It was seventeen years to the day later, when Wei Ying Luo saw her again. This time, she was called Chen Zhi Hua.
This time, she looked at Ying Luo as a stranger. In her eyes, there was none of the warmth nor the tenderness that Ying Luo had missed for so many years. There was no recognition at all.
Too soon, Zhi Hua's gaze slid right past Ying Luo, to lay on Yong Qi behind her; Ying Luo felt her heart break, not for herself, but for Rong Yin, no, for Zhi Hua, because this was a trajectory that she could already see would only bring heartbreak and pain.
This time, it was Zhi Hua who was naïve, she who needed guidance, she who could only focus on that one single-minded goal before her and did not see the pitfalls on the wayside. This time, it was Ying Luo who was in a position to redirect her course, but could she? Could she, when Chen Zhi Hua did not seem to know she had once been Fucha Rong Yin, therefore had any reason to heed Ying Luo's advice at all?
How did Qian Long not see that the woman – nay, the girl, really – he was now bestowing on his son was the splitting image of the wife he had once mourned so bitterly? How did the empress dowager not see? How did the empress – Xian Fei, as she was once – not see? Was it possible that only Ying Luo could see Rong Yin's eyes and Rong Yin's smile in Chen Zhi Hua?
If so, why? Why was Ying Luo so cursed, to watch her face and her smile forever chase fruitlessly after someone who would never smile back?
Ying Luo thought about the arduous journey that Yu Fei went through to bring her child into the world. It had been as much for his protection as for anything else that Rong Yin laid aside her still-lingering pain of losing Yong Lian to take charge of the inner palace again. Yong Qi had been born of Yi Pin's sacrifice, after Yu Fei's months of terror, survived because of Ying Luo's reckless bravery, and, in his first few years, grew under Rong Yin's compassionate watch. Had the love for the child lingered as she crossed over to this next life, but not knowing herself in her previous life, it had caused Zhi Hua to interpret it now as romantic love?
Ying Luo watched as Zhi Hua tried desperately, unsuccessfully, to gain Yong Qi's attention, to get him to look at her just once and not see only Xiao Yan Zi. The frustrated jealousy that appeared in Zhi Hua's eyes now reminded Ying Luo of how Gao Guifei used to wear the same expressions, watching Hong Li and Rong Yin. Seeing Gao Guifei spurned used to make Ying Luo feel only vindictive pleasure. Watching Zhi Hua endure the same, seared her heart.
Ying Luo longed to tell Zhi Hua that she deserved more than this. In this life or the last, or any life that came after, she would always deserve more than a man who could not give his heart entirely to her. Even Qian Long, for all the ways that he loved Rong Yin, never did. He never could. Now, neither could his son. Not to Chen Zhi Hua, at least.
Zhi Hua, however, was not Rong Yin, and probably would not take Ying Luo's words to heart. She did not understand, not when she did not see the stretch of time as Ying Luo did.
Years and years beside Qian Long had caused Ying Luo to soften her edges, more than her fifteen-year-old self could ever imagine. But then, she had the perfect example to emulate.
Still, she remembered the fire that used to burn in her veins. She remembered the way her heart used to demand to settle score, whatever the price. For many years, she had thought that fire turned to ash, but meeting Xiao Yan Zi made her realise the embers still glowed inside her.
She understood, too well, the emotions that drove Xiao Yan Zi's every rash action, whether it was the desperate longing for somewhere to belong, or the need to see justice in the world, or the wish to rage against the unfairness of the universe. She saw her teenage self in Xiao Yan Zi, and she did not wish to see the palace douse that fire.
That didn't mean it didn't hurt to see the fire turn to burn Zhi Hua, who looked so like the woman who was imprinted in Ying Luo's heart.
With Yong Qi lost to her forever, Zhi Hua's heart turned to splintered pieces.
She had prevented herself admirably from advising Zhi Hua thus far, but this time, Ying Luo could not help but seek her out.
"The worst thing we can do is try to reach for something, or someone, that never could be ours," Ying Luo said, wondering if she was speaking to Zhi Hua of Yong Qi, or to herself of Rong Yin.
"He is mine," Zhi Hua said.
Ying Luo could only laugh humourlessly at that statement. From the tone of voice, it was clear that Zhi Hua did not believe her own words either.
This Forbidden City, this harem, was full of women, and not enough man to go around. No man was ever truly theirs. Not Hong Li to Rong Yin, not Fu Heng to Ying Luo, not Hong Li to Ying Luo, and now, not Yong Qi to Zhi Hua, either.
In this palace that held women captive to share a single man, perhaps the only way they could truly belong, entirely, is to each other.
How fate liked to play games with the two of them.
In her last life, it was the father who stood between them.
In her current life, it was the son.
What were the chances that in their next lives, they would be free to find each other?