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I laid on the bamboo mats for awhile before I felt a large damp spot on the pillow. When I touched my face, I discovered the faint trace of tears by my eyes and lifted my head, only to feel a splitting headache. My body had been acting strangely these days, as if some sort of inner energy kept channeling its way through my chest. It felt warm and refused to dissipate…as if it was trapped, but I always felt refreshed in body when I woke up, as if my memory had gotten much better.
Every time, Fang Hua would smile and say it was his medicine taking effect.
His medicine couldn’t even cure himself, so how could it cure me?
Neither of us ever mentioned the incident that happened the day we brewed wine. The sorrowful, grieved Fang Hua I saw only appeared when he was intoxicated. He usually took on the image of a refined and handsome scholar. Don’t think he was some celestial being free from wants or desires, though…his one demerit was his habit of feeding your his own medicinal brews. A nice way to put it was that he enjoyed sharing his misery.
Pah, what an attitude!
Thinking back on our time, I used to joke that Fang Hua had no scholarship to him, because he never read anything in his free time. He didn’t answer my jab, but picked up a medical book in his spare time and began to leaf through that. Even though it was him who was reading…I discovered that I could recite the material from heart as well. It surprised me, but he wasn’t moved at all. He said I had this skill from before, so it was nothing unexpected. It seemed like he understood everything.
However, there was one thing I didn’t tell him.
Every night when I closed my eyes, I’d sense someone kneeling by the edge of my bed, as if reciting something softly to me. Before my eyes would appear a word or a phrase, in scraps and pieces, but it also felt like they could be connected into sentences like some sort of passage or incantation.
And when I woke up the next day, I’d feel energized all over my body. Of course, sometimes I’d get a headache, but after taking Fang Hua’s medicine I’d feel better again, with no discomfort anywhere. Hey…was that medicine really that miraculous?! Still, I was puzzled over why such a powerful medicine couldn’t cure Fang Hua. Was his body so weak that nothing could fix it? But it didn’t look that way. Although he had the occasional cough and was easily tired after his sluggish walks, he still looked energetic. Sometimes when I tried to support his arm for walks, he’d look at me with a disdainful air and roll his eyes.
Our days thus passed like this. The emperor’s men never searched this far. Thinking back to my promise not to leave Fang Hua before his illness got better, I realized I’d gotten used to taking care of him. Now it was hard to tell whether it was better here or at the palace…though sometimes I’d think of the emperor. Who knew if he was worried now that I’d disappeared for so long, and whether or not he wanted to find me?
It was a little chilly on the porch. My hands rested on a bamboo bench as I slowly got up, realizing I had an extra layer of robes over my chest. It was a man’s robe, the fabric soft and warm. Lowering my head for a sniff, I caught the distinctive scent of Fang Hua on the clothes. My lips curved up into a smile before I stretched lazily. Since I’d just woken up, I wasn’t sure what to do next just yet.
I spaced out for a while before the words I’d dreamed about suddenly rose from my gut. Knitting my brows, I counted on my fingers before the strings holding up a set of bamboo windchimes suddenly snapped off the eaves, falling to the ground.
A single lamp hung swaying from the eaves in the wake of the wind.
Shocked, I stared at my fingers for a while before grinning. I didn’t have time to consider where this martial arts skill came from, but only felt extremely excited. Pulling up my pants, I rushed inside the room to fish out some rough straw paper before heading for the outhouse. Kicking open the door, I went inside, turned around, and squatted down, finishing a series of actions as smoothly as flowing water and floating clouds. I rubbed my stomach before humming a bit. When I got up, my limbs stretched and felt free from inhibitions. My entire body was trembling, but the sound that had entered my ears was changing from blurry indistinction to something clearer, and it was growing more and more lively. There were the sounds of people talking, of cicadas chirping, even the lively bustle of a night market. I looked around me before suddenly, the noise disappeared.
It was nighttime, and inside the outhouse everything was pitch-dark. The moonlight outside was faint and dismal, but it felt like my vision and hearing had improved greatly.
I remained squatting in the outhouse, shutting my eyes to concentrate for a while. Hey! That was it, I could suddenly hear the sounds of two frogs flirting in the pond 100 li from the house–and they were a male and a female.
Perhaps I was just stupid, but before I lost my memory, I’d never seen the fruit of my labors in various martial arts. It seemed that great minds matured slowly, because everything seemed to open up tonight. I was secretly delighted as I stooped over the latrine pit. Suddenly there was a sound of pattering that caught my attention. It seemed as if something had fallen down from a tree, and I could catch the indistinct sound of someone scaling the wall…
My eyes shone as I grew instantly alert. Even a place like this, so removed from everything else, had a thief scaling the walls? Or was it someone from a clandestine love affair?! But this sound, why was it so nearby, as if it was right by me?!
“Sheesh, pull yourself together.”
“Troublesome. I told you to get Sixth to come, he has good lightness techniques. But you said no. Hurry up and climb over, I can’t hold you for much longer.”
I gave a start, realizing that there really was someone climbing into my house. I was so happy! After staying here all these days, I’d never seen anyone else besides Fang Hua. Not just a shade of a human, I hadn’t even sensed the scent of a human around. I held myself back for a while before deciding not to scare off these thieves. After all, it must have taken effort to climb the mountains and find a wall way out here to climb.
…I couldn’t scare them away.
Hiding in the outhouse, I held onto my happiness as I fretted and waited anxiously. Outside, there was quite a commotion, before a human voice broke through the buzz of insects.
“You’re so stupid you could die.”
“I only know how to poison people, how am I supposed to think about these other things? Ah, geez…”
“W…what is it?”
“I can’t…get down.”
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and ran outside to look for myself. As soon as I made it to the courtyard, I saw the shadow of a person half stuck up and down the wall. His current position was a perfectly arresting work of art. Just when I was ready to invite them to tea, the silence of the courtyard was broken by a heavy thump on the ground.
Someone had kicked open a door from inside.
Fang Hua walked out of the house, seeing my clothes in disarray. He gave a lurch and adopted a rather contrite expression.
“There’s…there’s people…” I pointed while I tugged down my clothes. He raised an eyebrow at my words and took a look. The walls had long emptied of people in the darkness. I found myself in an embarrassing predicament, and ended up running back while lifting up my trousers. How shameful, how shameful, this was something I couldn’t wash off even if I jumped into the Yellow River. Actually, I really wanted to see what the thieves looked like…
In the past, I loved getting involved with lively things at the palace. Even then I never saw a thief, only the eunuchs setting crickets to fight against each other. There were no imperial concubines in the palace, so I didn’t even need the brains to navigate the rivalries of the imperial harem or scheme. Finally something interesting had happened, but then they ran away.
Crestfallen, I returned to my room, closing the door as I collapsed onto my bed, thinking…I kicked off my shoes and shrank into the covers. The windows were still open and the wind was a bit chilly, fluttering the lamp light until it went out.
I lay on my side on the bed, staring at my hand. Then I tossed and turned but had no success trying to fall asleep for nearly half the night. I had a dream that countless pretty young princes were circling around me. Some were combing my hair, some were waiting to dress me. I lived in a big house where a patch of warm sunlight shone on a qin, making the strings shine with gloss. Inside the house, by the corner of the wall, hung a painting of a figure that looked exactly like Fang Hua. Someone shouted from outside that the emperor was coming, alarming the crowd of princes. I could hear their warm voices and familiar conversations, but I couldn’t see their faces…
When I abruptly woke up, it was already bright outside. I frowned, opening the covers as I sat up. My hand knocked against my aching head a few times as I stared blankly at my empty room.
A paper crane that could fly, a parrot that was missing, the writing on the tough silk, this strange inner energy, and the scenes from the dreams I had…
It was like a flood of mountain rain descending upon me. It seemed like this would be another eventful autumn.
I took a deep breath before leaving the room to pump some water. After washing my face and rinsing, I dressed appropriately and walked down the halls until I stood before a room. Rolling up my sleeves, I pulled up my robes and kicked the door open. Fang Hua was lying on the bed, covered up and a bit flustered.
“Did you drink your medicine?” I asked as usual.
He held a book in one hand before giving me a side glance, saying slowly, “No.”
“You really do wait until I’m here to wait on you, what nerve,” I said, pretending to be angry. He smiled, setting aside the book as he moved to sit by the edge of the bed. I turned to walk to the corner of the room, where a small stove sat with a pot for decocting medicine. The smell of medicine was already very strong, but the fire wasn’t very big, as if it was there to keep it warm.
“I really don’t know what to say to you…if you were someone else, I wouldn’t care whether you took your medicine. Your body is your own, anyways.” I was angry yet helpless, so I only glared at him. His eyes curved into another smile, though it was a rather weak one thanks to his wan complexion. Seeing him like that, my heart melted and my tone grew much softer. “Every time I scold you, you always confuse me with a smile. If you don’t take your medicine, how will you get better? You’ll just get weaker day by day.”
“You say if it was anyone else, you wouldn’t help them drink their medicine. Even if that person was Zichuan?”
“Of course.” He had so many court ladies and servants that I didn’t need to help him with anything.
Fang Hua looked at me intently as he leaned against the bed with a wan smile. It seemed very self-satisfied. Seeing my suspicious look, he added, “If it was me, I’d definitely wait on him.”
What was he trying to compete with me for?
Afraid of getting burned, I grabbed a towel to carry the decoction pot onto the table, pouring out some of the liquid. He didn’t take it, but only looked at me. I knew that look…he wanted me to try the medicine again.
He really thought himself a rare type, huh. I gave him a glance before lifting my robes to make a show of sitting by his side. Under the intensity of his gaze, I raised the bowl to my lips and took a sip. “It’s not hot, so you should drink it as soon as possible.”
“You should drink some more of it.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “If you can’t finish it, don’t make so much next time.”
He took the bowl and obediently drank it, eyelashes trembling slightly. His joints looked almost transparent beneath the light, his neck fair and slender, the skin white without any sign of the blood flowing beneath it. After all these servings of medicine, he not only refused to recover, but was looking more and more feeble. The black hair that cascaded like a waterfall had grown one or two silver strands within the course of a few days.
I stared for a while before speaking softly, “Have you been feeling better recently?”
He looked rather apologetic as he smiled in embarrassment. “This medicine…even if I drink it, there’s no guarantee that I’ll get well.”
But when I drank the medicine, I felt energized and comfortable, as well as much stronger than before. This celestial-like figure actually had the reputation outside as a sort of genius doctor. You really couldn’t tell by looking at him…
I remember when he first told me I needed to get better, but I’d ignored him and poured out all the medicine. In the end…he stopped delivering them. Then it was his health that deteriorated, and now it was me who fed him the medicine.
Suddenly, something flared up inside my head as something clicked into place. I thought of something that had been floating in my head for a while, but was unable to accept. Stunned, I stared at the man holding the bowl of medicine…what a unique aura he had.
“Stop drinking,” I said hoarsely.
He looked at me blankly.
I hung my head dejectedly as I sat by his bed, voice muffled. “I have a stubborn temper, as you know. In the palace I heard all sorts of rumors about you, so of course I had misgivings. That’s why when you first gave me medicine, I was too afraid to taste it, but it’s different now. If you’ve made any other medicine for me then you can hand it over, instead of nursing this grievance and drinking it yourself.”
His hands trembled and he suddenly choked. I hastily grabbed the towel I had before, but he held me back with a wave of his hand, covering his mouth with his sleeves. His body shook continuously as he coughed, a hint of black clothing peeking out from beneath his robes. My expression shifted as I grabbed his wrist, face wooden. “What happened to your hand?”
He tried to shrink back.
I used my strength to hold him in place, using some true qi to help me. He knitted his brows but couldn’t move as I raised his sleeve, eyes narrowing at the jade-like arm inside…
Flustered, he tried to cover it up, but it was too late. The skin that should have been pure white like snow was riddled with what looked like knife marks where he’d cut off pieces of skin, leaving a savage pattern of crisscrossed scars. There was one about the size of a copper coin where one could faintly make out the white bone beneath it, as if he’d cut there recently. Our struggles had split open the cut away, revealing a pale red stream of blood…that filled the air with a sudden soft scent of medicine. Strangely enough, the blood didn’t flow for long before it changed from red to amber…
Meanwhile, the fragrance released into the air smelled both raw and like medicine, but it was a very intimate and familiar scent. My saliva wet my tongue and instantly tasted something bitter and astringent. This flavor…wasn’t it the same taste of the daily medicine decoctions? Before, I could tell from taste every type of medicinal herb, but never the ones in the medicine he brewed. So it had actually been made from his own flesh.
My lip moved a few times before I made a sound. “Are you crazy…”
“Shao’er.” He finally remembered to hold me in place. This was the first time he’d called me by name, but the desolate, sorrowful tone that followed those two words rammed into my chest. Impulsively, I cast his hands aside. He seemed to not understand what was the matter, but lay weakly on the bed, looking at me in a panic. His chest heaved with his breathing, his expression hurt as his right hand clutched the opposite sleeve. Gradually, the snow-white fabric grew stained with amber, and the scent of medicine grew stronger and stronger in the air.
My line of sight slowly crept downwards until I looked at him and froze.
This person…didn’t bleed like a normal person. He wasn’t human, but it was absolutely true that he could be a beast. A Fang Hua Beast.
His pupils reflected my expression, confused and hesitant.
Why did I have to drink his medicine every day?
Why did he trick me into drinking his blood and flesh…
I didn’t know what I had done wrong. But I kept backing away until my body knocked against the door. He’d already propped himself up halfway to lean against the head of the bed, eyes as clear and depthless as pools of water in autumn. Looking at them now, they only seemed hollow, and the words that crept out from a corner of his mouth seemed to be crying tears of blood themselves.
“No matter where or when, you still think of leaving…”
I didn’t know why he would say things like this, but I could see him laughing at himself beyond that pale white face. There wasn’t a trace of warmth in those eyes. I slowly closed and opened my own, dazedly staring at him until his figure grew more and more indistinct. A cloud of true qi surged up and made my head feel as if it was about to explode.
I listlessly leaned against the door, a hand muffling my mouth. My body had no strength, and I shook as my hands gripped the icy cold wood, groping until I finally found the door and dashed outside. It seemed as I’d been holding back for a long time, but my steps were as light as the wind as I swept past a thick field of grass. The pines were still, the bamboo groves deep, their leaves stinging at they lashed against my skin. The wind whistled past the trees, picking up dust in its wake as I ran with true qi circulating in my chest. My legs kicked off against the ground and stepped on air, and I waved my sleeves as I cut through the jade-green bamboo…
Shuttling back and forth within the intricate chaos of bamboo forced me to turn my head aside. The scenery made me dizzy.
“If you agree to come home with me, I’ll give you three meals a day and promise you’ll eat until you’re full.”
“I am a Beast and you can call me Fang Hua, but don’t call me mother.”
“Shao’er, it’s Zichuan and I that are going to the palace, do you understand?”
Everything that person had said, every expression he’d worn and movement he made, poured into my head like a tide. The sudden, acute pain forced me to stop mid-air and crash back to earth, eyes squeezed shut. And yet that image of that person, his words and his shadow, were inescapable…
“You’ve always listened to what I said. Yifu hopes that after you leave me, you’ll make a good name for yourself living in the jianghu.”
“The jianghu is free and unfettered, leisurely and carefree. It’s much more fun than the imperial palace.”
“Shao’er, if you think it’s worthwhile, then don’t come back.”
My body grew weak and I covered my ears with my hands as I fell to the ground, vainly searching through blurry eyes at the landscape before me.
I had remembered everything. You were clearly by my side, so why didn’t you acknowledge me? How much had I longed to hear you call me, even if it was only once.
Did you really not want Shao’er?
The painful and the sweet, the happy and the sad, all these memories engulfed me like a flood. My head hurt so much that it seemed like it would split open, my train of thought fading farther and farther away. A deep sensation of grief followed my recollections to settle in my chest, as if sinking its teeth into my heart. I curled myself up, the pain leaving me too exhausted to move, and slowly closed my eyes.
Next to the bamboo grove, a clear, bright voice carried over in the air from a long distance away.
“Fourth, are you sure it’s here? How useful are your crappy charms anyways? You folded so many of those paper cranes, but none of them flew back to us.”
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