For months, Xiao Xiao had felt that hollowness inside her. Try as she might, there was nothing, no response, nothing. She had since recovered from her malaise, but there was a deep loss in her soul, as if a vital part of her had been pruned away, like the gardeners with their knives.
Meanwhile, the palace moved on as usual. Die die came back from his mission, battered and tired. He did not visit her, until a week later, when he was much better. Even then he looked wan and Mother was beside herself, looking after his well-being.
Her little sister, Xiao Xin, grew and soon wandered all over the living chambers and the courtyard, much to the maids' indulgent chagrin. The girl had curly dark hair and apple- pink cheeks. She smiled a lot. And at her particular age, she also cried a lot and stood her ground. Her personality, the nannies joked, was like a little dragon.
Xiao Xiao held onto the green pearl, wishing, hoping. She remembered the sun within her, and the power that blazed out like the fires that guarded the walls of the palace.
It was slowly edging into autumn, yet the summer heat remained relentless. Even jian practice was tedious and Xiao Xiao often ducked away to the koi pond where she dipped her toes into the cool water and let the fat fish nibble at them. The silver scales reminded her so much of...
Ming Zhu, who left, without warning. Ducking deep into the silt of their joined soul and simply disappearing.
Did she go back to her father and make peace with him?
Did she find that courage to talk to him again?
Or did she just... leave?
While she mulled over such secret thoughts, the fishermen were bringing in the first few batches of crabs from Yangcheng Lake. And a basketful of flower crabs with patterns like stars strewn at night. It was autumn food at best, promising sweet flesh and the cleansing effect of ginger tea.
Steamed, the crabs were a vivid red, with their pincers tied tightly with string. The crab men were proud of their crabs, because their carapaces bore the stars in the skies, flowers of fire.
Xiao Xiao's heart drummed inside her chest. Ming Zhu was coming back. She sat close to the kitchen where the cooks picked and selected the best crabs for the feast. They threw away the ones who were limp or had lost legs. The discarded crabs looked desolate and pathetic while opportunistic flies buzzed around them.