Xinlei navigated through the town, pulling the rickshaw with him with sheer horse power. His first customer was a granny living nearby his house whom he called upon. She told him he was a generous boy when he offered to take her to market without needing to pay because he was heading there anyway.
Xinlei slowed at uneven grounds, careful not to shake the carriage too much and disrupt the elder woman's ride. When reaching the market packed with people, he helped her down the rickshaw and denied the small favor she gave him. After few attempts, he accepted the coins anyway and told her he could pick her up everyday. The granny was delighted as she disappeared among the swarm of the sales.
After that Xinlei carefully pulled his carriage out of the market square and parked it at an unoccupied spot beside a resident's gate wall before going in search for breakfast.
Smoke from the market clouded the air as he went from sales to sales, smiling at the calls from most of the food vendors. He approached a booth with steaming buns, and chose a flavor. "I'd like three of these," he told the seller, pointing to the plump meat buns.
"That'd be three li, sir," the seller said and handed him the packed food. Xinlei reached for the coins when he heard like a shout from somewhere nearby. It was almost muffled by the noise of all the activities going all around and nobody seemed to heed. He paid the seller and saw that he also heard it.
"Children," the vendor said and shook his head in dismissal. Xinlei took the buns and made his way back to where he parked his vehicle. He kept one bun in his mouth and kept the rest of the pack on the seat. Then he went to the other side of the street.
Chewing his breakfast, Xinlei padded along the unruffled road, looking around for sign of anything that might give out the shout he unmistakably heard. There were no children about. A few walking sellers were starting to pour out from the other side, stopping for interested guests. There wasn't anything unusual.
He decided to shrug it off and finished the bun. There was a man he saw then whom just came out of a resident, probably wanting a ride. Xinlei waved and jogged to him, but happened to step on something hard.
He bent down to retrieve it.
It was a beautiful piece of hairpin. He turned it, surprised to have found something like that. Judging from the decorative stones engraved to the stick, it didn't belong to a normal commoner. And he had a suspicious idea that the shining metal wasn't at all metal but silver.
Smiling, he put the hair ornament tucked safe in his pocket before resuming his call for the customer.
Later that noon, Zhonghong was cleaning up after the last table and brought the used dishes to be cleaned at the kitchen. It was supper time so the dish washer was gathering around with the rest of the crew, having a short meal now that there were no customers. Since Zhonghong wasn't particularly hungry, she didn't mind doing the washing.
She was leaving the dishes to dry when someone came to the kitchen and said to her, "Zhonghong, your boyfriend is here to see you."
The crew did a hushed whoop behind her. "Hua-jie," Zhonghong groaned, turning to the speaker. "I don't have a boyfriend."
Her coworker chuckled and said to her, "Well, he's in front of the shop, and asked me to get you."
Zhonghong sighed. "Alright," she said and wiped her hands. It seemed like she was already regretting that she didn't eat when she had the chance.
She made her way out of the restaurant, into the heating sun of midday, and found Xinlei waiting for her just outside the entrance. It wasn't often for him to visit her during her work, if the owner knew Zhonghong wouldn't want to imagine what would happen, and she felt slightly discomforted at the reminder of Hua-jie's tease. She thought that it must be something she needed to know. Maybe Yuzhe told him to come.
He was fumbling with something in his hand when she approached him. "Xinlei," she said.
He smiled at the sight of her. "Sorry for calling you out during your work," he apologized, at first seemingly trying to hide whatever he was holding. Zhonghong was about to ask him about it when he held it up to her, palm closed.
"What is it?" she asked him, curious.
He beamed brightly and unfolded his hand. It revealed a piece of hair stick, with pink and green jewels formed around as flowers and dangling leaves. The stick caught the sunlight and sparkled.
"For you." The vertical scar on his left cheek lit up his smile even more.
Zhonghong tried to return the gesture, feeling thankful, but not really understanding the sudden gift. "Where did you get something like this?" she asked instead.
"I found it, more like," Xinlei told her. "Do you like it?"
She looked at it, not yet replying. It wasn't that she didn't find it gorgeous, nor disliked it. She also knew that if she didn't say anything Xinlei would have doubts but there was something about the object that connected it to a shallow memory.
There wasn't a doubt. She saw it before, many times.
"Meiyue," she recalled abruptly.
Xinlei looked puzzled. "Meiyue? What about her?"
"This belongs to Meiyue," she said, now certain.
He stared at the gift. "Are you sure? I found it on the street this morning."
"Yes, I'm sure. She wears it on her hair all the time. Maybe she dropped it?" There was also the chance of it being someone else's, but hairpins of that quality were mostly made by skilled smiths in styles that none other would match to represent the wearer's significance. As she always assumed, Meiyue was a daughter of some noble after all.
Xinlei was wearing a remote expression when she turned to him. She wondered if he was disappointed but wanted to thank him anyway.
But then, suddenly he withdrew the hairpin from her and quickly slid it back in his pocket. "Sorry about that. I didn't know. I-I'll get this to Yuzhe to return it to her," he told her, and stalked away before she could reply.
Yuzhe finished his errands during the afternoon. Sweat beaded his forehead and made his clothes stick to his body as he made his way from the post office back home. The place was stuffed with the smell of paper and ink and sweat. Officials in their suffocating long hanfu fluttered about and demanded first service. Yuzhe quickly cut through the crowd, the heat making him eager for a wash.
Once home, he made his way toward the bathroom and noticed that someone was in the kitchen.
"Oh, you're back," Liping said when he went to see. His father was pouring steaming water into a tea kettle.
"Father." Yuzhe got out of his soaked coat and discarded it into a wooden basin. "Did anyone asked for the horses today?"
"No, but a guest asked to take care of his horse," Liping said and inclined to the stable. "He'd be back by evening. I thought of giving it a wash but my back is really troubling."
"It's okay, I'll do it after this," Yuzhe told him and went for a bath.
Not long after he managed to get into some fresh trousers and a wool shirt, there was someone barging into the parlor. He almost thought it was the lord whom he ran his earlier errand for until the person's voice told him otherwise. He went to the sitting room.
"Xinlei," he said to his friend, who was standing in front of his father looking like he ran a race. Yuzhe sat down.
Xinlei didn't take a seat. "Yuzhe," he said, half flustered. "Did Meiyue come by this morning?"
Yuzhe glanced at his father, not liking how they were both looking. "She did," he said. "Why?"
His friend fumbled through the interior pocket of his shirt and took out a shiny object. "Zhonghong said this belonged to her."
Yuzhe stared at the ornamental hairpin before taking it. He remembered it in Meiyue's hair every time she came to visit.
If it was just something she dropped, then he didn't understand the way Xinlei sounded when he said, "I saw it on the street this morning."
"I'll keep it for her," Yuzhe said simply.
"And," his friend added, uncertainly, "I hope it's just my overthinking, but before I found that, I was on the other side of the street and heard someone shouting. But when I got there, there was nothing out of usual."
Alarm seized him. Liping stopped sipping his tea. "Did you see anything strange?" Yuzhe asked.
"There were just the folks," Xinlei told him. "Do you think Meiyue is in trouble? I ran here as soon as I realized she might be."
It was too early to assume that. Without any prove, it could have been just the townsfolk rough conversations that Xinlei had picked up, but...
Yuzhe gripped the hairpin until it would leave marks. It also was too risky to assume she was alright. He was thinking again of their conversation this morning. He had refused her out of care for her and didn't allow himself to regret what he had done, not even when she was probably missing now. And he didn't know where exactly she lived to check. All she ever told him about herself was that she belonged to the Forbidden District.
He was suddenly furious.
They both turned when Liping spoke from his seat. "Let's try asking around the place you found that first. Maybe someone might know or heard something."
Yuzhe and Xinlei nodded. That was the only choice. He could only hope that Meiyue wasn't as good for trouble as she was at asking for it.
Yuzhe got up. "I'm sorry but I'll come back to the task later," he said to Liping about their guest.
"Go," his father urged.
Together they marched out of the house and into the city. Yuzhe clung to her belonging as if it was the only thing that tethered them.