Slowly, his gaze locked in the doorframe, a sharp glint shining through very intelligent, very dark eyes. All the while, he didn't move a single muscle, as if afraid that any movement would shatter the tension filling the air. Breathing deeply, Fei Hong let his vital points align, liberating just a small amount of energy, enough only to help enhance his senses and cover the entire courtyard.
He could feel the life force of all his servants, the slow breeze playing with the tree branches, even a malnourished cat lurking around the kitchen...
But no threat. No malice or evil intentions tarnished the air.
In fact, he couldn't feel even the smallest sign of anything that shouldn't be there.
And yet, the sound of light foot steps closing in around his study was still clear, their pace irregular as if the person was going back and forth with a nervous streak.
What could only mean...
Relaxing his stiff muscles, Fei Hong put aside his writing material, failing to suppress the small smile already curving his lips as the sound became closer and closer to the main entrance.
'Ah Ying must be bored again' he though to himself, looking thoughtfully at the piling amount of documents he still had to deal with, before brushing everything aside to be felt with on another opportunity.
It was almost time for their game of Go, anyway...
Trying not to laugh at his own juvenile antics, Fei Hong stretched his arms and sighed, glancing sideways at the entrance.
"Aya! No-one ever taught you it is bad manners to spy on your elders?" he joked "You can stop with the pacing now, Ah'Ying" he chuckled, waiting for Ying Yue's bashful figure to show up near the entrance, arms crossed around her middle and a defiant glint on her eyes.
Ever since her recovery, Fei Hong found hard conciliating the confused, laughing girl sneaking into his office with his more serious, cold sister. In many ways, it felt like going back in time, to those younger years, when their father was still alive and everything was easier.
And yet, even though in his heart Fei Hong wanted nothing more than to let her be, to let this happier version of his sister grow without worries, he knew it could never be.
Not when they're the last offsprings of the Jiang Family. Not when they were so close to...
Surprised, Fei Hong looked back at the entrance, his brows furrowing as Ye Qi's worried face came into view.
He was supposed to be watching the house today, to make sure no prying eyes would come upon the General coming and going from the Manor.
"Ye Qi? What is it? What has happened?" he asked in a tight voice, a hand already resting on the handle of his sword.
If the wrong people had found out somehow General He had been there...
A cold feeling seeped through his bones, making him shiver.
"Sir, it is fifth young Miss" Ye Qi hurried to explain at his master's reaction, his heart sowing down as Fei Hong's grip on his sword relaxed "You were right, sir. She has indeed gone out on her own".
Without intending to, Fei Hong felt his body leaning back on the chair, releasing the breath he didn't even know he had been holding.
So, the Heavens hadn't left them alone, after all...
"I understand" he mumbled, closing his eyes and massaging his temples "Just make sure we have eyes on her at every moment... But tell them not to get too close... Ah Ying never liked being told what to do".
And Fei Hong was well aware of the fact that his stubborn sister tented to do exactly the opposite of whatever anyone expected her too.
He frowned, noticing that Ye Qi was still in front of him, fidgeting uncomfortably.
A bad feeling started to brew inside his stomach.
"Is there something else? Ye Qi... What is it that you are not telling me?".
"Da Xiao Ye..." he gulped, avoiding his eyes "I might be wrong but, just now, I think I saw Crown Prince on the street... Fighting with Great Daoist Master".
All color left the young man's face, his heart losing a beat.
"And sir... there is more" Ye Qi mumbled "The future Crown Princess is also on the city... I heard a few maids talking about a tea brewing competition being held...".
Before the aide could finish, his master had already jumped out of his chair and all but ran out of the courtyard without a single look back.
Fei Hong had a very bad feeling about whatever was happening ...
'And just at such a moment, he is finally back' a small voice whispered on his ears as the cold, expressionless face of the Daoist Master slowly took form in front of his eyes.
'Stop it' he told himself sternly 'You have to think about Ah'Ying! She is your priority now!'.
"Tell me where your Eldest Miss is" he darted at Ye Qi, whose only reaction was to give a small nod, he himself trying to shut the voice in his head saying their household would meet trouble quite soon.
Sam had known Amelia for almost her entire life.
That, of course, didn't imply the two of them had been on friendly terms throughout most of them.
In fact, the first time they actually talked to each other besides niceties had been on the first year after her parents death.
Those earlier months, Sam had been going on as if lost in a daze, and only when the bills started pilling up and the energy company threatened to cut out her electricity did she really understood what it was to depend only on her own. So she had sucked it up, taken a long shower and begged for a position with one of her mom's old friend's law office.
Donald Morgan, her recently associated boss, was one of the most arrogant, selfish, narcissistic persons she had ever had the misfortune to meet. He was always too friendly, too intimate, and leant closer than necessary when asking for whatever he needed. Every time she would tell herself to deal with it and remember she really needed the money. Until that one time when he waited till the office was empty to try and make a move on her.
After that, when she ran away as if devil himself was hot on her heals (leaving behind a mumbling Donald with his most sensitive parts throbbing), Sam's life had turned into a living hell. He would scream at her, trow her work at the garbage bin, humiliate her in front of everyone on their floor, and even go as far as knock on her arm to make her spill coffee on one of their most important clients.
On that particular day, Donald had been screaming his veins off at her again, pointing a couple files she had rewritten the night before (for the tenth time) on her face while spit flew out of his mouth. Sam's policy usually included taking a breath and nodding before scurrying away. Even though the salary wasn't high, she still desperately needed the income.
But that day was different.
It was her parents death anniversary and, for some reason, she felt herself tearing up.
"How come you seem unable to do anything right?" Donald had accused, trowing the archives on a close-by desk "Is it really that difficult to write a damn case review? Are you daft?! I don't care who the fuck you think you are! It is one word from me and you are out, got it?!"
She gulped, trying to stifle a sob. How come her life had turned to be like this?! When did she become such a pathetic, fearful creature?
Just as she was about to raise her head, a very familiar voice interrupted her.
"There you are, Sam! I'm sorry I didn't call you earlier today... I understand it is a delicate moment for you. Coffee still up, though?".
Sam just blinked, her eyes wide in recognition. Even without the colorful make-up and the green and blue hair strands, there was no mistaking Amelia, the girl she barely talked to at school. A girl that, for some reason, was defending her.
"Amelia" Donald had almost hissed "What do you think you are doing here?".
"Dr.Morgan" she just smiled, adding sweetly "Just waking by, admiring the view."
"You'd better go back to work, then. You're not paid for sight-seeing"
"Oh, I will. But you see, now I actually have a question for you... Of the juridical type" she assured him, smiling brightly "As a lawyer, I would suppose you understand the term 'moral harassment' quite well, don't you, Dr. Morgan?"
The lawyer's face went completely pale.
"You have no ideia what you are talking about" he seethed in a lower voice, trying not to be overheard by their growing public "One more word and I'll get your asses fired before you know it".
"Oh... You are probably right... But do't worry." Amelia had retorted, putting an arm around Sam's shoulders "We quit." she sing-songged "By the way, don't trust so much on fawning underlings... The new haircut? It looks terrible".
Once, long after this incident, while they were watching a sugary chit-flick on the TV, Sam had asked her friend why exactly she had done what she did on that fateful day, considering they were barely acquainted at the time.
"Your mother once helped my family..." she confessed, her usual cheerful self toned down a bit "You probably don't even know, but... Well, mom and I, we wanted to get rid of my dad and his drinking-beating habits, as I've told you before" her lips curved on a self-deprecating smile, before a soft expression crossed her eyes "She never asked for anything... your mom, I mean. No money, nothing. She saved our lives, you know? I was very sorry when I heard of what happened to them.".
Sam had only blinked, tears already stinging on her eyes.
"Still, you didn't have to" she insisted "She would never have wanted you to quit because of me" Sam laughed "Damn, she would probably have accused us both of not thinking and letting Donald go to easily". Both of them had laughed.
"Well, it doesn't matter anymore, right? I think we can both say we're better for it" Amelia blinked mischievously, finally going back to her usual smiling, carefree self "Besides, the guy was totally asking for a beating. He is lucky we didn't become physical!"
Until Sam arrived at this place, Amelia had been her support, her friend, her family... She had helped her heal and find her way more than any fancy psychiatrist.
But now, just as everything was finally going right, her world had been turned upside down again. She was stranded in a weird, unknown place. A place where she had a family. A place where people cared.
For most of the time she felt completely out of balance, unable to blend in and understand the life she was now a part of. Others it was like being a lab rat, with her language and mannerisms being watched closely.
But now, right at that moment, when she had heard Qing Shan's voice at the shop's entrance, Sam was suddenly unable to understand where Ying Yue's feelings ended and where her own emotions begun.
The turmoil on her head just not surpass the relief at seeing the elder girl's face through the entrance, her searching eyes finally smiling as her gaze locked with Sam's.
"Tong Mei Mei" Qing Shan turned once again to the Crown Princess to be "if you don't mind, I would like to offer to make tea on Yue'er stead... To represent the good will of our entire Jiang family" Qing Shan had said with a kind smile, her beautiful black hair framing her face like a painting "It would be Qing Shan's honor".
For a brief moment, as Sam watched, the smile on Tong Zhi Ruo's face seemed to freeze, her beautiful eyes turning as cold as ice and becoming so hard they seemed to be able to cut through flesh and bone.
"Xiaojie!" Ah Mei suddenly whispered, making Sam notice she had been shrinking back from the girl's gaze instinctively.
"Sorry" she mumbled, fidgeting uncomfortably.
"Qing Shan Jie Jie, you are here!" Zhi Ruo greeted warmly "It is such a pity I didn't notice you before! With skills as yours, our competition would have been so much more lively!" she exclaimed on a friendly tone, her face lighting up with a warm smile as she watched the older Jiang sister walk up to the small stage.
'This is too scary' Sam thought to herself 'She is like a chameleon, changing faces so easily...'
"Tong Mei Mei, you overpraise me. Compared to your skills, mine are barely tolerable, I'm sure!" Qing Shan demurred, making a few heads turn at her direction with unhidden admiration. Sam could only concur. Qing Shan was always so kind, it was difficult to have any reservation about her.
'But still' she reminded herself 'there was that conversation with General He to consider...' And even the man himself had to be taken into consideration. And then there was that fight on the street... Sam frowned, feeling a headache on the way. If she wanted to survive on that place, she really needed to find a way and get some answers fast.
"Zhi Ruo appreciates Jie Jie's offer, but I've already asked Ying Yue Mei Mei! I would not want her to feel offended for my changing now" she answered sweetly, the look of concern so real on her face that even Sam almost believed her.
Sam frowned, looking once again at the tea brewing equipment as if trying to make sense of an alien language. There was no telling where she could even start with those things... And with all the people watching, so eager for her to commit a mistake...
Her mind suddenly went on overdrive. She could just imagine how bad all the stares and whispers on the street would get if she made a fool of herself on that stage.
Or worse... What if she managed to offend their beloved Crown Princess to be along the way...?!
As much as she wanted to dissociate herself from this Ying Yue girl, there was no denying the need to consider her acts carefully if she ever wanted to be able to walk the streets again.
As she was almost despairing from finding a solution and started to consider feigning a fainting span, Sam felt Qing Shan's warm, soft hands closing around her own shake ones.
Surprised, she raised her wide eyes at her, reading the reassurance and care on the girl's face.
It still felt weird how much they really cared. Especially considering she was but a stranger on their sister's body.
"Tong Mei Mei" Qing Shan said, turning to Zhi Ruo with a concerned little frown "as I know you are aware, my sister has not yet recovered from a severe injure. I'm afraid she won't be able to make justice of your kindness to our family.".
Zhi Ruo barely moved, her intelligent eyes seeming to access all her options and weighting her words carefully before saying anything. As the seconds passed, Sam started feeling restless, like there was something nagging at the back of her thoughts, something she could not seem to understand.
She could almost feel the heat from Zhi Ruo's gaze, the hatred and disgust turning on themselves until there were only shapeless flames left, spreading through her veins until her hands started shaking...
And yet... Both her and Qing Shan knew she didn't have much of a choice now. Not if she didn't want to be labeled unyielding or mean.
"Oh, of course!" she suddenly said, with a worried look turned to Sam's direction "we all know about such an unfortunate affair! Mei Mei, I hope you are feeing better?" she asked.
"Oh, yeah, I-I'm better... But I fear I'm not quite myself yet" Sam mumbled, trying not to sound like there was a tight rope squeezing the air out of her lungs "The nosy" Qing Shan squeezed her hand "aham, I mean, Physician Li said, if all goes well, I'll be as good as new in just a couple weeks".
As she kept talking, Zhi Ruo's eyes shone with barely hidden curiosity at her peculiar way of speech... It was completely at odds with the Ying Yue she used to know.
The cold intelligence, the detached air... There was nothing of the arrogant, selfish girl she had met before.
It was like seeing a completely different person.
'Is it possible, then, that the rumors are true?' Zhi Ruo considered to herself 'Does this girl have really gone mad?'
No, no! It was impossible! She was probably trying to deceive her! It was a strategy to get her to let her guard down... Anyway, she would figure it out eventually. One way or another.
"If it is like this, I suppose a change is for the best!" Zhi Ruo agreed suddenly, receiving general nods of approval from the audience "Qing Shan Jie Jie, if you may..." she gesture on the direction of the table "I won't worry then, as I know you have quite the experience on the area" the last part sounded barely above a whisper, accompanied by a wry, venomous smile.
Before Sam could ask Ah Mei what was that all about, she felt Qing Shan's body grow stiff by her side, her pale face going white as chalk dust as she turned to face Zhi Ruo with a haunted look on her eyes.
Sam gulped, feeling a burning knot form on her stomach.
Was it... Was it anger? 'But why am I angry?' she asked herself, trying to get past her gritting teeth.
"Jie Jie" she started to whisper, walking forward to touch Qing Shan's hand without even noticing. Just as her fingers grazed the cold skin, though, her vision turned completely black.
Sam gasped, trying to breath between the waves of panic surrounding her.
Just for a second, an image seemed to begin to form on her head. A flash of something like an old, forgotten memory slipping away, out of reach.
'Jie jie!' a young voice called loudly on her years 'No! Please! Jie Jie!'
'Ah Ying! Don't!'
'Let go! Jie Jie!'.
Her ears where whistling, loud and uneven voices swimming on her head amidst whispers and sounds she couldn't differentiate... Everything was coming at the same time, like a painting where all the colors and forms had fallen from the frame, until there was only a mass of color and sound left behind.
And then it all stopped.
With a throbbing headache, Sam tried to grab at something as her body grew slightly out of balance, colorful dots still dancing in front of her blinded eyes.
"XiaoJie!" Ah Mei exclaimed loudly while grabbing at Sam's hand, effectively giving Qing Shan time to regain her composure "XiaoJie, are you all right?! Second Miss!! She is cold as ice"
"Ah Mei, stop it! You are making a scene" Sam mumbled under her breath, barely noticing her sister's growing color, worry replacing the emptiness that filled her eyes. For some reason, she felt relief wash over her, making her breathe easier and her legs not quite as shaky.
"Yue'er! Yue'er, are you all right?" Qing Shan exclaimed, rushing to catch her other arm and help steady the smaller girl.
"Aya!! Miss Jiang, what is it that you're feeling! Maybe we should call for the physician...". the sho's owner exclaimed, looking as flustered as the younger clerks running around trying to calm the situation. Having a noble - even a lesser one - fall ill on his business would only mean bad luck!!
"No, no, no!" Sam rushed to assure him "There's really no need... It's just a small headache." she forced a smile through her pale lips, directing a pointed gaze at her sister's direction "I'm truly fine. It's nothing you should worry about. I just... Just need to sit down for a bit".
"You should not tire yourself like this!" Qing Shan scolded in a low voice, guiding her to a small stool near the edge of the stage "Here, just bear with it for a while longer... Jie Jie will finish this quickly" the last part sounded barely like a whisper, her face turning ever so slightly to look over her shoulders at Tong Zhi Ruo's worried face "It was an unfortunate encounter, indeed" she mumbled, straightening her back again and going to the table, looking over everything before starting to prepare tea with such an ease expertise that half the audience looked on, enthralled.
"She should control herself" a voice whispered somewhere behind her "This will cost us all".
Sam frowned, turning back just in time to see Fei Hong's stony face glued on the two of them, a displeased look on his eyes as he locked gazes with Sam, silently motioning that he would be waiting for them outside.
Without alternative, she just nodded quietly.
The loud sound of clapping brought her attention back to her sister, who had finally stopped bitting the foam and was now holding up the cup and showing the audience, inclining it until the mouth was turned to the public.
No foam fell from the tea, being as still as if it was some sort of bubbly concrete.
The cheers that followed caught even Sam by surprise. Apparently, it wasn't an easy accomplishment.
When Qing Shan went back to her tea brewing, Sam felt a figure nearing her side. She was about to turn and scold Fei Hong for being sneaky when a strong, exotic smell of jasmine surrounded her.
She almost gasped in surprise as Zhi Ruo's composed figure sat herself on a stool by her side, staying completely quiet.
It seemed like an eternity before the tea was finally served and the curious audience started to disperse.
"Tong Mei Mei, it was a pleasure" Jiang Qing Shan eventually said with a curtesy, motioning for Sam and Ah Mei to stay by her side "Our family will always remember your kindness today ".
"It is what I should do" she answered just as sweetly, before turning to Sam and taking her hands on her own, on a tight, cold grip "It was such a terrible thing what happened to you, Jiang Mei Mei! Seeing that you are recovering, Zhi Ruo feels relieved on her heart." Tong Zhi Ruo almost sneered, her contempt barely hidden under a compassionate smile.
Sam gulped, desperately trying to tug her hands free... But there where too many people still around to make a scene. She had to thing about her family now... About all the consequences a crossed word could cause.
"Yes..." she finally stuttered "Fortunately, everything turned out for the best, ha ha ha" she tried sounding nonchalant, but there was no mistaking the sudden cold gripping at her heart, sipping through her bones and making her breathing painful was telling every cell on her body to run. As fast and far as she could.
"It was indeed fortunate, wasn't it?" she answered, her eyes shining with malice as she went closer, as if to hug her goodbye, her mouth going close to her ear as she said "Stay away from the Crown Prince... Or next time, I'll make sure you won't be so fortunate as to see another day…"
N/A: there were actually tea-brewing competitions on ancient China. I've watched a video where it explained how they'd beat the tea until there was a heavy foam, and then see how consistent it was compared to others. As it was said, the original method was lost, but there are still a few traces about the general idea. If you've watched The Story of Ming Lan, then you've probably seen the "Tea Ceremony" I've been referring to this last chapters.