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“Didn’t you catch that parrot? The two of you are always so happy to argue with each other, why didn’t you ask it?”
“Then why didn’t you ask First? He’s the one running off at night to chant incantations for Master.”
“Shut your mouth.”
There was silence for a while.
“Yikes, isn’t there no one here for miles? Why’s there a corpse lying around?!”
Someone sounded like they really wanted their mouth ripped off.
I sprawled on the dirt, face turned towards the ground, my body too tired to move.
“Second, Second…” a bright and frivolous voice rose up, and I felt someone crouching down by my side, jabbing my waist with a branch. “Come and take a look, see if we can still save this one.”
My indignation was roused, but there was no way to express my present humiliation. My fingers twitched, but before I could rise to denounce this brainless, rude person, someone lifted my head to reveal my face behind the hair.
“Ahh!! It’s Master…”
Thus, chaos broke out as the whole group clustered around me like bees, looking on reverently. Seeing the familiar faces before me, I leaned back to settle comfortably in Sixth’s lap while my mouth curled unpleasantly. I had no energy from the start, and adopted the posture of someone being bullied. Each of them took turns fussing over me, even putting their hands on my forehead to test my temperature.
“It’s such a cold day, why was Master lying on the ground?”
“Are you hot? Or cold? What if she caught a chill, check and see if she has a fever.”
A few of them took advantage of the occasion to touch me here and there until I coughed, startling them into retreat.
“Who was the one that jabbed me with a branch?” I could really hold a grudge.
All of their gazes turned towards one direction, where Fourth was using his sleeve to rub at his face as he looked again.
I gave Little Fourth a significant look before I felt someone holding me tighter. Sixth, who had been cradling me before, now clutched at my sleeve, looking even more pathetic than me. Meanwhile, someone next to him kept trying to push him out of the way.
I gave a look at the designated troublemaker and pointed a shaking finger at him, “I have to say, our Third is still so vulgar, wearing yellow and green like an opera singer or something.”
As soon as I finished speaking, that pushy, multi-colored figure froze in place. Third’s face was excited and happy before, but now it looked like I’d dumped a tub of ice water over him. Instead of pushing Sixth aside, he looked at me with a bitter expression.
“I told you we shouldn’t have looked for her, her mouth is still so despicable.”
I smiled, preparing to leave the arms of Sixth…but someone else pressed me back down. That person had moon-white sleeves and well-proportioned fingers, and I raised my head to see First’s steady gaze. He was kneeling on one knee before me. Though he didn’t use much strength, his hold was firm.
“Master, you should have Second take your pulse right now.”
It’s not a problem, I’m fine.
I bit my lips a bit, but didn’t speak. It was natural for them to worry over me, especially after I’d disappeared for so long. Looking at the five princes surrounding me, I spotted Fifth standing furthest away. Much of his scars had faded, so his looks weren’t as terrifying or ugly as before. I unconsciously smiled at him, gratified. Second must have discovered an excellent cure to heal him. Remembering how I’d once promised I’d come back to fix his face, I realized that much had changed in my absence.
With all these people waiting on me, the atmosphere was wonderful. For now, I’d ignore the fact that they were pushing each other away to enjoy the moment. I turned to look at Second, knitting his brows as he took my pulse. “I didn’t run into any trouble. My memories returned all of a sudden, so my body’s a little listless.”
“That’s true, but…” he sucked in a breath, looking at me with a complex expression.
Ah…what was the matter?
“Congratulations, Master. You’ve managed a miracle,” Second smiled.
I blinked a few times, but it took me awhile before I realized what he meant. I was neither happy nor grieved, but if you really wanted a description, you could say I looked dull. I peered past him to the variety of faces looking my way, and lowered my head to digest Second’s words.
So what he meant was…
I’d managed to cultivate to the pinnacle of the《Carefree Recollection》?!
This might be the reason why my memory was recovering recently. Just now, in a moment of desperation, I’d used my internal energy to fly to this section of the bamboo forest without losing a breath. It seems that my martial arts had strengthened yet again. Before the disaster that led to my entrance in the palace, I’d taken a pill to preserve my life that took away my memories. Since then, I hadn’t touched that blasted art, yet now…how did I manage to cultivate back up without a teacher? Fang Hua must have helped me with his medicine.
He…why was he so foolish?
I lowered my head and laughed darkly, chilling the people around me. A cough broke the strange atmosphere as Little Fourth suddenly spoke up.
“It’s not good to dawdle, we should quickly find a place to stay.”
“How come?” I interrupted.
“Because you’re going to get soaked.”
“Things are perfectly fine…why would I get soaked…” I hadn’t finished before something splashed against my face. I touched it and realized it was water–more commonly known as rain. Against the clear skies, dark clouds had started to gather.
“Wah, a guy like you can even use the Eight Trigrams to predict the weather now, that’s impressive. You’ve improved,” I praised.
His eyebrows crumpled together as he glanced at the other princes, then at me. “Master, you don’t predict the weather based on such things, but from observation.”
“It’s all the same,” I tugged at his clothes, drawing closer to speak by his ear. “When we go back, give me a few human skin face masks.”
He jerked, the protest clear in his eyes.
“Don’t forget, you poked me with a stick before.”
His expression changed visibly as he scooted closer. “I’ll give you three face masks.”
“You also called me a corpse.” I said, feeling wronged.
“I’ll add seven more to make a set of 10, plus two paper cranes.”
I gave him a penetrating look before giving him my approval, and the two of us reached an agreement.
The bamboo grove was whimpering…
A light drizzle of rain fell from the skies, getting heavier and heavier as time passed.
“This place isn’t far from the house. Don’t hang around in the forest, let’s hurry up and go,” someone said.
Fifth was the first to run in front of me, kneeling down as he stubbornly took me onto his back. By my side, Fourth fiddled in his pouch before taking out the only umbrella with a flourish and holding it over my head. My hands rested around Fifth’s neck as I raised my head to look at the umbrella, noting how its stitched patterns of peach blossom buds looked almost alive beneath the patterns of falling raindrops. I leaned towards Fourth again, but he understood before I even opened my mouth to speak and looked into my eyes.
“I’ll give you this umbrella, too.”
Satisfied and delighted, I settled on Fifth’s back and spoke softly, “How did you guys find this place?” Fifth only focused on walking with his head bowed, not saying a word. It was First leading the way that turned back, his white robes specked with mud, to answer.
“Not long after you were picked up by the emperor, I felt something was off and went after you. Unexpectedly, I found traces of battle on your route and knew you ran into trouble, so I went to search. Later on, the house summoned me with the news that they’d received your paper crane message. It told us you were safe and to not act recklessly, but I couldn’t stop worrying.”
He paused for a bit before continuing.
“Afterwards, we kept trying to find out news from the palace court.”
“So that was what happened. I’ve troubled you all.” I smiled.
“You can still smile after all that,” By my side, the thoroughly drenched and lavishly dressed Third gave me the eye, gritting his teeth. “First brought back the ‘congratulations’ that day they announced you were going to be the highest-ranking imperial concubine. It really pissed me off.”
The ‘congratulations’ that emerged from his mouth came from between the spaces of his teeth.
“I’m your Master, so there’s no need to tell you everything I do. What’s so strange with bringing back a son-in-law for everyone to serve?”
Sixth stared at me talking from one side before uneasily tugging at my sleeve. I gave a small smile and comforted him before drawing him under the cover of the umbrella. This child had a weak body and got ill easily. His eyes curved into a smile and looked at me, clear and bright like a deer’s. My smile was starting to feel strained, so I lowered my head to murmur, “Since I had no memories then, there was no way to avoid falling into Han Zichuan’s trap.”
Fifth jerked as he carried me, as if trying to hold himself back, before carefully readjusting his grip. Third’s voice rose in indignation as he spoke.
“I knew that doggone emperor was bad news. Master should’ve have left with him in the first place.” His eyes were filled with bitterness. I shied away from them.
“Later on, I kept thinking that something wasn’t right and guessed that Master was in trouble, or had some sort of mishap with the Carefree Recollection. Then we decided to look for you in the capital.” The umbrella blocked the rain as well as daylight while Fourth spoke between light laughter. “The court was just as difficult as the outside world. Security was very tight, so everyone waited outside. I was the only one who could slip in, but there I saw that your personality had changed completely. I deduced that you must have taken the medicine First gave you and lost your memories.”
“While trying to think of how to get you out, I heard the news that you’d been kidnapped by an assassin. From then on, we kept on searching for you…”
I had to pause. “You mean you guys didn’t bring me here?”
He was surprised as well. “What? Wasn’t it the work of your high-level master?”
I gave a bitter smile and shook my head. How could it be Fang Hua? His face was so surprised when he saw me, as if his doorstep was the last place he expected me to be. My eyes drifted towards First for a bit before closing.
First didn’t change his tone when he spoke. “This place…it’s the first time I’ve been here. I never came by in the past.” It was obvious from his face that he wasn’t the one to bring me, either. The rest were all the same.
Who could it be, that was so kind?
While I was deep in thought, Second suddenly heaved a breath by my side.
“Master, the way your illness recovered is strange as well. Your pulse was clearly chaotic in recent days…” He looked like he wanted to say more, but I stopped him with a look.
“What recent days? Are you saying you’ve been here for a while now?”
“Why aren’t you saying anything?”
“We have been around for awhile,” First continued smoothly. “A few days ago Second and I slipped into the residence to steal you away…but Second discovered that your illness was getting better after taking your pulse. I begin to suspect that the person living in that house could heal you.”
I looked at him, smiling but not saying a word.
His voice was very low. “Afterwards…I’d come by every few days to recite incantations by your bed so your memory would improve.”
So that was it. No wonder I kept dreaming that someone was chanting to me.
“Then that…” I suddenly remembered something else as I looked at them. “Who were the ones trying to scale the wall?”
Third shuffled over to stand by me.
“When I told you to learn some skills, you only studied poisons. Now you can’t even climb a wall,” I said with a face full of anxiety, my eyes stabbing him in disappointment. It was the first time he didn’t have a retort for me. Ah…seeing him struggle between talking back and knowing he was wrong felt super refreshing.
The rain continued to fall.
“Master, don’t tease Third. Oh, right…” Second used a sleeve to hide his face as he grinned. “The person that Master was living with is the yifu you’re always talking about, right? His medical skills are top notch.”
“How did you know?”
He pouted and let me see the sleeping parrot currently stuffed in the front of Sixth’s robes, before saying in a smug tone, “This little pet says nothing but ‘yifuyifuyifu’ all day…and his tone of voice is exactly like Master’s. I think you two are identical.”
Fifth suddenly stuck in to interrupt. “Which path do we take, Master?”
I smiled faintly and patted Fifth’s shoulders. “Ahead a little way, do you see? That road right there.” I lowered my head to point out the way.
Some distance away…we’d be able to see that bamboo house.
Second wrinkled his brows. “What kind of medicine did that yifu expert give you to drink? It could actually cure Master and enhance your abilities.”
My smile was pained as I looked towards the drizzling skies, grey with clouds as they sobbed over the bamboo grove…
He sacrificed his own flesh and blood.
The rain cut across the sky, disturbing the usual peace of the bamboo grove as their stalks swayed like waves of jade. The contours of distant bamboo slowly revealed themselves through the layer of mist. Standing within them was a white cloaked figure plucked straight from a painting, the wind billowing through his robes like an illusionary vision. He hugged his knees as he peered at the rain falling from the eaves, before the sound of our approach alerted his vision our way. Slowly, he stood up with support of the pillar, his entire body shaking.
At that moment, my heart ached.
I tightened my grip on Fifth and slowly moved aside the umbrella blocking my eyes. The rain that fell against my skin was slightly chilly.
“Many thanks to you for taking care of our Master. Since we were caught in the rain today, we hoped we could seek shelter here without disturbing you,” First said courteously, cupping his hands in greeting as he approached.
Fang Hua stood like jade beneath the dripping eaves, silently staring at me from a distance while ignoring everyone else. Even from here, I could feel his gaze move from me to the other five princes, face expressionless. The teardrop mole by his eye was like a withering plum blossom, and he seemed distracted as he turned away.
“Sir…” First took another step, raising his voice.
He looked back dully before finally shooting me a glance. His smile was forced with difficulty. “Go ahead and stay…” And yet the words that followed these were only directed towards me. “You can leave whenever you want to. There’s no need to tell me ahead of time.”
He raised a hand to lower the bamboo blinds, cutting off the rain falling in from the courtyard, before leaving us alone. The silent storm quietly brought in the dusk.
“Master, this person…” Second pointed at him, staring at me as if he wanted to ask why he’d just walked off.
I gave a soft laugh, looking after Fang Hua’s back as I helped myself off Fifth’s back. Fang Hua should still be thinking of me…otherwise, he wouldn’t have such an indescribable reaction. All sorts of feelings rose up in my heart as I recalled my days living here with him. My feelings shook, and it was hard to breathe…this bittersweet feeling made it impossible to suppress my urge to see him. I slowly walked towards the house.
Outside the room, rain fell continuously, splashing against the dirt and causing a wild racket in the bamboo forest. My clothes were now drenched to the point of sticking to my body, and it was a little cold. I raised a hand, hesitating only briefly, before pushing aside the bamboo blinds. It was dark inside the house, but there was a figure sitting in a room.
A sudden bolt of lightning illuminated his ashen white face in a graceful glimpse. Yet it seemed cold and dismal, especially with his scarlet mole standing out so strikingly. Wet robes outlined the contours of his figure, the fabric snow-white below his bound hair. His delicate and pretty visage was suffused with a simple, warm elegance like an immortal free from worldly woes, but his body had weakened to a point where it looked much older than before.
I staggered forward, holding the wall for support as I looked at him. He sat in a chair, finding it difficult to resist my gaze as his body trembled. Seeing me walk step-by-step towards him, the hand resting on his knee suddenly tightened. I glanced at his face and read many things I didn’t understand in that expression…and suddenly felt that I’d used up most of my energy. Absentmindedly, I smiled–even as I staggered towards the ground and into his lap.
As before, into that soft, warm embrace…
In that moment, a delicate fragrance assailed me, enough to make me tipsy.
“…Shao’er,” he called to me.
I fell into the memories from that peaceful embrace as the past washed over me like a lake. My eyes closed as everything before me grew blurry. I thought of many things, many sounds from days and nights, the faces I’d seen in my mind’s dreams…so he’d been with me all this time. All this time…
When I needed someone the most, he was the one by my side.
Yet I’d forgotten him.
How could I have forgotten?
I only remembered him saying, if you’re going to leave, then don’t come back…
I couldn’t help but grip Fang Hua by the robes, staring at the face that gave me breath even as it made it difficult to breathe. Again and again, I silently murmured words in my head.
Did you know,The first time you turned to look at meWas a memory I’ve cherished my entire life?
He heaved a sigh as he held me, ruffling my hair like in olden days.
“Yifu…your Shao’er is back. Shao’er remembers everything.” Tears flowed down my face as I buried myself in his chest. He seemed a little helpless, but I refused to let go.
And thus I missed seeing the sorrowful grief in his expression.
 opera singer — referring to Chinese opera and the extragavent costumes of its actors/singers.
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