"Mm." Liqin exhaled as Wu's lips traced her collarbone, and she buried her fingers into his hair. "I love you so much."
"As do I," he replied, giving her a goofy smile before pressing his mouth to hers. Liqin sighed happily, feeling at peace. It was times like these she treasured when the sun had set and her back ached from working in the fields. She and Wu sat in the toolshed, wrapped in each other's embrace. There were no prying eyes, no obnoxious siblings screaming for food.
"Y'know, I was thinking that we ought to tell our families," she said wistfully as he began kissing his way towards the lobe of her ear. "It's been nearly two years."
"They won't approve," he said darkly. "Your mother claims I'm unable to give you a future, that our statuses are too different."
"That's ridiculous! We are of the same common birth. The only difference is my father is the village chief." Liqin kissed his temple, smoothing her hand over his unruly dark curls. "I'm sure I can convince them."
Wu suddenly pulled away, and she shivered, her body vulnerable without his heat. "I haven't told you about what your father said. I asked him this morning."
"Yes, and you know what he said? He said that if I dared marry you, he'd disown you and focus on your sisters to get them married to high officials."
Liqin's hand flew to her mouth. "Father...really said that?" Her world was crumbling. If she couldn't be with Wu, what would she do?
"Shhh," he soothed. "It's alright. There's a reason I called you here tonight." He paused, taking a deep breath. "Liqin, I know I'm not rich. I'm just a poor farmer's son. I have nothing to give you, except my undying loyalty and love. Please, run away with me."
"Run away?" she echoed, eyes wide with shock.
"I swear to provide for you and our children to the best of my ability. Will you?" He gazed at her steadily.
"Yes," she breathed and whooped with laughter, throwing her arms around him. Her heart was bursting with joy. She could spend the rest of her life with the man she loved! Maybe after a few years, she could come back to visit her family, and hopefully, they wouldn't be so very mad at her. "When can we leave?"
He kissed her swiftly, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She flushed prettily. "Tomorrow morning at dawn. Be ready. Pack your personal belongings as well as rations. I'll meet you at the village entrance before the rooster crows."
"But where will we go?" Liqin asked.
Wu shrugged. "Anywhere. North, west, south, east. Wherever your parents won't find us. We can start a new life. Trust me, I'll take care of you."
"I trust you," she whispered, curling into his warm side with a blissful sigh.
The next morning, Liqin quickly packed her belongings. Two sets of clothes, a pot, some leftover porridge from dinner, and her precious sewing kit. In a few minutes, she stood by the village gate. Liqin took care to hide in the shadows of the trees in case any of her neighbors were awake. There she waited. Time was passing quickly.
The sun was beginning to peek out from beyond the horizon, streaking the skies with gold and red. Finally, she timidly called out, "Wu? Where are you?"
Suddenly, there was a rapid pounding of hooves through dirt. Liqin whirled around and spotted a cloud of dust in the distance. She squinted, raising an arm to shield her eyes from the sunlight. Her chocolate brown orbs widened as she scanned the shimmering red banners. Growing up in the village's wealthy family meant she had the ability to read.
Anxiety tightened into a little ball in her stomach. Was that the royal guard? There looked to be about a dozen soldiers decked in full armor, and four of them were carrying a handsomely decorated wedding palanquin. Red ribbons and gold lined the ornate black wood. The curtain was pulled back, and the palanquin appeared to be empty.
Unintentionally, Liqin stepped out from behind her tree, curious to see the purpose of their journey. "Halt!" The soldier in the front pulled back on his reins. The entire entourage came to a stop. They were only a few feet away from where Liqin stood. The soldier narrowed his eyes, looking up and down at her body. She flushed and pulled her shawl tighter around her hanfu.
"Excuse me," she said bravely. Mentally, she forced herself to behave like a chief's daughter. "May I inquire about the purpose of your presence?"
The man rummaged around in a knapsack and pulled out a scroll which he promptly unfurled. Liqin gasped. There was a beautiful watercolor portrait of her likeliness. She remembered the artist asking her to hold still while he painted while her mother looked on, saying "Yes, this will surely attract a high official".
"Are you Jiang Liqin?" he asked. Slowly, she nodded. He beamed, and the frown lines etching her face became less apparent. "That was easy. Would you please take us to your household?"
"I- of course!" she stammered, thoroughly confused.
What in the world did they want with her?