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the years that bled away

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Rain fell softly at the cemetery near Sam Poh Kong temple. Its grey clouds stirred above crumbling stone markers, while a gentle breeze picked the leaves off the neighboring elephant grass. A lone woman, holding a parasol in one hand and her purse in the other, sat on an uneven flight of steps.

Her raven hair was curled at her nape, her bangs swept fashionably to the side. She had neither a streak of silver, nor a wrinkle, on her head. It was hard to imagine that she had sat at that exact spot nearly fifty years ago.

Her youthful appearance had not gone unnoticed, especially among her children. She would laugh away every question and say it came from the shade of a bamboo hat. While her husband had become old, and she had barely aged, the questions only grew.

It had been a young girl who grieved at the side of his deathbed.

Still, no strangeness or rumors could shake the love the children had for their mother. She thought of them and her husband without an ounce of regret. But like all children, they eventually left for their own families. Her father and Amah were already long gone. Whatever questions remained would fade with the times.

The woman tilted her parasol back to look up at the sky. Droplets damped the edge of her form-fitting dress, decorated in brocades of flowery silk designs. A bold slit cut up to her left knee, a style that would have been chastised in the century before.

She lowered her parasol, her lips formed in a rueful smile. Though the world around her had changed, the cemetery stayed the same. It was frozen in time, like the spirit she had once become, like the person she had been since.

Her hand felt for the scale in her purse. It still had the smooth, unblemished sheen of a pearl. She grazed her fingers across the surface, filling her with a sense of reassurance. Fifty years had passed, and she could wait no longer.

She closed her eyes, put her lips to the fluted edge, and blew. A sound, lilting and fragile, carried with the breeze. She sat there, even as the rain died and the sun descended from the sky. Hours were spent listening for the wind that would surely answer back.

It didn't.

Dawn broke over the horizon, while her hands were clenched around the scale. She was silly to think anything would come out of it, after all this time. "Fool," she said, as tears stung her eyes. "Promise-breaker."

"What a curious way to be greeting your betrothed."

She jerked upright and gasped. "Er Lang," she said.

His teeth glinted from under his bamboo hat. "I thought you would be an older woman by now, but you're just as beautiful as you were before. Perhaps another fifty years would do."

She glared, her hands itching to smack him. She should, actually. One wouldn't even be enough.

She took him by the front of his robe, her narrowed eyes boring into his, and kissed him. His lips parted in surprise, and she darted in her tongue. He responded hungrily, his fingers sending chills wherever they touched.

"I've missed this," she said.

Then he smiled and took her to where spirits roamed, dragons lived, and a little house in a strange town waited.