There were various ladies from different families talking in small groups or wandering around on the company of a high ranked made, all of them walking side by side with beggars, servants and peasants trying to sell their fruits and vegetables to some of the better known restaurants in town.
Zao Wang Guo's (N/T: Kingdom) Capital City was the kind of place where a malnourished, hungry child could stand side by side with another one, wearing golden threaded clothes, and no-one would give it a second thought.
"There is much riches to be found on the Lands of man... Where hundreds walk over thousands that make'm able to stand".
"I still remember when I taught you this verse" a familiar voice said, cool and silky like a night breeze over his skin "I also remember warning you not to repeat it lightly."
Eyes slowly opening to the bustling street market, Fei Hong kept his back rested against one of the large, radish columns of the Tea House.
"So, you are really back" Foi Hong said in a low voice, watching the other man with eyes still a bit unfocussed "It's been a long time."
"So it has" the newcomer agreed, keeping a distance of a few steps between them "I've been meaning to talk to you."
Fei Hong studied him with a guarded expression, his mind, turning furiously in an attempt to guess the reason that brought him back to the city just a couple days after General He returned in secret. The possibilities, none of them were good – even more considering the lack of money to try and control the situation on the borders.
Besides, he was finding hard to concentrate on anything beyond the sudden tightness around his ribs, and the deep ache pulsing on the middle of his chest at the sight of those exotic bluish eyes.
"Da Shao Ye?"
The young master blinked, releasing the breath he didn't even know he had been holding as he turned to his aide in relief.
"Did you find anything?" he asked Ye Qi with a slightly anxious edge to his voice, careful not to be overheard by the bystanders chatting close to the building.
"Sir, this... " the young man stuttered, looking uncomfortably to the side where the second man stood, watching their interactions with calm amusement.
Looking back for the briefest of moments, Fei Hong dismissed Ye Qi's worries.
"Just say it. Don't need to care about Great Daoist Master."
"Sir!" Ye Qi agreed reluctantly, giving another side glance at Daoist Master, as If trying to choose the right words "Sir... A-hem... there was indeed a fighting on the street." he stopped again, fidgeting "People are saying a girl put herself between the Crown Prince and Great Daoist Master... Just as he was about to use the Cloud Shattering technique...".
"I understand." Fei Hong mumbled, shivering internally at the image of his sister facing that kind of power "And about the girl... Are they saying any names?" he asked, fingering the handle of his sword.
There was no saying the magnitude something like that could take once on the gossip mill, but as long as his sister's name was not being thrown around alongside Gueng Xi's, he would not intervene.
From his place near the front entrance of the Tea House, two steps bellow the two Masters, Ye Qi gulped nervously, his face going a few shades whiter as he considered his next words carefully.
"Hum... You see, Xiao Ye..." Before he was able to finish, however, that same velvety voice spoke once more, his tone slow, almost lazy as he approached Fei Hong, resting a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"There is gossip every day, but if no one listens anymore, the gossip will die. Fei Hong" Great Daoist Master called, his eyes burning directly into the Jiang's young master's dark orbs "sometimes, letting the river flow, is the best way to deal with the flood"
Fei Hong felt his entire body tense at the contact, before slowly relaxing once again, his bright eyes slowly cooling down once more... He shivered, stepping back and out of reach as his gaze hardened, turning into the glazed, icy surface of a mirror.
'I had almost forgotten' he whispered to himself in a resigned tone 'Fei Hong, Fei Hong, didn't you already learn from last time?!'
"Ye Qi" he called suddenly, his voice faltering almost in perceptively "you can leave now. Just make sure to keep an eye on the situation. If there's anything... Anything at all, you come to me. Do you understand?".
"Sir!". Ye Qi acknowledge, a worried expression crossing his face as he watched both men measure one another, an uneasy feeling beginning to his stomach as he turned to leave.
As his aide finally left, Fei Hong rested his strained shoulders once more against the red pillars.
"You shouldn't have done that", he commented on a detached tone.
"The kid has improved" Master agreed, unfazed "There was no harm on indulging him".
"It was reckless" Fei Hong retorted "Do you even know what could happen if the Crown Prince had been hurt?".
Instead of looking offended, however, the Great Daoist Master just smiled softly.
"I suppose this's what was missing" he mused, his fingers playing with the slender, jade flute always attached to the belt around his waist.
"Don't play games with me Ah Ren" Fei Hong said, his voice sounding strained to his own ears "Why are you really here?"
Suddenly, just like the curtains falling at the ending of a play, all joy had vanished from Daoist Master's face, his angular cheeks and pointed eyes suddenly looking much older and wiser without that naive glint of happiness smoothing his sharp edges.
"The change that is coming... You need to prepare yourself."
Fei Hong nodded slowly, barely conscious of his action as a debilitating cold started spreading through his body like venom.
"We still have time" he whispered back "You said it yourself more than once. Things will happen when they are supposed to."
Daoist Master just looked at him, an old sadness sipping for the briefest of seconds onto his eyes, disappearing almost as quick as it had shown up. Before he could manage to say anything back, though, the loud sound of applause coming from inside the Tea House brought both men's attention back to the Tea Brewing Competition, just as Jiang Qing Shan's tea was finished and served for Tong Zhi Ruo and a few selected nobles under unabashed praising.
Fei Hong breathed deeply.
"A wolf raised between dogs will still be a wolf, just as a phoenix raised between chicken, will always be a phoenix." he muttered to no one in particular, his eyes still set on his sister with a deepening frown.
"You can change the appearance, but inside, the essence will always be the same." Daoist Master agreed in a thoughtful tone, watching closely for Fei Hong's reaction "Don't be too hard on your sister. Some things... We are just not able to understand in this life"
The words echoed through Fei Hong's thoughts for a few seconds like noises on a tunnel, without sense or meaning whatsoever. The frustration and tiredness of everything that had been happening to his family was coming to the surface with a vengeance, finally taking his toll on him.
"Fei Hong" Ah Ren called again "Let it go".
Slowly, as Daoist Master's meaning seeped through the haze on his mind, Fei Hong felt like being plashed with cold water, the cool feeling washing all the annoyance and frustration away. Turning to glance at his friend, he released a deep sigh.
"I just wished she could be more cautious" he said in a defeated tone "I thought that after everything that happened on the Manor she would understand... She would learn to retreat".
He had thought Qing Shan would finally be able understand the crushing need to let someone else take the spotlight in order to survive.
"Love and understanding, even though they can walk side by side, are not always the same" Yi Ren said with a sad expression "No-one questions your devotion to your family, Fei Hong... But if you want to survive what is to come, you have to try and learn to accept. To understand your sisters are flawed."
"I know" he agreed easily. Still, it was hard not to resent what could be so easily seen as selfishness...
Just at that moment, they heard Ying Yue's animated voice complimenting her sister, a large smile glued to her face.
Yi Ren blinked, accompanying the girl's actions from where her small frame sat, on a stool at the edge of the stage, with a curious look.
"I've heard rumors about how your sister's changed since the accident, but I didn't quite believe it... Until I saw her earlier today" he commented eventually "She is not the same anymore."
Fei Hong tensed, his heart beat rising furiously.
"She is confused." he answered shortly, hands closed in tight fists "The trauma took most of her memories. She... She just needs some time to adjust."
"This is not quite right, though, is it?" the other retorted with a knowing glint on his eyes, finally turning back to Fei Hong "You know... There was a rumor I heard when I was on the mountains... They say the Luan Bird was sighted a few weeks ago near the South Mountains".
Fei Hong felt his body go completely cold, all blood running from his face as Yi Ren's words registered into his numb mind and a slow, burning fear started spreading through his veins, gripping his heart like a tourniquet.
"Impossible". He mumbled "It's been over a thousand years... You can't..." his feverish eyes locked with Daoist Master's "Surely you cannot mean...".
"Death". he agreed cryptically, a worried expression crossing over his face "There is a storm coming, Fei Hong... One that is much grater than the Zao Kingdom. One that we have to pray we will be able to survive".
Fei Hong's mind started spinning out of control, his thoughts racing each other as he tried to make sense of what he had heard. The Luan Bird, an omen of death – but, first and foremost, a sign of great change – had been sighted over the South Mountains... One of the biggest symbols of the Nam Region, bordering the Zao Kingdom's farthest side. If the legends were true, if these signs really did mark the moment of the Vermillion Bird's rising, then...
He froze, his mind finally connecting the dots.
"You told him" he said, his voice hardening as he stared at Yi Ren "You told General He about this, didn't you? That is why he came back" Fei Hong whispered desperately, crossing the few steps between them until there was barely a hair strand left between their faces "You... What exactly did you say? What is it that he expects to find here, Yi Ren?"
The atmosphere between them tensed, the air sparkling with electricity as their eyes locked in a battle of wills. Fe Hong's breath became faster, until he was almost gasping from air in front of Yi Ren. They were fire and ice. Two elements made not to be mixed together. And yet... How powerful could it really be if they finally collided? How much...
"Ah! L-Look at the time! We-We really need to get going!" Ying Yue's exclamation sounded like the crash of a thunder, instantly shattering the tension on the air and releasing her brother, who retreated a few stumbling steps as quickly as he could manage.
"Qing Shan... Eh, I mean, Jie Jie! Let's go, let's go! Look! Fei Hong is already waiting for us! Fei Hong!" She called, waving at his direction with one hand while, with the other, she dragged her stunned elder sister from inside the Tea House – without even acknowledging the confused shop-owner.
"Fei Hong!" she called again, forcing a smile "Fei Hong! We are here!".
Caught off guard by the alien behavior of his sister, Fei Hong could just watch as both of them exited the shop on a fast pace, stopping a few steps away from him slightly out of breath.
Ying Yue, in particular, seemed in the verge of a nervous meltdown.
"Ah Ying, what is it?" he asked worriedly, rushing to her side as he grabbed her by the shoulders "Did something happen to you...?" his eyes hardened "Did anyone..."
"Ah... Ehm... N-no, we are fine" she mumbled, a bit too fast for his taste. His eyes thinned into a slit "I'm fine... I'm really fine" she tried assuring him, forcing a colorless smile on her faec "Just Oh-So-Ready to go home, you know?!" the girl laughed, a shivering, nervous sound.
Fei Hong frowned, trying to make sense of her deathly-white face and weird behavior. It was like something had scared her half to death, but... He looked once more at the Tea House. It was difficult imagining something that could have this kind of effect on her coming from there. His eyes slowly rested on Tong Zhi Ruo's furious eyes.
"Ah Ying..." he begun seriously "Are you sure nothing happened to you?" looking up, his eyes met Qing Shan's slightly confused ones "to both of you?"
"Sure! One hundred percent! Just..." she breathed deeply, trying to control the shaking on her hands "Just... Please, let's go home" all the while, Sam was trying her best not to look back at the Tea House, where she could still feel Zhi Ruo's eyes burning holes on her back.
Fei Hong still studied her for a few seconds before nodding silently, turning to call for their carriage to be brought around. As he was busying himself, Sam felt a new wave of panic beginning to built, the implicit threat on Zhi Ruo's words echoing on her head like a mantra, until there was no strength left on her limbs...
"By the way" she said suddenly, trying to distract her mind "Who was that guy talking to you just know? I seem to remember him from somewhere..."
"Who...?" Fei Hong turned once more, finally remembering Yi Ren's presence, but as usual, he was already nowhere to be seen, just like vanishing on thin air "Ah, he was just an old friend of mine... No need to worry yourself about it."
Sam just nodded, sighing deeply as she slowly walking to the side, stopping besides a very fidgety Ah Mei as she considered everything that had happened on that day: from her weird meeting with General He, to the scene on the street with Crown Prince, and now this facade on the Tea House...It didn't matter the way she looked at it, or how she tried justifying what happened with her complete ignorance about most things on this place, the picture was still not good.
"This time... I really screwed up, didn't I?" she mumbled to the girl, watching as her siblings discussed in hushed tones.
"Miss! Please watch your language! You can't say things like that!!" the younger one screeched, looking on the verge of collapsing "What if anyone hears you, then what can we do?!"
"They would probably end up agreeing with me, anyway" she tried joking, just to sigh deeply at Ah Mei furrowed brows "Forget it... it was a bad joke. I'm sorry."
"Miss" Ah Mei begun slowly, looking at her with a tentative smile "Eldest miss and young master love you very much... Everything will end up well, miss, you will see."
Sam smiled back at the girl, giving her a small, tight squeeze. At that point, she could really only hope for the best...
Finally, the carriage was brought to the front of the shop – just before Zhi Ruo managed to extricate herself from what was left of the "best-whishers and congratulators" crowd. Ying Yue could barely contain a sigh of relief as she grabbed at Fei Hong's helping hand and embarked on the wooden, uncomfortable carriage.
Through most of the way, no-one said anything, just letting the slow roll of the wheels and the feeling of the shaking, irregular road bumping the three of them against each other. On the outside, Ah Mei and Ye Qi, sat at the edge of the carriage's front, exchanged a nervous, worried look. Even the horses looked to be somewhat unease with the silence.
Eventually, when they had finally managed to navigate the crowded streets and get out of the market zone, Sam sighed, her eyes opening for the first time to look at her siblings.
"It was her, wasn't it?" She whispered in the silence of the carriage "Tong Zhi Ruo? She was behind what happened to me… That's why you didn't want me to go out alone."
The other two exchanged a heavy look, as if none of them had enough energy to breach the subject at that moment. Finally, Qing Shan leant forward, her hands extending to hold Sam's smaller ones on a reassuring grip.
"Yue'er, Tong Zhi Ruo is Prime Minister's daughter and Royal Concubine Gao's niece" she answered with an uneasy tone "Please, don't say this kind of things lightly again."
Sam frowned, looking from one to the other.
"But… But she said clearly that..."
"Just let it go" Qing Shan continued, giving her hands a squeeze "Some things... It is better to just forget about them."
"Besides" Fei Hong added suddenly from his pace at her side, jaw setting in a hard line "We are yet to find any clue concerning the accident. Even though it was no secret you two had a difficult relationship, from that to her doing anything against you..." he sighed, looking older than his years as he gazed without seeing out of the window.
"About what really happened to you on that day... I suppose we can only guess."
The second part of "What Happened to Ying Yue" continues on the next chapter!
N/A: The Luan Bird and Vermillion Bird were first mentioned on Chapter 5.