<I>"Cause you make me feeeeeel like, I've been locked out of Heaven... For too lo-u-o-u-ong! For to lo-u-o-u-o-ong!"</i>
Passing quickly through the large hallway in front of the main room's door, two cleaning maids stopped on their tracks.
<I>"Yeah you make me feel like, I've been locked out of Heaveeen... For too long! For to loooooong! Oh, oh, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!"</i>
As one, they slowly turned their heads on the direction of Fifth Young Miss's quarters. The apparent source of the music.
IF that could be called music.
"Eh!" one of them whispered "Do you think it's true? Is Fifth Miss really possessed?"
"Shh!" the other one hissed, looking around nervously "Are you sick of living? Don't say this kind of thing here!"
"Well, but is true, isn't it?" she whispered back, with a tone of righteous indignation "See... Maybe she is putting an enchantment on all of us right now!"
<i>"Can I 'not' stay here? Spend the rest of my days heeeeere!!"</i>
"Oh!" the two exchanged a worried glance, staring the room's entrance with the same stunned expressions.
"It is really strange" the second one finally conceded, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Still...".
"Aya, I'm telling you! This..."
"Eh! You two!"
Both of them stopped talking at once, turning instantly towards the Pavilion entrance just to see a small, fast approaching girl, her furrowed eyebrows showing signs of annoyance.
"Why are you gossiping here?" she asked in a stern voice "Don't you have enough things to do already?!"
"Jie Jie!" the first girl whined, walking to her side and pulling on Li Mei's sleeve "We are just saying the truth! Look" she pointed to Fifth Young Miss's room "Isn't she jinxing us all?! Soon, no-one will want to get close to any of us from Jiang Manor!"
The second maid paled visibly, her mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.
"Aya, that's nonsense!" Ah Mei disagreed "Wu Xiaojie just had a big trauma, she is still recovering."
"But, Jie Jie, it's all really too strange" the second one commented, sounding a bit unsure "This doesn't look like Fifth Young Miss at all! First, it's been more then five days and she hasn't cursed or punished anyone! Before, she was always very picky about her food, now she keeps asking for sweet cakes and something called... Pi-zha?" she made a pause, frowning at the word "Just yesterday, a kitchen maid said that even her eyes are different! And now..." the girl mumbled, looked at the tall building "Ayshh, I don't even know what Miss is doing!"
"Jie Jie, it is true!" the first maid agreed "You see, on the village where I was bourn, there was once a girl that drowned after knocking her head. She was rescued in time by a local fisherman, but after waking up, she was really like a completely different person! She would say strange things, about places and people that didn't exist... They even said she had the eyes of a daemon."
Li Mei frowned, trying to process everything she was hearing – and cover up her growing disquiet.
"Suddenly, everyone on the village started to get sick... It begun with the fisherman that saved her, then her brothers and sisters got bedridden and died after a few days. It was so bad that the elders decided to call a Taoist Priest for help..." she paused for a more dramatic effect, making sure all the attention was on herself.
"The Priest said our entire village had been cursed because of a trickster spirit hiding there. Everyone knows that this things only bring bad luck. That's why my family left and came to the big city...".
"Eh? And what about the girl? What happened to her?" the other maid asked, visibly shaken.
"Aya, that's enough!" Ah Mei stepped in "Go to your chores. Now! Before Miss sees you two lazing around!"
"Hum, look at her... Just because she thinks she is a lady's maid now..." she herd one of them muttering, just before the two girls turned on a corner and disappeared on the path to the kitchen.
When they couldn't be seen anymore, Li Mei breathed a sigh o relief. She really didn't want to think ill of Fifth Young Miss. Since that first day, she had been nothing but considerate to her, even if her words or mannerisms felt a bit strange at times... Ah Mei knew in her heart she had nothing to complain for – that she should first be thankful for the opportunity to have a better position.
But she was human, after all. And that story about the Fox Spirit had hit a bit too close for comfort.
"Ah, forget it, forget it!" she told herself, turning on her heels and hading to her mistress's room.
Inside the room, walking aimlessly over her duvet and holding two chopsticks like they were a microphone, Sam threw her head back once more, spreading one arm and singing at the top of her longs.
<i>"I want to break free! I want to braaaake freee! I want to brake free from your lies your so self-satisfying I don't need you, I want to break </i>... Ah!" she exclaimed suddenly, just as the sound of the front door could be heard.
"Ah Mei!" Sam smiled, jumping from the bed and almost slipping on the smooth floor till she stopped in front of the (still) flabbergasted maid "That was quick!" she praised "So, did you talk to Qing Shan? What did she say?" it was too soon to try and call her sister.
I took Ah Mei some time to recover from the shock, and even more for the words to finally penetrate the fog around her thoughts and unite in a sentence that made sense.
"Xiaojie, Third Miss was very happy" she finally said "She said she and Young Master will be waiting Miss in the main garden".
It was, of course, the year's euphemism. After hearing her sister finally wanted to have a meal with her siblings, Third Miss was so shocked she looked in the brim of braking up in tears besides the plate of snacks.
As for Ah Mei, she herself felt it was all a bit fantastical.
That morning, Wu XiaoJie had woken up a bit earlier than usual, refused the tea she usually drank before breakfast, and simply sat stone-still for the better part of an hour, looking outside the open windows with a glassed eyes.
Ah Mei had already come and gone from the room some four or five times, trying to decide what to do, when suddenly Fifth Miss told her to ask Qing Shan if she could join her for breakfast.
If you asked Sam, of course, it wasn't sudden at all. Her talk the day before with Ah Mei was still making rounds and rounds on her head, trying to make some sense of itself.
Jiang Hao Chen, Ying Yue's father, had been a very important man on his time, one of the most praised Generals and the Emperor's closest confident. Ah Mei didn't know much, and Sam knew that even if she had heard enough to know, she wouldn't have been able to put everything together. She only knew that, on that morning, they had woken up for the whole city in an uproar, shouting and swearing at the baster Jiang, the traitor.
It had been a terrible moment, and even though there was no conclusive evidence that pointed to Hao Chen as a traitor, the Emperor's lenience had come too late. By the time the case was closed, he and almost all his kids, including his wife, parents and siblings, had already been killed. When the news came out, the wives that still lived took their own lives from despair. Now, apparently there were only Uncle Shu, Ying Yue, Qing Shan and Fei Hong – the next heir to the manor.
The Jiang Family Tragedy, as it was called, was well-known throughout all the Empire, even inspiring war poems and operas.
Sam didn't want to poke in such a terrible subject, but part of her simply couldn't put it down. She HAD to know the reason for Ying Yue's father being accused of treason, and what exactly that meant for her, as part of that family.
So, once it was made clear Ah Mei couldn't tell her anything more, she decided to try with the second best source: Jiang Qing Shan.
Of course, she wouldn't be able to broach the topic all of a sudden. They would need some time together, being close 'again'... And what better way to begin than with a breakfast?
"All right!" she said, joining her hand in front of her with a satisfied smile "So, we better hurry then!"
"Ah! Xiaojie!" Ah Mei cried out, jumping infant of her miss "You can't go like that!"
"What?" Sam frowned "Why?"
"Xiaojie!" the girl seemed in the brink of tears "You can't get out like this!" she repeated "What will Third Miss say?!"
"Ah Mei, there is nothing wrong with my clothes!" she insisted. Other than they being enough fabric to cover three people, that is.
"But... Miss! You can't go out in your nightwear!" Ah Mei insisted.
Sam stoped mid step, looking at herself again – more carefully this time. 'So... All this things were pijamas? All of it?' She just had been using half to sleep and the other half when she woke up.
'Maybe that's why all those maids were looking at her like she had gone mad...'.
"Oh!" she said out loud, forcing a laugh "Right! I was just teasing you!" she looking at Ah Mei "So... Where is the wardrobe?".
Fifteen minutes later, sam wobbled out of the room, barely able to stay up over the uncomfortable shoes and the heave – VERY HEAVY – clothes. Gosh, if she thought her nightwear was stuffy, that THING Ah Mei had forced on her (with the help of another meek, seemingly scared maid) were monstrosities brought from person version of hell.
'Hanfu' she reminded herself 'that's what all this layers of fabric are called'. And, apparently, this was her morning, informal clothes! As if in a 'lighter' version.
'It better be worthwhile' she grumbled at herself, flickering her sleeves while following Ah Mei through the manor hallways, trying to ignore the servants on her way that stopped to bow and compliment her, as well as the whispers that followed behind.
The Manor, she noticed, was much like her own room: beautifully arranged, tidied, but with that edge of oldness on the much walked wood paths, the smooth stones structures or even the trees and bushes on the gardens.
"Xiaojie" Ah Mei called "We are here".
"Ah? Oh..." she murmured, looking from the house to the ornamental garden to her right, in the middle of which stranded an elevated platform, surrounded by a beautiful, wooden railing. Inside, sitting by a stone table, Qing Shan had her eyes fixed on Sam. It was such a strong, still look that Sam felt herself fidgeted self-consciously.
"Oh? Ah. Right!" Sam murmured, following her maid slowly, all the while studying the girl waiting for her.
And then, all of a sudden, after more than a week, she was finally standing in front of her sister, separated only by the small, square table.
Seemingly unaffected by the awkward silence and the clear discomfort of the younger girl, Qing Shan got up and took her sister's hands on hers, a very sweet, very watery smile illuminating her beautiful face.
"Yue'er" she said "I'm so glad you decided to join us for breakfast!"
"Ah... Eh, it... It was nothing" Sam blabbed, fidgeting uncomfortably.
"Still... Thank you for coming" she insisted "I know it has been hard on you".
Sam just forced a smile, deciding to stay quiet and only nodding to accept the girl's offer to sit beside her.
"You can leave us" Qing Shan said to the maids around them "If we need anything, we will call for you".
Sam observed as all the maids – Ah Mei included – jut bowed respectfully and left the garden, leaving behind only a very deep, very embarrassing silence.
"So... It looks delicious" Sam blurted suddenly, looking at the many plates of food in front of her.
"They are your favorites" Qing Shan smiled "I hope you enjoy it".
'My favorite food!?' She forced a smile, pushing at her clothes trying to lessen the growing warmth that was turning her body in a sweaty mess. 'God, this is too hot!'.
"I'm sure it's very good" Sam replied, looking back at Qing Shan for the first time. Even at that moment, she could still appreciate the girl's consideration and care for her sister. There was no disguise on her black eyes, only a nervous expectation, as if she was waiting, fearing really, that Sam would bolt at any time and desapear on her rooms again.
'Ah, Sam, Sam...It will be more difficult than you thought!' she chided herself.
"Qing Shan" she said out loud "Thank you... For thinking about me. I really appreciate it."
Instead of answering, the girl surprised Sam by extending her hand and gripping Sam's in a strong, comforting grip.
"Yue'er, we are family" she whispered "The Jiangs take care of one another... Never leave, never forsake".
Sam blinked, trying to pass any word through the sudden tightness on her throat.
The sudden scream startled the two girls, that turned to look at a very young man, standing completely still just a few steps from them.
Sam frowned. In a moment, he was looking at her. The next, he had crossed the space between then, took hold of her shoulder and brought her up and into his arms.
'Ah... What is this about now?!' she thought desperately, trying to understand what was happening.
"Ah Ying" he whispered "Your brother is sorry! I'll never let anything happen to you again!"
'Oh God... So... This must be Jiang Fei Hong, then.'