Fate had pushed her into the ditch, she told herself. She had to climb out.
This terrible predicament did not give her any chances to be full of remorse or to be anxious. If she did not pull herself together, she might not be able to survive the night.
She raised her blackened hands and picked up a wooden stick, slowly starting to write on the ground.
Zhuge, Wei, Mu, Jue, Che. At this word, her brows started to furrow. It started to darken outside, and the woodwind instruments playing within the palace grounds could be heard. Among the rustling, waves of laughter could also be heard. She silently recollected her thoughts for awhile and finally penned down the last word: Yan.
In the main hall of the Zhuge palace, everyone was toasting each other. Yan Xun's right eye twitched all of a sudden. He scrunched up his beautiful brows and turned slowly, gazing deep into the complete darkness.
The night was pitch black. With jackdaws soaring high in the sky, this turbid and ugly empire was rotten from the core.
The old was destined to be destroyed, with the new order coming in its place, rising from the ashes.
Even with the wounds on her body hurting terribly, Chu Qiao still forced herself to stand up and run rounds around the small firewood room, occasionally stopping to use her hands to massage her skin in case she froze to death in this dilapidated hut.
The drum signifying that it was 3 a.m. rung, and a window that was around the height of a person was being pushed open. Then, a small head popped into view. Chu Qiao was stunned. Raising her head, she saw a pair of bright eyes carefully check the surroundings of the room. After seeing Chu Qiao, a look of happiness flashed through his gaze. He held his index finger to his lips, asking her to not make a sound. He then nimbly jumped into the hut.
The boy quickly ran towards her, opening his arms, and pulled Chu Qiao into his arms. He choked a little, but comforted her with determination, "Yue Er, don't be scared, the fifth brother is here."
The boy was skinny and was not very old either. He looked like he was between eight and nine years old. He was wearing gray field clothes that did not fit him very well, making him seem skinnier than he already was. His stature was not fully grown and was merely half a head taller than Chu Qiao. However, his facial features and outlines seemed to have endured many hardships. He held the child tightly in his arms and patted her back, continuously repeating, "Don't be scared, the fifth brother is here."
Unknowingly, Chu Qiao's eyes filled with tears. Beads of tears rolled uncontrollably down her face, soaking his rough clothes. She did not know whether it was her body's natural reaction or her own true emotions, but in this strange, foreign, and cold night, this frail but warm hug was too precious.
The bright, clear moonlight shown through the slightly opened window, shining on the small bodies of the children. Within the cold four walls, the only little warmth came from the heart. The boy's small body was like a tough mountain. In this frigid night, even though he might have been shuddering in fear, he still hugged his sister firmly, holding her tightly in his arms.
"Yue Er, are you hungry?" The boy released her from his hug and carefully wiped off the tears on Chu Qiao's face with his blackened fingers. He smiled and said with glee, "Guess what brother brought you?"
The boy took out a little cloth bag from the back and sat down on the floor, neatly opening the bag. The aroma of the food drifted into the air instantly. He lifted his head to see that Chu Qiao was still standing and was puzzled. Raising his brows, he said, "Sit down."
It was a coarse porcelain bowl with the blue and white decorations on the side already discolored from rubbing, and there were a few tiny holes at the mouth of the bowl. It was filled to the brim with rice, along with vegetables piled on top of it. There was not much oil, but its aroma was just as good. The boy took a pair of chopsticks and wedged them into Chu Qiao's hands, rushing, "Quick, eat."
Chu Qiao lowered her head and shoved her mouth full of rice. All she tasted was saltiness, due to the taste of her tears. Her throat was choked but she continued munching like a robot, occasionally sobbing in tears.
The boy looked straight at Chu Qiao. Every time she opened her mouth, he would open his too, as if he was teaching her how to eat. When she swallowed her food, he would grin from ear to ear, causing his eyes to turn into slits.
As her chopsticks were fiddling in the bowl, they poked into something. Picking it up, it was actually a piece of braised pork that was still warm.
That piece of meat was the size of a thumb and was a little burnt on the side. It was half fatty and half lean, but in a dark cold night like this, it was so tempting.
A noise suddenly rumbled. Chu Qiao raised her head from the bowl, looked towards the boy, and saw that he was awkwardly rubbing his tummy. Purposely putting on a nonchalant front, he said, "I just finished dinner, I'm not hungry."
Chu Qiao passed the chopsticks over and said,"You have it."
The boy shook his head instantly. "Our dinner today was especially good. The fourth young master allowed us to add dishes. Braised fish, sweet and sour ribs, vinegar fried pork, steamed duck, there were so many dishes. I ate so much I may throw up, I don't think I can have any more food."
Chu Qiao stubbornly raised her chopsticks and said, "I don't like to eat fatty pork."
The boy remained dazed for a while, looked at Chu Qiao, then diverted his gaze onto the piece of braised pork. He unknowingly swallowed his saliva. After a while, he finally reached for the chopsticks she offered, and carefully bit off the fatty portion of the meat. He then passed the lean pork back to Chu Qiao. Laughing in glee, revealing his row of white teeth, he said, "Yue Er, now you can eat."
A pang of emotions hit her and she hurriedly lowered her head. Tears swirled in her eyes, but she managed to hold them in.
After a while, she raised her head slowly and smiled at the boy. She opened her mouth and devoured that piece of meat, munching and grinning at the same time.
"Yue Er, is it delicious?" His eyes shone as if they were stars in the galaxy.
Chu Qiao nodded furiously. She was all choked up, but she managed to say, "It's delicious. The most delicious thing I've tasted in my life is this piece of meat."
"Silly girl." The boy reached out and patted her head. With a tinge of sadness in his expression, he said,"How old are you to say things like 'in my life'? We don't need to talk about the future, just when we were young. We have savored many expensive foods, but you were still too young to remember a thing. But don't you worry. One day, the fifth brother will let you eat and dress well, and bring you delicacies from all around the world. Not only braised pork, but also ginseng, abalone, bird's nest, shark's fin, and clams. Whatever you want, you will have it. Until then, no one will think of bullying us. Yue Er, do you believe me?"
Chu Qiao nodded and continued shoving rice into her mouth. Although it was not very delicious, the warmth it gave was tremendous.
"Yue Er, don't be scared." While saying this, the boy took off his jacket and draped it onto Chu Qiao's shoulders. With a warm tone, he annotated his words very clearly and said, "Fifth brother will protect you and will be here accompanying you. Don't be afraid."
As the moonlight shone clear and bright, the light shone through the gaps into the firewood hut as dazzling white light. Like frost under the moonlight, the children's small bodies laid closely together, seemingly small, but so very warm.
The flames of light flooded the area from afar, woodwind instruments playing to their heart's content and the aroma of meat and drinks filling the air. The nightless city of Zhen Huang had finally ushered in the climax of tonight's banquet. Under the brilliant lights, no one remembered the little girl that had survived the onslaught in the arena. The cold air billowed, causing the flag with the flame insignia of the Xia Empire to whistle in the wind.
When she woke up the next day, the boy was no longer here. On the floor, he had left a message in his neat handwriting: The fifth brother will be back tonight. There are buns beneath the firewood.
Chu Qiao pulled away the dried twigs and saw two slightly yellowish buns wrapped in a piece of oil paper. She held them tightly and looked calm, but her gaze started to warm.
Like this, three days passed with no one questioning her condition. The boy continued to visit her daily, bringing along food and accompanying her, then leaving silently the next day. On the third day, the door to the hut banged open. Zhu Shun looked down at Zhu Qiao, who had remained alive after three days in the firewood hut, furrowing his brows tighter and tighter. At last, he ordered his men to release her.
When she stepped out of the hut, Chu Qiao stopped at the door. Taking one last look at this dilapidated hut, pressing her lips together, she turned with a look of determination.
As she walked forward, the hut seemed increasingly worn-out. A huge bunch of kids could be seen hiding behind the trees, sneakily watching her. When she reached the yard, with the men taking their leave, the crowd of kids rushed towards her, pulling her into their arms.
"Little sixth, you are back!"
"The sixth sister, I thought you were never coming back."
"Sister Yue Er, wuuuuuuu…"
The children started chattering all at once. Some wailed outloud, scaring Chu Qiao a little, who stood there in a daze with the children surrounding her as she tolerated the snot and tears from these little kids.
"Okay, stop crying."
A male voice was heard, turning the heads of all the children, causing them to cry out, "The fifth brother!"
A boy ran in from outside, hugging a cloth bag. In two steps, he dropped its contents onto the floor. It was a bag full of melon seeds. Upon seeing it, the children cheered and let go of Chu Qiao in unison, running to the seeds.
"Don't snatch them. This is enough for everyone," the boy said maturely. He continued, "Yue Er just escaped death and was severely wounded. Don't disturb her. Everyone has to help her complete her job for the next few days."
The children nodded. A girl with two ponytails and pale, soft features raised her head. She smiled and said, "Don't worry the fifth brother, we will definitely help the sixth sister."
The boy continued, "Xiao Qi, has your injury recovered? Why are you out of bed?"
"Fifth brother, it has recovered already." The child smiled as he rolled up his sleeves, revealing black and blue scars from a whipping. Some areas still revealed his flesh and were nowhere near recovered. Xiao Qi said gleefully, "The medicine you gave me was very useful. It was painless once I applied it. Xiao Ba was kicked in the waist by the horse while she was feeding them, I've got to help her."
"Lin Xi, come in, I have things to say to you." A young girl scuttled forward suddenly, holding the boy's hand.
He turned and looked at Chu Qiao. He said, "Yue Er, the wind is quite strong outside. Come inside too."
In the small and dilapidated house, there was a large bed-stove, with more than ten blankets folded neatly on top of it. A boy named Lin Xi chirped, "Sister Zhi Xiang, you were looking for me?"
Zhi Xiang was not much older, looking around ten years old. She crouched down and opened the bed-stove from below, revealing its pitch black interior and pulling out a small box. She said, "In five days, it will be the anniversary of our parents and relatives' deaths. The incense and joss paper you wanted us to secretly prepare are all here."
Lin Xi nodded and said with a cautious tone, "Be careful, don't let the manager know about this."
"Yes, don't worry. No one will come over to us. But for you, when you are taking care of the fourth young master, you have to be careful. The day before yesterday, I heard from Si Tao from the laundry room that the third young master has already killed two reading partners in his room. Even though the fourth young master is not like him, his weird character is unpredictable. When the master is not around, Young Master Huai does not bother with the happenings within the household. They are getting more and more ill-disciplined. The old master has already killed more than twenty young female slaves. The ones that were sold to the Du family together with us have all perished. I'm really worried that this fate would befall us as well."