It should have taken two days of travel to reach the town of Ming, where Ji ChanFang and his family resided. However, as Meng-momo's party was only on an errand to pick up some new maids, they did not stop at the smaller villages along the way to freshen up properly at an inn. It was her intention to reach the residence as soon as possible and began training on the new girls. As far as she was concerned, there was no need to spoil maids or servants with proper accommodations when the masters were not present.
When night arrived, the guards chose a relatively open meadow by a small lake to rest. It was twenty more sleeps before the first official day of winter. Although the area was not as cold as the northern hills, the cold crisp air still seeped into the young bodies on the horse carriage. The meadow was dry and barren, the cold weather could no longer sustain any plant life until next spring.
After the guards set up the fire, the first person who moved was Mia. She jumped off the carriage nimbly, startling one of the guards who was about to assist the girls to get off. After all, the carriage was almost as tall as the girls' themselves. Although normal adults would not have any trouble to get on or dismount, the young girls looked too skinny and weak to perform any major movement.
As soon as Mia reached the ground and dusted some dirt off her knees, she turned her body and spread her arms wide, gesturing for her companions to jump into her arms. Xiao Hui must have instinctively put her full trust in her as she unreservedly jump off the carriage, reaching for Mia's arms. Unfortunately, Mia herself seemed to have forgotten that her current body was much smaller than used to be. Both girls finally collided with a loud thud, rolling on the ground with a grunt.
Meng-momo let out a soft chuckle to herself as she watched from the side.
The other girls took safer method and let the guards lifted them off the carriage.
After checking each other and making sure that there was no injury from the fall, Mia and Xiao Hui sat in front of the fire, letting the warmth enveloping their tiny bodies. Their oversize robes of rough fabrics had not protected them from the cold air, and thus the fire was a much welcomed comfort.
Meng-momo took three bowls of rice gruel that a male servant had just finished preparing. She handed them to the girls who were now warming themselves around the fire, one bowl to be shared for every pair. Meng-momo then sat an arm's length away from the little girl called Xiao Hua, still observing the latter with interest.
As much as her stomach protested in hunger, Mia passed the bowl she received to Xiao Hui, muttering softly, "Xiao Hui, eat."
Mia was sure she could not speak the same way as the people she had encountered so far in this world. Understanding them was fine, but speaking fluently was an entirely different issue. However as the language was about the same as the chinese she was familiar with in her past life, at least in short words, she could relay what she wanted to say. The girl called Xiao Hui was one of the few people showing her genuine concern ever since she had awoken in her current body, and Mia still had her adult mentality in her, wanting to protect and look after the weaker younger girl.
Well, at least her own soul was much older than the other girl's. Looking at the thin Xiao Hui, she was reminded of her own nephew, though the latter was much plumper, much chirpier, and much healthier.
She still could not make heads or tails of her current predicament.
Why was she here?
Yes, she did not believe in heaven or hell. She was more inclined to believe in the reincarnation theory. However, to have suddenly gained consciousness in a little girl's body? This was most probably not it.
Were her memories as Mia Simmons just a long dream? But if so, why did she not have any recollection at all of her current self's own memories?
Meng-momo noticed the girl puffing her cheeks slightly again, a subconscious habit she noticed done whenever the girl was lost in thought.
"How old are you, Xiao Hua?"
Meng-momo had already known all of their names from Han YiWei. Usually the maids entering a household would be granted new names if their masters wished to, but that would happen in the future, if ever.
Hearing her new name being mentioned, Mia turned to focus on the middle-aged woman who asked the question. Meng-momo wore a light brown hemp clothing, with a relatively good quality silk outer robe. Her face was lined with light wrinkles, there were also some grey on her hair and eyebrows. Yet, her gaze was sharp, her countenance looked stern and dignified. From the hemp inner clothing and her face bare of make-up, Mia could deduce that the woman was probably not one of the main members of her future employer – the Ji clan that Xiao Hui had mentioned. After all, she was aware that in the olden days, except the nobles or royalties, hardly any normal people wore silk. Hemp was the standard choice of fabric for clothing for the commoners. However, judging from the silk robe and the silk shoes the older woman was wearing, that indicated her higher status in the household.
Mia thought she must be a head servant of the household. She was actually very close to the truth.
But to answer that question, how old she currently was, Mia didn't know. She had not had a chance to observe herself. There was nothing resembling a mirror she had seen so far, and during the night, it would be impossible to see her reflection in the waters of the lake behind them. Not that she had the time or chance to do it.
The answer actually came from Xiao Hui,
"Xiao Hua and I are about seven years old, madam." Her voice was soft and she did not quite look at Meng-momo, unlike Mia who never shifted her attention away. Mia only nodded.
Meng-momo prompted, " 'About'?"
Handing the rice gruel to Mia, Xiao Hui explained, "Han-niang found us when we were still babies about seven years ago. I was found two months before Xiao Hua."
Meng-momo nodded, though she was still looking at Mia. Both were exchanging eye contact, both were examining each other. Finally Mia started to eat the gruel, bringing the bowl to her lips to pour the almost liquid mixture into her mouth. It was by far the most disgusting thing she had ever eaten. There was hardly any rice grains in it, there were a lot of rice husks that itched her throat when she swallowed. What's more, it was bland and slightly smelly.
She was unsure whether the thing could even be considered human food. Her eyes darted to her orphanage companions quickly. She was surprised to see the other girls, including Xiao Hui, smacked their lips silently with eyes closed in contentment. If she had not tasted the gruel, she would have thought they had been served a three-star michelin rated restaurant's meal.
Sighing in defeat, Mia hold her breath and poured the rest of the liquid into her mouth and swallowed quickly without daring to further taste it anymore. At least it was barely edible and it would ease her hunger.
All her slight changes of emotions did not escape Meng-momo's eyes. Despite the lack of vocal interaction from the small girl, she could observe that the girl was much more alert than her peers. Her eyes and facial expression were shining with maturity and calmness that a seven-year-old little girl from an orphanage in the hicks should not have.
Meng-momo took out a piece of paper scroll from a small bundle she brought with her. Handing a piece of small charcoal and the blank paper to Mia, she gestured with her chin at the girls, "Write your names!"
Mia paused for a couple of seconds before accepting the paper and charcoal. She thought for a bit on what she was going to write. After all, she was not sure if the characters she had known and learnt to write in the past was the same with the current one. She figured there was not anything to lose though, so she started writing the chinese character for 'flower'. It was the only character she knew that was used a lot as a girl's name. As for the 'xiao' bit, she decided to omit it. After all, the other girls were called xiao-something as well. It must have been used to name all the girls at the orphanage. They did not have parents, so they did not have any family name. Everyone was simply called as 'little this' or 'little that'.
She handed the paper to Xiao Hui, only to realize the latter and the other four girls stared at her in amazement. For the first time, Meng-momo smiled, her face softened. She confirmed her guess with her small test: only this girl called Xiao Hua was literate.
In fact, it was a wonder that she could write. Education was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford; calligraphy was considered a form of art, learnt by the scholars and nobles. Even merchants only knew the basics they need to run their business. Meng-momo was intrigued,
"How did you learn to write?"
Knowing she probably had revealed something troublesome, Mia cursed inside her heart. But she quickly threw away her dismay. It was too late for regret anyway. Besides, knowing how to write should not be a bane to her future. It might actually give her advantage in front of her future employers. In addition, looking at the older woman's expression, Mia realized that there was only curious inquiry, not malice.
"Han-niang has books," making up a lie on the spot, Mia slowly spoke, trying to imitate the accent and intonation. Her words came out distorted and disjointed, "I learnt myself."
"Can you read?"
Meng-momo nodded in satisfaction. So far, this girl was probably the most suitable candidate as the Young Miss' personal attendant. Looking at the 'flower' character written on the paper, the character was even more elegant than what her Young Miss had written in the past. She was smart, calm, and mature for her age.