Now you have mysterious intruders in black invading your investigation. It must be an inherited trait. Your martial arts may be better than mine, but do be safe, dearest Sister. The Hell's Venom sect sounds quite dreadful. What exactly did you find? Did you take the notes with you when you left? What did the letters say? And I take back what I said earlier about Tian Jie; you deserve someone that can fight black-clad intruders for you, not someone that will cry your name when you are in danger. We may have our weapons, but we are only two people against what seems like two very dangerous, confusing sects, and are just starting to unravel secrets that are probably best buried. Ling, promise me you'll be careful, especially since I know you won't be. You're far worse than I am in these sorts of things.
And if you dare tell Mother or Father _anything_ about the Eighteenth Buddha, I must remind you that I have no compunctions about telling them who it was that _really_ broke their vase and tried to hide the pieces in the stall of Father's favourite horse and almost permanently lamed it. I love you, dearest sister, but if you endanger my investigation, I will be forced to take drastic measures. My fainting was just a minor spell, and it seems to have gone away.
When I returned to Uncle's, Aunt immediately gave me such a scolding that I turned, quick as a striking viper, and said, "I see no reason for you to berate me for something you would have done in my situation."
"Foolish girl," snapped Aunt, "I would never have been so stupid as to fall ill as both Jing and Qing. Now there will be people drawing the connection between the both of you."
"It's a heriditary malady then," I shrugged. Aunt snorted.
"You think you can pass things off as 'heriditary' or explain away Qing's convenient absences when you are Xue Jing and vice versa? I thought you were cleverer than this, but as it seems, I was wrong. I will write home to my brother and you shall go home with Ping."
"I am not leaving without discovering Brother's murderer," declared I. "It would sully the stain of our family's honour if we did not try to avenge him."
Drawing herself up, Aunt seemed to grow before my eyes, her robes adding to her stature and the terribly fury in her face. She was a veritable lioness, but I refused to back down. There was too much at stake. "Honour? You will bring no honour to this family if you continue down this wretched path! You will risk everything, including your life, for the sake of _vengeance_, one that you cannot even properly execute. What honour is there in _that_?"
Ling, I do swear that I was trying to hold my temper. I knew I was in the wrong, but I could _not_ discontinue this investigation. I had gone too far. "Aunt, give me a few more weeks, I know I can--"
"You've made too many mistakes as it is. I'll continue the investigation for you. You've done enough for the family." Her cold tone cut through me, and my spine straightened. _I cleave mountains,_ says your sword, but nothing could make me bow down to this.
"Do not try to blame me for this," retorted I, trying my best to imitate the glaciers in Aunt's voice. "You tried to expunge your guilts and regrets through me just because you were unable to do anything but dishonour the Li name. It is just lucky that Uncle was a good enough person to marry you, considering the wrongs that you have done to the Empire and our family."
Aunt stared at me for a long moment, even as I tried to absorb what I had just said, wishing that I could take the words back and swallow them once I had said them. "After the dance, you will go home. I will write a note to your father, explaining the situation," she said and left the room.
Ping crept into the room as I stumbled to a chair and sat, blindly. I had not meant to say those words, truly, but my temper gets the best of me sometimes, especially when you're not around to rein me in. Oh Ling, what is happening to us? We've grown careless and in my case, even callous, like savage wolves with their eyes only on their prey. I wish that Brother was here with us and that we needn't keep up with these tiresome subterfuges.
"That was mean," said Ping.
Putting my face in my hands, I let out a soft groan. "I know. I didn't mean it. Truly, I didn't."
Ping peered at me. "I know." She grinned them. "You're just like Aunt. She says mean things too."
I looked sharply at Ping then, but her smile was guiless. "I'm sorry, younger Sister," I said and held my arms out to her. "I shouldn't have immobilized you when you were trying to help me."
She embraced me briefly and then looked at me. "Does this mean I can have your blue dress with the finches and peonies on it?"
She gave me the _Look_. You know, the one that's always made the flowers that are our beloved parents wilt beneath its blazing glory, and that's made even you bend sometimes. "Please?"
"Oh all right," I muttered, still feeling guilty. "You may as well take the shoes, too."
Beaming, she offered to let me borrow it whenever I wanted. I have a sneaking feeling that I've been very cleverly out-manouveured by our little sister, but I guess it's not so bad. Ping should not get her way most of the time, but she's smart and wily enough that a little bit of pampering won't do much harm.
I spent the days prior to the Autumn Moon Festival practicing for the dance and sending apologies to Er Qin about my absence, claiming that I was unbearably ill, when I was not avoiding Aunt. According to Ping, Junwei had shown up and demanded to talk to Xue Jing, but Aunt intercepted him and showed him out with such stilted courtesy that Ping confided in me that it was like Aunt had been transformed into a stern, regal condor, beautiful but untouchable.
In the midst of all this, however, I did remember to send Long Gui a gift to apologize for cutting our meeting short. I found a small shop that sold odd antiquities, and I managed to procure a beautiful jewelery box embossed with jade and shining gold. It made my heart ache to give it away, but I knew my duty. I did, however, stop long enough to ink a hasty note.
_My deepest apologies for my untimely illness. I hope that whatever misunderstandings we may have between us left still may be smoothed away with more of your fragrant tea and wonderful company._
I had so little time left to practice for my dance that I was working with instructors and choreographers for hours on end without rest. They were great teachers, oh Ling, if I had grown up in the capital instead, my name would have been sung across the country as one of the most elegant dancers. My body ached with exhaustion at the end of each day, but I knew that I would dance better than ever after this was over.
Even so, I couldn't help but wonder what would come of this once it was over. Would the Eighteenth Buddha link together Xue Jing and Xue Qing's illnesses? How Jing was never around when Qing was? I hated to admit it, but Aunt was likely right; I had played both roles with reckless abandon and now I am going to pay the price. Either Qing or Jing will have to "go home to Sandao," and I'm afraid that'll have to be Qing.
The day of the festival was clear, and birdsong woke me. I was whisked away just as I finished my morning abulations and I went through a last run-through with my temporary teachers. They heaped praise and criticism on me alike, but the head choreographer, Master Qiu, admitted that I would do very well, especially considering that I had so little time to prepare. The dance was to take place in the main square on an upraised platform. The Emperor and the Royal Family were seated on their own platform, higher than the one I was to dance in.
My preparations for the dance took many hours. I was made up by expert hands and swathed in layers and layers of light silk. They weren't too heavy, but weighed on my frame with responsibility. Nervous, I took several breaths and shook myself mentally. There was a bit of an argument, and one of my helpers informed me that the prince had sent a messenger. Ting Feng came in then, surprising me more than a bit. He was holding an elaborately decorated box, and he held it out to me.
"With Prince Qian Long's compliments," he said. I did not miss the tremor in his voice. "He'd like you to wear this during your performance."
"Thank you," I said, taking the box and opening it. Inside were a pair of elaborate jade combs, gilded with gold with small peach blossoms carved onto the handle. They were cool and heavy in my hand, and reminded me of the jade monkey, which I had taken off for temporarily and tucked away in my sleeve for luck. "They're beautiful," I breathed, as my helpers made appropriate noises.
"He wishes you the best." Pausing, Ting Feng raised his eyes to meet mine, shy. Puzzled, I smiled at him, and he looked away. "You're very beautiful, Miss Qing. I can see why the Prince favours you."
_You're cruel, child_. Grandma Huang's words came back to haunt me. Pushing the memory away, I thanked Ting Feng for the compliment. Ting Feng looked at me without expression for a moment, and then inclined his head and left. It was a strange encounter, but I pushed it out of my mind and directed one of the ladies doing my hair to figure out a way to use the Prince's gift.
As principal dancer, I was first and last. My first dance went smoothly as I performed the story of Chang'er and Houyi, and the death of the nine suns. My already beautiful form corrected itself so that my movements were no more than the nightingale's lullabye in motion, a study of grace and perfection. My temporary teachers heaped praise and criticism on me. The Prince had spared no expense and demanded that the best musicians play accompaniment, heightening the beauty of my dance.
For my last dance, I did the Dance of Four Seasons, drifting from chilling Autumn into serene, deathly Winter, and rising against to flit through Spring and Summer. It was magnificent, if I do say so myself, and I wish that the whole family were there to witness it, especially Second Wife (if only to see her turn a most unsightly, jealous shade).
Cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling, I made an obesience to the Emperor and Empress when I was finished. The Prince stood behind them, his eyes never leaving my graceful form. I rose a few moments later and left the stage with my head held high, and my footsteps tiny and perfect. Excited murmurs followed in my wake, and once I was out of sight, I nearly collapsed, the adrenaline rushing from my body. I had done well, there was no doubt about it, but it is exhausting to portray perfection. People like Long Gui may find it easy, but it is exceedingly difficult for me.
Grandma Huang paid me a visit very soon after my dance had ended, murmuring something about the Prince having sent her. She fussed over me for a bit, checking my pulse and giving me an awful concoction to drink, but I felt better after she had left, and the ache in my bones and muscles was lessening.
There is not much else left to write. The moon-autumn festival in the capital is beautiful and rich with laughter and colour, the mooncakes heady on the tongue and the rice wine as potent as a nightingale's song. Aunt was still cross with me, but Ping laughed and took me by the hand when I left the pavilion, pointing at elaborate lamps and whispering excitedly. Even Uncle showed up for a few moments, congratulating me on a dance well done. Then, pointedly, he asked if I was feeling unwell, and taking the hint, I nodded.
I came back out of their home dressed as Xue Jing moments later. It was a glorious festival, fireworks showering the city with light as bright as the moon's. The city was ablaze with people and small stalls had been set up, selling food and drink, as well as cheap ornaments. I was procuring sweets for Ping with some of my money when a hand grabbed my arm. Startled, I spun around and my eyes narrowed.
"Junwei," I greeted cautiously.
"Your sister danced today. Didn't see you in the crowd," he commented, his thin lips curving into a sneer.
"I was there," I replied, serenely. "My younger sister, Ping, will vouch for my presence. What did you think of my beloved sister's dance?"
"Not bad." Junwei squinted at me, his large eyes piercing. "You two look alike." Then, without pausing, "Where've you been? You've been missing meetings. Anymore, and..."
Returning his glare with one of my own, I wrenched myself from his grasp and murmured, "I have been ill."
"Long time to be ill."
"It is an illness of body," I replied, becoming annoyed. "I have been meditating. It is enough."
"I hope so, for your sake," he said.
"Brother!" Ping said, interrupting whatever I was going to say. "I've been waiting for so long." She looked at Junwei, and then gave him a becoming smile. "Hello. I'm Li Xue Ping. Who might you be?"
"Lu Junwei," he said, shortly, turning around.
Startled by the name, I asked, "Do you know a Lu Tian Jie?"
Ping was watching him very carefully and swears to me that she saw his eyes flicker, but I saw nothing of the sort. "Why would I?"
"It's nothing." Taking Ping's arm carefully. "Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, Junwei."
He did not reply. Annoyed, Ping let out a long huff, and bit into her sweet. "He's quite rude."
"To say the least," I said. Then, "Ping, stay away from him. He can be quite dangerous."
"So he's a pugilist?" Grinning, Ping said, "That's okay. I can take him. I've been practicing."
"I wonder," I said. "Come now, Aunt must be wondering where you are."
It is late and I have been burning candles late in the night to write this to you. Do you think Junwei and Tian Jie are related? Ping thinks so, and I'm not quite sure, but I wouldn't be surprised. Ask him. How is his martial arts? I daresay that Junwei would be no match for you, dearest Sister, but he's a little better than I am with martial arts. He's also much more rash and has a quick temper, and is quick to show his cards. His impulsive nature seems to match Tian Jie's a bit, and I can't help but wonder. Later that night, I received a message from Long Gui. She says that she wants to see me and thank me for the apology gift as soon as possible. I suppose it will not do any harm if I see her once more before Xue Qing disappears.
Write soon, dearest Sister. Ping and I miss you so.
-Li Xue Qing