Bonus Story 1: We Part Though We Love
It was another quiet night in the capital.
The night-watchman struck the midnight hour yawningly as he went around the small alley behind the prime minister’s estate.
Candlelight flickered on the other side of the short walls surrounding the prime minister’s home. The watchman peered into the yard on tiptoe. The plum forest was still there. Now just past winter, the plum blossoms had fallen off and given way to a few sparse budding leaves. When the wind blew, only dry branches swayed desolately.
A simple house stood inside the plum forest, emitting a soft glow at this time. Rumors had it the prime minister did not care for luxury and that he slept in this modest residence every day.
Baloney! The watchman pursed his lips. What ‘sleeping’? The prime minister obviously stayed up nearly every night. He had been a night-watchman for as long as His Excellency had lived here, and every night, he saw the light left on in the prime minister’s room.
The watchman was even more curious compared to other people. What kind of person was this prime minister anyhow? He clearly had the power to topple the world, being the man who was under one person but over everyone else, yet he preferred to live in such an ordinary abode. Wasn’t he worried someone would try to assassinate him? Or was he so sure of his upright posture that he wasn’t afraid of having crooked shadows? Did he never need to sleep?
And yet, matters concerning the upperclassmen weren’t something a night-watchman like him could fathom to understand. So he continued to yawn while speculating this and that before staggering away.
The watchman wasn’t aware that after he left, the door on that simple log cabin squeaked open. A man hurriedly ran out as if he was chasing after something, but when he got to the empty yard, he suddenly paused in his tracks
He looked around into the emptiness.
His body was thinly built, his complexion showing a sickly paleness. He appeared to be in his thirties but half of his hair was already grayed. He would probably fall ill from a chilly night wind.
It was thus a surprise that this man who appeared to be so frail was no other than the prime minister who called all the shots in the imperial court.
Spring evenings are cold. He had rushed out of the room dressed in only a thin garment. Standing in the courtyard, he silently gazed at the moon for a while, then all of a sudden softly said, “Why won’t you let me finish my dream even when I’m only dreaming?”
He slowly walked to the plum forest behind the house. A small tombstone stood under a plum tree, on which the words “My wife Sansheng” were deeply engraved. He sat down next to the tombstone. Looking at the red plum blossoms that had fallen off of their branches, he whispered: “Why haven’t you come back to see me? Don’t you miss me? I miss you day and night.”
“I have petitioned to the emperor for the general’s entire clan to receive judgment. You don’t have to be jealous of Shi Qianqian so foolishly anymore, nor do you have to be harassed by them. When I was little, you always said I was too softhearted. You just didn’t know that I’m only softhearted with you. I only don’t know what to do when it’s you.”
“Sansheng, won’t you say something?”
The wind swept across his cheeks, chilling him to the bones.
“Sansheng,” he pleaded, “stop playing hide and seek with Moxi. You know I’m most afraid of not finding you.”
“I’m most afraid of not finding you…”
“How can you hide from me for so long?”
Of course no one was there to answer him, of course no one was there to suddenly jump out from behind the plum tree, and of course no one was there to stare fixedly at him, asking him to wed her.
“Tomorrow, alright? After they are beheaded at the market square, stop being angry and come back to me. I’ll wait for you.” He kept talking to himself, not caring that there was no one answering back.
That night, Moxi spent the night leaning against Sansheng’s tombstone in a thin robe.
The next day when he left court, his vision suddenly grew blurry. The official beside him quickly held out a hand and asked, “Are you feeling unwell, Your Excellency? Your complexion seems quite poor.”
Moxi softly coughed twice and then waved to say he was all right. But after two steps, his coughing increasingly worsened and, for a moment, he could not keep straight. The ministers surrounded him, one asking: “Do we need to report to His Majesty about today’s beheading at noon?”
“No need,” Moxi coldly interrupted the man and gave him a glare. He then covered his mouth to muffle his coughs and left by himself.
None of the ministers behind him dared to go on with their concerns.
The minister who was snapped at smiled quite awkwardly. Another who was close to him whispered into his ear and said, “Everyone knows His Excellency had waited so many years for this day. Your words have stirred trouble.”
The man went blue as he looked after the prime minister’s gaunt back drifting further away and let out a sigh of remorse.
By the time Moxi got out of the palace, someone was already waiting with a palanquin. He lifted the curtain and was about to step inside when he noticed a familiar figure. He looked up. So it was the Imperial Reverend.
Feeling a little affected, he couldn’t help but cough twice.
These were both overly proud men. Normally, neither bent to greet each other, and yet the Imperial Reverend was approaching Moxi today.
The Imperial Reverend spoke first: “The rest of the clan wasn’t related to that incident. The enmity only involves a few people, why implicate the innocent?”
Moxi coughed terribly. He took a while to calm down, faintly smiling. “Your words are a little too late.”
The Imperial Reverend was silent and then sighed at length. “It was all my fault back then. It was I who sinned, so it should be I who pay.”
Moxi paid him no further attention, lowering himself into his chaise that soon blended into the hustle and bustle of the capital.
The market square.
Moxi sat on the sentencing bench looking to the execution grounds. There had once been a tall scaffold here that burned his Sansheng to death.
His life’s only Sansheng.
A chest pain abruptly pricked him. Moxi lowered his head to conceal his expression.
Noon was nearing. He waved. The first batch of prisoners came onto the scaffold. The general had bitten his tongue and killed himself in prison. This group only consisted of his wives, his three sons, and his only daughter – Shi Qianqian.
Moxi covered his mouth coughing for a while. The guard standing next to him looked to the sun and asked whether they should begin the execution. He nodded. The guard raised his hand and had yet to give command when the disheveled woman suddenly shrieked and said, “Moxi! Next life! Next life I will make sure to never like you! I also curse you to an eternal separation from the person you love! You shall never be able to be with her.”
Answering her was only a burst of whooping coughs.
The executioner behind Shi Qianqian went over to muffle her mouth. Shi Qianqian desperately struggled as she shouted: “In this life, you punish my clan. If there is a next life, I shall have you kill the person you love with your own hands! You and she will never be together!”
Moxi was incensed by her words. The fury in his eyes terrified the guards by his side.
Moxi suppressed the trembling in his chest. He removed the tablet on the table and threw it onto the ground: “Stirring up a ruckus on the execution grounds is adding another crime to your crimes. Cut across her back!”
Everyone was aghast upon hearing his order.
Shi Qianqian seemed to have gone mad as she laughed to the sky. “You two will never get a good ending! Do you think she will come back? She’s dead! She’s dead!”
Moxi fisted his hands in a death grip, his normally gentle and courteous voice at this time was pricklier than ice: “Cut across her back. I want her to watch how her entire clan is exterminated.”
That day, blood spilled over the ground at the market square. The woman’s crying and screaming still echoed in the air after the execution ended, gratingly like the bemoaning of phantoms. In the end, her corpse was hastily wrapped up like everyone else’s, discarded in some parts unknown.
Thereafter, the prime minister’s reputation as the “nice gentleman” ceased to exist.
Moxi fell sick that night, bedridden. The emperor ordered the imperial doctor to check on him. When the diagnoses came out, it was said to be tuberculosis. The entire court was gripped with astonishment.
But the sick one seemed indifferent to it all. He relied on medicines to get through those days of ill health then came right back to court and took care of business as usual. He spoke nothing of it and no one knew to what extent he was sick. He seemed to everyone no different from an ordinary person. None saw him coughing too badly either.
Over time, everyone forgot he had tuberculosis.
It was another long winter.
Plum blossoms flowered splendidly in the yard. Draped in a coat, Moxi stood in front of his log cabin watching the plum forest for a long time. He stood there until it got so dark that one couldn’t see anything before slowly returning to the house and lighting the candle. The awful paleness on his face was illuminated under the candlelight, accompanied by hollow cheeks and dark shadows under his eyes.
Seated in front of a desk, he unrolled a rice paper parchment and slowly sketched a plum tree. After he placed the brush down, he quietly contemplated it and, for whatever reason, picked up the brush and painted again. Soon, a silhouette of a girl with her back turned appeared behind the frosty plum tree. She seemed to be sniffing the plums, immersed in their fragrance.
Moxi admired the person in the painting while, at the same time, looking as though he wasn’t seeing anything at all. Reaching out, his fingertips touched the ink that had yet to dry on the rice paper.
Chill traveled from his fingertips to his heart. He squeezed his eyes closed but couldn’t suppress his cough. He abruptly bowed over, spewing a red blot onto the rice paper, its color as brilliant as the plum blossoms growing on the branches.
He fast opened his eyes at the sound of his name. A woman was sitting on the divan and carefully mending his clothes. “Moxi, why have your clothes torn so? Were you bullied? Did you fight back?”
Moxi stared dazedly, afraid to blink.
Between the clanging of the watchman’s gong outside the yard, the image flickered and dissolved in the wind.
Moxi got up to run after it, but his body did not listen to him. He fell forward, his sleeves knocking down the candle on the table.
Moxi paid no attention to the rolling candlelight. He couldn’t contain the grief in his heart any second longer. Staring at the place where Sansheng disappeared, he whispered: “Who will stay up to mend my clothes from now on… Sansheng, who will stay up to mend my clothes?”
The flames caught onto the curtains. Watching the fire burn, Moxi did nothing but lightly smile.
The watchman went past the prime minister’s courtyard. He went for two blocks, clanging his gong: “Be careful of fire.” When he rounded the corner, he caught a glimpse of blazing light.
Above the prime minister’s estate, a patch of sky was burning red.