“What did you say?”
That day, the first snow of the year had just fallen.
A few moments before the dreadful news, Zhang Jiale had just finished preparing dinner and was expecting his husband, who was working outside the village with other townspeople, to return back home. It had started getting late and with every passing minute Zhang Jiale’s worry had also grown.
This was when one of the villagers, who worked together with Sun Zheping at the mines, had come running into his yard. Despite having a close relationship with the residents of his land, the young lord did not often have visitors at his house, especially uncalled ones.
The two were now situated opposite each other, Zhang Jiale on the outer veranda of his house while the man was on the grass, leaning on his one knee and head held low. He was unable to face his lord.
Hearing Zhang Jiale’s question, the man repeated. “My apologies, My Lord. But we believe that your husband, Lord Sun, has disappeared.”
Zhang Jiale’s shoulders fell. He had hoped that he had originally heard the man wrong, that this wasn’t about Sun Zheping. He looked at the miner, who still hadn’t raised his head.
“How did this happen?” He questioned.
Unable to meet his lord’s eyes, the villager kept his eyes glued to the ground. His mouth kept opening and closing in attempts to say something, but he stopped every time just before saying anything.
Finally, after countless failed attempts, he managed to speak. “We aren’t certain when it happened, My Lord. We know for sure that Lord Sun was with us till we returned back to the village, but then he had suddenly disappeared.”
“So, you lost him unexpectedly? And you don’t know for sure when and where this happened?” Zhang Jiale asked.
“Yes, My Lord. Unfortunately that is the case, My Lord.”
Zhang Jiale sighed heavily, closing his eyes in the process. He then glanced at the man. “I thank you for informing me. You may go now.”
Zhang Jiale kept on his straight face for as long as the miner was in his presence. As soon as he was alone, however, he broke down. Having to keep his emotions hidden this whole time, they erupted unexpectedly the moment he was alone and could relax.
His shoulders slumped, his head fell and he felt desperation growing within him. Zhang Jiale clenched his fists hard, trying to withstand the frustration and rage inside him. But he couldn’t. In a fit of anger, he slammed his fists on the wooden flooring.
He didn’t want to believe that such a thing could’ve happened to him.
Him of all people.
Zhang Jiale was trying to convince himself that it was all just a mistake. That it wasn’t Sun Zheping who had gone missing, but someone else instead. Maybe there was another tortoise living in the area.
A person going missing wasn’t all that uncommon of an occurrence in the Deer Clan, and especially in Cloud Deer Woodlands, the eastern region of the Deer Clan that was separated from Majestic Hind Timberlands by Doe Run, one of the biggest streams of the lands. Not many days passed by without something happening— people getting lost in the forest, someone being abducted by slave traders and innocents being slaughtered. The Deer Clan wasn’t exactly the safest place to pass through, let alone live in.
Especially for an omega tortoise like Sun Zheping.
The more time passed, the more convinced Zhang Jiale was that something might’ve actually happened to his husband. Sun Zheping hadn’t returned yet and was running unusually late, and now people were even claiming that he had disappeared.
Zhang Jiale reprimanded himself for being careless. Sun Zheping was a strong man, but in the end he was an omega and a tortoise; he was someone completely foreign to the forest, and the woods were always cautious about who they let roam in their territory.
Had Sun Zheping angered the woods?
But he wouldn’t do something like, right? Not after Zhang Jiale had reminded him how important it was to show respect to the forest.
Zhang Jiale was still in midthought, when he heard the door to his room open quietly. He looked up and saw a shy golden bush peeking inside.
“Xiang.” He tried to smile, and quickly erased any trace of distress from his face.
“Where is Papa? He’s late. I’m hungry,” The young deer boy complained shyly. He quickly tiptoed to Zhang Jiale, sat down on the man’s lap and buried his face in his chest. He seemed to calm down visibly the moment he was in the presence of his father.
Zhang Jiale patted his head softly. Sun Xiang was still too young to grow antlers, the most unique and outstanding trait of the deers, but all the other features of his race were visible. His brown ears curved downwards, and he had a little stub for a tail.
Zhang Jiale knew that his son would grow to become a strong deer, even if he was only a half-breed.
No, not his son. Their son.
“Papa seems to be running a little late. But don’t worry, Daddy will go look for him.”
Sun Xiang looked up, his eyes gleaming. “Can I come with you?”
“You should go eat your meal. It’s important, so that you can grow big and strong. Aunt Leuce will keep you company while Daddy is away.”
“But I want to come with you.” Sun Xiang pouted, his tiny tail rotating around rapidly.
“Next time, Xiang. Right now your first priority is to fill your stomach.” Zhang Jiale said, as he caressed his son’s head. Sun Xiang didn’t seem too happy about it, even if he usually was begging for headpats.
“Will you come back once you’ve found Papa?” Sun Xiang asked.
“I will immediately rush home when I find Papa, I promise. Then we can all eat Kale-Shiitake Congee together, like the big family we are.” Zhang Jiale promised his son.
But he wasn’t able to fulfill his promise that day. Nor the day after, or even later that week.
No matter how much Zhang Jiale searched, he couldn’t find Sun Zheping. He had originally received some help from the villagers with the search, but slowly they started to give up one by one.
Sun Zheping had been missing for a month when the last of the villagers gave up on the search. The man had been gone for too long. It was impossible to find him anymore, and the chances of him being alive were minimal.
However, Zhang Jiale refused to give up. He desperately continued the search to find his husband, even if it was just him alone. He refused to believe that anything bad had happened to Sun Zheping.
Zhang Jiale felt his legs betray him and he fell on the rocky path he was walking on. His breath was steaming up in the cold night. It was only now that he realised that it was snowing.
Tears running down his cheeks, Zhang Jiale got up. He had searched the area surrounding the village so many times already without any results.
That night Zhang Jiale decided that if Sun Zheping wasn’t around the village or the Deer Clan, then Zhang Jiale needed to expand his search. If Sun Zheping was far away, then Zhang Jiale would have to say goodbye to his old life, take his son with him and travel the world to find his husband.
Even if it took him hundreds, or even thousands of years, he would not stop until he found Sun Zheping.
All he wanted was to get his husband back.
Zhang Jiale made that vow on the day that the second snow was falling.