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Nighttime. A crescent moon hung high in the skies.
After soaking in the bath for a while, I climbed out of the wooden tub, my skin wrinkled from the water. I absent-mindedly tossed on some white robes and rolled onto my bed, tossing and turning with my cold, wet hair. My entire head felt numb, making it impossible to go to sleep.
The windows reflected shadows of willow branches swaying in the wind. Abruptly, I heard the melodious notes of a flute. It stirred me up with a quiver, and I climbed off the bed, loosely tying my robes about me to go outside.
“Master, you’re not sleeping?” Little Second sat at the stone table in the courtyard on night watch. When he rose up to see me, the brush in his hands rolled off the table and clattered to the ground, and I bent down to pick it up. A glance showed me the layers and layers of white papers resting on the table, filled with pill formulas. A few stacks of books rested on the side, in between which were papers covered in bold ink strokes that resembled the shape of a human form…
He blocked my view, hands resting against the table with a secretive air as he gave a shamefaced blush. I laughed in spite of myself and said, “You should go rest early. The wind’s so strong here, the lamp light can’t help but flicker. Do you not want to keep your eyes?”
He hurriedly clutched the books to his chest, speaking in a low voice. “As soon as I clean up here, I’ll go inside.”
He was red to the base of his ears. Who hadn’t experienced this before? Look at him, flustered just from looking at acupuncture diagrams of females. Thinking back to the time my secret pornography book was passed off as an acupuncture diagram, I must have had the same helplessly red face. Just remembering it made the corners of my mouth turn up.
“You’re not sleeping even though it’s night, and now you’ve run out here without an extra layer of robes.” Second’s voice interrupted my thoughts as he looked at me. I figured he must have successfully hidden his goods, because his tone was bolder than before.
“I couldn’t sleep. When I heard First playing the flute, I decided to take a look.” I replied with a lazy stretch.
“Master, your hearing’s getting worse as well,” he followed the direction of my gaze to see the pavilion beyond, and laughed. “That’s Fifth playing the flute. First is entertaining a guest inside the hall, how would he have free time for such things?”
“A guest?” What kind of guest dropped by in the middle of the night?
“I think it’s probably one of those bored, curious types that came to see the Carefree Idler. With First dealing with them, Master doesn’t have to worry,” he placed a soft cushion on the stone bench and helped me sit down, gaze drifting hotly in the direction of the pavilion. “Is Fifth’s music annoying? Shall I order him away?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve heard it, so I want to listen.” I said lightly. A weight suddenly lifted off my shoulders as my outer robes fell to the floor. Second gave me a gentle look as he draped it over my shoulders again.
“With the wind this strong, you shouldn’t just sit still. Your body won’t be able to bear it in the long run, so I could warm up some wine for you. Oh, that’s right…” He scratched his head and smiled abashedly. “There’s also some sweet soup in the kitchens. I originally made it on a whim, but purposefully added some calming herbs to the mix. Wait here Master, and I’ll get you a bowl.”
I smiled warmly at his retreating figure and made to stand up. I didn’t want him to run about for my sake, but for him to rest early if there was nothing else to do. Before I could speak, however, he had already disappeared. Instead, the continuous notes of the flute floated up, low and borne with a certain grief. I seized up, and looked towards the pavilion again in time to see a figure playing the flute emerge from the shadows to be bathed in silver moonlight.
The water rippled beneath the pavilion to reflect his ugly face and a pair of startlingly bright, crystalline eyes. He seemed to have something weighing on his mind as he played at the moon, the music wistful and somewhat heartbreaking.
I was very familiar with this song.
I asked the world how many sorrows it heldA single evening brought autumn to the 8,000 year jade
Why not wander instead to distant landsReckless and unbridled in the jianghuUntil this life ends?
The idler drinks a flask of wine aloneLeaving behind vast sorrows and joysFar from youth lies the buried flowers.
This was a song that I had written myself after departing for the jianghu.
My courtesy name was Zang, my given name Hua, and I self-professed to be a carefree idler, but the jianghu was just a place for me to run away. I sat on the stone bench, holding a brush in my hands as bitterness rose in my heart. There was no choice but to smile…
A drop of ink splattered against the snow white paper, an eye-catching sight. I thought of Fourth’s mole by his eye. It made him look so clever, with none of the desolate grief that accompanied him.
Fifth’s face might have been ruined, but his eyes were as bright and clear as him, free from the wind and dust of the world.
Second’s expressions resembled him most, though he only expressed a third of his gloominess and seventy percent of his sorrow. That person was far more indifferent and desolate…
Yifu had always resembled an Immortal. There was no one who could approach his looks.
The qi in my chest churned wildly as if trying to express my emotions. I propped myself up with one hand as my sleeve swept across the table, and lowered my brush. It was as if everything had been seared into my memories. The things I’d thought I’d forgotten kept crashing over me like tidewaters, just like his looks…
All this time, deep in my memories, I’d never forgotten him.
I gave a final twist to the tip of the brush and set it aside. Fang Hua once told me that you could paint a person’s soul in their portrait. He used to laugh that the blossoms, bugs, birds, and beasts I drew were very lifelike but all looked like him. He should know…even though I missed him terribly now, I could only bring out a third of his essence on paper.
If a person really had the three souls and seven desires…then the Fang Hua on the paper had three souls. As for his seven desires, they must be hidden deep within my heart, fused into my blood where nothing could tear them away…
I reached out my hand and lightly touched my drawing, right on that slightly furrowed forehead. My body bent over as I rested a cheek against the surface. Yifu, though it’s difficult to forget you, I’ll do my best…
Suddenly, the flute stopped playing, and Little Fifth shouted, “Who dares to charge into here!” I raised my head abruptly and saw a mass of lights outside our residence, countless flickers of flame surrounding us on all sides to set the mountains ablaze. There was the qi of a stranger in the courtyard, concealed in the dark. When he slowly revealed himself, it was with a smile.
“Shao’er, it’s been awhile,” he said.
I had to think for a second. Who was this?
Very few people knew me as Shao’er. Also, this person’s voice was quite magnetic, neither quick nor slow but very nostalgic. It couldn’t be…
Something dropped into the pit of my stomach as I heard the rustling of clothing in the dark. He had very heavy steps as he stepped into the moonlight, tall, straight, and handsome. That expression between his eyebrows was something I was intimately familiar with. He still wore the same smile and looked at me the same way, eyes filled with warmth.
But this wasn’t the youth with thriving heroic spirit from all that time ago. After five years, he radiated the steady, mature aura of a refined scholar, gentle and fine.
His lips quirked up into a smile as he gave me a look pregnant with meaning. “It’s fortunate you still remember me.”
This atmosphere was a bit strange. He spoke so lightly, but I already felt shaken and uncomfortable. I could see First standing by his side, looking at me with a face full of astonishment. Could it be that Zichuan was the guest he’d been receiving tonight?
If I’d known Zichuan would come searching houses in the middle of the night, I’d have moved everyone this morning. People in the imperial court were too efficient with their jobs. Nongyu just told me the emperor was making inspection visits incognito, and now he was on my doorstep. Were there seriously so many people in the palace who had nothing better to do than follow the emperor around on manhunts?
“What are you silently disapproving about?” he smiled like the sun, though it didn’t reach his eyes. His line of vision drifted to my hands. “I’ve been worrying over you every day in the imperial court, yet you have enough leisure time to paint here beneath the moon.” The last line came from his lips between gritted teeth.
I clutched my picture tighter, neither willing nor unwilling to let it go. My face felt both hot and cold as I gave an angry laugh and moved the inkstone to hold the paper in place. “You needn’t worry about my personal affairs.”
A hand suddenly grabbed me by the arm, nearly setting me off-balance as he held me in his grip, looking at my drawing expressionlessly. When his gaze drifted to me again, his eyes narrowed with the promise of a threat. Narrowing eyes…who didn’t know how to do that?
I narrowed my eyes back.
“Scoundrel! Let go of our Master!” Little Fifth’s voice called out from the pavilion, flustered and discomfited.
Han Zichuan gave him a once-over. “This is another one of your Princes?” I felt a tightness around my waist as he closed his other arm around me to give Fifth a disdainful glance.
“I’m going to pound you!” Fifth was definitely enraged.
I blinked. He’d yelled his intentions before I could react. Though it didn’t scare any of the surrounding people, it shocked me, and stirred the man by my side into action. His grip on my arm slowly tightened as if punishing me, nearly forcing the air from my lungs. A face leaned over as he spoke in a low voice, his breath hot against my ears. “You still haven’t wholly forgotten him, Shao’er…”
There was a wildly thumping heartbeat. It belonged to him.
I could even feel it between the layers of our robes, though I couldn’t tell whether he felt uneasy, wrathful, or something else altogether… My thoughts slipped, and a strong gale blew over, whipping about my hair. An indistinct object flew quickly towards us, aiming at the person gripping me. Yet Zichuan kept his hold with no intention of letting me go.
Suddenly, sword-wielding figures emerged from the shadows to block the blow. There was a flash of light, before a flute was knocked deep into the depths of a willow tree. Little Fifth narrowed his eyes at the men, his scar making him seem even more ferocious.
“Why did you raise such an ugly man?” Zichuan lowered his face to speak by my ear, still smiling. The words were loud enough to ring in the courtyard, and his hands took the opportunity to slip down to my waist, wrapping around the sash there. It was enough to tell me he was angry.
What was he mad about? Angry that I raised someone ugly? Or that I was raising men in the first place?
Little Fifth gave me a glance and grew even more enraged. Yet instead of cursing, he unsheathed his sword and slashed his way over. The shadowy swordsmen quickly surrounded him.
Fifth’s martial arts skills and accomplishments ranked amongst the top ten in the jianghu. If you didn’t count the few top masters who didn’t like to leave seclusion, or had disappeared over the years, then Fifth would rank amongst the top three. But today he seemed a little fatigued. He raised his arm to block the enemies’ swords but kept glancing my way, his face filled with anxiety. On the side, First stared as Han Zichuan embraced me, neither helping Fifth nor speaking a word. He seemed to be considering something, but I was afraid to check his expression.
The fierce fighting continued…
There were many top-level experts within the imperial court, especially those qualified to accompany the emperor’s retinue. Fifth wasn’t their match, and I began to grow anxious while looking at him.
“If your Master wanted me to let go, she would have pushed me away earlier. Can’t you understand something like this?” The voice by my ear spoke with absolution, gloating over his misfortune.
Your Granny! If you had any skills, why not try to kill him with your own hands?
Little Fifth’s mental state was already unsteady, and his moves were wild and erratic. On the verge of being stabbed, he avoided with a flip to the side, readying his sword for another round.
“Hold it…” I spoke up, and he looked at me in surprise. He was already huffing for breath, and his eyes gleamed in the dark.
“Who told you to randomly attack our guests? No sense of propriety, hurry up and leave.”
“Yes, Master.” his face was sullen.
Brat, this is for your own good…
He made an obeisance towards me and kept his head lowered as he sheathed his sword, turning to leave with a dejected air…only to silently walk back and scale the willow tree in search of his flute. His body was shaking, yet filled with determination until he recovered the damaged instrument and departed. There was only the lonely image of his back as he walked, carefully replacing the flute in his robes.
It was something I gave him on a whim after picking him up from the streets.
A sudden sadness fell upon my heart.
Little Fifth seemed furious, venting his anger by hitting the willow branches as he stalked off the whole way. First rested a hand on his shoulders, as if trying to comfort him. The moonlight illuminated his form and cast the illusion that he was wearing robes of snow.
“From the back, he really does look like Fang Hua,” There was a disappointed sigh by my side. Han Zichuan gave me a look as he indicated First. I gave a start, hesitantly resting my hands over his on my waist before twisting them off me.
“Shao’er, how cruel,” he smiled wryly as he massaged his hands. Then he bent to retrieve the windswept drawing I’d left on the table. The moment he rested his eyes on it, I grew anxious and tried to snatch it back. He backed away and stared at me before ripping it in half. “Isn’t it just a drawing?” Two pieces of paper fluttered to the ground, the identity of its subject unmistakable with the mole at the corner of his eye.
Should I complain, or should I grieve? My heart grew inflamed, but I held it back, speaking in a light tone. “You bastard Han, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Insolent, you dare to be impertinent before the emp…” Before the random lackey could finish speaking, I killed him with a well-aimed stone.
What a joke. As the Carefree Idler, there were only things I didn’t deal with, not things I couldn’t. Though my strange cultivation had eaten up over half my internal energy, I was adept at putting on airs and bluffing. For a servant, there was a time and place to speak. Things you shouldn’t say should be kept behind your mouth.
I gave the corpse a cold look. Perhaps it was because I’d used my internal energy, but the true qi inside me was in chaos and made my chest feel stuffy. Still, I assumed an expression of indifference. The wind flew past my robes in a riotous dance, drying out most of my hair as it blew messily past my face. A few of the black-robed swordsmen carried fear on their faces as they prepared to attack. But Han Zichuan waved a hand to hold them. Then he gestured again, and everyone retreated from the courtyard, leaving only the two of us.
“Your temper resembles your yifu more and more,” he slowly sat down, eyes sweeping over me. “I’ve been searching for you for a long time. I never expected you to hurt my heart as soon as we met.”
A cup of wine poured onto the ground, splattering the drawing there and watering down the ink. My heart twisted in pain as I looked at him. His face was stiff, stuck between a half-smile as he rinsed another cup with wine and poured it on the paper. Was this a hint?
Was he reminding me that Fang Hua was in his hands and at his mercy?
Or that Fang Hua belonged to him, and he wouldn’t tolerate me thinking of him?
After a few years apart, he was nothing like the wide-eyed Han Zichuan I knew. The boy that obediently did my bidding in my house, that gave the utmost consideration to everyone, was now the sovereign of a country. An emperor that had resorted to political trickery to control the lives of the masses now sat by himself in this courtyard in plain robes, bearing still refined, eyes still clear. And yet none of that could hide the commanding, dignified air that emanated naturally from his true self. Extremely unhappy, I poured myself a cup of wine and prepared to drink.
He actually pushed my hand away and spoke coldly. “You’re letting your fancies run wild with that painting, but you don’t have the guts to see him yourself. Why not come back with me to the palace?” I was dumbfounded while he raised the wine to sniff its contents.
He should already know how Fang Hua felt about him…
I gave a pained smile, my heart aching a bit. “Instead of being a proper emperor, you ran around the outside world just to tell me this?”
“I’ve been looking for you constantly for the past five years.”
You’ve been looking for me constantly, but what about him?
“Why did you hide from me for so long? I only just found out today…” he trailed off, pouring out a shallow cup of wine to hold the cup in his hands, “That the celebrated Carefree Idler of the jianghu was exactly the Shao’er I was looking for.”
“…is he doing well?”
“Who?” he pretended to ponder my words, before turning to smile at me. But that smile seemed to make my hair stand on end. “Let’s not talk about others, I want to talk about you.” He leaned over and added, “You’re living very well now, right? I heard you took in Seven Princes, each of them highly skilled and beautiful.”
“What, you want them?”
He gnashed his teeth. “Say that again.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “My name as the Carefree Idler in the jianghu isn’t just for show. Don’t think I’m a pushover or easy to bully. I may dote on and yield to the young Princes in this house because I can’t bear to hurt them, but you’re not the same case.”
“You mean to say that Zhen can’t even compare to the likes of them.”
Oi…he even started using Zhen, the imperial pronoun. Looks like I really pushed him to be angry. I laughed, yet his gaze turned unexpectedly soft.
“I don’t blame you. You can be intelligent sometimes, but you’re always so dense about your own matters. No matter how well-known you are in the jianghu, all lands under Heaven belong to Zhen, and that jianghu is no exception. So…” he embraced me from behind, “Don’t go against me, all right?”
He carried himself humbly, and his voice was soft, even carrying a note of pleading. But none of that matched his actions. Getting this domineering with a person was shameful and detestable! On reflex, I started to circulate internal energy in my palm to strike him down. Yet Fang Hua’s face appeared in my mind, and I forced down my attack impulse.
For him, I’d…
For him, I couldn’t hurt this person. I tried to avoid him instead, but Han Zichuan was more impertinent than I thought. He kept his tight hold on me while reaching for his cup of wine. The moonlight was like white silk, and an unfamiliar gentleness rose from his face. One hand held mine in place while the other raised the wine cup to my lips. The wine was rich and mellow, and his heart pounded within the depths of his warm embrace.
“I won’t blame you for avoiding me,” he tightened his grip on my waist and pressed closer, speaking next to my ear. “Come back with me to the palace and I won’t bring this up again.”
“In your dreams.”
“In my dreams?” he laughed lightly. “You can only wish it was in my dreams. Even if you won’t consider your own self-interests…you should think a bit about theirs.”
He had a point. I didn’t know when, but there were now six familiar figures standing in the courtyard, looking at us both. The black-robed swordsmen stood with torches at our gates, and many more lights illuminated the mountains. It seemed that quite a few people had arrived. Still, the expressions the Princes wore were as easy as ever. Each one of them were as tall and thin as jade trees, with handsome faces.
Yet looking at them, I only wanted to hide away, my heart stirred into a flurry. Sure enough, Han Zichuan glanced at them and laughed in understanding. “Shao’er, are these your Princes? As expected, they all resemble… Well, I really don’t know what kind of impression they’d make on a person who saw them.”
I could only sense multiple gazes coming to rest on me, each one boring holes into my body.
“Think it over…” he paused, looking around the house. “I’ll wait for your answer.” My hands felt tied behind my back as he walked towards the rooms.
Hmph, this guy was really acting like he owned the place.
 8,000 years jade (????) ?baqian yulao, this phrase seems similar to the lyrics of a song called the Cha Na Fang Hua Qu (?????),or The Ephemeral Beauty Song, which in turn comes from Volume 1 Chapter 1 of a 2001 xuanhuan novel/2011 TV series called In Search of the Supernatural?????, which in turn was probably inspired by an actual text of the same name that dates from 4th century CE China. To put it (very) simply, the “8,000 years jade” in this case is an euphemism for a long life.
The song that Shao’er wrote has a similar mood, theme, and lyrics to The Ephemeral Beauty Song, which you can listen to on youtube here. It’s currently one of the most well-known modern xuanhua inspired songs (and very pretty!).
 far from youth lies the buried flowers (???????) ?fanghua jingchu nai zanghua, there seems to be intentional word play here. “Fang Hua” (??), or “youth”, is identical to Fang Hua, while “Zang Hua” (??), “buried flowers”, sounds like Shao’er’s assumed named for her Carefree Idler disguise, “Zang Hua” (??). All this means that another way to read this line would be ‘far from Fang Hua lies Zang Hua (Shao’er).’ Please note I took some creative liberties with “lies”. 😉  Zhen (?) ?”I, the sovereign, the royal We;” personal pronoun used exclusively by the emperor to refer to himself.
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