༺ II ༻

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⊹⊱ Mingxia ⊰⊹

Shangzihua, Wuzhen

I woke up feeling lethargic and drowsy, due to the fact that I was unable to get a peaceful night's sleep. I spent most of the night at the base of the tree in my dream, speaking with the hooded woman. Any questions I asked were countered with ambiguous answers that didn't hold any significant meaning. However, from what I could gather by her demeanor, she was of no threat to me. Her wistful tone only made me even more curious about what she could have possibly done wrong. Every time she spoke, the miasma around the tree would thicken.

I asked her why she felt the need to hide her face and she always deflected that particular question. I don't know if it was out of fear or shame that I would recognize her face or if she felt that revealing that information would be dangerous to her or me. Another thing I distinctly remember is how on edge she appeared to be. Her fists were always clenched and her shoulders were clearly full of tension as if she were carrying all of the weight in the world.

The most alarming thing was whatever she held in her hand. I knew that she wouldn't tell me what it was for the sake of "not being ready". There were a lot of things she said I wasn't ready to hear yet because my soul was incomplete. I was incomplete. If anything, it only made me more frustrated because I dislike being deprived of something I feel entitled to know, especially when it could potentially involve me and my family.

I reached for my wooden cane that lay beside my bed and leaned my weight onto it as I stood up. I hissed as a sharp pain radiated from my calves to my inner thighs. My legs aren't like the other villagers. They're fragile, scarred, and prevent me from supporting myself without an aid. When my father told me that it was part of a birth defect, I couldn't help but feel that I had been cheated out of life somehow.

Because of my disability, I couldn't run or play with other kids when I was younger. Now, here I am at eighteen, unable to help my parents tend to the crops in the fields. We were suffering, Shangzihua was suffering because we couldn't make ends meet. Our supply of food is slowly depleting and it bothers me that I can't do anything to help because of these confounded legs. I can't change what our goddess, Meihui, has done because no one has the authority or ability to interfere in the affairs of a deity. Despite what the other villagers say, I believe that communicating with Meihui is nothing but a dream because She will never be within our reach.

Despite my parents' constant reassurances, I decided that I needed to make something of my life. I didn't want to become a burden or be seen as some sort of hermit by hiding away in our home at all hours. I ultimately chose the path of an herbalist because I want to try to make up for the pain I caused in the past.

It took several days of convincing Healer Liang Chen to take me on as his apprentice. Every assignment I completed, every book I read, every herb I collected was considered a vast accomplishment despite the villagers' constant murmurings about me. I can't lie by saying that my studies bring me complete joy. I think I can only truly be happy if the people see me as a true herbalist and not some lion in sheep's clothing.

Unfortunately, the sick and elderly don't want me to treat them or even be in the same room as me. I'm treated like some parasite or fungus that needs to be forcibly removed. It would be an understatement to say that it doesn't hurt, but I know that there's no point lingering over it. I want to show them that I am capable of healing others instead of inflicting pain.

I limped into the kitchen where my parents were doing their usual morning routine. My mother was tidying up the cooking area as she usually did after prepping the table. My father was reading the newspaper, which detailed the daily events in Wuzhen. Regardless of one's social standing, every person received a newspaper because the Emperor thought it would be a crime to keep the poor from the knowledge they're entitled to.

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