Fluffy white clouds floated across the blue skies of spring. The sun shone down on the garden, brightening the colours of the flowers and leaves into verdant jewels.
A cluster of women sprawled out on thick carpets under the shade of the golden-roof pavilion, their voices bright as they indulged in conversation, tea and tiny delicate sweets. They had all learnt inedia, but on such a lovely spring day, these treats matched perfectly.
Li Hua was one of these women. One hand played absently with her long black hair, as her eyes wandered between the joyous open flowers and the light-hearted faces of her friends. Her eyes couldn’t help but linger on one Meng Yujie.
Meng Yujie’s hair was pulled up all into a top knot. In the relatively warm day—and as a cultivator who rarely felt the cold—Meng Yujie had opted for thin white outer robes that showed clearly her defined shoulders and arms that her inner purple robe did not cover.
In contrast, Li Hua was taller, but also slighter. Her body resisted taking any kind of curve, despite all her careful cultivation, though she did her best to hide that fact with her robes.
For a brief moment, Meng Yujie glanced at Li Hua. Yujie smiled and moved a small flower-shaped sweet onto Hua’s plate.
“A delicious flower for Xiao Hua,” Yujie said, her eyes sparkling.
“T-thank you, Meng Yujie,” Hua said, feeling warmth bursting over her chest, and tingling as she called her Meng Yujie instead of senior martial sister Meng.
Under Yujie’s gaze, Hua nibbled on the sweet, the flavour of cherry blossom delicate on her tongue. She couldn’t help but be reminded of That Event that occurred in this very garden.
Ten years ago, Li Hua—though that was not her name then—had run into this garden, harassed by the boys in her sect’s first-year cultivation group.
“You’re such a girl! Are you even a boy?” the boys had said, laughing. “Do you like men? Should we find you a women’s robe to wear?”
Li Hua froze, because that was what she wanted in her heart. Even though everyone called her a boy, in her heart, she knew she wasn’t. She just wasn’t. Yes, she liked the martial cultivations that mortals tended to associate with men. But she wasn’t a man.
“Oh, you like men?” one of the boys said. “We should tell the sect master to move you in with the other cut-sleeves…”
“Who are you.” A cold voice cut through the air, sharp as the blade levelled at the leader of the boys. At the other end as a young female cultivator, her hair and clothes in slight disarray, for she had just finished a training session. “These gardens are restricted from...the likes of you,” she continued.
“We were just having fun,” the boy said. “Look at him,” he said, pointing at Li Hua. “He’s even more pitiful than a girl!”
The girl with the sword turned to the person that would be Li Hua. “What is your name?” she asked.
Li Hua had shaken her head. “I...I don’t like my name,” she mumbled.
The other boys heard. “He has the manliest name, strong and virile, yet he’s like this!”
Fists clenched. “I’m...I’m not a boy.”
Realisation dawned on the face of the girl with the sword. She turned to the boys and glared at them. “Leave, you bastards. Just wait til the second Head Disciple of my sect hears about this.”
Between the sword and the promise of retribution from higher authorities, the boys fled.
Tears started rolling down Li Hua’s cheeks. It wasn’t of anger or frustration. It was because this girl was the first person who had protected Li Hua in this way.
The girl gave a hmpf. “Inconsiderate assholes,” she muttered. She sheathed her sword and placed a hand under Li Hua’s chin. “Now, now, don’t be so sad,” she said. “How could I see your lovely smile through your tears? Here.” She offered the crying girl her own mandarin-scented handkerchief to dry her eyes.
“If you don’t like your name…” The girl knelt by the flower beds and plucked out pink peony with many petals. With care, she threaded it through Li Hua’s hair. “How about the name Hua? After all, you are as beautiful as the flowers.”
Hua meant flower blossom. Li Hua had nodded, unable to speak for the tightness in her chest and throat.