Part 3 – Chapter 1.2
I couldn’t be certain how much time had passed but the rain still showed no sign of letting up. In the distance, a snarling like that of a tiger faintly sounded.
I struggled to climb up from the mud and briefly considered whether an egg would win against a rock. The answer was no, it wouldn’t. I was able to kill a young leopard with my strength (or lack thereof) only because Heaven had nodded off. If I wanted to kill a matured tiger, then I had better pray Heaven never wakes up again.
I obviously couldn’t afford to be so optimistic. I wondered what would happen if the tiger were to swallow the shark bead whole. Master Jun said inside the bead sealed the Huaxu enchantment. On his own, a dead human could live on for another three years. That being the case, I wondered how many years the bead could add to a beast’s life. Worst case scenario, there would be an immortal tiger roaming the world after tonight, and it wouldn’t be Xiao Huang. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the consequences this would have on the natural food chain and ecosystem… I ran for life in the other direction. So be it, I didn’t have any talents, I probably wouldn’t live past tonight in any case. But even if I couldn’t get out of this forest alive, I still mustn’t bring trouble to others.
In spite of my fear, I held a tight grip on the dagger that had been washed clean by the rain water and tremblingly pressed it against my chest. Once the tiger discovered me, I must stab myself and destroy the bead.
I nervously waited, but I did not hear its roaring any longer. All I heard behind me were staggering footsteps in the rain. It was raining heavily, but I could hear his ragged breathing.
“Ah Fu.” His voice was so hoarse that it didn’t sound like his anymore. I stood there stock-still as though I had waited for centuries and millennia, but I didn’t have the courage to look back. I detected the sword in his hand from the corner of my eye, the gemstone on its hilt glinting a faint green sheen and reflecting the conspicuous red patch on his sleeve that bloomed like a smudge of rouge.
It’s him. I felt his hand coming to rest on my shoulder, which paused slightly before he pulled me into his arms. The world came to a complete silence despite the heavy downpour. All I felt was that forever was within reach, and everything else was inconsequential. He pressed his lips against my ear, his respiration steadying. “You scared me to death,” he murmured at length.
It’s him. I plainly had no sense of smell but the inexplicable scent of plum blossoms was meandering around me. Shakily, I clung to his arm. All at once, it was as if I could see thousands of plum blossoms blooming across fields of snow.
It’s him. “I thought I’d never get to see you again,” I heard my quivering voice speak up. His hug tightened around me while carefully avoiding the shoulder wound the leopard had left, his cold fingers caressing my eye.
Just moments ago I had thought I wouldn’t live past tonight. But now that Mu Yan was here, all my trepidation suddenly dissolved like thin air. Instead, surging in its place was a sadness I couldn’t control. Because I didn’t want him to see the weak side of me, I was going to act as if I didn’t care. But I couldn’t; tears had gushed out. I wept uncontrollably. Mu Yan quietly held me, his fingers clasping on my mask to wipe away both rain water and tears – a futile endeavor. Some time later, he pressed his cheek to my forehead and sighed: “I feel so helpless when you cry.”
Long ago, I had thought to myself that if there were someone I held most dear, I would strum all my happiness and cry all my sorrow to him. The one I held dear, at this time, was right here beside me.
Without seeing him, I felt myself being slowly turned around. Cold fingertips were stroking my hair before they came to stop at the corner of my eye. “Can you walk?”
I nodded, stopped, and then shook my head. By the time I was picked up, his voice was ringing in my ears: “I don’t know where you’re injured. Tell me if it hurts.”
I shook my head, stopped, and then nodded. He must be feeling so sorry for me, the kind of sorry feeing one would afford an oriole whose wings had broken. How I wished this could be love. I knew it was just a fantasy, but even if it were, I wanted to stay in it a little longer.
Mu Yan carried me back to the inn. Neither of us spoke the entire way. The rain itself still showed no sign of easing up.
Zhisu, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, was waiting in front with an umbrella in hand. I wondered why she was suddenly here. Imaginably Mu Yan’s bodyguards had always followed us in stealth. They usually acted as if they didn’t exist, but once their master was put in danger, they’d drop down from the sky and swoop in like the wind. Now I was made curious, because honestly, how were they any different from assassins and bandits?
Zhisu closed the umbrella and prepared to retrieve me from Mu Yan’s arms. As I was pondering whether to hop down or not, I felt Mu Yan’s grip tightening around my waist and knees. I raised my head and, in the dim light of the lantern, saw his thinly pressed lips, rain-soaked hair, and deathly pale face.
I’d never seen him looking so cold – as cold as the layers of water that had frozen on a winter lake. I reached my hand out to cling onto his shoulder. The moment I touched his collar, his footsteps halted on the ground: “Does your wound hurt?”
Rain water was dripping down from his hair. A gust of wind suddenly knocked Zhisu’s lantern swinging and snuffed the light out. In the dark, I gingerly held onto his neck. Sensing no resistance from him, I softly answered, “No.” I paused to think and then asked him: “I’m heavy, aren’t I? Am I troubling you?”
I already knew what his reply was going to be. I was sure he would sneer at me with words like these: “You can still recognize that you’re troubling me at a time like this?” But he didn’t say any such thing this time around. A lightness landed on my head, tingly and warm. By the time I realized what it was, a warm flush had spread across my face.
The wooden corridor of the inn creaked under his feet. The door to the room opened and behind the wall divider depicting faint purple irises sat a steaming bath. Water vapor had clouded the candlelight on the bronze chandelier.
Mu Yan let me down and then checked the wounds I’d sustained. When he discovered only a few scratches on my shoulders, he called Zhisu in to give her some instructions. As he made a movement to leave, I held onto his sleeve and demanded: “Where are you going?” His face finally showed a smile. “I’m just leaving to change. I’ll come back after you finish your bath.”
Despite having heard of Zhisu’s adept wound dressing, I had to make up excuses to politely refuse her help. She found it strange, but likely deeming that we mystic folks had our secrets to guard, she went away and let me treat myself.
Luckily I still had a bottle of plaster Master Jun had given me when we first set out. Although it had gotten wet in the rain, it was still usable. I spread some on my wounds and then put on a fresh change of clothes. By then, Mu Yan’s knocking sounded on the door, neither short nor long, still those leisure three taps.
The door opened to Mu Yan, standing at the threshold and dressed in all black. Silver threads embroidered his collar and sleeves while in his hand was a ginger drink to fend off the cold. While waiting for him to come, during my bath, I had wondered what he would be coming for. I thought and thought, and finally decided that it didn’t matter at all what he was coming for. As long as I could have another second with him, he could come even if only to give me a bowl of ginger drink.
As it turned out, he really did come just to give me a bowl of ginger drink. My first thought was how stupid I had been. Why didn’t I suppose he would come to confess his feelings for me instead?!
I was finished with the ginger drink but he still hadn’t moved an inch from his seat. He sat bedside watching me finish the last drop, saying: “I was twelve when I went with my father on my first expedition.”
What a perfect opening line for a bedtime story. I placed the empty bowl onto the nightstand, pulled my quilt up, and leaned back to listen.
“As a hardy young fool, I got tricked by the enemy and trapped in the deep mountains. It had also been a rainy night. A hundred elite men under my command all sacrificed their lives, their bodies strewn across the mountain. They had managed to protect and hide me in a cave. While hidden, I heard the bellows of warring beasts not far from there. I realized very quickly they were fighting over my men’s corpses. At the time, I was injured by an arrow. Despite laying low inside a cave, the scent of blood would sooner or later lure these beasts to me. But if I were to build a fire to drive them away, I would lead the enemy to my hideout. It was a deadend no matter which way I looked.” He leaned on his hand as though he was deep in thought – a contemplative look entirely different from what I was used to seeing.
It was obvious he seldom told his sister stories. How could bedtime stories be this chilling? I tugged his sleeve and asked in anxiousness: “And then what?”
Mu Yan lifted his head to look at me. Under the candlelight, his eyes were as dark as the depths of the sea: “In all the years I’ve lived, that was the most precarious situation I’ve ever encountered. But I didn’t feel any fear at the time.”
“I know, you’re very brave,” I nodded in agreement. “B-but what happened afterwards? How did you escape?”
He picked up the teacup without answering my question. Playing with it in his hand, he went on: “I had thought that if I didn’t feel fear even then, then nothing in life would rattle me anymore.”
He paused, and then lifted his eyes at me to say: “Including the time you saw me stabbed by Qin Ziyan.”
Upon seeing the surprise on my face, he softly smiled while continuing to play with the cup in his palm. “I was fully awake. Where on my body she would be stabbing, what injury I would sustain, how long I would need to recover, and how much time my younger brother would have to commit treason.”
The cup had turned one full rotation in his hand. “It was highly risky. One small mistake could’ve taken my life. And yet when the dagger came down as suspected, I merely adjusted my position to brace myself against it without any emotions such as fear or fright.”
He transferred the teacup to his left hand and casually added: “It’s as if I wasn’t born with an intrinsic fear. I just innately lack that emotion.”
I was robbed of words for a length of time. “Then what if the stabbing had killed you?” I managed to say at last. I thought of Qin Ziyan, of him, of his meticulous plan, of whether his relationship with Qin Ziyan was real or pretense, but in the end I didn’t mind any of those. What bothered me was “what if”. What if he had been killed by Qin Ziyan and died in front of me that day? I had searched for him all my life. When I finally found him, it was with him covered in blood lying in front of me, and I didn’t even know who he was. I exhaled in relief; luckily the heavens did not let that happen.
The teacup was placed back onto the table. In the flickering candlelight, he softly repeated my words ‘what if’ and chuckled: “There isn’t going to be any what ifs. It’s like solving a math problem. There are thousands of steps wherein each step needs to be precise. That means there can’t be any mistake. If there is, then it just means I was careless when I solved the problem…”
I interjected: “But not everything in life is like solving a math problem. Anyone with emotions will feel fear, and then there would be that one in a million chance of something going wrong.”
He leaned on his hand. “Really? Then tell me, A Fu, why do people fear?”
I didn’t even need to think about this one. “Because there are things they want to protect.”
He watched me for a long time before unhurriedly admitting: “You’re right. That was why this was the first time I felt afraid.”
I didn’t know how the story had taken this turn; my brain was failing to keep up. At length, I stared at him: “But you said you’ve never been afraid…”
He ever slightly shook his head and took my hands in his: “I was very afraid tonight.”
I froze. When I understood what he was saying, my entire body stiffened, I slightly broke away by instinct but he held me back and went on to say: “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have left you by yourself at the inn.”
“You’re not really to blame…”
“Even knowing you’re daft, and slow, and gullible…”
“… That’s enough,” I glared at him. “You…”
“I like you.”
I reeled at this turn of event, my hands shaking badly.
This beautiful story, these beautiful words, they must all belong in a dream. I closed my eyes instinctively and sensed the silence around us. The only thing I heard was the subsiding rain beyond the windowpanes.
Sure enough it was just a dream. Why would pies ever fall from the sky? By the time the rooster crowed its morning crows, I discovered it had all been a golden millet dream in disappointment.
The window made a squeak. My eyes flew open to see a wet sparrow flying inside. I nervously eyed my bed front and detected a pair of shoes. Gazing further upward, I saw Mu Yan frowning at me: “I was waiting for your answer. How could you shut your eyes and pretend to fall asleep?”
So it hadn’t been a dream.
“Wh-what answer?” I stammered back.
He pulled my hands from under the quilt and held them in his own, smilingly searching my eyes. “I like you, A Fu. Do you feel the same way?”
I stared blankly at him, my mind suddenly vacant. “Do you like me,” I heard my even voice, “the way you like your sister? If that’s how you like me, then I also like you the way I like my brothers…” Oh, for Heaven’s sake, what was I saying?
He gently pulled me over and slightly bowed his head so that we could meet each other’s eyes. He watched me in a strangely serious manner, stressing each syllable: “What do you think my feelings for you are, Ah Fu? I’ve said before that there are many advantages to marrying me. Every promise I make to you, I shall keep. I’ll have no one but you in this life, will you in turn have me?”
I saw white plum blossoms burgeoning, woven into a white veil and gradually rising in this cold rainy night, forming a vast haziness in the room. All were illusions, of course, but they brought me back to that star-filled night I first met him and made me feel as though I was seeing white plum blossoms bursting on the hillside on a February night. With a smile on his lips, he quietly watched me. Cold draft rushed through the hole the sparrow had poked in the window. Crepe myrtle trees swayed outside in full bloom. In the wind, their purple petals emitted a dark glow against the shadows of the night.
It was already a blessing that Heaven had let us meet again. I had also hoped that he would like me back, but never in a million years did I think it would come true. Not even once. He asked if I would have him. Why wouldn’t I? And yet, I wasn’t human.
In this state, I didn’t even dare to hug him.
The living and the dead dwell in two different worlds. He was the one I loved the most, the one I treasured dearly, the one I wanted to protect, and the one I never wanted to hurt; nodding my head would be the easiest thing to do. But if there were to be a day when he found out the person he loved was a deceased corpse, what would he do then? And what would I do?
Just as though I had lived through an entire lifetime, I gathered all my courage to take hold of his finger and shakily place it onto my nose. His countenance altered. I didn’t dare to watch his next expression. At long last, I tried to tamper the grief within down as I asked him: “Do you feel it…? Mu Yan, I don’t have any breathing.”
His fingertip stilled. After saying those words, I felt as if I could say everything. “Aren’t you surprised that I’m never afraid of pain?” I bit my lip, struggling to move past the lump in my throat. “It’s because I cannot feel pain, or smell the fragrance of flowers, or taste those delicacies from the restaurants you always rave about. I act as if I love shrimp dumplings when they actually taste no different from wax simply because I had liked them in the past.”
Looking up, I covered my eyes as tears began to fall. It was all over. I leaned back against the bed curtain like someone holding onto a driftwood in the middle of the sea: “To hear that you want to marry me is something I couldn’t even dream of. But aren’t you afraid to marry me when I’m like this?” That was it. Everything was finished now.
Some time passed before his cold fingers slowly swept along the silver mask from my ear to my forehead. Not wanting to cry over spilled milk, I waited for him to peel off my mask.
I was too afraid to open my eyes by the time the mask was removed. He must have seen my ghastly face and the long scar on my forehead. This repulsive girl who was walking the fine line between life and death – what would he think of me?
There was a story that told of a puppet who fell in love with her owner. By some serendipitous fate, she was turned into a human girl under a sorcerer’s spell and was able to marry the man she loved. The enchantment eventually wore off one day, however. After the magic vanished, her owner fainted in fright seeing the puppet turn back to her original form. With only remnants of her consciousness left, she collapsed by her owner’s side and used a knife to mutilate herself.
At this moment, I was that self-mutilated puppet. Her master was affrighted when he saw her; little did he know that she was even more scared than he.
At length, the hand on my brow slowly swept past my temple to the left ear where the scar began. It was where I least wanted him to see. Yet his hand insisted on stopping there, blocking my last little courage to even utter those ruthless words commonly found in Jun Wei’s novels: “Our fate ends thus. Let’s not meet again.”
After a while, he brushed my hair aside. Amid the clanking window frames, he murmured to me: “Ah Fu, open your eyes and look at me.”
I nervously wrung my sleeves. I didn’t think I could reject his entreaty while fearing, at the same time, that I’d see what I didn’t want to see once I opened my eyes. In the end, emotions overcame reason. I opened my eyes in nervousness to see an expression on Mu Yan’s face I had never seen before. It didn’t, however, resemble disgust or fear. Instead, he seemed to be facing a war in which he didn’t have a full grasp over the outcome – he was tense and tentative, almost to the point of deference.
I stared uncertainly at him.
His furrowed brow relaxed as he pulled me closer to him. “You don’t know how glad I am that you can tell me these things.”
“Aren’t you scared?” I instinctively brought my hand up to block the scar on my left forehead.
He shook his head as if he had heard something funny. “Why should I be?”
How could he not? There were nights in my sleep when I would think of my undead state and couldn’t help from feeling terrified. If even I had felt that way, how could he so calmly accept it?
Facing the funny-looking girl who was covering her forehead in the bronze mirror, I retreated into the shadows and bitterly said, “I’m completely different from living and breathing people. As you can also see, I’m a freak.”
He drew me from the shadows and studied me thoughtfully, scalding me with the path of his eyes and then immersing me in those frozen lakes. I turned away from his dichotomous gaze. Leaning forward, he pried my hand away from my forehead and held it in his. “Why do you think that you’re a freak? If even the world renowned…”
At this, he looked down with a dry chuckle and spoke as if he were talking to himself: “I had thought it might be… but I didn’t think it really was.” When he looked up again, he gave the unsightly scar a brush: “If I could’ve predicted in the past, right now we…” He did not finish his thoughts. I didn’t know what he wanted to say, but I vaguely understood they were things I could not and needed not to understand.
“Cheer up.” His hand came to rest on my cheek. “This tiny scar doesn’t affect your beautiful face at all. You’re the prettiest girl I know.” He wiped my tear stains with his thumb as he carefully regarded me. “Leave those things to me. All you need to do is try your best to stay alive until I find a way, can you do that?” Besides nodding I couldn’t do anything else. If this was a dream, it was best I didn’t wake up again.
While I was nodding vigorously, a piece of engraved jade pendant had dropped around my neck. He studied the masterpiece dangling before my chest and broke into a winsome smile: “This is my betrothal gift to you. I gave you the most important thing my mother left me. What will you give me?”
I didn’t know what to give him. I searched my entire body and turned everything out. There was half a bottle of plaster left, plus the small jade tiger he gave me last time, along with a half-size portrait of his I secretly drew, as well as a white engraved jade hairpin I especially bought for him but had not had a chance to give away.
He gave me a curious look. “These are…”
I pushed the lot of them to him. “Take your pick.” I had no money, so I couldn’t afford expensive things. I just hoped there would be something he liked out of these knickknacks.
He regarded me for a moment before picking up the white jade hairpin. “Did you draw that painting so you could buy this hairpin for me?”
I nodded in embarrassment, awkwardly explaining to him: “I heard this is crafted from an ancient jade with a history of two hundred years. The fine workmanship is said to have been done by some famous artisan. The shop owner insisted on three hundred coins…” Yet to finish, I saw that the candlelight had been obscured, for he was leaning over and dropping a kiss on my lips without any warning. Warm breath tickled my cheek. I stared at him wide-eyed, not realizing other girls would close their eyes in moments like these. At this distance, I took a good look at his long lashes and eyes that could smile. I was so useless that I didn’t even know how to return a kiss. He patiently coaxed me into slightly parting my lips and letting him gently steal inside for a taste. Thinking of the bumpy road we had passed, my eyes burned as tears gushed out.
He leaned against my forehead, dried my waterworks and chuckled. “Crybaby.”
Kneeling in front of him, I hung onto his neck and sobbed in refute: “I’m not a crybaby!” He ruffled my hair: “Is that so? Care to give me a justification?”
I slightly left him. “Fine, I admit that I’m a crybaby, but crying isn’t a shameful thing. At least in my opinion, tears are the last thing on earth we need to fight back. There were times when I wanted to hold it back so that people would think I was strong. But when I could no longer hold it back, I didn’t. That’s because I later realized that ‘being strong’ is only a thing your mind made up. Crying doesn’t mean you aren’t strong. After crying your heart out, you can still stand up and know which way to take or what things to do. And that’s the kind of person I want to become. Think about it, if I can’t even shed tears, then what will I use to prove my fears and worries? What will I use to prove that I’m still alive?”
The sea color in Mu Yan’s eyes glinted in the candlelight as though a star had fallen in them. Outside, the wind and rain had taken their rest.
Some time later, he gathered me into his arms. “Ah Fu, from now on you can cry all you want to me.”
I leaned on his shoulder and felt as though I was floating inside a dream. This was my heart’s longing, my very own Huaxu dream. As his dark hair brushed across my cheek, a little tree took roots from the depths of my heart, bursting into a lush canopy of radiant blooms. Cast on the bed mantle, our embracing shadows were all that filled my eyes.
So shippy I can’t take it~