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I had a dream.
In the dream, there was a person who kept calling me Shao’er in a voice choked with sobs, his voice both captivating and heartbroken.
When I abruptly opened my eyes, my blurry vision cleared to see the same familiar roof beams and its scattering of dust. With effort, I propped myself up and looked around. I realized I didn’t know when someone had returned me to my own room.
The sunlight outside was pleasantly warm, and the table by the window had two or three robes on top, neatly folded and clean…a few threads of light scattered across its surface, making the moon-white material seem like it was wearing a plate of gold.
I was clearly at Fang Hua’s place last night, so when was I carried back here?
Rubbing my eyes, I realized my mind felt woozy and my head hurt. There was the taste of medicine in my throat. I grabbed my neck with my hands, smacking my lips as I tasted something astringent and raw…and nearly threw up when I bent over.
What was the matter? I didn’t remember drinking water or anything else last night in Fang Hua’s room.
I tried to move the covers and get off the bed, but didn’t expect a wave of darkness to swim before my eyes. My head felt faint and I saw stars, while my feet were completely listless. I managed to drape my clothes over my shoulders with difficulty, closing my eyes with knitted brows as I held onto the edge of the bed. Just when I decided to try taking a step, a warm sensation spread from my depths of my brain to fill my entire head, stopping me in place. My whole body felt off but I couldn’t describe the sensation beyond my sore, burningly numb hands. As I started to recover bit by bit, my hands tightened around the bed.
A mass of white smoke billowed out. The places where I’d touched with my hands were extremely hot. Looking down, I could see the marks of my fingers against the bed, the five digits making a deep depression in the wood. It didn’t seem like it could be hand-carved, because no human could have such high-level sculpting skills. The marks left by the impression were even smooth to the touch.
I was suitably shocked as I raised my hand for a look, then glanced back at the impression in the wood. They were exactly the same mold, how strange… Suspicious, I blew a puff of air into the center of my palm before pressing it against the edge of the bed again. This time, I used all of my strength.
The anticipated earth-shaking bang never came, but a depressed cry came from my mouth. I grabbed my hand and stomped my foot…
It hurt! A large portion of my hand had turned red and numb, but there was no reaction from the wood…
I looked at the imprints of my five fingers on the bed, then my injured hand, feeling in low spirits. Did I imagine it all…? As if I’d cultivate some miraculous abilities overnight!
Pah, how annoying.
I draped my clothes over my shoulders like a ruffian before putting on my shoes and flinging open the door. After excitedly stepping out, I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do. This godforsaken place had no signs of people or birds around. Dejected, I sat beneath the eaves with my hands on my knees. The courtyard was filled with the fragrance of bamboo, the jade-green leaves rustling in the breeze, yet filled with a tranquil elegance…
This was a nice place, and the air was fresh. But it’d been awhile since I had been snatched out of the palace, so the emperor should be worried. Moreover, since I’d disappeared for so long, the court must be in an uproar. Who knew if Little Li would be punished for losing me?
Fang Hua once said it was rare to see humans here. You might spot a single person in the span of a few months, here to sell necessities and take people down the mountain. If I wanted to leave, I’d have to go with one of them to descend the peak. Such a desolate, deserted place, yet he stayed so enjoyably within it.
I pinched off a piece of grass to put in my mouth, hands slipping into my sleeves as I stood up and looked around hopefully. I dove into the bamboo groves and brushed aside the plants as I meandered slowly along…
Rays of sunlight streamed down from the tops. I raised my head and walked around in a circle. Besides bamboo, there was nothing but more bamboo around here and the occasional sound of rustling leaves…wait, rustling?
My scalp turned numb. I don’t know if my own imagination was to blame, but it felt like my feet had grown heavier. Stunned in place, I glanced downwards and saw a light green snake pressing on my foot, slowly sliding its slippery length across me…
I stood dumbfounded as a chill crept up my back. My feet were stock still, but my body couldn’t help shaking and my legs felt like jelly. The damp yellow mud beneath my shoes felt very slippery, and I lost my balance to stagger backwards before flipping over and rolling down a hill…
Curses, where did this slope show up from?
I only saw my vision blur as I rolled like a burst of autumn wind scattering the fallen leaves. I don’t know how many circles I did, only that I was very dizzy. A hot qi rose from my chest to warm my entire body before I violently ran into something. But I didn’t feel any pain. The little pebbles on the slope, along with the fallen leaves, threw themselves against my face as I kept tumbling downwards. I turned aside and spat, covering half my face with my sleeves. Something cold and smooth by my back had stopped my progress. Using my courage, I groped backwards with my hand before looking to see a section of bamboo growing from the side of the hill…
Good thing it’d grown here, or things would’ve turned black if I kept tumbling down. The Heavens really were merciful, I knew I wasn’t destined to die in the prime of my life…
Wiping away my sweat, I used the bamboo to help my shaking self to my feet. My robes were filthy, and some parts had been torn open by the fall. You could faintly see traces of my inner robe from the outside. I massaged my waist, catching my breath while I held onto the bamboo for support. The hot qi that had been concentrated in my chest before slowly receded away…
Speaking of which, this was weird. I’d fallen down from so high, but not only were my bones fine, I also felt no pain on my body. Taking a breath, I experimentally moved my arms and legs. Right now, everything felt extremely comfortable.
…too bad about my clothes, though.
I lifted up my robes, looking around in bewilderment. There was no time to consider the details because something caught my attention as soon as I lifted my eyes. A disorderly copse of trees stood before me. Within the luxuriant branches and foliage, there were still places with withered leaves. The whole thing looked as if they were planted by hand. Whoever did it must have been in a rush, and didn’t take care to maintain the plants. Curious, I reached out with my hands and made an opening in the trees until I saw a small path. It seemed to lead to the foot of the hill…
Weird, didn’t Fang Hua said there wasn’t a way down the mountain? Unless he was lying? Whatever the case, I smelled the hint of a conspiracy…
Recalling Fang Hua’s former words, I couldn’t help but feel my heart sink. Things felt off. There were only the two of us living at his house. All the empty spaces in front of the residence had been overtaken by medicinal plants. He didn’t seem to be growing any vegetables or raising livestock behind the house. I’d been here for half a month and wasted quite a bit of food since then. These days, if it wasn’t grains, then it was meat and fish being offered to me everyday. If the facts were really as they said–that someone would only come by the mountain every few months–then wouldn’t I have starved to death by half a month?
I never expected that such an Immortal-like person could lie so easily, without even blinking. What was his purpose in keeping me here…? The more I thought, the more I felt things were off. I suddenly turned around and hastily climbed up the slope. I walked until I entered my room and closed the door.
It wasn’t advisable to linger…
Taking a deep breath, I sprawled beneath the bed to fish out a piece of gunny cloth. Cementing my heart, I turned my face away to pinch a corner of the smelly cloth, shaking it out before spreading it open. Turning around, I found a few robes from the wardrobe and dug out two mantou halves hidden in a pillow that I muffled in a cloth.
These days, you could never forget to pack food…if there was more time, I wanted to get some meat from the steamer in the kitchen to sandwich between my mantou, because it’d be delicious to eat on the road. I’d starved so much when the kidnapper had taken me here. That crafty scoundrel was only concerned about eating his own mantou instead of whether or not I’d starve to death. Being knocked out didn’t mean I couldn’t eat…
So thinking, my pleased face quickly turned sober. Exactly who had taken me from the imperial court? Why would they risk themselves doing such a thing? If they wanted to harm me, they didn’t have to go to so much trouble and expense. So many people died yearly in the palace, so why not stab me a few times while I was unconscious and throw my body in a well?
Originally, I thought my adversary wanted to use Fang Hua to get rid of me, but Fang Hua hadn’t created any difficulties for me despite my old affair with the emperor. Instead, he treated me very well. His morals were top-notch and his temper was excellent. There was no sign that he planned to hurt me. Not only did he leave me alone, but these days I was even the one bullying him. When I realized he had no intentions to harm me, I gave up the idea of slipping away so quickly. Besides, he told me there was no way off the mountain. Rather than rashly set off by myself, it’d be better to quietly wait for the emperor to rescue me. But now things didn’t seem so simple.
From the path I discovered today, I could tell…that Fang Hua was lying. Some villain in the court had thought of a way to bring me to Fang Hua’s doorstep. Now he was using a thousand different ways to trick me and keep me from going to the palace. Could it be that Fang Hua was in cahoots with that villain? But…that didn’t seem likely, he just didn’t look like that kind of person.
Aiya, so tiresome. I scratched my head, brows furrowed in serious thought. The most important thing now was…
To get out.
I tied a knot in my cloth bundle and placed it under my arm before pushing open the door. My thoughts were in disorder, making it impossible for me to conjecture anything.
…it’d be better to get the facts once I returned to the palace.
I entered the forest anew like a hapless housefly jostling her way blindly through until I grew confused…how was I supposed to take this path…? I’d been in such a rush, I forgot to leave marks on the road for myself.
Was it this way…?
Or was it that way…?
“Aish, I’ll just walk as I please,” I moved my bag to my shoulders, face a mix of high aspirations and unflinching determination in the face of death. “The cart will find its way round the hill when it gets there.”
I brushed aside the irritating tree branches and looked upon the widened expanse before me…unfortunately, the added view also came with one extra person…
A cluster of white pear blossoms bloomed splendidly before me. Beyond the pear tree was a wooden table where a person stood with brush in hand, bending over a painting. His dark robes made his face especially jade-like, and those fair, white hands were arranged in a beautiful posture. He raised his head to look at me with gentle eyes.
It was Fang Hua…
Seized with shock, I could only stand unmoving as he looked at me. W-w-was his illness better? He was coughing all last night, but now he was dressed so thinly outdoors. How could he have the spare time to paint?
I was surprised. But I stuck fast in place, unwilling and unable to move. While I frowned, his line of sight slowly moved on to rest on the bag by my shoulders, seemingly lost in thought. His staring made my scalp turn numb as I dejectedly lowered my head. Seeing that there was no way out, I hoisted my bag up and prepared to turn back.
“Why do you always want to leave me?” A cool but tender voice accosted me from behind. It made my heart tremble to hear it and my feet turned into lead, unable to take another step. I turned around to face him, seeing his still form looking at me from a distance. His robes fluttered in the breeze, plain and unadorned as ever. Pear blossom petals drifted in the air to rest on his shoulders, and his face was filled with a grief that made my heart ache.
“Where do you want to go?” he kept asking, though in a much softer voice.
I gave a derisive smile, shaking my head in embarrassment. “I’ve troubled you for so long, so…”
“Don’t try to stall me with words again,” he cut me off, a firm tone in his voice. “These past years, you’ve all left me one by one…”
He was fixated on me, smiling despite the anguish in his brows. “You should know, I don’t have much time left with you all.”
Something tightened in my heart. He knew this much about himself…a man like this, why didn’t anyone want him? It must be lonely to stay at this big house by himself. My voice grew hoarse, but before I could reply, he spoke to me in an injured tone.
“You can actually bearing ruining the clothes I gave to you. Look at this, it’s all in tatters.”
Hey, you try falling down the side of a mountain.
“You want to leave me, even if it means climbing your way through the mess of branches?”
So it turned out that mass of tree branches was really planted there on purpose. Speechless, I gave him a resentful glare. It looked like he wanted to say some more, but his mouth didn’t move. With a pale face, his expression stilled to one of desolation. It made my soften to see him. Originally, I wanted to ask him why he blocked the path with those trees or something about his evil intentions.
Instead, what came out was, “Have you taken your medicine yet?”
After his usual silence, he spoke again. “I’m going to die anyways. It doesn’t matter whether it happens sooner or later. What’s the point of taking medicine when you’re just one person here?”
His words made my heart tremble. This person, he could play the qin and drink and paint and live merrily, so why did he keep cursing himself to die? Though, his expression really did look lonely. He sadly shook his head when I offered to support him, and sat down on the ground in low spirits. Those smooth black strands of hair rested across his shoulders, dark against his white upper robes. He used a sleeve to cover his mouth, chest heaving in a fit of violent coughing.
“Forget it.” I was thoroughly defeated by him. After hesitating for quite a gave, my conscience gave in and I unloaded my bag. “I’ll wait until you get better. Don’t keep saying that you’ll die so soon.”
“So you’re not leaving?”
Leaving…how could I not want to leave?
I glanced at him again, sitting quietly on the ground with a melancholy expression that made my heart quiver…the words rose to my lips and did a circle.
“Leaving. I’ll leave after you’re well.”
His eyes curved into a smile. I foolishly smiled along before I came to my senses. Did I just agree to…stay…here?
Look at my good-for-nothing senses. Vexed, I shook my head. But seeing him smile so happily, I couldn’t help but feel the corners of my own mouth rise up. The issue of leaving of house thus ended here.
It was only later on that I realized…he was smiling so happily because he knew he wouldn’t get better, but I’d agreed to spend the rest of his life with him, even if it wasn’t much. Thus, I began my promised undertaking, serving him tea and pouring him water like an old mother or a servant. As to the emperor, I always wanted to pass him a message using a messenger of some kind. But every time I lifted my brush, I wouldn’t know what to write…somehow, I didn’t want him to know I was here with Fang Hua. I tossed and turned the idea in my mind for half a day before deciding to tell him myself afterwards. I’d take care of Fang Hua first. In such a way, I resolved the problem laying on my heart.
 the cart will find its way round the hill when it gets there (车到山前必有路) －che dao shanqian bi you lu, saying meaning that “things will eventually sort themselves out.”
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