way back to creative writing after having abandoned it for so long and it's really such fun to write this after writing became a very stressful job. Plus, I really missed you guys and I'm sorry to all my reviewers who I never got around to replying. Hope this was a good read for y'all. Some of you will probably be disappointed with how little Xia Ying appears in this chapter but don't worry you'll see lots of her in the next one. I think. Besides, I think it's very important to build up your secondary characters so that's what y'all got to see in this chapter. It's great that some of you are actually enjoying these characters I've created, so I hope this chapter lived up to expectations as well.
It won't be as long till the next update, I hope.