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I’d never seen anyone with an expression like that. For a moment I was alarmed, clutching my chest as I gently sucked in a breath. All I wanted to do was to leave him quickly, the farther the better…but the yearning gaze in his eyes was like a curse before my gaze. Though the distance between us was large, I could still faintly discern his words as they drifted towards my ears.
【 I can’t get back the life from those first days. I’ve already missed my opportunity. Why is it that even now, I’m never given a chance? 】
I stared blankly before raising my hands to cover my ears. What was the matter, was I so hungry that I was hearing things now? Flabbergasted, I looked at him. He was clearly a long way off, and his lips hadn’t even moved, but his voice had clearly sounded next to my ears, heartbroken and depressing…
The grief in my heart was followed by a numbness in my limbs that filled the air. The scene before me seemed to shift, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, another wave of dizziness hit me. My body couldn’t hold out and my legs gave way before me. I fell to the ground, hand trying to reach for something but finding nothing to hold onto. Haziness filled my vision as I saw his panicked yet helpless expression.
Very good, even a cold and cheerless person like him had moments of unrest within his heart, very good…
As it turned out, the feeling of hunger could cause a person to faint. Before my eyes, everything grew dark.
A fragrant aroma greeted me as I regained consciousness. It was already evening in the skies as I lay on the bed feeling nothing but hunger. My whole body was curled up, lightly sniffing the aromatic bedcovers. Already at my limits, I lifted up the fabric and started chewing.
The door to the room suddenly opened as Fang Hua helplessly appeared by my side, holding a bowl as he looked at me. His face carried an exhausted melancholy that had pervaded his mind and body. Looking as cold as snow, he crouched by my side as if begging, a hand extending a spoon my way.
I blanked out, a corner of the covers still in my mouth.
He seemed stunned as well, but didn’t laugh, only quietly tugged the object out of my mouth. A hand smoothed out the fabric, still damp with my saliva, the fingers slim and pretty. But nothing could smooth out the worried cramping of his brows…
“Foolish, how could you be afraid of eating the things I’ve made? Are you worried I added things inside? How could I poison you?” He picked up the spoon again and got a bit of rice. Seeing I had no response, he grew troubled. Head lowered, he gently blew across the spoon, complexion paler but still wearing a smile. “Be good…eat a little.”
I stared blankly at him.
“If you won’t eat, I can make other things,” he said in disappointment. But I grabbed him in response, hand knocking against the bowl of rice. It smelled delicious…
Atop the white rice grains lay an entire fish, its body covered in a dense and creamy sauce. The meat and blood had been cooked until tender and soft, and small bits of scallion were scattered on top.
There was clearly tasty meat here, so why did he first scoop a spoonful of rice? Also, what kind of person ate fish with a spoon? My heart had softened long before, but I still wanted to nitpick. I gave a slow push, one hand rubbing the knee of his robes as I glanced at his bowl with a soft reply. “The dishes from the imperial palace are much tastier.”
I hmphed through my nose, unwillingly seizing the bowl from his hands before wolfing the contents down.
Embarrassed, I picked out a fish bone. Seeing no chopsticks in sight, I pinched a piece with my fingers and looked at him. “I can’t eat this much, do you want some?”
As a result, he did as asked and sucked on a few mouthfuls. I picked up some more, and he ate as before in silence. But those elegant brows slowly wrinkled, and that face grew deathly pale. Rising to his feet, he covered his face with his sleeves before running outdoors and throwing up.
Shocked, I turned over my stained and oily hands, not sure whether or not I should wipe them. He actually turned back and gave me a serene smile, saying weakly, “Please don’t mind me, I’m just not used to or enjoy eating such strong foods. There’s definitely no poison…urk…”
Facing this, I was speechless.
I lowered my head to study the fish. It was full of thorns and looked rather ugly, but the taste was fresh and tender…with food here, I didn’t have to drink well water anymore…it really was a joyous occasion. While I was settling into my happiness, Fang Hua was experiencing exceptional sorrow.
This was how the day passed. Fang Hua didn’t ask about my name or my origins, or why I’d be in front of his house, as if I’d fallen prey to a plot. He seemed completely indifferent yet well acquainted with everything about me, taking the trouble to try hard and look after me.
This feeling was very bizarre. At morning the next day, I carried a bamboo rocking chair to the walkway and sat down with my hands behind my head, eyes closed, enjoying the wind as it rustled past bamboo leaves, carefree and relaxed.
Perhaps it was because my eyes were shut so all I could see was darkness, but my hearing was unusually sharp. There was a melody floating within this breeze…that qin sound was melodious as water-splashed jade, particularly pleasant to the ear like sounds of nature.
It was also very familiar…
Lying on the deck chair, head pillowed on my hands, I listened closely with my eyes shut for a while with my finger tapping out a rhythm…before I couldn’t resisting humming along. It seemed as if every beat and tone in this song had been carved deeply into my heart, like it used to be a part of myself.
My eyes flew open, pupils crystal clear as I went to search for the song…
Yet suddenly, I sensed someone staring at my back with rapt attention. Alarmed, I turned around. The wind kept blowing through the sea of bamboo, their leaves caught in a prolonged heave and surge. Vaguely, I could see a small pavilion within the forest. A pale violet silhouette was sitting upright, wearing long robes with wide sleeves as he played the qin.
The first rays of the morning sun shed their radiance in torrents upon the earth…his body seemed covered with a layer of golden light, fingers alit with a gentle light.
What a scene.
I lifted my robes and bent forwards to run over, pushing aside the irksome bamboo to spy on him. His head was lowered as he played with single-hearted devotion, a small pot heating slowly by his side. Slow trails of light smoke, infused with the faint scent of medicine, floated up into the air. Those calm and collected features coupled with those smiling eyes to join an upturned mouth as he waved a hand.
Abruptly, the music changed. Though the melody remained the same, the key was a bit odd. My eyebrows minutely furrowed, caught in a moment of stupefaction as I gathered my robes and sleeves to stare at Fang Hua playing the qin. I took a step forward and bent over to press his hands in place.
He smiled at me as if he long anticipated that I’d come, gracefully stilling his fingers before making a gesture of invitation. “Then, please grant me your instruction.”
I wasn’t polite at all, but sat down to sit next to Fang Hua, raising my eyebrows at him. Stretching out my arms, I dangled my sleeves a few times to expose my hands, bowing my head to assume a yielding manner before imposingly resting my fingers over the strings.
Eh, how do I play this?
Squinting slightly, I tried to remember.
My fingers suddenly turned nimble as they began to move. The parrot on his shoulder gave me a look full of curiosity before hurriedly leaving him for a corner, eyes whirling as he stared at me.
I pretended not to notice.
He looked at me very quietly, loose hair drifting lightly by his jacket. A few fragrant strands floated to my cheek…an indescribable aroma that was identical to the one from his body, like the scent of flowers mixed with bamboo, as well as the faint smell of medicine.
I couldn’t help but lose my concentration. Yet even though I was thinking of something else with my thoughts floating in the wind, my fingers never stopped plucking at the strings. The melody flowed out like spring water, jubilant and cheerful, but the music was laden with grief.
What was going on? There was too much I didn’t understand about the memories of this body. The more I played this song, the more I hurt…
Lowering my voice to suppress my unease, I lightly replied, “I think it should be played this way.”
“Is that so.” He smiled, eyes soft and gentle. He’d gotten very close to me…no, it should be that I’d unconsciously drew closer to him until my breaths were against his hair. My heart was pounding as I peered at him. His gaze seemed to look at me with profound meaning. I followed it to examine myself, where I’d pressed against his waist to take advantage of the qin.
Heart thumping wildly, I quickly withdrew my hands, saying in a low voice, “I’m sorry, I’ve been excessive.”
He only smiled without speaking and scooted over.
Panicked, I quickly stood up but didn’t get my bearings. My body fell backwards onto something soft as he held me and drew closer. Assuming the posture of plucking a string, he spoke a string of words that sounded like streaming water by my ear. “I learned this song by ear. Then, I happened to meet you by accident…I just wanted to change the heavy sorrow that used to be part of this melody.”
I looked at him, astonished and unconvinced. “Who wrote this song?”
He touched the qin, looking a bit lonely. “There was a person named Zang, styled Hua, who used to play this song every time he appeared in the jianghu. I’ve only heard it once before.”
He looked at me and laughed, but didn’t answer. Only a fingertip hooked around a string as he raised his hand, playing with a lonely expression.
“I asked the world how many sorrows it held
A single evening brought autumn to the 8,000 year jade
Why not wander instead to distant lands
Reckless and unbridled in the jianghu
Until this life ends?
The idler drinks a flask of wine alone
Leaving behind vast sorrows and joys.”
He slowly looked at me and spoke the last two lines very quietly, almost too softly to hear.
“…youth is free, but spring is hard to find.”
The medicine must have finished boiling by now, because the steam had rose to rattle the cover, momentarily breaking my concentration. I stared at his face as his words passed by my ears like wind. I wasn’t sure why, but my gaze kept drifting to the mole by the corner of his eye. Right now, my heart was aching, and I softened with the wish to reach over and…stroke it.
Was it imagination, or did the color of this teardrop mole look darker than yesterday?
Suddenly, the parrot on the side began to make a racket. “Hothothothot.”
I quickly retracted my rebellious hand, supporting my hands against the table as I looked over. Green Feathers was currently flapping and flying above the lid of the medicine pot, comical and cute. I couldn’t help but laugh, looking up to see Fang Hua’s gentle gaze before hastily avoiding his eyes. My hands randomly reached for the qin as I thought of something to say.
“Youth is free, but spring is hard to find…these lyrics are very particular.”
“Do you like the changes I made?”
I gave him a flabbergasted look, but still he smiled wordlessly, and the expression in his eyes was something I didn’t understand. For a while, neither of us spoke. It was very quiet in the pavilion.
A helpless laugh suddenly burst out from beside me. Fang Hua poured himself a cup of tea, staring at it as he drank. It was a long time before he asked, “Have you lived well these past years?”
I blinked, looking around before realizing he was directing the question to me. Did a mistress deserve to be asked whether she was living well?! This guy, what was he thinking…
He raised his head to look at me, eyes clear yet hard to fathom. I could only say docilely, “I went through a major illness and forget everything from before my life in the palace.”
“I know this, but did Zichuan bully you in those days?”
He could actually use the emperor’s taboo name.
I had difficulty pulling my face into a forced smile. “His majesty was very considerate of my needs and didn’t put on any airs. Everything I ate and used were all good things…” I surveyed our surroundings, raising a finger to emphasize my point. “Everyday, I used pillows of cloud-pattern brocade and slept on a soft bed. There were delicacies and fine food that I didn’t even know the names of, and a carriage was always on call outside the grand hall.”
He gave a dim smile. “Is that so.”
“Of course! Didn’t Lord Hua come from there too? You should naturally know how good the palace is.”
Against his tenacious brow, those delicate eyebrows knitted together in an expression that caused the viewer distress. His reply was light and petulant. “My impression was of empty rooms, hard chairs, and cold tea. The conversations were superficial and the servants chilly-faced. I thought this place would be better than the palace, but I didn’t expect him to treat you so well.”
He must be talking about the Cold Palace…
Such an unearthly, scholarly air on such an Immortal-like figure, but why had he ended up in the Cold Palace? And the emperor could bear to let him suffer like so? He looked at me, eyes filled with something I didn’t understand…
I seized up as I realized everything was caused by me.
“You’re very close with him, aren’t you? Do you like him?” he asked, voice clear and bright. Unexpectedly, I felt as if I was dreaming, everything was so unreal.
I thought about the night I’d served the emperor in bed, and my face turned red. Though I looked away hastily, I somehow caught a glance of Fang Hua’s hand tightly gripping his robes, his fingers completely white. I gave an astonished look towards his face. His expression was very calm. He only looked at me gently, as if he very much wanted to know.
“I don’t know…whether or not I like him. But the emperor really does treat me well. He knows my preferences and favorite foods, and always dotes on me.”
“Is that so…”
The wind rustled past the bamboo leaves. Fang Hua looked to be emotionally moved.
I slowly continued. “He’s an excellent ruler and a good husband.” After the breeze passed, a few strands of hair ended up on my face, covering up my expression as I lowered my eyes for a smile. As before, I spoke without any regard to Fang Hua’s feelings. “After you left, his Majesty didn’t take in any imperial concubines. Today is the ninth day of the tenth month, does Lord Hua know what day it is?”
There was only silence and the sound of the wind. The bamboo grove had lost itself to a wild and never-ending dance.
“What day is it today…” Within his smooth tone, there was a barely perceptible shift in his mood.
“Originally, it was going to be the ceremony for conferring my title, if I hadn’t been snatched out of the palace beforehand.”
I propped myself on my hands, turning slowly to look at him. Though it was only a glimpse, my heart abruptly started pounding in shock. I couldn’t move my gaze away. Somehow, sometime, he’d stood up, the wind whipping past his thin violet robes. A cold, mournful smile and an anxious, sorrowful expression rested on his brows. Those eyes were like cold moonlight, desolate and sad as they looked out into the distance.
“It really is unfair, having you here by my side to suffer,” he said helplessly, his steady voice carrying an echo of disorder within, as if he was trying hard to suppress something. “I think if Zichuan knew you were missing, he’d definitely come look for you.”
I was at a loss for words. Actually, I just wanted to try him, but he really was sad. What was the past between Fang Hua and Zichuan? Why was it that whenever I saw his expression, I’d end up like this…
Feelings surged in my heart, pain rushing from its depths. I made a supreme effort to prop myself against the table, but lost my strength to stand, kneeling instead. My nose lingered on the dense smell of medicinal plants as my hand quietly pressed on the front of my robes, against my chest.
It really hurt…
The faint pain in my heart had grown increasingly intense, as if trying to steal my breath away. I wrinkled my brows, extremely uneasy. I forced myself to endure the churning qi and the sharp pain that accompanied it, hearing the sound of wind and footsteps with my ears.
Abruptly, a pair of hands came to support me. I could feel someone pulling my up and raised my head to see Fang Hua’s eyes, as clear as autumn waters. His gaze was focused, and a hand reached out to take my pulse. I gave a start, feeling his warmth by my hand. But as soon as I remembered the rumors of the palace…
I hastily pushed him away. “It’s fine, I’m okay.”
His body looked extremely delicate, and I nearly pushed him into the medicine pot and its decoction. I didn’t anticipate this and gave an embarrassed arm to help him up. Yet he only turned away, resuming his normal expression, albeit with a hint of chilliness. I quickly withdrew my hand.
“You…” he held onto to a chair as he sat down, both helpless and a little angry. “You’re still like those days in the palace, always picking the perfect time to ask me infuriating questions.”
When he looked at me like that, my wits suddenly returned. This was bad, I’d provoked him on his turf. The palace rumors said he was highly skilled in the medical arts and had somehow even caused the death of the previous emperor. It was because of this that he was chased to the Cold Palace…would I, too…
I lowered my head and felt my neck, shivering with fear.
He didn’t speak, but poured another cup of tea, that pitch-black hair following his movements to cascade down his shoulders. Even a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to divulge his mood at that moment, his hands slightly shaking. The water flowed to a trickle, the cup full. He spoke after a while of silence.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten. At that time, you were extremely unruly, changing your looks to become a young male servant at my side. You hovered about me doing this and that and I always had to deal with the aftermath.”
Ah…really? I scratched my head.
“But why do I miss those days?” Distraught, a faint hint of grief was on his features as he smiled, a very gratified smile.
It stirred the heartstrings.
“Lord Hua,” I knitted my brows, hands on the table as I deliberated my questions. “Were we master and servant? What exactly happened back then?”
Why would I leave the court? How did he quietly slip out of the Cold Palace, and why didn’t the emperor look for imperial concubines for five years…? That night, what happened between them?
He looked at me, holding my hand with a soft smile. “Forget about it, it’s fine as long as you’ve lived well.” Those last words ended with a sigh that dissolved into the air, leaving an agreeable aftertaste as he pondered. “What’s past is past, why bother remembering?”
I looked at him face-on, expressionless.
What was this? Why did I feel like crying when I saw his tranquil, simple expression? Why did I feel unwilling to resign myself to his words? He spoke no more, lightly massaging my hands in his palms with a smile on his lips. He lowered his face to peer at me. “…it’s very cold.”
I already thought it was a bit chilly. Without daring to look at him, I quickly withdrew my hand and squatted down by the medicine pot, borrowing the warmth of its fire as the scent of medicine filled my nostrils. I was befuddled as I asked him, “Is this the medicine you usually drink?”
It was almost completely boiled dry. A glance inside showed me a small black object.
“Don’t touch, I’ll do it.” He hurriedly rose with support from the table, walking to the medicine pot and squatting down. There was a bowl in his hands, which he used to pour in some brown water. I felt it was unnecessary, but hastily stepped aside, looking at his back, bewildered. Seeing him stooping on the ground like that, I felt my heart suddenly ache.
A beautiful person like this shouldn’t do such things…
His back looked very lonely.
I couldn’t help, so I circled him a few times before sitting down again. I peeled a few nuts and tossed them at the parrot to peck, but my thoughts weren’t there at all. A slow glance saw him using his sleeve to hold a small bowl as he walked over. His expression was peaceful, though his steps were a bit fast. The hot bowl of steaming brown water was placed before me before he swiftly withdrew his hands.
I squinted at him, but his face was expressionless. His looks were outstanding as he folded his hands behind his back, a chilly voice saying indifferently, “This is medicine for you to drink.”
I wasn’t sick, so why did I need to take medicine?
He raised his eyebrows, but kept his good temper.
“You must have lingering feelings for the emperor,” I said, my words sudden and astonishing.
He didn’t react.
I smiled until I felt I was overflowing with panic.
If it wasn’t for this relationship and its ambiguous connections, why would anyone entrap me…and toss me on his doorstep? I bet he was a formidable person. Now that he was in this awkward position, he could still take such good care of the emperor’s imperial concubine. If that wasn’t kindness from the bottom of the heart, it had to be some kind of trick.
There was nothing wrong, yet he wanted me to take medicine.
Seeing that I wasn’t moving, he opened his lips slightly. “Your internal energy…”
“Not drinking.” I turned my face away.
“As you wish. I have no ability to interfere,” he turned and called out gently, “Shào‘er, let’s go.”
“Yifuyifu…wait for me…yifu…” the parrot flapped its wings as it landed on his shoulders. He gave a beautiful smile as he ignored me, extending a hand to copy my way of teasing the parrot as he left…
I stood stunned. For a second, I’d misheard his Shào‘er as Shao’er. Leaning against the pavilion, I looked in his direction. Within the depths of the bamboo forest, a smear of violet moved spryly in the breeze. I could faintly see him swiftly move the hand at his side to his front, head lowered as he desperately blew at the air.
I suddenly thought it was bizarre, raising my head to study his silhouette as my hand groped for that bowl of medicine. One touch…and I withdrew again. Curses, it wasn’t just hot, but beyond scalding. No wonder he’d walked so fast.
My lips drew into a smile.
This person appeared to be calm and unperturbed, but it was all just an act. For whom did he go to such lengths to preserve his image…? I breathed lightly as I saw his form disappear into the forest, leaving only me in the pavilion. Staring at that bowl of steaming brown water, my eyebrows furrowed and I gave an experimental sniff. It was very fragrant…
It smelled like medicinal plants, but was still strange, as if he’d added lots of things I didn’t know…how queer, this bowl of stuff had no medicine I was familiar with, and the liquid was a limpid, amber-hued brown…I sloshed it around and found no dregs of medicine inside.
What did he give me to eat? Just then, he’d mentioned internal energy? I didn’t cultivate. Even if I did, that was a thing of the past, so what if I recovered it? I hadn’t offended anyone at court, yet I still met with misfortune. There were always people thinking of ways to harm me. As for him…there were too many thoughts that I couldn’t penetrate.
Compared to the possibility of being killed, there was the groundless possibility of regaining martial arts skills. I tilted my head, staring at the bowl. My hand brushed against the qin on the table with flowing fingers…drawing across the strings to hear its crisp notes. Extending my hand, I held the bowl of medicine..and dumped it onto the bamboo.
I’d rather not drink unfamiliar things. This was a basic survival principle. The emperor had taught me from the start but unfortunately, I hadn’t taken it to heart.
Right now, the only person I could depend on was myself.
 youth is free, but spring is hard to find (芳华尽放，韶华难求) －fanghua jinfang, shaohua nanqiu, another hidden meaning, Fang Hua = “youth”, Shao Hua = “glorious springtime”. When the song is sung with these words in mind, outsiders won’t assume these are people’s names, not simple nouns.  taboo name (名讳) －minghui, it was forbidden to speak, write, or give the names of exalted persons in ancient China. More Wiki goodness here.
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