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Deep in the courtyard, the wind was cool. The sweet scent of osmanthus blossoms pervaded the space as Fang Hua stood beneath a tree. Warm, pleasant sunlight shone on the leaves, mixing with the pattern of the shade and making him seem to exude light. He wore a black gown, with his hair like black jade spilling over his shoulders. The fingers peeking out from his sleeves were like white jade as he elegantly held a brush.
No matter where I saw this person, he was always as beautiful as is he had walked out of a painting.
I grabbed a set of robes from the rooms and walked over to drape them over his shoulders, brows knitted. The moon-white clothing settled over his thin black ones, causing his thinning frame to tremble slightly. He forced himself to hold back a cough as he patted my hand, each movement infused with the scent of flowers…
Suspicious, I could only stare at him. “Fang Hua, why aren’t you getting better despite taking your medicine?”
He smiled lightly and turned away without replying.
Atop the bamboo table were countless stacks of high quality paper, as well as ink and brush. Looking over, I gave a snort. “Everyday, I see you take paper out of the cabinets. I never see you draw anything, what a waste.”
His lips curved up as he pressed the brush into my hands. “You do it.”
Fine, I would. Not like I had anything to be scared of. Rolling up my sleeves, I held the brush in hand and spread out the paper. I wondered what should I draw?
He carried a bowl of medicine over and smiled at me. Before taking the medicine, he took an osmanthus blossom and put it in his mouth, as if he was eating candy. This guy…seemed to dislike bitter things.
I grinned to myself.
Aware of my reaction, he glanced over. “What are you smiling about? Don’t think your smile is anything beautiful. Draw a bird and I’ll still call it a parrot.”
His mood was exceptionally good today, to the point that he was making jokes, even though they weren’t very funny. He lowered his head and blew softly on the medicine. My pupils suddenly spun with an idea. I’d draw the person he wanted to see the most…Han Zichuan. Resting my hand on the stone table, I smoothed out the paper before lowering my brush. What did the emperor’s eyebrows look like…? They resembled mountains, and his nose was tall and graceful…moving down, there were his lips, firm and persistent with unswerving determination. Thinking back, I’d been on intimate terms with the emperor while we were together, but I felt rusty drawing him. Though he was my husband, I’d been thinking about him less and less recently…eh, it feels like I’ve never thought of him on purpose. Only the occasional look at Fang Hua would remind me that he was somewhere off in the palace.
I halted when I realized my thoughts were wandering again, tapping my forehead with my brush. I told myself not to lose concentration before sweeping my gaze over the figure on the paper. Correcting my attitude, I adjusted my sleeves like an elegant person and resumed drawing. Just when I was getting into it, an obviously tricky voice called out.
“Come taste this for me.”
A bowl of delicately fragrant liquid was placed beneath my lips. I stared at the painting while managing to take a sip.
“How is it?”
“Not hot or cold,” I shot a quick glance over before pushing him aside to continue drawing. He shielded the bowl like a meddlesome old woman and scooted over, asking softly, “…I was asking you about the flavor.”
I carefully smacked my lips. “Didn’t really taste it.”
“Drink another sip.”
“Is it too cold, should I warm it up? How warm would you like it?”
“The taste isn’t bad.”
“Eh? I’m asking you if it’s too cold, why are you telling me how it tastes like? If I warm it rashly, it’ll lose its medicinal properties…” His brows knitted together with a faint hint of anxiety. “But if I drink it while it’s cool, I’ll get a stomachache. My body can’t take the cold anymore. Help me drink some more and see how long I should heat it.”
I swallowed another mouthful. It should be fine if he warmed it briefly over a small fire.
“Really. I don’t think we need to warm it at all. Try another sip.”
Something’s not right…
I thought it over before pausing with my brush.
I say…is this medicine for me or for him? I’ve almost finished the entire bowl. He walked off with the remaining half of the bowl, not daring to try anything else. He only sat docilely on the chair with head bowed, both hands holding the bowl as he tasted it with a smile. I couldn’t even begin to describe my resentment. This wasn’t even his first or second time. Every time I decocted medicine for him, he’d find some excuse to let me drink most of it. As I looked, he rested a hand on one knee while sitting in the chair, tapping his fingers intermittently in a carefree manner.
The more I watched, the more huffy I felt…
Yet his eyelashes trembled, his face showed him to be in a very good mood. I couldn’t bear to tell him off. Stopping the motion of the brush, I smacked my lips. The taste of the medicine wasn’t half-bad. Despite carrying the flavor of a typical prescription, it wasn’t all that bitter, though the feel of it was astringent in my throat after I swallowed. They say good medicine tastes bitter, so as I saw it…the reason he wasn’t getting better was because he avoided bitter medicines, so they couldn’t cure his illness.
What was that shaking in his robes?
Curious, I stuck out my neck, raising my brush in the air as I took a peek. He seemed to sense it as well, following my gaze to his robes. The white robes fluttered to reveal a blue one within, before a paper crane peeked out from the depths, its wings fluttering with life. Only his hand against it kept it from flying away.
“What sort of thing is this?” My eyes brightened as I set aside the brush, ready to circle the table for a look.
“What are you talking about?” Fang Hua looked up at me. I wasn’t sure if he was doing it on purpose, but one push of his finger sent the paper crane tumbling down. I gave a cry of alarm and rushed over, kneeling down to check the crane. It was unlucky enough to land in one of the muddy puddles leftover from the rain. Its entire body seemed to be made out of some yellowed paper, as if folded from some sort of talisman. There were even marks of cinnabar on the paper, though the water had soaked and dissolved it all through. Could a paper crane really fly by itself? Had I been seeing things?
“Why did you drop it to the ground?”
“I didn’t,” he sat a little helplessly in his chair, looking as if I’d wronged him.
I wanted to fish up the paper crane, but he suddenly stood up. Setting the bowl aside, he pulled me up as well. “It’s gotten dirty, don’t pick it up. Let’s see how your painting’s progressing…” Thus, he pulled me away.
The papers on the table trembled before the wind. Luckily, the ink stone was holding them down. He drew closer and prepared to see the drawing I’d done.
“That…I haven’t finished yet,” I gave a shout, reflexively holding out a hand to stop him. He smiled, eyes giving me a flirtatious glance. It surprised me into numbness, enough to let him push my arm aside. The thick lines of ink painted out a silhouette…
His smile faded as he looked up and said softly, “Zichuan, is it?” Before I could reply, he sat down gently, hand quietly feeling the paper. “It’s filled with grace.”
Is that so….
But I still thought it was missing something. He stared at the drawing as I stared at him, unblinking. That elegant face was gentle and soft, but the set of his eyebrows was firm and unyielding. When this type of person fell in love with someone else, he’d probably adore them all his life, protecting that love even unto death…
He looked at me, and I hastily dipped my head to dust off my robes. The laugh that followed seemed a bit forced, and his gaze seemed unusually deep. “A beginner at drawing can depict the general forms, later on they’ll master the skeleton.”
Surprised, I stopped brushing my clothing to look at him. It was hard to tell his expression. I followed his lines by imitating his tone, light and easy as I spoke. “…and an experienced artist can depict the soul.”
He seemed flabbergasted as he looked at me, but couldn’t help but smile. “You can’t remember events, but you remember this line so clearly.”
“Hey, it does sound familiar. My brain just blurted out this line by itself, though I’m not sure where I heard it from.” I said, a little embarrassed.
He didn’t say any more, but fixed his sleeves before taking the brush in his slender figures. Swirling it in the ink, he added a few strokes by Han Zichuan’s eyebrows in the painting. Just a few simple movements…and it felt like the figure had come alive on the paper, distinct and clear-cut. I came over to take a look.
“If it was a drawing of me…” his tall, slender form halted the movements of the brush to give me a pained look. “It’d carry three spirits within it.”
I remained mute. Why was he piling things on me again? He laughed, tossing the brush carelessly behind him. “Come, I’ll take you to a place.”
Even as my body leaned back, I was pulled along, feet scampering after him. I couldn’t resist a look back. “You eat a few copper coins’ worth of cabbage leaves everyday, and yet you’ve tossed aside a brush worth fine silver, y-y-you…”
He looked at me, and I lowered my head in silence. His fingers were icy cold, their grip tight around my own as if they’d never let go.
“Where are you taking me? I already said, I’m not chopping any firewood.”
He didn’t speak, but his lips curved up to make him especially beautiful. My heart beat wildly as I stole another look. His pupils were like amber, limpid and clear. He smiled at me and his eyes curved in response, contrasting with his unique complexion and dark red mole. It made him look unexpectedly flirtatious, that beauty. Enough to stun me senseless. Thus, I stayed quiet while he tugged me along, obediently following behind him.
“…we’re here.” he spoke, hand tightening around mine.
Ah…where were we?
Fang Hua had been very mysterious when he took me with him, so I thought we’d end up in some rare and strange place. But I was greatly disappointed. Could someone tell me where I was?
Around the perimeter of the house, no matter if it was the buildings or the bamboo, everywhere that Fang Hua went was filled with exuberant plant life and the fragrance of flowers. It seemed like only this spot of land was bare, which was impressive in itself.
I continued to stand in shock.
He turned his head to grin at me, and I could only smily foolishly back. He raised his sleeve to fix my own, making my face turn red. I hurriedly covered myself up, holding back a breath as I stared at him. “What are you doing?”
Wasn’t he sick? Why was he so strong?
“You’ve finally woken up. When I was spacing out, you didn’t deal with me like that. Not to mention…looks like it worked.” He smiled again as he spoke to me. “Look at what I’ve done, do you think this place is pretty?”
What was there to see?
“If you can call an abandoned field pretty,” I sucked in a breath, speaking a little against my conscience. “Those withered branches over there are beautiful.”
He laughed like an elder humoring a misbehaving child. I lost myself in his beauty again, but it only took a second before I snapped out of it. What did he bring me here for? This desolate area in the middle of nowhere was best suited for robbery and murders…
“Have you ever thought…” a voice drifted out, and he was suddenly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me, looking off into the distance. His gaze was partly yearning, but mostly distressed, leaving only a hint of his usual tenderness to intoxicate his viewer. His voice was so soft, to the point where I could barely hear him. “To remain for the rest of your life with the person you love, and never leave them.”
Curses, so he brought me here to talk about life. There was depth to that, so I could appreciate it.
“I’ve never thought of it,” I said bluntly.
The person you loved? Was he talking about Han Zichuan? He could only count as my husband, but if I stayed with him for the rest of my life, then wouldn’t that be…?
My mind immediately imagined a crowd of eunuchs bowing before my bed and a somber-faced wet nurse, making my heart tremble. Growing old with the emperor was akin to growing old with a whole crowd of other people.
His gaze swept over me as he continued to smile. “I’ve thought of it more than once. If I could spend the rest of my life with the person I love, neither of us leaving the other…wouldn’t that be great?”
I was dumbfounded. He raised his head slightly to catch the sunlight streaming past the leaves above us. “Through life and death, together in happiness. Two hands clasped as one, together until old age.”
His white robes and pitch-black hair combined to make him look gentle and meek. The serenity surrounding him was like that around a newborn infant, and golden light seemed to shine from the tips of his eyebrows. Turning his head to look at me, he revealed a rare and gentle smile. “If there really was an afterlife, how wonderful that would be.” The sorrow he displayed in that instant seemed to suffocate me.
“If you love him that much, why did you leave him back then?”
He paused, looking at me unhurriedly as he blinked. Then he gave a mischievous smile. “The world holds many things that we can’t determine, and many difficulties we’re unwilling to speak about…just like you.” Laughing clearly, he caressed my cheek, fingers sliding across the skin as he focused on me. “I don’t blame your words or anything you’ve done, because you have difficulties you can’t say as well.”
Was he hinting to what had happened between the three of us in the past? My thoughts began to wander.
“For many things, you can’t just look at the surface. Just like this place. It looks like a wasteland now, but it can also be filled with a beauty seldom seen in the secular world.” He slowly moved forward, snow-white robes drifting as he pinched off a withered branch. Closing his eyes, he smelled the branches, the movement sending his black hair cascading down like flowing water. Seeing his waist and neck accentuate the image was so beautiful that I forgot how to breathe.
Yet in one moment, the branch burst into full bloom.
My eyes widened. Was this some sort of magic trick?!
How did he do it?
He lifted his sleeves, hands opening to reveal a profusion of peach blossoms in bloom. His lips curved into a smile as he spoke. “A flower blooms briefly, its life a pleasant journey. Youth can only bloom for an instant in one lifetime, and only for one person.”
The gentle wind blew, scattering peach blossoms into the skies like rain. All over the mountains and plains, peach blossoms exuded their sweet, intoxicating scent.
I was stupefied.
He glanced at me, that soft elegance filled with bewitching charm. His eyes closed slightly as he smiled in peerless refinement. It was like a flash of a dream carried on the wind that came and went without a trace. Whoever saw it first could claim it for their own…
A long time afterwards, I’d always remember his expression amidst the different flowers. Though he was smiling, why did I feel so sad? He ought to possess a true love…
Youth passes in an instant and only blooms for one person.
He was Fang Hua, but who was the person he couldn’t forget? Was it Han Zichuan, deep in the palace? My heart stirred, suddenly filling with pain. He shouldn’t wear such a lonely expression, so quiet amidst the flowers. What did he mean to tell me by bringing us here…?
“Fang Hua, you really don’t resent me for stealing away the emperor?”
When we were walking back from the peach blossom trees, I kept on asking him.
“I don’t,” was the straight reply.
I grasped his robes with a sullen expression, filled with disbelief. He turned in surprise, giving me a strange look. But he didn’t speak again, and instead settled on a light smile. My gaze turned plaintive. He lowered a hand to rest on my shoulders and softly gathered me into his arms with a sigh.
“You don’t understand? I don’t resent you. Actually, I’m very happy now.”
My nose was filled with the fragrance of flowers and his faint, lingering scent of medicine. Within his warm embrace, as improper as it was, I felt very comfortable. I’ve heard people say I used to serve him within the palace, so we must have been close. Even so, I still didn’t understand him…
I frowned. Being buried in his chest, breathing in his distinctive scent, it felt like he could disappear at any moment. My arms took the chance to tighten around him, gripping the slippery satin of his robes to hold back the uneasy feelings assaulting my heart.
There was nothing to fear.
I still had plenty of time to understand the riddle of this man named Fang Hua.
 youth (芳华) – fang hua, the word used for youth here is the same characters found in Fang Hua’s name.
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