I am going to be on holidays all next week. I will work hard and have the Tuesday night/Wednesday morning post ready to go and have it auto-post for me. I may not be able to get the following post ready for next Friday night/Saturday morning.
Hundreds of years ago, this is how their story began…
Insert Chapter 1.1 – Beautiful Bones (1)
She still could remember, the day he became her teacher was a brilliantly sunny day.
In this generation of the Cui family of Qinghe, she was actually the only female in the lineal descent. The others had mostly died in infancy. Because of her family’s great power and influence, when she was still in her mother’s womb, her hand had already been promised in marriage to the crown prince. According to her childhood wet nurses, if at the time, a male had been born instead, the child would likely have been secretly swapped for a girl for the sole purpose that one day, she would reside in the palace of the empress.
Fortunately, it had been a girl.
But alas, this girl was born with the inability to speak.
Thus, for this reason, she became the student of the Xiao Nanchen Prince, the prince who held the control of a great army of seven hundred thousand, the one whom the empress dowager was most fearful of, and the youngest uncle of the crown prince. He, however, was not born of the empress dowager herself. According to Mother, this act would give her a strong supporter, and at the same time, she could use her teacher-disciple status with him to, in the future, bring in the support of this uncle for the crown prince.
One move, two gains.
Two birds with one stone.
She seemed to understand, yet not quite, all the stakes and complicated interactions, but when she recalled that day, how a single wave from this teacher’s hand had caused the entire army to kneel in unison and the air of authority he had emitted, she had a feeling of eager anticipation. If she had not already secretly had a glimpse of him that day, she would have thought that Xiao Nanchen Prince was actually over thirty years old; otherwise, he could not have such outstanding military achievements that caused the imperial family to tread cautiously with him.
Under the observing eyes of many people, Shi Yi very carefully and properly bowed and paid the ceremonial respects of a disciple to her teacher. Taking the cup of tea someone beside her had handed to her, she gripped it with her two little hands, and, one step at a time, approached the young man who was sitting there in the center.
The liquid in the cup swayed back and forth slightly, causing ripples to form.
With every step she took, she did not dare lose her focus, until she finally stood before him and very respectfully raised the tea cup above her head.
She thought, if it was any of the other disciples, they would have reverently said, “Teacher, please have tea,” but she could only stand there quietly. The only thing she could do was hold the cup steady with both her hands. Very quickly, a hand took the cup from her. His other hand held the cup’s lid as he gently took a sip. “Shi Yi, you are called Eleven at home?” Eleven raised her head and looked at him with sparkling eyes as she nodded.
“As it turns out, I have ten disciples already. Would it be alright if I also call you Eleven?”
He did not address himself as “your teacher” and merely used “I.”
Shi Yi stared blankly at him in slight surprise and could not help glancing at her mother, who was far off to the side.
Only after Mother gave a nod did she also nod her head. She thought, such a strange teacher and prince.
Many years afterward, when she thought about that day, she could still clearly remember it. He had been wearing a turquoise-colored long robe, and there seemed to be a smile in his eyes, like a warm ray of dazzling sunlight on a cloudy day. Xiao Nanchen Prince, whose name had become renowned when he was still a youth and whose military feats were illustrious, yet still treated each one of his disciples, soldiers, and generals well, was from that day forward her teacher. And this was something that would never change for this lifetime.
She was the future crown princess, so she was different from her other ordinary senior brothers and senior sisters. In the prince’s manor, she had her own separate courtyard with its own entrance and her own personal maids. But it was also for this reason that, in the first two years under his discipleship, she had been ostracized. Because of her status, those people did not dare do anything to her, but they treated her coldly, as if she was a stranger. This did not overly affect her as it was also because of her status that she even more so had Teacher’s affection. She would frequently accompany him alone in his study and was even allowed to go up into the forbidden place of the prince’s manor –– the library tower.
Then, when Teacher became aware of their actions and admonished them, all her senior brothers and sisters finally began to slowly accept her. She could not speak and would always smile. Her smiles would make each person feel warm and happy, so although her outer appearance was merely average and not outstanding, everyone was fond of her.
However, Teacher still only allowed her alone to go up the library tower. Some senior brothers could not resist bringing a brush and paper to her and asking her what treasures were contained within there that it would be a prohibited place of the prince’s manor. Each time, she would shake her head and smile but not write anything, and occasionally, her eyes would flicker away evasively.
Inside, the library tower was only three levels high, and all year round, the scent of pines and bamboo pervaded the air. When the lamps were not lit, it was very dim. The first time she went there, she had actually snuck in in secret also. Shortly after she had come to reside in the prince’s manor, the enemy army of a neighbouring country had initiated a large-scale invasion of the border areas, and Teacher had led an army into battle in defense. At the time, she did not know any other person. Hence, covering one wall of the library tower, in her handwriting, were poems, all of them ones she had recited with her mother since she was a child.
She did not really comprehend the meanings of those poems, but she was able to easily write them out.
When Zhousheng Chen returned, two entire walls of the library tower were covered with her writing.
Unable to find her deep in the night, her maidservant had quietly sought out Zhousheng Chen for help. If it was made known outside of the manor that the daughter of the Cui family of Qinghe had disappeared in the middle of the night, it would be a disgrace for the entire manor. The maidservant did not have the authority to make any decisions and did not know what to do. Zhousheng Chen, therefore, searched the entire manor alone until, when he went to the top level of the library tower, he saw the girl child, who had so carefully presented the tea to him on the day she became his disciple, writing Sima Xiangru’s “Shanglin Fu” [“Rhapsody of the Imperial Park”].
The words flowed easily off her brush, and there was not a single error.
But, she was stuck on that line that was about the feelings between a man and a woman: Beneath long, curved brows, sidelong gazes are cast again and again.
At a loss, she clutched her brush tightly and came down from the bamboo chair. She dared not even raise her head to look at her teacher, who, in the moonlight, had an amused expression on his face. “Have you forgotten the second half of that line?” Zhousheng Chen walked over, got down on one knee, and asked her in a warm voice.
Eleven pressed her lips together, not really wanting to admit it but in the end, still nodded silently.
Teacher suddenly stretched out his hand and wiped away the ink on her face.
The feel of his finger was somewhat rough, not soft like Mother’s. But it had the same warmth and the same gentleness.
He let out little laugh. “The second half of the line is, ‘Beauty is offered, a soul is given in return, and the heart rejoices to be at one another’s side.’”
Her head whipped up, and she looked elatedly at Teacher. When she turned around, wanting to climb back up onto the bamboo chair, she felt herself rising up into the air as he lifted her up from behind her. “Write. I will hold you.” She nodded, feeling slightly nervous as well as somewhat delighted, which resulted in the handwriting for these characters, when she wrote them, to be quite different from the others.
She wanted to continue, but Teacher had already set her down. “Go sleep now. When you complete your studies, come back to finish the remainder.”
Thus, within the library tower, there was an incomplete poem written in her handwriting.
In her mind, she even thought of this as a secret.
Later, as she gradually grew older, she was able to comprehend the true meaning behind this line:
The woman offers her beauty, the man gives his soul in return. They develop mutual feelings and united hearts, and the heart is poured out to that person beside.
Each time Teacher left the manor, it would be for a minimum of half a month but could be as long as three months, and she would secretly go to the library tower. On some afternoons, she would open the window, and there would always be a breeze that blew in. In the summer, it would be a little hotter and more oppressive, while in the winter, it would be a little chillier and more biting. If there was wind, then there would be noise, whether it was the moaning cry of the air passing through several shelves or the swishing sound as it brushed over the scrolls.
In the beginning, she was small in stature and would always stand on the bamboo chair, but as she slowly grew taller, she no longer needed to use it.
She would never need to tell him, for Zhousheng Chen would still always be able to find her in that place. And then, on the same column, he would measure whether she had grown taller in the time he had been away. Each time she unexpectedly saw him again after he returned, she would always be extremely happy, but unable to express it with words, she would tentatively hook her index finger around his little finger and swing her hand, refusing to let go of him.
“Eleven.” Whenever he spoke to her, he would always lower himself onto one knee and use a gentle tone. “You look the prettiest when you are smiling. Always smile, yes?” The corner of her lips turned up in a smile.
Days passed, months elapsed, years slipped by.
Qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting –– she was not an expert in all of them. She had a preference for chess and painting.
The former, she could use to pass the time with Teacher in the library tower, while the latter, she could use when Teacher was taking care of official matters to capture his appearance and expressions. She dared not blatantly paint him and would hide everything – those eyes, that demeanor and poise, his every frown or smile, the Teacher who was asleep, tired, or filled with rage because of the battlefield situations – amongst painted flowers, grass, and landscape.
Only she could look at them, only she could understand them.
She was forbidden to leave the prince’s manor, so naturally, her views of the outside world were much more limited than her senior brothers and sisters. Once every ten days, they would come together for a shared dinner, and each time, she would always be able to listen to the senior brothers who had already accompanied Teacher out to the battlefield before enthusiastically describe how his sword would direct the army of thousands and he would lead the charge before his soldiers. And her senior sisters would recount what was said of Teacher and his reputation out in the marketplace gossip.
“Eleven, do you think that Teacher is very handsome?”
She paused briefly in surprise, thought for a moment, then gave a slight nod of her head.
If Teacher could not be considered handsome, then there was no one in this world who was pleasing to the eye.
“Have you ever heard of ‘beautiful bones’?” Her youngest senior sister leaned against her shoulder and whispered, “’Beautiful bones, rare in this world. Those with bone do not have skin, those with skin do not have bone.’ Xiao Nan Chen Prince is the only man in this world who has beauty of both the skin and the bones. The common folk all say that this is even more rare than having emperor’s bones.”
The last part of what this little senior sister had said were words of heresy.
“Xiao Nanchen Prince –– the one who has thousands of retainers who have sworn allegiance to his family, holds the control of an army of seven hundred thousand, and has magnificent military accomplishments –– should have divided up the land, created new borders, and established a new, ordered, and just realm.”
Her eyes flashed.
She knew this senior sister had indulged too much in drink and had forgotten that this junior sister who could not engage in gossip was actually the crown princess.
A person’s whose existence was for the sole purpose of becoming worthy of the imperial family and for gaining the support of Xiao Nanchen Prince.
Flustered from listening to this, after dinner, she secretly slipped up into the library tower again. She had not expected, though, that Teacher would be there, the lamps and candles unlit as he stood beside the window, lost in thought. Through the gaps between the wooden shelves, she stood and watched Teacher from afar. She thought of her senior sister’s words. Beautiful bones. Those words may have sounded beautiful, but they were also like shackles.
Growing tired from her watching, she sat down and drifted off to sleep.
The next time she opened her eyes, the sky was already starting to brighten, but she did not see Teacher. There was only his long robe that was covering her body. The garment was cold; he had likely left long ago. This was the first time that she had fallen asleep here and Teacher had not carried her down out of the tower.
Shi Yi’s fingers followed the cuff of the sleeve and gently traced a circle around its edge.
This action alone already caused her cheeks to grow hot. Many years ago, she had only known how to recite up to, “Beneath long, curved brows, sidelong gazes are cast again and again.” It was he who had taught her, “Beauty is offered, a soul is given in return, and the heart rejoices to be at one another’s side.”
Now, she truly was in a state where beauty had been offered, a soul had been given in return, and love had bewitched her mind.
小南辰王 “Xiao Nan Chen Wang.” I am going to keep this mostly in pinyin and translate his title as Xiao Nanchen Prince. The 小 means “little” and is likely referring to the young age at which he inherited the title of Nanchen Prince or his status as the youngest uncle of the crown prince and youngest prince of the previous generation. 南 “nan” means “south.” I believe 辰 “chen” is referring to 星辰 “xing chen” or “stars.” Hence, “Xiao Nanchen Prince” could also be thought of as “Little ‘Stars of the Southern Sky’ Prince”. I ended up keeping his title in pinyin because it just felt awkward using the English version.
 He did not call himself 为师 “wei shi”, which means “your teacher” or “as your teacher.” This self-address that a teacher would use when speaking to his disciple, although it establishes the relationship, is in a way also distancing himself from his disciples by clearly laying out his status. Using “I” to address himself is less formal, is friendlier, and gives a closeness to the relationship.
 师兄姐 “shi xiong jie.” Technically, it should be translated as senior male/female fellow student. However, 兄 means “older brother” and 姐 means “older sister” and especially in ancient times where discipleship like this in some sense, carried a connotation of being like a family under the same teacher, so I have kept it simple and just translated this as “senior brother” and “senior sister.”
上林赋 “Shanglin Fu.” Ancient poem/rhapsody from the Han dynasty, written by the poet, Sima Xiangru. This is the rhapsody that the line, “Beauty is offered…” comes from. The title has been translated by some scholars as “Rhapsody of the Imperial Park”, and that is what I’ll use in the translation. (Again, here is the link to a full translation, although I will not be following it.) Shanglin was the imperial hunting grounds and park of the Han dynasty.
美人骨 ‘mei ren gu.’ The literal translation is “bones of a beauty” and represents the character of one who possesses true beauty. I will translate this as “beautiful bones.” Therefore, the “skin” and “bones” in this line refer to outer and inner beauty, respectively.
1 of 1 Prologue
17 of 56 Main story segments
0 of 3 Epilogues