The lights are all ablaze, and I can hear voices and laughter drifting even to where I sit, out in the deserted courtyard. They're celebrating the defeat of the Liu. They're celebrating the birth of Kwaiying and the young master's son. They've named him Mankong.
They're celebrating because he's dead.
They're happy, and I should be happy too. I can hear Kwaiying's silvery laughter... she deserves her happiness, after all, after what she'd been through. Ninth Sister had come to me, and tried to get me to join the festivities. Why did I sit out here, all alone? Didn't I know I was part of the family? Shouldn't I share in their happiness? When I offered no response, she went back in and left me once more to the night and to the memories.
"I see no need to explain to a dead person. Do not blame me. Blame yourself for having been born into the Yongs."
. . . . . .
"I will see you safe to the border."
. . . . . .
"People can't change. Aren't you afraid that I will hurt you?"
I have the jade he left me on the table in front of me. But it's just a piece of stone.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. "Leave me alone," I say without turning around.
"Tai Kuan is wondering where you are." Kwaiying moves to sit across the table from me. The light from the open doorway falls on her face. I move my hand to cover the jade, but she has already seen it.
"Was it his?" she asks, voice neutral.
"Yes. It's the emblem of his father's kingdom." I tuck it back into my sash. I can feel it there, a faint warmth, a slight weight. I want to throw it away, but I can't. I can't.
"Are you thinking about him?" she asks me. She means to be understanding, but I can see the censure in her eyes, the disapproval. He's dead, I want to say. Can't you forgive a dead person his crimes? He did care for you, in his own way. And I...
"I loved him."
"Paifung..." She says my name on a sigh.
"We all love people we're not supposed to love, sometimes." I remember what she had told me, when she had found out about us. "You've fallen in love with someone you're not supposed to." "Even you, siulai."
A long silence. "Why, Paifung? Why him, of all people?"
I shiver a little. The night air is chilly. I remember his arms around me, in the rain. "I saw them kill my parents, with my own eyes, when I was a child. His family was slaughtered, too. But I found a new family... the Yongs took me in, fed me, clothed me, loved me. He has never... he has never had any of that. Instead he was trapped in a god-forsaken place with an insane old man who made his life hell for years. It does not excuse the things he did... but I can understand. I can understand." He had to have something to hold on to, something to justify his survival. And in the end, my love for him hadn't been enough.
"You once told me that you would never cry for him again," Kwaiying says, softly.
I lift fingers to my cheeks and feel them wet. I look at Kwaiying. The censure is gone, and her eyes are soft and suffused with feeling. There are lines on her face I have not seen before. How alike both of you are, I think. You wear masks and build walls around yourselves... so afraid to be hurt.
I didn't realize I had spoken the words aloud until I see her start. "I am not like him," she says, frowning.
I wipe my eyes with my sleeve. That's me - never equipped with a handkerchief like a proper young lady should. "It's all right, siulai," I tell her. "Go back in. I just need a little time to grieve, that's all." There's nobody else who will do it. Everyone who has really known him is dead. Except me. And Kwaiying. But Kwaiying has never forgiven him. "I'll be okay in a while. Go back in, siulai. Young Master may be looking for you."
I bow my head. I hear only silence, and I think she is gone, until she speaks. "Once, sifu brought back a young fox he had found caught in a trap," she says, voice quiet. "The fox was hurt, bleeding, and wouldn't let any of us come near it. We couldn't let it go, in its condition, it would have died very quickly in the wilds. But it wouldn't let us feed it, or tend to its wound. Finally, he..." and I know she is talking about Hounam, though she won't say his name. "He went up to the fox and held out his hand. It bit him. He tended to its injury. It bit him again, drawing blood. Sifu had to stitch up his hand. But after that the fox let us care for it, and the next summer it was strong enough to go back to the woods." She pauses. I feel her hand on my shoulder. "That is the only time I can remember him doing something only out of kindness and nothing else. Paifung, you have always been more compassionate than I. You feel the suffering of others as if it were your own. That is one of the things that I admire the most about you. I don't have your ability to forgive."
I hear someone calling her name, and so does she. "Thank you for sharing your memory with me," I whisper, not sure if she will hear me. But she pats my shoulder, and says, very kindly, "It's all right, Paifung. Will you come in with me?"
I nod, and let her take my hand. I close my eyes, and I have a memory
of rain, and his hands on my skin, warm and alive. I look at Kwaiying standing
patiently in front of me, and though the hand holding mine isn't his, it
is a human touch, after all, and for the moment, it seems as if it might
almost be enough.
Siulai = mistress
Sifu = teacher of a certain art or craft; the equivalent of shishou.