If I had thought that seventh month would provide me a chance to rest, I was disabused of that notion much more quickly than a condor's flight! With the training at the Eighteen Buddha that I'm forced to partake of in mornings, and the afternoon practices with the Royal dancers, not to mention the frequent changes from Xue Ling to Xue Jing and vice versa. I don't know how much more of this I can take. Thank our Ancestors that being Uncle's 'nephew' has given me special privileges and thus, I may stay with Aunt and Uncle in the capital, instead of in the dorms at school during this holiday month.
The festivities are now in full swing here at thec apital. There are different plays and contests taking place each day in different parts of the capital, and the most popular ones take place closest to the palace. The main dance, which takes place on the last day of festivities, is going to take place in the main square.
One early morning, just before the sun released it's light onto the city, I awoke. A shadow was slipping out of my window, but I could not follow. My robe was pinned by a dagger, and frustrated, I ripped it before leaping out to find the intruder, but it was gone! Wrapped around the non-descript dagger was a note. It said:
_Be in the palace gardens when the moon has set. It concerns your brother._
The note was unsigned. I stared at it for a long moment before deciding, very cautiously to meet up with this strange person. I could not risk letting any lead about Ming go, and I consoled myself with the thought that I would have my sword with me, as well as any number of hidden weapons on me. After all, I am not entirely defenseless.
I've been very hard put to keep my identities separate and secret. I am reaching a point of near exhaustion. Junwei confronted me that very morning, when I was so tired that I misjudged a very simple step in one of the more basic formations.
"If you cannot handle this Mr. Li, perhaps you should not be here."
"If you cannot handle my presence, perhaps you should not be watching me," I responded.
Junwei's face turned a most unflattering shade and he opened his mouth to retort with what I am sure was a most sharp-edged tone, when Er Qin said, "Junwei, please return to your position."
"I was not the one to break formation," snapped Junwei.
"I will not ask you again."
Junwei's mouth shut and with a nasty glare, moved back into place. Er Qin examined me for a long moment.
"Have you been unwell, Xue Jing? You have troubling shadows in your face."
"No Senior," I replied, and settled for a half-truth. "I'm sure you've heard of how my sister has been ill. I've spent most of my days with her."
"Ahh, yes. Li Xue Qing. They say the Prince is much taken with her." Er Qin frowned and stroked his chin. "I had not realized you were so close."
"My sisters to me are like songs to a nightingale; I am nothing without them," I replied.
"I see. But you must not let your familial duties interfere with your training."
I bowed my head. "It was a lapse on my part. I beg your forgiveness, Senior."
"It shows great strength of character, however." Er Qin's hand brushed my head. "Ting Feng will be your tutor in the days to come. The two of you are close in the Emporium, and your sister has caught Qian Long's eye. It is only natural that you would spend an inordinate amount of time together." He spat the Imperial Prince's name out as if it were a vile curse.
"Thank you," I murmured, my head still low. I closed my eyes and fought against a wave of dizziness. Tempests swirled in my head, full of thoughts and mysteries, but they would not stay in coherent order, no matter how hard I tried to make them. "I am feeling unwell, Senior. Have I your permission to withdraw?"
Er Qin peered at me closely. Oh Ling, I must have been such a sight. Our alabaster skin was blanketed with unsightly sweat. Our lips that were the colour of cherry blossoms in the height of their spring bloom trembled with sudden exhaustion and the dark moon shape of our eyes fluttered like small butterfly wings.
"I will take Junior Li home," Ting Feng said, his hand at my elbow. "His revered Uncle is sure to have a worthy apothecary to take care of this minor illness."
I followed Ting Feng but moments after I had left the building, the city's heat swamped over me and rendered my headache into something akin to excruciating pain. Taking a few steps and breathing shallowly, I managed a short way when I could not take anymore and I fell into a welcoming and painless darkness.
When I awoke, I was in my bed. Aunt hovered over me, her hand cool against my forehead. I could hear Ping playing a lilting tune on her flute, soft but soothing. It seemed to lull me back into sleep, but I could not listen to it. I had things to do.
"You are a fool," Aunt said without preamble. "How are you supposed to discover your brother's murderer if you do not take better care of yourself?"
"I am fine, Aunt!" I protested. Ping stopped playing her flute.
"I had to use my flute on Ting Feng," she said, and played a small trill. "He wanted to see Xue Qing."
I closed my eyes. Our sister had grown very skilled with the Dissonant Flute in your absence. She can even change the mind of a talented pugilist. I suspect Aunt has been teaching her. "He'll be back," I said.
"Yes." Ping sounded very tired and I looked at her closely. "I said that you were practicing for the celebration."
"The practice!" I sat up so suddenly that even Aunt looked taken aback for a brief moment.
Aunt put her hand on my arm, but I wrenched it out. She narrowed her eyes and before I could even register what had happened, she jabbed a pressure point behind my neck. "You will not go today."
"I can't miss practice," I exclaimed. "I am performing for the Emperor at the end of the month!"
"I can take care of myself!"
The words flew out of me before I could stop myself. Aunt examined me for a long moment.
"We will talk when you have rested more."
Activating more pressure points, she lay me on the bed gently and murmured something to Ping. Ping nodded and played a soft tune on her flute. Satisfied, Aunt left. When the door had closed, Ping put her flute down.
"Ping!" I called, softly. She was wavering on her feet, but she smiled at me.
"I'm glad to see that you are fine, Sister," murmured Ping. She put the flute back to her lips, looked at me and paused. "What is it?"
Oh dearest twin, you know I would not hide anything from you, but I am so ashamed of what I did next, that I almost omitted it from this letter. "Ping, help me," I begged. "I must go to the practice today."
"What have you been doing during the mornings? You disappear so early that no one has a chance to question you. Until today, we all assumed that you were practicing for the festival, but..."
I took a deep breath. I disliked deceiving our younger sister, but I had no choice. "Ting Feng is helping me track Brother's murderer. I need to leave. I said I would speak to him later today and we've already put it off."
"I can't risk him changing him mind!" I said, putting a half-frantic note in my voice. I peered at Ping and she was looking at me. "I'm sorry Ping, I wouldn't ask you to do this if I didn't have to."
That last part was true. With a sigh, Ping pressed my pressure points and released me. Stretching, I looked at Ping. She was worn out. She is still very young, and I'm afraid that using her flute on Ting Feng had made her weak. "I'm sorry," I repeated, and pressed her pressure point.
I caught her before she fell and put her in my bed, smoothing the sheets over her. She was sleeping. Tucking her flute back into her dress, I rummaged through my closet for a suitable dress before leaping through the window.
Practice went smoothly. My headache had receded, probably due to Aunt's ministrations and I was able to function normally, though I was feeling out of breath by the end of practice. Stretching so that my legs would not cramp, I accepted a cup of tea from a servant and sipped it, fanning myself slowly. It was quite hot so I found a bench with some shade and sat for a moment and closed my eyes.
"You dance very well, Miss Li."
I looked up. Long Gui's aristocratic, beautiful face peered at me. She was dressed in scarlet silk, embroidered flowers in a flashing pattern that must have taken many, many hours of work. Her lashes were smeared with charcoal and her mouth painted a red as vivid as her dress. Her hair was arranged carefully, ivory combs and precious jewels encrusted in its ebony wealth.
"Thank you," I answered. I lowered my lashes. She is very beautiful, dearest Ling, but I think that we are a match. Her beauty is measured and her grace a little to feigned. She has never smiled, nor frowned and while her movements are refined, they leave one cold.
"I am Zhang Long Gui. I am the Prince's concubine," she said, sitting next to me.
We exchanged common pleasantries. I kept my mind sharp, despite the returning headache. We spoke of seamstresses and the weather, the beautiful flowers and beautiful the city was during the seventh month. She made me uneasy. She was also nothing like the cruel, petty woman in the marketplace, the one that Xue Jing had faced down. Her dual nature made me uneasy, but I smiled at her anyway.
Long Gui stood. "Come," she said. "We may continue our conversation in the palace. It is cooler there."
"I am expected home soon, Lady Zhang," I said. I would find my own way to the palace and in my own time. I was determined not to be with Long Gui. "Would is be possible to postpone this?"
"I will send a messenger. Your family will not mind."
I hesitated and agreed. She stood, liquid grace in her bones and in the arch of her neck. I followed her.
Her rooms were opulent. Lavish. Second Wife would have loved to live in these rooms. They did not suit me. I needed space, air and her rooms were crowded with cherry wood furniture, silk-screened paintings and embroidery all around. A servant brought us tea and withdrew.
"I am glad to see that you are worthy to be my rival," Long Gui said. A golden finch made a small noise, and she gestured towards a servant, who bowed, and took the cage from the room. "You are very talented and beautiful."
Taken aback, I foolishly blurted, "I was not aware I was in competition with you, Lady Zhang."
She flicked her hand at me. "Foolish girl. Qian Long can speak of nothing but you. It is only a matter of time." She sipped her tea. "But it is well. You are young and fresh. He will return to me when he tires of your girlish charms."
My head was beginning to pound again, like drumbeats against my fragile skull. I could not afford to stay here much longer, I thought. I drank more of my tea. "I have no designs on his Highness."
She studied me for a long moment, and I took the respite to drink more tea. A servant refilled my cup. The drumbeats in my head were getting louder and harder to ignore.
"I find that hard to believe." She reached out with her hand. Her nails were long and painted red, like her lips. Tipping my chin up so that I was looking at her she said, "Yes, you have great beauty and guile in you."
She put her cup down and it made me wince to hear the clink of porcelain. I thought I saw her lips curve into a smile, but by that point, it was getting too difficult to see anything.
"I want nothing of yours," I heard myself say.
She did not reply, or if she did, I did not hear it because I fell into that welcome, painless darkness once again.
I awoke to the feeling of cool silk sheets against my skin, and a damp cloth across my brow. Grandma Huang looked at me when I stirred.
"You're awake." She held my wrist and checked my heartbeat. "Much better."
"Grandma Huang!" I tried to sit up, but she pushed me back with strong hands.
"You haven't been taking very good care of yourself, child." She made a disapproving noise. "Drink this."
Sitting up so I could drink some foul concoction that could have come from our own herbalist, she made another noise, and said, "You are exhausted, child. What on earth have you been doing to work yourself into such a state?"
I said nothing, but sipped the tea she had given me to wash away the medicine's taste.
She continued to scold me and took my cup away from me. "You'll be fine in a few days."
"Grandma Huang, I haven't a few days! I have the dance!" I exclaimed, alarmed.
She gave me a piercing look. "Yes, and other things too, I imagine, and once you return home, there will be no way for me to keep an eye on you. The First Advisor has been told of your condition and has said that he will send a litter for you in the morning."
"I am fine," I protested.
Her keen look never left my face, and sighing, I lay back into the pillows. Satisfied, she collected her things. Just as she was going to leave, there was a soft knock on the door before they flew open.
"Your Highness!" I gasped, sitting up. I was fairly sure that my appearance was quite tragic, but the prince did not seem to notice. Instead, he sat on the bed, placing a calloused hand on my forehead. Up close I could see the roundness of his cheeks and how short his fingers were.
"Miss Li, how do you feel?"
"Quite well. Physician Huang has been taking good care of me."
"Had I known that you were still so ill, I would never have asked you to do the dance," he replied. He was clearly quite frustrated. "You will no longer participate in the dance, and spend the rest of the time recovering."
"That," interjected Grandma Huang, "sounds like a good idea."
I was alarmed. I could not stay abed for the next couple of weeks. I had to see what the Eighteen Buddha were up to and find out exactly what Er Qin's connection to the palace was. There were things afoot and I could not see what, but I had no time to recuperate from such a small thing. We vowed, Ling, that we would find Brother's murderer together, even if we were apart.
"I am fine! Truly!" I said, hastily. "I am sorry for imposing. Was Lady Zhang upset?"
The Prince's eyes glittered strangely for a moment when I mentioned his concubine, but smoothed out into something more normal. "Distraught that she had not let you go earlier, Miss Li. Would you like to send the First Advisor and Lady Cheng a note? I'm sure your brother and sister would appreciate it as well."
I hesitated and nodded. The Prince made a sharp gesture, and a guard that I had not noticed earlier disappeared. He came back in short order with Ting Feng, who was back in his scholar's robes and spectacles. He glanced at me and could not conceal his surprise.
"Miss Li, I had no idea you were here. I hope you are well."
I inclined my head. "I am now."
"Please dictate to my scribe. He will see that the letter reaches your family safely."
Biting my lower lip, I nodded and spoke a brief message. I knew that it would not do anything to lessen Aunt and Ping's anger and disappointment, but it was the best I could do on my own.
When I had finished, Ting Feng sanded the ink and waited for it to dry, blowing on it gently. I turned away and was surprised to see the prince examining me.
"You are very beautiful, Miss Li," he said and kissed my forehead. Ting Feng's eyes flickered, but I could not read the expression in them, stunned as I was.
"That's enough, Long'er. Qing'er needs her rest," Grandma Huang said, her voice brisk and hard. His Highness took his leave then, taking Ting Feng with him. I settled back into the bed with a sigh and a new headache.
"You are cruel to Long'er," Grandma Huang said to me as she packed the last of her things. "But I suppose that is because you are young. Good night, Xue Qing."
"Good night," I said, softly. The door closed, leaving only a candle for company. When I was sure that there was no one in the vicinity, I got up and blew it out. It was still early, but I was restless. In the dark, silent room, I practiced the simple exercises that I had learned from the Eighteen Buddha. Tranquil and peaceful, I moved slowly.
I may have mentioned this to you before Ling, but I will say it again. I am not quite sure why the Eighteen Buddha is a rebel sect. Their art is non-aggressive, their movements graceful, and possibly deadful, but quite peaceful at the same time. It requires for one to not-think, to move with the elements. It makes one preternaturally aware of their surroundings and uses very little qi. I'm not sure I understand this.
When the moon had begun to set, I was feeling much better. Energetic, even. Pulling on a light robe, I opened the door. There were guards, but they were half-dozing, so I went back into the room and opened a window. I'm getting quite good at climbing out of windows.
It was dark, but I could see well enough by the shielded flame of my candle. I hid around corners, leaped onto roofs and prayed to our Ancestors that I would not be discovered. I found the Imperial gardens, and the moon had not entirely set yet so I was able to see pieces of it. It was beautiful, Ling. I wish you could have seen it. Chrysanthemums sparkled in the silvery light, roses and lilys ached under the moon's touched and the grass looked like moveable jade. I was so entranced that I almost forgot why I was there, but remembered when I heard a sound. Leaping carefully onto a nearby roof, I waited.
The moon was fading when I saw Er Qin. He was dressed entirely in black but he moved with that careful poise that made him instantly recognizable. He had no weapon. A little while later, another figure came. I stifled a gasp.
"Long Gui, you're late."
"The moon is up still," she said, smoothly, walking among the flowers.
"The swords exist. The Sword of Heaven has been found."
My heart began to beat and I could feel the monkey jade pendant, heavy against my skin. I bit on my tongue, hard.
"Where are the Swords of Earth and Hell?"
"We don't know." Er Qin followed Long Gui. "Where are the Death Skewers?"
"I don't know," answered Long Gui. "The stupid girl fainted."
Oh, how I wished I could call my sword at that moment, but I restrained myself with great effort.
"Where are the Lineal Weapons _kept_?" asked Er Qin.
"If we knew, we would not have to go through this, my love."
"I know." Er Qin held his hand out and Long Gui took it. They made a lovely couple, strolling through the garden of dying moonlight. "Find out, soon, my love, and we will be able to dispose of Long Gui."
"Assuming that dratted usurper knows." Long Gui made a noise. "She is nothing special. I bet she hasn't a weapon."
"It is safe to assume that she does. Her younger sister has one, as did Xue Ming and now Xue Jing. Find out what weapon it is."
I let out a small, inaudible breath. They still hadn't figured it out.
Their conversation carried on in this vein, but I was too busy thinking to pay too close attention. Eventually, their voices drifted out of range. The sky was beginning to lighten when I slipped back into my borrowed room and under cool silk sheets.
Why does Er Qin want the weapons? Does he not realize that only a member of our family may use them? You have read Ming's research. What is so important about our swords? And the Death Skewers? I tossed the questions in my mind. Our weapons, as far as we known, dearest Sister, while formidable, are still swords. I cannot part seas, nor can you cleave mountains. Where did Ming's weapon disappear? Why did he have to die?
I have no answers, and only more questions. I hope you have insight, dearest Sister, because I have none.
-Li Xue Qing
(Aunt and Uncle both gave me such a scolding! Even Second Wife would not have said some of the things that Aunt said to me! I wil not repeat her words, suffice to say that she is no longer speaking to me. Ping assures me that Aunt will forgive me in due time, but I am not so sure. Ping's forgiveness came easily, increasing my guilt. I wish she would go back home, where I know Father and Mother will watch over her, but I am afraid that she would get into _more_ trouble with Second Wife and Half-Brother around. Why have things become so complicated?)