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There had been no foretoken at all of the day the Venerable passed into parinirvana.
The young prince could only remember, he had hurried over several li of mountain trails, left his accompanying imperial guards outside that meditation room, removed his own riding boots, and stepped into the meditation room.
Though it was the frigid winter, inside the room, warmth pervaded.
Several young monks were falling over this way and that as they leaned together in one place, dozing off.
The person sitting cross-legged was thin to the bones, so gaunt that his original appearance was lost. He likely had heard movement, for his hands that had been held in front of him as he sat in Lotus Position were slowly set down. His eyes, which were so dark there was an ashen colour to them, turned in the young prince’s direction.
Those eyes, one year ago, had lost their ability of sight.
“Venerable.” The young prince hurriedly took two strides forward and dropped to one knee.
This was a rule ordained by Imperial Father.
This Venerable had once been an imperial son of the previous dynasty and, in his days of youth, a friend of the present emperor. Later, His Imperial Majesty had risen up with armed forces in revolt. The ruler and officials of the previous dynasty had all been rooted up and deposed within the first ten years of this present dynasty’s founding. Only he had surrendered and sworn allegiance to His Imperial Majesty.
“You carry on you a very strong scent of smoke and incense.”
The young prince’s expression shifted slightly. “It is…”
“Could it be that someone within the House of Xiao has…”
“It is my aunt.”
Something seemed to flash within those gray eyes. The young prince was dazed when he saw this, and he uttered to himself, the demon of the heart was abound, the demon of the heart was abound, for he had actually seen light within the eyes of a blind man.
“I shall tell you about the first half of my life.”
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He was the least favoured imperial son of the previous dynasty’s ruler.
In his youthful years, he had guarded the lands along the borders. Countless skeletons had fallen at his feet. The hearts of the enemy troops beyond the borders would quake upon word of his coming. In his twenty-second year, he was bestowed the hand of the Ruyang Prince’s youngest daughter, Xiao Jia, in marriage.
That night, as he rode back to camp, covered in blood, a girl charged directly at his horse, nearly causing him to fall from his mount. Never before had anyone on these hundreds of li of borderlands dared to act so impudently. Leaping off his mount, he picked up under his arm that young girl, who was garbed in red and brandishing a whip, and threw her beside the bonfire.
Only then, as he looked from a close distance, was he able to identify that her garments of red were a bridal gown, and this girl, whose eyes were a deep blue colour, was Xiao Jia. Judging from her face, she appeared to be the age of merely thirteen or fourteen.
When he lowered himself to a half crouch and leaned in closer, she still dared to wield her little fists and threaten him. “How dare you lead your troops out for three days and nights during this time of my arrival. I shall divorce you!”
On the bridge of his nose, there was even a blade wound, which caused his fair-skinned countenance to seem as if it belonged to a ghost or demon. After a while, he narrowed his eyes and smiled. He gazed at this little woman, whose beauty could daresay be compared to that of a tanhua [epiphyllum flower], with the reflection of flames dancing in his eyes. “What’s that? You are so young but already so anxious to go into the nuptial chambers?”
She had put on an empty show of strength, but ended up being frightened by him.
This was the one who, before battle arrays of thousands of troops, could swig blood from a cup, who had slaughtered enemies for six days and nights without stopping to sleep or rest—the Thirteenth Imperial Son, Xie Nan’an. Nan’an [南安], peace in the south. Nan’an [难安], unable to find peace and rest. The general who caused the enemy army to be unable to have peace and rest.
This was a wonderful union of two people in marriage. And, it was also a scheme.
He could not be clearer on this fact. The House of Xiao had given their most favoured and youngest daughter in marriage to the Thirteenth Imperial Son stationed far on the southern borders, for the purpose of letting her be a “hostage.”
They had requested this marriage bestowment of their own accord, choosing to not join in marriage with the Crown Prince, to not covet the empress’s throne—an ample demonstration of their true and sincere loyalty.
But, loyalty is not something that is merely put on.
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Three years later, Xiao Jia was with child and yearned for her homeland. Xie Nan’an, leading his most trusted soldiers and commanders, secretly escorted her back to the capital city. And it was also on this day that he was surrounded and attacked within the manor. This imprisonment lasted for seven years. Apart from being told that the child in Xiao Jia’s womb was no more, he received no other information of the world outside.
Seven years. Each day, all he could think about was that he wanted to devour that woman’s flesh and drink her blood alive.
Seven years later, the empire belonging to the House of Xie was toppled. The land was given a new ruler.
This day, the sun shone brilliantly in the clear sky for thousands of li.
The lock on the wing room was slowly opened, and the panels surrounding him were all removed. He squinted his eyes. For the first time in seven years, he saw the light of a sunny day. It was in this sunlight that nearly stabbed and injured his eyes that a familiar silhouette gripped the chains that were used to lock the door, pushed the door open, and approached him, one step at a time.
He could not see her clearly, but he knew it was her. “Xiao… Jia?”
This person who had come was overwhelmed with sobs and walking ever so slowly, as if she could not ascertain where he was. Chains bound his hands and feet, but an astonishing strength came over him and he threw himself forward, gripping that frail neck in his one hand.
Warm tears stained his entire hand.
In his vision that was becoming increasingly clear, she was trying ever so hard to reach out a hand, wanting to touch his face. Those blue eyes that had once been able to enrapture a person’s heart and soul now held no light in them. “Xie Nan’an, Xie Nan’an…”
Her voice was low and whispering. She was weeping, and also smiling. At last, her hand found the side of his face.
She could not see that her Xie Nan’an was in such abject straits he was like a street beggar. In these seven years, only occasionally would his overly-long beard be wound away.
A motley of old wounds blanketed all ten of her fingers, layer upon layer—so terribly frightful to behold.
Gradually, she sensed that the murderous aura at her neck had dissipated. A pair of rough hands enveloped hers, grasping them in their palms. This moment was just like when they were in the southern borderlands. Each and every time they watched the sunrise on the grasslands, he had always taken her hands in his, closed his teeth on her collarbone, and then thrust fiercely into her body.
Smiling, she said softly, “The land under the heavens… belongs now to my elder brother. He will send you back to the southern borderlands. I am the hostage to ensure the protection of your life. Xie Nan’an, pay no heed to your surname. Return to the southern borderlands and continue being the Great General that you are, continue guarding those common folk of yours of the southern lands. Live for me. I am begging you, please, continue living for me. If you live, I will be allowed to live. If you die, my elder brother will bring death on me as well.”
These seven years of captivity, it was I who brought that hardship on you.
Please allow me to continue bringing burdens upon you, making you be someone who betrays the forefathers of the House of Xie. Live. Continue living.
The wait in darkness is most tormenting.
She thought, he was someone with such pride. Surely he would not do it.
But when his lips pressed down on hers, softly and gently, resolutely, fiercely, this kiss that had the taste of blood let her know, he had agreed to her plea.
She felt about until she found his nape. With a great force, she dug her fingers past his skin, deep into his flesh, such that she could even feel there was sticky blood between her fingers, oozing out. “Should you… marry another, I will not let you get away.”
His lips passed over her face to take her earlobe into his mouth. “Should you wed another, even if I should become a ghost… I will not spare you.”
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“And then?” Trepidation had come over the young prince’s heart as he listened to all of this.
Today, he had actually become privy to this great secret. His aunt had already departed this life. Should Venerable pass into parinirvana as well, then that would mean… in this lifetime, he would need to guard this secret alone.
“And then?” That day was the last time the two of them saw each other.
Bearing the title of betrayer of the House of Xie, he spent half of his lifetime in the southern borderlands.
With no wife, and no offspring.
For his wife was in the capital city—she was a hostage. His child, while still in his mother’s womb, had been lost long ago.
To live. To continue living.
This was his little wife’s plea to him.
Even if they were separated by distance, one in the north and one in the south, and in this lifetime they would never be able to see one another again, she still wanted him to live.
The two of them could use an endless time to remember those three years in the southern borderlands, on the battlefield at the front of the fighting lines, in the tent during those days and nights. In certain ways, it was good this way. What he remembered would forever be his little wife who had charged in front of his steed and declared that she would divorce him.
One year ago, he was unable even to mount a horse. Destroying his own eyes, he had withdrawn from the world and become a monk.
Thenceforth, he used the remainder of his life, spent before the statue of Buddha and oil lamps, to redeem his half a lifetime of slaughter and killing. His only desire was that those innumerable debts of blood that he bore would not bring retribution on her.
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The young prince paused in a daze for a moment. From his garments in front of his bosom, he pulled out a protection amulet and handed it to the Venerable. “This was left by my aunt and is also the reason I hurried here. She wanted me to personally hand this to you.”
Groping his hands about, the old monk took it from him, opened the pouch, and tipped out from it an object that was similar in appearance to ginseng.
His little wife had a fondness for medicine. Before, in the army camp, she had tended to people’s wounds. She had also taught him the names of some medicinal herbs. This was… Dang Gui [literally means “should return” or “time to return”].
My spirit has already gone back to the southern borderlands. And you, it is time for you to return as well.
Xie Nan’an, the Thirteenth Imperial Son of the former dynasty of the House of Xie. When his country fell and his home was lost, he surrendered and swore allegiance to the dynasty of the House of Xiao. For his entire life, he withdrew to guard the southern borderlands. As his sins of slaughter were too great, he had no wife and no offspring. In his old and ailing years, when his life was like a faltering candle, he turned his heart to Buddhism in a vain attempt to wash away his sins of an entire lifetime of killing.
For half of his lifetime, he was traitorous, unfilial, and disloyal, for the sole reason of, in exchange, ensuring that one person’s safety.
If she lived, then it was good enough.
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