Meiyue woke to the sight of a lattice window. Day was breaking beyond, light dimmed into the shadows of the trees outside. She was leaning on a wall and her throat was perched when she swallowed. Then she realized a smelly cloth was tied tight about her mouth. She tried to move her sore limps, but both her hands were bound behind her back and her feet had thick ropes coiled around them. Her heart started to pound as the earlier event dawned her.
Those two brutes had caught her and she couldn't remember what happened after that. Her mind cleared eventually, and she scanned the place she was kept in. There was no light. Only the last trace of the vanishing sunlight lent enough for her to make out the rectangular room. It was empty, no furniture cramped the space. The door opposite of her, two windows adorned the wall on either side.
And she wasn't alone.
There were two piles of somebody laying somewhat not far from her. She wanted to reel at the thought of being alone with two unknown barbarians, but told herself to examine the shapes properly first.
Squinting, she saw that they were too small to be those men and had belong to two women, considering of seemed to be their long hair. They were also bound much like her.
Meiyue half sagged in relief, but her chest didn't cease to race. Her mind couldn't exactly put together the situation. Could those women be captured here for the same reason? But being kidnapped for not having what those savages wanted was off. They could just find another target. Why need to go all way? And there were other women, not only her.
Then she remembered those men's accent. She remembered the increase of their people in her kingdom, and the shortcomings they brought to the growth of the economy, especially the south.
Human trafficking, Meiyue thought with a jolt.
That could be the only reason why they were having the women assembled. Prostitution was a notorious exploit in Anhui for the Kokurenians fugitives, whom came from the Daifuku Empire which was also her kingdom's only neighbor. Their lands were connected through the deepest and most dangerous forest of the Double-edged Woodlands located west at the south. Heinous criminals and fugitives escaped from the laws and execution through that woodland and smuggled themselves right into Anhui's border. They were responsible for most of the crimes in the kingdom. And no matter how many were caught, more would replace them.
After all, Daifuku Empire was three times Anhui's size and was still expanding under the current power-hungry emperor.
Meiyue stared at those women, dreading if they were only unconscious. Silence surrounded them apart from the shuffle of occasional breeze that shook the trees. It seemed like those brutes weren't around. But considering how they left her and the others unattended, they must be somewhere nearby.
Meiyue needed to figure a way out before they came back and she had to act quick. But what was she supposed to do in an empty room with her hands and feet tied? Her role never put her in such condition.
At last, she decided to check the women first. If she wanted an escape, then she needed their help.
Meiyue tried to edge closer to one of them. Her robe swept the dust that covered the floor and dust motes must be flying all around, making her want to sneeze. When she reached the woman, Meiyue awkwardly shook her awake with her own body. She didn't want to make sound and risk alerting if there was somebody beyond the door. It was also because that she didn't to risk herself tasting the cloth.
After few attempts, the woman whimpered lightly and came awake. Meiyue waited until she could adjust to their surrounding and remembered her own story before getting here. When she did, she jerked upright, surprising Meiyue with her strength.
The woman was a girl, presumably younger than herself. She had wide dark eyes when she stare at her, noticing their identical state of being. Her mouth moved against the cloth around her face, trying to speak but Meiyue shook her head and looked to the door. The girl understood and quieted.
Then the older girl lowered her head and shook it violently until the piece of hairpin in her hair clattered to the ground. With nothing to hold it, her hair came tumbling down, weighting her head.
The girl stared at the hairpin, the stick narrow and sharp enough to be useful. The jewels still sparkled in the dark room. Night fell.
Meiyue made some vague gesture to the hair stick and then moved her own bound hands. It didn't take long for the girl to understand the message before she turned her back to her, her fingers reached for the stick on the floor and she began prodding Meiyue's ropes.
Meiyue liked her already.
The process went on with more time than she would have imagined. The ropes were in complex knots and the girl tried her best to poke and nudge while Meiyue writhed to free her hands. She cast wary glances to the door, expectant to see silhouettes and voices outside and have their chance of escaping sealed. But so far there was only silence. Impatience giving away to dread, Meiyue gave the ropes a final thrash.
And her left hand came free.
She sucked in relieved breath and quickly freed herself of the ropes and the cloth around her mouth and feet before moving on to the girl. Soreness and anxiety made her hands clumsy but she was able to free the girl just as quick.
Meiyue helped her untie the cloth on her mouth, and she did not expect the first thing she would say to be, "You're the most beautiful lady I've ever seen." Then as if remembering their current state again, she added more quietly, "Thank you, miss. My name is Hehua."
Meiyue tried to smile. "I'm Meiyue. Let's unbound her so we can quickly get away."
Hehua nodded and they both went to the other woman, who was still lying unconscious. Meiyue loosened her cords. A rush of anger burned her throat when the woman woke later but winced when she tried to move.
Now that they were all freed, Meiyue went to the folding doors. She put a hand on the middle unit and pushed. It didn't bulged. She pushed harder, and pulled. And still it was tightly bolted from the outside.
"How can we get out if it's locked?" says the woman from behind. Hehua sat beside her, looking around the room. This was a one-room encampment with no possible exits besides the entrance. There were windows, but Meiyue didn't think prying through the wooden lattice barehanded would do them much good. If there was anything to pry through...
She looked at the doors again, searching for the hinges and trying to estimate the length of the whatever was keeping the door bolted. Probably some timber.
"We'll have to force our way through," Meiyue said. "The hinges have rusted. Maybe we can push the doors down if we try together."
They looked at each other and got up. Together the women moved to the outmost right side of the folding doors, where they were certain the bolt at the center wouldn't reach.
They braced themselves, counted, and pushed. Meiyue thrust the weight of her body to the door, the first attempt taking her breath away. Again and over, they threw themselves to it, hearing as the hinges creaked with every push. Dehydrated and empty-stomached, Meiyue felt her energy being drained until her knees wobbled. Hehua was determined, but Meiyue couldn't tell apart if her buzzing strength was adrenaline or pure. But either way, she was thankful to both of them.
They shoved until the hinges cracked the last creak. The unit door dislodged, and limped.
Joy sparked their faces as the woman wasted no time to kick the door aside and rush out. Hehua and Meiyue followed shortly.
Night air swirled about them and sent the trees ruffling. Meiyue took a deep breath. She didn't recognize the place, it was all trees and grass. Her hope to be able to get home dwindled in the face of the foreign place.
"Do you know this place?" Meiyue asked them, half worried if they would leave her on her own to find a way out.
"I can't be sure, but I think this is around the coast," the woman said, scanning the expense. "Near the Grave Village."
"Oh." It wasn't that far from her home after all.
"We should head back quick. Before any of them gets to us."
Meiyue nodded, glad to have someone with a good sense of direction.
They walked in a group with the woman in lead, treading on the grass almost blindly in the dark. Hehua clung to Meiyue's arm. Putting her own arm around her shoulder, Meiyue felt sorry for what she had to confront for a girl her age. Then her grief turned bitter when she thought of all the girls who had fallen to victims to such crisis over the kingdom. She held the girl tighter.
They were venturing on the woman's pure intuition alone, and Meiyue sorely hoped to see the end of the trees. But they didn't get to. For they heard loud crunching steps. Somebody was walking toward them.
The women froze.
"Oi! Where do you think you're going?" The bald man emerges from the shadows. His companion showed up later. None of them carried a lamp.
Meiyue's breath stopped for a moment. Horror spread on Hehua's face. The woman backed away until they were along side each other.
The bald man came closer. If it wasn't for the dark, Meiyue would have sworn he looked really annoyed. The women backed a few steps.
"Stay where you are!" Meiyue blurted, heart hammering so loud that Hehua heard and looked up at her.
Despite her remark, it was them who had to back away few steps to their captors' one.
"Look," Meiyue rasped, low, so that it was only audible for them. She kept her eyes to the savages ahead and continued above a whisper, trying to sound coherent. "There are two of them, and three of us. The one who doesn't have one of them behind her back will run to alert others for help. Okay?"
The woman nodded, and Hehua swallowed before agreeing.
"One. Two," Meiyue counted, letting her hand fall from Hehua's shoulder. "Three-run!" They bolted in separate directions.
Those two hadn't expect that.
Meiyue heard them swore before there was someone behind her back. As expected, the bald man leapt after her, his feet crushing dead leaves. She knew well she couldn't outrun him, especially in her state. But she could at least keep him distracted long enough for either Hehua or the other woman to get help. Some part of her dearly wished it wasn't Hehua whom the other guy chased. She was a child still.
The bald man swore profanities at her. Meiyue thought he was really furious and sick of the game. She boosted the last once of her energy to her legs and ran without any sense of direction in the dark. Her dress caught on something and it jerked her movement.
She yelped when her captor told a hold of her unbound hair and pulled. Tears sprung to her eyes.
Pain shot from her head when he mercilessly yanked her to him. He indulged in the look on her face, pleased with himself, but not that pleased until he did whatever he planned to do with her next. Meiyue stopped struggling when he held a knife to her neck. He told her to move, and she did.
She didn't keep the tear from sliding down her cheek when she was half dragged half forced back to the abandoned house.
Her tear tasted of fear.
It was already night and they still couldn't get on any solid lead to where Meiyue could have been. They'd tried to ask around the road where which Xinlei found her hairpin. One of the inn workers there stated that he did see a woman with Yuzhe's description coming on the road but that was it. And that didn't really help their course on finding her but only confirmed that something bad was happening to her right now.
The thought gnawed Yuzhe's mind as he and Xinlei split ways to go from place to place in search for her, asking the townsfolk for any witness, and ventured into the dark parts of the city rumored to be homes of thieves and gangsters. A fight almost broke out between Xinlei and one of the thugs if it weren't for Yuzhe's reminder of their purpose.
Now Yuzhe roamed on the silent street on weary feet, tired and worried and thirsty. But he was not defeated. The boisterousness of the city slowly faded as the night stretched blacker, and the absence of daily noises only brought his agitated thoughts to solidify. He didn't know where Xinlei was, but he figured that his friend was more or less like him, still scouring through their jumble of thoughts for any other places Meiyue might be.
They returned home few times throughout the search, having a shallow hope Meiyue might had somehow gone there in one piece. They were greeted only by Zhonghong's withdrawn lips and a shake of Liping's head.
Yuzhe plodded on the road and soon began to see someone running opposite from him. He thought she was just flustering because of some curfew, but on a closer range he realized she was running to him.
"Mister! Mister! Please help!" she cried, stopping a perplexed Yuzhe mid-track and began pulling his arm to follow her.
"What's the matter?" he asked her, but not really resisting.
When the girl turned to him he realized she was crying. "Please help. Those bad men are trying to abduct us."
Tensing, he nodded and let her lead him through the street and out to the edge of the city.
They made haste and did not exchange a word. Soon the curved buildings of the city lessened and eventually went to a flat surface of woodland looming ahead. Yuzhe had once been around here, but slightly off to the east where there was a place in which the dead was buried.
The coast was a silent, unpopulated place. Why hadn't he thought of searching here?
"They're in there," the girl said, indicating to the thin woods ahead.
"Let's hurry." Yuzhe stalked into the dark, the girl this time trailing behind him. She told him which direction to go and Yuzhe was too busy to be impressed by her memory.
They came to a small clearing. Two things hit him at once: an abandoned house in the middle of the glade and the sight of a bulky man with a knife to Meiyue's neck.
His body reacted before he knew. "Meiyue!" He leapt toward them and his fist crashed into the man's face.
Shocked spread on Meiyue's face as her captor flew and hit a nearby tree with a grunt.
Yuzhe didn't spare him another glance. He turned to Meiyue and looked her over for damages. She was covered in dust and dirt. When he only caught a few exterior wounds he embraced her.
He heard her sucked in a breath, startled, but slowly relaxed. Her arms came around him, and her body started to tremble. Yuzhe held her tight, for a moment, breathing in her fading scent of jasmine. The act wasn't entirely to comfort the girl but it was to soothe his own feelings.
At last they parted.
"Yuzhe," she whispered, holding on to him.
"Don't worry, I'm here. You're safe now," he assured and combed her hair from her face. A sound nearby turned him to it.
Meiyue spoke behind him. "There's another woman. There are two of them."
Not long after she said it, the second guy appeared into the clearing. There was a woman in his hold too, but fortunately Yuzhe saw no weapon. He was confused at the situation but one look at his friend, who was getting back on his feet, seemed to get it down for him.
"Leave her," Yuzhe's voice carried deeply through the woods, "and I'll leave you."
The second guy backed away, dragging his hostage with him. "There are two of us. You don't stand a chance."
Yuzhe looked to the frightened woman. "Why don't you come here and fight fair like a man?"
"What we're doing here is none of your concern, pal," the bald man spoke by the tree instead. "Why don't you leave us to it?"
Yuzhe ignored him and turned to Meiyue. She nodded before hurrying away to where the previous girl was probably hiding, behind a huge elm tree.
"You!" Her captor made toward her but Yuzhe caught his fat muscular arm.
He saw the bloody damages he inflicted on his face and was certain there were more damages to come. Both for the guy and himself.
A fist came for his face.
Yuzhe deflected the blow to his arm and jumped back. The guy came for him again, undoubtedly pissed, and threw a bunch of attacks. He was good for the strength of his size, but the way he moved was a jumble of poor aiming and random ineffective blows. As Yuzhe was instructed, he moved for purpose and searched for an opening to strike. When his opponent came close enough, he risked a punch to the side of his face that rattled his jaw. Yuzhe got close enough and elbowed the guy at the sternum, hard.
His opponent halted as pain from the vital point emanated through his body. He dropped to one knee, grunting, clutching his chest. Yuzhe stepped back. The second guy dashed for him, but it didn't take that long to defeat the leaner one.
Well, it was true that Yuzhe barely spent his free time in waste.
He made his way to the women when certain that those two wouldn't be a problem anymore. Meiyue was waiting for him to come and gently touched a finger to his face where he was struck. It didn't hurt that much.
"I'm alright," Yuzhe told her, and saw marks around her wrist. He took it gently and addressed them all, "Let's head back. It's very late."
They made it into the city near midnight. Along the way, Meiyue told him how she was targeted in the first place and the other two told their own story. Somehow their tales had similar encounter.
After tonight, Yuzhe didn't know what to make out of Meiyue's visit next time when she would have to venture alone. But he resolved to sort that out later. Now they all needed to get home and rest.
"My home is not far from here. I think I should go now," said the youngest of them when they reached a cross road.
"Yes, me too. I can walk home from here," put in that older woman.
Yuzhe exchanged a look with Meiyue, who then said to them, "Oh. Please, let's come to our place first."
"I can take you home once you're well rested. Who knows if there would be more of them roaming at night. It's dangerous," Yuzhe added.
After a moment of hesitance, they both agreed. The stable was only ahead, but Yuzhe worried if Meiyue could keep her pace. Although she denied his support, he could see she was trying to hold herself firm. Her disheveled hair prevented him from seeing her face as she walked facedown.
They encountered Xinlei at the stable and he insisted to take the women home. Exhausted, they complied. Then Yuzhe urged Meiyue inside and gave her over to Zhonghong to have her bathed and dressed in his sister's clothes.
Once they were finished, Yuzhe went into Zhonghong's room and saw Meiyue in a simple pale blue ruqun with long sleeves and white flowers on the skirt. She was sitting on Zhonghong's bed, her hair like black silk behind her back. When she saw him enter, she smiled weakly.
"I'll leave you to care for her. I will go make something for you both," Zhonghong told him before exiting, leaving them alone.
Of all the customs, it was indecent for a woman to be in a room with a man who was not her own husband. If the man was the woman's own family then people believed that there would be more appropriate places to have their conversation held unless the circumstance didn't allow it, but that was unlikely.
With the thought suddenly in his mind, he snapped back to attention when Meiyue said, "What are you doing, hovering there?"
Yuzhe stared at her, dumb for a moment, then proceeded to pull a chair from Zhonghong's vanity and sat there, across the room from her.
Meiyue looked at him, a frown on her face. "I really doubt anybody can enjoy any conversation whatsoever with a person from that distance."
"But the customs-"
"Oh would you forget about the customs? This is your own home."
The last thing deterred him and he went to sit next to her. "Are you alright now?"
She signed. "No," she said, and looked at the red marks around her hands. "I mean, I really should not be out this long."
Yuzhe was relieved that she was worrying about that instead now. It meant she was, indeed, fine, although he could still remember the sense of despair when he saw her exposed to the knife the guy held to her neck and by what he didn't see before he came. He decided not to mention any of it anymore.
He absently took her wrists and rubbed gently. Maybe ointment would let it heal better. "Your parents must be so worried."
"I-I should really go home. I would be dead if anyone finds out I snuck out," Meiyue said. Yuzhe didn't let go of her hand.
"You were missing for the whole day," he reminded her. "It's too late for that now. You can go home the next morning. I'll walk you there."
To his surprise Meiyue relented. She stared at their hands. "Then will you agree to take me to the south now?"
He stopped rubbing her hand. Surely he hadn't heard her right.
"What?" he said, half incredulous. Meiyue only blinked at him.
For a moment, he forgot about the earlier incident and was about to give her a hard scold she well deserved when she said, "You don't have to worry about my safety since we're together," so simply that it rendered him speechless.
He could only stare, at her brown eyes and into them at the stubbornness that didn't and wouldn't always do her good. But if he didn't agree, she was likely to come up with more unbelievable things he didn't want to imagine, or caused herself harm along the way.
"Fine," he said a bit unwillingly, then forced himself not to smile at the way she lighted up for the first time since that day. "But you will tell me where you exactly do you live and all the things you never answered."
She nodded. "Of course. Then I will come for you within a few days after I have things prepared."
"Alright," he said, thought he wasn't sure what preparation she was planning.
Yuzhe sat looking at her smiling to herself, happy to finally win him over. The yellow lamp from the ceiling illuminated her features. Moments ago strain had marked her eyes and made her lips withdrawn. But now her face blushed from warm bath and her usual self was returning.
He felt something fluttered inside when she turned to him, but was interrupted when Zhonghong came in with a tray of their hot meal.
The three sat around together and talked and ate. Once in awhile, Yuzhe caught himself stealing strange glances at the girl beside him, who was good at getting under his patience and still got what she wanted with him anyway.