Continuing Readers: What happens to Zhang and her family upon their return to Dong Ying. There is one more main update left after this installment. Also, do not forget about the Q&A and favorite character poll! Stay tuned on December 31st for the final installment!
A post-winter breeze rustled the branches of the budding cherry tree overhead. In the next few weeks, flowering blossoms will decorate this place into a sea of pink. I drew my cloak a little tighter around my shoulders with one hand as I gazed out over at the placid Han Lake; the pagoda in the distance glimmered on lake’s mirror surface. The landscape here was the same as I remembered, but the scar left by the destruction a year ago still remained in the hearts of the people. Before me, Wei was setting up the incense burner before Huiliang’s gravestone. It had been quite some time since I had been here. Today there was something important that I had to confess to my sister.
“The preparations are complete, Hui-jie,” Wei announced, brushing off her skirt as she gave me room. I nodded, knelt, and undid the small bundle, revealing a pastry box and an old handkerchief. Using the old handkerchief, I wiped the grime from the stone. Satisfied, I placed the pastry box before the stone and opened it. I smiled. Three liu sha bao were picked just for her.
“Here, Hui-jie.” Wei passed me three smoldering incense sticks that she prepared. I nodded and together we paid respects to my sister. I knelt again and placed the sticks in the burner. Wei followed suit and knelt beside me. From my robes, I took out a folded letter addressed to Huiliang that I had written the night before. I let out a slow breath and held the letter between my palms as I silently prayed to my sister.
I apologize for not visiting sooner. The events following our journey home from the capital left us busy. Prior to leaving with her group, Chun warned us to steel our hearts against the devastation that would greet our return. The captured civilians of Dong Ying, on the other hand, cautioned that there would be no warm welcome from the newly installed imperial-sanctioned government. We resolved to prepare regardless of what awaited us. Thus, we, along with the captured civilians and a few royal officials, were escorted back the city with An’s associates from the martial arts school in the capital and a few monks from the capital’s sect. The journey home was uneventful, but we remained vigilant. As Yu-xianzhang tentatively set foot into razed city of Dong Ying, a few people slinked out from the rubble to greet him with a ragged cheer of welcome much to his shock. From the populace, we learned that Mao-daren, who had been installed as governor during the upheaval, had been captured and was awaiting judgment. Yu-xianzhang and the royal judge, Chen-gong, oversaw and conducted the trial. Mao was sentenced to exile and his title and possessions were stripped. His followers were given punishments by degree of their collusion in Mao-daren’s scheme. Mao-daren had begged that the severe punishment would not be extended to his son and family, but his request fell on deaf ears. In the end, they too were exiled and stripped of titles and possessions.
While it all seemed well and done, we had other matters to attend to, such as the state of our households. We were fortunate that handmaid Kang and my father’s steward ardently defended our home and the most precious possessions. It was a tearful reunion all around. Shen-shaoye’s family was less fortunate; the servants fled in fear of falling to the same fate as that of their former master. Shen-furen and Shen-xiaojie wept at the sight of the ruined manor: the main gate was forcibly torn down, the rooms looted, and the valuables stolen. Some thieves had the nerve to take up residence, requiring Ganzorig, An, and a few soldiers to get the rabble to leave.
Throughout all of this, I observed that Shen-shaoye barely restrained his fury. Later, my father offered to help Shen-shaoye and his family in any way possible, but somehow I felt that it cost Shen-shaoye his pride to accept my father’s aid. In private, I tried to offer words of encouragement after he had spoken to my father, but he merely brushed past me, murmuring that he wished to be left alone. Even Ganzorig tried to rouse his spirits to no avail. I figured that he had a lot on his mind and resolved to support him in any way possible.
With the government in shambles, rebuilding required the election or promotion of new officials to take over the vacancies. Having petitioned the Emperor before we left, Shen-shaoye finally received an invitation from the Emperor to take the promotional examination in the capital. The day arrived when he left for the capital. We all saw him off—my parents, Shen-furen, Shen-xiaojie, and I. I gave him a charm that I had crafted for him and made him promise to write to us the moment he arrived. I remembered him, smiling gently, and saying that he would like that very much. The memory still makes me embarrassed, Huiliang! I guess you can say that I had gotten used to him.
“Hui-jie!” Wei’s voice cut through my reverie. My eyes snapped open. My feet and arms were sore from remaining in one position for so long. I shifted to a more comfortable position, not without hearing Wei sigh and mumble that I would catch a cold had I sat there any longer. The incense sticks had burned halfway. Ignoring her look of exasperation, I fed the letter to the remaining flame, watching it crumple to ash. In the distance, I vaguely heard someone calling my name. I stood up hurriedly, stiffness forgotten. From my vantage point on the slight rise, I saw four figures dressed in silk waving furiously at me from the path; it was the girls from the now defunct Meihua Chaguan and Shen-xiaojie. I smiled as I waved back.
Moments later I met up with the girls, and we navigated the winding streets towards Ming-laoshi’s school. As the girls around me chattered, I looked around me at the restored buildings, once familiar but now changed—I still had to look twice to be sure that I was heading in the right direction. It took the combined effort of the affluent and poor rebuild the city in a short period of time. From the gossip of the women who helped stitch clothes and distributed food for the orphans, complete strangers who you never thought would help donated food to the needy. I supposed tragedy brought people together, regardless of class, and showed that kindness exists in the most unlikely places. Somehow, I mused, that reminded me of Chun and her group’s unusual way of helping others.
“Is something wrong, Hui-jie?” Shen-xiaojie asked concernedly. I had unconsciously slowed my pace. The others stopped to turn and look at me.
“You barely spoke since we met up by the lake,” Fang-mei added, regarding me with a sharp eye. “Oh, could it be that you are thinking of a certain someone?” She winked. I felt my cheeks redden at that remark.
“That’s… not true! I was just thinking how everything is starting to slowly go back to normal,” I tried to say as nonchalantly as possible. “Ever since we started donating books and reading to the children, I think everyone is in better spirits and in the process, we got to know each other better and meet some new people.” I was thinking of the friendship between Shen-xiaojie and Meiyu that had blossomed since the night of the battle.
Ren-jie spoke up, “The credit goes to you, Hui-mei. If you had not organized this, a lot of people would not have recognized the need to help the less fortunate. So, we should be thanking you.”
I waved my hand as if to brush off the praise. “No, I could not have done it without all of you. You all brought ideas to help make this organization run more smoothly, so I should be thanking all of you.”
We all laughed heartily and continued walking.
Our charity organization was open to all individuals interested in volunteering, and its headquarters were located in the now empty Meihua Chaguan. Every time I thought about it, I remembered Huang-laoshi and his shocking betrayal. When the soldiers arrived to capture him, he and his wife took poison to avoid capture. We were all stunned by the role that he had played in the invasion of Dong Ying. Even so, we resolved to uphold his initial will of bringing people and ideas together to support others.
“Hui-jie, that reminds me. My brother said in his last letter that he will be coming home soon. I believe that he will be coming home tomorrow!” Shen-xiaojie’s statement made me stop in my tracks. Tomorrow?
“Don’t tell me you forgot!” She said peering at me. I avoided her glance.
“She did,” Wei added, laughing. “She purposely immersed herself with work so that she could avoid thinking about him. Besides, there was one time I caught her rereading his letter.” I shot an annoyed look at Wei.
I retorted: “Wei, I was very busy between running this organization and helping my mother with household affairs!” Wei and Shen-xiaojie just grinned in amusement. I crossed my arms, but then I relented and laughed as well. I guess I can never keep anything from these two.
The next day I tried to keep myself busy with tasks throughout the morning. My mother noticed my jumpiness and ordered me to complete various tasks in the household. Wei patted my back sympathetically.
I was rearranging our curiosity cabinet with Wei when one of the maids, Mei, burst through the door. “What’s the matter, Mei?” I asked as the girl tried to catch her breath.
“He’s back! Shen-shaoye that is,” Mei reported. “He wanted me to tell you that he will be coming here after a brief respite at his home.”
“Was he accompanied by anyone?”
Mei shook her head. I felt relieved. “Very well. That is all, Mei. You may leave now.” The girl bowed and left. I did not dare glance at Wei, lest I betray my nervous excitement. Instead, I focused on polishing the celadon vase that my father had brought back from Goryeo, counting the fine striations as I counted down the hours.
I was seated in my room when Shen-shaoye’s presence was announced. Smiling, Wei helped me fix my hair as I adjusted my clothes. Together we headed towards the antechamber to greet him. There he was seated opposite my father in discourse. Upon my approach, he rose and we both exchanged courtesies. From a quick glance, I could see that he was leaner but not unhealthy. He wore a higher ranked scholar’s garb, I noted. I presumed that he was successful in his examination since my father good humouredly offered Shen-shaoye more delicacies to sample and kept his teacup full. I remained silent, but I noted that Shen-shaoye occasionally glanced at me from the corner of his eye. My mother, as if on cue, made a polite inquiry if Shen-shaoye would be interested in touring our garden as we had recently restored it. Shen-shaoye graciously acknowledged that he would be delighted. My father picked up my mother’s hint and said to me: “Huizhong, if you do not mind, please show Shen-shaoye the garden.”
I looked up and nodded in assent. “Of course, father.” Shen-shaoye followed me through the door and into gardens with Wei trailing behind us. “This is my favorite place to rest,” I said by way of introduction as we approached the plum tree. Shen-shaoye’s eyes widened at the sight of it. Running his hand reverently along the tree bark, he marveled at its grandeur; the tree had stood guard in this house since the time of my great-grandfather and even now. He turned toward me then. “I am glad to be home. The capital was not as exciting as it could have been,” he began as clasped his hands behind his back.
“Surely you did not go gallivanting off with Ganzorig in the capital,” I interrupted. “I heard that there are many distractions for young men.”
He chuckled and stepped toward me. “Why? Were you worried?” He peered at me closely.
I answered calmly, “Hardly. I was merely concerned that you were not taking your examination seriously. Besides, I was too busy with charity work to worry—” I realized too late that he was very close to me now. I flushed as he gazed at me with an indescribable softness. The moment was broken when a sudden gust of wind blew near us, scattering petals. We both turned our heads skyward to see a pair of doves in flight.
» Next: Epilogue (Li)