Two Hearts Together
Despite of her maid servants' most persuasive coaxing, Xiao Xiao couldn't sleep. Even the calming herbal brews didn't seem to help.
The palace had settled down in an uneasy peace, worn out by the terror, the panic and the shock of losing the daughter of the Emperor's favorite courtesan. Mother still paced, desperately awake, in her chamber, ignoring the advice of her ladies-in-waiting. Xiao Xiao was worried that by the end of the whole ordeal, Mother would fall sick and become a pale ghost, deprived of her vitality. She suspected many would still keep vigil by their candle light, afraid to sleep and heartsick.
When the maid servants finally dozed off by the braziers, Xiao Xiao stole out from her sleeping chamber. She wore her fur-lined gown, because it was still chilly at night. She was glad for her warm boots too.
Once out in the courtyard, Xiao Xiao breathed a sigh of relief. The night sky was clear. Stars glittered. She crept towards the bank of the river, where they kept the pleasure boats they used for leisurely cruises on the river and lakes. She had to be quiet. The guards were patrolling, more vigilant now perhaps because of the abduction.
In the dark, the river murmured its quiet song of rushing waves.
"Ming Zhu?" Xiao Xiao whispered, her heart pounding hard in her chest. It was a wild guess, a wild hope that her friend was indeed there.
Silence descended. Somewhere a night bird squawked. Something splashed across the river, like a pebble skating on the water.
A dragon's head emerged from the river. A familiar familiar shape that sent shivers down Xiao Xiao's spine and stirred the fire in her heart.
I am too late. It took her.
"She's still alive. I can feel her heartbeat. It's strong."
Then we will save her.
Xiao Xiao slipped out her pouch. The green pearl glowed bright inside. Light in the dark.
Her chest filled with a burning sun. She lost herself in the light.
The two dragons flew.
Two hearts together.
Far away, the Nian swam in the sea. The little girl slept curled up in its mane.
The Nian was intrigued by the human girl. She had beat her tiny fists against its mouth. It was not painful - like tiny pin pricks - but it was impressed by her courage. Of course, she had also screamed at it.
So it let the girl scream herself into an exhausted sleep.
Now it moved in the sea, coursing through the dark water. It could hear human singing and laughing. The smells were different, much unlike the odors.
The singing and laughter came from an object barring its way. The object had large wings and a sharp-tipped head. Inside it were lights. Was it a monster?
As it approached, the singing changed into shouting. Now this kind of noise the Nian knew.
Without further thought, it plowed through the object.
The next morning, the palace woke up to the news of a foreign ship being sunk by a "monster". Accusations were being made that the "monster" was actually one of the naval warships, out to attack the ship.
The palace also woke up to the terrifying realisation that Xiao Xiao had disappeared. She was not in her sleeping chambers. The maid servants had searched everywhere. She was just gone. Lady Xiao Yan Xi, imperial courtesan of first rank, was at her wit's end. Her two daughters were missing.
Two disappearances in one week!
Such bad luck!
Struck by the twin disasters, the Emperor ordered immediate investigations. The foreign power demanded swift recourse. The Emperor had often expressed skepticism regarding the British. But for the sake of diplomacy, he had assented to one or two ships and nothing more. Driven by profit, they still demanded trade. He had remained staunchly adamant that they stayed at Zhou Shan. Had the ship strayed, breaching the treaty? Were they indeed that untrustworthy?
Questions burned in everyone's minds. Did Xiao Xiao run away? Why did she run? Was she angry? Sad? Or had she been abducted too? Search parties doubled, looking for the two girls, calling out their names.
The search went into the night and for many nights after.
The dragon sisters followed the trail of destruction left behind by the rampaging Nian. Their shimmering scales caught the light of the rising sun; their sinuous shapes swam the currents of the wind.
The trail was clear.
Xiao Xin's heartbeat was strong.
The Nian had caused more fires, earthquakes and landslides as it travelled north. Villages burned. Cracks appeared in mountain sides and cliffs. Tributaries were a muddy orange; the earthquakes and landslides had caused soil to topple and block up the waterways. Rice fields had become brown.
The heartbeat was a counterpoint to the Nian's destructive trail. It was a strange rhythm, a song that resonated deeply in the dragons' chests.
As they traced the signs, the sound of Xiao Xin's heart beating grew stronger and stronger.
Let's go, Xiao Xiao rumbled in her dragon voice.
Yes, yes, Ming Zhu replied back.