“Ah, the flowers.”
Taeyeon shares a smile with Dayu. Only the two of them know the significance of the flowers they just saw by the river. Peach blossoms. They used to make her sad but now, she chooses to remember the happy memories. The good memories of the times she spent under the peach blossom trees with a young girl she once knew. She has drawn a thousand peach blossom trees since then and they proved to be popular with customers, much to her surprise. Her customers say the paintings are magical, that the peach blossom paintings give them an inexplicable sense of beauty, timelessness. And each time Taeyeon hears such praise, all she does is smile and thank her customer. The secret of the peach blossom trees will be something she keeps precious in her heart till the end of her time.
Their carriage draws to a stop and the door is opened by a young man, handsome in his own right. He offers a hand for Taeyeon to hold but Dayu smacks it away with a grin.
“No, you’re not touching my woman’s hand when I’m around.”
The young man simply grins back. “Does that mean I’m allowed to touch Madam’s hand when Master is not around?”
Dayu sighs and shakes his head. “My dear, I think Zhouwei needs to be talked to.”
Taeyeon laughs. “You’re the one who hired him. You can have pleasure of dealing with him. I’ll be taking a nap in the meantime,” she says, taking Dayu’s hand as she steps out of the carriage.
“I did not marry you so that you can sleep all day.”
Taeyeon shrugs and smooths out her long, sweeping skirt. “It’s too late to regret now, my dear hubby.”
Zhouwei closes the door and bows. “Madam, I’ll take care of the horses and carriage. Please have a good rest.”
Taeyeon nods. “Thank you, Zhouwei. Here,” she takes a coin out from her purse and hands it to the young man, “take it and have a good meal before coming back. You’re worked hard.”
Zhouwei takes the coin with a beaming smile. “Thank you, Madam. You’re the best!”
Dayu chuckles as they watch Zhouwei hop back onto the carriage and pull away from the inn behind them. “You’re spoiling him too much.”
“He works hard and is loyal to us. He deserves a reward every now and then.”
Dayu smiles. “Thank you for understanding me in this way.”
Taeyeon pats Dayu’s shoulder. “You be careful now.”
“It isn’t like that,” Dayu begins to say but Taeyeon enters the inn, forcing him to catch up.
Moments later, Taeyeon is lying in bed, napping as she planned. They had gotten a nicer room than they had asked for without having to pay for it. Well, not by coins anyway. Apparently, stating her name is enough to bring recognition to the inn owner’s eyes and before she even knew what had happened, she was agreeing to a painting for the inn owner. So much for taking a break from work.
Dayu has gone out to look for Zhouwei and also to scout around. This is not the first time they have visited Hangzhou but the last time they passed through this place was years ago. Back then, they were not as wealthy as they are now and they were relegated to the seedier areas to rest since they had to be careful with the money they had left. But judging from the treatment they received from the inn owner, things are no longer the same for them. Now, they are Lim Dayu and Taeyeon, husband and wife, well known for the wife’s incredible gift in painting.
How things have changed. Her determination to get to Shanghai had not been in vain. Shanghai is vastly different from other regions she has been in. Being a coastal region, Shanghai is more open to worldly influences and Taeyeon had been pleasantly surprised to meet female painters when she first arrived. She learnt quickly that paintings sold in Shanghai are valued by virtue of skill rather than one’s birth and that meant she no longer needed to wear her disguise.
Even then, it had not been an easy start. As an arts hub, Shanghai is competitive. There are many painters vying for fame and fortune and striking out as a new, female painter is still relatively challenging. But after a year of hardship, the fortune that had forsaken her in the Hwang estate returned and gifted her with an encounter with a wealthy art collector from a faraway land called England. This English man took one look at her paintings and bought five of them at once. Then, through a translator, he made it known that he would be back for more. And life has never been the same since then.
The sun is shining and birds are chirping when Taeyeon finally opens her eyes again. Dayu is beside her, fast asleep, snoring slightly. She gets out of bed and sets about freshening up. A change of clothes is in order as well.
After a hearty breakfast and some painting, Taeyeon visits the calligraphy shop with Dayu. One of her favourite past times is shopping and she likes to keep abreast with the newest items in store. The shop owner welcomes her with zest—it seems like the grapevine has done its job and the news has spread. She picks out a few brushes and is about to pay for them when she hears a gasp.
Turning around might be the both the best and worst reaction she has ever had. It is hard to explain why, with all the memories and questions and emotions colliding in a whirlpool of confusion.
Taeyeon stands beside Dayu, staring as a not-so-young version of the girl she once knew steps towards them. But before she or Dayu can say anything, the man beside the girl she once knew pulls the arm the girl is stretching out and tugs her back.
“Who is he?” he asks in a rough tone.
Taeyeon dislikes him instantly. Unlike Dayu, he is not pleasant to look at. There is a streak of meanness in his eyes, as though everyone around him is to blame for something bad happening in his life. Not to mention the dark eye rings and eye bags, making him look like he hadn’t slept in days. And she does not like the way the man is holding the woman’s arm. He is hurting her; that much is evident as shown by the grimace on her face.
“I am Lim Dayu. I used to work in the Hwang estate,” says Dayu, his voice just as hard as the man’s.
“You are a servant?” the man asks, looking Dayu up and down with contempt in his eyes.
Taeyeon clenches her fists by her sides to stop herself from giving in to the overwhelming urge to slap him.
“I am not a servant.”
“Really? But you said you used to work for the Hwangs.”
“I am a special case.”
“My father wanted me to look for you.”
Taeyeon looks at the woman carefully. She looks just like she did six years ago but at the same time, she no longer looks the same. The years have taken a toll on her. Not only that, time has also taken something else away. Something precious. Innocence. Those eyes that used to look at her in wonder and love are no longer bright and sparkly. They are afraid and dark, hiding secrets that cannot be spilled.
A pricking pain hits Taeyeon in her chest. The Hwang Miyoung she knew is gone. And this Hwang Miyoung does not seem to recognise her. Who is this man she is with? Is he her husband? Most probably. But if she is married to him, he must not be treating her well. Taeyeon is certain Miyoung has become thinner than before. Has life been harsh for Miyoung? Taeyeon hopes not.
“I would love to see your father again,” says Dayu.
Miyoung’s eyes fill with tears and Taeyeon is a whisker away from rushing to her side to dry them. “My father . . . my father . . .”
“Her father is dead,” says the man.
Taeyeon gasps at the news. She remembers how much Miyoung loves her father. She must be devastated by his death. How can the man say it this easily without a trace of feeling?
“I am sorry, you are?”
Taeyeon blinks. Miyoung is talking to her and she is unprepared to answer. “I . . .”
“She is my wife, Taeyeon.”
Miyoung’s eyes come to life, opening wider than marbles and almost bulging out. “Y-Your w-wife?”
Dayu smiles and nods. “Yes.”
“Well, well, aren’t you a lucky man. Your wife is pretty,” says the man.
Miyoung nods in agreement as Taeyeon meets her eyes.
“I presume you are Miyoung’s husband. Then you too, are a lucky man,” says Dayu.
“Lucky?” the man snorts. “Far from it.”
“I am sorry then.”
“Mmm, anyway, you look like you have change to spare. I need a tael or two to buy something and I left my money pouch at home. Mind lending me some money?”
Taeyeon notices the droop in Miyoung’s shoulders and the way her eyes dodge hers. This will not do. She has to find a way to talk to Miyoung in private. She must arrange a visit to Miyoung’s home. Again.
Dayu hands the man a coin. “May I know your name?”
The man laughs. “Of course, I am Master Fan. Fan Taisui. You may call me Taisui since we are friends.”
Dayu laughs in return. “But I am only a man who used to work for Miyoung’s father. I’m not sure I’m worthy of such elevation.”
Fan Taisui laughs and claps Dayu’s back. “Any man who lends me money is a friend.”
“In that case, I hope you won’t mind if I would like to visit Miyoung.”
Taeyeon almost grins and hugs Dayu for his sheer genius but her jubilation turns into disgust and worry when Fan Taisui nods and says, “Of course, visit all you want. Anytime you like, she’s all yours.”
“Will tomorrow be a good time then?”
“Tomorrow is a great time to visit.”
“Tomorrow it is then.” Dayu turns to Taeyeon and puts a protective arm around her. “We have to go now. We will see you tomorrow.”
Taeyeon puts down her brushes and walks out of the shop without protest. They return to the inn without saying a single word, waiting till they are behind closed doors before turning to each other with eyes that reflect the same thoughts and worries.
“This is too much,” says Taeyeon, the first to speak up and break the silence. “Miyoung’s husband is trash. I’ll bet he’s addicted to gambling or something bad.”
“Taeyeon, you have to control yourself tomorrow.”
Taeyeon nods. “I know. I will.”