<i>"Yue'er, do you remember anything about the Mu Tribes?"</i>
The question had hung in the air between them like a too tight string ready to snap. Even now, more than a week later, Sam couldn't forget the tension rising between then, so thick that it could be sliced with a knife.
Sighing, Sam looked at the uneven lines disappearing on the water surface, the small twig between her fingers now turning in small circles.
Just like on that day, the sun was still shining bright, the light breeze shaking the tree tops and small birds chirping and singing all around the garden. The warmth that penetrated the multiple layers of her outfit, however, couldn't erase the chilly feeling that particular conversation still evoked.
'Some things are meant to be heard, and never be said again', Qing Shan had said, her eyes brimming with uneasiness just as her movements became edgy. The message was clear enough, and Sam knew that if her "sister" wasn't such a trusting soul there was no way she would go on with what she told her next.
Even Fei Hong, she supposed, would have changed subjects and waited till asserting how trustworthy she was before sharing anything with her.
Maybe because of this, Qing Shan's words kept repeating on her mind over and over again...
<i>"After the war, after the first Zao Emperor prevailed over the Nam Region, there was too much destruction and chaos everywhere." she had said, putting her tea aside and holding her hands together on a nervous gesture "The Chen people were strong enough to be made slaves and help rebuilt the Empire, but even if we had manpower, we still needed funds and building material." she sighed "With the war, our mines and forests were made almost bare, all in an effort to make sure there were enough weapons to last till the end..." she paused, as if considering her words "I don't know if Ah Mei mentioned it, but the Mu people were always known for their talent and knowledge on poison and medicine."
"She said something about it" Sam had agreed thoughtfully "I bet they had some valuable prescriptions".
"They did" Qing Shan gave a half smile "Everyone on the Five Regions and Four Seas knew that, if a Mu doctor couldn't cure a poison or remedy a disease, not even the Gods would be able to help."
Sam didn't ned more words. The Emperor didn't need more slaves. He had needed money. Lots of it.
And apparently, the Mu's knowledge was the fastest way to refurbish the coffers and rebuilt everything that was destroyed during the war. Besides, as Qing Shan had pointed out, the tribes had to pay tributes with some precious tea herbs that only grew in the desert, as well as send most of their capable men to reinforce the Zao's army.
Sam breathed hard, trowing the twig on the water and getting up once again, ignoring the tingle all over her legs and feet. She had though the deal was good. That being alive and "free" was better than the option...
But, apparently, she forgot this was not her home.
She didn't know how this place worked. How cruel it could really be.
"Yes, on the surface, it really looked like the Emperor was good to them" Qing Shan had murmured after Sam shared her observations "But you have to remember, Yue'er... To conquer another people is not only about possessing their lands, owning their bodies or ruling their lives. It is about shattering their souls, killing their way of life and replacing it with the one that best suits your purpose. To really conquer is to destroy what was once the enemy, even if it's just an idea".
The Mu Tribes had been one of the last nomadic groups of the entire Five Regions and Four Seas... To pay tributes they had to plant. They had to grow and harvest. To send their best fighters to the empire they lost those that would learn with the elders and pass on their knowledge and traditions to the next generations.
Even though the emperor kept an image of benevolence, the violence he committed against this people was indeed unimaginable...
Despite the warmth of the day, Sam felt all the hair in her arms rising, a cold chill running down her spine.
<i>"If you asked any of them, I suppose they would've wished to die with dignity back then rather than live like this".</i>
To completely sever the ties that made that people the Mu Tribes, to destroy their identity until there was nothing strong enough left to unite them under a common purpose.
This... This was beyond cruel.
"Yue'er?" Qing Shan asked, her smooth, delicate hand covering Sam's smaller one on a tight, conforming grip "Are you alright?".
"Hum...?" Sam startled, finally snapping back to the present. With some effort, she trie to push down all those images of blood and chaos still rolling around her head on a dizzying mess, plastering a smile on her face and giving her sister a reassuring look "Yes... Yes, I... I'm just a bit tired, I guess".
As every other day since their first breakfast together, the two of them were taking a stroll together around the gardens, enjoying the morning sun and the sweet, flowery smell that would eventually be replaced by the reddish autumn tones.
Qing Shan smiled, crossing her arm with Sam's while they retreated back to the main rote, one that would eventually take them to some blooming bushes and still dew-covered grass.
"We have been walking a lot, lately" she agreed "maybe you would like to go back to your room to rest?".
'And be left to drown on all this thoughts and bloody tales... Not happening'.
"Ah, no, no! I'm totally recovered already!!" she answered quickly, making circles with her arms and jumping in place as if to show how fit her muscles were "See? Totally fine!".
Qing Shan only laughed, looking at her younger sister with affection.
"You are really different from before" she commented offhandedly, a delicate smile still on her face.
Sam froze, a dozen different alarms going off on her head.
"I... I am?"
"You are" Qing Shan nodded, completely unfazed by the younger's reaction "You seem happier... It is good to see".
Sam released he breath she didn't even realize she'd been holding, telling her frantic heart to calm down once again and stop doing some sort of Zumba choreography on her chest.
"Ah, well... I still don't remember much" she commented, turning around on the garden as if trying to take on everything "But this is all so beautiful... It would be a shame not to enjoy it, right?" she laughed at herself, her greenish eyes sparkling under the sun light "This place feels unexpectedly warm today".
'And you seem unexpectedly pure' Qing Shan thought, looking at the girl in front of her and trying to understand the mess that were her feelings. Of course she didn't believe her sister was possessed, but on moments like this, when she would act so out of ordinary... It was hard not to suspect something was off.
Even more if she considered her eyes. Her strange, hazel eyes.
"I heard you've been spending some time with Fei Hong this last couple of days".
"Ah, yes" Sam agreed absentmindedly "He has been busy with some military stuff, though" she shrugged "so we didn't have much time... But he has been teaching me to play Go".
'Or, at least, has been trying to', she completed to herself.
Since that first encounter, the two of them seemed to have fallen in a friendly routine.
Ina particular morning, Sam scalded her tongue on a hot tea she had asked a young maid to prepare – seeing that Ah Mei was already busy elsewhere. Sam had just spit everything out and started to curse her lousy manners when the girl fell to her knees and started crying and apologizing – all the while hitting her head on the floor.
She simply couldn't take anymore the way every servant and maid seemed to freeze or shake in fear every time she showed up somewhere, so, instead of screaming at the sobbing girl, she forgot the tea and marched out of her rooms, decided to go somewhere quiet and vent some pent up frustration alone!
That was how, unintentionally, she had ended up on few Hong's door steps. She had just taken a peek inside his tidy, clean and impersonal room and was about to turn on her heels and go back when he called her, his smiling face showing up beside a particularly tall bookcase.
Every evening since then, she would pass by his rooms and they would seat ant talk for a while. More times than not, however, Fei Hong would simply put aside everything he was doing, pick up the game board, and say something like.
"I never got to really teach you how to play Go before". Or even "I thing you are actually beginning to understand it" or "This was better...".
Of course, it was a good-intentioned, big, fat, lie. That game was something Sam couldn't even begin to understand! Dames, chess, she could grasp the idea behind it all... But that Go thing...? She'd probably end giving it up eventually.
This or making her very patient teacher go crazy.
"I see... And how has it been going?" Qing Shan asked, sounding genuinely curious.
Sam only turned a scowl at her, deciding not to say anything.
Despite herself, Qing Shan laughed, the sound so light and beautiful that caught the attention of both her maids that were waiting some steps back.
"You never really had much patient to learn it before".
"I didn't?" Sam repeated, looking a bit happier with the news "Well, it seems I still don't!".
And for some time later, the servants could still hear the happy, silky laugh of their eldest miss, as well as the quirky comments and ocasional weird words Sam would spout in spite of herself. It was a beautiful day indeed.
Many hours later, when Sam was back on her rooms getting ready for bed, she couldn't seem to shake some of Qing Shang's words on that morning. The two of them had been talking about their family's history and some other things she had forgotten when Sam unconsciously diverted the subject to something that had been nagging at her for the last five days.
"Qing... JieJie" she corrected quickly, remembering that here she was supposed to dress her as her older sister "You said before that the Mu People were under the Empire's rule, that the Emperor always made sure they didn't have a common go in order to revolt" she summarized, the frown on her forehead deepening with every word "But, if that's so... What do the Mu tribes have to do with Fei Hong's General and all this things he's been doing lately?"
She simply couldn't understand how they had started an unrest big enough to catch the Emperor's attention! It didn't feel right when considering everything they had talked about. Also, there was that sensation... Something that was but the echo of fear, a sixth sense she couldn't shake off. Like that body remembered something she couldn't yet grasp, but that left her fidgety and unable to shake that feeling of urgency.
And then Qing Shan had finally said.
"There is a rumor... That the real Heir to the Mu Kingdom is still alive. That he has been hiding among the Emperor's court while preparing to fight and take back the throne".
Sam had been completely dumbstruck. Things just got better and better around here, didn't they?!
"And... Is it true?" she asked tentatively, studying the other's expressions.
"Of course, it is just a rumor" Qing Shan assured her, still not quite meeting her eyes "There was so much death on those days... It is difficult to imagine anyone surviving something like that".
"But it is not impossible either..." Sam murmured to herself, before shrugging off those thoughts and trying to ignore the foreboding feeling that had settled on her bones.
Instead, she focussed on getting rid of all those layers and layers of clothes so she could change into something more comfortable and try getting some sleep.
"Miss" Ah Mei said, entering her room before two other girls carrying full buckets of water "Your bath is ready!".
'Finally!' It was good not to have to think about anything for the next thirty minutes at the least.
The place was small and dark and so tight she could barely feel the air entering her lungs.
"Shh!" someone behind her said, holding her body even tighter while pressing a hand in front of her mouth "It will all be alright" the person, no more than a kid, said near her ears, his voice sounding just as out of breath as she felt.
From outside, the smell of burning wood grew stronger, just as thick, dark smoke started sneaking in through the cracks and spaces between the tightly closed doors.
She coughed, her lungs hurting.
"Shhh!" the child asked again "Just a bit more... Just take it a bit more...".
Outside they could hear the sound of people screaming, furniture being torne apart, metal rubbing against metal, things falling and clothes tearing carelessly. Someone cried loudly, just before the sizzle of a blade...
A loud, dry thump. More screams.
She started crying, pain and fear mingling together till she could barely breath.
"Ah Ying... Shh, shh, please don't cry!" the youth died to calm her down, the stifle her sobs, but it just made things worst.
The heat grew and grew, just as the shadow of the flames licked at the crack on the doors. They would die that night.
She cried louder.
And then everything seemed to stop. All noise, all moment, everything stuck in that single second.
Behind her, the kid tried to wield a small dagger, his hands shaking like falling leafs.
And then the cabinet's doors were pushed open.
"AHH!" Sam screamed, sitting up straight on the bed while her wide eyes scanned desperately the darkness around her.
She could still smell the smoke, the sweaty, bitter smell of fear all around her...
"Ah! Ah..." she tried to calm down, slowly coming back to her senses when a thin streak of moonlight invaded the room through her half opened windows.
There was no fire. No screams. No blades or death.
It was only her. On a dark, empty room.
"It was just a dream... Just a dream..." she kept repeating over and over, trying to convince her frozen body that there was no danger around. That she was safe there... But it all had felt so real!!
"You are safe. There is no fire here. It was all a dream" she said once more, trowing her shaking legs to the side and trying to stand up.
Her hair felt slick, clinging to her neck and forehead in a sweaty mess that only ade her feel even more trapped. Rationally she new it was an exaggeration, but her body seemed completely unable to rationalize anything at that moment.
She just needed to get out of that place. Find some air. Breathe.
She needed to breath.
Ignoring the pair of shoes Ah Me had carefully organized besides her bed, Sam just dashed through the door, leaving two stunned night guards on the entrance of her pavilion. She ignored everything but the urge to keep running. Just like on that first day she had woken up on this place.
Sam didn't know where she was going, or for how long she ran, she just knew that, suddenly, somehow, she had reached that small bridge over the lake. The same one where Ying Yue had talked with Few Hong for the first time.
Feeling exhausted, Sam collapsed on the wooden surface, letting her feet fall from the edge and into the cold, healing water.
<i>"Do you think I could reach the water?"</i>
The voices sounded distante, just like ghosts from too many years on the past.
Sam sighed, finally feeling the fear and nervousness leave her body.
"I don't want to stay here" she whispered "I want to go back".
This place was too scary, too complicated. The only time she had braved the word outside the mansion she had come back being called a demon, a trickster spirit!
And now this thing with the Mu Tribes... She could still smell the blood from her dreams. Thick. Metallic.
"I just want to go back" she pleaded, her eyes rising to the round, white moon hanging on the dark, cloudless sky "Please, let me go back" she whispered, feeling the tears slowly falling through her face.
But there was no answer that night. Only the low chirp of the crickets.
And the dark, lonely figure that watched everything from afar, sat on the roof tiles of the Jiang Manor.