Jing Rong, true to his words, gave yet another piece of silver to the boatman, which caused the latter to grin and bow down several times. As he did so, he kept on repeating to them to 'have a pleasant day'.
The village was deserted due to heavy rain, and the occasional passer-by would be running as quickly as they could to get to their destination as soon as possible. Although Jing Rong and Ji Yunshu had umbrellas, they did little to prevent their coats and footwears from being drenched. Soon enough, a biting cold climbed from their feet into the rest of their body.
The two stopped at the doorstep of a derelict straw house. Ji Yunshu knocked at the door, and it took a long while before the shabby door was opened with a loud creak.
A hoary old woman with a hunched back appeared and looked at both Ji Yunshu and Jing Rong, “You are?”
“Excuse me, old madame, may I ask where can I find Yu Sao?” Ji Yunshu asked.
“Oh, you mean Ah’Yu?” The woman said as she pointed in a particular direction, “Follow that path and walk around the forest. You’ll find a wooden hut there. That’s Ah’Yu’s home.”
She lives in the forest?
“Thank you, old madame.” Ji Yunshu said.
The woman looked at her with a affectionate smile and said, “You two aren’t from here, are you? Are you related to Ah’Yu?”
“Yes, you could say so,” answered Ji Yunshu, her composure unbroken by the blatant lie.
The woman gave a slight nod, sighed and said, “Ah’Yu has had a hard life with many difficulties. Her husband passed away early and it’s been hard for her ever since, especially in the last few years. If you can help out, you should.” The sympathy the old woman showed was simple, but thought-provoking precisely because of its simplicity. Ji Yunshu assented and left her some silver before leaving.
Jing Rong was silent the whole time, properly fulfilling the role of a servant accompanying his master. The two walked in the rain next to each other, and their figures, one tall and the other short, composed quite the picturesque scene under the paper umbrella.
Jing Rong turned his eyes and asked without thinking. “Weren’t you here for your father’s funeral procession?”
“......” Hey, how did you jump to this topic, and did you really need to ask that? Ji Yunshu really would have liked to stuff something into Jing Rong’s mouth to prevent him from talking any further. However, since that was evidently impossible, instead, she pretended that the noise from the rain had muffled Jing Rong’s question.
The two of them arrived to a place where the forest began to thicken. However, it resembled smoldering ruins more than a lush forest. The few trees which had been planted were uprooted by the heavy rain and winds. The road that meandered through them was an unpaved muddy path, with many unpleasant surprises for the traveller who chose to set foot upon it.
Even the poorest of people wouldn’t want to live in such a desolate and remote place, wouldn’t they?
Ji Yunshu looked at Jing Rong and said, “Milord, high-grade silk which is mired can never recover its beauty. May I suggest you to wait for me here?”
“Swallow these words of yours, I don’t want to hear them,” Jing Rong said without a single change in his expression.
“Aren’t you here to investigate? We could already be in there by now if weren’t for your meaningless proposition.”
Oh, really, shame on me I guess, thought Ji Yunshu.
Jing Rong lifted his robe and led the way into the squalid track filled with yellow dirt and pebbles. His imposing figure slowly vanished into the shadow of the woods. Ji Yunshu followed him, stepping on Jing Rong’s large footprints, and it seemed like it was as slippery as she would have imagined.
The pathway opened up after a while, and Ji Yunshu saw a derelict dwelling on the verge of crumbling under the heavy rain. To call it a shack would be an euphemism. Knick-knacks outside of the house, scattered by the wind gusts and covered in filth, completed the desolate picture.
“Is there really someone living here?” uttered Jing Rong.
“Let’s go have a look inside,” suggested Ji Yunshu. She walked towards the entrance, but turned back after two steps to give Jing Rong a piece of advice, “Milord, we are here to visit relatives, but they’ve moved away without telling us. Since we are without a place to rest, we came here to ask some water and a place to stay momentarily.”
“What?” said Jing Rong with eyes wide in amazement.
“Milord, please remember what this humble one said.” Ji Yunshu did not explain any further and approached the doorstep. The door, if it could be called one, was no more than a layer of wooden planks disorderly nailed to the frame. The occasional slit between two planks revealed a glimpse of the interior, which was dimly lit by the dwindling light of a single oil lamp.
Ji Yunshu curled her fingers and knocked on the door. She waited for a while, but no one came to answer her. Jing Rong was rather irritated, “Move aside, this door is not solid enough to withstand a hard kick.”
You should go kick yourself in the head! Can we avoid getting into the habit of resorting to violence? Ji Yunshu glared at him, “Have you thought about what’ll happen to these poor people after you break their door? Do you want them to freeze to death in the winter? On top of that…” Ji Yunshu was about to continue lecturing him when the door suddenly flung open.
A pair of eyes, aged by the vicissitudes of life and buried within disordered hair, were the first things that the two saw. Ji Yunshu and Jing Rong only realised that they belonged to a woman after they saw her face in its entirety. Her facial muscles were flaccid, and wrinkles ran, interwoven on the skin. Time and age conferred a natural air of askance to the owner of that visage.
“Who are you?” said the woman with a weak voice.
Ji Yunshu answered in a soft voice, “Madame, sorry to disturb you. My brother and I are here to visit relatives, but they moved away without telling us, so we don’t have a place to stay for now. We’d like to know if it’s possible to have a brief respite in your house, and have some water to drink.”
Ji Yunshu’s soft voice and charismatic looks probably convinced the woman that they meant no harm. She scrutinized the duo, finally opened the half-closed door and said, “Come in,” as she turned around and led the way.
Ji Yunshu and Jing Rong glanced at each other before following her into the dwelling.
The inside was poorly lit and narrow between the walls, but surprisingly clean. Although the furniture pieces were worn out, the table and chairs were neatly placed and covered with a clean towel, which improved its look. Further inside was the entrance to a room, hidden by a curtain which replaced the door that should have been there.
Ji Yunshu and Jing Rong sat near the table. The latter sat with a straight back and did not seem to be repulsed by his surroundings.
Seems like this prince is not spoilt after all, thought Ji Yunshu.
The woman brought two bowls of water and said, “Please take your time sir, if you’d like more, I’ll gladly refill it.”
“Thank you madame,” answered Jing Rong politely. He emptied the water in the porcelain vessel cleanly.
Well, he’s really thirsty isn’t he?
“Madame, are you the only person living here?” attempted Ji Yunshu.
“Yes, I live alone.”
Shouldn’t she have a daughter? Ji Yunshu was perplexed, “How long have you lived here?”
“For a few years,” answered the woman in an indecipherable voice, emotionlessly.
“May I know your name?” asked Ji Yunshu.
The woman suddenly raised her head to look at Ji Yunshu, only to dodge the latter’s stare, and answered, “Everyone here calls me Yu Sao.”
Seems like she’s the one I’m looking for. Only, what happened to her eight year old daughter?
Grenn's Rants Corner
People, please prepare your heart from this chapter onward until the true end of this case...