The sun cowers behind the lush green peaks as morning settles over the Nan mountain range. The air awakens to the murmurings of civets and the buzzing of pale dragonflies flitting between the bamboo forest and the tea fields. It is late summer, and the nunnery sits in the curve of the valley, swathed in tranquility.
Ying does not smile as she takes in the view from her humble third-story quarters, a room she shares with her sister nuns. Her face, usually smooth as alabaster, is furrowed with anxiety today. She wets her pinkie and extends her hand out the window. Yes, there is something wrong in the air today. Her shoulders curl with apprehension as she tries to shake off this inexplicable tension.
The sky is blue streaked with the remnants of dawn, not a cloud in sight. There will be no storm today. Why are the morning birds not singing?
The gong sounds, breaking Ying’s reverie. She abandons her post by the window, resolving to push these unsettling notions to the back of her head. The sisters of the Shan Gu nunnery file silently down the halls to begin their prayers. The only sounds are the rustling of saffron robes and the gentle clinking of wooden beads.
Ying finds herself next to Kailin during prayers. The other girl smiles at her and seems completely at ease. The temple descends into absolute silence as the two hundred and eighty girls place their foreheads on the floor. Burning incense fills the air.
Try as she might, Ying cannot focus. After morning prayers, they disperses. The younger girls are led off by gray-haired, fifty-year-old grandmas to visit Hong Hua Lake and head east toward the rice fields. At the age of nineteen, Ying has recently entered the ranks of the scholars. She ascends the stairs to the second floor, where she resigns herself to copying the texts of great poets. Others meditate, clean, or paint.
“Jing!” Ying whispers, sliding into her usual place beside her friend.
The older girl bids her good morning.
Ying places her inkpot and writing stick on the rough table. “Do you feel anything strange today?”
“Today? No, I haven’t. The weather is lovely.”
Ying frowns, and unfurls a piece of blank bamboo paper. “Oh, I see. It’s just …” The words leave her mouth as she stares at the paper.
Garish red words are scrawled sloppily in some type of strange ink.
I am coming.
The four characters send chills up her spine.
“Are you all right, Ying?”
Ying quickly snaps the scroll shut. Her fingers tremble. “It’s nothing,” she reassures her friend, trying on a smile. “I’m sure it’s … something I ate yesterday.”
Jing does not look like she believes Ying, but she shrugs, knowing better than to push. Ying pulls out another piece of paper. The two work silently, side by side. The scroll with the threatening words stays tucked in the folds of Ying’s robe.
The sisters convene during the third hour of the afternoon to eat their meal. Ying gives her unappetizing bowl of eel and mushroom broth to one of the young ones, then runs outside. Under the blazing sun and clear skies at last, she hurries into the grove of persimmon trees that are scattered near the building, desperate for some time alone.
Veiled by sturdy trunks and shadows, Ying takes the scroll out from her robes. Her heart is hammering. She examines the writing again, running her eyes hungrily over the script.
Suddenly Ying recognizes the writing. It belongs to a man from another life, a man with liquid eyes and a sharp wit who crept into her window one night and kissed her in the darkness. A man whose love was furious and passionate but would die like an extinguished flame once he tired of her. A man whom Ying had given herself to, but who had left her in the end.
She had only discovered how two-faced he was after it was too late. She had caught him with another woman, and she had fled, mortified beyond words.
Then Ying discovered she was with child.
He had chased her. How he’d begged her to return, especially after she’d told him about their child! He wanted to reconcile, marry, and have a family. She would have gladly gutted him for a clipped copper coin. No way in the seven hells would Ying allow him to ever touch her baby son.
She had found sanctuary in the Shan Gu nunnery, where she had given birth and remained hidden for three years. Her son was far away now, in a safe place with hot food and foster parents he would call Ba and Ma.
A tear rolls down Ying’s cheek. She stares at the scroll.
He knows where she is now. And once he finds her, he will do anything to discover the whereabouts of his son.
Ying tightens her fist around the fragile paper, crumpling it. She must do her duty as a mother. She must keep her little prince safe. No one can coerce the information from her if she is gone.
The sun cowers behind the lush green peaks as morning settles over the Nan mountain range. The air awakens to the murmurings of civets and the buzz of pale dragonflies flitting between the bamboo forest and the tea fields. It is late summer, and the nunnery sits in the curve of the valley. Usually quiet and tranquil, the red and gold building is bustling with activity today.
Tai reins in his mountain pony with the rest of the law enforcement team. They have been sent to the nunnery from the city of Dongcheng to investigate a suicide.
The squad, half a dozen strong and decked out in full uniform, strides down the yawning halls of the temple. Tai is sweltering in the humidity but tries not to show it. He is excited – this is his first real investigation since passing the test, and he is intent on impressing his lieutenant.
They arrive at the scene. A body, clad in the orange-yellow robes of the nuns, is at the foot of a set of spiral stairs. Her neck is bent at an unnatural angle, and her ebony hair is splayed out on the ground.
Tai’s stomach lurches, but he forces his face to remain impassive.
“What is her name?” The Lieutenant begins his interrogation of a girl with red-rimmed eyes who is hovering around the body.
“Ying, sir,” she whispers, lowering her gaze.
Ying? The name is common in the southeast. However, it is also strangely familiar. Tai frowns and racks his brains. He swears he has heard of an important lady named Ying before ….
“How old is she?”
“When did she arrive at the nunnery?”
“Three years ago, sir.”
Tai’s eyes widen.
Ying. Nineteen years old. At the nunnery just three years. Could it be?
Tai edges closer to the body and peers at her face. She has pale, pale skin, probably from staying inside a palace all her life. Her nose is aristocratic, and the shape of her face is so familiar. No wonder. Her image has been on wanted posters for the past three years.
“Lieutenant,” Tai gasps.
The older man turns and fixes the younger with an annoyed gaze. “I’m interviewing somebody.”
“Lieutenant, this girl – I’m certain of it – she is the Emperor’s daughter. Princess Yinghua, heiress to the Orient, first in line to the Nanying Throne. The girl who caused a scandal a few years ago by running off with her lover. Do you remember?”
The room is totally silent as the Lieutenant freezes. He bends down and brushes away the diaphanous fabric that obscures the lower half of Ying’s face. The other nuns stare at Tai as if he is a newly discovered species of lizard that sings battle hymns.
After a few moments that seem like years, the Lieutenant straightens up.
“We had better notify the Emperor,” he says hoarsely.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the December 2014 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.