Ahhhhh Surprise Post! THis is the finale to Song Ning’s story. The original schedule would have had me finishing this this week anyway, and I really didn’t want to hang on to this anymore. This is one of the most heart rending stories, and I really wanted to finish it quickly and move on to the next part. 😛
Here’s a picture for you all, of what could have been happier times for Song Ning and Shen An.
It was a warm autumn day. I used a scarf to cover my face because I could not allow anyone to see Song Ning appearing here. A guard at the entrance of the camp had gone off with my letter to look for Shen An. I had forged Song Ning’s handwriting, and invited Shen An to meet me alone at the the hill rise where hollyhocks bloomed.
He surely would come.
The hill was covered with hollyhock flowers swaying in the wind. I had never been to this place but have heard a lot of stories about it. The most famous story of them all was about how since the previous dynasty, this has been the burial ground of heroes; it was their blood’s righteousness that gave life to the spread of hollyhocks. If you uprooted one, you would still be able to smell the scent of their bones on its roots. I thought that I had found an appropriate place for Shen An.
The rustling of footsteps against dry leaves came from behind. I turned and smiled at him. This is the illusion that Song Ning loved so dearly her entire life, the illusion that she could not let go even if it meant death.
Large black boots trampled on the hollyhocks. He hugged me tightly and his low voice sounded in my ear, sighing, “Ah Ning. I’ve missed you.”
The scent of blood that wafted to my nostrils grew stronger. I pulled out the dagger that had pierced into his heart from his back and gently whispered into his ear, “I’ve missed you too.”
It was the 14th day of the ninth month, in the 18th year of the reign of the Duke Lizhuang. The Jiang army had fought a victorious war, but no trumpets and fanfare greeted their return to the capital because their general had been assassinated. In the wake of the fall of their war hero, the entire country fell into mourning.
The General’s Mansion was decked in the white banners of mourning. Xiao Lan and I snuck in amidst the throng of mourners coming to pay their last respects and saw a spirit tablet and incense placed on a high altar, flanked by a pair of white glazed vases holding bouquets of flowers I could not name.
The flames of the burning white candles surrounding the large uncovered ebony coffin that occupied the main hall cast a lonely shadow. Song Ning clung to the side of the coffin, and quietly stared at the person lying within the coffin. Someone would come up to her from time to time to offer their condolences and consolation, but received no reaction from her.
“This is the good dream that you’ve weaved for her?” Xiao Lan asked me.
I could not understand him. “Do you think that this is a good dream. This is obviously a nightmare.”
I have purposefully destroyed the loveliness in order to allow Song Ning to see reality. In this world, there is a type of loveliness that could take someone’s life. Most people will first think of women, but why would a woman make life difficult for another woman? What I was referring to was not women, but this Hua Xu Realm.
I wanted to explain this to Xiao Lan, but he had already changed the subject, “When you accidentally killed Liu Qiqi, you were so distressed. I never thought that you would have the courage to kill someone with your own hands.”
“Because I have developed. You must look at the problem from a developed point of view,” I replied.
Night fell and all the guests had departed. Husband and wife were left alone in the main hall, only that one has departed while the other was still alive. Song Ning’s pale face rested against the coffin, her soft voice carried by the night wind into the corridors before dispersing in the candlelight, “We’re finally alone together again.”
Her long fingers caressed the surface of the coffin. Just as if they were having a pillow talk, she said, “I had wanted to personally tell you the good news when you return. They wanted to write to you about it but I had stopped them, because I had wanted to see your happiness with my own eyes. You do not know… how long I had waited for this day. I wanted to see you, I had missed you so much.”
The birds outside the hall cawed suddenly and the candles flickered. She covered her eyes with her hand, and her calm voice suddenly choked out, “Shen An, we are going to have a child.” She said it so softly and gently before his spirit tablet. She spoke the words to him, but alas – he could no longer hear them.
I entered the hall just as she finished speaking. The large white banner flapped in the night wind. She looked up suddenly, “Shen An?”
I stepped out from behind the white banner and walked towards the candlelight so that she can see me.
Her teary eyes recognised my red dress and her raised spirits dimmed. Her expression became empty once more.
A draft blew into the hall, rustling my skirts. I looked at her, “I am not Shen An, Song Ning. I’ve come to lead you out of this illusion.”
A confused expression appeared on her face, “Illusion?” Her confusion only lasted a second before reason returned, “I remember you. I’ve seen you in the snow mountains at Canglu Ye. You are…”
I walked closer to her and smiled, “The first time we met was not in the mountains at Canglu Ye, Song Ning. All of this is just an illusion I created for you.”
I did not notice when Xiao Lan appeared by my side, calmly taking in the surroundings of the hall.
I continued walking towards her, “In this illusion, your husband has died and has this grand funeral. But in reality, he is still alive and well. He has mistreated you, married another woman and had children with her. You used your life to enter into this bargain with me, for me to create this dream where the two of you can spend your lives and grow old together. In this illusion that I’ve created for you, he truly did fall in love with you. But all this is just the manifestation of the demons within your heart… they’re not real.”
As I spoke these words, I saw her face slowly turn from white to ashen gray. Fear crept into her eyes. This is not the Song Ning from seven years later that I was familiar with. She took a step back and knocked into the white glazed vase behind her. It fell with with a crash and a sliver of porcelain flew up, slicing her long fingers.
“Song Ning, you don’t believe me?” I asked.
Time seemed to still and the air grew heavy. I’ve told her everything. Shen An’s death has broken her heart and caused her so much grief; surely she would now be unwilling to stay in this hopeless illusion. There is nothing more terrible than the death of your lover. After experiencing such pain, the pain from the fact that Shen An did not love her in reality surely cannot compare. Song Ning’s illness is that of the heart. As long as she is able to let go and return to reality, she would surely be able to recover quickly.
She scrambled to gather the flowers that have spilled across the floor. I was about to get down to help her but Xiao Lan stopped me. Halfway through, she suddenly stopped moving and looked at the pale autumn flowers in her hand. After a while, she finally said, “Do you know, all this time, I kept having this dream, this terrifying dream. And when I woke up, I would be so afraid until I could not stop shivering. All along, that dream… all of it…” She looked up at me in a panic, “All that, was real.”
Two large tears rolled off the corner of her eyes. She asked me, “The things that you have not told me about the reality, is there also… my son? I had a son, his name was Shen Luo. He passed away… from a cold?”
I did not reply her. She looked steadily at me for long time, before finally giving me a small smile amidst the tears, “I want to stay here.”
My heart dropped.
She lowered her head to look at her fingers, her tears falling on the palm of her hand. She looked away towards Shen An’s spirit tablet. “You say that all this is just an illusion you created for me, that all this is false. And what I saw in my dream is actually real. But such a reality is too cruel. Between the reality I dreamt and this illusion I’m in now – which is more painful?
That reality, even without experiencing it firsthand, I was already shivering and unable to withstand it when I was just from dreaming about it. If it is as you say it is, that there was really that seven years, how could I have survived that? When I think about it, I feel that Shen An’s death is not so difficult to stomach after all. At least we had wonderful memories together and I will have his child. I think I can survive this. Yes. I will be able to survive this. He would also want me to carry on. But if you want me to return with you to what you call reality – to that unbearable situation. The Shen An in the world doesn’t even want me to live, why would I want to continue living?”
I had no response to her speech. The only sounds were that of the whistling of the wind and tree branches rustling against each other.
I wanted to save her, but ultimately failed to do so.
She leaned on the coffin to help her stand and planted the flowers in her hand within the other white glazed vase. Because her back was to me, I could not see her expression. I could only hear her say softly, “From what Miss has said earlier, I had used my life in exchange for Miss creating this illusion. Have I died already in reality? If that is the case, please cremate my body and take my ashes… back to the State of Li and give them to my brother.”
I opened my mouth and only uttered a single word, “Alright.”
Five days later, Xiao Lan and I left Song Ning’s Hua Xu Realm. During the time in between, we returned to the mountains at Canglu Ye because due to the tight timeline earlier, Xiao Lan had been not finished two of his maps. Coincidentally, we learned that Liu Qiqi had not died after all. She was rescued by a hunter and to repay his kindness, she had married him.
Even Liu Qiqi got a decent husband.
I told Xiao Lan, “I should not have killed Shen An. I did not think that it would end like this, that Song Ning would refuse to leave this dream. I wanted to save her, that was why I killed Shen An – but I ultimately caused her to suffer.”
Xiao Lan looked at me for a good while before he gently said, “This is truly a good dream. Lady Shen wish was for him to spend his life loving her, and never betray her. General Shen died at a time when he loved her most. She will have his heart that never betrayed her love, and live on. After she passes this period of grief, she will truly have a lifetime of happiness that is free from worry. If you did not kill General Shen, then that may lead to endless troubles. Could you guarantee that within this illusion, he would never betray her love his entire life?”
I expressed my surprised, “You can actually reason all of this out with me. Isn’t it that you men hate to talk about this kind of lovey-dovey matters?”
He cast a glance at me, “Is there such thing? If there is truly such a thing, then the entire country’s brothels will have to cease business.”
I reflected on that and felt that he had really struck the nail on his head.
I held Xiao Lan’s hand and prepared to leave Hua Xu Realm. He extracted his hand out of my grasp and held my hand instead and gently said, “An illusion is but an illusion. You cannot take these illusions too seriously.”
He actually said such a thing. A pair of geese flew high in the sky.
Although half a year had past within the Hua Xu Realm, it has only been one day in the mortal world. Once we escaped the dreamscape, a rush of warmth suddenly travelled through my body into the place where the Pearl resides; even my blood is heated up from the experience. That was the Pearl absorbing Song Ning’s life essence. In the backdrop of this lonely sunset, she passed away quietly without anyone knowing.
The servants still stood by the water pavillion. Jun Wei and Xiao Huang was napping lazily nearby the pavillion. Everything was so quiet and peaceful, it was as if nothing had happened.
Zhi Su saw Xiao Lan and cried out in happy surprise, “Gongzi!” That woke Jun Wei and Xiao Huang up. Both man and tiger bounded up to me to make sure that I was not injured.
It was at this moment when a spark suddenly appeared within the pavillion which quickly turned into a fiery blaze. Jun Wei stilled in shock, “Isn’t Song Ning still inside?” With that, he made to enter the pavillion to save her but I pulled him back.
“Looks like she had already made her final decision in advance,” Xiao Lan said quietly.
I quickly told Jun Wei what had happened in brief. I watched the pavillion burn and suddenly remembered that she had asked me to cremate her body. This is exactly what Song Ning would do. Without my lifting a finger, she had already made all the preparations before she even entered the dream.
Screams of shock and horror came from the other side of the pond. A few loyal servants tried to rush into the fire but was forced back by the flames. Song Ning has always been careful and the fire had probably spread to every inch of the pavillion. She wanted to burn her body to ashes, for the ashes to be placed in a porcelain jar and returned to her homeland she had bid a final farewell to seven years ago.
The fire burned brighter and stronger in the wind and lit the sky a fiery red. A burning beam fell from the room into the pond; acrid smoke poured out in place of the extinguished flames. The pillars of the pavillion suddenly collapsed and one could see the rattan bed burning with Song Ning in it. She looked as if in a peaceful sleep.
In similar folktales, the story would usually end with a bout of heavy rain. But in this story, the pavillion slowly burned itself out. Old Heaven did not even shed a tear. The cool evening breeze blew and the blood-red setting sun shed light on the ruins and the servants kneeling before it. None of them dared to move Song Ning’s remains.”
I told Xiao Lan, “Let’s go and collect her remains.”
He looked past me and said, “No need. The person who has come to collect her remains has arrived.”
I turned my head curiously and saw the person Xiao Lan spoke off standing by the paved pathway. The person who has come to collect Song Ning’s remains, the person who pushed her to her death in the first place.
Shen An, her husband.
He wore a white coloured brocade robe with black patterns decorating his collar and sleeves. It looked like a luxurious mourning gown that was so apt for the occasion. He slowly walked towards her, his white robe matching his pale face. His face remained cold but his voice was shaking, “She… Where is she?”
I pointed towards the ruins in front of the pond, “Have you heard that she had died, so you’ve come to collect her ashes? She told me that she wants them placed in a large porcelain jar, a porcelain jar decorated with white-blue glaze. Have you brought the jar?”
He opened his mouth but did not say anything. Instead, he turned to hurry towards the destruction, but tripped and almost fell. The servants kneeling in front of the pavillion quickly moved to clear a path for him. I carried my qin and followed him in time to see his body sway before kneeling heavily in the ruins. The setting sun behind him cast a long shadow.
I walked around him and saw Song Ning’s remains. Just this morning, I saw her with her hair done up in a high bun, her cheeks reddened with rouge – such beauty that is difficult to describe.
And by dusk, all that is left was a pile of bones.
Time stood still and I saw Shen An quietly kneeling in this piece of frozen time.
A charred crossbar broke off with a resounding ‘pa’. As if awoken by the sound, he fiercely and suddenly grabbed hold of her remains but his voice was gentle, “Didn’t you say that even if you die, you would first want to see me dead before you? Didn’t you say I had betrayed you, so you want to see how the Heavens would punish me? You hate me so. I haven’t died, so how can you die ahead of me?” He received no reply.
He hugged her tightly and carefully, as if she were a rare and precious treasure. His face pressed against her skull, and as if speaking to a lover, he said, “Ah Ning, say something…”
The smell of smoke and ash still filled the ruins. Even the ground was still hot.
I saw all of this, and suddenly felt the emptiness of life. I asked him rudely, “What do you want her to say? She can no longer say anything, even if you now wanted to hear her speak. But there is something she once told me, that on the night of her wedding, she had wanted to speak sweet words to you. She had just come to Jiang and was unfamiliar with the way of life here but her eyes and heart were filled with you. She did not have parents or sisters. No one taught her how to make her husband happy. But that night, she had truly wanted to tell you, “Husband, I am giving myself to you, please treasure me well.” Alas – you never gave her to opportunity to say it aloud.”
He suddenly raised his head.
I lowered myself and looked into his eyes, “You said that Song Ning hated you. She actually never hated you. There should be no woman in the world who would love you the way she did.”
He gazed at me intently. It was as if some invisible thing had hit him hard, his ashen face lost all colour. After a long while, he laughed and mumbled to himself, “She loved me? How could you say that? She never loved me. She had looked forward to me dying in battle.”
I found a place to sit and placed my qin on my lap. “Those were not words from her heart.” I looked up at him, “Shen An, I heard that you have not seen Song Ning for two years. Do you still remember her face? Why don’t I let you see the her from years ago one last time?
I did not wait for his reply before starting to play the last part of her Hua Xu Melody. By playing the Melody, the dreamscape I created for Song Ning will appear in this mortal world. I never needed him to reply. Regardless of whether he wanted to or not, there are some things that he must come to know.
In the weak light of dusk, in the middle of the ruins, the scenes of the past that appeared in thin air was reflected in the pond’s waters.
It was the snowstorm in the desert, Song Ning lying flat on the horse’s back as they cross numerous sand dunes. Her hand was scratched by a piece of sharp gravel that was blown by the strong wind. She licked the wound with her tongue, hugging the horse’s neck and hurrying the tired war horse, “Run a little faster, I beg you to run a little faster. Shen An can’t hold on for much longer.”
It was the battlefield at Canglu Ye. She got off the horse and teetered over to the mountains of corpses. Her face was red from the strong wind blowing snow at her and her entire body was covered with dirt and dried blood. She reached into the mountain of corpses in front of her and turned over the bodies one by one. From dawn to dusk, she finally found the person she was looking for. She used her sleeve to wipe the dirt and blood from his face and hugged him, crying, “Shen An, I knew that I ought to come.” Before she finished speaking, she had covered her eyes and her tears fell like rain.
It was the mountain cave near the battlefield. He was covered with her winter velvet cloak to ward off the cold. Over and over again, she fed him water by forcing it past his lips, forcing him to swallow mouthful by mouthful. There was not a star in the sky and the cold winter wind whistled outside. She trembled and fell on his chest, “Why haven’t you woken up. Are you never going to wake up again? Shen An, I’m afraid.” She held him close and curled up next to him, “Shen An, I’m afraid.”
It was the three days they spent in the mountains. She was carrying him on her back when she tripped and fell down the slope. There was a wooden spike at the bottom of the slope. She used her entire strength to protect him. The spike grazed her waist as they rolled past. She gasped in pain, “Lucky.” She kissed his eyelids and supported herself to sit up. She held his face, “I will save you. Even if I die, I will save you.”
The Melody suddenly stopped. I asked him, “Have you ever seen Song Ning like this?” Before I finished asking, he had already cut me off, “That is not real, I don’t believe it.” Shen An had one hand on his chest, his forehead had already broken into cold sweat. His body shook violently, but he kept his gaze on me and said, one word at a time, “All this that you’ve shown me, I don’t believe it. It is not real, I do not believe it.”
I found it funny so I really laughed aloud, “Shen An – whether it is real or otherwise, you know it best deep in your heart. Once upon a time, she had wanted to tell you all this but you never gave her the chance.”
“Shen An, do you know how did Song Ning die? An illusion. She indulged herself in an illusion, and paid for it with her life. In this illusion, you finally fell in love with her and spent your lives together. It is actually not a problem for her to lose herself in this illusion. After all, one always desires what one cannot have – that is the way of humans. But you died in battle later. Even after you died, she was unwilling to leave the illusion. She would rather bear the pain of losing you forever than to live with the pain you give her in reality. She ordered for her body to be burned because she was unwilling to leave anything for you. She had originally loved you so much. Shen An, you do not know, but she had loved you for seven years.”
When I finished, I saw his trembling fingers touch the jade bracelet on her wrist. He held on to it tightly until his fingertips turned white. His body jerked suddenly and he vomited a mouthful of blood. The red blood spilled on Song Ning’s ribs. He cried out her name, as if his pain and grief can no longer be contained, “Ah Ning!” But she can no longer reply.
I carried my qin, “She has asked me to bring her ashes back to Li. From here onwards, the two of you are no longer related in anyway. General Shen, three days from now, I will come for Song Ning’s ashes.”
He ignored me, bent over and carried her remains. Step by step, he left the pavillion, looking as if he could keel over any minute.
The servants on the ground still sobbed quietly.
I said coldly, “This is also good. Then would General Shen please realise her last wishes, that is to place her ashes in a porcelain jar decorated with blue-white glaze and pass it to her brother with your own two hands?”
The silence cut like a sharp knife. After a long while, he finally asked in a hoarse voice, “Did she have any last words for me before she died?”
I stared at his back, “None. Not a single word. She had nothing more to ask from you.”
Not long after this incident, we heard that the States of Jiang and Li were once more at war. The Li army was led by the Great General Song Yan whilst the Jiang army had the Zhenyuan General, Shen An. At that time, we were sightseeing near the border of Jiang.
On the seventh day of the fifth month, in the rainy night, Xiao Lan brought news that Shen An has died at Canglu Ye. He had the perfect opportunity, and ought to have won this battle handily. Nobody knows how he ultimately lost the battle and died in the process.
We heard that just before he died, he ordered his subordinates to bury him in the wilds of Canglu Ye. When they were about to bury him, they discovered a small porcelain jar which contained some unknown white powder. When his concubine heard that he had died in battle, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the main hall that night itself.
Xiao Lan asked what I felt about it. I smiled at him and said, “If the Princess Jingwu, Song Ning were still alive, then I believe Shen An would not die. Because in this world, there would have been a person who would love him and save him without having a care for her life. Unfortunately, she has already died.”
He kept quiet for a while, before he said, “So it is because Song Ning has died, that he is dead too?”
I asked, “Is it’?”
He remained silent.
I watched the rain outside the window and said quietly, “I don’t believe it.” I lowered my head and asked Xiao Huang, “Do you believe it?” Xiao Huang who was contentedly gnawing at a roast chicken, raised his head to cast one look at me when he heard me call him, before lowering his head to continue gnawing.
We sat opposite each other in silence for a little while. I finally asked him, “Why haven’t you been wearing blue clothing recently?”
“Why must I wear blue clothing?” he laughed.
“Because you’re called Xiao Lan,” I replied.
He raised a perfect eyebrow, “I was always curious why you never asked my name. Isn’t Xiao Lan something that you gave me……” He stopped and looked as if he was thinking hard of the appropriate word to use, “Isn’t it a nickname you gave me?”
I thought back and realised that that was truly the case. I started to pour myself a cup of tea, “You must already have a name. Errr… Actually, I feel that a name is just something to refer to you by. I’ve gotten used to calling you Xiao Lan, so I forgot you real name. What is your real name?”
He clearly said, “My name is Mu Yan.”
My hand slipped and the teapot crashed onto the floor.
 What he actually said was, “慕言，思慕的慕，无以言对的言，我的名字。” He basically explains that his Mu is from 思慕, meaning admiration, and his Yan is “words” from the phrase without words. But all this is quite difficult to explain if you don’t know know chinese – I’m not even doing a good job here. At the end of the day, the takeaway is that his name roughly means “words of admiration”.
I actually don’t have much to say because I’m still melancholic from translating this in one sitting. Perhaps it would have been easier if I had broken it up.
The ending someone reminds us that there are no real villains in this story. I had been very harsh in Shen An in one of my previous posts. At that point, I was re-discovering the story – the intensity of it – but Shen An’s reaction in this chapter proves again that he was not a bad man. He had fallen in love with the girl who rescued him – whom he believed was LQQ. If Song Ning was there when he woke up, the the tragedy would not have happened, because he loved the girl who rescued him so unreservedly that he would love her even if she was his enemy’s sister.
And LQQ may not necessarily be evil. She just fell in love with a young handsome general. Perhaps she really never thought that Song Ning will come back. She was cowardly and selfish, but all these are human failings.
And Song Ning – perhaps in the comfort of the dreamscape, she has the happiest ending of them all. That as Xiao Lan / Mu Yan said, she can now live her life happily and without worries. She will have her son, and a family, and the undying love of the man she loves as well.
I don’t know. I’m still stewing in my reflections. Feel free to drop a comment with your thoughts. With the story at a close (and Xiao Lan’s real identity revealed), we should be able to discuss this first sub-story freely now!