<i> On the flat lands, where the wether was always sunny and the grass grew high among the dark soil, the Chen kingdom made its strength and name by breeding cattle and producing some of the most powerful and rare war horses on all five regions.
<i> Some hundred miles north, extending their branches all over the unforgivable Huan Ghun desert, the Mu tribes became famous for selling rare spices, concocting powerful medicines and for creating some of the most dangerous and lethal poisons ever known. Their political system was loosely centralized, basing itself mainly of mutual goodwill and respect for the chosen King. Even though this kind of organization avoided unnecessary power struggles, it also meant unpredictability on number and on military power.
<i> Compared to the strong, almost ragged fighters of the Chu kingdom, their position was clearly weaker.
<i> Finally, perched on the mountainous terrain and near the biggest river on Nam [south] Region, the growing Zao Kingdom put completely aside its nomadic roots and started to dedicate its resources on farming, exploring the land and excavating precious ore and jewels.
<i> Inside it's great walls, Northern poetry was not only read, but discussed and eventually surpassed by the some of the most important scholars and philosophers on the history of the Five Regions. At the same time, blacksmiths slowly developed new weapons and refined their methods in order to accommodate the crescent number of martial artists and the kingdom's growing military power.
<i> For many generations, this three kingdoms built a peaceful, mutually advantageous partnership.
<i> That is, until the Nam Region became to small for the ambition of a single person.
<i> Their relationship became strained. Trade rotes were closed or changed. Spies infiltrated every single center of power.
<i> And then the war begun.
<i> Many years would go by before the earth lost its reddish shade and the air didn't carry the strong, metallic stench of blood.
<i> At the end, under the power and leadership of the He family, the southern lands witnessed the rise of the Zao Empire and the begin of the Guang Dynasty, a period that would latter be know for its instability and internal struggle.
<i> Between blood-thusrty descendants of the remaining defeated kingdoms and the greed of the powerful noble families aligned with different princes, there always seemed to be a new reason to deploy troops, train new soldiers or improve military strategy.
<i> Near the largest river of the South lands on one side and protected by tall, unforgiving scarped mountains on the other, the Imperial City was considered the brightest jewel on the whole of the Zao Empire: not only was it the home for the Royal and Noble families, but also an important stop for many trade routes coming from all around the Five Regions and Four Seas. </i>
The young girl looked at her expectantly, with big, nervous almond-shaped eyes. Her simple dress seemingly swallowing her under multiple layers of fabric, which only made her look even younger with her small, delicate frame.
From her place seated on the bad, with arms folded across her middle and head covered by a large scarf (consciously avoiding any reflecting surface), Sam blinked slowly, still stunned by all she had heard and mulling over all the possibilities in front of her.
It all had felt quite innocent earlier.
After the running away fiasco – and having shooed all her supposed relations and the nosy Doctor, this one living behind a trail of shattered porcelain and broken glass – she had locked herself up for an entire day on her new "room", also know as the Deep Serenity Pavilion, refusing to see or talk to anyone till she had understood some things.
For her own despair, instead of using those hours to think, she had actually fallen dead asleep just as soon as her head landed on the weird, cylindric-shaped pillow on her bed.
The next things she knew, she was waking up to a young, unknown girl entering the room silently, her head bent low as if afraid to make her presence known. Sam was probably a big groggy yet from sleep, so instead of keeping quite, she turned on her side, supporting her head on one hand and called the girl.
The poor creature jumped so high her head almost hit the roof, her entire frame seemingly starting to shake before she put down a basin of warn water and knelt before Sam.
"Wu Xiaojie" she greeted on a small voice "This servant is sorry for waking you. This servant didn't want to disturb your rest".
Sleepily, Sam frowned. 'Ah!! Too many strange words... And why is she talking about herself in third person? These people...'.
"What are you talking about 'Wu XiaoJie'? I've already said I'm not..." deep sigh "You know what, just forget it" she grumbled tiredly.
Just then, the look of fear on the girl transform into a terrified, glaze-eyed mask.
"I already said it's okay, all right?!" she lashed out, unnerved at the disproportional reaction of the girl "It's not like I'm going to hit you!"
Those words felt like fanning the flames to put up the fire. If before the girl seemed shaken, know she looked in the brink of tears, lowering her body even more and striking her head against the wooden floor over and over again.
"This servant is guilty! This servant knows her wrongs! This servant is guilty!" she kept repeating, tears mixing with the blood beginning to flow from her forehead.
Sam was so completely shocked by what she was seeing that for ten or fifteen seconds she just stayed there, eyes wide as saucers and jaw hanging open, watching the crazy, suicide girl in front of her.
'Oh God, if anyone happens to tell me that elephants can fly or that I came here through a magical wardrobe, I might just believe it'.
It was just when she heard another gasp, coming from the slightly opened sliding doors of the room that she was able to snap out f it and fumble out of bed.
"Hey! You!" she cried out, looking accusingly at the new girl standing at the door frame "What are you still doing there? Do something! Make her stop!". Her words sounded jumbled and desperate even to her own ears, but what was she to do? There was a pre-teen on the floor knocking herself hard enough to draw blood.
This simply wasn't normal.
'What if I try to help and make it worse? What if I touch her and she jumps out of the window?! What am I supposed to do?! No-one teaches this kind of thing in high school!!'
Fortunately, the new-coming seemed to have a bit more spirit and, with an ease and calm that irked Sam a bit given the circumstances, she went to the still sobbing girl with quick steps, knelling beside her and taking hold of her arms.
"An'er"she whispered in a nervous, urgent voice "An'er! Stop this now. You are scaring the Young Miss".
As if those words were magical, the girl's body went completely still, her head raising slowly, her watery eyes looking completely disheartened when they met Sam's.
"This servant is sorry. This servant didn't want to worry Wu XiaoJie. This servant can't afford Wu Xiaojie's kindness".
"Ahn?!" Sam blinked, trying to decide between laughing hysterically or crying her heart out. She looked at the young girl with pity, confirming once more her seemingly normal appearance.
'Who could imagine...' she though, with a condescending shake of her head 'Crazier than old aunt Margaret... One really can never judge a book by its cover'.
"An'er" the elder girl called again anxiously, almost picking the other one up as they stood once again "Be good and stop crying now".
"Yes, JieJie" she mumbled, giving Sam a side glance "This servant is sorry for startling Young Miss" she repeated "This Servant won't do it again".
And here we go with the "third person" phrases. Weird. All too weird.
"Hum... Never mind. It was just a misunderstanding..." she frowned, trying not to stare at the blood still dripping slightly over her fair face, pooling inside the white colar of her dress "Eh... Maybe you should go and see a doctor about your head... It's still bleeding" she added, fidgeting under the shocked stares of the two girls.
'Really, this people... And why are they still here like that!?'
"So... You should probably go now", she mumbled, sitting on the bed once more and closing her eyes. There was no mistaking that ponding on her temples, the first sign of a nasty headache coming her way.
"This servant takes her leave".
'Finally!' she internally cried out in relief, didn't even bother to open her eyes and show the direction of the door. "How did it turn out like this...?" she asked herself in a thoughtful voice, going over the few words she had said to An'er before all went downhill.
Before she had time to complete that thought, a small, nervous voice sounded from somewhere in from of her.
"Wu XiaoJie, just earlier, Third Young Miss instructed all the Deep Serenity Pavilion servants to be very careful and let you sleep to heal yourself. Eldest Young Master specifically told us not to disturbe you".
"Ah... Okay" Sam said, just to fill the silence. She didn't know this Eldest Young Master, but if eyes could speak, the expression on the maid's face would talk about a very fierce person.
'So it wasn't me she was afraid after all...' She looked herself over once more, with loose, long dark hair and messed up white pajamas. Not her definition of scary. 'Yeah, this actually makes more sense'.
"Is there anything else Young Miss wants?" the girl asked in a submissive voice, her hands tightly clasped in front of her.
Sam sighed, noticing that she didn't even manage to ask An'er what she had planned to ask in the first place.
"I just wanted to know where the hell am I" she mumbled, fulminating the dark wood floor as if doing so she could open a tunnel back to her apartment.
The servant didn't even blink to answer, apparently relieved by a question that she actually could answer easily.
"Wu Xiaojie, you are on the Jiang Household on the Imperial City of Zao Kingdom".
Her head lifted so fast that it felt like her neck would snap in two.
"I am WHERE?!"
The girl repeated the same words again, her respectful town tinged with curiosity.
"Oh... Zao Kingdom..." Sam said skeptically "And what exactly is that supposed to mean?".
And just like that, the girl started on a very long, very boring, and very FICTIONAL tale of the "south lands" and the unification war and mythical martial artists that sounded all to good to be true.
"My gosh, you talk" she breathed when it seemed to have come to an end. "And here I thought I'd left history classes behind after graduating high school".
"This servant talked too much. May Wu XiaoJie please forgive me". the maid shoot the words quickly, falling to her knees once again as if in fear of her reaction.
Sam rolled her eyes.
"All right, all right, I understand. You are sorry. Got it. Now can you please stop with all the apologizing?" she asked, massaging her temples "Just get up now... The floor is cold".
The servant girl kept quite, feeling more and more anxious as she stood up again. She should apologize for apologizing to much, but at the same time, doing it would be against the Miss words! Aya, why couldn't her life be easier?! At the end, she opted to mumble something like "This servant will obey"before rushing to take her leave.
Sam barely acknowledged her words, clearly busy mulling over something on her head.
The girl breathed deeply trying to calm her heart. This young miss was not simple...
Before she had crossed the trash hold, however, a voice stopped her on her tracks.
"Ah... Hey, excuse me!" Sam called, crossing her legs over the bed covers "I just wanted to ask... How did you learn all this stuff about kingdoms and wars and all?".
The servant looked back, blinking her eyes slowly in a completely emotionless expression.
"Hum..." she didn't know what to answer. To be fair, she wasn't even sure she had heard right "Young Miss... You mean, the Nam Region history?".
"Yes, yes, just what you said" she agreed quickly "So?".
"Answering Wu Xiaojie... Some is common knowledge between the commoners, and some my mother told me when I was still very young".
"Oh... I see" she nodded with a thoughtful expression, before continuing "Are there any books about it around here?".
The servant blinked. Then nodded with her head.
"Thank God!" she breathed in relief "Could you bring it to me?"
The dumbstruck girl tittered an agreement before tripping out of the door with a haunted look.
'Could it be that Fifth Young Miss has really gone crazy?' she asked herself. In all those years as a inside maid that Deep Serenity Pavilion, she had never seen the young miss reading anything denser than chip romances and ocasional poetry.
Also, she would never let herself be seen in such a disheveled state. If it had been ten days earlier, An'er would probably be still banging her head on the floor pleading for forgiveness. Li Mei herself wouldn't have escaped punishment for for showing her face at the door...
It was all very weird indeed.
'Maybe she is not crazy' she though, remembering their weird conversation 'But this girl, whoever she is, is not the same Wu XiaoJie of barely a week before'.