Her hands raw and sore, Qing-Qing scrubbed at the blankets in the cold river water, arms tired and head light. She had little difficulty caring for her own needs, but with a second, useless mouth to feed, it was starting to overwhelm her. Rain – Baledagh, she corrected herself, ate enough food to beggar three families, his belly an endless hole through which all her efforts and goodwill disappeared. She spent every minute of every day toiling away, whether it be cleaning, cooking, foraging, or fixing, she hadn’t had a moment’s rest since he arrived.
That pampered little warrior even had the gall to make sour faces as she spoon-fed him. What was so terrible about her cooking? Any man in the village would be delighted to eat a meal prepared by her, much less be hand fed. He claimed to dislike seafood, which was absurd, clams were deliciously chewy while oysters made a fine meal with nothing more than garlic and vinegar. It wasn’t easy finding enough to fill his belly, hours spent on her hands and knees digging through the surf, or diving into dangerous waters in search of sustenance.
At least he pretended he enjoyed the meal, even if only with lip service. If not, she might have poisoned the little ingrate. The worst of it were his horrendous manners, thanking her only once in memory and making outrageous, off-hand statements, like asking if she might catch and butcher a wild beast. Who did he think she was, some famed huntress? If she stepped foot outside the village without an escort, she’d end up in some beast’s belly by nightfall or worse. No matter, the Mother would provide and Qing-Qing would soon be free of all these burdens, a rich woman in the prime of life.
Her suffering was made all the worse knowing there was a veritable fortune sitting inside her hut. Before meeting Baledagh, she’d never have thought there would come a time when her problems stemmed from having too much gold, but now? She didn’t dare spend more than a copper or two to trade, feigning extreme poverty to keep her windfall secret. It was impossible to depend on Baledagh for protection, he could barely sit up for a meal, and if the villagers learned of the fortune in his boot, they might act rashly. Even she entertained thoughts of diving into the waters to search for the other boot, but lacked the courage to face the dangers lurking in deep waters. The Mother had no love for fools and daredevils, favouring prudence and caution.
Mindlessly washing the bed-sheets, her thoughts wandered through the possibilities of what she might do with fifty gold. With that much coin, she’d move into PingYao city, guarded by its turtle protector. Safe from beasts and bandits, she’d be able to wander about the city for days, strolling around in a lovely silk dress, how wonderful that would be… She’d never have to worry about straying from the path and stumbling into a ferocious beast’s den, or having to hide with all the womenfolk when riders arrived in the night. Living in a house of stone and brick with a roof that didn’t leak, sleeping on a real bed with cotton sheets, it was all so luxurious she could hardly imagine it.
The sound of derisive laughter broke out and Qing-Qing glanced over at a group of her friends, all the younger, unwed women who smiled back at her. Gathering her laundry, she grinned as she approached. “Ladies, please tell me you have a funny story to share. I’ve worked so hard lately I’ve hardly had time for a chat and I’m in desperate need of good cheer.” They glanced at each other, tittering quietly before their laughter broke out once more. Tilting her head, she raised an eyebrow as she smiled with them, their laughter infectious. “Come now, share the story. Did Drunkard Mu wake up in the chicken coop again?”
The girls all kept quiet as they continued to titter and glance among themselves, so Qing-Qing turned to her best friend since childhood, Bao Bei. After losing her own family, she’d been bounced around the different households before staying with Bei’s family for close to a year. She became fast friends with the girl, holding her hand at night while crying for her family, Bei playing the part of the older sister. Auntie Ting and uncle Wei were so kind to her, treating her like one of their own when all the other adults tried to pretend she didn’t exist.
After Uncle Wei injured his back, she left to live with Gen’s family, the village chief the only one willing to take her in. She didn’t stay long, Gen’s aggressive pursuit forcing her away, leaving to strike out on her own at the tender age of fifteen. It hadn’t been an easy five years since, but once she reunited Baledagh with his people and she was safely away, she would send for Bei and her family to join her in PingYao. No sense condemning another to her fate before she was free and clear. She couldn’t just assume Baledagh would keep his word, not with all the horrible stories about him. “Bei-Bei, come now, don’t be so stingy, what’s the joke?”
Snorting, Bei gave her a disparaging look. “Oh, you don’t know? Go take a look at your reflection and the joke will look right back at you.” Qing-Qing blinked in confusion, staring at her friend of over ten years who wore a hateful sneer. “The beautiful and perfect Ai Qing, too good to marry anyone from the village. Bad enough you strung Gen along for years, but now you think yourself too good for him? Despicable.”
“Oh my, but haven’t you heard? Ai Qing found herself a new man, and a handsome one at that.”
“How was it they described him again?”
“A face like ground meat, picked through by the fishes. So dashing, like a hero out of legend.”
“Ah, I’m so envious, and to think, Ai Qing gets to wash his piss-stained blankets everyday.”
The other girls joined to mock her, but she ignored them, looking pleadingly at Bei. Surely her friend didn’t mean those harsh words, they were closer than sisters, had been through so much. “What are you talking about? I never strung Gen along, I declined his advances for years, you saw as much.”
“You must think me stupid.” Bei scoffed, seeming so bizarre to Qing-Qing, her sweet, kind friend having been replaced by some stranger. “Always lying and pretending not to want Gen as if flaunting your superiority. You must have whispered to him in secret, seducing him away.”
“I’ve done nothing of the sort!”
“Oh, of course not, you’re Ai Qing, the beautiful woman every man dreams of.” The sarcasm was thick in Bei’s voice, her reproachful glare hurting Qing-Qing more than any wound. “Why else would he bother with a cursed bitch like you? Gen followed you around like a lost puppy, don’t tell me you did nothing to encourage him. He’s too honourable a man to say otherwise, but everyone knows the truth.”
“Bei… are we not friends? Why are you saying all these awful things? You know they aren’t true. How many times did we chat about leaving the village together? Dreaming of how we would become explorers and treasure seekers, or merchants and traders? We would travel the world you and I, sharing adventures and experiencing everything beyond our village…”
“Friends? It sickened me to listen to your whinging and whining, pretending like you were better than everyone, meant for greater things. Pei.” The globule of spit splashed on the ground and Qing-Qing stared in shock. “I prayed that you’d leave and learn the harsh truth of the world. You’re a jinx and a leech, a black star hanging over all our heads. Your family died protecting you, my father injured himself working to feed you, and everyone suffers so that you might live a little better while pretending we’re beneath you. Now that Gen has seen who you truly are, maybe you’ll finally muster up the courage to walk out into the woods and die, freeing us from the burden you’ve become.”
All around her the village women spouted hateful lies, people she considered her friends chiming in with scathing condemnations while singing praises for ‘the valiant hunter, Gen’. Never mind how she’d tactfully avoided him all this time, worrying he would go too far one day, now that she’d been ‘rejected’ by him over a dying bandit, they all joined in to gloat over her misfortune and foolishness.
Her eyes filled with tears as she ran off, clutching the basket of wet laundry to her chest. Why would Bei turn on her? Qing-Qing couldn’t care less about the others, only Bei’s hateful vitriol striking a nerve. Bursting into her home, she threw aside the laundry, wanting to crawl into her bed of straw to cry away the morning. Instead, she was greeted by the vicious murderer she’d brought home, the sole cause of all her current troubles sitting naked in the middle of the hut with a blanket wrapped around him. Shrinking back from the light, he lifted the blanket to cover his head, his harsh, dry voice muffled. “Close the door Qing-Qing.”
All her frustration and anger burst from her chest as she slammed the door shut. “You aren’t allowed to call me Qing-Qing! Only my friends…” Deflating, she knelt on the floor and wept her back to the door, bawling like a child. “…I’ve no friends, not anymore.” She hugged her knees and wailed, releasing all the pent up fear and anguish from the past few weeks. Between looking after Baledagh and fending off Gen and his supporters, she was drained and exhausted, her courage and optimism deserting her along with her former friends. Why even bother? Baledagh… No, Falling Rain, the Undying Savage, would kill and rape her, that was the truth of things. If he kept to that order, she would thank the Mother for her mercy.
Holding nothing back, she sobbed until there was nothing left, her pants soaked with tears as she hiccuped and panted for breath. She listened to the sounds of Rain crawling about the hut, likely gathering implements of torture, but she didn’t have it in her to care, burying her face deeper into her arms. No one would miss her, no one would mourn her. It might even be good to see her parents and little brother again, she’d almost completely forgotten their faces, only faint memories of happier times.
The door sagged back as he leaned against it next to her, gasping for breath. “Ah, Mother’s tits, I crawled around the entire damn hut looking for a handkerchief, and they’re all sitting right beside you.”
Her basket of laundry scraped against the floor and she lifted her head to snap at him. “Don’t touch those, your hands are filthy.” Why bother with manners, they wouldn’t change anything. Then again, why did she care if he dirtied the linens? “And watch your language, the Mother is to be respected. Perhaps you’ve no fear of her judgment now, but when you find yourself before her, you will come to regret your blasphemies.” Rummaging through the basket, she pulled out a small cloth, still damp from the wash, and wiped her face clean, shivering the entire time. Even though she was resigned to her fate, the act of defiance still terrified her.
An awkward silence descended on them as they sat side by side, Qing-Qing too afraid to meet his eyes. Shying away from him, she moved ever so slowly, as if she might escape by melting through the walls while he propped himself against the hut’s only door. What was she thinking? Why did she speak to him like that?
He finally broke the silence with a small cough. “I don’t have any friends either.”
Her head snapped up and turned to him, her mind a blank. “What?”
In the dim lighting, he almost seemed vulnerable and defenceless, the blanket clutched to his chest as he lay against the door, exhausted from his excursion around the tiny hut. “I mean, I have my brother, and he has plenty of friends so sometimes I talk with them, but truth be told, none of them are my friends. They’re his.” Almost bashful as he scratched his neck, he turned away and added, “So, if you want, we can be friends. Er, I’d like for us to be friends, is what I mean. Please.”
After freezing for several heartbeats, she burst into laughter as she gasped for air, rolling on the ground almost convulsing at how absurd it seemed. A man of his standing without friends, it was too comical to believe. People were probably tripping over themselves for the chance to sit with him, fawning over him day and night like a little prince. Wiping away her tears, she sat up and faced him, thankful for the gesture. He seemed upset, believing she’d rejected his offer, curling up and pouting in the dark. “Thank you, Rain. Qing-Qing would be honoured to be your friend.”
Instantly cheering up, he chided her gently. “Call me Baledagh, please. So what happened? Do you want me to kill someone?”
Chuckling to herself, she patted his cheek. He was almost adorable, a bloodthirsty little brother who tried to help the only way he knew how. To a hammer, every problem looked like a nail. “No, no killing, besides you’re in no condition to walk, much less fight on my behalf. Even then, disliking me isn’t cause for death.” Helping him back to his bed, she told him everything that transpired, airing her grievances to a listening ear. Seeing his frowning expression, she soon found herself defending her fellow villagers, worried he might truly go out and kill them. In a strange way, it was almost sweet how he was willing to defend her so vehemently. “I don’t understand why they would all turn on me like that, I’ve never had arguments with anyone, the villagers have always been so kind and supportive…”
“Seems obvious. They resent you.”
“Why would they resent me? For saving you? That’s in our best interests, a dead bandit might bring vengeance down on all of us, and if your people found out you died here…” She shuddered, unable to complete the thought.
“No, not because of me, though that might be their excuse. They resent who you are and what you represent. You said your father was a good man, right? There’s your reason.” Yawning, he stretched lazily and settled back down to sleep.
“What’s this have to do with my father?”
“Well, a physician is a valuable resource and it stands to reason he was well liked. He was probably their friend, maybe even a benefactor, and seeing him killed on a whim and his family tortured would be traumatizing. They looked after you out of guilt, but guilt can only last so long.” Shrugging, he continued speaking sleepily. “You’re a living reminder of their frailty and failures, the very sight of you dredging up old guilt and shame, which then turns to anger and hatred, a powerful emotion. Eventually, they forget everything besides the hatred, and here you are.”
Kneeling at his side, she watched him close his eyes to rest, the day’s events exhausting him. So young yet so jaded, was that really how the world was? “What about everything Bei said? Her parents were so good to me and she’s been my best friend since we were young.” They swore to be best friends forever…
“She unmarried? And Gen’s strong, right? Most eligible bachelor, the bitch wants him for herself. Jealousy. Simple.” Waving his hand, he smiled drowsily. “Forget about her and the rest, you’re better than them. I’ll bring you away from this miserable backwater, my lucky star. Reward you richly, I swear it. Won’t be long, healing quickly. Used the chamber pot today, won’t need to do laundry every day…”
Smiling at his sluggish voice, she timidly reached out and stroked his face, delighting as he rubbed his cheek against her hand, like little puppy seeking affection. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad, he was trying so hard to regain his strength and reunite with his people. It was sweet of him to comfort her. He was right, she was better than them.
Taking a deep breath, she patted her own cheeks and steeled herself. If she wanted him to bring her away, then she’d need to work hard and care for him. There was still plenty to be done, the laundry needed drying, the floors sweeping, and she still had to scavenge for food. Most pressing was that she didn’t own a chamber pot, so a search would have to be conducted. Luckily, the hut wasn’t large and she only needed to follow her nose. She prayed to the Mother, hoping he hadn’t used her only cooking pot.
Again, she compared him to a stray pup, hoping he could heal and grow into a powerful protector.
Perhaps her dreams would come true after all.
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