Chapter 2

Image by Kristine Cinate
      Eight months to the day that Bai Yunxian left the girl in his care, Hu Tianyi received a message from the qi master on his datapad.
 

      Expect me in two days.

      Hu Tianyi felt his shoulders relax for the first time in eight months. It felt like he had not breathed easily since that unexpected midnight visit. At last, he would be free of this obligation. It was all well and good to have a reputation for honor, but not at the expense of having other people treat his home like a common roadside inn.

      It was aggravating, however, that every member of his household seemed to have fallen under the girl’s enchantment. Hu Tianyi could not understand how a child of barely three could make so many people cater to her whims.

      In the mornings, once she herself was attired, Lan Yuxia would go to the girl’s bedroom to help her choose an outfit and do up her hair. Despite knowing that the girl was only going to stay with them for a short period of time, Lan Yuxia had bought over two dozen dresses for the girl, and they would spend hours every day playing in the garden, or walking along the corridors that surrounded the central pond.

      His sons were neglecting their studies for the girl too. Hu Yuan was more disciplined, thankfully, for he would at least try to complete the homework set for him by his tutor before seeking the girl out. His younger son, Hu Wen, had no such compunctions, preferring to miss lessons in order to spend time with his mother and the girl. Frequently, when Hu Tianyi walked from his study to the main hall, he would see his two sons playing a ball game with the girl.

      The servants liked her as well, despite her strange eyes, inhuman wings, and solemn demeanor. Even old trustworthy Hu Ji would buy sweets for her, and he was not a soft-hearted fool. The maids taught the girl to weave flower crowns, which Hu Tianyi saw his wife wear often; the manservants never complained about retrieving her kite when it got stuck in trees, or wading into the muddy-bottomed pond to pick up her ball. The kitchen staff cooked more vegetarian dishes once Lan Yuxia discovered that the girl did not eat meat or fish of any kind.

      “She has a name,” Lan Yuxia rebuked mildly when Hu Tianyi told her that Bai Yunxian was coming to get the girl. “You never talk to Xiang-er, not even at dinner. I don’t think you really care about her.”

      Hu Tianyi snorted. “She is a child who is bound to my sons through her qi. Of course I care.”

      “I think,” said his wife very quietly, “that you care only how her condition might harm our sons. As to what happens to her, I don’t think it bothers you at all.”

      While he loved his young wife for her many stellar qualities, Hu Tianyi did not appreciate her astuteness at that moment. He shrugged out of his outer robe and handed it to Lan Yuxia, before loosening his top knot.

      “The bathwater will get cold,” he said, and ducked into the bathing room.

      Leng Xiang. A cold fragrance. The name was appropriate, he thought. Every time he saw her faceted purple eyes, he felt a chill deep in his gut that crept along his veins. It was not right. If she had eyes, proper eyes with irises and pupils, then she would be a perfect little girl, and he would have wanted her as a daughter.

      There was also the matter of the wings. Lan Yuxia loved them. She had taken charge of the girl’s wardrobe, and made sure there were slits in the back of the shirts for the wings to unfold. The boys had been stunned the first time they saw the wings, and Hu Tianyi had thought that they would see that the girl was not like them and thus should be avoided. Instead, they liked to stroke her wings and marvel at their fragility. Hu Wen had caught a rare scolding from his mother for trying to pull on them the first time. At least the girl did not flutter around like an insect. That would have crossed the line.

      After his bath, he came out to see his wife holding a flower crown, the white and yellow blossoms slightly wilted. Her gaze was soft and sad.

      “Yuxia?”

      “Tianyi, I’m going to miss Xiang-er when she leaves,” she said. Sighing, she set the flowers on her dressing table. “It’s been lovely having a daughter for a while.”

      Hu Tianyi bit back the remark he almost made. Whether the girl was normal or not did not matter; his wife was hurting.

      “I would give you a daughter if I could,” he said, wrapping his arms around her gently. She was so dainty and slender, practically a doll. Silently he thanked his ancestors for helping him find Lan Yuxia. Despite their thirteen-year difference in age, she complemented him and completed him perfectly. “But you cannot become pregnant again. The doctors all said a third pregnancy could be fatal.”

      “What if…” Lan Yuxia’s words trailed off, but her fingers tightened on Hu Tianyi’s forearms. “What if we kept Xiang-er? Adopt her as our own?”

      “No!” Hu Tianyi drew back immediately from sheer revulsion. “Are you mad?”

      “Why do you say that?” Lan Yuxia demanded, her eyes filling with tears. “Why do you hate her? She’s a child, Tianyi, an orphaned child! She needs parents!”

      “And I don’t want to be her father! I’m sure Master Bai can provide for the girl well enough. I won’t hear of this adoption nonsense again,” Hu Tianyi snapped, going to his wardrobe to pull out clean underthings and clothes. “She’s not normal. It’s bad enough that she’s cast a spell to make all of you her playthings, but I won’t let her do it to me.”

      Behind him, Lan Yuxia had gone silent. When he turned around, he saw the odd expression on her face, as if she had never seen him before.

      “Yuxia?” He held out his hand so she could come to bed.

      “You think… you think that it’s her doing that I love her? That our boys love her?”

      “What else could it be?” Hu Tianyi rolled his eyes. “The moment she saw you, she ran to you. Master Bai clearly knows some magic, so who’s to say she didn’t teach the girl some enchantment spells to put on others? Everyone that she’s touched adores her. It’s eerie.”

      Lan Yuxia kept staring at him with a look of utter disbelief. Finally, she said, “In that case, I am going to sleep in Xiang-er’s room, to keep you from coming under the spell. Since I am already affected, it shouldn’t matter.”

      “Yuxia, what rubbish are you spouting?” Hu Tianyi tried to laugh off his wife’s comment, but it came across raw and unpracticed. “We haven’t slept apart since our wedding night.”

      “Then perhaps it’s time we tried.” She gathered her pillow and walked out of the bedroom without a second glance.

      “Yuxia!” Hu Tianyi contemplated going after his wife, but that would mean entering that girl’s room, and nothing in the world could compel him to endure being stared at by those inhuman eyes.

***

      The next morning, he found himself alone at breakfast. Hu Tianyi was annoyed. There was little he could do about it, however. He had to oversee the loading of the imperial barges and he could not spare the time to speak to his wife until afterwards.

      Instead of the horses, he took the car. The automaton driver and vehicle would charge their cores under the blazing sun while he watched the process. The massive cranes lifted and set crates containing bricks of salt onto the supply barges destined for the capital and to the border prefectures in the far north. The Hu mines were not the only ones to supply the imperial court, but they had been favored for over two hundred and fifty years; Hu Tianyi had been instructed since he was a child that keeping the imperial contract was of the utmost importance.

      His two sons would come in handy. Already Hu Tianyi was looking for a suitable match among the daughters of officials leading the directorates. Lord Shun who was currently a junior administrator in the directorate of Imperial Granaries had a daughter who had just turned two. If, in the next five years, Lord Shun did not misstep, he would likely be next in line for the role of head administrator. Hu Tianyi would appreciate having Lord Shun as an in-law, and Lord Shun could do nicely with the Hu family's wealth too.

      It would be much easier if everything could be done by automatons, he thought sourly, as two laborers secured the bindings of the crane to the final crate. People were unpredictable. His own wife walking out on him last night, for instance, was something he would never have expected to happen. Lan Yuxia was a dutiful spouse, a loving mother, and an impeccable hostess. If he told a joke, she would be among the first to laugh; if he set down an empty cup, she would be the one filling it with wine.

      His displeasure at his wife irked him more than her attitude. He had never been angry at Lan Yuxia before; the alien feeling was an unsightly stain on a polished jade platter, but he did not know how to remove it. The root cause of all this disturbance was that girl, dropped into his household, a pebble that stirred up unwanted and unneeded ripples.

      She’s leaving today, he reminded himself. Then everything will be back to how they should be.

      As the final crate was positioned, his personal assistant hastened to him with Hu Tianyi’s datapad. “Boss, you have a message.”

      “Who’s it from?”

      “Your wife, boss.”

      Hu Tianyi snatched the datapad from his personal assistant. Lan Yuxia was terse, but the message was welcomed. Master Bai has arrived at the mansion. Come home quickly, please.

      The automaton and the car were both fully charged, and so Hu Tianyi made it home twice as fast as expected. Outside the main gate was a vehicle in black with green trim, nothing as elegant as his own blue car with patterns of gingko leaves exquisitely painted like silver filigree, and there was no automaton in sight. Hu Tianyi supposed that was Bai Yunxian’s vehicle, and suppressed a sneer at its plainness. She must have driven herself. Fame did not bring fortune, it seemed.

      Hu Ji was waiting by the main gate, and took his master’s outer coat as they walked towards the reception room. “Master Bai and Mrs Hu are enjoying some tea.”

      “That’s fine. Is the girl ready to go?”

      “Miss Leng is by the pond with the young masters,” said Hu Ji. “Young master Hu Wen is showing her how to skip stones, when I last checked on them.”

      Hu Tianyi’s jaw tightened. “That’s enough playing for the day. Tell them to go to the reception hall. It’s time-” for that girl to leave forever “-to bid that girl farewell.”

      Hu Ji hesitated. “About that, master…”

      Before Hu Tianyi could demand more details, he saw his wife and Bai Yunxian stepping out of the reception hall. Bai Yunxian did not have her hat on this time, though her face was half-hidden by a sheer veil and her hands still gloved in black; under bright daylight, she looked like any other middle-aged woman, except for her head of pure white hair. Her qi lines were still faintly visible, curling out from the center of her forehead over what was visible of her skin.

      Seeing Hu Tianyi, Bai Yunxian walked up to him and bowed. “Thank you for taking care of Xiang-er,” she said. “Yuxia tells me that she integrated well with the household.”

      “Uh, well, I mean, she’s a child. My boys were very happy to entertain her,” he replied.

      “They shouldn’t have missed lessons for that, though,” said the older woman, shaking her head, but the outer corners of her eyes were crinkled, like it was all a huge joke.

      Lan Yuxia came over and linked her arm through Bai Yunxian’s, as if they had known each other for years rather than merely hours. “Sister, the children are waiting. Let’s go tell them the news.”

      “The news? What news?” Feeling a strange dread stirring in the pit of his stomach, he trailed after the two women, a mere afterthought. He glanced over his shoulder at Hu Ji, but the old man had disappeared, presumably to tidy up the room just used by the women.

      The children were sitting near the pond. Hu Wen had his shoes off, his bare toes tickling the surface of the water. Hu Yuan was watching the girl, whose wings were unfolded, iridescent in the sunlight. She was holding a long blade of grass and rolling it up, a small frown of concentration on her little face. Next to her is a brand-new doll.

      She almost looks sweet, Hu Tianyi mused, if not for those ugly insect wings.

      “Xiang-er, come here,” said Lan Yuxia with a warm smile, holding out both hands. “You remember Master Bai?”

      The girl stared up and nodded solemnly.

      “I am here to take you with me,” said Master Bai, crouching to look the girl in the face. "We'll go to my home, where there are thousands of butterflies."

      “I want to stay here,” she said, violet eyes wide. Her wings fluttered.

      “You can’t.” Hu Tianyi did not mean to speak, but when the girl turned to stare at him, he pushed aside his revulsion to add stiffly, “Yuan will be attending school soon, and Wen will need to focus on his lessons. Master Bai has things to teach you too, so you have to go with her.”

      The older woman glanced at him over her shoulder, her gaze inscrutable. “Master Hu is right. It will take a lot of time for you to learn what you need to learn about your family and clan, and I have to teach you how to defend yourself.”

      The girl bit her lower lip, before she walked back to the boys. She bowed to them, and returned to Bai Yunxian, putting her little hand in the qi master’s right hand.

      Hu Yuan picked up the doll and hurried over, handing it to the girl. “Keep this with you.”

      “Thank you,” said the girl very softly and hugged the doll to her with her free hand.

      “Why does she have to leave?” Hu Wen yelled belligerently. Scrambling to his feet, he ran up to the girl and tried to pry her hand from Bai Yunxian’s. “I want her to stay! She’s staying here with us. I don’t want to take lessons! I want her to stay!”

      Xiang-er let go of Bai Yunxian and touched his face. Hu Wen stopped shouting, but his lips wobbled, and he started bawling.

      Lan Yuxia swept her younger son into her arms and hugged him. “It’s alright, Wen, Xiang-er is going where she must for now,” she said, soothingly. “She’ll be back when she’s older.”

      Confused, Hu Tianyi tried to catch his wife’s eyes, but she avoided his gaze, as if on purpose. Eventually, Hu Tianyi asked, “What do you mean by that?”

      “Oh, Hu Ji didn’t tell you?” Lan Yuxia smiled at him. It was a pleasant, familiar smile, but Hu Tianyi sensed something different about it.

      “Tell me what?”

      “Wen’s grown very attached to her, and she to him. Since you mentioned that you intend Yuan to marry Lord Shun’s daughter, I thought I would decide for Wen.” Lan Yuxia’s smile deepened as she brushed the tears from her son’s cheeks. “Master Bai and I have come to an agreement. Xiang-er is now betrothed to our Wen. They will marry when she is seventeen.”