Qin Yining chased after the figure for many steps, but she couldn’t keep up. She had to settle for watching the pelt-wearing child vanish into the bushes.
This was a patch of mountains so isolated that even hunters wouldn’t venture here. There were no signs of human habitation whatsoever. Why would a child of roughly eight years old appear here?
Is there a village nearby?
Deeply mystified, Qin Yining’s attention was quickly caught by the wild rabbit.
It was a slightly fattened, gray rabbit. Its fur had been roughly handled and it’d been roasted. However, it was apparent that the cook wasn’t very skilled as the rabbit was still a bloody mess. It hadn’t even been cleaned of its organs.
The Qin fourth miss guessed that this was the handiwork of the child from earlier. I wonder when I was discovered.
But of one thing she was certain, and that was the child bore her no hostility. Thanks to her perception honed from years of habit, she’d detected no enmity. Besides, if the child really did feel hostility, she wouldn’t have gifted such valuable food to a stranger.
Qin Yining picked up the rabbit and walked a bit into the distance with a dagger. After carefully removing the innards and cutting off the charred fur, she buried them all into the snow so that the scent of gore wouldn’t attract other wild animals. She then carefully washed her hands and the rabbit with snow, again burying the dirty snow before returning to her shelter.
The fire had burned down by now, so she fetched some more firewood.
Now that she had a machete and short sword, it was much easier to chop firewood. She could also shave off the wet bark so that her fire would produce much less smoke.
Hanging the rabbit up onto branches, she hoisted the meat over the fire and roasted it slowly.
Though there was no salt, the fragrance of cooking meat made her stomach churn uncomfortably. She’d had only a skinny, roasted frog over the past two days and was absolutely famished.
Right at this time, she heard the rustling of small animals moving through snow. Lifting her eyes in the direction of the sound, she saw a small figure crouched behind the bushes.
Perhaps because they’d seen each other just now, the child didn’t take off running as soon as their eyes met. Remaining close to the ground, it cautiously shuffled forward, craning its neck and wrinkling a nose set in a dirty face to sniff at the smell of roasting rabbit.
Qin Yining broke into an involuntary smile.
“Hello there. Did you catch this rabbit?” She waved at the child as she turned the rabbit over.
The sound of her voice seemed to have startled the child. Big, bright eyes blinking blankly were the only answer. This perplexed Qin Yining. The child looked eight years old, so it should be able to understand her, right?
Or was it part of a tribe that lived deep in the mountains, rejecting communication with the outside world? Or maybe it didn’t understand her language?
She cut off a piece of cooked meat and reached a hand out to the child. “This is for you.” Gestures accompanied her words, out of consideration that the child might not understand.
Meaning was successfully conveyed in the end. It scampered over like an agile monkey and stooped next to Qin Yining, prudently reaching out with grubby hands to grab the meat from the tip of the dagger.
Startled by the motion, Qin Yining shrank back to avoid slicing into the child’s hand.
“Be careful, you might cut yourself.” The Qin fourth miss removed the meat to hand it over.
The child had been heavily disappointed when it saw the stranger withdraw the meat. But when cooked rabbit was proffered by a lily-white arm, it perked up like a happy puppy and gulped down the meat with a happy cry, eyes crinkling with joy.
The antics teased a chuckle from Qin Yining. “Do you live here?”
Staring steadily at the roasting rabbit, the child nodded.
Wonderful, it understands me!
“What’s your name? How old are you?”
The child remained fixated on the rabbit.
Qin Yining sliced off all the cooked meat on the surface and gave it to the child, who ate it with great gusto. It seemed like it’d been a long while since it last had a meal. Its mouth covered with grease, it flashed a big grin.
Heartache crept in to see a child this way. Qin Yining asked, “Where is your family?”
The child responded!
But even a singular word tipped off the issue at hand. The child’s voice was hoarse and raspy from prolonged disuse, its pronunciation very clunky as well, as if speaking was a very difficult exercise.
“Do you mean that your family is all dead?” Qin Yining fed it another piece of meat.
The child nodded, pointed in a certain direction, then pointed at the sword by the Qin fourth miss’ hand.
The latter blinked, recalling the four corpses.
Three of them in Great Zhou uniforms, the last in casual clothing. All four were men, and it’d seemed to be a case of one against three. From the rotting of the clothing, they had been dead for at least four years.
Pity had crept into Qin Yining’s gaze. “Do you have any other family?”
The child shook its head.
“Then, where do you live? How old are you? What’s your name?”
The child pointed in another direction and replied haltingly, “Live… house. Ni-ine. Name. Lotus.”
“Your name is Lotus ? Of the lotus flower?”  Qin Yining carefully looked over the child. Because it was so young and covered with grime, she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
Lotus nodded. “Lotus, flower. In, vat. There. Lotus flower. My name.”
Qin Yining nodded with a smile. It looks like she’s a girl. She didn’t stop her motions and kept slicing off meat for the little girl.
Though it was unsalted, Lotus ate with immense enjoyment and struggled to communicate. “Yummy. More, more yummy, than me cooking.”
Heartache had well and truly wrapped its grip around Qin Yining’s heart. “Do you usually cook for yourself?”
Lotus nodded and pointed where Qin Yining had discovered the bodies. “Uncle died.”
The situation was becoming clear. The man killed by the Great Zhou soldiers must’ve been the child’s only kin. Without family, she could only gnaw on half-cooked prey to assuage her hunger.
Thinking back to the half-raw rabbit that Lotus had surreptitiously gifted her earlier, Qin Yining knew the the child must’ve been subsiding on fare like this over the past couple of years.
She rubbed Lotus' head with great pity. The little girl was only eight years old, but she’d already survived in these isolated woods, by herself, for almost four years!
It’d be one thing if she hadn’t run into the child. But now that she had, she wouldn’t just walk on without looking back. Her mind made up, Qin Yining addressed the child. “Lotus, can you take me to your house?”
The little girl nodded happily and reached out with a mucky hand. “Come, come.”
Qin Yining smiled and picked randomly at the remaining rabbit, tore off the legs for Lotus, and extinguished the campfire. Burying the traces of her presence, she picked up the weapons and followed Lotus further into the mountains.
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Remember the 'lian' character reference, it'll come back~
And incidentally, Lotus is based off one of the readers in the author's QQ group. The first of the reader cameos~~ I was mad jelly and thus began my quest to have a cameo too!