"What on earth does Huang Ah Ma mean by giving you the old residence of Lian Qin Wang?" The tone of disbelief and incredulity was clearly emphasised in both Er Kang's tone and face as he spoke to Yong Qi when they were leaving the morning court.
Yong Qi, however, was unperturbed. "He wants to give me my own place to live outside the palace, I'm sure."
"Yes, but the old Lian Wang Fu? What is he trying to say?"
Yong Qi laughed slightly at what, in his opinion, was his friend's overreaction to a very simple act. "Don't you think you're being melodramatic?"
Er Kang had stopped in his track and turned to face the prince. "Yong Qi," he said grimly, "this is the prince who was stripped of all his titles, expelled from the clan and died in prison, not to mention - "
"So what's your point? That his ghost is floating around what is now my Rong Wang Fu? Even if there is a ghost, I don't think he has anything against this great-nephew."
"Well, I can't admit to being that superstitious, but speaking in terms of significance, it's not the most auspicious location, is it? It's not as if Huang Ah Ma doesn't have any other place to give you."
"Actually, it is a rather convenient location, directly on the way to both your place and the palace. Come on, Er Kang, if I'm not bothered by it, why should you be? Anyway, it's not as if I could say to Huang Ah Ma, no I don't want the house that once belonged to your uncle who was all but killed by your father, please give me another."
Er Kang simply gave Yong Qi a look that said plainly, It's your funeral, and walked on. Yong Qi chuckled lightly to himself before hastening his own pace to catch up.
"So tell me, what's so horrible about this place again, that had Er Kang going ballistic?" Xiao Yan Zi asked as she surveyed her new rooms from the entrance. She had moved houses many times in her day, and though before she entered the palace, she never owned many things, but this move was by far the less stressful of all moves. It wasn't as if she had to do anything except get onto a carriage and be carried here.
"The previous owner had a rather horrific ending," Yong Qi said. "Er Kang apparently thinks by putting me here, Huang Ah Ma is wishing the same fate on me or something. If that was the case he wouldn't have bothered giving me this title in the first place."
"Well, I don't care what happened the last owner of this place, I'm just glad I won't have to see Zhi Hua on a regularly basis now!"
Xiao Yan Zi had never got used to being bored, though she had been bored for years now. Marriage had excitements in its own ways but in so many other ways it was dead boring, especially when her husband would spend most of the morning in the palace or else having to endure visits from ministers. His increasing responsibilities only left her gasping for something to do. The baby still thought it was better to sleep the whole day and get up at night, which did Xiao Yan Zi little favour. She didn't want to cause more stress for the already sleep-deprived nurse with a sleep-deprived baby. She almost tried picking an argument with Zhi Hua for something to do, but only at the last minute thought better of it. It wasn't worth the headache it would give Yong Qi later. She was freer to go see Zi Wei now, but what would they do?
She gave a heavy sigh and took out the flute, which her brother had left with her before he and Qing Er left for Dali, to try to practice a tune, but soon she had lost interest. What she really wanted right now was to practice her sword but it was no fun doing it alone. As Xiao Yan Zi stared off into space, the flute fell from her slack fingers, clattered to the floor before rolling beneath the bed.
Grumbling to herself, she dropped down to her knees to peer beneath the bed. If there were any servants in the room now she would never be allowed to do this but it was liberating to actually do some simple tasks to herself. It only seemed that the more prestigious Yong Qi's title got (and hers by association), the less she was allowed to do. How was that fair?
The flute had rolled deep across the width of the bed and only stopped as it reached the wall. She groaned to herself in frustration but didn't call for the eunuchs to help her. Taking a deep breath, Xiao Yan Zi flattened herself as much as possible and crawled into the narrow space between the bed and the floor, which was a difficult thing to do, considering her headdress kept getting in the way. However, she did eventually manage to pluck the flute from its resting place in the corner. As she crawled out, some tiles under her felt loose and wobbly. So the house was old, but surely it wasn't to the point of being in disrepair that the tiles were falling apart? With this thought to herself, Xiao Yan Zi placed the flute on the bed, making sure it had no chance of rolling off again, before dropping down again to inspect the loose tiles.
She found she could lift a couple of tiles right off the dirt mortar and it was clear what made them wobble earlier. Underneath was a bundle wrapped in a piece of silk cloth.
Finally extracting herself from the bottom of the bed with great difficulty, Xiao Yan Zi sat back on the bed and unwrapped the package. Inside was a bunch of clumsily sewn together pages of paper, something that could be called a book, she supposed. It was hard to tell how long the book has been lying there under the bed. Yong Qi did finally end up telling her about the tragic fate of Lian Qin Wang, and as far as she knew, no one had occupied this house since the unlucky prince left it. So the book might have been here for decades...It was amazing how it was not eaten to shreds by moths, rats or insects. The only damage the book seemed to suffer was the naturally yellowing of the paper with age.
She turned the book over several times in her hand. On the cover, there were only five characters, written in handwriting only slightly better looking than her own: Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi. It was a Manchurian name. Well, it wasn't surprising, considering this was a Manchurian household. Maybe the person who owned this book was a concubine or daughter of Lian Qin Wang - a very young daughter, with such bad penmanship.
But no. Her name was Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi.
A wife or concubine then.
She flipped the cover open to find it was some kind of diary or record, judging by the date on the very first line of the first page. It was dated thus: seventeenth day, eighth month, forty-third year Kang Xi reign, or sometime in the early seventeen-hundreds.
What on earth was sometime in the early seventeen-hundreds?
What followed the confusing date didn't make much more sense either. It wasn't the content conveyed that was nonsensical, it was the fact that Xiao Yan Zi recognised only a handful of the words written on there, while the others were either used completely wrong or weren't words at all. Xiao Yan Zi was sure her reading vocabulary wasn't that bad anymore that she could barely read a page of apparently normal writing, especially judging from the calligraphy, the writer was no scholar.
Yet the fact remained that she could only read part of what was on the page.
I have been here for ten days...something something...something about the Eighth Prince, something about an older sister...
It doesn't make sense!
Xiao Yan Zi had no idea why she continued to try and read a book she couldn't read and then proceeded to get frustrated about it! What was wrong with her? Had boredom pushed her to this? After all, what did she know about this Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi who lived something like 60, 70 years ago? Whatever confusing language this girl was using, she apparently cared enough to write a book and people who wrote books probably had little in common with Xiao Yan Zi.
Xiao Yan Zi snapped the book shut in frustration, looked up and was immediately startled to see Yong Qi standing before her, looking at her with wide, astonished eyes. She - Xiao Yan Zi! - had been so absorbed in a book to even notice that he was home!
"When did you get back? I didn't hear you come in."
"Just now," Yong Qi said, still looking at her oddly and sounding uncertain. "Xiao Yan Zi?"
"Why are you covered in dust?"
"What? Oh!" she gasped, rushing to look at the mirror. Her play time under the bed had indeed, left her face streaked with dust and her clothes look like she'd just rolled on the ground in them (which, she did). Ming Yue and Cai Xia would probably die with shame if anyone else saw her like this. Xiao Yan Zi was not vain by any stretch of imagination, but she would probably die too, if Zhi Hua or her servants saw her like this.
She looked up and Yong Qi was still looking at her with that curious blank expression.
"I dropped my flute and it rolled under the bed and - " she started defensively.
"Don't lecture me about proper appearance and all that!"
He gave a soft half-smile. "I wasn't going to." He stepped closer to her and brushed some dust from her cheek, though she knew it probably made little difference. "Really, Xiao Yan Zi, if I wanted to see a wife who would be predictably well-dressed and impeccable, I would have gone to see Zhi Hua."
She smiled back, but then immediately put the book she was still holding in her hands in his. "Here, I found this under the bed. See if you can make head or tail of it because I couldn't. I need to go have a bath."
"What ever language this girl thinks she was writing in, it sure isn't Chinese," Yong Qi said when Xiao Yan Zi returned. "At first I thought she just had a really weird cursive hand but that's not it. Some of it is readable, yes, but some characters just can't possibly exist."
"Oh, that's good. So I'm not the only one who can't read it. Do you know who she was?"
"But she lived here, so she must have had something to do with Lian Qin Wang?"
"Maybe, but it could be anyone, Xiao Yan Zi, a guest or a concubine. Even if it was a concubine, memorising names of concubines of deceased far relatives I've never met is not exactly a priority in my life, even if he was a notorious figure in history."
Yong Qi did not sound even slightly curious about this girl, possibly because he had concluded that she made up her own language. If this was the case, she became even more a source of curiosity for Xiao
Yan Zi, so she continued her questions.
"Well, we know her name, is there a Ma Er Tai clan around?"
"Yes, they're a family with strong tradition in the army. Though knowing the clan still exists wouldn't help you much. This was undoubtedly a girl and if you go ask someone whether their family ever bore a girl name Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi, you'd get a lot of blank looks."
"But her birth would still be recorded or something, right?" Xiao Yan Zi asked.
"Possibly, but only in the records of the specific branch of that clan. It may be that she married someone important and would be recorded somewhere more prominent but then she would only be Ma Er Tai shi and searching would be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
She gave a sigh, then said mournfully. "It's such a pity."
"Why? You don't know anything about this girl, you can't even read what she wrote, she lived years ago, I doubt she witnessed any life-changing, earth-shattering event to alter history - "
"How do you know not?" Xiao Yan interrupted. "She lived in Lian Qin Wang's household just before the fall of Kang Xi's crown prince, that's got to be a place to see lots of things that were earth-shattering. Maybe she did and that's why she had to write it down in codes."
Yong Qi laughed. "Actually that's not a bad hypothesis. But it's still a guess. What do you want to do? Randomly knock on the doors of the Ma Er Tai clan to ask about her? As I said, they might not be able to help you."
"Not exactly," she said slowly. "I'm just curious about her, since she went through enough trouble to write all this, whatever it is, and hid it."
"You're interested in a book," Yong Qi said, shaking his head. "The age of miracles is not yet over, it seems."
"Oh, be quiet!"
After a moment, Yong Qi said, as if just remembering. "Actually I did skim through the entire thing and she does start to make more sense later on. As in, her writing becomes more understandable. But then she keeps going on about the Eighth Prince and her sister, Ruo Lan, who I think was probably his wife or concubine. Actually she rambles a lot about the Eighth Prince and his fate, it's really creepy. It was almost as if she knew what would happen to him later, but clearly she was writing from the time of Kang Xi, and she kept referring to things that would happen in the time of Yong Zheng!"
Xiao Yan Zi exclaimed loudly. "And you didn't think to say this at the beginning? How could you ignore something like that?"
"You distracted me with your weird sudden curiosity for a book!"
"Yeah but she predicts the future, Yong Qi! How could that be eclipsed by anything?".
"I don't think it's so much that she predicts it," Yong Qi said. "It's like she knows. She always writes it like it was a fact!"
Xiao Yan Zi gaped at this astonishing discovery and wondered how Yong Qi could seem so completely blasé about something so incredible! It wasn't possible, was it? What power did this girl have to know the future?
"Where does she start to make sense?"
"It's gradual...some of the final pages still have parts that don't mean anything, but there are things that can be pieced together."
"Let me see!"
With that, Xiao Yan Zi snatched the book from Yong Qi and proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon navigating her way through the mysterious language-that-was-Chinese-but-wasn't, much to Yong Qi's combined amusement, confusion and slight concern.
The combined efforts of Xiao Yan Zi, Yong Qi, Zi Wei and Er Kang still didn't manage to figure out the mystery that was Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi. All three of them were astonished at the length to which Xiao Yan Zi was willing to go to find this Ruo Xi, but despite her best efforts, not much showed up.
Predictably, records of Kang Xi's Eighth Prince, Yin Si's household only noted a Ma Er Tai woman as the prince's Ce Fu Jin, though it wasn't clear whether this was Ruo Xi, or the sister she referred to. Yong Qi even found a way (on Xiao Yan Zi's insistence) to look into the Ma Er Tai clan records around that time and only found records of a Ruo Xi who would have been thirteen years old on the forty-third year of Kang Xi reign. Further digging found her in the list of palace maids who served tea to Kang Xi, and later to Yong Zheng as well. All in all, she seemed a rather dull, typical Manchurian girl.
Of course, none of them thought it was worthwhile to ask Qian Long on the matter.
In the end, Xiao Yan Zi did have to give up on the book as reading it only raised more questions and she eventually put it back to its place under the bed. But when she was sufficiently bored (which was often), she would daydream about a mysterious girl, Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi, who could see the future.
Seventeenth day, eighth month, forty-third year Kang Xi reign, or sometime in the early seventeen-hundreds
I have been here for ten days, but it seems like ten centuries. Here, of course, is the residence of the Eighth Prince Yun Si, now Eighth Bei Le. He is still Yin Si now, of course, since Yong Zheng is not yet on the throne, and he will later be Lian Qin Wang. He is married to my "sister", Ma Er Tai Ruo Lan. And I am apparently Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi.
I don't know what happened to my body, but if I have somehow died in 2005 and have traveled through time and space to become Ma Er Tai Ruo Xi, then for my own sanity I have to keep this diary. If for nothing then it will at least keep track of who I am and what I should know to survive in this world.
Boy, movies and TV series definitely didn't prepare me for this. University like hell didn't! It doesn't help that I am semi-illiterate here in this world of traditional characters. Well, at least people here can't read much simplified characters either so this diary will be safe. But I will need to learn to write and read traditional characters if I am to survive here for however long it is that I must be here...Let it not be long. I already cannot stand it!
Where can I get a ball-point pen in this place? Calligraphy - it's supposed to be so elegant and beautiful, but no one ever says how messy it is!
I'm going to die here, if not from saying or doing something wrong, then from the heat of these dumpling wrapper clothes, or maybe just from boredom...