1.1 A Different Time
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It was dark. For the longest time, there was nothing.

There was no sound, no sense of touch or hearing. And despite her utmost will to open her eyes, she could not use her sense of sight. She did not even know if she had her eyes anymore. She felt very light, like a tiny strand of feather drifting without direction. However, she could feel her mind barely holding onto her consciousness. She urged herself to hold onto this consciousness.

She knew who she was, what she was called, what she had done, had loved, had hated. Memories of everything that she was before the darkness constantly kept her hanging on, yet she did not know or understand what she was hanging on to. 

"I... Didn't I die?"

All of a sudden, she felt a painful sensation, like her cheek had been slapped. Despite previous unsuccessful attempts in that never-ending darkness, this time somehow, her consciousness was stronger and she became more alert. Opening her eyes, the first thing Mia felt was the sharp sting of sunlight. She quickly closed them and felt a dizzying spell of vertigo in her mind. Her body swayed but she did not fell down. Instead, she felt a support of another's hands on her tilting shoulders.

"... Have I not die?" The question rang again inside her mind.

Confused and gathering her focus as quick as possible, she opened her eyes again and saw a little girl besides her, who apparently had supported her from her fall.

But Mia was supposed to be a full grown adult woman. How could a little girl ,who looked no more older than her nephew, have the strength to support her body? Then she realized that she was actually looking at the little girl's face at eye level, if not still having to tilt her head upwards a bit more.

"Xiao Hua, hang in there," the little girl whispered, concern apparent in her slightly dull eyes.

"The senior matron from Ji house is coming," another tiny voice from her right side was heard, her tone nervous, "Xiao Hua, if you are not taken away today, you won't be given anything to eat by Han-niang".

Mia looked at another little girl who just piped in, and that little girl gestured slightly to Mia's front.

Realizing a much taller person's existence in front of her, Mia tried to straighten her body despite feeling weak and sluggish. In fact, this was the weakest she ever felt in her life. Nonetheless, her sheer will power supported her stand. She was always proud and unyielding. To fall, metaphorically or literally, was never in her agenda.

"That plane was a completely different matter. I had no choice," she mused inwardly. What was this situation though? Was that accident a dream? Was her life a dream? 

The taller person, a middle-aged woman called Han YiWei, was glaring at her all the while. Mia was never the type to avoid anyone's gaze. Therefore, she stared back at the older woman, her tiny body standing straight and unwavering.

Han YiWei was slightly taken aback. This tiny mouse in front of her was never this courageous. The little girl was smaller than her peers of the same age, and she was always timid and weak. In fact, Xiao Hua, as how she was called in her orphanage, was shivering non-stop before her body wavered as if she was going to fall. Han YiWei had to slap her to bring the girl's mind to focus.

Looking back at those now bright brown pupils, she could only swallow her anger and huffed. At least the little mouse would not shame her in front of the upcoming esteemed guest by fainting.

"Hui is correct," Han YiWei snarled, making her already somewhat rough features became more distorted. The other girls immediately shrunk their necks and hunched their bodies, trying to will themselves to be more invisible.

"If none of you useless things are chosen today, you will not get any meals for a week until the next household choose their maids. You can beg on the streets for all I care!"

At her threat, the other girls shivered. For young girls like them, staying in a somewhat unfavorable environment of the remote orphanage was still a better option than begging on the streets. Despite not yet reaching puberty, unattended young girls were ripe pickings for kidnappers or illegal traffickers. When they got older, they would likely be sold to the brothels or to the nobles as playthings. These would also usually be associated with abusive treatments on the bodies and minds.

In comparison, orphanages usually served as main sources for wealthy households to choose their servants and maids. One must know that becoming a maid for a noble household was not necessarily the best way of life. There was still a chance of them having to serve their new masters in bed. However the chance of this happening was slimmer. It was also a common knowledge that if a female maid-turn-bed-servant were favored, her life would not be miserable. For girls with no background or parents like them, becoming maids was a better option. It was the lesser of two evils.

The orphanage Han YiWei managed was small and only accepted orphaned little girls. After all, girls ate much less than boys and they were less likely to cause trouble. Apparently due to her small stature, Mia - or Xiao Hua as her current self was called - was not desirable to a lot of households who visited on past occasions. She looked weak and sickly. Although Han YiWei had set her price to be the cheapest for the head matrons or stewards from those families to take her away, they always disregarded her. In the end, Xiao Hua became a useless mouth to feed.

Upon the sound of approaching light footsteps, Han YiWei did not bother with her anymore and walked towards the gate to greet the guest. A slightly plump older woman came into view, accompanied by two guards and a horse-drawn shabby open carriage behind her. Mia could hear and see the interactions between the two women from where she was standing. A bit of flattery, mundane greetings, lack of interests, scrutiny, and then more flattery were exchanged between the two. Mia noted that despite her initial tough appearance, Han YiWei was surprisingly humble in front of the guest.

On another note, she was also perplexed. All the words she just heard ever since she regained consciousness were in Chinese language. She could understand because Mia was half-Chinese herself, from her maternal side. Her mother was of Chinese nationality before getting married to her father. Her mother had always ensured to converse with her and her older sister in her native tongue at home. Her father was an Englishman. Mia and her sister herself were born in York and that was where they made their homes.

What she noticed though, the accent and intonation of the language she just heard was slightly different. It was much thicker, the intonation more melodious. If she were to speak it, she doubted the other people around her at the moment would understand her normal way of pronunciation.

Looking down at her bare feet, Mia found them to be a lot smaller than what she remembered. While still trying to make sense of her current predicament, suddenly a pair of feet covered in silk shoes came into view. Mia's chin was suddenly tilted upwards, the silk shoes owner hold her chin up with her fingers covered in handkerchief, examining her face with scrutiny.

Mia's eyes darted onto the other's, not shifting her gaze. The plump woman's lips were lightly curled in slight interest before letting go of her chin. Mia really wanted to struggle to break free when the woman proceeded to grip her arms, then softly patted her whole body with leisure, seemingly examining her physical appearance more closely. Mia did not appreciate a stranger touching her body parts, but with her current small body and lack of strength, she could not do anything while being 'molested'.

Satisfied, the older woman released her before doing the same with a few of other girls that had taken her fancy. Taking out a small pouch from her wide robe's sleeve, she handed it in its entirety to Han YiWei. Based on the latter's joyful expression, it must had been a good sum. Han YiWei must be delighted as well, the little runt that had wasted her rice was now off her hands.

Just like that, Mia was whisked away from the orphanage. Her small body was lifted by the guards onto the horse carriage parked outside the orphanage gate, along with the girl called Hui and four others.

 

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