Deep in the courtyard, the wind was cool. The sweet scent of osmanthus blossoms pervaded the space as Fang Hua stood beneath a tree. Warm, pleasant sunlight shone on the leaves, mixing with the pattern of the shade and making him seem to exude light. He wore a black gown, with his hair like black jade spilling over his shoulders. The fingers peeking out from his sleeves were like white jade as he elegantly held a brush.
No matter where I saw this person, he was always as beautiful as is he had walked out of a painting.
I grabbed a set of robes from the rooms and walked over to drape them over his shoulders, brows knitted. The moon-white clothing settled over his thin black ones, causing his thinning frame to tremble slightly. He forced himself to hold back a cough as he patted my hand, each movement infused with the scent of flowers…
Suspicious, I could only stare at him. “Fang Hua, why aren’t you getting better despite taking your medicine?”
He smiled lightly and turned away without replying.
Atop the bamboo table were countless stacks of high quality paper, as well as ink and brush. Looking over, I gave a snort. “Everyday, I see you take paper out of the cabinets. I never see you draw anything, what a waste.”
His lips curved up as he pressed the brush into my hands. “You do it.” Fine, I would. Not like I had anything to be scared of. Rolling up my sleeves, I held the brush in hand and spread out the paper. I wondered what should I draw?
He carried a bowl of medicine over and smiled at me. Before taking the medicine, he took an osmanthus blossom and put it in his mouth, as if he was eating candy. This guy…seemed to dislike bitter things.
I grinned to myself.
Aware of my reaction, he glanced over. “What are you smiling about? Don’t think your smile is anything beautiful. Draw a bird and I’ll still call it a parrot.”
His mood was exceptionally good today, to the point that he was making jokes, even though they weren’t very funny. He lowered his head and blew softly on the medicine. My pupils suddenly spun with an idea. I’d draw the person he wanted to see the most…Han Zichuan. Resting my hand on the stone table, I smoothed out the paper before lowering my brush. What did the emperor’s eyebrows look like…? They resembled mountains, and his nose was tall and graceful…moving down, there were his lips, firm and persistent with unswerving determination. Thinking back, I’d been on intimate terms with the emperor while we were together, but I felt rusty drawing him. Though he was my husband, I’d been thinking about him less and less recently…eh, it feels like I’ve never thought of him on purpose. Only the occasional look at Fang Hua would remind me that he was somewhere off in the palace.
I halted when I realized my thoughts were wandering again, tapping my forehead with my brush. I told myself not to lose concentration before sweeping my gaze over the figure on the paper. Correcting my attitude, I adjusted my sleeves like an elegant person and resumed drawing. Just when I was getting into it, an obviously tricky voice called out.
“Come taste this for me.”
A bowl of delicately fragrant liquid was placed beneath my lips. I stared at the painting while managing to take a sip. “How is it?”
“Not hot or cold,” I shot a quick glance over before pushing him aside to continue drawing. He shielded the bowl like a meddlesome old woman and scooted over, asking softly, “…I was asking you about the flavor.”
I carefully smacked my lips. “Didn’t really taste it.”
“Is it too cold, should I warm it up? How warm would you like it?” “The taste isn’t bad.”
“Eh? I’m asking you if it’s too cold, why are you telling me how it tastes like? If I warm it rashly, it’ll lose its medicinal properties…” His brows knitted together with a faint hint of anxiety. “But if I drink it while it’s cool, I’ll get a stomachache. My body can’t take the cold anymore. Help me drink some more and see how long I should heat it.”
I swallowed another mouthful. It should be fine if he warmed it briefly over a small fire.
“Really. I don’t think we need to warm it at all. Try another sip.”
Something’s not right…
I thought it over before pausing with my brush. Hey!
I say…is this medicine for me or for him? I’ve almost finished the entire bowl. He walked off with the remaining half of the bowl, not daring to try anything else. He only sat docilely on the chair with head bowed, both hands holding the bowl as he tasted it with a smile. I couldn’t even begin to describe my resentment. This wasn’t even his first or second time. Every time I decocted medicine for him, he’d find some excuse to let me drink most of it. As I looked, he rested a hand on one knee while sitting in the chair, tapping his fingers intermittently in a carefree manner.
The more I watched, the more huffy I felt…
Yet his eyelashes trembled, his face showed him to be in a very good mood. I couldn’t bear to tell him off. Stopping the motion of the brush, I smacked my lips. The taste of the medicine wasn’t half-bad. Despite carrying the flavor of a typical prescription, it wasn’t all that bitter, though the feel of it was astringent in my throat after I swallowed. They say good medicine tastes bitter, so as I saw it…the reason he wasn’t getting better was because he avoided bitter medicines, so they couldn’t cure his illness.
What was that shaking in his robes?
Curious, I stuck out my neck, raising my brush in the air as I took a peek. He seemed to sense it as well, following my gaze to his robes. The white robes fluttered to reveal a blue one within, before a paper crane peeked out from the depths, its wings fluttering with life. Only his hand against it kept it from flying away.
“What sort of thing is this?” My eyes brightened as I set aside the brush, ready to circle the table for a look.
“What are you talking about?” Fang Hua looked up at me. I wasn’t sure if he was doing it on purpose, but one push of his finger sent the paper crane tumbling down. I gave a cry of alarm and rushed over, kneeling down to check the crane. It was unlucky enough to land in one of the muddy puddles leftover from the rain. Its entire body seemed to be made out of some yellowed paper, as if folded from some sort of talisman. There were even marks of cinnabar on the paper, though the water had soaked and dissolved it all through. Could a paper crane really fly by itself? Had I been seeing things?
“Why did you drop it to the ground?” “I didn’t,” he sat a little helplessly in his chair, looking as if I’d wronged him.
I wanted to fish up the paper crane, but he suddenly stood up. Setting the bowl aside, he pulled me up as well. “It’s gotten dirty, don’t pick it up. Let’s see how your painting’s progressing…” Thus, he pulled me away.
The papers on the table trembled before the wind. Luckily, the ink stone was holding them down. He drew closer and prepared to see the drawing I’d done.
“That…I haven’t finished yet,” I gave a shout, reflexively holding out a hand to stop him. He smiled, eyes giving me a flirtatious glance. It surprised me into numbness, enough to let him push my arm aside. The thick lines of ink painted out a silhouette…
His smile faded as he looked up and said softly, “Zichuan, is it?” Before I could reply, he sat down gently, hand quietly feeling the paper. “It’s filled with grace.”
Is that so….
But I still thought it was missing something. He stared at the drawing as I stared at him, unblinking. That elegant face was gentle and soft, but the set of his eyebrows was firm and unyielding. When this type of person fell in love with someone else, he’d probably adore them all his life, protecting that love even unto death…
He looked at me, and I hastily dipped my head to dust off my robes. The laugh that followed seemed a bit forced, and his gaze seemed unusually deep. “A beginner at drawing can depict the general forms, later on they’ll master the skeleton.”
Surprised, I stopped brushing my clothing to look at him. It was hard to tell his expression. I followed his lines by imitating his tone, light and easy as I spoke. “…and an experienced artist can depict the soul.” He seemed flabbergasted as he looked at me, but couldn’t help but smile.
“You can’t remember events, but you remember this line so clearly.”
“Hey, it does sound familiar. My brain just blurted out this line by itself, though I’m not sure where I heard it from.” I said, a little embarrassed.
He didn’t say any more, but fixed his sleeves before taking the brush in his slender figures. Swirling it in the ink, he added a few strokes by Han Zichuan’s eyebrows in the painting. Just a few simple movements…and it felt like the figure had come alive on the paper, distinct and clear-cut. I came over to take a look.
“If it was a drawing of me…” his tall, slender form halted the movements of the brush to give me a pained look. “It’d carry three spirits within it.”
I remained mute. Why was he piling things on me again? He laughed, tossing the brush carelessly behind him. “Come, I’ll take you to a place.”
Even as my body leaned back, I was pulled along, feet scampering after him. I couldn’t resist a look back. “You eat a few copper coins’ worth of cabbage leaves everyday, and yet you’ve tossed aside a brush worth fine silver, y-y-you…”
He looked at me, and I lowered my head in silence. His fingers were icy cold, their grip tight around my own as if they’d never let go.
“Where are you taking me? I already said, I’m not chopping any firewood.”
He didn’t speak, but his lips curved up to make him especially beautiful. My heart beat wildly as I stole another look. His pupils were like amber, limpid and clear. He smiled at me and his eyes curved in response, contrasting with his unique complexion and dark red mole. It made him look unexpectedly flirtatious, that beauty. Enough to stun me senseless. Thus, I stayed quiet while he tugged me along, obediently following behind him. “…we’re here.” he spoke, hand tightening around mine. Ah…where were we?
Fang Hua had been very mysterious when he took me with him, so I thought we’d end up in some rare and strange place. But I was greatly disappointed. Could someone tell me where I was?
Around the perimeter of the house, no matter if it was the buildings or the bamboo, everywhere that Fang Hua went was filled with exuberant plant life and the fragrance of flowers. It seemed like only this spot of land was bare, which was impressive in itself.
I continued to stand in shock.
He turned his head to grin at me, and I could only smily foolishly back. He raised his sleeve to fix my own, making my face turn red. I hurriedly covered myself up, holding back a breath as I stared at him. “What are you doing?”
Wasn’t he sick? Why was he so strong?
“You’ve finally woken up. When I was spacing out, you didn’t deal with me like that. Not to mention…looks like it worked.” He smiled again as he spoke to me. “Look at what I’ve done, do you think this place is pretty?”
What was there to see?
“If you can call an abandoned field pretty,” I sucked in a breath, speaking a little against my conscience. “Those withered branches over there are beautiful.”
He laughed like an elder humoring a misbehaving child. I lost myself in his beauty again, but it only took a second before I snapped out of it. What did he bring me here for? This desolate area in the middle of nowhere was best suited for robbery and murders… “Have you ever thought…” a voice drifted out, and he was suddenly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me, looking off into the distance. His gaze was partly yearning, but mostly distressed, leaving only a hint of his usual tenderness to intoxicate his viewer. His voice was so soft, to the point where I could barely hear him. “To remain for the rest of your life with the person you love, and never leave them.”
Curses, so he brought me here to talking about life. There was depth to that, so I could appreciate it.
“I’ve never thought of it,” I said bluntly.
The person you loved? Was he talking about Han Zichuan? He could only count as my husband, but if I stayed with him for the rest of my life, then wouldn’t that be…?
My mind immediately imagined a crowd of eunuchs bowing before my bed and a somber-faced wet nurse, making my heart tremble. Growing old with the emperor was akin to growing old with a whole crowd of other people.
His gaze swept over me as he continued to smile. “I’ve thought of it more than once. If I could spend the rest of my life with the person I love, neither of us leaving the other…wouldn’t that be great?”
I was dumbfounded. He raised his head slightly to catch the sunlight streaming past the leaves above us. “Through life and death, together in happiness. Two hands clasped as one, together until old age.”
His white robes and pitch-black hair combined to make him look gentle and meek. The serenity surrounding him was like that around a newborn infant, and golden light seemed to shine from the tips of his eyebrows. Turning his head to look at me, he revealed a rare and gentle smile. “If there really was an afterlife, how wonderful that would be.” The sorrow he displayed in that instant seemed to suffocate me. “If you love him that much, why did you leave him back then?”
He paused, looking at me unhurriedly as he blinked. Then he gave a mischievous smile. “The world holds many things that we can’t determine, and many difficulties we’re unwilling to speak about…just like you.” Laughing clearly, he caressed my cheek, fingers sliding across the skin as he focused on me. “I don’t blame your words or anything you’ve done, because you have difficulties you can’t say as well.”
Was he hinting to what had happened between the three of us in the past?
My thoughts began to wander.
“For many things, you can’t just look at the surface. Just like this place. It looks like a wasteland now, but it can also be filled with a beauty seldom seen in the secular world.” He slowly moved forward, snow-white robes drifting as he pinched off a withered branch. Closing his eyes, he smelled the branches, the movement sending his black hair cascading down like flowing water. Seeing his waist and neck accentuate the image was so beautiful that I forgot how to breathe.
Yet in one moment, the branch burst into full bloom. My eyes widened. Was this some sort of magic trick?! How did he do it?
He lifted his sleeves, hands opening to reveal a profusion of peach blossoms in bloom. His lips curved into a smile as he spoke. “A flower blooms briefly, its life a pleasant journey. Youth can only bloom for an instant in one lifetime, and only for one person.”
The gentle wind blew, scattering peach blossoms into the skies like rain. All over the mountains and plains, peach blossoms exuded their sweet, intoxicating scent.
I was stupefied. He glanced at me, that soft elegance filled with bewitching charm. His eyes closed slightly as he smiled in peerless refinement. It was like a flash of a dream carried on the wind that came and went without a trace. Whoever saw it first could claim it for their own…
A long time afterwards, I’d always remember his expression amidst the different flowers. Though he was smiling, why did I feel so sad? He ought to possess a true love…
Youth passes in an instant and only blooms for one person.
He was Fang Hua, but who was the person he couldn’t forget? Was it Han Zichuan, deep in the palace? My heart stirred, suddenly filling with pain. He shouldn’t wear such a lonely expression, so quiet amidst the flowers. What did he mean to tell me by bringing us here…?
“Fang Hua, you really don’t resent me for stealing away the emperor?”
When we were walking back from the peach blossom trees, I kept on asking him.
“I don’t,” was the straight reply.
I grasped his robes with a sullen expression, filled with disbelief. He turned in surprise, giving me a strange look. But he didn’t speak again, and instead settled on a light smile. My gaze turned plaintive. He lowered a hand to rest on my shoulders and softly gathered me into his arms with a sigh.
“You don’t understand? I don’t resent you. Actually, I’m very happy now.”
My nose was filled with the fragrance of flowers and his faint, lingering scent of medicine. Within his warm embrace, as improper as it was, I felt very comfortable. I’ve heard people say I used to serve him within the palace, so we must have been close. Even so, I still didn’t understand him… I frowned. Being buried in his chest, breathing in his distinctive scent, it felt like he could disappear at any moment. My arms took the chance to tighten around him, gripping the slippery satin of his robes to hold back the uneasy feelings assaulting my heart.
There was nothing to fear.
I still had plenty of time to understand the riddle of this man named Fang Hua.
-o- Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
 youth ( 芳华) – fang hua, the word used for youth here is the same characters found in Fang Hua’s name.
A few rays of sunlight shone on my face, it was early morning. Squinting, I rolled over with my feet on the covers, withdrawing my hands into the bedding. I knitted my brows as I hugged the warm covers before suddenly letting out a loud sneeze. It was enough to shock me fully awake. As I sat up, I noticed more than a few green feathers scattered across my bed.
Something was off…
I scrubbed at my nose with my sleeves, accidently getting a downy feather on the tip of my tongue. I say, was this little parrot trying to do a striptease over there? I remembered shutting the door last night, so where did it come from? Glancing at the windows, I saw the bolt was loose enough to leave a chink. Wind was blowing into the room at this very instant. I was surprised that the parrot could fit through such a tiny crack. No wonder it’d scattered feathers everywhere.
My face was black as I dressed myself and lifted the covers.
“Huh, where are my stockings?”
I looked around as my hands searched, even sweeping my eyes beneath the bed…but there was no sign of them. I suspected that little thing had taken it away in its beak again. That thief had gotten addicted to stealing my things and was quite capable. It’d take the sweets I hid beneath my pillow, or my face cloth to use for its nest. Last time I got my period, it even stole my cotton strips of cloth until Fang Hua gave them back personally. He said he’d found them in his room, much to my embarrassment. My eyes drifted to the bird sticking up its butt at me from the table. Currently, it was busy bending over to peck at something in delight. Realization dawned on my face as I quietly put on my shoes and tiptoed over. One hand stuck out and snatched him while I scooped up the white fabric he’d been treading on all this time…well, well, what do you know? It really was one of my stockings. The parrot was getting bolder and bolder, taking high quality things like this. It didn’t even seem to mind whether it smelled.
It seemed like there was something inside the stocking. I kept calm, one hand pressing down on the wiggling bird, the other twisting the stocking to reveal…
…a cascade of paper cranes. Some had been torn to pieces by its beak, others seemed to have been soaked in water and was now mushy to the touch. But all of them had been folded with charm paper, and sniffing them revealed a vague scent of sandalwood.
“You collected all these?”
It turned its head and refused to answer.
“Look at your temper. I might as well pluck out your feathers and boil you,” I threatened.
As it turned out, it was the wrong thing to do. This bird had the temper of a spoiled child, thanks to its master.
“Ow, that hurts. You pecked me?! Just you wait…” I ran out of breath.
It flapped its little wings, giving me a disdainful look from its beady green eyes before boring for the crack in the window and disappearing from sight. Hmph, it even had the gall to look down on people. Well today I’d make things even. With my hair in disarray, I burst out the doors, trampling the wooden floors beneath my creaking footsteps. I could spot a mass of green flying wildly in the air before turning and disappearing. Huffing and puffing, I leaned against a door to catch my breath but couldn’t resist looking back and forth. This residence wasn’t very large, but the scenery was exquisite. Beyond the houses was nothing but bamboo forest. Each and every one of the doors to the rooms were closed, and the walkways were empty as well. There was only a single feather left behind on the ground.
There was no logic to this. I can’t imagine that it’d hid itself awa
I walked up to door after door, each of the paper windows adorned with bamboo in ink in a tasteful and refined manner. At the foot of one was a tortoise that I’d added last night in a fit of poetic inspiration, but that was another story. Wait…
Where was the tortoise?
I went up to the windows to look, only to see a giant hole on the left side, completely ruining my painted tortoise. The wind blew against the tattered remains of the paper and made it tremble.
I laughed darkly to myself before pushing open the door. It was quiet inside, with only the sound of my breathing in the beautiful room. The scent of sandalwood mixed with ancient wood filled my nostrils as I looked around. The room was neither light nor dark, but filled with warmth.
Volumes of books rested on a wooden rack, filling up the walls. Besides that, there was only a table and chair in the humongous room. A white robe rested over the chair, looking almost transparent in the light that streamed inside. It also illuminated a very familiar silhouette hiding behind it, because a feather had been left outside.
I softly shut the door. “Sheesh, that little parrot must have hidden in the trees,” I said, looking slowly towards the bird. Then I turned my head aside and spoke again. “Maybe I should get a few kernels of grain to lure him out.”
There was no movement from beneath the robes.
“How about I paint a beautiful parrot to seduce him to me?”
My eyes flashed as I leaned against the table, pretending to reach for a brush. Then I held my breath and jumped on my prey.
Chaos ensued, and feathers flew everywhere…
It flapped its feathers furiously to try to fly, fleeing to the bookshelves while hurling curses at me. Its words made me even more determined to catch it, and as we scuffled, the bookshelves began to rock and sway…
Volume after volume of books fell down…but I had no idea as I pounced towards my target. When I got up again, the rows of bookshelves fell into each other before crashing to the ground, raising a huge layer of dust. I covered my mouth with my sleeves as I coughed. With the room in a mess and mountains of books on the floor, I could see a small form struggling in the chaos. Kneeling on the ground, I took away a splayed opened book to see the green parrot stepping atop a roll of thin, tough silk. It trembled as it looked at me with its eyes.
“What’s wrong with you now?” I asked good-naturedly.
It seemed to have been injured by the crash, its body shaking as if it didn’t dare to move. Still kneeling, I showed pity and took it into my hands, examining it carefully. Though it allowed me to do as I pleased, its eyes never stopped darting around while I touched its head.
“Hey, hey, where did you get injured? Your grandaunt will bind you up,” I teased the parrot. Usually, this bird and its cursing tongue would hurl expletives at me, but this time it was quiet. Looks like we were both types that bullied the weak while fearing the strong. I caught one of its talons and gave it a close look, before tearing off a strip of the tough silk by its side, ready to tie…no, really to bind its injuries.
“Hey, don’t stir up trouble. I’m not feeding you this, what are you pecking for…” I tugged away the cloth it was holding in its beak. Suddenly, my eyes caught sight of something and couldn’t look away. It seemed like there were densely packed characters written on the surface.
Though intuition was telling me not to stick my nose into others’ business, I couldn’t stop my eyes from reading.
As it turned out…something big happened.
As to exactly what had happened, it’s a long story. If I’d known things would turn out that way, I definitely wouldn’t have done such foolish actions, or spoken such foolish words. My regrets afterwards made me grieved at heart.
The mess in the study was currently too tragic to look at. This so-called parrot named Shào’er had a piece of tough silk in its mouth, its surface covered with words. Weird, what was this? Curious, I squinted at the writing, muttering to myself as I read, “The Fang Hua Beast is a primarily male animal…”
A feeling of intimacy suddenly rose from within my heart, followed by a stab of pain. I released the parrot with a noise and seem to feel it fly past me. But I was too busy to pay attention to such things, eyes fixated on that section of silk. These words weren’t hard to understand, but the meaning behind them seemed to shake me.
Fang Hua Beast…
I repeated those three words, feeling my heart palpitate. Pinching the silk between my fingers, I read it line by line, feeling more and more shocked as I read. It seemed as if I’d uncovered some great secret, enough to chill my entire body. I couldn’t keep calm for a long time.
A teardrop-shaped mole at the corner of one eye, exuding a sweet fragrance year round, appearance resembling a handsome man, dallying with plants while enjoying feeding on flowers, the silk explaining all the particulars of the Fang Hua Beast. My eyebrows wrinkled as I puzzled it out. Fang Hua was indeed very similar to this…though I couldn’t know if he always ate flowers year round, since he barely ate any food nowadays since he was ill.
But perhaps this was simply a myth. Who could believe that a piece of Fang Hua Wood could transform itself into a human form, and grow so big? I hadn’t even seen monsters or goblins before.
My head lowered, I felt the silk. The texture was pleasant, probably perfect for blowing my nose on as a daily handkerchief. Too bad the surface was filled with words. I’d have to ask Fang Hua where he bought this stuff later. Thus thinking, I placed the piece of silk inside my robes. Maybe I’d been squatting for too long because my legs had turned numb. As soon as I stood up, the blood rushed down and left my head dizzy. I closed my eyes and the image of Fang Hua twisting the stems of lotus blossoms to eat appeared in my mind. The foggy image was wearing robes of white silk, adding to his elegance. His jadelike fingers were long and slender, resting beneath a dainty red lotus before raising it to his mouth. Those lips quirked up as if he was eating the most delicious food in the world…
My eyes suddenly flew open.
Why would such an image appear all of a sudden in my head? And even one of him eating a lotus flower?
My head grew heavy, and I held onto a wooden table to steady myself. Could it be… that he really was a Fang Hua Beast? This couldn’t be the reason that he left the imperial harem? There were many people in the palace, and tongues liked to wag. Moreover, evil plots liked to shadow the emperor’s footsteps. If anyone discovered that he wasn’t a human and had an affair with Han Zichuan, he’d be chased away even if he didn’t wanted to leave.
If that was the case…then it was really a pity.
I closed and opened my eyes again, abruptly recalling something. Again, I pulled the silk from my robes and kept reading…nine characters jumped out from the surface and seemed to expand before my vision. The calligraphy was delicate and fine, as if nailed onto the silk: the color of the Beast’s mole is paler when he is younger, but will naturally darken to blackish red, dark red, and pitch black, upon which the Fang Hua Beast will die.
My breath caught in my throat, unable to escape. It was extremely uncomfortable, and my heart seemed to burn in my chest. I didn’t know what this feeling was, only that it was bitter beyond compare…perhaps this was what they calledsorrow.
How strange. Taking a deep breath, I shook my head, wondering why I felt this way. I vigorously rubbed my eyes with my sleeve, unable to believe the dampness came from unconscious tears. In the space of a moment, my heart had grown quite uncomfortable. From the moment I’d woken up, the mole by Lord Hua’s eye had been quite dark. It shouldn’t be blackish red, so that meant…
I sucked in a breath, turning away to look towards the window. My hand gripped the section of silk while I didn’t make a sound. Those feelings in my heart I couldn’t puzzle out with my head…what did it matter if he died? I’d only met him recently, that’s all. There was nothing between us.
I bent over to think, deciding to stuff the silk into a random book somewhere and pretend I’d never read it. Before leaving the room I looked around, wondering when the parrot had slipped away…
I looked over the messy books and overturned bookcases in the room before heroically stepping over the mess and out the room, shutting the door behind me. Dusting off my clothes, I acted as if nothing had happened at all before leisurely returning to my room to take a nap. After waking up, I felt quite bored, so I happily went to seek out Fang Hua. As it turned out, he found me first.
There was a heavy sound of impact.
The door shook from his repeating kicking, enough to loosen dirt from the eaves. He stood outside the door, his spirits somewhat recovered as he carried a jug of wine in his left hand.
“That, what’s your name…help me move these in.” As soon as he saw me, he began to order me about.
‘What’s your name?!’ He couldn’t be asking me to carry wine, I couldn’t do heavy jobs. Smiling, he tilted to one side before giving me a significant look and stepping inside the room with wine in tow. As it turned out, he really didn’t expect me to carry the wine. It was only after he entered that I realized the place where he was standing was stocked with books, brushes, inkstones and slabs…in pieces on the ground. If I’d known this earlier, I’d have gone to carry the wine jugs instead. It took nearly all my strength to finishing carrying them away. Fang Hua was already standing cheerfully on the table, writing words with his brush while smelling rich and delicately intoxicating.
“Lord Hua, you seem to be in an aesthetic mood today.”
“Of course.” He thought I was praising him, and wore a most refined smile. “Help me grind some ink.”
I gnashed my teeth. Hey…this guy was really taking advantage of all weaknesses. If it wasn’t for the wine, he wouldn’t dare to make me to even small favors for him. Well…this wasn’t right.
“Lord Hua,” I frowned, leaning over the desk to remind him kindly. “If I’m not mistaken, this is my room?”
He stopped his brush, only turning slightly to look at me. “Then it’s fine if you carry my things to the study instead.” The study?!
The study…wasn’t a good place to go…not after I made a mess inside. There probably wasn’t even room for a person to stand. Did this person find out beforehand and came to find fault with me?
“That’s right,” he looked at me with bright eyes. “I haven’t seen Shào’er all afternoon, have you?”
My bluster suddenly died down significantly as I obediently bent my head to grind him ink. What if Fang Hua’s treasured parrot met with trouble after escaping from my clutches? I was uneasy and fidgety for a long while before stealing a look at him. He didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t replied.
Forget it, I won’t ask him why he didn’t go to his own study to paint and write. I estimated that he’d just say only my room had a desk or something. The one in his room couldn’t be called a desk, but more of a dressing table.
In any case…all the rooms in this house were his. A hand supported my head as I ground ink for him. My heart wasn’t in it though, my eyes too focused on straying to the red teardrop-shaped mole beneath his eye. It made him look like he was weeping…
The section of silk said that the color of the Beast’s mole is paler when he is younger, but will naturally darken to blackish red, dark red, and pitch black, upon which the Fang Hua Beast will die. After thinking it over for a while, my hand stopped moving and I grew still.
“There’s no more ink,” a light, leisurely voice floated above my head.
“What are you thinking about?”
My head was lowered as I scooped up my sleeves, dripping clear water on the inkslab. Then I took the inkstone to the surface to grind, all flustered as I said in a rush, “I was wondering when you’d die.” After that line, he gave a mournful smile, one that reached his eyes and made his face ashen pale. This was worse than no smile at all, and made the mole by his eye stand out like a plum blossom in the midst of snow, a cruel but profound sort of beauty. I felt at a loss, before adding on, “You know… I, I didn’t meant it in that way.”
His smile was light, but he stopped the movements of his brush and didn’t say a word.
I didn’t want to curse him to his death. Just that…just that I didn’t want to believe the words on the silk. If they were true, then the beautiful man before me didn’t have much time left. The silence in the room was a little abnormal. I knew I was in the wrong, and continued to ground the ink with my head lowered. Though I made careful motions with the ink stick, my hands were still shaking.
Really…I regretted so much that I even felt like ripping my mouth off.
“It’s been a while, but I still haven’t died yet. I’ve troubled you.”
Fang Hua put his brush aside and idled in his chair, looking at me. He didn’t say much, but poured himself a cup of wine and slowly sniffed it, saying softly, “This was the wine we brewed together awhile ago, do you want a cup?”
I didn’t take it.
He smiled, eyebrows arching slightly before emptying the entire cup and refilling it again. There was a hint of indescribable sorrow in his eyes, and his brows seemed rather desolate.
“Don’t drink so much…” At a loss, I could only watch him helplessly.
“There’s no harm,” he said gently, before covering his mouth with his right hand. It wasn’t hard to see that he’d choked on the wine, enough to cough until a hint of red bloomed on his white face. “Why do you suffer so, fighting with your body like this?” My voice was small and weak. Recently, Fang Hua’s body had gotten weakened, but he drank more than before. Only a short while had left his snow white robes stained with alcohol, his whole body smelling of the scent of flowers mixed with wine. I couldn’t bear to look anymore, and reached out to snatch the jug away from him.
“A bit of wine lifts the spirits,” he scooped up his sleeves and snatched it back.
“…you’re drinking like an ox.”
He wasn’t so much drinking wine as he was pouring it down. I wanted to rage and laugh at the same time, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with him.
“I may be drinking like an ox, but elegant drinking comes from the heart,” his eyebrows knitted in a way that inspired empathy, one hand swaying as it pointed to his head. Those pale fingers used strength to grip onto the front of his shirt jacket as he glanced at him, before he toppled forwards onto the table. His body relaxed, elegant fingers pinching the wine cup as he took a breath to roll on his back. Staring at the roofbeams, he laughed. “I don’t have the heart, so why should I care so much? You only live this life once, so live in a way that makes your heart happy.”
Finished, he looked towards me, all elegant eyebrows and neat hair framing a pair of long and narrow eyes half-closed from tipsiness. The golden sunlight from the window shone on his body and seemed to form its own separate layer, making him as beautiful as a painting.
My gaze turned soft.
This person always did exactly as he wished. From the beginning, I’d never taking his insight or experiences into consideration.
“It’s lonely for one person to drink. Why don’t you have a cup with me?” he managed to prop himself up with difficulty, his clothes still in somewhat order. He assumed a comfortable sprawl on the desk and reached over to grab me. I stilled, before shaking my head. He didn’t hold his liquor well. If I got drunk with him, who’d take care of him afterwards? Fang Hua managed with difficulty as he looked at me, before smiling slightly as he rested his head on his hand. With his robes draped over his form, he turned to the side and hugged to wine jar in his lap and spaced out…
He seemed to be thinking of something, or perhaps he was reminiscing. He was probably remembering his beautiful days at the imperial court, maybe when Han Zichuan spent nights drinking with him…
“Don’t drink anymore,” I caught him by the hand and paused. “Cold wine will hurt the body.”
His thin lips quirked up at the corners, sinking into his skin in a helpless smile, yet so tragic…
After a breath, I raised my robes before settling to sit by his side, quietly watching him as I took the wine jug away from his hands. He struggled slightly before letting me take it away.
“Recently, I’ve been remembering things from the past constantly day and night…I think, I really do regret.”
A simple and honest voice rose mixed with the tones of drunken stupor to float in the air, gentle yet somehow suffocating. My entire body seized up, suddenly sensing a heavy weight by my shoulder. I looked and saw him appearing weary, his head resting on my shoulder. His eyes were closed and his face was deathly pale. The air around us turned equivocal, and my helpless limbs remained in place as I sat stock straight, trying to think of a conversation topic to break this abnormal mood. But the meaning of my words changed as soon as they left my mouth.
“The emperor has a higher alcohol tolerance than you, he wouldn’t get drunk so quickly.”
“Un.” “Han Zichuan looks like he’d be hard to talk to, but he’s a good person. Just like how the servants say he speaks easily but treats people certain ways with reason, you have to get close to him before he treats you well.”
“Un.” He seemed to tiring, exhaustion resting on his eyelids. “Han Zichuan likes women, he likes you.” I fell silent, nerves taut enough to explode. Now the atmosphere was even stranger than before.
I suddenly rose to my feet. “The firewood hasn’t been split yet, I’ll go do that.”
He tugged me by the hand, saying softly, “There’s no need.” “Ah…clothes. Yesterday night’s robes were still soaking in the water
and need to be washed, I’ll take them to the stream.”
“When have I ever let you go wash the clothes?” he raised his head to look at me, slipping his hand through my fingers in a show of tender care.
That’s right. I’ve been in the wrong.
While he was sick and said I was taking care of him, he was still doing these sorts of chores. His medicine…most of it had gotten into my stomach instead. In one moment, I fully experienced the condemnation of my conscience.
“I-I-I-I….it’s time for you to take your medicine, I’ll see if it’s finished boiling yet,” I will so filled to bursting that my neck had started turning red. I couldn’t decide where to put my hands and feet, but he managed to grab my robes as he sprawled on the table, his face red from intoxication. He stood up and gave a sharp tug…and in the next moment, had me pressed to the ground in surprise. A body thick with the fumes of alcohol rested atop me, and the hands he’d pressed above my head hurt from the force used on them.
“The Heavens told me that I’d meet someone who could be by my side my entire life in this reincarnation. I believed in that firmly without any doubt.” He slowly drew closer to me, reaching a hand out to comfort my cheek as he stared. The mole beneath his eye still resembled a red teardrop. “I’ve already confirmed it with my eyes. You clearly love me, but you just don’t realize it.” He wanted to cry, yet persist in speaking. I’m not blaming you. I really don’t.
At this moment, he held me tight in his arms, his hot breath brushing past my neck. My heart was on the verge of stopping, so alarmed and confused did I feel. Still, my eyes softened as he whispered a person’s name in my ear. Three quiet characters, like a ladle of cold water pouring down until my hands and feet turned cold.
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else,” I forcefully pushed him aside. He propped a hand on the ground and turned away to muffled his coughing in his sleeves. It seemed to put him in agony, but he only smiled helplessly.
“…Lord Hua, are you all right?” I couldn’t help but press nearer for a better look.
And yet he suddenly grabbed my hand again, pulling me towards him. He was so drunk he couldn’t even tell people apart anymore. His head rested on my shoulders, black hair pooling down past my neck as his warm body held me tight. Word by word, he spoke.
“Don’t leave me.”
Between our positions I could hear the sound of a heart pounding, but I couldn’t tell if it was his or mine.. The sweet-smelling fragrance of alcohol filled both our nostrils. My heart wasn’t happy at all, but slowly returned to its calm state. As soon as he drank, he’d start rambling nonsense. Last time he got drunk he even chased after the parrot, calling it Shao’er and saying it was time to bathe him. But this time I had clearly heard the name he’d spoken…
Fang Hua had already closed his eyes and fallen asleep on my knee. He clutched my hands to his chest, those snow white robes showing a hint of the blue robes within. His drooping eyes caught the warm light and used it to block his expressions. Did he think I was ‘that’ person?
This fool really felt deeply, but it was so hard to hate him for it.
Outside the window, the wind blew through the bamboo, stirring up the mourning calls of swallows. It sounded as if someone was crying…
I stole a peek at his knitted eyebrows, that exceptional desolation on his sleeping features, my heart heaving up and down. I was filled with a guilty conscience. This person deserved someone to love him as well. Within his remaining days, I’d do everything to treat him better.
-o- Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
 grandaunt (姑奶奶) − gunainai, apparently used by a woman when she’s quarreling. A way of referring to oneself as an elder, or superior, to the other party.
I laid on the bamboo mats for awhile before I felt a large damp spot on the pillow. When I touched my face, I discovered the faint trace of tears by my eyes and lifted my head, only to feel a splitting headache. My body had been acting strangely these days, as if some sort of inner energy kept channeling its way through my chest. It felt warm and refused to dissipate…as if it was trapped, but I always felt refreshed in body when I woke up, as if my memory had gotten much better.
Every time, Fang Hua would smile and say it was his medicine taking effect.
His medicine couldn’t even cure himself, so how could it cure me?
Neither of us ever mentioned the incident that happened the day we brewed wine. The sorrowful, grieved Fang Hua I saw only appeared when he was intoxicated. He usually took on the image of a refined and handsome scholar. Don’t think he was some celestial being free from wants or desires, though…his one demerit was his habit of feeding your his own medicinal brews. A nice way to put it was that he enjoyed sharing his misery.
Pah, what an attitude!
Thinking back on our time, I used to joke that Fang Hua had no scholarship to him, because he never read anything in his free time. He didn’t answer my jab, but picked up a medical book in his spare time and began to leaf through that. Even though it was him who was reading…I discovered that I could recite the material from heart as well. It surprised me, but he wasn’t moved at all. He said I had this skill from before, so it was nothing unexpected. It seemed like he understood everything.
However, there was one thing I didn’t tell him.
Every night when I closed my eyes, I’d sense someone kneeling by the edge of my bed, as if reciting something softly to me. Before my eyes would appear a word or a phrase, in scraps and pieces, but it also felt like they could be connected into sentences like some sort of passage or incantation.
And when I woke up the next day, I’d feel energized all over my body. Of course, sometimes I’d get a headache, but after taking Fang Hua’s medicine I’d feel better again, with no discomfort anywhere. Hey…was that medicine really that miraculous?! Still, I was puzzled over why such a powerful medicine couldn’t cure Fang Hua. Was his body so weak that nothing could fix it? But it didn’t look that way. Although he had the occasional cough and was easily tired after his sluggish walks, he still looked energetic. Sometimes when I tried to support his arm for walks, he’d look at me with a disdainful air and roll his eyes.
Our days thus passed like this. The emperor’s men never searched this far. Thinking back to my promise not to leave Fang Hua before his illness got better, I realized I’d gotten used to taking care of him. Now it was hard to tell whether it was better here or at the palace…though sometimes I’d think of the emperor. Who knew if he was worried now that I’d disappeared for so long, and whether or not he wanted to find me?
It was a little chilly on the porch. My hands rested on a bamboo bench as I slowly got up, realizing I had an extra layer of robes over my chest. It was a man’s robe, the fabric soft and warm. Lowering my head for a sniff, I caught the distinctive scent of Fang Hua on the clothes. My lips curved up into a smile before I stretched lazily. Since I’d just woken up, I wasn’t sure what to do next just yet. I spaced out for a while before the words I’d dreamed about suddenly rose from my gut. Knitting my brows, I counted on my fingers before the strings holding up a set of bamboo windchimes suddenly snapped off the eaves, falling to the ground.
Shocked, I stared at my fingers for a while before grinning. I didn’t have time to consider where this martial arts skill came from, but only felt extremely excited. Pulling up my pants, I rushed inside the room to fish out some rough straw paper before heading for the outhouse. Kicking open the door, I went inside, turned around, and squatted down, finishing a series of actions as smoothly as flowing water and floating clouds. I rubbed my stomach before humming a bit. When I got up, my limbs stretched and felt free from inhibitions. My entire body was trembling, but the sound that had entered my ears was changing from blurry indistinction to something clearer, and it was growing more and more lively. There were the sounds of people talking, of cicadas chirping, even the lively bustle of a night market. I looked around me before suddenly, the noise disappeared.
It was nighttime, and inside the outhouse everything was pitch-dark. The moonlight outside was faint and dismal, but it felt like my vision and hearing had improved greatly.
I remained squatting in the outhouse, shutting my eyes to concentrate for a while. Hey! That was it, I could suddenly hear the sounds of two frogs flirting in the pond 100 li from the house–and they were a male and a female.
Perhaps I was just stupid, but before I lost my memory, I’d never seen the fruit of my labors in various martial arts. It seemed that great minds matured slowly, because everything seemed to open up tonight. I was secretly delighted as I stooped over the latrine pit. Suddenly there was a sound of pattering that caught my attention. It seemed as if something had fallen down from a tree, and I could catch the indistinct sound of someone scaling the wall… My eyes shone as I grew instantly alert. Even a place like this, so removed from everything else, had a thief scaling the walls? Or was it someone from a clandestine love affair?! But this sound, why was it so nearby, as if it was right by me?!
“Sheesh, pull yourself together.”
“Troublesome. I told you to get Sixth to come, he has good lightness techniques. But you said no. Hurry up and climb over, I can’t hold you for much longer.”
I gave a start, realizing that there really was someone climbing into my house. I was so happy! After staying here all these days, I’d never seen anyone else besides Fang Hua. Not just a shade of a human, I hadn’t even sensed thescent of a human around. I held myself back for a while before deciding not to scare off these thieves. After all, it must have taken effort to climb the mountains and find a wall way out here to climb.
…I couldn’t scare them away.
Hiding in the outhouse, I held onto my happiness as I fretted and waited anxiously. Outside, there was quite a commotion, before a human voice broke through the buzz of insects.
“You’re so stupid you could die.”
“I only know how to poison people, how am I supposed to think about these other things? Ah, geez…”
“W…what is it?”
“I can’t…get down.”
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and ran outside to look for myself. As soon as I made it to the courtyard, I saw the shadow of a person half stuck up and down the wall. His current position was a perfectly arresting work of art. Just when I was ready to invite them to tea, the silence of the courtyard was broken by a heavy thump on the ground. Someone had kicked open a door from inside.
Fang Hua walked out of the house, seeing my clothes in disarray. He gave a lurch and adopted a rather contrite expression.
“There’s…there’s people…” I pointed while I tugged down my clothes. He raised an eyebrow at my words and took a look. The walls had long emptied of people in the darkness. I found myself in an embarrassing predicament, and ended up running back while lifting up my trousers. How shameful, how shameful, this was something I couldn’t wash off even if I jumped into the Yellow River. Actually, I really wanted to see what the thieves looked like…
In the past, I loved getting involved with lively things at the palace. Even then I never saw a thief, only the eunuchs setting crickets to fight against each other. There were no imperial concubines in the palace, so I didn’t even need the brains to navigate the rivalries of the imperial harem or scheme. Finally something interesting had happened, but then they ran away.
Crestfallen, I returned to my room, closing the door as I collapsed onto my bed, thinking…I kicked off my shoes and shrank into the covers. The windows were still open and the wind was a bit chilly, fluttering the lamp light until it went out.
I lay on my side on the bed, staring at my hand. Then I tossed and turned but had no success trying to fall asleep for nearly half the night. I had a dream that countless pretty young princes were circling around me. Some were combing my hair, some were waiting to dress me. I lived in a big house where a patch of warm sunlight shone on a qin, making the strings shine with gloss. Inside the house, by the corner of the wall, hung a painting of a figure that looked exactly like Fang Hua. Someone shouted from outside that the emperor was coming, alarming the crowd of princes. I could hear their warm voices and familiar conversations, but I couldn’t see their faces…
When I abruptly woke up, it was already bright outside. I frowned, opening the covers as I sat up. My hand knocked against my aching head a few times as I stared blankly at my empty room.
A paper crane that could fly, a parrot that was missing, the writing on the tough silk, this strange inner energy, and the scenes from the dreams I had…
It was like a flood of mountain rain descending upon me. It seemed like this would be another eventful autumn.
I took a deep breath before leaving the room to pump some water. After washing my face and rinsing, I dressed appropriately and walked down the halls until I stood before a room. Rolling up my sleeves, I pulled up my robes and kicked the door open. Fang Hua was lying on the bed, covered up and a bit flustered.
“Did you drink your medicine?” I asked as usual.
He held a book in one hand before giving me a side glance, saying slowly, “No.”
“You really do wait until I’m here to wait on you, what nerve,” I said, pretending to be angry. He smiled, setting aside the book as he moved to sit by the edge of the bed. I turned to walk to the corner of the room, where a small stove sat with a pot for decocting medicine. The smell of medicine was already very strong, but the fire wasn’t very big, as if it was there to keep it warm.
“I really don’t know what to say to you…if you were someone else, I wouldn’t care whether you took your medicine. Your body is your own, anyways.” I was angry yet helpless, so I only glared at him. His eyes curved into another smile, though it was a rather weak one thanks to his wan complexion. Seeing him like that, my heart melted and my tone grew much softer. “Every time I scold you, you always confuse me with a smile. If you don’t take your medicine, how will you get better? You’ll just get weaker day by day.” “You say if it was anyone else, you wouldn’t help them drink their medicine. Even if that person was Zichuan?”
“Of course.” He had so many court ladies and servants that I didn’t need to help him with anything.
Fang Hua looked at me intently as he leaned against the bed with a wan smile. It seemed very self-satisfied. Seeing my suspicious look, he added, “If it was me, I’d definitely wait on him.”
What was he trying to compete with me for?
Afraid of getting burned, I grabbed a towel to carry the decoction pot onto the table, pouring out some of the liquid. He didn’t take it, but only looked at me. I knew that look…he wanted me to try the medicine again.
He really thought himself a rare type, huh. I gave him a glance before lifting my robes to make a show of sitting by his side. Under the intensity of his gaze, I raised the bowl to my lips and took a sip. “It’s not hot, so you should drink it as soon as possible.”
“You should drink some more of it.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “If you can’t finish it, don’t make so much next time.”
He took the bowl and obediently drank it, eyelashes trembling slightly. His joints looked almost transparent beneath the light, his neck fair and slender, the skin white without any sign of the blood flowing beneath it. After all these servings of medicine, he not only refused to recover, but was looking more and more feeble. The black hair that cascaded like a waterfall had grown one or two silver strands within the course of a few days.
I stared for a while before speaking softly, “Have you been feeling better recently?” He looked rather apologetic as he smiled in embarrassment. “This medicine…even if I drink it, there’s no guarantee that I’ll get well.”
But when I drank the medicine, I felt energized and comfortable, as well as much stronger than before. This celestial-like figure actually had the reputation outside as a sort of genius doctor. You really couldn’t tell by looking at him…
I remember when he first told me I needed to get better, but I’d ignored him and poured out all the medicine. In the end…he stopped delivering them. Then it was his health that deteriorated, and now it was me who fed him the medicine.
Suddenly, something flared up inside my head as something clicked into place. I thought of something that had been floating in my head for a while, but was unable to accept. Stunned, I stared at the man holding the bowl of medicine…what a unique aura he had.
“Stop drinking,” I said hoarsely. He looked at me blankly.
I hung my head dejectedly as I sat by his bed, voice muffled. “I have a stubborn temper, as you know. In the palace I heard all sorts of rumors about you, so of course I had misgivings. That’s why when you first gave me medicine, I was too afraid to taste it, but it’s different now. If you’ve made any other medicine for me then you can hand it over, instead of nursing this grievance and drinking it yourself.”
His hands trembled and he suddenly choked. I hastily grabbed the towel I had before, but he held me back with a wave of his hand, covering his mouth with his sleeves. His body shook continuously as he coughed, a hint of black clothing peeking out from beneath his robes. My expression shifted as I grabbed his wrist, face wooden. “What happened to your hand?”
He tried to shrink back. I used my strength to hold him in place, using some true qi to help me. He knitted his brows but couldn’t move as I raised his sleeve, eyes narrowing at the jade-like arm inside…
Flustered, he tried to cover it up, but it was too late. The skin that should have been pure white like snow was riddled with what looked like knife marks where he’d cut off pieces of skin, leaving a savage pattern of crisscrossed scars. There was one about the size of a copper coin where one could faintly make out the white bone beneath it, as if he’d cut there recently. Our struggles had split open the cut away, revealing a pale red stream of blood…that filled the air with a sudden soft scent of medicine. Strangely enough, the blood didn’t flow for long before it changed from red to amber…
Meanwhile, the fragrance released into the air smelled both raw and like medicine, but it was a very intimate and familiar scent. My saliva wet my tongue and instantly tasted something bitter and astringent. This flavor… wasn’t it the same taste of the daily medicine decoctions? Before, I could tell from taste every type of medicinal herb, but never the ones in the medicine he brewed. So it had actually been made from his own flesh.
My lip moved a few times before I made a sound. “Are you crazy…” “Shao’er.” He finally remembered to hold me in place. This was the first
time he’d called me by name, but the desolate, sorrowful tone that followed those two words rammed into my chest. Impulsively, I cast his hands aside. He seemed to not understand what was the matter, but lay weakly on the bed, looking at me in a panic. His chest heaved with his breathing, his expression hurt as his right hand clutched the opposite sleeve. Gradually, the snow-white fabric grew stained with amber, and the scent of medicine grew stronger and stronger in the air.
My line of sight slowly crept downwards until I looked at him and froze.
This person…didn’t bleed like a normal person. He wasn’t human, but it was absolutely true that he could be a beast. A Fang Hua Beast.
His pupils reflected my expression, confused and hesitant. Why did I have to drink his medicine every day?
Why did he trick me into drinking his blood and flesh…
I didn’t know what I had done wrong. But I kept backing away until my body knocked against the door. He’d already propped himself up halfway to lean against the head of the bed, eyes as clear and depthless as pools of water in autumn. Looking at them now, they only seemed hollow, and the words that crept out from a corner of his mouth seemed to be crying tears of blood themselves.
“No matter where or when, you still think of leaving…”
I didn’t know why he would say things like this, but I could see him laughing at himself beyond that pale white face. There wasn’t a trace of warmth in those eyes. I slowly closed and opened my own, dazedly staring at him until his figure grew more and more indistinct. A cloud of true qi surged up and made my head feel as if it was about to explode.
I listlessly leaned against the door, a hand muffling my mouth. My body had no strength, and I shook as my hands gripped the icy cold wood, groping until I finally found the door and dashed outside. It seemed as I’d been holding back for a long time, but my steps were as light as the wind as I swept past a thick field of grass. The pines were still, the bamboo groves deep, their leaves stinging at they lashed against my skin. The wind whistled past the trees, picking up dust in its wake as I ran with true qi circulating in my chest. My legs kicked off against the ground and stepped on air, and I waved my sleeves as I cut through the jade-green bamboo…
Shuttling back and forth within the intricate chaos of bamboo forced me to turn my head aside. The scenery made me dizzy. “If you agree to come home with me, I’ll give you three meals a day and promise you’ll eat until you’re full.”
“I am a Beast and you can call me Fang Hua, but don’t call me mother.”
“Shao’er, it’s Zichuan and I that are going to the palace, do you understand?”
Everything that person had said, every expression he’d worn and movement he made, poured into my head like a tide. The sudden, acute pain forced me to stop mid-air and crash back to earth, eyes squeezed shut. And yet that image of that person, his words and his shadow, were inescapable…
“You’ve always listened to what I said. Yifu hopes that after you leave me, you’ll make a good name for yourself living in the jianghu.”
“The jianghu is free and unfettered, leisurely and carefree. It’s much more fun than the imperial palace.”
“Shao’er, if you think it’s worthwhile, then don’t come back.”
My body grew weak and I covered my ears with my hands as I fell to the ground, vainly searching through blurry eyes at the landscape before me.
I had remembered everything. You were clearly by my side, so why didn’t you acknowledge me? How much had I longed to hear you call me, even if it was only once.
Did you really not want Shao’er?
The painful and the sweet, the happy and the sad, all these memories engulfed me like a flood. My head hurt so much that it seemed like it would split open, my train of thought fading farther and farther away. A deep sensation of grief followed my recollections to settle in my chest, as if sinking its teeth into my heart. I curled myself up, the pain leaving me too exhausted to move, and slowly closed my eyes.
to the bamboo grove, a clear, bright voice carried over in the air from a long distance away.
“Fourth, are you sure it’s here? How useful are your crappy charms anyways? You folded so many of those paper cranes, but none of them flew back to us.”
“Didn’t you catch that parrot? The two of you are always so happy to argue with each other, why didn’t you ask it?”
“Then why didn’t you ask First? He’s the one running off at night to chant incantations for Master.”
“Shut your mouth.”
There was silence for a while.
“Yikes, isn’t there no one here for miles? Why’s there a corpse lying around?!”
Someone sounded like they really wanted their mouth ripped off.
I sprawled on the dirt, face turned towards the ground, my body too tired to move.
“Second, Second…” a bright and frivolous voice rose up, and I felt someone crouching down by my side, jabbing my waist with a branch. “Come and take a look, see if we can still save this one.”
My indignation was roused, but there was no way to express my present humiliation. My fingers twitched, but before I could rise to denounce this brainless, rude person, someone lifted my head to reveal my face behind the hair.
“Ahh!! It’s Master…” Thus, chaos broke out as the whole group clustered around me like bees, looking on reverently. Seeing the familiar faces before me, I leaned back to settle comfortably in Sixth’s lap while my mouth curled unpleasantly. I had no energy from the start, and adopted the posture of someone being bullied. Each of them took turns fussing over me, even putting their hands on my forehead to test my temperature.
“It’s such a cold day, why was Master lying on the ground?”
“Are you hot? Or cold? What if she caught a chill, check and see if she has a fever.”
A few of them took advantage of the occasion to touch me here and there until I coughed, startling them into retreat.
“Who was the one that jabbed me with a branch?” I could really hold a grudge.
All of their gazes turned towards one direction, where Fourth was using his sleeve to rub at his face as he looked again.
I gave Little Fourth a significant look before I felt someone holding me tighter. Sixth, who had been cradling me before, now clutched at my sleeve, looking even more pathetic than me. Meanwhile, someone next to him kept trying to push him out of the way.
I gave a look at the designated troublemaker and pointed a shaking finger at him, “I have to say, our Third is still so vulgar, wearing yellow and green like an opera singer or something.”
As soon as I finished speaking, that pushy, multi-colored figure froze in place. Third’s face was excited and happy before, but now it looked like I’d dumped a tub of ice water over him. Instead of pushing Sixth aside, he looked at me with a bitter expression. “I told you we shouldn’t have looked for her, her mouth is still so despicable.”
I smiled, preparing to leave the arms of Sixth…but someone else pressed me back down. That person had moon-white sleeves and well-proportioned fingers, and I raised my head to see First’s steady gaze. He was kneeling on one knee before me. Though he didn’t use much strength, his hold was firm.
“Master, you should have Second take your pulse right now.”
It’s not a problem, I’m fine.
I bit my lips a bit, but didn’t speak. It was natural for them to worry over me, especially after I’d disappeared for so long. Looking at the five princes surrounding me, I spotted Fifth standing furthest away. Much of his scars had faded, so his looks weren’t as terrifying or ugly as before. I unconsciously smiled at him, gratified. Second must have discovered an excellent cure to heal him. Remembering how I’d once promised I’d come back to fix his face, I realized
With all these people waiting on me, the atmosphere was wonderful. For now, I’d ignore the fact that they were pushing each other away to enjoy the moment. I turned to look at Second, knitting his brows as he took my pulse. “I didn’t run into any trouble. My memories returned all of a sudden, so my body’s a little listless.”
“That’s true, but…” he sucked in a breath, looking at me with a complex expression.
Ah…what was the matter?
“Congratulations, Master. You’ve managed a miracle,” Second smiled.
I blinked a few times, but it took me awhile before I realized what he meant. I was neither happy nor grieved, but if you really wanted a description, you could say I looked dull. I peered past him to the variety of faces looking my way, and lowered my head to digest Second’s words. So what he meant was…
I’d managed to cultivate to the pinnacle of the 《 Carefree Recollection》?!
This might be the reason why my memory was recovering recently. Just now, in a moment of desperation, I’d used my internal energy to fly to this section of the bamboo forest without losing a breath. It seems that my martial arts had strengthened yet again. Before the disaster that led to my entrance in the palace, I’d taken a pill to preserve my life that took away my memories. Since then, I hadn’t touched that blasted art, yet now…how did I manage to cultivate back up without a teacher? Fang Hua must have helped me with his medicine.
He…why was he so foolish?
I lowered my head and laughed darkly, chilling the people around me. A cough broke the strange atmosphere as Little Fourth suddenly spoke up.
“It’s not good to dawdle, we should quickly find a place to stay.” “How come?” I interrupted.
“Because you’re going to get soaked.”
“Things are perfectly fine…why would I get soaked…” I hadn’t finished before something splashed against my face. I touched it and realized it was water–more commonly known as rain. Against the clear skies, dark clouds had started to gather.
“Wah, a guy like you can even use the Eight Trigrams to predict the weather now, that’s impressive. You’ve improved,” I praised.
His eyebrows crumpled together as he glanced at the other princes, then at me. “Master, you don’t predict the weather based on such things, but from observation.” “It’s all the same,” I tugged at his clothes, drawing closer to speak by his ear. “When we go back, give me a few human skin face masks.”
He jerked, the protest clear in his eyes.
“Don’t forget, you poked me with a stick before.”
His expression changed visibly as he scooted closer. “I’ll give you three face masks.”
“You also called me a corpse.” I said, feeling wronged.
“I’ll add seven more to make a set of 10, plus two paper cranes.”
I gave him a penetrating look before giving him my approval, and the two of us reached an agreement.
The bamboo grove was whimpering…
A light drizzle of rain fell from the skies, getting heavier and heavier as time passed.
“This place isn’t far from the house. Don’t hang around in the forest, let’s hurry up and go,” someone said.
Fifth was the first to run in front of me, kneeling down as he stubbornly took me onto his back. By my side, Fourth fiddled in his pouch before taking out the only umbrella with a flourish and holding it over my head. My hands rested around Fifth’s neck as I raised my head to look at the umbrella, noting how its stitched patterns of peach blossom buds looked almost alive beneath the patterns of falling raindrops. I leaned towards Fourth again, but he understood before I even opened my mouth to speak and looked into my eyes.
“I’ll give you this umbrella, too.” Satisfied and delighted, I settled on Fifth’s back and spoke softly, “How did you guys find this place?” Fifth only focused on walking with his head bowed, not saying a word. It was First leading the way that turned back, his white robes specked with mud, to answer.
“Not long after you were picked up by the emperor, I felt something was off and went after you. Unexpectedly, I found traces of battle on your route and knew you ran into trouble, so I went to search. Later on, the house summoned me with the news that they’d received your paper crane message. It told us you were safe and to not act recklessly, but I couldn’t stop worrying.”
He paused for a bit before continuing.
“Afterwards, we kept trying to find out news from the palace court.” “So that was what happened. I’ve troubled you all.” I smiled.
“You can still smile after all that,” By my side, the thoroughly drenched and lavishly dressed Third gave me the eye, gritting his teeth. “First brought back the ‘congratulations’ that day they announced you were going to be the highest-ranking imperial concubine. It really pissed me off.”
The ‘congratulations’ that emerged from his mouth came from between the spaces of his teeth.
“I’m your Master, so there’s no need to tell you everything I do. What’s so strange with bringing back a son-in-law for everyone to serve?”
Sixth stared at me talking from one side before uneasily tugging at my sleeve. I gave a small smile and comforted him before drawing him under the cover of the umbrella. This child had a weak body and got ill easily. His eyes curved into a smile and looked at me, clear and bright like a deer’s. My smile was starting to feel strained, so I lowered my head to murmur, “Since I had no memories then, there was no way to avoid falling into Han Zichuan’s trap.”
Fifth jerked as he carried me, as if trying to hold himself back, before carefully readjusting his grip. Third’s voice rose in indignation as he spoke.
“I knew that doggone emperor was bad news. Master should’ve have left with him in the first place.” His eyes were filled with bitterness. I shied away from them.
“Later on, I kept thinking that something wasn’t right and guessed that Master was in trouble, or had some sort of mishape with the Carefree Recollection. Then we decided to look for you in the capital.” The umbrella blocked the rain as well as daylight while Fourth spoke between light laughter. “The court was just as difficult as the outside world. Security was very tight, so everyone waited outside. I was the only one who could slip in, but there I saw that your personality had changed completely. I deduced that you must have taken the medicine First gave you and lost your memories.”
“While trying to think of how to get you out, I heard the news that you’d been kidnapped by an assassin. From then on, we kept on searching for you…”
I had to pause. “You mean you guys didn’t bring me here?”
He was surprised as well. “What? Wasn’t it the work of your high-level master?”
I gave a bitter smile and shook my head. How could it be Fang Hua? His face was so surprised when he saw me, as if his doorstep was the last place he expected me to be. My eyes drifted towards First for a bit before closing.
First didn’t change his tone when he spoke. “This place…it’s the first time I’ve been here. I never came by in the past.” It was obvious from his face that he wasn’t the one to bring me, either. The rest were all the same.
Strange… Who could it be, that was so kind?
While I was deep in thought, Second suddenly heaved a breath by my side.
“Master, the way your illness recovered is strange as well. Your pulse was clearly chaotic in recent days…” He looked like he wanted to say more, but I stopped him with a look.
“What recent days? Are you saying you’ve been here for a while now?” “…”
“Why aren’t you saying anything?”
“We have been around for awhile,” First continued smoothly. “A few days ago Second and I slipped into the residence to steal you away…but Second discovered that your illness was getting better after taking your pulse. I begin to suspect that the person living in that house could heal you.”
I looked at him, smiling but not saying a word.
His voice was very low. “Afterwards…I’d come by every few days to recite incantations by your bed so your memory would improve.”
So that was it. No wonder I kept dreaming that someone was chanting to me.
“Then that…” I suddenly remembered something else as I looked at them. “Who were the ones trying to scale the wall?”
Third shuffled over to stand by me. “When I told you to learn some skills, you only studied poisons. Now you can’t even climb a wall,” I said with a face full of anxiety, my eyes stabbing him in disappointment. It was the first time he didn’t have a retort for me. Ah…seeing him struggle between talking back and knowing he was wrong felt super refreshing.
The rain continued to fall.
“Master, don’t tease Third. Oh, right…” Second used a sleeve to hide his face as he grinned. “The person that Master was living with is the yifu you’re always talking about, right? His medical skills are top notch.”
“How did you know?”
He pouted and let me see the sleeping parrot currently stuffed in the front of Sixth’s robes, before saying in a smug tone, “This little pet says nothing but ‘yifuyifuyifu’ all day…and his tone of voice is exactly like Master’s. I think you two are identical.”
Fifth suddenly stuck in to interrupt. “Which path do we take, Master?”
I smiled faintly and patted Fifth’s shoulders. “Ahead a little way, do you see? That road right there.” I lowered my head to point out the way.
Some distance away…we’d be able to see that bamboo house.
Second wrinkled his brows. “What kind of medicine did that yifu expert give you to drink? It could actually cure Master and enhance your abilities.”
My smile was pained as I looked towards the drizzling skies, grey with clouds as they sobbed over the bamboo grove…
He sacrificed his own flesh and blood.
— The rain cut across the sky, disturbing the usual peace of the bamboo grove as their stalks swayed like waves of jade. The contours of distant bamboo slowly revealed themselves through the layer of mist. Standing within them was a white cloaked figure plucked straight from a painting, the wind billowing through his robes like an illusionary vision. He hugged his knees as he peered at the rain falling from the eaves, before the sound of our approach alerted his vision out way. Slowly, he stood up with support of the pillar, his entire body shaking.
At that moment, my heart ached.
I tightened my grip on Fifth and slowly moved aside the umbrella blocking my eyes. The rain that fell against my skin was slightly chilly.
“Many thanks to you for taking care of our Master. Since we were caught in the rain today, we hoped we could seek shelter here without disturbing you,” First said courteously, cupping his hands in greeting as he approached.
Fang Hua stood like jade beneath the dripping eaves, silently staring at me from a distance while ignoring everyone else. Even from here, I could feel his gaze move from me to the other five princes, face expressionless. The teardrop mole by his eye was like a withering plum blossom, and he seemed distracted as he turned away.
“Sir…” First took another step, raising his voice.
He looked back dully before finally shooting me a glance. His smile was forced with difficulty. “Go ahead and stay…” And yet the words that followed these were only directed towards me. “You can leave whenever you want to. There’s no need to tell me ahead of time.”
He raised a hand to lower the bamboo blinds, cutting off the rain falling in from the courtyard, before leaving us alone. The silent storm quietly brought in the dusk.
“Master, this person…” Second pointed at him, staring at me as if he wanted to ask why he’d just walked off. I gave a soft laugh, looking after Fang Hua’s back as I helped myself off Fifth’s back. Fang Hua should still be thinking of me…otherwise, he wouldn’t have such an indescribable reaction. All sorts of feelings rose up in my heart as I recalled my days living here with him. My feeling shook, and it was hard to breathe…this bittersweet feeling made it impossible to suppress my urge to see him. I slowly walked towards the house.
Outside the room, rain fell continuously, splashing against the dirt and causing a wild racket in the bamboo forest. My clothes were now drenched to the point of sticking to my body, and it was a little cold. I raised a hand, hesitating only briefly, before pushing aside the bamboo blinds. It was dark inside the house, but there was a figure sitting in a room.
A sudden bolt of lightning illuminated his ashen white face in a graceful glimpse. Yet it seemed cold and dismal, especially with his scarlet mole standing out so strikingly. Wet robes outlined the contours of his figure, the fabric snow-white below binded hair. His delicate and pretty visage was suffused with a simple, warm elegance like an immortal free from worldly woes, but his body had weakened to a point where it looked much older than before.
I staggered forward, holding the wall for support as I looked at him. He sat in a chair, finding it difficult to resist my gaze as his body trembled. Seeing me walk step-by-step towards him, the hand resting on his knee suddenly tightened. I glanced at his face and read many things I didn’t understand in that expression…and suddenly felt that I’d used up most of my energy. Absentmindedly, I smiled–even as I staggered towards the ground and into his lap.
As before, into that soft, warm embrace…
In that moment, a delicate fragrance assailed me, enough to make me tipsy.
“…Shao’er,” he called to me.
I fell into the memories from that peaceful embrace as the past washed over me like a lake. My eyes closed as everything before me grew blurry. I thought of many things, many sounds from days and nights, the faces I’d seen in my mind’s dreams…so he’d been with me all this time. All this time…
When I needed someone the most, he was the one by my side. Yet I’d forgotten him.
How could I have forgotten?
I only remembered him saying, if you’re going to leave, then don’t come back…
I couldn’t help but grip Fang Hua by the robes, staring at the face that gave me breath even as it made it difficult to breathe. Again and again, I silently murmured words in my head.
Did you know,
The first time you turned to look at me
Was a memory I’ve cherished my entire life?
He heaved a sigh as he held me, ruffling my hair like in olden days.
“Yifu…your Shao’er is back. Shao’er remembers everything.” Tears flowed down my face as I buried myself in his chest. He seemed a little helpless, but I refused to let go.
And thus I missed seeing the sorrowful grief in his expression.
The sun shone in the courtyard, scattering dappled shadows across the ground. Beneath the Wutong Tree was Fang Hua dressed in white robes, sitting across First with a game of weiqi spread out between them. He raised a finger and silently set down a black game piece.
First rose to his feet, grasping his flute in a refined and urbane manner.
“Lord Fang’s skill in weiqi is exquisite, as expected of the master to the Carefree Idler.”
Fang Hua only looked at him with a hint of a smile.
“If you two are going to play, just play. Don’t change the topic to me,” I said in mock-anger as I walked over. Unfortunately, the rest of the princes were sweeping the room as I went past, and a blast of wind blew the dust into my face.
I rubbed my nose as they laughed and closed the doors. Fang Hua was smiling too, but he looked weary as well, and the sight made my heart ache. I quietly went over to kneel by his side, holding his hand as I spoke. “I found someone to fell some bamboo and make a chair for you, want to try it?”
“Master…” First looked at me directly before continuing, “There’s still some things to sort out at the store, so I’ll be off.” Though he said this, he made no move to leave. I nodded, but didn’t pay him any attention as I led Fang Hua from the tree to the chair. First looked at me again before taking his leave, his form a bit cold and dismal.
“Look at you. Since your body’s not well you should stay in the sun, not the shade, or else your knees will get sore,” I said.
“Yes. I’ll listen to what you say.”
I happily carried over some sun-soaked bedcovers, burying my face in them as I spread them across his lower body. Although I’d set some tea aside as well, I found myself falling to the ground to lean by his side with a goofy smile when I finished.
“That First really does resemble me in my youth,” his hand rested on his forehead as he sighed, tiredly looking in the direction he had gone.
“Look at what you’re saying. Yifu is still as young as the first time Shao’er met you. Thinking back to that time at the temple…” I looked at him, preparing to say more, but suddenly stopped.
He seemed to tire more these days, and just one game of weiqi had put him to sleep in the chair. A part of my heart softened as I quietly watched, tucking him beneath the covers. With his eyes closed and his face bathed in sunlight, he looked less human and more like a visiting Immortal.
It was so beautiful I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
His hand grasped mine silently. When I raised my head to look at him, he didn’t open his eyes, but his lips crept up into a smile. Surprised, I shifted my gaze to his sleeves, made with the finest cloud-pattern brocade and embroidered with peonies. I held his hand and stroked it lightly, lifting aside the sleeve to see. As expected, he hadn’t bound his wounds well, and last night’s rain must have worsened the infection. I took out a small porcelain bottle from my robes and shook out a bit of medicinal powder, before spreading it on his injuries beneath a gauze wrapping. He gave me a warm look as I worked. “Why are you so foolish?” I asked. His cuts were so deep that it hurt to see them.
Fang Hua changed the topic instead, lightly grasping my hands. “Do you still have the hairpin from before?”
I made an affirmative noise before tugging it out of my robes to place into his hands. “After I lost my memory, this was left in the imperial palace, but the princes brought it back for me.”
“That’s good. Keep it well. Yifu is very poor, so I have nothing else to give you,” he patted me lightly, replacing the hairpin in my palm and forcing me to accept. “I’ve watched you grow up since you were young. I can’t live much longer, nor do I know if my flesh can truly heal you. They say a Fang Hua Beast is hard to find, so I thought there’d be no harm if you drank that medicine.”
I looked at him. His hand caressed my face, trembling slightly as the fingers brushed past my eyebrows.
“Yifu doesn’t have much abilities in this life. I even promised to roam the jianghu with you in the past, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore.”
I hastily grabbed his hands, forcing myself to smile. “What kind of nonsense are you saying? You’re still so young, you have plenty of years left.”
I won’t let you die, either.
His one smile cleared up all the worries in his brow.
“I’m old. There’s no telling if I’ll wake up tomorrow once I close my eyes. For you to spend my remaining days with me is very good…”
I couldn’t bear it when I heard him talk like that. My eyes started to water, and my heart felt pained. He was such a cold person, so it must have been difficult to say these kinds of words. The teardrop-shaped mole by the corner of his eye was so dark now, and his body was so weak. He must have been affected by sentiment, but how could I save him?
“Yifu, when you left the imperial palace back then, why didn’t you look for me?”
“I did.” He held a small smile as he spoke to me over the warm fragrance of tea. “I saw that you were living very well with those princes, so you probably didn’t want to go back to this lonely house.”
My smile was bitter. Did those days of taking medicine to forget my worries really count as happy memories? If I hadn’t believed the palace rumors about Fang Hua and the emperor, I wouldn’t have suffered in my life, either.
Fang Hua, you should know…
I always hoped that there’d be a day when I could stay with you. No matter how tiring or hard our lives might be, I’d still think it was the happiest life in the world.
Just like now.
I rose to my feet, lifting my face to squint at the warm sunshine, looking at the person sitting quietly in the chair, moving behind him to wrap my arms around his neck and bury my face nearby.
“Yifu, how about I tell you about some things that happened in the jianghu?”
His hand found mine as he smiled.
“There was a rumor in the jianghu about a youth who had a secret treasure map on his back. Whoever owned the map would own everything under Heaven.”
“Is that so.” “That’s not the only fun thing. There’s also…” I played with his hair, combing through it like I used to in the old days as I rambled. He kept a light smile and listened quietly, very much focused on my words. He’d always said the jianghuwas a good place, and wanted to wander it with me from the beginning… I watched his warm expression and felt my heart tie itself into knots.
Fang Hua, did you know?
I want you to hear about the most interesting things I went through these years.
I held the comb in my hand as I paused in brushing, staring blankly at his silent, bland expression. It felt like I was choking back sobs. The black hair cascaded like a waterfall to cover up the lines by his eyes, but there were silver strands lingering by his temples. My shaking hand rose to touch them as my eyes turned red. He was still young, so why was he showing signs of aging already?
“What is it?” his voice was very soft.
I hastily smiled, saying leisurely, “I just remembered something.”
He said nothing more. I continued to comb his hair, making sure my movements were gentle enough not to hurt him.
“You don’t have to worry about pulling them out,” he suddenly spoke. “I’ve already reached the point of no return with my sickness… Old age is inevitable, so a few white hairs here and there aren’t worth the effort to cover them up.”
Fang Hua Beasts are animals who possess pure feelings. If they are injured by sentiment, their every ten days will be equivalent to a cycle of one year in human terms…
How many ten day cycles had he finished by now…? My eyes softened as I knelt down to look at him. “Tell me what I can do to save you.”
He only shook his head with a silent smile. My heart throbbed in pain.
One after another, the voices called from the kitchen like a Daoist master calling back the spirits of the dead. I heeded them as I stood up, giving Fang Hua one last glance. He’d already closed his eyes again, so I checked his covers before entering the kitchen. Closing the door behind me, I saw Sixth crouched on the ground, tending to the stove fire. Second was brewing something in a pot that smelled particularly fragrant…
“What did you call me in for?” I asked him directly.
“Where are the edible birds’ nests?” Second asked with wide eyes.
“There’s nothing that expensive here.”
He adopted an expression of pity as he looked around. “I wanted to make something for Lord Hua to help bolster his health.”
I smiled. “He doesn’t eat things like that.”
Seeing Second’s frustration, I patted his head. “That’s right, why don’t you make a geng soup from lotus flowers? Maybe he’ll like to eat that.”
“To tell you the truth…I want to eat some too,” I gave him a clever smile and winked.
His eyes immediately brightened, and he excitedly rolled up his sleeves to get busy. “Hey, tell me these things earlier! I’ll make some now.” My smile faded a bit as I looked out the window where Fang Hua was dozing outside. The silk cloth had said that after a Fang Hua Beast turned ten months old, washing it daily in true love’s blood would preserve its soul. Fang Hua’s body was so weak that it was unlikely he’d live much longer. I’d never forgive the person who made him suffer like this…but I wasn’t sure if my blood was of any help to him…
It didn’t take long for Second to carry over a big pot of lotus flower geng to the table. A single whiff was enough to conjure up various flowery scents, and the scarlet lotus petals floating in the soup had even dyed it red. My heart shifted as I was seized by a slight wave of anxiety.
“Little Sixth, ladle out a bowl for Master, I’ll be right back.” Sixth said, spooning out a bowl to take to Fang Hua. I stopped him before he could go.
“What is it?”
“…give it to him later.”
I took out the hairpin from my head, pulled up my sleeve, and made a sudden gash on my arm. Second gave out a cry of alarm. Sixth immediately ran over to stop the bleeding, but I ducked away from them.
“It’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about.”
The two of them stared at me with strange looks, yet I was wearing a particularly delighted smile. The wound wasn’t very deep, and the blood flowed down past my wrist to drip into the soup. When I thought it was about right, I withdrew my hand and grabbed a spoon to mix it in until it blended.
“Are you seriously going to feed this stuff to your yifu?” “Is there anything wrong with that?”
“I’ve never read any medical texts about healing illnesses with blood and lotus flowers.” “I’m just trying something out.”
Second peered out the window to see the sleeping Fang Hua, then back at me. He didn’t say anything, but his face was full of doubts. I laughed a bit, glancing affectionately at the frowning Sixth binding my injuries, and touched him. “The soup in the pot is still clean, my blood hasn’t touched that. If you all want to try some then take it from there.” He nodded.
Second only raised his eyebrows, still lost in thought. I had to say… Second was a good kid, but he always had a penchant to research medicine. How would he know that Fang Hua wasn’t a normal human? This wasn’t an ordinary illness, so perhaps only his beloved’s blood could cure him. As to whether or not that person was me…I didn’t know.
But no matter what, I was bound to try something.
I carefully carried the bowl out the door and into the courtyard. Fang Hua seemed to have heard the noise, and looked at me sleepily through half- opened eyes.
“Those fellows in the kitchen made some lotus flower geng for you.
Come…try some while it’s still hot.”
I half encouraged, half urged him, a fake smile on my face. While he was still half-awake, I ladled up a spoonful and fed it towards his mouth. But as soon as the spoon touched his lips, he stopped moving.
“Drink it,” I continued to entice him. He didn’t reply.
“Is it too hot?” I felt a little guilty, and blew on the soup a few times before trying again.
He slowly peered at me. “What did you put in this bowl?”
His gaze made it impossible for me to look away. Usually, Fang Hua was the type of person who looked like he didn’t understand anything. But at crucial moments like these, he’d suddenly turn alert. My palms began to sweat as I gave him a careful peek.
“What a good lotus flower geng,” he said faintly, repeating my words. Soft as his tone was, his words were somehow ruthless, as if coming from a long distance away.
My heart grew frightened, and I felt a sudden pain in my wrist. He’d gripped me there and used it to shove me aside. Something shattered, and the contents of the bowl spilled onto the dirt. His face was drawn in agitation, his entire body shaking as his hands gripped the chair between uncontrollable coughs.
I fell into a senseless stupor.
“Master, what happened?”
The princes gathered around us and held me in their arms. Under the gazes of everyone, Fang Hua only looked at me with a strange expression. His eyes were very cold as he spoke the very words I dreaded to hear.
What do you think you’re doing? Did you think your blood could save me?
….you know I hate being touched by other people. I hate other people’s blood even more. If you keep doing things like this without my permission, then you better screw off, the farther away the better.
Fang Hua knew how to scold people now. He even said to ‘screw off.’ I couldn’t describe the feeling in my heart right now.
Faltering, I climbed to my feet, my entire body filled with pain. I did walk away from him–far, far away, where I looked at him blankly. It seemed as if there was something unendurable in his gaze, and by the way his lips drew up into an icy smile. Still, my heart ached for him more than it hated…
My expression turned gloomy as I endured it. It seemed that he’d used up all his energy being angry. Now he was bending over, body wracked with coughing. It hurt my heart to look at him, and I stepped forward to try and help.
But he only waved me aside. There was no expression on his face.
“Shao’er, why do you even bother?”
“I…just really want to do these things for yifu.”
“What do we even hold between us in our hearts?” His hand clutched at his chest, those slender white fingers trembling slightly. “You should know, I…there’s no place in my heart for you.”
“…but I love you, yifu,” my throat felt like it was blocked up, and yet these words came out anyways.
He gave me a mocking smile. It seemed to use up the last of his strength, because he collapsed back onto his chair, a strange moodiness in his eyes. He gave a gentle exhale before speaking in a low voice.
“Don’t do these meaningless things anymore. There’s no use for your blood here.”
In that moment, it was as if my intestines had frozen up and tied themselves in knots. Fang Hua turned away from me and closed his eyes.
Yifu, When you fell into my lap after getting drunk, every word and every sentence was about that person’s name. Do you think I didn’t know? Fang Hua, no matter how you treat me…I can’t stop the feelings of my heart. As it was in the past…as it will be, for the future.
Fang Hua’s body grew worse and worse by the day.
He was nothing like the peerless Fang Hua of before because his wasting illness had completely eaten away at his body. He refused to look into the mirror, but remained huddled up in his room, coughing. His days of stepping out for exercise grew fewer and fewer, and he got into the habit of staring at First’s back instead, spacing out.
I knew he was recalling his past self.
…he was once an elegant, free-and-easy young gentleman.
I couldn’t bear to see his expression every time he stared after First. The gloominess in the set of his eyebrows as he thought of former times, the eyelashes that covered eyes that grew darker and darker as time wore on… only pained me with each passing day. First was an intelligent man and must have noticed as well. One day he approached me to respectfully take his leave, mildly commenting that it’d been some time since they’d left the house and it’d be good to go back and take care of some matters. I didn’t urge him to stay, but he seemed to have expected that, and smiled as he took away the rest of the princes as well. Only Second stayed to help me with his medical knowledge.
Third and Sixth were obviously displeased, one yelling all the way while the other clutched at my robes for ages until he was pulled away. With fewer people in the house, the stillness of the place returned. The rooms were empty, so I had more time to take care of Fang Hua, devoting all my attention to look after him. He treated me both coldly and with biting sarcasm until in the end, he stopped acknowledging me altogether.
The tea wasn’t hot enough, it didn’t taste as good as the one Han Zichuan made, his robes were too warm, the fabric was too thick and hurt when it rubbed against his skin.
He should know. When it was just the three of us living in this house, I took care of his food and clothing without any input from him. Han Zichuan only delivered these things to him on occasion. He could fuss and complain and ignore me. It didn’t matter how he treated me…as long as he was well…
But even like this, he grew weaker every day, and the teardrop shaped mole by his eye had turned as dark as dark could be. In the face of everything happening before me, I could only feel frustration and a growing sense of trepidation. I’d read through all the books in the house multiple times. Besides that one piece of silk, there were no other records of the Fang Hua Beast, but even that silk didn’t elaborate enough on the details…
Was there no choice but to watch him die? Who could tell me how to save his life?
I leaned against the door as my body slowly sank to the floor, crying soundless sobs. I’d never felt so useless as if…I was drowning in grief. A pair of hands settled on my shoulders. Surprised, I hurriedly wiped my eyes with my sleeves.
“Is it yifu? If there’s anything you want…I’ll prepare it immediately.” “Master?” Second bent down to peer at me anxiously. I pulled my lips
into a smile–a very forced smile. How could I forget that Fang Hua was too sick to leave his bed now?
“How is Fang Hua doing?”
Second slowly shook his head as he looked at me. He was about to speak, but visibly hesitated. It was a long while before he spoke again. “Master, I think it’s best if you go see Lord Hua.”
“It couldn’t be…” My eyes grew wide as I unintentionally betrayed my panic.
“He said…” Second loosened his hold on me, not daring to meet my eyes. His voice was very soft. “…he wanted to see you.”
There was a roarin
Yifu laid on his side on the bed beneath the brocade covers. Stray silver strands peeked out to spill across his pillow, still like flowing streams of water. Only now his black hairs were interminably mixed with gray.
“Fang Hua, is there anything you’d like to eat? What about red lotuses…or, did you know? The back garden gave bloom to a lot of nameless flowers, right in the place where you always like to go. I can pick some for you…” I choked out.
This time, it seemed that I’d woken him up. He turned over, fully revealing the weariness on his brows. The bedcovers outlined his sickly silhouette, thin and weak, the sight a sharp sword that pierced straight through my chest and twisted to give me unimaginable pain. I felt sick at heart. Something salty and bitter flowed down past my throat, and my eyes felt unusually warm.
“What’s wrong with you now…?” a weak voice floated over, carrying with it a trace of laughter. “I’m not dead yet.”
In a daze, I looked at him and his smile, so filled with warmth. It had been a long time since he smiled at me. From outside the window, the wind carried in an intoxicating fragrance that carried past a rain of sweet-scented osmanthus. Occasionally a golden petal would drift to land by his pillow. He closed his eyes and sniffed it, before speaking quietly, “Who does that person belong to…?”
I drew closer to the bed, sitting on the floor as I asked, “The wind was too loud…I didn’t hear clearly. Yifu, say that again.” “Wine…I won’t be able to drink your wine again when the flowers bloom next year. When you weren’t here, I tried to brew some myself… but it wasn’t even one-tenth as good as yours. time when you brew wine, take on this name.”
I gave him a teary smile. “You winebibber.”
He smiled lightly in return. “Shao’er, it’s been hard for you, taking care of an old man like me.”
In truth, you aren’t old at all…your face is just a little bit thin. Fang Hua, you’re still as elegant as the first time I saw you, with looks surpassing that of mere mortals. You’re the most beautiful man I’ve met.
“Don’t say that. Your body’s weak, you should sleep for a bit,” I gently caressed his face, but my fingers trembled involuntarily.
“There are some things I want to say,” he struggled to get up, but fell back from lack of strength, breathing heavily. “I must trouble you…to help me up.”
I set aside a back cushion before helping him up to lean against it so he was half-reclining on the bed. He wasn’t supple as before, and his fluttering robes hung off his body. His bones jabbed at me, making my chest tighten in pain as depression filled me again. He touched my hand lightly, looking at me in silence during the entire process. Fang Hua was extremely focused.
“The moment I saw them, I knew they’d take good care of you. Their types…they’re all like gentlemen from good families.”
Fang Hua… I only want you. I only want to spend time by your side forever.
“I remember you liked to eat fresh, hot mantou,” he remained smiling, but his speech grew slower, as if he was almost too tired to keep his eyes open. “Shao’er, what do you want to eat tomorrow morning…when I’m better, I’ll make it for you.” “You’ll get better…you definitely will.”
The silk cloth said, ‘If adult Beasts can maintain a heart of clarity in the world of mortals, they can extend their longevity and cultivate to become Immortals. Those who are moved by sentiment end up as grassy weeds, withering year by year, bathing in a sea of fire until they return to the cycle of reincarnation.’ But seeing him lying on the bed now, with weak breaths and his dark black mole…
“Fang Hua, you’re going to be all right.”
He shut his eyes, almost gasping for breath. “After I die. Help me… deliver my body to Han Zichuan.”
I grabbed a cloth to help wipe away his sweat. My heart felt as if it had been stabbed. Fang Hua, where exactly have you placed me? How could you bear to hurt me to this point? I touched his wrinkled brow, seeing his determined expression, and felt myself coming to terms with the helplessness in my heart.
“I’ll find him for you right now,” I managed to choke out.
You really loved him this much. Then I’ll use his blood to save you.
Yet a hand withdrew from the covers to grab me firmly. His skin was dull and dark, the fingers emaciated…as if he was using all his strength to hold me tight. His eyebrows knitted closer together as he stared at me, as if imploring me for something. There were traces of tears by his eyes as his trembling lips spat out two words. But my vision had long grown too blurry to see what he was saying.
Fang Hua, I’ll use everything I have. Even if my opponent is the emperor himself…I’ll drag him off his throne and bring him here.
Within the courtyard, there was only the low, quiet call of cicadas. Inside the main hall, my expression was slightly imposing as I hugged a bunch of items to my chest.
“Master, where are you going?”
“Of course I’m packing up and preparing to leave.”
“There’s something I don’t know if I should say,” Second walked quickly to catch me by the hand, looking at me with a determined expression. Yet his voice was soft, as if afraid he’d startle me. “In the texts left to me by my ancestors, I came across records of the Fang Hua Beast. Lord Hua has lost a lot of blood and been heavily hurt by sentiment. His mole has already turned black, so it’s unlikely that he’ll live much longer.”
“I already knew all this a long time ago.”
Second lowered his voice even further. “You should…spend more time with him.”
“You want me to stay and watch him die?” I looked at him in silence. He seemed to find it awkward to reply, and only looked at me without replying.
Did he really want me to do nothing and just foolishly watch on…? Could I only keep vigil over the person I loved most until he slipped away into eternal sleep in my arms?
Right now, his every ten days was equal to one year in human terms. I’d already watch him get older and older. Our time together was limited, and yet the person he couldn’t stop thinking about wasn’t me. Was I supposed to watch as he turned back into dead wood…? That was too cruel. A Fang Hua Beast injured by sentiment could only be cured by sentiment, then nourished by blood. That’s right, blood…
“Second, your ancestors all had miraculous skills in the art of medicine. Your blood can cure a hundred poisons, right…?” He smiled, but his eyes looked hurt as he knelt on one knee. “You’ve said it too, it can cure a hundred poisons. My life was saved by Master, so if Master has any instructions, Second’s willing to die 10,000 times before I refuse…but Lord Hua isn’t a human, and neither is he poisoned.”
I’ve become muddle-headed.
“But you’re the disciple of the Pill King, so you can definitely think of a way to preserve Fang Hua’s life. So…” I smiled slowly as I looked towards him. “Before I come back…please keep him alive.”
Second remained kneeling for a while, completely flabbergasted until he looked at me in disbelief. “Is Master preparing to go to the palace?!”
I stood bolt upright but didn’t reply, my eyes drifting to a distant point. There was a lush bamboo grove there that stretched up to a slope, where a mess of interlocking branches blocked the only path back to the outside world. Fang Hua had once told me there was no way off this mountain before going behind my back to construct that awkward mass of branches. Now that I thought of it, I felt both aggrieved yet warm inside.
The Fang Hua Beast is a primarily male animal with a peaceful disposition. It prefers to live alone…
I barely held back a laugh as my hands curled around the hem of my jacket. My mouth broke into a grin briefly despite myself, but the feelings accompanying it were bitter. Fang Hua, who should’ve loved solitude, used a thousand different ways to keep me by his side. Was it that people on the verge of getting older grew more attached to trivial matters in the mortal world?
Maybe he was reluctant to part with this earth. He wanted to find a companion, but I wasn’t the person he was expecting and only made his illness worse.
“Master, your face doesn’t look so good. Should I take your pulse for you?” Second asked cautiously.
My thoughts were cast into insignificance as I stooped to help him off, dusting off his robes. “Second, you have to remember…Fang Hua likes the red lotus flowers in the back pond best. Just tasting a bit will cheer him up. His tea needs to be steeped in scalding hot water. He might not talk for an entire day, but tell him about our adventures on thejianghu often. He’s very willing to listen even if he looks impatient… that’s the kind of stubborn person he is.” I gathered him into my arms, resting my head against his shoulder as my body quivered. Tears kept pouring from my eyes without stopping.
“Second, take good care of Fang Hua for me.”
Who knew when we’d meet again after we parted? I didn’t disturb Fang Hua, but left through the back door with my satchel on my back, escaping through the passageway in the bamboo grove to the nearest town. Though the town was out of the way and far from the palace, the streets were still full of joy. I walked alone through the main road and couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t fit in.
I stopped by a teahouse to set my bag down and take a seat.
“Waiter, a pot of tea.” “Right away, customer.”
That little fellow was clever and fast, cleaning the table in a single wipe before pouring me a cup. The table next to me had guests in the throes of a lively discussion. Their voices were loud enough for the entire teahouse to hear.
“Did you hear? The emperor’s going to marry the general’s youngest daughter in five days.” I gave a jerk.
“Of course. General Qi has hold over military might and he’s one of the dynasty’s founding members. This daughter of his is bright and beautiful as well. They said the court will send out people to pick her up from home in a few days.”
“Pah! You say she’s bright and beautiful, but it’s not as if you’ve ever seen her. Could a general’s daughter be compared to other ladies? She probably even knows how to use a sword or spear.”
I drank a mouthful of incomparably bitter tea, falling silent as the noisy and atmosphere of the teahouse seemed to make me sick to my stomach. Throwing aside some silver, I turned away to leave. There was no time to visit the other princes on the way, so I stood at the edge of the marketplace to look around. Opposite me was a money exchange center with a giant sign imprinted with bold black words: First Family Money Exchange. In the lower left corner was a glittering yellow character that read “Xiao”, or “carefree.”
I made my way inside.
A clerk with good eyes approached me but paused when he saw me in men’s clothes. Uncertain whether to refer to me as a lady or a gentleman, he could only lower his eyes and say with a laugh, “This customer is rather unfamiliar, are you here to withdraw silver?”
I didn’t say much, but pulled out a certain jade pendant from the depths of my sleeves and handed it over. At first, he didn’t seem to understand. But when he flipped over the jade to examine it more closely, his entire expression changed, and he hastily carried it into the back rooms. Not long after, the shopkeeper of the exchange emerged, a man around 40 years old who seemed honest, kind, and obedient. His shaking hands personally returned the jade pendant before he used his sleeves to wipe the sweat from his brow. With a reverent manner, he spoke.
“I didn’t know that the owner came to call, it is our offense.” I nodded as I took a piece of paper from his partner, drawing up my sleeve to write a figure on it.
“Is the Carefree Idler, that respected elder, still doing well?”
I raised an eyebrow and spat out two words: “Not bad.”
Stopping my brush, I held the jade pendant in my hands before groping about for some cinnabar to dip it in. Then I pressed one side to the paper to make an impression: a miniature character for “Xiao”, or “carefree.”
“Get this much paper money for me.”
He agreed immediately and carefully took the paper in his hands. I called him to stop, and took a certain letter out from my chest.
“That’s right…give this to Manager First as well.”
He accepted it with fear and trepidation. “Seventh prince, take care.”
I smiled. There was no time to waste further words with them, so I took my leave and left.
After I stepped out the doors, it only took a few steps for me to discover that First had opened up quite a few branches of shops and money exchanges in this town…he probably reckoned that I wouldn’t be used to living away from them and took pains to make sure I was taken care of.
It made my heart a little sad.
But after that melancholy, came pride.
I used the silver stored in my robes on traveling expenses to buy a horse and galloped towards the direction of the palace. This time, I kept in mind all the words those princes had told me back at the house. After the incident at the cliff, the emperor took my unconscious form back to the palace. All the clues left by the fighting had been destroyed afterwards. Yet after I’d been snatched out of the palace, the emperor hadn’t sent anyone to find me. The news was sealed within the palace and no one dared to bring it up again.
It was as if the missing person wasn’t the soon-to-be highest ranking imperial concubine, but an ordinary court lady. All this was already very strange, but but I never expected that the day I left the dying Fang Hua I’d hear news of Han Zichuan’s wedding. Wasn’t his match the daughter of the one person he was trying to resist? Wasn’t the head of that family one of the chief potential culprits in the cliff incident?
I found myself sinking into a dense fog, unable to find the way out. Everything could only be answered after I made my way into the palace.
After being jolted on the road for a few days, I had finally arrived outside the palace walls. The late night was illuminated by a chilly moon, and the high walls seemed to stifle me with an oppressive weight. My heart felt as if it was on tenterhooks. By my estimation, the walls were about three to four zhang high. Taking a deep breath, I peered upwards. It was a good thing I’d recovered most of my skills, or else I might’ve had trouble scaling this thing. After collecting my nerves, I tied the ends of my robes around my waist and flew into the air, leaping atop the palace walls with a single jump.
It was a bit humid, and occasionally the cry of birds rang through the air. There were no trees in this section of the court, so it was hard to walk along the walls beneath the moonlight. I laid low to wait for my chance until a young eunuch passed by, and struck him with a rock. He crumpled instantly, allowing me to steal his clothes. Assuming a timid posture, I kept walking along the palace walls, noting the gloomy silence. My memory of the grounds led me to the emperor’s quarters.
The north side was dark, illuminated at times by spots of lamplight from the people walking by. It sounded like there were quite a few guards on patrol, as if they were taking extra precautions. I immediately turned back to walk the other way, but their footsteps only grew closer. Not anyone could stroll around the emperor’s courtyard at night. Not to mention, my eunuch’s robes were rather ill-fitting, so a close examination would definitely ruin my disguise. I quickly leapt up into the eaves to lie low, hiding in the darkness.
“Who’s there?!” a voice demanded. My expression darkened as I crept low over the roof tiles to take a peek. An eunuch was walking past with his hands behind his back, meeting the approaching patrol. Even though he didn’t speak, there was an impressive air about him.
The patrol raised his lantern to shine on the eunuch and quickly changed his expression into a smile. He bowed down and said, “So it was Head Eunuch Li.”
Head Eunuch Li….??
My thoughts flew into a trance. Although the lighting was dim, there was no way I’d mistake that voice and those features. This was Little Li. The same Little Li that used to serve me was now head of the eunuchs. The only difference now was that he didn’t shake in fear, and his clever smile had faded somewhat. What replaced it was a calm and steady mien as if he always used to be this way.
“The emperor has commanded more guards to be added for these recent days,” He seemed to tilt his mouth in my direction, almost as if he was smiling. “There are plenty of assassins that come by in autumn.”
This person was hiding words within his words.
I’d held my breath and lightened my steps, so it should be impossible to detect me. I used to think that after I’d been snatched away, he’d be the one punished since he was my personal servant. But now…
I couldn’t figure it out. But I did see a few more guards appear around the corner, including some archers… Sweat dripped down my brow. Looks like whisking the emperor out of the palace was going to be harder than I thought.
Che! I’ll think of another way.
— With the impending wedding, security was tight in the still and gloomy palace, while celebrations were in order at the general’s house. The noises from outside and inside blended together with busy preparations everywhere. The end result was that I managed to sneak inside, and I couldn’t help but feel self-satisfied.
No wonder all the people outside were discussing what the general’s daughter l
Stooping on the roof, I brushed aside the broken fragments of tiles to take a closer peek. A gentle and graceful form sat upright with her back facing me as if she’d just finished taking a bath. There was a servant girl wrapping up her cascading hair in a towel to clean it off. “Young Miss, your servant will fetch some incense for you.”
A crystal clear voice rose in reply, sweet-sounding yet filled with an aristocratic air. “Tell the mama to come in. There are still some steps to tomorrow’s ceremony that I can’t remember, so I’d like to trouble her to repeat them for me.”
After answering in the affirmative, the servant closed the door and went out to give her orders. It wasn’t long before a woman of forty to fifty years old appeared to stand respectfully by the door. Meanwhile, the servant girl headed towards the south gates. I used my lightness technique to follow after her before knocking her out, taking her clothes, and changing my face to assume her identity.
This servant girl’s face was very ordinary, so it was easy to copy. After straightening my clothes, I pulled out a pill and stuck it in her mouth before carrying her body to the ceiling to tie her to the rafters. She’d probably sleep for seven to eight days at this rate.
I followed the path back to her mistress’s room, taking time to regulate my breathing before entering the room and closing the door behind me. The mama was already teaching particulars to the Young Miss inside, but nodded as I entered. She continued in a low voice, “Someone from the palace came to tell my master that when mistress is ready to go, she can take the sedan chair to the palace. Plenty of servants came to serve you for the occasion, and the sedan chair itself is resplendent.”
“Why do we have to rush there overnight? Didn’t father say the court was coming to pick me up tomorrow morning?”
“I heard it was the emperor’s idea.”
That delicately pretty girl gave a small laugh before turning towards me.
“Well, have you brought over the incense?” “Yes, it’ll be ready in a minute.”
I turned to pinch out some incense from my sleeve and stuck it into an incense holder. A thread of light colored smoke wafted into the air as the curious mama walked over to fan the fumes. She was laughing as she spoke. “The things from the imperial palace are so nice. Even the scent of their incense is different.”
…something I made myself. It not only smelled nice, but had other uses as well. I hid my face to laugh secretly.
“It’s getting late. Be quick with your preparations. Don’t delay the mistress’ important affairs.”
“Yes.” I lifted the incense burner while carrying along a low table to set both behind the lady. As the fumes from the incense rose to slowly suffuse the room, I began to comb her hair. In the bronze mirror, the beauty closed her eyes as if enjoying the smell. The mama helped make up her face before smiling at the lady.
“When mistress is ready, give a call and your servant here will be outside to receive you.”
No one answered her. The mama couldn’t hold her smile indefinitely, so she quickly retreated and closed the door behind her. I leaned forward to peek at the reflection of the lady in the mirror. Her arched eyebrows were like willow leaves, relaxed from enjoying the incense. As I watched, they lifted up slightly to match her growing smile.
“Aiya…you’ve hurt me.”
“Your servant deserves death,” I hastily loosened my grip, but managed to drop the comb. She stared at the mirror, consoling herself by touching her hair while staring at me. “Little Cui, you weren’t this clumsy before. What’s wrong with you today?”
When the beauty got angry, her almond-shaped eyes widened and her smile turned cold. It was an unconscious action that betrayed her thoughts and belied her inherent grace, rather hard to imitate. I was long kneeling on the ground, working up a fluster.
“Young Miss is going to the palace to be the empress so your servant kept thinking of you. I’m afraid that I won’t get a chance to serve you anymore.”
This lady was born beautiful, but possessed a heroic tilt of the eyebrows seldom seen in other females. If it was her attending to matters of the inner court, she would probably become very adept. The emperor’s woman should be someone with a bit of daring, after all. So I thought to myself as I kept my head bowed, secretly groping about my sleeves. But she actually grabbed me and spoke, smiling.
“Look at you…I’ve already spoke with father to bring along a few servants. All the palace eunuchs are strange and stiff, and of course none of the court ladies are intimate as the ones from home.”
My entire face was filled with gratitude as I followed the tug of her arm to stand up. Then I spoke quietly. “Actually, you don’t need to inconvenience yourself like this. Young Miss won’t need to worry about what goes on in the palace, either.”
She looked at me in surprise. I withdrew my hand from my sleeve and tossed stun powder all over her face. There was a simple smile on mine as I leisurely finished her off. “Because…”
“…I’m going to be the one entering court.”
Within the Palace.
“The auspicious hour’s arrived!” an eunuch’s voice cried from outside. Within the chambers of the room, a woman gently raised her eyebrows,
as calm and unhurried as before. The faint morning light shone against her body. Eyebrows like these…resembled gloomy willow leaves, and when they creased, betrayed the feelings of this otherwise joyful girl. She possessed a heroic tilt to her eyebrows seldom seem in other females. As she raised her sleeve, slender fingers came to caress her temples, the digits trembling slightly.
I carefully traced my face while facing the mirror, gathering a bit of rouge on my index finger to apply to my lips. The color was a rich, festive red. Some time later, an unfamiliar face appeared in the yellow bronze of the mirror as I completed my preparations. As for the person slated to be empress, I’d hidden her under the bed in the general’s house. She was probably still out cold.
The incense was a good type that made people lower their guard. Smelling it for prolonged periods actually sapped one’s strength away until they were too weak to even call out for help. It was easy to imitate this lady’s bearing and copy her face. As for her voice, I just had to add in the soft syllables of southern girls and their way of speech. It was still extremely difficult to imitate her tone of speech exactly, but I had no way of knowing how familiar Han Zichuan was with this woman.
There was still some lingering fear when I thought back to how I’d hijacked the empress position from the general’s daughter. I’d just touched up the face mask when Little Li…no…I should call him Head Eunuch Li now. He seemed to charge in politely right on time before summoning a group of people to lead me to the sedan chair. Even afterwards, we didn’t leave immediately, but lingered for awhile. I only heard him exchange polite, mocking civilities with the general. And then…I vaguely recalled us leaving through the north gate.
“10,000 blessings for Your Highness,” a voice broke through my thoughts. I recovered my senses to see a court lady greeting me with handkerchief in hand.
I hadn’t even been conferred a title yet, but she still greeted me so naturally.
“The auspicious hour’s arrived, so your servant will help Your Highness change clothes.”
I gently rose from the chair, face expressionless as she washed and dressed me…as it turned out, the red ceremonial robes spread out before me was the exact same cut as the one I’d tried on before for the highest-ranking imperial concubine. Only the embroidery was different, with much more phoenixes and golden beaded dragons.
I couldn’t help but laugh derisively. Exactly what was Han Zichuan thinking…
Originally I thought he had feelings for Fang Hua. Now that Fang Hua was dying, he hadn’t even bothered asking after him…and yet, he’d let Fang Hua live by himself all these years in his cold and empty house.
As for how he treated me, I used to think he loved me. But when I was stolen away from the palace, he could still live his life as before. It’s fine if he didn’t send anyone to look for me, but now he was suddenly anxious to marry this empress? How laughable. One after another, the layers of clothing weighed upon me until it was hard to breathe. With the phoenix coronet on my head, even my scalp hurt. The woman in the mirror had white skin and bright red lips, emanating a jubilant aura from the hazy red reflection. But she wasn’t anyone I recognized.
Someone helped me up to the imperial phoenix carriage. That little eunuch was far more anxious than me, almost forcing me into the thing. How strange. It wasn’t like the general’s daughter had refused this marriage.
What was his problem…
My seat wobbled a bit, and I held onto something for support as we began to move. I moved the curtains aside to take a peek outside, seeing golden walls with red tiles, a wide and desolate lane, and a group of eunuchs following along, their steps light and quiet.
Deep into the palace we went.
When Fang Hua was living in the Cold Palace, he must have been so lonely. How could I have thought of leaving him behind back then? A peal of wind blew past the high walls, weighing my heart down in grief, So many chaotic scenes from the past rose in my mind…
“Your Highness,” someone said softly. I didn’t reply.
“Esteemed Empress.” a steady, strong voice spoke, before someone gently pressed down on the hand holding the curtains open. My thoughts were dragged back, and I raised my eyes to see Head Eunuch Li’s half- smiling expression. “This is your happy day. After today, you’ll be the mistress of these six courtyards, so you mustn’t show such a face.”
His reminder was sound. I squinted at him before managing a smile. After today, you won’t be able to find the emperor, either.
“Please lead the way.”
Various court ladies helped me out of the imperial carriage as I rested a hand on Head Eunuch Li’s offered sleeve. He walked in an extremely reverent and respectful manner with his head bowed. Seeing his sedate expression put my face into a trance.
Little Li, when I was taken from the Long Spring Courtyard, you must have expended quite an effort to find me.
From serving Fang Hua in the same courtyard, to serving me afterwards, and then becoming the head of all the eunuchs to serve the emperor himself, he’d risen quite a few levels. I lightly pressed on his sleeve, my fingers tightening their grip. He looked at me in astonishment before lowering his head again, not quite understanding.
I wouldn’t bring things out in the open. I still had plenty of time to ask Han Zichuan himself. The person standing firmly atop the great hall would probably give me all the answers I need.
“You Highness, take deep breaths. Don’t be nervous,” Head Eunuch Li said softly as he drew closer.
Nervous? My body was shaking from agitation. I gave a small smile and restrained my fluctuating heart.
“You’ll arrive after turning left. Since it’s your wedding day, eunuchs like us are not allowed to help you. Please take care, Your Highness,” Little Li bent forwards as he spoke, before backing up a few steps. Then he stood at a distance not too far away to watch me. I couldn’t tell what kind of expression he was wearing, but it made me think.
With my bearing upright, I gently raised my head, straightened my back, and kept walking. Around the bend was light and then…the sound of music. There was a red carpet embroidered with golden phoenixes, and everything was quiet beyond the musical instruments. After an inner attendant came to follow me, I bent my head slightly to lift up my robes and took the first steps onto the stone stairs. There was the sound of constrained breathing all around me, and the entire scene was solemn and dignified.
The figure atop the stone steps gradually came into focus. Han Zichuan slowly turned around to look at me, his body perfectly straight…the smile on his face was one I was intimately familiar with, filled with the imposing manner of a monarch and the subtle variations of his mood. And yet his smile didn’t reach his eyes.
Thinking back to everything he’d done for me on the dragon bed, and everything he hid from me behind those bed-curtains, beneath those panting breaths, I felt beside myself with rage. Raising my head high, I fixed my stare on him. The set of his lips and the indifference in his eyes were enough to make the palms of my hands hurt.
Han Zichuan, so what if you’re the reigning emperor? You still can’t cover Heaven with just your hands. I, Shao Hua, will definitely make you pay back everything you’ve taken.
He gave me a vigilant look, but I’d long erased traces of killing intent from my face. His gaze then slipped casually from my face as he joined hands with me to complete the ancient greetings passed down from the imperial house. That tall form enveloped me completely. When I raised my head to look at him, I could still see his resolute, handsome face through the strings of pearls dangling from my phoenix coronet. His face was expressionless and held no joy whatsoever; in fact, he even seemed impatient.
This was the person that Fang Hua couldn’t forget even if he died. The same one he wished to send his body to.
This was the person who could save Fang Hua…my most precious person in the world. I forced myself to resist the constant urge to choke him. There were so many high level experts in the palace that I couldn’t be sure of escaping with him from here. As long as I could hold out until nighttime… I restrained much of my killing intent and took a deep breath, willing my eyebrows to settle into a placid expression. Maybe my nerves were too wound up, but no one ever told me this crappy ceremony had to last the entire day. I had to go from one place to the next, and once I got there I had to bow and kowtow and bow again. I wasn’t even thinking about these things because my travels in the previous days had given me no time to rest. Now I was thoroughly overcome with weariness, enough to feel drowsy.
These stupid rites turned out to last from early morning to dusk. Afterwards we went to the main hall and received the obeisance of all the civil and military officials. Someone supported me as I walked. Originally I was meant to sit by the emperor’s side, but I was too tired to care and settled into the nearest chair to rest. As soon as my body relaxed, my feet turned into jelly and I lurched to one side, falling to the ground. My butt hit against the carved golden chair with a painful smash.
The emperor gave me an astonished glance, eyes unusually intent. The corners of his lips seemed to be resisting the urge to laugh. Only then did I decide to sit up straighter, expression incredibly stiff. I squinted below me, where an official in charge of the rites was reading loudly from a book…it sounded a bit like classical Chinese but I had no idea what he was saying beyond the buzzing noise of ten thousand mosquitos by my ear. Listening to him made me impatient.
After he finished reading, there was an uproarious cry of, “May the emperor live 10,000 of 10,000s of 10,000s of years, may the empress live 10,000 of 10,000s, of 10,000 years.”
Someone came to help me up again, so I slowly swayed my way out. It was only after I raised my head that I realized the light was getting dim. The skies above the high walls were a misty, agitated gray. I couldn’t help but feel pressured and uneasy.
The imperial carriage was waiting outside, flanked by rows of kneeling servants. Their gray-blue robes weren’t the type to attract much attention and their bowed heads only painted a picture of pious devotion. A cluster of people surrounded the emperor as he walked over. I was supported by a group of court ladies, but stopped part way to see where my own carriage had gone off to. In response, the imperial carriage stopped right before me, his seated form blocking out the rest of the setting sun. A shadow fell over me as I saw a mix of gleaming colors, a red rope tying a piece of uncut jade at his waist, and a robe embroidered with gold dragons dazzling my eyes while he held out his hand.
I stood dumbly for awhile before unconsciously raising my hand to take his…so we could ride together. The carriage was lifted back up, but the ride this time was much more comfortable, only jolting us slightly. Though the inside was spacious enough for one person, we were almost touching shoulder-to-shoulder with two.
The distant palace walls flashed past as we sat in silence. He held my hand tightly, eyes looking forward as he stroked me gently with his fingers. I knitted my brows and turned away, feeling disgusted but unable to express myself. The flurried tightness in my chest changed to a deep sorrow.
Even after living together for so many years, I’d been unable to see through him.
After we alighted from the carriage, a mama supported me into the main hall and helped me change clothes with no expression. The emperor didn’t follow, as was custom. These were things people had told me again and again while I was preparing to assume the role of highest ranking imperial concubine. From this hall to that hall you had to change to so-and-so clothes, walk so-and-so many steps, kowtow a certain way, and then change into another set of robes…I never imagined that conferring a title on an empress would be even more complicated. I’d been cleansing my body from morning ‘til now until I was completely numb…forget about hiding poisons in my clothing, with all the wardrobe changes I had hiding anything would be impossible. Seeing the court ladies shake out the robes they taken off me, stare at the ground, then carefully fold then again, I couldn’t help a soft smile. As soon as I predicted that they’d check for everything, I’d left behind my assortment of tiny pill bottles. With my current level of martial prowess, there was no need to use those things, anyways.
The court ladies knelt on the ground around me in a circle, taking off my jewelry with deft movements while I remained silent. With drooping eyes, I quietly wore the clothes they offered–this time robes as white as snow made of some fluttering fabric that was surprisingly warm against the skin. I couldn’t help but relax my brows to heave a comfortable sigh. Soft notes of music drifted in from outside, along with the sound of someone singing–a little annoying.
The doors were pushed open.
A group of people entered to leave food and (of course) wine around the room. I looked away and walked towards the bed, before giving them an icy glance and straightening my clothes to sit properly on the bed.
Today was my wedding day.
Yet it was to the reigning emperor Han Zichuan. If my groom was yifu, then how would I feel instead…
I don’t think I’d be so indifferent.
Who knew how Fang Hua was doing now, back at home? If he knows that I’ve left…would he worry about me?
The lighting in the room was very warm. There were human-shaped figures moving outside the paper-covered windows, and the bowing, scraping servants made sure to keep their footsteps extremely light as they walked unhurriedly with bodies bent. My vision wavered for a bit before resting blankly on my knee, my hand tightly gripping the fabric until my fingers hurt. Fang Hua, you have to hold on. I’ll definitely risk my life to bring Han Zichuan back to you… The door gave an oppressive creak.
“You’re all dismissed,” a cool and bright voice spoke.
I saw a robe appear before my eyes with the hues of the crescent moon. The fabric appeared extremely soft. He bent over to sit by my side, while I pretended to be coy and shifted away.
“I’ve known you for so long, but I didn’t realize you had this kind of expression,” Han Zichuan scooted over, his scent cool and refreshing. He didn’t smell like wine, but his words sounded almost drunk with the way he was taking liberties.
He placed a hand on my knee to grasp my own, before slowly tightening his grip. I grew motionless, looking up to meet his eyes and joyful smile. The door behind him slowly closed…and a strange feeling rose up to my heart.
“Your Majesty, I…” He used a hand to stop my lips, slender fingers emanating the scent of the chilly air outside. It was an unfamiliar smell.
“You don’t have to say too much. I’ve tired you out today,” Han Zichuan’s face was filled with apology as he raised a hand to my head to remove the heavy phoenix coronet. Immediately, my dark hair poured down to pool around my shoulders. The gaze in his eye grew dim as he used one hand to brace himself against the bed while drawing closer. “Zhen has been waiting for this day for a long time.”
I felt a sense of fear. His sudden advances made it difficult for me to dodge him. The words he’d spoken were steady yet filled with some sort of deep meaning as he hands settled to rub at my temples. His eyes roved from my lips to my nose, my forehead, my eyes…as if he was stuck to my face. “Comfortable?”
What… Did it matter if it was comfy or not, why did he sound so erotic when he spoke? He finally stopped his hands when he moved again, this time to examine me carefully with a lowered head. His voice was tender as he spoke. “Zhen asked you if rubbing your head was comfortable for you. Where did aifei’s thoughts wander off to?”
“Your Majesty is treating qieshen very well,” I said vaguely, my face expressionless as I affected being bashful again.
His smile was warm as he turned around to pour some wine. The hazy yellow lamplight shone on his form and made the scene especially tender in the sweet, soft atmosphere. Still, the sight offended me. Han Zichuan, how should I disparage you? You’re actually treating a general’s daughter this way…why can’t you just treat me or Fang Hua with the same warmth? Even if it’s just a tiny bit kinder…
…it looks like our years of living together still couldn’t compare with this general’s daughter.
I gave him a searching look as I loosened the hand gripping a handkerchief. His body was lithe and slender, his every moment like that of a monarch. I steeled myself before slowly getting off the bed, rolling up my sleeves as I circulated my qi and prepared for a surprise attack….
“Come, drink a cup with Zhen,” he said, suddenly turning around. I quickly withdrew my hand, feeling a bit irritated. He raised an eyebrow and half-smiled as he looked at me. “Why did the empress leave the bed? If you’re tired, you should sit for awhile longer.” A jade cup was handed my way, but I kept my distance and refused to take it. He didn’t seem to mind, but gave a good-natured laugh before leaning over to whisper in my ear.
“We’re already husband and wife, yet Shao’er, you’re still so reserved.” He looked at me quietly as he smiled, the pupils of his eyes indescribably deep.
I was astonished. This person…since when had he discovered I wasn’t the general’s daughter? Since when did he notice something abnormal about me…? While I was gaping, there was no time to react as he grabbed my arm and calmly enveloped me in his form. Hidden within that warmth and those dark eyes was a secret affection so deep that it threatened to dissolve me in its intensity. He kept smiling serenely, but kissed me softly on the lips when he noticed I was still in shock.
“Zhen knows…you hated parting with Zhen, so you’d come back eventually.”
 zhang (丈) −Chinese unit of measurement. 1 zhang = 3.33meters, so three to four zhang means walls at least 12 meters high.
 mama (嬷嬷) – not a mother, but a term for an elderly servant, usually a wet nurse.
 Xiao Cui (⼩翠) – literally “Little Jade,” the nickname of the servant girl.
 Zhen ( 朕) – equivalent to the royal We, a personal pronoun for the emperor to refer to himself
 aifei ( 爱 妃 ) – beloved concubine, imperial concubine, form of address for a wife.
 qieshen (妾⾝) – self-referential pronoun for a concubine/wife.
His smile was so cheerful. I felt like the victim of his latest prank, my mind filled with a buzzing drone. He hugged me very tightly, enough for me to feel his body temperature…I took a deep breath and said in a shaking voice, “When did you find out?”
He paused, before dragging out the answer. “I’ve known you all my life.”
I’d be holding myself back all this time, yet he’d saw through me from the first moment.
“Very good,” I lowered my head, lips curving up into an ironic smile before laughing at him. It startled him…and I used a bit of inner qi to easily push aside his hand, pinching his chin while my other hand closed around his neck. Although surprised, he continued to smile, raising an eyebrow as if confident in his success. His eyes slanted sideways to look at me before lightly waving his hand, causing the wine cups on the table to clatter against the ground….
“Emperor, is anything the matter?”
The silence that had stretched on like dead water was immediately thrown into disorder. The doors were forced open, and a crowd of soldiers wearing armor entered, pointing their shiny weapons at me…this battle array…seemed to have been prepared ahead of time just to counter my move. Han Zichuan, did you even anticipate such a thing? I looked at him, copying his earlier moves as I leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Do you think they can stop me?” My grip on his throat tightened. “With you here, I’m not afraid of anything.”
His eyes twinkled briefly before adopting an expression of deep sorrow. “General Qi’s daughter has taken the emperor hostage and rebelled.” “You traitor! Don’t think of doing anything to his majesty or
hurting his body!” The people outside were rather clever, shouting one after the other without anyone taking a step forward. I squinted.
“Is there anything aifei wants to tell Zhen?” “Shut up.”
“But Zhen has words to say,” Despite being held captive by me, he still raised a hand to pat my shoulder comfortingly, the other hugging me around my waist. “All of you, back down. Without Zhen’s commands, no one can come in.”
The crowd stood looking at each other. I grew angry and muttered in a muffled voice, “Leaving isn’t allowed.” At least let the two of us leave first…before you all scatter.
“You’re losing your temper again,” Though I had him in my grip, he still managed to look at me with a doting expression. Meanwhile, the various guards and servants had slowly started to back away. A damned servant sprawled on the ground to sneak a peek at me, before pulling the door after him in terror. It closed with a pah!, leaving the noisy rabble outside. What kind of situation was this…?
There were only the two of us left in this room. The lamplight flickered as noise resounded across the floors, making my expression turn black.
“Look at you, you’re always so muddle-headed when you do things so it’s easy to predict your actions,” he gave me a sideways glance, eyes roving from my face to my neck. I glared at him before speaking quietly. “You’re not even worried about the fates of the Qi Family you mentioned? Conspiring against the throne isn’t a nice accusation.”
“So what?” he said.
Despite my smile, my eyes turned cold as from his words. “I’m only concerned with you. All matters of life-and-death from this incident rests in your hands. I’m not going to beg forgiveness on
“You still don’t understand?” he took a deep breath before actually daring to caress my face. “Zhen only has one empress.”
Surprised, my heart began to pound–not from being moved, but from uneasy shock. “What did you do to her?”
“Zhen’s Shao’er really catches on quickly. That woman was originally bait to lure you out. Even though you hid her underneath the bed, I sent people to kill her to avoid future hassles. If General Qi discovered his daughter was replaced before the wedding and charged into the palace, how would Zhen be able to marry you? …and how else would you end up as Zhen’s one and only empress?”
No wonder Little Li had dawdled at the general’s estate after I’d gotten onto the sedan chair. Was it to make sure his men had enough time to get rid of the general’s daughter? I suddenly felt shaky on my feet, staring at the man before me in astonishment. He was smiling slightly as he sized me up. How could he speak so casually about a person’s life? This Han Zichuan, was he really the same youth that lived in the house amongst the bamboo grove with me?
“Zhen knows that you’d come back eventually for the wedding day. If you don’t want to take another’s place as empress, I’ll give you back your real identity. General Qi might be one of the founding members of the dynasty with military might, but after your little act, all those witnesses saw you wearing his daughter’s face to rebel against me. I’m afraid it’ll be impossible for him to deny it. This sort of crime can implicate nine generations of his family, so it won’t be long before military power returns to Zhen’s hands.” “Formidable…you even calculated me into your schemes.”
Under the gentle glow of lamplight, his smile was mesmerizing. It was the same smile as before…and yet, completely different. I knew then that the boy who was once bathed in sunlight as he smiled at me from the bamboo was never coming back…and the monarch standing in his place was so unfamiliar, I hardly recognized him.
“Shao’er, won’t you get tired if you keep choking me like this?” he paused, leaning against my shoulders with eyes shut to take a deep breath. “Would you like your husband to pour you a cup of water?”
“Shut up. I’m just going to ask you one question,” my back was stiff, and my tone was cold. “Back then…was it you who carried me out of the palace?”
“Not me,” he looked at me calmly, but added on, “It was me who told Little Li to send someone else to do it. Did they get you to Fang Hua’s house safely?”
Great, just great.
“Then I’ll have to trouble you to come back on a trip with me.”
He arched an eyebrow, looking at me in surprise, but I held him in place with my arm. The smile on his face faded. “That’s not very difficult…just tell me why?”
You should be clearer than anyone, Zichuan. If you could predict that I’d sneak into the palace and take General Qi’s daughter’s place for the wedding, why wouldn’t you know why I wanted you to see Fang Hua?
“I need you to go back and save my master.”
He suddenly smiled, lips parting slightly as he spat out one word:
— My expression gradually relaxed.
“I just need you to help me finish one last thing.” He grasped my hand and gently took it off his throat, only to turn around and pour two new full cups of wine. “Drink these cups of marriage wine with me.”
I gave him a scornful look. The color of the wine was like jade, clear and pure. As it swayed in the jade cups, a cloud of sweet fragrance reached my nose. “You think paralyzing poisons will work on me?”
“I know it won’t. I added nothing to these because I was afraid of wasting the wine.”
I stared at the wine cup, my throat feeling puckery. “There’s no need.” “We’ve gone to the ancestral hall and met the civil and military
officials. Since we’ve completed the ceremony to confer you a title, we just need to share this wine before we become husband and wife.” He took my hand, picking up his own cup with drooping eyes as he drew closer. His breath was right by my ear, extremely itchy.
I didn’t move.
Yet he kept his grip on me, eyes never shifting from my face as he spoke in a low tone. “You can pretend this is just a dream and you’re acting a part in a play, all right?”
At that moment, my face changed slightly. He smiled and gave a shallow sip. I didn’t wait for him to finish, but struck him hard with my hand to knock him out. This scourge was definitely someone to guard against. The entire night he’d been doing nothing but making my heart pound.
With the emperor as my hostage, I took to the rooftops with my lightness technique, outrunning everyone who chased after us by means of twists and turns. The archers could only strain their eyes in vain. No one dared to aim their weapons towards the emperor in this time and age unless they wanted death. I heaved a sigh. By the time I dragged the unconscious man out of the palace, it was already beginning to get light. My movements naturally grew more leisurely after escaping the court. Who knew how chaotic things were inside?
The weight of his tall figure was pressed completely against my body. I walked towards the western city gates, passing over the chilly flagstones and desolate lanes. This place really was tranquil and still. A cough came from my side, where an unobtrusive old man sat atop a carriage. Seeing me approach, he rose to his feet and nimbly helped Han Zichuan into the carriage without a word.
Though his hands were emaciated, they were full of strength. It looked like this was a sensible sort of guy. He kept his eyes low and didn’t look around wildly. Han Zichuan was currently dressed in clothing from the palace. Although they were plain white robes, the dancing dragons against the fabric were very obvious, and the jade plate hanging from his waist spoke of his esteemed position. But that old driver didn’t raise an eyelid when he helped him inside, nor did he speak. After he was arranged neatly, the old man backed out of the carriage and drew down the hanging screen door.
He definitely deserved the title as one of First’s chosen men, with his prior experience and trustworthy character.
“Lord First received your letter and instructed me to wait here until Master you arrived. Everything’s been arranged for the road, so please set your worries at rest. As soon as day breaks, there will be 100 other carriages in the exact same colors heading to the north, south, east and west gates. The imperial court will naturally be too busy to keep track. Since time is pressing, please hurry on.”
“Please give thanks to your master on my behalf, I owe him one,” I sat atop the carriage and drew the reins. The old man made a small affirmative noise as I leaned down to clap the horse. Snorting, the animal swished its tail and broke into a gallop. I chanced a glance back, watching as his form grew smaller and smaller as he stood at the edge of the hazy horizon with a calm smile. “Safe travels.”
I had the sudden feeling that I knew that man.
I couldn’t help but take another look back. Right at this time, something pressed against the hem of my robes as a steady voice spoke from within the carriage, his tone a little strange. “You’ve already left, but you still begrudge parting with him?”
I lifted open the hanging screen to look inside, where my hostage was leaning comfortably against the seat as if he hadn’t been kidnapped at all. He lifted his head to give me a look, his legs stretched out so the heels rested on my robes.
“When did you wake up?”
“A while ago. I never expected aifei would take this many pains to kidnap me.”
I didn’t answer, but concentrated on hurrying the horse along.
He actually came to hug me from behind, drawing closer to speak in a soft voice. “It’s warmer inside. Don’t worry about making haste on the road. How about Zhen issuing a decree to stop them from posting arrest warrants everywhere?”
I curled my hands into fists, dearly wanting to knock him out again. He curved his eyes into a smile.
“Zhen knows that aifei wants to spend time alone with Zhen, and that’s why she put on this farce. Kidnapping is charming in its own way, I suppose.”
I refused to be distracted and kept urging on the carriage, even as he gave an exclamation of surprise.
“What’s in this first row of cabinets?” “Food.”
“Was this gauze made by silkworms? What can you do with this, wear it as a head wrap?”
“It’s for tying you up.”
There was the sound of someone sifting through things before his voice rose again. “Why does the last compartment have nothing but yellow papers, are they for going to the toilet?”
“…those are for writing charms to seal your mouth.”
He wanted to say something else, but I stopped the horse, threw aside the reins, and entered, preparing to paralyze his acupoints. My glance was cold. “Are you done messing around yet?”
Han Zichuan didn’t avoid me, but gave me a happy smile. “Not even for the rest of our lives.”
I was completely speechless. Instead of wasting words on him, I sealed the acupoints in his upper and lower body to keep him paralyzed. He’d already made a mess inside the carriage. Various snacks and pastries were lying on the ground, all things I was familiar with…it was definitely snuck in by the other princes while First wasn’t looking. I was running for my life after a kidnapping, yet they were treating it as a tour of the country… stepping past the items, I retrieved the reins again and gave Han Zichuan a threatening glare.
Perhaps I’d used a bit too much finger strength when paralyzing him, but Han Zichuan was now lying motionless on the seat, his hair fanning about his shoulders like a pool of water. He gave me a mild look, much less lordly than before, as sunlight passed through the screen to leave patterned shadows on his face. The smile on that face was gentle and soft.
“Shao’er, doesn’t this feel like we’ve gone back to the old days?” I gave a dry smile and silently drove the carriage. Even if those old days were beautiful…it was a place I could never return to again.
As long as I opened my mouth to ask First for something, he’d always find me the best. This time was no different. Though this horse didn’t look like much, he was a colt who could run 1,000 li. The two of us escaped from the palace to the little village by Fang Hua’s house in only one and a half days. I glanced at the immobile Han Zichuan lying docilely in the carriage and laughed in spite of myself.
He really was being very cooperative at the moment.
With the emperor missing after an attack by the assassin, various city gates were all on high alert. I expected these level of difficulties when I left, but before I could force my way through, the emperor leisurely stuck out his head to impatiently wave his hand. He ordered the guards back and angrily issued a decree to revoke all orders for carriage and body searches. It was not only immoral, but seriously interfering with the lives of the common people. Then he used a brush to write a letter to the imperial court, saying that he was visiting the common people to drive away his cares, so there was no need for the officials to take such pains to rescue him. Afterwards, he sealed the missive with a fiery red stamp and a pleased look in his eye.
Even a simple letter called forth his imperial jade seal…I really didn’t know how he managed to sneak that thing on him when we left.
When a shivering guard knelt by the carriage to inquire whether he’d like a page to drive the carriage instead, I finally lost my patience, paralyzed him again, and dragged him back inside. And thus, the rest of our journey continued without troubles. I could count on my fingers the time we’d arrive at home. If he didn’t keep staring at my back with so much tenderness and love, I’d probably be in a better mood. I pulled on the reins to stop the carriage before the bamboo grove, before drawing aside the curtains to help him off. This part of the journey had to be taken on foot. He was breathing heavily, probably because I’d been too quick to paralyze him these few days, so I’d obstructed his circulation. I could even feel that his body was cold beneath all the clothing. He was leaning almost entirely against me as I carefully supported him by the arm, yet still stubborn enough to rest his head by my ear.
“Shao’er, can’t you just unseal my acupoints? I’m afraid of being a deadweight.” he suggested helpfully.
I ignored him and quickened my pace. I feared that once I unsealed his acupoints, he’d do more than simply be deadweight. The wind brushed past my cheek, carrying with it the cool and refreshing air of the mountains. It was very tranquil. Returning to the place where I used to live made my heart surge with emotion.
“See that yellow dirt hill? We went there once when we were younger. I vaguely remember there was a grave there, right? And you were the one that helped me down back then, too.”
“You liked to take baths in the pond behind the house. I used to see Fang Hua ladling the water there for his tea, too.”
“Don’t push me away so far. You’ve sealed my acupoints, so I can’t walk by myself.”
“Zichuan.” “What is it?”
“We’ve already spent a day and a half on the road,” I reminded him helpfully. He wore a ‘and so?’ expression on his face. “Sealed acupoints usually unseal themselves after 24 hours,” I patted his shoulders and shoved him aside again. So you see…don’t take advantage of things to get close to me. If he was really paralyzed, could I still support him to walk this far? Even Immortals would have some trouble. Moreover, Han Zichuan’s blood was as precious as gold, perhaps with the key to save Fang Hua…I wouldn’t risk stopping his blood flow for long periods of time. Maybe I jabbed him with more force than necessary, but there was no real power behind it. With his abilities, he could break through in the time it took a stick of incense to burn, but he insisted on clinging to me instead. I turned to give him a vicious glare. “Don’t play tricks with me.”
He only smiled and said softly, “I really can’t walk any further.”
Han Zichuan stood unmoving. Not far behind him was a house hidden in the bamboo. My eyes darkened as I grabbed his sleeve and kicked off into the air, dragging him through the forest. A light breeze greeted me as I travelled between the shadows of the bamboo. He didn’t say a word but raised his head to look at me, his gaze sharp and complicated. My heart felt light and cheerful.
Fang Hua…I can’t wait to see you again.
As soon as we landed, I threw Han Zichuan on the porch. He seemed to be in a bad temper as he lowered his head to straighten his robes, retying his sash as he smoothed out wrinkles along the fabric. The words he spoke came from between gritted teeth. “Ever since we grew up, you’ve been the only person who still dares to mistreat Zhen and gives us the cold shoulder.”
He was probably really angry if he was using ‘Zhen’ again.
I gave him a passing glance but didn’t bother arguing. I rapped on the doors of room after room, calling out, “Fang Hua…” with no response.
The rooms were cold and cheerless. Han Zichuan’s form was immeasurably elegant as took a leisurely stroll around the grounds. He suddenly stopped before my old room and raised a hand to knock on the door. My heart leapt up as I ran over to push him aside. Not bothering to see whether he fell, I kicked open the door with my foot to run inside. “Second…are you here?”
The room was completely empty. There was no tea in the pot on the table, and a layer of dust on one of the stools
“Master…” But there was no reply. A roaring started in my head. Now everything was a mess, and I’d lost my sense of time. I turned to make my way past the dividing screen, only to see Fang Hua’s bed had nothing but his disordered covers. There was no sign of Fang Hua himself. When I dug my hand deep into the covers, they were cold…
A perfectly good person had disappeared. What was going on…wasn’t he too weak to move? Didn’t Second promise to take good care of him…? So why was he gone now? Could it be…
“Shao’er,” a voice called from outside. Han Zichuan’s slow and steady steps led to to the bed by my side.
There was no time to think, so I grabbed him by the collar as tight as I could. “It was you, wasn’t it? Where did you hide him?” Surprised, Han Zichuan gave me a blank stare, hurt showing in his eyes.
“Shao’er, I’m only interested in you…the one person I care about. Since I agreed to let Fang Hua leave the palace back then, how could I hide him away now? Would I really agree to come here with you if I did?”
My mind turned blank. Somehow I released him without realizing it, all the energy gone from my body. I collapsed onto the bed…as a hand came to rest upon my shoulder. It gradually tightened its grip as Han Zichuan spoke in a kind tone.
“Let’s look around a bit more.”
(Fang Hua, I’ve brought back that person for you.)
(The gentle wind, the endless grass…the low notes of the qin, the evening’s setting sun. Ten years endured by that grave with nothing but the floating scent of flowers.)
I was flustered, wholly and truly lost. I’d never felt such a strong sense of unease. A Fang Hua Beast injured by sentiment lived every ten days as if it was a year. I’d been by his side…for a very long time…
When he picked me up from his doorstep, I’d already discovered that the color of his mole was very dark. But despite everything, he should still have held out until I returned. Why was it like this? I’d brought back Han Zichuan…why did it turn out like this…
The bamboo seemed to be sobbing quietly, their forms flashing back and forth in the wind. The windchime beneath the eaves tinkled as the bamboo stalks dashed against each other.
“Shao’er, Shao’er, the yellow earth hill. Fang Hua’s at the yellow earth hill.”
Astonished, I saw a small feather float down from the air and raised my head to see the parrot standing on the roof, staring at me with its liquid eyes.
The yellow earth hill… When I forced Han Zichuan up the mountain, we’d passed by that place, but there was no sign of anyone there.
“You little beast, you’re teasing me again,” I laughed in spite of myself and got up. It was hard for me to believe my own words, but I kept repeating them anyways. “Fang Hua’s body must have been ailing, so Second went with him on a walk.”
The parrot landed on my shoulder anxiously, shuffling its claws as it pecked me with its beak.
“Fang Hua’s always been docile. When I said I didn’t like other people seeing him, he used to stay with me for a month or half a year without ever going out. Second’s the lively type and Fang Hua’s softhearted, so he was probably persuaded to take a trip to town,” I seemed to have lost part of my soul as I walked along, slow and stupid.
“Shao’er, Shao’er, the yellow earth hill. Fang Hua’s buried by the yellow earth hill.”
Its voice suddenly turned sad and shrill…
Abruptly, I came to a stop. It was as if something I’d only tacitly understand had broke through to the surface, tearing apart my last traces of hope. My body started trembling uncontrollably as the shoulder where the bird had pecked me started to ache. When I turned back, the little creature was urging me along, as if it was more anxious than me.
My eyes swept past the corridors, seeing every door flung wide open with no sign of Han Zichuan in sight. Something occurred to me just then and I quickly used my internal energy to leap out of the house, stepping past the bamboo to head to that place.
The yellow earth hill didn’t have such a name originally. Perhaps a place like this, where all sorts of mysterious flowers and extraordinary plants took root, might have an even prettier name. I’d just never bothered to ask Fang Hua what it was. As I rushed on, the thin leaves of bamboo brushed across my face, chilly and a bit painful. There was a single grave standing within that valley, a desolate peak surrounded on all sides by medicinal plants and the aroma of flowers. I could see an indistinct form bending down to pluck something out.
That person was Han Zichuan…
I narrowed my eyes and rushed over, grabbing his hand.
“What are you doing?”
Han Zichuan looked at me with a smile. “I saw your Fang Hua…”
The wind gradually picked up, assailing us with the scent of flowers. I The remains of a skeleton were nestled up next to the tomb, behind
which stood a single Fang Hua wood…solitary and shining pitch-black, emanating a fragrance that permeated its surroundings.
Fang Hua have an exceedingly unrivaled beauty resembling that of a woman’s, that is difficult to find in the world. As an animal that possesses a sentimental disposition, they will be tied down by the threads of sentiment all their lives. Those who cannot escape the bonds of sentiment are robbed of their lives and die young, leaving the numbers who manage to attain Right Fruit fewer and fewer.
Han Zichuan knelt gently on the ground with a hand on his knee, the other brushing against the Fang Hua wood in the soil with hooded eyes. “When a Fang Hua Beast dies, it’ll turn back into dead wood. If they are heavily injured by sentiment, the color of the wood will turn black, and act as a strong dilution agent for poisons. So it really is true…”
My whole body was shaking as I looked at Han Zichuan’s handsome face staring at the Fang Hua wood. His pupils seemed alit with deep interest, but there wasn’t a speck of grief within them…as if such a death was nothing important. He was completely enraptured by this unremarkable Fang Hua wood, staring at it idiotically while I stared at him. The air about us was scented with the same faint fragrance that only followed Fang Hua himself.
Fang Hua was dead…
Han Zichuan suddenly laughed, reaching out to touch the pitch-black wood. My heart sank as my breath caught, and I grabbed Han Zichuan’s hand in a flash, voice low. “What are you doing? Could it be…all this time, you…”
You wanted this Fang Hua wood?! The rest of the words stuck in my throat, refusing to be spoken. Han Zichuan stood looking at me without saying a word.
“Where did you read that part about the Fang Hua Beast you said just now?” I gazed at him indifferently as my grip tightened, nails drawing blood from the palm of his hand.
He curved his lips up into a grin. “Shao’er you fool, we both lived with Fang Hua in the same house…” he dragged out the sentence before grabbing my hand, clasping it tightly. “If you can go to Fang Hua’s study, then so can I.”
“All the years you’ve lived with us was all part of your scheme to get the Fang Hua wood?”
Han Zichuan wore a brilliant smile. “You know I don’t love him.”
Such a lack of love.
I looked at him deeply, eyes filled with distress. “All these years and I’ve never forgotten what happened in the palace. That image of you two drunkenly lying together was like a needle piercing my heart. I’ve buried it for so long, but now you’re telling me you were hugging him on the bed just for something like this?” A complicated look appeared in Han Zichuan’s eyes, before something flickered and disappeared. Whatever he meant to say then, he never did.
I was beside myself with rage. “After I left, Fang Hua got sick in the Long Spring Courtyard, right? You knew for a long time that he was ill, so why did you let him leave the palace? Why did you let him live in this faraway place without anyone to take care of him? Without anyone to defend him? Why did you let him just wait until he died?”
Han Zichuan was still smiling easily when he replied. “This was something Fang Hua requested himself, so all Zhencould do was give my consent.”
“For five years, five entire years…I heard nothing but news of Fang Hua from the palace. All those five years, I thought he was still in court living with you.”
“All of my male attendants were named Fang Hua. Didn’t you find out yourself after coming into the palace? I merely used them to mislead the ministers at court,” Han Zichuan reminded me kindly.
“You misled me as well! You spread news of you and Fang Hua amongst all the commoners, forcing me to suffer after I left you. Do you know how I lived through those five years?!”
“I know,” he laughed. “You took in six princes.” Perhaps he’d noticed I looked unsightly, because he stopped using‘Zhen’. My chest surged with an anger so fierce I could never spit it out or swallow it down. All I did was give him a murderous glare.
“Silly Shao’er, didn’t I send you to him for his final days? You managed to fulfill your filial duty as a disciple.”
“Is that so…” I smiled mournfully.
After we’d spent a night together, after you made me think you were my husband-to-be, you send me off to Fang Hua…you’re so ruthless. Was a single branch of Fang Hua wood that important? For you to take all those pains.
I suddenly lost all my energy. Everything had exceeded my predictions. Han Zichuan took another breath and walked forward, hugging my shivering body close in a firm embrace. I turned my face away, eyes closed to think, before opening them to look at the half-buried Fang Hua wood again.
Fang Hua, I really want to kill this person right now. But I can’t… because, he can save you. Perhaps…there was still hope if I use his blood to revive you.
Han Zichuan seemed satisfied with my docile behavior, smiling as he stroked my hair. His tone of voice grew gentle and soft. “Shao’er, you don’t understand. Ever since the year Fang Hua brought me home, I began to like this sort of peaceful life. Fang Hua was proficient in qin, chess, calligraphy and painting, with good martial arts skills and an excellent temperament. He was just a little simple when it came to human affairs and matters–like a blank sheet of paper. You didn’t understand anything either, but I still envied you because your smile was so carefree. I envied the fact that you could bully me without scruples, make a fool of Fang Hua, and cause chaos in the house all day. Actually, at that time…I didn’t know he was a Fang Hua Beast.”
I had to smile too, though mine was more from ridicule. At that time…I didn’t know he was the crown prince, either.
“Regarding the things that happened in the past, I don’t want to mention them much,” Han Zichuan’s grip on me loosened slightly as he turned away. His high nose and arching eyebrows looked both grave and stern, filled with the aura of a ruler. “There were too many people plotting against me in the court back them. In order to protect my position as crown prince, I was forced to slip out on the precept to finding medicine for my father. Later on, I accidentally stumbled onto the records of the Fang Hua Beast in a book and realized…the hairpin in your hair was made from Fang Hua wood.” And then you decided to hurt Fang Hua even after all that, not even sparing me.
“I’ve always been sincere about my feelings for you. Pity that all you did was chase after your master and never spared a glance for me,” Han Zichuan raised a hand to caress my face, his eyes shining. “I couldn’t reconcile with myself. My father was going to die sooner or later, and I didn’t think it was worthwhile to save a dying man by killing the Fang Hua I respected and admired. But later on, I changed my mind.” He looked at me steadily, almost as if in a daze. “I’d never seen a Fang Hua wood before, much less the once-in-a-thousand-years appearance of the Fang Hua Beast. There were enough people plotting against me that I thought if I had one, I’d be safe from everything–and you’d finally belong to me.”
I shaped my lips into a smile, a little sad. “You racked your brains to say all that, but in the end it was still because you wanted the Fang Hua wood.”
Han Zichuan studied me intently, lips shut without a word.
I moved to block the tomb, saying lightly, “I won’t let you take him away. But you…” Pausing, I gave him a glance. “…aren’t going anywhere, either.”
A grin appeared on Han Zichuan’s face as he replied. “I know.” He still held my hand as before, not harried at all. “Let’s make a bet.”
I gave him an icy look.
Han Zichuan laughed, but tightened his grip on me, saying slowly word- by-word. “I’ll let you take my blood to save Fang Hua. If he revives with his previous life’s memories intact as the Fang Hua of before, I’ll let you go to take care of him for the rest of your lives. I’ll never bother you again.” He paused, before his smile widened. “Otherwise, you’ll go back to the palace with me.” “A Fang Hua wood will reincarnate sooner or later. If he changes into human form…”
“Then I’ll give up on the Fang Hua wood,” he said with resolution.
“You used so much care to set this up, so how could you say you’ll give it up so easily?” I looked at Han Zichuan, voice thin. “Your proposal’s not bad, but I don’t want to bet with you, because…” My eyes were cold as I clapped his shoulders and leaned in. “Even if I’m not gambling….I can still use your blood to save him.”
“Maybe so. I don’t think you even know how many days to feed him fresh blood. There’s no telling when some powerful army will make a surprise attack on the mountain and lay siege to this yellow earth hill. No matter how skilled the Carefree Idler is then, she’ll have trouble protecting the Fang Hua wood.”
Han Zichuan looked off into the distance as he brushed past me. “Let’s place our bets on this final game of ours.”
His clothes whipped noisily in the wind as if he was someone who had gone through countless hardships of life. The only thing missing for the image was the lack of worry etched onto his brow.
“Zichuan, why are you doing this? Even if he turns back into human form and never regains his memories, or never becomes the old Fang Hua, I’ll still leave with him.”
Han Zichuan quirked his lips into a smile and looked at me with an emotion I couldn’t read. “With his injuries so severe, I’m afraid he won’t even have the strength to transform.”
Fang Hua wasn’t just a piece of wood to me. For him, I was willing to fight. I gave him a determined look. “A monarch doesn’t make jokes. You have to do as you say.”
“I wouldn’t bet on something unless I was certain. I’ll have you follow me wholeheartedly into the palace.” he smiled indifferently.
Seeing his drifting sleeves and billowing robes reminded me of floating clouds and flowing waters. His high spirits and daring against that tall, erect figure made it seem as if he was confident of success. I sat for a long time next to the tomb.
If one buries the wood in the dirt, and feeds it a mixture of crushed medicinal herbs mixed with dew touched by the first rays of the morning sun…soon enough the Fang Hua Beast would be born again. Feeding it the blood of the person he loved most would preserve his soul and recover the memories from his past life.
Fang Hua, I’ve already brought that person back.
The gentle wind, the endless grass…the low notes of the qin, the evening’s setting sun. Ten years endured by that grave with nothing but the floating scent of flowers.
These days, I was up before daylight started to break. I’d quietly slip into the eastern rooms to open the windows and extinguish the calming incense in the incense burner. Then I’d kneel in front of the bed to call Han Zichuan’s name. His relaxed eyebrows show that he’d slept peacefully. Little did he know, I’d long taken the time while he was asleep to fly past the bamboo and into the mountains to pluck the freshest flowers and medicinal plants back into the house.
I was happy that I still had the saving grace of being able to do something for my master, Fang Hua.
Han Zichuan might not have been in the palace, but he was used to the bad habit of being waited on. Now there was no one to clothe him, wash him, or put on his shoes, but he still put careful importance on his appearance and made sure he looked presentable before leaving the room. This usually took a few hours.
Every day around this time, I’d go to the yellow earth hill by myself, staring blankly at the skeleton nestled by the tomb. My memories would flood like the tide to submerge me in an infinite sea of sadness…
In the past, it was this corpse that allowed the dead Fang Hua to revive again, but master said he couldn’t remember their past together anymore…
At this moment, my heart was very pained. Master…if you could come back to life, would you still remember me?
Han Zichuan said that Fang Hua was already a piece of wood. The wood was so black that he must have been heavily injured by sentiment, so there was probably no chance for him to reincarnate again. But I refused to believe him…master was such a good person, so how could he just leave me behind?
Contrary to expectations, Han Zichuan was very cooperative these days. He didn’t think of escaping or alerting the palace, but spent his days staring at me while I crushed herbs, petals, and morning dew together to water the Fang Hua wood. He never tried to pluck the Fang Hua wood again, perhaps…due to his bet. I was convinced that Fang Hua cared so much about Han Zichuan in his past life that he’d rather suffer and die from his feelings than take Han Zichuan’s blood to save himself. So…Fang Hua, if you don’t want me to hurt Han Zichuan, hurry and wake up.
Today, there was still no change with the Fang Hua wood. I dug out the cloth from the study again and studied it word by word…but couldn’t find anything. Han Zichuan urged me not to be so anxious. The silk had written that after planting the wood in the earth, a mixture of crushed medicinal herbs mixed with dew touched by the first rays of the morning sun for a month would turn the wood as red as fire, with the disposition of jade. Today was the 17th day, but it was still a shiny black that lacked the warmth from before when touched. Right now it was no different from dead wood. Despite being planted in the earth, it was still cold and lifeless.
Fang Hua, I’ve decided not to wait any longer.
The silk cloth said that after the the Fang Hua wood took human form, true love’s blood was required to nourish it. Han Zichuan has a strong body, so you don’t need to worry about his health. Since you’ve been hurt so seriously, I’m worried that you’ll forget us after you wake up…
Han Zichuan had lost a lot of blood these days and his complexion was ghastly. So in addition to watering Fang Hua with flower and precious medicinal plants, I spent much time boiling medicine and soup for Han Zichuan to bolster his body. Every time this happened, Han Zichuan would lean quietly by the door, looking at me with a silent smile.
Fang Hua, I’ve finally realized how troublesome it is to cook for someone. The only thing I knew how to make were sweet potatoes, but Han Zichuan can’t squat on the ground eating sweet potatoes with me anymore. His health was terrible. If he just died like this, then there wouldn’t be any blood left to save you. So I taught myself how to light the stove by blowing on the flames, even though the smoke choked me to the point of tears every time and stained my face as sooty black as my childhood days.
Fang Hua, you loved to be clean, yet you always cooked me meals in the kitchen all those years, things that you’d never eat. Was it as hard for you as it was for me when you cooked the first time?
Now that you aren’t here, I can’t help but think of you everyday.
The first soup I made was a failure…but Han Zichuan drank it quite happily. The scene reminded me of my childhood when you made me my first meal: that red braised pork I still remember today as delicious.
— Today is the 29th day, just a day short of one month. The Fang Hua wood was still completely black, with no sign of turning red.
This morning while grinding the plants in the courtyard, I suddenly felt a wave of dizziness. It took me awhile to recover. Han Zichuan said it was because I was tiring myself out, and that he wanted Little Li to come from the palace to serve me. I know he was already making plans to return to court.
This bet, had I lost it?
A stalk of wood stood in the dirt. Don’t talk about it changing form to become the previous Fang Hua, it was hard to see if it could transform into human form at all. I tasted the flavor of disappointment while Han Zichuan stood distractedly before a locked door on the western side for a very, very long time…but really, there was nothing for him to worry about.
Right now, only a tiny wish existed to console me. I had no wild wishes for Fang Hua to keep his soul or his memories as my previous master. As long as he could take on human form, as long as he could continue to live, then I’d obediently follow Han Zichuan back to the palace like how we’d agreed.
Today is the 30th day.
The grass around the dirt mound had grown quite a bit, while much of the flowers had withered. But that branch of Fang Hua wood stood alone in the earth as before, still and unmoving. It was only seven cun tall and hadn’t changed in size from the start.
“Shao’er, the wind’s picking up,” a low voice followed the sighing breeze from behind me.
“I know.” I said with low spirits. Han Zichuan leaned against my shoulders, wrapping his arms around my waist. His face was extremely white, but I pretended I didn’t see. He kept me in his embrace and silently studied places where I’d slit his wrist. He didn’t move for a long while, but kept holding me in a warm hug, a sorrowful look in his eyes. Despite this, he was still smiling. His light green sleeves were already dyed red by blood as warm droplets flowed down his fingers to drip onto the Fang Hua wood.
The first hit on target, while the second and third splashed onto the ground.
Blood flowed down the Fang Hua wood to sink into the earth, absorbed by the yellow dirt. And yet the wood remained as cold and black as before with no changes. The wind kept blowing as I stubbornly stared at the wood until my vision blurred.
“Can you unseal my acupoints? I’m a little weary,” Han Zichuan’s voice was very low.
“No,” I replied coldly.
He gave a faint smile and weakly pillowed his head against me, making me bear his entire weight. The warmth of his body blocked much of the late autumn chill, but his words were a little bit lonely. “You’ve always been so callous to me.”
If I really unsealed your acupoints, I’m afraid you’ll die from excessive blood flow. If you did, there would be no one left to save Fang Hua.
“Shao’er…there’s something I should’ve told you long ago,” Han Zichuan released me and gently tugged my hand, before resting his hands on my shoulders. He lowered his head to look at me, gaze earnest and intent. “You’ve used my blood as an ingredient with the precious plants and morning dew to feed him for a month. Nothing’s happened. It’s already past the time for his rebirth, so there’s no way he can take on human form anymore.”
My body began to shake violently. Han Zichuan withdrew his hands and tugged off my headband, using it to stop the bleeding from his wrist. He looked at me again, calling out softly. “Shao’er…” His eyes bore directly into mine. “You’re still not clear on who he really loved?”
I gave him a startled look as the feelings I’d suppressed for so long in my heart began to crumble. He kept on talking.
“You’ve never had an inkling after all these days…? My blood is completely useless to Fang Hua.”
“No, he’s been hurt too deeply and that’s why he can’t take human form. He…” I stubbornly grabbed Han Zichuan’s sleeves, wanting to say more but finding I couldn’t.
Han Zichuan heaved a sigh and gave me a pitying glance. His voice was soft. “Do you know why Fang Hua agreed to come to the palace with me to treat father’s illness? Because I used you as collateral…so he was forced to act for your safety. You really don’t know? After you left the palace, your master left as well.”
I suddenly felt unable to stand, my heart aching to the point I couldn’t breathe as my eyes grew hot.
“How is that possible?” I abruptly stood up, no energy in my voice. “When I was living with him, he didn’t even want to mention your name. If it wasn’t because you hurt him, then…”
“Because after you lost your memories, you became my wife,” Han Zichuan gave me a sad smile. Every word he spoke was like a needle stabbing wounds all over my body.
Where did I go wrong…
If this was the truth, then why did Fang Hua push me away after I regained my memories? And why did he tell me to give his body to Han Zichuan after he died? Why would a person like that love me? And yet, the man standing before me now said Fang Hua loved me…
The joy and pain that surged through my heart was almost unbearable. The force was so alive that it threatened to tear my heart apart, paining me to the point where I couldn’t breathe. Han Zichuan looked at me and suddenly smiled, eyes cool and bright.
“Shao’er, I’ll tell you another thing. The night you can’t forget–the one where we got drunk–I fell atop of Fang Hua, but all he did was mumble ‘Shao’er…my Shao’er.’”
All of my reasoning crumbled into pieces. This was the cruelest thing I’d heard in my life. I gave a dull look to the person in front of me before using all my strength to process what he had just said. These words and sentences brought me no happiness, but only pain. Someone had loved me once, but I threw him away.
“All of this…everything…” I clenched my hands, trying to stay calm. “Why are you telling me this now?” Still, I couldn’t keep my words from trembling.
“He’s just a beast. He raised you until you grew up, taught you medical skills and martial arts, and you called him your master. I’m the one who’s going to live with you for the rest of your life. Fang Hua allowed me to look after you. He begged me to take the Fang Hua wood, hoping that I’d give you a peaceful and happy life.”
“No…you know that the one I love is Fang Hua.”
“But I love you as well. I’m just the same as you…” his voice was filled with loneliness. “For Fang Hua’s sake, you’re willing to do anything.” He raised his wrist, carelessly tracing the skin full of scars with a mild gaze. “I can do that too…and what I want is to break you two apart.”
I was grieved to a point where I had no tears. He turned away, not looking at me any longer as his words were carried on the wind. “You can spend the time you have left with Fang Hua. After a while I’ll come back…to pick up the Fang Hua wood…”
One single person, one solitary wood. The wind blew past my lonely thoughts. Our gazes met across the distance as tears flowed from my eyes.
Han Zichuan left quietly. Since he was the reigning emperor, I couldn’t kill him no matter how much I hated him. When he left, he didn’t forget to issue a decree to summon Little Li from the palace for the purpose of looking after my daily affairs. I suspected most of his job was to keep an eye on me. With these safeguards in place, Han Zichuan was probably worried that I’d follow in Fang Hua’s footsteps if I took things too hard.
He was such an idiot. As the Carefree Idler, why would I kill myself so easily? If I died…then there’d be no one to save Fang Hua. Autumn ended as winter began, and the temperatures grew colder and colder. In the past, the precious plants here were so doted on by Fang Hua that they bloomed in spite of the weather, competing to flower all over the hills. Now that Fang Hua had passed away, they grew still as well, docilely growing as convention dictated with no wild profusion of seeds.
The yellow earth hill became more desolate as well.
Dressed in thick robes, I squatted on the ground to watch after that Fang Hua wood, a faint pain throbbing from my wrist.
“Master,” a soft voice called from my side. I ignored it.
“Master, the wind’s getting stronger. Let’s go back inside,” Little Li bent down to look at me, his hand shaking as he sought to support my arm. I gave him a dull glance. He was anxiously staring off at a point, his breaths obviously unsteady. This time he forgot about rank to scoop up my sleeves, staring with wide eyes at what I was doing. “You’re…this is…” his flurried voice shook in confusion. I actually smiled as I pulled down my sleeves to cover my wrist again.
I’d cut a bit deep this time, but the pain was enough to remind me that I could still experience pain…I wasn’t some sort of walking corpse, but someone who could still feel…
“Master, the emperor told me to take care of you so you wouldn’t do foolish things,” Little Li said angrily, suddenly standing up straight. He stamped his feet a few times before withdrawing some gauze and pills from his robes, tugging my hand over, and binding my injury. “I’m glad I brought some medicine with me when I left the house. Just in time time, you…why do you have so many cuts, what will we do if it scars?”
“Don’t go to all that trouble,” I looked at him directly. “Now that you’ve bandaged up this wound, won’t I need to use time cutting another one?”
“Why are you so cruel to yourself? Look at what’s happened to you in these days,” Little Li looked at me with wide eyes, the rims reddening. My gaze slowly lowered to the dozens of ugly scars on my wrists, taking pleasure in their existence.
Yes…they might have been ugly, but Fang Hua wouldn’t care. He needed my blood, and I was willing to give it. My mouth split into a smile before I heard a dong! When I looked up, Little Li was kneeling on the ground, head down as his body trembled uncontrollably. He looked ready to cry. “Master, it’s your servant who’s unworthy.”
I quietly looked at him. His voice grew lower and lower, as if he was using all his courage.
“During his life, Lord Hua was extremely good to your servant. Later on, your servant came to serve you. Many times, your servant wanted to remind you of the past, but the words dared not leave my lips…to tell the truth, when the emperor told your servant to send you to Lord Hua’s house, your servant wouldn’t have done it even if I died.” “It’s thanks to you that I got to spend the remaining days with him.”
“Your servant was really happy for a while, but if your servant had known this would happen, your servant would’ve refused even if I died.”
“I spent my happiest days during that time.”
He stared blankly at me, saying earnestly, “This time, even if your servant loses his life, I’ll make sure to keep you and Lord Hua safe.”
I smiled, a peaceful and tranquil smile. Little Li raised his head, using his sleeves to wipe his face. He took my hand in his as his lip trembled, blowing softly on the injury there.
“The cut’s not deep, really…I’m not in pain.” When I remembered that Fang Hua might be able to wake up from these drops of blood, my chest felt like spilling over with joy.
Day after day passed.
I don’t know how much blood or medicinal plants Fang Hua needed. My body grew weaker and weaker until I nearly fainted a few times. Little Li’s gaze grew more and more anxious as he studied me. The young princes came a few times, but I refused to see them. I really didn’t want them to catch me in this state. I knew my face was ashen white and my lips were always dry. My body grew to fear the cold more and more, so that I’d spent most of my time huddled up in a chair for warmth. Even burning a day’s worth of fire wasn’t enough to warm me up. With my body like this, no forms of tonics could help me.
The cuts on my wrists healed and were cut open again. I’d grown numb to the point that I barely felt any pain. My hands were now mostly uselessly, as they shook when I even tried to use chopsticks. Later on I told Little Li to forget about chopsticks and give me a spoon (shao zi).
Shao’er… I couldn’t help but laugh. My life was reduced to using a spoon. The name that Fang Hua once gave me really was best.
“Master, you’ve been coughing a lot recently. I want to find a doctor for you.”
“My own medical skills are top-notch. I can diagnose my own illness, so if it’s not something I can fix, I doubt another doctor will, either.”
“That’s no good,” Little Li stared at me. “No matter what you say, illnesses should still be treated. The doctor’s already on the way.” When he finished, his voice dropped. “Just listen to me for once, this is something I did secretly so the emperor wouldn’t know.”
Huddled up on the chair, baking before the fire, I gave a soft ‘hn’ of consent. He smiled, revealing a row of white teeth. My gaze slowly crept to him. I still didn’t understand Little Li. The first time I met him, he was a clever and intelligent young eunuch, but a blink of the eye had him as the emperor’s most trustworthy Head Eunuch Li. Now he was bearing the burden of looking after a useless person like me without a single complaint. Perhaps he really had a guilty conscience, but who knew what methods he used to appease the emperor. Though the court was always delivering food and tonics, the emperor never mentioned sending someone over to pick me up. Han Zichuan might have been waiting for me to give up…or maybe he realized that a stubborn person like me would never give up for the rest of my life.
This was fine, too…a broken body like mine wasn’t something anyone dared to take in.
I stretched lazily as I slowly got off the chair. Little Li wanted to hold out a hand to support me, but I refused. The weather was slightly better today, with warm sunlight. It was about time I paid a visit to Fang Hua.
The yellow earth hill was as desolate as before, but a tree by the grave mound had sprouted buds that looked like plum blossoms. I paid my respects to the grave before circling around to Fang Hua, bending down to slowly squat on the ground, blowing aside the dried leaves gathered on the earth. Then I weakly sat down.
There had been frost last night, so it was still a little chilly. I gave a yawn as I looked sideways at the pitch-black Fang Hua wood stuck in the earth. Smiling, I leaned forward to stroke the wood. “Why is it so hard for you to change into red wood?”
I smiled until I couldn’t smile anymore, still staring at it idiotically. “Master, I’ve brought your favorite red lotuses again…I don’t have enough strength anymore, or else I’d gather the sweetest morning dew from the cliff edges.”
If this was like a typical day, he’d definitely say something like, ‘you’ve worked hard, Shao’er,’ But now there was only this branch of dead wood standing solitarily in the soil, completely silent. I reached out…numb fingertips shaking as I touched that glossy black Fang Hua wood. This time, it wasn’t my hand that ached, but my long exhausted heart. I buried my head in my knees, wiping my face on coarse sleeves, and tried my best not to cry.
“Did you think about leaving me behind beforehand? You said you wanted to drink the wine I brewed for you. And you said that after you got well you’d make some warm mantou for me. But I left you when you needed me most. You must have really been hurt, right?” The wind blew noisily, but the surroundings were quiet enough for me to hear my own heart beat.
“Fang Hua, I miss you so much. How could you stand to just go and leave me alone?” My eyes grew hot as a sharp pain rushed to my chest. I couldn’t breathe…
So this was my punishment.
The cuts on my wrists broke open again as tears poured from my eyes. I reached out a blood-soaked finger to touch the Fang Hua wood again and again. My other hand clutched the front of my robes. Master, you told me to wander the jianghu. Don’t you know? One person’s jianghu isn’t a jianghu at all.
Last night I’d dreamed about our lives at the house again. Those days… were my happiest. I won’t forget them for the rest of my life. Weary, I leaned against the grave mound and closed my eyes for an unknown length of time.
Who was calling me? I turned around, not understanding.
A dark form suddenly appeared before me. I fell back onto the ground, a bit dizzy as I rubbed my forehead. My knees knelt on the yellow earth before I propped up my body with difficulty, finally regaining my breath. There was a tall figure standing there, blocking out the sun. He looked at me blankly for a long time before speaking.
“Why have you become like this?”
I closed my eyes. He knelt down to gently grasp my hand. Looking at Nongyu’s face, I only saw how miserable and desolate he appeared. He shakily brushed against the cuts on my wrist. “Head Eunuch Li sent a messenger pigeon telling me to hurry here. I guessed that you might’ve had trouble, but I didn’t know things were so serious. I’ve heard of Lord Hua’s situation already. What are you doing? You already know…he can’t come back from the dead anymore.”
I stared at him in a trance.
Nongyu held my face in his hands, his eyes filled with pain. A finger brushed across my dry lips as he spoke softly. “How could Little Li allow your foolishness? You have to rest well and take good care of your health. I…I won’t allow you to do such rash things.”
“I want to save him.”
“You’d be hard-pressed to keep your own life at this rate.” I opened my eyes wide, my vision as blurry as a fog. “No, I’m going to save him. Han Zichuan said Fang Hua loved me.” My chest suddenly felt swollen with grief. “Even if I have to use every drop of blood in my body, I’ll bring him back to life.”
Nongyu placed a hand on my shoulders as he sighed. “The Fang Hua wood’s already passed its best time for rebirth. It’s impossible.”
“You don’t understand,” I grew still for a while, before speaking quietly. “I know Fang Hua…” I slowly smiled as I looked into his eyes, speaking earnestly. Despite this, tears kept falling down my face.
“He needs me to keep him company. That’s what he always wished for before he died, but I turned around and left him. He must have thought I didn’t want him anymore and avoided him on purpose…now he’s angry at me so I have to be with him everyday, keeping him company and indulging his whims until he’s over his temper. Then he’ll come out.”
Nongyu was visibly moved by my words. He drew me into an embrace and said nothing more beyond holding me tight. I closed my eyes as I lay tiredly in his arms, tears moistening his clothes. I wanted Fang Hua to know how much I loved him…
Crying had tired me out and now I felt extremely dizzy. I felt someone picking me up but was too exhausted to resist. My salty tears mixed with the wounds on my wrist…it hurt…and the blood carried the tears away as it flowed from my cuts…
My head felt very faint, very tired…
A drop of blood mixed with tears fell to land on the Fang Hua wood, surrounded by countless drops of blood…slowly, the yellow earth swallowed it all up. Nongyu gently rose with me in his arms. As he prepared to turn around, I heard the sound of flowers bursting into bloom and smiled a foolish smile. I struggled free from his grasp to fall on the ground, clumsily reaching for the Fang Hua wood as I crawled back step by step. “Don’t be like this…” Nongyu grabbed me from behind, tightening his embrace as he looked anxiously towards the glowing Fang Hua wood. The black on that dead branch was slowly condensing into a miasma around the body, before a gust of wind scattered the dark fog. In its place was a fiery red Fang Hua wood that shone with the disposition of jade. Around it, all the flowering plants began to sprout buds of their own, on the verge of bursting into bloom…
I couldn’t hold back a sob. Fang Hua, is that you?
An illusory image of an immortal-like figure appeared by the side of the tomb, looking off into the distance. There was a disconsolate melancholy on his quiet face. My heart twitched before starting to pound. I don’t know where I got the strength from, but I pushed Nongyu’s hands aside a broke into a staggering run towards Fang Hua. Reaching out a hand, I touched nothing but cold air. His appearance turned hazy with his floating white robes as I ran straight through his body to fall to the ground.
A mirage…he was nothing but a shadow.
That figure had his back to me as he stood before Nongyu, speaking in a soft voice. “I don’t know if anyone will see this…but I have a smart and adorable disciple who took in six young princes. If you ever see her, I have to trouble you to give her this message on my behalf. I’m living a leisurely and carefree life on my own, so please don’t miss me.”
Grief filled my heart. Nongyu stared blankly through the shoulders of the figure to look at me. Fang Hua’s form faded in and out and his voice was very quiet, as if speaking to himself. Nongyu seemed frightened by the entire thing and slowly lifted a finger to point at me. Fang Hua suddenly turned around, looking at me from a distance with a small smile.
My heart was pounding nonstop. I raised a hand to clutch my chest as I saw on his face the expression I dearly missed. Though we were separated by ten thousand torrents and a thousand crags of gloom, his eyebrows wrinkled only slightly, and his eyes were filled with warmth. More pain tore at my heart. How was I to describe such a smile…?
Even if I took shallow breaths, it felt as if my insides were being ripped apart.
Like the spring breeze…or moonlight, there was a sense of heartbroken grief. It was bright and gentle, yet mixed with something that made me sick at heart. It was arrogant to say I was familiar with this sensation, but the grief was something that had yet to fade.
He didn’t speak for a long time, as if he was really studying me, feeling all that I felt. His lips curved into a hint of a smile as he stared in rapt attention, almost as if he wanted to use all his strength to see me completely… When the sun showed itself again, its rays shone through his clothes. His image gradually grew faint and blurry.
“Master, don’t go…don’t throw Shao’er away.”
He used his last moments to smile at me, warm and elegant. But I could see his lips move. Though I couldn’t hear him, I could clearly feel the words he spoke, brief as they were:
In an instance of spring, the trees bloomed with youth.
 spoon/shao zi ( 勺⼦) – the ‘shao’ in spoon is the same character as the ‘shao’ in Shao’er.
 for an instance of spring, the trees bloomed with youth (愿得韶华刹那 ， 开 得 满 树 芳 华 ) – yuande shaohua shana, kaide manshu fanghua, certain words in this sentence resemble the names of certain characters.