Epilogue: Li

New Reader? Begin here. Refer to Character guide and Glossary for help.
* The story is read via alternating perspectives between Zhang and Li.

Continuing Readers: The grand finale! What happens to Li and her gang?

I look around the clean dining area and let out a small sigh.

“Sighing is unbecoming of a cultured young woman,” a voice says from behind me.

I don’t look at him and reply, “It’s really been two years since that day, hasn’t it?”

It’s now his turn to sigh. “You’re sure about closing the shop tomorrow?”

I nod. “It doesn’t seem right to have it open.”

“We’ve just reopened and are barely getting by as it is. We could use the business.”

I shrug. “It’ll be fine. We’ve been through worse.”

I hear him shuffle around behind me and know that he is taking out the sign. “Closed in remembrance. Please visit again.”

***

I am sitting listlessly by the open window in my room as the door opens quietly and a pair of feet pad softly into the room. “Jiejie…”

I don’t respond. Part of me hates what I’ve become, a store owner in the part of the city that I’ve despised since I was first conscious of the world. But I can’t let it go. It’s the string that still ties me to Jintou. Somewhere out there, in the winds, he is still looking after us. He’ll come visit, I’m sure, rustle the fire-weathered oak leaves outside and drop some dung onto troublemakers. I feel my face give a wan smile at that thought and frown again.

“Are you going to stay in here all day?”

“I’m waiting,” I reply.

“For?”

I shrug slowly. “Something to happen.”

I hear her run her hand across the aged wood, which I had badgered and frustrated Hongye with when he was helping us rebuild the place. I’m not an architect, but looking back, I was more than a little bit unreasonable with my requests. I had wanted the place to remain unchanged. I wanted to look at it and still remember the times I spent with Jintou, with Huang-dafu. I’m surprised Hongye obliged and did as much as he did. I owe him far more than I can ever repay now.

“It’s a day of mourning across the entire city, you know. We’re not the only store that’s closed. But still, commerce doesn’t stop in a city as major as ours. Merchants will still come through. Officials will still come on business.”

“I know.”

“What do you want to happen?”

I finally turn to look at her. She’s grown to be so beautiful that sometimes, I think to myself that Jiedao really doesn’t deserve her. She’s taller than me now, with long lithe limbs and silky flowing hair. Her almond-shaped face has tanned just enough to give her a vibrant, healthy look, but it’s her eyes… they sparkle and hold such joy, even on a day of mourning. I suppose it’s only those who have known loss who truly understand happiness. I smile despite myself. I turn back towards the window and feel the gentle caress of the breeze.

“Maybe they will visit,” I say, rising from my position. I smile again at Qiuhuo, who looks at me with a puzzled expression. “Let us prepare.”

The morning and afternoon pass as we work in the kitchen with the remnants of the staff from those days, plus a few more who came from the orphanage. The younger girls squeal and laugh as Shunzi and Fanfan display their expert knife work in preparing the fresh fish. Jianning comes in for utensils and shakes his head in exasperation upon seeing the mess of vegetables that Xiaoyue and Xiaoxing have left on the floor. Meiyu prepares some fresh tea for us, as Jianning and I have both agreed to ban Lvhu from tea-making.

“Chun-jie, how many are we cooking for?” Jiedao calls over the roaring flame as he tosses the chicken in the wok.

“Enough!” I call back, slapping back a young boy’s hand as he tries to steal one of the steaming potatoes.

“But there’s no-”

“I thought you guys were closed,” says a haughty voice by the back door.

I look over. “I thought there’s a sign that says employees only.”

Shen shrugs. “If you guys ignore your own sign, you can’t blame me for doing the same.”

I roll my eyes at him. “We are closed. Do you see any customers?”

“There’s one right here!” he proclaims, pointing to himself with an overly extravagant gesture.

“More than one!” Zhang insists, pushing her way into my view.

I roll my eyes again and whip out a towel to clean my hands. I give a mock bow to the two of them – and the others whom they’ve brought hiding out of eyesight – and say, “Well then, good customers, what can I get you today?”

“The best drink you have!” Shen declares, striding into the kitchen as if he owns the place. Jiedao scowls at him and his train of friends but I simply shrug and follow them out into the dining area.

“You closed off the rooms too?” Zhang asks. “And the doctor’s practice? What if people need to get seen?”

I shrug and say, “Well they’ll probably just barge in like you.”

“We don’t mean to. Truly. Right, dear?”

I give a mock exaggerated shudder at Zhang’s sweet tone. The two of them had gotten married not more than a season ago and are still lovey-dovey everywhere they go. I still remember the huge celebrations that cascaded out into the city in the middle of the night. Everyone was drunk and no one cared who their drinking partner was – only that there be one. Nobles mingled with commoners who in turn mingled with slum dwellers. It was amusing while it lasted. The following day, however, everything was toned down three notches on account of everyone’s hangovers. That, too, was amusing. My clinic saw its fair share of “gentlemen” complaining of mysterious headaches.

“This place is nice and homely,” Shen decides, sitting down at one of the tables. “We should come more often.”

I roll my eyes again. “Unfortunately, we don’t serve the type of fare that you’re used to, oh great scholar.”

He grins at me. “I don’t mind,” he says, stretching his arms high above his head before leaning his elbows against the table in a relaxed manner. “It’s somewhere where I can be myself.”

“Court life must be hard,” I say with a shrug, turning back to the kitchen.

“Oh, court life is so hard on him,” Zhang says, trotting along beside me. “He always comes home with these frown lines on his forehead. I know he’s stressed but I don’t know what to do to help him. What do you-”

“Heavens, you’re reminding me of when we first met.”

“Am I?”

“Definitely.”

“Jiejie!” Xiaoyue comes barrelling down towards us. “There’s a retinue of officials in front of the store!”

“We’re closed,” I remind her.

“They insist on staying here.”

“Staying here?” I sigh and turn back towards the front of the store. “Do people not read nowadays? Who’s this important person that there’s all this ruckus outside my store?” I throw open the door and stare. I don’t know what to say. I probably have an unseemly look on my face, but I can’t seem to concentrate on making any particular expression. It takes me a few minutes before I compose myself enough to say, as flatly as I can, “What are you-”

“Jiejie!” calls another voice. A rush of familiar qi hits me like a sack of rice right before a body barrels into me, knocking the wind out of my lungs with a whoosh. Two strong arms hug me tightly, preventing me from getting air back into my lungs as the young man says, “I missed you so much!”

“I think she needs to breathe, xiaozhuzi,” a lyrical voice reminds.

“I am so sorry!” Xiaolong exclaims, sitting up abruptly and scrambling off.

“X-Xiaolong… I think you’re a little too big to be doing that now,” I manage to choke out as I look at him. He has been living with the mercenaries for almost a year now. Each time I see him, he’s taller, manlier, and more handsome. His formerly rounded figure has stretched out and where I would have poked his child’s fat, he now has hard muscle. He has quite a few suitors, from what Qingyu says, but he still behaves like a complete child whenever he visits me.

The sound of wheels by my head forces my gaze towards their owner and our eyes meet again. My mouth feels suddenly dry again and I am at a loss for words. I blink first, breaking eye contact as I sit up. I can feel his eyes still on me.

“Um, so… can we stay?” asks a tentative voice by the door. I look over and blink at the man, dressed up in all the gaudy regalia of the imperial court. Appearing clearly uncomfortable, he shifts his weight from foot to foot and tries again, “Um, so, Chunfeng?”

“I thought I heard your voice,” Meiyu says from behind me. I crane my neck to see her standing awkwardly by Wei and Shen’s sister, hands alternately clenching and unclenching her apron. “What are you doing here… on this day?”

“Uh, I, well,” he stammers.

“Today is a day of remembrance, is it not?” Yuwen Xiang supplies calmly.

“But it doesn’t involve you,” I say, finally finding my voice.

“No, not directly. But my dianxia here wished to come so I simply accompanied him,” he answers smoothly.

“Dianxia!?” I say incredulously.

“You didn’t know?” Shen asks, crouching down as if to enjoy the festivities.

“I knew he was some distant relative of the Emperor but-”

“So that makes him a dianxia. He’s still in line for the throne so you should watch your mouth around him.”

I glare at Shen. “That kid owes me his life, so I think he can forgive any verbal transgressions of mine.”

“Uh, um, so…”

“And how is he any bit like a royal?” I demand.

“He does better in court than he is doing here right now,” Yuwen Xiang admits.

I sigh and finally stand up, ignoring the hand that Xiaolong offers to me. I pat the dust off of my clothes and say, “You guys have completely ruined my day.”

“Actually, they probably saved us,” Jianning says, coming over to us while wiping his hands on a dirty towel.

“Yeah,” Jiedao pipes in, appearing at the kitchen door with a plate of stir-fried chicken in one hand and roasted potatoes in the other. “We way overcooked.”

“Food! I’m starving!” Xiaolong exclaims, running over to Jiedao. A horde of mercenaries crowds in after him. Tiexin dips his head apologetically and scurries in with them, causing another entourage of officials and bodyguards to follow him in.

“We’re still closed!” I yell after them, shaking my head in dismay.

A strong gust of wind almost blows me over as it enters the store after them, depositing oak leaves all over our floor. Silence descends in the room for a moment as everyone stares at the floating and swirling leaves. I blink back the tears that I feel coming to my eyes. This is home. Everyone is… home for the day.

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