1
The Exhibition

I couldn't find anything about Ma'er Tai Ruo Xi. It was as if this person has never existed. Was my life in the Qing's dynasty…and my relationship with Si Ye… only a dream?

A sudden breeze brought a yellow flyer to Zhang Xiao's feet. She bent over and gently picked up the rain-stained piece of paper. Like the refined Ruo Xi, Zhang Xiao held the flyer with the same gentleness she used to prepare the Princes' tea. A glimpse of that wistful memory tugged at her heart. She swallowed the lump in her throat, shut her eyes tightly, then took in a long, deep breath. Zhang Xiao reminded herself that Ruo Xi had died - and all that ever was, will forever be nothing more than a dream; a dream that could not be forgotten. Were her glasses playing tricks on her? Was God not finished toying with her heart? What is this flyer hinting?

Zhang Xiao walked cautiously, step by step, into the exhibition. For a moment, her mind felt overwhelmed by the mixture of her two worlds – her two lives. This 21st century exhibition contained artifacts of the 18th century life that she refused to accept, yet fell steadfastly in love with.

She studied the dragon robes that the Qing Emperor, Kangxi wore. They were encased behind a transparent display. What a beautiful piece of art it was and still is. She held back bittersweet emotions. Zhang Xiao could still remember the first time she saw his robe. She had imagined running her fingers against the beautiful embroidery. Like Ruo Xi's own clothing, Zhang Xiao admired the amount of skills and time needed to create these outfits. Each artifact unlocked buried emotions of pain, joy, fear, and anger.

As the closing time approached, visitors left one by one. Like a spirit unwilling to leave without closure, Zhang Xiao walked through the museum with longing steps.

The corners of her lips faintly formed a smile when she saw a similar, small and delicate tea set she used to drink with Shi-san Ye. He was the person who challenged her level of alcohol tolerance. And that clock, the one that she used to pass by without much notice suddenly felt like a precious childhood treasure. Zhang Xiao was the only person at the exhibition who knew the happy and sorrowful tales behind many of these items. She was amazed at how all of these artifacts had survived through time. They were the remnants of her two lives, spanning three hundred years from each other. She felt like these objects linked time in time.

The calligraphy on the scrolls reminded her of the time she lived with Shi-si Ye. She spent most of her days imitating Si Ye's writing until she became one with him. At that very moment, Zhang Xiao foolishly wished she could hold onto any of these items into her very own hands. Perhaps like Aladdin's magical lamp, they could grant her wish and sweep her away to the place where her heart belongs.

Before Ruo Xi died, Shi-si Ye had asked her, "Would you want to remember us in your next life?"

Ruo Xi replied in a heart-wrenching tone-of-voice, "I would ask Meng Po (the lady of forgetfulness) to give me all five tea flavors of forgetfulness so that I won't remember anything from this life."

Even before her death, Ruo Xi never gave Shi-si Ye a chance to become her lover. Those words were not meant to hurt Shi-si Ye. She just wanted to see Si Ye one last time. When she knew he would not come, she felt like she had lived a bitter and self-fulfilling prophetic life.

If I were to die, if I were to die here at this very moment, would my spirit find its way home? Would I be able to see Si Ye one last time? Could I relive everything? If I was braver, could I have changed history? If I had a second chance, would things still turned out the way they did?

One by one, memories from her past sank her heart until she could walk no further. Her eyes then fell upon something she could not believe - the painting of the Princes gathering for tea. That memory appeared before her eyes as though it was just yesterday. Every little detail relived in her mind. She remembered everything…from how the different tea aromas intertwined in the air; how the brothers laughed and was at peace with each other; and how she fit in like a Ge Ge in disguise. And how could she forget the moment when Si Ye stole a secret glance at her? And at that same moment, Ba Ye's heart broke into a thousand pieces of jade - the same jade bracelet that Ba Ye smashed to release her from his love.

Zhang Xiao could not take her eyes off the detailed, yet muted water painting. She embraced Si Ye's face as though he was sitting next to her. She reached out her right hand to touch each Prince in mid-air. She had fallen in love with every single one of them. They each taught her how to love in ways she never thought she could. Like Jiu Ye, she learned how difficult it is for love to stand in between ambition and politics.

A flash back of Ba Ye sincerely smiling at her, hoping that his smile could conquer her heart, brought tears to her eyes.

Ba Ye, I am so sorry for letting go of our love. At first, I thought my stubbornness and your ambition could not marry each other. It was not until I had fallen so deeply in love with Si Ye that I knew what I was capable of accepting. I realized that my love for you was not strong enough for me to love you unconditionally.

And Si Ye, why did you not see me before I lost my last breath? I had waited so wholeheartedly for you! Was I that hateful? Although I died in Shi-si Ye's warm and loving arms, my heart never failed to yearn for yours.

Suddenly, Zhang Xiao noticed something that she had not before. She saw a maiden standing next to Si Ye in the painting. This maiden had the magnolia hair pin that Si Ye gave her. Like a fairy-tale written for children to believe but not for adults to have faith in, Zhang Xiao did not know what to make of this painting. That girl is no doubt, Ma'er Tai Ruo Xi…her.

I existed…! I really did exist…

*Step, step, step*

These footsteps echoed in the empty museum. A figure stood behind Zhang Xiao.

Her face flushed with mixed emotions and fleeting hopes. She felt like her broken magnolia hair pin, except this time, there is no Si Ye to do the mending.

She had an unexplanable feeling to turn around. Without hesitation, Zhang Xiao turned around to see who the owner of those familiar-sounding footsteps belonged to – those solitude, yet certain steps.

And there he was, this ever-so unforgettable man of her life. He wore a dark, gray coat and moss-green, fleece scarf. She waited for him to turn around. Although this moment only lasted a few seconds long, she felt a lifelong suspense.

Those long, firm but gentle ears…that strong and determined jaw, those bold and mysterious eye brows, that loyal and confident nose, those thin, introverted lips, and those… round deep-set eyes that looked through the window to her soul. Yes, that unforgettable face, she would recognize him even if she were blind. Many nights when Si Ye slept peacefully beside her, she would study his face until her eyes grew tired. Once again, tears fell from the corner of her eyes.

Yin Zheng, is that truly you? Have you finally forgiven me and come to see me? I have waited so long to see you.

He had that feeling of being watched so he turned around to see who it was. To his surprise, he faced a girl in her mid-twenties. Although she appeared familiar to him, he does not recognize her. Moreover, he could not understand why she looked at him with such flooding emotions. He looked away for a second to see if there was anyone else in the room. Maybe someone else had just upset her? He is certain that he does not know her but why is it that he could feel from the bottom of his heart how familiar her presence is to him?

Zhang Xiao felt like she was about to have an anaphylactic reaction. She could not breathe, her heart was exploding and she could not stop herself from crying. She had a million things to say to this person yet no matter how hard she tried, her heart has grown so big, it engulfed her vocal chords.

Curiously, he walked towards the emotional girl who could not take her eyes off him. He tried to find the appropriate words but had difficulty deciding what he should say. His hands fidgeted in his pockets, hoping to find some tissues. "Do we know each other?"

She could not stop drinking that sweet-loving look from his eyes. There was a time when she wished she could stare into his eyes all day long. Zhang Xiao heard his question clearly yet she did not know how to respond to it.

Do I know you? Oh Si Ye, I know you more than I know myself and I have known you from three hundred years ago. I have known you from the first moment we met yet it took me a lifetime to realize how much you mean to me. And now, I will spend the rest of this lifetime holding onto our invisible love.

She would not stop crying! And the the number one thing he was most fearful of, is seeing women cry. He clumsily searched his pockets for a tissue as she continued to watch his every action in an unexplainably, heartaching way. Feeling awkwardly helpless, he walked away.

Zhang Xiao watched him turn his back on her the same way she turned her back on him the day she agreed to marry Shi-si Ye.

Please don't go!

Her heart reached out for him yet the distance between them kept increasing. She wanted to run towards him...to lock her arms around his waist so he would not leave her. As much as she wanted to, she found herself unable to chase after his doppelganger. She looked at him with despairing eyes. The greater the love, the deeper the wound.

He stood near the entrance. Within seconds, his presence may be nothing more than a hallucination created by Zhang Xiao's desiring heart. His doppelganger stopped mid-step and turned to look at her one final time.

She could not allow her broken heart to be tormented once again. Refusing to see him give up on her this second time, she reached for her glasses and slid them off. Now, the person standing ahead of her was nothing more than a denial, Gaussian blur. Her eyes tried to trick her into believing that he was never there, yet her ears told her he existed only to tease her heart. She felt a stabbing pain to her chest with his every step. Zhang Xiao closed her eyes and etched that painting into her soul.


Author's notes:

After re-watching this series, I recharged my imagination to go back and edit all of these chapters. I want to correct confusing sentences and typo errors - hopefully, not creating any new errors along the way LOL Nevertheless, this process had inspired me to add new details that will help progress the story. New chapters are coming along the way!