Qing Shan bowed on shaky legs, her head bent, her hands clasped so tightly in front of her she could see her knuckles turning white. All the while, it felts like her heart would finally succeed at opening a way out through her chest.
She breathed deeply, fighting the urge to lift her head. To look, just for one last time, at those deep, black eyes.
He wasn't supposed to be there. Fei Hong assured her he had already left!
Qing Shan hadn't expected the sudden knot on her throat, the weight of his gaze piercing her face, studying her expression.
And yet... Yet she knew, deep inside, it could never have been any different.
She wanted to laugh, and scream, and cry her pain to the heavens!
Instead, Qing Shan just breathed. Deep and controlled, cementing the mask of serenity and indifference she had been working so hard for over her face.
Fate felt particularly cruel that morning.
"It's been a long time" he eventually said, his words so soft, so gentle, that even the light summer breeze playing between the tree branches became still.
Qing Shan finally allowed herself to rise, her eyes closing for the briefest of seconds, feeling the light caress of his voice brushing over her.
"Qing Shan has been busy with household affairs... May General He, please, forgive your servant's oversight". she answered politely, her voice low and steady, devoid of any emotion.
The air turned thicker, the tension so strong it could be cut with a knife.
From his position, General He just nodded, his lips curving in a sad smile.
"It was always warm when we used to meet... Even through the darkest of winters, it was always warm." he said, his eyes lost in images long gone, one arm lifting slowly as he watched the bright rays of light play over the pale skin "This morning, the sun is still high in the sky... I wonder why I suddenly feel so cold".
Qing Shan stammered a step, going completely still once more as his words reached her like a slap.
<i> "Knowing that I am the first in your heart... Qing Shan is already satisfied". </i>
She blinked, the sweet memory fading like polen scattered on the wind. They had so been young... Still clueless to the darkness of the world. For a fleeting moment, Qing Shan caught herself wishing she could somehow turn back the time, to go back to those hidden encounters, the smiles, the sweet words...
'Forget it' she chided herself, swallowing the sudden knot on her throat 'It is best this way'.
Breathing deeply, Qing Shan raised her eyes at him, her expression impassive despite the mess her thoughts had become. With her usual serene countenance in place, she walked slowly to a particularly beautiful bush to the side, full of small, colorful and bright blooms.
"This flower is called Morning-Bless..." she said eventually "My brother brought it as a present the first time he went to battle... It is very beautiful, isn't it? Every bloom opening with different, vibrant colors such as this one..." Qing Shan picked one on her hand, her smile fading a little "But did you know...? A Morning-Bless lives only for twelve hours... She is born with the first rays of light, and perishes just as the sun falls on the horizon."
She turned to him, the small, beautiful flower still on her hand.
"Everyday, so much life begins... It's presence not longer than a fleeting breath to the world around them. Sometimes I wonder if, maybe, its short life doesn't make it even more alluring, as if desperately trying to leave a mark... Not to pass unnoticed".
She finally let the small bloom fall, hooded eyes following its slow descent, till it hit the grass, all its colors faded into an old, dusty brownish gray.
"The most beautiful things... They are not ment to last for long".
He didn't answer, only keeping his eyes on her face, as if trying to commit every line, every single crevice and curve to his memory. A man drowning on dry land.
"You should move on, Your Highness" she continued eventually "Don't think anymore of things that can't be changed". She gave a last, deep bow "If your Highness does not object, Qing Shan will take her leave now".
Just as she was turning to leave, though, his words made her stop once more.
"Fei Hong told me what happened to your sister" he said, watching her shoulders tense "I'm sorry you had to go through that kind of pain again".
Qing Shan clasped her hands tightly, trying to control her sudden shaking.
"Thank you, Your Highness, for your concern." she said, barely above a whisper "but she is fine now... We are all fine".
He sighed, sounding defeated.
"It was my fault. I promised you I would keep you all safe, but I couldn't..."
"Don't." Qing Shan cut desperately, very aware of the slight quiver to her voice "Please, Your Highness, we can't afford your concern." she swallowed hard "From now on, please stay away from us... Or else, don't blame me for not considering our past affection."
"Past..." his voice sounded detached, as if he was tasting, trying an outlandish word on his tongue.
Qing Shan closed her eyes, the shaking becoming stronger.
"It's getting late. Your highness should go now, before anyone sees you".
Besides the large, southern building's large walls, still crouched low near the ground, Sam felt herself going slightly out of breath from shock.
'Goodness... What exactly did I just see?' she kept asking herself over and over, eyes still glued to the beautiful, lonely figure still standing under the shades of a large tree, the sunlight creating through the tree branches, shining over the grass and small flowers littering the ground only making his image even more ethereal.
Even now, her mind couldn't seem to wrap itself around their very disturbing conversation (too full of metaphors and ambiguous words for her taste) and everything it implied. She only knew to pray and thank whatever force had helped her and kept her presence unseen.
Sam didn't want to even start considering the consequences of being caught eavesdropping on a general. And her sister.
'Well... That was close!' she breathed in relief, waiting to hear the man's footsteps departing.
Still hidden behind her, Ah Mei felt weak all over. The girl's face was as white as paper, and she looked frighteningly close to trowing up. A simple maid like her wasn't supposed to hear that kind of thing! She wasn't supposed to overhear a conversation between her employer and someone as powerful as a general of His Majesty's army!
If she was caught, death would be a merciful punishment. The worst... Aish! She didn't even want to think!
Grasping the young girl's a bit tighter in a reassuring way, Sam breathed deeply, trying to control her still too fast heart.
It had been a close call. But now the General was going... They'd be alright.
Everything would be alright.
"You can come out now" his voice suddenly cut through her thoughts. Strong, cold, with a slight sign of laughter.
Sam froze, just like every single leaf and bird on the small clearing. He couldn't be talking to her... Right?
"I know you are there Ying Yue." he said again "Don't insult me by pretending I didn't notice you".
'I'm done!' Sam though, debating whether to run or get up and face the angry, just-jilted General.
From between the shadows of the threes, farther away from Sam's pace than the small opening General He still occupied, he watched everything unfold with a thoughtful expression.
"Master" one of his men asked at his side, bent down on one knee, with a fisted hand touching the ground in sign of respect "It is ready.".
He frowned, contemplating the possibilities in front of him. Finally, after giving the young girl hidden behind the wall a last, lingering glance, he nodded slowly, turning to his subordinate.