The sky surrounding the manor at night is darker than black and the misty fogs block your sight. In the morning-to-afternoon, the sky is clear. It's not blue like it is where I'm from--it's as if the clouds themselves have decided to fill it all up as far as the eye can see. It's misleadingly dreamy; and with my guide beside me, I can almost pretend that the pressure of last night when I travelled with the old woman and Yu Yin was just my imagination.
The frog--who calls itself Ching and has started to warm up to me--doubles back often to make sure I'm following and not lost. 'Exploring' the manor seems more to be more touring around, showing me what the place is like during the day. The air is fresh and almost vibrant, and the day-to-day business of the servants seems to be to bustle back and forth, constantly preparing or with tasks and responsibilities.
Ching leads me through the complex with ease, almost eager to showcase everything. We pass under tall trees with flowered blossoms placed in varying positions, and the inner architecture of the buildings we venture through are gorgeous in their make.
According to Ching, this manor is not the whole realm. The manor and its grounds, though, are the only physical things existing on this plane, which explains why if I leave the paths, I'm free bait for the spirits. It's too large for to navigate on my own, and even small creatures like Ching have had to spend hundreds of years working their way up getting stronger to achieve a physical form to serve and familiarize themselves in a manor like this.
"You can walk safely," Ching says, repeats every so often when we finish an area. It's as if its words are a spell in itself, and I'm not stupid enough to think there's no connection between this all. "Keep walking and following."
It isn't that I couldn't walk by myself before--I'm sure I could, but slowly--but it hits me, as my steps grow more and more confident with Ching's words, that my healer might've used magic not just to heal me faster.
"Over there the servant quarters. You have them everywhere, but this is where the lower ranks stay." That building is the guest quarters, and you can only stay with permission from the Master. If you look over here, you can see small ponds with fish in them and hundreds of rooms. We don't have guests often, but when we do, a great change is about to take place."
"Am I considered a guest?" What with being called Guest Chao, I'm thinking it's a redundant question. Though Ching is anything but deferring. I wonder if it has to do with age, because it comes off as very young to me.
Then again, here I am, talking to a talking frog.
"For now!" Ching ribbits doubtfully, a tiny thing dwarfed under the shadows of sweepingly tall pavilions and their curved roofs over us. "But you stay in the East courtyard. That's why you'll be healthy longer! It's a very good place for healing."
"Healing..." I repeat, but Ching has lost its patience and has continued hopping off, leaving me to hurry after. As I do so, I realize that the ability to walk on your own is empowering.
The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced of it. Maybe she kept me alive in the same way the Beast had. But why me, outside of all the others? There were children there. Or maybe it was because I wasn't a child anymore when they chose me that she decided I was the one who would live.
In the world of Men, magic isn't an uncommon thing to know, but we don't question it. Here, I don't know their magic works or what it requires. I don't know how long I was asleep before I woke up. Maybe after I arrived here, I was worse off than I am now. All I have in exchange for my experience is--and I keep forgetting, that it's there because it's almost weightless on my neck--a leather necklace with a jade block.
I cradle it in my palm to look at it. Almost at once, it feels as if warm sunlight and confidence courses through my few fingers into the rest of my body. My thumb traces out a carved phoenix, and a creature that resembles the Beast.
"Chao?" Ching calls out. It's been using 'you' a lot with me, but this is the first time Ching's called me by name. "Are you paying attention?"
I drop the jade block back into my robes. "Sorry. What's over there?"
"This is the south-west courtyard," Ching says, hopping to a stop at the entrance before me. I look up and then hurry closer. "You can't go in there."
It isn't like Ching's let me step into every building it's pointed out to me before, but I was at least allowed to peek my head in for a glance. I crane my head back instead to stare: the pavilion's certainly a very attractive looking place, but it doesn't feel all that different from the rest. "Why not?"
Ching doesn't answer me at first. I look at it, and it croaks meaningfully, its many eyes blinking, before it hops away. "That's where she stayed," Ching says. "And you don't want to be like her."