(Photo courtesy of Sina Weibo)
“She’s more beautiful than a painting.” A wealthy young son said as he lazily waved his silk fan in the crispy morning air, the picture of a wealthy young student, “If only she wasn’t a lowly embroidery girl, I would marry her”. He sat on the second floor of the Red Tea House, sipping on tea brought by girl servants, “She’s probably even more beautiful than the Princess of Dian.”
“And how would you know that?” asked another boy, “The Princess of Dian lives in the capital, deep in the heart of the palace. Like a shining Jewel.” One of his schoolmates smacked his head, “You have a long way to go before you become a poet. Don’t try so hard”
His friends turned to sigh at Yu Zhu, clothed in white and grey silk robes opened the doors to her shop, her hair swaying like silent wind chimes in light breeze.
“She’s so demure and polite too.” the wannabe poet chimed, “Like a rose without thorns.”
Zhu Zhan Ye, who was sitting a table away, snorted and nearly spat out a mouthful of tea.
The young men glared at him, daring him to make a comment against Yu Zhu. Zhu Zhan Ye smiled congenially and toasted them, “I mean no disrespect, the lady is indeed beautiful.”
He paid his bill and left the tea house with his servant, Bao Lu. Seeing that Yu Zhu’s store wasn’t yet filled, he found himself walking across the road.
“Mistress Yu.” Zhu Zhan Ye was about to cross the threshold, it had been a month since he last visited. Yu Zhu raised an eyebrow, “You are not welcome in my shop, Master Zhu.”
Zhu Zhan Ye halted, “Why? Aren’t we friends?”
Yu Zhu’s smile was still sweet as she said, “You insulted my goodwill.”
Zhu Zhan Ye looked confused, “I don’t understand,”
Yu Zhu gave him a long look, before answering, “There are games that can be played and games waste time. I don’t enjoy the latter.”
Zhu Zhan Ye blinked, “All I asked was for you to make a scarf. I thought that’s what you did for a living.”
Yu Zhu’s eyes flared with hidden temper, “Yes, and let me be clear, I do nothing else.” She said firmly, “I run a business. I take care of my home and I don’t harm people as long as they bear me no ill.”
With that she tried to turn away, “Now, go away, please.”
He grabbed her sleeve like a little boy. He smiled as she scowled at him, “I’m sorry. I never intended to make you angry.”
“No?” She said, trying to tug the delicate sleeve out of his grasp, and looked at him keenly “Then don’t come asking for my help one minute and giving me tests the next.”
Zhu Zhan Ye held on tighter, “What can I do to make it up to you?”
Yu Zhu took out a knife. In a swift move, she severed her sleeve. Wordlessly, she walked away.
“You’re curious why Miss Yu was so mad at us. Aren’t you?” Zhu Zhan Ye remarked at the silent servant. Bao Lu nodded, “She has always been kind. And while she wasn’t rude, she was distant.”
Zhu Zhan Ye nodded, “I can’t justify having my spies on her anymore, not since i have to protect the princess.”
“You ordered me to pull off all watchers from the house.” Bao Lu pointed out, “You don’t think she’s a threat?”
Zhu Zhan Ye thought carefully, “She’s a mystery, and I’m usually very good at them.”
“She said you insulted her. What did that mean?”
Zhu Zhan Ye smiled, “I used the Princess of Dian to test her.”
“I don’t understand.”
Zhu Zhan Ye sighed, “If she’s as smart as I think she is, she would have realized that my ridiculous request for a scarf was nothing but a way to tell her that the Princess of Dian wasn’t in the capital, but in fact, in this city.”
“oh.” Bao Lu realized and then frowned, “But how?”
Zhan Ye smiled, “Why would I ask her for from here you can get in the capital, that’s 10 days ride away? Why would I need it so urgently for a friend when I’ve told her I don’t have friends here? Why did I pull all the spies from her house?”
“You think she noticed that?” Bao Lu asked.
“She’s not ordinary.” Zhu Zhan Ye answered, “Her intelligence rivals that of any general or courtier. If I found her to be inane, I would have stop talking to her long ago” He continued, “She’s probably figured out that we’re from the capital, on orders to find the midnight thief.”
“So you revealed the location of the Dian Princess based on a hunch?” Bao Lu was incredulous, “For what reason?”
“I wanted to see what she would do with that information.” Zhu Zhan Ye explained, “If she was an assassin, she would have killed us quickly, before the Princess could be moved. But nothing happened. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t a threat.”
“You played a dangerous game, using royalty as bait.” Bao Lu shook his head.
“It was a calculated risk.” Zhu Zhan Ye said casually. “But what I don’t understand is why she was so angry. Perhaps I misjudged her, I had no idea that she might be offended by my…ways.”
“you think?” Bao Lu muttered, “I’d like to see how you dig yourself out of this hole.”
Zhu Zhan Ye grinned and moved away.
Yu Zhu ‘s shop was unusually busy that day, it kept her mercifully preoccupied from thinking of Zhu Zhan Ye. True, she had done exactly as she intended, which was to destroy any lasting suspicions Zhu Zhan Ye had of her. But she hadn’t expected herself to get so angry.
It was as if all her vexations had bubbled up when she saw him. Why did he unsettle her?
She shook her head and jammed a needle into the cloth, thinking murderous thoughts. I’m just irritated with him that’s all. She sighed and chose another thread, in his shoes, she may have done the same thing. But understanding that didn’t make anger go away either.
“You don’t look like you’ve had a good day.” Zhuo Hao remarked as he entered the shop. Today he dressed like a novice monk with a wide brim straw hat, with his alms bowl in hand. To anyone looking, it would be as if he was asking for alms for the poor from yu Zhu.
Yu Zhu smiled, and glanced around, the midday rush had just passed, it was just the two of them in the shop.
“What are you doing here?” She said pleasantly, “It’s not every day you come into the city.”
“Lin Yu told me that you want to loot Merchant He Yi’s house again.” Zhuo Hao said without preamble, “Since we are all in this together. I want to hear your reasons.”
“You’ve never questioned my judgement before.” Yu Zhu anger flaring, “Why start now?”
Zhuo Hao shrugged, “You never gave me reason to do so. But to attack the same household again so soon? You are a thief. Not a dispenser of justice. Leave that to someone else”
Yu Zhu’s took a moment before asking “Who? The magistrate who is equally crooked? Zhu Zhan Ye who only wants to catch me and send me to the killing block?” She looked at him, “Or you. Man of the Shadows, the king of this city’s underworld?”
Zhu Zhan Ye had never heard so many words come out of Yu Zhu’s mouth, he kept his tone light as he said, “Better I than you. Do you really want to be in harm’s way so soon? We’re trying to protect you.”
Here was the thorn in Yu Zhu’s side. Her eyes flashed as her calmness melted, “I have learned martial arts , fought in battles, and stolen from dangerous men.” She said with conviction, “I have built a life by my own hands”
“What about Lin Yu?” Zhuo Hao wanted to know, “What happens if you’re captured. She’ll use her magic to try and break you out.”
“Then I won’t be captured.” Yu Zhu said crisply, “I don’t do things without good reason nor without a good plan. You should know that.”
“And what are your reasons?”
“He buys young women. He kills entire villages. He is everything you and I have fought against.” She said cooly, “The midnight thief only steals because stealing has served a warning to the corrupted that there is someone who will help the poor. But to someone like the merchant He Yi? He has mountains of gold. We didn’t even dent his power. He needs to feel what he did to the people.”
Zhuo Hao took a long moment before saying, “If you go down this path. If you kill him. Will that make you a murderer or a hero? What will it do to you?”
Yu Zhu shrugged, “Those are my burden to bear. We all bear the consequences of our actions. It’s time that the merchant did as well.”
She emanated waves of cold. For a moment, Zhuo Hao saw that Yu Zhu’s composure was a mask that hid the a woman filled with purpose and strong will. He had always known that normally soft spoken Yu Zhu was someone to be reckoned with, but he had underestimated her strength of mind.
There was no hesitation in her voice, there have never been hesitation in her actions. What she wanted done, she would do no matter who stood in her way.
“Let me come along then.” Zhuo Hao finally said, “I can help.”
The Wolf Chieftain had made it halfway across the desert of the nine suns in his Wolf Form when he saw the drops of blood trailing behind him like ants. Huang Wu, tied to his back, was bleeding from the mouth. He sighed, the young man was barely hanging onto life.
“Do you know why this is called the desert of the nine suns?” The Wolf Chieftain had began speaking with his spirit voice to the young crow as he galloped across the scorching sand. The young man was barely conscious.
“When Hou Yi shot down the nine suns, the nine celestial princes who tried to rule the earth with the current Sun, he did not kill them.” The Wolf Chieftain explain, “Instead they are imprisoned underneath tons and tons of sand below us, Hou Yi’s keeping them powerless.” The hot sand beneath the Wolf Chieftains paws only got hotter as the great expanse of sky stretched farther than the eye could see.
“You see, there are two classes of gods. The Celestial Gods and the Human who turned into Gods. Celestial gods are extremely hard to kill and more powerful than mere Human Gods. Unless you can drain every ounce of their magic from their being, which is what happened to all the original members of the zodiac, they can still survive.”
The silent passenger on his back made no response as the Wolf King continued, “Powerful gods like Wei Yun are not easily controlled. Just because you find his weakness doesn’t mean he can’t outsmart you. Keep that in mind.”
They arrived at the border of the two realms. A great river of icy blue water met them, the river of souls that ran throughout all the realms, carrying the life that was to be born, the life that died, and the life that should have been across the worlds. A demon with a small boat was napping on the banks. Far across was the human world.
The Wolf Chieftain carefully laid Huang Wu down and turned back into his human form. The young man was delirious with fever. The Wolf Chieftain sighed, “You’re not going to survive this. What Wei Yun did to you, steal your power, your body is rejecting your spirit right now. It’s too a powerful a shell for you without your magic to keep it from burning you alive.”
“There’s only one way to save him.” The specter of Grandfather had shown up. “You and I both know what needs to be done.”
“There’s no guarantee that he would survive the transformation.”
“He will die if we don’t, at least it’s a chance if we do it. Only you can save him.”
“You knew it had to be me. Didn’t you?” The Wolf Chieftain accused the old man, “You knew that only a descendant of the Zodiac could help. That’s why you’ve been shielding me, otherwise Wei Yun would’ve noticed long before.”
“This whole trip, using very little magic, crossing the actual border. This was all made to ensure no one knows we’re sneaking him across.” The Wolf Chieftain sighed, “But in doing so, Huang Wu will pay the price for our actions.”
Grandfather said nothing, “If Huang Wu is successful in finding Wei Yun’s weakness, then he will save us all.”
“If we do this. If we save him now. He will never be able to return to this realm.” The Wolf Chieftain said quietly. “Nu Wa’s tears are potent, and only one out of 10 can survive the transformation.”
But grandfather had only nodded, “Will you accompany him to the other side?” The Wolf Chieftain sighed, “I thought about it. But Wei Yun might sense the imbalance in magic and investigate personally. Huang Wu might be in more danger.”
Grandfather looked conflicted but went ahead, “Wei Yun has already decided to attack the Dog Tribe, he moves in four days. In gratitude of your help, I hope I have given you enough information to save your tribe.” The Wolf Chieftain’s cursed, “Then I have to get back to my home. But I know someone who will take care of Huang Wu.” Grandfather nodded and disappeared.
The wolf chieftain looked at the dying young demon and sighed, “We’ve decided your life young crow. And I’m sorry. There’s not way that I can give you back the power Wei Yun stole. And there’s no way you can survive the state you’re in” He took a small silver vial, no bigger than his thumb. Inside the glass vial was a tiny, crystal like tear drop. The wolf chieftain went to the river and scooped water into the vial.
“This is the fabled Nu Wa’s tear. It’s said that it can heal even the worst injuries. It will bring you back from the brink, but it will take time. ” He explained to the young man, “Long ago, Nu Wa gave these to the 12 houses. Now only three of these exist. One in heaven. One on the moon. One in my hand.” Huang Wu seemed to understand what it meant. He shuddered and tried to heave himself out of the Wolf Chieftain’s grasp. The man held on tighter, “I’m not trying to kill you! Hold on.” He sighed, “Mixed with the river of souls, it will dilute the power, slowly heal you and …and..and transform you into a human. This was how the first human was created.”
He poured the vial’s contents into Huang Wu’s mouth. The young man’s eyes rolled into the back of the head as his body became limp.
The wolf chieftain sighed and hoisted the youth on his shoulders as he walked down the grassy embankment. He beckoned to the demon with the small boat and held out a large sum of money. “You are the guardian of the river? Shepherd of souls?” The demon nodded as he eyed the money beadily.
“He’s royal blood. He will survive the trip. Get him across before the magic takes hold and when you come back I have more money for you.” The shepherd of souls nodded eagerly and reached for the bag. The Wolf Chieftain twitched away and reached for a reed flute in his pocket, “When you get across. Blow this as hard as you can. Three times.”
The Shepherd nodded impatiently. He snatched the money as the Wolf Chieftain laid Huang Wu’s now glowing body onto the boat. “Make sure to put him under the shade. Place the lute on him” He glared at the Shepherd. I’ll be on this side. Watching.” His hand inched to his sword and the Shepherd gulped and nodded.
The Wolf Chieftain saw the young crow cross into the human realms and sighed as the Shepherd of souls blew the lute three times. With that, he turned away and transformed back to his great wolf form.
Shan Ying Lang sat up suddenly and clapped his hands to his ears. They rang with a sound only he could hear. He ran to the window and threw it open, the starry night visible above the silent city. The sound came from the north, it would lead him to where he needs to go. If he didn’t follow it, it would ring until he became deaf. He cursed and looked around for his robe.
“That old man said he was never going to bother me.” He growled as he tugged his boots on. “He said that he was going to let me live my life. While he lives happily in the other realm.” He cursed as he threw his traveling cloak on and gathered a few thing into a bag.
He muttered sarcastically as he threw his knives, robes and money into a jumbled heap into the bag, “What happened to never seeing me as long as I lived? What happened to the fact that I’m a tainted half blood son and he’s got pure one to do his beck and call?” He groaned as he stretched, the he grabbed a piece of paper. He threw the bag on his shoulder and grabbed his sword.
“Will be gone for a while. Urgent business. Stay out of trouble.” He wrote on the paper for Hua Er, threw the pen down in exasperation, opened the door, and left the inn at a quick trot.