Her feet hurt. Ling Qi’s last set of sandals had broken a month ago, and the dirty rags she had wrapped around her feet did little to keep out the cold. The loose, baggy clothing that hung off of her stick thin frame weren’t much better. Whatever color they might have been once, they were now the dull brownish grey of excessive wear, marked by ragged patches and stitch works. At least, in combination with her sloppily shorn hair, they helped to make her look like a boy to anyone who didn’t care to look closely.
Glittering flakes of snow drifted through the cold air to alight on streets and homes, painting a dusting of white over the city, and turning the often muddy streets hard and cold. People hurried along on their business, the winter’s chill adding urgency to their steps. It did not snow often in Tonghou, but when it did, it meant that the winter would be a hard one.
Ling Qi did her best to keep her head down as she wove through the late evening crowd, clutching a worn and dirty basket to her chest. Though she was tall for her age, adults still towered over her, and she had no chance of pushing through a crowd of workmen returning home from their labor. Her breath hitched as a man nearby glanced her way, but she kept her eyes down and tried not to look suspicious. He looked away, and she relaxed.
No, running was a mistake, she had learned that well in the last year, better to appear normal, just a poor boy running errands. Her heart beat faster as she considered the faint warmth still emanating from the basket she clutched to her chest. Under the scuffed linen cover, there were still two dumplings, the last of the sellers stock for the day. With every step she took, her hope grew that the late hour and the chill would be enough for the woman to ignore the loss. The market would be closing down for the night in a matter of minutes after all, what were a couple of dumplings to her?
Her stomach rumbled, and she clutched the basket tighter. To her, they meant quite a lot. A night without an aching belly from eating bread that was only a little moldy, a night without having to try and pick grains of rice or other scraps out of the trash.
She just needed to make it a little further.
Her hands hurt. Bai Meizhen sniffled as she held her hands against her chest, sitting beside the garden pond. The burns and blisters had been cleaned and her fingers wrapped and bandaged, but the teacher had said the pain would teach her not to make such mistakes in the future. She lowered her head further, letting her white hair hide the shameful redness of her eyes. The only mistake she made was not watching her cousin Nuying more closely.
She remembered the faint clink of glass containing the Viper Lotus Essence had tipped over, the other girls smirk as her hands had started to burn. She should have been more careful. She knew that she had to rely on herself. If she accused Nuying, it would only make things worse. Nuying’s Mother was, Bai Zhilan the General of Zhengjian’s soldiers, and her Father a skilled alchemist. They would support their daughter.
Who would support her? Mother was gone, and father was a cowardly outsider who could not even meet her eyes, let alone Aunt Zhilan’s. He had not even been home when she returned from her lessons anyway. Despite herself, she sniffed again. What good would he have been anyway, she didn’t care about his stupid apologies and empty words.
She shivered, but did not move. She did not want to be in their apartments right now, no matter the winter chill. The small girl curled up beside the pond, and very carefully did not cry.
Ling Qi ducked into the mouth of a narrow alley. Over head, the sagging roofs of the two buildings almost touched, showing only a tiny sliver of the iron grey sky. She clutched her basket tightly as she ducked behind a stack of worn and broken crates, and strained her ears. She heard the sound of feet beating against pavement, and caught a flash of her pursuers running past. An older boy with a dirty yellow scarf on his head, he didn’t even look down the alley at all.
Ling Qi let out the breath she had been holding, and tried to hold back tears. Why had the yellow scarves chosen now to expand their territory? It was a miracle that she had spotted the boy before she had gotten any closer. She had offended them already by refusing recruitment, but she had seen what happened to their ‘look outs’. Bait was more like it. She would have to find new streets to haunt.
Her eyes widened as she heard footsteps approaching again, beyond the dull clamour of street traffic. Fearfully, she peered around the corner, and saw the scowling boy ducking into the alleyway. With only a moment to react, Ling Qi acted on instinct, clutching the basket in one arm, she shoved the teetering crates as the boy stepped into the alleyway. He only had a moment to shout in alarm before the whole rickety stack crashed down on him.
Ling Qi didn’t even look back. She fled.
Bai Meizhen trudged inside, all attempts at grace abandoned, her sodden gown leaving a trail of pond water across the polished floor. She stood silently as the household servants toweled her dry and changed her clothes. None of them spoke to her, none of them could look her in the eye. Even as pathetic as she was, the embers of Grandmother Serpent that burned in her eyes cowed even the Awoken.
It was too bad that it was meaningless against her own cousins. She should have known that they would find her in the gardens. Another stupid mistake, Mother would be ashamed of her. Bai Meizhen was silent as she returned to her room through hollow and empty halls. Her cousins words hurt because they were right. She was a shameful existence, too soft and weak to be a proper Bai, when the clan needed every ounce of strength it could get. That was why Mother had died after all. The clan had been too weakened to refuse. Enemies circled them always, just waiting for weakness to show.
Shutting the door to her room silently, Bai Meizhen sat on the edge of her bed, a flat pallet with only a minimum of cushion. Luxury unearned corrupted and bred weakness. Grandfather’s words echoed in her ears. It was one of the things he had changed, she knew from listening to the words her elders deigned allow her to overhear. She stared blankly at her empty room and it’s plain walls, only slowly turning her eyes to the only other furnishings in the room.
Bai Meizhen slid to the floor in front of the small bookshelf that stood beside her bed, and traced her small hands over the spines. Lesson and workbooks made up the majority, but there was one that was different. Carefully, she slid her only treasured possession from the shelves, and cradled the illuminated copy of Thousand Lakes, Thousand Tales to her chest, clutching it tightly, despite the ache in her fingers.
Ling Qi smiled as she nestled herself amidst the warm straw filling the crate. It was an almost miraculous find. A packing crate fallen from some wagon or another, empty of its goods, but still full of straw. She had found it in her flight from the Yellow Scarves boy, tucked away at the end of a winding combination of alleys that she had never found before. It was only pure fortune that she had spotted a gap in the barrier nailed into place, eyes drawn by the gleam of an old glass chime, and its gleaming crescent charms, sealing the entrance to the winding corridors between ramshackle old buildings.
She took another bite of the dumpling in her hand, chewing slowly and carefully to savor every last bit of flavor. One was already gone, and she wanted it to last as long as possible. Warmth and comfort filled her for the first time in a very long time, despite the scratchy straw surrounding her.
It wouldn’t be forever, she knew, the owners of the buildings would notice and drive her out eventually… but she might just make it through the winter after all.
Bai Meizhen sat in bind, wrapped in her thin blanket, looking down at its’ pages. There were many illustrations in her book, the last thing Mother had given her, but this one was her favorite. It lay at the end of the Tale of the Sisters, and showed White Serpent and Black Viper in their bloodstained gowns, embracing atop the mound formed by the broken bodies of their foes.
Gently, she traced her fingers over Black Viper’s tearstained face, resting on White Serpent’s shoulder. She drank in the relief on her painted expression, and then her eyes drifted to the face of White Serpent, full of affection and love for her younger sister.
Her heart ached, as it always did when she looked upon her favorite image. Such things seemed so impossibly far away. She remembered Xiao Lin, her Mother’s handmaiden. She had been stern and humorless, but nonetheless, Bai Meizhen remembered the older woman slipping her still wriggling treats from the kitchens.
But she had followed Mother.
“Young Miss,” a servants voice arose from outside of her door, careful and tentative. “Your Father is returning soon, and the Lady Suzhen will be visiting with him. They wish for your presence. May I enter to prepare you?”
Bai Meizhen closed her book hastily. “Y-you may,” she said, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. She cared not for Father, but Aunt Suzhen, what could such an esteemed figure want with her? Some part of her was afraid, afraid that her shameful weakness had finally drawn true censure, but… That would be Grandfather’s duty.
No, she decided as the servant entered her room. She would just have to be on her best behavior, and show her Aunt that she was a true Bai.