We do a tour of a few more buildings, but it becomes clearer and clearer that Ching's run out of attention or mood for it. "Let's go back," Ching says, droopy, and takes a tall leap to land on my shoulder. It barely weighs like anything. "This servant says you will walk safely."
The afternoon's turned the orange cloud-filled sky into something darker. Already, clarity is giving way to fog. Night time is arriving in this realm. Beside me, though I can't explain it, I have the feeling that Ching is very, very sad.
I don't think Ching was wrong to stop our exploration now, but I think the south-west pavilion is still bothering it more than it's letting on. Half of me wants to leave it alone. The other half feels like talking is better than letting everything sit in silence.
"Was she your friend?" I ask it gently, as I pick my way over the cobblestones. My eyes venture from the edges of the path where I can almost hear voices compelling me to take steps closer, to glancing at my companion. "Whoever stayed there."
"No," Ching croaks, belly expanding with its cheeks. "But she was nice. Yu Yin didn't like her, but I did." Shy. "I was her favourite. I was a river frog spirit she fed and raised."
"What was she like?" It didn't escape my understanding that Ching was calling the person 'her', but I'd been called 'it' before.
"She was a human like you from the other world. But pretty, after she asked the Master. She said her name was Mei."
It makes me think about how I look now and how the Beast told me about granting wishes to people who wanted beauty over their lives. I wouldn't be the last one or the first. I have to wonder what spirits think of as pretty. "What happened to her, if I can ask?" Maybe it'll give me a clue about what'll happen to me.
Ching mentioned how Yu Yin killed others before. I wonder if that'll be my fate, if I don't break whatever curse was going on. It seems like Ching's more free than either the old woman or the fox spirit to tell me what's going on, anyway. Yu Yin, I'll have to figure out how I can get her to really speak to me, but...
"I don't know," Ching answers, stunning me.
"One day, the Master went into the courtyard and apparently she disappeared. He got angry and tried to burn the pavilion down." The Beast's fire. Of course. "But the Old Lady convinced him to just leave the fire there so nobody would get hurt."
"The Old Lady?" That's right. Isn't that they were all calling the old woman? "She's human too, right?" Maybe she'd been one of the sacrifices sent over long before me.
"The Old Lady came with her. She was Mei's healer."
"Healer?" Incredulous, all I can think back to is my own and her tears.
"It used to be that healers would come with the humans. But they stopped coming, so the Master let the Old Lady keep living." Ching shifts on my shoulder. "Turn left here."
It's hard to pay attention to where I'm walking, and my pace is getting slower and slower. The fog itself is gradually growing thicker and thicker. It'd be more convenient to ask Ching to lead again, but I know for sure the conversation'll stop here.
"Did you ever find out what happened to her?"
I'm not sure how to make him feel better about it. I can't really blame her for running away, or trying to. Though, part of me, wonders if she had family or someone she loved or had left behind. Maybe there's a way back in the end and she managed to find it.
"For what it's worth," I say, helpless, "I think you were her favourite too."
Ching says nothing, just croaks, sadder. Then hops off, suddenly, and leaps into the fog.
"Ching?!" I'm left standing in the middle of a path, confused and shocked. My confusion disappears quickly though, when I see a familiar lantern before me.
The being holding the rod bows before me, curtseying regally. I realize the motion and who it is who's doing it before she draws close enough to put a hand on my waist and on my shoulder.
At once, my knees tremble. The confidence I stood with before is lost and taken. My spine ripples, if that were possible, and I almost slump into her.
"This servant welcome you back," Yu Yin the fox spirit murmurs in my ear. "And is to bring you to see the Master as instructed after your bath."